Remember last year, when we thought it couldn’t get any worse? And then it did? Music saved my life this year, as it has several times before, and I owe a special debt to these tracks.
So here it is, my best of 2018. This was a tough one. I hope you enjoy. Spotify playlist right at the end.
Angélique Kidjo: Born Under Punches
Part of Angélique Kidjo’s magnificent retelling of Talking Heads 1987 classic album Remain in Light, the opening track Born Under Punches takes on a whole new layer of meaning in Kidjo’s masterful hands. Merely changing the orator role from gangly white skeleton David Byrne to the regal figure of Benin’s Kidjo would have been enough to make this an interesting release. The consummate Kidjo, however, has never been one to rest on her laurels, and she brings more than her own voice to this seminal record imbuing it with meaning for a whole new generation.
Born Under Punches is classic Talking Heads: A synth funk womble with surreal lyrics hinting at the dark undercurrent of 1980s high society. High being the operative word, but this cover is sober as a judge. The industrial threads of the original are unpicked and woven into something new – with African drums adding an earthiness to the bass line and a disempowered yearning to the vocal delivery. Byrne’s strange, bureaucratic ramblings are changed from the misgivings of the man within the machine, to the people grinding under the wheels. The ubiquitous “government man” takes on new meaning and stands in for the overpolicing of black communities in America.
When Kidjo sings “All I want is to breathe,” I am reminded of Eric Garner, choked to death by police in 2014. His last words, which he repeated eleven times, were “I can’t breathe.” When she says “Don’t you miss it / Some of you people just about missed it” it’s a call to wokeness and action. In Garner’s case, and so many others, the officer was not indicted for his actions. Kidjo is incredulous. “Fire cannot hurt a man / not a government man!”
The original Remain in Light album has been with me my whole life. I danced to its grooves as a kid, not understanding a thing, and then I absorbed its weird poetry as a teenager. Later, driving too fast with the radio too loud, I came to hear its sarcasm, despondency and vitriol. Now it has been reborn, as a testament. Don’t you miss it.
The War and Treaty: Healing Tide
I’ve been playing songs from this record all year but when I first told my husband that Healing Tide was on my 2018 best-of, he was aghast: This couldn’t possibly be from this year. And he’s right. The sound made by Michael and Tanya Trotter has a timeless quality, especially Michael’s voice that comes straight from Memphis, circa 1976. There’s a dark swampiness to his vocals and the lap steel that jangles through this record like someone packed up their kitchen into a wagon and hauled it over the rough roads. But there is sweetness here too, in his wife Tanya’s vocals, and in the Ike and Tina-style call and response. Alone, they each have a strong voice, but together they are something else.
Michael describes Healing Tide as a clarion call to love yourself when under fire, to forgive yourself so you can go on. In War and Treaty, like good partnerships, one leads while the other follows. Then the lead changes, and the other partner carries the load. We just do this, forever, with anything we have to carry, and it doesn’t feel so heavy.
Where do I start with the goddess Lizzo? How about her string of tweets in November, where she posted two videos of her twerking and then a close-up snap of a wobbling plate of creamed corn? Or the fact that she often throws shade by recording selfie videos of her playing the flute? Her brand is her uncompromising, kinky, fierce self, and you’d better get used to it. She is dangerously talented and unnervingly off-center, and we fans cannot get enough of her.
Fitness, released as an orphan single to placate rabid fans who haven’t seen a full release since 2015, is an ode to self-care. As self-affirming as it is standoffish, the Queen-sized diva raps about how she’s going to feel after her fitness regimen. But just in case you didn’t know, she doesn’t do this for you.
Francesca Michielin: Tropicale
You wouldn’t know it from the summery dance rhythms but this is a heartbreak song. The xylophone chords, clackers and driving beat sets the scene perfectly in the first few seconds: We’re in the Caribbean, right? And we’re going to dance the night away as half of an intense but ultimately doomed romance, right? It smells like coconut oil. Except… For Michielin’s voice.
The heady passion, the summeriness, it isn’t there. She is just the tiniest bit flat, and the discord draws you in. “I wake up alone, as always / The first day of vacation.” She has come looking to recapture the feeling, but she knows she can never go back. “I run on the beach, there’s a tropical party / I want to talk to you but I don’t know where to look / And I can’t dance.” Her heart is breaking, but it’s summer. And doesn’t that suck so much more?
H.C. McEntire: Quartz in the Valley
Queer country is giving me life this year, and this album has been on high rotation. When the events of the day make me shakingly angry, this album LIONHEART has been my camomile tea. On it are songs about family, compromise and the everpresent topography of country life.
Quartz in the Valley is an erotic love song that intertwines home, hearth and history in a glorious portrait of life on the land. The opening triad sets the scene perfectly: “Roll on in, honey, thick as fog / Shuffle me up like a catalog / Lay down the law in your frayed chiffon.” But then it turns, night to day. She switches role, making the work submit to her hand. There’s a sensory theme running through this track, from the metaphor of her kicking the blue stones of her unpaved road to the mascara stains her lover leaves on her pillows. No turn of phrase is wasted here, and the result is close to perfect.
J. Cole: 1985 – Intro to “The Fall Off”
Diss tracks are nothing new in hip-hop, but here’s something fun: An open letter to an unnamed young rapper that is both self-conscious and measured. Cole, a divisive figure who has often spoken out about black men undermining each other, articulates his concerns in his inimitably sensitive way.
The production of this track is an homage to the old ways, with an alternating old-school bass line, and samples including crackling and – is that sniffing or the sound of stacks being counted? Cole’s sucker punch is masterful: “By your songs, I must say I’m unimpressed, hey / But I love to see a black man get paid.” His tone changes abruptly, and he gets meta:
“These white kids love that you don’t give a fuck
‘Cause that’s exactly what’s expected when your skin black
They wanna see you dab, they wanna see you pop a pill
They wanna see you tatted from your face to your heels
And somewhere deep down, fuck it, I gotta keep it real
They wanna be black and think your song is how it feels.”
The reception of this track within the hip-hop community has been mixed, with many young emcees taking umbrage (including at least one leading chants of “Fuck J. Cole” at his shows) but it may also have started some conversations, which I think was his point.
Steve Angello, Pusha T: Freedom
There is a darkness to this track that starts right at the first note. A jarring, suspended bell rings out over industrial samples that sound like a munitions factory, or maybe panicked breathing. A hint of machine-gun rat-a-tat comes and goes with the robotic main theme, as Pusha T raps about oppression, money and access. “America’s ours,” repeated like a mantra, which could be a threat or a promise, is also a call to action to make it so.
Childish Gambino: This is America
To all those who have seen the events of the past two years and said “this is not America,” Gambino has a message: It absolutely is. From the black deaths in custody to the appropriation of culture and the exclusion of people of color from new revenue streams, it’s all here in this, probably the Song of 2018.
There isn’t much I can say about this tune (or its astonishing music video) that hasn’t been unpacked already by folks more qualified than I, but I just love the antagonism of this track. There’s an entire social studies semester in this 3mins45, and his legion of white fans are listening, but as Gambino is quick to point out, this is not for free.
“I just checked my following list, and
You motherfuckers owe me.”
grandson: Stick Up
In the spirit of Bloc Party but with none of the sarcasm of, say, Hunting for Witches (shout out to my Best of 2007,) the multi-voice assault and wailing guitars paint the picture of a man at the end of his rope. The protagonist stands in for the disenfranchised, the hopeless, the despairing. When a man has nothing, he has nothing to lose.
grandson, out of Toronto, says artists have a responsibility to “weaponize music and art to paint a painfully realistic picture of who why and what we are.” This tune is desperate and adrift in its own flawed logic. It is filled with rage. And it’s magnificent.
This jilted rage letter takes just a moment to lull you into a false sense of security before unleashing its full fury.
Marie DeVita’s vocals are barely restrained by the melody as she sings “You’re a girl and a girl isn’t welcome in here,” haunted by Ewan Birtwell’s mosquito guitar sounds. In Labrador, WAAX channels the collective fury of women into a tale of a mutt reprimanded. Loyal and determined, she feels and she responds, but nonetheless drops her ears and returns to her bed.
Rafiq Bhatia: Before Our Eyes
This is the song that will haunt me for years. Slap-dash drums, the telltale squeal of a steel-string guitar, a haunting finger-plucked repeated phrase. And, oh, that violin.
Just when it breaks down completely is when he pulls it all back together into that haunting theme of loss and yearning.
Priscilla Renae: Jonjo
With heartfelt, playful delivery, Renae turns what could have been a silly ditty into a total delight.
Overcoming the disability of a stutter to make the impossible password into a song, this story stands in for the way women subvert power systems to get theirs.
for KING & COUNTRY: joy.
It takes a lot for this committed atheist to consider a Christian rock tune for her best-of, but this is a cracker. There is a theme of personal choice running through my favorite music this year, and this synth pop instant classic picks up the baton with an appeal to our better natures.
Mostly it’s the othering of responsibility that irks me about religious music – God, dude, things are messed up, could you help me out – but this one is solidly in the realm of personal responsibility. In many ways, we can’t choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we feel about it. I choose joy. Turn it up.
Ariana Grande: Sweetener
In the hands of a lesser artist, this could have been a simple, sweet love song. Oh, it’s about baking – maybe – with a lovely two-part chorus and delightful harmonies. It would be fine, I guess, but not particularly memorable. However, Grande’s genius is to surround herself with producers who never let her quit, and the production on this track is truly inspired. With yelps and exhales setting a wonderfully textured bass line, and keys that sounds almost as though they’re played in the next room, there’s a grit to this track that belies is saccharine exterior. When she says hit it, flip it and twist it, y’all know what she is talking about.
And then after the bridge, the track is stripped back to just this acapella background and her honeyed voice, which has never sounded better. There are several gems on her record, of the same name, but I think this one has the longevity.
Stella Donnelly: Boys Will Be Boys
The universality of this song about sexual abuse makes it hard to listen to – but at the same time, makes it necessary. A musical list of the tired excuses people make for the men, and the questions assault survivors are asked, the song’s simplicity is its strength.
On first listen, the final couplet struck me as a bit naive, maybe even wincingly twee. It’s a testament to Donnelly’s talent that despite it (maybe because of it,) you feel her earnestness, her pure emotion, and her commitment to calling the perpetrator to account. This is a song of its moment – the so-called #metoo era – but it’s also about a quiet, righteous rage that has been with us women for our whole lives.
This year, I have been married for five years. I understand this is when things are supposed to get boring. As if.
Mallrat, from my home town of Brisbane, romances her beau with a casual-not-casual invitation to go grocery shopping. There’s a kind of desperation in this song that really speaks to me. The intimacy of grocery shopping, the commitment that you’ll be breaking bread together for days or weeks to come. Her certainty: Look, mate, I will have you, so just give up now.
Going to the store is sometimes a chore, sure, but mostly in our household, it’s sacred. My love and I, we write our list together, fill it with in-jokes, and more often than not, hit the store together. And I love it.
Y’all know I’m a sucker for vinyl tracking distortion so I was hooked on this track from the opening crackle but stay with me, it goes deeper than that.
If I’m honest, Teo confuses me. Everything about this New York-Columbian actor cum singer is mysterious. Few photos of him exist, and he released his first full-length record this year … and it’s almost impenetrable. This standalone release is a playful creole of English and Spanish, jam packed with pop culture references and lingo. But there’s a darkness here, too, hinted at by some of the lyrics and that mosquito of a violin riff.
And then, as abrupt as it started, it just ends. It’s a question and at rhe same time, the last word. So fitting for the enigmatic artist.
DeVotchKa: Second Chance
This atmospheric gypsy goth lament is DeVotchKa at their miserable best. Deeply personal in nature but with orchestra flourish, Second Chance is a true return to form for the Denver band. Wait, they’re from Denver? How did I never look that up before now? The roundness and resonant duality of Nick Urata’s voice, paired with the mournful violin and that whistled theme that’s straight out of a horror film.
“Your lips are like home / And your arms are like old friends
Now I know they’re never gonna take me back again.”
Only goths would describe a breakup as having one’s paramour “released back into the wild.” But here we are. And in the end, it is just a song about love lost. Half plea, half lament, and totally perfect.