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10. “Famous,” Kanye West
Kanye West is a genius musician and a world-class provocateur, and “Famous” is yet another piece of proof those two qualities are inextricably intertwined. He weaves The Life of Pablo’s hardest-knocking beat, chords cribbed from Nina Simone, and Sister Nancy’s reggae classic “Bam Bam” into a vibrant tapestry, and he uses all of that beauty to crack open his long-simmering spat with the biggest pop star on the planet. The court of public opinion won’t ever reach a verdict on Taylor v. Kanye — did she consent to being mentioned? Did she double-cross Kanye? Does anyone still care? At least we can all agree that “Famous” captures West in all of his complicated, vital glory.
9. “Dang! (feat. Anderson .Paak),” Mac Miller
How do you explain the gap between “Dang!” — a sensitive, earthy examination of a relationship on the rocks — and “Donald Trump,” a puerile bit of frat-rap glorifying the president-elect’s business acumen? It’s pretty simple: Mac Miller grew up. Coasting over a burbling, funky arrangement, Miller takes responsibility for his screw-ups and fights for a love worth saving. He also calls in 2016 musical MVP Anderson .Paak for a silky hook and a killer bit of reflection: “I can’t seem to hold onto the people who know me best.” Watching Miller find his footing over the last few years has been a consistently rewarding process, and “Dang!” is his best work yet.
8. “Fake I.D.,” Joyce Manor
Joyce Manor’s pop-punk short stories are concise, hilarious, and surprisingly piercing. “Fake I.D.” spans less than two-and-a-half minutes, but that’s all the time the band needs to move from a hook-up gone wrong to honoring a late friend. The best stuff is crammed in the middle, where a romantic partner extols Kanye West’s virtues and tosses out a gut-punch about ambition: “Can’t you see you’re just like me? / The man can do things the rest of us can only dream of, baby.” Those of us who don’t feel like getting existential are left with sharp guitars and a melody strong enough to hold up at karaoke.
7. “No Woman,” Whitney
Whether you’re hearing it for the first time or throwing it on repeat for the third consecutive week, “No Woman” sounds a little like a secret you’re sharing with a close friend. The music moves at a leisurely pace, building from a quiet introduction into stirring country-soul. The narrator’s moving at a leisurely pace, too: he boards a train with little more than a drink in his hand, his destination uncertain. It trades in warmth and intimacy, qualities we tend to take for granted. When it comes to debut singles, it’s a rare, remarkably assured treat.
6. “Broccoli (feat. Lil Yachty),” D.R.A.M.
D.R.A.M. could’ve been relegated to footnote status when Drake gobbled up his minor hit “Cha Cha” and turned it into “Hotline Bling,” last year’s hit single and meme vehicle. Instead, his melodic instincts proved irrepressible, and “Broccoli” — an affable, filthy ode to getting high and hooking up — became a surprise summer hit. He even snuck in a little nod to “Cha Cha,” one devoid of bitterness or anger: “I was 26 years old when we had dropped this one amazing record, had the world steppin’ / That’s what I call epic.” The jingle pulls you in, but the mature hat-tip is what sticks with you.
5. “Work from Home (feat. Ty Dolla $ign),” Fifth Harmony
Fifth Harmony realized their potential as America’s next great girl group with this squelching, minimal celebration of… telecommuting? It’s safe to say timesheets and promotions have never sounded this sexy. The premise gets a laugh, but it’s the sound that kept everyone coming back: echoing snaps and claps, tons of space, and vocal lines that threaten to explode into pyrotechnics at a moment’s notice. Forget the economy: nothing posed a greater threat to desk jobs or productivity numbers this year than these X Factor veterans.
4. “No Problem (feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz),” Chance the Rapper
In a year where joy was often hard to find, we should all be thankful for Chance the Rapper. The precocious Chicago star might’ve grabbed hip-hop’s creative baton from Kanye West with an breathtaking guest verse on West’s “Ultralight Beam,” but the Coloring Book single “No Problem” is an even better showcase for his wide range of gifts. Backed by an ebullient pop-gospel beat, Chance affirms his commitment to musical and financial independence: no labels, no problem. He also gives 2 Chainz a space to declare he “runs shit like diarrhea.” Musical anti-depressants don’t get much more potent.
3. “Not Above That,” Dawn Richard
“Not Above That” was released in January, but it sounds like a dispatch from the future — a preview of the pop charts in 2026, sent back in time by eager pop fans who can’t believe what they’re hearing. This collaboration with the producer Machinedrum tosses R&B, dance music, and pop into a centrifuge and spins it into airy, bubbling froth. D∆WN glides above it all until she’s thrown into the mix too, her voice becoming part of the stuttering beat. Blurring the lines between organic and synthetic? It’s just another day for one of music’s boldest thinkers.
2. “The Sound,” The 1975
The 1975 approach rock and roll with all the fervor and pretension you’d expect from a gang of precocious philosophy freshmen: They fill the gaps between their gleaming pop singles with yawning ambient interludes, and they write lyrics like “I’m the Greek economy of cashing intellectual cheques” without batting their feathered eyelashes. Gleaming New Wave-disco hybrid “The Sound” captures the band at the peak of its powers, and it has room for an unbelievable groaner or two: “It’s not about reciprocation, it’s just all about me / A sycophantic, prophetic, Socratic junkie wannabe.” Sure, it’s audacious, but that’s half the fun.
1. “Formation,” Beyoncé
Where do you start with “Formation?” It’s an unapologetic, specific document of black womanhood in a country struggling with systematic oppression and racist dogwhistling. It’s the perfect epilogue for Lemonade, the “visual album” that mined Beyoncé’s marriage for high drama and reinforced her complete command of her artistry. It’s the foundation for a gigantic world tour and the equivalent of a small country’s GDP in merchandise sales. Things have never been the same for Red Lobster. Maybe you start here: it’s the boldest, weirdest song she’s ever made, a trap-marching band monster sturdy enough to bear all of that cultural weight.