Tuesday, January 1, 2019

the top 50 best songs of 2018

The tagline that I've always had with this list is that it's the hardest to make, but let me qualify it: it's the one that easily requires the most work. And considering this is the year where I reviewed more albums than ever before, you'd think for the sheer volume of material this would be excruciating to assemble...

But in truth, this top 50 list actually fell out pretty quickly, at least with respect to the volume of music I've consumed. It still takes a lot of refinement to go through the best songs of any given year, but the truth about 2018 was that for as many songs as I loved, most of them were concentrated onto specific albums, which might lead to a slightly less diverse list as a whole. And if there was a year where my qualification that I can only put up to three songs from any given album on this list was tested... yeah, it was here. And yet even with that qualification, this list is kind of all over the place - little more hip-hop heavy than previous years and we'll get into why on my final list - and I'll freely admit there isn't quite as much metal or electronic music I'd prefer, but I needed to be honest with this one. Keep in mind songs from albums I covered on the Trailing Edge are eligible, and that if you don't see any songs from an album I loved earlier this year, there's no guarantee it won't show up on a different list - some albums don't put out the best individual songs and vice-versa. 

But no more wasting time, let's get this started!




So Eric Taxxon put out a ton of music this year and I'm well-behind in listening to everything - hopefully will be working to fix that next year, but in the mean time, from his gloriously incisive plunderphonics record we have this, a mashup of four songs so intricate and seamless it's a little alarming how well the damn thing works, especially when the final sample is integrated. And what I really love is how this truly feels like a greater sum of its parts - I'm not a big fan of any of these songs on their own even as they can all be alarmingly catchy, but when fused together... yeah, it's something delirious and special.



Look, I'm still convinced that Desperate Man the album as a whole feels weirdly hollow - it's a record made as Eric Church tries to find some clarity and artistic core, and it sadly didn't stick nearly as much as I wanted. But of course, there are exceptions, and this title track is absolutely the biggest one: the swampy bass groove, the southern soul, the fragments of guitar sparking off the miss, the weird hooting backing vocals, and lyrics that show Eric Church out of his comfort zone and element... but throwing everything to the winds anyway because he's just that desperate. Spoilers, this is a theme that'll come up a lot in this list, but in the mean time, this is a terrific song.



Courtney Marie Andrews probably gets the most credit for her voice and her uncanny ability to say a lot with sparse details, but what makes 'Rough Around The Edges' click so damn well is the sense of atmosphere. The pianos and guitars are allowed to linger in a mix that feels huge and ever so slightly dusty thanks to the gentle percussion, but there's a warmth to her vulnerability that makes its honesty feel so much more homegrown and striking. It's an enveloping, very human song in its weary loneliness, with the sort of fine detail that only compliments her stunning voice. Raw but tempered, it's not the first time Courtney Marie Andrews has made this list, and I reckon it won't be the last.



Looking back, I'm still a little stunned that no cuts from Blurryface wound up on my lists in 2015, because with songs like 'Not Today' and 'Fairly Local' and 'The Judge', there were some that were close. And yet in 2018, with an album I'm significantly cooler on than most and liked less than Blurryface, we have 'The Hype', a bouncy moment of brightness within Trench that stands out all the more starkly with a terrific hook that also uses its size to its advantage as Tyler Joseph ramps up the intensity and brings one of the most triumphant ukelele bridges I've ever heard to a fantastic climax. And in contrast to so much of 2018... yeah, he might not believe the hype, but I certainly do.



I think everyone was expecting Frank Turner to come out the gate with a stronger album than Be More Kind, and while I stand by the assertion it's a good album, it's not a great one and absolutely a letdown. But that's more because '1933' set the mood of mingled, howling frustration and rage so effectively that I think everyone wanted more of it. The fat grind of the bassline, the sharp percussion, the frenetic guitars, and Frank Turner returning to the melodic punk howl that has epitomized his best songs, it's a track that's not afraid to shove real nuance in between its curdled barroom anger, knowing that there's no easy answers to any of this and that just might be the most infuriating part, less meeting in the middle and more an exasperated call that something can be done, right? Yeah, shame the rest of the album couldn't measure up, but this kicked ass all the same.



Again, I can't help but appreciate the irony that this is the first year BROCKHAMPTON has made my list, with a closing song that shows a band just as frustrated and alienated and then giving their audience a shout for those within the system who can't afford to protest in the same way. It's a dark ending for a complicated album, and between the whiplash transitions off the organ and pianos to twisted moments of creepiness, and one of the most propulsive percussion buildups you'll hear all year, BROCKHAMPTON took youthful vulnerability coaxed through a dank haze of internet mirrors, and made an anthem.



Look, sometimes it's complicated, sometimes it's not, and with Anderson East and 'Cabinet Door', he brought a wealth of detail to his storytelling from the perspective of an old widower lamenting the loss of his wife off the spare piano and organ for a heartbreaking soulfulness that seems aged beyond its years. And yeah, hints of the pianoline might owe something to Elton John's 'Candle In The Wind', but I'm almost convinced the parallel is intentional in lending the song even more size and gravitas. But yeah, you're all here for Anderson East's tremendous voice, and his melancholy is almost enough to convince you it's a story he's lived instead of told - if that's not the mark of quality, I don't know what is.



Heh, I bet there's a whole slew of you surprised that this made the list - because it shouldn't work. I said in my review of her self-titled debut that Ella Mai is not the most dynamic or promising R&B artist breaking right now, and I'm not really a fan of any of her hits produced by DJ Mustard... and yet by some miracle they put together an absolutely stunning, subtle piano ballad that shifts into one of the most striking melodic climaxes accented by gospel you'll hear in this genre all year! And again, there's a warmth and yearning charm to a cut like this that makes love seem so damn easy... if only, Ella Mai, but I appreciate the note of hope.



Look, I'm not saying the only reason this made my list is because I saw Florence + The Machine live this year and she performed this song... but holy shit, somehow we wound up with three piano ballad tearjerkers in a row! And yeah, I'm fine with that - it's the sort of song where Florence makes the conscious choice to step away from being ruled by her passions to fill a void within, but to send those emotions off she'll set them alike against gleaming sparks of synth, touches of strings, and a huge choral backdrop that knows just when to step away and Florence's stunning vocals take to the forefront. It's absolutely gorgeous, and shows the sort of maturity that for me, easily makes High As Hope her best album to date... but more on that a bit later.



I put this song as springing from the same warping ecosystem as BROCKHAMPTON, a careening sense of millennial depression, mutated spongy samples, and being far catchier than it has any right to be, especially with a beat primarily composed of a sneeze! And yet when you pair it with Orono Noguchi's killer deadpan, there's oddly something freeing about this song, a sense of deeply held relief breaking as the groove stumbles over itself that's infectious as the song blows itself up over and over again. Again, I wasn't quite won over on Superorganism's debut, but there's way too much naturally organic talent and weirdness to be ignored, and this song is a great sample of it.



Yeah, I wasn't going to miss putting this here. And look, you're not going to find many harsher critics of Post Malone than me and even here there are fragments of that asshole side I can't quite squelch out, and I'm still not really wild about his shouting on the second verse. But I'd be lying if I didn't say I loved 'Candy Paint' from the first time I heard it for its stunning production and amazingly catchy hook and the fact that if Post Malone wanted to make blissed out trap he's got an ear for hooks and melodies that might actually justify him sticking around. And if this song had been marketed worth a damn so it could stick around and become a hit, it would have topped that list for me this year. What can I say, sometimes you find gems in the trap.



Of course, on the other side of hip-hop from Post Malone flexing about his car, we have Sage Francis and B. Dolan spitting a furious anthem against gentrification with a flip of an old George Carlin routine into real protest. Seriously, I actually like golfing and this song struck a real chord with me for phenomenal chemistry and Cecil Otter's warping, dense, alien production full of rubbery whirs and klaxons - it's a note of gleeful but righteous anarchy that might demand the warning that starts the song, but is awesome enough to earn it. Looking forward to that full-length debut, gentlemen, I know you'll deliver!



So I'm absolutely convinced that Janelle Monae's Dirty Computer is not getting the sort of acclaim it deserves, because music this magnetic, sweeping, and seemingly effortless should be much bigger than it is, especially given her embrace of modern pop tropes. The gleaming flutters of synth against a sharp trap knock, but willing to bring in crashes of guitar for some of the best musical punctuation you'll hear all year on that second verse. And I like how it's all done for the search of aspirational release that picks up huge chunks of American iconography to taunt those who would hem in a narrow definition of that 'American dream'. Apocryphal but utopian, and with better bars on that outro than the majority of mainstream trap, Janelle Monae shows the multitudes of her eccentricity, and even though it's very much not for me, I'm here for it all the same.



If you had told me... well, at any point that one of my year-end lists of my favourite songs had a track by Charlie Puth, I'd ask what you were snorting off the bathroom toilet. But this song is inexplicable in every way: Charlie Puth, teaming up with Boyz II Men on an a capella track that feels pulled straight from the mid-90s as a last-ditch hail mary pass to prevent this girl from leaving him, it shouldn't work! Even stepping away from his rebrand with more groove than he deserves, this should be out of his wheelhouse... and yet Charlie Puth somehow pulled it off. Maybe it's the fact I'm a sucker for great harmonies and that he fits better than he should into it... but really, I blame the key change. Goddamn you, Charlie Puth, this is fantastic - so why isn't this a single, then?



And speaking of songs that should have been singles yesterday... yeah, Scotty McCreery is making his long-overdue return to this list. And no, 'Home On My Mind' is not in the same ballpark as 'Feel Good Summer Song', but somehow this wound up on my list of 'nighttime walking home songs', and frankly it earned it. A conventional chord structure, sure, but country in every way with plenty of real steel guitar, warm acoustics, live drums, rich harmonies, and a hopeful slice of imagination as McCreery paints a picture of where he'd rather be, there's just an organic comfort to this song that can't really be denied. That comeback was long overdue, and I'm so glad in the era of sterile Nashville production, we can get stuff like this.



It's funny, when I make a comparison of the Kyle Craft songs I love this year in comparison with 2016 and Dolls Of Highland, they're epitomized by their storytelling, and 'The Rager' is a damn fine example of that, telling the story of the party that flies off the handle that Craft is only a peripheral character, observing with drunken bemusement as it all collapses around them as he's very much aware that he's only a passenger in this moment. And I love the juxtaposition of the elegant layers slipping in as the night becomes all the more debauched, leading to a very hungover morning - and while the subtext might imply some desperate escapism, in the morning he's the one with missing memories and she's gearing up for another night. The detail in the poetry, the subtle flairs, and Kyle Craft underplaying into a brilliant scene, it's a glimpse into a heady, intoxicating world, and if it wasn't for said hangovers, it's one I'd revisit time and time again.



I've heard a lot of songs about recreational drug usage this year - hell, the last song on this list might fit well into that category - but for as much as the emptiness might be implied, The Pistol Annies make it blunt and real with a level of maturity in bottoming out that packs way more of a punch than so many yammering trap artists. It paints three distinctive pictures, with just enough warmth in the guitar pickups touching off the pedal steel to match the weary melancholy damn near perfectly. Coupled with great vocal harmonies, misspent expectations, and a veneer of holding it all together on the verge of collapse... yeah, the Pistol Annies have always delivered very real pictures of adulthood as women, but this is the point where it truly cuts. Killer song.



I shouldn't have to explain why this is here, because while DROGAS Wave might have been a concept album with more interesting ideas than the coherence to execute them, Lupe Fiasco can still rap his ass off, and setting up the sequel to one of his most breathtaking songs on Tetsuo & Youth is proof that he can stick the landing off the gorgeous piano line and huge swells of strings. And the funny thing is that for all of the intricate wordplay and tangled metaphors, what I love about this song is the hidden simplicity: it's a blueprint for those going forward, the same way A Tribe Called Quest passed things down with 'Dis Generation' two years ago. And while I've always said Lupe's best songs are his most straightforward and human in comparison to the labyrinthine pileups of wordplay, 'Mural Jr.' absolutely proves you can do both, and the results are stunning to say the least.



And now we have the song that was the staple of my late night walks, the sort of subtle duet between Neko Case and Mark Lanegan that's smart enough to cast its reflective encounter with an old flame in scathing but mature detail, with the tangled flutters of old romance blended with real anger, turbulent insecurity, and a wistful desire for something to have worked. Yeah, the outro can run long - this is a behemoth of a song at seven minutes and the increasingly cacophonous buildup does wonders for the tension - but with a hook this brilliant, it's a song that carries the weight of its history with aplomb, and absolutely deserves a spot on this list.



You know it's funny, I've wanted to give Screaming Females a lot of praise for a while - as an indie rock band they've been putting in a ton of work for a long time - and yet one of their poppiest songs became an easy favourite of mine. The bass groove has a ton of sizzle, the primary melody line is loaded with distinctive punch, and Marissa Paternoster's throaty ferociousness is a wonderful counterbalance to the bouncy main hook, especially as the song seems committed to making you regret her falling in love with you! If this does not become an indie rock staple of this decade... well, rock has failed enough as it is, but can we make it happen anyway?



And speaking of distorted indie rock with powerhouse frontwomen, we have Metric riding a smoldering post-punk groove and a huge grinding hook where Emily Haines will brood her way into clarity, even if it means leaving a mess in the wake behind her - and that's before the hook revs into gear with its crashing snares and Haines' willowy voice carrying more weight and power than would seem possible. Carrying the sort of broad wallop has always given Metric its power and yet still having a lot of gleaming texture, it wasn't even the best song from Art Of Doubt... but before we get to that...



I struggled a lot with the order of the Caitlyn Smith songs on this list - because yes, of course there are more than one - and man, this one made its case with a ton of potency. And yet what's inspired about 'Cheap Date' is how much it can get out of underplaying - the gentle romantic cadence, the great little details in setting that mood at home, the fact that Caitlyn Smith has the sort of warmth and old-fashioned charisma to make a song like this so magnetic, it's a song that recalls old-school pop romanticism and class, but fuses it to such low stakes and framing that it can't help but elevate by presentation alone. It's so damn winsome and charming - rarely has saving money been made to sound this convincingly sensual, and if that's not emblematic of the time, I don't know what is!



Yes, we're back to Metric... and yeah, let's not mince words, this is the 'Red Eyes' of 2018, Metric's shot at making a huge, groove-driven War On Drugs song with prominent sharp acoustic strumming, huge synths and guitars, and the sort of blinding climax that will nearly always catch you by surprise especially off of hooks that are solid enough without it! And while the lyrics might only allude to the risk being taken with their tempestuous relationship, Emily Haines' breathy hook makes a strategic retreat amazingly compelling... only for a light touch of exasperation on the outro to perfectly send things off. The fact that Metric could so readily refine their sound and deliver melodies so strong... well, that's for another list, but suffice to say Emily Haines' time off made the comeback so worth it.



One of the latest entries to this list... but once I heard it, there was no way I could ignore it. Ruston Kelly speaking from the perspective of a veteran in the throes of PTSD and desperately trying to contextualize flashes and moments of heroism even as real life conspires to drag him even lower... and what's so powerful about the song is that it's not a dirge. It's heavy - that acoustic line and snare against the faint hiss flooding the mix against the peals of pedal steel highlight its weight, but Ruston Kelly is going to wrench the hook to soar despite it all, and the only way to describe it is glorious. Not the only Ruston Kelly song to seize a spot on this list, but man, this one was too potent to be missed.



And we're back to Caitlyn Smith again... and again, this song works for many of the same reasons 'Cheap Date' is so brilliant, but where that song is a low-key romantic hookup, this is high drama at its apex, with lush strings and retro glamour highlighting the doomed relationship mid-collapse. And what's so genuinely powerful about the song is how well Caitlyn Smith can sell the whirlwind of emotions here: luxuriant indulgence, unkempt rage, and tear-stained regret, the sort of song you'd hear as a Broadway centerpiece... until you remember that said 'east side' is that of Nashville, not New York, which adds a layer of subtext to this song that you need to know Music Row to grasp, but makes the song feel so much more unique and distinctive along the way. Incredible song - so Nashville radio, she's right here - what in the Nine Hells are you waiting for?



Again, there's something about the way that Kyle Craft can paint a scene, even if there isn't much of a narrative, that can be so damn enticing - the irrational part of me wants to live in the harmonica-and-accordion-soaked world of his music, and the rational part isn't far behind! Granted, I'm not sure I'd want to be Kyle Craft in this song, where he hoists a glass to a woman he mostly failed to satisfy, but what I appreciate is that there's no anger or resentment in the song, more just a bleary-eyed sense of bemusement that it happened and now he's going to stumble into a bar and celebrate it. The fiddles are lush, the final verses are infectious, and Kyle Craft is going to make the whole thing have a hangdog perseverance that I don't know how you can resist. Oh, and a fantastic song to boot from an album that deserves so much more praise!



Yeah, BROCKHAMPTON is going to make the list twice this year - and really, what a song this is! The boy band has always had a knack for anthemic moments that are too raw and organic to be manufactured, and their autotuned power ballad moment here might be one of their best, a look back to where they had came, what they've clung to in the mean time, and all presented with an unflinching honesty that earns the choral outro against the shimmering guitars that almost recall Oasis in their uncompromising earnest swell. But hey, it's been years since we got anything of quality from the Gallagher brothers and we haven't run out of a need for songs like this... so yeah, I'll take it.



It feels strange putting this here, putting an Eminem track on a list of the best songs of 2018. Hell, given the loss Joyner Lucas suffered to Tory Lanez, it feels weird putting him here! But there's an artistic chemistry, sense of foreboding, and pure desperation that makes 'Lucky You' easily the sole redeeming moment of Kamikaze, even if you can spot the moments where both artists are cribbing from Denzel Curry and Kendrick Lamar to do it. And look, it might be tired for Eminem to take cheap shots at Drake and mainstream trap rappers, especially when he's got his own fair share of songs rapping about disjointed topics and it's easy to call hypocrite... but when the flows are leaps and bounds ahead of that competition and there actually is a real sense of tension... yeah, I don't think anyone can deny that it works, if only for a moment.



So remember when I put Deaf Havana's 'Happiness' on my list last year and didn't provide a lot of an explanation because it was way too real and intimate? Yeah, 'Blackout' by Ruston Kelly is damn near close to the same territory for me in 2018, the sort of song I didn't know I needed throughout the year until I got it at the very end. And it's the introverted deep cut that I already know fans will be celebrating even if it's never made a single - it's raw, it's a little uncomfortably intimate in its spiraling burnout, the harmonicas might blare but Ruston Kelly amps back the scope and can play with much tighter framing very well. Even details like the reference to LeBron on the second verse - which I initially didn't quite like - only serves to add to its realness and closeness to my situation... and that's about as much as I need to say. So glad I caught this before the end of the year, man...



So I'll say it, I'm still very much annoyed at Pitchfork's willful misinterpretation of Kyle Craft's album, attempting to tack on a branding of misogyny that was a painful overreach at best and and screamingly dishonest at worst. And if I'm looking for the most stirring rebuttal of that critique, it's this: Kyle Craft actually telling the story of a relationship that went south... mostly because he never made the right move and she moved on for a guy who is stable, and while he always thought she meant more beyond cheap displays of affection, there's no resentment or bitterness towards her, and his mature acceptance of her path reminds me a lot of the Turnpike Troubadours' excellent song 'Pay No Rent' - and in just in terms of sheer quotable lines this is better. The restrained warm acoustics, the horns, the textured pianos, it's a ballad for the girl who got away, and a damn great one.



The second Noname said she needed D'Angelo on this one, she clinched a spot for this song on this list with all of its fractured guitar lines, gorgeous wells of strings, and jazzy percussion. It's a song where Noname muses her way through a L.A. vista and everything both beautiful and deeply sad beneath it. I love the detail and the lack of judgement, I love Noname's innocence tempered with her wisdom, and I love how it can blend both old Hollywood touches with something new and still rooted in the Chicago hip-hop of her roots. In short... yeah, if there's a Noname song that resonates for me on a profoundly wistful level, it's this one.



I'll have more to say about The Wonder Years' newest album a little later - spoilers - but one thing I admire a tremendous amount about that project is for all of its dark, alternative-rock tones and embrace of stormy atmosphere, there's a core of optimism and a belief in the goodness of humanity that you really don't see to the same degree in this brand of pop punk and rock - dark but tempered by the light within. And this title track is by far the best example of this: the massive multi-tracked hooked coursing off the manic bassline and roaring guitars, and despite how much Dan Campbell might expect the worst in panicked desperation, he finds solace. And maybe I'm just a sucker for this brand of optimism, but when you pair it with a powerfully emotive performance... yeah, this is the sort of pop punk/rock anthem I can get behind!



So by some miracle a karaoke version of this song got added to YouTube... and it joined my regular rotation, if only because the juxtaposition of wild details and creeping dread tends to be a fun mood to set at your average karaoke bar! But yeah, while it's not quite my favourite Father John Misty song, 'Mr. Tillman' is the sort of deeply surreal, quietly revealing cut that can't help but make you wonder why Josh Tillman is holing up in this hotel and pounding back alarming amounts of alcohol, with the mundanity of the frustrated receptionist only intensifying that feeling that something is very deeply wrong! Otherwise... look, it's a slice of deconstructed 70s AM rock with just enough glitchy production elements to highlight something is amiss, and when a song this soothing makes me this nervous, it's got to be doing something right!



So one thing I don't think Janelle Monae got enough credit for on Dirty Computer - besides everything - is her subversion of quintessential American iconography. And while I've always been something of a fan of this, 'Americans' goes above and beyond by grabbing chunks of what could be seen as evangelical or conservative language and production and slyly bending it with touches of autotune and trap percussion, taking nuclear family language and making it very gay, or highlighting how those angels clapping might be fallen... and if anything, it gives the song a heavenly swell that few matched this year, the same sort of utopian vision that the backing preacher doesn't hesitate to spell out! And I love how Janelle Monae doesn't end the song with immediate certainty: she asks you to sign your name on the dotted line, and put your money where your mouth is. It's a loaded and daring song, especially given how much it outright spells out a path forward... but sometimes you need that, and Janelle Monae can and will deliver.



...surprise? Look, the second I heard Starfire I knew this would make my list - it's Caitlyn Smith's version of 'Leaving Nashville', my favourite song of 2016, and it turns out her brand of the same formula works incredibly well. I love the restraint in the country instrumentation, I love how she casts her artistic passion against an indifferent and increasingly corporate audience, and when she describes the toll it's taking on her life and family, it raises a lump in my throat every time. It might be the most obvious song coming from an artist who might well remain an indie darling so long as Nashville refuses to put women on the radio, but sometimes the obvious answer is the right one - and this song kills me every time.



No, it's not 'What Kind Of Man' - I'm not sure Florence will ever match that in the near future for pure concentrated crescendo and searing rage - but man, when I saw her live it hit like a ton of bricks, the sort of powerhouse that Florence + The Machine are built to deliver in spades. And what works about 'Hunger' - beyond the huge hook, driving pianos, and Florence's terrific belting - is how it serves as both the inverse of 'The End Of Love' but also spurs the rising, insatiable passions all the same. It's a song that craves release and satisfaction in all dimensions, and that gives it layers beyond the physical and emotional, also including artistic drive and the fleeting moments of triumphant satisfaction when something is satiated. In other words, the sooner this becomes a karaoke staple, the better off we'll all be, because this kicks ass!



When IDLES described their newest album as 'snowflake oi', it was the sort of contradiction that made no sense and yet all the sense in the damn world, and only this band would build a fiery punk anthem to celebrating diversity and immigration with the sort of blisteringly quick interweaving guitar melodies, pulsating bass, and Joe Talbot's guttural howl. And what I adore is how damn joyous it is, stuffing the song full of references to immigrants who became idolized in the UK and yet who are just like everyone else, all the while making what might be the goofiest Star Wars prequels reference on the hook I've ever heard! And while I don't normally cite videos, the daring of this band trying to actively reclaim the 'okay sign' from fascists by having it delivered by everyone they'd hate... yeah, it's nice to be on the right side of history with these guys, especially when the music is this goddamn awesome!



Look, I'm not saying that Rae Morris chose to end her set at Reading Festival with this deep cut because I was there and may have made the statement in previous videos this is her best song by a considerable margin for its wiry stuttered beat and striking piano hook and beautiful arranged elements that compliment the groove and her voice splitting the difference between Joanna Newsom and any number of mainstream pop artists... I'm just saying that it happened, and the fact that she was smart enough to leverage her best song in that way shows a lot of promise for an up-and-coming artist. Because this might be one of the best pop and most accessible pop songs of the decade, and even if it won't be a single, Rae Morris deserves all the credit in the world for it.



I'm starting to come to the stark realization that Albert Hammond Jr. might have made the best Strokes song in over fifteen years and probably the best thing to come out of anything associated with that act, including The Voidz! Because yeah, like most Strokes songs, there's not a lot to explain about a razor tight bassline, a great melodic guitar line, and a brilliant hook, but when it hits this well, with just enough bemusement in his vocals to highlight how Hammond Jr. is getting dragged along for the manic ride, nobody needs to complain. In a better world, people would remember this as much as 'Last Night' or 'Reptilia' - let's make the world a bit better.



So no, The Tree is not Lori McKenna's best album - when you have a discography like hers, entering that august company is high praise indeed - but the fact that it's still one of the best albums of 2018 even with that fact speaks volumes to her talent as a songwriter and the fact that Dave Cobb can actually deliver a song with a good bassline when called upon! And yeah, 'The Lot Behind St. Mary's' plays with similar iconography to a song like 'We Were Cool' from The Bird And The Rifle, but it gains real teeth through its restraint and the fact that McKenna embraces the conflicted struggle with small town religion directly - and what's more telling is that for as much as that church has a presence, it doesn't provide all the answers, and the fractured relationship in its wake is all the more real for how it happened and its long, lingering aftermath. And when you pair it with all the lost dreams and textured details, it's a quiet sort of heartbreak that earns every detail, and I'll always be a fan of songs that can take religious subtext and spin it into a very complicated human reality - and this is a beautiful one indeed.



If you've been wondering where the Dessa songs start... yeah, it's here, with the sort of sleeper hit that nevertheless can really get under your skin. Well, okay, this one might be more unique to me than most - Dessa made a song for the intellectual overachievers of the world having quiet barroom moments knocking back bourbon and when you pair it with some stunning ethereal harmonies and a subtle sense of melacholic wistfulness... yeah, there was no way this wasn't making my list, especially given how frankly Dessa addresses being ever so lonely in that lane... and this is getting a bit too real, like all of these lists do, so yeah, if you've only heard the singles, this is the sleeper you need.



It's kind of stunning how many people seem to have forgotten that MGMT put out their most accessible and arguably one of their best albums this year, and if there's a song to canonize that, it's 'Little Dark Age', which takes its weird, gothic, burbling discomfort and channels it into a kickass synthpop song that highlights all the little toxins secreted away in a larger, unstable world. And really, that lingering sense that toxic darkness is being exposed to drive to this darker conclusion gives the song a remarkable amount of edge - it references police violence and protest with the expectations humanity's worst impulses will bubble free, and the eerie calm but barely restrained panic coursing beneath the song is hard to deny. Definitely seems like this has been overlooked - likely because most people consider it a 2017 song more than one of this year, but for me, it fits.



On the flip side, if you want to make your apocalypse as riotous and dance-ready as possible, you can have Ghost deliver the poppiest song in their entire catalog with its coursing groove and huge hook that if this was 1983 or 85, it'd be a #1 smash hit and the band would be ubiquitous. Sadly, we don't live in such halcyon times - mostly because rock decided it wanted to abandon groove and catchiness in favour of overcompressed, meat-headed chest-pounding - but 'Dance Macabre' still exists and still rules regardless. I've always been a fan of how this band will embrace melody and write a solo that compliments the song rather than overwhelming it - so what it's a goofy, quasi-Satanic dance song? I've been to my fair share of goth and metal bars, we need those songs too, and if there's a song that I'd put money on joining the permanent rotation of those locales, it's this - it's just too damn fun to deny!



So here's the thing: what some of you might not know is that this is a cover of an indie rock staple from 2005 by the band Crooked Fingers, who were indie darlings for a short time... until they weren't. And this song has been covered before: Matt Berninger of The National and St. Vincent actually teamed up to try it... and speaking as a fan of both acts, the cover is terrible and should never have happened. So when you get Neko Case teaming up with the original songwriter and singer Eric Bachmann to recreate it, she's starting off on the right foot - but frankly, it's eons better than the original, which is playing to a placid, coffee house vibe that misses all of the melancholy and deep-rooted sadness of this version. The sweeping, tasteful production anchored more in piano, Bachmann leaning into the aged weariness and showing a ton of chemistry with Neko Case... and overall just making the sort of aching, heartbroken power ballad that says more through subtext than any words - and 'I would change for you but baby that doesn't mean I'm gonna be a better man' might be one of my favourite lyrics of all time, hands down. So yeah, it is a cover, but it absolutely deserves to be here.



Dessa's 'Ride' is the sort of introduction that crams so much detail and nuance into every passing line that it's almost too much to take in, especially for a slowburn song that serves to reintroduce her after what might seem like a long absence between solo albums into a much darker world. The language is colloquial in its bad date, that sours her into the murky night in revisiting an old haunt, seeing women making many of the same bad decisions she may have once did herself but knowing any words from her would not stop them. And then the final verse kicks in and we realize it's not just an old bar she's finding herself in, but a world that has changed for the worse, and the creeping, hammering dread of the percussion sets its all alight - it's a darker, crueler place in which she's walking, with societal norms crumbling, feeling so very huge but not quite crushing enough to make her feel small. It's a smoky, atmospheric cut intended to coax up dread for the album to come... and for amazingly quotable as it is, Dessa got it there. But on the topic of bad decisions...



The fact that Poets of the Fall could assemble one of their most anthemic and soaring songs celebrating willful denial with those gleaming guitars, those gleaming keys, that pulsating groove and that massive hook is a wonder to behold - and that's before we get that heavenly bridge that's makes the return to the hook all the more divine. Returning to their old production approach was always going to inspire wonder as it compliments Maarko Saaresto's tremendous voice, but when Poets Of The Fall use it to make this sort of transcendent alternative rock... it's stunning to behold, folks, even if the song knows it's for all the wrong reasons - and yet sometimes, that makes the glory all the damn sweeter. And while we're on that subject...



This is Foxing's best song. No, I'm not going to hear an argument on this one, I went through their entire discography this year, this is easily one of their most experimental but genuinely insane cuts they've ever tried, and the fact that it manages to work at all with that grimy spasmodic beat, brittle keys, guitars careening out of control as the groove barely stabilizes, and frontman Conor Murphy forcing his falsetto into even more grotesque shapes... yeah, that's almost unnerving! But that's the point: the song is built to be deeply unsettling, taking the same addictive high of making what your mind is telling you is the 'wrong' decision in exploiting privilege and cheating to get fame and fortune... and yet it's that rush from which you can't walk away. It's a song that recognizes the heady addiction of transgression and leans into its manic thrillseeking to the point you're just waiting for the cheating to backfire, for this dream to turn into a nightmare... until the cruelest reality sets in that the game just becomes boring when you cheat your way to the top, the gutpunch that Foxing hits to really drive home their point. It's arguably one of the most prescient and pummeling dissections of privilege I've seen in art, period, and with a genuinely unsettling song to boot... what beats that?



At the end of the day, for as much genre hopping and singing as she might do, Dessa is a rapper, and in terms of pure braggadocious flair it's hard to beat a song like this, especially as her approach to crushing her competition is very much in the tradition of battle rap: she'll cauterize her own wounds to light yours ablaze, and it makes her embrace of layered but primal metaphor all the more shocking. This is a tactic she's used on songs like 'Grey Duck' in the past but on '5 Out OF 6' she hones her skills like a bloodied veteran who doesn't need to conceal a damn thing: you know she's coming, there's fire on the horizon, and the alien swell of the production does a powerful job driving home how much she's an elemental force to be reckoned with, like a thunderstorm or the goddamn tides. And what's so damn potent is that the human side is very much evident, which with her tightly controlled delivery only serves to amp up the tension even higher. It's a monster of a hip-hop song... what could be better?



I've seen Evidence fans grapple with this song, because if you're a longtime fan of him, you know how strange, damn near one-of-a-kind a song like this is coming from him. Arguably with the best hook he's ever had courtesy of Catero and then Slug delivering a callback-laced guest verse that wins on all fronts, the song still has the meditative power of Evidence's best work but just layered it into a traditionally structured song full of subtle melodic embellishments with wheedling spikes of guitar and flashes of atmospheric swell. But what truly clicks about this song is that it's both immediately comfortable for both MCs, but has enough aspirational spark to make them want to catch that dream, something that as long mature artists is something they now can approach with real consideration and gravitas. Amazingly quotable, the hit record that I don't think Slug or Evidence were setting out to create but one that has the sort of wide appeal to win over pretty much everyone - followed by the smartest possible choice in making it a single - and arguably it's damn near flawless... what could be better?



At this point, looking back through the songs I've loved over the past five years, you can spot trends. Huge hooks tend to be a must, followed by raw, uncompromising honesty and a crescendo that can stick the landing, and if you just so happen to infuse the song with self-awareness, optimism and pseudo-religious subtext... look, I'm not going to say it bypasses my critical faculties, but it gives the song a boost. I'm also not going to say that seeing this song performed live clinched this spot, although it certainly helped. No, what makes 'Sinner' my top song of the year is that it takes all that fervor and spark, molds it into a pop context that makes sense - certainly better than anything The 1975 tried, who Deaf Havana were accused of emulating - and shifts its melodrama into the stars for huge swell that's anchored by how much the protagonist within it is a burned out shell of himself that has nothing left to prove. And while every music critic tries to place the art they love in a larger cultural context to prove how they're in touch in the zeitgeist, I think for anyone who spent 2018 on the perpetual edge of exhaustion, this is the song that'll click the most, the pop move that Deaf Havana could not stick across the rest of the album but goddamn it they delivered one perfect song along the way. So that's it, 'Sinner' by Deaf Havana, the best song of 2018.

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