This week, Phoenix New Times will be posting the best things we saw and heard in 2018, but before that, we have an appetizer. Today and tomorrow, I'll be giving you a selection of songs and albums that stuck with me throughout the year, from great indie rock tunes and hip-hop jams to stuff that's a little more out there. None of these lists are ranked, and they're in no particular order. The following 10 songs (and tomorrow, 10 albums) are personal favorites, and if you don't like them, well, I'm glad you gave them a try.
Mitski – "Nobody"
Sometimes I sit in my four-cornered room staring at screens and think, why am I so alone? Why do I struggle to find people who accept me? Mitski has been there, and “Nobody,” off her latest record Be the Cowboy, is the balm we need for an age of alienation caused by the foul machinations of late capitalism: jobs that leave you isolated, unfriendly cities, every Tinder match leaving you on read. “I’ve been big and small and big and small and big and small again,” she sings. “Still nobody wants me.” No matter size or shape or status, loneliness always rears its head again. Wouldn’t it be nice if we tried to change that?
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A.A.L. (Against All Logic) – "I Never Dream"
Way in the early months of 2018, it became known that Nicolas Jaar, electronic composer extraordinaire, had tried to stealth-release a collection of house bangers under an old pseudonym on his label Other People. All are fantastic, but “I Never Dream” stands on its own pedestal. Using classic drum machines and expertly looping an old soul sample – The Cookies’ “I Never Dreamed” – into a euphoric build-and-release, Jaar completes an immaculate exercise in the fundamentals of house. Whether you’re just getting into dance music or have been clubbing for decades, you’ll probably find this tune as magnificent as I do.
Parquet Courts – "Almost Had to Start a Fight / In And Out of Patience"
The Brooklyn indie rock band had a true return to form in 2018 thanks to their excellent album Wide Awake!, creatively building upon their punk foundation with new influences and deft commentary on the state of the world. Just look at the lyrics to multi-movement single “Almost Had to Start a Fight,” which fuses witty complaints about the MTA with wider concerns about the perplexities of, let’s say, our particular era. “Why am I searching for reason?” A. Savage sings. “I’m in the Chaos Dimension / Trapped in a brutal invention.” While other bands aim for the head and miss, Parquet Courts go in a totally different direction and end up right on target.
Sheck Wes – "Mo Bamba"
Not to pat myself on the back, but I heard this way back in April while looking up acts performing at Rolling Loud in Miami and pretty much knew instantly that it would be a hit. The raw beat, the drawn-out, sing-song hook, the way Sheck belts out the word “BITCH!” – it’s simply impossible to ignore. Since the song blew up, the Harlem rapper has built upon it with an excellent debut album, MUDBOY, and gone on tour with Travis Scott. It’s hard to say what 2019 will hold for Sheck Wes, but if it’s anything like this first brilliant year on the scene, I can’t wait for more.
Tirzah – "Gladly"
One of the most romantic songs of 2018, “Gladly” is so serene and dreamy, you almost don’t want to share it with your beloved until you know they’re the one. Off the excellent album Devotion, Tirzah Mastin’s gentle voice and sweet, simple lyrics are combined to stunning effect with lo-fi production from Mica Levi, making a singer-songwriter cut that belongs firmly in the digital age.
Lil Uzi Vert – "New Patek"
For months, all we had of this song was a 38-second video of Lil Uzi dancing along to it that instantly became a meme. Sure, Uzi’s dancing was funny, but the song was equally incredible, all triumphant lines about mink coats and pink diamonds and infectious rhyme schemes and that beat – so silky and refined, built on an anime sample, of all things. When the full song finally dropped in CD quality – all six glorious minutes of it – not much was different. But then, what’s the point of messing with perfection?
Demdike Stare – "At it Again"
This is electronic music for metalheads. For one, the Manchester-based named themselves after one of the most infamous witches in English history, and if there’s anything that’s metal as fuck, it’s satanic activity. Still not satisfied? Let yourself be assaulted by the opening salvo of “At It Again,” where a noisy cloud of distortion passes over and vanishes, making way for steady bass hits. And then: breakbeats, complex and dizzying as any double-pedal drum set master from here to Metallica. “At It Again” is the most prominent banger on the group’s latest album, Passion, but if you like what you hear, check out their 2016 record Wonderland, too.
SOPHIE – "Faceshopping"
In Japan, stories are generally told in four acts, rather than the western custom of three. “Faceshopping,” which has been my favorite song of the year since it dropped in February, does this with Zen koan-like lyrics about nothing less than the commodification of the self. “My face is the front of shop / My face is the real shop front / My shop is the face I front / I’m real when I shop my face.” The song confronts the way in which our world has become ruthless in the age of heavy of Instagram, Photoshop, skincare, and the ever-climbing standard of beauty. It asks us: When everybody has to shop their face to stay alive, to stay sane, what is real? Does real even matter anymore?
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Yves Tumor – "Noid"
It’s not often you find a song that channels anxiety so well with so little. All Yves Tumor really does here is loop an orchestral sample, add a bass line and simple drums, and put down some stirring, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. But those words sound like they’re coming from a disturbed mind, one that just as well could belong to any one of us: “Have you looked outside? I’m scared for my life / They don’t trust us / I’m not part of the killing spree.” It’s an electronic song that sounds like a rock song that sounds like what it’s like to live in a country where you could get killed in a hail of gunfire at any time. It’s brilliant. It’s terrifying. It’s a “Noid” you don’t want to avoid.
Travis Scott – "ASTROTHUNDER"
It may not be as ambitious as “SICKO MODE,” but “ASTROTHUNDER,” a fave of mine from Travis Scott’s epic amusement park ride of an album ASTROWORLD, has its own charms. For one, there’s not a corny Drake verse about taking the prescribed amount of Xanax in order to sleep through a long flight. Instead, Travis, in his codeine-laced, Auto-Tuned drawl, delivers a hook anyone can relate to: “Seems like the life I need’s a little distant.” In a time when young people have to replace going to therapy with saying “It do be like that sometimes” to themselves, that kind of universal statement is the kind of thing you could hear again and again.