Y’all wanna hear something crazy? I’ve been writing this weekly pop column for five whole years now. It seems like just yesterday that I published the inaugural installment explaining why The Week In Pop would be a good addition to the Stereogum portfolio. As we approach the precipice of 2019, I’m fairly certain I was right. Neither the music nor the writing about the music has always been top-shelf, but my, have the highs been high.
Speaking of: It’s time once again to run down the very best pop songs of the year. Before we do this together, let me specify my parameters for inclusion. Basically, like The Week In Pop as a franchise, this list focuses on mainstream pop — music that rules the streaming, sales, and radio charts that feed into Billboard’s Hot 100, and music that aims for that kind of ubiquity — but in practice I define it however I want. So if I want to put media darlings Kacey Musgraves and the 1975 on here alongside the stars that actually dominated pop in 2018, you better believe I will (and did). If a rap song soared near the top of the charts despite being ignored by top 40 radio, it’s eligible too. And if your favorite “indie” pop striver is missing, it’s possibly because they suck but more likely because I’ve decided they exist in some musical galaxy separate from the one I’m documenting in my personal yearbook of 2018 hits.
Now that that’s settled, let’s begin the countdown. Thanks as always for reading and for another great year of discussion, and I’ll see you all back here in January for the State Of Pop Address.
40. Shawn Mendes & Zedd – “Lost In Japan”
It’s not crazy that the best John Mayer song in years came from one of Mayer’s most faithful disciples, but it is crazy that I enjoy it so much.
39. Bad Bunny – “Mia” (Feat. Drake)
Bad Bunny released lots of good Latin trap songs this year, but there’s only one on which he got Drake to sing lithely in what sounds like fluent Spanish.
38. Christina Aguilera – “Accelerate” (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign & 2 Chainz)
A ramshackle house beat that sounds like Kanye stripped it for parts, an unusually raspy Ty Dolla $ign, a typically game 2 Chainz in boilerplate guest verse mode? I realize it’s a mess, but what a glorious mess it is.
37. Halsey – “Without Me”
Although Halsey’s public persona can be A Lot, she is not-so-quietly becoming one of the most consistently enjoyable singles artists in the game. She excels at this sort of hypermodern trap-inflected neon pop, but if you’ve heard “Alone” and “Strangers” and “100 Letters” you know she excels at a lot.
36. Bruno Mars & Cardi B – “Finesse”
Believe it or not, the Cardi-infused remix that made this song a hit came out this year.
35. Ne-Yo – “Good Man”
I can’t decide which is more outrageous: R&B’s perennially underrated gentleman-in-residence sampling D’Angelo’s timeless “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” without faceplanting or the world completely ignoring his feat.
34. Troye Sivan – “My My My!”
What most ’80s throwbacks don’t understand is that a mere historical reenactment is worthless without the unbridled feeling that surges through “My My My!” When a song is this charged with passion, aesthetics become an afterthought.
33. Jessie Reyez – “Apple Juice”
I loved basically every song Jessie Reyez dropped this year, but especially this raspy, string-laden love letter to the “broken-home baby” who still drives her crazy after all these years.
32. Janelle Monáe – “I Like That”
The most vulnerable song on Dirty Computer is the one that diverged farthest from the concept, a trap-soul slow drift on which she recalls painful childhood memories of rejection and relishes her current crazy/sexy/cool status.
31. Twenty One Pilots – “My Blood”
Hooks on falsetto hooks over an impeccably funky rolling bassline, with inspirational lyrics and effervescent ’80s fizz to boot. Imagine the pools of saliva that would be forming under critics’ mouths if this song was by the 1975.
30. Mariah Carey – “GTFO”
If you don’t like this exquisite exercise in heartbroken R&B balladry… allow me to show you the door.
29. Clean Bandit – “Solo” (Feat. Demi Lovato)
It takes real skill to make such obvious digital manipulation feel like the most natural thing in the world.
28. Lauren Jauregui – “Expectations”
Tight guitar stabs, scathing undercurrents, and an overall refusal to go overboard turn this Fifth Harmony alum’s debut solo single into a masterclass in tension and release.
27. Migos – “Stir Fry”
The best Migos song to emerge during this year of Migos overload was outsourced to Beyoncé and Jay-Z (scroll down), and the second best one was a beat Pharrell cooked up for T.I. a decade ago warmed up in the microwave and seasoned with spicy triplets. “Stir Fry” gets a slight boost in these rankings because I treasure the footage of my toddler daughters dancing to it at a wedding. Life is strange.
26. 5 Seconds Of Summer – “Youngblood”
The former pop-punk pinups responsible for the timeless hook “She looks so perfect standing there in my American Apparel underwear” emerge from their chrysalis, anthem-slinging abilities intact, to foist fist-pumping adult contemporary fare upon an unsuspecting world.
25. Ariana Grande – “God Is A Woman”
What’s the best part of this feminist trap-pop ode to miraculous sex: the sinfully catchy melody, the subtly irresistible beat, or the resounding gospel choir that comes in at the end to hammer home the metaphor?
24. Drake – “In My Feelings”
Everyone who jumped out of a moving car for the #InMyFeelingsChallenge was way more devoted to a bit than Drake is to any of the women he name-checked here. Good song though.
23. James Bay – “Wild Love”
You might have missed this one. Even I forgot that I big-upped James Bay’s Electric Light last spring, but I stand by my description that it’s like if the 1975 built their aesthetic out of old The O.C. soundtracks instead of cocaine-encrusted ’80s CDs. The hard-rocking “Wasted On Each Other” and the Strokes-worshipping “Pink Lemonade” are at least as good as the post-Bon Iver new wave gospel ballad “Wild Love,” but “Wild Love” is the one that actually fits on a list of pop songs, so.
22. Charlie Puth – “Boy”
21. Charli XCX & Troye Sivan – “1999”
With last December’s Pop 2, Charli XCX charted the future. Her most popular contribution to this year was a celebration of the past that bested competing nostalgia bait from Anne-Marie and Lauren Alaina.
20. The Carters – “Apeshit”
Nothing says 2018 like Beyoncé and Jay-Z bolstering their latest lavish celebration of wealth and status with a trap beat and Migos ad-libs.
19. Drake – “Nice For What”
When too much turns out to be just enough.
18. Kim Petras – “Heart To Break”
Nobody is hitting the high notes like Kim Petras these days.
17. Kacey Musgraves – “High Horse”
Despite Golden Hour’s pronounced pop tendencies, the only song on the album that would have made sense on top 40 radio was a country disco kiss-off that’ll make you want to trot.
16. Charli XCX – “Focus”
Let’s get back to what I was saying about Charli XCX charting the future of pop. The double A-side single that gave us this and “No Angel” wasn’t as audaciously forward-thinking as Pop 2, but it sure did sound ahead of its time.
15. The 1975 – “Sincerity Is Scary”
14. The 1975 – “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)”
Aside from the wildly ambitious interconnected videos, I love how these two songs own their brazen corniness with such confidence. Like, “Sincery Is Scary” is basically an Ed Sheeran song with a gospel choir and Chance The Rapper’s horn section, and “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” is a brand of ’80s adult contemporary ultracheese that even the bravest revisionist nostalgists dare not attempt. Yet here’s Matty Healy selling both with such panache that I’m eating out of his hand. It’s possible that I will look back on this period of my life with such deep regret, and yet I keep mainlining these 1975 singles. What sorcery is this?
13. Ariana Grande – “Breathin'”
One of Ariana Grande’s more underrated achievements this year was flipping the panic attacks that haunted her post-Manchester into radio gold.
12. Silk City & Dua Lipa – “Electricity”
The Calvin Harris team-up “One Kiss” was Dua Lipa’s biggest hit of 2018, but her finest dance-floor collab this year was an ecstatic plunge into ’90s house music alongside Diplo and Mark Ronson.
11. Travis Scott – “Sicko Mode” (Feat. Drake)
I’ve seen “Sicko Mode,” the year’s longest and weirdest #1 single, compared to both “Band On The Run” and “Tom Sawyer” this month. It’s one of those multi-part prog epics that seems too unwieldy to be a hit until it worms its way into your consciousness and you can no longer remember when it sounded like anything but instant-classic pop music.
10. The Weeknd & Kendrick Lamar – “Pray For Me”
9. Kendrick Lamar & SZA – “All The Stars”
The Black Panther soundtrack was so much better than it had to be. What could have been a bland corporate tie-in instead presented unfathomable riches: great rap posse cuts like “King’s Dead” and “X” and “Paramedic!” Woozy R&B jams like “The Ways” and “I Am” and the dancehall-tinged “Seasons.” Grooves fit for both a slow grind (“Bloody Waters”) and a disco inferno (“Redemption”). Experimental oddities like “Black Panther” and “Opps” that somehow sounded like the most natural superhero blockbuster music ever. Best of all, it had full-fledged anthems “All The Stars” and “Pray For Me,” songs humongous and cinematic enough to live up to a film that felt like a true Pop Culture Moment.
8. Ella Mai – “Boo’d Up”
An upstart British singer and the artist formerly known as DJ Mustard channeled vibes from Kanye’s “Big Brother” and Jay and Bey’s “Part II (On The Run)” into a retro R&B swoon, swapped out the celebrity mythology for a universal story of head-over-heels infatuation, and had the whole world deep in our feelings.
7. BlocBoy JB – “Look Alive” (Feat. Drake)
People talk a lot about how BlocBoy JB managed not to be outshined by Drake here, but with all due credit to the inventor of the Shoot dance, my first takeaway from “Look Alive” is that it’s the best Drake song in Drake’s most dominant year. My second takeaway is “Tay Keith, fuck these n****s up!!!”
6. Cardi B, Bad Bunny, & J Balvin – “I Like It”
As soon as the beat dropped, it was clear this bilingual Nuyorican club crusher would be the song of the summer.
5. Post Malone – “Psycho” (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign)
This dazed float down the river of dreams represents Post Malone’s world-conquering sing-song post-hip-hop at its best — narcotic, amniotic, and not really psychotic in the slightest. Bonus points for giving the legendary Ty Dolla $ign his first #1 hit.
4. Zedd, Maren Morris, & Grey – “The Middle”
Occasionally the corporate machine spits out an M.O.R. masterpiece on the level of this catchy, punchy delight, a song that proves formulaic pop doesn’t have to be garbage. Maren Morris’ performance is just colossal; with each passing “Baby!” you can hear her voice threatening to break under the weight of so much power.
3. Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper – “Shallow”
The scene in A Star Is Born when Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s characters perform this together for the first time is a legitimate spine-tingler. It works so well partially because of Gaga’s awestruck performance, but it wouldn’t work at all if the song fell flat. Instead, “Shallow” is a note-perfect classic rock ballad, from that mournful violin that creeps in when Gaga asks “Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?” to the way everything swells up around her when she launches into the oft-memed “AHHHHHHH HAA AHHHHAHHHHH!”
2. The 1975 – “Love It If We Made It”
The first lines are “We’re fucking in a car, shooting heroin/ Saying controversial things just for the hell of it,” and it just gets more outrageous from there. By the time they burst out of the bridge with a quote from Donald Trump’s “grab her by the pussy” tape, they’ve got you feeling the full weight of our modern dystopia. It’s rare to witness a band so shamelessly striving for transcendence and succeeding. Thank you the 1975, very cool!
1. Ariana Grande – “No Tears Left To Cry”
“Remember when i was like hey i have no tears left to cry and the universe was like HAAAAAAAAA bitch u thought.” So tweeted Ariana Grande about a month ago, still reeling from the death of an ex, the end of a hasty engagement, and all the public scrutiny that accompanied her bumpy yet triumphant 2018.
When Grande released “No Tears Left To Cry” back in April, the idea was that the turbulence was behind her now. She’d bounced back from the 2017 bombing at her Manchester arena show and, unbeknownst to the public at the time, was moving on from a relationship she described as “toxic” to one that exemplified full-blown puppy love. Given the song’s title and the tragic circumstances that informed it, many of us assumed Grande would introduce her new album cycle with a ballad — like Kesha had with “Praying” in the midst of her legal battle with Dr. Luke — before moving on to the bops. Instead, she glided in on a brisk UK garage beat and announced her readiness to move on.
By the time Sweetener dropped in August, the narrative of Ariana Grande the joyful resilient conquerer was solidified. But any pretense of a storybook ending evaporated in September when her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller died of an overdose. Things went further awry for Ari in October when she broke up with fiancé Pete Davidson, who’d had a heart-eyed interlude named after him on Sweetener. The tears continued to flow.
Grande responded to these latest struggles with “thank u, next” — a good song, a successful song, a historically significant song. There is an argument to be made that “thank u, next,” with its tabloid-baiting, meme-inspiring lyrics and hyper-referential music video, is pop’s defining song this year. If you want to think of pop in terms of cultural anthropology or celebrity-driven narrative, sure. Maybe. But in terms of musical achievement and the sheer exhilaration that accompanies a perfect pop single, “No Tears Left To Cry” towers over not just “thank u, next” but all of 2018.
Grande and writer-producer Max Martin, who teamed up for my favorite pop songs of 2014 and 2016, have done it again here. Martin, the defining producer of modern pop, seems to save his best work for Grande these days. Grande reciprocates. As natural and free as she sounds over Pharrell’s quirky cartoon pops and squiggles, she’s a superhero diva when whisked away by one of Martin’s immaculate Swedish euphoria machines.
Perhaps this impression is informed by Dave Meyers’ Inception-inspired music video, but this song in particular felt like gracefully soaring through four-dimensional space. Despite using mostly classic ingredients, “No Tears Left To Cry” resembled the future, or maybe just a fantasy — some glorious imagined moment when every tear might actually be wiped away for good. For now, we can’t be in that state of mind all the time. Grande’s song acknowledged that, and her year proved it. What this sonic pick-me-up both argued and demonstrated is that when your life is shattered, you can put it back together again. To document such invigoration is valuable; to supply it is priceless.
Meek Mill is not just free, he’s back on top of the world. With 229,000 equivalent album units and 42,000 in sales, Championships debuts atop the Billboard 200. It’s his second #1 album following 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money. According to Billboard, Championships enjoyed the ninth best streaming week of 2018, with 235.4 million on-demand audio streams of its tracks.
Lil Baby is in at #2 with 88,000 units for Street Gossip, his best-charting album yet ahead of Harder Than Ever (#3) and the Gunna collab Drip Harder (#4), both from this year. After 6ix9ine’s Dummy Boy at #3 comes the #4 debut of A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships by the 1975. The album earned 66,000 units and 48,000 in sales, making it the bestselling album of the week.
Folling Michael Bublé’s Christmas at #5 is the #6 debut of Ski Mask The Slump God’s Stokeley with 51,000 units and 5,000 sales. And rounding out the top 10 are the A Star Is Born soundtrack, Travis Scott’s Astroworld, the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack, and Pentatonix’s Christmas Is Here!
Over on the Hot 100, Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” returns to #1 for a fourth nonconsecutive week as expected. That’s largely on the strenth of 93.8 million track streams, which surpasses Taylor Swift’s 84.5 million-stream week for “Look What You Made Me Do” to become the biggest weekly total by a female artist. According to Billboard it’s the seventh best streaming week of all-time. Here’s the top 10:
116.1 million, “In My Feelings,” Drake, July 28, 2018
106.2 million, “In My Feelings,” Drake, Aug. 4, 2018
103.1 million, “Harlem Shake,” Baauer, March 2, 2013
101.7 million, “God’s Plan,” Drake, March 3, 2018
97.6 million, “Harlem Shake,” Baauer, March 9, 2013
95.4 million, “In My Feelings,” Drake, Aug. 11, 2018
93.8 million, “Thank U, Next,” Ariana Grande, Dec. 15, 2018
92.8 million, “God’s Plan,” Drake, March 10, 2018
92.7 million, “In My Feelings,” Drake, Aug. 18, 2018
84.5 million, “Look What You Made Me Do,” Taylor Swift, Sept. 16, 2017
“Thank u, next” also becomes the longest leading #1 hit by a woman with no accompanying artists since Adele’s 10-week leader “Hello” in 2015. Last week’s #1, Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode,” slides back to #2 despite gaining in sales, streaming, and airplay. Rising to a new #3 peak is Halsey’s “Without Me,” which bumps Marshmello and Bastille’s “Happier” down to #4. Panic! At The Disco’s “High Hopes” holds at its #5 peak.
Former rivals Meek Mill and Drake’s “Going Bad” debuts at #6, one of 15 songs from Meek’s Championships album to land on the Hot 100 this week. It’s Meek’s first top 10 hit and Drake’s 33rd(!), extending his record for most among solo males. It also extends Drake’s record for most top 10s in a single year to 13 — and that doesn’t even include “Sicko Mode,” on which he’s heavily featured despite the lack of an official credit. Meek’s previous high point was 2015’s “All Eyes On You” featuring Chris Brown and Nicki Minaj, which topped out at #21.
Mariah Carey’s 1994 classic “All I Want For Christmas Is You” always enjoys a surge in streaming around the holidays, but this year it’s doing especially well: The song has risen to #7, a new chart peak, besting its #9 high point from a year ago. The rest of the top 10: Kodak Black, Travis Scott, and Offset’s “Zeze” at #8, Lil Baby and Gunna’s “Drip Too Hard” at #9, and Sheck Wes’ “Mo Bamba” at #10.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Here’s a snippet of Ariana Grande’s “Imagine,” out tonight. [Twitter]
- Spice Girls’ Mel B was hospitalized for injuries including broken ribs and a “severed”(!) right hand. [TMZ]
- Demi Lovato was Google’s most-searched for person in the US this year, beating Meghan Markle and Brett Kavanaugh. [Daily Mail]
- Maggie Rogers covered Taylor Swift’s “Tim McGraw” for her Spotify Single. [Twitter]
- Cardi B appeared in court on Friday where a judge ordered she must not contact the victims of a fight she was involved in at a Queens strip club. [ABC7]
- Eminem gets stabbed by Jessie Reyez in his new video for “Good Guy.” [YouTube]
- BTS won Time’s readers’ poll for Person Of The Year. [HuffPo]
- Florida Georgia Line’s fourth album, Can’t Say I Ain’t Country, is out 2/15 via Big Machine. [Rolling Stone]
- Zayn released another new song, “There You Are,” from his new album out tonight. [YouTube]
- Avril Lavigne shared a video for “Tell Me It’s Over,” a new song from Head Above Water, out in February. [YouTube]
- Hailee Steinfeld performed her Bumblebee track “Back To Life” on The Voice. [YouTube]
- Usher and Zaytoven released a video for “Peace Sign.” [YouTube]
- Marshmello and Bastille performed their hit “Happier” on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. [Ellen]
- Katy Perry previewed her new song, “Immortal Flame,” for the game Final Fantasy Brave Exvius. [YouTube]
- Ciara and Future are feuding over custody of their son. [TMZ]
- Trippie Redd dropped off the Travis Scott tour. [TMZ]
- Robin Thicke is back with a new song, “Testimony. [YouTube]
- A man posing as Dierks Bentley scammed a woman out of $160K over Twitter. [Herald]
- Here’s rare glimpse at what is apparently a giant owl tattooed on Drake’s chest. [Urban Islandz]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
Me after me eat cookie: https://t.co/hLyensxQX8
— Cookie Monster (@MeCookieMonster) December 11, 2018
thank u, nest
— Big Bird (@BigBird) December 11, 2018