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Heavy Rotation: Songs Public Radio Couldn't Stop Playing In 2018

This year-in-review Heavy Rotation playlist features Angelique Kidjo.
Danny Clinch
Courtesy of the artist
This year-in-review Heavy Rotation playlist features Angelique Kidjo.

As we look back on our favorite songs, albums and artists of 2018, we're highlighting some of the most-loved songs that we featured throughout the year for our Heavy Rotation series. Each month, NPR Music asks music programmers, station hosts and producers across the country to pick the songs they can't stop spinning. Here are some of our favorites from the year, month by month.

Head to the playlist at the bottom of the page to shuffle all the Heavy Rotation tracks selected by public radio in 2018.

January:Jade Bird, "Lottery"

The odds of stumbling across a gambling-themed song in the alt-country genre are, well, pretty high. From Presley to Haggard, Dylan to Tweedy, there is certainly no shortage of cards or high stakes in Americana. But now, within that canon of chance, we have a new standout — enter "Lottery" from British singer-songwriter, and NPR Slingshot artist, Jade Bird. At first listen, the song exudes a lovely, youthful innocence. Bird's inimitable vocals come in soft as she tallies the numbers on a first love that's withered and waned: "I was 19 and you were 23 and we stayed in Number 4 Ferdinand Street ." Turns out, though, this Bird has a bite, and with a fiery switch we're thrown into a thunderous chorus that carries us from start to finish: "You used to tell me that love is a lottery, and you got your numbers and you're betting on me." It's a treat of a track, complete with playful wordplay, ebb and flow — and that Clapton-meets- Feist style Bird has carved out for herself since the release of her 2017 EP, Something American. With that successful debut under her belt, and this single in her very capable hands, we're pretty sure we'll be betting on Jade Bird for years to come. Lauren Menking ,

February: Everything Is Recorded feat. Sampha, "Close But Not Quite"

The best of these is "Close But Not Quite," featuring Mercury Prize winner Sampha. The song features a sample of Curtis Mayfield's " The Makings Of You," from Mayfield's classic 1970 solo debut, Curtis.The introduction of the song begins like a soft lullaby with a gentle piano, and an in-the-pocket bass line that keeps the beat as Sampha sings tenderly : "Fate lets you fall into her arms without a word/And only the size of your breath that hurts/I'm not one to go to church/But you made me believe in something more than hurt."

Then the payoff hits hard on the chorus, as Richard Russell of Everything Is Recorded blends the Mayfield sample into the chorus with seamless attention to detail where Sampha and Curtis Mayfield's voice becomes one, and a new long song is born. — Bruce Warren,

March:John Prine, "Knockin' On Your Screen Door"

A recent Rolling Stone article describes John Prine as "The Mark Twain of American Songwriting." That description couldn't be more accurate. Prine's music makes us laugh, cry and see the joy and absurdity in the everyday. Prine's latest song, "Knockin' on Your Screen Door," touches on everything from trains to sailboats to climbing trees and sweet potato wine. The song also contains a knockout couplet in which Prine laments having "no loose change just a hanging around my jeans" and pairs that with a plea for needing help "with a can of pork and beans." Toss in some references to 8-tracks and George Jones and you can hear why "Knockin' on Your Screen Door" easily qualifies as another Prine classic. Despite losing some of his vocal power after a battle with cancer, Prine adapted his style and his music remains as strong as ever. It's easy to see why contemporaries like Jason Isbell and Dan Auerbach draw inspiration from Prine. Even as it deals with loneliness, "Knockin' on Your Screen Door" feels like an old friend you can call on any time you need a smile. Benji McPhail ,

April:Leon Bridges, "Bad Bad News"

When Leon Bridges hit the scene a few years ago with his debut album, Coming Home, listeners immediately connected with his throwback vibe and undeniable similarity to Sam Cooke. In 2018, though, we are witnessing his musical evolution. "Bad, Bad News" (from the forthcoming new album Good Thing) is refreshingly modern, with a thumping bass line and jazzy rhythms. Its positivity bursts forth: "They tell me I was born to lose, but I made a good, good thing out of bad, bad news." Evidently, the dates on the road since Coming Home generated a lot of ideas for Bridges, as he seems to be exploring all aspects of R&B and soul these days. It's clear Leon Bridges is not stuck in the past. If anything, he's a big part of the future. Russ Borris ,

May: Angelique Kidjo, "Once In A Lifetime"

It makes sense that a former dancer from Benin now living in Brooklyn would choose to remake Talking Heads' "Remain in Light." With its polyrhythms and funk-based melodies, it injected an international sound into American rock and pop culture. Kidjo's take on the album's biggest hit is more rebirth than redo. An unrelenting optimist, she imbues the songs with high energy, soaring vocals, and arrangements that pulsate on chiming guitar, brassy horns and African drums. Kidjo is an inspiring live performer who demands interaction from her audience, often pulling members on stage to dance with her. That same force reaches through the speakers, imploring you to get up and get involved. — Rosemary Welsch,

June:Childish Gambino, "This Is America"

It speaks volumes about Childish Gambino's "This Is America" that the instant-classic video more or less arrived to deafening buzz the morning after debuting on Saturday Night Live and immediately became one of KEXP's most requested songs of the year. The song – equal parts provocative and accessible ­­– combines harmonious multi-tracked vocals, rumbling low-end trap beats and a warbled Young Thug outro all sharing space in a state of fluid chaos that listeners all across the world have responded to, underscoring how its serrated energy has struck a nerve in the zeitgeist that, regardless of your perspective, is impossible to ignore. — Jacob Webb,

July:Now, Now, "MJ"

On its long-awaited new album Saved, Now, Now unabashedly embrace its '80s pop influences and even call them out overtly on the single "MJ," which finds singer KC Dalager confiding in her childhood hero, Michael Jackson, about a romance gone south. "Billie Jean, baby please, he's a criminal," she sighs over a hypnotic, crystalline beat that culls from the funk-inspired dance pop rhythms of Jacksons' heyday. Heartache has rarely been rendered so crisply, as Dalager seems to neither wallow nor fume over the loss. Instead, "MJ" is the sound of her shrugging her shoulders, putting the past behind her and stepping out onto the dance floor for an overdue spin under the spotlights. — Andrea Swensson, The Current

August:Ruston Kelly, "Mockingbird"

Damn, is he good. And easy to listen to, and not hard to look at, either. Ruston Kelly's forthcoming album, Dying Star,due out Sept. 7,is a victory lap of sorts for a man who has been kicking around Nashville for a while now. One can always find trouble, but finding joy and deciding to walk its path instead requires gumption. Kelly has experienced it all, including overdosing, going to rehab and then finding the will to start anew.

Kelly digs down deep on Dying Star to fearlessly put forth a set of songs steeped in emotional twists, turns and complications. His voice has a rough-hewn barnwood quality. His lyrics have been compared to those of Townes Van Zandt. And wait until you see the videos. They bring a tenderness that drives the feeling home. This here is powerful stuff. — Jessie Scott ,

September:Your Smith, "The Spot"

At first listen "The Spot" evokes a feeling of Sheryl Crow's "All I Wanna Do" with a slower tempo but similar vibe. Caroline Smith, now known as Your Smith, hails from Minneapolis, where her music has been played locally on the radio since her more folky sound. Smith's music evolved to a classic soul vibe and that's when her career took off. With a few albums under her belt, she moved to LA, got picked up by a major label and changed management. She aimed for a more pop, R&B direction, which didn't quite gel. It was time to go back to the drawing board. Her latest incarnation shows as much promise as her re-branded self and sound. Still able to fill the First Avenue venue back home (the place where Prince launched his career), this track could put her on a trajectory to build a national profile. — Willobee Carlan , NV89

October:Rosanne Cash feat. Sam Phillips, "She Remembers Everything"

If you follow Rosanne Cash on social media, you know how passionately she speaks about our turbulent world. Her latest album, She Remembers Everything, brings us her most topical songwriting to date. Social concerns are built into her lyrics and compassion is at the forefront of her voice. The album's title track, co-written and sung with with Sam Phillips, describes a woman who's been broken by the times, exhausted and dazed, but is still aware and still singing her truth. Her sharp memory holds both a weariness and a threat; mirroring that, the song's gentle melody is bolstered by an undercurrent of dark bass guitar. Cash says in a press release, "I could not have written this 10 years ago — not even close. Time is shorter, I have more to say." — Rita Houston ,

November: Anderson .Paak feat. Q-Tip, "Cheers"

Too complicated and retro to be a single, "Cheers (feat. Q-Tip)" is still a triumph for Anderson .Paak. Here's a reincarnation of neo-soul magnificence born to attract diverse audiences. "Cheers" is an ideal example of how dispirit influences can congeal to form an enthralling hybrid. This dizzying, propulsive track might never fit completely under the strictest definitions of hip-hop or R&B, but represents the best aspects of both. Bar by bar, the song's sonic antecedents — slinky bass runs, punchy horn blasts, trademark chime glissandos, the Questlove-style drumbeat, a jazzy saxophone coda — do some aural world-building that is both oddly familiar and totally transformative.

To achieve this, .Paak didn't pilfer from a favorite 1970s funk ditty or recite from Maxwell's discography. Dr. Dre's patronage meant .Paak could rely on a dream team of producers – hit-making associates Focus and Andre Brissett, along with Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest and Dre himself — to birth this ultramodern creation.

On the mic, .Paak's rapping clearly recalls old-school Kanye West, but with a self-consciousness and sensuality that exceeds his teacher. And "Cheers" itself demonstrates that point. He is the artistic progeny of what's come before. This song is a passing of the baton. —David Hyland, WPR

Shuffle through all the Heavy Rotation tracks of 2018 on Spotify.

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