I have always loved music videos. I loved the first generation of grainy promotional spots for new wave bands, I loved Michael Jackson’s choreography and Russell Mulcahey’s cinematic interventions, I loved ZZ Top and their keychain and Prince humping the floor. It was all magic to me, and it continues to be a mystery why a director would ever shoot anything else. Movies, TV shows, documentaries: all of that seems like a wasted opportunity and a terrible misapplication of film stock. Year after year, music videos delivered for me in a way that no other filmed entertainment did.
So it is from my position as a dedicated and passionate follower of the form — a goof who knows all the dance steps in “Get Me Bodied” and Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” clip by heart, even if I can’t execute a single one — that I say 2018 was the best year ever for music videos. Old masters of aesthetic hyperactivity and condensed three-minute visual messages outdid themselves: Beyonce and Jay-Z hung in the Louvre, Janelle Monae draped her frames in the colors of the bi-pride flag, Drake gave away money and fired up the crowd and danced with the freaks in the French Quarter, and it all looked stunning. Young artists who’ve shown some facility with the form took big steps forward, including Vince Staples, whose Google map-themed “Fun” clip was a distillation of everything he’s been trying to say about surveillance, voyeurism, and poverty porn, and Tyler and A$AP Rocky further sharpened their distinctive personalities in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, The 1975 nodded to Stop Making Sense and My Chemical Romance and Broadway theater; Mitski kept one-upping the arthouse flicks. Even musicians who don’t normally make good clips rose to the occasion in ’18. I’ve always thought music video was the weakest part of Kevin Barnes’s game, but his spot for “Paranoiac Intervals/Body Dysmorphia” captured his feelings of dislocation and outsiderdom (not to mention his seething aggression) better than all his other clips put together.
But the new video stars owned 2018, and — lucky us — it just so happened that the artists who made the best clips also made the best music. Rosalia took her place at the head of the class with three superb, interrelated clips for songs from El Mal Querer, and gave us the year’s most indelible images: the dance in the back of the moving truck, the bullfighter and the motorcycle, the robed cultist(?) takeover in the mansion, the girl frantically jumping on the bed. Kali Uchis wasn’t quite so arty, but she’s every bit as effective, and the long shot in the “Tyrant” clip through an infinite regress of car windows was my favorite special effect. Caroline Rose might be the funniest pop singer to emerge from the wilderness since Kate Miller-Heidke (and KMH isn’t too funny anymore); her clip for “Soul No. 5” was reminiscent of late ’70s Attractions videos. No matter how many times I see her drop that hula hoop, I still crack up.
And bouncing through contemporary music like unstoppable Evil Otto, shutting the boards down with a big grin and chasing us all around, was the incomparable Tierra Whack, the Rookie of the Year and some kind of off-the-wall North Philly visionary. The fifteen minute-long low-budget but oh-so-brilliant clips from Whack World are so good and so resourcefully made that I’m not sure people realize how great the songs are. Tierra Whack didn’t just demonstrate that she could bring developmental pop songs to a satisfying resolution in sixty seconds. She showed that she could do it straight across genre: that the conventions of power pop, trap music, smoky R&B and neo-soul, etc., were no obstacle to her. Then there were the lyrics, which were economical, quotable throughout, and exhibited deep understanding of hip-hop in its most elemental form.
Some critics have compared her to Missy Elliott. That’s not misleading. Missy would also boast in verse about how many vegetables she ate. But in practice, Whack World reminds me more of D. Boon, or those late ’60s Mothers of Invention albums where Frank Zappa kept jumping from fragment to fragment in a deliberate attempt to keep his listeners bewildered. Zappa had a wide open field on which to play. Tierra Whack is responding to the challenges of an era of constricted expressive opportunities. Music optimized for Instagram was bound to happen eventually, and if the platform exists, and it’s big and it’s wide, I can’t knock talented artists for jumping on up. In one quick stroke, she did what Kanye has been threatening to do since the beginning of the Pablo release cycle. She’s managed to reimagine what a pop album can be in the present media environment.
And yes, this is an album. Running length ain’t nothing but a number.
Album of the Year
- Tierra Whack – Whack World
- Natalie Prass – The Future And The Past
- Boygenius – Boygenius
- Rayland Baxter – Wide Awake
- Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
- Pistol Annies – Interstate Gospel
- Caroline Rose – Loner
- Kali Uchis – Isolation
- Rosalia – El Mal Querer
- Elvis Costello & The Imposters – Look Now
- Metric – Art Of Doubt
- The Carters – Everything Is Love
- Noname – Room 25
- Teyana Taylor – K.T.S.E.
- Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
- Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel
- Saba – Care For Me
- Francis And The Lights – Just For Us
- Rubblebucket – Sun Machine
- Black Milk – Fever
Best Album Title
The best title is probably Transangelic Exodus, since it manages to nod to Ezra’s four obsessions — queerness, spirituality, Jewish identity, and escape — in two words and seven syllables. But my favorite is Lost In Beaucaire by a French band called Woody Murder Mystery. Their sound is mildly psychedelic, like a blunt filled with herbs de Provence. Beaucaire is actually close to Provence: not on the French Riviera but tucked into the countryside where cattle have more rights than people. My suspicion is that the cow on the cover of Atom Heart Mother had something to do with the making of this album because it reminds me of an early Floyd soundtrack: it’s lazy without being listless, melodic but not overly so, dotted with zone-out stretches and too-brief moments of accidental beauty, and decorated with combo organ that sounds as if it is drifting down the hall of an abandoned church. No instrumentalist in this group can hold a candle to Wright or Gilmour, or, for that matter, Sean O’Hagan or Marcus Holdaway. But what do you expect from cows? They don’t even have fingers. They just have to hoof the fretboard and hope they luck into some consonance.
Best Album Cover
Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy. The album is… it’s good, really. I like her; I think she’s a fun character. But let’s not go overboard here. Look, the worst thing about Whitey is how credulous he is. Whitey will swallow anything. The next time some wiseass economic determinist tries to tell you about how capitalism has been so much more “successful” in the West than it has in, say, darkest Africa, you might remind him that this is because the white man is so damn gullible that the wheels of commerce face no impediment here. Packaged properly, there is nothing he will not buy. I speak from experience. I myself am of the Caucasian persuasion, and I will shell out for whatever you’ve got and accept any bullshit line that flatters any object I fancy. Jay-Z as a statesman? Sure, I’ll buy it. Beyonce as an articulate spokeswoman for social justice? Yes, that sounds about right, he says, admiring that ass. Oprah as presidential timber? Sure, why not?, beats the alternative, yuk yuk. But there are bridges too far even for me, and Cardi B, feminist hero?, that’s too far on the distant shore. This Bronx loudmouth – who believes that face down ass up equals perfect posture – has made a solid corporate rap album, nothing more or less. Those hard consonants and trap beats you hear are the clinking and clanking of a capitalist tool. Believe me, I don’t begrudge her those money moves. This is showbiz, we all ride our gimmicks as far as we can take them, and Cardi appears to be built to ride hers reasonably far. What I can’t handle is the conviction among those who ought to know better that Cardi’s grueling sexploitation rhymes and her rote (if funny) power bottoming are salutary political statements. The next thing you people are going to tell me that some gross Louisiana stripper and her sleazeball attorney are some kind of freedom fighters, and put them on TV all the time. Oh, wait. Hm.
Best Liner Notes And Packaging
Twin Fantasy by Car Seat Headrest. Will “Holy” Toledo isn’t the thinker that Ezra Furman is, which keeps him free from certain writerly pitfalls, and the noisiness of his new set comes with a built-in excuse: its template version was cut in 2011 and released on MyHamper, or Bandspace, or whatever, when he was four years old or thereabouts. It gathered a passionate cult following, which means the fi of the redraft can’t be allowed to drift too hi. Which it doesn’t, but I’m sure the fans of tape hiss still complained bitterly. Just to make sure you’re getting what you want, Toledo has packaged the original in a double disc set with the new one, so those of you with a compare and contrast essay overdue can look no further for a subject. Once again, Toledo lets the songs run all day, long as the hut of Baba Yaga, and he doesn’t really have the musical or lyrical ideas to justify the excess. On Teens Of Denial, he whomped up stories about drug abuse and aimless youth into bracing but somewhat empty epics; here, his subject is the Namblafied relationship between the narrator and an older man. Since he’s interested in actual people and not anything as nebulous as a generation, these stories achieve a kind of narrative traction that’s absent in his other work. Go back to go forward, vol. 4080.
Most Welcome Surprise
The Future And The Past. The point of pop production is to create a sonic environment for the storyteller/main personality to inhabit. That’s it; that’s the whole job. Complicating the job, though, is the artist, who often wants her record to sound exactly like something else, and who hires the producer to make this happen. Make my record sound like Van Morrison in 1972, and never you mind that there is only one Van the Man. Natalie Prass has been working with Matthew E. Smith since she was a kid, and together they have ideas: on the self-titled set, they made like she was a blue-eyed soul singer akin to Dusty Springfield. It was a really well-appointed simulation they crafted over there at Spacebomb, even if it wasn’t exactly imaginative. The problem was that they were writing checks that Natalie Prass’s voice couldn’t cash. (Then there was “Christy”, and the less said about that the better). For album number two, they switched it up – which is something most AM gold fetishists never do – and I’ll be damned if they haven’t arrived at something new under the sun. The Future And The Past answers the following question that nobody has ever asked: what would the Kamakiriad have sounded like with Jenny Lewis in the driver’s seat and machine beats provided by, say, Pete Rock? Never mind worrying if the voice doesn’t fit with the style, because there won’t be any prior model to compare the music to. My feeling is that the ‘70s-loving fans of Natalie Prass are having a hard time warming up to this, which is a shame, since syncopation plus electrofunk grooves plus jazz piano plus hefty appropriation from black American music usually equals Steely Dan. Also getting lost in the shuffle is the political content: 80% of this album is fighting words aimed at the Prez and his followers. Because she is such a pipsqueak it can be hard to register her protest as such. But when she says “we’ll take you on/we can take you all” in “Hot For The Mountain, you can damn well feel that itch in her voting finger. Do I believe that a coalition of the twee is poised to bring down this charmless regime? No, but I’m a cynical old cuss who has lost too many elections, so don’t mind me. Do I believe that Natalie believes it? Well… I’ll tell you this much: “Sisters” slams as hard as any hip-hop I’ve heard this year. So don’t fuck with the Richmond kids. They’re tougher than they look and they’re loaded for bear. Also, Virginia’s not a swing state anymore. The Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of pop albums.
Daytona/Kids See Ghosts/Nasir. It’s possible to applaud Kanye for rethinking the release strategy for the modern age while still recognizing these for what they are. They’re EPs. i.e, extended play. There’s something you want to play for your listeners, and it contains more ideas than what you’d get on a single plus flip side, so you extend those ideas through a few more songs, and you leave it at that. There are many short sets that do the work of an album better than traditional LPs do – numbers one and three on the list above, just for starters. But not all artists are suited for the EP format, and Kanye’s insistence on a one-size-fits-all strategy doesn’t work for his current rap clients. Your modern Nas is generally just warming up by song seven, and it feels almost cruel to yank the platform away from him before he has a chance to hit his stride. He’s not an extended player: he wants to spin a wide web of associations before he turns his attention to fly-catching. Cudi, on the other hand, is going to give you the same thing in twenty seconds as he is in twenty hours. he peddles a certain sonic effervescence that stays frothy enough in a bottle of any size. On Kids See Ghosts, the EP length feels totally arbitrary: it’s more about Kanye’s numerological obsessions than what suits Cudi best. As for little brother Terrence, he’s a team player, and he’ll always work with what you give him. I do find it amusing, though, that certain Johnny-come-lately critics are treating Daytona like some kind of artistic breakthrough. Listen: Pusha T has always been great. Always. He was great in the Clipse, he was great on the Timbaland productions, and he was even great on those stupid Wrath Of Caine mixtapes that he probably made between bites of Arby’s. As a dedicated fan, I’d like more than seven tracks of that greatness, and I take Kanye’s parsimoniousness as a personal affront. Troll me with your MAGA hat if you must, but don’t short-pour me my Pusha T. All that registered, I do give Yeezy his props for bending all of these tough-guy characters to his will. Here’s the infamous cocaine slinger, the legendary street poet of the Queensbridge projects, and “the most influential vocalist of the past twenty years” (Kanye’s belief, not mine, but I understand where he’s coming from). Look at them all jump to the beat of the producer’s baton. Look at them indulge his dumbass whims. Not just any producer, either — a gay fish in a pink polo shirt. Lets you know who really holds the power in hip-hop.
Brockhampton – Iridescence. Gotta hand it to these kids. While everybody else is making hip-hop smoothed out on the r&b tip with the pop feeeel appeeeel to it, they remain as annoying as a bag of bugs. Abrasive beats, throwback DAS EFX flows with hoobaly boobaly rimbally bimbally all up in your face, drum machines on the “broken typewriter” and “broken slot machine” settings, fax noises, Pathmark pickup on aisle 3 vocal filters, etcetera. They continue to refer to themselves as a boy band, and who am I to question their boyness? Four albums in, and Kevin Abstract remains the only recognizable voice. Other emcees in this cast of thousands range from mumbling Mafiosos to token white guys to would-be Eminems in matricide mode to dudes reminiscent of the guy on the old De La Soul albums who did the Guido impersonation. Oh, and there’s a power ballad with a children’s gospel choir on it. That’s the meaningful tune. Also, there’s a big finish. Big finish!
Album That Opens Most Strongly
Room 25. From the further adventures of Fatimah Warner: tenement floors scrubbed with Pine-Sol, tickets to Warriors-Cavs Game 5, reading Toni Morrison in a canoe, Sunny Delight, faded dungarees, giving a blowjob to a kid with Adidas on, inmate registries, opinions on Africa as a concept and the continuing career of Morgan Freeman even after getting #MeToo-ed, marijuana, biscotti, hot tamales. I mean, god bless hip-hop, right? Where else do they even bother?
Most Consistent Album
Just For Us. I could get used to this new level of productivity from the king of redaction. Twenty new songs in less than eighteen months?; that’s almost a normal pace. Maybe Francis has just gotten more confident, though confidence might just make him edit more rigorously. A new Francis project doesn’t get released – it just slips through the exhaust vents in his towering quality control firewall. That’s probably why he never publicizes them. He just leaves them on the internet and runs. Just For Us splits the difference between the trad. piano pop of It’ll Be Better and the vox-FX experimentation of Farewell, Starlite!, but it’s more of a mood piece than either one, and i suspect it contains fewer highlights. Time will tell, unless it doesn’t. One wag in the YouTube comments suggests that it tells its story in reverse, like undun or DAMN. I’d wager it’s so airtight that you could slice it up and reassemble it however you pleased, and it would provide the same experience. Francis’s music exists in stasis: there are really no directions to travel, it just spreads and fills the horizon until the record ends. That’s only one of the many weird effects produced by his chronomancy.
Most Unfairly Maligned Artist
J. Cole reminds me of The Economist in that he insists on talking to his audience as if it consists of adults. Why he persists (and why they persist) I have no idea. Because of this affront, rap listeners outside of the cult – a very large cult, mind you – call him dry. Readers who have come to expect jolly vindictiveness from journalists say the same thing about The Economist. They’re all wrong. Some critics have gotten on Cole because of the nullification-via-technological-revolution argument in “Brackets”, but would you people rather have him rap about capping the President? Wait, don’t answer that. Funny how J. Cole has been getting less corny as Kendrick’s corniness continues to spike, right there in public in front of the Pulitzer committee, but that’s not something I’d expect superficial listeners, or haters, to notice. I only wish they’d give Cole his props for a first-class trolling job. Releasing his anti-drug album on 4/20?, that’s like something Kanye would do. Kanye or Jerry Falwell, Jr.
Heading For The Cliff
For what it’s worth, I am not of the party that believes that Jack White has lost his marbles. Even during the heyday of the White Stripes, his motivation was never clear to me. Was he a dedicated traditionalist hiding his back-to-basics aims behind a patina of showbiz schtick, or was he a satirist sending up classic American pop styles? Or was he just frustrated that the lane for guitar heroes had gotten so narrow? Boarding House Reach suggests none of the above – instead, this is Jack as the mook, drunk and stumbling through the convenience store of American pop at 3 a.m., pawing all the merch, ripping the cover off of hip-hop, or country, with his teeth, and cramming the contents into his mouth without paying. When the clerk says hey, Jack, you do realize there’s a price tag on that there rapper, he’s like fuck youuuuuuu pal, I am Jack White, incipient Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, and I will do what I want. Angrily, with a sense of utter entitlement, right in the corner by the john and the washbucket and the security cameras, until the cops come and drag him away.
Album I Regret Giving The Time Of Day To
Poppy – Am I A Girl? I had Poppy as Rookie Of The Year last year and I don’t take it back. Moriah Pereira figured out a way to get the Internet to work for her rather than getting flattened by the rest of it like the rest of us have. But 2018 has hammered home the difference between a youtube satirist with limited, if charming, musical gifts, and a genuine revelatory pop talent such as Tierra Whack. Are you using new media to advance your writing, or are you defined by its constraints? On Poppy.Computer, Poppy played Poppy – it might not have been as creepy (or brilliant) as the video clips, but it was the same character with many of the same props and gags and in-jokes and whatnot. In a way, it was the soundtrack to an episodic film project, much like the score to the Muppet Movie. You don’t learn everything about the Muppets from “Movin Right Along”, but it is in all ways the same damn Kermit. On Am I A Girl?, Pereira takes some tentative steps away from the character she’s created, and when she tries to put her foot down, there’s nothing there to stand on. There to hold her arm as she stumbles is Diplo, who has gifted her with a good track but otherwise leeched out her idiosyncrasy and shattered the illusion in the name of what?, mainstream acceptance? Like that’s going to happen. The model here is Grimes, who can’t sing either, and look!, there she is on “Play Destroy”, sounding so much like Poppy (and Poppy like Grimes) that you’ll wonder why they bothered. The big departures here are two hard rock numbers indebted to a ridiculous degree to Babymetal. I have no doubt that Moriah Pereira enjoys death/thrash/doom as much as the next headbanger, and I’m also sure that she and Titanic Sinclair (and maybe even Diplo, between bong hits) consider this a provocative juxtaposition in keeping with the Poppy character as we’ve come to know it. But it’s not. Poppy stole plenty from Japanese pop on her debut, but she was never desperate enough to stoop to pastiche. She stood for a kind of disturbing, machine-processed seamlessness that is probably unrecoverable to her after this one. Unless everybody just forgets about this album. And hey, I already did.
Okay, that’s all for today. Singles next.