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Top 18 Tracks of 2018

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Top 18 Tracks of 2018

Jackson Wyatt, Digital Editor-in-Chief

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Is good music still being released?

 

“Yes, the trick is knowing how to find it. That’s part of the fun. It all depends on personal taste too.” -Grant Schutte, class of 2020.

 

“I don’t think a lot of good music is coming out. It’s the genres that are popular right now. No one has talent, and most songs aren’t actually singing.” -Allison Aubuchon, class of 2020.

 

We all know someone who claims that music’s heyday is long past. You may even be that person yourself. Surely, that is an easy statement to make when looking at certain branches and genres of current music. Taste is subjective, and no one can prove to you that nü-metal is better than rap or that any album will ever top Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Such a decision is your choice to make, but I believe that music will never be devoid of great output. A majority of my favorite albums come out of the 2000s, but I do not look at them as the end of music’s prime. Trends are constantly shifting, with genres changing directions and exploring new territories constantly. 2018 may not have an equivalent to The Beatles, but the 1960s didn’t have an equivalent to Childish Gambino. Similarities may abound, but influence is different than the whole picture. I can guarantee that there was music released this year that shares common ties to your favorites; you just either did not like it or did not discover it. Below, I have collected some of my favorite tracks this year. They might not be to your liking (remember, subjective), but I hope some of them are.

 

  1. Colin Stetson, ‘Reborn’

Truly one of the most underutilized aspects in modern horror filmmaking is the score. Well-crafted instrumentation can be electrifying when paired with great cinematography, and that’s in full effect on saxophonist Colin Stetson’s soundtrack for Ari Aster’s 2018 drama/horror film Hereditary. Employed in the final scene, ‘Reborn’ finds its strength by destroying expectations. After around two hours of both auditory and visual tension, the piece flourishes as a bittersweet call for celebration. Starting as an organic flux of soft breaths and notes curling like foliage, the composition builds and splits open to a sea of rumbling throat-singing, crisp chimes and blaring waves of bright horn cries. It sounds akin to a bolt of lightning crashing onto the forest floor, electrified and monumental. The result is overwhelming, unsettling and simply breathtaking.

 

  1. Poppy, ‘X’

YouTube sensation and musical anomaly Poppy is a shining example of how an artist’s persona can be difficult to separate from their art. Over the course of several hundred cryptic videos and two bubbly albums, the alleged think-piece of director Titanic Sinclair has equally parodied popular culture and inserted herself into it. Levels of irony and mystery aside, though, ‘X’ stands as a fascinating and timely glimpse into the duality of change. Splicing between sections of dazed sunshine pop and furious heavy metal, Poppy calls for world peace and bloodshed, respectively. Muffled drum rolls burst open to crunchy riffs behind her voice, steady and animated through the chaos. Structurally, it’s whiplash-inducing (kind of a hybrid between Babymetal and a campfire sing-along), but when the two pieces meld into one near the track’s close, the message is clear: Change is fruitless without compassion and determination.

 

  1. IDLES, ‘Colossus’

Placed as the opening track on the Bristol post-punk band’s killer second album Joy as an Act of Resistance, ‘Colossus’ serves as a thrilling exercise in the use of tension. Drumstick clacks and heavy guitar drones steadily accumulate energy, morphing into an ominous lope under frontman Joe Talbot’s fiery vocals and periodic chants regarding toxic masculinity (a particularly stellar line is, “I’m like Stone Cold Steve Austin / I put homophobes in coffins”). Over the course of about four minutes, the instrumentation strains and strains, getting bigger and bigger until it reaches the point of no return. The guitars sink into muted nothingness before the whole band springs forward, wrestling and popping the balloons they’ve been blowing up the entire track. The result is an extremely satisfying whirlwind of pummeling drums and emblazoned cries. It’s well worth the wait, and who can complain when impending doom sounds so good?

 

  1. Trippie Redd, ‘Topanga’

What even is ‘Topanga?’ Redd is apparently referring to the Californian city instead of the Boy Meets World character, but explanations are still slim. When he threatens to take an alleged threat there, will the outcome be murder or a spiritual indoctrination near the old Manson Family Ranch? Given the track’s dueling gospel sample and repeated ad-lib “Boom-boom-boom-boom,” the answer may be both. Oh, and there’s the sparkling instrumentation, violent lyrics, cult-like music video and a single cover depicting a levitating Redd as the Pope. Confused yet? The message of the track may be alluring in itself, but the most compelling aspect is the lively production. Redd flows over crisp percussion, heavenly piano loops and an addictive, chipmunk-ed sample spliced throughout. He seems to have no care in the world, casually mentioning gun violence while grinning and floating above the consequences. It’s ear candy at its finest without sacrificing any creativity, showcasing a balance many of Redd’s peers have yet to achieve.

 

  1. girl in red, ‘girls’

Through her project girl in red, nineteen-year-old Norwegian Marie Ulven perfectly encapsulates the current DIY artistic trend. With every song written, recorded and produced in her room, Ulven’s music quite literally falls under the category “bedroom pop.” Despite the small scale of her creative process, though, ‘girls’ sounds gargantuan in terms of atmosphere and overwhelming desire. Wistful lyrics mull over self-doubt and self-acceptance in terms of sexual identity. The chorus rolls over like a warm breeze, muffled drums cresting under Ulven’s declaration:They’re so pretty it hurts / I’m not talking ’bout boys, I’m talking ’bout girls.” The sentiment teeters between the intense longing of loneliness and the vivid admiration of a new love interest, an intentional blurriness that blankets the entire track. Sonically, ‘girls’ is reminiscent of a hazy and humid summer day: floral, dream-like and slightly suffocating. It’s a half-faded Polaroid pic of sunlight caught between thick branches, a mostly-forgotten memory from many seasons ago. Come relive it here.

 

  1. JPEGMAFIA, ‘Real N***’

Nobody in the hip-hop scene this year better represented our current climate’s volatility than underground rapper and producer JPEGMAFIA (lovingly dubbed “Peggy” by himself and fans). His recent project Veteran expertly throws together aspects of experimentation, harsh noise palettes, rage and radical viewpoints. The track ‘Real N***’ is no different. Simply put, it’s horrifying. Wonderfully horrifying, but horrifying nonetheless. Peggy drops lines threatening violence, alludes to The Lion King, lets loose shouted slurs and compares actress/writer Lena Dunham to a gun over stuttering, erratic percussion and a genius sample of rap legend Ol’ Dirty Bastard. As far as production goes, it’s bare bones, thunderous and likely to cause some sort of repulsion. It may not be the year’s most pleasant listen (or even close to it), but there’s something admirable about Peggy’s unabashed punk mentality. It takes talent to make a song so amazingly abrasive, and the only way to truly experience it is to take a listen.

 

  1. The 1975, ‘Give Yourself a Try’

This lead single from the Cheshire band’s third album A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships sees them at their most maximalist. Punchy drums, layers of grinding feedback, consistently high volume levels and a distorted guitar line seemingly lifted straight from Joy Division’s ‘Disorder’ wrestle under frontman Matthew Healy’s scatterbrained lyrics dissecting millennial life. The result is no doubt grating, but unexplainably cathartic. The song plays like an existential Warhead, painful and exhilarating to consume. And when’s the last time lyrics like these have been so digestible? Mentions of modern debate, STDs, drug addiction and a young fan committing suicide somehow add to the psychotic dance party, and that remains the track’s biggest accomplishment.

 

  1. Ariana Grande feat. Nicki Minaj, ‘the light is coming’

Pop music is often regarded to as ‘safe’ or ‘bland’ by the opposing audience of its generation. As a genre that exists to be palatable to the majority, it’s a pretty easy punching bag for those wishing to go against the grain. Why listen to The Chainsmokers hit three piano keys over and over again when you could be listening to Radiohead compose symphonies? There’s nothing bad about easy accessibility in music, but some acts carelessly attempt to show that they’ve perfected the formula for minimal-effort tracks. This is what makes ‘the light is coming’ so enthralling. Released as a single for Grande’s recent album Sweetener, the track cast a divide between fans. Was it unique or just plain insufferable? I’m in the former category. Pop hasn’t felt this refreshing since Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ hit the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100. A galloping beat breaks down into pounding bass hits as Minaj spits a confident and calculatedly reserved verse. When she finishes, Grande continues, declaring the power of light over darkness through the earworm-y chorus. The beat picks up behind her, bouncing around and gyrating in an optimistic prayer dance. It’s fun, thrilling and off-kilter enough to be ear-catching. Pharrell Williams’ production is also as snappy as always, and that repeating sample is a risk well taken. It’s nice to hear pop that actually pops.

 

  1. BROCKHAMPTON, ‘1999 WILDFIRE’

The members of boy band/hip-hop collective BROCKHAMPTON are moving forward. In the months between their two most recent projects, they signed to RCA Records, suffered the major blow of rapper Ameer Vann leaving the group over sexual misconduct allegations, cancelled their planned summer album and faced online backlash as a result. After a period of relative silence, they released their comeback single with ‘WILDFIRE.In a way, the track symbolizes the beginning of a new era for the collective. What could’ve been a distracting absence is instead used as an opportunity to shake up their established dynamic. Founder Kevin Abstract sings an exceptionally catchy (and Outkast-inspired) hook while Matt Champion and Dom McLennon drop their typically smooth verses, but the standouts of the track are two previously underutilized members. Resident crooner Bearface breaks into the structure with an angelic, beatboxing-backed breakdown, while the versatile Joba spits wonderfully off-kilter, medieval lines concerning the group’s success. Besides being a great reassurance to worried fans, ‘WILDFIRE’ is fresh, moody, excellently produced and all-around irresistible.

 

  1. Wallows, ‘Pictures of Girls’

The trio consisting of Braeden Lemasters, Cole Preston and Dylan Minnette may be early in their music career, but widespread success is already in their sights. Some attribute Wallows’ quick rise to popularity with Minette’s role in the smash-hit show 13 Reasons Why, but that’s ignorant to one defining factor: Their music is addictive. With just a handful of songs under the band’s belt, they’re already curating a defined sound and finding ways to tweak the typical formula. Are they letting their influences show? Sure, but they’re not drowning in them. ‘Pictures of Girls’ sees the trio embracing a radio-friendly catchiness while staying true to their indie rock inspirations. Steady drums bob through the background amid a surge of distinct guitar tones. Instead of competing with another, though, they meld into a satisfying daze somewhere between the driving nature of The Strokes and the murky sprawl of Mac Demarco’s work. The lyrics talk of a love interest leaving the suburbs and the narrator behind, possibly for the shining lights of Hollywood. The bridge, which is centered around the aforementioned City of Stars, is one of the biggest earworms put to record this year. Come for the alternative-isms and stay for the good vibes.

 

8. Mitski,Nobody’

Instrumentally speaking, this single from singer-songwriter/indie darling Mitski Miyawaki’s recent album Be the Cowboy glimmers and bounds in all of its disco-tinged, city pop glory. The production is clean, the drums are sharp and the piano hits are bright, so why does it feel so downtrodden? That might be due to the lyrics, which spiral from mullings of loneliness into a pleading chorus only composed of a single word: Nobody. Written by Miyawaki during an isolating holiday vacation in Malaysia, the concept of the track’s title stems from her laying on the floor of her rented apartment, repeating the word over and over in self-pity. The sentiment is bleak, but the juxtaposition built by the instrumentation and lyrics is fascinating. ‘Nobody’ is a vulnerable confession wrapped in the glossy foil of a summer anthem. When attempting to understand the purpose of such a contrast, it may be found reminiscent of the carefree veneer often pasted over hopeless outlooks, and it makes for an expert example of balancing weighty themes with a strong replay value.

 

  1. Tyler, the Creator, ‘OKRA’

After his 2017 Grammy-nominated album Flower Boy, rapper/visionary Tyler Okonma deserves a victory lap, and ‘OKRA’ stands as a surging donut around a muddy speedway via motorbike. Everything about the track screams low-stakes fun, and it’s a valiant return to Okonma’s home as a quick-spitting provocateur. Pummeling bass spars against the crisp, trap-inspired beat, interspersed with samples of a bird cawing and synth and string intermissions. Okonma drones the confrontational hook before bursting into a steady stream of lines packed with brand shout-outs, flexes and moments of childish humor. He claims the official end of Odd Future (a rap collective he was previously associated with), name-checks actor Timothée Chalamet, packs in brags about his expensive luggage and recent award nomination back-to-back and rhymes ‘chicken nugget’ with an expletive. It’s goofy, good fun, a carefree display of Okonma’s lasting talent as a rapper shown through a completely spontaneous cut (just look at the cover art to get the gist). Regardless of his more concrete releases’ heightening maturity, ‘OKRA’ is a colorful jump into the ball pit that you’ll never forget.

 

  1. SOPHIE, ‘Faceshopping’

Some would say pop/electronic producer SOPHIE is ahead of the curve, and there’s a validity in that statement. A few months ago, she sat down for a video call with the world’s first artificial citizen, Sophia the robot. The pair interviewed each other, leaving us with almost more questions than answers. How staged was the interaction? Was there any significance behind such an event? How did the two correlate at all (beyond the obvious name similarity)? Did SOPHIE keep mentioning how much she swims to make the robot jealous? This rabbit hole of uncertainty is key to SOPHIE’s artistic escapades, especially due to her sudden burst into the public eye after relative anonymity for a number of years. In a way, Sophia the robot is a perfect symbol for SOPHIE’s material: Unsettling, anachronistic and oddly personable. ‘Faceshopping’ manages to double as an experimental banger and think-piece about the growing relationship between appearance and technological advances. Crisp vocals are morphed into a digitalized growl under crunchy bass, alarm-like synths and high-pitched cries. The track’s current ebbs and flows, exploding from sassy build-ups to an apocalyptic drop to, eventually, a sparkling bridge laced with a glossy sheen. SOPHIE is in her element when switching between these sharp contrasts, melding textures like a sculptor. With ‘Faceshopping,’ her resulting piece is an elongated figure, patchworks of skin alternating between shiny porcelain and jagged minerals. Rarely is this mastery of electronic and structural elements applied so expertly, and the crystal-clear production is reason enough for a listen.

 

  1. Jay Rock feat. Kendrick Lamar, Future, & James Blake, ‘King’s Dead’

Movie soundtracks are a notoriously mixed bag of quality, but the Kendrick Lamar and Top Dog Entertainment-helmed tie-in for Marvel’s Black Panther aims to rise above. A majority of the tracks attempt to incorporate thematic elements from the film into a star-studded, accessible hip-hop veneer. ‘King’s Dead’ is no different, trading braggadocious claims with lines from the perspective of the film’s villain over a raging trap beat. Lamar drops an infectious chorus before Rock swoops in, sprinting through rhymes like a grapevining football player. The chorus repeats, Future taking over before letting loose his infamous high-pitched verse. It’s all lighthearted, weaving confidently through the party with a smile until James Blake coos into a sudden beat change. The second half is colder and more focused, composed of a lengthy Lamar verse bombarded with sound effects of cars swerving. He plays the aspiring king, declaring his right to rule in the middle of a speeding freeway. Like the titular character Killmonger in the film, ‘King’s Dead’ finds its strength through a shameless swagger and fervent tone. All hail.

 

  1. Joji, ‘SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK’

As both an artist and personality, there’s something inexplicably polarizing about George Miller. No matter the title he produces content under, an audience always seems to find him. Previously known for his YouTube channel TVFilthyFrank and rap alias Pink Guy, Miller thrived when employing shock humor or offensive jokes, criticizing sensitive internet users while baking and eating a cake made out of vomit. In more recent years, though, this abrasive attitude has faded in his pursuit of sincere musicianship. As Joji, he blends elements of R&B, hip-hop, lo-fi and indie into woozy tracks often relating to heartbreak or romantic confusion. ‘SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK’ is similar thematically, but it stands as Joji’s most stunning work. The track operates like a streetlight-lit ballad, beginning as a stroll through dark city streets. Over synth pulses and string plucks, he slurs out lovesick pleas and warnings, resting on each syllable like a stumbling victim. The instrumentation rises, rippling behind his impassioned vocals before exploding into a neon blue shower of sparks. ‘SLOW DANCING’ showcases the melodrama of a complicated romance without exploiting it, anchoring intense emotions with immaculate production and a yearning performance by Joji. A post-breakup track rarely feels so tenderhearted, and such a sentiment should be enjoyed for all it’s worth.

 

  1.  Jack White, ‘Corporation’

Modern rock monolith Jack White knows a little something about operating a business. In 2001, he founded Third Man Records and began releasing music and supporting less prominent artists through it. In 2017, he expanded to create Third Man Pressing, over which he has complete creative control. Even his musical efforts bear reminiscence to a brand. His use of the color red in his now-defunct band The White Stripes and the color blue in his solo releases helped build a defined hallmark for them, and his two other side projects plus production credits for over thirty albums show that he has the work ethic. White’s sound is firmly rooted in traditional rock and blues, so his recent album ‘Boarding House Reach’ stands as an exhilarating take on his familiar elements. Like many of the tracks on his recent outing, ‘Corporation’ sounds like four classic rock songs finely minced and stirred together, different flavors and textures overlapping and completely overwhelming each other at points. Energetic drums intermingle with quick bongo slaps under vivacious bass, guitar and vocal riffs. The track mainly operates as as instrumental for a majority of its run, and the fluidity of its composition imparts a jam-session-like spontaneity to it. White plays with these sharp elements like a chef with knives, announcing his authority with revolutionary lyrics until letting loose a torrent of vocally-altered shrieks. It’s a steady descent into madness, incorporating more off-kilter elements until the track completely spins into one of the year’s most unique experiences. With White at the helm, how can we not go along for the ride?       

 

  1. Travis Scott, ‘SICKO MODE’

Sometimes, a song is just destined to be a hit. That seems to be the case for ‘SICKO MODE.’ First and foremost, there’s Scott, one of the only current rappers whose influence extends past his music. Between his current (and polarizing) relationship with Kardashian sister Kylie Jenner and the multiple-year build-up to the release of his third studio album, Astroworld, everyone’s eyes seem to be on him. This kind of pressure has previously been known to kneecap artistic ambition, but Scott seems to have a wide scope of vision and the drive to pursue it. Astroworld is indeed an event, with a lengthy tracklist, instantly memorable cover, amusement park-themed concept and talks of working rides being present on-stage during his tours. ‘SICKO MODE’ is placed as the third song on the album, not an intro but a solid tone-setter that stands as a culmination of Scott’s bold ambitions. It’s complex for a No. 1 banger, featuring three beat switches, old-school samples, an homage to deceased rapper Big Hawk, contributing vocals from Swae Lee and two uncredited verses from current hip-hop mogul Drake. His second addition near the tail end of the track is arguably the song’s most memorable portion, with the introduction of an icier beat and the instantly well-known refrain, “Like a light / Like a light.” The formula behind hit songs may be indefinite, but whatever it is, “SICKO MODE” satisfies the recipe while adding its own theme park thrills.

 

  1. Childish Gambino, ‘This is America’

No track this year felt more like a capital-E Event than Childish Gambino’s single ‘This is America.’ Accompanied by a YouTuber-reaction-worthy video overflowing with symbolism, the song made more of a tidal wave than a splash. And why shouldn’t it? Donald Glover, the man behind Childish Gambino, knows a little something about grabbing people’s attention. With his multiple projects under the Gambino name, the success of his show Atlanta, a budding film career and the confidence of two Emmy awards and one Grammy under his belt, what more could Glover do to catch our eye? Take on the current state of America in a single track, apparently. The instrumentation and lyrics feature as much symbolism as the video, alternating from gospel-and-guitar sections to a frigid trap beat. The result is akin to our country’s current focus: intense cycles of optimism and chaos. Glover’s purposefully straightforward lyrics touch on gun violence, material gains, celebrity popularity, police brutality, the distraction of popular culture and the role of African-American representation in short verses, aided by ad-libs and additions from trending rappers Blocboy JB, Slim Jxmmi, Young Thug and 21 Savage. ‘This is America’ may have a commercial exterior, but it’s a statement nonetheless. Glover is, in a way, playing a character: the black man in 2018. He plays with stereotypes, popular ambitions and discreet references to tragedies in order to highlight the juxtapositions and hypocrisies of such a persona, building the most relevant and far-reaching statement made in music this year.

(All sources from featured artists’ Genius and Spotify pages)

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Top 18 Tracks of 2018