Written by: Andrew Kirkpatrick
2018 didn’t offer quite embarrassment of musical riches that other years in recent memory have.
My scientifically proven and objectively correct top 10 list was a bit easier to come up with this year simply due to the fact that there wasn’t as much competition. But I don’t mean that to be reductive of these 10 albums in any way, as all live up to an impressive level of quality that few others this year managed to.
So, behold my picks – in order from least mindblowingly amazing to most mindblowingly amazing – and be sure to check out the linked songs, as all are great, and many have fantastic videos.
- Tirzah – Devotion
- Pusha T – Daytona
- Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids – An Angel Fell
- Benny the Butcher – Tana Talk 3
- Kali Uchis – Isolation
- Jay Rock – Redemption
Redemption is what I like to call a variety pack album. It covers a great deal of stylistic ground and doesn’t spend too much time in one place. We’ve got bird’s eye observations of street life (“The Bloodiest”), meme-worthy smashes (“King’s Dead”), cutting introspection (“Broke +-“), and triumphalist bangers, not the least of which is the chest-beating anthem that continues to be my favorite song of this whole year, “WIN.” Frankly, I’d never have thought Rock capable of an album this diverse. While he has plenty of material that’s basically the stuff of hip-hop legend at this point, most of his older tracks are approached with a particular brand of booming cadences and venomous lyricism. He’s certainly still capable of delivering that volatile menace, but his transformation into an effective pop-rap songwriter is nothing short of staggering.
- Against All Logic – 2012-2017
2012-2017 is music for music’s sake – a no-nonsense collection of IDM-tinged house that deals in muscular, bass-heavy beats as often as it does subtly shifting grooves. I’ve admittedly spent less time listening to pure ear candy records like these in the last few years, favoring music that has at least ounce of thematic weight, whether that’s something as simple as a Top 40 love song or as nuanced as 4:44. Nicolas Jaar’s latest has been a good reminder to me that music doesn’t need to deal in anything resembling traditional narrative, and that a sticky bassline or well considered beat shift can be just as fundamentally satisfying and undeniable as cutting lyrics or a heady concept.
- Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
I think it’s safe to say that Some Rap Songs is decidedly not the sort of project most would’ve expected Earl to step back into the spotlight with after a nearly three-year hiatus. The dingy, synthetic production that was the now-defunct Odd Future’s calling card is done away with in favor of warm, Madlib-esque production heavy with soul and afrobeat samples – almost all of which is stunningly produced by Earl himself. Gone too is the LA spitter’s usual verbosity; the project runs only 25 minutes across 15 tracks, and most cuts consist of just one brief verse.
As a title, Some Rap Songs is a clever and pretty funny bit of subversion; this is such an incredibly weird and singular project that you can’t help but get utterly lost in on each listen. Sometimes it’s spellbinding due to its amorphousness; you might catch on to a quietly muttered line – something like “Family saw you on that stage / Left it not amazed” – that comes and goes without explanation, leaving your mind to do backflips trying to understand what just happened. Other times, the record stuns when it approaches something close to a fully-formed track, as on “The Mint,” where Earl delivers one of the densest, most technically impressive verses of the year.
Despite its brevity, Earl’s latest seems to constantly take new forms. Though I can confidently say I love it after sitting with it for a few months, I’m incredibly excited to see how it continues to unfurl down the road.
- Janelle Monaé – Dirty Computer
Janelle Monáe’s previous records dabbled in sci-fi storytelling, but with Dirty Computer, the Kansas singer/producer/label boss ditches narrative and simply embodies her signature retro futurist aesthetic. The record’s batch of psych rock, pop, and R&B-blending tracks recall Prince, The Beach Boys, and Stevie Wonder, but they’re steeped in a thoroughly modern and progressive mindset, both politically and artistically.
Monaé’s vision of our present and future is sometimes bleak. “Screwed” is a tongue-in-cheek (yet disquieting) examination of hedonism as a form of self-denial in a world gone mad. Meanwhile the densely layered “So Afraid” – a song that seems locked in a constant white-knuckled crescendo – is loaded with palpable anxiety about… well, seemingly everything. But once you hear the confidence oozing from cuts like “I Like That” and or the out-of-nowhere trap banger “Django Jane,” you’ll be convinced that a better world is possible.
- Denzel Curry – Taboo
Taboo is SoundCloud rap’s unquestionable magnum opus. Hip-hop’s hottest scene hasn’t done the genre much good, introducing us to a rogue’s gallery of rappers who, for the most part, are either repulsive (X, 6ix9ine, Tay-K, etc.) or just not very appealing unless you’re younger than 20.
While Florida’s Denzel Curry is a more traditional rapper than others from the scene, you’d never mistake him for a member of an older wave; his lyrics are rife with references to anime, video games, and meme culture, and he draws a good deal of influence from emo music (see “Clout Cobain”) and metal (see “Vengeance”).
This, ultimately, means that he stands out from his peers due to the sheer quality of his material. While his other projects are good, Taboo registers as a monumental success thanks in large part to its clever structure. The record is broken out into three parts. The Light section finds Curry celebrating his success while floating over smooth, soulful beats; Gray sees him delving into downtempo trap to express his anxieties about fame, the music industry, and politics; Dark, finally, is a gnashing of teeth – a cathartic explosion of fury over quaking 808s. The ambition on display here reminds me of early Kendrick, ScHoolboy Q, and Danny Brown, and I can only hope Zel grows even more daring in the years to come.
Thanks for reading. It’s a goal of mine to write more Stereo Embers articles in 2019 than the whopping two pieces I contributed in 2018, so I’ll hopefully have more to share soon.