5) The 1975
“Love It If We Made It” – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
The 1975’s sound slaps your skin like ice-cold tap water — refreshing and reliably engineered to hold the shape of whatever sonic vessel it’s poured into. On the band’s third album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, sun-flecked synths, lustrous guitars, and singer Matt Healy’s elastic tenor play chameleon to a bevy of styles — slinky auto-tuned R&B, Technicolor Xylo Myloto-indebted pop, and George Michael-esque balladeering. Healy renders ennui and ecstasy as unlikely bedfellows in 21st century match-making —frenetic, stupefying, and adroit as a stiff cocktail with Red Bull floater.
“Love It If We Made It” is the album’s titanic centerpiece, a would-be Tears For Fears anthem sung slouched from the big chair, exhausted yet triumphant. “We’re fucking in a car, shooting heroin/ Saying controversial things, just for the hell of it,” Healy commences and never slows down, romanticizing his own drug addiction as breezily as he does a dozen spirit-crushing memes of 2018 — racial violence, climate change, sycophancy, and xenophobia among the highlights. Modernity has failed us, he succinctly reminds, but seldom does a society’s collapse sound this majestic.
Is the horn-splattered chorus one of attention-whore cynicism or genuine human redemption? You’re never quite sure. It’s one of the song’s many delicious contradictions, along with inspiring progressives to gleefully chant “I moved on her like a bitch,” a lyric that recasts Trump’s moral repugnance as glorious pop hook. “Love It If We Made It”’s ripped-from-the-headlines, cultural catchphrases bring to mind a classic from another other 80’s alt-rock giant, but the outcome is less certain these days. It’s the end of the world as we know it, but Healy doesn’t know what to feel. So he feels it all.
4) Kasey Musgraves
“Slow Burn” – Golden Hour
The aurora borealis, psychotropics, and mankind’s creation; “These are real things” Kacey Musgraves professes wondrously on “Oh, What a World.” Golden Hour is a world of Musgraves making, one where a country singer can turn red and blue states purple, where a top ten album plays just as well in New York City dive bars as Nashville honkytonks, where banjos rub elbows with auto-tune and disco beats without ever sounding forced. These confluences feel natural in no small part because of the ease with which Musgraves imparts genuine emotion.
She juxtaposes the contentment of marriage against lonely weekends and self-reflection against long nights of drinking with a verisimilitude that suggests to have achieved the former, Musgraves has endured her fair share of the latter. “You can have your space/ Cowboy/ I ain’t going to fence you in” she chides, a clever little turn of country rock phrasing that sketches a fractured relationship so clearly that you can’t believe another songwriter hadn’t thought of it first.
“Slow Burn” is the brooding hit Ryan Adams has been trying to pull off for over a decade (he got so desperate he even covered 1989 in its entirety). Golden Hour is a fully-realized fusion of pop’s sugary rush and country’s bittersweet poignancy that makes Swift’s statement of maturation seem puerile by comparison. The result feels so effortless it isn’t even a “crossover” — Golden Hour simply exists in all worlds at once.
3) Snail Mail
“Heat Wave” – Lush
It’s both logical and lamentable that every conversation about Snail Mail starts with the same remarkable fact; front woman Lindsey Jordan wrote and recorded her debut LP Lush while still in high school. To suggest she merely crafts songs with an emotional intelligence beyond her years is to underestimate the intrinsic wisdom of lead single “Pristine’s” climactic query: “Is there any better feeling than coming clean?” No question in 2018 prompted a more resounding yes. Snail Mail doesn’t just channel their 90’s indie influences (Pavement’s wry apathy, the crystalline guitar tone of Galaxie 500-meets-Sonic Youth, and Liz Phair’s flat vocal affect), they instantiate them for a new generation.
“When I’m feeling low/ I’m not into sometimes” Jordan professed on “Heat Wave,” and for anyone who’s ever grown tired of the bullshit inherent to being someone else’s second option, those words felt like an epiphany. Songs like “Speaking Terms” and “Let’s Find an Out” run the gamut of tried-and-true teenage dispositions (infatuation, boredom, indignation, regret, and resolve) without ever feeling overwrought. You don’t have to be an adolescent to feel things this deeply, this profoundly. Jordan possesses the uncanny ability to cast a lucid gaze on the most overlooked part of failing relationships — not their puppy-love beginnings or devastated ends, but the nuanced joy and heartache of all that lies in between.
2) Beach House
“Dive” – 7
Throughout their 13 year career, Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand have established a sound so identifiable yet undefinable that the words “Beach House” have become more than just a band moniker. It’s a feeling, a vibe, and a mood as easy to place as it is confounding to explain. It’s built on transient mystery, dream-like nostalgia, and a sense of gauzy lucidity typically associated with the consumption of very, very good drugs. To me, Beach House songs have always felt like the last moments before twilight fades — that divine time when the air turns pinkish and a ripe summer day’s contented swell of life finally exhausts itself.
On the thick, obsidian sounds of 7, Beach House’s gloaming becomes a witching hour, an enigmatic evolution of psychedelic space pop that is the heaviest, darkest, and most self-actualized album they’ve recorded to date. Freed up by the vault-emptying exercise of 2017’s B-sides and Rarities, the duo wrote and recorded tracks at a more deliberate pace and challenged themselves to create sounds that might not be possible to replicate live. Legrand’s husky tenor still exudes a distinct, feminine energy, but there’s a denser, more muscular aura to songs like “Dark Spring” and “Pay No Mind” that recalls Slowdive’s most mesmerizing heights.
The oscillating bleeps, drills, and weird throb of “Lemon Glow” can’t hide one of the greatest melodies of the band’s career. “Dive” is a shoegaze magnum opus, a slow winding build whose lacerating guitar and drum bomb finale make cataclysm sound blissful. Beach House’s familiarity-by-way-of-intangibility hasn’t always worked in their favor, but the creative leap they’ve taken on 7 redefines what it means to be canonical. Beach House don’t just sound like themselves — they’re the best version of themselves, reinvigorated and reinvented.
“Nobody” – Be The Cowboy
Mitski’s two powerhouse singles represent the diametric forces of the isolationism that burrow to the core of her stunning fifth album, Be The Cowboy. On rock dirge “Geyser,” the 28-year old Japanese-American songwriter espouses seclusion as a crucible for forging romantic hunger. “You’re my number one/ You’re the one I want/ And I’ve turned down/ Every hand that has beckoned me to come.” Organs, bellicose drums, and barbed-wire guitars land like punches to the solar plexus. You can feel the swell of her self-knowing, her willingness to commit. It’s bruising yet exultant.
“Nobody” flips indie rock gravitas on its head — hit-hats, wah-wah pedals, and an ABBA-worthy piano melody spiral like a glittering disco ball. The pleasure is palpable and communal. It’s the kind of dance floor anthem that could soundtrack weddings for decades. That is until Mitski starts in: “My God/ I’m so lonely… And I don’t want your pity/ I just want someone to kiss.” Her simple one-word reply — “nobody” — sublimates and shape-shifts into three strangely cast syllables that become both mantra and answer til the end of time. Ultimately, no one else can save us. When the party’s over, we are all irrevocably, undeniably alone.
Be The Cowboy climbs into and out of these chasms of solitude with Mitski exploring every tiny foothold of emotional subtlety along the way. The songs are manifold and gorgeous; the swaying Beatlesque pop of “Me And My Husband”, the spectral, “Pyramid Song”-like chord progression that haunts the hallways of a “A Horse Named Cold Air,” the softly-strummed, twangy folk of “Lonesome Love.” “Nobody butters me up like you do” winks Mitski with bedroom eyes before slamming the door shut: “And nobody fucks me like me.” It hits with a candor so unapologetic, you could both laugh and cry. Mitski renders the heart’s multitude of contradictions with a clarity that is astounding.