This week, we charted our top 50 albums of the year, and listed the best of the rest, too; the honourable mentions that we regularly had on rotation in the office, and which we felt deserved a shout out.
But, in the age of streaming and loosies, perhaps it’s tracks that speak loudest to our current moment. Sometimes, all it takes is that one track to seize the internet’s imagination or light up dancefloors across the world. These cultural moments deserve to be honoured, so what follows are our top 25 – the tracks we listened to on repeat, that we talked about the most, danced the hardest to, and which resonated throughout the year. These are the tracks that encapsulated the moods of 2018 – its freedoms and fury.
Stay tuned for more 2018 roundups, coming soon.
Ring the Alarm
DJ Haram and Moor Mother are in perfect sync on Ring the Alarm, the highlight of their EP collaboration as 700 Bliss. It’s a supremely catchy and surprisingly slick production from the Philly musicians, channelling the stop-start grooves of Timbaland through DJ Haram’s taste for Middle Eastern rhythms and, centre stage, Moor Mother’s fiery, guttural poetry. There’s no room for misunderstanding when she raps: “Now you wanna steal my culture/ Already killed my father/ Now you wanna stop my bread.”
This is America
After the 2017 cultural moment (and potent viral content) of Redbone, it seemed an almost impossible feat for Childish Gambino to better his Grammy awarded album with whatever followed. But with unanticipated smash This is America, Childish Gambino not only managed to command global attention once again, but also cement himself as a cultural behemoth. Alongside a spectacularly chaotic visual featuring globe-spanning choreography, powerful imagery and a captivating performance from the man himself, the timely track served as a potent critique of the increasingly toxic nature of US – and subsequently world – politics.
Only Trying 2 Tell U
One of the breakout talents of south east London’s STEEZ community, Jacob Banks boasts a falsetto so gossamer-light and otherworldly it frankly has no business emanating from a young man based in Croydon. He put it to excellent use on February’s crepuscular single Only Trying 2 Tell U, caressing lyrics like, “Eyes are tearing up, I don’t know why I’m so scared,” and turning in a vocal performance pitched somewhere between Jeff Buckley and D’Angelo. A luxurious slice of jazz-tinged soul, which packs all the emotional clout of a still-green heartbreak.
Ph City Vibration
A highlight from his Outside album, Nigerian artist Burna Boy came through with a lively love song dedicated to the city he was born in, Port Harcourt. Bursting with an addictive, Afrobeat flavour and executed with impassioned delivery, Burna Boy remembers the city with proud nostalgia, confidently encouraging the listener to move to the song’s slinky rhythms. In part thanks to the surging international excitement about African music scenes – and especially, the musical connection with London’s Afroswing movement – in 2018 Ph City Vibration reached the huge audience it deserved.
King’s Dead ft. Kendrick Lamar and Future
Top Dawg Ent / Interscope
After appearing on the Black Panther soundtrack, this slick-but-strange banger re-emerged on Jay Rock’s underrated album Redemption – arguably improved by the removal of both Kendrick’s frantic attempt to pin the song to the film’s narrative and an inexplicable James Blake interlude. Now we were left with an excellent triumvirate: Kendrick in an absurd setting reminiscent of Backseat Freestyle, Jay Rock anxiously fighting for any pocket of the beat he can find and Future referencing Juicy J with a childish squeak. When major league rappers feel free to get weird in the booth, great things can happen.
Charlotte’s Thong, the opening track on fourth solo album Jassbusters, feels like Connan Mockasin at his most vulnerable. Here, the Kiwi crooner offers a nine-minute silky psych odyssey, characterised by his trademark languid vocals masking barely-decipherable lyrics about – you guessed it – a thong. This track doesn’t play into puckish tropes, however. Instead, the wonky and repetitive lead guitar riff sounds comfortingly incomplete, like he’s creating space for you to get to know its inner workings more intimately. Mockasin’s previous bops offered swift snapshots into the allure of loungey pop. On Charlotte’s Thong, he seemingly offers us a closer look at his mind.
Rachel Grace Almeida
A highlight off the Chicago-born, Atlanta-based rapper’s late summer Squidtastic project, the dynamic cut recalls all the hypnagogic trap allure of 2016’s Pull Up wit ah Stick with an authentic touch of otaku insularity. Propelled by Based Tj’s enchantingly ethereal beat, SahBabii dives headfirst into an amalgamated fantasy world of his own creation, albeit one inspired in no small way by Naruto, mixing mystical samurai swordplay with more modern day comforts like iPhones and Uzis. A low-key modern rap gem that shimmers with originality.
One of the three excellent 2018 singles leading up to (and conspicuously absent from) Octavian’s Spaceman mixtape, Hands was the moment which confirmed that the French-born, London-raised artist’s breakthrough success was much more than a fluke. Co-produced by Octavian alongside close collaborator JRick, the song – about the sadness and spite of moving on from a relationship – morphs and multi-layers the singer-rapper’s croaky vocal textures, evoking the emotional tenderness of gospel music, while the garage-influenced beat nods to a love for dance music he’s harboured since his days as an underage raver. A special new voice had arrived.
Taken from his Mercury-nominated debut album, Novelist Guy, Smiles is emblematic of the artist Novelist has become. As a 17-year-old back in 2014, Novelist was talked up as grime’s biggest talent since the OG golden generation of Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, D Double E et al. In the years since, his trajectory didn’t feel like it’d always lead him to this point, but his resourcefulness, spirit and positive, empowering messages have emboldened his music in a way few others can match. Written over a sugary, looping beat, Smiles is stripped back and centred around a simple, earworm hook by collaborator Pascall – “No frowns in the bits, bare smiles” – which kinda says all you need to know. While others have tried to escape the hood, Novelist has always aimed to elevate his.
2018 is the year we all got really into country music. Thanks to Texas singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves, even the staunchest techno bro thought about sampling a banjo. Musgraves’ brand of country is inherently accessible: it’s simple, magnetic country-pop, ditching the pseudo-earnest showboating that often characterises the genre. Golden Hour, the title track from this year’s critically acclaimed album, is a perfect example of that. A shimmering love song, Musgraves muses on the wonders of intimacy and affection to a backdrop of lightly-strummed guitars, a galloping drum beat, and melodies so ethereal you feel like you’re floating through space. A much-needed feeling this year.
Rachel Grace Almeida
For a few seconds there, you think you’ve heard it all before. The first couple of minutes of T69 Collapse hark back to the Aphex of old, with stut-stuttering beats caught up in gorgeous wisps of sad-eyed synths. Then the lid comes off: a knock-out assault of bass blasts under a collapsing wall of detuned not-quite-melodies, before the final third combines the two in an itchy fit of electro energy. A megalo-banger from Richard D. James’ reopened vaults – keep ‘em coming, pal.
Epic/ Black Butter
He might have released a generation-defining album in 2017, but J Hus continued to shine this year as one of the UK’s most culturally important and musically exciting artists. Dark Vader is his biggest and baddest offering of 2018 (taken from his Big Spang EP). Again he draws from not only his Gambian roots, but also dancehall, as he navigates punchy, sloping rhythms with all the personality we’ve come to expect: “All praise goes to the maker, Auntie put rice in the container“. His lyricism is never particularly complex, but Hus is an artist who’s mastered hitting his own brand of sweet spot, where specific lyrics – sometimes just the one – can boast more cultural impact than entire albums.
Ariana’s vocals have always grounded her songs in technical excellence, but breathin comes in with a different approach. The song came after she revealed her relationship with Pete Davidson shortly after she had split up with Mac Miller, and around a year after a bomb was detonated at her stadium show in Manchester. With Grande’s voice at its most vulnerable, breathin carries a dizzying sense of melancholy as she describes the onset of a deep panic, repeating the song’s title like a mantra to quell the falling skies of her anxiety. An intense moment of vulnerability from pop’s most cherished hero.
With slowthai dropping material prolifically throughout the year, it’s hard to pick a single defining moment. Unusually melodic single Ladies is a strong contender, revealing a more delicate side to one of the UK’s most evocative rap talents, with a well-meaning (albeit a touch simplistic) ode to the importance of women in society which also ruminates on drugs, religion, violence and class politics. Paired with tinkering xylophones and poignant synths reminiscent of Ruff Sqwad, slowthai’s voice sounds more distinctive than ever, exposing the trembling vulnerability buried by his bravado.
This year saw Batu’s Timedance label deliver another volley of taut and off-kilter heaters. Sam Smith aka Ploy’s Ramos captured its daring agenda well: a sparse and highly-strung rhythmic assault, propelled by a relentless roll of snares and toms which swing in that half-cut way particular to the UK. The expert build-ups of tension place it squarely in the category of ‘escalation tracks’, ideal for use around the 1am mark when drinks are starting to get spilt and everyone’s ready for things to get out of hand. Whether it’s passing comment on the football world’s most-hated isn’t clear.
Having lurked around as promising newcomer throughout 2017, in March Flohio pounced into the year with Bands, staking her claim as a refreshing new force in UK rap. A statement of intent from the proud South Londoner, she demands to ‘see bands’, and confirms her no-fucks-given attitude. Powering through with unrelenting energy and self-confidence, the track’s neo-grime beat bleeps and squelches, with synths firing out like warning alarms to mark Flohio’s thrilling arrival.
Historically, flamenco is an art form characterised by the way its performers process pain through meticulous recital. Look away for just one moment and you’ll miss a snapshot into someone’s soul. The same could be said about Rosalía, the Catalan-born singer and dancer bringing Spanish melodrama to the mainstream. This year’s breakout single Malamente is brimming with ominous attitude. The stylish R&B song, accented by traditional flamenco claps and folkloric melodies, feels like it exists in a dark parallel universe. From the foreboding lyrics of shattered crystals and eerie fever dreams to the hazy production of the song, Rosalía carries herself with the kind of inimitable Latin snarl that makes your heart race.
Rachel Grace Almeida
Look How Hard I've Tried
In the techno world, it’s been a banner year for fans of weeping in the club. Whether it’s the rocketing value of sincerity in these dark times, or the long- awaited admission that everyone loves trance, it seems that high-emotion numbers are finding their way into even the most austere of record bags/USB folders. Barker’s Look How Hard I’ve Tried, from his incredible Debiasing EP, is one such number. It’s a delicate, kick-free masterpiece with bright, excitable synths that bristle with drama and romance, built to tug gently at your heartstrings before the lights come up.
Along with a full length LP – Filo Loves the Acid, a collection of 303 excursions for Tresor’s 303rd release – the Italian master-producer found time this year to release some of the airy, long-form techno that has made him an enduring figure. Of the two cuts from the Mindless Fullness EP, A-side Cleo is the standout. A slow-burning eight minutes of into-the-clouds euphoria, it moves at a regal half-time pace, drums gently thudding beneath a glittering layer of minimal synth, and waves of heavenly ambience. Sublime listening.
Charli XCX took 2018 as an opportunity to get further under the skin of album release cycles. Shirking off the pressure to follow up last year’s standout POP 2 mixtape, she spent the year releasing a steady stream of instant pop classics, and No Angel is the show stealer amongst them. Over the slick kicks and slaps of SOPHIE’s production, Charli’s cocky drawl finds its place crying, “Don’t let me, don’t let me go/ I’m no angel, but I can learn“. The song feels like rolling down a sunroof while cracking open a wine cooler – it feels like Charli XCX.
We Out Here, the compilation by Brownswood Recordings, offered a snapshot moment of the much celebrated community of musicians playing jazz-not-jazz in London. But more than a moment, it also hints at the shape of jazz to come. The closing track, Abusey Junction, by the contemporary Afrobeat-inspired band Kokoroko, foreshadows this new sound. Based on a composition by guitarist Oscar Jerome, and inspired by Gambia’s nocturnal soundscapes, the track is laced with gentle, abetting percussion and breezy, haunting vocal harmonies. Led by trumpeter Sheila Maurice Grey and percussionist Onome Edgeworth, the band aims to craft modern lexicons for Afrobeat and highlife in the UK, where in some cases the music has fallen victim to pastiche and inertia. Fresh but timeless – it’s an elegant highlife record that will be celebrated for years to come.
Sicko Mode ft. Drake
2018 brought no shortage of dynamic and notable hip-hop team-ups, yet this pairing generated one of the year’s most ubiquitous results. While the duo’s North American free trade previously manifested on projects helmed by the Toronto half, this prominent placement on Scott’s album helped make it an event in rap. Travis Scott cunningly chops up his Drizzy feature for a power play few in this shady business would dare execute. Even the beat snaps in two, abruptly shifting from the dramatic grandeur of its opening vibe to the burble and warble of its main musical motif to allow Scott, Astroworld’s Walt Disney figurehead his time to shine.
In 2018 UK drill music proved itself as a force to be reckoned with. The genre’s first song to officially chart was Unknown T’s proud anthem, dedicated to his hometown in the north east of London. It remains the strongest evidence yet that the drill genre is able to transcend the dark, problematic world it exploded from. The song’s dance-focused aesthetic and the MC’s deep, hypnotic flow borrows as much from grime’s playful performativity as it does from drill’s characteristic lyrical realism and sliding sub-bass. There is still, frankly, nothing else to compare it to. It is a classic of British underground music.
Lana del Rey
If you needed proof that Lana del Rey is, indeed, fresh out of fucks, Venice Bitch is it. The standalone track’s first act comprises top-tier Lana-isms over a folky acoustic. Here, relationships, like the denim, are American-made. But the mood quickly shifts: Rey’s laconic vocals become submerged by drifts of unmoored electric guitar and synth, and the trip begins. Every ring of guitar, wash of distortion and abstracted pop paraphrase justifies the near ten-minute timestamp – this is sublime psychedelia from a summer of little love. It should come as no surprise that, as a songwriter attuned to interiority, Del Rey knows the power of giving the listener space to just, well, feel.
Samaritans is the seventh track on IDLES’ triumphant album Joy as an Act of Resistance. It lives in between June and Television. The former is a heartbreaking song about lead singer Joe Talbot’s stillborn child. The latter is a guidebook on self-belief and breaking tellies. The space between them is vast and that’s testament to the universe IDLES have painted with the album – a place where anguish and inanity live together in a blissful disharmony. Worlds apart, but joined by a common cause.
Samaritans is that cause. The song confronts the silence surrounding mental health struggles among men. In a burst of fury, it tackles the expectation that men should be tough; the pressures to assert dominance. “Man up! Sit down! Chin up! Pipe down! Socks up! Don’t cry! Drink up! Just lie!” Talbot barks against a twitchy riff and a relentless tightly-screwed beat. It’s a mantra that presents in plain terms the ideas and expectations which have held men back from confronting mental health issues, where anger and aggression have often overtaken honesty and emotion.
According to the World Health Organisation, around 100 million men around the world are thought to have depressive disorders, and almost 17% of men in the UK are thought to have symptoms of depression or anxiety according to the Office for National Statistics. The culture of “bottling up” and “powering through” has long been acknowledged as an issue. But in 2018, it has become part of the wider conversation surrounding male mental health, as people have become increasingly aware of its destructive impact. It is now being understood as a catalyst leading to violent behaviour, self-destruction, isolation, addiction, fear and a range of nuanced, slow-burning manifestations.
This is the web IDLES untangle on Joy, or at least stare at head-on, which can feel just as radical. The “conversation” around mental health at large is in a complicated place. Buzz phrases like “Time to talk” and “Open up” have become popular among brands and advertisers producing work which is positive – but are these messages too sweeping to be truly productive? Meanwhile the think-pieces and overall discourse is sometimes too intellectualised – there are still huge swathes of the population who need to hear messages delivered in plain spoken and urgent terms.
IDLES capture the mood of a new generation coming to terms with these deeply entrenched societal structures. We are increasingly looking inwards and unlearning behaviours, and at the same time unpacking the cycles which exist around us. Within this movement, Talbot delivers his message with sincerity, channeling the brutal honesty of lived experience. He has spoken openly about the role counselling played in his own life, helping him to confront and deal with loneliness and grief, these experiences are the lifeblood of the song. Experiences that have resonated with their loyal, passionate fan-base.
In 2018, the world felt overrun with toxic masculinity, so art which fixed its gaze on it felt more necessary than ever. Samaritans’ chorus, “This is why you never see your father cry”, provides a shockwave of clarity. A point-blank breakdown of the cause-and-effect of this toxic cycle. The song ends with that phrase repeated like a battle cry. Against a scratchy clamour that builds and builds, Talbot’s voice just about pierces through the racket. In the sea change in our relationship to mental health, voices like these are the ones driving the shift.