A lot changed for me in 2018. I left a job and went to law school. I left a garbage, crumbling city between two rivers of sludge and moved to a gleaming metropolis on the banks of an endless blue lake. I stopped listening to Kanye West for my own mental health. But most of all, I went from living with roommates to living alone, which means no one could throw shade at me for blasting the music I love on a constant loop, all day long. Sorry, neighbors!
This is the music that soundtracked this year of changes – a brilliant bunch of songs that brought color and light to the cars, bars, and bedrooms that filled my year.
The Top 20 Songs of 2018
Honorable Mentions: Lana Del Rey – “Venice Bitch”; Courtney Barnett – “Need a Little Time”; Troye Sivan – “Seventeen”; Beach House – “L’Inconnue”; boygenius – “Me & My Dog” and “Salt in the Wound”; Cardi B – “I Like It” (feat. Bad Bunny & J Balvin); IAMDDB – “Loose Change”; Joey Purp – “Elastic”; The Hold Steady – “Entitlement Crew.”
20. Janelle Monáe – “Make Me Feel”
This turned out not to be true, but, when “Make Me Feel” first dropped, it sure felt like it was:
19. Sheck Wes – “Mo Bamba”
“Mo Bamba” is the only song this year that registers on the Richter scale each time it plays. Add it to the video, and it’s a 9.0. Take cover.
18. Travis Scott – “SICKO MODE” (feat. Drake)
17. Chance the Rapper – “I Might Need Security”
Our praises went up, and the blessing that came down is Chance the Rapper, who has evolved from all-around nice guy into a bonafide political powerbroker in Chicago, if not yet beyond. He goes all-in on “I Might Need Security”: “Rahm, you done, I’m expecting resignation and open investigation on all of these paid vacations for murderers.” My word! How could Rahm do anything but fold? Chance won’t stop here: “I ain’t no activist, I’m the protagonist,” he raps. We’re all a part of his story now.
16. Beach Bunny – “Painkiller”
I discovered Beach Bunny by accident when I caught the last song of her set opening for Alex G, and immediately announced that I didn’t need to stay for the rest of the show – this was good enough for me. (I’m glad I stayed; it was a great show.) A deep dive ensued the next day, and I was obsessed. “Painkiller” is the standout from the terrific Prom Queen EP, a classic breakup barnburner (“all of your apologies are only empty calories”) that, halfway through, becomes a Tylenol-fueled dance-rock banger, a surprising curative for all sorts of ailments.
15. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Party for One”
New–Carly–Rae–Song–About–Masturbation is so tremendously my brand that fully eight different people texted me to make sure I had heard “Party for One” when it arrived. I had. It’s classic Jepsen: joyous, whimsical, eminently meme-able. But most of all, it’s generous and validating – a reminder, in trying times, to take care of yourself, however you need to.
14. Sidney Gish – “I Eat Salads Now”
“Bitch I’m wasted, just kidding I’m high / we’re gonna go to a show and then come home and probably die” is the year’s biggest mood. “I Eat Salads Now” is a bite-sized rallying cry for the stupid baby in all of us.
13. Drake – “Nonstop”
As with many of the best Drake songs, the first time I heard “Nonstop,” I thought it was one of Drake’s worst songs ever. The song is almost outrageously one-note, as if daring you to hit next. You won’t, of course, because it’s as magnetic as it is monotonous, stuffed to the brim with classic Drake-isms (among them: “bills so big I call ’em Williams” and, uh, that other one). Now, a few hundred times later, the song courses with energy, a scorching slow-burn like only Drake can make them.
12. Kacey Musgraves – “Love Is a Wild Thing”
Golden Hour is the record Taylor Swift wanted to make but never could – so she shook it off, took the money and ran. Like the rest of the album, “Love Is a Wild Thing” is a marvel of craftsmanship and production, intimate and all-encompassing at once. When the finger-picked banjo gives way to some otherworldly keys in the bridge, we go from Nashville to Neptune at a moment’s notice – a wild thing indeed.
11. Young Thug – “High” (feat. Elton John)
High risk, high reward. As always, Thug lands it flawlessly, and the crowd goes wild. The choice to sample Elton turns out to be inspired: “High” anoints Thug as the unlikely heir to Sir Elton’s throne, tracing a lineage from one flamboyant pop icon to new one for a new era.
10. Soccer Mommy – “Your Dog”
Over a gorgeous, woozy guitar lick, Sophie Allison spits only the truth: “I don’t wanna be your fucking dog / that you drag around,” and “I want a love that lets me breathe / I’ve been choking on your leash.” It’s a testament to the strength of the metaphor and the music that she doesn’t ever have to say she’s thrown off her shackles for you to know it’s true. The dog is off its leash, and its fangs are bared.
9. Cardi B – “Be Careful”
The simple fact is that Invasion of Privacy was a true musical event, and a much-anticipated debut that somehow exceeded its sky-high expectations. Cardi owes her success to no one but Cardi and her singular Cardi-ness. She is wholly engrossing.
“Be Careful” is the most Cardi song on Invasion of Privacy, the one song where she pauses her assault on the rap world and allows us to invade her privacy. It’s honest, vulnerable, and straightforward. It’s hard to imagine Cardi fading quickly (or, well, ever) if she continues to deliver certified bops that also pack an emotional punch. World domination looms. That’s not a threat, it’s a warning.
8. boygenius – “Ketchum, ID”
On “Stay Positive,” Craig Finn starts a religion: “The singalong songs will be our scriptures.” That lyric has defined my relationship with music since I first heard it. And by that standard, “Ketchum, ID,” the campfire prayer that closes the spectacular boygenius EP, is pretty darn close to holy.
7. Noname – “Ace” (feat. Smino & Saba)
“Ace” is the living room you know by heart, the couch sagged from years of smoke sessions, the big blanket on a cold day. It’s warm and powerful, and you know it from the first line: “Whiskey with the team.” I’ll have another.
6. ROSALÍA – “BAGDAD (Cap.7: Liturgia)”
EL MAL QUERER is the best album of 3018, and “BAGDAD” is the key to its magical future. The song begins with disarming familiarity – yes, that is the hook from “Cry Me a River,” but there’s something just a bit off. (It’s like Westworld, but good.) As Rosalía slowly iterates away from Timberlake’s indelible hook, you feel time ripping apart at the seams. When we land in our new world, the physics are all off. “BAGDAD” undoes gravity and leaves you floating.
5. Childish Gambino – “This Is America”
The video will be taught in college classes, and it couldn’t exist without the song, which is every bit as jarring, a much needed hard-left shift to the pop music Overton window. The mindblowing drop, all shock and awe, is the single most disturbing moment of music in years. It can be nothing but a perfect musical encapsulation of a certain day in November 2016, when everything and nothing changed. Critically, the song is “This Is America,” not “This Is America Now.” We are who we always have been. It’s about time we admitted it.
4. Mitski – “Nobody”
Loneliness has never sounded so glamorous. “Nobody” is an emo-disco fantasia on national themes, and while it might seem like a bit of a downer at first, by the time it’s done, “Nobody” leaves you wondering why you ever needed somebody – heck, anybody – at all. As the song crashed toward its end, we modulate up not once but twice, and Mitski’s chant grows more delirious with each repetition. This loneliness sounds, more than anything, like fun. As I sit in my apartment blasting this song for the ninth consecutive time, I am happy to confirm: it is.
3. Snail Mail – “Pristine”
Lindsey Jordan is only 19 years old – yes, that makes me feel as terrible as it does you – but she is wise beyond her years. Lush is the year’s best album, an instant-classic indie rock record that is as expansive as it is economical. Jordan has a razor-sharp command of language; her lyrics are tight and visceral. Listening to the whole album is like death by a thousand cuts – emotionally punishing but utterly exhilarating.
“Pristine,” a five-stages-of-grief unrequited-crush song, is the beating heart of Lush, and the album’s wildest emotional rollercoaster. Like the best rollercoasters, just when you think you’re safe, you’re thrown for an even bigger loop, an even steeper drop. After the second chorus – “I’ll never love anyone else!” – the song quiets down, and she assures herself: “If it’s not supposed to be, then I’ll just let it be.” It’s a brief respite before a torrent of desperate bargaining: “Who’s your type of girl?” and “I can be anyone.” The song builds to a dizzy climax, all crashing cymbals and driving guitar, before pulling back into the station: “No more changes / I’ll still love you the same.”
Is there a dash of hope here, some resigned finality? Maybe. What I feel most at the end of “Pristine” is a sense that the world has been upended. The first order of business is remembering how to walk, and learning to appreciate the solid ground beneath us.
2. Drake – “God’s Plan”
2018 didn’t need Drake. In recent years, his output has been long on cynicism and short on ideas; many of his songs this year were too. Through it all, Drake seemed to grow cockier, more conceited. The sad boy façade was torn away, and underneath was just … a jerk, in a market oversaturated with jerks.
And yet, somehow, this insufferable goon had one of the biggest years in the history of music. I hate myself for it, but he’s on this list three (three!) times. It all starts and ends with “God’s Plan,” the most ubiquitous song of the year, and one of the best.
Despite the title, “God’s Plan” is the humblest we have seen Drake in years: “I can’t do this on my own / someone watching this shit close,” he raps, and I’m out here applauding the humility of a claim that God has divinely, seemingly personally, ensured his success. “Imagine if I never met the broskis,” he adds, and suddenly all is forgiven. The song went diamond last week. Why are we all like this? And how does he know what we want so innately, every time?
And then, of course, there’s that lyric. I won’t quote it here because you’ve already sung it a million times, everywhere and with everyone. It’s the year’s most iconic moment, musical or otherwise – the great unifier in these most divisive times.
In 2018, “God’s Plan” was the song we needed from the man we didn’t.
1. Lucy Dacus – “Night Shift”
Despite the humility she showed in her praise of “Make Me Feel” – see above – it is my duty to report that Lucy Dacus also put out some songs this year, and one of them was better than anyone else’s.
“Night Shift” is a sprawling, nearly seven-minute masterpiece, and it starts by sending you crashing to the ground: “The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit, I had a coughing fit.” It’s an almost shockingly specific image – awkward, uncomfortable, and immediate. The miracle of “Night Shift” is that, without exception, every lyric is just as vivid, just as crushing, as that first one.
Halfway through, Dacus meets her ex-lover at a cafe. (I have PTSD already.) Like every time this has happened in the history of humanity, it doesn’t go well: “Pay for my coffee and leave before the sun goes down / walk for hours in the dark, feeling all hell.”
The walk she takes is a revelation. The drums crash, and the guitar abandons its gentle lullaby in favor of crunchy, chugging reverb. Over the fuzz, Dacus’ voice is brown butter, rich and smoky but clear as day. As she walks, she gains resolve, finding her mantra:
You’ve got a nine-to-five, so I’ll take the night shift
And I’ll never see you again if I can help it.
In five years I hope the songs feel like covers
Dedicated to new lovers.
The refrain repeats three times, and each time Dacus believes its promise more fully – she has to. Before the final chorus, she takes a moment to wail her face off. The flood gates open. Every hint of irony and self-deprecation dissolves, and we’re left with pure feeling. The last time we hear these words is different – they light up the night. The words speak no longer of a tenuous hope, they speak of certainty.
Her walk has finished. The sun comes up. She’s home, and she’s doing fine.
Find the whole list here: