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


10

Shygirl

Cruel Practice

[NUXXE]

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Shygirl’s debut EP was about as graceful an arrival as a freshly polished Lexus crashing through a Marathon gas station window, but then, grace wasn’t really anyone’s primary concern this year. Cruel Practice was more like an edifice of hard, combustible independence, a site for constructive rage, and, at the very least, one hell of a noisy club record that stretched out toward interior catharsis through its projected detonations. Since its release in May, that uproar was a healer, coursing through “O’s” torrential dynamics, “Nasty’s” oily slump of a beat, and “Rude’s” tsunamic, ear-rending violence with the icy aloe of collective fury. Deafening and invasive, Cruel Practice carried with it the feeling of entering bodily into someone else’s fantasy and taking control, of reconfiguring the conduits of sexual and emotional power, of becoming the turbulence in a system that, faced with the imminence of the future, can only shout impotently and virulently into a past that no longer indulges its machinations of singular authority. With all its clarifying commotion, Cruel Practice was the outlet we didn’t deserve.


09

Grouper

Grid of Points

[Kranky]

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Grid of Points brought to mind a junkie Eric Satie intermittently nodding off at his piano, as Liz Fraser, stabbed through the heart, emitted her final, exhausted coos, a pool of blood slowly expanding on the tiles all around her. But this Liz was Liz Harris a.k.a. Grouper. She has always been a minimalist, and here, as suggested in the album title, she slowed down and pared back her Ruins sound even further, cranking up the intensity by cutting all but the bones. Harris, or her persona, was a clear-eyed witness to violence and trauma, but even as her piano hesitantly searched for and nailed down specific emotional colors, her mumbled testimony dispersed in layers of pale blue vapor. Her all-too-human presence survived in a frigid, austere setting — the cover art, which aptly referenced Rothko and Joy Division, suggested a black-cold winter ocean. The exquisitely dissonant ice clouds of “Birthday Song” won’t get played at many quinceañeras, but Grid of Points did deliver the crawlcore bangers: “Parking Lot” and “Blouse” were surely back-to-back Top 40 hits in some parallel slo-mo universe.


08

Pusha T

Daytona

[G.O.O.D. Music]

[WATCH · READ]

It only took around 40 seconds for Daytona to burst into our house and announce itself as one of the year’s greatest releases. The album started with a steady rhythm of hi-hats tapping at the front door. Pusha T rapping, Kanye West producing; the end result felt self-evident. Yet, within those opening moments, there was a trepidation over what might be waiting on the other side. It had been three years of frustrating delays since the previous Pusha T release, and Kanye West was spending all of his free time shooting himself in the foot and then sticking that foot in his mouth. Could this collaboration actually fail to deliver? The tapping stopped, anticipation coudln’t get much higher. We opened the door — who’s there? Pusha T rapping, Kanye West producing. A self-proclaimed King and God clicking like Golden State, creating an exhilarating 21 minutes of hip-hop that was pure swagger to the core. An end result that felt self-evident, right? If you know, you know.


07

Low

Double Negative

[Sub Pop]

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I recently found that both Pet Sounds and Rumours were, for The Beach Boys and Fleetwood Mac respectively, their artist’s eleventh studio album. Similarly, Willie Nelson’s left-field classic Red Headed Stranger — a recent fav of mine — was his eighteenth. Not trying to cull together a canon or nothing, but it seems that there’s value to keeping at it and trying something new. On Double Negative, Low’s twelfth studio album, the band allowed their producer BJ Burton great liberties in the production process and, in turn, abandoned much of what had become their signature qualities as a band. Songs were picked apart and salvaged, completely subsumed by sidechain compression, distorted and shimmering synths, and quaking bass. It made an appeal to the slowness and tenderness that marked the band’s earliest work — almost 25 years ago now — but with new, unprecedented textures and approaches to form. There were ways in which the album responded to our political context, as well as our crises of faith and personhood, but, to me, it needn’t do so much to succeed. Double Negative took space and gave it back to its listener, drawing them in and opening outward, so long as they opened with it.


06

Elysia Crampton

Elysia Crampton

[Break World]

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Contrasting with the milksoup-dense foggy ambience on much of Elysia Crampton’s preceding material, these throttlingly propulsive rhythmic workouts wasted no skull-rattling, bone-shaking time. Each of her releases may be AOTY material, but the tastefully subtle departure of Crampton’s fourth album was a welcome twist. It played like being-rudely-awakened-from-the-dream and the dream itself making clamorously urgent room for each other. Despite its dizzyingly overloaded aural tapestry of Andean and American genre references, each track was infectious in its own immediate way. Such a heady blend of culturally specific and exhilaratingly other is rarely this perfectly short and sweet. Moreover, the psych idiom obliterant and commercial statement paired wonderfully with this year’s releases from Oneohtrix Point Never and SOPHIE (and the continuing videos of Cool 3D World). Simultaneously human and escapist in spirit, bearing witness to these works was not unlike hearing your own pulse and finding it both comforting and alarming. These six songs may have sounded the alarm and fried the nerves, but they did so while boasting a rushing red blood that sang, steely and serene, to our own.


05

Tirzah

Devotion

[Domino]

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I love you. I miss you. It’s intoxicating. It’s an obsession, that is, the churning of my endless devotion. I try to drink a lot of water to wet my very dry throat. I try to sleep all day to spend fewer hours thinking of you. That doesn’t work, though, because then you are in my dreams. One dream is sad. You love someone else. They are so beautiful. You are so beautiful. I’m heartbroken. One dream is happy. We are standing on a bridge, so close but barely touching, our bodies somehow twisted together and swaying in perfect time, as if dancing. This dream’s implicit erotics feel vague and fated. I know you’re just a fantasy, all fun and dangerous. But still, it’s bliss. Love songs are similarly fun and dangerous because they often articulate exactly how I feel. Thus, I dissolve. Tirzah’s certainly did as their stories spanned the whole gamut of love, loss, and longing. There was the euphoric “Gladly,” one of the sweetest love songs of the year, balanced by the reflective and shrewd “Do You Know.” Mica Levi’s forever crooked beats elicited the struggle of knowing that having is never as satisfying as wanting. But still, I want you here. Throughout Devotion, Tirzah unabashedly explored a raw emotional landscape. There she was. And here I am. Wanting you, needing you, gladly, gladly.


04

Charli XCX

Pop 2

[Asylum]

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In a desperate year where the future somehow felt more irreversibly doomed than ever before, Charli XCX managed to pierce through all the chaos with an exhilarating sense of optimism. Released in mid-December of 2017, Pop 2 found Charli perfecting an idea she had been working toward for some time. Conspiring yet again with bubblegum-club collaborators like A. G. Cook, EASYFUN, Lil Data, and SOPHIE, Charli channeled her cohorts’ aggressive sounds into their most welcoming incarnations yet, filtering it all through her relentlessly earnest, “crashed-my-car-into-the-bridge” style of pop music. The line between radio and rave became totally dissolved, as Pop 2 tapped directly into that rare, euphoric zone usually reserved for old nostalgia-twisters like Britney Spears and “Everytime We Touch,” rewiring it all with the same lonely energy that’s powered so many hopeless late-night DMs. Charli kept that same streak going all year, releasing single after single of impeccably bouncy future-pop, as if the only way we could possibly keep pushing through this bleak world we’re living in was to never lose that speed, to never stop relishing in the ecstatic joy of being alive. It may not have technically come out in 2018, but Pop 2 laid out a game plan (not to mention weekend plans) that we’ll be following for years to come.


03

Lolina

The Smoke

[WATCH · LISTEN · READ]

I love my wife so much. I am honored to see her being the best human. I am honored to see her push through as progressive. I am honored to see this partner of mine grow into the next. I am honored to see her become mother of a lot of another. It’s the excitement of where femininity takes on familiarity. Among us all in a genderless mustache; anti-masculine without an inch of flagrance. The most common dichotomy is “being with.” You think I’m just fucking writing here in text, like. That last person in your world: Who is it? Are they down? When do they realize it? How into is you is? A connect you see, the eclipse, with one summer; buying drugs from Mario August 21, 2017: there, now, on a black bike. Lolina been by this block, an’ it was another accumulation. An emotion emotive, emoji. Emoticon. No eyes can lead the way; sonics blind with The Smoke. Another variation of dissonance. In the early stages of life, understanding. Fetal fervor. Abandoned and the next step. We’re all in this, blindfolded.


02

Yves Tumor

Safe in the Hands of Love

[Warp]

[WATCH · READ]

We were asked, in distorted tones but certain terms, what we wanted. And we each said: “Remove the part of me/ Inside my own living hell.” And flanging hands shoved us underneath these roiling liquids. And then the long transformation began, a treading of becoming all the time. Some limbs fought and the others atrophied and the gills grew and we learned a new way to breathe, a faith in nothing except salvation. We watched our world from beneath the water, saw the shaky distortions of our days in melted analog and raw digital nerve. Was it a drum? Or a pop song? And then the water was a mass of flies and we felt all their clawing hair as pricks in our mouths and across our organs and “it’s torture” and “I miss my brothers,” the ones that got gunned down, the ones being gunned down all the time. Frederick Douglass called racism “our national faith.” We knew he was right, so we begged to be transformed, to get over, to get “Fucked into incompletion/ Multiplied and rhythmic.” And Yves Tumor dragged us up from our filthy deposits into a new molten organism, and we ached and cried in new skin, Safe in the Hands of Love.


01

SOPHIE

OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES

[Future Classic]

[WATCH · LISTEN · READ]
Who are you?

I didn’t even realize how deeply I had buried this question in my psyche until I sprawled out on my pineapple-studded bed sheets with my laptop and a pint of cream soda and queued up OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES for what seemed like the thousandth time. That digital inhale, promptly followed by a cough of twinkling bells, feels almost automatic at this point, like breathing poorly (I’m still searching for a good meditation app). When SOPHIE dropped “It’s Okay to Cry” as a self-directed self-portrait, it felt like a radical act. Now, barely a year later, it seems gnomic, like a household classic, as ubiquitous as “Vogue,” as crucial as “Ball’r (Madonna-Free Zone).” When I first heard it in context, even as a full-length opening track, I could feel my pulse sync with its blips; OIL had merged with my blood before I had even experienced it in full. I’m not beyond admitting that it was its it-ness that got me; SOPHIE had made her album, despite not caring much for albums at all, and after only one listen, it felt like part of me, like my favorite pair of high rise jeans.

Deep down

Since its release, it seems, I have unconsciously conflated its spot on my list with its spot in my heart, as if declaring OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES my FAVORITE MUSIC RELEASE of 2018 validates something not only special, but also essential about me as a person. What caught me off-guard on this most recent listen though was how much deeper than skin and skeleton its reach extended. Not only did it move my head, turn my cheeks up into a big goofy smile, and widen my eyeholes, but it interrupted these responses as well. My favorite track, “Is It Cold in the Water?” has always felt like stepping into shallow water on a windless night, but as I write this now, squeezed into a blue velvet dress, wrapped in a furry indigo blanket, I feel submerged and suffocated by its unfurled weightiness. “Who am I, really? Deep down.”

Following an incident of widespread racial trauma at the school I work at, it was decided that we show our seventh-grade students Inside Out as part of an impromptu unit on “identity.” As I sat watching this totally culturally-benign three-year-old Pixar film about feelings that have feelings along with 20 or so bodies drenched in feelings of their own, I found myself crying in a darkened room behind my unusually entranced students when Riley came back home after almost losing her entire sense of self. How me would I be without each time I thought about running away, without these fragile moments with these pre-adolescents who have only seen my shopfront? Who would I be without my fears or my dreams, without my anxieties or my dysphoria, “without my legs or my hair, without my genes or my blood, with no name and with no type of story,” without SOPHIE?

Where do I live?

Where do I exist? Where do any of us exist? What happens when we stop existing? George H.W. Bush just stopped existing, and it hurts seeing him exonerated, and it’s agonizing scrolling through self-congratulatory hot-takes about how his legacy is complicated by his contradictions (no shit), and it’s numbing how many bodies with no name and with no type of story will never see 94, and it makes me wonder what “being real” real-ly means in a world this violent and absurd, in a world that requires masks for some and lets others march proudly without them. When am I most real? In 2018, when were we most ourselves? When we remembered that it’s OK to cry? When we cracked the whip on the ponyboy? When we shopped our faces? When we waded into colder waters? When infatuation led us further through each other than it could ourselves? When we were not OK? When we were pretending? When we were just immaterial girls and immaterial boys?

Temporally, in reality, justice continued deteriorating this year, but SOPHIE let us see a “Whole New World” through her eyes, and in 40-minute intervals, it was realer than anything else, its title maybe even possible. Through it all, SOPHIE let us think about our faces while she made our bodies dance. So where does that leave us now that we’ve grown with this document? Has SOPHIE answered any of these questions? Not explicitly. At a time when global healing seems impossible, SOPHIE’s radical suggestion is simply that our selves are possible, and there’s nothing more radical than possibility.

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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