Hello, and welcome to Listmas 2018 Day 6! I hope you had a good holiday. Today starts the final leg of our Listmas coverage with the first part of the Best Hits list. We’ll conclude tomorrow and join everyone in January 2019 for more ranting about music at Ranting About Music.
I’ve found that I always like doing the Best Hits list after the Worst Hits one. The Best Hits list acts as a palate cleanser to the abysmal lows of the year, and gets to function as a reminder of why I like doing this (as fun as it might be blowing spitballs at Chris Brown, it gets old after soon long, you know?). I feel good about this year’s list, but while putting it together, I kind of felt like most of the work was already done for me in the sense that the best songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 seemed fairly obvious. That’s not to say that there weren’t surprises, just that we knew what we liked this year.
Quick rules refresher:
- Gotta make Billboard’s Year-Ender.
- No repeats from last year’s picks.
- Had to peak on the charts this year (this actually comes up twice).
Let’s begin with an Honorable Mention.
Honorable Mention: Travis Scott feat. Drake, Swae Lee, and Big Hawk – “SICKO MODE” (#42)
This song kept almost making the list, but ultimately got bumped to the HM. That first minute, with those far-reaching synths and a surprisingly game Drake feature, is one of those things you can’t hear without getting hyped, and that gothic synth with the Tay Keith drums around 2:57 is outright mesmerizing. “SICKO MODE” is a mini-suit of songs that shouldn’t work together but ultimately does (the fact that this thing went to #1 is a feat in and of itself), and if Scott was just 10% more compelling in front of the mic, it would have been a lock.
10. Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa – “One Kiss” (#68)
Did you know that Calvin Harris, one of the two or three guys responsible for the explosion of blaring, festival-core EDM a few years back, spent most of his career making smoothed out, quasi-throwback dance jams? Maybe that’s why he sounded so comfortable behind the boards with last year’s Funk Wav Bounce Vol. 1 (which housed the best pop song of last year), and why ‘90s deep house cut “One Kiss” glides along like a late night city drive. The instrumental post-chorus, that bouncing keyboard in the hook, and the track’s gentle thump demonstrate his attention to detail, and combine for a song that evokes older sounds with emulating them.
Also shining here is Dua Lipa. On one hand, “One Kiss” is the least she’s had to do lyrically, but on the other, that means she gets to focus on the performance aspect, and as a guest spot where she could sound anonymous, she takes center stage; she anchors the track in a way that reminds me of Sam Smith and “Latch.” I didn’t expect much from Lipa and Harris, but “One Kiss” was a terrific surprise.
9. Rae Sremmurd feat. Juicy J – “Powerglide” (#97)
No rap duo stays together forever, and if 2018 was the start of Rae Sremmurd’s disintegration into Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi solo careers, it also made a rock solid argument that the pair work best together (also not hurting: that sweet, sweet Mike WiLL Made-It producer tag). “Powerglide” just hits everything Rae Sremmurd does well with Swae carving out melodies and rapping over a frantic Mike beat and then baton passing to Jxmmi’s more grounded and gritty verse that contrasts with the hook. Add a locked-in verse from Juicy J in Southern Rap Elder mode, and you’ve got one of the best pure rap bangers of the year.
8. Shawn Mendes – “In My Blood” (#46)
And now, your annual appearance by sulky, phlegmy guitar boy Shawn Mendes on the [checks notes]…wait, Best Hits list? Is that right?
Shawn “You’re like, two bad songs away from that Maroon 5 ‘I might retire you from Listmas’ zone” Mendes has appeared on my worst hits every year since he started his career in 2015, and this year, he snapped that streak with this spot for “In My Blood.” The remarkable thing is that “In My Blood” isn’t a radical departure from his previous material: it’s still a melodramatic singer-songwriter number with a “I’m falling on my knees” chorus, an arrangement you could arguably call “fussy” (count how many guitar parts drop in and out), and at least one “duh-doy” lyrical rhyme with “giving up”/”strong enough.” But Mendes gets the mixture right here by underplaying the verses, letting things build at just the right pace, and he sounds vulnerable instead of pouty. It’s actually kind of affecting. The moment that convinced me is the first “It isn’t in my blood!” of each chorus: I could imagine the Mendes of Listmas Past vocally overperforming to try and convey anguish and passion (see: “MERRRRCY”), but here, he actually pulls back on the end of the word “blood,” which makes him sound like he’s already trying to give everything he has. It’s a little human moment, and goes a long way for a kid who’s never convinced me he’s felt a single thing he’s sang before. So, welcome to life on the other side, Shawn. I know, I was surprised, too.
7. Camila Cabello feat. Young Thug – “Havana” (#4)
“Havana” is an interesting one. It came out last September, and got off to kind of a sluggish start on the charts while people (me included) weren’t entirely sure how it landed. Such is a reflection of people’s perspective on Cabello at the time; the thought was that she’d jumped ship from Fifth Harmony too early, and she was on the edge of regressing after a few stalled out singles. Even with a few months to make an impression, “Havana” only clawed its way to #96 on the 2017 Year-End Hot 100, a ranking itself that showed people could still probably either take it or leave it.
But, in 2018, we decided that “Havana” was worth our approval, and the song went to number 1 in January. What’s great about “Havana” is that it takes these fairly minimal, disparate parts, like that I-could-have-sworn-it-was-a-sample piano, the trumpet that pops up through the second half, and loosely trap bass and percussion, and makes a wholly great Latin-tinged song out of them. Tons of songs lean on open space and sparse pieces–look at “Girls Like You” for example–but it really works here. And matching this track with a guest rapper as abstract as Young Thug is downright inspired. Cabello herself sounds terrific; the “midtempo plus” pace of “Havana” is enough to keep her going without being so fast that she loses any kind of nuance, and while this song is like 70% chorus, she kills it each time. Between the dust-tinged piano and trumpet and the modern percussion, “Havana” pulls a neat trick of sounding like it’s not of a particular time, and while it took a few listens, the song’s surprisingly magnetic. The rest of Cabello’s stuff hasn’t really connected with me, but her Havana affair is one to remember.
6. Drake – “Nice For What” (#11)
It’s so great when Drake’s point of view extends beyond the tip of his nose.
Over an impossibly tight bounce beat by Murda Beatz, Drake weaves in and out through a sped-up, aching Lauryn Hill sample, sounding more energized than he has in years. Drake, 40, and the entire OVO camp can make fantastic music, but Drake (especially from VIEWS onward) has this tendency to let his songs just driiiiift forever without any sense of urgency, which makes even his poppier cuts just seem that much more dour.
None of that shows up on “Nice For What,” a song about cutting loose that more importantly sounds like cutting loose. It’s a celebration of women who haven’t been able to go out in too damn long because they had to be responsible with bills, or they were too caught up with a guy last year, or they had to work, but now fuck it, they’re going out for a good time with their girls, and the up-tempo nature of “Nice For What” mimics that joy. I feel weird holding “Nice For What” up as an unironic “Female empowerment, ooh yeah!” Important Jam–this Lindsay Zoladz piece says it better than I ever could–but as a rapid-fire pop hit? It’s damn great.
Come back tomorrow for the rest!
Listmas 2018 Schedule
December 19th: Top Ten Favorite Albums of the Year
December 20th: A Brief Inquiry Into 2018
December 21st: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 22nd: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2
December 23rd: The Gibby Fifty (50 favorite songs)
December 26th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 27th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2