by InRO Staff Feature Articles Featured Music Year in Review

Top 10 Albums of 2018 (So Far)

July 9, 2018

All last week at In Review Online, we presented our takes on some notable (and less notable) albums from the first six months of the year. In this fourth and final installment (find the first one here, the second one here, and third one here), we present our Top 10 Albums of the Year (so far).

ShakeDanielle Balbuena A.K.A. 070 Shake enjoyed a star-making turn on Kanye West’s “Ghost Town,” showcasing her raw passion and her intoxicatingly gruff vocals. She made two more appearances on Kanye’s Wyoming cycle albums: on the chorus of Pusha-T’s “Santeria” and the hook of Nas’s “Not for Radio.” These guest spots seemed to transform the 21-year-old artist into something of a household name — at least for hip-hop heads — and for most anyone that would make for a good year. But Shake’s most impressive work of 2018 is actually on her debut EP, Glitter: The same combustible, but deeply vulnerable, passion of “Ghost Town” fuels “Stranger,” a song which seems to threaten violence and tears simultaneously, as Shake howls over crisp 808s and shuddering synths. On “Somebody Like Me,” this bottled energy explodes, about halfway through, into a fiery excoriation of an unappreciative lover, as Shake’s vocal is pushed into the red, and pulled apart by Auto-Tune. Like the iconoclastic rapper Young Thug, Shake often plays with syllables, smushing words and phrases together — especially on “Lost in Love,” where “I wash it down just with a little molta” is delivered in such a low register that it feels almost hidden away. The contemporary artist that Shake has most in common with, though, is Lil Uzi Vert; both are unabashedly emo, communicating in a hyper-melodramatic language of repetition and ad libs that sounds, at first, like mumble-rap laziness, but that serves as means to emote directly, and honestly, about their experience of heartbreak. Paul Attard

NekoMore than two decades into an illustrious career, Neko Case is tired of hearing flowery descriptions of her voice. “My voice is not the liquid waves / The perfect rings ‘round a heron’s legs,” she sings on Hell-On’s eerie, curtain-raising title track. “My voice is straight garroting wire.” Case’s voice has always invited hyperbole, whether belting out power-pop hooks with the New Pornographers or crooning on her acclaimed alt-country solo albums like 2002’s Blacklisted or 2008’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Case’s self-produced seventh album finds her voice honed to perfection, while her songwriting and arranging stake out new, thorny territory. Lyrically, Hell-On responds to a number of recent difficulties in Case’s life (namely, her house burning down while she was away on tour and having to fend off a stalker) by reconnecting with traumatic memories and drawing strength and solidarity from a lineage of mythological women. Various contributions from Case’s collaborators are expertly woven into these tales of loss and resilience: “Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” a haunting duet with Mark Lanegan, recounts reckless youth, while a cover of Crooked Fingers’s wistful ballad “Sleep All Summer” features the song’s originator, Eric Bachmann. The caliber of craft that Case corrals from herself and others, in service of an unmistakably personal vision, makes Hell-On more than just another excellent album in a career packed with them — it’s maybe the closest we’ve gotten to a definitive statement from one of the best singer-songwriters of her generation. Alex Engquist

PhantomJonny Greenwood’s score for Phantom Thread is as lovesick and labile as the characters in the film. In the first part of “Phantom Thread,” Greenwood ladles on seasick strings, swoony and vertiginous, rising higher and higher like lofty aspirations before plummeting back down, sounding as if they’ve been salted by the ocean breeze. They buzz and bray, have sustained moments of great gaiety, moments of serenity and anguish. The stark melodies recall Chopin. Deadened piano keys clink along in “Hem,” like unloved consorts, then come to beauteous life in “The Tailor of Fitzrovia.” They foretell of the lamentful strings on the second part of the title composition, which are suffused with anxiety, the pangs of encroaching heartache — the feeling of inevitability. Greenwood’s previous scores for Paul Thomas Anderson were eclectic but generally minimalist, sometimes just a note or chord sustained beyond a point of comfort, as in the opening sequence of 2007’s There Will Be Blood; or infected by jaunty, burnt-out stoner rock, as with 2014’s paranoid and impermeable Inherent Vice. For Phantom Thread, Greenwood conjures up leitmotifs which recur, recapitulate, grow familiar yet never predictable, like qualities in a romantic partner. The orchestral swells have the Empyrean airiness of the wind moving through lacy curtains. It’s his most pervasive score — eerie and lovely, as raw and exposed as the garments of the film are fussed-over — and his most devastating. Greg Cwik

KSGThe relationship between Kanye West and Kid Cudi morphed from one of mentorship (West signed Cudi to his G.O.O.D. Music label in 2008) to animosity (Cudi left G.O.O.D. in 2013, and in 2016, West famously claimed that he “birthed” his former signee during an onstage rant), and now, roughly 10 years in, mutual respect. It no longer feels like Cudi’s the disciple to West’s master on Kids See Ghosts — both Ye and Cudi treat each other as equals. Whether trading boastful bars on the Louis Prima-sampling “4th Dimension” or contemplating gang culture and cycles of violence on “Cudi Montage,” the two find ways to encompass a wide range of expressions in just 23 minutes. Take, for instance, the manic-high of “Freeee (Ghost Town, Pt. 2),” which is pure rockstar-level braggadocio, but mixed with the two rappers at their goofiest, trying to out-weird each other by bellowing “I’m freeee” over ear-rupturing guitar riffs. “I just wanna feel liberated,” Kanye rapped on 2016’s “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” and he’s achieved that here: independence from the stresses of rational thinking. The track that follows, “Reborn,” serves as Kids See Ghosts’s emotional center, harkening back to the Man on the Moon days. Cudi moans the track’s melody over a spacey, minimalist beat, and stresses, in an almost mantra-like fashion, that he’s “moving forward” and getting past his problems. The subject of mental health is always in the air, with the obvious headline-making controversy inundating West and Cudi’s suicidal feelings both being brought to the fore, and used as a catalyst for healing. “I can still feel the love” goes Cudi’s howled opening line on the album, and it serves as a proclamation of optimism for two artists who have seemingly found inner peace; who found harmony in shared pain. PA

KaceyKacey Musgraves continues to carve out her own niche within mainstream country-pop with Golden Hour, an album that sees the artist stage something of a pivot from the winking traditionalism of 2015’s Pageant Material and embrace a warmly realized adult-contemporary vibe, inspired by contemporaries like Imogen Heap. Eschewing the frat-bro braggadocio and trap beats of her male peers, Musgraves emphasizes simplicity in songwriting and lush, richly nuanced production. She hasn’t lost the sharp wit that set her apart on her first two albums (see disco-tinged kiss-off “High Horse”), but the prevailing tone here is contentment and a kind of hushed wonder that works because it’s never overstated. Something as wide-eyed and earnest as “Oh What a World” could easily have left a cloying aftertaste, but the combination of Musgraves’s low-key delivery and the subtle, enveloping arrangement of the track — which melds together pedal steel, banjo, drum machine, and vocoder — is sweet without being saccharine. “These are real things,” Musgraves gently insists as she sings of true love and other natural phenomena, and on the standout “Happy & Sad,” she adds another shade to her emotional palette, reflecting on the melancholy that seeps into even the most joyful moments from an inescapable awareness that all bliss must pass. She’s not the first songwriter to voice these feelings, but on Golden Hour, she manages to make them sound new. AE

DaytonaPusha-T’s Daytona, the first G.O.O.D. Music drop of the summer, marks the rapper’s most assured work as a solo artist to date, and emphatically reasserts his continued relevance, even his dominance, in the hip-hop world nearly two decades after Clipse’s first studio album. Sonically, Daytona feels a bit like a stage that’s been prepped for Push’s arrival: Kanye tailors his production on the album specifically to the M.C.’s powers, favoring sample-heavy beats but with an overall pared-down atmosphere. Rat-a-tat snares, married to melodic keys and synthesized strings, provide the perfect setting for Pusha’s signature, nasally cadence and his propulsive flow. Lyrically, Push strikes a newfound balance on Daytona, retaining the easy swagger of his early career while shifting from the revelry of coke-and-club cuts to the personal evolution demanded of come-up permanence: “The rooftop can host a paint and sip for like 40 / The Warhols on my wall paint a war story.” This brass-tacks brashness feels less like a simple conceptual detour than an organic pivot for the rapper’s career perception — and a testament to his survivor status. So when, on album closer “Infrared,” Push weighs in on Lil Wayne’s Cash Money situation (“See Wayne on tour / Flash without the fire / Another multi-platinum rapper trapped and can’t retire”), it feels like self-preservation. Luke Gorham

Rae2Oh, muses of brazen confidence, what shall you deliver to me? SR3MM, that’s what. The triple-disc odyssey from brothers Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi — and, together, Rae Sremmurd — combines the duo’s third studio with their two debut solo albums, just to outdo Outkast. With rumors of a break-up and doubts that they could helm more than 40 minutes of music, the result is shocking: each 9-track disc finally gives them the space needed to develop their craft. The first disc peaks with Rae Sremmurd’s career highlight thus far, “Powerglide”; Swae revels in his element, laying down an infectious hook caught between braggadocio (“She wanna fuck / speak up”) and childlike bliss (“Pooooooowerglide”). Jxmmi cuts through with much-refined aggression, and silly vocal inflections (“Got your broad in a rental?”). As energy builds, Mike-Will’s frenetic sample of Three-Six Mafia’s “Side 2 Side” facilitates the track’s intense pathos: Juicy J completely shreds a beat he rapped over 12 years ago, as if time just stopped in 2006. That’s what a collaboration with the Sremm boys means now; not some excuse to generate clout — it’s a far cry from begging Big Sean to jump on their 2015 debut — but a way to share the bounty, cultivated by giving even superstars a place to get weird and grow. Swaecation certainly provides that space: on “Heartbreak in Encino Hills,” Swae continuously re-invents melodies over looping instrumentals, indulging his clear interest in sensuality as his voice wavers over minimalist arrangements. “Brxnks Truck,” the first track on Jxmtro, revitalizes the project with pulsing energy, as Jim screams, “I think the ‘rari go faster without the roof!” Where Swae has writing credit on Beyoncé’s “Formation,” Jim has one for Jake Paul’s “Litmas.” Suffice to say, he had more to prove going solo. But like Takeoff on that other lengthy 2018 rap album, he comes through as the real MVP. Song after song, Jxmtro’s effortlessly crafted hooks let some of the oddest (Pharell on “Chanel”) and silliest (Zoe Kravitz on “Anti-Social Smokers Club”) features shine. And after demolishing everyone’s game on “Cap,” he takes a wholly unexpected segue for the indignant refrain of “Changed Up”: “Oh, you’re saying that I changed on you? / How I change on you?” It’s here where Jxmmi starts to reveal a bit more himself, a shift that leads to the aptly-titled finalé, “Growed Up.” Joe Biglin

serepentWith Soil, Josiah Wise A.K.A. serpentwithfeet has delivered a debut album of extraordinary generosity. Rife with influences, Soil nonetheless feels like a wholly new musical language, a fusion of soul, R&B, and gospel filtered through cabaret. The result is a deeply varied mélange of style and tempo — from the slowed-down, Polka-influenced melancholy of “Cherubim” to the ebb/flow rhythms of the handclap-and-synth-laced “Wrong Tree” to the pared-down piano-and-choir denouement of “Bless UR Heart,” perfectly unified by the consistent, affected character of Wise’s voice (which, while mostly defying comparison, combines some of the rich silkiness of Frank Ocean’s croon with Anohni’s vibrato and theatrical playfulness). But if the aural temperament of Soil is primarily concerned with expansive aesthetics, its thematic and linguistic approach is far more indebted to the specificity of modern poetry. Wise’s writing is abstract yet always deeply felt: “Today I’ll find a kind and burrowing creature that can carry these pages into the ground / He’ll recite the details of your love with his family / And what was once a whisper will become a deep rumbling sound.” Preferring a thorough excavation of his subject of choice to any stereotypical pronouncments, Wise crafts an album built on exploring love as both metaphor and sustenance: “Boy, every time I worship you / My mouth is filled with honey.” Soil is an accomplished album of forceful identity, but it’s the broad palette of craft that sets it apart; it’s the twinned linguistic and vocal sonorousness that makes this artist so unique. LG

IsolationWhat makes Columbian-American artist Kali Uchis’s debut album standout from the approximately three dozen other alt-R&B releases in a given week is its genre eclecticism. “Body Language (Intro)” and “Nuestra Planeta” draw on Uchis’s pan-American roots for credible takes on bossa nova and reggaeton, respectively, while the squelchy bass and breakbeats of “Your Teeth in My Neck” is all G-funk, and the charging “In My Dreams” — which sounds a bit like a GarageBand-tooled cover of Madonna’s “Till Death Do Us Part” — is pure gauzy, utopian pop. Isolation mixes these disparate inspirations together and comes up with the rare coherent music style that’s cross-cultural — and cross-generational. Uchis’s sound is as much rooted in the kinds of contemporary internet R&B trends that are signified by the Tyler, the Creator-featuring “After the Storm” as it is beholden to pop traditionalism, demonstrated by the melismatic soul belter “Feel Like a Fool,” the best millennial Motown rip since Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain.” Only one problem: the boundlessly searching, genre-desegregating Isolation could scarcely have a more inappropriate title. Sam C. Mac

YeThere will come a day when Kanye West fails to translate the controversy and messiness surrounding one of his album releases into a compelling and singular body of work. But despite what you’ve heard, Ye is not it: All the poorly phrased opinions on slavery and the MAGA hats and the Twitter rants and Candace Owens support in the world aren’t going to make these seven songs in just under 24 minutes any less impressive for the way they articulate an experience of mental illness, the varying methods of coping with it, and the painful collateral damage that often comes with it. That the specific mental illness that Kanye has been diagnosed with is Bipolar disorder (which is also scrawled across the album cover) is important in interpreting Kanye’s lyrical and formal approach — starting with this album’s very first track, which not only draws on the double meaning of “ye” in its purposefully slippery pronoun use (“Today I seriously thought about killing you”), but also uses distinct production choices to split the song into two halves. In the first part, a placid, almost medicated-sounding Kanye drones on emotionlessly over a spectral, oscillating vocal sample, looped like words caught in the back of the throat, while in the latter section, a surly and aggressive Kanye bark-raps over percussive synths and the rapper’s own guttural screams. It’s during the brief section between these two parts, though, that Kanye sounds most lucid, buoyant, and like himself: his flow locks in with the pulse of the bass, and his words express a desire for connection with the world outside of his own head (“I called up my cousins”). This is something like the “event horizon” moment of Kanye’s psychology, whereas most of Ye delves into exploring the effects of the void — or, “the sunken place,” as Kanye calls it. The licentious “All Mine” finds Kanye rapping, lewd and unapologetic, about “girls thats basic,” as Jeremih protege Ant Clemons sings in a creepy falsetto about being “crazy in the Medulla Oblongata,” while closing track “Violent Crimes” starts as a sweet lullaby for Kanye’s four-year-old daughter, North West, but morphs into a panic-streaked screed of irrational fears about fatherhood. “The lie is wearin’ off,” sings 070 Shake on the hook of “Violent Crimes,” and it’s a lyric that begins to infect the song’s earnest affection with an openly unflattering paternal anxiety. But this is partly why Ye works: As with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus, and The Life of Pablo, especially, but really as with all Kanye albums, there’s a willingness to be unpolished, to destabilize, to provoke and challenge perceptions, as a means to humanization. What makes Ye different is the way in which Kanye often processes his personal flaws in relation to his own psychological imbalance, candidly recounting the strain that his off-meds TMZ meltdown put on his marriage (“Wouldn’t Leave”) and admitting “I scare myself sometimes” in practically the same breath as he boasts that Bipolar is his “super power!” (“Yikes”). That last line has largely been received as another troubling Kanye controversy, and that already indicates the value of a work like Ye — which speaks to those who both experience sobering fear and derive a measure of strength and pride from idiosyncrasies of their psyches. SCM