This is the music that moved us in 2018
The Key’s Top 15 Albums of 2018
In her review of Lucy Dacus’ Historian, Key writer Sarah Hojsak uses a vivid phrase that sums up both the record, as well as the emotional landscape of 2018: “desperately sad but never hopeless.”
Oh, wait, I’m sorry…would you describe your year as happy? That must be nice, good on you. For many of us, it’s not as straightforward: the toxicity of the country at this moment in history, and the various players that fuel that toxicity, has a draining effect, whether you’re a marginalized person who is in the line of fire or an empathetic soul who is distressed from afar. There’s also the let-down: the pouring of our energies into something to watch it fail, whether personal or public.
And yet we experience moments of joy throughout it all: weddings are had, families are started, a breathtaking sunset is observed from the westbound platform of the Berks Avenue el stop. And there’s music, a constant source of joy and comfort that centers our lives.
The best records we heard this year tapped into that experience of wrestling with emotions and loss — we heard it in the elegiac hip-hop of Saba’s Care for Me, we heard it in the tempered dancefloor bump of Robyn’s Honey, we heard it in the late Mac Miller’s diaristic rap opus Swimming and in the cathartic indie rock of Dacus’ Historian.
The very specific emotion of loneliness is a recurring theme here too; Caroline Rose’s Loner has it in the dang title, while The Sidekicks’ Happiness Hours has it deceptively woven into the lyrics of bright and buoyant rock songs. Mitski’s unstoppable single “Nobody,” one of the catchiest songs of 2018, is very explicitly about this feeling, but like Rose, she ultimately uses her album Be The Cowboy not to wallow but to look towards transformation and growth, both emotional and musical.
Some artists wowed us by honing not only their vision, but their execution of that vision: Screaming Females’ All At Once is a badass record of songs about wrestling with anxiety, yes, but it’s a decade-plus running rock band delivering them in top form, and Tierra Whack’s surreal and subversive Whack World might have grabbed a lot of listeners’ attention for the first time this year, she’s been grinding for just as long.
But the albums that rose to the top took a broader vision of sorting out of humanity and its ills, whether you’re Noname singing and rapping from the perspective of a black woman who doesn’t want to be put in a box, or Hop Along wrestling with misogyny and loss, and in the process delivering the most powerful statement of their career, Bark Your Head Off, Dog.
This is the music that moved us this year, and this is the music that gave us hope. Dig in.
15. Saba — Care For Me — (self-released)
In 2016, Saba firmly established a place for himself in hip hop on his debut album Bucket List Project. Following it up this year with Care For Me, the Chicago-born rapper takes many of the same sonic ideas present on his last album and builds on them, focusing it all into concise stories and expressions of trauma. On his sophomore album, Saba lays out his struggles with depression, relationships, loss, and navigating within an often toxic music industry for all to see.
For what we’ve come to expect from rap albums as of late, the features are sparse. theMIND lends some of his wistful vocals on the intro track, “Busy / Sirens,” Kaina sings back up on “Fighter,” and Chance the Rapper chimes in a short, solemn verse at the end of “Logout,” a song where they both lament the state of social media and the position that it puts both them and the people around them in. Aside from these contributions, the album is all Saba, giving him room to keep his verses and hooks as focused as possible.
The standout of this album is the seven-and-a-half minute “Prom / King” track, where Saba fully tells the story that much of the album is built around. Starting from the moment that they became friends, Saba details the tragic story of his late cousin John Walt. His murder is clearly the most recurring topic on the album, as Saba references the event and its effect on him on nearly every one of Care for Me‘s ten tracks. Over the course of the song, Saba shows his talent for vivid storytelling without abandoning his ability to keep listeners engaged with his flow and delivery, particularly on the second half of the song, where the production becomes intentionally frantic.
Saba’s second album successfully showcases all of his talents, from lyricism to compelling hooks, succinctly and without a single unnecessary moment or lyric. With Care For Me, listeners get to hear Saba further establish his sound—conversational verses bouncing over airy, jazz-heavy production, while they also empathize and perhaps relate with a young artist wrestling with his inner demons and outer environment.
14. Rosalía — El Mal Querer — (Sony)
For those unfamiliar with flamenco, let alone Spanish-language music in general, a question of accessibility may be raised. In a post-”Despacito” pop economy, however, Catalan singer Rosalía’s crossover success in English markets like the United Kingdom and, ever increasingly, the United States, is a near no-brainer.
Twenty-five-year old Rosalía Vila Tobella’s sophomore LP, El Mal Querer, maximizes its potential for cross-Atlantic success by repositioning a classical Spanish form—flamenco, in all of its unique syncopations, palmas (hand claps), and deep smolder—under a contemporary pop lens, folding hip-hop, R&B and exquisite co-production from Spanish wiz kid El Guincho into a body of work that bounces effervescently with soul and swagger.
For Rosalía, one can imagine, merging the traditional and the present is the only way forward. Tastefully Auto-tuned vocals blend seamlessly into sparse production on “Di Mi Nombre.” “Pienso en tu mira” and “De aquí no sales” both refashion traditional vocalizations into club bangers complete with motorcycle engine samples and major league pop radio hooks, as if they’re telling us, “Bounce to this. You’re hearing the future right now.”
Most ear-perking to American ears, she lifts the pre-chorus melody of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” on “Bagdad,” flipping perspective on its head in service of El Mal Querer’s overarching narrative of flawed romance: “And it’s going to burn, if it’s still there / The flames go to heaven to die.” The tracks twist and shift shape, all held together by Rosalía’s voice, the record’s greatest asset, of course. It’s buoyant and smoldering, both vapor and crackling hearth.
All of this makes for a repeatedly thrilling listen with El Mal Querer. In just a half hour, Rosalía so doesn’t so much suggest the arrival of a new crossover success story. Rather, through the adventurous and experimental El Mal Querer, a simpler thought: If it slaps, it slaps.
13. Robyn — Honey — (Embassy One)
As Robyn so perfectly, playfully put it on her 2010 masterpiece Body Talk, “fembots have feelings too.” It turns out certain feelings take some time to sort out. In this case, it took eight long years for the formerly indestructible Ms. Carlsson to pick up the pieces of her broken heart and put them back together again in the wake of losses both romantic (her separation from and reconciliation with her partner) and professional (the death of her longtime associate and friend Christian Falk). Honey follows this former fembot on her journey from heartache back to wholeness, bringing her out the other side as a fully formed “Human Being” again.
To embark on said journey, Robyn abandoned the bionic precision that defined her sound—and career—last time in favor of sprawling, spacious production from collaborators ranging from Metronomy’s Joseph Mount to Kindness’s Adam Bainbridge to Teddybears’ Klas Åhlund. The result is a warmer, more fluid album than its juggernaut predecessor, one that favors patience over propulsion to match the deeper, more personal lyrics. Even the song that most resembles what came before, cascading opener “Missing U”, feels more elegiac since you can already guess who the “U” is. From there, the album builds itself and its maker back up through starry slow motion disco (“Because It’s in the Music”), perky Party Girl house (“Between the Lines”), and ultimately softly reassuring synth-rock (“Ever Again”).
But the album’s humid highlight, and heart, still rest within the already legendary title track. Originally teased a year and a half ago in the final season of Girls, the full final version lives up to its seemingly insurmountable hype, offering as much catharsis on record for Robyn as it did for listeners upon advance release this summer. “No, you’re not gonna get what you need,” she teases, ready for reunion and release, “but baby I’ve got what you want.” That Robyn was able to satisfy our shared want with another immaculate collection of songs that also finds her fulfilling her own emotional and artistic needs reaffirms her status as pop’s reigning auteur, and it cements Honey as one of 2018’s sweetest, most indelible albums. Come get it.
12. The Sidekicks — Happiness Hours — (Epitaph)
Every now and again an album comes around that has the power to define the time and space around which it was released. On May 18th, right as spring was blooming into summer, The Sidekicks dropped Happiness Hours on Epitaph Records, and it was the perfect album for that time of year. Laced with catchy hooks, roaring guitars and incredibly relatable lyrics, Happiness Hours is alive in the same way the season is.
The album’s first single, “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing,” despite its name and respective lyrics, will definitely make you want to get up and dance with its upbeat guitars and tempo. But the words find singer Steve Ciolek reflecting on loneliness: “Don’t feel like going dancing without you / Criticizing the jukebox and making, fun of the dudes. / No, I just don’t feel like dancing without you.” It beautifully emphases the thread of unreciprocated love that recurs throughout the album.
Tracks like “Twin’s Twist” and “Weed Tent” also help to build the perfect summer album vibe with their themes of nostalgia. This is best represented in the song “Mixtape for Rainy Day.” With the opening line “Every mixtape hit serving as gifts to the goons that got away / Couldn’t have played ’em in your new car anyway,” listeners cannot help but be transported to an earlier time in their lives, in their relationships, in their vehicles.
It is almost impossible for a listener not to find a theme to connect with in this beautifully-woven album, making Happiness Hours not just a perfect summer album, but one of the best of 2018.
–Rachel Del Sordo
11. Cardi B — Invasion of Privacy — (Atlantic)
On December 6th, 2011, a 20-year old MC from Harlem named Azealia Banks dropped a single whose impact continues to reverberate throughout hip-hop culture today. The song, “212,” featuring Lazy Jay, was a high energy electro-house anthem that served as a perfect bed for Banks’ dextrous flow and raunchy imagery. Banks bounces all over the track, talking shit and bragging about seducing a guy’s girlfriend. The whole affair is tied together with a shrug: “I guess that c*nt getting eaten…”
All of this was differently than Nicki Minaj’s carefully marketed bisexuality (which largely catered to the male gaze). Banks, like Lil Kim and Salt N’ Pepa before her, had stretched the limitations of what a woman could say (and be) in hip-hop.
Less than six months later, the duo of Zebra Katz and Njena Red Foxx released “I’ma Read”, a menacing, violent song that paid more than a passing homage to the highly ecstatic spiritual energy of voguing and the underground Ball Culture that envelopes it.
As a cis-gendered Black Man growing up in hip-hop culture, these two records floored me, for it was in these two songs, I saw the future. Moving forward, rap music was going to be queerer and more feminine than ever. These songs would help to solidify an audience of cis-het Women and LGBTQ-identifying folks that would carry rap’s next superstar to meteoric heights.
A couple years later, in the Bronx, birthplace of hip-hop culture, a 21-year old rapper and stripper named Cardi B began uploading bawdy, hilarious, and charming videos to Instagram. Her painfully frank way of discussing relationships, sexuality, bodily fluids and more made her an internet star in a culture starved for detail and transparency. By the time her mixtape Gangsta Bitch Music dropped in 2016, it became clear that Cardi had intentions on making a run at the top of the rap game.
On April 6th 2018, when Cardi’s debut full length Invasion of Privacy was released, I was laying in a hospital bed in Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Center; a nasty dance with viral meningitis had (temporarily) stripped me of my ability to walk. The album’s first single “Bodak Yellow” had been dominating clubs and airwaves since the previous summer. Although I was largely incapacitated, I still had my laptop and social media assured me of what I had known; a loud, gregarious, and out bisexual woman had become rap’s biggest superstar and her album was a rallying call for many, previously marginalized hip-hop fans who had been waiting on someone like her.
Songs like the rowdy club-banger “Bickenhead,” or the dreamy anthem “Best Life” featuring Chance The Rapper, showcase Cardi’s ability to put her unique spin on rap’s aspirational themes by highlighting her experiences as a woman in a man’s world. “I was in the field, man, I slaved for this. / Had to talk to God, dropped down and prayed for this.”
About a month later, I was discharged from the hospital. A month after that, I was walking on a cane and going back out to parties and seeing my friends and fellow DJs spin, and Cardi’s album was still rocking. Singles “Be Careful”, a gorgeous Bossa-Nova inflected meditation on infidelity, and the Latin boogaloo / trap hybrid “I Like it Like That” were ruling the charts and racking up millions of sales and streams, forever challenging our old notions about who is allowed to hold rap’s number-one spot.
10. Screaming Females — All At Once — (Don Giovanni)
Throughout All at Once, Screaming Females are neither reinventing their own punk rock-driven wheel, nor are they setting out to prove something they haven’t already. However, it sounds inspired. It has a therapeutic feeling like something is being released from within. In fact, All at Once comes across as an album by a band that’s not only been honing their craft for years (this is their seventh studio album, after all), but also knows how to play to its strengths without letting any moment feel tired or regurgitated.
There’s an undeniable anxious energy felt from the tense buildup of “Glass House,” a gradual intro that in itself is uncharacteristic of the three-piece band. The feeling continues through the concerning “Soft Domination,” and right up to the jarring end of “Step Outside,” just after singer and guitarist Marisa Paternoster repeatedly admits “I’m sick with worry just knowing when you step outside / You won’t be safe now.”
The 50-minute album never loses sight of its purpose by way of noticeably dialed-in production that’s comfortable being even-keeled but also heavy at times. There are plenty punk-infused power pop hooks and guitar shredding any Screaming Females fan comes to expect, but All at Once steps aside from the band. Among the rest of their catalog, it ushers in new musical feelings that create a tug-of-war on the album because of their sequencing, but also in that they’re unheard from Screaming Females before.
The pushing church organ dirge of “Deeply,” and subdued, curiously hip hop feel of “End of My Bloodline,” display a band that knows how it got to its current place, yet knows how to keep facing forward. On the surface, All at Once feels personal and honest, especially on “I’ll Make You Sorry.” It’s just one piece of the album’s nervous energy, as if there’s something just under its skin pushing right where the listener’s pressing.
9. Lucy Dacus — Historian — (Matador)
When Lucy Dacus wrote the lyrics “You promised you’d never forget the little ones when you got big” on her song “Nonbeliever,” it’s unlikely she thought that she’d soon be able to turn around and address those words to herself. But Historian, Dacus’s second album, has cast a well-earned spotlight on the Richmond, VA songwriter. Historian is a record filled with lyrics that are subtly insightful and quietly searing; lyrics that her record label, Matador, writes “feel destined for countless yearbook quotes and first tattoos.” Grounded by its overarching theme of loss and its many forms, Historian is often desperately sad but never hopeless. Dacus sings in a calm, even tone; her voice is naturally polished with a bell-like clarity that she offsets with jagged guitar. Her words carry an enviable sense of clarity, too, and are laden with the sense that we’re listening to one of today’s wisest, most articulate songwriters. It’s fitting that the title refers to Dacus’s desire for documentation — Historian isn’t only a personal triumph in the songwriter’s growing catalogue, but one that we’ll be returning to for years to come.
The record opens with the immediately arresting “Night Shift,” a six and a half minute song that’s hard to listen to without getting lost in its intricate ups and downs; by the third chorus you’re belting along as Dacus sings, “In five years I hope the songs feel like covers, dedicated to new lovers.” A song like that sets the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the record, but the following nine songs more than deliver. Dacus approaches emotional turmoil with poise and assurance; she lets you find solace in her words but eschews wallowing. She masterfully turns frustration into sharp wit with lines like “I am busy doing nothing / and you’re rudely interrupting” (“The Shell”) and “I fought time / it won in a landslide” (“Timefighter”). She even veers gospel with “Pillar of Truth,” and it not only works, but it induces tears. Dacus betrays a hint of self-doubt with the “Nonbeliever” line “Everybody else, everybody else looks like they’ve figured it out,” but to the listener it seems unwarranted, almost absurd. If anyone has it figured out, it’s Lucy Dacus. With a record like Historian, how couldn’t she?
8. Caroline Rose — Loner — (New West)
If you were looking forward to another songbird alt-country album from Caroline Rose complete with acoustic guitars, smokey vocals and that fleeting brushes-on-the-snare drum sound, well…sorry. This year, she put out an indie pop album called Loner instead. How Country Caroline’s fallout and eventual demise gave way to Indie Caroline is unclear, but at some point, Rose’s town of Burlington, Vermont wasn’t big enough for the two of them, and Indie Rose won out in a duel.
Not to worry, though; it absolutely worked out for the better. One of the album’s best attributes is Rose’s ability to evoke imagery. This is done especially well in “Getting to Me,” a standout track in which she sings about the moment when independence becomes loneliness. When the diner waitress seats Rose alone at a table, Rose picks up on how the server always takes away the place setting for the second person. Eventually, Rose instead begins sitting at the counter to avoid the empty feeling she’d get every time that happened, realizing that the feeling of being single was getting to her. She’d pick up on little things couples would do in public, like men placing their hand on their partners’ back with a thumb through a belt loop. The whole song paints a vivid picture of what’s going on in Rose’s mind, aiding in evoking the wistful emotion she is making you experience.
In “More of the Same,” Rose paints another melancholic picture of a jaded house party she attended filled with young people her age with no sense of individualism. At her Underground Arts performance last month, Rose told a story about how she escaped to a different room of the house, discovered a killer record collection and decided she’d have more fun listening to albums than socializing with others at the party. Hearing that, it’s not hard to see where the name Loner came from. But if preferring to spend time by yourself at a party listening to music alone is more appealing to you than getting drunk with a bunch of rowdy twentysomethings, then consider me a Loner too.
7. Ravyn Lenae — Crush — (Atlantic)
I first became a fan of Chicago singer-songwriter Ravyn Lenae after seeing her open up for Syd at the Trocadero; her stage presence and incredible, fairy-like voice make everything she sings sound like magic. I’m also a huge fan of Steve Lacy, producer and bassist in The Internet, so I was especially excited to learn that he produced and cowrote the entire project with Lenae.
The Crush EP is definitely Lenae’s most mature work yet, and has been accurately described as a coming of age project. Ravyn herself has mentioned in interviews that this project is her most honest, as she finally got over the burden of prettying her emotions and worrying about her mom listening.
The project reflects her journey with love as she navigates her 20s, which makes 20-year-old Steve Lacy the perfect collaborator for this project. Overall, the project has a distinct blend of dreamy funk, soul, R&B, and pop — a musical lovechild of Lacy and Lenae. This project is also more honest and descriptive than her past projects, which were more clouded in metaphors. This new approach really allows the music to be more relatable.
Standout track “Computer Luv” describes a cyber space love story full of longing, doubt, and butterflies, punctuated by an appearance from Lacy’s British alter ego. “The Night Song” is a track that’s part of my morning playlist, and is impossible not to dance to. It’s an empowering, mid-tempo, track about loving yourself and feeling confident in your own skin. “4 Leaf Clover” is a frustratingly relatable track about being in a confusing and frustrating courtship situation, with one party hesitant about commitment while the other is frustrated with waiting.
Taken as a whole, the Crush EP is a cohesive, funky, and relatable account of the struggles of navigating love in your 20s, and Lenae and Lacy are the perfect duo to tell these stories.
6. Mitski — Be The Cowboy — (Dead Oceans)
When singer-songwriter Mitski announced her new record this spring, it was perplexing to hear her speak about it as a means to reconnect with her feelings. Reconnect? Her previous two albums practically bled feeling in the most riveting way possible; her studio work is booming and expressive, while her gigs are typically whisper-quiet, the breathless crowd’s gaze transfixed at the person at the microphone, whether she was stoic and solitary or alive with a punk band backing. But emotion cannot be compartmentalized merely to the cranked-to-the-max highs, the cathartic “fuck you and your money” of “Drunk Walk Home,” the longing cries of “I do, I finally do” on “Your Best American Girl.” Feelings are complex, nuanced, and Be The Cowboy swirls in the range of them, presented through Mitski’s most dynamic collection of songs to date.
The racing Eurythmics techno of “Why Didn’t You Stop Me” gives way to the breather of “Old Friend,” an elegant ballad in slow waltz time that is very literally about reconnection: “Meet me at Blue Diner, I’ll take anything you want to give me.” The theme crops up again in airy country tones of “Lonesome Love,” where the narrator meets up with a former flame “so I can win, and this can finally end,” but things don’t play out as planned. The songs are all vivid vignettes with indelible images, whether it’s a feature-length look at the difficulties and complexities of long-term relationships in the playful “Me And My Husband,” or just a single telling line such as “I could stare at your back all day,” which appears amid a wash of ambient tones on “Pink In The Night.”
For all its introverted examinations of emotion and connection, the record’s most extroverted song — the glorious disco of “Nobody” — is lyrically one of Be The Cowboy‘s saddest moments. Over three minutes sweating it out on the dance floor, Mitski lays out a powerful description of crippling loneliness when all one wants is companionship: “I don’t want your pity, I just want somebody near me.”
Thing is, these aren’t even half the songs on the record. Be The Cowboy is on the one hand filled to the brim with 15 tracks, but on the other hand is easily digestible as most of the tracks land in the two to three minute range. A single pass through the record clocks in at 32 and a half minutes; the day it released, I’d spun it three times through before 10 a.m. It’s MItski’s strongest work, not just because the songwriting and sound design (what’s up, “Geyser”) are so gripping, not just because it’s a quick and lively listen, but because of what it achieves thematically. Nowhere else in Mitski’s discography — or this year’s worthy slate of excellent new releases — has digging deep into our collective emotions felt so approachable.
– John Vettese
5. Snail Mail — Lush — (Matador)
At only nineteen years old, Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail has become something of a heroine of indie rock. The Baltimore native dropped her first full-length album Lush this past summer, graduating from the invisibility of DIY culture and propelled into the mainstream limelight. The lo-fi graininess and jagged edges of her 2016 EP Habit are lost on this debut. Boxed up compactly in 10 songs, the studio-produced quality is inescapable, the sound polished and clean.
Jordan’s songwriting is blunt and pragmatic. She balances between vulnerability and resilience, which makes listening to this record feel like reading your kid sister’s diary. She started playing guitar when she was five, and her classical training comes through on tracks like “Let’s Find An Out,” her technique precise and deliberate. Her 90’s rock influences (Sonic Youth, Liz Phair) surface without overshadowing her own individual style.
“Pristine” is the spine of this record. The baby-faced blonde juts out her chin, stubbornly proclaiming: “I won’t love anyone else / I’ll never love anyone else.” Somehow this line manages to be both naive and piercingly poignant. Much of this album is about finding space outside of a relationship to reflect, and the gradual process of gaining self-awareness. “Heat Wave” is a languid summer afternoon, dynamic solos stretching out indefinitely, Jordan’s voice unspooling like warm honey. Closer “Anytime” gives up the tone of bitter angst for one of acceptance: “In the end, you could waste your whole life anyways / And I want better for you.” Time passes, we forgive each other, and we heal.
4. Tierra Whack — Whack World — (self-released)
It’s true, Tierra Whack is a North Philadelphia rapper and spoken word artist who blends her quirky sensibility and often bizarre, metaphorically layered lyrics with production sounding like trapped out chip-tunes. But as seemingly light, airy and whimsical as Tierra Whack’s LP Whack World is, it’s also one of the meanest. Clocking in 15 tracks in 15 minutes at exactly one minute per track, this record burns through the cosmos with the ferocity of a dwarf star burning at the edges of a galaxy. Listening to Whack World, with its ability to switch rap micro-genres and Tierra’s skill at bringing stranger parts of herself to the surface, is not unlike letting your little cousins hold the aux chord. By the record’s end, any respectable hip-hop or rap fan will be rabid to the point of irrational anger for more.
Whack’s world of non-sequitors, trap tales, and beautiful odes to kissing dogs (“Pet Semetary”’s sneakily intense lamentation on violence and incarceration taking one of her friends, which also doubles as a meditation of friendship and community) wasn’t birthed overnight. Her 2017 single “Mumbo Jumbo” is a downtempo, 808 fueled non-album track, a banger clocking in at a comparably epic 2:57 where Whack rhymes in a nearly unlistenable, garbled wail that’s part Missy Elliot’s “Work It” and part Kurt Cobain at his druggiest. The song’s video is a disorienting “Gattaca-goes-to-the-dentist” piece of surreality that planted the seed for Whack World‘s totally liberated approach to artsier trap music.
Like on the aforementioned “Pet Semetary,” Whack’s lyrical genius, exasperated on the faux-country twanger “Fuck Off,” is apparent. “You broke, you ain’t no good for me at all / I wrote this ’cause I feel ten feet tall / I know you don’t ever wanna see me ball / Ice cold, in a coat, baby, I won’t thaw” Whack croons, effortlessly pushing through the song’s strange arhythmic twang. On “Fruit Salad”, Whack even offers health advice in the guise of a spirited anthem that serves as one of the more impacting tracks delivered over perhaps the album’s dopest beat.
But at just 15 minutes, it’s the beats that sometimes suffers Whack’s clear genius. Cut off abruptly, just as it was getting good, “Pretty Ugly” absolutely knocks. Then the dreaded “bbbrrrrr” of a turntable stopping on a dime rips the listener off-world. Often I found myself staring at my speaker tower like, “brrruuuuuhhh!!” Reminding yourself that it’s all by design is the best way to enjoy this record. It’s dizzying, more ADHD than even, say, J Dilla’s Donuts, the effect bordering schizophrenic. In fact, as I was writing this, my husband came in and asked “Is this a multi-person group?” No, honey, it is not. It’s the singular work of a savant that by the time “Waze” comes on, where Whack laments, “I ain’t have no GPS / when I was sick ain’t nobody go to CVS” I’m pretty much emotionally done.
It feels like a ’90’s Nickelodeon staff writer minced a bunch of scripts and had Migos smoke it, certainly. But there’s an immense, undeniable power behind these explosive songs, behind Whack’s gifts as an artist, writer, and visionary. Despite whatever’s truly going on on Whack World, this is apparent: It’s a world we definitely want to live in.
3. Mac Miller — Swimming — (Warner Brothers)
Long before his passing — since his start, really — the work of Mac Miller has always thrilled and entranced this writer. After 2011’s frat-rap single, “Donald Trump,” the MC-producer with the Pittsburgh-accented voice and east coast smirk moved to the duskily psychedelic (and sampladelic) tones of 2013’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off before winding up at 2016’s aptly-titled The Divine Feminine, and its celebration of the women in his world. Swimming, however, was something different: an odd, languid, prescient post-break-up album (farewell, Ariana, even before it happened) that expressed its feelings in soulful gulps and mumbles and a slow set of minimalist, spacey soundscapes, Punctuated by just a smidgen of percolating bass, flight guitar and overt hip-hop rhythmic underpinnings, Swimming was dreamily jazzy as Frank Ocean’s floating Channel Orange, mixed with the dire romanticism of Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear.
To go with that cool open jazz, what Miller’s fifth solo album has at its ready was a Zen-like calm when it came to its lyrics, a mix of the smartly nihilistic, the pragmatically cheerful and a glad-to-be-unhappy lyrical signature that’s irresistible in its sourness. “Every day I wake up and breathe / I don’t have it all, but that’s all right with me,” Miller croon-cackles on “2009,” while accompanied by lush, sparse keyboards and dry skin finger snaps. Who sings about being just OK at a time when the extremes of money, fame, racism and misogyny are de rigueur within hip-hop’s framework? Mac Miller did, and he made a commonplace emotional reaction as “eh” sound utterly crucial. In that regard, and along with comparing Miller with Ocean and Gaye, we must throw Chet Baker into the mix, for he too was so cool, he was cold.
While Miller won’t be the first artist to have died young and left a great sounding catalog, the new found aestheticism of Swimming opened a world of delicious possibilities. Here’s hoping anything that comes after Swimming, only equals such quality and taste.
2. Noname — Room 25 — (self-released)
Perhaps Fatimah Warner didn’t set out to make a career-defining statement of purpose when she self-released Room 25, her debut full-length album, this year. Maybe, as the poet and rapper best known as Noname told The Fader, she just wanted to make rent and “show some of those people who think that I am this very, like, conscious female rapper that I’m just as regular and normal as everybody,” she says.
The Chicago emcee established this reputation in part through poignant guest spots on Chance the Rapper’s recordings. But to think of her through this lens—his lens—would be a mistake of both sexist conditioning and musical misunderstanding. While both artists agilely spit bars of resolute earnestness over dense jazz-derived instrumentals and create independent of the industry’s most power-hungry players, Noname’s own unwavering reflections on her young adulthood features none of the jubilance of her fellow Windy City native’s characteristic work. Instead, the energy she captured on those contributing verses and her debut mixtape, 2016’s Telefone, largely disposed of elation in favor of subdued and witty introspection towards her place in the world.
Her candid mediations on growth through difficult quarter-life experiences reverberate with the conviction of someone who finds beauty and beneficence in recognizing ordinary life. “I’m the prayer, the hope, bank account wishin’ bone for my loved ones. / Tell ‘em Noname still don’t got not money, tell ‘em Noname almost passed out drinking,” she raps on “Don’t Forget About Me.” Whether she’s talking about the relatable hardship of fiscal insecurity and existential dread or celebrating her newfound sexual independence (she admits to using the “pussy” throughout the record after losing her virginity post-Telefone), Noname recognizes the poetry in the moments that many people experience while becoming grown-ups.
As demonstrated on tracks like “Blaxploitation,” that also means existing as a Black millennial woman in a country that often doesn’t acknowledge their truth. Her lyrics thus frequently reference the ways intersecting racism and sexism play into her lived experiences. “My pussy wrote a thesis wrote a thesis on colonialism, in conversation with a marginal system in love with Jesus—and you still thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?” she ponders on opening track “Self.”
In a year where the political and cultural developments reaffirmed a core mandate for American civic life—listen to Black women—one could see Noname as a sort of messianic orator for our times. But that would miss the point that Black women should not bear the weight of always having perpetual wisdom or knowing exactly how to act. Instead, Room 25 and its creator offer a message to understand humanity—especially for Black women like its creator—as something filled with mistakes and learning from them with earnest self-love. That’s refreshingly normal.
1. Hop Along — Bark Your Head Off, Dog — (Saddle Creek)
In the Hop Along song “How You Got Your Limp,” there is a line directed at a drunk male professor that capsulizes a feeling prevalent within the past few years: “I can hear you, the whole bar can.” Hearing men brag, hearing men drone on about their lives without bothering to ask a single question to the woman across from them, hearing men interrupt women, this is reality for many of us.
Culture is merely a microcosm of the larger society and while rock music in theory is about rebellion and the belief that the “outcasts,” need a voice and outlet, it has ironically been a predominantly white and male genre. I’ve been a music fan all of my life, and if there are a couple of things I’ve learned, is that there are a lot of not so great guys out there making music, and that mediocre songs by white men are much more lauded than daring music by those that do not fit into that demographic.
Even the title of the album, Bark Your Head Off, Dog seems to be saying “keep talking, dude, just work yourself into a froth, I’ve got my own problems to worry about.” The viciousness of men is a constant theme in the album, whether it’s the vindictive professor in “Limp,” or more dramatically, the inventors of the first weapons of mass destruction in “One That Suits Me.”
Listening to singer and songwriter Frances Quinlan encapsulate horror at watching a violent battle scene in a film, wonder at having read Karl Ove Knausgård’s A Time for Everything, or just getting a bad vibe at watching a fox (metaphoric or real) run away looking haggard and vulnerable is strangely comforting.
It’s nice to mentally commiserate with someone who so fluently formulates the words and thoughts of being subject to a patriarchal world without relying on trite phrases and slogans, to hear someone struggle out loud with the idea that there are great men who have created great and awesome things but also wield so much destructive power. The last track, “Prior Things,” to me is a reminder that we can choose to hold onto the stress of dealing with these everyday occurrences, or we can be the person reading, on vacation, “obliterating all prior things.”