I actually thought this might more straightforward than the ‘Songs of 2018‘ list since I haven’t listened to that many albums this year. Or so I thought. Perhaps it’s not necessarily true that I haven’t listened to that many albums. Music has never been more accessible to me ever. I tend to put on an album or a podcast episode when I’m engaged in a low-distraction task at home like cooking, cleaning or hanging the laundry. We are so spoilt in the streaming age – the convenience, the access, the sheer amount of material out every single week. It truly is overwhelming and hard to digest.
Over the past few years my listening pattern had changed. I absolutely relish in the control I have now as a consumer to be a complete master of my listening experience. I prefer to curate my own themed playlists which would soundtrack a myriad of moods and seasons (here’s my Spotify profile if you would like to peruse). I’d rather make my own ‘artist discography’ playlists rather than pass the hours with a prescribed set of songs picked out for me.
However, in the practice of me putting together my own playlists, I had come to really admire a well put-together body of work when I come across one. This list is more of 2018 honours list for bodies of work I have enjoyed. So in there will be a couple of mini-albums or EPs as well – whatever people wanted to call them. Here are 12 albums/EPs I have really enjoyed and connected with in 2018…
#12 – Charlie Puth “Voicenotes”
Literally no one I know listens to Charlie Puth. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him mentioned in my feed. Nothing. Therefore, I have zero self-awareness about liking his voice and his album. Basically, I went through this one week earlier this year where I was listening to a New York Times Popcast episode about Charlie and his Voicenotes album and then went to check it out and was surprised that I didn’t completely dislike it. Voicenotes dazzled me in the way Bruno Mars’ first album did back in the day. It’s a complete candyland of 80s/90s R&B influences without crossing over into pastiche, the silky vocals and youthful confidence is truly Charlie’s biggest drawing card. He, as I discovered, isn’t just a remarkable vocalist but also a brilliant producer, which really reflects in this album.
Key tracks: ‘Attention’, ‘Done for Me’ (feat Kehlani), ‘Slow It Down’
#11 – Years & Years “Palo Santo”
I distinctly remember getting butterflies halfway through my first listen of this album. It hit me that Olly Alexander and Years & Years would have been my teenage self’s absolute everything. Imagine what life would’ve been like as a young queer person and seeing Years & Years on primetime telly and playing big festivals. Palo Santo is nothing if not a collection of poems delicately wrapped in layers of electronic pop production that never try to outdo the heart of each song. In the centre is a rawness and vulnerabilty that draws you in to unpack more with each listen. Even now, I don’t feel I’ve fully gotten to the core of Palo Santo yet but I’m not in a rush. In an age of instant gratification maybe this is the kind of slow burn we need.
Key tracks: ‘All For You’, ‘Hypnotised’, ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Sanctify’
#10 – Troye Sivan “Bloom”
Bloom is such a gorgeous, highly stylised coming-of-age album that falls somewhere between soundtracking a Dolce & Gabbana citrusy-sea breeze fragrance commercial and an arthouse LGBT teen film. The charm is in the effortlessness of this – the unhurried pace, Troye’s chilled vocal delivery, and the themes of self-discovery. You walk around town on a quiet Sunday afternoon in spring with this in your headphones and I guarantee you’ll feel like you’re in an indie film.
Key tracks: ‘Seventeen’, ‘Bloom’, ‘My My My!’, ‘Dance to This’ (feat. Ariana Grande)
#9 – Ray BLK “Empress”
I’ve long been a fan of Ray since her 2016 Durt EP. She truly is a South London gem that should be appreciated and protected at all costs. Through her work you can see how she has grown as an artist and writer but I love that she has never wavered from her commitment to telling her story and painting you a picture of life in her community. The parallels to Ms Dynamite’s work is an obvious one. Let me just say, Ms Dynamite’s 2002 debut album holds such a special place in my heart. Even to this day, listening to ‘Brother’ would get me in my feelings. ‘Mama’ on Ray’s “Empress” EP brought that same feeling back around and I was listening to this for the first time while I was doing a food shop in Tesco and had to blink away the tears. At the same time, it made me smile that she did a rap from her mum’s perspective. My favourite line from the “Empress” EP is in ‘Got My Own’ where Ray’s doing a tongue-in-cheek flex about how much money she’s got and she’s treating her mum etc… and suddenly she adds, “I’ll get that pack of fizzy water, don’t use that tap no more – do I look like a buster?”. I mean, that is truly when you know you’ve fucking made it. When you’re buying sparkling water and you don’t have to entertain tap water any more.
Key tracks: ‘Mama’, ‘Run Run’, ‘Empress’, ‘Got My Own’
#8 – Kate Stewart “In The Beginning”
I just knew immediately after hearing ‘He’s Good’ that I was going to love this new incarnation of Kate Stewart (the artist formerly known as K Stewart). This was a proper 90s/00s pop R&B affair. This one’s for anyone who’s a fan of Mariah, JoJo, Samantha Jade etc. It’s pristine vocals and I mean proper vocal vocals. It is vibes. It is emotions. Nobody else is doing shit like this right now and the fact is not anybody can walk up and do this like Kate’s done it. This body of work needs to be celebrated. I can imagine her getting out to Asia performing there, and this just blowing up absolutely in every country. Vocal royalty needs to be treated as such.
Key tracks: ‘He’s Good’, ‘Distraction’, ‘Loving You’.
#7 – SUMNI “Warning”
This will be the only K-pop album/mini-album you’ll find on here this year even though Spotify Wrapped 2018 will let us know that my Top 5 tracks of the year were all K-pop bops. My low-key obsession with SUNMI (formerly of the legendary Wonder Girls) this year literally came out of nowhere. Even though she had been in the public eye for over 10 years, I had no knowledge of her until this era. Between Wonder Girls and her relaunching as a solo popstar (she had a solo EP in 2014), SUNMI tapped into a new performance style that was a little odder, for lack of better words. It was less preoccupied with the K-pop female idol archetypes of being cute or overtly sexy but rather this character was more standoffish and cold, and it really suited her.
Warning the mini-album is a collection of songs crafted around this newfound persona. Opening with ‘ADDICT’ (sung completely in English), SUNMI invites you into the world of this femme fatale rhetorically asking “Who’s running the show?”. ‘Siren‘ – which could be taken as either the bewitching folklore character that drew seamen to their doom, or a literal alarm – is ball-busting 80s disco romp warning lovers not to get attached because she will not emote or empathise even if they’re crying. In its corner are the singles ‘Gashina‘ (a post-tropical house banger about a woman scorned) and ‘Heroine‘ (a pantomime bop about a love-hate relationship where she lets her man go on acting like he’s her ‘saviour’). ‘Black Pearl’ is a gorgeous gem with its surprising sax solo and sultry demeanour. Overall, if you’re after a theatrical female K-pop project that has slightly more class and quirk to it, I’d recommend SUMNI and don’t forget to turn on the subtitles for her music videos.
Key tracks: ‘Siren’, ‘Gashina’, ‘Heroine’, ‘Black Pearl’
#6 – Robyn “Honey”
We’ve waited a really fucking long time for a Robyn album and this thankfully hit the mark for me. Although it wasn’t as generous of a classic as Body Talk was, this was a natural next step for her – and I got just as much out of it. I found myself walking alongside Honey like Robyn and I had never missed a beat. I realised I never really appreciated the warmth and knowingness in Robyn’s vocals until this album. She laid the sonic blueprint out for all her pop predecessors over the last 10 years to adapt but in all the love I have for these Robyn-inspired records, nothing felt like home like Honey.
Key tracks: ‘Honey’, ‘Send to Robin Immediately’. ‘Missing U’, ‘Because It’s In The Music’.
#5 – MNEK “Language”
I know that Uzo is a student of Mariah and Janet like I am. I know that he understands the magic in creating a body of work that takes people on a journey, bonded with interludes etc. Language is truly best experienced as a whole from start to finish, with its various chapters. This is an unapologetically queer album written from a young black man’s perspective but overall, the themes are pretty universal – ‘Tongue’ tackles infatuation, ‘Girlfriend’ addresses a secret affair with a closeted man (OK maybe not that universal), ‘Phone’ vexes over trying to get over an ex that won’t stop getting in touch.
Key tracks: ‘Girlfriend’, ‘Tongue’, ‘Correct’, ‘Honeymoon Phaze’, ‘Paradise’
#4 – Kali Uchis “Isolation”
I’m still not sure exactly what a Kali Uchis is but what I know is when I randomly played her Isolation album, I knew this was one of the best albums I’ve heard this year. The Colombian-Amerian artist created her own vortex of Winehouse-esque soul, pop, reggaeton, R&B, and funk – and I’m living for it. It’s sort of retro in a Latina Lana Del Rey kind of way but still incredibly modern in its approach and fusion.
Key tracks: ‘Dead to Me’, ‘Body Language’, ‘Tyrant’ (feat. Jorja Smith), ‘Just A Stranger’ (feat. Steve Lacy’), ‘After The Storm’ feat. Tyler The Creator and Bootsy Collins).
#3 – Kacey Musgraves “Golden Hour”
This is my gardening album of 2018 and it means a great deal lot to me. Whenever I’d be in my backyard weeding or planting or tidying up, I’d have this album on. As far as modern country records go, this does a great job of reaching out to the pop audience without losing its identity. Tracks like ‘Slow Burn’, ‘Lonely Weekend’, ‘Happy & Sad’ have been really comforting whenever I’ve been alone.
Key tracks; ‘High Horse’, ‘Lonely Weekend’, ‘Happy & Sad’, ‘Slow Burn’.
#2 – Mariah Carey “Caution”
As any Lamb would tell you, this truly is a brilliant Mariah Carey album for 2018. A solid R&B body of work that doffs its hat to her musicality without dating her. She may be known worldwide for her multi-octave range, whistle notes and big belting finales but in Caution she strips it all back to show that she doesn’t have to showboat to get your attention. The Blood Orange collab ‘Giving Me Life’ is a mood and a moment – slotting beautifully in with some of her fan favourites ‘The Roof’, ‘Babydoll’ and ‘Lullaby’. ‘A No No’ is a classic showcase of Mariah’s wits and sharp lyricism, “Snakes in the grass, it’s time to cut the lawn / Ed Scissorhands aka I cut you off”. If you don’t know, you better know.
Key tracks: ‘A No No’, Giving Me Life’, ‘The Distance’, ‘Portrait’.
#1 – Janelle Monáe “Dirty Computer”
What a masterpiece of a concept album. What a masterpiece of an album about womanhood, queerness and breaking free of societal expectations. It is proud, political, angry, sincere and sensual all at the same time. The spirit of Prince is more than alive here, especially in ‘Make Me Feel’ and in the hedonistic ‘Screwed’ and ‘Crazy Classic Life’. ‘Pynk’ and ‘Django Jane’ are a celebration of female sexuality and liberation. It’s hard to think of a feminist body of work more significant, intelligent and truly aurally pleasurable than this in recent years.
And my 2000s pop podcast Right Back At Ya! – @rightbackpod