10 Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino by Arctic Monkeys
After the roaring success of 2013’s sexy but sanitised AM, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino sees the Sheffield rockers returning to creative form with a quieter, meandering album. Absent of any singles with immediate power bar the anthemic ‘Four Out Of Five’, this is a record focusing on the evergreen sharp lyricism of Alex Turner, structured around leisurely piano compositions. Indie rock stylings and traditional songs structures are shunted to the background, buried under the shimmering layers of influence from glam, jazz, pop and lounge music. Turner’s typical confessional style has never sounded better; bolstered by ideas of science fiction and interstellar development, the album seduces you into your stay at a casino on the moon. Though Turner and his keys undeniably quarterback the sound, highlights like ‘Science Fiction’, ‘Star Treatment’ and the title track are driven by silky basslines, careful tight drumming and echoing guitars. Ending on the soaring ‘The Ultracheese’, Tranquility Base shows the Arctic Monkeys at their most mature, displaying restraint and intelligence in crafting a slow-burning, thoughtful record.
9 Negro Swan by Blood Orange
In Blood Orange’s fourth studio album, Dev Hynes navigates an introspective journey of identity and self-acceptance. In this lusciously lo-fi landscape, black depression, sexuality, and vulnerability take centre stage. Undeniably, Negro Swan is multi-faceted. Its lines haunted with lingering memories of adolescent bullying: in the introductory ‘Orlando’, Hynes recounts his ‘first kiss was the floor’. Yet there remain moments of self-love, as Hynes brags he feels “pretty as f*ck” in the concluding track ‘Smoke’.
In Negro Swan, everyone wears their heart on their sleeve. Hynes forces his high profile, talented collaborators out of their comfort zones, with even kingpin rapper Diddy leaving his bravado at the door, confessing his fears of vulnerability. Yet one of the most important voices on the album is African American trans activist Janet Mock, who narrates the album with reflections on feeling comfortable in your own skin, and the importance of community.
In an age where conversations about minority rights and acceptance are coming to the societal forefront, Negro Swan demands for empathy and understanding. After all, as Hynes croons in the lead single ‘Charcoal Baby’: “no one wants to be the odd one out at times. No one wants to be the Negro Swan”.
8 High as Hope by Florence + the Machine
Having had the privilege to witness High as Hope in concert, I am convinced this album is something of an heirloom, increasing exponentially in emotional value with the passing of time. While the tender notes of ‘Grace’ and ‘The End of Love’ were initial stand-outs, resembling some of the softer tracks of her more recent discography, I have since grown enamoured by all ten songs on what is essentially the most concise yet fulfilling LP I can remember from recent years.
The band have undeniably matured in sound, with production somewhat muted compared to previous triumphs, but this new stripped back direction seems more and more like quintessential Florence with each listen. Full focus is given to particularly transcendent lines – ‘and what if one day there is no such thing as snow?’, ‘as women raged, and old men fumbled and cried’ – and the rhetorical and revolutionary tone underpinning the entire album enhances its cogency. While High as Hope may not be the powerhouse album people had expected, harking back to the rose-coloured days of Ceremonials, its vulnerability and reflectivity offers possibly the most insight we’ve ever had into the mind of the contemporary icon that is Florence Welch.
7 Swimming by Mac Miller
I didn’t want this review to be an obituary. Swimming was supposed to be the next step of a blossoming career, not an ending. Mac Miller rose up through his ability to get stuck in your head, and he could have cruised on that, but he wanted to do more. He wanted to be better. Those earworms are still in Swimming– ‘Self Care’ and ‘Ladders’ have some of the best hooks of the year, but the entire project continues the subversive path of his last few releases.
The album lets itself breathe and the rapper takes his time to explore his head, his insular lyricism backed with gorgeous pads and muted guitar licks to give an ethereal soul feel. It’s Mac trying to find ways of expressing himself and trying to figure out what he means, and sometimes coming up short as we all do. Post a very public breakup, Mac intensifies the focus that was already on him to a level of personal confession, singing openly about his flaws and his regrets. That a work about trying to accept yourself will be the last thing he ever releases is heart-breaking. We should have had more. I miss you, Mac.
6 Geography by Tom Misch
2018 has been the year that Tom Misch has gone from being a little-known bedroom beat maker uploading music to Soundcloud, to being one of the most respected and widely adored musicians in the UK. The breadth of his appeal is partly down to the multiple genres his music encompasses, something that is reflected in the wide range of guests that feature on this record, including established names like De La Soul and up and coming stars like Poppy Ajudha and close friend Loyle Carner.
Stand out track ‘Lost in Paris’ sees Misch’s vocals skipping over an infectious guitar beat and a rhythmic guest verse from Grammy nominated GoldLink while the instrumental track ‘Tick Tock’ allows Misch to demonstrate his exquisite production skills. While this album is more conservative than some of his earlier work, Misch’s enormous talent is evident and Geography firmly establishes his place as one of the most innovative and enjoyable to listen to artists in British music today.
5 Chris by Christine and the Queens
Following up 2014’s Chaleur Humaine was always going to be a mammoth task for Héloïse Letissier, the artist behind acclaimed French art-pop act Christine and the Queens. Yet Letissier does not settle for simply giving us more of the groundbreaking, synth-infused pop that so characterised her first outing. Whilst Chaleur Humaine also tackled themes of identity and sexuality, it remained tentative in places, sacrificing overall cohesion for memorable single tracks. Chris, however, is nothing short of ambitious – as an album it is unafraid to throw its weight around, the punch of its contemporary thematic elements propelled by a fusion engine of 80s-esque funk rhythm and deep, roiling synths.
That said, this shift in focus leaves something to be desired in the pacing department. Whilst the first half of the album is packed with energy and pomp (‘La marcheuse’ and ‘Doesn’t matter’ truly standout), from seventh track ‘Follarse’ onwards Chris flags somewhat. This last third possesses a more latent energy, which fails to capitalise on Letissier’s more exciting influences. But for all that it may lack the sheer track-to-track clout of Chaleur Humaine, Chris proves once more that not only is Letissier an artist at the top of their genre, but also one not afraid to push boundaries. It is a genuine pleasure to hear an album that reinvents both sound and self.
4 Room 25 by Noname
It’s in the particular blend of self-consciousness and soft-spoken nonchalance that Noname defines her style. Her sophomore album Room 25 is a mesmerising twist on this paradox. From the brisk, shuffling ‘Blaxploitation’ to the subtle precision of the freewheeling, mento-inspired ‘Montego Bae’, the music flits between many generic strains, oscillating from sparse funk arrangements to dreamlike strings to jazz-infused polyrhythms.
However, it’s all brought together by Noname’s assured, beat-perfect delivery. Her slick verbal syncopation throughout feels half-incidental; in the like manner, ‘Prayer Song’ effortlessly drifts amongst its shifting vocal rhythms, while ‘Regal’ eases from one long thought into a coherent hook. The effect manages to wrap together elements of spoken-word dynamism, under-the-breath laxness, and conscious rap urgency.
That Noname frames an artistic persona around absence is ironic, given her matter-of-factness. Yet Room 25 thrives in that gentle tension between anxious self-awareness and being the calm, commanding voice at the back of the room. As she notes, midway through, “all I am is everything and nothing at all” – in early-adulthood’s malaise of hurried self-actualization, there’s something to be said for embracing uncertainty. Room 25 suggests that, amidst that desire of the listless mid-20s to assure one’s sense of self, there’s always room to grow.
Kids See Ghosts by Kids See Ghosts
It’s been a shaky year for Kanye West. His own solo effort ye, not featured on this list, came over like a hastily typed apologia pasted from r/JordanPeterson. Few expected much from his collaborative album with Kid Cudi, an emo-rapper who own visionary ideas are often let down by clumsy execution. But Kids See Ghosts is an astounding piece of music: a technicolour rebirth painted in luscious strokes of neo-psychedelia and sinewy grunge.
First, let’s hear a round of applause for Cudi, the lonely stoner who never stopped dreaming, no matter how bleak the day grew. His self-help verses have never sounded more convincing, and on new gospel standard ‘Reborn’, he gives this generation another demon-slaying anthem to lean on.
Like the other recordings from West’s now notorious Wyoming sessions, KSG sprints along at a trim seven tracks, yet somehow never once feels slight. In fact, it sounds as loose and alive as anything the Yeezus rapper has produced in years. ‘Feel the Love’ feels like automatic songwriting- we leap from a phlegmy opening verse from Pusha-T into a rattling mix of gentle synths and percussive Kanye scat singing. Laddish standout ‘4th Dimension’ flips a cosy yuletide sample into a bleak theme song for mind-altering orgasms, while soulful closer ‘Cudi Montage’ sees rap’s most confessional bros praying for deliverance over surging keyboards.
Elsewhere, Ty Dolla Sign’ croons on ‘Freeee’ like a rockstar possessed, while producers Mike Dean and Dot Da Genius braid the album’s clashing influences into moving sonic statements. By the end, I accepted that Kanye might never stop chasing a misguided freedom of speech. I don’t think he can; the social media ragers are too addictive, too empowering. But I can still feel the love.
2 sweetener by Ariana Grande
Ariana Grande is so much more than the trauma she’s faced over the past couple of years. But there is no doubt that what she’s been through has led to this essential rebirth of who she is and who she wants to be in the public eye. Sweetener saw Ariana find strength and power in what so many would label vulnerabilities.
‘Get Well Soon’ is an exploration of her mental health in a raw, emotional way, but also the message she needs to hear herself. The direct contrast of the emotion in ‘Get well soon’ to the highly empowered ‘successful’ is an interesting portrayal of who she has become in recent years. She is every traumatic event she has faced alongside every time she has found strength in herself to carry on. Sweetener was an album for Ariana as well as by Ariana. She gave herself the hug and the strength she so clearly needed and, at the same time, released a gorgeous new collection of songs.
1 Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe
I first heard Janelle Monáe’s voice on her 2010 collaboration with Big Boi, ‘Tightrope’. She was androgynous, soulful and effortlessly cool. She represented a new generation of singers who had grown up with Motown but sought to create their own path.
Eight years later, and Monáe has not changed in her views, but the world has just started to take notice of her true mastery. Now a successful actress and producer as well as singer, she has proved her worth in an industry that now seems to welcome her with open arms. Dirty Computer is a mirror to a world in political chaos, with Monáe acting as the musical saviour, and as a pioneering queer black woman succeeding in an America that does not offer the American Dream to anyone.
The album is poignant but also delightfully easy listening in the very best sense. ‘Crazy, Classic, Life’ begins with Martin Luther King’s infamous ‘I have a dream’ speech. She states that ‘I’m not America’s nightmare / I’m the American dream’. Discrimination is such a key message in this album and Monáe highlights the irony of this selective term which in Trump’s America chooses to encompass some but not others.
Her versatility is fully displayed in this work: we get a smattering of Motown, Musical Theatre, Rap, Dancehall and more – and Monáe doesn’t do this just for gimmick’s sake – she triumphs in each distinct genre. Edging away from her previous Metropolis narrative, Monáe proves that she is fully coming into her own on this record. Collaborators like Zoë Kravitz and Grimes prove her reach as an artist and she campaigns for universal sexual freedom for everyone.
‘Screwed’ is an upbeat anthem for empowerment, and ‘Django Jane’ shows Monáe coming into her own as she doesn’t hide behind the facade or her artistry.’Remember when they used to say I look too mannish / Black girl magic, y’all can’t stand it’. Her clean rapping reincarnates pop culture in Monáe’s name, and she reinstates black power by embracing the historical struggle and resilience that we can still see in society, particularly for black women.
Without a doubt, this record deserves to be on any decent top ten list for 2018. No matter what your race, class, sexuality or political tendency, Monáe’s record is a triumph and illustrates the power that we all have at this moment in history.