earthings! 2018: My ten favorites of the year

It’s our very last post for 2018, which means it’s time to reveal my ten favorite songs of the year – although chances are, if you’ve been reading this blog more religiously than most, or have a good idea of what I am into, then you’d have guessed some of the songs on this list. For this year, I decided not to have a massive reckoning some time from the beginning of December (too much pressure, that) but instead made up this list as the year went along. It didn’t make it easier: the tenth song (again, this list is in alphabetical order) was added just a few days ago, and that was a song I actually took off the list. I won’t tell you what that is… [NB]

 

Looking back, it’s a no-brainer I put this song on this list. April’s last winter single, “April Story”, was one I highlighted because of its bittersweet nature – perfect for those chilly days. Its song structure is also unusual: it doesn’t quite leave the chorus, instead building up to a climax that isn’t that big, but feels deserved anyway. The girls did the same thing for “The Blue Bird” – orchestral undertones, unusual structure – but goes one step further: a really beautiful chorus, Chaewon and Jinsol pushing things gently (and with a maturity that feels more convincing) to a satisfying conclusion. No wonder I’ve been playing this over and over and over. April’s been releasing some little-noticed gems recently and, with the new year approaching, I’m looking forward to yet another winter single. I hope one is coming.

 

I wouldn’t have stumbled upon this song – or this band, for that matter – but the Beths are one of my favorite finds of the year. The rush I got when I first heard “Future Me Hates Me” is very much like the first time I heard the Preatures: you know they’re new, but they just sound familiar. Their album of the same name – I didn’t get to review it for I discovered them just after the release – is filled with these little self-contained delights, good pop songs that you can plug in anywhere. They’re nice to throw into the shuffle, but even the album is a fun little romp. At least I’m not too late to this New Zealand band, and the next time they release an album I hope I don’t lose track. But then again, I’m bound to.

 

Most of the press surrounding the release of Chris, the second album from Christine and the Queens, inevitably revolved around the visual transformation singer Heloïse Letissier took, from introspective singer-songwriter to someone more… kinetic. This defiance of gender stereotypes is worthy of applause – she built up those very gender stereotypes she’s breaking down for the sole purpose of, well, breaking them down; that’s tricky to pull off, especially in these days and age, but we now have an artist who’s doing for 80s funk what David Bowie did for glam rock. (Her decision to instantly disassociate her musical identity with her actual one, at least on the surface, makes me curious if there’ll be another concept change for album number three.) And, of course, the songs are irresistible. Many times I’ve had this song stuck in my head. Chris. Yes?

 

Cosmic Girls – or WJSN, if you’re going to be really specific – is one of those girl groups that have, for the most part, really stuck to their concept. It’s a hard one to grasp, to be fair, and they didn’t always get to that point: their debut “MoMoMo” was your typical cutesy K-pop song, albeit with a really strong hook. Their later singles saw them transition towards a more, err, purposeful pop: everything is placed deliberately, and the end result is a song with a driving, optimistic quality and (once again) a really satisfying conclusion. (Especially when they figured out how to best utilize Exy, their leader and rapper.) “Dreams Come True” – we really call it “Trust” – is Cosmic Girls at their best: it really is one of those perfect pop songs, so good you wouldn’t think these are thirteen girls doing the thing you probably don’t like about K-pop. And it’s no fluke – follow-up “Save Me, Save You” kept with the template – but the question of when their Chinese members will return hovers like that worm hole in their also deliberately oversaturated music video.

 

I’ve done seven of these lists now, and the Söderberg sisters have had a place in three of them, including this one. Again, another no-brainer: I’ve long been a fan of their vocal harmonies and their later mining of distinctly American influences: the folk and country of a few decades back, and in their latest album Ruins, the polished pop of an even earlier era. Or perhaps it’s the music video for “Fireworks” with their kaleidoscope effects and their big hair-dos contributing. But that song’s a definite highlight of the album: the girls revisit the mournfulness of their earlier work, but with the lush sound they’ve discovered in this recent stretch, ending in a torch song for modern times – a throwback (for lack of a better term) that does not feel out of place today. But it is comforting for those who’ve been there the first time.

 

This year Shalla reminded me (often) that K-pop is a visual thing. Does that explain “Time for the Moon Night” on the list, I wonder? Is it because of that extra something in the choreography? Is it the music video being more emotional than their previous ones? Is it because I saw GFriend perform this song live on stage? (Perhaps more so: even if I don’t go to live music often, I know the difference it makes.) But then, even without the visual element, this song sees the group reach a new peak. While “Rough” will remain their trademark song, this comes close: it’s satisfyingly complex, it has (yet again) a good climax, and it continues the new, melancholic path they took at the latter third of 2017, with “Summer Rain”. GFriend continue to play with their strengths, keeping steady when other girl groups venture to new sounds, often with mixed results. For some reason, that works.

 

The Manic Street Preachers are another shoo-in, because they’re one of my favorite bands, because there’s just something about how they effortlessly fuse together obscure references, complicated topics and a really mean riff together. (And James Dean Bradfield’s singing is the cherry on top.) That’s kept the Welsh band relevant despite being one of the still-standing veterans of the Britpop era. “International Blue”, the first single to Resistance is Futile, captures those qualities well: it’s an uplifting song in many facets, but then you wonder if it really is supposed to be as upbeat as it sounds. And then you dig through their history and doubt yourself. Everybody seems to talk about whether the end is near for them every time a new album comes out, and every single time their doubts are allayed because of just how potent and rejuvenated they sound. May they continue.

 

Okay, perhaps MGMT reaching out to, of all people, our very own True Faith to spin the convoluted yarn that is the music video to “Me and Michael” meant this song goes on the list. That novelty would never fade that fast. But this song is emblematic of how the New York duo has found the middle ground between the kaleidoscopic pop of their debut and the sheer weirdness of their follow-up. In Little Dark Age they merged the two sides to give us, well, weird pop that isn’t off-putting, that has that undercurrent of sneaky glittery goodness, and has the quirks we felt disappeared when they went down the too serious path. And this song does have its thematic merits, and the whole 80s thing can never go totally wrong. But, okay, still, True Faith being in the music video to this has to have done its part.

 

This year I’ve only given two albums a perfect rating, and one of them is Natalie Prass’ timeless yet urgent The Future and the Past. Her shift from a modern take on Americana-inspired pop to slick and arguably smoldering soul provided the record the drive that usually makes its way to my heart – and it doesn’t lose the allure of Natalie’s voice, nor her themes. It’s a no-filler record, but “The Fire” is what I’d pick, because I’m a sucker for those slow builds that nonetheless keep your feet (or whatever body part is available) tapping. I think it’s the bass line. I definitely think it’s the bass line, and how the chorus constantly teases you – or at least you expect some really big get-down, when that subtlety is what makes this song big.

 

This song, finally, is a slow build. The comparisons to Fleetwood Mac weren’t lost on me the first time I heard it, but it took a while until it became something I was comfortable rotating more often. Perhaps it’s because I had the impression this wasn’t Sunflower Bean’s sound – I’ve heard enough of their earlier single to have a good idea what they specialize in, I thought. Was this just a tribute, a pastiche? Twentytwo in Blue made it clear their thing is really mining all that rock history, but not in a rip-roaring way as others would (again, the Preatures). It all rather feels a bit like… a bit like rich kids in New York, really, which makes sense because that is what they are, I think. Chill, just for the fun of it, and yet slowly gaining attention the longer they plough on. “I Was A Fool” is a slow build, but it deserves its place on this list.

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