Daniel Blumberg - Minus
Low - Always Trying to Work It Out
Wye Oak - It Was Not Natural
Thin Lips - Gaslight Anthem
BROCKHAMPTON - Tape
“Y’all brave on the web keep it in the comments”
VETERAN is full of glitchy beats that slide into grooves almost accidentally. You’ll be listening to the choppy, chaotic samples until they slowly come together like a jigsaw and reveal a full picture. “Real Nega” stands out by being the exception, which takes an ODB sample from what is essentially a song intro skit and turns it into a blistering, raw but organic beat that makes you feel like you’re slowly going insane. All the while, JPEGMAFIA raps like he’s running downhill. His targets are numerous — people, websites, concepts — such that you half expect him to call you out personally.
“I’m only the skim of what’s already been / I know every tense in which I cannot exist”
“Skim” is a deeply introspective, shrouded song and, if you’re susceptible to that kind of thing, it can swallow you whole. Musically, it’s the ideal slow burn: we start in a haunted place, a verse that stalks in the night, and gradually alleviate that tension by introducing slow synth-fronted beats and melodies. The build up serves to bestow importance to a key refrain: “There’s no unlit corner of the room I am in.” The dark corners of the mind are not accessible to everyone, but we’re asked to imagine the terror of what constant exposure to them is like. The mind that knows itself cannot leave the things that ail us alone.
“We go / because it’s the only place that we know”
The new Natalie Press goes a few places, most of them jazzy and upbeat, but “The Fire” is the distilled version that shows you what the album can be at its best. It’s full of musical turns and moments that you’ll recognize from classics across the ages, but combining them with modern songwriting sensibilities make it a delight to listen to.
“Left my heart out somewhere running / wanting strangers to be mine”
Every time Beach House puts out an album, I pray that they get to that apex they reached on TEEN DREAM. In 2018, they still haven’t, but a pretty good Beach Hous album is still better than most of the indie music you’ll come across. “Drunk in LA” is a song I want to listen to in a haze at a warehouse some day, but listening to it after a single glass of wine on the train will have to do for now. It’s the perfect vibe fit for cosmopolitan melancholy or intoxicated nostalgia.
“Why did I come here? To sit and watch you stare at your feet? / What was the plan? Absolve your guilt and shake hands?”
Lucy Dacus is one of the most talented narrative songwriters in the biz. “Night Shift” is more than just an expression of an emotion, it’s an entire break-up monologue, crammed into 6 minutes, without any of the hokey exposition that plagues other narrative songwriting. Small chunks of it would fit into a musical, and it would instantly be the best musical ever made. But Dacus’ greatness comes through thanks to her ability to her ear for the crescendo, and “Night Shift” is a showcase. Four minutes into the song, these blown out, fuzzy guitars wash into the song, contrasting with the cleanliness of her voice as it sings out her singular, outgoing wish to the universe: “In five years, I hope the songs feel like covers / dedicated to new lovers.”
“Sometimes the truth feels worse / but it has a need / a need to be heard.”
There are moments when I am certain that Cloud Nothings is the best living rock band. One of these moments is the entirety of “Offer an End.” The sense of urgency built through rhythm and structure gives the song a feeling of not only doom, but bravery in the face of that doom. As always, Cloud Nothings is great at using repetition to exhaust all emotional energy left, like maxing out reps at the gym. The finale of “Offer an End” feels like all we have left, the final push of the fighting spirit.
“I hope the love you find / swallows you wholly / like you said it might.”
What is indie rock in 2018? It’s easier to point to a band like Snail Mail than it is to get down in paper. “Heat Wave” is introspective song writing, overflowing with intangible wanting, and squeezes out some real breathtaking moments from the age old conventional set up of guitars, bass and drums.
“Calling her weak when my mama prayed / prolly why none of my karma came”
The whole construction of this album as an episode of Big Boy’s Neighborhood is wild and I still laugh at the weirdness of hearing teases for “Brand New Tyga” on Spotify. “Tweakin’” closes FM! with what Vince Staples does best, and that’s write the shit out of paranoid episodes. It’s utterly consuming until, of course, Big Boy chimes in and tells you to stick around. What a fucking choice.
“Don’t move back to LA / don’t get your license back / don’t cut your intake back”
This reinvention of Okkervil River feels like it works. At least, it should be rewarded. It’s as if they took a cue from Tame Impala’s psychedelic sound that brought them real mainstream success and incorporated it into their folk-heavy sensibilities. There are songs that sound legitimately shocking coming from this band, like the Carly Rae Jepsen-aping “Love Somebody,” but the best song overall is the near and dear “Don’t Move Back to LA.” Lyrically, Will Sheff avoids his tendency for overwriting and has crafted a polished, simple but slick jam. Imagine that! An Okkervil River jam.
“I’m the only fan of yours / who has the sense to ever leave you be”
In some way, “The Songwriter” is the inevitable conclusion to what Father John Misty became after I LOVE YOU HONEYBEAR. On that album, Josh Tillman repeatedly mined the intimate and the personal for song fodder. The end result was often a perfect love song, but along the way it bumped into brutal confessions of selfishness and disdain. “The Songwriter” is about the cost all the people on this list pay: the churning of life experience & personal relationships into self-serving musical commodities. This is Josh Tillman at his best. He writes plain spoken truths layered with cynicism, but before it collapses under that weight, he delivers us relief: “What would it sound like if you were the songwriter? / and loving me was your unsung masterpiece?” It’s a pure, idealistic sentiment that only cynics can access, because cynics are the remains of the hopeful, beaten down by the world.
“Into a light that I once knew / I swam deep and thought of you”
Porches is an odd band to me. Aaron Maine is not what I’d call a great songwriter, and is often a subpar one. For example, he’s been reusing the same obvious metaphors over several songs across two albums now. His hooks are sometimes awkwardly written such that you wonder if this is a Norwegian band or something. But man, can he put sparse synths and guitars together to make a killer groove. His music thrives entirely on vibes & style more than craft, but god damn it, it works. “Goodbye” is like candy, and it’s delicious. The slow build up to a dance break release is a tried and true move, sure, but so what? I love the truth.
“The Lord is my shepherd / I am not sheep / I am just a short stone’s throw from the streets”
Pushs 2018 will forever be remembered for altering the life and career arc of the world’s biggest rapper, but before doing that, he also put out a pretty good album. It’s more pop & polish than MY NAME IS MY NAME, and while that’s a smart commercial decision it doesn’t emphasize the grittiness that makes Pusha T great. “Santeria” is one of the few tracks that seems like it would fit right in with his 2013 albums and the turns it takes over 3 minutes are a real thrill.
“Dumbfounded, downtrodden and dejected / Crestfallen, grief-stricken and exhausted”
As a January 1 release, I wondered how long my love for this song would last over 365 days. Turns out: pretty long! “USA” is Jeff Rosenstock’s cathartic anthem, a quick hit for the world-sickness that old glory inspires in the Trump era. The moment the guitar screeches in sweeps me away every time. It’s emo grown up and dejected, aimed not at teenage relationships, but the undeniable feeling that the world is already in its endgame.
“You are a Topshop tyrant / Even your haircut’s violent”
IDLES was a genuine revelation for me this year and JOY AS AN ACT OF RESISTANCE is genuinely one of my favorite hardcore/punk albums of the year. A lot of my psychic stress and despair in 2018 came from the dire political landscape; IDLES helped me get out of bed on the most nauseous days. They present a vision of punk that’s empathic yet vicious towards our enemies. They write songs about immigrant rights and feminism, while kicking Tories in the mouth. All of this is to say that their songs don’t just settle for the thrill of being anti-fascist, and they work just as hard at being proactive in exercising their humanity. It’s how I aspire to live.
“Palms kept white hot / gold rings fold like a / knot tied / sweat leave / sleep / take me now”
The best live show I went to in 2018 was Foxing at The Troubadour. I bought tickets to that show immediately after hearing “Grand Paradise,” because I could tell this song would punch me in the mouth live. I was not wrong. I wrote about them extensively earlier this year and how they sound like a potential course that ties indie rock sensibilities to a more mainstream radio-friendly style. They still aren’t playing the SuperBowl but I hold on to hope. As far as “moment of the year,” no one beats the explosive moment 3 minutes into this song. You should’ve seen it in person.
“My heart will always find you when your heart freely sings / Mine will never bind you with a diamond or a word / when the eye gets heavy in the womb.”
If I wasn’t constraining myself to albums released in 2018, a Big Thief album would be #1 on my list. This year I dove fully into this band and found their lead singer, Adrianne Lenker, to be a powerful and rare songwriter. Big Thief didn’t release an album this year, but Lenker did, and while it’s more stripped down and folksy, it was still a strong contender for the year. The songs on ABYSSKISS are acoustic ruminations and exemplary songwriting forms, forcing you to reckon with the words and craft. They are precise, vivid, with emotional treasure that reveals itself the more you invest and concentrate. There aren’t a ton of songwriters that are worth this study.
“It takes so long for me to settle down / and when I finally do, there’s no else around / so I stay down”
This supergroup of Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers reminded me a lot of Monsters of Folk, the last indie supergroup to make such a splash. Their work was a bit awkward as they tried to give each songwriter a turn and sometimes BOYGENIUS has that same flaw. Still, it contains some kick ass songs that sound like beloved B-sides from each of these artists. My affinity for “Stay Down” is rooted in liking Julien Baker’s work the best. Her heartache always rings loudly and no one can sing, full-throated and wild, like her.
“When you choose to go / i resume my little lower road”
Living with guilt is always an enticing subject for love songs because you can approach it with brutal self-honesty. It fits snugly in the tradition of self-flagellating emo. I don’t mean that to sound diminishing to “Prior Things,” but Frances Quinlan’s most affecting work is always about taking herself to task (“Young and Happy,” “Tibetan Pop Stars.”) The passion invoked when singing about guilt unleashes her voice, the most amazing instrument in the band. Her parting line, “your little lower road,” is just a line in text; in song, it’s a heart bleeding out in a way that lingers.
“And then the world will know / will know of you / of all things love”
Picking a lyric for this song was tricky because the lyrics don’t actually matter. They’re part of the sonic landscape, deliberately obscured, and just one tool among many like the ballideering piano in the intro or the black metal growling. ORDINARY CORRUPT HUMAN LOVE was Deafheaven returning to the blend of post-rock, shoe gaze and metal from SUNBATHER. No other band today articulates beauty, chaos, and pain in this way. It is appropriately bare, raw, and beautiful. It’s corny to say, but it’s the kind of sentiment their sweeping songs inspire. “You Without End” is a song with 3 or 4 built-in points of shock & awe, and that’s how they chose to open the album. Absolutely nuts.
“Venus, planet of love / was destroyed by global warming / did it’s people want too much too?”
I’m still surprised that Mitski became the modern face of indie in 2018. A few years ago I saw her open for Elvis Depressedly and half the audience left after her set. It was clear she was going to be a star. I just didn’t expect it to be the biggest thing in alternative music.
“Sad people dance too” is a piece of wisdom Thao Nguyen once dropped in a song, and “Nobody” fits this mantra to a tee. A swelling, gorgeous disco song full of claps and bass grooves set to impassioned singing about the tyranny of loneliness. Bands today take a swing at making a danceable song about loneliness every so often (Tame Impala’s LONERISM comes to mind) but “Nobody” is uniquely beautiful and infectious in a way that its contemporaries are not.
One of the things that makes Mitski great is her aptitude for lines. Other songwriters put all their power in the punch of a chorus, or even a verse, or a song’s crescendo, but Mitski punches in individual lines. “I don’t want your pity / I just want somebody near me / guess I’m a coward / I just want to feel alright” is plain in a way that makes it more feel honest and un-self-conscious. It is unadorned loneliness, set to completely and fully adorned music. Somebody, or some body: the bare minimum definition of companionship is all she wants, and it sings like a universal human truth.
Lines like “I’ve been big and small and big and small and big and small again / and still nobody wants me” are not the well-tread ground of many other sad songs, and her willingness to say it without the frills of metaphor or purple prose heightens the vulnerability. And again: all the while you’re dancing.
Ultimately the song is my favorite because of how it fits into the overall album. It stands alone as a single, but as a piece of the sonically diverse palette of BE THE COWBOY, it’s a thrilling foray outside of the comfort zone we’ve constructed around Mitski. It’s the flex of someone taking a dare and absolutely killing it. What could be more thrilling?