Last week, we released our Top 50 Albums of 2018 list. That’s the biggie for most of our readers and others in the industry — our final, defining commentary as a publication on the year in music. By the time our top songs list rolls out a week later, some view it as an afterthought and have already turned to the new year. I understand that. I’ve always been an albums guy by nature — the type who got annoyed when a friend played Side-B first or skipped choice deep cuts to get to a hit single faster. Despite some of the bloating bullshit that goes on (and you know who you are), an album, to me, still ranks as a sacred thing — from the sequencing right down to the cover art and liner notes.
[See Also: Top 50 Albums of 2018]
But as I get older, the song has started to win me over more and more. While albums do, indeed, soundtrack our lives, songs capture and punctuate our most intimate moments. When reading through a list like this one, I try to think of songs as moments: a moment of celebration, of hope, of dread, of despair, of fun, of escape, of understanding, of empowerment, of self-acceptance, of love in its infinite forms… It goes on, and I’m forever amazed by the sheer generosity that goes into artists sharing these moments with others — whether that moment has blossomed into a protest song, a club banger, a song of personal devastation, or a song that helps us see ourselves and others for who we really are. It’s amazing what can be done with a couple minutes, an idea, and some air.
That being said, below are the songs — and moments — from 2018 that we find as compelling and rewarding as any album.
50. STEPHEN MALKMUS AND THE JICKS – “SHIGGY”
Sounds Like: A mid-life crisis that lasts as long as an episode of Seinfeld.
Key Lyric: “I’d like to be your best friend/ Whenever forever”
Why Song Matters: At 52 years old, Stephen Malkmus is hardly the young slacker anymore, and “Shiggy” carries the weight that comes with all those storied years. Yet while he’s feeling the times, he still hasn’t resolved the crisis of wanting the very things he hates and hating the very things he wants. Some things never change, which is both comforting and terrifying.
49. SUNFLOWER BEAN – “COME FOR ME”
KING OF DUDES EP
Sounds Like: A threat that’s totally danceable and oddly arousing.
Key Lyric: “I’m looking for some handsome destruction”
Why It Matters: Sunflower Bean have found their pocket in the distillation of nostalgic sounds with a lyrical contemporariness that keeps their sound fresh. They’re perfectly poised to pen a rally cry for the modern sexual revolution, and the fact that the result is so damn catchy should come as no surprise.
48. YVES TUMOR – “NOID”
SAFE IN THE HANDS OF LOVE
Sounds Like: “911 Is a Joke” if it had been written in 2018.
Key Lyric: “Sister, mother, brother, father/ Have you, have you looked outside?/ I’m scared for my life/ They don’t trust us”
Why It Matters: Sean Bowie, known by more and more these days as Yves Tumor, is a Knoxville, Tennessee-born, experimental artist now based in Italy. The Yves Tumor alias has allowed him to take his music to off-the-map places in the past, often cavernous compositions with unnerving loops and field noises. But never has Tumor been less murky and more direct in his work than on “Noid”, a driving, percussive jam that would be danceable if its message — one of stress, paranoia, and dread concerning how police treat people of color — wasn’t so urgent and potentially life-threatening.
47. ICEAGE – “PAIN KILLER” (FT. SKY FERREIRA)
Sounds Like: Walking home from a loud show at night hand-in-hand with your partner, ears still ringing and your heart still pumping fast in the quiet moonlight.
Key Lyric: “Praying at the altar of your legs and feet/ Your saliva is a drug so bittersweet”
Why It Matters: Although the cliche has been used over and over again in music, love is really like a drug. No one gets the frenzy and infatuation of true passion better than Iceage in “Pain Killer”, a swirling rock anthem that is just as tender as it is intense. With backup vocals from lead singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s girlfriend, musician Sky Ferreira, the panic and pleasure of love comes through with every note.
46. YOUNG FATHERS – “IN MY VIEW”
Sounds Like: That moment when, in the middle of a long hug between you and the person you love, you suddenly wonder if your whole relationship just might be a lie.
Key Lyric: “I want to be king until I am”
Why It Matters: There’s a certain terror at the heart of intimacy. It’s one that comes through in every cryptic step of “In My View”, which finds Scottish trio Young Fathersteasing at the edges of those fears of power, trust, and all-consuming love. It’s a message that matches the song’s sparse production, whose thumping beats are underpinned with a paranoid drone that’ll have you looking over your shoulder at every chorus.
45. TASHA – “LULLABY”
ALONE AT LAST
Sounds Like: A mother singing her daughter a lullaby she’ll return to thousands of times throughout her life.
Key Lyric: “Black girl, I know how much it hurts/ To always prove your worth, they won’t make it easy/ But, baby, believe me/ Your life is precious, and you’ll be alright.”
Why It Matters: Chicago songwriter Tasha released her short debut album this year, the seven-song Alone at Last. The sometimes poet describes the track as “bed songs” — that is, extremely gentle songs (lullabies is the right word) that help the listener escape from “stress, anxiety, stress, and fear.” On “Lullaby”, we picture a mother singing to her black daughter, warning of the harsh realities that await but also imparting the type of calm, quiet advice that has helped generations of strong women endure and overcome. With a restrained delivery and the precision of a poet, Tasha creates a lullaby that, above all, wants to reassure black girls of their worth and the need to find the balance between struggle and taking care of themselves. It’s incredibly lovely.
44. THE 1975 – “LOVE IT IF WE MADE IT”
A BRIEF INQUIRY INTO ONLINE RELATIONSHIPS
Sounds Like: If Billy Joel wrote “We Didn’t Start the Fire” in 2018 with a millennial’s social media feed as his only reference.
Key Lyric: “Oh, fuck your feelings/ Truth is only hearsay/ We’re just left to decay/ Modernity has failed us.”
Why It Matters: The 1975’s A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships has been polarizing for listeners despite critical acclaim, but if you want to understand what the band is doing over the course of the record, “Love It If We Made It” is the thesis. Writing about how completely twisted our world is right now can easily become pandering or trite, but Matty Healy sounds sincerely passionate here as he nails the cultural milieu. Youths can certainly empathize, but older folks need to pay attention, too.
43. ALESSIA CARA – “TRUST MY LONELY”
THE PAINS OF GROWING
Sounds Like: A reminder to give the person in the mirror a great, big hug sometimes.
Key Lyric: “Go get your praise from someone else/ You did a number on my health/ My world is brighter by itself/ And I can do better, do better”
Why It Matters: A line like “I gotta trust my lonely” might make some of us grammar Nazis cringe at first, but hopefully we soon get over Canadian singer-songwriter Alessia Cara’s odd phrasing and embrace her message about self-worth. In a popular music industry that has spent decades telling us we’re no good on our own, Cara, in as catchy a song as you heard in 2018, works through her own insecurities and lets us all know that none of us needs to put ourselves in painful, abusive situations to feel complete or find happiness. One may be the loneliest number, according to pop music, but that’s only because we haven’t learned to — yes, I’m going to say it — “trust our lonely.”
42. CAR SEAT HEADREST – “CUTE THING”
TWIN FANTASY (FACE TO FACE)
Sounds Like: Wikipedia shacks up in a college dorm.
Key Lyric: “I will be your rock, God, when you’re rolling the dice”
Why It Matters: We’ve known for years now that Will Toledo is unconventional when it comes to songwriting. “Cute Thing” builds upon that legend, namely the way he subtly upgrades the song from its 2011 roots, but also proves he’s not just some idiosyncratic genius but a pop culture romantic at heart. His love for his references says everything about his love for this titular item of his, and that is pretty goddamn cute.
41. VINCE STAPLES – “FEELS LIKE SUMMER”
Sounds Like: A late summer afternoon with the radio playing, the top down, and head on a swivel.
Key Lyric: “Summertime in the LB wild/ We gon’ party ’til the sun or guns come out.”
Why It Matters: Like Ice Cube famously did on “It Was a Good Day”, Vince Staples drops a warm, breezy beat that feels like it could soundtrack any of our summers. Of course, the sound belies the peril that Staples still finds himself in when he goes out, never more than a poor decision or wrong turn from potentially meeting a violent end. As Staples cycles through his past and reflects on its tragedies, we’re reminded of just how different two experiences can be, even when both people are blasting the same summer jam to the same gorgeous weather with the top down.
40. COURTNEY BARNETT – “NEED A LITTLE TIME”
TELL ME HOW YOU REALLY FEEL
Sounds Like: Something you’d write in your journal at 3:00 am on a Saturday after a weird night out.
Key Lyric: “Everybody wants to have their say/ Forever waiting for some car crash”
Why It Matters: The element of raw honesty within Courtney Barnett’s lyrics taps into the epicenter of the human psyche. With that being said, the track not only catalyzes connection but is enhanced by the sharp musicianship that heightens emotion with each strategically placed crescendo.
39. KING PRINCESS – “1950”
Sounds Like: The feeling of absolute adoration, when that pining for someone leaves your stomach in knots.
Key Lyric: “I hope that you won’t slip away in the night”
Why It Matters: The first artist signed to Mark Ronson’s Zelig Records, King Princesslaunched her career with a debut single that embodies so much of what she proudly stands for: vulnerability, honesty, celebration of queer love, and killer instincts when it comes to songwriting. Since its release in February, “1950” has notched nearly 170 million streams and has been followed up generously by tracks (“Talia”, “Pussy Is God”) that continue to prove that King Princess is one of pop’s most promising stars and so very far from a one-hit wonder.
38. JEFF ROSENSTOCK – “USA”
Sounds Like: The voices in your head while standing in a long line at a convenience store in a swing state in the days after the 2016 election.
Key Lyric: “Please be honest/ Tell me, was it you?/ I won’t hate you/ I just need to know”
Why It Matters: “USA” is a song “about losing hope in your country, yourself, and those around you,” explains Rosenstock. It perfectly captures the overwhelming post-election feelings of trying to find balance among people we thought we knew in a frustrated and cynical country we no longer recognize. Rosenstock is one of the few songwriters to truly tap into the wide range of complex emotions that Americans have been wrestling with during the Trump administration. Hearing your mind and heart shout-sung back at you makes it all the more clear that this cannot become our new normal.
37. LIL WAYNE – “MONA LISA” (FT. KENDRICK LAMAR)
THA CARTER V
Sounds Like: A million smiles being brought to our grills.
Key Lyric: “I smoke color purple/ I’m up in here feelin’ like Celie”
Why It Matters: It’s not all that often that a four-year-old promise gets kept, so whether you have a mouth chock-full of diamonds or are just hoping nobody notices your Invisalign adult braces, you were likely all smiles when Lil Wayne returned with Tha Carter V. While the game has no doubt changed since previous Carters, Weezy doesn’t catch himself chasing next-gen fads. Instead, “Mona Lisa” sees Wayne return (sans pen or pad) to his notoriously challenging rhyme schemes, delectable wordplay, humbling gift for narrative, and ability to spit nice with others — in this case, the reigning king himself, Kendrick Lamar. It’s an escalating two-sided account so hot that it’ll melt all those who had themselves cryogenically frozen until the next Carter finally dropped.
36. TASH SULTANA – “SALVATION”
Sounds Like: The type of flow that leaves you torn between tearing up the dance floor and rolling a doobie.
Key Lyric: “I don’t need your loving for my salvation/ I found myself between dirt and desperation/ I don’t need you for my own validation”
Why It Matters: Self-acceptance and self-empowerment have been themes running throughout both this list and the year in music. It’s a message that makes a lot of sense coming from Tash Saltana, an artist often referred to as a one-person band. On “Salvation”, the CoSigned Aussie artist combines dynamic grooves and perfect pop cadences in a reminder that while calling it quits can be painful, it’s not the person we’re with or no longer with who defines or validates us. Our sense of self, as obvious as it may sound, comes from our own personal journey.
35. CARLY RAE JEPSEN – “PARTY FOR ONE”
Sounds Like: The song you’re listening to in your headphones as you dance down the street.
Key Lyric: “If you don’t care about me/ I’ll just dance for myself/ Back on my beat.”
Why It Matters: There should be no disputing that Carly Rae Jepsen is the queen of romantic pop purity. On “Party for One”, she captures all the loneliness we feel after a rejection, but wraps it in such an undeniable beat that we have to believe we can endure it. Romantics everywhere should be thankful for an artist like this.
34. NICKI MINAJ – “BARBIE DREAMS”
Sounds Like: Minaj’s last words as the guest of honor at the hip-hop version of a Comedy Central roast.
Key Lyric: “Had to cancel DJ Khaled/ Boy, we ain’t speakin’/ Ain’t no fat nigg* tellin’ me what he ain’t eatin’”
Why It Matters: Hold the beef. As Nicki Minaj and all involved have explained, the rap queen’s epic laundry list of put-downs on “Barbie Dreams” was a tribute to The Notorious B.I.G.’s classic track “Just Playing (Dreams)” and all in good fun. While Biggie once rapped about R&B singers he wanted to get with, Minaj flipped the gender script and used the beat to roast her nearest and dearest and let them no they had absolutely no shot. In doing so, Minaj reminded us that hip-hop should have a sense of humor and that nobody dishes it out better than she can.
33. JEFF TWEEDY – “I KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE”
Sounds Like: A songwriter giving chords to the term “beauty.”
Key Lyric: “When the lights are dim/ In my window I have a twin/ I’m always looking out/ And he’s always looking in”
Why Song Matters: Songwriters are no different than journalists in that they live the old adage of “You’re only as good as your last story.” Tweedy is hardly an exception, no matter how much of a Midwestern shrug he puts on everything. As he was quoted: “I just felt I could do the songs justice by myself.” That instinct comes to life on this single, which feels like a wrinkled letter from a past lover, who’s had more than enough time to not just find himself, but a version of himself that perhaps has always been waiting there underneath the surface. We all know what that’s like — or, at the very least, someday will.
32. ANDERSON .PAAK – “TINTS” (FT. KENDRICK LAMAR)
Sounds Like: The first thing we’d trick out if we were as hot as .Paak is right now.
Key Lyric: “I can’t be ridin’ round and round that open strip/ I need tints (tinted windows)”
Why It Matters: “Tints” features a combination of air-tight grooves and the combined talents of Anderson .Paak and Kendrick Lamar, creating a laid-back atmosphere without losing one ounce of technical or musical perfection. “I can’t be ridin’ round and round that open strip/ I need tints (tinted windows),” .Paak sings, and the listener is right along with him, feeling the wind in their face until he rolls up the windows. Lamar’s verse is a welcome addition to this expert mood-building, adding to the California breeze of “Tints” with tongue-in-cheek humor and his complex flow. .Paak’s greatest talent is creating entire worlds within his songs, and “Tints” does this impeccably through the use of layered production and synthesizers; the artist merges old funk and new rap together in a perfect mix that sits deep in the pocket for four and a half minutes straight.
31. LUCY DACUS – “NIGHT SHIFT”
Sounds Like: Coffee splashing onto the ground as you dump it over your ex-lover’s head.
Key Lyric: “In five years, I hope the songs feel like covers/ Dedicated to new lovers.”
Why It Matters: If you were just looking at “Night Shift” as a measure of Lucy Dacus’ dynamic songwriting, you’d still find it worthy of a place on this list. It just so happens to be a completely powerful, relatable song about closure on top of that.
30. KACEY MUSGRAVES – “HIGH HORSE”
Sounds Like: Gold-plated, pop-country cynicism.
Key Lyric: “You’re classic in the wrong way”
Why It Matters: Kacey Musgraves pulls no punches in this acerbic track, effortlessly gliding between her country influences and her newfound pop expertise for a hate letter that’s as catchy as it is authentic. A highlight off an album that glows with uncompromising heart, “High Horse” feels just as warm and magnetic as the rest of Golden Hour, but directs that heart toward anger in a cohesive yet refreshing change of pace.
29. LANA DEL REY – “MARINERS APARTMENT COMPLEX”
Sounds Like: A delicate and poetic act of rebellion.
Key Lyric: “I ain’t no candle in the wind”
Why It Matters: Lana Del Rey bleeds heart and soul in what is a refreshingly vulnerable, beautiful track. The musical softness amplifies the fact that the lyrics did not shy away from oozing authenticity. The sincerity of “Mariners Apartment Complex” is not compromised by its astute authority, making the track as compelling as it is ethereal.
28. MORRISSEY – “BACK ON THE CHAIN GANG”
Sounds Like: The greatest fucking song The Smiths never wrote.
Key Lyric: “A circumstance beyond our control, oh oh oh oh/ The phone, the TV and the news of the world”
Why Song Matters: Few artists ever truly run away with someone else’s song, no matter how good their cover may be, but Morrissey hijacked The Pretenders’ legendary anthem this year. It all started when the song first began appearing in his setlists, and now that he’s parading it around like a single, it’s as if it’s always been a part of his catalog. You know, like the Berenstain Bears/Mandela Effect.
27. DEAFHEAVEN – “CANARY YELLOW”
ORDINARY CORPORATE HUMAN LOVE
Sounds Like: The theme song to a D&D campaign run by your hippest friend.
Key Lyric: “On and on we choke on an everlasting/ Handsome night/ My lover’s blood rushes right through me”
Why It Matters: Cut through the throat-shredding vocals of Deafheaven frontman George Clarke and you’ll find life, death, love, and all the wildness in between within this punishingly pretty 12-minute epic. The beating, bleeding heart of Deafheaven’s triumphant Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, “Canary Yellow” is perhaps the most fully realized form of the band’s patented hybrid of shoegaze poetry, metal muscle, and gothic grandeur.
26. CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS – “GIRLFRIEND” (FT. DĀM-FUNK)
Sounds Like: The alternate reality in which David Bowie was born a French woman.
Key Lyric: “Girlfriend/ Don’t feel like a girlfriend/ But lover/ Damn, I’d be your lover”
Why It Matters: In a 2018 interview with The New York Times, Héloïse Letissier described her persona, Chris, as “horny, hungry, and ambitious.” You’ll find ample amounts of those qualities on “Girlfriend”, a slinky slice of disco that sees Letissier deconstructing and reclaiming the privileges of what she calls “macho culture” from a position of funky, androgynous power.
25. SNAIL MAIL – “PRISTINE”
Sounds Like: The strain of a heart stubbornly trying not to break.
Key Lyric: “I’ll never get real/ And you’ll never change to me ’cause I’m not looking/ Anyways”
Why It Matters: Usually it takes a couple years of perspective to write truly meaningfully about teenage romance, but Lindsey Jordan nailed it well before she hit 20. “Pristine” is the kind of adolescent take on love that’s so frank and defiant it still hits the mark for adults who have had their love rejected a dozen times over.
24. CHARLI XCX AND TROYE SIVAN – “1999”
Sounds Like: All those carefree summers spent logging onto AOL to chat with *~mY fRieNdZ~*.
Key Lyric: “Feelin’ cool in my youth, relaxin’”
Why It Matters: Nostalgia as a theme is nothing new in the pop culture world, but, given the state of everything today (*cough* thanks, Trump), it feels especially comforting and cathartic to relive the days when your biggest concern was whether your AIM “away message” contained the perfect emo lyrics. Throwback references aside, “1999” is the brainchild of one of mainstream pop’s most innovative artists (Charli XCX) and one of today’s brightest young pop stars (Troye Sivan) and also comes with an incredible music video.
23. TRAVIS SCOTT – “SICKO MODE”
Sounds Like: AstroWorld is open for business, the thrills are real, and the lines are short.
Key Lyric: “Stacey Dash/ Most of these girls ain’t got a clue”
Why It Matters: Travis Scott is an immensely talented Houston native and ASTROWORLD, his third solo album, is wonderfully ambitious, at least when it comes to the beats. The woozy Auto-Tune is back, and his greatest asset is his ear — his taste in haunting melodies and atmospheric beats. Scott balances multiple ideas at a time like a chef balancing flavors, enhancing each with the inclusion of the other. On “SICKO MODE”, Scott teases Drake’s voice before switching gears; “Sicko Mode” has not two, but three musical movements. It’s this compositional thinking that makes Scott so interesting and a force to reckon with if he ever strengthens those lyrics.
22. KALI UCHIS – “AFTER THE STORM” (FEAT. TYLER, THE CREATOR AND BOOTSY COLLINS)
Sounds Like: The first sip of cool water after a long day ensconsed in sticky, punishing heat.
Key Lyric: “So if you need a hero/ Just look in the mirror”
Why It Matters: “After the Storm” is an introspective, auditory oasis that emulates a quiet yet unignorable confidence. Its simultaneous ability to draw upon emboldening and calming elements is a testament to the careful craftsmanship that went into bringing the track to fruition, making it nothing short of memorable as a result.
21. KAMASI WASHINGTON – “FISTS OF FURY”
HEAVEN AND EARTH
Sounds Like: A sequel to The Last Dragon with empowering social overtones.
Key Lyric: “Our time as victims is over”
Why It Matters: A dazzling labyrinth of combative liberation and empowerment, “Fists of Fury” does as much to galvanize its listeners as it does to astound and confound. It’s a clear call to action, though multifaceted in design, showing that the titular fists can be used just as much to help as they can to fight, without sacrificing any bit of their intrinsic power.
20. JANELLE MONÁE – “I LIKE THAT”
Sounds Like: Lighting a candle in tribute to knowing exactly who the eff you are.
Key Lyric: “I’m always left of center, and that’s right where I belong/ I’m the random minor note you hear in major songs.”
Why It Matters: Direct protest music didn’t have as big an uptick in 2018 as we might have expected; instead, there were tracks like “I Like That”, songs that took confident stands of self-assurance against the voices that tried to beat them down. Janelle Monáe delivers a smooth morale boost that can make anyone feel not just comfortable but proud in their own skin.
19. SABA – “LIFE”
CARE FOR ME
Sounds Like: The pained, frustrated, angry diary of a young man who’s seen his family torn apart
Key Lyric: “I got my granddaddy soul/ I’m at war, that’s on my mind/ I seen Walter body cold, wish I could switch it with mine”
Why It Matters: Much of the reason rising Chicago rapper SABA’s remarkable sophomore release, Care for Me, resonates is because that while most of the songs are inspired by the recent violent loss of the emcee’s cousin Walter, a man we’ve never met, songs like “LIFE” contemplate and mourn loss in a way we can all identify with. The jazzy track’s bass and drums deliver the hardest beat on the album, with SABA varying his flow from calm to boiling over as he reflects on his family dynamic, rough upbringing, and cousin’s death. It’s a window into the rapper’s headspace and a glimpse at how the grieving mind works, and one can’t help but listen and begin to think about his or her own Walter — or the color and weight of one’s own grief if faced with that situation.
18. ARIANA GRANDE – “THANK U, NEXT”
Sounds Like: The grace you wish you could show when surveying your romantic shortcomings.
Key Lyric: “I’m so fuckin’ grateful for my ex”
Why It Matters: That the relationships of Ariana Grande made so many headlines this year shows the unapologetically toxic nature of the media landscape. That Grande emerged from that frenzy with an abundance of poise and assurance is a testament to the artist she has blossomed into before our very ears and eyes, one capable of the nimble vulnerability displayed fully on this track.
17. PUSHA T – “IF YOU KNOW YOU KNOW”
Sounds Like: Someone explaining your favorite thing with such depth of jargon that it makes you realize you know nothing, Jon Snow.
Key Lyric: “Where were you when Big Meech brought the tigers in?/ ‘Cause I was busy earnin’ stripes like a tiger’s skin”
Why It Matters: Pusha T was bringing something else on DAYTONA, kicking it off with this track to let you know damn well he was functioning on a different level. It draws a line in the sand for all the young MCs stepping up to the mic without the proper schooling or authenticity — and it’s a line made of pure fire.
16. THE SMASHING PUMPKINS – “SILVERY SOMETIMES (GHOSTS)”
SHINY AND OH SO BRIGHT VOL. 1 / LP: NO PAST. NO FUTURE. NO SUN.
Sounds Like: The reunion song we’ve wanted since 2005.
Key Lyric: “Skip like a prophet/ Spit like a poet’s gun/ But say how long can this go on?”
Why It Matters: Billy Corgan’s written some bops over the past decade with the Pumpkins 2.0, but they’ve all been missing something. It’s like going back to your childhood home, only the new family’s remodeled the whole place, leaving the cracked asphalt in the front. On a good day, though, when the sun hits the front yard just right … you can see it again. This is that good day for the Pumpkins.
15. BILLIE EILISH – “LOVELY” (WITH KHALID)
Sounds Like: Watching glass shatter in slow motion.
Key Lyric: “Tear me to pieces, skin to bone”
Why It Matters: Both exciting, young pop voices, Billie Eilish (16) and Khalid (20) join forces for one of the most fragile offerings of the year. For Eilish, who takes the lead here, it’s another entry that showcases her versatility as an artist — yeah, she’ll rock a gold crown and own that trap-beat, but she’s also cradling a tender “heart made of glass” just like the rest of us.
14. BLOOD ORANGE – “CHARCOAL BABY”
Sounds Like: Those mornings when you wake up totally convinced that today, of all possible days, is going to be a good one.
Key Lyric: “Can you break sometimes?”
Why It Matters: Negro Swan contains some of the most difficult, introspective work of Dev Hynes’ already inward-looking career. Amid all of the intersectional trauma that comes with being young, black, and queer in America, “Charcoal Baby” feels like an oasis. In an interview with Pitchfork, Hynes described the song as “a celebration of black skin”; on the record, it’s even more, giving listeners a few moments of curative quiet made all the more poignant by the sirens, infrequent and low in the mix, that remind us of the looming brutality just outside the door.
13. BOYGENIUS – “BITE THE HAND”
Sounds Like: Everything you wish you’d said when you broke up with that person who you really cared for but didn’t love.
Key Lyric: “I can’t love you how you want me to.”
Why It Matters: There’s so much beautiful songwriting crammed into the six-song boygenius EP that it’s almost unfair. Opener “Bite the Hand” lets you know right away just how powerful this songwriting trio is, both in their harmonies and their devastating lyricism.
12. BROCKHAMPTON – “NEW ORLEANS”
Sounds Like: Unblemished, authoritative confidence.
Key Lyric: “If Jesus was a pop star, would he break the bank?”
Why It Matters: “New Orleans” is a rhythmic and artful celebration of the boldness of the human spirit, exploding like a pressurized bottle of champagne from the moment it commences. The care in which the track handles the written word creates a delectable, lyrical allure — making it the perfect example of the light speed tenacity that has hallmarked BROCKHAMPTON’s career.
11. ROBYN – “MISSING U”
Sounds Like: The bittersweet resurgence of a dancehall icon.
Key Lyric: “I’ve turned all my sorrow into glass/ It don’t leave no shadow”
Why It Matters: Pensive and vibrant, this is the classic Robyn sound: a tale of sudden sorrow that’s unpacked through luxurious electronica and purifying dancing. It’s the sublime sequel to the dancehall melancholy of Body Talk, one that doubles down on its lyrical weight to make music that’s perfectly okay to sob along to under the covers one night and then triumphantly sashay to the following.
10. LADY GAGA AND BRADLEY COOPER – “SHALLOW”
A STAR IS BORN OST
Sounds Like: An Oscar-winning classic we’ll hear in every Oscar montage forever
Key Lyric: “I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in/ I’ll never meet the ground” but only after the “Ohhhh ahhh ooohh” part
Why It Matters: Rock ‘n’ roll movies suck, remakes are even worse, and yet somehow, A Star Is Born comes away unscathed. Much of it has to do with the chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, namely how we’re meant to believe in a world where the Fame Monster would ever fall in love with the “Better Man.” But, we do, and that conviction is all over the film’s strongest and most emotional anthem.
09. CHILDISH GAMBINO – “THIS IS AMERICA”
Sounds Like: A million red MAGA hats being removed so that their owners can scratch their heads and shrug
Key Lyric: “Yeah, this is America/ Guns in my area/ I got the strap/ I gotta carry ’em”
Why It Matters: In a time when leadership is in short supply, voices can emerge from the most unlikely of places. Enter Childish Gambino (aka actor and comedian Donald Glover), who has largely been maligned over the years for his nerdy raps and viewed as more of a comedian than a legit emcee. But with one song — and a music video that college students will be writing thesis papers on — Gambino reminded us of the black experience in America: joyful one moment and tragically cut short the next due to a ever-brewing storm of chaos, racism, and violence, all while distractions from the trauma and injustice are easy to find.
08. MITSKI – “GEYSER”
BE THE COWBOY
Sounds Like: A siren song of assertive artistry.
Key Lyric: “And hear the harmony/ Only when it’s harming me”
Why It Matters: “Geyser” excels in spite of the traditional song format, much like Mitskiexcels in spite of the traditional artist. She often sings about her art and processes in her music, speaking directly to herself and her abstract muse while exploring romance and loss. In “Geyser,” she offers a thesis of this ideology by joining together three separate but equal melodic ideas into a stunning tower of flawed emotion that does as much to enhance the esoteric nature of her art as it does to show the cathartic significance of her music.
07. JAMILA WOODS – “GIOVANNI”
Sounds Like: That moment you catch yourself in the mirror and you’re looking and feeling good as hell.
Key Lyric: “None can take that energy away from me”
Why It Matters: The act of self-love has been a huge movement in 2018, but perhaps no song captures the badass bravado side of it better than this one from Jamila Woods. Empowered by the strength of her family and ancestry, especially its women, the CoSigned, Chicago-based soul singer quashes any hints of doubt — from the haters, from within herself — by flexing true fearlessness and pride.
06. ST. VINCENT – “FAST SLOW DISCO”
Sounds Like: “Slow Disco”, but if it was meant to be played in an actual discotheque.
Key Lyric: “Am I thinking what everybody’s thinkin’?/ I’m so glad I came, but I can’t wait to leave.”
Why It Matters: With MassEducation, St. Vincent highlighted how just damn heartbreaking her songwriting on MASSEDUCTION really was. “Fast Slow Disco” gives you that same poignancy while reminding us that it’s possible to dance through the sorrow. Lord, did we need some of that in 2018.
05. KANYE WEST – “GHOST TOWN” (FEAT. PARTYNEXTDOOR, KID CUDI, AND 070 SHAKE)
Sounds Like: In all seriousness, it sounds like someone’s on his meds, and they’re working wonders for him.
Key Lyric: “And nothing hurts anymore/ I feel kinda free/ We’re still the kids we used to be”
Why It Matters: Kanye West may never have another year like 2018, which would probably be fine by everyone, including himself. In a year that found the self-proclaimed genius and God manipulated and making a fool out of himself with several ignorant, hurtful outbursts, “Ghost Town” finds West at his very best: backed by a killer, old-school sample; surrounded by friends; and delivering a liberating, back-to-basics message. As it turns out, Superman doesn’t need his little, red hat to soar.
04. CARDI B – “I LIKE IT” (FT. BAD BUNNY, J BALVIN)
INVASION OF PRIVACY
Sounds Like: A bunch of nigg*s being proven wrong … in Spanish no less.
Key Lyric: “I like proving nigg*s wrong/ I do what they say I can’t”
Why It Matters: While 2017’s “Bodak Yellow” demonstrated that former dancer and Internet celeb Cardi B had legit moves, a long line of doubters got disses added to insult with the hip-hop star’s follow-up campaign in 2018. Whether it was sending an album’s worth of singles directly up the charts, blowing minds at Coachella, or stunning audiences with a dramatic baby bump reveal on SNL, 2018 has been all Cardi all the time. And at the center of it all has been, as our own Clara Scott puts it, “club banger ‘I Like It’, which meshes B’s Latinx roots with brutal and striking mic skills.” Let’s face it: Cardi B ran 2018 like cardio.
03. JANELLE MONÁE – “MAKE ME FEEL”
Sounds Like: A seductive rubber band that vibrates all the right notes.
Key Lyric: “Should know by the way I use my compression/ That you’ve got the answers to my confessions”
Why It Matters: Even at its most bombastic moments, “Make Me Feel” is effortless funk flowing out of an artist storing her heart and soul within the song. There are no metaphors or similes here, just unfiltered emotion that does as much to define the inclusive empowerment of today’s culture as it does to expand upon it, similar to the past icons who influenced this song and provided Monáe the perfect foundation upon which she’s established herself as a truly incomparable artist.
02. ARIANA GRANDE – “GOD IS A WOMAN”
Sounds Like: Toppling the patriarchy and then celebrating with the most euphoric bedroom romp.
Key Lyric: “Baby, lay me down and let’s pray”
Why It Matters: Ariana Grande turns religion on its head, proudly extolling great, carnal sex (taboo!) and (gasp!) placing women on pedestals where they belong. While “no tears left to cry” heralded the pop singer’s return following the 2017 Manchester Arena attack, “God is a woman” officially confirmed that Grande would be dominating 2018 and that we should all be honored to have such a worthy figure to worship.
01. KENDRICK LAMAR – “ALL THE STARS” (WITH SZA)
BLACK PANTHER: THE ALBUM
Sounds Like: “The Song” Marvel has been severely lacking for over a decade
Key Lyric: “I want the credit if I’m losin’ or I’m winnin’/ On my momma, that’s the realest shit”
Why Song Matters: Both Kendrick Lamar and SZA were coming off their biggest years to date, making “All the Stars” something of a victory lap. Except, it’s anything but that; in fact, it’s more of a comedown, a reflection by two of the nation’s biggest stars, contending with their tortured love toward all their own dreams and successes. That this became their most mainstream and accessible hit — and yet also doubles as a spiritual theme for a Hollywood blockbuster; not to mention, the first major black superhero movie — only solidifies how much these two are legit natural stars. Unreal.