The Dowsers prides itself on being the first music magazine devoted to the playlist experience—and in 2017, that experience became all the more multi-faceted. By nature, playlist-making is a highly personal process, an opportunity for anyone to play the role of radio programmer and tailor their song selection to suit a particular mood, activity, or obsession. Increasingly, we’ve seen them become a more communal medium, whether it’s bands releasing a curated mix to hype a new record, streaming services using them to break new artists, fans crowd-sourcing set lists to create shareable post-show souvenirs, or one of the biggest rappers in the world taking the “playlists are the new albums” mantra literally. But in 2017, we also saw playlists that moved beyond the realm of the promotional to the political, be it through pointed statements or charity initiatives. It may still feel strange to think a playlist could change the world, but in 2017, the act of dragging-and-dropping reached new levels of artistry, activitism, and influence.
1. Your Discover Weekly
Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist was launched in July of 2015, but with the music service now boasting more than 60 million paying subscribers and playlists eclipsing albums as the dominant way fans consume music, the weekly personalized mix is more relevant than ever. Essentially based on the concept of collaborative filtering, the algorithm looks at songs it knows you like, then recommends you songs adjacent to those songs in other users’ playlists and libraries. The result is often uncannily precient recommendations. If you’ve become as addicted to this playlist as so many others, there’s good news: The more users Spotify adds, the more data there is to mine, and the better these recommendations get.
In 2017, RapCavier was the Avatar of playlists. It adorned billboards, spawned its own tour, stirred up controversy, and turned its creator, Tuma Basa, into an industry celebrity. It’s easy to be cynical about it all, but also very difficult to turn away. Week after week, it simply delivered the goods, helping break an entire new generation of rap artists (it’s no coincidence that Lil Uzi Vert headlined the tour) while also being one of the first playlists to incorporate video. In an era that was supposed to have decimated the tastemaker class, Basa and his playlist provided essential listening.
3. Drake, More Life
This is among the best of Drake’s clumping-tracks-together things, and that’s very much because More Life is consciously a “playlist.” This isn’t a low-stakes gambit or a cheap marketing gimmick (at least not entirely), but an honest engagement with a new form. More Life is loose and meandering, and sometimes the individual components seem slight and tertiary. But like the best playlists, it captures a moment, a feeling, and a place. More Life is enjoyable and, as anyone who listens to a lot of classic albums knows, enjoying music trumps appreciating it—and this release is infinitely better than any other non-sweater-meme Drake release in years. For that, we can thank the generations of mixtape compilers, playlist curators, radio DJs, and compilation creators for helping define this new form. But, most of all, we should thank Drake for getting that the lines between artist, audience, critic, and curator are porous, and for making an initial foray into what this intersection looks like.
4. Grim Kim’s 150 Raddest Metal Albums Ever Made by People Who Happen To Not Be Dude
This past July, NPR released their list of the 150 greatest albums made by women. On first glance, the list appears to be wide-reaching in its scope. Meshell Ndegeocello, Sleater-Kinney, and Egyptian superstar Umm Kulthum all make appearances, with iconic figures like Nina Simone and Joni Mitchell nabbing the top spots. However, renowned metal critic Kim Kelly quickly noted on Twitter that the “definitive” countdown failed to include any albums metal albums by women—so she Tweeted out a list of her own, and then a Spotify user named Jim Fenner compiled (most of) them all into a 1,023-track, 87-hour playlist. Kelly’s crash course does more than simply construct a history of women in metal; she highlights the diversity in female and non-binary artists who have transgressed the genre itself.
5. The Bathroom Bans
Within the Spotify ecosystem, you’ll find a multitude of playlists created by the streaming service in response to current events, be it mixes that benefit Mexico City’s earthquake victims, or expressions of support for American dreamers jeopardized by the Trump administration’s DACA repeal. But The Bathroom Bans (part of Spotify’s recently launched I’m with the—banned series) is more than just a playlist protest against repeated attempts by Republican state government to enforce which type of public restrooms trans people are allowed to use. Threading expository animated videos (narrated by Halsey) with tracks by trans/gender-fluid artists and their vocal allies, it nudges the playlist format toward the realm of narrative documentary.
6. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “For Puerto Rico” Playlist
All-star charity singles have a bad reputation that is entirely earned. But Hamilton playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Almost Like Praying” (proceeds from which benefited victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico) was unexpectedly fire, bringing together everyone from Jennifer Lopez to Dominican icon Juan Luis Guerra for an impassioned, dembow-driven love song to Puerto Rico. The track was introduced through Miranda’s “For Puerto Rico” playlist, which not only presented a soulful portrait of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and its diaspora in the U.S., it also raised money for hurricane-relief efforts through a Spotify donation based on the number of followers it acquired. As an added incentive, the songwriter pledged that, if the playlist hit 50,000 followers, he would share an old photo of himself, dressed as J.Lo. (At the time of this writing, the count was over 73,000, but we’re still waiting for the big reveal.)
7. Aphex Twin’s Field Day set
There’s a reason why Reddit users frantically threw together a playlist of the tracks that Aphex Twin spun during London’s Field Day just hours after the set ended on June 3. The U.K. producer born Richard James remains one of electronic music’s most cherished and mysterious figures, and the singularity of sound and vision has spawned a fervent fan base that tracks his every movement. Admittedly, listening to a playlist comprising tracks exclusively from a DJ set is an odd experience; as an unmixed, dangling historical artifact, experienced within the confines of headphones or home speakers, it’s not how or where James wanted this music to be heard. But your mind fills in some of the blanks: the 3D mapped light instillation; the entrances and exits of the segues; the sweat and flesh of the festival crowd. It’s an incomplete experience, but it’s also interactive, and feels less like you’re staring through a tiny peephole at a much larger world and more like you’re parsing an ancient, oblique text.
8. Frank Ocean’s Blonded
After a four-year silence that ended with last year’s widely acclaimed Blond(e), Frank Ocean greeted 2017 with renewed vigor. On top of dropping a handful of new singles, he also released a dynamic playlist, “Blonded,” that appears far more personal and revelatory than the artist-branded content that label publicists crank out for streaming services. The first installment, revealed on February 24, included Celine Dion and Teen Suicide alongside obvious nods like Prince and Nina Simone. His March 10 update ventured further afield with jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, prog-pop enigma Todd Rundgren, and techno iconoclast Actress. And this most recent update from this past August features everyone from Frank Sinatra to Geto Boys to Japanese Breakfast. “Blonded” aspires to the ideal of music consumption in the streaming era—now that we can listen to everything, we can consume anything (and switch things up when the mood strikes). It remains to be seen if Frank Ocean’s ideological generosity will eventually manifest in his music.
9. Four Tet’s 60-Hour (And Counting) Megamix
At the time of this writing, the primary Spotify playlist by Four Tet (a.k.a UK producer/DJ Kieran Hebden) spans 695 songs and runs over 60 hours. By the time you read these words, it will have probably grown. Over the past few months, it seemed to serve primarily as a vehicle for Hebden to build anticipation for his ninth long-player, New Energy, mixing in tracks from the record with songs from peers (Bicep), inspirations (Sly Stone), and aliases (um, 00110100 01010100, which is the artist page stub where an album of Four Tet b-sides resides in Spotify). DJ mixes are a dime-a-dozen, and it’s not hard to find plenty by Four Tet out there in the ether. What’s much more rare to find is such a comprehensive compendium of all the sounds that go into an artist’s aesthetic. For a veteran like Hebden, an experimental cosmonaut who’s as likely to fold 2-step garage into his music as he is ‘70s jazz fusion or Nigerian funk (or…Selena Gomez), a standard 15-track playlist simply wouldn’t capture the breadth of his tastes. Hell, 10 of those wouldn’t. At nearly 700 tracks and counting, this mix is at least beginning to come close.
10. Ivanka Trump’s 991122 Playlist
Even in the streaming-dominant age, it’s still extremely rare for a playlist to make international headlines—but then this feat is probably only the 8,654th weirdest thing to happen under the current presidential administration. On October 15, Ivanka Trump posted this cryptically titled playlist to her Spotify profile, and given its timing (appearing 10 days before her and Jared Kushner’s eighth anniversary) and the egregiously lovey-dovey nature of the songs featured within, many media outlets speculated that the mix was designed as the soundtrack to a sexy-time couple’s retreat. However when you consider the themes of nostalgia (Adele’s “We Were Young,” Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man”) and looming separation (Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” Passenger’s “Let Her Go”) running throughout the playlist, it’s possible that Ivanka and Jared are actually preparing themselves for a different sort of getaway.