Do a quick Google Images search of Julia Jacklin and you’ll find an Aussie in her late twenties, frizzy-haired, and dressed in plaid mini skirts. She’s often captured staring blankly into the camera, stationed sometimes before flora, sometimes in tackily furnished living rooms, but always in the softly faded film style authentic to the 90s and now artificially reproduced for budding indie artists across the late 2010s. But don’t let the fashionable aesthetic fool you into writing Jacklin off as yet another sad-eyed, guitar-bearing kid posting their Sadboi™ tracks to Bandcamp. Her twee appearance is but the sugar that helps her unique brand of aching honesty go down. Well, that, and her angelic musicality, of course.
I know that there’s supposed to be an infinite number of universes containing an infinite number of possibilities, but I refuse to believe that there is any timeline in which Sharon Van Etten is not a rock star. There’s no way you could look at the impossibly willowy singer-songwriter and not assume she does anything other than belt out songs while strumming a ruby red hollow bodied guitar. That’s the image Van Etten cut when I saw her at the 9:30 Club on Wednesday, February 6, adorned in a long tweed jacket, flared leather pants, and uncannily matching boots– one of a readymade icon and perfect rock and roll idea. Although she looked like some kind of early Millennial re-imagining of Joan Jett or Chrissie Hynde, her effortlessly cool exterior is just a front for her intimate and vulnerable songwriting — each one of her songs lets the listener see their own reflection in the shards of Van Etten’s broken heart, and you feel the blood, sweat, and tears that go into every note. To use a music criticism cliche, she doesn’t sound like she wants to write and perform her songs so much as she seems like she has to, lest her emotions go unsaid and slowly kill her from the inside out.
As is the case with most live televised events these days, last year’s Grammys were met with a combination of disappointment and outrage. The disappointment came from the generally underwhelming nature of the night, which featured too many performances by artists no one really cared about (let’s just agree to never talk about that Sting and Shaggy collaboration ever again), and the outrage came from the reasons why certain artists didn’t perform, and who ended up winning the awards themselves. Bruno Mars swept Album, Song, and Record of the Year, shutting out more deserving candidates like Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z, and Lorde. The outrage was further exacerbated by the fact that those latter two artists weren’t even given a opportunity to perform. Jay Z apparently declined an invitation to do so, and Lorde backed out after they wouldn’t let her perform solo, and wanted to fold her into a Tom Petty tribute. Neil Portnow, the infinitely smug president of the Recording Academy, responded to the controversy surrounding Lorde’s absence and the dearth of televised awards going to female artists by calling on women to “step up,” comments that weren’t received warmly and may have lead to his decision to step down after his current contract expires.
I know what you’re thinking: it’s almost February, isn’t it a little late for another best of 2018 list? And you’re right! Pitchfork, Stereogum, and all of those other big outlets beat me to the punch by almost three months. But, in fairness to me, they had entire teams of writers vote on and write blurbs for their list, I had to do write ups on all 25 of these albums all by my lonesome (with some editorial oversight from the rest of the Postrider team, of course), and, oh my, was it work. Listening to hours of great music and then thinking and writing about it — I mean, how did I even do it? There was a time when I thought about abandoning this project — I’d already finished my “Best 30 Songs of 2018” list after all — but I put on a brave face and soldiered on. This is the Internet: I have obligation, nay a duty, to not only tell you what I thought the best records of the year are, put expound upon them as well. It’s my cross to bear, but I’ll do so gladly.
Looking back at my top 30 songs of 2017, I was reminded that there were several songs that could’ve taken the top spot. But, in 2018, there were really only a few select releases that dominated my year and that dominate this list, too. That’s not to take anything away from the other entries, though. 2018 yielded some powerful songs about loneliness, isolation, futility, and heartbreak. Some of them actually managed to be fun, too.
In the intro to last year’s piece, I also indicated that my tendency to use the words “top” to describe this is meant to try and split the difference between my “favorite” songs of the year and the “best” songs of the year. I guess I tried to do a similar thing this year, but I definitely skewed more towards favorite’s than general importance/impact, because it’s kind of hard to judge that kind of thing in the span of twelve months. Still, I’d suggest to you that these are my favorite songs of the year because I felt that had something vital to say and said it in a new, exciting, or generally pleasing way. I mean, why would I suggest that you listen to them otherwise?
Without further ado, here are my Top 30 Songs of 2018
30. “Kool Kids” – The Donkeys
A near eternal drought. Apocalyptic forest fires. The general presence of Elon Musk. These are dark days for California, the much-mythologized American wonderland where it’s always sunny and the surf is always up– and The Donkeys know it. Their 2018 concept album, Sun Damaged Youth, is all about a Golden State that’s been exiled from the U.S., transformed into a toxic wasteland, and isolated from the rest of the world by a giant foam barrier. It’s spirit lives on, though, through the kinds of youthful dreamers described in “Kool Kids.” Introduced by a fuzzy guitar that cuts through a psychedelic smog before becoming enveloped by it, Sam Sprague dreamily intones a host of teenage platitudes (“I know we’re gonna make it tonight,” “I saw your halo touching mine”) before giving way to a coda that gracefully struggles between the now noisier guitar and astral synths before the whole song dissolves into static.. The world around us may be fucked, The Donkeys seem to be saying, but the unflappable optimism that lives on inside teenage hearts and minds– the promise that there’s something better around the bend or across the country– is an idea that’ll live on.
29. “You’re So Happy I Could Cry” – The Number Ones
The Number Ones come from a beautiful, misremembered past — one where Cheap Trick was more punk, The Buzzcocks were more pop, and every broken-hearted teenager grooved to the same spikey singles.“You’re So Happy I Could Cry,” is the platonic ideal of a power pop song that exists from that kind of idealized past. The guitars are spunky and sprightly, the vocals are equal parts knowing and lustful, and the lyrics manage to be snotty and sympathetic at the same time. The song’s about how much it sucks to have the accomplishments of an ex thrown in for face, but its attitude is ultimately devil-may-care. When you can conjure up the sonic equivalent of a well-worn pair of Chelsea boots, a distressed leather jacket, and immaculately tousled hair, what else do you have to worry about?
28. “Respect Commander” – Jack White
Jack White has become the standard bearer for a kind of fundamentalist classicism, espousing the superior quality of vinyl records and the importance of using analogue recording equipment. These stances naturally put White at odds with hip-hop and electronica, two genres that rely heavily on samples, and, well, electronic instrumentation, which is a particular shame because White’s hometown of Detroit has played an important role in the history of both styles. “Respect Commander” is the ultimate reconciliation of Jack White’s conflicted feelings about his hometown and the music that came out of it. Opening with a typical White riff over a hip-hop beat, the track quickly transitions as the beat speeds up and conga drums, a rubber bullet bass, synths, and stretched out samples of Jack’s own voice are introduced to create a sort of Detroit house homage. This eventually dissipates to make way for a more traditionally bluesy rock song that features some of Jack White’s best guitar work of the decade before fading out with the original hip-hop beat. The “Respect Commander” in the title refers to Jack’s amorous lover from the lyrics, but it could also be used to describe the Third Man Records founder’s new appreciation for genres and styles that don’t fit into his predefined box of authenticity. What was once rigid has become pliable, and a whole frontier of possibilities for White awaits.
27. “Believe” – Amen Dunes
If I were a music critic of any knowledge and legitimacy, I’d tell you that what struck me most about “Believe” and the rest of the tracks on Amen Dunes’ Freedom is that they sounded a bit like George Michael. But, since I’m a filthy Millennial, the first thing they actually reminded me of was Rob Thomas’s dimestore imitations of Michael that won him a string of chart success in the mid-2000s. Those singles always followed the same formula — begin with an earnest opening verses that build to sweeping, gospel choir-backed choruses, rinse and repeat that two or three more times, and then load up for the blustery coda.
Now, there are a lot of things that separate Amen Dunes from Rob Thomas (a voice with a unique timbre and an actual knack for songwriting are just two examples), but the biggest one, in my mind, is how alone frontman Damon McMahon sounds. Instead of adding gospel choirs to simulate the sound of something holy, McMahon sings in silent prayer, coming to terms with God, heaven, his place in the universe, the future, the past, empty nostalgia, the all-powerful pull of the radio, and every other big, scary idea that comes to you in solitude. This lends the track a deeper intimacy, sure, but it also adds an element of fear. As the rising, angelic guitars transform into something darker, searching, and probing around the 2:05 mark, it feels like McMahon’s made a sort of metaphysical breakthrough, reached a state of zen so powerful it’s scary, so true it’s overwhelming. Revelation isn’t something you can fake, and it’s something you have to go it alone, no matter how twisting the road, and how black the void.
26. “Walking into the Sun” – La Luz
Maybe I’ve listened to too many pop songs from the 50s, but I’ve always found romantic longing to carry a sort of narcotic effect. Much like anticipation, it carries with it the (often false) promise of fulfilled expectations and release, but more often than not leaves the afflicted in a stupor with no clear expiration date. It’s intoxicating, infuriating, and a little be confusing — can attaining the object of your desire really feel as good as wanting them? “Walking into the Sun” explores that question through dreamy guitars, swirling organs, opulent harpsichords and swooning, cooing vocals, and ultimately decides to go for the prize. “What’s the point of being cool/All alone inside my room?” “What’s the use in being free/If you’ll give your heart to me?” We never hear from the other side of this lust, but the songs title and closing line seem invokes a happy ending and that tender guitar solo bursts like a joyous first kiss.
25. “Loading Zones” – Kurt Vile
Growing up, I would frequent a comic book store that was in a town that happened to have the worst parking situation in Western civilization. Instead of parking on the street or the chaotic strips mall lot that seemed to have a million exits and entrances, I’d sneak a spot in a gravel lot that was technically reserved for a beauty salon and consignment shop. As a chronic rule follower, doing so made me feel like I an outlaw, and, as I was in the comic book store going about my business and worrying that I might get a ticket, that sense of lawlessness quickly became one of contempt for the police, the other store owners, and anyone who might try and tell me how to park. I am the master of my breaks, the captain of my lot.
Kurt Vile expresses a similar antipathy for parking regulations in “Loading Zones,” where he brags about how he feels like the mayor of his Philly-neighborhood, entitling him to park in all manner of illegal ways while he gets his shopping done. It’s a goofy notion played fairly straight, that ends with gang vocals repetitiously declaring “I park for free!” while Vile rides out with a talk box solo. So often Vile’s music can feel stoned and aimless, the kind of thing that has no place outside of a smoke-filled basement. But “Loading Zones” is remarkably grounded and sturdy, a reflection, perhaps, of the boring, date like maturity that comes with feeling so strongly about where you park.
24. “Above the Bodega (Local Business)” – Titus Andronicus
One of the most endearing things about Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles is that, no matter how hard he tries to recast himself as a nihilistic, anti-authoritarian punk, he just can’t escape his Catholic roots. On “Above the Bodega (Local Business)” he embraces one of the oldest Catholic traditions — hiding your bad behavior from your parents. But even though he brags about how easy it is to keep a secret from his mother and father, he still embraces the very Catholic idea that someone is watching everything you do, knows everything you desire, and keeps a ledger of your every vice and indulgence. But in this case it isn’t God, it’s the guy who works the register at the bodega below Stickles’s apartment. He’s there for every late night cigarette purchase and every midday beer run,and has a register of dead presidents as proof of Stickles’s hedonistic ways — perhaps the only place, Stickles suggest, that holds his true self, the only place where he can’t lie anymore. This idea of being unable to shake your past comes through in the instrumentation as well, a Springsteen-esque shuffle full of “sha la las” and Stone Pony ready horns that explicitly reflect Stickles’s New Jersey upbringing. “Above the Bodega” is supposed to be humorous, sure, but buried within it is a solemn truth: there’s no escaping the things that made you, and no way to ever truly lie. Somebody, even if it’s just you or the guy you buy PBR from, will always know what you’ve done.
23. “Venice Bitch” – Lana Del Rey
It’s a little hard to remember now, but Lana Del Rey was absolutely despised by some people when she first launched her career in 2010. In hindsight, this seems to be as much a product of confusion than it was a genuine distaste for her music. Critics rolled their eyes when Del Rey’s supposed trailer park upbringing was revealed to be an exaggeration (she did live in a New Jersey trailer park for a little bit after college, but was born into a line of successful investment bankers and entrepreneurs) and what they saw as the vapid use of mid-20th Century iconography in her videos and lyrics. And that was all before she gave one of the worst musical performances in the history of Saturday Night Live. Who was this chick, and who the hell does she think she is?
“Venice Bitch” suggests she’s just a girl having a laugh. This psychedelic folk epic is a trainwreck in a flower crown, a pastiche of a million terrible hippy cliches that manages to create something erotic and monumental nonetheless. The first half pulls from a grab bag of contradictory imagery: Venice Beach bohemianism and Norman Rockwell’s idyllic suburbia. Hallmark cards and a leather fetish. Beauty and insanity. Eventually, the Born to Die-style, slightly baroque production dissipates into something a little airier, a six-minute-plus coda brought in with heavier drumming and fuzzy but formless guitars that end up dropping in and out with a theremin-inspired keys while Del Rey pouts out her broken would-be bridges. “Crimson and clover, honey” she repeats, a nod to the ultimate sex jam of the psych-pop era. “Over and over, honey,” she intones in turn, as she and the listener get swept up a kaleidoscopic crash of guitars and keys. Over and over, again and again, an endless feedback loop of empty nostalgia, an ouroboros of Americana. “Venice Bitch” is pure aesthetic, pure fetishization of a bygone era most people of Del Rey’s generation couldn’t begin to understand. But perhaps the point has always been that the kind of kitschy collages that youth build out of the detritus of past generations takes on a meaning all of its own. Or maybe Lana Del Rey really just likes pissing people off. Who knows.
22. “Not but for you, Bunny” – Sidney Gish
So much of No Dogs Allowed is meant to evoke the overwhelming feelings of insecurity and inadequacy that rear their heads in young adulthood, so it’s nice that Sidney Gish gets to sound blissed out for at least one track. “Not but for you, Bunny” is a bedroom pop reboot of “Genius of Love,” a deceptively danceable tune buoyed by a rubbery bassline, funk-tinged guitars and Gish’s breeziest vocals to date. The music perfectly captures the lighter than air feeling of being smitten while the lyrics channel the nervous energy that being in such a state invites. It doesn’t melt your worries away, per se, but gets you high enough off the skip in your own step to push those darker thoughts into the background.
21. “Remember My Name” – Mitski
Mitski has talked a lot about how a good chunk of her songwriting is actually about her relationship with music itself, and how it can be draining, frustrating, but, ultimately, the only thing she feels like she was meant to do. “Remember My Name” is a declaration of naked ambition that sees her (literally) reaching for the stars with outstretched arms, determined to leave her mark on at least one other person in this big, big world we live in. It’s one of the heavier songs on Be the Cowboy, and it’s gritty bass and crashing guitars, along with Mitski’s rising vocal melody, feel like they’re trying to beat the listener into remembering Mitski as she wants them too. What can I say? They do their job.
20. “After the Storm” – Kali Uchis feat. Tyler, the Creator and Bootsy Collins
Is there a more baller move than getting funk legend Bootsy Collins, one of the greatest bassists of all time– a man who played with James Brown, for Christ’s sake– to spit some serious game on your debut, full-length album? It’s a little hard to believe someone would have that kind of chutzpah until you hear the self-assured vocals Kali Uchis serves up on the smooth as butter “After the Storm,” an ode to keeping on keeping on and betting on yourself. Halfway through Tyler, the Creator comes in and mixes his baritone flow to the pleasant R&B soup, adding the pleasing final ingredient to this louche menage a trois of stars past, present, and future.
19. “Need a Little Time” – Courtney Barnett
One of the crueler realities of human life is that we can never take a break from ourselves. We can remove ourselves from all kinds of people and situations, but at the end of the day, we’ll be trapped in the same body and in the same mind for the rest of our lives. Courtney Barnett is keenly aware of this exhausting truth, and it informs the lyrics of “Need a Little Time,” a weary, laconic rock song that plugs along with deliberate, melodic verses before ascending into a crunchy chorus. In “Pedestrian at Best,” Barnett complained that she was “overworked and undersexed,” here, she’s trying something, anything at all, to alleviate the overstimulation that comes with being a global rock star. There’s no indication that she’s ever successful in her quest, but she manages to find beauty in her attempts to make her life as spare as possible nonetheless.
18. “Poison” – David Nance Group
“Poison” is easily the most traditionally structured song on Peaced and Slightly Pulverized, David Nance Group’s feedback-drenched exploration of Neil Youngian guitar rock, but even then, it’s constantly teetering on the edge of becoming nothing more than a crunchy, rhythmic stomp. Not that that’s a bad thing — the song’s trampling beat and Titus Andronicus adjacent riffs inject a welcome dose of bar band grit into a year where even the scruffiest of indie heroes went in slightly more refined, laid back directions. Growth and sophistication are great and all, but sometimes all you want to do is hear a long-haired dude screaming over a caterwaul of guitar and pianos while you take six shots of Jameson to the face.
17. “High Horse” – Kacey Musgraves
Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour is probably the boldest country record of the decade. It takes a genre defined by the opposing poles of hardcore credibility worship (Chris Stapleton, Margo Price) and unapologetic pop shilling (Keith Urban, Florida Georgia Line), and dares to introduce strains of disco and electro-pop alongside traditional instruments like banjo and pedal-steel guitars. It follows then, that Musgraves — whose open about her affinity for weed and acid and has never been supported much by country radio — would anticipate some flack from a conservative industry and fanbase. Not one to get caught off guard, Musgraves outfitted Golden Hour with a built-in rebuke to such naysaying purists. “High Horse” is all about brushing off a guy who’s “classic in the wrong way” by throwing all of his favorite Western cliches back in his face in the most danceable way possible, sure, but this rhinestone disco ball of a “fuck you” works as a conversion method as well. If you’re so caught up in what country music “should be” that you find yourself thumbing your nose at this glittering, in-the-pocket dancefloor delight instead of jamming along, well, then that’s kind of your fault, not the music’s.
16. “Old Friend” – Mitski
In a catalogue full of songs that could be described as heartbreaking, “Old Friend” stands out as perhaps Mitski’s most devastating composition yet. Its stately synths and Mitski’s almost deadpan tone hide the hurt behind its lyrics. Just because the broken-up relationship the singer describes is seemingly mutual, that doesn’t make the act of separation any easier. Coordinating when to tell everyone else in your life about it, when you two will talk about it, and how you’ll react when you see things that remind you of each other is a whole other mountain to climb, and “Old Friend” perfectly captures the feeling of putting on your bravest face when all you want to do is bawl your eyes out.
15. “All My Fears” – ShitKid
I wrote on my old blog about how ShitKid is a great example of a young Millennial drawing on the music of their youth (read: The White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) instead of relying on the underground standard bearers of previous generations (The Velvet Underground and Pavement, for example) for inspiration. Nowhere is this more apparent than “All My Fears,” a surprisingly spacious Spoon-homage buoyed by a four on the floor drum machine, slashing guitars, and rumbling synths. It’s hard not to look at the romanticized Meet Me in the Bathroom-era bands and think that they might not all be a little washed up, and, between Julian Casablancas’s political ramblings and James Murphy’s struggle with gout, there’d be plenty of evidence to back up that claim. But “All My Fears” shows that the fire they lit in the 18-32 year crowd is very real, and ShitKid demonstrates that something new and exciting can still be built from it.
14. “The Story of Adidon” – Pusha T
The history of rap is filled with legendary diss tracks, but have any ever cut as deep or felt as violent as “The Story of Adidon?” Built on the beat from Jay Z’s “The Story of O.J.,” Pusha T’s response to Drake’s “Duppy Freestyle” (which itself was a response to Pusha’s “Infrared”) pulls no punches when it comes to the failings of its target. Even the album’s “artwork” — a photo of Drake in blackface — makes a powerful statement that, when paired with Nina Simone’s pitch-shifted warbles of “my skin is black,” turns into a scathing implication. Just as he promised it would be, Pusha’s dissection of Drake’s flaws is surgical. He teases the big reveal with provocative references to Drake’s divorced parents, his father’s absence, and a woman named Sophie before dropping the year’s biggest bomb: “You are hiding a child, let that boy come home/Deadbeat motherfucker playing border patrol,” two lines that revealed to the world that Drake was hiding a love child he had with a French pornstar. Pusha ends the revelatory couplet with a startled “ooo!,” as if he’s surprised with the amount of blood generated from the verbal knife he just plunged into Champagne Papi’s throat. It’s like the Jordan shrug of rap beefs.
“The Story of Adidon” is vicious and, by the time Pusha gets to mocking Ovo 40’s multiple sclerosis, undeniably cruel. But what makes the track so memorable is that, for the most part, Pusha T is right. Drake not only (allegedly) tried to pressure Sophie Brussaux into an abortion, but then (allegedly) had the gall to leverage his son’s reveal into an Adidas marketing campaign. This makes it tempting to think that, outside of the revelation it contained, “The Story of Adidon” was so appealing because people viewed it as justice being served. But the sicker truth is that an audience loves a good murder, and we were all salivating at the idea of Pusha T pulling off the musical equivalent of strapping Drake to an operating table and skinning him alive. Yeuck.
13. “Four Out of Five” – Arctic Monkeys
“Four Out of Five” stands out as one of the few songs on Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino to retain the rock beats found on preceding Arctic Monkeys albums, but that doesn’t diminish its evocative lyrics and world building. Alex Turner sells the ultimate experience in lunar luxury, a gauche entertainment complex in a gentrifying neighborhood outfitted with its own rooftop taqueria and plenty of opportunities for sleazy fun. Theremin-inspired flourishes and a starry-eyed bridge reflect the rest of the album’s glammy aspirations whereas the fuzzy guitars hint at the track’s more sinister undertones. Lounging away in a sci-fi cabaret while the rest of the solar system burns outside sounds morally repulsive, sure, but wouldn’t you much rather be comfortable inside than scrounging away out there? Try hard enough, Turner suggests, and you can warp your values to make all you willful ignorance feel justified, too. Hell, maybe you’re already doing it.
12. “Short Court Style” – Natalie Prass
As a music critic, it’s my job to analyze songs and albums and explain why they’re good or bad. Doing so is a lot easier said than done — sometimes, a song just works. I found myself in such a predicament when I sat down to write about “Short Court Style,” a bouncy, groovy little track that finds Virginia native Natalie Prass playing with the funkier side of soul. Most of The Future and the Past addresses the various social upheavals facing the world. While anyone who’s turned on the news recently has little to be optimistic about, Prass suggests that, if modern times are gonna be so glum, we might as spend them with the one you love, cuz “when it fits, it fits.” And when a song bops like this one, what can I say, it just bops.
11. “Sicko Mode” – Travis Scott feat. Drake
If I have one gripe with trap’s dominance of the rap zeitgeist (and trust me, I have more than one), is that it takes a genre whose very nature is to be malleable and expansive and makes it considerably more earthbound, shackling it with rigid 808s and triplet flows. The acid-tinged “Sicko Mode”, a labyrinthine, black-lit funhouse that hides a fun little auditory surprise around every corner, is a welcome respite from such strictures. Travis Scott’s and Drake’s endless stream of air travel, drugs, drinks, and women sounds positively cosmic when cushioned with the production team’s chewy, gummy synths and the various vocal samples and hooks interjected throughout that feel like the snippets of memory you have after a blackout. Despite (or perhaps because of) the track’s evocation of altered states of being, “Sicko Mode’s” three movements remain darkly cinematic: Act 1 sees Drake lamenting his “dawg’s” desperate materialism, in Act II Travis Scott experiences the intoxicating feeling of being on top of the world, and Act III sees Drake looking at his current luxuries and indulgences in the context of his humble(-ish) origins. I’ve seen some writers compare “Sicko Mode” to the mini-suites written by prog artists like Rush and Pink Floyd, but to me, those artists always seemed to sacrifice sound for narrative. That Scott and Drake manage to create something as structurally ambitious in the form of an addictive sonic drug puts them in a creative class all their own.
10. “I’ll Make You Sorry” – Screaming Females
Today’s modern rock landscape seems to put a premium on “vulnerability,” creating the expectation that young artists (especially women) are expected to give the listener an exhaustive overview of their anxieties and traumas in an attempt to be taken seriously. While this can lead to great work, it doesn’t always seem like these artists have anything to say about vulnerability itself. The reality is that being vulnerable is an incredibly difficult and scary thing to do, and that fact tends to get glossed over in the modern music discourse. Enter Screaming Females, a ferocious heavy punk band from New Jersey, and “I’ll Make You Sorry,” the surprisingly, well, vulnerable centerpiece from their excellent 2018 album All at Once. The track, anchored by a driving, muddy bassline and lead singer/guitarist Marissa Paternoster’s typically flaming licks, is at once a threat and a confession. Paternoster isn’t reacting to being hurt so much as she’s reacting to the expectation that’ll she’ll be hurt, an unfortunate side effect of opening herself up to love once again after a long journey through the emotional wilderness. That mix of strength, fear, and reluctant yearning is bracing, almost rousing, and touches on an emotional complexity that’s tough to find in any genre.
9. “Your Dog” – Soccer Mommy
The obvious point of comparison for “Your Dog” (and really any rock song about dogs) is The Stooges’ depraved “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” in which Iggy Pop makes a series of vague yet sinister-sounding sexual demands of his lover (“In my room, I want you here”) so he can reach a place of transcendence (“And now I’m ready to feel your hand/”And lose my heart in the burning sands”). Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison offers a stiff rebuke to Pop’s (and by extension, the rest of popular music’s) tendency to objectify women by quite explicitly stating that she will not, in fact, be your dog– a submissive source of pleasure for men to do with what they please.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about feminist inversions of rock’s canonical tropes without mentioning Liz Phair, an obvious touchstone for Soccer Mommy and thousands of other female-focused indie bands. Allison doesn’t write as well as Phair (at least not yet), but she has a better feel for hooks and grooves as evidenced by “Your Dog”’s angular bassline and a palette of guitars that bounce, melt, and whittle away at the iron will of the song’s antagonist. Allison reveals in due course that she’s saying all of these bold things because she’s succumbed to the whims of her foe in the past, and this only lends the song a stronger sense of confrontation, like spitting a defiant stream of your own blood into the face of whoever just struck you.
8. “One Rizla” – Shame
Sometimes the most rebellious thing a person can do is not care. That’s the approach taken by Shame on “One Rizla,” a song that reacts to the frustration of youth by mocking the very idea of trying to be exceptional or lovable in the first place. Through ringing guitars and ironically rousing vocals, the band paints a succinct picture of physical, moral, and sartorial decay, embracing the ugly nihilism that gave birth to the UK’s original punk rock movement. While not explicitly political, “One Rizla” does, in part, feel like a defeatist reaction to the political zeitgeist’s rightward turn; that instead of pushing against reactionary forces, the wiser, more practical choice is to remove yourself from the discourse and political process altogether. This a stunningly cynical take, but one Shame have no qualms defending against their more socially conscious critics: “You’re clinging to conflict/Just let it go/Just let it go.”
7. “Timefighter” – Lucy Dacus
One thing that 2018 seemed to lack a bit of was genuine guitar heroics. Even Jack White, the most celebrated axman of the 21st Century, shied away a bit from his face melting tendencies in favor of funkier experiments with hip-hop and electronica. There was one track who’s fretwork floored me, though, and it came in an unexpected place. I had always tended to sort Lucy Dacus in with other indie singer/songwriters like Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers (they should start a band together, or something), and, as such, always thought of her occupying the gentler, wispier side of the musical spectrum. And while her voice contains a certain warmth and comfort to it on even the darkest tracks of Historian, what really blew me away was the crushing guitars of “Timefighter.” The track’s beat somehow swings and lumbers at the same time, providing a spare backdrop for Dacus’s bluesy vocals and some clean, snaking guitar melodies that gradually morph into sturdier licks. The tension grows and grows, Lucy’s guitar becomes more and more distorted, and then she brings it all crashing down with a bruising lead that sets the tone for the rest of the song. Dacus uses these blasts of power chords as points of emphasis between her more melodic phrases, but they pack so much punch (one strike, in particular, makes her amp let out a yelp of feedback) they end up leaving the biggest impression. Dacus has explained in interviews that the song is so raucous because it’s meant to evoke the heaviness of “recognizing your own death.” If death is ushered in by such beautiful squalls, then maybe it’s not so scary after all.
6. “FUN!” – Vince Staples
What’s always appealed to me about Vince Staples’s songwriting is the blurry, almost stream-of-conscious blend of street life and reluctant celebrity that populate his verses. Whereas Kendrick Lamar’s writing seems to have been separated from the testier moments of his youth long enough to develop a sense of survivor’s guilt, Staples still feels inextricably linked to his hometown of Long Beach, and constantly ping pongs back and forth between the poverty of his youth and material success of his adulthood on most of his tracks. “FUN!”’s hyphy beat emulates those ping ponging mindsets, as Vince spits in front of what sounds like a particularly turned-up block party about his sudden wealth (“You know how we comin,’ comin’ from nothin’, I got/Christian Dior, I’m Crippin’ Bjork”), his local pride (“I’m so Norfy, my locs go viral for me”) and the prevalence of violence in his community (“My black is beautiful but I’ll still shoot at you”). Underpinning all of this conflict, though, is a desire to make good, which is what it seems having “fun” is all about (or, “we don’t want to fuck up nothin’’). E-40’s shamefully infectious verse suggests as much, a call to the dancefloor couched in the casual violence and misogyny that haunts most rap music, but that people of all genders vibe to anyway. You can have as much fun as you want, you can make more money than God, but, at the end of the day, there’s no escaping the places and traumas that made you.
5. “Finally Floating” – Hinds
I think the most distressed I’ve felt after waking up from a dream was in college when I -dreamt that I finally confessed my love for a girl I had a thing for the entire semester, after which we made out and made our way through what felt like a weird Medieval village that was slowing being flooded (I have weird dreams). When I woke up and found out that the girl and I were not holding hands and prancing through my weird subconscious version of Middle Earth, I was furious. I was mad at myself for not acting on my feelings, sure, but mostly mad at my dumb brain for putting me through such a painful tease in the first place. And really, I find that a combination of anger and lust is what makes up most forms of romantic longing; you get pissed that you can’t stop thinking about someone.
Hinds channel that sort of rage into something anthemic on “Finally Floating,” the spirited centerpiece of their sophomore release, I Don’t Run. Lead vocalists Carlotta Cosials and Ana Garcia Perrote deliver asynchronous verses that mimic their racing nighttime thoughts, the kind that keep you up at night and have you wondering if you’ll ever fall asleep again. Eventually, their voices unite to ascend to their battle cry of a chorus that acts as an assertion of their obsession, and declaration of unhealthy attachment to a person who may or may not be theirs. Garage rock is full of invigorating slogans (“Shake some action!” “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!”), and while “Finally Floating”’s chorus isn’t the pithiest in the world, it ranks about the most truthful, and the most fun to shout along to when you just can’t get someone out of your head.
4. “How Simple” – Hop Along
Hop Along is all about taking things any person is liable to see while going about their life and mining it for every ounce of drama, history, and cosmic meaning possible. Lead singer Francis Quinlan often approaches this task with a literary sense of detail and imagery, but on “How Simple,” she’s at a bit of a loss for words. Her lyrics are slightly more stream of consciousness, pondering her indie famous status, how she’ll age, and lamenting the simplicity of her heart. The bridge lends us clues to try and piece together what’s triggered all of this,(my guess is that it has something to do with an unwelcome pass from a childhood friend), and the song builds to its almost danceable conclusion. In past Hop Along songs, the melodrama from these moments was reflected in the music, with punchier guitars and Quinlan going her broke with her strong/scratchy voice. “How Simple” is a more controlled and layered burst of energy, mixing in strategically placed keys, “oh woah”-ing backing vocals and a mix of acoustic and electric guitars that reflect pop sensibilities the group had previously kept obfuscated. Anybody can hit a punching bag as hard as they can, but only a few can stop their fist an inch short. Hop Along manage to do that with “How Simple,” creating a graceful, instant indie rock classic in the process
3. “Imposter Syndrome” – Sidney Gish
Sidney Gish has proven herself to be a woman of many talents, the most underrated of which is her mastery of multi-tracking her own vocals and shifting what channel they come through as if to mimic the own darting voices that rush through your head. That’s how she opens “Imposter Syndrome.” Eventually, this bit of studio wizardry takes a back seat to a confessional vocal presented in stereo, and her chronicle of young adult insecurities takes flight. “Imposter Syndrome” is about being too clever by half, about being so inside your own head you start to wonder if you have more in common with a dog than other human beings. Anyone currently in college or just out of it should be able to relate: you know you’re smart, but the rest of the world seems to be telling you that there’s an extremely limited set of things you are qualified to do. Heck, even going to Walmart feels like a task out of your depth. What’s the point in trying? Why not just anesthetize yourself with some pleasant drum machines and double-tracked guitars like the kind Gish serves up to us here? The irony, of course, is that she echoes these concerns over a pristine indie pop track that’s completely of her own making. Even if she has something left to prove, it’s clear she’ll have no problem doing it. And therein lies the hope in this song: the promise of re-invention and creation. That at any moment, if you really wanted to, you could hop on a plane and start all over, even launch a music career from your bedroom. You’ll never stop thinking you’re an imposter, sure, but maybe competence is just that magical inflection point where the things you can trick other people into thinking you can do become the things you can trick yourself into thinking you can do Maybe we’re all faking it.
2. “Pristine” – Snail Mail
In his 2018 Netflix special Kid Gorgeous, the recently-turned-30-year-old John Mulaney details his slow descent into oldness. He feels moist everywhere, he talks through burps, but most of all, he can’t stand new music. “Every song is about how tonight is the night, and we only have tonight. That’s such 19-year-old horseshit.”
To a certain extent, I agree with Mulaney, especially when you consider that this “19-year-old horseshit” is more likely than not being written by songwriters and producers far from their teenage years, and performed by artists whose experience with “tonight” being the night is vastly different than that of their listeners. They may be young, but Ariana Grande and Ed Sheeran have very different social lives than the rest of the population. Their version of tonight being the night is aspirational at best, fantastical at worse, and in no way relatable to how the average young person lives their life.
Where I will differ with Mulaney is by pointing out that actual 19-year-old horseshit, as in, the kind written by real 19-year-olds, has the chance to be really great, even transcendent. Such is the case with “Pristine,” the song that kicked off Snail Mail mastermind and genuine 19-year-old Lindsay Jordan’s world-conquering year, and secured her spot as the face of contemporary indie rock. “Pristine” is all nerves and hormones, an ode to a love that lies somewhere between unrequited and irrational, a loud bash of teenage feelings that most adolescents would sooner die before broadcasting on one of the biggest records of the year. But, most of all, this song is obsessed with what it can’t have. Because what it can’t have is pristine and perfect, what it can’t have makes every party feeling the same. It sees what it can’t have in everything and everyone. These are sentiments that everyone who’s been young and hopelessly in love has held, and they bring up a bunch of questions that “Pristine” asks as well. Who do you change for? Who’s top of your world? Who’s your type of girl? Trying to find some reason, any reason, that this thing you’ve fantasized about might work out. In our real lives, most of us react like Jordan in the first verse, morosely sighing “anyway” and moving on to the next heartbreak. But what makes “Pristine” so vital is that it dares to ask these bigger questions, and then asserts itself, declaring that it isn’t going anywhere, and that’s just something it’s going to have to live with, but dammit, it’s something it’s proud of, too.
There are some people who just don’t like rock music, and that’s fine. But I’ll always feel bad for those people. When they felt the way most 19-year-olds feel, what did they turn to? Because, for my money, there’s nothing that captures the sullen nature of lovesick youth like a melancholy guitar and a song that starts out meekly, almost weeping, before it builds and builds and builds into something unapologetic that proudly declares the things we’re too embarrassed to say out loud ourselves. Often times, we look to music to say these things because we’re afraid they’ll come off as pathetic, or cheesy, or painfully naive, and we want to save ourselves from embarrassment. But when you hear someone sing them, and you hear the power of the music behind the person singing them, those things become profound and universal. You realize the singer’s experience is yours, and your experience theirs. So, yes, “Pristine” is 19-year old horseshit, but let’s not pretend 19-year-old horsehsit isn’t genuine, isn’t a valuable resource, and that it doesn’t bring you back to somewhere painful and beautiful.
So close your eyes, conjure up an image of that person, and sing it with me now: “…love anyone else, I’LL NEVER LOVE ANYONE ELSE”
1. “Nobody” – Mitski
It’s never been easier to be alone than it is today. Nearly everything a person might want to do can be accomplished within the comfort of their own home. Seeing a movie? Netflix. Shopping? Amazon. Concerts? Shit, even those are live streamed now. But, despite how easy it is to be alone, that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to be lonely, to be starved of human contact. When we’re lonely, our minds wander, we fantasize, and we yearn for the magic of the outside world and the people who seem to inexplicably function within it so well. Everything and nothing seems possible all at once.
It’s that feeling of loneliness — the painful kind that nonetheless elicits a hysterical, seemingly joyous reaction — that Mitski captures so well in “Nobody.” It’s the kind of song a person might dance alone to in their room using a hairbrush as a microphone, sure, but it’s rooted in a sadness and sense of incompleteness that makes it tragic. Mitski isn’t asking for much, just one kiss like she’s seen in the movies, the most basic form of romantic human contact, but even then, she can’t get it. There’s an irony, then, to “Nobody” being in a disco song. It’s inviting hi-hats and shiny pianos that dissolve into space and suggest a dance floor full of other people, swaying together and enjoying each other’s company, trying to, if only temporarily, forge something communal. The song’s success, and the way it has resonated with so many people, hint at that paradox as well: if so many people insist that there is “Nobody” out there, then who are the 8 million other people who’ve streamed this song on Spotify? The couple hundred people I saw Mitski with at the 9:30 Club? Does it make sense to claim loneliness when there are actual metrics that show there are people who feel the same way you do? Or are we doomed to be alone together, too accustomed to the sound of our own voice, and too in-step with the raging discoteque inside of us and our own bedrooms, to notice anyone else? Whatever the reason for our shared solitude, it’s nice to know that we were able to unite around something this year even if as Mitski’s voice suggests as it slows down and gets scratchier towards the song’s end, such introverted euphoria is ephemeral at best. But the way this moment mimics a record slowing down suggests something elliptical and constant about it, as well. Actual connection is a hard thing to find, but the temporary joy of losing yourself in your own joyous seclusion? That’s just one push of the play button away.
I’ve been to 17 shows this year, and I’ve realized that, for most of them, especially the ones at the 9:30 Club, I’ve taken one of two positions. I either post up as close to the stage as possible to get the best view and, who knows, maybe catch the eye of one of my heroes, or I stand on the balcony and lean on the railing, which, while lacking in intimacy, provides a degree of comfort.
I’m usually able to finesse these spots because I’m a little obsessive about getting to the venue right when doors open. It’s never made much sense to me to show up after or during the opener because, by that point, you’ve missed out on half of the fun. Also, who knows where you’ll end up for the rest of the show. But, for reasons I won’t delve into so as to protect a fellow Postrider contributor from further embarrassment, I didn’t show up to Mitski’s Friday show at 9:30 until about half an hour after doors opened and had to wait on a decent (and slow-moving) line before I could pick up my tickets at will call (they really need to put a second window at that place) and get through the front door. As a result, we ended up standing further back in the venue than is customary for me, causing us to mix with a type of patron more energetic than the people who fight their way to the front or those who can’t be bothered with the effort of the crowd and hang out in the balcony instead. Though it was an unusual position for me to be in, it just so happened that being among the hoi polloi was the perfect place to experience this iteration of Mitski’s live show.
I first saw Mitski live in 2016 when she was touring in support of Puberty 2 and, truth be told, I was a little underwhelmed. She and her band hadn’t yet mastered how to bring her short and wispy songs to life in a compelling and charismatic way. There was an air of aloofness to the proceedings, as well – Mitski spent the majority of the set hiding behind a bulky bass guitar and didn’t speak much to the crowd. Her talent as a songwriter and a singer (I really don’t think we talk enough about how impressive Mitski’s voice is) were on display, sure, but she didn’t really feel like much of a performer yet. To be fair, this is partially to be expected – Mitski is a self-admitted introvert for whom the act of songwriting is intensely personal. It’s the mere act of song-smithing that’s important to Mitski, not performing those songs live in front of hundreds of people., And for someone who doesn’t naturally meld with others, reproducing a connection on stage night after night must be difficult. Add in that, during her most recent album cycle, she’s talked about how uncomfortable she is with people appropriating her largely narrative, character-based songs to fit their emotional needs, and you get the image of a reluctant pop star, a person thrust into the spotlight not because they crave it, but because their talent demands it. If I were Mitski, I’d probably come to hate touring, too.
For her Be the Cowboy tour, Mitski seems to have devised a solution to this dilemma. Instead of just showing up on an empty stage and rocking out like some many other bands do (and do well), Mitski stands at the unquestioned center of the stage, flanked by her guitarist and drummer on stage right, and bassist and keyboardist on stage left, in front of a projection screen, in intense chiaroscuro lighting, while she executes a series of choreographed motions. Instead of the confessional singer-songwriter exposed on stage, she’s– in the spirit of her new album– an actress, portraying through her songs a woman possessed, a woman enthralled, a woman seducing, a woman named Mitski. It’s unapologetically performative and theatrical and functions not only for the artist’s comfort but also for the audience’s enjoyment. Her moves range from a sort of arty calisthenics, to nervously pacing back and forth across the stage, to throwing her head back and almost convulsing, to falling on her back and kicking her feet up in the air like Tom Cruise. It’s as much performance art as rock show and a much more refreshing than it is pretentious.
Really, there’s something almost religious about the entire experience. For Mitski, the act of musical performance is a ritual, something that needs to be planned out and controlled to satisfy the true meaning of her songs. We in the audience may as well be a congregation watching a high priestess perform some kind of sacred rites. Our cleric, in her flowing white blouse, stretched her arms out to us, to the heavens, to the altar of music itself, and we followed her example, singing along to her hymns and psalms in turn.
Whether Mitski was pacing back and forth during “Frances Forever,” or throwing her head back in anguish during “Happy,” she seemed to be simulating equal parts demonic possession and religious ecstasy. In no song was this more apparent than “First Love/Late Spring,” where a smiling, benevolent Mitski opened up her palm under a glowing yellow light to encourage the audience to sing along to a song that includes a Japanese couplet; when we, as a collective, sang it, sounded like congregation speaking in tongues. There was a similar effect during the first verse of “Your Best American Girl,” when Mitski only had to say “karaoke?” for us to get the drift, and then, she, with her microphone offered up to the crowd, let us incantate words she had written. I felt like Peggy Olson being gifted a popsicle by her suddenly Christ-like mother. We were completely equal in her eyes.
The notion of rock and roll as religion is hardly a new one. Many of the greatest singers of all time, such as Aretha Franklin, got their start performing in the church and channeled that energy into the development of soul. Jerry Lee Lewis was literally studying to become a preacher before he realized he did a better job egging on sin than discouraging it, and The Hold Steady have made an entire career off of melding Catholic imagery with tales of drug abuse and 80s indie rock. In his new book Twilight of the Gods, Steven Hyden goes as far as to suggest that classic rock will live on through a form of pseudo-worship by a group of zealots who consider records like Led Zeppelin IV and Blood on the Tracks as religious texts. But the divine undertones of what happened at the 9:30 Club seemed almost subconsciously communal, the last attempts of a generation drifting further and further from institutions trying to grab onto some sort of collective identity.
Even Mitski’s anecdotes, about her hotel, her Danny DeVito worshipping alma mater, and her Bandcamp page, felt less like stage banter and more like homilies designed to humanize an ecclesiastic figure and loosen up the folks sitting in the pews. This isn’t to say that Mitski was being disingenuous or patriarchal – quite to the contrary, she seems like a delight – but it’s hard not to think that the woman whose opener described her as a “goddess” doesn’t hold some kind of sanctified sway over her audience.
This pseudo-religious experience got me thinking about my fellow congregants, too. Namely, I asked, who were these people who, like me, packed into a standing room venue two hours to midnight to see this indie famous artist play? Why didn’t I know any of these people, even though we share something so personal and profound in common? Do these people all know each other, and am I the only one missing out on a weekly Bury Me at Makeout Creek-study group? Where did we all come from?
I think a lot about Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, a vaguely alarmist take on political science and sociology that argues Americans are drifting further and further away from civic groups like religious organizations, social clubs, and even bowling leagues, and that this de-institutionalization has resulted in a learned distrust of our fellow man, precipitating a corrosive effect on our civil society and democracy. I wonder if this logic could be applied to sub-cultural “scenes” as well and if the increasingly insular way we consume music has a deteriorating effect on the groups that defined significant rock movements of the past. We all listen to the same bands, sometimes dress the same way, but, in my experience, at least, don’t really engage with each other.
Taking this into account, Mitski’s stage show takes on a whole new meaning as not just a communal experience but a communal experience shared by a group of individuals equally as starved for human contact. There’s a great irony to this, of course, and maybe it’s self-pitying to suggest that a group of a thousand people are lonely, but the evidence is there. After all, we express as much in the opening lines of one of our most famous hymns:
Oh God I’m so lonely, so I open the window/to hear sounds of people