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The 51 Best Songs of 2018 So Far

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It’s late July already, so let’s review: Pusha T’s razor-sharp Daytona led Kanye West’s Wyoming summer of G.O.O.D Music, while Valee became the label’s bonafide breakout star. Ariana Grande, pop music Mary Poppins, alighted with a prismatic umbrella and a spoonful of Sweetener. Stoner metal gods Sleep blessed 4/20 with their signature brain-melting, eye-glazing sludge. Tierra Whack’s imaginative, immersive 3D song creations and Ella Mai’s heartfelt retro-R&B stylings earned each a place on an international stage. Shawn Mendes coaxed us to cash in all our airline miles for just one night; Snail Mail only asked for honesty. Rising California rap crew SOB x RBE got “Anti Social” and super popular. Pop hopeful Kim Petras declared a “Heart to Break” and wore it on her sleeve. As we round up our favorite tracks we’ve heard this year, we’re highlighting a resigned Courtney Barnett, a reenergized Janelle Monáe, music’s low-key MVP Ty Dolla $ign, dark horse songwriter Westerman, and two acts whose ambitious, accomplished new projects landed them two slots apiece. Plus, “Nice for What” and “In My Feelings”—but only the first one is by Drake. Here, according to critical judgement, uncritical passion, and a few last-minute decisions, are the 51 best songs of 2018 so far.

51. Post Malone ft. Ty Dolla $ign, “Psycho” 

Post Malone’s “style” is now officially approved by Karamo Brown of Queer Eye, which I’m pretty sure means tide patterns are going to be thrown out of whack and satellites are going to fall from the sky. If you think Posty’s dirtbag aesthetic is everything the Fab Five would disapprove of, maybe the secret to understanding is his current inescapable #1 hit “Psycho.” The lethally addictive, skeletal ballad—architected largely by featured guest by Ty Dolla $ign, it’s safe to say—is an aural drop of CBD oil on a breezy summer morning. Unlike the thick-set trap elegy “Rockstar,” Post’s megahit of last year, “Psycho” preserves the featherweight nursery-rhyme appeal of his breakout single “White Iverson.” Instead of that song’s governing basketball metaphor, “Psycho” has Post babbling semi-cogent phraseology of a different sport: “Come with the Tony Romo for clowns and all the bozos.” Lovingly engineered records like this one make it hard to stand ideologically opposed to Post’s sound, which seems to only be getting more popular. He may mostly be a savvy amalgamator of better work by previous artists. But at least he cleans up well.—Winston Cook-Wilson

50. Mount Eerie, “Now Only”

Last year, Mount Eerie songwriter Phil Elverum marked the passing of his wife, the artist and musician Geneviève Castrée, with the release of A Crow Looked at Me, an intimate 11-track album of songs about the fragility of life in the face of unforgiving circumstances. In the aftermath of the release, Elverum continued to write and tour extensively, eventually releasing a second collection of songs that, despite their similarly heartbreaking, stream-of-conscious composition, revealed a newfound lightness and acceptance amid chaos. The second LP’s title track, “Now Only,” opens with a singular image of the songwriter consumed by grief, only to laugh at himself a little for feeling so self-involved. Over optimistic major chord piano runs, Elverum confronts the profound banality of his solipsism, asking again if his devastation really is worth more than its merchandise. “These waves hit less frequently / They thin and then they are gone,” he sings, describing the strangeness of a festival set billed alongside Skrillex and Father John Misty for “a bunch of young people on drugs.” There’s a candor in the callousness with which he sings here, and for the first time in over two years of meticulous documentation, it really feels like Elverum has found a small glimmer of peace. Like its title suggests, “Now Only” is as much an examination of the present as it is apprehension toward what the future holds.—Rob Arcand

49. Andre 3000 ft. James Blake, “Look Ma No Hands” 

On Mother’s Day, Andre 3000 quietly uploaded to SoundCloud the first music ever formally billed to him as a solo artist. Unexpectedly—or not—none of it featured his legendary rapping. One of the two tracks didn’t even have vocals, with the Outkast member picking up bass clarinet instead. “Look Ma No Hands” is an unedited jam between Andre Benjamin the clarinetist and James Blake the pianist, both adept players, that lasts almost 20 minutes. An imperfect collage, it moves through a staggering succession of promising and unusual musical motives, with some inspired fumbling filling in the blanks. There are moments that sound like French classical music, fractured hard bop, Coltrane-like modality, Eric Dolphy skronk. It’s the sound of two omnivorous, wildly intuitive and talented musicians just having a good time, then uploading and serving their unmediated ramblings directly to a bewildered public. “Look Ma No Hands” is an impressive musical achievement, but also a welcome instance of a musician using the unique benefits of internet distribution for good—to form a spontaneous close connection between artist and audience.—WCW

48. Nicky Jam, J Balvin, Osuna, & Maluma, “X” (Remix)

Nicky Jam and J Balvin’s “X” remix adds Puerto Rican crooner Ozuna and Colombia’s self proclaimed “pretty boy dirty boy” Maluma for a steamier take on their club-ready single. The result is four minutes of infectious reggaeton rhythms, bright air horns, and tropical thumps to keep your hips occupied. Ozuna opens the song, honeyed rap slithering around airy keys before the drum-heavy heartbeat kicks in and accelerates into a contagious Caribbean pulse. J Balvin’s deeper, rougher vocals come in second, contrasting Ozuna’s brighter sound and highlighting the song’s lustful tone. “I want you and I won’t neglect you,” he declares cheekily in Spanish. But the song climaxes with resident reggaeton heartthrob Maluma, whose sultry sighs echo what everyone’s thinking: “What the hell is happening? / You asked for the remix, I’m giving it to you here,” he coos, offering up flirtatious vows before Nicky Jam reenters to return the chorus to the dance floor. Netherlands-based DJ duo Afro Bros’ production comes down on the minimal side, but in such a talent-stacked field, the simplicity works.—Isabella Castro-Cota

47. Florence and the Machine, “Hunger”

Florence Welch’s grand baroque gestures can be a lot in high doses, which is why the distilled subtlety of “Hunger” works so well. From the confessional opening lines onward, Welch comes in swinging, landing her syllables with the weightless impact of shadowbox punches. The story of her teenage eating disorder was, in Welch’s words, “never meant to be a song,” and out of consideration for others who have struggled similarly, she’s declined to discuss the backstory to “Hunger” further. It’s the responsible choice, of course, and a way of driving home something the song accomplishes more effortlessly: The recognition that certain pain may leave no obvious physical scar; that no matter how far you’ve come, you’ll see it still when you check the rearview mirror; and that you’ll never stop seeking what’s outside until you find it in yourself.—Anna Gaca

46. Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Future, & James Blake, “King’s Dead”

What is there to say about “la-di-da-di-da, slob on mi knob” that hasn’t already been said? Some songs are born memes and some songs have memes thrust upon them, but “King’s Dead” came fully formed. It’s not just that it has memorable moments: On this team-up, nearly every featured artist gets their own catchphrase. Jay Rock has “I gotta go get it / I gotta go get it”Kendrick Lamar‘s ad-libs spawned “and I freaked it”Future needs no introduction. The would-be mess works because of Teddy Walton and Mike Will Made-It’s disproportionately tough beat, a perfect complement to the zany spectacle of an introspective Pulitzer winner, an ever-prolific chart-topper, and an underrated member of the TDE arsenal one-upping each other’s eccentricity. The extended single version adds more Lamar in the second half, rapping from the point of view of Black Panther antagonist T’Challa in trademark scorched-earth flow: “Fuck integrity / Fuck your pedigree / Fuck your feelings / Fuck your culture.” If it’s not nearly as meme-heavy, the duality between the initial antics and the straight-ahead bars at the end ensure “King’s Dead” will be worth hearing long after internet forgets.—Joshua Copperman

45. Kim Petras, “Heart to Break”

On “Heart to Break,” Kim Petras makes new wave music for the YouTube set, filtered through two decades of punchy Max Martin-style pop. Over rubbery bass and plastic drums, her hook captures the sense of giddy unreality that accompanies any crush worth having. “It’s describing the part of you that is about to make a mistake and knows you’re making a mistake,” Petras told Billboard in an interview about the song. “But you don’t care because you still want to jump in and do it.” Sure, it’s not exactly a revolutionary theme, but some things are timeless for a reason.—Ezra Marcus

44. Joan of Arc, “Punk Kid” 

You’ll never forget having lice as a kid: Bugs, body horror, and shame is one of those enduring combinations. On “Punk Kid,” and throughout Joan of Arc’s latest album 1984, Melina Ausikaitis approaches such traumas of youth with real compassion and the quiet wisdom of experience. “All my life, I’ve been eating shit / Look at me, I’m a real punk kid,” she intones, a satire and an epitaph: Compared to what we’re dealing with now, how small were the perceived slights and inequities that first drove us to embrace the concept of “alternative?” And where would we be without them? Wonky bass and synthesizer atmospherics curve around gentle shaker percussion as Tim Kinsella plays piano like he’s soundtracking a documentary about supersonic flight. “Punk Kid” isn’t a punk song, not with this few guitars. It’s something more serene, like a hymn.—AG

43. SOB x RBE, “Anti Social” 

“Anti Social” is the most immediate single on Vallejo rap group SOB x RBE’s 2018 statement of purpose Gangin. It couples midnight disco synths out of Cali’s rich tradition of plush rap production with a punishing manic kick drum that belongs on a No Limit record. All four SOB x RBEs—DaBoii, Yhung T.O., Slimmy B, and Lul G—attempt to dominate the high-BPM backbeats, and the roughshod nature of the results are the entire excitement of this music. When they have the right hook to anchor them, these four bullheaded, single-minded young kids feel unbeatable as a unit.—WCW

42. Camp Cope, “The Opener” 

An infuriated but undefeated underdog’s protest of male entitlement in music, Camp Cope’s “The Opener” was technically released last November, but it hit the coffin nail on the head like no other song this year. It’s the same old story—emotional immaturity, patronizing bullshit—told with sharply observed details from guitarist and singer Georgia Maq. The downcast, couldn’t-be-simpler bass-and-drum accompaniment is practically guaranteed to rile up the “anyone could’ve written this” dolts. But you didn’t, did you?—AG

41. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, “Talking Straight”

“Lay back, sink in / You’re not talking straight,” Joe White of Aussie indie-rock band Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever counsels on the chorus of “Talking Straight,” a sparkling highlight of their debut full-length Hope Downs. Considering the way the song spins between vivid observation, romantic yearning, and philosophical inquiry, White might be directing those lines at himself. A faded blue coupe pulls up to a house, electricity illuminates the rain outside the window. He feels hopeless, but he’s nearly out. Now he’s even deeper down the well. The narrator is all over the place, but the music is not: effortlessly melodic, pushing forward with single-minded drive. The most memorable lines are also the most desperate, coming just before he tries in vain to calm down: “I wanna know where the silence comes from / Where space originates.” Is it an exclamation of dread at the vast emptiness of the universe, or just some anxiety over an unanswered text? When you’ve fallen this hard, they can feel like the same thing.—Andy Cush

40. Janelle Monáe ft. Zoë Kravitz, “Screwed”

Janelle Monáe’s “Screwed” featuring Zoë Kravitz is a reckless and frisky protest packaged as a sex-positive anthem. The shadow of her late mentor Prince hovers over the “Kiss”-inspired guitar riffs in the intro before descending into the steady, funk-driven wave that permeates the rest of the track. “We’ll funk it all back down!” Monáe and Kravitz proclaim in every sense of the word, over a backdrop of synth loops, laughs, and futuristic beats light enough to permit a listener to digest the heavier side of the lyrics. “I hear the sirens calling / And the bombs are falling in the streets / We’re all… screwed!” As the song slowly descends into Monae’s rap solo denouncing the patriarchy, we’re reminded of the meaning behind her words and the truth of her world in general. The world is a shitty place, so we might as well dance.—ICC

39. Kali Uchis ft. BIA, “Miami”

Catch Kali Uchis on “Miami” flipping Morrissey into Calabasas: “I was looking for a job and then I found one / He said he’d want me in his video like ‘Bound 1’ / But why would I be Kim? I could be Kanye,” she taunts. With this kind of confidence, who’s to question her claim to move at light speed? Uchis’s videography speaks to her chops as a visual artist, but the witheringly sultry “Miami” evokes cinematic glamour all by itself. Girl-group coos rub up against ropey, trunk-rattling bass; a tendril of noir surf guitar curls through air thick with exhaust and smoke. Riding shotgun is Boston-based rapper BIA, the tough but sophisticated sidekick to Uchis’s self-made hustler fatale: “Never get it twisted, ain’t too bougie for Corona.” Picture them both, peering over the tiniest cat-eye sunglasses through the windshield of a cherry-red convertible, sliding into the sunset. As the music fades, you can practically see “The End” scrawled in lipstick at the top of the frame.—AG

38. Sons of Kemet, “My Queen Is Harriet Tubman” 

“My Queen Is Harriet Tubman,” by the jazz-inflected instrumental quartet Sons of Kemet, opens with a flurry of percussion that does not abate for the next five minutes. It is a dazzling indication of their loyalties, which lie with rhythm above all else. Sons of Kemet’s grooves are as deep and wide as the African diaspora itself, drawing on soca from Trinidad, hip-hop from New York, second-line bands from New Orleans, grime from their London hometown. This frenetic single is at its most dazzling when saxophonist and bandleader Shabaka Hutchings zeroes in on a single repeated low note, making it new with each articulation. The gesture’s thrilling simplicity points to James Brown as yet another unexpected lodestar. Hutchings and his band have learned well from one of the funk godfather’s greatest teachings: horn, human voice, it doesn’t matter—every instrument can be a drum.—AC

37. Jacques ft. T-Pain, “Rodeo”

Much current R&B is content to offer stodgy outdated sounds for older audiences, or to superficially update them with cool atmospheric production for younger ones. Jacquees is somewhere in the middle. He wears his influences on his sleeve, a one-man Pretty Ricky singing over the trap beats of today. It might feel like a cheat to enjoy his music: Are you really enjoying Jacquees, or just the memories of the artists he reminds you of? But that question sells him short. Jacquees’s steamy R&B is well-crafted enough to survive on its own merit, even if it doesn’t push boundaries, and “Rodeo” is one of his strongest offerings yet. A devilish, writhing affair that is open in its longing for carnal pleasure, it reaches new heights when T-Pain bursts through the walls, playing the lothario to Jacquees’s sensitive lover. The ending of “Rodeo” pits the two in friendly competition, trying to outdo each other with ethereal octave runs—a 45-second microcosm of the passion that courses through the entire song.—Israel Daramola

36. Ella Mai, “Boo’d Up”

One of the best songs of 2018 didn’t even come out in 2018. Ella Mai’s sugary pop ballad about true love took a year before it finally inexplicably connected with people—one of the signs of a truly powerful single. “Boo’d Up” is infectious and incredibly earnest, with its irresistible refrain of “feelings, so deep in my feelings” that echoes a yearning heartbeat as its chorus. It has the hallmarks of the best pop songs: a glossy surface that allows a young, talented singer’s voice to glide and swerve through and an identifiable—if a bit embarrassing—feeling of the overwhelming nature of teenage angst. Ella Mai’s unadulterated honesty feels singular in a way that you can’t help but respond to strongly every time.—ID

35. Shawn Mendes, “Lost in Japan”

If you were born before the 1990s, you may have only vague associations with the name Shawn Mendes, none of them particularly good: painful earnestness, social media stardom, hard-strummed acoustic guitar, a faint whiff of Jason Mraz. With “Lost in Japan,” Mendes would like you to forget about those things for three minutes, along with anything else that might be troubling you. A luminous piece of funk-pop with a patently unbelievable premise, it tells the story of a transcontinental booty call to a woman in the Land of the Rising Sun. Shawn’s problem is that he’s not in Japan with her, but “a couple hundred miles away,” which would theoretically place him in either Korea or far southeastern Siberia. Judging by the music, he’s somewhere closer to Los Angeles or Miami, lounging poolside. “Lost in Japan” is a ’70s throwback with lots of negative space and fizzy contemporary touches—the kind of single Calvin Harris was shooting for on Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, but with an effortless melodicism that record mostly couldn’t muster. (“Slide,” Funk Wav’s lone transcendent moment, is an obvious touchstone.) For Mendes, convincing adults that he’s an artist worth caring about is a daring proposition. But if he really has the audacity to to board a plane to Tokyo just because he’s horny in the middle of the night, maybe he’s bold enough to pull this one off too.—AC

34. Mitski, “Nobody”

As ambitious as her lyrics are, Mitski Miyawaki has really always been in dialogue with the electric guitar. Her unfettered embrace of all of indie rock’s most familiar sounds, structures, and dynamics has felt like a corrective gesture, a way of inverting male assumptions about the instrument’s storied role in wooing women into a reclamation of ability, identity, and the baseline potential for something more. But on “Nobody,” the songwriter largely abandons the guitar, masking brutally lonely lyrics in sparse piano, disco hi-hats, and the glossy surface of a pop song. Like a growing canon of Mitski songs, “Nobody” reflects the frustration of feeling too much in the face of a chaotic and indifferent world. “I’ve been big and small and big and small again and still nobody wants me,” she sings, crying out from behind the danceable veneer. Growing more and more catchy with each phonemic repetition, “Nobody” gets existential without ever slowing down.—RA

33. Vein, “Virus://Vibrance”

“Virus://Vibrance” contains one of the most surprising musical moments of the year: a charging riff for the metalheads gives way to a breakbeat ripped straight from vintage Metalheadz. Vein aren’t the first band to fuse hardcore with drum and bass—please enjoy Atari Teenage Riot facing off against Berlin cops at a protest in 1999—but they’re interested in more than simple juxtaposition, an omnivorous approach characterized by the lead single from their vicious debut Errorzone. They use every trick in the book to make you feel uncomfortable and afraid. The grinding guitar tone sounds like chewing on tinfoil. The breakbeats summon cyberpunk dystopia (and memories of nu-metal white dreadlocks). Even the album’s gory art, showing a scalpel bearing down on an eyeball, is designed for maximum unease. It adds up to a disturbing, visceral experience, summarized in one lyric: “If you can’t relate, stay the fuck away.”—EM

32. Iceage, “Take It All”

The main argument against Danish post-punks Iceage is that they rarely engage emotionally, preferring indifferent posturing. On “Take It All,” the band faces this unwillingness to be vulnerable with some of their most affecting music to date. As Elias Bender Rønnefelt witnesses “the death of the West,” he internally debates taking solace in a “small and frail deity”: “The last thing I ever wanted to see was these brand new sparkles / Coming from your ever-loving goddamn eyes.” Messy, theatrical instrumentation expands on the fear of fully, sincerely giving oneself over to another. Any possible sonic anchor (the drum beat, the hammering piano) is buried under further layers of noise—and because the recording was all-analog, nothing is snapped and quantized against a grid or overdubbed to oblivion. While studio trickery would be understandable for a song so grandiose, the off-kilter performances make “Take It All” feel more urgent. Yet despite the increased scope and the newfound emotional depth, Rønnefelt’s vocals remain as detached and mysterious as ever. Even when confessing to your own vulnerability, if you believe “this world is a crime,” you’ll want to keep your guard up.—JC

31. Tierra Whack, “Flea Market”

With her debut Whack World, Philadelphia’s 22-year-old rising star Tierra Whack flipped all received ideas about ambitious albums on their heads. Rather than some sprawling three-disc set, it’s 15 songs in 15 minutes, each one proving just how much complexity, wit, and emotional depth can be packed into 60 seconds flat. The standout is the soulful “Flea Market,” a miniaturized version of Aaliyah or Brandy’s expressions of longing, but with a melodic rap style all Whack’s own. She spends Whack World jumping into different personas, from mush-mouthed Soundcloud rap to Chance the Rapper-style whimsy to cartoonish country twang. On “Flea Market,” she’s tender and needy, but still manages to sound breezy, like she’s not really sweating anything at all. With only a minute to get your feelings out, why spend any time worrying?—ID

30. Deafheaven, “You Without End”

“You Without End” doesn’t really sound quite like anything else from Deafheaven. The band is known for a singularly anthemic blend of black metal, shoegaze, and post-hardcore, combining these guitar-oriented subgenres into a light-drenched collage that is greater than the sum of its parts. They’ve always approached the roaring force of history with a specific vision for their craft, but on “You Without End,” the band extends this vision beyond their bibliographic beginnings into something else entirely. The seven-and-a-half minute opener of their fourth album Ordinary Corrupt Human Love starts with the sort of haunting, minor-chord piano arpeggios that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Adele record, with a prominent slide guitar and spoken word passage that calls to mind Spiritualized. Against this steady Americana, frontman George Clark eventually dives into a howling vocal line, while distorted guitars well up with face-melting intensity around him. Part Smashing Pumpkins rock opera, part John Oswald studio experiment, “You Without End” shows continued growth from a band now as committed to conceptual rigor as it is to Earth-shaking rock music.—RA

29. Ariana Grande, “No Tears Left to Cry”

If Ariana Grande had retired from music after last year’s deadly attack in Manchester, no one would have faulted her. Instead she did what seemed impossible, and crafted a musical reintroduction that’s fresh and cathartic without feeling flip. With its Max Martin-masterminded crystalline synths and submerged bass, “No Tears Left to Cry” is a strange, self-contained Möbius strip calculated for the streaming economy, where prevailing wisdom holds that music should consist mostly of its catchiest parts. One has the sense the track might begin at any given point and continue on three and a half minutes from there. But self-soothing music ought to have low barriers, or it’s no good at all. “No Tears” isn’t for crying but for the refresh that happens after, the moment we leave our burdens behind and start pickin’ it up.—AG

28. Amen Dunes, “Believe”

“Life goes on and this just a song,” sings Amen Dunes’ Damon McMahon toward the beginning of “Believe,” vowels in his throat, a weirdo Dylan balladeer balanced at a wobbly angle. The build comes in slow, creeping, heavy-breathing, and the words begin to curl back his lips, the stubborn sneer of a man possessed: I’M NOT DOWN. In sinuous advance the band dig into a sultry swampbound tangle, a watery echo of “Sweet Jane” steaming like some succuban hellpool nightmare, a rank luscious doom, the sound of sex and older terror, a near perfect song.—AG

27. Playboi Carti ft. Chief Keef, “Mileage”

Die LitAtlanta rapper Playboi Carti’s hypnotic sophomore album, finds pop clarity on the Chief Keef collaboration “Mileage.” Over a thrumming, near-jazzy walking bass, “Miley Cyrus” and “molly” are seeds from which the rest of the song germinates, phoneme by phoneme. Carti rattles off what sounds like a reading from Twitter’s trending terms bar (“Kendall, Kylie, Adidas deal”), while Keef delivers cogent punchlines that clarify the song’s central metaphor: “She got more mileage than a car / And she just pull up to the spot.” On this spaced-out piece of modern art, Carti pulls off a mean feat: making Keef, his most crucial progenitor, sound positively traditionalist by comparison.—WCW

26. DJ Koze, “Pick Up”

DJ Koze’s greatest skill might be his ability to zoom in on a perfect loop, giving it new depth and texture with every repetition. On the lead single from his latest album Knock KnockKoze transforms a louche snippet of electric guitar and a few words from Gladys Knight into one of the year’s most essential dance tracks. The endearingly goofy music video gives play-by-play commentary, summing up Koze’s magic in a few phrases: “Disco sample slowly gets hypnotic… Brain realizes song consist only of these few elements… Deep feeling of happiness.”—EM

25. Pusha T, “Come Back Baby”

Pusha T’s “Come Back Baby,” a gloriously sleazy ode to drug dealers and the users who keep them rich, is the high point of Daytonaboth in terms of Pusha’s presence and the production from Kanye West. Pusha takes a victory lap over earth-shaking 808s and a sermonic sample about choosing Jesus over drugs, deployed here with more than a little irony. “Cocaine soldiers, once civilians / Bought hoes Hondas, took care children / Let my pastor, build out buildins,” he raps, fancying himself a modern Robin Hood. It can feel a little wrong to love a song like this, because you can’t have a drug empire without a few tragic customers. Push nods their way too, with mentions of the glass pipes and burnt spoons they use to get high. He knows the costs of this life, but he’s not going to stop valorizing it. In the end, it’s not so different from the drug trade: As long as the product is this good, he knows we’ll keep coming back.—ID

24. Courtney Barnett, “Charity”

“You must be having so much fun / Everything’s amazing,” Courtney Barnett sings on “Charity,” her voice slick with sarcasm. Is Barnett sneering at a lover, or herself? The next line provides a clue: “So subservient, I make myself sick.” Either way, when she leans on the distortion pedal and lets off a squall of acid licks, it feels personal. There are few guitarists capable of squeezing so much feeling out of their axe, and here, the Australian songwriter shreds with the energy of someone flipping the bird out the window of a speeding car. The term “kiss-off” is too gentle; this song is more like a “spit-on,” a testament to the joys of being mean as hell.—EM

23. Park Jiha, “All Souls’ Day”

At first, you might mistake Park Jiha’s debut solo album Communion for something like ambient music. The Korean composer and multi-instrumentalist has an affinity for the simple pulses and ringing chords of midcentury American minimalism. Her palette mixes traditional instruments like the double-reed piri and yangguem hammered dulcimer with jazzy western ones like saxophone and vibraphone, arranged into sonorities that shimmer in the air. But there’s also a wildness to her playing, especially of the piri, whose edgy oboe-ish timbre she wields like a blade. The nine-minute “All Souls’ Day” begins placidly, with a lone yangguem that slowly expands into a latticework of mallets and winds. At the halfway point, the tension reaches its breaking point, and Jiha’s piri enters the fold with a scream. Her solo sounds more like Albert Ayler than anything you’d hear in a therapist’s waiting room or a “chill vibes” Spotify playlist, and it brings “All Souls’ Day” to a peak that remains cathartic no matter how many times you hear it. As soothing as Jiha’s music can sometimes be, it fiercely refuses to settle into the background.—AC

22. SOPHIE, “Is It Cold in the Water?”

As an opening statement, “It’s Okay to Cry” proved SOPHIE had a lot of ground left to cover. Unlike the delirious bubblegum rush of her early, largely-anonymous singles, “Cry” was soft and heartfelt, with artfully sculpted lyrics that looked inward with a forgiving grace. For the first time, the producer’s voice and image were central to her creative output, and as much as she racheted up the intensity of every club-ready, noise-drenched banger on Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, the album also revealed a newfound interest in the softer, more delicate side of electro-pop. A transitional moment on Un-Insides, “Is It Cold in the Water?” blends this duality of approaches into an uncanny cocktail of skull-rattling, synth-heavy bliss. With tense, trance-era arpeggios peeking out through a low-pass filter, the song builds to insurmountable heights, eternally delaying the satisfaction of a resolute beat drop. Guest vocalist Mozart’s Sister adds a spectral touch with lyrics that describe an icy venture into the unknown as the pressure builds with every painstaking synth pulse. If Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides is best described as a rollercoaster, “Is It Cold in the Water?” might just be its biggest climb.—RA

21. Sleep, “Marijuanaut’s Theme”

How do you reintroduce yourself after a 20-year slumber? On the first proper song of The Sciences, Sleep’s first album since their 1998 masterpiece Dopesmoker, the stoner metal icons answer by indulging all of their most charming and distinctive tendencies more heavily than ever before. “Marijuanaut’s Theme” cuts straight to the chase, with a sample of a massive bong rip followed immediately by a guitar tone that could obliterate brain cells. “Initiate burn, never to return,” Al Cisneros sings with heavy-lidded affect. “A distant earth fades receding.” If that sounds like kitsch worthy of Spencer’s Gifts to you, you’re exactly not wrong, but you’ve probably never heard Sleep. When guitarist Matt Pike brings “Marijuanaut’s Theme” to a peak with a firebreathing solo, and Cisneros’s bass slides fluidly behind him, this much is clear: though Sleep may have a sense of humor, their music is anything but a joke.—AC

20. Parquet Courts, “Freebird II”

By all appearances, “Freebird II” should be a joke. There’s the fact that it’s called “Freebird II,” for starters, and the fact that Parquet Courts introduce it with a smattering of piped-in applause and announcement from singer/guitarist Andrew Savage: “This next one’s called ‘Freebird II’!” But instead it is the emotional centerpiece of Wide Awake, their fierce and funky latest album. Savage ditches jittery sermonizing and shifts into the open-hearted classic rock mode that has always been the secret ingredient of his band’s appeal, sounding wistful but grounded as he recounts his relationship with his troubled mother. (She’s “struggled with drugs and been incarcerated and struggled with housing and things to do with that,” according to a recent interview.) The refrain is uplifting with a touch of sadness: “Free, I feel free / Like you promised I’d be.” Parquet Courts are always a political band, even when they’re singing about their personal lives. Wide Awake is concerned in part with age-old American questions, like the supposed tension between individual liberty and collective solidarity. Savage understands that this is a false dichotomy, promoted by powerful forces invested in keeping us divided. When he sings about freedom, he doesn’t sound conflicted at all.—AC

19. Christine and the Queens, “Doesn’t Matter”

“Doesn’t Matter” is spiritual crisis. The chorus turns on the eternal question, or one of them: What comes after death? The answer is keeping Christine and the Queens’ Héloïse Letissier awake at night. In high romantic style, she’s drawn to the stricken and suffering—those who seem, of necessity, to have made their peace. Both impressionistic and fatally specific, the second single from the upcoming bilingual double album Chris exposes existential terror as exhilaration, a kinetic energy that unfolds over deep ripples of bass and a drum machine that hits like a defibrillator. It would scarcely be complete without a loose-shouldered dance like the one Letissier—in her new persona as the gender-subverting, James Dean-looking Chris—performs in the deceptively simple video, entangled in a lover’s arms. The second act comes with a plea: “Run if you stole a shard of sunlight / Don’t ever tell them, I’ve got your back.” What that means, exactly—it doesn’t matter, so long as you can see the end of the tunnel.—AG

18. 03 Greedo, “In My Feelings”

If falling in love could make a sound, it would be 03 Greedo’s ethereal melodic whimpering as he sings about getting close to a woman on “In My Feelings.” The L.A. rapper was recording, performing, and releasing music at a frenetic pace before turning himself in to face a 20-year prison sentence in early July, exposing fans to the wide range of his style: from street-rap tough talk to dulcet tenderness. “In My Feelings,” firmly in the latter category, is not the first song fans might think of as a highlight from his sprawling latest album God LevelBut listening to Greedo’s voice quiver and break has he pours himself into his desire, it’s clear that this is a sterling example of a genre that doesn’t get enough spotlight: the rap love song.—ID

17. Stephen Malkmus, “Middle America”

You can roll your eyes at 50-something Stephen Malkmus singing about Mason jars and “men being scum,” but then you might be missing the joke of his best single in years, “Middle America.” Though Sparkle Hard, Malkmus’s latest LP with the Jicks, is frequently experimental and shambling, its whip-smart lead single channels vintage Pavement more than the jammier classic rock influences that he seems to hang his hat on these days. There’s a four-on-the-floor drum pattern to kick off the cathartic chorus, then some forceful off-time rockstar strums from Malkmus, and a strained move to the top of his range—a formula that recalls so many great songs by his former band. In that awkward stratosphere, he carves out a precariously beautiful central melody. It’s almost childishly simple, and therefore the stuff of good pop. Pavement always shadowboxed with radio-ready allure abashedly, and it was that wry, reluctant kind of catharsis that allured indie fans in the first place. It’s what keeps many of us sifting through every new Malkmus release looking for the handful of songs that rank among his best. Luckily, he’s a much better pop-minded writer than his detractors give him credit for, and he continues to write them. “Middle America” is one.—WCW

16. Rae Sremmurd ft. Young Thug, “Offshore”

The most exciting Young Thug moment of the year didn’t even happen on a Young Thug song. The Atlanta shapeshifter guests on “Offshore,” a highlight from Rae Sreummurd’s third album SR3MM. It appears on Swaecation, the Swae Lee-led portion of the triple-disc set, and Swae sets the scene with a typically plaintive melody: barely more than nebulous, introducing negative space as one of the song’s crucial weapons. But Thug is the true star, with a verse that seems to never end, like the full uncut version of source material that would be edited down on a more standard-issue guest appearance. He leaves the hook in the dust, rapping for two and a half minutes about everything from slapping Donald Trump to the way his mother folds his clothes. Even for a stylist as wild as Young Thug, this kind of pure indulgence is rare, and it is thrilling.—WCW

15. Jon Hopkins, “Emerald Rush”

Purists hate him: With one weird trick, Jon Hopkins collapses the tedious boundary between dancefloor hedonism and chin-stroking “intelligence” that plagues so much electronic music. Specifically, he combines bittersweet melodies and sparkling textural details with walloping tech-house basslines that wouldn’t sound out of place at one of those European mega-festivals where the stage sits inside a 150-foot fire-breathing animatronic owl. “Emerald Rush” may be the strongest bridge ever built between the worlds of imperious Resident Advisor acolytes and the molly-popping Camelbak set. At the end of the day, everyone wants to feel infinite.—EM

14. 03 Greedo & Nef the Pharaoh, “Blow-Up Bed”

Two of the leading young lights of West Coast rap come together for “Blow-Up Bed,” the standout single from 03 Greedo and Nef the Pharaoh’s collaborative EP Porter 2 Grape. Subdued snaps and bouncy low-end capture the rush of speeding down an endless California freeway; a gorgeous riff buried deep in the mix sounds like a thumb piano heard from a distant room at a mansion party. The slick sonics drip with Bay-to-L.A. funk, inspiring celebratory imagery from Nef and deep pathos from Greedo. “I been down before I blew up,” the latter sings on the chorus, his voice sounding ready to burst. It’s an effortless blend of elation and sadness, one few other duos could pull off.—EM

13. Neko Case, “Bad Luck”

One of the best songs from Neko Case’s brilliant new album Hell-On was recorded under duress, although you’d never know it from the bemused resignation in her vocals. Case wrote the lyrics for “Bad Luck” long before her house burned down, but she channeled the fury and frustration into a recording session scheduled just hours after she learned of the fire. That she was overseas when she fielded the call probably didn’t help her stress levels, but she’s not one to let a pesky thing like losing most of her worldly belongings get in the way of recording a vibrant and life-affirming track. “Chipped my tooth on an engagement ring, and that’s bad luck,” she sings, an elegant, musical shrug. “Could have stopped any one of these things, but that would have been bad luck.” At the risk of insulting Case, “Bad Luck” is a little like a sophisticated interpretation of the ponderous wordplay Alanis Morissette attempted on “Ironic”—and while they’re both relentlessly catchy, Case’s hard knocks sound earned.—Maggie Serota

12. Cardi B ft. J Balvin & Bad Bunny, “I Like It”

Cardi B’s talent is undeniable, but this song belongs to Bad Bunny and J Balvin. The summer anthem works around Tito Nieves’s salsa classic “I Like It Like That” and evokes the spirit of Latin pop icons like Celia Cruz to build a lasting, layered groove. It’s a fully bilingual song, which speaks to the power of it reaching No. 1 on the charts, and its success lies in the juxtaposition of beats, where hints of reggaeton underlay salsa and the sort of Latin trap crossover that first brought Bad Bunny to the masses with “Soy Peor.” Topped off with Cardi and company’s brash verses, “I Like It” was made for the raza. “This shit’s the new religion, bang, it’s Latino gang!” Bad Bunny croons, as J Balvin echoes the sentiment: “No salgo de tu mente / Donde quieres que viajas has escuchado ‘Mi Gente.’” “I Like It” slings and bounces and demands a good time—it doesn’t have to work hard to start a party, it’s too damn fun.—ICC

11. Khalid ft. Ty Dolla $ign & 6lack,  “OTW”

On the surface, “OTW” is just another radio-friendly love song: a pleasant, nostalgia-inducing R&B record with wistful electronic piano that’s hypnotic when paired with the simple perfection of the hook, “Meet me in five, I’ll be outside, I’ll be on the way.” But when Ty Dolla $ign shows up, the proto-boy band jam surges and shines as a polished, millennial ballad. Ty’s grimy, lascivious voice makes him the most versatile artist working in rap radio right now, with an easygoing charisma appealing to kids and old heads alike. Here he gives the bubblegum pop of “OTW” an unexpected sour element that ends up serving as the song’s main attraction. Khalid and 6lack are cool enough, and do their part to impart a trending neo-soul vibe, but it’s Ty who’s at the heart of it.—ID

10. Rico Nasty, “Countin Up”

“Countin Up” opens with the electric synths of Noreaga’s Neptunes-produced “Superthug” as Maryland breakout star Rico Nasty imitates one side of a phone call. She’s late for something and more audibly annoyed the longer she’s questioned about it: “Bitch I’m coming, da fuck?” She’ll keep you waiting as long as she sees fit, but once she’s ready her rap kicks in and the song skyrockets. Her nerve and demeanor is charismatic from the word go. She’s energizing in a way that catches you off guard, oozing brash, outsized attitude as she indoctrinates her cult of personality. “You got some followers, so what? Do you want you a cookie? / I got promoters throwin’ shows so they can say that they booked me,” she raps, with a confidence that’s both earned and contagious. She’s zippy like a cartoon and ferocious like DMX. The balance feels impossible, but she threads it all the same. A thrilling track that’s made for mosh pits, “Countin Up” is a perfect crunk record for a younger generation.—ID

9. Snail Mail, “Pristine”

Lindsey Jordan’s debut album as Snail Mail shows the songwriter is at her best in those moments when the party’s dead, the friends you came with are wasted, and the weekly routine feels more like a burden than a home. On “Pristine,” Jordan spills out with frustration at the aloofness of crushes, torn between caring too much about the people in front of her and the bigger plans she’s got down the line. “Don’t you like me for me?” “Who’s your type of girl?” “What could ever be enough?” The lines read like the script of a breakup, but Jordan sings with the self-assurance of someone who knows she’ll walk away clean. “I know myself and I’ll never love anyone else,” she shouts in the hook, comfortable with letting the past fade. Hopelessly restless and tirelessly considered, “Pristine” cuts to the heart of what’s made Jordan one of the strongest young voices in indie rock.—RA

8. Kacey Musgraves, “Space Cowboy”

In the American romantic imagination, the cowboy’s penchant for leaving is part of his mystique. He’s physically unable to stay in one place: He has to find the next drink, the next treasure, the next shootout, the next woman. But there’s collateral damage in all that leaving, and Kacey Musgraves evokes it gorgeously on “Space Cowboy,” a ballad of heartbreak and moving on. “When a horse wants to run, there ain’t no sense in closing the gate,” she sings, to a backdrop of dulcet horns, soft piano, and acoustic guitar. “You can have your space, cowboy,” goes the hook, gracefully letting go of a love that’s run its course as it rebukes the man who has no desire to stick around. With its story of heartache in the American heartland, “Space Cowboy” echoes the country-pop ballads of Lee Ann Womack and Faith Hill. It’s one of those songs that can make you feel like you’re experiencing an old pain for the first time again.—ID

7. Drake, “Nice for What”

Drake is like gentrification and he’s got his sights on your soon-to-be-hip rough neighborhood. Be it afrobeat, dancehall, or a regional rap scene, Drake is coming and he’s setting up condos. From the man who dipped into dancehall on 2016’s Views and discovered London grime on 2017’s More Life comes “Nice for What,” flipping Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” into New Orleans bounce—an homage to the scene’s penchant for turning popular R&B songs into bass-heavy dance records. With a sample of Big Freedia’s voice and production from No Limit Records collaborator 5th Ward Weebie, it’s authentic like a corporate chain designed to look like a hole in the wall. It’s also a good fucking record, a reflection of the indomitable electricity of New Orleans bounce. The beat moves like a jackhammer, charging up a turbulent sound sliced by samples and mic checks. Drake’s ode to independent women who are better than the men that want them (and know it) may be pandering—a “you go girl!” anthem from a cheerleader who’s spent a career casting the women in his life as the source of emotional strife—but it’s easy to forget watching a who’s who of black women celebrities looking luxurious as they bob to the beat in Karena Evans’s video. Charming and infectious, “Nice for What” proves even the imitation version of authentic cuisine can still be delicious.—ID

6. Oneohtrix Point Never, “Black Snow”

When “Black Snow” was released as the first single to Oneohtrix Point Never’s Age Of, it marked a dramatic departure for the artist born Daniel Lopatin. Previous OPN records were all about immersion in unforgiving alien sound-worlds, where the ghosts of human voices turned up only occasionally as dramatic devices. “Black Snow” is a song: an unforgiving, alien song about nuclear holocaust, but a song nonetheless, and a catchy one at that. It was easy to wonder at the time whether Age Of would mark Lopatin’s move toward something like pop music. That was decidedly not the case. Though the album features vocals much more heavily than any past OPN work, Lopatin uses them to expand his uncanny palette rather than break from it entirely. In retrospect, that should have been obvious. The emotional high point of “Black Snow” comes not from the heavily autotuned singing, but a solo on an obscure instrument called a daxophone. It’s known for its ability to produce voicelike timbres, but naturally, Lopatin does no such thing with it. In his hands, the sound of the daxophone is something closer to the grind of steel against bone.—AC

5. Westerman, “Confirmation”

“Confirmation,” the glowing single that put Westerman on the map for many, can be read as a paean to the wonders of turning your brain off and letting it flow. “Confirmation’s easier,” the London songwriter sings in the chorus, “when you don’t think so much about it.” Either he’s being coy or he’s got the kind of mental acuity while zoned out that most of us can’t muster when we’re fully tuned in. “Confirmation” is an ingenious composition, with chord changes like modern jazz, each opening a door you hadn’t previously realized was there. It retains its accessibility as a piece of pop music thanks to Westerman’s way with melody and softly androgynous voice, leading you through the labyrinth by hand. There are strong shades of Joni Mitchell in his fluid phrasing, and his warm rounded vowels might occasionally remind you of Tracy Chapman. The arrangement is sparse and elegant, with fretless bass that nods toward art-pop inspirations of yesteryear and twitchy digital percussion that keeps it rooted in the present. Westerman is still relatively new to releasing music, and newer still to this style, after a few early hushed singles based around acoustic guitar. The most impressive thing about “Confirmation,” then, is that it’s the sound of an artist who’s still finding his voice.—AC

4. U.S. Girls, “M.A.H.”

“As if you couldn’t tell, I’m mad as hell,” U.S. Girls’ Meg Remy sings on the bombastic “M.A.H.” Her artful fury is belied by the sunny, ABBA-inspired beats driving her subversively danceable indictment of Barack Obama’s presidential legacy, but the combination works because she understands how to condemn drone warfare and still remain oblique. A line like, “You took me for an eight-year ride” could easily be about a relationship gone afoul, until it’s given a little more scrutiny. In turn, Remy proves that you don’t have to to be as blunt as Jello Biafra to tackle weighty topics: It’s possible to write an effective pop anthem about war crimes and sound like a late-’70s Debbie Harry in the process.—MS

3. Rae Sremmurd ft. Juicy J, “Powerglide” 

“Side 2 Side” is not the most obvious choice of Three 6 Mafia song for a reworking by Rae Sremmurd. That might be “Stay Fly,” from the same album, whose chorus turns a single chopped up note into a mantra for the ages, prefiguring the Sremms’ zenlike melodic minimalism by about a decade. “Side 2 Side” is a little tougher, less airy. That’s a good thing, because it gives Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi more room to make it their own. They take all the most spaced-out elements of “Side 2 Side”—the vaulting string arpeggios of the beat, the chanted melody of the hook—and transport them out of the club and into something like a Michael Mann action flick. As ever, Swae is the star, drifting through two tuneful verses filled with prototype cars and neon light before Jxmmi arrives to remind us that this is a rap song and not some newly discovered from of electronic devotional music. When Juicy J himself shows up to take “Powerglide” home, it’s a nice moment of mutual appreciation across eras, but it’s not really necessary. Rae Sremmurd are on their own trip.—AC

2. Valee ft. Jeremih, “Womp Womp” 

Chicago rapper and sometime producer Valee is a good candidate for the most promising rising hip-hop talent going right now. He earns the distinction for furthering a specific and singular musical signature through his work, rather than just crafting clever and well-lacquered hits within an established style. The March EP GOOD Job, You Found Me, his first release for G.O.O.D. Music, mostly served as a wider audience’s introduction to hits from earlier mixtapes, with some retooling and one unnecessary new feature. GOOD Job had some new material too, but May’s “Womp Womp” feels like his true debut single as a major-label artist. It features a Neptunes-style clanker of a beat, updated for 2018 by producer Cassio, over which Jeremih tries to meet Valee on his own eccentric playing field as a rapper. The coy flow shifts come frequently and tastefully, and Valee’s signature goofy one-liners with them (“These hoes fake, actress, my blunt stuffed, sinus”). Like any great miniature from the laconic rapper, there’s no time wasted, and always that lingering wish the song were a bit longer.—WCW

1. Amen Dunes, “Miki Dora”

The late outlaw surfer Miki “Da Cat” Dora was a dubious American icon. An architect of ultra-chill Malibu beach bum culture of the ‘50s and ‘60s, he eventually grew disenchanted with the scene he helped build, busting out of California, reinventing himself as a prolific grifter, and running check scams on well-meaning acquaintances until the feds nabbed him in 1981. (Dora died of cancer in 2002.) “He was a living contradiction,” in the words of Amen Dunes’ Damon McMahon, “both a symbol of free-living and inspiration, and of the false heroics American culture has always celebrated.” At once an avatar of aspirational dreamers and sleazy, dissatisfied rebels, Dora was in a way a rock star in a genre of his own creation. Perhaps that’s why Amen Dunes are able to meet him, not as a character in a history book, but in real time: on the beach, 1963, over a bassline as liquid and gripping as cresting waves. The slinkiest and most pop of the songs on the stellar Freedom, “Miki Dora” plays like some half-remembered echo of the Beach Boys, shot through with guitar frisson and subtle stereophonic weight shifts, ringing with McMahon’s throaty rasp. He sounds drunk off his subject’s once-in-a-generation talent, polarizing hubris, and breathtaking cool. What, in the end, went so badly wrong? “Couldn’t suffer existence / It wasn’t meant to be.”—MS