The 15 Best Pop Tracks Of 2017
From Charli XCX to SZA and beyond.
Without a doubt, pop was the most exciting genre to be a fan of in 2017.
On the home front 2017 gifted us with a swathe of emerging voices such as Kota Banks and Jack River and JOY., demonstrating once again that Australia’s pop output rivals that of any other nation.
So with all that in mind, here’s our list of the best pop tracks of 2017. Dive in.
The Best Pop Tracks Of 2017
Charli XCX – ‘Boys’
Is there a more perfect pop song than ‘Boys’?
On paper, Charli XCX’s track is as far from a typical pop banger as you could get. It’s slow, it’s tinkly, and it’s entirely lacking in a the explosive drops that mainstream pop has been trading in for a few years now. But ‘Boys’ doesn’t need any of this, because it’s got everything else.
It’s also deceptively simple: there’s nothing remarkable about the melody, but it’s made indelible thanks to a clipped and coquettish delivery from XCX. Likewise with the production — its glitchy video game sounds smoothed out into an island beat. All this adds up to a track that’s the equivalent of lazily reclining on your bed, twirling your hair, staring at a poster of your crush.
So to answer the question I posed at the start of this blurb: no, there isn’t a more perfect pop song than ‘Boys’.
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.
SZA – ‘Drew Barrymore’
SZA always had the chops to produce an excellent album — she’s written hits for Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, and co-wrote and featured on Rihanna’s ‘Consideration’ — but she still somehow managed to exceed our expectations on the flooring Ctrl, which we named one of the best albums of the year.
Ctrl is raw, luxurious, and deeply — almost uncomfortably — personal. ‘Drew Barrymore’, it’s lead single, is all of this and more.
It looked unlikely that we’d find another vocalist as gifted as Amy Winehouse for at least another generation, but SZA is inching irrevocably close to Winehouse’s untouchable vocals.
Plus, it’s easily the best song ever written that’s inspired by Drew Barrymore’s career.
Sigrid – ‘Don’t Kill My Vibe’
Another year, another emerging Scandinavian pop savant. This time, it’s 20-year-old Sigrid Raabe from a small town on the west coast of Norway called Ålesund.
‘Don’t Kill My Vibe’ is classic Scandinavian pop, with a brittle verse that winds its way towards an almighty chorus explosion containing a hook that could snare a humpback.
It’s excellent yes, but what elevates it above the usual Euro pop fare is Sigrid’s vocals: they’re cracked and vulnerable and angry, as if Sigrid is shaking the mic stand in fury and just letting rip.
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.
Haim – ‘Want You Back’
No other band blends genres and styles as flawlessly as Haim — the result of growing up on a musical diet as rich in Sheryl Crow and Fleetwood Mac as it was Destiny’s Child and TLC. In many ways, the Haim sisters are the ultimate Gen Y band: they’re not focused on knocking down genre walls, because those walls never existed for them in the first place.
‘Want You Back’ really is the perfect Haim song, with its influences signposted like highway billboards. ‘Oh’, you think, ‘there’s the Tusk era Fleetwood Mac melody, there are the Genesis drums, there are the Destiny’s Child pop harmonies’. It’s like musical Cluedo, and Haim’s ability to knit all these inspirations together and present them as something fresh is their greatest strength.
‘Want You Back’ is an emotional gut punch, but somehow a joyous one. Who cares if your heart is broken when it sounds this good?
Maggie Rogers – ‘Alaska’
The story of how ‘Alaska’ came to be nearly — nearly — outstrips the magic of the song itself.
In March last year, Rogers and her classmates at Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University were given a homework assignment to record a song and bring it to class, where it would be critiqued. But their professor left out a key, and incredibly intimidating, detail: their songs would be critiqued by none other than Pharrell Williams.
Rogers dutifully brought in her track, a demo of a song called ‘Alaska’, which she humbly insisted to Williams that might “need a few more hours of mixing and mastering”.
Evidently, she didn’t need any more revisions. Just a few bars into the song, with Rogers’ lilting harmonies echoing around the room, Pharrell’s face looked like this:
“I have zero, zero, zero notes for that,” he said after ‘Alaska’ had finished playing. “I’ll tell you why. You’re doing your own thing, it’s singular. It’s like when the Wu-Tang Clan came out — no one could really judge it, you either liked it or you didn’t, but you couldn’t compare it to anything else. I’ve never heard anyone like you before, and I’ve never heard anyone that sounds like that.”
The footage from the masterclass went viral, and a record deal for Rogers soon followed. Earlier this year, ‘Alaska’ arrived in its final form — and nope, we don’t have any notes for her either.
Lauv – ‘I Like Me Better’
The man born Ari Leff waited a long time to become an overnight success. His breakout track, ‘The Other’, was released about two years before it started gathering steam on streaming services last year.
But when it started, it didn’t stop. ‘The Other’ wracked up well over 120 million plays in the last year, and subsequent single ‘I Like Me Better’ has followed suit — at the time of writing it’s hovering close to the 250 million mark.
Leff is a gifted songwriter (away from Lauv, he has credits on Charli XCX’s ‘Boys’ and Cheat Codes’ recent hit ‘Promises’), and it’s this skill that underpins these songs — they’re clever, neat, and endlessly hooky.
Kota Banks – ‘Holiday’
Sydney singer Kota Banks has been bouncing around the local writing scene for a few years now, with credits attached to names like Jai Waetford and SUPERCRUEL.
But earlier this year she inked a deal with Nina Las Vegas’ imprint NLV Records, and has since set about creating artful pop bangers with labelmate producer Swick and ‘Pizza Guy’ hitmaker Touch Sensitive.
‘Holiday’ is our first look at what is guaranteed to be a fertile crop of bangers from Banks; she’ll release her debut EP sometime next year.
Dua Lipa – ‘New Rules’
A bit over a year ago, a friend and I stood shoulder to shoulder in a crammed and sweaty Newtown Social Club (RIP), waiting for Dua Lipa to walk on the stage.
She was in Australia for a mini promotional tour, off the back of some much-talked about appearances at that year’s SXSW and the irrepressible singles ‘Be The One’ and ‘Hotter Than Hell’. In spite of the shoddy sound setup that night at the Club, Lipa was a force to be reckoned with. And judging by the number of industry executives that dotted the crowd, she was being widely tipped as pop’s Next Big Thing.
A year later, those industry execs were right: Dua Lipa has emerged as one of the best and brightest in the new pop guard, and ‘New Rules’ is the track that has given her that title.
Smart pop that bangs — is there anything better?
Khalid – ‘Young Dumb & Broke’
It’s not surprising that Lorde feels such a keen affinity with Khalid — an affinity which has seen him tapped for the remix of Melodrama track ‘Homemade Dynamite‘, and brought along as support on her world tour.
Aesthetically their music is a world away from each other, but their songs hang on the same skeleton of themes: vulnerability, bravado, nostalgia, frustration, yearning. They bottle that heady mix of emotions that would be familiar to anyone who has been a teenager.
Khalid’s enthralling debut American Teen, and it’s similarly compelling lead single ‘Young, Dumb & Broke’, is a distillation of all of these emotions — cushioned by the Texan’s fluid vocals and soft-lit ’80s synths.
Camila Cabello – ‘Havana’
Between ‘Boys’ and ‘Havana’, 2017 was truly the Year Of The Bop.
The breakout solo single from the runaway Fifth Harmony member is as luxuriously chilled as they come, snaking away into the sunset on a rumbling Latin piano line. It also features one of the better guest rap verses of the year from Young Thug, who flows with, rather than dominates, the relaxed backing.
The chart success of ‘Havana’ — it’s hit #1 in over ten countries — has already outstripped that of her former group Fifth Harmony.
I guess working from home does work after all.
Jack River – ‘Fault Line’
If there were a separate list for Chorus Hook Of The Year, Jack River’s ‘Fault Line’ would be smack bang at the top.
‘Fault Line’ is practically — ahem — faultless, with River’s wild Kate Bush vocals careening over a vivid explosion of guitar pop. It’s big, it’s bold, and it marks yet another exciting step in the evolution of the artist born Holly Rankin.
She already had a hit this year with the demure ‘Fool’s Gold’, but ‘Fault Line’ is the song where River’s songwriting potential rings the loudest.
Billie Eilish – ‘Bellyache’
Back in September, I was sitting with 15-year-old LA ‘IT’ girl Billie Eilish in the Universal Music Offices in Sydney, asking her where the hell ‘Bellyache’ — a song about someone murdering their friends — had come from.
“I think we were just in a garage and riffing a bunch of stuff, playing these same chords over and over again,” she answered. “Then we were like, “Sitting all alone, mouth full of gum, in the driveway”… that was just a cool image.
“And then, Finneas [O’Connell, brother and co-writer] said, ‘My friends aren’t far, in the back of my car, are there bodies?’ Because the scene was we’re in a car with our friends and we’re just cruising down the street. And then I was like, ‘No, no, no. In the back of my car, lay their bodies, because I just killed everyone.’ And then we were like, ‘Yes.'”
“Finneas came into my room the next day and wrote the chorus in two seconds and I thought it was freaking genius. So then, that whole song we were just like, ‘Okay, so this is about a psychopath, serial killer, bipolar, insane person, kind of.’ Because it’s also really childish, because it’s a bellyache: no adult says ‘I’ve got a bellyache.”
Twisted, weird, but brilliant. Eilish is pop’s next crossover star.
‘Despacito (Remix)’ feat. Justin Bieber – Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee
Listen to more of the best pop tracks of 2017 here:
Jules LeFevre is Staff Writer for Music Junkee and inthemix. She has watched the ‘Boys’ film clip approximately 12,644 times. Argue with her about this list on Twitter.