19 Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves
The last few years have seen various pop artists look to country, folk and Americana music as sources of inspiration in order to achieve a more ‘authentic’ sound. But all it took was Kacey Musgraves releasing her third album Golden Hour to prove just how blended country and pop ought to be done.
Each song creates an image of a woman who may not have it all together but assures us that it’s okay – a sentiment that in this tumultuous year everyone needs. The seamless transitions from slower tracks such as ‘Slow Burn’ and ‘Space Cowboy’ into more upbeat songs like ‘Velvet Elvis’ and the disco-infused ‘High Horse’ exhibit the broad spectrum of Musgraves’ talent. However, it’s the subtle one-two punch of the closing tracks which solidify this album as one of the best of the year. The titular song and ‘Rainbow’ highlight the idea that no one is perfect; we all make mistakes and have flaws but that’s what makes us human.
It’s a message which sounds simple and somewhat cliché but within Musgraves’ glorious songwriting feels brand new. Golden Hour feels like a sanctuary amongst the stress, self-doubt and anxiety of everyday modern life and it’s reassuring to have a musician as conscious and heartfelt as Kacey Musgraves to lead us through it all.
18 Staying at Tamara’s by George Ezra
It’s been four years since Wanted on Voyage catapulted Mr Ezra to incredible heights upon the musical frontier, so if that album hinted at the rather magnificent adventures he was about to experience then it’s fitting that Staying at Tamara’s feels more retrospective and sentimental.
Lyrically, this wisdom lurks in almost all of his tracks and Ezra should be commended for striking the balance for the dreaded sophomore album conundrum, feeling familiar but also new. His booming baritone vocals continue to give the songs more edge and depth. While several of the tracks have been drip-fed to the public over the course of the year, his hooks’ sharp edge, like those in ‘Paradise’ and ‘Pretty Shining People’, will have you singing and humming along to their melodies even after they’re finished with many of his songs saddled with a thumping bass or the punch of epic horns, as heard in ‘Shotgun’, to really compliment the track.
The album works when the bonhomie and geniality of Ezra’s likeable persona is present. There is enough depth and power for this not to be regressed to just background music and there’s an overt tone, in songs like ‘Hold My Girl’, that Ezra may be a little bit more lovesick than he was before. There’s no jadedness within Staying at Tamara’s, everything feels rather wholesome and simultaneously sincere without feeling too much like bromide and when hollow musical fluff can dominate the airwaves, there’s something quite pleasant about Ezra’s earnestness.
17 Palo Santo by Years & Years
Blending religious imagery and sexual subtext is nothing new, but Years and Years’ 2018 album Palo Santo brings a fresh twist to the theme with lead singer Olly Alexander’s queer lyrics. The single and album opener ‘Sanctify’ sets up the dialogue between sanctity and same-sex desire through lyrics that, somewhat predictably, pun on the idea of forbidden love and lying to each other (“You don’t have to be straight with me”), but that, in more poignant moments do highlight the ongoing guilt and hatred so much of the queer community is still subjected to today.
The album fuses upbeat pop tunes that present the highs and lows of a relationship – ‘All For You’ and ‘If You’re Over Me’ both exude doubt over the mutuality of love paired with fast rhythms that make the songs dancefloor-appropriate. The slower, ballad-like songs are equally worthy of praise, even if they are slightly less memorable in the latter half of the album. ‘Here’, drastically toned down compared to the other tracks with regard to both length and instrumentals, is a favourite with its close harmonies and thoughtful lyricism, contrasting with the album’s closing number, ‘Up In Flames’, that marks a return to Years and Years’ electro-pop roots. Palo Santo is an impressive follow-up to the band’s debut success, and hopefully signifies a promise for more genre-defying, queer-themed music to come.
16 Be the Cowboy by Mitski
Be The Cowboy is one of the shortest albums on the list, its 14 tracks squeezed into just 32 minutes. Mitski has talked before about how being a Japanese-American woman in music means she is afforded less time to represent herself or feel confident in her talent, feeding into the perhaps odd title of her fifth album: Mitski wants her listeners to embody the self-assuredness and swagger we associate with the mythical western cowboy.
The album is a departure from her previous work; she writes not about adolescence but adulthood, leaving her typical distorted guitar sound behind in favour of richer orchestration and wearier lyrics – see ‘Pink in the Night’ and lead single ‘Geyser’. Despite this record falling far from her lo-fi roots, Mitski shows that great music doesn’t need to be ultra-produced to be enjoyable (and critically successful) in today’s market. Most of the album lacks vocal doubles or harmonies, consciously replicating the experience of seeing a solo musician on stage. Despite touring with a talented band, Mitski is and has always been a soloist, with themes of loneliness flowing throughout. On ‘Nobody’ and ‘Lonesome Love’, she pairs devastatingly grave lyrics with upbeat rhythms and major keys. Be the Cowboy is deservedly topping many album-of-the-year lists; perhaps Mitski is becoming her own cowboy after all.
15 7 by Beach House
7 marks the beginning of a new era for Beach House, who announced the record in an open letter that spoke of “rebirth and rejuvenation”. Despite this, 7 rarely feels like anything new for the band. It maintains their signature dream-pop sound, embellishing it with shoegaze and psychedelic touches. However, this is the beauty of 7, as it is a natural progression of the formula Beach House had already perfected.
The live drumming and fuzzy guitars add warmth and sonic depth to the album, making it a more rewarding listen each time it’s played. The lyrics are also more relevant than ever – a culmination of Victoria Legrand’s ruminations on societal change and questioning where women, particularly famous women, belong in society (‘Girl of the Year’ is inspired by Edie Sedgwick and ‘Last Ride’ is about Nico). ‘Drunk in LA’ is a lyrical standout about a fading star, while the synth-pop ‘Woo’ and the shoegaze b-side ‘Alien’ are highlights on what is Beach House’s lushest album yet.
7 is a reflection on the beauty of darkness, and it pulls it off effortlessly, solidifying Beach House as the essential dream-pop act of the 21st century.
14 Isolation by Kali Uchis
Tyler the Creator was right in ‘After the Storm’: “My chocolate wit’ yo’ vanilla, uh,” Kali Uchis’ Isolation is the finest vanilla of 2018. Her voice is fluffy, not offensive at all; with all the nostalgic tunes, she delights you with sexiness, everything is just like a dream in the 80s. Her rhythms are mainstream enough for commercialisation, while she manages to combine her art and philosophy in songs, she could be popular yet not cheesy, and she proves that it is possible to please the critiques while being crowd-pleasing.
Comparing to her last EP, Por Vida, Isolation is definitely better in production and the diverse of music – not to say that Por Vida is a terrible EP, it’s definitely good enough for someone who is new in the industry, but don’t you find majority of its songs sound basically the same? Isolation is more memorable, it’s a bold and successful try-out – it’s involved in genre: pop, soul, jazz, reggae, mixed with Latin elements – the psychedelic and synth-pop elements in this album are especially well-combined, making this album a fun experiment that can be easily understood by everyone.
However, it’s undeniable that few tracks fall short, or are even straight-up boring when you listen to a second time. The reason for this is because her voice is too weak – which you can describe as dreamy, but it could also feel like an annoying mosquito buzzing around your ears.
I’m excited, as well as worried, to see what Kali Uchis will come up with next.
13 DAYTONA by Pusha T
His first release since his sophomore solo album in 2015, Pusha T pushes Grammy-nominated DAYTONA to the forefront of true, pure hip hop with a new style of release. Instead of dropping a 20+ track album to juice up the streaming numbers, a common practice among many of today’s artists, Push has chosen the route revitalised by the owner of his label: Kanye West. King Push has released a short, clean and masterfully produced album with seven crisp tracks, all under 3:30 minutes, and still manages to get two A-list features: Rick Ross and Ye himself, who also served as the executive producer in his studio in Wyoming.
The record comes complete with soulful melodies and a salt-of-the-earth instrumental on ‘Come Back Baby’; a slow, sultry hook in Spanish on ‘Santeria’, and excellent use of sonic negative space on the final track, ‘Infrared’, where the lack of sound speaks as much as any noise made. The stylistic variation in these three tracks combined with the gritty opener ‘If You Know You Know’ and the quiet aggression on ‘Hard Piano ‘make for a diverse set of tracks that are the perfect length: DAYTONA is an album (and yes, I maintain it’s an album and not an EP, according to other critics) that you can digest beginning to end in one sitting, and each track has replay value. Hopefully setting a trend for shorter, well produced songs in a tidy package.
Haroon B Khan
12 OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES by SOPHIE
SOPHIE’s OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES is a complex, colourful and hard-hitting musical experience. The Transgressive Records affiliate makes music rooted in themes of queerness, love, and alienation, wielding plastic-sounding synthesisers and warped samples to achieve her distinctly abrasive sound.
From the wistful euphoria of ‘It’s Okay to Cry’ to the wild kinkiness of ‘Ponyboy’, the album defies any semblance of convention to create its unique atmosphere. Tracks such as ‘Is It Cold in the Water’ and ‘Pretending’ offer intensity through introspection, while ‘Immaterial’ is a straight-up banger; a showcase of SOPHIE’s energetic production skills previously heard under names such as Charli XCX, Vince Staples, and even Madonna. Though something of a mad scientist when it comes to production, the abstract and outlandish musicality of this album does not detract from its pop influence. SOPHIE leaves no room for pretension in the musical worlds she builds.
While the album isn’t the most cohesive listen in its overall narrative, the sheer scope of the songwriting and sound design results in a wide palette of musical flavours, building bridges between commercial pop and the new wave of deconstructed club music. SOPHIE is a genre-bending champion of experimentalism and OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES is all the proof we need.
11 Pray for the Wicked by Panic! At the Disco
Starting out as a blink-182 inspired pop-punk band, Panic! At the Disco (P!ATD) has since evolved away from this genre, and their latest release, Pray for the Wicked, further demonstrates their shift in musical style.
The album shows heavy Broadway influences as a lot of the songs (such as ‘High Hopes’) were written around the time that P!ATD’s frontman (and only member) Brendon Urie made his Broadway debut in ‘Kinky Boots’. The theatrical vibe in the album is evident through the featuring of an entire orchestra, with lots of different instruments from brass to strings. Theatrical vocal training for ‘Kinky Boots’ has also been utilised by Brendon Urie in this album, which has showcased his ability to hit ridiculously high notes – arguably his strongest vocal performance to date. In Pray for the Wicked, P!ATD also did not shy away from catchy pop sounds, evidently in lead single ‘Say Amen (Saturday Night)’, ‘Dancing’s not a Crime’, and ‘One of the Drunks’.
Far from selling out, Brendon Urie demonstrates in this album his shape-shifting musical ability: Pray for the Wicked is radio friendly, appealing to both general audience and their pop-punk fan base.