Spool up those cassette tapes, for it’s that time of year again!
Denzel Curry, Foxing, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar & SZA, Let’s Eat Grandma, They Might Be Giants, Lizzo, NAO, Mitski, Robyn, The Go! Team, Red Velvet, SOPHIE, Spiritualized, Vince Staples, St. Vincent, Beach House. These are just some of the many, many, many names that got cut from this list, several of them in the very-early going. None of this is because these acts released bricks this year – far from it, some dropped career-best work – and none of this is to insinuate that cutting any one of them was in the slightest bit easy. In fact, I think putting this year’s list together was even harder and an even longer act than it was last year, which itself took a goddamn age. More than ever before, I wanted to expand this countdown to 75 in order to get, if not everything, most of the songs I loved from 2018 in, except that the organising process has already cost me two full days as is and I still need to pen these articles, fulfil STT commitments AND buckle down with my own Listmas entertainment. Plus, I was very naughty and had to attend a Speed Awareness Course so that’s a day lost there too…
The point, which I laboriously but always get to, is that music in 2018 was really frickin’ good. It was one of those years that may not have seemed so on-paper since many of the Big Names in music either took the year off or underdelivered in some way, so there wasn’t a big landmark record that everyone gravitated their conversations around, but when you think back seriously on 2018 the realisation sets in that, “Oh shit, ALL OF THAT was this year!” I personally had a kind of slate-cleaning year when it came to the music that ended up on repeat, as it turns out – 33 of the tracks featured in this year’s countdown are by artists making their first appearances on one of my lists. Acts poised for greatness in previous years made good on those promises big time – two of my Top 10 slots are occupied by groups who were in the very low-40s just twelve months ago. Debut artists crushed it, and the old guard that didn’t fizzle out this year instead threw exciting stylistic curveballs or simply experienced a creative resurgence and put out some excellent goddamn music. Several artists are being inducted into the three-timers club, others put out records so collectively strong that it actually impeded their standing on the chart since we’re looking for that one killer track. (Not the worst problem to have, mind.)
As with last year, this is not a Best Songs list and I’m not about to get all Matt Damon ride-or-dying for Weezer on you if we disagree because, yeah, I’m already dissatisfied with this list in so many respects and have missed out on so many great records. Still: snapshot in time, and all that. Before we set off, a reminder of the rules. Only songs originally released in 2018 count for entry – “Night Shift” by Lucy Dacus, for example, got disqualified despite releasing on a 2018 record for first dropping as a single in 2017. Covers are a no-no, remixes are a case-by-case basis and need to change non-2018 songs significantly enough to qualify – hence why Bruno Mars’ “Finesse (Remix)” with Cardi B is sadly nowhere in sight. And, as already alluded to, one song per artist to keep things varied and not just the boygenius tracklisting hogging the Top 10 – repeating via featured spots or different projects is allowed, however.
Lastly, this year’s winner will join esteemed company so here’s a refresher on the previous champions of the SEVEN OTHER YEARS I’VE DONE THIS JESUS.
2011: Florence + The Machine – What the Water Gave Me
2012: Tame Impala – Elephant
2013: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Sacrilege
2014: The Juan MacLean – A Place Called Space
2015: Jamie xx – Loud Places (Feat. Romy)
2016: David Bowie – I Can’t Give Everything Away
2017: Gorillaz – Strobelite (Feat. Pevan Everett)
With apologies to Solange should she finally decide to drop: let’s get it. Today we’re covering #50 to #31, tomorrow #30 to #11, and Sunday is the Top 10 plus a nice collected Spotify playlist for your New Year’s parties or aimless background listening or however Spotify works to make Drake’s Scorpion multi-platinum despite 75% of the streams responsible coming from just three songs.
50] Ravyn Lenae
“Closer (Ode 2 U)”
Crush – EP
Steve Lacy knows his way around a smooth-ass groove that sounds like the gorgeous love-child of mid-80s and mid-00s R&B, being as he is one of the principal members of The Internet (another group who just missed the cut), and “Closer” sounds practically beamed in from that point in the early-00s where producers were strip-mining Dr. Dre’s 2001 for parts they could refashion into caramel-dripping sex jams fit for pop radio. But whilst that production audibly gleams to such an extent that you could probably bounce nickels off of it – the wah-wah’d guitar that forms the song’s backbone tangibly shimmers – it would be nothing without Lenae, the woman whose silky vocals anchor the verses and whose intricately arranged harmonies turn that wordless chorus into an ascent. When the beat drops out for a second during the last chorus, it’s barely noticeable because Lenae is already keeping the track afloat independent of the additional help.
49] Little Simz
101 FM – Single
I have spent years sleeping on Simz, even after I saw her put on one heck of an opening set for Gorillaz in late 2017, and every single time I get around to listening to one of her tracks I find myself wondering how on earth I keep letting that happen. “101 FM” is one of many singles she’s dropped this year, supposedly from her forthcoming and as-yet-untitled third album, and finds her in much the same mood as with last year’s “Backseat,” reflecting on her upbringing in council estates around London and making raps as a potential means of escape. But she’s a lot more hopeful this time around, the production buoyant and sprightly in ways that echo her memories in the chorus of “playing PlayStation 2” – in fact, it reminds me a tonne of the Chinese stage music from TimeSplitters 2 – and her way with words in painting pictures are still vivid and unique (“Eve tryna get a salary while Adam out there licking shots to the cats”) with an irresistible flow. Early contender for rap LP of 2019 if this is the level she’s planning on bringing.
48] Friendly Fires
“Love Like Waves”
Love Like Waves – Single
After six goddamn years of radio silence, Friendly Fires finally came out of hibernation in 2018 although, annoyingly, they did so in the LCD Soundsystem way where they spent the year playing sporadic shows and promising a new album at some vague and unspecified point in time. Still, the two tastes we’ve (presumably) gotten from that third record indicate a band ready to pick up exactly where they left off. Whatever aversions they had to writing Pop records after Pala have clearly subsided in the years off as “Love Like Waves” is a Summer bop if ever there was one. Bouncing along on Ibiza House keys, goosed up with calypso drums that make the melody even more irresistible, and featuring noodly synth solos in the last chorus for that quintessential throwback Sega Mega Drive feel, this is a song that can make even the coldest and wettest nights in the wintery arse-end of Britain transform seamlessly into being poolside on the balmiest of Summers days in the tropics. Now hurry up with the album, already! It’ll have been eight goddamn years!
That’s a Girls Name – EP
It is impossible to listen to this song without envisioning the barely-contained giggle-smirk on DRAM’s face as he sings. “Best Hugs” is about a guy who’s mighty jealous that you, the listener, are banging this chick he’s had before and is trying to sorry-not-sorry his way into getting her back by blatantly putting you on notice about it. But, you know, not explicitly or anything. She “gives the best hugs,” y’see! And it’s just so brazen, so ridiculous, so audacious that, quite honestly, I still, a good six months after first listen, find the song hilarious. DRAM is basically taking the subset of rappers who make songs bullishly bragging about how they can take your girl just like that without you being able to do a damn thing about it and deliberately dressing it up in the most passive-aggressive and sunny dispositions possible to highlight the absurdity of it all. “She wants the D from me” is the definition of disrespectful yet somehow also sounds so wholesome at the same time! It’s brilliant!
“Pain Killer (Feat. Sky Ferreira)”
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt and Sky Ferreira have two very different approaches to singing. He’s just pointing himself in the vague direction of a pitch and melody and otherwise winging his way through the lyrics; she’s actually trying to sing. Yet both are on enough of the same wavelength that, every now and again throughout “Pain Killer” and seemingly by accident, they do manage to harmonize, at least briefly, and the effect is akin to a fuzzed image coming into focus for a moment or two. It all somehow works, especially when you’re finally able to pick out the lyrics from underneath all the intentionally muddy production to find out that they’re singing about a mutually destructive relationship with one another akin to a narcotics addiction. And sitting on top of that worn-vinyl cacophony going on underneath are those horns, providing an accessible entry point into the spiral regardless of how off they sound.
45] Lana Del Rey
Norman Fucking Rockwell
You need to understand, I’m largely indifferent to Lana Del Rey. There’s that very vocal contingent of haters who have followed her since Day One and harped on about the immediately-tired authenticity debate, and that ain’t me. I don’t much care for her schtick, I don’t much care for her songs, but that’s all fine and no skin off anyone’s nose. But this? The friggin’ near-10-minute epic that marries her widescreen theatrical drama-pop to hazy psychedelia freak-outs and which is definitely too long, sacrificing a really pretty Pop song at the altar of, I’m assuming, weed? I fucks with this. I fucks with this a lot. In many respects, it provides me with the kind of headphones-on world-blocking zone-out sensations that Kurt Vile’s latest just wasn’t able to – ironically because Bottle it In was way too bloody long and noodly for its own good – and it’s just a lovely song to lose oneself in, Del Rey ghosting pleasantly all over the mix and producer Jack Antonoff balancing their concoction deftly so that there’s never too little or too much to the music. Weird how the Most Lana Del Rey Song is the one that finally broke past my ambivalence for her.
44] The Juan MacLean
“What Do You Feel Free About?”
What Do You Feel Free About? – Single
By this point, I think The Juan MacLean are the most consistently good house act going, at least for the kind of house music I personally most go for. It wasn’t even until I thought critically about the song for this list that I realised it doesn’t even have a ‘drop’ of any description. Instead, much like the rest of MacLean’s stuff, it crests on a simple and infectious groove for its six minutes, adding and subtracting further elements whenever the track threatens to get stale but otherwise remaining committed to the groove at its bedrock. What’s always been the secret weapon, however, are the group’s vocals where Nancy Whang radiates effortless cool and utter indifference in her performances – of somebody who’s right at home in this environment yet is equally just as ready to get out of here, relaxed and assured – which “What Do You Feel Free About?” utilises as the release whenever she drawls out the title lyric. It works in great contrast to the verses, here performed and co-written by long-time associate Monika Heidemann (much like how Whang was promoted to front-desk in time for The Future Will Come), which are rougher and deeper but not offputtingly so.
43] The Dirty Nil
“Pain of Infinity”
Rock is dead. I mean, look at these goddamn Billboard charts! The hottest new act in the genre this year were Greta Van Fleet because what this generation needed was their own Wolfmother but way worse. Indie rock has arguably never been better (and we’ll get to that), but good old-fashioned driving rock music that swings and kicks doors in and makes the listener feel 20 stories tall and ready for anything is on life support… if you don’t know where to look, anyway. Enter The Dirty Nil from Ontario, Canada, who released their sophomore LP, Master Volume, this year and it kicks all of the ass! Hooks, energy, snarling teeth perched in an infectious grin to let you know they’re in on the gag, solos and lead-lines that are practically pop hooks but fuzzed up beyond all recognition, drums that could level buildings. All of those are there on “Pain of Infinity” whose ping-ponging riff has been stuck in my head for literal days, right now. Foist this on the next person who cries about rock being dead or, better yet, on anybody earnestly listening to Greta Van Fleet; you’ll be doing a public service.
42] Tracey Thorn
“Dancefloor (Ewan Pearson 12’’ Mastermix)”
Back in the 80s, as nightclub culture was rising in the UK, there was this trend in the New Wave and Synthpop scenes to create special “Night Mixes” of their big singles primarily for sliding into DJ sets. Effectively, they were just the standard pop song with three additional minutes of wankery stuck either side of them where the remixer would clumsily isolate the individual tracks of the song and slowly build back up because it was the 80s and at the time such blatant decon and reconstruction was novel and unheard of. Listening back nowadays, they were quite pointless, shoddy in execution, and largely only served to spoil perfectly fine singles. This version of “Dancefloor” – the closing track of Record by Tracey Thorn, formerly of cult alt-pop duo Everything But the Girl, which normally lasts just under three minutes – and I mean this entirely as a compliment, reminds me exactly of one of those “Night Mixes.” Theoretically, nothing is gained by the additional wankery and repetition either side of the remix’s middle-stretch, especially when it fakes-out starting a good eight times before it finally gets going. Yet I can’t listen to the song normally. The standard pop song variant is fine enough, but the lost-Visage-cut vibes are actually enhanced by the extended length, truly making it feel beamed in from some grotty nightclub in 1983.
41] Charli XCX
“Girls Night Out”
Girls Night Out – Single
My girl Charli spent 2018 drip-feeding a bunch of stray singles to her devoted faithful whilst the useless cretins at Asylum/Atlantic Records sat on their butts and tying the hands of one of the most interesting (and at times best) pop stars of our generation WHAT ARE YOU PILLOCKS DOING?! She took on trap with “5 in the Morning,” finally granted official releases for two long-leaked favourites of the fanbase “Focus” (which almost made it on here instead) and “No Angel,” and collab-ed with Troye Sivan for the breezy “1999.” But my favourite of all the tracks that featured her name on the topline in 2018 was, without question, “Girls Night Out,” a gloriously cheesy throwback to 80s mall-pop in the vein of Tiffany and very early Madonna. It bounces like those perennial school-disco staples did, it has the exact same simplistic sing-song cadence on the chorus, it radiates with the same teeny-bop naivety, and it kills even more with each listen. It’s more like the musical personification of bubblegum than the actual bubblegum pop movement was and I will gleefully lose my shit to it every single time! Not to say it’s all sunshine and rainbows, though, as the menacing tinges on the breakdown are unmistakeably SOPHIE.
40] Screaming Females
All at Once
The motoric drive of “Soft Domination” feels tailormade for inclusion in the Bonus Songs area of a Rock Band entry that will never get made. That constant chugging elevation and descent in the chord progression and melody, combined with Jarrett Dougherty’s clattering drumming that often seems like it’s getting stuck in something during the verses, makes this one a stealth earworm of the most insidious nature. Sure, at first it seems like a transitional album track between the more obvious singles. Then, it’s three days later and Marissa Paternoster’s plea to “Tell me you’ll lift me up/Tell me you’ll take me out of this place” is the only thing your mind is willing to let you fixate on until you’re begging for submission. The real soft domination, as it turns out, was the friends we made along the way and also the unassuming mega-hook songs that are driving you insane. I think it also really helps that “Soft Domination” doesn’t even crack three minutes and resultantly ejects the moment it’s out of ideas, which is the kind of purposeful songwriting I feel more of All at Once could’ve take note of.
39] Troye Sivan
It’s about bottoming for the first time. I mean, no shit with lyrics like “Tell me right before it goes down/Promise me you’ll hold my hand if I get scared now” and “Play me like a love song,” but I just wanted to draw attention to how filthy the title track from Sivan’s sophomore LP is when looked at stripped of the musical context. Because in context, that barely registers. “Bloom” is an insanely pretty song, one whose uncertain trepidation eventually steadies and blossoms into that joyous release of a chorus, the kind that the Pet Shop Boys may have come up with if their eyebrows weren’t so deliberately arched all the time or the late-90s Max Martins of the industry could have crafted if they injected their pop songs with actual soul. Sivan brilliantly translates that uncertain anxiety over one’s first time into a musical form so well that reminders of the song being about bottoming arguably crop up because Sivan doesn’t make a big deal out of the act himself. His song is focussed on the sensation of new love and the bottoming is just the way this particular affection is shared, no different than the thousands of ways heteros have expressed their love in music for decades.
38] Tokyo Police Club
Tokyo Police Club nearly called it quits. The Ontario indie rock quartet were supposedly on the verge of splitting after their duology of Melon Collie and the Infinite Radness EPs from 2016, separated geographically and mentally exhausted of one another. But, the story goes, they toughed it out, doubled down on the guitars, recorded TPC and emerged a stronger collective than ever from that strife. In that narrative, “New Blues” is effectively a mission statement: “I’ve been low/I’ve been down/And I don’t want to go there anymore.” It’s about facing your depression, your latest big setback that’s knocked you on your arse, and resolving to get back up and push forward regardless of how much it hurts because you’re tired of it sending you back to square one. David Monks sings of “new blues” but in reality they’re the same blues as ever manifesting in different ways since they’re all conspiring to drag you back down to the same destination. The music fights its own battle, clawing its way out of the hole its been mixed into with feverous determination, although whether it wins is another question altogether since the last chord carries a ring of exhausted uncertainty rather than triumph.
37] Kacey Musgraves
“Oh, What a World”
Litmus test for potential friends: play them “Oh, What a World” and see if they make a crack about the lyrics. If they scoff or snark or drone on about ‘simplistic’ or laugh about the pre-chorus sincerely being Musgraves noting “These are real things,” bin those people from your life. Call it the Wachowski Sisters Test. Yeah, I admit, there is absolutely no reason that “Oh, What a World” should work on anyone over the age of pre-school with its lyrics seemingly lifted from the In Living Color sketch on Tracy Chapman, the borderline glurge-y sentiment throughout, or the bloody vocoder earnestly being used in 2018. But it’s all just so… pretty. The sincerity with which Musgraves sings, the banjo-plucking in the post-chorus, the space between all of the track’s various elements, the soft lilting production that feels like walking on clouds. It’s impossible to resist, impossible to not appreciate at its intended face value, and Golden Hour has 12 more songs just like it.
36] The Carters
“APESHIT (Feat. Quavo & Offset)”
EVERYTHING IS LOVE
Look, EVERYTHING IS LOVE is a trifle of a release that can feel more like brand management than a true capper to the zeitgeist-dominating trilogy which started in 2016 with Beyoncé’s all-timer Lemonade and bridged by Jay-Z’s late-career resurgence 4:44 in 2017. The fact that this collab album by two of the biggest superstars of all-time vanished from pretty much any and all conversation within days of its release back in June should say it all. With that in mind, it’s still an enjoyable listen when approached with the managed expectations that should greet 90% of supergroup team-ups, and it gave us “APESHIT,” the closest we’re going to get to that spiritual Watch the Throne successor now that Kanye has gone full-jackass. Expensive, state-of-the-art, the track doesn’t even need brag raps about buying jets and wearing super-pricey designer clothes and turning down the Superbowl since Pharrell’s production is already the auditory equivalent of James Franco exclaiming “LOOK AT MY SHIT!” The hook kills, Jay tries out those triplet flows that every single person alive has now jacked from Migos – although The Carters at least paid them back by inviting Quavo and Offset on for adlibs – and Beyoncé rapping is almost infuriating. Like, there has to be something she just straight-up sucks at, right?
35] Chaka Khan
Like Sugar – Single
This one’s cheating, honestly. Two years ago, following the release of Netflix’s ostentatious mess The Get Down, an official soundtrack of songs featured in and inspired by the show was issued on which was this mash-up/remix of “(Are You Ready) Do the Bus Stop” by The Fatback Band and what was either a new or super-obscure second song. I adore that mash-up/remix, it absolutely kills, and it didn’t end up on my Top 50 for 2016 purely because I couldn’t figure out whether it quantified as the former, the latter, or something else entirely. Then, in 2018, Chaka Khan returns with her first new single in five years (and first solo one in ten years) and it’s basically just that mash-up/remix but with the serial numbers filed off and that intentional drop-deflation thing that producer Switch loves to do? Hells yeah, I’m gonna give a song that was initially disqualified on a technicality justice via an entirely different technicality! Video’s pretty great, too.
34] Cardi B
“Get Up 10”
Invasion of Privacy
“They gave a bitch two options: stripping or lose” is an immediate all-timer of an opening lyric and “Get Up 10” is an all-timer of an opening rap song. No chorus, a beat that doesn’t drop until at least the halfway mark, and delivered in that unmistakeable Bronx bluster, Cardi instead just lets loose for four straight minutes and lays it all out on the table. Yeah, she danced in strip clubs for money. Yeah, she came from absolutely nothing and is now the biggest star on the planet. Yeah, her tits are fake. Yeah, she’s every bit as terrified of falling on her face in her big moment as her fans might be. Yeah, people she thought would stick by her or were happy for her success stabbed her in the back the first chance they got. But “they knock [her] down nine times, [she’ll] get up ten.” She’s forceful, bodying the track and commanding the listener’s attention in the way that only Cardi can, and she’s unapologetic of her past or any part of herself that critics will try to shame her over. It’s an emphatic opening statement, the rolling thunder announcing her arrival before the bangers come out, striking fear into the hearts of anyone else thinking of taking the crown she’s decided will be hers.
33] Menace Beach
“Black Rainbow Sound (Feat. Brix Smith)”
Black Rainbow Sound
“Blaaaaaaack rainboooooooow sooooooouuuuund.” It sneaks up in my brain all the time, unprompted. Three words, syllables stretched well past breaking point, that as far as I can tell are utterly meaningless, yet I have been unable to shake them ever since the first time I heard the song. Anytime I am doing anything at all, they can crop up. Driving down a motorway at night, writing up another article about something unrelated, making a toastie for dinner, having a dump, doesn’t matter. “Blaaaaaaaaack rainbooooooooow sooooooouuund” all the time forever. Now, if “Black Rainbow Sound” were only the way that Ryan Needham and Liza Violet deliver the title phrase, then it would just be an annoyingly catchy song and you can find hundreds of those bastards lying around everywhere, but that’s also tied to retro-futurstic sci-fi music that starts off at a canter before eventually building up a full-blown gallop that steams towards the end and would sound right at home backing a hovercar chase through rain-slicked neon-lit city streets. Maybe one where the protagonists are trying to escape that line! They will prove unsuccessful in their endeavour, though, for no one can escape “blaaaaaaaack rainboooooo…”
32] The Voidz
OK, I have lived with “QYURRYUS” for about 10 months now and I still have absolutely no idea what the fuck Julian Casablancas is saying at any point. I have just now, for the first time, pulled up the song’s lyrics via Genius and ran them side-by-side with the recorded track and even those seem to be completely wrong. “QYURRYUS” in general is a mystifying song, a cacophony of conflicting musical elements all warped, back-masked and twisted in ways that should be completely atonal and utterly impenetrable yet, somehow some way, work. Julian’s voice is borderline unrecognisable, the band at one point seem poised to transition into a bridge only to abort the attempt pretty much the second it starts, I have no clue what the guitars are supposed to be doing, and that repeated mantra in the outro is simultaneously the clearest and most indecipherable part of a song not exactly lacking in them. And yet, it all makes a bizarre alien sense, a pop song written and performed by beings with only the barest grasping of how pop songs work; the results ending up hypnotic.
31] Pusha T
For eighteen minutes and six tracks, King Push operates in his own world, once again taking us on a lyrically masterful exploration of his days as a drug kingpin across dusty beats provided by Kanye West (in that very brief moment where it seemed like he was going to come good on the music that would follow his inane and exhausting public antics). All of those songs are brilliant because nobody is better at drug raps than Pusha T, but they’re also what make “Infrared” so thrilling. The one time on the album where Push addresses long-sizzling beef with Birdman (“Oh, now it’s alright to kill Baby/Niggas looked at me crazy like I really killed a baby”), the pre-Carter V flameout of Lil Wayne (“Flash without the fire/Another multi-platinum rapper trapped and can’t retire”), systemic racism within the music industry (“Remember when Will Smith won the first Grammy/And they ain’t even recognise Hov until Annie/So I don’t tap dance for the crackers and sing ‘Mammy’”), and, yes, Drake (“How could you ever write these wrongs/When you don’t even write your songs?”). It comes off like a cleansing, especially when spat over the menacing rumble of Ye’s production, that “Push” sign-off sending the song and DAYTONA into the night like a bad dream that just won’t stop lingering.
Tomorrow, we move on to the middle of our countdown, #30 to #11.
Callie Petch is gone, ya hear them? They’re gone!