Tuesday, December 25, 2018

the top ten best hit songs of 2018

So here's where things get hard - I already said in my last list that 2018 was a pretty bad year for the Hot 100... but was it, really? When I started putting together this list, I actually found a pretty sizable list of pretty good songs where I actually had to make some cuts. But note my choice of words: there were plenty of good songs, but very few great ones, especially if we're going to make any comparisons to previous years, and that makes the flagrant awfulness stand out all the more starkly. But to explain why... well, the bad songs were execrable results of gross trends and chart manipulation, but I honestly couldn't get too mad at the latter because if the songs were good, nobody would be complaining about it.

Sadly, this is where the second part of the album bomb conversation comes up, and how they can prove surprisingly detrimental to more than just the album itself. Sure, it might give promoters a clue how to push certain songs to become sleeper hits, but it also can burn people out on potential singles faster, and limits their chance to rise within the top 40 - you only need to look at how Post Malone mismanaged 'Candy Paint' for an example of that. And while the radio will occasionally get onboard with late album singles, in order to maintain relevance they wind up pushing the most stale and broadly sketched music imaginable to satiate as wide of an audience, which doesn't always align with quality. But what's perhaps most damaging about an album bomb is the aftershocks around it, where potentially weird or obscure tracks riding a slow groundswell might get knocked aside, especially if you're not a megastar or you're in a subgenre that doesn't get mainstream attention anyway! The one thing I could say about 2017 hits is that they brought an uncommon wealth of talent and critical acclaim to bear where they could wind up on both my list of hits and songs proper - 2018, not even close, especially when you consider how many artists disappointed or outright fell off this year.

And yet by some miracle, I've got a list of songs that debuted on the year-end Hot 100 in 2018 that I can credibly call the strongest of this year, even if they don't hold a candle to the best of, say, the majority of this decade, so let's start with our Honourable Mentions...

Look, you don't have to tell me that Miguel has made better songs - if 'Pineapple Skies' had been released as a single it'd probably have a spot on the list proper - but him not trying with Travis Scott against the low bass simmer, gentle splashes of guitar, and warping percussion was enjoyable enough to notch a spot here. And what I think I genuinely admire about Miguel is that in the era of desaturated and overmixed trap is that he can take these tones and actually sound like he's having fun, dropping the sort of goofy pop culture references that are just silly enough to be endearing. He's always had an air of effortless cool, and while Travis can't quite pull away from darker implications, 'Sky Walker' rides its listless party into the sunset with a wry charm that maybe old man Luke might have appreciated.

I think a running theme of many of these Honourable Mentions will be pointing to other songs that did these formulas better, and with 'Wolves' it's blatant. Because no, this isn't remotely in the same ballpark as a song like 'It Ain't Me' that paired Selena Gomez with Kygo, and you can blame Marshmello for all of that with his flat, wiry trap drop touching off the guitar melody that manages to feel seedier with ever relisten. That said, there is something sleek, elegant and strangely magnetic amidst the darker tones of the song - throughout the past few years Selena has found a lane as a pop artist just elastic enough to compliment electronic music without losing a ton of personality - mostly because she doesn't have much to lose, but hey, she makes it work for her, and this is a fine enough song.

Look, it's a combination of 'Home' by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes and any number of rollicking Mumford & Sons tracks that are lightyears ahead of the lifeless crap they're making now, let me have this! I will say that despite Florida Georgia Line's hysterical campaign to convince people they're indeed country artists, when they're just making dumb songs celebrating the simple life they tend to stick the landing, first with 'Dirt' back in 2014 and now this. And while this doesn't come close to forgiving 'Meant To Be', it's proof this duo can put out something likable every once and while, even if it is dumb as sand.

Yeah, amazingly G-Eazy is going to be someone who makes both lists before - but let's be brutally honest, nobody is coming to 'No Limit' for anything he has to say, and I reckon that the majority of listeners simply tune out before his thoroughly embarrassing third verse. No, the reason I like this is A$AP Rocky commanding an ominous hook against the stormy trap groove, and then Cardi B showing up to steal the entire damn song. Honestly, this might have been the moment that truly won me over on her late last year, with a solid bouncy flow, creative punchlines, and more charisma than anyone else here, certainly more than it did for anyone else on this track. But speaking of Cardi...

Comparison to better song time, because if this was 'Private Show' by Little Mix, this conversation would be very different and likely on the list proper. Unfortutely, Syco didn't even bother to release that as a single which meant that Bruno Mars had just enough room to squeeze a late album new jack swing song onto the hit parade. Now it helps that it's really good and actually uses Cardi B effectively, placing her on a defiantly old-school cadence which was the blast of charisma to really kick this into gear. If anything, she's what elevates this song into quality, because otherwise... look, I like you, Bruno, but outright acknowledging your flex makes no sense is a joke that has run its course, especially from you. It's also not the only song this year on this list that knew it barely made any sense and yet was just going to find a good vibe and stick with it - how very 2009 of them - but we'll get to it.

Yeah, it grew on me - almost to the point of making my list proper, to be honest, mostly because of a solid groove and just enough lyrical darkness to back up the curdled frustration of the writing. But whenever I tried to elevate it to being as anthemtic and punchy as I wanted, all the other problems I had with it fell back in - the percussion layering is terrible, the guitars have no actual smolder, and for as much as 5 Seconds Of Summer wanted to make an anthem of hot-blooded anger, it kind of loses a lot of luster if the song never actually takes off. Granted, it is by volumes one of the better songs on their last album and just good enough to make this list, but I stand by what I said in that review: 5 Seconds Of Summer should go back to being a pop punk band, because they were a lot better at that than this.

Of all of my cuts from my list proper that I made, this is the one that's bound to be the most controversial, but for all the critical acclaim I keep finding elements I don't like about it or would have to qualify. For one this would be the first time in the history of this show I'd have to say the only version of this song worth hearing is the video, because if you lose those gunshots the song loses so much power. But even more than that, the song really becomes a mechanism for subtext you only get in the video and I've never given any artist added credit for videos that elevated far less interesting songs - otherwise 'SICKO MODE' might have had a shot for this list. Now granted, the sharp juxtaposition of the acoustic passages with the darker, bassy trap groove still conveys enough of the point, especially with that eerie outro and Childish Gambino's raw charisma - but then you get the Kodak shoutout and are reminded that for as layered as Childish Gambino can be, he and the rest of hip-hop culture have their blind spots. Still, it might be a bit scattered, but it is good enough to get this slot, definitely worth a revisit.

Okay, so now to the list proper...

10. So I need to give credit to my friend and fellow critic The Radical Douche for turning me onto this song - go check out his stuff, he's certainly a character - but you know what, I think he's right: the truth will set you free, but first, it'll piss you off.

10. 'Lemon' by N*E*R*D & Rihanna
Year-End Billboard Hot 100 Position: #83

It is utterly insane to me that this was the year, of all years, that N*E*R*D had their biggest hit. They're five albums, two of the members being fixtures of hip-hop for decades, and the comeback almost seemed like a late year lark, dropped in mid-December of last year where I can't imagine anyone at the label thought people would care. And compared to when they broke around 2001, the album did not move a lot of units, but it got them this single - and it's absolutely nuts. Make no mistake, like most of Pharrell's production work in 2018, it feels over worked and not particularly concerned with making sense, with rubbery tones careening against the more uptempo trap vibe - which alongside with Metro Boomin might be the best ways to make trap work in a pop context. But more than ever this is a song that is dependent upon Rihanna - which for me is weird because there's evidence that this song was being worked on as early as 2015, a year where I put 'Bitch Better Have My Money' on my worst hits of the year. But that song's existence kind of illustrates my point of how Rihanna can be effective in a hip-hop context - that was a song relying on oversold bad-girl appeal that frankly seemed like she was trying way too hard to cultivate the vibe she wanted, something that 'Lemon' absolutely understands. The less Rihanna tries as she bends southern flows, she's got the sort of effortless cool that shows her evolve with every rap verse, it's genuinely impressive. So yeah, this is pretty great - I'm not sure the attempts at grit and flexing are entirely convincing in the lyrics, but when it's this fun, who cares?

9. ...can Pharrell just keep making trap beats? I think this approach is working for him!

9. 'Stir Fry' by Migos

Year-End Billboard Hot 100 Position: #48

Migos spent 2018 frustrating me, either as solo members or as a group, mostly because they seemed to spend 2017 getting better and then hit a sharp ceiling in 2018, the impact of which may have made some of them worse. Part of this is the feeling that Migos just don't get their strengths - I've never been impressed by their songwriting, but give them a good enough groove and hop to god they can smuggle enough good lines to offset the bad - no pun intended - and you can get great songs. And 'Stir Fry' is a great song - yeah, Offset's got that boogers line and the entire song is full of fast food references, but unlike, say, 'Carry Out' from 2010, Migos doesn't center the song around it - that would require focus they don't have! But this showcases all three of them in their flexing comfort zone, and it finally gives Quavo a hook with momentum and good melody! But really, the star is Pharrell here - it's not quite production as mesmerizing as 'the light is coming', the Ariana Grande song that would have been a hit if Nicki Minaj hadn't been ruining everything she touched this summer, but it's got the same humid density and focus on melody that makes me come back to him, especially given the weird tropical vibe this song has. Nothing Migos has ever made has a sound like this - they should change that, I want more!

8. Okay, so I've seen the argument that pop has just been eradicated by trap over the past few years, but that's not really true - it's less relevant, sure, but even in eras where pop has been forced to the side there have been pop stars, often holding on by riding enough good trends and not humiliating themselves. What's often more telling is that the pop stars who skate under the radar and survive on the radio in this era often get swept to the side when pop music blows up again from artists who have more charisma and personality. But as someone who was on board with this artist early... yeah, Dua Lipa is sticking around.

8. 'New Rules' by Dua Lipa

Year-End Billboard Hot 100 Position: #16

In an era where so many pop artists have tried to emulate Lorde's husky timbre or have just imploded, I think there's an argument in supporting pop that's sharply written, contemporary, and yet is willing to find its own path. And as much as it would be easy to pigeonhole Dua Lipa as more of a dance-act who is filling time in mainstream pop, it doesn't give her nearly the credit she deserves for having a great voice and a ton of charisma. I've said before that she reminds me a lot of P!nk in her alto - which Dua Lipa recognized, given that she started her career making covers of P!nk songs on YouTube - but Dua Lipa has a sense of effortless cool that balances out incredibly well against the raw anger coursing beneath her best songs. It's one reason that while I like 'One Kiss', 'New Rules' is the hit that grabbed me initially - it's a breakup lesson that knows how to escalate, the older sister of mainstream pop's little girls who can tell you not to do stupid things like take him back because she's lived it. And the great thing is that if you know Dua Lipa, you know this is a mid-tier song from that self-titled ebut, and yet it's also the sort of track I imagine Cardi B plays on loop right now - can't blame her, this is great.

7. ...remember when this song came out, and for a few weeks, there was this rush of hope, that you could admit with a straight face that you liked Drake again? Can we go back to that?

7. 'Nice For What' by Drake

Year-End Billboard Hot 100 Position: #11

In a year where 'God's Plan' was dominant on the Hot 100, 'Nice For What' deserved to be so much bigger than it was - and it went #1, it should have just been there longer! I love how Murda Beatz flipped the Lauryn Hill sample and Drake hopping on Louisiana bounce, a sound I really wish he hadn't tossed to the side so quickly on Scorpion, and honestly, it's hard for me not to consider Big Freeda as more of the star than Drake is here - she sets the tone and given how the song is going to chop Drake's final verse to slivers, she's the more dominant voice. And I like how much Drake takes himself out of this song - for once, it's not all about him and the most he plays is just someone admiring and understanding from the sidelines. Now you can absolutely make the argument that it's pandering - because it is - but there is something to admire about Drake giving his most devoted audience the sort of anthem they can spit in his face for the rest of the year. Also - and this is important - it's FUN! Remember that - I'd like to think we're all not too good for it, right? Because if we're looking for Drake songs we want to stick around this decade, this is a big one for me.

6. So there are a lot of critics I otherwise respect who hate this song and this artist, and I haven't really been able to pin down why, mostly because an allergic reaction 'get this away from me' rather than a coherent statement. I think there's an anger that he's most notable for blowing up off a Snapchat meme - I mean, come on, who even still uses Snapchat right? And look, I'm not going to say there's much to this, but let me make my case.

6. 'Mine' by Bazzi

Year-End Billboard Hot 100 Position: #21

Look, I reviewed Bazzi's debut album COSMIC this year - most of my peers didn't, and I think that might be the problem, because the album does a fine job of explaining his appeal, in that he's a bit of a throwback. As R&B goes he's a serious lightweight - especially lyrically - but if anything that kind of adds to the young love, starry-eyed moment of romance that gives the song its sparkle. And that's the point: it's direct, it's completely sincere, and it's just ramshackle enough in its groove and percussion to make the glittery starburst on the hook click for me. Honestly - and follow me on this comparison - it's got a very similar emotional appeal to a lot of XXXTENTACION's work, in principle if not execution, that you could make a song like this, with enough amateurish bite that to add that homegrown appeal but enough raw talent to make it stick the landing. Now granted, I don't think Bazzi will stick around - his remix of 'Beautiful' with Camila Cabello is the expected second move but also the wrong one when he's got 'Mirror' on the album instead, but yeah, this is genuinely sweet and I'm not so jaded to dismiss it, and you shouldn't be either.

5. And on the other side of that conversation, when you're given all the money and fame in the world and yet you still manage to tank...

5. 'Delicate' by Taylor Swift

Year-End Billboard Hot 100 Position: #24

Look, I think at this point even some Taylor Swift fans have realized reputation was a failure - an ambitious one, to be sure, but singles either tanked or were critically savaged, and while even in my review of the album I tried to advise people give it room to breathe, a year later it has not held up. And what's genuinely frustrating is that Taylor could have actually seen some success if she had pivoted away from her awful early moves and fast, but that would require agility and there's no way her promotional team has it - and yet I think it's very telling her best single from this era is her most low-key, a mostly autotuned slice of closed off insecurity that works for the same reason the autotune worked on 808s & Heartbreak - restraint, bottling up emotion, and yet finding some quiet pathos that might be real. I love the understated groove, I love that Taylor Swift bottoms out convincingly here, I like the humanity revealed in her second guessing, I like how there's a flicker of being genuinely lovestruck again despite everything she's gone through. Now the proper follow-up move would be to release 'Getaway Car' as the next single, and while it did eventually pushed in Australia of all places and got fairly decent numbers, given that Taylor had changed labels I can see her just writing this era off and moving on - probably for the best, even though this is salvaged things at the end, and I have hope Taylor will come back strong.

4. I really wish Ariana Grande's best songs did better. And make no mistake, this has happened with nearly every album she's pushed - yes, 'Love Me Harder' was a hit, but not the same way 'Problem' was. Yes, 'Into You' was a hit, but not like 'Side To Side'. And now 'thank u, next' has gone to #1 and I don't see what can credibly beat it in the next month or so... but wouldn't it have been nicer if this had done it?

4. 'no tears left to cry' by Ariana Grande

Year-End Billboard Hot 100 Position: #20

I'll admit that it took a while for 'no tears left to cry' to grow on me, mostly because in the annals of great Ariana Grande, I wouldn't quite put this among my favourites. Yeah, it's airy and she's finally learned that her cooing register is far more compelling than her belting, and the build-up is through that hook is impressive... but I keep expecting there to be more of a pay-off than there is. Granted, for this sort of effervescent, above-it-all kiss-off it's amazingly effective, but it's hard to avoid the feeling that Ariana Grande played a little safe with it and indeed most of sweetener, which is an album I like even despite how often it flies down weird tangents. Hell, if you're making a comparison to songs like 'god is a woman' and 'the light is coming' this is arguably one of the most straightforward songs to chart from that album - and that honestly might the key to why it works so well, there's a sense of refined scope and scale that might not swing for the fences in the same way, but then does better because she knows her limits and can still make the song sound huge and sweeping. I have quibbles with some of the writing - for her to want to be in that state of mind as she describes 'like, all the time' still has some of the immature, valley girl vapidity that increasingly bothers me about Ariana especially on 'thank u, next', but hey, this grew on me in the right way and I hope her continued development doesn't wind up arrested. Great song, though.

3. I did not expect this song to make Billboard's year-end list, especially if you're just going off of the point totals built off of chart placement alone - it never broke the top 40, it was the follow-up that did well, sure, but never quite seemed big enough. And yet since Billboard calculates their year-end numbers based upon a cumulative total for the song's performance, somewhat independent of how a song places on the charts, we got this.

3. 'IDGAF' by Dua Lipa

Year-End Billboard Hot 100 Position: #98

There are some songs on this list where the appeal might require a bit of explanation, but for 'IDGAF', it's a pretty simple for me: it sounds like a really great P!nk pop song. Now P!nk's best stuff has always been her rock side, and you do get a trace of that here thanks to the guitar backing the verses, but Dua Lipa embodies what I've loved about P!nk's energy for nearly two decades while still bringing her own spin. It's profane but knows where to use its profanity to drive a point, it's a kiss-off riding of huge snares but knows how to manage its tension, and while you can tell there was some sort of burn here from the past, Dua Lipa hits the balance of caring just enough beneath the lines to want to kick your ass while convincingly not caring. It's perfomative - and the video is smart enough to reveal that in its mirrored approach - but it's a performance that carries weight because Dua Lipa can sell it with just enough contemptuousness to work. And that's cemented by the piano-accented post-chorus, where enough of the exasperation bleeds through against that thick low end to hit hard as hell. Yeah, folks, this is the Dua Lipa I really like and I've got some high hopes for where she takes things in 2019 - I saw her live this year, she's a pop star, and I want to see her get major traction.

2. I know there's going to be a lot of you who are surprised by my choice of this song, and for different reasons. If you're only seen my older work, you might remember when I repeatedly called this guy one of the worst things to ever happen to bro-country and how his 2015 album was one of the worst of its kind. And yet in 2017, he made a comeback with a tolerable album, and while I'd struggle to call much of it country, he had one song where I couldn't deny the genuine greatness. And he cowrote it too, I couldn't just assign credit to Shane McAnally or the rest of the Nashville songwriting machine, it proved he's got real talent. And believe me, it'd be so much easier to consign him to the dustheap of forgotten bro-country acts, but quality is quality - I can man up and call it when I see it.

2. 'Marry Me' by Thomas Rhett

Year-End Billboard Hot 100 Position: #76

'Marry Me' is the sort of song that is so special because it both exceeds and defies expectations in every way. Yeah, it's a modern pop country song so the percussion is clunkier than it should be, but there's a warm country twang playing off the guitar tones and arranged elements that actually fits the mood of a wedding song in this lane, and for the most part Thomas Rhett underplays to fit the role. But that's just exceeding expectations by nailing dramatic contrast and a great buildup on the bridge - where he defies expectations comes in the songwriting and where he throws two more curveballs in a row. The first punchline you get on the first hook - the wedding is established, you expect Thomas Rhett is the groom-to-be... and he's not. Yeah, he blew his chance, he never could make the move, and suddenly you get the different feeling that with him going to this wedding you're going to get one of the confrontations at the altar playing in cliched romantic comedies and a very different sense of foreboding... and it doesn't happen. It builds to it, that bridge is hyping it up for that big swing... and yet in the first real show of maturity that Thomas Rhett has ever had in his songwriting, he swallows it back and wishes her good luck on the future. And what I love about this song is that it feels real, not only in how it tells the sort of story most country artists seem afraid of, but there's no guaranteed gratification and can balance showing real vulnerability with common sense maturity that nails the emotional gravitas. In other words, while so much of Thomas Rhett's former output played at adolescent immaturity coaxed through by nepotism, this song when it comes artistic maturity, is when Thomas Rhett grew up became a real man. And in 2018, it's important to salute that.

1. And yet for those of you who follow me more closely, you're probably stunned that 'Marry Me' is not my #1. For the majority of the year, it was close - like 'Love Me Harder' back in 2015 it is arguably the more composed, self-contained, and successful song in what it's trying to do. But as such its scope could feel limited - a great microcosm of a moment but if you look past it, it wasn't the song that had the emotional impetus that truly gripped me in 2018. And just like when I talked about 'Cool For The Summer' three years ago, the case I need to make is already cut out for me... so let's make it.

1. 'Say Something' by Justin Timberlake ft. Chris Stapleton

Year-End Billboard Hot 100 Position: #85

I'm not going to defend Man Of The Woods by Justin Timberlake - the album as a whole is a mess and while I was more mixed than outright negative on it, mostly because I'm convinced certain songs would be perceived differently if it wasn't Justin Timberlake making them, it absolutely failed in that it didn't do what Justin wanted it to do. And yet if there was a song that transcended this album it was 'Say Something', and it was rightfully the biggest success that Justin Timberlake has ever had and the crossover that gave Chris Stapleton his first top ten hit. And while I got the impression that some folks condemned Man Of The Woods with so much venom because it was Justin Timberlake making it, the reason 'Say Something' works is because it carries itself with so much ego but hits a shocking moment of insecurity. And that insecurity and complicated question of action gives this song its power beyond the weird blubbery bassline, choppy acoustic groove, dense whirring percussion and huge hook, all of which sounds like nothing else this year and yet carries so much distinctive atmosphere that it really promised a far better album than we got! But think about what I just said, because like it or not, we all had huge expectations of Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton, mostly because the music press and the public went overboard creating their legends only to turn on them seemingly just as fast. I was there, there were quarters who wanted to give J.T. the throne of the King of Pop, and I've read so many fawning articles painting Chris Stapleton as the savior of country music - and then throughout the part twelve months I saw so much which threw them under the bus for daring to approach those titles. And that's before you throw on the political angle, which neither artist has ever really addressed in their music but by their presence in their genres they're expected to say something, especially in searching for 'something they can't have', either of old or new. Note the language choices: Timberlake's passions are pulling him in a direction that would shock people in his art, and Stapleton notes his transgressions working within the Nashville songwriting machine has faintly damned him in some eyes, so maybe it's best they stay quiet and say nothing... but they can't. This is where I had come down on this song before because sometimes we really didn't need to hear ill-conceived opinions from artists who don't have the greatest nuance, but on that's not what this song, on its own, is after: it's not trying to silence by its presence and it wants to actively avoid the cacophony on every side, and if they get caught up or go askew, they're at least willing to step back. It's a choice made of ego, like nearly all artistic expressions, to take direction or be welcomed back into the fold, and big voices subtly pointed in the right way have a lot of power. And for someone who too often found himself caught up in the middle of it, this hit home, and while I'm damn near certain nobody will agree, this is my top song of 2018. I get the feeling this'll be remembered long after Man Of The Woods is forgotten - probably for the best - and for a moment of frustrated, curdled tension that best summarizes this year, I don't think you could pick a better song.

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