This is it, folks. This is the final Five Best Songs list of 2018. We will pick back up again in 2019, and we thank you for another lively year in the comments. Happy New Year!
Natasha Jacobs wrote “Take Me To Orlando” while recovering from surgery, and it’s a song that attempts to make sense of that outwardly imposed isolation. She makes up a character, an Orlando, that will guide her through the darkest moments. “But, honey, you’re so real,” she addresses her fiction. “You dance around fear/ And you tell me you love the way that I make you feel.” It’s the sad irony of the song, of course, that Jacobs is singing to no one real, yet it’s still comforting on some level, to know that you have someone standing in your corner. And it’s the way we get through things — letting our figments become our friends in the loneliest of moments, getting swept up in fantasy when reality just won’t do.
“Take Me To Orlando” bears none of that real-life weight, though — instead, it sparkles and twirls, trades in the prickling, moody guitars of Thelma’s first album for smoother, pinging synths, partly out of necessity. But it keeps the same sense of wonder and drama and high stakes that Jacobs’ music has always had, a playful make-believe fantasia. –James
“Silhouettes” begins with a xylophone note that sounds exactly like the default “Ding!” an iPhone makes to notify you of a text message. It repeats at regular intervals — Ding! Ding! Ding! — just enough times to drive you mad thinking your phone’s blowing up. And then suddenly that one-note repetition becomes a two-note melody, and then three, and then four. Suddenly a song is unfolding before your ears.
The musical trick reminds me of the piano in Kanye West’s “Runaway” intro, but rather than a grandiose prog-rap power-ballad, we’re greeted by the intricate melancholy American Football made their name on. Except the twinkly emo heroes are older and wiser now, and their music is similarly weathered by the years. They no longer sound like frustrated college kids slinging complex arpeggios at their feelings.
While the band’s 2016 comeback album saw them cleaning up the sensitive math-rock sound they invented in obscurity at the end of the ’90s, their forthcoming LP3 is a jump into something new. Maybe when Mike Kinsella sings, “Oh, the muscle memory continued to haunt me,” he’s commenting on LP2’s diminished returns. Probably not — it’s just as likely a comment on how instinctively we reach for our phones at every opportunity. Either way, with a new collection of textured soundscapes that hews closer to post-rock than emo, Kinsella and his bandmates prove old dogs can learn new tricks. “Silhouettes” is our introduction to that aesthetic; fittingly, it sounds like fog rising over a horizon. –Chris
What’s the opposite of “confessional singer-songwriter”? Because Cass McCombs is that. Ever since we first met him a decade and a half ago, McCombs has been keeping us at arm’s length, swallowing his syllables and playing around with imagery and daring us to pull our own meanings out of his tangles.
“Estrella” (Spanish for “star”) is a warm, soft ramble, and at least according to a press release, it’s McCombs’ tribute to Juan Gabriel, the Mexican pop icon who dressed in otherworldly bright-white suits and sold millions of records in the ’80s. But through his blanket of lush guitar sounds, McCombs offers only opacities: “I built a ribbon out of moss, plain blue moss, and presented it to you on your birthday.” By the end, he’s tenderly crooning in Spanish: “Estrella, esta noche va bien para compartir.” Or: “Star, tonight it’s good to share.” And Cass McCombs never quite shares. He merely lets us peek in on his own private soundworld. –Tom
When Rico Nasty acts childish, it’s not out of immaturity. She makes a sport of it. The Baltimore rapper’s rage is almost playful on Nasty, one of the best albums of 2018, but the kind of playful that will still bash your head in.
Her new song “Guap (LaLaLa)” opens with a man’s instructional voice: “Children, cover up your ears and do the la la sound.” Rico immediately assumes the role of the tough kid on the playground, flexing over thundering bass: “If you got an issue you can get it like a magazine / I ain’t going back and forth you gotta pay to talk to me.” In typical Rico fashion, the beat is as straightforward, frill-free, and earthshaking as her bars. –Julia
More like such a remarkable song. On last year’s Rest, Charlotte Gainsbourg channeled grief into smoky, brooding dance-pop with some help from French producer SebastiAn, and on “Such A Remarkable Day,” they reunite to work some more magic.
As always, Gainsbourg has a way of projecting a very detached, very French form of untouchable coolness, her voice floating above SebastiAn’s icily precise Eurodisco-tinged synthpop, haunting it like a ghost. “Such a remarkable day/ All for me, thanks to you,” she sings. “A violent blow this way/ Every prediction coming true.” It’s not entirely clear what she’s talking about, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is how goddamn cool it sounds. –Peter