Our (increasingly roughly) weekly partwork of 2017’s very finest tunes is back. Each week from now until New Year, collect 10 new tracks to build your own Tim + Alex Top 40 playlist!
You can find all the instalments so far here, and click over to Spotify for this week’s 10-track playlist. But if that doesn’t take your fancy, don’t fair – you’ll find all a write-up and YouTube video for every song below the cut. What are you waiting for?
I Know A Place – MUNA
Alex: “I Know A Place” is a celebration of safe spaces. It’s a topic I’ve spent a lot of the year arguing over with olds, and next time, rather than my usual stew of half-remembered borrowed wisdom, maybe I should just play them this song.
It’s such a perfect articulation of the importance of having a place where you can express yourself without fear of reprisal. Especially if that self is a marginalised identity. And especially especially if that place is somewhere you can dance.
But “I Know A Place” is also tinged with sadness, perhaps inevitably given that it was written before and released after last year’s Orlando nightclub shooting. The song doesn’t shy away from the ever-present possibility of violence that the queer community faces.
It’s not in the recorded version, but in live performances the end of the final bridge is often changed to “I throw my arms open wide in resistance/He’s not my leader even if he’s my president.” The song is a rallying cry which makes it clear that, for these spaces to exist and function, we may have to be prepared to fight for them.
Scared of the Dark – Steps
Alex: Just in case you needed any proof that 2017 is a weird year – yes, this is a new Steps song ranking above a Taylor Swift song. No, I did not see that coming either.
This might be the first Steps song I have ever voluntarily listened to on my own, rather than overhearing it on the radio or breaking out at a house party when it feels like the dancefloor needs a cheese injection, stat.
“Scared of the Dark” is derivative as all hell. Most obviously, of Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart” – which, frankly, it sounds one clock-striking-minute away from transforming back into at all times – but also disco and ABBA, always Steps’ favourite sources. Somehow, though, this magpie approach works and the stolen bits come together into a proper no-denying-it banger.
I can’t quite figure out why this works, when the album and all of their back catalogue leave me cold, but: one perfect Steps song? I’ll take it.
Truth Hurts – Lizzo
Alex: Don’t get me wrong, “Truth Hurts” is a beautifully constructed song, but mostly it’s a spotlight for the sheer force of personality that is Lizzo. Her confidence, her wit, her ability to ping between cutesy and brutal in the space of a single line, it all glistens for three perfect minutes.
“Truth Hurts” is the perfect showcase for all this because it combines two seemingly opposed musical traditions. Lizzo takes that most sacred of pop forms, the post-breakup kiss-off track, and infuses it with brag-rap swagger. Not only is she so over you, she’s celebrating by hooking up with an NFL player, because she can. Or, to grab a couplet from the song that sums it up pretty much perfectly: “Yeah, I got boy problems, that’s the human in me/Bling bling, then I solve ’em, that’s the goddess in me”.
Last time out, I spent a few hundred words on how “Look What You Made Me Do” can summon the feeling of being a bad-ass bitch, but Lizzo makes it look absolutely effortless with thirty fewer seconds and, no doubt, a fraction of the budget.
A Living Human Girl – The Regrettes
Tim: The Regrettes wrote their first album, the wonderfully-titled Feel Your Feelings, Fool!, within a few months of forming as a band, and the average age of the four-piece comes in under 20. That youth and urgency can be felt in every track, each one of which hits that sweet spot between The Buzzcocks and The Shangri-Las, and that’s especially true with this song.
There’s more than a little of Kate Nash’s “Mouthwash” in “A Living Human Girl”, with both serving up a feminist message that a woman should be allowed to be as complex, imperfect and self-contradictory as a man. It’s one of those very fundamental ideas that is nonetheless worth repeating until men and society as a whole catches on, and if this year has proved anything, it’s that we are still very far from that goal.
With that in mind, where “A Living Human Girl” really hits home is in its clear declarations of independence, agency and resilience. Lydia Night and the rest of the band feel fearless, not just in the teen immortality sense, but in the way they’ve come to terms with the ways the world is threatening for young woman, and decided they’re not going to let those things restrict how they live their life. If they’re the kind of woman who’ll be leading the revolution, then sign me up right now.
Bambi – Jidenna
Tim: I first became aware of Jidenna when he popped up in episode 5 of Marvel’s Luke Cage, performing “Long Live The King” in an empty nightclub, and filling it up with his charm and style. Charisma is one of the primary traits I associate with Luke Cage, and it’s one of the few places where Mike Colter’s portrayal struggles to match what I’m looking for, something that’s especially obvious when you put a performer as charismatic as Jidenna on the screen.
In “Bambi”, that magnetism is put to work in creating a song that manages to sound like a seduction even as it mourns a past relationship ruined by infidelity. Fusing R&B with West African highlife music, Jidenna creates a sound unlike anything else you’ll find in the charts right now, with his mellifluous voice serving to carry us through a song that could, in lesser hands, feel like a cheater justifying his duplicity.
Jidenna aptly describes the track as a lullaby within the song, and he’s not wrong. Between the gentle rhythm and the simple instrumentation (is that a marimba? I’m terrible at identifying sounds), it’s an effortless construction that seems to float on the breeze. The track was released in February, but I came across it in the summer, and it’s a perfect tune for lazing in the sun with a cool, rum-based cocktail and nothing much to do.
Don’t Take The Money – Bleachers
Tim: Bleachers’ Gone Now was one of my most listened-to albums of the year, and it was extremely difficult to pick a standout track from the record, which more than most modern releases feels like a single unit, with musical motifs and lyrical themes that recur throughout, evolving in meaning as they do. In the end, we decided on “Don’t Take The Money”, the lead single from the album. The track happens to be co-written by Lorde, who may be making an appearance somewhere higher up the list…
Antonoff is a maximalist songwriter, layering element upon element into his songs to create an overwhelming wave of sonic force and emotion, but perhaps his greatest skill lies in knowing when to let ingredients fall away. His songs feel like a master camera operator negotiating a busy scene, knowing when to frame the whole scene and when to zoom in on a single event.
With “Don’t Take The Money”, he takes on a tricky proposition for a musician – an established relationship that isn’t falling apart, but isn’t perfect either. Tackling minor fights and squabbles without making them feel like the preamble to a break-up is, to borrow a lyric from the song, a “balance act”. Antonoff’s natural tendency towards triumphalism serves him well here, combining with the subject matter to craft a bittersweet ode to sticking through the tough times and knowing that love is worth the struggle.
Lay Your Head Down – Mary Lambert
Alex: “Lay Your Head Down” is a perfect example of a song that just shouldn’t work. Essentially, it’s a seven-minute spoken-word list that uses the format “I cry because…” repeatedly over a simple piano arrangement. There’s not even a drumbeat or anything.
It should be incredibly contrived, or boring, or at the very least unbearably twee. But… well, here we are at the #14 spot of this list.
The first reason that it does work is the details of what’s being listed. The song attempts to span the full spectrum of existence in the early 21st century, from pictures of pigs in rainboots on the internet to trying to effect change through a hashtag. It hits that sweet spot of being so specific and personal to a single person that it starts to feel a little universal.
Elsewhere on her EP, Bold, Lambert has written some of the year’s greatest love songs. This is a love song in the broadest possible sense – an ode to everything she loves about being alive. But it doesn’t shy away from the darkness. Lambert speaks to her experience with medication, the injustices of the world in 2017. This is the second song in this segment of the list that lives in the shadow of the Orlando shooting.
The second is Mary Lambert’s performance. Her delivery feels earnest, honest, the emotions so fresh they’re still warm to the touch. For all the delicate detail in them, the words don’t sound practiced. It sounds as though Lambert is coming up with them on the spot.
Paired with that piano, as immediate and reverby as if you had your ear up to its wood-panelled side – recalling, unexpectedly, a much warmer version of Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?” – the result is about as close to a genuine stream of consciousness as I’ve ever heard on a record.
Los Ageless – St. Vincent
Tim: In addition to her many other achievements – peerless guitarist, brilliant songwriter, style icon – Annie Clark is one hell of a satirist. In both “Los Ageless” and its sister song, “New York”, she crafts perfect, incisive 21st century portraits of the West and East Coast cities, all wrapped around personal heartbreak and loss.
That loss has a double meaning in both songs, which can be read as either a goodbye to a former lover, or as Clark coming to terms with the fact that the cities of her youth (or perhaps her imagination) no longer exist, and something colder and brighter has replaced them. “Los Ageless” adds a third level to that metaphor, with Clark also confronting the city’s obsession with youth and her own relationship with aging. It’s a beautifully multi-layered song that rewards multiple listens.
And of course, this being a St Vincent track, it’s a musical masterpiece, with Clark able to pull noises out of a guitar that no-one else can. The beat beneath the track is sparse and mechanical, the sound of smooth industry and smoother skin, while Clark wails in static over the top. Then the chorus hits, and the synths and vocals elevate the track to a hymn of regret and desperation, building until the long fade out leaves us alone in a wasteland made of dreamy strings, and filled with whispered self-loathing.
New Rules – Dua Lipa
Tim: “New Rules” was absolutely my summer jam. A dancehall-inflected slice of electropop that swims in and out of focus, with a message aimed firmly at getting girls away from the shitty men that plague them; there is very little not to love here.
In some ways, “New Rules” takes the structure Taylor Swift was aiming for with “Look What You Made Me Do” and gets it right. It’s a mosaic of a song, made up of distinct sections with their own sound, but each one leads naturally into the next, at least until that break at the start of the chorus.
Initially I struggled with the transition, particularly jarring after the flawless build of the pre-chorus but it grew on me, especially after the thematic genius of it dawned on me. That sudden full stop, cutting out everything but the vocals then coming back in with that staccato drum break, disrupts the rhythm of the track, but the whole song is about shaking yourself out of destructive patterns. The break is a slap on the back of your head, checking you’re still paying attention.
Lipa’s voice really carries the track, moving effortlessly between languid obsession and firm urgency at a moment’s notice. “New Rules” stands out from her debut album as something different, and given the track’s success and her own facility with this kind of song, I can only hope we’ll see more of this sort of thing in the future.
1UL – Danny L Harle
Alex: This song marks the end of the list where there’s any hint of discord between Tim and myself – the top 10 are all co-signed hits, and we’ll both be writing an entry for each of them. It’s a good one to leave this phase on, because in our initial voting, “1UL” had the biggest discrepancy between our two scores.
If this was my list and mine alone, “1UL” might have taken the top spot. It was certainly the only other contender for me, other than the song we have actually chosen.
A quick anecdote that I think might help explain that discrepancy: A couple of weeks back, I was hanging out with Chris ‘inevitable cameo in any music of the year blog’ Sparrow, for an evening soundtracked by Danny L Harle’s “HUGE MUSIC” playlist. It’s a mix that takes in Linkin Park, Frédéric Chopin and, memorably, 30 seconds of fart sound effects taken from a compilation of ringtone sounds.
That is Danny L Harle pretty well summed up.
Harle is closely affiliated PC Music, purveyor of ironically overblown pop music which takes its cues equally from East 17 and the Nokia 3310. It can be hard to tell how much of its maximalist irritant pop is being delivered with a wink, or how much that matters. In the case of “1UL”, for me, its vocals do come off as sincere – but ultimately it doesn’t matter at all.
It’s a banger in the most literal sense of the word. Every synth feels like it could knock down a building, the beat constantly taking hard left turns before dropping into rollercoaster freefall. This is pop music precision-engineered to make you dance and then messed up a bit, just to show they can.
So, yeah: song of the year, except for the ten that we (correctly) decided to put ahead of it.