Guess, what? It’s another year-end list. 2018 overall has been a year spent in deep infatuation with female K-pop stars. I’ve been saying for the past few years that Western pop hasn’t really been hitting the spot for me in the way their South Korean counterparts are. The melodies, the juxtaposition of genres and styles, and above all, the commitment to serving full-blown productions. We’re talking music videos, live performances, styling, choreography. Everything is just an experience.
For the first time ever, my Top 5 most played songs of the year on Spotify were occupied exclusively by K-pop tracks. There were three BLACKPINK tracks (‘DDU-DU DDU-DU’, ‘As If It’s Your Last’ and ‘Forever Young’) and two SUNMI singles: ‘Siren’ and ‘Heroine’ – the latter was my most played song. I mean, I was definitely obsessed with it at the time of release. I must’ve had it on repeat for two weeks straight for it to come out on top of the list.
My Songs of 2018 isn’t made up of what I’ve listened to the most but more of a combination of what I’ve definitely been obsessed with and songs that I felt have definitely been MOMENTS this year. So here are 25 tracks that have stood out for me…
#25 – joan ‘Tokyo’
It’s not like me to really listen to male artists but this indie-pop duo from Arkansas is really doing it with their swirl of nostalgic 80s synths and sentimental lyrics. They sound like sweet boys who wear beanies in summer and make music in their parents’ basements, all around them are takeaway containers where veggie dumplings and ramen used to be. I hope they get more mainstream attention in 2019.
#24 – Amy Shark ‘I Said Hi’
I feel a bit guilty for not staying in touch with what’s happening with pop back home in Australia. Every now and then a really cool name would show up on Idolator or a Spotify playlist like Tkay Maidza, Jess Kent or Nicole Millar and I’d get that mix of excitement and FOMO. Amy Shark is a singer-songwriter from the Gold Coast signed to Sony who is enjoying great success this year with her debut album. This moody little single ‘I Said Hi’ caught my attention immediately with its new-gen Avril vibes and candid lyrics about how lonely it gets when you’re chasing your dream.
#23 – Cher Lloyd ‘None of My Business’
I’m gonna sing Cher Lloyd by… Cher Lloyd. What a tidy little comeback from one of my favourite ever X Factor breakout stars. There is definitely a certain kind of fondness for Cher Lloyd amongst gay men of our generation and it’s really heartwarming. ‘None of My Business’ does a wonderful job of bridging what’s great about 2018 pop with what we loved about her in the early years. With these nursery rhyme-like melodies and lyrics that pack a fistful of attitude, this feels like a classic Cher Lloyd record but with a bit more grace. The smirk and eye-rolls are still there, trust, but she’s maybe a little less bothered and little less OTT about it these days.
#22 – Shawn Mendes ‘Lost in Japan’
I can pick Shawn Mendes out from a crowd of a thousand but I couldn’t sing you a single one of his songs. No ma’am. ‘Lost in Japan’ was something of a surprise for me. It may not be innovative by any means from what he normally does but young man, slap on a mischievous funk bass line and some winking emoji lyrics about a rendezvous, and I’m on the first Easyjet over.
#21 – Charli XCX ‘No Angel’
I think cerebrally I’ve always known Charli XCX to be a highly honourable purveyor of pop but I’ve never accepted her into my heart until maybe the last few months. I think there are times where she is over-hyped, for instance, I don’t think all that screaming and shouting on Twitter was warranted for something like POP2. There are definite moments, please don’t get me wrong. But let’s address it for what it is… moments. The singles Charlotte brought us this year – ‘Girls Night Out’, the double A-side ‘Focus’ and ‘No Angel’, and ‘1999’ (more on this later) – really turned me around. She would be the popstar of my dreams if I were a teenager in 2018. ‘No Angel’ very marginally took the spotlight from ‘Focus’ for me purely because I’m really into this gyrating, robo-reggae rhythm and the earnest lyrics about self-redemption.
#20 – BLACKPINK ‘See U Later’
The amount of times I have strutted out of the office with this turned up loud. What BLACKPINK really do well is that feisty, ice-cold princess gig. You can tell there is vulnerability in there somewhere but they would never wait around long enough for you to figure it out. ‘See U Later’ is a brilliant kiss-off track with a few peppery lines (in English) that’ll stay on your tongue long after they’re gone. “See you later… maybe never?????”
#19 – Clean Bandit feat. Demi Lovato ‘Solo’
It’s hard to take in that Clean Bandit is one of Britain’s most significant pop groups at the moment… but the charts and streaming numbers don’t lie. It’s even harder to deny them this when they’re dropping precise, radio-ravaging candy like this so consistently. Where years ago I was banging on about how ‘crying at the disco’ was my favourite sub-genre, nowadays, sad bangers are ruling the charts. ‘Solo’ somehow manages to become something enjoyable you’d blast on Greek island getaway with your mates and also something you’d crank up when you’re post-break up bruised and finding yourself home alone with a £6.99 bottle of Malbec.
#18 – Rina Sawayama ‘Cherry’
I have been excited about the prospect of popstar Rina Sawayama ever since ‘Cyber Stockholm Syndrome’ and ‘Alterlife’. I completely appreciate her perspective of 00s pop R&B through a 2018 Dazed/i-D reader lens. ‘Cherry’ with its blossoming chorus and stunning music video with choreography and a restraint, high fashion statement completely did it for me. Similar to Charli, Rina would be the kind of popstar a teenage me in 2018 would be completely and utterly obsessed with. She represents the dream.
#17 – Kacey Musgraves ‘High Horse’
Just as it was for many pop gays, Kacey Musgraves and her Golden Hour album was an amazing discovery for me. It seems like the time is right for a new country crossover queen to emerge and Kacey did so with such elegance with this gentle, glittery disco-Nashville number. Not for a moment did it feel like she was over reaching or trying too hard, which made her all the more appealing to the pop community. More on Kacey when I do my albums of the year list.
#16 – Charlie Puth feat. Kehlani ‘Done for Me’
It wasn’t until I listened to an episode of the New York Times Popcast discussing Charlie Puth that I really had to give it up to him. I can’t think of a male vocalist since Adam Lambert (and going even further back, Darren Hayes) that has really impressed me like Charlie has. ‘Done For Me’ – with Kehlani – is him finally becoming cool, I think.
#15 – MNEK ‘Tongue’
I could not be happier for Uzo because 2018 really saw him come out and deliver A-grade live performances with choreography and not to mention, one of the best albums with Language. The more I listen to ‘Tongue’ to more I get to savour the layers and dimensions to it. In the first listen, you clasp the monotonous spoken-word chorus over strutting club beats, but then the layers of harmonies wrapped around the verses and all the ad-libs come to the forefront. It’s genius work.
#14 – Ariana Grande ‘God is a woman’
It’s hard to discuss the world’s biggest popstar because everything astute and thoughtful there is to be said about her musicality – especially in the Sweetener era – has been articulated by critics and people with far more intelligence than me. But when it’s all said and done, ‘God is a woman’ is a completely spellbinding, slow-burner that seemingly plays to a cool, shadowy sensuality but, in actual fact, is a remarkably produced Max Martin-aided bop that has multiple levels to it.
#13 – Janelle Monae ‘Make Me Feel’
This Prince-gleaning neon-funk bop is just absolutely one of the most pleasurable music moments for me this year. As a long time admirer of Janelle Monae (she shook my world with the ‘Many Moons’ video and Metropolis: The Chase Suite EP and I’d been on board ever since), this more brazen and sexually-liberated Janelle was a welcomed surprise.
#12 – Kylie Minogue ‘Dancing’
Kylie is one of my favourite artists of all time. I would maybe even go as far as saying absolute favourite. It’s a little known fact that even people closest to me don’t know about. Any kind of reservation I might’ve had about the pop grand dame embracing country music was quickly hushed when ‘Dancing’ came out. While Golden might not have completely done it for me (I actually think it would’ve sounded better if she had given us a straight up country pop record without all the unnecessary electronic-pop flourishes in some tracks), I embrace moments like ‘Dancing’, ‘Radio On’ and ‘Sincerely Yours’. Kylie is the ultimate queen of melancholy, brightly-coloured pop and she has done this oh so subtly throughout her career. Check ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, ‘Hand On Your Heart’, ‘Never Too Late’, ‘All The Lovers’, ‘Into The Blue’ etc. The double entendre of “when I go out, I wanna go out dancing” will never not get me. Play this at my funeral.
#11 – Louisa feat. 2 Chainz ‘YES’
This second coming of Christina Aguilera’s ‘Dirrty’ absolutely sent for me. There are moments in these troubled times where a really fun pop banger comes around that doesn’t necessarily align with whatever Capital or Radio 1 is playlisting but that’s not to say it doesn’t deserve a moment. With all the nostalgia for the 00s going around at the moment, it is possible that Louisa might’ve been a little ahead of the curve with this one. I think had she had the chance to deliver an A-grade pop performance on TV with a big troupe of dancers and an image/styling that blatantly reeked of throwback 00s vibes, like what Charli XCX’s playing at with ‘1999’, perhaps this would’ve fared better.
#10 – Charli XCX feat. Troye Sivan ‘1999’
This is just a straight-up confetti-blasting throwback bop and I’m so happy for Charlotte that she’s clocking up radio airplays with it. I think in this day and age we can be too #woke and overthink one’s approach to pop when really, we’re forgetting the importance of having fun and keeping it simple. It’s a shitty world out there – we got Brexit, we got Trump, we got drones fucking grounding our flights… let’s go back to a time where things appear to be simpler and better. Nothing airbrushes the past better than nostalgia. I’m living for Charli XCX giving us the fast-food equivalent in music. Absolutely brilliant escapist pop.
#9 – Ariana Grande ‘no tears left to cry’
This is admittedly a strange pop record and yet everything about it just works. In here we have elements of garage beats layered with stabbing synths and Ariana’s angelic vocals that switch from grand sweeping notes to kittenish semi-spoken word lines. There is a persistent tide of optimism in ‘no tears left to cry’ that doesn’t try to sweep the sadness under a rug but rather bring it to the light and live alongside it. This in itself is a life lesson.
#8 – Normani x Calvin Harris ‘Checklist’ (feat. Wizkid)
This Afrobeat-influenced Top 40 dance pop banger was all kinds of exciting for me from the moment it dropped. Normani is very much on her way to becoming the next big breakout star and I’m sure she is going to move mountains in 2019. The strategic move of aligning with credible and established collaborators like Khalid, Calvin Harris and Wizkid to introduce her as a solo star is very astute but it’s her fiery delivery on ‘Checklist’ that really made me sit up. Her ability to embody this jam with a swagger and accent that isn’t necessarily native to her tells me she is a performer to be reckoned with.
#7 – Rita Ora ‘Let You Love Me’
This song stabbed me in the heart and drained the blood from my veins within the first minute. Atlantic Records-era Rita Ora has been delivering hits after hits and I was well on the ride, but it wasn’t until they delivered a nerve-damaging emotional bop like this that I knew I had to take a breather. The song’s sentiments about self-sabotaging and fear of intimacy spoke to me in ways I didn’t expect to be spoken to.
#6 – Kim Petras ‘Heart to Break’
This song has been pure joy for me and will always remind me of the summer of 2018. I have the pleasure of working with Kim and to have spent a bit of time with her when she came over to the UK to play her first sold-out headline show. I think in her I saw someone who was not only a formidable songwriter and vocalist but a true scholar of pop music, someone who deeply understood Britney, Gwen Stefani and Madonna references (and everything else in between). Above it all, I was drawn to her feverish commitment to making escapist pop – not just for us but for her – in the face of whatever the real world was throwing our way.
#5 – Toni Braxton ‘Long As I Live’
Toni Michelle Braxton has no right barging into 2018 with a lush, modern day R&B classic like this. We are complete undeserving. ‘Long As I Live’ – with its pulsating rhythms and nocturnal piano-synths – sound like something evocative of a 90s Babyface LP and no less, with Toni’s timeless, quivering aching vocals. I’d even go as far as saying this is the best Toni Braxton song we’ve had this decade.
#4 – Ariana Grande ‘breathin’
This song has low-key been such a meaningful soundtrack for me personally. The arrival of ‘breathin’ coincided with me learning to take better care of myself this year. Year after year I do these lists and towards the top end of the list, I usually find songs that have resonated with a fragile or complicated part of my life. And I guess this is no different.
#3 – Calvin Harris feat. Dua Lipa ‘One Kiss’
This was the song of summer 2018 for me. You’d be in a park with mates, nursing a cider, and hear this tune coming out of a tinny portable speaker. With Dua Lipa emerging as the UK’s biggest female pop entity of the minute, teaming up with dance music supremo Calvin Harris who was suddenly circling back to house music… ‘One Kiss’ kinda feels like a modern day classic that has always been around.
#2 – BLACKPINK ‘DDU-DU DDU-DU’
BLACKPINK was such a dominating pop force in my life this year. This YG-managed girl group, initially hailed as the second coming of 2NE1, slowly but surely got me stanning. Even though ‘DDU-DU DDU-DU’ sounds like something from about four years ago with its garish EDM drops, the blockbuster music video and BLACKPINK’s utter commitment to nailing every live performance sparked an excitement that caught fire in me and in fans worldwide. Without me realising, they had become one of my favourite girl groups alongside Girls Aloud, Sugababes, Spice Girls, 2NE1 etc. With BTS blowing the gates open with K-pop presence in Western media, I can only hope that by this time next year we’d all be on the BLACKPINK fandom.
#1 – SUNMI ‘Siren’
This has to be #1 for me. I’ve had this on repeat for months and I still can’t get over it. Ex-Wonder Girl SUNMI got my attention last year when she made her solo comeback with ‘Gashina’ which was one of my Songs of 2017. What really drew me in was SUNMI’s unconventional performance style in this era and she absolutely sunk her teeth into ‘Siren’ (just watch the music video). The high drama in this throbbing 80s disco-pop banger, which hears her cut down an eager lover from going further with her emotionally unavailable self, is absolutely bad-ass in every sense.
Listen to my Songs of 2018 playlist on Spotify here:
And my 2000s pop podcast Right Back At Ya! – @rightbackpod