Spencer's Favorite Songs of 2018
While 2018 wasn’t my favorite year for music, this list ended up being stronger than I expected. While some of my most-anticipated albums left me disappointed, they all managed to deliver a song or two that cut through a sea of new releases and worked its way onto this list.
I also noticed that the music here fills a full spectrum of emotions. It feels like half is desperate, even written by artists that died since the music’s recording. The other half, however, is optimistic, rising above the craziness of this past year in a triumphant and powerful way.
50. A$AP Rocky—Praise The Lord (ft. Skepta)
I was a big Rocky fan back in the beginning. I feel like he’s spent the next seven years trying to convert that potential into critical acclaim. There have been moments. I thought 2013’s “Goldie,” 2014’s “Multiply,” and 2015’s “L$D” were threats at breakthroughs. 2018’s long-awaited album, TESTING, seemed like as good a time as any for the long-awaited moment of arrival. Like other albums this year, it came up short. “Praise The Lord” is a standout, featuring bouncing production and lyrics from Skepta. I wish the rest of the project featured similar intrigue.
49. BROCKHAMPTON—1999 WILDFIRE
BROCKHAMPTON’s 2018 project, Iridescence, didn’t floor me, although it did make my list of favorite projects this year. When the standard (set in 2017) is several ear-catching projects in one year, it’s hard to keep up. The trio of singles released this summer offered the creativity I was looking for and “1999 WILDFIRE” was the standout. The production is buttery and the flows match. While not as good as much of their work from a year ago, it kept me coming back.
48. Freddie Gibbs—Weight
Not dissimilar to the issue I have with A$AP Rocky is my relationship with Freddie Gibbs. The highs of his career are stellar (Pinata is phenomenal) but it feels like there are far too many mediocre projects mixed in with the noteworthy ones. An artist of his caliber should be able to translate talent into quality projects on a more consistent basis than Gibbs has been able to. 2018’s Freddie is another in that line, but “Weight” has enough bounce and menace to qualify as one of Gibbs’ better efforts in recent years.
47. Chance The Rapper—Work Out
I swear I didn’t intend for the top of this list to be “Guys I Like But I Wish I Liked More,” yet here we are. I’ve written about my feelings on Chance The Rapper in the past, so I won’t rehash them here. I love Chance the person, but Chance the artist is catching my ear less and less frequently. He released a group of three songs in July that were pretty good, but the second one, “Work Out,” did it for me. Chance has a knack for making music that incredibly carefree. His happiness is infectious, and it nails home some of the quotables here: “Had my first kid, I love how she turned out. I love how she turned up, even if I’m burned out.”
46. Post Malone—Psycho (ft. Ty Dolla $ign)
Post Malone is a guilty pleasure of mine. He’s been the target of criticism for producing a litany of music that falls somewhere between “whiny” and “devoid of meaning.” My take is that not all music has to be profound and I think a lot of critics could benefit from listening to some music that doesn’t aspire to inspire. I think there’s room for a guy like Post who just likes to make fun music and doesn’t take himself too seriously. “Rockstar” is not a statement on the current geopolitical climate, but it’s catchy and fun. Sometimes that’s good enough for me.
45. Lil Wayne—Open Safe
Lil Wayne took a little while to bring Carter V to market. Others have written about the hurdles Wayne cleared to get the project released on his own terms, but I’ll sum things up by saying that the album was originally announced in 2012 with a 2013 release date before later getting an official release of May 5, 2014. A mere 1,607 days after that, we got it. What resulted from the long production schedule was a bunch of songs produced at some point between 2012 and 2018. Nowhere is this more evident than “Open Safe,” which sounds like it was stuck in a time capsule in 2013 and dusted off this fall. It still works for me—which is remarkable—but its DJ Mustard beat is a modern relic.
44. Lil Peep—Cry Alone
Lil Peep’s story is one of a high school outcast that took his own winding path to national, critical acclaim. His disdain for his hometown comes through in his music, but never more stark than on “Cry Alone,” as Peep takes to bouncing guitars to shove his newfound fame back in the faces of those that once bullied him for being weird and poor. “I hate everybody in my hometown. I wanna burn my old high school into the ground. I hate everybody in my hometown. Tell the rich kids to look at me now.” Unfortunately, Peep’s journey was cut short before it was able to reach a proper conclusion, but “Cry Alone” is one of several worthy posthumous releases this year.
43. Graduating Life—Stinky Man
Graduating Life, Mom Jeans, and Just Friends are three bands that share members. I don’t understand how it works or fully understand who appears on what album, but the overlap is nearly 100%. I saw Mom Jeans and Just Friends in Columbus this summer (amazing show), but have yet to see a Graduating Life performance. I’d love to see “Stinky Man” in the type of setting in which I saw the other two groups. It dials the relatable self-deprecation up to 11, which is right where I like it.
42. Jeff Rosenstock—Powerlessness
Jeff Rosenstock is the king of anxious music. Nobody is able to describe worry (the actual title of his 2016 album) better than Jeff. The thing that makes it genius is that it doesn’t come across immediately. His music is all catchy and palatable, but the lyrics tend to be incisive. “So where can you go when the troubles inside you make your limbs feel like they’re covered in lead?” he sings. “How can you solve all the problems around you when you can’t even solve the ones in your head?” Ultimately, I think it’s the dissonance between sometimes-bleak reality of life and the optimistic mood of the music that makes it click for me. Things may be dreadful, but we’re making the best of them.
41. Joyce Manor—Think I’m Still In Love With You
The melody kings are back in 2018 with Million Dollars To Kill Me. If fans of the band’s early days of edgier pop-punk were miffed by Cody, this one is probably even more baffling. MDTKM sees the band at its poppiest and most melodic. Do I miss songs like “Constant Headache” and “Catalina Fight Song”? Sure. But they’re remarkably good at this sound. “Think I’m Still In Love With You” is a story of a relationship continuing only for the status quo. “And even though it isn't true, I think I'm still in love with you.”
40. Mac Miller—Hurt Feelings
That Mac Miller died this year at 26 years old is a tragedy. That the world lost a brutally-dedicated artist coming into his own feels like insult to injury. Mac is an artist that has never particularly hid away his struggles, but more than ever on Swimming, his ultimate fate at the hands of drugs and depression sounds foretold. “Hurt Feelings” is about his rise to the top. “I paid the cost to see apostrophes,” he boasts. It’s also about the side effects of all that climbing he did since 2010. “Puttin’ way too much on my shoulders, please hold me down,” he begs. “I keep my head above the water. My eyes is gettin' bigger, so the world is gettin' smaller. I've been gettin' richer but that only made me crazy.” It would be tough to listen if Mac weren’t so damn good at all of this.
39. Jeff Rosenstock—Yr Throat
“Yr Throat” is the anthem for the futility that sometimes comes with trying to change the world—or even your own life. “I can’t do anything of impact,” Rosenstock wails. “I emptied out my brain in hopes that I would have some success—finding some clarity—but I just made a mess.” Listening to Rosenstock’s music, you get the sense that he’s a chronic brain-emptier. This isn’t to diminish the quality of his music (it’s consistently great), but it has a beautifully personal, DIY quality to it—as if someone with incredible musical talent opened up his diary and started wailing on a guitar. “What’s the point of having a voice,” he wonders on the chorus, “When it gets stuck inside your throat?” I don’t get the sense Rosenstock struggles with this issue as much as he thinks he does.
38. Mom Jeans—Jon bong Jovi
Of all the non-sequitur titles on Mom Jeans’ Puppy Love, “Jon bong Jovi” might be the most eye-roll-inducing. Make no mistake though, the immaturity is a front, and the disconnect between the group’s brand and its music is probably the biggest appeal. These guys are smarter and more thoughtful than they let on, and hidden behind the corny weed reference is a song about admitting you need help for the betterment of yourself and your romantic relationship. “It could be worse,” they admit. “At least I still get to be around you every chance that I can.”
37. Kanye West & Kid Cudi—Reborn
In a year that saw Kanye careening off a deep end he’s been flirting with for the better part of two decades, it’s remarkable he managed to team up with Kid Cudi for such an affecting album. While the end results of Kanye’s year still make little sense, the ugly inspiration gets laid bare on Kids See Ghosts, including “Reborn.” Kanye, warts and all, sounds much more coherent than he does on his own album. “I was off the chain, I was often drained,” he vents, “I was off the meds, I was called insane.” Kid Cudi’s contributions are a new anthem for a group that used to see so much hope in him—and maybe can again. “Keep movin' forward, keep movin' forward,” he persists. “Ain't no stress on me Lord, I'm movin' forward.” It’s a start.
36. Young Thug & Elton John—High
In perhaps the most patently 2018 thing to happen in 2018, we have a collaboration between Young Thug and Elton John. Even the circumstances were born of the internet. Way back in 2015, Elton confessed his admiration for Young Thug in a Noisey article. Young Thug’s people followed up with Elton’s people, and here we are: A rapper sampling a legendary artist’s biggest hit. Thug didn’t have to say anything on this song because the simple flex of clearing a “Rocket Man” sample is enough. As it turns out, he felt the same, and basically nothing of consequence is happening here. This song is not a groundbreaking piece of music, but the pure spectacle makes it one of the 40 most entertaining songs of the year.
I wasn’t familiar with Weller prior to the release of their self-titled album in 2018. I was drawn in by their relatively stripped-back production and personal, narrative lyrics. The approach to songwriting reminds me of Death Cab For Cutie, The Mountain Goats, and even a bit of Modern Baseball—which is fitting because Jake Ewald produced the album. “Boroughs” tells the story of life’s growing pains—a crumbling relationship: “And I've already learned my lesson. You haven't aged since seventeen.” One would think the band’s knack for melody and intimate, illustrative lyrics bodes well for their future.
34. Camp Cope—How to Socialise & Make Friends
I don’t remember how I first discovered Camp Cope, but I remember hearing “Lost (Season One)” and being floored. The Australian band is incredible at energetic and catchy pop punk. 2018’s How To Socialise & Make Friends is the next step of the band’s growth, and the title track is a standout. The band is tremendous at “vindictive” music, although that may not be the right word. It’s a feisty shot at an ex about finding freedom after a failed relationship. “Yeah you shoulda seen his book collection, it was all ‘How To Socialise And How To Make Friends.’ Yeah, I guess we both got our problems.” A ruthless place to get an album title. I’d hate to be that guy.
33. Sheck Wes—Mo Bamba
Here it is. Every year has to have a mindless banger on this list. 2013 had Rich Homie Quan’s “Type of Way.” 2014 had OG Maco’s “U Guessed It.” 2015 had Fetty Wap’s “RGF Island.” 2016 switched it up with The Chainsmokers’ “Closer.” 2017 had Offset’s “Ric Flair Drip.” 2018 has “Mo Bamba.” Since its release, I think this song has been played roughly every 12 minutes at Bearcats football and basketball games. The football season is over, but when I go back to Nippert next August, I’m expecting to hear “Mo Bamba” still echoing off the inside of the stadium from Senior Day. It’s the perfect mass appeal song because there is hardly even lyrics to memorize or a beat to catch. It’s an amorphous blob of sound. It’s a wave pool in music form. It’s amazing.
32. John Mayer—New Light
In what will be remembered as much for the incredible video as it will be for the song itself, “New Light” was John Mayer’s contribution to 2018. It’s an anthem for second chances at love, and the fact that it’s seemingly a loose track and not a single is impressive. Ever since his return from his Montana sabbatical, Mayer is in cruise control at 75 miles per hour. He’s in his groove, and this smooth, catchy single produced by No I.D. is basically just a flex. Mayer’s ability to maintain relevance in 2018 is both a testament to his talent and a testament to his intelligence. He’s been hosting a full-blown talk show on his Instagram every Sunday night and it’s legitimately entertaining. Musical talent aside, he’s funny and charismatic. “New Light” is an exhibition of that.
31. Rex Orange County & Randy Newman—You’ve Got a Friend In Me
I love Rex Orange County. His work last year blew me away—enough that I gave him the #1 spot on this list in 2017. I have no idea how this song came about. It seems as if it’s just a random cover that morphed into a full-blown feature from Newman himself. The pair revive the Toy Story classic and do such a good job that I honestly wouldn’t mind this appearing in the (baffling) fourth edition of the series coming next year. I think, because of his contributions to popular cinema, Newman gets overlooked when it comes to influential songwriters. He’s incredibly talented and has devoted much of his career to Disney, which is probably a sacrifice if you’re in search of respect outside of the confines of an animated movie. Hopefully this one sheds some light on his talent with a new generation.
30. Runaway Brother—Paws
Runaway Brother’s 2014 album, Mother, was as well-written as any released that year. If there was a shortcoming, it was probably in the project’s instrumental inventiveness. New Pocket addresses this flawlessly. The band worked with producer Eric Cronstein to create a more ambitious, higher-quality product and they succeeded. Throughout the year, I found myself coming back to the album as much for instrumental flourishes as I was for lyrics and catchy hooks. “Yeah, rip it Chuck!” leading into guitarist/keyboardist Charlie Gunn’s wonderful solo is a hidden highlight of 2018 for me.
29. Camp Cope—The Opener
On “The Opener,” Camp Cope—a band composed entirely of women—turns their incisive lyrics towards sexism and misogyny in the music industry. “It's another man telling us we can't fill up the room. It's another man telling us to book a smaller venue.” The indie music scene, especially when it comes to punk and emo, often preaches equality, but when push comes to shove, women tend to be vastly underrepresented on these same tours. “It's another all-male tour preaching equality.” “The Opener” is boisterous and angry—justifiably so. This is Camp Cope at their best.
28. Drake—Nice For What
There wasn’t a more disappointing album in 2018 than Drake’s Scorpion. While 2017’s More Life was 81 minutes long, I felt there were at least a small handful of songs worth coming back to. Instead of tightening things up in 2018, I felt Drake went in the opposite direction. Scorpion came in at a preposterous 25 songs and 90 minutes and contained even fewer songs worthy of repeat listens. I don’t have anything against Drake, and I really want to like him, but it’s difficult when I feel like Drizzy is shooting roughly 5-for-47 on ‘good song attempts’ in the last two years. Artists of Drake’s ilk simply should be better than that. The world needs more songs like “Nice For What.”
27. Lil Peep—Life is Beautiful
All of Lil Peep’s Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2 is stained by premonitions of his untimely death in 2017. The topic is clearly something he thought about. “Life Is Beautiful” sees him spending time lamenting and rejoicing the difficult aspects of living. “I know that it hurts sometimes, but it's beautiful,” Peep admits. “Working every day, now you're bleeding through your cuticles. Passing through a portal as you're sittin' in your cubicle. Isn't life beautiful? I think that life is beautiful.” In the end, the 21-year-old reaches a conclusion that was unfortunately far too accurate. “There comes a time when everybody meets the same fate,” he closes. “I think I'ma die alone inside my room.”
26. Weller—Point of Personal Privilege
“Point of Personal Privilege” maintain’s the band’s pattern of relationship drama set to warm guitars. “Painting portraits in my brain,” the song opens. “New York apartment, pouring rain. Are you still in?” It’s the exploration of a romantic path that ultimately isn’t meant to be. “Fighting off the urge to resent you for all the things I lost when I met you. Good friends, better off distant, hanging on til you decide you're ready to begin.” It’s the kind of illustrative longing that’s woven into the band’s self-titled album. It’s what brought me back to the project again and again.
25. Lil Peep—Hate Me
“Hate Me” is, in my eyes, the unquestionably best kind of Lil Peep song. If I’m being honest, it’s the type of thing I wish we saw on Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2 more often. Most, if not all, of Peep’s music is frankly pretty dark and meditative, at least lyrically. On the best songs he manages to blend this lyrical content with the momentum of an upbeat instrumental. It’s the contrast within songs like “Awful Things” and “U Said” that first got me into Peep. Producer Smokeasac is responsible for most of his songs in this vein, and he’s back again here. “I'm just going through some s--t right now,” explains Peep. “And I don't wanna let you down … No, I just wanna leave this town. Sometimes I feel like everyone hates me.” It’s a confession—maybe a plea for help—buried in a bouncing, sunny beat. It’s amazing.
24. Mac Miller—Come Back to Earth
The most heartbreaking story in music in 2018 was Mac Miller’s death at 26 years old. Making things even more gut-wrenching is his recently released Swimming. It’s a diary of inner torment that ultimately hopes for a brighter future he’s starting to create for himself. He’s catalogued the winding road but seems confident things are getting better. “Come Back to Earth” is the album’s opening track, and it begins with Mac begging for the strength to ask for help and find support. “My regrets look just like texts I shouldn't send. And I got neighbors, they're more like strangers, we could be friends. I just need a way out of my head. I'll do anything for a way out of my head.” By the end, he’s acknowledging some type of hope. “They told me it only gets better …”
23. Foxing—Nearer My God
On “Nearer My God,” lead singer Conor Murphy admits, in his weaker moments, that he’d trade a lot to be successful—even just superficially. “'Cause I'd sell my soul,” Murphy wails, “To be America's pool boy. The crown centerfold. My few good years left, a tribute to anyone who wants me at all.” It’s a relatably shallow sentiment that feels even more visceral when screamed over soaring guitars and crashing drums. The band’s willingness to take personal, broken ideas and cram them into triumphant sing-a-longs is the best part of the album, and what makes it so special. “Nearer My God,” fittingly as the album’s title track, is a perfect microcosm of that ideal.
22. Mom Jeans—you cant eat cats Kevin
Like much of the band’s music, Mom Jeans tends to bury serious themes inside youthful immaturity. Maybe it’s a kind of subconscious defense mechanism or maybe it’s a genius ploy to deliver adult themes to an adolescent audience. I don’t suppose it really matters, and either is cool with me. On “you cant eat cats Kevin,” our protagonist is grappling with a rocky emotional state and the fact that the person he loves doesn’t seem terribly receptive to that fact at the moment. “Well I think,” he accuses, “That you're just building up a wall to try and protect yourself from the fact that I'm going to spend the rest of my dumb f———g life loving you.” He ultimately doesn’t have the energy to worry about this problem yet, and admits he’d rather “watch The Office and turn in early.” It’s where the song gets its title from, and I feel that.
21. Lil Wayne—Famous
In a year full of “this shouldn’t work but it does” moments, here’s another. I don’t think Lil Wayne has made a song—much less a full album—that moved the needle for me in years. Regardless, his talent and track record have earned something approaching permanent respect from me, so I continue to check out his latest releases. He came across something with Carter V. The album is far from perfect and ultimately can’t contend with Peak Wayne (I’ll talk about this elsewhere) but it’s a significant step back in the right direction. I knew he was back (or as back as he’ll ever be) when a song featuring he and his daughter lamenting the downfalls of fame did something for me. “And I'm sittin' here reading what was written 'bout what I do, what I didn't. I ruined relationships before my image, but all I ever wanted was everybody's attention, 'cause most people are nobody 'til somebody kill 'em.” Wayne is bad at being introspective recently, but “Famous” sees him giving it a good shot.
20. Mount Eerie—Now Only
Mount Eerie’s wrecking-ball lyrics are seared into my brain from 2017’s A Crow Looked at Me. In short, frontman Phil Elverum lost his wife to cancer in 2016 shortly after the birth of their daughter. Last year’s album was blisteringly heartbreaking, featuring Elverum barely able to muster the strength to sing or play guitar. It’s nearly a spoken word project. A year later, he’s (understandably) still dealing with the loss. Things start in 2017’s stripped-back status quo: “And I remember still feeling like, ‘No, no one can understand. No, my devastation is unique.’”
Then, out of nowhere, guitars lurch into sunny harmony: “But people get cancer and die. People get hit by trucks and die. People just living their lives get erased for no reason with the rest of us watching from the side. And some people have to survive and find a way to feel lucky to still be alive—to sleep through the night.” At first blush, you want to call this lyrical dissonance. He’s broken, and how could he not be? Unbelievably, I think he’s actually happy, or at least grateful. He has company in his despair. Others have felt similar pain. This is all an “ordinary,” excruciating part of life. You know you’ve had a horrible year when you’re able to be genuinely relieved when others know your pain. This revelation is the beauty of “Now Only.”
19. Lil Wayne—Dope N****z
As I mentioned with “Famous,” 2018 was all about moments that sound terrible on paper but work surprisingly well in execution. Introducing “Dope N****z.” It’s 2018 and there’s a Lil Wayne song with Snoop Dogg that I like. These two are senior citizens in hip-hop years, but they take a break from living the old man life to jump on Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive” sample and think back to their origins and the drive and determination it took to make it out of bad situations to reach the spotlight. “I ain't lyin', got a gold mirror just to see my goals clearer. Be a role player, role model, while you roll with 'em,” says Wayne before talking about early advice he got from friends caught up in the wrong life back home in New Orleans: “They said you don't need to be with us, stay on the road, n—-a. That way I wouldn't come to the end of the road with 'em.” Evidently these words of wisdom took hold, because he’s back more than two decades later reminiscing.
18. Runaway Brother—Apply Care Directly
It’s not that songwriting and instrumentation was secondary on Runaway Brother’s Mother, it’s just that it wasn’t necessarily at the cutting edge of their ambition. The leaps-and-bounds growth displayed by the band on its sophomore studio album is apparent right off the bat. “Apply Care Directly” displays jigsaw-type lyrical intricacy: “I saw myself with feathers I molten,” sings frontman Jacob Lee. “Presently the glare is dull. Eyes still itch, swollen tongue; you're what you eat.” By the song’s end, the pop rock guitars take a sharp left turn into lounge music. It sounds something you’d hear in an elevator. “I cannot force the stars to align for me,” continues Lee, “As I whine and wind a spinning top.” New Pocket is a full-course meal, begging to be slowly picked apart, dissected, and enjoyed. “Apply Care Directly” is a fitting appetizer.
17. Kanye West & Kid Cudi—4th Dimension
Nothing about Kids See Ghosts is logical to me, neither in its execution nor in the success of that execution. Therefore, what better way is there to open one of the album’s standouts than with a sample of a Christmas song? Specifically, it’s Louis Prima’s 1936 “What Will Santa Claus Say?” Truthfully, I don’t know the meaning of this aside from using it to compare the album to a Christmas gift, but it gives the pair a chance to reflect. “Such a lost boy, caught up in the darkest I had,” reflects Cudi. “What's the cost, boy? Losin' everything that I had.” There are mentions of Ric Flair, Lacoste, and even classic Kanye moments in the form a few crude lines that are entirely unnecessary. Combine it with some of Cudi’s trademark flow and it’s a return to form for the two—albeit in the oddest of settings. 2018 was like that.
16. Travis Scott—Sicko Mode (ft. Drake)
Travis Scott feels like hip-hop’s Derrick Rose to me. He had tremendous success early in his career, culminating in a satisfying but unspectacular album, Rodeo. In the three years since, nothing he’s produced has been particularly impressive to me. He’s still young, but it’s starting to feel like the continuing hype train might be unwarranted. How much does the talent and brimming potential mean if it continually fails to translate onto records? 2018’s ASTROWORLD was another in a line of disappointments. The project was hyped for years, yet little actually made waves and nobody seemed to care. It feels like he’ll be back in a year or two and the hype will continue to follow him. Why?!
The album’s third track, however, was a standout, and the project’s biggest commercial success. “Sicko Mode” brings along Drake for a kind of hip-hop “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s more than five minutes long, a shifting three-act play of modern hip-hop that spans multiple unique sounds. Why isn’t more of Travis’ music like this? And why don’t more people clamor for this level of execution?
15. Kanye west—Yikes
No album released in 2018 upset me more than Ye. I’ll admit I probably should’ve seen this coming. Kanye’s flirtation with mental ruin has continued for too long, but his unassailable track record has kept me hooked. Through the bizarre press run leading up to his latest studio album, I remained optimistic that his music would again cut through the drama and weasel its way to the top of my year-end lists. Alas, I was wrong. Ye is an absolute dud. Kanye’s finally blown it, snapping his string of great albums at an admittedly impressive seven.
On my first listen, however, I was optimistic for several minutes. Things weren’t clearly doomed until later in the album, because the second track is “Yikes” and it absolutely slaps. The self-produced beat gives Kanye a canvas to share his experiences with escapism (“Tweakin’ tweakin’ off that 2C-B, huh?”) and mental health treatment (“Hospital bed a hundred grand, f—k a watch”). It’s flawed (proclaiming his bi-polar disorder is a “superpower” is dangerous to listeners who need treatment) but it’s also very entertaining. Isn’t that ultimately what Kanye has always been about?
14. Joyce Manor—Million Dollars to Kill Me
The title track of Joyce Manor’s wall-of-melody album is an homage to a girl that has our protagonist over his head. “She's the only one who can take you to a pawn shop and sell you for twice what you're worth,” he laments. “Nobody tells you it hurts to be loved.” The band—who originally bonded over a shared love of blink-182—named the album after a dark anecdote from Blink drummer Travis Barker’s darkest period following a plane crash that took the life of a friend and nearly his own. Maybe it’s a tribute to the band to co-opt the phrase and slap it on an album (and song) that’s upbeat and happy, rejoicing in all aspects of life, even the frustrating ones.
13. Lana Del Rey—Mariners Apartment Complex
I’ll always be a Lana Del Rey fan, but much of her output after the magnificent debut album has felt underwhelming. For whatever reason, the forthcoming album feels like it’s back on the right track, stripping back instrumentation and putting her vocals and songwriting at the forefront. “Mariners Apartment Complex” is the first single, and Lana discussed the inspiration on BBC Radio 1 earlier this year:
The song is about this time I took a walk late at night with a guy I was seeing, and we stopped in front his friend’s apartment complex, and he put his hand around my shoulder, and he said “I think we are together because we’re both similar, like we’re both really messed up” and I thought it was the saddest thing I’d ever heard. And I said, “I’m not sad, I didn’t know that’s why you thought you were relating to me on that level, I’m actually doing pretty good.”
It’s a song about taking a turn being the guiding light in a relationship for a partner who needs it. “Maybe I could save you from your sins,” she says. “You lose your way, just take my hand. You're lost at sea, then I'll command your boat to me again.”
12. Foxing—Grand Paradise
Prior to the release of their 2018 album Nearer My God, my most well-known Foxing song was 2014’s “Rory.” It’s a great song, and it always found its way onto Spotify playlists I listened to. The downside was how damn morose I found it. The tone is so gloomy that it was hard to listen regularly. In my head, I had pegged Foxing as a solid band that made plodding, sentimental music that I generally wasn’t interested in seeking out. When I heard outstanding reviews for Nearer My God rolling in, I gave it a shot. The opener, “Grand Paradise,” wasted little time before someone shouted “I’m shock-collared at the gates of heaven!” This was not what I had Foxing pegged for. It’s like if someone took emo and molded it into arena rock. It’s my surprise album of 2018, and “Grand Paradise” sets the tone beautifully.
11. Foxing—Lich Prince
Continuing the album’s theme of honest, broken lyrics, “Lich Prince” finds lead singer Conor Murphy lamenting the fact that his love isn’t reciprocated as much as he’d like, despite his insistence that his intentions are nothing but the best. He feels neglected, that he’s only cared for passively, as an afterthought. “I feel like a house plant,” he hollers. “For you.”
On a consistently boisterous album, this is one of the feistier tracks. “I just want real love for you,” he wails. I feel like I’ve assigned a dozen superlatives on this list, so why not keep going? Guitar Solo of the Year. I think it actually melted my face. It’s all so far from how I imagined Foxing six months ago.
10. Kanye West & Kid Cudi—Cudi Montage
Kids See Ghosts saves its biggest moment for the finale, grabbing a sample of Kurt Cobain’s “Burn The Rain” for a gritty gallop into the future. It caught me off guard at first, but it seems pretty obvious in hindsight. It makes perfect sense on paper if you’re imagining Kanye and Cudi toiling away on an album against a Wyoming backdrop. “Heaven gonna help me 'cause I feel the world weighin' on me heavy, tryna keep it steady,” spits Cudi in his most vintage flow. “Ready for the mission, God, shine your love on me, save me, please.”
Kanye’s verse—the last on the album—may be his only fully-coherent passage of the year. He dissects the cycle of violence that permeates American cities such as his hometown Chicago. “Everybody want world peace 'til your niece get shot in the dome-piece,” he says. “Then you go and buy your own piece, hopin' it'll help you find your own peace.”
The album ends with a long, repeating missive. “Lord, shine your light on me. Save me, please,” begs Kanye. “Stay strong,” urges Mr. Hudson. A reminder that this pair’s most notable collaboration prior to this a 2009 single that flipped a Lady Gaga sample into a middle school-tier sex joke. This album should not have been this impactful.
09. Mom Jeans—now THIS is podracing
Cheeky Star Wars-inspired title aside, this is Mom Jeans at their most adult. Not only is the music stripped back, but so is the group’s facade. While Puppy Love deals with serious topics, it usually buries them beneath an irreverent layer of weed jokes and TV show references. The album’s finale does away with the pretense.
The song is about recognizing a good thing and being worried about losing it.
“Would you stick through it?” he asks. “When things aren't quite as easy as they once were? ‘Cause I have a tendency to take on more than I can handle.”
It’s the group’s insecure version of a love song.
“‘Cause no one’s ever made me feel the way that you do,” he sings. “No one’s ever made me feel as loved as you do. And nobody else knows me the way that you do. Nobody’s ever been this good to me—not even myself.”
08. Foxing—Trapped in Dillard’s
In case the first seven songs on the album aren’t proof enough, you know Foxing found their zone on Nearer My God when you get to the back half of the project and they’re throwing up heat checks in the form of dystopian ballads about being trapped in a shopping mall department store.
Not only did they attempt it, but they nailed it.
The futuristic-sounding bleeps and bloops remind me a bit of Zammuto. It’s an avant-garde approach to doing something that really isn’t all that weird. “But it won't work like that,” repeats the chorus. “‘Cause nothing works like that.” Between surrealist quips about dirty laundry, pregnant exes, and the “woman in the clouds of the celebrity cologne” is a song that’s surprisingly palatable.
The final 35 seconds or so, when the song is reduced to its bare synthy bloops and fumbling percussion, may be my favorite musical moment of the year.
07. Pusha T—If You Know You Know
“If You Know, You Know” kinda became the unofficial slogan of Pusha T’s Daytona era. It’s an album for people who relate to his path or, perhaps more importantly, can at least give him credit for getting here. It’s the acknowledgement of some kind of inside joke—that there’s a circle of understanding among those who have followed Pusha’s rise from the streets of Virginia to the upper reaches of hip-hop. It’s a “we’re all in this together” moment.
Kanye dropped the best beat of 2018 and Pusha is basically using it to open the album with a victory lap. “I predict snow; Al Roker” is the kind of throwaway dime that only Pusha can pull off.
Pusha does two things well: illustrative and autobiographical. This is the former. “The wrist on that boy rockstar like Pink Floyd,” “We all clickin’ like Golden State,” “Been grantin’ wishes like a genie,” and “I was busy earnin’ stripes like a tiger’s skin.” He paints pictures of summer in the neighborhood. “Bricklayers in ball shorts, coachin' from the side of the ball court … We got the tennis balls for the wrong sport.”
If all we got from Kanye’s Wyoming sessions was the beat drop on this song, it was all worth it.
06. Jeff Rosenstock—9/10
It’s the most underrated song of 2018 from one of the most underrated artists in music. Jeff Rosenstock is really good at this stuff. I screwed up and rated 2016’s WORRY way too low on my year-end list and it’s since become on of my favorite albums of the past few years. I learned my lesson, and I’ll cheer for a Rosenstock product when I think it’s great. This song is great.
“9/10” is my favorite kind of love song. “Nine times out of ten I’ll be stoned on the subway,” goes the chorus, “Reading backlit directives of what I should do. Dodging eye contact with anyone who looks my way… Nine times out of ten I’ll be thinking of you.”
Something about the song’s construction and lyrics begs to be sung, and it’s just slightly cheesy enough to be charming. You can almost imagine one of those karaoke videos with the dot bouncing along to the lyrics.
05. Bradley Cooper & Lady Gaga—Shallow
We’ve officially reached the top five, which is right where you’d typically expect the token Bradley Cooper song… (?!)
As stunningly successful as I felt A Star Is Born was, the objectively bigger, more stunning achievement is that it birthed a legitimately good song. I’m a huge fan of Lady Gaga, especially when she veers away from power pop. This kind of alt-country ballad is something I could take seven albums worth of.
Few people give Gaga credit—and I suppose even fewer know—that she has a phenomenal singing voice. Her early-career electro-pop work probably cast doubt upon this fact, but the proof has always been there. A Star Is Born gave her a chance to flex, and “Shallow” sees her absolutely letting it rip.
04. Lana Del Rey—Venice B***h
The first single from Lana Del Rey’s forthcoming album was “Mariner’s Apartment Complex” but it was the second single that has me believing we’re in for a treat here soon when the album drops. I think Lana lost herself for a little bit there after her debut. Yes, there have been moments (I loved “Florida Kilos”) but I’ve never believed another landmark album was coming until now.
This may be the most Lana Del Rey song ever. Count the references: ice cream, blue jeans, leather, Venice Beach, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, summer, gold, Robert Frost, America, Hallmark, Norman Rockwell, diamonds, and honey. Lana absolutely has a shtick, but she’s so incredible at it that I can’t seem to care even a little bit.
The song is an insane nine-and-half minutes long, ending in a multi-minute haze of warm, warbled electric guitars. Lana says her team advised against this song as a single. Her response? “No, at the end of summer some people just wanna drive around for 10 minutes and get lost in electric guitars.” Roger that. Lana’s back.
03. Pusha T—Santeria
The best type of Pusha is angry, vengeful Pusha. On “Santeria,” he gets fired up about the murder of his friend and road manager De’Von Pickett. You already know it’s gonna be good. “Now that the tears dry and the pain takes over, let's talk this payola,” he snarls. “You killed God's baby when it wasn't his will, and blood spill, we can't talk this s—t over.”
Verse 2 is my Verse of the Year:
They say that death comes in threes, how appropriate
Triple back, they rush in like Soviets
At the Kremlin
Searchin' for the green like a Gremlin
Presidential tint on this s—t that I am driven in
I just place orders and drop dollars
Rottweilers roam the grounds, the Glock hollers
Aside from the “rush in”/“Russian” double entendre, he manages to rhyme “drop dollars” with “Rottweilers” with “Glock hollers.” Man.
The song is accented by a Spanish chorus performed by 070 Shake, who had a big year. Her contributions to ye were one of the only salvageable parts of that disaster. “Santeria” is a perfect Pusha song.
“Bastardizer,” if the title isn’t enough of a hint, is about father issues.
“Let down and fallen out to be,” they sing. “Coked up and gone fleeing south. You're disengaged, while she stays home … And you think I must not remember. You think I must not remember. But I do.”
It’s less of an angry middle finger than it is a defeated “look what you’ve done,” at least to start. The second verse introduces another of my favorite musical moments of 2018: bagpipes. Given bagpipes’ role at funerals (Firefighters? Police officers? Irish? Maybe the step father falls into one of these categories?) it seems like the song is serving as a death of the relationship.
The second verse removes a lot of ambiguity:
Here lies the magician
Survived by applause but still can't listen
The patron saint
You leave a son
Who has your name
When you're finally gone
He'll be okay
This is where things get angry.
You swear him away
Now that you're absent
You find it okay
It's feeling the same
Raising themselves up but can't forget your name
The song ends with a 20-second bagpipe solo that abruptly cuts off. I wish it were longer. This is really good.
01. Courtney Barnett—City Looks Pretty
I have to admit that there’s never really been a Courtney Barnett album I’ve fallen in love with, but she’s damn good at making a great song. 2015’s “Depreston” landed at #8 on my Songs of the Year list and #34 on my Songs of the Decade list. It’s really good, but she outdid herself with “City Looks Pretty.”
It’s an upbeat, irreverent homage to loneliness. “Sometimes I get sad,” she admits. “It's not all that bad.” Two and a half minutes into the song, the driving guitars crumble and the song beautifully slows to a crawl. “I'll be what you want, oh, when you want it. But I'll never be what you need,” she sings. “And the city looks pretty from where I'm standing...”
The rousing solo to end things is worth the price of admission. I don’t know what it is about Australian musicians, but they all seem to have this kind of healthy, crystal-clear view of the world. Barnett may be the best of the bunch. Just listen.