Saturday, June 30, 2018

the top albums/songs of the midyear - 2018

There are years where I struggle with this midyear list, sometimes in years overloaded with quality that force me to make some painful cuts, or years that are a little more scant I'm stuck with what seems like a smaller list... and still have to make painful cuts. 

And thus it feels odd that building this 2018 midyear list is perhaps one of the easiest I've ever assembled, and since I'm not about to assume I'm getting good at this, I'm genuinely curious why that might be. I will say that outside of hip-hop, other genres don't seem to be having an exceptionally strong year - great albums in rock and country and metal but few that really went over the top in terms of quality, and I'd argue pop has had it even worse. But more than that, even the records that just missed the cut - Beach House, Iceage, Parquet Courts, Against All Logic, and especially Phonte - while they were truly terrific releases, I'm not precisely torn up that they had to miss the cut, as they all have a considerable shot for the year-end as my tastes evolve and change. 

So given that this is my fifth list like this, you know the rules: the albums and songs have to have been reviewed in 2018, and while I'm fairly certain you'll all know what's going to top this list, I'll add that there are songs from The Trailing Edge that have a chance to wind up in the individual songs, because there really were some incredible cuts there. So let's not waste any time and start with...

12. So there was a lot of hip-hop that made this list - more than I even think made my 2014 midyear list, which implies an uncommonly strong and diverse selection. And so I think we should start with a record that touched off a firestorm in the genre unlike we've seen in years...

12. 'DAYTONA' by Pusha-T
Best Song: 'Hard Piano' ft. Rick Ross

So unless you're salivating over KIDS SEE GHOSTS - see my review to understand why it's not coming anywhere close to my lists - the general consensus is that Pusha-T's DAYTONA is the biggest winner out of Kanye's slapdash 'five-albums-in-a-month' experiment, mostly because it doubles down on Pusha-T's greatest strengths - grimy, razor sharp production, Pusha-T's guttural ruthlessness married with the sort of nihilistic framing that does not pull punches in any direction, and the eye for detail that sets him head-and-shoulders above so many of his contemporaries. This is the record of dead eyes, cocaine smuggled in corpses, and where flexing is always placed next to its steep price. And when you couple it with the grazing shots that touched off a beef with Drake that you can tell was shut down before the collateral damage could take too much of hip-hop out with it, DAYTONA was everything we could have hoped for out of a collaboration between Pusha-T and Kanye West and more - shame the majority of the rest couldn't live up to the hype.

11. And speaking of lightning-in-a-bottle collaborations...

11. 'Season 1' by Epic Beard Men (Sage Francis & B. Dolan)
Best Song: 'Shotgun Golf'

The labelmate-and-activist friendship between Sage Francis and B. Dolan has always been an absolute joy to behold both on record and off, but when they teamed up for this tight eight song project... you might have been able to predict the wordplay and conscious acumen, but what's more impressive is how they made it fun. The chemistry against a selection of sample-heavy, futuristic beats is the biggest selling point, but two amazingly creative and honest MCs playing off each other for both mischief and hard returns has rarely been this charismatic or outright hilarious but then able to get very serious when necessary. There have been a lot of political and conscious records made this year - and spoilers, we'll be getting to a bunch of them further up the list - but with nuance packed to the gills and a fervor to plow deeper than many of their contemporaries, Sage Francis and B. Dolan made the rare protest record you can laugh, cry, and seethe with anger too. In other words... Run The Jewels? You've got some welcome competition.

10. I'm a little surprised by the critical reception to this record. I get that I was late to the party with this band and they were coming off a string of critically acclaimed pop punk and emo releases, so this pivot might have lost some people along the way... but if there's a record that made me a fan of a band this year, it was this one.

10. 'Sister Cities' by The Wonder Years
Best Song: 'Sister Cities'

It tends to be common knowledge that most punk and emo bands will pivot into making more complex music as they grow up, but The Wonder Years had proven to be the stirring counterpoint to that assertion, that you could make mature and interesting music within the genre as you grew up. So when they pivoted towards alternative rock on Sister Cities the question became why they even needed to do this given their success within the genre. But Sister Cities feels bigger and is aiming higher, telling stories of those not feeling worth empathy and yet finding it all the same, the sort of celebration of unexpected kindness and love that blazes through the darker smolder of the production. I'll freely admit that Sister Cities will likely hold the place Deaf Havana did for me last year, a record that just sung to my heartstrings and would not let go, but considering Deaf Havana themselves are putting out a new album in August, we might have some competition for that slot... and in the mean time, the desperate hopes of this record sing all the stronger.

And before we go on to the rest of our list, here are a few songs from records that didn't make the cut, but deserve a shout-out all the same:

From Encore, 'Cabinet Door' by Anderson East

From Blue Madonna, 'I Don't Want U Back' by Børns

From Freedom's Goblin, '5 Ft. Tall' by Ty Segall

From Little Dark Age, 'Little Dark Age' by MGMT

From What It's Like To Fly Alone, 'Round Mountain' by Courtney Patton

From One Pop, 'Guns' by Eric Taxxon

From All At Once, 'I'll Make You Sorry' by Screaming Females

And from Superorganism, 'Nobody Cares' by Superorganism!

And now back to the list proper...

9. The conclusion to the trilogy I didn't know I needed, one that started eleven years ago from an MC that has only refined his skills further...

9. 'Weather Or Not' by Evidence
Best Song: 'Powder Cocaine' ft. Slug & Catero

I've been a fan of Evidence ever since I started this series, the sort of MC so comfortable in his lane he makes the hard bars sound effortless to the point where I still find myself poring over the record for more details months later. Couple it with old-school, textured production that nevertheless sounds modern, a murderer's row of guest stars who consistently knock it out of the park, a meditative thematic richness with a distinctly global perspective, and then an emotional gutpunch of an ending that you'd never expect coming from an MC so reserved, you could credibly make the argument that Evidence delivered one of his best ever projects. Perhaps not as immediately impactful as Cats & Dogs, but when you sink into some of the best hooks Evidence has ever had, you're willing to brave those rain clouds. Or not - Evidence is fine either way.

8. So I'll say it: country hasn't exactly had a great year. A fair number of great records, but few that really blew me out of the park - although given that we're getting both Lori McKenna and Jason Eady in the next few months gives me a lot of reason to hope. But even they are more for the indie set - if you're looking for an artist who should be ruling the mainstream right about now...

8. 'Starfire' by Caitlyn Smith
Best Song: 'This Town Is Killing Me'

I haven't been this excited about a pop country record since, damn, probably Road Between by Lucy Hale, and you can make the very credible argument that Caitlyn Smith is in a different ballpark. Tremendously emotive delivery, production that leads almost into baroque pop given the elegance of the arrangements, and with an impressive amount of detail-rich songs to back it all up, Caitlyn Smith brought the sort of debut that not only justifies her place in country but makes a credible argument she could rise to the top of the genre, as well as justifying the existence of her label Monument after Shane McAnally nearly cratered it with Walker Hayes! And what I love about Starfire is how despite its pop country leanings you can tell the songwriting is still rooted in the indie scene, bringing a level of nuance and emotional heft that the mainstream desperately needs. So, uh, Nashville, you could use some women on country radio, what are you waiting for?

7. On the flip-side of all that poise and elegance, we have the album that has made me the most uncomfortable in years, the sort of record that actively triggers an anxious gut feeling that comes when you see someone you care for really step in it...

7. 'God's Favorite Customer' by Father John Misty
Best Song: 'Mr. Tillman'

This will be an overlooked record in Father John Misty's discography in twenty years - the stakes seem smaller, the writing seems more opaque, the arrangements are less grandiose and more twitchy, even his delivery seems more frail and uneasy... and Josh Tillman knows it. This is an album where we see a songwriter at the height of his creativity crash and burn in the sort of inward-focused deconstruction that is perhaps way more revealing than it should be. There's always been a level of ironic detachment to Tillman's work transcended by a sense of genuine romanticism... and this is the record where the detachment is set on fire and you just have to watch the blaze. Tillman himself has said he probably won't give the full story behind God's Favorite Customer for twenty years or so, but at this point... I think I have enough to justify it on this list.

And now for a bunch more songs where their albums didn't make the cut but the tracks were great regardless.

From American Utopia, 'Gasoline And Dirty Sheets' by David Byrne

From Seasons Change, 'Five More Minutes' by Scotty McCreery

From Punk, 'Squaredance' by Eric Taxxon

From Francis Trouble, 'Far Away Truths' by Albert Hammond Jr.

From Liberty, 'Lovers In Love' by Lindi Ortega

From The Shadow Theory, 'Phantom Divine (Shadow Empire)' by Kamelot ft. Lauren Hart

From beerbongs & bentleys, 'Candy Paint' by Post Malone

And from Be More Kind, '1933' by Frank Turner

And back to the list...

6. This was probably the biggest surprise of the year for me, the sort of alternative country release from an artist I knew was good and who had made my year-end lists before... but in an era where so many artists try to hop on the 'atmospheric country' bandwagon and do it wrong... Courtney Marie Andrews did it so right.

6. 'May Your Kindness Remain' by Courtney Marie Andrews
Best Song: 'Rough Around The Edges'

Not going to lie, most of my fondness for this record comes just for the production: the warm, burnished textures, the guitarwork that's damn near post-rock in its atmospheric depth, how rich Courtney Marie Andrews' voice is against all of it... but even that discounts the thematic richness of the project, where like The Wonder Years she finds kindness and empathy where she never expected it and yet is not about to shy away from talking about those who'd abuse such expectations. These are songs that are lived-in and carry so much nuance in so few words, but never reach the point of feeling underwritten because Marie Andrews' is an absolute powerhouse of a singer. Easily one of this year's most underappreciated records, definitely deserves more attention.

5. Of course, what Courtney Marie Andrews only hinted at in that running undercurrent of discomfort, there are artists who are willing to dive straight in, especially when placed against the context of modern times, and while it would be very easy to point accusatory fingers, reality is more complicated... and Jean Grae and Quelle Chris rose to the challenge.

5. 'Everything's Fine' by Jean Grae & Quelle Chris
Best Song: 'Gold Purple Orange'

Full stop, I don't think I've ever heard a husband/wife rap duo with so much artistic chemistry - they produce for each other, they give and take to compliment each other's styles and presence, both balancing their uniquely off-kilter styles into a strange symbiosis that manages to produce volumes of dramatic tension beneath the mutterings of 'everything's fine'. Because it's not fine, and they know it, and they have all the targets in the world in sight - most of them systemic but fragile - but they can't dismantle them all at once and in living day to day, they need something to soothe their souls. It's an incredible dense and unsettling record, but that one where you can peel away deeper meaning and humanity with every listen. Quelle Chris just barely missed my list last year, but his team-up with Jean Grae shows how the pairing can be so much more than the sum of the parts, somehow able to construct flows against some of the most textured and warped production they've ever had, that thrums with urgency but also tugs away at it to both dampen and intensify the anxiety. Easily one of the best hip-hop records of the year, definitely deserving of attention.

4. So it appears that of many of the records I've scored highly this year, discomfort and unease is a running theme - but what if you took those emotional undercurrents and fed them to an artist who knows how to lean into tangled contradictions and make them burn all the hotter? Well...

4. 'Hell-On' by Neko Case
Best Song: 'Sleep All Summer'

Neko Case's Hell-On only gets better with every listen - another tangled, disquieting listen but one that can also cut loose into moments of refined exuberance, as Neko Case peels away layers to find the surging, wild core of her artistic soul, ricocheting from unstable melodies to guest stars that only serve to compliment her presence. It's not her most straightforward record - although she still packs it with enough distinctive hooks to be instantly memorable - and I'd even struggle to call it her outright best especially compared to her work in the early 2000s... but Hell-On might be her most rich and expansive project to date, and one that probably feels the clearest reflection of her purpose. Fiercely intelligent and unapologetically heartbreaking, Hell-On is a tour-de-force.

And it's not the only one, but before we get to those, let's go through the last few excellent songs from records that missed this list...

From Beyondless, 'Pain Killer' by Iceage ft. Sky Ferreira

From Voicenotes, 'If You Leave Me Now' by Charlie Puth ft. Boyz 2 Men

From 7, 'Last Ride' by Beach House

From Light Of Mine, 'Playinwitme' by KYLE ft. Kehlani

From Wide Awake!, 'Tenderness' by Parquet Courts

From Love Is Dead, 'Wonderland' by CHVRCHES

From Someone Out There, 'Rose Garden' by Rae Morris

And finally, from Prequelle, 'Dance Macabre' by Ghost

And back to our last entries...

3. The fact that I have to step up here and be in the position where I have to defend this record feels wrong. This album doesn't need defending, because when it comes glam rock singer-songwriters, Kyle Craft is two for two.

3. 'Full Circle Nightmare' by Kyle Craft
Best Song: 'Bridge City Rose'

Yes, I'm still a little bitter than it seems like so many people have utterly missed the point of Full Circle Nightmare, a record that very firmly places Craft in the passenger seat amidst a cavalcade of disastrous relationships and him trying to navigate his culpability in the wreckage... the majority of which he accepts! The fact that some have interpreted this as caricaturing, sour-faced projection - which you might understand coming from glam or indie rock instead of the subversive angle Craft has pushed into both of his records thus far - is truly galling, especially when Full Circle Nightmare includes those essential details in the text! Now the larger question of whether it's better than Dolls Of Highland, that's a better conversation - arguably I don't quite think it is, as the best songs don't quite punch as high and the production could have afforded to maintain a bit more of that hardscrabble texture, but Craft is still one of the best technical songwriters working in rock right now and his gift for wordplay and infectious hooks can rarely be matched. Absolutely amazing album, definitely deserves far more acclaim than it's getting.

2. Going back through what I've covered for this list, I struggled mightily where to put this release, because in the context of what she's released before, many have made the argument it's just not as good as her full-length debut or her 2013 follow-up... and yet I cannot deny that in comparison to those two, this is the record from Janelle Monae that pulls me back the most.

2. 'Dirty Computer' by Janelle Monae
Best Song: 'Americans'

I don't want to call Dirty Computer a deceptive release, but I will say that the layers of subtext and thematic depth have gone underappreciated and unexplored by critics who fawned over The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady. Is it because she embraced hip-hop and did it better than nearly all her male counterparts in the mainstream? Is it because she embraced more straightforward pop along side her traditionally futuristic funk, soul, and R&B... and also did it better? Is it because she was at her most blunt in her exploration of black, queer femininity that people missed the layers of socio-political commentary and richly captivating cleverness that has consistently infused her work? Or did they just double down on the dystopian texture of her album video and miss the layers of yearning honesty that came through in her performance, or the spacious richness of her production that blends past and future without compromising the core of who she is. Oh, and it's also easily the catchiest record she's ever made and likely her most honest despite how contemporary and accessible it is. And that's one unsung reason I think Dirty Computer hits so damn hard for me: despite the personal arc, there's a core of populism that cannot be understated, and that leaves me wanting more every time. And yet, I can't deny there was one artist who honestly shared a lot in common with her project and just edged her out...

1. ...okay really, you all knew this was coming.

1. 'Chime' by Dessa
Best Song: '5 Out Of 6'

Dessa's Chime is one of the best hip-hop records of the decade, with the same genre-blending fierceness, incredible wit, challenging production and insane catchiness that characterizes the other classics of this era. A wonderfully compelling and subtle singer that taps into such rich emotionality that feels consistent and reinforced by her skills as an MC. She pivots into pop and R&B to enhance her populist appeal, amplifying her deeply personal story of getting over heartbreak and infusing it with the sort of feminist edge that has the philosophical heft to bulldoze everything in her path. But it challenges its own philosophy, it actively deconstructs the love songs it tells to find their nucleus and the open questions of free will it brings, and it refuses to shy away from emotionality, even when the pain of loss and the numbness of winning can be too much. But the emotional spectrum of this album is incredibly rich, from curdled rage at societal constraints where even she knows she can succumb, to the sort of anxious, heart in your eyes love songs that comes from someone who will overthink everything and then lay it all on the line, to the sardonic playfulness that makes Dessa such an organic and captivating presence behind the microphone. Again, with every listen I find more layers to unpack, but the genius of Chime is how it's easily her most accessible record to date, taking an artist full of layers and able to fan out every page. In short, this is one of only three records I've given a perfect score in nearly a thousand reviews, and it is by far the album to beat in 2018. If you haven't heard it - and many of you haven't - you'll definitely want to fix that.

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