Our journey through the year’s best pop hits has reached its eagerly anticipated destination.
We are able to share the final five songs on our countdown — including the smash we’re confidently calling the best pop hit of 2017.
Before proceeding, you may want to review the previous parts of our countdown. Songs by Clean Bandit, Halsey, Imagine Dragons, Dua Lipa and James Arthur ranked within the Top 20. Hits from Miley Cyrus, Bruno Mars, The Chainsmokers & Coldplay, Childish Gambino and Shawn Mendes grabbed Top 15 positions. Kesha, Portugal. The Man, Ed Sheeran and Harry Styles secured Top 10 rankings.
As a reminder, a song needed to first chart at pop radio in 2017 — and at least reach the format’s Top 20 — to achieve eligibility for the countdown.
5) It Ain’t Me by Kygo x Selena Gomez
Musicians are no longer guaranteed brownie points for EDM-pop collaborations. With decent attempts popping up on Spotify every week, such songs no longer feel inherently novel or special. They, more importantly, no longer represent shortcuts to success at pop radio.
It takes a creative spin on the formula – or at least an extremely compelling use of the formula – to make such a collaboration feel exciting in today’s era.
The Kygo and Selena Gomez hit “It Ain’t Me” meets that lofty expectation.
The composition is simply stunning. The blending of a low-key, singer-songwriter vibe on the verses with a soaring – yet still quirky and down-to-earth – chorus and drop attracts considerable attention. A gorgeous melody ensures it meaningfully resonates.
This is not pleasant, mildly dance-worthy background noise – this is a song that makes an impact.
Lush, creative production compounds the sensation of importance. This, again, is not simply a song meant to please the ears; it is one to foster a connection. Whereas so many EDM-pop collaborations fall into the trap of prioritizing sound alone, “It Ain’t Me” is predicated on the idea of music as an immersive experience.
The strong composition and production provide a great framework; vocalist Selena Gomez then seals the deal. “It Ain’t Me” comes across like it was unequivocally made for Gomez – and her specific vocal strengths. She does not come across as a vocalist contracted because she could technically hit the notes or because she carries a big name. She comes across as the rightful voice of this song.
Much like her superb hit “Same Old Love,” the verses play into the natural, beautiful “cry” in her voice. Gomez, moreover, packs a major punch with her delivery – without needing to go over-the-top. She delicately sells the emotion of the song during the verses, in the process making an integral contribution to the contrasting, escalating composition.
Gomez’ lines like “Bowery” and “Whiskey, Neat” are later leveraged as production elements. The vocal samples create an infectious hook – and sound utterly glorious.
“It Ain’t Me” is one of 2017’s most engaging music experiences. It sounds great, tells a clear story and unquestionably ranks as one of the year’s best pop hits.
4) Slow Hands by Niall Horan
It takes a strong artist to authentically capture the sound of a previous era.
It takes an utterly special artist to authentically capture a past sound, while also injecting a modern flair and establishing a unique persona.
“Slow Hands” confirms Niall Horan as one of those utterly special artists.
The song undoubtedly wears its influences on its sleeves. It absolutely calls to mind the music of acts like Don Henley and Fleetwood Mac.
It does not, however, feel like a shameless attempt to replicate the music of those artists. From start-to-finish, it comes across as a fresh, unique (and damn good) pop smash.
More importantly, it provides Niall Horan a platform for establishing an identity — and a superstar one at that. He comes across as a new, exciting artist inspired by the past — not a generic one opting to live in it.
His vocal delivery is engaging, passionate and preposterously charismatic. It captures the song’s seductive vibe without abandoning his humble, down-to-earth nature. He is dialed-in without coming across as calculated. He is confident without coming across as arrogant. He is a star without coming across as distant.
Whereas Horan came across as appealing on his debut solo single “This Town,” he comes across as captivating on “This Town.” His performance is hungrier, more distinct and more self-assured. He is not simply someone who knows how to sing well. He is someone who knows how to communicate a message and command attention through song.
While “Niall Horan is a star” may be the major takeaway, it would be a crime to ignore the quality of the record itself. The addictive groove and alluring chorus are expertly, yet organically crafted, yielding a joyous, memorable sonic experience.
“Slow Hands” is a great song performed by an incredibly promising artist. It is clearly one of 2017’s best pop hits.
3) rockstar by Post Malone ft. 21 Savage
One of music’s big narratives from the past year concerns the emerging disconnect between mainstream music taste and pop radio sensibility. Rhythmic/hip-hop songs like “HUMBLE.,” “Bad And Boujee” and “Bodak Yellow” became massive hits on streaming services – and, as a consequence, attained significant pop culture recognition (and success on the overall Billboard Hot 100). They nonetheless faced resistance at pop radio.
Post Malone’s “rockstar (featuring 21 Savage)” bridges the gap between the two worlds. With an addictive beat, immensely strong delivery, solid flow and great wordplay, “rockstar” is a legitimately strong rhythmic track. It may not be the heaviest, hardest hitter in the hip-hop game, but it is certainly not limp or vanilla.
Despite its undeniable rhythmic credibility, “rockstar” also boasts tremendous pop sensibility. The lyrics are accessible, relatable (in an aspirational sense if nothing else) and memorable. Post Malone and 21 Savage showcase undeniable charisma – and sound universally appealing. The verse melodies are intoxicating, and the chorus is preposterously catchy.
“rockstar” stands out on pop radio, but not because it sounds tremendously ill-suited for the format. It stands out because it makes for a more enjoyable, more engaging, more memorable listen than almost anything that received pop airplay in 2017.
Neither the song nor the artists fit into a narrow definition of “pop,” but the song and their delivery capture the essence of a great pop song. They just so happen to also capture the essence of a great rhythmic song. And of a great urban song.
Some songs fit into multiple genres because they are broad, innocuous and non-committal. Others fit into multiple genres because they are high-quality, multi-dimensional records that appeal to numerous sensibilities.
“rockstar” is one of those records. It is also one of 2017’s best pop hits.
2) Havana by Camila Cabello featuring Young Thug
There is a misconception that familiarity is the key to success at pop radio. Many artists, critics and industry strategists mistakenly believe that following a formula is the best way to resonate with mainstream audiences.
Another, similar misconception is best described as the “bop fallacy.” Critics focus on sound alone, ignoring the roles attitude and charisma play in creating connections with listeners.
Camila Cabello’s “Havana (featuring Young Thug)” rebuffs these suggestions. It offers a reminder that personality and identity create stars and hits.
“Havana” may possess recognizable pop sensibility, but it is certainly not a conventional, generic record. Instead of locking Cabello into a rigid melodic structure, it allows the immensely talented artist to loosely, powerfully and uniquely showcase her vocal ability. Instead of relying on cliche contemporary production, it makes use of unusual ad-libs, stunning background vocals, a Latin trumpet and a retro piano riff. Instead of shamelessly slapping a rapper onto the track for the sake of broader appeal, it weaves Young Thug’s verse seamlessly — and successfully — into the flow of the record.
Instead of aiming to fit into a typical pop radio playlist, it works to stand out from — and taller than — other songs garnering airplay. It is an utterly distinct record.
More importantly, it is an absolutely specific record. Every aspect of the song — every phrase, every instrumental, every note — feels like a window into this very unique artist named Camila Cabello.
To her credit, Cabello proves herself worthy of such a window. In addition to sounding gorgeous, Cabello’s voice is rich with personality and feeling. Whether expressing vulnerability or attitude, whether belting with power or cooing with delicacy, Cabello is putting everything she has into “Havana.” Not just everything she has musically — everything she has emotionally.
With “Havana,” Cabello instantly justified all the hype about her potential to be the next big music superstar. More than a talented vocalist with an established fanbase and supportive team, Cabello is a confident, charismatic artist with infinite cognizance of her own identity, strengths, weaknesses and emotions.
Cabello is not just the artist who sang the hit single “Havana.” She is the artist who made “Havana” a special, global phenomenon — and the second-best pop hit of 2017.
1) Despacito by Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber
Justin Bieber opens the remix of “Despacito” with one of his strongest verses on record. His voice sounds great — and incredibly charismatic. He sets an amazing tone for the song — and sends the message that listeners are about to hear something truly great.
When he returns, he is singing in Spanish. It is at that moment that “Despacito” transcends the idea of a “great song” — and starts to feel like a legitimate pop culture event.
It is at that moment that Bieber is immersing himself in the world of the song, and thus encouraging the overall music community to follow suit. Enlisting Justin Bieber for the remix was obviously a savvy business strategy, but Bieber’s contribution does not feel like a mere cash grab. It feels like a way to make a great song bigger — and better.
Bieber’s English-language verse (and, in reality, his mere involvement) inherently makes the song more accessible. Bieber’s Spanish-language chorus makes a Spanish song more accessible. That is the wonderful, remarkable aspect of this effort: the artists are not completely bastardizing the song in order to gain acceptance. They are helping American (and global) audiences — and radio programmers — appreciate the song for what it really is.
The brilliant concept positions “Despacito” as a “must-listen,” “must-discuss” piece of music.
The success here is not, however, a product of concept alone. The song itself is also spectacular. That was the case with the Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee version, and it remains the case with the Bieber remix.
“Despacito” boasts a great melody. The composition flows flawlessly. The production is incredible. The vocal performances are top-notch.
Expertly developed and universally appealing, “Despacito” is a masterclass in mainstream music.
It is the very best pop hit of 2017.