Erika Goldring, Kevin Winter, James Devaney—Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Kenneth Bachor for TIME
By Raisa Bruner
May 23, 2017

From viral rap hits to the return of pop queens like Lorde, the first half of 2017 was marked by an eclectic mix of sounds and stars. The best tracks came from artists pushing the boundaries of their genres to express messages both timeless and topical. These are the 10 songs we couldn’t get out of our heads.

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Kendrick Lamar, “Humble”

Lamar comes out swinging on “Humble,” claiming his place on the top of rap’s current ranks. There are no tricks in “Humble”: it’s a raw beat and a simple chorus, but the insistent twang of the backing track, mixed with Lamar’s manic confidence, combine to produce an alchemically infectious song from a never-sharper Kung Fu Kenny.

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Clean Bandit ft. Zara Larsson, “Symphony”

“Symphony” is indeed symphonic, taking its cues from Clean Bandit’s prior, soaring success on 2014’s inescapable “Rather Be.” Once again, Clean Bandit rises to the challenge of embedding emotional depth in a glittery dance track, thanks to the honeyed voice of Swedish pop darling Zara Larsson.

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Harry Styles, “Sign of the Times”

There were big expectations for former One Direction de facto frontman Styles. Would he deliver on his rock ‘n’ roll potential, or fall flat? Ultimately, his first solo outing in “Sign of the Times” was both a triumph and a relief. It turned out to be more Bowie than Jagger: an emotional glam rock anthem making good use of Styles’ boyish falsetto and stadium-sized ambition, while still offering something moody and new.

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Julia Michaels, “Issues”

Young singer-songwriter Michaels made her debut in a big way with “Issues,” a stripped-down pop song that nonetheless found its way to the upper reaches of the charts. It got there for good reason: the bare melody, matched with relatable subject matter, makes it immediately accessible.

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Perfume Genius, “Slip Away”

Seattle-based musician Perfume Genius’s unusual production choices shine in “Slip Away,” a mind-bending tune in turns darkly orchestral and hauntingly bare. The lead single off his fourth album No Shape, “Slip Away” continues his quest to push the boundaries of pop while commenting on queer culture.

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Jacob Banks, "Chainsmoking"

Soulful British-Nigerian artist Jacob Banks takes his cues from the blues, mixing contemporary production, classic R&B, and African rhythms to bring the heat on tortured love song “Chainsmoking” off his debut EP. It’s a deeply-felt, immediately powerful track based on distorted bass, with Banks’s aggressive baritone breaking confidently over the beat.

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Stormzy, “Big For Your Boots”

It’s time to prepare for the takeover of grime, the hip-hop-flecked-garage genre popular in the U.K. Stormzy is one of the style’s best practitioners, and “Big For Your Boots” is one of his boldest tracks, his British-accented rap rolling with insatiable energy over the beat on a loop laced with a hypnotic choral component. The message: don’t sleep on Stormzy.

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Calvin Harris, “Slide”

Popular DJ and producer Harris tweeted early in the spring that his “music vision” for the year was “feel good” and “inclusive.” With “Slide,” he delivered. Featuring the smooth vocal contributions of Frank Ocean and rap trio Migos, the tropical-inflected summer-days song sees Harris mining groove and funk traditions for a slower, retro sound that still feels fresh.

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Future, “Mask Off”

“Mask Off” proves that Future has a knack for predicting rap’s hottest new sound. This time, it’s the instrumental flute, featured here in the Metro Boomin-produced track as a melodic sample that took off into the viral “Mask Off Challenge,” with musicians across the internet recreating the catchy snippet. But there’s something equally addictive about the Atlanta rapper’s looping flow in the minimalist track, showcasing a style many have attempted to emulate — but few truly master.

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Lorde, “Green Light”

After a long three years, the Kiwi wunderkind made her comeback with lead single “Green Light” off her upcoming album Melodrama. The complex pop track flips from aching melancholy to unabashed dance anthem, bringing listeners on a journey right alongside Lorde as she discovers the pains and pleasures of adulthood — and the music she wants to be making.

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Sam Hunt, “Body Like a Back Road”

Country and non-country fans alike can get down with the easy jam that is “Body Like a Back Road,” the lead single off the Georgia-born singer-songwriter’s sophomore project. It’s the perfect summer soundtrack, a low-key love song with tongue-in-cheek lyrical quirks and a sing-along melody. Hunt started out as a professional football player, but his career pivot is delivering wins, too.

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