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G-Flip – About You / Killing My Time
Georgia Flipo is an Australian rocknroll drummer turned pop auteur. She burst onto the scene with “About You,” a catchy tune showcasing her keen instincts for both songwriting and production. Her self-directed music video, with its warped VHS aesthetic, instantly made her a star in my heart. As she banged the drums rocking out in her bedroom studio, she projected the self-confidence and charisma that would make her an instantly buzzed about artist just in time for SXSW. “Killing My Time” further proved a knack for songcraft that suggests big things to come.
Uffie – Drugs / Your Hood / Sideways / Galantis – Spaceship feat. Uffie
The return of beloved late 00s bloghouse superstar Uffie was unexpected and welcome. She first resurfaced last year, much to my delight, on our superhero Charli XCX’s delicious track “Baby Girl” (featured on the 2017 Number 1 Angel mixtape). “Drugs” finds Uffie picking up where she left off just like she never said goodbye. This sweet little song is a twinkling electropop gem that carries the classic Uffie charm. Elsewhere, she lent her vocals to a Galantis song that I find worth listening to (“Spaceship”), and released additional singles that made Uffie sound perfectly at home in the world of late 10s alternative pop–as she should, since today’s alterna-pop artists inherited a world that cutting edge bloghouse era stars helped to create a decade ago. I have no idea where Uffie was in the near-decade that followed Sex Dreams and Denim Jeans (partying with Robyn in another dimension, perhaps?), but honestly, time is a flat circle now, so it matters little.
Azealia Banks – Anna Wintour / Treasure Island
Perhaps my most favorite problematic fav (after Omarosa, that is), the legendary Miss Azealia Banks earned a good deal of attention this year: there was her empire of BussyBoy branded soaps, her wild weekend waiting for Grimes at Elon Musk’s (which led to her providing testimony to the SEC investigation into Tesla), her Wild N’ Out meltdown, her countless beefs with a wide array of celebrities (from Sarah Palin to Rita Ora and literally everyone in between), and for her iconic “The girls are fightiiiiing” meme, which I had the pleasure of watching live on her Instagram. But how I wish more attention had been paid to her two excellent singles instead! “Anna Wintour” is a soaring, hip-house anthem/three act cabaret show about self-acceptance and embracing your dreams. Even her biggest haters couldn’t resist bopping their heads along to the thumping beat.
Meanwhile, Treasure Island submerged the listener into an undersea fantasy realm soundtracked by hip-hop beats coated in waterproof lip gloss, neatly wrapped up in a slinky, seductive hook. These two singles are peak Azealia Banks and demonstrate that her mastery of form only increases as she matures sonically. However, one of the hardest things about being an Azealia fan is that her non-musical antics seem to eclipse any focus on her talent. She also has a lot of trouble releasing anything on the schedule. We may not have received her seapunk magnum opus Fantasea 2 this year (the long-delayed follow up to a mixtape that itself is already six years old), but in a larger sense, Azealia Banks gave us everything we could ever need or want this year.
That Kid – Dial Tone feat Slayyyter + Ayesha Erotica / Boyfriend
Dial Tone feels like an electropunk tribute to “Kiss Me Through The Phone” blended up in a frothy neon Frappuccino and served on the rocks over a kinetic beat. It contains the addictive rush of being on an after-school group chat, gossiping about sex and boys with the kind of cool bad kids who steal their mom’s diet pills and smoke cigarettes at the mall. Rising underground electropop star That Kid proves he can carry his own on the charming and effervescent “Boyfriend,” featuring more insanely catchy Ayesha Erotica synth-fueled production. With iconic glitchmood visuals serving as the face of the shop, taken together this all suggests That Kid’s forthcoming debut, Dial-Up Diaries, will be one to watch.
Lady Gaga – Why Did You Do That? / Look What I Found / Hair Body Face
Gaga delivered her raison d’être on her criminally underrated 2013 manifesto, ARTPOP: “I try to sell myself, but I am really laughing / Because I just love the music, not the bling.” Gaga has always been a master marketer. Using PR stunts, multimedia and most crucially, her highly emotive voice, she’s always been willing to do whatever it takes to close the deal. The debate over whether the Diane Warren assisted “Why Did You Do That” was intentionally “bad” is silly. Essentially all pop songs are a contradiction: inherently ridiculous and disposable while simultaneously brimming with depth and meaning. These deep-seated contradictions have finally bubbled up into our collective consciousness and we are now painfully aware of them. Welcome to 2018. All that matters is that “Why Did You Do That?” is an insanely fun song.
Jackson Maine was right to scoff at lyrics like “Why’d you come around me/with an ass like that?” In less capable hands, the delivery would fall flat. Gaga, however, excels at shameless abandon, always keen to pull off the perfect illusion no matter how hard she has to work for it, and the payoff here is rewarding. Despite the equally trite lyrics, “Hair Body Face” is a total gem, sparkling like a self-affirming The Fame Monster deep cut updated with contemporary production. “Look What I Found” dials back even further, a rollicking piano number that reminds me an optimistic version of Amy Winehouse, or perhaps of the pre-The Fame days when Stefani Germanotta was a Tisch dropout being heralded as the next Norah Jones.
Superorganism – Everybody Wants to Be Famous
The concept behind international pop collectivist band Superorganism is almost more confusing to me than the concept behind Brockhampton (and both origin stories are certainly well worth exploring). Lead singer Orono Noguchi’s voice reminds me of Moe Tucker from the Velvet Underground; there is a similar combination of innocence and weariness that makes everything she sings sound poignant. “Everybody Wants to Be Famous” is a deceptively sweet song about the darkest energies that drive society in the modern age of insta-fame, and social media commerce–from a group of musicians who seem to embody the idea that the internet can be used as a benevolent tool for something that is the opposite of all of those things.
Kendrick Lamar with SZA – All The Stars
I never looked up the lyrics so I still have no idea exactly what SZA is trying to tell us about all of the stars (between SZA and Ariana Grande, it would seem that enunciation is very passe). Nonetheless, she and Kendrick sound amazing over the authentic Wakandan rhythms in this regal Black Panther anthem.
Lizzo – Fitness
It’s probably not fair to say that Lizzo’s best work this year was her “Bye Bitch” meme moment from Coachella, but it was definitely Lizzo at her most naturally iconic self. “Fitness” is catchy and a lot of fun, and while it doesn’t quite transcend the extremely satisfying 2017 release, “Truth Hurts,” (her signature song, for now), it makes the case that Lizzo is one of the most promising and charismatic stars to keep your ears trained on.
King Princess – Talia
I am terrible about listening closely to lyrics sometimes, so the first few times I listened, I missed the part where King Princess sings that she *buried* Talia a month or two ago (I could have sworn she said she MARRIED Talia! Very different! Actual version much sadder!). At that moment the sheer power of the songwriting to me over, and by the time the beat dropped into the chorus l I was moved to the brink of tears. The sheer beauty and power of this tune explain why King Princess is one of the most hyped artists of the year–for once, the overwhelming adulation feels exceedingly appropriate.
Migos – Stir Fry / Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD feat Drake
I probably shouldn’t even bother sharing this story, but here goes. A “woke stan” online accused me of being “anti-black” when I stated that I wasn’t particularly feeling a lot of the top charting rap songs of late. Ironically, I was thinking about artists like Post Malone, Lil Pump and Tekashi 6ix9ine (none of whom are black) when I expressed that opinion (and also I am part black? but whatever). Such is the state of discourse in the Modern Age. The fact is, a lot of the current wave of Soundcloud rappers make music fueled by downers for people on downers. As an avid fan of 80s, 90s, and 00s hip-hop, there is something about the mumbling, meandering flow of rap that has become stylistically dominant which occasionally feels a little too alien for my old ears.
Enter superstar trio Migos into uber-producer Pharrell’s deluxe funk kitchen–and out came the insanely infectious “Stir Fry.” It’s hard to sound sluggish when you’re making music about making crack, and this quickly became one of my most played songs this year. Although pop is my regular writing beat, I also found Travis Scott’s hyperkinetic roller coaster ride through multiple rap subgenres that was “Astroworld” to be similarly addictive (I’m always a sucker for a song that feels like it’s 4 really fun singles in one). I’m hoping these songs indicate that the sound of hip-hop is waking from its largely benzo-induced stupor and will be getting back to bodyrocking form again in the near future.
Marshmello feat Anne-Marie – FRIENDS
Corporate EDM pop is a strange, manufactured beast. As the “behind the scenes” exposé of Zedd’s chart-dominating single “The Middle” revealed to the public, the process of creating a modern EDM song involves a literal assembly line of talent processing the project along the way. “FRIENDS” boasts eight songwriters, but at least it slaps (as the kids would say). The churning G-funk bass lines and Nelly-esque acoustic guitar chops invoke turn of the century nostalgia better than Anne-Marie’s own backward-gazing single “2002.” This is a full-bodied pop banger and proof that sometimes that even the EDM to radio industrial complex can do something right.
Khalid, 6LACK + Ty Dolla $ign – OTW
Speaking of g-funk, “OTW” feels like an expertly updated version of the genre under the expert supervision of producer Nineteen85. Khalid is my favorite male vocalist currently–his delivery is somehow both ghostly and absent and but stirring and pleasant. Riding pristine 808s and built around a brilliant hook. “OTW” is a stellar entry to the canon of songs made for cruising around late at night.
Calvin Harris feat Dua Lipa – One Kiss / Silk City feat Dua Lipa – Electricity
The house pop renaissance of 2018 was extremely tasteful and exquisite. “One Kiss” makes extremely good use of Dula Peep’s sultry vocal delivery. She sings over an inviting beat that six other people besides Calvin Harris probably helped to create. Diplo and Mark Ronson were presumably more hands-on behind the boards for their retro-fab Silk City project, which similarly employed the sultry Albanian-British vocalist to achieve a classic house/diva-driven sound. House music continues to be distanced from its roots as the preeminent African American modern musical form (after hip-hop), but I will always be a sucker for the absolute DRAMA and exhilarating sense of LIBERATION that the genre conveys, even at its most commercial.
Tinashe – Throw a Fit
Poor Tinashe. She’s become one of these artists whose own label seems to have the knives out for them. They effectively killed her last two albums, including the long-delayed 2018 release called….um…maybe Joydrive? I can’t recall, and Google returned literally zero results. Anyway, the release went largely unnoticed, but for a moment it seemed Tinashe’s luck might be turning around.
The interesting sounding Nashe project took shape, only to be canceled by the label as well before it could even get off the ground. “Throw a Fit” is one of the few relics that remain of this would-be era and suggests a promising project that will sadly never be fulfilled. The poor thing went on to lose Dancing With the Stars super early, and Kris Jenner teamed up with her ex-boyfriend and TMZ to smear her. She’s joined the cast of 2019’s RENT Live, so maybe things will turn around, but probably not. She’ll likely bring her curse to that production as well, dooming it forever. It’s risky for me to mention her name at all, but I loved “Throw A Fit” so much that it would feel wrong not to include her. It was the first song of hers that sounded like she had fun recording it since “Flame” (which I guess turns out she didn’t actually enjoy at all) RIP Nashe, yeah she (was) nasty. And RIP to this column too because the curse of Tinashe is probably going to take me down as well!
Kim Petras – Heart to Break / Can’t Do Better / Turn of the Lights EP
A lot of people seem to struggle with comprehending nuance in 2018–at least people online, anyway. The irony is that a lot of the same people who dragged Azealia Banks (and others) for working with controversial/disgraced/alleged rapist super-producer Dr. Luke, all the while simultaneously stanning Kim Petras–without seeming to realize that all of the Kim Petras singles released thus far were created in collaboration with Dr. Luke and his team. Did Dr. Luke purposefully and cynically choose a rising trans girl pop star to work with as means for rehabilitating his image? Should fans really boycott Kim Petras, despite her position as a queer pioneer on the verge of the mainstream, simply because she works with an accused rapist? Some struggled with these questions, many made immediate judgments all around without thinking too much about it. The media seemed happy to report one version (she’s the first mainstream trans pop star! Kim is good!) or the other (she’s a rape apologist and victim shamer! Bad Kim!) without doing too much to take in the complex totality embodied by her career.
Personally, I just gave up and gave in to the music. There are far bigger problems in the world, and “Heart to Break” is a slice of heavenly bubblegum perfection. As best I can ascertain, Kim’s collaboration with Dr. Luke’s camp is transactional. She isn’t signed to his label or publishing company, which doesn’t let her off the hook, but hopefully indicates that she is free to and will be working with less unsavory industry figures in the near future.
This year, however, Kim Petras continued to work with Dr. Luke & company as she expanded her sound with subsequent singles like the glittery, earnest anthem “Can’t Do Better.” This progress culminated with the outstanding Halloween-themed Turn Out the Lights EP. “In the Next Life,” offers some of her best, most honest sounding lyrics yet, where she channels a sense of identity through a series driving mantras. She also sings part of it in her native German, which sounds bitchin as hell. Kim Petras has consistently delivered smart singles for over a year now, and I look forward to her full-length debut this year.
Pussy Riot – Track About Good Cop
The authoritarian kleptocracy that has descended on Russia under Putin has begun to rear its ugly head here at home–a trajectory that began with Citizens United, and later advanced by the installation of Donald Trump and his cronies at the head of our federal government. “Track About Good Cop” bounces along over bright Eurodisco beats while invoking Dmitri Aleksandrovich Prigov’s notion of the “heavenly policeman” who represents justice and righteousness, positioning him against the “earthly policeman” who serves as the corrupt and murderous arm of political cronyism. The war that Pussy Riot has been fighting throughout the decade is now being waged at home, and it is frankly time for a domestic Pussy Riot to emerge to challenge the “earthly policemen” who exist (and will teargas and shoot us) in our own backyards.
Rina Sawayama – Cherry / Cherry (Ryan Hemsworth Remix) / Flicker
“Cherry” is a sensual, gorgeous song by London-based model Rina Sawayama, who first intrigued me with last year’s delicious “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” single release. “Cherry” demonstrates her abilities as a solid songwriter with a knack for hooks and sexually provocative and honest lyrics (Sawayama came out as queer around the time of the single’s release). Ryan Hemsworth added my favorite thing ever: pulsating electro bass beats that bring the heavenly sounding original down to the dancefloor. “Cherry” is a stellar release, and the equally hook-laden single “Flicker” indicates that Rina Sawayama is an electropop force to be reckoned.
5 Seconds of Summer – Youngblood
Marilyn Manson declared “Rock is deader than dead” in 1998, and twenty years later it’s now become just a rotting pile of maggot-ridden dirt. When some of the best rock music released in 2018 came from a fictional singer named Jackson Maine, you know the form is in dire straights. What exists in place of traditional, guitar-driven rocknroll is this new style that is heavily drenched in EDM pop drops and pseudo-Max Martin production. This is the sound propagated by bland “rock” bands such as Maroon 5 and Imagine Dragons. 5SOS, former purveyors of derivative pop-punk boy band dreck, delivered one of a nu-rock song that actually managed to ROCK. Over a pounding beat, the anthemic sing-along-with-your-lighters-in-the-air chorus manages to convey that “running in the wet grass,” late night, end of summer feeling in a way none of their contemporaries have been able to achieve.
The Chainsmokers feat Emily Warren – Side Effects
Everyone loves to hate/hates to love The Chainsmokers–a sentiment that likely inspired their emo-inflected 2018 releases like “Everybody Hates Me” and “Sick Boy.” While their return to pure form (boy-girl corporate EDM pop duets), “This Feeling” seems to have captured the hearts of radio programmers and fueled their return to the charts, it was their collab with singer-songwriter Emily Warren that truly deserved to be a big summer hit. Perhaps the best of all the uber-commercial throwback house pop singles of 2018, “Side Effects” relied on concise songcraft and a killer bridge so good that it actually is employed twice in just under three minutes. And like many of the best Chainsmokers songs, Andrew Taggart doesn’t even attempt to sing a single note!
MGMT – Me and Michael
The best MGMT songs have always permeated a sense of nostalgia for lost youth, and “Me and Michael” is no exception. Processing their signature droney, dancey sound through a vaporwave simulator, this song became one of my most heavily played of the year. Derrida describes his concept of hauntology as “the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive.” The subject of Michael in this song stands in for this notion–a symbol of a lost time of youthful imagination and play, a time and place eerily resurrected through the distorted sorcery of technology.
Benny Blanco feat Halsey & Khalid – Eastside
I heard Benny Blanco on Ross Golan’s excellent And the Writer Is podcast (a sort of the Behind the Music for pop songwriters), and found him instantly charming. Even after an hour-long interview, it wasn’t clear just exactly what it was that Blanco exactly does in the studio, but it is an established fact that he has been a valued collaborator on a string of huge hits over the last decade (he began his studio career as a protege of Dr. Luke). “Eastside” is a nostalgia-drenched tune featuring the distinct vocals of Khalid and Halsey. Perfectly executed, it is the singular song featuring Halsey this year whose immense popularity I can justify without resorting to crying “payola!”