#20: The Carters – Everything Is Love
The capstone to the power couple’s scandalous last few years, Everything Is Love finally comes full circle on the power of 2003’s “Crazy In Love” to bring the separate musical empires of Jay-Z and Beyonce together again. Hip hop has changed in the 15 years between, of course, and Everything Is Love incorporates a lot of trap influences, something that Beyonce takes to with much more bravado and self-assurance than her husband seems to. It’s funny, actually, watching the divergence of their careers; Beyonce has rocketed into the stratosphere since 2013 while, save for the blip of last year’s 4:44, Jay-Z’s has largely stagnated since his first “retirement” more than a decade ago. Everything Is Love is the sound of the two renewing their vows in public, with all the intensity and power that such an act suggests.
#19: Iceage – Beyondless
Iceage have matured by leaps and bounds in seven years. When the Danish hardcore band first hit the indie press there was a disturbing undercurrent of crypto-fascist symbolism that came along with them, causing many to wonder if they were seceretly a Nazi band. Of course, the Dead Kennedys, of all bands, were once accused of being Nazis, and the Sex Pistols used to wear Nazi symbols to shock people and…and and and. The band has never espoused any far-right ideals and has dropped the edgy symbolism over their last two albums, probably because as you grow up you realize that shock for shock value gets pretty empty after a while, especially when there are actual Nazis roaming around. Either way, Iceage has moved toward constructing more melody into their hardcore brutalism, and the effect is magical, a post-punk treasure seemingly unearthed whole from the early Eighties.
#18: U.S. Girls – In A Poem Unlimited
Yankee-in-exile Meg Remy talks politics in Toronto by lobbing bombs of pure groove and verve over the border. Taking a real live band into the studio for the first time, she crafts 11 chunks of rock ‘n’ roll soul that seethes with righteous intersectional anger. That anger cuts even deeper in the assured, icy disco-queen voice she uses to soar over the instrumentation. No one is spared, either; “Mad As Hell” should be the soundtrack of every Twitter thread about Obama killing kids with drones where Rose Twitter squares off against Brunch Twitter.
#17: Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar
I think the biggest reason why I love modern hip hop so much is that the genre has hit it’s experimental phase and so the boundaries of what it means to be a hip hop artist, what it means to *be* hip hop, are now in a constant state of bending and blurring. Cocoa Sugar is an album that wouldn’t have been possible twenty years ago, but we’ve moved so beyond this one-dimensional idea of what hip hop is that even Scotland can produce vibrant, vital, cutting-edge hip hop music. Hate him all you like, for reasons both rational and irrational, but: Kanye and 808s and Heartbreak are directly responsible for the last ten years of mutation in the genre. If you don’t think you can draw a line from “Love Lockdown” right to “In My View” then you’re kidding yourself.
#16: Vince Staples – FM!
Speaking of the ongoing mutation of hip hop, here’s Vince Staples: grew up gangbanging in the culture and now he brings so many different sounds in to fully flesh out his observations of that life that it’s not recognizable as “gangsta rap”. FM! is actually the most conventional album he’s done; it sounds, purposefully, like it was lifted out of a radio stream in the last few years. Unlike a lot of that hedonistic radio stuff, though, Vince continues to come at you hard, and depressed, and a little dead inside, like he wants to break your kneecaps but goddammit that’s just so much effort.
#15: Mitski – Be The Cowboy
Mitski is wonder and heartbreak held together so tightly that they compress and become hard, glittering diamonds of an unspeakable emotional reaction. She takes the language of indie rock and turns it on it’s ear in order to tease out this ambiguous emotional construction, fracturing what it means to be a “singer-songwriter” both in songwriting and in singing. I think I like Mitski so much because she at times actively works against her own arrangements, refusing to be held to the standards that people expect from a song, from a melody, from the transition from chorus to verse and back again. It’s sort of like what Bjork used to do, only Mitski refuses to be willfully weird as a gimmick.
#14: Melody’s Echo Chamber – Bon Voyage
When Tame Impala stops putting out music in a year, it gives all the other associated Melbourne projects some time to get their names out there. Melody’s Echo Chamber is more than just another Kevin Parker side project, though. Melody Prochet takes the reins on the project’s second album and turns the original’s ‘kinda-okay-psych’ music into something bigger, more galactic in it’s ambitions. This is Sixties-vintage psychedelic music brought forcibly into the modern age, filtered through glitch and breakbeats and hip hop until the rank cheesiness of the old era has been stripped away and only the good stuff remains. It’s like when you freeze vodka and the pure alcohol syrup floats to the top.
#13: Jon Hopkins – Singularity
Jon Hopkins resurrects the ghost of banging techno – the genre, not the clueless uber-label for electronic music – and marries it to experimental ambient, dirty psychedelic music, and choral soundscapes. The closest genre you can pin it down to is “microhouse” but even then that’s just a label of convenience more than anything else. Jon Hopkins makes Jon Hopkins music, and he does it exceedingly well.
#12: Joey Purp – Quarterthing
Chicago hip hop has moved in the last three years to change what it means to be “Chicago hip hop”. Part of that is the massive, outsized influence of Chance The Rapper and his frenetic, positive take on the genre and the community. Part of it is outpacing the wilfully ignorant, blatantly aggressive drill scene, which was in itself a direct response to the explosion of the drug war and the extremely high murder rate that resulted from it. Many artists in Chance’s orbit have moved to try something beyond Chief Keef’s nihilistic exploration of Chiraq, but few have been as explicit about it as Joey Purp. He’s honest about his past – about being basically a cog in his family’s drug-pushing machine – but he’s also honest about his desire to move past it. Rather than mire down in it like the drill scene, he spends Quarterthing looking toward a day when he doesn’t have to talk about it all the time – a time when “Chiraq” isn’t the first thing people think of when they think of Chicago.
#11: Jeff Rosenstock – POST-
POST– was released on New Years Day, 2018, before…well, everything that happened in that weird, surreal, often frightening year. It’s the sort of positioning of art and timing that seems weirdly prescient in retrospect, especially on a barnburner of a track like “U.S.A.” That one kicks off the album with “Dumbfounded, downtrodden and dejected / Crestfallen, grief-stricken and exhausted / Trapped in my room while the house burned down to the motherfuckin’ ground.” Elsewhere, Rosenstock expresses disillusionment, despair, and seethes in frustration rather than punching out some obnoxious fascist. It’s an album that has provided the perfect accompaniment to whatever part of 2018 hit you the hardest: the Charlottesville trials, the worsening (to near-apocalyptic proportions) opiate crisis, people boycotting Nike for daring to take a pro-BLM stance, Yemeni people starving while the American President all but knelt before the Saudi Crown Prince, bombs being mailed out, I really don’t care do u?, the spectre of probable nuclear war, the rapid collapse of civilization due to climate change, we’re tired, we’re bored, we’re tired, we’re bored, et tu USA?
#10: Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel And Casino
OK, look, this album is weird. Everything around it is weird. It’s Arctic Monkeys, first of all. For some, especially in their home of north England, they’re the MySpace band – that brave time back in 2005 when bands broke not on the radio or through streaming charts but by the hard work of putting together a fanbase on a pre-Facebook social media platform. Unlike the other MySpace band (Fall Out Boy) they’re actually good; their sophomore effort, the destined-to-fail Favourite Worst Nightmare, nonetheless succeeded. You can still find “Fluorescent Adolescence” on jukeboxes – trust me, I’ve found it many times – and “505” is simply a goddamn late-00’s classic. They refused to go away even then; 2013’s AM is probably their best album, and it was all over radio and streaming. How to follow up such sustained, long-running, legendary-status success?
Well, you make a science fiction concept album about ennui on the moon, obviously.
No, ha ha, but seriously. Tranquility Base Hotel And Casino is exactly what the title implies: a song cycle about a rock star who just wanted to be one of The Strokes who ended up nabbing a residency at the moon’s hottest getaway property and opened up a taqueria on the roof called The Information-Action Ratio. Yes, it sounds like a bizarre fever dream. Yes, it is brilliant.
The band sells it, of course. The album was originally written by Alex Turner as stuff on a piano that had been gifted him, a collection he’d turn into a solo album of some sort. The band wanted in, though, and why not? It represents a sharp turn from their former guitar-centric sound. Tranquility Base is a glam album – all piano and Bowie, sung yearningly and with more than a few spoonfuls of jaded veteran rock-star cynicism. It’s an album where the ghosts of Serge Gainsbourg and Leonard Cohen drift uneasily along the cock-eyed gloom of latter-day Nick Cave; an album where Jarvis Cocker sings not about the disaffected English working class but the disaffected nouveau-ultra-rich who are colonizing and capitalizing the moon, making it just as awful as they’ve made the surface. It’s a remarkable leap forward for a band who’ve made a career out of confounding the expectations that Boomer media gatekeepers place on them. Rolling Stone hated it, which means you should be safe in knowing it’s great.
#09: Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy
Look, I don’t care that this is a re-recording of an old album. I heard the old album back in the day on Bandcamp and I still like this version way better. The ambient, ‘dream-like memory’ take on the album is fine I guess, but the 2018 version of Twin Fantasy is the definitive one, for my money. It takes the sound they finally cobbled together on Teens Of Denial – that rich, radio-ready but slow-burning indie punk sound – and applies it to old Car Seat Headrest recordings. This version slaps, the other one doesn’t. End of story.
#08: Pusha T – DAYTONA
Pusha has been the quiet underdog of the rap game almost from the beginning of his career. After scoring a big hit with “Grindin'” something like a lifetime ago, his duo The Clipse ended up in Jive Records hell, having to wait five years to get out of their contract and release the follow-up Hell Hath No Fury. More contractual wrangling ensued, moving onto Columbia Records, and then after a middling third album the act fell apart when Push’s brother Malice dropped out and found God. I can relate, I had a frontman do that to me once.
The second act of Push’s career, though, has been on Kanye’s GOOD Music, and it has provided a much higher profile position. Two albums and several killer cameos later, he’s become an integral part of GOOD. Enter the Wyoming Sessions.
By now it’s become obvious that Kanye has some, uh, problems. As such, the Wyoming Sessions were a dicey proposition when they were announced, and they in fact proved to be pretty hit and miss. DAYTONA, though, was a revelation upon it’s release. It proved that there was merit to this whole “only seven songs per album” thing Kanye revealed through tweeted white boards. As it happens, it’s the perfect hip hop album structure – 7 songs, 21 minutes. In and out without overstaying your welcome. Kanye’s production is better than ever (bizarre given his own lackluster 7-track effort), layering his increasingly chunky sampling style through militant trap drums. Push’s hectoring boasts and cold threats get honed to a razor’s edge, and in retrospect the Drake talk on the last two tracks should have set us all up for the stone cold murder that was “The Story Of Adidon”.
#07: Noname – Room 25
Fatimah Warner came up doing open mic nights and slam poetry competitions, so they do make a goddamn difference, put that in your soup. Most people outside of Chicago were first attuned to her frequency from her appearance on Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book or the Chance-driven neo-soul band Donny Trumpet & The Social Experiments. Room 25, her debut, shows that she’s a cut above almost everyone around her. Her flow is sinuous, like the way a delta transfers water from the river to the sea. It stops, starts, moves in and out, diagonally, suddenly in vibrant 3D, and in the next instant masking itself to become another voice in the instrumental track. It helps that her production team here is wall-to-wall Chicago highlights, but production can only carry you so far (paging Nas) – Noname builds on their liquid beats and uses them to challenge whiteness, the patriarchy, and America. In a lot of ways, Room 25 is an album that could only have come from 2018; I mean, albums obviously come from specific circumstances but the slow-motion nightmare that has been 2018 is fit perfectly by it’s deceptively laid-back intersectional explorations.
#06: Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
Remember earlier on this list when I said I loved that hip hop had entered a serious experimental phase (one that has been bubbling for a while but got kicked open in the mainstream by 808s And Heartbreak)? This is what I’m talking about. Here we have Earl Goddamn Sweatshirt – Earl “Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill ‘Em All Free Earl” Sweatshirt – leading light of a group that used to be billed as the “next Wu Tang.” A guy whose flow was so sick that his mother sent him to an overseas military school just to save him from himself, a guy who came back chastened and darkened but still possessed of that world-ending flow. Who declared back in 2015 that he didn’t like shit and he didn’t go outside, and then buried himself back into obscurity. Instead of doing some big flashy ‘comeback’ type album like you’d expect from the game, he instead displays what he’s been doing for the past three years: getting faded, musically, and fitting his flow into experimental beatcraft and samples. It’s jazz as rap, and it’s the most exciting thing in terms of looking toward the musical future that I can think of.
#05: Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer
God’s Favorite Customer and Pure Comedy were written around the same time, and both are highly relatable. Pure Comedy is a long, piano-man style tribute to the hilarious corners humanity paints itself into and how mortality is pretty much a gigantic downer all around. God’s Favorite Customer, though, is about imposter syndrome, and that one speaks quite a bit to most people, I’d imagine.
The record is about the Songwriter putting himself up in a New York hotel for a month or two while he writes and partially records a new album. He, of course, immediately gets writers block, develops a disturbing drinking habit, and teeters on the edge of despair and suicide. It’s the sort of pants-shitting terror anyone feels when they’ve promised a big project and the deadline is coming way faster than you thought was possible. At the same time, it’s delivered in Josh Tillman’s patented sardonic Millenial hungover wryness, the kind where the dude with the red eyes and the two-day beard unveils pipes that put any doubts to rest.
There was a twitter thread recently that suggested that FJM came off like a sex pervert who made music for people who get engaged on Christmas Eve; another user likened him, favourably, to a cult leader. Folks, it’s true – all of it. It’s just that he does it so fucking well that all of it is forgivable – laudable, even.
#04: Saba – Care For Me
When he first started popping up on the Chance-orbit Chicago scene, Saba was a bright splash of colored paint, a crafter of good-time summer melodies to waft along with that sultry Midwestern heat. His first album, Bucket List Project, was like that: good-time vibes without much thought to things like consequences, or how summer has a terrible way of ending eventually. Then, in 2017, his cousin and artistic compatriot was murdered on the street for his coat.
The result is something akin to a hip hop A Crow Looked At Me – an album of grief, but not grief that ever has a resolution. It recognizes – in the first 30 seconds – that you can never come to terms with the monumental unfairness of such random, violent death. Instead, it chronicles Saba’s journey through sudden bereavement and the flow of heartbreak that comes out of it. It allows us to see something that had been sort of obscured before, namely how devastatingly great Saba’s flow is. His songs are explicit as to the successes and failures of how he treats his grief and depression, and they do it in a pocket that is as tight as an expertly twisted screw. The beats and sample choices fit the vibe perfectly as well; it’s heavy on piano sections and ghostly gliss samples, a minimalist statement of intent to portray a haunting. It’s a stunning artistic statement and one that elevates Saba to the level of One To Watch.
#03: Kamasi Washington – Heaven & Earth
Kamasi Washington is the pinnacle of the new jazz movement: a saxophone player who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with legends of the instrument, a bandleader who feels equally at home covering the theme to Bruce Lee’s Fists Of Fury as he does blasting out his chosen instrument. It’s more than a little odd that we’re talking about a gigantic two-and-a-half hour plus double album filled mostly by instrumental jazz in terms of being a vital part of the cultural landscape, but 18 years into the 21st Century all bets are off, apparently. Heaven & Earth never once wears out it’s welcome by virtue of the fact that every single player in Washington’s band are playing at the absolute peak of their abilities. There are constant surprises and delights around every corner, and at the 2:24 running time there’s more than enough reason to keep coming back to mine new parts of the album for pure joy.
#02: Parquet Courts – Wide Awake!
This album starts by taking a Dutch national tactic used at the 1974 World Cup – total football – and using it as a metaphor to call for an intersectional uprising against oppression, fascism, and capitalism. Elsewhere frontman Andrew Savage recounts the time he almost punched out a fascist, addresses climate change directly, talks about the violence inherent in every aspect of American life (especially in terms of race and poverty), writes a sequel to “Freebird”, and tries to deal with his sister’s death in a car crash. It’s knotty punk rock, taking it’s cues firmly from the more experimental bands in the First Wave while keeping things lyrically Clash. How many other albums in 2018 shouted “COLLECTIVISM AND AUTONOMY ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE! THOSE WHO FIND DISCOMFORT IN YOUR GOALS OF LIBERATION WILL BE ISSUED NO APOLOGIES!”? Like goddamn, this was an album we all needed just to deal with the ever-present fash threat infesting the West like insects flocking to the sugar produced by decay. Violence is daily life. Violence happens everyday. It’s hard to get used to getting used to violence. Riot is an unfinished grave that was dug to deposit undepleted anger. Like barrels of uranium leaking into something sacred. It is a word to use to delegitimize your unrest and to make your resistance into an overreaction.
Seriously, this is punk as fuck, 2018.
#01: Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
To be fair, it’s kind of a consensus pick at this point. There was a twitter thread a few weeks back, the kind where someone asks what the best album of 2018 was and gets some decent traffic. Several answers were along the line of “I’m assuming you mean the best album of 2018 other than Dirty Computer.” It’s an obvious one, though.
America is a house divided. There’s no escaping that conclusion. Ever since the Great Recession barreled into the United States and brought accelerated social change in some aspects and social discohesion in many others. While race and gender issues were at the forefront of the post-war social revolution that ramped up in the mid-1960s, both managed to become diffused by the end of the difficult 1970s. Racial justice, a major factor in the upheaval of the 1950s and early 1960s, burned out in terms of the national radar by 1980 thanks to concerted state effort to diffuse black social and political power. Women carried the torch of the late 1970s and early 1980s, as second wave feminism empowered an entire generation who were prepared to wrest power from men. By the 1990s, though, a solid decade of neoliberal economic policy showed that the state-corporate partnership was more than willing to let women gain a sense of equality in the workplace, since they were in the process of dismantling the power of workers anyway. The acceptance of homosexuality followed as the main social justice cause, and that’s still ongoing; in the 2010’s the movement has run into rough water on the acceptance of trans and queer identities, which is where the fault lines of the ‘culture wars’ lie right now.
Enter Janelle Monae: black, female, queer, proud. An artist who came into her power telling science-fiction stories about androids and examining the detachment and empowerment inherent in the concept. It was lush, funky R&B that set Kansas City back on the map, but that was then. In 2018 she identified as queer, embracing either/or/neither with regard to the binary, breaking it and showing it’s incompetence at describing the totality of human experience. It relates back to a 2011 interview where she claimed she “only dated androids”; in retrospect the android character was a profoundly queer one, a shifting identity that did not rest comfortably on any one archetypal ‘category’ but shimmered between them. By 2018, the android was retired; like Bowie, the mask Janelle Monae wore revealed more about the audience than the artist, but like Bowie 1977, Monae 2018 found it advantageous to remove the mask entirely and stand proudly in one’s own identity.
On Dirty Computer, Janelle Monae drops the literary conceit and addresses the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality as it currently exists, warts and all. It’s a profoundly empowering album, calling on people to embrace who they are and to not be afraid to call out and fight back against the forces that prevent them from living life as the goddamn American promise sets out. It’s uncompromising in it’s embrace of the things that make the staid cis het establishment very uncomfortable: her ideals, her values, her genitals. She confronts her patriarchal detractors head-on, without blinking, and upholds it as her American Dream – and by extension, a pure, uncompromising vision of America itself.
Plus, it sounds the Great Lost Prince Album.