As 2018 finally draws to a close, Redbrick Music reflects on the best music releases in our annual Albums of the Year feature
Ariana Grande – Sweetener
Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
IDLES – Joy as an Act of Resistance.
Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
Autechre – NTS Sessions 1-4
Julia Holter – Aviary
Empress Of – Us
Tom Misch – Geography
JPEGMAFIA – Veteran
Kali Uchis – Isolation
Mitski – Be the Cowboy
Daughters – You Won’t Get What You Want
Skeemask – Compro
Superorganism – Superorganism
Roman Flugel – Themes
Allie X – Super Sunset
Jon Hopkins – Singularity
Objekt – Cocoon Crush
Saba – CARE FOR ME
ionnalee – Everyone Afraid to be Forgotten
The Fratellis – In Your Own Sweet Time
Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD
Playboi Carti – Die Lit
Noname – Room 25
Ben Howard – Noonday Dream
George Ezra – Staying at Tamara’s
MGMT – Little Dark Age
Let’s Eat Grandma – I’m All Ears
U.S. Girls – In A Poem Unlimited
Robyn – Honey
2018. The longest year in living memory. Twelve months of trying to get back in the EU’s pants harder than Offset tried to get back in Cardi B’s. There was an already-forgotten Olympics. There was a blistering summer. Football did not come home. Thankfully, there was also some killer music to get us through it. Here are Redbrick’s favourite albums of this year.
Sweetener is superb. Released a year after the Manchester Arena bombing, it acts as a perfectly poised tribute to everyone affected whilst preaching a convincingly feasible mantra of self-confidence and bravado. It’s Grande’s new-found maturity, anthems such as ‘God is a woman’ and the heart-breaking honesty behind the lyrics, that make it my album of the year. Grande probably didn’t need the name-drop collaborations of Pharrell Williams, Nicki Minaj and Missy Elliot, as their lacklustre features leave something to be desired. It is instead the unapologetically upbeat songs that earn this album the acclaim it’s achieved. Grande stated she ‘just wanted to give people a hug, musically’ – an aim which she fulfils, and then some. The almost sickeningly optimistic ‘breathin’ draws upon mental health and the all-too-familiar partnership between our generation and anxiety. These impressive stimuli through the medium of genuinely enjoyable pop songs combine to create a belter of an album that will dominate the charts for the foreseeable future. Since its release, Sweetener has evolved into an iconic amalgamation of bouncing back, female empowerment and positivity. Superfan or Devoutly Sceptical, I strongly suggest you give it a listen, or thousands, as in my case.
Within six listens of Some Rap Songs, I can say that this album isn’t only my favourite from the year, but among my favourites of the decade. In my eyes, this album is a masterpiece to stand alongside To Pimp a Butterfly and Flower Boy (another album born from the ashes of the Odd Future collective) as one of the best rap albums in the last ten years. No one else in 2018 has crafted such a dense rewarding set of songs in rap or elsewhere. With every listen Some Rap Songs gets better, as minor details to the production reveal themselves and the lyrical themes Earl weaves throughout the album become clearer. There are honestly no songs on this project that don’t feel entirely essential; something that can be said for very few albums that clock in at fifteen tracks. This album is seriously incredible and essential listen for anyone – rap fan or not. Earl has given us a mature, an emotional and, in its own dark and abstract way, a beautiful set of songs to close out the year.
Some Rap Songs
With Joy as an Act of Resistance, the Bristol-based punks have managed to put out a sophomore album that is just as good, if not better than, their much-acclaimed debut Brutalism. At times angry and explosive, and at others vulnerable and brutally honest, this album pulls no punches and takes no prisoners as the band give the metaphorical finger to any preconceived expectations of what it is to be a rock band in Britain in 2018. The blistering guitars, cacophonous drums and trademark feral snarl of frontman Joe Talbot interlope in a beautifully defiant, unrelenting sonic assault on the eardrums. Lyrically the album is ambitious and extremely powerful, the stillbirth of Talbot’s daughter is confronted in ‘June’, a grief-filled masterpiece and a lesson in catharsis. ‘I’m Scum’ deals with notions of class and politics and features Talbot’s trademark wit in lyrics such as ‘I’ll sing at fascists ‘til my head comes off / I am Dennis Skinner’s Molotov.’ Immigration is celebrated in ‘Danny Nedelko’; themes of toxic masculinity, Brexit, and more also appear throughout the album. Inspiring and unapologetically bold, Joy as an Act of Resistance is a triumphant and gut-wrenching exploration of love, joy and human expression.
Joy as an Act of Resistance
Kacey Musgraves is a much-needed breath of fresh air in a genre that is mercilessly trashed by us Brits – I’m talking about country. Criticisms of country are very often valid given that much of mainstream country’s lyrical content is fundamentally horrific – you only need to listen to 30 seconds of Kenney Chesney’s ‘She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy’ to get a sense of this. However, we should not be so quick to vilify a genre that produced Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’. Country music is huge in the States, and whilst on the other side of the pond the appeal of singing about the sensual qualities that a tractor may possess potentially won’t reach further than the darker corners of Somerset, country music is a genre that deserves to be taken more seriously. The subject matter of Golden Hour ranges from the patriarchy to psychedelic drugs. Musgraves sings her observations of the world passing by in the most angelic voice without even the faintest whiff of inauthenticity. Musgraves’ reinvention of country is inspiring: in the track ‘High Horse’ she fuses traditional banjo twanging country with disco – lyrics such as ‘Everyone knows someone who kills the buzz every time they open up their mouth’ make the listener want to lasso their local tosser. As well as tracks that call out toxic masculinity, Golden Hour has wholesome content in the form of gorgeous love songs such as ‘Butterflies’ and ‘Velvet Elvis’. Positivity and feminine energy pervade this record – if you’re looking for a feel-good album, look no further than Golden Hour.
Despite its near-eight hour run time, the unique sound of the NTS Sessions makes it an essential listen, and a continuance of the Rochdale duo’s unmatched legacy in the field of electronic music. You’ll struggle to find music that sounds harsher or colder, but amongst this is an undeniable organic sound. They have a way of making sequencers and synths sound alive, fluid: tracks like ‘bqbqbq’ and ‘carefree counter dronal’ sound like new-born droids making sense of language. ‘32a_ reflected’ and ‘l3 ctrl’ sound like the whirring motion of insect legs skittering across a surface. There are also nods to other genres, such as the grime-influenced sounds on ‘tt1pd’ and ‘splesh’, and the more orthodox hip-hop beats on ‘six of eight (midst)’ and ‘clustro casual’. The 58-minute behemoth ‘all end’ which closes the whole project either sounds like a Voyager 1 fly-by of a massive collapsing star, or a bloated drone track that doesn’t go anywhere at all, depending on your perspective. The track’s infinitely long organ note creaks and fluctuates between deafening majesty and quiet serenity. It’s Autechre’s best music in at least a decade, and it’s well worth your while.
NTS Sessions 1-4
Since her breakthrough in the early 2010s, music journalists have waited with bated breath to see what Julia Holter will do next. After a brief foray into songs with more traditional song structures, she delivers upon her initial reputation as an experimental composer. Holter took inspiration for the album’s title from a line from a poem by Etel Adnan – ‘I found myself in an aviary full of shrieking birds,’ and related this to current geopolitical events. With influences ranging from avant-garde jazz, ambient, progressive electronic music, medieval classical, and psychedelic pop, and running to ninety minutes, Aviary is an expansive listen. Frequently challenging and constantly experimental, Holter and her band deliver a set of complex, impressive songs. ‘Chaitius’ takes inspiration from old Occitan poetry, and ‘Voce Simul’ contains a polyphonic vocal section. ‘Les Jeux to You’ relies on free associative lyrics and wordplay, whilst the two-parted ‘I Shall Love 2’ combines spiritual jazz with ambient pop. The sheer complexity of the songs is a reflection of Holter’s unique skill to create compositions that expertly combine the avant-garde with the straightforward, and, even in the album’s most difficult moments, beauty shines through. Inventive, unique, and constantly surprising, Aviary is the apotheosis of Holter’s career, and will stand tall as a great work of art well into the future.
You would have thought that, with a remarkably strong debut and a string of the best pop singles of the last few years under her belt, Lorely Rodriguez would have been due a slightly disappointing release. And, while early singles from this record were certainly more than enough to pique the interest, they didn’t initially seem quite so exciting as some of the more bombastic of her older standout tracks. However, listening to the entirety of Us, the second full-length released under the Empress Of moniker, it dawns on even the most casual listener that these singles were merely signposts to a tighter, more streamlined and overall far better outing than her debut Me. This, although a great record, was prone to the occasional convulsion of energy that often had the potential to jerk the LP off-kilter. Us suffers from no such issues: it is a proper pop record, one which knows exactly what it wants to be. What it is – from the delicate hopscotch of ‘I Don’t Even Smoke Weed’ to the joyful ‘Love For Me’, right through to the soft, pillowy final movements of final tracks ‘When I’m With Him’ and ‘Again’ – is an elegant, assured and emotionally flawless album, and yet another successful step forward in the career of an artist who seems incapable of putting a foot wrong.
An album of the year feature cannot be complete without Tom Misch’s debut Geography. It’s actually pretty unbelievable this is his first album, and he has shot to fame this year alongside good friend (and Redbrick’s last previous album of the year winner) Loyle Carner. ‘Water Baby’, which features the duo, is a credit to them both, but it is Tom’s smooth and jazzy vocals that make it stand out. Geography is a credit to Tom’s versatility, with songs like ‘South of the River’ and ‘It Runs Through Me’ providing funky melodies that you can’t help but dance to, while ‘Movie’ and ‘Man Like You’ capture his raw emotions so sharply that when played live it’s stunning to watch. His album is truly timeless, and there is always a mood or a reason that Geography can cater for. His success so far has been incredible, and I’m sure all his fans will be eager to see what 2019 holds for this damn smooth guitar-wizard.
You’ll struggle to find a more experimental, abrasive hip hop record released this year. Whether former US Air Force soldier JPEGMAFIA is spitting vitriol over Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s animalistic ululations on ‘Real Nega’, crooning over a chorus of frenetic pen clicks on ‘Thug Tears’, or fantasising about showing up to an alt-right rally with a weapon on ‘Rainbow Six’, Peggy doesn’t let up the intensity for a second. Make no mistake, Peggy is pissed, and he’s taking no prisoners. Over the course of around fifty minutes of innovative, noise-inspired production, Peggy ploughs through jagged song structures and stop-start rapped verses, taking aim at anyone and everyone in sight. His targets include self-proclaimed ‘feminists’ with friends that beat women, music review platforms that punish lesser-known abusers while championing acts like XXXTentacion that guarantee website clicks, and the pernicious problem of colourism in hip hop. Hell, there’s even a song on here called ‘I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies’. Clearly, there’s plenty of anger on this record, but there’s also plenty of humour, and you get the feeling that at least some of the polemic is tongue-in-cheek – most notably on ‘Libtard Anthem’, which calls out the self-righteously fake-woke. But the production is far and away the star of the show: glitchy and dissonant, the instrumental accompaniments to Peggy’s politically-charged raps are unremittingly bleak and nihilistic, bleeding into one another in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. You’ve probably never heard hip hop quite like this before.
Kali Uchis seemed to come from nowhere. Led by the phenomenal single ‘After the Storm’, Isolation is a stunning introduction to the sultry and empowering Colombian-American. The fifteen songs aren’t short of featured artists: Jorja Smith, Steve Lacy, Reykon and BIA share the stage on Kali’s debut; but despite the collaborations, she firmly leads each song. Kali has an undeniable sense of identity that permeates the entire album: from the frivolous ‘Just A Stranger’ to the regretful ‘Feel Like a Fool’, you are well acquainted with Uchis as an artist by listening to just a song or two. Her music is also accompanied by surreal yet sexy visuals – from the trippy ‘Tyrant’ to the 60s-dream that is the ‘After The Storm’ video (possibly the best music video I’ve seen this year), these strong visuals feel necessary for such an atmospheric album. With suggestive lyrics and cinematic production reminiscent of a more upbeat Ultraviolence-era Lana Del Rey, Isolation places Kali justifiably in the limelight. With such a strong debut, I’m excited how she tackles the notorious sophomore album; I’ll spend the waiting time trying to be half as cool as her.
On her fifth studio album, Mitski explores parallel themes of intimacy and isolation in a startlingly candid manner, managing to almost blend the two into one. The album is both a captivating and intensely cathartic listen, a masterfully made piece of guitar-led indie pop/rock. Songs vary between punchy tracks like ‘Why Didn’t You Stop Me?’ and more atmospheric and pensive pieces such as ‘A Horse Named Cold Air’. Opening track ‘Geyser’ sets the album’s turbulent tone well, opening on a piercing organ, and fading into a piano ballad for just a few seconds before warlike drums propel the song into a fittingly explosive finale.
Each of the fourteen tracks on Be the Cowboy seem to contain a complex narrative precisely executed and condensed into an equally complex musical form. So well condensed, in fact, that only two songs on the album exceed three minutes. One is tender closing track ‘Two Slow Dancers’, and the other is ‘Nobody’. The latter has received the most attention of all the tracks on the album, and this is very much deserved. A disco-esque, upbeat instrumental houses heart breaking verses like ‘I’ve been big and small / and big and small […] and still nobody wants me’. The chorus is simply the word ‘nobody’ repeated over and over, but key changes in the last chorus give the song a loneliness-induced hysteria mirrored by the rest of the album.
Be the Cowboy
Following eight years of silence, You Won’t Get What You Want is the sound of Daughters, a group with an 11-minute debut LP featuring a song titled ‘Shit, Meet Pants’, embracing the perpetual, helpless, mundane prospects of reality, and it’s not funny in the slightest. It’s really fucking bleak, in fact. Gone are the 30 second screamo jams of Canada Songs, the wiry grindcore riffs of Hell Songs, the glossy brawniness of Daughters. What we’re left with is a noisy, restless and uncompromising cacophony of grimy, overblown sounds. It’s an animate musical text-book of experimental forefathers, assimilating everything from This Heat, Slint, Throbbing Gristle, The Dismemberment Plan, John Carpenter, Sonic Youth, Big Black, Suicide, Public Image Limited and The Jesus Lizard; ‘Less Sex’ is the sleaziest Nine Inch Nails slowburner of the century, ‘The Flammable Man’ is The Stooges’ ‘L.A. Blues’ on bath salts, and ‘Ocean Song’ melds multiple decades of Swans within minutes. The lyrics on this thing are pure poetry, a fragmented narrative of aimless existence, squandered potential and existential loneliness. ‘Let me in,’ Alexis Marshall frenziedly screams on ‘Guest House’, the record’s terrifying and obliterating conclusion. Sounds like a very bad idea.
You Won’t Get What You Want
If this year has taught me anything, it’s that when you get older you stop finding it fun when it snows. The first few months of 2018 were seriously bleak, it might be hard to remember how miserable we all were after the summer that followed, but January through to March was a frigid, apocalyptic hellscape. It was really very cold. Skee Mask’s Compro managed to give the Beast from the East a soundtrack befitting of its glacial menace, it is an hour of bitter ambient techno sliced across the face with gritty breakbeat sleet winds. ‘50 Euro to Break Boost’ is a stifled groan from the other side of the storm. Its drums smack like a migraine whilst a guttural cry from far off church bells sits anxiously in the background. It continues on much the same for the remainder of the track because when you’ve found a riff so simple yet so teeth-clenchingly poignant there’s really not much more that needs to be done. ‘Soundboy Ext.’ takes Skee Mask’s trek up breakbeat mountain to its dizzying peak. It’s a 1000mph centrifuge loaded with celestial harmonies and punches to the throat. The relentless drum n bass on tracks such as this might make you feel a bit queasy if they weren’t interspersed between some gorgeous ambient sections. ‘Vli’ is one such section; a towering, pulsating moment of clear skies burrowed between the blizzards. All in all this record is a masterful deluge of break techno, a suitable homage to that winter we had that was awful and it snowed a lot.
Quite simply, the most stylistic and ingenious debut record of the last decade. The opening bars of ‘It’s All Good’ are curious at first listen, but by the time you have started the obsessive fifteenth or sixteenth playthrough they are spine-tinglingly exciting. Superorganism’s sound is quite unlike anything that has preceded them, a band conceived over internet chatrooms and collated from all four corners of the globe. I cannot think of a sound more vital to 2018 than a nonchalant teenager singing in monotone about GIFs on top of a colour wheel of fizzing pop samples. Big singles ‘Everybody Wants To Be Famous’ and ‘Something For Your M.I.N.D.’ sound more important with every listen, each an e-number-soaked statement of intent from an artist whose vivid aesthetic seeps into every aspect of their art. This is pop music at its apex, a moreish soup of swampy synth basslines and juvenile choruses – the most wonderful musical experience put on record this year.
The production is easily what makes this record so special. Conceived and produced by the band themselves, the ten tracks on Superorganism are not merely songs so much as they are canvases upon which a spellbinding Jackson Pollock has been spattered with a squad of paintball guns. Percussion made from apple bites and sneezes; smatterings of Korean and alarm clocks; entire choruses constructed from car horns – this is not just the finest debut of the year, but also the finest concept record of 2018. Pop music will never be the same.
The mysteriously titled Themes is perfectly embodied in the album artwork- a labyrinth of brush strokes, with Flügel as the artist. A virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, he traverses genres as easily as moods. Each track, deliberately inexplicit in its title, prompts the listener to reflect on thoughts and feelings that revolve in their head. Ambient noises, mellow and uplifting, cut through with a sporadic electronic beat in ‘Theme 1’. You can become free and detached from reality, conceding control to the music. Finding its way through gentle piano with a crescendo of noise in ‘Theme 3’, the kingpin of German dance music arguably begins to find his flow. A darker middle section of quirky techno with a rising bpm, bleeping reverb and accentuated bass shows the versatility of Flügel, the album a contrapposto of sharp and relaxed elements. He finishes on ‘Theme 13’, fading back into an ambience that cores the track, paralleling the hum of life. Each theme has a distinctively different feel, possibly a nod to his German background, as host to many different subcultures. But perhaps instead of trying to understand a direction or coherency in Flügel’s work, this abstract album should be left to with a sense of intrigue to truly appreciate it.
Hollywood celebrity culture has long been a popular album topic for musicians – the Eagles have crooned about it, and so have Hole, Lady Gaga and The Weeknd. Canadian singer-songwriter Allie X updates this trope with Super Sunset, a conceptual body of work inspired by drag, 90s mall music and a desperate search for substance in a ‘city that lives while its bright stars die.’ Concealed in glossy, melodically precise synth-pop, the storytelling is dark, potent and cynical. From the eerie opening track ‘Not So Bad in LA’ to the 80s synthwave groove of ‘Science’ to the sugar-rush chants of ‘Girl of the Year’, every track details Allie X either falling in or out of love with stardom. The project reaches a conclusion with the minimalist closing track ‘Focus’, a song that reminds that when something real is found, ‘the rest just falls away.’ Throughout this album, the singer adopts and switches between three symbolic alter egos: the nun, the sci-fi girl and the starlet (they can also be seen in the individual tracks’ cover art). It is Allie X’s strange commitment to creating a strange world through her music that commands interest and makes Super Sunset one of the most consistent pop records of the year.
Singularity is Jon Hopkins’ most consistently incredible project to date. In just over sixty minutes, he manages to evoke the universe’s terrifying immensity in the first half, and the serene stillness of deep space in its second, all without saying a word. If this description sounds pretentious it’s only because this album made me feel things. Beginning with a streak of four of Hopkins’ most intensely beat-driven songs ever, the first clear standout is ‘Emerald Rush’. Its delicate build gives way to coarse electronics that jerk in and out over a thumping drum, creating probably the most danceable tune Hopkins has ever produced. There’s a similar, although unmistakably distinct, development on ‘Neon Pattern Drum’, where initially faraway noises converge hesitantly until the underlying beat snaps in, making the entire soundscape immediately clear.
As the percussion dissolves at the end of ‘Everything Connected’, though, Hopkins pulls back to guide us into the record’s ambient second half. It’s star gazing music- best listened to lying flat in a grassy field or on your bedroom carpet, pondering your place in the endless void. The soft, choral ‘Feel First Life’ is as beautiful as anything you’ll hear this year, but it’s the pulsing, twelve-minute ‘Luminous Beings’ that sees the album at its peak. This song, and its piano outro ‘Recovery’, are an immersive ending to one of the best electronic albums I’ve ever heard, and my only gripe is with the inevitable five year wait for Hopkins’ next album.
After his impressive debut in 2016, Saba returned with CARE FOR ME, a touching and deeply personal series of confessional songs and one of 2018’s most outstanding albums. CARE FOR ME follows the death of Walter Long Jr., Saba’s cousin, collaborator and best friend. Throughout the album Saba manages to craft a gorgeous sonic palette whilst conveying the intricacies of his emotions, from the complex to the everyday. Saba’s lyrics capture his struggles with isolation and exhaustion in a life without Walt, and the contradictory pain of feeling lonelier when reached out to as he sings ‘I’m so alone / But all of my friends got some shit to do’. On ‘FIGHTER’, Saba skips from memory to memory of all the ways he’s fought through his life. From playground scraps, to arguments with loved ones, and the fight just to get out of bed whilst gripped by depression. It depicts the life of someone struggling, but also the life of someone taking every chance to learn and improve. Even in an album largely concerned with such struggles, somehow CARE FOR ME manages to glow with hope. Saba’s melodic and versatile rapping feels energised and reflective. The album begins with Saba decrying his loneliness, but ends in ‘HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME’, a meditative piece about life after death. Over the course of the album, Saba finds inner peace through overcoming all of the obstacles life throws at him. The project imparts the quiet power of caring: caring for others, caring for those lost, and caring for oneself.
CARE FOR ME
As a producer under the Objekt moniker, TJ Hertz has always felt most comfortable at the stranger forefronts of techno. However, Cocoon Crush is a departure from even Hertz’s last album, Flatlands, which only occasionally flirted with the naturalistic and humanist soundscapes that Cocoon Crush firmly squats in. The tracks on this project refuse to be mistaken for sweaty or utilitarian club tools. Rather, they take the form of insects burrowing under the skin of the listener, questioning the boundary between acoustic and electronic. ‘Lost and Found (Lost Mix)’ serves to usher the audience into an idyllic rainforest clearing that has its realism tugged away as aspects begin to halt and whir in reverse. This teased uncertainty manifests itself fully by the album’s midway point with ‘Rest Yr Troubles Over Me’. No uncomfortably recognisable texture is denied the space to enact the suspense Hertz desires in a realm scarcely adjacent to techno. The acid runs of ‘Silica’, the insatiable lead melody of ‘Secret Snake’, the broken drum sequences of ‘35’ like Autechre at their most hesitant; techno is undeniably scattered throughout the DNA of this album. Yet the agonised soundscapes that Hertz articulates within each track transcend any electronic foundations they might be structured around. Cocoon Crush is unconcerned with the confines of the club. At 6 AM, Hertz is taking us by the hand and leading us into what no one can be sure is the real world.
Since her mid-2000s reinvention from folk singer-songwriter to art pop auteur, Sweden’s Jonna Lee has consistently carved a niche for herself. Starting with the viral campaign ‘iamamiwhoami,’ Lee has created unique audio-visual pieces that combine experimental video art with impeccably written synthpop. Everyone Afraid to be Forgotten is Lee’s first self-produced record, and deepens this legacy. Experimenting with trap-inflected EDM (‘Joy’), Italo-disco (‘Not Human’) and ambient (‘Here is a Warning’) widens her sonic palette, while her melody writing skills remain largely unrivalled in the synthpop world. As well as widening her influences, she opens up from the enigmatic lyric writing that characterised her previous work—she tells the listener that she does not ‘bargain with self-love’, and that ‘I don’t remember promising my life and soul to bring you all bliss’, in a sharp rebuke to obsessive fan culture. Throughout both the album and its accompanying film the listener is taken on a journey through Lee’s mind, as she ‘heads home to where days are nights,’ and is utterly transportive. Her soaring vocals are impressive throughout, but especially so on ‘Simmer Down’. She sounds weary, tired, and battle-hardened, but when she tells the listener that ‘I still have fire/Simmer down, simmer down’, you believe her. It will be utterly fascinating to see where Lee takes us next.
to be Forgotten
In Your Own Sweet Time by The Fratellis is the epitome of a feel-good album, and easily my favourite released this year. Whilst this latest LP is relatively different to previous ones, The Fratellis’ choice to genre-tweak has been entirely successful. This time, the band have experimented with new styles and instruments ranging from ‘Starcrossed Losers’, produced almost entirely with computer software, to ‘I Am That’, which features a duet of piano and violin. In Your Own Sweet Time is as playful as ever, and the band’s clear enjoyment in its production makes it an easy album to come back to over and over again. Enjoyable and light hearted, the album offers songs ranging in mood, melody and story, and the band have nailed the ability to write a bouncy pop song with deceptively deep lyrics, such as in ‘Laughing Gas’, or the self-deprecating rejection of ‘Stand up Tragedy’.
In Your Own Sweet Time was set up for success from the release of its first single ‘Stand up Tragedy’, which works right down to the comic music video. With its stylish riff and Jon Fratelli’s vocals coming in stronger than ever, this track is the obvious and perfect choice to open the album. The Fratellis’ fifth studio album packs even more punch than their last few, and I would go as far as to say it is as impactful as 2006’s Costello Music – maybe even more.
In Your Own Sweet Time
It seems like years ago that the agonising wait for Travis Scott to drop ASTROWORLD was at its peak, and since the release it’s safe to say the Houston rapper did not disappoint, making it most certainly worth the patience. Scott’s third studio album’s title references a closed theme park of his childhood, and is arguably his best project yet. The 17-track masterpiece is a display of Scott’s versatility, talent, and how far he has come, with more ethereal tracks like ‘STOP TRYING TO BE GOD’, and Scott’s usual vivacity in ‘BUTTERFLY EFFECT’ and ‘WHO? WHAT!’. The collaborations on the album are truly unparalleled. Drake’s feature on ‘Sicko Mode’ is the first that comes to mind, whilst ‘Skeletons’, featuring Tame Impala, is an unexpected pairing, making the hypnotising track one of the best, not to be overlooked. With features from Frank Ocean and Kid Cudi to name but a few, ASTROWORLD surprises you with its eclectic mix of accomplished artists throughout. Scott’s record gives us a different side to the rapper. ‘COFFEE BEAN’ is unique in its sound and personal themes, discussing his relationship with Kylie Jenner and dealing with the controversy that came with their pairing: ‘Your family told you I’m a bad move / Plus, I’m already a black dude.’ ‘YOSEMITE’ and ‘STARGAZING’ are personal favourites of mine, and ASTROWORLD is a definite measure of Travis Scott’s artistic talent; a certain contender for album of the year.
Die Lit is a lot of things. It’s a mission statement of sorts, the logical endpoint for a generation of Soundcloud and ‘mumble’ rappers. It’s a zeitgeist riding piece of art, a project that unites audiophiles, hip hop heads, meme accounts, music purists, chart dwellers and critics alike. It’s a sonic space where verses that consist solely of ad-libs not only make sense, but are exhilarating, rendering anyone who completes 16 coherent bars untouchable (Skepta, Nicki Minaj, Lil Uzi Vert). It’s Pi’erre Bourne’s greatest production to date. It’s an imperfect, lengthy opus that should render Playboi Carti alongside the likes of Soulja Boy, Chief Keef and Young Thug as a modern rock star and innovator. It’s a reconstruction of what rap can or should be, a punk album. It’s an absurd, sugar high phantasia of woozy ambient synth pads, video game samples and skull-rattling bass that aims to blow out your speakers and shake your house to the ground. Die Lit is awesome.
NoName builds upon her impressive Telefone mixtape to create this year’s truly standout hip hop release. Her hushed vocal delivery is deceptively dark, and it reflects the veneer of her glittering new home. ‘LA be bright but still a dark city’, she states, half-whispering; ‘Welcome to Beverly Hills / Welcome to Vicodin, I took the pills’. The album evokes the 70s and 80s cultural experience, sampling films and funk-era guitars on tracks like ‘Blaxploitation’. On ‘Self’, she offers ‘Maybe this your answer for that, a crack era / The Reagan administration’. That legacy is traced all the way to modern-day state brutality, and her monologue of a violent cop: ‘A demon ’bout to get me, he watching me kill his mom […] Why, oh why my house getting bigger, corruption turn me on’.
As prominent as the nods to funk and neo-soul is the album’s jazz instrumentation, on tracks like ‘Montego Bae’. The track includes an excellent hook from Ravyn Lenae, and the album generally makes great use of features (see also Benjamin Earl Turner’s verse on ‘Part of Me’). The best parts of Room 25 are also the most confessional, reaching their pinnacle on ‘Don’t Forget About Me’, a reflection on death and family. ‘The secret is I’m actually broken’, she says, and ‘if I have to go, I pray my soul is still eternal / And my momma don’t forget about me.’
Renowned purveyor of folk sing-along hits, round-the-campfire tunes and summertime soundtracks, Ben Howard embarks on an entirely new direction on his third album. Gone are the catchy choruses that characterised previous records, instead replaced with introspection, minimalism and a raw journey into Howard’s inner emotions; no longer masked by the single acoustic guitar but expressed through a layered and all-encompassing soundscape.
From the open and inviting introduction offered by opening track ‘Nica Libres At Dusk’, Howard brings the listener along into an ambient, daydream-like journey to the thoughts of a man alone in the Cornish countryside; pondering love, loss and life itself (‘What The Moon Does’, ‘Someone In The Doorway’, ‘The Defeat’). This nomadic musical trip becomes ever more expansive throughout the album, reaching fever pitch early on with ‘A Boat To An Island On The Wall’, a seven-minute epic that takes on an almost psychedelic personality.
Noonday Dream’s greatest achievement is its closing track ‘Murmurations’, which could be the best song Howard has written yet. An ethereal experience of a man contemplating a lonely existence in a dystopian world, Howard and his Noonday Dream eventually reaches a tranquil ending thought – ‘It’s so peaceful here, no one to fuck it up.’
It’s been over four years since George Ezra dropped the iconic ‘Budapest’, stunning the world with his velvety voice and travel-inspired lyrics. Now, with the song of the summer and countless hit singles under his belt, Ezra’s sophomore album is a clear choice for 2018’s best album. It’s safe to say Staying at Tamara’s is a fair representation of four years’ work.
My judgement might have been swayed by the incredible headlining performance he gave at Boardmasters, but the album speaks for itself. From upbeat bops ‘Shotgun’ and ‘Don’t Matter Now’ to the stunningly atmospheric ‘Saviour’ and heart-breaking ‘Hold My Girl’, Ezra has mastered his sound while creating distinct and at times unpredictable songs, and there are few artists as able to make you feel every emotion under the sun. With melodies that get stuck in your head from the moment you hear them, he has mastered being a mainstream pop sensation while attaining a maturity most artists must dream of. Needing only a guitar but also capable of carrying big-production pop songs, it’s safe to say that Ezra is a force to be reckoned with.
It’s always been slightly difficult to truly love MGMT. Their most famous singles are deeply ingrained in the modern pop tapestry by now, whereas the rest of their material has, with the odd exception, wavered uncertainly on the fringes of what can be called listenable. Their last album, MGMT, was the paragon of a band trying with every fibre of their being to not sound like the band that wrote ‘Kids’ – and they suffered for it. Little Dark Age is, finally, their masterpiece. It isn’t quite as batshit bananas as their last record, while still not quite being as sugary or chart-friendly as those first three big hits off their debut. Songs such as ‘Me And Michael’ and ‘One Thing Left to Try’ embrace the excesses of pop music perfectly, while ‘When You Die’ and the album’s title track offer the far darker lyrical nous that the band have always been so good at. As an added bonus, ‘She Works Out Too Much’ is one of the most enjoyable opening tracks of the year – epitomising a record that isn’t so much a return to form as an unexpected magnum opus.
Little Dark Age
Let’s Eat Grandma’s debut album was quirky to a fault. What could have been endearing and charming instead became wearing and irritating over the course of a full-length album. On I’m All Ears, the Norwich duo reign in their idiosyncrasies, producing a more mature, and certainly more rewarding record. Working with Faris Badwan of gothic rock band the Horrors has also expanded their sound, introducing more electric guitars, and positioning the duo at the midpoint between the shiny, superficial synthpop of Charli XCX, and the droning, progressive post-rock of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Perhaps most emblematic of this is the eleven minute-long closer ‘Donnie Darko’, which expertly combines spritely dance-pop with extended, looping layers of guitars. ‘Snakes & Ladders’ is an enveloping piece of neo-psychedelia, with the girls lamenting how their lover doesn’t ‘depend on me like I depend on you’. The SOPHIE-produced ‘Hot Pink’ is an ode to desperation and rejection, combining girlish vocal lines, post-industrial sound effects, and bubblegum bass to create a totally unique whole. But it is ‘Falling Into Me’ which impresses the most—a propulsive, urgent slice of synthpop, with its uniquely romantic chorus of ‘You/ Me/ This/ Now wherever we go is the best place,’ and totally euphoric synthesiser lines. I’m All Ears is one of the year’s most unique albums, and it will be fascinating to see where the duo progress.
Let’s Eat Grandma
I’m All Ears
If, as its title suggests, the latest U.S. Girls record was indeed a poem, it would probably read something like T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ – a sometimes incomprehensible sprawl that touches upon as many styles and topics as one human mind could conceive of. Meghan Remy, the particular mind responsible for U.S. Girls, has crafted a record that leaps from bubbling synths and vocoders to blaring walls of brass, from glitzy disco barnstormers to brooding, shadowy psychedelia.
The extraordinary thing about In A Poem Unlimited is that the album manages to be so stylistically erratic while still managing to deliver wave after wave of utterly magnificent tracks. The record opens with ‘Velvet 4 Sale’, a bizarrely cinematic opening track made all the more intriguing by Remy’s soft, Kylie Minogue-invoking voice, which floats over the top of wailing guitar fuzz and a forceful Bonham-esque drum groove. ‘M.A.H.’, the album’s biggest single, is the badass rebel daughter of Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’, taking in drone strikes and the hypocrisies of the Obama legacy and spitting them out in one snarling slice of dancefloor glitter. Where the album gets darkest, and possibly its finest moment, is on ‘Incidental Boogie’, a track as danceable as it is threatening, ominous synth loops and reverberating sonar pings melding underneath a spoken-word diatribe. There are too many great songs on this record to give each its due credit – it is an experience best listened to, rather than simply read about.
In A Poem
On Honey, Robyn moves away from the melancholic pop that brought her international acclaim. First single ‘Missing U’ starts out in characteristically Robyn fashion – glistening synths, soaring vocals, and heartbreak-stricken lyrics inspired by the death of her best friend. However, halfway through, the song disintegrates – there is no final chorus, her vocals lower in pitch, the beat slows down. The rest of Honey follows this formula, taking its auditory cues more from dance music than pop. ‘Human Being’ sees Robyn discussing humans as ‘a dying race’ alongside detuning synthesisers and layered vocal harmonies. ‘Send to Robin Immediately’ samples Lil Louis’ 1980s house classic ‘French Kiss’ and the chorus of ‘Between The Lines’ is punctuated by garage-inspired synths, as Robyn intones about a relationship so intense, ‘We’re making diamonds.’
There are some more unusual moments on the album – on ‘Baby Forgive Me’, an ambient house cut, Robyn is accompanied by distorted male vocals, and is inspired by Deee-Lite on the spoken word ‘Beach2k20’. The title track may be Robyn’s greatest song to date, her vocals soft and soulful, the synths lush and warm, house beats complex and syncopated, the entire song gentle and fluid. On the closing song, ‘Ever Again’, however, the taut, Prince-esque synth funk explodes into colour as she triumphantly sings ‘I’m never gonna be broken hearted ever again!’ After the album’s detours through grief and loss, Robyn rediscovers joy.