It’s time for Crack Magazine’s Annual Report, our chance to take stock of the year in music.
From glossy sounds to shapeshifting oddities and artists finding purpose in uncertain times, these are the albums that captured the mood of 2018.
Stay tuned for more 2018 roundups, coming soon.
Soul on Fire
It’s exciting to follow the shadowy movements of Dean Blunt, whose most intriguing work is often tossed out in temporary WeTransfer and MediaFire links and cherished by his fanbase like digital ephemera. In 2018 the Hackney musician uploaded (then quickly removed) the three track Bookey EP, released a joint LP with Delroy Edwards, scored production credits on ASAP Rocky’s album Testing and curated a compilation of unnamed bands and singers. Soul on Fire was the release for which Blunt stepped out to front of stage. With stripped-back guitar and string arrangements, there was a nakedness to the vocals of Blunt, Rocky, the mysterious newcomer Poison Anna and Tyson McVey – sister of Mabel and daughter of Neneh Cherry. Blunt’s disregard for commonsensical strategy suggests some kind of purity in his desire to create music. Maybe this is why he always cuts through the noise of endless press releases and sponsored Facebook posts.
Read our issue 71 cover story with Dean Blunt and Gaika here.
Mariah Carey fans certainly had reason for caution in the run-up to her fifteenth studio album. With DJ Mustard, Skrillex and Drake beatmaker Nineteen85 among the modern luminaries on production duties, all signs pointed towards a risky, rap-inflected 2018 overhaul of her sleek soul-pop. They needn’t have worried. Caution is an understated slow drift of R&B emotion and feminist defiance that smartly updates and expands, rather than reconstructs, Mariah’s signature sound. With You packs the same feather-soft flutter as Butterfly ballad Close My Eyes. Ty Dolla $ign drops in on The Distance for a sparkling cameo. Later, Dev Hynes collab Giving Me Life does exactly what its title promises. Mariah lose sight of her R&B roots? In the words of Caution’s opener: GTFO.
At this stage in her career, referring to the music of Jerrilynn Patton – aka Jlin – as “footwork” feels a little reductive. This follow-up to last year’s extraordinary Black Origami album is a soundtrack for a ballet choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Autobiography sees the producer conjuring harsh, metallic structures out of stutters and stammers of rhythm, an all-enveloping sonic world that sucks the listener deep into its jagged core. This LP is the sound of Patton exploring the limits of dance music, or, more accurately, danceable music. She flitters between vast experiments in just how far percussive propulsion can be pushed, and the sort of pseudo-ambience that often accompanies contemporary dance performances, with tracks like Anamnesis Part 2 and Second Interlude. With Autobiography, Jlin’s managed to make an artform as old as ballet sound like the future.
Read our issue 78 interview with Jlin and Holly Herndon here.
Your 25th year as a band is a brave, if not strange, time to choose to release perhaps the most challenging album of your career. But Minnesota trio Low have always been an unflinching and uncompromising band. From the moment it begins, Double Negative sounds like being inside a violent storm, holding up a mirror to the turbulence of the world right now. It’s an abrasive and overwhelming maelstrom of seething static, high-in-the-mix pounding drums and uneasy, dissonant textures. That’s to say: it veers further into the more experimental side of post-rock than Low have ever gone before. As you come out of the other end you find Disarray, a burbling, beautiful beat. A moment to take stock. The storm is still raging, but there’s a glimpse of light on the horizon.
Star Work / Columbia
Kenny Allstar’s debut album runs like one of his DJ sets. It’s a crafted tour through various genres – drill, trap, Afro-wave – that have taken shape and excelled at speed in London over the last year. Through a range of features from the year’s most original UK artists – Skengdo & AM, Suspect, Belly Squad, Afro B – the album starts at melodic ease with the album’s first single Tracksuit Love, featuring Headie One, and revs all the way up to showcase a mix of thumping drill selections. Bringing together such a high calibre blend of musicians who define our sonic times is an achievement only Kenny could achieve. His “voice of the streets” mantra and position as effective overseer of the blossoming London rap scene is now fully on show, and justified.
Irisiri is slippery. Irisiri is strange. A sonic universe where beauty is always a click away from the grotesque and concepts like gender, humanity and technology are as mutable as the churning, turbulent production. Whether juxtaposing classical harp with thumping techno, pushing vocal fry, croaks and gurgles high in the mix, or making melodies squirm under the weight of sonic detritus, you sense New York art eccentric Alexandra Drewchin is happiest when the angles are off and the boundaries are leaking. Thankfully, for a record spring-loaded with concept, Irisiri feels the opposite of academic – what other record in 2018 takes inspiration from cyber feminism, DIY electronics and Alan Menken? Irisiri is… well, it’s one of the bravest, weirdest records of 2018. For Drewchin, we doubt there’s a higher compliment.
Sometimes it’s good to get your face rubbed in the dirt, and Helena Hauff was happy to oblige on her second album, Qualm. The top-tier electro DJ’s affinity for battered-sounding hardware remained potent. Qualm kicks off with Barrow Boot Boys – a grizzly, blown-out drum track that runs the levels straight into the red, before Lifestyle Guru steps up the tempo and introduces raw, troubling layers of synth. Hyper-Intelligent Genetically Enriched Cyborg is a highlight – an acid-soaked stomper which quite suddenly morphs into a glorious Italo-style workout. There’s no point in pretending Qualm is for everyone. But maybe that’s the way club music should be.
Read our Issue 75 cover story with Helena Hauff here.
Wondaland Arts Society / Bad Boy Records / Atlantic
Janelle Monáe’s third full-length follows a life’s work interrogating gender and sexuality, prejudice and class, framed within carefully constructed science fiction worlds. It just so happened that in 2018 those themes are more relevant than ever. Dirty Computer is set in an American near-future where difference and individuality has been outlawed under a totalitarian government, and so visibility and empowerment are the key imperatives underpinning the album. I Got the Juice touches on the defiant feminist war cry of the day (“If you try to grab my pussy cat/ this pussy grab you back”). The jangling funk rock of Screwed flips shame on its head with the double-barrelled innuendo of how to really fuck things up (“You know power/ is just sex/ now ask yourself/ who’s screwing you”). An ecstatic protest album for an era that will keep people pondering its significance for generations to come.
After EPs for the likes of Hessle Audio and Timedance, Bristol’s Bruce delivered a sophisticated debut album. For its most rambunctious techno moment, What, a computer-crash voice stutters and cries, ramping up an intensity reminiscent of Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy, flying off the hinges into a tumbling K-hole of shock. McCarthy’s fascination with textural strangeness re-energises old ideas, creating both challenge and rapture. Sonder Somatic is an album alive beyond the grid, with a wild slither behind the kick drum and electricity crackling at the edges.
Gwyn Thomas de Chroustchoff
Brockhampton have been busy. Between a global tour and festival season, the boys also pushed out iridescence just nine months after 2017’s Saturation III. The hard hits and shocks of tenderness come through on the rap group’s fourth studio album, along with laid-back grooves like on the balladesque Something About Him. There’s the soulful heartbreaker Tonya as well, which they took to Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show with Jazmine Sullivan and serpentwithfeet for an intensely emotional live performance. The boys take flight on their moshpit anthems, and songs like New Orleans and Where the Cash at throb like a strobe light as the best boyband since One Direction throw around bars like they’ve been doing it for decades.
View our Issue 93 shoot with Brockhampton here.
The Wolf of Grape Street
Following a prolific run of mixtapes between 2016-17, with The Wolf of Grape Street 03 Greedo reached more ears than ever before, giving new fans that thrill they felt when hearing unique vocalists like Young Thug or Future for the first time. The West Coast artist’s gargled melodies and frog-throated raps didn’t exactly guarantee commercial crossover, but there were many moments of melodic and lyrical brilliance to be discovered on The Wolf of Grape Street. 03 Greedo has described his music as “emo music for gang bangers”, and here he pours his heart out over raw hyphy beats, gothic trap and greasy G-funk that’s followed by psychedelic trails. While …Grape Street established 03 Greedo’s reputation as an underground legend, he remained entangled in legal troubles, and around two months after the project’s release he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Colombian-American artist Kali Uchis has spent the last half of the decade making a name for herself on the West Coast soul circuit. But it was the arrival of Isolation, her long-awaited debut album, that cemented her as an unstoppable force in pop. Gliding through reggaeton, funk and R&B, Isolation is an album steeped in self-reflection. Uchis contemplates past relationships, past mistakes and her complicated relationship with her family. But ultimately, she ends on a note of don’t-fuck-with-me defiance on closing track Killer. Sometimes you just need a soundtrack to stuffing the fuckboi who wronged you in the boot of your Cadillac – this album is it.
Rachel Grace Almeida
Read our Issue 87 cover story with Kali Uchis here.
You couldn’t help but pause to digest the title of Dev Hynes’ Negro Swan – a stark comment on the complexity of expressing natural beauty in a world where your very status as a human being can, at times, seem more precarious than it ever ought to. Negro Swan is, above all else, unapologetically black, and its magic lies in finding the celebration amidst the struggle. There’s something quasi-spiritual about the way Hynes delivers his lines: on Hope, featuring Puff Daddy, his voice echoes towards the heavens. Moreover, few other artists could put Puff and transgender writer and activist Janet Mock on the same record, the latter musing on the communities that minorities build out of social necessity, “the spaces where you don’t have to shrink yourself.” It’s clear that this is the kind of world Hynes is striving to create: one where the negro swan isn’t only desired, but allowed to soar.
Read our Issue 66 cover story with Blood Orange here.
Oneohtrix Point Never
As Oneohtrix Point Never, Daniel Lopatin is something of a ghost in the machine, bridging and simultaneously destroying the gap between ideas of humanity and technology. With Age of, 0PN took things up a notch. With its pitch bends and shimmering synths, Toys 2 evokes the curiously unnamed sensation of learning to sincerely feel for arcade game characters in story mode, while myriad.industries combines the blissfully uneasy feeling of exploring new terrain with the frenetic energy of half-expected violence. These 13 tracks stand as testament that melancholy – above all – is not an exclusively human experience.
Read our Issue 91 essay, Age of Excess, by Oneohtrix Point Never.
Robyn’s voice has been marked by a childlike enunciation that clips words short but elongates each phrase. On Honey, the songs burn slower, longer, and with a murkier tension than the belt-along breakup anthems we’ve been nursing our wounds to over the past eight years since her last album. The result is an album that gestures more than it strikes: Robyn eschews the pop-canon gut punches for more subtle confessions with a lived-in delivery. “You’re not going to get you need,” she issues on the title track as less of a warning than a confirmation. She plays a temptress in the song, calling for the love and affection of a partner who knows she’s not the one, that she’s not what they need. She then extends an offer: “But baby, I have what you want – come get your honey”.
You Won't Get What You Want
In 2010, Rhode Island noisemakers Daughters officially broke up, citing internal conflict. You Won’t Get What You Want is a bold statement to make for a band that has been gone for nearly a decade. Known for their explosive, menacing sound, Daughters are now opting for the slow-burn. The quartet’s musical style has always been ambiguous (they’ve been labelled grindcore, art metal, even “Elvis Presley being tortured”) but on You Won’t… experimentalism takes centre stage. Distortion-heavy opener City Song is a breathless remark on the bleakness of modern life. Less Sex is the best post-punk song Nick Cave never wrote. Guest House closes the album on a dark, ambient note, reminiscent of this year’s Yves Tumor output. Daughters may not have given us what we wanted, but they gave us what was right.
Rachel Grace Almeida
In a Poem Unlimited
There’s a precedent for artists using dancefloor-friendly forms as sugar coating for progressive ideas. But if pop had previously offered slow-release subversion for the mainstream bloodstream, In a Poem Unlimited was a cyanide capsule wedged between the teeth of patriarchy. Here, U.S. Girls’ Meg Remy ditched the lo-fi production of her first five LPs, opting instead to filter a millennia of female rage through disco grooves and euphoric chord progressions. Across the album’s suite of psychodramas and revenge fantasies, it doesn’t matter if it’s Saint Peter or Barack Obama, all men (yes, all) are presented as part of the same rotten, oppressive system. “As if you couldn’t tell, I’m mad as hell,” Remy sings on the album’s centrepiece M.A.H., a track which sounds like Blondie channelling Valerie Solanas. In 2018, that sentiment was easy to get behind.
Key! and Kenny Beats
Hello! / D.O.T.S
Three years can feel like an eternity in hip-hop. These days it’s ample time for a rise and fall and, time permitting, another rise. Back in 2015, Key! was already a seasoned spitter by way of the group Two-9, though he opened solo for iLoveMakonnen and, notably, brought out then-unknown Post Malone to perform a simmering SoundCloud single that would soon take the world by storm. The Atlanta rapper’s tertiary role on Father’s viral breakthrough Look at Wrist that same year had made him one to watch. Teaming up with Kenny Beats – 2018’s breakthrough rap producer, who is formerly known to arena EDM devotees as half of Loudpvck – Key! demonstrates just how much he’s learned since that first taste of underground fame. Versatile and bursting with energy, 777 showcases the vocalist’s knack for silken-throated hooks and rapid-fire rhymes alike, sometimes on the very same track.
That 19-year-old singer-songwriter Lindsey Jordan has grown up in these apathetic times and created such tender songs is nearly as remarkable as the talent she’s accrued at her young age. On her debut album as Snail Mail, Jordan pines for a series of former lovers throughout the album, and it’s refreshing to hear the emotions which we usually thrash out in our own heads being clearly communicated with no shame. On Full Control, she asserts the importance of keeping a sense of herself, even when she’s utterly smitten: “I’m not lost, even when it’s love” she repeats, determinedly. In a world of ghosting, situationships and an innate fear of ‘catching feelings’, Snail Mail’s Lush is the sound of Lindsey Jordan reminding us authentic emotional connections really are out there – even if you have to wade through some terrible shit along the way.
The original async was both a resurrection and a swan song: Ryuichi Sakamoto’s 16th solo album, recorded after he underwent radiology treatment for throat cancer, turned out to be one of the best of the synth innovator’s five-decade career. Remodels employs a motley bunch of producers to put their own stamps on async, but the results are surprisingly cohesive for a remix project, paying tribute to the Japanese composer’s relentless experimentation. Sakamoto’s old mucker Alva Noto reimagines disintegration as a frozen tundra, while the late Jóhann Jóhannsson brings a windswept desolation to Solari. A flicker of warmth comes from the younger acolytes, with Yves Tumor bringing the bass while Arca’s operatic unspooling of async is a fitting tribute to a fearless innovator. If async turns out to be Sakamoto’s last album, the Remodels are a deep bow of gratitude.
Heaven and Earth
In essence, Kamasi Washington’s music is part of the soul jazz continuum, absorbing elements of spiritual jazz, Latin, fusion and R&B. It might not be formally radical, but the tunes are irresistible, and Washington and his band The Next Step have a winning charisma. Disc one of this stunning record, Earth, opens with a bold new arrangement of the theme from the Bruce Lee classic Fists of Fury, with Dwight Trible testifying like a Pentecostal preacher – in the context of Trumpian white supremacy, these lines become a forceful expression of Black Power. While Earth consolidates the group sound, Heaven sets its ambitions higher, with gospel undercurrents coming to the fore on the final tracks. It might sound patronising to talk of Kamasi Washington’s generosity of spirit, but his music gives great pleasure and emotional uplift. No wonder it has resonated so widely.
Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs
King of Cowards
The second album from Geordie five-piece Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs (that’s seven pigs), took their exhilarating live shows and made them flesh. In the main it works: songs sound like molten tar oozing out of the speakers, capturing the lightning of their white knuckle delivery in the proverbial grimy bottle. Singer Matt Baty takes on all seven deadly sins as he howls through GNT which revels in its Black Sabbath rattle, while A66 pulverises with raucous, hedonistic venom. While it doesn’t always hit as hard as those incendiary live shows, swaggering closing track Gloamer is where their manifesto is set, the track tumbling into the abyss for four minutes as demented guitar relentlessly hammers your head until it falls apart.
Read our interview with Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs from Issue 85 here.
Following a summer in which her formidable DJing won her new fans the world over, Deena Abdelwahed delivered her debut album amidst a mixture of anticipation and surprise. The potency of her artistic flair left first-time listeners scrabbling for clues as to where this new talent came from (France via Tunisia, as it happens). Khonnar drips with intrigue and vitality, swerving from bludgeoning low-end pulses to dubstep mysticism and deconstructed electronica. The mixture is intoxicating – not only is the music incredibly fresh and forward-facing, but it also seems to transcend temporal and geographical boundaries. For all the stylistic trysts, it’s Abdelwahed’s personality that comes through as the fundamental ingredient.
Teyana Taylor’s come a long way since choreographing the music video for Beyoncé’s Ring the Alarm and starring front and centre in an episode of My Super Sweet Sixteen. For her sophomore album K.T.S.E., Taylor pulled out all the stops. Nimble, soulful, and always right on the money, she floats effortlessly between the smooth, sultry torch songs like Issues/Hold on that burn like Brandy on vinyl in a coffee shop to ballroom-ready bops – vogue-friendly, Mykki Blanco-assisted WTP (Work This Pussy) ends the album with the same sweaty energy that stole the show when she danced in Kanye’s Fade video. Teyana’s voice is limber and powerful in its own right, though, and it’s clear that on K.T.S.E., the young star is just warming up.
Few musicians over the past hundred years have engaged with the balletic poise of Japanese courtside music gagaku: the instruments largely date back to the sixth century, for one, and it’s not exactly the most common influence to happen upon in any case. Those that have, such as La Monte Young and Toru Takemitsu, have situated the lilting pentatonic scales within barely-there scores. On Konoyo, Tim Hecker uses the dormant style to bring light to choking darkness. Swaddled in thick droning passages, sharp flutes and ringing gongs ebb in and out of focus, bringing newfound clarity to a style the Canadian musician has made his own. Nine albums in, Hecker remains a restless presence in experimental music.
Lost & Found
Navigating life is hard at the best of times. Jorja Smith has been doing this publicly, through music, since she was a teenager. Now 21 years old, the Walsall-born singer and songwriter has learned a few life lessons. Smith’s highly-anticipated debut album Lost & Found had been a long time in the making – about five years – but her growth as an artist feels immeasurable. Here, she ponders her own place in the world, reflecting on the pressures of formative adolescent relationships (Teenage Fantasy) to the effects of austerity and the left-behind (Lifeboats (Freestyle)). All to the backdrop of jazz-inflected arrangements and sweeping soul melodies, Smith tries to make sense of it all with grace and candour. The world could use more of that.
Rachel Grace Almeida
Read our Issue 89 cover story with Jorja Smith here.
The Finnish-born duo’s debut LP starts with a terrible wailing: a thickly Auto-Tuned shriek of such unnatural quality, that its underlying humanity is betrayed only by a sharp, sudden intake of breath. Big-room synths land like heavy rain, and what first seemed like a voice crying out in pain becomes something more like ecstasy. The pair have explored this manic juxtaposition before. “Then I was on the verge of tears/ Then I laughed a lot“, said 2014’s AS ANGELS RIG HOOK – and Another Life’s toxic nightmare-pop dives deeper, bringing into sharp focus the havoc that technology, and its impossible complexity, is wreaking on our emotions.
As part of his previous band Yussef Kamaal, Kamaal Williams created lush 70s jazz-funk, part Lonnie Liston Smith, part Grover Washington Jr, subtly indebted to the broken beat and UK house he’d also made under the name Henry Wu. The Return was in the same ballpark as Williams’ Yussef Kamaal material. Broken Theme shows off his molten synth jazz chords amid incredibly fluid, funky drumming and bass thrums. High Roller is irresistibly sinuous and spry funk, with bass that curls around a rock solid beat and uplifting strings that provide a backdrop to neon synth squiggles. Catch the Loop has a more modern sound, full of stop-start, broken beat drums and synth hits, while Rhythm Commission is the kind of glorious 80s boogie that Roy Ayers himself wouldn’t baulk at. For contemporary jazz and funk lovers, this one’s a gem.
Piano and a Microphone 1983
Even for someone whose genius was pretty much unparalleled during this lifetime, there’s still so much we don’t know about Prince’s legacy. It’s always been pretty much accepted as fact that for every cherished Prince record we know and love, equally brilliant music resides somewhere in the Paisley Park archives, never to see the light of day. As such, you almost feel guilty listening to Piano & a Microphone 1983, the first posthumous release by Prince, an incredible one-take session of old classics and never-before-heard compositions. Under his expert fingertips, Purple Rain becomes a spirited sketch, and Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You takes on a whole new, jazz-flecked form. Only someone of Prince’s calibre could make such simple arrangements sound so grand, and if Piano is any indication, he will continue setting new standards in rock and soul music for decades to come.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
There are two lines within a bridge on the jaunty album opener here that succinctly summarise Arctic Monkeys’ fork in the road after the insane success of AM: scamper off with the “easy money”, or let Alex Turner ride an “elevator down to my make-believe residency”? We should be thankful they opted to take that left-turn into a surrealist space lounge. Arena-sized authenticity is a fleeting thing – just look at how desperately hard Jack White tries. With this new album’s material at their disposal, the Monkeys have never been better live; old favourites sound brilliant retrofitted to this lounge style, and the beguiling, Bowie-aping affectations of the new material comes alive. Yes, Tranquility Base is inconsistent, and yes, it’s fucking ludicrous. But isn’t that rock ‘n’ roll?
Where fast techno and trance both fell off in the early 00s was their reliance on tropes that had gone stale. Grandiose breakdowns, thundering tempos and ham-fisted emotion were used as a mask for personality. The 10 vibrant tracks gathered up by Denmark-raised DJ/producer Courtesy on her new label Kulør zip right around those pitfalls. For my money, it’s the pair of Sugar and IBON tracks that romp home the winners, but it’s all killer stuff. Merging techno’s rush with trance’s uplift, and – crucially – allowing memorable melodic leads to the front, Kulør 001 makes for an electrifying primer into a brave, blistering, 145bpm world.
Read our Issue 93 interview with Courtesy here.
G.O.O.D. Music pumped out a lot of quality music this year, but it wasn’t always easy to engage with it. While Kanye West’s MAGA-hat antics – which continue to complicate the ethics of enjoying his art – could have distracted from his label’s music, Pusha T’s Daytona was so powerful it cut through the furore. Across 21 minutes, Pusha’s lucid flow lands effortlessly on some of the finest production of Kanye’s career. From the ornate euphoric highs of If You Know You Know right through to the dusty minimalism of Come Back Baby – it’s the sound of two longtime collaborators rediscovering a certain electricity. Some of the other Wyoming albums (namely Kanye’s ye and Nas’ Nasir) felt somehow unfocused. But Daytona plays like it was constructed under quarantine, a near-clinical demonstration of the key to Pusha’s staying power – an unflinching focus on the final product.
This era of jazz belongs to London – or at least it feels that way when you listen to Displaced Diaspora, a project led by Moses Boyd and recorded in 2015. A key player in the south London jazz circuit, Boyd is known for incorporating elements of hip-hop, grime, Afrobeats and dub into his distinct sound. As the name suggests, Displaced Diaspora was a product of a displaced generation of namely Caribbean and African descent. But while traditions are honoured, Displaced Diaspora feels remarkably fresh. Jazz is often said to be a genre of the past, but Boyd’s vision of displacement is rooted in a matter-of-fact attitude that celebrates the present while setting a new agenda for the movement.
It feels uniquely tragic to be writing about Mac Miller’s “legacy” – Swimming, the American rapper’s fifth solo album and his most realised and heart-wrenching record to date, was never meant to be his parting opus. The hip-hop world spun off its axis earlier this year when Miller died of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 26, and the honesty, maturity, and self-reflection of the album he left in his wake show an artist wise beyond his years. “Hell yeah, we’re gonna be alright” raps Miller on the lead single Self Care, his voice buoyed by soft synths and a skittering trap beat, sounding so assured that, despite it all, you still believe him. Through its emotional peaks and valleys, Swimming is undeniable proof that Miller had so much more music to make.
Christine and the Queens
In the public output of the artist-still-kinda-known as Christine and the Queens, one emoji kept cropping up: three drops of water, mid-arc. It’s fitting imagery for Chris. Sweat so noticeable as to be impeccably framed, so blue as to be pure. Chris is a hot, sultry album, one to put on when you’ve already been dancing through a long afternoon and need a second wind. It’s an album for endurance, no dips or dives, just a steady and beating pulse of synths and sex. The record swoops and soars. Subterranean gloom builds into something cascading and enveloping on What’s-her-face; a bassline warps and shimmers on infectious “crisis single” Doesn’t Matter. This is an album that navigates the ambiguous waters of sexuality and identity, relationships and selfhood, with a steady, sure hand.
Read our Issue 93 cover story with Christine and the Queens here.
Part of what makes Shinichi Atobe such an exciting artist is the unpredictability. Heat quite literally dropped unannounced through Demdike Stare’s letterbox: a fully formed package from half the world away, ready to go. That’s perhaps the level of nonconformity you’d expect from a hitherto-untraceable Chain Reaction producer. The more significant, if somewhat overlooked, element is the breadth of the Japanese producer’s craftsmanship. It can be easy to let your mind drift to assuming his output is all deep and dubby hypnotism. But then, doesn’t Bonus sound like the final boss theme from a SNES side-scroller? And can’t you picture So Good So Right being a punchy 3am monster in the hands of Zip or Z@P? Heat is Atobe’s most diverse set yet. We can only hope there’s another FedEx shipment due soon.
Chicago artist DJ Taye admits to a burden of responsibility in keeping the spirit of departed footwork hero DJ Rashad moving. This resulted in Still Trippin’, one of the more varied albums in the field for a minute: Taye goes for broke with upfront drum assault here, but brushes them with a feather touch there. Vocal cuts featuring Chicago rapper Chuck Inglish and Jersey club Queen Uniiqu3 sit alongside tracks where the main thing singing are the sour synths. There’s a surprisingly strong chiptune influence coursing through the album, as on the Pac-Man mania of The Matrix, or Trippin’ – a chalk-and-cheese combination of 16-bit trills and Taye’s pitch-shifted raps, which probably shouldn’t come off as well as it does. At its best, footwork breaks free from the genre’s strictures, and it soars. Still Trippin’ is footwork at its best.
Hive Mind is a smooth, clever consolidation of what The Internet were already doing well, and what they’re now doing better than ever. The Internet’s sound is now confident and polished, proving they’re a band of accomplished solo artists that work even better together. There are standout tracks, like Come Over, with its crunchy electric guitar and dirty promises, but the real strength of Hive Mind is the way the album, and the band, blends together. A brilliant record which kept us dancing throughout the summer.
When Iceage blew up at the turn of the decade, no one predicted longevity from Copenhagen’s teenage punk sensation. But Beyondless was their best work since their 2011 debut. Brass sections boost Pain Killer, which sees Elias Rønnenfelt joined by Sky Ferreira for a lovestruck duet, as well as the hook of the densely distorted stomper The Day the Music Dies. The finest moment is the closing title track – a euphoric blast during which Rønnenfelt envisions himself as a vagrant wandering the city, a ricocheting bullet and being lost at sea. Beyondless honours the lineage of the great musicians that came before Iceage, but this music is too alive and too lustful to be sterilised by the praise of rockist bores. It’s the sound of a band who’ve been bound together by music since they were kids, and they’ve not lost an ounce of passion along the way.
Invasion of Privacy
If 2017 was the year that Cardi B went from reality star to everyone’s favorite new rapper with Bodak Yellow, 2018 saw her transition from budding household name to unstoppable pop culture phenomenon. Her meteoric rise has been so aggressively ubiquitous that only truly inspiring music could transcend her celebrity. Luckily, her debut album, Invasion of Privacy, did just that. Through its 13 tracks, Cardi never stumbles. Not only are her rhymes as tight and searing as ever, but her ability to juggle love songs, trap anthems and hood wisdom proves that she is so much more than the flavour of the week. Invasion of Privacy is an excellent rap album, one that justified Cardi’s position on 2018’s hip-hop throne and should stand the test of time.
Breaks were the biggest trend in dance productions this year, bar none – and Compro was the best execution of them, bar none. What set Skee Mask apart was his mastery of sound design and restraint. Rev8617 harks back to the wooly abstraction of The Books. Soundboy Ext. and Kozmic Flush could have been rote rinse-outs, but instead the rhythmic complexity takes a backseat to uncanny Autechrian textures. Calimance (Delay Mix) is sweetest of all, a soothing balm to close out. By turns dreamy, direct and dazzling, but never less than extremely fucking well made, Skee Mask stood a mile out from a crowded pack.
The beauty of beat tapes is in their self-restraint, with brief loops abandoned abruptly in favour of the next. Even compared to the short-tempered bursts of SoundCloud brats, Tierra Whack’s strict asceticism feels daring. Each of Whack World’s 15 stunners clock in at precisely one minute apiece, leaving listeners bewildered and yearning for more as if they were Dilla mini donuts. She dazzles amid the minimalism, from the salivating comforts of 4 Wings to the flossy n’ bossy Hungry Hippo, her voice supremely centered over sparse keys on Black Nails and devastating on the clattering trap soul of Dr. Seuss. With Whack World, Whack presents herself as a savvy, genre-warping artist playing on our Instagram attention spans to create a postmodern marvel.
Nines’ sudden return to the frontline of British rap music back in April sent shockwaves across the internet. The release of his celebratory anthem I See You Shining, produced by curators-of-the-moment Zeph Ellis and Steel Banglez, and a short film Nines directed himself, was followed days later by this sophomore album. After his year facing hostility from an authoritarian and risk-averse music industry, Crop Circle was warmly received, and it reached No. 5 in the UK albums chart. Easily Nines’ most mature, eclectic and accessible body of work to date, the album will undoubtedly form a blueprint for how to garner new listeners while staying loyal to an authentic, rounded sound. Cheeky similes, raw road raps, car stereo-friendly production and energetic features from Ray BLK to rising driller SL tailored this album to be a summer rap classic. Bring on more from the king of Harlesden in 2019.
Read our Issue 90 cover story with Nines here.
Be the Cowboy
The first words to appear on Mitski’s fifth studio album Be the Cowboy are “You’re my number one/ You’re the one I want”. Sung to the backdrop of a polyphonic organ interrupted by static shocks, her voice stands alone and tall until a sweep of galloping guitars release the tension. With that, her message was clear: Mitski may be vulnerable but she’s not defenseless. The Japanese-American singer and songwriter is often emotionally unguarded in her music – you only have to look as far as the self-critical A Pearl – but this approach feels completely crystallised on Be the Cowboy. Through lopsided pop songs pulsating with desire and conflict, Be the Cowboy feels vast. Yet it somehow evokes a certain privacy. Mitski, despite shouting about the tribulations of self love and loneliness with her whole chest, has the comfort of her own voice. Luckily, so do we.
Rachel Grace Almeida
AWGE / Interscope
High off the hype around last year’s hit Magnolia, Playboi Carti hopped back in the studio with Pi’erre Bourne for Die Lit. Delving deeper into their world of neon-coloured nihilism, Bourne enhanced a sound that’s so fresh you could whisper avant-garde. For Carti lyrics were largely an afterthought, instead he sharpened his syllables to the extent that his voice often acted like a percussive instrument, instigating moshpits and depicting a whirlwind lifestyle of quick money, misused pharmaceuticals, designer clothes and emotionless sex with the fleeting speed of an Instagram story. From Eric B and Rakim, to Noah “40” Shebib and Drake, and Metro Boomin and Future – many of the records in the rap canon were brewed by the magic chemistry of a producer-vocalist duo. Die Lit argues that Carti and Bourne belong there too.
Joy as an Act of Resistance
Any future generations seeking to understand life in Britain under the looming mushroom cloud that is Brexit should turn to IDLES’ second album. Building on the searing brilliance of their 2017 breakthrough, Brutalism, Joy as an Act of Resistance found the Bristol band entirely fuelled by righteous fury, twisting the knife into toxic masculinity, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the demonisation of the working class, with a combination of bone-dry wit and scorched, post-hardcore punk aggression. By turns laugh out loud funny (Never Fight a Man with a Perm), celebratory (Danny Nedelko), and unspeakably sad (June), IDLES’ second album offers a much-needed opportunity for catharsis in an increasingly absurd world.
Yves Tumor is a chameleon. Tumor’s third full-length record, Safe in the Hands of Love, feels alien, like a transmission from a distant galaxy, an extraterrestrial paen patchworked together from intercepted radio waves emanating from planet Earth. Its genre-hopping is stupefying, though never expected: the waking nightmare of Aphex Twin, the pop sensibility of Björk, the Afrofuturism of Shabazz Palaces, the lovelorn paranoia of Massive Attack. And through it all, Tumor’s chanting, growling, acerbic voice cuts to the quick, weaving tales of urban spirituality across crunchy breakbeats and wailing, demonic guitars. More than merely experimental, Safe is existential in its desire to deconstruct, destroy, and rebuild what left-of-center pop can be.
Read our Issue 72 interview with Yves Tumor here.
Sons of Kemet
Your Queen is a Reptile
If there’s one band that captures the ethos and possibilities of the UK’s (new) jazz community, it’s Sons of Kemet. They’ve harnessed the idiom of jazz, but made it punk. A continuation of Shabaka Hutchings’ call for new myths and longer memories, Your Queen is a Reptile asks us to use our imaginations to envision alternatives to the present, and to resist that value systems we live within, be that the idea of the monarchy, the logic of whiteness or institutional racism. To prove it’s possible, each track is named after phenomenal black women throughout history who have done just that. Drawing musically from soca, Nyahbinghi drumming, highlife, electronica and more, each track is testament to the dexterity of each musician in the band. The album is a triumph for British jazz. And it must be said one more time: fuck the Mercury’s.
With the foundations for Tirzah Mastin’s debut album laid as early as 2002, Devotion could refer to the South London singer’s perfectionist approach as much as it does the record’s themes. Yet remarkably, these pared-back productions feel utterly effortless. Written in collaboration with Mica Levi, minimal percussion mingles with skeletal synths, spidery piano arpeggios or looped guitar, while Mastin’s melismatic coo imbues the entire set with a tender warmth. Subject matter is similarly understated, ruminating on the rewards of self-sacrifice, the quiet joys of sustained intimacy, and the challenges that come with vulnerability, in a manner that feels both relatable and true. A startlingly beautiful record.
Read our interview with Tirzah from Issue 90 here.
OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES
2018 was the year of the winkingly artificial. A deep dive into uncanny valley, we saw CGI Instagram influencer Lil Miquela reveal herself as virtual in a postmodern PR stunt. The first AI-generated art to be sold at an auction house was ‘signed’ in the bottom right corner with the algorithm used to produce it. Sophia the robot continued to creep us all out as the first android to become a legal citizen, who looks very close to, but not exactly like, a human. And it was a real headfuck.
It’s difficult to think of a musician who reflects this mood more than SOPHIE, who harnesses the powers of the uncanny for good. Her music is disorienting, futuristic, a little surreal, and ultimately indicative of a paradigm shift. After breaking through in 2013 with the arrival of Bipp on Glaswegian label Numbers, early releases toyed with dualisms: ideas of human and machine, organic and plastic. Synthetic sounds mimic the squeak and snap of latex, the whip of a ponytail, the euphoric rush of a fizzy drink.
SOPHIE’s world is playfully artificial, and the enigmatic producer has always existed in a slippery realm between reality and fantasy. While her music enhanced the visceral thrills of the physical world, SOPHIE used to be somewhat intangible. A faceless producer with little biographical information and visuals depicting suspended plastics. Early on, this raised questions about her gender identity, while some listeners took aim at the level of sincerity in her work – were SOPHIE and her PC Music affiliates really serious? This wasn’t real music? Who was the butt of the joke?
But SOPHIE’s future shock was unflinching. In the electronic underground she came up through, her ecstatic sound was unapologetically poppy. In the pop world, she was strikingly avant-garde, going on to lend her bombastic sound design to Madonna and McDonalds. SOPHIE’s sonic universe began to expand, and it has become clear that her project transcends the limits of a postmodern prank. Slowly, we are all catching up to her vision.
So it’s fitting this was the year SOPHIE became an avant-pop cult leader. In October 2017, she became properly visible for the first time in the self-directed video for It’s Okay to Cry, a tender ballad about self-acceptance. In June 2018, her vision was crystalised with the release of her debut album OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES. Across the album, SOPHIE plays with concepts of real and fake, organic and synthetic, then pummels them until they are mush. As Chal Ravens put it in our May cover story with SOPHIE: “In SOPHIE’s cyborg universe, fake is no longer a category.”
On the album’s cover, SOPHIE is a part-plasticine goddess marooned in some alternative universe. And OIL OF… does exist in its own dimension. It smuggles avant-garde sound design into pop sensibility and vice versa, often in extremes. It ricochets between heavenly fantasy worlds (It’s Okay to Cry) and dungeon-dwelling kink anthems (Ponyboy). Storming closer Whole New World: Pretend World even sneaks an Aladdin reference into its pitch-black industrial clangs. At points it’s so full of physicality that it feels like a living, breathing thing, but it’s punctuated by icy soundscapes which take a deep stare into the void (Is it Cold in the Water, Pretending), plunging us into a soft oblivion.
These moments of disembodied fantasy come into focus on the album’s thematic core, Immaterial, a rallying cry against corporeal limitations. The chorus (“Immaterial girls, immaterial boys”) promotes the joy of being divorced entirely from any physical form of self. It’s extraordinary high concept pop, and the message is that you can be anything you want. Indeed, the fluidity of identity is one of the main themes of OIL OF… And in a year characterised by tension surrounding gender identities in particular, SOPHIE cast a decadent light.
OIL OF… feels like nothing that came before, seeing SOPHIE embraced by the mainstream, the electronic vanguard, and a young, queer fanbase alike. It’s a manifesto on defying boundaries and creating your own reality, your “whole new world”. And there wasn’t another world as radiant as hers in 2018.
Read our Issue 88 cover story with SOPHIE here.