Year End Music Countdowns #17: 2018

I typically save my insights for the music industry and music consumption for a section after my countdown.  This observation, however, is more personal than anything and will be brought up during the countdown, so I’m going to lead with it:

A large amount of my favourite songs this year were discovered by complete accident.

I didn’t hear them on the radio, I didn’t hear them on iTunes, I didn’t hear them on Spotify, and I didn’t hear them at a concert.

I heard one over the PA in a department store. I heard one playing in someone’s car. I found one through a retweet. I heard in in a YouTube ad before a video.

There’s one that I wasn’t even intended to hear, and I’m technically “not permitted” to have it on my countdown because it was “not available in my area”- but I found a link to it on Reddit.

In fact, my very favourite song of the year I heard while tapping through Instagram Stories.

The common thread? These were all flukes. I was in the right place at the right time. Or the wrong place at the right time. I could have just as easily not been exposed to any of these songs.

That’s the nature of the industry now. You won’t find good quality music through traditional venues. You’ll find it everywhere else. In making music so accessible, the world has also made it that much harder to sift through the filler and find what’s relevant. What’s interesting. What’s good.

So here are the diamonds I’ve dug up from the dirt. The best songs of 2018.

The Top 25 Songs of 2018

25. Long Way Home– Middle Class Rut —

I’ve always loved the diversity of music, specifically the concept of sub-genres. The fact that two different artists can be considered “electro-pop” yet positioned at opposite ends of a spectrum is absolutely fascinating. On the surface, Middle Class Rut and Royal Blood are both “hard alternative rock duos”, and both embody that term in full effect – but in vastly different ways. A combination of influence and execution has led each band to carve out a distinct sound. There’s no mistaking one for the other despite the two sharing an umbrella.

Royal Blood obviously draw more from a hard blues well, while MC Rut take more after bands like Jane’s Addiction. MC Rut’s new album Gutters keeps their version of the sub-genre intact, with all the scorched earth imagery both lyrically and sonically represented. “Long Way Home” comes five years after the band’s last effort Pick Up Your Head but could fit just as comfortably on that record.

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24. Buried in the Sand– Hælos

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.

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23. Stay for Real– Young Galaxy

When Young Galaxy first emerged on the alternative rock charts here in Canada with “Outside the City”, I scoffed and dismissed them as a ripoff of their similarly monikered countrymen Stars. It’s now over a decade later and I deserve fifty lashes across my back for writing them off. While Torquil Campbell and company ossified into peddlers of the same bland mid-tempo alt-rockers, Young Galaxy quietly amassed a varied collection of solid tracks.

From the dark electronic “Blown Minded” to the exuberant radio version of “Factory Flaws”, the band ended overshadowing Stars in every way. Now as they head into an indefinite hiatus they’ve left us with one final gem, another pitch black electronic track not unlike “Blown Minded”. The vaguely tropical “Stay for Real” is a fine farewell gift, and I hope that these guys one day reunite.

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22. City of Roses– Sufjan Stevens

There are two versions of Sufjan Stevens. There’s the supremely weird, glitchy electronic tinkerer, and the auteur of hushed acoustic folk. The latter was nominated for an Oscar this year, but that’s not the song that should have gotten the attention. That honour belonged to “City of Roses” off his latest B-sides compilation. The slight, delicate track sounds almost like Stevens wrote and recorded it on the spot- not entirely impossible considering other tracks on the album are literally subtitled with “iPhone demo”.

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21. Silence– Marshmello feat. Khalid

At first blush Marshmello seems like a blatant Deadmau5 clone, right down to the stage costume. Thinking back upon that Canadian EDM star’s career though- did he ever really have a hit? It seems like the hype was entirely that he wore the mask through his performances. Marshmello already has a leg up on the mou5e with Top 40 hit “Silence”, where he teams up with fellow rising star Khalid on a sombre EDM jam the latter is becoming known for. Let’s hope he sticks with this sound rather than the collaboration he recently did with Bastille. We don’t need yet another Porter Robinson.

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20. Astronaut (Something About Your Love)– Mansionair —

I’m a bit reticent to use the term “scatting” because I’m not 100% sure whether it’s the correct word I’m looking for here, but also because it sounds like pooping. But I don’t know how else to describe the vocal technique the band uses in the chorus here, which is a shame because it’s pretty unique and makes for a standout indie pop jam.

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19. Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)– Hozier  —

Singer-songwriter Hozier wailed his way into the hearts of the general public in 2014 with the unbelievably banal Buzzfeed-bait single “Take Me to Church”, but has stayed quiet ever since. He’s back with new EP Nina Cried Power, and well hot dang it is pretty decent. I must give the Irish balladeer some credit- he’s the only mainstream act who used ominous gospel choirs in his music and that’s a trend that absolutely needs to take off. He does so again on this new offering and this time the songs are a lot more worthy. The title track is a little corny with the “legendary artist” name drops, but it’s still well-structured and dynamic. “Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)” is an effective blues-rocker, and definitely one of the better rock tracks of the year. You done good Hozier.

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18. Disappointing Diamonds are the Rarest of them All– Father John Misty —

I once attempted to woo a girl who loved Father John Misty, delving deeply into his discography. But as much as I respected Josh Tillman‘s acerbic wit, I could not really get into the guy’s music prior to 2017. He just used too many chords for my liking. It was only after I saw him perform live that I fully understood his appeal. This is not meant to be immediately gratifying music. It’s a sort of psychological project that would take a series of essays to unravel, and it just happens to have some nice instrumentation behind it. New album God’s Favorite Customer continues this streak, but two songs (“Disappointing Diamonds are the Rarest of Them All” and “Mr. Tillman”) do immediately stand out as more accessible. While you won’t hear them on Top 40 charts, they still have a solid 2-3 hooks each. They’re hearty material that a few listens to fully digest lyrically, but once they get into your system, they’re there for good.

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17. Dream State– Son Lux —

Attempting to describe the music of Son Lux is one of the more difficult jobs of a music critic. It’s like…Imagine Dragons for ghosts? It is very ghostly. But not like Cocteau Twins ghostly. Or gauche MySpace emo Nightmare Before Christmas ghostly. It’s like… steampunk ghostly, if that makes sense (only much much less dorky than steampunk). It’s got all the elements of a huge, Arcade Fire style anthem, but they’re chopped up into a weird combination that can be off-putting at times, and thrilling at others.

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16. Leaving- Bass Drum of Death —

A knockout jam could one day come from the much-hyped Bass Drum of Death, who hail from the Southern States but have Canadian alternative smeared all over their punk rock core. They are essentially a mash-up between Hot Hot Heat and Death From Above, although hints of other Canuck bands emerge at times. “Leaving” switches out Hot Hot Heat for Sam Roberts but leaves a DFA style rhythm in place. There’s also the inexplicable case of “Odds are Good”, a song that sounds like…..the Odds. No, I mean, it really really sounds like the Odds. Could this Mississippi group have been influenced by the sardonic Vancouver stalwarts?

Unlikely inspiration aside, Bass Drum could potentially be a “big” name in rock circles in the future, as this album holds a lot of promise. Will they ever crossover to the mainstream? Perhaps.

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15. Vide Noir– Lord Huron —

Imagine the Mad Men theme song if it was recorded in a coniferous forest in the Pacific Northwest while on an acid trip, and you’ve got a fairly good idea of what the title track on Lord Huron‘s latest record sounds like. Making their way from the oversaturated folk scene to the oversaturated psychedelic throwback scene, the act sound like Tame Impala and War on Drugs had a blissed out child on their new record Vide Noir. Finding new angles to either of these genres is difficult after generations upon generations of artists, but Lord Huron have managed to solder together unique parts of both into a creation all their own.

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14. I Dreamt We Spoke Again– Death Cab for Cutie —

Only twice in my life has a song influenced my subconscious on a near instantaneous level.

The first was by Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle (or was it Sun Kil Moon & The Album Leaf? I never figured out what names they released their 2013 album under). The bleakest of bleak, “What Happened to my Brother?” affected my sleep for about a year. Granted, there were other external factors that contributed as well, but it all began in that fateful hour after listening to it for the first time.

The second was this year. Even the title of Death Cab’s introductory track on Thank You For Today hits like a ton of bricks; it’s surprising that Ben Gibbard hasn’t used it before. Just by reading it one can imagine the cadence he sings it in, and he does it in exactly the way you think. Backed by wavering keyboards and a Cure-like guitar tone that seems to be the connective sound on this album, it’s a slight but effective track. There’s some neat additional drums that flutter in on the chorus, and the harmonies are a lot fuller than they’ve been in the band’s previous work.

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13. Dressed to Suppress– Metric —

When Art of Doubt‘s lead single “Dark Saturday” dropped I commented on how it sounded like a return to the band’s scrappy early days. Turns out it was a bit of a red herring, as it doesn’t reflect the entirety of the new Metric album. While it and “Now or Never Now” both do hearken back to the early 2000s, the rest of the record walks up and down memory lane instead of setting up camp at the beginning of it. Emily Haines and crew use elements from throughout the band’s discography for the new release, from the early pop-rock sensibilities of Old World Underground, Where Are You Now to the uptempo stadium-filling radio hits of Fantasies to the slick disco of Pagans in Vegas. Album highlight “Dressed to Suppress” is the most cosmic the band’s ever been. It’s reminiscent of the celestial ballads Florence + the Machine and M83 used to make, but it also recalls the muscular guitar riff of the band’s own “Black Sheep”.

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12. Rockstar– Post Malone feat. 21 Savage —

There’s a Post Malone song on his latest album beerbongs & bentleys called “Over Now”, and once you listen to it you understand the pop-rapper’s modus operandi. It’s on this song that he jumps out of his quaalude haze and yells a few bars, his voice suddenly resembling none other than Mr. Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit fame. Just like Durst, Post Malone is a cultural artifact waiting to happen. He’s a meme, not just to his detractors but to his fanbase as well. His entire aesthetic can be summed up by a depressed youth posting a dimly lit video to Snapchat or Instagram with the caption “mood:”.

He’s more a feeling than an artist, an outlet for millennials in desperate need of an avatar for the post-party comedown. In many ways he’s millennial angst personified: sensitive, but only through the lens of a popular socialite. It’s not particularly ambitious stuff, but it is redeemed slightly by maintaining a strict sonic template for the entire album. Soft pads, laconic trap beats, heavy reverb, topped off with Postie’s bleating goat vibrato bemoaning how money and drugs are so bad but so good.

Basically, he’s the frat version of the Weeknd, an image he revels in. The physical embodiment of the cultural zeitgeist of 2018.

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11. Frostbiter– Saintseneca

Saintseneca, who I’ve been rooting for since 2014, refuse to write that big tune that’ll make them the next Portugal. The Man. Personally I’m a big fan of Saintseneca’s new song “Frostbiter”, but it is not hit material in the slightest. It’s an expansion of their verbose folk-based sound, with reverb and glacial synths aplenty. Fingers crossed that 2020 will be the big crossover year.

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10. Bury Me– Actors —

I don’t know anything about this band, and having heard the rest of their stuff I don’t think they’re going to be anything resembling a creative force on the music scene, but this one song is pretty great. Imagine Interpol‘s Paul Banks doing a cover of Econoline Crush‘s “Sparkle and Shine”, or New Order going industrial and you’ve got the gist of it.

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9. Artificial– Moaning —

As rock music continues to dwindle, finding specific genres of rock music becomes exponentially harder. So imagine my surprise at finding a band like Moaning and their song “Artificial”. A cold post-punk banger, it’s not only distinct in sonic sensibility but as a composition as well. It hews closer to Joy Division homage than Editors or White Lies ever did. Nobody’s writing bleak stuff like this anymore.

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8. Lucky 88– Speedy Ortiz —

Yes yes yes. Speedy Ortiz‘ “Lucky 88” is exactly what it should be: a stellar instant classic. I nearly burst into tears upon my first listen because within a matter of seconds it’s clear that they’re actually following a proper artistic trajectory. They had their breakout year back in 2015, became indie darlings, and now they’re ready to cross over with a more radio-oriented sound. Whether or not they do end up crossing into mainstream is besides the point, it’s that they are even bothering to create something accessible that almost makes the song even better than it is.

Imagine that: we’ve gotten to a point where the fact that a song is good is a cause for celebration. That’s the nature of the streaming economy though- when you no longer have to worry about making hit singles, you don’t bother. So in the simple act of making their comeback single a hook-filled, big-chorused affair, Sadie Dupuis and company are more punk than any of their peers.

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7. Half a Million (Flipped)– The Shins —

“wAiT a MiNuTe! wAsN’T tHiS sOnG oN LaSt yEaR’s LiSt??”, you say. (In my mind you have the Spongebob chicken meme voice.)

Why yes it was. The original version of “Half a Million” came from The Shins’ 2017 record Heartworms, which they redid entirely in 2018, “flipping” each song into another subgenre. “Half a Million”takes on a ska vibe, sounding less like the Cars homage of the original and more like Elvis Costello. While the original does hold it’s own charm, this new mix It’s hard to decide which version of the song is the better one, but the newer rendition of the ebullient chorus does pop just slightly louder and may just edge out the original.

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6. Black Cloud– Postdata —

R.E.M. have now been out of commission for eight years, and only a scant number of modern rock acts have used the alternative act’s sound as a template for their own. For a band that was once one of the biggest in the world, their influence is barely felt just two decades later.

So it’s nice to hear little bits of their legacy filter into tracks like “Black Cloud”, with its ambiguous lyrics and mid-tempo angst. It’s “The One I Love” but darker; a great slice of Americana made new.

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5. Calliope– Future Islands— 

Just a year after topping the chart, Future Islands released this B-Side from The Far Field to lucky listeners in the U.S. Those anywhere else in the world had to scour the internet to find a working link. It was worth it though, and makes you wonder why this was left off the album at all. The first verse is a precarious one- there’s a dissonant note running through it and it’s coupled with some dry, flat vocals from Sam Herring. But it suddenly blossoms into one of the most lush songs they’ve ever written and only gets more grand from there. The second verse seems to realize the folly of the first and ends up being a mercifully short seven seconds, leaving much more room for the extravagant double choruses.

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4. QYURRYUS– The Voidz — 

Julian Casablancas is probably set for life financially thanks to the royalties from his music with The Strokes, so he can do whatever he wants to now. He’s chosen to invest a lot of time in his new band The Voidz, and although it’s been pretty hit-or-miss so far at least he’s trying new things. Latest single “QYURRYUS” is an eclectic mix of kraut-rock and Auto-tune, though it’s not nearly as earth-shaking as the hyperventilating hipster dorks on the internet will have you believe. That said, it is one of the better songs of the year and well worth a spin.

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3. Forever– CHVRCHES — 

CHVRCHES are a band that have not budged an inch since their breakthrough in 2013. It’s fascinating how there are thousands and thousands of bands that can be grouped under the “synth pop” umbrella, but some can still carve out distinct niches for themselves with this sort of focus. The Scottish trio still use the same patches, the same glimmering sawtooth synths,  and the same big drums they’ve always used, and are all the more unique for it. New record Love is Dead stays right on course, and delivers another round of quality tunes like “Forever”.  Absolutely pristine production on here- a perfect example of how modern mainstream music should be mixed.

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2. I Love You, Will You Marry Me– YUNGBLUD — 

A blend of ska, emo, and brit-pop all packaged up into one neat song called “I Love You, Will You Marry Me” by YUNGBLUD. It’s a fun burst of energy that sounds like very little else in the mainstream arena.

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AND THE BEST SONG OF 2018 IS…

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1. High Five– Sigrid — 

There’s not much that differentiates Sigrid‘s “High Five” from the music her fellow Scandinavian pop sprites are making- except for the fact that it is the jam of jams. Halfway through 2018 I’d believed I’d found a front runner for song of the year- and I was right. It’s beyond cliche to use “confection” as an analogy for pop music, but the instant rush this song delivers is incomparable to anything other than the flood of endorphins that hit your brain when you have yourself some sort of sugary treat.

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The 5 Best Albums of 2019 –

Here are the most well-rounded efforts taken into consideration as a whole piece of work:

5. [Trench]– Twenty One Pilots

(Choice Cuts: “Chlorine”, “My Blood”, “Nico and the Niners”) 

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4. [7]– Beach House

(Choice Cuts: “Black Car”, “Girl of the Year”, “Lemon Glow”) 

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3. [Gutters]- Middle Class Rut

(Choice Cuts: “Long Way Home”, “No Sale”, “Desert Road”) 

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2. [Thank You For Today]- Death Cab for Cutie

(Choice Cuts: “I Dreamt We Spoke Again”, “Your Hurricane”, “Near/Far”) 

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1. [AAARTH]- The Joy Formidable

(Choice Cuts: “What For”, “Y Bluen Eira”, “Caught on a Breeze”) 


THE REST OF 2018

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What can I say? It was the same downward trend that’s been happening for years now. Most of the big names floundered (see: Beyonce and Jay Z, Nicki Minaj), and few new ones took flight. It took eleven months for the world to get one genuine smash hit, and that was Ariana Grande‘s “thank u, next”.

The rest of what was memorable in 2018 was not because of the songs themselves, but the accompanying videos.

Drake had an undeniably huge year with videos that reunited his Degrassi cast, showed off his philanthropic side, and launched a viral challenge that caused more than a few injuries.

Childish Gambino made some Very Important Art. Kanye dressed up as a sofa. Cardi B reached ultimate celebrity status and received much sought-after tabloid coverage.

Lady Gaga may have a delayed hit with “Shallow”, which will likely be performed at the 2019 Academy Awards, but it didn’t make much of an initial splash.

Maroon 5 and 5 Seconds of Summer had some minor hits, but that’s reaching.

Oh right, also Baby Shark.

And that’s about it. You’re caught up on the big names of 2018.

Come back in a year to find out what the one hit of 2019 was.