What is determined this year by critics and fans as the ‘best songs of 2018’ is always going to be subjective. My ‘best songs’ list is no different. Interestingly, what you will notice instantly is that I have made some notable omissions of some of the most popular songs this year, like Kacey Musgraves’ High Horse, Drake’s In My Feelings, Courtney Barnett’s Need A Little Time or Carbi B’s I like It, not because they are not worthy of the highest accolade but because they are predictably on every major music source list. And while no one expects me to listen to every song that comes out, I hope I have nonetheless provided you with an interesting sample of artists and genres of music that I have been listening to this year. Even if you don’t love everything on my list, I recommend that you give them a chance, simply because you just might find something that you really like. Without further ado, check out some of my music highlights here below.
First Aid Kit – ‘Rebel Heart’.
First Aid Kit felt like a breath of fresh air that began 2018 with the release of their fourth album Ruins. This sisterly Swedish outfit has been around for some ten years and in that time they have been fairly faithful to the sound that made them famous. With Ruins comes an interesting new edge to their alt-country/indie folk sensibility that has arguably won them over even more new fans throughout this year. While the album has a very melancholy feel (it was inspired by Klara Soberberg’s break up with her fiancé), not everything about it is completely sad in nature. It has moments that feel like there is hope in despair but you have really got to listen. That is why the album opener Rebel Heart is probably my favourite track. It sets the stage for a very passionate album.
Sharon Van Etten – ‘Comeback Kid’.
I get excited when musicians branch out into a different musical genres or styles. Of course, sometimes it can be a disaster and other times an inspiring change. That said, Sharon Van Etten, who we all best identify as that folksy guitar confessional singer, made her return to music recently after some four years with a rousing new synth-driven song called Comeback Kid. In short, Comeback Kid is a massive upheaval of her signature sound and I love it.
The story goes that around 2015, Van Etten decided to take a break from the rigors of music to become a mom and go back to school to pursue a psychology degree. Also tired of the guitar and uninspired by writing a lot of the same stuff, during her hiatus she began writing and creating demos on the piano and synthesizers as something different to do. Encouraged to explore this new side of her artistic self, she confided in a new producer to help make it happen. We wont hear the entirety of Van Etten’s new sound until January 2019 with the release of her new album Remind Me Tomorrow. But if the anthemic Comeback Kid (and her second new single Jupiter 4) is anything to go by, it’s going to be a blast.
Halestorm – ‘Uncomfortable’.
One of this year’s most outstanding metal/hard rock songs released was Halestorm’s Uncomfortable. It was released in May as their first single ahead of new album Vicious. It is anthemic to say the least with lyrics that see Lzzy Hale at her brutal best. Back in May coinciding with its release, this is what frontwoman Lzzy Hale had to say about it: “This song is really just about being unapologetically yourself. For me, to put this out there as our first ‘hey, how you doing?’ for this new record was really important, because it definitely has that rock and roll with a smile, but to me, it’s something we’ve stood for for many years… make yourself happy. You can’t please everybody.”
Childish Gambino – ‘This Is America’.
Whether you are familiar with Donald Glover thanks to his music endeavours or his latest foray into film as Lando Calrissian earlier this year in Solo: A Star Wars story, there is no doubt he has left a massive cultural imprint on 2018. But really it’s Glover’s song This Is America that is bigger cultural talking point this year, not Calrissian or Solo.
Not always the biggest fan of modern hip-hop and rap This Is America is a song that I simply couldn’t ignore. It has been said repeatedly that the song and the accompanying music video are inseparable, both a landmark – one as a protest song and the other in understanding the shocking and exploitative language of cinema.
The song addresses for most people the wider issues of gun violence and especially what it is like to be a presucuted black person in America. Interestingly, the video right from the opening moments with its afro folk-inspired introduction and electro beats cleverly lulls us into believing this is going to be a fun song. But just shy of the minute mark, Glover’s character pulls out a gun and shoots a hooded figure sitting in a chair. Instantly we are left in shock and awe as Glover dances through a massive warehouse through the rest of the music video distracting us from the mayhem in the background.
The Bambi Kills – ‘Lust’.
Discovering new artists across Melbourne’s music scene is somewhat of a pastime. Often I don’t get to talk about the array of upcoming acts simply because the breadth and depth of talent is overwhelming and it would literally take me away from writing about my other passions. But back in October, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a Melbourne duo called The Bambi Kills. If you’re a fan of both electronic pop and grungy undertones, you are definitely going to want to sink your teeth into their single Lust.
Lana Del Rey – ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’.
When I heard Lana Del Rey had released two new songs back in September, I instantly thought this is a sure-fire sign that a new album was on its way. And I was right, as Del Rey confirmed that Mariners Apartment Complex and Venice Bitch, were definitely two new songs of her forthcoming album titled Norman Fucking Rockwell. Interestingly, everything points to an early 2019 release and Jack Antonoff has apparently produced the whole thing. I quite like Antonoff, I especially like what he did with Lorde and St. Vincent’s last albums, so I am quite thrilled by the prospect of a new Lana Del Rey release pretty much hard on the heels of Lust For Life.
Anyway, as a Lana Del Rey fan, I find these two new songs very interesting. They seem to be evoking perhaps another new direction to Del Rey’s fascinating recording career. I’m already smitten with Mariners Apartment Complex but I’m not so sure about Venice Bitch. The latter is a marathon at nearly ten minutes. It teases a lot of new sounds, as we find Lana in the mood to experiment. I quite like the first half, but the second half seems like an exercise in self-indulgence with its overly long synth solo. I’d honestly have to hear it in context to the new album to totally appreciate it, because at the moment I’m definitely more perplexed by it than truly digging it. Mariners Apartment Complex on the other hand, I find instantly recognisable, wrapped up nicely as a pop folk ballad with plenty of #Lana-ism.
Songs key lyric: “They mistook my kindness for weakness/I fucked up. I know that. But, Jesus/Can’t a girl just do the best she can?”
Brandi Carlile – ‘The Joke’.
There is serious no way how to describe how this song affects me without truly gushing over it. It comes from Brandi Carlile’s amazing deeply gut wrenching album By The Way, I Forgive You. That said, you are forgiven (no pun intended) if you forgot how good this song really is, especially because it was released way back in February earlier this year. I think many people have come back to it because of the recent Grammy nomination announcements. If The Joke was to win the record of the year at the Grammy’s next year in February it honesty wouldn’t come as a surprise. There is a lot to love about it especially its emotionally charged musical arrangement and Carlile’s stunning vocal performance.
Arctic Monkeys – ‘Four Out Of Five’.
You are forgiven if you are wondering what the hell are the monkeys on about on Four Out of Five. It’s the widely ambitious creation of Frontman Alex Turner where he goes on about a tacos restaurant on the moon! Why it is on my best songs list is a long story. The short of it is because I’m a big fan of these English lads. It’s also a far cry from what we would expect from them and if you are truly a deep-dive kind of music fan, you’ll dig this song and maybe also the entire new album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.
Courtney Marie Andrews – ‘May You Kindness Remain’.
Earlier this year Courtney Marie Andrews released her acclaimed album May Your Kindness Remain and it has been played almost to death on my record player and I still can’t get enough of it. It contains a rich collection of songs that speak to the soul, even though many of them seem sad in nature. That said, I wish there was more love commercially for the incredibly talented Andrews. She has one of the most amazing voices in music today. She may be only 26 but she has an old soul and deft touch at understanding the power of music and words.
The album’s title track is a wonderful example of some of the big song ideas she loves to write about that every person can relate to. I like to think of it as a universe plea for tolerance: “If your money runs out/ And your good looks fade/ May your kindness remain”, sings Andrews repeatedly in her amazing alto croon. Though the highlight in this organ-driven ballad has to be its explosive climax when its electric guitar gushes with brilliance. It’s like it is crying out to be heard in a world of angst and intolerance before Andrews reassuring voice calms it down.
Olympia – ‘Star City’.
As I eagerly await the release of Olympia’s sophomore album, my hope is that she builds upon the success she had with Self Talk and takes command of her guitar into a new exciting direction. That said, if her latest release Star Cityis anything to go by, she has managed to reinvent herself in spades. Back in August Olympia said “I didn’t want to write something that needed a lot of explaining, instead I wanted the song to be like something you’d try on – I wanted it to be immersive.”
Unrelenting in her creative drive, Star City is everything that I hoped to hear, especially its bold infectious exuberance. In truth, its difficult to single out what I like about it the most. While I’ll always appreciate Olympia’s trademark guitar, the fact that this song is cleverly immersed in shimmering synths, a driving backbeat or an ingenious vocal hook, you’ll see my point as to why I can’t make up my mind. If anything, you’ll find yourself dancing in no time. But lets hope you have a little better rhythm than Olympia. That said, the song’s accompanying video is a real hoot. Takes a while to appreciate Olympia’s ‘rhythmic-domesticities’ but it’s all in good fun.
Sarah Blasko – ‘Everybody Wants To Sin’.
When I first began spinning my newly acquired vinyl of Depth of Field by Sarah Blasko, Everybody Wants To Sin was one of my initial favourites from the album. I was instantly bowled over by its dreamy and daring ‘from the depths of mordor’ bass sounds. Even Blasko’s vocals were enjoyably creepy and coaxing all of course in a good way. When I asked Sarah in our interview back in May how Everybody Wants To Sin came about she said, “At first I was saying “everybody wants to sing” & it was going to be about how everybody thinks they’re a songwriter/producer these days but it felt too cynical! It became more generally about being a follower. “If everybody jumped, would you?” kind of sentiment. It’s also about the vanity & self serving nature of our society.”
Later with the release of her music video for Everybody Wants To Sin in September, Sarah expanded upon her comments by saying “We decided to do something pretty off the cuff and ridiculous (with the video) because the song is about people parading on the internet.”
In short, I think the accusing nature of Everybody Wants To Sin captures Blasko at her unapologetic best.
Kurt Vile – ‘Loading Zones’.
Is Kurt Vile simply the most awesome laid back dude making music today? If anything, his approach to indie rock is infectious, especially his guitar work. But his honesty and knack for great lyrics and the stories he tells through his music is what drives me to listen to him. There is something old school about Vile that intrigues me that I just can’t pinpoint. Sure the dude needs a good haircut, but beyond that scruffy exterior is an honest man, making honest music. With Loading Zones he makes parking in a city and avoiding tickets sound like a crusade we should all take up. Importantly, I love how the song builds towards his swirling end of song guitar solo.
Amy Shark – ‘I Said Hi’.
Amy Shark, the young woman who loves her Adidas attire, almost gave up on music a few years ago. But with an incredible voice and a real knack for writing intimate songs, I’m thrilled that she didn’t give up. She had a little help on the way though when her song Adore made it debut on national youth radio station Triple J in 2016. Within weeks it was on high rotation and ultimately helped propel Shark into the music stratosphere.
It was in the middle of this year that her long-awaited debut album Love Monster was finally released and I have to say it’s pretty good. It contains a collection of songs that prove she isn’t a one hit wonder. From it comes I Said Hi a song that calls out all the music moguls, particular men, who rejected her music for a decade. It’s in your face and bloody honest with an amazing beat. I wonder how many music industry bosses are now kicking themselves, as news filtered through recently that Shark won the prestigious Australian Record Industry Association Award for Album of the Year for Love Monster.
Black Satellite – ‘My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend’.
Last year I said, if you’re into alternative rock or metal, Black Satellite amazing debut album Endless is for you. I still stand by that claim, as I play it routinely, along with two new songs they recorded earlier this year that has kept me happy while we all await their new album in 2019. The two new songs I allude to, are cover versions of Type O Negative’s I Don’t Wanna Be Me and My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend. The latter made my best songs of 2018 list simply because it is a brilliant song and tribute to gothic metal gods Type O.
In an exclusive for Billboard Black Satellite’s Larissa Vale and Kyle Hawken’s opened up about the inspiration behind doing a cover version of Type O Negative’s My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend. Here’s a little of what Kyle said: “I just fell in love with that song and have been following them ever since. Every time I heard it I heard more high production — heavier guitars but still keeping the same dancey vibe. I think what we did sticks pretty close to what they did. It’s a good mix of their song but also with our taste for heavier guitars.” While Larissa adds that: “I think that song really pushes the boundaries in a lot of different ways, especially lyrically. We just wanted to be fearless with it and also have some fun. The song is super dancey, a lot of neon lights type of feel. We wanted to create that fun atmosphere with it.”
Arlo Parks – ‘Cola’.
Without streaming services and recommendations, I’m sure many of us would not have discovered half of the music we listen to today. But sometimes music also falls in our hands by complete accident or recommendation through a friend. That is why I am glad that I have a wide network of friends that make music recommendations to me that they believe are worthy of my attention. That said, 18-year-old poet/singer Arlo Parks hip hop/rap debut Cola is my surprising late inclusion in my best songs of 2018 list. It oozes class with soulful integrity and maturity for someone so young. It’s tender melancholic undertones suggest that this is a young woman who has already known heartache.