2018: Favorite 50 Music Releases Maintenance and palliative care in the sounds of 2018

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series


40

Perfume

Future Pop

[Universal J/Perfume]

[WATCH · READ]

What does it say about our current condition when our pain, our vitriol, our crushing sadness found cushion in such meticulously crafted, sparkling pop that it almost hurt to listen to it? Perfume’s Future Pop was, in the end, as much about the future of pop as the geography of J-pop. Our latent ethnocentric desires were challenged by a hybrid pop form (is there any other kind?) that didn’t exist to placate J-pop essentialists or play into Western identity constructs; its aims were transparently, transcendently global. Producer Yasutaka Nakata outdid himself on this stage, not only by releasing three incredibl(e/y underrated) projects this year, but also by keeping Perfume on their toes nearly two decades after forming. Equally special was that the trio of A~Chan, Kashiyuka, and Nocchi entrusted Nakata to materialize such a vision, even as they were pushed further away from their tried-and-true technopop roots and toward something less defined, less quintessentially “Japan.” And it was exactly what we needed: these melodies were too exquisite, these harmonies too sweet, these rhythms too eternal for Future Pop to exist as anything but a balm, its glow, its loving thrust healing our hearts in ways I had thought no longer possible.


39

U.S. Girls

In A Poem Unlimited

[4AD]

[WATCH · READ]

It took the world long enough to catch up to what Meg Remy has been throwing around since the early 2000s, but U.S. Girls firmly stuck the landing in 2018. Granted, her 2015 effort Half Free did earn well-deserved Juno and Polaris Prize nominations, but In A Poem Unlimited went larger, tapping into a global conversation that the general population wasn’t quite ready for on previous releases. Her sixth full-length album and second for 4AD grounded her symbolic lyrical imagery in profound #MeToo-era insights, consistent with the political, anti-patriarchal style she’d shown throughout her career, though one could argue she projected more confidence and a clearer vision than ever before. In A Poem Unlimited was certainly a new height musically. Working with the galactic funk octet known as the Cosmic Range, one of her partner Max “Slim Twig” Turnbull’s many outlets, the hi-fidelity sound embraced blended modes of industrial-disco, psychedelic funk, and indie pop with a hip-hop attitude, amalgamating as much influence from Gwen McRae and Andrea True Connection as Madlib and Ghostface Killah into something way more out there than any of them, and feeling like a loving slap to the psyche. If you ain’t already woke, this will wake you.


38

Roc Marciano

Behold a Dark Horse

[Marci Enterprises]

[WATCH · READ]

Roc Marciano was as sensory on Behold A Dark Horse as he’d ever been. Colors were popping in exquisite hues, his sneakers pictorial, the scenery breathable. Details and wordplay turned so quickly throughout that they were easy to overlook. Passive listening material this was not. This was meant for concentration. His meter and syntax rivaled any active MC, both acting as his greatest assets and splitting attention with deft purpose. But that’s not to shit on his beat choices (mainly his own production). Each track worked as a mixture of spices for his flow, heightening and accenting his lingual skill the way body language does in deep conversation. His most complete release to date, Behold A Dark Horse possessed an air of refinement so laced with ease that it could sneak by untraced. Don’t fall for this. Marciano skipped on the check in the end, but the meal was worth it.


37

Beach House

7

[Sub Pop]

[WATCH · LISTEN · READ]

This game I play
I do it every day
I promise I’ll be fine
Bear it every time

What does it take to change? That’s a hard question with no definitive answer. I still struggle with that. But I mean, you and I know that we have to change at some point. Shit is pretty fucked, and everyone’s turned in on themselves. That’s the worst of it. You have to endure, you know? Become something more than what you’ve been all these years through painful evolution. Only way you become better.

Outside looking in
Mirrors once again
Nothing left to say
Tomorrow’s gone today

I can’t deal with these people anymore. My friends, loved ones, family — they all scare me now. Why do they need to feel special, to feel important? Been hurt enough to know their ambition — to be special — is just masturbating with a target on your back while taking a selfie. Not even a sext, just a selfie. What the hell happened to everyone? We have to change. We can’t end up like these dumb shits. Gotta break this mirror. It’s no good to us.


36

Teyana Taylor

K.T.S.E.

[G.O.O.D. Music]

[LISTEN · READ]

She’s got an album, but she ain’t got no manners. Just like in life, Teyana Taylor might not exactly follow the industry’s prescribed set of rules and expectations, yet she still comes out on top. Arriving four years after the singer’s debut studio album, and with no visuals to promote it, this final installment of the five-album G.O.O.D. Music rollout was a playground for subtle convention-breaking. K.T.S.E. cut across more than a handful of styles, vibes, and lyrical themes at a seriously breakneck pace. But it still worked remarkably well as a whole, not just because of Taylor’s prodigiously dexterous voice or the abundance of some of the choicest samples we’d heard from Kanye in years, but also due to the fundamental appeal of the album’s biggest contradiction: its modern, empowering message set against a largely anachronistic production. If you can use your singing to tie together a Mykki Blanco feature and a Delfonics hook, then you’re truly not your average showgirl.


35

Seth Graham

Gasp

[Orange Milk]

[LISTEN · READ]

The great, humorous paradox of Seth Graham’s 2018 album Gasp was that, despite its titular evocation of breathing in oxygen, the record itself contained very few moments recalling organic life. Sure, there were snippets of human voices and acoustic instruments, but they sounded processed, plastic, filtered through a multi-colored indoor McDonald’s playground then rebroadcast at the bottom of the ball-pit in hi-def. Instead of buying into any tired false dichotomy pitting “reality” and “the virtual/technological” against one another, Graham blurred the lines, laughed in the face of The Matrix, and veered instead toward the world of Flubber and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, where technology is the punchline instead of the harbinger of doom. In 2018, works like Gasp became vital in emphasizing the relative absurdity and weirdness of illustrating the future with brushstrokes of doom and technological apoplexy. Just so, Seth Graham’s playful, discursive, cartoonish musical takes made us reshape our conception(s) of not only music and its consumption, but also the baffling cultural/technological moment(s) of 2018: to reimagine our hyper-technological future with nuance and flippancy, as something not necessarily good or bad, but definitely strange and unexplored. Using the same raw materials so often used to create post-apocalyptic, nightmarish hellscapes á la Black Mirror, Graham demonstrated the possibility that we might already exist in a post-apocalyptic society, and that maybe it isn’t so dark after all — just complex, absurd, and hilarious.


34

Sarah Davachi

Let Night Come On Bells End The Day

[Recital]

[LISTEN · READ]

I don’t doubt that there were otherworldly undertones detectable in the way Let Night Come On Bells End The Day’s serenely unfolded or in the album’s allusions to early music. But Sarah Davachi’s attention to the idiosyncrasies of the instruments themselves — layers of organs, synthesizers, piano — to their subtle flaws (I’d like to say their humanity, but that would be doing their role here a disfavor when it’s so hard to say how much of our own state is worthy of celebration) as a source of minor contingencies kept the album grounded in something quietly mechanical, composed of small material parts, noticeable only in the minute traces of their effects. And I don’t know if all or any music aspires to timelessness or if timelessness has to take on beatific qualities — or really what it might even mean. But Let Night Come On led me to feel that if one were to find it here, it would be just as much as the breadth of the historical reference as in the peculiar suggestion of very specific times and incidents: to be able to feel, in listening, that only here might there be something beyond the vanity of human wishes.


33

Laurel Halo

Raw Silk Uncut Wood

[Latency]

[LISTEN · READ]

Raw Silk Uncut Wood was a record to sit with, move with, take in, listen to. Soft organ lines drifted through the sounds of artificial bird calls; roomy percussion echoed from various directions. It was like a blank slate, a mirror to peer into. While Laurel Halo’s brand of experimentalism is deeply rooted in her past work as an improvisational musician and college DJ — both of which require special attention and sensitivity to flow — she always seems to move deeper into the fog, even when drifting seamlessly between styles. On this record, that fog completely enveloped her typical knotty percussion. After years of crafting head-scratching dub and truly innovative tracks, Raw Silk Uncut Wood felt like Halo’s most unpredictable, left-field release yet: a simple collection of sounds strung together over a series of rainy days.


32

Armand Hammer

Paraffin

[Backwoodz Studioz/PTP]

[LISTEN · READ]

What is paraffin? It’s essentially kerosene, but highly refined and distilled. In another form, some quack doctor might pop it down your throat to clear your jacked intestines. Some of us spread it on our skin to beautify, others use it to make apples and peppers shine camera-ready for ad spots. But what was Paraffin? God help me, I still don’t know. An overwhelming and enveloping hip-hop document? An entire world built on top of our own world? Billy Woods and Elucid, both at the top of their games, setting fire, siphoning out the shit, and shining white-hot highbeams as everything oxidized? Paraffin, in any case, was otherworldly: its beats were overwhelming and its verses stuffed with imagery that unpacked in different ways depending on the time of day, all of it bleak but not hopeless, even if just barely. Or maybe I’m projecting. One thing I do know is that Paraffin was as precise a response to the present-day’s clusterfuck as any of us could want, because, diaphanous and waxy, it melted just so, rendering everything glistening and flammable.


31

Rosalía

El mal querer

[Sony Music]

[WATCH · READ]

Rosalía’s El mal querer was a near-perfect marriage of 250-year-old musical tradition to both sonic experimentalism and pop accessibility. It largely strayed away from the nylon-string guitar that forms flamenco’s backbone while retaining its virtuosic singing and handclaps (palmas). The latter formed the busy yet spartan rhythmic foundation for much of the album, connecting the dots between the elegant, dramatic, and highly codified form of flamenco and, like, jump rope chants, festival-ready bangers, and nostalgia for good Justin Timberlake albums. It’s worth drawing comparison between El mal querer and the work of another Spanish artist, Niño de Elche, who similarly combined flamenco with modern sounds (this is a gross understatement; you should listen to the thing) in his Antología del Cante Flamenco Heterodoxo. The two albums approached the project with opposite ends in mind: Niño’s album was a near two-hour slab of often pointedly disorienting experimentation, while El mal querer, at one-third the length, was an idiosyncratic listen that corralled its complexities into accessible shapes. Both spoke to new possibilities in an old musical language.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series


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