This was not a classic year for music. There were only a couple albums that I listened to more than a few times, only one of which that I went back regularly over the course of several months. There were long stretches in the year when there were no new songs that I was crazy about. But there were still enough solid songs for me to make my annual list.
You may notice some trends. A strong presence of female vocalists. So many Australian acts. A bunch of songs that I would describe as “warm.” And definitely a lot of songs that rock and are built more for stadiums than clubs. As always, I offer both a Spotify playlist and individual YouTube videos.
Here are three songs that are all from 2018 but were among my most-listened-to songs of the year.
“All Be Gone” – Buffalo Tom
There were two songs on my Favorite Songs of the Decade list that were about passing into your 30s and leaving the carefree days of your 20s behind. I believe this is the first song about drifting into middle age that I’ve ever liked. Which is kind of a bummer, because it’s 100% about where my generation is at the moment. “But now my time behind is greater than my time ahead…”
“In This Time” – HAERTS. A terrific, Fleetwood Mac-eque song. Both in tone and in content, this sounds like something Stevie Nicks would have sung on Rumours.
“Light On” – Maggie Rogers
This was probably the last song I cut from my Favorites of 2018 list. I dropped it because it was relatively new and though I was thoroughly in love with it, I wondered if that love would last. Turns out it did, and I cranked the volume way up every time I heard I heard the song in 2019.
Now my favorite songs of the year.
20 – “Darkness” – Pinegrove
In a year when I kept Ryan Adams off of my Favorite Songs of the Decade list because of accusations of sexual misconduct against him, I struggled with whether to include this track. Pinegrove’s Skylight album was recorded and set to be released in 2017 before lead singer Evan Stephens Hall was accused of “sexual coercion” by a former partner. The album was shelved, the band was dropped by their label and went on hiatus, and Hall disappeared from the public eye.
In late 2018 the band released Skylight on a new label and the music world grappled with how to deal with it and them. As details emerged from Hall’s relationship, it was clear that his situation was not the same as Adams’. Hall was publicly contrite, admitted misjudging his former partner’s wishes, went to counseling, and became an advocate for men treating women with respect. That seemed to do the trick as the album got good reviews and was not shunned by those in charge of airplay.
This song slips into the sweet-spot that shows the very best of Pinegrove, a sound that isn’t quite Americana or folk nor straight indie rock. It is warm and draws you into its embrace.
19 – “Skin Game” – DIIV.
Written based on Zachary Cole Smith’s experience in rehab, this paints a bleak picture of both getting into and out of addiction. The music is pure, dreamy, 1990s shoegaze goodness.
18 – “Satellite” – The Get Up Kids
Despite being from Kansas City I never got into The Get Up Kids. I have several friends who are fans and, upon each new TGUK release, would message me and ask what I thought. To which I always responded, “Meh…” The band was always just a little too emo for me.
That changed with this track. They dial back the emo elements, crank up the amps, and choose to just rock out. And I was totally down with that.
17 – “Call Me Snowflake” – Middle Kids
My favorite new band of the decade continued to impress, this year releasing an EP that was packed with fine songs. This was my favorite, as it had an edge to it that was a departure from their past songs, along with that weird, 1990’s-vintage extended outro.
16 – “In the Capital” – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
Back-to-back Aussies! When this dropped in February, it seemed like this was a sign it was going to be a very good music year. Alas…
Still, yet another great song from one of the most reliable bands going at the moment.
15 – “temporary tantrum” – pronoun
I think this qualifies as a banger. A hopeful song about being in the worst moment in a relationship but realizing there is a way out.
14 – “A Bathtub in the Kitchen” – Craig Finn
I’ve never connected with Finn’s solo work as much as I have with the songs he’s written for The Hold Steady. This one, though, was gorgeous. It is a tale of an old friend who has gone down a hole that you’re not sure you want to help them get out of. Or at least offer the kind of help they are asking for.
It features poignant lyrics, to be sure, but it was the sound of this song that really struck me. Finn was friends with Scott Hutchison, and I hear a lot of Scott in the music on this track. It could have easily been a Painting of a Panic Attack B-side.
13 – “Little Trouble” – Better Oblivion Community Center.
Phoebe Bridgers makes the list for the second-straight year as part of a super group. Or in this case, duo. She joined her musical hero Conor Oberst for a collection of absolutely delightful songs as BOCC. Amazingly, this track was not included on their album and only released as after their tour wrapped up. I’m not sure what they were thinking leaving this off the disk, but am so thankful they decided to share it with us.
12 – “Am I Doing It Right?” – Alex Lahey
This checks a few boxes. Big, bold, power-poppy track by a female singer. An Australian artist. A song I can listen to again and again. Check, check, and check.
11 – “Calm Down” – Pete Yorn
Yorn opened the millennium with one of the great rock records of its time, the legendary musicforthemorningafter, an album that is loaded with classic tracks. He’s remained active since, but the quality of his output has been in a steady decline. It’s not that his later songs were bad, but rather he was chasing muses that weren’t as ear-wormy as his turn-of-the-millennium music.
Here, though, he recaptures much of the magic of his early days. A bright, radio-friendly track that was a delightful return to form.
10 – “They’ll Never” – Stef Chura.
We need more songs like this. It’s just a straight, kick-ass rock tune. You hear Chura’s home state of Michigan in that opening riff, which has a “Fell In Love With a Girl” tinge to it. You hear ‘90s college rock. And you hear New York circa 1980, when punk was breaking down and evolving into New Wave.
9 – “The One Who Breaks Your Heart” – SONTALK
One of the most harrowing songs of the year, Joseph LeMay wrote it after considering the idea that his wife might divorce him because of his mental illness. You can hear every ounce of that pain and fear in this massively emotional track.
8 – “Silver” – DMA’s
DMA’s make no secret about their influences. In their perfect world, these 21st century Aussies would have been in mid–90s Manchester, battling with Oasis for biggest band in the world. “Silver” is a huge, majestic ballad made for getting the massive crowds at Glastonbury swaying with their lighters and cell phones raised in the air as the sounds wash over them.
7 – “Turn To Hate” – Orville Peck
In a time when artists like Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, and Sturgill Simpson have challenged the normally rigid boundaries of country music, none of them are anywhere in the ballpark of this, surely the most unexpected great song of the year.
Peck is a 30-something Canadian. His sound is an intoxicating mix of classic country, rockabilly, and classic crooner music. He sounds equal parts Johnny Cash, Elvis, Roy Orbison, and Billy Idol.
And then there is his appearance and lyrics. Peck performs in glammed up western wear and a cowboy hat with long fringe that hides his face. His lyrics are unmistakably about relationships with other men. Not your standard Nashville fare.
I nearly put Maren Morris’ “Girl” on this list. It is a badass song of female empowerment that sounds way more pop than country. But Nashville has a long history of embracing powerful women as exceptions to its normal rules. There’s never been anyone in country music like Peck, whether he’s truly a country artist or not.
6 – “Twist” – Wintersleep
I was reluctant to dive into Tiny Changes: A Celebration of Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight. I was still struggling to reconnect with Scott Hutchison’s music just over a year after his death. Although these covers, done by bands he selected and with his input before his death, were recorded to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Frightened Rabbit’s masterpiece, The Midnight Organ Fight, there was no way not to think of Scott’s passing when listening to the songs. Indeed, I only listened to the album a couple times. But three songs stuck out, and this one in particular.
Wintersleep takes the lovely swing present in the back half of the original and builds the entire song around it. The original has a haunting quality thanks to the spare instrumentation it opens with. On Wintersleep’s version, they open big and keep getting bigger, something Scott surely appreciated when he heard it. Doing so, they shake off that starkness and sense of foreboding and create a warm, inviting track that turns into a celebration.
This may be heresy, but I think I like it more than the original.
5 – “Not” – Big Thief
This is appearing near the top of just about every Best Of list I’ve read over the past couple weeks. That makes sense, as this is the most aggressive, most unforgettable track Big Thief has offered us in their brief but prolific career. It crackles with an energy from start-to-finish that was unlike anything else I listened to this year.
4 – “Head Alone” – Julia Jacklin
I have an odd relationship with Jacklin’s music. Her songs that I like, I really like. But some of her songs I find too sleepy and precious. Fortunately she makes more songs that I like than don’t. And this one is fantastic.
3 – “Hypersonic Missiles” – Sam Fender
Fender seems to be a big freaking deal back in the UK. It’s a shame he hasn’t had the same impact here in the States, because his music draws from several huge American influences.
There’s no mistaking the Springsteen sound on this track. It’s there from the beginning, especially in the guitars, but explodes on that massive sax solo in the song’s center. This is a jam for those who lament the death of rock ’n’ roll. It has that muscular sound that would be at home in any era when guitars and amps ruled the radio waves.
2 – “Stay With Me” – Hatchie
In a year where there weren’t many albums I listened to over-and-over, nor artists who captured my attention more than momentarily, Hatchie was the one exception. Brisbane native Harriett Pilbeam’s debut full-length album was a stunning disk, filled with bright, dreamy songs that borrowed from a number of influences ranging from Robyn to My Bloody Valentine to Cocteau Twins to the Cranberries to ABBA.
This was the biggest, brightest, most undeniable song on the only album that I could not stop listening to this year.
1 – “Weird Ways” – Strand of Oaks
Timothy Showalter has a large collection of stunning songs in his career. He tops them all here, on what has to be a career-defining track.
After hitting a stretch of artistic uncertainty, he invited members of My Morning Jacket into the studio to help him shake the cobwebs. What began as an effort to rediscover what he loved about music became a formal collaboration, with the MMJ guys serving as his backing back for the Weird Ways album.
Here he sings of that moment of despair when he wasn’t sure where his career was going. The groove the MMJ guys lay down is just so, so good. Showalter’s lyrics are as deeply personal and emotional as ever, and he sings them for the back rows. Indianapolis native Carl Broemel’s epic guitar solo pushes the song even higher. A song I can listen to over-and-over again.