If we’re just looking at the charts, 2018’s story could be told through just a couple handfuls of inescapable songs that dominated the listening world. But music is more than its biggest successes and the last year spent tirelessly covering the worlds of hip-hop, pop, and indie has revealed a remarkably deep class of essential new songs whose artistic excellence could be matched by its creative vision and pure listenability.
It’s as varied as the tastes of most young people today, where Post Malone and Cardi B can live comfortably next to Kacey Musgraves and Travis Scott. Sometimes it’s political, sometimes it’s emotional, and sometimes it can just be summed up with just the phrase “esskeetit.” But it’s all what we as a culture experienced together in this messy and unforgettable year.
50. Ariana Grande, “Thank U, Next”
All the way from that glistening, glinting music-box keyboard riff bookending the track, through to the gracious, loving words about Mac and Pete, and into the female empowerment that frames men as merely steps in a woman’s life and not vice versa, “Thank U, Next” is a perfect pop song. It snuck up at the end of 2018 to cement Ariana’s place in the year once and for all, and to yet again reveal her as one of the wisest young women in business. God, how many women listening to this track wanted to denounce their own pettiness toward an ex in favor of this sweetly dismissive kiss-off? Even though one of Ari’s other Sweetener singles felt like more of an anthem for the year as a whole, “Thank U, Next” is a masterclass in the way pop music isn’t shallow at all, but can wrap some of the deepest, most important lessons about life in a bright, shiny bow. That shit’s amazing.–Caitlin White
49. Ryley Walker, “Spoil With The Rest”
As the funniest man in indie rock, Ryley Walker also writes genuinely beautiful and quietly gut-wrenching songs. This highlight from Deafman Glance is the lament of a perpetual screw-up who nonetheless hopes for another shot at redemption, even if he suspects that he doesn’t deserve it. “Passed out bad decision / Dreams look great with no vision / Whenever I feel blessed / Too much guilt to confess,” he sings, over descending guitar lines that flirt lackadaisically with free jazz and noise rock. (“I’ve never had much luck with relationships going far, or being honest or meaningful,” he said of the song’s origin. “So, I think a lot of trying and failing has been my whole life.”)
Fans of A Ghost Is Born-era Wilco will instantly recognize Walker’s Midwestern fatalism and brainy, prog-accented Americana. (He has cited the first Loose Fur album as an inspiration.) But Walker also has his own distinctive voice, a hungover purr that contrasts comfortably with the restless inventiveness of his guitar playing.–Steven Hyden
48. Maren Morris, Zedd, Grey, “The Middle”
Between 2005 and 2011, Maren Morris released three studio albums on smaller labels, which were enough to get her noticed by the country music community. She co-wrote a song on Tim McGraw’s 2014 album Sundown Heaven Town, then she released a self-titled EP in 2015 via Columbia Nashville, which she followed up the next year with Hero, her debut major label album. That record established her as a country star: It peaked at the top of the country charts, and went all the way to No. 5 on the Billboard 200.
That said, you wouldn’t have guessed any of that by listening to her single with Zedd and Grey, “The Middle.” It’s an unabashed pop banger that’s become ubiquitous this year — look at its more than half a billion plays on Spotify for proof of that. This isn’t entirely unprecedented, however, as Morris has stepped foot in the pop world before this. She’s written for Kelly Clarkson, and last year, she joined Niall Horan on his song “Seeing Blind.” While not much of Morris’ country influence found its way into “The Middle,” her spot-on vocal performance is the highlight of the track, and proof that country musicians don’t deserve the boxes that non-fans tend to put them in.–Derrick Rossignol
47. Idles, “Colossus”
First impressions mean everything. You never get a second chance to make one. For Idles, the Bristol post-punk prodigies that sound like they were raised on a diet of nails, beer, and leather, they don’t waste the opportunity of their great sophomore record, Joy As An Act Of Resistance. Just look at that title, “Colossus,” a word meant to swallow its reader whole, whose grandeur is so great that it can hardly be recognized from the ground. Perspective is indeed everything.
Bands like Savages, Liars, and Protomartyr come to mind at various points in the song, but none has a song quite like this in their repertoire. The slow-build of its first several minutes is anxiety-inducing, with frontman Joe Talbot slurring his way through lines like “Forgive me father, I have sinned / I’ve drained my body full of pins / I’ve danced til dawn with splintered shins” with enough conviction that you can practically hear his bones grinding. But once the fever reaches a boil, the song pauses and completely shifts into a raised-fists, chant-along, lager-spilling rager. “I put homophobes in coffins,” Talbot yells, not mincing words about what his band is about. It adds up to a blistering epic of rare proportions, ensuring that the album to come stays turned up loud for its duration.–Philip Cosores
46. Saba, “Logout” feat. Chance The Rapper
We’re all a little too invested in social media these days. The algorithms probably have more control over our tastes and our bank accounts than we do, and if it’s art’s job to hold a mirror up to society, thank goodness the mirror in question is being held by Saba and Chance The Rapper.
On the standout from Saba’s Care For Me, the two thoughtful Chicago rappers critique Extremely Online culture while avoiding the pitfall of “get off my lawn”-ism. Maybe that’s because they’re both right in that target demographic for Instagram and Snapchat, or maybe it’s because they’re both so witty and deft with their respective pen games. Rather than deriding the youth for their obsession with likes and follows, they empathize with the desire to feel validated by notifications and digital props from strangers, all while acknowledging the positive effects social media has had on their own lives and careers. Sometimes, we all still need a reminder to “LogOut,” at least a little bit.–Aaron Williams
45. Nicki Minaj, “Chun-Li”
Say what you want about Nicki Minaj’s driving, catchy comeback single; she may have gotten the iconic Street Fighter star‘s good guy/bad guy designation wildly wrong, but it was a mistake that repositioned the Queen‘s standing — both in rap music as a whole and in her myriad beef with other entertainers, including Cardi B. Almost overnight, “Chun-Li” turned Nicki into more of an M. Bison (or Vega, if you prefer the Japanese name of the game’s true villain): The looming final boss character that had to be defeated in order to solidify any of 2018’s burgeoning rap heroes’ legends in fans’ minds. That both Cardi B and Travis Scott did so doesn’t diminish her sinister appeal at all.
From its “choose-your-own-adventure” style release alongside “Barbie Tingz,” to its kung-fu movie-referencing video, “Chun-Li” was basically inescapable, at least until its status as the most important song of Queen‘s promotional cycle was bumped by “Barbie Dreams.” It’s the Queens rapper as good as we’ve heard her for some time; she’s energized, hungry, and lyrical again, without the dizzying array of pop music accouterments that have often competed for with her hardcore credibility. She sounds like she could back up at least some of her harshest lyrical threats, and honestly, that’s all anyone can hope for from a good villain — even one that just wants to be loved as much as Nicki does.–A.W.
44. Migos, “BBO” Feat. 21 Savage
Migos’ Culture II wasn’t quite the phenomenon that the first Culture album was, but it had its moments. When three of the hottest rappers in the world take 24 chances to put some fire together, you’re going to see the flames eventually. Such is the case on “BBO,” a song that was often mistaken as “BBQ” the night the song dropped — until you heard 21 Savage let you know his vibe was “bad b*tches only” over an elegant sample. His chorus set off the track in grand fashion, taking advantage of one of the rare occasions that Migos let a guest appearance set the stage for the rest of the group.
After 21 Savage attempts to steal the show, the three carry on with their own verses, showcasing why the Migos formula just works. Quavo slides through with auto-tuned finesse, Offset lets us know “we in the field with sticks like this Arcadia,” and unsung hero Takeoff closes everything out. The decadent song is a marker of Atlanta’s dominance, with two of the city — and game’s — biggest acts at their best. Years from now, we’ll hear this and think about this era, where both Migos and 21 Savage were young, fly, and getting the party started.–Andre Gee
43. Wet, “There’s A Reason”
Upon first listen, Wet’s “There’s A Reason” is light as air, a sunny synth-pop tune best listened to with the windows down. It’s skillful in that way, as it reels you in without a second thought; however, the track lacks none of Wet’s distinguished depth.
Still, the track does diverge a bit in comparison to Wet’s previous releases — while 2016’s Don’t You rang mostly of melancholy and longing, “There’s A Reason” provides the break in the clouds. “I’ll wait for the rest of our lives / With the answer just out of sight / There’s a reason you’re by my side,” sings Kelly Zutrau, with a confident optimism. It’s a sure sign of the paradoxical yet sturdy carefreeness that comes with growth and maturity. “There’s A Reason” is refreshing, a picture of earnestness, resilience, and buoyancy where it seems to belong less and less.–Leah Lu
42. MorMor, “Heaven’s Only Wishful”
There’s something about the young musicians that can do it all. In a world populated by singers, by instrumentalists, by producers, and by directors, people able to see their own project through from beginning to end have a magnetic quality. It makes the art ring true with a singular vision, where success and failure can come at no one’s hand but their own. And when it works, it makes it all the more impressive.
For MorMor and his exquisite “Heaven’s Only Wishful,” the idea of artistic vision comes through in technicolor. He sings, he plays the instruments, he recorded the song himself and even lent a hand in directing its video. The result is something that purely expresses just who this rising Canadian artist is. But even with one mind at the center of the piece, the song stands out for how untethered and fully-realized it is, finding new treasures to unveil around every curve of its more-than-five-minute runtime. It’s a deceptively complex construction, masking itself as simplicity even when it’s quite intricate. And the song’s titular conceit, that paradise might be nothing but a hope and prayer, is fortified by the ballast of personal experience. There’s no sugarcoating here, just the honest observations from one of music’s brightest rising stars.–P.C.
41. Chvrches, “Miracle”
Although Love Is Dead is still firmly rooted in Chvrches’ synthpop tradition, it feels different than the band’s two previous records thanks to an aura of experimentation. On an album that’ has more boundary-breaking for the Scottish group than ever before, “Miracle” is still unlike other songs on Love Is Dead. Lauren Mayberry has credited that to the influence of producer Steve Mac, who co-wrote only this song on the record. “He makes space for everyone in the room and really pushes people to try things and go outside of their comfort zone, in a good way,” she said.
Chvrches have never shied away from a big chorus, but they go about it differently here, resulting in a hook that stands out as particularly resounding even on a record that’s full of them. The verses are tranquil before mood-changing synths that create a sense of anticipation are introduced. When the chorus hits, it’s direct and powerful, with “oh oh-oh” backing vocals that are made to be blasted out and repeated back by gigantic crowds. For a band whose reputation is built on festival anthems, they might have crafted their best one here.–D.R.