I loved a lot more than 35 songs in 2018. But for a year-end list, you have to draw the line somewhere. And since there’s a certain interstate here that people love to hate, here we are with the first-ever edition of the Hi-35: counting down my favorite tracks of the year.
The last thing anyone wants with a year-end list is an epic preamble, so I’ll keep this short. Just know that this list represents the opinion of one person; it’s not limited to singles; and in spite of much consideration on inclusion and final order, there’s no science or die-on-a-hill conviction at work here. I really don’t hold much more esteem for the #21 song than the #35 song, for example. Anyway, let’s dive in with the first part of our countdown.
35. Thom Yorke, “Suspirium”
Yorke turned 50 this year, and regardless of how big a fan you are of him or Radiohead, it’s hard to name many rock stars who have aged more comfortably or gracefully. The days of rockin’ Radiohead are pretty much gone forever now, with Yorke long having fully embraced his affinity for hypnotic beauty that was there even in the midst of the alt-crunch of the Bends/OK Computer days. But even if you miss that crunchier side (I do), it’s undeniable that Yorke (and Radiohead) make atmospheric music with a deft, careful hand.
“Suspirium,” off Yorke’s soundtrack album for the horror remake “Suspiria,” is one of the best tracks of latter-day Yorke’s career — a mystical and beautiful piano ballad that’s over crisply in less than three and a half minutes. The lyrics are as spellbinding as Yorke’s piano and voice. Just check out the entire first verse: “This is a waltz/Thinking about our bodies/What they mean/For our salvation/With only the clothes/That we stand up in/Just the ground/On which we stand/Is the darkness/Ours to take?/Bathed in lightness/Bathed in heat.” Poetry.
34. Courtney Barnett, “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”
Here’s a non-single that, at 1:50, is the shortest song on our countdown. Indie artists all over the globe stepped up in 2018 to deliver music reflecting the fervent female-rights advocacy of the times. This punk-ish paintball splatter from Barnett off Tell Me How You Really Feel isn’t directly a gender equality anthem, but it comfortably fits in that vein. Reminiscent of early Yeah Yeah Yeahs, its directness and urgency vaulted it among my favorites of the year.
33. Your Smith, “The Spot”
The frontwoman of Caroline Smith and the Good Night Sleeps began a new project this year called Your Smith, apparently dedicating herself to all of us. Awkward band name, but then, the Good Night Sleeps also once titled a song “;;;;” so Smith is no stranger to head-scratching titles. Anyway, Your Smith’s debut single, “The Spot,” is terrific, a minimalist groove tune about escapism that bears no resemblance to the folk rock the Good Night Sleeps are known for. Smith’s talky delivery and the song’s beat give “The Spot” a vibe similar to Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do,” but moodier and considerably better.
32. Kurt Vile, “Loading Zones”
With a guitar tone and vocal on “Loading Zones” that channels Tom Petty, Kurt Vile delivered another eminently replayable single ahead of the release of his album Bottle It In. “Loading Zones” can be seen as sort of a witty indie-folk take on hip-hop’s long-running theme of reaching the top and ruling — Vile sings about being the mayor of his own town, where he parks for free and relishes “clean[ing] my hands of what I need to clean my hands of/And all for free by mayoral decree.” It isn’t his best song, but it’s perhaps his most immediately accessible one thus far, and deservedly became a top five Adult Alternative hit.
31. Mitksi, “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?”
Be The Cowboy picked up right where Mitski’s wonderful 2016 album, Puberty 2, left off, with all kinds of intriguing, arty sounds and mystical romantic musings. It’s full of great songs, but album cut “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” made the biggest impression on me, with Mitski’s usual deep reflections on an ended relationship riding atop arresting electronics and dark guitar chords.
30. Wombats, “Lemon to a Knife Fight”
Though they’re not overly distinguishable from a number of other guitar-driven British alternative bands, the Wombats are quite good at what they do. They’re a better, more serious version of the Kooks. Inspired by an argument singer-guitarist Matthew Murphy had with his wife, “Lemon to a Knife Fight” cleverly conveys helplessness in a windows-down summer highway song.
29. Keegan DeWitt with Kiersey Clemons, “Hearts Beat Loud”
Two movie soundtrack songs in one fairly short year-end list? Trust me, while I wasn’t surprised that I enjoyed the movie “Hearts Beat Loud,” a charming indie dramedy, I was surprised how much I enjoyed some of DeWitt’s original songs in the film.
“Hearts Beat Loud” stars Nick Offerman as a record store owner and Clemons as his daughter, playing music together and navigating their close but subtly complex father-daughter relationship as she prepares to leave for college. Turns out, “Hearts Beat Loud,” the song Offerman’s character initially puts on Spotify from their home recording sessions, is a good song IRL. Clemons’ voice evokes youthful passion and drive over an insistent, programming-laden beat. You get to hear it more than once in the film, but it’s worth it.
28. Leon Bridges, “Bad Bad News”
“They tell me I was born to lose/But I made a good good thing out of bad bad news.” This single off Bridges’ very solid second album, Good Thing, found him both trumpeting his personal advancement and looking for more. His buttery voice and some rhythmic call-and-response make “Bad Bad News” a plus-plus offering of smooth soul with relatable meaning.
27. Camila Cabello, “Consequences”
Musically, straight radio pop is simply in bad shape these days. Listening to the likes of Ariana Grande, Bebe Rexha, Shawn Mendes or Sam Hunt, to name a few, inspires nothing but an observation that these people all sound like some subset of their peers. Oh, and the music happens to be irreparably bland, too.
Adjusting for the sameness of the field, Camila Cabello is a light in the wilderness. The 21-year-old former Fifth Harmony singer hit it huge this year with her debut album Camila and its slinky single “Havana.” Even better is “Consequences,” a tender, reflective piano ballad that easily strings together lines surveying the wreckage of a relationship.
26. Pusha T, “Come Back Baby”
The much-publicized “Wyoming sessions,” in which Kanye West produced five seven-track albums dropped in week-by-week succession, delivered mixed musical results. In particular, Kanye’s own album of the bunch, ye, confirmed continuing suspicions that he’s lost his fastball as a writer and MC. But Wyoming also showed Kanye — reckless, borderline-insane newsmaker that he is — can still be a great producer. And when he teams with a direct and tough rapper like Pusha, magical music can still happen.
Pusha’s Daytona was the best of the Wyoming albums by a fair distance. “Come Back Baby” was one standout among the seven tracks largely because of a strong, obscure soul sample in George Jackson’s “I Can’t Do Without You,” a 1969 recording not released until 2011. The minimalist, bass-driven production and Pusha’s usual accessibly acidic delivery are key, too.
25. Cigarettes After Sex, “Crush”
“Apocalypse” was one of 2017’s best dream-pop songs, and for many it was an introduction to this El Paso-originated band that’s been around since 2008. And CAS found its David Lynch-ian sweet spot again with the 2018 single “Crush,” a hypnotic, poetic love song that sweetly throws in an F-word and seemingly plays off the androgyny in Gonzalez’s voice.
24. Kids See Ghosts ft. Yasiin Bey, “Kids See Ghosts”
Kids See Ghosts was Kanye and Kid Cudi in Wyoming. While the seven tracks on the self-titled album generally turned out more functional than memorable (better than ye, anyway), the self-titled track was a true delight, owing to the ominous, understated beat and the contrast between Cudi’s subdued delivery and one of Kanye’s better verses of recent years.
23. Acid Dad, “2Ci”
A New York garage act with some political consciousness, Acid Dad has everything it needs to become a major player in that realm — attitude, the perfect balance of raw sound and clean production, and a commitment to musicality and melody. Their self-titled debut album at various times recalls the Buzzcocks, Ty Segall and fellow New Yorkers the Men, and “2Ci” stands out for its enticing, driving guitar work.
22. Salad Boys, “Blown Up”
While Australia has produced an endless number of indie and alternative stars over the last several years — such as the aforementioned Courtney Barnett — New Zealand is also exporting some high-quality rock from that (general) corner of the world. Witness the Salad Boys, one of two New Zealand bands who will make an appearance between here and the end of the countdown. Their second full-length, This Is Glue, won me over with its summer-y melodies and fuzzy, postpunk guitar. “Blown Up” is simply a great four minutes of moody rock, teasing and then roaring as singer/guitarist Joe Sampson seeks “a better view, not another person’s frown.”
21. Erika Wennerstrom, “Extraordinary Love”
In her solo debut, Sweet Unknown, Wennerstrom (top photo) did exactly what anyone who’s followed the progression of her career in Heartless Bastards might’ve expected. She took the grand alt-country side of the Bastards and went even grander, giving center stage to one of rock’s best (and most under-heard) voices. “Extraordinary Love” is nearly seven minutes of polished yet raw power — in Wennerstrom’s own words, “a mantra of self-love.”
Photo by Nicole Berlin Photography