It’s almost time to wrap things up for 2018 with only a few noteworthy releases left this year and none of them seem particularly appealing. In all likelihood I could probably solidify my year-end countdown now, but I’ll hold out hope for any stragglers that might pop up in the next few weeks.
It’s November. And we only now got an actual hit. How insane is that? I honestly would have preferred if we’d gone a full calendar year without a legitimate hit single, if only to prove the nightmarish reality we live in now. But Ariana Grande has delivered “thank u, next”, and it is undeniably a monster of a song. I personally am not a fan of the drab chorus and reductive 90s influence, but at least we have one hit, released in 2018, that everyone knows.
The year 2008 was a recurring theme in the first half of the month, with several tracks recalling motifs and trends from a decade ago.
The most notable being the directionless morass music seems to be in- only hip-hop and rap are in any recognizable shape. In 2008 it was the same situation, when crunk beats and auto-tune were a staple of most radio hits, and all other genres were essentially recycling trends from the previous three years.
There were also micro-instances that weren’t so much direct callbacks to 2008 as they were interesting reminders of how music has changed since then. There’s a Broadway musical playing now called “Dear Evan Hansen”, and principal performer Ben Platt sounds like he just got signed to Fueled By Ramen. The theatrical emo that was once a fringe interest has now been absorbed by mainstream media. The songs written for “Dear Evan Hansen” would not have sounded out of place on 2008’s strange concept album Razia’s Shadow, from Panic! At the Disco acolytes Forgive Durden.
Dave Keuning from The Killers is trying his hand at solo work, and the two songs he’s released so far prove that the band is full of very talented dudes. Both Brandon Flowers and Ronnie Vannucci (as Big Talk) have not made any missteps yet, and Keuning is following in those footsteps. “Prismism” is a pleasant late-year surprise, a vocoder-sung weepy not unlike Imogen Heap‘s legendary “Hide and Seek”, or that Bon Iver album were all the songs had names ιikξ τλi555.
What it most resembles though, is 2008 song “We are Blind and Riding the Merry-Go-Round” by Alaska in Winter, who really could have been a force in the indie-pop scene if they’d stuck around.
Lastly there’s Allan Rayman‘s song “Rose”, which is sung from the point of view of an obsessive fan a la Death Cab for Cutie‘s 2008 track “I Will Possess Your Heart”. That’s where the similarities end though- Death Cab’s song was an extended, bass-driven jam, while “Rose” is an electronic piece that lays Rayman’s raspy voice over a shuffling hip-hop beat. It also has the best guitar tone in any song this year.
I’ve been hearing about Birds of Bellwoods for about a year and a half now, and based on the hype I was expecting something a little more avant-garde from their album. Maybe some sort of experimental Boards of Canada type act, or maybe even another Alvvays.
I was not expecting the least artisanal band this side of the American border. Birds of Bellwoods are a Katamari ball of indie-rock cliches: anthemic whoa-ohs, group vocals, folksy strumming, major-key tunes. Basically speaking, all these songs were written for the upper-middle class Toronto jogger who needs an uplifting tune to get up that hill and stretch their arms in victory. Except…the Toronto joggers had their spotlight for the past eight years. You know, the people who based their condo design on a Mumford and Sons music video, with their rustic decor and their strings of lights and marquee letters. They were already an exhausted stereotype by the time The Lumineers pulled their wagon up in 2012. So why, in 2018, are Birds of Bellwoods heading down that well-worn path. Why…why do they have a song called “Hey Hey”.
Why do they have a song called “Hey Hey”.
Speaking of old trends: the worst trends of 2015 all reared their song-destroying heads this month, starting with Norway’s answer to Japandroids, a heartland punk band called Spielbergs. “4AM” starts off magnificently, with the potential to be an anthem for the ages. Then it hits some incredibly dull choruses. Then, at 2:27 the song goes instrumental, builds up into nothing, makes you want to throw your computer out the window. Yeah, the infuriating “massive buildup with no payoff” right at the end.
Next up is the “drumless chorus” trend, employed by former MySpace deity Jimmy Urine, now going by the name Euringer. “The Medicine Does Not Control Me” wastes a guest feature from Grimes on an anti-climactic series of choruses that not once escalate into a proper song dynamic.
And then there’s Beirut, who apparently feel that the best representative from their upcoming album is the unconventionally structured “Gallipolli”. A sole verse with instrumental bookends, it’s an absolutely pointless track with no hooks and no direction.
Last year’s hot trend was the precocious prodigy voice as popularized by Lorde and Halsey. This year that train keeps rolling with Charlotte Cardin, Billie Eilish, and bülow. The only comment I have about this is: are these ladies going to sing like this forever? What happens once this style is no longer en vogue?
Reading my critiques, one might think that I’ve got an inflexible set of criteria for what constitutes a “good song”. While I fully admit that I have a predilection for classic pop structure and dynamics, I am more of the mind that experimentation should fit with the band. There needs to be a reason for the break from tradition, not just because “every other act is doing it”.
It’s so stupid when an artist tries to turn a song into something it’s not, when it clearly doesn’t work within those parameters. I’m not going to criticize a psych-metal act for releasing a 20-minute track with electric bagpipes and multiple tempo changes. I will criticize an indie pop band for doing the same.
Hælos do experimentation right on “Buried in the Sand”. The instrumental breaks and loose structure fit the shadowy aesthetic and context perfectly, and those attributes are not out of place like if an alternative or pop act employed them.
I’ve long used Mikky Ekko‘s Time as an example of one of the worst albums ever, not because it’s unlistenable music, but because it was a craven display of committee songwriting. Every song plundered from a different but recognizable source, leading to a mismatched collection with absolutely zero cohesion. His new album FAME does a little better- It at least sounds like one work by one artist, even if nothing on it is worth listening to. It’s on the same level as The Neighbourhood, a series of bland hooks dressed in trap beats, electronic textures, and an alternative rock base.
I must admit a bit of hypocrisy. I’ve been playing the all-accepting arbiter for many years, saying that I appreciate any piece of music as long as it enters into public consciousness and becomes a cultural touchstone which represents the era it was released in. Well, “Baby Shark” did just that in 2018, but it is absolutely horrible. There’s been a lot of talk recently about AI programs writing music, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some defective robot wrote this monotonous dreck. Granted, it is for children, but even kids deserve better than this.
There were so, so many songs this month with mealy, broad, tepid, toothless choruses that I’ve decided to list them all together instead of shining a spotlight on each one.
“Stiff Bones” – Stove
“LAX” – Conor Oberst
“Sunflower” – Post Malone. feat. Swae Lee
“it’s not living if it’s not with you” – The 1975
“Revelation”- Troye Sivan and Jonsi
“The Freaks” – The Menzingers
All from a vast array of genres but fit seamlessly together. Repetitive, flat, like Goo Goo Dolls‘ “Stay With You” – the chorus of which is essentially the mold/prototype for these kinds of anthems for basics. All about the kumbaya, lacing up your shoes and taking on the big wide world.
Cake are back with “Sinking Ship”, and it’s unfortunately easily shrugged off. Interesting in theory, but ultimately corny in execution. There are some tempos and styles that just will not yield good songs anymore, and within a few seconds you can tell that the song isn’t going to head into any new territory. Same goes for the new Slipknot song, and Gerard Way‘s “Baby, You’re a Haunted House”. They’re examples of entirely interchangeable music that’s been done approximately one million times before.
I cannot stand Toro y Moi but at least the guy has stuck to his chill electro funk vibe and it’s paid off. He was doing it before anyone, and now that it’s the big sound he deserves to bask in it.