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GIRLS TO THE FRONT :: Best Songs By Women in 2017

GIRLS TO THE FRONT :: Best Songs By Women in 2017

By Anna Dorn

2017 has been a weird fucking year for women. It began with a raging sex-offender taking office, a man dedicated to eviscerating women’s reproductive rights. Trump’s inauguration rippled through mass culture. Suddenly, sexual assault was everywhere, like a spotlight had been shone on the darkest corners of the patriarchy. And nearly “coinciding with the beginnings of the Trump era,” FADER reported this fall, September 2, 2016 to September 16, 2017 was almost “the longest stretch of No. 1 singles without a solo lead woman artist in decades.”

But in other ways, 2017 has also been great for women. A warped version of “feminism” has become trendy—one that involves “Future is Female” T-shirts and “Feminist” throw pillows from Urban Outfitters. While this is often a sanitized variety of what I call “Emma Watson Feminism,” the movement once again becoming mainstream has tremendous symbolic power—and I think it’s largely responsible for the Harvey Weinstein dominos that have begun to fall. Berkeley Law Professor Lauren Edelman told me that the recent wave of #MeToo allegations “broke through a cultural barrier,” and are among the most important advancements for women she’s witnessed during her career.

2017 has also included much heralding of female musicians. NPR put out the “150 Best Albums Made By Women;” the the New York Times wrote that “Women are making the best rock music today.” While it’s problematic to single out femininity as a defining feature of an artistic work, it’s also necessary make up for past unjust lionization of white male mediocrity. As my friend and muse put it regarding NPR’s list: “I just love looking at a list of top albums that doesn’t once feature the Beatles.”

This year has also seen many great releases by women. SZA and Syd dropped perfect albums. Cherry Glazerr and Priests showed us guitars can still be cool. Yaeji reminded us that genres are arbitrary and best when bent. “Bodak Yellow” basically started a revolution. The artists below have all encouraged us to be strong during these weird times. Blast their tracks to the beat of the toppling patriarchy. And in 2018, prepare to watch us thrive.

SZA – “Anything”

Beyond being beautiful and sonically inventive, CTRL perfectly articulates what it’s like to be inside a difficult brain. The album begins with a recording from SZA’s mother that seems plucked from one of my therapy sessions: “That is my greatest fear. That if, if I lost control. Or did not have control, things would just, you know. I would be… fatal.” As Caitlin White wrote for Uproxx, “the crux of CTRL is letting go… a gentle agony that you can hear in every note.” The album reflects a woman pinballing between claiming control, and letting go of that control, being torn between self-destruction and self-preservation.

While picking the “best” song on CTRL is a bit like choosing the prettiest scene in this year’s Call Me By Your Name (near impossible), “Anything” best captures the album’s soul. “Maybe I should kill my inhibition / Maybe I’ll be perfect in a new dimension,” SZA opens, conveying a desire to escape herself. But she quickly transitions to a desire for self-improvement: “Maybe I should pray a little harder / or work a little smarter.” This tension runs throughout the album, and the end of “Anything” provides the album’s thesis. At 1:45, the instruments drop out and SZA enters a capella, repeating in a mantra-esque fashion: “Do-do you even know I’m alive?” I immediately thought of Zan Romanoff’s review of Joan Didion’s South and West: From a Notebook, in which she concluded: “Is there a more human experience than attempting to make yourself a place in the world, and finding that the world remains ruthlessly indifferent to you[?]” Nearly all women who attempt to have our voices heard feel this frustration, but SZA perfectly put it to sound. Now that SZA has the world listening, it’s time for the rest of us to follow in her footsteps.

Nearly all women who attempt to have our voices heard feel this frustration, but SZA perfectly put it to sound.

Syd – “Body”

I saw Syd perform this month at the last show of her “Always Never Home” tour in downtown LA, Syd’s hometown. She was finally home, and she covered Jill Scott’s “He Loves Me” to her very hyped up mom. Aside from her palpable LA-love, angelic voice, and unparalleled swagger, I was watching something even more exciting happen. During Syd’s performance of “Body,” I thought about how almost every song I’ve loved is about the heterosexual experience. I also remember thinking the same when I first heard “Girl,” the Kaytranada-produced banger in which Syd powerfully concludes (a seeming call to all women): “They don’t know your worth.” But watching Syd croon about pulling another woman’s hair in the boudoir before a crowd of screaming fans made things more intense. She was singing about loving a woman, a desire I’d been forever conditioned to suppress, and the world was responding positively. Syd told Zane Lowe that she wanted “Body” to be the “baby-making anthem of 2017.” Coming from a queer woman, who quite literally cannot make babies in the way we traditionally imagine, her success in this arena is nothing short of revolutionary.

Lana Del Rey – “In My Feelings”

In the manner of most Gemini geniuses, Lana Del Rey is understood best as a contradiction. She presents as both effusive and aloof; her music at once conveys a sense of feeling everything and feeling nothing at all. Lana sounds both nostalgic and modern, her aesthetic draws from Old Hollywood iconography and Instagram filters alike. She was raised in New York, but has come to represent Los Angeles—specifically, its tragic glamor, its psychic instability, its perceived lack of authenticity.

And just when her vibe couldn’t seem more self-assured—envisioning herself as both Marilyn Monroe and Jackie O in the “National Anthem” video—she shows us just how vulnerable she is. On stage, she famously appears terrified, and in interviews she speaks in an affected baby voice that exudes insecurity. While Lust for Life is far from the best Lana album (Ultraviolence forever), “In My Feelings” gives peak-Lana. She’s smoking cigarettes on the treadmill. She’s sobbing into her coffee, then laughing as she takes up prisoners. “Who’s doper than this bitch?” She asks, an apparent effort to convince herself, before collapsing under the weight of her “fucking feelings.” Her haunting vocal performance mimics this wavering between extremes, and captivates from start to finish.

Missy Elliott – “I’m Better (feat. Lamb)”

“I’m Better” proves Missy can still innovate at age 46. The track combines old-school Missy charm with futuristic production. It’s a perfect slow-burn; the beat creeps along ominously and seemingly folds in on itself. “He watching my body like he watching Scandal,” Missy spits on the bridge, “but I’m still here with my girlsssss.” This is the closest Missy has come to coming out, which thrills me, but beyond that, “I’m Better” showcases what Doreen St. Felix called Missy’s “radical sexuality.” On “One Minute Man,” St. Felix wrote for MTV, Missy’s “seduction consists of remaining fully clothed in a bedazzled denim getup, popping her head off her body, and doing a two-step while he looks on, confused but aroused.” Ultimately, St. Felix concludes, Missy is uniquely able to create an erotic fantasy in which the body is secondary.

On “I’m Better,” Missy similarly creates eroticism by playing with language first and referencing the body second. Verse 3 is sexy as hell, but missing are the typical bodily signifiers; Missy rather relies on inventive use to language to create the vibe: “Roll up in the Benzz-ah-ah-ah / Lookin like a ten, sta-ah-ahk / When I rock, make it bop, in my car / And it bang-bang-bang like (tune-out noise) go blap-blap-blap.” In the music video, Missy spits this verse in a massive shimmery “Save the Humans” coat that recalls the famous trash-bag suit from 1997’s “The Rain.” It’s this precise type of captivating, sui generis imagery that makes Missy one of the great artistic geniuses of our era.

Kelela – “LMK”

I’ll never forget the first time I heard Kelela’s breakout mixtape Cut 4 Me. It was unlike anything I’d heard and I couldn’t stop listening. I skipped a family birthday party to see her at a festival at an abandoned mental hospital in D.C., where the crowd was lukewarm about Kelela’s hook-less tracks and prickly mannerisms. Since Cut 4 Me, Kelela has gotten better at creating accessible bangers, and has become a more skilled performer. “Rewind,” “Frontline,” “LMK”—these songs that work in the bedroom, art studio, and the club alike. While this year’s Take Me Apart is filled with bangers, “LMK” continues to loop through my brain. It even came to mind while reading the viral New Yorker short story “Cat Person,” which tracks the rise and fall of a brief Internet relationship.

Kelela unapologetically sets the man straight: “It ain’t that deep, either way.”

Author Kristen Roupenian told the New Yorker that “Cat Person” addresses how women are conditioned to prioritize “not making people angry, taking responsibility for other people’s emotions, working extremely hard to keep everyone around them happy.” “LMK” presents an important counter-narrative. On her Genius annotation, Kelela explains her opening lines: “I actually have been over it, and I’m not going to explain to you what it is that you said or didn’t say that’s offensive or just so basic.” Kelela is confident to act based on how she feels, rather than how she’s expected. Where “Cat Person’s” Margot is unable to tell her temporary crush that her feelings have evaporated, Kelela pronounces the sentiment without hesitation. “I saw you there,” she explains in her Genius annotation, “But I also fall in love everyday.” Whereas Margot is racked with guilt over letting her clingy love interest down, Kelela unapologetically sets the man straight: “It ain’t that deep, either way.”

Yaeji – “Raingurl”

Listening to Yaeji makes me feel like a cool girl in her 20s again, or maybe for the first time. Her look is tangent to typical Brooklyn hipstress, but she’s clever enough to subvert it, or maybe just interesting enough that it doesn’t matter. The 23-year-old floats effortlessly between genres—trap, house, and R&B—and languages—Korean and English. As Resident Adviser wrote, there’s something infectious about “this shy, five-foot nerd with wire-frame glasses whispering about champagne, cars and clubs.”

On 2016’s “Guap,” she spits in an Uffie-esque Euro flow: “All I wanna do Is sip on the bub / the Goose from the bottle, you heard.” EP2’s single “drink i’m sippin on” lured listeners with syrupy-Soundcloud vibe, which sounds like a more sophisticated Yung Lean. But on “raingurl,” Yaeji is having giving us full-party banger. Her absurdist monotone flow over a house-y beat feels positively M.I.A., and makes me want to throw on my purely-for-style tortoiseshell glasses and shake my ass.

Cardi B – “Bodak Yellow”

I included Cardi B in my “Top 10 Nastiest Women In Hip-hop,” a piece I wrote for DJ Booth mainly to process my shock over Trump’s election. “Cardi B is neither critically heralded nor explicitly political,” I wrote. Boy have things changed. Since dropping her watershed “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, and essentially every important music outlet. And this fall, she awoke in a “political state of mind,” taking to Twitter and writing: “Bill Clinton got impeached for getting his dick sucked & this [carrot emoji] still president ruining the country in less than a year.”

This is classic Cardi politics: cheeky and sarcastic, simmering with symbolism (“these is bloody shoes!”). I was initially captured by Cardi’s infectious Lil Kim-meets-Trina flow on “On Fleek” (from 2016’s Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1), and “Bodak Yellow” takes what Pitchfork calls Cardi’s “unfuckwithable energy” to its logical extreme. While anything that achieves “Bodak Yellow” ubiquity will trigger calls of “one-hit-wonder,” Cardi’s flaming verse on “Motor Sport,” on which she raps adeptly beside hip-hop Queen Nicki Minaj, makes me believe she’s here to stay. Either way, I assume “Bodak Yellow” will charm dance floors and whips alike for years to come.

Cherry Glazerr – “Told You I’d Be With the Guys”

As I wrote for The Hundreds’ sister brand’s blog Jennifer this summer, Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy is that bitch every teen wants to be, but no one thinks people like her actually exist: She looks like Mischa Barton and shreds like Carrie Brownstein and her favorite food is grilled cheese. Creevy attracted critical, fashion world, and record label attention at just 15, while making bedroom demos under the name Clembutt. Her Soundcloud caught the eyes of Burger Records’ co-founder and Saint Laurent’s former creative director. “Had Ten Dollaz” was picked as the soundtrack to Saint Laurent’s 2014 fall runway show; on it, the precocious teen howled: “I know that you notice my ways / And I feel, I feel your gaze.” Three years later, “I Told You I’d Be With the Guys” achieves what SoCal’s Cherry Glazerr does best: a sunny and sanguine surface, with an angsty radical politics bubbling beneath.

Creevy has said that the song, which opens with her screaming “I was a lone wolf,” was inspired by a longing for female solidarity. The New York Times wrote that the song finds Creevy “stranded between the ‘ladies’ she mistakenly left behind and the guys she is wary of.” But beyond it’s important message (I typically sing “I Told You I’d Be With the Gayz” to fit my personal politics), the track is really fucking fun. It’s the kind of song that makes me want to pull out an air guitar and whip my hair like my name was Willow Smith. It’s the precise type of track that makes me proud to call freaky Los Angeles my home.

Jorja Smith X Preditah – “On My Mind”

Everyone who follows me on Twitter knows I do not care for England, but there are a few areas in which I’m unable to snatch their accolades: (1) The Queen (Kate Moss); (2) day-drinking; and (3) grime. Jorja Smith’s “On My Mind,” mixed by grime artist Preditah, falls in category (3), so I’ll give a pass to the country from which we smartly broke free. “On My Mind” is one of those rare gems that feels both classic and completely novel, and I think Smith and Pretitah’s artistic chemistry is mostly responsible.

Their pairing immediately recalls fellow brits London Grammar and Disclosure on 2013’s “Help Me Lose My Mind,” in which smooth vocals float over house beats. On “On My Mind,” Smith belts traditional hooks in a soulful voice over what Pitchfork called Preditah’s “rumbling soundscape.” Smith’s voice is deconstructed and filtered into “an incoherent loop,” in turn transforming the track from an R&B slow jam into a British club banger. Much like “Help Me Lose My Mind,” “On My Mind,” turns the horrendous experience of an ex-lover fucking with your head into the dance party of your dreams.

Priests – “JJ”

Priests hail from my discarded hometown of D.C., but I didn’t pay them much attention until I heard front-woman Katie Alice Greer shout “I thought I was a cowboy because I smoked Reds” over hypnotic surf riffs. The song was “JJ,” off this year’s Nothing Feels Natural, an album that felt more poised but equally frenetic to the local punk band I ignored in my rap-centered twenties.

While Rolling Stone and Spin have deemed Priests “Protest-Punk” and “Activist Rock,” respectively, these signifiers feel inadequate (and a bit obvious to describe a band from D.C.). As Greer herself told Rolling Stone: “Music is inherently political, everything is political. So to say that music is political is like saying music has sound. It’s saying nothing.” Beyond whatever politics are projected onto them, Nothing Feels Natural is pure exhilaration. Greer’s seductive howl will have you itching to shout “JJ’s” lyrics into the wind.

***

Honorable Mentions (also included on Spotify playlist linked above):

“Everything is Weird in America” – Pixx

“It’s Not Enough” – Heaven

“Holy Child” – Jlin

“Decline Him” – Quay Dash

“Blessed” – Smerz

“Undercover” – Kehlani

“I Got It” – Charli XCX (Feat. Brooke Candy, cupcakKe)

“Condemnation – Synth” – Julia Holter, Ramona Gonzalez, Torrisi

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