Here we are. Finally, the top five tracks of 2017, as 100% objectively selected by Tim+Alex. In case you want to do a quick rundown before you dive in, you can find links to each part of the countdown below:
Let’s find out what’s left below the cut.
Happy New Year!
Heatstroke – Calvin Harris feat. Young Thug, Pharrell Williams, Ariana Grande
Tim: In contrast to “Hard Times”, where the video unexpectedly felt like it had pulled imagery out of my head, I haven’t watched the video to “Heatstroke” at all, for the fear that it doesn’t match up to the video I have in my mind.
If you’d have told me at the start of 2017 that Calvin Harris would make an album called Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, and I’d love it, I’d have said to you “Ugh, Taylor Swift’s ex? Not likely.” But here we are at the end of the year, and Mr Harris and his collaborators are almost 20 spots higher on the list than Tay-Tay. Harris tweeted early in the year that all of his songs this year were “sonically designed to make you feel fucking incredible” and I believe it.
Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 is basically a perfect summer record, and even some of its weaknesses (that the tracks have a tendency to blur into one another) are actually strengths when it’s deployed in its optimum setting, playing in the background of a pool party in the height of summer.
Harris uses a clever trick to transition between his featured artists, with each one hanging around in the background of the section after the focus has shifted off of them. It creates the sensation of the track being passed from person to person, and it’s that effect that has created the music video that plays in my brain as I listen to the song.
It’s a one-take wonder, with Young Thug, Pharrell Williams and Ariana Grande all wandering through a party, engaging whoever’s holding the camera as people chill out and cavort all around them. Our featured players disappear and reappear as needed, and the party quickly moves through time as the song progresses, from an afternoon BBQ in the blazing sun to a relaxed night-time session around a fire pit. There’s probably a short dance sequence in there somewhere. It probably ends with them all running off across a beach into the moonlit sea. Don’t tell me if I’m wrong – I prefer my version to whatever the reality is.
Alex: I was in the exact same place as Tim re: Calvin Harris, until he dropped this and “Slide” at the start of the year.
Some of the surprise of first hearing it has rubbed away with months of listening, and an extra layer of gloss has been taken off by the album, which pulls the same trick another dozen times, never quite as well as the first two. That makes it hard to transport myself back to the person I was in April, and hear it with the same fresh ears, but Tim captured the sensation pretty well already.
What I’m interested in is where it leaves Calvin Harris. The magic trick he pulled this year – going from the bottom of the Tim+Alex Coolometer to its ice-cold peak – was basically a disappearing act. He stepped back from his tracks, as a vocalist but also as any kind of tangible presence on them, subsuming himself within this new tropical-house-meets-Heart-FM style.
That means the personality of each song is dominated by the choice of guests. And Funk Wav Bounces Vol.1 has the best guestlist of any album since My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy: Ariana Grande, Young Thug, Kehlani, Frank Ocean, Nicki Minaj… only the double helping of Pharrell feels like a misstep.
As I said at the outset, I don’t think the trick lasted the length of an entire album, but I’m still left considerably more eager to pick up the next Calvin Harris record than I ever expected to be. Given the tease of that ‘Vol.1’… yeah, I’d take a straight sequel tomorrow.
Lay Me Bare – Stormzy
Tim: “Lay Me Bare” is about as perfect an example of a certain type of album closer as you’ll find. It seems to float up through dark waters, all echoey, distorted voices and skittering beat, until 50 seconds in, when Stormzy finally throws us a lifeline in the form of a lyric. It ends the same way; the energy seems to drain from Stormzy’s delivery as the chorus repeats a final time, exhausted by the honesty, and we are left to submerge again.
In the space in between, Stormzy opens up with breathtaking honesty about his own mental health, his relationship with his father and his fears for his friends still caught up in the often-deadly struggle to survive. In a world that tells men, and in particular black men, that the only emotion they can show is anger, and that openness is forbidden, the song isn’t just a great piece of art, it’s an important example of someone exorcising their own demons.
As the song moves back and forth between anger, isolation and despair, it’s hard to pick out a single line that deserves recognition from the many gems that Stormzy puts together, but for me “Fuck letting go, I’ll keep the pain” stands out. Honesty may be the first step towards emotional and mental wellbeing, but it’s only the first, and Stormzy paints us a portrait of a man still clinging to anger as a way to survive. It may sound a little glib if you’ve never seen the clip, but the song reminds me of the iconic scene in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, where Will deals with his estranged father leaving once again. Like “Lay Me Bare”, it’s a powerful moment the draws on real life, and is all the more heartbreaking for it.
Alex: “Big For Your Boots” is (puns always intended) the stomper, but it was “Lay Me Bare” where I finally fell for Stormzy. Tim has talked about why it’s more valuable than that in a broader sense, so let’s do what I do best and talk about me.
2017 was the year where I started to prod and poke at my mental health a bit, and consider that some of the patterns of behaviour and feeling that I’ve always accepted as normal maybe aren’t. I’m still wary of self-diagnosing while also being too scared to talk to anyone in a professional capacity, and I still don’t really talk about it… but the small amount of progress I did make in self-awareness, I can lay at the feet of friends like Tim and art like “Lay Me Bare”.
The important thing for me personally isn’t just that Stormzy talks about his depression – which he does eloquently, in lines like “Get low sometimes, so low sometimes/Airplane mode on my phone sometimes” – but that he talks about how much he doesn’t like to talk about it. In the last post, I praised “Hard Times” for how well it captures the tendency to push things down and present a positive front. I love “Lay Me Bare” because it does the opposite. It does… well, exactly what it says on the label.
My understanding is that Stormzy nearly didn’t put this track on Gang Signs & Prayers, because of how vulnerable talking about this stuff made him feel. I am very grateful he decided to take the plunge.
Cut To The Feeling – Carly Rae Jepsen
Tim: Once Alex and I had completed our initial scoring of our longlist, we began the complex process of weighing up tracks that had scored the same, working out which ones belonged above or below their peers. In many cases, artists that had particularly great years with multiple excellent tracks got a boost. Carly Rae Jepsen presented the opposite case; while she only released one lone track this year, it was strong enough to place her in the top three.
Appearing on the soundtrack for Leap! (aka Ballerina), a sub-Dreamworks kids film that promptly sank without a trace, “Cut To The Feeling” nonetheless managed to stick around all summer and beyond. By the end of the year, it had become a guaranteed dancefloor filler and singalong standard among mine and Alex’s shared social group. A very scientific study conducted at Alex’s birthday proved it clearly outpaced Taylor Swift’s best track of the year in this regard.
Jepsen’s 80s-infused sound is perfect for a kid’s film, and “Cut To The Feeling” is especially suitable in this regard, with its My Little Pony sound effect opening and the beat on the verses, which passes back and forth from handclaps to a resounding bass drum. However, its true power lies in the fact that once you take a closer look at the lyrics, you’ll find lines like “I want some satisfaction, take me to the stars”, “I wanna wake up with you all entangled” and “Take me in your arms and make me ahhhh a-a-ahhhh!”
It’s at that point that you realise that “Cut To The Feeling” is the best song about wanting someone to hurry up and fuck you ever to feature in a children’s animated movie.
Alex: …What about “Try Everything” by Shakira, Tim?
“Cut To The Feeling”, by my reckoning, is merely a Pretty Good CRJ song. Possibly because I first heard it in the version someone ripped from the Leap! trailer, where one of the characters shouts “let’s set Paris on fire!” partway through, I’ve always dismissed it as a Lesser Work.
Jepsen herself has confirmed that this was one of the offcuts from the infamous Emotion recording sessions, where hundreds of songs were put to tape and never used. It didn’t even make the cut for last year’s Emotion Side B EP.
But let’s face it, a CRJ five-out-of-ten is an everyone else nine-out-of-ten. And all the while I was shrugging this song off I was still listening to it, over and over, as the song not-so-slowly worked its way into my heart.
Now, just imagine what happens if 2018 brings a proper CRJ nine-out-of-ten track.
Bad Liar – Selena Gomez
Tim: I’d hope that the contents of both this list and our website in general will indicate that Alex and I try to avoid snobbery, and have no place for things like rockism, gatekeeping or any other forms of elitism in our cultural diets. However, I will hold up my hands and admit that I first listened to “Bad Liar” after hearing that it used the “Psycho Killer” bass line. That little nugget may have pricked up the ears of my pretentious indie self, but it was my poptimist heart that fell for this absolute treasure of a track.
Like on “Psycho Killer”, that iconic bass line is the spine that holds the track together. But while on “Psycho Killer”, it feels like a clock ticking down towards disaster, here it’s blood pulsing and the steady beat of desire. While the Talking Heads track is about trying to hold a fracturing persona together, Gomez’s entire mind is consumed with the target of her desire. The track even musically inverts some of “Psycho Killer”, as the excellent Switched on Pop podcast addresses with far more expertise than I could ever hope to muster.
Even without “Psycho Killer” to serve as a compare-and-contrast, the song is masterful. Gomez dances along the line between infatuated teen and seductress with her vocal delivery, and is able to perfectly sell two of the best rhymes in music this year. Who’d have thought that in 2017, we’d see a hit pop song that used the words “amenity” and “serpentine”?
Those unconventional choices encapsulate the spirit of “Bad Liar”. In my write-up of Dua Lipa’s “New Rules”, I said I hoped the track’s different approach to pop music would spread to her peers, but in truth if anyone serves as the icon of the changing face of pop in 2017, it’s Selena Gomez and “Bad Liar”. The song sounded completely different to everything else in the charts, and proved that, unlike her crushed-out persona in the song, the real Selena Gomez isn’t afraid to take the leap towards greater things.
Alex: I was dismayed when I got to Tim’s write-up and found he’d already mined the Switched on Pop seam. But I want to quickly return to that inversion, the way the bass notes fall on the down beat (or something – again, go listen to the podcast for someone who understands what the hell they’re talking about).
It’s kind of a perfect microcosm of the way this song feels, all the way up to the top: kinda wrong. It’s slinky, but never successfully sexy – like a first fumbled attempt at seduction. From the Battle of Troy references to Gomez suddenly cutting out in the middle of her intro to correct herself, “…oh wait, that’s someone else”, it’s beautifully awkward.
“Bad Liar” is upside-down pop music. A song that feels like it shouldn’t work, but does. But nested in that jerkiness are some of the year’s best moments. The aforementioned “serpentine” and self-correction. The way the bridge emerges from the ashes of the fading chorus like the apparently-dead baddie in a slasher flick. The near-feral length of the “ooooooh”s. The chorus springing forward like it’s escaping from the speakers.
These moments are all individually brilliant, but in a more conventional setting I’m not sure that they’d shine quite as bright.
Praying – Kesha
Tim: Some artists create universal music. Some artists create personal music. Some use details from their lives to ground universal themes, or pull out the universal experiences that can be found in deeply personal moments. “Praying”, and much of the rest of Rainbow, is different.
It is simultaneously personal and universal at the same time. It is, undoubtedly, about Kesha’s struggles to free herself from abuse at the hands of producer Dr Luke and the record company that supported him through their inaction. But as this year has reminded us again and again, this kind of predation by powerful men and implicit support by powerful institutions is everywhere, affecting the lives of almost every woman and many man too. Given the year that the world has seen, “Praying” had to be our track of the year.
But this isn’t just a token rosette based on thematic neatness or, worse, pity. “Praying” is an astonishing song on every level, and almost all of that rests of the power of Kesha’s voice. The track smartly knows to get the hell out of the way of her performance, relying mostly on just a piano melody for much of the track until the second chorus hits. When it does, and the drums, strings and choir come in, the track elevates from ballad into hymn, carrying us to that high note that can literally knock the air out of your lungs.
Kesha’s performance carries a dozen emotions throughout the span of the track, conveying anger, despair, forgiveness, mercy, joy and, above all, power. It’s a primal scream of a song that also manages to weave together a tapestry of experience, pain, righteous anger and grace.
There is a moment in “Vincent and the Doctor”, Richard Curtis’ acclaimed episode of Doctor Who, where a gallery curator played by Bill Nighy describes Van Gogh’s place in the history of art:
“He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world. No one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again.”
Well, we can hardly blame Richard Curtis for failing to predict Kesha. When the episode came out in 2010, she was best known for “TiK ToK” and guesting on a Flo Rida track, and few people would have guessed that she could summon the kind of range and emotional impact that she shows throughout Rainbow. But here we are, and it is utterly undeniable: “Praying” by Kesha is the best song of the year.
Alex: Here’s a word I don’t often use to describe music, one that I’d normally fear had been worn down to meaningless by misuse: “Praying” is powerful.
A significant amount of that is down to the context, as laid out above. Earlier in the list I rejected biographical readings of songs as the most tedious approach (cf. Taylor Swift) but the background here is very different. Understanding where Kesha is coming from on “Praying” is important.
Still, though, if you cut it off from all outside context, I reckon most of that power is shouldered by the song itself. By Kesha’s voice alone, honestly. I’ve talked a lot about vocal performances, and this is undeniably the best of the year – but it’s not a performance, is it?
Every time Kesha’s voice rises or catches, it feels like personal catharsis. And it very probably is.
Scattered through Rainbow are these little outtakes, where Kesha laughs or tells someone to shutup, and the single best moment of the song is a kind of cousin of those. I’m talking, of course, about that astonishing high note at 3:15.
It is technically impressive, but rather than a talent-show display of virtuosity, it’s more rough and real. Coming, forget all the intermediary recordings and production and streaming and the inches between your ear and the speaker, straight from one human to another.
It’s a scream, the most therapeutic sound that any of us can make.
On alternate listens, this moment makes me want to cry and it makes me want to celebrate. Either way it’s an incredible peak, for a song that starts out unbelievably forgiving – imagine telling your abuser you’re praying for them – as it twists that forgiveness into a fuck you, and then Kesha pushes out all the pain and toxicity in a prolonged scream.
Really, that’s what the whole song is: four minutes of cathartic exhalation.
Listen to the end of the track, where you can just about hear, low in the mix, a sharp inhale and exhale. Even Kesha, in all her power, has to catch her breath.