I wasn’t sold on Years & Years’s debut album. I found that nothing really reached the heights of King or Shine, but there was something there in those hits that showed the potential the band would have. Palo Santo lived up to this potential and then some. Sanctify kicked off their return full of drama thanks to an electrifying performance from Olly Alexander, much of the album calling on religious imagery to great effect. Hallelujah and All For You are out and out pop bangers, while the title track sees Olly deliver his best vocals yet where he soars. It feels like he’s finally found the freedom to be fully himself on record, a freedom that he had certainly found on stage, where the result is truly spectacular. Palo Santo might not be as culturally significant or genre defining as much of what is around it on this list, but as a pop album it hits the mark every time.
‘Maybe I’m a hypocrite, maybe I’m hypochondriac/I’m struggling to simmer down, maybe I’m an insomni-black’ is a lyric that appears near the start of the best song on Room 25 that astounded me on my first listen. I’m not quite sure why, there are much more cutting, more complicated, more introspective lyrics on Blaxploitation, but something about the way Noname delivers that lyric is genius. Sitting right in that sweet spot of rap, jazz and hip hop, Room 25 is sonically a great album. What makes it a phenomenal album is the way Noname navigates language, it’s so rare to see a rapper deliver lines so delicately like she’s just scratching the surface of the deep emotion that’s behind every line. It gives the whole album this thrilling quality where you have absolutely no idea where it’s going next. The guitar riff on final track no name, the way she interlinks with other rappers delivering a message together rather than against each other. Room 25 is current, relevant and impossible to tear your ear away from.
There’s a moment about 1 minutes and 40 seconds into Honey‘s centerpiece Send To Robin Immediately that is so subtly genius that I found myself listening to the entirety of the album just to hear it again in context. The way that the bass-line doesn’t just arrive, it eases in ever so slowly against Robyn‘s ethereal vocals achieves a completely new effect for an artist who I have personally felt like I knew so well. It may start with a pretty straightforward Robyn sad-banger in Missing U, but the true genius of Honey comes in how it avoids our expectations entirely. On Body Talk Robyn was mechanical, she was a Fembot polished to perfection delivering perfect pop music. The sounds are still there, drum machines, electronic backing vocals, thumping basslines, but Robyn is a human being this time around. Literally announcing it with a song straight after Missing U bridges that gap, it’s like Robyn felt like she had to announce that it’s just her this time, allowing for songs that aren’t anywhere near as heartbreaking as her previous work taking on this personal tone. Baby Forgive Me becomes a harrowing cry, while the standout title track is sensuality and physicality in the context of club music. For me it’s hard for any albums to match her self titled and Body Talk albums, as a fan I’m so glad that Robyn hasn’t tried to, she’s just living through the music.
Empress caught me off guard completely. I didn’t see anyone talking about RAY BLK’s music until a couple of people I follow mentioned Run Run. That song opens Empress full of emotion but laser sharp talk about the real impact of gun violence. It’s human and relatable, but on Empress it’s just the first of 8 equally terrific songs. Girl Like Me sounds like pop royalty, Ray killing it on both the vocals and the rap verse, while Mama sees her celebrating the most important person in her life with brilliant results. The title track strips things right back to just guitar where Ray’s voice can truly shine full of so much confidence, a trait also seen on the humble-brag of Got My Own. Empress sees Ray BLK living as exactly that, she’s so full of confidence and well placed confidence at that, she manages to come across brilliantly on every track. By far my favourite moment comes with the massive sounding Don’t Beg, with it’s choral background vocals giving the song a weight that the whole album has been building towards. Empress was a surprise, showcasing a talent that deserves to be heard everywhere.
Imagine if a band called Let’s Eat Grandma released a boring album, that would be so disappointing. Luckily for us I’m All Ears is the sort of album that can end on an 11 minute song named after a Cult Sci-Fi movie. This track, Donnie Darko in particular develops so much over its run-time that I found myself checking to see if it was actually the same song. I’m All Ears is at its best when there’s stark contrasts, whether that’s between the often shouty one note vocals and the bright and airy synth, or as one song in particular showcases, crunching electronic industrial noise and girlband worthy harmonies. Hot Pink is definitely the most striking moment, but it’s strangeness only brings out how strangely beautiful the other songs are. Falling Into Me takes the listener on a tremendous pop journey, while Ava is a touching piano ballad. The fact that this duo are so young and creating such vivid soundscapes in their songwriting is nearly as baffling as their name.
The second album on this list that I discovered by appearing on the Picky Bastards podcast back in August, CARE FOR ME has been the biggest surprise inclusion for me this year. Rap music changed a lot in 2018 and perhaps CARE FOR ME isn’t the best example of the sound of the genre currently has, but no other pure hip hop album resonated with me as much as this did. There are the knockout rap records, LOGOUT is a glitchy hook with a welcome appearance from Chance the Rapper, while BROKEN GIRLS is the most typical rap chorus on the album. Saba’s flow is so malleable to the beat, he can twist the words around in a different way for every song, which gives the whole of CARE FOR ME this interesting energy. As an album though it’s the storytelling that’s most impressive, especially on a track like the thrilling LIFE or the incredible PROM/KING which both see him remembering his late cousin Walter, who’s legacy can heard on every minute of the album. Saba has used his grief to produce an outstanding album that not only puts him on a level above every other rapper in 2018, but will be relevant for so many years to come.
Cindi Mayweather is no more. Following a series of EPs and albums that delved into characters and fictional universes Janelle Monae chose to turn inward for Dirty Computer with spectacular results. She wants a Crazy, Classic, Life and you will too just seconds into the first of a series of funk fueled songs. Pynk celebrates her womanhood and her refusal to shy away from her own sexuality for the first time on record, while Make Me Feel is not only my song of 2018, but here it’s part of an incredible run of 10/10 hits. Without the Android persona it allows for a song like Django Jane, the rap moment of Monae’s career including the incredible ‘And hit the mute button/Let the vagina have a monologue/Mansplaining, I fold em like origami/What’s a wave, baby? This a tsunami’. Brimming with confidence Django Jane sets the tone for the rest of the album, Janelle is through with the bullshit and she’s not afraid of being the one to set it straight. ‘Hundred men telling me cover up my areolas/While they blocking equal pay, sippin’ on they Coca Colas’ on Screwed sums it up pretty well too. Dirty Computer feels like a true moment for music. An artist who has worked so hard for so many years reaching a new peak that even die hard fans like me couldn’t have anticipated.
Much is said of Christine and the Queens as an artist. Pretty much every article or piece written about her mentions her sexuality, her nationality, her hair even. In 2018 she proved that above anything else she is the most exciting popstar currently recording. And she is a popstar. A very proud one at that, giving absolutely everything on her second album Chris. So much more than a name change, the sound of Chris is infinitely more layered and most importantly danceable than on Charleur Humaine. Doesn’t matter featuring thudding bass, Girlfriend is windswept funk, Damn( what must a woman do) is angry but passionate. Everything is produced to perfection, opener Comme si is a masterclass in informing the listener on how vital it is to move to this music, you feel every throb of the movement, an exploration of her own sexuality and experiences forcing the listener to engage. Chris is definitely not an album you can avoid while it’s playing, it’s an album that you experience, that you live through, that you dance to and is so distinctively Christine and the Queens at all times. An exploration of masculinity, emotions and sexuality has never been so instantly accessible, or this much fun.
I think anyone who has spoken to me this year expected the previous two albums to be in my top 3 alongside the album at #1 and I must say it feels a little strange putting a comparatively more straightforward, simple pop album ahead of two cultural moments. For me though Someone Out There has had that level of effect in 2018. A song like Lower The Tone crams more into its 4 minutes than some of the albums lower down in the list manage in total. the way Morris elevates a song so effortlessly, the moment when it all goes off in Lower The Tone is one of my favourite moments of the year. Rose Garden is a banger that manages to make me emotional thanks entirely to that beautiful vocal performance. When songs develop and expand it’s done in a way that can surprise the listener but always pushes the sound consistently. More than any of the other pop albums I’ve mentioned thus far, Someone Out There comes together as one entity. Do It, Athletico and Reborn were brilliant songs by themselves, but sequenced here they become mere highlights on an album that’s oh so much more. The way everything feels like it was produced together, there’s consistency and contrasts everywhere, is impossible to deny. Only one other album has soundtracked my year more, but Someone Out There fills me with a joy that can’t be understood without hearing for yourself.
Kacey Musgraves. How did you do it? How did you manage to capture life on an album so perfectly. Golden Hour manages to showcase the beauty that life gives us, even the things we are either too stupid, too blind, or too caught up in our own mess to appreciate. You don’t have an immediate wow reaction to truly beautiful things and Golden Hour isn’t as immediate as some of the albums lower on this list. That said you don’t have an ‘aha’ moment where the album suddenly makes sense either. Instead it’s a slow burn. Opener Slow Burn describes this sensation perfectly and it has that wonderful ability to sound even better on your 3rd or your 4th or your 74th listen, each time you capture another glimpse at the beauty on the record. I’ve never experienced an album where every song feels like it was specifically written for me, and the magic that every person I know that loves Golden Hour says the same thing. The songwriting is astounding in its simplicity, but that’s what makes Golden Hour such a relatable experience. No song in 2018 made me feel as joyous as the terrific Happy & Sad does, or break my heart as easily as Mother does. But like that we are back to another beautiful country song like Love Is A Wild Thing that feels like a classic Fleetwood Mac hit. Kacey Musgraves has always felt like a friend who was there for you, telling us about her own experiences and family, never preaching, just telling stories. Golden Hour is such a remarkable development of this, as well as her vocals on the likes of the soaring Oh, What A World, that she now seems to be talking directly to the listener. You hear her falling in love during Butterflies, back out of it on Space Cowboy and back again on Velvet Elvis, but it’s so clearly one person’s experiences. The language Kacey uses is always consistent, Golden Hour is as much a journey for the listener as it is for her which is why the likes of High Horse don’t stick out, they stand tall. As an album Golden Hour is glowing, it’s warm, it’s home. It’s a classic album that feels like I’ve been listening to for my whole life, from an artist who has discovered the joy of life. I’m just grateful that Kacey chose to share that joy with us.