Amit Vaidya Picks His Top 50 Tracks of 2018
The Rolling Stone India contributor shares the best music from his personal playlist
Every year-end, for the last two decades, I have been compiling and curating a list of Top 50 Songs culled from my personal playlist over the full year. The ranking is based on a point system I devised based on a song’s likability when I first hear it, its likability when I hear it again at the year-end, the number of rotations it’s had in my playlist over the space of 365 days plus the lyrics and musicianship. In this unique algorithm no lead artist can feature more than once even if they have had multiple hits during the year to ensure greater variety.
In 2018 genres continued to cross boundaries and the definition of mainstream was continuously expanded to include anything and everything that became popular. The highlight of this list are the collaborations between music superstars cutting across multiple genres. Rock and EDM felt comfortable together, hip-hop and Latin blurred their lines; it was as if the only way to guarantee a surefire hit was to include a featured artist on the song. This trend is unlikely to slow down in 2019. The way genres are mixing together, it’s very hard to see any radio format being able to meet the demands of the ever-eclectic audience.
50. “Level Up” – Ciara
Ciara made a comeback of the almost Xtina-level crazy kind but in this track’s case (and its insanely amazing video), we saw CiCi prove her mantle once again as the only singer post Aaliyah to be able to literally sing nonsense (or in this case justify her social media controversies) through a sort of sing-along, sort of when-will-it-end machete of ‘level ups’ that to date, I still can’t tell if I did I like or if hearing that phrase repeated enough times in quick succession made it so I can’t stop spewing it too.
49. “Accelerate”– Christina Aguilera, Ty Dolla $ign, 2 Chainz
I’d like to consider this song as three songs in one. Xtina came back with this Kanye West (yes!) produced single that felt less ‘dirrty’ and more just plain weird. The music video probably didn’t help. But having said that, there were so many ideas here, ideas that work individually but when put together… I’m not so sure. But then again, sometimes you don’t enjoy as much if you try to figure out what exactly something is…or isn’t. “Accelerate” is a song that tried way too hard but is also a brave song because of how it tried way, way hard!
48. “Roll (Burbank Funk)” – The Internet
Probably my favorite song to move around to this year. Classic R&B with a modern magical touch. It just doesn’t get any better than this.
Nu-disco at its best tells a story with a groove, a soothing vocal and yes, a great melody. “Need You” had all three and was again a timeless track that you couldn’t tell when it released but didn’t care because you always ended up listening to it again, and again.
46. “Love It If We Made It” – The 1975
They seemingly can do no wrong, but The 1975 continue to create a library of songs that don’t work as individual records but do work as part of an album. It is perhaps for that reason that they appear so low on the chart this year because I didn’t have a standout track from their impressive third LP A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships. I kept the album on loop!
I’ll be honest, I didn’t care one way or other when Fifth Harmony broke up and I also didn’t expect that we’d see any of them reach the heights of Camila Cabello. But Normani is slowly giving Cabello a run for her money with the Number One hit “Love Lies” with Khalid and this gem of a track. This song is what I’d have expected Kelly Rowland to release and that’s a compliment! “Waves” is lit and bit out of the mainstream, which make its that much more special.
44. “Killer”– Kali Uchis
Amy Winehouse she is not but that’s a good thing. There’s a level of old soul here that works to make this modern retro classic a true killer. Kali Uchis is a name I’m sure we are going to be hearing a lot more about in the future, I can feel it.
43. “One Shot” – Mabel
When you realize that you were in love with an artist’s mother as a kid, it ages you more than listening to her songs do. Yes, I was left speechless when I heard that Mabel is the daughter of Neneh Cherry, one of my favorite artists from the Nineties! It’s no surprise though that Mabel too has that hard-to-genre-define style and feel to her music. While “One Shot” may be pure pop, there’s enough here where I know she’s headed in very eclectic direction like her mother.
42. “Self Care” – Mac Miller
Underrated even before his unexpected death, “Self-Care” became all the more poignant and special thereafter. Mac Miller may have often gone a little overboard to create art but when his lyrics matched with the right tone and beat, he was unstoppable.
41. “Check” – Kojo Funds, RAYE
Okay so technically Craig David only appears once but the guitar riff from his 2000 hit “7 Days” is the hook for “Check” which works because with time and age, we’ve actually realized how great a song it was (having said that, I ranked that hit in my Top 10 that year!). Anyways, this is a great update where it lets us capture the spirit of the original but with an all new edge.
“I’m a loser, and I self-deprecate.
So when I falter, well at least it was my mistake”
Not since Beck’s classic, has the phrase “I’m a loser” been so appropriately used in a song. Another underrated Brit who just created an instant classic with these lyrics, it’s hard to understand what listeners want when a track like this doesn’t gain traction. Sigh.
39. “Malamente” – Rosalia
One of the best albums of the year and too many tracks that were standouts but “Malamente” takes the prize. Smart with a killer hook, how this song didn’t end up having five MC’s come on and do verses is beyond me.
38. “lovely” – Billie Eilish, Khalid
The last of three repeat artists, Khalid has had a crazy busy year. “lovely” was truly that. Layered, heartbreaking and accompanied by a lovely orchestra, this track resonated and despite not being a breakout single, it has lingered on the charts and in playlists for months upon months.
Hard to believe that a few years back she was literally the most overplayed artist thanks to one ubiquitous hit. But now, year after year, she keeps cranking out massive should-be hit after should-be hit and well… they aren’t. With this track also not reaching its deserved chart topping status, I’m convinced now that Carly Rae Jespen is the new Robyn. And given the awesome comeback Robyn just made, we’re probably in store for many years of amazing songs still ahead.
36. “Electricity” – Silk City, Dua Lipa, Diplo, Mark Ronson
A power-collab like no other and it didn’t disappoint. Lipa is the second of three artists to be featured twice and boy did she strike lighting this year with two stellar features. The Diplo/Mark Ronson thing almost doesn’t make sense until you hear and understand the layers of the song and see how cleverly two worlds are brought together–thankfully serenaded by this year’s true standout young diva.
35. “Make Me Feel” (EDX Skyline Remix) – Janelle Monae
Recording a Prince-like song almost never works for anyone. But Janelle Monae is not just anyone. She did Prince right and she did it boldly and without any apprehensions. “Make Me Feel” is the standout track for her superb third studio album Dirty Computer. The EDX Skyline Remix just takes it to another level for 2018. It actually makes me think how incredible it would have been to still have Prince and her on a modern twist on his style.
One of only three artists to be featured twice, Ebenezer’s vocals on “Inhale” literally turned this song into ‘another hit’ and we all ‘inhaled and exhale’ with him. Not since Whitney Houston’s ‘shoop shoop’ days have we breathed in or out like this and while this track is a nod to a certain chemical hit, Duke Dumont proved he’s capable of spinning one out after the other.
After such a long hiatus, it was awesome to hear Robyn again. But hidden in her album of great tracks is this one–a song that I could hear on any film soundtrack, a song that I could hear any artist sing, a song that just works because it’s just a great damn song! Robyn can almost never do wrong and here’s hoping the next gap ain’t so long.
32. “Remedy” – Alesso
Ever hear a song and think you know it already, but it’s actually the first time you’ve heard it? That was my instinct with “Remedy”, a rather standard track that resonated almost purely because of the lyrical content and a sing-along feel.
31. “Done For Me” – Charlie Puth, Kehlani
Yet another strange collaboration on paper but it worked perfectly when put together. Charlie Puth’s album showed his maturity and this song was clearly the highlight in introducing us to his now adult image. Kehlani keeps being part of winning songs but she’s still not had that breakout hit. This was the closest she got, it’s a shame, this should have been a bigger hit for both of them.
You instantly know a Seeb song because of those ghost air voice sounds. Of course it’s getting a bit tired and old but it all doesn’t matter when Skylar Grey starts to sing. A truly underrated performer, her earnest, heartfelt delivery takes this song from “heard it all before” to “play that again”.
Craig David is the most charming when he just sings straight up. So when a song has a great lyrical message and a hook that needs no buttering up, it works. But the icing on the cake was the unexpected surprise collaboration with Goldlink who elevated the song to feeling anything but ordinary.
28. “Remind Me To Forget” – Kygo, Miguel
Classic Kygo and classic Miguel created an instant classic with this track. Soul and nu-disco came together seamlessly.
27. “Genius” – Labrinth, Sia, Diplo (LSD)
A truly ‘genius’ blending of three stars from different worlds! Their side LSD project was clever but failed to live up to expectations. Having said that, “Genius” worked and reminded us that even if it took an entire album to get there, there’s still power in an unexpected collaboration.
Some hated this. Some loved this. For me, just hearing Michael Jackson on a Drake record was enough. Yes, it’s a bit dull but does that matter? Hearing MJ on the radio this year with something that wasn’t “Thriller” in October was a gift. Drake had massive hits this year, three Number Ones – but this song personally topped them all for me.
25. “1999” – Charli XCX, Troye Sivan
Confession. I didn’t go crazy for “Boys” last year by Charli XCX. I think as a stand alone track without the music video, it was just sort of boring. Of course that song became a big hit for her and this duet with Troye Sivan sadly hasn’t (or not to the same level). From the playful nostalgic lyrics to one of the best complimenting music videos, this song screamed fun and youth. But maybe the youth is too young for 1999? In any case, this was reminiscing at its best as compared to that silly “2002” track by Anne-Marie.
While Kacey Musgraves nailed the disco-country hybrid in just one song, Kylie Minogue attempted to do that with a full album. While some of it was fun, some was just damp squid. And then there was this–“Raining Glitter”, a song so classic Kylie and so classic gay that it almost seemed too easy. But the truth is, it’s a clever record and shows that even in her reinventions, there’s something to be celebrated.
It’s an impressive thing to say it’s the most Troye Sivan-esque song of the year given the fact that he’s only been around for a few years and he also had a great album this year too. While sadly none of the individuals tracks make the cut, this Captain Kidd song “Wild” did. It’s moody, it’s catchy and yes, it’s emotionally ambiguous, which kind of makes it genius.
22. “Then” – Anne-Marie
She’s become a bonafide star collaborator of late but truth be told, Anne-Marie as a solo artist works just as strongly. In fact, we get to hear the true depth of her voice as she doesn’t have to fight for her place in the song. Another should-have-been-a-hit but sadly her collabs with better known artists sunk this gem’s chances.
“I’m happy for you, but I’m sad for me”– it doesn’t get more direct than that. And in a way, this underrated track works because it’s not trying to be poetic nor is it trying to use imagery to paint the picture. Sometimes, just singing what you feel works, and “Happy Sad Song” proved that.
The singing is a bit all over the place but the Eden Prince remix manages to cut back on the intensity of the vocals and matches it with a groove that elevates the EDM track from just another bland pop dance song into something more sonic and engaging. Eden Prince managed to also do that for Weezer (yes, Weezer!) this year too, showing just how on point the remixes are.
19. “Crash” – Chris Malinchak
The only instrumental track to make the Top 50 and I’m not sure why this resonated so well with me. Was it me longing for a Robert Miles revival? Or was it maybe that familiar almost “Chasing Cars” guitar riff? Either way, Chris Malinchak always manages to keep listeners engaged and “Crash” worked.
18. “Best Friends” – Little Dragon
To this day “Twice” appears in my most played list every year. As a big Little Dragon fan, I’m always pleased to hear their new avatars every year. Difficult to classify but always melodious with a twist, “Best Friends” didn’t disappoint. Another gem from one of the most consistently underrated Swedish electronic music bands we have.
William Orbit and All Saints created the classic “Pure Shores” 18 years ago. So when I heard that they were reuniting, I was most excited. While the album had some strong offerings, it seemed a bit forced and trying to conform to current radio trends. “Testament In Motion” bucked that trend. This track might as well have released in 2000. But the brilliance of what they created back then was that it was a timeless sound, and thus, this track works today. Definitely a comeback that should have had more traction
16. “Kundalini” – B.o.B.
When B.o.B. decides to switch things up, the results either work ridiculously well or just burn. “Kundalini” works because of its weirdness. Tropical house beat, stuttering rap and lyrics that are both inane and clever at the same time (is that possible?) Again, when multiple playlists can fit a track easily in, that’s generally a sign of a winner.
15. “Arms Around You” – XXXTentacion, Lil Pump, Swae Lee, Maluma
XXXTentacion left quite the legacy at a young age with his untimely death and this posthumous release showed exactly what he was capable of. The song creates this haunting quality that just resonates far more than say… “Taki Taki,” because the vocals aren’t overpowering the beat.
14. “Leave It Smokin’” – Tamia
I’ve always had a soft spot for Tamia so every new album I know at least the first single is going to give ‘passion like fire,’ and boy did “Leave It Smokin’” deliver. Tamia’s voice just doesn’t seem to age and the old school vibe of the track made it the perfect song for those bright sunny summer days.
Camila Cabello started the year off with a number one single and album and it seemed like releasing this track as a single seemed like a no-brainer– but it didn’t happen. We did hear more hits, but nothing that stood up to “Havana.” This is the track that got the closest.
12. “One Kiss” – Calvin Harris, Dua Lipa
When I first heard this track I flashed back right to 1992 and immediately I began to think about CeCe Peniston and other house giants of the early 90’s. But with Dua Lipa’s timeless voice and Calvin Harris’ very time-attached beat, this was the right kind of homage to an era that still gets every dancefloor around the world on their feet.
Is it dance? Is it folk dance? The first few times I heard this song I didn’t quite know if this was a Vance Joy hybrid or something completely out there. Whatever the formula, it works and “Catch 22” was truly as catchy as it can get.
Underrated Europop singers are a dime a dozen these days. ALMAa’s EP featured a collaboration with Kiiara that literally can’t leave you in your seat. The beat, the catchy chorus, the bounce the song creates is just pure pop at its best.
9. “breathin’” – Ariana Grande
Speaking of message driven lyrics, Ariana Grande created a whole album chronicling a very challenging personal year for her. While “thank u, next” got all the attention because of its candidness amidst her very public break-up from Pete Davidson and the untimely death of rapper and ex Mac Miller, it’s “breathin’” that’s more cathartic and powerful. Seldom does a song tackle anxiety and when we know everything Grande has been through, it just makes it feel that much more real and raw.
8. “Youth”– Shawn Mendes, Khalid
Another song that should have been a massive hit and wasn’t. I’m not sure why the label opted to not high this collaboration which on paper shouldn’t have worked, but it did, big time. Lyrically, probably the strongest ‘message-driven’ song of the year:
“Pain, but I won’t let it turn into hate
No, I won’t let it change me
Never losing sight of the one I keep inside
Now, I know it
Yeah, I know it
You can’t take my youth away
This soul of mine will never break
As long as I wake up today
You can’t take my youth away”
7. “All The Stars” – Kendrick Lamar, SZA
Hands down the best track from the Black Panther soundtrack and also the best collaboration of the year. Kendrick Lamar has often been paired with Top 40 artists to middling results (think Taylor Swift and Maroon 5) but working with chanteuse SZA was the right fit and the song just worked not just to enhance the film, but as a stand alone as well.
While The Weeknd released an underwhelming EP this year, the best ‘The Weeknd song’ was actually released by Majid Jordan. “All Over You” is the perfect R&B jam that soothes and croons and just about nicely fits into any playlist.
5. “Las Vegas” – The Magician, Ebenezer
Spotify informed me that I’ve listened to this song the most this year and it’s probably because it’s one of the most underrated crossover dance tracks that should have worked wonders on pop and rhythm radio stations.
4. “TV In The Morning” – DNCE
How this song didn’t become a hit is beyond me. Catchy with the clever hook of ‘just unplug with me,’ this was a witty pop gem that really deserved more love than it got. Here’s hoping DNCE continue to give us memorable tracks in 2019.
3. “Under My Skin” – Gabrielle
One of the most underrated Brit-soul artists of all time made an awesome comeback this year and the title track from her album had that Motown feel, the classic despair but hopeful lyrics that Gabrielle’s best tracks often adhere to and a melody even Burt Bacharach would wonder if he composed!
2. “High Horse” – Kacey Musgraves
The most un-country song from the best country album of the year. While Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus (and to an extent Kylie Minogue) attempted to do their take on country this year, Kacey Musgraves’ authenticity managed to remain unscathed in this ditty that takes a beat straight out of Saturday Night Fever yet still would feel at home at a hoedown
1. “Back Down” – Bob Moses
“Your reality is our insanity
Our humanity is tearing at the seams”
No two lines better encapsulated the year that went by– 2018 wasn’t a particularly great year for many and the divide between people increased as did our intolerance for one another. Canadian dance/rock duo Bob Moses create a moody, contemplative song that works to capture a moment in time, right now, when we just don’t know what lies ahead.
Crass, yes. Borderline obscene… perhaps. But this shock rapper has made a career full of gems like this– none that forever changed a childhood game into a bedroom act quite like this. The fact that there are innumerable memorable lines in the song is a testament to how creative CupcakKe actually is.
Most Elevated By Vocals
Meaningful lyrics with a catchy beat always works but in this case, stands apart from Lokii’s previous releases because it adds a level of intimacy thanks to Kayrae’s Florence Welsh-ey ethereal vocals.
Most Sia-But-Not-Sia Hit
“‘Til I’m Done” – Paloma Faith
PalomaFaith hasn’t been able to recreate her European success on a global level and this Sia-esque song had the best chances of doing that, but sadly it fell short. The bridge almost screams for a MC to join and maybe that could have elevated the track to an international stage.
Most Likely To Be Butchered At Karaoke For Years To Come
“Shallow” – Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper
A Star Is Born resonated even on a third time watch thanks in big part to superlative performances by the leads. Their duet here was both heartbreaking and beautiful. While I can’t say it was unforgettable, I know I won’t forget about it because it will be playing across karaoke bars for decades.
Most Inventive Remix
Superorganism already had a catchy as hell song on their hands. But in the hands of famed producer Cedric Gervais, he manages everyone to get into the groove here similar to how he reinvented “Summertime Sadness” for the world. And I believe that yes indeed, everybody wants to be famous!
The author is a Top 40 aficionado, and a former American music industry executive with stints at MTV and VH1 USA. He has written for Billboard and has taught pop culture and music at American universities. He has maintained a public `Best of the Year’ playlist since 1984. He lives in Kochi, India.