18 of ’18: The Best Songs of the Year
by Steven Spoerl
2018 saw more songs considered for coverage at Heartbreaking Bravery than any of the now 5+ years its been in existence. Thousands of tracks were heard and hundreds upon hundreds were mentioned in some way. The 18 selections below represent the best of that crop, while the overall batch holds true to this publication’s mission: to give praise to the under-represented. Nearly half of the tracks selected weren’t released as singles and some still have only been heard a scant few hundred times. Taken as a whole, these serve as a representation of a frequently overlooked slice of 2018’s finest.
Spring Onion – I Did My Taxes For Free Online
While a resurgent Remember Sports had a very strong showing in 2018, the best track to Carmen Perry’s name was through the Spring Onion project. “I Did My Taxes For Free Online” is a bit of rare perfection, tapping directly into the weary malaise of modern young adulthood. A mid-tempo acoustic-driven Americana pop song, “I Did My Taxes For Free Online” is astonishing on both a musical and narrative level, the little flourishes (the banjo, the auto-tone) enhancing an incredibly engaging slice-of-life story that never wears out, no matter how many times its played. In short, “I Did My Taxes For Free Online” is nothing short of a minor miracle.
Young Jesus – Deterritory
In 2012 Young Jesus took a gigantic leap forward as a band with Home, which was the first of their releases to indicate the reach of their outsize ambition. Nearly every release since then, the scope of that ambition has been stretched further as the band’s evolved. The Whole Thing Is Just There, their first true release under Saddle Creek finds the band in their most exploratory mode to date, having morphed into a free-punk band.
“Deterritory“, the record’s lead-off single, was a clear indication of Young Jesus’ growth: elements of art-punk, classic emo, and post-hardcore enveloped their early roots to create something singular and breathtaking. No second’s wasted, even when the band embraces improvisation with no reservation. For as loose as some of “Deterritory” may feel, the song’s final 20 seconds are the fiercest and most concise piece of music the band’s offered up to date.
The Little Miss – Take Me, Too
“Take Me, Too” is a virtually unknown song from an artist who got next to no coverage for their last record. It’s also one of the year’s best songs and a testament to the fact that PR’s main purpose isn’t inextricably connected to talent or worth. Few, if any, songs to have come out in 2018 hit as hard and with as much unforgiving force as this sparse look at mortality, which welcomes death’s inevitability without resorting to overwrought histrionics.
Tender, empathetic, and knowing,”Take Me, Too” is a song that aches, yearning for resolution while maintaining a grounded, dignified sense of humanity. As a result, the song stands as one of the most unexpectedly breathtaking closing tracks in recent memory.
Trace Mountains – A Partner To Lean On
LVL UP disbanded in late 2018 but at that point, the year had already provided a cushion of hope for the future work of its members with Dave Benton’s project Trace Mountains releasing a career-best work in A Partner To Lean On. The title track of that record finds Benton in vintage mode, opening with a stanza that dives straight into the connection between spirituality and nature.
“A Partner To Lean On” is also an impossible-to-shake mid-tempo toe-tapper that elevates itself by the nature of its own restraint, leaning into intuitive decisions with an infectious confidence that’s rooted in calmness. Clear-eyed and warm, “A Partner To Lean On” winds up as one of Benton’s best songs, putting it in exceptionally strong company.
Whitney Ballen – Black Cloud
You’re A Shooting Star, I’m A Sinking Ship was an absurdly strong debut effort from Whitney Ballen, highlighted by both unexpected turns and a frequently brutal level of emotional honesty. “Black Cloud” provided the record’s apex of both, something that intersected on the song’s early dip into jaw-dropping heaviness. A haunted look back at early warning signs, the song embraces the narrative’s stormy tumultuous nature with gritted teeth and a snarl. Oscillating between pensive and punishing, “Black Cloud” secured a rightful place as one of 2018’s most intentionally jarring highlights.
Dilly Dally – Sorry Ur Mad
Dilly Dally spent 2018 enjoying a resurrection of sorts, having almost hung up their instruments for good while battling internal demons. Heaven, the quartet’s sophomore effort, frequently chronicled the difficult path to their own salvation, resulting in some of the band’s best songs to date. “Sorry Ur Mad” was delivered, arguably, as Heaven‘s centerpiece (in a narrative sense as well as being the album’s halfway point).
A determined tour de force, “Sorry Ur Mad” propels itself forward by virtue of sheer blunt force, the composition ratcheting up the tension with its attentiveness to dynamics, stop/start rhythms inducing a palpable sense of nervous energy. The rare song that manages to increase its grip incrementally up until the breathtaking finale, “Sorry Ur Mad” charts a scrappy path to incredibly memorable terrain.
Fred Thomas – What The Sermon Said
The last three records that Fred Thomas has released comprised a trilogy that contained the best work of the journeyman’s quietly illustrious career. “What The Sermon Said”, the spellbinding capper to an incredible run, found a way to stand out. The song’s first half operates in an explicitly ambient, stream-of-consciousness format before morphing into one of the most devastating narratives Thomas has delivered since the heartfelt eulogy that drove “Every Song Sung To A Dog“.
A seamless transition bridge the two halves, a melancholic saxophone figure being enhanced considerably by a simple, elegiac string arrangement. Thomas spends the song’s final minutes detailing a trip to the chapel, looking for hope and finding nothing but an increasing sense of alienation. “What The Sermon Said” may or may not be a commentary on the difficulty of aging and the challenges it can present or it may just be an unflinching look back at a time of relative desperation but no matter how its viewed, the overwhelming cumulative effect lingers long enough to leave a scar all its own.
Gouge Away – Ghost
Gouge Away‘s most recent work stood out as a career best and saw the band, clearly operating with a sense of invigoration, stretch their range in surprising ways. “Ghost” was the most noticeable evidence, an uncharacteristic — even pretty — slow-burner from the incredibly ferocious post-hardcore act. The song presented something of a risk but paid off with huge dividends, propelling the band’s recognition forward with ease, coming off as something of a victory lap for an incredibly hard-working band that’s deserved more attention from the word go.
Miya Folick – Thingamajig
“Trouble Adjusting” served as an introduction-at-large for many to the world of Miya Folick, which flashed a lot of promise in its raw basement pop-friendly aesthetics. Since that song’s release, Folick’s taken a somewhat unpredictable path that’s taken the songwriter to “Thingamajig” a painfully gorgeous ambient pop track that served as the unexpected opener to Premonitions.
Working in a mode that’s reminiscent of Half Waif’s recent body of work, Folick delivers an incredible career best, taking a long, reflective look at autonomy and decision-making that could feasibly double as a thesis statement for what Folick hopes to accomplish as an artist. “Only you know what to do”, the songwriter repeats at the song’s hushed close, infusing the delivery with not just meaning but intent, creating an impression that lets the listener know Folick’s in this until the end.
Evening Standards – Lil Green Man
A ways into the year, Evening Standards quietly released their self-titled debut, which was a near-perfect basement pop album. The record didn’t receive any notices outside of a very niche circle but did make one hell of an impression inside that circle. Formed out of the ashes of site favorites PURPLE 7, the band was already working with a strong pedigree that was evident in songs like the raucous “Lil Green Man”, an absurdly strong track that’s still earning regular spins.
“Lil Green Man” takes an intentionally ridiculous angle to explore an incredibly complex topic, using an alien invasion to reflect on the nature of existence and the meaningfulness of the human experience. Every second of the track’s wildly enjoyable and “Lil Green Man” also benefits from one of 2018’s most explosive choruses, the narrative and composition colliding in a cathartic release that suggests Evening Standards don’t actually care all that much about the answer to the question they’re raising, opting instead to revel in the moment and have as much goddamn fun as possible while they’re in each other’s company.
Cloud Nothings – Leave Him Now
Cloud Nothings returned with a slight lineup tweak once again, doubling-down on Life Without Sound‘s career summation but combining separate elements of their previous body of work. One of the best examples of their refined approach came courtesy of one of many of Last Building Burning‘s highlight in “Leave Him Now“. The song also separates itself from the band’s past work by containing one of the most emotionally affecting narratives bandleader Dylan Baldi has penned, fixating on a feeling of helplessness as the songwriter begs a friend to escape from an abusive relationship.
There’s an additional edge and urgency that lends itself to the music, Jayson Gerycz’s drumming returning to an otherworldly realm and standing as one of the best individual weapons the rock/punk genre as a whole has to offer. What separates “Leave Him Now” from what many view as a cloying trope is that Baldi never centers himself as a romantic option in the narrative, instead pleading for an unnamed friend to find a place of security and well-being that’s evaded them as they’ve fallen prey to predatory behavior, leaving “Leave Him Now” as one of the band’s strongest overall compositions.
Basement Revolver – Baby
One of the many, many bands that can’t seem to stop topping themselves by wide margins is Basement Revolver, who delivered one of 2018’s most unexpected gut-punches with the aching “Baby“. A song pleading for forgiveness and patience while navigating the internalized fears and trauma that frequently accompany young relationships, “Baby” may have been strong enough to secure a spot on this list by the nature of its deeply human subject matter.
What puts “Baby” well above the cut is its delivery, enhanced in no small part by a chill-inducing arrangement and bandleader Chrisy Hurns’ emotional vocal delivery. On many levels, “Baby” is an absolutely overwhelming listening experience, bordering voyeuristic as Basement Revolved surrenders completely to the apex of the unbridled levels of intense, competing feelings when the problem’s as hard to identify as the solution.
Tomberlin – I’m Not Scared
At Weddings announced Tomberlin as a major voice, which was all but cemented with early single “I’m Not Scared“. A rumination on personal hardships, both arbitrarily assigned and self-inflicted, “I’m Not Scared” was the most unforgiving track on what proved to be a very thematically difficult record. Driven by piano and a restrained string arrangement, “I’m Not Scared” bounces from harsh observations about everything from outside judgment to the physical pain that accompanies bodily function.
To completely bridge the song’s narrative arcing, “I’m Not Scared” balances those two elements against each other and lets those observations inform a devastating conclusion, summed up by the chorus: And to be a woman is to be in pain/And my body reminds me almost every day/That I was made for another, but I don’t want to know that/Cause it happened once and I always look back. Searing and searching, the song’s painful honesty translates into a major moment for the emergent songwriter.
Big Ups – Imaginary Dog Walker
Big Ups were another band that hung it up (at least for a while) in 2018, going out on the startling artistic high note that Two Parts Together provided. Appropriately the record’s high point was its closer, “Imaginary Dog Walker” something that coincidentally summed up Big Ups’ long-held mastery of creating tension. “Imaginary Dog Walker” had been a highlight of the band’s live set and the studio recording more than does the song justice, using its slow simmer as if they were a set of sharpened fingernails sinking deeper into flesh. No song over the band’s astonishing discography seethed or detonated quite like this one, which sees the band going out on an absolutely extraordinary note and a career best that will be near impossible to top if they ever decide to return. Fingers crossed that at some point, they wind up trying.
Mount Eerie – Distortion
No recent run of songs has been as uncomfortable to listen to as the diaristic work that Mount Eerie‘s released of late, explicitly chronicling Phil Elverum‘s own experiences in the wake of his former wife’s recent, unexpected death. The internal conversation to include any of this work, which is deeply personal, remains. “Real Death” did manage to steal away 2017’s Song of the Year honors but it now has an equal in the 11-minute sprawl of “Distortion“, which is structured like an epic.
Opening with humming washes of distortion, the song quickly sinks into an intricate, acoustic finger-picked pattern and delivers a knockout first stanza:
But I don’t believe in ghosts or anything I know that you are gone and that I’m carrying some version of you around Some untrustworthy old description in my memories And that must be your ghost taking form Created every moment by me dreaming you so And is it my job now to hold whatever’s left of you for all time? And to reenact you for our daughter’s life?
“Distortion” doesn’t let up from that point forward, chronicling Elverum’s travels and real-life confrontations with death, equating the songwriter’s own journey to the beat poets that are referenced throughout the song. It’s an uncomfortable, implicit analogy that grows increasingly real when presented with the context of Elverum’s life. There are moments of bitterness, ugliness, and cruelty that are unavoidable as we fight to find meaning in our lives and Elverum presents that revelation with a commendable directness.
By the time the song comes to its fittingly devastating conclusion, it’s somewhat difficult to return to interacting with personal surroundings. Immensely complex and emotionally draining, “Distortion” has the unique effect of both sapping energy and burrowing into listeners’ consciousness, nestling next to a void that we all have to eventually face and reconcile. Texts like “Distortion” will help with that process when the time comes, making the unthinkably brave work Elverum’s doing incredibly valuable and worth experiencing, especially in moments where it’s of need.
Half Waif – Silt
Lavender represented an inspiring step forward for Nandi Plunkett’s Half Waif project, easily separating itself from a very crowded field to stand as one of the most moving releases of 2018. Informed heavily by a sense of separation (in both a familial and a personal sense), Lavender lands its most memorable knockout blow with “Silt”, which is the kind of track that can make the world stop.
Arriving around Lavender‘s halfway mark, “Silt” opens and closes with gorgeous analog synth tones, book-ending Plunkett’s swan dive into a search for self-worth and reassurance while trying to grapple with an incredibly clouded, distant state of mind. One of the many tracks on this list that benefits from a naked honesty that confronts a damaging impulse, “Silt” finds a way to stab deep into the heart of what it means to be left at a loss. Cold in nature but warm in its delivery, “Silt” is a startlingly potent reminder of Plunkett’s increasing talents as a songwriter.
Long Neck – Milky Way
Jawbreaker Reunion was the first band to push Lily Mastrodimos‘ name to a larger audience but that band supplemented Long Neck, a solo project that’s gradually evolved into a full lineup. Both acts seemed to benefit each other, seeing Mastrodimos’ confidence grow in both settings with the increased recognition. Still, with a handful of songs that were frequently incredible, what Long Neck achieved with Will This Do? came as a surprise, presenting the most direct, confrontational, and brave work of Mastrodimos’ young career.
“Milky Way”, part of the record’s astonishing closing stretch — which still stands as 2018’s strongest end run — was a testament to that growth. Much life Half Waif’s Lavender, Will This Do? was shaped by the inevitability of familial death, which is alluded to on “Milky Way”. The song’s foreboding opening breaks into a quick jaunt, oscillating back and forth, centering on a narrative of uncertainty as the makeup of the world changes around the narrator. Frequent reminders to stay awake are issued, while a portrait of grief peeks through the narrative trappings, leading to one of the year’s most emotionally volatile closing sections.
A simple but blistering guitar solo, mired in darkness suddenly surrenders to daybreak once again before Mastrodimos drives “Milky Way” home with an abundance of feeling, conjuring a chilling picture of total, complete helplessness:
Sore feet and sore eyes and it’s nothing, it’s nothing. Echoes in our cave. I sat to watch the sunset and I just fucking lost it.
The song’s final twist of the knife “And I just fucking lost it” repeats 9 times in total, each instance growing more pained and frantic, louder in its despair, stubbornly resilient as the song deteriorates around the mantra, suggesting that sometimes there is no comfort aside from acceptance and release. One of 2018’s most unforgettable individual moments by miles.
SONG OF THE YEAR
IDLES – Samaritans
Few songs this year hit outward and with as much as force as IDLES‘ seething take-down of toxic masculinity and the cultures that not only encouraged men to be emotionally repressed and overly competitive but allowed it to thrive. A centuries-long cultivation of what it means to be a man was frequently, justly challenged over the past few years with increasing fervor. “Samartians” lends its voice to that fight, railing like hell against a methodology that’s created borderline irreparable damage through a precedent of repression.
Whether that repression’s self-inflicted on an emotional level or maliciously leveled against women in more executive terms, IDLES have every right to be pissed off at the practice. The APA recently released a study backed by 40 years of research that deemed “traditional masculinity” (which was largely built on inherently toxic notions) as harmful. “Samaritans” is a song that’s well aware of its topics nuance and wisely anchors itself with father-sibling relationships, bringing the effect into focus with the absolutely brutal hook This is why you never see your father cry. This is why you never see your father.
From its incendiary start to its jaw-dropping final section, “Samaritans” seethes to the point of shaking, intense rhythm section sending the song hurtling forward to its punishing finale. Expectations are confronted and stared down at every turn within the narrative (which is further supplemented by the montage video the song was gifted, which can be seen below) as the music provides even more retaliatory purpose.
While the whole song’s worth praising, special attention has to be paid to the song’s final minute, which significantly elevates the song’s intensity after a remarkably beautiful guitar-driven bridge. the song tips over into something sublime as vocalist and principal kicks the song into fifth gear, roaring “I KISSED A BOY AND I LIKED IT”, triggering a musical detonation that may very well have been 2018’s punchiest moment, guitars turning violent and almost staccato as Talbot repeats “This is why, this is why, this is why” before allowing the whole thing to collapse and drift off in smoke, creating a lasting reminder of a reckoning that’s no longer waiting on the horizon.
Charly Bliss – Heaven | Doe – Labour Like I Do | Vundabar – Tonight I’m Wearing Silk | Kid Dakota – Keep Coming Back | Lauran Hibbard – What Do Girls Want? | The Royal They – Sludgefucker | Yowler – Where Is My Light? | Sonny Falls – Flies | Deep State – Under the Gun | Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Talking Straight | Canshaker Pi – Put A Record Out | Saintseneca – Pillar of Na | Marbled Eye – Laughing Sound | Swearin’ – Grow Into A Ghost | Yakima – Point of This | Courtney Andrews Marie – May Your Kindness Remain | Billy Moon – White Shoes/Dingus | Stove – Mosquiter | Maxband – Means to an End | Jay Som – Hot Bread | Ex-Vöid – Boyfriend | The Sidekicks – Don’t Feel Like Dancing | Adrian Teacher and the Subs – Pop Medicine | Pile – Cup | Many Rooms – Which is to Say, Everything | Black Belt Eagle Scout – Soft Stud | Mike Krol – An Ambulance | Squid – The Dial | The Knees – Stammer | (SANDY) Alex G – Fay | Fenne Lily. – On Hold | Liza Anne – Small Talks | Mo Troper – Never Dream of Dying | Stef Chura – Degrees | Fog Lake – California | Katie Preston – The Art of Falling Apart | Goon – Enter Bethel Admissions | Paul de Jong – You Fucken Sucker | Remember Sports – Up From Below | Jack Symes – Cool God | Sharkmuffin – Your Stupid Life | Juan de Fuca – A Place to Wait | Closet Goth – Touch Myself | Pip Blom – Come Home | Hit Bargain – Capitulate | Joe Pera – Warm Apple Night | bed. – Replay | Washer – Super Pop | Annabel Allum – Rascal | Bent Denim – Chasing Catherine | Mutual Benefit – Storm Cellar Heart | Gabby’s World – Winter, Withdraw | Say Sue Me – Coming to the End | Maria Kelly – Small Talk | Yowl – Warm (in the Soft White Light of Modern Living) | Birds In Row – 15-38 | Lonely Parade – I’m So Tired | Ovlov – Spright | Nano Kino – Sick Dreamer | gobbinjr – Afraid of Me | Grouper – Driving | Petal – Better than You | Yours are the Only Ears – Fire in my Eyes | En Attendant Ana – Night | Jonathan Something – Fine | Sean Henry – The Ants | Curling – Still Green | Yumi Zouma – France (Grande Boulevards) | LVL UP – Orchard