The 20 Best Pop Radio Hits of 2018

This list is always an interesting one to do because I kind of carveout a selective picture of Top 40 radio is by excluding things that were a bigger hit on another radio format. That doesn't mean that this list is devoid of things that aren't Proper Pop -- if anything it just means that it's full of the strains of rock and rap and R&B and country and dance music that are geared more toward Top 40 than any other audience or format. And in fact a lot of these songs are some kind of odd new collision of 2 or more of those genres. 

Here's a Spotify playlist of these songs, and here are the previous pop lists I did for 20122013201420152016, and 2017

1. Zedd, Maren Morris & Grey "The Middle" 
#1 Mainstream Top 40, #5 Hot 100
EDM's steady slide from Hot 100 dominance was especially pronounced this year -- there were only 2 EDM singles in the top 10 in 2018, compared to 7 total (3 by the Chainsmokers alone) in 2016. But what made "The MIddle" really pop was not Zedd's track, which sounded more or less exactly the same as his big 217 hit "Stay," but the powerhouse vocal by country singer Maren Morris. Morris's 2016 debut did well by country standards but was not a particularly big crossover hit, but she beat out 12 other singers who attempted the track, including several far more famous pop stars, and judging from how completely she bodies this song, one has to conclude she won fair and square. 

2. Ariana Grande - "No Tears Left To Cry"
#1 Mainstream Top 40, #3 Hot 100
Even Ariana Grande herself has tweeted about the irony that she released this no-more-drama anthem right before a few of the most dramatic months of any pop star's life in recent memory. It's a brilliant song, though, cleverly allowing her to slip a little of the regal glide of a Celine Dion ballad into a dance track that fits the uptempo-or-bust climate of Top 40 radio. 

3. Bebe Rexha f/ Florida Georgia Line - "Meant To Be" 
#2 Mainstream Top 40, #2 Hot 100
While Maren Morris was taking a detour into dance pop, EDM starlet Bebe Rexha fell ass backwards into having one of the biggest country songs of the year. Her two 2017 EPs were an anything-goes grab bag of different collaborations with rappers, reggae artists and Florida Georgia Line, with the latter becoming a cross-format smash even as a total outlier to her sound.

4. Khalid & Normani - "Love Lies" 
#3 Mainstream Top 40, #9 Hot 100
Normani is probably the best vocalist out of Fifth Harmony and I'd love to see her solo career thrive after the group dissolved, but even her first big hit suggests how difficult it will be for her to find her niche. Khalid has been able to kind of straddle the worlds of pop and R&B well, but as the shared territory between them gets smaller and smaller every year, it's hard to say if there's room for more than one artist there at a time. Her song with 6lack is good, though, I'd like to see her get a hit aimed straight at R&B radio. 

5. Shawn Mendes - "In My Blood"
#7 Mainstream Top 40, #11 Hot 100
I was initially disappointed that the lead single to Shawn Mendes's third album didn't meet the high watermark of last year's propulsive uptempo hit "There's Nothing Holdin' Me Back." And I think that the relative underperformance of "In My Blood" probably caused his label to retreat from Mendes's core sound and release a Zedd remix as his next single. But "In My Blood" really really grew on me over the course of the year, this big cathartic power ballad describing a struggle with anxiety. 

6. Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa - "One Kiss"  
#9 Mainstream Top 40, #26 Hot 100
Calvin Harris's overhyped R&B reinvention of 2017 was predictably short-lived, and I was fine with him going back to his strength of housey dance pop with one of the best newer voices of British pop. 

7. Justin Timberlake f/ Chris Stapleton - "Say Something" 
#15 Mainstream Top 40, #9 Hot 100
As much as I rolled my eyes at Justin Timberlake's rustic-themed Man Of The Woods campaign, I have to admit that the album was better when it actually stuck to the country soul theme than when he nervously stuck to the "SexyBack" formula for the flop lead single "Filthy." But then, Timbaland has some experience pulling off this kind of unlikely fusion on Bubba Sparxxx's great 2003 album Deliverance

8. 5 Seconds Of Summer - "Youngblood"  
#1 Mainstream Top 40, #7 Hot 100
There are a lot of bands on Top 40 radio right now, but basically none of them sound like bands. Maroon 5 has thrived for most of the decade as essentially Adam Levine-with-whatever-producers, and Imagine Dragons was pretty much always a glorified 'lead singer over beats' act. But this year Panic At The Disco also got their biggest hit after becoming the lead singer's solo project, Bastille did it with an EDM collaboration, and 5 Seconds of Summer, who actually broke through to pop radio a few years ago actually playing guitars and drums, got their first really huge song by finally surrendering to synths and drum machines. 

9. Taylor Swift - "Delicate" 
#1 Mainstream Top 40, #12 Hot 100
Taylor Swift is still too big to fail, at least in terms of sales and tour receipts, but Reputation still managed to fail in fairly tangible ways when it came to the radio campaign. She blew her momentum on a terrible lead single that fell from #1 as quickly as possible, which poisoned the well for more accessible 2nd and 3rd singles to flop. So even the sleeper hit 4th single, the subtle and surprising vocoder showcase, managed to miss the top 10 of the Hot 100 (and let's remember, 1989's 4th single was a huge #1). 

10. Lauv - "I Like Me Better" 
#7 Mainstream Top 40, #27 Hot 100
One of the emerging trends of pop radio this year that I don't think people have really taken note of yet is what I like to disrespectfully refer to as 'frat R&B': white or ethnically ambiguous guys singing clubby vaguely soulful pop, a more mannish variation on the Bieber formula. Three of those guys, Lauv, Bazzi, and Bryce Vine, all appeared at the VMAs this year (I joked that they're all the same guy and Vine passive-aggressively responded to my tweet), and I would throw MAX in there too. But out of that whole weird wave, Lauv is the one I'm rooting for -- he had an ingratiating single, co-wrote another great hit, "No Promises" by Cheat Codes, last year, and even his album was pretty decent. 

11. Ariana Grande - "Breathin"
#3 Mainstream Top 40, #13 Hot 100
Ariana Grande rush releasing the lead single for her 5th album less than 3 months after her 4th album came out became a phenomenon that resulted in her first #1 song, which is pretty cool and exciting. But I gotta be honest -- I like the Sweetener singles better than "Thank U, Next," and I'm kind of annoyed that the latter is going to dramatically shorten the chart life of the great third single "Breathin." 

12. Backstreet Boys - "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" 
#18 Mainstream Top 40, #63 Hot 100
It seems disrespectful to Kiki Dee to make a pop song with this title that isn't a cover, but this song really grew on me, I love AJ McLean's gravelly aged voice on the second verse. 

13. Maroon 5 - "Wait"
#5 Mainstream Top 40, #24 Hot 100
2018 was a very good year for Maroon 5, commercially -- another #1, the mawkish "Girls Like You," the Super Bowl gig, and so on. But "Wait" was their lowest charting single since "Moves Like Jagger" launched Maroon 5 2.0, and it really didn't deserve to be, it's a lovely and uncharacteristically understated song. 

14. Kygo f/ Miguel - "Remind Me To Forget"
#12 Mainstream Top 40, #63 Hot 100
For most of this decade, R&B stars have only snuck onto pop radio via guest appearances on singles by pop or dance acts -- SZA, Frank Ocean, Ty Dolla $ign, even Beyonce lately. And I think Miguel was overdue for that kind of moment, given how amazing his voice is and given how much his own music pushes outside the boundaries of R&B. 

15. Post Malone f/ Ty Dolla Sign - "Psycho" 
#1 Mainstream Top 40, #1 Hot 100
Ty Dolla Sign's aforementioned stint as an unlikely pop radio co-star began last year with Fifth Harmony and continued this year with the most tolerable of Post Malone's streak of enormous hits from Beerbongs & Bentleys. This is stupid but I'm always amused by how Post Malone's weird whispery twang when he says Tony Romo's name in the chorus sounds like "Tony Homo." 

16. Pink "Beautiful Trauma" 
#26 Mainstream Top 40, #78 Hot 100
Pink was the #1 pop radio artist of the entire 2000s, and I wish she still had that kind of pull because her music has continued to be really good. The title track to Beautiful Trauma mostly had short-lived buzz from the entertaining video co-starring Channing Tatum, but I really enjoyed the song itself. 

17. Troye Sivan "My My My!"
#24 Mainstream Top 40, #80 Hot 100
I really thought that Troye Sivan was poised to really get big this year, and the first couple times I heard "My My My!" I thought that might be the song that would do it. But for whatever reason he didn't quite get there, or even get as big as a hit as he had with "Youth" on his first album. 

18. Kent Jones - "Merengue" 
#34 Mainstream Top 40
Kent Jones is a hard guy to pin down -- he interpolated Barry White on his big 2016 R&B hit "Don't Mind" but sounded like a punchline rapper on his boss DJ Khaled's records, and then this year popped up with this funky lo-fi latin pop record that I really wish had gotten more spins. 

19. Demi Lovato - "Tell Me You Love Me" 
#19 Mainstream Top 40, #53 Hot 100
In the space of a year, Demi Lovato went through the dramatic highs and lows of the biggest hit of her career, and an overdose and hospitalization. In between, she followed up "Sorry Not Sorry" with a less radio-friendly song that took some time to grow on me but felt like one of those less obvious personal choices that have come to define her as a pop star. 

20. Ariana Grande - "Thank U, Next"
#14 Mainstream Top 40, #1 Hot 100*
Throughout a career that had increasingly been driven by hits with big name producers like Max Martin, Ariana Grande has always had her own writing and production team including Tommy Brown that worked on all 4 of her previous albums holding down a lot of the deep cuts. And one of the reasons 'Thank U Next" is cool is that her first #1 was a Tommy Brown production, and based on recent interviews it sounds like we'll see a lot more of Grande pursuing her own sound with her core producers from here on out. And as much as I like the Max Martin/Ilya stuff on Sweetener, I think that's pretty exciting. 

The 10 Worst Pop Radio Hits of 2018: 
1. NF - "Let You Down"
2. NF - "Lie" 
3. Justin Timberlake - "Filthy"
4. Bryce Vine - "Drew Barrymore"
5. Max f/ gnash - "Lights Down Low" 
6. G-Eazy & Halsey - "Him & I"
7. Marshmello & Anne-Marie - "Friends" 
8. Selena Gomez & Marshmello - "Wolves" 
9. Selena Gomez - "Back To You" 
10. Camila Cabello - "Never Be The Same" 
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