The Best Song Of 2017 So Far, According To 10 Music Nerds
What's your favourite?
Six months in, 2017 has given us a lot to listen to. Two of rap’s heavyweights — Kendrick and Drake — both dropped new albums. LCD Soundsystem un-quit. Father John Misty sang about having sex with Taylor Swift, and Arcade Fire began their transition to life as an ABBA cover band. Even Frank Ocean was so kind as to give us a new song. And Katy Perry… well, we don’t have to talk about Katy Perry.
But out of all that, what’s the best song of the year so far? To mark the official halfway point of 2017, that’s a question we put to a panel of Junkee’s most obsessive music writers. Their selections run the gamut from pop to rap and gothic rock — some are songs you’ll definitely have already heard, others flew more under the radar — but they’re all among 2017’s most exciting releases. Dive in.
DJ Khaled feat. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller – ‘Wild Thoughts’
Every year the hardest thing to predict is what the fuck amazing feat Rihanna’s gonna pull off in the next 12 months. Feature on a Calvin Harris EDM track written by Taylor Swift that’s actually good? No problem. Make a better dancehall song with Drake on it than two albums worth of Drake attempting to make dancehall? Easy!
This year she pulled the biggest wildcard yet and guested on the song on DJ Khaled’s new album that has the least DJ Khaled on it, a duet with Bryson Tiller that samples the almost 20 year old Santana song ‘Maria, Maria‘. Although they don’t so much sample it as just sing over the top of a slightly re-arranged instrumental. So the hottest song of the year is Rihanna doing Santana karaoke with DJ Khaled saying “another one” every minute or so.
It shouldn’t work but it does because Rihanna can make anything work. It’s her year. So was last year and the next ten will probably be hers too. That’s why she gets to make out it in swimming pools with Saudi billionaires.
Lorde – ‘Green Light’
Female popstars are usually sold to us as either “good girls” or “bad girls”, Madonnas who politely answers questions about their virginity in interviews or whores with low-cut leather chaps and overplucked eyebrows. Usually, the way they navigate coming of age in the public eye is to morph from being a golden-haloed teen to a hyper-sexualised woman in the space of an album cycle.
With ‘Green Light’, Lorde made it clear that she wasn’t going to play to a stereotype. Instead, she gave us a song about growing up as it really is: full of messy stops and starts, overwhelming emotions, stupid amounts of alcohol, and plenty of late nights where you go from crying in the corner over an ex-boyfriend to dancing on the top of the table in half an hour flat.
She’s not a “good” girl, not a “bad” one, just a real life young person trying to do her thing. Sounds simple, but it feels revolutionary.
Ceres – ‘Stretch Your Skin’
There’s something a little bit terrifying about Tom Lanyon’s singing. Recorded, it is vicious but tempered, but live on stage its controlled rasp locks you in place and dares you to look away. He could fill the Forum without the aid of a microphone.
That’s where I last saw Ceres play. They were in a support slot for The Smith Street Band, whose frontperson, Wil Wagner, guests on this track with a topline that vacillates between introspective pleading — the kind you’d write in a diary and never have the courage to say aloud — and a bravado-filled conversation over beers on a Sunday afternoon, replete with the internal monologue that tells you you’re ready to go home: “Oh god just please stop talking at me.”
Paramore – ‘Hard Times’
Paramore, like most pop-punk bands that emerged in the mid-2000s, have made a hell of a lot of money by maintaining a state of constant adolescence. ‘Hard Times’, the first single from the band’s fifth album After Laughter, faces a question that was always going to come up at some point or another: how does a quintessentially teen band like Paramore adapt to survive in the adult world?
The answer is simpler than expected: ditch the punk in pop-punk and trade in the wholesale angst that they dealt with on their first four records for nuance and honesty. Rather than continue to wrap her emotions in knotty lyricism, lead singer Hayley Williams lays it all bare from the get-go: “All that I want is to wake up fine,” she sings, her devastatingly brutal portrait of depression at odds with the song’s chipper production.
Best of all, ‘Hard Times’ doesn’t confuse “grown-up” with “boring” – if anything, it’s probably the goofiest song in Paramore’s catalog. As it turns out, all that the band needed to reach their peak was to hit rock bottom.
Nick Hakim – ‘Bet She Looks Like You’
Here’s the thing: Nick Hakim is an exceptional singer. He has soul, conviction and a quiver in his voice that adds flourish and piercing emotion. “If there’s a God, I wonder what she looks like/I bet she looks like you” is one of the single best pieces of lyric writing this year, this decade and maybe even this century.
And yet, Hakim’s singing is only half of what’s going on here. The song’s stunning, hypnotic arrangement – a spiral into darkness, a descent into the ether – is some of the most sour, stinging soul music you’re likely to encounter.
Kendrick Lamar – ‘FEAR.’
DAMN. is an album of bombastic momentum, where Kendrick’s words and ideas duck and weave in rapid-fire. Which is why, as the album’s longest and slowest song, ‘FEAR.’ doesn’t necessarily stick out on first listen. But oh, how it unfurls.
‘FEAR.’ recalls moments from throughout Kendrick’s best work – from good kid, m.A.A.d city’s gangland adolescence, through To Pimp A Butterfly’s grapples with fame and its ramifications, to the rest of DAMN.’s shapeshifting flow. But he’s never sounded this vulnerable.
Fear is so often thought of as a visceral reaction, but here it’s slowed down to the languid haze of The Alchemist’s west-coast beat and methodically outlined across three decades, making for one of the most haunting, profound pieces in Kendrick’s ongoing winning streak.
Chelsea Wolfe – ’16 Psyche’
California-born Chelsea Wolfe’s musical evolution is continuous and clear: Bigger. Darker. Louder. Heavier.
‘16 Psyche’ is the formidable lead single for forthcoming album Hiss Spun. Recorded in Salem, Massachusetts, with Converge’s Kurt Ballou, acoustic strums are but a dusty memory on her heaviest, doomiest song to date. Anchored by menacing distortion and percussive booms, an arresting melody soars above the wailing guitar of Queens Of The Stone Age’s Troy Van Leeuwen.
With each album – particularly 2015’s stunning Abyss – Wolfe further explores her vast, shadowy void. Her haunting howl bounces off cacophonous walls like a shrill, falling angel. There is so much beauty in her darkness.
Vince Staples – ‘BagBak’
Prison system broken, racial war commotion /Until the president get ashy, Vincent won’t be votin’
Two weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration Vince Staples dropped ‘BagBak’: a short, fast and angry manifesto that flipped mainstream artistic response to the US election on its head.
Staples’ isn’t just taking aim at Trump (the easy way to inject politics into your music in 2017,) he’s letting loose on the entire system. On top of a heavy, Detroit techno inspired beat Staples punches out line after line on what it means to be black in America, traversing police shootings, urban gentrification and the need for more “Tamikas and Shaniquas” in the Oval Office.
Echoing the subtext of the year’s best film, Get Out, Staples declares “Obama ain’t enough for me, we only getting started,” before finishing the track by telling the one percent to “suck a dick”.
It’s a raw, heavy banger with a more nuanced political message than anything you’ll read in The New York Times or Washington Post. Get on it.
Carly Rae Jepsen – ‘Cut To The Feeling’
Regardless of what she names her albums, Carly Rae Jepsen has never actually been one to confront emotions — particularly love — head on.
Rather, Jepsen writes about love as if it’s always just out of reach. She’s always just about to fall in love (‘Run Away With me’, ‘Call Me Maybe’, ‘EMOTION’), or just about to walk away (‘Store’, ‘Cry’) — we’ve never witnessed her in the full grip of it. Her ability to strike so accurately at the spaces that bookend a relationship is what makes her writing so compelling, powerful and singular.
Which makes ‘Cut To The Feeling’ – an off cut from the EMOTION sessions — almost an in joke for Jepsen. Here, over bombastic synths and galloping drums, she confesses her desire to finally stop living in the prelude, and instead begs someone to “take [her] to emotion.”
And sure, the love isn’t quite there yet — will it ever be? — but Jepsen whips up so much pop euphoria that even the prospect of it feels just as good.
Mabel – ‘Ride Or Die’
It’s a little too easy to introduce 21-year-old R&B talent Mabel via her supremely musical mum and dad: rapper/singer Neneh Cherry and Massive Attack producer Cameron McVey. (Look, I just did it.)
Luckily Mabel has much more going for her than a pair of trip-hop innovators for parents. Beginning with her slinky breakout singles ‘My Boy My Town’ and ‘Know Me Better’, she’s taken a careful, slow-burning path, with a ’90s-influenced vibe that never feels derivative.
Mabel’s recent Bedroom EP is the best showcase yet of her clear-eyed songwriting and expressive vocals, which convey a lot with minimal flashiness. ‘Finders Keepers’ featuring Kojo Funds is the EP’s deserved cult hit, but ‘Ride Or Die’ is the Mabel jam I can’t seem to overplay.