Pop music is an ever-shifting force, and it’s also one that tends to brush up against and around other genres, incorporating the best parts of them into itself. With this in mind, the spirit of this list is to highlight overlooked or underappreciated gems at all corners of the word “pop.”
In the first quarter of 2018, a lot of pop songs have come out, and it can be hard to keep up with all of them — especially with the new incredibly annoying Friday release day — so I’ve collected my favorites here for your listening pleasure.
Some of these are big hits, others should be, but for whatever reason aren’t, and all of them are designed to get you out of a funk and remember your own beauty. Enjoy!
“OMG” — Camila Cabello Feat. Quavo
Breaking my own rule right off the bat, yes, this song was technically released in late 2017, but it’s so criminally underplayed for the banger it is that “OMG” deserves some shine on this list. Whoever made the decision to leave “OMG” off Camila’s debut album has some explaining to do… to me… because it’s one of the best songs she’s ever done. After the surge of support that Camila has seen following the release of her self-titled debut, Camila(which I also unequivocally love), there’s a chance we can pull a late meme/fan takeover that pushes this song to the top of the Billboard charts, right? I mean, it has a f*cking Quavo feature on it for God’s sake, it shouldn’t be hard at all. Anyway, listen to it immediately and thank me later.
“Friends” — Marshmellow Feat. Anne-Marie
As soon as I heard this glittering kiss off, I was completely hooked. If you’re anything like me, hearing a woman shout down a man in a pop song is an eternal thrill. Anne-Marie does with the force and aplomb, and watching it happen all over again in the video is even sweeter. Especially because no shots but that oversized mask is pretty played out.
“Cry” — Alison Wonderland Feat. Buddy
This song literally just dropped yesterday, but luckily for you, reader, I have the special shiny privilege as a music journalist of listening to music early, so I’ve had it on repeat all week. “Cry” is a perfect example of what I love to call “misandrist pop” and one of the standouts from Alison Wonderland’s excellent sophomore album Awake, which brings a much-needed female perspective to the bro-fest that is EDM. Pretty sure no one can resist singing along to the chorus — “I just wanna make a grown man cry.”Same.
“The Middle” — Zedd Feat. Maren Morris & Grey
There’s probably no bigger way to introduce a song to the world than by debuting it at the Grammys, which is exactly why “The Middle” has become such an enormous hit in just a few short months. Debuting the track via a Target commercial at the award show, the biggest surprise about the song is Maren Morris making the leap from her country roots straight into the arms of Zedd’s synthpop production. She does it effortlessly — fearlessly, even — and though it sounds pretty similar to his last bop, “Stay,” I think this one supersedes his previous work largely due to Maren’s vocals. For more on her, check out my old review of her debut album.
Another technicality — Dua Lipa’s debut album came out in 2017, but this song was only released to radio as a single in early 2018 so I’m counting it. As has become her speciality (see “New Rules“), Lipa bids goodbye to a nightmare ex who she no longer gives a f*ck about. The anthemic chorus isn’t sad, but instead glories in the rush of no longer caring about someone who so clearly doesn’t deserve your love. Been. There.
Yes, the rollout for Justin Timberlake’s new album was plagued with critiques from what has become an overplayed climate of takedown culture — but corniness aside, this thing is still worth hearing. Most of all, the lead single “Filthy” is still a f*cking R&B-laced banger that makes me want to do things I will regret tomorrow morning. That is one of the primary tenets of a great pop song! I dare you to listen and not be body-rolling by the end of the track. Seriously, try it.
“Count To Five” — Rhye
After bursting onto the scene in 2013 with a voice like an angel (and videos that my grandma would say serve the devil), Mike Milosh and his airy-voiced project Rhye took their sweet time with a follow-up to their debut Woman. But, earlier this year, his second album Blood arrived, and it is spectacular. Perhaps it flew under the radar for you, in which case, you should go stream it right now. If you need convincing, the subtle groove of one of the album’s poppier tracks, “Count To Five,” will do nicely.
“Oh What A World” — Kacey Musgraves
While Kacey still technically identifies as country, the borders of her latest masterpiece, Golden Hour are permeable enough to let in everything from disco and folk to pop and R&B… and also, Daft Punk! The vocoder background vocals that kick off “Oh What A World” are reminiscent of Random Access Memories, and there’s no denying the lilting topline here is a dreamy fit on any playlist, of any genre or era for that matter. Great pop music always sounds timeless and out of time, and Kacey nailed that here.
“Curious” — Hayley Kiyoko
If you haven’t heard of Hayley Kiyoko yet, get used to hearing her name everwhere. As one of the first openly queer female pop stars, Kiyoko just put out a whole album of female gaze-y pop bangers called Expectations that recenter the pop song love story in a way that will simultaneously challenge you and welcome you in. “Curious” is a perfect example of that, wherein a makeout session in a bathroom and an unstoppable flippant chorus hide deeper feelings while still laying it all on the line. Press play, fall in love, and then go stream her whole album.
“Hands On You” — Ashley Monroe
This is a sharp left turn for country golden child Ashley Monroe, who is fresh off two Grammy noms for her 2015 album The Blade and a 2016 live album with Third Man Records. Perhaps bolstered by this success, she leaves behind the sweeter fare of her past and gets right down to the nitty gritty — wishing you’d made a move when you didn’t. Her backward glancing is hotter than most people’s fronting, so get ready to feel things get a little steamy when you put this one on.
“I Owe You Nothing — Seinabo Sey
Possibly my favorite song of 2018 so far? Seinabo Sey gave us the no-fucks-given anthem that this year doesn’t just need but requires. The Swedish-born pop singer is half Gambian, and interpolates some influences from her musician father, Maudo Sey, renowned in The Gambia and Senega, along with an avid appreciation for MTV, Beyonce, and Alicia Keys. Next time someone tries to take credit for your shine, blast this in their face. Then saunter away, Seinabo style. Legend.
“Short Court Style” — Natalie Prass
Here’s a sweet little bop from the golden-voice Natalie Prass, an artist on Matthew White’s fantastic Spacebomb roster who quietly released a long-simmering, humid folk-pop debut in 2015, and then promptly disappeared. Well, not quite, but it has been a minute since we heard from Prass, which is part of what makes “Short Court Style” even more exciting. It finds her building on the flourishing vocal pop of her self-titled record and flipping it toward the fringes of R&B and disco. She sounds just as spectacular now over this instrumentation, and her debut will arrive at the top of June, just in time for summer playlists.
“I Do” — Cardi B Feat. SZA
We should’ve known by now that Cardi is too savvy to put out a debut album without grabbing the biggest name of the moment for a collab. Closing out her excellent, polished debut Invasion Of Privacy, SZA and Cardi alternate between bad bitch and boss bitch on a track that eviscerates broke men who aren’t good in bed. Good, that’s a big weekend mood if I’ve ever encountered one. Meantime, the Murda Beatz production on this chorus rivals anything on Culture II.
“Cookie Jar” — Doja Cat
Recommended by none other than our own Yusef Roach, this sexy little banger uses well-worn sexual innuendo to create a rap-influenced banger that invokes Nicki in her prime Pink Friday era. And while Doja Cat is clearly influenced by Minaj, she brings an attitude all her own to the track, along with inspirations like Drake and Erykah Badu. The resulting mix is a confident, brassy pop-rap song that deserves to be a hit.
“Get Out” — Chvrches
The always-reliable Scottish synth-pop trio Chvrches are back with another round of bangers, and “Get Out” is the first one to make its way onto my own personal playlist. Lauren Mayberry brings her signature, powerful pop vocal to a technicolor chorus and a jittery verse, both of which build to satisfying peaks and break into a million rainbow bits. No matter what they do, Chvrches never miss.