20 Songs of 2018

As you may know by now, I like to approach a new year by spending a whole lot of time with the music that came out over the past year, as a way of reflecting on where I’ve been and what memories I want to take with me into the future. I’ve already posted a list of my top 20 albums of the year, and now it’s time to do the more difficult task of singling out specific songs that I think will most define 2018 for me personally. These are songs that I had on repeat playlists and listened to outside of the context of their home albums (although a few of them may also belong to albums I loved). I only allowed myself one song per artist, but you can bet that more than a few of these artists are well known to my house and headphones. If you would like to listen to the songs as you read, you can listen along with the playlist on either TIDAL, SPOTIFY or GOOGLE PLAY. Enjoy!

20. Colour - MNEK featuring Hailee Steinfeld

I love how often I use this 20th spot to highlight an especially mainstream pop hit. I’m tempted to say “guilty pleasure,” but I feel no shame or guilt about it. Instead, I am stoked that a collaboration with a popstar like Hailee could help give a bit more of a platform to MNEK, a prolific gay, British songwriter. I was also considering MNEK’s single, “Tongue,” which is another fun dance track, but this one won out due to its overwhelmingly positive expression of love. To me, this song perfectly embodies what it feels like to find yourself in a chosen family - especially in the context of finding a queer community to call home.

Lyrical Highlight: Before you came into my life everything was black and white / Now all I see is colour, like a rainbow in the sky.

19. Feel the Need - Eryn Allen Kane

Tori Kelly may have left me for CCM-style gospel music, but Prince-approved Chicagoan Eryn Allen Kane is still finding the balance of gospel and soul to feed my spirit. Even though “Feel the Need,” was released in September, it found its way back into my consciousness later in the year and became my unofficial non-Christmas Christmas theme song, as I snuck it onto several “Holiday” playlists. Here she takes the roll of a maternal figure singing to her bb’s about how our primary goal in life is to bring love to those around us. It’s magical, and reminds me that even when people don’t take this responsibility seriously, they are still gifts to the world as love-possible, loveable beings.

Lyrical Highlight: You’re a gift from above, child, you were sent here to love

18. You’re Somebody Else - Flora Cash

Like most of North America, I was introduced to Flora Cash this year. Although half of this duo is from Minnesota, they’ve been primarily making their music out of Sweden (where the other half hails from). This track took off on both Spotify and YouTube, putting them on a much wider audience’s radar. I have trouble putting my finger on what it is about this song that I love so deeply. It sounds a lot like Sufjan Stevens at his most folksy/reflective, and that’s generally a good thing for me. But more than that, I love how this song sounds both sad yet so full of love. It gently describes someone who is wearing a mask because of some form of anxiety - something that I think we can all relate to to some degree - but it’s written in the second person, like a love note, as if they’re whispering hopes of having the safety and confidence to show themselves as they are. I hope this isn’t a one-off for Flora Cash, but if it is, I am grateful that I have this in my collection

Lyrical Highlight: I saw the part of you that only when you’re older you will see too.

17. Chun Li - Nicki Minaj

Unfortunately Nicki’s album this year was a bit of a disappointment - especially since this promotional single gave so many of us hope. In “Chun Li,” Nicki Minaj not only compares herself to the first female character on Street Fighter, but also Storm from X-Men, Lara Croft, King Kong, Michael Jordan and Tony Montana from Scarface. Like these characters, she’s been a pioneer and she’s had to deal with some negativity, but it all leads to her spitting verses of fire to prove her worth. What can I say, we need rappers like Nicki.

Lyrical Highlight: I mean I been Storm, X-Men been formed / He keep on dialling Nikki like the Prince song

16. Body Count - Jessie Reyez

This year one of my favourite Canadian songwriters released her sophomore album with the brilliant title Being Human in Public, and I strongly considered it for my albums of the year because literally every song is excellent. Instead, I ended up choosing the standout track that in both its original and remix form (which features Normani and Kehlani) ended up on several of my regular playlists. I love everything about this song. She begins by addressing the double standard of expecting men to sleep around and women to have fewer sexual partners (“body count” refers to the number of people you’ve had sex with), but then once we reach the chorus we’ve found ourselves in the middle of a feminist anthem that celebrates love in all of its forms. It’s full of rebellion and resistance to inner and outer shame, and celebration of freedom, autonomy, pleasure and consent. Yes, please!

Lyrical Highlight: We don’t care what they say / We gon’ love who we wanna love

15. Nice For What - Drake

As usual I feel a little weird about including Drake here, but this year he had too many contenders to not pick one. I did listen through Scorpion and give it a chance for my albums list, but in typical Drake fashion, it is way too long. I am also not interested in having him rap over an unfinished MJ song - I will wait until the afterlife to hear it properly, thank you very much. However, “Nice for What,” broke through my Drake-resistant heart, with a little help from a Big Freedia feature and a Lauryn Hill sample (which nearly made two appearances as I considered a Cardi B track with a similar sample from the same song, “Ex-Factor”). This track is not only fun to throw down to on a dance floor - it also has a fantastic video featuring all kinds of badass women, which is appropriate, seeing as the song promotes empathy and encouragement for women to love themselves in the midst of a world obsessed with social media engagement as affirmation.

Lyrical Highlight: That’s a real one in in your reflection / without a follow, without a mention

14. Boys - Lizzo

Although I was really hoping for a new Lizzo album, she did grace us with a couple new singles to keep our dance parties fresh and this was a 2018 highlight bop for me. I think it’s so beautiful that this quickly climbing queer-icon can be so unapologetic about whom she likes (boys), while also maintaining a fresh inclusivity throughout. “Boys” is pure joy and dance and appreciation, and even as I write this I can hear the first three chords playing in my head, tempting me to get up and move.

Lyrical Highlight: From the playboys to the gay boys / go and slay boys, you my fave boys.

13. Thank U, Next - Ariana Grande

Even after several huge singles from her album Sweetener graced (or haunted) our ears, nothing was more influential on social media than her post-album release, “Thank U, Next.” On this track, Grande refuses to talk trash about her various exes, instead opting for gratitude for how each experience - though painful - brought her personal growth and insight. It inspired many a hashtag, post, and NYE party theme this year, and although it’s still kind of a fluffy pop single, it’s inspiring and fun, and super believable. Especially when you watch this performance on Ellen where she is clearly having a genuinely fun time with her dancers and flawlessly recovers from both tripping and nearly breaking into laughter.

Lyrical Highlight: Plus, I met someone else, We havin' better discussions / I know they say I move on too fast, but this one gon' last / 'Cause her name is Ari, and I'm so good with that

12. Queendom - Aurora

Aurora is one of the strangest and most intriguing voices in pop music right now. She is young, although not quite as young as you might guess by looking at her, but neither is she as old as she sometimes sounds when she sings lyrics as if she has experienced more life than is possible. “Queendom” is definitely my stand-out track from her 2018 album Infections of a Different Kind (Step 1) for its infectious beat, soaring melody, and chanting chorus that work perfectly with her descriptions of an inclusive utopian queendom, where everyone is embraced and accepted. I know a couple people who are considering walking down the aisle to this track, and that just makes me love it even more.

Lyrical Highlight: The sea waves are my evening gown / And the sun on my head is my crown / I made this queendom on my own / And all the mountains are my throne

11. My! My! My! - Troye Sivan

There is something so lovely and pure about this exclamation of overwhelming happiness and gratitude. Troye not only brings back this slightly old-timey expression, but also queers it, attaching it to his feelings about a new love interest he meets in a club. Even more exciting, he creates a broad pop tune about all kinds of attraction, since its specific images (“I’ve got my tongue between your teeth”) are never attached to any gendered pronouns. We only know this is queer because Troye is publicly and openly gay, but here he creates a scene in which nearly anyone can imagine themselves. Regardless of who is doing the falling in love or lust or like in this song, it is a joyful expression of the present tense and all of the possibilities that are contained in it.

Lyrical Highlight: Let’s stop running from love, running from love / Let’s stop my baby / Let’s stop running from us, running from us / Let’s stop my baby.

10. Boo’d Up - Ella Mai

It took me some time to decide if this song should even be eligible for this year, seeing as it was first released as the opening track of her Ready EP back in early 2017. Still, it felt necessary to include it here because of how this song found its way into every corner of pop and r&b this year. I know that when I hear this song in the future, it will remind me of many memories, all in 2018. Ella Mai has finally given us a full album, and a lot of it is worth a listen - her voice is mellow and comforting and reminiscent of all our fave 90s queens. But “Boo’d Up” stands out as especially groovy with a contagious hook you already have in your head if you’ve ever heard it before.

Lyrical Highlight: Ooh, now I’ll never get over you until I find something new / that get me high like you do

9. Work Out - Chance the Rapper

I mean, it’s Chancellor. All of the singles Chance released this year were full of everything we’ve come to expect from the Chicago rapper: playful flow, clever and humour-filled content with a positive message over some seriously catchy beats. I can’t really argue why, but “Work Out,” is hands-down my favourite of his 2018 releases. It’s personal, referencing his own expectations and realities of his relationships and situations, and embracing the different ways his life has changed. I love how well this song pairs with Thank U, Next - both recognize disappointment, but choose to see the silver lining and move forward with confidence and hope.

Lyrical Highlight: Had to buy a crib ‘for I bought my first house / Had my first kid, I love how she turned out

8. Sway - Tove Styrke

Here’s what you need to know about Tove Styrke: She is not Tove Lo, but she is my new Swedish pop princess and she is the epitome of youth and energy. I love everything I’ve heard from her, but it was this song, and specifically this adorable music video that really put me on to her in May of 2018. Ever since, this is a song that has never taken a break from my regularly played tracks. It’s flirty and fun and maybe not as insightful or deep as some of the songs higher up on this list, but it makes me feel great and taking it off this list would not reflect how much it has been a part of my past year.

Lyrical Highlight: I don’t see nothing wrong with you and me getting along

7. Breathe - Seinabo Sey

I dare you to listen to this song and not feel all of your feelings. This is one of those few songs that I could not let go of, even though I already also listed Sey’s album in my top 20. Here we have another one of my favourite Swedes singing in the verses about being a black woman living in a very white country, and how that complicates her feelings of “home.” Yet every time she reaches the chorus, it rings out like a resilient protest: we refuse to move backwards and will march ahead to create a better world, never forgetting to take care of ourselves in the process. Seinabo actually wrote this song while visiting Dakar, and decided to shoot the music video in her father’s home country, The Gambia, with a cast of all black women who are actually Seinabo’s childhood friends. It’s stunning and full of magic. Black girl magic, to be precise.

Lyrical Highlight: Nothing’s such a beautiful word / ‘Cause nothing can be loved into something

6. Made for Now - Janet Jackson

If you know me at all, you probably saw this coming. Recently someone asked me if Beyoncé is my favourite artist. My answer was that I believe Beyoncé is, at the moment, our greatest and most influential living musical performer. However, Beyoncé would not be Beyoncé without Janet Jackson. And to be fair, you could say that about Tina Turner and a few select others. But more than any other diva, I was raised on some Janet, and from the moment I first heard “Made for Now,” I was floored. Can we please remember that this woman is 52 years old and she is still dancing circles around everyone and dropping lit, celebrational anthems like this? Okay. I’m currently convincing myself to push this higher up the list, but the truth is that my top 7 are all pretty much tied in my heart.

Lyrical Highlight: If you're livin' for the moment / Don’t stop, ‘cause I break those ceilings / Go up

5. Light On - Maggie Rogers

Maggie Rogers makes the perfect music for long walks or drives, and in this way, “Light On” is no exception. The openness in this song to hold whatever happens lightly, and to stay ready for any opportunity, has formed a musical mantra for me as I attempt to figure out what I’m doing career-wise. We have a lot of fantastic, cathartic, shade-throwing goodbye-forever breakup songs out there, but “Light On” provides a slightly more nuanced, tentative, goodbye-for-now song that might be appropriate more often than our pop-tunes catalogue usually allows.

Lyrical Highlight: And I am finding out / There's just no other way / That I'm still dancing at the end of the day

4. Giovanni - Jamila Woods

I spent a lot of time in 2018 waiting for the release of this song. From the time that Jamila premiered it on her NPR Tiny Desk Concert, I knew we had a huge hit on our hands. Inspired by Nikki Giovanni’s 1943 poem, Ego Tripping, Jamila traces her strength through blood lines and the love of her ancestors, particularly her mother and grandmother. Literally every verse and chorus has at least one line that stands out as an expression of strength, confidence and self-knowledge, and Jamila’s crystal delivery helps hit each line even harder. She is indeed “on her Giovanni,” having plenty to of wisdom to bestow in perfect, poetic form.

Lyrical Highlight: I be on my Giovanni, milk and honey / tell it like I see it, speak it so I be it.

3. All the Stars - Kendrick Lamar featuring SZA

Although “All the Stars” was the first single from the Kendrick-curated Black Panther Soundtrack, and one of the first new songs I was listening to in 2018 (since it came out in the first week of the year), there is nothing about this song that has gotten old. The steady groove is grounding, SZA is perfection, and Kendrick manages to put a soundtrack theme together that also fits perfectly into his own catalogue of music, full of self-references that draw connections between himself and the character of T’Challa. Even the chorus is completely universal, expressing this feeling of possibility and potential for dreams to be realized - has deeper meaning when heard with the film in mind, as T’Challa has the ability to meet with his ancestors directly

Lyrical Highlight: Love, let’s talk about love / Is it anything and everything you hoped for / Or do the feeling haunt you?

2. Pussy is God - King Princess

I did choose a lyric below, but I will admit that my love for this song is sometimes in spite of the words more than it’s because of them. I have a bit of trouble with the word “pussy,” and from my religious roots, I’ve inherited an unwanted knee-jerk reaction against a theology that sexualizes and feminizes god. Yet those are also the very things that make this track provocative and brilliant. It’s as if King Princess took Ariana Grande’s “God is a Woman,” and then amped it up 10-fold, and made it queer af. King Princess has already put herself on the map by perfectly weaving these themes of theology and religion with queer sexuality and love in all of her stand-out tracks this year - both “1950,” and “Holy” were serious contenders for this list as well. The difference with “Pussy is God” is that there is no other reading of this song; here she is clear and comfortable in reclaiming queer love as something that is holy and beautiful and divine. KP’s productions are always on point, achieving the ideal building and stripping of layers to highlight different details at the right moment. On this song she outdoes herself, finding a blend that seems to explode with anticipation and excitement every time we reach a new moment or development.

Lyrical Highlight: You know that it’s God, baby, when you’re around her / I’ve been praying for hours

1. I Like That - Janelle Monáe

Look. I know Monáe was already at the top of my album list with Dirty Computer, and I tried moving this around a few times but it felt so disingenuous. Whether you think “Pynk” is smarter or “Make Me Feel,” more fun, “I Like That” was not only my song of the year but, in my opinion, the thesis of the album that is undeniably the record of the year. While the whole album is a celebration of what makes us unique, this is the song that yells it from the rooftops. Janelle Monáe has been mysterious about her sexuality for a while now, but she’s at the point where she can boldly and proudly announce that she likes what she likes and is unwilling to care about what anyone else thinks or approves of. Whether it’s true or not, songs like these help us all grab hold of our inner confidence, giving us pride in the things that make us truly authentic. And so this song allows me to raise a toast to all the ways I’ve been labeled weird or freaky, and claim them as my favourite things about me. Not to mention, it comes from this flawless voice of one of the most creative artists of our time. Damn right, I like that.

Lyrical Highlight: I'm always left of centre and that's right where I belong / I'm the random minor note you hear in major songs and I like that!

Upon reflection, I can’t help but notice how many of my songs this year are overwhelmingly positive tunes, and I wonder if that is a result of not only my own need for hope and beauty, but so much of our world’s nearness to despair. The artists in our midst who are giving us life are the ones reminding us that life is worth living. And apparently most of my faves are either (1) from Chicago, (2) queer, or (3) Swedish.

I hope this music has been as inspiring for you as it has been for me. I could easily have expanded this list to my top 100, but alas, I don’t have that kind of time right now. If you want some more recommendations from me, you can certainly weed through my 20 Albums of 2018 list as well, or check out my Playlist of the Month for regularly updated suggestions! In the meantime, may your 2019 be filled with beauty and hope and love. Peace, out and up. (A-town down).