“Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern,” as they say. So let’s make these yearly best-of lists a bonafide coincidence, following up from last year’s first edition, as we go through a pack of quality hit songs from 2018's American pop charts!
This had been a personally strange year of pop music experience for the first three-fourths of it. During the summer, I did a half-year check-in post listing the bunch of potential contenders that might end up on the list proper, and I mentioned that most of my pop music exposure had been way less passive (i.e. taken from radio) as most of my music listening was ruled by Spotify. Then I got into a car accident that totaled my vehicle! And then by virtue of how different my new car was from my old one, I started listening to FM radio a whole lot more.
That has been positively clarifying. It may be a streaming world these days, but as far as I’m concerned, I think it’s still important to have a more holistic view of the whole popular music landscape, and that means looking to multiple sources for listening. Which still includes radio. Not just hit radio, though; R&B/hip hop radio and alt rock radio and how they intersected with the Billboard Hot 100 have been just as crucial. I’m pretty sure that taking all of that in ended up doing a lot to correct my feel of the lay of the hit music land.
I’m also pretty sure that the precise rotation of Spotify, radio, and other miscellaneous sources of music listening that I had going on amounted to a markedly rosier feel for the hit music of 2018 than most of the more full-time music critics. Not to suggest that they’re wrong in any way, though, but rather that our points of view are perhaps light years apart; I’ve not taken on the Herculean task of going through every single very-well-likely mediocre or terrible new entry to the Hot 100 singles chart like a Spectrum Pulse with a weekly Billboard Breakdown series to maintain, after all.
All qualifiers aside, though, I think this list is pretty strong. It might rise to a higher level than last year’s, quite honestly. Ultimately, though, you can be the judge of that.
Before delving into the list, here are my ground rules for what constitutes a “hit song of 2018.” First and most concretely, it must have shown up on Billboard’s weekly Hot 100 charts at least once in 2018 to count. Second and still somewhat concretely, I must have heard it outside of music streaming (e.g. on the radio) at least once this year; this is something new this year, for the sake of pruning out some less substantial Hot 100 entries. Finally, on a more subjective note, it needed to have first been on my radar in 2018, so for example, if I first heard of it during the previous year, I did not count it as a 2018 hit song.
Additionally, for the sake of getting a broad range of songs, I tried limiting the number of times each artist featured here could appear to one song as a main artist and/or one song as a featured artist for most of this list. Precisely which of their songs got chosen was solely at my own discretion. That said, however, there ended up being one case where I made an exception, because things were getting utterly agonizing with the output of one particular artist. We will get to them in time.
So with all of that fully laid out, Justin hereby presents...
#10. Tiësto and Dzeko feat. Preme and Post Malone - “Jackie Chan (Remix)”
“Billboard Top 100-charting artist Tiësto”...That’s a phrase young me, a big trance fan, would have never thought he’d hear, let alone see him manage it four separate times. Or hear stuff tunes over the radio via Z100. Granted, that only happened at the precise moment when his style veered away from trance towards the broader EDM sound that eventually took hold in the US. Those circumstances sadden me a little—that’s also thoroughly understandable, though; it’s somewhat like the soccer of music in that it’s never been a big genre in America, but is huge elsewhere in the world (especially Europe)—but part of me still finds his success in that regard gratifying nonetheless.
Plus, it’s hard to be sullen if the music happens to be damn good. Now, he’s not had the rosiest track record up to now—I quite like “Red Lights”, but “Feel It” is more interesting than solid, and “Wasted” just blows—this remix with Dzeko finally balances things out a bit. It might be the best thing of his that’s charted. I’m not sure who gets what credit between which sounds and ideas, but the collaboration spat out a most irrepressible staccato funk-lite summer guitar somewhere, and that’s what is ultimately most important. The whole production is just so fun, so upbeat! Easily among the most fun from the entire year.
It also manages to get a lot of mileage from Preme and Post Malone’s vocals from the original track. This remix is wildly different, and frankly a big step up; making Post frickin’ Malone sound danceable is a major accomplishment all on its own. Him and Preme’s melodies bear more than a passing resemblance to Fetty Wap’s caterwauling in the pretty great “My Way”, so I was always going to be a bit partial to the singing, no matter the beat. As it stands, plopping them over a total beach jam is a great look. It’s enough to even almost forgive the sushi-from-Japan/Jackie Chan connection when he’s actually from Hong Kong. Almost.
#9. Ariana Grande - “thank u, next”
Popular music is filled with no shortage of self-affirmation songs, with a big chunk of them fitting post-breakup situations in particular. Most of them, however—the likes of Katy Perry’s “Part of Me” or Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” and arguably even “Since U Been Gone”, more broadly Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” or Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song”—are quite direct and one-note in sentiment. Often projecting empowerment in absolute terms.
To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that! Regardless, though, I still often appreciate the occasional little emotional complication; empowerment does not always feel superhuman, nor does it mean total victory over the struggle. That’s why one of my favorite songs in the self-affirmation vein has long been Gossip’s “Move in the Right Direction”: The celebration isn’t over having gotten better, it’s over being in the process of getting better. The transformation isn’t done yet, it does not promise to be easy—it may never truly end at that—but she’s still making it happen, little by little. “One step closer, every day at a time.”
And way late into the year, Ariana Grande, shortly after a broken engagement, took that and earned a similar spot into my heart. On first blush, a title like “thank u, next” sounds like you’re about to witness a most deliciously dismissive tell-off; that’s certainly been its meme meaning, at least. What she actually turned in, though, is gracious and bittersweet.
And also complicated about all of that, because damn, it’s downright shocking how songwriter-ly this song is. Being grateful for how your exes helped you grow, and saying that you’ve turned out amazing after those experiences? That’s all good. But to then draw a connection between that and what her mother went through before her? And to sing all that triumph over a beat that’s seemingly trying to undercut the sweetness with pangs of sadness and uncertainty? That shit is next level.
#8. Post Malone - “Better Now”
He’s guessing that she thinks she’s better off without him. There’s no guesswork on Post Malone’s part, however; he says that he’s better off without her. Then literally everything else he sings makes it clear that he’s lying. That same everything else also illuminates his charge that “You only say that ‘cause I’m not around, not around”: Sure, when he’s saying it, it’s because he’s trying to act stronger than he really is, but maybe she’s saying the same thing to everyone because she’s absolutely correct that she’s better without him?
Yeah, Post Malone makes himself extremely hard to love as an artist, and “Better Now” in particular was overplayed as hell last year. But I still cannot help but connect to it. Its jumble of self-contradictory lyrics reads to me like a man struggling to come to terms with the enormity of a bitter pill: Not just that the relationship is over, but that he was quite possibly the sole reason why everything fell apart. It doesn’t matter how much he didn’t mean to let her down; the reality is that he still did.
However much of that meaning is intentional or accidental, I can’t say. All I know is that I definitely recognize the sentiment. Realizing that you’ve massively fucked up, and done so in a way that hurt someone else...it does not feel good, and trying to process such an epiphany about how totally you’re in the wrong feels even worse. “Better Now” does a pretty good job sounding that all out, too; it’s like an inversion of the standard rap-rock formula, practically a post-grunge track underpinned by a desaturated trap beat, and this kind of song is as good of a foil for such a downer combination as can be found.
#7. Ella Mai - “Trip”
If Ella Mai’s singles are any indication, it sure seems like someone out there must have major nostalgia for super-early-2000's pop R&B. Personally, I’ve never been all that much into that scene—not a fan of how most of the beat and vocal production from the era sounded—but on the other hand, if those instincts end up feeding some good-ass songs, then I’m all for it!
Ella Mai’s been making a pretty good case thus far, and doing it by taking all those throwback moves—even to the extent of giving everything an outright vintage sheen—but deploying them with the benefit of a decade and a half’s worth of better practices. “Boo’d Up” and “Trip” hearken back to hits of old in a big way, yet their beats sound far better than almost everything from back then. Ella Mai’s singing in turn, beyond her exquisite voice, has a stronger presence than what was typical for that era’s pop R&B, and her tracks are all the better for that.
Now, “Boo’d Up” was the bigger hit, and it is a dazzling production showcase to boot. After numerous listens, however, I think “Trip” holds up as the stronger song. The piano is lovely, the track gives Ella Mai more room to show off what her vocal chops can do on a throwbacks, and finally, that chorus is insanely catchy while somehow managing to fit not only one, not just two, but THREE strong hooks into its approach. It’s enough to convince me that she might have legitimate staying power that transcends mere gimmickry. Here’s to more quality work from her efforts!
#6. The Weeknd feat. Kendrick Lamar - “Pray For Me”
It’s the song that plays during the Black Panther casino scene. We can just leave it at that, right?
The Weeknd released an EP earlier in the year! So as is standard practice in the creative world, that meant his best piece of music in 2018 was, of course, a soundtrack cut for a Marvel movie. What can I say, that’s the one moment where everything fell perfectly into place. A hype beat of factory floor electronics! An impassioned Weeknd performance about carrying the weight of a soldier! A good, similarly impassioned Kendrick verse! Flute solos! A chanting choir!
Imagine all those exclamations as splash text on a killer comic book cover, and that gets close to “Pray For Me”.
#5. The Carters feat. Quavo and Offset - “APESHIT”
All-caps “APESHIT” does not inspire many especially deep or nuanced thoughts. But expecting all-caps “APESHIT” to inspire deep or nuanced thoughts is like judging a scorched-earth blitzkrieg as if it were a war of attrition. The fact that my first instinct is to not think about the song doesn’t make it a failure. Quite the opposite. It’s a sign of its victory.
But I guess I will have to do some real analysis if it’s going to be on a countdown. So here’s a shot at it: If you can’t beat the Migos sound in 2018, guess you might as well join ‘em, then steal their members for ad-libs, then finally mold it all into your own godlike image. Jay-Z has a good-ass verse here, but “APESHIT’s” entirety practically screams out that it’s Beyoncé’s handiwork.
I was lukewarm to cool on her all throughout the 2000's decade, but then she seemingly activated the awesome switch on her 2014 self-titled album all of a sudden, and she’s been on an absolute tear ever since. Pumping trap rap full of hot blood and boundless energy—helped along by a planet-glassing beat which apparently had Pharrell’s assistance—seems like exactly the kind of thing she would mastermind. Car rides and solitary dancing sessions have been more lit ever since. YEET YEET YEET YEET YEET
#4. Khalid - “Better”
“Love Lies” may have been his big hit in 2018. And it’s a pretty decent tune at that, despite being a tad bit overplayed. But for my money, this one is the...what’s the word...superior track.
I really like the little bit I’ve heard Khalid’s stuff, for extremely biased reasons. As a performer, he strikes me somewhat as a worldlier Frank Ocean. As someone who loved nostalgia, ULTRA and Channel Orange back in the day, that’s a pretty major niche to fill! That’s the kind of shit I’m down for purely as a music fan, mainstream pop or otherwise. So the fact that he HAS gotten some chart success and radio play is just that more amazing.
That’s a big part of what endears me to “Better” beyond his hugest hit: How strongly he’s channeling such a Frank Ocean-like vibe. The other part of it is that his performance is worked into an R&B groove made from pure electric smooth. This is some warm, gorgeous production—ghostly echoes, resonant pianos that hang around long after they’re played, some vocoder whimpers, things like that. They also decided to end things with a legit emotive vocoder/talk box guitar solo that dials everything up to Daft Punk, so that’s an unexpectedly awesome note to close out on.
#3. Calvin Harris feat. Dua Lipa - “One Kiss”
I’m convinced that the greatest thing that could have ever happened in Calvin Harris’ career was when he took his Haim-featured track “Pray to God” and just decided to form it into a straight-up vintage house banger with Mike Pickering’s assistance for God knows why. It was more amazing than it has any right to be, chiefly due to the revelation that Haim’s already great singing somehow translated extraordinarily well to this kind of vocal house.
In the longer term, though, something about it must have clicked in Calvin Harris, because he’s visited that sound at least a couple of times since then. I sure ain’t going to complain about that; any crack at an older-school house style is tons more interesting than the mainstream EDM stuff he had been doing from the early 2010's on, in my book. Thus, even when it comes up with something merely alright but kind of lacking like “How Deep Is Your Love”, I can still at least appreciate what he’s going for.
Plus, it feels oh so nice when it ends up with him putting out something like “One Kiss” which amply cashes in on the style’s potential to wondrous effect. This is the good shit. It could very well be in the same league as the likes of “Show Me Love” or “100% Pure Love”, but it’s further elevated by the smoky post-midnight chill of its electric piano and brass samples, a.k.a. this is as much poppin’ nighttime driving song as retro dance jam. Calvin Harris’ producerly instincts are spot-on.
He’s not exactly the reason why “One Kiss” ranks this high, however. That would be Dua Lipa, who is a goddamn revelation here. The big cliché with vocals in most dance and techno has long been that the vocals don’t truly matter that much, but on this, she utterly eviscerates that assumption. Her mid-range voice possesses a velvety smolder that fully rounds out the late-night vibe, and adds a generous touch of seductiveness, too. Between this and “Electricity”, I’m thinking that if she just wanted to be a dance music siren for the rest of her career, she would be unstoppable.
#2. Foster The People - “Sit Next to Me”
America’s single alternative hybrid electronic-rock band of choice really should not be Imagine Dragons—especially given their last two years’ worth of output—when the Foster The People of 2018 exists. If there has to be music that exists for the sake of soundtracking everything, THIS RIGHT HERE is what I’d much rather it sound like.
I quite liked their Torches album during my higher-education days, but it’s been a while since last delving into anything from Foster The People. Not so coincidentally, it’s been just as long since they’ve had much radio presence. Then “Sit Next to Me” started a little climb up the charts and took hold on alternative radio, and that got them back on my radar. After many, many listens, it’s become clear that I rather love this tune.
Their biggest hit was all cool, quiet creepiness, so this practically synth-pop confection is a pretty significant departure from what they’re arguably most known for. No complaints here! My favorite Torches tracks were never “Pumped Up Kicks”, however, but instead the likes of “Call It What You Want” and “Houdini”, and “Sit Next to Me” is way more that speed, so it makes me happy see that side of their repertoire having a little moment in the mainstream.
Even in the context of those two tracks, however, I’ve never heard them try for neon-drenched elation like this before, let alone lean into it so hard that it sounds like pure bubbly innocence—and committing to it so earnestly—regardless of whether the lyrics actually reflect that or not. The wordless harmonies on the back-end of the chorus alone are some of the most exhilarating moments in music from 2018. This track sure is intoxicating, and it envelops me in good, warm feelings each time I hear it.
Nine songs listed, one more—the choice for standout hit of the year—to go. Before that, however, there are some outside-the-list tracks that deserve a few words for one reason or another.
Queen - “Bohemian Rhapsody”: *checks the Hit Song of 2018 criteria real quick* Did it land on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2018? Yes! Did I hear it outside of streaming in 2018! Yes! A whole lot on the radio, even! Just think, this could very well have made it onto the top ten, except for the whole “not first getting on my radar in 2018 because I’ve known it as far back as when I was biding time in the womb” thing.
Weezer - “Africa”: I’m not going to stan hardcore for this cover, but I just cannot find it in myself to slag its non-divergent lower-stakes modesty, either. I like this cover! I even kind of respect its lack of ambition in favor of staying largely faithful to Toto’s original, which I only literally started to actually like less than a year ago! I saw Weezer live earlier this year, and their devotion to crowd-pleasing seems like it’s borne out of genuine care for the audience’s happiness; I just cannot get mad over that.
Travis Scott feat. Drake - “SICKO MODE”: These two somehow got a fucking rap medley—a rap “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, a “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” in miniature—into the top ten. And then make a hook out of bragging about a private plane nap for good measure. I only fully love one of the three movements here (Travis’ first verse at the beat switch-up), but that is still impressive.
Backstreet Boys - “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”: If this slice of synthesizer heaven pop had just a slightly stronger, more momentum-packed beat in their choruses, there is a serious chance I would have put a Backstreet Boys song in a top ten hits list for The Year of Our Lord 2018.
Childish Gambino - “This Is America”: One hell of a song, backing one hell of a music video. If “XO Tour Llif3” encompassed the overloaded craziness that America 2017 felt like, then this one encompassed the stark clear-eyed horror show of America 2018. It doesn’t make the list proper, because through no fault of its own, I’ve just not felt the inclination to give it many repeat listens.
Panic! At The Disco - “High Hopes”: Their vein of we’re-making-pop-now has proven to be useful during a time when Fall Out Boy’s Eldritch rock/pop/god-knows-what concoctions have become useless. This is a duhh-du-du-dumb-dumb, duhh-du-du-dumb-dumb song, but it’s energetically fun in equal measure. Should’ve been called “High (High) Hopes”, though.
Bebe Rexha - “I’m A Mess”: This otherwise average song made its mark on me with an especially resonant chorus. “It’s gonna be a good, good life/That’s what my therapists say.” That sense of convincing yourself to be optimistic even if you’re not truly feeling it or believing it deep down? That is a big fucking mood. In that single moment alone, Bebe Rexha made the runner-up for Song That Encompasses 2018.
Bruno Mars feat. Cardi B - “Finesse (Remix)”:“Finesse” is not a 2018 song. However, it is a pretty good song! A chance for Bruno Mars, style-homage-ing thief as always, to throw himself over a New Jack Swing groove. However, it had never been one of my favorites from the album whence it came. The reason? The opening snare fills are weak. Too clean, lacking brash impact, altogether lame. The unseasoned chicken of its genre. How dare it thinks itself worthy to step in “Poison’s” court!
Then, in literally the first week of 2018, it got the proper rap remix treatment, and it is objectively better than the original by virtue of one simple reason: It fixed the fills! A sprinkling of vocal samples was all the salt ‘n pepper needed to make the opening bars shine. Now I no longer feel the immediate reflex to hit the skip button.
And that’s all before even getting into Cardi B’s contributions. Her parts may be brief, but they slam. I love how gung-ho she is about throwing herself into an energetic old-school flow, just as committed to the pastiche as Bruno is. I love that she takes over the “got it going on” slogans at the end of the track. She’s basically the missing puzzle piece that I never realized “Finesse” needed.
Khalid feat Ty Dolla $ign and 6LACK - “OTW”: Until I put in the radio rule for qualifying something as a hit, this was going to be really high on the list. It just didn’t feel right being there, though, and that lack of radio attention was why. Not that this is a bad song, though. It’s wonderful, actually. The practically vaporwave beat is an easy way to my heart—the whole song has a dreamy gorgeousness to it—and Khalid’s chorus is infectiously great. Plus, this is another case where he dips into that Frank Ocean shit, especially when he’s making car brag talk about the roof going missing like it’s a common “Swim Good” up in here.
CHVRCHES - “Graffiti”: This is an incredible slice of emo synth pop, easily the best opening track to a CHVRCHES album yet. Also, on a quick sidenote, Love Is Dead is grossly underrated.
Clean Bandit feat. Marina and Luis Fonsi - “Baby”: I was not prepared for how refreshing it would be to hear Marina’s voice once again after not hearing anything new from her for the last three years. This is also easily one of the best ever dance songs to incorporate acoustic guitar.
The Aces - “Last One”: They would have been my nomination for the Fluke Indie Hit Sweepstakes of 2018.
Perfume - “If you wanna”: If K-Pop can have a small but impressively creeping hold on the American pop charts, then selfish me wants an especially quality slice of J-Pop to do the same, damn it.
That about covers all the best of the rest. Without further interruption, let’s get to my pick for the standout hit song of 2018.
That’s where my earlier-mentioned exception to the one-main-song-per-artist guideline comes in. This person came out with two especially great, notable songs this year, and when a case like that comes up, I usually think about which one was the better track, and then put that on the list proper as representative of said artist.
For an example of how that worked in practice, let’s consider Ella Mai. She had two impressive hits in 2018 with “Boo’d Up” and “Trip”, each of which could hold a solid spot on the list. After thinking on them a good while, I eventually concluded that “Trip’s” overall strength as a song exceeded the spellbinding production showcase of “Boo’d Up”. Thus, that gave it a spot in the rankings, with “Boo’d Up” instead getting credit due by being mentioned in “Trip’s” entry.
That’s what ideally should have happened in this case; I even actually like one song far more than the other, so cutting off that other song should have been easy! But each time I thought about it, making such an exclusion just felt too wrong, too painful, even as just a mere honorable mention.
After much agonizing, I eventually came to a revelation: I make the rules for my lists! So why not break them if my gut keeps telling me that doing so is an absolute necessity?
In other words...why not include both songs after all?
#1. Ariana Grande - “breathin”
“thank u, next” was the moment Ariana went from just a (superbly) talented singer to a level of wholly compelling persona that used to be occupied by the likes of Taylor Swift. Going beyond song quality, that inherent strength made it impossible to just leave off the list. But for my money, “breathin” is the tour de force that illustrates her at the musical peak of her abilities.
I was not expecting it, either, because she was not having an especially fruitful year with the singles for her Sweetener album. “no tears left to cry” came across as straight-up incomplete. The fact that a strong proclamation like “God is a woman” turned out to be an overdramatic sexytimes boast was so jarringly stupid that it completely took me out of the track.
Then I was served up “breathin” as a recommendation, likely from one of Spotify’s regularly updated top-songs-in-America lists, and that shit instantly blew me right the fuck away. Up to that point, my favorite song of hers had been “Love Me Harder”, so there is a certain neat logic to it getting dethroned by something which hearkens back to many of its strengths.
“breathin” is a damn journey. It’s almost fully beat-less for the first minute, save for some claps in the first chorus, as Ariana lays out struggles with stress and anxiety. Then repeating the mantra to keep breathing and breathing and breathing and breathing to get through it. The impact of what happens next after all of that build-up is what permanently etched it into my heart: Riding the crescendo right into the grooviest beat pulled right from the monolithic hugeness of a late-90's/early-00's Max Martin pop jam. I was NOT expecting it the first time, so it threw me completely off guard in the best of ways.
That sense of groove, and Ariana’s controlled performance over it, are what ultimately make “breathin” so effective. You can feel the weight it carries, but damn does it move: A track about panic and anxiety that’s been Trojan horse’d within the confines of a love song, its musical approach to its condition being to dance for as long as it takes until it’s all a world away. Throw in a few killer self-harmonies for good measure, and you’ve got an instant classic.
It officially released as a single shortly after first hearing it. Lately, it’s been rightfully entrenched on the radio, and did rather excellently on the Billboard Hot 100 late into last year. So here it stands, at the very top of this list! My choice for the standout hit song of 2018.
That’s the list. That’s where everything stands. If you got this far, I’d now like to turn this over to you!
- Which of these songs suck actually?
- What songs should have been on this list but weren’t, thereby proving what a fool I am?
- What was your personal top ten?
- Were there any songs that you heard this year, and felt that they deserved to be hits, but cruelly were denied the chance?
Thank you for reading. Here’s to a good upcoming year for music.