Year number eight, year number eight. For nearly a decade now, I’ve provided my favorite music of the last 12 months around this time (because you care … right … right?!). The rules are simple: I pick my 10 favorite local songs, why? Because we only review albums every other week. So, in case you’re counting, there are far more songs from which to choose than there are full-length albums.
There’s one other caveat: The local songs are picked from the crop of records I reviewed in 2018. That might mean, then, that some of the albums were actually released in 2017, but we didn’t review them until 2018. Hey: With an every-other-week clip, sometimes, it takes a minute or three to get around to some releases — especially when the submissions get backed up, which they always do.
Per tradition, I should also note that this is the time of year I share one of the meanest emails I received in response to a review I wrote. Behold my personal favorite paragraph:
“I’m not sure of your qualifications to write on anything concerning music, and quite honestly it doesn’t matter as a review is just a matter of opinion. Even so, I feel if you are going to share your opinion with the masses, you should do so intelligently and with knowledge of that which you speak. You sir have done neither with this review.”
Anyway, despite Josh Morningstar’s weirdly angry fans (even though I said I liked the record, you still murdered me!), let’s get to my favorite music of 2018.
1. Flo Petite – AND
My favorite song of the year, as is per usually the case, comes from my favorite EP of the year, Flo Petite’s “Soft Wrinkled Feelings.” There’s a very specific feeling music can give you when you come across something that moves you in an unexpected way, and that feeling is the feeling that keeps us music nerds coming back to the art we hold so dear. Flo Petite provided me with one of those rare moments this year the second I pressed play on her four-song set, and for that, she deserves much more than just the No. 1 slot on a silly list.
With “AND,” she cemented her ability to craft perfectly catchy tiny pop songs that hold as much weight in air as they do in wit. Not only is this track musically cute, but it allows the singer to play off a mysterious vibe that ultimately becomes her signature by the time these two minutes and four seconds conclude. Maybe it’s the acoustic guitar plucking. Maybe it’s the xylophone. Maybe it’s the lo-fi production. Maybe it’s the longing in her voice as she begs a nameless lady to tell her how to live again. Or maybe it’s all those things combining for an aesthetic that’s entirely her own. Which, of course, is the true victory here: Staying honest to who you are in a world where originality is only offered at a premium that seems to grow by the Insta Story. Flo Petite managed to cut through the noise to create something transcendent for the local scene. Album No. 2 can’t come soon enough.
2. Karen Jonas – Dance With Me
“I dare you to move like you’ve never been wrong/I dare you … I dare you to dance through it all.” And that right there, ladies and gentlemen, is the most moving moment in 2018 local music. Any year with a new Karen Jonas record is a good year, anyway, but with this song, she upped her game to a polished, anthemic height that she had previously never reached. Listen as her voice trembles to open the song, listen to it crescendo throughout the bridge and then listen as it gracefully takes a bow with 10 seconds left. The structure isn’t anything special – a slow pop-waltz that simmers with an epic Nashville organ paving the road ahead – but, as it typically goes, Jonas can take the most basic musical tropes and make them as magical as anything you’ve ever heard. Doing this for nearly a decade now, I can’t think of a local artist who has consistently made my head swirl the way she has with her art. Here, she makes dancing through a landmine sound like the most glorious way to go out.
3. Gin Rickys – Town That Swings
Channeling the ghost of Squirrel Nut Zippers, The Gin Rickys embody their name with this swing-tastic 1950s night club ditty that inspires visions of women with fur and men in tuxedoes. With the help of a hot piano and the sultry voice of Ariana Harbin, this song recalls a time when getting on the dance floor meant something a little more respectable than a sea of twerkers, and if you have a pulse, this is the exact type of tune that should get your butt out of its seat anyway. As an added bonus, check the call-and-response chorus that adds an extra tablespoon of fun to an already delicious recipe.
4. Mr. Husband – A Night Like Today
In what ended up being somewhat of a precursor to Kenneth Husband’s stripped down “Ocean Pines” that came out later in the year, this, the final track on Mr. Husband’s excellent “Silvertone,” deserves a lot of accolades not only for its expected lush harmonies and tender vocals, but also for its spoken-word body. I mean, it takes guts to offer up some spoken word verses in 2018, and not only does Kenny Tompkins pull it off with lovable flair, but it also adds an impressive level of sincerity to the production. As he told me in 2017, while the moniker may be intended for laughs, the music is no joke at all. And considering how this song can bring me to tears, you can’t argue with him.
5. The Dirty Middle – The Ballad Of Ensign Jimmy
The Dirty Middle have to be one of the most underrated bands in Frederick. What they have going on is actually pretty darn cool, when you look around only to find little more than a sea of dudes playing angsty power rock (hehe), it should make you appreciate this bluesy quartet even more. Led by Adrienne Smith, this was the grooviest song on their self-titled debut EP, and it all but transports you back to the days when Stax Records was still putting out records that topped the charts and Southern Soul was far more than a niche novelty. Plus, those whoa whoa’s that punctuate the end of each chorus are such a neat throwback, you can’t help but swoon at this shot of retro rock.
6. Crooked Hills – Nightmare Synonyms
It’s just so powerful — and it comes from an album that is the musical equivalent of an old-school Mountain Dew commercial: extreme, in your face, unapologetic and brimming with energy. As lead singer Brett Putz explosively approaches a dealer who has “been giving me the wrong drugs/when all I need is love,” it sums up what makes Crooked Hills so great, which has almost everything to do with the dichotomy between their message and presentation. Dirty heavy Appalachian hill music, indeed.
7. Santa Librada – Something To Say
Oh, the defiance! From one of the best albums you probably didn’t hear in 2018 (shame on you!) comes punk rock at its finest, in both execution and spirit. Singer Rahne Alexander doesn’t care that you don’t care and that voice bleeds contempt in all the most irresistible ways. Be sure to stick around for the brilliant rants she offers throughout, piquing with this tremendous assertion: “Guess what? You don’t have to have a hot take on every little thing. You can actually just sit and take in information.” Preach.
8. J Berd – Moonwalker
We didn’t get many hip-hop records sent our way this year, but this, off J Berd’s “Overtime” (which, it should be noted, dons fantastic cover art), was a definite highlight in the year of local music. Backed by a slow, moody groove, the textures give space to allow Berd’s most impressive accomplishment — his commitment to avoiding curse words throughout the record — to step to the forefront in a more thoughtful way. The cherry on top is the hook, which doubles as almost a spot-on homage to Eminem, high-pitched voice and all. “I hold court like I was subpoenaed to attend,” he offers at one point. Thank God he made it.
9. Jeff Cosgrove – High, Low
If Jeff Cosgrove is involved with album, you should be listening. And better yet, if Jeff Cosgrove is involved with an album — and you happen to like jazz music — you damn well better be listening. “High, Low,” off his excellent “Hunters & Scavengers” with Scott Robinson and Ken Filiano, swings more than most anything else he’s done in recent memory and yet it continues to reach toward the abstract in ways only Cosgrove can. Robinson’s saxophone scats in wondrous ways while Filiano’s bass sprints forward at a pace impossible to ignore. The drummer, meanwhile, holds nothing back as he explores every inch of his kit. When it comes to original jazz in this area, you’d be hard pressed to find a mind as interesting as Cosgrove’s.
10. Ethan Larsh – I Miss Cocaine
Bringing his blend of Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman and Ben Folds together in ways only he can, Ethan Larsh sure knows how to craft a piano-driven ballad with more than its share of winks and nods to both the profound and the absurd. With “I Miss Cocaine,” perhaps the most charming song on his solid LP “Ethan Larsh Breaks Hearts,” he whimsically proclaims, “I miss cocaine, and how it effects my brain … I’ll say it again.” It’s equal parts charming, revelatory and fearless — all the things needed to make a great pop songwriter. And Larsh, for all he offers here, is on his way.
1. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
It’s hard to argue against “Dirty Computer” being Janelle Monae’s best work to date. Until this set, she was content to label herself an android while crafting (admittedly) out-of-this-world music. Naturally, then, what makes “Computer” so compelling is that for the first time, she has kinda/sorta shed the robotic persona in favor of something more sincere, or in her words, more personal.
That’s most visible on the intergalactically funky “Make Me Feel” when she chides a questioner by asserting “you got the answers to my confessions” right before a Prince-ified guitar brightens the room. “Django Jane” is then much less colorful yet undeniably more raw, leaving the world to beg for that hip-hop-only album we so desperately need Monae to one day unleash. And then “Americans” brings the rocket ship back to earth with defiance, confidence and optimism as she confides, “Love me, baby. Love me for who I am.” These 14 tracks cement the reality that it’s impossible not to.
2. Chvrches – Love Is Dead
You know that band that you once fell in love with, but you knew that eventually, they would disappoint you? You love the first record, but the expectations for the second record are low … and then that second record somehow out-performs the first. But there’s no way the third album could measure up, right? But then it does … and then it becomes your favorite in the artist’s cannon.
Chvrches is that band for me and in my eyes, “Love Is Dead” might just be the most underrated, overlooked album of the year. Singer Lauren Mayberry is as mad as ever in songs like the piercingly hopeless opener “Graffiti” or the disappointed “Never Say Die.” Even Matt Berninger stops by for a devastating collaboration in “My Enemy,” the group’s best ballad to date. It’s a set of reflection, regret, doubt, anger and not nearly enough hope to make sure things will be OK. It’s also the most addicting that Chvrches has ever been.
3. Ambrose Akinmusire – Origami Harvest
Sure, I’m an Ambrose Akinmsire mark — just look back to 2014’s No. 1 album on this list if you don’t believe me — but this is a truly transcendental record, not just for jazz music, but within popular culture today. For the first time, there are moments here when the trumpeter opts for groove over concept and he’s never sounded better. Check the opening jaw-dropping statement, “A Blooming Bloodfruit In A Hoodie,” for a giant leap from artist to activist. Dude still knows how to get beautiful, though, as “The Lingering Velocity Of The Dead’s Ambitions” churns through a cavalcade of emotions, bending from angelic strings to aggressive drums on a dime. It’s the best EP of the year, no matter the genre, and it’s not even close.
4. Sarah Blasko – Depth Of Field
Ohhhhhhhhh, this is just so dark. In fact, it’s the Australian singer’s darkest moment to date. From the brooding misery of “A Shot,” to the unexpected groove-pop of “Never Let Me Go,” to the Gabriel-esque ballad that is “Savour It,” Blasko cements her ability to transform from indie pop to the NPR side of goth effortlessly throughout this, her sixth full-length record. You could see it coming on 2015’s pretty good “Eternal Return,” but “Depth Of Field” takes those ominous textures and matures them in ways that can only be described as tremendous. It’s hard to reinvent yourself in such a fickle music world, but these 10 songs are proof positive that it can be done — and done successfully.
5. Paul Simon – In The Blue Light
You probably won’t find this on many other year-end lists, but hey … I’m a Paul Simon fan boy. And while you can argue that the idea for his final studio collection — a reinterpretation of some of his older songs — was a bit of a cop-out, you can’t argue that a goodbye record from Paul Simon shouldn’t be duly noted. The highlight is “Can’t Run But,” a dramatically orchestral take on “The Rhythm Of The Saints” song that has never sounded more inspired. He played it on his farewell tour this year — a tour I caught up with in Philadelphia. It was my favorite show of 2018, a fitting goodbye for one of pop music’s most celebrated geniuses. With its imagination and perspective, “In The Blue Light” doubles as the same.
1. Childish Gambino – This Is America
Sometimes predictability is actually the best way to go, and while it’s hard to imagine this song not being No. 1 on most Best Song lists in 2018, that doesn’t mean it’s not where it rightfully belongs. Coupled with an explosive video that caught the attention and imagination of what felt like the entire Internet for at least 48 hours, this earned its title as The Most Representative Song Of The Times, right down to the “Don’t catch you slippin’ up” refrain that takes on different auras with each utterance. The most profound words are never the ones that try to be, and with Gambino’s drawl echoing in and out of a stone-cold delivery, the gunshot sounds prove be just as lyrical as anything you hear come out of an actual person’s mouth. It’s hard to write protest songs in an era of pop culture that was founded on eye-rolls, but with “This Is America,” Childish Gambino proves that cultural demonstrations aren’t just limited to the streets anymore.
2. Chvrches – Get Out
If there’s one thing the Scottish trio knows how to utilize, it sure is some electronic hand claps, and “Get Out,” the lead single off the group’s third (and best) record, “Love Is Dead,” has the band using them with more vigor than ever before. Even so, it’s the synth line that will sink its hooks into your conscience before that chorus forces you to the ocean floor for good. The best part? Check the bridge, when the proceedings get to drum overload, both live and electronic, the results proving to be beautiful chaos. Plus, hey: If you can’t see that “You are a kaleidescope” is the new “Are we human or are we dancer” then you need to turn in your glow sticks yesterday.
3. Ambrose Akinmusire – A Blooming Bloodfruit In A Hoodie
“Everything’s everything/Understand most songs/Are just phrases and sentences/Every last song is a long sigh/A breath in the middle of one single run-on sentence/Every last bar I meant it/Run it back/Hear it again/That’s everything/We are the universe/Learning to love itself.” You wouldn’t quite expect a run like that from a “jazz” record, yet as those words emanate, Akinmusire’s trumpet scats like the perfect backing vocal over a groove that’s as powerful as it is bright. If nothing else, 2018 was a hell of a year for music that made statements. And if you aren’t listening, you aren’t learning.
4. Janelle Monae – Make Me Feel
In an album filled with standout songs, “Make Me Feel” is like the biggest diamond in a billion-dollar mine. Most of that is because of the funky-fresh beat that anchors the vibe, Monae doing her best to honor Prince by offering up something that you would like to think The Purple One would have dreamed up himself if he was still roaming the halls of Paisley Park (which makes sense: Monae has said that he helped create some of the sounds heard here before he passed). It’s the best song the 1980s never heard, and while it bleeds sex appeal and provocation, it also calls back to a time when pop music was much more interesting. Monae, in all her glory, reminds us here that to her, being interesting is only the beginning.
5. Camila Cabello – Never Be The Same
There is always one song a year that reminds me why I enjoy making it a point to listen to pop radio every now and then, and in 2018, “Never Be The Same” fit the bill perfectly. The verses, moody and suggestive, give way to that falsetto-laden pre-chorus before a hook that will knock you out, stand over you and smile as your body lay motionless. Oh, and, of course, it was made to fill stadiums. Cabello’s story has always been one that should inspire us to bet on ourselves a little bit more than we often do; this song, however, cements the reality that somewhere within us all, there’s a jackpot to be found.