Ballerini is one of country’s biggest rising stars, and she’s secured her foothold in the genre with “Legends,” a soaring ballad taken from her sophomore album Unapologetically. Here Ballerini hits all the right notes: a personal story told in a way that makes it universally relatable; a sparkling, unhurried melody; a nostalgic mood. “We wrote our own story, full of blood, sweat and heartbeats,” she sings. “We didn’t do it for the fame or the glory, we just did it for you and me.” In her heartfelt retelling, everyone can find something, or remember someone
Not many 47-year-old fathers are also at the top of their musical careers. But JAY-Z has long bucked the conventional narrative of what a rapper could—or should—be. “The Story of O.J.,” taken from his album 4:44, is just one more example—an educational testimony that he lays out as a lesson about his road to success. “You wanna know what’s more important than throwing away money in a strip club? Credit,” he says flatly. He’s clear, outlining the ground rules for those looking to follow in his footsteps. This is benevolent rap godfather JAY-Z at his finest, dropping knowledge layered with historical references and social critique. “Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine,” he shrugs at one point. There’s nothing wrong with success when it sounds this good.
Selena Gomez has long been the most sonically experimental of her generation of Disney alumni, an avant-gardist in a pop-star costume, and she proved it this year with “Bad Liar,” an electropop tune that’s deceptively sparse: It’s just Gomez’s whispery-sweet vocals over a sample of “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads. The result is a retro-futuristic track that’s as catchy as it is unexpected, veering away from the traditional pop production and light EDM touches of her contemporaries. “I’m trying, I’m trying, I’m trying not to give in to you,” Gomez chants tenderly over a pared-down beat. The song wasn’t a hit, but the allure of her understated performance is unmistakable. She flits nimbly between rap-sung verses and featherweight vocal runs, giving this weird, delicate song an edge that made it too cool for the charts.
There’s no denying that Cardi B was the breakout artist of 2017. The self-described “regular girl” and former Love and Hip-Hop star lived her own Cinderella story this year, rising up from the Bronx to her perch atop the charts with unabashed confidence and a wildly catchy flow. “Bodak Yellow” epitomizes swagger, rejects degradation and owns independence—and features one of the fiercest singalong hooks in recent memory: “I don’t dance now, I make money moves,” Cardi drawls, a script-flipping line that echoes the tones of female empowerment that have been simmering all year. In Cardi’s visionary style, wearing Christian Louboutin heels isn’t just about being on-trend—it’s a punch to the gut of the patriarchy.
Alaska-bred rock outfit Portugal. The Man have long made feel-good rock with a conscience, but “Feel It Still” helped them scale new heights of popularitythis year, thanks to an assist from an oldies sample and a delightfully offbeat falsetto chorus. “I’m a rebel just for kicks now,” lead vocalist John Gourley sings lightly, ribbing the self-seriousness of indie rock. After seven albums together, Gourley and team went back to basics for this album, and the result in “Feel It Still” is a song that’s fresh, unhurried and uncluttered. In fact, it only took 45 minutes in the studio to make—proving that sometimes, the best things in life can come easy.