The Daily Californian Arts Awards: Music of 2017

Frazer Harrison/Courtesy

While American politics may continue to divide, music in 2017 amplified oft-marginalized voices.

Latin music rose up in the charts in unprecedented ways, with “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber — whose addition is admittedly detrimental to this argument — holding its No. 1 slot on Billboard’s Hot 100 for 16 consecutive weeks. It now shares the record for longest run at No. 1 with Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day,” and its music video became the first YouTube video to reach 4 billion views.

“Mi Gente” by J Balvin and Willy William featuring Beyoncé reached No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 shortly after the natural disasters that affected Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean islands. In response, Beyoncé donated all the revenue she received for the song to disaster relief charities in order to aid those affected.

2017 was a landmine of a year. Its music reflected this explosiveness at its best.

Rap music received two new landmark installations by giants Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z. It saw the rise of Cardi B, whose hit “Bodak Yellow” achieved the title of longest run at No. 1 by a solo female rapper.

Women in R&B pushed boundaries. Oakland’s own Kehlani released the sophisticated SweetSexySavage in January. SZA garnered widespread acclaim with her first studio album Ctrl and earned the most Grammy nominations by a female artist for the 2018 Grammy Awards. Meanwhile, Rihanna, amazingly, remained Spotify’s most streamed female artist in 2017 despite not releasing any solo tracks.

2017 was a landmine of a year. Its music reflected this explosiveness at its best. While America may not intend to listen to the voices of its most marginalized, it still does when they are played on the radio — providing a glimmer of hope, however small, for 2018.  

Caroline Smith

Best Album

Aftermath/Courtesy

Aftermath/Courtesy

Winner: Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.

DAMN. is Kendrick Lamar’s reckoning.

If To Pimp a Butterfly was his prophecy, and good kid, m.A.A.d city his confessional, then DAMN. is Lamar’s sermon made permanent on wax.

On “DNA.” he speaks this truth in no uncertain terms: “The reason my power’s here on earth / Salute the truth, when the prophet say.”

Like the best preachers, he knows that he needs to deliver the goods to get anyone’s attention. DAMN. carries his most potent storytelling, all backed by collaborators that span rap’s inner elite (Mike WiLL Made-It, DJ Dahi) and nascent innovators (Steve Lacy, BADBADNOTGOOD).

The raps on DAMN. are some of Lamar’s most show-stopping, as he demands fealty, humility and faith to the Most High, not only for the false prophets who dare to impose religiosity to spread sin, but for himself — a gifted but flawed man made in His image.

It all culminates in the most miraculous thing here: DAMN.’s closer, “DUCKWORTH.” Here, Kendrick weaves a story of two men, his father and his Top Dawg mentor, tied together and saved by circumstance and KFC biscuits to guide him to this very point.

It’s the stuff of divine intervention, and Kendrick, in all his good graces, has blessed us this very year.

— Joshua Bote

Runner-Up: Lorde — Melodrama

Much has already been said of Lorde’s shining achievement, Melodrama — it’s a tenderly curated sampling of her powerful maturity and strength. Verse after verse unfolds like a blooming flower, one with petals of dark blue, violet and burgundy. Lorde’s evolution can be tracked along two planes: in the transition from Pure Heroine to Melodrama, as well as in the transitions between songs on Melodrama itself. Her sophomore effort is dripping with the weight of loneliness; the gravitas of it all is only lifted up by co-writer Jack Antonoff’s punchy, stylish lyrics. Now with two standout records under her belt, we can only expect to be similarly enchanted by any future albums Lorde releases.

— Shannon O’Hara

Notable Mentions:

  1. SZA — Ctrl
  2. Jay Som — Everybody Works
  3. Tyler, The Creator — Flower Boy
  4. Jay-Z — 4:44
  5. BROCKHAMPTON — SATURATION/SATURATION II/SATURATION III
  6. Harry Styles — Harry Styles
  7. HAIM — Something to Tell You
  8. Kehlani — SweetSexySavage

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Best Billboard Top 10 Single

Nastia Voynovskaya/Senior Staff

Nastia Voynovskaya/Senior Staff

Winner: Kendrick Lamar — “HUMBLE.”

When “HUMBLE.” dropped a mere two weeks before DAMN., it heralded Kendrick Lamar not as Kung Fu Kenny or K.Dot, but as the full-on manifestation of the Young Pope, no disrespect to Jude Law.

Its propulsive staccato keys and G-funk imbued trap, courtesy of Mike WiLL Made-It, sound like the clouds unveiling caustic rapture. Lamar’s not so much on the leviathan beat as much as he’s in the gauntlet with it.

His decrees alternate between piety and irreverence, calling upon the powers that be to grant humility unto him and his peers while he boasts about the potency of his raps and his manhood in the same breath.

It’s this duality that got him into trouble with critics when “HUMBLE.” first dropped. His requests for natural, Photoshop-free beauty lined up with a simplistic understanding of womanhood as only in service of his own manhood. No matter how much he adores the women in his life, such as long-time partner Whitney Alford (and it shows, in other DAMN. highlights like “LOVE.”), his detractors are correct.

But Lamar has never made a claim to sainthood. Humanity rears its head in the shadows of sin, and perhaps, that’s the point.

— Joshua Bote

Runner-Up: Bruno Mars — “That’s What I Like”

Bruno Mars is shining so bright on this track that we may just have to cover our eyes, lest his so-called 24-karat magic blind us all. With its fresh, sexual energy, Mars’ January release “That’s What I Like” is practically bubbling like a strawberry champagne. Its silk sheets and diamonds evoke the same sparkling luxury that characterizes the entirety of 24K Magic. With this song, it’s evident that Bruno Mars knows he hardly has to try if he wants to put a smile on us, because he’s exactly what we like. Lucky for us, we can always count on him to deliver an infectious, indulgent pop hit, and “That’s What I Like” is just that.  

— Shannon O’Hara

Nominations: Drake for “Passionfruit,” Cardi B for “Bodak Yellow” and DJ Khaled for “Wild Thoughts (feat. Rihanna and Bryson Tiller)”

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Best Non-Billboard Top 10 Single

Madison Gate / Sony Masterworks/Courtesy

Madison Gate / Sony Masterworks/Courtesy

Winner: Sufjan Stevens — “Mystery of Love”

As one of three songs by Sufjan Stevens featured in the stunning film “Call Me By Your Name,” “Mystery of Love” incredibly captures the pain, ecstasy and ephemeral beauty of this Italian summer romance. As an emotional middle between Stevens’ other two songs on the soundtrack, this plucky guitar ballad feels like a hot summer’s day on an Italian bluff, ocean spray in your face, long grass blowing in the wind — even without seeing the film. Stevens’ airy vocal quality perfectly encompasses this fleeting but incredibly important first love. Somehow, Stevens mixes reluctance and terror with the anticipation and lust of a young boy in the throes of his first love. Washed in vintage tones, the song wonderfully parallels the academic, sometimes esoteric base of the film, referencing the fabled love of Alexander the Great and Hephaestion, whose relationship Aristotle described as “one soul abiding two bodies,” ominously referencing the self-replacing nature of the film’s anthem, “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.” In the end, Stevens does not form any conclusions about love, leaving each listener to bring their own experiences into the song, helping to decipher what truly is the mystery of love.

— Rebecca Gerny

Runner-Up: Lorde — “Homemade Dynamite (Remix) [feat. Khalid, Post Malone and SZA]”

“Homemade Dynamite,” off Lorde’s 2017 release Melodrama, is a good song. “Homemade Dynamite (Remix)” — which combines the talents of the year’s best two breakout artists, SZA and Khalid, with that of Post Malone — is a banger.  

Lorde’s simple beat and melodies are deeply enriched by the three altered verses and harmonized choruses, providing vocal ranges and perspectives the original lyrics only cursorily gesture toward. Apart from bringing together four of the year’s biggest names, the song works because of their respective interpretations, imbuing new, delectably rich complexities upon the simple four-count beat. The resultant imagery is that of a house party that feels all too familiar and yet drunkenly forgotten, one attended by the very artists played by every DJ in 2017.

Caroline Smith

Nominations: St. Vincent for “New York,” Calvin Harris for “Slide (feat. Migos and Frank Ocean)” and Vince Staples for “Big Fish”

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Best Bay Area Live Concert

Imad Pasha/Senior Staff

Imad Pasha/Senior Staff

Winner: Solange @ Hearst Greek Theatre

Cast in a stunning, primary-color lighting design, Solange’s two nights at the Greek were nothing if not unforgettable. Her full-sized orchestra filled the white stands onstage that were part of an elegant, minimalist set design, its focus points being a massive central orb and two triangles that bookended the stage-front perimeters.

Leaning forward and back, Solange, the backup singers and the orchestra moved in unison to the somber, beautiful beats of A Seat at the Table and her reimaginations of earlier songs, with her live performance of “T.O.N.Y.” as the latter category’s gemstone. Yet it was when Solange broke from that unison — tearing away to move quickly, to her own beat — that the crowd truly went wild. Between songs, Solange talked about her own path toward self-confidence, encouraging the crowd to cheer for the Black women in the audience.

From the set design, to the prominent display of her orchestra, to every step of choreography, Solange’s concert was more than a celebration of artistry — it was art itself. By the concert’s end, it became unimaginable for Solange to have presented A Seat at the Table, one of the best albums of 2016, in any other way.

Caroline Smith

Runner-Up: Glass Animals @ Hearst Greek Theatre

Glass Animals brought one of the year’s most energetic, fun-filled shows to Berkeley this September, rocking out at the Hearst Greek Theatre under a shimmering, pineapple-shaped disco ball. Playing an even split of tracks from debut album ZABA and the more recent How to Be a Human Being, the band shared an infectious energy with the crowd — at one point, frontman Dave Bayley spent a song buried in the pit, jumping with the fans. Paired with an impeccable light show and the Greek’s amazing visual space, it was no surprise people lingered after the lights went down.  

Imad Pasha

Nominations: BROCKHAMPTON @ Social Hall, Kehlani @ Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and Hearst Greek Theatre and Jay-Z @ Oracle Arena

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Best Breakout Artist

Top Dawg Entertainment / RCA Records/Courtesy

Top Dawg Entertainment / RCA Records/Courtesy

Winner: SZA

With the release of her debut studio album Ctrl in June, SZA burst onto the scene with an immortal tracklist of R&B anthems. Throughout Ctrl, the year’s premier breakout artist croons for love lost, love scorned and “Love Galore (feat. Travis Scott).”

While her album possesses plenty of impressive features, it’s SZA herself who imbues the album with its charisma, her lyrics conveying both an earnest yearning and endearing confidence that she brilliantly, rhythmically laces over classic R&B beats and swoon-inducing melodies. She yearns for the days of Hollywood romances and simple Drew Barrymore rom-coms, masterfully alternating between her own insecurities, bubbly confidence and telephoned advice from her mother and grandmother.

The result is an intimately personal masterpiece, one that not only introduces its own emotional complexity but deeply affects its listener, conjuring invasively personal imagery as though SZA had somehow experienced a thousand lives’ worth of love, longing and fears of inadequacy.

SZA’s success was aided in part by the use of Ctrl in the acclaimed second series of HBO’s “Insecure” — the series was even allocated its own soundtrack exclusive, “Quicksand.” Though the song complements Ctrl, it also stands on its own — demonstrating that while this may be SZA’s breakout year (she garnered five Grammy nominations), her career is just in its early notes.

Caroline Smith

Runner-Up: Khalid

Khalid deals exclusively in youth, not as imagined by Max Martin-like figures, but drawn from a life raised on malaise and digitally mediated connection available on tap.

The now-19-year-old’s songwriting on numbers such as “Location” and “8TEEN” — earnest, self-aware, laced with weed and romantic remorse — gestures toward a wisdom that belies his fresh-faced juvenilia.

But the kicker is his stunning baritone, stark and inviting like sunbeams in the winter. It’s a tool so laden with melancholy that it’s been deployed by the likes of Logic, Lorde and Calvin Harris to amplify the gravitas in their own productions.

Khalid, rightfully so, has become the voice of a generation.

— Joshua Bote

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Artist of the Year

Joan Kang/File

Joan Kang/File

Winner: Kendrick Lamar

2017 was the year in which Kendrick Lamar cemented his place in the pantheon of rap legends.

In a mainstream rap landscape so utterly upended by narcotized SoundCloud rap and single-driven economics, Lamar’s success — as an album-statement artist and as a rapper beloved by the guards old and new — still feels like a thrilling, stabilizing thing to hold on to.

He started his banner year by bodying everyone in the rap game from Big Sean to Drake on “The Heart Part 4” — and had the receipts to prove why he’s the best in the game.

DAMN. was Lamar’s first release to fulfill the holy trinity of critical acclaim, household-name level popularity and street cred. He nabbed five Top 20 singles, “HUMBLE.” being his first chart-topping one. His guest verses cut through Vince Staples’ idiosyncratic electronica with laser-cut precision, expounded on his love for pussy and, on tracks by Thundercat and Rapsody, went straight for the emotional jugular.

But the thing is, Lamar’s songmanship this year wasn’t just excellent. It was absolutely definitive. It clanged with necessity, serving as a salve not only to the bland pablum doled out by Katy and former collaborator Taylor, but as a rebel yell that — on tracks like ““XXX. FEAT. U2.,” or his prelude to his magnificent year, “The Heart Part 4” — served as the necessary accompaniment to this year’s political nightmares, in which hatemongering, Russian interference and Twitter-induced nuclear cataclysm are being pushed as political policy.

Like Public Enemy and Kanye West before him, Kendrick defined the weight of existence in a time in which the existence of Black and Brown communities is most at stake. That is the hallmark of a rap legend.

— Joshua Bote

Runner-Up: Harry Styles

After hearts around the world were collectively broken by the dissolution of One Direction, nobody was wholly confident in the future of the band’s individual heartthrobs. But with the dropping of his album in 2017, Harry Styles proved to everybody out there — fans and ambivalents alike — that he would belt impassioned love ballads with or without four co-serenaders to support him. That being said, while “Sign of the Times” was a sensational hit, a musical moment was only a piece of Styles’ success in 2017, another being his acting debut in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” — and don’t let those warships fool you, this isn’t Rihanna in “Battleship.” Styles delivered a genuine, bona fide performance, one that proved that this mega-celebrity is much more than just a voice.

— Shannon O’Hara

Nominations: Bruno Mars, Jay-Z and Taylor Swift

Contact the Daily Cal Arts Staff at [email protected].