There was a lot of great music this year. Artists pushed boundaries sonically and lyrically, exploring new genres and their own selves. This collection is by no means comprehensive, it is just meant to chronicle some of the best works and most notable music stories of 2018.
Best Rap Albums
Photo courtesy of DJBooth.
"Room 25" - Noname
Noname is in many ways the antithesis of mainstream rap in 2018. Her clever wordplay and mellow jazz instrumentals harken back to the 1990s, calling to mind the likes of Digital Underground, Guru and Digable Planets. After getting into rap through slam poetry, Noname began catching steam after a guest verse on Chance the Rapper’s “Acid Rap,” and put out her first tape, “Telefone,” in 2016. This year, she released her first full album, “Room 25,” directly through Spotify without a record label or any middleman, the first artist to ever do so (Spotify did this to pilot a program that would eventually allow all artists to release their music directly to the platform). This independence reflects her separation from the rest of contemporary rap. You won’t find a single menacing piano arpeggio, snapping trap drums or auto-tuned warble the way you might on a record by Migos, Drake, Nicki Minaj or countless other rappers. Nor will you find much of the usual content of those albums either. Sure, there is still carnal romance (“Montego Bay,” with neo-soul up-and-comer Ravyn Lenae), but it is more nuanced, as is the sexual bravado: “my p---- teaching ninth grade English, my p---- wrote a thesis on colonialism in conversation with a marginal system in love with Jesus,” from the opener “Self.” Moments like these are all over “Room 25.” Noname is still a rapper, but she is in her own world. She raps on her own terms, in her own way. Producer Phoelix handles the production throughout, and his jazzy instrumentals are the perfect complement for Noname’s ‘90s style woke rapping. Both rapper and producer skills come to the forefront for an absolutely wonderful album.
"TA13OO" - Denzel Curry
Denzel Curry has been waiting for this moment. In the earlier part of the decade, he earned a following on SoundCloud for his aggressive, high speed bars, skilled wordplay and unique sound, often spacy and blown out. In 2016, he broke out to mainstream fame with the single “Ultimate,” produced by his go-to producer RONNY J, which was widely used in water bottle flipping videos at the height of the fad. Following an EP last year, Curry released “TA13OO,” his most diverse and emotionally significant album. Divided into three acts: light, gray and dark, “TA13OO” spans from auto-tuned emo-rap à la Lil Peep (“CLOUT COBAIN”) to vibey retro-funk (“BLACK BALLOONS”) to hardcore rap and the “SoundCloud rap” sound that Curry helped to pioneer (“SUMO,” “BLACK METAL TERRORIST”), although Australian duo FMZ primarily produced the album, not RONNY J. Lyrically, Curry always has something to say when dealing with emotionally viable topics, and even when the subject matter is at its most superficial, such as his hinting at riches-to-rags stories on the cash-oriented bragging and boasting of “CASH MANIAC.” On the title track, Curry describes his relationship with a young woman who was a victim of abuse, and the work needed to heal together. With Atlanta up-and-comer JID and teen bedroom pop star Billie Eilish (who is uncredited on the track), Curry takes on racial justice and American politics with anger and vengeance on “SIRENS”: “When I shoot the sheriff if he not demoted, then bang! This for Trayvon and Tre,” “Monstrosity run rampant all throughout United States; talking about ‘let’s make a fort,’ talking about ‘let’s make it great.’” On “CLOUT COBAIN,” a moody track with a haunting monochrome music video full of mimes and clowns, Curry focuses on dark emotions often overlooked in hip-hop.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
"KIDS SEE GHOSTS" - Kid Cudi & Kanye West
Kanye West had a rough 2018. That’s putting it lightly. I won’t go over all the bloody details again, but if you somehow still haven’t heard, check out this review, and West’s own “Ye," from this summer. Out of the midst of all of the chaos came the disappointing and underwhelming solo album “Ye.” But also birthed were top-tier albums for two of West’s friends and labelmates, Kid Cudi and Pusha T. On “KIDS SEE GHOSTS,” West pulls out all the stops on the production, using all of the best instrumentals that one would have expected him to use on his own album. From the genius modulated, backwards Louis Prima vocals on “4th Dimension,” to the obscure Kurt Cobain sample on “Cudi Montage,” West delivered only the highest caliber beats from the highest caliber beatmaker. This production brings out the best in a newly-rejuvenated Kid Cudi, who delivers some of his best work of this decade after coming out of the rehab he entered in 2017. His lyrics are as powerful as ever, tackling mental health issues with a realness and brevity that is rare in the world of mainstream music. He utilizes his heavenly hum on the intro of “Reborn,” where he also sings the hook “I’m so, I’m so free, I’m movin’ forward.” Those lyrics summarize the album as a whole. Both Cudi and West have had their struggles, but now, liberated of (at least some) their troubles, they can move ahead. West is similarly inspired. Working with Cudi compels West to sand down his most outlandish and provocative ideas and stick to more relatable and sane content. And it works beautifully. West’s verse on “Reborn” is far better than anything on “Ye,” as is almost everything he did on “KIDS SEE GHOSTS.”
Photo courtesy of XXL Mag. The photo, which Kanye West bought the license to use, depicts Whitney
Houston's bathroom filled with drugs.
"DAYTONA" - Pusha T
Much like on “KIDS SEE GHOSTS,” Kanye West benefited immensely from working on behalf of another artists. West stays almost entirely in the producer’s chair on “DAYTONA,” and he does a superb job. He crafts inventive boom-bap and old-school beats, just like he did as a young producer-for-hire at the turn of the century. Pusha T is similarly reinvigorated as West and Kid Cudi on “KIDS SEE GHOSTS.” Pusha T has never rapped as well across an album as he does “DAYTONA.” Part of that come from the album’s length: at only seven songs, each track is focused, polished and highly intentional. Every song is highly sinister, and Pusha T raps with a confidence and swagger that are subtle yet clearly show he should not be messed with. This makes the song “Infrared,” one of the album’s many standouts, all the more glorious. The subliminal shots at Drake, referencing ghostwriting rumours, seem to scream “try me, b----,” although Pusha is far too composed to ever shout. Pusha T was not joking when he implied that, but that will be discussed later. When the Drake controversy is removed, DAYTONA remains an absolutely excellent rap album.
"CARE FOR ME" - Saba
Chicago rapper Saba delivered his second album in April of this year. Recorded and released following the murder of Saba’s friend and cousin Walter Long Jr., “CARE FOR ME” is a beautifully cathartic work that is brilliant in every way. He calls on the soul and jazz music that he grew up on to create a beautifully fluid and subdued musical landscape within which he can mourn his loss. The textures are elastic and modern, shape-shifting and warping, with splashes of live instrumentation on almost every track, like some sort of post-trap trance. The rapping matches the artfulness of the production every step of the way. Opening with a song of mourning and loneliness, and working through a variety of elements of young adult life and childhood reminiscing, Saba’s lyrics are full of purpose and subtlety. Nowhere is there aggressive braggadocio or high-life debauchery; instead there is the familial love of “SMILE.” The album builds to the grand finale: “PROM / KING,” and “HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME.” The penultimate track is a beautiful piece of hip-hop storytelling in seven minutes, telling a tale of how a high-school prom lead him and his aforementioned cousin Walter to find out they were neighbors and become best friends. When Saba works his way up to Walter’s death, the listener feels his tremendous loss, and Saba offers a closing meditation: “Just another day in the ghetto. Oh the streets bring sorrow. Can’t get out today with their schedule, I just hope I make it ‘till tomorrow,” and moves on to the final track, in which he thanks the world for all the wonderful people he has left.
"Overload" - Georgia Anne Muldrow
Georgia Anne Muldrow is an extremely talented neo-soul singer who has been wallowing in relative obscurity for far too long. Her latest album won’t likely change that, but it does show off her talents. “Overload” is rooted in the traditions and sounds of African-American music but is still thoroughly modern and experimental. “Play It Up” is a vintage soul tune with ‘90s-style female-backing vocals and filled with rippling, off-kilter drum machines. The duet with LA rapper Dudley Perkins, “These Are the Things I Really Like About You,” offers a twisted take on big-band jazz, with chugging synthesizes driving it along. Throughout the album, the melodies are more pop-sounding than most of Muldrow’s previous releases. “Blam” offers an appealing hook reminiscent of ‘90s R&B. Muldrow also keeps the album short at only 37 minutes, and songs rarely cross the four-minute mark. This makes “Overload” more appealing on first listen, and she has retained enough experimentalism and musical depth to make each re-listen rewarding.
Photo courtesy of musicmillenium.org.
"Lost & Found" - Jorja Smith
Jorja Smith built a lot of name recognition before her first album. After her first song went big on SoundCloud, Drake named it his favorite song of the month, and Smith took off from there. The young British singer was featured on two tracks on Drake’s 2017 album “More Life,” was the opening act for Bruno Mars on his 24k Magic tour, and was featured on the song “I Am” with Kendrick Lamar from the Black Panther soundtrack. “Lost & Found” manages to live up to the lofty expectations that those roles set for her. Smith darts from style to style across the album’s 12 tracks: the opener is a confident piece of soul-funk and is followed by the gentle piano and crooning of “Teenage Fantasy,” while the danceable vulnerability of “Where Did I Go?” comes immediately after. Smith’s breakout single “Blue Lights,” about police brutality, appears here, and it retains all its original power. “Lifeboat (freestyle)” is similarly socially-aware, with Smith asking “Why are all the riches stayin’ afloat? Seen all my brothers drownin’, even though they’re near the boat. Mothership ain’t helpin’ anyone. See, the ships are gettin’ bigger full of greed and wasteful men soaking kids with their lies, before they even got to 10.” Smith explores other ideas, such as ending relationships, on the acoustic guitar ballad “Goodbye” and the Latin-flecked groove of “The One.” “Lost & Found” isn’t just a great debut album, it’s a great album.
"Isolation" - Kali Uchis
Kali Uchis has been ready to hit the mainstream. Following her star turns on “Humanz” by Gorillaz and “Flower Boy” by Tyler, the Creator in 2017, she released “Tyrant” with Jorja Smith as the first single for “Isolation.” The album is a diverse set of tunes, just barely staying in the “neo-soul” category while drifting into reggaeton, funk and hip-hop, just to name a few. With production from a diverse group—including electro-jazz ensemble BADBADNOTGOOD, soul-pop genius Steve Lacy, Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, BROCKHAMPTON producer Romil and contemporary funk virtuoso Thundercat—Uchis synthesizes a diverse range of styles into her own unique sound. The last pre-release single “After the Storm,” featuring frequent collaborator Tyler, the Creator and funk legend, bassist Bootsy Collins, is a fun tune that blends groovy funk with sunshine soul and Uchis’s luscious voice for a carefree good time. Steve Lacy’s duet “Just a Stranger” is a sexy jam that brings the funk without getting too freaky for the radio. This type of sound: funky and fun, effortless but well executed, is all over the album. On “Miami” with rapper BIA, producers Thundercat and Om’Mas Keith craft a rap-style beat with a Latin flavor for a sultry banger. Even though it comes from an amalgamation of styles and sounds, “Isolation” is cohesive, unique and fresh.
Photo courtesy of Pitchfork.
"Dirty Computer" - Janelle Monáe
For her third album, soul-pop singer Janelle Monae somewhat abandons the robot messiah persona she adopted on her first two releases, concept albums about a dystopian future, in favor of a more personal and expansive release. As a pansexual black woman, Monae has certainly dealt with adversity, which she channels on “Dirty Computer.” Her character faces homophobia from a soulless society and responds by being herself unabashedly. On “Pynk,” an anthemic pop song about vaginas, Monae cannot be stopped, exuding sexuality and confidence. On “Django Jane,” a trap song that finds her spitting casual bars, Monae is equally confident, assessing her rise to stardom and praising “black girl magic,” threatening to take your girlfriend, and announcing that she is the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time). On the nihilistic funk party “Screwed” with Zoe Kravitz, Monae freaks it in the face of imminent death, using funky music as an escape from black opposition, as artists have done since the days of George Clinton and Stevie Wonder (who is credited on the album as providing “oratory blessings” on the track “Stevie’s Dream”). Monae teams up with Organized Noize, the legendary production team behind the bulk of OutKast’s iconic first 4 albums on the trap-pop of “I Like That,” where she celebrates her own uniqueness, something she has had to hide for far too long, proclaiming “I like that, I don’t really give a f--- if I was the only one who likes that. I never like to follow, follow all around, the chase is on.”
"God’s Favorite Customer" - Father John Misty
In 2017, Father John Misty released “Pure Comedy,” a 75-minute long critique of human nature, technology, politics and almost every other element of modern life. The album, which saw him growing out of his folksy roots in favor of grand orchestration, was very well received, but many pointed out that it struggled to sustain itself under the weight of its own self-importance, and Father John Misty’s ego at times overshadowed his talents. Even Misty himself called it, along with his other concept albums, pretentious.
After that album, Misty went through a rough patch in his marriage, and holed himself up in a hotel for two months. During that period, he wrote the entirety of “God’s Favorite Customer,” a cathartic, clever and emotional release that was far more concise and less ambitious than its predecessor. Instead of meditating on the human condition like some cynical god, Misty wallows in his own emotions or takes an outside view, such as on “Mr. Tillman,” written from the perspective of a hotel clerk dealing with his erratic behavior. The style is far less bombastic, as Misty mostly returns to the sound of a folk-rock band. His songwriting is superb; he lands halfway between John Lennon and Elton John. He maintains his absurdist poeticism - take the chorus of “Hang Out At the Gallows Tonight:” “Whose bright idea was it to sharpen the knives just 20 minute ‘fore the boat capsized? You’ve got the answer, it’s anybody’s guess; I’m treading water as I bleed to death.” Misty manages to show a new level of sympathy and humanity, and it makes for a great work.
Photo courtesy of Pitchfork.
"Go to School" - The Lemon Twigs
The Lemon Twigs are a New York-based duo of brothers making psychedelic pop-rock, who earned Paul McCartney’s praise back in 2016. Their second full-length album is a refreshing twist on the psychedelic rock opera: a zany musical about a chimpanzee who goes to school with humans, that is as inspired by the Beatles as it is by Stephen Sondheim. It is a bizarre, wild experience that has something to say about growing up. Over the course of the musical, Shane experiences love, isolation, anger and more. The songwriting is superb; the driving, sexually questionable rocker “Queen of My School” could just as easily be sung on a Broadway stage as it could in a club. With talented singers playing the roles of the other people in the story, the D’Addario brothers are free to rock out with their lighthearted pop-rock with serious undertones. While some might be turned off by the bizarre theme, and classic rock fans may balk at the heavy influence of Broadway musicals, “Go To School” works wonders if you’re willing to give it a chance.
Photo courtesy of Pitchfork.
"Freedom" - Amen Dunes
Amen Dunes, the project of Damon McMahon, is another artist who has yet to find mainstream success. His unique brand of folksy indie rock doesn’t exactly earn much radio play, nor does it make it onto major streaming playlists. But it is still very good. “Freedom” is gentle and personal, with soft sparse arrangements complementing McMahon’s warm and sometimes unintelligible singing. The warm hum and subtle guitar riff of “Blue Rose” leave space for a hook that takes its time and moves around. “Miki Dora” uses purposeful imagery, conjuring memories of the good times that have now been lost. It is sort of like a classic rock song in sound but not. It is far more loose and empty than anything an old-school rock band would do. Throughout the album, the empty space serves a purpose, clarifying the ideas McMahon communicates. On “Believe,” a lone guitar, eventually joined by lead guitar, bass and drums, create a somber space where McMahon reminisces on the simple times of his youth—a gorgeous and simple moment.
"A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships" - The 1975
As the musical year came to a close, self-proclaimed “everything but a prog-rock” band The 1975 put out an absolutely stellar prog rock concept album. As its title suggests, the album explores themes prevalent in the 21st century world of online relationships. Across 15 tracks, the British pop-rock quartet zigzag across an eclectic range of styles, from the radio-friendly pop style of “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME,” to the soft balladry of “Mine,” to the soulful “Sincerity Is Scary,” which sounds amazingly like a Chance the Rapper song if he were mellower and more cynical. The album is held together by stellar songwriting, which favors to explore individual relationships over relationships as a general concept. This focus keeps the album from getting lost in its own significance, which is something impressive for a prog-rock album.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
"Golden Hour" - Kacey Musgraves
Pitchfork music described Kacey Musgraves’ third album as the country music equivalent of Frank Ocean’s “Blonde.” That is high praise, and “Golden Hour” certainly deserves it, but it’s not entirely accurate. While both albums are spectacular and personal presentations of modern young adult life, with a sparse sound and brilliant songwriting, “Golden Hour” is far more musically varied and indebted to the past. Musgraves’ music is steeped in more than half a century of songwriting tradition and brilliantly updated for the 21st century. While many of today’s country music stars have veered from the genre’s roots in search of success, resulting in pop and rap songs with a Southern twang, Musgraves does the opposite. When she uses elements from other genres, as she often does, she incorporates them into her country sound, sticking to the minimalist production and emotional lyrics that are the hallmark of great country music. On “High Horse,” Musgraves sweeps a country-pop melody over a disco-funk beat with flourishes of acoustic guitar while she lambasts men with superiority complexes. On the gentle ballad “Slow Burn,” she walks carefree and observantly through her world, as backing harmonies and soft strings come in to support her acoustic guitar. “Space Cowboy” is a somber and forgiving ballad that effortlessly balances country with modern folk-pop. These songs function like small vignettes within “Golden Hour,” where each track is a testament to Musgraves’ genius.
"Interstate Gospel" - Pistol Annies
The Pistol Annies is a country supergroup. Made up of singer-songwriters Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, they are packed with talent and star power. On “Interstate Gospel,” their third album (and first in five years) they pick up right where they left off. Their music is authentic and realistic. It’s real country music: there are no cowboys, none of the Wild West mythology so pervasive in the music of other outlaw country, nor is there any of the slick, hip-hop lite sounds of radio country. Instead, there are rockabilly divorce anthems (“Got My Name Changed Back”), rich harmonies reminiscing on a marriage (“When I Was His Wife”), hard-rocking songs about marijuana (“Stop Drop and Roll One”), and plenty of humor and attitude. On the gentle “Milkman,” the trio reflects on their free lifestyles and failing to live up to their mothers’ moral ways. They continue the rich country storytelling tradition on “Cheyenne,” in which, over strummed acoustic guitar and stopped bass drum, they paint an honest picture of a woman—one who struggles to find happiness but knows how to move men. And on the title track, they offer a witty, humorous and pun-filled take on the religion that keeps them going: “Jesus is the bread of life, without him you’re toast;” “If you can’t stand the heat, turn the prayer conditioner up; drink some holy water from a Dixie cup.” “Interstate Gospel” is rooted in tradition but true to the people of today.
Photo courtesy of AllMusic.
"Last Man Standing" - Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson has been making country music for longer than the parents of some of today’s country stars have been alive. Since his first album back in 1962, the octogenarian has released over 100 studio albums, on his own and as part of duos and groups. He has showed no signs of slowing as he barrels through his sixth decade of making music, putting out multiple albums this year, as well as the single “Vote ‘Em Out” in support of Beto O’Rourke and to encourage voting in the 2018 midterms. “Last Man Standing,” the first of his two full-length releases, made it to number 14 on the U.S. Album Charts. Sonically, it was no revelation, nor was it even a true classic of country music, on par with Nelson’s semi-conceptual outlaw life cycle stories. Yet it was another Willie Nelson album: great country music, brilliantly written, expertly played and full of wit and wisdom. On “Last Man Standing,” Nelson tackles the death of friends and contemporaries with both humor and remorse, and on “Bad Breath” he similarly sings that “bad breath is better than no breath at all,” offering a sort of clever wit that only he can. The album really has no missteps; Nelson sticks primarily to rockers and mid-tempo tunes and enlists a full band, with bass, drums, guitar and sometimes piano, but he stays away from the crowded instrumentation that often plagues more traditional country music, as he has tended to do for the last 45 years.
Photo courtesy of Pitchfork.
"Songs of the Plains" - Colter Wall
If there are any artists who can be deemed spiritual successors to Willie Nelson and his Highwaymen peers (Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings), Colter Wall belongs on that list. Hailing from Canada, the 23-year-old singer-songwriter has a far different heritage than those icons, but he certainly matches them when it comes to the music, most notably ballads, which make up most of Wall’s album. His plaintive baritone evokes a strong emotional response, matched only by accompaniments so barren that they make Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger” sound like a full orchestra. On the gentle waltz “Plain to See Plainsman,” Wall let his vocals do the work, carrying a rootsy melody over just acoustic guitar and drums keeping time, with harmonica lines rolling through like tumbleweeds. “The Trains Are Gone” is an aching folk tune, with wailing harmonica and fingerpicked guitar, and Wall letting out lonesome yodels echoing through the plains. Wall covers the old cowboy song “Calgary Round Up,” turning it into a slow ballad and singing it in a lower key better suited for his baritone voice. Staying true to tradition, Colter Wall carves his own path.
Best New Artists
It felt like everybody this year was singing the New York upstart’s breakout single “Mo Bamba.” The song, which stayed on playlists and streaming charts for months, brought an energy and intensity that makes Wes stand out as an artist. Wes had been set to blow up for a while: he was signed to a joint venture by Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music and Travis Scott’s Cactus Jack imprint. Sheck Wes broke out big time with that song, which was released in 2017 but found popularity this year, and he followed up it with his debut album Mudboy, which garnered generally good reviews.
If there was a rapper bigger in 2018 than Sheck Wes, it was Juice WRLD. His breakout hit, the melodic emo-rap song “Lucid Dreams” had the whole world crying in the club and propelled his debut album “Goodbye and Good Riddance” to the upper reaches of streaming charts. Beloved by teens suffering from heartbreak, the album was innovative and potent in its genre-bending catharsis. His two-track EP “Too Soon,” in memory of SoundCloud rappers Lil Peep and XXXTentacion, honored their legacy and mourned their death, comparing them to the many rock legends also gone too soon: “What's the 27 Club? We ain't making it past 21.” He offered vocals on Travis Scott’s “Astroworld” track “No Bystanders,” which hit the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. In November, he dropped the collaborative album “Fine China” with mumble-rap pioneer Future, to mixed reviews.
Photo courtesy of Genius.
Puma Blue did not break out in the same way our other Best New Artists did. The London artist, whose real name is Jacob Allen, released his first full-length album “Blood Loss” this November after an EP last year. While he has found little mainstream success with his moody lo-fi alternative, heavily influenced by jazz and hip-hop, it is only a matter of time. Drawing comparisons to fellow deep-voiced Brit King Krule, Puma Blue filled “Blood Loss” with dark tunes: disaffected baritone crooning and deep saxophone wails fall over jazz guitar chords and off-kilter drums, all of it done by Allen himself, a talented multi-instrumentalist. Allen’s talent for songwriting, with ear-pleasing melodies that are not earworming, and inventive chord progressions, keep the album from getting one-dimensional. Allen’s immense potential has listeners eager for what Puma Blue will do next.
Hailing from Columbia, Maryland, Lindsey Jordan, known as Snail Mail, broke out to big commercial success and equally big critical reception, with her debut album “Lush” this year. The 19-year-old guitar-wielding indie rocker crafts lush bedroom pop with emotional clarity and focused lyrics. On the album’s title track, she balances the sounds of bedroom-pop newcomers like Billie Eilish with the established sounds of indie rock. Her guitar riffs and matter-of-fact vocals come together brilliantly over crashing drums. Jordan’s music captures a range of emotions that are part of teenage life, from romance to self-doubt and more. As her songs grow and bloom, her songwriting shines, showing off a talent for melody and lyrics as well as tremendous skill as a guitarist.
"Boygenius" - Boygenius (Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus)
Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker are three immensely talented female indie rock singer-songwriters. While they have yet to find mainstream success on their own, they have critics have long liked them, and this joint EP shows why. Each artist gets a chance to showcase her own style (Bridgers is more of a folk-rock artist, Baker’s music could be described as emo rock, and Dacus makes fuzzed-out guitar rock), and occasionally blend them together. On “Salt in the Wound,” a fuzz-coated guitar strums a few chords, before piano joins in and the song becomes a downtrodden ballad then gradually grows into a overdriven anthem. The opening track “Bite the Hand” is a driving mid-tempo song that begins with just Dacus, growing from gentle and subdued to driving and powerful, full of glistening harmonies. Unlike many rock supergroups, this one is far more than the sum of its parts.
Photo courtesy of Pitchfork.
"Black In Deep Red, 2014" - Moses Sumney
Moses Sumney’s makes introspective music. While he often made use of social commentary in his early work, he described his debut album, “Aromanticism” as a “sonic dreamscape” meant to “interrogate the idea that romance is normative and necessary.” It was an intimate and complicated album, but its brilliant execution earned it high praise. Sumney’s new EP, named after a Mark Rothko painting, returns to those older inclinations and sonically is worlds away from the gentle dreamscape of “Aromanticism.” On “Call-to-Arms,” Sumney utilizes his trademark falsetto, his gentle voice a stark contrast to the complex percussion and electric guitars of the song’s climax. Sumney’s wordless croon and the wild saxophone solo certainly convey the chaos of the political climate, even if he doesn’t actually say anything. But the centerpiece of the EP is the finale: the epic “Rank & File,” a rebellion against police brutality. Sumney takes the rare leap out of his falsetto, painting a picture of a brewing conflict over polyrhythms and ominous humming. When the song reaches reaches the pre-chorus, Sumney uses a call and response with a group of voices and gets right to work: “I don’t care what I been told! (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) This police state is much too old! (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).” As the song builds into a powerful chorus, Sumney calls the police puppets and reminds them they are supposed to work for the people. It all comes together to create an enthralling piece that demands to be heard.
Photo courtesy of Radio Woodstock.
"Nina Cried Power" - Hozier
Half a decade ago, a young retro-rocker named Andrew Hozier-Byrne rose to stardom on the back of “Take Me to Church,” a soul song about love and religion, with a beautiful music video about young lovers facing homophobia. His self-titled debut album, a wonderfully fun affair full of rock, blues and soul, rose to number two on the Billboard album charts. Following a lengthy tour, Hozier released no new music until his EP this September. Hozier picks up right where he left off with powerful soul-rock. The title track, featuring well-known soul singer Mavis Staples and with organ by soul legend Booker T Jones, honors the legacy of singers such as Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, James Brown and Mavis Staples herself. The song is an epic anthem with a steady drum groove, climaxing into a powerful chorus. The second track, “NFWMB,” is a gentle acoustic ballad that grows to be slow and driving. The other ballad, “Shrike,” is mournful and orchestrated, with a gentle string section accompanying piano and acoustic guitar behind Hozier’s powerful voice.
"When We Are" - Nubya Garcia
There are a great many incredible jazz musicians coming out of London right now, pushing the genre in new directions while maintaining some mainstream appeal. One of such artists is saxophonist Nubya Garcia. She is a true virtuoso on her instrument, as are the rest of her quartet. On this March EP, Garcia and her group explore post-bop and jazz fusion, with complex percussion grooves and vamping keyboard to complement Garcia’s horn. The music is both wild and composed, veering off into crazy directions and full of Latin-tinged percussion but never losing sight of melody or structure. The two legitimate songs on the release are filled out with a remix of each, which further showcase Garcia and her group’s willingness to experiment.
"Anthem of the Peaceful Army" - Greta Van Fleet
Greta Van Fleet is a group of white men who seek to take the world back to an idealized “good old days” that never actually existed. For Greta Van Fleet, those “good old days” came in the early 1970s, when bands such as Led Zeppelin (Who Greta Van Fleet resembles a lot. Like, a lot, a lot.) were cranking out musically simple, bludgeoning riff-rock rife with mysticism and sex. Greta Van Fleet does that but without the novelty, charisma and ease. And most importantly, they fail to recapture the innovative, experimental spirit and stylistic diversity of groups like Zeppelin, reducing their music to a few riffs and some high-pitched wails. That’s not to say “Anthem of the Peaceful Army,” Greta Van Fleet’s first LP (although their first release was a double EP, effectively the same thing) is worthless; in fact, it is an acceptable, sometimes enjoyable slab of retro riff rock. The group understands rock music, and on their first LP, they do it well. At their worst, they sound mediocre, and at their best they sound good. However, they lack the musical diversity and certainly the virtuosic rhythm section that groups like Led Zeppelin and Cream had that made their music so great.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
“This Is America” - Childish Gambino
Every once in a while, a truly gifted artist creates a work that shocks the entire world, redefining what can be done with their medium and often communicating an important message. Comedian, actor, writer, director, producer, DJ, rapper and singer Donald Glover’s music video “This is America,” released under his Childish Gambino moniker, which he uses for his musical endeavours, is one of those works. The musical cinema masterpiece was an instant viral video after being released while Glover hosted SNL. The song incorporated many elements of the Atlanta trap sound, even featuring guest vocals and ad-libs from rappers such as 21 Savage and Young Thug. Lyrically, it was incredibly simple—boring even—though it was musically exciting, albeit not innovative. But the video is the main attraction. Opening with Glover dancing in an empty parking garage, the video takes a dark turn when a seated guitarist turns into a hostage, whom Glover shoots through the head, and then he resumes dancing. Over the course of four minutes, Glover and his backup dancers party through deadly chaos, seemingly oblivious to the mass shootings, car fires and riots that happen around them. The video is a striking commentary on the role of entertainment media in contemporary society, and the song aids this message by highlighting the emptiness of the content the industry makes. Words simply cannot do justice to the extreme detail and genius of this work. If you somehow have not seen Glover’s master work, or even if you have, you should go watch it.
“Story of Adidon” - Pusha T
Never have I wanted to write about something as much as I have wanted to write about this song. When “Story of Adidon” first dropped, I had been eagerly waiting for Pusha T to respond to Drake’s “Duppy Freestyle,” a diss track in response to lines about ghostwriters on Pusha T’s song “Infrared.” Drake had responded in the quick fashion that is standard for diss tracks, and Pusha T had by this point had several days to respond. Opening the link to the SoundCloud, I was greeted by an actual picture of Drake in blackface (taken in 2007), and heard the instrumental to JAY-Z’s 2017 track “The Story of OJ.” Pusha T would spend the next several minutes attacking element after element of Drake’s life: “You mention wedding ring like it’s a bad thing, your father walked away at five—hell of a dad thing;” “Confused, always felt you weren’t black enough. Afraid to grow it ‘cause your ‘fro wouldn’t nap enough.” Those are simply some of the references that a listener not acquainted with all the background of Drake’s life would catch at first listen. Pusha T works his way through those and more specific references to Drake’s relationship with his father and record label, with an extreme calm that is highly out of place on a diss track. While Pusha T’s rapping style is often subdued and relaxed, this was an entirely new level of calm that was different from the anger of a rap diss track. Pusha T doesn’t just expose Drake’s struggle with racial identity, he exposes Drake’s most private secret: that he fathered a child with a porn star, then kept it secret, planning to make the information public as he launched a clothing line with Adidas and use it as PR. Pusha T goes beyond implying it, he says it bluntly and so plainly it cannot be misinterpreted: “Sophie knows better as your baby mother, cleaned her up for IG but the stench is on her. A baby’s involved, its deeper than rap. We talkin’ character, let me stick with the facts: you are hiding a child, let that boy come home. Deadbeat motherf---er playin’ border patrol, ooh. Adonis is your son, and he deserves more than an Adidas press run.” After that, all Drake could do was stay quiet for months.