Eat your heart out, Jonny Greenwood. Radiohead’s lead guitarist and keyboardist may have an impressive list of eight film scores under his belt—thanks in large part to Paul Thomas Anderson, for whom he’s written cinematic music on four occasions—but Thom Yorke is in the soundtrack game now too, scoring Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the giallo classic Suspiria. Both Greenwood and Yorke are masters of their craft, of course, and each are as impressive solo as they are with their powers combined. But Yorke’s got a leg up on Greenwood when it comes to the ability to wield his haunting falsetto. Yorke puts that high-pitched voice of his to sublime use in “Suspirium,” the standout number on an eerie and beautiful soundtrack. Backed by little more than his wistful and contemplative piano, Yorke sings of human bodies and “what they mean for our salvation,” defining life as perpetual motion, a waltz in which all is well as long as we keep spinning. It’s understated yet glorious, and easily one of the most beautiful songs of the year, playing to Yorke’s piano ballad strengths and reinforcing his dominion over acoustic music despite such prolific and spellbinding work in electronic aesthetics. Unlike Greenwood’s impressive cinematic output, particularly on Anderson’s pristine films, Yorke has created music far more transcendent than the film it scores. – Josh Goller
Like the album with which it shares a title, “Honey” had an absurd amount of anticipation to live up to. There hadn’t been a new Robyn album since the Body Talk cycle in 2010, and the series of collaborations that followed did little to satiate fans’ appetites for more of the Swede’s unique brand of dance pop. This was only ramped up when an early version of “Honey” appeared on the last episode of HBO’s “Girls;” surely, some new music was on the horizon. The version of “Honey” we finally ended up getting at the end of 2018 is quite different from the one we first heard a year and a half prior; it’s also better in every conceivable way.
“Honey” is pure lust in song form. Robyn sings in a soft, insistent tone about her desire as the song’s pulsating beat emulates a feeling of building sexual tension. Soon, Robyn’s calls for passion become more desperate as she calls out, “Come get your honey!” while leaving very little to the listener’s imagination about what she means. Rather than a bombastic reintroduction, “Honey” seductively lures you into Robyn’s world in a way that retains the empowering nature of her music while adding new dimensions for her to explore. – Kevin Korber
Starting a song (let alone an album) with “The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit, I had a coughing fit” makes for a pretty visceral introduction, and the impact of that moment doesn’t fade. In fact, Lucy Dacus spends the whole six-minute length of “Night Shift” patiently building the emotional toll and rational strain of a break-up. By the time she sings, “You’ve got a 9-to-5, so I’ll take the night shift,” Dacus has gone through a rollercoaster already, and the moment feels simultaneously devastating and reasonable. As the final lines repeat themselves, her guitar builds, turning defeat into a furious sort of triumph, the hope in the closing moments made more realistic, a force of survival at the very least.
The structure in itself aids the song’s effectiveness, but Dacus’ careful unveiling of a complicated set of emotions makes it especially potent. She works hard to convince herself that she’s okay, but she doesn’t seem to quite get there. She staves off anger and confusion, facing bleakness in solitude. Even as she recognizes her own self-worth and need for respect, she longs for one last kiss. Dacus represents the whirlpool of heartbreak with clarity and precision. It hurts. That specificity of expression brings the listener deeply into the experience, making the second half of the song well earned as well as cathartic. The release is remarkable, especially given that Dacus doesn’t cave to a happy ending or trite feeling. Her feelings – and ours with her – remain unresolved, but she stills clears a way forward. – Justin Cober-Lake
Low’s Double Negative isn’t for everybody. The strangest of the band’s career, it can blindside you even if you know going in that it’s a somewhat unforgiving album. If you’re able to weather its tempest, though, it rewards you with one of the most fascinating examples of a band shaking their core aesthetic for the better.
A choppy onslaught, “Disarray” moves in an inhuman way, sounding closer to Pulse Demon than I Could Live In Hope. Like many of the songs of Double Negative, you could be forgiven for wondering if there was something wrong with your speakers on first listen. But then, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s voices flood the song. “Before it falls into total disarray/ You’ll have to learn to live a different way,” they sing amid the noise. Their voices, too, feel pummelled, distortion blurring the edges of their words. And despite how hard Double Negative fights against the purity of Parker and Sparhawk’s voices, the thrum can’t help but cease while they harmonize, like a knife-blade of light cutting through the darkness.
At odds with that light is the defeat they fight against here. “Too late to look back on apocryphal verse/ And to be something beyond kinder than words,” they sing, as though they’ve just realized that the idea of living in hope is a slowly-closing door. Even still, they’re aware of where it’s all coming from: “This evil spirit, man, it’s bringing me down/ It tells me not to do the things that I should” – the inversion of the old phrase is important, because they’re implying that the “evil spirit” would rather you be apathetic, to simply accept defeat, to not do things you should do, instead of raging against the darkness tooth and nail. Really, it’s the most important message any of us could learn after such a dark year. – Holly Dixon
“Nobody,” the disco-tinged single from Mitski’s outstanding Be the Cowboy, is the latest in the pantheon of feel-good jammers touting the pangs and benefits of loneliness. Better than the blind glee of “Dancing with Myself,” though, Mitski doesn’t cheer in spite of her solitude, but rather because of it. The brief track is shockingly complete, starting off in a state of utter despair before it moves towards empowerment: “My god I’m so lonely / So I open up with window / To hear sounds of people,” Mitski sings, before lamenting that climate change has ravaged the planet of love. It’s absurdly desolate, a feeling that’s reinforced by the song’s fantastic, surreal music video.
Anchored by an almost mechanical hi-hat pattern, the song inconspicuously swells from almost nothing towards pure bombast. Each phrase brings a new instrument or counter melody with it, making each moment feel more significant than the last. Things never get cluttered, though, and one of the shining qualities of “Nobody” is its ability to turn simplicity into a vibrant, colorful palette. After teasing at a climax for most of the song, the final leg finally delivers a fulfilling explosion of slick, groovy instrumentation along with an evocative key change. After the self-pitying opening, the repeated refrain of the title feels triumphant as it bounce atop a gorgeous mix of sounds. Mitski is proud of her aloneness. Better yet, she urges her listeners to feel the same. – Connor Lockie
No one does affecting pop songs about loneliness, heartache and personal isolation coupled with infectious beats and melodies better than Robyn. Without listening intently to the lyrics themselves, one would be hard-pressed to get the sense of despair inherent in nearly all of her songs. The accompanying music acts as a sort of aural Trojan horse, the melody and hook worming their way into the ear of the listener only to leave them with a sense of something bordering on despair as the meaning of the lyrics make their move.
Nearly every line of “Missing U” could serve as the jumping off point for any number of songs about heartbreak and loss and the struggle to keep moving forward in the face of crippling loneliness. Lines like “There’s this empty space you left behind / Now you’re not here with me / I keep digging through our waste of time / But the picture’s incomplete” and “Can’t make sense of all of the pieces / Of my own delusions / Can’t take all these memories / Don’t know how to use them” show a poetic depth rarely heard in pop music.
The vulnerability inherent in Robyn’s vocals help further sell the sentiments, making the closing stanza all the more crushingly heartbreaking: “There’s this empty space you left behind / I keep thinking you’re still right beside me / There’s this empty space you left behind / All the love you gave, it still defines me.” Even without the context of the song itself, the lyrics of “Missing U” show Robyn to be one of the most effective contemporary lyricists working the classic pop tradition of love and loss. That it’s equally engaging on a musical level makes it all the more impressive a feat. – John Paul
Perhaps the most Nirvana-inspired song of 2018, Courtney Barnett’s “Nameless, Faceless” uses the tropes of a disproportionately “male” genre—grunge—in order to tell a very different story. This song is not about the inchoate, world-weary melancholy that is the not-so-hidden topic of countless grunge songs. Rather, it is about a much more concrete lurking danger, an anger and violence that is all-too-tragically familiar to many alive today.
At first, Barnett seems understanding, even conciliatory. “You sit alone at home in the darkness/ With all the pent-up rage that you harness,” she sings. “I’m real sorry/ ‘Bout whatever happened to you.” But the even more memorably-phrased chorus takes a darker turn.
“I wanna walk through the park in the dark/ Men are scared that women will laugh at them/
I wanna walk through the park in the dark/ Women are scared that men will kill them’” And the conclusion—“I hold my keys/ Between my fingers”—leaving us hanging, before a return to the deceptively catchy, breezy feel of the verse.
Given so many of the debates that have taken place this year, and how hurtfully they have been carried out in public, it is a great testament to Barnett’s talents as a songwriter that she was able to create a subtle, articulate song on such a vexed subject, without being programmatic but also without being compromising. Oh, and it rocks, too. – Dylan Montanari
One of the defining songs of a volatile year came about from an LSD trip. But this being country, rather than psychedelic music, its exploration is not wildly cosmic but introspective. With a line taken from her unreleased song “John Prine,” the now 30-year old country singer revisited a youthful lyric of rebellion: “Grandma cried when I pierced my nose,” and although she prefaces it with, “I can be cold, “Slow Burn” is anything but. A gentle, unhurried acoustic strum launches in counterpart to the lyric “I was born in a hurry/ Always late.” But this is as song of quiet regret, a lament of fleeting life: “Taking my time let the world turn.” This millennial is aware of her insignificant place in the world, musing that while the sun sets on Tennessee, a world away they’re going to work in Beijing. The world keeps turning, and “the bar down the street doesn’t close for an hour.” It’s a resignation and a resilience sorely needed in these times, and it’s appropriate that one of the year’s best films is the similarly smoldering Burning. “Slow Burn” is that rare ballad that has universal appeal across generations and genres—and you know it the first time you hear it. – Pat Padua
Culled from Furman’s 2018 set Transangelic Angel, “Love You So Bad” is a recollection of a past love affair that, given the lyrics, may have been more bad than good. Comparisons to Jonathan Richman come easy when listening to Furman but there’s a Springsteen-esque attitude in the music and in Furman’s ability to capture small details in the lyrics, but this is in so many ways the anti-Boss. These aren’t entirely losers, they’re just people skimming the bottom for a moment or two before moving on to different lives and there’s none of the cheesy machismo that so often floods his songs. No matter, Furman further establishes himself as an exciting writer whose emotion-laden vocals and ability to occupy the skin of the characters about which he sings is undeniable and remarkable. This isn’t just one of the best on Furman’s latest, it’s one of the best in a career that, thus far, has yielded a broad range of superior songs. If we’re lucky we’ll get to see the film adaptation of this one real soon. It’s that epic (for a number that clocks in at just over three minutes) in its scope and heart. – Jedd Beaudoin
There was no music video released in 2018 more visually and viscerally arresting than Childish Gambino’s “This is America.” The song itself is a fine bit of underground hip hop dealing in the current social and political climate of unrest, but it’s the accompanying images that help the words resonate in a way the song alone could never have managed. The level of violence and the manner in which it is portrayed speaks volumes to how we as a society have come to respond to the shooting deaths of countless black men and women. In it, a shirtless Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) dances and mugs his way through an abandoned warehouse in which a series of seemingly peaceful, everyday mise en scènes descend into tremendous violence.
The juxtaposition of cliched rap and hip hop lyrical tropes (sample lyric “I’m so fitted / I’m on Gucci / I’m so pretty / I’m gon’ get it”) with extreme violence portrayed in an almost slapstick manner is a searing commentary on how modern (white) America continues to appropriate black culture in the abstract, yet marginalize it in terms of the (black) lives most affected by it. Having been released as a stand-alone single, “This is America” exists not within the context of an album or musical oeuvre, but rather within the broader cultural context that the unceasing violence and social unrest with which we are faced on a daily basis.
Our ability to virtually ignore these horrific events through our own narcissistic tendencies, short attention spans and preference for entertainment over reality are played up and intentionally exaggerated for the greatest impact, each bit of violence couched between dance routines and general ambivalence towards what has just transpired. It’s chilling how accurate a commentary on modern America “This is America,” particularly the video, truly is. There could be no better embodiment of the tumult that is and has been 2018. – John Paul