An Endless Summer Over – Songs in 2018
I’ve been doing this for almost six years now—writing pieces for this blog, alongside other places on the Internet, and for even longer than that, I’ve been subjecting people to my obligatory ‘year end’ lists—mostly a list of my favorite songs, as well as my favorite albums, of the year.
Year end lists, and maybe me, too, as an internet music writer, are kind of like that ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme—you know? Like, according to my records, I reviewed roughly 70 newly released albums in 2018 (this doesn’t count reissues, or anniversary thinkpieces); for every newly released record that I actually sit down and write something about, there are still a handful of others that I don’t.
And all those records are comprised of songs—I mean, I don’t really know how many songs I listened to in 2018—it was probably a lot.
Additionally, I apparently liked enough songs in 2018 to have assembled three pretty thoughtful (and one really phoned in) hot mixes to share on the site—leading some to maybe (perhaps erroneously) believe that I liked a lot of music that was released this year.
But here’s the thing—I also spent a lot my year listening to old John Coltrane records, rap music from the early 1990s, and The Germs GI, among other things that did not come out in 2018.
I am the ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme—walking alongside 2018, yet craning my neck and making a face at, oh, I don’t know—anything else that comes along and grabs my attention and may be better or more interesting than a lot of the shit that is out there right now.
I have made some questionable inclusions in the past when it came to ‘year end’ lists—specifically with songs. 2013 was a big year for straight up pop music, with songs by, of all people, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, and Miley Cyrus all finding their way onto the list. And yes, “Maybe You’re Right” by Miley Cyrus fucking slayed and deserved to be in my top five songs of that year—but also, when was the last time I sat down and listened to it?
I’ve always struggled with the difficulty of figuring out what makes one song on the list (like number seven) slightly worse, in some arbitrary way, than the sixth song on the list. But more than anything, year end lists walk a very tight line between being a total product of their time and place, but also something that you hope (perhaps foolishly) will somehow be timeless, or at the very least, you’ll be able to look back on and not wince at what you were, for some reason, really into that year.
This year has been absolutely horrible; I looked at 2017 as a ‘rebuilding’ year for me, personally, as well as being able to try and focus my efforts on writing more and feeling good about what I was doing with this site. However, there have been some setbacks, and in perusing the playlists I had assembled for those aforementioned hot mixes, and in looking through the albums I reviewed, I found I was less and less confident in a lot of the songs that I had co-signed, and I wasn’t interested in half assing my way through some kind of list with ten songs picked out.
So what I came up with is five songs that I felt confident enough in, and about, that I could assemble into a list, and explain why they mattered, or resonated, with me in 2018. There were other songs that I liked, sure—and there were certainly more than five albums that I liked this year, so why wasn’t I able to pick a song off of those?
I could have. And I even considered it, but it would be disingenuous.
So here are five songs—no more, no less—representing an absolutely wretched year that I, for one, am happy is almost fucking over.
Somewhat recently, I read a review of Kamasi Washington’s auspicious 2015 debut LP, The Epic, that referred to his arrangement of “Clair de Lune” as being ‘saccharine.’ And yes, I get it, but at the same time—fuck you. Buried late in the game on the third record of sprawling triple album, “Clair de Lune” comes as a total surprise, and Washington manages to pull an unfathomable amount of emotional weight and sheer beauty from Debussy’s composition, making it one of the most impressive moments on the record.
Last year, Washington and his band followed up that debut triple album with Harmony of Difference, a song cycle based around the idea of embracing individuality, ending with an incredible slice of ‘all or nothing’ bombast in the form of “Truth,” by far, the most evocative, ambitious piece on the EP (it takes up the entire second side) and one of my favorite tracks from the year.
Kamasi Washington’s sophomore full length, Heaven and Earth is nothing to scoff at. A hulking five LP set—the album itself is spread across four pieces of vinyl, with a fifth record of additional material hidden within the packaging—from start to finish, it shows that there is no limit to Washington’s imagination and ambition.
However, even across the 20+ pieces of music found within Heaven and Earth, there was nothing as flat out stunning as his take on “Clair de Lune”; and nothing as jaw dropping and cathartic as “Truth.” The only piece that came close is the opening track to the Heaven LP (second in the set, even though it’s first in the album’s title)—“The Space Travels Lullaby.”
For a sprawling 10 minutes, Washington and his assemblage of players don’t necessarily lead you to believe “The Space Travelers Lullaby” is going somewhere, but it’s a song that is written, more or less, around a building tension, or drama, that never really sees a release, in a traditional sense.
The song is gorgeously arranged—it’s really the first song on Heaven and Earth that grabbed my attention during my original listens of it; it contains the kind of sweeping, grand string accompaniment you would expect to hear in some kind of montage from a romantic drama, or in the overture of a Broadway musical. And while that is happening, the instrumentation from Washington’s band—his powerful saxophone leading the way—continue to tumble in and around those strings, creating a dizzying environment that continues to build and build—but then it crests, and that momentum begins again.
Perhaps it’s just a neat bit of legerdemain—like, that’s the point of the piece, you know? Just an opportunity for Washington to show off his capabilities as both a saxophonist, a bandleader, and an arranger, and that there was never going to be any kind of grand conclusion—that the song was never going to take off after it reaches one of those peaks.
And that’s okay—swirling and gorgeous, “The Space Travelers Lullaby” occupies that small space of beauty within a genre that can be confusing and cacophonic.
To begin, I should say that I have not, nor do I intend to, see Black Panther. I got burned out on comic book movies—specifically the endless roll out of movies from Marvel Comics—a number of years ago. For somebody who spent over a decade of their life purchasing and reading comic books (or at least looking at them regularly), I just can’t find it within to continually give a shit about these movies—or much anything else, really.
I should also say that, despite the fact that it was on my iPod for a long time, and is still on my computer, I don’t think I’ve listened to the Top Dawg Entertainment curated soundtrack to Black Panther in its entirety—maybe some day I will. Or maybe it will be like so many other albums that I obtain, and place in my iTunes library, where they more or less gather digital dust until I purge a lot of music I know I’m not going to miss (and didn’t pay for.)
I should also say that until I sat down and listened to “All The Stars,” the first single from the Black Panther soundtrack, one could say that I slept on it, based on the luke warm reception it was given by Pitchfork, with the site’s subject matter expert on rap music (a guy named Sheldon) writing it off as ‘generic,’ and ‘devoid of personality.’
So yes, it’s true, you could say that at times “All The Stars” feels a little unfinished—or at least, a little loose in its structure. Though, I hesitate to call it unfocused, since the focus is clearly on the overall atmosphere it creates—and in that sense, it is a resounding success.
I think that the real issue people may have had with this song, at first, was that it more or less sounds like nothing Kendrick Lamar has ever aligned himself with before—there’s a high gloss sheen to the song’s very large sounding production; I mean, that beat just rumbles whatever you are listening to it on, and the song’s refrain, belted out by a very capable SZA (born Solana Rowe, in case you forgot), is just fucking gigantic, soaring to heights I would not think possible in a rap song.
But that’s the catch—this is a song performed by a rapper, and a singer/rapper, but is “All The Stars” ‘rap music,’ or does it transcend that to create a frisson inducing slice of pop music?
“All The Stars” is short—less than four minutes in length—and it never relents in its energy; it’s not politically or racially charged like the work that made Kendrick Lamar a household name, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a song from a movie, yes, but we shouldn’t sell it short—in it, Lamar and Rowe manage, some how, to compress a surprising amount of emotion inside.
In case you were living under a rock, or someplace that didn’t have access to National Public Radio and Pitchfork, for the latter half of the year, Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus—all successful, up and coming, solo artists in their own right—formed friendships, and then formed a ‘super group.’
Releasing a six song, self-titled EP in November, it was difficult to figure out which, from that bunch, was not ‘the best,’ but the one that resonated with me the deepest. It took a number of times through boygenius until one day, as I was walking home, I realized this was it.
Closing out the first side of the EP, “Souvenir” is one of the three tracks that the trio of Bridgers, Dacus, and Baker worked on together; you see, the conceit of boygenius as a collection of six songs is just as fascinating as the music itself. Each artist brought one mostly completed song to the group’s recording session, as well as ideas for songs they would develop as a trio. You can really tell the songs that were already written when they were brought to the table—mostly by who sings lead vocals, but also because of how they work structurally; in a bit of juxtaposition, “Souvenir” stands out because it doesn’t share the particular trademark elements of a song penned by Dacus, Bridgers, or Baker, on their own.
Slow and shuffling, lead by an acoustic guitar and not much else as far as instrumentation goes, the song is punctuated by the group’s ability to write evocative lyrics—Bridgers brings her very dark sense of humor, and Baker, who you hear first in the song, weaves imagery of romantic partners having a sad, unsettling conversation. But it’s Dacus who arrives last, and steals the show with her vocal contribution—“Pulling thorns out of my palm/work a midnight surgery. When you cut a hole into my skull, do you hate what you see—like I do?”—a lyric that hit me, hard, all at once, and I haven’t been able to shake it since.
The first voice you hear on “Sleep All Summer” is not that of Neko Case, even though it’s pulled from her ambitious 2018 release, Hell-On; no, the first voice you hear is that of a man, who sounds like he’s trying, in earnest, to do his best latter day Bruce Springsteen impression.
That is the voice of Eric Bachmann, the former frontman for the 1990s indie rock outfit Archers of Loaf; since then he’s released material under his own name, as well as with the band Crooked Fingers. “Sleep All Summer,” penned by Bachmann, was originally recorded under the Crooked Fingers moniker, and released in 2005 on the band’s Dignity and Shame—and let me tell you, there is a night and day difference between the original, and the reimaging thanks to Neko Case.
The original is a product of its time—idiosyncratic indie folk, the kind of thing you would have received airplay on Minnesota Public Radio’s station ‘The Current’ at the time of its release; the lyrics—absolutely devastating in every sense of the word—are not lingered on. The song moves too quickly—rushed, even, and the tension and release that could have been created by tapping into the emotional impact is ignored.
This is why Case’s reinterpretation and rearrangement of the song is so breathtaking; she knows a thing or two about emotion—anyone who was stopped dead in their tracks, with the wind knocked out of them by the a capella track “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” from her 2013 effort, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, understands what she can do to song, and with a song.
Under her guidance, “Sleep All Summer” is slowed down to what could easily be called a swooning ballad—with gentle percussion and piano being the primary instrumentation, 13 years after its original appearance, the song become something much larger than itself. It’s full of palpable drama, with Bachmann—his voice aged by the decade plus that has passed, figuring out how to draw out that emotion from the lyrics he wrote. Case takes the part that vocalist Emma Pollock originally sang—Pollock, not so much phoning in her part on the original recording, but again, fails to connect to the emotional resonance that Case so effortlessly does the moment she sings her first words.
Lyrically, the song can take its toll on you, as the male and female protagonists stumble through the complexities of a relationship—with the pleading refrain, coming from both voices, of “Why won’t you fall back in love with me?” The kind of question that sticks with you long after the song has finished.
There are a number of fascinating things about “Two Slow Dancers,” the heartbreaking final track from Mitski Miyawaki’s astounding fifth full-length, Be The Cowboy.
To begin with, there’s nothing quite like it on the rest of the record; but you could say that about a majority of the songs found on Be The Cowboy—there’s a surprising uniqueness and innovation that goes into each one; the singles alone—the bombastic and dramatic “Geyser,” and the slinky, infectious groove of “Nobody” aren’t really repeated anywhere else across the albums 14 songs.
So yes, sonically it is a startling conclusion to a profound set of songs—but, lyrically, there’s also nothing else like it. Miyawaki spends a majority of Be The Cowboy not so much desperate for love, or affection, but a bulk of the album is full of love songs, though in an untraditional sense. There’s a wholesome quality, or at least a cloying nature, to some of the lyrics—“Somebody kiss me, I’m going crazy,” she belts out on “Blue Light,” the rollicking song that arrives immediately before “Two Slow Dancers”; elsewhere, like on “Washing Machine Heart,” she says, “I’m not wearing my usual lipstick—I thought maybe we would kiss tonight.”
“Two Slow Dancers” is, in a sense, the opposite of that—the opposite end of having a crush, or the beginning of a new relationship. It doesn’t even represent the end; it’s when the end has come and gone and you haven’t accepted it, or are simply struggling to reconcile with that fact.
Lyrically, Miyawaki paints the most vivid portrait of two very sad, broken down people, sharing a slow dance at what is, presumably, a high school reunion. She creates such an image, it’s like you are right there with them, watching as they sway awkwardly with the song swelling around them.
“It would be a hundred times easier if we were young again,” she sings, solemnly, with minimal instrumentation provided by an electric piano, “But as it is, and it is, we’re just two slow dancers—last ones out.”
There’s no real resolution at the end of “Two Slow Dancers”; it’s the kind of song written to be placed at the end of a record, and there is no real resolution for life, and the human condition. Be The Cowboy, for all of its charm, ambition, and pop sensibilities, has a surprising amount of tension that is then released through this final act of catharsis.
“…It’s about two real lives lived,” Miyawaki said in an interview, regarding the creation of “Two Slow Dancers.” “And there’s something very visceral and real abut that. These two people have lived their whole lives, and they’re older and they have problems, and their lives are complicated, and they are just experiencing this once dance together where they get to pretend they’re young again. But it’s in this context of life mess.”
This is the kind of song that will never cease to have an impact on me—I knew that Be The Cowboy was going to be an important album in 2018, but it was when I heard “Two Slow Dancers” that I understood just how important. It creates a powerful, emotional, raw moment in time that is unrivaled in the urgency, potency, and the very real sadness of simply existing that it captures.