We rank the fifty most outstanding records of the year.
Rarely does an artist who’s been around for decades manage to not only keep things fresh, but continue to create, and break, his own boundaries. David Byrne’s American Utopia managed to take hold of the ridiculousness of 2018 and bring with it a fresh face and positive attitude. That’s not to mention the live show which it spawned, but more importantly, it proved that Byrne still has his finger on the pulse. Never has a name been more synonymous with thinking outside of the box in a world that needs it.
The idea of voice is sacred, and in an era where we as a collective gaze towards the prospect of its effect – the benefit we gain is invaluable. Ranked as one of this generations top-tier voices in music, Janelle Monáe remains a powerhouse not only for her innovation, but her ability to take on the role as a narrator for those who seek relief. Her third studio LP Dirty Computer explores themes of sexuality, self-care, the idea of freedom, and the vulnerabilities that tie into them. With unabashed gusto, Monáe works her magic within her world of pop R&B placing Dirty Computer as a platform to remind us that we can in a time when we feel we can’t.
As impressive as her debut No Burden was on its own merits - independent of and regardless of its creator’s youth, inexperience, and slapdash conception - the follow-up Historian is a monolith of American songwriting. Lucy Dacus strikes peerlessly at the core of our emotions at once with wit and gravity, loftiness and plain-spokenness.
Starting with an end and a beginning - in album opener “Night Shift” - Dacus confronts that known-all-too-well feeling of accepting the discomfort of turning one’s life upside down in a bid to sever the new and hazy present from that painfully recent past. But the record's high-water mark is its monumental penultimate track, “Pillar of Truth,” a paean to the strength Dacus’s deceased grandmother displayed on her deathbed. Dacus’s prayerful passages from the mouth of her dying relative achieve a rare power and grace, instilling them with a remarkable timelessness: “Lord, have mercy on my descendants, for they know not what they do. They know not who you are, Lord, and they don’t know what to do…Lord, be near me in my final hour. I once had sight but now I’m blind. I tried to be the second coming, and if I was, nobody knew.
GAIKA's career has seen him eschew rigid record label infrastructures to self-release and produce a slew of critically acclaimed mixtapes. This forensic interrogation of society, culture and politics plays out in breathtaking fashion on his debut Basic Volume. Raised in Brixton, and of Jamaican and Grenadian descent, he eloquently tackles immigrant identity and inner city life. As he himself puts it, this record is “a collection of alchemical parables for all the immigrants who wander the earth in search of themselves”. A melting pot of musical references, it's one of the most cohesive and meticulously thought-through albums of the year.
Via LP3 Swedish popstar Tove Styrke unfurls a “collection of love stories looking at the good and the bad of being in love; the romance and the anti-romance” - in layman's terms, an album of sad bangers and bona fide bops. Following up 2015's triumphant Kiddo was always going to be a challenge, but the nine-track Sway is solid gold from start to finish, with heaps of innovation in otherwise staid formulas; the cover of Lorde's “Liability” seems odd at the outset but carefully placed after the buoyant “On A Level”, it's a natural finish. Megastardom must be within Styrke's grasp after this.
Kurt Vile doesn’t “Bottle It In”. He wears his heart on his sleeve. The Philadelphia rocker’s solo follow-up to b’lieve I’m goin down… is supremely introspective, and while there aren’t grandiose statements of intent or emotion – Vile speaks in half-tongues and riddles, said sweeping gestures emoted through the melancholy of the guitars or in “Skinny Mimi” – is his most personal record yet. He keeps you guessing across the record, a smirk here and there on upbeat highlights like “One Trick Ponies” or the meandering nature of “Bassackwards” – and makes no secret of his constantly wandering, drifting mind.
Tell Me How You Really Feel, pleads the title of Courtney Barnett’s second solo full-length. The request seems redundant, however, as Barnett masterfully characterises seemingly everything you’ve ever felt in a brisk 37 minutes. Whilst mundanity still proves a rich source of inspiration, the celebrated Australian singer-songwriter has bigger fish to fry than those that provided her debut’s subject matter. Barnett’s crisp witticisms and signature directness here tackle themes of anger, vulnerability, and sexism, amongst a miscellany of others. Musically, Barnett’s slacker-rock sound has tightened up, its homely fuzz graduating to snarling distortion in all the right places.
Tell Me How You Really Feel is a record that marks this self-proclaimed “bad communicator” a refreshing (if unexpected) voice on the fringes of an increasingly sanitised mainstream.
The ‘classic quartet’ of Coltrane, McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums) were a defining lynchpin of jazz on A Love Supreme and the discovery of an entirely unheard recording session from the quartet in 1963 by of Coltrane’s first wife Juanita Naima was one of 2018's major musical events. Taped at Rudy Van Gelder’s busy New Jersey studio, the master tapes were long ago presumed lost and Coltrane's reference copy of a March session was recorded in a single day and sat collecting dust in Naima and Coltramne's former Queens home for more than 54 years. As the great tenor saxophone player, Sonny Rollins, said recently: “This is like finding a new room in the Great Pyramid.”
The quartet occupied an almost magical sense of purpose when they played together, seamlessly shifting in and out of each other’s path to create some truly sensational music. While this lost session isn't the best place to start for beginners, it does offers fascinating insights for fans who want to hear the band within the grips of (yet another) transition. The two best tracks feature Coltrane’s reedy soprano playing – the “Untitled Original 11383” and “Untitled Original 11386” – and are the crown jewels of this set, with have no precedent in the Coltrane catalogue.
Tom Krell took a hard left turn on this murky, thickly atmospheric fifth How To Dress Well LP, so much so that it was difficult to believe that only two years had passed since its gloriously poppy predecessor, Care. Factor in the darkening political climate over that period, though, and suddenly it all begins to make sense; The Anteroom emerged from a depressive episode that was triggered, in part, by the result of the 2016 presidential election in Krell’s native U.S. The result is an uneasy but consistently enthralling listen, on which he bares his soul whilst taking a raft of risks and seeing them all pay off.
Arriving as something of a surprise in late September, AURORA’s second album was a gorgeous, surprising pop record that perfectly captured the Norwegian singer-songwriter’s sense of wonder. Expansive sonic worlds like “Churchyard” and “Queendom” (“I will be your warrior/I will be your land”) sat alongside more reflective moments (the aptly named “It Happened Quiet”) that showcased AURORA’s astonishing vocals. On the closing title track, her multi-track harmonies are at once vulnerable and hopeful, as she takes stock of personal and universal pain: “If there is a God/I think he would shake his head and turn away.”
Two years after her debut Telefone, Noname’s follow up Room 25 showed the Chicago-born artist maturing to produce - perhaps - the best hip hop record of 2018. Still largely letting the music speak for her, the record’s “lullaby rap” (her term) makes a mark across tracks that nod to the foundations of modern rap while moving things forward in massive, beautiful strides. It’s a taut listen too - arranged in a way that’s dazzingly economical despite the inclusion of a 12-piece orchestra - but lyrically as expansive as anything Chance has produced. Noname’s roots in the Chicago poetry scene shine and rhymes and humour are on point.
Recorded as Neko Case’s world literally burned around her, Hell-On is a burnished beacon of hope made in the face of personal and political tragedy. Her first solo album in half a decade also brought in a diverse cast of guests, from Beth Ditto’s turn on inspirational siren song “Winnie” to the unmistakable linctus tones of Mark Lanegan. Its songs may explore the futility of national imagery and a dying relationship, but makes time for a beautifully elliptical love letter to her New Pornographer bandmates and, in "Bad Luck", her sweetest pop confection to date. A true artefact of triumph over torment.
Daniel Lopatin's latest outing as Oneohtrix Point Never is an astounding world-building exercise fusing warm baroque tones with discordant electronica to delve deep under the brain-twisting concepts of epochs inspired the Strauss-Howe generational theory (loosely described as a "theorised recurring generation cycle in American history"). Age Of traverses time and space to reach the inside of your brain, using evolutions of the uber-impenetrable tools seen before from Lopatin, but also striking notes never before ventured as 0PN – “Black Snow” is a shadowy pop number that wouldn't sound out of place on the lips of BANKS.
In 2015 Ólafur Arnalds was hit by a passing truck, and though luckily not facing life-threatening consequences, risked losing all motor functions in his upper body. As he likes to joke at his breathtaking concerts, for a pianist this was far from ideal. Whilst on tour with Kiasmos, the techno side project with friend Janus Rasmussen, which required less dexterity and daily hand movement, Arnalds became captivated by a ghost piano playing in the lobby of the hotel they were staying at. Fast forward a few and he had acquired two of them, closely with developer Halldor Eldjarn to program them to work in unison with Arnalds own piano. Their twinkling, cascading effect makes up the ghostly backdrop to Re:member, Arnalds most affecting record to date. The opening title track positively sucks the listener's euphoria dry from the start, leaving them vulnerable and exposed to the cold beauty that follows.
Applauded for their thrilling live shows, Dream Wife’s reckless stamina made it onto their self-titled debut record, combining both the blistering energy of ‘90s alt-rock and the lustrous pop hooks of the ‘70s with a millennial twist. An eleven-track gang of anthemic punk tunes that veer between riff-charging indie-pop and strikingly confident grunge saw guitarist Alice Go taking us on an expedition through the sonics of the electric guitar.
A celebration of female sexuality gives the album its lively backbone. Opener “Let’s Make out” is a sexually-charged cut of raw hedonism. Its sister “Hey Heartbreaker” follows suit, a sugar rush of fuzzy guitars with an infectious hook for bedroom belt-outs. Bass-driving single “Somebody” was a fierce finger to the patriarchy for a fresh and socially aware generation. a firm dig at victim-blaming, particularly within the music industry.
With Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers all stepping into the big leagues as solo artists, their surprise alt-folk supergroup, boygenius, has taken the form of something unexpectedly poignant and inviting. Originally released as only three songs, the boygenius EP was later doubled in size to create a collection of music as emotionally engaging as Baker's Appointments, musically mature as Bridgers' Stranger in the Alps, and riddled with heartbreak as Dacus' Historian. Oozing with harmonious melancholy and coming of age woe, these three unique voices drift in and out of each song to create one the most surprising releases of the year.
Years & Years’ second album Palo Santo debuted a fully-formed conviction. The introspective synthpop of 2015’s debut Communion was turned outward, as frontman Olly Alexander addressed the nuances of contemporary queer relationships with sass and confidence – finding strength in the submissive persona that he once negotiated tentatively. An accompanying short film (co-starring Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw!) and subsequent arena tour acted as a kind of Years & Years expanded universe; demonstrating a clarity of vision that few pop groups can match. 2019 will see them develop a touring showcase of rising LGBTQ+ talent; fitting for a group whose genuine love for pop music is matched by their commitment to queer autonomy.
Pale Waves’ debut album My Mind Makes Noises certainly didn’t disappoint. For those convinced of the four-piece’s repetitiveness, continually writing them off as a female-fronted clone of The 1975, it probably wasn’t going to change any minds. However, those people probably hate fun, and definitely can’t remember what it’s like to crash into adulthood with 101 emotions and absolutely no idea how to use them.
Radio 1 mainstay and album opener “Eighteen” characterises Pale Waves’ heady, nostalgic brand of indie-pop, crystallising the giddy, smoke-filled haze of a forgotten summer evening into a dizzyingly perfect gem of guitars and synthesisers. Tracks like “Eighteen”, “Television Romance”, and “There’s A Honey” help My Mind Makes Noises carry the torch lit by fellow eyeliner enthusiast Robert Smith, proving that goths simply do euphoria better than the rest of us.
Just when you think there's nothing left to squeeze out of Atlanta trap, 6LACK drops this perfect specimen. East Atlanta Love Letter is well titled, taking a sound crystallized by the XO crowd and turning everything up – the wintry, echo-chamber production, the cocktail-mix of melancholy and hedonism. And 6LACK's increasing reliance on piano as his primary instrument gives each cut a living, breathing emotional core – whether he's spitting deep alongside J Cole about getting his girlfriend to open up ("Pretty Little Fears") or just putting a beautiful twist on what might otherwise be another 'bitches and ballers' anthem ("Loaded Gun"). The crying-in-the-club album of the year.
What is it about pop music in its shiny, saccharine sense that grown adults either enjoy or detest? I've always believed that both relate to its connection to the music we listened to as children, when our minds were forming an understanding of the workings of music with the help of simple melodies and smoothly resolving structures. There is something about them that make us inherently happy, but often as adult listeners we approach this music with an air of caution and cynicism to deem its credibility and thus listenability.
For Kacey Musgrave's fourth studio-album Golden Hour released back in March it seemed this judgement call was thrown out of the window blithely by all. Perhaps the artist's unmistakable country style added a degree of novelty to the many of whom the genre doesn't usually resonate that allowed them to revel in its velvety melodies without a care in the world, but this critically lauded offering from the Texan was a pop crossover tour de force. So-called "space country" by Musgraves herself, specks of futurism found themselves gleaming throughout, however subtly, from the robotic vocoder of the life-affirming "Oh, What A World" to the fragmented disco-ball light of "High Horse", arguably the biggest pop banger of the year.
Clean’s artwork leaves you in no doubt that SOPHIE Allison has stories to tell. Staring straight into the camera and holding a can of spray-paint, it’s a defiant invitation into the world of Soccer Mommy. Whether the story is about falling in and out of love, or the nemesis that always steals your thunder, there’s a universal relatability in Allison’s songs. “Cool” updates the envy of The Jungle Book’s "I Wanna Be like You", “Your Dog” rewrites the narrative of The Stooges classic, (where the protagonist definitely doesn’t wanna be your dawg), but the heart of Clean is the epic “Scorpio Rising”. In the space of five minutes Allison debunks the myth that Soccer Mommy’s world is the preserve of teenage angst; it’s world-weary, heartbroken yet underpinned by hopefulness, it's a brilliantly timeless tale of love. 2018 desperately needed a new storytelling voice in music and with Clean that’s exactly what we got.
Freedom entered my life back in March of this year with the mantra-like “Believe”. A song that explores the countless facets of grief that are linked with cancer - Damon McMahon’s mother being diagnosed with the illness during the making of the record - the songs six minutes are hypnotic and deeply moving. McMahon’s quivering voice twitching over the lines “when I was a kid I was afraid to die, but I growed up now” and the brutal delivery of “let’s not talk too heavy I’ll see you next go around”.
It’s devastating stuff yet underneath the layers of sadness lie an overall acceptance of death: “Well, seems to me baby you don’t want to stay. That’s okay if that’s true”. This starkly honest theme permeates throughout Freedom as a whole. Experimental but accessible; euphoric yet melancholy; reflective and introspective. The fifth album from McMahon’s on-going project is his most universal to date. Released via the usually avant-garde leaning label Sacred Bones, Freedom is a record that rewards repeated listens. Each spin through opening up another corridor of McMahon’s psyche and musical vision.
The world is a supremely crappy place, and Hinds might be the only good part of it. Hinds know how to have fun – and, most importantly, want you to have fun, too. I Don’t Run follows up from the same sun-kissed, charming lo-fi garage-rock that cemented the Madrid four-piece as an international success, but rest assured that Hinds haven’t forgotten about you. They want bring you along for the ride, too. Ramshackle pop songs narrate the ups and downs of heartbreak – vocalists Carlotta and Ana’s exuberance shine on even the most lyrically gloomy of songs – and for 11 songs, you feel slightly less alone in the world.
Having been battered by countless frustrations - the lukewarm ye, the maddeningly juvenile politicking, the ever-more erratic public persona - Kids See Ghosts provided us with a welcome, if brief, respite from a year of peak Kanye.
Like West’s other releases this year – ye, Nas’ Nasir, and Pusha T’s Daytona – his Kid Cudi collaboration Kids See Ghosts is restricted to seven tracks. Unlike at least two of those other releases though (Daytona being a far superior effort than Nasir or ye), it achieves a great deal within its brief runtime, partly due to its economy. This is a lean, pacey record, trimmed of the fat that dogged The Life of Pablo and more lyrically focused than any other West project for some time.
For all of Kanye’s attention-grabbing though, this is as much Cudi’s album as his. His performances here are exceptional: from his commanding, drill-sergeant verse on “Fire” to the plaintive introspection of “Cudi Montage”, his presence offers us a masterclass in perfectly weighted rapping and complex, unpredictable lyricism, bursting with internal rhymes and thematic left turns. As if buoyed by the talent of his foil, West also ups his game, delivering several of his most compelling vocal performances of the past few years.
By taking a step back from the spotlight and focusing his attention on production, Kanye West has played his part in a low-key masterpiece of dextrous, polymath hip-hop. To be fair, most of his work in 2018 has had its moments: a brilliant sample here, a thrillingly intuitive gear-change there. Sometimes, though, he can make it difficult to remember just how special his music can be, and Kids See Ghosts is a timely reminder. If he applies this kind of rigour to Yandhi, with its constantly-shifting release date, and shakes off the ill-discipline that’s characterised much of his recent output, that’ll be a very special record indeed.
Bloom’s lead single, “My My My!”, was released on the tenth day of the year; cutting through the January ice like a firework. Its hot, orgasm-shudder of an introduction was a clear declaration of intent: the gentle YA-novel melancholia of 2015’s debut Blue Neighbourhood was over, and in its place was exhibitionism, audaciousness, queer-as-fuck-ness.
Eight months and four singles later, Bloom arrived as a perfect, precious jewel of an album. Miraculously only ten tracks long in this age of rambling, overstretched pop albums, it contained tender happy-ever-after tributes to Sivan’s boyfriend (“What a Heavenly Way to Die”) alongside a knowing wink of a bottoming anthem (“Bloom”). The full set revealed more complexity than the usual teen-star-gets-sexy second album: Bloom didn’t override Blue Neighbourhood’s melancholy, but developed it as an ever-present worry, festering in the shadows of romantic bliss. Amongst the frothy pop thrills of “Plum”, Sivan fretted that “even the sweetest plum/has only got so long” – never quite able to settle in the romantic bliss he has found himself in. On “Animal”, he towered over his sleeping lover (“You lie in the wake/Covered all in the night before”) his love manifesting as disbelief as the song disintegrated around him.
Sivan’s one-true-love vision isn’t revolutionary (not all queer art has to be!) but its presence as a mainstream pop album is quietly significant. Bloom is a fairly traditional love story, but it’s also a ten foot tall queer declaration of joy: advertised on billboards in Times Square, and fit to be projected onto nearby planets if the record company had the technology and/or the budget. By filtering his joy through the cracks of his neuroses, Sivan projected hope to romantically bereft queer pop fans – his is a happiness that could be all of ours.
The fourth record by LA’s The Internet, Hive Mind, on paper may fool listeners that it’s a commentary on the social media echo chamber. ‘Hive mind’, one of the buzziest phrases of the last few years, is deployed in online debates about fake news, Trump, and the general malaise of 2018 but The Internet frankly aren’t interested. Instead, they’re tending to the wounds of a fucked-up world with warm soul songs that blush in the heat of love.
Hive Mind is the first record to put the band’s only female member Syd Bennett so firmly in the spotlight. Her pristine R&B vocals invariably detail stories about trying to get the girl. Some members of The Internet, including Bennett, splintered off from Odd Future (a hip-hop collective that, interestingly, toyed around with homophobic statements in its heyday. The last two years have seen all five members of The Internet release solo projects. Hive Mind therefore works as a reunion record, one that sounds free and intuitive. Opener “Come Together” hears multiple voices pile in at the chorus as if to reassert gang mentality, accompanied by wiry basslines, funk riffs, and jazz flute flutters. “La Di Da” is a brilliant, polyrhythmic groove track centred on lustful dance, while slow soul jam “Come Over” is Bennett painting pictures of wine-and-dine romance. Hive Mind is a soothing, escapist listen. It seeks comfort away from wider troubles with the very thing that unites us all: love.
It’s easy to talk about this startlingly accomplished debut record from Sarah Beth Tomberlin in terms of its hymnal quality, especially given the degree to which the Kentucky native’s personal history dominated the narrative around its release in August; having been raised in an unyielding Baptist environment, she found herself reckoning with a crisis of faith at 16, right around the time that she’d enrolled at a private Christian college. Her doubts won out, she dropped out, and suddenly found herself staring into a void - not just where her studies should have been, but where the beliefs that had shaped her worldview had once been.
Working on the songs that comprise At Weddings helped to pave a way forward, and therefore if you were to think of them as hymns - as being dedicated to some higher power - then they’re paeans to Tomberlin’s own inner strength. Musically, the album is sparse, with gentle, arpeggiated guitar and piano complemented softly here and there by fluttering strings, and frequently, the lyrics are similarly bare-bones as she ruminates not just on the big ideas, but on the mundane realities of her situation, too - “I need to make money and I need to eat,” she sings on "I’m Not Scared", as she documents dragging herself out of bed for work in almost the same breath as she offers up profound reflections on love and womanhood.
There’s something cuttingly straightforward about her writing that marks her out in a crowded marketplace for confessional singer-songwriters and that also means that, on the occasions she does employ metaphor, it jolts the listener; "Self-Help", against a backdrop of a subtly discomfiting wall of reverb, opens with a line about being electrocuted in the bath. At Weddings suggests huge potential but is also, in its own right, a beautifully considered story of survival.
The self-named ‘wonky soul’ of Nao has taken her to unexpected places, including writing with Chic and Ariana Grande, being nominated for a Brit Award, and coming third in the BBC Sound of 2016. With her second album, Saturn, the East-London singer has absolutely succeeded in getting the wider sphere of R&B to take notice. Having received praise from every music blog around, Neo’s sophomore record shows signs of musical progression that no other artist in this genre can match right now.
Experimenting with elements of nu-soul, dancehall and art pop, Saturn’s 13-song tracklist contains only two features, offering up plenty of space to give exposure to the breadth of her musical ability. There are Avante-Garde vocal melodies on ‘If You Ever’, Daniel Caesar-style neo-soul on title-track ‘Saturn (feat. Kwabs)’; and floor-filling production on ‘Make it out Alive’ which features SiR. In 2016, having finished recording her first album after years as a backup singer for artists like Jarvis Cocker, Nao told the Guardian, “I have a good voice but maybe that’s not enough.” She had started to doubt her ability to shine as a solo artist, however, on her debut album, For All We Know, she proved herself wrong. But if she thought that was all she was capable of, she was probably as blown away by Saturn as the rest of the world was.
The sonic diversity of this record is that of an artist completely above the competition. Songs like ‘Gabriel’ and ‘Love Supreme’ show Nao off as an artist capable of crafting idiosyncratic moments of musicality that draw you in until you’re at the end of the record wanting more. With all the progressive music coming from London at the moment, Nao has found a winning formula between the commercial success of her time crafting songs with Mura Masa, and her experience writing on Stormzy’s number one debut album. This mixed with her homegrown brand of ‘wonky soul’ and a dash of D’Angelo (referenced on the song ‘Orbit’) forms a record that belongs near the top of all albums of the year lists this year.
When Snail Mail emerged last year with “Thinning” it sounded both familiar and like nothing else you'd ever heard before. Here was a teenage guitar hero who seemingly came from nowhere, with a song that mused on the nature of dreams and a feeling of disconnection with the world. Yet what made it so beguiling was Lindsey Jordan’s reimagining of rock music’s aesthetic, where instead of bludgeoning the listener, the power and punch was in the restraint and elegance of her writing.
That “Thinning” doesn’t appear on Snail Mail’s debut album Lush shows how much Jordan has grown as a writer in such a short space of time. Rather than coming out all guns blazing, the opening “Intro” ushers in the sound of a hallucinatory slow dream, where the reverbed vocal is accompanied by a delicate and minimal guitar line that’s picked out as a lullaby. It’s under a minute long and ends with a line that sets the scene for the love and longing of Lush, “As it is for you, anytime / Still for you, anytime.” Ingeniously, the story arc comes full circle on the closing “Anytime”, a song that evokes the melancholy and loss of R.E.M’s “Find the River" from Automatic for the People, where Jordan reprises the line “Still for you, anytime.”
What makes Lush such an important record this year is that over the course of ten songs Jordan continues to refine a new expression for rock music. It’s not rock in the sense of bombast or ostentatious guitar licks however, the songs and playing are far more subtle and intricate than that. Whilst Jordan’s unshowy virtuosity on the guitar is a model of restraint, her voice - and what a voice - is its equal. The singing moves from a conversational tone to a controlled roar when the tension of the songs demand it, especially so on “Golden Dream” where the show-stopping vocal in the chorus is a heartbreaker - ‘I’m not yours, know it when I mean it, I’m not wasted anymore.”
Lush is dulcet yet arresting, as powerful as it is fragile. It’s a collection of songs that explore dreams, love, loss and hope in a brilliantly unique way. With her debut record Lindsey Jordan has written the bravest and best American rock record of 2018.
By referencing the repertoires of vintage cult heroes who emphasised heady communal grooves over flashy displays of individual technical excellence, Kamasi Washington has provided a vivid and vibrant reminder of jazz’s origins as a dance music. Whilst other recent revivers of jazz opt for the modernising touches of post-punk energy (Polar Bear), globe-trotting mash-ups (Melt Yourself Down) and electronic skittering (the brilliant Comet Is Coming), the 37-year old Washington retains a resolutely retro aesthetic.
Heaven & Earth – a double album, with the Earth half inspired by the chaotic reality we live in, whilst Heaven hones in on the dreamier vibes of Washington’s inner world - throbs and vibrates with an infectious pulse and nods pioneers such as Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane. Washington’s uncompromisingly maximalist vision ensures that Heaven & Earth never resorts to lazy pastiche. Yet it’s very unlikely anyone else has ever dared to attempt (never mind having pulled off) such a lavishly layered – massed choirs and strings feature prominently – cocktail of razor-sharp '70s Blaxploitation street funk, Thelonious Monk-esque piano abstractions, John Coltrane-indebted sax attack and the opulently orchestrated wide-screen soul epics of classic Isaac Hayes, Stevie Wonder or Curtis Mayfield.
The righteous, Black Lives Matter-inspired anger of the jaw-dropping outcome brings to mind a totally unique, hashtag-era update of the funky, socially conscious ‘message jazz’ explored on comps such as Soul Jazz’s New Thing!. The wide-eyed wonder of the hymnal closer “Will You Sing” is even more impressive with its echoes of the carefully calibrated balance between fat, juicy beats and swooning melodicism of David Axelrod’s classic productions. Arresting moments like this, audibly uninterested in the genre strictures, suggest Washington is only just getting warmed up in his quest to reboot cosmic jazz.
Five years on from the greasy, chemically-focused excess of AM, with little more than an indulgent, self-satisfied Last Shadow Puppets album by way of a stopgap in between, Alex Turner and co looked set to descend yet further into hedonistic irrelevance on album six. Turner’s Phoenix Nights-Elvis routine had been wearing thin for some time, and the new record’s tongue-twisting title and lack of advance singles didn’t bode well for a return to the sharp wit and compositional economy that endeared this band to so many of us in the first place.
What a pleasant surprise, then, that Arctic Monkeys’ grand return came in the form of their finest work yet. It’s ridiculous, yes, a little flabby in places, yes, and offers zero in the way of musical innovation; yet AM have always suffered from these qualities to a certain extent, so how refreshing it is to see this band barrel headlong into them with far more self-awareness and wry humour than ever before. Tracks like “Four Out Of Five” and “Star Treatment” manage the canny trick of writing about rock megastardom without alienating the layperson, eschewing the almost inevitable high-class whining in favour of a compelling cocktail of self-deprecation and complex lyrical ambition.
2018 has produced many incredible records that deal with the pain and fear of life in the modern age, and rightly so – there’s a lot to be afraid of at the moment. But that makes it all the more satisfying to experience an album that recognises its own absurdity, not to mention the absurdity of its creators, and has genuine fun with it. Arctic Monkeys have come a long way from the taxi ranks, chip shops and underage tinnies of their early days; so far that, perhaps uniquely among mainstream British rock bands of their generation, the prospect of their next artistic left turn is genuinely exciting.
Despite naming her record after an up-market cocktail bar in Birmingham (maybe, she is from Walsall after all), this summer Jorja Smith released a stunning, seamless album full of down-tempo bangers (there is such a thing) and seductive trip-hop grooves. Borrowing liberally from Portishead, Massive Attack and Tricky (with a touch of Bjork), Lost & Found is a triumph over adversity. Smith is a young, powerful woman of colour from a part of the world that has the propensity to drag women like her down. In spite of all of these potentially stumbling blocks, she crafts remarkably mature, honest music that represents the best of youth culture in Britain today.
In “Blue Lights”, “The One” and “On Your Own”, she has produced a perfect pop trifecta. These are three of the best songs of this – or any – year, and the album would be recommendable based solely on these alone. However, the rest of the album is so rich, fluid and vibrant that it seems to make a mockery of the notion of performers growing into their art over time. She has arrived fully formed. To have arrived at such a distinctive sound so early into a career is a massive achievement, with Lost & Found hopefully only the beginning of a long and productive career. Long live the Queen.
For all the hysteria of 2018, it’s the grim, melancholy inevitability of the year’s events that may cast the longest thematic shadow. The accelerating deterioration of the climate; the apparently infinite, drain-circling procrastination of the Brexit process; the increasing mania of populist movements the world over; all of these things have been coming. For all the political turmoil to which we’re sadly becoming accustomed, much of the last twelve months have been a seemingly endless sequence of chaotic events that are symptomatic of a rot that’s been festering for some time.
Double Negative is the perfect record to hear under such bleak circumstances: a work that assiduously dissects contemporary decay and seeks to build a naturalistic, guardedly hopeful artistic statement from the debris. Nothing else this year has managed to capture the feelings of disorientation and impotence that characterise contemporary life in the punchdrunk western world quite like this; from the song titles (“Always In The Dark”, “Always Trying To Work It Out”, “Disarray”), to the sounds of familiar instrumentation being subsumed by noise and dissonance, to the keening, barely-there vocals that implore the listener into self-examination, this is a near-perfect description of so many of our collective neuroses.
As is often the case with the most important, socially-conscious art, it’s the occasional shafts of hope that illuminate the darkest moments of this frequently desolate album which hold the key to its lasting power. Rather than collapsing into blind nihilism, Low begin to hint towards redemption as the album progresses, recognising the importance of power and imagination over empty sloganeering: “Before it falls into total disarray / You'll have to learn to live a different way / Too late to look back on apocryphal verse / And to be something beyond kinder than words” (“Disarray”).
By combining elements of introspective songcraft, monolithic drone and pulsating, blinking-in-the-dawn techno, Low have produced by far the most impressive, dazzlingly original work of their career. Perhaps more pertinently, it’s also the most timely.
Having not released an album for eight years, Robyn’s 2018 offering was always going to be met with anticipation and intrigue. To remain relevant after becoming distanced from an ever-evolving industry, one that remains keen to keep women disposable, would always be a challenge.
And whilst her loyal fanbase’s appetites were not all satisfied with the 9-track-long Honey, it bottles more than enough pulsating sweetness to be regarded as one of the year’s finest and most eyebrow-raising albums. Its opener - the arcade-game-arpeggio-led "Missing U" - is as close as you will arrive at a straight-up, radio-ready pop banger, in line with the Swede’s past successes. But its verses, formed with distant melodies and humming bass jabs, are lonely and sparse – setting the tone for the heartbreak and intimacy to follow.
By recruiting lo-fi pop expert Joe Mount (Metronomy) on production, Robyn infuses her weighty emotional lyrics with a playfulness that grows in confidence throughout. The floating beauty of, say, "Baby Forgive Me" and "Honey", which are glazed with throbbing basslines and shimmering samples, hold the listener in a mid-album trance. But its diaristic tracklist (aligned in the order the songs were written) eventually turns emotional turmoil into optimism. The strange, jittering "Beach2k20" for example is a care-free sea of clinking percussion, providing the backdrop to Robyn’s efforts in luring the listener to ‘this cute place on the beach’. The album then finished with a euphoric eruption of synth blasts in "Ever Again" - the sort of crescendo that’s constantly threatened throughout, but never quite materialised until its conclusion.
This is the work of a powerful 39-year-old pop figure, wise with experience having broken free from the shackles, demands and allure of chart success. Honey is a triumph and in Robyn’s resurgence from the wilderness you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger comeback in 2018.
Anybody wondering whether or not Shabaka Hutchings was in any mood for compromise on this second Sons of Kemet LP would have been provided with a swift answer via not just its overall title, but those of the individual songs, too. It wasn’t enough for the Londoner to continue to be bold in his musical outlook; he was also ready to make a sharply political jazz record, with every track paying tribute to a different iconic woman of colour, from bandleader Shabaka Hutchings’ great- grandmother and Nanny of the Maroons to Angela Davis and Harriet Tubman.
It’s a pointed rebuke to racism, misogyny and the ruling classes, with stirring vocal contributions from Joshua Idehen of Benin City and the legendary jungle artist Congo Natty. Hutchings, meanwhile, has crafted the record not just in his own musical image but in that of his upbringing, too; far from being a straight jazz album or a purist’s concern, Your Queen Is a Reptile veers wildly between Afrobeat, ska and dub to sonically reflect Hutchings’ personal history, which spans a childhood spent in Barbados, extensive time spent travelling in South Africa, and an adult life lived largely in London. Sons of Kemet signed to Impulse! for this second full-length and something feels appropriate about the fact that such a storied label is continuing to put out work by artists like Hutchings, who is acutely aware and respectful of his genre’s history whilst striving to make his own place in it with a fiercely forward-thinking creative attitude. Your Queen Is a Reptile was the most pointedly political jazz album ever to be nominated for the Mercury and simultaneously arguably the most accessible, too; Hutchings can feel sorely done by that such a timely, adventurous record didn’t secure him the prize back in September.
On his fourth (and best) album under the moniker Blood Orange, Dev Hynes crafted one of the albums of the year by doing the things he does best, and amplifying each and every one of them until they are impossible to ignore. Despite seemingly being around forever, Hynes has taken on numerous sounds, styles and monikers in his quest for musical perfection - and on Negro Swan, he seems to have found it. The guitars are glassier, the rhythms Prince-ier and the lyrics more incisive and inclusive than ever. With a deft hand, he blends soft jazz with cool soul guitars. He features megastar rappers in low-key settings. He plays the lounge lizard with a heart of gold.
The production – boy, the production – is exquisite, vibrant and rich, and almost every track on the record is a winner. Hopefully, news will spread that he is no longer on the way to becoming world-class, but that he’s already the yard-stick that people in the know measure world-class against. Without him, the world would be a lot less sensual, and on Negro Swan, we finally can marvel at watching (and hearing) a maestro at the peak of his powers.
2018 has seen a queer revolution in pop music spearheaded by the likes of Janelle Monáe, Troye Sivan and best of all, Christine and the Queens. On Chris, French auteur Héloïse Letissier presents an alter-ego of sorts. She’s now a freer performer who challenges gender norms with macho-feminine panache and soundtracks stories of lust, love, and loss with booming ‘80s funk.
Letissier, who is pansexual, knows that conversations about gender and sexuality can be confusing. Testing, even. But she wants us to have them. “I am done with belonging”, she told the crowd at a recent Eventim Apollo show, a statement torn straight the Chris lyrics book (“Comme si”). Yes, Letissier is “still very much trying to be free”, but her latest musical endeavour offers the greatest liberation yet.
Lead single "Girlfriend" poses the question: “Boys are loading their arms / girls gasp with envy / F-f-for whom are they mimicking endlessly?” Letissier refers to this as “those love parades where every role is scripted to the point of exhaustion”, using the triple threat of G-funk keytar, drum machine beat, and slinky bass to fuel her machismo deconstruction. “I became obsessed with this idea of the macho man, and still being a woman,” she annotates alongside the lyrics. “What does it mean if I’m this figure, and I’m a woman?”
Elsewhere, on “Damn (what must a woman do)”, the notion that only men pay for sex is disputed. “Do I have to pay? / 'Cause I sure can pay, can pay / Do I have to wait?” Letissier yelps over fidgety synth-pop. On the lofty “5 dollars”, she echoes a parallel idea of bought love. She also reminds us of the prejudice she’s faced in her life. “Some of us just had to fight / For even being looked at right”, simultaneously citing the woes of slut-shamed sex workers.
These are just a handful of the powerful snapshots on Chris: ones that are primarily concerned with physical desire. Letissier’s sexual freedom – born of athletic transformation from relentless past touring schedules – has instilled a new confidence. And yet this confidence doesn’t erase past trauma. There’s bruises in “The walker” (“And I will not be back til they're staining my skin”) and playground name-calling in “What’s-her-face” (“So my name became a slur”). In her new, more assured skin, Letissier asks listeners to confront what she’s been confronted with. “It’s about giving some justice to that story, even though it’s not a triumphant one, she told Pitchfork
Chris was written in the midst of personal change and with that came a bolder musical evolution. There’s some crossover between Chris and her 2016 debut, Chaleur Humaine – think the muted piano balladry of “Make Some Sense” and “Paradis Perdus”, respectively. But Chris is indebted to the ‘80s with its recurrent squelching bass, cowbells, thumping synths, and mirror smash FX. It’s the kind of funk-pop that turbochargers her phenomenal live choreography and connects her to the sounds that shaped her; the sounds of Michael Jackson and Madonna. On Chris, Letissier champions the outsiders and throws conformity to the wind. It couldn’t be more vital for the here and now.
Ariana Grande seems to be able to take anything life throws at her. In the past couple of years, she’s shown superhuman resilience. From the Manchester tragedy of 2017, to her broken engagement and the death of long-term ex boyfriend Mac Miller, surprisingly her message is of nothing but positivity and strength. And it shows on Sweetener. Taking the sour and making it sweeter is the aim of her game on her fourth record, with incredible results. Grande and producer Pharrell Williams set out to make the ‘weirdest thing they could’ when they wrote Sweetener, but it ended up being so much more - a surprising commentary on pop in 2018, and an emotional rollercoaster.
From the heavenly "God is a Woman" to the pure euphoria of "No Tears Left To Cry" and jittery "The Light is Coming", the singles from Sweetener represented Ariana’s ethos perfectly. Despite being filled with tracks dedicated to (now ex) fiancé Pete Davidson, and bookended by two odes to the victims of her concert attacks, somehow the record isn’t too sugary, it just helps the medicine go down.
At a time when the most toxic aspects of masculinity still – unaccountably – hold weight in rap, BROCKHAMPTON remain one of the genre's most radical collectives. Helmed by openly gay MC/songwriter Kevin Abstract, the 13-piece, self-defined 'boy band' provide a glittering example of what the future might hold: a queerness and proudly-worn vulnerability used to subvert the go-hard, gunshot sound of rap's underground.
iridescence, somehow their fifth full-length release in just three years, continues BROCKHAMPTON's rule-breaking cannon. Its production refuses to sit still: you've got your 1Xtra-friendly bangers “NEW ORLEANS” and “DISTRICT”, nestled next to hushed, guitar-picked love songs (“SOMETHING ABOUT HIM”) and boldly-arranged piano ballads (“TONYA”). “SAN MARCOS”'s chorus feels torn from the best of Dashboard Confessional, and features a brief but beguiling performance by London Community Gospel Choir, whilst “TAPE”'s break-based odyssey fronts like a Warp Records release. And to smooth out the edges, the samples and snippets of dialogue that bleed from track to track give the album the vibe of a mixtape – albeit one assembled at Abbey Road.
Like all great boy bands, each member of BROCKHAMPTON has a cartoonish set of characteristics for you to fall for, whether it's Joba's manic melodrama, stone-cold Dom McLennon's old school delivery or floppy skater boi Matt Champion's relative nonchalance. iridescence's myriad of disparate voices are united in almost-competitive confession, touching on self doubt, self harm and the struggle to stabilise. When you stop nodding your head to catch Abstract unravelling on his time in the closet ('And every time she took her bra, off my dick would get soft') or bearface lamenting not answering calls to his mother 'because [he's] afraid to disappoint', it's clear this is a very different kind of rap album.
That Iridescence even got made is more remarkable given the band's tumultuous year. In May, BROCKHAMPTON were rocked by sexual misconduct allegations against founding member Ameer Vann, who they promptly kicked out. The band were visibly shaken – at a notable performance at Boston Calling, there were tears and members stood in silence during Vann's verses, before cancelling their entire US tour. To bounce back so powerfully is both commendable and a relief: iridescence BROCKHAMPTON's status as the disruptive force rap so desperately needs.
Has there been a more confrontational, exhilarating and inclusive live show in 2018 than Shame’s? (Ok, ok not counting IDLES). A band that thrive on the energy of their audience, the South London five-piece have toured the world non-stop this year, with each step of their journey propelling them further and further towards mainstream acceptance. And for the record, it’s absolutely fucking breathtaking to witness. There’s literally no other band currently in existence that make me feel the way Shame does. Never stopping for a single breath, Songs Of Praise is an assault of the senses from the word go. Tightly wound, urgent, catchy-as-hell - their songs an adrenaline fuelled call to arms: cleverly tying in the mania of their live show and distilling it into 38 perfect minutes.
Opener “Dust On Trial” a snarling, seething beast that propels you into a whirlpool of punishing guitars and Charlie Steen’s ominous vocal. The post-punk rumble of “Concrete”; anthemic ‘radio hit’ “One Rizla”; and Happy Mondays aping “Friction” each offering different facets to the band’s sound. But it's album closer “Angie” that truly displays just how very special this group is. Telling the story of a teenager who falls in love with a girl who is later to commit suicide: the seven-minute epic exploring the love that remains, even after death. The soaring guitars and tightly wound bass and drums stirring up a whole world of emotion whilst Steen’s vocals flitting between melodious and primal.
After years spent in the wilderness of mediocrity, British guitar music is now on the ascent and Shame are very much in the driver’s seat. They’ve defined my 2018 and without trying to come across as a man fast-approaching a midlife crisis, make me feel like an angry teenager each and every time the needle hits the groove.
Arriving in July as quietly as its opening bars, Gia Margaret’s There’s Always Glimmer brought to 2018 a record which unashamedly looks in while so many others are looking out.
As it crackles and smoulders for 34 perfectly-pitched minutes of honesty, heartbreak and vulnerability, Margaret looks at relationships and finds beauty in the mundane and solace in the ordinary. It’s Robert Smith’s “It's such a gorgeous sight to see you eat in the middle of the night.” It’s Annie and Alvy chasing lobster around the kitchen. While falling in love is punctuated by landmark moments, being in love is a book of corner-folded pages with seemingly inane detail underlined. When a relationship falters it’s these pages we often re-read the most. On There’s Always Glimmer, Margaret paints her own vignettes with a deftness of touch that is both poignant and relatable.
All this plays over a Low burning fire of delicate and considered arrangements; each track the fuel to keep the embers glowing. It’s a record that is as much a companion for a low-lit night as it is for long afternoon walks under the crisp winter sun, hands deep in pockets.
Smoke’s sparse instrumentation of piano, woodwind and glockenspiel -- reminiscent of the Icelandic textures of Múm -- give way to a glitching electronic beat. "Looking" waltzes its way through the centre of the record. The percussive rasp of nylon strings and soft brass is met with the gentle shuffle of brushes on snare as "Figures" makes its triumphant turn. Born out of demos which originally had a home on Soundcloud, There’s Always Glimmer has retained these early recordings’ the-room-is-an-instrument charm, with the occasional creak of a chair or the mechanical breathing of a piano left unpolished, playing perfectly against the loops and electronics which often serve as the bed.
Setting her stall with the opening line of “It’s safe to say it’s been a hard year”, Margaret chooses not to look out at the confusing and headline-filled world around us but turns her gaze inwards, reassuring us that’s it’s ok to slow down and reflect on life’s small print. If you missed out on There’s Always Glimmer on release, take pause and spend time with one of this year’s most remarkable debuts.
The future is always a hot topic, especially when it comes to music. Luckily we have the wicked world of Let’s Eat Grandma to assure us that we’re in good hands. Thoroughly deserving of every accolade and critical acclaim, I’m All Ears is a twisted and pop-tastic glimpse into the mindset of those unbound by any archaic idea of genre or expectation.
Throughout Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth test and taunt; pushing more boundaries than have been created in the last decade - well before they were even considering making music. Let’s Eat Grandma are of a generation that refuses to inhabit anyone world and instead opt for all of them, at their leisure. They’re the sound of outsiders who’ve been left to clear up the mess before them, but with no real hurry. Everything is for the want, the fun, and not the need. WIth SOPHIE and The Horrors' Faris Badwan adding to the production and writing, I’m All Ears walks the fine line between the obscure, and the straight up punchy with the duo always ensuring to retain themselves and not succumbing to any outside pressures. It’s an album full of hope and promise - the perfect ideas for a world that can feel dark and helpless.
Being a fan of The 1975 in 2018 was to exist in heightened states of both excitement and exhaustion. We thought we knew what was coming: Music for Cars, an album named after an early EP, launched on 1 June – a significant date for The 1975, whose commitment to self-mythology recalls that of 1992-era Manic Street Preachers. Then posters started appearing around the country: black, solemn, reading "A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships”. We soon learned that Music For Cars was now an ‘era’ encompassing two albums, the first of which was coming at an indeterminate date.
On 1 June, a countdown on the band’s website disappeared, revealing the video to “Give Yourself a Try”: a single heralding a newfound sincerity. Matty Healy played a version of himself: the recovering heroin addict rock star, getting clean and getting serious, with heartbreakingly familiar layers of jokes and earnestness. Then another poster appeared at Reading Festival (which we now know they are headlining in 2019): November 30. Three more months of surprise clues and fragments and singles: the overwhelming “Love It If We Made It”; the suspiciously sunny “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME”; the doubled-down honesty of “Sincerity is Scary”. But we couldn’t make the esoteric parts into a coherent whole. We didn’t know what was coming.
When A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships finally emerged on the last day of November, it made complete sense. Recognisably the sound of a dying year on a dying planet, it was bleak but gorgeous – demonstrating Healy’s deep understanding of how we relate to each other in an impossible world. Like 2016’s equally astonishing I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It it bounced wildly between genres and sounds: from the acoustic balladry of “Be My Mistake” to the anxious UK garage of “How to Draw/Petrichor”, finishing with the expansive indie of “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)” – a nihilistic sing-along for the end of the world. Like I Like It When You Sleep, it somehow, miraculously, made sense as a whole.
The second installment of Music for Cars - Notes on a Conditional Form - is set for release in Spring 2019 – so much for relief from that heightened anticipatory state. It’s such a cliché – especially in the context of an albums of the year feature – to conclude by claiming that a group are capable of anything they put their minds to, but really we’ve known this about The 1975 for years: what makes them so compelling is that they follow through, and they do it all at once. Their relentless audacity is often mistaken for pomposity, but what all-time greats were ever made from coyness?
2018 saw the foundations laid for a global popstar as Rosalía’s second album announced her to the world. Framed as “the way I understand flamenco music here and now” by its creator, El Mal Querer deconstructs the familiar characteristics of flamenco by bending guitar toque, stretching handclaps into submerged loops and drops, and meshing the whole thing against a backdrop of modern pop. Rosalía spent eight years studying flamenco - and El Mal Querer was reportedly part of her graduate thesis at the Catalunya College of Music in Barcelona - but still insists her music is only “inspired” by the Spanish folklore art form.
The record is an exercise in minimalism from the 25-year old Catalan-born polymath, uniting in perfect symbiosis the worlds of flamenco and pop, but its real success lies in artistic bravery. Inspired by an anonymously-authored 14th-century novel about the toxicity of love, each song on El Mal Querer represents a chapter in the journey from obsessions to empowerment. It’s an album in the old school sense: conceptual, intelligent and only sensical as a whole.
After bulldozer of a breakthrough single ‘Bodak Yellow’ bust onto our stereos in the summer of 2017, the anticipation for Cardi B’s full-length debut was palpable. When Invasion of Privacy dropped in the Spring, it felt almost ironic given the Bronx-born MC’s well-documented rags to riches story. A former gang member and stripper, Cardi B took the long route to fame. Her uproarious Instagram account earned her a spot on VH1’s reality TV series, Love and Hip Hop, but her onscreen charm far surpassed the show’s micro-dramas.
Spurred on by one of her managers, Cardi B turned her acerbic online outpourings into the kind of rap verses that could’ve been teased straight out her savage IG stories. And in that moment, she carved a space for herself as the voice of “no filter” in the millennium age. Or as she more astutely puts it: “I started speaking my mind and tripled my views / Real bitch, only thing fake is the boobs.”
Despite the name, Invasion of Privacy doesn’t have an issue when it comes to getting intimate. It’s a suckerpunch slam towards taking up space. Subverting tired rap tropes and finding new strength in traditional symbols of power. The neck-slung gold chains become her blood red Louboutins (“These expensive, these is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes”). The high-end Cristal pours out in a fresh form (“Diamonds on my wrist, they drippin”) in fellow MC Migos collab, Drip Drip. But it’s not all brash spats and self-assured swagger.
As you might expect from a social media starlet, pop cultural references abound here but instead of throwaway meme culture, there’s faith in feminism. Queen Bey shows up all over this album as some sort of new age deity (“Took pictures with Beyoncé, met Mama Knowles”), or as a celeb icon (“them pretty twins looking like Beyoncé”). Meanwhile, she lays her Latin roots bare in “I Like It” (her father is from the Dominican Republic) sampling Pete Rodriguez’ 1967 vintage salsa hit for a duet with reggaeton star J. Balvin and Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny.
When it comes to music critique, pigeonholing is a reality and, as Cardi B herself puts it, “bitches love to assume”. We probably all assumed this debut would be an out-and-out hip-hop album. But with its dallies into multiple beats and backgrounds, not to mention the laid bare lyricism, Cardi B’s Invasion conquers over any naysayers. Not to mention seizing a bit more of that rap renaissance title from her foisty fore-fathers.
Cocoa Sugar hears Scottish trio Young Fathers break with convention with a slew of more melodic, immediate songs. Their Mercury Music Prize-winning debut album Dead (2014) provided some foresight of what a later record could offer – see the catchy “GET UP” and “LOW” – likewise with 2015’s White Men Are Black Men Too (“27”, “Nest”). Those records rebuked the kinds of digestible structures and hooky turns found in mainstream music. Cocoa Sugar, however, retains the band’s industrial bedrock of beats while carving out meatier melodies to test 2018’s waters.
This isn’t to say that Young Fathers have gone totally pop on Cocoa Sugar. “There’s no way that we could ever be normal. We’re always gonna be weird as fuck,” they told The Observer
White Men Are Black Men Too was perhaps the Young Fathers' most political work to date. The album name alone was enough to ruffle some feathers. “I’m tired of playing the good black”, Alloysious spat on “Old Rock n Roll”, the song that delivers the record’s charged title. Cocoa Sugar has a smattering of these moments. “Turn” is the most politically weighted number. It’s a song built of rousing, tribal bests and cackling 8-bit synths with a catchy refrain: “Don't you turn / My brown eyes blue / I'm nothing like you”. This exploration of the facets of identity – of race, class, culture – and the push-pull of honouring the self vs pandering to others is important in the midst of chaotic world predicament.
Similar to previous records, much of Cocoa Sugar’s lyrical content is kept vague for the listener to interpret at will. The album is riddled with religious and literary references, such as the Jack and the Beanstalk chants on “Fee Fi”, which serves a kind of everyman projection. Thanks to their capricious nature, however, Young Fathers don’t neglect what is, seemingly, personal affliction. The stirring, claustrophobic “Tremolo” plays out like a swelling panic attack; a dark, mental space occupied by twitching organ pulses and literal musical tremolos. “In My View” is a redemption song of sorts. The central voice asks for forgiveness of his sexual and culinary greed (laying his belly on the promiscuous “Delilah” – another biblical reference – and eating foie gras). But he indulges despite this since “love will never come” his way. As with “In My View” and other tracks, such as the gospel haunt of “Lord”, this track wriggles with earworm melodies, prioritising melody over rhythm. Cocoa Sugar is ironically the sound of an experimental band breaking free of some old habits. The result is something still idiosyncratic but, perhaps crucially, more accessible.
IDLES have leapt from the trenches to reach their dizzying zenith in just over 18 months; 2017's Brutalism tore into grief, austerity, and addiction with vitriol, and 2018's Joy As An Act Of Resistance has been a hurricane of a follow up. Where the Bristol brutes went insular on their debut, they've looked outwards and upwards with album number two – although they share many similarities.
Both are fuelled by the loss of a loved one by frontman Joe Talbot, and both take aim at British and western society's infinite failings. But where their debut had rage in the gastank, Joy is propelled to the heavens by hope and hilarity; it's gloriously self-effacing at every turn, though fingers are never jabbed at the core tenet of a sincere belief that everyone can change for the better.
Joy serves up a savage menu of tracks that aim big and aim wide, with just a few central strands tying the roughly hewn package together, but its the absolute, unwavering honesty that sells it all. Toxic masculinity, the right-wing media, and trolls on all sides of the political divide are in the crosshairs here – and none come away unscathed. It's a lacerating assembly of fired-up anthems for a generation rocked off balance that preaches unity, community, and compassion.
Pro-immigration paean “Danny Nedelko” (the titular Danny is the frontman of IDLES' pals Heavy Lungs) and splurt-out-your-drink-through-your-nose sassy “Great” are superb examples of the quintet's energy, but there's a deceptively cerebral element too, with “June” a sobering mid-album comedown proving the thought that's gone into every beat. Joy is messy and unabashedly DIY, but its brilliance is certainly no accident and the sentiments are from the heart – IDLES don't perch atop Ivory Towers, they are (quite literally, if you've seen their shows) down in the pits with the masses. No pretence or hierarchy here.
It's undoubtedly violent and testosterone-packed in its tone, and it's this that allows Joy to be cathartic as hell for everyone repressing emotions and hunting for an outlet for their ennui. IDLES value anger and, having learned from previous lessons (“Never Fight A Man With A Perm” etc.), have found a finely tuned channel to put it all out in the world in a positive way. Time to hug it out.
Once again, the year has been a mixed bag for transgender people in pop culture and in the real world. Ryan Murphy's show Pose starred trans women, with an episode written and directed by Janet Mock, but the show didn't reach cultural omnipresence to the extent of Murphy's other shows. Kim Petras released a series of slick singles and opened for Troye Sivan, but most of her music was produced by the disgraced former hitmaker Dr. Luke. And that's before we get to the violence trans people face in Britain just for existing, and the Trump administration's attempts at rolling back protections.
On Oil Of Every Pearl's Un-Insides SOPHIE imagines a world where trans people not only have the unabashed right to exist, but the way they break down boundaries is outright aspirational. This extends to the sonics too: SOPHIE's music ranges from nasty, hard-hitting IDM ("Ponyboy" and "Faceshopping") to gorgeous ballads ("It's Okay To Cry" and "Infatuation") to possibly the greatest queer pop song of this century ("Immaterial."). It's difficult to see a way out of the current political climate, but with Oil Of Every Pearl's Un-Insides, SOPHIE announces her intent to make a "whole new world" out of sheer force of will.
Sometimes an album just lands: something at its emotional core that doles out that gut-punch of shared feeling. The debut full length by South London’s Tirzah is not only one of those records but can reasonably claim to be the most affecting album of the year by some distance. It is a perfect storm of candid intimacy and loose universality, layered and distorted in Mica Levi’s murky sonic soup.
The easy relationship between Levi (aka Micachu) and Tirzah is central to allowing such close honesty to flourish. The two have been friends since their teens and their process of jamming, with Levi making beats and Tirzah writing or freestyling over the them, results here in an album of gorgeously unguarded musings on the relationships we build, maintain and sometimes walk away from.
Devotion is a simple record. For the most part the instrumentation allows the singer’s voice the space to cut through and she in turn grabs a passing thought or feeling, turning it over to pick at its meaning. Take the opener “Fine Again”, which sees her sing the song’s title, pulling and teasing at every inflection, before delivering the words “this feels so pure, this feel’s rare, I just want you to know that I’m here for you” in choppy, harmonized staccato. The title track, a particular standout, similarly swirls around a basic motif, not straying from the cloying need for affection. Curl honcho Coby Sey backs Tirzah with an unsettling off-key murmur, as she floats along Mica Levi’s lightly plodding piano line. The result is that these songs slip under the skin, burrowing into the psyche with an unnerving familiarity.
More expansive moments like “Guilty”, with its distorted guitars and bonkers auto-tune wigout, or understated banger “Holding On”, the closest thing here to Tirzah’s earlier dancefloor-ready releases, keep the album from getting bogged down. While “Gladly” is as sweet and viscous as syrup, the most “straight-up love song” in an album described as such by the artist.
Devotion isn’t a loud record. On the face of it Tirzah’s reflective soul, wrapped in Mica Levi’s rough and ready musical whims, should take time to sink in. But it’s allure is immediate. From the moment her voice flutters through the speakers, its hold is undeniable, and with each track you are dropped right into the middle of some intimate moment with eerie precision. It’s well trodden ground, but the inventive edge and honesty with which the pair take it on meant this year we returned to it again and again.
I see Mitski perform at Shepherds Bush Empire in September of this year. I stand a little ajar from the sold-out crowd and I suddenly feel desperately alone. She plays “Two Slow Dancers” – the closing track from Be the Cowboy – and I stand at the back of the theatre, clutching my phone to my chest, with tears in my eyes that won’t fall onto my cheeks, however much I need them to: “It would be a hundred times easier / If we were young again / But as it is / And it is.”
I have, at this point, had my heart broken once this year and I don’t know it yet but it will be broken again, into even smaller and more jagged pieces, less than two months from this point in time. But for the moment, I levitate, suspended in pink and blue lights, swaying slightly, holding myself.
In June of this year I send the newly released audio of “Nobody”, the second single from the album to my friend with the message “!!!!” It is so intensely different from anything Mitski has done before – disco-inspired, loose and simmering, itchingly easy to dance to. Some people on Twitter think she’s selling out. I could never believe that. “Nobody, nobody, nobody / Nobody nobody / Ooh, nobody, nobody, nobody.” It’s the way those negatives pile up on top of one another. They emphasise each other and then they cancel each other out and then the word itself begins to dissolve. It’s a summoning – an incantation – it’s desperately trying to create a presence out of the absence at the heart of the song. You listen to “Nobody” and it’s instantly apparent why Lorde asked Mitski to be her tour support. “Music for Sad Girls to dance to” you can imagine the Spotify playlist being called. I listen to it on repeat in the summer evening gloom.
August 2018. Be the Cowboy is released and it’s – as expected – very different to Puberty 2 and Bury Me At Makeout Creek. Only “Geyser” sounds really familiar. Maybe that’s why it’s the opener. A cleanser: if not exactly purging the memory of those albums, then perhaps setting a precedent instantly undercut by the grimly funny, bass heavy second track, “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” “I know that I ended it, but / Why won’t you chase after me?” A great deal of depth is often ignored in Mitski’s music, in favour of heavily gendered criticism about how emotional – how sad – it is. She’s dry and acerbic in so many tracks in Be the Cowboy, acutely aware of herself and her public perception – from the crackle of the lines “Nobody butters me up like you / And nobody fucks me like me,” in “Lonesome Love”, to the juxtaposition of the bone-tired sigh at the beginning of “Me and My Husband” which colours the apparent brightness and gaiety of the track itself. She transgresses genre in the space of a single track, never mind the entire span of the album, and yet it never feels anything less than cohesive and purposeful.
Tracks from Be the Cowboy begin to stain my life. I listen to “Pink in the Night” on a bus ride home at midnight on a Saturday in October. It pours with rain. I look out of the window and it all feels unbearably cinematic. I hold my own hand and feel the breath rushing out of my accordion lungs. The lone drum beat that closes the track feels close to my own heartbeat. “I glow pink in the night in my room / I’ve been blossoming alone over you.” I have to stop listening to “A Pearl” sometime towards the end of October because it feels too tender, a little too delicately raw. The guitars rake over my skin and the way her voice almost breaks when she sings, “There’s a hole that you fill/ You fill, you fill.” It’s too much. I turn it off. When I listen to the album now, I skip it.
While Be the Cowboy is only about half an hour in length, every song is a pinprick on a different part of my body. “Why am I lonely?” Mitski croons at the close of “Lonesome Love”, letting that light, bright second syllable ring out, reverberate against your ears. It aches to listen to. I can feel my body curling in on itself, becoming more precious. Mitski is sometimes characterised as the perfect break-up artist – writing the perfect songs to cry to. I don’t see it like that. Not exactly. At least, not in Be the Cowboy.
Mitski complexifies sadness – she understands that sadness is not just tears. It’s fury and fierceness and humour and desperation and longing and occasional blips of frenzied joy. Be the Cowboy is a miniature odyssey of all these things – a delicately sketched, piercing excavation of human emotion.
Ava Wong Davies