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The 20 Best Songs of 2017... (So Far)

Music Lists Best Of 2017 So Far

It’s pretty incredible how much can be conveyed in three minutes. As we mentioned last week in our Best Albums of 2017 (So Far) list, 2017 has already been quite the year—politically, environmentally, socially, artistically. The songs we choose to give soundtrack to those experiences and emotions can help us process or party through it in the span of just a few minutes.

Some of the songs here come from artists whose latest works also appeared on our Best Albums of 2017 (So Far) list. Others are teasing nuggets for albums due out later this year. Others have just stood out to us in message or form regardless of the means of their release. So, after scouring through thousands of songs in these first four full months of 2017, here are Paste’s 20 best songs so far.

20. Benjamin Booker feat. Mavis Staples, “Witness”
When gospel-soul queen Mavis Staples opens up your comeback single, it’s a good omen. “Witness” is Benjamin Booker’s first new music since his self-titled debt LP in 2014, and his most scathing to date. At the time, Booker gained attention for his snarling incorporation of punk into the blues. Now, with “Witness,” the 27-year-old takes a more worldly approach. In each verse Booker spits out almost spoken-word raps about the state of people of color today (even dropping the f-bomb in front of Staples, which is actually a pretty punk-rock move). Each narrative culminates with the pre-chorus, quite obviously about Trayvon Martin, in which Booker switches back to his singing voice and describes, “See we thought that we saw that he had a gun / Thought that it looked like he started to run.” Each time, the maternal Staples interjects, “Am I gonna be a witness?” It’s rhetorical, but also pragmatic—a reminder to be aware, informed and vigilant wrapped up in the warming swath of soul. —Hilary Saunders

19. Ty Segall, “Orange Color Queen”
Ty Segall’s voice has never sounded quite this beautiful. On his self-titled ninth LP, “Orange Color Queen” stands as the crowning love song (to his now-wife, in fact), and his pack of accompanying musicians (Mikal Cronin on bass, Charles Moothart on drums, Emmett Kelly on guitar and Ben Boye on keys) slay as per usual. But it’s Segall’s tender lyrics and ambitious vocals that really make this one special. His playful metaphors—“Oh, you’re the silver lips of honey / Oh, you’re my cherry fizzle sundae”— make “Orange Color Queen” feel like they belong in a different era, yet it’s Segall ranging like never before on the song’s conclusion (“You’re beautiful lazy / Orange color lady / The morning sun, it wants to know / Where you’ll go”) that show his dynamic range. —Adrian Spinelli

18. Hurray for the Riff Raff, “Pa’lante”
Meaning “onward, forward,” “Pa’lante” is a rallying cry, starting off simply with Hurray for the Riff Raff frontwoman Alynda Lee Segarra singing, “Oh I just want to go to work and get back home and be something.” As her voice gets stronger, the anger and passion more obvious, she continues, “Colonized and hypnotized, be something.” She’s speaking specifically about the Puerto Rican experience in America (and “Pa’lante” includes a powerful sample of Pedro Pietri’s poem “Puerto Rican Obituary”), but in today’s political climate, it’s a fitting anthem for anyone marginalized. In the song’s final minutes, Segarra erupts and declares, “From Marble Hill to the ghost of Emmett Till, pa’lante.” Onward, forward, indeed. —Bonnie Stiernberg

17. Thundercat, “Friend Zone”
Don’t lie: The “friend zone” is a thing and we’ve all been there. On Thundercat’s version, he drops an all-too-real recount of getting thrown into the zone by a prospective flame. The reigning god of bass writes a steady groove to pair with a spacey synth loop and tongue-in-cheek references to now having more time to play classic video games (like Mortal Kombat and Diablo because ‘90s gore FTW!) Let’s not overthink it, though. This is some nerdy stuff, and song about getting friend-zoned on your 23-track album of bass-heavy funky jazz and hip-hop fusions called Drunk, is par for the course. —Adrian Spinelli

16. Big Thief, “Mythological Beauty”
After one hell of an opening salvo last year with Masterpiece, Brooklyn-based Big Thief hasn’t wasted any time assembling their next album, Capacity, which is due out in June. Single “Mythological Beauty” loses some of Masterpiece’s rustic elements in favor of searing, sad acoustic balladry. That chiming, delicate soundscape elevates the mid-range of Adrianne Lenker’s voice before it ascends to a wavering crescendo in the chorus. —Sean Edgar

15. The War on Drugs, “Thinking of a Place”
“Thinking of a Place” has everything that there is to love about The War on Drugs. Still bolstering that iconic Mark-Knopfler-backed-by-the-E-Street-Band sound, the magic here really resides in Adam Granduciel’s patient urgency. He sings a meditative, even mournful, love song that stretches out over 11 minutes, and not once does it rise above a strained whisper. And that guitar solo, oh, that guitar solo, coming in around the 3-minute mark, just blisters in and fades out, almost like a sigh. Also, there are a few moments when the slide guitar steals the show, and it’s just perfect. “Thinking of a Place” is a restrained, dreamy piece of indie rock; if it accurately showcases what’s coming on the fourth album, then it’s about damn time to get lost in the dream again. —Pete Mercer

14. Goldfrapp, “Anymore”
The perfect fusion of emotional frustration and dark dance beats, “Anymore” sees Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory returning to the slinky sexuality of Black Cherry and Supernature. This time, though, the British duo has painted it black with a helping of electronic work from producer Haxan Cloak. The beefed-up beats bring a do-or-die verisimilitude to the track. When Goldfrapp coo/growls “You’re what I want / You’re what I need / Give me your love / Make Me a freak” you can taste the urgency in her words. —Laura Studarus

13. Feist, “Pleasure”
To appropriate a quote from Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah, Feist’s comeback single “Pleasure” is “rugged and raw.” It’s dark and nervy and minimalist in a way the Broken Social Scene member’s previous work isn’t. When she yelps, “It’s my pleasure” over a grimy guitar riff meant for the Mississippi Delta, there’s no sense there actually is any pleasure. It’s the sound of a heady kind of fury but also the sound of someone shaking off the rust after six years away and rocking out. And honestly, the pleasure is all ours. —Jared McNett

12. Jay Som, “The Bus Song”
Few songs have captured the mundane beauty of city life like Jay Som’s “The Bus Song.” In it, Jay Som’s Melina Duterte unpacks the emotional pace of a relationship and likens its ebbs and flows to either riding a car or taking the bus. It’s as if she’s staring at the end of things, but finds comfort and solace within herself when riding the bus: “But I like the bus / I can be whoever I want to be / take time to figure it out.” Duterte’s relatable lyrics are wrapped in guitars and melodious arrangements that evoke nostalgia for simpler times. Her even-keeled delivery shows a refreshing temperament, evident throughout her wonderful debut LP, Everybody Works, and helped garner her one of our Best of What’s Next nods. —Adrian Spinelli

11. The xx, “ “Dangerous”
The moment Jamie xx’s thundering drum and horn samples on “Dangerous” open up The xx’s long-awaited third album, I See You, we instantly forget the sullen basement laments of the band’s lackluster sophomore release, Coexist. “Dangerous” teems with life and a vibrancy that the band dug deep to extract. Allowing Jamie to have a more central role in the production of I See You was a necessary move for a band that had to deliver on this album in order to stay relevant. While I See You maintains a palpable energy through 10 excellent tracks, it’s the way “Dangerous” explodes from the get-go, and how Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft find a symbiotic balance within Jamie’s canvas, that makes this the most goosebump-raising moment on the record. —Adrian Spinelli

10. Real Estate, “Darling”
Real Estate frontman Martin Courtney’s recent move to upstate New York did nothing to upset the delicate and shimmering sound that he’s been nurturing for nearly a decade. The melodies of this first single from the group’s latest album In Mind still enrapture, just as the gentle chime of the guitars still feel like they’re tickling your skin. The only new addition is an injection of pastoral imagery into Courtney’s lyrics that let us listen into this shivering impatience at the arrival of his loved one. The birds on his porch don’t have to worry about where their partner is. Why should he? —Robert Ham

9. Lady Lamb, “Salt”
Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how heartbreaking an acoustic guitar can sound. If you ever need a reminder, listen to the first 30 seconds of “Salt.” Set against a quiet wall of lo-fi tape hiss that sounds like rain, Aly Spaltro gently alternates between two chords and manages to cut you up before she ever sings a word. When she brings you in with the lyrics, it’s with a voyeuristic level of intimacy. It’s like you’re listening to her play a song that nobody was meant to hear. It’s fitting, then, that the song should grapple with a moment of intimacy and vulnerability on both a physical and metaphysical level. No matter how many times you hear Spaltro sing “Some days I’m convinced I’m already mourning you / Some nights I’m convinced I’m already dead,” her voice shaking and laced with an up-all-night rasp, it always seems to hit right where it hurts. —Carter Shelter

8. RaeLynn, “Love Triangle”
The genius of referring to a child of divorce as one corner of a love triangle is cool enough. But what makes this song from up-and-coming country artist RaeLynn truly ache are the details that she fills the verses with—waiting for dad on the front porch, the stilted conversations over dinner, the agony of not seeing your father for another two weeks. Wisely, this young Texan delivers all these lines with restraint and tenderness. She knows all these feelings far too well as she was inspired to write the song after being stuck in the middle of another parental squabble. The centerpiece of one of the year’s best country albums, “Love Triangle” will leave you in tatters. —Robert Ham

7. Sylvan Esso, “Die Young”
“Die Young,” the third single off Sylvan Esso’s sophomore release What Now, is the perfect love song for a generation torn between hope and cynicism. Sylvan Esso never suggests that love is the fix to the problem, only that it can throw a wrench into our own self-destructive desires. Amelia Meath’s voice is as strong and lovely as ever, sounding relaxed without sacrificing the urgency. And the way those burbling, scattered synths give way to the song’s magnetic chorus put this in the running for Nick Sanborn’s best work across the duo’s two albums. —Carter Shelter

6. PWR BTTM, “Answer My Text”
Liv Bruce may have written “Answer My Text” as a revisionist history of high-school dating life, but for anyone who grew up with a cell phone, this PWR BTTM song is more realistic that we really care to admit. In less than 3 minutes of chunky guitar-based rock, Bruce and bandmate Ben Hopkins craft an entire narrative about meeting someone, asking for their number, texting emojis and jokes from TV shows, and then waiting in agony for them to say literally anything in response. It’s one of many songs on the queer-glam-punk band’s stellar sophomore album Pagaent, with a message of universality that doesn’t change based on sexuality, religion or race: “Answer my text, you dick!” It’s not that hard, people. —Hilary Saunders

5. Fleet Foxes, “Third of May/Odaigahara”
Fleet Foxes  could not have returned in a better way. Robin Pecknold’s touching ode to his relationship with childhood friend and fellow Fleet Fox Skye Skjelset touches on all of the folk ensemble’s usual touchstones in an updated fashion after the six years since Helplessness Blues. The band is, in every sense, out of the woods, and Pecknold’s pent up creativity and emotion bursts across the nearly 9-minute song. In particular, “Third of May” boasts some of Pecknold’s strongest lyrics to date. He describes a fraught friendship with lines like, “If I lead you through the fury will you call to me? / And is all that I might owe you carved on ivory?” If you need any more convincing, the song brought a certain former drummer for the band to tears, if that’s not a ringing endorsement, what is?
Carter Shelter

4. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, “French Press”
One of our SXSW standout bands, Melbourne’s Rolling Blackout Coastal Fever (RBCF) first grabbed our attention on the strength of their first single, “French Press.” The Aussies have three guitar players and they’re on full display across this song’s swooping and enthralling five-and-a-half minutes. At it’s core, “French Press” is a surf rock jam, but vastly different from what we’ve accepted as such on the American mainland. In their Best of What’s Next feature, RBCF’s Fran Keaney explained that all of the songs from the group’s Sub Pop debut were recorded in their modest rehearsal space and their gritty-yet-effortlessly-polished sound rings sublime on “French Press.” —Adrian Spinelli

3. Future Islands, “Cave”
Future Islands have always been the first guys to belly flop into the emotional pool. So it should come as no surprise that _The Far Field Field’_s synth-rock single “Cave” is a frantic paddle through the deep end. Frontman Samuel Herring may spend most of the song rhetorically recapping his own state of brokenness. (“Is this a desperate wish for dying, or a wish that dying cease?”) But over a delicate wash of synths and caffeinated Cure baselines, he delivers the ultimate chorus kicker, “I don’t believe anymore,” over and over again. In his bleeding-heart below, it’s less the isolated cry of one hopeless romantic and more the universal anguish of a generation. —Laura Studarus

2. Father John Misty, “Pure Comedy”
Pure Comedy’s title track also serves as its thesis statement, distilling the record’s—and Josh Tillman’s—worldview into a grim piano ballad. It’s easy to see why Tillman toyed with calling it “Total Bummer,” but it nails the comedy of “the human race slipping on the same banana peel over and over again through the ages,” as he puts it. “How’s this for irony?” he sings. “Their idea of being free is a prison of beliefs / That they never, ever have to leave.” —Bonnie Stiernberg

1. Kendrick Lamar, “HUMBLE”
In the video for “HUMBLE.,” Kendrick Lamar stares down the camera—his head in flames, his body motionless—as he warns the competition to “get the fuck off my stage/I’m the Sandman.” It’s perhaps the most striking image (in a video filled with striking images) that best encapsulates the song and what’s quickly shaping up to be a legendary career. Lamar is on fire, literally and figuratively, and completely unbothered by it. (Of course, no one does introspection quite like Kendrick Lamar, and within the context of the rest of DAMN., “HUMBLE.” takes on new meaning, particularly when juxtaposed with its predecessor, “PRIDE.”) But even in a vacuum, “HUMBLE.” is undeniably great, thanks to a sinister beat from producer Mike WiLL Made-It, the beautiful simplicity of its “hold up bitch, sit down/be humble” chorus, a touch of body positivity (“show me something natural like ass with some stretch marks”) and another A+ performance from an artist who seemingly is incapable of delivering anything but that. —Bonnie Stiernberg

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