1. Pinegrove: “Intrepid”
No band makes me feel things quite like Pinegrove. This might sound dumb to anyone who doesn’t care about sports, but the first time I heard “Intrepid” was at my computer browsing the Internet, trying to take my mind off the fact that the Dodgers were currently on the verge of losing Game 7 of the World Series after a season’s worth of build-up and excitement. I wasn’t despondent — that had happened after they lost an insane, drama-filled Game 5 by a score of 13-12 in extra innings — but I was feeling pretty dejected. But when I played “Intrepid,” I started to feel comforted. It struck the exact tone that I needed — not too happy, not too sad, but affirming and warm. Understanding. “Don’t let it get to you, you said.” So then I played it again, and again, and again…
2. N.E.R.D feat. Rihanna: “Lemon”
Prolific producer Pharrell Williams is resurrecting one of his projects from the 2000’s, his funk/rock/hip-hop group N.E.R.D. Their forthcoming album features a murderers’ row of guests, including Kendrick Lamar, André 3000, Future, M.I.A., Gucci Mane, and… Ed Sheeran? I guess Sheeran already rapped on a Taylor Swift song, so nothing is surprising anymore. “Lemon” catches the biggest fish of all though: Rihanna.
And guess what? This song goooooes. Pharrell is unparalleled when it comes to his groove-making ability, and “Lemon” only adds to his repertoire. After a frenetic start, “Lemon” settles in right at the 44 second mark as Rihanna swaggers in with a killer rap verse over a toe-tapping, sweaty, blissful beat.
(As a family-friendly blog, consider this my explicit lyrics warning.)
3. NE-HI feat. Jamila Woods: “The Times I’m Not There”
You would not immediately expect a white psych/garage rock band and a black soul singer to collaborate, but NE-HI and Jamila Woods, both hailing from Chicago, make magic together. NE-HI have flown under the radar, but released a very strong album this year (“Stay Happy” is a great, youthful anthem). Similarly, Jamila Woods has owned the indie R&B scene with her album HEAVN, a single I highlighted a few months ago, “Holy,” and her frequent collaborations with Chance the Rapper. On “The Times I’m Not There,” NE-HI provide a soulful, jangly backdrop for Woods’s intimate, welcoming vocals. And as a plus, all proceeds from the song are going directly to Chance the Rapper’s youth-focused charity, SoulWorks.
4. Yaeji: “raingurl”
Airy, intoxicating, clubby, and hilarious. That’s how I would describe “raingurl” by Yaeji, a house producer who splits time between New York City and Seoul, Korea. “raingurl” is just a straight-up bleary-eyed blast, with a deep bass-heavy beat that is currently causing me to dance around the house in between writing these sentences. Yaeji sing-raps in both English and Korean, trading off until the instantly memorable chorus, where she says, “Mother Russia in my cup / And my glasses fogging up / Oh yeah, hey dog, hey what’s up / (Oh yeah, hey dog, hey what’s up),” followed by “When the sweaty walls are banging / I don’t f— with family planning / Make it rain gurl, make it rain.” It’s amazing. Someday before I die, I want to hear this song in a club or at a dance party late at night and go crazy.
5. Taylor Swift: “Call it What You Want”
The Taylor Swift backlash was inevitable. After 1989’s immense popularity (in terms of album sales, radio play, and cultural ubiquity) and fervent critical acclaim (in terms of poptimist praise from previously stodgy music critics), the fall from grace became pre-destined. We crave new narratives way too much to let anyone rest on their laurels.
Not that Swift was blameless in the backlash. I mean, Kim did have the receipts. But it wasn’t just the Kanye-Kim beef. Bringing out famous friends at every tour stop, leading to endless round-the-clock coverage, can get tiring. The flash-in-the-pan dalliance with Tom Hiddleston was weird. Then the much-hyped release of “Look What You Made Me Do” kicked the backlash into high gear. It was a song without hooks, and Swifties want their hooks! Personally, I think the track is okay and I like the rhythm and uniqueness of the chorus, but the musical (and lyrical, while we’re at it) structure of the verses is fairly rote.
Additional to all of this, many followers have also expressed frustration with Swift’s commitment to staying apolitical, a critique which I understand but for which I have mixed feelings. I don’t think it’s necessarily a singer’s responsibility to state his or her political opinions, and it’s unfair to expect Swift to have to respond to every random, bogus allegation thrown at her, like those who link her to white supremacy in a blog post (if you want, you can Google the post). But also, it’s a weird choice to sue some low-level blogger for defamation instead of taking the super easy route of just denouncing white supremacy altogether. It doesn’t take long to tweet, as Drake has reminded us.
Still, though there are valid critiques of Taylor Swift, I’m not in the hater parade. What ultimately matters to me is the music. If the music is good, I don’t care about the frivolous stuff that surrounds it. And though many disagree, I think a large portion of Reputation is really good. It has its inconsistencies — “King of Hearts” is hookless and awkward, and I am not a fan of her maniacal “HAHAHA I can’t even say it with a straight face” on “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” even if it is tongue-in-cheek. But “I Did Something Bad” is a brilliant, cathartic banger, “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” adeptly sets the mood, and somehow even Ed Sheeran can’t bring down the incredibly catchy “End Game.” But to me, “Call it What You Want” is the best of the bunch.
The atmosphere of “Call it What You Want” is invigorating, thanks to production from Jack Antonoff, who previously worked with Swift on a few 1989 tracks, and who did amazing work with Lorde this year. The synths, sound effects, and slightly hip-hop flavored beat are all excellent. As always, Swift lyrically conjures images as well as anyone, singing about receding from the spotlight and spending time with someone who “loves me like I’m brand new.” The last chorus and outro sound awesome, with its swirling background vocals and satisfying chord progression. As long as the music is good, I’m good.
Here’s a running Spotify playlist of all the Five Quality Tracks for each month in 2017 (or at least, all the tracks that are on Spotify).