It’s the first five best songs list of the year, folks! Dig in.
Of the myriad types of hardcore songs, my favorite remains the thrash-adjacent burners that barrel ahead at breathtaking speed with no regard for what carnage might ensue. Actually, that’s not quite right; songs like these often seem to relish all the carnage that ensues. Call it the fast and the furious, basement DIY edition.
“Grab A Shovel” is that kind of hardcore song. After some insane bass and drums combustion and a ceremonial pick slide, Tørsö are off to the D-beat races, violently flailing at dangerous velocity as vocalist Mae howls about futility and self-loathing: “I don’t need more time to self-reflect/ All I do is lose self-respect/ And in the end, it’s all the fucking same/ I fight myself every single day.” Halfway through the two-minute runtime, the band switches to a more primitive chug — proving they’re as adept at heavy lifting as cardio — while Mae instructs us to bury her alive. It’s hard to follow through on her command, though, when you’re being whipped around so savagely. –Chris
Serge Gainsbourg had an old trick that he loved to pull, using his lascivious baritone to intone dark, fucked-up things over gorgeous, frothing pop music. On “Bombs Away,” Serge’s daughter and “Lemon Incest” duet partner does a sort of updated version. The track — from Charlotte’s Rest collaborator SebastiAn — is slick, itchy club music, its needling synth-pop arpeggios offset by lush lounge-singer piano. In her lithe whisper, Charlotte lays out apocalyptic scenarios: “The city’s quiet and awaiting the Blitz/ A candle’s lit where old Victoria sits/ Babylon’s burning, and a dynasty ends/ Enemies, enemies will never be friends.” And near the song’s end, in a few quick lines, she sketches out what it’s like to be alive, to attempt to function, while it feels like the world is crumbling around you: “The times I tried to get away from it all/ Just left me standing with my back to the wall.” Same. Suddenly, all that darkness has a context beyond one brilliant old man’s horniness. –Tom
“Song 31″ is a victory lap. Noname released it as a celebration for selling out three end-of-year shows in her Chicago hometown, all on the heels of her excellent Room 25, which solidified her as a critical darling. It’s also, at least partially, a rebuff against those who say that maybe Noname is a little too much vibe, and too few bars. Noname jumps all over “Song 31,” her silky voice shadowboxing with a gorgeous beat that’s part-and-parcel with the stuff that was on Room 25. On it, Noname grapples with the idea of “pain for profit,” using her art as both a tool for personal transformation and capitalist gain. “Everything is for everything, rhymin’ with casualty, ain’t no labels that’s backing me but my tickets be sellin’ out,” she raps. She bunny-hops from there, through television representation and factory farming and more, and “Song 31″ soulfully and deftly keeps up with her every move. –James
What’s life? Well, if you’re YBN Cordae, life is pretty good right now. As one of the most visible stars of the ascendant YBN crew, Cordae had a breakout 2018, and it all started with “Old N*ggas,” a response to J. Cole’s hand-wringing kids-these-days whinefest “1984.” Sample lyric: “We see you old niggas as a lot of clowns.” Now, on “What’s Life,” he kind of sounds like early J. Cole.
Part of Cordae’s talent has always been his ability to bridge the rap generation gap, to appeal to SoundCloud kids with his trap sonics and to old heads with his lyrical bars. But on “What’s Life,” he focuses on the latter, ditching the hi-hats and 808s in favor of soulful ’90s jazz-rap production and doubling down on the introspection. It still works.
“What is life without love?/ What’s life without dreams?/ What’s life without goals?/ Everything ain’t what it seems,” Cordae raps. “Rap niggas far from potent, they just out here saying random shit/ Had to drop a classic ’cause I heard they was demanding it.” Look forward to many more classics to come from this guy. –Peter
There’s a particular feeling that always strikes as one year turns over into another. A blend of peace and chaos, the quiet and matter-of-fact dawning of New Year’s Day flecked with the remnants of all the wreckage we’ve just weathered. That could be the hangovers and lingering confetti turned to muddy scraps along surprisingly unpopulated Manhattan streets; that could be the basic fact that we’ve all survived another 12 months as the world dances toward the precipice. History is littered with songs that capture that weird intersection of fragile hope and recurring dread — and just as 2018 came to a close, Mary Lattimore gave us another one.
Of course, Lattimore’s work often leaves itself open to interpretation, but the timing of “Mary, You Were Wrong” makes it land a certain way. All gentle harp notes and ambiguous ambience, the composition is equal parts sunset and sunrise, the end of something collapsing into the beginning of something else. Music like that exists for you take from it what you will, what you need. But, after all, the title of the track is in the past tense. So when you hear “Mary, You Were Wrong,” you could think of regret or naïveté or hurt populating recent memories. But you could also think of those conditions fading into the past, replaced by the smallest sense that things just might be turning around this time. –Ryan