2018 has felt like a longer year than most.
In the past 12 months, we’ve witnessed the axing of yet another Prime Minister, we survived needles turning up in our fresh fruit, we found a new leader in Knickers The Giant Cow, and we discovered that Antoni can’t actually cook. We also watched as Kanye was, well, Kanye.
But hey, at least the music slapped. In fact, 2018 brought us some of the best songs of recent years — from the internet breaking (‘thank u, next’), to the career launching (‘Losing It’), to the career restarting (‘Missing U’) and the career high (everything Kacey Musgraves did.) It was a very, very good year to be a music fan.
So now that 2019 is dawning on the horizon, we asked Music Junkee’s network of music writers to name their favourite songs of 2018. The final selection contains tech house crushers, warm country hugs, fiery political barn burners, and possibly the best Australian pop songs of the last decade.
Please, get stuck in — and listen to the full playlist over on Spotify.
Mitski — ‘Nobody’
‘Nobody’ is Mitski’s most ambitious single to date — a far cry from her singer-songwriter days, and about as pop as an existentialist songwriter can get. Imagine if ‘Lovefool’ by the Cardigans had an anxiety attack and stopped replying to texts, and you’re stylistically about halfway there.
The arrangement is precise and striking, from its shuffled hi-hats to its Nile Rodgers guitar strut — and yet, as the song progresses, it unravels so much that you’re half expecting it to completely fall to pieces at any given moment.
Bonus points for not one, but two key changes at the climatic end — both of which are so jarring and removed from the C-Major home key that it legitimately starts to sound like a feverish, sunken-place nightmare. If anyone could make the leap from major-chord disco to blood-red psychodrama, though, it just had to be Mitski Miyawaki. Cowboy, take us away.
Kendrick Lamar, SZA — ‘All The Stars’
The lead single from Marvel’s Black Panther soundtrack, ‘All The Stars’ sounds like Kendrick Lamar’s most triumphant single yet.
Buoyed by swelling synths and orchestral strings, SZA’s soaring chorus hooks you immediately as she sings of a spiritual awakening. Kendrick’s verses, though, are laced with bitterness and conflict — a king defending his throne. “Fuck you and all your expectations/I don’t even want your congratulations”, he raps — strange words to hear over the end credits of one of 2018’s biggest blockbusters, right?
SZA’s second verse, while more romantic, is still full of self-doubt: “I just cry for no reason.” But Black Panther isn’t a simple celebration of African-American art and culture. The film, like hip-hop itself, is about what it takes to survive in a world where the deck’s stacked against you. Is ‘All The Stars’ desperate, or joyful? Either way, you won’t find the answers by looking down at your feet.
Mall Grab — ‘Liverpool Street In The Rain’
Jordon Alexander is a perfect embodiment of the internet-schooled producer. He grew up in Newcastle on the New South Wales coast, skating and rifling through records in his spare time, but the music he makes as Mall Grab could’ve sprung up from anywhere.
Jordon discovered OG ’90s house via the breakneck French electro on Ed Banger Records, a collision that informed his own scratchy, unvarnished production style. Right from his breakout releases on Collect-Call and 1080p, Mall Grab’s music hit a sweet spot between vintage and youthful. He’s since improved as a producer without sacrificing any scuzziness.
The latest Mall Grab EP, How The Dogs Chill, Vol. 1, boasts a few rough-hewed gems, but it’s the relatively supple ‘Liverpool Street In The Rain’ that shines brightest. When you’ve got a hypnotic melody and a bassline stretching on and on, what more do you really need?
Courtney Barnett — ‘Nameless, Faceless’
The lead single from Barnett’s ARIA-winning second album, ‘Nameless, Faceless’ opens as a pointed riposte to anonymous trolls. But it darkens considerably at the chorus, paraphrasing a quote from Margaret Atwood: “Men are scared that women will laugh at them/Women are scared that men will kill them.”
Another portion of that distortion-caked refrain — the perfectly reasonable request “I wanna walk through the park in the dark” — acquired tragic timeliness after the murder of aspiring comedian Eurydice Dixon in Melbourne’s Princes Park just four months after the song’s release.
For someone whose work is too often dismissed as shrugged-off slacker jangle, Barnett dramatically ups the stakes without sacrificing her deadpan cool or grungy anthemic catharsis.
Ariana Grande — ‘thank u, next’
When we learnt Ariana Grande was going to drop ‘thank u, next’ right before SNL aired, fans reared for some pop-star savagery. But instead of the diss track against ex-fiancé (and SNL star) Pete Davidson we expected, the song is a short-and-sweet, gracious reflection on what her past relationships have offered.
While the chorus might have Grande sing ‘thank u, next’, any bitterness and pain is soothed by self-reflection on experiences that mightn’t have worked out, but made her into the person she is today. As the synths bubble with gratitude, the ‘thank you’ becomes sincere; the ‘next’ is realistic.
It’s rare to see a pop-star grow and react to pain in real time, as we have repeatedly with Grande in the past year. As we wrote when ‘thank u, next’ was released, the song is a continuation of Sweetener’s healing swirl of self-acceptance and love. The cynic might call it calculated, but the song’s a mantra, like those you repeat each day after a breakup. It’s comforting, like the fairy tale trills at the song’s beginning.
But where romantic stories of Happily Ever After fail us in adulthood, the ethos of ‘thank u, next’ only becomes truer in time. Sure, it might not always feel like it (when Grande performed it on Ellen a few days after release, she wiped away tears) but hey, at least the song’s a smash.
Robyn — ‘Send To Robin Immediately’
Robyn’s iconoclastic output over the last two decades has been a dalliance in heartbreak and sass. This marriage of melancholy and charm culminates on her first studio album in eight years, Honey.
Standout hit, ‘Send To Robin Immediately’ is a moreish experiment in glittery electropop and house. It serves as a prelude to the album’s title track, ‘Honey’, making it unfairly overlooked. The song begins delicately, chimes clink while Robyn begs, wistfully, “Baby forgive me”.
Then, the narrative flips — and the finesse of this transition from pleading songstress to fiery pop-star is a wondrous occasion. The instantly recognisable modulating hook of Lil Louis’ ‘French Kiss’ peaks its head and at this juncture sombre song of heartbreak turns into a precursor for the club. “If you got something to say, say it right away,” Robyn implores, “If you got something to do, do what’s right for you.”
Any therapist will tell you projecting is an unhealthy habit, but ‘Send To Robin Immediately’ reaches into your chest and speaks to your insecurities about life and love so intimately, it feels right.
— Kish Lal
Cable Ties — ‘Tell Them Where To Go’
After volunteering at Girls Rock! camps in Melbourne and Canberra, which empower “girls, trans and gender-diverse young people through music education and mentorship,” post-punk trio Cable Ties were inspired to pen their own invigorating shot of empowerment.
Over a low-slung, beer-soaked boogie, singer/guitarist Jenny McKechnie rattles off a fiercely articulate call-to-arms about finding your voice through music, whoever you might be. That includes anyone too shy, too weird, too femme or too anything to think they can fit into rock music’s toxic boys club.
“Why don’t you walk out your bedroom, and steal your brother’s guitar?” she asks. Well, what are you waiting for?
Jess Kent — ‘Girl’
It’s been a little over two years since Jess Kent flipped the Australian pop script with her irrepressible, and totally ubiquitous, ‘Get Down’.
The EP that followed, My Name Is Jess Kent, positioned her squarely at the centre of our new wave of pop stars — but after two years of relative silence since its release, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was a flash in the pan.
But not anymore. Kent roared back to centre stage with three singles in 2018, the first two — the slinky ‘No Love Songs’ and ‘Bass Bumps’ — landing with almost a curious lack of fanfare. But it turned out they were just the tasters for what was to come: the iron fist inside a velvet glove that was ‘Girl’, a sparkling pop ode to bullshit societal expectations.
And what a beautiful gut punch it is. Kent’s cutting lyrics (which, at times, feel decidedly Swiftian) may be cushioned within saccharine pop production, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less devastating: “Sell me, like I’m a drug,” she purrs. “‘Cause apparently I’m only here to get you up.”
Cub Sport — ‘Sometimes’
Last year, the ground shifted around Brisbane quartet Cub Sport. Their sophomore album, Bats, was released, brimming with an honesty and confidence only hinted at on previous hits, like ‘Come On Mess Me Up’ — in large part because while writing Bats, bandmates of eight years Tim Nelson and Sam Netterfield overcame their separate issues with their sexualities and started dating.
The album is built by and an expression of their love — singles like ‘Chasin” and ‘Solo’ present it as salvational, pushing the band’s indie-pop sound with hymnal organs and stunning harmonies. Back in August, Nelson and Netterfield married — but what happens post-revelation?
‘Sometimes’, the first single we’ve heard from Cub Sport’s impending self-titled album, is both esoteric and realistic. Nelson’s voice — which is only getting stronger in time — swims through ’90s synths and everyday anxieties (hating your clothes, friends, feeling both small and too arrogant), admitting that confidence isn’t a linear journey.
Reaching those highs only occasionally has to be enough and at two-and-a-half minutes, ‘Sometimes’ is enough: there’s euphoria packed throughout the song, from the angelic synth-chimes throughout to the pulsating, revelatory chorus. When Nelson sings “I’m learning things about myself” with equal parts resignation and excitement in the song’s bridge, it’s a reminder that feeling frustrated and grateful can go hand-in-hand.
Travis Scott — ‘SICKO MODE’
Whether or not ‘SICKO MODE’ is ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for millennials is still up for debate, but what remains set in stone is Travis Scott’s total reign over hip-hop in 2018 — and this song is the crowning jewel.
From the opening notes, you brace yourself. It’s a whirlwind rollercoaster that cares not for your comfort or your nausea — it’s full-speed ahead with turn-on-a-dime twists without warning.
The back-and-forth between Drake’s signature laissez-faire bars and Scott’s ferocious spirited ones is a masterclass in collaboration, with Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee delivering his breezy, autotuned adlibs to give you that sweet relief.
When it comes down to it, you can try and keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times all you want. But by the song’s end, adrenaline is running through your veins only for you to line up and do it all again.
Fisher — ‘Losing It’
Very few dance labels launch with a bonafide hit — success, if it comes, usually takes time. Not so for pro surfer turned pro party-starter Paul Fisher, who christened his Catch & Release imprint with certified banger ‘Losing It’.
With past releases on San Francisco’s Dirtybird Records — where his quirky, bassy house sound is right at home — Fisher chose the right moment to branch out. Like its predecessors ‘Ya Kidding’ and ‘Ya Didn’t’ (imagine those titles in your best Gold Coast surfer cadence), ‘Losing It’ has no interest in subtlety: It’s a steamroller built for the kind of heaving festival tents regularly seen on Fisher’s Instagram.
The tune has also categorically blown up, with more plays than any other track at this year’s EDM mega-fest Tomorrowland and even a curveball shout-out from Elon Musk. That might seem like a lot of pressure on Fisher’s follow-up, but he’s hardly the type to worry.
Father John Misty — ‘Please Don’t Die’
The Father John Misty of albums’ past took pleasure in being a bit pathetic; hooking up with someone he despises (‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment’), joking about his inability to get it up (‘Bored In America’), or rattling off his failings like a grocery list of sick achievements (‘Ideal Husband’).
But on ‘Please Don’t Die’, he flips the script and sings mostly from the perspective of his wife, Emma, who would be the one dealing with the fallout if he really did leave the world in drunken heave.
It’s a refreshing moment of candour from a man who usually just takes the piss. And, ooft, those high notes.
The Carters — ‘APESHIT’
It must be hard to be two of the most revered musicians of the 21st century, and it must be harder to come back from one of the most public and mysterious scandals of recent memory.
But fistfights and elevators aside, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have spent the past two years perfectly documenting the cracks in their seemingly flawless relationship and turning it into masterpieces. With lives that are so meticulously curated, music’s royal family embraced the chinks in their armour on their first joint album Everything Is Love with a big fat ‘fuck you.’
Leading this charge was ‘APESHIT’, an onslaught of braggadocio with a subtle undertone of Bey’s undeniable southern charm and Jay’s Brooklyn ambition. ‘APESHIT’ stands as a proud celebration of black excellence, a proud celebration of the couple’s relationship, and a proud celebration of their trailblazing and ground-breaking talent.
The Carters have never been afraid to upheave society’s often out-dated expectations of what they should be and how they should act, and by booking out the fucking Louvre for their video, they’ve shown that it’s them who’ll be dictating their success from now on.
Calvin Harris, Dua Lipa — ‘One Kiss’
From electro-pop geek to EDM bro to G-funk tweaker, Calvin Harris has gone through a Madonna’s worth of reinventions in his decade-plus career. In 2018, he found a sweet spot between ‘Ready for the Weekend’ and ‘Summer’, nailing vibrant pop that was more ready for the floor than all five members of Hot Chip combined.
Along with him for the journey was Dua Lipa, who scored another ingenious team-up alongside Diplo and Mark Ronson this year for ’90s throwback ‘Electricity.’
Fun as it was, it’s ‘One Kiss’ that just went that extra bit harder — so much so that it’s become beloved by teeny-boppers and burly football lads alike. It feels just as at home on a Mario Kart soundtrack as it does FIFA — its tropical synths and brassy trumpet interlude show Harris further expanding his palette, while Lipa maintains an effortless cool. New rule: Is Lipa, is good.
Teyana Taylor – ‘Rose In Harlem’
When Kanye West announced the G.O.O.D. Music 2018 album rollout, it included one of the more inconspicuous artists signed to his label. Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E. was to be produced by West himself and the possibilities were endless.
They say you should never wallow in your shame but confront it, and Taylor charges head first on ‘Rose In Harlem’. “Ten years in the game,” she sings. “N****s like/”You ain’t hot? You ain’t pop yet?/What’s up wit’ you and Ye?”
This year we’ve seen how porous musicians’ egos can be; Taylor is an enviable mix of unbothered and triumphant. ‘Rose In Harlem’ isn’t just a hard hip-hop track, it’s a song for her haters, doubters and anyone who’s dared to wrong her. “It be the ones who say they ride for you,” she croons. “It be the ones, the ones you love, them too/ It be the ones who swear they real, not true.”
A lot of hip-hop that explores triumph against all odds is fueled by vengeance and spite — and I’m here for it — but Taylor explores humility instead. Her attitude is unshakeable, and West’s sleek production is the perfect backdrop for the Harlem native’s homily.
— Kish Lal
CXLOE — ‘Show You’
Sydney’s CXLOE, a.k.a. Chloe Papandrea, has so much to prove. While her previous singles made some waves, her third single ‘Show You’ sounds like an instant, star-making hit.
Produced by Maroon 5’s Sam Farrar, ‘Show You’ stands on the razor’s edge between self-doubt and fantasy. CXLOE’s voice is breathy, hesitant at first: “Your body read no, so stop/Am I being clear?”
She whispers the chorus into your ears — “If you want it baby, I can show ya / Let me explain as I’m taking it off”, until she suddenly leaps into her upper register — pleading, belting. Synthesisers throb and pulse around her; a palm-muted guitar ticks away the seconds.
This is pop as it should be: high melodrama. And yet, even with all that production stripped away, CXLOE every bit as compelling. ‘Show You’ already feels like one of the biggest songs to emerge from the new wave of Australian pop. You’ll come away needing more.
Childish Gambino — ‘This is America’
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” — 1 Corinthians 13:11
And so it went that Donald Glover told the world that his beloved hip-hop/R&B/soul project, Childish Gambino, would be coming to an end.
But he is not going quietly. He is not going gentle into that good night. If he’s going to Hell, he’s taking all of us with him. That’s where ‘This is America’ comes in — perhaps the most abrasive, aggressive and genuinely shocking singular moment within mainstream music in 2018.
A dissonant battle between triumph and tragedy, Glover bounds across thudding sub-bass to the greener pastures of gospel choirs before hurtling right back into the muck and the mire. There’s no resolution, there’s no heroes, no gods and no masters. This is Donald Glover’s world, and we’re living in it.
Cardi B, Bad Bunny & J Balvin — ‘I Like It’
In a year where the Billboard singles charts were dominated by dour, moody hip-hop, Cardi B was a rare bright spot — a celebrity who clearly loves the spotlight.
‘I Like It’ is pure, summery, irrepressible joy. Built from a sample of Pete Rodriguez’s 1967 boogaloo hit ‘I Like It Like That‘ — which still bangs, by the way — Cardi’s ‘I Like It’ connects the long history of Latin-American music to modern trap.
Over horns, piano and 808s, Cardi’s singsong rapping shows off her Afro-Latina heritage and her Bronx upbringing. Bad Bunny and J Balvin, already Latin superstars in their own right, deliver enthusiastic verses primarily in Spanish — which makes ‘I Like It’ the very essence of a crossover hit. Latin music is not a trend to be discovered — English-speaking audiences are coming to it on its own terms.
‘I Like It’ is a hell of a victory lap, but for Cardi B, it’s still just the beginning.
PRINCI – ‘FYI’
Sydney’s own DIY pop star, PRINCI is daringly sincere despite a culture that favours irony. ‘FYI’ — produced by long-time collaborator, Atro — is an unbridled electronic pop dream that expertly toes the line of saccharine techno.
Her velvety autotuned vocals smoothly spill over metallic synths, creating a paradoxical warmth. At the heart of PRINCI is an unwavering message of self-love, and rather than it being lip service, it’s imbued in her rebellious spirit. “I’m so high/ Looking at myself and loving what I see,” she sings, “FYI/ You can try but you can’t stop me.”
The crepuscular tones of ‘FYI’ are mirrored in its visual accompaniment: Spanning views of the ocean, PRINCI perched on the roof of a car and a beautiful posse of POC femmes indulging in themselves makes for hypnotic scenes.
The metamorphosis from Kimchi Princi to PRINCI begins with this song but continues on her eponymous debut album; PRINCI is a lesson in hyperrealism and experimental pop. What do you call someone who is a dancer, rapper, singer, fashionista and has the unbridled worth ethic of Beyonce? A quintuple threat — but more aptly, a Virgo.
— Kish Lal
Kacey Musgraves — ‘Slow Burn’
The beauty of ‘Slow Burn’ is that it isn’t about much at all. On the lead single from Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves savours the little things: taking your time, enjoying the ride and accepting your place as one little speck in a big, turning world.
Because life isn’t always dramatic — sometimes it’s just nice, and we need a song for that.
Troye Sivan — ‘Bloom’
When does a boy become a man? It’s an age-old question. Maybe it’s when he loses his virginity. Maybe it’s when he gets his first job. Maybe it’s when he writes a pop song that’s pretty explicitly about anal sex and turns it into one of the biggest smash hits on record for the year.
Okay, maybe that last one is a pretty unique case, but then again so is Sivan. The former YouTube sensation has come leaps and bounds in 2018, dominating radio with three massive singles all before his album, the titular Bloom, had even hit shelves — sorry, streaming apps.
‘Bloom’ is the pick of the litter — its entendres aside, it’s a technicolour ’80s throwback that is hurtled with force into the 21st-century care of state-of-the-art production and a spectacular array of hooks to indulge in. Think of this less as innocence lost, and more as a blossoming. ‘Tis the season, after all.
Lana Del Rey — ‘Venice Bitch’
Across her four albums, Lana Del Rey has endlessly bounced between the tall, enduring mythologies of Americana: to detractors, this makes her music more a posturing mad-lib of literary and cultural references.
But Lana’s enduring power has been finding genuine emotion within her repetitive images — there’s a deep pain which shines through her listless lines about Lolita, denim and leather, as though she’s using pushing against the confines of the images we define and categorise female sexuality by.
Clocking in just below 10 minutes, ‘Venice Bitch’ sees Lana stretch what ‘Lana Del Rey’ can be. She’s long-flirted with the ’70s, but as a hazy guitar and sprawling synths take over the song three minutes in, the song becomes self-infatuated, losing itself in the decade’s tendency for long instrumentals.
She’s still speaking in the same code, but it now transcends what critics have called cold or ‘inauthentic’: her endless questions of love, jealousy and romantic compromise now land in a warm, lived-in world.
Check out our other Best of 2018 lists right over here.