This year, we’ve elected to create a series of genre-based lists to better capture the complexity of our community’s musical landscape. This list features indie pop, synth pop, and R&B tracks from both the underground and the mainstream.
Our list cuts across region and genre, capturing the sounds and scenes we believe are leading the pack in different diasporas. Selected by our editorial and freelance staff, these are the top 10 indie pop and R&B songs of 2018.
Check out our round up of best urbano songs of 2018 here, and keep an eye out for our favorite songs in electronic/dance, punk & garage, and folk fusion, coming soon.
Balún - “El Espanto”
In the face of withering economic woes and natural disasters, diasporic melancholy has become an intrinsic component of modern Puerto Rican music. We’ve seen profound storytelling emerge from the indie world in bands like Buscabulla and Los Wálters, who throughout their careers have reconciled lives on the US mainland with the emotional beckoning of their Caribbean homeland. This year it was Balún’s time to shine, refracting the countless sounds, emotions and experiences of the Boricua diaspora on their spectacular sophomore album Prisma Tropical. The Brooklyn and San Juan-based ensemble gave us several high points to choose from, with “El Espanto” standing out as the purest utterance of the band’s penchant for experimentation and bold fusions, playfully dubbed ‘dreambow’ – a collision of dreampop and dembow.
“El Espanto” pushes Balún’s avant-garde ambitions to the edge, kicking things off with timid synth stabs and rapidly graduating to digital horns, an infectious reggaeton beat and rapturous IDM crescendo. Despite its danceable nature, sorrow inevitably rears its head by virtue of Angelica Negrón’s ethereal vocals and poignant lyrics. “No ser, ni estar en un lugar / Desvanecer, terror multicolor,” she whispers innocently, capturing the unmistakable inner turmoil of displaced people around the world. – Richard Villegas
Girl Ultra - “Llama”
Three years ago when Finesse Records singer Girl Ultra was just getting going, R&B en español was in a moment of dormancy. Spanish aughts-era artists like Flavio Rodríguez, Ikah, and Zwey had long since retreated into memory and Girl’s (now ex) labelmate Jesse Baez couldn’t very well prop up a genre on his own. The Mexican ex-disco singer Nan de Miguel neatly stepped in, and Girl Ultra has kept her footing at the top of the genre’s heap even now, in another moment of its relative popularity. She shows us how this is done on “Llama,” demonstrating that for the real crooner, drama need not entail pipe-rupturing vocal range or histrionic lyrics, but feeling. Chase me, the track whispers to the competition, which will be sure to oblige as the R&B en español ranks expand. The record also shows the depth of Finesse’s collaborative bench — “Llama”’s beat of soft desperation comes to you courtesy of Guadalajara’s Phynx and its mixed by producer-vocalist Adrian Be. – Caitlin Donohue
Cuco - “Sunnyside”
Omar Banos – better known as Cuco – often builds his music alone in his bedroom, playing and recording each instrument on his own. However, as the lyrics of “Sunnyside” attest to, it can get lonely. Over a dreamy, prog-rock haze, Cuco sings of yearning for someone he can’t find, feeling blue all the while. The song’s lyrics are simple and direct, but they resonate profoundly – a songwriting gift that has helped cement the 20 year-old as a heartthrob who steadily packed venues with love-struck Latina teens in 2018. This was a break-out year for the Chicano artist, which saw him headline the Together Tour, play Coachella and Governor’s Ball, and release the 6-track EP Chiquito. But the momentum didn’t come without difficult moments; in May, he tweeted about struggling with substance abuse and mental health, and in October, Omar and his band were involved in a serious car crash that prematurely ended their tour (everyone is now thankfully recovered). You can hear this blend of light and dark moments in his music, woven into his signature woozy, off-balance sound. While Banos never finds the love he yearns for on “Sunnyside,” the keyboards are rays of sunshine that pierce the haze during the song’s chorus, crescendoing in a guitar solo that rises like dawn breaking after the darkness of night. The result is a song of hope in which words are not needed to show the light. – Marcos Hassan
Omar Apollo - “Erase”
The first few chords of “Erase” are so hazy and full of lonely reverb that they almost feel detached—until R&B newcomer Omar Apollo swoops in and splays his smooth vocals across the track. He tenderly announces, “I don’t mind, my head’s in the sky / Thinkin’ of you, feelin’ for you,” a simple, dreamy kind of love letter that quickly warms up a moment of melancholy. It’s that straightforward, unassuming approach—and the velvet, butter-rich tone of his voice—that has made the Chicano from Hobart, Indiana one of the most talked about DIY acts this year. Pretty soon, he’s filling the song out with repeated examples of his effortless harmonies and aching falsetto. Like many of the bedroom jams that Apollo offered listeners on his 2018 EP Stereo, “Erase” leverages the singer’s ability to take instances of heartbreak and quiet vulnerability and transform them into lush soundscapes filled with soul. – Julyssa Lopez
Kablito - "Puto Colchón"
Simultaneously effervescent and white hot, the second single released by LA-based, Ecuadorian-born pop singer-songwriter Kablito is likely the most impassioned song you’ll hear about feeling bored in a relationship. Tailor made for a dance remix, “Puto Colchón,” pairs a fully fleshed-out melody with a sturdy freestyle-inspired beat and shimmery synths. In the process, it brings high drama to what is really an extremely commonplace experience. With each yearning refrain of “Dame pasión, dame peligro, dame más,” the song seems to spiral ever higher, buoyed by the rising heat of its own pale fire.
Meanwhile, barely-there references to sirens of the ’80s and ’90s, from Rockell to En Vogue, add a sweet dusting of nostalgic romance that pushes things into the realm of absolutes: irresistible, undeniable, etc. It’s a single that announced the presence of a new formidable voice in pop, something that was confirmed by the subsequent release of her debut EP Telenovela. – Beverly Bryan
Francisca Valenzuela - “Tómame”
Sometimes, in moments of sheer musical triumph, a song will sound exactly like its subject matter—and Chilean artist Francisca Valenzuela pulls off this very act of sonic and lyrical cohesion on her splashy hit “Tómame.” The track is a wet, unabashed wallop of electro-pop friskiness; it drips and dribbles with layered synths and slippery flourishes programmed to sound like water drops and tiny sloshes. All the while, Valenzuela builds up our thirst, frothily pouring out an invitation for someone to drink her up as she declares that she wants to be “como el agua que te refresca la boca, el espacio entre tu piel y tu ropa.” She’s at her most provocative and playful during these three minutes of sex-positive seduction, and she brilliantly pairs that come-hither attitude with the song’s torrent of dance energy—designed to leave you soaked in sweat and yearning for more. – Julyssa Lopez
Kali Uchis - "After the Storm" ft. Tyler, the Creator and Bootsy Collins
We thought 2017 was the worst year imaginable, then 2018 hit. At least Kali Uchis came through with Isolation, her much anticipated, thoroughly satisfying first full-length album. The third album single “After the Storm,” featuring Tyler, The Creator and Bootsy fucking Collins, was the super-chill, retro-futuristic stand-out on an album of tracks that gave it plenty of competition. Characteristically laid-back for Kali Uchis, it’s nevertheless an anthem of self-sufficiency and empowerment. The lyrics say “Get it together,” and “Don’t quit,” while the steady bass (courtesy of Collins) and warm, soul-food production (Thanks, BADBADNOTGOOD) gently adds, “You can do it.”
Uchis’ signature preternaturally cool, breezy vocal delivery made the mid-tempo funk jam into a slice of sunshine and vitamin C. It appeared at a mid-January moment that found a lot of us really wanting to believe her when she promised, “the sun will come out.” Her effortless confidence made it easy to do just that while we waited for Isolation to get here and keep us company. – Beverly Bryan
Los Wálters - "Lava"
Maybe “Lava” narrates the ending of a romantic love, but you couldn’t blame any Puerto Rican for adopting it as a tribute to a faraway friend. Though the post-Maria migration wave has slowed, it hasn’t stopped – and with the exodus restored to a steady pre-storm flow, it might be an actual fact that everyone has lost someone.
With “Lava,” Los Wálters – one of the biggest indie pop acts in the island’s independent scene, whose founders are geographically separated – have gifted those who’ve left with a piece of nostalgia to carry with them always. Released on its own in mid-September, the song reflects on a period of intense closeness that, at the time, seems able to withstand any worst-case scenario. But now, the physical absence of one person leaves the other at risk of petrifying in poor conditions.
A somber feeling emanates through the track’s slower vocal pace and deep synths, yet there’s a smattering of twinkles and hand-claps. The overall effect makes for a bittersweet sentiment. Imagining that a lot of Puerto Ricans who’ve relocated – or anyone who’s forced to move from their home, really – hear themselves represented on “Lava” isn’t a stretch. – Jhoni Jackson
Helado Negro - "Please Won't Please"
If on Private Energy Helado Negro turned his focus inward, on “Please Won’t Please” – the first single off his forthcoming album This Is How You Smile – he zooms in so closely that we can see his words mirror our own personal universes. “Lifelong history shows, that brown won’t go, brown just glows,” Roberto Carlos Lange sings, putting the song directly in dialogue with previous tracks like “Young, Latin and Proud” and “It’s My Brown Skin.” But this time, he wraps himself in poetry and delicate instrumentation to narrate his own story, and the experiences and truths that have made him who he is.
In 2018, opportunism can be hard to distinguish from true artistic explorations of Latinx identity – but Helado Negro’s music is so honest that, like his skin, it simply glows. His beautiful, heartfelt way of whispering “this is me,” ignites a warm feeling of self-acceptance in our chests, calling us to reflect on our own history. Even though no one else understands what we’ve been through, we do, and that’s just perfect. – Cheky
Empress Of - "When I'm With Him"
Falling out of love is a fundamentally lonely and bewildering experience, one that Empress Of’s Lorely Rodriguez captures beautifully on “When I’m With Him,” the first single from her sophomore LP Us on Terrible Records. Alternating between English and Spanish with a seamless effortlessness immediately recognizable to diaspora kids, Rodriguez paints a devastating picture of baffling limbo in a romantic relationship.
In her previous work, Rodriguez’s process was insular, doing everything herself – writing, producing, mixing – start to finish. But for Us, she brought in collaborators and co-producers for the first time, a vulnerable and new songwriting experience. It paid off: co-produced along with Jim-E Stack and Dan Nigro, the song’s warm, cushy synths and melancholy piano chords paired with a driving, steady beat and the vocals’ radiant melodies make for synth-pop gold.
The visual is a love letter to Rodriguez’s native LA: sunlight, Dickies, backyard hangouts by the clothesline, arid climate plant life, and the queer people of color who drive some of the cities’ most vibrant art scenes. Its muted pastels and sunny captures set the mood: neither sad nor happy, disorienting but not directionless.
The whole process was a leap of faith – collaborating with others, making her city part of her creative process, tackling a difficult to portray subject. Rodriguez landed on a masterpiece. – Verónica Bayetti Flores