Best Pop Hits of 2017: Clean Bandit, Halsey, Imagine Dragons, Dua Lipa, James Arthur Make Top 20

As you wave goodbye to 2017, say hello to Headline Planet’s recap of the year’s twenty best pop hits.

By focusing specifically on pop hits, we avoid the pitfalls associated with typical “best of” lists.  We avoid the challenge of determining whether a song was popular enough (or, alternatively, too mainstream) for consideration.  We also evade the impossible task of comparing music from vastly different genres.  We, moreover, escape the challenge of weighing quality against commercial success.

To qualify for this countdown, songs must have first charted at US pop radio in 2017.  They must have also reached at least the Top 20 on an official Mediabase airplay chart.

Eligible songs were then ranked based on quality.

As a reminder, the best pop hits of 2016 included “Closer,” “Dangerous Woman,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Out Of The Woods,” and “I Feel It Coming.”  The prior year’s standouts included “Sorry,” “Lean On,” “Love Me Like You Do,” “Love Yourself,” and “The Hills.”

We’ll be counting down 2017’s best hits over the next few days.  Songs #16-20 are below:

20) Say You Won’t Let Go by James Arthur

James Arthur’s introduction to US radio does not include any gimmicks or production trickery.

It does, however, feature a gorgeous melody, relatable lyrics and a compelling, engaging vocal performance.

And it completely works.

Arthur, the co-writers and the producers approach “Say You Won’t Let Go” with the purest, most admirable of intentions.

They are not trying to “impress” with wild sounds or overly clever lyrics.  Instead, they are leveraging music to convey legitimate, honest, unadulterated feeling.  They understand that music is not a game – it is a vessel for emotion.  With “Say You Won’t Let Go,” they actualize that concept.

It helps, of course, that Arthur’s sings with such raw vulnerability.  His voice is not slick or polished – and that’s truly the best compliment one can give the singer of a song like “Say You Won’t Let Go.”  The vocal performance simply communicates incredible feeling.

In doing so, it makes the story “real” for listeners.  It makes the song a welcome addition to a myriad of playlists.

It also yields one of the best pop hits of 2017.

19) New Rules by Dua Lipa

By the middle of 2017, no fewer than four songs involving Dua Lipa had underperformed in the United States.

One (“Be The One”) was adored by fans and critics.  Another (the Martin Garrix collaboration “Scared To Be Lonely”) was a seemingly radio-friendly follow-up to Garrix’s successful “In The Name Of Love.”

Were Americans simply uninterested in Dua Lipa?

It turns out that the opposite was true.  The issue was not a lack of potential interest – it was that Americans were not content with merely hearing Dua Lipa’s voice on solid “bops.”  They wanted the opportunity to truly connect with the rising star.  They wanted a song with legitimate personality and attitude.

They wanted “New Rules.”

Moreso than any of her previous US radio singles, “New Rules” communicates sonic and lyrical identity.  It reveals Dua Lipa not merely as a talented singer but as a real, 22-year-old woman who completely understands the temptation (and harm) of falling into bed with an ex.  It is a song with meaning and context – and thus a song to which listeners can legitimately connect.

It is not that the individual components of “New Rules” are especially groundbreaking.  The “countdown” is something of a cliché in modern music; breaking the shackles of a troubled relationship is a bigger one.

The end result, however, feels incredibly fresh.  While obviously structured, the lyrics do not feel overly calculated.  They feel as if they came from a real person who wanted to share real advice.  The composition and production may not be groundbreaking, but they are certainly different from what one typically encounters on pop radio or the Today’s Top Hits playlist.  The vocal performance combines Dua Lipa’s thick, sultry tone with a convincing sense of attitude.

The masterpiece of a music video, admittedly, may have been what put “New Rules” on the map for many music fans and radio programmers.

The quality of the song – and particularly of Dua Lipa’s performance – is what kept it there.  It is what made it one of 2017’s best pop hits.

18) Thunder by Imagine Dragons

Pop-rock acts often embody the notion of “addition by subtraction.”  Their music neither possesses the edge or excitement of rock music nor the catchy accessibility expected of great pop hits.

Imagine Dragons, on the other hand, combines the best of both worlds to create truly special music.  The band operates with raw, rock-and-roll energy (and even some great instrumentals!), yet consistently demonstrates pop sensibility.  Its songs can be ridiculously catchy, broadly engaging and unquestionably memorable.

The duality is particularly evident on 2017 hit “Thunder.”  With an absurdly infectious chorus and taut production, “Thunder” is a great pop song at its core.

It nonetheless avoids the negative stereotypes of mainstream pop music.  Notably, it never feels mechanical or manufactured.  With honest lyrics, ample intensity and a commanding, charismatic performance from frontman Dan Reynolds, it remains a bit raw and a great deal unique.

“Thunder” is a fundamentally strong pop song, but it needs a rock band like Imagine Dragons to make it special.

Imagine Dragons indeed created something special – one of the best pop hits of 2017, in fact.

17) Bad At Love by Halsey

Over the first few years of her career, Halsey had established a musical identity, repeatedly demonstrated next-level charisma, cultivated a large and passionate fanbase, sold tons of albums and embarked on a successful tour.  She had become a star.

It was not until 2016, however, that she achieved true success on the song charts.  Halsey appeared on The Chainsmokers’ global smash “Closer,” which hit #1 on just about every important chart.

Naturally, the music community wondered how she would follow-up on that breakthrough.

Would she be able to create a big pop radio hit?  More importantly, would she able to do so without sacrificing the unique qualities that made her so special – and attracted so many fans?

In 2017, she answered both questions in the affirmative.

She initially made waves with “Now Or Never,” the lead single from her sophomore album “hopeless fountain kingdom.”  It may not have been a classic record, but it was a catchy, radio-friendly song on which Halsey came across as a legitimate pop star.

It was on follow-up “Bad At Love,” however, that Halsey truly made her mark.  She was not simply a quirky, appealing, competent pop artist.  She was a bona fide force.

Lyrically, Halsey combines the angsty, vulnerable, descriptive elements of her earlier records with the conversational tone found on “Closer.”  Halsey displays a knack for making every word count, allowing her to paint vivid pictures, tell clear stories and unveil legitimate emotion across a fairly concise, straightforward set of lyrics.  This is better than poetry – it’s reality.

Just as she can make every word count, Halsey has the uncanny ability to make the most of every note.  Her voice, while occasionally airy, is always commanding and resonant.  She does not simply make listeners pay attention; she makes them understand.

The great lyrics, alluring melody and strong vocal performance would be enough to make a great song, but “Bad At Love” goes one step further.  It features great production.

Again adhering to the notion that every moment counts, the backing synths and instrumentals never feel like throwaways.  From the striking riff in the chorus to the sparkles behind the bridge, the production gives Halsey the platform she needs to tell her story, connect with her listeners, and deliver one of the best pop hits of 2017.

16) Rockabye by Clean Bandit featuring Sean Paul & Anne-Marie

A case can be made that Clean Bandit’s 2016 and 2017 releases are less sonically distinct than the music found on its debut album “New Eyes.”  The songs are certainly broader in influence.

One adhering to critical convention may be inclined to view that trajectory in a negative sense.

One honestly listening to the songs, however, would have a hard time denying the more important reality:  Clean Bandit continues to make great music.

“Rockabye (featuring Sean Paul & Anne-Marie),” in fact, represents the group’s best song yet.

“Rockabye,” which debuted on the very first pop chart of 2017, is quite simply a gold standard for dance-pop collaborations.  The dance/production elements connect perfectly with the vibe of the song and its poignant lyrics.  They are not there to serve as a distraction or interlude; they help define and amplify the overall message.

Collaborators Anne-Marie and Sean Paul, moreover, do not merely come across as vocalists who can perform their parts.  They come across as the right individuals for the song.

Anne-Marie’s vulnerable, hauntingly beautiful tone pairs perfectly with the beat and lyrics.  Her voice makes the song resonate, positioning the song as a “can’t-miss event” rather than yet another dance-pop track.

Sean Paul’s energy and charisma amplify that momentous vibe.  His callouts are memorable in their own right (“daily struggle” gained a cult following of sorts), yet they always serve to complement – rather than distract from – Anne-Marie’s vocal.  His own verse is also tremendously effective.

“Rockabye” justifies Clean Bandit’s continued exploration and experimentation.  It is a superb record – and undoubtedly one of the year’s best pop hits.

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