When the world hands you lemons, what do you do? Turn them into lemonade? Or light a lemon-scented candle and listen to Neko Case while weeping softly into a pillow? Likely, it’s the latter. Because when everything else fails—relationships, technology, the government—it’s true that music is the ultimate salve. Here are all the tunes that kept us sane and as positive as possible this year, songs that made us so happy we could cry.
Musgraves’ entire album is magical but “Oh What a World,” a gentle, dreamy ode to the sublime is the song that I spent hours listening to this summer when I needed a cooling balm for all of the small and large wounds I had accumulated (plus it includes a nod to the beauty of what I suspect are shrooms). When she sings, “Oh, what a world, don’t wanna leave/All kinds of magic all around us, it’s hard to believe,” that sweet ache of impermanence hits you, and you welcome it. —Esther Wang
In a truly wonderful musical year (the only real way that this year has been wonderful), no song has stuck with me like the opening track on Toronto band Dilly Dally’s second album, Heaven. “I Feel Free” unfurls with the singularly scratchy, jagged voice of singer Katie Monks, her tone confined to a whisper, “We’ll start again/In a moment of silence.” As the song intensifies throughout the bridge, she does, too—if she’s breathing in during the verse, she lets it out in the chorus for a hopeful repetition of “I feel free/And I want you to find me.” That phrase has gotten stuck in my head periodically since its release; it’s so light and airy, I often imagine Monks singing it on while standing on her toes, neck extended up, swaying. That’s the only hippie shit I like. —Maria Sherman
Ambient music swaddles my mind like it’s a newborn in a blanket. It’s a retreat into the abstract and away from the brutal literalism of reality. I listen to it sometimes when I write and always when I meditate—my favorite ambient stuff is as formless as clouds, providing troves of drones on which to hang my brain and follow closely as I attempt deep focus. I loved a lot of ambient records this year—Hotel Neon’s Inward, Warmth’s Parallel, Dedekind Cut’s Tahoe, among them—but my latest obsession is the recent A Seasons Past by Hirotaka Shirotsubaki, who’s based in Kobe, Japan. This record is utterly beguiling—every time I put it on, I have no idea what I’m actually listening to, and attempting to figure it out only makes me want to keep listening. —Rich Juzwiak
I like to keep some form of a pick-me-up playlist on Spotify with titles like “cheer up” or “songs I like.” The latest one has Robyn’s “Honey” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut to the Feeling” on it, for instance, along with Lil Wayne’s “Let It All Work Out,” featuring Sampha. Earlier this year, when Cardi B’s album Invasion of Privacy dropped, her entire album became my pick-me-up playlist. I gave special attention to “I Like It,” at one point playing it probably 30 times in a row and dancing in my room, and this was before it became the runaway song of the summer. The album is a burst of energy when you need it most. She’ll end up on a lot of year-end lists for this reason, because I’m sure her music helped many people power through. (Okurrr?) —Clover Hope
Mitski’s album Be the Cowboy was one of my favorites this year, and “Nobody” is a stand-out. It’s a song about tiring romantic loneliness, but Mitski dresses it up in this quiet disco glamour. And there’s something refreshing about a “love” song for someone who doesn’t demand much more than “one good kiss” and is more than okay to stop there. Don’t pity Mitski, the gal just knows what she wants and what she needs. —Hazel Cills
This is the most basic answer, and will likely appear on numerous year-end lists with much more eloquent reasoning than mine, which is that this song is good played once, very loudly, or 20 times in a row, at medium volume, and will make you feel like calling each and every ex you’ve ever had to tell them just how happy you are now that they taught you love, patience, and pain. —Megan Reynolds
A few months ago, I showed up to daycare to pick up my 15-month old and one of his caretakers informed me that he just loved “the gummy bear song.” Once home, I looked up the viral song and played it for my darling child who proceeded to twirl in circles and drop his butt in a baby-twerk. It’s a dance song with a twisting polka-like beat and lyrics including,“Oh I’m a yummy, tummy, funny, lucky gummy bear” and “I’m a movin’, groovin’, jammin’, singing gummy bear.” Like so much to do with parenting, it melted my brain right out of my ears—and then, that taken care of, proceeded to bring me immense joy. —Tracy Clark-Flory
What I want from a great song is to either feel like I’m on a good drug and could fuck you up or that I have never been so sad in my entire life. Lindsey Jordan does both, thank god. —Katie McDonough
I’m not getting any points for originality here, but the heart likes what it likes, and like most of America, I love both Beyoncé and Jay-Z. At a high level, “Apeshit” is a commentary on black success and art. At its most basic level, it’s a catchy song with a good beat that I listen to at the beginning of a work-out to help pump me up. —Prachi Gupta
Shame saved my faith in the future of rock music as we near the end of a decade in which the state of rock has been really fucking fraught. Don’t get me wrong: There’s still plenty of good rock music out there, and I’m so glad that it’s largely women making the rock music that deserves all the acclaim right now (Mitski’s songs “Geyser” and “A Pearl” from her album Be the Cowboy have owned my soul this year). But in the eyes of many, rock has become a genre that has bordered on irrelevant, coasting in the mainstream with the same bands that were popular 20 years ago. I mean, have you listened to a local alt-rock station lately? They’re playing the same Foo Fighters song I listened to in middle school.
It’s why I want Shame to win so badly. I’ve spent the last few months proselytizing about this young band out of South London that exuded an energy on their debut album, Songs of Praise, that I didn’t realize was missing from my rock rotation. Shame is loud. Shame is political. Shame is insecure. Shame is sincere. All of this comes through in this album that is pure post-punk with a pinch of Britpop, and it’s a scream of fresh air. Oh, and they’ve managed to put on one of the best live shows I’ve seen all year. I’d recommend checking out the songs “Concrete,” “One Rizla,” “Tasteless,” “Friction,” “Lampoon,” and “Angie.” They’re good lads, give them a shot. —Ashley Reese
I didn’t come to Speedy Ortiz’s excellent third album Twerp Verse until a few months ago, but now I’m obsessed. Twerp Verse is spellbinding from the first line, when frontwoman Sadie Dupuis sings, “The year of the weird/Bookended by booty pics I never posted.” Throughout the record, she sounds exactly like this: steady-eyed, equal parts completely serious and totally messing with you. The hyper-specificity of her lyricism is what gets me; if I were in high school, I’d doodle the words over and over in a notebook. (Okay, maybe they’re a little dark for high school, but still.) It’s hard to pick a favorite song, but a close contender is “I’m Blessed,” specifically for the opening line: “I’m blessed, I am a witch/And I float above everyone who would do harm on me.” It’s a clever bit of songwriting, reveals its power over time, and in 2018, it feels both like a shield and like a balm. —Frida Garza
My 2018 was all about limits: how limitlessness can excite one day and leave you paralyzed the next; how you can know you have a Point B without knowing what it is, much less how to get there. No song released this year captures the tension between limitation and limitlessness quite like SOPHIE’s “Immaterial,” featuring vocals by Cecile Believe. “Without my legs or my hair,” Believe sings. “Without my genes or my blood/With no name and with no type of story/Where do I live?/Tell me, where do I exist?”
Where some critics heard a gender affirmation or a celebration of fluidity, I heard a familiar spiral—the void screaming back about the girl she is but isn’t but could be. It can be hard to see the girl when you literally lack the material, hard to feel fixed when so much of you isn’t. SOPHIE’s “Immaterial,” along with the rest of her debut album, OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, speaks to that experience of staring out into the nothing only to realize that anything could be buried within it.
Maybe it’s something you want. Maybe it’s everything you’ve ever wanted. It speaks to the frightening impulse to go towards it, whatever that it might be, gathering new material as you go while dropping material to the ground like breadcrumbs you’ll never trace back. —Harron Walker
During a hellish year, Bad Bunny counted his blessings. In this song the trapeton star reminded everyone that his home island of Puerto Rico was/is still picking up the pieces from Hurricane Maria, and that as a person who rather recently accrued some money and some fame, he wouldn’t slough off his contradictions, but negotiate them with his truest heart. The implied holiness of this song (the synth samples, the God references) spoke to me for the better part of 2018 before and long after I profiled him, and I turned to it for audio comfort whenever I felt worse than shitty, (which was a lot). “Estamos Bien” sounds to me like flying into the clouds to shed whatever burdens, and then remembering to appreciate the light. Maybe it’s the Catholicism I associate it with, but if I hadn’t already atheisted out the church, I would probably pray alongside it. —Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Every single time Neko Case releases an album, I inexplicably ignore it for six weeks before switching over and listening to it exclusively and nonstop for several months straight. It was my good luck, then, that she chose 2018 to bless us with her first solo album in several years. Not being a music writer, I don’t really have the vocabulary to unpack what I find so completely mesmerizing about her work. There’s her beautiful voice, of course, which has an almost physical presence. Then there’s the almost folkloric quality to her work—half of what she writes sounds like a centuries-old murder ballad. One track in particular, “Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” has this vibe—I think it’s called a chord progression???—that just resonates with me so much, on such a deep level, that I drive around listening to it on repeat whenever I’m in a funk. It is, literally, a Big Mood, and I’m so grateful for it. —Kelly Faircloth