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60. Father John Misty
"Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution"
What a perfect lullaby for 2017. Forget, for a moment, that the concept of a cataclysmic apocalypse brought on by humans overthrowing the too-hot planet they're roasting on is utterly terrifying, and there's a lot of comfort here. Father John Misty reminds us that when we remove the "obscene injunction to enjoy life," when we strip away the capitalist constructs and Instagram filters of 21st-century self-actualization and return to our hunter-gatherer state, we will be pleasantly surprised to find that we are "still pretty good at eating on the run." Sure, we may miss the conveniences of modern life when it all goes bad, but there will be, no doubt, "some visionaries among us developing some products to aid us in our struggle to survive." Comforting! Right, kids? Well, he sure does have a nice singing voice. —Talia Schlanger (World Cafe)
59. Hundred Waters
There's more space to move in our most hushed moments than we realize — space adeptly occupied by the Los Angeles-based trio Hundred Waters. "Particle" is but a piece of Communicating's whole, a breakup album with lyrics that are not only exposed but open to change, even if it's only the hard epiphany that "one of us is changing." But what the song captures, with latticework production that thoughtfully shifts and cloudbursts in kind with Nicole Miglis' sinuous sotto voce, is a starlit memory fading: "I'm only a particle, a drop in you, forever dissolving." —Lars Gotrich
"Fear & Force"
On Vagabon's full-length debut, Infinite Worlds, Laetitia Tamko is masterful in her musical restraint. The Cameroon-born, New-York-raised musician sings just above a darkly hushed croon, with little more than fingerpicked guitar arpeggios, a subtle hum of synths and drum machine clicks to propel her. But when she lets loose, as she does very briefly in an eruption of distorted strums on "Fear & Force," it feels like a revelatory emotional breakdown. The song, which first appeared on a previous EP as a far noisier track called "Vermont II," is pared down here to basic essentials, placing the focus on the ruminative story that unfolds. In the autumnal aftermath of a relationship, Tamko says goodbye to a friend who's moved away, and is left wondering what could have been if they'd had more time together. It's a stirring song about the conflicted feelings that come when young love ends still full of unexplored possibilities. —Mike Katzif
57. La Santa Cecilia
"Leña de Pirul"
There are some rancheras that immediately make us want to reach for a tequila and sing along, ones that usually involve a new love, heartbreak or a lover's deception. But what really drives home that urge for a tequilazo is a vocal that can reach down into your soul to express the most intimate of emotions. That's what you get on this track from Amar Y Vivir, a collection of rancheras and boleros recorded live in various places in Mexico City where this music was born: cantinas, public plazas and nightclubs. The entire visual album is not just a powerful reclamation of La Santa Cecilia's roots but also a reminder that vocalist La Marisoul can bring us to tears with just the right lyric and an accordion break. —Felix Contreras
56. Joan Shelley
"I Got What I Wanted"
Joan Shelley's spare and soothing music typically conjures up a cross between plainspoken Appalachian folk and more ethereal U.K. singers like Sandy Denny. In "I Got What I Wanted," producer and collaborator Jeff Tweedy helps the Kentucky singer-songwriter bring out her bluesier, more ominous side. Drawing out her sparely chosen words for effect, Shelley sings of contentment that leaves room for want: "Oh, love, please believe me / When I call out to you in need / Come by." —Stephen Thompson
A wonderfully vague little instrumental amidst Ezra Rubin's album of bassbin-shuddering electronic R&B, "Nurtureworld" unrolls a stately 100 BPM stream of feels without uttering a word. Kind of — its primary melody is actually performed by a vocal flip with smudged-out lyrics. What at first sound like muddy, mournful synth chords are revealed as a female voice, and the words she sings continually fade in and out of the mutating mix, announcing an emotional moment without explaining it. It's like music that scores a final meeting of two lovers, without revealing how the scene ends. —Piotr Orlov
54. King Krule
Archy Marshall is a master of the grotesque, and never has that been more apparent than on "Dum Surfer." Lyrics like "skunk and onion gravy as my brain's potato mash" read like some warped, zombified Roald Dahl story, and Marshall delivers them with such menacing proximity that he may as well be spitting in the listener's face. Even then, he paints these images with surf-sheen riffs, pulling off one of the grooviest, albeit filthiest tracks of the year along the way. —Salvatore Maicki
Coming off the whirlwind of a Grammy-nominated 2016 debut album, Free 6lack, and a tour with The Weeknd, Atlanta singer/rapper 6lack (pronounced "black") earned more than his fair share of haters who have tried to dilute the merits of his breakout success. 6lack addresses his naysayers in casual, melodic fashion with "That Far," the shady, masterful loosie produced by Singawd: "You got some nerve tweeting from your mama's house." —Sidney Madden
Think of this one as the French-speaking world's answer to "Despacito." It's a ridiculously earwormy, feel-good track from a singer you have probably never heard of, but lots of other people already know: a Moroccan-born, France-based musician who calls himself "The Artist." (His last single, "Chocolat," released back in February, has 241 million YouTube views and counting.) "Catchu Catchu" is chockablock full of African-style guitar riffs, a production style reminiscent of Stromae, and that super-catchy (catchu?) chorus. One listen, and Lartiste will have you hooked. --Anastasia Tsioulcas
51. Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee feat. Justin Bieber
More ink has been spilled over this song than just about any other Latin music track in history. So what more is there to say? For one, what is lost in the discourse and analysis of its unprecedented success is that it is a damn good song. (Writing a hit that will be remembered by millions is hard enough, but one remembered by billions?) The writing, the arrangement and the performances are indeed one of a kind — so before the year ends, go ahead and indulge that urge to sway your hips one more time. —Felix Contreras
50. St. Vincent
Annie Clark can pack as much punch into a stripped-down piano ballad as she can into songs driven by propulsive synths and brazen guitar licks. The mournful "New York" is weighted with heartache and lonesomeness, and showcases Clark's versatility as a songwriter and artist. It's a beautiful moment for a musician who continues to evolve as much with each new song as she does with each album. —Amy Miller (KXT)
49. Broken Social Scene
The breathy delight of BSS newcomer Ariel Engle's voice, floating over a tenor sax on the "ba da dahs" that open "Stay Happy," is so gently inviting that you barely notice you're strapped in before the song morphs into a stop-motion tilt-a-whirl. Trip-hop trance explodes into fluted freak-folk, and on a dime it all goes molasses and you watch the room spin around while you try to reorient. Jarring, jagged and so much fun. —Talia Schlanger (World Cafe)
48. Rodney Crowell
"I Don't Care Anymore"
The reckoning that comes when a ladykiller passes his prime is a subject many older songwriters love to tackle. (See: much of Leonard Cohen's later work). Few do so, however, with the humility and humor that Crowell — one of Americana music's prime heartthrobs and still, in fact, a silver fox — does here. —Ann Powers
47. Japanese Breakfast
Japanese Breakfast's 2017 album Soft Sounds From Another Planet contains several revamped songs from songwriter Michelle Zauner's earlier projects, but perhaps none as skillfully transformed as this ode to a doomed relationship. Zauner grabbed the lyrics and guitar riff on "Road Head" from a 50-second vignette of the same name on a 2014 release; then she added celestial synths, dreamy vocal samples and a perfectly groovy bass line to build out 2017's version. She sings about the desperate moves we make for love that often fall short — unmasking the omnipresent awkwardness in most erotic grand gestures — and the smug joy of leaving a doubter in the dust. —Marissa Lorusso
46. Sylvan Esso
There hasn't been a love song this delightfully macabre since The Smiths' "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out." Singing over Nick Sanborn's minimal yet melodic beatscapes, Amelia Meath's silvery voice confides her plan to die a tragic, romantic death, a plan that gets "ruined completely" when she meets her love, for whom she now has to stick around. A twist on the tried-and-true "I'd die for you," here, living for someone is the sacrifice. Meath has described this as a "goth love song," and truly, what's more goth than declaring undying love by waiting to die together? —Carmel Holt (WFUV)
45. Randy Newman
Randy Newman's confounding ability to swerve from heart-swelling, elemental odes to withering melodic put-downs has become his late-era trademark, but don't think all those Pixar themes have dulled his edge. If anybody was going to deflate on the man behind the man who won the White House, be glad it's Newman; he only needs five words — "Putin puttin' his pants on" — before you can hear the air hissing out of the pumped-up Russian President. In the four-minute operetta that follows, Newman embodies a rabidly ambitious, self-doubting leader bent on tearing the world down to build himself a pedestal, as long as he doesn't get distracted by making bad geopolitical puns. It's proof that even a puppet master can be made to dance. —Jacob Ganz
44. Vikingur Olafsson
Philip Glass' 1982 album Glassworks saw the composer drawing toward shorter, more accessible song forms as delivery vehicles for his nearly mechanized sense of repetition. As played 35 years later by the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson on a fantastic album of works by Glass, the opening movement from Glassworks is the embodiment of hypnotic calm. The transformation comes from Olafsson's careful placement of emphasis within the repeating sets of triplets from which Glass built his work; the space and fluidity he introduces brings this venerable machine to life. —Jacob Ganz
43. Zara McFarlane
The British-born jazz singer Zara McFarlane has long sought inspiration from the Caribbean diaspora, her own Jamaican heritage in particular. This year she released an excellent album, Arise, working with London jazz musicians like the drummer and producer Moses Boyd. And on "Pride," the album's standout single, you hear the full synthesis of her approach: Afro-Latin polyrhythmic groove, soulful vocal uplift, a roomy ensemble flexibility. The jazz elements are subtle but strong: a bass clarinet ostinato by Shabaka Hutchings, a rousing tenor saxophone solo by Binker Golding. It's a compact distillation of energies from a vibrant scene, and McFarlane couldn't be a more appealing ambassador. —Nate Chinen
42. Downtown Boys
In 2017, there was little room for nuance. Compare the old Robert Frost poem "Mending Wall," whose narrator waffles with borders between neighbors ("What I was walling in or walling out"), with Assata Shakur's "i believe in living," where she breaks down walls of oppression, listing her struggles and triumphs along the way. Frontwoman Victoria Ruiz opts for the latter, using a line from that poem ("A wall is a wall / A wall is just a wall / And nothing more at all") as a defiant chant in the most textured and soulful punk decree from Downtown Boys yet. —Lars Gotrich
"The Story of O.J."
Over two decades, Jay-Z has built himself into hip-hop's greatest mogul. While he's never been one to shy away from flaunting his status in the filthy rich upper echelon, on "The Story of O.J." he steps outside himself to actually offer guidelines to attaining and maintaining wealth.
Over a piano-laced, Nina Simone-sampling beat courtesy of No I.D., Jigga uses O.J. Simpson as a point of cultural reference and outlines how black artists can fall into the trap of wasting their money, taking aim at frivolities like phones, strip clubs and missed investment opportunities. His words take on new meaning in the devilishly clever accompanying music video, in which Jay personifies a racist cartoon and picks apart the stereotypes. —Sidney Madden
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