We rank the best songs of the year.
Queen Lizzo delivers what all voracious boy-crushers have been craving: a full-length version of the “Boys, boys all type-a boys” line from Missy Elliott’s “Work It”. Over rumbling bass and cowbell, Lizzo solicits attention from a roll call of delicious specimens —“I like a big beard/I like a clean face/I don’t discriminate/Come and get a taste.” She’s charming and encouraging (“Go and slay, boys”) while asserting her independence from the objects of her thirst (“Baby I don’t need you/I just wanna freak you”). The retro funk sound and cute lyrics are enormous fun, but it’s Lizzo’s hugely charismatic and warm presence that makes “Boys” soar.
The standout track from Hayley Kiyoko’s ambitious debut Expectations, “What I Need” speaks to an experience most queer women are familiar with. It’s not a straightforward tale of unrequited love but of confusion and pain on both sides, of understanding the other person’s feelings but knowing that your needs might not be met whilst they are in the midst of that. The catchiness of the chorus is undercut by a hint of desperation – the repetition acting as a request for clarity in the situation.
The song’s video is also a masterpiece in its own right, directed by Kiyoko herself. It shows two young queer women on a road trip, heading towards what we hope is a little bit more freedom and a whole lot more clarity. It feels more like a short film than merely a music video, and betrays the true emotional undercurrent of the song – whilst also remaining fun and flirty in moments.
Fresh from Scorpion hip-hop’s resident nice boy next door Drake served up his latest unavoidable hit back in April. The rapper and singer has a knack for putting out songs that stick, whether that’s in your head or in the charts. Since its release, “Nice For What” stayed on repeat and we strolled into the summer months with an accompanying bop from side to side.
Whether it was the addictive tune or the female-empowering, star-studded video that featured, anything out in the media didn’t matter. Lovechild or industry beef aside, Drake knows what works and crafts the perfect track. In this case, sampling a Lauryn Hill classic, pairing with a Murda Beatz Beat and wrapping it up in under two hours.
"Narcissist" is the Dirty Hit confection that saw the mergence of pop powerhouses No Rome and The 1975. This is a hedonist’s anthem: it holds the mirror up so close to our collective faces so close you can see your breath on it. “She told me I’m a narcissist doing it again / Took a bunch of acid and she told me "not again" / Now I've gotta tell her that I'm lovin' her friends”, No Rome pouts.
The verses are unquestionably penned by Matty Healy: a pastiche of the pretentious society we live in, where commitment is a burden and drugs are an escape from the flatness of reality. ‘Narcissist’ is a billowing soap bubble of pop. It has an unstable, twinkling instrumental where vocals distort and skitter. It unites the lo-fi electro beats of No Rome and The 1975’s irresistible melodies – the result is bubblegum-sweet perfection.
A brilliant, ridiculous five minutes, “Majesty” was more than notable for some of Eminem’s best - and fastest - bars in years. Propping up Minaj’s patchy fourth album Queen, it’s a track that barely takes a breath once Minaj and Mathers take the reins, with the latter hitting an admirable personal best of 10.4 syllables per second.
The second single from Aussie synth-pop magician HANDSOME, “Save Some Love” had a lot to live up to. Predecessor “Late Night Ball Game” is about as close to perfect as debuts come; flickering electronics spread with gossamer layers of pitched and distorted vocals. Its shadowy, self-amplifying beauty sits in opposition to its pacy, upbeat follow-up, as the two battle it out for best track on Handsome’s stellar debut EP. While “Save Some Love” employs many of the same tricks as “Late Night Ball Game”, its sound is beefier, more down to earth. Light, tight percussion keeps the track’s feet firmly on the ground, whilst judicious vocoder use and that signature pitching down on the chorus lend surreal, syrupy topnotes to the mix.
If we were able to take everything great about Stephen Malkmus' latter-day solo output and distil to three-and-a- half minutes, it would no doubt resemble "Middle America". Doubling up as the lead single from Sparkle Hard - and the Jicks first song in four years - this musing, Americana-leaning return saw Malkmus swiftly reclaim the mantle of indie rock elder statesman par excellence.
Reminiscent of - and every bit as effortlessly earworming as - Pavement gem “Gold Soundz”, it’s a masterfully lax tale that earns special status via Malkmus’ ever knowing and incisive words on belonging and - more potent than ever before - the mystifying passing of time.
Rising Midlands artist Emily Burns offered up a slew of spine-tingling numbers throughout 2018, and Studio Black collab “Friends Don't Kiss Friends” is at the top of the bop-laden pile. Out via tastemaker label 37 Adventures (Geowulf, Royce Wood Junior), the track racked up over five million Spotify plays and infected Sad Banger Playslists across the country.
The singer/songwriter has an obviously bright future ahead, proved via refreshing takes on staid love-song formulas that grip you by the heart, and this breakthrough is well deserved after years of toil behind the scenes (including a lengthy stint at Abbey Road behind the reception desk).
Dave has continuously proved that age is just a number when delivering stark reminders of the dystopian reality we try and put to the back of our minds. “Hangman” is a straight-talking track that doesn’t try to make the ugly look pretty, which is one of Dave’s many qualities with his lyricism.
The sparse piano melody projects the power of his eye-wateringly honest songwriting that meanders between politics and his own dealings with challenges in reality - be it school, culture, or even the headlines in the news. His pacing emphasises the meticulous thoughts that go behind the track, hanging onto each breath to let the powerful words sit uncomfortably with his listeners, providing a reminder that all of us have a different story, and that life is not all plain-sailing. “Hangman” is crushingly honest, direct, and proves that Dave’s storytelling is a mile ahead of his competitors.
As a lead producer on XL recordings’ 2016 New Gen compilation, Jevon has his finger firmly on the pulse of UK rap. With his debut single though, he’s thrust himself into the midst of the buzz. “This mixtape’s my throwaways, imagine what my album’s like,” he rallies. “I don’t watch the ‘Ones to Watch’ list/Because the ones you watch are the ones that are watching me.” “Redemption” is darkly uplifting, built around a menacing beat and a looping choral sample. Jevon says he was aiming for a Kanye, “Jesus Walks” kind of vibe – outlining the loftiness of his ambitions - and he’s certainly grabbed our attention.
Some songs throw you in within the first five seconds – "Cola" is one of them. A cozy hip hop beat keeps your head in a loop while lyrics from the 18-year-old South London poet/singer Arlo Parks snap a photograph of a relationship that didn’t work out. A T-shirt in the rain, the back of a party, drunk on Bacardi; “I loved you till death, but now I don’t really care”. We don’t know what happened there, but it doesn’t really matter - I feel it and I’m on her side all along the way. The song looks you in the eye, and the delivery is sensitive, precise and intimate. It’s hard to avoid a infamous analogy of saying that Cola is a brilliant - first single - that... only leaves you thirsty for more.
Garnering over 644 million listens on Spotify - blowing “Bodak Yellow” completely out of the water - "I Like It" combines Cardi’s fierce raps with trap vibes c/o Bad Bunny and J Balvin. Add in a sample of the 1967 hit of the same name by Pete Rodriguez and it was guaranteed to be the song of the summer. The lyrics are so much fun: “Told that bitch I'm sorry though / 'Bout my coins like Mario.”
Released as the fourth single from Invasion of Privacy, "I Like It" also hit the number one spot on the US Billboard Hot 100, giving Cardi the record for female rappers with number one singles.
With her debut album due out in early 2019, Maggie Rogers continues to diligently lay the groundwork for its highly anticipated release. No longer overshadowed by that Pharrell-starring origin story, her singles stand with their own brilliance a poker-straight backbone. Slow-burner “Fallingwater” is no exception: a piano-led half-ballad powered by that hypnotic voice. Regardless of whether you can make sense of her lyrics, Rogers’ voice pulls you in as it dips and soars, riding the thermals generated by its emotional core. There are no gimmicks here; just pure, polished songwriting genius building a landscape of raw and striking beauty.
There’s a lot about drag that is completely artful and that Christine and the Queens tapped into for “Girlfriend”. The entire persona of 'Chris', a tribute to the act’s namesake: the London drag queens of now-defunct Madame JoJos who took Héloïse Letissier under their fabulous wings, giving her both confidence and a family.
“Girlfriend” is the kind of 80s pop jam that gives off the same masculine-yet-genderfuck swagger as its writer. It’s the kind of shit you can dance your feelings off to, especially queer feelings, or a track that can bring those queer feelings out into the world where they should be. Chris, the album, would bring back pop music in a big way; but it was “Girlfriend” that paved the way for the rest of its tracks.It was a huge part of the summer of 2018 and kind of an anthem for those of us on the outside looking in. Listening to it brings back the sweltering heat of summer, of drinking wine in the park and of Pride and of portable speakers blaring the favourite songs of a group of 30-somethings about to get their lives together(ish).
And more than anything, it’s just an absolutely banging debut single from a banging second album.
G FLIP has two singles, and off the back of those has seemingly managed to take over the world. Debut release “About You” is a hypnotic introduction to the Melbourne-based newcomer – one of the first wave of artists announced for Reading and Leeds’ 2019 lineup (all the more impressive when you consider she’s – gasp – a woman!). The drummer-cum-singer eschews any traditional pop structure on this bedroom-produced gem, allowing her percussive flair to take centre stage. Rolling drums and a deep, bassy bed of synths frame a simple yet effective vocal, with the track building to a satisfying crescendo around its relatable lyric.
Lorely Rodriguez ventured out to make a less personal record in Us, the follow-up to 2015’s Me. The LA-based artist has succeeded in painting vivid vignettes on her latest effort – such as the stoop-dwelling New York scenes in “Everything To Me” – and these depictions are shared experiences. But when “When I’m With Him” unfurls at the tail end of Us, it’s clear that Rodriguez is still wont to open up. Over a sparse weaving of air-light drums, piano jabs, and muted funk guitars, Rodriguez details a sad story of deficient love. “I feel like I'm the outside looking in / When I'm with him / I don't know how to love now, I pretend / When I'm with him,” she sings, flocking between breathy falsetto and gravelly mid range.
This chorus is arguably Empress Of’s most melodious refrain to date. It sticks to the brain, trapped, like a relationship that’s not fully reckoned with. Rodriguez, who is Honduran-American, also sings some parts in her native tongue as if we’re invited to eavesdrop on her natural thought process. “When I’m With Him” is one of Us’ strongest tracks thanks to its shattering display or vulnerability and hooky pop prowess.
It starts with an instrumental that feels chill, soft and rich with a cosmic vibe, it’s the perfect instrumental to carry you through the entire track without you even realising the journey you’re on. And I mean, if you want to feel power, strength and overwhelming talent from a vocal - it wouldn’t be the worst thing to visit ‘Regal’ by Noname. With a mix of an easy to listen to melodies and lyrics that actually make you stop and listen, it’s a track that keeps getting you to click repeat. The track is neo-soul, jazz and has these layers on layers that make listening to it feel like somehow you’re hearing bursts of colour.
Richard Swift’s untimely death in July of this year had us totally shook. A musician, collaborator and producer of such versatility and flare, his work with the likes of Damien Jurado, Alex Cameron, The Shins, Kevin Morby, The Arcs and countless more cemented him as one of the true greats.
With him, he left us with The Hex, a record that arguably features some of his best work - most notably the instant classic “Broken Finger Blues”. Playing out like a long distance cousin of 2009’s “Lady Luck”. With Swift’s angel-like falsetto crooning over a soul drenched wall of sound - the track sounding like a long lost northern soul 45 haunted by the ghosts of Wigan casino. The perfect swan song to Swift’s flawless career.
Two of music’s biggest names today, the suit-wearing power couple of Beyonce and Jay-Z were to join forces once more with their latest offering. A key changing, vocal running song with a few bars on the side it was not, but an unapologetic banger from their surprise joint album, Everything Is Love.
Couple it with a culture-commenting music video, this is the reason why they’re still at the top of their game. Queen B no longer caters 2 u, she commands you. And on a united front with Jay, who’s taking aim at the Grammy’s and NFL with his animal-orientated ammo. More than comfortable to sing her peers under the table, Bey instead opts for a straight shooting delivery on lines like “Gimme my check, put some respeck on my check.” Quite fitting when the pair had just kicked off near enough world domination, in the form of a 48-date international tour.
It takes just 14 seconds for duelling drummers Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick to own this song. That’s also precisely how long it will take your arse to start wiggling to the sound of their propulsive, cowbell-infused double time groove. But what’s this? Waiting in the wings is tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and tuba player Theon Cross. Their understated soulful riffs seem intrusive at first until they gather pace to flip the script, pushing their runs into a punishing lockstep. As their lines ascend and descend in dizzying fashion the once imperious drummers sound like they’re struggling to keep up. It’s a breathless six-minute tune that will have you shouting for more.
Mabel McVey has had a big year – a slot supporting Harry Styles on his arena tour, a headline show at London’s Forum, and banger after banger hitting the charts. “Fine Line” is a tropical, energetic summer song about the beginning of a relationship – about figuring each other out, and about dancing between something casual and something more serious. Sonically, it dances between a big, dramatic pop song and a more subtle, flirty R&B track. It’s got hooks, a catchy refrain, ambitious melodies, and a fast-paced, clever verse from Not3s towards the end to pick up the momentum before it gets too repetitive. It has everything the radio seems to want right now, without sounding the same – and that’s what Mabel is too, a pop-star of right now and yet entirely in her own league.
Khalid, Ty Dolla $ign and 6LACK came together to create the R&B track we all needed. “OTW” is the kind of song that plays in the background of a 2am conversation, the kind of song that you can’t help but vibe to. It combines Khalid’s soulful sound with Ty Dolla $ign’s flow and 6lack’s R&B influence. The lyrics describe a relationship based on love and trust and the fact that Khalid will drop anything he’s doing to be with his girl. The '90s nostalgia the song brings combined with the collaboration of these three artists was bound to produce a hit.
Phoebe Bridgers’ most significant contribution to the boygenius project, “Me and My Dog” is the beating, crying heart of the boygenius EP. A soaring breakup anthem, it matched the vocal strengths of Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker against Bridgers’ crystal delivery perfectly. It’s also a conduit for some of Bridgers’ most accomplished lyrics: "I wanna be emaciated,” she laments, “ I wanna hear one song without thinking of you / I wish I was on a spaceship / Just me and my dog and an impossible view.”
When Harry Styles tweets your lyrics, you know you’ve got it made. Despite his cryptic, uncredited missive, King Princess’ debut immediately rocketed up every hotlist, to this date clocking an impressive 160 million streams on Spotify alone. To her credit, King Princess has gone on to release a steady stream of solid gold singles, but it’s the Styles-endorsed “1950” that’s held our attention since first hitting play. “1950” is a gentle queer fairytale of a track, combining King Princess’ signature subtle styling with an unforgettably melodic hook. It’s not a song that goes anywhere fast, but its tender vulnerability lodges somewhere in your heart and settles there with a comfortable ease. There’s a quiet magic in that – one you’ll be hard-pressed to find replicated elsewhere.
“The Story Of Adidon”, Pusha T’s vicious verbal assault on Drake, is the natural conclusion to a beef which began with “Infrared” on Pusha T and Kanye’s DAYTONA (another chapter in the “Drake has a ghostwriter” saga), followed up a day later with Drake’s “Duppy Freestyle” in which the Canadian rapper made the fatal error of mentioning Pusha’s fiance, Vanessa Williams.
“Surgical summer” is what Pusha T calls this finely-tuned three minute takedown; a slow, precise dismantling of Drake’s carefully curated brand. And it’s not just about the track. Pusha T somehow uncovered an unused press shot of Drake in blackface and used Jay Z’s “The Story Of O.J.” instrumental (produced by No I.D.) to take direct aim at Drake’s (allegedly) fragile racial identity: “Confused, always felt you weren’t black enough / Afraid to grow it ’cause your ’fro wouldn’t nap enough.”
Over the sampled piano and metronomic beat, Pusha T goes after Drake’s parents and Drake’s own familial commitments. Pusha crosses a line into misogyny when mentioning SOPHIE Brussaux (the mother of Drake’s - at that moment - unconfirmed son Adonis) but the real target is right in focus. It worked, as by the time Drake released Scorpion the existence of Adonis was admitted beyond hints that he was only using his child as a marketing tool for an Adidas campaign.
Pusha T doesn’t let up; turning his attention to Drake collaborator Noah Shebib, aka Ovo 40, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, Pusha pointedly and unsympathetically suggests the producer isn’t long for this world: “Ovo 40 hunched over like he 80 / tick tick tick / how much time he got / that man is sick sick sick”
You might call it tasteless but in terms of fitting in with the history of diss tracks, its verbal dexterity is flawless. Pusha T uses all his years at the top of the rap game to dissect Drake word by word, beat by beat in his vintage repetitive style.The threat of more hangs over the close of “The Story Of Adidon”. Pusha hints that this is just “volume one” and that terror seems to have silenced Drake. Scorpion was a vacuum.
In the long run this is going to have no effect on Drake’s career but there’s the pride that Pusha T mentions in those early bars. Drake’s frailty has been exposed, and that was the plan all along.
In Childish Gambino’s star studded ‘Feels Like Summer’ video, released earlier this year, he placed Azealia Banks in tree – high above every other rapper featured, but disconnect from them too. It might have been the most accurate portrayal of her career in 2018.Banks’ music – while terrific – is more often than not overshadowed by her public image. If you missed out on “Anna Wintour” this year, but heard plenty about her line of anal bleaching soaps, how she got trapped in Elon Musk’s house, and Lana Del Rey offering her out for a fight, that isn’t shocking.
But every now and again, she likes to prove she does more than just mouth off on Twitter. “Anna Wintour” should’ve been her big comeback; the follow up to ‘212’ she deserved. Its impossibly catchy 90s house beat plays host to both Banks’ powerful voice and unstoppable bars. It treads the pop/rap line in a way that no other artist is doing in 2018. It feels retro but not dated, and sticks to Banks’ signature sound without feeling too same-old. It’s got a video reminiscent of Janet Jackson’s ‘Pleasure Principle’, where Azealia dons an Anna Wintour bob and dances around an empty warehouse, while unapologetically flashing her nipples through a white shirt; and somehow that still flew relatively under the radar.
It seems silly to call Azealia Banks underrated. It’s common knowledge that she’s fantastically talented, she just can’t stop getting herself into trouble. But while recently convicted TekashiSixNine sits at the top of the chart, known abuser XXXTENTATION is posthumously thriving, and the industry rallies around Kodak Black, Banks should be given another shot. Let “Anna Wintour” be the song to convince you she’s not all bad.
We first came across Montreal’s Helena Deland at Ottawa’s Megaphono in February this year, when we named her as one of our picks of the festival. Since then she has spent most of the year drip releasing a series of tracks under the title of Altogether Unaccompanied. Over the course of four volumes the records collected up the fragments of ideas, worked up over the course of the preceding five years, drawn together by the concept of the relationship, and the feeling of being “completely lost in the company of others”.
By releasing in such a way, each fragment is allowed to stand for itself, for its own individualities and memories, while simultaneously being part of a larger whole. Musically the approach has allowed for stylistic exploration, running from tender, stripped down and folk-tinged to pulsing synth pop, the cinematic to fuzzy glam pop stomp. Pulling it all together is Deland’s expressive vocal, intoning intensely personal reflections and meditations on the relationships between human beings in all their imperfect glory: from delight to despair and everything in between.
The woozily psychedelic "There Are A Thousand" was the first track to be released from the series, and serves as a perfect introduction to Deland’s singular talent. Slowly building around co-producer Jesse Mac Cormack’s slinking bassline and hypnotic, heavy lidded synth lines. Guitars intertwine and play off each other, while Deland’s double tracked vocals float over the top, dreamy, melancholy but also with a conspiratorial, almost confessional quality. Intricately pieced together the track was an intoxicating preview of what was to come, and had us wanting to return again and again.
Of all the songs released this year, none have had the ability to cheer me up quite as immediately as Kacey Musgraves' “High Horse”. Though I think there was at least some element of irony when I would first put it on in front of friends and sing along with its opening lyrics–“Oh, I bet you think you’re John Wayne”–I think by the thirtieth play it’s safe to say that had faded. This far deep into Musgraves-mania, it’s hard to remember.
2018 was a landmark year for the Texan star, perhaps filling the country-pop space that Taylor Swift had long left void, and amongst the delicate pop ballads that made up most of her celebrated third album Golden Hour, this hybrid extravaganza “High Horse” shone brightest.
Supposedly inspired by a world where the Bee Gees were introduced to country music, the track gives its sanctimonious subject a sassy and scathing what for, with all the brilliant and dizzy “giddy up, giddy up” energy of a roller disco. It’s that satisfying feeling of putting someone rightfully in their place (“Ride straight out of this town / You and your high horse”) expressed with just the right dose of dreaminess, energy, and melodic enamour of a classic floor-filler. The little shuffle on the high-hats not only adds a flair to the four-on-the-floor beat, but of course mimics the gallop of a horse, nodding its cowboy hat to not only the song’s namesake and theme, but this overarching, cosmic meeting of disco and country. It’s long odds, but I hope I never tire of this song.
The signs, really, have always been there. In 2013 – when stars were courting over-compressed EDM, and Pharrell inspired a raft of weak funk-pop imitators – Charli XCX was experimenting with trap ('What I Like'), rapping with Brooke Candy and getting her tracks remixed by T Williams. She provided a proper alternative, her powerful, accented alto pitched somewhere between Republica's Saffron and Curve's Toni Halliday. But despite flirtations with the chart's upper echelons ('Break the Rules'/'Boom Clap'), she wasn't ever supposed to fit in – she just needed to find her niche.
It's safe to say that niche has been found. Today, Charli is realised as a feather-and-latex-clad sci-fi diva, mashing together the least cringworthy bits of PC Music and Eurodance with the most curve-pushing aspects of trap and alt-pop. She more than dabbles with 90s nostalgia without crashing into pastiche, guaranteeing she won't crumble when the zeitgeist inevitably moves on. And her collaborations are frighteningly discerning, lifting up other incredible women (Tove Lo/Carly Rae Jepsen/MO) and hand-picking the cream of British avant-garde producers (SOPHIE/AG Cook).
Really, it would have been possible to select any of Charli's recent hits for this list (who hasn't got time to watch her and Troye Sivan reenacting Titanic?). But 'No Angel' kind of tips the scales, with Charli on her trademark dirty-girl vibe and SOPHIE nailing three-minutes of bouncing-off-the-walls production. As always, the vocal walks the line between in your ear and in your face, Charli's belt squished up against her own super-close and super-pretty harmonies. And the chorus is Spice-Girls level catchy, with the 'Promise I'll try' call-and-response made for a hairbrush wail-along. If you're looking for a renegade pop star to make your life feel like one endless girls night out, it's Charli, baby.
A much needed dose of the humid Georgia summertime washed over us as winter took hold last month. Atlanta native Faye Webster dropped revealed “Kingston”, the first fruits of her as-yet untitled third album due out next year via her new home Secretly Canadian.
Awash with lowkey R&B undertones and lush pedal steel, the 21-year old singer songwriter has a voice that’s instantly disarming: hitting a sweet spot somewhere between Natalie Prass and Kathleen Edwards. “Kingston” is wholly romantic, Webster crooning “the day that I met you I started dreaming…. Now I write them down if I remember in the morning time” as jazzy flecks of rhodes piano twinkle and dance.
The song feels like a sunrise on a clear summer’s morning. Calm, welcoming and warming - “Kingston” effortlessly displaying Webster’s knack for whimsical melody and turn of phrase. The song playing out like a conversation - the cooing “he said baby (that’s what he called me), I love you” - delivered with all the smoothness of a fresh set of silk pyjamas.
After serving a tenure at Atlanta hip-hop institution Awful Records, Faye Webster is gearing up for a year that’ll no doubt see her positioned alongside her peers in no time.
When “My My My!” was released on 10 January, I woke up at 5am to listen to it the second it arrived. The hot, orgasm-shudder of the introduction made me laugh aloud with utter delight, alone in my freezing cold bed. I spent the day with seven chat windows open to friends across the world, all somehow simultaneously typing thousands of words, whilst being rendered speechless over this perfect, precious jewel of a song.
“My My My!” is a firework of queer joy, almost gothic in its twinning of sexual voracity and romantic drama: “I die every night with you” Sivan pronounces as a thousand synths crash above him. The tentative introspection of his first album, Blue Neighbourhood is transformed into exhibitionist action: on the second track of his debut, Sivan coyly asked his lover to kiss, but not to bite; here, he boasts of having their tongue between his teeth. It’s the sound of loosening muscles that have been tensed against the world for years and years. “I was looking for that exhale of relief,” he explained in a radio interview.
The strength of “My My My!” lies in its demonstration of the liberation that can come from romantic and sexual bravery. “Let’s stop running from love,” Sivan pleads to himself, to his lover – but more importantly, to us; bundled up in blankets at 5am in January, in bed alone with photographs of our long lost loves still pinned to our walls. Troye understands that his queer joy could be ours, if only we could find it in our hearts to be brave like him, too.
As Let’s Eat Grandma, Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton are one-offs; well, two-offs, to be precise. The title of their debut, 2016’s I, Gemini, neatly summed up the hermetic seal of their relationship and songwriting, but its follow up I’m All Ears saw their musical vision explode into even more vivid technicolor. Especially so on “Falling Into Me”, where to paraphrase Neil Tennant, the childhood friends tell a story of venturing out into the night to a disco beat.
It’s a giant step from their first foray into dance music. I, Gemini’s “Eat Shiitake Mushrooms” was an incredible, loping house anthem replete with cowbells and rapping but “Falling Into Me” is something else altogether. Audacious in its ambition, scope and invention, it’s underscored by a supreme confidence and joy; the spoken refrain of “We got this” sounds wonderfully sure-footed.
Words about falling in love and discovery fly in every direction - “When all the words you say are hanging onto me / You occupy my mind by every which way” - and as the song progresses the rush of infatuation grows from the poeticism of “We’re so illuminated in the night” to the intimacy of “You, me, this…” Musically the rush is equally euphoric, with the arrangement filled with big beat drums and stabbed house pianos. When a saxophone appears at the songs’ close you wonder where the reference points are coming from, it recalls early ‘90s pop/dance blends like 808 State’s “Pacific State” and The Future Sound of London’s “Papua New Guinea”, but so unique is Hollingworth and Walton’s writing, the joyous sax solo sounds like an instinctual rather than referential addition to the mix.
By the end of its near six minutes running time the song has traversed trance, house, disco and baroque, but ultimately it’s more than the sum of its parts. “Falling Into Me” is one of the best and most original pop songs of 2018.
Blood Orange’s Negro Swan LP is a 2018 standout, not only for its invigorating palate of sparse instrumentation and production finesse, but also for its immediate and timely study of anxieties in the black and queer communities. It provided plenty of stunning moments including a monologue from Puff Daddy where he unravels his anxieties and fears on love, but it’s “Nappy Wonder” which stands out as the most striking, personal moment on the album.
On the track, Dev Hynes looks back with slightly blurred feelings of nostalgia and despair as he flits between his past and present perspective. “I bust it up on Ilford Lane / A pleasure flip up to my grade”, he recalls as he sandwiches the innocence of his skateboarding youth between a chorus which provides apt commentary on past cultural norms; “feelings never had no ethics/feelings never have been ethical”.
“Nappy Wonder” is the amalgamation of Hynes’ statement of intent for Negro Swan as its instrumental subtly morphs and inflects to support the subject matter at hand. The track begins pinned down by a simple beat and chord pattern which eventually spirals into a sonic tapestry of warping sirens, spoken word and erratic flourishes of keys and guitar. It’s the sound of realisation, reflecting the cultural awakenings of 2018 and the potent drive to shake off the social norms of old.
Most of Mahalia’s tracks are peppered with intimate and personal lyrics, they almost feel like diary entries. "Mother and father I want to make you proud," she sings over a soft and soulful beat, with the accompanying video showing her around her Leicester hometown haunts, hanging out with friends. It somehow manages to have a kind of nostalgic feel to it, even for someone who’s never stepped foot in Leicester.
By the time Simz kicks in with her verse, I’m completely feeling the swell of music and already sold on what it was saying, ready to follow them down that rabbit hole. It’s that universal, underdog/coming-of-age track that’s either relatable, brings up memories - and apart from both of those things, it hooks you with the chorus melody.
A deluge of spotlight-hopping rap drama has ripped through 2018, and Drake, Nicki Minaj, Pusha-T, Meek Mill, Kanye West, Cardi B, Azealia Banks, Post Malone, and more have taken up headlines and column inches across the globe – to say nothing of the likes of Tekashi 6ix9ine and XXXTentacion. So spare a though for A$AP Rocky, whose comparatively quiet year actually resulted in perhaps his strongest record to date: innovative 15-tracker Testing.
Sounds from Moby, Kid Cudi, FKA twigs, Frank Ocean, and many more coalesce on a bewitchingly trippy LP that breaches hip-hop's boundaries and seeps into psychedelia – it's the kind of progression hinted at during second album At.Long.Last.A$AP. Testing is studded with highlights, but Rocky's collab with London MC Skepta stands head and shoulders above the pack.
“Praise The Lord (Da Shine)” slips and slides through the speakers with relentless pace and faux-Peruvian flair (it's actually rooted in a stock Apple sample), with Rocky and Skepta trading bars in a tie-dyed fug full of erratic warmth. It's no surprise the Skepta-produced tune is as mind-melting as it is, given the origin story.
“Skeppy came through. I had this psychedelic professor and he studies in LSD,” Rocky explained to Genius. “I had him come through and kinda record and monitor us to actually test the product while being tested on. We did the rhymes all tripping balls bro. Niggas was high. We were just smoking mad weed and it was just like, it was amazing bro. It’s a gnarly situation, so it’s just kind of hard to even try to describe, especially to sober people.”
“Praise The Lord” is remarkably focused despite the acid-washed beginnings. Rocky's never one to steer away from singing his own praises, but on this offering he meshes modesty, positivity, and self-awareness to craft something different alongside Mercury Prize winner Skepta. It's supremely uplifting and, in conjunction with the impeccable production, lets us all see a fascinating side to A$AP Rocky's public persona.
Let’s choose to ignore the insipid “Sky Full Of Song” and pretend that “Hunger” was the dramatic return of Florence and the Machine we’d all been waiting for. How could it not be? There’s a lyric about crucifixion, and sub-bass to rend your ribcage in two. It’s hard to tell if it makes you want to dance or scream but either way you’re compelled to play it on loop for days at a time.
It’s the stand-out track from fourth full-length High As Hope, if not from Florence and the Machine’s decade of existence. “Hunger” sees Florence Welch’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to songwriting balanced with clean, crisp production - though thankfully none of the sanitised gleam of 2012’s Paul Epworth behemoth Ceremonials. That chilling first lyric lays bare the bones of the horror at the band’s core, the horror so many previous releases aim to obscure and obfuscate. It’s an admission that, amongst the heady swells of emotion underpinning Florence and the Machine’s discography, there lies ground as uncharted as the dark side of the moon. “At seventeen, I started to starve myself/I thought that love was a kind of emptiness,” Welch tells us, frank and unapologetic in the humanity of her ignorance. “And at least I understood then the hunger I felt/And I didn't have to call it loneliness.” Welch knows loss, knows heartbreak, and drama, but love is something she’s yet to pin down. It’s the rare and coveted butterfly that’s escaped her collector’s net; to employ cliché, her white whale.
In laying herself bare to that absence, that emptiness, Welch acknowledges her insatiable hunger. She allows us a glimpse into the fragility of every soaring love song, the superficiality of every saccharine “You’ve Got The Love”. The resulting track? Without a doubt, Florence and the Machine at their opulent, unnerving best.
Catalan singer/songwriter Rosalía used 2018 to reshape the way we think about flamenco and it all started with the muted grandeur of “Malamente”. It was the first track to be taken from her latest full length project El Mal Querer, named after her final university thesis which was in fact a detailed study of Flamenco’s history. The record sees Rosalía push past the traditional confines of genre once again and venture into a realm of rule breaking while still embracing the heart of the art which she studied extensively.
Having already been nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2017 with her debut Los Ángeles, Rosalía had nothing to prove, but “Malamente” sparked a furor not only among the Latin-speaking community, but across the world as praise for her new material came in fast. Part of the still expanding rise of Latin pop in the global charts, “Malamente” is not your typical crossover. It’s not “Despacito”, it’s not the latest hot track from J Balvin or Bad Bunny, it’s something more.
“Malamente” is held together by the unique tone and endless character of Rosalía’s voice and the subtle hand claps which set the pace for the track’s spine-tingling effortlessness. It’s low key, it’s unassuming, but it’s still powerful whether you’re able to pick apart the mesmerising lyrics steeped in superstition and symbology. It’s roots are in the rich and deep heritage of the genre which Rosalía has studied since the age of 13. There’s so much more to it than a blissful flamenco guitar and the snap of a pair of castanets and there are so many places it can go as its traditional are fortified and expanded.
With such an extensive past, there’s always more to learn, however Rosalía may need to press pause until the history books catch up with her. With “Malamente” Rosalía fuses electronic, R&B and more pop elements than ever into her work. She’s at a point where she’s essentially reinventing the genre she has spent her life studying. Rosalía is revolutionary and “Malamente” is her crowning glory.
Lana Del Rey’s early work was a rose reared under hothouse lights, fresh for the picking; a cinematic, shimmering fantasy of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. "Venice Bitch", the second single of her upcoming album Norman Fucking Rockwell, is something organic – a natural wildflower.
Clocking in at no less than ten minutes (to the despair of her management), Lana murmurs that she’s, “Fresh out of fucks, forever”. She sings with the cadence of someone cynical and bored, rhyming with “ice cream” with “ice queen”. You can almost see her twirling her hair absent-mindedly around her fingers. We are welcomed with gentle acoustics, which dissolve into buzzing guitars and her dulcet sighs for the chorus.
"Venice Bitch" is a brilliant shade of blue: temperamental and loaded with Lana-isms. The crescendo of this epic are distorted, crinkled guitar riffs that feel like a faraway transmission on a 70s FM radio. ‘Venice Bitch’ is another illustrator of Lana Del Rey’s power to take you places, with an imaginary montage of Cadillacs, cherry cola and James Dean whirring through your head like a dusted-off movie reel.
It's difficult to underestimate just how important this year's Marvel blockbuster Black Panther has been to the superhero cannon, and to cinema in general. The film offered an unprecedented serving of representation, its imagining of an Afrofuturist alternate reality brought to life by a majority cast of Black actors. As Tre Johnson wrote in Rolling Stone, an entire generation will soon know what it's like 'to be reflected back on costume racks, coloring books [and] movie screens... at a pivotal time where these characters and stories are coming not out of permission or obligation, but necessity.'
And of course, such a vision could not be properly realised without rich representation in its production team, director Ryan Coolgar enlisting Kendrick Lamar to orchestrate the film's soundtrack. The album was Black Panther's sparkling analogue, loaded with a roster of tremendous black artists, from the fresh faces of Swae Lee and Jorja Smith to established heavyweights Schoolboy Q and Anderson .Paak. But in the LP's sea of high-energy takes on trap, hip hop and r'n'b, one track hovered above the rest: Lamar and SZA's exquisite collaboration, "All the Stars".
For both artists, "All the Stars" is anomalous in its relative lack of self-consciousness: what happens when an awkward girl from New Jersey and rap's superstar nihilist 'do Hollywood'. The marching drums, the slow-climbing strings, the hook's expectant refrain that success may just be within reach, ring in affinity with the film's arc of triumph over adversity.
But despite her collaborator's stats, SZA steals this particular show. It's been a minute since CTRL bulldozed its way into our collective consciousness, but "All the Stars" is a reminder that she is one of the best singer-songwriters of her generation: a woman who could rewrite your shopping list into a Pulitzer-worthy poem and bring you to tears singing it back to you. Fingers and toes crossed that 2019 will see her re-emerge, hopefully with another Lamar-shaped hook-up in the bank.
Little Simz is stamping her name into the brains of rap fans across the world. Having already been endorsed by the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Lauryn Hill, the 24-year-old Londoner has plenty of reason to dish out the orders. “Offence” is built on a kickin’ 80s hip hop beat, overlayed with rumbling, reverb-y basslines that unintentionally deliver an old school, boombox feel to the track.
Simz projects authoritative lyricism to coincide with the heated instrumentals, putting her listeners in their place by riding her own praise wave. Delivering an opening line like “I’m Picasso with the pen” is a forewarning to not block her path, before she sets her own song alight with “I’m Jay-Z on a bad day / Shakespeare on my worst days.”
There’s no qualms over saying she’s one of the UK’s best female rappers, particularly with her adept lyricism and energetic delivery, which has allowed her to create and release two albums independently. “Offence” only projects her expertise further, and shows her playfully confident personality as she raps “Fuck it, lemme get a birthday cake and it ain’t even my birthday.” She calls out her haters like she’s stood in their personal space, adding bouts of aggression and passion when she raps “You do not scare me, no you are not a threat”. The chorus is a liberating ode to believing in the power of your own voice as she yells “I said it with my chest and I don’t care who I offend”.
Thick skinned and ready to take a punch, Simz is standing her ground for the forseeable future, and will offer up a nail-biting fight to the person attempting to deliver “Offence” and take her wordsmith belt.
It takes a special kind of artist to hone in on something as outwardly niche as the lived symbolism of a Hungarian-born surfer and see the potential for a song. With “Miki Dora”, Amen Dunes (aka Damon McMahon) not only did that: he crafted a nuanced anthem that has went down as one of the year’s most affecting songs.
The lead single from McMahon’s remarkably cohesive fifth album, Freedom, “Miki Dora” was an intoxicating reminder that simplicity - in this case, a reiterative and cresting three chord spell - can often beget real depth. Writing on Instagram, the New Yorker offered insight into how the song taps into several realms: “Miki Dora [...] was also a lifelong criminal and retrograde: a true embodiment of the distorted male psyche. He was a living contradiction; both a symbol of free-living and inspiration, and of the false heroics American culture has always celebrated. With lyrics of regret and redemption at the end of one’s youth, the song is about Dora, and myself, but ultimately it is a reflection on all manifestations of mythical heroic maleness and itsillusions.”
By wrangling the singular story of Dora - who will, by all accounts, continue to go down as something of a mythical surfing antihero - McMahon’s famously inscrutable words blur the contours between terse refrains (“The waves are gone”; and “Roll around with me”) and layers of much bigger meaning. It’s this tug-o-war between profundity and the everyday, driven home by McMahon’s quivering cadences, twanging guitar shapes and mid-tempo savvy, that seals the deal and then some. As it fades off into nothingness, a gentle swell of jangle and rolling drums, you can’t help but feel that you have witnessed something truly wonderful beyond the surface of a tumbling wave.
“Wild Yout” was Flohio’s fourth and best release of 2018. SE16’s finest rapper had an insanely brilliant year and 2019 is only going to get better for her….a wild thought given the strength of her Wild Yout EP.
“Wild Yout” is a track which refused to be boxed in by its influences. A menacing opening in which electronic noises bounce around, echoing off tower blocks and fading out in open concrete spaces takes its cues from grime, but as soon as production whizz HLMNSRA drops in booming 808s and Flohio unleashes her stuttering, rhythmic delivery then we’re heading off into hip hop and trap, all with a London-through-Lagos twist.
Flohio is a ball of energy throughout. There’s not been a more electric rapper in 2018, no one more mesmerising on the mic. It takes a couple of listens to “Wild Yout” before you realise that all you’re suddenly focusing on is Flohio’s frenetic delivery; there’s moments when she races ahead of the low end and the blown-out beats and “Wild Yout” feels thrillingly chaotic and genuinely innovative. Flo even has to take a little bit of a breather before the mid point of the track before storming back, doubling-down.
The best thing about “Wild Yout” is that combination of almost slo-mo beats and Flo’s x2 delivery, it’s almost expressionist or improvised - as much as this is 21st century UK rap drawing from south London’s incredible, varied scenes, Flohio’s ridiculous energy draws just as much from punk.
“Don’t look behind you / keep on running from the wild yout.” Next year everyone will be playing catchup.
Childish Gambino has always had the talent to surprise. These surprises are usually delivered in a creative context, however, where obscure production meet with his soulful tone or rapping finesse to devise something truly captivating. “This Is America” shocked, innovated and made America shut up and listen, even if it was briefly.
Donald Glover used “This Is America” to illustrate a half-explained truth. Through a number of contrasts, Glover explains what it is like to be black in modern-day America. The swinging between upbeat melodies and a trap-style and menacing pulse make the overall tone of the song striking. As Glover tightropes between the two worlds and his voice swings between the two moods, the burning conflict is displayed with great clarity.
If the song alone was not enough to grab the attention of a divided nation, the video sure was. And how did Glover’s overwhelming creativity come alive in the music video? He simply did what any other American would do in a time of crisis: turn their tension into satire. As Glover prances around topless in a deserted warehouse, a number of alarming yet painfully truthful portrayals of America are laid out bare in front of us. The shooting of a choir singing the chorus as joyfully as Glover being the most startling.
Sometimes, it’s good to use your creativity and place in the market to address current affairs. And Childish Gambino did just that in 2018. In a year where Donald Trump still has access to far too many buttons and the divide between races is growing further apart, this is the rude awakening America needed. And a prolific overview for us on the other side of the pond.
On "T N Biscuits" rapper Slowthai delivered one of the most memorable opening lines of the year: “Drug Dealer/I wear Nike not Fila”. It’s seven simple words, more of a Tinder bio than a manifesto, but somehow the line conveys the attitude and intent that underpins all of slowthai’s work. He is clear, raw and as in-your-face as any UK artist right now.
The self-proclaimed ‘King of Northampton’, slowthai’s lack of proximity to the London-centric grime scene has given his music a contemporary edge that comes from being different. Slowthai’s production marries grime’s raw intensity with a hip-hop tempo that gives him the breathing space to showcase his gold-toothed swagger and genuine wit. The track is a breathless blend of lyrical dexterity and switched-up flows. His voice practically hums in time with the crack of the snare. It’s a rowdy track that hits hard throughout, particularly live where slowthai often performs from within an unruly mosh pit.
In essence, ‘T N Biscuits’ is a window into slowthai’s life of crime and accordingly, he doesn’t shy away from depicting some fairly violent episodes: “If it's gonna get physical / Slyly I'm gonna bring in a tool / Try me you could get slumped in two”. This is a necessary part of slowthai’s appeal. So much of British popular culture is sanitised, agreeable and safe but slowthai’s lyrics fizz with danger and intimidation. However, what really sets him apart is his sense of humour. He openly mock symbols of British identity all the way from the police (“Certain man haffi kill of the mood / Come like Christmas, why be Scrooge?”) right down to the tea and biscuits which inspire the track's title. Ultimately, ‘T N Biscuits’ isn’t just the standout track from slowthai’s breakthrough year. It’s the soundtrack of a Britain in which people get used, laws get broken and it’s all for a bit of gold or a new pair of Nikes.
There’s always something about a track like girl in red’s "I Wann Be Your Girlfriend", that really makes you wish that the person singing it gets a happy ending. I want to know who Hannah is, I want to know what she’s like, what her favorite ice-cream flavour is, whether she has a favorite flower, how many hearts has she broken and whether she likes the rainbow that appears in an oil slick on a rainy day. Short, direct and desperate with a choppy guitar - Norweigan DIY artist Marie Ulven sells us a story about wanting to kiss someone - and it’s not filled with metaphors and similes about the sun rising and the clouds moving for love. It’s about wanting to kiss someone until your lose your breath.
Listening to her repeat, ‘Oh Hannah’ throughout the song, you can hear the teenage obsession, waves of feeling like you might just implode if you can’t be near the person you want to be near. And then, "Oh this can’t be real / It’s all just a dream’ comes along and suddenly it’s like you're 19 again in your room, trying to figure out why your heart won’t stop feeling when your head keeps telling it to.
Ulven isn’t trying to be rough and ready, or producing songs so they sound choppy and indie, or designing a studio to look like a bedroom: she just is all of those things.
Someone might have many reasons to dance. Maybe they’re happy. Maybe they’re sad. Or maybe they’re horrendously heartbroken and use music as a way to personify and let go of their pain and anguish. With the lead single Missing U from her eighth album ‘Honey’, Robyn was definitely the latter.
The Swedish pop maestro still carries all the fizz and sparkle that was displayed in her defiant 2010 single ‘Dancing On My Own’. And, apparently, the same level of emotional devastation that burdened her mind is still very much intact eight years on.
So much so that it has almost become her trademark. However, the intensity of Missing U shows Robyn go above and beyond her previous work.
Produced by long-term friends Klas Ahlund and Metronomy’s Joseph Mount, the song mirrors 80’s-style soaring synths with heart-breaking lyrics to create something that defines Robyn’s trademark even further. The lyrics are ultimately poignant and hard-hitting. Lyrics such as “All the love you gave, it still defines me” and “There’s this empty space you left behind, now you’re not here with me” are heart-wrenching but are cleverly masqueraded by a pulsating beat that makes you want to sway your arms around in appreciation. This alluring contrast, combining with the looser, more free-flowing feeling of the song as a whole, staples it as ultimate pop perfection. After an eight-year break from her solo career, it is nice to see Robyn back to her usual ways. Creating pop music that hits both the body and the soul has always been her speciality, and it seems that with each new album, this speciality is constantly being perfected, re-wired and completely revolutionised. Maybe a similar static silence needs to accumulate for a few more years to allow her to create something more magnificent next time round.
There are so many reasons to rejoice at the critical and commercial success SOPHIE has found in 2018, many of which are beautifully expressed by Hannah Jocelyn in her review of the producer’s debut LP, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides for this site. Her uncompromising, relentless approach has cast a long shadow of influence this year; collaborators like Charli XCX, Vince Staples and Let’s Eat Grandma have positioned themselves squarely at the cutting edge of future-facing contemporary pop music over the last twelve months, yet it’s arguable that none would have created such incredible work of late without the help of Sophie’s genius.
“Faceshopping” provides a perfect distillation of everything that makes Sophie one of 2018’s most important artists. The elastic, stretching, snapping synths; the wild, mischievous changes of direction; the inimitable cocktail of arch artificiality, uneasy sexuality, gleeful wrong-footing and frequent glimpses of a very human sense of empathy. This is an artist who is blessed by an astonishing ability to identify and channel rich seams of both darkness and beauty from between the cracks of sex, identity, high art, low culture, new technology and age-old pathologies. “Faceshopping” demonstrates that talent to electrifying effect, progressing from an initial, eerie calm (punctuated by a deliciously resonant, plosive pop from the central vocal), through a brutal, trap-flavoured middle section, to a dizzying tempest of a climax, all breathless hysteria and howling vertigo.
Lyrically, the track follows a similarly slippery structure, the uncanny tranquillity of the initial lines’ delivery made all the more unreal by the artful emptiness of their words (“My face is the front of shop… I’m real when I shop my face”), before a number of facets of modern syntheses (“Hydroponic skin… Plastic surgery… Scalpel, lipstick, gel… Memories of love”) crank up the intensity ahead of that stunningly melodramatic pinnacle. Defiant, cathartic and utterly vital, this is truly world-bending pop music.
Mitski’s “Geyser” rings in this year’s Be The Cowboy with a single steady tone and her full, no-frills vocal. “You’re my number one,” she croons, as a deftly engineered glitch juts through the balance of her measured voice. A crescendo builds beneath it, all warmth and power: the sonic equivalent of the titular natural phenomenon.
Whilst “Geyser” can stand alone – and indeed did, as Be The Cowboy’s lead single – it’s most potent in its context as album opener, scene-setter, mission statement. Mitski outlined the LP’s narrative before its release, explaining how it loosely tells the story of “a very controlled icy repressed woman who is starting to unravel”. “Geyser” introduces us to this new chapter, in which – both lyrically and musically – we meet “something very primordial” within this inhibited protagonist that’s fighting tooth and claw to surface.
There’s something intimidating about this new sound. Though not altogether distant from that of previous records, where the gentle awkwardness of her lyricism was bolstered by towering distortion, the Mitski of Be The Cowboy has swagger without self-consciousness; has been broken open to find a wholeness. It’s the sonic equivalent of the manic gleam in a spurned lover’s eye; the realisation that with nothing left to lose, the real games are only just beginning. Never one to outstay her welcome, Mitski wraps “Geyser” as soon as it’s exploded into high-powered technicolour; concluding two sharply emotional minutes with rolling, exuberant percussion and a yearning promise to “be the one you need”. Melodramatic? Perhaps, but refusing to pull punches means “Geyser” cements Mitski as the patron saint of sad girls the world over. Not only that, but its clarity of purpose reminds us of the breadth of her musicianship and mastery of her craft.
Mitski means so much to so many people, and “Geyser” – along with the rest of Be The Cowboy – shows this is a weight she’s not afraid to shoulder.
The 1975 have always been attracted to excess. Lyrical concerns with fame and drugs and sex are met with their sonic equals: audacious production and 15-track-plus albums. On “Love It If We Made It”, the second single from third album A Brief Enquiry Into Online Relationships, they switch focus to the excesses of the contemporary world: political extremes, technological acceleration and 24 hour rolling news. A lyrical list of quotes, soundbites and headlines unfurls like the dying year flashing in front of its own eyes: “Access all the applications that are hardening positions based on miscommunication… A beach of drowning three-year-olds/Rest in peace Lil Peep.” “I moved on her like a bitch,” Matty Healy yells at the opening of the final verse — a direct quotation chosen specifically so that radio stations would have to censor the words of the sitting US President.
“Love It If We Made It” is the sound of this moment in time because of its zeitgeisty lyrics of course, but it’s also because of how they are communicated: an endless scroll of tweets and headlines with no space for thought or emotion before the next one rolls into view. Levelled, loud, persistent. The song itself is a monolith, maximalist to the extreme. Each electronic trill and whoosh is like digital overspill from the overpacked whole. Collapse is a constant threat.
Matty Healy’s voice is emotionless and neutral, until that ambiguous titular line. “But I’d love it if we made it,” he pleads, or hopes, or deadpans. It’s demonstrative of one of the central tensions in The 1975’s music: it could be read as sincere, or sarcastic, or both. This caveat, this glimpse of humanity between the cracks of 2018’s specific brand of terror, reflects the contradictions of life on this dying planet. We might make a nihilistic joke about watching the world burn on Twitter, then later on that night, privately pray for survival to a god we barely believe in. In the face of a decaying future, we like to think we’re resigned to our fate — but tenacity blooms in the darkest of times.
The year is 2018 and there have never been so many ways to be alone. Some feel that loneliness is like a dense forest: impenetrable. Some feel that loneliness is like a wave, all-consuming as it pulls you under then churns you out. For others, though, loneliness is a hunger with no appetite, or a forgotten phrase in your native language—it’s borne from the knowledge that something is missing, and it’s a dull ache that lingers in the background. It’s a bruise that won’t fade. We cut our hair and change our sheets, but this kind of loneliness is as persistent as it is uninvited.
But there’s a difference between being lonely and being alone. The former is defined by absence—to be lonely is to feel alone, and to be tethered to that which is missing—while the latter is defined by opportunity: it’s a place to grow and to reflect; to heal and to recover; to take a deep breath in, and then let it out slowly. Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” is a celebration of this liminal space and of its many curves and edges.
Heartbreak is a feeling lived through modal verbs: We could have had it all; you oughta know; I will survive. But in “thank u, next”, Grande’s past flames are relived through clear eyes in the present tense. Over gentle, rolling chords, she starts by recounting time spent with her exes–Big Sean, Ricky Alvarez, Pete Davidson, and Mac Miller–before clarifying: ”I've loved and I've lost/But that's not what I see/Look what I got/Look what you taught me”.
To be famous is to be known, to be known is to be seen, and Ariana Grande’s life has been lived under the crushing pressure of hypervisibility. She’s spoken about this before—following her split with Big Sean in 2015, she took to Twitter to describe the pressures she felt as a young woman in the public eye. Her worth, she said, would always be attached to her partners and her exes—could she be valued on her own terms and for her own accomplishments? She continued:
“I’m saying this after literally 8 years of feeling like I constantly had to have a boy by my side. After being on my own now for a few months I am realizing that’s just not the case…. I have never felt more present, grounded, and satisfied. I’ve never laughed harder or had more fun or enjoyed life more”.
“thank u, next” was released as the young singer was caught at a similarly difficult crossroads weeks after her long-term partner Mac Miller tragically passed away at 26 and her starry-eyed engagement to Davidson fell through. Fans ran through her posts with a fine-toothed comb for clues about the cause of her breakup; dubious conspiracy theories swirled about, linking the engagement’s end with Mac Miller’s death and offering competing claims as to who was at fault; a rash of criticism spread suggesting that Grande should have been kinder or more private or more sincere or more gracious. Some love stories rise from the ashes of a tragedy, but while Ariana’s personal life was dissected under a microscope, perhaps there was never a better time to be alone.
The second verse picks apart this knotted web. Ariana starts with her recuperation: “Spent more time with my friends/I ain’t worried ‘bout nothin’/Plus, I met someone else/We havin’ better discussions”. She nods knowingly to her critics, anticipating their blows—”I know they say I move on too fast/but this one gon’ last”. Then, she pulls out the rug from beneath our feet: “Cause her name is Ari/And I’m so good with that”.
There’s a weary sense of reticence around self-discovery narratives rooted in heartbreak, and a sensible one at that: Are we the sum of our exes? The claim suggests that self-discovery is rendered only from breakups, questioning the role of personal agency in personal growth. On the other hand, were our relationships in the past tense simply roadblocks in the narrative arcs of our self exploration? A third option presents a more optimistic reading on the relationship between our exes and our sense of self: Perhaps our past relationships stand as artifacts of who we once were, and benchmarks of how far we’ve come. Ariana doesn’t seem particularly bothered by these questions, though, choosing instead to frame her past relationships as neither failures nor roadblocks nor pit stops on “thank u, next”. Above the track’s restrained instrumentation, her voice weaves in and out of heavenly harmonies as she does her own background vocals. There’s a gentle ringing of bells when she reaches her call-and-response chorus as she affirms, then reaffirms how she feels about her exes in no uncertain terms: “I’m so fuckin’ grateful for my ex”.
The final verse presents a vision from the future. Ariana pictures herself walking hand-in-hand with her mother as she thanks her father, a source of tension and drama from which her mother grew. These lessons she’s learned—the lessons of relationships past, present, and future—are often complicated and incongruent, but Ariana has aligned them under an axis of optimism she’s discovered now that she has space to breathe. “thank u, next” unfolds like a fairy tale, but it’s not one edging towards a happy ending or a Prince Charming. It’s an anthem about being alone. Loneliness might feel opaque or dull or turbulent, but being alone is a blessing, and one on which Ariana reflects on throughout the song. Love, patience, pain—they are lessons rooted in the past, but discovered in the present. They’re lessons she fostered while learning that there need not be loneliness when one’s alone. And they’re lessons she’s ready to share: “Look what I’ve found/Ain’t no need for searching”.