It’s December, and that means there are only two types of music that are acceptable listening. Christmas songs, and all of your favourite stuff from the past 12 months. In that vein, we’d like to offer up a 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!
You can find your first 10-track playlist here, and read the full list after the cut.
Colors – Beck
Tim: As much as I support the ambition of things like the Song Reader project, where he released an album as sheet music for anyone to perform, and the mopey folk of Morning Phase, my Beck will always be Weird Party Beck, who chants oddly compelling nonsense and performs extended homages to Prince.
Colors, both the album and the single, are a return to that, with Beck putting out the closest he has to a straight-up dance record since Guero, over a decade ago. As strange as it is to be nearing 50 and trying to put out an album of ‘what the kids are listening to’, Colors feels like the modern EDM scene filtered through Beck’s very specific perspective – the kind of mind that says: “You know what my big dance hit needs? Panpipes.”
It’s certainly not a return to the genre-busting work of his earlier career, but with the handclap beats and a chorus you can almost sing along to, it manages to feel both familiar and fresh at the same time, and sometimes that’s exactly what you want.
call the police – LCD Soundsystem
Tim: Overall, I found the return of LCD Soundsystem a little disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that I got a chance to see them live was amazing, and their hiatus was always framed as a comma rather than a full stop, so I’m not one of those weird purists saying ‘once you’ve broken up, any reunions are selling out’. I was just a little underwhelmed by the record for the most part.
“call the police” stands apart from that most part, though. It’s a whirlwind of a song that builds layers of swirling distortion around a relentless driving bass line. As an announcement and a statement of intent, it’s electrifying, fusing LCD’s flawless slow-build style with some of James Murphy’s most overtly political lyrics ever.
In 2017, the idea that pop culture could exist in a vacuum set apart from politics seemed to collapse, and unlike others [narrows eyes at Taylor Swift] LCD Soundsystem doesn’t seem to have any problem with that. I don’t think anyone was expecting James Murphy to suddenly declare himself a conservative libertarian, but it’s nice to have something that so clearly and articulately rallies against those “arguing the history of the Jews”.
Santa Ana Winds, Pt. 1-5 – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Cast feat. Eric Michael Roy
Alex: Of all the songs on this list, this is the one I was most hesitant about including. Not because I don’t love it – listen to it, how could I not – but because it’s kind of a weird pick. “Santa Ana Winds” is lifted from the soundtrack of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rachel Bloom’s outstanding musical sitcom drama. It’s not even really a single song – as the title suggests, it’s made up of five musical interludes that fade in and out, one after another.
Thankfully, Tim fought for us to keep it in the top 40. Given he’s never made it past the first few episodes of CXGF, that suggests it works without that context.
Like the show’s very best musical numbers, it works as a catchy pop song first and foremost, and layers the jokes and plot business under that. In this, it has two major allies – the immortal “Be My Baby”’ drumbeat, and the pitch-perfect Frankie Valli falsetto delivered by Eric Michael Roy. Equal parts ludicrous and gorgeous, it’s pretty much the perfect voice for an anthropomorphised weather system who is also kind of a narrator.
May I Have This Dance (Remix) – Francis and the Lights feat. Chance the Rapper
Tim: Here’s a confession: when I’m hungover, Phil Collins has become my go-to source of healing and redemption. I’m not sure what it is about the mellow song stylings of the former Genesis frontman that helps ease me through pounding headaches and a belly full of regret, but boy does it do the job.
That association has made it odd to witness modern artists taking Collins’ style and resurrecting it. When it comes to bands like Francis and the Lights, I can’t help but feel I should be listening to them with dry mouth and a half-eaten takeaway pizza laying nearby.
That isn’t to say this song should be dismissed as just a late ‘80s/early ‘90s throwback – it’s a lot more than that. Despite a fairly sparse construction that focuses on the staccato drum beat and Francis Farewell Starlite’s rich voice, the song manages to feel lush and sweeping, and Chance The Rapper’s guest verse fills out the picture of a sweet romance that the song paints. It feels like it could be an unconventional first dance choice at a wedding for a couple much cooler than you, and we need more music that fits that very specific niche.
Glitter – Charly Bliss
Tim: “Glitter” feels like such a perfect punk-pop confection that I almost don’t want to pick apart why I like it, in case it explodes in my hands like an expensive Christmas ornament, but hey, that’s what we’re here to do, so I guess I’ll have to risk it.
It feels very fitting that it kicks off with a reference to Buffy the Vampire Slayer because there’s something about the song that feels like a mainline to my teenage years. It’s not just the punk-pop stylings (although they certainly don’t hurt – the guitar solo on the bridge feels a lot like Free All Angels-era Ash to me) but also the lyrics, which feel like a perfect impressionist portrait of a couple too tangled up in each other’s lives to make a clean break, about as teenage problem as you can get.
It also helps that Guppy, the album that “Glitter” comes from, is full of similarly great tracks. It’s a 10-song masterclass in crafting songs that effortlessly capture the scraped-knee-and-hair-dye misadventures of high school summers, and puts Charly Bliss up there with acts like Kenickie and Be Your Own Pet when it comes to dissecting the teen experience.
Oslo – Anna Of The North
Alex: It might be a bit reductive to say “Oslo” sounds like snow, but: it really does.
There’s the cotton-wool snow of Christmas music videos in there, and the glittery stuff they put in snow globes, but also the kind that gives out a crisp squeal underfoot, with tangible grit in the flurries that land on your cheeks. It slowly builds as the track goes on, comforting sounds layered on top of desolate ones.
Everything feels so delicate – her voice, the sounds underneath it – that when the full synths kick in around the 1:30 mark, it’s like suddenly opening the door to a room full of moving bodies and flashing lights, the iPod screen fogging over in your hand. It’s still fairly subdued, relative to some of the songs on this list, but the contrast makes it feel like an explosion of colour and warmth.
Taker – K.I.D.
Alex: A confession: the first few times I listened to this song, I was reasonably sure that the single-word refrain was “Pika”. Y’know, like everyone’s favourite rosy-cheeked electric mouse. In my defence, the version I first heard was the EASYFUN PC Music remix, which pitches it up and creates a environment where that would feel perfectly natural.
Even after I moved to the original version, and stopped believing this wholeheartedly, my brain continued to substitute in “Pika”. I couldn’t tell you in full honesty that this wasn’t a contributing factor to my enjoyment of the track..
A few dozen listens later, though, I’m fairly confident it’s a song about my favourite non-Pokémon topic: an uneven relationship, crystallised in one half’s failure to reciprocate oral sex. (Another entry in this mini-genre, FKA Twig’s “Two Weeks”, was my Track of the Year in 2014.)
Where that song is all lush opulence, though, “Taker” is propelled by anger and frustration. It’s a smash-and-grab through a shopping mall of influences, stealing bits from Sleigh Bells, Ladyhawke, Placebo, and the best and worst of the mid-’00s indie explosion. But it all moves so fast, screams so hard, that you never really have time to notice.
HUMBLE. – Kendrick Lamar
Tim: It takes a lyricist as skilled as Kendrick to make a track that’s both a swaggering boast of your wealth and skill, and an exhortation to yourself to remember your roots and not let your success go to your head. “HUMBLE.” manages to achieve both of those tasks without ever feeling hypocritical or contradictory, which is a feat in itself. Of course, because it’s Kendrick, it also pulls in some of hip-hop’s current trends like the “ayyy” flow and synthesises them into something totally unique and unmistakable for anyone else.
The production by Mike Will Made It is stripped back and spartan, built around an addictive 808 beat and a deceptively simple piano hook, which places even more emphasis on Lamar’s lyrical flair and content. He’s arguably the best rapper in the world right now, and the fact that he’s addressing topics like the pressure on women to conform to society’s standards and his close relationship with President Obama gives me a little injection of hope in the face of 2017.
Younger Now – Miley Cyrus
Alex: Look, it’s Miley, and I get that she’s problematic, and I’m sure there’s a reading of this song as a mea culpa for the twerking years, and the “what goes up must come down” bridge as a comment on her career, and it’s certainly true that the lyrics have some extra poignancy because they seem to be about feeling freed from the pressures of being a child star, but what really matters is this:
“Younger Now” is a slick country-inflected pop song about the wonders and the terrors of growing up. It’s a danceable retort to the classic ‘you’ve changed’ which come back with: what, you’d rather always stay the same?
Adore – Amy Shark
Alex: As will become increasingly apparent as this list goes on, it’s been a remarkable 12 months for Sad Singer-Songwriter Girl Pop. The field was so strong this year that we couldn’t make room for Julia Michaels, Maggie Rogers, Aimee Mann or even one-time queen of the scene Lana Del Rey in the Top 40, but excluding “Adore” wasn’t an option.
Shark is actually a little older than I am, but “Adore” reminds me of teenage yearning. It’s the soundtrack to lying facedown on your bed the morning after a party, scrying with your scattershot memories – that one joke, the moment where you brushed hands – in an attempt to divine whether They like you or hate you.
Which is to say, it’s the only kind of music that really matters.