For each of the last four days of 2018, Max is looking at the best music of 2018 through the prism of a different emotional state, placing them within a narrative to acknowledge the necessarily emotional and personal frames through which we interact with music. From anger and restlessness to depression, and finally arriving at a state of peace, we hope you’ll enjoy his exploration of the most electrically barbed and beautifully poignant songs of the past year. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 4.
TW: depression, dissociation.
If only I could feel that same bodily discomfort I felt yesterday. If only I could feel that reckless energy. I’m pressed against the ceiling, looking down at an aching man who is lying still in bed for the third hour since the alarm. His heavy eyes gaze ahead, they close, they try to open but fail. He is me, and I must get him up, but his limbs are distant and heavy, and how can I tell him to move when he is up here with me too?
He sits up, it doesn’t connect. His body lifts, and the movement ripples in the back of my consciousness. He moves through to the desk, but his toe catches on a chair and his face squeezes into pain.
I’m pressed against the ceiling, looking down at an aching man who is lying on the floor, sobbing gently while his foot bleeds.
Low moods attach themselves to myriad feelings: grief, loss, shame, self-hatred, a general feeling of the world being wrong; sometimes, of course, they are simply caused by depression – sadness lacking entirely in reason. 2018, somehow, has been a year full of good music about bad feelings. Despite the countless sad songs that already exist in the world, artists have continued to find new ways of expressing pain and despondency: they have often tackled the very paradox of expressing lethargy in a medium which requires energy.
My list of the best sad songs of 2018 starts with boygenius, the incredible supergroup of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. Each of them has individually made exquisite solo albums (a song from Dacus’ 2018 Historian also made its way onto my playlist, with the album’s 10 uniquely brilliant songs deserving recognition), and when the three work together their music is no less impressive. The six-track, eponymously-titled EP is achingly poignant, and “Souvenir” stands out as an expression of sadness in which every word is right: Baker buys a $20 dreamcatcher because “anything’s worth trying”, Bridgers wonders what living near cemeteries and hospitals tells you about her, and Dacus asks if you hate what is in her head as much as she does, all building to a three-part harmony. As for EP closer “Ketchum, ID”, it builds on the dissociative despair of Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely” and MONEY’s “I’m Not Here” with its chorus of “I am never anywhere / Anywhere I go”.
Everything Everything, meanwhile, released their most vulnerable song to date. With no sharp guitar riffs or concept-album structure to mask despondency, “The Mariana”, from A Deeper Sea, is as its name suggests: deep, dark and depressing, the place where “the devil took me underwater”. For Billie Eilish, this darkness is turned against herself in her single “when the party’s over”, with the stark album art of a crying woman coupling with her lyrics – “I’m no good for you”, “I’ll only hurt you if you let me” – in a style admittedly indebted to Lorde that culminates in a bleakness.
Shame pulled off the tradition of the rock band releasing a downbeat song – think Black Sabbath’s “Changes” or Faith No More covering the Commodores’ “Easy” – yet, when Shame did so, they didn’t depart from their sound. Songs of Praise closer “Angie” haunts in its depiction of a suicide that leaves her partner – the narrator – hopelessly lost and in denial. The song’s unresolved trauma resurfaces for me at every listen – and this is an album I’ve heard forty-odd times. Live shows I’ve attended in June and November this year suggest that they have more songs like this to be released soon, and they’re pulling them off beautifully. Another punk band, Slothrust, focused on an almost opposite emotion in “Walk Away” from The Pact, a less grungy album than their previous (also excellent) efforts. Unlike the narrator of “Angie”, who is tied to his dead lover by his lack of closure, “Walk Away” is about being kept in a relationship where you are “living for someone else”, with this theme of co-dependency explored through sighing lyrics before the song erupts into a Steve Vaiesque solo. Leah Wellbaum, as always fully in control of her guitar, delivers both words and notes perfectly.
Thom Yorke, in Supiria’s soundtrack, conjured up music that’s equally haunting and saddening. On the downbeat piano piece “Suspirium” (meaning “sigh” in latin) just as much as on the Krautrock-inspired “Has Ended”, the atmosphere remains bleak, muted and desolate, yet compulsively listenable. It has left me uncertain as to whether to watch the film, as I don’t want to risk anything being taken away from the soundtrack as I currently experience it.
Thom Yorke’s music as a whole doesn’t feel too distant from the new direction taken by Liars since Aaron Hemphill’s departure before their last two LPs, the most recent being Titles With the Word Fountain. Previous albums featured excellent songs that ranged from noise rock to dance electronica while always remaining strange and experimental. Titles shakes off much of the frenzy of past output with understated lead single “Murdrum”, and the lyric “your stress is farcical” seems directly to address abandoning the anxious drive that characterised their earlier songs. In its place, a genuine sense of wistfulness from Angus Andrew, the only remaining band member, permeates the new record.
Courtney Barnett is the perfect musician to end with, as she not only addresses the lower ends of moods but offers genuine solace within them. “Hopefulessness”, the first track off Tell Me How You Really Feel (by far one of this year’s best albums), slowly builds up in a perfectly enchanting storm of sound, acknowledging “empty bottle blues” while giving reassuring instructions: “Take your broken heart / Turn it into art”, “Just get this one done / Then you can move along”, and perhaps the most important, and the one I’ll end with, “You know it’s okay to have a bad day”.
-- Max Bastow, December 30, 2018