“I’ve got new rules,” English pop star Dua Lipa sings, with a smirk in her voice, on the chorus of the aptly-titled “New Rules,” one of the most chart-soaring tracks of the year.
Prescient words they were: Not too many had heard of the 22-year-old before this summer, but it took mere weeks after one hit track for her to rocket up into fame. At large, 2017 was the year music saw everything switched up—from the names topping the charts, to the kinds of music blaring from radio airwaves, to the speed and process by which songs rise and resonate with mass audiences in the first place.
We owe this ocean of change to music’s technology revolution. In 2016, digital, subscription-based music-streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music came fully into the mainstream, becoming the dominant way people—especially young people—hear music. On-demand streaming, which places tens of thousands of songs at consumers’ fingertips for a steady monthly rate, rather than making them choose between purchasing different albums, first started changing the game by freeing famous artists such as Beyoncé and Kanye West to put out quirky, experimental work.
Then, when Spotify and its ilk began to promote personalized playlists such as RapCaviar, lesser-known musicians stumbled upon their time to shine. Chance the Rapper famously started on Soundcloud and made his way all the way to a Grammy—but cases like his are, thanks to streaming, becoming more the norm than the exception.
The result? There are no more reigning “pop stars.” There are only pop hits.
The list below highlights tracks that appear on multiple music critics’ “best of” roundups, and is a celebration of some of the most charming, unique, or otherwise consequential songs to come out of the past year, all from artists who enjoyed only modest renown—or were virtual unknowns—at the start of 2017.
“New Rules” is a curious tincture of tropical house, EDM, and electropop, proving that pop music, these days, is really a genre-less free-for-all.
It broke records left and right, and most of the song’s fans don’t even know what the lyrics are saying.
Cardi B accomplished the seemingly impossible—toppling the domination of Taylor Swift.
A latecomer in the year, and called “cheerfully dark” by Vulture, this hyper-catchy song (just give the first 30 seconds a spin!) has racked up 300 million views on YouTube in under two months.
An enigma and a provocation (with a video directed by Off-White founder and designer Virgil Abloh).
While SZA’s star had already been rising before 2017, this was the year the R&B singer took over the very idea of the love anthem. “She drags out the word ‘love’ in a way that forces you to reach deep down into the pits of your emotions, open your mouth wide as hell, and cry out,” the Fader wrote.
No less a feat for having hacked its way to number one.
Arguably the year’s most magnetic music video.
In 2018, as streaming expands even more, we can expect much more mixing of musical flavors from various niches, nooks, and corners of the world. Nowhere is that more evident than in this magically rootless track: It’s catchy and quick, meaningful in its nonsense, and beholden to no single culture.