Hi shiny ones,
What a year, huh? I’ve been saying that to people since mid-March or so. But what can you do. Music, at least, had a bang-up year—putting together my 2018 lists was easy because there was so much stuff to include, and hard because, well, you know. The record I thought about the most this year was Jenny Wilson’s elliptical, harsh Exorcism. Wilson has been one of the most innovative synth-pop producers out there since she started her solo career in 2005. Her last album was called Demand the Impossible!, and that spirit—striving toward a world with more just power distributions and way better beats—is what drew me in years ago. (“I’m like a solution-driven cockroach, and I never rest!” she told the 405 earlier this year.) Exorcism, which focuses on a sexual assault she experienced and its aftermath, is kinetic, the clenched horror she unflinchingly describes in its early tracks giving way to the vulnerability of the sparkling “It’s Love (And I’m Scared)” and the world-weary but hopeful “Forever Is a Long Time.” (There’s an instrumental-only version, too—a thoughtful gesture for the potentially traumatized that also places her expert manipulation of the Prophet 6 at its forefront.)
Honey, by Wilson’s onetime collaborator Robyn, embarks on a similar journey, Robyn’s existential trauma shape-shifting into something resembling hope, or at least enough of a breather from life’s woes to hit the beach. It’s a smoother-sounding record than Exorcism, but its journey out of the darkness was at once gratifying and motivating—and the bit of Lil Louis’ “French Kiss” (aka the dirtiest song I heard in ninth grade, when I was also listening to Warrant and Mötley Crüe) was one of my favorite pop moments this year. Meshell Ndegeocello’s ground-up reinventions of our shared youth’s R&B (and freestyle!) songs on Ventriloquism also brought me back, her submerged-underwater rework of the System’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove” luxuriating in the original’s do-not-disturb vibes for just a little bit longer. Say Lou Lou’s enveloping Immortelle combined goth dourness and Rumours hyperproduction to grand effect, creating the spiritual sequel to Siobhán Donaghy’s criminally underlooked Ghosts that I’ve craved for a decade-plus. Speaking of lengthy absences, Pram’s twisty dusty-filmstrip pop returned after an 11-year (!) drought on the chilly Across the Meridian, while Tracey Thorn’s first album in eight years, Record, featured the best song to encapsulate a tipsy, slightly envy-filled scroll through acquaintances’ social media, “Face.”
Scrolling through music is certainly more fun than flicking around Twitter, although it can be just as frustrating. Being in Boston, away from the madding crowds and drink tickets of PR-rep-heavy metros and in proximity to a bunch of tech companies’ Harvard- and MIT-adjacent offices, has had me thinking about my “music discovery tools.” I kept up with my Spotify-employed pal Glenn McDonald’s Every Noise At Once map, which surfaces new splinter genres via his access to Spotify’s data (no, they’re not all “chill”). I talked to my students about the bands they were seeing and the songs they listened to. (The most popular 2000s holdover? “Mr. Brightside”) I took interest in whatever radio station was playing in cabs, which led to a couple of pop surprises (“Lucid Dreams” wasn’t the new Twenty One Pilots single? Huh! “High Hopes” isn’t Patrick Stump’s solo comeback? OK!) and, alas, way too much Post Malone.
I watched Fox’s pulpy R&B soap Star every week, taking in new songs by the resurgent Brandy and the overflowing-with-talent Luke James. And I subscribed to the YouTube channel Stereohearts R&B, which is doing its best to fill the void left by the demise of the Tapemasters Inc. Future of R&B mixtape series. And then there were the discoveries via friends—my genius pal Ellen Kempner commandeered my TV and gave me my first exposure to Tierra Whack’s fantastical Whack World, while colleagues like Brad Nelson and Tom Erlewine and Nick Murray would forward along “relevant” links to new and not old, but newly discovered tracks.
Rock is perhaps the trickiest genre for me to keep up with right now—well, what’s perhaps incorrectly still called “mainstream rock,” anyway. (Indie is very well covered, as we all know.) For discovery in this realm, I’ve leaned a bit on the Connecticut-based wrestling megagglomerate WWE, which largely uses rock songs as themes for its pay-per-view events. (Trend report: lots of blues-tinged yelpers this year, with my favorite probably being “Heaven’s Got a Back Door” by the Los Angeles-based snarlers Dead Sara, and no Greta Van Fleet to be seen.) It’s probably worth noting, though, that two of those events featured themes by the British girl group Little Mix, including the giddy 2014 track which was used to fanfare the promotion’s first all-woman pay-per-view event. (The only other artist to achieve that distinction: Kid Rock.) In November the British X Factor–born quartet released their fifth album, the named-after-Twitter-conventions LM5. It continues their trend of exploding the Spice Girls’ girl-power quotient—proudly shouting out stretch marks on the thumping “Strip,” declaring “I’m stanning myself” on the spiritual “Feelin’ Myself” sequel “Joan of Arc”—and adding the sorts of late-2010s sonic touches that add excitement instead of draining it.
While it’s more than possible to comprehensively cover music by sitting inside and tracking every new release that comes down the pike, I attended a lot of festivals and events this year. In addition to the shows I covered for the Boston Globe, there was the exhaustive Leonard Cohen exhibit at MAC Montreal; the snowy, genre-spanning festival in the twin Canadian cities of Ottawa and Hull; the music geekery–filled Pop Conference in Seattle; the brassy, punky Cranking & Skanking Fest just down the Mass Pike in Worcester; and Dierks Bentley’s high-flying Seven Peaks Festival in Colorado, which featured spitfire sets by Elle King and Miranda Lambert as well as many cameos by the host.
But two stick out in particular. The first was in May—an eternity ago, I know—when Nick Cave came to town for one of the first shows on his “Conversations With” tour. This run of dates grew out of the intense bond he formed with his audience after releasing 2016’s stunning, grief-stricken Skeleton Tree and the documentary about its genesis, One More Time With Feeling. It was, essentially, a freeform, lightly moderated Q&A session, broken up with songs performed on piano—and no one, neither performer no audience, really knew what to expect from the whole thing. Which made it exhilarating—and Cave is already one of the most compelling performers out there. He talked about making art and dealing with loss and grappling with religion and other topics both existential and trivial, and I left feeling a little more connected to others, at least on the we’re-all-searching-for-answers front. (He’s since channeled that energy into the Red Hand Files, his emailed advice column where he offers up wisdom that’s brilliant and profane.)
The next month I was in Tennessee for Bonnaroo, which doubled as a homecoming of sorts for the spunk-pop outfit Paramore, whose 2017 album After Laughter was all gritted teeth and sparkly textures, a chronicle of Getting Through It that was as spiky as it was groove-minded. That morning, Anthony Bourdain’s body had been found in a French hotel room, and his death loomed over the festival, which was born from a similar spirit of curiosity and voraciousness. “We’re in a really strange time, and it’s very dark,” said lead singer Hayley Williams. “And every day you wake up and you don’t know what the news is going to be, and most of the time it’s not great.” She touched on Bourdain’s death, not mentioning him by name, but noting the tragedy of another life being snuffed out seemingly too soon. “No matter what you’re going through, I know this doesn’t make it go away,” she said. “But for one second, just be present, enjoy music … and let’s just fuckin’ dance.” The field exploded in defiance and pent-up emotion as the band launched into “Told You So,” which spits in the face of cynicism through its words and its hot-pink energy.
I feel like those two anecdotes say more about what music can be in 2018, a year where the forces of bleakness had a snarling poodle’s grip on the leg of society, than any stat-driven attempt to get a handle on “the market”—as Rawiya noted, numbers are infinitely fungible, and tell half the story if that. (No disrespect intended to Chris, of course.) I hardly told a fraction of my own personal music story here, which I think is a pretty good sign. And I’m hopeful that 2019 will have more of these moments, and more songs, and more people proving that hope is worth having—especially when facing tech bros and wizened politicians’ seemingly endless blunders against humanity.
Top 20 albums
1. Jenny Wilson, Exorcism
2. Robyn, Honey
3. Meshell Ndgeocello, Ventriloquism
4. Say Lou Lou, Immortelle
5. Daphne & Celeste, Daphne & Celeste Save the World
6. Christine & the Queens, Chris
7. Tracey Thorn, Record
8. Pram, Across the Meridian
9. Lori McKenna, The Tree
10. Pistol Annies, Interstate Gospel
11. Kali Uchis, Isolation
12. Peluché, Unforgettable
13. Madeline Kenney, Perfect Shapes
14. Marissa Nadler, For My Crimes
15. The Coup, Sorry to Bother You: The Soundtrack
16. Gabriel Kahane, Book of Travelers
17. Neneh Cherry, Broken Politics
18. Little Mix, LM5
19. Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet, Landfall
20. DRINKS, Hippo Lite
20 songs from 2018 that I kept replaying
(in alphabetical order, made to be shuffled):
Dierks Bentley feat. Brandi Carlile, “Travelin’ Light”
Ciara, “Level Up”
Chris Dave and the Drumhedz feat. Bilal and Tweet, “Spread Her Wings”
Dead Sara, “Heaven’s Got a Back Door”
Ariana Grande, “No Tears Left to Cry”
Janet Jackson feat. Daddy Yankee, “Made for Now”
Luke James (on Star), “Ready for War”
Elle King, “Shame”
Paul McCartney, “Despite Repeated Warnings”
Kylie Minogue, “Shelby ’68”
Janelle Monáe, “Make Me Feel”
The Mountain Goats, “Song for Sasha Banks”
Panic! at the Disco, “High Hopes”
Eliza Shaddad, “This Is My Cue”
Shopping, “Asking for a Friend”
Tove Styrke, “Mistakes”