You can check out the first part of our Seventeen Gems of ’17 list by clicking here.
10. St. Vincent – Los Ageless
Kicking off the second instalment of our list is ‘Los Ageless’ by the baroque pop and guitar wonder Annie Clark, known better by the stage name St. Vincent. Serving as the second single from her latest studio album (MASSEDUCTION), ‘Los Ageless’ intriguingly blends dance-rock and electropop influences as Clark adopts a more pop-orientated approach than previous releases. On a lyrical level ‘Los Ageless’ is a satirical event as, over thumping synth production from Jack Antonoff and her own bursts of guitar, Clark sings of a decadent society indulging hedonism and running from decay (‘In Los Ageless the winter never comes / In Los Ageless the mothers milk their young’). Her voice is gentle, purring for the most part as it ushers the listener through the verses, but threatens to unleash a ferocity during the song’s bridge through several angered adlibs. For the most part, however, the aggression of this track is restrained in a way which only adds to its menacing feel. Despite being less zany than releases from her fourth, self-titled studio album, ‘Los Ageless’ still feels like a fresh offering from St. Vincent and maintains a flair that avoids the superficial. By incorporating commentary into three or so oddball minutes of sound, St. Vincent allows her audience to tip-toe between critical listening and enthused bopping with ‘Los Ageless’. Its strangeness is, like any other St. Vincent track, the part which captivates us. Take a look at the disquieting colourfulness of the track’s accompanying music video whilst you’re here:
9. BANKS – Underdog
Mysterious in both style and approach, Jillian Banks (known better as BANKS) has been consistent in delivering songs that bewitch the listener and brood on the topic of toxic romance. Throughout 2017 BANKS rode the success of her sophomore studio album, The Altar – a release which brought her out of the swampy, synth-infused vulnerability of her debut and into a more rhythmic, confident sound. ‘Underdog’, BANKS’ latest release, mesmerises as it saunters between emotional strength and vulnerability. The dark-pop songstress explores her dependence on another (‘But you better hurry / For you and I to make it’), whilst also proclaiming her own power in the relationship by quite literally snarling at her lover. Featuring arguably the most enthralling pre-chorus of the year (‘Come in my bed / Come back to heaven’), ‘Underdog’ oozes with temptation as BANKS’ vocals float over synth beats – an allure aware of its own fragility (‘I want you when you mean it / But you better back it up / My breath is getting heated’). As one of this year’s most satisfying releases from the pop-alternative crossover, BANKS’ ‘Underdog’ departs from the ghostliness of her earlier work by entertaining ferocity.
8. BLACKPINK – As If It’s Your Last
Having only made their commercial debut in the latter half of 2016, it is exciting to see just how quickly South Korean girl group BLACKPINK have proclaimed their position as an up-and-coming pop presence. After releasing two EPs (Square One and Square Two), the group returned this year with the bubblegum-infused track ‘As If It’s Your Last’ – a stepping stone to their Japanese debut and their first single to enter Billboard’s Bubbling Under Hot 100 Chart. The single is a bombastic affair, throwing the listener between its verses, bridge and choruses like a game of piggy in the middle. This three minutes of controlled chaos shows BLACKPINK working within a quintessential pop structure of escalating verses and a bursting chorus, whilst futuristic woos and sticky-sweet soundbites lace the pulsating production with a quirkiness similar to the sound of Little Mix. Each member of BLACKPINK delivers their personality throughout their respective parts of the track, with the group coming together to collectively demand that a romantic interest makes their move like it’s the last chance to do so. Vocal belts by Rosé in the first chorus are a delight as they launch the listener with sky-high potential, but it’s Lisa who steals the show with an earworm hook and a talk-rap verse possessing attitude and a Kesha-esque twang (‘Give you all of this, baby / Call me pretty and nasty’). BLACKPINK are yet to release their international debut album, but this summery and colourful pop offering is a promise which will be eagerly followed in 2018. Check out the official music video for the track, bursting with energy and featuring some pretty iconic choreography.
7. LANY – Good Girls
LA-based band LANY really hit the mark earlier this year with the release of ‘Good Girls’, a gorgeous indie-pop track and the second single from their eponymous debut album. ‘Baby, come back / I know my way around your heart’, lead singer Paul Jason Klein pines with a fragility that encapsulates the bitter-sweetness of this track. The track is an intoxicating haze drawing us in with wistful instrumentation and an infectious, the 1975-esque bass rhythm that holds down its melancholy bliss (‘I’m selfless, drunk on you / What more could I do?’). It’s the gentleness of Klein’s vocals that gives a signature to this track, providing a more genuine vulnerability to lyrics that could easily be belted in a ballad. Despite being pretty new to large-scale audiences, LANY have already crafted a recognisable sound and whilst also managing to position themselves in the niche of melancholy pop alongside contemporaries like Paramore. ‘Good Girls’ is a nice summary of LANY’s style and potential. The track showcases their competence for delivering a captivating dream-pop landscape and emotionally eloquent lyricism that avoids pretension, proving that depth isn’t always compromised by the pop structure.
6. Dua Lipa – New Rules
2017 really has been Dua Lipa’s year. Following a chain of moderately successful singles throughout 2016 (justice for ‘Hotter Than Hell’, am I right?), the British pop sensation finally struck gold this summer with ‘New Rules’. Blending tropical-house and electropop into a move-the-hell-on anthem, this track allowed Lipa to surpass most expectations for a debut pop artist in the streaming era, and quite literally redefined the chart landscape by making her the first female solo artist to peak at #1 on the UK Top 40 since Adele. How many of us were picking up the phone before Ms. Lipa stepped in to show us better? Too many of us, that’s for sure. Sitting in the centre of a confident debut album, ‘New Rules’ isn’t Lipa’s best track by any means. It does, however, exhibit both Lipa’s charisma and competence to carry a track into popularity through solo, feature-free artistry alone. ‘Now I’m standing back from him / I finally see the pattern (I never learn)’ Lipa states as, over immaculately produced and inclining verses, Lipa immerses herself in the self-destructive behaviour of running back to the boy who’s no good. Her huskier vocals are like velvet, dressing the track with a self-assuredness that allows the chorus to swoop in with authority as she declares her new rules and how she’ll ‘count ‘em’. And if the point of the track isn’t clear by the final chorus, Lipa wraps up by crying out that you’re ‘getting’ over him’ – the echoes of her call closing the track with poise. If you still need to put down the phone by this point, then I’m afraid to say that pop music has failed you. I’m sorry.
5. Sigrid – Strangers
Our fifth spot goes to a new arrival on the pop scene: twenty-one-year-old Norwegian singer, Sigrid. You may have heard of this up-and-coming pop force through the BBC Sound of 2018 longlist, but Sigrid already demanded our attention earlier this year with the attitude of her debut single, ‘Don’t Kill My Vibe’. A star-in-waiting, Sigrid performs with a captivating charm that carries the thrashing potential of her hooks. ‘Strangers’, however, presents a different shade of Sigrid’s style as the latest release in the build-up to an anticipated debut album. Her vocals are delicate and playful as the track first reflects on the clichéd love story (‘Just like in the movies / It starts to rain and we / We’re the broken beauties’), only to gradually gain momentum and finally cannonball the listener into a spinning, whirlwind chorus. ‘Strangers’ not only tells the story of falling ‘head over heels’ but manages to recreate the sensation, pulling the listener along headfirst with an escapist vibe and euphoric melodies capable of inducing a butterfly feeling. Sigrid asserted herself with her debut but, with this single, declared her competence to channel euphoria and captivate a listener in the welcoming package of the pop banger. 2018 is shaping up to be Sigrid’s year, so keep an eye out.
4. Charli XCX – 3am (Pull Up) (feat. MØ)
When Dua Lipa was instructing us to not pick up the phone, Charli XCX was making sure we were ‘busy thinkin’ ‘bout boys’ and conflicting us like a little devil on the shoulder. Alongside releasing the viral hit ‘Boys’ this summer, XCX (otherwise known as Charlotte Aitchison) has been consistent with releasing studio-length mini-projects to tide us over during the ongoing absence of an ‘official’ album. Since releasing her second, punk-influenced album, Sucker, XCX has been venturing deeper and deeper into the field of alt-pop, providing us with an EP and two experimental mixtapes challenging what we expect from a pop track. The first of these mixtapes, Number 1 Angel, is a delight. Created predominantly with PC Music founder and avant-garde producer A.G. Cook, this mixtape was challenging, parodic in sound and also managed to showcase some of the catchiest work of XCX’s discography. Cue ‘3am (Pull Up)’ – a promotional single from the mixtape. Fusing tropical and synth influence, this track about the frustrations of a love-hate relationship manages to make itself addictively sweet. A middle-eight provided by Danish pop sensation MØ also manages to complement the track well, her moody vocals providing apt respite from XCX’s bouncing verses and feeling more like a collaborative contribution than a simple commercial feature. ‘3am (Pull Up)’ is arguably one of the highlights of Number 1 Angel, showcasing both XCX’s ability to write an addictive hook and weave pop with the experimental. All in all, four minutes of XCXellence.
3. Kesha – Praying
Following personal battles and legal struggles against a certain producer that are already well-documented, new music from Kesha seemed like a distant possibility due to the seeming endlessness of her contractual battles. However, with unanticipated promotion, she made one of the most powerful and important musical comebacks to date with ‘Praying’ – a ballad reflecting on individual strength and finding liberation. Not only lyrically defiant, this track was also sonically brave. Being known for releasing up-tempo, auto-tuned music predominantly within the electronic and dance-pop genres, Kesha’s decision to return with the first ballad of her career (and one already laden with context) was striking. ‘Praying’ allowed Kesha to return to music on her own terms and reclaim her voice – something which she not only demonstrates by quite literally reaching new vocal heights with belts and a whistle note, but also through the sincere delivery of her lyrics. Rising up with defiance, she proclaims in the ballad’s second verse: ‘and you said that I was done, / But you were wrong and now the best is yet to come’. The beginnings of the best arguably have come for Kesha, with ‘Praying’ having introduced the spectrum-like, critically acclaimed album Rainbow to the world whilst ushering in the first Grammy nominations of her career. If a few of the gems on this list were statements upon release, then ‘Praying’ was an avowal. Not only reassuring the fans and allies who campaigned for Kesha’s artistic and legal freedom, this ballad also sounded like a personal promise of renewal for the artist. With its gracefulness and strength, ‘Praying’ is a song that will undoubtedly heal many listeners for years to come through the channelling of pain into a cathartic moment. Thank you, Kesha.
2. Lorde – Green Light
You know when an artist already has a lot of hype to live up to with their second album and manages to meet it whilst also exceeding all expectations? Yeah, Lorde did that with ‘Green Light’. After a lengthy absence from pop music, Lorde declared her return with a bang as ‘Green Light’ swiftly departed from the minimalist dream-pop of Pure Heroine, her debut album. Written and produced in partnership with Joel Little and Jack Antonoff, this track is a treasure chest of complexities as layers of harsh and gentle sounds overlap and Lorde plays around with the typical pop structure. In fact, pop production maestro Max Martin (of ‘Into You’ and ‘…Baby One More Time’ fame) told Lorde that the track was an example of ‘incorrect songwriting‘. And it’s true that the song does not fall into easy listening, darting between refrained, bitter verses and pre-choruses that rise with energetic piano notes as the artist sings of hearing ‘brand new sounds in [her] mind’. The jewel of this track has to be its chorus which, following a choral-esque declaration of wanting ‘that green light’, bursts into an ecstatic release comparable to Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Run Away with Me’. ‘Green Light’ was arguably one of the earliest ‘wow’ moments of this year’s pop calendar. Despite not being as successful as any of Lorde’s previous work, ‘Green Light’ was evidence of an artist willing to bend the rules and shape her own sound, serving as the best introduction to the excellence of her sophomore body of work and the pop album of the year, Melodrama.
1. Rae Morris – Do It
Coming in at #1 on our list is a humble indie-pop release, titled ‘Do It’, from British singer-songwriter Rae Morris. As the second single from an anticipated sophomore album, ‘Do It’ steps away from the moody vibes of earlier work and teases a more upbeat direction for Morris in the run-up to her forthcoming studio release. Morris’ gentle vocals glide over the rise and falls of soft, airy production in this track as she tries to convince a love interest that, quite euphemistically, they should just get down to business (‘We could write another duet / Or instead, babe, we could just do it’). As staccato piano notes hint at in the first verse, the track is riddled with caution despite its deceptive lightness (‘Let’s do something that we might regret / Take your guard down / I can see through it’), but the obvious enthusiasm in Morris’ delivery denies such a cloud from dimming the sunlight of the track. ‘Do It’ is vibrant, quirky and nicely closed the summer period of 2017’s pop music calendar, serving to be the most enjoyable release of Morris’ discography so far. The bridge alone, levitating the listener into the final firework of a chorus with a change of key, makes this track an absolute stand-out pop moment of 2017. It would be hard not to feel light after listening to this track, one which basks in its own hopefulness and confidence. And if its sound alone isn’t enough, a suitably cheery music video makes a listen even more enjoyable. This pop offering really is worth checking out, so go on – do it!
So, in the words of Emily Thornberry, there we are. We have counted down through our seventeen pop highlights of the past year. Whether big or small, these gems managed to stand out in a flurry of releases and helped with drawing the huge picture that is 2017’s pop timeline. Listen, enjoy and take them into 2018 with you. And even if you don’t, just remember one thing: don’t pick up the phone.
Image credit: Blackpink