All told, it was a good—if uneven—year in music. Rapper Cardi B finally released her long-anticipated major label album Invasion of Privacy; queer pop blew up; Beyoncé surprise-dropped another album. Streaming is huge, record sales less so. Long-simmering tensions between Drake and Pusha T (and later, Kanye) boiled over into a fusillade of beef records that made the summer a little more interesting. Also, it’s still possible to get nearly 200 million views on a music video, if you make a four-quadrant clip with plenty of Bend and Snap. But what were the best music moments of 2018? Read on, we’ve put them all below.
Beyoncé Transforms Coachella
Ascendance. That’s the only way to properly describe what happened in Indio, California on the night of April 14, the Year of our Lord Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Across a two-hour headlining set at Coachella, the Grammy-winning singer waded through 27 songs like an unstoppable force of nature—all-powerful, constant, ever infinite. Flanked by 100 dancers and a marching band, she took believers and nonbelievers alike on a historical voyage through black southern culture, invoking the emblems and dance of HBCUs, her native Houston, and black fraternities and sororities. She sang the Black National Anthem, reunited with Destiny’s Child for a greatest hits medley, and even offered Jay-Z a moment to shine. The result was near volcanic: Social feeds were flooded with news of the performance for days and weeks after. Front row images of a giddy Rihanna were shared across Twitter. Video footage of Adele excitedly lip-synching from home made rounds on Instagram. Coachella was quickly, and rightfully, rechristened #Beychella. Writing of her mythic influence, the New York Times fittingly observed: “History is her stage.” The day after, watching the YouTube stream, I found myself glued to the TV (I was three hours late to brunch with friends because there was no way I was going to miss out on history). The truth of it all: I have never seen a performance so richly, so augustly, so emotionally imagined. With it, Beyoncé elevated herself into a rarefied league of entertainers: alongside the likes of Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and Prince. “Thank you for allowing me to be the first black woman to headline Coachella,” she said halfway through the set, only to playfully punctuate it with a shard of context: “Ain’t that ’bout a bitch.” We forever stan. —Jason Parham
Kendrick Lamar Becomes Pulitzer Kenny
Despite the fact that he released his last LP, DAMN., in 2017, Kendrick Lamar had a big year in 2018. It started with the Black Panther soundtrack, which he curated and featured on heavily. It ended with eight Grammy nominations—more than any other artist—a Golden Globe nod for “All the Stars” from Black Panther and a place on the Oscars shortlist. But along the way, he did something no other MC had ever done before: He won a Pulitzer Prize for DAMN. In bestowing the prize, the Pulitzer board noted that the album was “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” It was all that and more. And Lamar, who embraced the moniker Pulitzer Kenny, accepted proudly and humbly. “I’ve been writing my whole life, so to get this type of recognition,” he said. “It’s beautiful.” We couldn’t agree more. —Angela Watercutter
Flasher Takes on YouTube
Don’t be fooled by the cruel spinning dots: When the video for Flasher’s “Material” starts buffering about 30 seconds in, it’s the first sign that the clip for this spry punk number—from the DC band’s excellent Constant Image album—is actually a send-up of circa-2018 YouTube culture. Over the next few minutes, “Material” takes the form of nearly every YouTrope imaginable, from conspiracy-theory videos to jump-scare clips to dopey YouTube comments (there’s even a brief, barfy popping clip). It’s a little bit UHF, a little bit mass-media meta-commentary, and even if you don’t catch every reference, the song’s chorus will be streaming to your head long afterwards. Be sure to smash the like and subscribe! —Brian Raftery
Robyn Finally Releases ‘Honey’
It was the Chinese Democracy of Swedish pop: The final season of Girls featured a then-unfinished song called “Honey” from too-long-absent dance phenom Robyn. At the time, it had been seven years since she’d released an album and her fans were thirsty. After the brief Girls tease, her followers began an online campaign—#RELEASEHONEYDAMMIT—to get her to put out the final version of the track. This year, those fans got more than that: They got “Honey” the song, and Honey the album. It’s nine tracks of sleekly produced dancefloor-ready pop that could only come from Robyn herself. It took a long time, but it was worth the wait. —A.W.
Ariana Grande Gives Thanks
While it’s easily argued—rightly—that the best music of 2018 was made by women, none of them had more of a breakout year than Ariana Grande. Not only did she release the best album of her career so far, Sweetener, she also went through a very public relationship, and breakup, with Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson. On the heels of both of those things, she released “thank u, next”—a single she dropped just 30 minutes before SNL hit the air and completely took over Twitter in no time flat. It spawned several memes, but it was the song’s video that sent the internet into a tailspin. Teased on social media by Grande herself in the weeks before it dropped, the video was an homage to beloved Millennial and Gen X films like Mean Girls, Legally Blonde, 13 Going on 30, and Bring It On. (There was also a dig at President Trump’s immigration policies.) It almost melted YouTube, garnering more than 55 million views in 24 hours, a new record. Thank u, Ari. —A.W.
Childish Gambino Holds a Mirror Up to America’s Face
In a year as frenzied as it was creatively nourishing, music remained in a steady state of nonstop overflow: from to the ubiquity of “No Tears Left to Cry,” “One Kiss,” and “In My Feelings” to albums that tested artistic form (Tierra Whack’s Whack World and Pusha T’s Daytona) as much as they did expectation (Nicki Minaj’s Queen). Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” was a welcome outlier among the fray—a nimble trap-gospel that set fire to past and current social terrors. It wasn’t simply the year’s most surprising piece of protest music, but—visually speaking—Gambino’s gutsiest proposition to date: a Hiro Murai-directed jamboree of ruin and violence (unblinking and remorseless, one scene depicts a 10-person choir getting gunned down). Like Kara Walker’s grand Antebellum silhouettes that the video called to mind, it juggled themes of the grotesque—torture, death, slavery—in graceful, melodious swoops. “This Is America” was provocation and forewarning: This is America, but it doesn’t have to be. —J.P.
Janelle Monáe Comes Out as a Dirty Computer
Janelle Monáe has always been a polymath: a singer, songwriter, performer, actress. She does it all. But until 2018, she’d always done it wearing a guise of one kind or another. She called herself an android; named herself Cindi Mayweather. But when she released Dirty Computer, and the short film that came with it, she let all that go. In a Rolling Stone interview that accompanied the album’s release, she came out as queer and the music and lyrics on the record reflected a much more free artist than the one she’d presented before. The mask was gone and as a result she made one of the best albums of her career. —A.W.
‘Mo Bamba’ Redefines the NYC Banger
New York hip-hop has a long history of songs that come out of nowhere to rule parties and car speakers, turning nightclubs to war zones and budding artists into folk heroes. Think Young M.A’s “Ooouuu,” Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot N***a,” A$AP Ferg’s “Work.” But while each followed its own twisting road to virality, none has quite the origin story of Sheck Wes’ “Mo Bamba.” The young Harlem rapper grew up with college basketball standout Bamba, who asked him to drop his name in a song; after hearing the beat built around co-producer 16yrold’s “evil sounding type” piano sample, Wes freestyled the song in a single take, unintentional mid-track glitchout and all. Its fuse burned slow—it landed on SoundCloud in June of 2017—but it began to sweep clubs (and, for better or worse, college parties) at the very beginning of this year, its woozy bass and chantlike delivery inviting the best kind of turn-up entropy. By the time the real Bamba wound up being selected sixth by the Orlando Magic in this past June’s NBA draft, his sonic namesake had arguably become the bigger breakout phenomenon. And thus two legends were born. —Peter Rubin
The 1975 Drops Its Meme-Heavy ‘Love It If We Made It’ Video
The stuck-on-repeat standout of A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships—the third album from English future-pop alchemists the 1975—at first sounds like some sort of copypasta fiasco: A litany of disentangled, digital-life references and invocations, from “poison me, daddy” to “rest in peace, Lil Peep” to a crass Trump quote. But for a song that expertly reflects our meme-spackled, info-jammed modern disaffection, “Love It If We Made It” is sneakily sincere, with lead singer Matty Healy striving to connect with someone—anyone—over a gently relentless throb of synth jabs and big-beat drums. It all culminates in a chorus (“I’d love it if we made it”) that casually pleas for humankind’s survival. No tune better captured the chaos of being tethered to the internet of 2018—nor the LOL-is-me attitude necessary to endure it. —B.R.
Pitbull Accidentally Releases 2018’s Anthem
Many things about 2018 did not make sense. Teenagers began ingesting laundry detergent; a stuffed animal called Trumpy Bear conquered the internet; Thicc Zucc became a meme. It has felt at times like a long, strange Ambien trip from which we, as a society, cannot wake up. Which is why Pitbull’s latest earworm, “Ocean to Ocean,” is the perfect song of the year. Yes, Pitbull is back (as he explains in the opening lyrics: they tried to get rid of him; now they’re gonna have to deal with him!) and who better to personify our modern condition? “Ocean to Ocean” may seem like a simple party tune, created for the original motion picture soundtrack of Aquaman. But believing that would be naive. For years Pitbull has used his music to philosophize the most important issues of our time—consider previous album titles, like Globalization, Climate Change, and Money Is Still a Major Issue. (Ain’t that the truth, Pit.) Here, he samples Toto’s “Africa,” which is either a reference on 2018’s devastating hurricane season (bless these rains) or a commentary on the random, chaotic, meaninglessness of it all. We may never know the true meaning, and if that isn’t a metaphor for this year, nothing is. ¡Dale! —Arielle Pardes
Springsteen Releases His Infamous 1978 Roxy Show
For the last few years, Bruce Springsteen has been releasing high-quality, decades-spanning, admirably affordable live shows on his live site, including several marathon-man concerts that stretch well past the three-hour mark. This summer, the site finally unveiled the Boss’ infamous 1978 show at the intimate Los Angeles venue The Roxy—a show that’s been sought out in bootleg form for four decades. Just a few songs in, it’s not hard to understand why: Over the course of more than 25 tracks, Springsteen and his E Street Band—superstars who’ve been jammed into a tiny riot house of a club—unleash a sweat-drenched fury that includes everything from Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” to an towering, 14-minute version of “Backstreets.” It’s the kind of show built for the digital-download era, one so overstuffed with tunes that you couldn’t imagine boiling it down a single CD or two. Even if you’re a casual Bruce listener, it’s worth a night at the Roxy. —B.R.