The past month, like several before it, has been dominated by sadness and frustration.
Outside of the usual roundup of sociopolitical maniacal pain, the music world tragically lost Linkin Park vocalist Chester Bennington. It’s a bleak time for many, a dark pall hanging over the world. In a sense, the same could be said looking through our list of the top songs of the month. The Kickback hate the new world on “Hotel Chlorine”, Nine Inch Nails see the world crumbling on “Less Than”, and St. Vincent wanders the Big Apple full of loss on “New York”.
But the brightest revelations often come out of the darkest times — as seen by Jay Z’s “Smile”, in which the rap legend digs his way out of bad memories and embraces his mother’s homosexuality, and Kesha’s “Praying”, which seems to triumphantly break free of the bonds of her unjust legal battles. We’re all feeling a little darkness, but music can be the ultimate comfort in those times, and we’re hoping our list can help, even just a little bit.
10. Sudan Archives – “Come Meh Way”
As Sudan Archives, Brittney Denise Parks transcends time and space in interlocking grooves. The young, self-taught violinist/vocalist/producer takes her name from Northeast Africa, while she’s releasing her new music through legendarily groove-friendly Los Angeles label Stones Throw — and “Come Meh Way” shows the influence of each of its composite pieces. Parks’ violin work, polyrhythms, and chant-like vocal rounds take on the character of African folk styles, but it’s paired here with loping sub-bass as if taken from a car passing down the road. Her increasingly silvery and beguiling songs leave something just out of reach while simultaneously whispering in your ears and getting your feet moving. Parks’ debut EP as Sudan Archives, which features “Come Meh Way” and five more songs, is available now. –Lior Phillips
09. The Kickback – “Hotel Chlorine”
It’s always a pleasure to shine our light on an up-and-coming act – and all the more a treat when that band comes from our own backyard. “Hotel Chlorine” marks the second time Chicago’s The Kickback have graced our top songs of the month in 2017. In other words, if you didn’t take our advice the first time, there’s really no time like the present. And while it’s more than fair to give singles like “Will T” and deeper cuts like “Hotel Chlorine” their individual dues, make sure you check out these songs within the context of their new record, Weddings and Funerals. The album is to 2017 what The Districts’ A Flourish and a Spoil was to 2015 – that’ll little indie rock record that could and does thanks to the wit, thoughtfulness, and punch stirred up by frontman Billy Yost and co. Now, go check it out for yourself before I try and butcher that bull’s ass salesman’s line from Tommy Boy. –Matt Melis
08. 21 Savage – “Bank Account”
When it comes to 21 Savage, it also comes to Metro Boomin. As Wren Graves wrote in his mixed review of Issa Album, the rapper hosts the party, while the producer brings the snacks. In other words, one’s Andrew McCarthy and the other’s Jonathan Silverman in this Weekend at Savage’s. (We’ll let you two decide who’s who.) “Bank Account”, the standout hit off the Atlanta MC’s debut, is a prime example of their chemistry. Although Savage has since argued he came up with “the melody, the bass, the sample, the hi-hat,” he also happened to admit those pauses came from Metro. But those pauses are brilliant! It’s like the two of them are looking at one another as they revel in the chaos of their excess. And that makes total sense, seeing how we’re essentially listening to young royalty living the good life for the very first time — kind of like Hassan Whiteside’s Snapchats last summer after he got paid. Who doesn’t want to join in on the fun? –Michael Roffman
07. Kesha – “Praying”
The video for Kesha’s new single, “Praying”, opens with an honest and terrifying monologue of abandonment, pain, and depression. What follows, though, is nothing short of triumphant, the pop star sitting down to a piano and roaring out about how she’s learned to overcome the long battle and the things and people holding her back. “I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’/ I hope your soul is changin’, changin’,” she calls out, and it’s not difficult to connect the dots as to whom she’s singing about. As she reaches deeper into her soul, violins and drums surround, building up a platform that allows her to further grasp the heavens. It’s good to hear Kesha back at all, and even better that she sounds so goddamn powerful. And even better than that, “Praying” has been announced as the lead single of her comeback album, Rainbow, due August 11 via RCA. –Lior Phillips
06. Tyler, the Creator – “Who Dat Boy”
The best part of the two singles that Tyler, the Creator chose to lead his latest album Flower Boy is how they present two very different, equally fascinating parts of the same artist. And while “911 / Mr. Lonely” is looser and more jazz-indebted than Tyler has previously attempted –a move that places him right in the center of one of hip-hop’s biggest trends– it’s “Who Dat Boy” that finds Tyler still knowing how to wind up an audience. It’s not just getting his buddy ASAP Rocky to deliver a hyped verse alongside him, it’s the way he plunges into the hook, pronouncing “boy” with a snarl. Tyler claimed on a single long ago that he didn’t make horrorcore, but the darkness the comparison was referring to is still present on the song’s brooding beat. Still, when the song melts aways into its own piano-driven coda, we find Tyler for the first time in his career as an artist that can have it all, “Who Dat Boy” feels like a new high in his previous aesthetic and a bold step forward to something new. –Philip Cosores
05. Charli XCX – “Boys”
“Boys” is 148 glorious seconds of crazed, delirious adoration: Charli XCX coos, her voice both bold and lustful while her ‘props’ parade about, lathering themselves in snuggly puppies, pink velvet, and red rose petals. Women usually take that gender slap — the slow motion stare into the camera, throwing confetti like giggling gerties, being wet — but Charli XCX explains to BBC Radio 1’s Annie Mac that this is her turning gender roles upside down … and plush pink. Somehow, the video for “Boys” manages to be liberating and slightly terrifying all at once: Imagine Mac DeMarco licking a six string? You can keep it. Riz Ahmed being cradled by a fluffy teddybear? Sure? Joe Jonas getting syrup-y with stackable pancakes? Betcha he counts calories. And UK’s King of Grime, Stormzy eating cereal? I’ll take it. “Head is spinnin’, thinkin’ ‘bout boys,” her gorgeous vocal tone lathers across a thick layer of synth-y bleeps, blaps, and bloops while she admits what she was thinkin’ ‘bout rather than doing anything else. It’s an instant classic package of vivid pop — and we can’t stop thinkin’ ‘bout it.–Lior Phillips
04. Hundred Waters – “Blanket Me”
When Hundred Waters‘ Nicole Miglis repeats the titular phrase from “Blanket Me” for what feels like a thousand times, you wouldn’t think repetition could take you through such a journey of emotions. At first, it’s comforting, with her smokey, gentle voice acting out the words she’s obsessed with. But after a while, the request of the phrase starts to become apparent, and a simple call to action becomes desperate. As her band pushes up the volume and her voice becomes more and more urgent, the song eventually becomes a behemoth, abandoning all subtlety in favor of a heartbreaking plea.
As far as first tastes of new albums go, Hundred Waters manages to recapture the magic that made the best of The Moon Rang Like A Bell so memorable. Still, the trio isn’t set on cruise control. It manages to be a surprising song, diving head first into the grandeur of post-rock without abandoning the chilled-out electronic songwriting that they’ve already seemed to master in their young career. As far as statements go, “Blanket Me” shows a band not fucking around, aware that this is their moment to seize and making every attempt not to waste it. –Philip Cosores
03. Nine Inch Nails – “Less Than”
While we’re celebrating the return of Nine Inch Nails, it’s easy to forget that the aggressive soundscapes and haunting original scores from Trent Reznor are only a piece of the artist. The guy can also write a hit. And while it remains to be seen whether 2017 radio has a place for a song like “Less Than”, we can at least say that the songwriter did his part to create something that both remained true to his aesthetic and should have been accessible to even the casual NIN fan.
Musically, Reznor and partner Atticus Ross veer close to darkwave with pinball machine synths, but it’s Reznor’s work towards the chorus that makes the song burn. Even after all these years, he’s a frontman who knows how to balance his artistic endeavors and his commercial one. Nine Inch Nails is often both of these things, but the project doesn’t work without some semblance of mass appeal. With “Less Than”, there is comfort in Reznor playing to his strengths. It reminds us why we fell in love with his music in the first place. –Philip Cosores
02. Jay Z – “Smile”
Let’s be real: Jay Z rules the block when he has something to say. That’s always been the truth for the soon-to-be-billionaire, and that’s partly why 4:44 is such a resounding comeback album. With “Smile”, Mr. Shawn Corey Carter has never sounded better, working through his diamond-encrusted demons over sunny No I.D. beats that glitter with a little help from Stevie Wonder. But it’s a joyous meditation, as he celebrates the birth of his children, the losses that became lessons, and the open sexuality of his mother Gloria Carter, who shares her own words of wisdom by the song’s end.
This isn’t mere self-infatuation or ego-building. Sure, there’s plenty of that, especially toward the latter half, but it’s more so an ego check that spans decades and revisits past trials and triumphs. In a sense, this is Jay Z at his most humble — a possible unifying theme in hip-hop this year? — a man who knows he can’t right all his wrongs, but can only embrace them. Those are powerful sentiments from a man of his stature, and when he nods over, “Bad times turn to good memories, smile,” you start to wish more egomaniacs would try to follow his lead. Maybe. –Michael Roffman
01. St. Vincent – “New York”
It’s kind of weird hearing St. Vincent without her guitar. The two go together like Han Solo and his blaster. Though, unlike our favorite space smuggler, when Annie Clark’s separated from her six-string, she doesn’t find herself drawn and quartered. No, she’s incredibly resourceful, and her latest single, “New York”, only exacerbates that idea. On the tender ballad, she sounds less like her extraterrestrial persona and more like a tortured human being. It’s all in the verses: “Wasn’t true love/ Back to you, love/ So much for a home run/ With some blue bloods,” she pines, presumably from those very city streets.
Who is she talking about exactly? Cara Delevingne? Carrie Brownstein? The late David Bowie even? Who cares. Doesn’t matter. What’s important is where she goes next, specifically those spiraling choruses, when she stands tall and triumphantly sings: “I have lost a hero/ I have lost a friend/ But for you, darling/ I’d do it all again.” It’s not ideal closure by any means, but it’s the most realistic resolution she’s going to find for herself. More importantly, at least for her listeners and fans, it’s just enough connective tissue to have everyone who’s ever loved another person look up and say, “I know.” –Michael Roffman