On the Pale Blue Dot: The 19 Absolute Best Songs Released in 2017

the pale blue dot
The musician Chan Marshall (Cat Power's the stage name) once said that "there is a grain of truth in every song". In these songs below, there's at least enough grains of sand to make a beach. Without further ado, here are the songs-they're in no particular order. I'd like to think that together, these songs represent a collage of human experiences in 2017. Each of these tunes is worth a close listen- enjoy!

We'll start things off with "Tell Me" by the late Sharon King. Ms. King sadly passed from cancer this year. The former choir leader and Atlanta native made joyful music right up into the end. I love this song. It's celebratory nature is infectious. R.I.P, Ms. King. Thank you for your commitment to music and bravery. 

Rapper Sho Baraka splices this woke tune ("Pendantic") with audio clips from Denzel Washington-"If don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're misinformed". We live in a world of greed and lies. And also one of thoughtful questioning, morality, and active political thought, as Sho so nicely demonstrates here. After all, what is the point of knowledge without wisdom? PS: Sho's band is groovy. 

"God in Chicago" by Craig Finn: A quiet piano, a novels worth of a story in a few minutes, and a spoken word/sung chorus masterpiece from Craig Finn accounts for what is perhaps the most emotionally moving piece of music from 2017. I'll let Mr. Finn fill in the rest:

Yes, Aimee Mann put out an incredible album this year. It's called Mental Illness. The title is self explanatory, and so are the songs, which favor plan spoken acoustic meditations on the world inside our skulls. Mann invites us into this world and lends us a hand as she takes us for a tour. The best song of the bunch? "Stuck in the Past". It's steady acoustic rhythm allows Mann to pour out her truth in a plain and melodic manner.

What's the world without love? "If We Were Vampires" by Jason Isbell is a killer of a love song. It's not only an acknowledgement of mortality, but a testament to human commitment sung over a gorgeous, yet intense acoustic finger-picked acoustic guitar. Maybe time running out is a gift. . .

"Feel" by Kendrick Lamar find our favorite rapper in a pensive, reflective mood. Kendrick lays it all out on the table here, as the genius unravels his cadence and poetry on top of a shuffling beat complete with deep bass and piano notes placed at just the right moments. Kendrick can rap like no other, as he lays emotion onto every line, adds urgency to words that, when paired with music, create a fascinating document of a human soul. Kenrick keeps saying "ain't nobody praying for me". So pray for him. You can read all the lyrics here

Usually, Randy Newman plays the part of the cynical guy on the piano, mocking the absurd world around him. It turns out the guy has a big heart too. In "Lost Without You" Mr. Newman explores the death of his wife through a prism of not just himself, but the memories they had together (planting the tomato garden) and his children (they worry dad will drink too much). The effect is overwhelmingly tender, as Newman taps on the piano, layers in some strings, and sings with a sense of casual beauty. 

The other day, I asked my students "who can relate?" after reading a shorty story. They immediately responded "WOOO" thanks to "1-800-273-8255" by Logic. While I wasn't necessarily expecting that reply, I immediately recognized that they were quoting Logic. In case you are wondering, the number in the title for the song is for the national suicide hotline. This tune is not only a pop gem, but spreads a positive and life affirming message, a message that has reached all this season, from ages 1-102.

"Berlin" by Gil Landry doesn't cover any new ground, and that's OK. This tightly constructed tune details weary love and aimless wandering, using the city of Berlin, Germany as a metaphor for division and renewal. The couplets here are sharp. The chorus hits the right notes, and the woozy country guitar paints atmosphere, only to be guided by the north star of Landry's acoustic and deep voice.

"Nashville" by Little Bandit (Alex Caress) carves out space in a tradition of love songs to a town. In recent years, country music has seen a revival, and in many ways, the slick Nashville sound of red party cups and fictional gatherings of trucks by the creek has been replaced with  grittier efforts that value musicianship and songwriting over naked commercial appeal. While Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson stand as the emerging giants in this new Nashville world, look for Little Bandit  to follow in their footsteps. Here, the loud and clear electric guitar Bandit introduces by hitting the strings up and down lead us into a song that sounds like a classic in the making. When the piano and drums kick in, we're entered into official Rolling Stones meet Nashville territory (minus the the swagger, plus the earnestness).

Buried deep down in "Astral Plane" by Valerie June is a bedroom folk song, sung tenderly, and written with honest intent. When the band kicks in, though, the song blossoms into something more: a true delight that looks at the world with a backwards glance. Or something. June's voice is weird, and takes some getting used to. Something about her whole operation will throw you off your game a bit, only to realize you're now listening to folk songs upside down. It doesn't happen every day.

Following Valerie June, let's continue on our weird streak with "It's Midnight/Grown Apart" by rapper Uncommon Nasa. The song feels like it was recorded in Nasa's kitchen and produced by his 15 year old cousin. It's raw. It's weird. And it sets the stage for an album that is an ugly piece of meaningful art. "Written at night. Written in the rain". I like those lines.

Over the course of his career, Beck has been a little bit of everything. Folk, country, dance pop, rap-you name it. The suit he wears in "Dreams" off his 2017 album Colors is one of an unabashed pop star-and a meticulous one at that. The hook to this song is a delight, and hell, so is the chorus. And the post-chorus comedown from features Beck signing falsetto with cascading keys that follow him along that melodic trail. The guitar is driving, muted, and fun. I'm not even sure of the lyrics of this song, but it doesn't matter when every square inch is pleasure. Beck paid attention every minor detail of this song, from the synths, guitar hooks, vocal inflections- all of it.
"Happy to be Here" by Julien Barker almost sounds like it could be a song on Aimee Mann's 2017 album Mental Illness (see above) in the sense that it just Barker, her guitar, and the depths of her being. Barker is blessed with the ability to deliver a song with just her voice and electric guitar. It's wrapped up in a package and ready to be received. There's a driving energy and emotional honesty in "Happy to be Here" that demands our attention, as Barker relays her struggles surrounding mental illness, addiction, religion, God, and checking into rehab with "an audience of folding plastic chairs". You can read about Baker in the New Yorker here.

Ah, the classic Ryan Adams is at it again. It feels like Adams could reel off a decent song with a melody intact in the middle of his sleep. His gift for singing, constructing plainspoken, simple lyrics, and finding the right arrangement for his songs is unmatched. In "To be Without You" Adams displays all these musical gifts, fitting a breakup song into his formula for solid folk rock tunes. "To be Without You" is an emerging classic, a la Dylan's "I Thew it all Away". Everything about this song works, and the emotion is palpable.

Settle in and sit on the big comfy couch, because the War on Drugs 11 minute jam "Thinking of a Place" is about to wrap you in a warm blanket. Hold on tight, but not too tight, because the journey here is loose, a giant exhale, a look at the spacey room, a look at the starry sky. Complete with Dylanesque vocals, guitar solos, harmonicas, lightly tapped keys, steady drums, and wide open space that sets your heart free, "Thinking of a Place" is the best song off a good album (A Deeper Understanding). Simply put, this song is a journey, and it hits in all the right places.

Christian rapper Lecrae has long felt boxed in by his insular, evangelical/suburban audience. In 2017, Lecrae finally busted loose with his magnum opus: All Things Work Together. The albums best song is  "Always Knew", which of course comes complete with a catchy hook and well spit bars. However, most importantly, "Always Knew" sums up Lecrae in 2017: he's talking about black lives matter, his love for Malcom X and Jesus, his audience that he thinks has twisted his words to claim that he hates cops just for standing up for justice. "Always Knew" is Lecrae's new thesis statement, as he lends credence to the diversity of Christian voices in the American political environment.

Mary Gauthier poetic lyrics deserve to be read, and she tells stories that deserve to be told. Released as a stand alone single in anticipation of her new upcoming album Rifles and Rosary Beads, "Bullet Holes in the Sky" features Gauthier as the poet laureate of American veterans, as she takes the persona of a former soldier who gets a free meal at the Waffle House on Veterans day. It's worth noting that Gauthier paired with veterans to write the songs that will be included on Rifles and Rosary Beads. "Bullet Holes in the Sky" is not political. It doesn't stray from honoring the stories of veterans. This song somehow seems to find the place where independent journalism, poetry, and songwriting meet. Here, Gauthier's efficient vocals along with her acoustic guitar are joined by some light piano flushes, adding a sense of melancholic beauty to the song.

It's fitting that we should end with "No One Else Will be There" by the National. Following a few dignified piano chords and a shuffling, understated percussion, this song documents the intimate moments and thoughts one has about a long term romantic partner, no matter how trivial, no matter how embarrassing. One gets the sense that lead singer Matt Berninger is trying to persuade his wife to leave an office Christmas party early, stuck in some Brooklyn brownstone apartment, with coats in their hands, awkward goodbyes, and emotional frustration. I image the heat on high inside, and outside, nothing but cold blue air, streetlights, and dark skies.

Honorable mention: "Preludes" by Craig Finn, "DNA" by Kendrick Lamar, "No Glory in Regret" by John Moreland, "All the Trouble" by Lee Ann Womack, "Pure Comedy" by Father John Misty, "Cumberland Gap" by David Rawlings, "Solid Rock-Live 1979" by Bob Dylan, and "John My Beloved" by Sufjan Stevens.

Lastly, check out the Spotify playlist right here!

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