The 20 Best Pop Radio Hits of 2017

Last week I did lists for the year in R&Brockrap, and country, so here is the last of my 5 annual genre lists. 2017 is only the second year this decade (after 2012) where no album had multiple Hot 100 #1s, and the only year this decade that every #1 was by a different artist (although Justin Bieber was a guest on two #1s). That's a fancy way of saying that pop music was a little more fractured and diffuse than usual this year, that no blockbuster album loomed over the year like a 21 or a Teenage Dream has in most years. And it didn't even feel like Top 40 radio was dominated by any one particular sound or trend so much as we felt the echoes of the last few big fads. With Dr. Luke in exile and Max Martin loosening his grip on the chart, things felt a little less managed and supervised by a small cabal of super-producers. Even the one arguable dominant trend of pop radio this year -- the solo careers of members of One Direction -- was defined by a bunch of individuals setting off into different directions.

Here's the Spotify playlist, and here's the pop lists I did in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.

1. Niall Horan - "Slow Hands"
#1 Mainstream Top 40, #11 Hot 100
When vocal groups splinter into solo acts, it's usually a game of winner-take-all for whichever member has the highest profile. With One Direction, things got a little interesting when Zayn left the group and got his career started before the presumed frontrunner Harry. But in 2017, 1D proliferated onto the charts like no group except maybe New Edition -- each member had a top 10 hit in the U.K., and even in the U.S., where they've sold millions of albums but had spotty Hot 100 success, 4 of 5 members had top 20 hits. During the group's run I would've assumed Niall Horan was one of the least likely to have a good solo career. But "Slow Hands" turned out to be the best of the whole crop, leaning towards Harry's earth tone dad rock sensibility while much hookier than anything on his album, with an odd little digital shuffle and oddly gated vocals that made the whole thing march and shimmy differently from everything else on the radio and yet feel right at home.

2. Shawn Mendes - "There's Nothing Holdin' Me Back"
#1 Mainstream Top 40, #6 Hot 100
The biggest star to emerge from Vine has managed to outlast the platform's demise by a year and change now, but I was always pretty lukewarm on Shawn Mendes until this song, where it all seemed to click together into a driving "Jessie's Girl" guitar pop gem with a dash of trendy "Shape of You"-derived production. And the song's infectious air of liberation and abandon seemed fitting since Teddy Geiger, the circa 2006 teen idol who's helped write and produce most of Mendes's hits, came out as trans while "There's Nothing Holdin' Me Back" was on the charts.

3. Cheat Codes f/ Demi Lovato - "No Promises"
#7 Mainstream Top 40, #38 Hot 100
Demi Lovato had the biggest hit of her career this year (more on that later), but I don't think she got enough credit for her feature that preceded it by a few months. I have generally preferred Lovato's more rock-oriented stuff, but she really found the perfect EDM track for her voice with this one.

4. Dua Lipa - "New Rules"
#11 Mainstream Top 40, #15 Hot 100
Dua Lipa's self-titled debut was one of my favorite pop albums this year, but the first few times I heard it, I had no inkling that "New Rules," buried down at track 8, could be the album's big breakthrough hit. But once that great video came out, it became immediately clear.

5. Zedd f/ Alessia Cara - "Stay"
#1 Mainstream Top 40, #7 Hot 100
"Here" and Alessia Cara's debut album kinda seemed to come and go by then end of 2015, but then she had a really big 2017, with the sleeper hit third single, a soundtrack song, and a couple of features all going platinum this year. And "Stay" is I think far and away the highlight of her career so far. Zedd is really the guy who does what the Chainsmokers do better than the Chainsmokers.

6. Ed Sheeran - "Castle On The Hill"
#7 Mainstream Top 40, #6 Hot 100
Ed Sheeran made the somewhat unconventional move to release the first two singles from his third album simultaneously (well, that's something pop stars usually don't do -- it's pretty commonplace in rap, and we know how much Sheeran loves to rap). "Castle On The Hill" is probably the best song Sheeran's ever written, a nostalgic yarn about his hardscrabble upbringing in a town with only one castle, driven by a thumping kick drum and shimmering guitars. But "The Shape Of You" was an inane Rihject, so naturally it became the huge #1 hit that dominated radio for months, while "Castle" had to settle for being the less popular follow-up. 

7. Sam Smith - "Too Good At Goodbyes"
#9 Mainstream Top 40, #4 Hot 100
I think there's something to be said for not being a fan of an artist's general sound and persona, but appreciating when they've made a song that sums it up perfectly. And I think that even more than "Stay With Me," this puts the entire Sam Smith thing in an ideal little 4-minute package, but even moreso because the hook isn't accidentally lifted from Tom Petty. Also, I relate to Sam Smith a lot more after he said "When I got a record deal, I just spent all my money on cheese." 

8. Charlie Puth - "Attention"
#1 Mainstream Top 40, #5 Hot 100
Likewise, I am not a fan of the whole Charlie Puth thing, particularly when it takes on this malignantly distrustful quality that his singles have increasingly had. But "Attention" really distills that idea as well as he seems capable of, with a killer bassline driving it all.

9. Pink "What About Us"
#10 Mainstream Top 40, #13 Hot 100
In 2017, it seemed like all the female pop stars that dominated the Top 40 world a few years ago took a hit to their standing on the charts by dramatically rebooting their sound and image to something that better reflected these fraught, dramatic times. Katy Perry flopped outright, Lady Gaga couldn't stage a radio comeback even after Super Bowl exposure, Kesha and Lorde won with critics but were so-so on the charts, and only Taylor Swift was too big to fail while still showing signs of faltering. Amidst all of this, the one with the longest career, Pink, was the 38-year-old mom who seemed to find a downtempo lead single that was a little more of a natural fit for her, something that managed to evoke, without being too heavy handed about it, exactly how it feels about to live in an America that's turning its back on a lot of its own people.

10. Calvin Harris f/ Frank Ocean and Migos "Slide"
#9 Mainstream Top 40, #25 Hot 100
As I said in the R&B list post, there is something very discomforting to me about how pretty much an entire generation of R&B stars, aside from The Weeknd, has been shut out of pop radio unless they guest on a track by a pop singer or EDM producer. And Calvin Harris's Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 seems deliberately, perhaps even cynically, engineered to capitalize on the gerrymandered state of American radio.

11. The Weeknd f/ Daft Punk - "I Feel It Coming"
#3 Mainstream Top 40, #4 Hot 100
The Weeknd may be the notable exception to young R&B acts being shut out of pop radio, but after he crossed over with both Max Martin pop tracks as well as songs closer to his early mixtape sound like "The Hills," it seems notable that the two big hits from his last album were both Daft Punk collaborations. I thought "Starboy" was an insipid worst-of-both-words use of the combination, but "I Feel It Coming" is sublimely understated, two seemingly very different acts finding common ground on a very specific flavor of early '80s R&B schmaltz.

12. Demi Lovato "Sorry Not Sorry"
#1 Mainstream Top 40, #6 Hot 100
Someone was going to write a hit song called "Sorry Not Sorry" sooner or later, that's just a plain inevitability of our catchphrase-driven pop industry. But I think the one that came together ended up much better than I would've expected, and it was delivered by perhaps the best possible artist, one of the few young pop stars who's always seemed happy to mouth off and not apologize for it.

13. The Chainsmokers "Paris" 
#3 Mainstream Top 40, #6 Hot 100
The Chainsmokers' rule over 2016 seemed to quietly peter out around the time they finally released an album in early 2017, but this song really grew on me. Honorable mention to Emily Warren, whose vocals on the chorus totally make the song even though she isn't famous enough to get a feature credit (and did lots of good writing work this year including Dua Lipa's "New Rules" and Charli XCX's "Boys"). 

14. Hailee Steinfeld and Alesso f/ Florida Georgia Line and watt - "Let Me Go"
#21 Mainstream Top 40, #53 Hot 100
Of Hailee Steinfeld's Hot 100 singles so far, I much prefer the EDM ballads cobbled together with multiple collaborators ("Starving" and "Let Me Go") to the solo singles that kind of aggressively brand Steinfeld as a new kind of empowered woke pop starlet ("Love Myself" and "Most Girls"). But all of her stuff is pretty good, and her best songs and her performance in Edge Of Seventeen really make me root for her to become one of those rare entertainers who thrives in both film and music. 

15. Linkin Park f/ Kiiara "Heavy"
#16 Mainstream Top 40, #45 Hot 100
Earlier this year, Linkin Park released "Heavy," the first single of their career that did better on pop radio than rock radio. And its lighter, more polished sound and guest appearance from the pop singer Kiiara rubbed a lot of their fans the wrong way. But since Chester Bennington's suicide in July, it's impossible not to look at the One More Light album differently. His lyrics always communicated an inner turmoil, and "Heavy" is in retrospect one of the saddest, most helpless songs he ever sang, even moreso because it was misunderstood as a sellout move.

16. Fifth Harmony f/ Gucci Mane "Down"
#25 Mainstream Top 40, #42 Hot 100
Listen, I've made my peace with being on the wrong side of history. Camila Cabello's "Havana" is currently higher on the charts than any Fifth Harmony single has ever been, and the group's first album since she went solo came and went with little commercial impact. She's Justin and they're the rest of the 'N Sync left in the dust, as far as future narratives are concerned. But I'll maintain that Camila was the weak link and that the group made their best album after she left and Lauren Jauregui and Normani Kordei were able to take charge of more of the lead vocals. And "Down" featured one of the more charming and sincere guest verses of Gucci Mane's unlikely ascent as a pop star. He even played the song as he cut the cake at his wedding. 

17. Logic f/ Alessia Cara and Khalid - "1-800-273-8255"
#3 Mainstream Top 40, #3 Hot 100
In May, I interviewed Logic on the day that Everybody was released, and one thing we talked about was how he'd released three major label albums, always exceeding sales expectations, without having a radio hit. "Who wouldn't want a radio hit, right? Who wouldn't want a smash any day of the week? But I am where I am right now with no hit." But I suspect he already knew, even then, that "1-800-273-8255" was going to be the one that crossed over, the one that reached millions of people who can relate (woo!). I have mixed feelings about the song, but I'm kind of impressed that Logic managed to have this big moment with the least likely subject matter for a pop hit and probably put some real good out into the world with it.

18. Zayn and Taylor Swift - "I Don't Wanna Live Forever"
#2 Mainstream Top 40, #2 Hot 100
The tweet where a guy sings "what is happening to meeee" in a Goofy voice has irrevocably changed how I hear this song, for the better.

19. Harry Styles "Sign Of The Times"
#12 Mainstream Top 40, #4 Hot 100
It's impressive that Harry Styles was able to leverage his position as the de facto frontman of One Direction for some of the group's most impressive solo career chart positions, even while virtually all of his bandmates were making considerably more radio -friendly music. But his debut single, a Bowie-esque 6-minute ballad written from the perspective of a mother dying during childbirth, got more U.S. radio airplay than the four biggest One Direction hits, making the kind of bold splash he wanted to kickstart a more unorthodox career.

20. Luis Fonsi f/ Justin Bieber and Daddy Yankee "Despacito (Remix)"
#1 Mainstream Top 40, #1 Hot 100
"Despacito" was an absolute phenomenon before the remix, and I wish they'd had the confidence in the original song to push it as far as it could go on the American charts without adding a star like Justin Bieber to it (and Bieber 'performing' the song live as "I don't know the words, so I say 'Dorito'" really confirms that he's an absolute shithead who should not have been included in a watershed moment for Latin pop). But the song holds up, and one of my favorite moments at work his year was when I was backstage at the Hispanic Heritage Awards, which Luis Fonsi closed out with a solo performance of "Despacito."

The 10 Worst Pop Radio Hits of 2017: 
1. Liam Payne f/ Quavo "Strip That Down"
2. Calvin Harris f/ Katy Perry, Pharrell and Big Sean "Feels"
3. The Chainsmokers & Coldplay "Something Just Like This"
4. Ed Sheeran "The Shape Of You"
5. Katy Perry f/ Skip Marley "Chained To The Rhythm"
6. Taylor Swift "Look What You Made Me Do"
7. Selena Gomez "Bad Liar"
8. Kyo f/ Selena Gomez "It Ain't Me"
9. Miley Cyrus "Malibu"
10. James Arthur "Say You Won't Let Go"
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