While 2018 may not have been a stellar year in terms of, well, most things, we can at least say there were some radical musical moments within these twelve months. Kanye went crazy, Taylor Swift finally outed herself as a Democrat, Janelle Monae came out as pan, as did Brendon Urie. The three rulers of indie rock made themselves a boygenius, Mitski turned us all into cowboys, and Courtney Barnett told us how she really felt. And while it may not have been a glowing year for most, if not all, people, we can take comfort in listening to good music, coming together to support artists of all kinds, and sharing the music that makes us dance, cry, and take action in this hectic world we live in. Looking forward to 2019, we can be certain that underrepresented artists will be brought into the forefront, and we’ll be able to hear their voices more clearly. While 2018 may not have brought us many things, we can at least say it brought us closer to the music we love.
- The Carters – Everything is Love
This album is a prime example for me of why music cannot be judged on a first listen. Anything new from Beyoncé is reason to celebrate in my book, but I was at first underwhelmed with this project. By comparison, I knew almost instantly how groundbreaking and innovative Lemonade was. I am so glad that I gave it a second chance. Its quiet eloquence and range became the soundtrack to my summer. This celebration of black excellence from music’s power couple showed how effortlessly Beyoncé and Jay-Z dominate across genres and styles. As a side note, both the album cover and the “Apesh*t” music video impressed me with a deep understanding and utilization of art history in a way that allowed me the art nerd in me to freak out. If anyone wants to talk about how the “Apesh*t” music video utilizes a range of art historical references, I’m your girl.
- Blood Orange – Negro Swan
I know that at its core, this wasn’t an album for me. Much of its lyrical content is centered around themes of depression and hope from a uniquely black perspective. More than anything, Negro Swan emerges as a highlight of 2018 because I’m generally a fan of anything Dev Hynes touches: film scores, production credits, jams on Instagram live, you name it. (Those production credits have more recently been appearing in exciting places, like the centerpiece of Mariah Carey’s Caution, “Giving Me Life.”) He takes on a lot of different roles in his music making, occupying the role of curator just as effectively as he does composer. This is apparent in the way he marries genres like hip-hop, gospel, and R&B or brings varied collaborators onto this projects, like Kelsey Lu, A$AP Rocky, Tei Shi, and Janet Mock. The album’s freshest, most glittery moments like “Out of Your League” and parts of “Charcoal Baby” maintain a warmth. Its sparser moments like the album’s closing track “Smoke” are never empty. Of this year’s releases, Negro Swan stands out to me as an album with a beating heart.
- SOPHIE – Oil of Every Pearl’s Uninsides
As listeners, we have been conditioned to experience certain emotions with certain sonic structures. Major chords, minor chords, triplet hi-hats, 4×4 kick drum pattern, etc. all pull us back to the emotions we have associated with those musical elements. SOPHIE defies all facets of these expectations. She hurls the listener into soundscapes they have never experienced before. That immediacy, that reactive listen can be somewhat unsettling, but give it a few more listens and it is utterly exhilarating. SOPHIE has given us new ground to venture. She has given us agency over how we assign experiences to her music. OIL… is our chance to find comfort in discomfort while dancing intensely in the process.
- Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
With Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves did what many didn’t believe possible: she made country cool again. Musgraves draws influence from several genres, including pop, disco, electronic, andfolk to create a blend of sounds that culminate in a groundbreaking sophomore album for the singer. Beginning with the soulful jam “Slow Burn” and building up to instant pop hits like “Love Is A Wild Thing” and “High Horse,” Golden Hour shows off a side of the South not yet fully realized in the genre. While many may have considered her outside of popular tastes before, with Golden Hour, Musgraves has made herself a household name.
- Mitski – Be the Cowboy
This year I was introduced to Mitski when I listened to Be the Cowboy for the first time and was struck by the artist’s ability to be vulnerable, and even fragile, without condemning these as negative characteristics. Mitski’s songs often explore themes of love and rejection which we all hear about on the regular, but in her lyricism, she avoids sounding like a Hallmark card. The candidness of her writing makes listening to her songs feel like how I imagine it must feel to have your diary read back to you. Solitude and loneliness are recurring themes in this album, highlighted most notably in the single, “Nobody” when Mitski sings about isolation. All alone the narrator experiences an intimacy with herself which allows her to be completely honest and open. Be the Cowboy succeeds in exploring the solitude that many people feel but few know how to discuss.
- Hayley Kiyoko – Expectations
Hayley Kiyoko’s debut album, Expectations, is no doubt one of the hottest albums in #20GAYTEEN. Deemed as the “Lesbian Jesus” by Rolling Stone (along with her fanbase in general), Hayley Kiyoko does not have a particularly distinctive vocal. However, it is her unapologetic expression of who she is that made her songs, her music videos, and Expectations stand out from the mass amount of music dropped this year. Expectations is also unique in its structure, not only does it includes an overture and interlude track, the tracks themselves capture a full range of life experiences, almost as if this is Hayley Kiyoko’s very own coming-of-age story.
- boygenius – boygenius EP
In 2018, one might think that supergroups are played out. They’re all too common and never actually showcase the talents of each individual artists. Enter boygenius: the collective comprised of Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus. The three women are each at the forefront of melancholy indie rock, and this self-titled project stands at the end of the year as one of the most exciting musical developments to emerge. Each song showcases the talent of one artist in particular, while seamlessly blending the musical styles of each. While the boygenius EP serves as an all-too-brief introduction to a promising musical union, I am hopeful to see what these three come up with next.
- Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel
Courtney Barnett’s sophomore studio album Tell Me How You Really Feel was not one of my favorite albums of 2018 because it was particularly catchy (while at times it definitely can be) or because I listened to it nonstop (in fact at times I found it difficult to actually sit with the album for too long). From the album’s name, to song titles such as “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”, the artist’s frustration and anger shape this album and force the listener to acknowledge these feelings. What really made this album stand out for me was its frankness and direct delivery, whether it be an honest request for time apart from someone like in “Need a Little Time”, or a reproach calling out sexual harassment in everyday life in “Nameless, Faceless”. Without becoming self-righteous, this album acknowledges the frustrations of existing in a time like 2018.
- Clarence Clarity – Think: Peace
Clarence Clarity engages with past, present, and future on Think: Peace. The album might read like a more concise, neatly packaged follow up to 2015’s No Now (which isn’t a bad thing), but what this framing leaves out is how Think: Peace lays a foundation for his future work. He still taps into nostalgia through referential nods to throwback pop and R&B influences and continues to experiment with production and song structure, highlighting a combination of adventurousness and self-awareness that I’m perpetually in awe of. However, part of this album’s innovation comes with his intention to leave the format behind altogether, instead allowing the audience to curate their listening with the addition of singles filed under the LEAVE EARTH companion piece. Clarence Clarity fans were lucky enough to see this album come together over the past few years, whether they knew it or not. To see him rework familiar moments and stitch them together with entirely new ones made Think: Peace a treat for listeners. Pop and electronic offered 2018’s most powerful releases, and Clarity is a case in point.
- Robyn – Honey
I am not quite sure what I was expecting from Robyn after her seventh studio album Body Talk. Released in 2010 to critical acclaim and solidifying her status as pop-oracle, the masterful blend of stadium electro-kick drums and warm gliding synths gained her a loyal following that firmly believed in her power to grant emotional sanctuary even in the most danceable contexts. Maybe I was expecting her to bring that sound again, but Honey was clearly its own musical terrain. Intimate, luxurious, and transparent, it sounded like a secret, but one that you were always supposed to know. Sure, I guess you can dance to it, but Honey requires you to invest more than your hip-sways and your initial heartbreak moments. Provide Honey your time, patience, and sincerity, and its intimacy will provide back a sanctuary so massive. Perhaps one that is even more massive than anything she’s given you before.
- Hozier – Nina Cried Power EP
4 years after “Take Me To Church” took over the music scene, Irish singer-songwriter made his grand return with the Nina Cried Power EP, which, he says, is “a small taste” of his upcoming album in early 2019. Not only is this EP Hozier’s homage to American rock and roll, it’s also a celebration of the legacy of protest in rock history. The tracks in this EP fuse classic American rock with hints of gospel and R&B, marking a dynamic change in the kind of music Hozier has put out in his career so far. Nina Cried Power also showcased Hozier’s musicality and dynamic vocals better than his debut album did, which is evident through both his recorded and live performances. With the change in his style and musical talent displayed, it is safe to say that Nina Cried Power has made Hozier the artist that we should be on the lookout for in 2019.
- Tirzah – Devotion
Tirzah’s debut full length, Devotion, was an album that began as an indistinguishable string of slow burn R&B songs, but quickly grew into one of my favorites of the year. Excellent albums from Beach House (2008) and Jessie Ware (2012) sharing the same title should have forecasted this one’s impact on me, but Tirzah has no need to fall back on my imagined legacy. The title alone demands submission and is followed by an opening line of “I’ll make you fine again,” immediately communicating a gentleness full of powerful intent, a sort of feeling that carries through the album. It contains well balanced contrasts, like full, warm tracks overlaid with incredibly direct lyrics. Perhaps my favorite thing about Tirzah is how her album finds comfort in imperfection. Devotion sounds organic, yet measured. She manages to capture different shades of intimacy in moments like her singular use of an expletive in “Go Now,” the catharsis of the blasting guitar on “Guilty,” or the looping improvisation of “Affection.” While it has a grounding heaviness, the new details that emerge with each listen keep it from ever dragging and keep me coming back to it time and time again.
- Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
It comes as no surprise that Dirty Computer tops WQHS’s list of the best albums of the year, as Janelle Monaé’s “emotion picture” offers something for everyone, from the light pop of breakout single “Pynk” and the infectiously danceable funk number “Make Me Feel” to the punchy hip hop “Django Jane” and the stripped-down R&B penultimate track “So Afraid.” Though each individual song stands out in its own right, Monaé manages to weave these pieces together into an ambitious and stunning concept album that serves as a mediation on female sexuality, queerness, and dismantling systems of oppression by embracing those features of yourself which those in power condemn. Guest appearances by stars like Brian Wilson and Pharrell enhance both the music and message without distracting or diluting, and Monaé’s vision comes through in perfect clarity. Plus, Tessa Thompson is in the “Pynk” music video – what’s not to love?
Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog
Philadelphia’s own Hop Along is the band to be listening to in 2018. On Bark Your Head Off, Dog, bandleader Frances Quinlan examines injustice, rage, and misogyny, and puts it all into songs that ache and burn. With an unbeatable band comprised of Quinlan’s brother Mark, Joe Reinhart, and Tyler Long, Hop Along crafts an album that only gets deeper the harder you look, with little nuances and idiosyncrasies tucked away in the lush landscape that is evoked by its album artwork (also designed by Frances Quinlan). Throughout BYHOD, Frances Quinlan calls upon injustice not only on a grand scale, but also daily, historical, and internal, and makes us ask what we can do within our own spheres to combat the forces above our heads, as Quinlan sings, “So strange to be shaped by such strange men.”
Tierra Whack – Whack World
For me, the most memorable and exciting moment for me in music this year was the emergence of the stardom of Tierra Whack—the most original and creative new face in hip hop. Although the album is comprising of fifteen one-minute songs, it shines through as perhaps my favorite project of the year. Despite being an excellent singer and astounding rapper, Tierra shines because she is not afraid to be different or—excuse the pun—wacky. The music video that accompanies the album is filled with bright colors and bizarre situations that allow the viewer a glimpse into Tierra’s mind. Already playing sold out shows and garnering the attention of the likes of Andre 3000, Billie Eilish, and SZA, Tierra undoubtedly has a bright future ahead.
Frank Turner – Be More Kind
Frank Turner forced himself to look on the bright side with 2015’s Positive Songs for Negative People. In his most recent release, he invites us to do the same. Tracks like “1933” and “Make America Great Again” show Turner’s dissatisfaction with current affairs, but rather than fall into the punk trap of anger without solutions, he invites us all to lean on our loved ones and do what we can to make the world a better place.
Muse – Simulation Theory
Although Muse’s Simulation Theory is not a flawless record, it is without a doubt the most enjoyable album that I’ve listened to this year. With a sound that blends the band’s typical larger-than-life rock with 80’s-style synths reminiscent of the Stranger Things soundtrack, the album showcases frequent moments of brilliance amongst a tracklist that is consistently playful and undeniably catchy. Songs such as “Break It to Me” and “Propaganda” showcase the culmination of Muse’s many years of experimentation with electronic music; synthesized elements feel right at home alongside classic Muse piano and guitar work, each sound complementing one another more perfectly than ever before. At the end of the day, Simulation Theory sounds like an album that Muse just plain had fun making—and what results is forty-two minutes of music that is as enjoyable to listen to as it must have been to make.