"Oh, everybody loves a show / Lights on, they all go home."
With only a handful of releases to her name, Sigrid has a pretty phenomenal track record. This year, she’s delivered again by slowly unveiling a new EP song-by-song. High Five is the glorious centrepiece of that EP and one of her most euphoric moments to date. That big chorus that made us fall in love with her Don’t Kill My Vibe is back and her voice is floating on a cloud of triumph.
"Baby I'm about to lose it / And there's only one conclusion."
Maribelle has always had it in her but this year she’s finally delivered her big pop moment. In the same vein as songs like Dua Lipa’s IDGAF or Julia Michael’s Issues, she opts for minimal production, choosing to rely on vocals and personality. Both of those things bleed out of the speakers. It’s a slinky, soulful bop that’s testament to her artistry and songwriting.
"Way too many rappers say they blowing up like 4th July."
While you were all waiting on the new Brockhampton record, Sydney rapper Kwame quietly came through with an alternative that hits harder. WOW’s production is refreshingly forward-thinking. It sounds like it would immediately fit into the international scene without turning towards the obvious mumble rap trend. The vocal manipulation in the chorus is genius and his verses are immediate and charismatic.
"I get to devote my life to him."
serpentwithfeet flips everything you thought you knew about music in 2018. It’s classical, dramatic, theatrical and yet it’s some of the freshest music of the year. Cherubim is his masterpiece. It’s an outwardly queer declaration of love that holds absolutely nothing back. It stomps like a pounding heart in the chorus and sweeps elegantly in the verses as if he’s pinpointed the very moment when love grips its hands around the head.
"It be the ones, the ones you trust - them too."
Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E. was arguably the least anticipated of Kanye’s seven-track albums but she came through strong. Rose In Harlem is one of many highlights, serving pure R&B like nobody else is right now. It’s autobiographical, honest and liberated, delivered through those smokey, passionate vocals that sound like she’s lived a life before her own. The “rose in Harlem” sample acts as the pillar of the song but it’s Taylor’s story-telling that colours it, wrapping around it like a vine.
"All these people in the room and I just wanna be alone."
Jack River is the ‘90s alt-popstar we never had but she’s just as welcome in 2018 where she’s making anthems that most Aussie musos are afraid to make. Ballroom’s bed is rock ’n’ roll but its driving force is its pop sensibilities that allow that mammoth chorus to flourish. She manages to create this imagery where she’s standing in the middle of a crowded party and everything is blurred apart from her. It’s hard to make a loud room intimate but Ballroom creates this beautiful hush.
"You not my bitch then bitch you are done."
Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy was always going to be unpredictable. The only thing we could be sure of was a Migos feature. Motorsport was good but not great so Drip came with no huge expectation. And yet, it became one of Migos’ best moments of the year so far. The whistling beat somehow manages to both house Cardi B’s charisma and Migos’ nursery rhyme stylings. Cardi is in control but Offset runs away with one of the relentless verses of the year. The collab we all expected turned out to be surprisingly unexpected.
"Love, let's talk about love / Is it everything and anything you hoped for?"
When this was first released it was disappointing. It felt less personal than SZA’s CTRL and less immediate than Kendrick’s DAMN. but it opened up with every listen. Lamar’s phoned-in verses started to sound inspired and SZA’s pop-centric chorus began to elevate. Maybe none of us were ready for SZA and Kendrick to have a pop radio hit but as it played over-and-over, it sounded better than anything it was bookended by.
"Y'all can't move me, this is my movie."
One of the most rewarding parts of the five-week Kanye release circus was watching Kanye and Cudi’s relationship repaired through song as they both documented their own experiences with mental health and freedom. Whether you agree with it or not, one thing they both agree on is understanding the primal, childlike state and that’s where KIDS SEE GHOSTS shines. It’s a haunting, minimalist cut that suggests adults are no longer allow themselves to see things kids can. Right or wrong, it’s hard to argue with Cudi’s subtle hook and Kanye’s surprisingly restrained verses. Two of rap’s loudest figures suddenly didn’t need to be loud to make their best song of the year.
"Tell me, where do I exist?"
We couldn’t have predicted how introspective and abstract SOPHIE’s album could be. It’s an experimental, ingenious journey like no other but the oasis amongst it all is Immaterial. It’s the sole pop moment on the record but it’s absolutely glorious. It drops with melody, pounds with ADD energy and warps the mind. It’s easy to describe it as trashy, SOPHIE herself has done so, but it takes some real skill to make something this simultaneously immediate and intricate.
"Swimming pool, swimming pool / Indigo, deep blue, deep blue."
Lykke Li has always shied away from her big pop moment just steps before she got there. It’s like she wanted to do it but was afraid to see herself as a popstar. On Deep End she finally let go of that and embraced it. The beat is inspired by modern hip-hop, the chorus is radio-ready and yet the character in the middle of it all is Li. She’s lost none of what makes her spectacular and yet also made the most immediate song of her career.
"Dance with my dogs in the nighttime (woo, woo, woo, wroof)."
Migos needed to switch it up on Culture II. Bad and Boujee had inspired a whole generation of copycats and they needed something that would make it sound like they were pushing things forward again. Culture II didn’t really do that but it’s highlight Stir Fry did. Pharrell provided them the funnest, most liberated beat he’s made in years and over it Migos laid down bars with a rhythm that could only be compared to the toss of a wok. No one else in rap could handle this with the sort of playfulness that they do which is exactly what they need.
"This is America, don't catch you slippin' now."
Donald Glover has always been great but Childish Gambino has operated on the periphery of rap’s greats. It was perhaps that which made him backflip somewhat successfully to ’70s funk on his last album. On This Is America he re-introduced Gambino the rapper while maintaining that funk. It’s a culmination of a number of things from funk to Migos-driven modern rap giving him the space to be as socially and politically powerful as he in Atlanta. The video momentarily stopped the world and by the time he performed on SNL he was the most important artist in the world. Even if just for a moment.
"Learn to text with your nose if your thumb broke."
Cardi B and Kehlani bonded over a mutual love for each other and ended up collaborating on one of the best songs on Invasion Of Privacy. Kehlani takes the hook, Cardi takes the bars and together they stick it too a non-responsive partner. The verses are sharp-tongued but Kehlani's hook brings the emotion with soulful chords creeping in under her honey-soaked vocals.
"Beat in my chest, pain in my breast, yeah, you were the key."
Out of nowhere an Aussie bedroom musician made the best local pop song of the year. About You dropped on triple j Unearthed and within 24 hours it had spread around the web. Within a week, it had appeared on Pitchfork without having been released on Spotify. It was amazing to watch but it’s not hard to see how it caught on so quickly. About You is beautifully upfront. G Flip is one of the most comfortable songwriters around right now. She holds nothing back and the honesty that comes from that is infectious. Everything is organic from the lo-fi production to the charismatic vocal. You immediately feel as if you are on her team because About You exudes so much familiar warmth. To do that on your first release is absolutely extraordinary.
"I'll kiss you, I'll lay with you / You're broke, no, I can't fix you."
While other were trying to force queer anthems, Hayley Kiyoko and Kehlani came through with a monster pop song that was unashamedly queer. Regardless of its content, What I Need is a banger. Kehlani sounds like a superstar, Kiyoko gives us melody like she’s been trained for a decade by Max Martin and together they’re an inspired team. The content lifts it from being a great pop song to being an important, nuanced moment. Together they explore the complexities of a budding gay relationship succinctly. It’s not until you hear something like this that you truly realise how black and white pop music paints love to be.
"Have you ever seen the crowd goin' apeshit?"
If JAY-Z and Beyoncé were going to officially join forces for an album, they needed to give us something that nobody else could and that’s what they’ve done. APESHIT is boastful in a way that only a self-made couple with a billion dollar price tag could deliver. They rented out the Louvre for goodness sake and even with the Mona Lisa in the background, Bey and JAY have all eyes on them (even Mona’s). The Beyoncé as rapper narrative comes to fruition here more than ever before as she bodies a Migos-inspired flow, taking something that often feels of-the-time and making it classic. JAY may play the supporting actor role here but his inclusion is necessary and powerful.
"Oh my my my, I die every night with you."
My My My! is the moment Troye Sivan became an artist. Blue Neighbourhood was great and he’s done a phenomenal job at creating his own important narrative but he needed something that lead him towards icon-status. From the first listen My My My! delivered that. It’s his Green Light, Dancing On My Own, Run Away With Me moment. A pop song that celebrates love so boldly and proudly it’s impossible not to throw your hands in the air as soon as that chorus hits. It’s the gayest thing he’s ever made and he should be damn happy with himself for that.
"'Cause boy, it's cool if you got blue / We got the pynk"
Janelle Monae’s focus has always been on the future or the world around her but with this era she’s turned the focus inward and it’s been glorious to watch. Monae is liberated, powerful and proud of everything she is and that’s celebrated on PYNK. It’s a bold celebration of everything female from her own body to others and all who identify with being female. The verses drip with cool but by the chorus she’s feeling herself. She’s liberated. A free ass motherfucker.
“This sucks, I’m lovesick."
Mallrat grows with every release and on her latest EP In The Sky she’s more vivid than ever. Doing the groceries is somewhat mundane imagery to use in a pop song but here she uses it as a statement of budding love and potential partnership. “This sucks, I’m lovesick,” she sings towards the tail-end poignantly summing up the whole song. She’s falling in love and jumping ahead of herself but she can’t help it. The heart of this song beats so hard that it’s difficult for your heart not to beat in unison with it.
"I like those Balenciagas (those), the ones that look like socks."
Everybody had Cardi pegged as a turn-up trap rapper but on Invasion Of Privacy she proved there’s no boxing her in. I Like It is the most ambitious of the set, trading club rap for a celebratory, Latin-infused cut that’s thumping out of every speaker in the Northern hemisphere right now. It captures everything that makes her so endearing on social media and in interviews and gives it to us in sunshine-drenched triumph.
"Fuck all these drugs, fuck all these clubs, what's wrong with me?"
Accelerate is the most cooked pop song of the year and that’s the best thing about it. It sounds like absolutely nothing else right with Kanye’s production coming pre-TLOP which gave us some of his most unpredictable material to date. Somehow, it manages to house Xtina’s powerhouse vocal alongside Ty Dolla $ign’s soar throat and find a melody in a song that takes sharp detours at every possible turn. Xtina and Ty may sound mis-matched at the start but when they unite at the end for, “fuck all these clubs, fuck all these drugs, what’s wrong with me?” it’s a glorious union. No one in pop has made anything as exciting as this in 2018 and it comes headlined by a popstar who many tried to write off years ago.
"I was slidin' in the Lamb' with the powerglide / Slime green paint, peanut butter inside."
Migos may have thought they had the fast car aesthetic on lock for 2018 with Motorsport but Rae Sremmurd came through to snatch the crown with a song that goes 100 times faster. Over a ferocious, revving Mike Will-Made It beat, Swae Lee lays down some of his best melodic hook work to date while Slim Jxmmi matches the power of it. The song tips its hat to Three 6 Mafia’s Side 2 Side and they appropriately tap Juicy J for a verse that sounds like he’s done this before. Rae Sremmurd keep giving us the funnest hip-hop tracks of the year with no one else in their lane.
"They need rappers like me."
Nicki Minaj often means business - rarely does she translate that hunger to a track. She attempted it last year with No Frauds but this year she finally translated the fire in her belly to fire in her bars and the result is her hardest cut in years. The oriental beat instantly declares game on while Minaj rips through with a chest-beating battle cry, comparing herself to a Street Fighter character. She even halts the beat to come through with the ultimate warning, “they need rappers like me.” If you were starting to doubt that statement, surely you’re not anymore.
"Only one more night left in Los Angeles / I really thought that I can handle it."
It’s rare that one of the best songs of the year comes from an ad but this particular song comes from a pretty gorgeous Apple ad featuring FKA twigs. Paak soundtracked the slinky dance routine with one of his loneliest, saddest songs yet, seeing out the end of a relationship. “The funny thing is I was holding back tears, I didn’t think this day would happen,” he sings, swelling the heart but instead of hitting with even more of that in the chorus, he sacrifices it for an experimental carpet ride of beats. All it does is make the verses even more profound.
"Oh, I bet you think you're John Wayne / Showing up and shooting down everybody"
The best dance song of the year came from a country singer who had been listening to the Bee Gees. Kacey Musgraves has never really been embraced by the country community because of her progressive views but this year the internet adopted her as their own off the back of this brilliant pop song. While popstars were channelling country music for a quick hit, Musgraves discoed up the genre and gave us an endlessly fun bop that manages to namecheck John Wayne and include “giddy up” in a chorus. It’s all so refreshing.
"If you know 'bout the carport / The trap door's supposed to be awkward"
One of the most immediate album openings you’re likely to hear this decade, Pusha T opened Daytona ready for warfare. Beginning with a steely, industrial Kanye beat, it expands into shrieking guitars, plucked straight from Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The beat is strong but Pusha is stronger, writing the rap after freestyling the hook. As for what the song means? Well, not even Kanye knows but that’s the point. If you know, you know.
"And you're showin' off but it's alright"
The truth is none of us ever really want to include Drake in a list like this but, goddamn it, he just keeps delivering the goods. Drake is currently going through a New Orleans bounce phase (it seems he’s farewelled dancehall) and the result is some of his most celebratory, joyous music to date. Drizzy finally isn’t boasting or whingeing, this one goes out to the ladies and it’s refreshing to hear him rap about them without mentioning unanswered texts or misinterpreted intentions. The truth is, we all love hearing Drake in the club, even more so when he’s cracking a smile.
"It's like I'm powerful with a little bit of tender"
This is the era of liberation for Janelle Monáe. She’s feeling free and she’s packing it into her music. Before she had openly come out to the press, she gave us this sexually charged, pansexual anthem that holds and then releases so much tension. Over a a Prince guitar-line, she drips with more confidence than ever and it’s freeing to see. That final bridge smacks it out of the ball park as she exudes so much power and freedom that she could have even her most staunch critics dancing. Monáe decided it was her time this year and what a time to be alive.
"Right now I'm in a state of mind, I wanna be in like all the time."
Ariana Grande’s return was never going to be simple. Everybody was listening to hear what she would do following the horrific events of 2017 and she could’ve handled it in many ways. A ballad was expected and the opening bars of No Tears Left To Cry suggested that was exactly what she was going to give us. Grande had other plans though. No Tears Left To Cry chooses to win with positivity in one of the greatest returns in pop music. The track is spiritual, futuristic, soulful and melodic with the beat sounding like nothing else on the radio. Still, months after the song's release it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what makes it so great. It’s almost like it was created in the lab, to pull at certain parts of our brain without making the emotion explicitly obvious. She never explains that “state of mind” in the song but she’s content staying in it. So are we.
You can listen to the entire list, on repeat, below:
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