Exclaim!'s Top 31 Albums of 2018 So Far
Published Jun 18, 2018
10. Soccer Mommy
With her first proper full-length album release, Soccer Mommy (aka Sophie Allison) graduated out of the Bandcamp bedroom scene this past February.
Clean seemingly revolves around the pain associated with infatuation, but Allison's plainspoken yet poetic lyrics, accompanied by minimalist yet sweet guitar riffs, transcend coming-of-age clichés. Allison's music is about more than just adolescent lust; it's about the lingering feeling of inadequacy, the futility of unrequited love and the struggle of loving the wrong person.
Clean is painfully relatable, and has the intimacy of a live show. It's the kind of album that invites you to just sit in the sadness, but assures you that you're not alone.
9. Beach House
There's a moment halfway through "Dive," on Beach House's new album 7, where the familiar amorphous haze abruptly concedes space to monumental pillars of spiralling guitar and drums, trembling and triumphant. Similarly, the palpitating beats on "Black Car" evoke a visceral resonance while the twinkling synth seduces out-of-body numbness with quivering emotional tremors. That tension, between deep bodily responses and mind-based desires and perceptions, has long defined Beach House's work, and it's what makes them one of the most venerable bands of this century.
Throughout 7, the duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally sound grander and more industrious than ever before, further exploring the dark corners of their near-perfect rendering of dream pop. Off-white hymnal tones drape over Legrand's wispy French-spoken chants on "L'Inconnue," while "Lemon Glow" features an assertive, quivering riff accompanied by cavernous squeals and shadowy throbs. Seven albums in, the power of Beach House is still gaining momentum as they continue to surprise with their consistency and subtle reinvention.
8. Jennifer Castle
Angels of Death
Her earlier albums indicated that Jennifer Castle was an adventurous singer-songwriter with real potential; that has now been fully realized with her fifth album, Angels of Death, a tour de force defined by its poetic power.
As the portentous title suggests, Castle tackles weighty themes here, probing mortality and sorrow. She does this via her achingly pure voice and lyrical eloquence, assisted by varied and atmospheric instrumentation. There are enough subtle touches to keep things interesting, like the doo-wop backing vocals on the gentle country tune "Texas." Harmony vocals add heft to the sombre piano ballad "Crying Shame," while strings are used sparingly and judiciously throughout; the production work of Castle and co-producer Jeff McMurrich is clean and concise.
On "Rose Waterfalls," Castle notes that she is "living with the muses all around me." Long may they keep visiting her.
7. Kacey Musgraves
While A Very Kacey Christmas was well-received, Kacey Musgraves releasing a Christmas album so early into her career raised some red flags — seasonal albums tend to be contractual obligations, cash-ins, artistic dead ends, or all three at once.
In retrospect, the great leap forward that is Golden Hour suggests that the holiday comp was just what Musgraves needed to recharge her creative batteries. Nominally a country album, Golden Hour strays further from the genre's conventions than previous Musgraves LPs, and finds the singer embracing lush keyboards, vocoder-assisted backing vocals ("Oh, What A World"), Bee Gees harmonies ("Happy & Sad") and even disco beats. You can still find looping banjos as well the occasional pedal steel guitar in the mix, and closer "Rainbow" recalls the '70s country-rock of the Eagles, but on Golden Hour, Musgraves' fundamentally classicist songwriting is dressed up in a subtly forward-thinking, state-of-the-art production sheen that reaches a blissful, glittery Xanadu on the effervescent "High Horse."
6. T.D.E./Kendrick Lamar
Black Panther: The Album
The African diaspora that the film Black Panther celebrates is, of course, vast, and it prompted Kendrick Lamar to supply an original soundtrack that is every bit as wide-ranging.
Indeed, these 14 tracks feature SZA and the Weeknd's radio-ready style of R&B; Johannesburg artist Sjava singing in soothing isiZulu on "Seasons"; Babes Wodumo repping the sweltering gqom strain of house music from her native Durban on "Redemption"; and everything in between.
The soundtrack's eclecticism is a testament to Lamar's strengths as a co-executive producer and curator. Like Black Panther's director, Ryan Coogler, Pulitzer Kenny brought an auteurist vision to the soundtrack and carefully cast the right performer for each role. It's an LP that brings the best out of established stars while also offering limelight to astounding African acts that more than deserve a wider global audience. As you listen, you'll feel — to paraphrase the indelible SZA's verses on this essential LP — like all the stars are approaching you.
5. Janelle Monáe
In her cover story in Rolling Stone in May, Janelle Monáe cleared up any speculation about her sexuality by telling the world she identifies as pansexual and characterizing herself as "a free-ass motherfucker."
Monáe's third LP Dirty Computer is a celebration of being just that: free. "Just let me live my life," she sings on early standout "Crazy, Classic, Life." Including contributions from Prince — he was working with Monáe on the record before his sudden passing — and collaborations with Grimes, Brian Wilson and Pharrell Williams, Dirty Computer is a kaleidoscopic pop record. Monáe struts her way through sultry grooves and thick, spellbinding beats while exploring identity dimensions like race, gender and sexuality.
Dirty Computer is a middle-finger at haters, but it's also a sexy and fun record that's a party for everyone who can relate to and is inspired by Monáe.
Devoid of filler, Pusha-T's purest solo serving wastes not a second of its distilled 21-minute runtime on a meh beat or soft couplet. A two-expert exercise in precision, sole/soul producer Kanye West caters his hard snares and ripe samples for Pusha's coke and dough poems.
The dirty guitar licks on "The Games We Play" will scrunch your face. The Mighty Hannibal's bluesy wails of "Come Back Baby" temporarily warm you between our host's icy slick talk: "They tired of dancing like a Ying Yang Twin." And closer "Infrared" is a laser-point dismantling of your girl's favourite rapper, Drake.
Daytona has no patience for subliminals. It demolishes targets and leaves you craving more carnage. Of all three seven-track G.O.O.D. Music projects dropped this spring, Daytona features the sharpest writing and the smartest execution. Yeughck!
3. J. Cole
J. Cole's brilliantly self-aware and mature KOD album stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best albums of 2018 so far. At once a disapproving finger-wagging at hip-hop's frivolous obsessions with everything but the things that actually matter, and an open book look at the effects addiction has had in his own life, the LP is a satisfying jazzy romp through shadowy realness.
Without question, the album's most talked about songs — and rightly so — came in the form of "1985 (Intro to 'The Fall Off')," an OG take on the younger generation of artists and a (casually) savage fatherly advice session that many fans hypothesized was squarely aimed at Lil Pump. If nothing else, the song provided an entry point for a marginalized base of listeners who tend to find an LP with this much real-life perspective corny.
A masterfully cohesive body of work, it continues Cole's streak of winning without any features — assuming you don't count kiLL edward.
2. Cardi B
Invasion of Privacy
Love her or hate her, Cardi B became one of the most talked-about artists last year, even knocking Taylor Swift out of the top spot on the Billboard 200 with her breakout "Bodak Yellow." The single was released more than a year before Invasion of Privacy finally arrived, so expectations for the Bronx rapper's debut album were almost unfairly high.
Luckily, Cardi more than lived up to the hype. The record blasts off with the blistering autobiographical "Get Up 10," which hears a fists-up Cardi defending her past as a stripper and her surgically enhanced body, proving that neither have hindered her efficiency as a rapper or her value as a human being. Cardi gives us flashy guest features from the likes of Migos, Chance the Rapper, Bad Bunny & J Balvin, Kehlani, 21 Savage, YG and SZA, but none of them manage to outshine Cardi's undeniable star power.
Invasion of Privacy delivers bravado-filled bangers like "Drip," "I Like It" and "Money Bag," but equally successful are the record's more vulnerable moments, like the it's-not-a-threat-it's-a-warning to cheaters "Be Careful" and the similarly themed "Thru Your Phone." Ultimately, the album channels Cardi's anger, drive, swagger and insecurity into a perfect rap-pop crossover that lets us invade Belcalis Almanzar's privacy enough to get a glimpse at the honest personality behind her cartoonish image.
1. U.S. Girls
In a Poem Unlimited
Political pop music is having a moment. On the one hand, citizens of the West are finding themselves living under the thumb of increasingly authoritarian governments; on the other, we're seeing a wellspring of pointed political and social critiques bubbling up in the most mainstream avenues.
Into this fray comes In a Poem Unlimited, the latest from Meg Remy's U.S. Girls project. Far and away the most accessible record of her career, its R&B and disco grooves mask the violence, anger and anxiety at the album's heart. Yet the record is neither didactic, nor nostalgic; Remy has become a master of show-don't-tell, able not only to tell a story but to subvert expectations within one.
Helping to deliver these tales are a host of Toronto friends and family. Slim Twig, Young Guv and members of Ice Cream and Tropics, among many others, all contribute, imbuing each song with an us-versus-them aesthetic. Even when Remy is detailing the gruesome murder of a violent lover, you can't help but marvel at the sense of community that was as the core of the record's creation.
Wrapped in funky rhythms and no-wave dissonance, In a Poem Unlimited is a cathartic sugar rush. In a perfect world, it wouldn't need to exist. But perfect it is not, and as such, it's an utter necessity.