The pop landscape in 2017 is one that can be characterized, for the most part, by saturation: tropical house reached its mom-friendly breaking point when the Chainsmokers joined forces with Coldplay on “Something Just Like Us,” the little-engine-that-could story of “Bad and Boujee” inspired an endless wave of trap clone toss-offs, and Katy Perry desperately tried to remind you she’s still a thing by Any. Means. Possible.
Freezing cold take: people make “pop” music because they want it to be popular (guess what “pop” is short for!). But, if high school taught us anything, it’s that not everyone can be prom queen. So now, as we reach the twilight of the year of our lord 2017, here are the songs that got shoved into the proverbial lockers of Top 40 High over the last twelve months; just because they weren’t exactly the “next big thing” doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be the next big thing you use to round out your personal “Under the Radar” Spotify playlist.
Sean Paul ft. Migos – “Body”
As evidenced by the team-ups with Steve Aoki to the aforementioned Katy Perry, many artists viewed and treated a feature from the Atlanta trio, hot off of their “Bad and Boujee” chart dominance, as a ticket back to relevancy, including everyone’s favourite school dance party-starter, Sean Paul. If you’re worried about potentially enjoying a 2017 Sean Paul song, fret not: Paul mostly hangs back on his own track, pretty much resigning himself to chorus duties, which he lets be the bread to a delicious Migos sandwich.
The xx – “On Hold”
The xx have always been “popular,” but it wasn’t until this year’s I See You that the group made an obvious grasp for pop fame. The pieces were all there — mastermind Jamie xx has proven his ear for chart success with Drake and Young Thug, and vocalists Oliver Sim and Romy’s voices both share the kind of sultriness that’s a hit with the Starbucks crowd—but the album has been largely forgotten since its mid-January release. Although I See You’s shortcomings rest in pop songs that are too arty and arty songs that are too poppy, lead single “On Hold” perfectly straddles that line, offering a vision of what should’ve been—music that’s at once catchy, danceable, and emotionally resonant.
Future ft. YG – “Extra Luv”
Following a run of eleven (!!!!) full-length projects since 2014, including three this year, it’s safe to say that we finally reached peak Future in February when “Mask Off” had every demographic eagerly, repeatedly learning about what happens when you mix molly, Percocet, and hauntingly beautiful flutes. Whereas “Mask Off” showcases the brooding and hedonistic sound that he’s largely become known for, “Extra Luv,” released mid-summer, is a far more intentional attempt at broader mainstream recognition, aiming for a sunny, west-coast vibe (even bringing current King of Bompton YG in for a feature) that, despite its retroactive addition to the former project, is less FUTURE, more HNDRXX.
A$AP Ferg ft. Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross, A$AP Rocky, French Montana, & Dave East – “East Coast REMIX”
August was supposed to be ASAP Mob’s month, with the hip-hop collective churning out three full-length projects—another posse album and two solo tapes—all within weeks of one another. The results were expectedly uneven, although Ferg’s Still Striving was the clear standout, with the artist rediscovering an intensity that’s been absent from his output for several releases. The tape features a number of reasonably buzzy collaborations with everyone from Migos to Lil Yachty, but “East Coast REMIX” takes things to another level by cramming seven total (seven!) rappers onto the track who, despite their disparate styles, all flaunt their shared fluency in crafting a club-ready banger.
Nelly Furtado – “Cold Hard Truth”
Although many downright improbable things happened this year, one incident of note is that it’s 2017, and not only did Nelly Furtado put an album out that barely anyone paid attention to, but the lead single to said album sounds like her own brooding version of Hot Chip, or better yet, a lighter take on Yeezus. “Cold Hard Truth” (along with the other singles from March’s The Ride) was the product of her collaboration with producer John Congleton, who’s worked with everyone from Blondie to Bowie to Bill Callahan. It’s a playful and mature exercise in pop exploration that, if it wasn’t going to have any chart success, at the very least deserved some traction in the blog “hype-o-sphere.”
Kimbra – “Everybody Knows”
And now she’s just somebody that you used to know. Not that former collaborator Gotye has made any forward strides in popularity since his summer of inescapability with “Somebody That I Used to Know,” but “Everybody Knows,” co-produced by the aforementioned team of Furtado & Congleton, displays more creativity from Kimbra than she ever showed back when she was donning bodypaint. Her voice has grown more dynamic over the years, cycling through styles that recall everything from the Dirty Projectors to the warmest-sounding of R&B chanteuses. She drapes the entire track over production that finds the middle ground between art pop and club pop you didn’t know existed, let alone sounded so damn good.
Chief Keef – “Can You Be My Friend”
Although no one expects him to achieve the commercial heights of 2012’s Finally Rich, Keef’s been quietly putting out odd, inventive music across a variety of styles since his fade from the limelight. “Can You Be My Friend,” the single from this year’s Thot Breaker, although a far cry from the pummeling sounds that got him noticed, still ticks several clout boxes by marrying a dancehall beat to Soundcloud-rap mumble vocals. At one point, Keef even briefly snags the flow from TLC’s “No Scrubs.” I’m serious.