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It Ain’t That Deep Either Way: 2017’s Best Pop
Anna Cafolla , December 21st, 2017 08:29

Anna Cafolla guides us through twelve months of joy, rage, dancing and daydreaming, with HAIM, Carly Rae Jepsen, Ibeyi, Charli XCX and more.

Pop reigned supreme this year, but that doesn’t mean revolts weren’t raging beneath the keep. In 2017, we did some major questioning of the systems we operate in: Björk, Lady Gaga and more said #metoo, while Kesha fought against her label and abuser, to triumph with Rainbow. Bops like Dua Lipa’s ‘New Rules’ rose up through memes, we examined our critics, and challenged how streaming and algorithms twist what music we get to consume. In pop, we’ve pondered our identities and our politics: the back of the car in Lorde’s neon-soaked Melodrama, in Charli XCX’s soft and pastel ‘Boys’ video that fucked with the male gaze. Queer artists dominated: from Shamir’s glorious Revelations to St Vincent’s sharp-edged, audacious MASSEDUCTION and Tegan & Sara’s stark Con X Covers compilation. Even without a Robyn LP, it’s been a stellar year. Fans have a big part in that too: as K-Pop stans pushed BTS into the mainstream western consciousness, Harmonizers split with Camilizers and Harry Styles defended the power and purpose of fangirls. One fan put Melodrama on display - briefly - in the Louvre: because pop at its best is art.

The Best Pop Of 2017

Carly Rae Jepsen - ‘Cut to the Feeling’

When I started this 2017 roundup column, it was a miracle I could recall anything other than Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Cut to the Feeling’. It’s the Canadian singer’s only hit this year, but for me, it has stretched to dizzying heights across the summer months and into the cold winter, shimmering and popping with technicolor choruses, ohs, ahs and bombastic HEYs. “I wanna play where you play, with the angels,” she sings, rushing with cloud-touching adrenaline. “I wanna wake up with you all in tangles, oh.” There have been plenty of dark moments this year, but ‘Cut to the Feeling’ provided thunderous respite that could fill the biggest arenas and the tiredest hearts.

Khalid - American Teen

An album that made so many of us feel very seen. American Teen has the intimacy of a young man singing with no restraint in his bedroom, but with a sweeping, intense lyrical pull that draws us all in - Khalid sings of what ‘we’ are gonna do next, how ‘our’ year is gonna go. It’s about clumsily growing up and hazy teenage nights, sweeping over a vulnerable, personal wave of R&B by way of Sampha and Frank Ocean. Khalid’s honeyed, gravelly voice (he’s classically trained) is refreshing, and a genuine truth is found in standout tracks like ‘Young Dumb & Broke’ and ‘Saved’.

HAIM - Something To Tell You

Hearing the airy piano opener and wistful vocals of ‘Want You Back’ in the muggy 2am air of Barcelona’s Primavera Sound brought me right back to life. I was fading fast, but a surprise Haim set was the perfect antidote to a day of patatas bravas and cheap Sangria. Something To Tell You is much like that - a welcome, cool breeze punctuated by grinding guitars and bubbling personalities. The San Fernando Valley sisters don’t deviate far from their 2013 debut, but why fix what ain’t broke? They build on those Tango In The Night-like refrains and sing of relationships lost or boldly confronting lovers with the inevitable end. It’s filled with unabashed confidence in themselves - the fizzing ‘Nothing’s Wrong’ is a highlight. Some of its best moments are in its sparseness - the twinkly harmonies of ‘Night So Long’ and the heartbroken but haughty ‘Right Now’, drawing you in close before pummeling you with a tumble of cathartic drums.

Paramore - After Laughter

“I’m going to draw my lipstick wider than my mouth,” Hayley Williams sings. It’s a gaudy, unsettling image, reflecting the high-shine narrative fraught with pain, depression and stinging soul-searching on After Laughter. It exposes the darker side of the band, one that’s been caught in the chaos of lineup changes and personal tension, fronted by a woman held to relentless media standards and idolised by a legion of ex-emo girls in multiple belts and tippexed Vans who’ve grown up with her. “You’re wasting all your faith on me,” Williams spits on ‘Idle Worship’. ‘Fake Happy’, peppy and anthemic, exposes the IG filters we live what can be our worst moments through. Within its bouncing basslines and 80s-powered honesty, there lives the message that we’re not defined by our hurt or current fucked-up state of mind, but we can face it head-on with bangers.

St Vincent - MASSEDUCTION

Following the relentless media circus that surrounded her relationship with a famous ex, Annie Clark uses the waxy pop veneer as a proclamation of pain, detailing the mindless, lucid post-breakup mania and a powerful queer femme statement of being. ‘Sugarboy’ is a sexy, Ziggy Stardust-esque tune, while ‘Pills’ is a subversive pop ditty that’s unsettling yet wonderfully hooky, capturing the abyss of self-medication. ‘Smoking Section’ and ‘New York’ showcase sunlight-in-your-hungover-eyes, stark moments of vulnerability and clarity. ‘Savior’ captures how we give (and give) and take from lovers, while the theatrical, blistering guitars peak on ‘Los Ageless’: “How could anybody have you and lose you and not lose their minds too?” she asks plainly.

Wednesday Campanella - Superman

Wednesday Campanella bunny-hop across a thrilling mish-mash of genres: electro, hip hop, disco, EDM, all to disrupt the idea of what J-Pop is and does. The trio’s Superman is euphoric and wild, weaving ancient mythology with pop culture iconography across blustering fretboards and syncopated trap beats. It’s all pulled together with lead singer KOM_I’s spell-binding vocal somersaults and infectious energy.

Ibeyi - Ash

The second album from the French-Cuban sisters is a stunning, smouldering record about healing and defiance; the ash and debris left behind that fertilise a future. ‘Deathless’ – featuring a raging sax solo from Kamasi Washington – is an anthem of resilience for young women of colour, chronicling Lisa’s racial-profiling and arrest as a teenager. ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ pulsates with Ibeyi’s deity-level energy. Yoruba chants bleed into jazzy percussion, poppy bass, Michelle Obama and Frida Kahlo soundbites and their experiments with autotune – Ash is so wonderfully textured and rich. “I feel the pain, but I’m alive,” is asserted on ‘Away Away’ - that faith and optimism in a brave new now permeates your bones.

MUNA - About U

“This song was written for queer folks, for people of colour, for immigrants, for those who have been made to feel unsafe in their own skin,” the three-piece LA band tweeted about their soaring, shining ‘I Know A Place’. That rundown encapsulates MUNA’s manifesto-like release, About U, which makes solace and space for the marginalised in dark times. It’s synth pop with a purpose, and it absolutely bangs. ‘So Special’ is a dark ballad, ‘Crying in the Bathroom’ is a crying-into-a-wind-machine bop, ‘Loudspeaker’ is a gorgeously reverby and galvanising anthem. In Kate Gavin’s glossy vocals and intricate lyrics we find our own stories, in Naomi McPherson and Josette Maskin’s glittering, synthy soundscapes and euphoric guitar lines we can reflect on what we’ve been through, and what’s to come.

Lorde - Melodrama

Melodrama is often a word attached to young women, in the same realm as ‘hysterical’, or, plainly ‘shut the fuck up’. It’s reserved for those who feel their emotions hard and true, who hold them close then cast them out into the world, uninhibited. What Lorde has done is create an album that best captures those dizzying peaks and troughs of being a young person in love, in lust and in loss. Lorde’s output is fluorescent and turbulent, with Jack Antonoff providing technicolour pop gloss. “In my head I do everything right,” she sings on the roving ‘Supercut’, while ‘Perfect Places’ spills guts across an entire continent and ‘Green Light’ transports us to a neon-soaked nirvana.

Charli XCX - POP 2

A late addition but a very, very worthy one. Charli XCX is a pop futurist, reaching up to the Sistine Chapel heights of pop where Robyn’s Body Talk trilogy sits. Charli holds court across a fascinating cross-section of fans - her loyal followers from the days of Sucker, and a generation that grew up on Glass Swords and Kitsune Maison compilations. Building on the slick, unapologetically ultra-pop of Number 1 Angel, Charli continues to “fuck the game”, as she told fans in a note on this album’s release. AG Cook works the shimmering, shuddering production that cements this assured era of Charli. Collabs are strong across the record: Mykki Blanco, Jay Park, Tove Lo and Carly Rae Jepsen keep the energy high. ‘Femmebot’ needs to be a lipsync for your life on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and ‘Unlock It’ is a rapid dancefloor repopulator. ‘Track 10’, when Charli takes the track alone, cements this work as a robo-powered, smart, fantastical stunner.

Rina Sawayama - RINA

Rina Sawayama skilfully crafts a post-Y2K kid, lucid cyberdream with her debut album. She charges with the power of futuristic R&B à la Janet Jackson, the vast J-Pop heroism of Hikaru Utada and the super-pop prowess of Xtina, but never relies on nostalgia to tell her story. ‘Cyber Stockholm Syndrome’ and ‘10-20-40’ are confident and glitchy, and the slick production skills of Clarence Clarity elevate it to be one of this year’s strongest, most self-assured releases. ‘Tunnel Vision’ is a soft, stunning duet with Shamir that touches delicately onto real generational problems. From the grinding guitars of ‘Afterlife’ to the off-kilter bubblegum basslines of ‘Take Me As I Am’ and hairbrush anthem ‘Ordinary Superstar’, RINA packs a punch, always pushing forward. All in just eight prettily packaged tracks. Sawayama looks deep into IRL and URL anxieties and impulses, with a powerful aura as blue and bright as a Mac error screen in a darkened bedroom.

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