Bottom of the barrel:
Two great albums that I had on repeat but may not be listening to in a year:
Cardi B’s “Invasion of Privacy,” Ariana Grande’s “Sweetener”
Album that comes nowhere near this list but has my unconditional love and support:
“Amen,” Rich Brian
The “Awesome 20 Minutes But I Need More” Category:
Tierra Whack’s “Whack World,” Col3trane’s “BOOT,” Teyana Taylor’s “K.T.S.E.,” Smerz’ “Have Fun”
Why this list has 11 albums on it:
Because I had my 10 locks and then I heard Colin Self’s “Siblings,” which fucked me right up.
The Albums of the Year
Singularity, Jon Hopkins
In 2018, the platonic ideal of the album was attacked from all sides. Some artists shrank down to a few pristine crumbs. Others stretched toward interminability for charting purposes. These efforts frustrated and confounded me, leading my dumb and extremely regiment-oriented brain to use visualization techniques in order to graft these new forms onto familiar concepts.
Jon Hopkins’ “Singularity,” for example, only started making sense to me when i considered it spatially. An album with no words or real distinct songs could be viewed as a winding pathway, or perhaps an entire building, constructed with turrets and secret rooms by an eagle-eyed architect.
But “Singularity” deserves to be considered on an even bigger scale: that of an entire city. The electronica album is a masterwork of urban planning, with bustling thoroughfares and public housing works and lush open spaces.
I visualized the first song as the slow approach into a city from the airport, seen a car window at sunset. After whizzing past sleepy yellow-green fields, a series of identical stubby apartment complexes emerge. Traffic lights blink yellow; the metro rattles overhead.
As you wade further into the metropolis there’s a new energy and scent with every boulevard and side street; the curbs, overlooks and libraries have each been constructed with precision and grace. “Echo Dissolve” is a luminous reservoir, while “Everything Connected” captures the anxious, dense thrill of downtown rush hour. “Recovery” recedes into the placid domesticity of suburban home life, where digital and acoustic implements sit hand in hand.
The album is immersive enough to make you forget your actual surroundings. You could wander around these spaces for hours and always stop to marvel at something new.
Mudboy, Sheck Wes
NEW YORK — The Harlem Mudboys were divisive before they even set foot on a professional basketball court.
Some enthusiastic pundits predicted they would herald a revolutionary era of smashmouth basketball. Others blasted them as crude and unskilled — a pale comparison to the fluid motion offenses of days past.
But led by their frighteningly intense captain Mo Bamba, the young Mudboys have humiliated opponents all season long en route to a playoff berth, showing that they belong in the league for years to come.
The face and captain of the team is Bamba, a scowling forward who lazes through some defensive possessions before exploding on the fast break. Few go from zero to one hundred with as much force. He sets the tone with his surly, unshakeable confidence, his incessant shit-talking, and a fearlessness when diving after loose balls. He plays a potent two-man game with point guard Kyrie, who keeps the ball on a string as he dances in and out of traffic.
But the team’s real stars can be found elsewhere. The springy center Live Sheck Wes swallows opponents’ shots whole; when he dunks, he bruises the rim with more force than anyone this side of Deandre Jordan. Vetement Socks floats across the perimeter, wielding limitless range and one of the prettiest jump shots in the league. And Gmail, the team’s unsung MVP, rumbles toward the hoop with the force of a bowling ball, packing an astounding mix of muscle, agility and fluidity. If you get in his way, he will make your neck snap.
The end of the roster is weak: players like WESpn and Danimals are unfinished products that would ride the pine or even be cut from other deeper teams. But the top five of Mudboy can go toe to toe with any other starting lineup this year — and in the clutch, that’s all that matters.This is a vicious and exhausting team that will beat you into submission and, like Draymond Green, repeatedly call you a bitch to your face while doing so.
Siblings, Colin Self
If Enya and SOPHIE took a bunch of mescaline together and started a band, it might sound something like “Siblings.” The album, by the interdisciplinary composer Colin Self, comingles synth-pop, political poetry, science-fiction, techno and plenty of laughter. “Siblings.” Has. The. Range.
While there the album has many veins, it is centered by two main impulses: the Enya-esque side of peace and the SOPHIE-esque side of electronic destruction. The album essentially plays out like a way better version of ‘Venom.” Ante-Strategy” is grating — not in that it’s screechy — but that it resembles a subway grate. It sounds like industrial malpractice and the end of the world. “Survival,” on the other hand, sounds like the serene start of a new one.
The mission of Self – whose work explores queerness and resistance — is not one of chaos but rather community. “Quorum,” a standout, samples the banter and laughter of a group of women, turning everyday conversation into a conduit of power and solidarity.
Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves
I knew all about the sadness that comes with unrequited love. But this year, I learned how sad requited love is, too.
Requited love is sad because it forces you to carry around imposter syndrome every moment of your life; because their absence is debilitating; because you’re never quite sure if the next encounter will be as good as the last encounter, or if the last encounter was as exquisite as it exists in your memory. Because your favorite thing about yourself becomes her, and you become subsumed.
And I was experiencing the height of these paralysis-inducing feels when Kacey Musgraves released “Golden Hour,” singing:
“And I’m the kind of person who starts getting kinda nervous
When I’m having the time of my life
Is there a word for the way that I’m feeling tonight?
Happy and sad at the same time”
And the album knocked me to the floor, and then filled my lungs with fresh air and centered me anew.
The duality of love infests every line of “Golden Hour,” which is perfectly named: It oozes with both the glowing warmth of a Nashville afternoon and the anxiety of impending nightfall. Within big country-pop melodies and sun-soaked guitar strums, Musgraves muses on the fleeting nature of love. The songs brutally captured all of my riotous emotions, from the early wooze-inducing flutters (“Butterflies) and the agonizing fear that it all might be slipping away (“Space Cowboy”).
But the most astonishing moment of “Golden Hour” is when she zooms out from love to life itself on “Mother.” She sings about yearning to be with her mother – while her mother yearns for her mother, who has died. It’s a wrenching portrait of three generations of women, delivered in less than eighty seconds. It was enough to render my heart pangs both trivial — and the most important thing I could ever hold on to.
777, Key! and Kenny Beats
Kenny Beats was not nominated for the 2019 Grammys for Producer of the Year, but he should have been — in fact, he should have won. The 27-year-old who spent the year cranking out bangers, slappers and boppers for the likes of Vince Staples, Young Thug, J.I.D, Rico Nasty, and many more. It would be very difficult to create a “Kenny Type Beat” pack, because there’s barely a template to follow. His beats fit into the high-energy hip-hop mainstream but are all distinctly curdled.
On his best project of the year — with the Atlanta rapper Key! — his beats wobble and teeter with slightly detuned pianos, tiny flutes and stuttering bass drums. They don’t demand a spastic reaction, as so many formulaic beats this year do, but provoke stranger movements: the creaking of the neck, maybe, or the shrugging of shoulders. If there’s a hidden camera in my room it would have lots of footage of me listening to this album and shuffling around like a penguin.
Key!, Kenny’s partner on the record, is equally hard to pin down. He’s a generalist in an era of specialists: He’s melodic, but not as much so as Young Thug; he’s a jovial trickster-like figure, but not to the same extent as DRAM or Father.
What Key! is, is nimble, elastic, and an absolute joy to spend time with. In between big hooks he sprinkles in oddities that never appear again — like on “Hater,” when when his voice cracks upward on the line “man i hopped up out this earth and turned into a STAR!,” or his rumbling singsong flow on the first verse of “Love on Ice.”
I often gripe about how some rappers can barely rap in time. On the opposite end of the spectrum, other technicians will lock into a flow and dole out syllables with military precision. Key finds a happy medium, over-rapping and under-rapping when the mood calls for it: his bars have a shaggy, unkempt charm. But perhaps most importantly, he knows when to get out of Kenny’s way. On “Boss,” he leaves huge gaps to let the whimsical piano chords take centerstage. Open up that mosh pit, indeed.
Some Rap Songs, Earl Sweatshirt
I tried writing down every word and underlining the stressed syllables. I tried consulting my Harvard ethnomusicology friend. I rewound and re-re-rewound.
I still don’t know what the fuck Earl Sweatshirt is doing rhythmically on “Some Rap Songs.”
If Key!’s sense of time is elastic, then Earl’s is gaseous. His mumblings are untethered to his backpack-attic beats, which themselves glitch off their nominal grids. But just when you think he’s completely ignoring the count, he’ll land perfectly on the next downbeat. There’s some sort of internal logic there, which eluded me and frustrated me to no end.
Which is exactly what Earl intended. “It makes people glitch,” he said in a recent Vulture interview about his peculiar sense of timing. “People that can’t comprehend it, they flip the fuck out and then they have to like … box that shit. But it’s a wavy line, not a linear, staccato thing.”
So I stopped trying to box him and instead I just let his assonance-flashing wordplay wash over me. I stopped listening to not only the rhythms but the words, too, and just sat there soaking in his flickering, vintage soul loops. And I found a new home in them. They summon an era of impeccable quiet storm, incorporate various threads of the African-American diaspora, and lay a fitting foundation for Earl’s modern nihilist dread.
7, Beach House
We music journalists spend so much time chasing innovation or shiny reinvention that we tend to overlook the enduring artists who improve incrementally. This year, many outlets (including mine) gave lavish features to Clairo, for instance, or the gender-queering of Christine and the Queens. Far less ink was spilled about Beach House, a workmanlike band whose appropriately named seventh album is their best.
“I like Beach House because it’s trap drums mixed with the background music of an ‘80s after-school special set at the aquarium,” the comedian Demi Adejuyigbe wrote on Twitter. I can’t really describe “7” any better. I like Beach House because it’s the soundtrack to laying back in the driver’s seat as your Corvette sinks into the Malibu ocean; because the synthesizers on “Lose Your Smile” conjure a blackening night sky and the cool seaside air. The album alternates between moments of utter meditative peace and fierce exhilaration — which is exactly the balance I’m striving for in life.
Be The Cowboy, Mitski
While Kanye stole many headlines this year for his seven-song albums (and other issues I’d prefer not to tangle with here), it was Mitski who launched a much more convincing and lacerating campaign against bloat. Eleven of the 14 songs on “Be the Cowboy” clock in at under two-and-a-half minutes. “Lonesome Love,” one of the shortest, never repeats a whole section and cuts off halfway through a phrase.
The terseness is fitting for a work that explores longing and transience. Mitski drifts through her own songs, staging and breaking up marriages, drowning mutely, doing laundry. Her vocals, once full of tremolo, are weary and detached.
It’s not hard to pick up that underneath the charming and often upbeat musical settings, a rage simmers. This is album about and driven by the repression caused by always putting on your best face — of carrying the weight of being an unexpected representative of a cause much greater than you.
There have been 50 weeks so far in 2018. In 30 of those, Drake has held the number one spot on the Billboard charts. This is one of the most dominant individual calendar years in pop history — the kind of run that you might at first resent but are forced to grudgingly admire. Even the monotonous flexing of “Nonstop” beat Simon de Carvalho into submission.
Whenever I come back to this album and look at the tracklist, I fail to recognize many of the songs, so I assume they must be duds. But then I hit play and 40’s slinky beat comes on and all of a sudden I’m belting “LEAVING ME / DIPPING OUT ON ME” and I realize I know all the words. If the twelfth best song of an album gets stuck in your unconscious, it’s probably a pretty damn good album.
Throughout the year, I’ve been working to craft the perfect condensed version of “Scorpion.” I had “Nonstop” at the bottom of the track list, then moved it up because I was impatient to hear it again. I removed “Mob Ties” and added it back on; I similarly flip-flopped on the glazed “Don’t Matter To Me.” This agonizing and pointless quest will force me to keep this album on repeat.
Anyway, here’s my current version:
- Astroworld, Travis Scott
“Who put this shit together — I’m the glue!” Travis Scott yelps 15 minutes into “Astroworld.” To say that Astroworld is glued together would be generous. The hourlong album is hastily taped in some parts, soldered together in others, held with rusty nails and bubble gum and sheer force of personality.
This drug-fueled, cameo-stuffed fun house is filled with incongruous superstars: a moody Frank Ocean, a spiritual convening of James Blake and Stevie Wonder, a determined-to-prove-himself Gunna and for some reason, John Mayer, noodling away in the corner. It’s rare when Travis has the most memorable part on any given song. It’s even rarer if any given song is a bad one.
And when Scott does take centerstage, he perfectly embodies the weirdness and anxiety that pervades this current era of hip-hop. He succeeds wildly both when he indulges his A.D.D. — as on the bad hallucinogenics trip “Stargazing” or the spastic mutant form “Sicko Mode” — or when he viciously drills down into one melodic riff and concept, like the skittish “5% Tint.”
Scott saves his best surprise for last, smoothly flowing over a boom bap beat on “Coffee Bean,” perhaps to appease all the old heads, or just because it’s fun to go in like Q-Tip once in awhile. In the past, Travis frustrated me with his monotony. He could hardly have shown off more range on the best hip-hop album of the year.
Historian, Lucy Dacus
Last year my world was thrown into disarray by Phoebe Bridgers’ “Stranger in the Alps,” an album that grabs your nostrils and thrusts them deep underwater.
Several months later, Bridgers’ friend and collaborator Lucy Dacus released “Historian,” an album that doesn’t operate with force but rather kindness and accumulation. When I heard it in January, I was sure I would hear a better record within 11 months. I never did.
Dacus has a plain voice; she sings about plain things, like family, aging and insecurity. She plays a plain-sounding guitar.
She is also a bracing lyricist who weaves together startling turns of phrase, and an expert arranger who gradually builds her songs to maximize their emotional punch. They patiently begin with mundane details — like a bad haircut or a chewed ginger root — and then erupt with strings and machine gun snare fills and horn cascades and confessions about death. Her best songs, like “Night Shift” and “Timefighter,” sprawl past five and a half minutes: Just when you think they’ve hit their dramatic and sonic peak, Dacus climbs another level.
Many modern female pop stars, from Ariana Grande to Dua Lipa, thrive off an ironclad sense of self and a continuous stream of unimpeachable advice. Dacus offers no such consolation, asking far more questions than she answers. “Why did I come here?,” she asks somberly. “Why is this the image I come back to?”
The only definitive statements she makes, in fact, are declarations of frustration and limit, like “I will never be complete.” Her doubt is invigorating; it makes quick affirmation feel cheap in comparison.
And while many other albums this year lack cohesion, “Historian” is a complete package, with earworm singles and blazing extended epics tied together by amusing asides. It starts tiny, with the discomfort of a bungled kiss, and builds momentum until reaching the commanding capstone, “Pillar of Truth,” which unflinchingly surveys the generations of women who endured before her and will after. The song, like the album, is an ode to resilience and quotidian struggle. It may initially seem small and ordinary, but reveals its brilliance with time.