During a turbulent year rife with personal and political trauma, the most memorable songs pulled no punches in the pursuit of pop. They also arrived from all directions: emerging from longtime partnerships and unlikely collaborations, from fertile local scenes and solitary experiments. In the case of many — including our No. 1 song — they were actually videos, tethered to images we've been unable to shake since. These are the 100 best songs of 2018, as selected by the staff of NPR Music and our partner stations. You can listen to the songs here, check out the 50 best albums of the year or hear All Songs Considered's podcast discussion of the year in music.
"I Dance Like This"
What begins as a pensive piano ballad becomes a stuttering sound-quake when the chorus breaks in: "I dance like this / Because it feels so damn good / If I could dance better / Well, you know that I would." Yet "I Dance Like This" is more rattling than danceable, with lyrics in the verses that feel randomly crafted: "In another dimension / Like the clothes that you wear / A mighty mighty battle / Sproutin' illegal hair." The song is from American Utopia, an album based around a set of tracks by Brian Eno. It's David Byrne's best solo album in decades, and his tour to support it was the most original stage show I saw in 2018. —Bob Boilen
♫ LISTEN: "I Dance Like This"
"Leave It Alone"
Amanda Shires made her name as a spare Americana storyteller and fiddler, as well as a crucial collaborator with Jason Isbell. But in "Leave It Alone," she takes a hairpin turn into dreamier, more surprising terrain. Aided by omnipresent producer Dave Cobb, who knows just how and when to strain country music's boundaries, Shires explores her poppy side while expounding on the heady, swirling pull of physical attraction. The way she peppers the song with characteristically vivid phrasing — "the noise of your nerves," "like bees inside us swarming" — only enhances the swoony rush of it all. —Stephen Thompson
♫ LISTEN: "Leave It Alone"
At a moment when hip-hop is the most popular music in America, the idea of what hip-hop is anymore changes by the week. But however you define the genre, Brockhampton is its future: The dozen-plus members of the Internet-native hip-hop boy band dip into alt-rock and pop influences and cover topics once deemed cardinal sins in rap — mental health, marginalization, queer love.
"San Marcos" is the heartbeat of the group's major-label debut, Iridescence. A tribute to the crew's humble beginnings in Texas, the song starts small, with a nearly whispered verse, and ends massive, like a stadium full of finally seen outsiders screaming in unison. As the drums kick in and the string section swells just after the three-minute mark, children from the London Community Gospel Choir belt out a thought we've all had at some point: "I want more out of life than this." —Sidney Madden
♫ LISTEN: "San Marcos"
Public Practice is a band in open communion; it's right there in the name. "Foundation" opens by reckoning with — no, warmly embracing — the Tyrannosaur-paw-in-the-mud path the Talking Heads left behind, refracting the dreamy busyness of "Once In a Lifetime" with a clever and simple guitar line and inviting rhythm section. It takes things a step further as singer Sam York updates and wrestles with the same themes which animated that opus of belonging and its attendant paranoias. "I closed the door and jumped out the window," York sings, "looking for a new house to call my own. That old house was crumbling ... the foundation, cracked." Then, this four-piece from New York does exactly what's required of this song: They crack it open like an over-pixelated egg. —Andrew Flanagan
♫ LISTEN: "Foundation"
Amara La Negra
"What a Bam Bam"
2018 was Amara La Negra's year. The Love & Hip-Hop: Miami star has been making dancehall floor-fillers for the better part of this decade, but it wasn't until her reality debut that the world was commanded to take notice of this Afro-Dominicana's uncompromising celebration of Afro-Latinidad in cultures — and markets — that still prioritize whiteness.
"What a Bam Bam," one of six singles released this year ahead of her forthcoming debut album, samples the 1982 song "Bam Bam" by dancehall queen Sister Nancy, an artist whose influence has similarly outsized her recognition from listeners of her countless samples. The track proves that Amara's fight against colorism isn't just about being taken seriously, but showing that she can still have more fun than anyone else while doing it. "I got my money," she sings. "I ain't worried about what y'all think." —Stefanie Fernández
♫ LISTEN: "What a Bam Bam"
There was no shortage of political anthems or chest-beating ballads in 2018, as musicians from every genre and subculture aired grievances or issued rallying cries informed by the Trump era. But with "Black Sheep," Connie Lim, who writes and records as MILCK, offered a more personal reflection that proved to be universal — the simple but profoundly beautiful idea that it's OK to be different. While not intended for any particular movement, it proved to be one of the year's most expressive, inspirational — and appropriate — releases. In an age of painfully entrenched divisions, it's an essential reminder to love and be loved "the way that you are." —Robin Hilton
♫ LISTEN: "Black Sheep"
"Anthem (To Human Justice)"
On his emphatic, reverberant album Blues People — named after a groundbreaking work of criticism by Amiri Baraka — the jazz-trained alto saxophonist Logan Richardson explores a set of ideas around American roots music, without in any way succumbing to nostalgia. "Anthem (To Human Justice)" is emblematic of his larger effort: It's a muscular theme that seems to keep hurtling toward catharsis. The struggle is built right into the song, which sounds entirely of the moment, with Richardson's horn issuing about as plaintive a cry as you'll hear in any setting. —Nate Chinen (WBGO)
♫ LISTEN: "Anthem (To Human Justice)"
Anthony Roth Costanzo
Costanzo is a stellar countertenor — that's a male singer who sings in falsetto to achieve the range of a female alto — and this is a stellar piece of music, juxtaposing Philip Glass' signature celestial ostinatos with David Byrne's temporally focused text ("Love needs a bath / Love could use a shave"), which Costanzo delivers with elegance and sweetness, but with a plainspoken, steely core that is enormously appealing. The video is a thing of beauty, too: It's a gorgeous sequence with dancer Ron "Myles Yachts" Myles, shot under a highway overpass, that speaks to the strange, singular beauty of heaven meeting earth. —Anastasia Tsioulcas
♫ LISTEN: "Liquid Days"
Mariah Carey keeps it low and slow on "GTFO," which sets not just the mood and mode for Caution but also takes the benevolent pop diva just outside her comfort zone. Her 15th album reclaims the pop, R&B and hip-hop nexus perfected on 1997's Butterfly, but here she works with a mostly younger set of producers to challenge her topline songwriting. Nineteen85 (of the duo dvsn) provides the playfully shadowy beat, a simmering and shattering tease of a kiss-off, which is something of a Mariah speciality. She not only near-rhymes (or rather, Mariah rhymes) "Caymus bottle" with "martyr," but flexes her power and success with a flick of her diamond-braceleted wrist: "Scusa mi, Mimi call you a valet / You just take your tings and be on your merry way." —Lars Gotrich
♫ LISTEN: "GTFO"
Speed and intricacy are rarely associated, but across two remarkable solo albums Jlin has made that synthesis her own. Swerving around predictability, "Carbon 12" finds the Indiana composer operating at a more reflective pace, turning to the marimba to lead a transportive melody. It was released as part of her score for Wayne McGregor's ballet Autobiography, which was guided by the choreographer's own genetic code. That intimacy is echoed in this track's rise and fall, an unfurling that turns life's light into motion. —Ruth Saxelby
♫ LISTEN: "Carbon 12"
"Let It All Work Out"
Even after more than 20 years, Lil Wayne still has the prowess to surprise fans when necessary. Despite the skepticism, song leaks and dismay of Pharma Bro, Wayne's long-awaited album Tha Carter V was finally released in September, and while some tracks nostalgically remind listeners of the Weezy they loved in the early 2000s, it's "Let It All Work Out" that proves to be the most revelatory cut.
The childhood story of Wayne accidentally shooting himself at age 12 had all but become a footnote in his celebrated history. But on Tha Carter V's outro, Wayne finally comes clean about what really happened that day: "Too much was on my conscious to be smart about it / Too torn apart about it / I aim where my heart was pounding." Weezy reliving his suicide attempt one breath at a time over submerged 808s and a looped sample of Sampha's 2013 track "Indecision" is a big reveal from a place of deep vulnerability, one that ends the album with a gasp and makes you respect the living rap legend that much more. —Sidney Madden
♫ LISTEN: "Let It All Work Out"
After releasing two of the most distinctive and vibrant rock albums of the past 25 years (1998's Double Thriller and 2000's The Glands), this Athens, Ga. band largely and inexplicably disappeared. When lead singer and songwriter Ross Shapiro died at the age of 52 in 2016, longtime fans finally gave up hope of The Glands ever reuniting or releasing new music. But it turns out Shapiro never stopped writing or recording. The 23 tracks on this year's most unexpected release, Double Coda, show what he was up to, even as he'd quit the business of putting out music or touring. Literally every cut is a must-hear, but "Pleaser" perfectly captures the doop-doop harmonies, lazy-day ramblings and sly slacker grooves that make The Glands such an addictive listen. —Robin Hilton
♫ LISTEN: "Pleaser"
I saw this quartet live for the first time about a year ago, and the group exhilarated the crowd with its exuberant "shamstep," as it calls its electronic take on traditional dabke dance music that's outfitted with synths, drum machines, guitars and drums. (If you loved the frenzy of Omar Souleyman, 47 Soul should be your next stop.) Formed in Jordan, based in London and rooted in the band members' shared Palestinian heritage, 47 Soul switches in "Mo Light" between Arabic and English for high-energy calls to the dance floor — and to social action. —Anastasia Tsioulcas
♫ LISTEN: "Mo Light"
Since Mac Miller's untimely overdose and death in September, Swimming — the Pittsburgh rapper's fifth album, released a month before he died — has been deemed something of a message in a bottle to fans. Light piano notes throughout the almost six minutes of "2009" make Mac's words sound angelic as he looks back on his nine-year rise in music — a career that's helped so many ("I'm right here when you scared and alone"), but at times, has left him feeling hollow, drained and too far-flung to ever come back. "I was diggin' a hole / big enough to bury my soul / Weight of the world, I gotta carry my own," Mac rhymes with half-spoken delivery about his near-death experiences due to substance abuse. Though the verses shine with a glimmer of hope, the album's longest and most contemplative cut feels like a fortuitous goodbye letter. —Sidney Madden
♫ LISTEN: "2009"
Bad Bunny loves defying expectations, especially in an American market still confused about on what exactly the Latin trap wave represents. Not one to be made your average Benito Martinez, this conejo malo drew back the curtain to celebrate himself, his friends, and all of Puerto Rico on hometown ode "Estamos Bien."
Between characteristically carefree and profane choruses and an inventive choir sample, the rapper paints a portrait of buena gente, kids like him laughing and cruising an island that, nine months after Hurricane Maria, still lacked electricity, food and shelter across huge swaths of its population. "Aunque pa' casa no ha llega'o la luz / Gracias a Dios porque tengo salud," he says. It's a softer light cast on the Latin trap artist hitting the pavement the hardest. —Stefanie Fernández
♫ LISTEN: "Estamos Bien"
"The Bug Collector"
Portland-based songwriter Haley Heynderickx produced one of the most beautiful collections of songs this year with her full-length debut album, I Need To Start A Garden, and "The Bug Collector" was perhaps the best of that impressive bunch. The hypnotic folk ballad is driven by Heynderickx's frenetic finger-picking guitar and splashed with surprising dashes of trombone and charming insect-inspired percussion that transports you back to the long, hot days of summer with each listen. —Jerad Walker (opbmusic.org)
♫ LISTEN: "The Bug Collector"
We are now blessed with the gift of distance that time provides, far away from the Kanye West-driven chaos that Rube Goldberg-ed the release of Pusha T's album DAYTONA, his third. From our current position, DAYTONA stands tall and undiminished in the wreckage of its producer's year, and in an album of cuts, "Santeria" is its most heartfelt. In swearing divine (and contractual) retribution, Pusha can't avoid a brag any more than he can help serving up a feast of density; within a single verse, he references Trump, the Soviets' Berlin incursion, Tupac, The Untouchables, cheap steaks and high stakes. He practices. —Andrew Flanagan
♫ LISTEN: "Santeria"
After taking a break to pursue solo ventures, our favorite R&B band of the moment re-emerged to deliver its most evolved project thus far in Hive Mind. The time off seems to have paid off in spades with Syd's pen game stronger than ever and the band's ability to meld electronic and live instrumentation at a seamless peak. This is best displayed on the mid-tempo bop "Come Over," a seductive yet innocent plea for some good old fashioned Netflix & Chill. The band also adds one of its signature bonus nuggets on the album version, so be sure not to skip through the song's fade away. —Bobby Carter
♫ LISTEN: "Come Over"
The most potent of the many self-conscious self-owns on this rehabilitated hellraiser's debut album, partly because it's the funniest, but also because Kelly pulls off a classic songwriter's trick of making the verse catchier than the (plenty catchy) chorus. That gives "Faceplant" a tumble-and-swoon momentum to match lines like "Feel like I'm gonna fall down / But I was born and raised in an earthquake state / so I'm better on shaky ground." Any song that starts with a weeklong pill-binge blackout could make the "give me one more chance" act hard to swallow, but Kelly drapes his confessions in the kind of slouchy charm that makes it easy to believe he'd get away with it. Probably more than once. —Jacob Ganz
♫ LISTEN: "Faceplant"
"Once In My Life"
Stevie Wonder got us accustomed to hearing the phrase "For once in my life" followed by "I have someone who needs me," so hearing Colin Meloy sing, "For once in my life, could just something go right?" at first brings on a smirk – but it doesn't last long, as the arrangement builds into an anthem for those days we've all asked the same question.
On the podcast Song Exploder, Meloy explained that the song grew from battling writer's block with help from the guitar tuning of Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," and that he felt a John Hughes-ian tug from Jenny Conlee's synth riffs. Combining familiar sounds with a familiar feeling, The Decemberists let us sing and air drum along to see there's still hope to be found in the waiting. —Sarah Wardrop (WFUV)
♫ LISTEN: "Once In My Life"