During a turbulent year rife with personal and political trauma, the most memorable songs pulled no punches in the pursuit of pop. They also arrived from all directions: emerging from longtime partnerships and unlikely collaborations, from fertile local scenes and solitary experiments. In the case of many — including our No. 1 song — they were actually videos, tethered to images we've been unable to shake since. These are the 100 best songs of 2018, as selected by the staff of NPR Music and our partner stations. You can listen to the songs here, check out the 50 best albums of the year or hear All Songs Considered's podcast discussion of the year in music.
Courtney Marie Andrews
"May Your Kindness Remain"
Writing a pop hymn is tricky: It's all about grafting a personal viewpoint onto a communal form. Too often, bromides take over. In this majestic gospel throwdown, the young Americana queen Courtney Marie Andrews overcomes sentimentality by balancing clarity of vision with compassion: Witnessing the loneliness of the pleasure-seekers she's met on the road, she keeps her gaze steady until she sees the decency in their hearts. By the time her golden alto unfurls over the song's organ-driven climax, Andrews has taken the listener on the hymn's true journey: inside each person's imperfect heart and back out, reaching out toward others. We need these spiritual moments, now more than ever. —Ann Powers
♫ LISTEN: "May Your Kindness Remain"
"Nice for What"
Fun Drake is back. This song is a reminder that, for an artist who is famously in his own feelings, Drake is also remarkably skilled at tapping into the perspective of someone else. The subject in this case: women trying to have a good time. "Nice for What" gives a nod to wokeness and tips its hat at empowerment — its refrain is pretty much the song version of flipping off dudes who tell women to smile more. But you don't have to listen much past the first line to know what the song is really about: "Everybody get your motherf****** roll on / I know shorty and she doesn't want no slow song." "Nice for What" is the song you know you will dance to, every one of the thousand times it's played each night, and you will have a cheesy smile plastered on your face the whole time. But it's all right. This is your life. —Leah Donnella
♫ LISTEN: "Nice for What"
When John Prine's Tree of Forgiveness, his first album of new songs in 13 years, was released in April, "Summer's End" was clearly one of the highlights (we got a preview of it at his Tiny Desk performance). A melancholy song about the passage of time, it's classic Prine — durable and open, one of those songs that you can find yourself in no matter where you're standing. Kerrin Sheldon and Elaine McMillion Sheldon, the directors of Recovery Boys, created a music video that tugged on a hanging thread in the song, the repeated "come on home" of the chorus. The video depicts the relationship between a grandfather and granddaughter, holding fast to each other in the wake of their daughter and mother's death. A quick TV news crawl about the opioid crisis explains the loss. It's a tender, crushing visual narrative. In a press release for the video, Prine wrote, "The opioid crisis is tearing American families apart. I love what Elaine and Kerrin have done with my song." The credits provide information on recovery programs. It turns the song into a prayer for all those we've lost, and those we can still call back home. —Lauren Onkey
♫ LISTEN: "Summer's End"
Third Coast Percussion
Third Coast Percussion was brave in opening its record Paddle to the Sea with "Madeira River," a cover from Philip Glass' 1993 work Águas da Amazônia. The piece is beautiful and haunting and overwhelmingly alive; it makes you as familiar with its character as any ever fleshed out by a novelist. By the time its optimistic, melancholy story abruptly ends, you can imagine what it's doing afterwards. It's a tall hurdle to clear on the way to an entire album, and one this brilliant four-piece from Chicago leaps like a pebble. —Andrew Flanagan
♫ LISTEN: "Madeira River"
Travis Scott feat. Drake
The pioneering chopped-and-screwed technique of DJ Screw. The shocking realism of the Geto Boys. The trendsetting jewelry of Johnny Dang. It's hard to exactly calculate the cultural debt that hip-hop owes Houston. In an effort to condense all that influence into one track, Travis Scott knew he had to give fans three songs in one.
"SICKO MODE," the chart-topping single off the Houston rapper's latest album, Astroworld, is an audible Tilt-A-Whirl. Just when you think you've caught the rhythm of where it's taking you, it changes directions. At five minutes, the song's three distinctive beat switch-ups — courtesy of producers Tay Keith, Oz, Rogét Chahayed, Cubeatz and Hit-Boy — abandon all rules of traditional song structure. Travis and Drake nonchalantly peacock in between sinister organs and samples of Big Hawk, The Notorious B.I.G. and Uncle Luke. "SICKO MODE" provides a familiar adrenaline rush that La Flame fans expect, but it's the disorientation that keeps you holding on. —Sidney Madden
♫ LISTEN: "SICKO MODE"
"Jeannie Becomes a Mom"
A colorful jumbo swirl lollipop made in Willy Wonka's factory, this weird, whimsical song goes straight to the vein with its sugary sweet pop hooks, but some pretty sobering topics lay just beneath the surface. It's a cheeky examination of ticking (biological) clocks and the inevitable settling into adulthood. Finding out that she is pregnant leads to a moment of reckoning for the main character: Now she's in "real life" and starts feeling that time is only gonna pass her by; a depressing yet relatable sentiment. Thankfully, the weight of the topic is lifted by Rose's warm vocal delivery, which cleverly includes some cooing baby talk along with plenty of good humor, when she sings about buying a big house and getting the big hair to match. Cheerful synths and magnetic beats candy coat this quirky little story and make it simply irresistible --Alisa Ali (WFUV)
♫ LISTEN: "Jeannie Becomes a Mom"
Beyoncé didn't choose the Louvre to film a music video for a reverent ballad like "Halo" or an empowerment anthem like "Formation." Instead, she went to the world's most prestigious museum to turn up to "Apes***," a raunchy, Migos-ad libbed trap song that cheers on her and her husband's cultural dominance and wealth. The Carters took elements of rap culture that are considered "low brow" — flaunting ostentatious status symbols like Lamborghinis, openly discussing the mechanics of sex — and juxtaposed them with the Mona Lisa, signaling that black cultural production doesn't have to be canonized by the white establishment to be considered art.
"Apes***" is the final chapter in a the soap opera-like saga Beyoncé and Jay-Z masterfully played out over three releases — Lemonade, 4:44 and this year's joint album Everything is Love — at a time when fans have an unprecedented level of access to, and thirst for, the intimate details of celebrities' private lives. After taking us through Beyoncé's heartbreak and Jay's atonement on their respective solo albums, "Apes***" shows the couple coming together for their championship rings and celebratory champagne, reminding us that the Carters are in complete control of their narrative and will always have the last laugh. —Nastia Voynovskaya (KQED)
♫ LISTEN: "Apes***"
"Need a Little Time"
"I don't know a lot about you," Courtney Barnett sings in the first line of "Need a Little Time," the aching heart of her second full-length, Tell Me How You Really Feel. Coming from her, the admission is almost unthinkable. On her previous songs, observation was her stock in trade; even "Depreston," this song's closest cousin in her discography, built meaning from an accumulation of details that would be easy for anyone else to overlook. The anonymous subject of "Need a Little Time" could be anybody — the easiest way to read the song is as a message to online acquaintances eager to share their demands and disappointments. Barnett's recommendation is the simplest form of self-care: Know your limits, and step away when it gets to be too much. "I need a little time out from me and you," she sings in the chorus. But then there's a wailing guitar solo, brief and controlled, followed by this line: "Shave your head to see how it feels / Emotionally it's not that different / but to the hand it's beautiful." Barnett knows how the desperation that can make a person lash out on Twitter can also be focused inward; even in a song about maintaining distance, she pulls you closer. To the ear, and the heart, it's beautiful. —Jacob Ganz
♫ LISTEN: "Need a Little Time"
"Me & My Dog"
"Me and My Dog," by the newly-formed friendship-power trio of Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, opens with a soft electric guitar and Bridgers' calm voice singing about being so in love that she and her partner neither eat nor sleep. However, at the chorus things start falling apart in the relationship. The line where Bridgers is at peak emotional turmoil is her declaring "I wanna be emaciated." This could refer back to better times when she was forgetting to eat because she was so in love, so much so that she's willing to suffer. But from the moment when the chorus hits until the end, Bridgers is held up by Julien Baker on the high harmony and Lucy Dacus on the low and they sound spectacular. When she declares "I wish I was on a spaceship / Just me and my dog and an impossible view," it's easy to relate, even if you don't have a broken heart. —Cindy Howes (Folk Alley & WYEP)
♫ LISTEN: "Me & My Dog"
"Nina Cried Power"
The title song from Hozier's first release since his 2014 debut celebrates his musical heroes, in particular those who made a difference in the fight for civil rights. "Nina Cried Power" names not only Nina Simone, someone Hozier has been obsessed with since he was a child, but also James Brown, Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, Woody Guthrie and others. As a singer whose work has always been influenced by the musicians he admires, it's exciting and appropriate that Mavis Staples helped him sing this song. Mavis and her family, the Staple Singers, sang at Martin Luther King rallies, and like the others mentioned here cried out for justice and equal rights — a battle not only waged here in America but back home in Ireland where Hozier grew up. This is an anthemic cry of both love and righteous anger. —Bob Boilen
♫ LISTEN: "Nina Cried Power"
On her first two albums, Kacey Musgraves set aside ample time to tell us who she is: a free spirit, a country girl at heart, a minder of her own business, "a dime-store cowgirl." On Golden Hour, she focuses instead on showing us who she's become: a reflective and charming chronicler of life's melancholy turns, and a master of a kind of sleek countrypolitan slow burn. In "Space Cowboy," a bit of sly wordplay — "You can have your space, cowboy / I ain't gonna fence you in" — provides an entry point for the painfully grown-up realization that we can't actually control whether another human being loves us, or wants what we want, or feels compelled to stay. —Stephen Thompson
♫ LISTEN: "Space Cowboy"
"Love It If We Made It"
To be Extremely Online in 2018 is to be simultaneously exhausted and unfazed. From Tide Pods and absolute units, to what your child is really texting about and what your FBI agent is watching you do, online discourse moves at an unrelenting speed, like a car swerving off the highway. Unlocking a single tweet often requires an intertextual understanding of current events and pop culture; understanding what makes a meme work means parsing levels of abstraction.
Hearing the 1975's "Love It If We Made It" feels like scrolling through a rapidly refreshing Twitter timeline – which is why it's ironic that the song took time and print tabloids to take shape. Frontman Matty Healy collected headlines to construct the track's lyrical content, adding lines with each anger-inducing news item, but the process produced results too absurd to set to song. Healy's delivery, with every syllable stressed like punctuation, pounds with urgency and anxiety. Even if modernity's failed us, there's a glimmer of hope in the explosive chorus ("And I'd love it if we made it"). "Love It It We Made It" may not be the most ambitious crossover event in history, but it's a hell of a try. —Lyndsey McKenna
♫ LISTEN: "Love It If We Made It"
Cardi B, Bad Bunny & J Balvin
"I Like It"
"I never thought it was going to last for 50 years," an 86-year-old Pete Rodriguez said recently of his 1967 boogaloo cornerstone "I Like It Like That." Since the 1960s, the challenge of Latin pop in the United States has been to reinvent itself in its own image, tempering genre-stretching experiments with reference points familiar enough for an American audience to take notice. There is an undeniable corniness that settles on even the best-loved forebears like Gloria Estefan, Shakira, Ricky Martin and now "Despacito." The long game of cyclical Latin "booms" belies the same truth Rodriguez recognized; that Latin culture has always been other, and has always shocked in its project of elevating the voices that have always done the heavy lifting in America.
"I Like It" succeeds because it honors the Bronx roots of the "boom" while pulling together three of the biggest players in American — it is American — music, a trap-boogaloo hit good enough for your parents on Noche Buena that, while not exempt from a spicy-mami-fication from Cardi, is unapologetically of la raza on the charts where "Despacito" demurred. And while Bad Bunny calls this Latino gang "a new religion," "I Like It" is more accurately a new testament of a canto as old as los santos themselves. —Stefanie Fernández
♫ LISTEN: "I Like It"
The myth of "Honey" could have overwhelmed the song itself. Here's now it goes: In the eight years since Body Talk, the recordings that cemented Robyn's position as the den mother of the dance floor, she disappeared; she committed to years of intensive psychotherapy; she taught herself to produce her own songs; she worked on a new album. Somewhere in that time, a snippet of an unfinished song called "Honey" made its way online via the HBO show Girls; in the way unfinished things on the Internet do, it became a puzzle to decode, a hidden treasure in a career that mapped the emotional possibilities of dance-oriented pop.
The "Honey" that finally emerged in September of this year didn't immediately feel like a payoff. It was a soft bounce rather than a hard bop. But in an interview with The New York Times, Robyn insisted that payoff wasn't what she was after at all. "It's not produced or written as a normal pop song," she said. "The reward isn't, 'Oh here's the chorus, here's the lyric that makes sense.' You have to enjoy what it is. You have to enjoy that there's no conclusion."
Of course, the key was in the song itself all along: "No, you're not gonna get what you need / but baby I have what you want," she sings over and over as the song shifts and turns in her hands, shimmering one moment, clattering another. Disappointment is inevitable, she's telling us – but there are pleasures to be found if you can let yourself focus on what's available. It makes sense that Robyn worked and reworked "Honey" before finally releasing it. It's the kind of song that feels definitive, like it could be a constantly evolving soundtrack to some parallel world, waiting for someone to tap into its essence. —Jacob Ganz
♫ LISTEN: "Honey"
It feels like there has been a lot of talk about loneliness recently. There's ongoing interest in the relationship between loneliness and Internet use. The Atlantic recently investigated a "sex recession" among straight millennials. And of course, there's the ongoing exploration of lonely men. But in the end, Mitski's analysis of the condition of loneliness was the only one that really stuck with me this year. "Nobody" is a song about what happens when you're self-aware enough to know no one can save you, empowered enough to know that being alone is perfectly alright, but still... so lonely. The chorus, a melodic and vocal flex, is just the repetition of the word "Nobody," over and over. Mitski builds to a melodramatic, Sinatra-like tone, and as she modulates and modulates, you begin to reflect on the value of indulging your feelings — and then moving on. —Jenny Gathright
♫ LISTEN: "Nobody"
Sophie Allison, who makes music as Soccer Mommy, writes about heartache and infatuation with equal parts brash confidence and self-conscious yearning. The first single from Soccer Mommy's 2018 album Clean is a perfect distillation of these impulses — a reflection on and middle finger to being mistreated and underestimated. "I don't want to be your f****** dog," Allison snarls in the song's opening line. But for all its anger, "Your Dog" doesn't deny the reality that most women, of any age, often wish we had stood up for ourselves just a bit sooner; it's only after being pushed aside a few too many times, after all, that Allison's bitterness ferments into the perfectly-coiled guitar riff that ripens and unspools across the song.
Allison has described the song as being about a "feeling of being paralyzed in a relationship to the point where you feel like you are a pawn in someone else's world." In the song's final third, fuzzy guitars layer to mirror this building frustration, equally resonant as both a rebuke of thoughtless romantic partners and of the way rock and roll as an institution fetishizes young women's pain while denying their autonomy. Eat your heart out, Iggy Pop. —Marissa Lorusso
♫ LISTEN: "Your Dog"
"thank u, next"
In 1971, Graham Nash complained about the price of fame for hippie poets like himself: "People can't listen to a song for the song's sake. They've got to know who it's about." It took nearly 40 years to solve the problem Nash and intimates like Joni Mitchell basically created, but Ariana Grande's done it with no fuss: Just name your damn sources. Grande released this bubbly sip of pop intimacy in the wake of her breakup with comic Pete Davidson, who gets a heart emoji from Ari six lines in; that first verse namechecks three other exes, including her tragic loss, the late rapper Mac Miller. From that point the lyric is inspirational, not confrontational; there's no room for haters in Grande's comfort zone. Her therapeutic self-talk could come across as insipid, but producers Tommy Brown and Social House surround Grande's vocal lines with synth glitter trails that enrapture the mind like the mellowest afternoon high, and the singer shows why she's the true heir to her role model Mariah Carey: not her big notes, which find no place here, but the way she dances like a butterfly through even the densest lyrical lines. No pop star is negotiating celebrity more deftly than Grande right now; few are making songs as relatable as this one, either. —Ann Powers
♫ LISTEN: "thank u, next"
"Make Me Feel"
Infectious from the get-go, the slinky bassline oozes, pulling you into the groove, while tasteful keyboard stabs and clean syncopated rhythm guitar riffs keep taking you further into the funk. There's such an ease to Janelle Monae's "Make Me Feel" — a fluidity, much like Monae's public persona — but make no doubt about it, there's nothing ambivalent about this song. It's all about confidence, knowing who you are, what you want and feeling empowered by that honest expression. A perfect blend of smart, sensual lyrics and physicality that can't do anything but make you feel... good. —Kevin Cole (KEXP)
♫ LISTEN: "Make Me Feel"
Call it the coughing fit that lasted all year. Lucy Dacus shared "Night Shift" at the tail end of 2017, it's the first track on her tremendous 2018 record Historian and its opening image is so sharp it hasn't faded a pixel since: "The first time I tasted somebody else's spit, I had a coughing fit." You can feel Dacus inscribing her name in the book of songwriting greats with every subsequent line. At more than six minutes, "Night Shift" is also master class in pacing and build. What starts with just Dacus' magnetic voice and guitar turns into a screaming rock anthem so powerful that by the time Dacus jumps up the octave to deliver the song's searing refrain one last time, she has summoned enough vicarious catharsis to fill your own mouth with the taste. This is the only break-up song Dacus says she's ever written. It seems in break-up songs, as in love, once you've found "the one," there's no need to chase any other. —Talia Schlanger, World Cafe
♫ LISTEN: "Night Shift"
"This Is America"
It's often said that tragedy makes for great art. Indeed, our national discography boasts an entire century of African-American music funneled through tortured souls. This fetishization of black trauma epitomizes an industry built on the back of black entertainment. It has fueled the popularity of each successive genre: the blues, bebop, rock, soul, funk, rap. Each iteration a tad blacker than the last, the language a bit more coded, the message more transgressive, until the mainstream apes it, defaces it, rapes it.
This is America.
When Childish Gambino blasted the Internet with his bop gun of visual chaos last spring, it threw the country — hell, the whole globe — for a loop. The African chants and the trap drums felt like a diasporic reckoning of the wanton violence native to our soil. The Nae Nae and the Jim Crow minstrelsy framed the shirtless Gambino's two-faced critique of America's legacy debt.
Uploaded into the ether before we ever heard a sound, the video instantly defined the song. The views piled up. The symbolism smacked us in the face. It wasn't subtle. It couldn't be unseen. We wanted an explanation for the exploitation. Was this pathology innate? Or a reflection of our nation's original sin? We tried to think piece our way through it, hoping the right interpretation might unlock the shackles that bind. Yet so much remains unexplained: The police shootings. The church massacres. The gutted voting rights act. The rising nationalism. The president's plausible deniability. The pale white horse.
The truth is we reclaimed the dehumanization heaped upon us, made self-hate sound cool out of booming systems, embossed it with a logo and sold it back to you. We shot ourselves to the top of the charts. We shot ourselves in the foot. Childish Gambino wrote the new national anthem in blood this year and it left a permanent stain. But thank God we can dance to it. Let's thank America, too. —Rodney Carmichael
♫ LISTEN: "This Is America"