"Everyday's a revelation."
With each release Cub Sport have grown closer to embracing their true musical identity. Sometimes, the first single off their forthcoming third album, is the most liberated and joyous they’ve ever sounded which is an achievement given the song details anxiety and self-doubt. It’s a pulsing, ethereal moment that embraces Robyn’s philosophy of dancing through your troubles. Despite the anguish, there a moments in Sometimes when the light streams in like when Tim Nelson sings, “Everyday’s a revelation,” over an angelic synth.
"My mama always said I was a problem child."
This year, Charli started cleaning out her closet. She began to finally give fans a handful of songs that had emerged into the world in some unofficial capacity and No Angel was the best of those. It’s been hanging around for over two years now but it still sounds as fresh as ever. The beat is perky and minimal while Charli treads a thin line between being bratty and cheeky. We can imagine pop on the radio sounding like this five years from now.
"I feel possessed, I speak but can't express."
There are a handful of great pop songs written over one looped beat including Solange’s Losing You and Sky Ferreira’s Everything Is Embarrassing. This year Empress Of’s When I’m With Him joined those ranks. The best Empress Of single to date is a masterclass in pop wordplay and simple, succinct melody. She’s always been a great artist and producer but here she tightened her talents and reigned it all in for one of the most straightforward pop moments of the year.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"Big things come and they run away / take it as it comes, there's no time to waste."
Tkay Maidza has done some growing over the past few years. While she’s always been a fun, engaging artist, this year’s Last Year Was Weird project took her take control of her creative vision and define herself as an artist. Big Things is the highlight of that. It’s a reggae- flavoured, grandiose affair that sees Maidza take it slow while horns flare. This is Maidza at her most subtle but also her most potent.
"I did half a Xan, 13 hours 'til I land, had me out like a light."
Travis Scott’s Sicko Mode has everything that you need for a big song in 2018. A Drake feature? Check. A song title that can be expressed by an emoji? Check. An Instagram caption-worthy lyric. Check. It sounds gimmicky but somehow Sicko Mode sounded like no other rap track in 2018. It’s a five minute epic stitched together with disjointed parts ranging from Drake’s clean, hard-hitting appearance to Scott’s more distorted, woozy verse. This was rap’s 2018 Bohemian Rhapsody, as terrible as that sounds.
"Born in a hurry, always late, haven't been early since '88."
There’s no better opening line to an album than, “Born in a hurry, always late, haven’t been early since ‘88.” Musgraves opened this year’s exceptional Golden Hour with Slow Burn, a song that so beautifull takes in the world one breath at a time. Slow Burn is literally Musgraves taking everything in for exactly what it is. Patience is a virtue and this song is ample proof of that. On paper, taking a walk and looking at the flowers sounds beige but at the hands of Musgraves it’s a beautiful, frozen moment in time.
"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 really don't care / I think I just quit."
We’ve celebrated WAFIA in the past for her velvetine voice and political and social astuteness but in 2018, she decided to give us a pure pop moment. She’s completely unbothered on the carefree I’m Good and it feels really, bloody good. WAFIA saying, “I really don’t care, I think I just quit,” in the bridge is the no-fucks mantra we didn’t know we needed so badly from her and with that she transformed from a great artist into a budding superstar. An artist with the sharp tongue of Lily Allen and the pop power of Charli XCX.
"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.
"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.
"Es una bala en el pecho."
It takes a really strong melody to hypnotise you when you don’t even understand and that’s exactly what happens when listening to Pienso En Tu Mirá. The Spanish artist who quickly became the face of experimental pop music this year gave us plenty to rave about this year but nothing as lush and affecting as Pienso En Tu Mirá. Opening with a line that literally translate to, “It frightens me when you leave,” Rosalìa is both intense and vulnerable. The flamenco rhythm provides the song’s core while she delivers a heartfelt, striking vocal.
"'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, 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.
"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.
“Stop tryna be God / That's just not your job."
Travis Scott is a curator as much as he an artist. Just like last year’s Pop2 by Charli XCX, Scott builds a world where his collaborators are just as important as he is and nothing emphasises that more than STOP TRYING TO BE GOD. It’s a hazy, distorting epic that manages to stitch together Scott verses with a Stevie Wonder harmonica loop, a Kid Cudi and Philip Bailey and a sweeping James Blake appearance. It’s Scott’s music collection in one song and while it should be a gigantic mess, Scott is too good a conductor to let that happen.
"At least you left me with something."
Robyn was never going to get away with coming back after eight years without a huge, dancefloor-aimed banger and she delivered straight out of the gates with Missing U. Despite it’s rattling, profound beat though, this is a softer, more considered Robyn. Her defences are broken down and she’s more direct and vulnerable than ever before. This is her at the beginning of the healing process that unfolds over Honey and even though it’s heartbreaking, she still hasn’t lost faith in the cathartic power of the dancefloor.
"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.
"Run if you stole a shard of sunlight."
Nihilism has never been the most popular dance subject but there’s something cleansing about Christine & The Queens’ Doesn’t Matter. This is Christine at rock bottom. She’s lost faith in spirituality, relationships, physicality and just about everything else that keeps you chugging along on this earth. As dark as it gets though she still offers a solution at the tail end of the song - “run”. With that, she offers a new start and the rattling bass line that at the start of the song sounds depleted suddenly appears invigorating.
“One taught me love, one taught me patience, one taught me pain.”
We’ve seen Ariana Grande find positivity in the most barren of places before but we were all concerned that she’d find it difficult to find the light at the tail-end of this year. We should’ve never doubted because Grande came back with the most gratitude and growth she’s ever displayed. Written and released in just a matter of weeks, thank u, next is a direct, diary entry that celebrates the trials over a fluffy, throwback RnB beat. Within it all, she still finds the space to be cheeky with lines like, “least this song is a smash.” It may have been tongue-in-cheek prediction but she was right. thank u, next was possibly the biggest song of the year.
"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.
"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.
"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.
“You’re not gonna get what you want, but baby I have what you want.”
“You’re not gonna get what you want, but baby I have what you want,” was Robyn prefacing Honey before the beat even had a chance to kick in. Since debuting in the season finale of Girls as a demo, Honey’s release had been begged of Robyn and in 2018 she finally delivered though it wasn’t exactly what people wanted. This version of Honey was a far less direct version that took its inspiration from club music more so than pop. Initial disappointment subsided though as this winding, spiritual version of Honey began to grow. And that’s the very philosophy of Honey. It’s about patience. Taking the time to appreciate everything that your senses pick up around you from the golden waves to the sweet taste of honey, whatever that metaphor may mean to you.
"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 top 50, on repeat, below:
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