These year-end lists get harder to pull off when the number of children in your household doubles. I considered just posting an unadorned list of my favorite songs of the year, but I love music too much and want other people to love it too much to not at least write about the some of the best tracks. So here it is – my 50 favorite songs of the year, with some more detail provided for the top 20. You’re welcome.
Before we get to the 50 best, here are links to various playlist options, followed by 15 honorable mentions that just missed the cut.
Our year-end coverage continues here, with the 2nd annual installment of the best live performance clips of year. We already covered the best songs of 2017, and check back here for the best albums of 2017, coming soon.
15. Japanese Breakfast (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Michelle Zauner went atmospheric on her newest album, but all the production is absent during her Tiny Desk Concert. Zauner brings in a string quartet to help round out her arrangements, which are emotionally resonant and deeply beautiful.
14. Slowdive: “Sugar for the Pill” (NPR Music: Field Recordings)
Slowdive, who came back in 2017 to release their first album in 22 years, inhabit the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club in Brooklyn to play “Sugar for the Pill.” They have no trouble filling the large, empty space with their dreamy soundscapes.
13. Anderson .Paak: “Am I Wrong” (Live on Ellen)
In January, the human ball of talent named Anderson .Paak stopped by the Ellen Degeneres Show to play “Am I Wrong” from one of last year’s best albums, Mailbu. Paak sings, dances, hypes, jumps, and plays drums tremendously, and then tops it off by bringing his cute son to bust some moves at the end.
12. Bon Iver: “8 (circle)” (La Blogotheque: One to One)
All Justin Vernon needs is a guitar and an echoey room to enthrall just about anyone (emphasis on the “one”). In a new series from La Blogotheque called “One to One,” artists play a song for just one person. Here, Vernon plays a stripped-down version of “8 (circle)” from last year’s anything-but-stripped-down album, 22, A Million. Watching him bare his musical soul to one person seated inches away is a bit awkward, I’m not going to lie. But the unimaginable beauty of Vernon’s voice and guitar makes it worth it.
11. Mac Demarco: “Still Beating” & “This Old Dog” (La Blogotheque: A Take Away Show)
La Blogotheque has recorded their “Take Away Shows,” where artists play in unconventional settings in and around Paris, for about a decade now. My favorite offering from them this year was by the eminently chill Mac Demarco. Demarco takes his acoustic guitar on a cloudy stroll through a noisy park, complete with kids playing and yelling, birds chirping, sirens blaring, and multiple French dudes hilariously deciding it was a good idea to talk to/sing at him while recording, which Demarco engages with affably. Even through the funny distractions, the beauty and intimacy of his introspective songs still shine through.
10. Frank Ocean: “Nikes (Rehearsal)” (Live from Frank’s Tumblr)
Frank Ocean’s voice is the eighth wonder of the world. The noted recluse finally released his amazing, long-awaited follow-up album Blonde last year, which featured the trippy, almost psychedelic opening track “Nikes.” Luckily for us, Ocean decided to post a video to his Tumblr of him rehearsing the track, with nothing but an electric piano to back him. His voice soars and swoons. There’s no auto-tune or studio trickery to improve it — it’s just there, bare and emotive, conveying the weariness inside of him with every note.
9. Alabama Shakes; Nas (PBS: American Epic Sessions)
PBS recently produced a series that explores music in the early 20th century, when folk and blues artists were being discovered by major labels. T Bone Burnett and Jack White used the only recording system still working from the 1920s to capture modern artists covering old blues standards, resulting in the “American Epic Sessions.” Alabama Shakes come in to play a bouncy, delightful rendition of “Killer Diller,” satisfyingly pleasing in its historical accuracy. Nas then does a fun hip-hop-style cover of “On the Road Again,” originally by the Memphis Jug Band in 1928. Watch the Alabama Shakes clip followed by the Nas clip (along with narration) below.
8. Hurray for the Riff Raff: “Rican Beach” & “Pa’lante” (Live at SXSW)
The talent of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra cannot be overstated. She writes songs that are both musically engaging and lyrically powerful, and has a stellar bluesy voice. Segarra brings the heat on “Rican Beach,” a song dripping in sweat that tackles gentrification: “Well you can take my life, but don’t take my home.” She really brings it home on “Pa’lante,” which already sounds like a ’70s standard even though it just came out this year. Starting out as a somewhat slow piano ballad, it eventually builds steam until it hits you in the gut.
7. Spoon: “I Ain’t the One” (Live on KEXP)
Spoon stopped by the KEXP studios in Seattle to play “I Ain’t the One,” a cinematic, brooding, extremely cool song from their latest album. The track’s intensity lends itself to soundtracking some legendary slow-motion movie scene. Throughout the song, Britt Daniel motions to whoever controls the sound to make certain instruments louder or softer — at first, good-naturedly, but then you can sense his exasperation at not getting the sound levels just right. Even though the situation is clearly annoying him a little bit, he’s a great multitasker, because he still delivers his vocal performance with tenacity and passion.
6. Sampha (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
All of the clips on this list are amazing, but not all of them feature perfect singing. Even some of the best singers falter once or twice in a live setting. Sampha’s voice, however, is perfect. And not only is it perfect, but it’s unique. No one in the world sounds like Sampha. The singer-songwriter from south London comes to the NPR Music offices to enchant us with powerful songs from his latest album, with the spare and gorgeous “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” (a top 5 song of the year!) as the centerpiece.
5. Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, & Nico Muhly: “Mercury” (NPR Music: Field Recordings)
Sufjan Stevens has been on a tear ever since releasing the best album of 2015, what with the live album, the B-sides and outtakes album, and, most notably, his team-up with Bryce Dessner of the National, classical music composer Nico Muhly, and drummer James McAllister to record an album about the solar system called Planetarium. NPR Music recorded the Planetarium group playing “Mercury” at an NYC studio, and it is simply gorgeous. The four elements — piano, viola, electric guitar, and Sufjan’s ethereal voice — combine to form a full-sounding, picture-perfect blend of classical, folk, and post-rock that is glorious to behold.
4. Chance the Rapper: “How Great” & “All We Got” (Live at the Grammys)
Chance the Rapper’s star is rising fast, recently hosting SNL, appearing on Sesame Street, and playing at President Obama’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the end of last year (while Sasha mouthed every word). Back in February, Mr. The Rapper played at the Grammys and absolutely killed it. It takes a special ability to command attention from such a large audience, both in person and through the TV, but Chance succeeds with his intensity and earnest desire to reach out and uplift (not to mention, his incredible backup gospel choir).
I was able to find the performance divided into three parts on YouTube — below, you’ll find Parts 1, 2, and 3 of the four and a half minute performance. If you want to listen to the whole thing uninterrupted, here’s audio of it. I recommend watching it though for the full effect.
3. Lorde (Live at Electric Lady Studios)
Lorde is one of the most interesting, compelling pop stars we have. She has an energy that is entirely captivating, making it hard to look away when she’s performing. Lorde recorded a series of intimate performances at the legendary Electric Lady Studios in New York — each of the six videos feature a stripped down version of a track from Lorde’s oustanding new album, Melodrama. All of the songs are presented in a unique way and they each sound incredible, enhanced by Lorde’s visible passion amid the candle light. My favorites are “Sober,” “Homemade Dynamite,” and “Supercut,” though they are all excellent. Watch a playlist of the videos below, starting with “Sober.”
2. Tuxedo (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Live music is enticing when it either demonstrates skill, poignancy, fun, or some combination of the three. Tuxedo’s Tiny Desk Concert falls squarely in the “fun” category, though not without some obvious skill as well. Mayer Hawthorne (a D-Brad Music favorite) and Jake One, the duo that make up Tuxedo, assembled a mini-band to play their late-’70s/early-’80s-era funk and it’s extremely enjoyable. Of all the pleasing moments (including a button that goes “HO!” and the realization that a cassette is playing the drum beats), my favorite is during the chorus of “2nd Time Around,” when Hawthorne and backup singer Gavin Turek break out their simple but synchronized dance moves. It’s awesome to see them clearly having such a good time.
1. HAIM: Valentine (Short Film, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
HAIM teams up with with the illustrious film director Paul Thomas Anderson — the brain behind some of my all-time favorite movies, including There Will Be Blood and this year’s Phantom Thread — to deliver a stunning portrait of a talented band at work. Anderson captures HAIM in the studio performing three songs off their recent sophomore album: “Right Now,” “Something to Tell You,” and “Nothing’s Wrong.” He uses very few shots, opting for long takes where the camera moves about the studio, training its lens on each member of the band in turns. But though Anderson should be commended for the way he captures the band, the three Haim sisters are the stars of the show. Their playing is impressively taut, their voices (especially that of lead singer Danielle Haim) are incredible, and their overall musical prowess is immediately apparent. Every drum hit, every guitar lick, every vocal line sounds crisp and fresh, authentic and vibrant.
March was ridiculous. Somehow, after all this, I failed to include new songs from Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Fleet Foxes, andReal Estate. That’s honestly a crime, and I apologize. All indications point to Kendrick dropping an album (or at least something) on April 7th, and Fleet Foxes will release their long-awaited follow-up album in June, so they’ll still have a chance to make it on here. And so, without further ado, five quality tracks for March.
1. Lorde: “Green Light”
A friend of mine recently asked me who makes more ‘anthemic’ songs — Taylor Swift or Lorde? Lorde’s celebrated debut album from 2013, Pure Heroine, was exceptional, full of quietly encouraging, relatable songs (“Team” is an all-time favorite), but I wouldn’t characterize it as anthemic, necessarily. Swift may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but singles like “22,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and “Bad Blood” are as conducive to late-night, impromptu sing-alongs as anything. So, after judging their musical output as a whole, my answer was Taylor Swift. BUT, on a song-by-song basis, the most anthemic track either of them have ever done is easily Lorde’s new single, “Green Light.”
After four fairly quiet years since Pure Heroine, Lorde, the New Zealand phenom who first deservedly captured our attention at the age of 16, is returning to us with her sophomore effort in a couple months. For her new album, Lorde tapped Bleachers and fun. member Jack Antonoff to produce and help with songwriting. Antonoff has production experience with some of the biggest names in pop, including Taylor Swift, Sia, Rachel Platten, and Sara Bareilles, so I was interested to see how his influence would manifest itself with Lorde.
I was immediately taken aback by “Green Light,” and not exactly in a good way. It is very pop in a reach-for-the-stars kind of way, which is not what I expected from Lorde and her more brooding, subtle style. But the more I heard it, the more the various parts stuck with me, like that enticing rhythmic piano in the lead-up to the chorus, or Lorde’s pitch-perfect lyrics, like her sneer directed at an ex, singing “She says you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar.”
Previously, Lorde deftly straddled the line between electro-indie and pop in a way that was unique at the time. So to hear “Green Light,” which is very much a full-fledged pop song, was a bit jarring at first. But the thing is, “Green Light” aims big — that’s the whole point — and it succeeds tremendously. Taylor Swift has written timeless anthems, but if I were to drive around with the windows down late at night with friends, the first song I would want to hear is “Green Light.”
2017 wasted no time in giving us spectacular music — January was bountiful. To celebrate the new year and new music, I decided to highlight ten of my favorite tracks of the month. You’re welcome.
1. Sampha: “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”
Sampha has lent his unique voice to numerous pop stars, including Drake, Solange, and Beyoncé, and he’s now finally released his debut album, Process. It feels like Sampha’s third single is speaking directly to me: “No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home.” The piano chords are exquisitely poignant (it sounds like you’re right there in the living room with him), and Sampha’s vocals are bare and full of muted passion and yearning for familiarity.
I hate to start it off like this, but 2014 wasn’t a great year for albums. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of solid releases, but it wasn’t like 2009 or 2011 or 2012, when we were knee-deep in near-classics. Before coming to this realization though, I thought I was going crazy, wondering if music just didn’t provide me with the same enjoyment. Luckily for my sanity’s sake, other music critics also thought 2014 was kind of an off-year.
Here’s Matthew Perpetua, music writer for Buzzfeed:
When I think about 2014 music in terms of songs it's like "so much great stuff!" & when I think about in terms of albums it's like "KILL ME"
But just because there weren’t as many excellent albums as years past, that doesn’t mean there weren’t some transcendent pieces of music. To my ears, there were five records in particular that stood out among the rest. Without further ado, my top five albums of the year:
Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
The multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird has a distinguishable sound, and his latest album puts it to good use. Break It Yourself features Bird at his most ornate, providing an even more inviting listen than previous releases. It’s choc-full of a variety of genres, from folk to classical to baroque pop. “Danse Caribe” is a perfect example of this genre melting pot. It begins with a clear Americana influence as the violin quietly imitating a slide guitar. Around the 2-minute mark, Bird employs a more “world music” vibe, reminiscent of attempts by Vampire Weekend and Beirut to do the same, before returning back to the South with an 1800s-era fiddle solo. And that’s just one song. “Lusitania” is a duet with critical-favorite Annie Clark from St. Vincent. What I love about the track is that it doesn’t go about broadcasting its obvious beauty. “Lusitania” is understated, yet gorgeous throughout, ending with a happy-go-lucky whistling melody and string bass that echoes Van Morrison in his Astral Weeks days. Bird excels lyrically as well. “Sifters” is a tale that finds him asking a lover “what if we hadn’t been born at the same time?” He wonders aloud whether they would still care for each other if one of them was much older. And “Hole In the Ocean Floor”, clocking in at over 8 minutes, is simply lovely. Break It Yourself on the whole is very pleasant and peaceful. It’s easy to put it on when the mood’s not right (i.e. like I did while riding a crowded subway to work) and miss the full effect. This album is for a lazy Sunday or a chill drive at dusk. Sit back and enjoy. Rating: 8.5
Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror
I like Sleigh Bells, despite the hate they get from (rightfully) skeptical critics who consider them a fad, more concerned with style than substance. Their debut Treats had in-your-face singles full of swagger. However, Reign of Terror doesn’t measure up. The songs simply lack the same punch. The double bass drum from the drum machines provide an uninspired and frankly boring backbone to most of the songs. There are some bright spots. “End of the Line” is enjoyable and lead single “Comeback Kid” is awesome, as catchy as anything they’ve done. But it’s surrounded on the album by mediocrity. In an interview with Grantland (plug time: Grantland is the best blog ever), Sleigh Bells guitarist Derek Miller himself admitted that “If every song on the record could be ‘Comeback Kid,’ it would be, but you’re lucky if you get one like that.” They really hit a gold mine on that song. The rest is okay, but nothing special. Rating: 6.0
Sleigh Bells – “End of the Line”
The Men – Open Your Heart
Much like my post on Japandroids’ “Wet Hair” from their awesome 2009 album Post-Nothing, The Men capture that same raw, youthful energy. I’m tempted to say it’s a very “listenable” album, but just as we call political candidates “electable,” those terms can be kind of hollow. Isn’t every album “listenable” in a way? But the term fits. I’ve breezed through the album multiple times and it’s just a joy to listen to. Opening track “Turn It Around” starts Open Your Heart off with a bang as good as ever, pounding us with a riff that would make Rod Stewart and the Faces proud. The title track is also loud, catchy, and riff-heavy. In my opinion, the seventh song on the record, “Candy”, is one factor that brings this album from good to great. “Candy” is an acoustic Rolling Stones-esque number that provides a perfectly-timed break from the onslaught of electric guitar. Not only does it prove the Men’s versatility, but aesthetically it makes the album more enjoyable as a whole. It’s a welcome drink of ice-cold water before you get back in the game and start melting people’s faces off again. I hadn’t heard of the Men until a week ago, but they’ve made my favorite album of the year so far. Get it. Rating: 9.0
The Men – “Open Your Heart”
White Rabbits – Milk Famous Milk Famous sounds like a Spoon album. A lot. And it’s not a coincidence since it’s produced by frequent Spoon producer Mike McCarthy. This Spoon-like (Spoon-fed?) sound is kind of a shock when juxtaposed with their amazing critically-acclaimed 2007 debut Fort Nightly, which is solid enthusiastic indie rock that bears little resemblance to the nonchalant swagger of Milk Famous. Don’t get me wrong, I love this sound, even if it’s blatantly lifted from a superior band. I don’t care so much about that. Lead singles “Heavy Metal” and “Temporary” are straight-up awesome. But the songwriting skill is kind of lacking in the rest of the tracks. Most of them have their moments, like the triplet shuffle in “Everything Can’t Be Confused,” but the songs themselves can hardly be classified as anything more than just that: moments. If you’re not going to have a beginning-middle-and-end verse-chorus-verse structure in your songs (i.e. if the whole song sounds the same throughout), then you need to have a supremely catchy groove to carry your interest throughout. “Heavy Metal” and “Temporary” accomplish this beautifully. The bass and piano/guitar lines are engaging enough that the repetitive grooves of the songs never lose their momentum, much like Spoon’s “Don’t You Evah”. But the thing is, the rest of Milk Famous doesn’t hold your attention. The album’s not bad. It’s actually pretty dang good. But the disappointment lies in the fact that it’s not as great as it could be. Rating: 7.0
Get the whole albums by Andrew Bird and The Men. Download “Heavy Metal” and “Temporary” by White Rabbits and “Comeback Kid” by Sleigh Bells.