The 15 best Filipino songs of 2018

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In a year literally littered with so much schmaltz and hugot, these top-tier jams gave us something to hope for.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Hugot easily emerged as the most prevalent trend in music this year. It is currently the toast of the streaming era, riding on a data-backed formula that dominated this generation's pop culture conversation.

Countless songs that fall under its aesthetic appeal have managed to rack up huge numbers on streaming platforms such as Spotify and Youtube, making it easy for major playlists to add them on heavy rotation. It's everywhere, from movie soundtracks to brand campaigns; big concert venues, to local music festivals.

Soon enough, major labels have struck gold with this phenomenon that continues to saturate the attention economy. Former Pinoy Big Brother teen star Juan Karlos Labajo found the perfect opportunity to rebrand himself as an indie crossover heartthrob, with a song called “Buwan” reigning supreme on the charts. December Avenue, Janine Tenoso, and Moira Dela Torre had a massive year thanks to their cloyingly sentimental take on pop ballads. Even in the smallest venues that are known to cater to indie and niche markets, artists known for their hugot songs are the ones getting top priority in bookings.

Outside of where hugot stands now, it's virtually impossible to ignore other developments in local music that deserve attention. Former IV of Spades vocalist Unique released a compelling debut album that veers away from the dominant sounds of our time. Homegrown hip-hop music maintained its omnipresent influence with a diverse selection of anthems ranging from the personal to the political.

There's also Sarah Geronimo defying the rule book with her remarkable staying power, Jason Dhakal and Jess Connelly making waves with their exciting take on modern R&B, and Mellow Fellow playing sold-out shows outside the Philippines. I could go on and on about the state of Philippine music industry in 2018, and keep track of the dominant themes that worked its way to ubiquity. But this year, I want to honor the songs that snuck up on us by virtue of quality content, the standouts that redefine the game with bold sonic ideas. In a year literally littered with so much schmaltz and hugot, these top-tier jams gave us something to hope for.

Here are 15 of the best local tracks that defined 2018.  

15. “Lucid Dreamer” by Washington Drama Club

Buried in sweet noise and heavily filtered textures, “Lucid Dreamer” is the sound of pop music slowly melting away into a haze. Washington Drama Club vocalist Mary Whitney delivers on the promise of the band's early demos with subdued singing that slathers honey all over its premise. Guitarist and lead singer Ahmad Tanji flexes the noise-pop formula as straightforward as possible. Together, they weed out the blandness with just the right amount of sunshine.

14. “Airways” by Outerhope

Outerhope has been around for more than a decade and they have perfected their own brand of dream pop with dynamic arrangements and deeply personal lyrics. Their latest track “Airways” allows more room for space and atmosphere. The subdued electronic touches provide a counterpoint to Micaela's ethereal vocals, leaning into rarefied moments of ambition. With their musical direction becoming more synthesized and less organic, the Benedicto siblings trade their signature pop-leaning gems for moody soundscapes that defy labels.

13. “Keep Moving” by Nights of Rizal

From Robyn's “Dancing On My Own” to Lorde's “Green Light,” there seems to be no shortage of dance-pop tunes that capture the sound of heartbreak. This is the very same space occupied by Nights of Rizal's “Keep Moving,” a song off his 2018 album, “Summer/Salt.” The hook hits hard with throbbing presence, and the synthesized beats evoke as much pleasure as pain.

Failing to conceal a deep sense of regret, Migi de Belen brings layers of drama with a vocal performance that cuts through the feeling. Suddenly, this banger hardly feels like a party anymore. When de Belen's singing rises above the opening bars, nearly trembling on “All I wanted was to come back home, but not like this,” you already know it would dredge up old memories. But you dance your pain away anyway until you no longer feel anything.

12. “Tahanan” by Munimuni

It's easy to dismiss “Tahanan” as a “hugot” anthem that capitalizes on our desire to love and be loved. But underneath its pile of schmaltz is a song that turns the simplest gestures of love and affection into stuff from which legends are made. And there's no escaping it, really. From the track's intricate arrangements that reach for a triumphant finish to its effortless vocal delivery, Munimuni's “Tahanan” offers sanctuary for those who are in dire need of it.

Here, the harmonies sparkle without relenting to a compromise. The musical direction embraces a balance between earthy and showstopping, often treading the waters of world music, folk, jazz, and indie rock influences. With Munimuni, it's always go big or go home; and they've always been adept in choosing both sides of the spectrum.

11. “Here” by Jason Dhakal

Local R&B came into full bloom this year. Jess Connelly broke through the international music circuit with nocturnal jams that explore unusual approaches to the form, while newcomers Kiana Valenciano and Claudia Barretto released songs that emanate sultriness. This year also introduced listeners to Jason Dhakal, a 19 year old prodigy whose standout track, “Here” navigates the nuances of heartbreak and adolescent frustration in surprisingly amusing ways. Dhakal's unflashy sincerity never gives in to expectations. He delivers an understated vocal performance that takes you back to church.

10. “Twelve” by Tide/edit

Between touring in Southeast Asia and landing a coveted spot in one of Topshelf Records' compilation records, Tide/edit has had a remarkable run so far. Let's not forget, their banner moment arrived in 2018 when they finally released “All My Friends,” the band's most exciting album thus far. Putting emphasis on a more subdued sound, the Filipino post-rock quartet balanced control and technique without sacrificing their melodic approach to songwriting.

Inarguably, the best song among the bunch is “Twelve” — an instrumental opus brimming with crystalline guitar lines, stylistic shifts within the structure, and engaging pop sensibilities evocative of their signature sound. All over the cut, you'll hear that Tide/edit's music hasn't changed that much, allowing a few experiments here and there while maintaining their core strengths. Consistency is a virtue that they embrace the most, and “Twelve” marches on as one of their best songs to date.

9. “Questioning Answers, Answering Questions” by RH Xanders

Here's the gospel truth: “Questioning Answers, Answering Questions” is RH Xander's best work to date. The rapper-producer makes it clear that he is more than just a crowd pleaser. He is also capable of spitting introspective reflections on his struggles as an outsider. In his endless search for fulfillment and purpose, Rich Griner bares his soul through a vocoder, filtering his voice to abstracted effect.

The minimalist production unpacks the nuances of his razor-sharp musings, which shows us an impressive range. There's no doubt that Griner has one of the most original voices in local hip-hop, and with his new single now out in open, he paints a vivid picture of a young man finally coming to terms with adulthood. 

8. “Tracy” by Narcloudia

“Tracy” is a song that practically lives in your state of lumber. It's a nightmare within a dream, a fading memory that haunts the subconscious, a disruption in the middle of a quiet calm. Beatriz Alcala leaves some thoughts to ponder in three minutes of swirling, ethereal pop. “The world was never gonna be a paradise,” she repeatedly murmurs. Alcala may have articulated what we've been trying to conceal in our heads for the longest time, and maybe she's right all along. Here's a timely soundtrack to a civilization that's about to fall apart.

7. “Boulevard” by Moonmask

On the surface, Moonmask wears 80’s pop music like a badge of honor on Boulevard, his latest single released via Japan-based record label Zoom Lens. But sifting through its glossy exterior proves to be a rewarding experience. It's a great place to get lost in, a John Hughes soundtrack ready to power up your teenage fantasia whenever you need an escape. Pop culture critic Simon Reynolds once told readers that “we live in a pop age gone loco for retro and crazy for commemoration.” I'd gladly prolong my stay for a couple more days if it's a retro-modern bop in the vein of “Boulevard.” It's one of those rare moments that a trip down memory lane works.

6. “Sino” by Unique

“Sino” doesn't pander to the classic definition of a love song. Instead, it encapsulates a strong surge of feelings that can be both conflicting and romantic at once. There is no insistence to overcome the incredible odds, no declaration of hyperboles and eternal promises. What remains is the desire to find light at the end of the journey, no matter how painstaking or eye-opening the experience is. It helps that the lilting, subdued production elevates the vague sentiments of the song into a source of comfort.

And when Unique sings, “Patuloy kong hahanapin, kahulugan ng pag-ibig” in his delicate falsetto, you can feel his reluctance to open up and believe in love. But that's basically the point of the songs’s existence. It defies categorization; it refuses to define the fleeting moment. It is what it is; a question, an answer, a feeling.

5. “Toska” by The Ringmaster feat. LadyTwish

It's interesting how Francis Lorenzo turns intimate confessions into songs of sprawling ambition. On some level, you know it's part of the act — a theatrical showcase that sets its sight on capturing the enormity of a particular feeling. Deep down, there's a strange familiarity in his narrative that brings so much more to the table. On “Toska,” The Ringmaster articulates loss with emotional vulnerability cranked up to 11, channeling what he thought breakup songs would sound like if rendered on an art-rock binge.

True to its form, the LadyTwish-assisted track tells you more of what you need to know about Lorenzo's inability to cope with the collapse of a relationship that was once important and life-changing. “I confess, I've come undone by the lack of love,” The Ringmaster shares unreluctantly. It's in these moments of openness that you get to understand the importance of admitting defeat, that it can rock you still.

4. “Lykkelig” by Armi Millare x D' Sound

Notice how Armi Millare breaks down the word “lu-mi-pad” into two syllables without making it sound forced? How about that understated groove that blends old school R&B with lounge and vintage house influences? And how could you not forget Millare's soulful delivery that shines through more clearly with D' Sound's finger-snapping production? “Lykkelig” is everything I want in a radio smash: a smattering of reference points here and there, a 90’s throwback that doesn't feel outdated, and a vocal performance that extends far beyond muse duties.

It's not exactly engineered for global domination, but there's something winsome about its package that appeals to anyone and everyone. Hearing Armi Millare take this jam to the dance floor with those effortless pipes is enough to turns naysayers into converts. Seriously, what more could you ask for?

3. “Kildemol” by Calix feat. BLKD

Injustice is the subject of Calix's “Kildemol,” a modern protest anthem that takes a swipe at the administration's state-sanctioned killings and blatant disregard of the due process. Many have turned a blind eye on the ruthless impact of the administration's anti-drug campaign, but the NoFace Records rapper and producer remains unfazed by fear, throwing jabs at the various forms of oppression committed by the powers that be.

With assistance from fellow hip-hop artist BLKD, Calix also criticized the passivity that is prevalent among the middle class, particularly those that were barely affected by the issues affecting the poor and marginalized sectors of the general populace. Angry, unforgiving, and subversive, “Kildemol” chants its way up to full volume, making its stance loud and clear for the people at the back to hear. 

2. “Umpisa” by Bullet Dumas

In an era that favors short attention span and bite-sized consumption, Bullet Dumas breaks the mold and rallies behind the power of longform ambition in “Umpisa” — an epic ballad that celebrates the beginning and death of romance. Clocking in over seven minutes, Bullet's mournful ode is an exercise in patience. It documents the end of a promising love story, slowly engulfed into flames until the parts are no longer recognizable, like memories withering away to oblivion.

The final minute finds Dumas throwing a hissy fit, in a backdrop where the rhythm section builds into a full-on instrumental bombast. Sometimes, taking the high road isn't necessarily the best option. Otherwise, this career-defining song wouldn't have existed in the first place. 

1. “Sandata” by Sarah Geronimo
Sarah G no longer cares about hits. Her latest track “Sandata” barely registered with the listening public, peaking outside the top 20 of Spotify Philippines Viral Charts during its debut week. Despite underperforming as a lead single, it marks a significant leap from her cookie-cutter past, joining the triumvirate of “Ikot-ikot,” “Kilometro,” and “Tala” in her bid to challenge the local pop music landscape. “Sandata” explores '80s-indebted synth-pop with minimalist production.

It's a concoction that acclaimed singer-songwriter Nica del Rosario and prolific producer Bojam made specifically for the popstar, and it demands your attention with a commentary that hits close to home (societal pressures, mental health issues, domestic abuse). Here, Geronimo sings the unforgettable mantra, “Sa digmaan na ito, ikaw lang ang sandata ko” over a bed of sparkly synths and soft, suave beats. If this is Sarah Geronimo's vision of what “inspirational” feels like, then it definitely deserves a welcome parade.