Hey there, folks,
Thanks for inviting me back. Being with all of you, if only virtually, is always a happy place to be.
One of the albums I can’t stop listening to this year is Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album. Recorded in 1963 by sublime saxophonist John Coltrane during his “classic quartet” period, the original master tapes were lost or destroyed by the Impulse! label. This year, the 55-year-old project was unearthed from his family’s surviving reference copy. Both Directions at Once occasionally veers into the superlative—it provides a glimpse into the tension between rehearsal process and commercial artifact that informed Coltrane’s music in the aftermath of his 1961 juggernaut My Favorite Things—but it’s hardly the jazz musician’s most transcendent work. Still, the project’s imperfection, its furious attempt to settle on a coherent musical identity, is precisely the source of my admiration. A dispatch sent from the distant past, it forces you to consider the context of its 1963 making, and to re-evaluate/rehear his genius from a uniquely 2018 perspective. That gift of re-evaluating the past connects to late writer Amiri Baraka’s concept of “digging,” the groovy act of excavating history to produce a better present and future.
The provocative title Both Directions at Once comes by way of Wayne Shorter, who says Coltrane used it to describe his unique approach to improvising and harmonic development: “starting a sentence in the middle, and then going to the beginning and the end of it at the same time … both directions at once.” The idea of going both ways at once, kinky as it sounds, suggests a divergent movement that seems impossible—being pulled apart, caught in a clash of opposing forces. Moving in both directions at once also perfectly captures the exhilarating malaise of living in 2018, what it feels like to be torn asunder by our cultural war between progress and regress, advance and (what Ann astutely refers to as) retreat.
There’s no shortage of examples of how contemporary living has become a bad time, as we bear witness to a depressing erosion of humanistic values. The pressure to make lemonade from lemons—once so thrilling when Beyoncé mythologized it in 2016—now feels like the exhausting uphill struggle it always was. Singer-songwriter Leon Bridges manages to capture the era’s melancholic weariness in the haunting minor chord progression that underwrites his single “Bad Bad News.” He croons: “I’m tired being in the back/ I’m just tryna move up front/ A lil more of this, a lil less of that, yeah/ They tell me I was born to lose/ But I made a good good thing out of bad bad news.”
As we all struggle to make good things out of mounting bad news, it’s easy to forget that we’re often moving forward even as we retreat back. One of the most popular audio memes of the year—a robotic computer voice saying a word that sounds either like Yanny or Laurel depending on how your ears pick up the signal—was a welcome reminder that all things, including sound, can be interpreted in divergent ways. Acknowledging that a sound can come out of a speaker in two directions at once and that no single interpretation ever has to rule precludes the need to meet in an imaginary bipartisan/consensus middle. From this perspective, Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey’s chart-topper “The Middle” and Bebe Rexha’s “Meant to Be” (featuring Florida Georgia Line) might have been little more than conservative wish-fulfillment fantasies masquerading as the pop anthems of our contentious times.
The idea of moving in both directions at once is also a commentary on time itself. The album title made me think about the West African concept of “sankofa,” which translates roughly as “go back and fetch it.” The powerful Akan visual symbol of sankofa is a bird with its head turned backward and its feet facing forward, moving in two directions at once, and carrying an egg, representing fertility, in its mouth.
The power of pop music in 2018 is its insistence on going backward to go forward, on excavating the past to fetch and reclaim values we’ve forgotten (and, when necessary, to surrender our sentimental attachments to historical figures who no longer serve us). I’m not just talking about this year’s fascination with ironic revisionism, from the predictable obsession with Toto’s ho-hum 1982 single “Africa” to Mariah Carey stans launching a campaign to catapult her leaden 2001 soundtrack Glitter to top of the iTunes albums chart. I’m more interested in releases that force us to rethink what we already think we know of the pop music past. Atop my list is Prince’s previously unreleased cassette demos compilation Piano and a Microphone 1983, a plucked-from-the-vaults project that features the Purple One rehearsing original songs and covers on the piano. Recorded in single takes, and speckled by minor errors, audible sniffles, and plenty of blue notes, Piano and a Microphone 1983 offers rare fly-on-the-wall insight that lets us rehear Prince’s eccentric voicings, revisit his profound instrumental chops, and reaffirm his singular approach to musical creativity.
Carl already mentioned Meshell Ndegeocello’s Ventriloquism, a staggeringly brilliant reconstruction/revisiting of classic 1980s and 1990s Gen X tunes like TLC’s “Waterfalls”—the album’s deeply considered activism is signaled by its urgent ACT UP pink-triangle cover. Looking back to look forward also informed Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Ricky Saiz–directed “Apeshit” video event in which the couple storms the Louvre and remixes the art world past to comment on the pluralistic future. It informed Amazing Grace, the “lost” Aretha Franklin documentary film of her historic 1972 gospel concert and album. It informed Cher giving us a revisionist vocal master class of ABBA tunes on her return to form, Dancing Queen. It informs how Angélique Kidjo made us rehear the Talking Heads’ 1980 Remain in Light. It’s Cécile McLorin Salvant allowing us to freshly re-evaluate dog-eared jazz and musical theater standards on the aptly named The Window. And it’s the very necessary debate we’re having over the questionable lyrics to the holiday standard “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and whether it needs to remain a standard at all. Perhaps old ways are dying, as Ann notes. But as Chris suggests, we’re moving in the opposite direction, too.
In a world awash with flagrant lies, a handful of prominent musical films also followed suit, serving up fraudulence by the baleful. As Chris and others have noted, Bohemian Rhapsody is a disturbing mangling of the historical record on Freddie Mercury, but that’s no different than the paint-by-numbers, reductive Tina Turner musical breaking box office records in London’s West End and moving to Broadway next year. Feel-good multiculti movie musical The Greatest Showman, which had one of this year’s top-selling soundtracks, is a scam movie that whitewashes and contorts the historical record about P.T. Barnum, who himself was one of history’s great scammers. Apparently, we still need to tell ourselves supremacist lies about the past in the effort reinforce the present status quo.
The best 2018 pop music, on the other hand, prioritizes truth-telling and embraces degrees of emotional complexity and sophistication that otherwise seem missing from so much of contemporary life. The sheer eccentricity and outré weirdness of artists like Tennessee producer-performer Yves Tumor, irreverent LSD-taking country artist Kacey Musgraves, and freaky Chi-Town soulstress Ravyn Lenae are saving us all from the pressure to return to monocultural, conservative values. I’m inspired by the profound and uncompromising individuality exemplified this year by artists like Saba, James Blake, Mitski, Sophie, Young Fathers, Kadhja Bonet, Lotic, and Childish Gambino. It’s hardly surprising that the 2018 film that most effectively captures and critiques the tumultuous rent of contemporary living (even if it crashes and burns on gender politics) is the ultra-freaked-out Sorry to Bother You, sprung from the mind of the Coup frontman Boots Riley, a musician long known for his sharp socio-political critique. Even Eminem and Axl Rose—neither has ever had a reputation for being a progressive leader committed to social responsibility—came out swinging this year, speaking truth to the immoral Trump administration’s unending abuses of power.
Pop music’s uncontainable hybridity and pluralism remains its greatest asset. Janelle Monáe came dancing out of the closet and brought forth Dirty Computer, a Prince-inspired playground of rich musical ideas that rendered ethnic absolutism and monocultural retromania irrelevant. Trini-Dominican Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy similarly exceeded almost every artistic and cultural expectation. I’m floored this year by the work of women like Lizzo, Robyn, Poliça, Ella Mai, Peggy Gou, Nicki Minaj, Cupcakke, Joan as Police Woman, Chloe x Halle, Dizzy Fae, and Noname. And as Carl notes, veteran artists like Tracey Thorn, Toni Braxton, Laurie Anderson, Alice Bag, and Jean Grae showed up ready, too. Kudos to LGBTQ artists like Troye Sivan, MNEK, Years and Years, Christine and the Queens, and Serpentwithfeet, though I want to give a special shoutout to trans singer Shea Diamond whose EP American Dream is a remarkable and stinging rebuke of Trump-era exclusionary politics. Besides international artists like Rosalía and Jeremy Dutcher, who’ve already been mentioned, I’m also inspired by this year’s releases from Nigerian pop artist Jacob Banks, Swedish stalwart Neneh Cherry, Haitian-Canadian guitarist Mélissa Laveaux, Puerto Rican electronic indie band Balún, Cuba’s venerable Orquesta Akokán, and cosmo-Palestinian oud group le Trio Joubran.
Though Africa has largely fallen off the American news radar, the music rocketing out of the continent remains straight fire. Projects by GuiltyBeatz, Aka, Fatoumata Diawara, Seun Kuti, Femi Kuti, Emmanuel Jal, Burna Boy, Muzi, Tal National, and Ammar 808 are all worth streaming. My favorite contemporary record this year, however, was I’m a Dream, the sophomore set from Gambian-Swedish chanteuse Seinabo Sey. A seamless confluence of Lauryn Hill wit, Amy Winehouse vocal styling, and Jazmine Sullivan self-confidence, Sey’s album highlights values like self-care, self-examination, compassion, and steely self-determination. I also caught her live concert in Stockholm this fall. It was a convivial, pluralistic wonder, especially given Sweden’s own dark turn toward right-wing politics.
Where pop music continues to fail us, though, is in its uncritical embrace of capital and unchecked consumerism. The Carters’ “Apeshit” video, for all its urgent intervention into race and representational inclusivity, is still two black married billionaires trap-flossing about status and acquisitiveness, wildly indifferent to how their obsession with secular materialism might be poisoning fans otherwise left out of their own capitalist dreams.
Our unexamined relationship to, and internalization of, systems of financial domination and their crushing effect on democratic life is why the song of the year for me is Toro y Moi’s ingenious “Freelance.” With its acerbic lyrics (“nothing’s ever worse than work unnoticed”), no song in 2018 better explored or even dared to explore how the scourge of dead-end 21st-century wage labor callouses the human spirit. The clever, disco-fied rhythm track approximates the sound of algorithm pop and A.I. voice-assistant blues. It’s post-Kraftwerk music for an era of Amazon workers on strike in the Germany and Spain and Yellow Vest labor protesters in France.
The ongoing disaster of spiritually unfulfilling labor is also why pop music matters more than ever in 2018. Amid a sea of malaise, pop continues to offer us gifts as wide-ranging as pleasure, joy, compassion, kindness, eroticism, sex, and righteous anger. There were so many emotionally irresistible records this year—including superior R&B projects by Brandon Coleman, Tom Misch, Kwaye, Jungle, Richard Russell, and Omar Apollo, not to mention Chaka Khan’s pair of awe-inspiring singles “Like Sugar” and “Keep Reachin’.” I also have my own series of quirky pleasures, among them the pristine, gorgeous engineering on Charlie Puth’s Voicenotes and the old-school glam raucousness of the Struts, whose Young&Dangerous is my vote for the most compelling rock record this year.
Maybe pop music is the egg, the fertile gift, that the sankofa bird carries as it points its feet and head in divergent directions. Music flashes to us a glimpse of another world, full of fluid, possibilities that exceed the monocultural limits, walls, and borders we’ve created for ourselves.
“There’s always gonna be pressure,” so “don’t forget to breathe,”
Best Albums of 2018
1. Prince, Piano & a Microphone 1983
2. John Coltrane, Both Directions at Once
3. Seinabo Sey, I’m a Dream
4. Richard Russell, Everything Is Recorded
5. Brandon Coleman, Resistance
6. Leon Bridges, Good Thing
7. Meshell Ndegeocello, Ventriloquism
8. Tom Misch, Geography
9. Louie Vega, NYC Disco
10. Joan as Police Woman, Damned Devotion
11. Toni Braxton, Sex & Cigarettes
12. The Struts, Young&Dangerous
13. Mélissa Laveaux, Radyo Siwèl
14. Mitski, Be the Cowboy
15. Muzi, Afrovision
16. Kadhja Bonet, Childqueen
17. Poliça, Music for the Long Emergency
18. Troye Sivan, Bloom
19. Yves Tumor, Safe in the Hands of Love
20. Shea Diamond, Seen It All
21. Le Trio Joubran, The Long March
22. Chilly Gonzales, Solo Piano III
23. Pusha T, Daytona
24. Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer
25. Robyn, Honey
26. Young Fathers, Cocoa Sugar
27. Angélique Kidjo, Remain in Light
28. Burna Boy, Outside
29. Shawn Mendes, Shawn Mendes
30. Kwaye, Love & Affliction
31. Saba, Care for Me
32. Courtney Marie Andrews, May Your Kindness Remain
33. Fatoumata Diawara, Fenfo
34. Joan, Portra
35. Brockhampton, Iridescence
36. Cher, Dancing Queen
37. Mr. Fingers, Cerebral Hemispheres
38. Sons of Kemet, Your Queen Is a Reptile
39. Omar Apollo, Stereo
40. Jungle, For Ever
1. Toro y Moi – “Freelance”
2. Kendrick Lamar with SZA, “All the Stars”
3. Seinabo Sey, “Never Get Used To”
4. Ravyn Lenae “Sticky”
5. Azealia Banks, “Anna Wintour”
6. Lizzo, “Boys”
7. Leon Bridges, “Bad Bad News”
8. Toni Braxton, “Long as I Live”
9. Robyn, “Because It’s in the Music”
10. GuiltyBeatz, Mr. Eazi, Patapaa, and Pappy Kojo, “AKWAABA”
11. Logic featuring Wale and John Lindahl, “100 Miles and Running”
12. Rapson featuring Nathan Thomas, “Heat (Extended Mix)”
13. Emmanuel Jal, “Kuar (FNX Omar Remix)”
14. The 1975, “Love It if We Made It”
15. Troye Sivan, “My My My!”
16. Sabina Ddumba, “Small World”
17. Poliça, Stargaze, “Fake Like”
18. Seinabo Sey, “Breathe”
19. Emily King, “Remind Me”
20. Ella Mai, “Boo’d Up”
21. Charlie Puth featuring Kehlani, “Done for Me”
22. Bruno Mars featuring Cardi B, “Finesse Remix”
23. Robyn, “Missing U”
24. Vice and Jason DeRulo featuring Ava Max, “Makeup”
25. The Shapeshifters featuring Teni Tinks, “Try My Love on For Size”
26. DJ Snake with Selena Gomez, Ozuna, and Cardi B, “Taki Taki”
27. Charlie Puth, “How Long”
28. Chloe x Halle, “Warrior”
29. Leon Bridges, “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)”
30. Joan, “All the Way”
31. Nicki Minaj, “Barbie Dreams”
32. Riton and Kah-Lo, “Ginger”
33. James Blake, “Don’t Miss It”
34. Janelle Monáe, “I Like That”
35. Ariana Grande, “No Tears Left to Cry”
36. Charlie Puth, “Attention”
37. Ella Mai, “Trip”
38. Jennifer Lopez, “El Anillo”
39. Chaka Khan, “Like Sugar (Extended Mix)”
40. Tom Misch, “South of the River”