by InRO Staff Feature Articles Featured Music Year in Review

Quick Takes on Albums 2018 – Halftime (Part 2)

July 4, 2018

All this week at In Review Online, we’ll be presenting our takes on some notable (and less notable) albums that saw release during the first six months of the year, more or less chronologically. In the second of four installments (find the first one here), we look primarily at spring 2018 releases, including a career summative statement from dream-pop duo Beach House; a major rap debut from former reality TV star Cardi B; a record-breaking album from K-pop boy band BTS; and more.

Beach HouseBeach House‘s new album 7 represents a harmonious marriage of the band’s previous ones: the oneiric aura of 2012’s Bloom, and its predilection for repetition that would please Philip Glass; the airy expansiveness of “Levitation,” off 2015’s eclectic and uneven Depression Cherry; the balmy choruses and hooks, and clear song structures, of 2010’s Teen Dream. It’s an album redolent of a sun-soaked daydream, pleasant but aching; Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have rarely veered from the dreamy aesthetic they first established on their 2006 self-titled debut, but they’ve continued to hone it, exploring the possibilities of a dauntless, unwavering sound, and expounding on its strengths. “Dive,” a track that sounds as if it were made to accompany a sepia-tinged montage of summertime car rides — a medley of memories of fleeting, late-afternoon smiles — is imbued with a sense of hazy ambiguity; is joyous and splendid, but also filled with longing. “And I know you like it / So I dive to find it,” Legrand coos, her airy voice accompanied by Loveless-esque layers of guitar and an assertive drum pattern that belies the gentle programming of her band’s previous albums. In familiar sounds, Beach House finds new epiphanies. Greg Cwik

Cardi BThis some real-life, fairytale Binderella shit / I got further than them hoes said I will ever get,” boasts Cardi B on “Best Life” — a statement that’s undeniably true, considering the amount of success she’s had in just the past year. The Bronx native’s meteoric rise has felt triumphant in various ways: as a rags-to-riches story and in that she’s a woman working in a genre (and industry) plagued by misogyny. But most importantly, Cardi has presented her newfound fame as less something that she’s asked for than something that she’s taken. And on Invasion of Privacy, the moments that work best evince that agency: the opening four tracks of the album (including the monster hit “Bodack Yellow”) start things off slow, and sound more like mixtape cuts (especially the warmed-over Migos-featuring “Drip”), but around the time of the more emotionally vulnerable, yet still firmly assertive, “Careful,” things gearshift from merely in-your-face, blunt-force bangers to tracks of varied tempo and attitude. From “Careful” on, Cardi’s boastful swagger never feels anything less than exhilarating: she brings a Latin-trap flair to “I Like It” and a ferocious but playful attack to “Bartier Cardi.” When, on Invasion of Privacy’s closing track, “I Do,” Cardi declares, “My little 15 minutes lasted long as hell, huh?” you can almost hear the deafening silence of her haters. Paul Attard


Despite the overwhelming buzz that’s surrounded BTS since last year’s historic Billboard Music Awards win, the K-pop boy band seems genuinely unfazed and focused on their latest album, Love Yourself: Tear. BTS delivers a bonafide event single in the form of “Fake Love,” a love-lorn R&B track driven by an intensity to match the group’s other fame-bolstering hits, and at the same time, they show a willingness to explore their softer side on album tracks like “Paradise” and the sultry, guitar-and-flute-featuring “13430.” The tender, cozy production of these songs offers a sense of intimacy, especially on “Magic Shop,” which has synths that screech like voices, crescendoing along with the future-bass beat. Less successful are BTS’s attempts to show off their cockier side (“Airplane, Pt. 2”) and their goofy personality (“Anpanman”), which they’ve done better on past projects. But overall, BTS come off better on Tear than they did on Love Yourself: Her — an uneven album from a conceptually ambitious group — making for a compact, satisfying introduction to one of the biggest boy bands in contemporary pop. Ryo Miyauchi

Janelle MonaeJanelle Monae’s latest album has an impressively layered sound; the sheer clarity of its digital recording, combined with its throwback ’80s synths, makes for the most immediately pleasurable pop record of the year. Prince is the obvious reference point for Dirty Computer — apparently, he even contributed to the recording — and while the commercial ambitions result in perhaps the least sonically adventurous of Monae’s releases, it’s hard to take issue with the spirit of youthful exuberance she projects throughout. The opening/title track, augmented by soaring Brian Wilson backing vocals, almost immediately finds Monae taking stock of her previous “android” persona: “The bugs are in me,” she declares, as though acknowledging a base human vulnerability. The album that follows sheds this persona but as a means of acknowledging what are primarily human pleasures. Dirty Computer is a wholly fresh work, distinct from Monae’s other albums; it continues her championing of the virtues of gender fluidity and self-worth with a freedom from sexual inhibition, but emphasizes the value of total pleasure. And as best exemplified on “Crazy, Classic Life” and “Screwed,” this unexpected shift from the conceptual to the immediate is thrilling. Neil Bahadur

AshleyPlease, if anyone’s going to revive the countrypolitan era in 2018, let it be Ashley Monroe — a singer-songwriter whose ability to balance country-pop with country traditionalism is unequalled. On Sparrow, her richest and most expressive album to date, she works with producer du jour Dave Cobb, and together they use colorful orchestral arrangements to explore the emotional contours of Monroe’s probing, therapeutic songs. It’s an album about lineage and family, about the scars carried from one generation to the next, and about breaking cycles and achieving redemption. “Orphan,” the sweeping opener, turns gospel imagery on its head for a song about the isolating effects of losing a parent; “Mother’s Daughter,” pitched somewhere between a country standard and chamber pop, fears the sins that are passed down the family line. There’s also haunted regret and roiling desire, all rendered in evocative detail by the big band, and by Monroe’s sharp, accessible writing. Josh Hurst

OrtegaConcept albums are always risky propositions, but Lindi Ortega’s Liberty manages the impressive feat of sustaining a coherent narrative arc over the span of a full album, while writing a collection of songs that stand on their own, independent merits. Liberty serves as a protracted metaphor for Ortega’s disillusionment and frustration with her recording career, cast in an aesthetic that filters her signature style of rockabilly-infused country through the prism of a spaghetti western. It’s by design that the album recalls the film scores of Ennio Morricone: Lead single “The Comeback Kid” finds Ortega singing from the point-of-view of a woman whose story is not dissimilar to that of The Bride from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill saga. Over the course of the journey she takes on Liberty, Ortega’s perspective shifts gradually from one of vengeance and rage to one of gratitude and romance. The individual tracks here — particularly the lilting “Pablo” and “Til My Dying Day” — are as lovely and pensive as anything Ortega has recorded to date, but it’s the greater thematic focus that makes Liberty her finest album. Jonathan Keefe

Hop AlongOn their most assured album yet, the Philadelphia-based group Hop Along dial down the distortion of 2015’s Painted Shut and add to their emo-folk sound new production elements like strings and vocoder. What’s sacrificed in immediacy and ramshackle charm on Bark Your Head Off, Dog, the band compensate for with intricate arrangements and Frances Quinlan’s dynamic singing, which transforms in the space of a single phrase from a raspy wail to a gentle murmur and back again. Quinlan’s voice as songwriter is equally distinctive: poetic yet grounded in vivid, everyday details (like the notification about lethal injections moved forward in Arkansas due to expiring drugs that pops up in “Somewhere a Judge”). And her folk origins (as heard in solo releases) are not abandoned but wholly embraced by Quinlan’s bandmates, particularly guitarist Joe Reinhart (who also produced) and drummer Mark Quinlan (also Frances’s brother), who wind around and through these lattice-like songs without overwhelming them. Hop Along has never sounded as balanced, and yet at the same time confidently genre-averse, as they do here, on an album that offers the singular pleasure of a promising band fully coming into their powers. Alex Engquist

PlayboiPlayboi Carti may not be a terribly accomplished lyrical rapper, but his music has other fundamental virtues. Take Die Lit, the Atlanta-based M.C.’s debut studio album, which alights on the combination of effortlessly cool ad libbing as it works in tandem with the manically intoxicating production of Pi’erre Bourne. From the sinister bass rattle of “Old Money” to the whimsical, amusement park-invoking melody of “No Time,” Carti proves that his minimalist lyrics (to put it kindly; he rarely exceeds short bursts of Instagram caption-worthy insight) at least afford him the flexibility to sound good on various kinds of beats. And with a wide array of distinctive features on the album, from the likes of Nicki Minaj (who practically bounces across the propulsive “Poke It Out,” especially on her verse’s “Playboi (Playboi), Playboi (Playboi)” intro) and U.K. grime posterboy Skepta, there remains enough variety on Die Lit to keep things fresh and exciting throughout the hour-long runtime. The pinnacle of the set, though, is “Shoota,” on which Sir Cartier is pitted against Lil Uzi Vert in a masterclass of dueling aesthetics, and the highly emotional Uzi’s delivery of lines like, “She ain’t used to text me / Now she wanna caress me” cuts against the blunt-force monotone of Carti proclaiming, “I’ma fuck your thot. PA

bossinOne of the best Los Angeles rap albums of 2018 so far was made by two guys that aren’t even from the West Coast. Part of the Detroit rap collective Doughboyz Cashout, Payroll Giovanni linked up with producer Cardo for Big Bossin’ Vol. 2, a sequel to the duo’s joint project from 2016. The new record follows the same formula as the first: Cardo’s lush, classic G-funk soundtracks Giovanni’s exquisite day-in-the-life of a smooth operator, and the chemistry between the two remains strong. In fact, Vol. 2 steps things up a bit, inviting veterans to hop on key tracks. The beat of “Mail Long,” which features Bay Area legend E-40, creeps menacingly, as the rappers scheme their next come-up, while “Dopeman Dreams,” with Atlanta icon Jeezy, sounds as lavish as its title suggests. Big as the guest features may be, though, Giovanni remains the center of this hustler’s paradise, and though the project could do with a few less of his cheesy hooks and puns, the rapper’s uncompromising personality is generally an asset on Big Bossin’RM

AAL“If you don’t know jack about house, you’ll love this!” claims the back cover of 2012 – 2017, the latest collection of sample-heavy electronic music from Nicolas Jaar (under the moniker Against All Logic). Because, if you don’t know anything about the house genre, you might just absorb this exceedingly danceable and richly rhythmic music on a more visceral level — or you might notice the intuitiveness of Jaar’s sampling, whether that be the way Pastor T. L. Barrett’s high-pitched sermon cuts against the frantically cascading pianos of “Some Kind of Game,” or how Kanye West’s scream of terror from “I Am a God” is transformed into an expression of frenzied joy. The outsider voices that Jaar seamlessly integrates here don’t just pop on their own, but rather help shape the emotional resonance of their tracks, from the unexpected tension that a choir of distorted voices brings to “This Old House Is All I Have” to the looped soul sample, increasing in tempo and energy, that telegraphs the pure bliss of “I Never Dream.” Jaar also builds his music from structural and formal influences, borrowing from early Avalanches (the spritely bounce of “Know You”) and Play-era Moby (“Cityfade’s” melodic keys sound like a slowed down take on “Honey”). Even his contemporaries serve as inspiration, most notably on closer “Rave on U,” which carries the same kinetic energy (and strikingly similar tune) as Calvin Harris’s Kelis-featuring U.K. club hit, “Bounce.” The track follows its funky rhythm for a while, until eventually, it expands and erupts with high-pitched trills and deafening bass. And that’s really what you’ll notice most about 2012 – 2017 — that it’s so much less about ‘knowing,’ or recognizing, than it is indulging the feelings that come with that familiarity. PA