Lonnie Holley’s MITH is an American epic that travels through time from Africa through the brig of a slave ship on the Middle Passage to a far future, above which the souls of the dead fly like airplanes. And that’s just on one song, “I Snuck off the Slave Ship.” The other hour of this tremendous record gives the 68-year-old time to examine his childhood, his relationship with drugs and alcohol, his status as a black man in America, the misuse of technology, outer space, what might exist beyond the material universe, and, of course, the human compulsion to dance.
This is Holley’s third album after decades as a fixture of the American art world, earned through his massive sculptures made from trash and other detritus; he’s only been a recording artist for a few years. Holley is thankful for art, which is what allowed him to escape a horrific childhood in the poverty of Jim Crow Alabama, and indeed it’s through his imagination that he’s able to sneak off the slave ship. Holley’s viewpoint cuts through the mire of evil and sees the good in what he refers to as “humans” rather than people; this is a hopeful album that never flinches from horror.
Holley’s greatest exposure, somewhat counterintuitively, has been in the world of indie rock, where he’s collaborated and toured with artists like Animal Collective, Black Lips and Bill Callahan. Even with indie rock making more room than ever for artists of color, a 68-year-old African-American man is still an unlikely star in this scene – least of all one who disavows traditional song structure, sings nearly nonstop in an untrained voice, improvises all his songs. It’s rare for music so challenging to be so undeniable, rarer still for it to be so viscerally powerful. – Daniel Bromfield
– Lucy Dacus
By now, it’s become de rigueur for singer-songwriters of all stripes to put out an emotionally vulnerable, deeply introspective work that spends time ruminating on the well-worn lyrical tropes of life and death, love and loss. And while these exercises are a dime a dozen, it’s the rare outing that stands above the pack, taps into something both deeply personal and universally resonant. Lucy Dacus’ Historian manages this latter feat through a series of bleak songs dealing with all of the usual subjects, but delivered within the context of a 10-song cycle that both feels and plays as emotionally cathartic by the time the record reaches its conclusion.
Opening track “Night Shift” sets the tone for the album, starting small and building to a massive wall of sound and emotional release. This formula is repeated throughout Historian, each time with near-equal measure of success. “Addictions,” “The Shell” and, most notably, “Pillar of Truth” play as though Dacus were working through some heavy shit in the moment of recording and, reaching a breakthrough of sorts, allows the song to explode into sonic technicolor, leading the listener out of the darkness and into the light.
In press materials, Dacus stated, “This is the album I needed to make.” And you can both hear and feel this sentiment throughout as she pours herself into lyrics such as those heard on “The Shell”: “It’s a myth/ And now I see it clearly/ You don’t have to be sad/ To make something worth hearing/ Now I’m calm and I’m content/ One more burden off my back.” Though bleak, Historian never once wallows in its own misery, instead rising time and again from the ashes to deliver a series of grand pop statements both lyrically and musically. In this, Historian is one of the best singer-songwriter/introspective navel-gazing releases that 2018 – or any other year, for that matter – had to offer. – John Paul
19. Yves Tumor
Safe in the Hands of Love
Safe in the Hands of Love, the breakthrough third album from experimental music producer Yves Tumor, sounds at once both industrial and sentient – like a machine that bleeds. This is restless music that meanders and lurches, all while rendering the notion of specific genres as the ultimately insufficient descriptors that they are. Tumor creates music that oscillates between pleasantly ambient and unnervingly sinister, often lurking in the space where the two atmospheres meet. With his distant-sounding voice buried deep in a mix of pneumatic-sounding e-drums and electrical hiss, he sings, “I want to wrap around you,” on “Honesty,” and the line sounds both desperately affectionate and threatening in a parasitic or serpentine sort of way. Though the album hinges far more on mood than on lyricism, “Noid” injects social commentary about violence and paranoia, focusing on the notion that being afraid to go outside – especially for African-Americans who often can’t even feel safe calling upon the police – isn’t necessarily an unjustified fear.
Tumor deftly weaves identifiable pop and R&B inflections throughout this shape-shifting record, as on “Licking an Orchid,” which lopes along with an almost Gorillaz-esque pacing and beat throughout much of its runtime. But even there, Tumor plays around with expectations, injecting a discordant squall of sound that seems borrowed from the creepy, insectile atmospherics of “Hope Is Suffering (Escaping Oblivion & Overcoming Powerlessness).” By the time the pensive, Last of the Mohicans-esque violins and syncopated hand-drumming of “Recognizing the Enemy” kicks in, it’s clear that Tumor’s bag of instrumental tricks is as boundless as his artistic vision. – Josh Goller
18. Christine and the Queens
Every so often, a person realizes their own potential only after an achievement. “I didn’t change/ I became”, a line from Dawn Richard’s Redemption, largely describes this shift in Christine and the Queen’s persona. After a lengthy touring process, Héloïse Letissier noticed the physical effects of the constant activity on her body: heightened strength and endurance and a new, more muscular figure. Unintended, this shift happened as a result of Letissier’s commitment to her vision, only strengthened after years of rapturous response. As a child, she felt out of place compared to her classmates – and lines like “forever what’s her face” suggests that vestiges of this sentiment remain. As a popstar, Letissier never necessarily fixed these idiosyncrasies; she featured them. Instead of imagining her as a man, Chris presents her as one, and it feels just as natural.
Though much more direct and blunt than its predecessor, Chris still evokes the artist the world came to know and love on Chaleur Humaine. It is still queer, bilingual and dance-y, but where her first record treads lightly, Chris saunters and struts boosted by ’80s synths and boogie influences. “Comme Si”, “Girlfriend” and “Damn (What Must a Woman Do)” all call for fancy footwork and confident hip-thrusting, while “Feel So Good” and “The Stranger” emphasize the backbeat to hammer home messages of sensuality and social awareness. But Chris’s strongest elements stem from its radical depictions of the mundane, from cheap sums (“5 Dollars”) to human insignificance (“Doesn’t Matter”). She celebrates them and implores us to join along. Survival in and of itself is a feat worthy of celebration, and doing so on your own terms. especially as “the other,” is nothing short of a revelation. – Mick Jacobs
17. Tierra Whack
A former freestyle battle-rapper, Philly’s Tierra Whack rose to viral fame as a teen, went away for a few years and came back with this. Here is a cabinet-of-curiosities rap album that’s at once dizzyingly whimsical and achingly sad. Its songs bleed with anger, grief and distrust but are filled to the brim with cutesy affectations, as if – like so many millennials versed in Internet “wholesome” culture – she’s surrounded herself with cute things to stave off the existential despair of living in shit-fire 2018. “Pet Cemetery” is one of the saddest songs I’ve heard all year, but it’s set to nauseatingly cheery piano plinks and accompanied by the sounds of howling dogs.
Whack World comprises 15 songs that speed by in 15 minutes, and it’s hard not to wish they were longer, but she plays with these constraints. Many of the tracks feature some kind of gag at the end before segueing into the next – a cat noise on the dog-themed “Pet Cemetery,” a last-minute shout-out to Nintendo’s most reliable second banana on “Silly Sam.” It’s as if she’s structured the album in this way to force herself to be creative, and indeed there’s an aspirational streak throughout the record: she eats healthy, she doesn’t drink or do drugs, and she’s that much more badass for it. She’s fearsomely self-assured on this first album, cutting through ex-lovers’ shit, designing her own bling and daring the rest of us to go ahead and bite it.
The most immediately striking thing about Whack World is how minimal it is. The first song, as with a few others, comprises only Whack singing over some light keyboards. There are no string sections or jazz-funk basslines here, and most of these beats could’ve feasibly been thrown together in GarageBand in an hour. But the impression, once this avalanche of songs has tumbled down on you, isn’t of how little has been heard but of how much has been experienced. – Daniel Bromfield
16. Beach House
Though Victoria Legrand’s voice adds a distinctive texture to Beach House’s hazy dream-pop, there’s an ineffable quality to the mood the Baltimore duo conjures. Legrand and guitarist Alex Scully’s penchant for ethereal music that constantly seems on the verge of drifting off to some alternate-universe wonderland evokes plenty of dreaminess on the band’s appropriately titled seventh album, 7, but they stay tethered to the terrestrial with an added degree of sonic heaviness that’s a rare find in their earlier work. On the sublime “Lemon Glow,” the duo juxtaposes a buoyant, whimsical electronic beat with fuzzed-out distortion and discordant peals to create a multi-dimensional sonic experience that’s further driven home by Legrand’s multi-tracked and deftly layered vocals. Her gossamer voice floats above a swirl of a droning synths on “Woo,” the kind of uncanny yet whimsical track that would seem at home in the end credits of Twin Peaks: The Return. A Lynchian influence, at least in theme, also extends to “Drunk in LA,” as Legrand exudes enchantment and disillusionment with the synthetic bliss of Tinseltown in equal measure.
These types of contrasts propel 7 into rare air. The album presents an altogether immersive experience, simultaneously densely saturated and weightlessly effervescent, music that washes over and envelops the listener. On “Dive,” Legrand’s voice stretches to its most airy before an urgent drum beat kicks up and a driving, hard-edged guitar riff cuts through the reverie, melding with its lingering traces and absolutely soaring into transcendence – the kind of track that’s emblematic of a band that so effortlessly exudes wonder. – Josh Goller
15. J Mascis
J Mascis remains one of them most unique and recognizable voices in rock music. Maybe you’re a long-time listener of early ear-bleeding country Dinosaur Jr. or even the later, more universally accessible stuff which saw the band drift in and out of ballads and folk rock experiments which might suggest at later directions. Or maybe you just can’t take that pitchy voice that crackles like a campfire. Regardless of your predispositions to the band or it’s iconic lead singer, you should find the time to acquaint yourself with Elastic Days. It might be the most balanced, mature and accomplished collection of solo material J Mascis has ever produced. It seems to find a magic place where songs that might have been Dinosaur Jr. tracks are played stripped down, acoustic and beautifully produced. While it could certainly be said that earlier albums had their merits as well, something about them just sort of floated in the ether as efforts which were pretty good but remained somehow secondary to the real music of Dinosaur Jr. That’s no longer the case.
Mascis has always played to his strengths while seemingly enjoying immunity to the reckless but somehow delightful abandon in his weaknesses. The album opener “See You at the Movies” is an instant delight, selling J Mascis as the writer of serious pop songs with acoustic guitar chords that ring out like bells. When his guitar solos enter almost as verses in themselves, it’s subtle and tasteful and well balanced rather than brash. It’s the sort of song that feels like it ought to be alone on an album – an anomaly which couldn’t possibly be followed except by filler. And then you hear “Give it Off” or “Wanted you Around” and you realize he’s done it multiple times, and without repeating himself. It’s a rare album on which every song feels almost as rewarding as the last and though people will certainly have their favorites among its 12 tracks, the album overall is sure to stand out as one of his best, and easily one of the best of 2018 over all. In a turbulent time, J Mascis kept things grounded and it worked. – Darryl G. Wright
14. Earl Sweatshirt
Some Rap Songs
A sampled voice calls out, “Imprecise words” and we’re off into Some Rap Songs. But there are a few caveats that need to be attached, even this early. It’s not words that are imprecise, Earl’s never been one to be diffusive with his rhymes, it’s the music that’s hazy as hell. And Some Rap Songs is a misleading title. Over the course of 25 minutes, the music flows and ebbs in such a disorienting, yet natural, fashion that it feels like A Rap Song.
I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside might have had the song “Grief,” but that album was the thrashing of a young man rubbed raw with rage. Some Rap Songs, with its subdued, amorphous textures, seems like the truer document of grief. Ghosts float through the album at will, disturbing Earl’s dreams and shuddering through the beats. He was supposed to have a long-awaited visit with his absent father, South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, but the senior Kgositsile passed away before the album dropped. And the only joyous moment on Some Rap Songs comes from the summery trumpet playing of Hugh Masekela, Earl’s uncle who also passed this year.
“Fingers on my soul, this is 23/ Blood in the water, I was walking in my sleep/ Blood on my father, I forgot another dream,” Earl mumbles through the murk. He balances the abstract and the concrete with ease, the hearses rolling by, carrying family members as he attempts to find answers in vinyl pops and thumping beats. I Don’t Like Shit was staring at the void, Some Rap Songs hovers in the nothing, thrilling in limbo. – Nathan Stevens
13. The Internet
Many first heard of the un-googlable The Internet through alternative hip-hop supervillain group Odd Future, of which Syd, The Internet’s lead vocalist, is a former member. Seen in that context, she seemed one of the most mysterious components of the group; as it turns out, Syd is one of its most accomplished members as well.
Since 2011, The Internet has released four albums, including the Grammy-nominated Ego Death. But with this year’s release, the appropriately titled Hive Mind, the group has released its best so far, an eclectic distillation of its consummate knowledge of and mastery of many traditions, including but not limited to soul, funk, blues, jazz, R’n’B and everything in between.
Grounded in the group’s instrumental skills, the smooth, mostly analog feel of Hive Mind is buttressed by tasteful, focused production that delivers grooves as satisfying as they are surprising, and all without losing its sense of orientation, even at its most ambitious and exploratory. At times, on past releases, a less charitable listener might have felt that The Internet could be “chill” to a fault, but here it feels like the group has locked into its emotional core, crystallized in Syd’s delivery and in the lyrics’ directness, casual and thoughtful at once.
Hive Mind captures the group at the height of its powers, taut and hazy, a brooding lullaby for late-night longers. Soon, maybe the group’s name won’t be so hard to google after all. With both Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt taking more soulful directions (albeit in different senses) on their own most recent releases, The Internet rounds out Odd Future’s Mt. Rushmore. But unlike those two individual virtuosos, this group embraces the shared creativity of a collective, though they, too, ultimately come together in a single voice. – Dylan Montanari
12. Ariana Grande
“The light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole.” This is the refrain of the Nicki Minaj-featuring “the light is coming,” and feels like a guiding principle of Sweetener, Ariana Grande’s surprising fourth album. Despite her 2017 Manchester performance being the site of a legitimate terror attack, the album resists the temptation to give into that darkness at all turns, and in erring on the side of optimism, she made her most legitimate claim for pop domination yet. Much like this year’s The Future and the Past by Natalie Prass, it tackles how fucked-up the world can be by pouring joy on everything.
She didn’t do it alone, though. Producer/ubermensch (and “blazed” feature) Pharrell Williams had his hands on all but five of these songs, and his crystalline production and ridiculously cool beats infecting every song he co-wrote with Grande, a pairing that feels as essential as Timberlake/Timbaland on FutureSex/LoveSounds. Thanks to the strength of their relationship as creators, Sweetener is a “Feel-Good,” sonically speaking – while she’s subtly working through an entire universe of emotions within the album, songs like “god is a woman” and “successful” feel more inviting than many pop records in recent memory. Even her own tribute to the Manchester attack, “no more tears left to cry,” never beats you over the head with its subject matter – and delivers a post-traumatic disco anthem for any occasion.
Grande is already on the path towards her next album, thank u, next, due out next year. If the levelheaded, pro-breakup lead single “thank u, next” is any indication, we’re in for more of the same effortless, and effortlessly good, pop work she brought to the table with Sweetener. – Holly Dixon
The Warm Blood EP offered a hint of what was to come, but New Zealand rockers the Beths still exceeded expectations with debut album Future Me Hates Me. The band mixes classic garage rock with ’90s indie sensibilities and excited vocal harmonies for an unflagging burst. Singer/guitarist/songwriter Elizabeth Stokes needs that energetic band to keep up with her, as she processes as many thoughts and feelings as you can cram into a record, every complicated feeling driven by a catchy new guitar hook. That complexity separates the Beths from their peers. Stokes doesn’t settle anywhere comfortable. Above the assertive music, Stokes works out ambivalence toward new relationships, heartbreaks, and the need to just cut loose.
The band finds a perfect balance between self-examination and necessary catharsis, leaving Stokes space to ponder by rushing forward when the song calls for it. The title track encapsulates the group’s approach. Stokes enters a new relationship feeling like she’ll hate herself for it, even while recognizing that staying isolated won’t work out for her either. She sings, “I’ve counted up the cons/ They far outweigh the pros,” yet she gives in to the risk anyway. Throughout the album, Stokes and her bandmates take us on that sort of thought process, ultimately finding a wary way forward. With tracks like “You Wouldn’t Like Me” and “River Run: Lvl 1,” the group could get lost in despair, but they’ve discovered that some big guitars and some excellent backing vocals can at least keep you moving. It doesn’t mean life will work out or that these feelings will smooth out, but it does help overcome the hesitancy and the reservations. Stokes writes with doubt about the future, but the Beths’ first album suggests nothing but reasons to be optimistic. – Justin Cober-Lake