The 50 best songs of 2018: Travis Scott, Childish Gambino, Ariana Grande and more (with playlist)

It’s our biggest year-end playlist ever, featuring huge names (Drake, Eminem, Beyonce and Jay-Z), newer faces (Post Malone, Cardi B), and more.
Published December 27 2018
Updated December 30 2018

The end of the year is upon us, and I still have a few songs ringing in my ears. Fifty of them, to be precise.

As I count down my top 50 songs of 2018 I apply my usual ground rules. I pick only one song per artist (excluding features). And I try to be pretty strict about the whole “best of 2018” thing, so anything released in 2017 or before is not eligible. Bad news for several songs that otherwise would’ve made this list, including Cam’s Diane, Migos’ Stir-Fry, Phoebe Bridgers’ Motion Sickness, Alice Merton’s No Roots, Ella Mai’s Boo’d Up, Lauv’s I Like Me Better, Jason Isbell’s If We Were Vampires and, um, Baby Shark (you parents out there know what we’re talking about).

If you’re on Spotify, you can listen along here. Ready? Let’s go!

50. XXXTentacion, Changes: All right, let’s just rip off this Band-Aid. South Florida rising star XXXTentacion was in the eyes of many a bad person, with a violent history of charges including domestic battery. But no one deserves to be murdered, as XXX was in June. His death brought a fresh spotlight to his short but influential discography, and left rappers like Lil Wayne and Kanye West tugging at the scraps left behind so they could feature him on posthumous releases. Though he had a No. 1 single and two No. 1 albums in 2018, the influence of his bracing voice still seems poised to grow. The ethical baggage that comes along with that, well, we’ll just have to sort out later. In the meantime, the poignant piano ballad Changes is the sort of unique song and memory that those who admired XXX’s music, if not the man himself, should cling to.

49. Juice WRLD, Lucid Dreams: Basically, XXXTentacion without the ethical baggage. Lucid Dreams wasn’t just the emo-rap jam of 2018; it was the emo jam of 2018, period.

48. Beach House, Lemon Glow: A cryptic, slightly ominous shoegaze number about that dreamlike love we can’t quit chasing. Pretty fitting soundtrack to the state of human relations these days.

47. Joey Purp, Hallelujah: Throw a stack of bright horns on a great, fun rap song and you can feel the smile radiate through your earbuds. At least I can on this exultant track from Purp’s excellent Quarterthing.

46. Anderson Paak, Bubblin: Show of hands: Who else out there felt let down by Paak’s Oxnard, and wished it sounded consistently more like this stand-alone single, a blast of pure, cool confidence?

45. Gin Wigmore, Cabrona: How Gin Wigmore never became a retro-soul star in the United States just yet is a mystery, but I dare you to spin the feisty Cabrona and refrain from tapping your toes.

44. Clairo, 4EVER: A new generation of pop stars is on the come-up, and one of them might be Clairo, the 20-year-old viral YouTuber who, thanks to cute, squiggly songs like this, will have millions of young fans watching what she does next.

43. Lil Wayne and Swizz Beatz, Uproar: Go ahead and call it a comeback. Projects as long-awaited as Tha Carter V aren’t supposed to be that enjoyable. And they aren’t supposed to feature songs that could be the walk-up music for every boxer on earth. But Weezy is Weezy, and Uproar is that song.

42. Restorations, The Red Door: Do you miss pumping your fists to a good rock anthem? And Greta Van Fleet just isn’t doing it for you? Dial up the volume on Restorations’ frenetic, Springsteenian The Red Door, and start screaming your lungs out. It’ll help.

41. Mitski, Nobody: Mitski’s widely acclaimed Be the Cowboy called to mind artists like St. Vincent and Bjork, but this borderline campy indie-disco lament on loneliness (“Give me one good movie kiss, and I’ll be all right”) show Mitski is doing new something all her own.

40. Carnage and Lil Pump, I Shyne: Lil Pump and his ilk are patently ridiculous as rappers, which oddly made him the perfect vocal muse for over-the-top trap DJ Carnage. Somehow Pump flexing on his jewelry over Carnage’s siren-induced-headache of a beat actually works.

39. The Struts, Body Talks: Rock is in a dire place right now, at least as far as the mainstream is concerned. But the Struts broke through with this swinging, screaming slab of glam-punk glee, later propelled to hit territory thanks to a late re-recorded version with Kesha. (Hate to say it, though, but the original version is better.)

38. King Princess, P---y Is God: There are songs that celebrate LGBTQ love, and then there are songs like P---y is God, King Princess’ sanctification of her girlfriend’s lovin’. NSFW to be sure, but at heart it’s a snappy, celebratory head-over-heels pop song.

37. Boygenius, Me and My Dog: A modern-day indie-rock Trio, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker made piercing music together in 2018. This Bridgers-led song about the wrenching emotional wreckage left in the wake of a breakup is a shining example.

36. Eminem and Joyner Lucas, Lucky You: Eminem’s Kamikaze is both (A) the best album he’s made since 2002, and (B) still pretty uneven. But the first three or four songs are Marshall at his Hall of Fame finest. Track 3, Lucky You, pairs him with lively sparring partner Joyner Lucas, and sees him taking aim at younger rappers while acknowledging his own commercial shortcomings: “Where the old me at? The same cat that would take that feedback and aim back?” Dense, clever, classic Eminem.

35. Sophie, It’s Okay to Cry: Sophie’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides is out there, dude, a fierce and uncompromising experiment in what electronic pop can be. Weirdly, though, it kicks off with the hushed, minimalist drama of this Annie Lennox-meets-Dear Evan Hansen gem.

34. Travis Denning, David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs: Think Nashville doesn’t still produce good story-songs? Check out this ode to the fake I.D. you bought “from a senior in a parking lot,” and all the Friday-night good times it helped you finance — and the confidence it helped you build. Kudos to you, Mr. David Ashley Parker from Powder Springs, for inspiring a country song this witty and nostalgic.

33. J. Cole, 1985 (Intro to “The Fall Off”) (DJ Premier 1966 Remix): As is his wont, Old Man Cole got a little cranky with the Lil Pumps and Xans of the rap world on this back-in-my-day bruiser. That bristly edge gets softened a bit on Premier’s funked-up remix, suggesting the two of them ought to think about making a full album together.

32. Iceage and Sky Ferreira, Pain Killer: With angry horns blasting atop take-no-prisoners garage-rock riffs, the standout single of Iceage’s ambitious fourth album sees the Danish punks expanding their palette for good.

31. DRAM, Best Hugs: And you thought Broccoli was a crowd-pleaser. Just put on this sly ode to smack-talking an ex’s new man, and try not to grin. Or hug!

30. Lana Del Rey, Venice Bitch: At nearly 10 minutes, it’s a whole lot of Lana Del Rey to swallow in one sitting. But Del Rey is “fresh out of f----” regarding your schedule and emotional state, so sit back and enjoy this sprawling, unhurried, folk-pop perambulation. You could cut this thing to four minutes, but as it stands, it makes for a mighty intriguing preview for her forthcoming album Norman F---ing Rockwell.

29. Chromeo, Bedroom Calling: Cheating a bit here, as Bedroom Calling is technically split across two songs on the electro-pop duo’s album Head Over Heels. The first is a glistening robo-funk slow jam; the second is a frisky freestyle squiggle featuring The-Dream; and both are outstanding for any mood. Plus, the phrase “Bedroom calling, better pick it up!” is a useful phrase in so many situations.

28. Jay Rock, Win: If this song isn’t blaring from every high school team’s weight and locker rooms for the next several years, we should just cancel sports entirely. Or at least bring back Jock Jams and put Jay Rock on the cover.

27. Illuminati Hotties, Patience: Amid a slew of impressive female-fronted indie rock releases (Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy, Boygenius, Wet, Mitski), this quietly aching non-single stood out. Sarah Tudzin turns what could’ve been mildly mumblecore-ish punk into something close to power pop.

26. Wet, Lately: It could score the final prom dance in a John Hughes movie, yet it might also be the sexiest kiss-off of the year (“You never like how my song sounds, but you give nothing of yourself”). That’s synth-pop that goes the extra mile.

25. Janelle Monae, Take a Byte: Space-age synth-funk for the sexually omnivorous android in your life. If you’re not already sold, what was Prince even teaching us all those years?

24. Post Malone, Better Now: A lot of people make fun of Post Malone, and they’re not always wrong, but smart folks need to stop pretending Posty’s Beerbongs & Bentleys is trash. It’s not. It’s a little sleepy, but more than competent and pretty consistently hummable. Just stop calling him a rapper and remember he’s a pop singer, and you might be able to enjoy a quality breakup ballad like Better Now.

23. Wild Pink, Lake Erie: If you put this song and start driving and don’t immediately start missing Tom Petty, you have a soul made of stone.

22. Fickle Friends, Say No More: British indie-pop rookies Fickle Friends deserved more love than they got for their sugary, sticky album You Are Someone Else, but anyone who ignores the airy melodies and vibrant hooks of Say No More is just living in denial

21. Paul Simon, Can’t Run But: 2018 was a weirdly good year for pop remakes (see also: The Naked and Famous’ acoustic album A Still Heart, the Pains of Being Pure of Heart’s full-album cover of Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, and, uh, Weezer’s Africa). Thanks to an assist from the chamber-pop sextet yMusic, Simon’s jazzy and cinematic reboot of this song from 1990’s The Rhythm of the Saints is urgent, engrossing, and good enough to captivate on Saturday Night Live. Yeah, he’s still crazy after all these years.

20. Maggie Rogers, Light On: They’re never cloning Adele, but if scientists worked around the clock to write a song that sounds like something Adele might sing, and gave it to a singer who sounds a bit like Adele with a dash of Florence Welch, this is the song you would get.

19. The Carters, Apes---: Beyonce and Jay-Z’s Everything Is Love wasn’t as classic as her Lemonade, but Apes--- could’ve made it on there without breaking a sweat. Defiant and rousing, it also put Patek Philippe right up next to Red Lobster on the list of Bey-approved brand-checks, a Louvre-worthy juxtaposition in its own right.

18. Dan + Shay, Tequila: It was a tough year for any country hit that wasn’t Meant to Be. Dan + Shay eventually reached No. 1 in December with Speechless, but the song that should’ve gotten them there sooner was Tequila, Nashville’s best and most poingnant mainstream drinkin’ song of 2018.

17. Backstreet Boys, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart: I regret to inform you, the haters, that the Backstreet Boys’ new single is a bop. If you knew, you knew; if not, you’ve been warned.

16. Parquet Courts, Wide Awake: Pairing New York indie rockers Parquet Courts with producer Danger Mouse proved a genius move on the band’s excitable new album, whose title track is a cheerfully messy blend of post-punk, dance-rock and funk.

15. Ariana Grande, Thank U, Next: Between Manchester, Mac Miller and Pete Davidson, Ariana Grande’s had one of the most tumultuous couple of years offstage of any artist in the biz. High off her well-received album Sweetener, she returned with the rare breakup single that takes the high road as it delves into self-love, -empowerment and -acceptance.

14. Kendrick Lamar and SZA, All The Stars: For all his critical acclaim, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Kendrick Lamar has made some pretty bald-faced plays for a hit record. But he nailed it with the Black Panther soundtrack, with songs like King’s Dead and this pretty and poppy single with SZA making for a pretty powerful “Come to Wakanda!” commercial jingle.

13. Drake, In My Feelings: Drake, if you need him, appeared on the No. 1 song in the country for some 30 of this year’s 52 weeks. God’s Plan and Nice For What are okay, but the summery In My Feelings really captured a cultural mood, inspiring a viral dance challenge and put the Internet on the hunt for Kiki. If she is in fact riding, In My Feelings is not a bad song to ride to.

12. The 1975, Love It If We Made It: Okay, yeah, it’s weird. Compared by many to Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire, it’s the only alternative pop song to both quote a Donald Trump tweet (“Thank you Kanye, very cool!”), and utilize the phrase — *heavy sigh* — “Poison me, Daddy.” But I’d love you to make it to the explosively joyous second chorus, two minutes in. It’s bliss, and more than worth putting up with all the rest of Matty Healy’s postmodern jibber-jabber.

11. Cardi B, J Balvin and Bad Bunny, I Like It: You can’t give Cardi enough credit for overcoming the hackiest of samples (“I like it like that?” Seriously?) to make I Like It the song, in my opinion, of the summer. It’s as fun as Cardi’s ever been, which is saying a lot, and if you made it through the year without at least once chirping “Oh HE so handsome, whassis name?” you need to get in on it, pronto.

10. Pusha T, The Story of Adidon: You could swap in Push’ If You Know You Know and I’d be okay with it. But The Story of Adidon set a new bar for the most lethal dis track in rap history. It exposed the fact that Drake had a secret son (and was maybe not the most present dad!); spoiled the rumored reveal of Drake’s lucrative collaboration with Adidas; and, for good measure, dug up an old photo of Drake in blackface for the cover. It’s virtually unprecedented how personal, nasty and dang near journalistic Adidon got; even an industry juggernaut (and pretty capable beefer!) like Drake couldn’t shake off the ether. Well done, Push. Now please never set your sights on me.

9. Kacey Musgraves, Slow Burn: Golden Hour is one of those classic albums where everyone will have a different favorite song. Mine is the very first one, because Golden Hour is a slow burn itself, an album that eases you in and takes it time as the world turns. Musgraves is all right with the slow burn, and so am I.

8. Natalie Prass, Short Court Style: You look up “breezy” in the dictionary, and this song ought to blast out loud, like one of those birthday cards that plays Bad to the Bone. Prass’ sweet voice and lush orchestration propel Short Court Style’s deceptive funk, making the song the centerpiece of The Future and the Past, my No. 1 album of 2018.

7. Kali Uchis, Tyler the Creator and Bootsy Collins, After the Storm: The kind of hallucinatory R-’n’-funk-’n’-B fever dream you dream about, After the Storm manages to make sweet chemistry from jazzy Kali and perpetual pot-stirrer Tyler, with a super-kickin’ Bootsy dime to boot. Aw, yeah, baby.

6. Charlie Puth, Slow It Down: All y’all Carly Rae Jepsen stans out there are being awfully silent on Charlie Puth’s Voicenotes, an album loaded with breezy, perfectly constructed, Jepsenesque, retro-pop summer jams. Puth’s cocky-’80s-movie-villain persona doesn’t help, but on a yacht-pop treasure like Slow It Down, where he sounds like the sun-kissed love child of Daft Punk and the Doobie Brothers, he’s awfully hard to resist.

5. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, Shallow: Just watch the trailer again.

4. Troye Sivan, Plum: This slot could easily go to Bloom or My My My!, two just-as-good singles from Sivan’s excellent sophomore album Bloom. But after months of listening to all three songs on repeat, I kept coming back to the lived-in imagery and airy chorus of Plum.

3. Childish Gambino, This Is America: Can you separate a good single from an all-time-classic video? Maybe in digital-everything 2018, we shouldn’t try to. Ultimately, despite a killer beat, This Is America isn’t as profound as its title would suggest. But its provocative video was so engrossing that it shot the song straight to No. 1. And if that’s how most of us consumed the song this year, it deserves to be this high on the list.

2. Zedd, Maren Morris and Grey, The Middle: One way to look at The Middle is that its battalion of producers and songwriters churned through more than a dozen vocalists before settling on Morris, only to debut the song in a friggin’ Target ad. The other, correct way to look at it is that this was the catchiest, cleverest pop earworm of the year; Morris brought a storyteller’s soul to the evocative breakup in the lyrics; and Zedd might be the best pop-EDM collaborator of his generation. Oh, BAY-BAY!

1. Travis Scott, Sicko Mode: It’s the Bohemian Rhapsody of bangers, a five-minute, three-song cycle that doubles as a mini-history of rap. It’s Scott at the peak of his amalgamative powers, leaning heavily on an uncredited Drake, not as heavily as an also-uncredited Swae Lee, and interpolating or sampling Biggie, Uncle Luke, Sheck Wes and late Houston hero Big Hawk. Yet it’s still Scott, the star of the song’s booming, elastic second movement, who walks away the song’s MVP by a mile. The lyrics are bog-standard A-list chest-puffery, but it’s endlessly quotable (“I might take all my exes, and put ’em in a group”) and probably boosted sales at Jamba Juice. It was the 2018 song that turned every function to Bonnaroo. If Scott isn’t booked to headline the Farm come June, what are we all even doing here?

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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