This year, some albums disappointed, some albums surprised, and some exceeded even my sky high expectations. Albums are trickier to reckon with at a years end, I find, because they require more time to digest, and often it is time I just do not have. There are some albums that I haven’t listened to still, despite them being saved into my Spotify library for months (or even years in some case – I have a serious backlog). So omission from this ranking can sometimes just be down to unfamiliarity rather than because I didn’t like or think the work was quality. Others fell just short of the final cut, and I would like to honour them here:
Christine and the Queens – Chris, Hayley Kiyoko – Expectations, Kali Uchis – Isolation, KIDS SEE GHOSTS – KIDS SEE GHOSTS, Lykke Li – so sad so sexy, Mitski – Be The Cowboy, Nicki Minaj – Queen, Pale Waves – My Mind Makes Noises, Panic! At The Disco – Pray For The Wicked, Princess Nokia – A Girl Cried Red, Tinashe – Joyride
Thank you to everyone who read anything I wrote this year, I really appreciate it. I hope to be writing regularly again in 2019, but let me not make promises I may not keep. Please do @ me at any time to Discuss Music, it’s my favourite. And now, on with the ranking!
20. DRAKE – SCORPION
Two sides of Drake – the hip hop heavyweight and the R&B party starter. His most focused long play since Nothing Was The Same.
19. MNEK – LANGUAGE
A thoughtfully sequenced pure pop album from one of the UK’s most important songwriting talents. Loud and proud.
18. RITA ORA – PHOENIX
Six! years! after the release of her debut album, Rita returns with a package stuffed with top 10 hits that sound like they were actually written with her in mind, and not lifted from other artists reject piles.
17. THE NEIGHBOURHOOD – THE NEIGHBOURHOOD
Greyscale indie pop for wallowing in while you think about how completely unequipped you are for serious romantic relationships.
16. RYAN BEATTY – BOY IN JEANS
Supremely dreamy and immersive R&B story-telling that almost certainly sounds even better when you’re high, but I haven’t tested that hypothesis yet because I discovered this album very late in the year, so don’t take my word for it.
15. THE CARTERS – EVERYTHING IS LOVE
King Jay and, tbh, King Bey also, coming together to deliver the salve after the abrasion of their most recent respective solo albums. The Carters invited us all into their dysfunction and showed us how they healed. Everything really is love, actually.
14. PUSHA T – DAYTONA
Precision rap, opulent production. A compact capsule of absolutely dynamite hip hop.
13. YEARS & YEARS – PALO SANTO
Olly Alexander creates a vibrant vision of the future where queer celebration is intrinsically tied to the church – ‘Sanctify’, ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Preacher’ (and ‘Karma’ if you mix your faiths) all support my theory and are also magnificent additions to the sacrilegious-pop songbook.
12. LANY – MALIBU NIGHTS
Pink neon 80s heartbreak, the restlessness of not quite knowing what to do with yourself after a relationship ends, misty-eyed piano and synth. For when you have the energy to pace around and tear your hair out about it.
11. TRAVIS SCOTT – ASTROWORLD
Sprawling, psychedelic ADHD hip hop that brings together trends old, current and maybe some new in one carnival rollercoaster of a record.
10. CARDI B – INVASION OF PRIVACY
The character of Cardi B usually outshines the artistic output – Cardi B is compelling, her music, up to this point, was just a footnote. But on Invasion Of Privacy, the character became the art, distilling every single “okurrrr!”, every quip, every outfit, every personality facet into a streamlined, all killer album. Braggadocio, vulnerability, romance, feminism and more. No one expected the Cardi record to be this good, and you’re a liar if you say you did.
9. ARIANA GRANDE – SWEETENER
Ariana’s Guide To Getting On With It After Everything Takes An Unexpectedly Traumatic Turn is an uplifting and cathartic listen, polished and glossed to a lustrous sheen, with just a tiny, raw exposed edge.
8. NAO – SATURN
I actually shake a little bit when I think about how accurately Nao mapped this album to my own life even down to the details like names and events and like, actual words I have thought or even said out loud… am I Nao? Is Nao me? This record is magnificent.
7. 5 SECONDS OF SUMMER – YOUNGBLOOD
Never ones to shy away from vulnerability (they were putting mental health forward as a conversation topic long before it became a selling point) and it shows in their songwriting, which has always felt truer and more affecting than that of some of their peers. Their third album is a hybrid of 80s and 90s power-pop, serving big, catchy hooks. 5SOS grew from boys to men on this more confident, sexier collection of songs.
6. THE ACES – WHEN MY HEART FELT VOLCANIC
The Aces have been making music together since middle-school and their debut album is a testament to their easy chemistry, bred out of familiarity. Thoroughly effervescent, absolutely bubbling over with summer essence, my only one criticism is that ‘Baby Who’ didn’t make the final tracklist.
5. BROCKHAMPTON – IRIDESCENCE
The Brockhampton rocket aborted its trajectory mid-flight after the #TimesUp movement swept up one of their founding (and indeed, foundational) members. The band almost ended, then and there. Thankfully, they found the strength to rebuild and reroute and they spent 3 weeks in London crafting iridescence, a record that demands you don’t look away from the ugliness. Not the album they wanted to make, but the album they had to – it’s confrontational and reflective and sad and hopeful, and it also happens to absolutely fucking bang.
4. TOVE STYRKE – SWAY
Hesitated to include this since “album” seems such a strong word for seven original songs and a cover of Lorde’s ‘Liability’, but ultimately I couldn’t ignore the fact that this has been one of my favourite listens of the year – and what’s the criteria for an album nowadays anyway? Loads of artists have made records with more songs than this but not had a single track that holds a candle to anything by Tove Styrke. Innovative and surprising and most importantly fun, the title track is the real sparkling gem, but every song in this collection is 24-carat gold.
3. KACEY MUSGRAVES – GOLDEN HOUR
I did not realise that I was such an early adopter of Kacey Musgraves until this year when everyone I assumed was already on board revealed that they had apparently just discovered her. Golden Hour showcases everything about Kacey as an artist that has always been there – clever, observational storytelling and delicately wrought emotion, a joint fondness and exasperation for humanity and an ear for insistent melodies in the country tradition – and just elevates it musically. It’s still a country album, but it’s more expansive, trippier, more starry-eyed. You can tell it was written as she was falling in love and seeing the world through a new prism. I love her so much and now everyone else does too.
2. JANELLE MONAÉ – DIRTY COMPUTER
Janelle Monaé put everything in Dirty Computer – her heart, her soul, her resoluteness, her insecurities, her sexuality, her politics – and the outcome was this glittering, lavish, funk&B pop record. She raps, she sings, she illuminates – her talent is unfathomable. The visuals and the sonics of this project are so considered and fully-realised it’s so easy to lose yourself in the world she has created. Janelle has always been a world-builder – follow the story of Cyndi Mayweather, the android from her previous concept work, to get a sense of how good she is at weaving a narrative – but on Dirty Computer, the world is her own, the one she’s been building her whole life, and she’s finally ready to let us have a peek inside it.
1. THE 1975 – A BRIEF INQUIRY INTO ONLINE RELATIONSHIPS
I would be lying if I said I found this album an easy listen. It opens on the latest incarnation of the traditional ‘The 1975’ intro, and it’s like a brash, robot gospel, startling when the vocal hits the first time. It reminds me a little of the first time I played Yeezus – that industrial scuzz was so unexpected I thought I’d been rickrolled (I downloaded the leak, I’m not perfect). There’s no commonality between the songs, so you can never relax into a listening groove – a dance bop will jump immediately into something ambient which morphs into something aggressively experimental, then take a turn into R&B via a soft rock mid-tempo starring a gospel choir and wind up in acoustic ballad territory. Thematically too, every fragment of the millennial psyche is deconstructed, examined and explained – how do we feel about ourselves? each other? the planet? politics? technology? our lovers? our mental health? our vices? and why do we feel the way we do? Sonically, the way its presented means you have to really fucking focus to understand, because the vocals are distorted and sit deep into the mix, you literally cannot hear unless you listen. I think we know enough about The 1975 and their audacious frontman to draw the conclusion that this isn’t an accident. No “inquiry into online relationships” can ignore the fact that for the most part everyone is talking at each other and no one is paying attention. As an exercise to promote engaged listening, this album should be compulsory for everyone who wants to participate in communal conversation. With all that said, when you do take the time to invest, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is a deeply rewarding record. Yes, each song encompasses a new genre, but each song is the very best of that genre – the best dance bop, the best ambient vibe, the best soft rock mid-tempo starring a gospel choir, the best acoustic ballad, and more besides. When this album was in its infancy, it was called “Music For Cars” and was to be the final The 1975 album. Thankfully they have decided to continue the party – right into another album coming about 6 months from now even! – but perhaps the fact that they worked as though this was the end of the road is how they somehow managed to write what sounds like a greatest hits.