From viral rap hits to country pop slow burners, these are the songs that mattered to us most these past 12 months
It often feels like we’re consuming music at a faster and faster rate, with each day bringing a new viral hit that we’ll have forgotten about within 24 hours. As our favourite tracks of 2018 prove, however, this isn’t strictly true. A song may have dominated the news cycle the minute it was released, but there’s a reason we’re still talking about it months down the line. Likewise, there’s still space for the slow burners whose intricacies crept up on us months after we first heard them, or the word-of-mouth recommendations that ended up becoming one of our highlights.
Still, this isn’t to say that everything is going great. This year, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the way that the streaming market has tilted an already imbalanced music industry, making it harder and harder for smaller artists to be heard above the noise. In 2019, it’s important that listeners and artists consider the implications of this model, and how musicians without the backing of major labels and large indies can thrive.
Dazed’s staff and contributors spent weeks voting, debating, and arguing the case for our favourite tracks of 2018. Here’s what we came back with.
20. DOJA CAT, “MOOO!”
It wouldn’t be 2018 without a bop that started out as a meme. “Mooo!” had all the perfect ingredients for virality: a cow-print wearing singer, a mooing backtrack, and a video depicting a cartoon farm setting and bouncing anime boobs. That’s without mentioning the lyrics, a mix between farmyard puns like “Got the methane, I'm a farter”, and the earworm hook: “Bitch, I’m a cow.” While Los Angeles-based rapper Doja Cat – real name Amalaratna Zandile Dlamini – has released plenty of other, bigger hits before, it was “Mooo!”, produced and released within 24 hours, that thrust her into the spotlight.
Then, in the weeks after the single dropped, Twitter discovered some problematic, homophobic tweets, and Doja Cat was ‘cancelled’. A shitty, but somehow very appropriate, end for a track that perfectly embodies the spirit of 2018. (Dominic Cadogan)
19. AZEALIA BANKS, “ANNA WINTOUR”
Azealia Banks was mostly in the headlines this year for nearly bringing Tesla to its knees with some quick-fire Instagram Stories, accusing Elon Musk of tweeting while on acid, fiddling with his stock prices based on a ‘420’ joke, and linking his family to apartheid. Controversies aside, she should have been talked about for her music. From its opening boots-and-cats beat, “Anna Wintour” showed, once again, that the rapper really knows how to make a dance floor anthem. Channeling the energy of Vogue’s iconic editor with the same glow she exhibits while “stuntin’ in front row”, “Anna Wintour” felt like it could have been a real comeback moment for Banks, marking an upwards artistic trajectory as she embarked on her new album, Fantasea II. Unfortunately, these things are never straightforward – she delayed the album just before its release.
Before “Anna Wintour” was released, Banks teased fans by saying that she was preparing to release the “gay wedding anthem of summer 2018”. I can’t confirm how many nuptials this dance-rap tune soundtracked, but I can testify that it livened up a number of flagging house parties and pre-drinks. (Kemi Alemoru)
18. LOTIC, “HUNTED”
On Berlin-based producer Lotic’s debut album, they explored what it means to have power in a world that constantly tries to strip it from you. Lotic’s previous, club-oriented work was often described in terms of physical power (‘destructive’, ‘hard’, ‘breathless’), but on Power’s first single “Hunted”, the power dynamic is subtler and stranger. Never rising above a whisper, Lotic intones a mantra – “Brown skin, masculine frame / Head’s a target” – as the rolling, threatening instrumental rumbles forward. Caught between delicacy and brutality, the track is a dance of defiance. Speaking to Dazed earlier this year, Lotic explained: “I wanted to have this sensitive message, but also... it’s not like I am a victim. I am a survivor.” (Aimee Cliff)
17. ONEOHTRIX POINT NEVER, “LOVE IN THE TIME OF LEXAPRO”
Daniel Lopatin followed his twisted ode to the anthropocene, Age Of, with Love in the Time of Lexapro, a four-track EP whose title song ranks among the most accessible things he’s done (that Usher collab may still be some way off, though). Dismissed in some quarters as Oneohtrix-lite, the song weds the new-age textures of his early work to a stately, synth-led procession that forgoes all the glitchy stuff in favour of sweeping, post-rock expanse. And while the title may have been a bit of light trolling on the author’s part – Lexapro is an antidepressant known to suppress the libido – the song itself plays it admirably straight, showing that Lopatin doesn’t have to be ‘difficult’ to find the beauty in a world that’s tilted off its axis. (Alex Denney)
16. MORMOR, “HEAVEN’S ONLY WISHFUL”
Sometimes, the first time you listen to a song, there’s a singular moment that leaps out and pierces your consciousness, taking it from that initial level of “Oh, this is cool” to “Oh wow, I need to replay this as soon as it’s finished.” On Toronto singer-songwriter MorMor’s debut single “Heaven’s Only Wishful”, that moment hit me around three minutes in, when the artist first abandons his angelic near-falsetto for a throaty, throwaway grunt: “yeaahhhh, whatever”.
That’s the general vibe of this song: laid-bare romanticism coupled with distanced, easy apathy. One minute, you’re feeling all the sincerity of a John Hughes movie air-punch, or the soaring synth climax of a Tame Impala song; the next, you’re thrown off balance with a disaffected shrug. Both raw and polished, digital and human, this indie pop gem is the soundtrack to the quintessential Gen Z coming-of-age movie that hasn’t yet been made. (Aimee Cliff)
15. KACEY MUSGRAVES, “SLOW BURN”
Yee-haw, 2018. This was a year where country pop really pushed through, and smashing the industry gate is Kacey Musgraves. “Slow Burn” is the glittering opener of her genre-busting album Golden Hour. The hairs on your arm will rise like corn standing to attention in sun-drenched fields as the delicate banjo and acoustic guitar come in, her moody key changes having a soft but staggering effect. “Slow Burn” came to the Texas singer during a summer acid trip, an anecdote that totally catches her vibe.
“In Tennessee, the sun’s goin’ down / But in Beijing, they’re heading out to work,” Musgraves sings, offering a soothing perspective-changer. The autobiographical lyrics buzz with lush imagery, as Musgrave traces her journey from making music about small town superficiality to writing songs about personal triumphs and comforts. Ultimately, she asks that we embrace the slow burn – whether that’s taking life in on a porch or a creaky bar stool; supporting Harry Styles or rocking headline stadiums tours in Ashish; grabbing Grammy noms and walking red carpets in Versace; puffing on a joint or breathing in a glass of red wine. Let life simmer and the butterflies fly. (Anna Cafolla)
14. OCTAVIAN, “STAND DOWN”
It doesn’t feel an exaggeration to suggest that Octavian might just be one of the most interesting artists coming through in UK rap right now. Smoky vocals and vibes that are impossible to categorise, you get the impression that you’ll look back on the French-born, London-based rapper’s existence as the start of a new wave in the UK scene – a polished, futuristic, genre-fluid sonic universe. There was no singular, definitive Octavian track this year – we had votes for five different tracks by him in the process of making this list – but that’s testament to the scope and versatility of his sound across his output, not least on the Spaceman mixtape he dropped in September. Indeed, the shiny production and gentle vocals on “Stand Down” are an insight into his ambition as an artist – he can go hard, yes, but it’s of note here that he’s happy to check into his vulnerabilities, too. (Tara Joshi)
13. JANELLE MONÁE, “PYNK”
It’s no wonder that Janelle Monáe’s “PYNK” became the feminist pop manifesto upon its release – few other songs this year quite so joyfully uplifted femininity, sexual expression, and fluidity. At its core, the Grimes-featuring synth pop track was an ode to the vagina: “Pink where it’s deepest inside, crazy / Pink beyond forest and thighs… / Pink is where all of it starts, crazy,” Monáe tenderly assures on one verse.
Its lush music video – a revolutionary, utopian dreamscape of ‘Pussy Power’ neon signs, body positivity, sisterhood, ‘I Grab Back’ underwear, and Tessa Thompson wearing those unforgettable, instantly iconic vagina pants – only underscored Monáe’s progressive vision of a society held together by the loving bonds of their shared humanity. “PYNK” is a compelling pop statement will likely remain in the cultural zeitgeist for years to come. (Erica Russell)
12. JIMOTHY LACOSTE, “SUBWAY SYSTEM”
Jimothy Lacoste’s “Subway System” provided a welcome break from, well, life. Back in March, we premiered the wild video, in which Jimothy – dressed in red and blue to match his surroundings – takes to London’s Underground, dancing on trains, running around naked, and generally getting up to no good. His tube antics were deemed so offensive by the stick-up-your-arse department over at TfL (Transport for London) that the video was swiftly removed, replaced by a message apologising for his dangerous behaviour.
Video aside, the song is an absolute bop; Jimothy’s distinctive lo-fi style and characteristic playfulness are combined with a catchy hook and lyrics about rising train prices. Although it all seems pretty ridiculous, Jimothy’s lyrics humorously address very real issues that are actually affecting people. Plus, who else could get a crowd dressed head-to-toe in Lacoste to chant: “London Underground is fast like it’s just sniffed cocaine”? Life certainly is getting quite exciting. (Brit Dawson)
11. KOJEY RADICAL, MAHALIA & SWINDLE, “WATER”
It’s fitting that this track is called “Water”, because it’s smooth as fuck. Mahalia’s voice hydrated me and gave me the energy I needed to take on this thing we call life, Kojey’s raspy poetic verses cleared my skin and gave it a dewy glow, and, miraculously, Swindle’s production made me lose five pounds immediately. Though the melody will leave you feeling soothed and content, the lyrics hit hard, painting a bleak view of modern life. Traversing the fraught landscape tackling the cost of living, political apathy, and even the Flint water crisis, the pair of them question how the hell we got into this mess. “There must be something in the water,” Kojey and Mahalia both aptly conclude.
Narrated by Chewing Gum’s Michaela Coel, who recites a piece of prose penned for Kojey’s 23 Winters EP, the track’s accompanying visual is a beautiful showcase of black British talent. Kojey dances hypnotically, and Mahalia looks on as she has her hair braided. Both of them represent a new class of young artists injecting British rap and soul with a shot in the arm. (Kemi Alemoru)
10. UNKNOWN T, “HOMERTON B”
Unknown T’s “Homerton B” is so good that, to my mind, it may as well be the only track released this year. Released a week before Carnival, the drill anthem was blaring out of sound systems and cars throughout London almost instantly, and it struck me that it felt like a while since I’d witnessed such collective excitement around one track. Everywhere I went for those two weeks, people asked me if I’d heard it.
Yes, it’s a tune about violence and the Daily Mail naturally hate it (a feather in the cap of any aspiring artist), but the track is really notable for Unknown T’s raw, natural ability. The London MC is such a dextrous vocalist with an incredible grasp of rhythm and melody. His Fire In The Booth performance also proves that “Homerton B” is no one-off – 2019 is going to be huge for him. (Thomas Gorton)
09. SOCCER MOMMY, “YOUR DOG”
This song is for you if you ever dated somebody who: didn’t ask you a single question about yourself all night; who took you to a party full of people you didn’t know and then ignored you; who cancelled plans and didn’t rearrange; who talked and didn’t listen, or just generally made you feel a little bit smaller than you truly are. Tennessee singer-songwriter Sophie Allison does restrained, elegant anger to perfection on this slice of grunge-y folk-pop, as she hands the leash back to a former partner and calmly announces with a perfect chorus: “I don’t wanna be your fucking dog”. Send it to your ex, so they know you’re not to be taken for granted. (Aimee Cliff)
08. LANA DEL REY, “VENICE BITCH”
Taking a break from feuding with Azealia Banks, Lana Del Rey put out two new singles this year, teasing the launch of her 2019 album, Norman Fucking Rockwell. “Venice Bitch” dropped in September and is a hazy, psychedelic rock track, sprawling out at almost 10 minutes. Featuring breathy Lana-isms (“You’re beautiful and I’m insane,” and “It’s me, your little Venice Bitch”) and a meandering synth solo, it’s an experimental direction for Del Rey, leaving the listener bewitched, lost in memories of the summer. (Dominic Cadogan)
07. EMPRESS OF, “WHEN I’M WITH HIM”
Against the backdrop of a silky musical arrangement, Lorely Rodriguez traces the calluses of a tired, doomed relationship: “Querías más de lo que podría ser / Me alejo más y tú no lo puedes ver,” she sings deadpan in Spanish. (The English translation: “You wanted more than what it could have been / I distance myself more and you can’t see it.”) Rodriguez masterfully blends the breezy dance pop of the west coast with reflective, claustrophobic lyricism, so much so that on first listen, the song’s tempestuous message could easily be missed among richly textured, bright production. Across hazy guitar lines and funk-driven synths, she reaches a twinkling falsetto before swooping back down, hopscotching over the cracks that are just about beginning to show on the relationship’s glossy surface. She’s fighting feelings here, she’s sleepwalking, but she won’t let us sleep on her with enthralling music like this. (Anna Cafolla)
06. RINA SAWAYAMA, “CHERRY”
In a year that saw a notable increase in meaningful LGBTQ+ representation across the global music industry, from the historic introduction of K-pop’s first openly gay idol, to Janelle Monáe’s Rolling Stone cover story (which resulted in an 11,000% increase in searches for the definition of “pansexual”, according to Merriam-Webster), Rina Sawayama’s second single of 2018 was the literal cherry on top of #20gayteen. A complex pansexual-awakening pop anthem, “Cherry” found the London artist coming out as queer to her fans and grappling with the multilayered feelings that so many pansexual and bisexual-identifying people have faced – from social invalidation to self-uncertainty – over a tinkling soundscape of bubblegum beats reminiscent of hook-driven early 2000s pop and R&B. Moreover, “Cherry” captured the nuances of an often marginalised and minimised experience, offering critical visibility for a community often left out of the conversation. Nothing could taste more sweet. (Erica Russell)
05. SOPHIE, “IMMATERIAL”
Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, SOPHIE’s life-changingly good debut album, contains some of the UK artist’s most beautiful music to date, with the spine-tingling “Is it Cold in the Water?” and the dewy-eyed “Infatuation” showing a different and more delicate side to a producer who’s generally known for producing kiloton pop bangers. Still, when the album reaches “Immaterial”, its penultimate track, it really lets rip. “Immaterial” perfects the pop formula that SOPHIE previously established on productions like “B Who I Want to B”, “Koi”, and “Vyzee”, honing in on the most immediate and most euphoric elements of those songs. The result is an ecstasy rush, a pure pinger that hits you from the word go; it’s probably the most radiant and rapturous song to come out this year. (Selim Bulut)
04. PEGGY GOU, “IT MAKES YOU FORGET (ITGEHANE)”
“It Makes You Forget” is a fitting title for a year of things honestly best left forgotten. DJ/producer and Dazed 100 alum Peggy Gou’s star has been on the rise for the past two years – she was the first Korean woman to play Berghain, she’s front row for major fashion moments like Virgil Abloh’s monumental Louis Vuitton debut, and she’s been jet-setting across the world playing back-to-back shows, growing her devoted fanbase seeking a “Gou” time.
“It Makes You Forget (Itgehane)” is a sonic distillation of Gou’s life right now, her voice cooly speak-singing oddly philosophical lyrics about “shaking off the dust of a secular world” and “forgetting chaotic worldly matters” in her native Korean. Even untranslated, Gou’s reassuring friendly vocal reminds us that, despite the madness, life can be chill. It’s dreamy and melodic, an antidote to greyscale house music that creates the sense of a seasonless summer. Timeless and endlessly replayable, it’ll be on loop until summer rolls around again. (Vanessa Hsieh)
03. ARIANA GRANDE, “THANK U, NEXT”
On Twitter, it can be hard to remember that two slightly opposing ideas can be true at once. There’s a specific argumentative style to the platform that reduces nuanced arguments – like, “the patriarchy is oppressive to us all” – with more basic, viral sentiments – like, “men are trash”. (Obviously, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t acknowledge that I’ve probably used the phrase “men are trash” myself – because, well, a lot of you are!) This year, “men are trash” got a sophisticated update from the current most influential pop star in the world, Ariana Grande: “thank u, next”.
There are multitudes within “thank u, next”, an airy pop banger on which Ariana gets unabashedly direct about her relationships with her exes and her dad. Like previous entries in the “chill break-up song” genre (think Gwen Stefani’s “Cool”), “thank u, next” means, “you were special to me once, but I am happy to move on now.” It means, “I’m not going to put you on a pedestal, and I’m not going to drag you, either.” It means, “I am both grateful for you, and over you.” It’s a slightly more laid-back philosophy than the one that has ruled Twitter in recent years, and one we’d all do well to take with us into 2019: accept and be grateful for your blessings, and respectfully pass on the rest. Thank u, next! (Aimee Cliff)
02. CHILDISH GAMBINO, “THIS IS AMERICA”
In a world of memes, warfare, and untethered capitalism, Childish Gambino cut through the noise in May with his explosive single, “This is America”. The track garnered immediate fascination – and, of course, horror – thanks to its captivating video, which depicted the clash between black entertainment and pain, with scenes of violence and mayhem playing against viral choreography. But the track itself – which opens with seemingly joyous gospel vocals, before switching to percussion and lyrics that are far more sinister – is just as unpredictable and deserving of praise as its visual. Childish Gambino mimics how we communicate on and offline, with idioms like ‘securing bags’, ‘getting caught slipping’, and having ‘followers’, placing our innocent (even comical) language within a far darker context of brutality and chaos. In the song’s outro, Young Thug perfectly embodies the contradictions within the black male experience, dropping dejected adlibs from “just a barcode” to “expensive foreigns”.
“This is America” hones in on the simple yet harrowing conclusion that this is, in fact, America, and the rest of the world, too. In doing so, Childish Gambino sparked a global discourse, and hundreds of country-specific reinterpretations, on a scale that four minutes of music seldom do. (Natty Kasambala)
01. CHRISTINE & THE QUEENS, “GIRLFRIEND”
In a year of comebacks, Christine and the Queens’s Héloïse Letissier did something of an about face. Coming off the back of a phenomenally successful debut album, her rebrand from Christine to Chris confused and delighted – is Christine dead? Do we call her Chris now? Wither the Queens? To introduce us to Chris – a Puck-like character who bangs whoever she likes, cherrypicks masculine and feminine traits, knows what she wants and will goddamn get it – at this point in her career was a bold move. And then her first single as Chris, “Girlfriend”, sidled in like James Dean coming for your girl. The glittery synths of 2015’s Chaleur Humaine were all but wiped out by the opening bass slide and Dam-Funk’s quaking keytar. It’s a bicep flex of a song, a 2am ‘u up?’ text in musical form. That, and an absolutely huge, totally irresistible, dancefloor-packing banger.
It shouldn’t be unusual to hear a woman express casual desire in a straightforward way, but a refrain like “Girlfriend? Don’t feel like a girlfriend. But lover? Damn, I’d be your lover” feel quietly revolutionary for a pop song. It’s been a year for interrogating gender; what it is to be female, male, or anywhere on that spectrum has been subject to exhausting debate. On “Girlfriend”, Chris is allowing her body to feel the way – and with that sweeping groove, inviting you to do the same on the dancefloor. Aurally, it’s sexual but not aggressive, tough but not mean, and queer as fuck. The song owes a debt to Prince and to the smooth, hip-twitching funk of early hip hop, but there’s a fluidity coupled with a bite to the vocals (not to mention meme-worthy lyrics) that bring it slide-stepping into the millennium.
To say that “Girlfriend” is unapologetic is to do the song a disservice; that implies an apology was ever expected or considered. “F-f-fuck is you?” Chris asks, quoting others’ ignorance back at herself; I can’t think of anyone better equipped to answer. (Kate Solomon)