Best Songs of 2018 (Staff Picks)

Saba, Mac Miller, Lil Baby—the DJBooth staff picks the best songs of the year.
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Best Songs of 2018 (Staff Picks)

Say what you like, 2018 has been a marked year for music. While critique is very serious business, we are also human and what we like is all the more special than the critical appraisal of an album. For the next month, every day, you will find our staff picks for our favorite facets of music from best features to worst songs and everything in-between, based solely on what strikes us as diehard music fans first, and critics second. It's been an incredible year for hip-hop.

These are our favorite songs of 2018.

“CALLIGRAPHY” — Saba

The last song that resonated with me as deeply as Saba’s “CALLIGRAPHY” was Kendrick Lamar’s “u.” Aside from being a beautiful and heartbreaking song, Saba’s truth offers catharsis; I can’t think of any other song—rap or otherwise—that touches on the specific symptom of depression where you want nothing more than to stay in bed and shut out the world. The way he delivers his vocals like he’s drowning in his duvet captures the struggle all too vividly. (However, hearing Saba mourn the death of his cousin and collaborator, John Walt, actually dragged me out of bed because whatever I was dealing with felt stupid and trivial in comparison.) What makes “CALLIGRAPHY” even more special is its significance on CARE FOR ME. Sandwiched between the album’s somber opening sequence and brighter songs like “FIGHTER” and “SMILE,” it marks the moment Saba stops running away from his pain and begins to find a sense of peace. By the album’s closer “HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME,” his search is successful. —Andy James 

"FIGHTER" — Saba

As a rapper-producer, Saba is as adept at creating worlds as he is inhabiting them. His stellar CARE FOR ME showed a colorful world being beaten down by the aggressive darks and grays that come with the 20/20 hindsight of past mistakes and nagging thoughts, which standout track “FIGHTER” showcases incredibly well. A winding series of vignettes takes us through a series of physical and mental scuffles that outline Saba’s strengths and weaknesses in such potent ways that it’s hard not to stare at your hands while it’s playing. “It’s hard to love myself when all these people compliment me,” Saba reveals over the synthetic and muffled cushions of he, daedaePIVOT, and Daoud’s production. “Somehow it just remind me of what I don’t got.” The pointiest barbs usually tend to come from the inside. —Dylan "CineMasai" Green

"High" — Young Thug ft. Elton John

When you listen to music for work, your relationship to the music changes dramatically. Instead of just enjoying the music in the moment, a whirlwind of questions begins to sprout: "Is the mix off?" "Are the vocals too high?" "Was this guest feature the right match?" "How much did that sample cost to clear?" I know this sounds like I'm complaining but I promise I'm not. I'm blessed to have a "job" that requires I listen to thousands of songs every month. But this also means I'm rarely if ever able to return to individual songs nor do I have the desire or time to do so. Enter Young Thug's "High," a spectacular record featuring a legendary Elton John sample that, incredibly, I found myself playing on repeat in 2018. Getting lost in the song's chorus is a damn near existential experience and it's that gravitational pull that had me coming back for more, I think. Few songs capture my attention beyond the first listen, and even fewer garner repeat listens in the same calendar year. "High," though? I'm taking "High" with me into 2019. —Z

"It Gets Better (With Time)" — The Internet

After everything this year brought hip-hop, and my personal life, I needed this one. Seeing the band perform this one live, and Syd dedicating the record to Malcolm, the song took on a special significance for me. "It Gets Better" was one of his favorites, she told us. There were plenty song-of-the-year contenders, but in the end, "It Gets Better" became my personal mantra much like all of Evidence's Weather or Not soothed me through the first half of the year. Our next joy is always coming, I can never forget. —Donna-Claire Chesman

“Ladders” — Mac Miller

No other song this year matched the vivid intensity of “Ladders,” which never wastes a moment as it rises and falls with a brilliant fervor. Mac Miller’s verses are urgent and arresting, relaying metaphors about life’s never-ending climb over beautifully vibrant instrumentation. Still, the song would only be a shell of itself without the electrifying arrangements and illustrious trumpets that dominate the scene after each chorus and elevate the song up to the rafters. It’s the song of the year, one of the best of Mac’s career, and yet another reason why I’m thankful every day for what he did while he was on this Earth. —Kenan Draughorne

“Life Goes On” — Lil Baby ft. Gunna & Lil Uzi Vert

I have listened to “Life Goes On” so many times I’m not even sure how to enjoy it any more than I already do, but with each subsequent listen, its power only grows. I can’t tell if it’s the perfection of Lil Baby’s hook, the sensational closing verse by Lil Uzi Vert, or Quay Global’s otherworldly blend of 808s and piano keys, but “Life Goes On” is the definitive encapsulation of what makes Lil Baby so intriguing as a newcomer. “Life Goes On” is such a masterfully crafted song, both in replayability and catchiness, that you’d have guessed he’d been making these songs for years. —Matt Wilhite

Nothing quite defines the 2018 hip-hop zeitgeist like the dual, symbiotic rises of Lil Baby and Gunna, who also happen to have the best song of the year. On "Life Goes On," the two unite with Lil Uzi Vert to form a rap Ghidorah of absolutely flawless melodic boasting. It's a perfect rap song, and I now have to go listen to it for the millionth time. —Brendan Varan 

“PROM / KING” — Saba

Saba’s “PROM / KING” is the type of song that I get lost within no matter how many times I’ve heard it. More than a narrative of grief over the loss of his cousin John Walt, “PROM /KING” is a narrative of family, love, and concern that ultimately shows you can never prepare for the senseless tragedies that rip our loved ones from our lives, suddenly and without warning. Saba is relentless in his delivery, building to a level of desperation bound to explode if not for the final pulling of the pin: “Fuck it, wherever you are my n—, we’ll come and find you.” This line is hope when hope is already lost. “PROM / KING” is devastating; it allows “HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME,” the closing song that follows, to be the only justified light in the grey grief. —Ben Taylor

"Reborn" — KIDS SEE GHOSTS

“Reborn” is the standout track from Kanye West and Kid Cudi’s impressive collaborative effort KIDS SEE GHOSTS, both for its personal relevance and its role as a proclamation of growth and maturation each artist. West uses the track to acknowledge and discuss his struggles with mental health in a more structured and candid manner than he ever demonstrated on ye, while Cudi officially marks his triumphant return following a multi-year battle with depression, drugs, and suicidal thoughts. “Reborn” is an empowering tour de force, an endearing victory lap for two of rap’s preeminent artists as they emerge from the depths of mental illness. —Stephen Barston

"Workin Out" — J.I.D

The hook J.I.D sings on “Workin Out” encapsulates a year of hard work, prayer, frustration, and setbacks. It’s a sentimental record without baring too much soul; transparent without being completely see-through. J.I.D’s lyricism can be a destructive tongue twister, but he also has a gift for concise illustrations of simple, yet relatable vignettes. For the days when things are going wrong, or the nights adjusting to how much your life has changed, J.I.D’s “Workin Out” is there as comforting company. —Yoh

"2009" — Mac Miller

From the evocative strings that showcase just how far Mac had grown as an arranger of music, to the tenderness of his ever-improving singing voice, “2009” is a song about growth. Masterfully written, the song’s lyrics are just abstract enough for any listeners who need to see themselves reflected back, but simultaneously specific enough to Mac’s life and journey to give us a peek into his state of mind. At the time of writing this song, he was feeling cautiously optimistic; hopeful, even. According to everyone who knew him, this is how he’d have wanted to be remembered. It’s not my favorite song on Swimming, nor is it an easy song to listen to considering its cruel irony, but given that it was his final sign-off, it deserves the title of Song of the Year regardless. —Hershal Pandya

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