I took a moment to write up some color commentary on my favorite new music from 2018. Please excuse the over-the-top flowery language, this is primarily an exercise for me to practice longer form writing. Interestingly enough, this list looked very different when I began writing but upon attempting to articulate what was special about each song and why, it became apparent what should be included and where it should be placed.
2018 was an excellent year in music for me personally. I did quite a bit more exploration than I've done in recent years which is why I wanted to document it in this kind of more detailed format.
10. boy pablo - tkm
Bedroom pop. Dreampop. Whatever you want to call it, we want more of it, especially from the rising Norwegian musician Nicolás Pablo Rivera Muñoz. I caught wind of boy pablo in late 2017 when I heard "Yeah (Fantasizing)" and I was instantly hooked. But compared to the many other artists making music in this vein, boy pablo seems to stand out and until today I couldn't place my finger on why.
For the last half hour I've been sitting in bed, guitar in lap, "tkm" on loop, noodling along in an attempt to try to wrap my head around why I feel so attracted to this track. Right away, I realized the melody is very simple, but it's performed so expressively, seeming to sing like a human voice over the (also very simple) substrate harmony. I'm immediately reminded of Jeff Beck's Blow by Blow or Wired where his guitar performance takes on vocal characteristics. Muñoz's approach with "tkm" focuses the energy of the track into a climaxing instrumental section where the guitar is repeating the same 6 notes over and over as it slowly fades into darkness. A genius stylistic twist on typical poprock vocal outros like the classic "Na na na" outro of The Beatles - "Hey Jude". Muñoz employs the 'vocality of the guitar' brilliantly, because as you'll notice, there are no lyrics in the whole second half of the song.
I'll be singing along to "tkm", "Yeah (Fantasizing)", and "Ready / Problems" into 2019, sorry in advance.
9. Men I Trust - Seven
Last year I was really in a stint with psychedelic rock. My friends even made fun of me saying that the phaser was my favorite instrument. This year it's clearly all about folky female vocalists singing bedroom-pop playing Jazzmasters. It's literally half of this list. So here we are with another one. "Seven" by Men I Trust is just one of a handful of excellent singles they've released this year and I cannot get enough of this track. An absolutely groovin' bassline, jazzy 7th chords drenched in chorus modulation, and a scorcher of Santana-esque outro solo that rolls off into the distance as the track volume fades.
Since their debut album in 2014, Men I Trust hasn't found a home stylistically. Their recent singles really venture off into uncharted sonic territory and I couldn't be more intrigued for what a full length project sounds like.
8. Soccer Mommy - Cool
Interestingly, the most captivating thing about Soccer Mommy and this track in particular is warmth. Fuzzy, lo-fi guitar tones and a washed-out rhythm section that feel like holding a bowl of soup in the winter. Somewhat like that bowl of soup there is something delicate and fragile about their record Clean.
I got turned on to their 2017 album Collection last year and I was so happy to see they continued innovating and experimenting beyond their bedroom pop roots. The soccer mother, Sophie Allison, has clearly taken her narrative songwriting to the next level. Songs like "Cool" paints these wonderful vintage-feel vignettes, like you're watching a 90s VHS tape home video your dad recorded. Grab a Capri-Sun, sit back and listen to your childhood on Clean.
7. Jungle - Beat 54
I've been a Jungle 'stan' since the first time I heard the harmonies on "Julia" from their self-titled debut Jungle. Since then, the duo has taken their time putting out a record, even worrying some of us to a point where we didn't think it was ever going to happen.
But in 2018 they delivered with one of the most fun releases of the year. Every song off their sophomore album For Ever makes me wish I could keep my falsetto on pitch the way frontmen Tom McFarland and Josh Lloyd-Watson can. The duo captures an instrumental darkness similar to James Blake but replaces his airy qualities with a more joyous and playful surf-feel. "Beat 54" in particular has rich layers of vocal harmony that feels like an darker electronica-infused evolution of 1960s "pop" groups like the Mamas And The Papas and The Beach Boys. I encourage you to check out their September interview they did with Noisey.
6. Heat Wave
And I hope whoever it is, holds their breath around you, because I know I did
Lindsay Jordan has a lot to say. Lindsay Jordan is 19—a fact I'm sure she's tired of people pointing out. As a songwriter, guitarist, and the face of the band Snail Mail, she's able to articulate complex and profound emotion with her music in a holistically compelling manner that is doesn't seem possible for someone who just graduated high school. There's nothing one-dimensional about her music. "Heat Wave" is a haze—a dream sequence consisting of lyrics floating over a landscape of reverb-washed chords. Chaotic swells of fuzzed-out tones coming from her cherry red Fender Jaguar, tossing the energy high into the air and letting fall back to Earth, back to the lull of tender chords and soft-spoken regret.
There are plenty of great interviews with her about her influences and inspiration on the Snail Mail debut Lush, so I'll let you check those out on your own, but I will say this: I had a very hard time not putting three different songs from Lush on this list (particularly "Pristine" and "Anytime"). We'll wait patiently for more music, Lindsay.
5. Venice Bitch
Paint me happy and blue
There are very few artists that have the capacity of conjuring images of the past the way Lana Del Rey can. Since her breakout Born To Die Lana has pulled us back into the 1950s and 1960s with an unwavering duality present all of her music, "Venice Bitch" is no exception—there's something sinister and forlorn swimming beneath the faded sun-washed California surface.
I listen to "Venice Bitch" and picture Lana driving through the desert, donning a large-brimmed straw sun hat and a pale green polka-dotted dress that matches the chipping paint job of her 66 T-Bird. She's Thelma and Louise. Everything is spectacularly beautiful, but you're just waiting for it all to go to hell.
Lana has always had a bit of an experimental edge but "Venice Bitch" is a clear departure into a new territory. The song is essentially void of structure, relying on erratic synthesized noise and arhythmic textures to evoke emotion more so than repeated melodic or lyrical content like every other song she's ever made. Unlike Thelma and Louise, the song isn't driving off a cliff. It really isn't driving anywhere—as a matter of fact, it appears like Lana is just exploring. She seems complacent. Happy even? Though like always, there's something dark swirling deep within the textures of "Venice Bitch". Something is waiting to erupt. Maybe we'll see in the follow up tracks we're hoping for in 2019.
4. Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Not in Love We're Just High
Each year I've become more convinced that Unknown Mortal Orchestra, frontman Ruban Nielson in particular, are going to be to viewed in the rear view mirror as one of the most interesting acts of this decade. Over the last seven years they've made literally every kind of song you could imagine. Garage-grunge in their 2011 self-titled debut album, soft folky pop with jazz brushes on the drumkit on 2013's II, and jazzy electropop on 2015's polyamory inspired Multi-Love. (Not to mention their most recent work: a seven track acid-rock fusion "mixtape" IC-01 Hanoi that they recorded in Vietnam?).
Sex and Food is one of those albums where I've been obsessed with a different song off it as each month passes. I easily could swap out "Not in Love We're Just High" for 5 different songs from this album—I really love it that much—however, I settled on this track for one reason.
Block by block the tension in "Not in Love We're Just High" builds up to the sky. Almost the entirely of the song is spent resting on one synthesizer chord riff that bounces along, slowly accumulating weight and tension, like the track is falling forward toward something. Syncopated hihats and echoing vocals intensify and an explosive drum fill signals the beginning of the end. The drum fills continue to swirl as the bass enters for the first time pushing the tension even higher and the cymbals crash in circles around your head. And then at 3m09s everything shatters as Nielson executes a flawless vocal run on the word 'mind' that resolves all of the tension. At that point, I'm done listening to the song, my brain is fighting to holding onto those notes.
We're not in love
We're just halfway out of our mind
Focusing in on this hyper-specific point may feel little bit like when your high school literature teacher got hung up analyzing F. Scott Fitzgerald's description of the 'green light' in the ending of The Great Gatsby, but I'm completely serious—this song is great because of those 4 notes that he glides between on one word that we've been waiting for this entire time.
There was an interesting video I saw that explains this concept, how inherently coupled tension and release are with our expectations of harmony. I'll do a disservice to the theory so just go watch the video. "Not in Love We're Just High" rewards repeated listening as one grows more and more familiar with the building tension and the sublime resolution that we know is waiting at the top of the ride.
3. Haley Henderickx - Worth It
So put me in a line
Add another line
Soon you'll have a box
And you can put me inside
Haley Henderickx was provided per recommendation from a friend and my god this song is pure madness. The quality of the tone she plays with, the finger-picking, smooth glissandos—Haley Hendrickx performed the instrument tracks on I Need To Start A Garden while she was singing. And that's the just first thing.
While the entire album is a songwriting tour de force, "Worth It" is a masterclass in arrangement. A 7m54s song, Hendrickx switches back and forth, walking and sprinting us through a journey of self-doubt. Dynamics swelling and falling with the lyrics. Distortion on the lead guitar blasting atop dissonant textures as the contempt climaxes into resignation. Her consistent use of juxtaposition of the timbral characteristics of the spunky acoustic tone and the massive reverb on a electric guitar cements the narrative. Manic self-doubt. It's fucking punk folk.
This has to be one of the best songs I've heard in a long time.
2. Lucy Dacus - Night Shift
Artists like Dylan, Springsteen, Bowie, and Joan Baez, have their place in history because of their ability to take you to a time and place with a few words, few chords, within a few minutes. In just six minutes, Lucy Dacus pours her heart out, painting an unmistakable portrait. Confusion following a split with an unfaithful partner and manic swings between apathy and violent rage. A resolution to avoid someone until you forget they exist. "Night Shift" is the one the best love songs I've ever heard. It's a distillation of a painful truth—forgetting broken love is futile, but attempting to is necessary.
This is obviously a subjective list and ranking, and I probably could have made it less subjective if I had omitted this song. Every verse takes me to places that I've tried to forget.
You've got a 9 to 5, so I'll take the night shift
And I'll never see you again if I can help it
There's no contempt at the end of this song. Just hope that someday in the future she'll be able to look back on the memories fondly, like they're not even a part of her experiences. Something about her voice feel like she's accepting that it's futile, but maybe that's just me projecting myself. Maybe I'm just too close to it.
1. boygenius - Salt In The Wound
I make the magic and you unrelentingly ask for the secret
I finally know what it's like to be a hysterical fan of something. To be completely honest, I'm not sure I've ever actually obsessed over anything in my life. Not until boygenius at least. In November and few friends and I spent two nights at Thalia Hall seeing Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers for their cross-country boygenius tour and it was unlike any performance I've ever seen. Everyone in the crowd is dead silent just trying to hold themselves together during each set.
When they came out together for their group set they played straight through the EP and each song was magnificent. After the closing chords of "Stay Down", they immediately launched in "Salt In The Wound". It was the moment I had been waiting for the entire night. Actually, the last two weeks leading up to that night. Julien finished her verse and kicked on the distortion and began just absolutely shredding the outro while Lucy held out the last line.
They say the finish line is in your sights
What they don’t say is what's on the other side
They say the hearts and minds are on your side
I got chills up and down my entire body, I was smiling from ear-to-ear, and I could feel my eyes begin water. Everyone is granted a few of these of moments in their life, where we are not so subtly reminded that it's possible for seemingly arbitrary words and seemingly arbitrary actions to be beautiful and powerful beyond explicable reason. Even now, as I have this song on repeat, I'm picturing the stage lights illuminating as the chorus rings out and I can't help but feel lighter.
There are a ton of interviews they've all done which I 100% recommend—if you're into ASMR, just listen to Julien talk. Do yourself a favor and put on the boygenius EP and walk around your city (safely) at night.