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Aux Cord Chronicles

Aux Cord Chronicles XVII: The Undefeated’s best songs of 2018

From Ella Mai to Meek to Janelle to Jorja to Drake, we chose 62, and they’re all worthy

A lot of music dropped in 2018. A lot. Creativity in a year full of chaos. Success, despite tragedy. It’s the year Kanye West finally jumped the shark. And the one in which Cardi B became rap royalty — while navigating the murky waters of a very public relationship and breakup. Many from Team Undefeated submitted a fave or three — from Meek Mill to Melii, The Carters to Saba, Nipsey Hussle to Janelle Monae. Our Undefeated faves, presented here in alphabetical order, make for an eclectic mix that’ll have you turning up or vibing out at a moment’s notice. The past 12 months have been real, and we’ve already got bigger plans in store for the last year of the 2010s — how crazy is that?! Without further ado, The Undefeated’s favorite songs of the year.

Black Thought — “9th vs. Thought

The fact that I typed “thought” out three times already explains why this is unique. Found on his Streams of Thought EP, the song’s lyrics make you think. Plus, this 9th Wonder beat is a candidate for best of the year, and it’s not even a trap record. — Jesse Washington

j. Cole — “1985

The most compassionate-slash-eloquent clap-back of the year. Maybe ever. It sounds like me putting one of my children in check. — Jesse Washington

Mac Miller — “2009

It’s a song that’s only going to get more powerful, and more gut-wrenching, as time goes on. Live in heaven, Mac. We all miss you. — Aaron Dodson

Meek Mill feat. Ella Mai — “24/7

A top-three song of 2018 that stars hip-hop’s comeback kid. A year ago, what seemed the entire world was yelling, “Free Meek!” and a year before that he was getting snapped on with, “Is that a world tour or your girl tour?” And now, in true Meek fashion, “24/7” is a thug’s love song that samples Beyoncé and features rhythm and blues’ best new artist, Ella Mai. — Tiffany Hoyd

Theo Kottis — “Acid Disco

I’ve chased beats around the world, from Detroit to Amsterdam to Ibiza to Barcelona, going to various festivals and clubs. “Acid Disco” is a super fun and funky song by one of my favorite producers. You’ll often find me dancing in my desk chair. — Beth Stojkov

The Carters — “APES—”

A song so full of energy that whenever it comes on you can’t help but party to it. It’s also dope that Jay-Z and Beyoncé landed a Grammy nod for a song on which they openly diss the Grammys. — Marcus Matthews

Cardi B — “Be Careful”

Searing. So full of love. And measured rage. This song soars to the occasion of Lauryn Hill’s eternal 1998 “Lost Ones.” Cardi’s that college rookie around whom the kids and the scouts and the legends whisper, “Future hall of famer.” It’s not a threat/ it’s a warning. Damn right. — Danyel Smith

Shawn Mendes – “Because I Had You

It’s a love song. Even though the relationship ended, and he knows it’s time to start dating other people, those new people will never be able to replace what he had before. Is Shawn Mendes the sugary, male counterpart to Ariana Grande? Maybe just this once. — Justin McCraw

DRAM — “Best Hugs

You ever heard such a joyous song that will also get you knocked out at the club? Well, DRAM managed to accomplish just that. You’ll want to two-step and fight the person eyeing your bae at the same time. — David Dennis

Wale feat. Jacquees — “Black Bonnie

Jacquees may not be an R&B king in your eyes. And I’m still surprised Keith Sweat didn’t put him in a sleeper hold like Ving Rhames did Tyrese in Baby Boy. But the Cash Money crooner absolutely smashed his guest spot on this brilliant Wale cut. Folarin’s 2018 was filled with quality releases; hopefully we’ll hear a full-length project in 2019. — Justin Tinsley

Kendrick Lamar — “Black Panther

Pulitzer Kenny is next-level — I’m looking for him to score something for The Undefeated. Black Panther the movie was the cultural phenomenon of the year. So of course the title song has to be flames. — Kevin Merida

Royce da 5’9” feat. J. Cole — “Boblo Boat

This song was a 2018 go-to for me when I needed something to chill out to. Cole’s lyrics are always on point, and especially on features — but he also directed the video, which was also one of my favorites of 2018. — Tucker Toole

Ella Mai — “Boo’d Up

Song of the year. There is rhythm and rhyme, and there are vocal choices here that feel like free-falling. Bright blues are here too: chills of trepidation in the midst of joy. Yet there’s nothing tentative about this singer/songwriter’s huge impact on the sound of 2018. Her openness to performing love is as unabashed and sensual and refreshing as the real thing. That’s why this song is a Top 10 pop record. That’s why it’s one of the longest-running No. 1s ever on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop chart. Mai recalls the wonder and melancholy of Drake’s 2013 “Hold On, We’re Going Home” and Erykah Badu’s 1997 “Next Lifetime.” Yet, she is still her own self — a sunshower after a hurricane. — Danyel Smith

The Carters — “BOSS

On their impressive joint project EVERYTHING IS LOVE, The Carters take pride in the fact that their success will continue for generations — a legacy of “brown” billionaires. More importantly, this album enhances representations of black love in media. — Allana J. Barefield

Saba feat. theMIND — “Busy/Sirens”

Saba’s yet another storyteller from The Chi, clearly influenced by Kanye West and Chance the Rapper. “Busy” begins as an introspective tale of Saba’s struggles with success before transitioning into a brief, haunting instrumental that itself is a prelude to a tale that touches on the struggles of being black in America. — Jerry Bembry

Young Thug feat. 6lack — “Climax

This is great because it shows a different side of Thugga: more so R&B. It’s a total vibe with 6lack’s smooth melodic voice on top of Thug’s crooning. — Janae Adams

Lil Wayne — “Dedicate

Weezy finally delivered on his long-awaited promise by delivering Tha Carter V. I turned a goddamn into a God’s Plan, Wayne raps on “Dedicate.” It’s the New Orleans icon’s “Public Service Announcement” (Jay-Z) — a declaration of reintroduction. — Tiffany Hoyd

Black Thought feat. Rapsody — “Dostoyevsky

No hook. No catchphrases. Just straight, pure bars from an experienced rap heavyweight in Black Thought, and an underrated rap heavyweight in Rapsody. — Sean Hurd

Nipsey Hussle feat. Belly & Dom Kennedy — “Double Up

The song is impeccable because it’s so smooth, with great verses to match. It’s one of those records you automatically vibe to. Dom Kennedy drops a relaxing flow that makes you feel at ease. Not to mention, the Grammy-nominated Victory Lap is the album of the year. — Janae Adams

Lil Baby & Gunna — “Drip Too Hard”

Only time will tell whether “drip” will go the way of “YOLO” and “the dab,” but what’s not up for debate is the undeniable cultural impact these two had by bringing the term to the forefront. One of the hardest singles of the year from two of the most promising young talents. — Aaron Dodson

Phonte — “Expensive Genes

Phonte gives us a real introspective look at black men taking care of our health. Not that many songs out there about blood pressure, but Tigallo made it painfully relevant. — David Dennis

Jorja Smith — “February 3rd

The best way to describe this cut: achingly sweet. Smith croons her way through a relationship she wants more out of — something we can all relate to. — Breana Jones

Childish Gambino — “Feels Like Summer”

This is the song you listen to cruising down any MLK Boulevard at 25 miles an hour in a candy-painted burgundy ’83 Cadillac DeVille — with your head in the clouds. The vibe teleports me to the lazy, hot summer days I used to spend in Maryland riding my bike around the neighborhood with my cousins. And we haven’t even talked about the video, which makes me want to simultaneously laugh and cry. — Tesfaye Negussie

Drake — “God’s Plan”

The Toronto import has never been one to shy away from rapping about the fruits of his success. But on the record-breaking anthem, with nearly a billion views on YouTube, Drake gives praise to the individuals, other than himself, who are directly responsible for his unparalleled rise to fame and fortune. Including The Man above. — John X. Miller

Cyrus Chestnut — “Golliwog’s Cakewalk

I love Chestnut’s piano energy, and I love this melody. It’s thinking music. I listen, and I’m ready to go make something happen. — Kevin Merida

Young Thug feat. Elton John — “High

One of the better-crafted and executed songs of 2018, which just so happens to sample “Rocket Man,” one of my favorite Elton John joints. — Marcus Matthews

Melii — “Icey

Before the Meek Mill co-sign and feature on his Championships album, the Harlem MC dropped this viral hit on which she flawlessly brags in two languages about taking your man, and mine. Her album’s delayed until 2019 — which means she may be the next New Yorker to take over the summer. You heard it here first. — Breana Jones

Cardi B feat. SZA — “I Do

The final track on Cardi’s blockbuster Invasion of Privacy is all about self-empowerment. Find happiness in yourself. And damn sure don’t let a man dictate it for you. — Kelley Carter

Tom Misch feat. De La Soul — “It Runs through me”

With smooth vocals and jazzy guitar, Misch is the latest proof that some of the most soulful sounds come from London. This single from Misch, a longtime SoundCloud artist influenced by Robert Glasper and the late J Dilla, is featured on his debut solo album Geography. — Jerry Bembry

Saba — “LIFE

That upright bass line, which Saba created, just brings the whole song together. It’s a standout on the Chicago native’s immaculate sophomore album, Care For Me. — Sean Hurd

The 1975 – “Love It If We Made It

I’d love it if we made it, screams the chorus, hoping beyond hope that yet another online date initiated with a finger swipe and a few quips turns into something more than a $35 bar tab and a loss for humanity. The song has punch and guts and controversy, and I love it. A perfect companion to their other hit, “Somebody Else.” — Justin McCraw

Nao feat. SiR — “Make It Out Alive

“The idea of making it a duet was to reflect how many people, all over the world, are going through the same experience,” NAO said. Adulting is hard work. An evocative and transparent look into the difficulty of relationships from two of 2018’s most impressive names. — Aaron Dodson

Janelle Monae — “Make Me Feel”

A standout track on a terrifically crafted album that is both fun and probably the best musical tribute to Prince we’ll ever hear. — Soraya McDonald

Lil Wayne feat. Kendrick Lamar — “Mona Lisa

Wayne paints a picture of himself and his girlfriend/criminal protégé/homegirl Liz with such clarity that I laugh every time I hear him explain how they hustled the apparent “trick” into robbing him of all his money and valuables. Plus, Kendrick Lamar smears icing on the cake with a rendition of how the victim reacts, by pouring his heart out and finally killing himself. If it weren’t for the comedic talents of Wayne and Lamar, this would probably be one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. — Tesfaye Negussie

Noname — “Montego Bae

A favorite chill song of 2018, which can be paired with your favorite sativa and set on repeat. — Soraya McDonald

Migos — “Narcos

Whether it was Luis Fonsi’s international hit “Despacito” or Cardi B’s “I Like It,” no one can deny Latin music’s stranglehold on the top of the charts. On a standout from their 2018 project Culture II, Migos tried their hand at the cultural maelstrom, with successful results. — Tiffany Hoyd

The Carters — “NICE

How this hasn’t hit the radio yet is beyond me. Of all the songs they did when they stopped by Levi’s Stadium on their On The Run II Tour, this hit harder than anything else. — Marc Spears

Drake — “Nice For What

The blend of Lauryn Hill and New Orleans bounce music is creatively outstanding. While bounce music has been around for years as one of the staple sounds of a musically rich city like The Big Easy, Drake, in only ways Drake can, helped take it to worldwide heights this year. If you’re in a bad mood, this song will make you smile. — Marc Spears

Meek Mill feat. Cardi B — “On Me

It doesn’t seem wise to waste a Cardi feature these days. Especially not this one. — Kelley Carter

CÉcile McLorin Salvant — “One Step Ahead

Her voice is so original, so magical. Salvant is doing some octave dancing on this song. — Kevin Merida

Travis Scott — “R.I.P. Screw

Astroworld was an undeniable pinnacle in 2018, and Scott paid homage to his Houston rap predecessors with “R.I.P. SCREW.” Having lived in Houston, I know that many people don’t know the real history about DJ Screw, the Screwed Up Click (S.U.C.) or the chopped and screwed movement, but Scott made sure the world would get its Cliffs Notes with this track. — Tucker Toole

Maxo Kream — “Roaches

Kream is an underground rapper from Houston who gained mainstream status with his 2018 album Punken. Via “Roaches,” Kream told the story of how Houston made him who he is — and how Hurricane Harvey had a major effect on him and his family. — Tucker Toole

Max Cooper — “Rule 110

This one was great for when it’s time to focus and really get into my creative flow. — Beth Stojkov

Janelle Monae feat. Zoë Kravitz — “Screwed

This brings the heat while discussing the adversities that women face in society. Monae finds a way to use a playful song to bring very relevant issues into play, such as equal pay. — Allana J. Barefield

Mr. Eazi feat. Chronixx — “She Loves Me

Two years ago, I interviewed Island Records founder Chris Blackwell for “Bob Marley Week” — and I asked him which reggae artist the reggae icon would listen to today if he were alive. Blackwell’s answer came in the form of a question: “Do you know Chronixx?” — Mark Wright

Travis Scott feat. Drake — “Sicko Mode”

Forget what Kanye’s talking about. No matter how many times I hear Scott’s first No. 1 hit, I sing/rap along. I don’t even do that on the regular, either. — Marcus Matthews

Lil Duval feat. Snoop Dogg & Ball Greezy — “Smile”

I love a song that’s positive, fun and makes you, well, smile. No stress needed with this — just enjoy life and shake the haters off. We need more of these records — and, judging by this, it sounds like Duval has another future cookout classic tucked away too. — Marc Spears

Jorja Smith — “Teenage Fantasy

Despite snagging a Grammy nod for best new artist, Smith, 21, still hasn’t received the recognition she deserves for her Lost & Found. This soft melody speaks to finding love at a young age — a topic many teenagers can connect with. — Allana J. Barefield

Ariana Grande — “thank u, next

The impact of this song is amazing because Grande actually names the people who have impacted and affected her, including former loves Pete Davidson and the late Mac Miller. Also, it’s the music video of the year — she recreates Mean Girls, Bring It On, Clueless and 13 Going On 30. — Janae Adams

Anderson .Paak feat. Kendrick Lamar — “Tints”

Never heard of Anderson .Paak? Just listen to his 2016 NPR Tiny Desk set, the most viewed set in the history of that popular series, and you’ll be a fan. His vocals have a Kendrick Lamar vibe, so it’s only natural the two SoCal natives teamed up on .Paak’s 2018 release Oxnard. — Jerry Bembry

LANY – “Thick And Thin

This one hit home while I was dating over the summer — one small thing can be construed poorly or taken out of proportion without any chance at recompense. It’s melancholy turned up. It’s confusion and doubt and vulnerability. It’s internet dating in 2018. — Justin McCraw

DJ Khaled feat. Future, Jay-Z & Beyoncé — “Top Off

Because of The Carters’ venture EVERYTHING IS LOVE and the massively successful world tour that followed, it might be easy to overlook how Khaled snagged the couple for his own single earlier this year. — Kelley Carter

Bas feat. J. Cole — “Tribe”

I thought that I saw it all ’til I saw you, Cole says. Now I call you when the sun shines and the rain dries up / I’m a pitbull, but for you I be on chain tied up. The incredibly gifted Dreamville wordsmith Bas delivered a bona fide heater with his Milky Way LP. He and Light Skin Jermaine team up to speak to the women in their lives who’ve been with them each step of the journey. — Justin Tinsley

Black Thought — “Twofifteen

BARS, BARS, BARS! That’s the best way to explain why this is probably my favorite song of 2018. In 3 minutes and 46 seconds he hops to various disparate topics with seamless, flowing transitions: gun violence in America, the colonization and pillage of Africa by America and Europe, his disinterest in the “Kim and Kanye” celebrity news cycle, the shock of Donald Trump’s presidential election win, and more. — Tesfaye Negussie

Khalid & Swae Lee — “The Ways

An ode to the ladies of Wakanda — and, by proxy, the peerless strength the most powerful women in our lives innately carry with them on a daily basis. The only negative about this song is that they never dropped a video to bring the beauty of this ode to the life it so rightfully deserved. — Justin Tinsley

Meek Mill feat. Rick Ross & Jay-Z — “What’s Free

No explanation needed. — Jesse Washington

Jay Rock — “Win

TDE’s muscle delivered in a major way with his 2018 heatrock Redemption. And there’s no denying what record paved the way for the biggest year of Rock’s career thus far. “Win” is a big tune, as they say in the islands! — Mark Wright

J.I.D. — “Workin’ Out

Found on Dicaprio 2, this is just a relatable record that’ll have you singing the chorus by the second time you hear it. The skit on the back end clowning Dreamville captain J. Cole is hilarious too. — Sean Hurd

Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar, 2 Chainz & Saudi — “X

If you don’t have this on your gym playlist, all I can say is, “Bro, do you even lift?” — Soraya McDonald

Adam Beyer & Bart Skils — “Your Mind (Tale of Us remix)

The techno anthem of the year. — Beth Stojkov

Kodak Black feat. Travis Scott & Offset — “Zeze

The steel drum beat is catchy, the bass line is wild, and it’s got Travis Scott and Offset, two artists who have probably been in more rap headlines than anyone this year (especially Offset). The main reason this song is so great: It had the best viral marketing campaign we’ve seen in a long time. In a world in which teasers and trailers for random music videos are way too commonplace, this song was popular before one bar was even spit. — Clinton Yates

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.