The Worst Songs We Heard in 2018
They came from Soundcloud. They came from the Spotify recommendation algorithm. They were the breakout artists that weren’t, the crossover stars who didn’t, the A-listers who could’ve tried harder, and the tailcoat-riders who ran out of gas. Here are our least favorite songs of 2018.
Find more from Spin’s 2018 Year in Review here.
MAX — “Lights Down Low” ft. gnash
I spent the early part of 2018 worrying that our culture was preparing to accept the word “divine” as a noun. A young man named MAX seemed to be forcing the issue, much the way the advertising industry wrested “creative” into nounhood not long ago. His tool was “Lights Down Low,” a wispy nothing of a song that took its time reaching radio ubiquity after an original release in 2016, whose pre-chorus had MAX asking nicely whether he can “stop the flow of time,” and “swim in your divine.” What does he mean by that, exactly? Don’t spend too much time thinking about it. Over vintage Lite FM sonics updated with a few contemporary touches—including a saccharine guest verse from a rapper named gnash (yes, one is all caps and the other is all lower-case; no, I’m not making this up as I go along)—MAX served up enough platitudes to fill one of the supermarkets where his song seemed to play on constant loop this year. It’s only after a few times subjected to “Lights Down Low” that MAX’s proposed new definition of “divine” becomes horribly clear, and with it the song’s fundamental sin: bringing sex into the Hallmark aisle, stuffing its naughty bits into neat little lavender-colored envelopes. — ANDY CUSH
Zedd, Maren Morris, & Grey — “The Middle”
Maren Morris, the only woman country radio programmers have heard of, and Zedd, an EDM festival headliner known even to people who do not attend EDM festivals, were not doing badly for themselves separately. And together (with a production duo called Grey), they made “The Middle,” the cross-branded hit that conquered dance charts, pop radio, New York Times video producers, and Taylor Swift alike. In some ways it’s an interesting song: There’s the odd-couple factor, of course, and the bold performance by Morris, who brings texture to a world of interchangeable EDM-pop vocalists. The charm wears thin almost as quickly as the tick-tocking clock beat and slot-machine synths, the underpinnings of a sore-thumb smash primed to squeeze between commercial bumpers. Zedd auditioned a dozen singers for Morris’s part, which doesn’t seem so impressive once you realize that the monster chorus of “The Middle” is substantially the same as one of last year’s most grating hits, Zedd and Alessia Cara’s “Stay.” Pop music as product meets planned obsolescence. — ANNA GACA
Juice WRLD — “Lucid Dreams”
Every so often an act becomes inexplicably popular with a segment of young people, and those working in music media try their hardest to convince themselves that they, too, are keeping pace with what’s hip and relevant. The thing is, sometimes the children are wrong, or at the very least have been lead astray by a false god.
There is nothing interesting or engaging about Juice WRLD, as a rapper, as a persona, or even as an ironic bit. Juice WRLD is the worst tendencies of mid-to-late 2000s emo—cloying, whiny, immature, superficial, coded in chauvinist self-victimization and gaslighting—adapted for the Soundcloud rap era. If an act like Lil Peep was a sort of Taking Back Sunday or Blink-182, than Juice WRLD is Simple Plan, the most derivative possible version that perfectly encapsulates every critique or dismissal directed at the genre in general.
“Lucid Dreams,” Juice WRLD’s biggest and most popular record, represents the ethos of his music and style, full of the same tired clichés of taking drugs to feel something that have polluted so much of rap music over the past couple years. But the worst thing about “Lucid Dreams,” and Juice WRLD writ large, is the obsession with the unknown women who’ve apparently led him down this dark path. It is the most typical and eyeroll-inducing brand of male fantasy: the idea that a woman has wronged them and thus made them the heartless yet sensitive thugs they are today. Nothing about Juice WRLD is original or even interesting, yet I’ve had to listen to influencers and music writers act like he’s “got next” because… I don’t know, he has a cool haircut? While I do feel it necessary to call out this navel-gazing bullshit, it’s not because I find Juice WRLD personally offensive. He’s much too boring. — ISRAEL DARAMOLA
Kendrick Lamar — “All the Stars” ft. SZA
Is there a song you want to hear less at this point in your life than “Empire State of Mind?” If not, keep in mind that the song, with its sickeningly sweet pianos and towering mountain of Alicia Keys-branded pablum, was embraced at the time, winning the 2009 Pazz and Jop critics poll and placing as Pitchfork’s No. 44 song of the year. 2018 gave us its own version of this capitalist monument, uniting a beloved rapper and R&B singer for a song that was bound to be successful while bearing only trace elements of what people like about said rapper and singer in the first place.
“All The Stars,” the lead single from the Black Panther soundtrack, is not quite as bad as “Empire State of Mind,” simply because, despite being produced in part by the same guy (Al Shux), it’s far more muted. (Here, at least, is one reason for us to thank the times.) But everything I hate about the Jay and Alicia monstrosity is present in this vapid, uselessly “inspirational” collaboration between Kendrick Lamar and SZA, who combined have released something like 50 songs better than this one, which is nominated for both Song and Record of the Year at the upcoming Grammys. One can understand why people might have gotten swept up in it all: Kendrick making a pop song after a sustained period of crossing over only by accident, SZA owning her moment, and the general phenomenon that was Black Panther. But this song would be no different if it were, like, Eminem featuring Alessia Cara or J. Cole featuring Camila Cabello, and further, nobody would pretend to like it. I’m one step ahead. — JORDAN SARGENT
6ix9ine — “FEFE” ft. Nicki Minaj
Engaging a troll is futile, but 6ix9ine’s lame leaching is worth noting, even if it makes me the loser. This guy bit lyrics from the Chicago drill crew who he claims inspired him to rap in the first place, then spent months earning headlines by dissing those artists on Instagram. “FEFE,” his biggest hit to date, interpolates Valee’s viral “Two 16’s” flow and takes its title from the Chicago slang term for party. You could maybe contort yourself into an argument about cadences as cyphers, or hip-hop as wrestling with Tekashi as the heel, but the song itself is too pedestrian to bother. Murda Beatz’s monotone synth, with its dollar store filter, nods to ChaseTheMoney’s original minimalist beat, but without any character or meaningful bass. 6ix9ine lacks the breath control to last a full 16 bars or the creativity to explore the flow’s language-jamming possibilities, settling for describing “pussy” as “wet wet” and “drip drip” among other grade-school braggadocio. Valee double-parked a Super Sport with frog eyes at Five Guys; 6ix9ine, uhh, called an Uber with his shooter. Nicki’s verses, meanwhile, are fine. That she jumped on this track and spliced it onto Queen makes one question her taste as much as her moral judgment. — TOSTEN BURKS
Maroon 5 — “Girls Like You” ft. Cardi B
“Girls Like You” should have languished as a bland, unremarkable deep cut on Red Pill Blues, the bland, the unremarkable sixth studio album from toothless pretty boys Maroon 5. However, a remix released in 2018 dominated the charts, thanks in no small part to walking charisma factory Cardi B. In an interview with Variety, Maroon 5’s lead spokesmodel Adam Levine said he’d told Cardi to “put something down that shows your fierceness as a woman and say it however you want,” which is kind of like Levine trying to teach a fish how to swim.
Perhaps he should have tried to bring some fierceness to the rest of this snoozefest, which trafficks in sentimental and borderline meaningless platitudes like, “I need a girl like you, yeah yeah / Girls like you love fun, and yeah, me too.” Levine and company tried to inject this profoundly shallow song with depth by pairing it with a video featuring Jennifer Lopez, Tiffany Haddish, Gal Gadot, Rep. Ilhan Omar, and anti-DAPL activist Jackie Fielder, but the end result is a hamfisted and aimless message of female empowerment meant to enhance a song where a 39-year-old man sings about “girls.” — MAGGIE SEROTA
Noah Cyrus & Lil Xan — “Live or Die”
It’s almost too easy to poke fun at the short-lived romance between Lil Xan and Noah Cyrus. When Lil Xan claimed that the whole thing was a setup by Columbia Records—a pre-arranged social media stunt to promote Cyrus’s EP—no one was surprised. In a year when celebrity relationships continued to blur the line between “real” and “fake,” it was refreshing to have an artist acknowledge the outright falseness of it all. Cyrus has of course denied it, asking in one Instagram story, “If it was all fake… why would my name be Noey 😍 in your phone?” Right. “Live or Die” is clearly meant to be some kind of triumphant ode to young emo love, but fails on every level. Xan sounds almost catatonic during his verse, slurring his words as he raps about one plus one equalling two like it’s some lovestruck revelation. Cyrus gives up on coherent lyricism, and the audio engineers give up on pitch correction. A fake relationship between two bored young celebrities yielded a fake, boring track about fake, boring love. It’s as uninspired and manufactured a song as I’ve ever heard, and I hope the Columbia executives responsible for it are ashamed of themselves. — WILL GOTTSEGEN
The Chainsmokers — “Beach House”
Before they were singing about crowded bars, Boulder roommates, and Range Rovers, the Chainsmokers were indie fans. The easy-to-hate frat-pop duo cut their teeth on the Hype Machine blog charts, remixing Icelandic indie rock in a shameless effort to “peel off a couple Phoenix fans, peel off a couple Two Door Cinema Club fans and, in the process, garner some attention from the label and agency side of things,” as Bearded ‘Smoker Alex Pall put it in a 2016 interview. More market-research strategy than sincere attempt at artistry, the approach brought them a few hits, with songs like “Closer” and “Don’t Let Me Down” practically inescapable on Top 40 radio. But even as they edged closer to original songwriting, the project itself never measured up to the emotional impact of any of its influences, a copy of a copy of a copy of any conceivable enjoyment still left in late-aughts indie.
The sixth single from their sophomore album, “Beach House,” is a gaping sinkhole even Baudrillard wouldn’t touch, a story of influence and inspiration so far removed from authentic emotion that I struggle to give it words. “Woke up on the West Side / Listening to Beach House, taking my time,” the duo sing, a chorus of boardroom jingle-writers rolling their eyes in the background. If you told me last year that it were still possible to get more on-the-nose than the Instagram-filtered, Goop-approved moodboards of “Roses,” “Paris,” and near everything else on their teen-diary-of-a-debut-title Memories…Do Not Open, I still wouldn’t come close to thinking up anything quite this empty. An SEO-friendly title with little else going for it, “Beach House” grasps the limits of the Chainsmokers’ imagination: a boot, stomping on the 2010s college rave-nite dancefloor—forever. — ROB ARCAND
Paul McCartney — “Fuh You”
Since beginning his solo career in 1970, Paul McCartney has been responsible for many gorgeous and deft pieces of pop music. But perhaps the more remarkable throughline is the demented extremes he’s gone to during that time, usually in the name of harmless whimsy. Any Paul McCartney album, if you stare into it long enough, reveals insidious crimes against his legacy. They’re enough to make one wistfully consider an alternate reality where the British Invasion hadn’t reshaped the course of popular music. This doesn’t just extend to the caste of “Temporary Secretary,” “My Love,” and the Give My Regards to Broad Street soundtrack. Sorry, Ram heads, I’ll also throw the spoken word part of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” and “Smile Away” under the bus.
This year, Paul McCartney released a pseudo-conceptual double LP called Egypt Station, yet another solo album among the tens of them that stans and apologists have irresponsibly defended. Its most egregious offense—I’ll overlook “Come On to Me” and its failed dance craze—is a song called “Fuh You.” If you need more information than that about why this song is bad, consider that it is a one-off collaboration with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, a truly miserable choice of Macca co-conspirator if ever there was one. “Fuh You” comes complete with vacuum-sealed EDM piano drops, tortuous multi-tiered snare thwacks, and filament-thin hi-hats sharting in the background.
Its production is only as inhuman as its view of human sexuality. “Want a love that’s so proud and real / You make me wanna go out and steal,” the man who wrote “Here, There, and Everywhere” bellows, as shameless a lyricist as ever. The eponymous chorus is a wolf cry fit for the annoying guitar singalong guy the kindergarten feels too guilty to fire. The coda is dominated by a faux-psychedelic string arrangement on some Beanie Baby “I Am the Walrus” shit; during its recording, one could hear George Martin’s bones rattling all across London.
This is music for people who like calling Paul McCartney the greatest pop songwriter of all time more than they actually like music in general. Of course, he is one of the greatest songwriters of all time, but let’s not pretend that he isn’t also capable of being one of the worst. For the sake of future generation, it’s incumbent upon us as living historians and moral citizens of humanity to not misconstrue what happened here. Just listen to this thing! — WINSTON COOK-WILSON