For these lists, I always gravitate toward music that says something about the year, whether it’s the world at large or simply my little place in it. Low’s Ones and Sixes helped me make sense of a chaotic 2015 that involved moving and the selling and buying of houses with two young kids in tow. A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service was the perfect antidote to a divisive election season in 2016. (If there’s one thing my friends and I can all agree on, it’s A Tribe Called Quest.) Julien Baker’s Turn Out the Lights was my window into one woman’s brutally/beautifully honest attempt at trying to figure it all out when you’re in your twenties. This year, Merrill Garbus’s work as Tune-Yards felt necessary and funky and brave, like both a response to, and soundtrack for, the kind of digital world we now can’t escape. And my kids loved singing along to “Heart Attack.”
[Until this year] Pazz & Jop has awarded its Album of the Year designation to just two female artists, one of them being the woman who also happened to make my favorite record of 2018. Is this a fault specific to P&J? And maybe a fault specific to me, as one of its voters? (I’m a white guy about to turn forty, I should mention.) P&J is made up of hundreds of critics; it’s only as pure as its critics. (Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird: “A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men” — men! — “who make it up.”) Pitchfork’s track record in giving female artists Album of the Year honors over the same time period is about the same (members of Arcade Fire in 2004; brother-sister duo the Knife in 2006; Solange in 2016; Mitski in 2018), while the Grammys — whose outgoing president last year told women to “step up” if they want more opportunities in the music business — actually fare much better in this category (Lauryn Hill, Norah Jones, Dixie Chicks, Alison Krauss, Taylor Swift, Adele), as long as we don’t think too much about gender and race at the same time. So what to even make of a “best of” list anymore? What did I miss? What did I not hear? Did holding something up mean I was pushing something else down?
— Michael Pollock
The underdog but undeniable standout project from Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music’s summer rollout plan was this eye-opening project that proves Teyana Taylor has tons more to offer as a musician. Even after Pusha T declared Daytona the rap album of the year, he said Taylor’s K.T.S.E. was the best G.O.O.D. project in 2018.
— Jeff Benjamin
Taylor Swift, “Delicate”: When the fireworks of “Look What You Made Me Do,” “…Ready for It?,” and “End Game” fizzled, it was this low-key musing that gave her reputation its necessary jolt. A comforting companion on a rainy night that proves the depths of Swift’s palette are much more interesting than its flash.
— Trevor Anderson
Rosalía: Illuminating a 13th-century manuscript with beats and brains and root-chakra energy, this enrapturing 21st-century encounter with flamenco made my ears feel new the way nothing else did this year.
— Ann Powers
Australian trio Camp Cope grab a fistful of garage punk, a fistful of bubblegum pop, and a fistful of folk and braid those strands together into a gloriously fun and endlessly catchy style. The second record from singer-guitarist Georgia McDonald, bassist Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich, and drummer Sarah Thompson, How to Socialise & Make Friends is a jolt of energy, with sing-along anthems brimming with righteous anger, feminist critiques, and introspective determination.
— Eric Swedlund
Neko Case, Hell-On: Almost too sprawling and impassioned for its own good, but a grand-scale reminder of Case’s skills as a vocalist, songwriter, and producer.
— Mark Deming
Conscious hip-hop (do people still say that?) with neo-soul touches. Compared to the other two woman-fronted hip-hop records on my list, this is less pop but more “musical” than Tierra Whack, and more immediate but arguably less interesting than the Jean Grae & Chris Quelle record. However, Noname can rap, and some of her verses were the most memorable things I heard in 2018.
“Fucked the rapper homie, now his ass is making better music/My pussy teaches ninth-grade English/My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism/In conversation with a marginal system in love with Jesus/Y’all still thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?”
“But I love you even though we’re not meant to be, I still love you/I hope you find everything that you want, and she loves you/Everything is everything just know that I love you.”
“And yes and yes, I’m problematic too.”
Musically, the tracks run the gamut from straight funk to string ballads to Caribbean faux-calypso groove, and if Noname’s not necessarily a virtuoso MC, she gets her point across with no strain. One to watch.
— Dominique Leone
Mitski, Be the Cowboy: Everything has gone to hell. The country, the relationship, the hope. It’s all just gone bad, and all we have is the memory, and the hope that it all gets better. Never has being sad sounded so lush and lovely.
— Jaime-Paul Falcon
Tracey Thorn, alternative rock’s big sister in the Nineties, became a mother, yet the men who run it can’t deal with a mom who still loves to dance to the “same old shit” she calls it.
— Alfred Soto
“There is no resolution,” Robyn sings on Honey, dismantling the notion that her long-awaited full-length return will deliver answers that are easy to swallow. Still, Robyn makes the world go down smooth. In making Honey, the Swedish icon abandons many traditional structures while submerging in her club-kid roots, resurfacing through the filter of her life, loves, and losses. Robyn is still sexy without commercializing female sexuality, and still demonstrates her minimal-beat, major-chord-chorus dance pop that has been so influential on artists like Lorde, Carly Rae Jepsen, Troye Sivan, and more. Simultaneously happy and sad and something beyond, Honey holds truths both banal and complex — and makes them float.
— Katie Moulton
Tierra Whack: When was the last time a brand-new artist made an opening statement this weird and lovable? We need her.
— Alex Frank
Soccer Mommy, “Your Dog”: In no uncertain terms, Sophie Allison turns the tables on Iggy Pop by kicking off the leash, pronouncing her independence, and biting the hand that presumably feeds her.
— Roy Trakin
Kali Uchis , Isolation: As she shifts genres as effortlessly as she changes language, her obvious genius captures a mood that exists only at the yawning edges of a twilit Miami shoreline. And however real the power and sex at its core, they exist for you because she dreamt them up. She wants you to know that.
— Nick Farruggia
The Beths, Future Me Hates Me: Punkish pop-rock with a Nineties sheen that nonetheless totally inhabits the current moment, via sharp-as-nails songwriting and self-deprecating humor that rides an amped-up guitar-pop wave like nobody’s business.
— Dave Heaton
Lucy Dacus: Thoroughly compelling, Historian is filled with excellent songwriting that is expertly supported by the music arrangement and production. The album also serves as a representative for her Boygenius project and her collaborators (Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker) and this whole generation of phenomenal singer-songwriters.
— Mike Berick
Pistol Annies, Interstate Gospel: If a lot of modern country music is regurgitated Eagles, maybe we should start thinking of Miranda Lambert’s projects as the Stones revivified. Only since she’s not Mick, she’s not an asshole. Or at least not as much of an asshole.
— Rod Taylor
If only Boygenius was an album. If it was a full-length LP, it would be my album of the year. But it’s just a wee bit too short at six songs, its only flaw. But I’ll forgive Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus for keeping things short and sweet — they’re busy, and in high demand. And their collaborative album might just be their greatest work of all. These three women just get each other. They’ve had such parallel experiences, and their sisterly bond shines through the EP’s all-too-short 22 minutes.
— Ellen Johnson
No album has so confidently and concisely chronicled the chaotic life of a twentysomething pop star — from a tragic bombing outside of a tour stop to a whirlwind romance and spontaneous engagement — more so than Ariana Grande’s Sweetener. And though such situations are entirely unique to Grande, she still emerged this year as one of music’s most relatable personalities. Her consistent presence on Instagram and Twitter aside, there was only one format on which her story could be perfectly packaged: the album. Despite debate over the format’s future, Grande, knowingly or not, became the poster child for its importance. (Even if she did claim on Twitter that she doesn’t want to conform to a routine or formula anymore). Sweetener gave fans the most intimate look at Grande’s life yet, one that even a selfie couldn’t capture, because it was a direct line into her heart and mind. It’s as if she tore a page straight from her diary with of-the-moment interlude “Pete Davidson,” and on closer “Get Well Soon” she gifted listeners with a swelling instructional ballad on self-care told from firsthand experience. And even though so much of Grande’s life has drastically changed in the five months since the album’s release, with some moments, like the untimely death of her friend and ex-boyfriend Mac Miller, being more bitter than others, that’s exactly what makes this album so special. Its sweetness will forever be preserved.
— Lyndsey Havens
Although you can find lots of bemused critical commentary about the fact that Cardi B’s pop crossover success was largely driven by cameo appearances on a cable television series, there has been less journalistic punditry on how big a push scripted TV dramas like Star and Insecure continue to give new singles and original soundtrack albums.
The musical protagonists in Lee Daniels properties like Empire and Star might chew the scenery more than many would like, but these extra shenanigans don’t stop them from putting out some mighty fine singles. Making songs available right after viewing seems to have replaced radio rotation as the most effective way to “break” new recordings. With both Star and Issa Rae’s Insecure having successfully wrapped their third seasons, it seems imprudent not to critically address how such female-centered and music-driven shows (created and/or directed by black talent) came to enjoy repeated commercial success. It is, after all, an intriguing phenomenon.
I suspect the teen-to–late-twenties demographic is slowly shifting established paradigms for nighttime soap operas, daytime talk shows, and reality TV. That’s why, for me, 2018 begged the musical question: “What will post-ratched pop culture look and sound like?”
This query pivots around the fact that (contrary to the online Urban Dictionary) the terms “ratched” and “wretched” aren’t really synonyms. Neither term glibly equates poverty with stupidity, or having money with intelligence. But being genuinely ratched can also be a cynical, deliberate pose, whereas being genuinely wretched cannot. Class determines the state of being wretched in ways it can neither define nor determine the fluid, deceptive role of being ratched.
Entertainers like Wendy Williams and Cardi B — despite a vast difference in their ages and backgrounds — deliberately adopted media personalities that straddle the line between being “low-class” and being streetwise. This shrewdly includes making an audience want to behave (vicariously) like them.
When performing, Cardi B currently does this better than Williams (or Nicki Minaj, or Remy Ma, or almost all her musical competition) because the emotionally complex, contemplative candor of songs like “Be Careful” steers slyly away from where the old ratched formulas of diss and shady brags have gotten stale. In her melodic and lyrical choices, Cardi B attempts a significant shift in the way the ratched meme presents and interprets itself.
Years of Jerry Springer Show–style cat fights on various networks, plus Bravo’s Grand Guignol Housewives franchise, have addicted Americans to consuming embarrassment theater in great quantity. There is nothing morally elevated about it. Instead, the performers and themes of embarrassment theater too often earn fans by making audiences feel superior to who and what entertains them.
Accordingly, rap stars, actors, and talk show hosts alike have become masters of snarky condescension and schadenfreude. But every major pop trend eventually starts to wane, including the unwholesome celebration of embarrassing or scandalous behavior.
2018’s ill-advised attempt to turn one of Dr. Phil’s attitudinal teen guests into a rapper named Bhad Bhabie proves it takes more than televising a laughably undercivilized demeanor to attract enough attention to launch a recording career. Appealing to people’s voyeuristic curiosity alone won’t work.
I wish Bhad Bhabie well, but even she should be wary of anyone trying to run a Kesha con on her by marketing a borderline personality disorder as comedy or as ratched wigger chic.
If Cardi B’s best tunes are any indication, she presages a new type of ratched pop star who is not content to make bank off of burlesquing herself or some train wreck of a life. Hopefully those fans looking to feel better about themselves by laughing at the ratched will develop better taste once they find a shrewd court jester has replaced the geek in the carnival.
Perhaps the popularity of embarrassment theater developed as a counterbalance to the increasingly fascist tone of politically correct rhetoric. Sneering at the whole human race became acceptable as soon as scapegoating specific individuals or groups was not. But that trend has touched the bottom of the pool and is already heading back up to the light and air. The world of music and topics to sing or rap about is wide. And if the ratched take advantage of all the opportunities this world can offer, they will transcend — not just take over — the pop chart.
— Carol Cooper