Turn the record over, see you on the flipside…
Welcome back to this here countdown of my Top 50 Songs of 2018. If you missed out on yesterday’s instalment, where we covered the first 20 entries, then click on here to get caught up. Today, we’re doing the middle 20, so pour yourself a fine glass of something and we’ll sink in.
30] Arctic Monkeys
Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino
I almost didn’t put anything from Tranquility Base on this list. Not, as you might assume, because I found the album to be a bewildering self-indulgent mess from a band that had previously been incapable of doing any wrong. On the contrary, I loved Tranquility Base from my first listen and repeated listens only further cemented that love and revealed the hooks and warmth that initially seemed absent. Yet the Monkeys’ big return from the wilderness is an Album in the truest and most old-fashioned sense, best appreciated as a collective whole that loses a little something when songs are taken individually. But “Night Shift” by Lucy Dacus was a 2017 song, so on snuck “Star Treatment” and then it just kind of kept climbing on its own merits. The perfect intro to the album, everything that makes Tranquility Base so grand is here – that slinky bass, the sleezy “lounge singer shimmer” of retro-futurism, Alex Turner’s borderline-free-association lyrics that nonetheless paint a rich and coherent picture whilst also lacking in any smugness thanks to both the delivery and just how funny they often are (the incredulity with which he delivers “What d’ya mean you’ve never seen Blade Runner?” was the first of many laughs I had upon my initial listen), and the fact that “So who ya gonna call?/The Martini Police” is not only supposed to be the chorus but genuinely works as one given time.
29] Courtney Barnett
“Need a Little Time”
Tell Me How You Really Feel
Courtney Barnett can rock, that much is obvious, and her wit is slyly caustic; both elements that got a proper workout on her debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. But, honestly, my favourite moments in her discography have been when she slows up a bit and aims for something a little less neurotic and more reflective or emotional. (This is less a criticism of her work and more an acknowledgment of my own personality.) Whilst “Depreston” off of Sometimes applied that to house-hunting at deceased estates (and ended up one of my favourite songs of 2015) and “Over Everything” off her collab with Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice, slacked off in ode to making music (and ended up one of my favourite songs of 2017), “Need a Little Time” off her official sophomore album is a break-up song. Not a massive ballad or a dramatic release of emotions, but a melancholic and matter-of-fact acknowledgment that Barnett needs a break from the relationship in the song and vice versa, like it was kind of just inevitable by this point as evidenced by the cool way she stretches out the “me”s and “you”s in the chorus. That all said, the song still achieves lift-off when Barnett lets rip with some overdriven guitar towards the end.
I try really hard to avoid recency bias on lists like these even with the acknowledgment that new music is being released all the damn time and the fact that everyone crunches stuff they’ve missed in the closing few weeks of the year to ensure they’re able to make a worthy list and don’t kick themselves years, months or even days later over what they didn’t include – eg: Me when I first heard “Uptown Funk” in mid-January of 2015, a good two months after everyone else. You need to balance between giving crammed stuff a fair shot with the risk of potentially overrating them because of their freshness. Which is all my way of saying, I first listened to Room 25 about a fortnight ago, have grown obsessed with this record, and am currently uncertain as to whether I’ve placed “Regal” too high or too low. I mean, God, it’s just so damn beautiful! Noname’s flow is hushed, intricate and bright like on the rest of the record, but something extra just clicks on this track when she’s describing how this new love is making the worst of the world feel insignificant and calming. And that production! That production is to die for! Flying through the sky on the dreamiest of clouds before gently setting down at track’s end, it’s like vintage Nujabes but with the pop of the snare turned right down to avoid ruining the moment.
“Tribe (with J. Cole)”
There’s so much to love on “Tribe” that I’m not sure where to begin. Bas and J. Cole’s sincere appreciation for their respective muses enabling them to reach greater artistic and commercial peaks – which makes for a great contrast with our next entry. Both of their flows, clipped and precise, sprinting and stopping, percussive in a way that sticks with you and replicated equally in evolution across both verses in a manner that makes the song feel like a true collaboration. That Edu Lobo sample of Brazilian guitar that anchors the entire song, dusty and ringing, filled out by skittering drums commonplace in rap nowadays yet revitalised in Cole and Childish Major’s production. The post-chorus “la la” refrain that’s Pop Song 101 yet adds to the warmth and stakes its claim to belong in this particular song. The elevation in Cole’s “I think I made it” during the last chorus. God, this should have been a hit. Every inch of this screams ‘hit record’ but apparently we should be so lucky. I guess a FIFA soundtrack spot is an adequate consolation prize.
“Nice for What”
Goddammit, it finally happened. I don’t like Drake. I really don’t like Drake. I think he’s a boring basic rapper, I think he’s a boring basic R&B crooner, I think he’s a boring basic pop star, and I find his entire persona to be extremely insincere, calculated and fake-as-fuck. None of that changes on “Nice for What,” a brazenly cynical mea culpa to the female side of his fanbase for the gross misogyny he displays in almost every single other song via a female empowerment anthem that’s hilariously insincere coming out the mouth of Mr. “You are hiding a child” and goosed its reactions by being built around an ill-fitting Lauryn Hill sample just because, as Rap Critic admits, there is a subset of people out there who have Pavlovian responses to anything featuring Lauryn Hill. And yet… Goddammit, I can’t help myself. Murda Beatz delivered on his name big time here, this thing fucking kills! That New Orleans bounce is truly infectious, the Big Freeda samples are glorious fun, I do have a Pavlovian response to anything featuring Lauryn Hill, and Drake delivers the most energetic performance I’ve heard from him (arguably) ever which makes the hook work gangbusters. I should know better, and I do, but I keep letting it back in. How can I, explain myseelllllf….
In 2016, Disclosure put out a stopgap EP called Moog for Love which was saw the duo constructing trop-house jams via judicious sampling. It wasn’t very good, but its DNA ended up all over the five deep house cuts that the Lawrence brothers released throughout this past Summer as water-testers for their eventual third album. The key difference between Moog for Love and the Moonlight singles largely seems to have stemmed from that year-long break they took because their approach to sampling and song construction has, thankfully, evolved heavily in that timeframe. Much like Moog, “Moonlight” bases itself around a rather obvious sample, here Swedish acapella collective The Real Group’s cover of “When I Fall in Love,” but whilst Moog just stuck Trop beats underneath a loop of the most recognisable part of a famous Al Green song, “Moonlight” zeroes in one specific word, rips it out of context, then modulates and chops it up into something barely recognisable and of its own. And whilst before, even on Settle, the brothers approached every song like a mega-Pop single waiting to happen, here they just luxuriate in the shiny metallic slide they’ve created for themselves; there’s not even a proper drop! It’s a strong sign for what’s to come if they plan on sticking with this direction.
24] Kali Uchis
“In My Dreams (Feat. Gorillaz)”
I know what you’re thinking but, no, this is not here just because of the “Feat. Gorillaz” tag. In fact, my first exposure to this irresistible nugget of Pop perfection, supposedly a leftover from Kali’s work on the sessions for Humanz that Damon Albarn gifted her despite this definitely not fitting the vibe of the material from Humanz at all, was in the closing credits of Crystal Moselle’s delightful Skate Kitchen because I was slow to get onto one of the best albums of 2018. Isolation jumps from genre to genre, slinky sex jam to braggadocious Latin-influenced bounce to unofficial Funkadelic cut, and mood to mood, from confident to trying to wounded, which is what makes “In My Dreams” such an anomaly. It’s pure pep, sugar and sweetness, a comforting embrace of the one place where the miseries of modern life can’t take anything away from you. If Kali’s aware of the futility in romanticising such a state and place, it barely comes across in her vocal performance, the most joyous on the album, and why should it anyhow? She’s a world away from death, drug addiction, money troubles. They’ll return when she wakes back up, but for now she’s got this and that’s not nothing.
23] Nilüfer Yanya
“Thanks 4 Nothing”
Do You Like Pain? – EP
Almost everything about “Thanks 4 Nothing” stands out immediately in today’s overcrowded music landscape. The spare production that lives in the negative space between the instruments. The husky tone conjured by the instrumentals that creates the sensation of walking in on an argument almost as soon as it’s finished and surveying the wreckage. Nilüfer’s sharp yelping voice that makes every single syllable unique and ear-catching. The jazz-pop style that arguably hasn’t been touched in British pop music since the days of Dusty Springfield doing “Spooky,” as even the female retro singer-songwriter renaissance that Amy Winehouse pushed through didn’t go for this kind of feel. It’s a one-of-a-kind song in 2018 and captivating to listen to whether that’s for the first, fourth, or fortieth time.
22] Franz Ferdinand
“Feel the Love Go”
Speaking of that ‘attempted aversion to recency bias,’ last year I really should have put the title track and comeback single from the reconfigured Franz Ferdinand – founding member and guitarist Nick McCarthy stepped out, to be replaced by keyboardist Julian Corrie and guitarist Dino Bardot – on the list, especially with how much it ended up burrowing into my brain this year. But it turned out that said single wasn’t even the most potent shot from Always Ascending, the Scottish band’s fifth album. That would turn out to be penultimate track “Feel the Love Go,” a full-blown dive into four-on-the-floor Dance-Rock with Kapranos in sleazy form and the band boogying their arses off to a disco beat whose groove could ride forever – and is something FF very much threaten to do when it gets played and extended live. What honestly makes the track for me, though, is the spasmodic saxophone courtesy of post-punk legend Terry Edwards that bursts in on the homestretch, the rug that ties the whole song together and plays off my affinity for sax solos in pop and rock songs.
21] Years & Years
Palo Santo, at least for me, cemented English synthpop trio Years & Years as their generation’s Pet Shop Boys, tying unabashedly gay lyricism and sentiment to hook-filled pop songs that subtly bend or critique the current Pop paradigm whilst still being a part of it. But the standout highlight is undoubtedly “Hallelujah,” an old-fashioned queer rave-up where Olly Alexander throws himself with gleeful abandon onto the dancefloor with the boy who helped him come to terms with his homosexuality. A liberating burst of pure Pop ecstasy, with a hook that locks its eyes dead-centre with their partner’s before raising itself skyward as the bodies start singing “Hallelujah!” It’s tempting to credit this song’s instant brilliance to non-band members and industry-veterans Greg Kurstin, Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter (who have co-writing credits), but “Hallelujah” really isn’t worlds away from Years & Years’ own “Desire” off their 2015 debut Communion and the tidal wave with which this new single hits feels more endemic of prodigious songwriters like Alexander just naturally improving their skills over the years rather than the additional input of proven hitmakers.
20] Blood Orange
There are, according to Genius, five credited vocalists on “Charcoal Baby” and I feel that’s important to mention because Dev Hynes, the man known pseudonymously as Blood Orange, barely breaks his voice through that collective. Hynes’ voice has always been a sticking point for me in Blood Orange, so this isn’t a problem for me particularly since he makes his presence known in other ways. Such as that clean-toned but somewhat messily-played guitar that guides the song through the verses, the utterly heartbreaking chorus lyric “No-one wants to be the odd one out at times/No-one wants to be the negro swan/Can you break sometimes?” that perfectly summarises the weighing strain of living in America whilst Black in 2018, the swooping synths that accompany said chorus like an existential sigh, the brief sax solo that breaks through in the song’s final moments, and the infrequent whirring of police sirens in the background of the mix. Hynes hides his weaknesses behind his strengths, those being rock-solid songwriting acumen and an unashamed embracing of collaboration where it’s most needed, and he does them so well on “Charcoal Baby” that said weaknesses, for four minutes, don’t even register.
19] Little Dragon
Lover Chanting EP
Little Dragon shows, or at least the one I went to back in 2014 on their Nabuma Rubberband tour, are sweaty, groovy, dancefloor affairs which can seem kind of strange when looked at in comparison to a recorded work that, sure, has its energetic and floor-filling moments but is predominately laidback and moody. Feet more in the land of trip-hop than electronica. In 2018, the Swedish quartet finally decided to do something about that and, in a killing two birds with one stone move, also finally put out a non-album-related EP with Lover Chanting. The namesake track resembles something of a distant relative to last year’s phenomenal “Sweet,” also focussing on the intoxicating allure of infatuation – “No hurricanes nor the best cocaine/Will steal my love” sings Yukimi Nagano in a way that sounds rather inviting and sweet until thought upon for a moment – but somewhat more medicated, stretched out across a groove rather than sprinting towards the finish, and with the nagging chiptune hook instead replaced by the repeated mantra by Erik Bodin, “Do you wanna be my girl?/I wanna be be your man.” Like most of Little Dragon’s work, I am utterly spellbound by it.
18] Janelle Monáe
“Make Me Feel”
Janelle Monáe is an artist who had completely evaded my attention up until this year. I have absolutely no idea how this happened, how I didn’t even accidentally stumble upon something from The ArchAndroid or The Electric Lady in the five years that Monáe spent on sabbatical acting in (extremely good) movies whilst she got into the mental state that would finally enable her to open up directly on Dirty Computer, her third album. Rather than shame me, though, instead try and envision what it would have been like to have your first exposure to Monáe be “Make Me Feel.” To hear this rewrite of Prince’s “Kiss” but with a feminine pansexual energy switching the entire feel of the song, an absolute monster of a chorus and a somehow-even-bigger PRE-CHORUS delivered with confidence by a musician with a firm belief in her power and worth, and have that be your first introduction to the music of Janelle Monáe. To have your first introduction be an actual perfect pop song. Plus, that video, which doesn’t affect a song’s ranking on the list – if it did, we’d have already talked words about “This is America” – but whose explosion of Black female bisexuality compliments the picture Monáe effortlessly paints with the song. Imagine THAT was your first introduction to Janelle Monáe, quickly followed by “Django Jane.” Sure, I’m late to the party but at least I got here when it was peaking.
17] The 1975
“Love It If We Made It”
A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships
It’s the end of the world and nobody’s feeling fine. Truth be told, I have absolutely no idea if “Love It If We Made It” will even be listenable in three years let alone thirty years, but fuck is it ever the song that we need right here and right now. The auditory equivalent of screaming into the void on main, Matty Healy the musical personification of an all-caps barrage of outrage about anything and everything regardless of its severity that grows absolutely exhausting the longer one scrolls, a mess of contradictions and insecurities, of insights and inanities, of anxieties and thirst. “Modernity has failed us.” All that’s left to hope is that we’ll all make it, somehow, someway, then maybe we can at least relax. And the band really do make it seem like it’s possible for one brief shining moment, shooting stratospheric in the chorus where the starry yet utterly-anxiety-inducing haze of the verses give way to something approaching genuine hope, like the sky really is the limit. It doesn’t last, though. Now we’re onto “Fossil fuelling/Masturbation/Immigration/Liberal kitsch” and God knows what else. We can’t log off, the content never stops. “Poison me, daddy.”
16] The Coup
“OYAHYTT (Feat. Lakeith Stanfield)”
Sorry to Bother You: The Soundtrack
Spoilers for an entirely different list coming a week from now: I fucking love Sorry to Bother You. I came out of my first viewing of that movie utterly shook, like I had seen something truly dangerous, and borderline ready to take up arms for bringing down Capitalism even before Boots Riley sends everyone home with “OYAHYTT.” The song shows up a few times throughout the movie in skeletal form, rather like a rough demo that’s being slowly pieced together as the narrative progresses, and its final appearance upon the rolling of the end credits fills in the meat around those bones and provides a door-stomping stormer of a track. Riley proclaims his desire to get the revolution started over a nasty-ass fuzz-box of a guitar line made for getting parties and groups of people in sustained moshes whilst the titular mantra – “Oh yeah/Alright/Hell yeah/That’s tight” – releases that energy in positive fun-ass ways. Star Lakeith Stanfield also hops on for a verse on the album version, performing what is effectively an in-character plot summary akin to Ol’ Dirty Bastard with the Bulworth’s “Ghetto Supastar,” and the song is just an immediate hype-starter for me no matter the mood I may otherwise have been in.
“Me & My Dog”
Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, and Julien Baker are all incredible independent of one another – Dacus’ debut, Historian, is especially one of 2018’s finest listens – but when they decided to form like Voltron into one supergroup of sad indie rock queens, their collective sum was somehow greater than their individual parts. boygenius is almost as perfect a record as I have ever heard, every one of the EP/album’s (delete depending on personal preference given this year) six tracks being knockout blows so equal in individual quality that one’s favourite could very understandably change tens of times over each full listen. But standing head and shoulders above five other borderline-perfect tracks is “Me & My Dog,” an absolutely devastating snapshot of a young love so all-consuming that it causes inadvertently-missed meals, soon followed by an equally all-consuming heartbreak that has Bridgers begging for the return of even the relationship’s lowest points just so she can be together again with them, before finally wanting off this world entirely in order to escape the pain. If you don’t get actual shivers at “I wanna be emaciated!” you may be clinically dead, it’s one of my favourite musical moments of the year and breaks me every damn time. I guarantee that I’ll regret placing this so low even 24 hours from now.
14] Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
“Mainland” is low-key one of my very favourite pop songs of the year? Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever make pop music. Not in the veins of other pop artists we’ve passed and will reach on this list, but more in the style of The La’s, bright pinging jangly guitar hooks played at just the right speed to get bodies moving but not so fast that it tips over into being rock music. But I get why it may be hard to square RBCF and “Mainland” as pop. It’s a busy intricate song with the three guitars plus bass and drums all winding their way in and out of sync with one another in surprisingly complex ways – seeing these guys live, playing their individual instruments in front of my eyes, made it shockingly clear how complex these songs are. The chorus is extremely wordy with a wonky and ever-changing melody that’s hard for those singing along to lock into. And it’s all about Australia’s massive hypocrisy in a nation once ‘founded’ (for lack of a better term) by immigrants now having one of the strictest, most draconian and inhumane immigration policies in the world. Yet, it’s a pop song. It’s sprightly, deceptively sunny, and the moment where the chorus steadies itself to collectively belt “back on the mainland” is simply stunning! Plus, like almost all RBCF songs, it bloody well rips.
13] Silk City
“Electricity (with Dua Lipa)”
Electricity – Single
Dua Lipa is kind of like a better version of Sam Smith. I mean, their solo outputs are worlds away from each other stylistically, but whilst Smith’s solo output is dull slop barely fit for mid-level coffee shop background music in stark contrast to their collabs with dance music producers which are fantastic, her solo work is so far pretty great and her dance collabs don’t peak much higher from her solo highlights. They even both did a Calvin Harris team-up in 2018! All of this is meant as a load of compliments, by the way, Lipa is one of the better pop stars enjoying her time at the top right now and her instinct for killer pop hooks finds perfect synergy in Diplo and Mark Ronson’s team-up Silk City. Everything about “Electricity” bangs. Lipa’s vocal performance is sensual and ecstatic, Ronson and Diplo’s production is an exemplary throwback to classic House music as found in the cities listed on the single cover whilst the 2010s staples and flourishes add to the ecstasy, and the drop in place of a chorus – an irritating and often ill-fitting feature of most pop music from 2018 – actually works because it does effectively communicate that rush of total and uncontrollable love.
12] Azealia Banks
Fantasea II: The Second Wave (supposedly)
The Problematic Fave. We Progressives all get one (maybe two) and Azealia Banks is mine. I can’t help it, she exclusively makes bangers, and I supposedly am incapable of quitting her so long as she keeps on pumping them out and doesn’t actually murder anyone. Things seemed to be getting back on track this year for the long-overdue release of her second album, Fantasea II: The Second Wave, only for it to yet again not pan out because I guess Banks supposedly gets off on testing my patience. But, God, can you blame me for not giving up on her when she drops songs like “Anna Wintour,” a proper gay house anthem designed for profusive voguing? Banks sings more than she raps on the single in what is easily her finest vocal performance yet, that skyscraper delivery of “In the morning I cheer for sunshine/But I fear that I don’t fear enough” invoking the spirit of house divas past and present, and Junior Sanchez’s production is simple but devastatingly effective for making the room bounce. Then the “Yung Rapunxel” megaphone comes out to put the cherry on top and herald another dynamite verse of shit-talking, “I’m penthouse/You trap house and rhinestones.” Now, if she could maybe FINISH THE FUCKING ALBUM ALREADY sos I can get a whole bunch more bangers like this, that’d be grand!
11] Daniel Pemberton
“The Actual Heist”
Ocean’s 8 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
I don’t do too much listening to film scores outside of movies, but every year I do find one film score that I keep on coming back to, for both background noise to write with and for recreational listening, and in 2018 that was Daniel Pemberton’s fun jazzy and occasionally clattering work on Ocean’s 8. As the title suggests, “The Actual Heist” plays over the climax of the movie during the reveal montage of how the heist really went down, which already earns this track brownie points by backing one of my favourite movie moments of the year. But divorced from that context, it’s still badass in a feminine way that sits right in my soul, with Pemberton bringing in all the different leitmotifs and musical refrains he’d utilised across the rest of the movie up to that point together for a truly climactic feel. Building from a relaxed modest victory into a properly triumphant and infectious boom the further it runs, collapsing just before the end and rebuilding itself in record time. Speaking from first-hand experience: try power-walking to a place you really need to be with this song on, it really does feel momentously awesome.
Come on back tomorrow for the Top 10!
Callie Petch is a big name in deep space, ask yer mates.