Recently, a friend of mine said that 2018 wasn’t that great of a year for music and I’m gonna have to respectfully disagree.
This year has been almost as good as 2015 was for music. That was the year we were blessed with To Pimp a Butterfly and Currents and Teens of Style and I Love You Honeybear and DS2. This year was full of rather unique additions to the musical canon and to many artists’ discographies. Without boring anyone with a list longer than their battery life, I’ll divulge into my top ten and defend my picks in the hopes that I can persuade you to hear them out:
10. Sweetener, Ariana Grande
This brave woman has been through a lot, but she hasn’t let that weigh down her music. In fact, 2018 saw Ariana Grande channel all the negativity that has haunted one of the toughest years of her life and created her best album yet. On Sweetener, she explored new sonic territories, expanding her audience.
It was the first time she and super producer Pharrell Williams collaborated; his contributions make up 7 of the album’s 13 tracks. Williams maps out the minimalist soundscape that would go on to be the project’s identity, which is filled with colorful melodies, crisp percussion, and sugary vocals.
The production is in line with its turbulent context while staying positive and upbeat. Grande’s performances carry the album entirely, varying from explosive and valiant to reserved but ostentatious. Those who are wary of her trademark extravagant vocal style have no need to be anxious. Sweetener’s biggest strength is in her incredible amount of restraint as a vocalist throughout the album’s 13 songs. If this was a dying star, then whatever comes next will be a supernova.
9. Care For Me, Saba
Chicago’s Saba is an artist anyone who says they love hip-hop should know. The frequent Chance the Rapper collaborator’s strength lies in his ability to translate the pain and loss of his personal experiences, such as the loss of fellow rapper and Pivot Gang member, John Walt, into music.
Saba weaves Care For Me together with details about his life and thoughts within the year that preluded Walt’s death in February 2017. Songs such as “Busy”, “Fighter”, “Life”, “Heaven All Around Me”, and the album’s centerpiece, Prom/King, evoke the emotional weight of an elephant hanging over his neck. On “Prom/King”, he recalls a memory of Walt helping him out of a tough situation leading up to his prom and, on the song’s second part, narrates a memory of the moments before he died. Care For Me is an excellent showcase of a man unashamed to admit he was broken by loss and the bleakness of life after death. Though, through writing about death can one perhaps better understand it and hope to be prepared when it eventually comes again.
8. Room 25, Noname
We move on to another Chicago rapper whose penmanship is on another level. Noname surpasses many of her male contemporaries on technical ability alone. From the very first moments of Room 25, we are greeted to a familiar sound, but the words coming out of her mouth have more punch to them than you’d expect. This isn’t the Noname we know from the days of Chance features and YouTube recordings of open mic nights.
“Self” introduces us to a Noname with a new perspective and a bone to pick. If you thought she was kidding, the following song, “Blaxploitation”, doubles down on this newfound aggression. Not only that, the production has her hitting the ground sprinting into double dutch. Her newfound aggression is refreshing while also still maintaining her brand of rapping style. Noname plays with accessibility and poetic license. Her wordplay is layered and her flow is playful. Her political commentary is witty and sharp. Her anecdotes are small, sometimes humorous, glimpses into her personal life and her ability as a storyteller, which only makes one crave more.
The guests on her previous album Telefone were a highlight because they all held their own, but Room 25’s now shine as bright as Noname. Phoelix’s smooth hooks, Adam Ness’ atmospheric harmonies, and newcomer Benjamin Earl Turner’s compelling verse on “Part of Me” is easily one of the best moments on the album. Even with all Room 25’s guests, it is still a one-woman show. Telefone was a forewarning of an artist who would come back stronger. Room 25 exceeds all those expectations and created new ones. I cannot even imagine the artist she’ll have on the next album.
7. Hive Mind, The Internet
Syd Bennett‘s run as a member of Odd Future is long behind her. Her and multi-instrumentalists Matt Martians and Steve Lacy switch roles as maestro on this groovy funkfest. Hive Mind is aptly named as it speaks to the ethos of the band’s mission with this album. The band’s tightness is the biggest strength. The bass is smooth, the guitars are slick, the drums are bumpin’, and the vocals are sexy. The greatest thing about this record is that each instrument is able to shine on certain songs more than others.
“Look What U Started” has a bassline that’ll shake your speaker system. The second half of the “Beat Goes On” has some impressively explosive drum playing. “Stay the Night” spotlights Syd’s vocals and the guitar playing. Everyone on the record is a secret weapon, as they all play different instruments. Steve Lacy isn’t strictly playing guitar. He’s also playing bass, drums, and keyboard. Just as Matt Martians isn’t solely playing drums. He’ll pick up the keyboard and synthesizer. Not even Syd can stay comfortable only singing, as she also handles the drums on “Bravo”. The Internet made waves in 2015 for their previous effort, Ego Death, even earning a Grammy nomination for it. While Hive Mind was snubbed for a nomination for the next ceremony, it is a great follow up and their greatest effort to date.
6. Some Rap Songs, Earl Sweatshirt
Earl Sweatshirt just can’t seem to catch a break, can he?
In the span of 9 months, he lost both his father, South African civil poet Keorapetse Kgositsile and one of his best friends, rapper/producer Mac Miller. There was no word of any new music from Sweatshirt until November 7, the day before he released the first single to his not-yet-named follow-up to I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.
When audiences first heard “Nowhere2go”, they were a tad confused and confronted with the new chapter, unsure whether to rejoice or reject it. Truthfully, if you follow Earl Sweatshirt’s dim social media presence, this new sound isn’t much of a surprise. He co-signed New York rapper MIKE by tweeting praise for his 2017 album, May God Bless Your Hustle. In it, he raps with a very stream-of-consciousness flow and slurring cadence. Other rappers that rap in this style are fellow New York rappers Sixpress and Medhane, who often collaborate with MIKE. Earl embraces this flow and throws his hat in the ring. He’s always played the game differently, but the performance he gives on Some Rap Songs is his most radical shift yet. His pen game is even grittier and darker than before (with quotable moments throughout), and the production goes hand in hand with a lot of his songwriting. It is simple, sample-heavy, and loop-heavy, but is powerful and synergetic with Earl’s lyrics.
Many songs contain MF DOOM and Madlib‘s influence. (One of Earl’s favorite records is Madvillainy and he is frequently compared to MF DOOM.) The closing instrumental, “Riot!”, is a somber tribute to South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela, a close friend of Earl’s father who died a few weeks after him. Tracks like “Cold Summers”, “December 24”, “Loosie”, and “Peanut” have some of the most depressing entries of his discography, but tracks such as “The Mint”, “Azucar”, and “Veins” show a more uplifting and lighthearted Earl. The only time Earl is comfortable talking about his personal life is through his music, and it’s one of the few times we hear of how he’s doing his best to take care of himself. It’s enough to take you back a bit.
5. Whack World by Tierra Whack
One of the greatest new artists to break out this year, Whack’s debut album, Whack World, is an impactful statement, being the first to be entirely shared on Instagram. The social media platform has a video limit of 60 seconds. Meaning that each of the 15 tracks are a minute long. The record is only 15 minutes – 900 seconds. Those were the boundaries she chose to work with, and it couldn’t have come out any better.
Each of Whack World’s tracks are a different suite in R&B and hip-hop’s current ever-evolving musical landscape. She excels at almost every corner of this LP. Not only that, Tierra Whack‘s colorful imagination bleeds into the music more so than the accompanying short film. You’ll only wish it was longer, and there is a rumor going around saying there is a full version of Whack World out there somewhere. Here’s to hoping it soon sees the light of day.
4. Honey, Robyn
Robyn didn’t have to bless us with an album, her legacy being secured for some time now. 8 years after her debut Body Talk, Honey has arrived. Gone are the loud electro-pop stylings of her previous work. On Honey, we’re given a futuristic pop record with a strong house influence. She began working on it back in 2015 after the death of a close friend, and its soft and sensual sound is due partly to Robyn initially working on it alone, which she felt gave her more liberty to write and create. And it shows. It is the most unique record in her entire discography. The lyrics are sweet, soft, and sensual, something she also did her best to pair with instrumentation that fit its songwriting. Standout tracks include the masterful intro “Missing U”, the title track “Honey”, and the club shaking “Send To Robyn Immediately” and “Because It’s In the Music”. Here’s hoping Robyn isn’t finished exploring this sensual side of her music… because we’re not done enjoying it.
3. Daytona, Pusha-T
The luxury of time comes when you’ve reached a point where you have nothing to prove. A time where you can relish in your accomplishments. Pusha-T does this on his third studio album, Daytona, the best hip-hop record of the year without question. It’s backed by Kanye West’s production on all seven tracks and has set the trend of short straightforward albums under 25 minutes.
Front-to-back, Daytona is a lyrical onslaught filled with death, drugs, and luxury. All killer, no filler. Pusha-T’s skills on the mic are unmatched by any other rapper out right now. The album speaks for itself in fewer words than I could. If you love hip hop, do yourself a favor and listen to this album.
2. Be the Cowboy, Mitski
Mitski Miyawaki, known by her mononym, Mitski, wrote one of the most lyrically compelling pieces of music I’ve heard all year. Many quotable moments on Be the Cowboy include: “I know that I ended it, but/Why won’t you chase after me?” (“Why Didn’t You Stop Me?”), “’Cause nobody butters me up like you/And nobody fucks me like me” (“Lonesome Love”), “You’re growing tired of me/And all the things I don’t talk about” (“A Pearl”), “And I’m the idiot with the painted face/In the corner, taking up space/But when he walks in, I am loved” (“Me and My Husband”), and of course “I don’t want your pity/I just want somebody near me” (“Nobody”).
A friend once told me she had always felt that Mitski’s music is, perhaps, vaguely influenced by the emo music of bands such as Sunny Day Real Estate and American Football. The more I listen to her music, the more I hear it be true with each run-through. Her fragile and valiant voice shines through the darkness that plagues themes of both romantic and platonic loneliness, much like Mike Kinsella’s. It’s quite heady, but when she needs to belt one out, it comes out from her stomach in a similar way I would describe Kurt Cobain’s harrowed singing style. This combined with her powerful melancholic songwriting (though, it can sometimes be tender) make for the wonderful music. While both emo music and Mitski explore themes of loneliness, Be the Cowboy is an entirely different beast when it comes to dealing with self-actualization and personal growth.
1. El Mal Querer, Rosalía
For a while, my top 3 changed many times over the course of the month. In fact, for most of the year, I was certain that Daytona was the best album of 2018. I’m somewhat impartial to hip-hop and well-composed hip-hop will usually win my heart. Then, I revisited Be the Cowboy and fell in love with Mitski’s cynical take on finding herself. However, part of me felt like something was missing that her music itself couldn’t offer me.
Enter Rosalía. The artsy Spanish songstress has been making music since last year, releasing her debut Los ángeles and collaborating with J Balvin. However, her newest concept album, El mal querer, is the most unique listen I’ve heard since JPEGMAFIA’s Veteran. She combines elements of pop, trap, and flamenco. This shouldn’t work, but it does.
The compositions of a pop song, the swagger, and production of trap music, and the flavor of flamenco. Her voice is rich with passion. The opening moments of “QUE NO SALGA LA LUNA – Cap.2: Boda” sound like a rallying cry, asserting her dominance as pop music’s Alpha.
The narrative of the album chronicles a toxic relationship that is separated into chapters; loosely follows the plot of the anonymous 13th-century novel, Flamenca. Rosalía’s artistic charm knows no bounds, attracting the likes of Pharrell and Oneohtrix Point Never. When those collaborations come out is anybody’s guess, but I anxiously await.
2018 is a hard year to top. We’ve seen numerous landmark releases from both underdogs and established artists. While many made true on their promise to drop their albums, others stayed dormant for the year. Here’s to an optimistic look at 2019. May it be filled with great music and great musical moments.