I made a major indulgence in compiling my favorite albums for 2018, which I’ll hope you’ll forgive. I put Piano & A Microphone 1983, the inaugural release from the Prince vault, in my top 10. I debated for some time whether or not to consider it a reissue, but as the music had not yet been released, I ultimately decided to count it as an album alongside newly recorded and released material. I suspect, though this is far from the best thing in the Prince vault, and if a release at this level of quality came out every year we’d have a dead man dominating my year-end lists for who knows how long. I probably won’t include future Prince reissues in these lists.
The fact that I’ve listened to that album more than any other new record this year (save for Warmth’s Parallel, which I use to fall asleep) speaks to his inordinate genius, my deep love of his music, and the fact that 2018 was easily the worst year for pop so far this decade. The most obvious force for good this year was a genre that hasn’t appealed to me in a long time: indie rock, which is making more of an effort than ever to include queer artists, artists of color, and non-men in its highest echelons. But the general trend was to make less of an effort in the act of listening to music. The algorithm has already stunted individuality on the charts, filling Ubers with songs that provide a curated vibe but no substance. “Lofi Hip Hop Radio/Beats to Relax/Study To” provides premade stoner music on a dime, eliminating the need to even be curious about music. For the most part, the most individual music that could actually be called popular either flops or is made in the absolute highest echelons: Rihanna, Kanye, Beyoncé, Ariana Grande.
Hip hop was the source of a lot of the charts’ best ideas for a while. But this year chart rap soured into a reactionary stinkpit more like nu-metal than the artful and experimental music whose wellspring in Atlanta seemed to dry up this year. I find so many of these emo rappers/SoundCloud rappers/what have you morally reprehensible, not just for the awful things they tend to say and do but for their nihilistic valorization of drug abuse and exaltation of irresponsible, abusive men as heroes. I understand the desire for millennial musicians to reconnect with the nu-metal and emo music they grew up with, which did the same, but I didn’t like it then when that music lionized “damaged,” “fucked-up” men and I don’t like it much now.
Recently, while watching Kanye’s “I Love It” video, I found myself thinking that this is precisely the kind of entertainment that would be popular in the world of RoboCop, Starship Troopers or Strange Days. Is the age of the troll a fatalistic decision to chuck responsibility to the wind because we’re going down with the ship? As confident as I am that the world is fucked, it’s hardly the most pleasant attitude to permeate pop culture. I prefer empathy, and looking back at my year-end list, that was what much of my favorite music this year provided—be it DJ Koze’s wide-armed embrace of the world, Lonnie Holley’s boundless love of humanity, or Georgia Anne Muldrow encouraging us to excise our right to bear arms if it means the lives of those we love.
For the first time, I’ve split my list into Top 10s for ambient music and pop music. Ambient music is simply my favorite music—it’s what I listen to for pleasure at least 50 percent of the time—and I found my list skewing inordinately towards ambient when not separated by genre.
Best albums of the year (non-ambient):
- Tierra Whack – Whack World. Whack World comprises 15 songs in 15 minutes. That’s the least impressive thing about it. The debut by the Philly-based former viral freestyler is an improbable art-pop epic that, like the Pixar and Don Bluth films it often references, draws a paper-thin line between sadness and whimsy. On no record this year is tragedy confronted with such wit, and the best laughs get stuck in our throats. Though she’s still capable of busting out formidable flows just to prove she can, this is as much a singer-songwriter album as a rap or R&B album, its “beats” often consisting of little more than piano presets. But when it’s over, we think not of how little we’ve heard but how much. (review)
- Prince – Piano & A Microphone 1983. I’ve yet to reconcile my lust for more Prince music with the fact that the Purple One wouldn’t have wanted this music released, but at least Piano & a Microphone, ostensibly released to give us a glimpse of the inner workings of the performer’s mind, just makes pop’s most private genius even more mysterious. What makes this record so rewarding is how impenetrable it is. Is “Why The Butterflies” a half-sketch of something he’d flesh out, or abandon, later on? Is it deliberate? Is it about a baby being born? What is the “black mouse” on “Coffee & Cocaine?” What’s up with that version of “International Lover?” This is the sound of laughter from beyond the grave. He’s still daring us to pin him down.
- Lonnie Holley – MITH. The first pop Pulitzer was awarded to Kendrick Lamar for last year’s DAMN., and no candidate deserves the award this year more than 68-year-old sculptor Holley, born in the Jim Crow South and only just entering a recording career. Humanistic and sweeping, his epic third album MITH isn’t for everyone—his voice is untrained, his songs formless and improvised—but undeniable in its scope. It’s an album that transports us from the Middle Passage to the far future along a trail of black bodies that never seems to end, and that’s just on one song, “I Snuck Off The Slave Ship.” Elsewhere, he confronts the existence of greater beings, the human right to water, our abuse of drugs and technology, and, of course, the human compulsion to dance. (review)
- Shinichi Atobe – Heat. After releasing one masterful EP in 2001 and disappearing for over a decade, the mysterious Japanese producer has quietly accrued one of the most impressive catalogs in electronic music since returning in 2014 with Butterfly Effect. Heat proves his sound is no less resonant when stripped of the corrosion that defines it, trafficking in upbeat yet subtly mysterious dance epics that seem to exist on the beaches of the endless abyss of his prior albums. On the surface, these songs seem like easy dancefloor fodder, but in their depths lurks an unease, reminding us how precipitous the beach truly is; it’s the point at which continents end before being devoured by the frightening expanse of the sea. (review)
- DJ Koze – Knock Knock. Electronic music’s greatest tearjerker works with guests from Arrested Development’s Speech to Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner, using his hip hop-honed skill with vocal samples and penchant for vast psychedelic arrangements in the service of building their platforms. More so than any other release from his astounding 2010s run, this is an album about Koze’s skill more than anything he has to say, but few artists pose such a formidable vision on their art than the German born Stefan Kozalla, and Knock Knock is as much house artist album as psychedelic odyssey in the Sgt. Pepper vein. It’s on that level. (review)
- Ski Mask the Slump God – Beware the Book of Eli. Stokeley Goulbourne studied at the Chuck Jones school of physics. His flows are all about potential and kinetic energy, the muscles in his mouth seeming to pull back and snap, and his threats are cartoonish and delightful (his weapon of choice is a keyblade). Ski Mask belongs less in the tradition of rap freaks like Kool Keith as an older, scarier pantheon: that of the great tricksters of folklore, from Loki to Puck to Peeves. He’s a figure of chaos who drops in the middle of situations to cause havoc, and because his pranks are so hilarious—and his targets deserving; few rappers have such a palpable hatred of white supremacists—we can’t help but root for him. (review)
- Georgia Anne Muldrow – Overload. A witty and wise statement of purpose from the L.A. black avant-garde’s most underloved auteur. This is her poppiest record, but pop in her mind is mantra-centric, wreathed in incense, able to accommodate both trap and bawdy Broadway ballads. Instead of self-help platitudes, Muldrow advocates for self-defense, refreshing when peace is just another word for death. But like the best pop, Overload is mostly about love, namely Muldrow’s marriage to off-kilter G-funk singer Dudley Perkins. Is any moment on any record this year more heartwarming than these two weirdos explaining just why they love each other so much, on “These Are The Things I Really Like About You?”
- I-LP-ON – Äänet. Though Mika Vainio’s death has led to a swift canonization, it’s his partner Ilpo Vaisänen currently making the most interesting music to date from the Pan Sonic catalog. Its title meaning simply “Vote,” Äänet combines the Finn’s mischievous leftism with field-recorded slices of life from around the world. As with all Vaisänen’s work, it’s hard to tell if this music is meant to be alluring or undesirable—is he showing us the dystopia we’re headed for or finding comfort in the one we’re in now? This sparse, steely music tells no tales, but in its mix of laptop-punk austerity with the warmth of field recordings, it’s one of the most transportive and mysterious records of the year.
- Teyana Taylor – K.T.S.E. A pocket of goodness amid the three-ring circus of Kanye West’s Wyoming nightmare, the second album from GOOD Music’s underrated R&B singer isn’t a culture-stopping event but a hidden pearl fans can call their own. Here is a benevolent and inclusive album of languid, light-footed funk that’s unmoored from any sordid narrative, mainly about sex and enthralled and delighted by its possibilities. In the age of the rap troll, epitomized by the record’s executive producer, it’s refreshing to encounter a record whose form of rebellion is to piss off the prudes with orgasm noises, whose self-assurance comes in the form of a wry smile rather than flatulations of “dragon energy.” (review)
- Ariana Grande – Sweetener. Pop artists make their best work at their least threatened, and as Grande becomes one of the biggest stars in the world, her music has grown more daring and delightful. Produced with an extremely locked-in Pharrell alongside Max Martin’s cabal of Swedish goons, Sweetener slaps fearsomely while slipping by like a summer breeze. It’s the best A-list American pop album since Lemonade, and alongside Beyoncé’s infidelity play (and Muldrow’s and Taylor’s albums) it proves that monogamy is the most fertile subject in pop. She and her lover get stoned, send each other cute texts, sleep in late, seem completely unhurried. Her whirlwind romance with comic Pete Davidson is over, but Sweetener’s headrush remains intoxicating. (review)
Best albums of the year (ambient):
- Gas – Rausch. The fleetest Gas record suggests a quick walk rather than a frightening journey, but its hour is long enough to cast its spell. The drums are more driving than ever, egging us deeper into the bowels of the record before it ends and we emerge, rejuvenated. (review)
- Gigi Masin – Kite. Classic Eno-style ambient, all white columns and aquamarine fountains. A great album for the approach of dusk—as the pianos suggest flowers and sunshine, the slow pads cast long shadows. The best solo album yet from the 63-year-old Italian veteran. (review)
- Biosphere – The Hilvarenbeek Recordings. Built around field recordings from a Dutch farm, Biosphere’s latest takes comfort in the wealth of life in our backyard. Instead of reeling with awe at the size of the world, it focuses on a small chunk of it and leaves no stone unturned. (review)
- Sarah Davachi – Gave In Rest. Inspired by performing in churches, the Canadian drone maestro’s best album captures the eerie sort of sentience that settles on sacred spaces and can be thought of as divine. It’s small music whose spiritual presence looms much larger. (review)
- Warmth – Parallel. The best of Agustín Mena’s records under the name is dub techno stripped of everything except distant, mile-wide chords, which hover obstinately and move glacially with just the subtlest emotional shading. This is about as ambient as ambient gets. (review)
- Pendant – Make Me Know You Sweet. This isn’t a cushy floating cloud but a vast neural network through which atrophied bits of sound crawl towards oblivion. (review)
- Emily A. Sprague – Water Memory/Mount Vision. Transportive drone that seems to course through the center of your head. Water Memory is for staring at the sea and sensing it’s staring back at you. Mount Vision is classic new age that energizes rather than stupefies us. (review) (review)
- Kelly Moran – Ultraviolet. Prepared piano is typically ugly and metallic, but Moran casts it as something beautiful and organic, forming zigzagging, insectoid patterns at the center of an aquatic Saint-Saëns fantasy.
- Topdown Dialectic – Topdown Dialectic. Loose-limbed dub techno that skates and slides like a spider on rollerblades. Each track is exactly five minutes long, implying they could go on forever and reminding us that liquid can only take the shape of the container it occupies.
- Jon Hassell – Listening to Pictures: Pentimento Volume One. At 81, Jon Hassell still pushes forward with a fearsome hunger. More than the classic Fourth World sound, this is akin to ambient dub, Hassell’s trumpet giving off flashes of light in a sunless, subterranean realm. (review)
- Clairo – diary 001. Bleary L.A.-style stoner pop that romanticizes the ennui of idle clicking and teenage crushing. Clairo’s voice is a remarkable deadpan whose notes curl upward in an alluringly mechanical way. Sure, marketing your music as DIY while disguising your familial ties to industry bigwigs is a little sketchy, but she’s making the music, and it’s great.
- Elysia Crampton – S/T. A notoriously heady artist repositions herself as a dancefloor badass with a record as forceful as Justice’s Cross or Skrillex’s Bangarang but far more challenging than what you’d hear at most clubs—though with no fewer airhorns. “Fuck with… Ocelote,” goes one of her producer tags, celebrating her alter ego. The message of this album: don’t. (review)
- Metro Boomin – Not All Heroes Wear Capes. This is what happens when talent gets together and clicks. Metro’s beats might have lost some surprise factor in the years since Atlanta’s rise to dominance, but his debut presents him as a rapper-whisperer, coaxing some of 21 Savage’s best one-liners ever and acting as a catalyst for an escapist rap party.
- Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour. Cosmic cowgirl music at its best, suggesting the expansive American visions of Gram Parsons and Terrence Malick while nodding to disco and Daft Punk. It’s no less eager to show off its down-home bona fides than to travel outside the conservative values country often celebrates into a world of zen koans and acid daydreams.
- Anthony Naples – Take Me With You. Chain Reaction meets punk rock—a lo-fi dance album that’s as much ambiance as attitude, its wispiest tracks carrying a hint of mischief.
- Objekt – Cocoon Crush. The year’s best in sound-design porn: a fiercely linear Rube Goldberg machine of threatening robo-voices and wet alien birthing noises, with an architectural debt to H.R. Giger. Electronic albums have become more and more like horror movies as of late, and here is a nail-biter that plays the listener like a piano. Grab popcorn.
- Pusha T – Daytona. A fearsome mainstream rap album à la 2018: short and canny, with a searing mean streak and delicious high-art window dressing that reminds us there’s art in the Western canon about worse things than selling coke. Some of it is morally unforgivable, but King Push has always had a way of making fucked-up shit sound somehow principled.
- RP Boo – I’ll Tell You What! A wily old footwork vet stakes a claim to his hunting grounds. Kavain Space expands the boundaries of his genre not by pushing outward but by looking inward, isolating what makes this music so thrilling and cutting out almost everything else. Even those with an intuition towards this challenging music may be baffled—and delighted. (review)
- Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs. The former horrorcore prodigy is now a holistic rap artist, as much producer as MC, his voice slipping in and out of different flows and impressions as he examines the weight of his family history over swampy sampledelia. The poltergeist of his father, Keorapetse Kgositsile, screams through the walls all the while.
- Tirzah – Devotion. Like a Sade record hammered together in shop class, Devotion trades in urbane cool but is made from parts so ramshackle they shouldn’t work: MIDI presets, fake guitars, rusted piano loops. A labor of love from Tirzah and producer Mica Levi—and a rare example of a female singer serving as muse to a female producer who has most of the fun.
My favorite songs of the year:
- The Internet – “It Gets Better (With Time).” Songs like these drive me into a sort of maudlin ecstasy. This is just the loveliest funk ballad, and Syd’s impossibly tender low note on “time” gives us a searing emotional crux, performing a function usually reserved for the high notes. With “Cocaine” from Purple Naked Ladies and “Hold On” and “Come Over” from this year’s meandering and intermittently brilliant Hive Mind, the Internet can now lay claim to four of the 2010s’ best songs.
- Prince – “International Lover (Piano & a Microphone 1983 version).” On this newly surfaced recording, Prince obliterates his tongue-in-cheek 1999 sex jam, eliminating the airplane jokes and the jewelry-flashing and turning a flex into the stuttering of a kid asking his crush to prom. There’s not even an airplane on this version, just a declaration of love that echoes inconclusively.
- 1010 Benja SL – “Tragic X.” R&B in hell. A searing vocal, the most gutting laugh I’ve heard in a pop song, all as a radio announcer declares the elusive young singer the “avatar.” It’s like Michael Jackson’s Dangerous robbed of forward motion. Not even the most paranoid Toronto drug music matches it for feeling like you’re lost in grief at 3 a.m. in an endless city.
- Tierra Whack – “Pet Cemetery.” First you appreciate that she ends a song about dogs with a sample of a cat, one of many delicious sonic gags on her debut Whack World. Then you realize she’s not singing about dogs, and the full weight of what she’s saying hits you.
- DJ Koze – “Moving in a Liquid.” Stefan Kozalla is house’s most reliable tearjerker, and one moment on this song proves why. He’s introduced the vocal sample and let it loop for a bit. Then it fades away. Then singer Eddie Fummler comes in. And then the vocal sample slowly gets louder and louder, like a dog rushing to greet its master. And that’s before he summons a choir of sobbing, clipped soul vocals from the margins of the mix. Ouch.