The Best Songs of 2018
Ten tracks we relied on in an ever-changing year.
Songs are those things you can listen to on a loop. You get obsessed. You replay a couple in particular and drive your roommates or SO or pets crazy. The best ones are called “earworms,” though sometimes those are also the worst ones—bad songs can be mind-numbingly catchy too, torturing you for months on end.
Pop songs definitely had a moment this year, emerging with unexpected nuance and challenging hooks, plus several rap hits came in hot, incisive, and lyrically complex. Albums have been in a state of flux of late (surprise releases, refreshingly short and unconscionably long rap records—not to mention the ever-changing conditions for what, how, and why we stream), but that hasn’t really affected songs.
Songs are probably tougher to agree upon than albums, because each is so specific. Tons of people can reach consensus on a great record, but they’ll all have a different favorite track. That’s the kind of debate that sparks good conversation. As for our list, some of these songs are catchy. Some are relatable. Some are beautiful. Some you might not have considered “best of” contenders until now, which is OK. Luckily, all of them are just a click away.
Presenting the best songs of 2018.
10. Damien Jurado — “Percy Faith”
When Damien Jurado toured his new album, The Horizon Just Laughed, he did so while wearing a variety of plain-color jumpsuits that were less Devo and more “I work in a factory.” Appropriate, anyway, as he’s been working like a factory worker for over twenty years now, steadily releasing album after album of hopelessly reliable nylon-string folk-rock that you could set your watch to. Good old fashioned American craftsmanship. Or something like that. Jurado’s music has been frequently taken for granted over time—it seems as if each album is warmly received and then moved on from—and that’s likely partially due to the fact that, from a distance, it can sound similar to what one might call modern mood music. It’s much more than that, of course, but a playful awareness of that perception is part of what makes “Percy Faith” one of Jurado’s best-ever songs, it being named after the inventor of mood music, Mr. Percy Faith. The time-travelling saga is almost epistolary in nature—we’re dropped into the middle of what appears to be a letter directed at various semi-forgotten entertainers like Faith, Ray Conniff, and Allan Sherman—but “Stan” this is not. Jurado’s world is dreamy, sure, and you might not notice it at first, but the assembly line catches up to everyone eventually. — Nate Rogers
9. Jonny Greenwood — “House of Woodcock”
The composition that opens Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterwork Phantom Thread evokes a woman descending a staircase in a silvery gown, eyes locked on a suitor waiting at the bottom: airy and fluttering piano notes sliding down the bannister alongside her, silk trailing behind. Soon, a chorus of violins break into trills of elegant ecstasy. “House of Woodcock” accompanies a viewer’s introduction to Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his London home, where sewing ladies flock each day to assist the master in his fashion design. It was written (as was the film’s entire soundtrack) by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, and recorded by a sixty-piece orchestra. This track elicits lavish beauty, yes—but it sounds like hard work too, encapsulating the sensuality of fabric, the quiet rituals of domestic duty, and the melancholy of making something that can be neither perfect nor eternal. — Anya Jaremko-Greenwold
8. Robyn — “Missing U”
“This residue, it’s all I’ve got,” coos Robyn on “Missing U,” the tightly-coiled keynote to her lovelorn Honey. It’s hard to imagine anyone else wringing as much emotion from the word residue as she does—proof enough that she’s unrivaled at using the vocabulary of pop music to encompass human emotions that are at once sophisticated and dead simple. “Missing U” is about the liminal state between memory and forgetting; it’s about being trapped with the ghostly presence of a lover you can no longer see or touch. It’s about stopped clocks. It’s about missing someone.
Robyn has historically colored with sharp, clean lines, but Honey overall feels a little more porous and free-form. “Missing U” is the exception—a glinting pop banger with cascading melodies and stainless steel beats. It’s almost like she’s reminding us of her dancefloor-friendly confectionary genius. Some things you just never forget. — Josh Hurst
7. Jeff Tweedy — “Some Birds”
Wilco’s ascent into the household-name dimension came with a flock of birds—the cover of 2007’s Sky Blue Sky is a blurry mess of wings, with just one pair standing apart, flying off to the right of the rest. Jeff Tweedy has always been great at capturing the spirit of that image in his music: He’s an everyman who convincingly understands the tough-but-necessary life of the flock, and he’s a rock star, one of the truest left out there, the living embodiment of a dwindling golden age of fancy hats and carpets on stages and guitar changes for every song. “Some Birds,” the first single from his solo album WARM, is a song about frustration—“Some birds just sit useless, like fists / I wrestle on TV, but no one ever lets me win,” he sings—in which Tweedy demonstrates why he’s still the best in the biz when it comes to capturing the feeling of being just another bird on a wire. More plainly, though: With all due respect to Nels Cline, it’s such a delight to hear Jeff take a guitar solo again. — Nate Rogers
6. Drake — “Nice for What”
So much of the Drake-centric discourse gets tangled in semantics—are we getting pop Drake, or R&B Drake, or hip-hop Drake? Is his latest project an album, or is it a mixtape, or is it a playlist? Is he hiding his kid from the world or hiding the world from his kid? These questions all miss the point (as does Scorpion, which separates The Rap Songs from The R&B Songs like boys from girls at a middle school dance); Drake is at his most proficient when he is intentionally blurring these lines, flouting arbitrary labels to play the curator.
“Nice For What” understands this. While a female empowerment anthem from Drake sounds deeply misguided on its face, he avoids the trappings of self-seriousness; with its masterful sample of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” and its exuberant New Orleans bounce, “Nice For What” is the most purely entertaining Drake single in years. Few songs this summer were so ubiquitous (the few that were also happened to be Drake songs); none were so singularly joyful. — Alex Swhear
5. Ariana Grande — “thank u, next”
After the breakup of 2018’s most talked-about couple, someone tweeted, “All this time Ariana grande was actually the one with big dick energy.” But this should have been clear from the moment Ariana Grande started going out with SNL’s Pete Davidson. I’ve been rooting for Ariana since My Everything came out in 2014, and she finally got the hype she truly deserves with this year’s almost-flawless Sweetener. As has been wont to happen with Ariana, the excitement was tangled up in her very public relationship; Instagram astrology accounts will forever use the image of Ariana licking a lollipop and gazing dreamily up at Pete. She even titled a Sweetener song after him.
But Ariana’s spirit, and her penchant for writing perfect pop songs, transcends her attachment to any man and any meme. That became beyond obvious when, only twenty days after breaking things off with Pete, she busted out “thank u, next,” which is without a doubt the most brilliant breakup song ever written. (With it, she broke all kinds of streaming records—when she released the ’00s romantic comedy–themed video, with cameos from Legally Blonde’s Jennifer Coolidge and the cute guy Aaron from Mean Girls, there were more than 829,000 viewers watching together at peak.) “I’m so fucking grateful for my ex,” she croons, remembering her relationships with Pete, her former backup dancer Ricky Alvarez, and the late rapper Mac Miller. One taught her love, one taught her patience, one taught her pain (and from those freshly iconic lines were born a thousand more memes). In the song, she’s empathetic to each of her exes but mostly to herself, realizing—in true Cancer queen form—that with every lost love comes a lesson. And with every breakup comes a new chance to get to know the real you: “This one gon’ last,” she belts, “’Cause her name is Ari / And I’m so good with that.” 2018 was the year of Ariana Grande. Now we say “thank u” to our strange, wise, pint-sized fave. — Leah Mandel
4. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever — “Talking Straight”
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s “Talking Straight” starts like a Springsteen song: “All day, I listen out for Jenny’s old coupé.” It’s a great scene-setter, but part of what makes the rest of it such a fun ride is that from there on out singer/guitarist Joe White doesn’t take it anywhere near the places Springsteen might’ve. Another way to put that: Springsteen never wrote a song that grappled with the nature of outer space.
“The concept came about when I heard someone talking about the possibility of us, humans, being alone in the universe, and how sad that would be,” said White in a press release. Alright, so there’s no racing in the street in this one. But at the same time, it’s a maddeningly propulsive song—one that’ll make you bang your hand against the steering wheel when the chorus hits, as White, supported by the harmonies of Frank Keaney and Tom Russo, sings that you should “lay back” and “sink in.” Even if you start to get caught up in the question of the existence of aliens or whatever, when the command to let it all wash over happens, you will do so without hesitation.
RBCF share things like songwriting duties and friendly Australian demeanors—they’re casual about this whole “being-in-a-five-person-band-touring-the-world” thing, and their proper debut Hope Downs is a delightful companion for when you just want to put down the window and turn it up. But if you want to hear a story that stays grounded, put on Born to Run. — Nate Rogers
3. Pusha T — “If You Know You Know”
“If You Know You Know” is instantly iconic in the way that any great opening track strives to be: hear it just once and you’ll struggle to remember a time when you didn’t know every word. Kicking off Daytona on a blistering high note that the rest of the album refuses to come down from, it’s essentially Pusha T’s purpose and persona distilled into a triumphant three minutes and twenty two seconds of glory. Not unlike Bronx-based hip-hop heroes Camp Lo, Pusha seems to rap entirely in slang and code, only with less retro-stylization and more stark grittiness—The Wire to Camp Lo’s Shaft. With oblique lyrics referencing trap doors and “tennis balls for the wrong sport,” Pusha turns seedy street corner dealings and underground lingo into a swaggering anthem that even the squarest among us can appreciate.
Equal praise must be given to Kanye’s production, as the beat is certainly among the best of his career. Built primarily upon a pitched down sample of “Twelve O’Clock Satanial,” Kanye adds some light but effective 808 accents and dancehall yelps to create the most unorthodox banger of the year. In a genre rife with copycats, it’s refreshing to see Kanye able to subvert trap clichés and create the perfect sonic canvas for Pusha T’s talent, and together the two have crafted a hip-hop Rembrandt. It might take a deep Genius dive to even pretend to know what the hell Pusha is talking about, but that doesn’t really matter when you got him and Ye clickin’ like Golden State. — Alex Machock
2. Mitski — “Nobody”
A writer of unerring precision, Mitski always gets the little details right. Case in point: “Nobody,” one of the many perfectly sculpted gems on her album Be the Cowboy, has what seems at first like a random aside about global warming. Mitski’s protagonist is concerned about climate change, and of course she’s not the only one. So why does she feel so alone—as if on a planet by herself?
In an album full of missed connections and people who feel isolated even when they’re together, “Nobody” is one of the most melancholy confessions of all—the resigned sigh of someone who’s not even sure how to reach out for intimacy anymore. “Guess I’m a coward,” Mistki shrugs. “I just want to feel alright.”
She conveys her alienation in one of the most universal tongues: Soft rock. Pitched somewhere between the gentle thump of disco and the homespun whimsy of classic-era Paul McCartney, “Nobody” is a song that’s made to go down easy. Just don’t be surprised if it causes heartburn later on. “I just need someone to kiss,” Mistki sings, and it seems like such a simple request—but of course, there’s nobody. — Josh Hurst
1. Snail Mail — “Pristine”
If there’s one thing to know about Lindsey Jordan, it’s that she’s wise beyond her years. It’s evident all over Lush, her stunning debut full-length as Snail Mail, which came out this summer on Matador, just a few days before Jordan turned nineteen. Since its release, and even before, she’s been hailed as indie rock’s teen prodigy, a superlative with no hint of hyperbole. It stands to reason, as she spent most of her teendom growing up in DC, hanging out at punk shows, and learning guitar from Helium’s Mary Timony. When she was fifteen she was asked to play alongside Sheer Mag and Downtown Boys.
Out of all the intricate rock songs on Lush, “Pristine” is the one that gets stuck in your head and stays there. The glimmering guitar at its beginning is already unmistakable, and Jordan’s lilt is enthralling. The song’s title refers to the idea of being “Untraced by the world outside you,” the near-impossibility of knowing yourself away from the perception of others. On it, Jordan articulates complex existential thoughts with a graceful straightforwardness. She asks questions that, with her gravelly-sweet voice and rousing melody, become anthemic. She wonders about herself (“Don’t you like me for me? Is there any better feeling than coming clean?”) and about someone else (“Be honest with me / Who do you change for? … Who’s your type of girl?”) She ponders the ennui of teen life (“It just feels like / The same party every weekend / Doesn’t it?”) but she’s declarative, too, about letting things lie (“If it’s not supposed to be / Then I’ll just let it be”), about heartbreak (“I know myself and I’ll never love anyone else”), and, most heart-wrenchingly, about the person she could become if she’d let herself exist untraced by the world (“I could be anyone / But I’m so entwined”). Jordan’s earnest attempts at self-understanding exude exactly the kind of astuteness and warmth we needed this year. — Leah Mandel