Thursday, January 17, 2019

Top 10 Albums of 2018

This year wasn't a particularly strong one for the kinds of music I'm interested in. I attempted to keep up to date with major country releases on and off, and most of them were deeply disappointing. Most of the rap I listened to didn't stick with me. I didn't keep up with my friends' stuff, even, all that much. But hey, here's a thing: at the bottom of this list, in its own section, I'm going to list to some stuff from the scenes I've orbited for a while. Check them out.

#10 Janelle Monae - Dirty Computer

I've always felt a little embarrassed over how much I like Janelle Monae. Which is: a bit. I think her work is fantastic, what I've heard of it. I also haven't had much of it on rotation. When I listen, it often clicks with me. When I'm not listening, I tend to forget about it, other than that she's very good and doing really cool stuff. Dirty Computer was very nearly the same, for me, until I forced myself to listen to it a half dozen times over the course of this year. I'm not sure that I get it, now, necessarily, but this sure is one hell of an album.

#9 Nine Inch Nails - Bad Witch

I've never been a fan of Nine Inch Nails. In the last few years, my feelings have softened; I kind of hated them back in the day. When I got into industrial and noise in my early college years, I really hated them. Then I learned about how much he was genuinely a part of that world, and eventually started dating someone with a longstanding love of them. Then they appeared on Twin Peaks, and I was like fine. Fine, I guess I'm okay with this Trent Reznor nerd.

I listened to Bad Witch - maybe the first full album of theirs I've ever listened to? - because of an offhanded recommendation made on the Black Banner Magic podcast. In the backseat of a car driving in the dark, it ended up surprising me. Bad Witch is full of weird breakbeats, sometimes reminding me of (and I'm not an expert here, trust) some weird halfway point between UK Garage and Atari Teenage Riot. Other points - "Play the Goddamned Part" in particular - didn't so much feel reminiscent of Nurse With Wound as they transported me directly back to walking through the woods listening to them at night in 2007.

Anything that puts me in the headspace of Atari Teenage Riot and Nurse With Wound is something I'm going to have a fondness for. I don't know that I love Bad Witch; I probably won't even return to it that many times. But there's a specific kind of joy to it that I can't deny, for me at least.

#8 Trust Fund - Bringing the Backline

I wasn't a huge fan of We Have Always Lived in the Harolds, the last Trust Fund record I listened to; it took down the energy from Seems Unfair, their previous, and became contemplative. Which wasn't an objectively bad thing, but my favorite song of theirs is "Football," and I think that's what I come to their music for: incisive pop punk about selves, little moments in relationships, and a pleasant, conflicted energy. That's not fair to them as people or musicians, but it is what it is, I guess.

Bringing the Backline is a nice dialectical synthesis of Seems Unfair and Harolds. The soundscape is way lusher, not just by tweaking the main instrumentation with fuzz and other effects but adding synthesizers and some other new instruments. All of which is mixed to keep Ellis Jones' vocals at the forefront, which is incredibly important.

If anything, the thing that Trust Fund does so well is to be a band that cracks jokes that aren't particularly funny, and to be funny without cracking jokes. Jokes can do a lot of things other than make you laugh; they can show character or reveal psychology. Jones is good at that, and it's pretty cool to hear.

#7 T.I. - Dime Trap

T.I.'s the anti-Jay-Z. Both are some of the first models of what it looks like to be an old rapper who isn't washed up, but continues to redefine his own work without getting lost in the past. Jay-Z's model is of a business, man, though. T.I.'s is a slow, steady radicalization.

He's not at the forefront of anything. "The Amazing Mr. Fuck Up" is one of my favorite tracks on the album, but the beat sounds like some shit Lil B was doing in 2012 when he was "proving" he was more than a novelty, only with more money. His politics aren't as sharp as Vic Mensa or Vince Staples'. But no one else has his body of work, and the way he presses and shapes it is still meaningful.

And there's always something about me that will get weak kneed for a rapper who overflows his bars, especially when it's done in a way that conveys that the rapper just wants to keep going rather than being unable to edit. T.I.'s one of the kings of that.

Song by song, it's not the strongest album he's ever put out. The back half suffers a bit, but the closing track - "Be There" - wraps it up pretty nicely.

#6 Lil Wayne - Tha Carter V

I have this problem where any time I think I want to write something quick about Lil Wayne, I almost write ten thousand words. I am not going to do that. My verdict, quick and dirty: Tha Carter V is disappointing, but it's also way better than it is disappointing.

It's disappointing because Tha Carter III made expectations impossible; these numbered Carters have to be perfectly in line with the times, push beyond them, and breakout successes. That's not what this is. It's a reflection, in line with most of Lil Wayne's other music since the fallout with Cash Money. It fits into his phenomenal body of work really well, and has some absolute standout moments. It's a very, very good record.

#5 Pistol Annies - Interstate Gospel

Even without this third album, their first in half a decade, the Pistol Annies were already all timers. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley push each other's individual tendencies towards irreverence, subversion, and striking images into the stratosphere; many songs get a single verse from each, and it is clear that any one of those verses could have been expanded into a very good song. They rule.

This record is a bit of a weird one, though. Track by track, it's incredibly solid. The songwriting moves along quickly and pleasantly, highlighting both quips and central ideas without a single song seeming to drag. "Commissary" is a possible counterexample, but only because I don't think the characters get enough space to develop. "When I Was His Wife," "Got My Name Changed Back," and "Milkman" are all examples of the Annies at their finest, full of joy in shit talk and language. Another example: the first verse of the second proper song - "Best Years of My Life" - are:
I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet
I've got an itch to just get high
I'm in the middle of the worst of it
these are the best years of my life
On the other hand, the album opens with "Interstate Prelude," which turns out to be the first minute and change of the title track. As an opener, it's fine; in context of the album, it's a bit awkward. It seems, at least on a first listen, to be aimed at signaling that the girls are proper Christians, despite what you're about to hear. Because that's more or less what the song proper conveys, if in the metaphor of being on the road as a musician.

My impression, more or less, is that this is a Pistol Annies record that has incredible songs, exactly like you'd want. As an album, I'm a little less convinced. But that's okay with me. It has moments of intergenerational tension in "Milkman," of solidarity among women in "When I Was His Wife," of the strange social formations around coupledom in "Masterpiece." It's full of good shit, in other words.

#4 Robyn - Honey

I've been basically checked out of Robyn's output since Body Talk 1-3, and if Honey is any indication I haven't missed a whole lot (apparently it's her first release since then? -ed). Her music still vacillates between incredibly straightforward singles sung in her breathy falsetto that work very well, surrounded by songs that verge on talking, often. Her themes are still about brokenness in relationships, becoming-robotic (but rarely, maybe never, digital), and alienated bodies writhing against themselves and with each other. And it's still hella compelling.

It's in the space that those oscillations create that her distinctive lyrics find their footing. The chorus for "Beach2k20," for instance, goes:
[Do you want to go out]
To this cute place on the beach
They do really nice food
I mean, it's right on the beach
Come through, it'll be cool.
That last bit is one exemplar; Robyn's so often in a mode of awkward aloofness, a fake uncaring that comes across as flirting. It's one way that she focuses. Another: she characterizes her second-person, only to be merciless toward them, as in "Because It's In The Music:"
And I wonder when you hear it
Are you getting that same feeling?
Like you wanna break down and hide.
I keep playing it anyway
If there's a thing that I appreciate about Robyn's records, and which I only realized listening to Honey, it's how much that focus matters. Her range gives her the ability to talk specifically and personally about the "you" that most pop music leaves as ambiguous as possible, without collapsing it into memoir. Which couples with her thematic fascination with alienation from bodies - her own included - to become hella relatable. Also the way she insists on four-to-the-floor kicks even when they're demonstrably unnecessary is very endearing to me.

#3 cupcakKe - Ephorize

Ephorize was sort of my go-to album this year. If I wanted to listen to something and wasn't in the thrall of either of my top two, it was probably what I turned on. Even if I didn't, I'd consider turning it on before deciding, say, to check out something new or to give Tha Carter V or Dirty Computer another shot.

There's something about the way that cupcakKe structures a chorus that gets me every time.
Tap the head of the dick, duck duck duck goose
Head of the dick, duck duck duck goose
Get that dick up and runnin when he fuck this cooch
Covered in all my cum the dick be lookin' like a goose
is genuinely the best. She largely uses simple phrasing and heavy repetition in a funny voice, and it hasn't gotten old to me at all. Even when it's on her weird social justicey tracks ("Crayons" from this album) that I'm less keen on even though I appreciate that she consistently does them.

If you know cupcakKe's music it's probably because of her sex songs, which are very good. They're good because of their content, but mostly because they give her a canvas on which to play with goofy one-liners. I prize rappers who convey how much they enjoy themselves while they perform their craft above everything, and cupcakKe is up there.

cupcakKe also released an album late in the year, Eden, which wasn't quite the heavy hitter her first was. There is a song called "Garfield" where the chorus is just her saying "fat cat fat cat fat cat fat cat fat cat fat cat… Garfield. Garfield Garfield Garfield, Garfield Garfield Garfield," though, which is pretty excellent.

#2 Priscilla Renea - Coloured

I think this might be the actual best country record of this year, but the one that follows managed to eat me alive so well that I can't help but put it at number one.

Coloured is such a neat thing. It's a reflection on growing up black in America, using country and pop (and some rap, musically) as a medium. It opens with "Family Tree," a song with a striking central image and that has a chorus that erupts like a fucking volcano in the chorus. "Jonjo" follows, which is catchy and affable and just joyous. Crucially, "Denim" is on this album, fulfilling the quota every country record must meet of having a song with an overly belabored metaphor that is kind of wack but also really endearing.

The closing two songs are what make the album, in my mind at least. "Let's Build a House" is a slow, methodical appeal to resilience (sorry Robin James) that at least gestures toward a kind of collectivity, again with a strong central image, and is also just a lovely song. And then there's "Land of the Free," which explicitly refers to its propagandistic function:
If you don't believe it's true, I guess I wrote this song for you
You'd think I'd say these words because I hate America?
That's just life for me
Living while black in the land of the free
It also has a complicated relationship to reparations, and a lengthy, Hendrix-esque rendition of the National Anthem at the end. I love it for all of that. It's such a particular thing, so clearly and fully felt, and so welcome in its genre. I love this record a bunch.

#1 Kacey Musgraves - Golden Hour

In my messiest moments this year, I spent weeks doing very little but listening to the back half of Golden Hour - from "Space Cowboy" on - on repeat while playing the Microsoft Solitaire Collection. I was doing daily challenges in each of the five variants while those songs played. I can't really hear any of them without my vision partially dissolving into Klondike. I did have a wonderful moment, on the way to see Taylor Swift's Reputation tour, sharing a love of this album with two friends. That has hopefully helped it to stay away from becoming my new Hybrid Theory, the Linkin Park album I still can't hear without subvisualizing the sewers of Cabilis from EverQuest.

This is a good fucking album. I've always been a bit low on Musgraves' work - she has felt to me, for some time, like country music for people who don't like country music. Which is fine, I guess, but it isn't for me. Except when it is, like, perfectly made for me.

There isn't a bad song on the fucking thing. "Slow Burn" sets everything up so well; "Lonely Weekend" is such a compelling look at the kind of person I know (and can be) who really needs to backseat their relationship and enjoy friends. "Butterflies" is damn near perfect. "Oh, What a World," is very good filler at worst (that continues the vocoded motif that the rest of the album needs to work), "Mother" is incredible, and "Love is a Wild Thing" is maybe the closest the album comes to a forgettable song, and probably also the best traditional country bop on the record.

Let's keep going: "Space Cowboy" is so good it made me want to watch Cowboy Bebop, a show it has nothing to do with, really, and which I don't give a shit about. "Happy & Sad" is the best song about anxiety I've ever heard, including that it doesn't know that that's what it's about (or at least the narrator doesn't). "Velvet Elvis" is the most annoying thing in a very heartwarming way. "Wonder Woman" isn't for me but I very much appreciate the sentiment. "High Horse" is what sold me on the album, because it bangs and because its criticisms are so vague and so endlessly intriguing. "Golden Hour" is the best possible way to close this thing out, and "Rainbow" is a really nice coda.

Speaking of which: it's no Rainbow, but I'm frankly surprised anything this year even got remotely close. That's the highest praise, from me, I think, that I could possibly give.

Some Other Stuff You Should Listen To

Quick note: some of the folks here I know well, some I have hung out with a handful of times, some I barely know at all or effectively don't. This is just some stuff from a scene or two I've never been a part of but have been around for, well, like, a long time, lets say. I'm not a good guide to it, either. Look these folks up and find out who they've worked with and shit. It's worth your time.

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