What We Listened To This Year: The Official 2018 AMS::ATX Playlist

In the tradition of end-of-year “best of” lists, the UT Department of American Studies made you a playlist of our favorite music of 2018. You’re welcome!

Here, in no particular order, are some of the songs we listened to this year: 

Janelle Monáe and Grimes, “Pynk”

The second collaboration between the two, “Pynk” finds Monáe ruminating about the black, queer, and feminist potential of pynk as a sensibility (amongst other things) over one of Grimes’s most pop-friendly beats to date. Occurring midway through Monáe’s accoladed Dirty Computer, the song is the emotional highpoint in Monáe’s sonically carving out space for a minoritarian future. —Christine Capetola

dirty computer

Mitski, “Washing Machine Heart”

Mistki’s fifth album, Be the Cowboy (2018), is lush and sneaky, full of happy, danceable tunes with less-than happy subject matter. Track twelve, “Washing Machine Heart” is no exception. “Toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart, baby, bang it up inside,” Mitski sings. The song hits on the cruelties of emotional labor, the fact that, for so many women and femmes, getting “banged up” is a requisite component of our romantic relationships. “I’m not wearing my usual lipstick. I thought maybe we would kiss tonight.” The crux of “Washing Machine Heart,” and Be The Cowboy as a whole, is Mitski’s ability to make painful and uniquely gendered experiences widely legible—those who’ve been there feel seen, and those who haven’t see for the first time. It’s a strategy similar to Liz Phair’s on Exile in Guyville (1993), another incisive critique of sexual politics that celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary this year. —Kate Grover

be the cowboy

The Beatles, “Back in the U.S.S.R.”

I was five years old in 1968, when the Beatles released the White Album and the Soviet Union ratcheted up Cold War tensions by invading Czechoslovakia. Of course, I knew nothing about the Prague Spring or why the Soviets wanted to crush it, but I do have vague memories of a weirdly surfer-like tune; it was ever present on the radio, even in my father’s beat-up, rust bucket Chevy Corvair. Only when I really started listening to music, in high school, but especially when I visited a still-shaken Prague as a college student in the early 1980s, did I come to hear “Back in the U.S.S.R.” for the brilliant, playfully ironic song that it is. So, when the 50th anniversary, remixed White Album was released this year, a flood of memories came rushing in. This was something that I wanted to hear and, remarkably, I wasn’t disappointed. The first song on the double LP – and really, all the songs – sounds better than ever. If you want proof, listen to the re-mastered version, and watch the utterly in synch video attached to it. —Steve Hoelscher

the white album

The Mice, “Not Proud of the USA”

The song title is pretty self-explanatory. It’s written from the perspective of a young adult son coming to terms with the American exceptionalism he has been indoctrinated to believe in, responding to his father, who is far less critical of the United States.  It’s a catchy song that addresses generational conflict and patriotism, something still very relevant in 2018. —Brendan Gaughen

for almost ever

Bombino, “Tehigren”

Have you ever listened to Bombino? Bombino is my favorite guitarist alive. Ethnically Tuareg, hailing from Niger, Bombino is the most world-famous exemplar of a desert-blues tradition that Tuareg musicians have been developing over the past three decades. While bands like Tinariwen, arguably the first Tuareg-blues band to breach world-wide audiences, popularized the traditional drone, polyrhythmic beats, and blues-rock licks that characterize the genre, Bombino has added a more reggae-oriented rhythmic approach and Hendrix-like virtuosic guitar playing. Bombino put out his fourth album this year, called Deran. Go listen to his song “Tehigren” from this album. It will give you all sorts of groovy feelings. —Nick Bloom

deran

Zettajoule, “No Thank You”

I have had a deep affinity for electronic music ever since I bought an early synth called a Crumar Orchestrator in the 80s, and so I was super excited to discover Austin’s own Zettajoule and their gloomily danceable “No Thank You,” which has an equally brilliant video. This video is so visually smart and cut to perfection, especially for someone who came of age in the early days of MTV—it really reminds me of videos that I watched back then on 120 Minutes (the alternative late nite MTV show). But it wouldn’t matter if the song’s slightly robotic call-and-response was not so eerily compelling. Sonically and lyrically, this kind of music takes me where I often want to go: the dark(ish) psychic contours of the human-machine nexus. Which is a fancy way of saying it sounds cool. Anyhow, that’s what I think when I hear this wonderful new song, just as I do when I hear older tunes by The Cure, New Order, or very early Depeche Mode. For those who want to ponder such matters even further, I recommend a BBC film called Sythn Britannia, which provides a very intelligent look at The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, Gary Numan etc as well as more underground currents in the electronic realm from 1975-1985. Given that I was up sleepless at 4am watching a mini-doc on Yazoo the other day, I’m guess I’m primed to like a synth duo like Zettajoule. I think you will too. —Randy Lewis

always looking up

Ariana Grande, “thank u, next”

In company with the likes of Lorde and Charli XCX, Ariana Grande melds electronic beats, smooth yet quickly transitioning production, and vulnerable songwriting on this track about letting go of her exes and finding love in herself.  The future of pop music is in songs like this one that push on the boundaries between mainstream and experimental. —Christine Capetola

thank u next

Bowling for Soup, “1985”

Though released in 2004,”1985″ by Bowling for Soup became my go-to jam for 2018. In the first verse of the song, we meet a gal named “Debbie” who laments her current state in life. Whenever I felt myself caving to the pressure of oral exams/grad school, I danced it out and reminded myself I’m here to leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of dreams and, through hard work and sacrifice, I won’t be lamenting an average life like Debbie (though I fully support her nostalgia for Springsteen, MTV, and snakeskin). —Caroline Johnson

a hangover you don't deserve

Natalia LaFourcade, “Nunca Es Suficiente”

Cuanto quisiera que dieramxs nuestros pasos pa’lante acompañadxs siempre del tzun-tzun de la güira y el latido eléctrico del sintetizador. But the discordance blasting from white supremacy’s wack speakers (why is your bass so low tho?) can have us plodding through every damn day, especially those of us interlopers in an institution more interested in studying us, than us studying. ¿Cuántos son los pasos que nos mochamos pa’ caber en cuartos donde reverbera la precariedad? ¿De cuántas de nuestras vueltas se han apropiado?–para que ahora seamos nosotrxs lxs que tengamos que decir “Ay que bonito bailas — me enseñas?” “Nunca es Suficiente” was originally composed as a ballad by Alter-Latino artist Natalia LaFourcade in 2017, but the cumbia sonidera remix by Los Ángeles Azules was poppin on Austin’s (very few) Mexican regional stations in 2018. While the lyrics remain a lamentation over feelings of inadequacy, the new timing and C-major key produce an infectious beat, resisting the trap of weighing one’s own worth with a light two-step and hip sway instead. It is a defiance and celebration that I wish for us all–lovely, always already worthy folks–now, and in 2019. —Christine Castro

cumbia

Slothrust, “Peach”

Slothrust is a weird, awesome lady-fronted alternative band that I started listening to a few years ago, long before I realized that I share a name with the lead singer, Leah Wellbaum. They released their fourth album, The Pact, in September. On it is the tune, “Peach,” which features an incredible nonsensical rhyme between “jack-o-lantern, chupacabra” and “sick menorah, candelabra.” May it serve as creative inspiration for us all. —Leah Butterfield

the pact

John Prine, “Boundless Love”

John Prine has been on my playlists since I was 13, with his big-hearted, not-too-serious songwriting. “Boundless Love” is on his most-recent and 24th album at the age of 72. Prine makes me laugh, and usually reminds me that the everydayness of frying up a pork chop is more important than a lot of other stuff on my plate. Favorite lyric: “Sometimes my old heart is like a washing machine/It bounces around till my soul comes clean.” —Sarah Carlson

tree of forgiveness

Janelle Monáe feat. Zoe Kravitz, “Screwed”

My favorite song from 2018 was Janelle Monáe’s “Screwed,” from her album Dirty Computer. The whole album is great, but “Screwed” stands out, mostly because its apocalyptic lyrics really capture some of the desperation and anxiety that so many of us felt throughout 2018. The song is catchy and fun, and allows for serious catharsis–there’s nothing like singing along to lyrics like “I hear the sirens calling and the bombs are falling in the streets; We’re all screwed!” after yet another day of terrifying news. It’s a great song, and represents 2018 in such an alarming way. Here’s hoping the song that represents 2019 will be slightly less ominous, although it is a credit to Monáe that “Screwed” somehow still makes me feel happy, even in my desperation. —Gaila Sims

dirty computer

Robert DeLong, “Beginning Of The End”

DeLong is an artist I’ve been following for about six or seven years now, a friend of a friend who came up in the alt/electronic scene of Los Angeles. This track, off his latest EP See You In The Future, remains defiantly upbeat in its pessimism. It’s catchy, forthright, and doesn’t manage to wallow in its nihilism. It provides encouragement to dance our way into the devastation we’ve laid out before us, both practically and metaphorically. It’s a welcome departure from the melodrama of top-40 pop hits while still providing something to move to. —Judson Barber

see you in the future

Kelela, Princess Nokia, Junglepussy, CupcakKe, and Ms. Boogie, “LMK_WHAT’S REALLY GOOD_REMIX”

While too many remixes focus on adding or subtracting layers away from a song, this remix of Kelela’s “LMK” creates a new song from a fusion of remnants of the original (the chorus plus a few other snippets) and new verses from four of her friends. Centering black, queer, trans, and female voices on the remix, the song is a sonic advocation for sexual pleasure on their own terms. —Christine Capetola

lmk what's really good

The Fastbacks, “In America”

The Fastbacks were a female-fronted power pop group from Seattle that lasted through all of the 1980s and most of the 1990s.  The lyrics express an internal conflict between wanting to stay in America and wanting to leave.  With all the unprecedented goings-on in politics in 2018, I’m sure many people also have had a “grass is greener elsewhere” thought, not unlike the narrator in this song. —Brendan Gaughen 

play five of their favorites

Lizzo, “Boys”

2018 was a lot and called for some raunchy fun. Leave it to Lizzo, “America’s Next Top Bop Star,” to get us feeling “Good as Hell.” “Boys,” a single on Lizzo’s forthcoming 2019 album, is a punchy tribute to good-looking men in all their forms. It’s tongue-in-cheek objectification: as Lizzo says, “I don’t discriminate.” The music video, NSFW depending on who you ask, pays homage to fellow Twin Cities native Prince and features Lizzo resplendent in leopard print lingerie (and much less). I frequently found myself dancing around to “Boys” in my apartment, as well as pedaling to the beat in my twice-weekly spin class. My instructor never failed to note the song’s prime climbing tempo, adding that the only “boy” he liked was his son. —Kate Grover 

boys

Organ Tapes, “Seedling”

Released at the very tail end of 2017, it would be a shame to disqualify the sparse, autotuned dancehall of Organ Tapes’s “Seedling” from a 2018 playlist on a technicality. I spent the first month of the year riding the 653 Red River Shuttle, now dearly departed, from my apartment to campus, listening to “Seedling” and reading the renaissance historian Ada Palmer’s near future dystopias Too Like The Lightning and Seven Surrenders. Every time I hear it, I’m on that bus, with Palmer’s books in my hands or walking to it with the book under my arm, a little wiggle in my step. The squeaky synthesized beat rises and falls but never falters, even as Organ Tapes layers steel drum and flute samples under it and little vocal exclamations on top, mumbling “That’s ok, that’s ok, I’m still breathing/I’m just counting on the sun like a seedling,” the perfect song for the weird dissonance of new love in the landscape of ongoing catastrophe. —Josh Kopin

into one name

U.S. Girls, “Pearly Gates”

The funky highlight from U.S. Girls’ most recent release In A Poem Unlimited, this song uses the metaphor of a deceased lady being propositioned by St. Peter at the gates of heaven as a means of reflecting on the ways that powerful men sexually and otherwise take advantage of women. Through making the song a dance track, U.S. Girls make a statement about the quotidian nature of these abuses of power—and also about the ways that collectivity (those harmonies in the chorus, tho) is our way out. —Christine Capetola

in a poem unlimited

Kanye West feat. 070 Shake, John Legend, and Kid Cudi, “Ghost Town”

070 Shake croons “and nothing hurts anymore, I feel kind of free” in the outro to “Ghost Town,” adding ominous layers to the seemingly uplifting, soulful track that may well be the star of Kanye’s 2018 album Ye. At just under 24 minutes, every moment of the album counts—but Ghost Town has an unsettling quality that encapsulates the complicated emotions and events of 2018 (for Kanye and the rest of us). The simultaneously haunting and uplifting sounds of classic soul and R&B characterize Ye, and “Ghost Town” does so excellently with its core hook—a sample from the 1960s Chicano soul band the Royal Jesters version of “Take Me for a Little While,” re-sung by Kid Cudi. “Ghost Town” expresses the radical political fervor of 2018 alongside the sense of doom and hopeless that has in many ways characterized the Trump era. It is a song about a better future, a time of better feelings, a transformative moment—and one that may only be possible through death. It harkens totems of innocence, the desire for an impossible regression, and the sense that we have nothing to lose in trying to recreate those things. —Zoya Brumberg

ye

Lightning Bolt, “Dracula Mountain”

This is an older track, but one that has been among my most frequently played in 2018. It’s been a favorite of mine since it was released on Lightning Bolt’s 2003 LP Wonderful Rainbow. The band, a post-hardcore noise rock duo consisting of a drummer and a bassist—both named Brian—from Providence, Rhode Island, is characterized by their rhythmically chaotic style. This track exemplifies that style and manages to be fun, playful, confrontational, overwhelming, yet somehow soothing in its pulsing bass notes and erratic tempo. 2018 has felt a lot like this song. It’s been noisy, at times frightening, and sometimes in need of a sudden key change. This track in particular, in it’s second half, has provided the energy necessary to finish this marathon of a year. —Judson Barber

wonderful rainbow

Grimes, “We Appreciate Power”

Returning for her first new song since 2015, Grimes wastes no time with her latest take on pop music: grinding metal guitars coupled with pop hooks and lyrics musing over a future where humans and robots must co-exist with one another in the name of survival. I can’t wait to hear what else Grimes has in store for helping us navigate the current political moment. —Christine Capetola

we appreciate power

Janelle Monáe, “Make Me Feel”

Why yes, we will have three Janelle Monáe songs on this list! 2018 was the year of Dirty Computer and “Make Me Feel” was its clarion call: fun, unapologetic, and a certified bop. It’s also became the unofficial “bisexual anthem” after Monáe released the accompanying music video and opened up about her pansexuality to Rolling Stone. There are a lot of reasons I love “Make Me Feel,” but the joyful representation of queer sexuality in the music video had me mesmerized. It’s not often you see bi and pan folks so celebrated. Thanks, Janelle, from all the dirty computers. —Kate Grover

dirty computer

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