Friends, robots, Kardashians, lend me your ears. Remember the days when you didn’t rely on a streaming algorithm to turn you onto new music? That’s right, back when your parents, older siblings, radio DJs, record store clerks, opinionated friends, underpaid magazine writers, and niche bloggers used to fill this role? Well, it’s time to bring back those jobs!
Make America a Mixtape Again
Before we begin, here’s that Arianna Grande video referenced in the headline (no bait and switch here):
‘Thank you, next’ will surely be the biggest song of the year — it’s charming for sure and the chorus will surely make it a breakup anthem for the ages, but the only reason it is THIS big is because of Grande’s celebrity, allowing fans to devour and gossip about the disses to her exes laid out in the verses and video. It’s really nothing more than another episode in her real-life reality TV series.
Beyond the phenomenon of this moment, 2018 delivered hundreds of amazing singles across every genre. To open your eyes and expand your ears beyond what you’ll see in Entertainment Weekly, I weeded through thousands of good tracks to whittle down this list — some were promos, but most I bought on CD, vinyl or at least digital download. Have a go. Stream em if that’s your jam; but if you really want to put more than $0.00000002 cents in any of these artists’ pockets, buy these tracks or go see em live in concert.
#1: Dominique Pruitt ‘High in the Valley’
Popdose last spotlighted Dominique Pruitt in (gasp) 2012, when she burst onto the scene with the new millennium Patsy Cline singalong, ‘To Win Your Love‘. The world appeared to have been hers for the taking — but her stellar debut album never materialized (beyond some promos that made the rounds) and suddenly we find ourselves here six years later, not with an album (yet) but with one new song. Well, the wait was suddenly worth it, straight from the opening line, “Closest that I’ve ever been to God is a Bible on a nightstand at an old roadside motel.” Pruitt delivers a gem straight outta Marty McFly’s 1950’s Hill Valley, with detours through the tattered maps connecting John Waters and Quentin Tarantino soundtracks.
Pruitt tells Popdose that the song recalls her 18th through 20th years, passing the the time with her sister in Conoga Park, getting high with a little help from her friends. She co-wrote it with Jasmine Ash, Joseph Holiday and Kenny Fleetwood. Holiday produced, with an ace ensemble backing Pruitt up: Travis Daggett (Guitar), Kevin Conroy (drums), John Schreffler (pedal steel) and Zach Kibbee (bass). This stellar band is primed and ready to play Grand Ole Opry — or Hollywood’s Hotel Cafe — and if nothing else, some smoke filled bar along Ventura Boulevard in the Valley.
#2 Volk • ‘Honey Bee’
Gird your loins my friends for nothing can possibly prepare you for the awesome sonic ear hole sandblasting this track will throttle into your brain cave. Nashville-based Volk follows in the footsteps of Local H, the White Stripes and the Black Keys in terms of duos that could level a stadium without auxiliary touring musicians. Eleot Reich’s lead vocals scorch the rafters while she flat out pummels the drum kit — Phil Collins and that dude who sang ‘Sister Christian’ attempted the same feat, but with much mellower songs (and none rocked bedazzled eyelids and a glitter dress the way she does). Chris Lowe’s guitar unleashes a tornado of Reverend Horton Heat, Nashville Pussy, Jack White, Nick Zinner and Nuno Bettencourt style riffs (sometimes all at once) as he burns the song’s bridge with a deliriously deranged preacher rant. Average American Band (out now on Romanus Records) is their second EP, following Boutique Western Swing Compositions that they recorded totally old school in Berlin (watch a mini doc here) after being inspired by Dave Grohl’s Sound City documentary.
#3: Joan Jett and the Blackhearts • ‘Fresh Start’
A Star is Born might be cinema’s finest fictional romance of the year, but the award for best real life love story caught on film goes to rock icon Joan Jett and producer Kenny Laguna, as it is told in Kevin Kerslake’s celebrated documentary, Bad Reputation (now available on VOD). If you think you know everything about Jett’s dramatic career after seeing Kristen Stewart’s Runaways biopic, think again. If you’ve ever been knocked down and can’t seem to find the strength to get up again, look no further. Should the rollercoaster of Jett’s rise and fall and return to the top of the charts not move you, her music surely will. As for the new single, ‘Fresh Start’, Jett proves she still has monster hits in her heart and a blazing fire in her soul. The Bad Reputation official soundtrack contains the single and a crash course in Jett set living.
#4: Ashley Delima • ‘Stay in America’
Popdose profiled Ashley Delima earlier this year with a song that is STILL just as urgent and visceral as it was months ago when we still cared about family separation at the border. Yes, that feels like 36 years ago in the Trump news cycle, but the song, ‘Stay in America’, is worthy of a fresh listen. Now with her eyes set on worldwide pop domination, Delima’s latest single, ‘Cigarette‘(which is against toxic relationships and not pro smoking), features a seductive beat and a tight guest rap by $tandard. Connect with Ashley Delima on facebook.
#5: Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers • ‘I Hate Chicago’
When the Against Me! singer approached Chicago’s alt-country power label Bloodshot Records about releasing a side project, one would imagine it would be in the vein of current and former stablemates Robbie Fulks, Neko Case, or Lydia Loveless — well, think again my friends. Bought to Rot returns Grace to her abrasive punk roots, her most visceral since Reinventing Axl Rose, while building upon the ridiculously addictive songwriting she’s perfected ever since (New Wave, White Crosses and Transgender Dysphoria Blues all topped my Best Albums lists in their respective years). ‘I Hate Chicago’ will now forever hold a place on my Breakup Tunes Playlist, giving all the weepy ballads a swift kick in the caboose right when it’s time to get over it and move forward.
#6: The Ocean Blue • ‘Therein Lies The Problem With My Life’
HOLY CRAP — has it already been SIX years since The Ocean Blue returned from a long hiatus with one of their best-ever albums, Ultramarine? Like Against Me!, this band released some of the most essential records in my life on Sire Records before setting out on their own. Thankfully, they’ve at least eeeped out a few tracks as b-sides and Korda Kompilation contributions since then; here’s hoping we don’t need to wait another six years for the next album. This song doesn’t stray too far from their shimmering guitar, dreamy vocal formula because why mess with perfection? Speaking of perfection AND Sire Records…
#7: Cait Brennan • ‘Just an Old Fashioned Love Song’
Arizona power pop goddess Cait Brennan came thiiiiiis close to signing with Sire founder Seymour Stein before fate took her career in another direction. Brennan once topped my best albums list with her self-released classic, Debutante, before signing to Omnivore Recordings to release her second album, Third. The way I first described her sound remains one of my all-time descriptions of any recording artist: “Imagine David Bowie fronting the Beach Boys, covering Cheap Trick and Babys songs with producer Jeff Lynne.”
While I pine relentlessly for her actual third album, she’s been keeping me satiated with a steady stream of singles. ‘Miss Valentine’ anchored the third disc on Omnivore’s massive International Pop Overthrow Volume 21 release earlier this year. She also contributed ‘Home‘ to producer Fernando Perdomo’s guest-studded compilation Fernando Perdomo Has Lost His Voice. And now, she delivers another chestnut on the rising star studded Paul Williams tribute album, White Lace and Promises: The Songs of Paul Williams (out December 7). Now, speaking of Caits I adore…
#8: Cait • Stay Out
My other favorite Cait (with all apologies to the other Ms. Jenner), is a singer/songwriter/fashion icon who has been steadily releasing killer pop tracks with producer Brian Phillips for the past year or so. ‘Stay Out’, co-written with Phillips and Devin D’Amato, is a slinky breakup jam.
“Essentially, this song is about being rejected,” Cait tells Popdose. “True story: Many years ago, I told one of my best friends that I had feelings for him, and he did not feel the same way (gut punch). I originally wrote a sad victim-y ballad called ‘Stay Out’ that sat on the shelf for years. I revisited the song last year, and realized I wanted to rewrite it with a stronger and more confident tone. Now, it takes on new life as a song for anyone to jam out to after a break-up or rejection that isn’t going to make them sadder – but feel empowered.”
‘Stay Out’ just came out a few weeks ago and Cait’s already followed it up with her first holiday single, ‘Run Away For Christmas‘.
Now, with such a common moniker, you need some stealth sleuthing skills to find Cait on a Google or Amazon search, unless you also know the names of her songs. Start with these two, continue with her sultry update of No Doubt’s ‘Just a Girl’, and then deep dive into the rest. Why get lost? Connect with Cait on facebook.
And speaking of HARD TO FIND artists…
#9: Cat Pierce • ‘Sometimes You Lose’
Cat — aka Catherine Pierce and NOT the person “we need you to rap” on Prince’s ‘Alphabet Street’ — has been steadily releasing adventurous singles under her full and abbreviated names since her harmonic sister act, The Pierces, went on hiatus. While her sister Allison went the mainstream country route on her solo outing, Year of the Rabbit, Cat keeps taking the bold, romantic, mysterious, and entrancing chances that landed The Pierces’ fourth album, You & I, atop my best albums list in 2011. Cat sings straight from a David Lynch fever dream and remains a woman of mystery despite my obsessive fandom these past 10 years. And speaking of women of mystery…
#10: Alana Sweetwater • Gotta Get Up
Another Popdose blast from the past is Alana Sweetwater of Los Angeles. We spotlighted her single, ‘Love More Than Anything‘, back in 2013 when she was fronting a band, Sweetwater and the Satisfaction, and rocking a delicious mix of Amy Winehouse, Joan Jett, and No Doubt. In the years that passed, Sweetwater took a creative sojourn to Nashville where she booked some time to record at RCA Studio A. At the time, Ben Folds was in the midst of saving the Music Row institution by getting it listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Those introspective sessions were the foundation of what eventually became Sweetwater’s 6th album, Compass, recorded upon her return to Los Angeles. She also found time to open for The Push Stars on tour before reinventing herself once again as a solo artist and a composer for film and television projects.
Songs throughout Sweetwater’s career have helped her deal with the rollercoaster of life. While the size of her live venues will surely grow, as will the stream counts on her songs, Sweetwater has also tapped the power of music in performances few will see and in songs few may hear. She’s the founder of Sweetwater Soul Sessions, a songwriting workshop that helps people with addiction or trauma to work through their feelings by composing (weekend #1) and recording (weekend #2) their own song under the guidance of industry professionals. Journaling, sharing, and collaborating are all part of the therapeutic process, usually done on location at the treatment facility. The recipients walk away with a fully produced song they can share with the world or simply hold close to their heart.
For 2019, Sweetwater has a small batch of new tunes on the way with hopes of dropping a new album. She kicks off the year with a gig at Hollywood landmark Hotel Cafe.
#11: Holden Laurence • ‘Indian Summer’
Cleveland’s Holden Laurence has landed on my year-end Best Albums list both as a solo artist and as a guitarist for The Modern Electric. In a perfect world, both acts would be on the precipice of international success. While a leap from the Beachland Ballroom (where they share the bill for this year’s Northcoast Christmas concert on December 23rd) to Wembley might be a stretch, Europe is much more open to their brand of well produced, emotive, cinematic, alternative pop. Look no further than kindred spirits, James, that released one of their best and biggest albums in 2018 (Living in Extraordinary Times). If you’re a fan of James or the aforementioned The Ocean Blue, or have albums by Pulp, The Wild Swans, Echo & The Bunnymen, New Order, or The Smiths tucked away in your collection, then Laurence’s solo album and the two platters by The Modern Electric are just what you’ve been looking for. Laurence’s ‘Indian Summer’ is an epically melodic solo single to tide us over between last year’s spellbinding Wild Empty Promises and a new album that could hit the market in 2019.
But before we enter 2019, let’s go back (gasp) 20 years…
#12: Charli XCX & Troye Sivan • ‘1999’
It’s been a lifetime since Charli XCX released True Romance, one of the best dark wave dance pop albums of all time (way more Siouxsie and Goldfrapp leaning than her current work). Around that same time, she delivered worldwide smashes for Icona Pop (‘I Love It’) and Iggy Azalea (‘Fancy’). While her sophomore album, Sucker, didn’t ride the momentum, XCX has been delivering a metric ton of delicious singles ever since. In today’s digital and streaming age, that likely makes the most sense from a promotion and profit perspective. Whereas Prince’s 1982 classic, ‘1999’, looked forward to what will be, Charli XCXs ‘1999’ (no relation) looks back on what was. It sends up all the pop culture milestones of the year and beat Arianna Grande’s very similar ‘thank you, next’ video to the punch by several months (co-singer Troye Sivan appears in both clips). Charli’s video comes out on top by a mile by being 100% free of cameos by Kris Jenner. Now what could possibly be better than either of these videos? Perhaps…
#13: Carly Rae Jepsen • ‘Party For One’
If he or she or they never called you maybe, then it’s time to take matters into your own hands. Jepsen never fails to drop huge, freaking, earworm hits every time she steps to the plate, and this latest single certainly hits it out of the park. It’s perhaps the best ode to self love since ‘I Touch Myself’ by Divinyls, Billy Idol’s ‘Dancing With Myself’, or ‘Fingers’ by P!nk. The video wraps an entire sleazy hotel anthology series into a single 3-minute clip, complete with the big (emotional) release at the end. And speaking of bodies and souls…
14: Teddy <3 • Body and Soul
Am I the only person here who fondly remembers Love Monkey, the short-lived CBS drama starring Tom Cavanagh (Ed, The Flash), Jason Priestly, Judy Greer and surprisingly hip list of music biz cameos (see em all on IMDB). From what I recall, Teddy Geiger played the potential pop star that could save Cavanagh’s struggling record label (This is 40 pretty much turned this concept into a movie, with Graham Parker taking over the Geiger role). Geiger went on to pen some pretty freaking big pop hits for herself and other artists while slowly coming to terms with her gender and re-emerging on the scene as her true, beautiful self. Teddy <3’s debut single is a down and dirty rock and roll booty shaker that might jar some of her mainstream pop fans but it’s about time we salute those who are about to rock.
Speaking of rock stars, let’s listen to one of my favorites make some sweet, sweet jazz…
15 • Jeff Goldblum Featuring Haley Reinhart • ‘My Baby Cares Just For Me’
If you can suffer through Jeff Goldblum’s relentless mugging, then Haley Reinhart’s two appearances on his album with the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra (which is more of a combo than an orchestra) are quite charming. Reinhart has been having a stellar 2018, soaring along one of the most exciting, prolific, and constantly surprising careers of any American Idol alum. In addition to these jazzy outings, she’s released two sweetheart non-album solo singles, ‘Last Kiss Goodbye‘ and ‘Don’t Know How To Love You’ and a pop banger, ‘Something Strange‘ with Vicetone. In recent years, she’s been a session ringer for stacks of acts, including Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox (steampunk covers of just about every mega-hit of the past 20 years), Big Easy legends Irvin Mayfield and Kermit Ruffins (including a surprisingly not awful version of ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’), and several tracks with affable fellow Idol, Casey Abrams.
Speaking of Idols, two more make our hit list below…
16: Blake Lewis • So Alive
I’ll be honest, I did not care much for Lewis’s human beat box schtick on American Idol, but my former wife LOVED it. The futuristic 8th grade class photo cover art for his debut album, 2007’s Audio Day Dream (A.D.D.), is among the cheesiest of all time, but then his music hit me and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. ‘Heartbreak on Vinyl‘, the title track of his second album is a love song and elegy for independent record stores. Every song that has followed has taken adventurous twists and turns, buffered by cameos with Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox as well. Blake’s latest, Our Fragile Heart: Remixes & Rarities, collects some remixes of past hits, along with two new songs. ‘So Alive’ bears no relation to the mega Love & Rockets hit from the 80s, but it still sounds like a bonafide dance floor jam from the era. It’s fresh off the boat, so I can’t find an embed, but it’s easily tracked down on Spotify. Now, to complete our lost Idols trilogy…
17. Halo Circus • ‘Commander’
Rocker David Cook went further, winning Season 7, and Daughtry went bigger, scoring platinum hits, but the best rock album from an American Idol finalist goes to Just Like You by Season 8’s Allison Iraheta. Despite scoring a plum 70+ city opening slot for Adam Lambert (who also lost that season to Kris Allen, finishing 2nd to Iraheta’s 4th), the album never truly enjoyed sales worthy of its greatness. Instead of slinking into obscurity (or off Broadway shows), Iraheta formed a band, Halo Circus, and built a loyal following on social media before heading out on tour to cities where fans proved the demand was there. Their debut album, Bunny, featured tracks co-authored with none other than Paul Williams (how’s that for a callback, see Cait Brennan above) and John Taylor of Duran Duran. Popdose hosted the world premiere of their ‘Nothing at All‘ video and the album landed high on my year end list. Just when you think you’ve got her pegged, Iraheta reinvents herself again, pairing down the act to just herself and bassist/keyboardist turned husband Matthew Hager. Robots and Wranglers was launched with ‘Narcissist’ a ferocious techno dance track that spits out like ‘Hollaback Girl’ on Red Bull; its perhaps the perfect theme song for the Trump era.
The album, one of this year’s best, takes exciting twists and turns at every moment — returning to our Top 18 List, ‘Commander’, a deep album cut, is one of Robots and Wranglers‘ emotional anchors. Now speaking of the year’s best albums…
18. Dua Lipa (Featuring Silk City) • ‘Electricity’
When I named Dua Lipa’s self titled album as my #1 title for 2017, the most common reaction was, “Who the hell is Dua Lipa???” Well, that question was certainly answered in 2018 while her tour played festivals around the world, she cleaned up at just about every award show she attended while her singles shattered streaming records on YouTube (one billion views of ‘New Rules’ alone) and Spotify. As her 2-year long album cycle drew to a close this fall, she expanded and re-released her album as the 2CD Dua Lipa Complete Edition (available this week for only $10 on Amazon), collecting some one-off singles with Calvin Harris and the Mark Ronson/Diplo project, Silk City. The bonus disc alone will likely rank near the top of this year’s best albums list, and in terms of total plays on my own stereo, the complete set just might repeat at #1 for 2018.
And finally, since it is the year 2018, why not blow this 18 song list out to an even 20 with two of the years biggest tracks that need no explanation:
Coming next week — yet another list of the Top Albums of 2018.