100 BEST SONGS OF 2018 RANKED
Written by Chris-R on December 22, 2018
“City on the Water” -The Stone Foxes
The Stone Foxes deliver a riveting entry to the modern Blues Revivalist movement currently happening in Rock music. Supported by a strong backbone from the rhythm section and some catchy singing, the band is also joined by a group of backing vocalists and some other inventive instrumentation. The Stone Foxes deliver a standout song that you don’t want to miss.
“I Don’t Wanna Go” -Ballyhoo!
In a year of otherwise midtempo anthems, Ballyhoo! stand strong with an energetic pumped-up ska routine that’s teeming with feel good energy and a genuine party attitude.
“This Mp3 Is a Safe Place” -New Sounds, Better Sounds
Emoting warmly and earnest, the instrumental “This Mp3 Is a Safe Place” has a sound that’s breezily fulfilling and comes equipped with moments of added percussion, subtle key swells and curiously funky guitars.
“Don’t Let It Bring You Down” -Mt. Joy
A refreshing live interpretation of Neil Young’s slightly hidden 1970 classic. It’s clear that the group is easily able to tap into the song’s best qualities while still giving it a unique presence belonging entirely to themselves. Lead singer Matt Quinn in particular draws good attention to himself due to his wonderfully colorful voice and emotive vocal passages which really drive the performance home.
“Insane” -Madison McFerrin
As a mostly Acapella song, Madison McFerrin relies on herself alone to give this stellar song some true life. Her song “Insane” rarely exceeds two chords, playing instead to her calm demeanor and in effect produces a sort of hypnotic quality to it all. She provides some chipper pop melodies/arrangements with a domineering presence of Neo-Soul seductress looming overhead.
*And maybe it’s just me, but one can’t help but wonder if this unaccompanied vocal piece from Ms. McFerrin bears any relation to the former king of acapella (as far as radio is concerned) Bobby McFerrin, of “Don’t Worry Be Happy” fame. Doesn’t matter much, just chalk it up to be a neat coincidence I suppose.
“1999 WILDFIRE” -BROCKHAMPTON
Proudly wearing an Andre 3000 influence on its sleeve, this non-album single from rap collective BROCKHAMPTON sounds like a soundtrack for a summer barbecue. Playfully catchy, “1999 WILDFIRE” still acts as a significant change in sound for the group, even compared to what was eventually delivered on their 2018 album iridescence. This bop of a track sticks out as a self-contained joy.
“Nameless, Faceless” -Courtney Barnett
Depending on your vantage point, she’s either Indie’s favorite Aussie or Australia’s favorite Indie gal. Ever since she first splashed onto the scene, Courtney Barnett has been riding waves ever since, culminating with her third and most recent album Tell Me What You Really Think. After a two year wait, she delivered a new album with material that stands as her most mature to date all while still retaining the scrappy DIY attitude that made her so irresistible to begin with.
“Suddenly Gone” -Shopping
It’s nice that Post-Punk is coming back in a very big way, with many modern bands tackling different aspects of what made the genre so engaging since its’ inception. Shopping highlights the more rude qualities of the Post-Punk genre mainly in the instrumental sense, favoring clunky guitar tones and shimmering dub-inspired bass that often carries their songs.
“Bart Simpson” -Princess Nokia
Calm. Cool. Collected. Princess Nokia is able to embody these and more on “Bart Simpson”. Self-assuredly rapping over a woozy beat, she uses her delirious flow to touch upon various topics in her life from the mundane to the specifically personal for herself, all the while being addressed from just a side-eyed glance.
“Reading’ comics in Forbidden Planet I go home to a place of fantasy outside my own/Always been a loner, never had a solid home/I really like Marvel cause the characters look just like me and women don’t have roles that make them look too sexually.”
She’s offers an interesting take on the world around her, and I would love to see what else she has to offer.
“Shockwave City” -Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats
Turn your fuzz pedal to 11 for this one, “Shockwave City” is a rip roarin’ Psych rocker filled with bouncy guitar lines and enough guitar riffs that’ll either melt your face or make you bob ya head some more.
“Stay Away” -Charles Bradley
Shhhh, see if you can guess what song this is before you start reading this writeup, it probably wouldn’t be your first guess.
The magnificent talent that is Charles Bradley passed away last year at the age of 68, only six years since he released his first studio album and started climbing the ranks of Soul singer stardom. As a true man of the Gospel sound, his aged life experiences give his singing voice a certain gravitas that elevates him to another level that is so rarely matched (except maybe for all-time Soul classic “Me and Mrs. Jones”, recorded by Billy Paul in his early 40’s).
Charles Bradley is not a stranger to unorthodox cover songs, he often embodies the same spirit that flows through Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin’s “American” series, and Bradley’s signature song has proven to be his boisterous take on the Vol. 4 Black Sabbath ballad “Changes”.
Still though, on this first posthumous album from him, “Stay Away” sneaks into the track listing as an especially shocking song choice, as it is the Nirvana Nevermind cut he’s singing, one that’s rarely the first to cross anybody’s mind (but still one of Nevermind’s best tracks!). The instrumentation is sharp and Charles had never sounded better, even at his end.
“My Love Is Shared” -Death From Above 1979
Necessity can indeed be the mother of invention. Case in point: look at any of the bands leading the Dance-Punk craze, including Royal Blood and Death From Above 1979. “What sets these bands apart?” you might ask. Well for starters, the band has got only two members: just a drummer and a bassist. Monstrous distortion gives the bass a new purpose as a lead guitar fill-in, while still occupying a unique space in the band’s sound and turning it into a life of its own. Death From Above’s year was spent coasting off 2017’s reunion record Outrage! Is Now, but they released a demo tape of extra goodies Heads Up Demos, the lo-fi band rehearsals give an extra grittiness to an already wild sounding the band had sought after.
“Do What I Want” -The Chats
The Chats are your favorite band that you don’t know about yet; and I only mean that half jokingly. I’m tempted to channel Henry Rollins‘ words of wisdom on the early days of Ween, “Start liking them now”, […] One day you will get to your knees and crawl to the altar that is [The Chats]”.
Hailing from their motherland Australia, because I guess every unique weirdo band comes from down under these days, The Chats turn their minimal music competency into a unique band that stands entirely alone. And when I say their instrument prowess is minimal, I mean minimal with a capital M. The band made waves with their iconic(?) song and accompanying video “Smoko” which was just bound to turn heads. It was hard to tell just when we stopped laughing at them and when we started to join them inside their joke.
“Do What I Want” is an astronomical leap forward for the group, being propelled onwards by actual quality production and the band is benefitted from having more seat-time behind their respective instruments. The song is fun and quippy, resembling some output from The Buzzcocks. I honestly believe their unique spot in music is entirely to their benefit and acts as a genuine encapsulation of the Punk ethos. If the band was even a little more different, then it wouldn’t be a stretch to land them onto the “Outsider music” label next to The Shaggs and The Raincoats. For all the laughs we may have, you can’t deny the band has got moxxy. Apparently The Chats were charming enough to warrant them an opportunity to open up for Queens Of The Stone Age on their Australian leg of the tour. The Chats are moving up in the world and I’ll keep a keen eye on them, I suggest you do the same.
“Noid” -Yves Tumor
On one of 2018’s most acclaimed Experimental-leaning releases, Yves Tumor carefully constructs an album-long persona just so he can immediately rewrite his own rulebook. “Noid” stands as one of the more disarming moments on the album, coming equipped with an apparently standard song structure. While it may seem like it’d be a more regular type song on most other artists release, “Noid” proves to be one of the albums most unique experiences given its placement in the track listing.
The strangely assembled electronic backing instrumental is built in a way that still operates on a rock-song level. For me it most resembles that of TV On The Radio and their knack for digital rock hybrids. Adding yet another layer to his song, the lyrics are politically charged yet emotionally distant. Uneasiness is a dormant theme, urging the listener to stay noided. They’re surely out to get you.
“Quiet, The Winter Harbor” -Mazzy Star
Anyone expecting a triumphant return from Mazzy Star must obviously not be paying much attention. Standalone song “Quiet, The Winter Harbor” acts as a hushed return from the Dream-Pop juggernaut duo after their hiatus, noticeably trading in reverb’ed up guitars for a gentle piano instead, Mazzy Star’s return is understated but very welcomed.
*Note: this is their second comeback from a hiatus, the gap between their 1996 album to their 2013 release is wider than 2013 to now, but I still think it’s notable that they decided to resume now
#85 “Disappointing Diamonds Are The Rarest Of Them All” -Father John Misty
Father John Misty has proven be a divisive personality of today’s music climate, and I’m sure that Papa John himself would be the first to admit it. His most polarizing qualities came to a head during last year’s Pure Comedy: a rambly, spindling, often times genius, more often times cluttered humdrum of an album that just may be the most defining album of the discombobulating year that was 2017. So.. that’s a tough act to follow. Father John Misty may have taken the right approach on settling down for 2018’s “God’s Favorite Customer”, honing in his craft to a more manageable level and allows his clever songwriting to guide the way of his music, and have lyricism follow suit instead of vice versa.
Album highlight “Disappointing Diamonds Are The Rarest Of Them All” is bright, shiny and has something snide lying just beneath the surface. His vocals sound as good as ever but with perhaps more of an emphasis on carrying the melody. His singing voice glides above the jaunty piano playing Beatle-esque chord sequences.
“Cold Water People” -Ride
“Cold Water People” initially seems to be a light affair of a song, but on closer inspection Ride allows all the small moments in their instrument selection do the talking. Sonic gusts of keyboard/guitar mishmashes float in the background as a disoriented guitar sound takes prominence, a unique sound that reminds this listener specifically of Prince’s soundboard dying during the recording of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”
Ride has spent many a year experimenting with soundscapes, being able to proudly claim a spot in Shoegaze’s holy album trifecta (alongside My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive as the narrative goes), their new material still works very well in today’s music landscape. They embrace many different textures on this song but they all lead into each other very naturally and doesn’t step over anybody toes, leading to an ultimately very smooth ride.
“Above The Law” -The O’Jays
After sixty years and 30 albums to their name, legendary Philly Soul outfit The O’Jays decide to call it quits on their final release. The first glimpse we hear from this farewell album is “Above The Law”, an irreverent call to arms for those who’d like to live above the law, and pointing fingers at those who currently find themselves in the position. These themes and political affiliations are cornerstone to some of their most beloved tracks such as Backstabbers’ “When The World’s At Peace” and the undying classic that is “For The Love Of Money” . The group may sound as though they’ve aged but it only adds more weight to their material, and there is heaps of energy in the group to keep it moving along.
“God Break Down The Door” -Nine Inch Nails
Frenzied and manic are the two most immediate emotional responses taken from “God Break Down The Door”, the newest career highlight from Nine Inch Nails’ already stacked discography of career highlights. Now embracing a new direction very obviously indebted to the late David Bowie’s final album Blackstar ★, this new era of NIN infuses Jungle-tinged breakbeats with some saxophone driven Free-Jazz stylings, all with Trent Reznor’s newfound singing voice leading the way. While I might be more prone to finger pointing for the very obvious Blackstar ripping for another artist, Trent gets a pass from me, knowing that he was a frequent collaborator with the starman Bowie himself, it helps put it all to peace. I mean, Trent Reznor recorded an Industrial album with him and co-headlined an entire tour together), the pair obviously had a working chemistry. It’s nice that this album can act both as a dedication to a late friend of his while still acting as another reason to leap forward musically into new grounds for Reznor and Atticus Ross to further innovate.
“Love It If We Made It” -The 1975
Calling this the most “2018” song on the list is a cheap shot but not really too inaccurate either. It’s almost a music polaroid of the year’s clickbait headlines and deleted celeb tweets, “Love It If We Made It” acts as the summation of this years manic whirlwind of interpersonal oddities and media hubbub. The 1975 simultaneously acts like they have the high ground above all this madness going on around, all the while still embracing the lunacy of living life in the post-Internet age.
The instrumental is thin and unsuspectingly catchier than it may originally let on to be, borrowing from the new ilk who worship the sophistipop of Songs From The Big Chair and Breakfast In America. Props also need to go out to the band for somehow making a very catchy vocal out of what’s essentially a one-note melody. For a pop song to have a melody this static kind of blew my mind first time I heard it honestly, but wow! does it make the chorus pop all the much more. Love em or hate em, The 1975 dug their claws into the modern fabric of our era and surely dated themselves to this particular moment in time.
“No One Left” -Failure
Failure’s 1997 album Fantastic Planet is a high watermark for any and all things Space Rock, and is also one of the most appealing takes on the “Alternative” genre that the decade had to offer. The band dissolved quickly after recording their magnum opus and mostly stayed off the radar until 2015’s resurgence record The Heart Is A Monster.
Still coming off of a relatively new return, their newest album In The Future Your Body Will Be The Furthest Thing From Your Mind was released to very little fanfare which is somewhat of a shame. The band kept the creative fires alive and provide much of the same energy that is so beloved on their best works. Released as four separate installments, respectively as In The Future, Your Body Will Be, The Furthest Thing, & From Your Mind, all assembled together to constitute one full album. This song has a metallic industrial edge to it, the music is filled with youthful energy and a great attitude to it all. For an essential Space Rock band, I’m grateful that they returned to their home planet to drop this one.
“Flame Thrower” -Judas Priest
Metal is a tough genre to make a convincing comeback record in. Bands simply wind down as they get older and their audiences can be notoriously tough to reconcile with. Once a band feels they lost their initial spark is can be very difficult if not impossible to reignite the magic. Judas Priest had already overcome this battle in the 90’s as Painkiller reintroduced them as a force to be reckoned with, and is a near industry standard on how to reassert dominance in your genre. But to be able pull this off twice in their career? Yes, the Priest was able to come through with FIREPOWER, some of their strongest songwriting in their entire canon, it’s actually a miracle that something this quality can see light of day. Nobody would have blamed the band for simply resting on their laurels of a beyond iconic back catalog, as the band had come off some duds in recent years, Nostradamus in particular proved to be an unfortunate lowpoint for the band, and lest we forget the brief years of a Rob Halford-less Judas Priest if you can imagine that. The performances are unbelievable too, Rob Halford’s voice hasn’t aged a day. Nay, its somehow gotten even STRONGER, and he already had one of Metal’s most staggering voices ever, but he somehow pushed the ceiling even higher. Just when you thought you couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks, Priest pulls through with another stone cold classic.
“Bells & Circles” -Iggy Pop & Underworld
Do you remember smoking on the airplane? Cause Iggy Pop most certainly does and oh boy does he want to tell you all about it. Iggy had long since achieved that off-the-cuff “I don’t give a damn” rock legend nonchalantness, he can just go on and on about whatever and it’s gonna be encapsulating (Case in point: Rob Zombie throwing him on the opening monologue for “Black Sunshine” Iggy’s voice just exudes utter coolness.)
A strange but effective pairing, Iggy Pop is backed by electronic Trance group Underworld who provide a pulsing backing for Iggy to do Iggy on. The longer Iggy Pop talks, the more apparent it is that he is going on about absolutely nothing at all, the music equivalent of senile rambling about yada yada or whatever, never-ending stories that don’t really go anywhere. But it’s still very entrancing though. It’s a nice little song that doesn’t really have much reason to exist but I’m still very glad it does. I really don’t imagine that Underworld knew what to do with… whatever it was Iggy does here, but they did a great job of matching his strange aura. “Bells & Circles” really proved to be one of the most memorable songs I’d heard this year, it only takes one listen to stick with you.
“Has Ended” -Thom Yorke
Following in the footsteps of fellow Radiohead bandmate Jonny Greenwood, frontman Thom Yorke takes his stab at film composition this year for Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria”, a reimagining of Dario Argento’s Italian expressionist film. The original film presents itself as a surreal technicolor nightmare, perfectly evoking the feeling that an artist such as Thom Yorke can easily tap into in order to create a vivid audio portrait.
So, it was only fitting for Thom to debut his soundtracking with this project. Cleverly pulling a page from Germany’s fruitful Krautrock movement of the 1970’s, the same decade and timeframe that his film takes place in. Hailing from the scene which birthed Neu! and Can, the Krautrockian instrumentals have an excuse to be off-kilter and lambently evocative as stand alone music while still working in the scope of its respective film. “Has Ended” is one of the handful of tracks that Thom sings over, but like most Radiohead songs his approach to singing is more instrumental in nature. Cold time-stretched synths creep their way into the track, only to be welcomed with rumbling bass licks and a delightfully loose drumkit supposedly played by Yorke’s teenage son. Strengthened even more by its use in the film, Thom Yorke’s Suspira still stands finely on it’s own merits unlike many other soundtrack albums, and works to highlight the very best elements from his solo work.
“King Of Bones” -Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
“King Of Bones” is a smarmy sounding song that brings to mind images of badass bikers roaming the streets in a heavy metal landscape all Mad Max style. The music of “King Of Bones” is packing absolute muscle, equipped with a deep-seated, driving beat that is equally likely to invite listeners to head bang as it is to get em to stomp on the dancefloor. Almost synthpunk in nature, the band captures a real propulsive sound which grooves very hard.
“The Grey” -Thrice
Alternative in sound but somewhat industrial in spirit, Post-Hardcore act Thrice packs a wallop on “The Grey”. Wall to wall with explosive riffs that stretch across all guitar strings, the band leaves you guessing where the riffs may lead to next. The song is accentuated by a loosely played drumbeat, injecting a steady backbeat to the rest of the band. Tightly performed and passionately assembled, this cut off Palms just may be some of Thrice’s best material.
“The Room” -Astronauts, Etc.
The defining trait of this song by Astronauts, Etc. is the spaciness that’s built into the instrumental. Not so much in the outer space type of way, but mostly the openness of the sound the band presented to us. The structure is driven mainly by a light nylon strung guitar and a widely-woo sounding keyboard whose patch sounds more akin to a theremin than anything else. The vocals help ground the piece very nicely, staying around a certain range that the melody lives inside as the instrumental grows and wraps the song in a warm blanket of explorative sounds.
“Wait in the Car” -The Breeders
Hey! At least I remembered that The Breeders reunited and put out a record this year, why didn’t you? It got a mostly positive reception and garnered plenty of buzz when it came out, but All Nerve seems to have mostly gotten lost in the shuffle of other great releases from this year.
“Wait In The Car” is one of the most effective tunes on the entire record, sporting plenty of personality and a buoyant performance from the band. And it is just great to have Kim Deal around regardless, she basically built the original “bass gal” archetype and she sounds as naturally charming now as she ever had, she could woo me any day of the week. The band meets her levels with a fiery performance and a very pleasant song to boot.
“Over Rainbows and Rainier” -Damien Jurado
A strong contender for any “Songs for a rainy night” playlist, this softly strummed acoustic ballad is strongly emotive in a way that’s mostly suggestive instead of plainly spelled out. The playing is understated, mostly that of Damien lightly strumming his acoustic and singing a quaint tune. Giving many hints of aching beauty, Damien Jurado channels the music of Nick Drake and makes for a very calming song. The production is close and intimate, one can get a real sense of the room it is recorded in which gives it a personal feeling, as though every note is being performed for you specifically; recalling the hushed “closet mix” of The Velvet Undergrounds self-titled record. Contemplative and doey-eyed, “Over Rainbows and Rainier” is a special type of song that is sure to tug heartstrings.
“Is a rose petal of the dying crimson light” -Tim Hecker
Pub Rock musician Elvis Costello has been famously attributed the quote “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Seeing as to how I’m uh, writing in-depth about every song on this list, I may not wholly agree with Mr. Costello here. But in dissecting works from the Ambient realm of music, I kind of find myself more at a loss that I’m normally used to. Intentionally built to be lacking concrete characteristics, Ambient is forever known as being built to be easily ignorable, albeit captivating when actively listened to, even if it is in a more cerebral manner.
Tim Hecker is a living legend amongst the ethereal ambient music lovers, and if you haven’t listened to his drawling masterpiece Ravedeath 1972 then you may be sorely missing out. It’s an experience I’d highly encourage whether or not you believe it to be your type of usual music, it’s a vital experience to have in this great music listening quest we are on.
“Is a rose petal of the dying crimson light” is built from an inescapable beauty and an omnipresent self-destructiveness built into the very fiber of the song, becoming so delicate that it almost doesn’t exist anymore. Tim Hecker is a master of his craft and his Konoyo release reminds us that he’s in a league of his own.
“Montero Airlines” -Montero
“Thank you for flying Montero today you’ve got a first class ticket going all the way.” “Montero Airlines” is a affectionately cute song from the similarly titled Montero. The band writes the song in a very colorful fashion, and the song overall comes across as very wholesome. The plodding keyboard sounds like a Kevin Parker style romp as well. Naming the song after themselves actually does some favors for the group, it acts as a wink and a nod to the listener while still getting the band name imbedded into people’s brains. “Montero Airlines” is a Psych-Rock treat and makes for a very pleasant sounding song that ensures it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Grapetooth is the debut album the from new side project of Indie heroes Twin Peaks. Grapetooth has a simple but effective modus operandi, their album sounds like they are making the music that makes them happy, and there is a childlike glee that the members give off on this project.
Mostly borrowing from synth driven works of the 80’s, the two-piece combo seems content with staying mostly within the bounds of this borrowed sound. It actually is a little relieving that they aren’t reinventing the wheel or anything, the music on Grapetooth is rarely transgressive but instead lives in its own space that’d allow these songs to fit similarly alongside your favorites from The Cure, Depeche Mode, or Gary Numan. “Violent” is an especially effective opener and features some of the project’s most enthralling instrumentation and songstructuring.
“This Is America” -Childish Gambino
I don’t know what to say about this song that everybody wasn’t already saying when it first came out. However, I do know what to say about it in the months that passed since “This Is America” first broke the scene.
For me personally, I remember putting this song back down after the initial shock value of the music video wore off after about two run-throughs. Many others kept it in high esteem for just a little while longer, maybe around a month or so, until it just started to sink from the public’s consciousness like a stone. Despite an impressive climb to #1 on the Billboard charts, two weeks later it fell to #50 and plummeted further with lightning speed.
So as luck had it, by the time the rest of the world promptly spat this song out and moved on, was when I began appreciating the song for the song itself. I’ve heard several discussions suggesting that the music itself was the weakest part of the “This Is America” phenomenon, but I have to disagree, I believe that this may be Childish Gambino’s most expressive song to date. The Afrobeat tinged instrumental is so good and only stands out further when placed next to other hit songs of the year. The verses do a fantastic job of building a grimy vibe while Gambino delivers some fitting flow and the Migos ad-libs actually benefit the song instead of coming off as a distraction. So maybe only time will tell where this song will stand in the cultural zeitgeist, either a significant turning point of popular music or a curious blip on the map of 2018’s larger picture.
Swedish metal band Ghost is Gothic and menacing in the same way that cheap Halloween facepaint is. Presenting themselves with something of a monolithic identity, the music they choose to make is also it’s unique creation. “Rats” is one of the more refreshing Metal songs to gain traction in recent memory, the band plays loud and tight and vocals range from menacing to partaking in straight up King Diamond worship. The song’s harmonic structure sounds vaguely chorale as well, with a dedicated knack for songwriting to it. The chord movements ring a similar bell to The Who’s “Silas Stingy” with its parallel vocal harmonies and spooky organ behind it.
Don’t be misled, the song is still a rocker at heart, the band just isn’t afraid to stretch their wings and dip into unfamiliar zones for the genre. It is telling that some of the most acclaimed bands from Metal’s recent years are those who show little resistance to experimenting with incorporating various other styles of music into their metallic roots (Deafheaven, Zeal & Ardor, Portal). Ghost stands alone and it is easy to commend them for doing so.
“I’m Gon’ Make U Sick O’Me” -Parliament
It’s an open secret that George Clinton can do whatever the hell he wants at this point in his career, and who are you or I to try and stop him? Taken from what is supposedly going to be Parliament’s swan song of sorts, “I’m Gon’ Make U Sick O’Me” is eccentrically funky as the group had always been. Well, they’d sounded so different through the years, but this sound isn’t astronomically far off from what they’ve done in the past. Compare this to “Atomic Dog”: a now Hip-Hop classic, and it’s apparent Clinton hadn’t broke a sweat making this song, he can crank these songs out like clockwork and is great at it. The instruments are nasty sounding and have a mean groove, the horn sectionals pierce through at the most opportune time and Scarface gives an exhilarating performance to the track.
“Kogo” -Chris Joss
Coming equipped with a schizophrenic instrumental, Chris Joss snugly puts his vocals over a very unique arrangement behind him. Instruments swirl in and out of focus, all while the keeping a strong rhythmic pulse. Chris Joss keeps his works mostly instrumental, so if he felt the desire to put vocals on a song like this, there must be something extra compelling about it. Electric sitars galore, “Kogo” is a unique song from a unique artist.
“Lost in Paris” -Tom Misch
Sweetly technical guitar playing from Tom Misch keep the song afloat, the main guitar riff clearly hails from a Django Reinhardt type of Gypsy Jazz, and Tom Misch’s vocal delivery help anchor the track into its own unique realm. Many songs like this are very smooth, but I’d be more likely to call it suave than anything else. It moves with a small swagger to it that is intoxicating to listen to.
“Les Jeux To You” -Julia Holter
If the idea of “Symphonic Art-Rock” presses any buttons for you, than Julia Holter’s Aviary very well may already be your Album of the Year. The album functions as if Björk was making a New Age album equipped with unusual but passioned vocals. With sweeping orchestral works and very peculiar song structures, Aviary exists as its own entity and isn’t setting out to make any new friends.
“Les Jeux To You” has some of the most compelling melodies and multifaceted song structures on the entire record. Those who may feel compelled to check it out may be drawn in and won’t let go.
“Forever Always” -Peter CottonTale
Imagine a lazy summer day, one you’ve already lived or one you’d like to. The music on “Forever Always” captures the unmistakable feeling of sun splashing your face, just the calm before a warm summer breeze sweeps in underneath. A moment in time, with the understanding that this time you are living in is a future memory to be cherished.
The folk who made this song here cheerily capture this nostalgia in a self-contained package, the nicest feel good vibes are all in here. By the time Chance The Rapper appears on the track it shouldn’t even come as surprise, given the gleeful nature already set up by the point in the song which Chance obviously embodies so well, his appearance is just the cherry on the cake. Vocals pitch shifted to achieve a syrupy sweet sound and a music that grows and builds, all ending with the sounds of tender musicbox chirpings.
“Become The Warm Jets” -Current Joys
The world kind of comes to a standstill when this song starts. Not in a way that presumes the song sets the earth on fire, but more in the sense that “Become The Warm Jets” captures a certain quietness that one might find in the wee hours of the morn. Carried by dyad chords on bass guitar, a light singing gently lays atop of the band capturing a Will Toledo-esque aura. Nobody in the band really oversteps their bounds, all members meet on the same playing field and makes for a delicate beauty alike that of “Where Does The Time Go”. Everything is calm when this song plays, and everything will be alright if it isn’t already.
This cut from tricot exists as a mostly singular anomaly, even if it is kind of tough to define it as such. “potage” is a Japanese-tongued song with heavily syncopated chords that most closely resemble the Math-Rock genre, but less so in the scary Dillinger Escape Plan approach, but instead the gentler covet, or American Football sense. Again, it’s all “kinda sorta” since they do use some distortion later on and some extra tricks and goodies that help it to stand out and be a unique addition to this years best offerings.
“Fishbelly 86 Onions” -All Them Witches
All Them Witches goes to show that you can still have fun playing in a rock band. Especially on this track, which is cleeaarrly just them having a gaffe, just kinda throwing whatever they can together and seeing if it takes shape. Not to say that it sounds like they pulled it outta thin air, cause the song still works on a musical level with a tight rhythm section and a ping-pong blending of the instruments for “Fishbelly 86 Onions” primary riff. But still, the fun they’re having just gushes through the speakers, it sounds as if the band is always seconds away from ruining the take due to laughter. This is most apparent during the countoff section near the middle. The band pulls it all together of course and reminds us about the inherent energy found from playing in a rock band.
“GNT” -Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs
Ok, before we talk about the song we need to address the
pig elephant in the room; this absolute unit of a band name. No, this writer didn’t pass out on his keyboard when he wrote this section, there is actually a group out there that goes by the name “Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs” and this group is really one of the most entertaining bands that rock has to offer for now. Their brand of Acid-Rock is groovy and brimming with chutzpah. The guitar work is one of Pigs (x7) best qualities, the riffs are tasteful and the tone is deliciously crunchy. Like many other drone-ish bands, the half-time sections are some of the most electric parts of the song already filled with excitement front-to-back.
“Friday Morning” -Khruangbin
A warm and fulfilling instrumental, Khruangbin delivers a contemplative take on their lightly Latin Soul infused brand of Funk. Of course, debating which genre Khruangbin neatly falls under is a fool’s errand, the mix n’ match of styles is so seamless that it is likely privy only to the band themselves. “Friday Morning” is especially inventive, mostly in very minute amounts. The group has a unique chemistry and their performances are full of life and wonder. The ending coda has some nice meter switching as well, giving even more personality to the band.
“Wu Tang Forever” -Logic
Yeah, Logic comes into his own track pretty doofy, but to chalk it up to that alone would undermine his entire appeal he’s built up through the years. It’s his rap goofball mindset that would allow a song like this to even exist, it’s just him fanboying out to Rap royalty and its admirable that he’s even been able to rangle them all together for this posse cut. And of course, Wu-Tang Clan’s still got it, because they never lost steam.
“Wu Tang Forever” is probably the first time that anybody that isn’t Martin Shkreli got to hear Wu Tang since 2014, their unified teamwork on the cut is very much appreciated. Maybe “Wu Tang Forever”‘s inclusion on Logic’s album is slightly awkward and maybe even ill-advised given what Logic fans seek in his work, but despite it all, it’s not a small feat that he was able to pull this off at all, and the world is bettered for it.
“Just Because You’re Naked Doesn’t Mean You’re Sexy” -Hallucinogenius
Some of the best Electronic songs have an unspoken “oneness” about it, a sense that these cobbled together noises couldn’t have existed any other way than how they are. All as one, all at once. “Just Because You’re Naked Doesn’t Mean You’re Sexy” has this quality and much more, creating some evocative vocable melodies and crisp drum lines that anoint personality to the track. The track ebbs and flows with marvelous precision, each new element introduced is just as exciting as the last: including but not limited to reversed audio, triplet induced hi-hat, and a secret harp adding to the fray. Hallucinogenius has pulled through with a wonderfully emotive song.
“The Storm Won’t Come” -Richard Thompson
Folk guitar hero Richard Thompson proves he has no signs of slowing down with the brooding and mood-building “The Storm Won’t Come”. Equipped with a foreboding sense of tensed exhilaration, Thompson masterfully navigates his way through the fingerstyle guitar song, more often than not acting as the anchor centering the track. Richard Thompson had always sat upon his pedestal among guitar enthusiasts, from his work in Fairport Convention and his iconic records under the “Richard & Linda Thompson” moniker, he’d always been a finger plucker to rival the likes of Mark Knopfler, Bert Jansch, and Lindsey Buckingham. His playing on the song is mostly understated when necessary, quietly hiding behind the pounding crashing of a marching Bo-Diddley beat of floor toms, but Richard proves his worth when he decides to strike with tactical precision.
If I was more creative, my go-to description for “Technicolor” would be something other than “Bright and colorful”, but alas, it is very difficult to describe the song as anything else. Mansionair takes form as a Poptimistic Indie unit, filled with many inventive choices to move the music along. The verses thrive with gentle hookiness and the chorus hits with an explosion of fantastic arrays of crimson and gold colors. The production itself plays a highlighted role in the song’s success, the hard panned stereo percussions and key embellishments help to flesh out an already catchy excursion.
“Glass House” -Screaming Females
Monocle-popping Punk act Screaming Females return this year with one of their most inventive efforts to date, thinking more outside the box than they ever had before. All At Once opener “Glass House” showcases the group playing around with dynamics to achieve to attain a newer level of depth, increasing the silences between chords to a dizzying effect. Lead singer Marissa Paternoster sounds great as she always had, carrying the tune with her yelped near-yodel, somewhat disenchanted with the intermittent band behind her. When they do kick into overdrive it is as exciting as they’d ever been, reaching new heights in their Punk sound that convinces me of their newfound songwriting expansions they’ve had. Screaming Females proves they aren’t going away any time soon.
“Me and My Husband” -Mitski
Uh, wow. Mitski’s Be The Cowboy album obviously struck a chord with a lot of people. Like a LOT of lot of people. At the time of writing this, Be The Cowboy has been the most featured album on music publications year-end album lists, more often than not snugly appearing in the number one slot. If you couldn’t tell by the tone of my writing, the absolute unblinking praise this album is getting has undeniably eluded me to an extent, but I still can’t necessarily argue its ranking is totally unjustified. 14 tracks at a lean 32 minutes is a great selling point, there is plenty to unpack in this album but in a very manageable fashion. Mitski more often than not will just change genre, style, and instruments song by song in a sort of game of musical roulette.
A key component to the successes of the album is in the lighthearted personalness of it. In a year that was bound to make you think the world is falling apart, Be The Cowboy focuses instead on the happier moments of interpersonal communication. It’s easy to see why this sentiment goes so far for many listeners, and the song “Me and My Husband” was the one I happened to get the most mileage out of.
The music itself is effortlessly bright and jaunty, and the lyrics are just the perfect amount of distinctly unusual for me to latch onto. It occurred to me during this song’s first listen that I don’t really hear many songs from the female perspective singing about their husbands. Like, a guy singing about his wife, or a girl with her boyfriend, is all pretty safe boilerplate stuff, but I don’t hear too many husband love songs for whatever it’s worth.
Mitski takes it all just a small step further, leading what is essentially a nice albeit basic message with a perfectly mood-setting first verse that is a great overdramatic oversimplification.
“I steal a few breaths from the world for a minute/And then I’ll be nothing forever/And all of my memories and all the things I have seen will be gone.”
So yeah, that’s definitely a way to say that life sucks then you’ll die. But hey, she’s got her husband by her side and everything is alright. And that’s it, that’s the entire gist of the song. The rest is just an innocent ditty about happiness in married life with no frills, no punchline waiting behind the corner, it’s just an earnest song about being happy with her husband. And for whatever reason that’s exactly what got to me. On first listen, I was so worried that there’d be an extra whammy added to the song, but what you see is exactly what you get, thank God. It’s all such a blithering simple sentiment that it’s shockingly rarely been done before and is just so refreshing.
“Loosie” -Earl Sweatshirt
Some Rap Songs is an unflinching and uncompromising album. If you don’t get what Earl Sweatshirt is going for than you are just going to be left in the dust. Refusing to give you any song with a runtime long enough to get attached to, every song passes you by with lightning speed and ultimate efficiency squeezed out of every second. A key highlight for myself among all of SRS’s hypnotically looped samples is “Loosie”. Most other samples on here act more as found sounds, just a brief couple seconds roughly cut out and looped to eternity for max effect. “Loosie” stands as one of the few times where the samples he uses blend together in a way that is transformative, these two sectionals combine to make a new sound that stands out among the other cuts. Even in an album of short songs, the 59 seconds of Loosie is especially brisk. Earl’s flow bounces to and fro on the beat, clearly meticulous yet unpredictable.
“Human Potential” -Swingin’ Utters
A slamdancing hardcore Punk tune that bursts to life with a loud and lively band playing it. Longstanding group Swingin’ Utters seal in an infectiously catchy burst of energy, sticking true to their genres roots and making sure to give an ultra memorable performance. The chords are simplified and effective, leaving vocals as a centerpiece to the song’s best qualities. The band does break off into a neat guitar line later on, showcasing some more versatility from the group when they aren’t too busy rocking your face off.
“Bella Donna” -The Black Moods
Huge shoutout to my fellas in The Black Moods for cracking the charts and getting this rocking tune on some legit radio stations. Possessing a similar quality that bands like Rival Sons are able to bring to the table, “Bella Donna” is an unhinged riff-rocker, echoing the best qualities from 70’s heyday of tough-guy Hard Rock. Of course, the energy found on this song is a greatly impressive one, and you can really tell that the boys had been playing together as a group for quite some time. It is also greatly appreciated that the group has a keen respect for dynamics, the bassy bridge is a much needed cool-down from the rest of the songs barnburner nature.
“Beat Goes On” -The Internet
Neo-Soul collective The Internet came back this year with yet another large step forward for their music. There was never any doubt of the musical talent the group possessed, constant external features outside the band and various solo efforts showcased that tenfold. However, there still was room for them to grow as a group and that is what was delivered on 2018’s Hive Mind. “Beat Goes On” is one of my favorites on the record, if not for its artistic progression, then for its method of carrying its beat while showcasing each members more showy musical traits. Bass is as popping as it usually is, substituting the role a guitar would usually offer if another band were to write the song instead. Yes, low end is prominent in all The Internet does, and Steve Lacy steps in for usual vocalist Syd, who herself has also made leaps and bounds on this new project. Laid back and funky, nothing gets in the way of this beat as it goes on and on. Even after fading out, the beat STILL goes on. That’s dedication.
“Slow Burn” -Kacey Musgraves
Its nice that the Country genre is wide enough that an effort such as Golden Hour can exist comfortably inside of it. A large part of Golden Hours core appeal is Kacey Musgrave’s willingness to pick and choose from many other types of music and incorporate them in her songs in a way that feels entirely her own. Album opener “Slow Burn” looks to the Folk rock genre, with its main chords being sorta clustery and played in a constant rhythm. Certain instrument pairings may seem anachronistic to Country music purists, lading in a spacey synth line directly besides a banjo is so strange that is may just work. More often than not, it does indeed.
“Disgraced In America” -Ought
Ought are a deceivingly inventive Alt band that give much good reason for Post-Punk making the comeback that it had. “Disgraced In America” is filled front to end with exciting vocals and interesting music changes, often changing form before you even realize. The lead singer has a unique way of carrying his voice, exchanging nasal singing for a low register grunt instead. Guitars have a very nice sound to them, percussive in approach while still bright enough to deliver the goods.
“Yefikir Engurguro” -Hailu Mergia
A stunning solo piano performance from Hailu Mergia, the pianist unleashes a breathtaking offering that’s brimming with spiritual energy. The music truly flows through in waves washing over, finding a patient spiritual journey between bass and treble hand. The altogether culmination is not too unlike that of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme closer “Psalm”, signifying an enlightenment that opens the door to whatever supernatural beauties lie ahead the road. Quiet and understanding, there are no distractions present to turn away from what is an undeniably beautiful performance.
“Passenger Plane” -Bernice
On their album Puff: In The Air Without Shape, Bernice give off a cooled down approach on R&B. Vocals soar on the track in a way only a woman could offer, over a minimalist music backdrop that suggests the listener to lean in and pick apart the sound. Instead of building to a humongous growth, the song picks up bit by bit, never leaving it’s safe territory established from the beginning. This Bernice album is one of the years most uniquely inviting albums, lovingly refined and full of small Art-Pop eccentricities that give heaps of life to this laid back affair.
“Call of the Forest” -Hampshire & Foat
An ambient sounding song built from natural instruments, “Call of the Forest”, alongside the entirety of its parent album The Honeybear paints its own scene and gently guides the listener alongside it. Many elements on this track are constant once pushed into motion, all coagulating into a beautiful painting of sorts. The delayed piano sound is one of the most gorgeous sounds I have heard all year, and the other sounds glide gently into view alongside it. “Call Of The Forest” is incredibly moving if you open yourself up to its subtle powers.
“Point Of Demarkation” -At The Drive-In
The most current chapter of At The Drive-In is a striking amalgamation of their bands old and new. Those that are in the know can educate on what Omar Rodriguez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s deal is, the pair had been songwriting leviathans on every project they’d been involved in, constantly reshaping their sound and expanding their wide sound palette into newer styles of music. After many a year of hiatus, the pairing reunited their initial band At The Drive-In, much to the delight of their earliest fans. Of course, ATDI had been renouned their for landmark Post-Harcore releases, which are often touted as some of the finest the entire genre has to offer, but they had never seemed be able to find the right shoe to wear as they were always the odd man out with whatever genre they set their eyes on.
The group dissolved and the duo jumped ship onto a few projects since, most notably masterful Prog-Metal titans The Mars Volta which grew to become synonymous with the pair’s signature sound, and 2014’s Antemasque. Alas, the gang is finally back together under the At The Drive-In banner, but with some new tools found along the way since their disbanding decades past. “Point Of Demarkation” is a confident song that boasts an absolutely unique aura, standing at direct crossroads with many other songs by the group up to this point. Like most anything Cedric touches, this song is packed with countless earworm melodies despite coming off as somewhat inconsequential at first. And I’m talking the kind of earworms that really lodge themselves into your brain and won’t let go. It is very welcomed to hear him resort back to his gruffer yelled vocals which were mostly defunct in The Mars Volta era. However, the guitar work has only grown more experimental since ATDI broke up, they are still trying to write in this style for this reunion but new there is an extra edge to it. We are all glad that the band got back together again and can’t wait to see what the future holds.
“Pigalle Darling Club” -Nicolas Godin
One half of beloved 90’s Downtempo electronica act Air brings us this song here. An intimate Jazz offering that truly shines from the “in between” of each note played (yeah, yeah, yeah… I know the joke. If I wanted to hear the notes in Jazz they DON’T play, I’dda stayed at home. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbeilmP2wY8 )
The drum brushes help fill the space that would otherwise have been an empty void, levitating the instruments that do play to a newer level. The harmonic movement of the piece is breathtaking, everyone moves as one complete unit. One could almost be reminded of Post-Rock from the minimalist structure, maybe even reminiscent to that of Laughing Stock . “Pigalle Darling Club” doesn’t waste its time and takes all that is necessary for it to come completely to fruition, which happens to be a relatively minuscule 3:26.
“Born Under Punches” -Angelique Kidjo
A daring pet project if I knew of one, Miss Angelique Kidjo set her eyes on a high prize and pulls through with flying colors. She had set the task of reinventing the entirety of Talking Heads masterclass album Remain In Light, an album that I would not hesitate in calling absolutely perfect in every sense of the word, a singular achievement that I don’t think anyone has really surpassed even today (This writer is biased and has this album firmly in top 3 favorite albums ever, so take that how you will). For the unique energy that Remain In Light pursued, no one had been able to capture that same exact magic.
That’s where Angelique Kidjo stands out, she knew that replicating the recipe would be a mistake, and instead knew that she herself would have to bring a unique insight to the album. One of the major building blocks of the original Remain In Light was David Byrne’s new worldly interest in Afrobeat, primarily in the works of Fela Kuti and the Tropicália of Tom Zé. Kidjo’s background was largely of comprised of this African based music Byrne took influence from, so she was able to give something of a different perspective; a perspective that was still rooted in Remain In Light’s DNA but this new emphasis gives extra shading to the original song skeletons.
She fully embraces the polyphonic sound of the album and injects her own uniqueness to it all, whilst still paying utmost respect to the music she is reinterpreting. I like that the bassline she chose to lay underneath this “Born Under Punches” is not the one present on the original recording, but instead Tina Weymouth’s live replication of it that lands closer to their post-punk influences and comes close to paralleling Joy Division . Point being, is that Angelique Kidjo did her homework and actually made this a worthy project that has the true spirit of the original inside it.
“NASA” -St. Paul and the Broken Bones
I really feel as though I’ve listened to my Lion’s share of music and have a pretty good personal track record of being able to describe what I hear. Y’know, if I listen to something I want to be able to pinpoint what works for me and what doesn’t, it can be frustrating not really having the tools to communicate it. This newest release by St. Paul and the Broken Bones eludes me for some reason however, I think it’s something that I need some time with to accurately describe, a phenomenon that I believe actually works to the albums overall benefit. Not only as this song/album is a RADICAL departure from the Philly Soul sound that they had built for years, but now they are melding genres together to make a sound that sounds pretty new to me and sort of defies easy description. It doesn’t invent in a particularly avant-garde way either like, say, the newest supposed masterpiece from Slowcore heroes Low which intentionally sets to create something specific only to its album (and sorry that nothing from Double Negative made the list, maybe it’s just a bit over my head or something), St. Paul & The Broken Bones just has this nonchalentness about their new career turn that doesn’t have the courtesy to clue into what made their sound what it is. I mean, they’ve definitely made their sound “spacier” for whatever that’s worth, but them naming the song “NASA” makes that a null point, like uh, no doy.
So instead of focusing on what the song isn’t, let’s tackle what this song IS. “NASA” is centered around a flangered guitar lick amongst some backing chords that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Hiatus Kaiyote joint. The song kicks into next gear during the chorus as the chords get overwhelmingly minor and the spacier elements take a backseat to a fuller crunch now present in the music. Paul Janeway actually does hold onto his James Brown-esque vocal combatisism that works much better than you’d imagine over this new era of the band. Of course, this is assuming that any of you had been able to follow the band before this article, maybe this song sounds entirely natural for you. Their appeal for a good while has been their undying affinity for all that is retro, for them to shape a new identity is a bold step forward for this sort of band. I very much want to know if they decide to push this sound forward on future releases but I will most certainly be with them every step along the way.
“A Rose In Harlem” -Teyana Taylor
Teyana Taylor was unfortunately poised to be the runt of the litter for Kanye West’s Wyoming sessions this summer: Five full-length albums from five artists released in five consecutive weeks, the hype was high and the names were stacked. Teyana’s K.T.S.E. was the very last release and turned out to be one of the most interesting projects of the entire bunch. The production gave a retro-Soul feel to back her more modern vocal afflictions and there was a great amount of artistic push-and-pull from Teyana and her producer. “A Rose In Harlem” stands heads and shoulders as one of the strongest performances of her career, she perfectly rides the beat and provides a rare moment on the album where she decides to carry the song’s hook herself. There are a few choruses on the album where she lets the beat do its thing and jumps back in later, but “A Rose In Harlem” proves that she is plenty capable of selling it entirely by herself, belting out the chorus with an impassioned gusto. Miss Taylor herself will be the first to describe herself as a triple threat, a career made of juggling between professional modeling, acting, singing, rapping etc. “What does she do? I do everything” and you’d absolutely believe her after this song is over.
“Distorted Records” -A$AP Rocky
Poor Rocky, he flew a little too close to the sun on his newest release TESTING. Releasing on an already stacked weekend during a star studded year in rap, the album that was clearly envisioned as A$AP’s homerun was delivered more as a bunt than anything else. Clearly pining for that experimental spark which fueled other Rap megasmashes such as Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. or eventually Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD, Rocky couldn’t help but miss the mark and left many casual listeners to perceive these artistic decisions as hollow or just plainly ineffective.
BUT, broken clocks can be correct too and TESTING’s opening track “Distorted Records” does everything in its power to make a strong first impression and it truly sticks the landing. Taking a good thirty seconds of bassy rumblings as introduction, the beat takes its time in letting the listener know that this isn’t your usual Mickey Mouse type affair but is instead dark and different. When the beat does drop, it is sublime, really roaring through the speakers and full of life. I’d be first to say that Rocky sounds great on the cut too, despite other songs where he doesn’t sound all too comfortable with this newer direction, he is fully owning up to this sound on “Distorted Records”, giving off virtuosic flows and some braggadocious boasts that really make you side with him. “Distorted Records” hits just the sweet spot of pushing everyone involved outside their comfort zone so they’d really strive to hit bullseyes.
“Golden Trunks” -Arctic Monkeys
Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino is a different kind of album; not just in the scope of Arctic Monkeys releases (and that is VASTLY underselling it) but instead being an unheard of left-turn for a band of this caliber to make. I remember the weekend it first released, the overwhelming feeling I recall everyone having was “what the hell am I supposed to do with this.” The Cockney rockers bafflingly introduced a quasi-concept album about a Space-Age Lounge singer in a hotel on the moon, chronicling tales of taqueria Yelp reviews and cheap dates with apparitions who’d apparently never seen the movie Blade Runner much to the narrator’s chagrin. For a band coming off their most successful release a few years ago, AM, this album comes off as commercial poison.
A lot of the basic formation of this album’s bones sound really bad on paper. Even in practice, the entire thing is extremely questionable, even to those who may enjoy it. The music however is bold and fresh, it genuinely seems to be looking forward and somehow taps into a style of music that I ever really knew that I wanted to happen. TBH+C exists for a very specific mood that nobody really knew existed, the band plays everything so light, minimal, and cheerfully artificial, yet in real time. The entire thing comes to play as something of a one-of-a-kind listen.
As a fan of some more ambient works, the core concept of making psych-lounge music is kind of too good to be true, they built the lounge singer aspect to act as eventual background noise: as easy to tune in and listen as it is easy to ignore. Singer/Keyboardist Alex Turner takes stream of consciousness lyrics to another level, there is rarely a second on the album where he can shut his claptrap as he keeps going on on and on and on, producing a surprisingly very charming effect. He fills the role of a disillusioned musician for commission, cynical and drunk and boring someone in a dark cafe (on the moon.) When you do decide to tune into whatever may be happening at any given time, you’re likely to do so at a new time.
Anyways, “Golden Trunks” is a favorite song of mine on the record, which is surprising as many of these songs are built to blend in together. “Golden Trunks” is led by the strange lead bass or guitar type buzzing, which takes the melody into some strange territories. The vocals are haunting yet mysteriously approachable. The music is built with a lowkey sense of dread that one can’t quite put their finger on, maybe the danger would be more obvious if we weren’t dealing with an obviously drunk narrator.
This is not an album for everyone. Scratch that, I don’t think this an album made for anybody at all. I have no clue who this was intended for, even the band themselves don’t always seem to be in the loop. Let alone longtime standing fans of the band, this is so far outside the realm of what their fans get from their music that many simply spat it out as soon as they came into contact with it, and man, so many fans were after blood. This is the 21st century fan backlash akin to Dylan going electric. “Judas!” they cried, as Alex Turner’s wurlitzer played on.
“Over and Over and Over” -Jack White
I hope I’m not going to break any of your hearts when I talk about this here Jack White album. Jack White’s newest “experience” is titled Boarding House Reach and has been billed as an Experimental Rock juggernaut, kind of a nothing of a term really. This album embodies the idea of “throw literally everything at the wall and see what sticks” but comes together more like “blend up all these unusable song fragments and try to staple em back together” which could either be taken as devout praise of this record… or a more literal way of taking it.
Immense complaints about this trainwreck of a record aside, a good song idea can still shine through as a good song no matter it’s surroundings, even if everything on its project is trying to drag it down. “Over and Over and Over” strikes the same creative lightning that some of his best solo efforts are able to tap into (such as the wild title track from Lazaretto). More often than not, all the extraneous bells and whistles work in favor for this song instead of against it. I think a key factor to this song’s success (sorry, here I go again) is that “Over and Over and Over” is the only song on this album that was written years prior to the Boarding House Reach sessions, written well before he was able to define the sound of his record. At its base, the song just works. The riff is killer, the structuring is creative and effective and I can’t imagine Jack being able to bury these great song fragments so far to the ground that it would ruin the entire song, even in this new Mad Scientist rockstar phase that he’s in.
Jack White is able to add onto these song parts with great instrumentation that are able to push the song forward. The dual guitar squawking after the middle-eight section is fantastic, momentary flashes of conga solos are borderline too flashy but benefit the song by existing exactly when they do and disappearing not a second too late. Likewise the apocalyptic keyboard trills that peek their head into the song now and again also work wonders for the song. This album being the album that it is still has a couple moments that are in such poor artistic taste that it is actively trying to drag the song down in spite of itself. I don’t care, the offkey pitch-shifted backing vocals sound just as hideous to me now as they did they day I first heard them. Still though, even when shooting himself in the foot, Jack proves why he is one of Rock music’s most valuable figures.
“I Never Dream” -Against All Logic
This artist has a pesky habit of selling himself short. Printed on the back of this 2012-2017 album was the message “If you don’t know jack about House music, you will love this”, and was released very unceremoniously with a title that wouldn’t make much of anybody double glance at it. But therein lies the beauty that the Against All Logic project had put out some of the most vital and important Electronic music this decade thus far.
In both title and artistic purpose, it recalls that of Aphex Twin’s seminal Selected Ambient Works 85-92, full of rearranged through-composed song segments that are incredibly emotionally vitalitizing while still having the ebb and flow of an functional House album. “I Never Dream” marks an especially convincing song, floating with bits of ethereal glances to the void he creates, with countless great moments sneaking their way into the song time and time again. Despite also working on a surface level as a dance track, the otherworldliness of its composition becomes impossible to ignore, and there is a brilliance to the assembly of these cuts that borrows more from IDM than it does EDM. Many years in the making, it is undeniable that there is a brilliant spark that lies inside all these tracks, bringing them all to a new plane of life.
“The Boy” -Shannon and The Clams
A well needed cool-down from most other musical absurdism we encountered this year, Shannon and the Clams come through with some incredibly enjoyable retro-Soul stylings that are sure to please any music socialite. The band is weighted by the forceful singing of Shannon herself while she plucks her way across her bass, and is given extra character by their guitarist who possesses an iconic twang to his playing that is somehow able to hit all of the right frequencies to be perfectly charming. Shannon and the Clams are able to tap into that infectious blend of Jackie Wilson-esque doowop and wobbley Surf-Garage rock that adds up to an absolute blast.
It’s borderline impossible to listen to the group without a goofy smile on your face. The band calls back to the classic era so well that if you listen close enough, you could almost swear you’d heard a faint crackling sound of vinyl in the air.
“No Mercy In This Land” -Ben Harper, Charlie Musselwhite
Ben Harper teams up with harmonicist Charlie Musselwhite for a grade-A blues number, filled with a mastered understanding of tried-and-true Blue perfections. “No Mercy In This Land” features a gentle but in command groove which harkens back to the stomp clap days of Delta Blues, all but directly recalling the merciless sneer of Son House bellowing bout “People grinnin’ in your face” . The tempo is comfortably middling with plenty of room to traverse inside of for the duo. Lyrics desolate and wry, woefully sung with a personable relatability. A cool track by some cooler musicians, don’t overlook this one.
“Life To Fix” -The Record Company
Gritty bar-band blues rock is back in effect, and power trio The Record Company is waving their freak flag high for all to see. Boasting a mighty sound that’s reminiscent of years passed and yet, finds a life of it’s own due to an insatiable chemistry the band possesses. “Life To Fix” is the first single off their sophomore record All Of This Life, and the leap from their first record to this new 2018 release has given them a new vantage point. The Record Company delivers an electrifying performance which delivers their fair share of stank face worthy grooves. What more could you want from a bluesy group like them? You can nearly hear the lumberjack beards pouring through the radio speakers.
“Fire” -Kids See Ghosts
Kids See Ghosts will break your boundaries and not even have courtesy to look back and acknowledge it. Their self-titled standalone album comes in and destroys everything in its path like an 808 controlled wrecking ball, 7 tracks and 21 minutes later you are left to pick up the pieces . The most sonic innovation they’ve done is in their pursuit of utilizing the idiosyncratic nature of Psychedelic-Rock with a unique rap schtick in effort to create something entirely new. Every noise on this record is filled with a new vibrancy, all so imaginative that it leads the listeners to wonder what goes on in this world beyond these sounds. Each new noise is a colored brushstroke in an open environment created by this album.
To my ears personally, “Fire” is nearly the most compelling track. The metallic scrape of the guitar chords have a unique life to them, further manipulated and rapped over in a way that highlights the strangest qualities of the song. A militaristic one-two march of the drums only further complements it, a “Summer of Love” beat to combat the boom-bap Rap’s been accustomed to. The rapping itself wastes no time, cut down to two verses for the two rappers on the project, each member being forced to bring their A game and nothin’ else. Kid Cudi sounds the best he had in years, his voice has a newfound confidence to it and he wonderfully fills the space he occupies. The song is filled with many “blink and you’ll miss it” flairs, the middle section’s warped Mellotron flutes are a special kind of magical. Silence bestows the guitar chords chosen to end this piece, all time stands still and the music ascends to something even greater.
“The Fox In Motion” -Hop Along
Hop Along is one of Indie Rocks crown jewels for the time being, a wonderfully distinctive group with a lot to say and a lot of different ways to tell it. Frances Quinlan’s voice is the defining trait of the band, as she had mastered finding just the right ways to break her voice and show all of its’ true personality while still sounding great doing so. That’s been her biggest appeal since their first album Get Disowned, this new album however signifies a changing of the guard for the band. Now more than ever, they are flirting with Pop structuring and newer ways to color outside the lines, all the while still retaining their classic Hop Along sound. These new risks make this album more of a mixed bag than most anything they’ve released prior but I totally commend them for it. When this new style of songwriting works, it ranks as some of the best they’ve ever put their name to.
Here’s where “The Fox In Motion” steps in, a fast beginning to a slowburner of a song. As the song progresses, the guitar becomes much more unique and takes centerstage, doing these quick trills that sound so out of character for what the rest of the song is trying to communicate that it can’t help but overtake the shape of the song altogether. By the time you realize this is going on, the song had morphed into something brand new entirely. The instrumental has a herky-jerky quality to it that indirectly takes a page from Post-Disco. Her vocals are so wide reaching in both range and scope, choosing to intentionally venture out into areas she knows she’ll have to work harder to reach for, her vocal muscles won’t get lazy performing these songs. It is very clear than in preparation for this new release, she had honed in her more perfectionist qualities while still keeping that rough sentimentality to her natural voice.
All in all, “The Fox In Motion” proves to be one of the a very definitive moment for the band, one which both the band and their fans should be very proud of.
“Pain Killer” -Iceage
The quickest route any song can take to immediately venture straight to my heart is to have a horn section in their song. Nothing is better then than Memphis Horn Sound for these ears, and when an Alternative band such as Iceage centers an entire single around it, then they have my full attention. Of course, the rest of the song is stellar too but wow does that initial horn stab immediately steal my attention every time.
There were few other songs that carried themselves with so much forward momentum as this one had, the energy is through the roof and the band performs this song with crackling electricity running through their veins. Guest singer Sky Ferreira was a great addition to the song as well, adding yet another element to the table. “Pain Killer”‘s noise equates to a heavy jangle, and is way too much fun to let pass you by.
“Riot!” -Earl Sweatshirt
“Absolutely gorgeous” would not be the way I thought I’d describe the closing track to Earl’s new album, yet here we are. “Riot!” stands to be one of the most beautiful songs I have heard in quite some time, it is so powerfully emotive yet remotely controlled, so much is squeezed from the fabric of these song elements. Everything in this song is so perfectly placed together, not wasting a single second and knowing just how to use the sound of every sample to its fullest potential. I would not say it’s hyperbole to compare “Riot!” to the plunderphonics of The Avalanches. These lost and found sounds have so much character to their natural timbre alone, but this synthetic reworking of their elements elevates it to another level.
Most of the beauty lies purely in the song’s sound, but fortuitously enough, there is a personal connection that Earl is able make to the song’s source material. The billowing trumpet bit that makes way in the second half of the song is ripped directly from a performance of his uncle Hugh Masekela, and this rip of his performance acts as a direct way of paying tribute to a fallen hero of his. The chop and screwed nature of the beat gives a soul cleansing dreaminess to it all, further driven home by it’s fleeting 1:02 runtime. There isn’t any wasted moment on the song. The fluttering backmasked guitar to end the song hints at a sort of retribution to it all. Absolutely stunning.
“My Queen Is Ada Eastman” -Sons Of Kemet
Being a musical oddity may be enough to turn a few heads, but it’s when these unusual ideas come to full fruition that a band can prove to be worth their salt. Enter Sons Of Kemet to the scene: a music endeavor that sounds bonkers in theory and utterly convincing in actual practice. Emerging from the productive London Jazz scene, Sons Of Kemet is a daringly inventive experiment that is pulled off in spades by the group.
A large part of what makes their sound their own comes from their lineup, including what I refer to as a “heavy metal” tuba, often playing near distorted low pitched phrases that bubble beneath the surface of the rest of the collectives rhythmic gymnastics, and two drummers to pulsate through their material. Your Queen Is A Reptile is poised to be a definitive chapter in the Afrojazz genre, favoring rhythmic passages in a manner that hails from African rhythms and distinct instrumental timbres. The album is mostly instrument only, although a few tracks include unexpected rapped sections, leaning into the energy the group built before each spoken word appearance. It’s a great pleasure to see a release that is this wild and seemingly uncommercial grab so many people’s attention through it’s inventiveness. In the world of music experimentation, when the job is done right people really will notice; so if you build it, they will come
“Donovan’s Daughters” -Gnod
It takes a lot for me to describe something as “a punishing listen” but not much for me to use this phrase as a compliment. Gnod proves to have an imense grasp on creating Noise Rock perfection, utilising their craft to be able to utilize the perfect amounts of repetition, sound manipulations, and song length so that not a single hair is out of place on this fifteen minute long endeavor. “Donovan’s Daughters” feels like a sonic voyage, starting simple enough with a tritone struck bass chord played ad infinitum, with all subsequent elements entering in piece by piece. The process is time-consuming but still feels immediately rewarding, it doesn’t require a disgusting amount of patience to get much from the song but it does insist that you divert your attention to it’s inner workings, which you will be easily inclined to do.
Thankfully, the group doesn’t dillydally for vocals to enter the scene: a merciful two minutes is all it takes. The band sounds more like they are manipulating heavy machinery than playing standard rock instruments. Abrasive textures go far, but economic songstructuring is what guarantees a song like this to last. Gnod insures that you will feel uncomfortable on their meticulously handcrafted ride, but you will not want to disembark until the very last second of it’s duration.
“Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)” -Kids See Ghosts
A song that is the audio embodiment of pure unadulterated release. Nothing feels more gratifying than belting along with their cries of “I don’t feel pain anymore, guess what babe, I feel FREEEEEEEEEE” in your most banal and guttural voice you can gather, high volume recommended if not required. The music of Kids See Ghosts came after a lengthy period of turmoil for both members involved, much of which stemmed from their own recollections of failing mental health. This is addressed on the album in a way that is overwhelmingly positive unlike the moping sadboi music currently infiltrating the public consciousness, and “Freeee” is the post-tension release of letting go. If our vocalists were more trained, we might have had a track that more closely resembled the primal scream therapy underwent by many famous musicians such as John Lennon.
A great message is only as great as the song underneath, and let it be known that the music has a unique life of its own. A large factor of Kids See Ghosts is how easily it detours from its’ Hip-Hop roots and leans into a genuine Psychedelic-Rock affair and add emphasis on “Rock”. The song does in fact operate in the same manner as an Iron Butterfly or Strawberry Alarm Clock song would, bouncing between chords with sharp punctuation, along with many other strange sounds to seep their way into the song. The background of Hip-Hop that the artists have gives the songs musical assembly an escalated feel for the Psych-Rock genre its inhabiting, the sampled works give a distant and unusually synthetic feel in an otherwise hands-on song experience. In an effort to combat pure cacophony, the song has an unexpected male choir singing the bridge bringing the song to a sleek standstill, with silences so muted you could hear a pin drop. Synths run through their scales in inventive ways near the end and melting keyboard work adds even more to the sonic landscape surrounding it all. Overall, the song proves to be an exercise in catharsis that translates directly to the listener.
“Speaking Terms” -Snail Mail
2018’s breakout Indie sensation came in the form of Lindsey Jordan otherwise known under her stage name as Snail Mail. Her songs on Lush register as being very tender and naive, all the while still independent to herself and very emotionally intelligent. The songwriting on this thing really sets it miles apart from may other of her peers, the songs just have a knack of working in a really fleshed out way that feels like they are constantly going places and not simply stagnating. Her songwriting talents do everything in her power to help accentuate just whatever it may be that Lindsay is choosing to harp on about. And it is obvious that she DOES want to be heard, so many of her peers are intentionally aiming lower for themselves with an intentionally lo-fi production and wonky musicianship. Lindsey named her album “Lush” for a reason it seems, these songs were surely trial-tested time and time again until we received the fine-tuned final project.
It is very apparent that every aspect of these tunes exists to complement the bigger picture, one can lean in and hear the backing instrumentation filling out the spaces of the song allowing for a grand experience built from grassroots song writing. Lindsey proves to be a very evocative songwriter with a bright future ahead of herself.
“Gonna Love Me” -Teyana Taylor
“Gonna Love Me” has some of the brightest and unconsciously animated songwriting that Neo-Soul has been provided in quite some time. The slicing and dicing of the beat gives a light breeziness to the track instead of surmounting to a mechanical feel, and the sampled vocal for the song is a much appreciated passage lifted from The Delfonics with a great melody that is immediately memorable. Teyana Taylor navigates her way through the track like a professional, carrying a similar finesse that an act like SZA might have. She smartly trades off singing for the chorus, letting the music do the heavy lifting instead before returning to sing her verses, intentionally building anticipation for her return to her own song. The song eventually winds down to a calm mellow, perfectly leading the listener to want to repeat the song and hear it again and again. “Now allow Miss Taylor to sing the blues.”
“Total Football” -Parquet Courts
Anyone who argues that Rock music is in dire times neds to keep their ear closer to the ground, since an act like Parquet Courts can only emerge from a genre that is inherently healthy and thriving. Bold and brash, Parquet Courts finest hour yet is the stylish Wide Awake. The group does partake in some Wire worship, but blends the sounds of yesteryear into their own personal plaything.
“Total Football” is a fantastic kickoff to the record, showcasing an immaculate understanding of what playing in a real rock band should sound like. The group is always intertwined together, featuring rattling hi-hats to a stiff motorik beat, travelling basslines, and some Strokes-ish guitar chords, it’s all there. The vocals seem to remind of The Clash, in both the snotty mid-throat grunt he uses and the sociopolitical works he weaves into the songs narrative. The rest of the band is backing him up of course, jumping in for backing vocals that further drive the song’s message home.The unsung hero of Wide Awake is the left-field choice of producer Danger Mouse, who absolutely slaughters his role in the outfit and elevates Parquet Courts to the sonic identity that they had always deserved. Wide Awake is a monumental leap forward for both the band and Rock music’s current topography, their growing popularity says plenty about the industry as a whole and the growth Parquet Courts had made to present such a project to the world.
“Four Out Of Five” -Arctic Monkeys
The biggest detour from the grandeur nature of Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, “Four Out Of Five” presents itself as the entire album’s most palatable offering; the closest thing to a rock radio single that the band could muster during this new era. Surprising enough, the song only benefits from this approach instead of compromising halfway. The instrumentation is filled with unique counterpoint, the feel of the song is carried by singer Alex Turner’s new found taste for Glam Rock vocal stylings. A common complaint from the Arctic Monkeys fancamp was the lack of melodicism on the album, but “Four Out Of Five” is a clear contradiction to this qualm as the song is catchy and infectious from even first listen. The storytelling is just as zany as the rest of the project, leading to many strange lyrical tidbits murmured on the track.
On an album where the vocals seem far removed from the music, it’s telling that one of the most inventive moments comes from the bridge sections tilting chord sequence, culminating in a request to “raise you up another semitone” before transforming the main chorus to a changed key, one that seems so drastically different from the home we started out in. Time will only tell if Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino will stand as a turning point for the group or as a beloved one-off cult fan favorite. Either way, it’s commendable that it even exists in the first place.
“The Joke” -Brandi Carlile
I’m kind of amazed that it was the Grammys of all sources who were the ones to shine a light on “The Joke”, one of the most brilliantly self-sufficient songs of the year. I seriously thought I’d been taking crazy pills all year round, as I had not heard ANYBODY talk about this song and how good it is. A shining example of perfection in vocal pop and singer/songwriter, the song is built up from humble instrumentation and intricately pieced together with tender love and care. The song builds, of course, to a fully grown explosion of sound, but even at a basic skeletal level the chord progression has so much weight to it that surely elicits a raw reaction alone. Brandi Carlile has a patiently domineering command over her song, fully realizing what makes this song ticks and works in perfect harmony with it, driving “The Joke” forward in all the right ways in very masterful ways.
Giving a vocal performance that rivals any of the greats, she belts without being showy and elevates everything to yet another level. It’s unclear if she penned the lyrics herself but she sells it either way, as there is clearly plenty of unfiltered emotion being projected to her words. While still sounding large, the backing instruments never clutter Brandi’s path. The vocal melody is surely through-composed against the chord movements, perfectly syncing up in a wildly fulfilling way and stretching the lengths of her range into the most interesting areas her voice can reach.
In 2018, it’s kind of unclear where a song like this can find it’s success as this particular brand of Pop isn’t prevalent to this generation. Even among Adult Contemporary or Easy Listening crowds, it proves to be just a little too off-center to comfortably make headway. “The Joke” instead is written in that timeless fashion that fuels so many other great performances. Out of step with current times, it’s greatest asset to a regular music-listening crowd is it’s sheer songwriting perfection, all put together by those with a knack for what makes transcendental music work.
“When You Die” -MGMT
Life sucks then ya die, but try to have a little bit of fun along the way. Not necessarily the newest ground for MGMT to tread, but “When You Die” dials the kookiness up and treats it all with a dose of sardonicness that feels so delightfully bitter. In a mostly guitar-free album, acoustic guitar makes its first appearance, choosing to play a line that’s teeter-tottering on dissonance, supplemented of course by keyboards playing plinking “China Girl” type phrases.
Any negativeness displayed in the lyrics is to be taken with an absolute grain of salt, this is one of the most fun songs you’ll hear all year. Echo laden vocals give an extra excitement to it all, the production is really treated as an instrument in itself on this song, and many others on the album. Of course, the sweetest moment on the entire song is directly after a gunshot rings out. The band takes it down a notch to play some sugary sweet chords filled with an unnerving canned laughter “We’ll all be laughing with you when you die”. For one reason or another, I think MGMT earned the right to be this sarcastic and strange, and their brightest moments are when they build entire songs out of this mentality.
“Ghost Town” -Kanye West
I dislike the fact that I need to preface songs like this; but this artist, Kanye West, is in fact #problematic. You know all the reasons and so do I, any more time dissecting the backstory of this artist is just wasting pixels and wasting your time. Controversies aside, the strides made on “Ghost Town” are of magnificent volume and is an unmistakably large accomplishment.
The music here sounds luscious and larger than life, all contrasted from the muted tinny sample used to open the song. Instrumentally speaking, this one seems most in step with the maximalism of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with it’s large octaver guitar, and billowing synth lines, all stacked up against the ever-prevalent sample running throughout the song. “Ghost Town” has great feature after great feature, Kid Cudi helps bring the chorus to life with his slurred affectations, giving an already brilliant track even more personality. His off-key nature only adds even more to the song actually, making sure than the rather perfectionist nature of the songwriting doesn’t come off as sterile. The man himself Kanye makes a rare sung verse, one that isn’t slathered with autotune and he actually aims to be on pitch and has a nature candor, you can tell he is really giving it his all and it is charming. The melody is quaint but scene setting, one verse is all he needs to provide the details the song needs.
The standout has got to be recent GOOD Music signee 070 Shake who adds her gorgeous voice to the outro section, which Kanye clearly saved the best for last. Her vocals switch between Lorde levels of disillusionment with that of a vocal line filled with strenuous desire and effortless power. Her section immediately turns the song to a new anthemic power, with the rallying cry “And nothing hurts anymore I feel kinda free/We’re still the kids we used to be/I put my hand on a stove to see if I still bleed”.
The mad man did it again, delivering another killer song that’s equally full of energy as it is with beauty.
“Pink Ocean” -The Voidz
Acting as one of music’s more off-hand Psychedelic songs, “Pink Ocean” is catchy and has a unique groove to it, stemming from a one-of-a-kind sound only made by The Voidz. A grimy and fuzzed out keyboard leads the majority of the song to an entrancing effect, constantly sounding like it is only moments away from fully glitching out. Presenting a sound that is more in touch with that of a production crew reminiscent of Doctor Octagon, the formation of “Pink Ocean” is still that of a fully functioning band.
It would have been so easy for this project to be Julian Casablancas and the faceless/nameless backup musician drones, but immense efforts have been made to make this a collective instead of an obvious vanity project. The band had even further retconned their name, as they’d previously been known as “Julian Casablancas and the Voidz” on their first album. Julian nestles into the track with ease, comfortably sliding into a suave falsetto that barely avoiding diving into “shrill” territory and proves to be an emotive spot for his voice. When the guitar does decide to stop in for a riff or two, it mainly provides a natural contrast to the overwhelmingly synthetic sound they’d been toying around with, giving a grounded sound with movements that still come off mysterious and lead the song into even newer ground. When the guitars do take lead, they’re genuinely reaching into groundbreaking places, harmonizing with itself in unorthodox anti-parallel choosing to venture into the more unusual aspects of a natural guitar sound.
As the band moves forward, I anticipate the guitarist to emerge as the star player as he seems to still be inventing on the instrument. Unlike some other clunkers on the album, “Pink Ocean” uses the bands uniqueness to the song’s assistance, all culminating in a breezy and infectious groove with a unique performance that is worth writing home about.
“Lives” -Daron Malakian and Scars On Broadway”
Following the dissolution of System of a Down, the world has become a much emptier place. Well, musically speaking at least, there has been a huge void left by their absence. The group lived fast and burned the candle at both ends, coming to a full halt in 2005 after releasing their final studio effort(s) in the double release of albums Mezmerize, and Hypnotize. The music of which clearly showed the band moving in very different directions with chief songwriters Serj Tankian and Daron Malakian writing vastly different styles of music from one another at the time, in such a way that heavily recalls the troubled White Album sessions. While a triumphant final hurrah, Mezmerize/Hypnotize can also be pinpointed as the portrait of a band falling apart at the seams. The group split ways and ventured on to their own music pursuits. Serj had turned to composing symphonic works in substitute of his rock band, making music greatly inspired by his Armenian culture and heavily indebted to the music stylings he had grown up with prior System; going as far to and publicly state he would be absolutely content with never singing ever again. Not a great thing to hear if you are a System fan, and a less awesome thing to hear if you are former System of a Down guitarist Daron Malakian.
Daron had stayed mostly out of the limelight since the breakup, briefly making a kitschy one-off album with fellow System drummer John Dolmayan with the name Scars On Broadway, but not much else has been heard from him since. However it would appear that he’s been brewing something up on the sidelines, crafting his own music in secrecy, and this year was when he decided to strap his boots on and go do this whole thing by himself entirely. Enter “Lives” to the scene, the lead single from a planned Daron Malakian album comprised of material he’d intended if SOAD were to reform (spoiler, they didn’t). A very welcoming sign was the slight rearrangement of the band name, this go-around it was billed as Daron Malakian and Scars On Broadway signalling that it would be a vast change from the prior Scars On Broadway album and probably tacked on for additional marquee value. The fact he put his name first and foremost showed that he had a real confidence in this music. “Lives” really shows what we’d been missing from the band for so long, Daron had kept his chops razor sharp and his songwriting has a new maturation to it. Written about a topic very close to home to him and for the entire band, it was written in response to the genocide of the Armenian diaspora.
The guitar work has a fantastically dancey rhythm and the harmonic nature of his playing is fresh and clearly hailing from some Eastern music, making the music stand out magnificently among his Metal contemporaries. His vocals assume a different responsibility as it is he that solely carries the song and he finds a nice balance to his sheepy voice and his more sturdy vocalisations. One of his naturally great skills is his harmonies in singing, which play a vital role in the best qualities of “Lives”, working to highlight the unique aspects of his vocal melodies among the rest of the song. Unfortunately, much of the full album never ascends beyond demo quality as he clearly envisioned his System buddies to be playing these songs with him, he instead has to step up to the plate much more than would be expected for an artist that wasn’t of Prince’s nature, let’s say. Still though, his strengths as a songwriter and performer far outweigh his shortcomings and I can only hope that he further refines his sound and releases more material to the world. Earlier this year, Serj released a very no-holds barred tell all, fully clearing the air about not ever going to record another System of a Down album ( full post is here), so it is that much more amazing we had some more material from the System creative fire. Memorable and packing a punch, it is great to have Daron behind the wheel again
“What’s the Use?” -Mac Miller
Mac Miller’s Swimming came out the same day as two other high octane rap releases, Travis Scott’s Astroworld and YG’s Stay Dangerous. So praise for the record wasn’t quite immediate, it just waited for the people who opened their eyes to it’s greatness to spread the word til it came back round to him. Legendary bass wizard Thundercat gives the track low end punch that it needs, an eccentric groove to catapult the song into a whole nother level. Mac uses his backpack rap expertise to lay down the mood for it all, after all, Mac Miller is king of vibe. The lyrics are poignant without being too flashy, all circling back around to Mac’s undeniable style to his raps. Unfortunately, much of the album discussion is over shrouded with his untimely death nearly 5 weeks afterward, casting a dreadful shadow that looms over the entire project. It is amazing that he was able to see how it connected with so many people while alive, and one wonders if he knew that this would end up being considered his masterpiece.
Dreampop at its most mature and cleverly put together, this song stands as one of the catchiest tracks of the entire year. Guitars shimmer bright and plunder along with the right-hand mastery of a Johnny Marr type, of The Smiths. Her guitars sound beautiful, whoever’s the sound engineer for Hatchie should get a serious raise for their work. Guitar tracks are stacked on top of each other creating a self-contained wall of sound, a pillowy backdrop for Hatchie’s lovely vocals to maneuver on top of. It is immediately clear that she is a natural born songwriter, she obviously knows how to make the most pleasing vocal lines she possibly can. Amazingly sung and the phrasing itself is immaculate, playing off the instrumental in all the right ways. Her vocal harmonies may not be the most brain meltingly complex but it is sheer pop perfection, scratching that perfect itch which makes the entire song come together more than it already has. The end coda is particularly fascinating as well, her multitracked pleas of “Do you even think about me?” that repeats over her continued chorus passage is another level of brilliance added to the fray. A surefire hit for any fans of The Cranberries, Hatchie flips the script and gives a very effective song that is sure to stick around.
“If You Know You Know” -Pusha T
If we were to look back at music in 2018, we may be most likely pinpoint this year as the emergence of the lightning-speed album experience. Coming off of the gluttonous stream-inducing onslaught of recent years, the first trendsetter on this year’s merciful runtimes was that of Bronx rap mogul Pusha T’s DAYTONA, a seven track album running at a brisk 23 minutes. Alas, Daytona stands strong among the competition for not wasting a single second of it’s runtime and inviting multiple listens without any possibility of overstaying its’ welcome. This industry reinvention has already been felt by the second half of the year with many other triple A artists adopting this approach, as fans tend to like when you leave them wanting more.
“If You Know You Know” acts as the album’s opening track, the first verse is among the most sparse on the entire project; proving it can still build immense anticipation and build mood with its short runtime. Good things come to those who wait, as the beat drop on this song is beyond sublime. On good speakers it bounces and sends shockwaves all in its’ vicinity. The beat is chopped and flipped with some meticulously made stabs on the track, notably with a cyclical guitar line that slices its way to the front of the mix.
The production/rapping are teamed up in perfect tandem, the beat rearranges itself just at the exact moments when it may seem Push might begin to run out of steam left to his own devices, always finding new ways to draw your attention back to the star of the hour: King Push. To say that Pusha T is a rap virtuoso is putting it lightly, the man had been around for years and has delivered some of the best verses of the entire decade thus far, but doubled with this production behind him he has never sounded fuller than he does now. “If You Know You Know” features his most inventive and creative bars, always pushing himself to climb to that next rank and outdoing his own high standard time and time again.
When all is said and done, I genuinely find DAYTONA to be my favorite album of the entire year as it just gives me reason after reason to keep going back to it. Everybody is working at their absolute peak and it amounts to an exhilarating fun listening experience.
“Satan In The Wait” -Daughters
Every moment on the record You Won’t Get What You Want is built to be an exhilarating experience, and lead single”Satan In The Wait” in particular proves to be so incredibly imaginative, with every band member bursting with new ideas to unleash. They never pull the same trick twice, every punch pulled is brought out of thin air and feels as fulfilling as each that precedes. It is a beautiful thing to see a Noise project that accomplishes everything that it was aiming for and more, and let it be known that Daughters sets their sights high. Still stirring emotions of fear and desperation, You Won’t Get What You Want is further elevated by the pure entertainment value that shines through these songs. While it is amazing how much emotional resonance the band is able to surmise, the songs are just so diabolically fun to let it leave you completely in the dark. Daughters show that we can break the rules and have a blast doing so.
“Satan In The Wait” is a monolithic achievement in an entire album flowing with brilliant songs, it wastes no time in building atmosphere and establishing the song’s direction. Inhuman guitar sounds permeate the songs, buzzing and flittering about the mix while fuzzed out bass takes prominence. Vocals are panicked and manic as one could imagine, evoking the ever present feeling of falling directly into harms way. During the chorus we hear something that is extremely new ground for the band, the song evolves into sections of genuine melody. Yes that’s right, the guitars change octaves and play soaring riffs echoing around a perceived harmonic line instead of pure texture like they’re prone to do. This contrast proves to be the yin to Daughter’s abrasive yang. It’s perfectly fine to feel terrified of Alexis Marshall’s shrieks of “This world is opening up!!!” you’d believe you’re falling with him, smiling all the way down.
“I Thought About Killing You” -Kanye West
The brilliance of Kanye’s eight studio album Ye is a mostly understated brilliance, often times so subtle that it may be easy to overlook. As part of his 23 minute long album rollout, ye rushes along at a few times on the record, maybe being the only release of the bunch that’s slightly hindered by short runtime. But opening track “I Thought About Killing You” takes its precious time to get going and builds up as it goes along. Written with precisely atmospheric scope, it leaves plenty of breathing room for the track to live in a state of purgatory for a while. The sound is inspired and open-ended, made with a mysterious low-pass vocal sample living behind in the background. The track occupying this space in preperation for an eventual moment to strike, but is not stressing about it. The end result almost feels Post-Rock in effect.
Kanye himself is also very restrained on this song, aiming to find just the right words to reach peak resonance with no filler left between. He chooses to cycle between a handful of phrases; phrases with heavy connotations that all elicit a purely emotional response from the listener. These words are thrown out there and it is the listener who chooses their own perception of it, purely independant to themselves. It operates similar to the artistry of chaotic Post-Punk spokenword gurus, I’m sure audiences in 1979 reacted in similar manner to John Lydon’s hectic murmured mantras on a Public Image Ltd track like “Albatross”, giving a few pieces of phrasing and letting it do all the talking necessary. I almost have to wonder if this is the approach Kanye envisioned when he’d announced his self-written philosophy book that was set to be released … entirely over tweets.
Let it be known that the entire ordeal shapes up to be strangely meditative, really shaping up to be a self-contained party of one. This is a man who can yell his mind from atop his mountaintop, built entirely from small fragments he collected himself and is enjoyed by… himself. And he allows us to peer into his own little world conjured up by a mind of its own.
“Marijuanaut’s Theme” -Sleep
The best Metal release of this year was not without it’s due patience in order to even get the damn thing. Sleep of course, are trailblazers in their genre, acting as the absolute Gold Standard of “Stoner Metal” and all things sludgy. Their past discography is the stuff of which legends are made of, the last the world had heard of the group in studio releases was the legendary Dopesmoker album, a famously 63 minute long album consisting of one single song released before immediately breaking up after.. until now.
With literally no forewarning, they surprise released their first album in twenty years The Sciences, and was able to do so completely on their own accord. As amazing it was they were able to release a brand new album with no hint beforehand in this internet day and age of leaks, it is even more astounding that it was able to completely live up to the hype. The record was obviously released on April 20th (har har) and once again proved why they are the granddaddies of their genre and why we should all bow down to their greatness.
“Marijuanaut’s Theme” is some of the sludgiest and brutally played as they’ve gotten, the main riff is mean and nasty as ever. And as the self-proclaimed “inhalers of the riff tree”, they really do keep finding new riff after new riff to throw into the fray. The band plays tighter than ever, playing plenty wild and loose enough to headbang to. Rhythms are droney yet constantly shifting away from each other creating a living breathing composition to their name. Sleep of course is no stranger to Black Sabbath idolization and they take these influences and build them up to their own pedestal while still paying respects along the way. Penultimate track “Giza Butler” is a knowing nod to the Sabbath bassist and is one of the groups finest moment. The guitarwork may be deceptively simple if you’re don’t pay enough attention, but once any solos kick in all bets are off the table. The guitar work on these solos obey to their own rulebook, leaving all listeners stuck scratching their heads wondering what just passed them by. A great surprise to this year in music that nobody expected, let’s hope that Sleep is back in action and will grace the world with more slippery jams soon enough.
“Respect Commander” -Jack White
Jack White’s Boarding House Reach was not a fundamentally broken project from the get-go. Where my disappointment turned to revilement was the waste of a saveable concept. Jack’s first glimpse of the album (minus the curious teaser track “Servings and Potions from my Boarding House Reach” that acts as a neat assembly of album snippets into a type of musique concrète) was the double release single of “Connected By Love” and “Respect Commander”. While the former song didn’t do much for me while still appearing be harmless and inoffensive, “Respect Commander” is the moment I knew this would be an entirely new sound album for Mr. White. Whereas the rest of the eventual record we were delivered comes off as hopelessly scatterbrained and half-baked at best, the formation of “Respect Commander” is all framed as a logical progression. The noises here are all truly inventive, scouring the depths of the audio creativity rabbit hole that Jack dives down into. Opening with a drumbeat ripped straight from Hendrix’s “Little Miss Lover” , (which Jack White seems to be in love with recently), the assault of guitars overtake the sound and drive it into an ultra crazy direction. One or two tempo shifts later, and we have been exposed to enough unique sounds to fuel a lesser artists entire album, lest we not even crack the two minute mark yet. Faux orchestral hits, ghostly guitar wails, & momentary acoustic guitar hammer-ons enter the frenzy, mostly popping in and out for barely seconds at a time.
By the time we can relax with a much needed tempo slowdown, it would be forgivable to forget that there were even supposed to be vocals on this cut. Acting as the calm after the storm, Jack completely controls this new section of the song perfectly by tying this loose fragment into the song’s larger ouvere. Of course, a calm like this can only last for so long on a cut like this as the dynamics wrap up and Jack’s guitar becomes absolutely demented, embodying Jack White’s everlasting pursuit of attaining the sound of his guitar actively melting inside of his hands.
While I really wanted to love this album and eventually didn’t, I cannot deny the brilliant moments that do lie on this project, few and far between as they may be. Alas, this is what makes Boarding House Reach such a frustrating pursuit for myself, “Respect Commander” and “Over And Over And Over” showcase what this new stylistic endeavor sounds like when done well and it is gorgeous, making the weaker songs look that much worse in comparison. “Respect Commander” is a highpoint for Jack White’s mad scientist approach to music making and is a standout moment for music in this decade so far.
“The Games We Play” -Pusha T
Behold, the best sounding Rap beat of the entire year. Kanye does this beat dirty, using his Chipmunk Soul wizardry to unearth a slinky R&B instrumental that sounds like it was dug up from the lowliest penny & nickel labels of the day. The chopping is more masterful than ever, with these instruments stabbing and colliding with real ubiquity. The noises on this beat cross paths in an unfathomably effective way, the plinking piano octaves present themselves at most opportune times in relation to other counterparts in the instrumental, it is wild how this was able to all come together.
It would be fun to discuss the do-hows of the beat coming together, but Kanye welds these all together in favor for it’s featured artist as the music sounds as beefy and filled with underworld grime as Pusha T’s unrelenting gangbanging bars. In an entire album filled with endless quotables, “The Games We Play” might just be his most professionally written of the entire bunch, every line strings together in a way that only continues to elevate the entirety of his raps and gives the impression of this all being a larger story. DAYTONA is possessing an unblinkingly persona defying music/rap combo that works on a similar level to Run The Jewels 2, being unafraid to show the monsters rapping on the track with a true ferocity.
“No jewelry on but you richer than everybody, you laugh a little louder, the DJ say your name a little prouder and we don’t need a globe to show you the world is ours. These are the games we play, these are the names we say, this is the drug money your ex claim he makes.”
Still incredibly fun, the seriousness begins to emerge from the shadows and Push’s dark mafioso vibes become inseparable to his persona, letting his listeners know early on in his album how he is not to be reckoned with. Playing with the duality of Rap successes and drug dealer downfalls that manifested on DAYTONA’s infamous album cover depicting the late Whitney Houston’s crackpipe littered bathroom, Pusha balances these qualities in a way that could only be managed by himself, boasting about his trials and error to get him on his celebrity platform while inducing a fear of what made him. “”This ain’t for the conscience, this is for the mudmade monsters.” he boasts, painting a clear picture of the forces that birthed this new music renaissance for the man. PUUUUUSHH.
“Black Coffee” -Beth Hart, Joe Bonamassa
The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup, but Folgers can only take you so far. What really is needed is a scalding cup of coffee to the face, which is precisely what is delivered from an unexpectedly effective collaboration between vocal belter Beth Hart and American Blues guitarist virtuoso Joe Bonamassa. There is no time for small talk here, as the fierce “Black Coffee” immediately shoots to kill. In between Beth’s frantic vocal melismas there no time for resting on the song, along with many sections only featuring three beats to a bar the performers are always finding new ways to drive it forward more and more. Despite the usual pitfalls of attempting Blues or Soul in a modern age, hindsight is on the performers side as they weave in and out of genre norms and let both of their individual personalities shine through in a wonderfully natural manner.
The full band also gives a very evocative performance, all members finding ways to bring something excellent to the mix and all gelling in a very exciting way. But it truly is still Beth Hart that steals the show, her forceful singing is a fiery excursion that’s overdriven to 11 and puts her money where her mouth is. The band ducks and dives beneath her, while she draws all the attention towards her performance, showcasing as a real ham for the microphone. You can tell she’s really living up the lyrics for the song as she delivers a mean swagger.
“Here in America where it’s the land of the free, you can get what you want if you got some Do Re Mi/Black Tea is as good as it can be but it’s a cup of Black Coffee that a working man needs to see.”
Grabbing her audience by the jugular, she’s got a similarly unhinged ferocity that could be found from Tina Turner on her best efforts, like the groovy “Nutbush City Limits”. Sometimes it can just be an electrifying performance that pushes a song over the edge into greatness, and “Black Coffee” is the most worthy candidate for the honor.
“Everybody’s Coming To My House” -David Byrne
Commanding a tapestry of unique sounds, David Byrne assembles anything and everything he has at his disposal into an Art-Rock masterpiece. Ex-Talking Heads songwriter comes through with his first solo effort since 2004, although he had done lovely collaboration albums with St. Vincent and Brian Eno (A journalist at Pitchfork once cracked that David Byrne would collaborate with anybody for a bag of Doritos)
Perfectly culminating his long and varied career up to this point, it becomes clear that the assembly of “Everybody’s Coming To My House” could not have existed at any other time in Byrne’s career. Many years of adding new components to his toolkit allowed him to utilize it all on this magnum opus and in the process reminds everybody what makes David Byrne such a force to be reckoned with. He’d given many reasons to assume his music intelligence through the years, obviously, but a clear indication of such music knowledge can be found in the wonderful book he wrote, with the simple title “How Music Works”. Acting more as a written philosophy on music, Byrne showcases his vast knowledge of nearly all aspects of music, from inner-industry workings, how each generation of technology shapes the music being made, to the selling of music as a commodity versus that of art and the importance of each market. Since this song comes on the first album made since he unleashes this book, it gave further insight to his artistic process and allow his fans to truly feel they understand just where he is coming from.
“Everybody’s Coming To My House” is a song comprised of great “little moments”, tiny snippets that all elevate the song in one way or another, each sounding completely unique and different. Byrne controls the fundamentally strange elements to be palatable and natural for the song; it’s difficult to imagine another song of this nature that can pause for a blippy keyboard playing a direct bossa nova passage, but here we are. The chords that carry the song also have plenty of weight to them, perfectly suggesting these embellishments to only add to it all. Byrne taps into his innate charm which glows through the track, somewhat channeling the Roxy Music charm due to past and previous collaborations with Brian Eno (you can hear him pop in for a harmony during the bridge). Just when you thought you couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks, David pulls through with yet another divine career reinvention.
“Little Dark Age” -MGMT
Who on Earth would have guessed that 2018 would be the year of MGMT? The band had already let it be known to even the most casual consumers that they’d be intentionally performing acts of commercial suicide from their debut album until the foreseeable to such a degree that even many of their most devout fans jumped ship. But the group had found a way to meet halfway between their most artiste aspirations and their inescapable talent for Pop songwriting that’s always been riddled with more hooks than a fishing expo. An 80’s Synthpop reinvention was the perfect excuse for them to access all their best qualities while still being able to drive themselves back into the hearts of modern audiences. The title track of Little Dark Age is the pièce de résistance, exploding into new heights of baffling quality and ingenuity that needs to be heard to be believed.
I mostly try to avoid the phrase “instant classic”, but there was nary any other way for me to describe this song upon initial listen. “Little Dark Age” works on the level of many untouchable classics, where not a single element can be altered without all the songs magic disappearing altogether. MGMT created a song that feels like there was no way it could have been a created out of a conscious effort but instead a beautiful instance where it surely poured out of them from some higher power, the group acting just as vessels for this songs existence into this material world. Synths are used to give a dark and sinister mood that permeates the entire song, a bold sound that is inescapable and expansive.
The production value only accentuates the purpose of the track, the scared echo on the vocals give everything an uncanny valley feeling only further driven home by the harrowing lyrical content. The lyrics are cryptic and prophetic, demanding multiple listens to reveal itself. The lyrics altogether do not always make sense but are more suggestive than anything else, leading to new clues and contextual ideas of the entire song as a whole, much is the mark of a great song. A song that exists as though it has been around since time itself, “Little Dark Age” may very well stand as a definitive chapter of music in our time.
“Black Paint” -Death Grips
The most dangerous sounding song of 2018, Death Grips come through with an insanely entertaining assault to the senses that signals a further evolution for the band’s sound and a wide leap forward for all of music in itself. Through a career of envelope pushing music, Death Grips turns in an aggressive and immediate adrenaline rush, channeling that of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” in a sense. The trajectory of Death Grips only further cements them as avant wizards, slowly devolving an already unique sound into something truly peculiar and incomparable to any other band.
There is a wide array of kaleidoscopic sounds which unfolds in the background of the song that almost acts as flipping stations through a Mexican radio (obligatory song reference here), each noise is strangely placed and increasingly provocative. Amongst a sea of propulsive guitars, lightly sprinkled keyboards ring with bell-like tones, simulating the sirens lying out on the shore ahead. Big personality of the band MC Ride matches the aggro mood built before him, having his yells supplemented by some reverse echo on his voice. Kind of shocking, this is a rare Death Grips song without any profanity, so this is obviously a perfect candidate for the next Kidz Bop CD. It is inevitable that the song eventually morphs into further cacophony, keyboards glitch out and stick around in a minor key that only tangentially seem related to where the rest of the band lies (recalling the past bubbly synth sound of “Eh”).
Instead of simply being written off as “uneasily digestible”, “Black Paint” possesses an immediateness to it that is sure to elicit a primal reaction. and registers as a purely animalistic experience. It’s been confirmed that the Grips collaborated with Justin Chancellor on this project, Justin of course being the prolific bassit of Prog-Metal titans Tool. His exact appearance on the record has been secretive but many fans speculate that it is him delivering the crunched out bassline on “Black Paint”.
I’d say it’s an eventuality to claim the band had finally detoured into Punk Rock territory, claiming the Punk ethos for many years but fully realising the abrasive scope of the genre on this track. The driving nature of the song brings to mind the single note fury of Ministry’s Industrial classic “Jesus Built My Hot-Rod” featuring Gibby Haynes’ blabbering vocals, Gibby of course hailing from the band who shall not be named (Just a hint, radio personality Casey Kasem infamously had to refer to his band as the “B-H. Surfers”).
The song is energy in its purest form and continues the Death Grips mantra of using excessive experimentation solely in the name of creating their idiosyncratic art.
“Plastic Hamburgers” -Fantastic Negrito
And for my number one pick of the entire year: I choose Fantastic Negrito’s “Plastic Hamburgers”, a song by a dude that you probably have never heard of. Before you get out your pitchforks, this list is entirely based on my personal enjoyment I squeeze out of these songs, and there was not a single song I thought was more amazing than “Plastic Hamburgers” by Fantastic Negrito. Of all 2018, this was the only song I heard that stopped me dead in my tracks upon hearing it. It didn’t take long either, ten seconds in I had to compose myself and come to grips with what it was I was hearing. It comes off as so immediately fresh, a true breath of fresh air for the genre that I couldn’t dare ignore. The song marches to its own beat, coming with a massively confident sound that will be sure to convince any party of the song’s greatness.
Fantastic Negrito shows to be a true force of personality, driving his music to his own pace and ensuring that his character reigns through. His showmanship draws a direct line to Prince worship, you simply can’t take your ears off the man. His backstory is the stuff of folklore legend, he suffered a devastating nearly fatal car crash that left him in a coma for three weeks. When he awoke, he claimed the experience revitalized him and convinced him set forth and pursue his passion of becoming a Blues musician. You can even see a photo of him in his hospital bed on the album cover, along with titling it Please Don’t Be Dead, it is clear that this was a rebirth for the man.
Judging by the immense strength of this song and it’s respective album Please Don’t Be Dead, I have little doubt that Fantastic Negrito will only continue to grow in clout from here on out. The simplest way I can put it is that Fantastic Negrito is the best band that you are not listening to. During his live act, he closes out his show by proclaiming “There may be many other negritos out there, but there is only one FANTASTIC Negrito” and I’ll be damned if he wasn’t speaking the truth.
I sincerely hope you enjoyed my picks for this list and I want to thank you for reading this far! Hopefully it shows that plenty of love and care was put into compiling these songs and making the best playlist I possibly could to represent this year of music. Music is a great thing worth living for and sharing my thoughts felt like the least that I could do.
If you’d like to hear more from me, I have a show on KPSU called Left of The Dial where I play deep cuts from the classic age of vinyl and beyond, alongside another show called Thoroughly Modern Mondays where I play the best songs I’d heard from recent memory. Many songs that ended up on this list here were first played on that show actually.
Anyways, consider this A Christmas Gift To You, From Left of the Dial. Here’s to making sure that we all have new and fresh music in our life and to keep learning about what we love. Keep your eyes to the stars and your ear to the radio.