Happy Festivus, my Kikis who will never, ever leave me:
As part of its year-in-review package, Billboard published a calendar of everything Drake did every day of 2018. When I saw this a few days ago, I plaintively—desperately?—asked my social media feed: This is it, right? This means he’s finally jumping the shark? Is it over yet? I mean, I am not even a Drake hater. Indeed, one of Drizzy’s many No. 1 hits this year makes my Top 20 singles list below. But for Kiki’s sake, could the slowest, most distended imperial phase in pop history please start to wrap it up? Even the most indomitable stars do, eventually, cede the stage: 10 months after Man of the Woods, does anybody even remember Justin Timberlake was once a hit-maker?
If you’d told me the first day of 2018 I’d have to write three and a half “Why Is This Song No. 1?” columns this year about Drake—the “half” being Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode,” a Drizzy joint in all but name—I might have considered a yearlong sabbatical. As Lindsay pointed out, the 6 God controlled the Hot 100, the list by which I set my watch, for more than half the year. He has the No. 1 single of the year, “God’s Plan,” and he would have had the No. 1 album if Billboard’s chart year of December 2017 to November 2018 didn’t give an outsize advantage to Taylor Swift’s late ’17 album, Reputation. (Drake’s Scorpion instead comes in at No. 2.) Swift’s album sold pretty well, the way any veteran megastar’s does, and while its singles took a while to connect at radio and on the charts, she still did respectably for someone in her 12th year of hit-making. And then there’s Drake, who somehow had his biggest year ever in his 10th as a major recording artist. Given that he was already setting the agenda for hip-hop before Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election—he now sets it for all of pop—Drake’s dominance of the zeitgeist has overstayed its welcome by at least half a decade. I wonder if folks appreciate how unusual this is, not just in rap but in all of pop history since the rock era. Because I apparently can never resist a cheap Beatles analogy: Picture if the Fab Four had not only stayed together into the ’70s but scored their biggest hits in 1972. (I suppose this would make “My Sweet Lord” the still-together Beatles’ version of “God’s Plan,” “It Don’t Come Easy” their “Nice for What,” and of course, the super-emo, superviral “Imagine” their “In My Feelings.” And duh, I already established in my Travis Scott piece that “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey“ is their “Sicko Mode.”)
Lindsay asked me to break down the mathematical magic by which Drizzy does this, and the simple answer, as she herself implies in her post, is: Drake streams (and streams, and streams). Way back in the first half of the ’10s, when the dollar download was king—really “queen,” as female pop acts largely commanded that metric—hip-hop was on the back foot. But sometime in the mid-2010s, when Billboard began rebooting its charts around streaming and “consumption,” shifting the charts’ emphasis from those who owned things to those who jukeboxed them, Aubrey cleverly devised how he could dominate the new metric: stuffing albums with more tracks, prioritizing Apple Music exclusives and Spotify promos, making his YouTube videos events or even GIF-able. Dude went from zero Hot 100 No. 1s through 2015 as a lead artist to four in the past three years—or six, if you include his prominent performances on “Work” and “Sicko Mode.” He even figured out how to get ahead of rule changes Billboard hadn’t made yet. One story in chartland that was initially perceived as an outrage but ultimately fizzled out this year was Billboard’s conversion of the Hot 100 to a two-tiered streaming model: now, ad-supported streams (mainly YouTube and subscriptionless Spotify) count less than paid streams (Apple Music and subscriber Spotify). The new rules took effect in July, and it was all a big nothingburger, as Drake dominated both sides of the streaming pie, and “In My Feelings,” a song made a smash by a good old-fashioned viral-video meme, set streaming records anyway. Meet the new 6 God, same as the old.
So I’m not sure I can fully co-sign Carl’s formulation, “2018: the year everything had already changed,” or Ann’s hope for “music culture ushering in a new era.” All around me are familiar faces, worn-out places, worn-out faces, as a couple of old synth-poppers once told me. (Given our dark times, I lean toward the mournful version, though please, not Imagine Dragons’.) Maybe it is time for the old ways to die, but as Jackson Maine also said, it takes a lot to change a man, emphasis on man. Old hegemonies die hard: A Star Is Born is itself a halfway-poptimist tract that’s all for its rising female star taking center stage, so long as she’s not singing about one’s jeans or one’s ass and adhering to certain precepts about musical “authenticity.” Et tu, Gagae? As long as I’m bringing up musical movies that took up outsize space in the 2018 conversation, I also wonder, to Ann’s point, whether Bohemian Rhapsody, despite its well-chronicled filmmaking troubles, wound up a blockbuster anyway out of a yearning for some old verities about raw talent and star power without too much of those pesky issues of gay identity. (I mean, so much for “authenticity”: I very nearly postponed the Hit Parade episode I was working on in November to spend the month doing justice to Queen’s awesome genre-spanning legacy and truth-squadding all of Bohemian’s bogus history: Where exactly did those 1984 songs come from at Live Aid ’85 if the band spent the prior year “broken up”? Even the little stuff, like why does movie Freddie have the mustache in the scene where “We Will Rock You” is composed by Brian May? Gahhhhhh … I give up, and I gave up.)
I’ll confess, I’m not even sure I want the old ways to die myself. Carl may have a point about “already changed” when it comes to the album medium itself, one I kicked dirt upon in 2017 but found myself wistful for in 2018, as debates raged—not always convincingly—about whether the LP is doomed in the streaming era. Here’s where I pull myself back from the brink of pop-nerd despair and say some version of the album is going to survive, because that’s how artists—even those infernal SoundClouders—want it. As I told The Gist’s Mike Pesca back in 2014, when Billboard added streams to its album chart, further disaggregating the LP and changing the chart irrevocably but in a way they couldn’t avoid: Albums are not indivisible totems—they are projects, designed to organize both the lives of artists and the campaigns of label factotums. This year, Team Ariana is working the Sweetener project; in 2019 they will be working the Thank U, Next project. And even if they keep adding tracks to whatever that thing is, we will know what year it is.
As for what the music sounded like—oh, right, that!—I’m with Carl that 2018 sonic markers are going to time-stamp this period, even more than we realize, a decade or two hence. We call the ’70s the Disco Era even when its songs are not exactly disco. In the ’10s, not just the sound but the idea of trap is now pervasive. Carl also mentioned how apropos Robyn’s eight-year return felt in 2018, but to me she was the Rip Van Winkle of pop, emerging from her therapeutic cultural slumber to find a world utterly transformed. She went off the radar when Katy and Kesha EDM-pop was ascendant and came back to find pop radio struggling to maintain the tempo amid all the bummer rappers. What folks often forget about Robyn is she was carrying herself like a rapper back then; not for nothing was her label called Konichiwa (Bitches). As for 2018’s Honey, for an album that’s supposed to be Robyn’s dark dive into her feelings, it’s awfully dreamy, exuberant, and 2011-ish to me.
So yeah, I am unabashed in my premature early-’10s nostalgia. But even if it’s hard to envision why anyone would be nostalgic for the late ’10s, it’s not hard to picture what that nostalgia is going to feel like around 2035. (This is a rare moment when I disagree with Rolling Stone’s always-brilliant Rob Sheffield: Of course there’s such a thing as 2000s nostalgia—it’s already started—and ’10s nostalgia will be a thing, if we don’t melt down the world by the ’30s.) For true 2000s revivalism, look no further than mainstream pop radio, where Panic! at the Disco—basically now the Brendon Urie Project—was back on top like it was 2006 with “High Hopes,” and 5 Seconds of Summer sounded more like a Fueled by Ramen band than a post–One Direction boy band. If only their song titles could grow from one word to a dozen, Pete Wentz might start gunning to sign them.
Still, I must say I instinctively gravitated toward anything this year that was not so male or bro-tastic. Women recorded most of my Top 10 albums, including my entire top four, from Robyn to Ariana to Tracey Thorn. Part of me wanted to make a low-stakes feminist statement with an all-female top five, but like Lindsay I loved Parquet Courts’ Wide Awake! too much not to rank it highly.
Most especially I want to co-sign Lindsay’s celebration of the endless playability of Golden Hour—my album of the year and easily the recording I returned to the most in 2018. (I went deep down a Kacey sonic rabbit hole—ask me over a cocktail sometime how I’m convinced her sad-but-bright “Lonely Weekend” is secretly a melodic interpolation of James Taylor’s sad-but-bright “Mexico.”) I am so glad Lindsay pointed out the incongruity of Golden Hour’s Country Music Association Awards win and its vocoder use. For a genre-ecumenical pop centrist like me, what’s most irresistible about the album is its Daft Punkness. Nearly two decades after Faith Hill went a little Cher on “The Way You Love Me,” country’s gradual embrace of EDM and hip-hop production tropes has proceeded in fits and starts. (Rest in peace, Avicii.) But Musgraves and her ace team of Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk offered a fully realized collection of from-the-ground-up electro-twang gems, with everything from banjos that sound like they’re played at the bottom of a ravine to synths that squeal with delight. I needed this album this year—I want to frame Hanif’s line about how “the escape in the albums I loved really gave a road map out of my frustrations.” That was Golden Hour for me.
Before I close with my year-end lists, let me give one more shoutout to Hanif’s brilliant formulation of “black artists acting as reporters on the front lines of a complete black experience.” For me, that was my single of the year, a song it took me all year to determine was my favorite and not just a meme-tastic art installation: Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” (Fortunately, Ann’s team at NPR backed me up on this.) The moment I think I fell in permanent love was when I finally heard “America” out in the wild, playing at a very ordinary beer-and-pretzels bar in New York, and it was somehow not diminished in that context. If anything, it felt more subversive: I was reminded how every part of the song was a hook—from “Get your money, black man (black man)!” to “I got the plug in Oaxaca/ They gonna find you like ‘blocka’ (blaow)!” And yet—this is what I had prematurely feared would happen in my article about the song in May—radio playlisting did not flatten out the song’s devastating satire or its undercurrent of mourning for a slow-to-improve, maybe-never-improving homeland. Despite its Hot 100–topping status, fueled mostly by streams, especially of its video, it was only a modest radio hit, peaking at No. 33 on the Radio Songs chart. That’s about as far as Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” got 53 years ago (No. 31, 1965). Is “This Is America” as great as that Cooke masterpiece? Not really, but I had to give Donald Glover his propers for his reach and the fact that he got us all to listen. Giving a multiplicity of voices the platform they deserve: Isn’t that where we all hope this cultural experiment–slash-nation of ours is going?
Top 10 Albums
1. Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
2. Robyn, Honey
3. Ariana Grande, Sweetener
4. Tracey Thorn, Record
5. Parquet Courts, Wide Awake!
6. Pusha T, Daytona
7. Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy
8. Brandi Carlile, By the Way, I Forgive You
9. Charlie Puth, Voicenotes
10. The 1975, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
Top 20 Singles
1. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”
2. Janelle Monáe, “Make Me Feel”
3. Ella Mai, “Boo’d Up”
4. Ariana Grande, “Thank U, Next”
5. Kendrick Lamar and SZA, “All the Stars”
6. 5 Seconds of Summer, “Youngblood”
7. Khalid and Normani, “Love Lies”
8. Foster the People, “Sit Next to Me”
9. Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey, “The Middle”
10. Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin, “I Like It”
11. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, “Shallow”
12. Travis Scott, “Sicko Mode”
13. Rosalía, “Malamente”
14. Bruno Mars featuring Cardi B, “Finesse”
15. Dan + Shay, “Tequila”
16. Troye Sivan, “Bloom”
17. Migos, “Stir Fry”
18. Panic! at the Disco, “Say Amen (Saturday Night)”
19. Shawn Mendes, “In My Blood”
20. Drake, “Nice for What”