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2017's Best Moments in Music, From Cardi B to Lady Gaga

If Baby Driver taught folks anything this year, it’s that finding just the right song at just the right moment is like kismet. You can’t predict it, but when it happens you have to let it wash over you. Typically these jolts of joy occur to individuals listening alone, but every so often they happen to the public at large. Maybe it’s a music cue in a movie, maybe it’s Lady Gaga premiering a new track at Coachella, maybe it’s someone playing Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” in a subway station and starting a dance party. Below are our favorite musical moments of 2017. Some of them are personal, some are international, all of them have a rhythm. Get into the groove.

Cardi B Tops the Billboard Hot 100

You won’t find a more compelling underdog story in 2017 than that of Belcalis Almanzar—the former stripper and reality TV star turned rap phenom known as Cardi B. Incandescent and hypnotically insistent, it was her major-label debut single, “Bodak Yellow,” that propelled the New York artist to star status over the summer, three sweat-soaked months that saw her song gloriously and furiously rattling every dance floor and blaring from every car window in the Tri-State area. In late September, just weeks before she turned 25, Cardi became the first female rapper since Lauryn Hill (and only the second in history) to top the Billboard Hot 100 without a guest feature (she’d go on to hold the spot for three weeks). The song’s might was more than mere Bronx boast: stubbornly self-willed, Cardi had single-handedly authored her position in rap history, and in doing so, permanently shifted the calculus of pop power in the music industry. A money move, no doubt. —Jason Parham

Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. Videos

In March, Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” arrived with the fire and ferocity of a molotov cocktail—unexpectedly, brazenly, radiantly. It would serve as the first in a collection of staggering music videos to accompany his forthcoming DAMN. album. Directed by Dave Meyers and The Little Homies (the duo is comprised of Lamar and Dave Free, the president of Top Dawg Entertainment, the label he calls home) and laced by a thump-crazy Mike Will Made-It beat, the video furnishes searing iconography: among its most eye-catching, an image of a steel-faced Lamar peers into the camera as a red flame contorts atop his crown of cornrows—the sight is both beautiful for its aesthetic delight and even more cogent for its signification. As I wrote in July, the image lended itself to a portrait of black existence viewed from the inside, a way of being that sits at the nexus of reality, fantasy, and abstraction—which is to say, true to life, if sometimes unnervingly so. The videos that followed were equally powerful and poetic: “DNA.” enlisted Don Cheadle as a monstrous police officer for its berserk synopsis of cat and mouse; the thematic backdrop of “ELEMENT.” borrowed from the fabled photowork of Gordon Parks; “LOYALTY.” fashioned Rihanna and Lamar into a du jour Bonnie and Clyde, a storm of mayhem and mischief. Say what you will, but few artists produced such a consistently stunning and radically envisioned body of work in 2017 as Lamar. —Jason Parham

Sufjan Stevens’ Music in Call Me By Your Name

Sure, Armie Hammer dancing to the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” became the viral music sensation launched by Call Me By Your Name, but it was the songs Sufjan Stevens contributed to the soundtrack that were the heartbreakers. (Stevens had a big year in film music, he also recorded a sadly unused Tonya Harding tribute for I, Tonya.) In addition to a remix of the Age of Adz track “Futile Devices,” the movie featured two new Stevens’ tracks that serve as bookends to the movie’s central romance. “Mystery of Love” is a paean to the falling’s firsts: first touch, first kiss. Then “Visions of Gideon,” which unfolds over CMBYN’s elegiac closing credits scene, packs the film’s final punch as Stevens all but whispers “I have loved you for the last time … I have kissed you for the last time. Is it a video?” It’s enough to make you want to rewind the whole thing and relive it all again. —Angela Watercutter

Black Thought Proves Roots Run Deep

Some musical moments are best experienced through your timeline. Some things are so colossal and jaw-dropping that you run to Twitter not to rage or crack jokes, but to yell astonishedly, and to read other people doing the same thing. In 2013, it happened with Kendrick Lamar’s venomous tirade on Big Sean’s “Control.” And that verse’s ignition-turn—”tell Flex to drop a bomb on this shit”—felt even more apropos in early December, when NYC radio legend Funkmaster Flex invited Roots frontman Black Thought into Hot 97’s (sigh) Ciroc studio. What followed was more than nine minutes (nine minutes!) of furious adrenaline-spiked wordplay (“how much more CB4 can we afford?/it’s like a shariah law on my cherie amour,” he says halfway through, bemoaning hip-hop’s fate with more panache than the genre has seen in four decades) that left you no option but to fire up Tweetdeck and listen to it all over again, this time properly annotated with capslocked reverence and GIFs of people fainting. —Peter Rubin

The Heart-Cutting Chorus in St. Vincent’s ‘Los Ageless’

St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) produced one of her most pop-y and accessible in 2017 with Masseduction and introduced it with “Los Ageless,” and incredibly catchy ode to the shallowness and pop-will-eat-itself nature of the City of Angels. It also might be a tribute to a lost love. Or an ode to Hollywood’s treatment of women. It’s a St. Vincent song, so it could be all three, honestly, but by the time it hits its bombastic chorus it doesn’t matter. “How can anybody have you?” Clark sings. “How can anybody have you and lose you? How can anybody have you and lose you and not lose their minds, too?” If there was a smarter antanaclasis about desire and obsession written this year, I don’t know what it was. —Angela Watercutter

The Blatant Non-Subtleness of Demi Lovato’s Tell Me You Love Me

There’s painful honesty and then there’s Demi Lovato—a in a Demi Lovato jam the truth hurts, but it’s also delivered in such a blunt absolutely innuendo-less way you want to give her a high five. Her latest album Tell Me You Love Me is full of these. Case in point: “Daddy Issues,” which to no one surprise finds the singer using her forceful soprano to wail “Forget all the therapy that I’ve been through/Lucky for you, I got all these daddy issues” to her non-committal, unavailable lover. Not candid enough for you? Skip ahead to “Ruin the Friendship,” which is of course about trying to hook up with a pal. In the hands of anyone else, all of this might sound ridiculous, but between Lovato’s voice and the album’s seriously solid pop and R&B grooves, it’s the best of (non-)guilty pleasures. —Angela Watercutter

Jay-Z Looks Back on “Marcy Me”

Jay-Z’s had his share of comebacks already—the years before 2003 and 2013 were a continuous pendulum-swing of retirement and return—but even the highlights of that era only seem like appetizers next to 2017’s 4:44. Despite its brevity, the album is 36 minutes of full-throated embrace: of his hyphen, of regret, of guilt and fidelity and family and legacy. And all that sentiment finds its apotheosis here, in which Hov goes back to the beginning via the Brooklyn houses of his youth. From the opening Biggie quote to the ’90s nostalgia (“Old Brooklyn, not this new shit, shit feel like a spoof/Fat laces in your shoe? I’m talkin’ bustin’ off the roof”), this is Shawn Carter not as a hustler or a mogul or even a contrite husband, but a middle-aged man looking back at his own making. Things ain’t what they used to be, indeed. —Peter Rubin

The Mysteries of Frank Ocean’s ‘Chanel’

Frank Ocean is the master of songs that you’ll end up spending weeks on Genius trying to decode. (It’s been five years and I’m still studying “Pyramids.”) “Chanel” was like that right from it’s opening line: “My guy pretty like a girl, and he got fight stories to tell/I see both sides like Chanel.” Ostensibly the song is about dualities—Ocean’s, sexuality’s, life’s—but before it’s done Ocean has touched on fame, oppulence, and a missing love. Yet it’s the chorus’ multiple entendres, referencing the interlocking “C” logo of lifestyle brand Chanel and providing the near-homophone “sea on both sides like channel,” that show an unparalelled gift for words. Ocean dropped “Chanel” on his Beats 1 radio show last March and we’ve been deciphering it ever since. —Angela Watercutter

Chance the Rapper Brings New Music to The Late Show

Back in September, Chance the Rapper was slated to appear on The Late Show to do a track off his album Coloring Book. But being the master of musical spontanaety, that didn’t happen. Instead he brought out R&B artist Daniel Caesar and performed a song so new it didn’t even have a title yet. A soulful spoken-word-esque “yammer,” as he called it, the track was pure Chance. And nothing could top Stephen Colbert’s delight at being the first person to show it to the world. Now if someone could just mail Chano that Grammy already. —Angela Watercutter

Lady Gaga Debuts ‘The Cure’ at Coachella

This last one has been a pretty random one for Lady Gaga. (No, Gaga is never not random, but just go with it.) She literally threw herself, and her brand of queer art-pop, into the Super Bowl. She released a documentary on Netflix about the dramatic lead-up to that performance and the emotional recording process for her most recent album Joanne. And she filled in for Beyoncé at Coachella when the singer’s forthcoming twins prevented her from performing. And it was during that set of desert performances that Gaga unleashed “The Cure”—a tight package of pure pop that served as the perfect antidote at the end of a long winter. —Angela Watercutter


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