25. Penny For Your Thoughts > Einar Stray Orchestra
Dear Bigotry was one of my favourite releases of the year, a lush collection of paranoid pop backed by intricate orchestral arrangements. I waffled on which track to include on this list – the grim “Glossolalia” is a stand-out, as is the Arcade Fire-y choral splendour of “As Far As I’m Concerned.” In the end, though, it had to be “Penny For Your Thoughts,” a soaring piece of balladry about being broke and breaking up and trying, desperately, to find control in the chaos of growing old.
24. Disco Tits > Tove Lo
A number of the songs on this list were included because they say something vital about the times that we live in. In this era of encroaching fascism, where truth is fiction, where women’s bodies are rendered war-zones, a song can be more than just a sequence of sounds. It can be a tool of resistance.
“Disco Tits” is not one of those songs. “Disco Tits” doesn’t care that the world is on fire. “Disco Tits” is about doing drugs and getting laid. And there are a lot of songs about doing drugs and getting laid, but “Disco Tits” is the only one where the singer gets road head from a puppet while singing, “I’m fully charged, nipples are hard, ready to go.”
23. Cover From The Sun > Destroyer
Dan Bejar’s latest hews pretty cleanly to his long standard of excellence. There’s really not a misstep in the bunch, and while the arrangements may be spare compared to, say, Kaputt, the songs are all the better for it. Every instrument pulls its weight and then some. On “Cover From The Sun,” a blown-out guitar line and a riff of jangly, sparkly percussion usher us into a minor epic, a summer that stretches from New York to Vancouver, from blistering daylight to dingy bars. All this in just two minutes! Sleek economy without sacrificing style!
22. Delicate > Taylor Swift
Yeah, Reputation was a disappointment and a half. It represented a kind of collapse of everything I held dear about Taylor. In even her most confident songs, you could always hear shades of self-doubt, quiet flickers of the heavy burden of being a girl. Conversely, her devastation was never without a flinty spark of resilience. In a pop marketplace replete with songs designed to manipulate emotions – to inspire happiness, or lovestruck delirium, or bathroom-floor caterwauling – Taylor stood out as more subtle, more human, a kind of dispatch from the reality of young womanhood.
“Delicate” is the finest moment on Reputation, and the only song which successfully meets the high standard Taylor has set for herself. There’s no whiff of the bullshit posturing of “Look What You Made Me Do,” the processed cheese of “Gorgeous,” the embarrassing dance-hall imitation of “Ready For It?” This is Taylor at the height of infatuation; ugly with need, with the kind of naked, embarrassing wanting that precedes commitment. Lines like “stay here, honey, I don’t want to share” come out in self-conscious whispers, a perfect coupling of form and content. The chorus thrums on and on, again and again, an obsessively re-read text message, a memory of solidity you return to when you start to think you’ve been imagining the connection all along. For just a few minutes, she abandons myth-making and allows herself humanity.
21. XO Tour Llif3 > Lil Uzi Vert
This was a bold counterpoint to the broad cultural narratives of 2017 – instead of resistance, nihilism; instead of solidarity, the most unflinching depiction of a toxic relationship on the brink since, like, In Utero. I waffled on whether to even include it, honestly. I thought I might sub in Julien Turner’s truly excellent parody, XY Cell Llif3, which retains the killer beat but drops the domestic dispute for an informative lesson about cell biology.
I do think we’re long overdue for a serious, mass-cultural discussion about performative self-destruction – and how the music press’s encouragement of this phenomenon claims lives. But “XO Tour Llif3” is the perfect catalyst for that discussion, and an artful engagement with the consequences of its own philosophy.
20. New York > St. Vincent
Earlier this year, on a damp afternoon in March, I set out into the rain to obtain an ice-cream cake, because I’d just received an invitation to a job interview after a couple months of unemployment, and I wanted to celebrate. As I was walking, I came upon what looked to be a film set. And I knew, instinctively, that Cara Delevingne was on this film set. I’d read a few days prior that she was filming a movie in Toronto. And Toronto, understand, is lousy with film and TV productions, so it’s not like it was a foregone conclusion that this particular film set was Cara Delevingne’s film set. But I knew. I knew. I ducked into the lobby of an apartment building on the block where they were shooting to look for a filming notice. The name of her movie was right there. Cara Delevingne was filming in my very own neighbourhood.
Now, I have had a celebrity crush on Cara Delevingne essentially since I realized I liked women. So I had two options, as I saw it:
- not speak to Cara Delevingne
- accept this moment as God showing me mercy after a particularly shitty couple of months, and ask Cara Delevingne out
So I went and got my ice-cream cake, and then I went home, and I wrote out a heartfelt letter on a yellow legal pad thanking Cara for all she’s done for mentally ill queer women. At the bottom of this letter, I wrote something like, “here’s my number, text me if you want to grab coffee,” and I realize now that this was like… like, this was an objectively insane thing to do, but when life gives you Cara Delevingne filming a movie on your street, you don’t not give Cara Delevingne your number.
And then I figured I didn’t want to just stroll up with an insane letter on a yellow legal pad. I wanted to give her something! A little gift! But I was broke, so I couldn’t very well run out and buy something. So I looked at my bookshelf, checked for anything new-ish I could give her to read. I briefly considered giving her my hardcover Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, but I thought that might be too on the nose. I decided on Crush by Richard Siken, my favourite poetry collection of all time, but then I looked at the back and the reviews were all like, “These are tales of DARKNESS and OBSESSION,” which wasn’t great for optics? So I threw in War of the Foxes, Siken’s second poetry collection, just to balance things out. And I set out into the rain with my little gift bag and headed down to the set.
I met a production assistant on the sidewalk. She asked me if I needed to get by. I said, “Um, no, I actually have something for Cara?” and I handed her the bag. She told me to wait. I waited. I stood there in the rain for a few minutes, listening to “My Girls” by Animal Collective, and then, suddenly, Cara Delevingne appeared in the doorway, resplendent in a blue wig. She waved me over. “I read your letter,” she said. “It was lovely. Thank you so much.” She hugged me. We spoke for several minutes, chatting about her film, talking about Siken, exchanging recommendations for things to do while she was in town. She remarked on my Hunter boots; I would later learn that she has a foot fetish, and I would wonder what this meant, the remark about my “Wellies,” as she called them. And then she hugged me once more, and she was gone.
Three months later, St. Vincent released her break-up song about Cara Delevingne. I listened to it, reflecting on that afternoon in the rain. I thought about what might have been.
19. Diving Woman > Japanese Breakfast
Sometimes, songs take a while to grow on you; sometimes, you know within seconds that you’re hearing something special, something enduring. “Diving Woman” is the latter, a minor epic that instantly asserts itself as vital, necessary, indispensable. In sharp contrast to the compact pop of her excellent debut, Psychopomp, this song sprawls and sprawls, setting the stage for a panoply of dreamy, dense soundscapes.
18. Blood On Me > Sampha
“No One Knows Me Like the Piano” is the one getting all the year-end love – with good reason, I’ll add – but this, for me, was the highlight of Process. It’s a dystopian epic, all the tension of a Hunger Games novel condensed into one of the year’s best choruses. And when that skittering heartbeat of a drum abruptly gives way to a spare, empty bridge, just spooky, percussive humming against an almost imperceptible veil of piano – chills.
17. Play the Field > Partner
This band is literally like if Tegan & Sara had a baby with golden-age Weezer, and it is everything I have ever wanted, a funny and witty and genuinely excellent antidote to years of sappy, shitty lesbian power pop. Rivers Cuomo could have written this, if Rivers Cuomo was a dyke instead of just an ambiguously queer dude mystified by the presence of a pink triangle on a chick’s sleeve.
There’s a story here: the singer is an uncoordinated nerd nursing a crush on a hot jock, and she’s trying out for the team in order to win over the girl of her dreams. There is heartache, locker-room embarrassment, and then, at last, triumph. “I scored my only basket of the season,” she sings. “It was on my own team!“
16. Every Day’s the Weekend > Alex Lahey
Arcade Fire tricked me this year with some Fake News about their effort to patent the Millennial Whoop, that ubiquitous pop inflection that goes whoa-oh! Whoa-oh! Whoa-oh! Alex Lahey is hardly the first artist to put her stamp on the Millennial Whoop, but my god, when she hits the chorus, that trill sounds like it’s never belonged to anybody else. And the song’s keystone couplet – “my hands are cold, but my feet are not/are you leaving me or have you just forgot?” – is the best Taylor Swift lyric that Taylor Swift didn’t write this year.
15. Want You Back > HAIM
This is only the third best song entitled “Want You Back.” The first is the Jackson 5 joint, obviously; the second is the Cher Lloyd joint, which is, I swear, one of my favourite pop songs of all time, and a testament to Cher Lloyd’s apparently vastly underutilized skill with delivering a bratty zinger. But we’re not here to talk about Cher Lloyd. We’re here to talk about HAIM, and about this perfect, perfect re-introduction after a long time away. It’s upbeat without ever being cloying. It sounds like it was genetically engineered in a government lab to score the final sequence of every romantic comedy ever. They wanted us back, and boy, did they get us.
14. Static > Minimall
“Static” was my song of the summer, an endlessly pretty conflagration of punchy lyrical lemonade and breezy vocal harmonies that would make Brian Wilson jealous. All the little production flourishes – a ringing phone to usher us in, an emphatic, group-wide huh! to punctuate every verse-chorus-verse switch – are just gravy. It’s a kiss-off and a flirtation, sweet and sour in equal measure. What a pure, unadulterated delight.
13. Colors > Beck
There’s this old chestnut about music journalism that’s like, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and it’s mostly bullshit, but sometimes? Sometimes words fail. Like, what can I say about Beck making the banger of the year and then giving it a zeitgest-y slime stim video? What can I say when the lyrics are almost incidental, when the only objective here is to express joy through sound? My biggest regret of the year is never getting to hear this on a crowded dancefloor with a disco ball orbiting overhead. But it made a pretty good soundtrack for dancing on the sidewalk, too.
12. Do You Still Love Me? > Ryan Adams
The snobby sophisticate in me wanted to put more like, arty experimental house music on this list, so I could look cool. My dumb reptilian brain, however, insisted that I include “Do You Still Love Me?” and give it full credit for its ability to mash every joy receptor in my cerebral cortex at once. So here we are. Here we are, sincerely enjoying this pitch-fucking-perfect parody of eighties arena rock. Parody might be the wrong word. It might also be the right word. I don’t know enough about Ryan Adam’s motives to say. All I know is that it rips.
11. Paracetamol > Declan McKenna
I wrote about this track at some length back in July, and I don’t know that I can say much more than I already have. Put simply, this is an answer to the It Gets Better campaigns of yesteryear, the preternaturally gifted Declan McKenna mired in the daily trials and tribulations of being young and queer, and begging, begging, to simply be allowed to live and make art. “Oh, won’t you let me finish?” he sings, and he means that he wants you to listen through to the end, but he also means that he wants the end to be far, far away. He wants a chance to grow, to make art, to live – a difficult task for anyone in the gay community, when so many of our greatest treasures made their names by dying. Paracetamol is an over-the-counter drug for the temporary relief of pain. That’s all he can ask for. That, and a chance to finish on his own terms.
10. The Bus Song > Jay Som
There’s this one Mitski tweet that’s like, “Encountering a Libra at the height of infatuation is like talking to whipped cream on angel food cake.” I don’t know Jay Som’s star sign, but “The Bus Song” is the soundtrack for that emotion. That light, airy, sugary chorus – I’ll be the one who sticks arooooooooound, and I just want you to neeeeeeeeeed me – is the most convincing argument for being in dumb, stupid love since goddamn Bright Eyes. And we all how how the fuck I feel about Bright Eyes.
9. Why Are You So Boring? > Desperate Journalist
Desperate Journalist were one of my favourite discoveries of the year, and also far and away the most criminally overlooked. “Overlooked” might be an understatement, actually. Not one single North American publication even reviewed the record. This despite the presence of what is unequivocally one of the year’s best tracks, a stiff middle finger to abusive louts and a radical declaration of self-respect everywhere that sounds a little like The Cure doing Sleater-Kinney. In a year heavy with Bullshit From Men, this was the powerful corrective that we all needed.
8. Oh Baby > LCD Soundsystem
There were bigger, bolder soundscapes on the excellent American Dream, but I’ve kind of always favoured the miracles LCD Soundsystem pulls off when they work on a more intimate scale. (“New York, I Love You…” is my ideal; the fan-made version with the Miles Davis improvisations looped on top is even better.) “Oh Baby” was the sweetest, softest welcome back into the fold that I could have imagined. A lullaby before a rave. A warm hug in a year of unrelenting catastrophe.
7. Green Light > Lorde
Listmas Season is a time for forgiveness. A time for us to cop to our past mistakes, and look ahead to where we might do better in the future. After I heard “Green Light” for the first time, I hopped on Tumblr and sneered about it being “disjointed” and “awkward.” It took just a few more listens for the spirit of Lorde to appear to me, backhand me across the face, and holler, “That’s the point, bitch! Is grief ever not disjointed? Is awkwardness not the universality that binds us in our experiences of love and loss? Listen to this fucking chorus before you run your mouth again.” By posting this, I am atoning, and admitting that it rips.
6. Cut to the Feeling > Carly Rae Jepsen
Okay, no, this is the quintessential Whipped Cream On Angel Food Cake experience. It soundtracked my own experience of falling in love this summer, and for that I am ever grateful. Back in 2007, when I was just a wee little thing watching Canadian Idol, I watched Carly Rae’s audition, and she became my instant favourite. I stopped watching the show when she got voted off. Like, you have to understand: I watched every episode of every season of Canadian Idol religiously for like, years and years, but the canning of Carly Rae Jepsen was the moment I officially quit. I knew – I knew – that she was destined to do great things. I never could have imagined just how great.
5. Mythological Beauty > Big Thief
It’s a misnomer, see; looking back at all the shameful, grimy viscera of one’s life and digging deep to find transcendence in trauma. Here, Adrianne Lenker relates the impossible sacrifice her mother made at seventeen, carrying an unplanned pregnancy to term and giving the child up for a closed adoption. “I have an older brother I don’t know,” Lenker sings, soft, like she’s telling us a fairytale. “He could be anywhere.” Then she steps into her own spotlight, recalling a devastating childhood injury that nearly killed her, and all the blood that gushed from the open wound on her skull, soaking the cushions of her family’s minivan. She is a voyeur here, too, watching the scene, watching her terrified mother: “I was just five, and you were twenty-seven, praying don’t let my baby die.” There’s not a false note on Capacity, but this… I mean, fuck. It rivals Dylan.
4. HUMBLE. > Kendrick Lamar
This song! A rollicking joy! An illegitimati non carborundum for the ages! An iconic video featuring Kendrick Pope Lamar, resplendent in all his glory in a high school gym, delivering a massive, world-stopping pop hit that inspired confidence in every one of its listeners and humility in none. Throwing it on this list is a little disingenuous – DAMN. was wall-to-wall excellence, and “DNA.” and “XXX.” are arguably, pound-for-pound, better songs. But “HUMBLE.” doesn’t just suggest inclusion among the greats; it demands it. To KPL be the glory.
3. Bodak Yellow > Cardi B
Perhaps the only shitty part of the unstoppable “Bodak Yellow” phenomenon was how quickly it became fodder for overwrought feminist thinkpieces and white spectatorship. So I’ll spare you all that bullshit and just say this: it fucking slaps. It deserves every accolade it’s received and then some. Now, let’s all back off and give Cardi the time and space she needs to record a full-length debut for the ages and establish herself as our generation’s finest lyricist.
2. Dog Years > Daddy Issues
“Dog Years” absolutely flattened me. Nothing – nothing – I have heard this year even comes close in terms of sheer emotional impact. It’s timely, yes, but also eternal. While the rest of Daddy Issues’ stellar debut Deep Dream reaches for poppy surf-punk to channel the ups and downs of girlhood, “Dog Years” is a cold expression of fury. Jenna Moynihan’s vocal performance here is an astonishing lesson in restraint; her chilly whisper over that low, menacing bassline is, simultaneously, a trembling first step into agency and a portender of certain doom. When, at last, she lets out that high, feral shriek, her voice flutters away and becomes one with the animalistic chaos of the guitar solo, interrupting the song like an electric shock. “Dog Years” not only demands comparisons to late-period Nirvana and the best work of Hole; it earns those comparisons, and it even dares to surpass the songs that inspired it.
1. Beach Life-in-Death > Car Seat Headrest
Twin Fantasy is a hard one to write about. I had to get really, catastrophically drunk to compose my definitive statement on its greatness. I love a lot of things, a lot of music, but this record is central and vital for me in a way that little else is. So I’ll have to keep this simple.
A few days ago, a re-recording of “Beach Life in Death” appeared online with no warning. It is spectacular. It is, somehow, an improvement on perfection, and all the lovelier for Will Toledo’s plain bravery in daring to reimagine something held sacred by so many. You get the sense he’s aware of this mythologizing. Every scream is a little sharper, a little louder. “Do you have something against dooooooooogs?” is now a battle-cry that empties out his lungs. But there’s newness, too, a sort of bold forward movement away from his scrappy beginnings and into uncharted territory, grander and more terrifying.
There’s this Drake lyric I love, which he actually cribbed from Muhammad Ali: “I’m the greatest; I said that before I knew I was.” I’m reminded of it now. Will’s early work was dogged by a struggle for acknowledgement, for discovery, for recognition. Shipping demos out to labels; hearing silence. Playing shows to ten people and a bag of chips. Selling hand-painted t-shirts on Tumblr for seven bucks. This take on “Beach Life-in-Death” is as much a look forward as it is a look back. He was the greatest six years ago, before he knew he was. He doesn’t need the caveat anymore.