20 Great Pop Songs From 2018's First Half You Might Have Missed

(L-R) Ravyn Lenae, Olly Alexander & Hailee Steinfeld
Getty Images, Shutterstock; Design by Jessica Xie

(L-R) Ravyn Lenae, Olly Alexander & Hailee Steinfeld

This year has already featured such a high volume of terrific pop singles that it’s been difficult to keep track of all of them. Sure, there are the inescapable anthems from Drake and Ariana, the enduring smashes from Camila and Cardi, and the surprise hits from Ella and Gambino… but what about the under-the-radar jams, the ones that haven’t necessarily blown up but have every right to do so? That’s where we come in.

Enjoy this smattering of great pop music that you might have overlooked so far in 2018. Who knows? Maybe some of these will make your own year-end lists come December.

Madison Beer, “Fools”

Madison Beer’s come-up has been long and winding -- a one-time Bieber protege at Island Def Jam, she’s now making a go of it as an independent artist -- but “Fools” is a mini-breakout that makes for lovely summer-barbecue fodder. Gotta love a fizzy pop song that can turn a word like “fools” into a five-syllable falsetto croon.

No Rome, “Do It Again” 

Philippines-based artist No Rome enlisted labelmates Matty Healy and George Daniel of the 1975 to co-produce “Do It Again,” and the resulting product sounds... like an awesome 1975 jam, all atmosphere, earnest emotion and nuanced production (those fingersnaps!) in the vein of “A Change of Heart” or “Somebody Else.” 

Clean Bandit feat. Demi Lovato, “Solo”

Clean Bandit, the U.K.’s most efficient electro-pop factory, continues delivering the goods with a Demi Lovato team-up that sports what is perhaps the most flame-emoji-worthy chorus of the season. “Solo” (it’s an ode to self-love!) takes a few seconds to get going, but then Lovato’s verse swoops into a vocoder/sound-effect seesaw above a mix of ricocheting beats, and we’re cool for the summer all over again.

Tove Styrke, “Sway”

Don’t sleep on Tove Styrke’s recently released Sway album as a whole, but the title track from the Swedish songwriter’s latest project best highlights her natural effervescence. Delivering her words in a tumbling whisper before pulling back and swaaaaaay-ing on the chorus, Styrke plays the part of the impossibly cool girl you just have to get to know better.

Violet Days, “Just a Little”

Exquisite Scandi-pop from singer-songwriter Lina Hansson, who beautifully captures the feeling of wanting a relationship to conjure some emotion, any emotion, even if it’s sadness. “Piss me off in the morning,” she pleads, “Go a week without calling me/ Leave me longing and wandering.” Few pop songs are built around direct calls for more callousness, but as Hansson puts it during the bridge, “Don’t you let me settle for the boring shit.”

Soleima, “Low Life”

The sound of wising up to reality and deciding not to struggle against circumstances out of your control, Soleima’s “Low Life” is anchored by a “hmmm” sound effect, as if the Danish singer is offering a shoulder shrug to sub-optimal conditions. Midway through, she quickly yelps “Sing it!,” a means of conveying that the listener can shirk off the BS as well.

Hailee Steinfeld & Bloodpop, “Capital Letters”

The Fifty Shades Freed OST didn’t possess as many essential cuts as the first two soundtracks in the series, with a notable exception in “Capital Letters,” on which Bloodpop concocts yet another whimsical, synth-driven hook. Hailee Steinfeld’s presence in pop can be commanding, depending on the song; as ever, we are patiently awaiting a proper album from the double-threat.

Bülow feat. Duckwrth, “Sad and Bored”

Based on her limited output, including the excellent single “Not a Love Song," the Netherlands-based bülow approaches pop music from a playful standpoint, rearranging typical song structures and pushing the limits of what an arrangement can resemble. On “Sad and Bored,” she drops a pissed-off pre-chorus in bullet time before shrugging through the entirety of the chorus, “I’m sad and bored.” Somehow, the malaise has a thrilling effect.

Millie Turner, “You and I”

British singer-songwriter Millie Turner’s “You and I” begins as a pretty standard mid-tempo love song, but turning away becomes more difficult when her falsetto becomes so fragile on the chorus that it sounds like it’s about to break in half. It’s a risky move to use a vocal refrain as delicate as the one here as a song’s fulcrum, but Turner sticks the landing.

BLVK JVCK feat. H.E.R., “Mine Luv”

Electronic duo BLVK JVCK recently teamed up with Jessie Reyez on the single “Love Me Still,” but “Mine Luv,” a collaboration with H.E.R. released a few months earlier, remains even more compelling. The group’s blend of R&B beats and EDM production elements complements the yearning in H.E.R.’s performance, resulting in a dance track ready-made for headphone appreciation.

Bali Baby, “Backseat”

Frenetic and spectacular from the second it opens, “Backseat” posits Atlanta rapper Bali Baby as our new hedonistic overlord: over 220 gloriously messy seconds, she sneers at her love interest while exhibiting zero doubt in her own coolness and capabilities. The pseudo-industrial production makes this one soar, and “Backseat” gets a fitting conclusion when it breaks down and builds back up in the final minute.

Tracey Thorn feat. Shura, “Air”

Everything But The Girl singer Tracey Thorn’s new album, Record, explores society’s ordained roles for women, within marriage, motherhood and modern romance. On the alluring “Air,” she shares the mic with one of pop’s most beguiling new voices, Shura, for a duet on meeting feminine expectations that more than bridges the pair’s generational gap.

Hoodboi feat. Tkay Maidza, “Glide”

Ferocity personified: Tkay Maidza, an Australian 21-year-old with a ton of promise, gets a shimmering production from Hoodboi and bodies it with an uncomplicated flow that eventually pivots into breathy singing. The combination of house and hip-hop here makes for one of the year’s most irresistible collaborations.

Ravyn Lenae, “Sticky”

“Sticky” announces Ravyn Lenae’s arrival as a fascinating R&B prospect, as the Chicago native’s voice oscillates between vulnerability (“You know I cannot shake ya/ You know I cannot break ya”) and overconfidence (“What you gonna say, if I ever walk away?”) without sacrificing its complexity. Erykah Badu immediately comes to mind -- not a bad mark for a relative newcomer to hit.

Years & Years, “Sanctify”

Years & Years’ Olly Alexander released a collection of redemptive anthems with a hint of danger on the group’s 2015 debut Communion, and “Sanctify,” from follow-up Palo Santo, exists in the same vein, although this time the sensuality is focused on a closeted counterpart. “You don’t have to be straight with me/ I see what’s underneath your mask,” Alexander smirks, a not-so-subtle entendre that makes for an attention-grabbing start to the second verse.

Natalie Prass, “Short Court Style”

Try to resist that bass groove. “Short Court Style” has an air of effortlessness about it, from Natalie Prass' sumptuous vocals to the backing harmonies to the dizzy joy of the chorus, and it all starts with that elastic bass, filling in the empty spaces at this block party.

Sarai, “Get to You”

Australian singer-songwriter Sarai lists Solange as a major influence in her official bio, and based on the depth and soulfulness of her delivery on “Get to You,” it’s clear that she’s been listening to A Seat at the Table plenty lately.

Twin Shadow, “Too Many Colors”

While George Lewis’ Twin Shadow project has gotten bogged down at times in overly grandiose synth-rock, “Too Many Colors,” from new album Caer, is an airy new wave thumper that lets him use his quivering vocal delivery to build tension in the context of a dance song. 

Kim Petras, “Can’t Do Better"

Hard to imagine Kim Petras dropping another single as flawless as “Heart to Break” this year, but her follow-up “Can’t Do Better” scratches the same maximalist pop itch, with Petras declaring “You CAN’T! DO! BETTER!” over gargantuan drums on the chorus. One of these great songs has to take over Top 40 eventually, right?

Let’s Eat Grandma, “It’s Not Just Me”

Let’s Eat Grandma’s new album I’m All Ears flaunts a handful of ambitious structural ideas, but the duo of Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton can also manufacture an extremely sturdy straightforward dream-pop track. “It’s Not Just Me” has the good fortune of SOPHIE’s involvement with the production, but there are no bells and whistles here - just visions of bagels, New Year’s sparklers and the tiny life moments that form a deeper connection.