This playlist of choice selections from the year in pop music begins with my favorite song of the year.
That would be Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel,” a cut from her album Dirty Computer that did what music is supposed to do better than anything else this year: make you feel.
But “Make Me Feel” and the 24 other songs here aren’t ranked from first to best; they’re gathered together as a playlist. Some are big hits, some should have been, and others were made for niche consumption.
It’s a 25-song playlist meant to be streamed using the Spotify link at the bottom of the story, serving up a pop, rap, rock, country, and R&B overview of what 2018 sounded like, from Cardi B to Childish Gambino and Lucy Dacus to Drake. Listen up!
Janelle Monae, “Make Me Feel.” The Atlanta future-soul singer gets the party started with this taut, frisky homage to Prince (who’s rumored to have worked on it) and celebration of sexual freedom.
Cardi B, “I Like It.” The former reality show star (and soon-to-be former wife of Migos rapper Offset; sorry to hear about that, Cardi) makes her salsa move on this boisterous cut that features Latin trap singer J Balvin and Bad Bunny. Its infectious sample is from Pete Rodriguez’s 1967 boogaloo hit, “I Like It Like That.”
Travis Scott, “Sicko Mode.” This chart-topping single off Houston rapper Scott’s head-spinning Astro World is a tempo-shifting thrill ride in three parts featuring a trio of producers and uncredited guest rappers, most significantly Drake.
Drake, “Nice for What.” No discussion of 2018 in pop music would be complete without Drake, who was the most-streamed artist on Spotify and Apple Music. (Thankfully: If not for him, Post Malone would have been No. 1) “Nice” samples Lauryn Hill and New Orleans bounce queen Big Freedia, and its video smartly yields the stage to a parade of formidable women, including ballerina Misty Copeland, comedian Tiffany Haddish, and actress Issa Rae.
Robyn, “Honey.” The title track on Robyn’s first album in eight years acquired mythic status among fans after an unfinished snippet was featured in an episode HBO’s Girls. The finished product is a prime example of the thinking woman’s dance music the Swedish pop star excels at.
Natalie Prass, “Short Court Style.” Richmond, Va., indie singer Prass trashed a completely written follow-up to her 2015 debut after the presidential election and started fresh with what became her pointedly positive The Future & the Past, exemplified by this charming slice of synth-powered pop.
Ella Mai, ”Boo’d Up.” British R&B singer Ella Mai is one of the rising stars of 2018. This is the quietly sensuous “I think I’m in love” song of the year.
Caroline Rose, “Jeannie Becomes a Mom.” Rose transformed herself into a sneakily subversive indie pop singer this year. Loner is full of gems. This one satirizes and celebrates suburban bliss.
MorMor, “Heaven’s Only Wishful.” A gently bouncing soul-pop confection from the title cut on the debut EP from Toronto songwriter Seth Nyquist starts out cheerful then takes a darker turn. One to watch.
Ariana Grande, “thank u, next.” After naming a song for then-fiance Pete Davidson on her Sweetener album, the big-voiced pop singer said goodbye and concentrated on self-love with this winning kiss-off.
Kacey Musgraves, “Space Cowboy.” A clever turn of phrase -- “You can have your space, cowboy” — from the Texas country singer who gracefully eased her way into 1970s soft rock on Golden Hour.
Lucy Dacus, “Night Shift.” A rich recovery song — ”Regaining my self-worth in record time” — that slams the door on a relationship from another Richmond, Va., singer who is also one third of the female singer-songwriter super-group boygenius.
Soccer Mommy, “Your Dog.” With a nod to Iggy Pop, 21-year-old Sophie Allison makes it clear she has no intention of being anyone’s pet. From her wholly impressive Clean debut.
Rosanne Cash with Sam Phillips, “She Remembers Everything.” Powerful statement of feminist solidarity and exploration of pain that never goes away, from the title cut of a strong new album by Americana vocalist and songwriter Cash.
Ruston Kelly, “Faceplant.” A typically smart and self-deprecating highlight from Dying Star, the superb debut album from the Nashville songwriter who happens to be Musgraves' husband, following up on the promise of his 2017 EP Halloween.
Jeff Tweedy, “Some Birds.” Cheerfully melodic and strummy pop from Warm, the first solo album by the Wilco leader, which is a winning companion piece to his frank, engaging memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back).
Hurry, “Waiting for You.” First-class power-pop jangle from the Philly trio led by songwriter-guitarist Matthew Scottoline.
Low Cut Connie, “Beverly.” From "Shake it Little Tina” to “Me N Annie” and many more, Low Cut Connie leader Adam Weiner is a practiced hand at turning out high-quality pop songs with women’s names in the titles. This standout is from Dirty Pictures (part 2).
Ty Segall, “Every 1’s a Winner.” Psych rock powerhouse Ty Segall is one of those artists who are easy to take for granted because they’re super-prolific. He released three albums this year! This fuzzed-out cover of a 1978 funk hit by Hot Chocolate — best known for “You Sexy Thing” — is indeed a winner.
Kurt Vile, “Rollin with the Flow.” Most of my favorite songs on Kurt Vile’s Bottle It In are more than 10 minutes long, so let’s go with this cover of Charlie Rich’s easygoing “Rollin with the Flow,” which shows off the Philly indie rock star’s country proclivities.
Joshua Hedley, “Weird Thought Thinker.” Keeping it country with sharply dressed neo-traditionalist Hedley, who nods to Merle Haggard and rhymes “squirrelly” and “surly” in this ode to ramblin’ fever.
Ry Cooder, “Straight Street.” Beautifully realized consideration of the upside of hewing to the straight and narrow from The Prodigal Son, the gospel-fired gem from legendary guitarist-producer Cooder, whose rare show at the Mann Center was one of the live highlights of the year.
Pistol Annies, “The Best Years of My Life.” Terrible TV show, a stiff drink, a “recreational Percocet”: this song by the country supergroup of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley is a sobering character sketch about what it can take to get through a bad day when you’re supposed to be in the prime of your life.
Meek Mill, “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies.” The Philly rapper’s shout-out to all the kids who grew up having to fend for and feed themselves, and the determination it takes to raise yourself up when the odds are stacked against you.
Childish Gambino, “This Is America.” The talents of modern-day renaissance man Donald Glover — whose Wells Fargo Center concert in September was the most riveting oversize pop show I saw this year — coalesce on this jolting song and video (directed by Hiro Murai) about race and violence and how black trauma is marketed as entertainment.