best of 2018

The Best Songs of 2018 (So Far)

Photo: Courtesy of the artists

By now you’ve probably heard about all the problems with the music industry: It’s not what it was. No one spends meaningful amounts of time with any one song. There’s just too much music. It’s true that there’s a staggering amount of music out there in the world, and it’s also true that it’s easy to just keep moving through it without ever looking back, but what the songs below all have in common is that we spent real time with them. These are just some of the songs we’ve loved, lived with, and kept coming back to.

This list has been updated to include October releases.

“Bag,” Future and Young Bans
There’s no denying that Future has written some exceptional songs, but I can’t say I expected a low-key release from the SuperFly soundtrack to work so well. On “Bag” — which is the exact opposite of bombastic — Future and Young Bans are barely there, half-whispering their verses over what sounds like spa-ready New Age that’s been sculpted into three minutes of catchiness. — Sam Hockley-Smith

“Believe,” Amen Dunes
In a recent interview with GQ Style, the musician Damon McMahon said he didn’t listen to music, and then when on tour, he preferred to drive in silence. He says this after mentioning that he has made an active effort to avoid looking at his phone since Donald Trump got elected. McMahon is, of course, not saying that he never listens to music, but the underlying sentiment applies: In order to avoid being crushed under the weight of this thing I do, I need to extricate myself from it so it does not destroy me. So “Believe,” just one great song from his new album, Freedom, is appropriately fragile and world-weary — it’s music made by a guy who has survived multiple phases of New York’s music industry machine, and come out the other side with a song that stands out as an instant classic on an album full of more than a few other instant classics. — SHS

“Bloom,” Troye Sivan
What’s so great about #20GayTeen is that songs that fumble in articulating how to identify with queerness can exist comfortably next to a song that’s fluent in the language and isn’t shy about screaming it. There’s space for Rita Ora to falter and Troye Sivan to thrive. Sivan’s “Bloom” is an exuberant Georgia O’Keeffe painting set to music that evokes the ’80s, where the shared first-time sexual appearance between two men gets the benefit of the metaphor. Even more, it’s told from the perspective of the guy on the receiving end. There’s a tender euphoria to the song — it’s a sex story treated with love, even if there isn’t any between the two people having it. — Dee Lockett

“Can’t Take a Joke,” Drake
I know, I know, there are more obvious choices for inclusion here. I probably should have picked “God’s Plan” or “Nice for What” or “In My Feelings,” or even “Talk Up,” which is further proof that Drake and Jay-Z are excellent collaborators, but every time I return to Scorpion, the first track I come back to is “Can’t Take a Joke,” a song which, unfathomably, is not about how Drake can’t take a joke. The verdict may be out on if he can take a joke, but the catchiness of Drake’s flow on this track is undeniable. It sounds like he’s reading a list in one single breath. Sad Drake is good, and Positive Drake is cool, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Angry and Determined Drake. — SHS

“Death Preferences,” State Champion
“Warmth” is one of the more overused descriptors in music. Is it an actual sound? Is it more of a vibe? Whatever! You know it when you hear it. “Death Preferences” is a title that absolutely should not denote any kind of warmth, but it’s here anyway: Picture, like, a tendril of smoke rising from a chimney or a Cheers-esque bar where people aren’t afraid to get kind of dark, but in that comforting way that acknowledges the universality of personal pain. The real show here, though, is the lyrics, which are glittering jewels of zonked-out, weirdly touching regular-life details like: “I dressed and left so fast that I think my shadow must have been confused for a minute,” or the unexpected depth of this simple line: “It’s Saturday night, it’s Sunday morning … everybody’s smoking weed.” By the end of the song, it feels like we’ve been eavesdropping on an entire town, and that’s no small feat. — SHS

“Get Up 10,” Cardi B
Cardi B has a voice to wake up to. Just in case anyone hadn’t heard her story by the time her formidable debut LP Invasion of Privacy dropped, the Bronx genius laid down an introductory track to bring the stragglers up to speed. Modeled on Meek Mill’s iconic “Dreams and Nightmares” intro, “Get Up 10” is so pithy (“You gon’ run up on who and do what?”) and memorable that summary seems impossible: from food-stamped obscurity to nationwide glory, Cardi’s is an awe-inspiring trajectory, and only her delivery can match its truth. — Frank Guan

“Giovanni,” Jamila Woods
To be a black woman is to be the daughter of history’s black women. We carry that lineage with us on our shoulders everywhere we go, in our every curl, bone, and scar. The poet Nikki Giovanni described this entangled sorority in her classic piece, “Ego Tripping (There May Be a Reason Why),” on her pilgrimage to the motherland: “My oldest daughter is Nefertiti / The tears from my birth pains / Created the Nile / I am a beautiful woman,” she wrote. Chicago singer Jamila Woods carries on that poem’s legacy, and the infinite legacies of black womanhood, in her new song named for Giovanni, which samples the poet’s 1971 recording of “Ego Tripping.” Woods stitches herself into the fabric of the lineage Giovanni first wove: “My ancestors watch me / Fairytale walking / Black Goldilocks, yeah.” Black woman have endured so she can continue the work. — DL

“God Is a Woman,” Ariana Grande
While we can all agree “The Light Is Coming” was a dud — there is such a thing as straying too far from your wheelhouse, i.e. Pharrell’s production tics aren’t suited for everyone — “God Is a Woman” is Ariana Grande at her most Ariana Grande. It’s a sampling from the Max Martin side of her new album (produced by one of his protégés, Ilya) that discovers new territory for the singer while simultaneously sticking to her guns. It’s Ariana cooing, purring, and melisma-ing over a trap-pop track about the Biblical proportions of her sex game, which is nothing Ari hasn’t said before (though the bigger talk here probably comes from having better sex). The difference here is Ari reconsidering her empowered sexual energy to represent a force that can’t be contained within the bedroom. If she can break and bend a man at will with her body, what damage can her mind do to the fragile male ego convinced it rules this world? It’s what brings us to the song’s video, a reimagining of the highest being as woman, where she plays God to topple the patriarchy here on Earth and beyond. Ariana has arrived at a cultural shift in her career where everything she does will be bigger than her going forward — bigger than pop itself, almost — and has greeted the moment with fearless gusto. — DL

“Hate the Real Me,” Future
It’s been said before: Future is really, really good at writing songs that plumb the depths of depression. “Hate the Real Me” from Beast Mode 2, his excellent recent collaboration with the producer Zaytoven, is, on the surface, triumphant, and then you notice that Future is repeating, over and over, “I’M TRYING TO GET HIGH AS I CAN,” his voice cracking and receding. It’s not exactly a pleasurable moment, but this kind of honesty about the appeal of self-medication to avoid the purgatory of bad memories is hard to pull off. Future isn’t saying what he’s doing is good, but he’s not saying it’s bad either. In other words, he’s not holding anyone’s hand, and he’s letting his voice do the work. — SHS

“Happy Without Me,” Chloe x Halle ft. Joey Badass
Sister act Chloe and Halle Bailey have provided the soundtrack to youth with their sublime debut album, The Kids Are Alright. “Happy Without Me” has all the sheen of high-school whimsy: Their love story unfolds over various scenes of after-school flirting, but it’s their reminiscing about the relationship’s unhappy ending where this song shows its unexpected maturity. They’re not above admitting that it doesn’t feel good to see the person you shared your heart with move on, and, for a moment, they consider rekindling those feelings when he comes back into the picture. But then, the glorious epiphany: “But I feel a little bit dumb, just a little bit sprung, just a little too late / Oh you call up those other chicks, I can’t stop thinking it’s lame missing you anyway.” Halle’s honeyed falsetto in that first line’s delivery (usually the register handled by her younger sister) is one of the best vocal moments of the year. Heartache be damned, these two kids are doing just fine. — DL

“High,” Young Thug ft. Elton John
Earlier this year, Young Thug gave a bunch of music publications real live snakes as part of a promotional tool for his album/compilation Slime Language. It was a weird moment — suddenly all these random people were saddled with pet snakes they didn’t want. One of the snakes died last week, which I know because SPIN has tirelessly documented the lives of these snakes. RIP that snake. Anyway! I bring up the snakes because they illustrate something about Young Thug — both who he is as an artist and the way we talk about him. The general opinion — correct or not — is that Young Thug is weird. He does wild stuff with his voice, he is a master of the bizarre image, he is forever a release away from the classic we know he has in him. It’s weird that Young Thug sent a bunch of people unsolicited snakes, but it’s weirder that one of the great artists we’ve got has yet to make his masterpiece. “High,” a collaboration with Thug’s good friend Elton John posits that maybe we’re looking at this all wrong. Maybe Young Thug never needs to make the universally classic album people want from him. Maybe he already did, and that album was Barter 6. Or maybe, he’s just going to pump out songs like this — endlessly blissful, meditative, and oddly perfect. — SHS

“Hot Pink,” Let’s Eat Grandma
“Experimental pop” sums up the British duo Let’s Eat Grandma in more ways than one. The outfit, composed of childhood friends and current teens Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth, specializes in cutting-edge conjunctions of genres and emotions that ordinarily would seem awkward next to each other. Though the tentative, clumsy emergence of new love saturates the lyrics of “Hot Pink,” the natural vocals and jarring digital sonics are executed with assurance. — FG

“King’s Dead,” Jay Rock ft. Kendrick Lamar, Future, James Blake
Most posse cuts end up feeling more like shuffling through a mediocre pack of baseball cards than the kind of event listening they’re meant to evoke, but “King’s Dead” is one of the good — potentially great — ones. You might be showing up for Kendrick, but the real draw here is Jay Rock (it makes sense, “King’s Dead” is also the single on his next album) who is having so much fun with his verse that you can virtually hear him smile through your speakers. — SHS

“Lemon Glow,” Beach House
Music’s always had a complicated relationship with consistency. Stay the same for too long and people stop caring, but change up your whole vibe too quickly, and everyone gets mad. Is there some imaginary sweet spot that signals the point when a band should change? Is it three albums in? Four? If you’re Beach House it’s a whopping seven albums deep into a career of some of the most enigmatically romantic music around. Most Beach House songs sound like explosions, fireworks, young love, etc., but “Lemon Glow” is all about hypnosis, like Beach House members Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally spent a bunch of time with shoegaze band Slowdive’s Pygmalion, which is built on beautiful loops and interior worlds, and then figured out how to take that sound and turn it outward. — SHS

“Lifetime,” Yves Tumor
I’m going to make a controversial statement: No current artist has captured the spirit of Björk while sounding nothing like Björk better than Yves Tumor. Previously, Yves Tumor records felt like experiments. Song sketches bled into vocal collages. The vibe of any given song dominated over the content or intended message. It was often brilliant, often difficult work. “Lifetime,” and really the rest of the newly released Safe in the Hands of Love, places the artist in a whole new realm. He’s not so much succumbing to pop music as he is bending its rules to fit his sound — his voice here weirdly recalls Lil Peep and vintage Animal Collective, while existing on its own terms. Over a stumbling drum loop, Yves Tumor sings some of the more plainly affecting lyrics of the year. Never has a phrase as simple as, “And I miss my brothers,” sounded so potent. — SHS

“Missing U,” Robyn
I have just one word to sum up Robyn’s first solo song in eight years: dazzling. It’s such an elitist reflex to dismiss the catharsis that sugary pop music provides as hollow, but Robyn and this song are prime examples of why it works well. There’s only so far a sad song that wishes to dwell in its sorrow will carry you. “Missing U” tries to come to a truce with that pain by throwing it a party. As the song’s title tells you, Robyn is grappling with loss of varying degrees of severity: a creative partner who died of cancer prior to the release of their collaborative album; maybe the loss of a romantic partner, too; losing touch with her fans after so many years creating distance with her side projects; losing her way. Robyn’s never been one to let the bad erode her joy; “Dancing on My Own” is that good for that reason. “Missing U” once again isn’t about drowning out her loneliness, but dressing it up with fluttering, bursting synths and pulsating kick drums so it doesn’t have to feel so isolating. “All this love you gave, it still defines me,” she sings as a reminder that all isn’t lost just yet. — DL

“Mona Lisa,” Lil Wayne ft. Kendrick Lamar
There were many reasons to be skeptical about Tha Carter V, the long-delayed fifth album in Lil Wayne’s Carter series. There were doubts about whether it would ever come and, if it did, would we still want it? Wayne and Kendrick fans have waited even longer for a worthy collaboration between the two (“Buy the World” was … not it), given Kendrick’s extended history of fawning over his idol (his mixtape C4 admiringly remixed Tha Carter III) and Wayne’s mutual respect and approval. For that reason, “Mona Lisa,” the best song off Tha Carter V by a stretch, feels like it was a decade in the making. It’s a twisted, cautionary tale of a con woman who lures unsuspecting rich men into a trap under the pretenses of love and lust, only to leave them robbed at gunpoint by her pimp. The pimp being Wayne and the victim in the end is revealed to be Kendrick. It’s a two-act tragic comedy in that it laughs at men’s stupidity while also pitying their foolishness. Both Wayne and Kendrick display expert use of their vocal flexibility, with Kendrick pitching up and thinning out his delivery the way Wayne has historically manipulated his own voice. But it’s Wayne who better deploys laser-sharp, breathless bar after bar after bar as both our narrator and antagonist. It all comes to a head with the hardest verse, gifted to Kendrick on Wayne’s own song: “So in conclusion, since you like rappers that’s killin’ that pussy I’m killin’ myself.” — DL

“New Patek,” Lil Uzi Vert
Contrary to popular belief, Lil Uzi Vert’s “New Patek” is actually not designed to ever end. Like the best Uzi songs, it is endlessly repeatable, and the melody gets stuck in your head before you’ve even listened to it enough to absorb what he’s saying. It is joyful, beautiful, and if you cut out the brief intro and listen from six seconds in, it sounds like it has been expertly constructed to loop forever. It never gets old. — SHS

“Okra,” Tyler, the Creator
Every once in a while Tyler Okonma remembers that rapping is something he likes to do, and does exceptionally well. The West Coast–style wizard has made a sharp pivot into melody in recent years, but even now there’s no rust on his hip-hop engine, and “OKRA” is the proof. Over a self-produced beat at once scuzzy, polished, and nimble, Tyler’s inventive boasts light up the ears. Who needs a hook when you’ve got a Grammy nomination, luggage costing 30 grand, and opportunities to access prime real estate and Timothée Chalamet? — FG

“Pynk,” Janelle Monae ft. Grimes
A good sexual innuendo is hard to come by, because they’re usually written by straight dudes. Janelle Monáe is neither straight nor a dude, a great fact that has allowed “PYNK” to exist and breathe freely, out in the open. It’s a jubilant devotional whose religion is female energy. But unlike so many girl-power anthems before it, “PYNK” doesn’t subscribe to gender or any other label that would stifle one’s humanity. Womanhood doesn’t look the same on everyone — it’s not the pussy that’s the power — and it’s the way we mold our female form to fit our identity that makes our individual inner hues of pink stand out on the surface. “PYNK” is a love song and about loving who you want to love, but committing to loving yourself the loudest. — DL

“Reborn,” Kanye West and Kid Cudi
Resurfacing from the hellish depths of depression can feel a lot like the start of a new life. Kanye and Cudi are a special case-study for this kind of rebirth: two celebrities, one defined by ultra fame, reclaiming their peace in real-time, in the public eye. Kanye’s revelation “I was off the chain, I was often drained / I was off the meds, I was called insane / What a awesome thing, engulfed in shame” unpacks the burden of stigmatization that no one suffering should have to shoulder. It’s also a staggering admission that no amount of wealth, access, or recognition dulls the sting of being perceived as crazy. Neither artist is out of the woods just yet, but they have reached a space of rehabilitation born from collaboration. As Kids See Ghosts, they’re seeing a light at the end of the road and letting it guide them. Cudi, especially, sounds recommitted to staying alive — his memeable hums and pledge to “keep moving forward” aren’t just personal mantras, they’re a universal vow to actively work to be better. — DL

“Sicko Mode,” Travis Scott ft. Drake and Swae Lee
Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” is Astroworld’s standout. It’s divided into three sections, each set to different interpretations of Houston rap, all spliced together with beat and flow switches so abrupt they’ll cause whiplash. One second Drake’s rapping about the pick and roll, the next he’s cut off mid-sentence, and Travis swerves into his lane with a Biggie sample. But before your can get re-acclimated, he’s out and Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee comes out of nowhere singing what just barely counts for a bridge. But wait! Now we’re back to Travis — sampling “I Wanna Rock” — and myyyy goodness, in swoops Drake again, rapping about this one time Xanax had him “out like a light” on a flight. (A chorus that’s now seriously battling “Keke, do you love me?” for catchphrase of the summer.) It’s dizzying, jarring, and brazen in its disregard for basic song structure. More A-list rappers — including Drake, on his own records — should shake up their formula and embrace the sensory overload. — DL

“Slow Burn,” Kacey Musgraves
Kacey Musgraves will compromise for no one — not her man, not country music, and certainly not her critics. “Slow Burn” takes that unburdened feeling and runs with it, coming in hot like a late-summer breeze, lingering for just a little while, then going along its way. Musgraves moves at her own pace, keeping her own time, which means the country industry is going to have to get used to whoever she wants to be, not the other around way. “Slow Burn” makes her ethos stunningly plain: “I’m gonna do it my way, it’ll be all right.” Just spark up a blunt and get comfortable — Kacey’s gonna be here for awhile. — DL

“Sober,” Demi Lovato
Like Kanye and Cudi, Demi Lovato is another artist in crisis. She has spent the majority of her life in the limelight battling addiction. At all of 25, she’s been through rehab, managed sobriety for six years, and, as she revealed on this song, suffered a relapse. Demi isn’t sober anymore and she has done something remarkable by breaking the news to her family, fans, and herself through her music. Addicts aren’t exactly known to be forthright, but transparency, even when it’s unflattering, has put Demi in a league above so many of her peers. On “Sober,” an otherwise sobering ballad, Demi grapples with being a role model to kids when she can no longer even look up to herself. There’s no blueprint for how to do this. But the best Demi can do is not to leave the people that care about her with doubt, and so she ends the song determined to hold herself accountable and not let this be the final word in her story: “I’m sorry that I’m here again, I promise I’ll get help / It wasn’t my intention, I’m sorry to myself.” — DL

“The Story of Adidon,” Pusha-T
It’s rare that a modern diss track from a rap veteran can completely saturate the discourse, and rarer still that it also uncovers breaking news. But when its target is the biggest rapper on the face of the planet and the accusations aim to surgically remove said rapper’s ego, you get the perfect storm that is Pusha-T’s “The Story of Adidon.” It’s a malicious measure of a man, one where Drake comes up pitifully short. Push tosses all rules of decorum to hit Drake where it hurts: “You are hiding a child.” If Drake’s credibility as a rapper who writes his own bars has already been shot, then all he has left is his image. But with one strategically timed bombshell drop — ahead of Drake’s imminent next album — Push just blew his cover. Drake may never get it back. — DL

“Wasted Times,” the Weeknd
Sometimes turning over a new leaf involves revisiting the past: The centerpiece of Abel Tesfaye’s new EP My Dear Melancholy, finds the singer seeking solace from a recent breakup by hitting on a different ex. The confluence of sordid longing and vocal purity has always been a hallmark of the Weeknd’s artistry, and with a dark, crisp, futuristic beat courtesy of Frank Dukes and Skrillex behind him, Tesfaye sounds unstoppable — or, in other words, hopelessly moving. — FG

The Best Songs of 2018 (So Far)