At the beginning of the millennium, pop music ruled. Boy bands such as NYSNC* and the Backstreet Boys were incredibly influential in shaping the sounds of future pop music, as was Britney Spears. With a carefully curated public image, upbeat music and an emphasis on style, pop music took the market by storm, sending ripples throughout the industry. Seeking to cash in on the pop music bubble, other labels and PR teams jumpstarted the musical careers of teenagers, attempting to launch them to superstardom.
However, as the population of pop artists increased, the quality of the product and demand for the music decreased. Pop music was decried as derivative. It was drivel that stood in for more meaningful, substantive works of art. The most damning allegation, perhaps, was its lack of originality. Why listen to something you could hear performed by five other groups from years ago?
In current times, pop remains a little unstylish. The biggest names in pop often produce the worst music; obsession with image and risks that don’t pay off are played over and over again, on radios, televisions and online. However, some artists in 2017 kept pop fresh, by sublimating pop’s obsession with external love into personal introspection and incorporating the styles of different genres. Here are 2017’s best pop tracks.
1. “Backseat” – Charli XCX feat. Carly Rae Jepsen
While “Pop 2” missed some end-of-year lists because of its late release date, the release shows what mainstream pop could be with a little ingenuity. “Backseat” seamlessly blends the sweetness of traditional pop and the love-and-drug-fueled isolation of contemporary R&B in a way that you won’t hear on the radio. Producer A.G. Cook deftly manipulates Jepsen’s cherubic purrs and Charli’s robotic croons together in a way that makes you ask: Why haven’t we already embraced vocoded pop duets?
2. “Disco Tits” – Tove Lo
“Disco Tits” is pop satire at its finest. If pop music is empty, what do we do? Tove Lo says fill it with fever dream nonsense. In the music video, she runs off with a muppet (yes, a muppet) and to have an on-the-road affair. Is she seeing something we aren’t? “Disco Tits” tests the limits of pop fantasy, showing how ridiculous extremes can be.
3. “Hard Times” – Paramore
Paramore entered the pop consciousness this year with the release of “Hard Times,” cashing in on the popularity of ’80s inspired synthpop. In their transformation, they’ve upped their tempo to a point of frenetic delusion.
“Hard Times” is sung through clamped teeth, where you’re so manic and giddy that you can’t admit any sadness. R&B tapped into this sadness years ago, but Paramore finally brought pop up to speed.
4. “Los Ageless” – St. Vincent
St. Vincent is another artist who has pivoted to pop in the last few years. Both of her releases toyed with the image of cult icon in the digital age, overwhelmed by themselves and the constant stream of stimulation. “Los Ageless” is a portrait of the world where perhaps that figure truly exists: sterile, bionic and cold.
5. “New Rules” – Dua Lipa
In a literal way, Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” upheaves the old standards of pop and replaces them with a set of new principles. Lipa recounts the push-and-pull of lust and propriety, listing the ways to keep her heart out of danger. In her deep, rich contralto, she isn’t asking you to follow them. She’s telling you.
6. “Supercut” – Lorde
“Supercut” is the distillation of Lorde’s finest qualities: attention to lyrical detail, spacious and complex soundscapes, and complete thematic exploration. Lorde has never tried to hard to fit in—it’s quite the opposite—but on this album she has accepted that she does.
“Supercut” turns fond but painful memories of love and turns them into a montage. One moment, you’re in the passenger seat of their car, twiddling your thumbs as you wait for them to lean over for a kiss, and the next, you’re at your desk in class, asking where it all went wrong.
7. “Telefono” – Phoenix
Phoenix, as veterans of the genre, have been found guilty of production decadence replacing true innovation. “Telefono” is a rare gem in their late collection that shows the value of creative songwriting. A simple hook revolves the sonic collage of phone calls, verse and chorus around, as the narrator reveals he and his partner are falling out of love: “How can I sleep when you’re wide awake?”
8. “Wreath” – Perfume Genius
Mike Hadreas has been something of a critical darling for the past few years, and with good reason. They cite his incisive point of view, especially as it picks apart the more difficult elements of the human condition. “Wreath” is a song about total transcendence from one’s body, about the purest wish to break apart from the form that defines us. It’s so simple, yet so striking.
9. “Boys” – Charli XCX
“Boys” is a classic example of flipping the script. Tired of seeing women objectified? Turn it around and have a bunch of beefcakes doing some sexy nonsense as you sing about hooking up with all of them. While Aitchison may not have made a profound social impact, she mixes the swagger and effortlessness of R&B with pop, well, effortlessly. Her earliest attempts on “Vroom Vroom EP” looks clumsy in comparison.
While some mainstream artists will continue to produce cheap single after cheap single, the top pop tracks of 2017 reflect the depth of meaning that is essential to good music. In a promo for “MASSEDUCTION,” St. Vincent’s 2017 release, Annie Clark quips that “An audience is more damaged, I think, and betrayed by voids rather than substance.”
While the promo is a staged interview, and she is being fed lines, I think the sentiment loses no meaning. The best pop of 2017 reached into the zeitgeist and pulled out our intimate troubles with romance and our insistent desire to live a bionic fantasy. The worst pop of 2017 missed the cues, yet people still want something they can dance to. Pop is music for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it has to be basic.