Politics, keen societal observation, sheer sonic kickassery, and just fun music — it’s all here in the HI-35, the ranking of my 35 favorite tracks of 2018. Here’s a link to the first part of the list, if you missed it, and without further filibustering, here’s my countdown of the top 20.
20. Pusha T, “If You Know You Know”
Despite wildly mixed results overall, the five records in the Kanye West-produced “Wyoming sessions” managed to land three songs in my top 35. Pusha T’s Daytona was the standout album of the five, and “If You Know You Know” was the standout track, with Pusha’s ode to drug life counterbalanced with a trademark high-pitched Kanye beat concoction.
19. Snail Mail, “Pristine”
Moodiness, insecurity, frustration — it’s one thing to be 19 and have all those feelings. It’s another to be 19 and express those feelings in a musically captivating way. Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan carved out a distinctive spot this year among a number of talented indie musicians who can’t legally drink yet or haven’t been able to for very long. Her sound will be familiar to anyone who loved indie rock of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, and “Pristine” fascinatingly introduces one feeling after another, floating between pessimism, sarcasm, and seeming denial. Its lyrical non-repetitiveness might be its most refreshing asset; every time you expect Jordan to fall back to a previous verse and re-state herself, she’s got something else to say.
18. Janelle Monae, “Django Jane”
“Django Jane” is all about Monae’s rhymes and her confident delivery. These lines might as well be a personal mission statement: “Jane Bond, never Jane Doe, and I Django, never Sambo/Black and white, yeah that’s always been my camo/It’s lookin’ like y’all gon’ need some more ammo.” Or feminists in general can easily find a mission statement in, “hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue.” There’s a lot more to digest in here, including references to the multiple Oscar-worthy films Monae’s had a role in, suggesting she has an ambition to become a ubiquitous, Timberlake-esque multi-threat star.
17. Beths, “Future Me Hates Me”
A little sunnier-sounding than fellow New Zealanders the Salad Boys (who cracked my top 25 this year), the Beths still have the same affinity for post-punk energy and power-pop melody. Their lyrics are considerably more penetrable, too. “Future Me Hates Me” was a standout both as a radio rocker and a channeling of an all-too-common feeling, a well-penned anthem for someone who knows they’re being self-destructive but just can’t help it.
16. Parquet Courts, “Freebird II”
When Parquet Courts released the weak, overly repetitive funk-rocker “Wide Awake” ahead of new album Wide Awake!, it made me nervous. I worried it portended a stumble-record from one of rock’s best bands of the last five years. Fortunately, the album delivered more than its share of quintessential Parquet Courts along with some interesting changeups (the weirdo ’60s-ish balladry of “Back to Earth,” for instance). “Freebird II,” the standout, is more on the quintessential side; it hits the midtempo sweet spot where many of the Courts’ best songs reside, as Andrew Savage attempts to link the narrator’s past with his present.
15. Snail Mail, “Heat Wave”
Told you Lindsey Jordan can do some serious songwriting. Why is “Heat Wave” higher than “Pristine”? An effective slow build, better use of dynamics, and a stronger melody — and while the lyric of “Pristine” is better, this one isn’t too shabby, either. Here, Jordan muses on unrequited love for someone known only as “green eyes,” and wishes that person a satisfying relationship while acknowledging that she’s “so tired of moving on.”
14. Tune-Yards, “Heart Attack”
Easily the best use of a stutter on “heart attack” since Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out,” this one got Tune-Yards’ excessively titled album I can feel you creep into my private life off to a killer start. Merrill Garbus is one of indie rock’s most soulful voices, and she and collaborating bassist Nate Brenner have a gift for industrial/electronic studiocraft. It all came together on this one.
13. Hinds, “Finally Floating”
Full of spirit, garage energy and tasty clean guitar tones, Spain’s English-singing Hinds (top photo) have been a favorite of mine ever since they were called Deers several years ago and released the woozy ballad “Bamboo.” Not enough bands have two lead vocalists these days (another plus for Parquet Courts), and Ana Perrote and Carlotta Cosials charmingly play off each other’s voices and unify with youthful, sometimes karaoke-ish chemistry. Their second full-length, I Don’t Run, was one of 2018’s indie treats. “Finally Floating” is the full Hinds experience: a lead guitar line that sticks with you and Perrote and Cosials tag-teaming on a neurotic lyric about loneliness.
12. Kacey Musgraves, “High Horse”
Spoiler alert on a list that’s not coming: I’m not ranking my favorite albums of the year (maybe for 2019). But my favorite album of 2018 was Musgraves’ Golden Hour, and I’m not alone. Few mainstream country stars can even hope to unify everyone — indie snobs, card-carrying cowboys, and everyone in between — the way Musgraves has done. Her songs are genuine, pure, well-produced and varied. Perhaps most key to her appeal outside the CMA crowd, there’s no obnoxious twang. And she has a desire to expand the palette of her music that goes beyond, “Let’s make this more pop and see if we can get a crossover hit.”
That’s not to say she doesn’t effectively put one boot in each of those two worlds. Nothing on Golden Hour exemplified that better than “High Horse,” a highly danceable country-pop concoction that will convert a number of people who think they hate both country and pop. Musgraves tells a self-impressed douchebag exactly what everyone else wants to say: that they “[kill] the buzz every time they open up their mouth.”
11. Adrianne Lenker, “symbol”
2017 was the year for Lenker’s band, Big Thief, to make its big leap in the indie world. Last October, she released her latest solo album, abysskiss, which included this spellbinding waterfall of a track. “symbol” has more than a little Thom Yorke feel to it, as Lenker’s indie-angel voice spills often-cryptic, always beautiful poetry over hypnotizing acoustic guitar.
10. Kacey Musgraves, “Slow Burn”
The opening track of Golden Hour lived up to its name and encapsulated just about everything that was great about the 40-some minutes that would follow. Kacey quickly gets personal and self-deprecating (“Born in a hurry, always late/Haven’t been early since ‘88/Texas is hot, I can be cold/Grandma cried when I pierced my nose”) and carries you with her into a place that nearly feels like fantasy these days — a world where it’s OK to just take it easy and let things unfold.
9. Rae Sremmurd ft. Juicy J, “Powerglide”
The melodic sensibility that sets Rae Sremmurd apart from most of the hip-hop pack — on display in their 2016 megahit “Black Beatles” — produced another radio and dancefloor winner in “Powerglide.” Sure, the lyrics are basically standard-issue hip-hop money/sex/materialism excess, but 1) if you like hip-hop at all, you probably take at least an occasional dose of that for granted, and 2) the song’s a straight banger, with a fast-cruising beat that doesn’t let up.
8. Chvrches, “Get Out”
The first generation of synth-pop (the ‘80s, essentially) tortures my ears so much that Chvrches are probably — no joke — already my favorite synth-pop outfit of all time. Lauren Mayberry and Co. just have better songs and more cohesive production than either their contemporaries or the vintage synth crowd, who seemed more concerned with making rad futuristic noises than anything else. “Get Out” is as direct and demanding as its title suggests, and like most of Chvrches’ best songs, it pounds.
7. Soccer Mommy, “Your Dog”
Perhaps no opening lines of a song defined indie rock’s 2018 more than Sophie Allison’s jarring kickoff of “Your Dog”: “I don’t wanna be your fucking dog/That you drag around/A collar on my neck tied to a pole/Leave me in the freezing cold.” When you think about it, it’s rare to hear an F-bomb in the opening line of any song outside the hip-hop realm. But Allison, aka Soccer Mommy, is mad as hell, and her song’s narrator isn’t going to take being used and abused anymore.
But as much of an anthem as “Your Dog” is for empowerment, what takes Allison’s song to still another level is the difficult emotional reality it acknowledges: the narrator admits she’s had trouble finding the strength to lose this terrible SO(B) with, “Always talk to other people/Dart my eyes across the room/Forehead kisses break my knees and leave me crawling back to you.” Just 21 at this writing, Allison has already emerged, along with Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan, as an absurdly promising under-25 songwriter.
6. Clairo, “4EVER”
Yet another superb track from someone who can’t rent a car or run for Congress. While now-20-year-old Claire Cottrill, aka Clairo, isn’t in the same ballpark as Jordan or Allison as a songwriter (yet), she’s made a couple of stellar laid-back pop tracks in a short, fairly meteoric career. “4EVER” was the standout of this year’s bedroom pop crop, thanks to simple yet perfect production and Clairo’s Stevie Nicks-ish voice producing a smooth, immediately accessible musing on a developing, uncertain relationship.
5. Courtney Barnett, “Nameless, Faceless”
If Margaret Atwood were alive today, she’d be … oh, she’s still alive? Wow. I just figured anybody who’s written acknowledged classic literature must be stone dead. (Just kidding; Herman Wouk and Beverly Cleary are still kicking too, and they’re over 100.) Well anyway, if the Handmaid’s Tale author is aware by now that Courtney Barnett paraphrased one of her quotes for the chorus of “Nameless, Faceless,” I’m sure she approves.
As somebody who has a way with slice-of-life songs that paint compelling pictures using perfectly normal imagery, maybe it’s no surprise that Barnett ripped out the year’s best alternative rock perspective on the everyday difference between what men and women face. “I wanna walk through the park in the dark/Men are scared that women will laugh at them,” she sings, starting the Atwood reference. “I wanna walk through the park in the dark/Women are scared that men will kill them.” And then: “I hold my keys between my fingers.” While her second album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, wasn’t quite as fantastic as her first full-length, “Nameless, Faceless” holds its own against any song in her catalogue.
4. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”
It’s certainly arguable that as a track, “This Is America” loses a chunk of its impact when you divorce it from what might’ve been the most talked-about music video of 2018. Indeed, the video will probably be considered one of the iconic pop culture moments of the ‘10s after this decade wraps up. Still, when you turn away from your screen, there’s a punk-ish, primitive, and highly effective quality to Donald Glover’s fragmented examination of black American culture that sinks in on you and rewards you the more you listen.
Everything from Glover’s “America, I just checked my follow list, and you mothafuckas owe me” to the gospel choir singing, “Get your money, black man” demands examination and thought, even if Glover isn’t transparent about the meaning of every word. And that’s all before you get to Young Thug’s deceptively quiet, inconsequential-sounding outro that’s actually a pretty loud final hammer on the nail: “You just a black man in this world/You just a barcode, ayy/You just a black man in this world/Drivin’ expensive foreigns, ayy.” It all grows on you, and it’s resonant with or without the visuals.
3. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, “Talking Straight”
At the end of the day, all many of us want — not all of us, but many of us — is to know that rock ‘n’ roll isn’t dead, that it can still be a popular force for a stretch of minutes or years. Whether it was really something they thought about, Australia’s Rolling Blackouts C.F. (the way their cumbersome name appears on the cover of their debut album, Hope Downs) emerged as a leader in the latest charge.
Hope Downs was a great album from track 1 through 10, rolling up all kinds of classic, timeless influences together and bolstered by the varied perspectives of three singer-songwriters. In the case of addictive single “Talking Straight,” there’s a little bit of the Rolling Stones (Fran Keaney’s Jagger-ish lead vocal), a little touch of Springsteen imagery (“All day, I listen out for Jenny’s old coupe/Midnight blue, it’s faded, but she’s always been true”), and some clean vintage mainstream alternative sonics (the guitars). And yet, it — and Hope Downs’ other songs — aren’t exactly something you’ve heard before.
2. Caroline Rose, “More of the Same”
If this list were “35 tracks in 2018 that knocked me out on first listen,” Caroline Rose’s “More of the Same” would be #1. Probably pretty easily, in fact. There’s a difference; while the song that tops it here took more of a gradual route to earning my full appreciation, this one was an immediate revelation.
The opening cut off her second album, Loner, “More of the Same” is a glorious indie pop song all the way around. There’s a fascinating bored, near-nihilist streak to her lyric that practically paints her as an unimpressed hamster on a wheel: “Like aisles and aisles of boxes and cans/Everything is just more of the same thing. … I try and put my finger on it though I have been here before/I’m never gonna figure it out, no I’m never gonna try again/If all it is, is just more of the same thing.” The production, featuring plinking keyboards and Rose’s reverbed vocal, rounds out a complete gem of a song. And Loner has a lot of other delicious treats on it, too.
1. Decemberists, “Severed”
In this endlessly, nauseatingly topical year, my favorite track of 2018 almost had to be something topical, didn’t it? Album I’ll Be Your Girl found the Decemberists nobly experimenting with different styles, but not everything worked (“Once in My Life” — blech). But “Severed” was a towering grand slam of electronic, political rock.
Frontman Colin Meloy confirmed more than once that “Severed” is about a demagogue, and made it pretty clear which demagogue served as his prime inspiration. Naturally, it’s a way more poetic representation of Donald Trump than the Orange One could ever manage for himself. If you want to amuse yourself, read the opening lines in your best Trump voice: “I alight like a whisper/I alight with the lights out/And it won’t take me long just to find you.” (On the other hand, “I alone am the answer/I alone will make wrongs right” pretty directly tracks Trump’s declaration of “I alone can fix it” during his 2016 GOP nomination speech.)
Ultimately, Meloy channels what demagoguery and strongman-ism are all about: Pretexts and scary justifications (“But in order to root out the cancer/It’s got to be kept from the sunlight”), as well as good ol’ vicious threats (“Gonna smother you all till I choke you/Gonna smother you all till you kick out”). This isn’t just a catchy rock song with a message; this is where we are, people. “Severed” should stand as a musical document of the times decades from now — that is, if this planet still has decades left in it.
Complete list: The Ear Traffic HI-35 for 2018
- Decemberists, “Severed”
- Caroline Rose, “More of the Same”
- Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, “Talking Straight”
- Childish Gambino, “This Is America”
- Courtney Barnett, “Nameless, Faceless”
- Clairo, “4EVER”
- Soccer Mommy, “Your Dog”
- Chvrches, “Get Out”
- Rae Sremmurd, “Powerglide”
- Kacey Musgraves, “Slow Burn”
- Adrianne Lenker, “symbol”
- Kacey Musgraves, “High Horse”
- Hinds, “Finally Floating”
- Tune-Yards, “Heart Attack”
- Snail Mail, “Heat Wave”
- Parquet Courts, “Freebird II”
- Beths, “Future Me Hates Me”
- Janelle Monae, “Django Jane”
- Snail Mail, “Pristine”
- Pusha T, “If You Know, You Know”
- Erika Wennerstrom, “Extraordinary Love”
- Salad Boys, “Blown Up”
- Acid Dad, “2Ci”
- Kids See Ghosts, “Kids See Ghosts”
- Cigarettes After Sex, “Crush”
- Pusha T, “Come Back Baby”
- Camila Cabello, “Consequences”
- Leon Bridges, “Bad Bad News”
- Keegan DeWitt with Kiersey Clemons, “Hearts Beat Loud”
- Wombats, “Lemon to a Knife Fight”
- Mitski, “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?”
- Kurt Vile, “Loading Zones”
- Your Smith, “The Spot”
- Courtney Barnett, “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”
- Thom Yorke, “Suspirium”