It didn’t always feel that way, though. While Kendrick Lamar’s aforementioned fourth studio album -- which hit like a meteor on the Friday before the rapper’s monster set to close out Coachella -- much of 2017 was defined by growers rather than out of the gate jams and much of the summer passed without a bona fide “Song of” said season. (Barely. More on that in a second.)
Really, it's only on looking back at the cavalcade of "Best Of" lists that footnote every year that you realize how full of noteworthy sounds 2017 in particular was. And now, with the nearly ubiquitous acceptance of streaming as the primary method of song consumption, not only is the roster of artists who find both large audiences and critical acclaim more diverse and democratized than ever, but the entire idea of a publication-determined "Best Music of the Year" feels almost silly. After all, a Spotify algorithm can determine what you -- as in you personally -- thought was the "Best of 2017.”
With that in mind, here is our attempt to recognize just some of the “Best” songs, artists and moments in music culture that most defined the last 12 months.
Song of the Year: 1. Cardi B: “Bodak Yellow”
2. Kendrick Lamar: “HUMBLE.”
3. Dua Lipa: “New Rules”
4. Charli XCX: “Boys”
5. JAY-Z: “The Story of O.J.”
When we mentioned earlier that there wasn’t necessarily a song of the summer, that was really a technicality. On Sept. 23, the day after the season ended, Cardi B’s infectious trap banger, “Bodak Yellow,” which had spent the summer climbing the Billboard Hot 100 after debuting at No. 85, found itself at No. 2, staring down Taylor Swift’s first new single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” Two weeks later, “Bodak Yellow” claimed the throne.
That’s not what makes “Bodak Yellow” the best song, though. It’s the raw energy, the ferocity and confidence with which Cardi B tells her rags-to-red bottoms story, of a stripper who became the first chart-topping solo female rapper since Lauryn Hill, and who will undoubtedly be playing at most New Year’s parties when the clock strikes midnight.
Besides Cardi B’s single, it’s a little harder to crown a song of the year. Lamar provided us with an embarrassment of riches with DAMN., which at one point, had all 14 tracks on the Hot 100 at the same time. And JAY-Z’s “The Story of O.J.” wove his own personal narrative of triumph into a complex fabric of social and racial inequality. Meanwhile, Dua Lipa and Charli XCX both had their moments of pop culture gold, the latter of which, “Boys,” disguised one of the most deceptively effective songwriting feats of the year, as a video game noise-adorned daydream of cute guys in millennial pink.
Album of the Year: 1. Kendrick Lamar: DAMN.
2. JAY-Z: 4:44
3. SZA: Ctrl
4. St. Vincent: Masseduction
5. Lorde: Melodrama
Lamar’s near-universally praised To Pimp a Butterfly album seems impossible to follow up. With its rich and varied flows, beautiful, jazz-tinged beats -- courtesy of the brilliant Thundercat -- and intense explorations of both social issues as well as Lamar’s struggle to grapple with his own rising star, at points sinking to the lowest depths of suicidal thought.
Well, on DAMN., “King Kunta” did the impossible. Trading in complexity for intensity, while delivering bars just as deep and thoughtful as his previous work with a somehow more digestible appeal. Listening to DAMN. in its entirety is not hard, and the ability to make that realized is a feat shared by only a few artists who reach a point on transcending the “singles” game. Kanye West has been there since Dark Fantasy, Beyoncé has been there since Beyoncé, and Lamar, who has arguably been there since Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, his breakout album, sounds more confident and unparalleled than ever as one of the top artists making music. DAMN. is a damn masterpiece.
Also deserving recognition are SZA, St. Vincent and Lorde, (the first of which will be discussed further in a bit), who delivered on the hype of their previous work with sure-footed ease, with three records that feel like undisputed leaders in their respective genres. Meanwhile, JAY-Z put out his most inspired work in years, crafting a story that both addressed his personal shortcomings detailed in his wife’s Lemonade album, and had far-reaching aspirations in its themes of broader social consciousness.
The Regina George in Sheep’s Clothing Award for 2017’s Shadiest Artist: 1. Taylor Swift
2. Katy Perry
3. Remy Ma
All right, you can’t really talk music without discussing the bitter, twisted feuds that exist within the artist world. While this is, to the surprise of some, nothing new in music at all, the age of social media makes it all unfold in such a way that -- while we really should be our better selves -- we just can’t look away.
And Swift and Perry provided the drama in droves this year. While Reputation seems more focused on Swift’s spats with West and wife Kim Kardashian, she and Perry traded slights this year, with Perry going back and forth about whether “Swish Swish” was about her longtime foe (objective call: it super was). But Swift really took the cake, when on the eve of Perry’s Witness album drop, she released her entire catalog to Spotify for all to listen.
Best Song of 2017 (That Technically Came Out in 2016) 1. Childish Gambino: “Redbone”
2. Migos feat. Lil Uzi Vert: “Bad and Boujee”
3. Bruno Mars: “That's What I Like”
4. Lizzo: “Worship”
There was so much good music this year that we forget that some of it didn’t come out this year. While Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” is the undeniable pop banger, “Bad and Boujee” gave Migos their moment -- in part, thanks to Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino)’s acceptance speech at the 2017 Golden Globes -- and “Worship” turned Lizzo into a commercial juggernaut. But “Redbone,” Glover’s curious, fascinating, pitched-up funk jam, feels like it has some real staying power.
Partly, “Redbone’s” lasting appeal is due to its inclusion in Get Out, Jordan Peele’s genre-bending horror thriller film about race that has become an unlikely Best Picture favorite for the 2018 Oscars. But also, because of its illustration of how enigmatic Glover is. Awaken, My Love, the album “Redbone” is on, was a massive artistic shift for the rapper, in that it contains no rap whatsoever. Furthermore, the song found notoriety despite the fact that Glover was basically unable to promote it, with his career as an actor and writer blowing up to Atlanta, Simba in the Lion King remake and Lando Calrissian in the Solo: A Star Wars Story-level proportions. Who knows what he’ll do next, but whatever it is, “stay woke” for it.
Best Music Video House Party We Wish We Were Invited To: 1. DJ Khaled feat. Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper and Lil Wayne: "I’m the One"
2. SZA: "Drew Barrymore"
3. Demi Lovato: "Sorry Not Sorry"
In a year with so much soul-crushing sadness, one of the bright spots that got us through was “I’m the One,” DJ Khaled’s superstar house party with Bieber, Quavo, Chance and Wayne.
The best music of the year covered some deeply important topics, but the carefree verses, mixed with Bieber’s masterful melody on the hook, is something we really needed this year. Plus, we have to remember this video, if only for the moment when Khaled’s adorable 1-year-old son, Asahd, was somehow out-cuted by Bieber and Chance the Rapper running in a circle together on the steps.
If this isn’t on your end of year playlist, you’ve made a terrible mistake.
Best Spanish-English Crossover: 1. J Balvin, Willy William feat. Beyoncé: “Mi Gente (Remix)”
2. Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee feat. Justin Bieber: “Despacito (Remix)”
3. Miguel, Natalia Lafourcade: “Remember Me (Dúo)” (From Disney Pixar’s Coco)
4. Luis Fonsi, Demi Lovato: “Échame La Culpa”
Perhaps in any other year, the “pop star does a Spanish crossover” song would seem to get gimmicky after about the third or fourth one. Pop does tend to cannibalize itself.
But in a year fraught with uncertainty for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Americans uncertain of their status in the country, each song hits like a declarative truth that what brings us together is so much more valuable than what divides us, and the beautiful, fabric of our culture is something worth fighting to protect.
With that said, “Mi Gente,” which materialized as a response to the devastating string of natural disasters that struck Puerto Rico, the U.S. and Latin America, is a song worth celebrating. It also, on top of what was already an absolute jam courtesy of J Balvin and Willy William, is another showcase of Queen Bey’s ability to combine powerhouse performances with music that does good beyond the dance floor.
Best New Artist: 1. SZA
2. Lil Uzi Vert
4. Harry Styles (Solo)
The Best New Artist category is always kind of ridiculous. It usually awards artists who have been grinding for years, only to at one point reach some arbitrary definition of public awareness, and that’s certainly the case with SZA.
The neo-soul singer has been linked to Top Dog Entertainment since 2011, when she caught the eye of the heralded hip-hop team, known for the likes of talented artists such as Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Isaiah Rashad and Jay Rock.
But on Ctrl, SZA’s first major label offering (she signed to RCA Records this year), it’s hard to argue that she hasn’t become the most exciting artist on Top Dog’s stupid impressive roster. It’s culminated in an impressive year, as SZA has been heard everywhere from HBO’s Insecure, to Saturday Night Live, to Maroon 5’s new album, to the “Homemade Dynamite” remix from Lorde’s Melodrama album. But the best SZA has to offer is SZA herself. Her whole catalog is worth exploring, but the dreamy, platinum hit “Love Galore” is a good place to start.
We’re all just 9-5, and SZA’s the weekend.
Biggest Tearjerker 1. Selena Gomez, Marshmello: “Wolves” (tie)
1. Kesha: “Praying” (tie)
2. St. Vincent: “Happy Birthday, Johnny”
3. Julien Baker: “Appointments”
4. Ed Sheeran: “Castle on the Hill”
Some of the most compelling stories this year were ones of catharsis. On “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” St. Vincent seemingly concludes a running “John” trilogy in her work with a heartbreaking, quiet piano ending, as the mysterious character she once begged to marry her, now lives on the street, and pleads, “Annie, how could you do this to me?” in the wrenching, closing moments of the song, leading Annie (St. Vincent) to put it to bed, crooning, “When you get free, Johnny, I hope you find peace.”
While St. Vincent has mostly kept consciously quiet about the details of who the recurring “John” is in her life, two stars who have lived their stories of perseverance through unspeakable hardship are Gomez and Kesha.
“Wolves,” while ostensibly a love song, is a driving ballad, inextricably linked to a year where Gomez has delivered some of the most impressive music of her career, given greater stakes by the fact that she did it all while dealing with the crippling effects of Lupus, and had to undergo a life-saving kidney transplant, in the process.
At the conclusion of it all is Kesha, with a renewed passion and an unbelievable voice -- incredible high notes and all -- leaving it all in the past. She’s back.
Best Collaboration We Didn't See Coming: 1. N.E.R.D. & Rihanna: "Lemon"
2. Taylor Swift feat. Future & Ed Sheeran: “End Game”
3. David Guetta feat. Charli XCX, Afro Jack and French Montana: “Dirty Sexy Money”
N.E.R.D. could not have landed a better artist to make a comeback with. RiRi runs with her verse with a passion, providing an impossible not to sing-along to set of bars, that makes this a late-year addition we’ll probably still be moving to well into 2018.
Meanwhile, we have to give credit to Swift. A collaboration with Future and Sheeran was perhaps one of the most head-scratching propositions of the year, but turned into a very listenable, catchy collaboration of thematically related verses and an earwormy hook. And Charli XCX (who lowkey crushed it this year) takes a hold of an otherwise pretty standard EDM pop song and takes it to 11 on the intensity scale, making it impossible not to bop to (though, French Montana’s addition is not his best effort).
Best Under the Radar Song: 1. HAIM: “Kept Me Cryin’”
2. Porches: “Country”
3. Rostam: “Half-Light”
4. The Front Bottoms: “Raining”
While “Want You Back” is the more high-profile song off of HAIM’s Something to Tell You album, especially with that unbelievably fun, walking down Ventura sister dance routine, perhaps the most evocative of their songs about breakups and heartache is “Kept Me Cryin’” with a chorus, delivered simply and anthemically, that proceeds, “I was your lover, I was your friend/ Now I'm only just someone you call, When it's late enough to forget.”
If you slept on this one, or maybe even just forgot about it, consider giving it another shot.
Best Candid Artist Documentary:
1. Gaga: Five Foot Two
2. Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated
Behind-the-scenes documentaries from pop stars can often feel cheap and manufactured, but Gaga and Lovato manage to avoid the pitfalls, merely by how honest, open and vulnerable they allow themselves to be.
Both are worth watching, but one moment from Gaga: Five Foot Twohas stuck with us in a haunting way. Gaga, who has spent the whole film in the presence of others, often being touched, made-up and massaged through blinding pain, sinks into her pool, as she candidly discusses the silence and loneliness that takes place when all those people go away, and she’s alone in a room, and it’s just her, Stefanie Germanotta.
We may not have lived nearly the life she has, but the core of that experience gets at something deeply human.
Best Music Video: 1. Kendrick Lamar: “HUMBLE.”
2. Charli XCX: “Boys”
3. Dua Lipa: “New Rules”
4. JAY-Z “Moonlight”
5. HAIM: “Want You Back”
Wow, this was a hard category to pare down this year, as so many artists had so much to offer on the video front. While Dua Lipa and HAIM provided dazzling feats of choreography, JAY-Z impeccably reimagined an all-black episode of Friends, and Charli XCX delivered maybe the most ambitious turn on objectification (in millennial pink) ever, you really have to give it up to Lamar for the staggeringly great videos he put out. “LOYALTY.,” “ELEMENT.” and “DNA.” are all worth the watch, but “HUMBLE.” probably takes the cake, if only for the amount of captivating imagery, from Lamar’s flaming head, to the “Last Supper” recreation, to the “so sick and tired of the Photoshop” split screens that all complemented an already unbelievable beat in such a satisfying way.
It’s no joke though, this year was crazy good for music videos. Watch the playlist below for just a few of our favorites.
Best Awards Show/Championship Presence: 1. BTS at the AMAs
2. Carrie Underwood at the Stanley Cup Finals
3. Chance the Rapper at the GRAMMYs
BTS was already a sensation before they released Love Yourself: Her and decided to take over America. And if you hadn’t heard of them before the 2017 American Music Awards, you’re listening now. Not only did the band become the first Korean pop group to perform on the show, but they killed it in that moment and all throughout the night. With their fashion game on point, and jamming out to Lovato, BTS became our new favorite attendees of live televised events, edging out Carrie Underwood fangirling husband Mike Fisher at the Stanley Cup Finals and Chance the Rapper being everyone’s BFF at the GRAMMYs
Best Daughter Moment: 1. Chance the Rapper’s daughter opening his GRAMMYs
2. Pink, Carey Hart and Willow rock matching suits to the VMAs
3. John Legend and Luna in Italy
4. Blue Ivy Crashing GRAMMYs Prince Tribute
While BTS has Chance beat in the former category, he and his adorable 3-year-old daughter did win a special distinction in our hearts this year.
The parent-daughter moments in 2017 were unreal, from Pink and Willow rocking matching suits to the MTV Video Music Awards, to John Legend and Luna totally twinning out in Italy. Not to mention, Beyonce and JAY-Z’s daughter, Blue Ivy, adorably crashing the GRAMMYs Prince tribute.
But if you can watch Kensli unboxing daddy Chance’s GRAMMY Awards and not break your face from smiling, you do not truly know what it means to feel.
Best Cameo(s): 1. The cast of JAY-Z’s “Moonlight” video
2. All the guys in Charli XCX’s “Boys” video
3. Drew Barrymore in SZA’s “Drew Barrymore” video
4. Channing Tatum in Pink’s “Beautiful Trauma” video
Jerrod Carmichael, Issa Rae, Lil Rel Howery and Tiffany Haddish, Hannibal Buress and Lakeith Stanfield star in JAY-Z’s shot-for-shot remake of an episode of Friends, which breaks down in Ross (played by Carmichael) beginning to question his role, while audio from the Moonlight-La La Land Oscars controversy plays out.
Similarly to much of 4:44, it interestingly blends tangible pop culture with themes of race and representation. And the all-star cast delivers it to perfection.
Check out the playlist below.
That about does it for 2017. For more of our end of year content, watch the video below.