With streaming services fully taking hold of the music industry in 2018, it’s been an interesting time for the album format. The number of LPs dropping every Friday seems to be increasing, along with the number of tracks per record, while the time we have to consume them decreases.
Somehow, we've whittled this enormous list down to our 40 personal favourites. The poll has been running all week, and now the time is right to announce the winner…
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10. IDLES – 'Joy As An Act Of Resistance'
If Bristol five-piece IDLES’ debut record ‘Brutalism’ made waves outside of their hometown last year, ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ is its follow-up tsunami. Political but never preachy, sarcastic yet optimistic, full of zeitgeist but chasing any bandwagon, this is the kind of crossover smash that reminds the world at large why punk is still the genre you reach for when you feel like giving the whole world a good kicking.
It’s easy to just take this music at face value, giggling at Joe Talbot’s ‘plastic Sinatra’ putdowns and grin, like a trained monkey binging on Family Guy reruns, every time you recognise a cultural reference. Engage with their lyrics fully, however, and it becomes clear that there’s far more to IDLES than shouting ‘Fuck the Tories’ and nutting a stranger. “I’m lefty, I’m soft, I’m minimum wage job,” Talbot spits on ‘I’m Scum’, succinctly encapsulating the self-awareness of a record that spends as much time shouting at the mirror as it does raging against the machine.
Whether it’s toxic masculinity on ‘Samaritans’ or crippling body consciousness on ‘Television’, the underlying message of ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ – that we need to dismantle the prisons that we build ourselves, in order to start piecing our broken society back together – is clear, effective and convincingly argued.
Though it’s easy to get caught up analysing Talbot’s singular way with words when talking about this album, IDLES are far from a one-man show. Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan’s high-kicking guitar lines giddily collide, snaking round and round one another before exploding into atomic blasts of distortion. Jon Beavis drums with a controlled ferocity that kicks ‘Never Fight A Man With A Perm’ into another gear, while the beautifully bearded Adam Devonshire crafts the most instantly recognisable bassline of the decade with ‘Danny Nedelko’.
‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ presents a fully formed, powerful band capable of knitting together fury and joy in a way that never sounds hackneyed or dated.
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9. Various We Out Here
Jazz had a good year in 2018 – there is absolutely no question about that. A seemingly endless treasure trove of material poured out of the London underground over the past 12 months, propelled by a desire to break the rules, to blend different cultures, and create anew.
With its communal musicality, Brownswood’s ‘We Out Here’ compilation perhaps encapsulated the spirit of London’s jazz scene better than any single release. Overseen by saxophonist and composer Shabaka Hutchings, it was recorded across a series of days at the studio in London’s Fish Factory studio, and its freeflowing creativity turns each piece into a minute, self-contained gem.
Opening with Maisha’s languid, spiritual ‘Inside The Acorn’, ‘We Out Here’ pulls together all manner of different disciplines and approaches, continually asking questions both of the audience and the musicians therein. Ezra Collective bring the fire on ‘Pure Shade’, and their rabid afro-funk is followed by the rhythmic complexity of ‘The Balance’ by Moses Boyd.
Fusing club culture, Afrobeat, high life, Afro-Caribbean traditions and more into an unwieldy but inspirational document, ‘We Out Here’ never repeats itself. Theon Cross hails South London on ‘Brockley’, before giving way to Nubya Garcia’s stunning saxophone-led showcase ‘Once’. Hutchings gets in front of the mic on ‘Black Skin, Black Masks’, a complex, challenging work that recalls his own Mercury-nominated work with Sons Of Kemet.
Triforce steer into the ambient side of fusion’s legacy on ‘Walls’, while Joe-Armon Jones presages his own debut album as a bandleader on the lush, fragrantly melodic ‘Go See’. Kokoroko provide the sunset moment on ‘We Out Here’ with their glacial, endlessly evolving ‘Abusey Junction’, somehow managing to recall Fela Kuti’s more mellow side while remaining firmly rooted in the sights, sounds and smells of London in 2018.
Indeed, at times ‘We Out Here’ feels like aural cartography, a way of mapping and reinventing a city that often seems like a hostile place to these voices. At time when London can often seem more fragmented, more sterile than ever before, ‘We Out Here’ represented the grass-shoots of community, and the creativity it can engender.
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8. SOPHIE – 'OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES'
More than half a decade since the PC Music collective first came into the public consciousness, there are still plenty of unanswered questions; the most pressing of which being: “What are they for?” What seemed initially to be a meditation on popular culture and consumerism masked by multiple layers of irony has, over time, stagnated, to the point where it could now be arguably be seen as artificial as what it sought to critique.
Adding a second dimension to a movement that wore its single-mindedness as a badge of honour originally seemed misguided at best but, with ‘OIL OF EVERY PEARL’s UN-INSIDES’, SOPHIE broke free of the restrictive nature of the PC Music aesthetic and made the record that takes the group’s art-school pretensions to the next level.
In fact, those barriers are broken down on the album’s very first song, the naked and affecting, ‘It’s Okay To Cry’. Using her own voice for the first time as a performer, SOPHIE is disarmingly vulnerable, getting straight to the core of an emotional relationship (But with whom? A partner? The world? Herself?) over fluttering synth pads, before rushing to a caffeine-fuelled climax. It’s a rumination on self-identity and the damaging effects of hyper-masculinity, and it’s comfortably the most candid thing SOPHIE has ever committed to record.
Elsewhere, we’re on slightly more familiar ground. The sleazy, industrial S&M stomp of ‘Ponyboy’ is viscerally thrilling, ‘Immaterial’ is Noughties pop that’s had access to unlimited sugar, and ‘Faceshopping’ creaks, snaps and whistles in all the right places.
It’s remarkable how SOPHIE makes every element of her tracks percussive, no matter how melodious, and her songs seems purposely designed to provoke a physical reaction. Nowhere is this clearer than on album closer ‘Whole New World / Pretend World’, whose main riff gives the feeling of your inner ears being sandpapered (but, you know, in a good way).
It all adds up to everything you loved about SOPHIE in the first place, plus a hitherto unseen side that shows the fully rounded artist she’s become.
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7. Pusha T DAYTONA
GOOD Music/Def Jam Leading the charge for Kanye West’s G.O.O.D Music Summer was easily the best of the five albums unearthed from his infamous Wyoming sessions. Pusha T’s ‘DAYTONA’ cut through the bloated rap album formula that we’d become used to: like the luxury watch it takes its name from, the album focuses on pleasing a niche core audience, and impresses the masses as a result.
From opening track ‘If You Know You Know’, the stage is set for an elitist rap album to be lapped up by those who came up analysing bars and studying liner notes. Before the beat even kicks in, Push has already referenced Pink Floyd, De La Soul, ’N***as In Paris’ producer Hit-Boy and Rich Boy’s 2006 hit ‘Throw Some D’s’, he’s also alluded to past crimes he’s still evading and takes a shot at fraud rappers tripping themselves up with false figures. As Rick Ross puts it on ‘Hard Piano’: “This is for the sneaker hoarders and coke snorters”.
Hip-hop might have become pop culture, but this album isn’t intended for everyone. It’s difficult to make music feel exclusive when we can access millions of songs from our phones for a £10 subscription. For this generation, streetwear and sneaker drops have replaced the source of excitement that record stores once did, but Pusha manages to bring back that feeling through by trading cultural capital through his lyrics: if you’re in on the punchline then you feel part of the movement, and if not then you’re going to go away and do some digging to brush up on your rap references and cocaine folklore.
‘DAYTONA’s prime concerns are time and luxury. The three years it took Pusha to deliver a 21-minute album would be unaffordable to most rappers, who would have to strike while the iron was hot. By staying small, focused and concise here, he makes the biggest statement of his solo career so far – going against the excess and all-you-can-eat approach that’s got the rest of the game caught up is truly a stunt. Pusha T is timeless.
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6. Let’s Eat Grandma – 'I’m All Ears'
Joy is a luxury item. In austerity Britain, real joy – sweet, full-fat pleasure, the kind that still swells the heart and lungs days after its first hit – is to be looked back upon, or anticipated, but never clutched.
The first time I heard ‘Hot Pink’, my fizzing synapses understood this concept at a chemical level before any rational part of me could vocalise it, and I knew then that nothing tasteful or decorative was going to speak to the human spirit in 2018. It was going to sound like two teenage girls from Norfolk taking a joyride in an already half-smashed up police car. It was divine.
What I wasn’t prepared for was just how much Let’s Eat Grandma’s second album would marry that hedonism with anxiety, and how badly we needed to hear that emotional crossover reflected in modern pop. “And just when we discovered that we need each other,” they sang, “here our lives keep pulling us away.”
‘It’s Not Just Me’ was hair-raisingly good, and that simple sentiment – “I know you’re feeling the same way” – was almost enough by itself. Like great works of magical realism, ‘I’m All Ears’ sways between fantasy and reality, until it’s unclear where the palace ends and the street begins.
On a record that saw SOPHIE and Faris Badwan contribute to an unlikely production team, it’s also a sonically breathtaking affair. Any attempts at delineation between pop and rock feel more redundant than usual. Sure, the first half of the album shows more of their knack for sugar-rush melodies, with the latter cascading into epic slow-burners, but nothing operates on one track. ‘Ava’ will go down as one of the great ballads of the era, but everything else is a glorious jumble of ideas, constantly seeking out the next level of ballast before soaring off again.
By the time ‘Donnie Darko’ reels to a close, something has changed. The world feels heavier and lighter all at once, and for all its pain and horror and uncertainty, a connection is forged. Joy prevails.
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5. Robyn – 'Honey'
“No, you’re not gonna get what you need, but baby I have what you need / Come get your honey,” is the hypnotic, charged refrain from the title track ‘Honey’, and the words encapsulate the record’s thorny core. Grief, heartbreak, disenchantment and mundanity tinge the narrative of Robyn’s eighth studio album, but she refuses to succumb to melodrama, instead weaving together a streamlined set of songs that luxuriate in a fervent but meditative ecstasy – the payoff mellower but no less pungent.
Robyn definitively centres the experience of later-life melancholia through a prism of globetrotting communal club culture. She pays a meta-homage to true dance progenitors but delicately manipulates their sonic archetype for a new audience, like on the samba-staccato hybrid of ‘Beach2k20’, or the Chic-evoking disco heat of ‘Because It’s In The Music’.
Robyn and her trusted band of collaborators – Metronomy’s Joseph Mount, Klas Åhlund, Adam Bainbridge, Mr. Tophat – cultivate nine tracks that incite movement through sophisticated, subtle distillations in texture and sound. There’s no gimmicky call-and-response and very little in the way of discernible melody, but a softness and deftness in touch that ebbs, flows and trickles like, well, honey. These are synthetic forays that veer from the euphoric high of solitude that has defined Robyn’s musical legacy thus far. Now her come-hither sensuality is matched by an anguished plea for reciprocity.
Extrapolating pain from pleasure and shirking immediacy, she embraces a reverie of conflict and despondency over fractured electronics, making the auditory experience that much more satiating. Robyn has consistently blurred the parameters of pop music for over two decades, because she’s able to mine truth in emotion and make that paradox of emotion authentic and symphonic.
‘Honey’ continues her run of immaculate, minimalist pop confection, managing the tricky feat of making the personal profound whilst also ushering in a new era where creative fulfilment and self-preservation trumps everything else.
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4. Blood Orange – 'Negro Swan'
Dev Hynes’ fourth album under the moniker Blood Orange was described by the East London musical polymath as “an exploration into my own and many types of black depression.” To execute this vision in the broadest possible way, he expertly utilises his talent as a producer with a communal approach to music-making.
Across ‘Negro Swan’s 49 minutes listeners hear from transgender rights activist Janet Mock, Three 6 Mafia co-founder Project Pat, actress Amanda Stenberg and a surprisingly candid Puff Daddy – who asks, “What is it going to take for me to not be afraid to be loved the way, like, I really wanna be loved?” – to name just a few.
Likewise the musical spectrum is broad; an ambitious collage of pop, R&B, hip-hop and chillwave, and anything else that could be crafted from the equipment that Hynes would find lying around studios in Tokyo, Florence and Copenhagen.
“The underlying thread through each piece on the album, is the idea of hope,” said Hynes in a statement about the album, “and the lights we can try to turn on within ourselves with a hopefully positive outcome of helping others out of their darkness.” It’s a beautifully sensitive body of work, that arrives in times when it feels increasingly important for us to get to know one another more intimately – not to put differences aside, but to acknowledge and understand our differences so that they can be celebrated.
By its closing track ‘Smoke’, Hynes basks in self love, declaring “I’m pretty as fuck”, before repeating the mantra “The Sun comes in, my heart fulfils within” as the sublime LP draws its conclusion.
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3. 6LACK – 'East Atlanta Love Letter'
After first making waves in 2016 with his debut project ‘FREE 6LACK’ – a title referring to the contractual hell that he’d been through with his previous label – Atlanta R&B singer 6LACK returned with his highly anticipated sophomore album, ‘East Atlanta Love Letter’.
If ‘FREE 6LACK’ was an appetiser of what the Peach State native could do musically, then its follow-up was the main course that we’d been waiting for. ‘East Atlanta Love Letter’ draws the listener into a world that’s soundtracked by the city’s trap music, while exposing another side to life in Georgia’s capital; the pain, emotion and tumultuous relationships.
6LACK lives somewhere in a grey area, wearing his imperfections on his sleeve: juggling his passion for music with his personal life, writing slow jams while finding his own salvation in the city’s club music. “Lately I been listening to trap music / Don’t want to listen if I can’t dab to it,” he sings on ‘Thuggers Interlude’, before admitting: “But I’m a hypocrite, cos here I am with another slow song.” He’s more comfortable being candid on record than in real life, providing therapy for his listeners who can take comfort in his imperfections.
‘Unfair’ opens with the lines: “Hope my mistakes don’t make me less of a man / But lately it feel like these shits really can,” and it’s clear that a journey of heartache and pain is set to follow across the next 48 minutes. ‘Let Her Go’ sees 6LACK considering the impact a potential break-up will have on his life, while the down-tempo heart-wrencher ‘Sorry’ finds him regretful as he tries to work his way through a mistake, melodies gliding over a soothing piano loop: “Without you I ain’t shit, but no pressure / Guess I gotta learn my lesson.”
A self-proclaimed “R&B n***a with a hip-hop core,” 6LACK effortlessly transitions from heart-breaking crooning to braggadocios rapping. He saves the majority of this for the third quarter of the LP, with ‘Balenciaga Challenge’, ‘Scripture’ and ‘Nonchalant’. While the album often feels morose in tone, it does draw a hopeful conclusion. Khalid joins for ‘Seasons’, which announces the arrival of summer in contrast to the cold of the rest of the LP, and the unashamedly romantic closer ‘Stan’ sees 6LACK painting a picture of where he hopes his future will take him.
‘East Atlanta Love Letter’ is 6LACK’s statement of intent. It carries on where ‘Free 6LACK’ left off, adding more strings to his already stacked bow. With relatable lyrics about love and heartbreak, he connects so vividly to his fans, who realise that he isn’t so different to them. The impressive selection of guest features – Future, J. Cole, Offset and Khalid – add a little more gloss to what was an already stellar album, and this release cements 6LACK’s status as one of the world’s most exciting and relatable new stars.
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2. Travis Scott – 'Astroworld'
In the days before ‘ASTROWORLD’ was released, a handful of enormous demonic heads appeared in cities across the US. They stood in a monochromatic gold, with dead eyes and a crown of serpentine braids. They landed with mouths agape, forming gateways that invited excited onlookers into the labyrinthine mind of their human likeness – the unmistakable Travis Scott.
Designed by famed pop-surrealist Dave LaChapelle, the sculptures were undoubtedly more than just a realisation of some aspect of Scott’s grand artistic intent and it is, of course, no coincidence that they happened to be perfectly Instagrammable.
The 26-year-old Houston native is a zeitgeist-surfing visionary, for whom traditional measures of rap pedigree are incidental. ‘ASTROWORLD’, Scott’s third and most ambitious album to date, makes the case that the man once a student of Kanye West, has perfected his cataclysmic approach to hip-hop that places as much emphasis on curation as it does on creation.
“It’s like pure imagination, pure liveliness,” Scott said of an in-progress ‘ASTROWORLD’ during our cover interview with him last summer. What finally followed a year later was an expectedly brilliant exercise in escapism and world building. The low-key bounce of the album’s opening, ‘STARGAZING’, only hints at the euphoric heights this wild ride will take us to, first on the Drake-assisted ‘SICKO MODE’, then onwards an upwards to the intensely vibrant Tame Impala cut ‘SKELETONS’, and the already multi- platinum hit, ‘BUTTERFLY EFFECT’.
The psychedelic fantasia of ‘ASTROWORLD’ is constructed on a foundation of stunning production, out of which both attention-grabbing bangers and surprising oddities are erected. Handpicked contributors and a whole world of disparate influences combine to make something sonically complex and consistently intriguing. Its glittering and varied list of collaborators – from Stevie Wonder, The Weeknd and James Blake to rising rap stars Sheck Wes, Gunna and Juice WRLD – all feel energised by the spectacle they are part of.
In fact, it is the moments in which Scott and his co-producers expertly weave the performances of featured artists into the project’s idiosyncratic universe that ‘ASTROWORLD’ reaches its most dizzying heights. ‘R.I.P SCREW’ utilises Swae Lee’s angelic vocal to elevate Scott’s heartfelt tribute to Houston rap icon DJ Screw, ‘CAN’T SAY’ introduces the haunting sound of newcomer Don Toliver, and ‘SICKO MODE’ might as well be considered this generation’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
In the video for ‘STOP TRYING TO BE GOD’, director Dave Meyers sets up a series of surreal tableaux that attempt to try and visualise the album’s rap-surrealism. Scott baptises followers so that they may receive his holy braids, before ripping through LA on a fire breathing dragon, only to be laser-beamed to death by a God-like man in the sky, also played by Travis.
Nothing is preposterous, and that is the true genius of the audiovisual landscape cultivated by our protagonist. Imperfect by design, ‘ASTROWORLD’ feels like the first time the otherworldly quality of Travis Scott’s work has been fully realised.
Whether it’s due to experience, resources or personal influence, this project offers a the kind of playful contrast between his familiar bars and their dystopian backdrop that his previous efforts only ever managed to sustain in short bursts. Just as only the most exciting rollercoasters tease you with the threat of derailment, the pertinent and thrilling sense that ‘ASTROWORLD’ might lose touch of reality altogether is what makes it one of the most inviting, and intriguing, rap albums of recent times.
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1. Christine And The Queens – 'Chris'
Christine And The Queens’ new album ‘Chaleur Humaine’ was daring, distinctive, and entirely original. A remarkable success story, its transition from French to English came just as this country was beginning the process of separating itself from the rest of Europe, a time when – for many – the darker instincts of our psyche were coming to the surface.
Establishing a potent mythology, Héloïse Letissier was faced with constructing a follow-up more than four years after she first began recording her debut, a time that had changed her body and spirit irrevocably. She had become a new person, it seemed, and that required something new. So Christine became ‘Chris’ and her music became more complex, nuanced, and carnal, while also becoming more focused, more pop fixated, and more immediate than ever before.
If DaM-FunK-aided lead single ‘Girlfriend’ was the supple, erotically enticing introduction, then what lay ahead was more challenging, and more rewarding than anything she had recorded before. Using touchstones such as Janet Jackson’s incredible erotic opus ‘The Velvet Rope’ as her guide, Chris pulled from drag culture, from ’80s machine funk, and from her own pan-sexual thoughts, dreams, and romances to construct the year’s most vivid, colourful, confusing, and addictive pop full-length.
‘Doesn’t Matter’ revolves around those distorted Cameo-esque drum machine kicks as Chris grapples with magic, with sex, with the unknowable powers that pulse through our everyday experiences. “If I could just push this door chalked on the wall,” she sings at one point, “if after the void there's somewhere else to fall.”
Everything about ‘Chris’ revolves around extremes. From lust to anger, pain and regret, each emotion is pushed out to its furthest reaches, with its central figure distorted, emboldened, and empowered after four years of touring; her voice broader, her body hardened, her conception of ‘Chris’ informed by adoring crowds, and the rush of audiences.
The thrill of performance seems to underpin ‘5 Dollars’, one of the album’s boldest moments, one of its most stirring arrangements, and starkest vocals. “You’re eager and unashamed,” she sings, before adding: “I grieve by dying every night, baby…”
But there’s still an inherent eroticism in this cry, and it’s something communicated through almost every single line on ‘Chris’. ‘Feel So Good’ is exuberant, carefree with its cry of “just one fling,” while ‘Damn (What Must A Woman Do)’ couples its proto-house, jackin’ electro feel to that seductive line: “Naked with opened door / Encore, encore…”
That isn’t to suggest, though, that Chris has out-run her insecurities, that success has stained her melancholies – they still surface, and often erupt in the most unexpected, and most violent of manners. ‘The Walker’ addresses this explicitly, her own doubts, fears, self-loathing erupting as a vision of the aftermath of brutality, her body damaged but unbowed. Bruises are reimagined as flowers, with Chris again returning to drag culture, to the concept of ownership, and the ability to recontextualise your physical faults as something divine, or grotesque, but always beautiful.
And ultimately, ‘Chris’ is a terrifically beautiful record. A phenomenal technical achievement, it’s imbued by a sense of accuracy and precision, with Christine And The Queens being forever driven by an impassioned lust towards new ideas, and fresh aesthetics.
It’s bold but also subtle; it’s a complex puzzle, but also incredibly immediate. It’s another mutation from one of our generation’s most distinctive pop auteurs. It’s Chris.
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Miss Part One? Try HERE.
Miss Part Two? Try HERE.
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