Here we go again. This is my 9th annual countdown of the top pop hits of the year.
Some frequently asked questions that recur:
1. Why is it all pop music?
I chose to do a pop music countdown because I wanted to limit to songs that most readers have heard. For that reason, it’s not necessarily my favorite songs of the year–that would be a different countdown.
2. Do you not like other genres?
I do enjoy songs that are off the beaten chart and genres other than pop. I’d love to hear your selections in those areas.
3. Which songs are eligible?
I start with any song that made the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in any week of 2017. This year, there were 66 songs that qualify. Then I start to eliminate some from consideration. Any song that made last year’s top 10 is ineligible for this year’s top 10. There are four such songs: “Starboy” by The Weeknd ft. Daft Punk, “24K Magic” by Bruno Mars, “Closer” by the Chainsmokers ft. Halsey and “Bad Things” by Machine Gun Kelly & Camila Cabello.
Okay, that leaves 62 songs for consideration, including one song released in 1994 that just hit the top 10 for the first time. While I did not make that song officially ineligible, I decided against ranking Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” because it just feel right to put it among the top songs of this year.
4. Which songs are ineligible?
If it didn’t make the top 10 at any time this year, it does not make this countdown. Some of this year’s biggest songs were near misses. There were three big hits that peaked at #11: James Arthur’s “Say You Won’t Let Go,” “Issues” by Julia Michaels and “Slow Hands” by Niall Horan. Other big hits that didn’t quite make it are “Redbone” by Childish Gambino and Kesha’s comeback hit, “Praying.”
Beginning on December 26, I will reveal my number 10 song, followed by two more songs each day in this space. I will reveal my number one song on New Year’s Eve.
On the whole, 2017 was a mixed year. There were quite a few songs I don’t like, but my top five songs this year would be strong contenders for number one in just about any other year I have done this. If I had to describe 2017, I’d call it the year of former band members going solo.
As usual, I welcome comments and criticism, and feel free to bring it. So, without further babbling, here is my list:
1. Love On The Brain, Rihanna, Westbury Road/Roc Nation
I have long thought that Rihanna has a great voice, but doesn’t always use it on many of her records. “Love On The Brain” allows her to shine. Adele’s 25 and Beyonce’s Lemonade got a lot of attention in 2016, but Rihanna’s Anti album was quite good—her best. The fourth single from Anti, “Love On The Brain” was released in September 2016. I was well aware of the song last year, but it didn’t hit the top 10 until March 2017. It’s a throwback—a song you might have heard from a pop-jazz diva back in the doo-wop era. Like Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect,” it has a 12/8 time signature, unusual in modern pop. Written mainly by producer Fred Ball, ‘Love On The Brain” details the excruciating highs and lows of a tumultuous relationship. It allows Rihanna to pour in some emotion and belt it out at times. Her timing and phrasing is exquisite, a potential defining moment in her career. In most countries, it took some time to catch on, perhaps due to not sounding like a pop hit from this era. It did take off in Poland, where it spent four weeks at number one in 2016. In the USA, it was originally released to urban R&B radio. Pop radio discovered it over time, and “Love On the Brain” took off in March 2017 and peaked at #5 later that month, more than six months after the single’s release and more than a year after the album release. Rihanna first performed the song on television for the Billboard Music Awards in May 2016. This is Rihanna’s third appearance on my year-end top 10 lists, following “Take Care” with Drake in 2012 and ‘FourFiveSeconds” with Kanye West and Paul McCartney in 2015.
Official video: YouTube link
Alternate black & white video: YouTube link
Live at 2016 Billboard Music Awards: YouTube link
Stay/Diamonds/Love On The Brain medley, 2016 MTV Music Awards: YouTube link
Jessie James Decker cover: YouTube link
Little Mix live cover: YouTube link
Kelly Clarkson cover from Facebook live: YouTube link
2. Chained To The Rhythm, Katy Perry featuring Skip Marley, Capitol
Katy Perry’s fifth album, Witness, is a departure from her past adult pop sound. Unfortunately, in trying to be different, she would up with an album that’s uneven and really all over the place. The first single from Witness is easily my favorite Katy Perry song. You can hear the influence of four major songwriters. Perry came up with the concept and prolific Swedish writer Max Martin gives it a strong dance melody. Skip Marley, grandson of the great Bob Marley, adds the Jamaican dancehall feel. He is a featured artist on “Chained To The Rhythm.” Another songwriter is Sia, who also provides uncredited backup vocals. Sia gives the song a little of her edge. The collaborative effort is outstanding. On the surface, it’s a catchy dance tune about dancing to a favorite song. Dig deeper into the lyrics, and there’s a clear message about living in a bubble and ignoring troubles. According to Perry, the song concept was borne out of her frustration with the 2016 presidential election, however, the lyrics are not at all specific to any individual. “Chained To The Rhythm” was released in February and hit number one in Croatia, Hungary, Latvia, Poland and Serbia. It peaked at number five in the U.K. and number four in the U.S. This is Skip Marley’s first appearance on my year-end top 10 lists and Perry’s second. “Firework” made my 2010 favorites.
Official video: Vevo link
Live at the BRIT Awards: YouTube link
Perry singing with the semifinalists of The Voice France: YouTube link
Boyce Avenue acoustic cover: YouTube link
Cover by Rebecca Black with Adam Goot: YouTube link
Alexander Stewart cover: YouTube link
3. Havana, Camila Cabello featuring Young Thug, Syco/Epic
I was obsessed with this song the first time I heard it. The bouncy piano, the Latin groove, the understated brass, and well, I just love a good cha-cha rhythm. Camila Cabello is a 20-year-old Cuban-born singer who first gained fame as a member of Fifth Harmony, a girl band put together by Simon Cowell on The X Factor. She released two collaboration singles on her own in 2016—one (“Bad Things”) hit #4 and made my year-end list for that year. In December 2016, Fifth Harmony announced Cabello’s departure. Going solo appears to have been a great decision. “Havana,” co-written by Pharrell Williams, who also sings backup, has hit number one in six countries, including Australia, Canada and the U.K. In the United States, “Havana” shot up the charts in November and spent five weeks at number two behind “Rockstar” by Post Malone. Now I don’t quite understand this but reportedly, a YouTube hack artificially (but legally) inflated the chart position of “Rockstar,” likely preventing “Havana” from hitting number one. It marks the biggest hit for either Cabello or for Young Thug, who performs the rap verse. Young Thug is an Atlanta-based rapper who has had considerable success with mixtapes and has recently done well as a featured artist on pop hits. There is a rap-free solo version that excludes Young Thug designed for play on radio stations that avoid playing rap, but I prefer the version with Young Thug. The video, which features a young woman obsessed with telenovelas, delightfully captures the steamy sultry nature of this track. “Havana” is still at number three headed into 2018, behind “Perfect” and “Rockstar.” It’s still one of the songs I actively search for on my car radio.
Official video: Vevo link
Live on NBC’s Today: YouTube link
European Music Awards performance: MTV UK link
Spanglish version, Latin American Music Awards, Los Angeles: YouTube link
Spanglish remix with Cabello and Daddy Yankee (audio): YouTube link
4. Perfect, Ed Sheeran or Ed Sheeran Duet with Beyoncé, Atlantic
I can’t remember the last number one hit with a time signature of 12/8. Ed Sheeran’s love ballad, written for his girlfriend Cherry Seaborn, seems more suited to a Viennese waltz dance floor than pop radio. Sheeran manages to pull it off. Originally a solo hit from his ÷ (Divide) album, “Perfect” was a top ten hit worldwide, including in the United Kingdom and the United States. A duet version with Beyoncé was released on December 1. Billboard treats an alternate version as the equivalent of the flip side of a record. In some cases, the B-side becomes the A-side. The December 16 issue listed the solo version at #3 as the A-side. The following week, the duet was the A-side, giving Sheeran had his second #1 hit. It’s Beyoncé’s seventh #1 and her tenth if you include Destiny’s Child songs. The duet remains #1 headed into 2018 and has reached #1 in 16 countries. In the UK, Sheeran’s duet version also boosted “Perfect” to #1, giving Sheeran and Beyoncé the prestigious Christmas Number One status. More recently, a version with Andrea Bocelli has been released, but the bulk of American airplay is divided between the solo version and the Beyoncé duet. One more trivia chart fact—in the UK in March 2017, Sheeran had all the top five songs, and 16 of the top 20 the week his album debuted. “Perfect” spent a week at number 4 long before its chart run near the end of the year. On my year-end lists, “Perfect” is the second appearance for both Sheeran and Beyoncé. I’ll end with a misheard lyric. When I first heard this song, I wondered what was up with the “barefoot on the cross” line, before eventually coming to realize it was Sheeran’s pronunciation of “grass” that had me confused.
Official video: Vevo link
Official audio with Beyoncé: YouTube link
Official video with Andrea Bocelli: Vevo link
“Live” duet with Beyoncé: YouTube video
Live performance on X-Factor Italy finale: YouTube link
Anthony Alexander cover on NBC’s The Voice: YouTube link
5. Feel It Still, Portugal. The Man., Atlantic
Portugal. The Man. is not just a man, and not from Portugal. It’s actually a five-man band from Wasilla, Alaska. Yes, that Wasilla. Their breakout hit, “Feel It Still,” was a major airplay hit in America before it really took off on the Billboard Hot 100. The retro-sounding lead single from the band’s Woodstock album borrows just enough from “Please Mr. Postman” to give the song a clear 1960s feel while still sounding original. “Feel It Still” originally hit big on rock and alternative stations. After a mid-March release, “Feel It Still” was number one on the Adult Alternative chart by the week ending May 9. It took a bit longer on the Alternative Songs chart, but spent a record-breaking 20 weeks at the top of that chart. Eventually, pop radio got in on the act. “Feel It Still” entered the Billboard Top 20 in mid-September. The band’s first big hit went on to spend nine weeks in the Top 10, two of them at its peak position of four. The lyrics are intentionally vague (“am I coming out of left field”) and are reportedly somewhat of a political statement, mainly frustration with the whole political party structure. Some of the better songs of recent years have a retro-feel; I suspect that trend will continue. “Feel It Still” was one of few songs to top six different Billboard airplay charts, but did not hit number one on the Hot 100. It was successful worldwide, but only reached number one in one country: Slovenia.
Official video: Vevo link
Live at the American Music Awards: YouTube link
Stripped down studio version: YouTube link
London rooftop performance: YouTube link
Acoustic cover by Megan Davies: YouTube link
6. Despacito, Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber, Universal Music Latino/Raymond Braun/Schoolboy/Def Jam/UMLE/Republic
I’ll pre-emptively state that the version with Justin Bieber is the only one eligible for this countdown. “Despacito” was a record-breaking hit in so many ways that it’s hard to list them all. A chart-topper in at least 47 countries, “Despacito” was a clear winner of Billboard’s official Song of the Summer competition, and is the only song in history to spent all of June, July and August at number one. It’s tied for the longest-running number one hit with “One Sweet Day,” at 16 weeks. Luis Fonsi is a Puerto Rican superstar who is well-known in the Latin music community. Daddy Yankee is also from Puerto Rico and is a reggaeton star, mostly known to U.S. listeners for his 2004 hit, “Gasolina.” “Despacito” was originally released in January 2017 and immediately took off on the Latin charts. Starting in mid-February, “Despacito” spent 35 straight weeks atop the Billboard Hot Latin songs chart. In mid-April, a remix featuring Justin Bieber was released, subsequently, sales and airplay surged dramatically in English-speaking countries. By August, its original YouTube video, without Bieber, became the first video ever to hit 3 billion views. It has since reached 4.5 billion. Perhaps surprisingly, “Despacito” was only the second-biggest hit of 2017, according to Billboard, however, that is mainly because Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” came out well before the Bieber remix, giving Sheeran’s hit a big head start. “Despacito” has already won four Latin Grammys, and is nominated for three more Grammy Awards, for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. This is the first appearance for Fonsi and Daddy Yankee on my top 10 lists, and the third for Bieber.
Official video (without Bieber): YouTube link
Official video (with Bieber): YouTube link
Merengue cover by Antony Santos (audio): YouTube link
Croatian duo 2Cellos: YouTube link
Peter Bence piano cover: YouTube link
Postmodern Jukebox Broadway-style cover: YouTube link
Luis Fonsi and others at the Latin Grammys: YouTube link
Daddy Yankee in Merida, Mexico: YouTube link
Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee at the Billboard Latin Music Awards: YouTube link
Luis Fonsi and Justin Bieber in Puerto Rico: YouTube link
7. I Feel It Coming, The Weeknd featuring Daft Punk, XO/Republic
The Weeknd makes the list for the third straight year with this year’s entry, “I Feel It Coming,” his second straight single to feature French electronic duo Daft Punk. Their previous collaborative single was the title track to the Starboy album, which opened 2017 at number one. “I Feel It Coming” was released in November 2016 and is a little less edgy and more dance pop than “Starboy.” “I Feel It Coming” entered the Billboard top 20 as “Starboy” was falling down the chart. It peaked at number four in April and spent just four weeks in the top 10. It was a number one hit in France and Mexico. Daft Punk appears on my lists for the third time, following last year’s “Starboy” and my number one song of 2013, “Get Lucky.” Both “Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming” were nominated but lost in the Top R&B Collaboration category at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards Starboy is nominated for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the upcoming Grammy Awards in January 2018.
Official video: Vevo link
Live at the Grammy Museum’s Clive Davis Theater: YouTube link
Anthony Alexander and Michael Kight on NBC’s The Voice: YouTube link
Spanish cover by Chilean singer Kevin Vasquez: YouTube link
English cover by K-Pop star J. Fla: YouTube link
8. Million Reasons, Lady Gaga, Streamline/Interscope
I could probably not give you a million reasons why I think you’ve at least heard this song, but since Lady Gaga performed “Million Reasons” at halftime of the Super Bowl, odds are that you have heard it at least once. “Perfect Illusion” was the first single from Lady Gaga’s album, Joanne, released in September 2016. Although it hit number one in France and Spain, it was a bit of a disappointment here, peaking at #15. “Million Reasons,” the second single is a minimalist ballad written by Lady Gaga with Mark Ronson and country songwriter Hillary Lindsey. I credit Lady Gaga for taking what is a so-so country-tinged ballad and adding a little funk to it. It still didn’t chart very well initially. “Million Reasons” peaked at number 52 in December 2016, but re-entered the chart at #4 following her performance at the Super Bowl in Houston. “Million Reasons” was never intended to be a single. It was supposed to be a promotional extra for people pre-ordering the Joanne album. After performing “Million Reasons” on a carpool karaoke segment with James Corden, demand for the song led to its official release as the album’s second single. “Million Reasons” also earned Lady Gaga a Grammy nomination for Pop Solo Performance. This marks the fifth song for Lady Gaga on my year-end top 10 lists and the first since 2011.
Official video: Vevo link
Live at Super Bowl 51: YouTube link
Carpool Karaoke segment on The Late Late Show with James Corden: YouTube link
Live from Saturday Night Live: YouTube link
Royal Variety Performance (orchestral backing), Hammersmith Apollo in London, December 2016: YouTube link
Cover version by Bob Weir and Trey Anastasio, Wanee Music Festival: YouTube link
9. Thunder, Imagine Dragons, Kidinakorner/Interscope
It would be difficult to rationally explain why I like “Thunder.” The target audience seems to be around ages 6-8. It’s very repetitive, the synthetic voice shift is corny, the synthesizer bridge is weird and the transition into that bridge is not at all smooth. It has shown up already on more than a few worst songs of the year lists, however, it was among the most requested songs on radio at the end of 2017. “Thunder” topped the charts in Belarus, the Czech Republic and Latvia and was truly an international sensation. Released in April as the second single from the Evolve album, “Thunder” hit the Billboard top 10 in late October and remained in the top 10 for the rest of the year. It spent two weeks at #4 and seven additional weeks at the #5 position. “Thunder” has topped some of Billboard‘s other charts, including Adult Top 40, Alternative Songs, Mainstream Top 40 and Hot Rock Songs. Perhaps the “so silly it’s good” strategy is working. “Thunder is nominated for a Grammy in the Pop Duo/Group Performance category. “Thunder” is also the first Imagine Dragons song to make any of my year-end Top 10 lists.
Official video: Vevo link
Live from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon: YouTube link
Live at the Wind Music Awards at Verona, Italy: YouTube link
Live mashup at the Billboard Music Awards with Khalid’s “Young Dumb and Broke:” YouTube link
10. Strip That Down, Liam Payne featuring Quavo, Hampton/Republic
All five former members of One Direction hit the top 40 in 2017. Three of them had top-10 hits and Niall Horan just missed (“Slow Hands” peaked at #11). Payne’s first big hit takes him into more of a dance/hip-hop direction than that of his former bandmates. “Strip That Down” is a result of a collaboration between Payne and Ed Sheeran along with producer Steve Mac. They wrote the song in the summer of 2016 and brought in Quavo to perform the hip hop verses. Quavo, who seemed to be the featured artist of 2017, is listed as a songwriter with Payne, Sheeran and Mac along with a slew of other songwriters. The writers of “Strip That Down” borrowed from Shaggy’s hit “It Wasn’t Me,” which itself borrowed from a War song called “Smile Happy.” Every credited writer on both of those songs is credited on “Strip That Down.” Released in May 2017, “Strip That Down” was intended to be the first single from Payne’s first album, although that album has yet to be released. It began to pick up airplay throughout the summer and hit the top 20 in August. Although it hung around for some time, it only spent one week at #10 in September. I chose this as my number 10 song of the year after going back-and-forth with another song that peaked at #10, “Malibu” by Miley Cyrus. I settled on “Strip That Down” as recently as December 26. In addition to the songwriting credit, Ed Sheeran’s vocals are on “Strip That Down,” but uncredited.