In this episode of Emerald Recommends from the Emerald Podcast Network, arts and culture editor Sararosa Davies, music writers Nic Castillon and Jordan Montero and podcast editor Alec Cowan discuss the music that defined 2017. This is not necessarily the best music to come out this year, but instead, the music that understood the moment, whether personal, political or neither.
Songs discussed in the podcast:
“Preludes” by Craig Finn
“Forgot Myself” by Jen Cloher
“Bad and Boujee (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)” by Migos
“911 / Mr. Lonely” by Tyler, The Creator and Frank Ocean
“Gucci Gang” by Lil Pump
“HUMBLE.” by Kendrick Lamar
“Don’t Take the Money” by Bleachers
“American Teen” by Khalid
“Preludes” — Craig Finn
It seems symbolic to me that Craig Finn — known for his geographic poetic lyrics and storytelling from his days with The Hold Steady — would be a steady soundtrack to my first full calendar year in college. Especially because I have always had trouble with his music.
Finn is originally from Minnesota, my home state, and he often writes about specific spots in the Twin Cities, where both of us grew up. It’s easy to trace the geographical threads through his songs, and this is especially apparent in “Preludes,” the single from Finn’s 2017 solo album, “We All Want The Same Things.” “I came back to St. Paul and things had progressed and got strange,” Finn sings over meandering instrumentals.
This sense of returning to a familiar place and seeing it as unfamiliar resonates with me every time I return home, especially having spent 90 percent of the last year in Eugene. I remember hearing this song the one week I was home over the summer and feeling exactly what Finn what was talking about. I think about how the neighborhood I grew up in has expanded and changed, and how I too have done the same. Now a term into my sophomore year, I can say that I’m becoming a Craig Finn fan. It’s amazing what a year can do.
“Forgot Myself” — Jen Cloher
Summer 2017 was a weird one for me. I wish I had Jen Cloher’s rambling lyricism and guitar from “Forgot Myself” to help me through a few months of bad health, summer classes and the smoke covering Eugene. But when I first heard Cloher sing the lines “Paint a still life of your side of the bed / Patti Smith poems, a hair tie, and some vitamins,” at a concert in Portland this fall, I immediately felt some closure and distance from all the hospital visits I had and Patti Smith I read this summer.
I remembered lying in my bed at my sublease, recovering from a severe allergic reaction, and turning to my bed stand to see “Just Kids” by Patti Smith, bottles of medicine and a hair tie. And now that the summer has surely passed, the depression has lifted and my health is better, “Forgot Myself” serves as a reminder to never eat shellfish again. If music has ever been a motivator to treat myself better, it is now.
“American Teen” — Khalid
“American Teen” captures the uncertainty of youth that propelled Khalid from Grammy hopeful to a nominee in 5 categories at the 2018 awards. The title track follows the struggles of a life in transition, and for me — a senior in college — the synth-driven ode to the quintessential ups and downs of life has been especially resonant. Listening to “American Teen” throughout the year, I felt exactly like Khalid did tweeting back on his aspirations: “Wow. I did it.”
Wow. I did it. https://t.co/Efiwl0vGrI
— Khalid (@thegreatkhalid) November 28, 2017
“Don’t Take The Money” — Bleachers
What can be said about Bleacher’s pop-hit “Don’t Take The Money”? This track has been uplifting, poignant, dancey — in a word, anthemic. The lovelorn lyrics give a thundering battle cry to the song, and whether its relationships or nostalgia for the past, this song always makes me feel retrospective but motivated. Be sure to listen to the vulnerable MTV Unplugged cover featuring Lorde.
“Redbone” — Childish Gambino (Donald Glover)
If a growing sense of frustration surrounding changing political, social and racial landscapes in the United States doesn’t sum up everything that happened in the past year, then I don’t know what does. Though Childish Gambino/Donald Glover’s 2017 smash-hit, “Redbone,” tells the story of a paranoid boyfriend who is suspicious his lover is cheating, its lyrics have been interpreted in many ways. Jordan Peele decided to use the track during the opening moments of his 2017 satirical horror film, “Get Out,” which depicts the realities of racism in America. Peele told Genius.com that he chose the song because of its eerie vibe and its use of the phrase “Stay woke,” which is a slang term for being socially and politically aware. But Glover’s 2017 year of wokeness didn’t end there. His Golden Globe Award winning TV show, “Atlanta,” dealt with similar issues of social and racial injustice.
“Gucci Gang” — Lil Pump
“Gucci Gang” helped push Florida-based rapper Lil Pump into the mainstream this year, but it’s been easy for some people to call the single stupid or even lazy. Its repeated hook — “Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang” — can be heard over fifty times throughout the song’s short duration of two minutes. On paper, this sounds obnoxious, however, Lil Pump somehow makes it work. “Gucci Gang” is incredibly fun, and it remains as one of the year’s catchiest singles.
Pump pushes a typical hip-hop braggadocio to the point of absurdity with the song’s excessive chorus and flamboyant lyrics, an attitude that perfectly matches with the gaudy — and repeatedly referenced — fashion brand. “Spend three racks on a new chain / My bitch love do cocaine,” Pump says. This kid is only seventeen. It should be a bit concerning, yet it’s oddly inspiring. The meteoric rise of artists like Lil Pump in 2017 may not sit well with a lot of “real” hip-hop fans, but whatever. This song works well if you don’t take it too seriously.
“Bad And Boujee” — Migos
The single off of Migos’ early 2017 album, “Culture,” epitomized the future of hip-hop as well as any song of the year. Though technically released in 2016, the song acts as a solid snapshot of the now. Metro Boomin’s ominent trap beat, the patented triplet rhyme scheme (without mumbling) and the appearance of a current hip-hop prince, Lil’ Uzi Vert, made for the perfect combination, leading to a decent stay at number one on the Billboard Charts.
Beyond the song’s commercial success, the track rang through the internet like an inescapable echo. Even non-hip-hop listeners know the phrase, “Rain drop, drop top,” followed by any mumbling that fits. It also gave birth to an iconic hip-hop meme: “Do it look like I’m left off ‘Bad and Boujee’?”
“911 / Mr. Lonely” featuring Frank Ocean — Tyler, the Creator
Tyler, The Creator’s 2017 mid-summer release, “Flower Boy,” was a success in many ways. The album was a mainstay in my summer rotation, and “911 / Mr. Lonely” was constantly on repeat. Its Neptunes-inspired grooves and soul influences ladened by sweet synth lines and boom-bap kicks are extremely effective, making “911 / Mr. Lonely” my year’s definitive jam.
“911 / Mr. Lonely” has it all. Tyler’s production is mature and ironically sweet and beautiful. The Odd Future connection of Tyler and Frank Ocean has yielded masterful tracks since 2011. And the song splits halfway from a sunlit coastal drive to a shiny lament where Tyler studies his own self in a genuine and dexteric fashion. His raps are hot.