Janelle Monáe’s cyber-erotica reaches a new plateau with the centerpiece track of Dirty Computer. Stumbling out on a beat that swallows itself every few notes, “Pynk” is a maddening tease of a song, always edging toward release before backing off at the last second. Grimes, returning the favor that Monáe paid on her own “Venus Fly,” sings lead vocals, her airy alt-pop tone adding to the ethereal digital funk of the track’s arrangement. Her breathy vocals match the raunchy subject matter, marking the poppiest ode to vaginas since “Sugar Walls.” Befitting Monáe’s ambitious genre fusions, the song works equally well as R&B, indie pop and funk, breezy enough to soundtrack a warm summer night but sultry and suggestive enough to slink its way into sex playlists. Numerous pop songs in the 2010s have foregrounded female pleasure and exploration in the usual rubric of lascivious pop, but “Pynk” looms above its peers with its casual encapsulation of forms and the total lack of winking danger in its lyrics. Rather than present itself as transgressive, it transgresses pop norms by staking out its subject matter as a perfectly normal topic, embracing it with giddy delight. Monáe has unduly weathered endless comparisons to Prince from the start, but the fact that her material has held up to the juxtapositions is a testament to her skills, and “Pynk” feels like the kind of transgressive classic that His Royal Badness could create at his absolute artistic peak. – Jake Cole
Peak capitalism and its corresponding income inequality have created a situation in which the biggest pop star in the world sings “Pay me in equity/ Watch me reverse out of debt.” Beyoncé delivers this line in “Apeshit,” the lead single in her collaborative album with husband Jay-Z, and its prudent (if random) financial advisement echoes Jay-Z’s line from last year’s “The Story of O.J.” about how maintaining a good credit rating is more important than throwing away money at a strip club. Of course, most of “Apeshit” is actually about the exact opposite of fiscal restraint, as Beyoncé flexes over how the couple are “living lavish” with “expensive habits” now that they’ve “made it.” To drive home this point, the Carters filmed the corresponding music video in the fucking Louvre, which also harkens back to Jay-Z’s braggadocio from “The Story of O.J.,” in which he boasts about wisely investing in a million-dollar work of art and then seeing it increase in value eightfold. “Apeshit” has nowhere near the same level of social commentary, but this trap-oriented track is a hell of a lot catchier, with Migos’ Quavo and Offset adding their vocal talents in supporting roles (and getting co-writing credits). After Beyoncé’s Lemonade in 2016 accused Jay-Z of infidelity and his 2017 album, 4:44, served as a response to that, the couple is now singing about buying private jets for each other. Whoever said love is dead? – Josh Goller
One of the most danceable tracks from the band’s masterful 2018 album In a Poem Unlimited, “Rosebud” bears all the characteristic eccentricities of the band known as U.S. Girls. Beginning with the tease of a few measures of strings, establishing a motif that recurs throughout, the song almost immediately launches into an outright dance beat and breathy, Kate Bush-like vocals. As with most U.S. Girls tracks, especially on their latest, “Rosebud” covers a broad swath of emotional territory, though much of it remains concealed, hidden below the surface.
Addressed to a nebulous “you/ and you alone” to which there is no detailed reference, the song features lyrics that conjure confinement (“a cage holds you/ we’ve all got one we call home”), self-analysis (“use those keys and take a drive/ through the back alleys of your mind”) and survival (“in the event of a nine one one/ who holds the key is what you need to know”).
These images do not add up to a narrative, exactly, but they come in suggestive cinematic flashes that, as in many U.S. Girls songs, compel the listener and elicit empathy precisely because they do not explicitly demand it. “Rosebud” is a brilliant example of U.S. Girls’ ability to use the language of pop—even and especially not-so-contemporary pop—to reinvent its language as though from within, to rewrite the tradition in its own unique, kaleidoscopic image. – Dylan Montanari
Ariana Grande’s newfound invincibility in “No Tears Left to Cry” defines the single as a redemption record, especially in light of the bombing at the singer’s Manchester concert in 2017. She certainly embodies a transformation to admire, but pretending as though she walks away from tragedy unscathed would be doing the artist a disservice.
“No Tears Left to Cry” unfolds as disorienting as her state of mind. The garage-house drum breaks in the beat seem commonplace in this dance-pop climate, and the sleek synth chords ground the track with some familiarity. But Grande restlessly chases for a moment of release that never fully arrives. The refrain with the titular phrase doesn’t solidly register as a chorus, instead constantly alluding to something more cathartic and defined.
Grande, then, acts as the center of gravity to bring this delirious single down to earth. She disperses small yet memorable hooks throughout the song, leaving a trail to follow her through this dizzying maze. Her casual lyrics lets “No Tears Left to Cry” feel homely, with laid-back ad-libs like “we vibin’” mellowing down the otherwise harrowing track. And when she gives out her signature trills, she glorious reclaims an untouchable new self. “No tears left to cry” ultimately suggests more numbness than rejuvenation, an intense sorrow that leads to complete exhaustion. However, hitting rock bottom also opens up Grande to embrace absolute clarity. – Ryo Miyauchi
In a career already full of breathtaking moments, the opening few seconds of “Geyser;” that degraded church organ, fuzzed out samples and Mitski’s heavenly voice claiming “You’re my number one…” might still take the crown. And from there it sprawls out into a Lorde worthy chorus that begs for an amphitheater to fill and assures her ambitions. Mitski, with “Geyser,” is in a similar position to St. Vincent when she released her self-titled record. Adored by the indie scene, acclaimed by critics and gaining the popular mass that could create cults, Mitski is cementing her auteur status while selling out stadiums. With “Geyser” serving as Be the Cowboy’s lead single, it is a statement of intent that the massive, thrashing “Your Best American Girl” wasn’t a fluke. Mitski is marrying the outsized, naked emotional math of chart-topping numbers with her own delectably weird twist.
The chorus on “Geyser” could have been spread out over a half hour without tiring, but she futzes with it and warps those ringing guitar lines, never letting any of the bubbling mess settle into anything coherent. The sexual tension evolving from subtext to just—well text (“Turning down the hands/That beckon me to come/Though I’m a geyser/Feel it bubbling from below”) is matched in that stunning pile of sounds, all clambering each other like a billion possibilities taunting and tempting all at once. But if anyone could indulge in it all, it would be Mitski. – Nathan Stevens
“High Horse” came galloping out the gate towards the start of the Golden Hour album cycle, a calculated and ingenious move on the part of Ms. Kacey Musgraves. Writing for the Singles Jukebox, Lauren Gilbert makes special note of the song’s wonderful intro. Slightly muffled, it foretells the fusion of country and disco pop of the track, undoubtedly Golden Hour’s most straightforward and accessible track. Lyrically, “High Horse” presents itself with a straightforward candor – the target in question, John Wayne-lite, isn’t as superior as he believes to be. It’s a sentiment anyone can get behind, because it’s relatively universal (“Everyone knows someone who kills the buzz.”) Employers, lovers and loved ones all are capable of patronizing you, and nothing brings people together quite like all-inclusive scorn
Subliminally, “High Horse”’s tinge of country challenges more than just your bratty boss and crappy ex. On an obvious level, “If you’re too good for us” refers to the pairing of Musgraves’ and the object of her scorn; indirectly, us can apply to the legions of country music fans everyone loves to write off. “I listen to everything – except country” is one of the most common refrains heard when you ask a person about their music taste, yet plenty of listeners likely would say the same while trotting along to this song. Injecting today’s disco craze with a tint of twang, “High Horse” relays two different messages: you’re not too good for me, and you’re not too good for country. – Mick Jacobs
Julien Baker was already a big deal. The fact that her album was showing the same signs as early Bon Iver or late Jack Johnson of taking over the highly coveted easy-listening, middle-aged sad adult market was setting her up for unparalleled success as a solo artist. So when she not only doubled but tripled down on that bet by bringing on fellow power-female contemporaries Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, she did something even more incredible. All they have to do is avoid becoming Wilson Phillips and stick to the soul-destroying, tear-jerking modus operandi of howling emotional distress under distorted guitar wails and stark atmospheres and the whole world is going to be tuning in. And, wow…how they delivered. They delivered with ten times the power one would have hoped for on 2018’s “Salt in the Wound,” a song which appears on their debut self-titled EP. The album is infuriatingly difficult to find on streaming sites and only shows up in its live version on YouTube videos. The track begins with Dacus’ deceivingly gentle verse before Baker soars to heights we never expected on hers. She rocks guitar solos we had no idea she was capable of and vocals that make her earlier work seem like she was barely trying. Bridgers’ harmonies are the icing on the cake adding a crushing depth to the whole proceeding while Dacus reappears to bring a sort of relatable groundedness. Between its melody, songwriting, vocal delivery, and powerful instrumentation, these three ladies have created a sort of Travelling Wilburys of melancholy. If you thought Julien Baker showed promise in 2017, Boygenius blew it out of the water with one of 2018’s best songs — “Salt on the Wound.” Look it up. – Darryl G. Wright
Phosphorescent’s first studio album in five years, C’est La Vie doesn’t disappoint and neither does “New Birth in New England.” The track walks the line between classic Americana (think Dylan or The Band), Paul Simon at the height of late ‘70s experimentations, country and contemporary sounds. Leader Matthew Houck apparently endured some life changes (parenthood) and health concerns in the wind up to making this LP. Though it’s impossible to say that those travails are at the core of this tune, it’s easy to imagine they might be. No matter the inspiration, one can’t help but feel some reinvigoration listening. With a soaring chorus, happy rhythms and a lyrical refrain that’s impossible to forget, Houck reestablishes himself as one of the great voices of his generation. It’s also curious to note that there’s a lack of melancholy, a Phosphorescent genetic trait, here, perhaps demonstrating that we’re entering into a new era for the man and the band. Whether true or false, it’s impossible to deny the appeal of this track and its potential to become a staple of Phosphorescent’s exhilarating live shows in the future. Here’s to hoping that the next set from Houck doesn’t have such a labored birth or as long a gestation period. – Jedd Beaudoin
Liz Harris’s music as Grouper has felt more intimately physical on the surface since 2014’s Ruins. But while this year’s Grid of Points continued that progression, her whispered songs remain ephemeral and elusive as her past works. Despite her recent affinity for more clarity through the upright piano, the outlines of the music in Grid of Points disappears into thin air the second it’s done playing, like the songs are monuments made of dust. Her voice is a mere echo, and the lyrics, too, fade instantly with time.
This only makes titles of Grouper songs a precious souvenir to keep for it’s really the only tactile thing Harris provides. And leave it to her to turn an everyday locale like a parking lot as the setting of one poignant piece of music. Such slice-of-life details from “Driving” to “Birthday Song” make Grid of Points even more of an intimate affair, giving an impression that Harris is inviting us closer into her private life. “Parking Lot” in particular leads into a devastating closing lyric: “They will hear us cry/ from the parking lot.” The reason behind the tears are anyone’s guess with the song’s sketch-like lyrics retaining an image as solid as her opaque sighs. She instead carries on as usual, shading her silhouette of a track with heavy melancholy. At once vividly familiar in feeling yet still deeply undefined, Harris continues to allure through her mysterious presence. – Ryo Miyauchi
Lizzo comes from Minneapolis (via Houston), and it shows in her latest single’s abundance of references to the City of Lakes’ favorite son: from the minimalist robo-funk beat, which sounds like “Controversy” as remixed by the Neptunes, to the “P Control” high note she hits on the chorus, to the black panties as outerwear she sports in the song’s monochrome music video (Twin Citians and Prince superfans will likewise recognize the video’s giant sheet music backdrop as the mural from the former headquarters of Schmitt Music). Also floating around in the Lake Minnetonka of Lizzo’s musical influences are the Mary Jane Girls, whose own ode to “Boys” graced their 1983 debut album, and Missy Elliott, to whose “boys, boys, all type of boys” verse from 2002’s “Work It” Lizzo adds “big boys, itty bitty boys,” “playboys” and “gay boys.” But while the multitalented rapper and singer isn’t shy about wearing her inspirations on her sleeve (when she’s wearing sleeves at all), the particular way in which she arranges and builds upon them wasn’t quite like anything else in 2018. “Boys” was sex-positive, body-positive and just plain positive in a year when good feelings were in depressingly short supply. If I could bottle this kind of ebullience—or, you know, get it in album form—it just might get me through another year. – Zachary Hoskins
Pusha T wasted no time laying into Drake with this instant classic diss track, using an old image of Aubrey Graham in garish blackface as an immediate call-out as he responds to “Duppy Freestyle” by accusing Drake of insecurity over his race; “confused, always felt you weren’t black enough,” Pusha raps after detailing Drake’s fashion choices. But this is all preamble to the true killing blow, when Pusha winds up by referencing Drake’s old flame Sophie Brussaux before arriving at the immortal line: “You are hiding a child.” Pusha’s bombshell marked new terrain, the diss track as breaking news, leapfrogging mere insults to blow up Drake’s whole persona so thoroughly that it was impossible to look at the rapper the same way again. The rest of the track is like a “Maury” episode set to jazzy syncopated drums and a humid bassline from Jay Z’s “The Story of O.J.” That Pusha delivers all of this with the smooth calm of a man who knows he holds the winning hand makes every twist of the knife all the more savage. In place of the usual sputtering, vituperative fury of diss tracks is the measured tone of a man filled with the absolute confidence that he is about to end this beef in definitive, domination fashion. – Jake Cole
“Pristine” hits all the indie rock checkpoints: warm, fuzzy guitar tones, delightful off-key lead vocals and a lyrical message that’s equal parts self-deprecating and unfathomably wise. The lead single from Snail Mail’s debut album, Lush, finds vocalist and songwriter Lindsey Jordan at the peak of her abilities, bemoaning unrequited love before arriving at a conclusion of self-respect and understanding. The backing music is some of the strongest she’s ever written, updating a classic Built to Spill sound for 2018. The melody, on an album full of unforgettable hooks, is sticky as hell, especially as Jordan proclaims “I know myself/ I’ll never love anyone else.” It’s self-knowing without being arrogant, almost directed more at Jordan herself as a means of reassurance than at the song’s subject.
In line with the best of the emotional rock music from which Snail Mail draws, there’s an undeniable sense of catharsis in Jordan’s lyrical presentation. Subtle changes in her delivery offer shifts in narrative tone, finding her bluntly accusing as she sings “who do you change for?” and screaming into the void as she asks the track’s nameless love interest “and out of everyone/ Who’s your type of girl?.” For how breezy and effortless Snail Mail’s image and sound is, the music feels intricately composed. Each buildup and breakdown, each cymbal hit and guitar chug is perfectly placed, carefully following the path outlined by Jordan’s vocals. – Connor Lockie
For all the tales of drug dealing, escaping poverty and murdering Drake (metaphorically and literally), Pusha-T’s music has really only been about one thing: being cool. Much in the same way that Shabazz Palaces’ intergalactic sermons were meditations on flyness, Pusha’s self-mythologizing uses the imagery of kilos and cops to underscore that he’s A) an immortal, unkillable, ageless vampire B) the dopest motherfucker ever to pick up a mic.
Five years on from his original opus on excellence “Numbers on the Board,” Pusha has remarkably matched, or even bested, himself. Founded on the best Kanye beat in half a decade, “If You Know You Know” nods at the true fans, family and friends who always knew Pusha was operating at 0 degrees Kelvin. The stark, steely intro is an unpretentious build to 2018’s finest drop, Pusha welcoming the true believers as a Lambo-sleek bass and chipmunked guitars begin to stab and swirl. Between the stick-ups and close calls with the fuzz, he drops lines like “You all get a bird, this nigga Oprah,” so generous in his “fuck you”-isms.
Pusha preformed “If You Know You Know” on Jimmy Kimmel with a just backing track and a lower than lo-fi background and made it utterly spellbinding. Pusha doesn’t need the flash, it doesn’t last. He, on the other hand, might be immortal. – Nathan Stevens
At once one of the most experimental and one of the most unabashedly hooky moments from Negro Swan, Dev Hynes’ fourth album as Blood Orange, “Nappy Wonder” shows just how far he’s come as an avant-pop stylist since his 2011 debut. The track opens with a spare drum machine and electric piano arrangement that could have fit on either Coastal Grooves or its 2013 follow-up Cupid Deluxe; as the chorus approaches, subtle rhythm guitar and a sequenced bassline creep in. Then, just about halfway through its total runtime, the song takes flight with droning synthesizers resembling air-raid sirens, Hendrixian backwards guitars and nervous spasms of piano notes that recall Mike Garson’s playing on Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. Keeping the rest of the arrangement from going off the rails is Hynes’ frail falsetto, which repeats the chorus—“Feelings never had no ethics/Feelings never had been ethical”—with the obsessive consistency of a mantra. The way Hynes’ anxious instrumentation plays against the lyrics’ hazy recollections of skateboarding in his hometown of Barking, Essex, works to dramatize the layers of emotion that can coexist in a single memory: the pain that can lurk on the edges of nostalgia and vice versa. “Nappy Wonder” leaves that tension unresolved, setting the stage for the album’s final act to chase away the storm clouds and end on a note of unqualified hope. – Zachary Hoskins
“I paved the backstreets with the mists of my brain”—what an apt opening line for the world-building centerpiece of Let’s Eat Grandma’s second album I’m All Ears, which takes us headlong into those mists. It’s part longform disco, part prog, part ambient, part giddy puppy-love ballad (“you! me! this!”), but above all else, it’s a testament to how a pop song can soldier on long after most of its peers have clocked out by keeping us hooked with idea after idea. The two young Brits in Let’s Eat Grandma seem to pursue every idea in their mind, which means their music can be inconsistent but dazzling at its peaks—and this might be the peak of their budding discography.
It’s transportive enough as it starts, with those endless synth pads, but just when it seems in danger of becoming something ambient, it shifts into something astonishing: a cut-up, almost IDM groove with little puttering sparks of synth (“we got this!,” shouts one of them, intoxicated by her own talent). There’s an impossibly plaintive saxophone solo later on, and echoing from the mix throughout are their vocals, delivered almost like a skip-rope chant—one of the girlish affectations Let’s Eat Grandma risk, the kind of thing that might get them written off by male critics but that in their hands are undeniable, the source of their power. This is a song as stoic yet magical as the two faces on the cover, wreathed in fairy-dust, and one of the best pop songs of the year. – Daniel Bromfield