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.