The 50 Best Songs of 2018

2018, you were something. These are the songs that got us through the year.

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The 50 Best Songs of 2018

There were times in 2018 when everything just felt like too much. We saw a divided nation grow even further apart. We witnessed mass shootings, the #MeToo movement’s successes and heartbreaking downfalls, a slew of devastating natural disasters and a chaotic administration try to patch it all up. But in the two years since that harrowing election, we’ve figured out how to cope. We’re used to—but not complacent in—these turbulent times. And our ability to handle it all is in part thanks to the great art that has emerged from the chaos. Matador Records, a label that’s home to several of the artists featured on this list, has a Spotify playlist called “Great Music For Terrible Times.” Though these times aren’t entirely terrible, Matador’s right, in a way: We need music even more when the going gets tough. The songs on this list would fit snugly under that same title. These are the songs we needed this year—to dance to, laugh to, cry to or space out to. These are the songs that helped us understand 2018 and survive in 2018. Whether it was a self-love bop from one of rap’s rising female stars or a #MeToo anthem by a rightfully enraged rock band, a dizzying love song or a quiet muse on the bleak state of affairs, or maybe even a blissful pop song, this year’s tunes often provided us with just what we needed to get by in the moment, and we’re sure to be playing these jams for years to come. Here are the songs that moved us in 2018.

50. Caroline Rose, “Bikini”
It’s hard to believe the Caroline Rose who made I Will Not Be Afraid, her first album and a swinging, folk-fueled rockabilly record, is the same Caroline Rose who, this year, released an absurdist, darkly hilarious pop record called LONER. “Bikini,” from the latter, is weird and wonderful and, like many of LONER’s best tunes, oozes with satire. On standout “Jeannie Becomes A Mom,” Rose tackles aggressive suburban ideals, but “Bikini” freaks out on the insane expectations facing women in the spotlight (and women in general). In the video, Rose, though still dressed in her signature red, is costumed as her male narrator, barking commands at bikini-clad women. “C’mon shake it,” she sings. “Put on this bikini and dance.” The takeaway: Ladies, you don’t ever have to “shake it” for anyone, no matter how nicely they ask. —Ellen Johnson

Read Paste’s review of Caroline Rose’s LONER

49. Amanda Shires, “Leave It Alone”
Amanda Shires made a huge splash when she released “Leave It Alone,” the first single from her excellent album To The Sunset. The record is still deeply grounded in Shires’ typical twang and stomp, but “Leave It Alone” is very nearly a pop song, bursting with light and color, like the “fishtank-green” she references in the lyrics. Shires combines more highly produced beats and riffs with twangy, Shania Twain-esque vocals, a complete sonic break from anything in the 400 Unit’s catalogue (or, for that matter, Shires’). The coolest part about this song, though, is Shires’ manipulation of her instrument of choice, the fiddle: She feeds it through a mellotron pedal, which makes it sound like a violin from outer space. —Ellen Johnson

Read Paste’s 2018 interview with Amanda Shires

48. The 1975, “Love It If We Made It”
“Love It If We Made It,” the second single from The 1975’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, opens with a quietly pulsing keyboard before Matt Healy comes in swinging with the drums and the brusque line, “Fucking in a car, shooting heroin.” That opening piano bit is at the backbone of the song, and the brighter, twinkling synth that comes in adds a shiny quality to the song’s atmosphere. Most powerful, however, is the push in the second chorus where the electric guitar bursts forward and a chorus of backing vocals swell behind Healy. The verses bluntly point out what’s happening in society, giving little to no context. “Saying controversial things just for the hell of it,” Healy sings, and you can’t help but laugh because of how smoothly Healy avoids overt opinion while observing “controversial things” (“Thank you Kanye, very cool!” stands out). Still, the chorus is anything but cynical—“I’d love it if we made it,” repeats again and again. —Anna Haas

Watch The 1975 perform in 2013 via the Paste vault

47. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, “American Guilt”
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Sex & Food is, at times, a delirious pleasure-kick, a dancing-in-the-dark denial of the absurd times in which we live and a call to indulge. Other times, though, UMO face 2018’s ugly sides head-on. Though he hails from New Zealand originally, Rubin Nielson has spent enough time in America to know our ways—including our unfavorable ones. Sex & Food is not an intensive political record, but “American Guilt” shunts nasty, nationalist banter to the wayside in the form of a driving fuzz-rock jam. It’s pretty clear how Nielson feels about the U.S.’s harboring of right-wing ideals, including the “America First” policy, in 2018: In the “Land of the expensive,” “Even the Nazis are crying.” —Ellen Johnson

Read Paste’s 2015 interview with Unknown Mortal Orchestra

46. Elvis Costello, “Under Lime”
Elvis Costello  has always had a talent for writing songs that you feel with your whole body, and “Under Lime” might be his most orgasmic yet. Following up with the “Jimmie” we left “standing in the rain” on National Ransom, Costello delivers a peppy, poppy homage to an illicit backstage tryst between the older showman and the daffy young assistant on a low-budget “Mystery Guest” TV show. Costello’s vocals are satin-sinister, sweet as honey on one line and a dangerous purr in the next, and Pete Thomas’ clockwork drumming keeps everyone in check. But it’s Steve Nieve who steals the show with a ragtime piano that hits its frantic, fiery peak at the tail end of the last verse, and the song ends in a glorious shudder. I’m not ashamed to say I actually swooned when I heard him play it live this past November. —Libby Cudmore

Read Paste’s list of the 20 best Elvis Costello songs

45. IDLES, “Danny Nedelko”
Here’s an apparently controversial opinion in 2018: racism is bad. Or at least that’s how it seems, given the increasingly rabid right-wing fanaticism of Western politics, a mindset that embraces blatant racism and xenophobia alike. Luckily, Bristol-based punks IDLES are here to give us a taste of British anti-fascism with “Danny Nedelko,” off their album Joy As An Act of Resistance. “My blood brother is an immigrant / A beautiful immigrant,” singer Joe Talbot spits out right off the bat. “My blood brother’s Freddie Mercury / A Nigerian mother of three.” That’s right, your favorite “classic-rock” band was fronted by an immigrant from Zanzibar. Talbot continues to shout out accomplished immigrants, including the titular Nedelko, who fronts the Heavy Lungs. The best part, though, is the infectious joy of the song. “Danny Nedelko” might be a polemic against racism, but it never focuses on the people spewing hate. It instead relentlessly champions the immigrants who endure such violence. It truly does feel like an act of resistance to be so joyous, and to not give into debasement and hate. —Justin Kamp

44. I’m With Her, “Overland”
“Overland” is certainly by no means the flashiest track on the long-awaited debut LP from modern bluegrass/folk supergroup I’m With Her, but it is the most perfectly composed and soulful. Ostensibly a historical tale of some sort, awash in manifest destiny symbolism, it’s a clear metaphor for embracing the uncertainty and risks inherent in making a sweeping lifestyle change and throwing caution to the wind. Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins steps up front and center with a gorgeous, throaty, sometimes whispered lead vocal, met halfway by beautiful harmonies from Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz. As the song gathers strength and volume through repeated choruses, it mirrors the gathering resolve of someone setting off on a long and difficult expedition—each step confirms only further that you’re making the right decision. Various songs on See You Around are star vehicles for each of these three, prodigiously talented women, but the stark beauty of “Overland” is the track most likely to force your attention, and do it through subtlety rather than bombast. It’s the kind of tune that breaks through the fog of complacency via sheer loveliness, making the world seem a little bit more warm while it lasts. —Jim Vorel

Watch I’m With Her’s 2018 session in the Paste Studio

43. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, “Bike Lane”
Stephen Malkmus  is known for an easygoing air on songs full of jangling guitars and wandering subject matter, a reputation he undercuts with savage social commentary on the tightly focused “Bike Lane.” The song, from Sparkle Hard, his latest with the Jicks, skewers misplaced cultural priorities as he juxtaposes an observational, mild-mannered refrain—“Another beautiful bike lane”—with a brutally casual recounting of how a young black man named Freddie Gray died at the hands of Baltimore police officers in 2015. It’s bracing, as Malkmus offers sarcastic sympathy for the cops, and also irresistibly catchy, with a propulsive beat, squiggles of keyboards and an off-kilter guitar workout. “Bike Lane” is a high point on one of Malkmus’ strongest albums, which puts it in rare company indeed. —Eric R. Danton

Listen to “Bike Lane” on Spotify

Read Paste’s 2018 interview with Stephen Malkmus

42. Courtney Marie Andrews, “May Your Kindness Remain”
The title track from Andrews’ latest shows the full scope of her ability as a writer and a jaw-dropping vocalist. She lays back at the start, her voice taut with emotion held barely in check. The country-soul arrangement ebbs and flows, growing stronger as the song unfolds, with overdriven guitar joining a low, keening organ and gospel-choir backing vocals. And then Andrews lets loose, full-throated, on the refrain with an impassioned benediction. Just when it seems like she has reached her vocal limit, the Phoenix native pulls back a tad, then blows past it with enough power to shatter your heart into a million pieces, and the tenderness to pull it back together. —Eric R. Danton

Watch Courtney Marie Andrews’ 2018 Paste Studio session

41. Anderson .Paak, “’Til It’s Over”
When Anderson .Paak’s “’Til It’s Over” dropped seemingly out of thin air as a soundtrack to the Spike Jonze-directed video/Apple HomePod spot back in March, it seemed as though Paak was on the cusp of shaping an intellitronic hip-hop sound for himself. Come November, though, we settled on the idea that perhaps Paak’s finest output of the year was just an off-album single that stood sonically apart from Dr. Dre’s cognac-soaked funk production on Paak’s much-anticipated 3rd LP, Oxnard. “’Til It’s Over” is a winner for its instantly iconic visual of FKA Twigs dancing in a room of moving walls — like a modern day “Virtual Insanity” — as much as it is for Paak’s creamy delivery over a beat by Frank Ocean collaborators Michael Uzowuru and Jeff Kleinman. Like all ubiquitous Apple commercials, a perfect song is cemented alongside an idea, where the song always prevails in mainstream thought in the long run over whatever the ad was selling. Ultimately, the intrigue of “’Til It’s Over”, is that it could hold a key to the future of Anderson .Paak’s music. If on whatever comes after Oxnard, he isn’t tied to a concept album produced entirely by Dr. Dre, we’ll see what this newfound, fully blown-up version of Anderson .Paak can create and how he can affect the future of popular hip hop. —Adrian Spinelli

Read Paste’s 2015 interview with Anderson .Paak

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