2017 has been an exceptionally strange year for pop music, and that’s not counting Justin Bieber recording 30 seconds of half-hearted Spanish and making Billboard history as a result. Mediocrity and anonymity were rewarded in spades, leaving some of the world’s biggest pop stars in a state of disarray (hey Katy). Still, amidst the chaos, there were some pop gems buried beneath the cacophony of trap music, tropical house, and Taylor Swift revenge schemes. These are the pop songs that should’ve been so much bigger than they were, but, for whatever reason, were robbed of their shot at chart glory.
Castle on the Hill – Ed Sheeran
Can you really say that the biggest male pop star of the year had one of 2017’s most undervalued hits? Sure, when that song is “Castle on the Hill”, a crackling tribute to childhood in the countryside that recalls U2 at their most anthemic. Sheeran delivers his best vocal to date, matching the urgency and electricity of his guitar with stunning confidence. Bizarrely, “Castle” was released in January alongside “Shape of You,” the hyper-generic tropical thumper that became a Top 40 avalanche and buried the superior single. But don’t feel too bad: “Castle” peaked at #6 and will likely become his new stadium tour staple. Still, amidst the cynical success of his latest #1 hit “Perfect” (seriously: how many remixes is planning on releasing), it’s hard not to see “Castle” as the #1 that got away.
Green Light – Lorde
Female pop had it really rough on the charts this year, and Lorde was proof that no one was immune (except Taylor Swift). Fresh off the blockbuster success of Pure Heroine, the New Zealand-born singer returned with “Green Light”, a stunningly euphoric, meaty pop stormer that is a far cry from the disaffected cynicism of “Royals”. Maybe the change-up was too much for listeners, as “Green Light” only peaked at #19. Despite the lukewarm reception to this exemplary song, the parent album Melodrama became a critical smash and was nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy, the only female artist in the category.
The Cure – Lady Gaga
It’s scary to write this, but the days of Lady Gaga as a legitimate chart topper may be coming to an end. How else can you explain “The Cure,” her most listenable, radio-ready single in years, flopping so hard? Released after a triumphant set at Coachella, “The Cure” is an easy, breezy track, with Gaga’s unusually sweet and tender vocals in the verses leading to the kind of epic chorus that made her a music icon. Calculated or not, the song should’ve returned her to the top of the pops. Instead, the song sputtered at #39, far below the recent #4 peak of her country ballad “Million Reasons”. With A Star is Born and a Vegas residency on the way, it’s tough to say when Gaga can find the cure to her chart ills, but at least fans can use this one-off as a salve until she does.
Find You – Nick Jonas
In a year of utterly mediocre pop from men, Nick Jonas was the surprising exception. He could’ve fallen in line with the likes of Ed, Justin, Charlie, and Liam and released some generic, trend-baiting, vaguely misogynist dirge that would’ve gotten lost in the ether. Instead, he released a restrained and elegant slice of synth-pop… that still got lost in the ether. It’s a shame, because this new relaxed sound, without his clenched growl, suits him well and offered a path towards something unique amongst his peers. One flop does not spell the end of a career, so here’s to hoping Nick sticks with this sound a bit longer.
Want You Back – HAIM
HAIM make it look so easy. Yes, the sisters write, produce, arrange and perform their own instruments, and I’m sure it’s a lot of hard work, but their capacity for creating effortless, organic pop borders on the divine. “Want You Back” is wistful, finding the joy in acknowledging a stupid mistake and wanting a second chance. The chorus, with its rapid-fire admissions of guilt and promises to do better, is pure brilliance. Sadly, the pop world still hasn’t caught on, leaving this band without the mainstream praise they deserve; it’s our loss. Meanwhile, the band will continue to make pop-rock that puts Top 40 to shame without breaking a sweat.
Praying – Kesha
That. High. Note. It was the moment that transformed the trashy pop cypher that was Ke$ha into Kesha, as fiercely defiant as ever, but no longer bound by the emotional and sexual exploitation that she spent the last few years fighting valiantly against. Aside from the marvel that is the note’s technicality (who knew Kesha had the increasingly elusive range), it was infused with such catharsis that it takes your breath away. Shamefully, Kesha’s newfound voice hasn’t been as celebrated as her previous party smashes, with “Praying” peaking at #22. There is some consolation, Kesha scored her first ever Grammy nominations for the song and the album Rainbow, and she has a decent shot at winning one.
Cut to the Feeling – Carly Rae Jepsen
We had the chance, and we failed. After the unforgivable 2015 failure of the exquisite “Run Away with Me,” we were given another opportunity to celebrate the genius of Carly Rae Jepsen with “Cut to the Feeling”. Shouting its euphoric feelings of unbridled love from the rooftops, “Feeling” is easily the year’s most effervescent song when we were desperately in need of one. Released as part of the movie Leap’s soundtrack (don’t feel bad if you have no clue what that film is), the song was promptly ignored, further extending Jepsen’s cruel reign as a one-hit wonder. Our refusal to let Jepsen be great is shameful.