In high-school English class, the coming-of-age stories often dealt with cynics, bad moods and the stereotypical toils of adolescence. The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield saw the world as a pit chock-full of “phonies.” The Outsiders’ Ponyboy found himself swapping youthful bliss for a dangerous gang rivalry, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Charlie was a depressed teenager hell-bent on improving his social status. Things weren’t always looking so hot for our favorite coming-of-age protagonists.
2018 was a different kind of coming-of-age story. People under 25 (women, in particular) made some of the year’s best indie-rock albums—and albums in general—and they did it without using a drop of cliche. A New York City three-piece drew us a road map for maneuvering our 20s, Julia Jacklin’s side-hustle band made being an “Uncomfortable Teenager” sound fun and the women of boygenius showed us what it means to rise to indie-rock celebrity—and transcend those “girl rock” labels. 20-year-old Sophie Allison formed a band called Soccer Mommy and blew us all away with her intensity and talent, and Car Seat Headrest found the humanity in a bunch of “Nervous Young Inhumans.”
These musicians, and others, deftly captured how it feels to be a young, complex person with feelings, desires and dreams. They gave us a lens for viewing the world through a 22-year-old’s eyes, or even an 18-year-old’s. In a year where young people’s voices were especially amplified, whether it be the students from Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High initiating the Never Again movement to rally for common sense gun laws, or first-time voters showing up to the Midterm polls, it feels especially important that so many of the year’s best albums were made by teenagers and early 20-somethings.
One of the best songs of the year is about surviving your 20s. In February, New York City-based trio Sunflower Bean gave us our first taste of 2018’s youth-fueled rock renaissance in the form of a single, “Twentytwo,” which later appeared on their excellent sophomore album Twentytwo in Blue, and then high atop Paste’s ranking of the best songs of the year. “Independent, that’s how you view yourself / Now that you’re twentytwo,” frontwoman Julia Cumming sings in a rush of electric guitar and postcollegiate anxiety. “Twentytwo,” like many of the songs on its namesake record, is not a love song. It’s a life song. It’s a snapshot of life during a very specific and impressionable season, one where the luster of youth begins to fade away as adulthood looms, but hasn’t quite arrived. Like adolescence, young adulthood can be stressful and weird, and Cumming summarizes it—and offers guidance for braving it—more melodiously than your mom or best friend or therapist ever could: “I do not go quietly / Into the night that calls me / Even when I’m alone.”
Read Paste’s 2018 interview with Sunflower Bean
Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan, who released her critically adored debut full-length album this year, is 19. She wrote most of Lush when she was 18, but while listening to standout power tracks like “Pristine” or “Heat Wave,” you’d never know Jordan herself is a sapling. She somehow possesses the emotional maturity of someone twice her age. Where “Heat Wave” does offer some view of Jordan’s teenage tendencies (like idolizing a summer crush: “Woke up in my clothes having dreamt of you”), “Pristine” is laden with universal truths. “Don’t you like me for me?” Jordan desperately asks, summing up perfectly the feeling of navigating a new relationship, of simultaneously wanting to woo a potential beau and wanting to just be accepted for who you are.
But when you’re 18, you really don’t know who you are. Jordan never tries to act like she’s more self-assured or older than she actually is. She sings plainly, plays guitar effortlessly and frames youth honestly. Jordan doesn’t supply rose-colored glasses to her listeners. Instead, she envelopes them in an earnest outline of first love and growing up, which are two occurences perhaps more intertwined than we’d usually care to admit.
Where Snail Mail often proved wise beyond her years, Australia’s Phantastic Ferniture, who we named one of the best new bands of 2018, were comfortable going back in time to relive the distinct pleasures of youth, or as their official band description would have it: “Phantastic Ferniture is the project of old friends Julia Jacklin, Elizabeth Hughes, and Ryan K. Brennan, who wanted to shake the shackles of their meticulously crafted solo work to experience a second, giddy adolescence.” Indeed, the band’s self-titled debut exists almost exclusively during the time between one’s high school graduation and first tax return. The lead-off track, “Uncomfortable Teenager,” is a frank examination of how awful high school can be, as well as a message proclaiming that it does, in fact, get better. “Uncomfortable teenager / Terrible friends / You’ll meet the right ones one day,” Jacklin sings. “Get the fuck out / Move to the city baby / It’ll all work out.” I’m sure we all know a teenager or two who might need to hear those words right about now.
That track is an obvious ode to the trappings of youth, but it’s on songs like “Fuckin ‘n’ Rollin” and the humorously titled “Gap Year” where the salad days appear more attractive. “Fuckin ’n’ Rollin” is a giant party replete with unintelligible lyrics, and “Gap Year” turns a lazy-teenager stereotype into a thoughtful track about waiting for someone and, in turn, moving on. “Bad Timing” is perhaps the most earnest of all, a considerate and not-at-all demeaning tale of things not working out. Phantastic Ferniture may have been after a time machine, but they also produced a study guide for living life in the present, one even those who are well beyond their “uncomfortable” teenage-hoods can glean some insight from.
Read Paste’s list of the Best New Artists of 2018
Another one of the biggest stories in music this year was boygenius, and the supergroup consisting of modern rock heroines Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker has one of the tightest grips on what it means to be young. On “Ketchum, ID,” the kicker from their self-titled EP, the three women sing in unison: “I am never anywhere / Anywhere I go / When I’m home I’m never there / Long enough to know.” To any folks who might be having a hard time remembering what it’s like to be in your 20s, it sometimes feels a little something like that.
So why does it matter that youngsters are crafting some of the best music in rock right now? Other than that obviously being a good thing for the future of the genre, it matters because Millennials are the fastest-growing generation in the country, so this music will come to represent the larger, collective experiences of a massive, influential group of people in the cultural makeup. And if these musicians are the future, I can’t help but feel hopeful. Even if Millennials are cast as the technology-obsessed, careless 20-somethings of Baby Boomers’ nightmares, our music proves we are otherwise concerned: with teaching empathy, making meaningful relationships and instigating change. As we now well know, rock ’n’ roll isn’t dead at all. Standing here in 2018, there’s a whole lifetime of great rock music to look forward to.