With another year almost over, every music hack is scrambling to compile their end of year lists. Being a very good music hack, I started my list in January, though trimming it down to just 20 songs has been an arduous task. So many excellent tracks narrowly missed the cut. Among those just falling short of the shortlist were Lana Del Rey’s gorgeous ’13 Beaches’, Lady Gaga’s unexpected triumph ‘The Cure’ and the polarising but fun ‘Swish Swish’ courtesy of Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj. Below are the tracks that earned their place in the top 20 and, as ever, I am happy to fight anyone who disagrees.
20. The Man – The Killers
A spangly burst of synth-rock accompanied by a video featuring Brandon Flowers flexing his muscles in a tank top? Yeah OK then. ‘The Man’ is a stonking comeback from Las Vegas’ finest, The Killers swaggering their way through this tongue-in-cheek machismo anthem, pairing chauvinistic pomp with camp, glittery synths. Leaving the indie guitars in the gutter, The Killers up the ante on ‘The Man’, a flashy and flowery comeback track that sees Flowers boldly lead the band into their poppiest territory yet.
19. Without Love – Alice Glass
An ice-cold cut from her bold and challenging debut EP, ‘Without Love’ sees Alice Glass spill her guts on the devastating effects of years of abuse. It’s a track that both alienates and compels, its frenetic, fractured rhythm keeping the listener at arm’s length, while Glass’ vocals dare you to come closer. “How are you gonna lie about me now?” Glass demands, addressing her abuser directly, her lyrics swirling in a whirlpool of glitchy electronica and pulsing microbeats. ‘Without Love’ may be an uncomfortable listen, but it’s a hugely powerful one too.
18. In Cold Blood – alt-J
A pool party becomes a bloodbath on alt-J’s sizzling ‘In Cold Blood’, the standout track from their somewhat disjointed album RELAXER. Unlike the bulk of the album, ‘In Cold Blood’ is a quietly sinister, urgent song propelled by a powerful brass accompaniment that was only added at the eleventh hour. Initially, the brass was all computer generated before a change of heart led the band to try out a full orchestra. And it’s a good thing they did, as it’s the trumpets that rocket ‘In Cold Blood’ from a thoughtful alt-pop caper to a whopping indie thriller.
17. Casanova – Allie X
A bite of sour electro-pop, Allie X channels lovesickness into delectable pop fodder on ‘Casanova’. Featuring one of the most addictive choruses of the year, ‘Casanova’ is an acid takedown of a would-be Romeo and a breathless confession of love, X left bereft after a brutal dumping. It’s exactly this contradiction that makes ‘Casanova’ such a captivating listen, X encapsulating the push-me, pull-me juxtaposition of being in love and hate at the same time.
16. Look What You Made Me Do – Taylor Swift
A mean-spirited comeback from the reigning wicked witch of pop, Taylor Swift’s return saw the former pop princess take on her many enemies on this icy, skeletal track. ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ is petty teen drama at its finest, Swift casting herself as pantomime villain and playing the role with aplomb, relishing the chance to show a darker side to her good girl persona, blissfully unaware that the world has moved on from caring about her fickle dramas. But that’s more than half the fun. While Swift is obviously taking the whole thing terribly seriously, her ludicrous feuds serve as a welcome distraction from the things that actually matter. It’s unintentional escapism, Swift’s sparse but catchy comeback single offering a world where a tabloid spat is the only thing dominating the headlines.
15. Happy – Steps
Steps are back doing what they do best on the incredible ‘Happy’, a slick pop tune that sees the 90s behemoths bringing out another sad-pop chorus for a track that’s far better than anyone could have imagined when the group announced their comeback earlier in the year. ‘Happy’ manages the peculiar feat of sounding both futuristic and yet oddly 90s at the same time, mixing a tight, electronic arrangement with a very Steps chorus. It also features the glorious line “You should leave now cus the time for men has come and gone,” which is just excellent in every way and lowkey hilarious given the group’s notorious reluctance to give the boys any lines to sing.
14. Die 4 You – Perfume Genius
Who knew erotic asphyxiation could sound so romantic? On the gorgeous ‘Die 4 You’, Mike Hadreas, AKA Perfume Genius, delivers a breathless ode to the art of choking. But rather than revel in the sexual deviance of the act, Hadreas is more interested in its symbolism, using choking (or rather, being choked) as a metaphor for handing oneself over entirely to someone else. If it sounds a little academic, there’s nothing but pure emotion in every gasp of Hadreas’ most unorthodox love song.
13. Kiwi – Harry Styles
The bombastic centrepiece of his debut album, ‘Kiwi’ is everything you want from a Harry Styles track. Leaning on the reckless rock spirit of the sixties, Styles swaggers his way through a mess of whining guitars and heavy drums, yelling the delightfully absurd refrain of “I’m having your baby – it’s none of your business” with all the showmanship of a young Jagger. ‘Kiwi’ is a ridiculous track, a pastiche of Styles’ rock icons, but Styles’ natural charisma paired with this glorious chorus makes for one of the most endearing, energetic and downright fun tracks of the year.
12. Sue Me – Björk
Written as a response to her ex-partner literally suing her for custody of their daughter, Björk goes to war on the fierce ‘Sue Me’, a defiant bring-it-on that should send shivers down her ex-lover’s spine. But as well as a savage diss track, as we noted here, ‘Sue Me’ is also a strong feminist manifesto, Björk envisioning a world in which the “fuckups of the fathers” are not passed down to new generations. ‘Sue Me’ crackles with anger and groans with acute grief, Björk wearing her heart on her sleeve as she dares not just her ex, but any man, to come and have a go if they think they’re hard enough.
11. Despacito Remix – Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, Justin Bieber
There are two types of people: those who like ‘Despacito’ and those who are lying. Because, try as you might (but why would you want to?), ‘Despacito’ is near impossible not to like. Essentially the sound of long summer days with an added Bieber twist (who is just remarkable here by the way), ‘Despacito’ is like a shot of serotonin, or tequila at the very least, a toe-tapping Latin pop infusion that briefly whisks you away from Brexit Britain to a place where the sun is always shining and Justin Bieber can speak Spanish. The epitome of ‘song of the summer’, ‘Despacito’ was a worthy global smash.
10. Do It – Rae Morris
Rae Morris finds her pop chops on the insatiable ‘Do It’, a delectable pop track that revolves around one of the most addictive choruses of the year. Morris is carefree and as light as air as she delivers perhaps the politest request for a good shag the pop world has ever seen, floating her way through the woozy lead single from her upcoming album Someone Out There slated for a February 2018 release. If the rest of the tracks are even half as good as this, Morris is onto a winner.
9. Passionfruit – Drake
Drake examines emotional disconnect through the medium of exotic fruit on the blissful ‘Passionfruit’, a surf of dancehall pop with a tropical R&B lilt. ‘Passionfruit’ is perhaps the most immaculately put together track of the year, a feel-good sad-bop that oozes a sunny affability that’s impossible not to love. And most impressive of all (or infuriating to lesser songwriters), Drake makes the whole thing sound totally effortless.
8. Humongous – Declan McKenna
Touted as the voice of his generation, Declan McKenna tackles political disillusionment on the glorious ‘Humongous’. On this soaring indie pop anthem, McKenna lambasts politicians who canvass the youth vote before throwing the youngest generations under the bus as soon as they get power. But there’s more to ‘Humongous’ than just politics; it’s also a skillfully crafted pop song boasting a big singalong chorus, McKenna riling up his Gen-Z mates while snubbing his nose at the coiffed politicians desperately trying to ignore them.
7. Drew Barrymore – SZA
The gem in the crown of SZA’s amazing Ctrl album, ‘Drew Barrymore’ is a blanket of insecurity, a terrible self-loathing wrapped up in plush strings and gentle percussion. SZA is ruthless in her self-roasting, apologising for her unshaven legs and clingy tendencies, her self-esteem at rock bottom as she pines for a bit of company. But there’s more than a hint of fightback to be found here too, as SZA spits “I’m sorry you got karma comin’ to you,” safe in the knowledge her would-be lover is worse off without her. With its gorgeous chorus, thoughtful lyrics and SZA’s soulful vocals, it’s no wonder Drew Barrymore herself wanted in on the action, making a brief cameo in the song’s video.
6. Big For Your Boots – Stormzy
Stormzy’s transition from underground grime artist to bona fide mainstream star has been effortless. Not only did he conquer the charts (and somehow the nation’s heart along the way), but most impressively, he did it without budging an inch. On the sharp and savage ‘Big For Your Boots’, Stormzy drags grime music back into the limelight where, thanks to him, it will likely stay for a long while.
5. New Rules – Dua Lipa
The slow-burning hit that climbed its way to the top of the charts, Dua Lipa’s ‘New Rules’ was the success story of the year, propelled to number one by a surge of goodwill and one of the best pop choruses of the year. ‘New Rules’ is a modern pop song that shuns the trends and fads that have characterised much of the last year. Its production is typically watertight, but its chorus offers something unusual, an antidote to the pop clones that are often found cluttering the top 20. Its crooning dance-pop chorus along with its post-breakup, girl power message mean ‘New Rules’ isn’t just the standout banger of 2017, but an empowerment anthem for the ages.
4. Bike Dream – Rostam
Rostam contemplates the benefits of having a second boyfriend on daydreamy delight ‘Bike Dream’, a gorgeous early-morning track that revels in romantic speculation. “Two boys, one to kiss your neck and one to bring you breakfast,” he sings over fuzzy guitars, longing to stay in bed all day and be doted on by his lovers like some Roman emperor. But ‘Bike Dream’ isn’t necessarily about two separate lovers but, as Rostam clarified in an episode of Song Exploder, about one lover with two sides, one sexual and one domestic, someone who’ll engage in some heavy petting and then do the washing up. On the playful ‘Bike Dream’, Rostam indulges in his romantic fantasy and takes us along for the lusty ride with him.
3. Story of OJ – Jay-Z
Inspired by a quote from OJ Simpson while on trial for murder, Jay-Z’s ‘Story of OJ’ is both a damning summation of racial relations and a nifty business handbook. Jay-Z evokes slavery-era America in the tired, repetitive refrain, referencing a racial hierarchy whereby black people with lighter skin assume superiority over their darker contemporaries. He compares this with the historic relationship between house slaves and field slaves before shrugging it off, suggesting the difference is minimal when you’re black-skinned in a white world. But Jay has also got his mind on business, referencing Tidal and his massive property portfolio, offering advice on how to make it big. Because until you’ve got wealth, he suggests, white America will see nothing past the colour of your skin.
2. Scared Of The Dark – Steps
Of all the surprises 2017 had in store, the incredible comeback of Steps was one of the most unexpected. Their first proper single in well over a decade is an instant classic, surpassing even our wildest expectations, a sparkly, addictive dance anthem that pays homage to the cheesy pop of their heyday while also sounding surprisingly fresh. From the dramatic strings intro to the snappy disco chorus, ‘Scared Of The Dark’ is a perfect pop song, Claire Richards excelling on lead vocals, delivering what is perhaps the key change to end all key changes as she pummels that final chorus with every ounce of strength in her angelic pop-goddess body. On their superlative lead single, Steps more than prove there’s still a place for them in 2017, their astounding comeback track perhaps the best in pop history.
1. Ghosts of Grenfell – Lowkey ft Mai Khalil
A sucker punch to the gut, London rapper Lowkey’s tribute to the lives lost in the Grenfell Tower tragedy is breathtaking from start to finish. There is so much to digest here, ‘Ghosts of Grenfell’ constructed like a jigsaw made of four different parts. There’s the spoken-word opening in which Lowkey sets the scene, the verse which somehow condenses a nation’s fury and heartbreak into a succinct rap, Mai Khalil’s chorus followed by a beautiful segment sung in Arabic and then the demand for answers at the song’s end. Lowkey is unmatched in the eloquence of his lyrics that are at once filled with righteous rage and unmistakable empathy, his ire the result of having witnessed the tragedy firsthand and seen the subsequent cover-up of the actual death toll. ‘Ghosts of Grenfell’ is both a challenge to the establishment and a tribute to those who died, Lowkey scoring a perfect bullseye on both counts.