It’s time for the second part of our roughly weekly partwork of 2017’s very finest tunes. Each week from now until New Year, collect 10 new tracks to build your own Tim + Alex Top 40 playlist!
Catch up with the first part of the list here, and if you want to listen along with this week’s instalment, check out the latest 10-track playlist on Spotify before jumping to our write-ups below the cut.
Never Been Wrong – Waxahatchee
Alex: As Tim already invoked Buffy in his Charly Bliss writeup, and as I’ve spent the entire year working through a rewatch of that series, I feel justified in recycling my initial description of Waxahatchee’s album Out in the Storm, of which this is the first track, as: “Slow Dances at The Bronze, Vol 1.”
I mean that as the greatest possible compliment. If Waxahatchee had been around in 1998, they’d have been one of the best bands to grace the stage during a montage of heartwrenching Sunnydale drama.
The smoky vocals, punctured by stabs of guitar, make Waxahatchee in 2017 the perfect heir to the alt-college-rock throne that, a generation ago, belonged to the Sisters Deal. And I say this fully aware that The Breeders actually released a single this year.
Thunder Thighs – Miss Eaves
Tim: As a fat guy, I’m more than familiar with the perils of thunder thighs. I’ve lost count of the number of jeans where I’ve powered through the upper thighs thanks to the friction and heat generated by my swagger. It’s the kind of problem you don’t hear about that often, mainly because society teaches us to hate our bodies and endure any discomfort in shameful silence, a pressure that applies even more so to women.
That’s why it’s so wonderful to encounter a song like “Thunder Thighs”, and have an artist as talented as Miss Eaves craft a celebratory anthem of being fat as hell and fine as hell at the same time.
Musically speaking, the song feels like a stripped-down version of someone like Peaches, but Miss Eaves doesn’t take the easy route of sexualising or fetishising her own body, which is a path too often trod when it comes to music that celebrates our differences.
Instead, both the song and the glorious video that accompany it are simply about the joy of thunder thighs, a big booty and the ‘boom clack’ of your own body as you stroll down the street. It’s about appreciating your body on your own terms, not on how it is perceived by anyone else, for good or ill, and relishing in the things that make you you.
Drink Tickets – Kitty
Tim: Speaking of odes to the seldom-celebrated, “Drink Tickets” is an anthem to the small pleasures and minor victories you can sneak past life while you are broke. In a wonderful subversion of the typical narratives of rap, getting onto the guestlist at the club here is not a symbol of respect and success, but a friend throwing you a bone because they know you have no money.
Kitty doesn’t specify locations in many of her songs – most of them take place inside her own head, or in the space between two people – so her ‘in the club’ tracks always stand out, bringing her unique perspective to a hip-hop staple.
Just like in “Barbie Jeep”, her 2013 track that was part of Adult Swim’s Singles Series for the year, Kitty’s clubs are filled with lecherous dudes interrupting her own attempts to have a good time. But unlike “Barbie Jeep”, here Kitty is willing to entertain them a little, putting “a little pink in [their] cheeks” as she flirts with their girlfriend and flashes her rhinestones and acrylic jewellery.
As with most of Miami Garden Club, the track takes Kitty’s dreamlike sound and fills it out, making it richer and deeper. Despite being one of the last tracks on the album, it feels like a single, with a funky, impulsive synth bass line and some powerful gated reverb on the drums. The 80s vibes put me in mind of “San Junipero”, the Black Mirror episode that everyone fell in love with this year, and given what a joyful experience that was, it only speaks to the infectious power of this track.
5 Flucloxacillin – Los Campesinos!
Tim: Body image issues, poverty, mental health and dealing with obnoxious baby boomers – we should just call this patch of three songs the Millennial Trio.
Closing in on 10 years since their debut album, and five albums later, Los Campesinos! continue to evolve their sound, cleaning off some of the fuzz and feedback of earlier songs to produce what could be called their most conventional release so far, but is still full of individual flair. The drumming from Jason on this track is a particular standout, a herky-jerky rhythm in the verses that builds up into an anthem during the pre-chorus before fading away to make room for the twee throwbacks of handclaps and harmonised “ooohs”.
Gareth’s lyrics remain, as always, incisive and perfectly formed, cutting into the drudgery of dealing with chronic illness or mental health issues; the day-to-day maintenance of hormone levels or neurotransmitters that requires constant vigilance just to remain on an even keel.
Perhaps even more perfect is his pivot into millennial frustration, settling on the beautiful metaphor of the domestique, the member of a competitive bike team who forms a slipstream for their teammates, and so abandons any chance at success for themselves. The huddle of OAPs crowding behind, lobbing complaints at someone just trying to get where they need to go is such an apt symbol the song deserves a place on this list for that alone.
Bad Ones – Matthew Dear feat. Tegan and Sara
Alex: A new Tegan and Sara song was always going to be a solid bet for this list – even one where they’re not the headliner – but the brittle charm of “Bad Ones” means it earns a place regardless of their back catalogue.
There’s plenty to like, but let’s pick out the song’s structure. The Quin sisters’ voice skim across the top of the early song, before rolling back to reveal the churning undertow of Matthew Dear’s verses.
That’s a neat aural counterpoint, but the lyrics also mirror one another. “I haven’t stolen things in years/Hate flowers but I’m gonna leave you souvenirs” becomes “I’ve played a role in all your tears/Hate flowers but they seem to work on you my dear”. And even when lyrics are repeated verbatim, they’re given fresh, sinister life by Dear’s voice. “Wouldn’t send you flowers if my love was insincere” might initially read as offbeat romantic coming from the twins, but it has very different connotations in the mouth of a man.
It’s a reminder that Tegan & Sara have never shied away from exploring the the uglier sides of their relationships, something that’s rarely afforded to media representations of gay couples.
It’s also a setup for the song’s climax, where the final repetitions of the chorus bringing together both sides, Tegan and Sara initially much higher in the mix but Matthew Dear becoming slowly more prominent, sound and newly-appreciated meaning plastered on top of one another. Thank you, all involved, for giving me a chance to deploy my favourite piece of literary terminology: it’s only a flippin’ palimpsest.
Best You Ever – Michelle Branch
Tim: Michelle Branch is back with her first solo album in 14 years, pulling up in a dusty 1970 Dodge Charger to remind me exactly why I had a crush on her back in 2002, and still do today.
That funky bass line kicks open the doors for the song then sidles up beside you at the bar, ready to share its story, and Branch’s voice has matured without losing her original sound, a welcome contrast to many of the young female vocalists on the list, with their whispery-low intonation.
The song is a supremely sexy fuck you to an ex, but Branch allows a little ambiguity to slip into the chorus, declining to polish off the title line with a verb. Best you ever had? Best you ever lost? There’s a haziness to the whole song that makes it feel like a mirage, a final vision of a lover lost to time. As much as it’s a breakup song, it’s also a song about leaving someone wanting more, even when you’re done with them. Branch may be leaving, but she wants to leave a lasting impression before she goes.
The track is the opening to Branch’s new album, and as an opening statement by an artist coming back after a long period away from the public eye, it’s a fantastic one. With lyrics as well crafted as “And all the things you miss/ I seal ’em with a kiss/ But I can’t sign sincerely yours/ I never was, I’ve never been”, let’s hope it’s not another 14 years between records.
Look What You Made Me Do – Taylor Swift
Alex: (Okay, let’s get this out of the way up front: this isn’t the best song on Reputation, but it’s the lead single, the one we’ve lived with longest, and the one I have the most to say about. So let’s consider it a representative of the album as a whole, a role which it fills nicely.)
My first reaction on hearing “Look What You Made Me Do” was that it felt like three or four songs glued together, and a hundred listens later, that hasn’t changed much. It’s fragmentary, and some of those fragments work better than others – the flashing red weak point being the song’s chorus.
It’s a succession of disparate but memorable moments. The Disney Princess flourishes of the intro, mutating suddenly into something darker when the first line arrives. The list of names with yours in red underlined, as a mirror of “Blank Space”. The way the floor of the song drops out at 1:30, revealing that it was a trap all along. And, of course, “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now”, the greatest memetic joke-form that pop produced in 2017.
This fragmentary nature fits, if you squint, with the theme of multiple Taylor personalities, as highlighted in the accompanying Joseph Kahn video and that aforementioned spoken word section.
In practice, though, the song just plays like a string of unrelated chants, each hook and verse and chorus its own incantation.
A protection charm, to magic up cold armour around Taylor’s heart. Summoning shards of mirrored glass to replace her skin, shining scalpels in place of fingernails. Pyrotechnikinesis, to blow away her enemies. Necromancy, the only way to resurrect her sense of pride.
But, for all that she borrows some of Her tricks, Taylor is not 2017’s most powerful pop-witch (more on Her higher up the list). Taylor never succeeds in casting the spell she is really attempting here, not just with the song but its presentation, the marketing and music video and album art.
What Taylor really wants is a possession spell. She wants to put herself in the body and brain of someone who genuinely cares as little as she’s desperately claiming to here. In this, in convincing us that the old Taylor truly is dead, she resolutely fails.
I can relate.
Look, I’ve been talking about ‘Taylor’ throughout, but I’m not interested much in autobiographical readings of the song, the cottage industry of ‘who is this line about’ guesswork that sprung up around the track’s release. I’ve been talking the song’s magic as if it only affects Taylor herself, but in truth these spells are cast on the listener. On you. On, let’s be honest, me.
What Taylor really summons on “Look What You Made Me” do is music that sounds like power armour. It may just be an illusion – when you look at it closely from the outside, study the lyrics or the structure or the intent, you can see the cracks between the plates, might wonder why Taylor feels the need to protect herself this way – but when you’re inside it, you feel invincible.
So whenever I want to pretend I’m a supervillain for three-and-a-half minutes, I can pop on “Look What You Made Me Do” and adopt the cackling invulnerability of Cate Blanchett’s Hela. In 2017, that’s useful more often than you might expect.
Stay – Zedd & Alessia Cara
Tim: With Taylor Swift choosing to spend her latest album (or at least the lead singles) examining her relationship with fame, the media and her own ambition, she has left empty the seat she used to occupy: female pop voice with a talent for universal emotions rooted in specific details. There are certainly worse potential successors, heirs and pretenders than Alessia Cara.
While it’s more on display in her excellent debut album than here, even when working on a project steered by someone else (in this case, producer Zedd), Cara is able to slip in the kind of lyrical touches that Swift and countless others before her have used to ground broad emotions in the real world. Here, it’s “Living on my sofa/ drinking rum and cola”; a simple and straightforward couplet, to be sure, but it is an anchor for the song, placing it in a physical reality as well as an emotional one.
Cara’s voice is tremendous at carrying emotion, and Zedd’s production knows exactly how to get the best out of it, easing back to get out of the way of the vocals during the verses, then breaking out his bag of tricks around the chorus. But even auto-tuned to hell and back, Cara is still able to convey the longing and desperation that peaks during the chorus, underlined by that ticking clock.
Everything about the construction of the song helps support the emotional message. The structure drags behind the lyrics like it doesn’t want to leave; the pre-chorus feels like a verse, the chorus builds up like a pre-chorus, then the climax comes in the post-chorus, while the verses are almost devoid of instrumentation, relying on just that looped hum. Even the final lines of the chorus and the pre-chorus stretch out into the next section, eking out every little moment they can. It’s like a little segment of time, captured and stretched out into infinity, a crystalline portrait of a moment gone too soon.
Smoke Signals – Phoebe Bridgers
Alex: I can’t be sure that it’s not just because of the Tipp-Ex ghosts on all the cover art for Stranger in the Alps and its singles, but “Smoke Signals” feels like a record that’s somehow become haunted.
Bridgers’ voice is the ghostly whisper in your ear, while the instruments sound like they’re coming from a gramophone in an abandoned attic, that’s just started playing by itself. The specificity of the references in the lyrics – the deaths of Lemmy and Bowie, “How Soon Is Now” in an ’80s sedan – trap the song in the dusty amber of a single moment, like signifiers of the unresolved business that is being relived over and over.
On Hold – The xx
Alex: As something of a comeback single for the xx, “On Hold” is really interesting for the way it gradually reintroduces the three key players. First, you get a tiny snippet of verse from Romy. Then Oliver builds to the chorus. Finally Jamie enters, resplendent, in the form of synths swelling beneath the chorus, blossoming into warped voices sampled from an old Halls & Oates record.
If you wanted to push it, you could read the lyrics, about trying to revive a relationship that has been kept on the back burner, as a comment on the band’s time apart – but in the immortal words of Leslie Nielsen, that’s not important right now.