Welcome to the Four Weeks of Listmas, a holiday-themed breakdown of the year’s most important music. Today, we’re counting down the greatest songs of 2018.
Do albums even matter anymore? It’s a fair question to ask in a year when artists are largely abandoning traditional album formats and a single song can keep a a record atop the Billboard charts.
Songs are moments. They’re easily dissectible, expediently memeable and instantly reactable. They make interaction easy; enjoying music becomes a quick hit, rather than the slow, thoughtful burn that traditional LPs demand.
And many artists in 2018 seemed to be at their best in that format. Pusha T managed to bolster his credibility with a post-album diss track, and Ariana Grande made her best music this year after she’d already released a record.
There are probably some greater points to be made here about generational attention spans and rapid-fire media consumption, but droning on about that would defeat the point right? Songs are about the now—like right now—so, without pause, let’s get into it.
A quick note: For the sake of diversity, no song on this list came from any of my top 15 albums of the year. If that makes you unhappy, I’m sorry. If that doesn’t particularly bother you, please read on, and also feel free to check out my end-of-year lists here.
15. Kamasi Washington – ‘Street Fighter Mas’
Kamasi Washington can do anything he wants with the saxophone. So far, his career has been a fascinating experiment in that fact: the 37-year-old composer-producer has spent years twisting and toying with jazz like a piece of infinitely workable Silly Putty.
And “Street Fighter Mas” is his greatest experiment yet. It’s a six-minute funk epic that, without any vocals, is somehow about both kung fu and late-’80s arcade games. It’s addictive, oddly dramatic and full of a style and flair that no other contemporary jazz artist could manage.
14. Ariana Grande – ‘thank u, next’
Grande’s Sweetener was one of the best pop records of the year, but apparently that wasn’t enough. The former Nickelodeon star, whose dating life has been scrutinized more than nearly any celebrity, decided to end 2018 with a song about her ex-boyfriends.
It’s a conceptual heat check, a triumph over media narratives and, above all, a damn good pop song. Between that and its culture-capturing music video, “thank u, next” isn’t just one of the 2018’s biggest songs—it’s one of the year’s biggest moments, period.
13. 88rising – “Midsummer Madness”
Hip-hop became wider than ever in 2018, ballooning and reverberating through now-mainstream genres like K-pop, reggaeton and, thanks to SNL, the American judicial branch. But one of the year’s best transformations came from 88rising, the part-record label, part-management company founded by Sean Miyashiro in 2015.
The collective, comprised of Asian-born artists like Rich Brian, Joji and Higher Brothers, released its debut album earlier this year, and in doing so it introduced an entirely new group of voices to Western music. “Midsummer Madness” is a big part of that success: the record’s standout hit is sentimental, catchy and full of diverse artists tackling hip-hop in their own distinct way.
12. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – ‘Reborn’
In a year where everything Kanye did felt worrisome, confusing or, at best, rushed, KIDS SEE GHOSTS was a welcome jolt of positivity. “Reborn,” the album’s fifth track, finds both Ye and Kid Cudi—who had his own tumultuous, difficult year—grappling with everything that’s weighed them down.
Kanye’s verse is hopeful and moving, but the track really belongs to Cudi. The 34-year-old is cautious in his approach to wellness, proclaiming that while he may be better now, he’ll only stay that way if he keeps moving forward.
11. Noname – ‘Ace (feat. Smino and Saba)’
“Ace” sounds like pure celebration. The track finds Noname, Saba and Smino—all three friends; each responsible for one of the year’s best rap records—flaunting their rare styles and ruminating on just how far their careers have come.
10. Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper – ‘Shallow’
And “Shallow” sits at the center of everything. Gaga and Cooper’s marquee ballad plays an irreplaceable role in the film, and it’s also is responsible for both of the movie’s best scenes. Like any good soundtrack song should, “Shallow” feels essential to the movie it represents—it’s hard to imagine A Star Is Born drawing even half this much hype without it.
9. Ella Mai – ‘Boo’d Up’
In a year where every hit song is either a genre crossover or an A-list mega-collab, “Boo’d Up” comes across as pure, unfiltered pop joy. The song is simple, undeniably catchy and easily relatable, crossing off every box on the Song of the Summer checklist.
It also made Mai’s career, thrusting her from English R&B anonymity to Grammy-nominated superstardom. Few songs in 2018 were as good as “Boo’d Up,” and even less did as much for an artist’s standing.
8. Father John Misty – ‘Mr. Tillman’
With “Mr. Tillman,” Father John Misty has finally gone full Father John Misty. The God’s Favorite Customer track finds Josh Tillman at his most ironic and self-deprecating, full of harsh jabs that force remind both Tillman and the listener to never take themselves too seriously.
7. Young Thug – ‘High (feat. Elton John)’
Industry tip: if Sir Elton John likes your music, then you’re probably doing something right. Young Thug’s rework of “Rocket Man” could’ve been a horrible, disrespectful disaster, but instead it was one of 2018’s most spectacular musical moments.
Not only does Elton John approve of Young Thug, he genuinely enjoys his music. That co-sign, and the ability to turn a ’70s classic into a heartbreaking, trap-infused epic, is proof that Thugger is as great as he’s ever been.
6. Tyler, the Creator & A$AP Rocky – ‘Potato Salad’
Did anyone have more fun this year than Tyler and A$AP? The two rappers have a wonderful, hilarious friendship, and they both seem to have spent a lot of 2018 flaunting their wardrobes, cracking jokes and making excellent music.
With “Potato Salad,” they do all three at once. The one-off track, released inconspicuously to YouTube over the summer, finds Rocky and Tyler trading outlandish verses about satchels and mansions filled with Cole Sprouse look-a-likes.
5. Pusha T – ‘The Story of Adidon’
It turns out every overbearing high school teacher was right: it pays to do your homework. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Pusha T was downright studious in his three-minute dismantling of Drake, decidedly winning their feud and reviving the art of the rap beef in the process.
“The Story of Adidon” is a 450-pound deadlift of a diss track; a career-defining power move that vaulted Pusha into hip-hop’s A-list. The second half of 2018 revealed a lot about what may or may not have happened between Drake and the GOOD Music leadership, but none of that changes how exhilarating it felt when Pusha said: “You are hiding a child.”
4. Lucy Dacus – ‘Night Shift’
“Night Shift” is a less of a song, and more a collection of moments. There’s the moment where Dacus, after three minutes of build-up, drops out everything but her guitar and vocals and begins singing the song’s refrain. Then there’s the moment where she says the line: “In five years time, I hope the songs feel like covers, dedicated to new lovers.”
Then there’s the moment a few moments later, when the track explodes into roaring, gained-out guitars and a shower of pounding snare hits, tossing the listener into a laundry machine of emotions as Dacus howls her way out of heartbreak. It’s an unforgettable roller coaster of a track, and possibly the most affecting few minutes of music released this year.
3. BROCKHAMPTON – ‘1999 WILDIFRE’
But the best thing BROCKHAMPTON did in 2018? Make an Outkast song. The group’s ode to the Atlanta duo is impressively spot-on, but it’s also full of the perfect, idiosyncratic quirks that have made them so successful over the past year.
2. Childish Gambino – ‘This is America’
In terms of pure prevalence, “This Is America” is easily the song of 2018. No track over the past year was dissected, debated, discussed or recreated more than Donald Glover’s audio-visual masterpiece, which has now been viewed nearly 500 million times on YouTube.
There’s little to say about the song beyond its sheer perfection: in style, in purpose and in execution. Donald Glover will likely be one of pop culture’s most inventive artists for years to come, but “This Is America” will also stand as the moment his genius reached the masses.
1. Boygenius – ‘Me and My Dog’
2018’s best song isn’t a Billboard-smashing mega-hit, or a genre-defining breakthrough, or a Grammy-earning masterpiece. It’s three women, in powerful harmony, singing about a breakup.
Boygenius, a supergroup built by three of rock’s most talented young voices, gave Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers something they lacked in their previous projects—peers. In their new band, the singers found a songwriting environment where they could challenge one another and collaborate as equals, and that’s never clearer than on “Me and My Dog.”
The track is centered around Bridgers, but it quickly becomes a showcase for all three members, who work together to create the song’s cutting, transformative chorus. It’s a moment of pure vulnerability, but also one of triumph as the trio celebrates their creative mastery as one.