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The 100 Best Singles of the 1990s

Is it fair to say that many of us attach no actual “nostalgia,” in the strictest sense of the word, to the singles of the 1990s?

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The 100 Best Singles of the 1990s
Photo: Warner Bros.

Is it fair to say that many of us attach no actual “nostalgia,” in the strictest sense of the word, to the singles of the 1990s? In one putrid sense, the decade began with back-to-back number one hits from Phil Collins and Michael Bolton. And if that tidbit weren’t enough to boot you off the good-time train trip alongside memory lane, you could still arguably never compete with the decade itself in terms of how much it deified the past. The first time I heard “Vogue” on the radio, I wondered why my local pop music station was playing a disco song from 1978. And need I mention that few songs sat at the top of the charts in the ’90s longer than a 1973 ditty by Elton John?

Maybe it was simply that the ’90s represented nostalgia’s last big blowout in tandem with the death throes of physical media. In a more philosophical sense, the decade ended just as MP3 culture was really starting to forever change the way singles operate in our lives. Consequently, the songs that so many of us cherished in the ’90s lived on in our own personal “shuffle play” soundtracks long after the likes of Janet Jackson, Prince, and Alanis Morissette couldn’t land a Billboard number one hit for love or money.

Many of the songs on this list don’t actually feel like part of our past, but still linger as representations of our eternal present. And yet it’s sort of impossible to not feel a twinge of nostalgia for the finitude of solid-matter, extended-play singles with copious remixes, to feel gratitude for the chemically balanced variety that emerged from the rigid discipline—and, yes, probably payola—of radio DJ charts.

More to the point, the ’90s may have been the last full decade during which stepping outside of the box to broaden one’s musical horizons was not necessarily the given—whereas the iPod era has turned us all into active musical scavengers, always seeking out the next obscure download. With perfectly acceptable gems right at the heart of the mainstream (Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart,” Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?”), who even wanted to entertain wanderlust? Eric Henderson

Editor’s Note: Listen to the entire list at The House Next Door.

100. Sophie B. Hawkins, “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover”

Sophie B. Hawkins’s debut single starts off discreetly enough, with the sound of New York’s underground, the soft shuffle of a drum loop, and an opening line worthy of Prince: “That old dog has chained you up all right” Prince, in fact, could have written the song himself, except Hawkins took the sentiment of songs like the Purple One’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” to grittier, even ballsier territory. One part Led Zeppelin, one part Rolling Stones, and a whole lot of female fortitude, “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” was the most tenacious unrequited-love song of the decade—or maybe ever. Sal Cinquemani


99. Stardust, “Music Sounds Better with You”

That disco never died was obvious. But for a couple of decades, it wore a number of masks to hide its true identity. Until, that is, the late ’90s, when it ditched all façades, did some speed and made its triumphant return under the banner “filtered disco” And when it returned, it did so with a vengeance. Proudly flaunting the same elements that irritated disco’s critics the first time around, filtered disco was fruity, repetitive, BPM-addled, and knowingly stupid. The most mercilessly entertaining entry was this one-off from Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, an exhilarating hit of dance-floor cocaine with a sugary rhythm guitar, a subterranean-deep bassline, and one of dance music’s all-time great autocritiques: “Ooh, baby, I feel right/I feel like the music sounds better with you” Henderson


98. Arrested Development, “Tennessee”

Perhaps no other track from the early ’90s provided better (or catchier) proof that hip-hop was more versatile and capable than prevailing gangster-rap themes than Arrested Development’s “Tennessee,” its stuttering drumline ably providing a clean backdrop for expositions on civil rights, genealogical discovery, Southern culture, the devastating legacy of slavery, and the nature of God. A pained but uplifting narrative struggles at times to catch up with the song’s driving gait, but “Tennessee” satisfies nonetheless, mixing raw, percussive power, quirky sampling, and inspirational imagery into one cerebral whole. Kevin Liedel


97. Ice Cube, “It Was a Good Day”

“It Was a Good Day” stands out in Ice Cube’s catalogue for its rare focus on things that have gone well in his L.A. hood, noting that nobody he knows got killed as an exception to his usual daily grind. But it also predicts the family-friendly positivity that he would become known for just a decade later. The talk about pickup games of basketball and self-promoting Goodyear blimps and that smooth Isley Brothers sample that lays down the groove all eventually gave way to the good-natured positivity of a film career that includes kids flicks like Are We There Yet? and the Barbershop franchise. A brilliant standalone single, “It Was a Good Day” marked the turning point from Ice Cube’s militant gangsta-rap past toward a much more easygoing future. Jonathan Keefe


96. The Stone Roses, “I Wanna Be Adored”

The Stone Roses forged the blueprint for the Britpop movement for a number of reasons: Not only did they fly the flag for organic, guitar-driven British music in a time where an increasing number of artists were reaching for their turntables, but Ian Brown’s extraordinarily cocksure attitude gave license for the Gallaghers, Albarns, and Andersons of the scene to strut around saying and doing whatever they pleased. “I Wanna Be Adored” channels this attitude into a swaggering, militant anthem, its slight word count (clocking in at just 19) only further amplifying the resonance they feel this message deserves. If you ever witnessed a brassy twentysomething marching down your street with his chest pushed outward, there’s a good chance he was marching to the tune of “I Wanna Be Adored” Huw Jones


95. Underworld, “Born Slippy.NUXX”

Who’s that boy? He’s dirty and numb but also capable of angelic poses. He’s also terribly fond of lager, chemicals, and blondes. Sounds a bit like the libidinous bugger Ewan McGregor played in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, the film that made this dark, long, chest-puffing techno anthem ubiquitous for a hot second back in 1996. Like Benton’s craving for smack, the beats are frantic, dizzying, ravenous, even pained, rippling outward like ginormous waves or cascading ribbons made of steel, grasping for the sort of ecstasy that seems to only come with absolute annihilation. Such is the gnarliness of Underworld’s music. Ed Gonzalez


94. The Cure, “Pictures of You”

It’s a shame that the Cure has spent so much of their three-decade career relegated to cult-act marginality, their music preemptively dismissed as mope material for dour goth types even as Robert Smith and company have turned out some of the most lavish and heartbreaking pop of their generation. They’re bigger than any clique, and “Pictures of You” saw them achieving a level of universality that their more marketable peers should envy. Pop lyrics have rarely conveyed longing in more relatable terms than Smith’s opening line (“I’ve been staring so long at these pictures of you/That I almost believe that they’re real”), and in the following seven minutes the Cure provide elegant catharsis for all the heartbroken, even those who have never spent a cent of their income on black hair dye. Matthew Cole


93. Daft Punk, “Da Funk”

Though I’d like to stress I’m part of that small percentage of the general public who went on to become full-fledged Daft Punk fans, like many listeners, I was first endeared to “Da Funk” by the talking dog who blares it from his ghetto blaster in Spike Jonze’s music video for the song. I’m sure this was a very calculated point in the single’s marketing process, because it’s clear that some instrumental tracks need to find a sense of character in order to connect with mainstream audiences. Ingeniously, Charles the dog provided “Da Funk” with just that. The lashings of trashy disco and that throbbing bass needed something (or someone) to humanise its filthy neo-funk, and Charles did just that. Jones


92. Sheryl Crow, “If It Makes You Happy”

After allegations that she was simply a pretty mouthpiece for her Tuesday Night Music Club, Sheryl Crow had a lot to prove with her sophomore effort. Originally conceived as a country song by co-writer Jeff Trott, the self-produced lead single, “If It Makes You Happy,” was a pointed departure from the gin-soaked roots-pop of Tuesday Night Music Club, starting with its heavy electric guitar riff and plodding drum beat, but not ending there. Crow’s lyrics are a reflection on the massive success of her debut, with her stint at the muddy, mosquito-ridden Woodstock ’94 festival serving as a metaphorical narrative for the stinging accusations and acrimony that followed. Cinquemani


91. Pavement, “Cut Your Hair”

A forceful middle finger to both the end of hair metal and to the emergence of grunge, Pavement’s “Cut Your Hair” is as relevant today as it was nearly 20 years ago. The indie posturing of today’s music scene is, of course, every bit as image-driven—and the mainstream appropriation of those images—is every bit as shallow as it was in 1994. “I don’t remember a word/But I don’t care, I care, I really don’t care/Did you see the drummer’s hair” are the bitter words of the outsider Stephen Malkmus always had been and always would remain, a cynical assessment of how the machinery of the music industry had broken and a reminder that it’s probably beyond repair. Keefe


90. The B-52’s, “Roam”

Cosmic Thing, an unexpected commercial smash for the B-52’s, derives its beauty from the band’s sincere belief in the healing power of their unbridled goofiness. The album’s happy-go-luckiness may feel indulgent across the album’s 10 tracks, but after the death of Ricky Wilson, the band earned the right to dance their mess around—or as Robert Cristgau perfectly put it, “dance away from the edge of ecocatastrophe” “Roam” is, on the surface, a hippy-dippy tribe’s ode to love and travel, a kissing cousin to the band’s “Revolution Earth,” but the band isn’t simply promoting the sights of ancient and modern world wonders. They may advocate “without wings, without wheels,” but Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s ecstatic harmonies confirm that this is the sound of angels convening, asking everyone to travel within. Gonzalez


89. U2, “Mysterious Ways”

Bono believes in many things, many unachievable, among them world peace, but he’s always sounded less full of it when he sticks to matters of the heart—not unlike literature’s rock star, Salman Rushdie, who once praised Bono for crossing similar frontiers (physical, social, intellectual, and artistic). “Mysterious Ways” is a canny marriage of mystical lyricism and unexpectedly funky, conga-infused percussion, and it is to U2 what The Moor’s Last Sigh is to Rushdie, a gushingly lovelorn ode to isolation and salvation through the love of a woman. The song’s idealistic romanticism would be unforgivable, almost insulting, if Bono’s knees-to-the-floor vocal performance wasn’t so committed or if the production—a marriage of modern and practically ancient styles—didn’t suggest the eternal struggle of love and lust. This is pop music’s idea of a Dead Sea Scroll. Gonzalez


88. Nirvana, “Heart-Shaped Box”

Whether a fossilized relic of the Kurt and Courtney martial saga or an angry paean to children stricken with cancer, the raging torrent of “Heart-Shaped Box” remains one of Nirvana’s most precisely heated songs. Fitted with the standard trappings of Cobain’s stylized delivery, where boredom and sarcasm clash with simmering rage, its fuzz-drenched landscape is supplemented by the tumbling progression of Dave Grohl’s clobbered drums, a thick bassline, and the tug of war between fuzzy rhythm guitar and searing lead, making it one of the hardest songs on an album packed with barely concealed fury. Jesse Cataldo


87. Lauryn Hill, “Lost Ones”

The rhymes are tight, her patois is on point, the beats are thick, and the hook is easy on the ears. With that out of the way, who exactly is “Lost Ones” about? Wyclef? Pras? Both? No matter. As the opener to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the track serves as a palatte cleanser of sorts, a wiping of the slate, a warning not to fuck with L. Boogie so that she can get down to the business of sizing herself up. It’s the song that announced Hill’s arrival as a force to be reckoned with—at least for a year or two. Cinquemani


86. Zhané, “Hey Mr. DJ”

Straight-up, no-bullshit dance music. The duo pronounced “Jah-Nay” let the slack groove thang take you away to a place where the DJ will keep playing that song all night. And even if he or she doesn’t, don’t worry. There’s still a bunch of good SWV, Jade, and Jomanda in the crate to keep you going on and on and on. With a brilliantly repurposed sample from the lesser-known Michael Wycoff quiet-storm classic “Looking Up to You,” “Hey Mr. DJ” is equal parts new jack, disco, and soul, and the brew is intoxicating without any mitigating side effects. Zhané turns the song into their own triumphant answer to Soul II Soul’s inquiry, “However do you want me?” Henderson


85. Nirvana, “Come As You Are”

A stark contrast from Nevermind’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the slow-tempoed, unassuming “Come As You Are” is taut with a seething derision that boils right below its surface, and perhaps no other Nirvana track better captures the ambiguity of Cobain’s satirical wit. The doubling of guitars and vocals throughout also lends the song a menacing apathy, with the band trading in the hammering, fast-paced approach for something altogether more deliberate and cryptic. That haunting quality is, of course, unforgettably aided in part by Cobain’s now-prescient line, part reassurance and part threat: “I swear that I don’t have a gun” Liedel


84. Jay-Z, “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”

Jay-Z’s co-opting of a discordant, already famous showtune is a rare novel endeavor in a genre generally defined by following the leader; it’s pulled off so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget what a ballsy move it was. The transformation of the original’s piano base into a thumping organ creep sets the stage, but it’s undeniably Jay-Z, transparently showing off his executive command by fussing with the levels at the start, which makes the song. The source material and the resulting product may seem diametrically opposed, but they end up being fundamentally about the same thing: forming a common thread of struggles with poverty spun into gold. Cataldo


83. Michael Jackson & Janet Jackson, “Scream”

Jacko was reportedly a huge fan of his sister’s work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, specifically “Rhythm Nation” So it’s no surprise that he would hire the duo to produce for him; what’s surprising is that it took so long. “Scream” is an unrelenting techno-funk workout with the warm, layered harmonies both siblings were known for sheathed beneath clipped, sterile synth beats and swaths of metal guitar. This was nothing new for Michael, being similar in style to his single “Jam,” but he adopted an even angstier tone here, spitting out lyrics aimed at the media’s handling of his sex abuse trial with a vitriol not previously heard. The only moment of release comes during Janet’s hushed vocal bridge, in which she demurely marvels in disgust at “all the injustice” Cinquemani


82. Pavement, “Summer Babe”

A love song reduced to its barest elements, “Summer Babe” is all feeble, trebly guitar and untrammeled despondency, the nonexistent relationship between its queasy narrator and his icy dream woman functioning as a representation of the gulf between the band and pop’s sunnier climes, where boy and girl unite beautifully and effortlessly. On the surface, this seems like a messy, half-assed song, full of loose ends and mumbly vocal drop-offs. But its genius at channeling despair into something that’s witty and wise makes the song a classic, its self-deprecating dejection jibing perfectly with the slack disarray of the music. Cataldo


81. Depeche Mode, “Personal Jesus”

Depeche Mode’s gimmick is one that, after years of repetition, seems ingeniously flimsy, bundling angst and spiritual frustration with sex and pouty gloom. “Personal Jesus” has escaped the mustiness that has enveloped most of the band’s material not by flouting these tactics, but by embodying them so well. Bolstered by Dave Gahan’s repeated imprecation to “reach out and touch faith,” the vocals seem perched on a neutral point between the completely earnest and the bitterly sarcastic, turning what could have been another flat religious diatribe into a thinly dual-tiered assessment of devotion and self-absorption. Cataldo


80. Robin S., “Show Me Love”

A colleague’s all-stomping impersonation of “Show Me Love”—delivered with great fanfare whenever anyone plays this song within a 50-foot earshot—is just about the best defense one can make for this pop-house smash. With the courage and conviction of a drag queen who’s perilously late for the society ball, Robin S. flamboyantly applies her LaBellian grunting to an aggressive production of minimal thumping to produce the ass-iest of come-hither anthems. It’s the “ugliest” song on on our list—and it’s amazing for it. Gonzalez


79. Soundgarden, “Black Hole Sun”

The restrained but psychedelic beauty of “Black Hole Sun” was not only a departure for Soundgarden, but for grunge at large, indicative of the Seattle sound’s transformation into a newly mainstream alternative genre. The track endures beyond its implications on ’90s rock though: Surreal, illusory, and perhaps even seductive, “Black Hole Sun” delivers sinister imagery with its slow-churning rhythm, acting as an ideal foil for Chris Cornell’s searing vocals and playful, scripture-inspired lyrics. “Times are gone for honest men,” he mutters like a bitter preacher, but with a wink: “And sometimes far too long for snakes” Liedel


78. Oasis, “Wonderwall”

The pugnacious artistry of the notoriously feisty Gallagher brothers is on full display in “Wonderwall,” Oasis’s first single to make waves on the U.S. pop charts. Despite its airy, even gentle four-chord acoustic intro and string accompaniments, the song is a particularly belligerent and point-blank ballad, roughly spat with an almost whiny glee by Liam Gallagher. It remains one of Oasis’s best and most influential efforts to date—an encapsulation of the poppy, authentically English bravado the group brought to the alternative scene, and helping to spur on a mid-decade Britpop invasion that included bands like Supergrass and Elastica. Liedel


77. Portishead, “Sour Times”

The ’90s were a fantastic time for morose, woe-is-me music. Disaffect and angst were in, and countless bands were able to cash in on the collective misery and self-pitying teenage mope. But few acts were able to elevate this to a real artful aesthetic the way Portishead did. Their depression cut deeper than that of, say, Garbage, and tracks like “Sour Times” translated that dysthymia into moody, minimalist trip-hop soundscapes. Gasping through lines about how nobody loves her, Beth Gibbons sounds like she has a straight razor held to her forearm, and it’s that on-the-precipice tension that makes “Sour Times” so miserable and so compelling. Keefe


76. Us3, “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”

They got the beats. They got the rhymes. Us3’s sole pop hit, “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),” is a cheerfully funky fusion of jazz and hip-hop—nothing more, nothing less. What it lacks in social consciousness it makes up for in musical brinkmanship: The production’s exciting explosion of frenetic horn riffs, interrupted only by a sick trumpet solo by Gerard Presencer, samples Herbie Hancock and Lou Donaldson, among others, and grooves in scary synchronicity with the uncannily delivered lyrics by one-time member Rahsaan Kelly. The mood is creative, idealistic, and laidback, suggesting the good vibes of A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets. It’s a sweet, slick, funky maelstrom of sound that’s also a time capsule of a gorgeously short-lived musical form. Diddi-diddi bop. Gonzalez


75. The Notorious B.I.G., “Hypnotize”

Few rappers could play the boss as effectively as Biggie, his outsized frame, ever-present cigar, and ridiculous suits matched by one of the most commanding voices in hip-hop. “Hypnotize” found him at the height of these powers, from his opening “Hah!” to the crawling bassline that drags the song down to meet his laconic pace. Few rap songs have the nerve to move this slowly, or function this sparely, with so little moving in the foreground that even Puff Daddy’s hushed ad-libs, normally a unremitted nuisance, feel like wispy atmospheric shading. Cataldo


74. Neutral Milk Hotel, “Holland, 1945”

Hopping from war-torn Europe to modern-day Spain to outer space, “Holland, 1945” spins its World War II reference points into a vibrant, colorful tapestry that never forgets the insistent horror lingering at its core. The most directly biographical track on an album morbidly fixated on Anne Frank’s sad fate, the song bitterly whimpers for a world where death and rot are routinely chosen over life and happiness, a challenge that might feel ineffectual were it not backed by an overdriven guitar and the full weight of the band’s rhythm section. Cataldo


73. Nirvana, “Lithium”

Confession: I couldn’t have been more tardy to the party when it comes to recognizing the impact of Nirvana on pop music. “Lithium” was always my favorite of their songs because it was the one they performed on the MTV Video Music Awards and I loved watching Krist Novoselic take a dinger to the head after tossing his bass guitar up in the air, and was entirely in Dave Grohl’s corner as he mockingly yelled “Hi, Axl!” at the end of their performance. It wasn’t until years later that I came to realize I had also been responding to the elegance of Kurt Cobain’s songwriting. Attitude counts for a lot, but you can’t fake that galvanizing modulation into the chorus’s minor key bitterness: “I love you, I’m not gonna crack” Henderson


72. White Town, “Your Woman”

A one-hit wonder whose other material totally justifies that status, White Town stumbled into a moment of sheer brilliance on “Your Woman,” a single that married a fucked-up horn sample to a funk rhythm section straight out of Prince’s playbook. The sheer catchiness of the song’s arrangement got some adventurous radio programmers on board, but it was the say-what-now gender politics of the song’s lyrics that proved to be most compelling. Hearing Jyoti Mishra’s plaintive tenor croon, “I guess what they say is true/I could never be the right kind of girl for you/I could never be your woman,” remains one of the most subversive moments in ’90s pop. Keefe


71. Snoop Doggy Dogg, “Gin and Juice”

If “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” was Snoop Doggy Dogg’s explicit introduction as a solo artist, then this second single from Doggystyle shed similarly explicit light on his everyday exploits: “Rollin’ down the street, smokin’ indo, sippin’ on gin and juice/Laid back” This snapshot of L.A. lifestyle became a certified G-Funk anthem, served with what had by then become the genre’s token staples. Snoop’s easy-rolling drawl provided the ideal accompaniment to Dr. Dre’s whistling keyboards and rumbling basslines, with “Gin and Juice” yet another indication that—together—these two could do absolutely nothing wrong. Jones


70. Nas, “The World Is Yours”

One of the best examples of a song built on and entirely sustained by a sample, “The World Is Yours” owes almost as much to producer Pete Rock’s tiny Ahmad Jamal snippet as it does to Nas. Borrowing almost exclusively from the jazz pianist’s “I Love Music” while snatching a title from Pan Am’s famous slogan, the song is a wonder of economy, allowing additional time only for a few scratch breakdowns beneath the vocals. The spare backing gives Nas ample space to theorize and motivate while also grounding his loftier tendencies, avoiding the condescending preachiness that poisoned so many of his later tracks. Cataldo


69. The Notorious B.I.G., “Mo Money Mo Problems”

Biggie’s second posthumous #1 single did more than secure the East Coast MC’s place in the rap history books: It ushered in an age where a street-hardened rapper could be a full-stop pop star (Jay-Z, T.I., Lil Wayne: You’re welcome). Chris Rock called “Mo Money Mo Problems” the most popular song that almost no one could relate to, but he’s only right if we believe that Biggie, Ma$e, and Puff Daddy actually regretted their good fortunes. The Diana Ross sample and the terminally catchy Kelly Price chorus spell slim chances for that hypothesis, suffusing the track with too much joy to be read as a straightforward wish for simpler times. Mixing optimism with pragmatic grit, Biggie’s last great single is an anthem for “true players”: the guys who refuse to let haters and fair-weather friends spoil their success. Cole


68. Smashing Pumpkins, “Tonight, Tonight”

Songs by Smashing Pumpkins generally fall within easily definable extremes, erring either on the side of nasty snarl or heady romanticism. This is the peak of the latter, a magical track that whips itself up into a frothy orchestral bluster. Jimmy Chamberlain’s greatest contribution comes in the form of a surging series of drumrolls, which match the ascending strings, as the guitar, usually the band’s dominant voice, lies mostly dormant. Even Billy Corgan’s reedy instrument is urged into higher registers by the climax, which reaches heights the band would never challenge again. Cataldo


67. The Orb, “Little Fluffy Clouds”

Standing in stark contrast to the premillennial tension that marked most of the decade’s great dance music, the Orb’s “Little Fluffy Clouds” posits the ghost in the machine to be none other than Casper. As the vocals suggest, Alex Paterson earns frequent-flyer miles by merely “layering different sounds on top of one another,” with Ricky Lee Jones droning on about the skies in Arizona as guitars sampled from Steve Reich turn a stuttering snare roll into a purple, red, and yellow summer panorama. Rarely has electronica achieved a delicacy like this. You don’t hear music like this anymore, not even in the desert. Henderson


66. Prince and the New Power Generation, “7”

A Bible verse as related by a New World prince, “7” is a lush allegory for the perils of romantic strife, set across deserts and streets of gold and featuring armies, plagues, and angels. Among the fiercest tracks from Prince and the New Power Generation’s Love Symbol Album, this rock soap opera is a predictable cock-storm of funk, the One and Only’s vulnerable, emotion-rich falsetto wielding the same blunt-force trauma as the swords and tambourines that are dropped into the production with the sort of timing that would be corny if it weren’t so swoony. Way before he takes it to church, Prince’s intellect and savoir-faire has saved the day. Gonzalez


65. Belle and Sebastian, “Lazy Line Painter Jane”

Put a gun to my head, and it’s a toss-up between the Ronettes’s “Be My Baby” and “Lazy Line Painter Jane” as my favorite pop song ever, and I owe it all to Emily Gould, the ex-Gawker editor and infamous Jimmy Kimmel sparring partner who first played the song for me while hanging out in the room she shared with a friend of mine during our sophomore year at Kenyon. Listening to the single’s ebullient handclaps, “Boo to the business world!” proclamations, soaring B-section melody, and hetero-flexible lyrical hook, that year in college sucked just a little bit less for five glorious minutes thanks to the power of a note-perfect pop song. Keefe


64. The Prodigy, “Smack My Bitch Up”

Many struggled not to dismiss “Smack My Bitch Up” as extreme misogyny set to a boisterous jungle beat, even with the twist at the end of its music video or the fact that women on dance floors everywhere would gladly throw their hands in the air and sing along to its direct and clearly audible punchline. And in many ways, the whirlwind of controversy surrounding these unrepeatable—though obviously not unprintable—lyrics conspired to detract from the fact that Liam Howlett had indeed forged an indelibly rousing dance number. This was a feral sound that needed a shocking centrepiece, and it found one, but history will remember “Smack My Bitch Up” for its controversy rather than its deranged, raucous groove. Jones


63. Primal Scream, “Loaded”

If ever there was a man who summed up the Madchester culture’s desire to cut loose and party past the early hours, it’s quite ironic that it happened to be Peter Fonda. The truncated quote from The Wild Angels that kicks off “Loaded” is the perfect précis of life in the Madchester era—albeit out of context: “We wanna be free to do what we wanna do…And we wanna get loaded…And we wanna have a good time…We’re gonna have a party” This is followed by a sumptuous bout of horn-fuelled funk, a sonorous bassline, and powerful gospel vocals, which in effect plays like the perfect soundtrack to those wanting to get loaded, have a good time, and have a party. Jones


62. Fugees, “Fu-Gee-La”

For most, “Fu-Gee-La” was their introduction to the Fugees, and in many ways, the song remains the most concise and adrenalized representation of the band’s unique musical and philosophical humanism. It’s the song that most audaciously justified their name. These highly adaptable and resourceful refugees made art out of appropriating often obscure lyrics and sounds, turning them more than 90 degrees, as in Lauryn Hill transforming the “Oooh la la la”-ing butterflies in Teena Marie’s stomach into a siren’s song of spiritual elation. I could do without the Charmin, but if I had their guts, I would tattoo their greatest line—“In the battle lost my finger, mic became my arm”—onto my body. Gonzalez


61. Mariah Carey, “Fantasy”

Mariah’s “Fantasy” remains one of the finest examples of reworking an extensive sample into a fully realized pop masterpiece. The funky, warbling strains of Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” come ringing through immediately, and there’s no great effort to disguise any of the borrowed elements. And though the stripped-down remix, which brilliantly entwines the bridge portions with O.D.B’s absurd rap (“Japan, are you in the house?”), is considered by some to be the definitive version, the original is escapism perfected, a summer bubblegum gem with a sweet, flawless vocal line driven by a diva in her prime. Liedel


60. Public Enemy, “911 Is a Joke”

He started out as Public Enemy’s comic relief, a court jester with an oversized clock around his neck who could actually rap when he wanted to. And considering the extent to which he devolved into a pop-culture punchline, thanks to spawning the “Flavorverse” of trashy VH1 reality shows and sitting for an especially mean-spirited Comedy Central roast, it’s easy to forget that there was once a real wit behind Flavor Flav’s comedy. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the gallows humor of “911 Is a Joke,” a party jam that calls the LAPD out on its institutional racism. The line “They don’t care/’Cause they stay paid anyway” is loaded with genuine conflicts of class and race, and it takes actual skill—genius, even—to couch those issues as comedy. Keefe


59. Björk, “All Is Full of Love”

Though it has been as oft-remixed as any other Björk single from the landmark Homogenic set, no version quite achieves the ethereal effect that the album mix of “All Is Full of Love” does. Coming off the tail-end of “Pluto,” a sonic threnody for a suicidal fan, Björk’s open-source, beat-free echo chamber is both absolution and resurrection. Building quietly from a warm hexadecimal hum that’s the diametric opposite of sensory deprivation, the song accrues momentum as Björk simultaneously frees herself from the burden of expectation until cascades of shimmering, opal-hued harpsichord notes emerge from a curtain of glimmering white noise. Henderson


58. My Bloody Valentine, “To Here Knows When”

Among the most exquisite pieces of experimental rock ever recorded, “To Here Knows When” doesn’t quite encapsulate all that was great about My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, but it comes close. The droning guitar licks, the hypnotic swirl of vocals, the simulated flurry of electronic sounds—it’s all here, and usually all at once. My Bloody Valentine could sometimes overwhelm the ears entirely, but “To Here Knows When” walks the line, never quite devolving into noise. A minute into the song, one of Kevin Shields’s guitar lines peals out like a jet plane engine while he and Belinda Butcher sigh in unison. It’s an evocative pairing of human and machine noises whose beauty is enhanced by the sonic density, by an underlying threat of unintelligibly which imbues even the most intimidating movements with a sense of fragility. Cole


57. Pulp, “Common People”

An unashamed working-class anthem penned by Britain’s screwy poet laureate, “Common People” revelled in all of the grotty culture staples of which the nation became ironically proud in the ’90s. Britpop was conquering all in its path by 1995, which made this celebration of the humbler elements of Britain’s nine-to-five culture a refreshing shift away from the genre’s tendency for overblown pageantry. Jarvis Cocker spills the beans on a chance meeting with a well-to-do college student, and perfectly sums up Britain’s collective insecurities about punching above our weight and, on the other side of the coin, the joys in “slumming it” every now and again. Jones


56. Blur, “Girls & Boys”

Were it merely a withering take on ’90s sexual omnivoresness, or a snappy vessel for the semi-ironic safe-sex message that seems to linger at its edges, Blur’s first hit might have seemed almost instantly stale. But it’s the tortuous, hypnotic hook, its roadblock arrangement standing in defiance of the song’s litany of throbbing motifs (stabbing guitar, pulsed hi-hat, bouncing synth) that cements the song as timeless. Challenging the limits of catchiness while remaining insistently unforgettable, the morass of the chorus stands out as one of the decade’s finest pop moments. Cataldo


55. Weezer, “Buddy Holly”

They’ve always walked a fine line between designs on power-pop greatness and embarrassing novelty, and “Buddy Holly” is perhaps Weezer’s most deft balancing act. Years before nerd couture became an obnoxious celebrity trend, Rivers Cuomo and his wide-framed glasses turned “I look just like Buddy Holly” into a self-deprecating sing-along, deflecting some of the attention from his complicated relationship with his public image via the single’s Happy Days-inspired video. While it took a few more albums before Weezer finally jumped the shark, “Buddy Holly” stands as their punchiest hit. Keefe


54. Smashing Pumpkins, “Disarm”

Smashing Pumpkins’s most personal song—essentially my MTV generation’s answer to “Cat’s in the Cradle”—proves that there’s a fine line between a serial killer and a singer. Because the cherub-faced Billy Corgan’s poetry is so often metaphoric, it makes sense that the song’s lyrics (namely “Cut that little child”) were thought to be about abortion, but “The killer in me is the killer in you” seems like the unmistakable cry of an abuse victim. The production suggests a gothic fairy tale, while Corgan’s vocal performance gives haunting expression not only to his feelings of perseverance, but to his obvious fears of repeating the worst chapters in his past. Gonzalez


53. DJ Shadow, “Midnight in a Perfect World”

Either the most dour New Year’s celebration of all time or the most comfortably numbed comedown anthem ever. Either way, it’s the most fun you’ll ever have on the cusp of either falling asleep or passing out. DJ Shadow’s rhapsody in black stitches drum breaks from a number of tracks atop a liberal sample from Pekka Pohjola’s “The Madness Subsides,” and the result is a truly intoxicating bit of introspective sensationalism, a microcosmic slice from Shadow’s monstrous Endtroducing… LP, a skittering cascade of percussive interjections and, above all, a lumbering slow-motion fall into the muted bliss of a night well spent. Henderson


52. Erykah Badu, “Tyrone”

Erykah Badu is sensitive about her art, but her laughter let’s you know that she has a sense of humor. That alone makes her one of our richest afrobellas. But Ms. Badu is more than that: her spoken-word technique is precise, her hooks uniquely catchy, her rhymes both sassy and assy. I could listen to her all day, and there was a time in 1997 when this playful admonishment of a cheap, selfish, unnamed boyfriend (Tyrone is the best friend she no doubt resents for encouraging his bad behavior) exhausted my last CD player. What’s especially marvelous about the song is that, while Badu makes clear that there’s no gray area here, her arrangements, structures, and harmonies are alive with possibility: Though she would have told Whitney that it’s not right and it’s not okay, she would have also given her a million ways to kick Bobby out the door. Gonzalez


51. Alanis Morissette, “You Oughta Know”

In a seething, typically semi-delusional letter to Spin’s Bob Guccione Jr. in 1996, Courtney Love called Alanis Morissette “a Product of Madonnas [sic] Fatal Flaw, contrivance at every level.” What with Alanis being a former pop tart and with Wilson Phillips producer Glen Ballard on board as songwriting partner, it’s hard to disagree with Court’s assessment. But it’s not Alanis’s fault that she was able to harness the rage of a movement that had already sold itself out and spit out a perfect pop song that became the defining moment of ’90s Female Angst. That Hole was never able to sell 16 million must have been a jagged little pill to swallow. Cinquemani


50. Public Enemy, “Welcome to the Terrordome”

So much of Public Enemy’s militant shtick now reads as bullshit, especially with Flava Flav dissolving into a minstrel-show stereotype and Chuck D relaxing into armchair radicalism. Yet it’s impossible to argue with something as mean and animated as “Welcome to the Terrordome,” so packed with jagged pieces that it’s hard to know where to focus. Fully exemplifying the group’s violent grab-bag sound, the samples here come fast and loose, shot into the mix with little regard for meaning or context. They contribute to an atmosphere that’s willingly chaotic, a twitching patchwork of found sounds, vocal clips, and misbegotten snatches of conversation. Cataldo


49. Radiohead, “Fake Plastic Trees”

So what if Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz dismissed it as “the maudlin music of the university station” and asked, “What is it about college and cry-baby music?” There were a lot of things that Cher didn’t get, and Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” was chief among them. It’s a single that aims for epic and hits its mark dead-center, not because of Thom Yorke’s cryptic lyrics, but because of the slow-building crescendo of Jonny Greenwood’s guitars and the structural perfection of the arrangement. Just as Yorke sings, “I can’t help the feeling/I could blow through the ceiling,” the whole production does exactly that before gravity inevitably wears him out and brings it all back to Earth. Keefe


48. Sonic Youth, “Kool Thing”

For a song that is essentially a vengeful invective against LL Cool J, the breezy, punchy “Kool Thing” is a largely angst-free slice of punk rock. The song would be many listeners’ first exposure to Sonic Youth, and the band did not disappoint: Kim Gordon smirks her way through the track’s aloof-cool vocal parts, fighting the growling pack of guitars and Chuck D’s wildly disjointed cameo for the spotlight. Together, the three parts construct the ultimate parody of fame-fueled chauvinism, and no matter the personal anecdote that fuels it, “Kool Thing” is a snarky, lead-in anthem for the decade’s irreverent youth. Liedel


47. Jeff Buckley, “Last Goodbye”

The most commercially successful single of Jeff Buckley’s career, “Last Goodbye” has retained a purity that his version of “Hallelujah” has since lost after being whored across countless television montages and a string of woefully insincere cover versions. It’s easier, then, to turn to “Last Goodbye” as a fitting eulogy to his wonderful talent. Buckley’s singing is, perhaps, the area in which he was most gifted, and here he sashays between his gorgeous falsetto and a raw emotive power with what seems like relative ease. That few singers have since matched his extraordinary vocals proves that this was indeed no mean feat, and only further emphasizes the tragedy of losing such a glorious talent. Jones


46. Erykah Badu, “On & On”

Boasting the roundest bassline since Digable Planets got cool like dat, “On & On” is Erykah Badu’s mission statement from a higher plane. Her money might be gone, she might be all alone, but she’s feeling high and mighty, and the siren song pours forth from her honeyed lips like a fount of alien wisdom. Backed by a languorously snapping, swinging backbeat and expansive, half-heard piano chords that repeatedly collapse back on themselves, “On & On” is as sonically introspective as its creator, a woman who can believably claim to have walked the entire cipher of Earth, clear her throat, utter “Goddammit, I’ma sing my song,” and still seem like she’s hiding more than she’s revealing. Henderson


45. Michael Jackson, “Remember the Time”

Back before he lost “it” (that is, the ability to remain relevant and produce quality songs with a prolific ease only few could muster), MJ gave us gems like “Remember the Time” Jackson turns in his most sincere, low-key vocal performance since “She’s Out of My Life,” perfectly matching his delicate, unaffected voice with the song’s snappy funk percussion and razor-sharp jazz embellishments. But out of all its great qualities, the bittersweet but lighthearted dance track is most memorable for catching the King of Pop in a rare but refreshing state of candor, his voice managing to remain sincere without losing any of its beguiling qualities. Liedel


44. Björk, “Bachelorette”

This is where we reach peak Björk: Debut and Post were nothing if not idiosyncratic, but on Homogenic, the Icelandic singer envisioned a genre all her own. “Bacheleorette” completes a triptych that began with “Human Behaviour” and continued with “Isobel,” and if the earlier songs demonstrate Björk’s continuous interest in the electronic and classical avant-garde, then “Bachelorette” shows her pursuing those influences to the outer limits of pop. Impressive as it is, the song’s cataclysmic arrangement of beats and strings is ultimately overshadowed by Björk’s searing vocal; typically restrained, she finally unleashes the cosmic wail that would power Vespertine and Medúlla’s most transcendent moments. I can’t imagine how anyone could hear this song and persist, as does much of the music press, in describing Björk as a pixie or a nymph. She sounds like she’s 10 stories tall. Cole


43. Foo Fighters, “Everlong”

There’s a definite sense of irony in the fact that Dave Grohl had to return to his position behind the drum kit in order to finally escape from beneath Kurt Cobain’s giant shadow. His thunderous drumming on this song’s impassioned crescendo affords “Everlong” a balls-to-the-wall gravity that was missing in almost all of the Foo’s previous work, and this marked the point where the wider world began to take them seriously as a band. Of course, “Everlong” wasn’t all about the drumming: This was a beast of a single, starting and stopping with a series of delirious riffs and delectably somber verses. Jones


42. Madonna, “Secret”

Despite the common misconception that she often sings about sex, Madonna’s songs aren’t always sexy. “Secret” is perhaps the finest exception to that rule. As it slinks along a simple R&B backbeat and an unfussy acoustic guitar figure, “Secret” is also one of the most organic-sounding singles of Madonna’s career, taking its sweet time to get where it’s going and not giving up too much along the way. The arrangement gets off on being withholding, and, at least for one glorious single, so does Madonna: When she sings, “You knew all along/What I never wanted to say,” she sounds positively rapturous. Keefe


41. Fugees, “Killing Me Softly”

“Fu-Gee-La,” stern and topical, made Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Pras Michel the faces of a new kind of hip-hop, but it was The Score’s second single, “Killing Me Softly,” that won them audiences who, prior to the song’s release, may never have cared about hip-hop of any variety. By reworking Roberta Flack’s classic “Killing Me Softly with His Song” into a spare and heartfelt showcase for Hill’s voice, the Fugees dropped their tough exterior and made personal the raw emotions that had always propped up their pleas on behalf of outcasts. Politically minded MCs have never been in short supply, but few have understood as clearly as the Fugees that hip-hop needs heart as much as it needs conscience and intellect. Cole


40. The Cardigans, “Lovefool”

Maybe because its popularity in the U.S. was in part predicated on its inclusion on the zeitgeisty soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Swedish band the Cardigans’s hit “Lovefool” is remembered as one of our generations most valiant stabs at post-irony. Nice try. Did anyone actually listen to those lyrics? While there’s no question that the basement-disco pulse seems as innocent as a pink-penned note reading “Do you like me? Check ’Yes’ or ’No,’” the sinking desperation of the chorus tells a creepier tale, especially for anyone who has, in real life, been told, “Pretend you’re a necrophiliac” Henderson


39. En Vogue, “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)”

And now it’s time for a breakdown. New Jack stepped aside for New Jill thanks in large part to the ubiquity of the funky divas’ sweetly harmonizing summer juggernaut. As though it had any choice in the matter. In true if-it-ain’t-broke fashion, “My Lovin’” returns to the same James Brown jam (“The Payback”) that set it off for the quartet at the decade’s open with “Hold On,” only this time around, the arms that held onto their love have grown weary of grasping at air—or have grown tired of flashing the finger of shame. En Vogue toyingly vacillate between second- and third-person so that you’re never quite sure whether they’re speaking on their one or someone else’s behalf. The groove is so all-encompassing, it’s probably both. Henderson


38. The Cranberries, “Linger”

Nowhere does novelty carry more weight with critics than in retrospectives like this one. Identifying songs that are path-breaking or influential in addition to being enjoyable in their own right seems like one of the only sure ways to tell the great songs from the merely very good. But the case for a song like “Linger” is mushy subjectivity all the way down. There’s nothing here that the Smiths or the Stone Roses didn’t do first, and so the song keeps or forfeits its spot in the canon entirely on the strength of Noel Hogan’s hooks and Dolores O’Riordan’s singing. And what strengths those are. In terms of its structure and pacing, “Linger” is a triumph of pop engineering, but the majestic interplay between orchestral strings and acoustic guitars is more alchemy than science, and the way that O’Riordan draws out “You’ve got me wrapped around your finger” so that the last word alone becomes the song’s best hook. Well, that’s pure magic. Cole


37. Radiohead, “Creep”

Long before they were the saviors of rock, Radiohead was a bunch of a loner weirdos, and Thom Yorke was their misfit leader, pining for a girl he could only approach via song. That song is rivaled only by “Every Breath You Take” as the ulitmate kind-of-obsessive/kind-of-romantic crush anthem, with guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s perfectly timed blasts of electricity turning it from slightly creepy to threatening. And has any other verse ever captured the narcissistic self-loathing that is the essence of unrequited love better than “I want to have control/I want a perfect body/I want a perfect soul/I want you to notice when I’m not around/You’re so fucking special/I wish I was special”? Cinquemani


36. Madonna, “Deeper and Deeper”

Among Madonna’s finest achievements, the angsty pop anthem “Deeper and Deeper” is both an acute distillation of Erotica’s smut-glam decadence and the singer’s lifelong blond ambition. The song, like its video, practically plays out as an autobiography of the singer’s life: Atop sambalicious disco, Madonna delivers a burning, poignant fairy tale of yearning and escape in which she plays both Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. Armond White once praised Madonna for how she took “outsider art inside herself”—which is to say, justified it by personalizing it. The uncontrolled, fierce tension of the song derives from the feeling that Madonna is taking a plunge into some hedonistic abyss of her own liberated, uninhibited making. Gonzalez


35. Björk, “Jóga”

With “Jóga,” the lead single from her third album, Homogenic, Björk practically invented baroque electronica. Though the song is an ode to her homeland and best friend (for whom the track is titled), and features one of the Icelandic singer-songwriter’s fiercest vocal performances to date (a “state of emergency,” indeed), Björk’s sweeping string arrangement is its true star. Aside from some subtle electronic skittering, Björk and producer Mark Bell’s volcanic beats don’t even erupt completely until two minutes in—proof that, while she’s become the undisputed queen of electronic pop, genre is simply another manmade construct for which Björk has no use. Cinquemani


34. Madonna, “Erotica”

Madonna accepts the burden of her throaty, spent-from-touring voice, which makes Erotica’s taunting, aggressive lyrics—an elaborate exploration of sex, from seduction to disease—feel unmistakably honest. The title track, whose opening put-a-record-on scratchiness mirrors that of Madonna’s most divisive instrument, is the singer’s invitation to the dance, a slithering, sinister snake rising from a gaudily ornate chalice. The beats are, by design, hypnotic—at once alluring and devious. With “Erotica,” Madonna promises to get you off, but not without giving you something. Gonzalez


33. Blur, “Song 2”

While cheeky pop-rock has been big business in the U.K. since, at least, the Smiths, we Americans take our Brit rock earnest and anthemic, and the more so the better: Oasis was a big deal, Radiohead was a bigger deal, and alas, there seems to be no escaping Coldplay. Blur’s “Song 2” was nothing if not anthemic, but ’90s rock didn’t come any snarkier. A sneering send-up of American grunge, “Song 2” cut its sardonic lyrics with a cascade of power chords and a brainless “Woo-hoo!” chorus that sounded awesome no matter how many car commercials we heard it on. As it turned out, Damon Albarn at his dumbest was also his least dispensable, which maybe explains why he never held Americans’ attention in the same way until he started playing electro-pop with a band of cartoon characters. Cole


32. U2, “One”

The cool allure of “One” is evident just from its opening riff, where the Edge’s easy, liquid guitar manages somehow to sizzle and slither in the brief space of a few notes. Gaining even more mystique for purportedly inspiring a weary U2 to avoid a breakup, the bluesy, slow-burning ballad remains one of the band’s finest efforts at grand, emotive rock. Without resorting to the anthemic clichés that came to define them in the decade that followed, Bono and company simultaneously deliver intimacy, power, and precision, taking the conflicted premise of “With or Without You” to more mature, and infinitely more graceful, heights. Liedel


31. Massive Attack, “Teardrop”

Like hardcore and grunge before it, trip-hop seemed fated to express a particular zeitgeist—in this case, “pre-millennial tension,” a specifically yuppie-ish subgenre of regular old angst that made crowded cities and computers into signifiers of abject dread. Massive Attack’s Mezzanine is a near-perfect distillation of that generational malaise—all of it, that is, except for “Teardrop,” an oasis of emotional directness in a song cycle preoccupied with mechanical alienation. Massive Attack’s typical claustrophobia is swapped out for a spacious, piano-based arrangement, while Elizabeth Fraser’s most unaffectedly human vocal performance to date is as hypnotic as anything she did with the Cocteau Twins. Massive Attack spent the ’90s articulating their generation’s directionless foreboding, but with “Teardrop,” they did what they could to soothe it. Cole


30. George Michael, “Freedom 90”

On its surface, George Michael’s “Freedom 90” may have been a rejection of all things image, but when he sang, “There’s someone else I’ve got to be,” it was clear he was also struggling with a different kind of identity crisis. The message is obvious in retrospect: I’m here, I’m queer, get used to it. In the long run, Michael’s vow of loyalty (“I won’t let you down/I will not give you up/Gotta have some faith in the sound”) wasn’t reciprocated by the public, but “Freedom” is still one of the best soul songs of the decade, pairing his own approximation of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” with piano, guitar, and a killer bassline. And if the song (and video) weren’t filled with enough references and symbols, its chorus also makes a nod to Michael’s former duet partner Aretha Franklin’s “Think (Freedom)”—the copyright infringement-avoiding difference being that the Queen of Soul’s final “freedom!” goes up while George’s, uh, goes down. Cinquemani


29. Wu-Tang Clan, “Protect Ya Neck”

The Wu-Tang Clan were the certified kings of belligerent posse rap, and “Protect Ya Neck” was quite possibly the jewel in their crown. From Inspectah Deck down, the track is choc-a-bloc with unorthodox rhyme schemes and some truly awe-inspiring wordplay. Deck stands out for his reference-heavy introduction: “I smoke on the mic like smokin’ Joe Frazier/The hellraiser, raisin’ hell with the flavor/Terrorize a jam like troops in Pakistan/Swingin’ through your town like your neighbourhood Spider-Man” Everything from this moment on is just a formality, the bar set exceedingly high and rolling on with an unremitting momentum. Jones


28. Mazzy Star, “Fade Into You”

In the early ’90s, it seemed like anything was possible—at least on pop radio. Anything including a folky waltz like psychedelic dream-pop band Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” crossing over from the mod rock charts to mainstream radio in a big way. With singer Hope Sandoval’s plaintive, listless vocals and an arrangement in which pedal steel and slide guitar figure prominently, the song was an unlikely hit, but one that, among a slew of alt-rock one-hit wonders that emerged in the early-to-mid ’90s, was able to transcend its era’s trappings thanks, in part, to its classic structure and timeless melody. Cinquemani


27. Radiohead, “Paranoid Android”

The world’s first glimpse of OK Computer was this six-minute epic, a twisting, churning tribulation that essentially amounted to Radiohead’s own “A Day in the Life” “Paranoid Android” is a confoundingly brilliant piece, a four-part atlas of Thom Yorke’s naked, howling emotions, mutated guitar riffs, and quickly morphing dynamics, rarely held down by its weighty contents. From the song’s ease of change from rabid horror to pure ecstasy, or even Yorke equating modern yuppie culture to the crumbling Roman Empire, “Paranoid Android” is both a ferocious space-rock odyssey and a tantalizing promise of OK Computer’s—and Radiohead’s—imminent greatness. Liedel


26. Beck, “Where It’s At”

“That was a good drum break” Yes, it was, and the horn break toward the end of the track deserves similar praise. The giddy “Where It’s At” was a useful lead single for Odelay because of its utterly harebrained composition, hinting at the album’s feral unpredictability while traversing sounds that became gradually more bizarre as the song nears its agitated conclusion. On numerous occasions throughout, Beck claims he’s armed merely with “two turntables and a microphone,” but that may just be one of the decade’s grossest understatements: This is a dizzying hodgepodge of multifarious sounds, a pounding headache of madcap styles, pinned together by peculiar samples and a buoyant organ hook. Jones


25. Radiohead, “Karma Police”

Pinpointing the kernel of paranoia underlying Ok Computer’s existential dread, “Karma Police” imagines a world where everyone’s insides are laid bare, their souls ripe for criticism and judgment. Whether the karma police were agents of a dystopian future, a politically correct present, or some of Thom Yorke’s inner demons is impossible to say. It’s this kind of elusive ambiguity that makes the band’s declaration of millennial angst less a moldering artifact than an eerie document matching personal with public, one man’s internal fears dovetailing with the dominant concerns of a time. Cataldo


24. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”

The Ann Peebles sample makes for a memorable hook, obviously, but what Missy proved on her first time out was that she able to do more with nothing than anybody else in the game. “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” is barely a song, with little more than an otherworldly bassline to back the “I Can’t Stand the Rain” sample and Missy’s spare, juvenile rhymes. But damned if Missy can’t hold our attention. From the “Can we get freaky tonight” line that she unexpectedly sings in the opening verse to the is-she-serious-with-this-shit “Who got the keys to the jeep?” sound effects, she puts on one hell of a show. Nineties hip-hop was often defined by its excesses, but Missy’s brand of minimalism was no less of a spectacle. Keefe


23. Massive Attack, “Unfinished Sympathy”

Massive Attack might be the quintessential trip-hop group, but I prefer to think of “Unfinished Sympathy” as metaphysical disco. Shara Nelson’s formidable wail punches right through the track’s gloomy snythscapes, and when she executes her most daring runs, her soprano seems to levitate miles above the grimy beats. At first, Nelson bares her broken heart like she’s Donna Summer or Gloria Gaynor, but her lament soon takes on creepier dimensions: “Like a soul without a mind/In a body without a heart/I’m missing every part” For the finale, the canned disco strings bloom into orchestral glory that their compressed MIDI counterparts suggest but never convey—fitting, as “Unfinished Sympathy” itself delves fearlessly into the raw emotional space that every disco torch song takes for granted but which even the best ones often reduce to kitsch. Cole


22. Janet Jackson, “If”

If janet. found Miss Jackson asserting her right to have an orgasm the likes of which would dwarf your puny muscular spasms, the ruthless dance rock of “If” is the proof. Aided immeasurably by a Supremes sample filtered enough to suggest a cybernetic logjam, “If” ain’t no question mark. It prowls, marking its prey, staking its claim, going down-duh-down-down-down-duh-down-down on you while playing with your mind. More metallic than carnal, “If” really peaks when it reaches the sweet harmonies of the bridge before plunging headlong into the crunching paradox of the chorus. If she was your girl, she might treat you better than she claims. But you wouldn’t sweat half as much. Henderson


21. Portishead, “Glory Box”

Second only to its flawless production, which includes a sample of Issac Hayes’s “Ike’s Rap II,” is Beth Gibbons’s impeccable lyrics and vocal performance on “Glory Box.” Her voice sounding like it’s coming out of an antique radio, she’s at once coquettish and despondent, like a lounge singer delivering her final torch song before slinking off to her dressing room to drown her sorrow in booze and heroin. Her voice blossoms with momentary optimism during the second verse (“A thousand flowers could bloom!”) and, of course, during the song’s rousing chorus: “Give me a reason to love you/Give me a reason to be a woman.” A post-feminist anthem from the hungry, seedy depths of lust. Cinquemani


20. Weezer, “Say It Ain’t So”

For at least one track on The Blue Album, Weezer found soul, as the bluesy “Say It Ain’t So” channels the quartet’s nerdy agony into a slow-burning narrative on familial drama and unrequited anger. Yet despite the serious lyrical turn, Weezer sacrifices none of their singular quirks, as Rivers Cuomo essentially sings of beer-induced guilt while fueled by the band’s preferred strain of chunky loud-soft dynamics. Weezer is in perfect form here: Clean, almost jazzy guitar strikes greet listeners before pedaling into a wonderfully husky distortion, matching Cuomo’s wry visions with naked rock n’ roll power. Liedel


19. Aaliyah, “Are You That Somebody?”

What did they say when peanut butter first met jelly? On paper, the idea of an Aaliyah and Timbaland collaboration sounds like a match made in hell, but this seminal track of the ’90s stands as a triumph of rhythmic counterpointing. Timbaland’s chunky everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production would be a total earsore if it weren’t so gleefully goofy (its cooing baby anticipates the equally cartoonish laughing chorus of Justin Timberlake’s “My Love”), suggesting throughout as if it were in relentless pursuit of Aaliyah’s coyly smooth—deceptively detached—vocals. Theirs is a staggering back-and-forth, a hot-like-fire meeting of funky, beatboxing hip-hop and velveteen R&B. Gonzalez


18. OutKast, “Rosa Parks”

How many hip-hop songs do you know that feature a totally straight-faced harmonica break? OutKast’s two MCs will play just about anything for laughs, but they’ve always been serious about their musical experiments, here making roots music and ATLien hip-hop sound as appealing a blend of Southern staples as whiskey and lemonade. Lyrically, the song straddles novelty and flat-out brilliance even tighter than “Hey Ya” Both André 3000 and Big Boi could lay claim to the title of hip-hop’s wickedest wits, and the basic lyrical conceit of “Rosa Parks” is in such audaciously poor taste that getting indignant and getting down seem like equally appropriate responses. And eclectic as their catalogue would become, OutKast never did another funk-country jam—fitting for a duo that tossed off new styles as readily as lesser MCs rattle off punchlines. Cole


17. 2Pac featuring Dr. Dre, “California Love”

Thank Roger Troutman and the talk boxing he does on “California Love”—e.g., all of the lines about the various L.A. neighborhoods that know how to party—for the advent of Auto-Tune as a hook. The idea may have been novel at the time, sure, and there’s no way that Dr. Dre, in mixing “California Love,” could have predicted the likes of T-Pain and Ke$ha and how they would make Top 40 unlistenable. But the talk boxing effect on Troutman’s crooning is actually in service of the song’s production; it isn’t just an end unto itself. Floating atop one of Dre’s most aggressive beats, Troutman’s lines provide a proper setting for 2Pac’s and Dre’s traded verses. “California Love” may not be 2Pac’s deepest cut, but it finds two hip-hop giants near the absolute top of their games. Keefe


16. Madonna, “Ray of Light”

Once the Material Girl made it her mission to bring electronica to the masses, she could have named her collaborator. Her decision to work with William Orbit shows that, for all the flack she’s faced for “appropriation,” her interest in underground dance music is deep and not wholly commercial. Madonna discovered techno just as she turned 40 and took up Kabbalah, and listening to “Ray of Light,” it’s easy to imagine Madonna finding in rave culture not just a new image, but a way of expressing her spiritual awakening. The beat is restless and Madonna sings breathlessly, but she exudes contentment: “I feel like I just got home!” Her emotional warmth is what establishes the song as a standout single even in a catalogue as replete with classics as Madonna’s. Cole


15. BLACKstreet featuring Dr. Dre, “No Diggity”

I’ve had a few arguments with a close friend I consider to be something of an authority on ’90s R&B about whether or not BLACKstreet’s “No Diggity” is superior to Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack” in terms of combining straightforward R&B, new jack swing, and hip-hop. Her argument tends to boil down to a bias toward music from the U.K., where Morrison’s single was the bigger hit, while my position is to issue a challenge to think of another single that makes better use of its sample as a hook than does “No Diggity” That little half-hum, lifted from Bill Withers’s “Grandma’s Hands,” that runs through the song is simply the most voracious earworm of the ’90s. Keefe


14. Dr. Dre, “Nuthin’ But a ’G’ Thang”

It may have Dr. Dre’s name on the tin, but “Nuthin’ But a ’G’ Thang” belongs to a young Snoop Doggy Dogg (he even takes the sole songwriting credit). The lazy keyboard line and warm, walking bassline are seemingly tailor-made for Snoop’s languid flow, the perfect arena for his queerly pitched self-appraisals. This single, more than any other of The Chronic’s big numbers, manages to effortlessly glide along that fine line between smooth and sleaze (in the wrong hands, it could quite easily have sounded like the backing track to a dodgy porno flick), and in doing so serves as the finest pointer to the G-Funk sound. Jones


13. Beck, “Loser”

Upon its meteoric rise, “Loser” was labeled as the anthem of a generation, but the track always seemed to play as an outsider’s self-embrace of his estranged status away from any particular movement. Beck’s opening assertion (“In the time of chimpanzees, I was a monkey”) and his subsequent career diverging from the alterna-rock mainstream appears to confirm that suspicion, and to this day, the trippy “Loser”—steeped in ex-hippy folk counterculture and hip-hop experimentalism—remains the type of odd, genre-bending piece that would belong to a one-hit wonder destined to disappear into alterna-folk obscurity. Fortunately, it was simply Beck’s opening barrage in a strange, fruitful career of subverting musical norms. Liedel


12. Smashing Pumpkins, “1979”

The song’s functional exploration of high school social mores may have seemed spot-on at the time of its release, but “1979” now functions as an exercise in reflexive nostalgia, casting a rosy sheen on the bitterness of teen angst. Many of the band’s songs effectively merged romance with sorrow, but none better than this one. Aided by its famously evocative video, “1979” will forever pluck the wistful chords of those longing to be young, anxious, and miserable once again, masterfully evoking a time when the world seemed huge and uniformly frustrating. Cataldo


11. Deee-Lite, “Groove Is in the Heart”

When I forced my esteemed colleague Ed Gonzalez to listen to Betty Boo’s Boomania for consideration for the albums half of this feature, he likened it to sitting on a Whoopee cushion for half an hour. A ringing endorsement if I ever heard one, and it’s also an apt description of Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart,” a sampladelic collage of breakbeats, cowbells, and, uh, the sounds of Eva Gabor getting goosed, all compiled from sources as disparate as the soundtrack to Blow-Up and an intructional belly-dancing record from the ’60s. The chill that’s spilled up your back? Yeah, that’s the slide whistle from Vernon Butch’s 1979 single “Get Up” The song is a world fusion of funk, house, soul, hip-hop, and salsa that only a trio comprised of a bell-bottomed club kid from the midwest, a vinyl-bin scavenger from Japan, and a house DJ from Kiev, Ukraine could concoct. Cinquemani


10. Madonna, “Vogue”

Much has been written (specifically on this site) about the cultural impact of the appropriation of queer and nonwhite motifs in Madonna’s “Vogue,” so I’ll focus instead on the song’s musical archaeology and influence. Lest I completely ignore its substance, Madonna’s message is clear (“Beauty is where you find it”), but the track’s origins are part and parcel with its star’s mining of gay club trends and Old Hollywood: Inspired by the Salsoul Orchestra’s “Ooh, I Love It (Love Break)” by way of Danny Krivit’s remix of MFSB’s “Love Is the Message,” the song has a family tree that even includes producer/DJ Shep Pettibone’s remix of Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” and serves as a sort of musical map of disco. Pettibone recorded “Vogue” with Madonna as a B-side for her single “Keep It Together,” making its impact all the more impressive (it would go on to inspire a glut of pop-house copycats) and begging the question: If disco died a decade earlier, what the fuck was this big, gay, fuscia drag-queen boa of a dance song sitting on top of the charts for a month for? Cinquemani


9. Björk, “Hyperballad”

In “Hyperballad,” Björk confesses to a puzzling ritual: She rises each morning to indulge her destructive side, tossing household items off a cliff and observing their plummet before returning to the comfort of her lover. She imagines herself taking the big dive too, but never actually jumps. After all, as she assures over the song’s perfect club chorus, she’s doing this for us. Björk’s lyrical Rubik’s Cube is endlessly interpretable, but however powerfully it insists on the tension between love and individuality, its composition is all Romantic reconciliation. Björk’s cosmopolitan pop sensibility makes room for disco, baroque pop, and acid house, while her singular voice eventually dissolves into the song’s grandiose strings. If she senses something tragic in the desire to lose oneself completely to love, she apparently detects no such danger in surrendering, at least momentarily, to music. Cole


8. The Breeders, “Cannonball”

The legend goes that Kim Deal was denied much creative input with the Pixies, and the resulting fracas with the band’s frontman Black Francis eventually lead to the group’s demise in early 1993. When listening to “Cannonball,” the lead single from the platinum-selling Last Splash, it’s difficult to understand why Ms. Deal wasn’t allowed to spread her creative wings with the Pixies. The song is blessed with a clutch of feverish hooks, gradually building in tempo to a frantic refrain at the death. And that bassline is surely one of the best of the decade, simple but endlessly effective. “Cannonball” proved that Deal was more than worth her salt as a songwriter, delivering an album’s worth of zinging melodies with this one track alone. Jones


7. Beastie Boys, “Sabotage”

Who would’ve thunk that the decade’s hardest rocking shot of electric guitar testosterone this side of the stupid and the contagious would come from the trio of scrawny boy-punks who made their name with the Casio krush grooves “Brass Monkey” and “Girls”? The Beastie Boys’s “Sabotage” brushes past the cheap novelty of Aerosmith crashing Run DMC’s party, borrows a little bit of Anthrax from Public Enemy, and, to put it bluntly, throws a dump truck through the picture window of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. (The accompanying Spike Jonze video, in which Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA careen through a 1970s cop drama, would be an even bigger classic if its interpretation of the song’s octane rating weren’t just a tad too on the nose.) Henderson


6. Lauryn Hill, “Doo-Wop (That Thing)”

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill wasn’t designed as a crossover record, but with “Doo-Wop (That Thing),” her conquest of the pop charts and the Grammys was effectively guaranteed. And “Doo-Wop” isn’t just her best single; it’s the definitive snapshot of the Lauryn Hill persona, capturing a poised and candid truth-teller in her hip-shaking, finger-wagging prime just before she disappeared into her own ego and then, literally, disappeared. But she performs her breakthrough single with such purpose that even her less ingratiating traits seem vital, minimizing neither the street in her wisdom nor the self in her righteousness. Sometimes a sister’s got to preach, and Hill’s equal-opportunity call-out on two-timers made for her most resonant sermon: Where her political slogans often dated themselves, Hill’s message in “Doo-Wop”—that there are finer things than fine booty (among them, integrity)—will never want for relevance. Cole


5. Nine Inch Nails, “Closer”

If the truly maladaptive take pleasure in their corruption, then Nine Inch Nails’s “Closer” is the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Fucking Woolf of industrial rock. It’s certainly the most persuasively seductive effort to ever flow from Trent Reznor’s pretty hate lips. With effortless grace, he moves from insisting “I’ve got no soul to sell” to promising “I want to fuck you like an animal” And just as the deal has been sealed by producer Flood’s heady synth-pop approximation of the sound of a headboard banging away inside a torture chamber, he profanes the entire indecent proposal with a discursively profane “You get me closer to God” Good sex never sounded so bad, but a word of advice: Gag Reznor with a rubber ball after he comes. You don’t want this brand of post-coital chatter. Henderson


4. The Verve, “Bittersweet Symphony”

Me on the video for the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”: “Life sucks, especially when the government milks you dry and doesn’t so much as give you a wider sidewalk for your troubles” This gorgeously anthemic song is a requiem for a jilted generation, and given the state of the economy these days, it resonates more than ever. And that’s nothing to say of the bittersweet irony of the Verve losing ownership of the song. The simple lyrics, now shamelessly credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, are about frustration and desperation, and Richard Ashcroft’s vocal performance coasts above the symphony of strings with a soulful detachment. He’s grandiose because he’s talking about life—not just his, but all of ours. Gonzalez


3. R.E.M., “Losing My Religion”

We’ve all gotten to the point that we agree that “Losing My Religion” isn’t actually about religion, right? The phrase itself is a terrific, versatile bit of Southern vernacular that can add color to even the most ho-hum, familiar stories, and that’s precisely how Michael Stipe uses it on R.E.M.’s most enduring single. That ominous little mandolin figure that drives the single gives real gravity to Stipe’s free-form images about wanting to give into—to really just commit without reservation or thought, which is the gist of the idiom—a hopeless romantic crush even when crippled by the possibility of rejection and humiliation that crush might bring. Keefe


2. Sinéad O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U”

Nothing compares to this song, in which pop music’s most emotion-rich voice sings words by pop music’s most emotion-rich lyricist. Similar such meetings of titans have resulted in disasters before, solipsistic earsores mostly, but Sinéad O’Connor—like she would do some time later with Nirvana’s “All Apologies”—doesn’t treat “Nothing Compares 2 U” as if it were a cover. She performs Prince’s lyrics as if the emotions inscribed in them were her own, and the proof is in her hauntingly aching belting. The experience is, like that tear that streaks O’Connor’s face in the song’s video (a response, the singer has claimed, to the line “All the flowers that you planted, Mama/In the back yard/All died when you went away”), practically holy. Gonzalez


1. Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

For a song that has long been championed as the theme of a specific crowd of slacker youth, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” endures beyond the ownership of any one subgroup. Kurt Cobain’s self-admitted attempt at a pop song achieved many things (helping to bring grunge from the sweaty depths of the mosh pit to the radio-friendly mainstream, launching Nirvana into Gen-X superstardom, and so on), but perhaps most importantly, it set the tone for all alternative music that followed. Its stuttering riff line instantly recognizable, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is akin to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” in raw industry impact, pushing not just the rock genre, but the entire music world forward. “Here we are now,” Cobain announces, “entertain us!” Liedel


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The 20 Best Music Videos of 2018

The year’s best music videos reflect the way we live now: the technology we use, the power we wield, and the places we carve out for ourselves.

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The 20 Best Music Videos of 2018
Photo: YouTube

The year’s best music videos reflect the way we live now: the technology we use (“Vince Staples’s “Fun!”), the power we wield (the Carters’ “Apeshit”), and the places we carve out for ourselves (“Anderson .Paak’s “Til It’s Over”). They also acknowledge the state of the world, from systemic racism (Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”) to institutional corruption (Jack White’s “Corporation”). Notably, a clear majority of the videos on our list were created by or for artists of color, whose stories serve as an act of resistance against a racist regime. The year in music video wasn’t all gloom and doom, though, as both identity and resistance manifested in profoundly joyous ways in Chaka Khan’s “Like Sugar” and Kali Uchis’s “After the Storm.” And Bruno Mars and Migos embraced playful, nostalgic visions of the past—though it’s hard not to question whether even those ostensibly frivolous throwbacks are rooted in self-care and a need to romanticize a seemingly simpler time. Sal Cinquemani

20. Prince, “Mary Don’t You Weep”

There are no guns or mass shootings in the clip for Prince’s posthumously released “Mary Don’t You Weep,” but their absence isn’t conspicuous. Gun violence is, more than anything else, about the aftermath—the loss, the grief, the haunted lives left in the wake of a fleeting shot. Amid politicians’ perpetual handwringing over when the “right” time is to talk about solutions to this epidemic, Salomon Ligthelm’s exquisitely lensed video testifies to the notion that, at least for tens of thousands of Americans this year, it’s already too late. Cinquemani


19. Rosalía, “Malamente”

Barcelona-based collective Canada marries the traditional with the modern—as in an eye-popping freeze-frame of a bullfighter facing off with a motorcycle—in this spirited music video for Spanish singer-songwriter Rosalía’s flamenco-inspired hit “Malamente.” Alexa Camp


18. Ariana Grande, “God Is a Woman”

The music video for Ariana Grande’s sultry, subtly reggae-infused slow jam “God Is a Woman” finds the pop princess bathing in a milky swirl of vaginal water colors, fingering the eye of a hurricane, and deflecting misogynist epithets, a visual embodiment of her declaration that “I can be all the things you told me not to be/When you try to come for me, I keep on flourishing/And he sees the universe when I’m in company/It’s all in me.” Directed by Dave Meyers, the video mixes animation, digital eye candy, and references to classical artwork, as well as a few WTF moments, like a set piece in which a group of moles emerge from their holes and scream bloody murder. Pointed metaphors abound, from scenes of Grande walking a tightrope to literally breaking a glass ceiling. At one point, pop’s original feminist queen, Madonna, makes a cameo reciting the Old Testament by way of Pulp Fiction—with her own characteristic twist, of course, swapping “brothers” for “sisters.” Cinquemani


17. Bruno Mars featuring Cardi B, “Finesse (Remix)”

Bruno Mars directed the video for “Finesse” himself, and its note-perfect homage to the opening sequence of In Living Color shows him to be as adept a visual pastiche artist as he is a musical one. As with the song, however, it’s guest Cardi B who steals the show, dominating every second she’s on camera as the flyest of Fly Girls in tube socks, cutoffs, and larger-than-life hoop earrings. Zachary Hoskins


16. LCD Soundsystem, “Oh Baby”

Featuring masterful performances by Sissy Spacek and David Strathairn, LCD Soundsystem’s “Oh Baby” is a stirring saga of lovers venturing into the unknown. Directed by Rian Johnson, the video follows an aging couple who build a set of strange, inter-dimensional doorways. Enter one, and you can exit out of the other, but it’s never clear what reality exists between them. Simple, cinematic, and heart-wrenching, the clip is the perfect accompaniment for James Murphy’s ponderous, uplifting electro-pop. Paired together, Spacek and Strathairn convey love’s capacity to obliterate all barriers: loneliness, old age, even death. Pryor Stroud


15. Migos featuring Drake, “Walk It Talk It”

Migos’s “Walk It Talk It” takes place on a fictional television program called Culture Ride—a clear homage to the iconic show Soul Train. This isn’t the first music video to conceptually riff on the vintage variety show format; both OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and the Strokes’s “Last Nite” are set in Ed Sullivan Show-style sound stages. But the video is still a triumph of flashy, vintage style. Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff surround themselves with dancing spectators and major stars, notably Jamie Foxx and Drake, all of whom are transfixed by the music they’re hearing. And just as they are today, Migos is the center of attention. Stroud


14. Azealia Banks, “Anna Wintour”

Yes, those really are Azealia Banks’s nipples. At least according to the New York singer-rapper-lightning-rod’s perennially deleted Twitter account. But the music video for Banks’s single “Anna Wintour” is striking not just because of the artist’s ample bosom. Directed by Matt Sukkar, the clip was filmed in an empty warehouse using understated faux-natural lighting, an apt visual milieu for Banks’s declaration of independence: “As the valley fills with darkness, shadows chase and run around…I’ll be better off alone, I’ll walk at my own pace.” Shots of a scantily clad Banks strutting on a metal catwalk, posing in a full-length mirror, and striking a pose in front of a backlit gate pay homage to Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle,” an iconic video by another female artist who was once determined to assert control. Camp


13. Flasher, “Material”

The internet has rendered media consumption so isolating that it takes a work of profound ingenuity to remind us that art is inherently a shared experience—even if that experience is one of infuriating data buffering, inescapable clickbait, and micro-targeted advertising. Directed by Nick Roney, Flasher’s meta visual for “Material” proves that YouTube has become so engrained in the fabric of modern life that the simple action of clicking out of a pop-up advertisement is now part of our brains’ cache of muscle memory. Though the video isn’t actually interactive, you just might find yourself unconsciously reaching to take control of what’s happening on your screen. Cinquemani


12. Jennifer Lopez featuring Cardi B and DJ Khaled, “Dinero”

The music video for Jennifer Lopez’s “Dinero” is as over the top as the song itself, which finds J. Lo alternately singing over a tropical rhythm and rapping atop a trap beat—sometimes both—while fellow Bronx upstart Cardi B boasts of their borough-based bona fides. Directed by Joseph Kahn, the black-and-white clip brazenly takes the piss out of Lopez’s dubious Jenny from the Block persona—and she’s clearly in on the joke, bowling with a diamond-covered ball, barbecuing in lingerie and pearls while sipping a crystal-encrusted Slurpee, toasting marshmallows over a burning pile of cash, and walking a preening pet ostrich on a leash. The video also features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by a Casino-era Robert De Niro. Camp


11. Tierra Whack, “Whack World”

One of the most ambitious music video projects of the year, “Whack World” is a full-length accompaniment to Tierra Whack’s debut album of the same title. Like the album, it’s 15 minutes long, with the Philadelphia-based rapper and visual artist performing a wildly different vignette in each minute. Both album and video make for an impressive sampler of Whack’s versatility as a performer—which, in visual form, translates to her inhabiting a range of quirky and inventive characters, from a facially disfigured receptionist to a rapping corpse in a sequined coffin, a sentient house, and others that defy description. With a highlight reel like this, it’s hard to image there being anything Whack can’t do. Hoskins


10. Janelle Monáe, “Make Me Feel”

Every segment of the “emotion picture” released by Janelle Monáe to accompany her third album Dirty Computer is visually striking and thematically rich in its own way. But it’s the segment for lead single “Make Me Feel” that arguably stands best on its own. Directed by Monáe’s longtime collaborator Alan Ferguson, the video features the singer and 2018 It-girl Tessa Thompson at what may be the year’s coolest party captured on screen. Widely viewed as a coming-out moment for Monáe—her pansexuality is dramatized in her interactions with both Thompson and co-star Jayson Aaron—the clip is rife with references to two recently canonized icons of sexual fluidity, Prince and David Bowie. Monáe’s choreography with Thompson and Aaron echoes Prince’s with dancer Monique Mannen in the video for “Kiss,” while the dynamic of a bold, flamboyant alter ego performing for the singer’s more reserved self is borrowed from Bowie’s “Blue Jean.” As with her music, however, Monáe is capable of wearing these influences on her sleeve (and her silver bikini top) while still making them wholly her own. Hoskins


9. Chaka Khan, “Like Sugar”

The music video for R&B legend Chaka Khan’s first single in five years giddily foregrounds a multiplicity of black bodies via vibrant, kinetic montage. The joyous clip represents a celebration of identity and persistence in the face of adversity, a thread that shoots through many of the year’s best videos. Camp


8. Anderson .Paak, “Til It’s Over”

The music video has always sat at an awkward intersection of art and commerce, having originated as short film clips serving quite literally as “promos” for new singles. It’s thus only a little strange that Spike Jonze’s video for Anderson .Paak’s “Til It’s Over” isn’t a conventional one at all, but rather an extended commercial for Apple’s HomePod smart device. In the short vignette, FKA Twigs comes home from a long work day and asks Siri to play something she’d like. After a few seconds of .Paak’s voice coming out of her HomePod speakers, she discovers that her dancing can make the physical properties of her apartment stretch and shift. Both the simple, human joy of Twigs’s movements and the technical wizardry of the expanding room are so arresting that you’ll almost forget you’re being sold something. Hoskins


7. Travis Scott featuring Drake, “Sicko Mode”

The album cover for Travis Scott’s Astroworld painted a vivid picture of the eponymous theme park as a psychedelic, vaguely sinister landscape, dominated by a giant inflatable model of Scott’s head and decidedly not to be confused with the real-life (and long-defunct) Six Flags AstroWorld. But it’s the video for single “Sicko Mode,” directed by Dave Meyers, that really brings the place to life, turning the bleak landscape of Houston’s inner city into a post-apocalyptic playground of talking train graffiti and video vixens on bicycles while Scott rides past a prowling police cruiser on horseback. Much like the multi-part song, the clip isn’t cohesive, as the scenes during Drake’s guest verse almost seem to be cut in from an entirely different video. But the abundance of bizarre imagery, both menacing and absurd, ensures that it’s never boring. Hoskins


6. A$AP Rocky featuring Moby, “A$AP Forever”

The camera is the star of Dexter Navy’s video for “A$AP Forever”: whirling in dizzy circles above A$AP Rocky’s head and pulling in and out of a seemingly endless series of television monitors, street signs, smartphone screens, and other images within images. In the final sequence, the camera moves one last time into Rocky’s eyeball, revealing a reflected image of the rapper rotating in an anti-gravity chamber. Also, Moby is there. What it all means is anyone’s guess, but the trippy effect is a perfect complement to the strain of 21st-century psychedelia in Rocky’s music. Hoskins


5. Vince Staples, “Fun!”

Directed by Calmatic, the video for Vince Staples’s “Fun!” is both an astute condemnation of racial tourism and a (perhaps unintentional) auto-critique of hip-hop’s exportation of the black experience to middle America. Like Flasher’s “Material,” it’s also a bleak commentary on the ways technology—in this case, satellite mapping—has simultaneously united and divided the human race. Cinquemani


4. Jack White, “Corporation”

Jack White’s “Corporation” is just as oblique, ambitious, and political as the artist himself. Over the course of seven minutes, a series of surreal, seemingly disjointed events occur: a cowboy puts on lipstick, a rave starts in a diner, a little boy steals a car. By the end, you learn that all of the characters are simply different manifestations of White himself, revealing the alt-blues pioneer as someone we already knew him to be: a complex, multifaceted artist whose neuroses are intimately tied to his genius. Stroud


3. Kali Uchis featuring Tyler, the Creator and Bootsy Collins, “After the Storm”

Like the contemporary surrealist photos of its director, Nadia Lee Cohen, the video for “After the Storm” pairs a rich Technicolor palette with a playfully elastic approach to everyday banality: bringing P-Funk icon Bootsy Collins to (animated) life as a cereal box mascot and making rapper Tyler, the Creator grow from a garden like a literal “Flower Boy.” That these whimsical images appear alongside shots of singer Kali Uchis, dolled up in mid-century attire and staring blankly into the distance, suggest that they’re meant to dramatize the daydreams of a bored 1950s suburbanite. This makes the video’s final image, of Uchis and a fully sprouted Tyler acting out an idyllic nuclear family scene while their own disembodied Chia-pet heads look on from the window, as vaguely disquieting as it is humorous. Hoskins


2. The Carters, “Apeshit”

The Carters’s Everything Is Love may not have achieved the same cultural ubiquity as Beyoncé‘s Lemonade, or Jay-Z’s 4:44, but it spawned one of the year’s most poignant videos. In “Apeshit,” the power couple performs in a vacant Louvre, commandeering the world’s most famous museum without breaking a sweat. It’s a radical testament to their influence as artists, business people, and political players, as well as a bold statement about the overlooked primacy of blackness in the Western canon. Stroud


1. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”

Surprise-released to coincide with Donald Glover’s double duty as host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live in May, the provocative video for “This Is America” was already inspiring breathless think pieces by the following morning. Directed by Hiro Murai, Glover’s principal collaborator on FX’s Atlanta, “This Is America” shares with many of that show’s best episodes a knack for getting under viewers’ skins, presenting highly charged images with just enough ambiguity to encourage social media reactions of the “WTF did I just watch” variety. But if the last seven months of critical dissection and memetic recycling have inevitably dulled some of its shock value—and, by extension, its power as a political statement—the video remains an astounding artistic achievement. In a series of long shots cleverly disguised as one uninterrupted take, Glover pulls dances and faces from the intertwined traditions of pop culture and minstrelsy, seamlessly juxtaposed with eruptions of sudden, graphic gun violence. In both extremes, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him—which is, of course, the point. Like the never-ending train wreck that is American history itself, “This is America” offers entertainment and grotesquerie in equal measure. Hoskins


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The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

These performances share a commitment to achieving emotional vitality by any means necessary.

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The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

This year offered a feast of cinematic acting that pivoted on surprise, in terms of unconventional casting that allowed performers to add new shades to their established personas, as well as in blistering work by newcomers. These performances share a commitment to achieving emotional vitality by any means necessary, shattering the banality of expectation to elaborate on universal feelings that are too easily submerged by us on our day-to-day toils. Which is to say that the finest film acting of 2018 was less indebted to the representational “realism” that often wins awards than to fashioning a bold kind of behavioral expressionism. Like many of their filmmaker collaborators, these actors are master stylists. Chuck Bowen
 

The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Sakura Ando, Shoplifters

As Nobuyo, the default “mother” of an informal family of hustlers on the margins of present-day Tokyo, Sakura Ando enriches Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gentle social drama with her bracing articulation of her character’s self-discovery. Nobuya’s melodramatic arc—a woman with dark secrets whose hard-won redemption is inevitably undone by higher forces—culminates in an agonizing one-shot unraveling, but what makes her fate so devastating is the sense of surprise and liberation that Ando brings to Nobuya’s acceptance of new responsibilities, passions, and her own self-worth. Christopher Gray


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Juliette Binoche, Let the Sunshine In

For all of her versatility, Juliette Binoche has never particularly been noted for her comic skills, but she displays a subtle wit as the middle-aged and single Isabelle in Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In, often dismissing petulant, needy men with scarcely more than a mocking glance or a passive-aggressive comment. Binoche truly shines, though, in scenes that play up Isabelle’s feelings of panic and loneliness over having to date again, such as when Isabelle reminisces about her ex-husband and, in the process, a whole panoply of emotions, including resentment and wistfulness, flit anxiously across the actress’s face. Most moving of all is the outright panic that Isabelle betrays when a wonderful date urges her to take things slowly, triggering an existential attack over her perceived lack of time to find another partner so late in life. Jake Cole


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Emily Browning, Golden Exits

Golden Exits sustains a lingering aura of futility that’s counterweighted by the film’s beauty and by the exhilaration of seeing Alex Ross Perry realize his vast ambitions, as he’s made a modern film about relationships and social constrictions that clears the bar set by the work of John Cassavetes and Woody Allen. Perry also ultimately empathizes with Naomi, who’s paradoxically diminished by her status as the narrative’s center of attention. Regarded by her American acquaintances as a barometer of their own personal failures, Naomi is never truly noticed. She’s the gorgeous woman as specter, played by Emily Browning with an ambiguity that carries a heartbreaking suggestion: that Naomi’s unknowable because no one wishes to know her. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Nicolas Cage, Mandy

Mandy‘s smorgasbord of indulgences is held together by Nicolas Cage, who gives one of the best performances of his career. Director Panos Cosmatos understands Cage as well as any director ever has, fashioning a series of moments that allow the actor to rhythmically blow off his top, exorcising Red’s rage and longing as well as, presumably, his own. In the film’s best scene, Red storms into the bathroom of his cabin and lets out a primal roar, while chugging a bottle of liquor that was stashed under the sink. Cage gives this scene a disquieting sense of relief, investing huge emotional notes with a lingering undercurrent that cuts to the heart of the film itself. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Toni Collette, Hereditary

Flashes of insanity and malaise factor into Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary, yet Annie cannot be defined by such traits often linked to the trope of a hysterical woman. Instead, Collette’s glares of frustration suggest a world of complicated emotions that extend well beyond pain. Terror and intense focus become indecipherable in Collette’s eyes as Annie, a diorama artist, is torn from her profession by conspiring forces, making the film’s outcome feel even more like a cross between a cruel joke and a rebuke of society’s stacking the deck through maternal guilt and shame against Annie’s aspiring career. Clayton Dillard


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

As Queen Anne and her rival sycophants, Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, respectively, establish a delicious series of manipulative, barbarous, and poignant emotional cross-currents throughout The Favourite. Stone and Weisz verbally parry and thrust at lightning speed, one-upping one another in an escalating series of duels that inspire the actresses to give among the finest performances of their careers, while Colman expertly operates at a slower, daringly draggy and exposed speed, painting a portrait of a woman imprisoned by entitlement. Collectively, this superb acting also achieves the near miraculous feat of rendering a Yorgos Lanthimos film authentically human. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Matt Dillon, The House That Jack Built

It’s no secret that Jack (Matt Dillon), the viciously misogynistic serial killer at the heart of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, is at least partially a stand-in for the director himself, and the genius of Dillon’s interpretation of the character is that he never seems to be sucking up to the man who created it. He plays Jack as ruthless, self-pitying, and disturbingly empty—Hannibal Lecter without the wit or charm. No mere pawn of the Danish provocateur’s autocritical schema, Dillon both deepens and challenges von Trier’s intended self-portraiture with the uncanny blankness of his performance, creating in the process an absolutely chilling embodiment of evil. Keith Watson


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Adam Driver, BlackKklansman

Though BlackKklansman was marketed as the story of an African-American police officer impersonating a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, it also concerns a Jewish cop’s efforts to do the same by offering a white face to accompany a vocal charade. As said cop, Flip Zimmerman, Adam Driver deliriously plumbs head-first into a disturbing irony, acknowledging the catharses that can be had by indulging in disgusting epithets secretly at one’s own expense. Or, simply: Flip insults himself, and those close to him, and Driver elucidates the character’s disgust as well as the weird spiritual purging that can occur by indulging one’s basest instincts. One of America’s best and most sensitive actors offers perhaps his finest portrait yet of a soul twisted in contradictory knots. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade

It’s a testament to the authenticity of Elsie Fisher’s performance in Eighth Grade that you’d never have guessed she’d been in front of a camera before, much less that she’s been acting consistently for years. As Kayla, the awkward, unpopular tween protagonist of Bo Burnham’s film, Fisher infuses every stammered “umm” and stumbling “like” with a palpable sense of self-loathing and social anxiety. For anyone who ever felt like Kayla in middle school, Fisher’s painfully real performance is liable to induce PTSD. Watson


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace

Finally shedding his tick-laden parlor games, Ben Foster comes to life as an actor, connecting with Will and giving him a fearful thickness of being that’s only occasionally leavened by Tom, whom Thomasin McKenzie invests with the trembling, negotiating intelligence of an unformed prodigy. Will and Tom and Foster and McKenzie’s energies are beautifully in and out of sync, simultaneously. Foster confidently cedes the film to McKenzie, which parallels Will’s gradual relinquishing of authority to Tom. Both characters know that it’s unfair to expect Tom to inherit Will’s alienation, as she has the right to give this potentially doomed society a chance, to fight for it as well as herself. In Leave No Trace‘s heartbreaking climax, a relationship dies so that an individual, and maybe even a society, may be reborn. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Hugh Grant, Paddington 2

Hugh Grant may well be more cartoonish than the animated bear protagonist of Paddington 2. As the film’s villain, a has-been thespian with the world’s most convoluted scheme to finance a one-man show, Grant can scarcely utter a syllable without throwing his head back and exclaiming it to the rafters, and the actor’s body language—a series of shocked gasps, wild-eyed stares, and manic grins—is similarly absurd. As Phoenix dons a series of ever-more elaborate disguises throughout the film, Grant’s acting somehow gets even broader, resulting in a work of giddy panto and one of the finest comic performances in recent memory. Cole


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Regina Hall, Support the Girls

It’s not often that we see decency and level-headedness radiated on screen as convincingly as it is by Regina Hall in Support the Girls, much less a film centered around such a performance. As Lisa, a put-upon restaurant manager enduring a particularly hectic day on the job, Hall suppresses the comic histrionics that she’s become known for in mainstream comedy movies in order to inhabit the delicate naturalism that writer-director Andrew Bujalski consistently cultivates in his casts. Slipping into this mode with grace, the actress conveys the sheer exhaustion and frustration of nine-to-five existence with just the subtlest of disruptions to an exterior of buttoned-up professionalism. Carson Lund


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ethan Hawke, First Reformed

As the great blackness of night swoops in, we reach for assurances of “the everlasting arms,” as sung about in First Reformed‘s concluding hymnal. Ethan Hawke’s staggering performance is one of Ecclesiastian sympathy, with watchful longing and hungry silences in between reminders of Toller’s own impotence to change the world. The man’s face suggests a tragic predicament that the only ark to save us from an impending flood is in our illusions. Niles Schwartz


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Bill Heck and Zoe Kazan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Nearly every actor in the Coen brothers’ newest anti-western is remarkable, but Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck are particularly heartbreaking, partly because the audience has been so expertly rendered vulnerable to the vignette in which they appear. By the time that we get to “The Gal Who Got Rattled” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, we’ve seen so much brutality and cynicism that we’re hardened for more of the same only to encounter tenderness. As potential lovers who never get to be, Kazan and Heck dramatize the unmooring vulnerability of feeling attraction just when you suspect that you’ve aged out of it, informing the Coens’ florid, beautiful dialogue with trembling pathos. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk

For this critic, the lovers at the center of Barry Jenkins’s newest parable of racism are too gorgeous, primped, fawning, symbolic, metaphorical, and seemingly straight out of a coffee-table book. As a man recently out of prison after serving a stretch he didn’t deserve, Brian Tyree Henry does for If Beale Street Could Talk what he did for Widows and continues to do for Atlanta: informing potentially self-conscious conceits with a jolting burst of common-sense machismo. If Beale Street Could Talk‘s most haunting scene is a monologue that’s hypnotically uttered by Tyree, allowing this film, for a few minutes, to actually capture the brutal poetry of the James Baldwin novel that inspired it. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline

The center of a film about commitment and disassociation, Helena Howard’s Madeline evidently relishes the opportunity to change identities in the blink of an eye. Director Josephine Decker contrasts the aspiring actress’s easy mastery of improv exercises with Madeline’s harried life outside of rehearsal, where she’s regularly manipulated by her mother and an overeager director as she struggles to control her mental illness. Decker’s film is willfully alienating in its commitment to Madeline’s tortured interiority, but Howard steers it with an undeniable power and confidence, making Madeline’s rootless chaos feel entirely legible. Gray


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Bhreagh MacNeil, Werewolf

Werewolf belongs to the extraordinary Bhreagh MacNeil. The film derives quite a bit of its power from allowing Vanessa to unceremoniously wrest the spotlight away from Blaise (Andrew Gillis), a lost and bitter man whose quest for recovery is probably hopeless. MacNeil doesn’t project Vanessa’s determination in a manner that’s familiar to rehabilitation fables, but rather physically embodies it, and McKenzie doesn’t mar her with any screenwriterly speeches. We see Vanessa’s strength in the steel of her eyes, in her willingness to ask family for help, and in her ability to get a thankless job at an old-fashioned burger and soft-serve ice cream joint, in which she grinds imitation Oreo cookies into pieces with a machine that resembles a sausage grinder. The fierceness with which Vanessa grinds these cookies—or attempts to master an ice cream machine that resembles a liquid methadone dispenser—is haunting. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Rachel McAdams, Disobedience

Esti (Rachel McAdams), at first glance, is another type: an obsequious adherent to orthodoxy. When she passionately kisses Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), you understood the gesture as compensatory, to convey that I’m just not that into her anymore. But then McAdams caps the moment by quickly playing with Nivola’s beard, and the actress subtly communicates the sense of the genuine love that exits between this husband and wife—an impression that’s confirmed when Esti later repeats the gesture with Ronit (Rachel Weisz). Only theirs is a different kind of love, and we finally get a sense of what that is when, during a tryst in a hotel room, Ronit casually sends a stream of her spit into Esti’s mouth. This moment feels organically, almost miraculously stumbled upon—arrived at by two great actors wanting to convey the singular nature of their characters’ communion. Ed Gonzalez


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The pairing of Melissa McCarthy, a Hollywood A-lister, with Richard E. Grant, a sublime arthouse presence, is one of the most invigorating surprises of this year’s cinema. McCarthy avoids the pitfall of comic actors appearing in unusually dramatic material. Rather than restricting her emotional catalogue to a few grim gestures of purposefulness, McCarthy expands her repertoire, elaborating on the sadness that’s inherent in even her blockbuster roles—a sadness that also fuels her comic virtuosity. And Grant is complicit with McCarthy’s tonal dexterity in every way. Together they offer an irresistible portrait of a bittersweet paradox of companionable alienation. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ben Mendelsohn, The Land of Steady Habits

The Land of Steady Habits benefits enormously from the casting of Ben Mendelsohn as an unexceptionally tormented upper-middle-class guy. Here, the actor submerges the aggression that’s often closer to the surface of his sleazy villain roles, giving Anders a mysterious internal tension that’s compelling and often funny. When writer-director Nicole Holofcener follows Anders around as he drifts in and out of the lives of Helene (Edie Falco) and his grown son, Preston (Thomas Mann), and their various friends, the film has a free-associational piquancy. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Jason Mitchell, Tyrel

Sebastián Silva tasks Jason Mitchell with carrying the weight of Tyrel on the actor’s face; he’s asked to project toughness in reaction shots to aggressions both micro and macro from Tyler’s white bros, then later vulnerability as he steals away for moments of quietude to escape the ambiguous pain of social discomfort. While the scenario and performance is comparable to that of Daniel Kaluuya’s in Get Out, Mitchell’s Tyler isn’t given a catharsis of violent retribution. Mitchell’s expressions and gestures convey the betrayal of a daily life that never lets Tyler feel at ease, let alone at home. Dillard


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Michelle Pfeiffer, Where Is Kyra?

Michelle Pfeiffer’s ferociously vulnerable and intelligent performance elucidates the pain, resentment, and fear that springs from escalating disappointment. Pfeiffer informs Kyra with a fragile mixture of empathy and rage, which is particularly on display when Kyra cares for her mother, Ruth, who’s played by Suzanne Shepard with a wily and commanding dignity. Kyra is understood by Pfeiffer to be taking qualified pleasure in her own effacement, as it implies an escape from a world that has rejected her. Early in the film, we see Kyra preparing a bath for Ruth, and a mirror fashions a prism in which mother and daughter are cordoned off from one another yet simultaneously visible, evoking the punishing intimacy, and the comfort, of caring for a dependent. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Meinhard Neumann, Western

Casting is everything, the saying goes, but that’s especially true when filmmakers elect to use nonprofessionals, in which case ineffable factors such as “presence” and “authenticity” become paramount. Meinhard Neumann, the grizzled, mustachioed brooder at the center of Western who director Valeska Grisebach came across on a whim at a horse market, has these qualities in spades, in addition to a seemingly preternatural capacity for playing to Grisebach’s roving handheld camera and finding his light. His taciturn, repressed Meinhard doesn’t have a wide expressive range, but when the character does undergo a few emotional breakthroughs in the latter half of the film, Neumann seems to be genuinely accessing reserves of pain and regret deep within himself. Lund


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Jesse Plemons, Game Night

John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein assembled one of the strongest comedic ensembles in recent memory for Game Night, but a single performer still managed to steal the show: Jesse Plemons as the weirdo Gary, a sad-sack cop with a broken heart whose self-pitying glumness could ruin anyone’s vibe. Pitched perfectly at the intersection of creepiness and pathos, Plemons earns big laughs without really seeming to try. The hilarity arises instead from his expertly discomfiting embodiment of one of those off-putting personality types we’ve all unfortunately encountered: the guy you feel bad for but desperately want to get away from as fast as humanly possible. Watson


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Steven Yeun, Burning

Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is driven by a central mystery of purpose. To what genre does this film belong? Is it a horror film, a romantic triangle, a class critique, or a beguiling fusion of all of the above? Much of this mystery is embodied by Steven Yeun’s performance as a rich smoothie who’s far more appealing than the floundering hero, which strikes up a crisis in the audience’s empathy that resonates with our romantic preferences in real life. Turns out there’s a reason that confident people get all the lovers, because they are, well, confident. Yet Yeun laces his sexiness with the subtlest tint of passive aggression, so subtle that one wonders if it’s even there, investing Burning with a fleeting malignancy that’s worthy of Claude Chabrol. Bowen


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The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Music, dance, action, rage, touch, rhyme, and blunt-force trauma—these are the moments that give films, and life, their staying power.

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The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018
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Watching a great scene for the first time is like confronting the reality of one’s mortality. As the scene unfolds, it can feel exhilarating in the moment, though it can only be fully understood in hindsight. Think of our selections of the best scenes of 2018, then, as flashes of memory connected to a larger whole. It’s not that the whole dies without the memories, but that the whole might, upon reflection, be primarily composed of such recollected flashes. Music, dance, action, rage, touch, rhyme, and blunt-force trauma—these are the moments that give films, and life, their staying power. Clayton Dillard
 

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Amazing Grace, Reverend Cleveland Weeps

There are a number of points throughout Sydney Pollack’s Amazing Grace where Aretha Franklin’s voice hits such astounding heights that members of Los Angeles’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church congregation and choir can’t help but rise to their feet and shout “Amen” or dance like no one is watching them. But no single moment is more profoundly moving than when Reverend James Cleveland, the concert’s musical director and Aretha’s childhood friend, walks away from his piano, sits down on a pew, and quietly weeps into his handkerchief. In this moment, the church transforms into a sanctuary to revel in the power of Aretha’s singular, iconic voice. Derek Smith


Annihilation, Suicide Is Painless

The characters who enter the alien-terraforming Shimmer in Alex Garland’s Annihilation are all people who’ve lost the will to live, yet their survival instincts compel them to self-defense against the horrors thrown at them by the film’s creepy elements. The Shimmer responds in kind, folding the terrors of characters about to meet their deaths into the flora and fauna that form out of corpses and sport gnarled looks of frozen anguish. After watching a colleague “live on” in the mutant screams of the bear that killed her, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson)—tacitly suffering from depression and knowing the odds of her survival—decides to leave a calmer imprint of herself on this alien region. Her blissful walk into oblivion is the film’s sole moment of quietude, and perhaps the most gorgeous display of justifiable suicide ever depicted on film. Jake Cole


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

BlacKkKlansman, “Too Late to Turn Back Now”

After watching Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) speak about his vision for an equal society where African-Americans are accepted for who they are, undercover cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and his impromptu date, activist Patrice (Laura Harrier), visit a nearby club. What follows is Spike Lee at his most observational and celebratory: an extended sequence of black Americans joyously dancing and singing along to the song “Too Late to Turn Back Now,” free of the prejudice they encounter in their daily lives. Echoing the kind of liberated society Ture outlined in his speech, the utopic vision of this scene becomes reason enough for Ture and his followers to want to fight the power. Wes Greene


Bodied, Behn Grymm vs. Adam

After months of training, Adam (Calum Worthy) finally faces off against his friend and mentor, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), in a rap battle that quickly turns from two buddies trading barbs to something far more insidious and calamitous. For the African-American Grymm, rapping is a means to end, a way to put food on the table for his wife and daughter. But for Adam, a white boy and intellectual born with a silver spoon in mouth, there’s no greater purpose to spitting fire, only the unfettered joys of unabated verbal destruction. In his stomach-churning assault of Grymm, Adam sheds all semblance of kinship and morality, all but shattering a friendship simply in pursuit of a big win and pushing the phrase “don’t hate the player, hate the game” far past its breaking point. Smith


Burning, Jazz Dance at Sunset

Stoned, topless, and standing beneath the South Korean flag as it flaps in the wind, Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo) begins to emulate the Kenyan “great hunger” dance she described earlier in the film. Set to Miles Davis’s “Générique,” the sequence occurs only halfway into Burning, but it feels climactic in its power, especially for Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), who seems finally entranced with Haemi to the point of no return. The scene’s thematic complexity underlies the immediacy of Lee Chang-dong’s use of a long take to capture the dance, making the film’s larger mysteries, and Jong-su’s subsequent paranoia, all the more chilling. Dillard


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

First Man, Agena Spin

Damien Chazelle’s claustrophobic direction of spaceflight in First Man brutally undercuts idealized images of the Space Race with the abject terror of hurtling through the void in a rattling tin can launched into the skies using calculations performed on computers with less processing power than an Atari 2600. The film’s tensest scene is a depiction of the failed Gemini 8 mission, in which a routine spaceflight goes catastrophically wrong and sends the spacecraft into an unstoppable barrel roll. As Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) attempts to both stabilize the craft and get it back on its correct flightpath, we see him not only contending with high G-forces and dizzying spins, but also performing trigonometric calculations in long hand on graph paper. With the film’s camera firmly entrenched inside the capsule, Chazelle mines Armstrong’s claustrophobia—and rouses our—through the flashes of shaking plates of sheet metal and elaborate operating switchboards. The material reality of early space missions comes into sharp focus, clarifying the deadening trauma that weighs on Armstrong throughout the entirety of First Man. Cole


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

First Reformed, Magical Mystery Tour

In an act of compassion, and passion, Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller indulges Amanda Seyfried’s pregnant widow in a meditative ritual she had regularly performed with her now-deceased husband. After she lays on top of Toller, synchronizing her breathing with his, the two begin to levitate and hover over gorgeous images of outer space, snowy mountains, and lush green forests. But this extraordinary and uncanny transcendence is fleeting, as the sublime imagery abruptly gives way to visions of real-world problems, such as mass deforestation and pollution, pulling Toller violently out of this reprieve from his obsession with the world’s misery. What place do love and faith have in a world that’s crumbling around us? Smith


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

The Green Fog, Chuck Norris As Meme

About midway through The Green Fog, just as one is beginning to acclimate to its conceptual high-wire act—a reconstitution of Vertigo by way of clips from wide-ranging movies and TV shows set in San Francisco—directors Guy Maddin and Evan and Galen Johnson decide to entertain a ludicrous high-concept-within-a-high-concept: an entire lengthy sequence composed only of reaction shots of Chuck Norris. Staring, staring, and staring some more in a ridiculous sustained imitation of Scottie Ferguson’s paranoid daze, Norris’s blank mug becomes the best underappreciated meme of the year. Carson Lund


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Hale County This Morning, This Evening, Epic Jump Shot Drill

RaMell Ross’s evocative hymn to Hale County, Alabama and the indomitable spirit of its residents dedicates a portion of its attention to Daniel, a small-time college hoops player with big aspirations, but the actual sport of basketball only surfaces in fits and starts, interwoven as it is with the larger mosaic of Daniel’s life. The fragments that do emerge, however, show a sprightly athlete in firm command of his game, nowhere more evident than when he drains 10 of 11 long-range jumpers from around the arc in one breathless take, muttering affirmatively after each swish. Ross’s camera bobs along behind him, emphasizing the sheer force and persistence of Daniel’s motion over the shots themselves, in effect translating the feat into something more divine than worldly. Lund


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Happy as Lazzaro, The Music’s Followed Us

A band of former sharecroppers relocated to an anonymous metropolis are lulled into a church by the sound of an organ and are promptly shooed out. This everyday affront is avenged by the lightest and most surreal of miracles as the music travels into the city, seemingly rebirthed from the sound of a passing train. Its ineffable quality leads the previously guileless Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) to an olive tree planted in artificial grass and a catharsis that’s at once unclassifiable and long overdue. Christopher Gray


Hereditary, Heads Will Roll

For its first hour, Ari Aster’s Hereditary is something akin to a relentless panic attack, rife with displays mental illness, disturbing familial follies, cryptic portents of doom that would curl Poe’s toes. The highlight of the film is a scene that’s tremendous for its artistic dexterity and shock value. In the throes of an allergic reaction, the young and socially awkward Charlie (Milly Shapiro) writhes in the back seat of the family car, her throat tightening while her brother, Peter (Alex Wolff), wildly drives them down a forlorn stretch of deserted asphalt. The brilliance of the scene isn’t just the visceral depiction of an unfathomable violent incident, but the patience with which Aster dwells on the consequence: The camera remains on Peter’s face, bathed in the red glow of the car’s tail lights, as he sits static, stoic, his eyes glazed over, while his sister’s body is slumped over behind him. After several agonizingly long, laconic moments, he starts the car, drives home, and goes to bed. Greg Cwik


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

If Beale Street Could Talk, Daniel’s Monologue

If Beale Street Could Talk is at its most potent in the scenes where human frailty and the specter of injustice come more elliptically to the surface, as in a long dialogue scene between Fonny (Stephan James) and Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), an old school chum. At first it’s all soothingly friendly chitchat between the two men. Then things slip into dolefully dark territory as Daniel recalls his time in prison: “The white man’s got to be the devil. He sure ain’t a man. Some of the things I saw, baby, I’ll be dreaming about until the day I die.” What hits hardest about Daniel’s recollections is his overall sense of exhaustion. If constant subjugation doesn’t kill you, it’s suggested, then your soul is forever crippled, which is in many ways a worse fate. How can anyone walk through life with their spirit so completely paralyzed? Keith Uhlich


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Let the Sunshine In, “At Last”

Etta James’s “At Last” is like “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or “Over the Rainbow”—a piece of music so deeply imbedded in popular culture that its use risks parody. Leave it, then, to Claire Denis, a modern master of needle drops, to find just the right implementation. In Let the Sunshine In, the song becomes an exemplification of the romantic nirvana pined after by middle-aged Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a feeling crystallized in a sensuous slow dance with a bar patron that finds Denis’s camera pirouetting sinuously with her lead character. After a series of botched relationships, Isabelle’s ecstasy is cathartic and moving in the moment but ultimately illusory and hollow, a spell cast through the concise power of Denis’s montage and broken just as quickly by a hard, sobering cut back to reality. Lund


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Mandy, Bathroom Meltdown

Mandy is a smorgasbord of indulgences held together by Nicolas Cage, who gives one of the best performances of his career. Director Panos Cosmatos understands Cage as well as any director ever has, fashioning a series of moments that allow the actor to rhythmically blow off his top, exorcising Red’s rage and longing as well as, presumably, his own. In the film’s best scene, Red storms into the bathroom of his cabin and lets out a primal roar, while chugging a bottle of liquor that was stashed under the sink. Cage gives this scene a disquieting sense of relief, investing huge emotional notes with a lingering undercurrent that cuts to the heart of the film itself. Chuck Bowen


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

A Star Is Born, “Shallow”

“Shallow” makes less sense as a song than Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) performs as a celebrity, but it’s perfectly structured for Ally’s (Lady Gaga) birth as an idol. Cooper makes goosebumpy magic of Ally and Jackson mooning in the backdrop of one another’s closeups, and their performance features two of the great half-seconds in the year’s cinema: first Ally covering her face in a rush of fear, embarrassment, and exhilaration, then catching up to the song’s chorus a half-beat late with unstoppable force. Gray


The Strangers: Prey at Night, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”

The ne plus ultra of The Strangers: Prey at Night‘s irony-tinged mayhem is a lengthy set piece at a secluded mobile home park’s pool. It’s there that Luke (Lewis Pullman) brutally dispatches Dollface (Emma Bellomy), then tussles with the Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei), all set rather perversely to the camp-operatic mood swings of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” The song almost subliminally primes the characters to perform a dance of death, a point that the camera devilishly underscores by jumping in and out of the water alongside Luke and the Man in the Mask, in the process muffling the sound of Bonnie Tyler’s protestations. Ed Gonzalez


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Suspiria, Break Dance

As Susie (Dakota Johnson) dances, Olga (Elena Fokina) breaks—literally. The gist of the scene is that simple, yet Luca Guadagnino and editor Walter Fasano create an unforgiving series of images that approximates what it feels like for Olga to have her body being taken away from her. First Olga’s arms, then her torso and legs, and finally her face. By the end of Susie’s ascension within the dance company via her dexterous moves, Olga is but a urine-stained pretzel, helplessly writhing on the floor. All About Eve, eat your heart out. Dillard


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Widows, A Drive Through Town

The numerous long takes sprinkled throughout Steve McQueen’s oeuvre tend to exude a shallow, posturing quality. This shot from the filmmaker’s Widows, however, is rich in meaning. With the film’s camera mounted to the hood of a car, Colin Farrell’s Chicago councilman candidate is seen leaving an event in a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood and riding to his posh townhouse on the other side of town. In one long take, McQueen cannily and succinctly catches glimpses of how the neighborhood has succumbed to the forces of gentrification. Greene


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Wild Boys, Island Arrival

Upon landing on a mysterious island with their magisterial captor, the five wild boys of Bertrand Mandico’s film wander through the tropical jungle and discover a landscape rife with bizarre sexual pleasures. As the boys traverse through groping grass, quench their thirst with the juices of ejaculating trees, and satiate their hunger with hairy, testicular-shaped fruits, it’s as if the island is responding to their surging desires. Such an uninhibited and unhinged celebration of pure, impulsive sexuality, in a film driven by silent-film aesthetics no less, is capable of making even Guy Maddin blush. Smith


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Zama, The Ambush

Lucrecia Martel’s cinema dwells in languor and repressed energy, a wavelength for which she’s invented her own filmmaking grammar. In Zama, a tale of simmering tensions in Paraguay during Spanish colonial rule, that grammar gets audaciously applied to action scenes that briefly and violently materialize the friction felt between Spanish forces and oppressed natives elsewhere in the narrative. The first of these eruptions, a shockingly rapid and coordinated ambush in a boggy marshland at high noon, offers a stunning case study of Martel’s distinctive style in the context of frenetic action: The camera remains stagnant and the sound design sparse, but everything’s unnervingly sped-up and fragmentary, a technique that approximates the phenomenological jolt of danger. Lund


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