I have a tradition of compiling an end of year list of the best music that I’ve listened to during the year. It doesn’t all have to be music released during the year, although the majority of it inevitably is. As my tradition started on physical media exchanged with friends the track order and flow of the mix matters, and it always ends with a Christmas song. There are other people with better taste than me but here’s my 2018 version (Spotify link below, track list underneath).
- Fireworks – First Aid Kit
First on the list because it’s my favourite song of the year. I know it doesn’t sound *that* good on the first listen. Let it soak in and you’ll be singing the harmonies somewhere between the fifth and the tenth listen.
- You Get – Cat Power
Idiosyncratic cover versions that strip songs back way beyond their varnish? A reputation as an independently minded woman? People who want to over polish her output in the studio and remove a bit of the blues to make it a bit more commercial? Cat Power takes up where Nina Simone left off, coming back from an attempt to make her contemporary on her last album to make an album that sounds like her again. I’m not even sure this is my favourite song from the album (but you’ve all heard the Rihanna cover on other people’s lists, anyway).
- Miracle – Chvrches
The best song from a good album made by the 21st century version of the Pet Shop Boys.
- Roman Holiday – Olivia Chaney
“Love is on this balcony/Naked, where I rest my feet/We roam Roman ruins/Swifts, swallows swoop and screech”. As opening verses go, that’s a contender for best of the year.
- Once in a lifetime -Angelique Kidjo
Re-recording an entire Talking Heads album with a celebrity cast sounds like the worst musical idea since a record exec asked Noel Gallagher about a third Oasis album. If you want proof that this prediction didn’t hold then here is a cover of a song that, by rights, should be uncoverable.
- The Black Swan (demo) – Bert Jansch
I missed a chance to see Nina Simone on her last tour but I did at least manage to see Bert live whilst he was still around. This is a demo track released this year on a reissue of an under-rated album by an under-related artist. (Listen to the first few Bert albums and then tell me that Neil Young’s acoustic work isn’t forever in his debt.)
- I see a darkness – Will Oldham
Even as a Johnny Cash fan, I’d concede that time is not being kind to the Rick Rubin helmed American Recordings; the lack of subtlety becoming more apparent by the year. Yet, until this recently released version, the Johnny Cash version far outshined the original version recorded by the song’s writer on the eponymous album. Leonard Cohen apparently said of k.d. lang’s version of Hallelujah that “I think we can lay that song to rest now”. The same can be said of this new version.
- Ceasefire – Peter Broderick
Not a song from this year’s release, but a far better song than “Techno for Lemurs”. I saw this track performed live by the author this year. The gig was at a converted chapel. The silence that greeted the final chord before the delayed applause was the quietest I heard all year.
- Sleep All Summer – Neko Case
Covering someone else’s song and then asking the author to turn up and sing back-up vocals to you? That’s some ask. In fact, the only other time I can think of this happening is when Emmylou asked Neil Young (Neil Young!) to show up and sing backing vocals to “Wrecking Ball”, with similar results.
- Glue – Bicep
Somewhere this year, someone shared a DJ mix set from Bicep. This stood out.
- Danny Nedelko – IDLES
There aren’t too many choruses on this list. If you’re going to have one, then you might as well make it a good one. (And full credit for album title of the year.)
- Stay Down – Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridges, Lucy Dacus
It’s probably no surprise that I’ve chosen the most Julien Baker influenced track from the debut EP from the “boygenius” trio.
- Dust – Charles Lloyd and the Marvels
One of two tracks on this list supplied by the Spotify algorithm. I wondered where this was going until the vocal started, when I realised with a shock how distinctive Lucinda Williams (here on guest vocals) is. It simply couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be anyone else.
- The Finest Prize – Per Gessle
The least cool part of my Scandi-pop addiction is Per Gessle, once half of Roxette (possibly the only successful pop group to be named after a Dr Feelgood song) and constant addict to what he calls “bubblegum” songs. Here’s a case in point.
- Children – Grouper
I don’t know anything about Grouper, where they come from, or what they do. Based on their music, which feels like stolen glimpses into someone else’s world, this is appropriate.
- Too Good to be True – Jim James
Post-MMJ Jim James output has been hit and miss, but this is a lovely slice of Motown inspired drama. You can tell how much he’s enjoying it by the fact that he replaces the backing singers on the last chorus with himself just for the hell of it.
- Where’s My Room – Neil and Liam Finn
The apocryphal story about Paul McCartney being asked what it felt like to be the best songwriter in the world and responding “I don’t know – ask Neil Finn” is over twenty years old at this point, and Neil has retreated from writing hit songs to craft quiet gems in New Zealand. This song, from the album he recorded with his son and released earlier in the year, illustrates again his ability to take the everyday and, courtesy of a middle section from nowhere, move a song about not finding your hotel room somewhere beyond the ordinary.
- I’m not scared – Tomberlin
A song that starts with “I’m not scared” and ends with “I always look back”.
- Como To Quiero – Khruangbin
Surf-psychedelia, or – according to Pitchfork – “ethereal instrumental music”.
- The King of Prussia’s March
I wanted to pick a different track from this album, but this march – dating from the eighteenth century and sounding like something you’d hear in the back ground of an Austen period drama – is so pretty as to be irresistible.
- Rene and Georgette Magritte with their dog after the War – Paul Simon
The second song on this list from an album of songs re-recorded by their author suggests that more songwriters should try this. Then again, not many songwriters would have the talent to pull off this title, throw in lines like “And what do you think/They have hidden away in the cabinet cold of their hearts?” and record something of this quality on an album released to coincide with their retirement from live performance.
- Logan’s Lament – Eliza Carthy/Tim Eriksen
I think I started listening to this courtesy of a random tweet from Eliza’s ever entertaining Twitter feed. It has a film like arc that wouldn’t go away.
- Stripping Paper – Elvis Costello
There are few genres I find difficult to like more than musicals. I suspect that one of the few scenarios that would help change my mind would be for Elvis Costello to match his sardonic vision with one. This is one of the reasons that it’s a shame that the planned musical that this song comes from didn’t get the go ahead.
- Bad Ones (feat Tegan and Sara) – Matthew Dear
Tegan and Sara’s move into shimmering pop on their last album took them out of an alt-folk box and, thank goodness, into a landscape where collaborations like this contemporary update on “Shoplifters of the World” can take place.
- In a River – Rostam
Rostam’s previous band, Vampire Weekend, managed to accommodate a range of cultural influences that caused reviews of their first album to frequently – and lazily – tag it as “Graceland for the noughties”. This song sounds like what would have happened if Vampire Weekend had ever tried to record a country song.
- Long Wave – Bonny Doon
I wanted to hate this song for the rubbish band name but it became as slowly and as undeniably positive as a sunrise.
- Spring is Coming soon – Jackie Oates
The best songs are those so simple that they can be mistaken for children’s songs. Discuss.
- River Run: Lvl 1 – the Beths
If Teenage Fanclub were thirty years younger, fronted by a female vocalist and came from New Zealand, then this is what they would sound like. I suspect that my liking for this song partly derives from the fact that it would have been a huge hit in 1996.
- Highland – John Doyle, John McCusker and Mike McGoldrick
I could tell this was a John McCusker track within a few seconds of the opening, just from the rhythm.
- Dancefloor (Ewan Pearson 12” mastermix) – Tracey Thorn
36 years after her first album, there is no room for indulgence on Tracey Thorn’s “Record”. It’s an album that features nine tracks, all with single word titles and similarly distilled lyrics. This remix of the final track allows a little more space, but not much more.
- Autopsy – Fairport Convention
A track from one of my Desert Island disc selection albums. It sounds even better when taken out of context. (Lauren Laverne played a request for an early Fairport track on Radio 6 earlier in the year. Midway, she simply tweeted “Oh Sandy!”.)
- Swerving the Checkatrade – Half Man Half Biscuit
Even after racking my Half Man Half Biscuit fan’s brain, I am left with a strange sense that – after 30-odd years and 14 albums – this might be their first actual love song. Being a Half Man Half Biscuit song, it achieves this with couplets like “I would rather gaze upon your curves/Than watch Ipswich Town reserves”.
- Jungle Jim – Hugh Masekala
I started a tradition a few years ago of including a song on my end of year list as a tribute to artists who died during the year. This is the first of two consecutive tracks to pay tribute in this list.
- Wanted – The Cranberries, Live from the Record Plant, Hollywood
In 1991, aged 14, I bought a cassette version of the first release of the first album from the Cranberries. That’s the version that went to 80-something in the album charts, not the one that got re-released. Being able to claim “I liked them before they were successful” points doesn’t do me much good as everything, aside from a few moments on the second album, went quickly AOR after that. In fact, I can’t think of a band that went from darlings of the NME to enemies of independent music quite as quickly. That first album still stands testament to delicate-as-a-glass-stem early 90s indie (see also: New Wave by the Auteurs) and still reminds me of the thrill of being 14 and finding something this good.
- My Friend the Forest – Nils Frahm
A track that grows almost as slowly and unobtrusively as a tree.
- Don’t delete the Kisses (Jelani Blackman Remix) – Wolf Alice
“Instead I’m typing you a message that I know I’ll never send/Rewriting old excuses, delete the kisses at the end”. Romantic indecision as narrative tension, 2018 style.
- White Copper Alley – Stick in the Wheel
I’m a sucker for a narrative, especially one that manages to conclude with a twist that reframes the entirety of the narrative. In the film Taxi Driver, that took several hours; here, it takes 100 seconds.
- Sisters – Natalie Prass
This track was chosen by the entirely reasonable selection process of seeing which track caused the most embarrassing middle-aged man attempt at dancing and singing in the kitchen when the music was playing.
- Be the man – the Young’uns
There’s not much I can say about this beyond the fact that it’s based on a real story, and “elegiac” is probably the opportune adjective.
- I Was F*cked by a Cloud – ANMLPLNT
The closest reference I could come up with here was Mazzy Star so this comes close to shoegaze but there’s something warmer, almost indefinable, about the sound. (Apologies for the rude words.)
- Kong – Neneh Cherry
This year, Neneh Cherry produced the best album in the “album that could have been by Massive Attack” category.
- Delicate – Taylor Swift, Recorded at the Tracking Room
John Wilson once asked Martin Carthy on Radio 4’s Front Row why he had recorded a version of a Bee Gees song on his most recent album. “Because a good song is a good song” he replied. This is a good song.
- Pay No Mind – Beach House
2018 was the year that Low started to sound like Burial and Beach House started to sound like Low.
- Ship of Fools – John Cale
I discovered this from Ben Watt’s excellent Spin Cycle Spotify playlist. It’s a complex relationship but Swansea is (sort of) my home town. This is the only rock’n’roll song I have ever found that references it.
- Fel I Fod – Adwaith
Spotify’s most streamed Welsh language track of all time? It’s disrespectful to be constantly focusing in on language when the music is this good.
- Utopia – Lykke Li
On the other side of the Scandi-pop coin to Per Gessle, Lykke Li goes out of her way to avoid anything that might possibly be determined “pop”. Her slickly produced album divided critics, but this is a triumphant moment.
- Off to See the Hangman, pt II – Gwenifer Raymond
There might not be any words, but the music makes it reasonably clear that there isn’t a part III.
- Dancing and Fire – Low
See track 43.
- Feel First Life – Jon Hopkins
I started listening to Jon Hopkins for the King Creosote remixes and stayed for the transcendence.
- Lullaby – Ben Caplan
If you’re going to title a song that, you had better come up with the goods. (Thanks to @dasbarrett for the recommend.)
- The Christmas Song (alternative version) – the Raveonettes
In the days when I sent my end of year mixes to friends on actual CDs, rather than as playlists like this, I would always add a Christmas song at the end to wish them a happy Christmas. It doesn’t feel like an end of year mix without something Christmas related at the end, so you’ll have to forgive me if you’re listening several months later.