2018 is coming to a close and it feels like a collective statement to utter a sizeable “good riddance” under your breath. But hold up…didn’t we say this last year? And the year before? Will we say it again next year? In a future that seems increasingly impossible to anticipate (we’re still processing the Ariana Grande/ Kanye West beef), at the very least, we had a selection of excellent music to soften the ongoing blow of simply existing. From already-iconic dancefloor anthems, to heart-wrenching anthems from Canadian mega-stars, here are the tracks we spent the year playing on a loop.
The 1975 — “Love It If We Made It”
Is there any other song released this year that is more 2018 than “Love It If We Made It”? The 1975’s urgent second single (off their third album, the sprawling A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships) reads like a series of Internet headlines careening together into a barrage of ridiculously juxtaposed social media babble flattened by an endless news cycle: presidential quotes and celebrity absurdity, fossil fuel consumption and football players kneeling in protest, tragic rap star overdoses and drowned Syrian children. That’s because it was crafted that way: the band’s frontman, Matt Healy, pieced together the lyrics over the course of a year, cribbing the material from newspaper headlines, tweets, and the occasional personal experience. And all this socially conscious lyrical content is made weightless by pounding drums and a persistent piano melody that recalls the Blue Nile’s cult 1989 hit “Downtown Lights” while Healy yelps, growls, and screams. And then, like a glimmer of light at the end of a long and despairing tunnel comes the refrain: “but I’d love it if we made it.” It’s an uncertain, hopeful requiem that dares to dream of our own potential to endure together in a fractured world, giving levity to a song that perfectly encapsulates our hyperactive and paranoid times. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does. Yes, The 1975 might not have any answers to offer. But that’s because they’re too busy just trying to survive and figure it all out like the rest of us. And that sincerity at the risk of seeming ridiculous, more than anything now, is what we need.
Jennifer Castle — “Tonight the Evening”
There are few songwriters as transportive with their pens and instruments as Jennifer Castle. Her latest record, the cosmic country-tinged Angels of Death, is a meditation on transformation—namely, the one that happens when we shuffle off our mortal coils—that has an uncanny ability to comfort, mystify, and empower. Its climax, “Tonight the Evening,” begins with a tentative but excited vibe, like your stomach is filled with butterflies as you stand on the edge of a lake cliff, poised to jump. Then something shifts. The world washes away and you wash into it. Harmonies blossom, strings soar, guitar strums, tambourine shuffles. And together everything swells, and you jump, and for a long time, it feels like you just keep rising, until you hit the water, and it embraces you. Live, with her Grateful Dead-loving band on point, it’s nothing short of a spiritual experience.
Ciara — “Level Up”
It’s both straightforward, and not, to figure out what makes “Level Up” so deliriously compelling. Few artists are quite so apt at generating instant classics, that bend an unstoppable dance move into the backbone of a track. By design, “Level Up” is built for participation, but its’ ballroom-inspired anchor, sheer kinetic energy, and militant devotion to your own success felt more dexterous than others in its territory. Going beyond championing vechicular departures, the inescapable “Level Up Challenge” (which samples DJ Telly Tellz’s viral “Fuck it Up Challenge”) felt like an equal opportunity dance phenomenon, whether you went for for the all-mighty floor chest thrust, tried to pull off the static running-man, or were content to countdown on five fingers in the background.
Under Ciara’s direction the ambition of “Level Up” is subject to interpretation. She doubles down on the big, affirming self-reconstruction stuff (“I just keep elevating/ No losses/ Just upgrading”), but is meticulous about saving space for the little triumphs, even if you’re waving your personal flag at half mast (“I’m chilling/I’m winning/ like on another level”). In an year that felt impossible to celebrate, “Level Up” felt like a sharply precise anthem for the times: the aspiration to propel your life forward based on sheer personal fortitude, then feeling confidant upon realizing that that sometimes that means simply making a concerted effort to prioritize yourself, even if that day isn’t today.
Fucked Up — “Normal People”
Though Fucked Up’s career has been marked with a purposeful unpredictability, which often comes into conflict with their hardcore punk origins, no song in their discography quite sounds like “Normal People.” Starting with a spoken word verse care of guest vocalist John Southworth, the song’s power-pop energy slowly winds up as he starts to sing his vocal part before handing things off to drummer Jonah Falco for the second verse. Fucked Up frontman Damian Abraham storms in during the chorus, trading lines with Southworth and Falco in a scream-and-response exchange that embellishes and celebrates the song’s Frankenstein design. Abraham’s insistence near the end that “I don’t fit in, but I don’t feel bad” reminds that in letting their freak flag fly, Fucked Up made one of the most ambitious, affecting songs of the year.
Shawn Mendes — “In My Blood”
2018 was a stand-out year for Shawn Mendes as we followed the successful release of his self-titled third studio album, which garnered well-deserved praise from critics who commended the pop star for his tremendous songwriting and artistic growth. The lead single “In My Blood” discusses the physical and emotional toll anxiety can have on a person in a refreshingly earnest way. At the core of its powerful message is a pop anthem that rocked the airwaves in 2018 with a thumping lead up to a chorus that forced us to close our eyes as we fist pumped the air in a way that made us feel like we wrote the song ourselves.
— Shorey Andrews
MGMT — “Me and Michael”
This year’s Little Dark Age is the sound of MGMT emerging from the ashes of blog-era buzzbands to take flight as a perfect pop phoenix, and “Me and Michael” is when the band soars the highest. Despite achieving immediate mass appeal upon their 2008 arrival, MGMT have always worked from a space of arty & esoteric influences, to mixed results (see 2010’s Congratulations for snapshots from both ends of the spectrum). “Me and Michael” is the perfect ambassador for an album that finally sees MGMT bringing their space-rock/post-punk/disco Frankenstein’s monster to life with the lightning bolt of their early-career comfort food approach. This song is far more than just a piece in a redemption narrative or reference-indebted retro-pop, though: its upbeat catchiness exists as a near-irresistible command to smile and dance at a time when it’s increasingly harder to find excuses to do so.
Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper — “Shallow”
There can be 100 people in a room…but there will only ever be one Lady Gaga. The musical chameleon strips down to deliver unguarded and authentic bliss with “Shallow,” the soaring duet that cements her status as a powerhouse. Akin to the pivotal scene of the song’s performance in “A Star is Born,” “Shallow” masters the slow build, gaining momentum as it swells and thunders along. The moment Gaga begins her verse she is naked: free from the confines of slick production, left standing on her talent alone. When she belts out the infamous wail at the 2:33 mark, it’s pure passion distilled into seconds of spine-tingling magic. “Shallow” is a roaring testament to Gaga’s endless evolution and Cooper’s surprising musical skill. It confirms the popstar is at her best when she’s “off the deep end” diving into her singer-songwriter roots.
Ari Lennox — “Whipped Cream”
For those who couldn’t relate to the cloying cuteness of Ella Mai’s breakout summer anthem “Boo’d Up”, Ari Lennox offered a salve. “Whipped Cream”, with its infectious melody and thumping, four to the floor drum pattern, is a different kind of love song, refreshing in its straightforwardness. While most ballads lean toward the melodramatic, exploring love’s soaring highs and crushing lows, “Whipped Cream” focuses on the mundane.
You’re in love with someone you know you shouldn’t be.
You wish you weren’t, but who are you kidding? You just are.
You try to distract yourself from your feelings, but they’re still there.
So you chug along, eat a little junk food, and lament on your lover’s ain’t shittedness. It is what is is. Like the soulful melody that supports the song’s lyrics, you still find a way to move along and keep grooving.
Tory Lanez — “Don’t Die”
It seems as if Tory Lanez is always in the headlines. He’s either having a friendly squabble with Joyner Lucas, hanging out with controversial (currently imprisoned) peers, or getting a bit too rowdy at his shows but, ultimately, the reason we care about him is because of his music. With his incredible guest spots on Pressa’s “Canada Goose” and on both 6ix 9ine releases, his well-received pretty-much-a-duets mixtape Love Me Now, and his slackness-slathered “B.I.D.” tearing up clubs, there’s always substance to parallel his antics. On “Don’t Die”, Tory’s focus and awareness shine through as he goes in, no chorus, over a booming AraabMuzik production. The song is a testimony to his versatility—it’s not just about the whole singer/rapper thing—Tory continues to excel as a hit-making contemporary rap artist while also being able to present as a classic MC, brash, brave, and bold, never backing down from a challenge and taking every opportunity to engage the crowd with his story.
Y La Bamba — “Mujeres”
Luz Elena Mendoza is the force behind Portland-based group Y La Bamba, and though their new record, Mujeres, isn’t due until February, we got an early taste of the LP with the titular lead single, “Mujeres,” which dropped back in October. It’s at once minimalist and maximalist, which is a strange gap to span, but Mendoza’s take is minimalist in its garageish, distorted aesthetic and maximalist in its scope. The track consists solely of percussion and vocals, retaining a throbbing, elemental sincerity and severity. Sweeping, combative drums herald the song’s arrival before group vocals bellow: “Somos mujeres, mujeres, somos poderosas!” Mendoza’s delivery is martial, rapid and uncompromising, and makes “Mujeres” a mesmeric composition, both as music and text. On the track, Mendoza recognizes and revels in her own power, and in doing so, becomes a threat to those who would subjugate her. It is a celebration and a battle cry.