It’s been an exhausting year of music, not because we had so many bad songs, but because we had so many that were completely average. The mainstream charts felt very samey this year, with most of the biggest hits coming glossed in a Spotify-friendly sheen.
I took it for granted growing up in the late 00s where each year brought a litany of extravagant (and often aggressively terrible) pop smashes.
In 2018 things were a lot more downplayed, yet the year still yielded it’s crop of great singles from old favourites and new arrivals too, in a year where mumble rap was the flavour of the month and ‘Baby Shark’ was the song of the summer. It’s been a weird one, but here are the essential singles from 2018. Our playlist is at the bottom of the page.
Honourable Mentions out of the way first; Kylie’s ‘Dancing‘ was way better than it had any right to be, the Jax Jones / Mabel collab ‘Ring Ring‘ was an absolute treat and I liked that Juice WRLD song a lot more than I should have. Blame the Sting sample.
So without further ado…
Cardi B – I Like It (feat. Bad Bunny, J Balvin)
Let’s make one thing clear – macho bravado is plain boring, even when it’s coming from a woman. Yet the audacity of this appeals to me. The way skittering trap hi-hats and thudding sub-bass flatten the opening sample like a steamroller is a potent statement of intent. It suggests the old making way for the new, and trap music finally assuming the throne.
Friendly Fires – Love Like Waves
‘Love Like Waves’ may borrow the cadence of their prior hit ‘Kiss of Life’ almost verbatim – but is so fresh and evocative it won’t matter none. The Fires channel the giddy thrills of the mid-00s scene, where art-rock metastasises into beat-heavy disco. The outro coda may be a little too sugary, but in the current age of beige a little sweetness is well needed.
XXXTENTACION – SAD!
The sudden death of the Florida rapper was one of the biggest stories in music this year. While it’s fairly clear from interviews, articles, not to mention court documents, that Jahseh Onfroy was a reprehensible scumbag, his signature song has chutzpah. The booming enormity of the stiffly programmed drums, and quivering lip delivery make for tangible teen melodrama. Defending X is as hopeless as denying that this song has something about it. One of the best that trap has to offer.
Drake – Nice for What
Where the wilting Maroon 5 smash ‘Girls Like You’ pandered to femme power, ‘Nice for What’ is the real deal. Whether the presence of Drake will detract from the message of female empowerment is a question for the listener, but there’s no doubting his passion. Teeming with energy and invention, Drake blows away that hackneyed old saw about ‘nice girls’ with a simple question: nice for what?
Silk City – Electricity (with Dua Lipa)
Their mission statement of “classy house” has been met on the debut from Diplo / Mark Ronson spin-off Silk City. Dua Lipa turns in another powerhouse vocal turn, but this is truly a tune that succeeds solely on the strength of it’s meticulously crafted chorus.
Kim Petras – Heart to Break
Shameless blockbuster electropop. An exercise in joyous excess, featuring one of the greatest choruses of the year and irresistible synth bass. A song that should have taken over the world by now.
Calvin Harris – Promises (with Sam Smith)
The Scottish DJ’s love affair with late 70s / early 80s boogie has produced some of the best mainstream pop of recent years. Now we can add a sprinkle of Ibiza House to the mix on the busy ‘Promises’. Given Calvin Harris has been soundtracking nights out for over a decade it’s surprising that his insight is only sharpening, with ‘Promises’ vividly capturing the feel of leaving the club with someone at 2AM.
This is full of percussive gubbins and studio trickery but crucially it’s all underlined by a fat bass line played on an actual bass. Now that’s a thought. More proof that Sam Smith can only contribute meaningful vocals when on someone else’s song (see also ‘Latch’, ‘La La La’).
John Legend & Bloodpop® – A Good Night
‘Get Lucky’ is still the touchstone some five years on but ‘A Good Night’ is worth recommending in its own right. The routinely stiff and earnest John Legend re-emerges as a tricky MC. Bloodpop® provides the arrangement – basic, but snappy too. A polished dance jam. The ‘wife’ lyric is meant in irony, but that won’t stop plebs using this as first dance soundtrack. ‘I Gotta Feeling’ minus the cringe.
Zayn – Let Me
Evocative, sparse lyrical hooks hammered home with an effortless cool. An inverse pop song that soars in the verses and lags in the chorus. ‘Let Me’ celebrates settling down in a way that doesn’t feel forced or preachy.
Though any doubts the guy is in any way as down to earth as his bars suggest is put paid by the video wherein he plays a suave criminal who practices kung-fu and runs away with a supermodel. A tight R&B jam and the best from this 1D survivor.
The Chromatics – Black Walls
Doom, doom, doom, tolls the latest from The Chromatics, whose long-delayed Dear Tommy is finally bearing fruit. Heartbroken, narcotised disco with chiming, dusty cowboy riffs. Held together by the ghostly presence of singer Ruth Radelet, who sounds about ready to turn you to stone.
Muse – Pressure
A blast of fun in Muse’s increasingly morose output, ‘Pressure’ is a White Stripes song as interpreted by T-Rex. The inclusion of horns is new but the rest is pleasingly familiar: moshable riff, filthy bass and some creativity behind the sticks.
Childish Gambino – This is America
Raw, uncompromising and a little choppy – but the first post Trump anthem to capture the terrifying loss of control. The MV is more or less essential for enjoyment, but difficult art has a right to be difficult.
Ariana Grande – God is a Woman
While the sweet ‘thank u, next’ (with maddening syntax) was a smash hit, the real gem was ‘God is a Woman’. With reverb-drenched guitar and propulsive sub-bass, ‘God is a Woman’ is stormy R&B at its finest, with Ari having fun with the diva tropes she has been dodging her whole career.
Troye Sivan – Bloom / My My My!
Whatever your view on Youtuber-cum-popstars (in this case very dim indeed), goddamn if these aren’t two of the freshest, tightest pop tunes released all year. ‘My My My!’ relies on the subtle sensuality of minimalist R&B, whereas ‘Bloom’ twoks the snare hit from ‘She Drives Me Crazy’ and puts it to great use, alongside the wispiest of new wave riffs. Quite simply splendid.
J. Cole – ATM
It’s easy to disregard a rap song about cash – there’s too many cliches weighing against it. ‘ATM’ is a subversion of the trope, though it’s presented with such confidence it sounds like a brag all its own. “Can’t take it when you die” is a perfect soundbite, and the flow it’s presented with is absolutely untouchable. The presentation, as post To Pimp A Butterfly rap often is, comes as loungey keys. One of the best of the year.
David Guetta & Sia – Flames (Extended)
David Guetta’s first great song came in the form of an explosive 80s highway tune, propelled by juddering synth bass and symphonic flourishes. Some minimalist funk eases the stiffness of programmed drums. Sia isn’t given much to do but seems to have a natural feel for Guetta’s material, and is yet to turn in a bellow-par performance. The extended edit, with its bombastic drum heavy intro, is the only cut you should be hearing.
Charlie Puth – Done For Me (feat. Kehlani)
Puth has essentially weaponised dorkiness at this point. Swaggering 808 beats and rubbery electro bass form the basis for an amazingly venomous breakup song that somehow ends up feeling sugar sweet. ‘Done For Me’ is immaculately presented synth-funk with fantastic verses from Puth and guest Kehlani. When they harmonise it’s a thing of beauty, and not just because Kehlani is the one in the driving seat.
Sam Fender – Dead Boys
A mental health anthem that feels genuine, Sam Fender’s ‘Dead Boys’ is a rallying cry for self-determination. Fender’s passion and humility shines through the searing chorus and Springsteenian picking progression. Though 2019 is sure to be a massive one for the BRIT’s Choice winner, this is a wonderful and sensitive song all its own.
whenyoung – Pretty Pure
Sheer indie-pop agony, with hooks that sink deep and the beautiful voice of Aoife Power to seal the deal. Recalls the raspy vulnerability Dolores O’Riordan with the harder-edged sound of Bloodless. A beautiful song with a chorus to rip the breath from your lungs.
The 1975 – TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME
Contains everything to hate and everything to love about The 1975 in a succinct three minutes twenty seven seconds. Where some will hear anaemic Radio 1 pap, others will hear a revelation. ‘TOOTIME’ is really just a few sparse elements allowed to play out: a half-stepping beat, gently loping bass, synth squiggles and the faint patter of keys. Yet together they form something Balearic, intoxicating, funny, charming and bittersweet.