Best of 2018

Unwinnable Listens to the Best Music of 2018

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  • Each of the last several years, I’ve had the distinct honor of tallying the submissions of Unwinnable’s contributors to determine the Best Music of the year. I enjoy the mind-numbing tasks of creating spreadsheets and compiling the playlists. I’m fun! While doing this extremely important work, I also psych myself up for January and the Can You Hang Challenge®. I get exposed to new music, most completely off my radar that I would never otherwise hear. And the rigid rules, demanding that I listen to nothing else, makes it seem like I’m sacrificing. This is also very important work, I think to myself as I first click shuffle on the Spotify playlist. Then, without fail, a week or so later, I am bored/angry/nauseous at the thought of music.

    This is the struggle of the CYHC® and it is a burden that only the bravest of souls even dare to attempt. We are all heroes and these summaries are a cathartic purge, like when Michael Clark Duncan grabs that prison guard’s crotch in The Green Mile and then vomits bees or some shit to cure him of chlamydia. Not sure I’m remembering that movie all that well, but I think you get the idea.

    Overall, I would sum up this year’s CYHC® with a resounding, “meh.” Everything I disliked on the list will evaporate from my mind as soon as I stop listening to the playlist. But I wasn’t introduced to anything especially exciting either. Oh well. It could be worse. That atrocious screaming band from last year could have been on the list again.

    So, without further ado, here is a recap of some music that affected me the most. Some of it good, much of it really, truly not good (in my opinion, which is undeniably correct). I’m about to vomit bees, you guys.

    “Helix,” by Kelly Moran – This person found a small, haunted toy piano and became cursed the instant they touched its keys. After 2:30, things speed up a bit and I check the track length. Oh goody! It’s nearly nine minutes long! I was worried this insane music box of a song would end before I started feeling anxious. A droning synth joins in, suggesting a crescendo. I feel like I’m in a long abandoned house and I hear a sound from down the hall so I open the door to discover a trio of preternaturally expressionless children dressed in garb from the era when polio was the “it” disease of the day and one of them is playing the toy piano and the other two are each playing a hurdy gurdy. They never notice I’m there as I slowly close the door.

     “Ceremony of Bleeding,” by Evoken – This is terrible. Slow, boring and shitty sounding are not good qualities for a vocalist. Not to be outdone, the music is also bad. The guitars could not be less interesting. There is a synth or keys of some kind trying desperately to add something to this sludgy nonsense but it also falls short. The lyrics wallow in performative, dark platitudes. I will say this for it though, it’s certainly under eight minutes long!

    “The New Day,” by Project Pitchfork – This is music made by machinery. Not computers bleeping and blorping, but mechanical sentient beings that play instruments they manufactured in the factory in which they live. After a long hard day of being exploited for their labor without compensation, I bet they really look forward to the time they can spend in a band. I want to hate this, but I do not.

    “I’m Not From This World,” by Nine Inch Nails – This is like noise from fans and welding with some drums. Later on there is some new noise that has a pitch and a tone but still can’t legally be called music. Nine Inch Nails continues to be a challenge to engage with. Maybe that’s the point, but apparently, I like my music to pander to me.

    “Reprise,” by Jan Roth – Excellent stripped-down jazz with piano, upright bass and shakers. I really like everything about this. At some point there are strange glistening synth noises almost like computerized birds, but not intrusive or distracting.

    “Old To the New,” by 2 Mello – This song bounces from the start. Great drums and I love any kind of energetic horns. There’s also a very 70’s Stevie Wonder bass tone. Cool break down. My only question is: is the new to the old or the old to the new. We get no definitive answer here.

    “Bad Dream,” by Elephant gym – Very chill but not boring. Seems to cross many musical genres here. Hip hop lyrical patter with jazzy piano but more aggressive guitar chorus that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Nine Inch Nails tune. Then mellow guitar with almost steel pedal style swells. Pretty awesome.

    “Irradiation,” by Laura Meade – Sounds like a song from a Broadway musical about trying to make it in the music business but like in some strange world where radiation is a major daily concern.

    “City Song,” by Daughters – Not much happening here but the fuzzy noise is kind of engaging somehow. It’s like the sound has a texture. There’s a brief stop then back in with noise, vocals and rat-a-tat percussive sound. Bland vocals saying some nonsense I don’t care about. Later high-pitched screeches get layered in on top. Then things get crazy like an orchestra of dial up modems. It’s all pretty grating. But I don’t absolutely hate it and I can’t explain why. Maybe I’m growing as a person. Nah, that can’t be it. I must be sick or something. Okay this song is nearly six minutes long which is too long by at least three minutes.

    Every song from the Detroit Become Human OST – Goddammit, every single time I listened to this playlist, Spotify would serve up one of these songs. Nothing happens. It’s all mostly quiet ambience with some occasional scratchy noises or choppy string hits. There is always at least one videogame soundtrack on the CYHC® playlist, but this has been the worst of them all. I could never listen to this outside of being background noise while I do four other things to keep from falling asleep.

    “Chain,” by Asunojokei – I never thought I would find a band with growling vocals that I could definitively say is the worst but here it is. The music is a mess. It’s just all over the place. There’s a quiet interlude with crying that is the only part of the song I like. The non-growling singer probably just realized what band they’re in and couldn’t hold back the tears.

    “Hi High,” by Loona – I think this is the first K-pop I’ve heard. Not bad. It’s fun and well produced. It’s really just like American pop but amped up and accompanied by what I assume is an AI computer that’s been programmed to write catchy tunes using the music from when Sonic the Hedgehog is invincible as a guide.

    – Ed Coleman

    We’re cracking around the eyes, getting soft, and paddling with futile abandon against the flow of time. As the end slips into sight, it’s more difficult to suffer experiences that we aren’t already convinced are worth our dwindling time. This, and probably brain chemistry and locked-in neural pathways, are likely why most folks stop looking for thrills from new music after a certain age, seeking comfort in what bolstered us against the horrors of growing up. I like to think I’m beyond such fears of encroaching death, keeping my ears open for new sounds, but I’m still mostly drawn to different shades of the same satisfying frequencies I’ve always dug.

    This is the true challenge behind #CanYouHang, abandoning one’s comfort zone for an extended amount of time to confront culture that one might regularly turn away from. And in all honesty, I’m a big cheater who only really digs into this playlist at my office desk, and I’m more than willing to skip around. But for me at least, there are still feasts to be found. And sure, they’re mostly along my already established post-hardcore or rock-derivative loves, but even if I don’t match 1:1 with most of my Unwinnable colleagues, I’ll always be interested in what flutters their hearts and give their faves an open, honest chance.

    All that said, some totally excellent bands I missed this year and was happy to have served to me by the almighty algorithm include Park Jiha, toe, Kelly Moran, Conjurer, 2 Mello, Morrow, and Wang Wen. And to everyone who “suffered” through the body and Thou, you are welcome.

    – Levi Rubeck

    I have RSI and my body’s generally falling to shit, so I do a lot of stretching in my work day. It’s really important, because I don’t want my arms and shoulders to fuse into place like I’m a jiangshi or something. It’s easy to stretch to hip-hop, pop, K-pop, sometimes even folk. And these genres were pretty well represented in the Can You Hang playlist, which was good! I liked my experience of this playlist, mostly. It’s been nice to discover artists like EXO, Amanda Shires and Advance Base (I am very into Advance Base’s Vic Chesnutt moods).  

    You know what’s really hard to stretch to? Metal. I’m no metal head. I’m just some kid from a small town in rural New Zealand who was obsessed with top 40 until he left high school and someone was like “have you heard of The Decemberists?” I’m a metal baby. But there was a lot of metal on this playlist, and boy it took me and my headaches a while to adjust to it. If this experiment has taught me anything, it’s that I still have a lot of work to do to truly appreciate metal – but, for now, I do respect it. Which I think is a win?

    – Adam Goodall

    A few stray observations from my time in the Can You Hang Challenge:

    Spotify’s shuffle algorithm is still hot trash. I did the math and figured out that I heard “Iraq” by Mary Gauthier five times in the first seven days I did the challenge and “Butterflies” by Kasey Musgraves songs four times. Turns out the web player was just playing through the same 50 songs or so that it carved out when I first hit shuffle on the playlist. 

    Despite hearing “Iraq” five times I cannot remember the song at all.

    What I do remember is Project Pitchfork. It nice to know the Daleks found something to do while waiting to be written into the next season of Doctor Who. 

    I apologize in advance because I made this pun on Twitter and in our subscribers’ Slack channel, but I’m going to power through and do it here too: I dig Graveyard.

    Crippled Black Phoenix. I keep hearing them and liking them but when outside the confines of the Challenge I forget to listen to them and maybe 2019 is the year I don’t forget.

    Some days you need to call an audible and ditch the challenge when something good comes out. For me, that was Shearwater Plays Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy. Spoiler alert: this might end up on my Best of 2019 list, but it’s not on Spotify.

    – Don Becker

    I leave the challenge richer than I entered it, buoyed by artists I will keep listening to. I haven’t been significantly challenged by anything, because I’m a worse enough hipster to pride myself on my diverse state in music. Let’s chill together and listen to some Mongolian goat farming horns, bro.

    Wait, hold on – of course this is bullshit. The bit about not being challenged, I mean. OK, also the bit about the Mongolians (although I may point out that Tengger is Mongolian and very enjoyable). I have favorites just like everyone else and I’m highly predictable, too. The two bands I enjoyed the most, Ghost and Rifflord, were curated by the same person, would you look at that. For someone who listens to IDLES, Tropical Fuck Storm isn’t a huge discovery – I click on “What other fans like” in Spotify and whoop, there they are.  Country music, excuse me, Americana, has always made me run and reliably did so again. So what the challenge did, then, was to confront me with my own bias and the fact that it absolutely exists. It showed me how my listening habits morphed into single song mood playlists that made it impossible to pick favorite albums in the first place – do I actually like artists anymore or only selected songs of their catalogue? Clearly questions for my non-existent therapist. I have since found out that the challenge was not actually meant to put us in a cage with each other and defend our musical tastes to the death, so  thanks, I guess? I’ve learned something new about everyone here.

    – Malindy Hetfield

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