Single Of The Year
- Caroline Rose – “Soul No. 5”
- Ezra Furman – “Love You So Bad”
- Metric – “Now Or Never Now”
- Soccer Mommy – “Scorpio Rising”
- Kali Uchis – “Tyrant”
- Now, Now – “AZ”
- Janelle Monae – “Make Me Feel”
- Drake – “In My Feelings”
- Vince Staples – “Fun”
- Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness – “Paper Rain”
- Tyler, The Creator & A$AP Rocky – “Potato Salad”
- Elvis Costello & The Imposters – “Suspect My Tears”
- Of Montreal – “Paranoiac Intervals/Body Dysmorphia”
- Teyana Taylor – “WTP”
- Rosalia – “Piensa En Tu Mira”
- Travis Scott & Drake – “Sicko Mode”
- Bad Bad Hats – “Nothing Gets Me High”
- Camila Cabello – “Never Be The Same”
- The Aces – “Just Like That”
- Caroline Rose – “Bikini”
Most Romantic Song
Eleanor Friedberger -“Make Me A Song”. Rebound: named for a dance club in Athens. That’s your first clue that something important has changed. Your second clue is everything else.
Most Moving Song
Andrew McMahon’s “House In The Trees”.
Tierra Whack’s “Fruit Salad”. It’s all in the way she sings “vegetaboooools”.
Most Inspiring Song
“Django Jane”. Some of my pals accused Janelle Monae of retardating on the new one. Technically they’re right: she returns from Hollywood with the density and conceptual complexity of her recordings pruned back so far you can see the bark on the trunk. This happens to people who move out to L.A., right, Will Sheff? But Janelle was already so far ahead of the competition that I’m not surprised that true fans (i won’t say fandroids) aren’t noticing. Honestly, the futurespace/sci-fi robot/transhuman stuff was the only part of the Monae project that never worked for me – I’ve always preferred her in Girl James Brown mode – so I don’t mind that Dirty Computer isn’t set on the moon in the twenty-eighth century or whatever. (I do miss Deejay Crash Crash a little.) The style here is ’80s carnival music: not just the Prince, Janet Jackson, and Madonna nods you were expecting, but also a considerable amount of Kenny Loggins and Huey Lewis, too. Anything you might have heard on a fairground during the Reagan Administration, in other words. The man who pushes the big red START button on the Tilt-A-Whirl is Nate “Rocket” Wonder, who plays everything, brilliantly, and produced most of the album, too. He’s no spaceman – he’s a terrestrial boogie monster who is completely down with the day-glo motif. I am sure that in Janelle’s mind there’s some wigged-out Octavia Butler narrative underpinning the storytelling But there’s nothing on this set about computers, and despite such songs as “Let’s Get Screwed”, it’s not too dirty, either. Instead, the project is a straightforward Lemonade-ish reaction to black women getting run down, pretty much all day, in public, by assholes in power. This does not require nuanced, deeply metaphorical language involving Jupiter and spaceships. It may help to be as blunt as possible. It may also help to dispense with the transhumanity and embrace your plain-old-humanity. You might say: I have rights; I’m entitled to the same things you are. I’m entitled to my sexuality, my fantasies, and my fun. I am beautiful, no matter how you jerks rate me. The way you behave scares me. Your words hurt me, and unless you’re okay with that, you might think twice before saying them. Your actions are cruel, and unless you’re okay with that, you might think twice before doing them. I deserve – I demand – your respect. If all of that sounds obvious, and basic, but it still desperately needs to be said, well, whose fault is that?
Pusha T, “The Story Of Adidon”. Making fun of Drake: that’s fair game, if it’s how you get your jollies. Making fun of Drake’s producer for having multiple sclerosis — that just makes you look like a jerk. Gratuitous cruelty is part of Pusha’s brand, I guess, but there’s no need to be so petty about it, or to drag innocents into the dumbest and most pointless of rap battles.
Pretty much everything on Fred Thomas’s Aftering, especially “House Show, Late December”: eight-plus minutes of despondent poetry recited over scratchy midwest emo guitar-and-drums. With dead-eyed accuracy, he paints the picture of an unpleasantly inebriated party of miserable rockers pointlessly grinding it out in squalid surroundings. Also, unlike certain fingers-crossed complainers who are secretly enjoying the era of governtaiment, his reflections on current electoral outcomes feel genuinely pained. In between complaints about the aimlessness of life and protests-too-much about going sober, he does manage to indie-rock a little – in as dour a manner as possible, mind you. If you’re not exactly an “up” person either, you might find a kindred spirit here.
Probably Natalie Prass’s “Hot For The Mountain”. I find the idea of young women seizing political power sexy. I think I’d find the reality of it even sexier, so here’s hoping. Also, I feel the need to say that Noname’s new songs seem like they’re about sex between actual human beings, rather than bizarre archetypes, and that’s pretty refreshing in this pop environment.
Most Notable Cover Version
Somebody’s gonna tell you Anderson East has a voice like Van The Man. Really, it’s Bullet Bob all the way, right down to the ironworker clang of his consonants and the steam heat of his phrasing. I get such a manly, gristly, silver bullet feel from his rip-roarin’ cover of Ted Hawkins’s “Sorry You’re Sick” that I think I’ve just grown a beard. His version of R&B is built for opening shows, which is what makes it grabby; unfortch, those shows are in basketball arenas, which is what makes it dumb. Albums like his don’t tend to have any legs — the very point is that you’ve heard it all before, and with each listen, the maudlin elements of his storytelling further overwhelm the rest of the sentiment. But it sure is a blast to listen to him sing.
Best Guest Appearance
Saba and Smino on Room 25
Best Show I Saw In 2018
Jenny Lewis, White Eagle Hall. Honorable mentions: Lucy Rose at Le Poisson Rouge, and my old buddies in Belle & Sebastian at Forest Hills Stadium. How To Solve Our Human Problems isn’t a high point in the B&S discography or anything, but it’s got its nifty moments, and I, for one, am glad they keep padding out their story with extra chapters. It’s been, oh, fifteen years since Stuart Murdoch eloped with Miss Private, and although he continues to insist on hiring cute backing singers – oh, like you wouldn’t — there’s no evidence that he’s straying. Tigermilk-style revenge and wandering-bard fantasies still lurk in the dusty bagpipe of his heart, I am sure. But he’s got a kid now as well as a loving wife/photographer, and he doesn’t strike me as the sort of guy who’d turn down a home and hearth combo package when it’s offered to him. He’s dealt with the challenge of domestic tranquility rather creatively, receding into new wave nostalgia and “songwriting excellence”, and leaning hard on the society of his band, which, in its mix of goofball personalities and its consistent flashes of gentle wit and ramshackle wisdom (not to mention the loose, sprawling feel-good shows), becomes more like the Grateful Dead with each passing year. For the first time, I feel the absence of Mick Cooke, who sure could have punched up the fake Northern Soul arrangements on Human Problems, and Stuart’s many nips away from the spotlight are not without their cost (“Cornflakes”, echchchchch). Sarah Martin continues to pick up the slack, though. Also, “I’ll Be Your Pilot” is a genuine rarity: a letter-to-my-child song that doesn’t play as a grotesque self-justification. Imagine this from the kid’s perspective – who would you rather have as a dad, Stuart, or Sturgill Simpson? Which one is going to take you out for ice cream, and which one will you discover drunk on the kitchen floor? Let’s not even drag Andrew McMahon into this. Stick with stuart. You’ll have a nice time at the fair.
Danielle Balbuena, a.k.a. 070 Shake. This is the Jersey girl who put her hand on the stove to see if she still bleeds. She defends that line, by the way, so you smartasses can stand down: she says that if you burn yourself badly enough, the wound will actually open. I don’t know if she’s speaking from experience; the point is that she is calling out her critics as unburnt softies — people who do not have the same experience with pain as she does. I doubt Kanye cares one way or another. You can see what prompted him to press-gang her into the G.O.O.D. music content farm: Glitter sounds a good bit more troubled than Kanye, who is merely insane, has allowed himself to be in the past few years. Kanye has been driven mad from nonstop exposure to fame and the news cycle; it’s the dullest story in California, and his insistence on rehashing it as if it’s news has been having a deleterious effect on his artistry. 070 Shake behaves like she’s got no idea there’s even such thing as fame, or an Internet, or electricity. Instead, she sings like a woman brooding over heartbreak in a cold room, maybe by a railroad trestle, who hasn’t eaten or had a bath or seen a bright light in days. It’s snowing and the sun isn’t up, and she made it to the stop only to see the Bergenline bus pulling away. She’s singing the blues, in other words — and that will never go out of style. The EP isn’t all aces, and in the future she’s going to have to vary the emotional tone somewhat. But there’s good reason to believe she’s more than the new Fetty Wap.
Best Singing Voice
Cristal Ramirez of The Aces. She’s from Utah, of all places, which might help to explain why the world didn’t exactly pick up on When My Heart Felt Volcanic. Imagine doing the rock up in those dry Mormon hills. But rock they do: to be precise, The Aces mimic the crisp, professional, ruthlessly efficient pop-rock of big-money female-fronted pop-rock acts with astonishing fidelity – Carly Rae Jepsen, post-Farro Paramore, Chvrches, straight-pop T. Swift, Lorde, that last Grimes album, Haim. Haim especially. And lookit, I didn’t think it was possible to be any more faceless than Haim, but The Aces have proven me wrong. Personalities may emerge as I listen to this more – and I sure will listen to this more – but I’m not betting on it; I mean, this band has included its business plan in the liner notes.
Best Vocal Harmonies
Boygenius. Just call them the Pistol Elfies, with Ms. Dacus in the role of Miranda Lambert (the natural), Rappin’ Phoebe B as a West Coast Angaleena Presley (the wry, lyrical one), and Julien Baker as Monroe Suede (high voice, high strung, tendency to dance on the edge of emotional breakdown). Because they’re indie rockers and not trad. country singers, they’re under no pressure to write a hit; because they’re elves, they get +1 to INT and DEX and only a mild penalty applied to constitution. Also: combat bonuses with bow and arrow. I’m impressed by how they’ve reinforced each other strengths without accidentally amplifying any of their weaknesses: the way Phoebe’s er, unusual way of putting things manages to shake up Lucy Dacus’s writing, which was getting a little poker-faced on Historian, or how Lucy’s mahogany alto warms up Julien Baker’s wail-of-the-banshee act, or how Julien’s emo guitar punches up her pals’ usual stately classic rock arrangements. Lucy Dacus’s two songs here strike me as her best of the year, easily. As for Julien Baker, I’ve never thought she was best straight-up notes and chords songwriter: her diatonic, circular numbers rely on emotional crescendos to get over. Here she gets to sing in such tight harmony that she’s sometimes rendered a sound effect — she’s the teakettle whistling when things really come to a boil. It’s a good role for her, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the ballast that her partners provide. Nobody dominates: Boygenius really does give the impression that all three members are equal contributors less interested in jockeying for position than in making great music. Just like the Pistol Annies, in other words. I won’t say that more excellent artists ought to do the GTR thing and join forces, because I’d wager that it’s the rare frontperson who can put her ego in check long enough to sustain such a balanced collaboration. After all, has it not been said that when the heart rules the mind, one look, and love is blind. If you want the dream to last, call it a day after six songs. Plenty of cover for that decision in the year when everything was too damned short.
Best Bass Playing
Black Milk. And while I’m at it:
Best Production and Best Beat Programming
I don’t ask the universe for justice or the industry for fairness. I’m just saying that if Black Milk ever won a Grammy for what he does — pretty much every year — that’d be mighty nice. Honorable mention: Iman Omari for his work on the Cavalier album. Forget Mantovanni and Barry Manilow: this is some of the most beautiful music you’ll ever hear. That EZ listening sound. Your elevator oughta be so lucky. Black Milk is so self-effacing that he might have dropped off of your radar — he’s the Detroit cat who still must suffer constant comparisons to J. Dilla even though he stepped out of that shadow years ago. The sounds he produces are so winsome and so rusty-city cinematic that if his rapping is any good at all, his records shine. Unfortunately, in the past, he has often rapped like a pharma sales rep in the midst of a power point presentation. In 2018 he was motivated, and he kept Fever at a nice simmer. That’s probably as high as the burners on this reliable old stove go up; don’t twist them any harder, they’ll break. Cavalier is a New Orleans kid I’d never heard of. Turns out he is a fine, very thorough rapper from the Okayplayer school of verbal density and social conscience. Sometimes — well, rarely — he’s even funny, which gives him one on Black Milk. His ace in the hole is Iman Omari, whose peculiar sense of time and playful relationship to the beat remind me of… well, they remind me of Black Milk, to be honest. Also, these two emcees kick it on similar topics: police brutality, phonies, disloyalty among friends, how us menfolk oughta treat the wimmen better, phonies (aren’t they something), the struggle for black self-affirmation in a society determined to hold nonwhites in psychological bondage, ass (but respectfully), phonies (aren’t they awful). I only wish Cavalier would release his project on CD like Black Milk did. Fat chance of that happening in these plastic elastic days when only Olivia Newton John is allowed to get physical. These poor millennial schmucks better hope that the cloud really is as permanent as Zuckerberg says it is.
Best Live Drumming
Stephane St. John and Domenico Lancellotti on The Good Is A Big God. You’d figure that a record made by a curly-headed brazilian who has collaborated with Caetano and Moreno Veloso and produced, no less, by Sean O’Hagan would fit my sweet spot squarely. And it does, sort of, though this samba never achieves the sunburnt radiance I associate with Tropicalia. At its best it does indeed approach the rhythmic (though never the sexual) intensity of Transa and the curiously friction-free juxtapositions of Hawaii. Much of this is as soporific as the waves, though. Nifty late nite music in any case.
Best Synthesizer Playing
Mildlife. This was a Youtube discovery: it was posted to Provocative Educative!, the same channel that tipped me off to the Jazz Spastiks and the last Open Mike Eagle record. in ’18, a lot of the stuff they pushed on me was jazz, not hip-hop, and I’m beginning to hear the hoofbeats of a Trojan horse. But who among you is above a little saxophone in the evening? Mildlife doesn’t hip-hop at all — they’re a prog-jazz fusion act with extremely incidental vox, and if that sounds dreadful, remember that Air fits the description too. I’ve turned to Mildlife when I’ve had enough of Talkie Walkie and 10 000 Hz Legend, and even though these Aussie knob-twiddlers are very different animals from Godin and Dunckel, their music scratches a similar itch. Maybe not at the base of the spine; farther along the shoulder blade. What you’re getting here is a congenial relationship between the bassist, who is content to lay down those hypergroovy, mechanical “Femme D’Argent”-type parts, and the analog synth player, who is a flucking wizard. Once they get the jam where they want it, the whole band locks in and starts cooking, as the jazzbos like to say, and here I really do feel the force of the metaphor: it’s like the moment when the celery and carrots and starch sizzle into a roux at the bottom of a cast iron pan. Along the way some buttinsky or another sings something that might be words? In Australian? Dude may just be marking time. If it makes enough of an impression on you that you figure out what he’s on about, let me know.
Best Organ Playing
Thank you, Caroline Rose, for bringing back demented roller-rink combo organ. We expect male singer-songwriters of a certain type (funny looking) to affect a sarcastic outlook as a defense mechanism, but girls who do the same are banished to the Siberia of stand-up comedy — something I have no doubt Rose could do if she wanted to, so I hope to hell she doesn’t want to. It’d be a waste of the singular sneering-robot voice she’s developed. She applies it to great effect throughout an album that contains some of the best tawdry boardwalk-town Farfisa-centric arrangements since the heyday of Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns. I like it on the takedown of the music biz dickhead (“all you gotta do is put on this little bikini/and d-d-d-dance!”) and the one where they do it for the money (“they did it for the money”), and I like it even better when she plays it straight and admits that modern alienation is getting to her. But I like it best on the one where she jokes so hard about having soul that it soon becomes clear it’s no joke. I mean, what is soul but irreducible personality?, and doesn’t she have that in spades? Loner wasn’t my absolute favorite album of 2018, but there was no album I rooted any harder to sell. I’d hate to see her chuck it and start writing woke gags for Samantha Bee. What a loss for the good guys, as Jenny Lewis might put it.
Best Guitar Playing
Kerry Alexander of Bad Bad Hats. Lightning Round was made with an eye on the big time: it is slicker, more processed and pro, more to-the-moment, more synth-heavy, and frankly, less twee than anything BBH has done before. The guitar is still there, thank goodness, and while it doesn’t drive any of the songs the way it did on Psychic Reader, I dare say that Kerry Alexander is better than ever. In fact she is using the guitar exactly how I always want pop-rock musicians to use it: picking spots, teasing out lead lines that echo her melodies, amplifying the rhythm section at strategic moments, adding coloring and shading. It’s almost like… she knows what she’s doing. Imagine that.
Best Instrumental Solo
Francis’s weird-ass punch-card computer meltdown on “Tear It Up”. It’s about four notes, but they do the work of four hundred.
Rosalia’s album is short, and about a third of it feels like moody American R&B in the current Beyonce-derived style; nothing to kick out of bed, certainly, but also nothing you haven’t heard earlier today. But the balance of El Mal Querer consists of a flamenco-latin pop-trap music hybrid that may indeed mark Rosalia as some kind of crazed post-ethnic genius. It’s jam-packed with cubic inches of musical ideas, too, at a density that recalls the Tierra Whack project. Track number two, for instance, strikes me as blown-out prog flamenco, or maybe all flamenco is as mesmerizing as this? (I doubt it). All of it is sung in Spanish, naturally, so you MAGA hat wearers might not be feeling it. Yet it strikes me that unlike Natalia Lafourcade, who wraps up her dazzling Latinx indiepop and folklorico in the sharpest threads imaginable, Rosalia is so comfortable handling sleaze – just check out the fantastic videos – that El Mal Querer might just penetrate the American market. J/k, I’m sure this will be about as welcome as the immigrant caravan. Oh: straight from the With Friends Like These department, Rosalia’s achievement was greeted with a bouquet of articles accusing her of cultural appropriation. Apparently she’s not from the proper subdivision of Spain that would authorize her to make use of gypsy signifiers and seriously?, what the fuck is wrong with us? Has it really come to this? Of course Rosalia is a child of privilege – you could never make an album like this unless you had lessons and/or a big budget. Who the fuck cares? Would you rather Rosalia embrace an identity as a corporate raider and leave El Mal Querer unmade? Sometimes I think we don’t even deserve music.
Let me begin by saying I don’t think Look Now is as good as Painted From Memory. No “God Give Me Strength” or “Tears At The Birthday Party” here. But it is a lot closer than you’d wager, and Painted From Memory – which was, you’ll recall, received upon release as a late-period high point and a possible last gasp – was twenty years ago. It is absolutely stupefying that Elvis Costello continues to write and sing and bandlead and concept-master at this level at sixty five years old. Great musicians way younger than he is have already entered the recursive period of their runs, or just hung them up. Compare Look Now, which has the creative restlessness and depth of vision of an artist in his prime, to something like Graham Parker’s Cloud Symbols, which is just a fun reiteration of what we all loved about the Rumor in the ’70s and early ’80s. Consider also that “Isabelle In Tears”, which would be a centerpiece of anybody else’s set, didn’t even make the album. If you want it, you’ve got to get the deluxe version. He’s in his seventh decade and he’s still sneezing out magnificent b-sides. It’s downright ridiculous how much water in this well: it defies everything we know about artistry, and aging, and energy, and human frailty. And I have to say that the spot atop the career value list isn’t open to debate anymore, if it ever was. I guess you could make a case for Dylan if you wanted to weight cultural significance heavily (I don’t), or Paul Simon, if you really dig theft. But with all respect to the forerunners, Dylan never wrote as crisply or with so much courage as Elvis Costello does, and Paul Simon wasn’t anywhere near as prolific. Absolutely nothing has deteriorated: not the pen, not the voice, not the sense of literary irony, certainly not the stakes. This is probably his most Broadway set ever, which, in the context of his long arc, strikes me as just another successful experiment. He’s singing from the point of view of women, and inhabiting those perspectives with a little more sensitivity than Woody Allen does, but he never handles it with so much care that the essential desperation that has always motivated him gets subsumed by his sense of social responsibility or fair play. It’s not that he doesn’t give a fuck, because I’m pretty sure he does, it’s that he knows damn well what’ll keep him running. I guess you could compare it to Sondheim, but Sondheim puts out a musical once in a blue moon. And Sondheim never could have written “The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes”. Maybe Richard Rodgers could have. That’s who Elvis Costello is: a rocking Richard Rodgers. We’ll never see the like again.
Best Lyrics Over The Course Of An Album
Every line on Whack World is a hip-hop quotable, but I’ve got to give this one to Saba, who may just turn out to be Chicago’s MVP now that Chance has entered politics, or a monastery, or something. If the Windy City ’18 sound isn’t quite as rapturous as it was a scant few moons ago, well, in retrospect that exuberance was probably unsustainable. You’re only the king of the after-school programme for a semester at best. Saba, to be fair, was never big man on campus: he’s always been the nerd at home neither in the streets nor in the halls of the academy. Care For Me is a My Bodyguard story about the Pivot Gang roughneck who serves as his tor/mentor and protector until he is, all too predictably, slain, “for a coat”, we’re told, right off the bat, in the same neighborhoods Saba love-hates. In the density and agility of the storytelling — not to mention the occasional greyness of the production — the album resembles J. Cole’s For Your Eyez Only. A lot.
Best Lyrics On An Individual Song
Band Of The Year
Boygenius. Hope that wasn’t that.
Okay, more tomorrow.