The 100 Best Songs Of 2017

Dec 13, 2017
Originally published on December 18, 2017 1:09 pm

The best songs we heard this year reflected a deep sense of collective need. For safety, for respect, for self-definition. For money or sex or revolution. Maybe we just hear what we crave, but on huge hits and semi-obscure album cuts alike, it seemed that musicians in 2017 were facing down eternity or the possibility of annihilation. Both Sylvan Esso and Jason Isbell linked love with death. Kendrick Lamar gave us his most tender song yet, as well as his harshest condemnation. Ibeyi and Kesha gave us righteous anger and forgiveness. Sharon Jones faced the end. Harry Styles pivoted from cheery pop to epic rock while glancing over his shoulder at the apocalypse. It's just a song, right? But if the end really is near, here's our countdown: the 100 best songs of 2017.

Hear the Spotify playlist.

100. Chris Stapleton
"Broken Halos"

Chris Stapleton is the embodiment of sturdy country masculinity, and that's not just because of his mountain man appearance. He often walks the line between deep feeling and stoicism, bending notes and belting as a man who bears up beneath emotional burdens, who owns his failings, who faces his sources of pain. Stapleton plundered his back catalog of songs for a couple of albums this year, and "Broken Halos," written with his former SteelDrivers bandmate Mike Henderson, has become not only a modestly successful single, but Stapleton's go-to response to recent tragedies. Sounding both toughened and subdued by experience, and buoyed by his wife Morgane's harmonies, he extends the country and gospel tradition of songs that accept that many losses defy reason. —Jewly Hight

Listen to "Broken Halos"

99. Kelly Clarkson
"Love So Soft"

Does Kelly Clarkson have the right to make a banger? The original American Idol's gift for blending and transcending genres, the good nature that shines through on this ode to grown people's love, and above all, that Maybach of a voice — cruising into overdrive, turning on a dime with a little "whoo!" — add up to this high-speed chase of a track, which says: absolutely. —Ann Powers

Listen to "Love So Soft"

98. Tyler, The Creator feat. Frank Ocean and Steve Lacy
"911 / Mr. Lonely"

Tyler, the Creator paints the progression of loneliness as something of a Soul Train party on the two-part track "911/Mr. Lonely." Featuring supporting vocals from Frank Ocean, Steve Lacy and Anna of the North and produced by the rapper himself, Tyler sets mild despair into motion. While the production is infused with old school boogie vibes thanks to a melody sample of The Gap Band's "Outstanding," the message is somber. "Treat me like direct deposit / Check up on me sometime / Ask me how I'm really doin' / So I never have to hit that 911." —Sidney Madden

Listen to "911 / Mr. Lonely"

97. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah feat. Elena Pinderhughes

In 2017, the New Orleans trumpeter released three often-great LPs that combined elements of his hometown jazz/funk/soul with an army of acoustic and electronic percussion and synths referencing everything from trap to techno, and birthed at least one classic composition. "Encryption" already features the muted Scott blowing through an Afro-Caribbean groove when a bass-synth counterpoint enters the fray unexpectedly. The darkness of its texture recalls Detroit's Underground Resistance, instantly changing the music's feel. When, 30 seconds later, soloing flautist Elena Pinderhuges joins the chat, a most unique roundtable on contemporary African-American instrumental music is called to session. —Piotr Orlov

Listen to "Encryption"

96. Willie Nelson
"Old Timer"

It's tempting to view Willie Nelson as some sort of musical immortal, a generation-bridging cultural constant who's releasing albums at a rapid clip — one or two a year — even in the sixth decade of his recording. One in particular, God's Problem Child, sparkles with his accumulated wisdom and seasoned wit, and its most poignant track is the piano ballad "Old Timer," written by Muscle Shoals fixtures Donnie Fritts and Lenny LeBlanc. Nelson captures the bewildering disconnect between the active life of a still-sharp mind and the decline of an aging body, with his warm, knowing vibrato conveying a touch more frailty than it used to. —Jewly Hight

Listen to "Old Timer"

95. Ozuna
"Si No Te Quiere"

Breakout Puerto Rican-Dominican reggaeton artist Ozuna dropped a banger at the end of this summer. "Si No Te Quiere" blared out of cars, got us dancing en el supermercado and reminded Latin music that reggaeton not only fuses with pop, but can thrive in trap. While the album Odisea hit No.1 on Billboard's Latin Albums Chart, the song is reminiscent of old school reggaeton sounds akin to Arcangel and Baby Rasta Y Gringo, bringing us back to the roots of perreo. This is the magic that occurs when the island and mainland are in constant subcultural and musical exchange. —Jessica Diaz-Hurtado

Listen to "Si No Te Quiere"

94. Code Orange

The mutants of metallic mayhem talk a big game as the self-proclaimed "thinners of the herd," separating the kittens from the panthers (the band's chosen emblem) when it comes to extreme music: "We walk a path of re-creation / A feeling you will never know." The title track from Code Orange's third album is not so much an opener but a battering ram wrapped in barbed wire, a collection of annihilating riffs ensnared in the band's tag-team trio of snarling vocalists. —Lars Gotrich

Listen to "Forever"

93. Maalem Mahmoud Gania
"Bala Matinba"

There is something so intoxicating about Gnawa music, a traditional form from Morocco that belongs to the descendants of sub-Saharan African slaves who use song and dance in their Sufi spiritual and healing rituals. This recording of the late master Maalem Mahmoud Gania, who died in 2015, is simply Gnawa music at its best: layers of call-and-response singing, propulsive polyrhythms clacked out on metal castanets called qarqaba and the heady, plaintive sound of the three-stringed guembri lute (also known as a sintir). Dig down deep into this roots music and be utterly transported. —Anastasia Tsioulcas

Listen to "Bala Matinba"

92. Los Angeles Percussion Quartet

One of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music, Anna Thorvaldsdottir writes luminous works, flush with expressive sounds and textures. "Aura," arranged specifically for the incisive Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, seems to radiate from the primordial landscapes of her native Iceland. Vibraphones are bowed, bass drums are massaged and metal tubes sound out a muted theme, all in the service of creating a penetrating, crepuscular atmosphere — in a word, an aura. —Tom Huizenga

Listen to "Aura"

91. Ambrose Akinmusire
"Maurice & Michael (sorry i didn't say hello)"

Ambrose Akinmusire has been a standout bandleader on the postmodern jazz landscape, as well as one of its leading trumpeters. And his current quartet, with pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown, hasn't been better documented than on its recent double album, A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard. This is the opening track from that release, a fanfare made up of punchy syncopations and sleek, thrumming rhythm. It encapsulates much of what you need to know about the band, which sounds alert at every turn, coiled and ready to strike. —Nate Chinen (WBGO)

Listen to "Maurice & Michael (sorry i didn't say hello)"

90. KH

A loop-based wonder, this barely-released Kieran Hebden track slayed pretty much every party it was played at (at times, the only track to do so). The reason? It's partly because the delicate guitar picking on the Bobby Powell nugget at its source rages into a funky wildfire atop Hebden's beat, and partly because its desperate vocal plea — "Got to find the answer to the question / Somebody? Somebody?" — resonated like an unexploded ordnance in a world all too ready for the next shoe to drop. Other than "Bodak Yellow," this was the only song that danced down Babylon at every turn. —Piotr Orlov

89. Betsayada Machado
"La Situacion"

Betsayda Machado has been making this kind of music for quite a long time. Afro Valenzuela folk may be far from just about any music fan's radar, but as this track shows, Betsayda and her group breathe new exciting life into tales of slavery, runaway slaves and, ultimately, cultural pride. It's classic African call and response with a group that includes Machado's sister and other family members. Her powerful voice soars above the collective spirit and convinces us there is something greater than us all. —Felix Contreras

Listen to "La Situacion"

88. GVSU New Music Ensemble
"Glass Surface"

Sometimes a song travels unexpected pathways. This hybrid pearl by Daniel Rhode was born with purely acoustic instruments in mind, then the young composer took it into the studio for electronic "tailoring." Emerging from a reedy drone, a glistening shard of melody begins to reproduce — it sounds synthetic, but it's actually a violin riff, tweaked via skillful processing. After a calm passage of lower-pitched waves, the theme returns and blossoms ecstatically. The music is a highlight of RETURN, an album of chill electroacoustic works performed by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble. The unassuming group, led by Bill Ryan, is comfortably ensconced amid the rolling farmlands of western Michigan. —Tom Huizenga

Listen to "Glass Surface"

87. Irreversible Entanglements

The bass line is something out of Art Ensemble Of Chicago's funky streak, a rubber-band thump wrapped around sparse but insistently thwacked snare. It is the fervor that lights Camae Ayewa: "When did your heart break? At what point did you break down and cry out, 'I can't take this anymore!'?" The poet and musician best known as Moor Mother isn't the leader of Irreversible Entanglements — spread across Philly, New York and D.C., no one is — but the band does draw a through-line from '60s free-jazz to our current despair, with urgent improvisation that unfolds like a fire flower of rebellion. —Lars Gotrich

Listen to "Fireworks"

86. Bicep

British tandem Andrew Ferguson and Matthew McBriar got their start in dance music as curators of an MP3 blog. Now, they're the subject of breathless reviews in the world's most-respected electronic music magazines. In fact, Bicep sits at the enviable nexus of critical acclaim and popular appeal, a perch shared by Four Tet, Caribou and not too many others. "Aura" is the duo's latest — and arguably greatest — big-room anthem, full of bulbous bass, twinkling synths and an infectious melody reminiscent of the classic U.K. rave of Orbital. —Otis Hart

Listen to "Aura"

85. Benjamin Clementine
"Phantom of Aleppoville"

British singer and pianist Benjamin Clementine drills down into the dark world of child abuse and bullying in this sprawling, shape-shifting tome. It's the most ambitious track on an album full of drama, chaos and quiet solitude. —Robin Hilton

Listen to "Phantom of Aleppoville"

84. Ashley McBryde
"A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega"

It's "Dah-LON-e-ga" — one of the real, barely-mapped Southern towns where Ashley McBryde, 2017's most exciting new country voice, spent years playing in tiny bars, perfecting her twang and her knack for profundity. It's also the perfect setting for her pocket romance about love blossoming on a day when everything else went wrong. —Ann Powers

Listen to "A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega"

83. Anne Akiko Meyers

In 2014, violinist Anne Akiko Meyers finally found her nerve: She asked the elderly dean of Finnish composers, Einojuhani Rautavaara, to write a piece for her. Little did she know his composition for her would become the revered man's penultimate work — Rautavaara died last year at 87. His "Fantasia" for violin and orchestra, with its autumnal tone, seems to bid a bittersweet farewell. After a stern orchestral introduction, the violin launches into 13 minutes of rhapsodic melody. The orchestra supplies an atmospheric foundation for Meyers to sing out beautifully in long, flowing lines on her 1741 Guarneri del Gesù violin. Even if it wasn't a valediction, Rautavaara left us with some of his most breathtaking music. —Tom Huizenga

Listen to "Fantasia"

82. Julien Baker

There's a pause three-quarters of the way through "Appointments." Built on repetitive guitar and piano, the song hinges on this moment; in that second of space, the overwhelming feeling of futility and defeat is transformed. What follows — Julien Baker's repeated intonation of determination and resolve — ultimately grounds "Appointments" in hope. Though uncertainty lingers and disappointment can't be diminished, there's a fight in spite of what's known. —Lyndsey McKenna

Listen to "Appointments"

81. Gabriel Garzón-Montano
"Sour Mango"

By the time Gabriel Garzon-Montano released his album Jardin last summer, he had spent three years of intense writing, observing and touring with rocker Lenny Kravitz — so there is a lot of attention to detail in its crisp and evocative lyrics as well as the exquisitely layered sonic landscape. On "Sour Mango," Garzon-Montano's playful vocals mix an extra funky slow groove that is practically an artistic statement of purpose from an artist with a developing musical vision, who will hopefully give us lots more like this. —Felix Contreras

Listen to "Sour Mango"

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit