The Top Ten Best Hits of 2018, pt. 2 (5-1)

Hello, and welcome to the final day of Listmas 2018! Thank you for reading! It’s been fun being back, and I hope it’s been a fun for you, too. We’ll resume coverage in January of 2019. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to take my girlfriend to Cheesecake Factory. See you next year!

5. Ella Mai – “ Boo’d Up” (#15)
This is the second of two songs I referred to yesterday that leaned on the “Had to peak this year” rule, since “Boo’d Up” was first released in February 2017, but peaked a year later after exposure pushed it up to number 5 on the charts. “Boo’d Up” is British R&B singer Ella Mai’s debut single, and with its zoned out, piano and synth-heavy beat, joins “Needed Me” in the “Wait, DJ Mustard produced that?” Hall of Fame. Both the track and Mai capture not only that starstruck feeling of being in love with someone, but the undercurrent of panic that comes with falling for somebody when that’s not Something You Do. Mai’s gone on record stating that the title comes from “boo’d up” being “a heart beat-ish,” but I honestly think the term comes more from the private language and shorthand people come up with to talk about their emotions with themselves and the closest people to them. And like I said, the track does an incredible job imitating that feeling; it carries a vibe without disappearing into the ether, which is harder to do than it looks. “Boo’d Up” is a great song, and when paired with “Havana,” really shows that “2017 releases with halfway nonsense choruses that surged in 2018” was a mood this year.

4. Childish Gambino – “This Is America” (#51)
Yes, I’m talking just the song here and not the song and the video. Even as just an audio experience, “This Is America” is a dense mix of tropical guitar, horror movie strings, a choir of Donald Glovers, trap, ad-libs from Young Thug and 21 Savage, naturalistic percussion, and lurching bass that doesn’t fall apart on itself like the art school project it kinda sounds like. It slaps surprisingly hard for a song that feels entirely wrong to wild out to.

3. Ariana Grande – “no tears left to cry” (#20)
The thing about a phrase like “no tears left to cry,” is that it can really go one of two ways based on your outlook. Either you’re anguished and spent because you’ve been through it all and have nothing left, or you realize that having nothing left means that you’re ready to move forward. Because Ariana Grande has such a big, powerful voice, my first thought was that “no tears left to cry” was going to go the anguished route as a ballad about having no more tears left in her after the trauma-inducing terrorist attack at her Manchester concert, and that would be her big somber comeback moment.

But Grande, for possibly the first time, chose to zag where the expectation was to zig. “no tears left to cry,” dramatic intro aside, is a dance track, one that’s mostly based on the syncopation of UK garage with a few disco flourishes thrown in for good measure. The instrumental is solid (having superproducer Max Martin and his cadre of writers is as near a sure shot as you can get), and there are some clever vocal arrangements here instead of just telling Grande to go for it or doubling her vocals here and there.

There’s a new trick to “no tears left to cry” with Grande doing a spoken/kind of rapped cadence with “I’m pickin’ it up/I’m pickin’ it up/I’m lovin’, I’m livin’, I’m pickin’ it up,” and while it’s nothing revolutionary, it’s also the sort of choice she wouldn’t have made on a Dangerous Woman single. To me, it speaks to the relative ease of “no tears left to cry;” every Ariana Grande single before this–even when it was great–was at least a little stiff, a little preoccupied with being an Ariana Grande Single. But “no tears left to cry” gives her room to breathe and instead of trying to sing a song into oblivion, she’s comfortable living it. Grande, as has been pointed out in every EOY writeup, has been through a lot, and even if she might have some more tears left to cry, she’s got a song that’s as much a testament to resilience as it is a groove.

2. Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey – “The Middle” (#8)
Look, “The Middle” should be garbage. It’s a mercenary “Super producer + between cycles vocalist + wild card” single that mostly rounds out “Modern hits” Spotify playlists. It’s chasing the sentimental post-EDM wave kicked off two years ago by “Closer.” It more or less has the same title as another sad-eyed post-EDM track that I love. It’s functionally a rewrite of Zedd’s own “Stay” with Alessia Cara from last year. It’s the embodiment of corporate pop; the music equivalent of an artisan hot dog.

But holy fuck it’s so good. Zedd and Grey (a production duo from LA who almost damningly named their EP Chameleon) do a solid enough job on the first verse, as does country singer Maren Morris, but it’s that chorus goes off like a bomb. Morris sings with a choir of robo-copies harmonizing, and while it could be off-putting, the way they blend with Morris and the earnestness with which she sings is a stop and listen moment. And then the instrumental kicks back in behind her with this massive, all-encompassing beat, but, what makes the song, what really shows that “The Middle” gives a shit, is that warbling synth that chimes in after each line Morris sings in the chorus. It’s one of those touches that doesn’t have to be there, but adds so much. Which is great, because “The Middle” admittedly relies on the beat’s texture and Morris selling the everloving shit out of it to convey emotion from boilerplate “can’t we work it out?” lyrics. If this was something like Halsey in “Closer” or even Cara on “Stay,” “The Middle” wouldn’t be nearly as great, but with Morris throwing extra oomph (peep the way she goes changes up “I’m losing *my mind*” at the final chorus, or the desperation that pushes through in every “Bay-baay!”), the song absolutely soars.

1. SZA and Kendrick Lamar – “All the Stars” (#47)
“All the Stars” is the sound of culmination. It’s a culmination for SZA, who was barely on any major radar before the breakout that was ctrl last year, where she proves she can do triumph just as well as she can do heartbreak. It’s a culmination for Kendrick Lamar, who with “All the Stars” and TDE’s curation/production of Black Panther: The Album, proves he’s no longer a rap head upstart, but someone who can make himself the focal point of something as big as a Disney project without losing himself. Hell, even as the credits song for Black Panther, it fits perfectly as the closing statement for Marvel’s single best movie.

It’s also just a damn great song. At first, people weren’t entirely sure what to make of it because its spacey synths, drum pads, and violins (there’s so much going on in this Sounwave beat if you listen to it on headphones) didn’t really match what Kendrick or SZA were known for; here’s this gleaming, interstellar anthem from a pair who had most recently explored Southern rap and humid R&B. But going somewhere else makes sense because “All the Stars” isn’t just part of SZA or Kendrick’s canon, it’s meant to reach out and grab anyone listening. And honestly? It works great by going broad: Kendrick’s verse builds hype, SZA’s verse adds a beating heart to the whole thing, and her larger than life chorus captures the feeling of anything being possible. It taps into universality without getting syrupy.

“All the Stars” also demonstrates where pop fit best in 2018: as part of something else. Be it by appearances in TV or movies, music videos, as #challenge and app soundtracks, or as part of an artist’s on-going narrative, pop songs themselves were the accompaniment to experiences this year. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, just that it is. And we’ll see how it continues next year, thanks for reading. There’s a full Listmas link below!

Listmas 2018 Schedule
December 19th: Top Ten Favorite Albums of the Year
December 20th: A Brief Inquiry Into 2018
December 21st: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 22nd: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2
December 23rd: The Gibby Fifty (50 favorite songs)
December 26th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 27th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2

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The Top Ten Best Hits of 2018, pt. 1 (10-6)

Hello, and welcome to Listmas 2018 Day 6! I hope you had a good holiday. Today starts the final leg of our Listmas coverage with the first part of the Best Hits list. We’ll conclude tomorrow and join everyone in January 2019 for more ranting about music at Ranting About Music.

I’ve found that I always like doing the Best Hits list after the Worst Hits one. The Best Hits list acts as a palate cleanser to the abysmal lows of the year, and gets to function as a reminder of why I like doing this (as fun as it might be blowing spitballs at Chris Brown, it gets old after soon long, you know?). I feel good about this year’s list, but while putting it together, I kind of felt like most of the work was already done for me in the sense that the best songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 seemed fairly obvious. That’s not to say that there weren’t surprises, just that we knew what we liked this year.

Quick rules refresher:

  1. Gotta make Billboard’s Year-Ender.
  2. No repeats from last year’s picks.
  3. Had to peak on the charts this year (this actually comes up twice).

Let’s begin with an Honorable Mention.

Honorable Mention: Travis Scott feat. Drake, Swae Lee, and Big Hawk – “SICKO MODE” (#42)
This song kept almost making the list, but ultimately got bumped to the HM. That first minute, with those far-reaching synths and a surprisingly game Drake feature, is one of those things you can’t hear without getting hyped, and that gothic synth with the Tay Keith drums around 2:57 is outright mesmerizing. “SICKO MODE” is a mini-suit of songs that shouldn’t work together but ultimately does (the fact that this thing went to #1 is a feat in and of itself), and if Scott was just 10% more compelling in front of the mic, it would have been a lock.

10. Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa – “One Kiss” (#68)
Did you know that Calvin Harris, one of the two or three guys responsible for the explosion of blaring, festival-core EDM a few years back, spent most of his career making smoothed out, quasi-throwback dance jams? Maybe that’s why he sounded so comfortable behind the boards with last year’s Funk Wav Bounce Vol. 1 (which housed the best pop song of last year), and why ‘90s deep house cut “One Kiss” glides along like a late night city drive. The instrumental post-chorus, that bouncing keyboard in the hook, and the track’s gentle thump demonstrate his attention to detail, and combine for a song that evokes older sounds with emulating them.

Also shining here is Dua Lipa. On one hand, “One Kiss” is the least she’s had to do lyrically, but on the other, that means she gets to focus on the performance aspect, and as a guest spot where she could sound anonymous, she takes center stage; she anchors the track in a way that reminds me of Sam Smith and “Latch.” I didn’t expect much from Lipa and Harris, but “One Kiss” was a terrific surprise.

9. Rae Sremmurd feat. Juicy J – “Powerglide” (#97)
No rap duo stays together forever, and if 2018 was the start of Rae Sremmurd’s disintegration into Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi solo careers, it also made a rock solid argument that the pair work best together (also not hurting: that sweet, sweet Mike WiLL Made-It producer tag). “Powerglide” just hits everything Rae Sremmurd does well with Swae carving out melodies and rapping over a frantic Mike beat and then baton passing to Jxmmi’s more grounded and gritty verse that contrasts with the hook. Add a locked-in verse from Juicy J in Southern Rap Elder mode, and you’ve got one of the best pure rap bangers of the year.

8. Shawn Mendes – “In My Blood” (#46)
And now, your annual appearance by sulky, phlegmy guitar boy Shawn Mendes on the [checks notes]…wait, Best Hits list? Is that right?

Shawn “You’re like, two bad songs away from that Maroon 5 ‘I might retire you from Listmas’ zone” Mendes has appeared on my worst hits every year since he started his career in 2015, and this year, he snapped that streak with this spot for “In My Blood.” The remarkable thing is that “In My Blood” isn’t a radical departure from his previous material: it’s still a melodramatic singer-songwriter number with a “I’m falling on my knees” chorus, an arrangement you could arguably call “fussy” (count how many guitar parts drop in and out), and at least one “duh-doy” lyrical rhyme with “giving up”/”strong enough.” But Mendes gets the mixture right here by underplaying the verses, letting things build at just the right pace, and he sounds vulnerable instead of pouty. It’s actually kind of affecting. The moment that convinced me is the first “It isn’t in my blood!” of each chorus: I could imagine the Mendes of Listmas Past vocally overperforming to try and convey anguish and passion (see: “MERRRRCY”), but here, he actually pulls back on the end of the word “blood,” which makes him sound like he’s already trying to give everything he has. It’s a little human moment, and goes a long way for a kid who’s never convinced me he’s felt a single thing he’s sang before. So, welcome to life on the other side, Shawn. I know, I was surprised, too.

7. Camila Cabello feat. Young Thug – “Havana” (#4)
“Havana” is an interesting one. It came out last September, and got off to kind of a sluggish start on the charts while people (me included) weren’t entirely sure how it landed. Such is a reflection of people’s perspective on Cabello at the time; the thought was that she’d jumped ship from Fifth Harmony too early, and she was on the edge of regressing after a few stalled out singles. Even with a few months to make an impression, “Havana” only clawed its way to #96 on the 2017 Year-End Hot 100, a ranking itself that showed people could still probably either take it or leave it.

But, in 2018, we decided that “Havana” was worth our approval, and the song went to number 1 in January. What’s great about “Havana” is that it takes these fairly minimal, disparate parts, like that I-could-have-sworn-it-was-a-sample piano, the trumpet that pops up through the second half, and loosely trap bass and percussion, and makes a wholly great Latin-tinged song out of them. Tons of songs lean on open space and sparse pieces–look at “Girls Like You” for example–but it really works here. And matching this track with a guest rapper as abstract as Young Thug is downright inspired. Cabello herself sounds terrific; the “midtempo plus” pace of “Havana” is enough to keep her going without being so fast that she loses any kind of nuance, and while this song is like 70% chorus, she kills it each time. Between the dust-tinged piano and trumpet and the modern percussion, “Havana” pulls a neat trick of sounding like it’s not of a particular time, and while it took a few listens, the song’s surprisingly magnetic. The rest of Cabello’s stuff hasn’t really connected with me, but her Havana affair is one to remember.

6. Drake – “Nice For What” (#11)
It’s so great when Drake’s point of view extends beyond the tip of his nose.

Over an impossibly tight bounce beat by Murda Beatz, Drake weaves in and out through a sped-up, aching Lauryn Hill sample, sounding more energized than he has in years. Drake, 40, and the entire OVO camp can make fantastic music, but Drake (especially from VIEWS onward) has this tendency to let his songs just driiiiift forever without any sense of urgency, which makes even his poppier cuts just seem that much more dour.

None of that shows up on “Nice For What,” a song about cutting loose that more importantly sounds like cutting loose. It’s a celebration of women who haven’t been able to go out in too damn long because they had to be responsible with bills, or they were too caught up with a guy last year, or they had to work, but now fuck it, they’re going out for a good time with their girls, and the up-tempo nature of “Nice For What” mimics that joy. I feel weird holding “Nice For What” up as an unironic “Female empowerment, ooh yeah!” Important Jam–this Lindsay Zoladz piece says it better than I ever could–but as a rapid-fire pop hit? It’s damn great.

Come back tomorrow for the rest!

Listmas 2018 Schedule
December 19th: Top Ten Favorite Albums of the Year
December 20th: A Brief Inquiry Into 2018
December 21st: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 22nd: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2
December 23rd: The Gibby Fifty (50 favorite songs)
December 26th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 27th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2

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The Gibby Fifty: My Fifty Favorite Songs of 2018

 

Hey there folks, and welcome to Day 5 of Listmas!

Today’s entry is real short and sweet: it’s just my 50 favorite songs of the year. I always enjoy putting this list together, because I feel like it best encapsulates what I’ve listened to through the year. The only restrictions are that nothing could double dip here and on the Best Hits list that’ll be up after Christmas, and there’s a limit of one song per album (spoiler: Swae Lee gets around this). Beyond that, there’s a playlist with them all at the bottom. I hope you enjoy!

1. American Pleasure Club – “This Is Heaven and I’d Die For It”–A possible favorite of the year pick
2. Antartigo Vespucci – “The Price Is Right Theme Song”
3. Arctic Monkeys – “One Point Perspective”
4. Ariana Grande – “R.E.M.”–One of the more delightful surprises on Sweetener
5. awakebutstillinbed – “Fathers”
6. Beach House – “Woo”
7. Camp Cope – “The Opener”–I love the heat behind this one
8.Cardi B – “Money Bag”
9. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Party For One”
10.Cloud Nothings – “Dissolution”–Those last three and a half minutes, holy shit
11. cupcaKKe – “Garfield”–I tried cupcaKKe for the first time this year. She scratches the same Run the Jewels “blockbuster aggro-rap” itch
12. Drake – “Emotionless”–Here almost entirely because of that sample/drop combo
13. Father John Misty – “Just Dumb Enough To Try”–Miles above anything on Pure Comedy
14. Florence + the Machine – “Hunger”
15. Foxing – “Heartbeats”–I stopped what I was doing and started crying the first time I heard that pre-chorus
16. Frank Ocean – “Moon River”
17. Future – “Cuddle My Wrist”
18. Gorillaz – “Kansas”–It’s like if the Gorillaz soundtracked a Banjo Kazooie level
19. Grimes – “We Appreciate Power”
20. Half Waif – “Salt Candy”–Lavender was a hit and miss record for me, but I love this
21. Hop Along – “How Simple”
22. Illuminati Hotties – “(You’re Better) Than Ever”–The backing vocals at a minute and a 2half in are to die for
23. Interpol – “The Rover”–Gritty Interpol: somehow works!
24. Janelle Monae – “Don’t Judge Me”–Best song on the album
25. Jeff Rosenstock – “9/10”
26. Joyce Manor – “Think I’m Still In Love With You”
27. Juliana Hatfield – “Hopelessly Devoted To You”–Yes, it’s an Olivia Newton John cover
28. Kanye West – “Ghost Town”–Literally the only good song off ye
29. Khalid and Swae Lee – “The Ways”
30. Lana Del Rey – “Venice Bitch”–Yes, more “stoned in the desert” Ultraviolence Lana. That’s the stuff.
31. Mac Miller – “2009”
32. Metric – “Now Or Never Now”
33. Mitski – “Nobody”
34. Nine Inch Nails – “God Break Down the Door”–I didn’t have enough to add for it to make a full blurb, but Bad Witch is incredibly artistically vital for a band in their third decade
35. noname – “Don’t Forget About Me”
36. Pusha T – “If You Know You Know”–Related: Push’s chuckle during “The Story of Adidon” is the most withering part of that track
37. Snail Mail – “Heat Wave”–I live for those guitar blasts
38. Soccer Mommy – “Your Dog”
39. Swae Lee – “Hurt To Look”
40. Swae Lee and Post Malone – “Sunflower”–Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse is somehow more incredible than you’ve been lead to believe
41. The 1975 -“It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)”–It was either this or “Sincerity is Scary”
42. The Carters – “Apeshit”–That this didn’t make the Year-End Hundo is an “I don’t get y’all” moment
43. The Pom-Poms – “Pass Her the Aux”
44. The Sonder Bombs – “(U)ke Ain’t Enough”–As great an intro to any to The Sonder Bombs
45. The Voidz – “AlieNNatioN”–Possibly the best combination of strange and beautiful that Julian Casablancas has come out with
46. The War on Women – “Pleasure and the Beast”–This track hits kind of everything great about The War on Women
47. The Wonder Years – “Raining in Kyoto”
48. Travis Scott – “Skeletons”
49. Turnstile – “Generator”–Space and Time was one of my gym records thsi year
50. Vince Staples – “Feels Like Summer”

Listmas 2018 Schedule
December 19th: Top Ten Favorite Albums of the Year
December 20th: A Brief Inquiry Into 2018
December 21st: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 22nd: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2
December 23rd: The Gibby Fifty (50 favorite songs)
December 26th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 27th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2

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The Top Ten Worst Hits of 2018 (5-1)

Alright, today ain’t gonna be fun, but let’s finish this.

5. Florida Georgia Line – “Simple” (#82)
Florida Georgia Line’s yee-hack duet with Bebe Rexa got more attention this year, but “Simple” has the double-whammy of being deeply annoying and deeply bullshit, so it won out. Let’s handle annoying first: “Simple”’s chorus deadass includes lyrics like “One, two, three just as easy as can be” and “It’s just that simple, S-I-M-P-L-E/Simple as can be,” looped forever and the only only two musical moods it has are that faux-folksy whistle and what I can only describe as country music white noise.

But “Simple” is also deeply bullshit because no one on God’s cruel Earth should ever buy the idea that Florida Georgia Line are arbiters of country/folk-style earnestness. These guys are really out here talking about being “Simple like a six-string” when they’ve used more trap drums than Ariana Grande, and namechecked Drake on their debut single; FGL’s entire schtick has always been that they were only country in the most superficial ways possible. An interview with the duo this year suggested that “Simple” may be their pivot to “real” county, which feels like a fake in itself because the vocals on the chorus are so processed that they sound like some country robot telling you to live life free. “Simple” is like a Facebook post talking about how much better your life’s been without social media.

4. XXXTentacion – “SAD!” (#17) and “Moonlight” (#88) and “Changes” (#94)
Hooooo boy. Last year, I wrote about rapper XXXTentacion and the not-fun he brought with him on account of his history of violence against women, his court cases, and mental illness, and this year he was shot dead during an attempted robbery, and after his death, a recording surface of him confessing to domestic abuse and stabbing nine people. And he charted three year-end singles.

Look, all things being equal, nothing about X feels good. Not his long list of reprehensible behavior. Not his fiercely devoted fanbase who will contort themselves into every shape to justify said behavior while harassing one of his victims. Not his damaged upbringing. Not the Floridan legal system that was likely to be disproportionately aggressive in pursuing punitive justice against a black teen. Not the labels who kept working with him. Not the artists (looking at you, Kendrick) who should have known better than to support him. Not the fact that he’s dead. And certainly not his music.

All 3 of these songs would have made the worst-of list even if X was alive and well and taught swim lessons at the Y instead of assault people as a way to process his traumas. I didn’t want to give each one its own slot since for one, giving the same artist 3 spaces out of 10 would have felt anti-climatic, and for another, each write-up would have been a slightly reshuffled version of this one, so we’re still making the point all the same. Here’s the brief on the songs.

“SAD!”: The most fully-formed of the 3, and even if sounds more like an outline than a full song.
“Moonlight”: Fun Fact: the only half-interesting thing here sounds like a glitchy sample of Jeremih’s “Oui.”. Fun Fact: the first thing most people associate with the word “moonlight” these days is the intensely empathetic Barry Jenkins film about a black gay man living in Florida who has to unlearn the coldness the world taught him so he can live. Fun Fact: X once freely admitted to beating a gay cellmate in juvie within an inch of his life because he looked at him (I told you this would be a bad time).
“Changes:” One of the recurring lyrics here is X telling a girl “You’re changing, I can’t stand it.” Do I even need to say anything at this point?

3. 6ix9ine – “GUMMO” (#56)
Okay, maybe we can regroup now that we’ve got the not-fun of X out of the way. Let’s see what riffs can be got from rapper 6ix9ine’s Wiki pa–

“Hernandez plead guilty to using a 13-year-old child in sexual performance in 2015. He was arrested in November of 2018 on racketeering and firearm charges, among others, for which he is facing a possible life sentence in federal prison.”

Welp.

“GUMMO” is a two and a half blare of screamed, flowless rap delivered in a constipated voice that could accurately called “rap game Chad Kroeger.” Like X, the delineating “art vs. artist” line doesn’t exist for 6ix9ine, who raps about doing gang shit while having a history of gang activity, but unlike X, there’s no emotional throughline for fans to latch onto. 6ix9ine (God, that’s such a hassle to type) just doesn’t seem worth it: the music’s bad, the pedophilia is worse, and he keeps getting into legal trouble despite the plea deal and rap career. Dude’s just as radioactive as his hair looks at this point, who would work with him?

2. 6ix9ine feat. Nicki Minaj – “Fefe” (#31)
Nicki, why?

For as bad as “GUMMO” is, it’s at least on, however dubious they may be, 6ix9ine’s artistic terms, while Fefe” is a shameless attempt to sand off his edges for a crossover hit, right down to the big name cosign. Everything about this song’s just gross: 6ix, taker of a plea deal in a sexual conduct involving a minor charge, is the last guy I wanna hear talk about sexual prowess and preferences (we already have a good guess, sport), the childlike visuals are their own yikes, and…we gotta talk about Nicki here.

Not all guest appearances are created equal, and a few years ago, I came up with the term “the Skype Call Guest Spot.” This refers to guest hooks/verses where it’s obvious that the featured artist’s involvement with the track is so minimal, that it’s conceivable that the main artist and guest artist were never in the same room for any part of the song/video’s creation (probably the Ur example is will.i.am’s “#thatPOWER,” where the video literally beams in Justin Bieber for his hook). Nicki’s done plenty of these–my favorite is the awful shop-job in “Swish Swish” that has to be seen to be believed–and if that was the case for “Fefe,” her involvement would probably be unfortunate but incidental. But she is all over this track, jumping on the intro, adding ad-libs under 6ix’s lines, and using a flow similar to his for her verse. She shows up like Regina George’s mom in Mean Girls, enabling all the villain’s worst impulses, but with none of that Amy Poehler charm. This really could have been one to phone in.

1. Lil Dicky feat. Chris Brown – “Freaky Friday” (#55)
Let’s start at the beginning. “Freaky Friday”’s a comedy rap song by joke rapper and joke rapper Lil Dicky with the premise that Dicky and Chris Brown wake up body swapped, ala Freaky Friday, a movie that came out when Dicky’s target demo was in preschool, and in the end, getting Brown to love himself swaps them back. The song’s completely disposable: over a beat that probably came from DJ Mustard’s “2013 drafts” folder, Chris Brown does his big, bright, “AutoTune’s doing the heavy lifting” thing while Dicky barrels through every one of his lines like a frat guy doing a Big Sean impression after pregaming the Winter Formal. And for a joke song, no one could be assed to write any jokes*.

The only thing funny about “Freaky Friday” is just how hard it comes off as an unintentional self-own for both names on the marquee. Mega-famous abuser Chris Brown, months removed from some of the most blatant chart thirst I’ve ever seen, has to do what’s two steps shy of a Jim Crow song and dance routine of stereotypes with a novelty performer for a hit. When Lil Dicky inhabits his body, Brown celebrates that he can sing, dance, hoop, has a big dick (this one comes up multiple times in the song), and, in a fascinating look into Dicky’s psyche, can say “nigga” whenever he wants. Then there’s Lil Dicky. You could do a deep dive on this, but between the n-word bit in “Freaky Friday” and everything about this video, it’s apparent that Dicky is so impossibly hard up for black cool or acceptance that he’s willing to work with a pariah like Chris Brown to get even a little of it. Not only that, he smooths over Brown’s history as “my [his] controversial past” (although is it really “the past” if there are controversies after the song dropped?) and the song bends over backwards to emphasize how great being Chris Brown is despite evidence of the contrary. Ending “Look who I can get” cameos from Ed Sheeran and DJ Khaled pass without incident since both of them mail in their appearances, and the less said about Dicky as Kendall (COULDN’T GET KYLIE) Jenner’s ebullience at having a vagina, the better.

All of this–the lack of jokes, the shitty jokes that get made, Chris Brown still getting work–makes “Freaky Friday” a miserable experience, but what elevates the song to being the worst hit of the year is that it shows just how small pop was in 2018. “Freaky Friday” wasn’t just a streaming and YouTube hit: it had some decent placement on charts that also track influence and radio play, like Billboard’s Rhythmic chart and the R&B/Hot R&B and Hip Hop charts, so it was out in the world. You would expect something like this to generate some controversy, and it kind of did, but criticism of “Freaky Friday” was basically limited to the first week or two of its release. It didn’t prompt any sustained backlash (or success, for that matter) the way “All About That Bass,” “We Can’t Stop,” “Fancy,” “Dear Future Husband,” or “Blurred Lines” kept drawing fire a few years ago. Because of a myriad of factors from pop’s slump to world suck just being this much louder, even our pop controversies aren’t as splashy as they used to be, and nothing showed pop’s diminished place in the world this year like “Freaky Friday.” Congrats on underlining pop malaise, guys, great work.

*Okay, fine, “Freaky Friday” has exactly one good joke, and it’s in the video. When Dicky-as-Brown is reveling in the fact that he can say “nigga” consequence free, the video cuts to him saying it to a bunch of different people. The funniest of the bunch is when he’s in a niceish restaurant, and he tells a waitress played by the most placid looking white woman imaginable “Big ups, my nigga” with a nod while she refills his water glass. 

Come back tomorrow, where we’ll look at some of my favorite songs, and a much sunnier disposition!

Listmas 2018 Schedule
December 19th: Top Ten Favorite Albums of the Year
December 20th: A Brief Inquiry Into 2018
December 21st: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 22nd: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2
December 23rd: The Gibby Fifty (50 favorite songs)
December 26th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 27th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2

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The Top Ten Worst Hits of 2018 (10-6)

Hello there, and welcome to Listmas 2018 Day 3! Today, we leave the world of albums behind to start our song-based coverage. Quick reminder: We’re gonna do Worst Hits today and tomorrow, 50 Favorite Songs Sunday, and then come back after Christmas for the Best Hits.

Let’s get into the dirt.

So, part of why I ended up not blogging this year, and something that caused Radio Rants to fall off in the last year or so before that, was that pop hit a lull in the last few years. That’s not to say that there isn’t still exciting stuff out there, just that it wasn’t catching on under the crushing streaming numbers of whatever bullshit song that got buoyed by dance fads, artists too big to fail, and rappers with 2 minute songs and grossly outsized followings. That lead to a year-end chart that feels really underwhelming and kind of (no pun intended) listless. In fact, I had a worryingly high number of cuts to make to the Worst Hits list. It wasn’t all doom and gloom as we’ll see after a brief Christmas break, but 2018 left a mark.

Before we get to the list, [extreme Dua Lipa voice] I got some rules, I count’em.

  1. Songs must be on the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 for 2018 to qualify. 
  2. If a song made the Worst/Best Hits lists last year, it’s ineligible this year. We want all new faces, so “Shape of You” and “Mi Gente” were removed from contention.
  3. Slightly Updated: The song had to peak during 2018 to be considered eligible. I’ve implemented this with something along the lines of “The song has to have been relevant this year” in the last few years, so really, I’m just making it more official sounding. Billboard’s “Year-End” chart actually technically covers the charts from last year’s December to this year’s mid-November, so a few late December holdouts always make it here, and…I mean, the worst hits of 2018 have to be the worst hits of 2018, you know? Nothing major got lost with this rule, it just took out stuff like “Sorry Not Sorry” and “rockstar.”

And now, the list.

Dishonorable Mention: Post Malone – “I Fall Apart” (#39) and “Psycho” (#6)
The Dishonorable Mention spot is effectively my “Most Hated” pick: it’s for the song that I can’t in good conscience put on the list, but I hate enough that I couldn’t let it slide, either.

This year, the spot goes to a pair of songs that capture the totality of Post Malone’s shitty multitudes. “I Fall Apart” is Post at his most mealy-mouthed and boringly woman-hating; some woman (I’m sorry, some “Devil in the form of a whore” because Post is actually from the 19th century) hurt his fee-fees and now he’s too sad to enjoy his jewelry or his cars, leading to “Weird flex, but okay” lyrics like “Whippin in the foreign and the tears keep rollin” and “Never caught a feeling this hard/Harder than the liquor I pour.” Making things worse is that this soggy tune expresses such feelings with the artless drudgery of a guy trying to soldier through an original song at open-mic night with a guitar and a drum machine.

Meanwhile, “Psycho” captures everything stupid about Post’s singles in go. It leans far too hard on one kinda interesting melody that can’t sustain itself over a hook that gets stretched into infinity. It’s less a genre mismash than it is musically inert. It wastes a competent guest appearance. Post riffs on someone else’s physical appearance (“Had so many bottles, gave ugly girl a sip”) while looking like this. And, what really puts it over the edge for me, is that the chorus has this painful slant rhyme where he rhymes “Psycho” with “Michael” with “ON you” that kneecaps it every time. Post had an absolute monster 2018, and I don’t know if that was in spite of or because of the fact that he’s terrible.

 

10. Drake – “I’m Upset” (#86)
Drake has a bad tendency to put out too many “just fine” songs, so when he lays an egg, it’s really noticeable. Such is the case with Scorpion lowlight and possibly his single illest-timed release “I’m Upset.” Nothing about this song, from Drake’s delivery to the lyrics to the generic trap drums and bass meets SNES game piano loop lands right; I’m baffled anyone thought this single was a good idea. “I’m Upset” needs a rapper who can sound petty and aggrieved without being infinitely whiney (think the first half of “I Don’t Fuck With You”), and Drake just can’t do that. Drake’s best shit talkers are the ones where you can feel him step outside his moody apathy for a minute because he has that much vitriol for you. When he tries for wounded like he does here, he just sounds entitled.

And then Push happened. Three days after Drake released a song expressing frustration at being financially tied to a woman, Pusha T dropped “The Story of Adidon,” where he revealed that Drake has a child he’s kept on the down low. There’s no way to hear Aubrey as anything other than impossibly small while protesting “I still got like seven years of doing what I want!” once you know he’s a dad that refuses to acknowledge his kid. If “I’m Upset” was already a miss, it became a hideous looking during Surgical Summer. Yuegh.

9. Maroon 5 feat. Cardi B – “Girls Like You” (#10)
Oh, Maroon 5. It’s not the Worst Hits if it’s not with you.

Maroon 5 have been a kissass band since “Payphone,” and “Girls Like You” has the distinct kissass flavor of playlist-baiting. The song is a grabbag bastardization of every broad trend possible: muted and moody synths meet percussion that’s bolstered with finger snaps and handclaps meet a pedestrian acoustic guitar lick with aggressive string squeaks for bogus “authenticity” in attempt to sneak onto every Spotify and terrestrial radio playlist possible while bringing absolutely nothing to the table. And, even for Maroon 5, the lyrics here are mailed in: who the fuck knows what to take from a filler lyric like “Girls like you run ‘round with guys like me?”

“Girls Like You” solidified it’s ranking here, though, with the verse from Cardi. Her verse isn’t bad, it’s just that Cardi is too, well, alive for a song this sedate. Adam Levine spends two and a half minutes confusing a tepid delivery with an intimate one, and then in comes Cardi zigzagging through the track and throwing in her trademark ad-libs (in fact, it bears mentioning that “Girls Like You” is possibly the only song where “Okurrt!” shows up–it’s usually a social media/interview tick); these two have all the chemistry of the tertiary couple in a high school musical. But, we all know that Cardi isn’t here because she pairs so well with Adam Levine, she’s here because (like Wiz Khalifa in 2012, Kendrick Lamar in 2016, and Future in 2017) she’s the hot rapper of the moment, and this pandering bullshit worked: “Girls Like You” spent 7 weeks at number 1. Maroon 5 have been a mainstream name since 2002, I’m sure it won’t be long until they reti–Adam Levine’s only 39?!

8. Imagine Dragons – “Natural” (#69, nice)
Look, this is just a rewrite of ID’s already shrill, tuneless shanty “Believer” with Dan Reynolds yowling about getting a little tough in a cold, uncaring world. And when Dan Reynolds wants to roll up his sleeves, get intense, and snarl, he sounds so hard that I bet he’d still get coldclocked by “I’m Upset” Drake.

7. NF – “Let You Down” (#29)
I’m writing part of this list on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The trees have shed their leaves, it’s been overcast after raining yesterday, and it’s bright enough that no one has their Christmas lights on yet. Today’s just miserable and dreary in a grossly uninteresting way.

You see where I’m going with this: today feels like how Christian (maybe?) rapper NF’s music sounds. If you want all of Twenty One Pilots’ neediness without the warmth, and late-era Eminem’s stone-faced seriousness and woeful beat selection without the technical verve, have I got a guy for you! On “Let You Down,” NF spits with his fists clenched over a beat of staid piano chords and drums as colorless as asphalt about being a let down to…someone?

That’s the thing: I can’t tell who “Let You Down” is supposed to be addressed to. There’s a line where NF underlines “That’s parents for you,” but in the next lines, he’s talking about someone who put a knife in his back when they should have been loyal, and while a parent can super betray a kid, the idea of a parent being loyal…like, that’s weird, right? And other parts of the song sound addressed to a parent, but then there are a lot of “we”s thrown in and another line stating that “Both know you’re gonna call tomorrow” like this is to an on again/off again significant other. I don’t know, it’s all confusing, and for a guy as fixated as NF is on making REAL MUSIC, you’d think he’d be more fastidious.

6. Thomas Rhett – “Marry Me” (#76)
The punchline is that the full lyric reads “She wanna get married/But she don’t wanna marry me.” It’s a Nashville bait and switch: after the first verse of a song called “Marry Me” details the loving image of a country girl’s dream wedding, you think that the nervous fellow who describes himself in the chorus as holding back tears and taking a pull from a whiskey flask to calm his nerves is the groom, but ohhh waiiit, we discover that it’s not the groom whose talking, but the sad bastard in the pew who loved her the whole time. He’s morose; he reflects on that time they almost kissed (but didn’t, because they’re friends), he laments that her daddy “ain’t the only one giving her away,” and he boldly decides that he won’t declare his love on her wedding day.  Instead, he’ll be the unsung hero by being there, holding himself together, and wishing her well.

My guy: just don’t go.

Like, this is a solvable problem: if seeing your lady love marrying who I have to assume is James Marsden is going to cause you this much anguish, you don’t have to be there. Stay in and keep off social media, or take a day trip and buy them some hand towels off the registry; in a beautiful fit of irony, your presence at the wedding is not required. And c’mon: you love this woman this much, and yet you just kinda just hoped she’d love you back and never shot your shot? Actually, I take it back. Go to the wedding, you deserve to sit at a table where you don’t know anyone and have lousy chicken alfredo before doing the Electric Slide. Ya dink.

Come back tomorrow for more!

Listmas 2018 Schedule
December 19th: Top Ten Favorite Albums of the Year
December 20th: A Brief Inquiry Into 2018
December 21st: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 22nd: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2
December 23rd: The Gibby Fifty (50 favorite songs)
December 26th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 27th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2

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A Brief Inquiry Into 2018

Hello, and welcome back for Day 2 of Listmas 2018!

Today, we’re trying something new. I didn’t do any on-site music writing this year, but I still listened a lot of albums in the meantime, and I wanted to use today as sort of an “album catch up” day. So here’s what I thought of a bunch of albums. Some of them were in the running for the Favorites list, some would have gotten panned. Here we go.

Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
The question was always going to be “Is Cardi B anything beyond ‘Bodak Yellow?’” and Invasion of Privacy answers with a resounding “yes.” What I like most about this album is that it’s kind of the platonic ideal for a “do everything” debut: there are a few great singles, a handful of spitters where Cardi just goes off (Is “Money Bag” mostly a “Bodak” rewrite? Yes. Does it reeeeally matter? No), and a few slower numbers. Even if it slumps once or twice and “Bartier Cardi” is now more dated than “Pete Davidson,” the guts of Invasion of Privacy hold together as an impressive debut with lots of replayability.

Travis Scott – Astroworld
While Cardi did plenty for herself, Travis Scott also had a banner year with a number one album and a number one song in “Sicko Mode.” Astroworld is Scott’s best yet execution of his “artist as curator” approach where he gets people like, say James Blake and Kid Cudi on the same song and recruits Stevie Wonder to play harmonica, or drafts Pharrell and The Weeknd to sing over a Tame Impala beat, but for me, the whole thing only works in fits and starts. The record feels top heavy, and after “Skeletons,” I tune out almost entirely. Scott can make really pretty music, but a lot of it gets inert, and all the splashy names in the world can’t make something out of nothing. “Stargazer” is a hell of an opener, though.

Image result for a brief inquiry into online relationshipsThe 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
It’s entirely possible that in a month, I’m going to look back and be mad that I’m writing about this one here instead of on the Favorite Albums list. The album certainly has a lot of my favorite songs of the year: “Love It If We Made It” (look at these lyrics and tag yourself–I’m “Unrequited house with seven pools”), “Sincerity is Scary,” and “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” are all top tier, but I just haven’t had time to dig into this thing enough to call it a favorite. While I’m still figuring out where I sit with the acoustic songs, I’ll say that I love The 1975 for being a band that’s successful and has a personality; no other rock band was going to throw a lyric like “POISON ME, DADDY” out there without a trace of irony (and the Genius annotation is wild).

Justin Timberlake – Man of the Woods

 

Drake – Scorpion
You could capture my thoughts on Scorpion with two stretches from intro “Survival” (emphasis added):
I’ve had real Philly niggas try to write my endin’
Takin’ shots with the gold and talk about shots that we sendin’
I’ve had scuffles with bad boys that wasn’t pretendin’
I’ve had too many nights to mention, that’s just the beginnin’
I’m pretty sure we got a label, I‘m still independent
I fell back a hundred times when I don’t get the credit”

“This just a intro, let me not get ahead of myself
This is God’s plan, young man, you said it yourself
Always got a ace up my sleeve for whatever was dealt
Daddy got suits like Bernie Mac, he dresses himself
I stopped askin’ myself and I started feelin’ myself
Now I gotta deal with all this drama and deal with myself
I ain’t even have to cut the tie, it severed itself
This just the intro, let me not get ahead of myself

The Sonder Bombs – Modern Female Rockstar
If we’re talking in terms of enjoyable pop punk this year, it doesn’t get better than the explosive, ukulele-led attack of Modern Female Rockstar. A punchy collection of songs about cutting out bullshit and toxicity (especially as they relate to shitty dudes and a-hole scene “girl with the band” politics) while having the courage and power to live your best life, Modern Female Rockstar matches its most affirming lyrics to its most captivating music; the last minute and a half of “Title” are a must listen. The album finishes with “Twinkle Lights,” just as baring an “I’ve been through some shit and working on it” song that keeps both eyes on the future. Keep an eye out for what this band does next (and speaking of eyes and looking: MFR features some of my favorite cover art of the year).

Black Panther: The Album
The fact that Black Panther: The Album isn’t an unmitigated disaster or a mediocre corporate tie-in would have been enough to call it successful, but it’s actually a pretty great collaboration album on its own. Apperances from big-stage newcomers SOB X RBE and Jorja Smith steal the show, but Khalid and Swae Lee’s “The Ways” and “Opps” are stellar, too, in addition to SZA and K.Dot’s own “All the Stars.” I also want to highlight that “King’s Dead” brings us closest to a universe where Kendrick, Jay Rock, and Future wrote a Disney Villain Song.

The Carters – EVERYTHING IS LOVE
Probably better than you’re remembering, probably not great enough to argue harder for than that. Ideal cocktail party background music, if nothing else.

Kanye West – ye

Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts
Once you set aside the names involved, you’re left with a project that mostly consists of interesting sketches as opposed to fully realized songs. For people deeply invested in Kid Cudi or Kanye, that might be enough, but otherwise, KSG’s low-stakes “Just fuckin’ around” vibe is both an asset and a liability. It’ll likely go down as an interesting 2018 curio than anything else.

Migos – Culture II
Fun fact: this blurb has fewer characters than there are minutes of the punishingly long Culture II.

Image result for the now nowGorillaz – The Now Now
Well, that’s one way to do course correction, isn’t it? Damon Albarn came back from last year’s collaboration heavy and unfocused Humanz with an aggressively low-stakes but much more enjoyable follow-up. The Now Now would register as just fine were it not for a handful of songs like “Kansas,” “Magic City,” instrumental “Lake Zurich,” and closer “Souk Eye” that prove Albarn and his cartoon band don’t need a gimmick or a guest to make good music, they just have to be.

Cloud Nothings – Last Building Burning
Here’s another way to do course correction: if your attempt at going light didn’t do much for people and you’re one of world’s most kinetic bands, it pays to go slash and burn for an album. Last Building Burning is a collection of haymakers and 360 dunks, and it culminates with “Dissolution,” an 11 minute long track that’s like a Sex Bob-omb song if Stephen Stills and (especially) Kim Pine got to go scorched earth. It rocks.

Snail Mail – Lush
Snail Mail won this year’s Indie Rock Breakthrough Sweepstakes with Lush, which has been routinely topping or placing high on year-end lists, and was inescapable for a stretch this summer. I like it (“Heatwave” and “Full Control” are the biggest keepers), but it seems just a little too boilerplate indie rock to really jump off the page for me. I’m interested to see where they go from here.

The Voidz – Virtue
The only Strokes criticism that really seemed to get to Julian Casablancas was that they were boring, and his side gig The Voidz have consequently been an attempt to be Not Boring by way of leaning hard into outre concepts and a lotta scuzzy noise rock. Virtue splits the difference in a big way: on one hand, it has 4 or 5 stunning all-timers on the other hand, I don’t think I’ve made it through the whole thing in one sitting. Take it or leave it.

Jeff Rosenstock – POST- and Antarctigo Vespucci – Love in the Time of E-Mail
Image result for post jeff rosenstockBoth of these were in the running at different points for the Favorite Albums list. Rosenstock followed up his 2017 punk mishmash masterpiece WORRY. with an album that tempered WORRY.’s jittery optimism with a battered persistence and more anthemic songs. “USA” was the year’s first “holy shit” rocker, and no one other than Rosenstock would attempt a hungover, loosely psychedelic crooner like “TV Stars.” It’s just a great album for when you feel tired of shit but still gotta keep on powering through, and I think that registered for a lot of people this year.

Rosenstock also partnered with indie singer-songwriter/immortal human being Chris Farren for a new album with their outfit Antarctigo Vespucci this year. AV’s music could most accurately be described as surf rock power pop that grapples with romance and insecurity, and this year’s Love in the Time of E-Mail is no different; like their last two albums, it’s a delight. These guys pair well: Farren gives Jeff’s music that extra little bit of sweetness, and Rosenstock’s frayed guitars cut Farren with a little instability he otherwise lacks. This time around, they run out of oomph before closing with “Lifelike,” but even if it doesn’t quite match up to the last record Leavin’ La Vida Loca, it’s still solid.

Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino
I already think this album’s destined for “Misunderstood” status. After the immediately accessible (although for me, always kind of so-so) AM, Arctic Monkeys came back with an album about a washed-up lounge singer and the lunar hotel where he wastes away. The record falls into a mid-section lull, but also has one of the year’s best tone-setting openers, and “One Point Perspective” is as charming a song Alex Turner’s ever written. Aesthetic has done a lot for Arctic Monkeys in the ‘10s, and continues to do so here; I think the overall feel of this one does it a lot of favors (also: between TBHaC, Carly Rae Jepsen, Father John Misty, and Drew Goddard, hotels had a hell of a year).

Listmas 2018 Schedule
December 19th: Top Ten Favorite Albums of the Year
December 20th: A Brief Inquiry Into 2018
December 21st: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 22nd: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2
December 23rd: The Gibby Fifty (50 favorite songs)
December 26th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 27th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2

 

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Top Ten Favorite Albums of 2018

WHAT THE FUCK IS UP EVERYBODY??

Hi there! You might have noticed that Ranting About Music took the year off. We’re sorry about that. But, as per usual, we’re back for Listmas, starting with the favorite albums of the year, so let’s dig in.

2018 wasn’t a bad year for music–we’ll get to that–but it certainly felt tepid more than a few times. On one hand, people like Cardi B and Snail Mail had breakout years, but then you also had plenty of artists who wiffed or ran in place. Like, Beyonce and Jay-Z did revelatory work in 2016 and 2017; this year, their joint album feels like a pleasant afterthought. I worried once or twice about not having enough albums to even make a top ten favorites list, but when it got time to put names to spaces, I found myself making a lot of painful cuts.

Usual disclaimer: These are my ten favorite records of the year, not the ten best records of the year (although I’d argue there’s plenty of overlap). Music writer Steven Hyden always refers to his favorite albums list as “what he obsessed over this year,” and here are my ten little obsessions with a full Listmas calendar at the end.

10. [TIE] The Wonder Years – Sister Cities & Joyce Manor – Million Dollars to Kill Me
I put these two together because they trigger the same reaction in me: band evolution is beautiful.

Image result for the wonder years sister citiesIn 2013, The Wonder Years released their fourth album, The Greatest Generation, which, to me, is the The Dark Knight of pop punk: there’s no way you will ever put these parts together and get a result this incredible ever again. And, instead of trying to climb that mountain again, The Wonder Years tried something different with next record No Closer to Heaven, a slowburner that pushed lead songwriter Dan Campbell’s writing further outward while his voice took on a new layer of nuance and held my attention, even if it wasn’t as acclaimed (if we’re keeping the Chris Nolan comparison alive, NCTH is probably the band’s Interstellar).

There’s no Nolan equivalent to Sister Cities, but the album’s damn cinematic on its own. No Closer to Heaven’s towering nature stuck around, but the band sounds more confident and potent this time around: just listen to the maelstrom on thundering opener “Raining in Kyoto,” the bombed out quiet of “When the Blue Finally Came,” or how they torch the title track. The Wonder Years have been a sneakily accomplished musical group since at least Suburbia, I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, but they even kick that up a notch here with the album’s arrangements. And Campbell, who has grown leaps and bounds as a vocalist, does some of his best, most expressive work on Sister Cities, making the most of his upper register and losing none of his intensity (the way he sings “I’m helpless and you’re drowning” on the bridge of “Pyramids of Salt,” combined with the guitar lead that sounds like an outstretched hand afterward, is just crushing). Is it all “pop punk” in the strictest sense? Well, if not, I’d argue The Wonder Years aren’t the problem; if Sister Cities isn’t a pop punk album, it’s only because so few pop punk bands would dream this big.

Image result for million dollars to kill meJoyce Manor, meanwhile, might not have been dreaming “big” per se with Million Dollars to Kill Me, but like their previous album Cody, this one plays the long game despite being about as lengthy as an episode of The Good Place. Joyce Manor lean further into power pop territory than out and out pop punk or emo for their fifth record, but the result is a surprisingly robust set of songs with tunes that are immediately catchy (“Think I’m Still in Love With You” grabs on the first listen and never lets go) and ones that pull you in over the span of a few listens until you can’t get them out of your head (“Big Lie,” “Up the Punx”), and there’s a delicate balance here of conventional and screwball choices that really helps the entire album gel. There’s a renewed focus on melody through Million Dollars to Kill Me that stays intact from the hardest rockers to the sunny jangle of closer “Wildflower,” and as always, the band proves that short doesn’t mean sloppy with their exacting arrangements and song choices. While MDtKM might not be the lightning in a bottle outing that earlier records like Never Hungover Again were, I think it’s one of the most loopable albums of the year, and handily one of their best.

9. The Pom-Poms – The Pom-Poms – EP
The Pom-Poms are a collaborative effort from wife and husband duo Kitty (formerly Kitty Pryde, currently part of American Pleasure Club) and Sam Ray (formerly of Teen Suicide, currently American Pleasure Club and Ricky Eat Acid). I could tell you their 16 minute EP is a cocktail of raved up pop that has some of best production each of them have done to date, I could tell you that it slaps so hard that it’s categorically impossible to listen to at low volumes, I could tell you it’s fun (which is surprisingly hard to do in music!), orrrrr I could let Kitty’s cheerleader brat lyrics do the talking:

“Check out my boyfriend and my other boyfriend/And his other girlfriend and her other boyfriend!”

“I don’t really know what I said, got’em bitter like a lemond rind/Ever since I showed’em my bread, they decided it was peanut butter jelly time”

“They see my pics and never let it go/like, ‘scandalous!’/I read that shit and LMFAO, I’m in Miami, bitch!”

“I GOT YOUR BITCH IN MY SEWING CIRCLE, I’M TEACHING HER STUFF/SO WHEN WE RIP YOU TO PIECES, THEN WE CAN STITCH YOU BACK UP/I GOT YOUR GIRL IN THE FRONT SEAT, I PASS HER THE AUX/AND LET HER DEEEEJAAAAY SHE CAN PLAY WHATEVER SHE WANTS/I GOT YOUR GIRL IN PILATES WITH ME, I’M STRETCHING HER OUT/SO SHE’LL KNOW HOW TO FLEX ON YOU WHEN YOU LET HER DOWN”

Image result for sweetener album cover8. Ariana Grande – Sweetener
Sweetener is where it all starts working for Ariana Grande. Her first two post-Nickelodeon albums were fine but prone to bouts of anonymousness and even her best singles were held back by the lack of the last little something that makes pop magical. But Sweetener makes the leap in no small part because of her producer choices here: Max Martin and Grande’s usual collaborators show up for singles and a few synth numbers toward the end of the album, but Pharrell takes over for most of the album cuts, which lets Martin et. al focus on the big hits. And somehow, it’s Pharrell of all people who helps Grande most; she sounds natural on their collaborations like “R.E.M.” and “Borderline,” and these deep cuts kept me coming back just as much as the singles did.

But Grande herself is singular here than she’s ever been before, as Sweetener digs into her life. It does that by addressing a pair of incredibly divergent real life events: Grande’s whirlwind engagement to Pete Davidson and the terrorist attack at her Manchester concert and the subsequent toll it took on her mental health. You’d expect Sweetener to go heavy on somber ballads, especially with a lead single called “No Tears Left to Cry,” but the song itself is a glitzy disco jam with a UK garage beat, and Grande examines her anxiety with a driving pop skyscraper and a bouncing R&B number, and all of it feels true to life. Sweetener captures a life in a turbulent moment (Grande is literally upside down on the cover), and while it knows about those impossibly crushing lows, it’s resilient enough to still chase the highs.

Image result for noname7. noname – Room 25
The opening line on room 25 is “Maybe this the album you listen to in your car when you drivin’ home late at night,” and damn if that doesn’t set the tone Chicago rapper noname’s debut record. Particularly in a year laden with triplet flows, the ubiquitous “mumble rap,” and yowling SoundCloud rappers, noname’s hushed, almost whispered introvert flows pull you in with a mix of precise but approachable delivery and a lot of “Wait, did she just say…” writing (my favorite go-to example: “My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism”). The album casts a wide subject matter net, too, going from writerly boasting to race relations to mortality to good sex on a song-to-song basis, and noname’s deliberate cadances are backed by lush, detailed soul-based beats that aren’t afraid to sound pretty (“Regal”) but aren’t afraid to grit their either, either (“Part of Me”). room 25 is the sound of a person and an artist coming into their own, and it demands not to be just be played, but to be listened to. It’ll reward you, I promise.

Image result for beach house 76. Beach House – 7
Beach House have always been a tastemakers’ pick, with their immaculately made, delicately performed version of dreamy indie pop. This is great, because they’re consistently rewarding (even if it took until 2015’s Depression Cherry for me to catch on), but their own consistency and dedication to one sound can be used against them: I’ve seen cracks like, “My favorite Beach House song is the midtempo, twinkling, sighing one.” Their seventh album is their most varied to date without sacrificing any of their empyreal qualities; look no further than the early 3 song run of “Lemon Glow,” “L’Inonnue,” and “Drunk in LA” to see how Beach House sounds after adding live drums and electronics to their palette. These additions keep with the band’s tastemaker status, but they also result in some their darkest, most captivating songs–”Drunk in LA” is a cut of Blade Runner or Annihilation sci-fi, “Dive” has a sustained eruption of soft-touch guitars and drums, and “Woo” is perfect synth-pop. But you don’t have to take my word for it, just ask The Chainsmokers.

Image result for awakebutstillinbed5. Awakebutstillinbed – what people call low self-esteem is really just seeing yourself the way that other people see you
This is the debut album for San Jose emo band awakebutstillinbed, and it caught such fire as a self release that they were almost immediately picked up by renowned punk/emo label Tiny Engines, who put the album in wider release. It’s that good. Probably the nearest point of comparison for what people call low self-esteem…is The Hotelier’s second album Home, Like Noplace Is There: both albums exist in a constant state of emotional and mental health crises, both worry about others as much as themselves, both Holden Christian and awakebutstillinbed band leader Shannon Taylor sing and scream like their traumas are barbed wire twisted around the inside of their throats, both include funerals, and despite the crisis-level reckoning in the storytelling, both have a remarkable number of bangers (“Fathers,” for instance, talks about unlearning inherited traumas and flaws like it’s an episode of The Haunting of Hill House, but musically, it sounds like a revved up early Green Day track). In case the band and album names weren’t a tip off, self-esteem can be a lot, and I can understand where Taylor’s voice–an untrained but vibrant torrent of singing, shouts, and screams–can be a dealbreaker, but when you’re addressing a dead friend with questions like, “Why can’t we undo everything? Why can’t we fix ourselves?” and “Why is there so much wrong with us?” wouldn’t you be screaming, too?

4.Mitski – Be the Cowboy
Be the Cowboy is a headphones album.

Image result for be the cowboyNot the in traditional sense that it’s filled with a bunch of small intricacies that can only be appreciated on a careful listen (although if you’re looking for some of the year’s most intelligent indie rock, this is it), but in the sense that such a solitary album requires solitary listening. Be the Cowboy is ostensibly an “on the road” album, but gets there by a circuitous route: Mitski’s outsider protagonist has to be as self-reliant and self-determined as a cowboy while they wander like one from place to place, but instead of focusing on concrete details like highway exits and roadside diners, Mitski’s brief songs and askew lyrics mimic the mental state of a long trip, where you start interrogating old thoughts and relationships, jumping from subject to subject in the span of a few minutes. And then, there’s album centerpiece, the fully-formed disco heartbreaker “Nobody.” I took my first trip out west this year, and after a week, I was kind of done and had to grab new headphones at the airport on my way home. I decided to use “Nobody” to test them out, and man, listening to a song about longing for human connection or even just a body while packed in one of America’s busiest airports just wrecked me. Be the Cowboy is full of that kind of examination, and as part of a three album run, establishes Mitski as an indie mainstay that’s more than your best American girl.

Image result for a whole fucking lifetime of this3. American Pleasure Club – A Whole Fucking Lifetime of This
Sam Ray has been on an absolute tear. The rechristened/reborn version of Teen Suicide, American Pleasure Club put out a hodgepodge of singles, seven inches, and tapes this year with Run For Cover release A Whole Fucking Lifetime of This serving as both an anchor and one of Ray’s crowning achievements. It actually took me a while to get into AWFLoT; I missed the sprawling nature of Teen Suicide’s swansong record (comparatively, AWFLoT is less than half the songs in about half the time), but I eventually saw that this is a culmination of everything Ray and company have done before. “This Is Heaven and I’d Die For It” sounds like early Weezer with a suboxone script, and is every yearning squall of guitars Ray’s written put in one, and tracks like “Sycamore,” “There Was a Time When I Needed It,” and “New Years Eve” encapsulate most of TS’s earlier output. Meanwhile, Ray’s more experimental side comes through with the drum n bass cut “Just a Mistake,” the soundscape of “Seemed the Whole World Was Lost,” and especially on the crestfallen, Frank Ocean sampling “Let’s Move to the Desert.” If A Whole Fucking Lifetime of This sounds like a new lease on life, that’s because it is, and there’s no more sublime expression of Ray’s newfound bliss than the robo-piano ballad “Eating Cherries” with Kitty, who married Ray in 2016. Thanks to an early release date, this is probably the album on here that I’ve listened to most, and every time, it’s made me eager whatever American Pleasure Club does next.

Image result for dirty computer2. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
Janelle Monae’s third album is probably the one on this list I’ve thought about the most. Dirty Computer almost feels like a side step from her Metropolis saga and the exploits of ArchAndroid and Electric Lady Cindi Mayweather for an album that’s closer and truer to who Monae is as a person; during the release cycle for Dirty Computer, she came out as pansexual. This was important to Monae and really seemed to mean a lot in wider queer communities (I saw Monae live earlier this year about a week and a half after Pride month ended, and the concert was like a boomlet Pride itself in terms of how joyful people looked to freely be themselves), and yet, I couldn’t help but marvel at how a queer reading of Monae’s work has always been, at least in my opinion, readily apparent. You can’t really get around a song like “Cold War,” with a line that leaps off the page like “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me,” or “Q.U.E.E.N.” which straight up asks “Am I a freak because I love watching Mary?” without at least thinking “Y’know, maybe this isn’t all about robots,” and while not all art has to include autobiography, there was at least enough evidence that the androids could be allegorical for a queer experience.

Seeing Monae perform Dirty Computer live is what sealed its place for me. Hearing the gigantic thump of “Take a Byte,” that wondrous “Don’t Judge Me” outro, and the flip from “Screwed” into “Django Jane” (which, “Django Jane” itself, holy shit) in person was an eye-opening experience. But it was the encore finale of “American” that really got me: on record, it’s a rousing finisher, but in concert, you can feel Monae tapping into whatever she’s got left for “Love me baby, love me for who I am!” that gives the song some extra grit and push that’s otherwise missing. Cindi and Janelle have always been living, breathing beings; now, they’re achieving synthesis.

1. Foxing – Nearer My God
Side 1, track one, one minute and thirty-seven seconds in. That’s when Nearer My God grabs you by the neck and tells you that rock band Foxing really means it this time as “Grand Paradise” has a drop with massive bass, apocalyptic drums, and flanged guitars that sound like lightning. This same song features a drum machine, a piano-lead pre-chorus, gang vocals, a background screamo wail, and I’m pretty sure I hear strings at one point. And yet it all works.

Nearer My God is, at its heart, an alternative rock record. We can sit here and debate genre tags all day (the strident emo kids say it isn’t emo, everyone currently lamenting indie’s fallen place in the world says it is), but when all’s said and done, this is a record that takes a bunch of cues from ideas that shouldn’t work and matches them all to impossibly big hooks and guitars that are all interwoven so that each disparate piece strengthens the whole. It’s the kind of record that has room for large hearted stadium rock like the title track and impossibly screwy Radiohead-esque songs like “Gameshark,” a nine-minute meditation on death that stretches out like a National anthem, a beautiful, goth rock show-stopper and somehow none of those are a weak point. Similar to last year’s AOTY Everybody Works, part of what I love about Nearer My God is how I’ve heard this album by so many bands before where the whole thing falls apart because they just added a drum loop or made a long song without a purpose, but here, decisions that seem nuts on the surface are exactly what was needed (also helping NMG and EW: amazing sequencing). Anyone who’s ever liked a rock album with even a little character to it would find at least something here they’ll like, so if you haven’t heard it, do yourself a favor. Hell, I’ll even link you to my favorite to get started.

Listmas 2018 Schedule
December 19th: Top Ten Favorite Albums of the Year
December 20th: A Brief Inquiry Into 2018
December 21st: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 22nd: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2
December 23rd: The Gibby Fifty (50 favorite songs)
December 26th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 27th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2

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