Here’s to what didn’t even come close to sucking in 2018: the music. These are my 25 favorite songs of the year (though some gems are over on the albums list, to avoid duplicating all the same artists). Including, but not limited to: hits, flops, obscurities, guitar ragers, pop thrills, rap rebels, disco kicks, reggaeton bed-wreckers, punk rockers, cowgirl mystics, summer gamers and karaoke room-clearers. And Cher, obviously.
1. Ariana Grande, “Thank U, Next”
All anybody expected — or wanted — from “Thank U, Next” was a little petty late-night celebrity shade. Nobody was asking Ariana Grande to drop a grand personal statement, let alone a ballad this resonant. But it turned out to be Ariana’s Plastic Ono Band — what is John Lennon’s “God” but his “Thank U, Next” to the other Beatles? (Paul taught him love, George taught him patience, Ringo taught him pain.) This damn song has made me miss my G-train stop more than once, over an eerie synth loop sampled from Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. (From his David Bowie movie soundtrack, no less.) I don’t really care about her celeb exes, but I heard this and caught my breath: “She met someone else? And her name is Ari? She’s learning to love herself? Which is the greatest love of all?” It could have — maybe should have — been trivial and cheap, but instead it’s a pop smash that tells me things I didn’t already know about my messy adult life. Which is the last thing I wanted from Ariana, but I guess that’s what makes pop stars dangerous. Thank U, Ari — next.
2. Camila Cabello, “Never Be the Same”
The weirdest noise to hit the radio all year. Camila’s electro epic is the sound of an shy girl caught up in the cyclone of her feelings, where every secret beat of her heart gets amped up to the size of the “Be My Baby” drum crash. “Never Be the Same” has the ambient prog synth-drone of Brian Eno’s Another Green World, dropped into the druggy mega-reverb haze of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy. When she gasps for breath over those drums, right before she zooms in for the final chorus, Camila sounds just like honey.
3. Lucy Dacus, “Night Shift”
A folk-rock ballad that can hit you at a weak moment, read you in six or seven languages, and leave you for dead. “Night Shift” starts out as a a coffee date with your ex. The singer asks, “Why did I come here, to sit and watch you stare at your feet? What was the plan? Absolve your guilt and shake hands?” The song lifts off into an anthemic kiss-off. She stays out walking late at night, waiting for the caffeine to wear off, wondering if she handled it wrong. She will replay this coffee date in her head for years. So will I. An emotional exorcism of a song.
4. Cardi B with J Balvin and Bad Bunny, “I Like It”
Cardi throws a block party sampling the 1967 boogaloo hit by her 86-year-old Bronx elder Pete Rodriguez, along with Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin and Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny. A utopian celebration of hip-hop diversity, where the first thing you do when you get over is pass the mic.
“Shallow” does for Holy Diver Gaga what “I Will Always Love You” did for Whitney — a pop dowager roars back to life with a blockbuster movie belting a country ballad, climaxing with a Hollywood high note. Bradley Cooper fills the Kevin Costner void, though he really could have used his own bodyguard in the Grammy scene.
6. Camp Cope, “The Opener”
An Australian punk squad, with a bombshell from their superb How to Socialise and Make Friends. Georgia Maq starts out purging a bad romance, then she revs up into a rant about everyday misogyny, from the promoter (“another man telling us we can’t fill up the room”) to the sound guy (“another man telling us we’re missing a frequency”) to other bands, without pausing to tidy up her rage into verse/chorus/verse neatness. It was cathartic to hear Camp Cope yell “The Opener” to a sold-out Bowery Ballroom in June. The punch line: “See how far we’ve come not listening to you!” A monster song, from a monster band.
7. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, “Middle America”
Malkmus is the Robyn of indie rock: an absurdly long run in a genre that prizes novelty (both went pro in 1989); superhuman consistency (neither has come close to making a weak or phony record); a cultish mystique; a weird mix of emotionally opaque serenity and unzipped enthusiasm; still rocking their 1994 haircut; somehow always the grown-up in the room. Sparkle Hard might be his Honey, but it’s also his best Jicks record since Mirror Traffic (which was his Body Talk). “Middle America” is one of the 10 most beautiful songs he’s ever written, a bittersweet ballad that takes the Pavement guitar buzz to new places. Advice to the graduates: “Men are scum, I won’t deny/May you be shitfaced the day you die.”
8. Hayley Kiyoko, “Curious”
The 20GayTeen star makes a tough detective, grilling her fickle ex: “Did you take him to the pier in Santa Monica? Forget to bring a jacket? Wrap up in him because you wanted to?” Hayley sang “Curious” live with Taylor Swift this summer on the Reputation tour, and they just teamed up for their acoustic “Delicate” duet a few weeks ago. What a power duo — they’re like the Joe Walsh and Ringo Starr of modern pop-queen bonding.
9. Drake, “Summer Games”
Drake spent over half the year at Number One on the pop charts, but he stranded his true Scorpion peak on the B side. “Summer Games” is a shiver of New Romantic sniffle-wave electro-gloss that evokes prime Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. (To feel the full impact of “Summer Games,” play it next to O.M.D.’s “Of All the Things We’ve Made,” from Dazzle Ships.) He mourns a June romance, overselling the sincerity in that Drakean way, just to set up the climax when his croon turns into a glitch-core freakout because the beat is brea-break-breaking his heart. Since Drake’s on a quest to stress over literally every single lover in the past tense, I like to imagine his “Summer Games” muse is the same party girl snapping selfies in “Nice for What.”
10. King Princess, “1950”
Barely out of her teens, yet already helping to invent the queer pop future, Brooklyn monarch King Princess sounds like a hung-over Julie London in this torch ballad about vintage homoerotic desire from decades past, purring: “I love it when we play 1950.” King Princess isn’t afraid to think big — her excellent new single is called “Pussy Is God.”
11. Travis Scott, “Sicko Mode”
Travis stitches three off-kilter fragments into a hip-hop suite, then watches it hit Number One, just in time to provide a real-life counterpart to the Mike Myers scene in Bohemian Rhapsody. Drake pitches in with a few Galileos, but Travis is the glue.
12. Anarctigo Vespucci, “Breathless on DVD”
“Haven’t seen you in a long time/Are you still 27 and mad at me?/Watching Breathless on DVD in the dead of winter 2009?” Ouch. Anarctigo Vespucci has the year’s finest band name, “Breathless on DVD” might double as the year’s finest song title, and Love in the Time of E-Mail is full of romantic-dysfunction eye-rolls, like their earlier tapes Soulmate Stuff and Leavin’ La Vida Loca. P.S. I have Breathless on VHS, but only the Richard Gere version, which is an underrated masterpiece, don’t @ me.
13. Kacey Musgraves, “Slow Burn”
“Yee-haw is having a moment this year,” as Kacey told the crowd this summer at Madison Square Garden, opening for Harry Styles. (This double bill was basically a D-Day assault on the Normandy of my soul, right up to the moment they sang a duet on Shania’s “You’re Still the One.” Still recovering.) “Slow Burn” digs deep into the stoner twang-drone of a spaced cowgirl, oddly reminiscent of David Gilmour in his pastoral psychedelic watching-cows mode. Since Kacey songs about Kacey are always better than Kacey songs about other people, she’s at her most masterful in “Slow Burn”: “Texas is hot, I can be cold, Grandma cried when I pierced my nose.”
14. Mitski, “A Pearl”
What a heartbreaker, summing it up in 156 brilliant seconds: “I fell in love with a war and nobody told me it ended.” Mitski turns herself into both Morrissey and Johnny Marr to replicate the woozy glam elegance of Strangeways, Here We Come, as she drops mixed metaphors like handkerchiefs and starts something she can’t finish.
15. Paul McCartney, “Dominoes”
Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?
A duo of ATL rookies from the Young Thug scene, living that Young Stoner Life over Turbo’s trap beat. Lil Baby boasts about never running from the smoke and never reading the comments, while Gunna announces, “Designer to the ground, I can barely spell the name.” Drip too hard, charge it to the card.
17. Lana Del Rey, “Mariners Apartment Complex”
You know the Leonard Cohen song where he whispers, “You’re faithful to the better man/I’m afraid that he left”? The Lana of this ballad is who he left with, and this apartment complex is where they ended up, God help them both. (She probably hoped it would look like Gloria Grahame’s pad in In a Lonely Place, but it’s more like where she lives in Human Desire.) A trailer from Lana’s upcoming album Norman Fucking Rockwell.
18. Karol G, “Mi Cama”
Last year we got Dua Lipa’s “if you’re under him, you ain’t getting over him”; this year, we get Karol G drowning out the memory of her ex with the sound of her bedsprings squeaking. Now that’s getting over him. The Colombian reggaeton star sighs and moans — “Mi cama suena y suena” — but her noisy bed is the real star of the song.
19. Craig Finn, “Galveston”
“The waitress keeps making it weird/I wish she wouldn’t call me ‘big brother.’” The Hold Steady bard spends this ragged cowpunk yarn kicking around in Texas, dragging a stash of bad memories he can’t outrun.
20. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Party for One”
She bop, you bop, we bop. Be-bop-a-loo, she bop.
21. Rosalía, “Pienso En Ti Mirá”
The flamenco Bowie sweeps in for her spotlight twirl, whispering of love and its torments over stuttering electro-handclaps.
22. Cher, “The Name of the Game”
Mamma mia, here she goes again. I love every second of Cher’s ABBA tribute, the clash of the 1970s divorce-anthem titans, but especially her Bjorn-gasmic rendition of “The Name of the Game.” Wish list for 2019: Cher dunks on Bohemian Rhapsody the way she dunked on Mamma Mia, with an album of Queen covers. I’m praying for her “Somebody to Love,” but I’ll settle for “Bicycle Race.”
23. Tove Styrke, “On the Low”
The most Swedish of Swedish pop stars — Tove was actually a contestant on Swedish Idol, which might be overdoing it conceptually. “On the Low” was a single that flopped everywhere — even Sweden, where it missed the chart, which is just mean — but it’s a huge hit in my head, a perfect storm of robot sad-girl synth hiccups.
24. Bad Moves, “Spirit FM”
The year’s perkiest pop-punk song about realizing you’re queer at church camp because you can’t stop crushing on the girl in your cabin. These D.C. kids turn this into an accidental epitaph for the Buzzcocks, with humor the late, great Pete Shelley would have appreciated.
25. The Beatles, “Good Night” (Take 5 & 10)
The White Album box set was definitely one of the best things to happen to the world in 2018. Just hearing John chirp “’ullo, Paul” in the “Julia” demo forces me to re-evaluate my whole life up to now. (Wait, John was willing to sing this nakedest of confessions with Paul in the room?) But this “Good Night” hits hardest — an outtake nobody heard until now. It’s all four Beatles singing together in 1968, deep in the chaotic White Album sessions at Abbey Road. Ringo’s trying to sing lead, and the other lads join because they can see he needs a little help from his friends. It’s rare at any phase to hear all four harmonize — but in these famously combative sessions? It happened. Then it sat in a vault for 50 years.
The Beatles drove each other mad making the White Album, but “Good Night” shows why they kept driving themselves through it, no matter what — they were the Beatles, and they lived to impress each other. That’s why all four spent the rest of their lives showing off — in their different ways, they kept the White Album experiment rolling. That’s why Paul couldn’t resist dropping his new album right on top of this reissue. That’s also why he’ll spend tonight onstage, wherever he is, playing dozens of songs for hours until everyone else collapses. There are easier ways to spend your late seventies, but Paul’s not interested. That’s the only way this music could have ever happened in the first place — four driven friends who could not let this go. That’s who Paul is and will always be. Showing off. But it’s all right. It’s a short life. Good night.