In a sea of songs, it can be hard to pick the ones that float to the top. They’re the sounds that stay stuck in your head for days at a time; the ones you wake up singing and save to your Spotify reflexively. They might be the ones that rise to the top of the charts, or the ones inspiring think pieces and late-night conversations. But no matter what, they reflect our cultural moment.
Consider this year’s crop of top songs, like the brash, brazen “Bodak Yellow,” a ferocious kiss-off to doubters and detractors, or the effortless danceable “Despacito,” an irresistible melting pot of styles. More explicit social commentary has a place here, in the form of thoughtful hip-hop from the likes of JAY-Z and Frank Ocean. And there are a few surprises—like an unassuming Oldies-style hit from a low-key rock outfit, and a song that speaks to a feminist moment in the form of purest pop gold from a bold voice on the rise.
10. Kelsea Ballerini, “Legends”
Ballerini is one of country’s biggest rising stars, and she’s secured her foothold in the genre with “Legends,” a soaring ballad taken from her sophomore album Unapologetically. Here Ballerini hits all the right notes: a personal story told in a way that makes it universally relatable; a sparkling, unhurried melody; a nostalgic mood. “We wrote our own story, full of blood, sweat and heartbeats,” she sings. “We didn’t do it for the fame or the glory, we just did it for you and me.” In her heartfelt retelling, everyone can find something, or remember someone.
9. JAY-Z, “Story of O.J.”
Not many 47-year-old fathers are also at the top of their musical careers. But JAY-Z has long bucked the conventional narrative of what a rapper could—or should—be. “The Story of O.J.,” taken from his album 4:44, is just one more example—an educational testimony that he lays out as a lesson about his road to success. “You wanna know what’s more important than throwing away money in a strip club? Credit,” he says flatly. He’s clear, outlining the ground rules for those looking to follow in his footsteps. This is benevolent rap godfather JAY-Z at his finest, dropping knowledge layered with historical references and social critique. “Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine,” he shrugs at one point. There’s nothing wrong with success when it sounds this good.
8. Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar”
Selena Gomez has long been the most sonically experimental of her generation of Disney alumni, an avant-gardist in a pop-star costume, and she proved it this year with “Bad Liar,” an electropop tune that’s deceptively sparse: It’s just Gomez’s whispery-sweet vocals over a sample of “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads. The result is a retro-futuristic track that’s as catchy as it is unexpected, veering away from the traditional pop production and light EDM touches of her contemporaries. “I’m trying, I’m trying, I’m trying not to give in to you,” Gomez chants tenderly over a pared-down beat. The song wasn’t a hit, but the allure of her understated performance is unmistakable. She flits nimbly between rap-sung verses and featherweight vocal runs, giving this weird, delicate song an edge that made it too cool for the charts.
7. Cardi B, “Bodak Yellow”
There’s no denying that Cardi B was the breakout artist of 2017. The self-described “regular girl” and former Love and Hip-Hop star lived her own Cinderella story this year, rising up from the Bronx to her perch atop the charts with unabashed confidence and a wildly catchy flow. “Bodak Yellow” epitomizes swagger, rejects degradation and owns independence—and features one of the fiercest singalong hooks in recent memory: “I don’t dance now, I make money moves,” Cardi drawls, a script-flipping line that echoes the tones of female empowerment that have been simmering all year. In Cardi’s visionary style, wearing Christian Louboutin heels isn’t just about being on-trend—it’s a punch to the gut of the patriarchy.
6. Portugal, The Man, “Feel It Still”
Alaska-bred rock outfit Portugal. The Man have long made feel-good rock with a conscience, but “Feel It Still” helped them scale new heights of popularity this year, thanks to an assist from an oldies sample and a delightfully offbeat falsetto chorus. “I’m a rebel just for kicks now,” lead vocalist John Gourley sings lightly, ribbing the self-seriousness of indie rock. After seven albums together, Gourley and team went back to basics for this album, and the result in “Feel It Still” is a song that’s fresh, unhurried and uncluttered. In fact, it only took 45 minutes in the studio to make—proving that sometimes, the best things in life can come easy.
5. King Krüle, “Biscuit Town”
Like many of the best acts of the year, the enigmatic British artist King Krule—real name Archy Marshall—is genre-resistant, sitting somewhere between jazz and R&B. “Biscuit Town,” off his sophomore album The OOZ, offers a sultry jazz melody made eerie by an off-kilter baritone delivery. (The song is anchored by the specificity of its references; “Biscuit Town,” for example, is a slang term for a London suburb thanks to an old factory.) The song’s refrain—”I seem to sink lower”—echoes the general vibe: This song is slippery and a little bit viscous, a whole new way to sing the blues.
4. Frank Ocean, “Chanel”
R&B-adjacent wunderkind Frank Ocean is a critical darling; his debut Channel Orange and 2016 follow up Blonde earned rave reviews across the board, marking Ocean as a preternaturally accomplished and sophisticated artist. “Chanel,” a 2017 one-off track, helped tide fans over between album cycles. It’s a beautifully complex piano-based composition that burns slow and sweet—and consecrates Ocean as one of music’s most interesting queer voices: “My guy pretty like a girl / And he got fight stories to tell / I see both sides like Chanel,” he rap-sings off the top. But it’s not just the defiance of heteronormativity that makes this song special; it’s the way he effortlessly slides into twisting rhymes over that cool, pretty backing track.
3. Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee, “Despacito”
A song doesn’t break all the records without having something special. That’s the case for “Despacito,” the official, uncontested song of summer 2017, which also garnered the most YouTube views of any video on the site—and became the dominant sound of the season, if not year. The collaboration between Puerto Ricans and Latin music mainstays Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee sees an infectious Latin melody get amped up with reggaeton grooves, while pop darling Justin Bieber’s smooth Spanish-language contributions in the remix ratcheted up its recognition factor. Best of all, though, its unrestrained sensuality makes it an irresistible dance tune. In a year where xenophobia reared its head worldwide, it inspires hope that the charts were dominated by such a universal, multicultural hit.
2. St. Vincent, “New York”
Indie darling St. Vincent has been lauded for years for her alt-rock sound, but the piano ballad “New York” off new album Masseduction turned out to be her prettiest, most direct—and most rivetingly emotional—song to date. “You’re the only motherf—ker in the city who can stand me,” she reminds an old lover, at once tough, nostalgic and tender: “I have lost a hero, I have lost a friend, but for you, darling, I’d do it all again.” In her simple composition, she conjures the ghosts of romances past, all bittersweet memory and raw specificity. Like the best ballads, it paints a portrait of heartbreak that’s rooted in time and place. But it works overtime too, as a love song for the city itself.
1. Dua Lipa, “New Rules”
No year has needed new rules as desperately as 2017 did, and Kosovo-bred, London-raised Dua Lipa enumerated them in a viral hit that’s as catchy as it is empowering. “One, don’t pick up the phone, you know he’s only calling cause he’s drunk and alone,” she sings, smoky-voiced over a skronky hook. It’s a song about how not to behave after a breakup, sure—but it’s also an anthem for self-care in a moment when so many of us felt unmoored. Buoyed to popularity by a music video featuring the year’s most effortlessly cool choreography, “New Rules” works so well because it’s both stylish and layered: As an escapist fantasy of girl-power, it’s a triumph, but as a rallying cry to buck the status quo, it’s even better.
Read more: Pop’s Bold New Voice
More Must-Reads From TIME
- Meet the 2024 Women of the Year
- Greta Gerwig's Next Big Swing
- East Palestine, One Year After Train Derailment
- In the Belly of MrBeast
- The Closers: 18 People Working to End the Racial Wealth Gap
- How Long Should You Isolate With COVID-19?
- The Best Romantic Comedies to Watch on Netflix
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time
Write to Raisa Bruner at firstname.lastname@example.org