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The Best Songs of 2018

It’s been an odd, intoxicating year in singles. Before we say thank you, next—here are our 10 favorites.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What did a pop song sound like in 2018? Like a breakup and a makeup, like a meme, like a dream. The centrality of music has been more shattered by choice than that of any other medium. But that’s not stopping us from sharing our favorites. Here, Lindsay Zoladz and Micah Peters describe what made these 10 worth dragging and dropping onto your year-end playlist. And for more about the Year in Music, read Lindsay’s essay about modern pop stardom, Rob Harvilla and Shea Serrano’s list of the best albums of 2018, and our staff’s list of the year’s most underrated rap albums.

10. Camp Cope, “The Opener”

“Yeah just get a female opener, that’ll fill the quota,” Georgia Maq sings, sighing so hard you can almost hear her rolling her eyes. The sardonically titled “The Opener,” the first track on Australian trio Camp Cope’s excellent record How to Socialize & Make Friends, is in part a compendium of the micro- and macro-aggressions the band has endured: “It’s another man telling us we can’t fill up the room, it’s another man telling us to book a smaller venue.” But Maq has a voice like a flamethrower, and by the end of the song she’s burned it all to the ground: “WELL SEE HOW FAR WE’VE COME NOT LISTENING TO YOU!” It’s a much-needed primal scream in the face of trauma, and a reminder that the concerns kicked up by the #MeToo movement were not just some passing trend. Good politics do not always make good songs, but in this case they happen to make a great one. —Lindsay Zoladz

9. J Hus, “Scene”

Almost exactly one year after going toe-to-toe with the likes of Harry Styles and Gorillaz on BBC’s Radio 1 A-list with his breakout single “Did You See,” East Londoner J Hus dropped The Big Spang EP squarely on our heads in May. He’d yet to release a follow-up to his Mercury Prize–nominated 2017 debut Common Sense, which landed on plenty of year-end lists here in the States—no small feat for a grime (-adjacent) rapper. On Big Spang, “Dark Vader” and “Dancing Man” are J Hus and producer Jae5—the Heatmakerz to Hus’s Cam’ron—doing what they do best: synthesizing strands of West Indian music and Afrobeats into dance records that hit you directly in your hips. “Scene,” which is darker by comparison, is actually the scene within the scene—a confrontation threatening to boil over and ruin everyone’s evening, just away from the dance floor. Of the three, “Scene” is the Street Record, with all of the attendant ferocity and despair that entails. It’s one of the most genuinely thrilling vocal performances of the year. Hus is gruff and seasoned for 22 years old, but balanced: He can be cocky and funny (his last words: “Ouch, that huuuuurts”) but never forget that he’s also not to be tried (“Spray up the place / then spray again just in case”). Making rap hands into my rearview mirror as I weave through traffic at night, I feel like I might be all of those things too. Don’t make him (me) cause a scene. —Micah Peters

8. Ella Mai, “Boo’d Up”

Ella Mai’s buoyant “Boo’d Up” was one of the unlikeliest hits of 2018—and not just because it first came out all the way back in February of last year. The 24-year-old British singer and DJ Mustard protegé was hardly a household name when she released it as the lead-off track from her Ready EP, and the song itself—a sultry, mature, and light-heartedly romantic R&B tune—was more throwback than on-trend. But in one of those streaming-era success stories, “Boo’d Up” became the sleeper hit of the summer, taking Mai all the way to the top five of the Billboard Hot 100 and, as of last month, the Saturday Night Live stage. “Boo’d Up” was penned by the R&B singer-songwriter Joelle James, who told The Fader earlier this year that the song’s iconic chorus was just the result of her “scatting” and making up words to go with a “jazzy type vibe.” “I didn’t even realize I said ‘boo’d up’ until I was done.” But that’s what makes the sweet, giddy chorus so infectious: It so perfectly captures not only the tongue-tied feeling of infatuation, but also those inevitable Freudian slips of the heart. —LZ

7. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, “American Guilt”

My old editor and good friend Nate Scott described Broncho frontman Ryan Lindsey’s voice as “sort of like a sexy muppet,” but I think the same applies to Ruban Nielson of New Zealand indie rockers Unknown Mortal Orchestra. The band’s fourth album, Sex & Food, is unmistakably UMO, a hazy, psychedelic trip through the id; a colorful journey inward. It’s reflective of the times but not political, not really, not even on the standout “American Guilt,” which was also the album’s lead single. It’s a frantic, news-drunk (“Even the Nazis are crying / History’s private property”) rock song garbled through a CB radio that sounds like a Songs for the Deaf B-side, not like something from the same people that brought you Multi-Love. It’s a sweaty lesson in stuplimity, which makes it, you know, current. And also timeless. Half of the song’s lyrics are “Oh no.” —MP

6. Teyana Taylor, “Rose in Harlem”

“It be the ones, who say they ride for you / It be the ones, the ones you love, them too.”

“Rose in Harlem” is heightened by context; those words could be about a lot of people. Keep That Same Energy (along with Daytona and maybe Kids See Ghosts) is maybe the most competent thing to come of this past summer’s GOOD Music month, despite being treated as an afterthought. There were news items detailing how the final cut of the album looked wholly unfamiliar to Taylor, that there’d be a re-release with the songs as they were meant to be heard. (This never happened.) There were more news items about how she’d canceled her ensuing tour with Jeremih, citing being “extremely mistreated.” Instead she embarked on a solo tour, during which I saw “Rose in Harlem” live, and learned that who “the ones” are doesn’t actually matter. Sometimes everything and everyone is just bullshit. —MP

5. Kacey Musgraves, “High Horse”

I’ve heard tell this is just a good Fearless-era Taylor Swift ditty, but I don’t recall ever being so taken with or thoroughly dunked on by anything Swift has made. Obviously, Musgraves’s third Golden Hour single is a pseudo-acoustic number that skews disco, which helps, but it’s also a scathing diss record aimed at—maybe me, personally? Am I the someone that everyone knows that thinks they’re cooler than everybody else? I’ll be that. In any case, the knowing, caustic mmmmmmm on the tail end of the hook gets me—by which I mean slaps me—every time. —MP

4. Ariana Grande, “thank u, next”

Can someone be simultaneously petty and benevolent? I did not think it possible until one fateful Saturday night in November, when Ariana Grande released a new song mere minutes before her ex-fiancé’s live TV show went to air. The world braced for a venomous kiss-off, but what we got was kinder, gentler, and so much more complex. In a time when plenty of pop hits sound focus-grouped into anonymity, the hyperpersonal “thank u, next” is a sonic diary entry turned mass cultural phenomenon. Grande begins with nods to her most famous exes (and also … Ricky) in the opening moments, setting the stage for some radical truths about love, patience, and pain dropped over a cotton-candy beat. Call it Pink Lemonade.

In a year when no one else was watching the throne, Ariana Grande seized the moment to become the reigning queen of pop, thanks not just to her infectious record Sweetener and her knack for weaving the most unexpected details of her personal life into her music. She was presumably talking about Pete Davidson on that record’s title track when she sang, “You come through like the sweetener you are, to bring the bitter taste to a halt.” But “thank u, next” proved she now has the power to do that all by herself. —LZ

3. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, “Shallow”

If you would have told me 12 months ago that Bradley Cooper would be involved in one of my favorite songs of the year, I would have looked at you in confused silence for a long time before finally asking, “… are you trying to tell me that Limitless was a documentary?” But here we are, further from the shallow than anyone could have imagined this time last year. Cooper’s wrenching A Star Is Born feels like a relic from another time, so earnest in its devotion to virtues like love, romance, and artistic integrity that it seemed to win over even the most jaded skeptics. A huge part of its power, of course, comes from Lady Gaga. Her nervy and raw performance as Ally Maine won her deserved accolades, and her impeccable songcraft elevated even what should have been throw-away numbers in the movie (“Look What I Found” hive, unite!) into instant pop classics. “Shallow,” though, is the showstopper—and not just because “HAAA AH AH AH AAAHH” is forever immortalized in meme-speak. Its forlorn verses, undercut by moaning strings, foreshadow the doom that we knew was awaiting these star-crossed lovers from the moment they laid eye(brows) on each other. But does that chorus ever soar: “Watch as I dive in,” Gaga sings, in an ascending melody that seems to stretch up past the clouds. “I’ll never meet the groooound!” For the briefest, most blissful moment, you believe her. —LZ

2. Travis Scott ft. Drake, “Sicko Mode”

With Astroworld, Travis Scott ingratiated himself to critical circles that had kept his previous efforts at arm’s length. Too derivative, too busy, too druggy, they said. His sophomore album reclaimed those pejoratives; Astroworld is derivative and busy and druggy, but in a way that makes you feel vicariously wild and cool. “Sicko Mode” (Scott’s first no. 1!) is emblematic of that—it’s one of the most exciting rap songs of the decade, and it telegraphs its attempts to be one of the most exciting songs of the decade by tapping en vogue producers like Cardo and Tay Keith, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out–type beat switches, Drake, and Swae Lee in the margins. It also contains one of the best musical moments of the year, which felt, when I first heard it, exactly how it’s depicted in the music video. “I took half a xan, 13 hours till I land have me OUT—” [video extra flattened by an asteroid] “—like a light, ayyyyyy.” —MP

1. The 1975, “Love It If We Made It”

In a New York Times article from earlier this year, the 1975’s verbose and charismatically anxious frontman, Matty Healy, mentioned that he had for a long time thought that INXS did “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” I cannot think of a more succinct description of “Love It If We Made It” than that. Atop an instrumental track that sounds like skyscraper-tall robots trying to cover the Blue Nile’s cult 1989 hit “Downtown Lights,” Healy yelps a series of lines, some of which were literally cut-and-pasted from tabloids. He knows it’s not easy to grab someone’s attention in the thank-u-next time of binge-watching and automatic scroll, so he wisely leads with shock (“WE’RE FUCKING IN A CAR, SHOOTING HEROIN”) … before getting all comedically meta about the very idea of leading with shock in the first place (“SAYING CONTROVERSIAL THINGS, JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT”). Therein lies the tension of this glimmering bop, set in the middle of the Manchester band’s ambitious and accomplished third album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. It’s the kind of sweet that gives you a bellyache: “Love It If We Made It” has the kind of melody you can’t help but sing along to, even if it makes you a little queasy to realize some of the things you’re singing are, for example, descriptions of refugees washing up on beaches or the president’s thoughts about Kanye West. May we all someday live in uninteresting times. Love it or hate it, no other single bottled the essence of 2018 so completely—the mind-numbing, flattening effect of the news cycle, the difficulty of extricating oneself from the grid (coupled with the deep desire to do just that), the anarchic urge to sometimes just throw up your hands and scream “POISON ME DADDY” at an indifferent sky. It was a strange and fractious year, and “Love It If We Made It” was its defining song. The fact that’s a divisive statement that at least half of you will want to argue about only makes it more true. —LZ


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