My 2018 in Songs

Happy new year. As usual, I’ve procrastinated yet again—it’s already a whole week into the new year, and the deadline for this post was so far back as to not even be all that relevant anymore. Everyone’s already come out with their end-of-year lists, and are eagerly focusing now on analyzing the year to come. But time isn’t so easily discarded, and sometimes the things we think we’ve left behind, contained within an arbitrarily-dated year, only show their effects on us a lot later. Sometimes, like wine, some things need to mature with you.

I think the celebration of New Years, and thus the celebration of the idea that there can be “breaks” between one year and the next, that time can be so easily compartmentalised, can be a helpful thing because it gives people the energy to move on from painful experiences, but it is also deeply untrue. I don’t think 2018 (or any of the years that have preceded it) is the past, nor would I want it to be. I want, as Antonio Gramsci has said in his diatribe against New Years, to reckon with myself every day. I want to try, always, to seek out the continual chain of meaning that links every present action and circumstance to its history, thus also allowing us a sturdier ground from which to predict the future.

I had drafted a typical “favourite albums of 2018” listicle like everyone else, but I’ve chosen instead just to focus on specific songs, because I think that’s generally how music works for everyone. Whole albums can impact people, but more often than not we get fixated on specific songs, or even just specific lines of songs, because they speak to all of us differently. Focusing on songs allows me to be a bit more personal, I think. Sometimes you can think an album is just OK, but be really obsessed with a song from it. Sometimes a single line from a single song can inform the way you think for a long time after hearing it.

Anyway. Happy new year. Here is my list of songs (I only chose the ones that were released in 2018, otherwise this post would be much, much longer) that formed the way I thought, and soundtracked moments in my life in 2018. In order of their release throughout the year.

“Famous Prophets (Stars)”

(off Car Seat Headrest’s Twin Fantasy: Face to Face

To write about Twin Fantasy now, after almost a year since its re-release, makes me a little bit sick. It makes me sick, because to remember the album is to remember the person I was when I first heard it, and the places I’ve been while listening to it. Memories are really difficult to live with: in the tedious, fast-paced life that most of us are used to under capitalism, we don’t become attached to memories anymore and instead allow life to pass us by. Sometimes remembering is unbearable, and obstructs you from moving on.

But this album meant a lot to me because it meant a lot to Will Toledo. Through his return to an album he made when he was younger, and when the feelings were much rawer, he showed that self-confrontation can also be a creative process rather than just pain and sadness. The confrontation with one’s past can produce something beautiful and touch the lives of others. This kind of commitment to vulnerability and personal growth, in a music industry in which artists mostly seem to grow more disassociated from their selves over time, means a lot to me. 

“If You Know You Know”

(off Pusha T’s Daytona)

For the forward of the 2006 edition of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Dave Eggers compared Wallace’s book to Sufjan Stevens’ project of writing an album for every state in the United States of America. I’m going to take that one step further and compare Stevens’ project to Kanye West’s exaggerated announcement that he was going to release an album for every week of 2018. So far, Stevens has only got as far as Illinois and Michigan, but West managed to get as far as five weeks out of 52.

The first track of the first album of West’s endeavour came out blaring with loud sirens and a weird voice that just seems to be going, “BA BA BA BA BEE BA BA BA” over and over again. At the time, I had just quit my first job to go travelling for a month, then still full of doubt as to whether that had been the right thing to do, or if I was just being stupid and impulsive as fuck. I was also very anxious during my travels, because it was the first time that I travelled so extensively on my own. Back then, I was someone fresh out of a job, someone who’d quit her job just to travel. I was alone, a lot, but I was also often with people who I knew then I would never see again. I often thought about my privilege to be able to travel, but also of the uncertainty that would be facing me when I came back, and it created this weird thing where I felt like I wasn’t being adventurous enough considering my privilege to be able to travel in the first place, but also guilt at living so recklessly sometimes, because I knew that I would have to return eventually, and confront myself eventually.

The regularity of West’s collaborative releases, which coincided with this same, odd, uneven time of my life, helped to ground me. I spent many long train rides listening to Push’s Daytona, West’s ye, and the Kids See Ghosts album. Anticipating the release that I knew would come at the end of each week also helped me keep time. Five (well, more accurately for me, four) strange weeks out of 52.

Ghost Town” (off Kanye West’s ye)

and “Reborn” (off Kids See Ghost’s Kids See Ghosts

The soft nighttime beat of “Reborn” reminds me of a wind-up lullaby toy I used to have when I was younger. And like a lullaby, this song and “Ghost Town” have been the songs I’ve turned to during times of intense disillusionment this year. 

This year, I’m more than a year graduated from university, after a whole lifetime of following formal schooling straight without any breaks or deviations. This year, I’ve taken risks and made choices that I’m still not sure about. Things seem to be going good, dream-like, but I’m suspicious that my choices have yet to exhaust themselves of their consequences. They may still raise themselves to bite me in the back further down the line. 

In the last verse of “Reborn”, Kid Cudi has a moment of confusion as he asks, “which way do I go?” while in the background his own voice echoes the refrain, keep moving forward, I’m moving forward. The combination of Cudi’s soft, muttering voice with the descending piano key undermines his claims of progress. It sounds more like a song of a lost boy trying to reassure himself that he’s OK, rather than a song from someone who’s really OK. Similarly, I’ve been trying to convince myself that I’ve been reborn through my choices–that I am no longer that lost girl of my late teens, that the years of my early 20s, fresh out of university, are bright and productive, but I can’t quite keep the doubt out of the song either. 

In “Ghost Town”, West similarly slurs the proclamation that, “some day we gon’ set it off,” but follows with the warning, “baby don’t you bet it all, on a pack of Fentanyl.” Fentanyl being the opiod that killed both Prince and Lil Peep. All of his promises of greatness and mental well-being are asterisked with that “some day”. Like with “Reborn”, the whole song sounds more like a song about doubt rather than the successful flaunting of the Kanye we’re used to. Cudi adds his vocals to the song in the plaintive refrain, “I’ve been trying to make you love me, but everything I try just takes you further from me.” 

After his final refrain in the song, it immediately breaks away into 070 Shake’s, “Whoa. Once again I am a child.” That jarring realisation that never fails to sneak one over you, again and again, no matter how old you are and how well you think you’ve “figured it out.” Turns out that doubt is a state you have to live with for the rest of your life. Turns out that your choices do matter, and regret only gets harder the older you get. Turns out that this is true for everyone, even Kanye West, and that I’m not alone in this. Turns out that knowing this only makes things better marginally. 

SICKO MODE

(off Travis Scott’s Astroworld)

Trap music offers a kind of retribution that no other genre of music offers so forcefully or so menacingly. Trap music offers this retribution alongside an attitude of total blaséness that sounds as if it’s not even a big deal, but rather the only logical outcome. 

The start of this year was marked by beef between Pusha T and Drake, and, I guess, Kanye West, who probably just likes to sit back and stoke some fires when he’s bored. So as a response to both Push and Kanye, Drake jumped onto Travis Scott’s song to produce one of the most well-loved and well-banged-out songs of the year, “SICKO MODE”. Many have speculated that Drake’s second verse in the song details his steps through his neighbourhood into the Kardashian-West residence to take his revenge on Kanye by having an affair with Kim.  While an amusing rumour, I don’t really care to speculate on the song’s real-life allusions; I’m more concerned with the very act of detailing one’s revenge in a hit song. Drake literally listed out all his moves down the block, complete with left- and right-turns. 

For all my doubts, this year was also a year of a lot of outwards anger and resentment. Doubt producing the anger at the external world for being so precarious. For making me feel used and screwed over but not allowing me to express that directly at the people who make me feel that way—because I want to keep my job, because of social niceties, or maybe even because they’re just people who are trying to make it just like me and that kind of mutual screwing over is inevitable. “SICKO MODE” is the dream of a revenge that is clean, direct, and, what’s more, something you can dance to after it’s done.

The entirety of Mitski’s Be The Cowboy

and “thank u, next” (Ariana Grande) 

I guess it’s unfair to pick out an entire album by Mitski in a list that’s supposed to be anti-album for the sake of specificity and personalization, but this will be the only exception because her entire album matters. Also… it’s my blog!

Mitski’s album came as a severe warning at a time when that’s the exact and only thing I needed. I feel like she’s staring me directly in the eye and piercing me to the core when I hear her say, “I know no one can save me.” 

This year has been the year that gave us the “big dick energy” meme. People have joked wondering whether their mcm or other male faves have “big dick energy”, but for me, big dick energy is the same energy as Mitski titling her album, “be the cowboy”. A lot of the songs chart a [heterosexual?] woman’s loneliness, but in so doing they also insist that a woman’s loneliness can be her source of strength instead of a sickness. Rather than identifying with the abandoned lover in typical Westerns, left to look longingly at her cowboy’s silhouette disappearing into the burning sunset, the album instead insists on us to identify with the cowboy. The cowboy is a lone ranger, not lonely. 

I haven’t been in love for a long, long time. And it’s not because I haven’t “found the right person”, it’s because I don’t want to. As the fight against the patriarchy and heteronormativity continues, sometimes the most powerful way that a straight woman can cultivate big dick energy is to choose not to fall in love. This goes beyond smilingly telling inquisitive friends and relatives that “I just haven’t found the right guy yet”, but enters the terrain of saying, with a dead serious face, that I’m not interested in anyone except myself. It’s not me, it’s most definitely you. For so long I played the game thinking that happiness and safety could be found in the arms of a man, until Mitski rode into town and told me to be the cowboy I want to see in the world.

Or be the 6’3” guy with the 10” dick you think you’re going to marry. The “big dick energy” meme arose from a joke Ariana Grande made about her ex, but then she pulled out “thank u, next,” proving perhaps that her own big dick energy goes beyond what can be measured by a ruler. This song isn’t exactly on the same wavelength as Mitski’s album, but it still offered to me a more liberating way of speaking about heterosexual relationships than what we’re used to from pop songs. It’s a break-up song with the twist that there’s no bitterness, or false bravado in the face of hurt; instead, “thank u, next” acknowledges that Grande’s past relationships have meant a lot to her, and even bettered her in many ways, but ultimately still insists that she’s choosing herself above everyone else. It manages to be catchy and upbeat but also sagely reasonable. “I love you. I love you, but I’m turning to my verses and my heart is closing like a fist.” (Frank O’Hara.)

“Mo Bamba”

(off Sheck Wes’ Mudboy

Prior to “Mo Bamba”, I hadn’t ever heard of Sheck Wes. It seems these days that trap has one of the fastest cycles of stardom and prominency. Like, has anyone heard from Desiigner lately? But just like Desiigner’s “Panda”, “Mo Bamba” was easily one of the biggest, littiest songs of the year. Just hearing that 20-year-old breakout rapper who already has deals with both Travis Scott and Kanye West, shouting, “Fuck! Shit! Bitch!” makes me feel more confident. Trap seems like one of those machine-produced industries, in the sense that trap artists don’t need to expend much effort to make a hit song and rake in royalties. They can have the stupidest, emptiest lyrics (FUCK! SHIT! BITCH!) with the same style of beats, and end up being played at clubs for a whole year straight. 

There’s something to be said about pushing generic boundaries and experimenting with one’s craft, but there’s also something to be said for following an established tradition but being able to pull it off to a T. In this list, I’ve featured songs that I feel opened up my ears to new creative possibilities, but there’s also nothing quite like a good fucking trap banger. All our endeavours are in the pursuit of giving less fucks, and trap music takes the fastest route there. 

“Nowhere2go” (off Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs)

and “E.Coli” (ft. Earl Sweatshirt, off The Alchemist’s Bread)

Earlier this year, I bought tickets to the annual Field Day festival in London, solely because I thought it would be the only chance I’d get for a long time to watch my favourite rapper, Earl Sweatshirt, perform live. And then he cancelled on the morning of the day itself. I found out while I was peeing in a McDonald’s, yet I wasn’t even surprised, calmly returning to my seat and telling Jesse (who I was attending the festival with), “He cancelled.” 

I was disappointed, but I’d also expected it from a rapper who had teased releases without ever committing to any full-length drop, multiple times, over the past three years since his 2015 album I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside. Earl Sweatshirt has always been kind of elusive, even back in his Odd Future days, but that’s maybe the most appropriate way to be when you reach an intense level of fame when you’re still a kid. 

Earl Sweatshirt came back with “Nowhere2go”, which was finally followed with his third full-length album, Some Rap Songs. He sounds incredibly different, but you probably could have already predicted the path of maturity that he would follow. In the past couple years with the sporadic drops he’s granted us, he’s shown his propensity for collaborations with more unknown, but willingly experimental, producers, such as The Alchemist on “E. coli”. He’s also slowed down his rap flow, preferring to substantialise his words rather than falling back on his reputation as a child prodigy with a quick flow. 

As someone whose rap literacy literally matured alongside Earl Sweatshirt—besides Kanye West, he was probably the rapper who got me into the genre and all its accompanying sub-genres—it makes me happy to be allowed to follow the progress not only of his music, but also of his person. The Earl on “Nowhere2go” is a lot more chilled out and reflective. The impression is of a guy sitting back in his chair and rolling out sage lines without thinking too much about anything, perhaps belying the amount of emotional turmoil, self-reflection, and self-imposed isolation that he must have gone through in the preceding years to finally arrive at this zen-like state. I’m happy for him.

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Published by Ellen Lee

an arts & culture writer based in KL

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