One-off collaborations, movie soundtracks and internet upstarts provided some of the most exciting music this year.
Jon Pareles’s List | Jon Caramanica’s List
Unbridled Ambition and Self-Preservation
1. The 1975, ‘Love It if We Made It’
In a swirl of harplike arpeggios over a stubborn beat, Matty Healy rails at hypocrisy and disinformation, complaining “Modernity has failed us,” and admits to individual ambition despite it all: a millennial’s plight.
2. Sade, ‘The Big Unknown’
Desolate lost love haunts the verses before determined self-preservation lifts the choruses, all at a tempo so slow only a singer like Sade would dare it.
3. Rosanne Cash featuring Sam Phillips, ‘She Remembers Everything’
Roots rock goes noir, with tolling piano and reverbed guitar, in a ballad about a lasting trauma, unnamed but inescapable.
4. Jorja Smith, ‘Blue Lights’
Over mournful electric-piano chords, Jorja Smith warns that in a rough neighborhood, panic can be deadly, counseling, “Don’t you run when you hear the sirens coming.”
5. The Internet, ‘Look What U Started’
Post-breakup revenge is served cold, unforgiving and viscous in “Look What U Started,” from its skulking bass line and squishy rhythm guitar to the chilling whisper of Syd’s vocal.
6. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, ‘Shallow’
A perfectly calibrated power ballad, with the Lady Gaga chorus trademark of repeated syllables, does movie-musical triple duty as love song, vocal showcase and plot pivot.
7. Kendrick Lamar, ‘Black Panther’
Far more ambitious than a movie theme has to be, and far more abrasive, “Black Panther” celebrates a broad African heritage over a track that broods, stomps and bristles.
8. Fatoumata Diawara, ‘Nterini’
Fatouma Diawara, a Paris-based singer who grew up in Mali, sings about love for an emigrant who may never return, lacing Malian rhythms with tendrils of guitar.
9. Richard Thompson, ‘The Storm Won’t Come’
Over a Bo Diddley beat, Richard Thompson longs for a cleansing apocalypse, and summons it with a wailing, clawing guitar solo.
10. Cardi B featuring Bad Bunny and J Balvin, ‘I Like It’
With guests from Puerto Rico and Colombia over a sample of Pete Rodriguez’s 1966 boogaloo “I Like It Like That,” Cardi B flaunts Latin roots while making designer-label materialism sound like self-realization.
11. Sudan Archives, ‘Nont for Sale’
Loops of plucked violin and layers of vocals add up to a statement of no-nonsense, matter-of-fact individualism from Brittney Parks, who records as the one-woman electronic band Sudan Archives.
12. Anderson .Paak, ‘6 Summers’
The vamp is insistently jaunty, the rhymes are delivered with a jokey cadence and there are melodic interludes, but the recurring subject is serious: gun violence.
13. boygenius, ‘Bite the Hand’
The indie-rock songwriters Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers, collaborating as boygenius, share a not-exactly-love song that passionately questions itself.
14. Marie Davidson, ‘Work It’
As her production taps out cross-rhythms like a flock of woodpeckers, Marie Davidson’s spoken words demand nonstop work: a gig-economy ultimatum.
15. Yo La Tengo, ‘Shades of Blue’
Loneliness and moderate depression find a tambourine-tapping equilibrium, with distant hints of the Beach Boys.
16. Oneohtrix Point Never, ‘The Station’
17. Sophie, ‘It’s Okay to Cry’
18. Courtney Barnett, ‘Nameless, Faceless’
19. I’m With Her, ‘Game to Lose’
20. Wye Oak, ‘Symmetry’
21. Julia Holter, ‘I Shall Love 2’
22. Spiritualized, ‘A Perfect Miracle’
23. Balún, ‘Años Atrás’
24. Sidi Touré, ‘Heyyeya’
25. Gaby Moreno and Van Dyke Parks, ‘The Immigrants’
[See the critics’ lists of the best albums of 2018.]
The Bad Bunny Takeover
1. Bad Bunny, ‘Estamos Bien’; Bad Bunny featuring Drake, ‘Mia’; Cardi B featuring Bad Bunny and J Balvin, ‘I Like It’; Nio García, Darell and Casper Magico featuring Bad Bunny, Nicky Jam and Ozuna, ‘Te Boté (Remix)’
With no album or even a mixtape to speak of, Bad Bunny made himself indispensable this year by way of strategic collaborations and scene-stealing, rug-pulling moments. These songs represent only a fraction of his high points, but capture the range of his influence — from the definitive Spanish-language song of the summer to getting Drake to rap in Spanish to topping the Billboard Hot 100. In a year in which Spanish-speaking artists teamed with English-speaking artists in droves hoping to make an aftermarket “Despacito,” Bad Bunny stayed his course, and the world came to him.
2. BlocBoy JB featuring Drake, ‘Look Alive’
Cutting, spare, wide-eyed, seismic.
3. Ella Mai, ‘Boo’d Up’ and ‘Trip’
The return of 1994 R&B.
4. Sheck Wes, ‘Mo Bamba’ and ‘Live Sheck Wes’
Head-stomp koans for runways and back alleys alike.
5. Anuel AA featuring Romeo Santos, ‘Ella Quiere Beber (Remix)’
The sweet spot where vocalists blur into each other, and words blur into raw feeling.
6. Bradley Cooper, ‘Maybe It’s Time’; Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, ‘Shallow’
From “A Star Is Born,” the place where misery meets triumph.
7. ASAP Rocky and Tyler, the Creator, ‘Potato Salad’
An unhinged loosie from two unbothered buddies.
8. Project Youngin x Einer Bankz, ‘Thug Souljas Acoustic’
A stripped-bare evocation of street-corner grief.
9. girl in red, ‘I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend’
Not a plea, but an insistent statement of purpose.
10. Shoreline Mafia, ‘Bands’
Spooky and unflustered tough talk.
11. Carrie Underwood, ‘Cry Pretty’
Howitzer vocals applied to the realization that not everything can be solved with Howitzer vocals.
12. Gallant, ‘Gentleman’
The sound of blood rushing through arteries and sweat forming at the brow.
13. Lil Tjay, ‘Brothers’
Proof that tremendous sweetness can be extracted from deep angst.
14. William Michael Morgan, ‘Brokenhearted’
Internal Nashville critique that’s both comedic and laser precise.
15. Tomberlin, ‘Seventeen’
What a soothing, worrisome, hopeful whisper.
16. Ariana Grande, ‘Thank U, Next’
18. Lil Uzi Vert, ‘New Patek’
18. The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar, ‘Pray for Me’
19. Rich the Kid featuring Kendrick Lamar, ‘New Freezer’; Rich the Kid, ‘Plug Walk’
20. BTS, ‘Fake Love’ and ‘Singularity’
21. boygenius, ‘Salt in the Wound’
22. Mitchell Tenpenny, ‘Drunk Me’
23. J. Cole, ‘1985 (Intro to “The Fall Off”)’
24. Travis Scott featuring Philip Bailey, James Blake, Kid Cudi and Stevie Wonder, ‘Stop Trying to Be God’
25. Bhad Bhabie featuring Lil Yachty, ‘Gucci Flip Flops’; Bhad Bhabie featuring Lil Baby, ‘Geek’d’
26. Diana Gordon, ‘Kool Aid’
27. Blood Orange featuring Diddy and Tei Shi, ‘Hope’
28. Cuco & Clairo, ‘Drown’
29. Silk City featuring Dua Lipa, ‘Electricity’
30. YBN Cordae, ‘Kung Fu’
31. Blackpink, ‘DDU-DU DDU-DU’
Jon Pareles has been The Times’s chief pop music critic since 1988. A musician, he has played in rock bands, jazz groups and classical ensembles. He majored in music at Yale University. @JonPareles
Jon Caramanica is a pop music critic for The Times and the host of the Popcast. He also writes the men’s Critical Shopper column for Styles. He previously worked for Vibe magazine, and has written for the Village Voice, Spin, XXL and more. @joncaramanica
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