Kicking off our roundups of the best music of 2018, polled from votes by more than 50 Guardian music writers, we count down our favourite tracks of the year – topped by a man who managed to unpick US racial politics, launch a thousand thinkpieces and reach No 1 in the US charts, all with a single track. Read about the top 20 below, and hear the whole top 100 in playlists on Spotify and Apple Music. We’ll be counting down the albums of the year throughout the rest of the month, with No 1 announced on 21 December.
There are only two bands in this top 20, showing how the cultural dial (at least among Guardian critics) has continued to drift away from indie and rock. But this Melbourne quintet show that jangling guitars will never, ever stop being a joy, no matter how much tastes change. Mainland has a scrappy garage chug, tempered with the sweet breeziness of chillwave indie like Real Estate, and vocal harmonies that cock an ear to Teenage Fanclub – plus bags and bags of melody.
One of Drake’s three transatlantic No 1s in 2018, In My Feelings was given an extra fillip by the viral dance craze created by Insta-comedian Shiggy, but its success was sealed by the sheer harmony of the track itself. Drake balances a beautifully simple, keening top line with the chaotic big dick energy of late rapper Magnolia Shorty, whose sampled exhortations to “clap that ass” were duly followed on dancefloors across the globe.
There’s no greater crime in Kacey Musgraves’ world than a big head. She got cosmic on her fourth album, Golden Hour, yet her effortlessly pop songwriting remained grounded. The villain in High Horse is a buzz-killer who thinks they’re cooler than everybody else – too cool to get down with her sumptuous string flourishes, the kind of Bee Gees razzle-dazzle that begs for a synchronised dance routine and a chorus that, astonishingly, lands the phrase “giddy up” with aplomb. More fool them.
Malamente is about defying a bad omen, but even if you can’t understand a word of Spanish star Rosalía’s lyrics – thrillingly rapped, trilled and whispered – the song’s dangerous air of seduction makes her proposition perfectly clear. She brought electronic minimalism to flamenco and coupled it with a ravishing aesthetic more complete than that of many cinematic auteurs: a star was born.
The sort of filter-house edit that rolls into clubland with pleasing regularity, the German producer delivers a masterpiece of condensed emotion by mashing up a two-bar loop of Melba Moore’s Pick Me Up I’ll Dance with vocal samples from Gladys Knight’s Neither One of Us. The sound of an Ibizan sunset.
Yes, Boys’ sassy chimes and vintage funk licks bring to mind Blurred Lines and Uptown Funk. But this screamingly delightful ode to Lizzo’s voracious sexual appetite (encompassing “big boys, itty-bitty boys, Mississippi boys, inner-city boys” and more besides) is no mannered pastiche, and rights the coercive wrongs of Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s infamous single by insisting on pleasure for all involved.
Quite early in My My My!, Troye Sivan appears to give up on writing proper lyrics and decides to succumb to sensation: “Oh, my, my, my!” he exclaims, over and over and over again. This is exactly as a song about sex in a new relationship should be: as his coy, sultry verses give way to irrepressible pop euphoria in the chorus, he preserves the awe in ecstasy.
Could he become the new Giggs? The east London rapper certainly shares his deep-throated authority on this breakthrough track that threw down a marker like a banger on a pavement. This is UK drill at its most glamorous, high-definition and addictive, Unknown T conveying the claustrophobia of crime-ridden streets even as he delivers withering disparagement of his foes; the sheer resonance of his voice makes the chorus incredibly catchy, linked by a bridge of pure bashment power. It quite simply slaps, and is a reminder that MC culture in the UK remains thrillingly vital and innovative.
Héloïse Letissier has made a career of living out her multifaceted desires, but Doesn’t Matter confronts the consequences of self-denial: denying treacherous thoughts while lying opposite a lover, denying eating disorders, denying the sense that you want more than you’re supposed to. Deny yourself long enough, and existence and escape become inconsequential. It is a desperately sad song: bass lurching like an oil spill that tapers to a calligraphic point, a stark Hey Mickey drumbeat that’s almost mockingly peppy. A shimmer of light finally offers a reprieve, tempering Letissier’s desolation with hope.
An utterly exquisite nu-disco pearl, as suitable for dancing around a penthouse in a cocktail dress as a dive bar in a sweaty T-shirt. Muffled deep house organ chords are topped by chiming bells, with a little ribbon of acid wriggling between them; Gou’s own Korean vocals are a beautiful combination of naivety, boredom and earnestness.
The millennial We Didn’t Start the Fire or Sign O’ the Times, Love It if We Made It is an assault for our intolerable times, delivered by Matty Healy with a numbed intensity that mimics today’s information barrage. But two beautiful, intangible ideas defeat all the concrete headlines he cites about Trump, Kanye and weaponised mistrust: faith and empathy. “I’d love it if we made it,” Healy sings, in one of the year’s simplest yet most affecting lyrics.
Hip-hop’s relationship to material wealth can be so jaded that relentless invocations of “ice” and brands become just another production texture. There’s sometimes beauty in this, but beauty too in a newcomer appraising their potential spoils like Violet Beauregarde walking into the chocolate factory. The best line in this year’s song of the summer is: “I like those Balenciagas, the ones that look like socks,” conveying Cardi’s novel purchasing power and sending up some frankly silly shoes in the process. It’s a perfect come-up track: its salsa, trap and boogaloo sound paying tribute to Cardi’s roots while she tries on her new life for size and relishes the fit.
You feel for Robyn: what has she lived through to so adeptly transmute pain into song this consistently and effectively? The true successor to her defining hit Dancing on My Own, Missing U encapsulates the horror of a breakup: not the immediate ugly-crying aftermath, but the horrible period where the other person remains a part of you, like a phantom limb you can’t hold. By making it danceable, meanwhile, she hands you a tequila shot, pointing a route out of pain through hedonism.
In which the Norwich duo crush assumptions about young women as “objects of disdain” and “drama queens” to be patronised with this total beast of a song (and with it, preconceptions about their more whimsical, earlier incarnation). Peppered with “glitter-eaters”, “ponies in the sky” and flashy industrial clatter courtesy of producers Sophie and Faris Badwan, it plays out like a video game set in a neon dystopia. Crushing the patriarchy: 100 points.
After the 18 months she’s had – the Manchester bombing, the death of a beloved ex and the end of a brief, high-profile engagement – nobody would have blamed Ariana Grande for disappearing somewhere hot and secluded. Instead, she once again seized tragedy by the collar and made something beautiful. Thank U, Next’s sing-song delivery and featherweight R&B production shared DNA with many a pop kiss-off, but disguised heavyweight sentiment: benevolence to her exes, but more importantly, herself.
Full of the whipcrack claps, voluptuous bass and Muzak tinkle of 80s boogie, this was saved from being a nostalgia exercise by the sheer sexual charisma of Héloïse Letissier. Her delivery in the verses is provocative, prodding you in the ribs; on the chorus, she seems to shrug and let you come to her. These are all means of seduction, one way or another, as she tries on the macho energy of a cocksure guy – and wears it well.
The jury was out on the Guardian music desk as to whether this song was about emotional nourishment or cunnilingus. Well, perhaps it can be both: how sex can be spiritually restorative, or self-care its own kind of eroticism. Sensuality is certainly invoked by the production, which is techno at its most ambient and pulsating: the bass a warm throb, the kick drum like a velvet-gloved finger tapping a glass table.
The witty genius of this song, Grande’s first release following the horror of the Manchester arena attack, is that it enacts its tale of moving on through the music itself. It begins as a quailing power ballad before shaking that mood off in favour of a sassy pop strut, showing that the only way out from rock bottom is up. By making statements such as this and Thank U, Next part of her public grapple with trauma, Grande is crafting her own bracingly resilient narrative.
The arch-android who could explain every element of her immaculate pop on her previous albums professed to be lost for words on Make Me Feel, her brain scrambled by lust. It was a relief to hear: Monáe’s output had always always impressive, but sometimes felt hamstrung by her rigid adherence to poise and concept. But here she was, grasping to define her state of mind (“powerful with a little bit of tender / an emotional sexual bender”) and revealing the carnal side beneath her glorious hardware. Still, even as she yelped and gasped through her sexual awakening, the music – taut funk buoyed by a synth line later revealed to be a gift from Prince – maintained Monáe’s essential organisational architecture.
1. Childish Gambino – This Is America
And music video of the century while we’re at it. Donald Glover’s track was an immediate sensation thanks to its accompanying visual, but even shorn of its video, the track is still so rich with meaning.
The switch from a sunny, Chance the Rapper-style Daisy Age song to a stern trap track suggests Glover is asking black Americans to snap out of it and, per his other most famous song, Redbone, stay woke. The central message is to remember that this is America, where someone got shot by police who mistook his smartphone for a gun: “This a celly / that’s a tool.” Or could the phone be a tool you use yourself, perhaps to document police brutality (as in the video)? The double meanings start to stack up.
By rapping “I’m on Gucci / I’m so pretty”, he’s perhaps saying that black America is distracting itself from these horrors with consumerism, and even glossy trap music itself. But paired with the heavily ironic minstrel poses he makes in the video, he could also be saying that these are the roles that black people are pushed into in a still-racist culture.
Indeed, a central lyric is “get your money, black man”, and so Glover is on one level leveraging the current wild popularity of rap, letting his audience know he is getting paid: given the track’s No 1 success, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, then, is Glover telling us to be pragmatic, to play by the rules? The sheer invention and daring of the song and video seem to contradict that.
Round and round we go. In the end, it’s a glorious reminder that, in an age of monomaniacal political discourse, art can be about two things at once, and then some.
• Tracks by Black Midi, Eris Drew and Pusha T featured in our top 100 but didn’t feature on all streaming services, and so have been replaced on the top 100 playlists with the next most popular tracks.