It was an excellent year for women with a sense of humor and ingenious ideas about how to remake classic styles in their own radiant image (Cardi B, Pistol Annies, Courtney Barnett), and a fine one for pop songs that questioned worn out sexual and social identities (Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel,” Hayley Kiyoko’s “Curious,” Christine and the Queens’ “Doesn’t Matter”); artists from Latin America (Karol G), continental Europe (Rosalía) and Asia (BTS) made the music scene feel like a global conversation; Sheck Wes fuck-shit-bitched his way into our heart; Carly Rae Jepsen kicked ecstatic self-care; and everyone from Lucy Dacus to Ariana Grande to Troye Sivan had us catching feelings we couldn’t shake.
Wait, you didn’t expect the one song from 2018 that would truly gather us all together to bask in the glow of our shared humanity would be Weezer covering a Toto tune? Well, that’s on you, dummy. Rivers Cuomo rocked his yacht straight into the dark heart of our collective pop culture consciousness with this uncannily wondrous cover of one of the Eighties’ most mysterious Top 40 classics. Can’t wait to find out which song he chooses to capture the spirit of America with in 2028.
The Monkeys’ latest album is a laudable but suboptimal detour into spacey lounge-pop. But Alex Turner’s approach to lyrics on the LP – piling up signifiers in a half-amused lizard-croon — suits this standout track, which is propelled a sinewy slow-burn groove that recalls the band’s 2013 hit “Do I Wanna Know.” Turner sings about a taco shop on the moon called the Information Action Ratio, a phrase lifted from Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. By the time you wonder what exactly it means that there’s a well-reviewed taqueria in space, you’re lost in the witchy undertow.
The recipe for “Gonna Love Me” is pretty simple: Take Teyana Taylor — singer, actress, Kanye West muse — and a Delfonics sample (here, a warped flip of their 1970 track “I Gave to You”), and let the two cook for as long as necessary. On Taylor’s K.T.S.E., the final album in West’s run of late-spring mini-albums, the end result is a touching portrait of a relationship on the rocks, with Taylor’s weathered voice imbuing late-hour-weary lyrics with pathos while evincing just enough hope to let her lover know she’ll be keeping the light for at least another hour.
The excellent young New Zealand band take part in the grand power-pop tradition of addictively buoyant songs about crummy romance. “You’re in my brain taking up space/I need for remembering pins and to take out the bins/And that one particular film that that actor was in,” Elizabeth Stokes sings, spinning her wish to forget into a sunny singalong you’ll have no choice but to remember. It’s the catchiest, kickiest thing on an album full of joyful bangers.
Nicki Minaj’s cameo on Die Lit is a sign that Playboi Carti’s “official” album isn’t just a rehash of last year’s insta-classic mixtape. Her verse on “Poke It Out” is one of her strongest in a feistily combative year, and when she throws brushback pitches at “all these pretend Barbies,” rap fans know exactly who she’s referring to. Carti, for his part, lathers the track in his trademark repetitive chants, building infectious melodies out of “poke it out…poke it out…bad bitch…poke it out” like he’s strumming the same chords on a guitar over and over again. It’s catchy as hell.
Nelson spent 2018 campaigning for Beto O’Rourke, ducking right-wing trolls, and knocking out two full LPs. This exploded punchline from Last Man Standing revolves around mortality, like the rest of the record, specifically the rimshot-slapping quip “bad breath is better than no breath at all.” That it’s a waltz just makes it funnier. At 85, the man’s sense of humor is intact, along his moral compass and songwriting skill. If there’s a better honky-tonk song with the word “halitosis” in its lyrics, we haven’t heard it.
The Danish punk boys come on like bastard sons of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, with a smoldering venture into mutant American roots-rock from their excellent fourth album, Beyondless. Demonic frontman Elias Bender Ronnenfelt romps through a drunken crime caper, as the band lurches in and out of a “Midnight Ramber”-style groove that speeds up and slows down without ever losing momentum. It feels more like Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us than New Order’s, with Ronnenfelt’s bluesy hound-dog howls at the end.
Nicki Minaj’s gender-flipped tribute to The Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 track “Just Playing (Dreams)” is as mesmerizing for its deliriously horned-up lyrics as it is for Minaj’s delight in taking on those popular MCs who might dare come for her throne. The song’s back half is proof that she isn’t at all willing to cede that throne: Minaj’s Roman Zolanski takes over for a verse that shifts from deliberately enunciated bedroom boasts to a showcase for Minaj’s gleefully rapidfire, wordplay-heavy flow.
Mikaela Strauss’ debut single is all about guarded feelings and fiercely protected desires, spinning a tale of unrequited love that evokes the 20th Century’s closets — think the jewel tones and stolen glances of Todd Haynes’ queer-love masterpiece Carol turned into pop-confection melancholia. King Princess puts herself through the emotional wringer as she clings to a smoldering friendship, hoping those moments “when we play 1950” will bloom into 21st-century love.
Few songs in 2018 used sound to sketch out the warring impulses of desire as effectively as the simmering, Ariel Rechtshaid-produced “Animal.” Aussie pop icon Troye Sivan’s voice floats in space, his musings on hunger surrounded by plush synths and grinding glitches (courtesy of British noise architect The Haxan Cloak) battling for sonic supremacy. The push-pull first comes to a head on the warped-vocal bridge, then rises back up during the song’s churning, aching outro, which resolves in a way that only pulls the listener under once more.
Dallas rapper Yella Beezy’s “That’s on Me” went from local sensation to national radio hit this summer. But as that track’s profile grew slowly, Yella Beezy quietly released an even more formidable single: The “Up One” remix, a collaboration with the sing-song Atlanta MC Lil Baby, is the musical equivalent of a runaway truck, more unstoppable with each passing minute. He raps in a swift, stop-start cadence that belies the sludgy bass line, pivoting with blurry speed from a dis to a boast: “Boy you niggas stressin’ out, you got thin hair/ My son ain’t born yet but he got about ten pair — of Guccis.”
Childish Gambino is a translator and “This Is America” is his dead sea scrolls. It’s a crystallization of a world that’s completely foreign to the millions of people who know Glover best from Atlanta or “Redbone.” “This Is America” deftly mines popular music’s most innovative export of the past 15 years, trap, characterized by the frequent adlibs of BlocBoy JB, 21 Savage, Slim Jxmmi and Quavo that exist beneath the surface to Young Thug’s otherworldly outro. Discussion of the iconic video’s Jim Crow imagery and commentary on brutality against black bodies ruled the summer, but it’s the various moving parts from the Deep South that holds the song together and makes it compelling.
This single from K-Pop’s biggest ambassadors is an impressive fusion, simultaneously bruised and bruising. Guitars sulk and kick like Eighties Def Leppard, while the blocky bass lines are tenacious enough to compete with Atlanta hip-hop; brusque rapping tugs against intricate, swooping singing. “Fake Love” is sung almost entirely in Korean, but it crashed through the U.S. pop market’s language barrier anyway, reaching Number Ten on the Hot 100 and setting a new record for a K-Pop group.
America’s finest pure rock and roll bar band tap into their Philadelphia musical roots with a begging, pleading soul stirrer that suggests the Spinners or Teddy Pendergrass by way of the New York Dolls. Singer-piano man Adam Weiner opens up to a heartbreaker who’d rather watch the game than talk to him and winds up with the catchiest chorus of a career that’s produced more than a few and a song that could’ve been on the radio in the era it honors.
The standout from the bi-lingual, gender-bending double-LP Chris — a triumph of big-box Eighties electropop disco — is existential dance floor bubblegum. Lyrically, it conjures both Harold and the Purple Crayon and Sartre’s No Exit, standing at the brink of despair and looking at a dirty world while dancing itself clean. And alongside Robyn, it was more proof that American pop acts can learn a lot about emotional depth from their EU peers.
A long-time scholar of flamenco, Spanish singer-producer Rosalía broke away from folk tradition to interpolate facets of American pop and hip-hop into her praxis. As a result her sophomore album, El Mal Querer, resonated like a shock wave across both Anglo- and Hispanophone worlds. The supple tremble of her voice adopts a dusky tenor in “Pienso En Tu Mirá” — a striking electro-R&B fusion that poses a chilling, 360-degree look at a romance envenomed by jealousy.
This song, which mirrors the sort of mood-swings familiar to many of us in 2018, is an outburst of chiming joy modulated by unshakable clouds. The Philly band’s indie-rock sound is of the moment, which is to say totally Nineties (Bettie Serveert’s Palomine comes to mind), and in precise synch with singer/guitarist Frances Quinlan as she lurches gracefully, parsing a fraught, doomed relationship. It’s a perfect emotional snapshot, from the hilariously curveball image of a couple “covered in each other’s snot/In my childhood bed” to the final blip of feedback.
The finale of her warmest LP yet caps a virtual mixtape of ecstatic dance floor melancholy. Over a bubbling funk bass line, the Swedish godmother of modern pop vows she’s “never gonna be broken hearted ever again…. that shit’s out the door!” The steely zen-master determination in her voice is more important, of course, than the plausibility of the claim — a determination that was resonant in a moment where a sustained push towards change couldn’t be more urgent. It’s the feeling of dawn after a long, hard night of the soul.
During her post-teen-pop phase, Hayley Kiyoko has transformed herself into a queer-pop auteur, directing and starring in her own videos for pulsing anthems. “Curious,” from her first proper album, is exploratory and flirtatious, its bouncing-ball bass keeping up with Kiyoko’s charmingly neurotic lyrics about her place in a love triangle — and her sighed “I’m just curious, is it serious?” on the chorus makes it clear that she’s not above upending the whole structure (musical, romantic, social and otherwise) should things come to that point.
Lil Baby and Gunna are the princes who were promised. The Drip Harder duo was groomed under the tutelage of their Atlanta forefathers, Migos and Young Thug, toiling for years until they built a formidable roadmap to the mainstream. The Turbo produced song is a tumbling, Western that features Baby and Gunna rapping about dripping and drowning and waves. Stylistically, Baby and Gunna are no-nonsense workman and “Drip Too Hard” is the logical endpoint for this generation of trap stars. It taps into the monotonous rhythm of streaming’s playlist culture, while shaving away at some of the polarizing idiosyncrasies of their predecessors. It’s low stakes, high reward rap that went pop.
“The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit/I had a coughing fit,” Dacus sings to kick off this six-and-half-minute breakup ballad. It doesn’t get any less vivid or visceral from there. By the time Dacus ups the emotional ante with a thick cloud of guitar fuzz and an awesome kiss-off — “I hope in five years the songs feel like covers/dedicated to new lovers” — it feels pretty damn transcendent, too.
Pistol Annies have made their name crafting songs about women desperate to break free from their drunk, dejected husbands. But on “Best Years of My Life,” the trio offer up what happens when mediocre marriage can make someone so bored and empty that they become too tired to even try to escape. Showcasing some of their finest vocals they’ve ever put to record, Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley and Miranda Lambert deliver this downtrodden tale of Percoset-popping intellectual emptiness with a cutting weariness, putting a happy public face on ten-cent-town middle-aged depression.
Sublimely pretty even by his estimable standards, what might be the finest Stephen Malkmus solo single ever rolls out the indie-rock hero’s accrued wisdom over a gentle autumnal folk-rock tune: “men are scum I can’t deny / May you be shitfaced til the day you die.” Words to live by in both cases.
The Swedish singer and candidate for Catchiest Artist Alive makes falling back into the arms of someone you swore off sound wickedly fun. It’s an expertly made synth-pop souffle — both light-as-air and satisfying. 2017’s equally excellent “Say My Name” was one of last year’s best singles and this is more proof that Tove Styrke deserves to be much more famous than she is.
Not many pop stars can reverse the idea of loneliness into being the best kind of party, but Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Party for One” makes you wish she had more spots on her guestlist. The Captain Cuts-produced track, is a delicious exercise in pop simplicity: no big tricks or trends needed when the hook and melody work this well. It’s the latest in a series of self-care anthems to come out this year and perfectly encapsulates the moment you come to accept being on your own after getting your heart smashed to bits.
“I fell in love with a war and nobody told me it ended” — now there’s an all too relatable image for twenty-something emotional dysfunction. This highlight from Be the Cowboy is her big Smithsian confession: Mitski hits Morrissey-esque high notes, while her guitar goes for Johnny Marr-style drama. She can’t stop rolling that pearl around in her mind, even though she knows in her heart there’s nothing worthwhile to be learned from this mess. “A Pearl” is a song that gets right to the point, lasting less than three minutes, yet makes a huge impact — another Smithsian touch.
Rumors swirled for years that one day the biggest music power couple of all time would release a collaborative album together. The pair delivered on that hope this summer with a surprise drop, a few dates after they had already launched their On the Run II tour. For many, official single “Ape Shit” was the first song they heard from it: here was hip-hop’s most influential couple doing Migos better than the actual Migos as they gloat and boast about the feeling of watching their audiences go wild. Appropriately, the video was as over-the-top and luxurious as one would hope, taking over the Louvre and filling it with a sea of black and brown dancers and models amongst the world’s most iconic art pieces.
Xtina has spent the millennium searching for her sound — she went drrty then retro then robotic in the process. This year’s Liberation was the first LP in a while to feel like it best captured her voice and spirit, while album closer “Unless It’s With You” serves as not only a huge highpoint for the LP, but a highpoint of her career, too. Pop savant Teddy Geiger is responsible for this moving, gorgeous ballad about dreaming of a white wedding and finding the right person to dream about it with.
All the single ladies: Colombian reggaeton princess Karol G gets one over on a philandering ex in her campy pop missive, “Mi Cama.” Here the Latin Grammy-winning singer lets her inner rude girl out —”My bed creaks,” she brags in Spanish, “And your memory leaves” — offering an empowered woman’s point-of-view amid a genre full of womanizers. As for the unsung star of the song? That would be its slinky, bedspring squeak-turned-beat, which needs no translation.
Vile proved himself a king of super-chill longhaired rock poetry on this year’s sublime double album Bottle It In, and this 10-minute guitar meditation was its slow spiraling centerpiece. Vile noodles around with a frayed sense of wonderment as his band the Violators settle into the pocket, and he turns Meat Puppets-style stoner pastoralism into an epic journey – from sun up to sunset, from the bay to the beach, from the grass to the sky above the grass. You wish it could go on for ten minutes more.
“We’re fucking in a car, shooting heroin/Saying controversial things just for the hell of it” is how the U.K. pop group opens this hopping mad state-of-the-universe address. Don’t say they didn’t warn you. Things only get more twisted from there: Lead singer Matty Healy eye-rolls the sexist crook in the Oval Office, sighs about the lies that modernity sold us, pours one out for Lil Peep and reminds us of the single worst tweet of the year (“Thank you Kanye, very cool!”). It’s as unnerving as an endless news scroll, with a surprising little ripple of optimism to balance things out.
Do you believe in love at first sight? Nicky Jam and J Balvin do — and they have a super sensuous, bordering-on-salacious way of saying it. The Latin pop titans combine their lovers rock with dancehall swagger, marked by a head-spinning, synth-horn doodle. Offering “kisses on your neck to quench the thirst,” Jam’s silver-tongued come-ons complement Balvin’s effortless cool.
Canadian idol Shawn Mendes’ anxieties have made jittery singles like “Treat You Better” and “There’s Nothin’ Holding Me Back” scream-along smashes. But on this slinky, lyrically detailed standout from his self-titled third album, he turns up the groove and turns on his falsetto — and lets his romantic target know that he’s interested in a sweetly self-deprecating way, “Nervous” is a slice of slick soul-pop that turns dropping the cool-guy guise into the suavest move a guy can make.
With hand drums, roadhouse piano and scorpion-sting guitar licks, this conjures the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” an end-of-the-rope anthem also written in the shadow of global chaos. But it’s bubblegum-soul vocal fills also echo the Jackson 5. The lead single and title track from Church’s LP, it was an unlikely but perfect formula for a nominal country artist. It was also a position paper from a survivor who’s dodged some bullets, but knows there’ll be more to come.
Ari had an eventful year, to say the least, snagging one hit after another — “God Is A Woman” taught us love, “No Tears Left to Cry” taught us patience, but “Thank U, Next” taught us pain. Right after her Pete Davidson engagement crashed, she celebrated with a Number One smash with kind words for her exes, including the late Mac Miller. Who else but Ari could turn the whole audience into bridesmaids at her own personal I Turned Out Amazing ceremony? If you don’t get a little verklempt in the final verse when she walks down the aisle holding hands with her mama, you are quite possibly a horrible human. Thank U, Ariana.
The sound of heroically, gloriously definitively telling off some toxic-masculine asshat as a disco song rumbles through the bar. Musgraves broke out of country’s confines this year with a mirror-ball anthem full of withering one-liners, feminist toughness and good happy-hour vibes. She perfectly balances sweetness and sass, and in the America of 2018 a line like “everyone knows someone who kills the buzz every time they open up their mouth” echoed straight to the White House. Dicks beware, she’s coming for ya.
A 180-proof shot of rumbling bass and grumbling melody, this was the street-rap anthem you couldn’t get out of your head in 2018 if you tried. Sheck Wes raps (and ad-libs) with the adrenaline-rush glee of someone who knows they’ve just struck gold in the booth: “Fuck! Shit! Bitch! Young Sheck Wes, and I’m getting really rich!” The title is a nod to Orlando Magic center Mohammed Bamba, an old friend of the Harlem MC; the song is nothing but net.
“Pristine” is the sterling indie-rock anthem that kicked off one of the year’s most striking debut LPs, opening with the kind of curt, cutting anticipatory riff that you know is going to become something big, and so it does: “is there any better feeling than coming clean,” Lindsay Jordan sings, as her guitar swirls and shimmers. Her lyrics map out the after effects of a hard breakup (“I’ll never love anyone else”) in a boring world (““It just feels like the same party every weekend, doesn’t it?”), but she hardly sounds hopeless, turning angst into energy as the music itself keeps gaining power and strength. Pretty soon own sliver of teenage wasteland starts feeling like the center of the universe.
Taylor turns her late-night booty-call whispers into an obsessive synth-pop gem — the kind of masterpiece that just gets more and more resonant in heavy rotation. All year long, you couldn’t walk into a deli, a taxi cab or a pizza place without hearing her pillow-talk questions: “Is it cool that I said all that? Is it chill that you’re in my head?” “Delicate” keeps building up to the big moment when she lets her mask slip and speaks from the heart, then spends the rest of the song trying to talk herself out of it. The whole Taylor aesthetic, summed up in one perfect song.
Puerto Rican MCs Nio García, Casper Mágico and Darell dominated the island airwaves with their no-frills kiss-off track, “Te Boté” (or, “I Dumped You”). And their seven-minute reggaeton jaunt upgraded to an international smash success thanks to this remix, featuring Latin pop heavyweight champs Ozuna, Bad Bunny and Nicky Jam. The urbano playboys take turns distilling wounded comebacks to their exes (and boasts of their next encounters). Most notable line: “Baby, life is a cycle,” sings Bunny; “If it doesn’t work, I recycle.”
Travis Scott invites everybody to the Astroworld theme park inside his head, with a cameo from Drake — it’s a typically eccentric track that skips from beat to beat, while the Houston MC riffs on Clueless, Jamba Juice, Biggie, Bonnaroo and 2 Live Crew. Scott’s voice holds all the different pieces in line — like he says, “Who put this shit together? I’m the glue.”
Lots of artists cite Prince as an influence, but no one channels his radiant purple truth quite like Janelle Monae. Her sexiest song ever is crackling with electric energy — she’s so tuned-up and turned-on that she makes even an old line like “No one does it better” feel like a shocking new thrill. And as much as it sounds like the gorgeous love child of “Kiss” and Kraftwerk, this song also marks the moment when Monae truly claimed her own power as an original visionary. Forget the past and the future: This is pop’s right-the-fuck-now, in all its glory.
Co-produced with hitmaker Greg Kurstin, this stomping Wings-style rocker was cut part at Abbey Road Studios: swaggering brass, hammering piano, and hollering that tilts towards “Helter Skelter” territory. It’s is a cruising anthem that makes consent both a priority and a chorus, ‘cause Sir Paul is a gentleman. And it’s great not ‘cause he’s a legend, but ‘cause he’s a working musician who still knows how to write a pop song better than nearly anyone.