Well, 2019 is coming to a close. As always, I will be publishing a list of my top 101 tracks of this year by the end of the month. But as I start to work on that list, it has made me think about last year’s list. I didn’t have this site at the time, so I didn’t get to publish this list way I will for new ones. Because of this, I thought we could all take a quick look back at last year’s list.
There are songs on this list I probably wouldn’t include if I was making a top tracks list for 2018 now. Similarly, there are songs released in that year that I would definitely include now that I didn’t. And as always, this list doesn’t necessarily reflect the best songs of the year from an objective standpoint, but instead, the 101 top tracks that I personally took the most joy from. Because of that, I didn’t want to remake the list, but instead, present it as I originally made it – a list of the 101 songs that brought the most light and meaning into my personal life in 2018.
101: Sober – Demi Lovato
“I’m sorry that I’m here again / I promise I’ll get help / It wasn’t my intention
I’m sorry to myself“
Over the years, Demi Lovato’s sobriety, or lack thereof, has been the stuff of ridicule more often than sympathy. Much has been made of the way she has handled discussing her own struggles, and this song is no exception. In the moment, though, ‘Sober’ was a startling, almost voyeuristic look into the singer’s mental state. Is it a little melodramatic? Yeah. Is it the best way to address substance abuse announce a relapse to your fans? Nah. But its an honest song beautifully sung, and sometimes that’s enough.
100: Fine. – Carah Faye
“Yeah, I was doing so fine, so fine
Sitting pretty on the wayside, wayside
But you come and wanna waste time, waste time
Now it’s all I wanna do”
While she doesn’t quite recapture the magic of 2016’s stellar ‘Gold Plated‘, this is still a solid pop offering from the former Shiny Toy Guns front-woman. The lyrics perfectly describe the feeling of simultaneously wanting and not wanting to fall in love. The fact that the rest of the Watch Me EP (from which this track is pulled) isn’t available for streaming is an actual crime.
99: Music is Worth Living For – Andrew W.K.
“And I’ll bet you never thought
You’d live to see the day
Where we could play
With joy and laughter”
Throughout the mid-2000’s, Andrew W.K. was a reliable source of both emo-kid angst and classic rock n roll hedonism. That he never disguised the tongue-in-cheek nature of his hard-partying songs was half of his appeal. Now, eleven years after his last album, Andrew W.K. is back, more mature than before, but still ready to party.
98: Wasabi – Little Mix
“The shit the papers write about me
I fold it up like origami
Like, “She ain’t wearing no clothes”
“When she goin’ solo?”
“I bet they gonna break up”
But what the hell do you know?“
Little Mix doesn’t get enough credit for being one of the most experimental girl groups working right now. A little less than a minute into ‘Wasabi’, the song takes a startling and abrupt turn from what at first seemed to be a generically sweet dance-pop number. There are crunchy guitars. There are clattering, rock-inspired drums. It’s aggressive, angry and completely unexpected. Ten seconds later, it’s over. Its an odd, unnerving, daring choice – exactly what pop music in 2018 should be.
97: S’Only Natural – Hellogoodbye
“It’s only natural
You wanna live downtown
Where you can be a little louder
‘Cause you’re still just getting drowned out“
Remember Hellogoodbye? The band is best known for 2006 twee-bop ‘Here (In Your Arms)‘, but that’s actually a shame. Through lineup and stylistic changes alike, Hellogoodbye has had a fairly steady stream of inventive pop-rock output over the last decade. This sonically glittering disco ditty is wrapped around a lyrical challenge to buck authority and let your freak flag fly. The synthy sparkles and general attitude of millennial rebelliousness work together to make this song a musical call-to-arms. And vocalist Forrest Kline’s adorably nude dancing in the music video doesn’t hurt things either.
96: Voice In the Silence – MUTEMATH
“I want a conscious quiet in my soul
Silence all around me”
MUTEMATH’s strength has always been in their instrumentation. In the sixteen years since their formation, the band has managed to stay incredibly consistent in the feel of their work. Sure, some projects have veered into more synth-pop, while others have stayed in the indie-rock style the band was born into, but the music has always maintained a richness of production that few other acts can achieve. No matter how many years pass, their music still just sounds so damn good.
95: SADE IN THE 90’s – Qveen Herby
“You can find me at my best when I’m naked
When I’m lyin’ by the pool gettin’ faded
See, I used to give a fuck, now I’m jaded”
Qveen Herby (formerly known as Karmin) is no Sade. Let’s make that clear immediately. However, there is something undeniably fun about listening to the Qveen brag about her own chilled out attitude. And this melody is catchy as hell, rising and falling over one of the bounciest beats of the year. Honestly, it could have been ranked higher but pronouncing “suave” as “swah-vay” just to make it rhyme is unforgivable.
94: X-RAY – Tommy Cash
“This shit’s so classical, nothing impossible
Close your eyes, in graphic colors, magical
We don’t give a F, ’cause we so radical
Bounce my balls like we playin’ basketball“
That kind of poetry brings tears to the eyes. What else do you need? Well, if you’re Tommy Cash, the answer is a pulsing, Basshunter-esque techno beat and a music video starring Cash himself as a three-eyed cult leader/chiropractor with a blue silk suit and what appears to be a solid-gold massage chair. It’s wild stuff.
93: Devil in Paradise – Cruel Youth
“Uh, excuse me? Hey! How’s it goin’?
I just wanted to say you’re a… you’re a really wonderful singer… and I, err… I actually used to be a really big fan..”
2015 was a bad year for Cruel Youth front-woman Teddy Sinclair. At the time, she was known as Natalia Kills and had an almost-successful career as a solo pop artist and a promising gig as a judge on the New Zealand iteration of the X-Factor franchise. But on the very first episode of that program, a rant by Sinclair and husband Willy Moon went viral, ending her time on the program and her career as Natalia Kills in one fell swoop. She has since claimed that the incident was a production stunt, and not her actual stance, but the damage was done. Regardless, she’s back with a new name, a new band, and a new song. It’s angry, its bitter, and, most surprisingly, its very good.
92: Sweet But Psycho – Ava Max
“She’ll make you curse, but she a blessing
She’ll rip your shirt within a second
You’ll be coming back, back for seconds
With your plate, you just can’t help it”
This song doesn’t make this list because of its poignant songwriting, or for reinventing the wheel musically. Frankly, its fairly derivative and overtly melodramatic. So why is it here? Well, it may not be the best song of the year, but its one of the catchiest. And Ava’s got a weird haircut and we like that too. Don’t judge.
91: A$AP Forever – A$AP Rocky feat. Moby
“I put New York on the map”
This is one of those collaborations that just shouldn’t work. The fact that it does is down to the sheer audacity of it. Starting as a stilted trap banger, the track dramatically shifts gears halfway through, throwing away everything that came before in favor of a sweet sample of Moby’s classic ballad ‘Porcelain‘. Guest vocals from Moby and Khloe Anna dance over the most saccharine beat you’ll hear on a rap track all year.
90: Cowboy – ALMA
“Already said all of my last goodbyes
I think about you, mama
I think about you, daddy
While I start these fires”
Finnish punk-pop aficionado ALMA saunters her way through this ode to burned bridges with a level of dissociated angst that would make the likes of Billie Eilish raise an eyebrow. ALMA growls her obscenities over a harsh synth and trap beat that leaves no option but to raise a fist in violent rebellion against… you know, something.
89: Défiler (Bande originale de la capsule No. 5 Mosaert) – Stromae
“De toute façon, on marche dans les rangs
En groupe ou pas, on marche seul
Qu’on l’veuille ou pas on a une valeur marchande,
du plus jeune âge au linceul”
The lyrics above translate to “Anyway, we walk in the ranks. In groups or not, we walk alone. Like it or not, we have a market value. From the youngest age to the shroud.” The fact they were written to soundtrack the runway walk of models representing fashion brand Mosaert make them all the more barbed.
88: It’s Not Just Me – Let’s Eat Grandma
“I don’t wanna say goodbye
Guess I’ll see you when the screen is vibrating”
This SOPHIE-produced pop track from British duo Let’s Eat Grandma paints a vivid portrait of long-distance love. Whether that distance is physical or emotional feels beside the point. When the song ends, Let’s Eat Grandma find themselves in the same place they started, waiting for their phone to buzz, convincing themselves that their feelings just can’t be as unrequited as they fear.
87: The Other Team – UPSAHL
“Gave him a smile, and he turned to walk my way
But then he walked right past me towards another man
He didn’t notice me”
There is something cloyingly cute about this gay love story, told from the outside perspective of a girl secretly crushing on one of the lucky guys. Musically, the song shows that UPSAHL’s got an ear for creating a catchy hook with a tilted sense of humor to match. Calling it now, she’s gonna be one to watch in the coming years.
86: Do It All the Time – I DON’T KNOW HOW BUT THEY FOUND ME
“We’re so good at selling lies
We look so good
And we never even try
Get your money from a trust fund
Do it all the time”
Pretentiously unwieldy name aside, these Salt Lake City synth-rockers have it all figured out. On this song alone, they’ve got a bouncing bass riff, trumpet flares, and (according to the video) a computer-generated ‘fun noise’. The bouncy melody, though, only serves to disguise some awfully cynical lyrics that read like the sociopathic ravings of a trust-fund-supported egomaniac. It’s twisted and weird and so, so much fun.
85: Peach Scone – Hobo Johnson
“I love the thought of being with you
Or maybe it’s the thought of not being so alone”
Hobo Johnson performed part of his NPR tiny desk concert in a backyard. “Look at that, that’s a desk,” he said in his introduction. “Just kidding, mom, it’s a table. I don’t care about rules.” That same wackadoodle stream-of-consciousness energy emanates out of every line of this song, as Johnson seemingly examines his own overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness through the lens of an unrequited crush. The fact that the girl in question is dating someone else doesn’t matter – not because Johnson is a homewrecker, but because getting the girl was never the point. It’s just about not being so alone.
84: Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts) – Smashing Pumpkins
“Spit like a poet’s gun
But say how long can this go on?
Stumbling before you speak
Stunning and stunning and stunning the black”
Chicago, 1988. Billy Corgan and some friends start a band that somehow becomes one of the most popular punk acts of the 90’s. Over the next two decades, the band’s lineup will change a number of times, often to the dismay of their own fanbase. And even now, with original members Jimmy Chamberlain and James Iha both back for the first time since 2000, fans were still upset that the band wouldn’t be returning to their hardcore roots. Instead, Corgan and co. wrote one of their poppiest songs ever – with lyrics designed to clap back at their disgruntled fans. And honestly, what’s more punk rock than that?
83: Fruity – Rubblebucket
“The lioness gave a feast for forty off her body
Then slept on the ground till a flower grew out”
A lot has changed since Rubblebucket debuted in 2008. Known at the time as the Rubblebucket Orchestra, the band was decidedly more rough-around-the-edges than the sleek alt-pop band they’ve become since. What hasn’t changed, though, is the distinct feeling that Rubblebucket’s music is art first and pop culture second. The group’s unique perspective makes their lyrics feel like there is something important to be learned, something buried just beneath the surface. Just listen for the poetic turns of a phrase nestled in between this song’s jaunty brass flourishes. So, despite the shiny new sonic veneer, Rubblebucket remains one of the most unique voices in the modern music landscape.
82: Everybody Wants to be Famous – Superorganism
“I think that you and I
Could set the world alight
Cause we’re all stars tonight
Just need to figure out why”
In the world of Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and the rest, the line between celebrities and the rest of us is blurrier than ever before. In theory, we are all just one perfectly worded tweet or viral reaction video away from our internet persona becoming famous – whether we actually want it to be or not. Superorganism understands this idea better than most. The members of the band started recording together before they even all lived in the same country, connected instead by the mysterious algorithms of the world wide web. In 2017, the band’s first single ‘Something for Your M.I.N.D.’ went viral, cementing Superorganism’s status as a unique product of the internet. Fortunately for all of us, their music is just as weird and wild as their origin story requires it be.
81: Saturdays – Twin Shadow feat. HAIM
“Maybe we’re a fault line
Maybe we’re a phone line ready to break
Maybe you’re a time bomb
I don’t care what your boyfriends say“
Twin Shadow and HAIM play off each other perfectly in this depiction of an apocalyptic relationship. Twin Shadow (real name George Lewis Jr.) begins the track by casually referencing the end of humanity as we know it, but, by the time the chorus rolls in, he’s ready to fall in love with his crush’s moonlit face all over again. It’s an age-old story, but it sounds fresh as hell coming from the lips of two of indie rock’s biggest stars.
80: Allie X – Sunflower
“But I’m a sunflower, a little funny
If I was a rose, maybe you’d pick me
But I know you don’t have a clue
This sunflower’s waiting for you”
In September of 2018, Netflix released Sierra Burgess is a Loser, which was definitely a mistake. The film’s clumsy handling of serious issues like catfishing and consent left a bad taste in the mouths of many viewers. However, buried in the soundtrack of that unfortunate film is this synthpop masterpiece. Allie X’s haunting vocals rest gently on a bed of 80’s-inspired synthesizers and drum pads. A song this beautiful deserves better than to be hidden in the middle of the so-so soundtrack to a bad movie. But, unlike the film, the unrelated, vaporwave-inspired music video is definitely worth a watch.
79: Savior (Piano Version) – St. Vincent
“Dress me in leather
That’s a little better
But that’s still not it
None of this shit fits”
In 2017, St. Vincent released the viciously catchy Masseducation. The album dealt with themes of sex, violence and the politics of relationships, all wrapped in the chromatic sheen of some of the slickest alternative pop-rock production of the year. Then, a year later, St. Vincent re-released the album stripped to its barest bones. On this track in particular, Annie Clark’s voice soars above a solo piano, bringing the heartbreaking lyrics and jarring song structure into the starkest clarity.
78: Hey Sister – Simian Mobile Disco feat. The Deep Throat Choir
“Hey sister, hey sister
Would you come a little closer?
Feel like my brain is spilling over
Do I seem a little strange to you?”
While the name ‘James Ford’ is likely unfamiliar to most, chances are you have heard his work producing for some of the biggest names in alternative rock. Depeche Mode, Arctic Monkeys, HAIM, Gorillaz and many others have used his distinct production style to great effect. Here though, Simian Mobile Orchestra, his collaborative project with former bandmate Jas Shaw, lets the still-stellar production takes a back seat to the intricate harmonies of The Deep Throat Choir. To front an ambient electronic song with a vocal choir isn’t a new idea, but rarely has it been done to such stunning effect.
77: War – Jordan Max
“Feeding on your lies, opened up my eyes
Women realize, that good men have to cry
When the war is done, what’s for my future son?
The land he’s walking on, will it all be gone?”
Is this what a protest song sounds like in 2018? The lyrics of this song address climate change and political bullshittery, urging the listener to not be complacent but to fight for a better future he still feels is possible. Max’s powerful voice reaches a near-sob as he cries out “Maybe one day there will be peace, but I won’t see it in my lifetime”. In the music video, Max and some friends stand on a bluff, a police car burning in the background. It isn’t until the very end that the camera pulls out wide enough to reveal it isn’t just the car on fire, the entire world is burning around these young men.
76: Comfort Me – Urban Cone
Baby, we should celebrate
The only thing on my mind
Just comfort me one more time
No deep hidden meanings here. The winking innuendo of the title sums it up pretty well. Sometimes all you need is some sexy talk in a bouncy pop song. It is hard to not draw a line between the band and their friend and collaborator Tove Lo. The comparison is a compliment. This song is catchy as anything and genuinely sexy to boot. And the instrumental bridge is as close to pop perfection as anything you’ll hear this year.
75: X – Poppy
“Maybe we can save the world
From every evil boy and dangerous girl
Please make me believe in harmony
Get me, get me bloody, please. Get me bloody”
Until late in 2018, Poppy was, well, very poppy. Mostly known for her sardonic takes on bubblegum pop, it came as an actual shock when the first singles for second album Am I A Girl? were released. First came the still-pop but distinctly serious ‘Time is Up’ (more on that later). Already a departure from past work, that song was nothing compared to the jarringly aggressive ‘X’. Poppy’s sudden dive into actual heavy metal holds up as one of the most shocking musical moments of the year. That gutsiness would deserve respect even if the song wasn’t good. But it is. The soft verses find Poppy bandleader Moriah Rose Pereira gently advocating for world peace before suddenly screaming ‘Get me bloody, please get me bloody’ in the chorus. British music publication Gigwise perhaps said it best when they called the track ‘high art for the Ritalin generation’.
74: Subtle Thing – Marian Hill
“We always play in tune
I love the way we move
Heard your favorite record on the day before we met”
Listening to ‘Subtle Thing’ you would never guess that this electronic duo’s background is in musical theater (the bands name is an amalgamation of the names of the two main characters from The Music Man). None of that medium’s maximalist attitude exists here. Instead, vocalist Samantha Gongol dances gently over a subdued beat from producer Jeremy Lloyd. The vibe is so chill yet so infectious – an aesthetic the band has been known for since their breakout hit ‘Down‘ hit the radio in 2017. That song may have achieved more commercial success, but this song is the more masterful handling of the pair’s distinct sound.
73: Heart Killer – Dr. Dog
“Everyone’s got a different story but I got mine the hard way
Why’d I gotta go and give my heart to a heart killer”
Ten years into their career, Philadelphia-based Dr. Dog has perfected the art of 1960’s throwback indie rock n roll. Just try to keep the chorus of this song from getting stuck in your head. More polished than previous works by the band, the song still retains its alternative ethos as vocalist Scott McMicken delivers his tale of heartbreak with a level of buoyant dispassion that would make The Kinks jealous.
72: Super Duper Nova – LIZ
“Pop, pop, pop the bubble
Up, up, up, we travel
An interstellar Benihana,
it’s just you and I”
LA-based LIZ has described her own sound as ‘Sailor Moon R&B’. The future pop influence is abundantly clear on this track, making comparisons to British music collective pcmusic almost inevitable. That the song was, in fact, produced by Justin Bieber collaborator Big Taste just proves how strong LIZ’s bizzaro personality is. This track is undeniably pop, but it’s a warped nightmare wrapped in neon. Escaping isn’t possible, but who would want to anyway?
71: Severed – The Decemberists
“I was born to a jackal
I was born in a whiteout
Gonna smother you all ’til I choke you
Gonna smother you all ’til you kick out”
Following the 2016 US presidential election, Decemberists’ frontman Colin Melroy was in a dark place. Speaking about the LP from which this song is pulled, he said, “I think it really is a reflection of my outlook immediately post the 2016 election, where there was immediately this onset of despair. Like real despair. Real depression, and then sort of climbing out of it. Seeing other people feeling the same way, similarly climbing out of their hole and just witnessing events as they came along, rather than with tears. There was almost like an ironic humour but with anger, and those sort of go together”. In this track, though, Melroy lets his anger loose, unleashing a vitriolic takedown of Trumpism over a punishing drumline. Both sonically and lyrically, the band has never sounded this current.
70: Bad Boy – Tommy Genesis
“I am tired and my bitches are weary
There’s a rope around my pussy just to hold me to kiss me
I wait hours for my master in my mink and my bunny
He a bad boy but he feed me milk and the honey”
Where Tommy Genesis fits into the modern pop landscape is a little bit of a mystery. She’s described herself as a ‘fetish rapper’, but she’s tame compared to the likes of Cupcakke or Brooke Candy. She’s toured with the likes of Charli XCX and Dua Lipa, but she’s distinctly less polished than either of those pop princesses. Despite all this, Genesis’s music feels comfortable and familiar. It’s easy to start dancing to the beat and the dirty nonsense in the lyrics without even realizing the uniqueness of what you’re hearing. To balance invention with comfortable familiarity takes skill, but Tommy Genesis makes it sound easy.
69: One More Time – Pale Waves
“It’s been three months now, can we talk it out?
How you left me standing outside the front of your house
Saw you through the window crying on the stairs
I thought you didn’t care”
British alt-pop band Pale Waves sounds like a parallel-universe version of Taylor Swift who grew up listening to mid-90’s riot grrrl punk instead of country music. The comparison is appropriate not only because Heather Baron-Gracie’s voice sounds uncannily like Swift’s, but also because of the intimate storytelling found in the band’s lyrics. It is easy to imagine these songs are written about real events involving real people. Whether or not that’s true is beside the point. Instead, the song exists to wrap the listener in the comfortable fantasy of a heartbreak where everyone wears their heart on their sleeve and everything rhymes.
68: God is a woman – Ariana Grande
“And I, I feel it after midnight
A feeling that you can’t fight, my one
It lingers when we’re done
You’ll believe God is a woman”
In 1989, Madonna (who contributes a spoken word verse to the video for this track) sang, “In the midnight hour, I can feel your power. Just like a prayer, you know I’ll take you there”. 19 years later, Ariana Grande isn’t content with midnight prayers – she wants everyone to know that she’s the one worth praying to. Her album sweetener is a muddy affair. Musical quality across the fifteen songs is uneven at best, but this song rises to the top as a singularly beautiful piece of gorgeously symphonic pop. The music video reaches for a similarly heavenly aesthetic, but is unfortunately beleaguered by accusations of plagiarism (director Dave Meyers has been accused of plagiarism and intellectual property theft on at least two other occasions as well). But despite the challenges faced by the album and video, there is no denying the sheer power of Grande’s voice, which is enough on its own to make this one of the best pop songs of the year.
67: Abigail – Kitten
“I’m sorry your brother’s so bigoted
He may be a hypocrite
But you’re not at the church no more
With the cult pastor, you’re a big girl now“
Throughout this musical story, vocalist (and only permanent band member) Chloe Chaidez implores the titular character to turn away from her past and step into a brighter future. But the final stanzas admit what the song is actually about. Just as you think the song is over, the synth swells up one last time as Chaidez repeatedly sighs ‘don’t forget about me, girl’. As Abigail gives in to her past again, Chaidez fears a future alone – and the listener can’t help but get swept up in all the yearning.
66: bitches – Tove Lo, Charli XCX, Icona Pop, Elliphant & ALMA
“All the girls stare at me, drop lip
Dripping in harmony, like Fifth
Lay ’em down, feel ’em up
And they slide away, so easy”
Originally released as a solo track on Tove Lo’s 2017 album Blue Lips, this girl supergroup remix outstrips the original in inventiveness and just sheer fun. It is abundantly clear that these ladies are enjoying themselves immensely. Just listen to Charli XCX making sly, innuendo-ridden girl-group puns. Or better yet, watch the music video where Tove Lo, clad in pasties and Marlboro-pack earrings gives a comedic pussy-eating lesson to Paul W. Downs (of Broad City fame).
65: Sincerity is Scary – The 1975
“Irony is okay, I suppose
Culture is to blame
You try and mask your pain
in the most postmodern way”
The 1975’s frontman Matt Healy is done with being self-aware. “I suppose the tropes of postmodernism in pop culture are irony, self-reference, that self-awareness within the form. So, like a character that knows it’s a character in a movie,” he explained in an interview with Genius. “‘Sincerity Is Scary’ is about me trying to denounce all of that postmodern fear of like being real, you know?” The song wraps these heavy themes in a surprisingly light jazz-rock shell with an expert turn on the trumpet from the late Roy Hargrove.
64: Pussy is God – King Princess
“Sayin’ it gets hard when you give a fuck
Get knocked down from some other love
But their best wasn’t good enough
And you’re number one to me”
A song ostensibly about getting pussy has no right being this adorable. But King Princess, the professional alter-ego of Brooklynite Mikaela Strauss, captures the feeling of being horny for your love with a combination of frankness and gentleness that feels like a breath of fresh air. By the time Strauss concludes the song by literally sighing her love for her girlfriend, the listener can’t help but be won over by the ineffable sweetness of it all.
63: Baby – Clean Bandit feat. MARINA & Luis Fonsi
“Guess I had my last chance
And now this is our last dance
You fell through the cracks in my hands”
It takes a special kind of something to make a tale of lost love sound like a fresh idea. With ‘Baby’, Clean Bandit does the near impossible, though. The production is an arresting fusion of traditional flamenco instrumentation with an energetic house beat. Despite the exceptional production, the real star turn here is the guest vocal from MARINA (formerly of the Diamonds). MARINA is the real-life girlfriend of Clean Bandit member Jack Patterson, and also collaborated with the band on the excellent 2017 track ‘Disconnect‘. A lesser vocalist would be overpowered by the song’s instrumentation, but MARINA is in peak form, sending her voice soaring above the guitar-and-brass arrangement like only she could. Luis Fonsi is also there.
62: My Sex – Brooke Candy feat. Pussy Riot, MNDR & Mykki Blanco
“В школе говорят, что мужчина – бог
Я не мальчик, не девочка, я – единорог”
The Russian-language verse on this track comes comes courtesy of Pussy Riot, who (if you’ve been living under a rock the past few years) are a feminist, anti-fascist punk band/protest group based in Moscow. The group is known for their outspokenness and frequent scraps with Russian authorities. Here, they sound righteously angry as they spit in their native tongue, “School says man is god. I’m not a boy, not a girl, I’m a unicorn”. Sure, it’s silly, but coming from the lips of Pussy Riot, it feels urgently important. When you add in sex-positive rapper Brooke Candy, transgender-rights activist Mykki Blanco and outspoken civil rights leader MNDR, the entire song becomes a political rallying cry, a latex-clad middle finger to the repressive establishment.
61: Done For Me – Charlie Puth feat. Kehlani
“I never cheated
Deleted everyone ’cause they made you uncomfortable
I can’t apologize for something that I didn’t do”
At first listen, ‘Done for Me’ sounds like a fun, Wham!-inspired funk pop track with a catchy hook and a better-than-average bass line. It is those things, and even if it was only those things it would still be a good song. But there’s more to it than that. In her song-stealing verse, Kehlani sings “I never cheated…” referencing head-on the highly publicized accusations of cheating she faced in 2016, and the suicide attempt that followed. “But God saved me for a reason, and for that… I must be grateful.. Cuz I’m not in heaven right now,” she wrote in a since-deleted Instagram post. Now, two years later, she’s able sing about it in a song so catchy you’d be forgiven for missing what its all actually about.
60: Worst Nites – Foster the People
“Startin’ it up after dark
Chasin’ thoughts, cruisin’ through Echo Park
Joined the vultures eatin’ paradise
Gettin’ tilted, yeah, we’ll pay the price (But ain’t it nice?)”
Since they exploded into the mainstream in 2010 with their top-5 hit ‘Pumped Up Kicks‘, Foster the People has been known for their ability to comfortably nestle serious themes into upbeat pop songs. Here, though, the band is ready to just let loose with a night of partying and drug use. The trio is ready and willing to acknowledge that these impulses aren’t their best – these are their worst nites after all – but they make the whole debacle sound like loads of fun anyway.
59: Canary – Joy Williams
“There’s a madness in a cavern
There’s a darkness that can blind
Where it’s every man for himself
No one’s getting out alive”
In moments of social and political unrest, like the one we live in now, it is so easy to give in to feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. It is that very emotion that Joy Williams, former vocalist for The Civil Wars, allows to wash over her in the sparse verses of ‘Canary’. But the chorus is a rebellious declaration; Williams’ incomparable voice soars as she insists on being a speaker of truth, even if it means her own demise. Because in moments of helplessness, sometimes just speaking out is an act of bravery and triumph.
58: Body – Sinead Harnett
“Maybe fueling the fire means
I’m definitely crazy
Guess I’m willing to burn
If you’re the one who comes to save me”
Few vocalists ooze a sense of being cool the way Sinead Harnett does. Sauntering through the jewel-toned lights of the music video, Harnett exudes a sensual confidence that many bigger stars would kill to possess. The half-Thai, half Irish (Thai-rish, to hear her tell it) singer first rose to prominence as a featured artist on tracks by Wiley and Disclosure, but she sounds best here, calling the shots for herself.
57: Not Your Barbie Girl – Ava Max
“I can take myself on a dinner date
Buy myself diamonds and a champagne
Order five courses, then chocolate cake”
Say what you want about Ava Max, but the girl’s got good taste. This song wins points for inventiveness by taking Aqua’s 1997 smash ‘Barbie Girl‘ and turning it on its head as a feminist self-empowerment anthem. Would ‘Not Your Barbie Girl’ be even a quarter as good as it is without the borrowed hook? Resoundingly, no. Maybe it’s cheating, but… the hook is there, and 22 years later, it still sounds great. After all, you can say what you want about Ava Max, but… the girl’s got taste.
56: L’aérogramme de Los Angeles – Woodkid & Louis Garrel
“Sur ces collines Près de la mer
J’ai vu Henry Miller
Je ne sais plus Si j’aime encore
La Vallée de la Mort”
Most active in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Yves Simon was one of the most celebrated French songwriters of his time. A perfect, if less well-known, example of his songwriting prowess is the 1975 masterpiece ‘L’aérogramme de Los Angeles‘. The sense of longing for a love and a home that are both more than an ocean away, so heartbreakingly through the lyrics and melody, is expressed more forcefully than ever in this cover by contemporary French artists Woodkid and Louis Garrel. By the time the orchestration finally hits with full force in the last minute, the song already feels as frighteningly tragic as any apocalypse.
55: No Angel – Charli XCX
“I party, get naughty
Always telling myself I’ll never do this again
I’m sorry that you caught me
Fucking in the hotel, it didn’t mean anything”
Never before has there been such a party-ready song about not partying. Charli XCX has a reputation as a rave playlist staple (and she is), but her best moments have always had a surprising vulnerability. Songs like ‘How Can I‘ from True Romance or ‘ILY2‘ from Number 1 Angel have wrapped shiny pop production around lyrics dealing with the guilts and longings of being in love. XCX has managed to keep her private life surprisingly under wraps for someone of her stature, but songs like this one lift the curtain just enough to give us a tantalizing glimpse into the heart of one of the best pop songwriters of our time.
54: Stop That Train – AWOLNATION
“Now I’ve gotta go court the conductor
And I gotta bleed gold on the track”
Seven years after the release of Megalithic Symphony, Aaron Bruno has had enough of the music-making machine. That acclaimed album served as Bruno’s debut as AWOLNATION, and included the out-of-left-field hit ‘Sail‘. Outside of a few great tracks, his 2015 followup Run felt dated as soon as it was released – what was supposed to be more of a good thing felt reductive, too slick, artificial. Now, Bruno is determined to be the real thing. There’s no autotune, no sparkly synthesizers – instead, as this song suddenly explodes in double time, the listener is treated to a churning guitar riff and Bruno’s pained scream ‘I wanna get off!’
53: Anything Goes – NVDES
“And all their humble dark clothes and achey soles
Appropriated by something absinthe-y
Green eyes chartreuse in authenticity
Debilitated by the future that intoxication might numb itself out”
There are lots of great songs about tripping balls. ‘I am the Walrus‘, ‘White Rabbit‘, ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots‘. Add ‘Anything Goes’ to that list. LA-based art-pop collective NVDES barely pauses long enough to think about the consequences of the night since, you know, everybody’s feeling good and anything goes. The synthy riffs are just catchy enough to make you almost believe that a happy trip with no consequences is possible.
52: In Cold Blood (Kontra K Version) – Alt-J feat. Kontra K
“Cali, let’s dive, dive down
To the pool’s bottom where we belong
Cali, we’re sinking like a bleeding stone”
Generally nonsensical lyrics a staple of Alt-J’s work, but there’s always some poignancy in the mix. While ‘In Cold Blood’ isn’t immune to the occasional dense metaphor (only this band would describe the loss of California to climate change as being akin to pool floaty sinking like a Jeff Koons sculpture), there is a startling clarity to the accusation at its core. Environmental collapse isn’t an innocent accident. No, it’s like a murder at a pool party, wet and bloody. But worst of all, the partygoers act like they don’t even notice. “All around, crowd above, so fucking loud”. Then the band throws in a reference to actual pool-drowning murder victim Caspian Stienmetz, a vocal riff spelling out the band’s name in binary, and an in-German guest turn from Berlin-based rapper Kontra K just for the fun of it. It’s a lot. For anyone else, it would be too much. But in Alt-J’s case, it’s just how things are done.
51: All The Time – The Kooks
“Your scent brings me flowers,
your heart, it brings me wine”
The Kooks have always been preoccupied with the frailty of love. On ‘Naïve‘, the group’s most successful single, the band spends most of the song flinging sardonic barbs at a nameless woman before suddenly begging her for affection in the song’s final seconds. A few years later, the band flipped the story on the more-mature and criminally underrated ‘Around Town‘, bemoaning the difficulty of finding a love that can weather a rocky patch. ‘All the Time’, though, finally admits what it’s all about. “I want you to be here when I die,” vocalist Luke Pritchard sings to the disinterested object of his affection. The sentiment is as useless as it is quintessentially Kooks. And speaking of quintessentially Kooks, this song is as catchy as can be without even seeming to try.
50: Wishing You Away – HOLYCHILD
“I had had a dream that you were dead
And I woke up crying in my head
It made no sense ’cause I don’t know you
But it felt like everything was true”
It must be unnerving to return from an extended hiatus with new music – wondering if your fans still care, whether you still have what it takes. How much more unnerving, then, to return from an extended hiatus with a song that doubles as an intimate and personal account of domestic abuse. “My father was physically abusive to my mom when I was growing up and I used to be ashamed of that,” wrote vocalist and songwriter Liz Nistico. “I was so horrified that I was a part of such a family and I didn’t start talking about it until recently… The song is a cry to my dad. The video is a warning for the future.” The video in question is a pastel nightmare in which Nistico dances around in a purple birthday dress with black eye and a nasty cut across her forehead. Its somehow both cutesy and tragic, catchy and terrifying.
49: James Dean – The Wrecks
“Imagine for a minute,
You get up in the morning,
And get what you want“
If The Wrecks aren’t rockstars yet, it’s not for lack of effort. They put out two EP’s in just over a year (the first one was recorded just three days after the band met), and have toured with acts like Paramore, All Time Low and Dashboard Confessional. If that list of artists feels a little old-school, there’s a reason for that. Listening to The Wrecks’ music is like time traveling back to a time when studded belts and checkered Vans ruled high school hallways everywhere. Its impossible to read reviews of the band online without seeing comparisons to Weezer and Fall Out Boy. Rather than feeling like an unnecessary rehash of an old style, though, The Wrecks manage to make emo-pop sound fresh again in a way few artists have managed since the genre’s heyday.
48: Bloom – Troye Sivan
“I need you to
Tell me right before it goes down
Promise me you’ll
Hold my hand if I get scared now”
‘#BopsBoutBottoming’ Troye Sivan wrote in his infamous, now deleted tweet just minutes after this song dropped. That the song is so unabashedly gay is only part of its appeal. The sweet naiveté of the lyrics, be it real or feigned, is impossibly endearing. Sivan understands what the song is and who its audience is well enough to know to wrap the accompanying video in a kaleidoscope of orchids and gender-defying fashions. Sonically, he has caught the feeling of experimental puppy love and trapped it in a jangling synth-pop cage far too catchy to escape from.
47: We Appreciate Power – Grimes feat. HANA
“What will it take to make you capitulate?”
Grimes has worn a lot of sonic hats over the years. If there is anything to be learned from the ambient, droning noise of her early work, the EDM-flavored ‘Go‘, and the blatant pop of Art Angels, it is to never think that the Canadian singer’s next move will be a predictable one. Yet, many were shocked when landed with its Nü-Metal, Marylin Manson-esqe edge. Even in the aggressive new style, though, Grimes stays a master of creating enchanting soundscapes with her unique songwriting style and fairy-like voice. In an interview with Pitchfork, she said the song is “from the perspective of a Pro-A.I. Girl Group Propaganda machine who use song, dance, sex and fashion to spread goodwill towards Artificial Intelligence”, if that’s the sort of thing you’re into. She also claimed that streaming the song would make the listener less likely to be a target during a robotic uprising. So that’s probably good.
46: White Flag – Bishop Briggs
“Oh, won’t wave my white flag, no
This time I won’t let go
I’d rather die
Than give up the fight, give up the fight”
The idea of creating an identity for oneself isn’t a foreign one to Bishop Briggs. The British singer was born in 1992 with the name Sarah McLaughlin – into a world where a successful singer-songwriter with that name very much already exists. Briggs’ chosen name is a reference to Bishopbriggs – her parents’ hometown in southern Scotland. The themes of identity, origin and destiny that are all part of her name are brought front and center on ‘White Flag’, a fist-pumping anthem of rebellion and endurance in the face of adversity.
45: Nina Cried Power – Hozier feat. Mavis Staples
“Nina cried power
Billie cried power
Mavis cried power”
Nina Simone released her legendary version of the African American spiritual ‘Sinnerman’ in 1965, just months after Bloody Sunday – the attack on peaceful civil rights protesters by Alabama police during the Selma to Montgomery March. The famous refrain of that song ‘I cried “power, power” to the Lord” became a rallying cry for the civil rights movement in the years to follow. Here, Hozier pays tribute to some of the great musicians who were part of that and other great social movements in history: Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield, Patti Smith and Mavis Staples. Staples accepts the tribute with grace and, well, power, lending her incomparable voice to the bride and harmonies of this song. Hozier feels the power to use his own voice for change, and challenges us all to rise to the occasion and to cry out with our own power as well.
44: Light On – Maggie Rogers
“Tried to slow it all down
Crying in the bathroom
Had to figure it out
With everyone around me saying
‘You must be so happy now'”
It would be a cliché to call Maggie Rogers’ rise to fame ‘meteoric’, so let’s just say it was fast, it was sudden, and it was significant. She was a student of music at NYU when a video of her nervously playing a demo of her song ‘Alaska’ to Pharrell Williams went viral. The video racked up well over a million views, earning Rogers a cult following and a record deal. An understandably overwhelmed Rogers went on to write this song, expressing gratitude for her newfound fans while also being quite frank about the anxiety she felt about being successful. Ironically enough, this song became her first #1 single, topping the Adult Alternative chart in January 2019.
43: Bad Dreams – Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson
“Falling in love and getting over it
too soon and oh too fast
I envy the futures of all my friends,
I get jealous about your past”
The strangest thing about this song is who it’s sung by. If you can get past the admittedly weird mental image of Black Widow singing about commitment issues, you will find a charmingly morose soft-rock track dealing with themes of loneliness and self-sabotage. Lines like “Worried I’m getting older, that my bangs have grown too long” are hard to remove from the context of Johansson’s image-based fame and absurd wealth, but she does a nice job of harmonizing with the more believable Yorn – and she does an unsurprisingly stellar job with the complex emotions of the video.
42: I’m Good – Wafia
“Finally got back everything I gave to you
Every part of me that I left in your room
Now I really don’t care what you do”
The remarkable thing about ‘I’m Good’ isn’t in its defiance, it’s that it the song actually isn’t defiant at all. Instead, when Wafia deadpans “I’m doing better without you, I’m good”, the matter-of-factness of it all makes it so much more devastating than any guns-blazing ‘fuck you’ could ever be. Even the winking lyrical nod to Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain‘ feels more dismissive than ironic. She says she’s better off alone, and there’s not a second of doubt about whether that’s true.
41: Take Me – Juliet Simms
“When you touch me like you do
Goddamn who could blame me
Just get here baby
And take me cause I’m in the mood”
Juliet Simms has had a career path all her own. She first came on to the mainstream music scene as the front-woman for the acoustic rock band Automatic Loveletter. A year after that band’s last album was released, she competed on The Voice, moving through the competition with a series of classic rock covers, ultimately earning second place. This song, though, is arguably the best version of Juliet Simms, a wailing blues-rock diva yearning for the touch of an absent lover (presumably husband and Black Veil Brides member Andy Beirsack). The song is unrepentantly horny without sounding trite. The sense of gravitas doesn’t come from the corny-ish lyrics, though, but from the sheer power of Simms’ gravel-throated voice.
40: Nobody’s Biz – Four Fists
“Some people look at me cross-eyed when I tell em I own guns
You should see how they jaw drop when I tell em I want more
I ain’t talkin’ a sawed off to keep thieves from my front door
I want a Glock and an auto cause I don’t trust the cops, y’all”
The concept of the supergroup is a problematic at its very core. When a group of individuals with existing legacies and fanbases come together, its too easy for the resulting project to be less than the sum of its parts. This seems especially true for hip-hop groups. Bad Meets Evil, 213, CRS – all short-lived and somewhere on a scale of unlistenable, despite the talent represented by their lineups. Even more remarkable, then, what alt-rap darlings P.O.S. and Astronautalis have accomplished with Four Fists. 6666 is a stellar album from front to back, but this song is still a highlight. Highly educated righteous anger emanates from skillful verses delivered over a dizzying beat. Listen to this one with earphones on – and turned all the way up.
39: Heaven Only Knows – Bob Moses
“Sacrifice all your life
Heads hang heavy when there’s blood on the line
It’s justified, don’t ask why
‘Cause heaven only knows”
“The organizing principle of any society is for war. The basic authority of the modern state over its people resides in its war powers. Today it’s oil, tomorrow, water.” – Gerry Langdon in The Veteran. As far as protest songs go, this one is pretty subtle. The lyrics are content to point out the absurdity of Just War Theory rationalizations and let the listener take it from there. The intensity of the subject matter comes through in the production, though, which is a masterclass in shuddering, driving electronic-alternative songwriting. The electronic duo (the name Bob Moses is a reference to Robert Moses, the city planner responsible for most of New York City) have become known for this kind of instrumentation, but this song is still their masterpiece.
38: I Want Your Love – Nile Rodgers & Chic feat. Lady Gaga
“I grab my pillow and squeeze it tight
I think of you
And I dream of you, all of the time
What am I gonna do?”
In 1979, Chic had a problem. Their single ‘Le Freak‘ had shot to the top of the Billboard 100 and stayed there for just shy of two months. The band now faced the challenge of selecting a a follow-up single. Ultimately, they found their answer in the energetic ‘I Want Your Love‘. The song never performed as well as ‘Le Freak’, but still achieved a respectable peak at #7. Fast forward 39 years to 2018, and Chic (now Nile Rodgers & Chic) had a problem again. After almost four decades out of the music industry, the band needed a comeback album to end all comeback albums. As the band prepared to release their first studio album since 1992’s “Chic-ism”, they wanted contemporary stars to serve as ambassadors to a younger generation of listeners. Hailey Steinfeld, Mura Masa and more came on board, but the most dynamic turn comes from the Lady herself. Originally recorded in 2015 for Tom Ford’s SS16 show, the song wasn’t officially released to the public until now. All due respect to Alfa Anderson’s original vocal, but Gaga’s incomparable presence elevated one of disco’s all time greatest hits to somehow even higher heights.
37: 뚜두뚜두 (DDU-DU DDU-DU) – BLACKPINK
“원할 땐 대놓고 뺏지
넌 뭘 해도 칼로 물 베기”
Korean pop music is undeniably having a moment right now, and not only is BLACKPINK well aware of that – they want to make sure you are too. This is BLACKPINK’s electro-trap hype track for themselves, but the braggadocio isn’t misplaced. The group is the only Korean act to place on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard 200, and they are the most-subscribed-to Korean musical act on YouTube. It’s not just hype, though. The girls are all on fire on this track. The real star-making turn comes from rapper Lisa, who spits “What we want, we’ll steal outright. Whatever you do, it’s like cutting water with a knife. Our hands are full with a fat check. If you’re curious, fact check. My expectations are higher, it’s like fish in water.”
36: Sinking Ship – Cake
“And if your people are the best
Tell me why are you wearing a vest
This investigation into disinformation
keeps putting everyone to the test”
Cake frontman John McCrea has said that he was working on a version of this song as long ago as 1980, but decided to write a new melody for it and release it now due to its relevance to current events as he sees them. “’Sinking Ship’ is quite pessimistic but somehow does not seem hyperbolic right now,” he wrote. “It is a critical time for the world, and it is more important than ever to find leaders capable of putting country above self-interest.” Sonically, the track is a return to form for Cake, with hyperactive guitar and bass riffs bouncing off of each other with the occasional trumpet flare for punctuation. In October 2018, Cake announced that all proceeds from the song will be donated to Doctors Without Borders.
35: Daddy Always – Darwin Deez
“Ash to ash
And bicycles to rust”
Darwin Deez manages to paint a realistic picture of his childhood self’s perspective in this heartbreaking depiction of parental abandonment. The effervescent optimism of Child Deez stops the song from sinking too deeply into the emotional torture of a distant mother and a persistently absent father. The facade falls apart in the last 30 seconds of the song, when the instrumental plays on past the proper end of the song to obscure the words of a barely-audible voicemail recording. Like us, Deez can’t hear what the caller is saying, but he doesn’t have to. Deep down, he already knows.
34: Must’ve Been – Chromeo feat. DRAM
“I must’ve been high when I met you
Out of my mind when I decided to love you
Now I’m just tryin’ to forget you
I must’ve been, I must’ve been”
Since their debut in 2004, Canadian funk-pop band Chromeo has been a constant source of fun. Five albums into their career, the party isn’t showing any signs of letting up. “Must’ve Been” is the perfect example. A radio-friendly chorus dances sprightfully over a disco-throwback guitar line updated for 2019 with a thundering bass and a rap feature from ‘Broccoli‘ rapper DRAM. The whole thing is blissfully cheerful listening, perfect for summer beach parties or driving with the windows all the way down.
33: TopBrazil – Fischerspooner
“I’m not opposed to humiliation
I hold my breath until
I wiggle out of a bad position
I call it TopBrazil”
Originally, the album art for Fischerspooner’s fourth album, Sir, was supposed to be a close up, black and white image of an erect dick (this link is NSFW, obviously). In the end, the band went with a photo of band member Casey Spooner’s face in profile, tongue stuck out to the sky. The image is less explicit than the original, but no less sexual. This track finds the duo at their most ferocious, presenting gay male sexuality with a lyrical candor and musical griminess befitting the subject matter. That the title ‘TopBrazil” is pulled from the username of a Grindr conquest of Spooner’s is just the cherry on top of the very sexy pie.
32: Lost Boy – The Midnight
“We were the rebels, lone survivors
We were the cult of deep sea divers
We were young once then we grew old
We were shining, we were fool’s gold”
The Midnight was formed when vocalist Jamison Lyle and producer Tim McEwan discovered their mutual love for vintage synthwave music. Taking inspiration from the Drive soundtrack, among other sources, the pair started releasing music together as The Midnight in 2014. Four years later, they have perfected the art. ‘Lost Boy’ is a throwback, yes, but it also sounds perfectly current, futuristic even. Beyond the science-fiction associations the genre is so well known for, the song still sounds like something ahead of its time – the way the vocals in the chorus are chopped up into a synthetic riff of their own is beyond heavenly.
31: Make Me Feel – Janelle Monáe
“It’s like I’m powerful with a little bit of tender
An emotional sexual bender”
The sickening synthesizer line that anchors this song was one of the last things Prince worked on before his death in 2016. As for Monaé herself, she has her own memories of working with the iconic pop pioneer. “Prince actually was working on the album with me before he passed on to another frequency, and helped me come up with sounds. I really miss him, it’s hard for me to talk about him,” she said in an interview with the BBC. “I wouldn’t be as comfortable with who I am if it had not been for Prince.” ‘Make Me Feel’ is a more-than-fitting tribute to Prince’s legacy, bringing to mind his own iconic hit ‘Kiss‘. Ultimately, though, the song is Monaé’s, and she carries it off with that distinct panache that she alone possesses.
30: It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You) – The 1975
“And Danny says we’re living in a simulation
But he works in a petrol station (Selling petrol)
He says it all began with his operation
And I know you think you’re sly but you need some imagination”
The layers upon layers of vocal effects, guitar riffs and synthesized strings in this song feel as though they should verge into the chaotic, but the driving rhythm and vocalist Matt Healy’s voice keeps the song strictly on track. The band’s most recent album was an excellent, if not particularly accessible, mishmash of alternative rock styles. Sitting in the middle of the artistic murk, though, is this pop gem. The track is the catchiest the band has sounded since their 2013 smash ‘Chocolate‘. Lest anyone accuse him of being too radio friendly, Healy spends the song delivering lyrics about a heroin addict named Danny who spends his time working at a petrol station and thinking about the Simulation Earth theory. Of course, Danny is just a stand-in character for Healy’s own experiences, but a little distance from the subject matter is warranted – we are supposed to be dancing to this after all.
29: Feel the Love Go – Franz Ferdinand
“No, you’re not that thing that you’re doing
For the things that you do are not who you are”
Franz Ferdinand have made a name for themselves by pairing their indie-rock sensibilities with some of the catchiest pop melodies out there. They are most well known for gold-certified singles ‘Take Me Out‘ and ‘Do You Want To‘, the former of which has shown an incredible staying power – still a staple on both rock radio and hipster-party playlists now, almost fifteen years after its release. The band’s catalogue is filled with such bouncy alt-rock gems, though, and ‘Feel the Love Go’ is no exception. The staccato guitar riff fights with a persistent percussion section to keep the song always moving forward, while frontman Alex Kapranos holds the hold thing down with his surprisingly sensitive delivery of the song’s simple lyrics.
28: Nothing Breaks Like a Heart – Mark Ronson feat. Miley Cyrus
“I heard you on the phone last night
We live and die by pretty lies
You know it,
we both know it”
Its hard to say what a “predictable” collaboration between Mark Ronson and Miley Cyrus would sound like, but it definitely wouldn’t sound like this. While both Ronson and Cyrus have more than their fair share of pop music magic in their respective catalogues, this Dolly Parton-esque country-pop masterpiece is new ground for them both. Ronson is best known for neo-soul jams like ‘Valerie‘ (with Amy Winehouse) and Uptown Funk (Bruno Mars). Cyrus has genre-hopped enough to avoid having her name be synonymous with any specific sound, but this is still new territory for her. Perhaps the closest she has come, though, was with her most recent full-length album, 2017’s similarly-styled but significantly lower quality Younger Now. But, while it is Cyrus’s name that will pull most casual listeners, this song is actually Ronson’s. With that in mind, maybe we should have expected this. After all, his most recent work has included working with Lady Gaga on both her underrated Joanne album as well as the soundtrack for A Star is Born. So maybe ‘Nothing Breaks Like a Heart’ is unexpected – or maybe we just weren’t paying enough attention. Lesson learned.
27: Expectations – Lauren Jauregui
“All these tears that I cry while I’m turned to the side
And you’re in the same fucking bed”
Speaking of expectations, its unlikely that anyone was expecting this as a first solo single from a former Fifth Harmony member. Despite a significant amount of commercial success, that girl group suffered from rumors of in-fighting between the members as well as accusations of being little more than a deliberate star-making platform for Camila Cabello. While the title of ‘most successful surprise breakout star from Fifth Harmony’ (it’s a very specific award category) has to go to Normani, Lauren Jauregui makes a damn good case for not being discounted here. Not only does the slow, R&B/rock ballad genre work wonderfully for her voice, but it allows her to create a sound and aesthetic all her own. Unlike Cabello or Normani or… the other two…, Jauregui has stepped out from the Fifth Harmony shadow not just in name – but in sound as well.
26: Turn – The Wombats feat. Dagny
“They say the best memories are the ones that we forget
Like listening to Drake at your best friend’s swimming pool
Floating anti-clockwise in a red mushroom”
The charm of The Wombats has always been in their oddly specific and uniquely narrative lyrics. All the way back in 2007, the band released their breakout single ‘Let’s Dance to Joy Division‘, a riotous pop-punk song that became inescapable in late 2007 and the years to follow. That song was inspired by a specific memory of, well, dancing to Joy Division and celebrating the irony of everything going wrong but being so happy. Eleven years later, they’re still celebrating the same irony. “Maybe it’s the bullshit I’ll miss,” ponders frontman Matthew Murphy. “it won’t get better than this”. ‘Turn’ was originally released as a solo track in late 2017, but was reworked the next year as a duet with Norwegian pop chanteuse Dagny. The duet works even better than the original, turning the song into a pining conversation about blissful, mutual ennui.
25: Sunday Morning – Matoma feat. Josie Dunne
“I wanna feel high on a Sunday morning
I wanna feel like it’s all brand new
I wanna feel strong when I feel like falling
I wanna feel everything you do”
‘Sunday Morning’ starts subtly, almost timidly. “I probably shouldn’t say this,” guest vocalist Josie Dunne sings over sparse production. The gentleness is a fake-out though – the pre-chorus explodes with a splash of synthesized orchestration, only to be outdone by the chorus a few seconds later. The religious-lite reference of the title is echoed in the music with Dunne’s powerful vocal backed by what sounds like an entire church’s congregation harmonizing in a shared yearning for something more. The song is a heart-pounding, fist-raising, dancefloor-filling thing – a gospel song for the 21st Century.
24: You Should See Me in a Crown – Billie Eilish
“Tell me which one is worse
Living or dying first
Sleeping inside a hearse
I don’t dream”
One would assume that songs are usually written and then later named, but that is not the case here. In fact, the title phrase was the original inspiration of the song – quoted directly from a line of dialogue delivered by Andrew Scott as the classic Sherlock Holmes villain Jim Moriarty on BBC’s Sherlock. It’s not just the very British reference in the title that makes this song an international affair, though. The instrumentation is inspired by the work of Iranian-Dutch pop singer Sevdaliza, and the video is gorgeously animated by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. It’s the kind of globalist collaboration that is only possible in the interconnected world of the digital native. Born in 2001, Eilish probably doesn’t even realize how recently what she has accomplished here would have been impossible.
23: Boomin’ In Your Jeep – Crystal Fighters
“For you I throw my heart out,
catching all your stardust
Feel the fallout coming,
but it’s all OK”
There is an elusive trick to creating the perfect summer song – one that seems to effortlessly captures that windows down, music up, summer breeze, party on the beach vibe. Plenty of songs have aspired to capture that intangible magic, but only a few truly succeed. Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg’s ‘California Gurls‘, The Drifters’ ‘Under the Boardwalk‘, and Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff‘ are some examples of tracks that have nailed it. Now, add ‘Boomin’ in Your Jeep’ to that list. While it may not achieve the instant-classic status of those three songs, it captures that mystical summer feeling just as well. From lyrics literally describing scenes of 60-mpg sing-alongs with the windows down to the vaguely tropical guitar riff, this song feels sunny, no matter what season it actually is. And thats the thing about summer songs – they represent a feeling that doesn’t really exist for most of us. It’s how we imagine summer feels when it’s winter. ‘Boomin’ in Your Jeep’ is a song about good music, good weather and beach parties with no sunburns, bug bites or sandy showers to worry about afterwards. And who wouldn’t want that?
22: Girls Night Out – Charli XCX
“No boys, no boys
No boys, no boys
No boys, no boys”
There is something to be said for a song that is this committed to just being pop as hell. It’s a giddy promise to party and so, so, so much fun. Those two sentences could lead a paragraph about most songs Charli XCX has released, but this time around, we get a specifically designated genre of party. The song is co-written and produced by Charli’s friend and electronic music pioneer SOPHIE. That the song is produced by a trans woman isn’t strictly relevant, but in a political climate where even a trans individual’s ability to legally use the correct restroom is in question, it is distinctly nice to be reminded that an XCX-and-co. party is always going to be one of the most inclusive parties out there.
21: Soft Feelings (Solo) – Sondre Lerche
“Did you see him again?
Did you call out my name by mistake?”
Sondre Lerche has been in the music game a long time, becoming a favorite of indie clubs and critic’s best lists without ever so much as feinting towards becoming anything close to a household name. As to be expected in a career of more than a decade, Lerche’s sound has evolved from the acoustic-pop balladeering of his early albums to the full-band psych rock of the last few years. Never has this been shift been more apparent than on his 2017 album Pleasure, which found him experimenting with poppier production than ever before. The synth-wave sound of the album seemed like a sure sign that the rough-around-the-edges roots of Lerche’s career was over. But then, in February of 2018, the Norwegian singer/songwriter released Solo Pleasure – a stripped back reworking of pleasure that had previously only been available in a limited-release, physical-copy form. The new arrangements aren’t necessarily ‘better’ than the originals, but they allow for the odd melodies and poignant lyrics that are signatures of Lerche’s work come to the forefront in a way his fans haven’t heard in years.
20: If the Car Beside You Moves Ahead – James Blake
“If the car beside you moves ahead
As much as it feels as though you’re dead
You’re not going backwards”
You’re not going to hear anything else quite like this anytime soon. James Blake’s vocals are processed beyond recognition and chopped to bits atop an atmospherically sparse beat. That beat is partially sampled from a psychotic 1960’s jam-rock song. The result is an off-putting but fiercely unique track from the famously experimental Blake. Although the British producer has worked with artists as well-known and diverse as Bon Iver, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé herself, this song is proof he keeps his wildest – and best – work for himself.
19: Am I a Girl? – Poppy
“Am I a girl?
Am I a boy?
What does that even mean?
I’m somewhere in between.”
Poppy has found unconventional success through distinctly 21st-Century pop culture satire. Throughout the early years of her career (when she was still YouTube enigma That Poppy), her followers came to her for a heady mix of an absurdist sense of comedy and a (possibly) intelligent sendup of Instagram vapidity. Those early spoken word videos, as well as early musical offerings, saw Poppy portraying the character of a mechanized, corporatized pop star/influencer to great effect. In the early tracks of the Am I a Girl? album, it seems as though the listener is in for more of the same, albeit with tighter production and imagery. But about halfway through the album, something starts to change. The soundscapes become darker, the lyrics less silly. This builds up to the shocking pop-metal one-two-three punch of ‘Am I a Girl?’, ‘Play Destroy’, and ‘X’ which closes the album. As the leader of this unexpected trilogy, ‘Am I a Girl?’ represents the turning point. Not only does Poppy address her own non-binary gender identity (more non-binary representation in media, please), but by doing so, she announces that she is stepping out from behind the character and presenting us with Poppy: The Actual Person. Or… maybe its all just another stunt. Only time will tell.
18: Because It’s in the Music – Robyn
“They wrote a song about us
It’s called something like stardust
And on that day they released it
Saying they’ll release me
Even though it kills me
I still play it anyway”
It’s been a long eight years since Robyn’s last studio album, Body Talk came out to critical and commercial success in 2010. That album had five hit singles, including the platinum certified ‘Dancing on my Own‘ and three other gold certified tracks. In the years since, the Swedish singer has released several collaborative EP’s with very little fanfare. It took the better part of a decade, but the follow-up album finally came – and, frankly, it was worth the wait. It would have been easy for Robyn to try and recapture the success of Body Talk by making another collection of electro-club bangers, but that would be too predictable. Never one to repeat past steps, Robyn instead created Honey, an understated but deeply nuanced collection of ambient and electronic songs. Yes, the album is still distinctly pop, but nowhere to be found are the obvious sing-along hits like ‘Dancing on my Own’ or ‘Call Your Girlfriend‘. Instead, Honey is best consumed together, as a single piece of artwork, to allow the silky vibes wash over you over its 40-minute running time. It feels almost uncouth to remove a single song from its context. If it has to be done, however, there isn’t a better choice than ‘Because It’s in the Music’, a beguiling, catchy slice of synth-pop that sounds like it should soundtrack a dancefloor in some fairytale universe. Consider it an appetizer, and then go listen to the album.
17: Crazy, Classic, Life – Janelle Monáe
“We don’t need another ruler
All of my friends are kings
I’m not America’s nightmare
I’m the American dream”
There’s no denying that 2018 is the year pop got political. Find me another song this catchy with lyrics that reference both Malcom X and The Declaration of Independence within 60 seconds of each other. That the song is so musically excellent feels beside the point with messages this heavy. “Police like a Rambo. Blow it out, blow it out like a candle, S*mbo,” Monáe raps on the stunning outro. “Me and you was friends, but to them, we the opposite. The same mistake, I’m in jail, you on top of shit.” The simmering righteous anger is barely contained by the catchy hook and hip-hop beats. It is simultaneously a celebration and a protest. “Being a queer black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women – I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker,” Monáe told Rolling Stone in an interview published the day before the release of this album. There is a bitter irony in those words, though, as evidenced by this track’s incredible music video. Just like the interview, like the song, or like being black, femme, or queer in 2018, the party depicted in the video looks like so much fun – until it suddenly, definitely, is not.
16: Compromise – Joywave
“I have seen the curse that boredom brings
Watched it wash away sanity
So I find somewhere deep down inside my brain
Where I can get away”
The magic of Joywave is in the band’s ability to pair pop song melodies and song structures with sometimes shockingly aggressive musical arrangements. Their back catalogue has run from boppy synth pop (‘Tongues‘) to straight up industrial rock (‘Destruction‘) to dirge-y, gothic hip-hop (the stunning ‘Bad Dreams‘ collaborative remix). Here, the band oscillates between these genres, soft falsetto crooning suddenly gives way to a guitar riff seemingly plucked from a forgotten early 00’s nü-metal jam. Its a template the band has used before (see ‘Somebody New‘ in particular). There is no shame in returning to a signature sound, though, especially when it sounds this good. There are few other bands that could handle this balancing act – longtime collaborators KOPPS come to mind, as does the heavier works of Dragonette. ‘Compromise’ is the work of a band that have found their sound and perfected it.
15: Take Me to the Disco – Meg Myers
“Only the lonely could understand where I have been
Always on a journey inside myself
Remember me and what I used to be
I don’t wanna be your enemy but I got to get away”
Based on the title alone, one would be forgiven for expecting a pre-game party anthem from Meg Meyers on this title track from her 2018 album. Instead, we get an achingly beautiful piano ballad about heartbreak and loneliness. The lyrics here don’t tread much new ground (although the foundational metaphor works beautifully throughout), but both the instrumentation and Myers’s vocal gorgeously capture the emotion within them. When the bridge resolves itself with Myers gently sighing “I got to get away, I got to get away”, it doesn’t feel plaintive. Instead, it is the dull sadness of resignation that comes through the speakers like a punch to the gut. It is a masterclass in creating narrative through emotive vocal work. It would be impressive for anyone, but coming from an angsty grunge-rocker like Myers, it is revelatory.
14: thank u, next – Ariana Grande
“I’ve got so much love
Got so much patience
I’ve learned from the pain
I turned out amazing.”
The word “prolific” gets thrown around a lot, but in the case of Ariana Grande, it is more appropriate than usual. While most artists release a new album every couple years, Grande dropped track just four months after the release of Sweetener in August of 2018. That was just the lead single for another full album released just two months after is even more impressive. Of course, none of it would matter if the music wasn’t any good, but ‘thank u, next’ finds Grande at her most infectiously catchy – while also delivering some of the most personal lyrics of her career. To name drop not just one but three of your exes in the lyrics of a song is ballsy, but to do it in a way as gentle and genial as this is inspirational. The cameo-filled music video isn’t strictly related to the emotional content of the song, but it’s tons of fun. Bonus points for the inspired cut scene with Jennifer Coolidge.
13: ‘Til It’s Over – Anderson .Paak
“Only one more night in Los Angeles
I really thought that I can handle it
But the funny thing is, I was holding back tears
I didn’t think this day would happen”
”Til It’s Over’ isn’t Anderson .Paak’s most successful single of 2018, commercially speaking. (That would be the Kendrick Lamar-featuring ‘Tints‘). It is also not his most instantly recognizable (arguably non-album single ‘Bubblin”). It is, however, his most inventive. The absolutely unexpected harp-and-piano instrumentation dancing beneath the stripped-back beat is unlike anything else you’ll hear this year, and that’s a shame. The balance of organic and electronic elements is somehow both minimalistic and bordering on chaos. The track doesn’t have an official music video, but it soundtracks, in its entirety, an Apple HomePod commercial that stars pop enigma FKA Twigs in a fantasy dance sequence that rivals any other music visual of the year.
12: Monsoon Daydream – Ben Khan
“Trapped in this monsoon”
Before the release of his self-titled album in 2018, Ben Khan had released a grand total of nine songs – and those over a span of almost five years. Still, the anticipation for the album was high, bolstered by the strong reputation of songs like ‘Youth‘ from the 1992 EP and ‘1000‘ from the EP of the same name. These jilted electronic tracks became staples on alt-lite radio, as well as the soundtracks of indie-esque television shows and the in-house playlists of trendy eateries around the world. When the album came, it was a bit less focused than most had hoped, with meandering ambient tracks bumping up against frenetic pop songs that are perhaps just a bit too imitative of Jai Paul’s early leaks. With ‘Monsoon Daydream’, though, Khan delivered to the fullest. The song is simultaneously sweeping and intimate, chaotic and laser focus. Khan’s penchant for wild production is on full display here – good luck understanding any of the lyrics, but the bass riff is crystal clear.
11: Peach – Allan Rayman
“I forget the rule of thumb
I thought of peach, but a peach is a peach
It’s all the same taste to my tongue”
Allan Rayman is a man of the shadows – Google his name if you want to read a whole slew of journalists discussing their inability to get an interview with the man. Admittedly, this facade has cracked a little in the past couple years, but the press that Rayman does do winds up being more confusing than enlightening. From references to Stanley Kubrick to saying he prefers large venues because he likes the feeling of being in a zoo (?), there is nothing made particularly clear than the fact that Rayman has a perspective all his own. Throughout the course of his career, themes have emerged: a woman wearing a red dress and a fox mask is a recurring visual character, and comparisons between love and death are frequent. In an email to DJBooth writer Nathan S., Rayman claimed that he “fears love like a common man fears death”. This song doubles down on that idea, with Rayman describing sex with his parter as “two cold bodies”. Charming stuff, for sure, but Rayman is an undeniably unique perspective in the modern music landscape. His reluctance to expose the man behind the art feels vintage – quant, almost. But maybe that is the image – after all, what would better suit him? This man who creates fatalist blues-rock masterpieces that sound like they are from a collection released decades ago rather than mere months. Perhaps he is just smart enough to realize that a peek behind the curtain might just ruin the whole thing.
10: Not So Bad in LA – Allie X
“It’s not so bad in LA
Backyard got two lemon trees
Ten grams at the dispensary
Angels all left, but we’ll stay”
‘Not So Bad in LA’ isn’t so much a tribute to Los Angeles as much as it is a scathing indictment of the vapidity of those who live there. But then again, it isn’t so much a scathing indictment of vapidity as much as it is the resigned sigh of someone who is almost (but definitely not actually) content with their own not-quite-fame. Allie X’s vocal delivery is reminiscent of fellow California-transplant Queen Lana Del Rey. Both X and Del Rey came to Los Angeles from the east (they are originally from Toronto and New York, respectively). The yearning for the romantic fiction of California while being face-to-face with its reality is a theme that is pervasive in Del Rey’s work – but here, Allie X takes that idea and fills it with the ironic wit and wry boredom it deserves. Which isn’t to say that Allie X tells the story better than Lana Del Rey has, but ‘Not So Bad in LA’ is good enough to stand on its own outside of the inevitable comparisons. Yes, it feels a lot like a Lana Del Rey song, but the trap-pop production and bitchy lyrics turn it into something unique. Also, Allie X’s terrifying face-veil in the video is possibly the best music visual of the year. For bonus credit, listen to the remix by the grime production collective Commands, which brings the bitter aggression of the lyrics to the sound production with killer results.
9: My My My! – Troye Sivan
“Spark up, buzz cut
I got my tongue between your teeth
Go slow, no, no, go fast
You like it just as much as me”
There is some humor in seeing the old guard music world react to Troye Sivan. The Aussie singer’s whole appeal comes from his unabashed Gen-Z queerness, yet it is so common to see critics and fans alike trying to add layers of hidden meaning into the straightforwardness (for lack of a better word). “Somebody else asked me about the ‘tongue between your teeth’ lyric the other day and it’s not that deep,” Sivan told Genius. “It’s just a thing that happens when you’re making out with someone.” That this wouldn’t be obvious to anyone is proof of how unexpected male queerness still is in the mainstream. It’s no surprise, then, that Sivan’s music has become a staple of gay clubs around the world. For many listeners, Sivan is the loudest and boldest voice of representation inside pop music – a genre that has long courted the gay man as a target customer, but rarely elevated him to the pedestal of superstar. Yes, there was Lance Bass, Clay Aiken, George Michael – but all of these men came out once their stardom was already firmly in hand. A more accurate example of a predecessor for Sivan would be someone like Kevin Aviance, whose dance hits from the mid-to-late 90’s and early 00’s were staples in the queer dancehalls of NYC. Aviance, who was famously attacked by a group of homophobes in 2006, could only have dreamed of the mainstream success that would be available to the artists, like Sivan, who would follow in his footsteps. In those days, just over a decade ago, Aviance’s out-and-proud approach to queerness and DGAF perspective on gender felt dangerous and rebellious. In 2018, Sivan is able to achieve commercial success (he has two top-ten albums and a whole slew of Gold and Platinum certified singles) with that same approach to queerness. Admittedly, despite the chart placement, it all does still feel outside the norm. When it comes to queer representation in mainstream media, things have come a long way in the last decade, but there’s still a long way to go as well. So, in the video for ‘My My My!’, when Troye Sivan sings about having his tongue between a lover’s teeth as images of bare-chested men flash by in the staccato lighting bursts of the strobe lights, it still feels rebellious – but it also feels optimistic, which is something queer culture historically hasn’t had the ability to feel.
8: Time is Up – Poppy feat. Diplo
“I don’t need air to breathe when you kill the bees
And every river bed is dry as a bone
Oh, I will still survive when the plants have died
And the atmosphere is just a big hole”
Years from now, if anyone were to look back on Poppy’s career, there is little doubt that ‘Time is Up’ will stand out as the turning point between ‘Old Poppy’ and ‘New Poppy’. Its an odd song even in her own discography. The track sounds completely different than both her early work and the slick heavy metal she’s making today, while somehow sounding more mature than either. ‘Time is Up’ was the third single Poppy released from the Am I a Girl? album cycle, but the first two (‘In a Minute‘ and a cover of Gary Numan’s ‘Metal‘) sound more akin to the bubblegum pop of 2017’s poppy.computer album than the dark, industrial record that Am I a Girl? wound up being. This is still definitely an elecro-pop song (Diplo does some of the best production work of his career here), so the at-the-time shock of it was significantly less than the sudden 1-2 punch that was the drop of hard rock singles ‘Hard Feelings’ and ‘X’ just a couple months later. In hindsight, though, ‘Time is Up’ is the first look at what Poppy might be like outside of the quirky characterization that had defined her career up to that point. Sure, the lyrics were still written from that character’s goofy cyborg-pop-demon perspective, but the anti-climate-change message of the lyrics were a distinct step towards seriousness from an act that had previously been 50% musician, 50% joke. When the full album dropped, it saw Poppy step out of the character completely to discuss topics like gender identity and the romanticization of violence in American culture. Its heavy stuff coming from a girl who, only a year previously, had sung lyrics like “please electrify me, power my battery” with a completely straight face. The transition to metal-Poppy is one that left a lot of fans scratching their heads, but, for this one brief moment in the middle, Poppy got it exactly right.
7: Hott – KOPPS feat. Joywave
“In the heat of the night
In the church full of empty aisles
Take all I’ve got
Take the best of me away”
If tasked with naming U.S. ‘music cities’, there are some obvious choices. Nashville, for sure. Seattle, obviously. New Orleans as well. KOPPS and Joywave seem poised to help put Rochester, New York on that list. One of the most unexpected music trends of 2018 is the sudden resurgence of nü-metal, a nearly forgotten subset of early-00’s rock which featured heavy guitar riffs and metal-band imagery paired with poppy melodies and (usually) clean vocals. Poppy and Grimes both left their electronic-music sounds behind in 2018, embracing nü-metal with stunning results. The movement seemed to have come out of nowhere to suddenly be everywhere, but that isn’t fully the case. There are numerous smaller acts who have been accessing this sound for years, but KOPPS and Joywave are two who have done it with the most success. The bands came up together in the local Rochester music scene, but have both exploded onto the global stage in recent years. Joywave in particular has found success melding heavy, industrial sounds into 2010’s-style pop-rock songs. KOPPS may not have found the same level of chart success, but they have used a similar mashup of styles to great effect as well. The bands aren’t clones of each other – KOPPS tends to mix their heavy drum-and-guitar arrangements with more 00’s-dance pop elements than Joywave’s more indie-rock approach. Check out their cover of Alice Deejay’s ‘Better Off Alone‘ to see what I mean. Both bands are excellent on their own, but something magical happens when the old collaborators work together. ‘Hott’ isn’t even close to their first song together (‘Tongues’ from Joywave’s 2015 album ‘How Do you Feel Now?’ is probably the most well-known previous joint effort), but it is one of their best. The song begins softly with Joywave’s signature indie-rock style being compliments with some electronic synth-y elements that are distinctly KOPPS. But all that goes out the window in the post chorus – a screaming banshee of a guitar riff soars over a thick bass and thudding percussion. The nü-metal revival may be in early days, but if these two bands make it sound like they’ve been doing it for years, it’s only because they have.
6: Close Your Eyes – Kim Petras
“Go on and say, say your last words
Sometimes the best things kinda hurt”
There is literally no point in discussing Kim Petras without immediately addressing the elephant in the room: her collaborations with accused abusers Dr. Luke and Jesse Saint John. Both of these men worked on this song, and their presence casts a disappointing shadow over what should have been a guilt-free bop. Saint James’s name especially tarnishes Petras’s reputation as an LGBTQIA+ trailblazer – he has been accused of drugging young men’s drinks to be able to sleep with them, and screenshots of him messaging someone named Adrian on Twitter – who claims to be twelve years old (although they are, in fact, several years older than that). Saint John responds with a meme captioned “when there’s no cops around, anything is legal”. You can read a roundup of some of the accusations against him here, if you are so inclined. The accusations against Dr. Luke by Kesha and others in the music industry have been well documented. Petras has been repeatedly called out for continuing to work with Luke (and now Saint John) for years. Obviously, their alleged actions are disgusting, but there is also a level of hypocrisy in all of this – Dr. Luke and Jesse Saint John have both worked with many, many pop artists over the years. Saint John has credits on other songs on this very list. So why is Petras the one who is constantly called out? Perhaps it is because she continues to work with Dr. Luke after the highly-publicized Kesha case, but the details of her contract are private. Because of this, it is unclear how much that choice is even hers to make. More likely, it is because of some ill-advised statements she made seeming to defend him, although those statements were (sort of) walked back later. Also, to be fully fair, the accusations against Saint John had not been made public yet at the time of this song’s release, so how much Petras was even aware of them is unclear. It’s all an incredible shame, because ‘Close Your Eyes’ is one, if not the, best pop song of 2018. Taken as a queer-club ode to halloween, it also has a cultural significance beyond itself. On its own musical merit, the song is one of the best of the year. Whether or not that is enough to justify lining the pockets of these two men is a question that will continue to be debated for years to come. It is imperative, though, that no one throw stones at Petras that they are unwilling to throw at all of those who have knowingly worked with these men. To villainize one of the most successful transgender women in the world, but then turn around and ignore the same behavior from other entertainers reeks of prejudice. It is time we hold all abusers and all of their enablers to account – but also understand the nuances and inescapable realities of the music industry and hold everyone to the same standard. And regardless of where you fall in the “separate the art from the person” debate, let’s all be kind to those who may fall elsewhere.
5: 1999 – Charli XCX feat. Troye Sivan
“I know those days are over, but a boy can fantasize
‘Bout JTT on MTV and when I close my e-e-eyes
And I’m right there, right there
And he’s right there, right there”
By the time 1999 came out, 90’s nostalgia was already in full swing. It makes sense – the late 2000’s and early 2010’s were all about 80’s throwback sounds with synthpop making a huge comeback via chic artists like Carly Rae Jepsen and La Roux. The combination of nostalgia and the authenticity-driven identity politics of older Millennials proved to be very good for all genres of music, with mainstream synth pop as well as indie rock embracing the distinct sounds of the 80’s to excellent effect. But as the throwback sounds of acts like Jepsen and La Roux become less cutting edge (a bit of a misnomer when discussing nostalgia, but trends are odd that way), it makes sense that younger Millennials would get to take their turn at the nostalgia plate. If Generation Y, or the Millennials, were born between 1981 and 1996 (the Pew Research Group definition of the group), they would be between 22 and 37 in 2018. Perhaps more pertinently to this discussion, they would have been between 13 and 28 in 1999. But Charli XCX falls on the much younger side of that range. Born in 1992, XCX would have been seven years old in 1999, not really old enough to have already embraced all of the referenced media in this song and video. Worse, Troye Sivan was born in 1995, meaning any memories he has of 1999 almost definitely did not involve Jonathan Taylor Thomas (who is now 38 – not relevant, but still mind-blowing). The point of ‘1999’, though, isn’t to recreate an accurate portrayal of the year 1999. The neon-drenched video pays homage to the Spice Girls and Sketchers, but (unsurprisingly) fails to reference, say, the Clinton impeachment trial or JonBenet Ramsey or the Columbine tragedy. The point isn’t to accurately remember 1999, it is to be nostalgic for a time when the optimism of childhood made a pair of new sneakers seem far more important than tales of distant violence or petty matters like who is president. A mature understanding of the world is part of growing up, but sometimes it’s fun to fantasize about the relief of that pressure, and a fairytale version of 1999 is just as good of a place as any to let that happen. XCX and Sivan have created a nostalgic, vibrant fantasy that is impossible to resist. It makes coming back to the real world feel like even more of a shame than it already is.
4: Me and Michael – MGMT
“Binary stars sink, like the setting sun
Too happy with ourselves to notice when the change had come.”
There is a distinct art to ambiguity. Think back to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, for example. More than fifteen years after the release of the film, people still speculate about what Scarlett Johansson whispered to Bill Murray in their final, inscrutable moments on screen. But, of course, ‘ambiguous’ is just a tiny slip away from ‘confusing’. On ‘Me and Michael’, MGMT keeps one foot solidly on either side of the line. What at first appears to be a straightforward love song between two men becomes confused by the duo’s continued statements rejecting a homosexual identity for themselves. In fact, the original lyrics to this song were ‘me and my girl’, but songwriter Andrew VanWyngarden felt that was ‘too boring’ and changed them at the last minute. So how are we to navigate that? Is the song now about a platonic friendship? An imagined gay relationship? A girl named Michael? Or are we meant to not presume the gender identity of the narrator? According to VanWyngarden, there are intentionally no answers to these questions. The band is inviting a host of questions about their personal identities, but then turn the questions around on the inquiring fans – as if to say ‘why do you care? Does it matter?’ The implied answer, of course, is that it does not, and lyrical references to sinking binaries reinforce that idea. The video further doubles down on the themes of ambiguity and confusion, depicting MGMT stealing ‘Me and Michael’ from another band. In reality, that band, True Faith, was hired to create a cover of the song specifically for the video. Then, the story was told backwards. The lyrics, the press statements of the band, and the video all add up to an odd look at personal identity and how it shapes the perception of an artwork. With ‘Me and Michael’, MGMT aims to leave things as open to the listener’s own perspective as possible. After all, the song is written from the perspective of a character the band can’t be bothered to introduce to us. It becomes the responsibility of the listeners to fill in the blanks. And how they each do that probably says more about them than it does about MGMT.
3: Career Boy – Dorian Electra
“I can never fight the feeling
I stay up all night
Workin’ so hard after hours
Till I see the sunlight”
By now, Dorian Electra is a respected name in the underground pop scene, but few know exactly how much ‘Career Boy’ is a return to their roots. As a college student, Electra gained attention for a series of economics-themed pop songs with titles like ‘I’m in Love With Friedrich Hayek‘. They even received a $350 prize from ‘The Lloyd V. Hackley Endowment for Capitalism and Free Enterprise Studies’ for placing second in their ‘Supply and Demand Video Contest‘, which was a real thing, apparently. As the years went on, Electra moved on from specifically economically-themed music to a more general take on political pop. Their music has dealt with themes of gender identity, AFAB sexual health issues and, of course, the limitations and failures of capitalism. Political pop is hardly unusual in 2018, but it is no surprise that someone like Electra would find themselves on the forefront of the movement. ‘Career Boy’ doesn’t stand out as Electra’s best work only because it is a return to charted territory for them (although the satire of workaholic culture is just subtle enough to be fully biting), but also because it’s just such a damn good song. The synths are so full-bodied that they feel like unstoppable waves upon which the rest of the song surfs. The abrupt cut to silence (save a whispered ‘yeah’) in the middle of the chorus is a production choice that is as effective as it is ballsy. ‘Career Boy’ serves as the perfect bridge from the Dorian Electra of the past to the Dorian Electra of the future. Gone are the days of joke-y woke political bops (like some twisted, modernist take on Schoolhouse Rock). In their place are tightly crafted, stunningly daring pop songs that take themselves just seriously enough to be high art, but not so seriously that the winking sarcasm of it all is lost. It’s a delicate balance, and whether or not Electra will be able to keep it up in perpetuity remains to be seen. More than likely, the pen-ink mustachioed persona of Electra’s current work will fall away, leaving a more true-to-life representation of the singer’s identity in its place. That specific trajectory is one that almost all character-based music acts follow eventually, as the persona becomes more tiring than exciting over time. Often, the artist that emerges on the other side of the transition is far less interesting than the character ever was, and so the entire act falls apart. But, while ‘Career Boy’ is still a transitory moment (at most) for Electra, it remains a solid enough pop song without the gimmicks to prove that if anyone can survive the shift, they can.
2: In Your Eyes – ASTR
“I don’t wanna fix this feeling
Will we make it out alive?
Staring in a broken mirror
Can you read between the lines?”
‘In Your Eyes’ is perhaps the year’s best example of how pop music can be used as an emotive and provocative art from as much as any other genre of music can. Pop music often gets a bad rap as ‘teen girl’ music or the ‘cotton candy’ of the music world. However, acts like ASTR exist to kick that idea to the curb. Now, the two members of ASTR both have backgrounds in the music business outside of this project. Vocalist Zoe Silverman is the daughter of Tommy Silverman, the founder of Tommy Boy Records, and producer Adam Pallin had a moderate amount of chart success with his previous band, Little Jackie. That doesn’t make ASTR a lesson in nepotism, though. The duo kept their identities a secret during the band’s early stages in order to let the music speak for itself. Of course, having a wealth of existing contacts will never hurt a band trying to get off the ground, but it also helps that the music is, actually, very good. ‘In Your Eyes’ is a full-bodied pop ballad – dark and foreboding while also being completely catchy and danceable. It isn’t so much a unique take on the genre as much as it a perfection of it. After all, dark and brooding pop has been on the rise since the early 2010’s thanks to pioneers like Purity Ring, Charli XCX and Crystal Castles. ASTR undoubtedly owes all of these bands a debt of inspiration, but as of 2018, it was doubtful whether any of them could have surpassed this song in terms of sheer polish. The lyrics are simple, but the melody and production are tight enough to lend a sense of drama and import to them beyond their literal meanings. Silverman is a large part of this too, using her significant vocal talent to bring a rawness to the vocal that stands at odd with the slick instrumental. It is frankly unlikely that ‘In Your Eyes’ (or ASTR in general) will be remembered on many retrospectives of the year, but that’s really a shame. Yes, there isn’t much that is groundbreaking here, but the band takes a good genre, and executes it as well possibly. And a song that can’t be improved upon must, by definition, be a great song, right?
1: Caroline – Chez Moi
“Je connais ton histoire
C’est toi à côté de moi”
Chez Moi are criminally ignored. The band doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and as of this writing (Nov. 25, 2019), the music video for ‘Caroline’ has yet to reach five thousand views on YouTube. It is frankly confusing as to why the duo hasn’t picked up more as both members of the duo, Ryan Merchant and Adam Friedman have a strong music-biz pedigree. Merchant is better known as the front man for Capital Cities and Friedman has collaborated with numerous well-known acts including Mike Posner and wrote the single ‘Be Nice‘, by the Black Eyed Peas and Snoop Dogg. Here’s the thing, though. ‘Caroline’ is way better than anything either of them have worked on before. The interplay between French and English in the lyrics shouldn’t work as well as it does, but the straight-forwardness of it all keeps it on track. The bouncing guitar and subdued rhythms balance out the bizarre flute riff perfectly. Yet, here we are. If you Google ‘Caroline Chez Moi’, the first result that isn’t one of the bands own pages or a lyrics page is a Reddit post about the song. The post has no comments and only one upvote. It is an odd choice for Merchant and Friedman to not leverage their music-world connections to gain more buzz. In a world of One Direction’s and Nasty Cherry’s, it is almost refreshing to see a well-connected act make music for the love of it and promote it just like any new act would. The unfortunate flip to this coin, of course, is that this song deserves a significantly wider audience than the one it has actually received.
As I said in the introduction, there are elements of this list I would change with a year’s hindsight. Maybe I will make that list someday too. But these are my personal top 101 songs of 2018, as I felt then. Some, like ‘Caroline’, I still listen to nearly every day. Others, I was startled by how much I had forgotten them in the year that has passed. I have compiled a short playlist of songs from 2018 that, in hindsight, I think should have made this list, and I will post that in a couple days.
I will be publishing a similar list for 2019 in a few weeks’ time. But in the meanwhile, take a moment to listen to the list on Apple Music, Spotify or YouTube below (and use the embedded links to follow my accounts on those platforms, if you want).
And let me know what you think of the list, what songs did I tragically ignore? What songs should never have been included in the first place?
Listen at any link below: