Every year I write about the 25 or so songs I'm most confident I'll keep listening into next year and beyond. In 2017, a year in which like so many people I was wracked by anxiety, I turned to songs that made me feel good. Big hooks, multi-tracked harmonies, and power pop carried the day. If you haven't heard all of these, each is worth a handful of listens. You can find every song listed here, plus 20 or so bonus tracks, on the Spotify playlist here.
25. “My Only,” the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. The Pains are a magnificent power pop band from Brooklyn who seem doomed to obscurity; four albums in, they’ve got barely 100,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. And yet every album has one or two utter gems. On “My Only,” the band marries towering harmonies over a gently looping melody that could not be more charming.
24. “Sleepwalker,” Julie Byrne. What a love song! Julie Byrne has been single forever but then here comes attachment, and it changes her utterly. This one sounds sleepy until you’ve heard it three or four times, when it begins to gather a transforming power that draws you back over and over.
23. “Mildenhall,” the Shins. A 2017 memory: It’s South by Southwest, and I’ve been invited to a small house a mile outside of downtown to hear James Mercer play. I get to meet him before the show, and tell him how much his music has meant to me. He is profoundly gracious. Then he goes downstairs and picks up his guitar and plays my favorite song from the Shins’ record this year: an utterly straightforward account of how he learned to play guitar. Like so much of the Shins’ best work, its pleasures are simple and enduring.
22. “Total Entertainment Forever,” Father John Misty. No song sounded as absolutely 2017 in its opening couplet than did this track from music’s foremost intellectual dickhead: “Bedding Taylor Swift / every night inside the Oculus Rift.” And yet buried inside yet another record of sardonically observed apocalypse was what makes FJM compelling in spite of himself: a blistering musical intelligence that stands up to his wiseass lyrics and sad-sack presentation. “Total Entertainment Forever” manages to be smarter and more tuneful than it is obnoxious, even if toes the line right up until the end. It's no mean feat.
21. “Gwan,” Rostam. The debut record from Vampire Weekend’s secret weapon plays more like a series of audio sketches than a fully realized statement. But “Gwan,” the beautifully orchestrated penultimate track, points a way forward. As a violin seesaws in the background, Rostam sketches a vision of New York City. There’s something impossibly wistful about those final lines: “When I woke up from that dream / I was sleeping in a basement / Leaves were falling on the pavement / I was happy in the city / Took a friend's car to the ocean / Are you ready? / Are you ready?” Rostam — I’m ready.
20. “Distant Solar Systems,” Julien Baker. My favorite Julien Baker song from this year didn’t make it onto her sophomore album. “Distant Solar Systems” is a lullaby for the galaxy that reliably carries me into bliss. Baker’s voice is a wonder, and I have spent more time with it this year than almost anyone else’s.
19. “Chariot,” Beach House. Good Beach House songs are good in the same way. They catch you off guard with their slow-burning keyboard melodies and nocturnal guitar lines, and then Victoria Legrand begins singing and you find yourself floating on another plane. “Chariot,” a standout from this year’s collection of rarities and B-sides, works in exactly this way.
18. “Bad Liar,” Selena Gomez. Is this the pop song that made me happiest this year? Absolutely skipping over the bass line from Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” Selena Gomez has jokes for days. “Just like the battle of Troy, there’s nothing subtle here,” she sings at one point, and you think to yourself — could I actually be friends with Selena Gomez? To know “Bad Liar” is to want to try.
17. “Havana,” Camila Cabello feat. Young Thug. Or maybe this is the pop song that made me happiest this year: “Havana,” with its old-timey piano and the year's most effortlessly sexy vocal, courtesy of Camila Cabello. (Sorry, Dua Lipa.) It has what may be my very favorite rhyme of 2017, when Camila sings, off-handedly: “I hope my heart is in Havana / There’s something ‘bout his manners.” His manners!
16. “Carin at the Liquor Store,” the National. The record was called Sleep Well Beast, and indeed the National sounded mostly asleep on what was generally a weak follow-up to Trouble Will Find Me. But oh, the guitars on the bridge of this song! The melody is oddly hopeful, and yet the guitars themselves sound as if they are disintegrating. A mesmerizing moment on the record’s most beautiful track; it stops me dead whenever I hear it.
15. “Motion Sickness,” Phoebe Bridgers. If, like me, you have been waiting 20 years for a spiritual sequel to Shawn Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home,” “Motion Sickness” is the song you have been waiting for. And if adult contemporary radio were still a thing, this one would have been a monster.
14. “Pills,” St. Vincent. I’ve listened to MASSEDUCTION a ton and feel as if I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it offers. What I know at this moment is that the sardonic “Pills,” in which Annie Clark speaks to our medicated culture with wit and fire, leaps out and demands attention every time I hear it. It’s the Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper” as sung by the woman in the story.
13. “Whiteout Conditions,” the New Pornographers. When it formed as a half-joking supergroup in 2001, we had every reason to assume New Pornographers would be a one-off. Somehow, the band went on to put out seven more albums of unfashionable power pop, each with at least one classic to its name and a handful with three or four. The title track from this year’s Whiteout Conditions has a gorgeous urgency to it, thanks to those manic keyboards and the national treasure that is a Neko Case vocal performance. As usual with the Pornos, good luck figuring out what any of it means. Just let it all wash over you — like so much of their best work, it is something to simply play loud and often.
12. “Patient Zero,” Aimee Mann. Decades after she broke through as a solo artist, Aimee Mann delivered an earworm so persistent I have listened to it more than nearly any other track this year. Co-written with nerdcore icon Jonathan Coulton, Mann dreams of a beautiful young actor arriving in Los Angeles to great acclaim only to soon feel as if he has lost himself. According to Mann, she wrote it after meeting Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield at a party; in their conversation she found something beautiful and universal.
11. “Sky Walker,” Miguel. Two albums after Kaleidoscope Dream, Miguel takes shrooms and once again finds himself in a druggy bliss. “Sky Walker” is about turning on, tuning in, and dropping out, so as to better float above the haters. No one makes R&B quite like Miguel, and War & Leisure marked a welcome return to form after the ho-hum Wildheart. “Sky Walker” is its playful heart.
10. “Holding On,” the War on Drugs. “Feel like I’m about to crash,” Adam Granduciel sings in the majestic single from this year’s excellent A Deeper Understanding. The War on Drugs has always made music for driving, and “Holding On” is their “Born to Run.” Majestic guitars, keyboards straight out of Asbury Park in his heyday, and searching vocals that sound like Dylan covering Springsteen. A home run.
9. “PRIDE,” Kendrick Lamar. Pick any song off DAMN. as your favorite and you won’t be wrong, but for me it’s all about the lazy, dreamlike flow of “PRIDE,” in which a reverent Kendrick wistfully imagines a better world. What gets me about “Pride” is that melancholy final hook — “Maybe I wasn’t there” — which sounds to my ears like a wish. In 2017, who didn’t long to be somewhere else?
8. “Mourning Sound,” Grizzly Bear. Painted Ruins found Grizzly Bear so far up their own asses it’s a wonder they managed to do anything that connected with a wider audience. But on “Mourning Sound” they did, thanks to propulsive drums and the familiar pleasures of hearing Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen sing in counterpoint. I keep expecting the effect to wear off, but I find myself putting this one on again and again.
7. “Wreath,” Perfume Genius. If Too Bright was about defiance, No Shape is about finding joy, and even peace, in love. The album finds both its title and its purest expression in “Wreath,” in which Mike Hadreas dreams of escaping his body, aging and affected by Crohn’s disease, to become something genderless and universal. His wordless vocalizing at the end is the year’s most hopeful chorus.
6. “Dangerous,” the XX. In which Jamie XX gives this band the one thing it had been missing until now: a pulse. I See You played less as a departure from 2012’s Coexist than a marvelous continuation of Jamie’s 2015 record In Colour. With its big beats and heraldic horns, “Dangerous” announces this will be a different kind of XX record: louder and less afraid. Only when Romy Madley Croft’s vocals kick in do you realize this is still the XX after all: intimate, wise and humane. I could listen to these two duet forever.
5. “Mythological Beauty,” Big Thief. No record cut me quite as deep this year as Capacity, Big Thief’s astonishingly beautiful record about broken families and the struggle to escape them. “Mythological Beauty” is the album’s centerpiece, Adrianne Lenker’s stunning open letter to her imperfect mother. The whisper-singing is so intimate that it may take you a dozen listens before the details of her story begin to cut you: “Sister came out and put her arms around me / Blood gushing from my head / You held me in the backseat with a dishrag, soaking up blood with your eyes / I was just five and you were twenty-seven / Praying 'don’t let my baby die.'” Bleak as it sounds, this record nourished me in 2017 like no other.
4. “Green Light,” Lorde. I like Lorde better than I like Melodrama, the high-gloss follow-up to her world-beating debut. But there is something undeniable about the controlled fury of “Green Light,” the way Lorde rises from the ashes of a breakup to reclaim her place on the dance floor. On one hand, the story doesn’t quite match the music — this is a song about being trapped in the past that’s sung as if it were “I Will Survive.” But whenever that almighty chorus kicks in, I let myself go under.
3. “Prom,” SZA. I fell for Solána Imani Rowe late, but when I did I fell hard. Her breakthrough, Ctrl, is gorgeous from start to finish — my album of the year, and many other people’s. “Prom” embodies many, if not all, of its virtues: SZA’s aching, wandering voice; the ethereal keyboards that lend her R&B a sheen of futurism; and a powerful pop instinct that makes her work broadly appealing. In “Prom” she’s not ready for a relationship even though her partner is, and she begs for patience. “Promise to get a little better as I get older,” she sings. It is hard to imagine how.
2. “Do I Have to Talk You Into It,” Spoon. In 2017 you looked for miracles, and certainly here was one. The restless men of Spoon, eight albums into a career distinguished by its consistent excellence, found another compelling new sound on their ninth. “Hot Thoughts” is a stellar indie rock record at a time when rock is out of fashion, and far more famous bands have collapsed into self-parody. (This was the year that Arcade Fire was extinguished.) Its shimmying centerpiece is “Do I Have to Talk You Into It,” a giddy come-on that persuades me every time. Britt Daniel is 46 but sounds half his age, all hips and tongue, aggressive and just dangerous enough to hold your attention. He doesn’t sing this song so much as he moonwalks across it. In September I saw him play it live and became a believer.
1. “Glitter,” Charly Bliss. In a year filled with dread, I found myself turning to power pop more and more. Eva Grace Hendricks’ four-piece Brooklyn band Charly Bliss delivered earworm after earworm on their improbably good Guppy, and the song I turned to time after again was “Glitter.” Big ‘90s guitars and a vocal straight out of Veruca Salt make Charly Bliss an unapologetic throwback, so lightweight it all but dissolves on your tongue. And yet there was nothing shameful, in this benighted year, of turning to joy. “Glitter” to me means defiance in the face of sadness, transmuting pain into something beautiful and even ecstatic. I wear it as talisman.