Music in review: 18 of our favourite albums of 2018
‘The National’ staff pick their top albums of the year, featuring political lyrics and bold genre-jumping sounds
It lacked the juggernaut album releases – the likes of Beyonce and Rihanna all chose not to release material this year – but 2018 will go down as a creative period filled with brilliantly compelling music. From Arctic Monkeys’ spaced-out album Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino to Janelle Monae’s shape-shifting Dirty Computer and socially potent songs by Palestine’s 47Soul, the late Rim Banna, and Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, much of the music that came out this year was fuelled by the often fractious, confusing state of the world today. So, without further ado, here are our top 18 albums of 2018.
1) A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships by The 1975 (Dirty Hit)
The 1975’s third album is their most ambitious, experimental and brilliant yet. Against a backdrop of dreamy pop, electronica and jazz, singer Matt Healy explores millennial angst, substance abuse and the dangers of social media. A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships – uplifting, warm, and occasionally mournful – is a slice of pure pop perfection.
2) African Scream Contest Vol 2 by various artists (Analogue Africa)
This is a gem of a compilation of unheard 1970s funk tracks from west-African country, Benin. From the blissed-out psychedelia of A Min We Vo Nou We by Les Sympathics de Porto Novo, to the earthy blues of Picoby Band D’Abomey’s Me Adomina, this album serves as a reminder of how Benin – and the continent in general – is a hotbed of exciting and innovative sounds that freely mix traditional music elements with modern flavours such as soul and funk.
3) All Melody by Nils Frahm (Erased Tapes)
The beautiful minimalism of All Melody is cathartic. An experimental electronic producer and composer, Frahm is not interested in virtuosity here. Instead, he is all about creating a sustained mood. Chilled enough for a late-night drive, and with enough energy to feature in a Sunset Dance Music compilation, All Melody finds Frahm loose and free, and that’s where’s he’s at his best.
4) Bad Witch by Nine Inch Nails (The Null Corporation/Capitol)
Trent Reznor was in danger of fading into irrelevance for much of the past decade, until his long-time collaborator Atticus Ross joined the fold permanently for 2016’s Not the Actual Events and the following year’s stellar Add Violence. Those two EPs served as fair warning for Bad Witch. The bold electronics and almost sardonic lyricism suggest Reznor, now 53, is more full of life and vigour now than at perhaps any point in his career to date.
5) Balfron Promise by 47Soul (Cooking Vinyl)
47Soul’s challenge has always been about how to transfer the electrifying energy of their live show to the studio, and they achieved that with second album Balfron Promise. It’s full of party vibes and socially conscious lyrics highlighting the plight of refugees. Sung in both Arabic and English, the four-piece band have pumped a lot of energy into this album, which is full of delicious electro grooves, chanting and crooning vocals.
6) Black Times by Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 (Strut)
While tracks questioning the appeal of capitalism and celebrating pro-black thinker Marcus Garvey aren’t likely to appear anywhere near the playlists of local pop radio stations, the tuneful arrangements and ruthless editing of Black Times serve as a timely reminder of Afrobeat’s power as protest music. Seun Kuti is the son of famed Nigerian singer and Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, and his fierce lyrics are an urgent call to action, while the slick and catchy funk arrangements make the messages a delight to digest.
7) Daytona by Pusha-T (GOOD Music)
One of rap’s bitterest feuds, that of Pusha-T and Drake, continues on the former’s sterling album. The closer, the searing Infared, has the self-styled King Push accusing Drake of using a ghostwriter. That wasn’t the album’s high point, however – that honour fell to Come Back Baby, possibly the most soul-filled song in Pusha-T’s career as a solo artist, as well as from his time as half of sibling duo Clipse. That Daytona is up for Best Rap Album at the 2019 Grammys is justification of his talents.
8) Devotion, Tirzah (Domino)
This beautiful, intimate album from British singer Tirzah Mastin is a quiet celebration of modern love and neurosis. The loose soul beats and gentle piano support provide the backdrop for some dopey vocals and raw lyrics (“I don’t want the solution / I just want to explain things”). Devotion is the sound of lazy days spent blissed-out with a loved one. Unflashy but exceptional.
9) Dime Trap by T I (Grand Hustle)
Maturity suits T I. Where the rapper’s previous releases sounded manic and inconsistent, he has now found comfort in his role as the elder-statesmen of the trap music scene. His 10th album functions as a hip-hop Ted Talk as he details his growth from a street hoodlum to businessman, and the many mistakes made along the way. That said, T I still knows how to party, and the thumping Wraith is a showcase of his irresistible syrupy flow. Saeed Saeed
10) Dirty Computer by Janelle Monae (Bad Boy)
Janelle Monae combines 1980s new wave, electropop and R’n’B on her extraordinary third album – her first since 2013 – which pinballs from joyful to reflective to defiant, often in the same song. Monae fronts up and tackles President Donald Trump’s Twitter rage, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, but Dirty Computer’s most radical message is that being different, and not quite fitting in is just fine. A very modern masterpiece.
11) My Dear Melancholy by The Weeknd (Republic/XO)
Call Out My Name was the drama-laden hit single from The Weeknd’s follow-up to his worldwide chart-topper Starboy, but delve deeper for the real peaks. Moments such as the regret-laden Wasted Times and the depression-referencing I Was Never There, prove that the Canadian singer is a thoughtful artist with more to offer than (brilliantly smutty) songs.
12) Nasir by Nas (G O O D Music)
My worst interview as a writer was with a clearly uninterested Nas – he mumbled through barely coherent answers to about 20 questions in less than half the amount of minutes. In 26-and-a-half minutes here, he says an awful lot more, particularly on Cops Shot the Kid, riffing off an insistent looped sample of Slick Rick speaking the title ad infinitum that proves almost hypnotic in its repetition. Album producer Kanye West’s verse in that track is only exceeded by Nas’s splendidly on-point and ire-filled lyrics on police violence.
13) No Shame by Lily Allen (Parlophone)
No Shame’s colder and intimate electro-pop sound suits the sombre material within. The production sounds remote, however, the lyrics are anything but, as Allen takes us on a deep-dive into the recriminations and doubts that surround a recently signed divorce. Heart-breaking yet hopeful, Allen’s stark and brave dissection of her faults allows No Shame to stand as her most potent work yet.
14) Songs of Praise by Shame (Dead Oceans)
These exciting south Londoners prove that the spirit of punk is alive and well. Their debut album, Songs of Praise, is a heady blend of blistering guitar riffs and unreconstructed, often very funny, lyrics (“My nails aren’t manicured / My voice ain’t the best you’ve heard”). If it all sounds a bit raw at times, the energy is relentless, the anger is palpable, and the choruses demand to be screamed back at the band. Isn’t that what rock music is all about?
15) Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino by Arctic Monkeys (Domino)
This is Arctic Monkeys’ least accessible record: a concept album, composed on a piano by lead singer Alex Turner, about a musician playing in a bar on the Moon. Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino is louche and cryptic, its lolloping jazz and muted glam-rock flecked with too-clever-by-half lyrics you may never decipher. But listening to it is an immersive, trippy, out-of-this-world experience, which is as rewarding as it is difficult.
16) Understand What Black Is by The Last Poets (Studio Rockers)
The grizzled godfathers of hip-hop return for their first album in 20 years. This time around, the trio’s spoken-word poetry is paired with light reggae and dub vibes courtesy of British producers Nostalgia 77 and Prince Fatty. The sounds stay rich and earthy, as the group deliver their signature evocative wordplay that explores the dysfunction afflicting American society at present.
17) Voice of Resistance by Rim Banna (Kirkelig Kulturverksted)
When Rim Banna died of cancer in March, the region lost a fierce and modern music legend. The Palestinian singer and activist left us with a precious posthumous album to serve as a worthy epitaph. With her voice fragile due to her condition, Banna gives mostly a spoken-word performance, which is paired with experimental backing music, courtesy of Norwegian jazz musician Bugge Wesseltoft and sound designer Checkpoint 303. They couch Banna’s searing lyrics with hazy and dronish effects, which gives the album a claustrophobic feel. It all goes to serve as metaphors for Banna’s medical condition, and the plight of the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation. That said, Voice of Resistance is not maudlin. It’s a meditative look at a courageous life reaching its end and a rallying cry for Arab artists to use their talents for a purpose.
18) Ye by Kanye West (G O O D Music)
Brevity was the mission as Kanye West attempted to revitalise the album as a sustainable format. And he may very well have succeeded on that score with this seven-tracker. On Ye, West cooks up soulful backdrops reminiscent of his early output. Yikes is the peak, delivering an abrasive defence of his public breakdown. Adam Workman
Updated: December 30, 2018 07:29 PM