Every year I write basically the same thing in this introduction—this year is no different. My music tastes are mine alone, so this list is less of a proclamation about what was definitively the best music than it is simply a list of my favorites. I’m not a real music critic, and you can find plenty of year-end lists that are more wide-ranging or that better fit your own personal style.
Nevertheless, I find it fun to chronicle my favorites for each year, and this is that list. Hopefully you’ll find it interesting too. In years’ past, I would post a Spotify playlist, but I switched to Google Play Music a couple months ago (true shuffle and will link to that instead. You can also find my top-100 of the 2010s updated with this year’s songs. Also, both lists are in reverse order, so “Tessellate” is #1 on the 2010s list, not #100. Lastly, a word of warning—if you’re listening around kids, there are probably a few songs you will want to skip.
Top 40 of 2017 (Google Play Music)
Top 100 of the 2010s (Google Play Music)
40. Beck “Colors”
Beck shows how nimble he is as a musician on 2017’s Colors, a pop-minded departure from 2014’s Morning Phase. The title track has a similar feel to lead single “Dreams,” which has been around long enough that it made my year-end list in 2015 at #12. “Up All Night” and “WOW” round out the singles from a very strong album overall.
39. Portugal. The Man “So Young”
Woodstock is a fine album overall, probably one of the year’s best, with several other songs falling just short of this list, and one still to come. “So Young” is a highlight and is one of the slowest-tempo songs to make this year’s list.
38. To Kill A King “Spiritual Dark Age”
Album: The Spiritual Dark Age (forthcoming)
To Kill A King have a way with dark imagery. I was first introduced to them with “Love Is Coal” from their 2014 EP, and “Spiritual Dark Age” is slated as the title track for their upcoming third LP in 2018. The chorus sounds like something off an early Mumford and Sons album.
37. BNQT “Restart”
Album: Volume 1
BNQT is an indie supergroup, at least if you go by Wikipedia (or their own Twitter bio). It’s pronounced “banquet” because why not, and spelled that way presumably because Google searchability is important (also see: CHVRCHES). I don’t know about super, but they’re a solid band made up of parts of Travis, Midlake, Band of Horses, and (most notably to me) Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos. It’s Eric Pulido of Midlake who takes the lead on this nice, driving lead single.
36. Black Honey “Somebody Better”
Black Honey has released several solid singles in 2017 without a full-length album to their name. Presumably their debut LP is forthcoming, and I’ll be anticipating it highly if this song—and “Dig” and “All My Pride” and “Hello Today”—are an indication of what will be on it.
35. Bad Sounds “Wages”
Album: PHRESSSH (EP)
This song probably tends toward guilty pleasure territory, but those verses can really get you moving. As usual, there are a few songs featured on this list from the latest FIFA video game release—this is the first of three—with “Tic Tac Toe” and “Deadcrush” also representing that game’s annual excellent musical lineup.
34. White Denim “No Nee Ta Slode Aln”
I like frontman James Petralli just fine, but White Denim seem to be cycling through guitarists of late, and it is unclear why. The downside when I saw them live over the summer was that they didn’t play half of the songs I like, and this is not Dave Matthews Band, whose catalog allows them to get away with that sort of thing at any given live show. White Denim is still good, and this one-off single after last year’s album release is an indication that they are capable of churning out quality songs seemingly regardless of who is playing guitar. One reason: Steve Terebecki always plays a fun bass part.
33. Wolf Alice “Beautifully Unconventional”
Album: Visions Of A Life
Wolf Alice’s second album Visions of a Life is an odd collection of songs ranging from the crass (“Yuk Foo”) to shoegaze (“Heavenward”), but this is a relatively straightforward rocker, and it’s the highlight for me. Singer Ellie Rowsell also features later on the list, having backed up Alt-J’s vocals on several tracks of RELAXER, but here she shines with her own band.
32. Temples “Uncertainty”
That bass line is so funky, I could almost listen to it without the rest of the song. During the early part of the year, I thought for sure this song was a lock for my year-end top 10. You might say it was a near-cert…no, I won’t do it. But I am serious, it’s a good song, and there is just so much good music out right now that it fell down the list.
31. Oh Wonder “Ultralife”
“Ultralife” is the first song by Oh Wonder to catch my interest, in part because the duo always seems to sing the melody in different octaves, as opposed to attempting more complex harmonies. Otherwise, I like their sound. That complaint aside, it’s a fun, smart little pop song, and hopefully more like this one will follow.
30. Royal Blood “How Did We Get So Dark?”
Album: How Did We Get So Dark?
Next June I’ll get to see Royal Blood live for the first time, and this title track off their second album will be near the top of my wish list for their set, with its big, loud finish. On the strength of this sophomore album, Royal Blood have jumped into the #2 artist spot on my list for the 2010s, behind only Alt-J.
29. Evanescence “Imperfection”
Aside from the new electronic angle, you could easily mistake this for a song from 2003’s Fallen, and if you know how much I listened to that album, that’s quite a compliment. The fact that “Imperfection” barely cracks this year’s top 30 is also hopefully a sign that I’ve managed to broaden my horizons a bit since then. Amy Lee can still make a chorus soar.
On the negative side, the new album Synthesis actually includes some of the hits from that 14-year-old album (and 2006 follow-up The Open Door), and if you have any nostalgia at all for Fallen, do yourself a favor and pass on the Synthesis versions. Lee recorded “Bring Me To Life” without Paul McCoy’s part, and it sounds like the half-song you would expect based on that information—when I first heard it, I had to stop what I was doing and queue up the original just to erase that travesty from memory. It’s abundantly clear from their efforts since Fallen that Lee and founding member Ben Moody (who left the band in 2003 and literally named a subsequent band We Are The Fallen) will never be able to replicate that early sound in their solo efforts.
28. Portugal. The Man “Rich Friends”
Portugal. The Man has shown more longevity than the other famous native of Wasilla, Alaska—at least, I only know one other famous native of that town (pop. ~8,600). Incidentally the two have a backstory, as the band funded a skate park in their hometown which was opposed by then-mayor Palin. Anyhow, that has nothing to do with the song, which shows us that in a world of inequality, we can all have equally warped perspectives. I like “Rich Friends” somewhat better than the album’s mega-hit “Feel It Still,” which loses steam for me about halfway through.
27. Foo Fighters “Run”
Album: Concrete and Gold
Foo Fighters are not churning out rock hits at the same level they did from the mid-90’s to late-oughts, but they always seem to crack my list somewhere with a new album, and 2017 is no different with “Run,” one of their harder singles to date. They also had one of the few musical performances worth mentioning from the last year of Saturday Night Live, with their Christmas medley from the most recent show. Despite its recent acclaim, I’m not sure SNL has much to say that is very interesting or funny anymore, beyond whatever Kate McKinnon does. But the Foo performance was good.
26. St. Vincent “Los Ageless”
St. Vincent (Annie Clark) always seems to take things one step beyond where I’m comfortable, and I realize that is often her goal, but she too often misses the mark for me as a result. On “Los Ageless” she reins things in just enough to be quite captivating. Lots of people can probably relate to having a love-hate relationship with places or things they encounter, but not many of us are talented enough to write and sing about it the way Clark does.
25. Alice Merton “No Roots”
Her musical origin story is still somewhat of a mystery to me, but Alice Merton and this song have been rather inescapable for the last quarter of 2017. The chorus is probably someone’s (or a hundred someones’) Twitter bio by now, and she sings that catchy line almost effortlessly. There’s a bit of Florence + The Machine to her sound, although her lyrics (up to this point) lack the same bite.
24. Royal Blood “Hook, Line & Sinker”
Album: How Did We Get So Dark?
One song—still to come—stands above the rest on Royal Blood’s fantastic second album How Did We Get So Dark?, but there are so many quality tracks that it’s hard to pick just one or two more for a year-end list. If I have to make a choice, this is my second-favorite.
23. The Big Moon “Formidable”
Album: Love in the 4th Dimension
“Formidable” is the highlight of London band The Big Moon’s full-length debut, Love In The 4th Dimension, and it has arguably the best sing-along chorus of the year. They undoubtedly resent being singled out as such, but it’s neat to have an all-girl rock band on the list, since it is still a male-dominated genre. There’s no shortage of female lead singers in this year’s top 40 (I see 9–10, depending on how you count Oh Wonder), but it’s not half of the list.
22. Alt-J “In Cold Blood”
Alt-J’s third album RELAXER is a step down in quality from their prior two, as they simultaneously went both smaller (on “3WW,” “Pleader,” “Adeline,” and others) and bigger in their sound, with this song’s horns and keyboard solo exemplifying the latter move. Their lyrical eccentricities will keep me coming back, but I’m hoping they’ll be able to find that happy medium a bit more often going forward. Unfortunately I think they still miss former bass player Gwil Sainsbury, who was not replaced after they toured in support of An Awesome Wave.
21. Mutemath “Hit Parade”
Album: Play Dead
“Hit Parade” could very well be the last hurrah for Mutemath on this list, since Darren King’s departure means the band no longer has the backing of the planet’s best drummer. It’s clear from this year’s album Play Dead and their prior effort Vitals that King’s virtuosity was taking a back seat to frontman Paul Meany. I like Meany, and this is a fine song, one that not coincidentally has been around for a couple years before making the cut for Play Dead, but we are a long way removed now from Odd Soul and the songs that for a couple years placed Mutemath atop my list of favorite bands. They were such a great live band, probably the best I have personally seen, and this song is a bittersweet reminder of an era that has come to an end.
20. Lucius “The Punisher”
Their big album release was in 2016 with Good Grief, which had four or five worthy candidates for a year-end list, but Lucius tacked on one more excellent song in this calendar year. “The Punisher” is a terrific sing-along song, and while it has nothing to do with the incredibly dark Marvel character, there’s a little bit of Lucius’ own characteristic darkness infused within.
19. Hippo Campus “baseball”
Album: warm glow (EP)
I promise that the song title alone is not the reason it makes my list, although it doesn’t hurt. The song references my favorite sport, but what is more appropriate are its references to artists like Jackson Pollock, whose style is not coincidentally similar to that of Hippo Campus. Complex, maybe not always appreciated or understood, and that seems about right here (although maybe they shouldn’t be the ones pointing it out). I like the song—just don’t ask me to explain what it’s about.
18. Mojave Nomads “Creature Double Feature”
Album: Phases (EP)
Rock music is maybe not the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions the state of Utah—even if you think music, Imagine Dragons and Neon Trees are more radio-friendly pop than rock—but this song seems both radio-ready enough and rock enough for Mojave Nomads to begin changing that. It has the groove, the guitar solo, the melodic falsetto vocals, and deliciously weird subject matter to catch on just about anywhere.
17. Minus The Bear “Invisible”
“Invisible” is a catchy rock song with intricate layers of guitars, synths, and percussion—fairly standard for Minus The Bear. But let’s focus for a moment on the simple riff in the chorus. You don’t even really think about until it, but then one chord drops out the last time through, and now I can’t help but feel that chord every time I listen.
16. Milk Teeth “Nearby Catfight”
I have no idea what this song has to do with a catfight, or what would possess a band to name itself Milk Teeth, but once you get over those minor hurdles, it’s easy to appreciate the song itself. The video is fantastic, simultaneously not what you expect when you listen to the song, but exactly what you would hope for after learning its title (which to my knowledge is not even referenced by the lyrics).
15. Wild Cub “I Fall Over”
Nashville band Wild Cub assembled a wall of percussion with their debut 2013 alternative hit “Thunder Clatter,” but I like the melodies much better on their sophomore effort Closer, which features this single about our collective failure to love.
14. Gorillaz “Saturnz Barz” (feat. Popcaan)
I didn’t think Gorillaz would be a thing for nearly two decades when “Clint Eastwood” came out in 2001, but here we are, and here is Damon Albarn again creating some very cool songs that he probably never could have made with his bandmates from Blur. “Saturnz Barz” is unlike any other song on this list, with Popcaan’s Jamaican patois in the verses and Albarn providing the weird, mythological chorus.
13. Arcade Fire “Everything Now”
Album: Everything Now
It’s fair to say I have not been the world’s biggest Arcade Fire fan up to this point. There are a handful of indie rock vocalists I simply don’t care for—Win Butler is one of them, and The National’s Matt Berninger is another—so I have not been able to appreciate their music as much as many critics have. But I have to give Arcade Fire credit for a legitimately good song in “Everything Now.” I’ve seen some critics of their new album (also titled Everything Now) mention that their take on modern consumerism is too on the nose—maybe it is—but Arcade Fire have lacked the melodies and beats to interest me musically up until this effort, so I’ll take the current version.
12. Django Django “Tic Tac Toe”
Album: Marble Skies (forthcoming)
“Fun rhythms, melodies that weave in perfectly with the harmony, plus a few space sounds thrown in.” It’s safe to say the Djangos have a sound at this point. My kids would probably rate this song #1 if they were making their own list, and I’ll admit it is super catchy, but to me this is not quite on the level of “Default,” “Hail Bop,” or “Pause Repeat,” all of which seem certain to remain among my top songs of the 2010s.
11. Phoenix “Ti Amo”
Album: Ti Amo
Phoenix is not the band I would have expected to write the “song of the Summer,” whatever that is even supposed to mean, but “Ti Amo” certainly evokes a particular place and season. And fortunately in comparison to most of the songs so labeled, it also has the characteristic rhythmic guitar that have made Phoenix such an enjoyable band over the last decade. It’s such a perfect sound that I’m struggling to figure out how this song wasn’t included on the Italian soundtrack of Master of None, the Aziz Ansari Netflix show which was probably my favorite TV show of 2017.
10. Muse “Dig Down”
Muse’s over-the-top sound may wear on me at some point, but it hasn’t yet. “Dig Down” is their best song in a half-decade, even if it is basically the same song structure and sound as 2012’s more endearing “Madness.” It also relies maybe a little too much on the same basic lyrical ideas that have driven their songs since they peaked (in my view) on 2006’s Black Holes and Revelations, which remains one of my very favorite albums. I suppose there are worse hills to die on than those comprised of Matt Bellamy’s crescendos and guitar solos. Fun fact: Bellamy’s son Bing (with actress Kate Hudson) was born the day before my twins were born in July 2011.
9. Sløtface “Sponge State”
Album: Sponge State (EP)
Sløtface’s debut full-length album Try Not To Freak Out was fine, but it was also a tad underwhelming because they simply didn’t include their best songs to date. “Empire Records” made last year’s list, and I’m including “Sponge State” here instead of the newer stuff. They still have the too-cool-for-school lyrics—”I’ve been thinking about that summer we discovered Bon Iver. His friends just say that’s not his name…”—but “Sponge State” also shows off the great rock instrumental chops I was hoping they would feature a little more on that album. The overall sound never quite materialized for me on “Magazine,” “Pitted” and others that were in my listening rotation for a while this year, but ultimately they never stuck.
8. The Shins “Half a Million”
I’m a relative latecomer to The Shins, James Mercer’s project that in its various forms has been recording since my middle school days. 2012’s Port of Morrow was my first real exposure to them, and it contains one of my top songs of the decade in “Simple Song” (#2 on my latest list). Nothing on this year’s Heartworms quite reaches those heights, but “Half a Million” comes closest. It’s an interesting thought, that this song about a songwriter’s dilemma so perfectly encapsulates Mercer’s unique voice and lyrical style.
7. Franz Ferdinand “Always Ascending”
Album: Always Ascending (forthcoming)
Leave it to Franz Ferdinand to come up with a danceable song featuring the Shepard tone, which I would have thought was on no one’s sampling wishlist, save maybe Christopher Nolan (who used it in Dunkirk). They’ve been writing these types of creative, dance-rock songs for a decade and a half now. Next year’s album (for which this will be the title track) will be their first in five years, and this song has me hoping it will be worth the wait.
6. Manchester Orchestra “The Gold”
Album: A Black Mile To The Surface
At some point I need to get down to Atlanta and see Manchester Orchestra live, since they basically are a lock for my top 10 in every album release year, and they hail from my home state. Geography is ever-present on A Black Mile to the Surface, with “The Alien” representing North Georgia and this song containing the titular gold mining references to the DUNE facilities in South Dakota and East Illinois. It’s more than just references, though—”The Gold” is a heartbreaking song about a relationship that went off the rails.
5. Cut Copy “Black Rainbows”
Album: Haiku From Zero
Cut Copy has a critically acclaimed history dating back over a decade, but “Black Rainbows” is the first song they have written that stuck with me for any length of time. It’s the same path taken by Animal Collective, a band which appeared for the first time on my 2016 year-end list with “FloriDada” after a similarly long period of acclaim. Cut Copy have made that leap here with a song which contains my favorite bass groove of the year.
4. Death From Above “Freeze Me”
Album: Outrage! Is Now
Dropping ‘1979’ from their name helped trim some of the fat from Death From Above’s sound, or at least that’s what I’m telling myself about the oddly-named Canadian duo, which previously charted on my list with 2014’s “Crystal Ball.” That was a fine hard rock song too, but “Freeze Me” is on another level, one of the best songs of the year.
3. Wilderado “Talking About Love To A Cigarette”
Album: Singles (EP)
Every year one or two bands capture my attention out of seemingly nowhere, and Wilderado fits that mold for 2017. This slightly country-sounding band is actually from L.A., not the South, as I might have guessed initially from their sound. This incredible song caught me at the tail end of 2016, but not in time for my year-end list. It’s not a complex song, but their harmonies—particularly frontman Max Helmerich’s voice—are mesmerizing.
2. Alt-J “Deadcrush”
You can read up on the lyrical backstory yourself, but it’s simple, creative, catchy, historical, and weird in all the ways that make Alt-J one of the most distinctive bands out there, even if I’m not totally on board with their general trajectory away from the sound of their 2012 debut An Awesome Wave. I got to see them in person last month, and while they will likely never be known for high energy performances, they play well, their live arrangements are strong, and it was overall an excellent show. Alt-J nearly top my year-end list for the second time—as mentioned earlier, “Tessellate” (from An Awesome Wave) is my #1 song of the decade to date.
1. Royal Blood “Lights Out”
Album: How Did We Get So Dark?
Royal Blood are sort of anti-indie rock, with no air of pretentiousness to their writing at all, and it’s literally just two people in the band—Ben Thatcher on drums and Mike Kerr singing and playing bass. They will live and die by their riffs and melodies as a result, and obviously I think both are great in this case. “Lights Out” is not only their best track this year, but the best track period.
2017 was the third year this decade in which the UK outpaced the good old USA in overall quality, using a points system that weights higher-ranked songs more heavily than the rest (see this Google Sheet with 400 rated songs for details). Weighted by population, the UK is a clear leader—three counties in England (London, East Sussex, and Oxfordshire), plus Scotland, beat all US states outside metro New York and L.A.—and London alone rates as more productive than any region of the US other than New York.
Of course English-speaking countries dominate the list, with Australia and Canada represented at least once in each year since 2012, when I began ranking at least 40 songs per year. Cut Copy (Melbourne), Death From Above (Toronto), and Arcade Fire (Montreal) carry those torches this year. At least one band from a primarily non-English speaking country has made the list each year over the same period, although they all sing in English: Sløtface (Norway), Phoenix (France), and Alice Merton (Germany) meet the criteria for 2017 (although Merton is half-Irish and has lived around the English-speaking world).
Compared to other years this decade, 2017 was among the best in quality, which makes sense when you consider that I’m rating songs based on my current tastes, which continue to evolve. However, my #1 song this year for the first time did not crack my top-10 for the decade. That’s not a negative in my book, since we are now in the decade’s eighth year, and there was more than enough strength at the top of this year’s list to last in my final decade list, coming two years from now.