Every year is a good year for music, because there is so much of it being released all the time. There are people decrying streaming and how it is flattening the playing field and making everything sound the same. These people haven’t listened to the novelty band filler in the Top 40 in the ’60s and ’70s; most music is bad, and a flattened playing field is just this generation’s thorn in its side.
But there’s so much good music out there too, music that begs to be bought and owned rather than just streamed. People haven’t forgotten how to make art, even as the masses forget how to work for it. Capitalism has never really been able to quench the youth culture. So onward, rebellious youths!
Anyway, there’s a lot of women on my list this year. I had some friends tell me recently that they prefer male artists to female artists, which I don’t understand. There’s probably no discernible reason why anyone prefers one voice to another, and I can’t discern one for why those preferences would break along gender lines among reasonable people. I can discern that I don’t suffer from that malady; women and men move me in generally equal numbers.
Anyway, here are the contenders and winners for best songs of the year:
20. Kesha, “Woman (feat. The Dap-King Horns)”: There are probably a lot of conventional reasons why this song shouldn’t be in my Top Twenty. But being conventional is boring. Empowerment has never been this fun or, as Kesha says, “loosey as a goosey.”
19. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “Last of My Kind”: Isbell has been on a tear since 2013’s Southeastern, and The Nashville Sound is the first time Isbell’s peak songwriting powers have been applied to the full band sound of the 400 Unit. But “Last of My Kind,” the album’s opener, eschews that sound for a more acoustic atmosphere. As light as a single guitar sounds, the song weighs heavy on your heart as Isbell considers a small-town boy’s disappearing world in the big city.
18. Kendrick Lamar, “HUMBLE.”: It’s impossible to remove the visuals from the music video from mind when listening to this song, but that doesn’t diminish its effect in the slightest. If there was any song from DAMN. that hit as hard as anything from To Pimp a Butterfly, it was “HUMBLE.” You can speculate about if he’s talking to himself or not, but regardless, this is a brutal takedown that should make other rappers give up diss tracks altogether (paging Drake and Push).
17. Taylor Swift, “Delicate”: Most of reputation is filled with great hooks, some of it feels like posturing, and a select few songs feel transcendent. For better or worse, we’ve watched Taylor Swift grow up in public. “Delicate,” which takes a welcome turn into dream-pop, is Taylor Swift exploring what it means not to be growing up anymore.
16. St. Vincent, “New York”: I learned today that St. Vincent began her career with the Polyphonic Spree. Her brand of avant-garde pop-rock was already as far from that band’s twee-ness as music can get. And yet, if it’s possible, “New York” gets even farther, with its earnest lament over a lost relationship.
15. Gang of Youths, “The Deepest Sighs, the Frankest Shadows”: I wasn’t sure any Gang of Youths songs would make it onto this list, since they all tend to push the same buttons in my heart when I hear them. But “The Deepest Sighs” is perhaps the golden mean of Gang of Youths songs. It has the most earnest lyrics and the most soaring melody, and it’s the most mostest by far on an album of most.
14. Cardi B, “Bodak Yellow”: And I thought this song would make it much higher on the list, given how completely it took over my brain last summer. Before she released her album this spring, I was worried that Cardi’s appeal existed only because she enunciates more than other rappers, much like Eminem is only still popular because he’s louder than other rappers. That turned out not to be the case- Cardi is a boss, not a worker bitch- but “Bodak Yellow” is the best-enunciated rap song since Eminem was last good, so 16 years ago.
13. The War on Drugs, “In Chains”: The War on Drugs are another band like Gang of Youths whose entire catalogs could make a Top Songs list for me. But “In Chains” in particular stood out to me from A Deeper Understanding last year. Whereas frontman Adam Granduciel usually revels in the abstract nature of his lyrics, “In Chains” boasts some of the most direct exclamations we’ve gotten from him yet, leading to the band’s most purpose-filled song.
12. Taylor Swift, “New Year’s Day”: If reputation felt like a misstep at the time, it became one of my most-listened-to albums of the year because of songs like this one. Even while Swift overreached for bad-girl credibility, she didn’t lose her ability to write lyrics with eminent relatability. In “New Year’s Day,” about loving through celebrations and let-downs alike, “Please don’t ever become a stranger / Whose laugh I could recognize anywhere” is such a lyric.
11. Propaganda, “Darkie”: Propaganda is the most interesting Christian artist working today. He isn’t the only one to attempt to reckon with social truths (look to Lecrae and Sho Baraka too, and if you’re starting to see a theme, I’d also point you to Gungor and The Brilliance), but he’s been the most consistent at elevating the conversation with excellent production and presentation of his themes. Here, he wrestles with the concept of black beauty being refracted through the lens of a white-dominated culture.
10. Julien Baker, “Appointments”: I’m an emotional wreck when I listen to this song. Baker, who is queer and Christian and unafraid of the expectations associated with either of those identifications, reveals some truths that we are usually afraid to talk about, like “Maybe it’s all going to turn out all right / And I know that’s it’s not / But I have to believe that it is.” Faith means holding both hope and fatalism in the same hand with an eternal perspective, and “Appointments” captures that dichotomy perfectly.
9. The War on Drugs, “Thinking of a Place”: I’ve gotten lost in this song more than once over the last year and a half. 11-minute songs are a hard sell, but The War on Drugs are so good at what they do right now that it almost seems like it was the logical next step in their careers to make an epic on this level. As I said above, Granduciel almost wallows in abstraction, but there’s specificity in these lyrics that doesn’t sacrifice relatability.
8. Propaganda, “Gentrify”: One of the top ten songs of 2017 was about- *checks notes*- housing policy? Maybe this song is boring to other people, but I hear those horns and Prop yelling “Whole Foooods!” and I get excited. There are probably myriad academic papers on the subject of gentrification, but I find it hard to believe anyone has summed up the issue better than Prop in this searing indictment of white paternalism.
7. Lorde, “Green Light”: Remember that time the Grammys didn’t ask Lorde to perform at the ceremony even though she was nominated for Album of the Year? Man, good times in the patriarchy. Anyway, I’d like to think that appearing on this list is a nice consolation prize for Lorde, given that “Green Light” is one of the best pop songs of the last five years, and probably the only one to reference The Great Gatsby so directly without feeling like a high school book report.
6. Rhiannon Giddens, “Birmingham Sunday”: Giddens, most famous for her role in the bluegrass band Carolina Chocolate Drops, is a stellar songwriter in her own right; for reference, look up “At the Purchaser’s Option” from last year’s Freedom Highway, or listen to the whole album while you’re at it. But her take on this Joan Baez classic blows the original out of the water. Originally written by folk songwriter Richard Fariña about the four little girls who died in a bombing at a Birmingham church in 1963, Giddens’s version captures the tragedy in the story, but she also better harnesses the hope in the line, “And the choirs keep singing of freedom.”
5. Hurray for the Riff Raff, “Pa’lante”: When Trump was elected, there were weirdos whose reaction was to look forward to the good art that would result from an administration that was likely to enact oppressive policies. In the two years since, maybe music by white artists has been inordinately influenced by the election, but by and large, artists of color were already diving into music that tells the stories of the voiceless rather than the privileged, including Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra, who is an American of Puerto Rican heritage. In this epic song, she expertly hoists the Puerto Rican battle cry of “Pa’lante!” to rally those considered sub-human to move onward and forward in the face of ignorant oppression.
4. Kesha, “Praying”: Speaking of oppression, it’s hard to imagine someone following Kesha’s story over the the last few years and not being moved by “Praying.” I know some critics dismissed it as overly sentimental, or maybe allegations of rape that don’t result in felony rape convictions don’t move you to anger of any kind (which means you believe women 0.7% of the time, I suppose), but I can’t separate what I know Kesha has accused Dr. Luke of and how desperate she sounds in this song. This song is inextricably linked to the story of how Dr. Luke allegedly raped Kesha in 2008, and Kesha sued to escape her contract with his record label six years later in 2014. We will never know exactly what happened between Dr. Luke and Kesha, so we have to choose who to believe. Kesha’s accusations are neither surprising nor incredible, so I believe Kesha.
Their terrible saga began well before #MeToo reached its height and before I even knew what “blaming the victim” meant, but “Praying” dropped in July of 2017, right in the middle of the #MeToo movement, and it became an anthem of the movement, culminating in an emotional performance of the song at the Grammys. What’s amazing about “Praying” is that it’s not vindictive but redemptive, combining the need to be heard with a desire for Dr. Luke to see the truth of what he did and to beg God for forgiveness on his knees. I can’t imagine the strength it took to write it, and I’m endlessly glad that I’ve heard it.
3. Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar”: This was my favorite song of 2017 for the majority of 2017 and 2018, until the top song on this list overtook it and I realized the second song on this list came out in 2017 and not 2018. It was stuck in my head for most of the last year, finding its way into my whistling or humming more than any other song. This song is infectious, contagious, an epidemic strain of perfect pop melody and earworm magic.
I’m not special for liking this song, but I like to think a lot of myself when a pop song rises to the top of one of my lists, as if liking a pop song is revolutionary. No, critics ate this song up, a first in Gomez’s career. I’m contrarian, so that made me look for reasons not to like it. But the truth is, “Bad Liar” displays a confidence and effortlessness that Gomez hadn’t shown us yet, and that confidence is inescapable once you’re exposed to it.
2. Brandi Carlile, “The Joke”: I try to avoid hyperbole, but it’s almost impossible in these end-of-the-year superlatives. Well, here’s me trying to avoid hyperbole as much as possible: Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke” might be the greatest folk song of the last 40 years. Oh man, I stepped right into hyperbole, didn’t I? Not by much though, I promise.
It’s not complicated; “The Joke” is about the marginalized, the underrepresented, and the least of these. One of my coworkers and friends said the other day to explain a decision she made, “I have a bleeding heart.” I had forgotten this phrase, but I suppose it’s the phrase you would use to describe me, because I often tear up during “The Joke.” But I guess we need a phrase like “bleeding heart” to describe people who care about other people?
I find “The Joke” not only moving but galvanizing. The verses are directed at boys and girls who are beaten down by people in power. In interviews, Carlile has specified that she’s singing to people in the queer community, undocumented immigrants, and disempowered women. Carlile shows in the verses that she sees those people and their pain. And then in the chorus, as her voice reaches its full power (and her voice has power), she gives them hope. “Let ’em laugh while they can, / Let ’em spin, let ’em scatter in the wind. / I have been to the movies, I’ve seen how it ends, / And the joke’s on them.” Carlile knows how this ends; the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
1. Sufjan Stevens, “Mystery of Love”: It’s impossible for me to hear this song and not think of the movie in which it appears, Call Me by Your Name. Stay tuned for more on the movie when I post the Best Movies of 2017. It’s up there.
While we were watching the Oscars this year at our friend’s annual Oscar party, one of my friends (who is also my pastor) asked the room why, in the middle of the #MeToo movement, was Hollywood so okay with a movie in which a man in his 20s has a relationship with a 17-year-old. Now, he hadn’t seen the movie, but he wasn’t pretending he had. I also have to add, before anyone assumes anything about my friend because of his vocation, that he is a good, thoughtful pastor who engages with culture on its terms, but with a critical eye. This was not a question about the culture wars (nor a veiled attempt to discredit the movie’s focus on a relationship between two men), but an honest attempt to understand.
It’s a fair question. Anyone who has not seen the movie should be skeptical of the power dynamic involved. But I told him, and I’m telling you, that there is no such power dynamic in Call Me by Your Name. You never feel as if the older man (or the younger, for that matter) is taking advantage of the other young man or that he has any social or official authority over him in any way. There is a mutual attraction that they act upon, and it’s almost as simple as that.
But I think Sufjan Stevens’s “Mystery of Love” gets underneath the idea of attraction at something deeper involved. It’s not just that they’re attracted to one another; they’re connected in some way, and there’s no way to explain it. In the movie, they don’t even try to explain it, only to process how their lives will be different now that it’s there.
Call Me by Your Name does a very good job of telling a very specific story, while “Mystery of Love” universalizes it. The wonder and misery at play in Sufjan Stevens’s lyrics are an expression of the complexity of love. Any time someone tries to give a simple explanation for what love is, it’s never enough. Sufjan combines the antithetical sentiments of “woe is me” and “will wonders ever cease” into the chorus. He sings “to see without my eyes” and “drowned in living waters,” leaning into the paradoxical nature of an unexplainable phenomenon.
Call Me by Your Name never even says the words “homosexual” or “gay,” maybe because such labels limit the nature of the love involved, constricting the experience to science or sociology. It’s our choices that are binary and categorical, not love. What “Mystery of Love” does is revel in the unknowable truth of it all, the wonder and the woe alike. Love would make a terrible god, but there’s a divine mystery there nevertheless.
Another Thirty Contenders (alphabetical)
Big Thief, “Mythological Beauty”
Brandi Carlile, “The Mother”
The Brilliance, “Turning Over Tables”
Calvin Harris, “Slide (feat. Frank Ocean & Migos)”
Charli XCX, “3AM (Pull Up) (feat. MØ)”
Charli XCX, “Boys”
Chris Stapleton, “Either Way”
Dua Lipa, “New Rules”
Father John Misty, “Pure Comedy”
Father John Misty, “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay”
HAIM, “Little of Your Love”
HAIM, “Want You Back”
Harry Styles, “Sign of the Times”
Hurray for the Riff Raff, “Living in the City”
J Balvin & Willy William, “Mi Gente (feat. Beyoncé)”
Japandroids, “In a Body Like a Grave”
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “White Man’s World”
Johnnyswim, “Say Goodnight Instead”
Kehlani, “Hold Me by the Heart”
Kendrick Lamar, “DNA.”
Lana Del Rey, “Love”
Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee, “Despacito [Remix] (feat. Justin Bieber)”
Margo Price, “All American Made”
Migos, “Stir Fry”
Phoebe Bridgers, “Smoke Signals”
The Porter’s Gate, “Establish the Work of Our Hands (feat. Aaron Keys & Urban Doxology)”
Rhiannon Giddens, “Freedom Highway”
Sam Outlaw, “All My Life”
Taylor Swift, “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”
Past Top Tens
Kanye West, “Ultralight Beam”
Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles (feat. Gucci Mane)”
Rihanna, “Work (feat. Drake)”
Drive-By Truckers, “What It Means”
Chance the Rapper, “No Problem (feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz)”
Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”
Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”
Car Seat Headrest, “Fill in the Blank”
Lecrae, “Can’t Stop Me Now (Destination)”
Japandroids, “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”
Leon Bridges, “River”
Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”
Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”
Blood Orange, “Sandra’s Smile”
Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”
Alessia Cara, “Here”
Justin Bieber, “Love Yourself”
Rihanna and Kanye West and Paul McCartney, “FourFiveSeconds”
Jack Ü, “Where Are Ü Now (with Justin Bieber)”
Miguel, “Coffee (F***ing) (feat. Wale)”
FKA twigs, “Two Weeks”
Strand of Oaks, “Goshen ’97”
The War on Drugs, “Red Eyes”
John Mark McMillan, “Future / Past”
First Aid Kit, “Waitress Song”
Jackie Hill Perry, “I Just Wanna Get There”
Taylor Swift, “Out of the Woods”
Parquet Courts, “Instant Disassembly”
Sharon Van Etten, “Your Love Is Killing Me”
Patty Griffin, “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”
Disclosure, “Latch (feat. Sam Smith)”
Jason Isbell, “Elephant”
Sky Ferreira, “I Blame Myself”
Oscar Isaac & Marcus Mumford, “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”
David Ramirez, “The Bad Days”
Drake, “Hold On, We’re Going Home (feat. Majid Jordan)”
Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”
Amy Speace, “The Sea & the Shore (feat. John Fullbright)”
Jimmy Needham, “Clear the Stage”
Trip Lee, “One Sixteen (feat. KB & Andy Mineo)”
David Ramirez, “Fire of Time”
Lecrae, “Church Clothes”
Andrew Peterson, “Day by Day”
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, “When We Were Young”
Frank Ocean, “Bad Religion”
Christopher Paul Stelling, “Mourning Train to Memphis”
Alabama Shakes, “Hold On”