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The 25 Best Singles of 2018

Our cultural concerns in 2018 over boundaries, borders, and bottom lines have trickled down into the best songs of the year.

The 25 Best Singles of 2018
Photo: Republic Records

Our cultural concerns in 2018 over boundaries, borders, and bottom lines have trickled down into the best songs of the year. As peak capitalism and its corresponding economic inequality increasingly divide society into the haves and the have-nots, the artistic response has largely consisted of social commentary on the one hand and flaunting lavish lifestyles on the other.

Jack White’s “Corporation” chides the out-of-touch arrogance of those born into the 1%, who in the pursuit of mass adulation can, on a whim, start a corporation—or, say, become president. On “Percy Faith,” Damien Jurado concocts absurd extremes to capitalistic exploitation as he imagines Seattle trademarking the rain and Arizona being sold for its sand. Chance the Rapper puts economic disparity in more relatable and personal terms on “65th and Ingleside,” detailing a time in his life when he barely scraped by and praising his fiancée for financially supporting him while he pursued his dream. On the other side of the coin, while the American dream may have once consisted of a car in every garage, Beyoncé defines “making it” by flexing about buying Jay-Z a jet on “Apeshit.” Cardi B likes dollars, diamonds, and million-dollar deals on “I Like It,” and Migos asserts that life’s a game of Monopoly on “Stir Fry,” a song Apple used to sell a hell of a lot of iPhones.

Elsewhere, our modern anxieties alternately prompt despair and the search for empowerment. Childish Gambino and Courtney Barnett delve into incisive rebukes of a culture of violence, while Troye Sivan and Robyn revel in opening themselves up and accepting pleasure as a form of self-expression. When faced with encroachment by constrictive traditionalism, Janelle Monáe desired “an emotional, sexual bender” on “Make Me Feel” to sate the need to feel something “so fucking real.”

But hey, not everyone has easy access to money and sexual partners. So, barring that, there’s always outright escapism, whether that comes in the form of Lana Del Rey’s nostalgia-filter yearning for the comforts of Hallmark and Norman Rockwell or the meme music of Doja Cat’s viral song about cows. Josh Goller

Editor’s Note: Listen to the full list on Spotify.

25. Drake, “Nice for What”

There were times when the first half of 2018 felt like one long rollout for Scorpion, Drake’s wildly successful but critically underwhelming double album. “Nice for What,” released between January’s Drake-by-numbers “God’s Plan” and May’s dour, joyless “I’m Upset,” was the high point of that period. The Lauryn Hill-sampling beat by producer Murda Beatz and typically buoyant guest vocals by New Orleans bounce diva Big Freedia were a breath of fresh air amid the monochrome, navel-gazing productions of Drake’s usual partner in crime, Noah “40” Shebib. These days, of course, the rapper’s star power is such that he can make a song into a club banger by sheer force of will, but “Nice for What” was the rare song to actually earn the distinction: Its joyousness is so irrepressible one can even overlook the lyrics, which pay pandering lip service to women’s empowerment as a belated apologia for beta-bro anthems like 2015’s “Hotline Bling.” It’s a shining example of the pop song that succeeds in spite—and not because—of the artist’s persona. Zachary Hoskins

24. Titus Andronicus, “Above the Bodega (Local Business)”

With “Above the Bodega (Local Business),” Patrick Stickles cops to the fact that no matter how well he conceals them elsewhere, he can’t hide his vices from the guy at the corner store who sells them to him: “He’s there to see me buying cigarettes, he’s there to see me buying beer/He’s never seen me on the internet and five o’clock is nowhere near.” He manages to turn this into a comment on capitalism: “Because you can lie with your expression or lie with the things you say/But you can’t lie with your dollars—your dollars, they give you away.” Heavy stuff, to be sure, so Stickles does what heroes like Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen would have done 40 years ago: turn it into a party. Packed with horns, backup singers, and wah-wah guitars, and buoyed by Stickles’s own exuberant delivery, “Above the Bodega” is the grooviest thing Titus Andronicus have ever laid to tape. Jeremy Winograd

23. Phosphorescent, “New Birth in New England”

More often a purveyor of wistful, contemplative ballads, singer-songwriter Matthew Houck, a.k.a. Phosphorescent, nevertheless creates some of his most stirring music when he kicks up the tempo and gets happy. Ephemeral moments of unexpected human connection and a spontaneous sense of euphoria fuel his sunny “New Birth in New England,” the lead single from C’est La Vie. Though Houck moved from New York City to Nashville and started a family in the years leading up to the album, the new birth experienced here isn’t as specific as that, as he instead focuses on how, at any moment, our perspective can unexpectedly change for the better. In a jaunty, Afropop-tinged track that recalls Paul Simon and Cat Stevens at their most joyous, Houck pairs a multi-layered instrumental arrangement with a simple sentiment about a chance meeting in a piano bar. Built on a breezy guitar-and-piano melody, the track breaks open into an ethereal swell of choir vocals, adding a sense of the mystical to the mundane on a song that revels in the profound change that can arise out of seemingly insignificant moments. Goller

22. Ariana Grande, “No Tears Left to Cry”

The similarities drawn between Ariana Grande and Mariah Carey always felt like a bit of a stretch, a familiar typecasting of the multi-octave pop tart of the moment. But on “No Tears Left to Cry,” Grande performs a flabbergasting vocal equivalent of a triple axel that would leave Mimi herself speechless. The heavenly, mournful melody accompanied by keyboards that opens the track is fit for a funeral, before giving way to a U.K. garage-inspired beat that nods to the tragic bombing at her concert in Manchester last year. But Grande dismisses wallowing, showing off her skill in switching between big-voiced singing and casual quasi-rapping. And in turn, mega-producer Max Martin nimbly provides the ever-changing backdrop. Paul Schrodt

21. Lana Del Rey, “Venice Bitch”

Though the song’s Americana-drenched lyrics are quintessential Lana Del Rey—“I dream in jeans and leather,” she coos breathily—the ambitious “Venice Bitch” finds the singer expanding her sound beyond the lush, hop-hop-infused baroque pop of her last two albums and diving headlong into psych-pop. The expansive, nine-and-a-half-minute track, produced by Del Rey and Jack Antonoff, begins as a delicate acoustic ballad before morphing into a woozy, meandering jam session. Del Rey disappears for long stretches at a time, allowing the trippy guitar feedback and liquid psychedelic effects to ooze and distort like a faded memory. It’s not hard to imagine Del Rey swaying aimlessly, lost in reverie, her mind drifting back in time as the music chugs along before the whole thing evaporates in a puff of nostalgia. Sal Cinquemani

20. Courtney Barnett, “Nameless, Faceless”

Courtney Barnett, an indie rocker known for wry, rambling confessionals about nebulous sources of angst and ennui, instead deadpans about a specific external menace in “Nameless, Faceless”: namely, aggressive misogyny. Lamenting the reality that few women can feel safe walking alone through the park at night, she aptly paraphrases The Handmaid’s Tale in her chorus, singing that, “Men are scared that women will laugh at them…Women are scared that men will kill them.” Barnett deftly highlights this disparity in threat level, taking the specific fear of bodily harm that leads women to hold keys between their fingers in self-defense and contrasting it with the vague source of pent-up rage swelling within resentful men who increasingly find an outlet for their grievances through harassment and violence. The track’s catchy, upbeat melody belies the bleakness of its subject matter. But Barnett’s blunt response to depressing modern anxieties and troll culture makes for a compelling antidote to toxic aggression. Goller

19. The Carters, “Apeshit”

There’s a certain subset of rap fans who’ve never stopped clamoring for a sequel to Watch the Throne, Jay-Z’s 2011 team-up with his erstwhile “little brother” Kanye West. At least until Yeezy permanently retires his MAGA hat, that reunion seems unlikely. But in the meantime there’s “Apeshit,” the lead single from Hova’s collaboration with his better half, Beyoncé. With its luxury-rap lyrics and a music video that pointedly juxtaposes trap beats and black bodies with Renaissance masterpieces in the Louvre, “Apeshit” feels in many ways like a successor to—or revision of—Watch the Throne’s “Niggas in Paris.” Indeed, it may even top its predecessor in at least one crucial area: Bey’s verse is a revelation, hitting rapid-fire triplets like an erstwhile member of Migos (whose Quavo co-wrote the song and ably ad-libs throughout) and generally outshining her husband’s more restrained, rote performance. Jay, for his part, is as impressed as the rest of us, crowing “She went crazy!” as her verse concludes. Who needs to watch the throne when the queen is right in front of us? Hoskins

18. Brockhampton, “San Marcos”

Even for a group as lyrically frank as Brockhampton, “San Marcos” feels less like a pop song than a group therapy session. Named for the town in Texas where the group formed, the track rotates among the members as they bare uncomfortable truths. Matt Champion sketches a haunting image of someone drinking to kill his or her pain and dancing alone, before Kevin Abstract implores listeners to speak with their chests to fool the world about their inner torment. In the darkest moment, Joba sings through a hazy vocal effect, “Suicidal thoughts, but I won’t do it/Take that how you want, it’s important I admit it.” Despite the pathos, “San Marcos” is ultimately not about self-loathing, but about reckoning with one’s scars and moving on—or as Joba says, “I know that I’m changing.” When the London Community Gospel Choir euphorically sings, “I want more out of life than this,” it’s hard not to feel like you’re arriving somewhere better. Schrodt

17. Jack White, “Corporation”

Jack White’s Boarding House Reach is an unfettered and occasionally unhinged morass of prog rock, funk, spaghetti-western soundtrack pastiche, and demented white hip-hop. But while the album’s indulgences weren’t for everyone, the compressed energy of “Corporation” proves harder to resist. The mostly instrumental track succinctly captures the manic energy of White’s live performances: Listen and you can practically see him running from one side of the stage to the other, moving from clavinet to congas to fuzz guitar like Edgar Winter performing his own kitschy rock instrumental, “Frankenstein.” When White breaks into a sales-cum-preacher patter mid-song (“I’m thinkin’ about startin’ a corporation/Nowadays that’s how you get adulation”), it’s both a knowing nod to his reputation as a huckster eccentric—part Willy Wonka, part Charles Foster Kane—and a genuine statement of intent from a man whose record-label storefront and pressin-plant complex occupies a sizeable portion of Detroit’s gentrifying Cass Corridor neighborhood. By the end of the song, not long after a pitch-shifted, extended vocal squeal that takes on the sonic character of a siren, you’ll believe that he’s really planning to “buy up all the empty lots and make one giant farm.” Like everything else having to do with Boarding House Reach, he’s just crazy enough to try. Hoskins

16. Courtney Barnett, “City Looks Pretty”

On 2015’s “Pedestrian at Best,” Courtney Barnett warned not to put her on a pedestal. She insisted it was because “I’ll only disappoint you,” but it may in fact have been an act of self-preservation. “City Looks Pretty” is far from disappointing, but the lyrics suggest that isn’t quite what she meant by her earlier missive. Rather, the attention she’s gotten since then seems to have paralyzed her, as she sings about staying indoors and ignoring phone calls. “Friends treat you like a stranger and/Strangers treat you like their best friend, oh well,” she observes, and when it comes to her “injured soul,” even her own “heavenly prose”—the sharp, witty lyricism that’s made her a rising star—“ain’t enough good to fill that hole.” Once Barnett’s insistently driving guitars cede to slow, bluesy keyboards as the song nears its end, she makes a final, desperate entreaty to be left to work things out on her own terms: “I’ll be what you want, oh when you want it/But I’ll never be what you need.” Winograd

15. The Beths, “Future Me Hates Me”

The impeccable “Future Me Hates Me” evinces a mastery of pop structure that one might expect from a seasoned songwriter who’s spent years honing his or her melodic instincts. The fact that its composer is 27-year-old Elizabeth Stokes, who wrote the song for her indie power-pop band’s first album bodes well for the future of the Beths. As Stokes sings about her reluctance to jump into a promising relationship because of the “Future heartbreak/Future headaches” it will inevitably cause, one can’t help but think that if the paramour she’s singing about makes her feel anywhere near as good as listening to these big, fuzzy, propulsive guitars and stream of euphoric vocal hooks that fit together like puzzle pieces, taking the plunge will be worth it. Winograd

14. Chance the Rapper, “65th & Ingleside”

The mea culpa is an underrated subtype among love songs: It delivers all the bliss of a first romance but also the sting of a breakup. Chance the Rapper, arguably the most exciting lyricist of his generation, licks his wounds in order to commit himself to his fiancée on “65th & Ingleside.” As on Coloring Book, where he adopts church organs and mixes them with heavy bass drums, flirting with gospel in his sing-songy, Chicago-referencing rap while unraveling a universal story that knows no god or city. He mixes playful acknowledgments of his failures with entreatments that leave no doubt about where his heart is. Note to prospective spouses: If your man tells you, “Feel like you remember every single lie/Truth is I just really need your finger size/So I can make sure that they make the ring so tight,” say yes. Schrodt

13. Cardi B f/ Bad Bunny and J Balvin, “I Like It”

For a fleeting moment in late 2017, it was reasonable to suspect that Cardi B would never recapture the lightning in a bottle of her breakthrough hit “Bodak Yellow.” But with “I Like It,” the fourth single from her debut album, Invasion of Privacy, she once again exceeded expectations: delivering an early summer jam that was arguably even more irresistible than the song that put her on the map. With its trunk-rattling trap beat grafted onto a sample from Pete Rodriguez’s Latin boogaloo classic “I Like It Like That,” “I Like It” just sounds like a party. And Cardi is the hostess with the mostess, holding court with her customary panache alongside Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and Colombian reggaetón singer J Balvin. It’s impossible to say whether Cardi can keep up the momentum that propelled her through her meteoric last 18 months, but at this point, we should all have learned that underestimating her is a fool’s errand. Hoskins

12. Sofi Tukker, “Batshit”

Sofi Tukker’s thumpy, bass-driven club track “Batshit” features a deadpan nod to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” that makes Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” sound like an understated homage. The EDM duo’s debut album, Treehouse, nudged them away from the underground club fare of 2016’s Soft Animals EP and in a more obvious pop direction, and the deliciously silly “Batshit” lands squarely at the nexus of dead-serious and downright batty. Cinquemani

11. Bruno Mars f/ Cardi B, “Finesse (Remix)”

Bruno Mars’s 2016 album 24K Magic was already a none-too-subtle love letter to late-1980s and early-‘90s R&B, but on the remix “Finesse,” he went whole hog, opening the track with a programmed snare line that doesn’t nod to Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” so much as swallow it whole and spit it back out undigested. Fortunately, he also gave us something new: namely, an ebullient guest verse by Cardi B in the full flush of her post-“Bodak Yellow” victory lap. Cardi’s charm, as ever, is less in what she says—a variation on her now-familiar “dollar bills”-to-“poppin’ bands” narrative—than in the way she says it: boisterously and Bronx-accented, with an audible megawatt grin. The concentrated joy when Bruno met Cardi was aspirational: Like they sing on the outro, “We got it goin’ on/Don’t it feel so good to be us?” Hoskins

10. Doja Cat, “Mooo!”

L.A.-based alt-R&B artist Doja Cat earned some critical attention in early 2018 with her debut album, Amala, but nothing close to the plaudits she received later in the year for her Dadaist viral hit “Mooo!” The song is, of course, inseparable from its memetic music video, which features Doja twerking in what appears to be an off-the-rack “sexy cow” Halloween costume in front of a green screen populated with bouncing anime breasts and 8-bit hamburgers. But it wouldn’t have had the same impact if it weren’t also such an earworm: from the absurd opening line, “Bitch, I’m a cow,” to the chorus, which milks every “moo” from the phrases “Bitch, I’m too smooth/I’m not in the mood/Tryna make moves,” to the cow-themed interpolations of Ludacris’s “Move Bitch” and Kelis’s “Milkshake.” Like the best memes, “Mooo!” has no intrinsic meaning, which made it strangely comforting in a year when the meaningless things meant too much and the important things were rendered meaningless. Hoskins

9. Taylor Swift, “Delicate”

Following hit-you-over-the-head singles like “Look What You Made Me Do” and “…Ready for It?,” Taylor Swift’s aptly titled “Delicate” offers similarly fleeting glimpses into a psyche shaped by public scrutiny, but does so with a much softer hand: “My reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me,” she tells a prospective love interest, blurring the line between confident ultimatum and uncertain deliberation. It’s this mix of spunky self-reliance and open vulnerability that made Swift a star, so it should come as no surprise when “Delicate” proves to be Reputation’s more enduring hit. Cinquemani

8. Jessie Ware, “Overtime”

Last year’s Glasshouse found U.K. soul songstress Jessie Ware further submerging herself in lush, introspective balladry. So, it was a bit of a surprise when the singer reemerged this fall with “Overtime,” a slice of classic house music reminiscent of her early collaborative singles. Produced by Simian Mobile Disco’s James Food and Bicep’s Andy Ferguson and Matt McBriar, the blissed-out track pairs a wobbly bassline and crisp backbeat with a bold vocal performance from Ware: “I could drink you up like summer lemonade/Give it to me straight, no chase,” she sings lustily. Cinquemani

7. Migos, “Stir Fry”

It’s a testament to the caliber of Pharrell Williams’s production backlog that the beat for “Stir Fry,” originally intended for T.I. back in 2008, could be plucked off the shelf 10 years later and still sound like the most futuristic thing on Migos’s Culture II. But the song’s infectiousness owes just as much to Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff, whose half-sung, half-shouted call and response has become the lingua franca of contemporary rap music while somehow retaining its own unique character. Every barked exclamation on “Stir Fry” is a hook in its own right, as potent as the one Pharrell sampled from the Mohawks’s “Champ”: It’s the purest distillation to date of the trio’s talent for turning simple, even sub-verbal utterances into instant earworms. As Migos has proven time and time again, they could ad-lib over the proverbial phonebook and make it sound hot. But the synergy they achieve with this single’s incessant breakbeat and retro video game keyboards is positively molten. Hoskins

6. Damien Jurado, “Percy Faith”

Throughout his latest album, The Horizon Just Laughed, Damien Jurado isn’t shy about making musical references to the halcyon 1960s. On “Percy Faith,” he reveals that his nostalgia is rooted in disaffection with the trappings of his own time. “Mr. Allen Sherman, I am writing from the future,” Jurado greets the long-dead novelty singer in the song’s final verse, before regaling him with his feelings of alienation. But Jurado doesn’t have rose-colored glasses on about the past either. In separate addresses to the likes of the titular easy-listening bandleader, he acknowledges the strife endemic to Faith’s era: “There are riots in the streets/And we’re still not on the moon.” Fittingly, then, the music suggests a wistful, gauzy interpretation of a mid-‘60s sound half-remembered from a dream. With the warm piano/organ interplay redolent of vintage Dylan and the Band, combined with soothing strings and Jurado’s own yearning tenor, the conclusion is inescapable: Few others but Jurado make ‘em like they used to. Winograd

5. Janelle Monáe, “Make Me Feel”

Prince reportedly helped Janelle Monáe come up with some of the distinctive falling star-like synth tones on “Make Me Feel,” and the single’s infectious funk-pop groove and hypersexual lyrics are unmistakably redolent of the late pop icon. But Monáe wills “Make Me Feel” to transcend mere homage by turning it into a deeply personal anthem of self-actualization. After years of coy deflections of questions about her sexuality, she more or less confirms suspicions right off the bat (“Baby don’t make me spell it out for you…Can’t be explained, but I can try for you”) before proceeding to make it clear that as a sexual being, she’s much more than just the fact that she likes girls. “It’s like I’m powerful with a little bit of tender/An emotional sexual bender,” she declares, strutting her way through the song like the most fearless badass in the world. Winograd

4. Troye Sivan, “Bloom”

Counter to the clumsiness, dysfunction, and abuse that comprise so many coming-out stories, Troye Sivan’s “Bloom” is a joyous celebration of burgeoning sexuality, set to a jubilant hook punctuated by a snare drum lifted from an era when being gay was a death sentence. “Promise me you’ll hold my hand if I get scared/Might tell you to take a second, baby, slow it down,” the 23-year-old Aussie singer begs. But don’t let his coy protestations fool you: Much of the song is likely a romanticized portrayal of how things could or should be, as so much of adult life can sometimes feel for those deprived of proper formative years. Cinquemani

3. Ariana Grande f/ Nicki Minaj, “The Light Is Coming”

Ariana Grande’s simmering “The Light Is Coming” at first seems spiritual in nature, hinged on the singer’s infectious mantra, “The light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole.” But the track—all skittish beats and throbbing sub-bass—also doubles as a rejoinder to our current political climate. It’s an impression bolstered by an audio sample of a man at a town hall venting his frustrations about being silenced by those who are supposed to represent him, and syncopated verses in which Grande condemns a culture that incentivizes the questioning of others’ experiences. Cinquemani

2. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”

No single in 2018 captures the essence of our fiercely polarized culture and its conflicting priorities quite like Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” Released in conjunction with Donald Glover’s performance of the song on Saturday Night Live, it juxtaposes ebullient choral melodies with an unnervingly sinister electronic drone, a sonic sensibility that echoes an increasingly bipolar modern society which seems to alternate between outrage and mindless distraction. At one point, a rejoicing gospel choir is abruptly silenced by a barrage of assault-rifle shots, but—reflecting a 24-hour hour news cycle that feigns shock and offers thoughts and prayers before quickly moving on to the next hot-button issue—the music quickly swings back toward the upbeat. Goller

1. Robyn, “Honey”

Robyn’s music can be exhausting. Her four-on-the-floor beats flex so hard that they sometimes struggle to leave room to breathe. Not so on “Honey,” which keeps us slightly off balance with its simple, sneakily sophisticated instrumentation. Skittering hi-hats create their own rhythm around the bass, while haunting vocal samples drift in and out like distant sirens. It’s still propulsive but filled with seemingly endless empty space. True to its name, however, “Honey” is ultimately sticky-sweet comfort food. Robyn’s sensual coos invite us into the unconditional warmth “at the of heart of some kind of flower/Stuck in glitter, strands of saliva.” This latest version of Robyn’s fembot persona is a starkly open-hearted about-face for an artist who once wore synths like armor. And it just happens to be the balm that many people this year not only wanted, but desperately needed. Schrodt

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