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17 Songs That Defined Our 2018

Cardi B, Janelle Monáe, Ariana Grande, and Lady Gaga are among the artists who helped us survive another chaotic year.

Posted on December 13, 2018, at 1:41 p.m. ET

“Apeshit,” The Carters

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When the Carters’ joint album Everything Is Love came out in June, it hit audiences the way Beyoncé especially enjoys: by surprise, and with a visually impressive music video to match the first single, “Apeshit.” While “Apeshit” wasn’t necessarily a contender for the song of summer, it was my song of summer, and demonstrated the range Beyoncé and Jay-Z have, both separately and together. More importantly, the song showcased an unapologetic “made it” demeanor from the Carters, one they exhibited throughout the album. For me, the song was on repeat throughout the year both as a matter of taking care of business — whether it was getting up for the gym or doing work after work — as well as a celebration of self-actualization: “Tell the Grammys fuck that 0 for 8 shit / Have you ever seen the crowd goin' apeshit?” —Kovie Biakolo

“ATM,” J. Cole

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If the Carters’ “Apeshit” was my go-to for feeling defiant about claiming things I desire — including wealth — J. Cole’s “ATM” was a solid reminder to stay grounded in that pursuit. In “ATM,” which stands for “Addicted to Money,” Cole gifts the listener with a thoughtful, energetic track on the dynamics of his fame and fortune. It’s a good old-fashioned cautionary tale on how having money begets the desire for more money, and how the consequences of success, especially monetary, can propel you to focus on temporal things. With irony all over his chorus, “count it up, count it up, count it up, count it,” Cole reminds us of a very valuable lesson where accumulating money is concerned: “Can't take it when you die, but you can't live without it.” —KB

“Bloom,” Troye Sivan

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Sivan came out publicly in 2013, but until this year, this waifish, 23-year-old South African dreamboat has kept his music and his sexuality in strictly PG territory. Then came “Bloom,” the exuberant title song from his latest album. A sample of the lyrics: “I need you to / Tell me right before it goes down / Promise me you'll / Hold my hand if I get scared now / Might tell you to / Take a second, baby, slow it down.” This, dear reader, is no less than a bop about bottoming — Sivan’s own wording in a (since deleted) tweet. It’s certainly groundbreaking for a young gay man to sing so positively about a sex act that has spent decades as punchline (or worse) in popular culture. But what makes this song great is that it’s so damn good, slipping comfortably into the grand tradition of pop stars using their music to expand our collective imagination about sexual taboos. —Adam B. Vary

“Boo'd Up,” Ella Mai

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No word was more misused for music this year than “bop,” but hear me when I tell you that nothing bopped harder in 2018 than Ella Mai’s infectious cuffing-season lullaby “Boo’d Up.” It’s a song that’s literally impossible not to sing along to. If she doesn’t get you right out the gate with “Feeeeelingsss, so deep in my feeeelingssss,” then you’ll definitely cave by the time the chorus hits: “Biddy-da-dum, boo'd up!” One of my favorite things this year was watching tough guys everywhere sing their hearts out to this super-sentimental song about falling for someone from a woman’s perspective. But who among us has not been there? Shoutout to Mai for breaking gender norms one biddy-da-dum at a time. —Sylvia Obell

“Breathin,” Ariana Grande

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There’s a part in Ariana Grande’s “Breathin” where she literally just howls the song’s title three times over, and it’s one of the most transcendent bits of music in all of 2018. These warbles are strongest at the beginning of the song’s chorus, and they feel like they spin the listener off into a different, more soothing dimension. That’s the power of “Breathin,” which, at its core, is a mental health bop — an ode to those times when you’re doubting yourself, your brain, and your ability to continue existing. The song is fitting for the year Grande’s had, which involved recovering from the 2017 Manchester bombing, saying goodbye to not one but two serious and very public relationships, and grieving the death of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller. Grande acknowledged the hard times — sometimes it is quite literally hard just to breathe — and then demonstrated what it looks like to do your best to push through it. This song is about those rough moments, but Grande’s voice is so beautiful and strong, and her vibrato sounds like it’s floating on a goddamn cloud. It becomes difficult not to buy into the song’s main premise, which is so simple and yet sometimes so difficult to accept: You’ve just gotta “keep breathin’ and breathin’ and breathin’.” —Alanna Bennett

“Get Up 10,” Cardi B

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It’s been a helluva year for Cardi B. After giving us the ultimate anthem in 2017 with “Bodak Yellow” and various guest verses that never missed the mark, Kulture’s mom dropped Invasion of Privacy and proved that she’s greater than any one song or viral video. There are a lot of hits on Cardi’s superb album — it’s the first debut album by a female rapper to get an Album of the Year Grammy nom since The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill — but there will always be a special place in my heart for its intro track. “Get Up 10” is very reminiscent of Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” intro song that starts with a vulnerable confession of his come-up before the beat drops and he begins to flex about where he is now that his career’s taken off. In Cardi’s version, she begins, “They gave a bitch two options: strippin' or lose / Used to dance in a club right across from my school,” as she raps about her journey from stripping to rapping. One of my favorite things about Cardi is that she gives representation to the hustle from a woman’s point of view, creating lyrics that give representation to those who don’t normally get to see themselves in the male-dominated genre. Her story, like a lot of ours, is harrowing and inspiring, and those feelings are so strongly invoked in this track that I got emotional the first time I heard it because I knew how many people doubted the former reality show star could put out a quality project. But that she did, and since then, no matter what comes her way, Cardi has proven that you can knock her down nine times but she’ll get up ten. —SO

“Hair Body Face,” Lady Gaga

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You barely get a chance to hear “Hair Body Face” in A Star Is Born — it’s playing in the background at Ally’s dance rehearsal when Jackson comes to apologize for telling her she’s ugly. On the soundtrack to A Star Is Born, though, it shines brilliantly as a perfect pop single. The song, a defiant proclamation Ally is a physical “triple threat,” is really a plea for her husband to see her as one — but it’s really a ready-made queer anthem destined for an epic lip-sync for your life on RuPaul’s Drag Race. I love it unconditionally. —ABV

“High Horse,” Kacey Musgraves

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If you had told me that one of my favorite songs of 2018 would be a disco country track, I would have asked you what “disco country” means. Not since “That Don’t Impress Me Much” — and “You’re So Vain” before it — has a song so thoroughly dismantled the male ego. “I bet you think you’re John Wayne,” she declares before she proceeds to send this douchebag on his way. You think you’re hot shit, cowboy? Kacey Musgraves does not care. It’s a rare treat for a song to have such a distinctive style while also cutting so deep, but then it’s also rare to have literally perfect hair, and Musgraves did that, too. —Louis Peitzman

“Lucky Escape,” Years & Years

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How delightful that in the same year we got an unabashedly gay pop album in Bloom by Troye Sivan, we got the equally gay pop album Palo Santo by Years & Years. “Lucky Escape,” a standout track from the latter, is the best kind of breakup song — rejection begets resentment, as an honest reflection on the relationship proves that the singer is better off without that asshole, anyway. That’s not exactly new terrain, but like the rest of the album, there is a rawness, a sexual honesty (“You probably think I must be broken / promiscuous boy, be ashamed”), and yes, a distinctly queer sensibility. All hail Olly Alexander, and the rest of the male pop stars who aren’t afraid to sing about boys. —LP

“Make Me Feel,” Janelle Monáe

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“Baby, don’t make me spell it out for you.” The opening lyric to Monáe’s paean to pansexuality from her album Dirty Computer is at once a queer provocation and something like a battle cry. In that one line, Monáe seems to suggest that, in 2018, perhaps LGBT celebrities don’t have to explicitly announce their sexuality to the world for it to be a plainly obvious fact of their identity. Of course, if the rest of the quirky, kicky song — and especially its delightful music video — didn’t make Monáe’s intentions clear enough, she did subsequently spell it out for us, coming out in Rolling Stone as “a queer black woman in America.” This killer track, though, was arguably all the declaration she needed. —ABV

“Mariners Apartment Complex,” Lana Del Rey

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“You took my sadness out of context.” Lana Del Rey has said the opening lines of “Mariners Apartment Complex” aren’t about her controversial 2014 interview with the Guardian, but…let’s be real. During that interview — conducted at the Maritime Apartment Complex, for god’s sake — Lana infamously said, “I wish I was dead already.” And so, the song appears to be yet another reclamation of her carefully constructed image: “I ain’t no candle in the wind.” People love to dissect Lana Del Rey, puzzling together an identity grounded in homage. Even as she returns to familiar themes, however, she refuses to be pinned down. And if “Mariners Apartment Complex” is a sign of Lana’s next era, we have a lot to look forward to. —LP

“Nice for What,” Drake

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If Ella Mai had me “so deep in my feelings,” Drake reminded me to get the fuck over it. Hearing black women shout in unison “you gotta be nice for WHAT to these niggas?!” all summer was like food for my soul. Honestly, I never expected Aubrey to be such an ally. Sure, he sings about women often, but to create an anthem for us to twerk away our fuckboy woes to? A king. And speaking of twerking, I’m not sure there’s another song from 2018 that I enjoyed dancing to as much as “Nice for What.” The New Orleans bounce production, complete with a Big Freedia call and response, hits the spot every time because he “knows shorty and she doesn’t want no slow song.” The icing on the cake for this whole moment — hell, let's call it a movement — was the video itself, which featured all of my faves including Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross, Syd from the Internet, Letitia Wright, and Yara Shahidi. Plus, it was directed by Karena Evans. Feminist Drake is my favorite Drake. —SO

“Nobody,” Mitski

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One of the year’s best bops was also unbearably sad. “Nobody” is a cheerful cry for help, a relentlessly catchy earworm about the unshakable need for human connection. For those of us who started and ended 2018 single, “Nobody” was the anthem we needed. With her acclaimed album Be the Cowboy, Mitski may have crossed into the mainstream, but higher production values don’t detract from the brutal emotional honesty and bleak perspective she’s always espoused. “Nobody” in particular catches you off guard: It’s the most fun you’ll have feeling completely empty inside. —LP

“Shallow,” Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper

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The most impressive thing about Lady Gaga’s guttural wail in “Shallow” is that no matter how many times it has been mocked, manipulated, and memed, it still has the power to provoke instant chills. It is such a visceral, potent articulation of both her character’s desire for creative expression in A Star Is Born and the sheer magnitude of her voice — even removed from the context of the film, it’s impossible not to feel it deeply. But let’s talk about the context, because the scene in which Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) drags Gaga’s Ally onstage for an impromptu duet is one of the most electric musical movie moments of all time. There can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them will admit to having cried at “Shallow,” and the other 1 just isn’t ready to fess up. —LP

“Sicko Mode,” Travis Scott (feat. Drake)

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If Astroworld is Travis Scott’s amusement park, “Sicko Mode” is the roller coaster. Drake and Scott effortlessly exchange bars over superb production. Tay Keith really “fucked niggas up” with this one because the beat switches up not once, not twice, but three or four times? The ride’s biggest dip comes in the final stretch, when you think it’s almost over but then are thrown down the ultimate beat drop at top speed, as Drake says, “I did half a Xan, 13 hours till I land, had me out like a light!” Scott comes in and they exchange “like a light”s in a way that shouldn’t be as enjoyable as it is, but gives further evidence that there’s nothing these two can’t turn into a banger. Honestly, if you haven’t screamed that line repeatedly with a group of people at a party this year, you didn’t do 2018 right. “Sicko Mode” is the rap anthem of the year and a fitting victory lap for the two men who dominated the Billboard chart for most of 2018. —SO

“Thank U, Next,” Ariana Grande

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In the midst of her own public trials this year, Grande’s pop star persona became a symbol of resilience and revitalization. Sweetener, released in August, was a good example of how that symbolism took hold in the public consciousness: Much of the album was rooted in Grande’s deep, layered optimism in the face of hardship, telling stories of success and finding love and happiness again after heartbreak and tragedy. But it was her post-Sweetener follow-up “Thank U, Next” that quickly became the crown jewel of the genre and really drove home that Grande’s current era of self-discovery is a force to be reckoned with. Released in November as the first single from a forthcoming album of the same name, “Thank U, Next” is a classic breakup anthem and — as Grande herself calls it — “a smash” inspired by her high-profile breakups, most recently with ex-fiancé Pete Davidson. Grande’s voice and vibe make the song so heartbreakingly earnest that you can feel both the real love she had for the exes she’s singing about and the resolve she has to move past them and become someone who doesn’t rely on relationships. At the core of “Thank U, Next” is the declaration that Grande — or whoever is singing along at home — is going to be fine. That’s a powerful sentiment. —AB

“Ye,” Burna Boy

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Clearly, 2018 was the year of money because yet another song I had on repeat was “Ye” by Burna Boy, one of the current chiefs of Afrobeat. Like many good Afrobeat songs, “Ye” is celebratory and centers on material wealth as well as the “good life” one is striving for. But Burna Boy takes it further with the message that “Ye” is not just an expression but a vibe, in which you stay focused on your goals without paying attention to the noise and gripes of others: “Anything wey you do / Dem must commentate.” To that line, Burna Boy also enlists as an adlib that famous Nigerian phrase to fend off stress: “I can’t come and kill myself.” Traversing Afrobeat, dancehall, pop, and even a hint of reggae, “Ye” was my very specific way to rest in a certain kind of Nigerian determination that values both working to attain a certain status and, once having attained it, turning all the way up. —KB

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