Hello, and welcome to the final day of Listmas 2018! Thank you for reading! It’s been fun being back, and I hope it’s been a fun for you, too. We’ll resume coverage in January of 2019. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to take my girlfriend to Cheesecake Factory. See you next year!
5. Ella Mai – “ Boo’d Up” (#15)
This is the second of two songs I referred to yesterday that leaned on the “Had to peak this year” rule, since “Boo’d Up” was first released in February 2017, but peaked a year later after exposure pushed it up to number 5 on the charts. “Boo’d Up” is British R&B singer Ella Mai’s debut single, and with its zoned out, piano and synth-heavy beat, joins “Needed Me” in the “Wait, DJ Mustard produced that?” Hall of Fame. Both the track and Mai capture not only that starstruck feeling of being in love with someone, but the undercurrent of panic that comes with falling for somebody when that’s not Something You Do. Mai’s gone on record stating that the title comes from “boo’d up” being “a heart beat-ish,” but I honestly think the term comes more from the private language and shorthand people come up with to talk about their emotions with themselves and the closest people to them. And like I said, the track does an incredible job imitating that feeling; it carries a vibe without disappearing into the ether, which is harder to do than it looks. “Boo’d Up” is a great song, and when paired with “Havana,” really shows that “2017 releases with halfway nonsense choruses that surged in 2018” was a mood this year.
4. Childish Gambino – “This Is America” (#51)
Yes, I’m talking just the song here and not the song and the video. Even as just an audio experience, “This Is America” is a dense mix of tropical guitar, horror movie strings, a choir of Donald Glovers, trap, ad-libs from Young Thug and 21 Savage, naturalistic percussion, and lurching bass that doesn’t fall apart on itself like the art school project it kinda sounds like. It slaps surprisingly hard for a song that feels entirely wrong to wild out to.
3. Ariana Grande – “no tears left to cry” (#20)
The thing about a phrase like “no tears left to cry,” is that it can really go one of two ways based on your outlook. Either you’re anguished and spent because you’ve been through it all and have nothing left, or you realize that having nothing left means that you’re ready to move forward. Because Ariana Grande has such a big, powerful voice, my first thought was that “no tears left to cry” was going to go the anguished route as a ballad about having no more tears left in her after the trauma-inducing terrorist attack at her Manchester concert, and that would be her big somber comeback moment.
But Grande, for possibly the first time, chose to zag where the expectation was to zig. “no tears left to cry,” dramatic intro aside, is a dance track, one that’s mostly based on the syncopation of UK garage with a few disco flourishes thrown in for good measure. The instrumental is solid (having superproducer Max Martin and his cadre of writers is as near a sure shot as you can get), and there are some clever vocal arrangements here instead of just telling Grande to go for it or doubling her vocals here and there.
There’s a new trick to “no tears left to cry” with Grande doing a spoken/kind of rapped cadence with “I’m pickin’ it up/I’m pickin’ it up/I’m lovin’, I’m livin’, I’m pickin’ it up,” and while it’s nothing revolutionary, it’s also the sort of choice she wouldn’t have made on a Dangerous Woman single. To me, it speaks to the relative ease of “no tears left to cry;” every Ariana Grande single before this–even when it was great–was at least a little stiff, a little preoccupied with being an Ariana Grande Single. But “no tears left to cry” gives her room to breathe and instead of trying to sing a song into oblivion, she’s comfortable living it. Grande, as has been pointed out in every EOY writeup, has been through a lot, and even if she might have some more tears left to cry, she’s got a song that’s as much a testament to resilience as it is a groove.
2. Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey – “The Middle” (#8)
Look, “The Middle” should be garbage. It’s a mercenary “Super producer + between cycles vocalist + wild card” single that mostly rounds out “Modern hits” Spotify playlists. It’s chasing the sentimental post-EDM wave kicked off two years ago by “Closer.” It more or less has the same title as another sad-eyed post-EDM track that I love. It’s functionally a rewrite of Zedd’s own “Stay” with Alessia Cara from last year. It’s the embodiment of corporate pop; the music equivalent of an artisan hot dog.
But holy fuck it’s so good. Zedd and Grey (a production duo from LA who almost damningly named their EP Chameleon) do a solid enough job on the first verse, as does country singer Maren Morris, but it’s that chorus goes off like a bomb. Morris sings with a choir of robo-copies harmonizing, and while it could be off-putting, the way they blend with Morris and the earnestness with which she sings is a stop and listen moment. And then the instrumental kicks back in behind her with this massive, all-encompassing beat, but, what makes the song, what really shows that “The Middle” gives a shit, is that warbling synth that chimes in after each line Morris sings in the chorus. It’s one of those touches that doesn’t have to be there, but adds so much. Which is great, because “The Middle” admittedly relies on the beat’s texture and Morris selling the everloving shit out of it to convey emotion from boilerplate “can’t we work it out?” lyrics. If this was something like Halsey in “Closer” or even Cara on “Stay,” “The Middle” wouldn’t be nearly as great, but with Morris throwing extra oomph (peep the way she goes changes up “I’m losing *my mind*” at the final chorus, or the desperation that pushes through in every “Bay-baay!”), the song absolutely soars.
1. SZA and Kendrick Lamar – “All the Stars” (#47)
“All the Stars” is the sound of culmination. It’s a culmination for SZA, who was barely on any major radar before the breakout that was ctrl last year, where she proves she can do triumph just as well as she can do heartbreak. It’s a culmination for Kendrick Lamar, who with “All the Stars” and TDE’s curation/production of Black Panther: The Album, proves he’s no longer a rap head upstart, but someone who can make himself the focal point of something as big as a Disney project without losing himself. Hell, even as the credits song for Black Panther, it fits perfectly as the closing statement for Marvel’s single best movie.
It’s also just a damn great song. At first, people weren’t entirely sure what to make of it because its spacey synths, drum pads, and violins (there’s so much going on in this Sounwave beat if you listen to it on headphones) didn’t really match what Kendrick or SZA were known for; here’s this gleaming, interstellar anthem from a pair who had most recently explored Southern rap and humid R&B. But going somewhere else makes sense because “All the Stars” isn’t just part of SZA or Kendrick’s canon, it’s meant to reach out and grab anyone listening. And honestly? It works great by going broad: Kendrick’s verse builds hype, SZA’s verse adds a beating heart to the whole thing, and her larger than life chorus captures the feeling of anything being possible. It taps into universality without getting syrupy.
“All the Stars” also demonstrates where pop fit best in 2018: as part of something else. Be it by appearances in TV or movies, music videos, as #challenge and app soundtracks, or as part of an artist’s on-going narrative, pop songs themselves were the accompaniment to experiences this year. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, just that it is. And we’ll see how it continues next year, thanks for reading. There’s a full Listmas link below!
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