2018 Midyear List
Streaming services continue to dominate the musical zeitgeist in 2018. This has never been more apparent than with Spotify's unbalanced love for Drake and his new album, Scorpion, plastering it on every playlist on the service.
This shows the imbalance such a lifeless algorithm causes when applied to music, such a medium filled with life. Drake's album was marketed so heavily because Spotify, and their algorithm, know the crazy clicks that Drake will achieve. Although 2018 has shown that there is no stopping the continual release of droning, hour and a half Drake and Migos projects, we can find sustenance in countless other great music being made. Kanye, an unlikely hero (tidal, etc.) has fought back against this gross corporatization of streaming with his frenzy of albums. Each of his five produced albums is a succinct seven tracks with little filler or for tracks. Overall though Kanye has produced a huge 35 track album which may be in line with Drake or Migos. But it doesn't seem like Kanye's modus operandi is the same as Drake's or Migos. I don't know if there is a future without the continuation of Drake and friends but there is definitely plenty of great music that is being released now. Here are some of the best new projects from the first half of 2018.
MGMT, Little Dark Age
Far from the college dorm indie rock and psychedelia of Oracular Spectacular and Congratulations, MGMT's latest album, Little Dark Age, shows the band shift dramatically in the mood. From the cover art to the lyrics, this album creates a very dark atmosphere (as implied). The interesting part is that they are able to achieve this effect while keeping their sound surprising consistent with previous releases. The same sounds generally fill this album as the others but feel more muted and discrete in places. The combination of sad lyrics and these new musical placements give an unsettling feeling throughout the album. The tracks "She Works Out Too Much", and "Little Dark Age" exemplify this uneasiness the most. Some tracks feel downright vulnerable. "When You Die", and "Me and Michael" are filled with bubbly vocals but you can still feel the vulnerability through the facade. This vulnerability is what makes this album one of the best in their discography.
Standouts: She Works Out Too Much, Little Dark Age, Me and Michael
U.S. Girls, In a Poem Unlimited
U.S Girls may be a band formed from a singular person, Meghan Remy, but the big sound that she displays on this latest album shows the one woman band she is. The album sounds overall like a well crafted pop album, but when you dig a little deeper, the sounds seem to explode with vibrancy. My two favorite examples of this are the sharp strings that introduce and permeate throughout "Rosebud" and the myriad of drum machines on "Incidental Boogie." Though all the talent is not reserved for the instrumentation as Meghan shows off her vocal range throughout the project. The Blondie infused "M.A.H" contrast with the pseudo-rapping in "Pearly Gates," show her deep attention to vocal detail. Overall In a Poem Unlimited is a trip through many popular pop tropes that come together in a beautiful, cohesive work.
Standouts: Velvet 4 Sale, M.A.H, Incidental Boogie
Jack White, Boarding House Reach
Jack White is one of the perennial faces of modern rock and on his latest album, Boarding House Reach, he pushes the genre almost to a point of excess. It is true that the somewhat crowded songs stylistically and musically makes the album seem unorganized, but this blend is what ends up making the album so good. The ways that Jack White is able to mesh so many genres together (electronic, jazz, funk, blues) and still make it sound undoubtedly a rock album shows that he has a grasp on the genre. "Ice Station Zebra" is a microcosm of the entire album stylistically, The drumming gives an industrial rock feel that is interrupted by kooky electronic synths and jazz piano riffs. The song, with this diverse, synthetic musical landscape, is able to sound free flowing. Jack White, who has banned phones at his concerts in the past, presents themes that are critical to the information age (ie. "Connected By Love" and Corporation") and paint a dystopian-like future ("Everything You've Ever Learned"). Boarding House Reach is as ambitious as a rock album this year and despite being a handful to the ear, is a breath of fresh air for the genre.
Standouts: Corporation, Ice Station Zebra, Over and Over and Over
Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
"Born in a hurry, always late/haven't been early since '88." Kacey Musgraves starts off her third studio album with a gut punch. Immediately you know, this isn't your grandpa's yeehaw country record. Kacey continues with somber lyrics throughout the album but the theme that "Slow Burn" eventually comes to rings true for much of the album. Despite revealing her prematureness and other dark topics in the first stanza, Kacey is content to relax and "let the world turn." Although Kacey Musgraves is through and through a country artist, the instrumentation, and ambiance that is achieved on Golden Hour, lends itself to a more singer/songwriter rock record. There are two more gut-wrenching ballads, "Mother" and "Rainbow", that showcase Kacey's somber songwriting and more upbeat tracks like "Velvet Elvis" and "High Horse" that showcase the rock mastering of the album. Despite the lyrics obviously coming from a country perspective, they are sometimes an unexpected exploration of the genre (ie. "Space Cowboy"). The way that Kacey Musgraves blends country and rock so seamlessly is what makes this one of the best albums of 2018
Standouts: High Horse, Golden Hour, Rainbow
Amen Dunes, Freedom
Indie rock outfit Amen Dunes (Damon McMahon) comes through with an amazing sound that blends modern indie with classic rock. The indie sound comes in the form of the instrumentation. Soft drums lay the foundation for the background that is accented often by low, eerie synths or guitar riffs. The background instrumentation may be beautiful and intricately soft but it is just that: the background. It leaves room for McMahon's fantastic voice to shine through and captivate the audience. McMahon's voice does as much to establish a tone throughout the album as the overall instrumentation and it brings in elements of classic rock. Much like Bob Dylan or Eddie Vedder's voice is ubiquitous to the point of being hard to understand, McMahon's voice urges us to not attempt to understand what he is saying but listen to the music play.
Standouts: Blue Rose, Time, Calling Paul the Suffering
Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy
The freight train that is Cardi B continues to plow through the music industry with her debut album, Invasion of Privacy. With an all-star cast containing Migos, Chance the Rapper, 21 Savage, SZA and others, Cardi almost falls into the trap of having too many features. When about half the tracks feel like the featured artist is the star, it starts to feel less authentic and just a money grab. Despite this, there are tracks that deepen and develop Cardi B's style like "Get Up 10" and "Be Careful." These tracks take everything that was great about "Bodak Yellow" and improve them with a more vicious Cardi. There is also a wide variety of song archetypes that Cardi takes advantage of. "Thru Your Phone," "Best Life," and "Ring" provide more classic pop hooks that Cardi raps over. The latin inspired sample on "I Like It" is another high point on the album as it shows off the deep production on the album. Cardi B continues her reign with this fantastic debut album that promises many more groundbreaking records to come.
Standouts: Get Up 10, Best Life, I Like It
Hop Along, Bark Your Head Off, Dog
Another great indie rock album, Hop Along's Bark Your Head Off, Dog, features the band finally finding that something they were missing on their last album. The powerful vocal performance from frontwoman Frances Quinlan is always at the core of what makes Hop Along so great. There is seldom a voice like hers in indie rock but the production and arrangement of Bark Your Head Off, Dog pushes the overall sound to new heights. The catchy variety of sound that the band explores complements Quinlan's voice and allows us to become more immersed in the music. "The Fox in Motion" and "Prior Things" stand out to me for showing this maturing of sound and flow that was just off the mark with their last album. Hop Along will continue to be staples of the indie scene with their ever refining style and sound.
Standouts: How Simple, How you Got Your Limp, The Fox in Motion
Kali Uchis, Isolation
Kali Uchis delivers a very dynamic album with her debut Isolation. Uchis broke out last year as she famously sang background on Tyler the Creator's track "See You Again," went on tour with Lana Del Rey and sang on a handful of songs off of the Gorillaz album, Humanz. With this momentum in hand, Uchis aims for ambition on her debut. With a myriad of different sounds and genres, (R&B, rap, latin, rock, funk, etc.) this could have easily gone awry. Uchis creates an overall sound with these genres that work together very well. The hazy old fashion bar sound that she creates on tracks like "Flight 22" and "Body Language" showcases her skills at worldbuilding. "In My Dreams" is my sleeper track from this album as it has fantastic lyrics and a lowkey groovy electronic beat that envelops Uchis's voice to compliment it even further. Uchis channels Amy Winehouse's voice on the fantastic "Feel Like a Fool" as she melds jazzy instrumentation to her lyrics. Through all these fantastic musical stylings we also see the dynamic range of Uchis' voice. The combination of voice and mastering is what makes Isolation such a joy to listen to and discover.
Standouts: Your Teeth In My Neck, In My Dreams, Feel Like a Fool
Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer
After spending a couple years filming Moonlight and Hidden Figures Janelle Monáe released an explosion with the single "Make Me Feel." Prince incarnate, Monáe gave me huge expectations for the release of her latest album, Dirty Computer. While the album didn't live up completely to my lofty expectations, it is still an excellent record. Sonically most of the songs didn't feel as energetic or funky as "Make Me Feel" or "Pynk" but after a couple of listens, the album sounds very sonically complex. Songs like "Take A Byte" have multiple glistening layers of instrumentation that are toned down a little for Monáe's voice. "Screwed" has more of the Prince-inspired instrumentation that I was yearning for and features a great performance from Zoë Kravitz. The theme of a Dirty Computer (comparing it to our society) comes off a little heavy handed at times but Monáe delivers her message with such confidence that it is hard not to buy what she is selling. Janelle Monáe continues to show her range as a performer and a musician on Dirty Computer.
Standouts: Screwed (feat Zoë Kravitz), Pynk (feat. Grimes), Make Me Feel