Every year I write basically the same thing in this introduction—this year is no different. My music tastes are mine alone, so this list is less of a proclamation about what was definitively the best music than it is simply a list of my favorites. I’m not a real music critic, and you can find plenty of year-end lists that are more wide-ranging or that better fit your own personal style.
Nevertheless, I find it fun to chronicle my favorites for each year, and this is that list. Hopefully you’ll find it interesting too. Below are some playlist links, if you want to kill two-and-a-half hours listening to some great songs (or 6.5 hours for the 2010s list). The full countdown, with a short write-up for each song, follows a new introduction for the year below. Also, both lists are in reverse order, so “Night Shift” is #1, not #40, on the 2018 list. Lastly, a word of warning—if you’re listening around kids, there are definitely a few songs you will want to skip.
Here are the playlist links:
Top 40 of 2018 (Google Play Music)
Top 100 of the 2010s (Google Play Music)
A note about criteria:
In order to be included on the list, the song should either be making its first appearance on an EP or LP in 2018, or it can also be a one-off single, since those songs are often later included on an album of some kind. Muse’s “Dig Down,” for instance, was on the 2017 list but would have been eligible again had I not already included it, since its first album appearance was on 2018’s Simulation Theory. I can’t say I perfectly adhered to this policy, but at least that is the idea.
That also means there will be some songs left out from year to year, since I don’t listen to everything that interests me right away (or at all—there is a lot of music). Some of these oversights will eventually be captured on my top 100 of the decade, which was notably the case this year with Wolf Alice. While I only had “Beautifully Unconventional” on last year’s Top 40 from their Mercury Prize winner Visions of a Life, I listened to that album and 2015’s My Love Is Cool extensively before and after seeing them live in April. I listened and loved those albums so much that Wolf Alice has now taken over my top artist spot for the decade from Alt-J, although “Tessellate” held its spot as the #1 song on my decade list.
About This Year’s List
Because I am a huge nerd, I devised a point system last year to rank this decade’s songs in a bunch of different ways, and I updated it for this year. 2018 ranks third among the individual years, behind only 2017 and 2013, so I feel good in saying it was a solid year overall.
In what has become an even/odd year phenomenon much like the San Francisco Giants winning the World Series in the early part of this decade, the United States took back over the top country position from the UK in 2018. It was the strongest year since 2011 for the old U.S. of A. (only in a musical sense, of course). It was also the strongest year on record for female vocalists or female-fronted bands, which are now just about equally represented with their male counterparts on my list.
Some staples of this list in prior years just missed in 2018, including lead single “Peach” from New Zealand duo Broods’ upcoming album, as well as songs from Alice Merton (whose debut LP is still forthcoming after 2017’s “No Roots”), Metric, The Joy Formidable, and Mutemath (which is currently a solo project from lead singer Paul Meany). I also couldn’t quite bring myself to include “When The Curtain Falls” from the divisive Greta Van Fleet. I like the song, if you could just detach it from the lead singer’s voice and give it to another band with similar technical skills.
There were also some 2018 albums that completely flopped for me, relative to expectations. Chvrches’ third album Love Is Dead aimed more squarely at mainstream pop and squandered some of their creative edge in the process. Arctic Monkeys’ lunar lounge concept album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, their first album since 2012, was also among my biggest disappointments. Alex Turner’s vocals were good, I guess, but it just felt like the rest of the band had very little to do.
Anyway, on to this year’s list:
40. Allie X “Science”
From a playlist construction standpoint, this maybe isn’t the ideal song to kick us off. It’s a slow-moving but beautiful pop song from the LA-based Canadian singer who goes by Allie X. Her genre is a tough one for me, because the floor is so low for pop songs with minimal instrumentation, but this one has a solid beat and creative lyrics to help it rise above its peers.
39. Jealous of the Birds “Plastic Skeletons”
The rhymes just keep on coming in this creative, visual song from Irish singer-songwriter Naomi Hamilton, whose second full-length album as Jealous of the Birds is due out in 2019. I’m not sure if this song will be included, or if she will leave behind the songs on her 2018 EP, so I’m including “Plastic Skeletons” this year.
38. Post Animal “Ralphie”
Perhaps it’s unfortunate that the first thing that comes to mind about Post Animal is “Steve from Stranger Things‘ band,” but that’s where we are. The guitars and chorus of this song are legitimately good, even if the band will forever live in the shadow of their guitarist Joe Keery’s other career as a star on one of TV’s best shows.
37. Jungle “Heavy, California”
“Busy Earnin'” from Jungle’s 2014 self-titled debut is still part of my regular listening rotation, so it would be tough to top that wonderful, funky song with anything new. Their 2018 follow-up For Ever is a valiant effort and actually exceeded my expectations, with several other songs (“Happy Man” and “Smile”) also contending for this list.
36. Maps & Atlases “Fall Apart”
Chicago-based Maps & Atlases came out of hiatus to record their first album in six years with 2018’s Lightlessness Is Nothing New. I wasn’t familiar with them before that previous album, but “Fever” became one of my favorite songs at the time, and I was eager to hear what else they had in store. Although I probably still prefer “Fever,” “Fall Apart” is the closest analog, with the same intricate guitars, but a stronger beat and more of a sing-along quality.
35. Snail Mail “Let’s Find An Out”
Snail Mail is nineteen-year-old Lindsey Jordan, and it’s easy to say that she is an unbelievable songwriter for her age. I didn’t love all of the songs on her critically-acclaimed debut LP Lush, but this short, simple one stayed with me as one of its strongest melodies.
34. Sunflower Bean “Crisis Fest”
It’s perhaps not the best way to create a timeless song, but writing a line in “Crisis Fest” about 2017 being a “big sick show” is certainly still appropriate in 2018. The young members of Sunflower Bean (each 22, as suggested by the Twentytwo in Blue album title) are practically oozing with cross-genre talent. Owing to its lyrics, this song has more of a punk feel, but Julia Cumming has a great, versatile voice, and the band deftly shifts from soulful to poppy songs without missing a beat.
33. St. Lucia “Bigger”
“Bigger” is more of the same upbeat synthpop from St. Lucia, one of a handful of bands that are never the top Wikipedia result when you search for them. Fortunately their music is interesting enough to make up for their SEO-unfriendliness. This single from their third album Hyperion has an appropriately big chorus and the sort of tight harmonies you might expect to result from the collaboration of a married couple. Jean-Philip Grobler started the band and still takes the lead, but it wouldn’t be the same without his wife Patti’s backing vocals.
32. Mitski “Geyser”
Some bands could use an editor to cut out several minutes of fluff and make their songs more easily listenable. “Geyser” suffers from the opposite problem, clocking in at just over two minutes but yearning to be twice that long. Mitski’s whole Be The Cowboy album is just 32 minutes long and also features “Nobody,” which was also a contender for this list.
31. Superorganism “The Prawn Song”
It’s not my favorite song of theirs, but “The Prawn Song” is the ideal introduction to the collective known as Superorganism, who met one another from across the world and gathered in London to record one of the most fun debut albums in some time. I don’t know if it was the first song they wrote together, but “Prawn” does reference their name and exemplifies what they do so well: leisurely-paced fun pop songs with delightfully weird accompaniment and a simple message to convey.
30. The Wombats “Turn”
There are probably five songs I could have included from The Wombats’ excellent album Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life, but “Turn” is better than most of them, with its strong mid-tempo beat and Matthew Murphy’s usual witticisms. In case you needed one, he slips in a reminder that you’re listening to a British band, as he talks about floating “anti-clockwise.” You can’t spell ‘color’ with a ‘u’ in a song, so I suppose this will have to work.
29. Interpol “The Rover”
Sad rockers Interpol make their first-ever appearance on my year-end list with a rollicking good song about some kind of crazy cult leader. The pulsating lead guitar part keeps the song from slowing down like so many others in this genre.
28. Courtney Barnett “Nameless, Faceless”
Her 2017 collaboration with Kurt Vile was pretty underwhelming to me, but 2018’s Tell Me How You Really Feel has more of the great dry humor of her amazing solo debut. There is no “Pedestrian At Best” on this year’s release, but it has more of a timely quality, with this song paraphrasing Margaret Atwood (author of The Handmaid’s Tale) in the chorus: “I wanna walk through the park in the dark; men are scared the women will laugh at them; I wanna walk through the park in the dark; women are scared the men will kill them.”
27. Sunflower Bean “Come For Me”
Their whole Twentytwo In Blue album gives the sense that bigger things are coming for Sunflower Bean. Julia Cumming has a great voice that she shows off only occasionally on the album, and Nick Kivlen does some wonderful guitar work, particularly in the live performances you can find online. So it’s no surprise that new single “Come For Me” is another positive step for the band, showcasing both of those strengths just a little more.
26. White Denim “Magazin”
White Denim have a knack for groovy rock songs, and they added some horns to the mix on this lead single from their 2018 album Performance. They’re an impressive group to watch live, although they somehow managed not to play a couple of my favorites when they visited Chattanooga in 2017 (how dare they). They have cycled through guitarists but have a good mix right now, with singer James Petralli also handling lead guitar duties.
25. Switchfoot “Native Tongue”
There’s not much more I can say about Switchfoot that I haven’t already said in the last 15 years. Their eleventh album is due in January, with this as the lead single. I’m not crazy about the gradual downplaying of their rock sound, but if I’m being honest, the early 2000s (my favorite era of theirs) is perhaps more of an outlier than the rest of their catalog in that regard, and any perceived decline is maybe more a sign of the times and/or my own tastes. Then again, I imagine it’s awfully hard to write as much music and Jon Foreman and have it not get stale eventually. “Native Tongue” still packs their unique spiritual-lyric punch, which is enough to crack this list. While you’re reading, send some happy thoughts and a prayer for keyboard player Jerome Fontamillas, who is recovering from surgery to have a cancerous kidney removed.
24. Foxing “Nearer My God”
It’s fair to look up and down this list and call me a sucker for harmonies. I’m not a Church of Christ traditionalist who believes you can’t praise God with instruments, but that background is forever a part of me and my musical tastes. So this song (which is not really spiritual, as the title perhaps implies) was basically a lock for the list after one listen. The synths and guitars are cool too and definitely add to the song, but the vocals stand out to me.
23. Django Django “In Your Beat”
I held this song out from last year’s list even though it came out as a single prior to the end of 2017, unsure whether it was going to hold up to repeated listening like the lead single from Marble Skies, “Tic Tac Toe.” It has held up. The lyrics are pretty simple, but the music behind it is great, especially when the synths drop into the chorus.
22. Speedy Ortiz “Lucky 88”
Like several others on this year’s list, Speedy Ortiz is appearing for the first time despite an acclaimed history. “Lucky 88” is a little poppier than their earlier tracks—I might call it accessible, but they means different things to different people—and it works well with the delightfully weird and dark twists in the lyrics. This version of Speedy Ortiz feels like an improvement, an iteration from their previous work and lead singer Sadie DuPuis’ solo album (as “Sad13”).
21. Hatchie “Sleep”
Hatchie doesn’t have a lot of songs to their credit (or is it just “her”? I never know about these groups that form behind a single singer), and this one still ranks just fifth in popularity on Google Play Music, but I prefer it to the rest of the Sugar & Spice EP. It has the catchiest verses and a nice harmony in the chorus, while “Sure” and “Try” are a little more on the bland side to me. The EP’s title track, which I was surprised to hear in a mall store recently (surprising because of the song, not because of the existence of a mall in 2018), was a near-miss on this list as well.
20. Khruangbin “Maria También”
This story makes about as much sense as anything else I have done this year: the most I have been able to expand my boys’ linguistic skills has been the result of a song with exactly one word in the actual lyrics, the name ‘Maria.’ It’s a phenomenal guitar and bass showcase that needs no words to possess a catchy melody. And it comes from a Texas band with a Thai name and a Spanish song & album title. Thanks to the screen in my car, my kids have learned the English meanings of six words in Spanish—the song and album titles—and hopefully also learned to appreciate a good instrumental song.
19. Indian Askin “BEAT24”
I’m not entirely sure what to make of this odd Dutch band, which released some singles in 2018 that barely interested me at all (“I Feel Something” and “On And On”). But then, in a nod to their depth, Indian Askin released an EP with just the B-Sides that I found more interesting: “Burning Blue” as well as this song. As one might expect, “BEAT24” has a pulsating beat with off-kilter lyrics and a delivery which altogether makes for a fun song. Their second full-length album, appropriately titled Another Round, is due out in January 2019.
18. White Denim “It Might Get Dark”
It feels as though White Denim haven’t taken a break in a while. This is their third straight year on my list, having charted with a one-off single last year as a follow-up to their 2016 album Stiff, and now they’re back again with more fun rock songs. As I note every year in this space, the bass parts always stand out, but I think it’s also the melody in this case. “It Might Get Dark” is probably one of the better White Denim songs for just getting me to sing along in the car.
17. Wilderado “Sorrow”
“Sorrow” had nearly dropped out of my regular listening rotation late this year when Wilderado released an acoustic version of their Favors EP, giving new life to those four excellent songs. I get the sense that they would be more popular in another era, or perhaps another genre (country), but I love this band where they are. The terrific harmonies and unique quality of lead vocalist Max simply work for me, whether in a rock song like this one or a seriously understated acoustic like my #3 song from last year, “Talking About Love To A Cigarette.”
16. Joy Williams “Canary”
When I think about the “big voices” in music today, the ones who come to mind are often undone (from my listening perspective) by weak songwriting or a lack of support around them. Adele’s “Hello,” for instance, has an absolutely stunning vocal, but the lyrics immediately felt so dated that I couldn’t keep listening to that song. Often with those strikes against them, there are usually only a few individual singer-songwriters on my year-end lists. It’s easy to make an exception here for Joy Williams, who belongs in that “big voice” conversation and has arguably now peaked in the third phase of her career (post–Civil Wars and post-CCM). The message of the lyrics feels timely as well.
15. Ten Fé “Single, No Return”
A light rocker with tight harmonies that typifies their sound, this one packs more of a punch emotionally than some of the other Ten Fé songs I have heard. Most of their other songs work similarly—this was just my favorite in 2018. Their second album is forthcoming and includes some other solid songs like “Won’t Happen” and “Not Tonight,” but this one looks like it will remain a one-off single.
14. Yonaka “Teach Me To Fight”
This band from Brighton have a real attitude, with other songs that are even more direct and combative than this song (such as the over-the-top “F.W.T.B.”), but “Teach Me To Fight” is probably the better song to serve as a statement of intent for the band. It features singer Theresa Jarvis’ best vocal performance and the band’s overall most cohesive idea out of anything I have heard from them so far, while also embodying the sort of attitude that discourages me from ever crossing them in any way.
13. Jade Bird “Love Has All Been Done Before”
There is a coarseness to Bird’s voice that keeps her from sounding like other young singers, but I mean that in a good way, because there is clear quality behind it. Most other young singers are also not as inventive, and she has written one of the best melodies of the year. As the song suggests, it’s often hard to find something new in a familiar landscape, whether in love or music, but we will strive for it, and I think she is well on her way.
12. Spirit Animal “The Truth”
The ties binding me to my 2000s-era rock-heavy past still have a thread remaining on these lists as we near the end of the 2010s. Spirit Animal sounds like something out of that era (they opened for Theory of a Deadman on tour this year, representing further confirmation), but this Brooklyn band is generally more interesting than what is left of that heavier genre. “Yeah!” and “Painkiller” are real departures, in a positive way, but it’s this throwback (mainly the opening riff) that reeled me in. As a bonus, I have listened to it enough times with the kids in the car that I can sing it when they try to cover up their wrongdoings at home—“don’t want to hear it, go near it, it’s a lie!”
11. Childish Gambino “This Is America”
Never have I seen a music video blow up quite like this one. In the wake of Donald Glover’s SNL appearance back in May, “This Is America” was immediately everywhere I looked, as people couldn’t stop watching and talking about how provocative it was. Everyone was right that it’s provocative (and also catchy), and that it Says Something about gun violence and being black in America. While I will never ultimately relate to the latter, and without diving into the specifics as to why it is important, I must say I’m glad to see someone other than The Onion tackling guns head-on in popular culture. As they so frequently put it, “No Way To Prevent This, Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” This indeed is America.
10. The Wombats “Cheetah Tongue”
Few bands write lyrics so descriptive, almost viscerally so, and even fewer manage to combine that songwriting gift with an interesting melody or beat. Of course that’s what I’m saying The Wombats have achieved with this song, which aside from the lyrics wouldn’t have been out of place on rock radio a decade or two earlier, when the genre was a much larger part of our collective musical consciousness (and still clearly is part of mine). Their work hasn’t always resonated with me, which is perhaps a greater downfall of their particular style than it is for most artists, but it finally did in 2018.
9. Muse “Pressure”
The well of paranoia-induced we-are-the-oppressed lyrics is not dry yet, but let’s also not pretend this is on the same level as Muse’s early-2000s peak, from Origin of Symmetry through Black Holes and Revelations. This song (and 2017 single “Dig Down”) are the highlights of Simulation Theory, an album that is still definitely by Muse and more specifically Matt Bellamy, who remains one of the most talented vocalists and guitar players in the world. If I can coast so gracefully into my 40s, I will be doing quite well. Check out the video, featuring Terry Crews of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and a host of horror-movie references.
8. boygenius “Salt In The Wound”
Although their instrumental ability is not so fully on display, boygenius otherwise comes across to me like Nickel Creek—three artists who could record (and have recorded) as solo acts combining, harmonizing, and creating interesting songs together—all for the benefit of our ears. Their debut EP is six songs long and also six deep with quality, although I have included just one song on this list: “Salt In The Wound” takes the best of their melodies and harmonies and pairs it with a nice, slow, hard guitar. Lucy Dacus opens this song, but everyone gets a turn to shine, with Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker splitting the second verse & the latter also providing the guitar. All three women of boygenius are in their early twenties, over a decade younger than I am, so here’s hoping I have a lifetime left to enjoy their collective work.
7. Ty Segall “Fanny Dog”
Proof that inventive lyrics are not a requirement for this list, “Fanny Dog” is nominally about Segall’s pet, but really it’s just a showcase for a solid melody, a fantastic guitar solo, and his skillful backing band. I haven’t done a deep dive into Segall’s prolific catalog, but it’s on my to-listen list after hearing this gem.
6. Lemaitre featuring Betty Who “Rocket Girl”
If I had to pick one song on this list that should have become a huge pop hit, this would be the one. Yet “Rocket Girl,” for all its Katy Perry–esque sound, doesn’t seem to have truly registered this year. The lyrics are good, Betty Who’s vocals are good, and the beat is catchy, so beyond a lack of promotion, I don’t get why it was not at least a moderate hit.
5. half·alive “Still Feel”
According to the band, this song was born out of a 50-song writing challenge, one that I will call a resounding success, since it resulted in a truly great tune. I could listen to just the isolated bass part and find it enjoyable. “Still Feel” is not on an album (yet), and the rest of their songs have more of a Twenty One Pilots sound, but this song has me hopeful about half•alive in general. It is a ton of fun and also has one of the best accompanying videos of the year. Maybe by next year I can get my kids to listen to it without immediately conjuring up their desire to listen to Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still.”
4. Superorganism “Everybody Wants to be Famous”
Queue up any of their live studio performances, which I highly recommend, and you will instantly see that this band simply likes to have fun. You can find arrangements of this song performed around a pool, in a library, or in a regular studio, with all sorts of accompaniments ranging from synths to soft drinks. “Everybody Wants To Be Famous” has the best combination of melody and coherent message on their superinteresting debut album.
3. Death Cab for Cutie “Gold Rush”
Easily Death Cab’s most interesting song since 2008 brought us their masterpiece “I Will Possess Your Heart.” The post-Walla era starts out strong, with Gibbard hitting all the right notes and showing his usual lyrical flourish above that pulsating, repeated refrain. Even if I don’t entirely agree with the premise of the song (How are we going to deal with urban over-population without a market approach to land management? Maybe they have better ideas?), the fact that this thought even enters my mind is probably a point in the song’s favor, rather than a detraction from it.
2. St. Lucia “Walking Away”
This is the song that, for me, makes St. Lucia more of a band than simply a project for its leader Jean-Philip Grobler. The synth/bass part and movements between keys are still fun after dozens of listens, which adds a new and more interesting layer to their usual tight vocals & harmonies.
1. Lucy Dacus “Night Shift”
Many of these songs have stuck with me throughout the year and held up after repeated listening. Most of 2018 had passed me by, however, when I first heard “Night Shift,” which was actually released before the end of 2017 as the lead single to Dacus’ second album Historian. It took only one listen to realize this was among the best songs of the year, and after a few more since then, it tops the final list. “Night Shift” clocks in at 6:31, so it is also the longest song on the list, but it doesn’t drag for even a second. It’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching song about dealing with a failed relationship, before the guitars kick in and turn it into something truly transcendent.