BensBeat Top 25 Albums of 2018

Here are the absolute best of the best full bodies of work in the chaotic year that was 2018. Happy new year!

Honourable Mentions:

  • 21 Savage – I Am > I Was
  • The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
  • Camila Cabello – Camila
  • The Carters – EVERYTHING IS LOVE
  • Hayley Kiyoko – Expectations
  • The Internet – Hive Mind
  • Lil Wayne – Tha Carter V
  • Mitski – Be The Cowboy
  • Teyana Taylor – K.T.S.E.
  • Vince Staples – FM!

25. Jeremih/Ty Dolla $ign – MihTy

MihTy.pngTy Dolla $ign might be my 2018 MVP – his vocals appeared on quite a few high-profile albums across a number of genres and he certainly proved his versatility. This collab project with Jeremih sees him back in his element, bouncing his characteristically raspy vocals off of Jeremih’s cleaner, higher-pitched approach to deliver a non-stop run of slow jams and upbeat melodic trap cuts. Teaming up with producer Hitmaka, the two carve out a place in 2018 for the somewhat-dated R&B womanizer figure.

24. Nao – Saturn

Image result for nao saturnNao’s sophomore project is named after the astrological phenomenon of the Saturn’s Return, a period of time around age 29 when Saturn returns to its position at one’s birth that provokes events causing drastic shifts in one’s life and signals complete maturity. Her artistic growth is evident from her debut, adding some excellent and personal songwriting to her already unique and ethereal voice. Nao feels that her personal drastic shift was the end of a long-term relationship, and she addresses her heartbreak across the album’s best tracks. Saturn is a jazzy R&B project about coping with the pains and pressures of finding your way in the world.

23. Panic! at the Disco – Pray For The Wicked

PATD PFTW.jpgStratospheric and theatrical vocalist Brendon Urie’s second album carrying the Panic! at the Disco name all by himself, he delivers some of his best work yet drawing from some aspects of Broadway after making his debut in musical theatre. While it might be their poppiest, the lighter melodies are grounded by roaring guitar underscores and Urie’s flair for a darker, baroque atmosphere. Of course, the centrepiece is still Urie’s powerhouse vocal delivery, a connecting thread making every unique and melodramatic world of sound the band travels to work perfectly – the man can sell anything. These are some spectacular, arena-sized choruses across the board.

22. BROCKHAMPTON – iridescence

Brockhampton Iridescence.jpgThe experimental hip-hop collective’s major label debut after the well-received Saturation trilogy, as well as their first without founding member Ameer Vann after allegations against him were released, BROCKHAMPTON continues on just fine with some eclectic and electrifying new sounds here. The instrumentals often complex and abrasive, the vocalists on top all with their own off-the-wall styles, everything about this project is signals an exciting and dynamic force in the industry who aren’t afraid to throw whatever at the wall even if it doesn’t all stick – most of it does, and the seamless transitions through various genres and musical worlds, each member getting a chance to shine, is an exhilarating rush. The openly gay Kevin Abstract’s discussion of his struggles continues to be a breath of fresh air in hip-hop, as well.

21. Anderson .Paak – Oxnard

Anderson Paak Oxnard.jpegThe burgeoning funk superstar recruits Dr. Dre to executive produce his album and takes more of a turn towards hip-hop and 90s-inspired G-funk than ever before. It might not be his strongest suit, but everything .Paak does is a strong suit, still elevating the project with his boundless charisma and undeniable musicality. Getting some assistance from some great features including Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Q-Tip, the spirit of the funk and .Paak’s soulful singing voice can still be found across the board here, but the best part of Oxnard is that you can tell .Paak is having fun and living his dream of making an album with one of his childhood idols. The project takes a turn for the overtly political on “6 Summers”, but for the most part this is just .Paak continuing to flash that giant smile of his in audio form.

20. J. Cole – KOD

JColeKOD.jpgOne of the most densely conceptual albums of the year, the disturbing album cover alone should tell you how deeply Cole is about to dive into some dark and emotional topics here. Embodying several characters across the project’s runtime, Cole describes his observations of his friends and others in his community’s reliance on various addictions – drugs and alcohol, technology, inconsistent sources of money, power and love – to help them cope with depression and anxiety, suppressing their feelings rather than letting them out for fear of judgment. Keeping listeners interested with his technical skills and ability to paint a vivid story, it’s when Cole breaks character and delves into his own life experiences beating these addictions that the album becomes most harrowing.

19. Twenty One Pilots – Trench

TOP Trench Album Cover.jpgThe alt-rock (and everything in between) duo team up to deliver one of my biggest surprises this year, finally bringing the diverse musical worlds they pull from together in a seamless fashion in a huge improvement from their past works. United by a central narrative that apparently plays into a much larger thread running across their entire careers, the songs follow the experiences of a character in the fictional city of Dema, a name that draws from religious aspects of Zoroastrianism. The questioning of faith is just one of the deeper topics the duo address here, but the most compelling are frontman Tyler Joseph’s musings on mental health and celebrity culture, and the frequent romanticization of poor mental health. Trench is enhanced by impeccable production work, every tiny element of each track in the right place.

18. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy

Cardi B - Invasion of Privacy.pngThe unapologetic rapper who shot to fame at the end of last year drops her debut project that represents one of the most fun and confidence-inducing albums of the year. Everyone has been so drawn to Cardi because she hides nothing about herself, being completely honest and having no filter at all, and that comes across here, dropping bars that can be explicit or carefree in a completely over-the-top way. Cardi is not only absolutely hilarious, but often surprisingly technically skilled, adding to the punch she puts behind every syllable with some quicker flows. The sonic diversity here that ranges from pure hip-hop bangers to calmer, emotional R&B, to Latin pop, shows that Cardi is much more than the one-hit wonder many expected her to be and is here to stay. She has the X Factor.

17. Ella Mai – Ella Mai

Image result for ella mai album coverOne of the breakout stars of the year, Ella Mai sets out bringing back some more traditional R&B to the mainstream in the wake of the more spacey, chill alt-R&B trend dominating the charts. Clearly inspired by early-2000s artists, Mai’s alto range is soothing and effortless as she runs through some vocal acrobatics and clever lyrical flips. Another album with a grounding aspect of connectedness, each small section of the album is introduced by a theme, the first letters of each theme ultimately spelling Mai’s name. The production from DJ Mustard perfectly blends some recognizable old-school sounds with a more modern angle, but by the time you get to the final, stripped-back track, it’s clear that the real excitement associated with Mai is just how great of a singer she is.

16. Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD

Image result for astroworldOne of the most culturally significant albums of the year, it’s safe to say we can add Travis Scott to the pantheon of today’s larger-than-life rap superstars with an album that is equal parts straightforward and fun, creative and risky. The perfect summer rap album, Scott recruits guests from Pharrell to Tame Impala to Stevie Wonder to Drake and dives into a psychedelic and frequently disorienting world enhanced by his Auto-Tuned flow. The listening experience is intended to feel like you’re on an amusement park ride, as the project is dedicated to a childhood favourite park of Scott’s since closed down. Scott approaches these tracks with almost an audible sense of wonderment in his voice, and while you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get, you know it’ll be a good time.

15. Charlie Puth – Voicenotes

Image result for voicenotesAnother huge surprise for me this year, Charlie Puth drops the cheesiness of his past work and moves towards a more mature, yet still distinctly nostalgic sound. His classical training is evident on the brilliantly mixed project, which he produced himself. Anchored firmly in 90s R&B, Puth reminds me a lot of early Justin Timberlake here, and even fits right in with Boyz II Men when he brings them on board for a track. Puth’s wispy falsetto is consistently enjoyable, but it’s the layering and harmonies that really sell Puth as a worthy purveyor of this throwback material, delivering on an understanding of the musicality required to pull off some more complex and interlocking aspects. The guilty pleasure success of the year?

14. Kanye West – ye

Ye album cover.jpgIt’s a wonder that one of Kanye’s least polished albums of his career is still as good as it is. While it’s certainly not without its problems, ye exists as a kind of blend of Yeezus and “Old Kanye” that sees him take some pretty interesting dives into his mental health and its effects on his personal and familial life in the wake of his hospitalization, bipolar diagnosis and opioid addiction. West is at his most lyrical he’s been in a while, and his singing voice has clearly improved as he runs through a number of introspective and confessional tracks backed up by the usual combination of soul samples and minimal, industrial beats. West’s advice to speak your mind freely in times of crisis, stating your thoughts out loud no matter how dark they are and thus exorcising the demons, has resonated with me all year.

13. SOPHIE – OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES

Sophie - Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides.pngThe endlessly experimental electronic music producer from the PC Music camp finally delivers her debut studio album, and it’s certainly just as much of a mindbending experience as I could have expected. A distorted and beautiful 9-track journey, this is the kind of stuff that could legitimately offer a window to gaze into what the future of pop music can sound like. SOPHIE ranges from punishing, bass-heavy tracks to lengthy, ethereal dreamscapes of cascading synths and calming vocals across this project, everything coming together for a 9-minute closing track where all the sounds are addressed that ultimately just falls apart into a stretched-out hellscape where everything cascades into each other. It’s all something you’ll have to hear to believe – this is something indescribable.

12. Blood Orange – Negro Swan

Negro Swan.jpgEasily one of the most powerful projects of the year comes from one of my favourite producers, Dev Hynes – known as Blood Orange in his solo material. Inspired by various tales of discrimination in his younger years and a dedication to showing love despite an inability to escape being viewed as an outsider regardless of his actions, the spoken word interludes from activist Janet Mock tie the project together as she speaks on perseverance and an embrace of one’s identity – “doing the most”. The sound of the project itself seems to have taken Mock’s advice, a jazzy R&B/funk album with some complex harmonies and wailing freeform solos. A producer at heart, Hynes lets a featured vocalist take over the track most of the time, and he knows just how to use artists’  greatest strengths in the right way. Hynes never beats you over the head with his more political statements here, but smartly disguises them for maximum impact, catching you off guard in the middle of his lush musical world.

11. Ariana Grande – Sweetener

Image result for sweetener coverWho knew we’d ever get an Ariana Grande album mostly produced by Pharrell Williams? Sweetener is easily Grande’s riskiest album, and after taking some time to grow on me, it just might be her best as well. Williams’ glitchy, experimental hip-hop production style is strangely accommodating to Grande’s powerhouse vocal capabilities, adapting her sound to the more hip-hop influenced world of modern R&B. Full of genuine, believable declarations of an intense, whirlwind love and coloured with the slightest hints of lingering pain from the Manchester tragedy, ending the album with a moment of silence, Grande sounds like she’s making the music she wanted to be making all along. With the sometimes chaotic production style, it’s the first time we’re not focused solely on her impressive vocals, but it’s her most personal work all the same.

10. Robyn – Honey

Cover of Honey by RobynThe endlessly influential Swedish pop mastermind returns with her first album in 8 years, and everything we initially loved about her is still there. So much of the modern space of electropop still owes itself to her early work, and she delivers some more upbeat, synth-driven tracks here injected with her usual degree of catharsis and escape from pain through pop music. A warm and inviting sound, every one of these tracks feels like something bigger than music, a kind of awe-inspiring, all-encompassing thing that Robyn invites you to join. This is an all-out pop celebration, but the only reason we’re having it is to forget about all those other not-so-fun things that happened to us. Join Robyn, and keep dancing to stop yourself from crying.

9. Jack White – Boarding House Reach

Image result for boarding house reachRock and roll music is in dire need of someone to come in and shake up the formula right now, any music driven by guitars often nowhere to be found on the top charts. With the polarizing Boarding House Reach, Jack White might be that guy. On a garage and blues rock adventure, White throws song structure out the window and hits listeners with a series of mostly instrumental, distorted tracks that represent some of the most ambitious work I’ve heard on a mainstream release in a long time. White has always had a flair for the melodramatic, and his vocals are theatrical and overly emotional here as he attacks modern capitalism and other topics. White thrives in the chaos, and the various sonic misdirections combined with White’s social commentary turns this into something like performance art.

8. Troye Sivan – Bloom

Troye Sivan - Bloom (Official Album Cover).pngThe best purely pop album of the year? Sivan evokes the 80s with some refreshing and personal lyricism concerning his approaches to relationships as a gay man. Sivan’s vocals are never the flashiest, honest and raw and often kept to little more than a breathy, lower-pitched whisper, but what he doesn’t have in vocal acrobatics he more than makes up for by pouring so much emotion into every note. Most of these instrumentals are dreamy and magical, a perfect soundscape to frame the discoveries and the ventures into adulthood that Sivan speaks of across the project. Sivan’s understated melodies sneak up on you and stick in your head forever, and he ends up pulling off a perfect homage to the pop music he loved growing up without even sounding like he’s trying that hard half the time.

7. Kali Uchis – Isolation

Kali Uchis - Isolation.pngKali Uchis recruits a seriously impressive list of collaborators and blends her classy approach to contemporary R&B with some musical aspects of her own Colombian culture, incorporating some sounds of samba and bossa nova. Isolation is an album where most of the strength comes from the dynamic instrumentals from individuals like Thundercat, Steve Lacy, DJ Dahi and the Gorillaz. Uchis’ breathier vocal style is a complement to any of the wide array of genres arranged around her voice here, but when she takes more control and shows off her impressive range, or starts singing in Spanish, it’s easy to become enamoured with the rising star. The album tells a story with a deliberate sequencing of tracks as Uchis arrives in the USA and overcomes people’s perceptions of her in order to make it in the industry.

6. Amy Shark – Love Monster

Love Monster CD by Amy Shark.jpgThe Australian indie-pop singer-songwriter delivers one of the most relatable, affecting projects about relationships and loneliness I’ve ever heard, even as most of the situations she describes are vividly detailed and specific to her own personal life. Shark’s music is often a charming combination of smartly written pop melodies, acoustic strumming and trap beats, her tone and confessional songwriting reminding me of Taylor Swift at her best in a lot of ways. Shark’s voice is heartbreakingly emotive as she sings about her loneliness and her fondest memories of a great relationship down to the smallest details of locations they went to or remnants left in her house, and her desperate yearning for something real is a believable representation of something we all strive for.

5. Pusha T – Daytona

Image result for daytona album coverYeugh. The veteran rapper kicked off Kanye West’s five-album Wyoming series with a non-stop verbal assault. Long-time collaborators, the rapper and producer come together in perfect harmony and understanding of each other here, West reaching into the darker sides of his production abilities to provide a grim and menacing platform for Pusha T to exert his ruthless and dominating presence. Pusha’s wordplay and punchlines are some of the best in the game right now, and his expressive voice delivers his emotions effortlessly as he sits back on his perch and issues threats with a smile. Standing at 7 tracks, there’s no room for filler here and Push makes sure that every single word counts for something, drawing out his syllables and overpronouncing words to make absolutely certain we understand where he’s coming from. Sorry Drake.

4. Denzel Curry – TA13OO

Image result for ta13oo“Welcome to the darkest side of Taboo”, Curry sings to kick off a section titled “Light”. The dark and aggressive hardcore rap artist takes us on a journey through his mind, dividing the album into sections of Light, Grey and Dark to signify the degree to which he becomes subsumed in the violence and hatred he observes in his community. The sections inevitably become hopelessly blurred, Curry backing up his paranoid and chaotic lyrics and flows with a full-voiced scream that emphasizes his mental chaos. The project ranges from grimy, distorted hardcore tracks to even some more breezy, funk-influenced instrumentals where Curry shows off his dexterous flow without the anger behind it. The final “Dark” section, however, is straight out of a nightmare. Curry addresses a wide range of taboo topics, as the title suggests, from a disturbingly realistic angle, creating a shocking and overwhelming project that completely overrides your senses. Curry is a man possessed, and has the full toolkit of a great rapper to back it up.

3. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

Album Golden Hour cover.jpegIn stark contrast, Golden Hour is one of the most adorably happy albums I’ve ever heard. In the wake of her marriage, the previously cynical Musgraves starts to see the world from a new angle, taking some ambitious cross-genre leaps in the process. Musgraves shifts from witty criticism to a genuine admiration of the beauty the world has to offer, singing about it with her pop-country melodies and softly delivered honesty in her voice. Musgraves’ main strength is her songwriting, and she convinces me completely of this shift in her outlook by injecting some asides that reminds us it’s still her, like on the track “Happy & Sad”. Her voice gives me chills every time on the slower tracks that highlight it. You’re not going to find a more affecting display of pure, essential human emotion this year.

2. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – KIDS SEE GHOSTS

Image result for kids see ghostsComing to expect Kanye West to reinvent the wheel with every project he delivers, I was wondering where the construction of a completely new sound was on his first two Wyoming releases. It’s all right here. Teaming up with longtime collaborator Kid Cudi, West incorporates his alternative and grunge-rock influences for a collision of sounds that shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does here. The two embattled artists lay all their flaws on the line, then turn to each other for support and proclaim their freedom and supremacy over all that holds them back in an extremely powerful way, finding their own personal peace. Another 7-track release where every tiny aspect feels like it belongs, the sheer innovation and creativity behind the sample flips and applications of more rock-oriented work into these hip-hop tracks is like nothing I’ve ever heard before, and the duo both bring the energy to match these driving and high-octane tracks. A grandiose and triumphant statement.

1. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer

Image result for dirty computerWhy can’t all political statements sound quite this incredible? Janelle Monae combines pop and R&B to look at the judgments in our society through her familiar lens of technology, the accompanying and moving “emotion picture” associated with the album depicting aspects of minority identities as a computer virus which needs to be erased, the person carrying that virus a “dirty computer”. Each of these tracks represents a jubilant memory of self-expression that Monae’s character has “erased” by the disturbing society of the film, cleaning her up. Monae mentioned Prince as a major inspiration for the project, and his presence is clear in the funk basslines and the confidence in Monae’s rap verses. Dirty Computer is a highly sexual album, Monae putting the very essence of her blackness, femininity and pansexuality on display and inviting listeners to the party where this celebration and appreciation for these facets of her identity will take place. The project closes with a speech calling for the rights of various minority groups as gospel-tinged harmonies state plainly: “Love me baby, love me for who I am”.

That’s it for Bensbeat in 2018, and with some exciting projects already on the radar for 2019, let’s hope some more great music is on the way. I’ll be back in the new year with some projects that dropped right at the end of the year, and then the new releases will start pouring in once again. Thanks for reading this year.

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Midyear Top 50 songs

I made a Spotify playlist of my favourite 50 songs of the year so far, check it out below! It arranged it backwards, the final song on the playlist is really #1

 

BensBeat Top 25 Albums of 2017

Without further ado, here are my favourite projects of 2017. Happy new year!

Honourable Mentions:

  • blackbear – digital druglord
  • Migos – C U L T U R E
  • Tove Lo – Blue Lips [lady wood phase II]
  • Halsey – hopeless fountain kingdom
  • Betty Who – The Valley
  • Kelly Clarkson – Meaning Of Life
  • Bleachers – Gone Now
  • Kelela – Take Me Apart
  • Niall Horan – Flicker
  • Jay-Z – 4:44

25. Metro Boomin/Offset/21 Savage – Without Warning

Image result for without warningIn one of his many collaboration projects this year, quintessential trap producer Metro Boomin recruits two rappers who couldn’t be more different for a Halloween-themed mixtape. Court jester Offset perfectly counteracts the blunt, deadpan 21 Savage as they enter a villainous partnership through song.

24. Alvvays – Antisocialites

Image result for alvvays antisocialitesThe dreampop quintet blends genres together in an overall vintage sound, frontwoman Molly Rankin’s vocals possessing the quieter sensibilities of dreampop but juxtaposing this with the louder guitar instrumentals that verge on punk-rock. The project is a brief whirlwind of energy.

23. Poppy – Poppy.Computer

Image result for poppy.computerThe greatest viral marketing scheme of all time? Poppy’s surreal YouTube videos prepared us perfectly for this project, where the …character…? continues to satirize our cultlike dedication to all things technological and celebrity through a series of upbeat, bubblegum pop tracks.

22. Thundercat – Drunk

Image result for thundercat drunkThe virtuoso jazz-funk bassist, now with a wider audience after his contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s work, releases a conceptual and incoherent experimental jumble of sounds that makes you feel just as the title suggests. The whole album is framed as Alice falling down the rabbit hole, and the rapid bass playing and Thundercat’s comedic lyrics as his mind wanders to absurd topics complete one of the most ambitious projects of the year.

21. Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy

Image result for flower boyTyler drops the shock value raps of his past here for more lavish instrumentals and contemplative, confessional lyrics as he finally comes to terms with what he feels the toxic masculinity of the hip-hop industry often tried to repress – his homosexuality. Tyler’s lyrics always offered a deep journey into his consciousness, but now hearing his stories of his struggle with acceptance are truly captivating.

20. Charli XCX – Number 1 Angel

Image result for number 1 angelHer first of two mixtapes this year, Number 1 Angel excels by offering experimental spins on pop music but not getting so obscure as to lose the party-girl personality that made her music so fun in the first place. Her collaborations with PC Music producers mean the beats hit harder than most pop music, and the whole thing is just a sassy, confident snarl that’s hard not to love.

19. Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1

Funk Wav Bounces 1.jpgThe versatile DJ reinvents himself on his 5th studio album, moving away from the bland pop sound of his past for a more musically complex journey into the world of funk and hip-hop. In a tweet, Harris denied that this was “feel good music”. No, he says, it’s “feel INCREDIBLE music”. He’s absolutely right, tapping into exactly what summer sounds like with a diverse roster of guests that never fails to surprise.

18. Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volume 1

Chris-stapleton-from-a-room-volume-1.jpgThe first of two albums this year in his “From A Room” duo, the seemingly limitless vocalist blends together his brand of outlaw country music with aspects of soul, blues and southern rock, genres which better accommodate the gravel in his emotional delivery. His harmonies with his wife on most of these tracks are something to behold, but the pure emotion he puts into every note is what makes his stories stand out.

17. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

Image result for masseductionThe futuristic pop artist delivers another rock-influenced album featuring her own impressive guitar playing, teaming up with producer-of-the-moment Jack Antonoff to deliver satirical takes on how easily we can be indoctrinated to advertising, religion and the like. Her voice is extremely dynamic and capable, making magic out of the minimal as much as she does the genre-defying chaos here.

16. Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life

Image result for lust for lifeFor the first time, Lana Del Rey smiles on her cover artwork, and it’s a great representation of the new direction of her music. While her tropes were getting somewhat tiresome, she switches things up on her fourth album. Adding a political edge we hadn’t really seen before, her music is made more compelling by adding an element of hope in the dismal times she sings about. Her voice is still instantly recognizable, her lyrics high-concept and darkly brilliant. Del Rey is finally coming into her own.

15. Kesha – Rainbow

Image result for kesha rainbowKesha drops the dollar sign – and the contract with an abusive producer – and flourishes in this comeback project that’s all about her own personal strength. Finally able to let loose with her musical ambitions, this project runs effortlessly through emotional piano ballads, acoustic folk tracks, and forays into country and harder rock as Kesha displays an incredible singing voice that most people never knew was there.

14. Miguel – War & Leisure

Image result for war and leisureLike most this year, Miguel’s fourth studio album is more political than usual. He draws explicit reference to the threat of nuclear war, but like the album title suggests, is frequently trying to find ways to stay positive despite everything we see in the news. His funk-heavy R&B tracks always sound like a celebration, many songs clearly inspired by Prince here in their psychedelic reverence.

13. Kehlani – SWEETSEXYSAVAGE

Image result for sweetsexysavageBreaking the sophomore curse, Kehlani continues to establish herself as a leading voice in the R&B scene with this project. The title derived from a classic TLC album, Kehlani would have fit right in with the girl group as the project is broken up into the 3 categories the title suggests. While I prefer her lyrics when they’re at their most savage, the harmonies across the board and overall musicality here is pretty incredible.

12. Demi Lovato – Tell Me You Love Me

Image result for tell me you love meOne of the most technically skilled pop vocalists finally returns to her strengths after two albums of bland electropop, taking much more of an R&B direction with this project and demonstrating just how effortless her singing ability can be. Not only does she rediscover that dramatic soprano belt, her low register is just as passionate and intense.

11. SZA – Ctrl

Image result for sza ctrlWhile my initial reaction wasn’t as immediately strong, this project grows on you like no other and you’d be hard-pressed to find another album that made as much of a cultural impact this year. SZA’s honest lyricism carries this project, finally a female in the urban scene that speaks as bluntly as the men do. Her delivery is more like a rapper’s here, replacing bigger vocal moments with lyrical smacks in the face.

10. Ed Sheeran – ÷

Image result for divide edOK, OK, maybe it’s not the perfect score I initially gave it. The project received criticism for being too safe, but I still believe that Ed Sheeran is one of the strongest male vocalists and songwriters at the moment, and he demonstrates this across the board here. His passionate rasp and immersive romantic lyrics paint a picture of something that we all strive for.

9. Tennis – Yours Conditionally

Image result for yours conditionallyA love letter to all things 70s pop, the husband-and-wife duo get minimalistic with their production and allow Alaina Moore’s calming vocals to shine through as they search to find the purest sense of human emotion. The harmonies and the earnest, joyful way Moore sings about her romantic life here never fail to put the widest smile on my face, and watching videos of the two performing together is the most wholesome thing you’ll ever see.

8. N.E.R.D. – NO_ONE EVER REALLY DIES

Image result for no one ever really diesOne of the most experimental albums of the year, one of 2017’s greatest albums dropped in the final week of music releases. Pharrell Williams and his old bandmates return for the first time in 7 years, recruiting a diverse roster of guests to build their brand of funk production around as Williams channels his inner James Brown to deliver some rallying chants. You lose track of how many beat switches this project has – it’s something to get lost in as it never stays the same for long.

7. Mura Masa – Mura Masa

Image result for mura masa coverThe debut album from the 21-year old DJ never takes its foot off the gas pedal. He brings a unique take on the rising tropical house style to his music, flying through a diverse array of guests but frequently connecting them all through his trademark chime patterns. Many of these tracks impress with their rhythmic complexity and layering, bringing the musical motifs all together at the end for a euphoric climax. The vocalists all sound like they’re inviting you to join them at some kind of an incredible party, and if the DJ is as competent as this rising star it should be a good time.

6. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

Image result for pure comedyThe folk artist’s third album perfectly encapsulates all that was 2017 in his darkly comedic lyrics and satirical analysis of … just about everything, taking a more rock-influenced route than his quieter tracks of the past. Yes, the album can be crushingly depressing at times, but like he consistently reminds us over its lengthy runtime, what can we do but laugh about it? Tillman has the perfect voice for the delivery of these hard truths, smooth and capable but very matter-of-fact, with the ability to pack emotion into his delivery without increasing in volume. This album is so dense it’s impossible to sum it up here, but it’s a very rewarding listen.

5. Jhene Aiko – Trip

Image result for trip jheneThe closest thing we got to a sprawling, interconnected concept album this year, the hour-and-a-half long Trip never feels like its length due to the hypnotic quality of Aiko’s mesmerizing and comforting vocal tone. The entire album framed as a drug trip, the hallucinations taking numerous positive and negative twists and turns as Aiko begins to envision her real personal events such as the death of her brother and her new romance with “soulmate” Big Sean, the spoken interludes here help to tell a complete story as the sound of the project is broken up into sections corresponding to different drugs. Aiko has given extensive description on deeper, personal meanings to the thematic layers she explores here, showing just how authentic the emotion she shows throughout really is. Trip is less of an album, and more of an experience.

4. Paramore – After Laughter

Image result for after laughterAnother complete reinvention, Paramore’s first album since 2013 arrives in the wake of numerous legal disputes and lineup shuffling, emerging on the other side with a brilliant 80s-pop revival nobody could have expected. After Laughter contains some deceptively despondent lyrics amid the sunny melodies, both sides colliding into  the band’s most fully realized album yet. A track like “Fake Happy” signifies just how far the band has come, a complete musical journey that offers about three surprising musical twists midsong that includes both their most poppy synths of all and the return of their heaviest guitars. Hayley Williams is still one of the most capable leads in the industry, her dynamic vocals guiding the band through this new direction with ease.

3. Billie Eilish – don’t smile at me

Image result for don't smile at meYes, an 8-track EP by a 15-year old is this good. The indie pop prodigy teams up with her brother, actor and producer Finneas O’Connell, Eilish’s aching, paper-thin voice serves in stark contrast to the energetic trap and EDM-flavoured instrumentals behind her and her dark and disturbing lyrical content. An artist having such a clearly established sense of artistic identity and creative vision at such a young age is hard to come by, and as she completely harnesses her brothers’ skittering and rhythmically complex beats while singing about a killing spree in the sweetest voice she could imagine, you can only imagine how bright her future will be. The capability to write a song as beautiful and affecting as “ocean eyes” at the age of 13 is something very special, and she has flawless vocals on top of that.

2. Lorde – Melodrama

Image result for melodramaJust as Lorde perfectly documented the complete experience of being a 16-year old on her debut, Pure Heroine, Lorde transitions to adulthood here in a believable way. In collaboration with another great songwriter in Jack Antonoff, she details her accompanying rapid accumulation of interpersonal relationships and a growing sense of place in a frequently depressing world now at the age of 20. Lorde both revels in the greatest parts of youth and criticizes the romanticization of other aspects, especially with regards to partying, which most of the album revolves around. Lorde’s voice is very distinct, and it helps many of her narratives become more personalized and believable. It is much lower than most female voices in pop music, verging on a menacing whisper at its lowest. Packed with emotion and frequently weary of the ways of the world, it delivers some pretty heavy stuff with just the right cadence. Lorde takes aim at a Frank Ocean-style lyrical exercise in turning the pedantic into the poignant here and pairs it with some minimalistic and experimental pop instrumentals for one of the most well-thought out projects of the year.

1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Image result for damn“Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide, are we gonna live or die?” Lamar’s latest work is all about dichotomies, many of his high-concept, single-word album titles serving as direct opposites. On DAMN., the dense and conceptual rapper swings in a slightly commercial direction for the first time, turning up the pure hip-hop energy but maintaining the important messages he began delivering on his previous works. If anything, the blunt, angrier deliver that results  only conveys his messages to the listener better, even if some of the complex musical aspects which made albums like Butterfly so great are sacrificed in the process. Simply put, nobody else in hip-hop has as much of a complete toolkit as Lamar does, and he shows off different parts of it on different tracks here. We hadn’t seen him make a pure pop song in “LOVE.”, but he shows us he excels at the slower, melodic rap too as the song shoots up the charts as we speak. We hadn’t really seen him go just as hard as he does on “DNA.” either. Regardless, the best part of any Lamar album is always the running themes – “Nobody praying for me”, he continues to assert, as the album continues to return to the same motifs and wraps itself up by rewinding to the beginning at its conclusion. With his incredible trilogy of albums, Lamar has firmly established himself as a leading visionary artist and a voice of his generation.

Schedule + END OF YEAR LISTS

I know I said I would be back at regularly scheduled times the last time I was gone, but I am now officially done with the semester and final exams and ready to catch up on everything here as quickly as possible.

I’m going to be posting quite a few more iterations of Rapid Fire Reviews for the rest of December, and since the last albums of the year are coming out TOMORROW, it will be quickly followed by my 2017 end of year countdowns.

Galantis – The Aviary

Image result for galantis the aviaryElectronic duo Galantis, formed by the union of prominent Swedish pop producers Bloodshy and Style of Eye, have broken through to the mainstream with the release of dancefloor-conquering single “No Money”. A year and a half later, the track appears on the duo’s second studio album, alongside some more sugary, high-octane dance tracks.

The Aviary is built like a standard pop album – scores of writers, repetitive, catchy hooks and the like, but is all infused with Galantis’ trademark vocal manipulation and glitchy, chiptune-emulating drops. For the most part, the album straddles a fine line between cheesiness and euphoria, more often than not falling into the former camp. These are guys who have worked with everyone from Charli XCX to Madonna, and know more than a few tricks to hook listeners into a dumb pop song. On quite a few occasions, however, the duo’s gimmicks just wind up being obnoxious.

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It’s strange – every time one of these songs started, my mind quickly snapped to a position of skepticism as they repeated the same tried and true tactics. This position didn’t change very often, but eventually, a few of them gradually began to win me over. With every party-ready drop and shouted background “hey!”, Galantis are asking you to join them on the dance floor. Galantis at their best is a overwhelming surge of joy stemming from those catchy synth melodies and pounding bass.

At times, the pitch shifting of the vocals makes it tough to identify even the singer’s gender, and while certain effects can get very annoying quickly, I have to say that the intentional namelessness here helped to bring me into the sense of a universal dance party. Tracks like “Tell Me You Love Me” and “Love On Me” take the rare step further, adding a welcome extra dimension to these tracks that pushes them over the edge.

The former slides the listener nicely into a chorus that builds up with some ascending horns and harmonies that sound like they’re straight from a gospel choir. The vocals are soulful and pleading despite their modulation, and as every little guitar riff or synth swell is added, it just widens my smile.

“Love On Me” got me with the steel drums, and then got me even harder with the surprise of keeping that infectious chorus going overtop of the dance drop. I can only imagine what my reaction in the club would have been. “Salvage (Up All Night)” even shows some variation in their dance drops, interestingly basing it around a chopped vocal and switching up the rhythm halfway through. For a band trying to be so fun, you’d think they’d try more fun tricks like this.

Far too many of these tracks feel like a copy and pasted checklist of your standard dance-pop song, sometimes applied without any attention to detail and creating awkward mishmashes like “Girls On Boys”. I expected more from a ROZES feature – she made even The Chainsmokers good – but when the song unexpectedly morphs from a softer-toned ballad with chords that accentuate her voice nicely to an all-out techno attack that comes in a measure too late and repeats an annoying higher-pitched synth melody, it just seems like the duo is relying in their audience to respond to a gimmicky dance breakdown regardless of what it is.

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This sloppiness pops up again on “Hello”, where the vocals seem like a total afterthought over a few piano chords that I’m certain I heard on another track here. They never quite click together rhythmically, as the duo compensates for this by cutting the whole track with a quick swooshing noise and another formulaic dance drop. Galantis’ formula is undoubtedly an effective one on the dance floor, but these tracks sound laughably similar when placed next to each other.

Galantis also don’t seem to understand how much an extended gimmick can bring down one of their songs, but hey – these are the ones that are selling. The vocals are pitched up WAY too high on singles “Hunter” and “No Money”, and getting through these choruses verges on excruciating. “Hunter” especially is one of their most low-key tracks, giving more than enough spotlight to that chorus repeating on and on like a mosquito buzzing in my ear.

I probably shouldn’t be expecting lyricism from a duo that relies so heavily on huge dance breaks, but you can’t help but notice them when they try to calm things down and go for an introspective angle. Wrabel taps right into that well of “aw, shucks” on – somehow – the 2nd track with the terrible title “Written In The Scars” I’ve heard in the past couple weeks (Thanks, The Script).

Ultimately, my feelings on The Aviary are very mixed. The duo display infuriatingly small glimpses into their huge potential. Their “fun” formula is making them very successful at the moment, but that priceless jolt of surprise when they try something different is so much more fun.

Favourite Tracks: Love On Me, Tell Me You Love Me, Salvage (Up All Night), True Feeling

Least Favourite Track: Girls On Boys

Score: 5/10

Ed Sheeran – ÷

Divide cover.pngBritish singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran, the man capable of selling out a stadium with nothing but a guitar and a loop pedal, firmly establishes himself as one of the leading presences at the forefront of pop music with his third studio album and first #1 hit single (“Shape Of You”). It’s been a steady rise to the top, but with the consistent quality of his work and tirelessly competitive edge that drives him to improvement, Sheeran continues to achieve the lofty goals he sets out for himself.

Outside of the tailor-made hit single that you might hear whenever a radio is switched on at the moment, ÷ certainly didn’t go full bubblegum pop like some other stars tend to when they reach this level of widespread appeal. In fact, it might have significantly less of that kind of material than 2014’s X. Taking a break from social media and travelling over the past year has seemingly opened Sheeran up to a diverse range of musical influences, and he really has the raw talent to make anything at all work.

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There are much less personnel on this album than the typical A-list pop star release, speaking volumes to the degree of Sheeran’s own input. Almost every track is produced by some combination of close friend and frequent collaborator Johnny McDaid, pop mastermind Benny Blanco (Maroon 5, Justin Bieber), and Sheeran himself. Sheeran also has primary writing credit on every song, with the assistance of Blanco or one of a few well-established pop songwriters. OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder, folk breakout Foy Vance and Julia Michaels, quickly establishing a solo career of her own, all appear here.

These are all mostly the trademark passionately sung, well-written and guitar-driven tracks that we know and love him for, but applied to a wide range of styles. For example, “Dive” features a beautiful foray into the doo-wop sound you never knew Sheeran could dominate in this way, while “Galway Girl” gives a modern update to what sounds like an Irish folk song, a track that is outside the norm to just the right amount – Sheeran had to fight the label to keep it on.

Right off the bat, we’re reminded Sheeran can rap on opener “Eraser” – this is usually the best display of his lyricism, and this track basically serves as an update on the status of Sheeran’s feelings towards his position in the music industry. Having at least one track like this on each album is an interesting insight to the foundation of the strong hip-hop influence in his uptempo tracks. More importantly, however, Sheeran can SING – the passion and emotional involvement he puts into the delivery of every song is the number one thing that makes him so appealing. This can manifest in the strain from putting so much feeling into the words his voice reaches its breaking point on songs like “Dive”, or quieting things down to deliver something like a touching elegy to his late grandmother on closer “Supermarket Flowers”. His actual vocal abilities, as well, especially his range, consistently surprise and put him ahead of all of his contemporaries save for maybe Bruno Mars.

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Sheeran’s lyrics can make you both laugh and cry and can be emotionally affecting like nobody else. When he describes the scene in detail on “Happier” of observing the interactions between his ex-girlfriend and her new man in a bar, before admitting he was happier with her, your heart breaks along with his struggle to accept his situation. Of course, he then turns it around on forthcoming track “New Man”, hilariously mocking the stereotypical characteristics of this bland and typically “popular” man. Some other standout tracks include “Perfect”, where Sheeran endears us to his cheesy romantic lyrics in the way only he can, and “How Would You Feel (Paean)”, another love ballad which calls back to debut album + with its acoustic guitar and piano and features a guitar solo from John Mayer.

One of the only criticisms I could possibly have about this album is that there are certain songs where connections to corresponding tracks on X could be easily drawn, but Sheeran said himself that he had these songs in mind and was trying to improve upon them, which he certainly did. “New Man” is a better “Don’t”. “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” is a better “Tenerife Sea”. The only time there is a lapse in me being completely captivated by Sheeran’s many talents is perhaps “What Do I Know?”, where the repetitive guitar loop and chorus melody are still very catchy, but more basic. What it makes up for in interesting music, it makes up for in interesting lyrics acknowledging the tricky relationship between artists and controversial topics, Sheeran ultimately choosing to avoid them but offering his music as a catalyst for peaceful change.

Sheeran has improved with every album release, and makes me believe that a ginger-haired and socially awkward guy who likes to rap could fully achieve all the plans he outlines in interviews to conquer the world. The natural talent he has is in an extraordinary realm, and with the self-awareness he has to identify what didn’t work in his past and improve it, we might not have even heard Sheeran’s best yet.

Favourite Tracks: Galway Girl, Dive, Perfect, How Would You Feel (Paean), New Man

Least Favourite Track: What Do I Know?

Score: 10/10

Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 3

Image result for run the jewels 3All-star rap duo Run The Jewels (Killer Mike and rapper/producer El-P) return with their third in a series of albums that continue to deliver. While the form is still largely the same, they once again deviate in content here. Their chemistry has already put them among the great rap duos and groups of all time and they use it primarily here, like many other artists have, to speak on the world in the wake of the US Election and Killer Mike’s diehard support of candidate Bernie Sanders. Run The Jewels has always had an element of this biting political edge, but it rises completely to the forefront here with new personal anecdotes of how it has affected them personally that extend past Mike’s chilling imagined scenario of police brutality on RTJ2’s “Early”. Of course, El-P’s beats are still as creative and mindblowing as ever, and their technical skill and interplay is unmatched in rap’s current landscape. You start to wonder if this match made in heaven will ever slow down.

The formula is basically the same as before, but the same is never truly the same with RTJ. The album is loud and abrasive, featuring rapid-fire flows, edgy lyrics containing biting satire and hilarious punchlines, and interesting and dynamic beats with an industrial sound — all the aspects that we’ve come to love and expect from the duo at this point. However, instead of building themselves – and each other – up as they usually do, they turn away from each other and face forward to unleash a full-out attack on the nonsense and evils of the world.

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The collaborators, some old and some new, are all perfectly chosen. These are the kind of insane beats that Danny Brown can get behind and he serves as a great contrast on “Hey Kids (Bumaye)”. Master saxophonist Kamasi Washington of To Pimp A Butterfly fame just adds another level of insanity to El-P’s grinding beat. Zack De La Rocha, former frontman of Rage Against the Machine, shows up once again on the closing and most political track “A Report To The Shareholders/Kill Your Masters”, and shows just how well RTJ is carrying on the legacy of bands like his. The pure energy and revolutionary potential of De La Rocha yelling “F**k you I won’t do what you tell me!” repeatedly over roaring guitars on the band’s biggest hit has been captured and spread over a trilogy of albums.

El-P dubs himself the “Son of Rick Rubin” on “Talk To Me”, and he’s not wrong. Like Rubin, who was a prominent producer in hip-hop but was very successful in other genres as well, all of El-P’s sounds are stadium sized and come from all over the musical map – not the typical hip-hop instrumental. And yet, he makes hip-hop beats that hit harder than any other. “Call Ticketron”, featuring a woozy synth line and rapid-fire hi-hats, is something else.

Their lyricism is frequently amazing is well, both when they’re talking about politics and when they’re coming up with increasingly ridiculous ways to describe how awesome they are.These guys can knowingly be blissfully immature and come across as hilarious on the lighter tracks — El-P opening “Everybody Stay Calm” with a blunt “Excusez-moi, b*tches” genuinely made me laugh out loud — and then drop truth bombs justifying their rage like “You talk clean and bomb hospitals/So I speak with the foulest mouth possible” (“Shareholders/Masters”). Killer Mike uses a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. to openly call for a riot on “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost” and means it when he calls for the assassination of billionaires.

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Speaking of Mike, I feel like I haven’t been talking about him nearly enough – his technical ability is absolutely spectacular on the project, completely unapologetic as he harnesses El-P’s out-of-control beats. His final verse on “Call Ticketron” deservedly set the Internet ablaze. In fact, for the first time on a Run The Jewels project I’d even say that El-P’s verses are weaker overall across the entire project for the first time, as they are usually on an equal playing field. This isn’t a case of El-P getting worse, he might have even gotten better. Mike just steps his game up to another level entirely here.

Another small criticism is that the hooks are a little underdeveloped and underwritten, but that’s never really been what Run The Jewels is about. We’re here for the beats that shake us senseless and the bars that make us ask “Did they just say that?” before realizing their truth. Sometimes, a chorus of children screaming “Bumaye!” (“Kill him!”) is effective enough as a hook.

The same song, “Hey Kids (Bumaye)”, begins with a child proclaiming in a high-pitched voice “This is so crazy!” He concludes the track, “You made my eardrums bleed”. This is basically how I feel about this album. Run The Jewels have been out for blood since the beginning, and while the music may not hit quite as hard as the full-blown assault on the senses that was RTJ2, their words are what do the taking this time.

Favourite Tracks: Call Ticketron, Legend Has It, Everybody Stay Calm, Hey Kids (Bumaye), Talk To Me

Least Favourite Track: Oh Mama

Score: 9/10

YG – Red Friday

West Coast gangsta rap revivalist YG returns with a brief collection of songs which didn’t make the cut on Still Brazy, his acclaimed album from earlier this year. Although YG continues to bring the high-energy tracks we’ve come to expect from him, and reunites with some key collaborators, some of this material falls much shorter in the creativity department. At times, it is easy to see why some of these songs were left off the album — especially with the unique story attached to the project.

YG is only distributing a very limited number of physical copies of the EP, each costing $100. The project stands more as a novelty associated with the Black Friday craze than a legitimately assembled collection of songs, though there are still a few great tracks here. Though especially in the wake of creating a song that resonated with people as much as political protest song “FDT”, YG seems to be simply going the motions of what creates a standard West Coast banger here.

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The sound of the EP is still classic YG, offering melodic and bombastic West Coast beats while he continues to do what has made him famous overtop of them – the loud, in your face flow associated with old-school gangsta rap. The tone is very celebratory, fitting in with his more party-oriented tracks rather than the social commentary which has recently been getting more critical attention. Notable collaborator DJ Mustard, who was a major part of YG’s debut album My Krazy Life, is back here after differences kept the pair apart, and contributes some of the project’s best beats.

As a matter of fact, the instrumentals here are easily the best element of the project. YG brings back this West Coast retro sound very well, and in a world where many rappers are going as experimental as they possibly can, deviating from frameworks, not many people are left still doing what YG is doing at this caliber. While the features here vary in their success, rapidly rising star 21 Savage steals the entire project with his turn on “I Be On”, amplifying considerably what is an otherwise mediocre track and demonstrating why everyone wants him on their song right now. Despite the abundance of party tracks here, YG is still at his best when talking political – the only time he really brings up any of the issues he mentions on Still Brazy is on the best track here One Time Comin’. Over a monstrous beat resembling a police siren, he addresses the trepidation he feels around the police while still delivering a catchy hook.

When it comes down to it, however, this is still an album full of leftover tracks. Although many of these tracks do succeed in being hard-hitting enough to get one’s head nodding, the similarities of the tracks and inability to bring anything new out of the tried-and-true LA gangsta rap framework become overwhelming on even a project this brief. This does not measure up to the strength of his previous two albums at all, and for a project worth $100 should have been better.

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The main issue here stems from lazy songwriting, especially in the hook department. These songs were cut for a reason, and as featured artist Mitch, who may or may not be the guy who caught a body ’bout a week ago, imitates somewhat of a drunken Travis Scott on “I Know”, or YG delivers an uninspired and generic trap hook without any variation in his voice, the strength of the beat stops mattering. YG’s cadence can get grating at times – like fellow rapper Meek Mill, a lot of the energy of his tracks comes from his loud and unapologetic attack on the mic. It does involve a lot of yelling, and it works if it’s used in the right way, but a lot of the time it isn’t here. Delivering repetitive hooks at this same level of volume isn’t the most pleasant listening experience. To bring 21 Savage’s great verse back into the conversation, his more laid-back style fit the beat of “I Be On” much better.

YG has all but mastered his craft, and demonstrated it on his full-length studio albums. While Red Friday serves as somewhat of a blemish on his wildly successful work, its status as an EP and novelty release surrounding Black Friday allow it some breathing room. But unlike fellow Californian rapper Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered, YG’s B-Sides pale significantly in comparison.

Favourite Tracks: One Time Comin’, I’m A Thug Pt. 2, I Be On

Least Favourite Track: I Know

Score: 5/10

Schedule Update

The end of the school semester is upon us and with it I have less time to write up reviews. For the upcoming week or two I will post whenever I have the time to, as soon as possible.

Reviews of YG’s Red Friday mixtape and Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love coming soon!