Best of 2018 so far...
We're halfway through the year, and what an incredible six months it's been for albums. Whether you're interested in Cardi B's gloriously nonchalant bars, Father John Misty's beautifully self-aware guitar pop, Janelle Monáe's conceptual dreamwork or the Kendrick's epic Black Panther soundtrack, we've rounded-up our picks from 2018 so far.
- Bronx stripper-turned-rapper Cardi B sometimes seems entirely powered by brazen attitude. Certainly, she hasn’t shied away from assuming the glittering role of stardom and shutting down the haters since last year’s breakthrough trap hit ‘Bodak Yellow’. The Gangsta B*tch Music tapes and her huge features with Bruno Mars and Migos showed off her brash, braggadocio lyrics, doused in unapologetic sexuality. Couple those bars with her astounding, tongue-twisting delivery and it isn't difficult to see why she's been compared to Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown, nor why she now boasts famous fans like Janet Jackson. But the gentle bossa nova vulnerability of ‘Be Careful’ shows that Cardi is more versatile than expected, and her highly-anticipated debut looks set to counter paparazzi intrusiveness in being as revealing and personal as it is banging. On this first full-length, Cardi ascends to the throne as rap’s current queen with seemingly effortless ease.
- Texan singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves has long since established herself as a serious, self-aware artist in the country arena. Indeed, her first two studio albums showcased a proclivity for wry wit and defiant, deft intelligence. This third outing is a little softer around the edges and a little poppier, with Musgraves purportedly asking herself the question, "What would it sound like if Imogen Heap made a country album?" The answer, apparently, is a sweet and gleaming record that revels in its vulnerabilities more so than its quickfire barbs - though it’s still every bit as assured as her earlier work. As Golden Hour ebbs and flows between gentle lulls and shimmery pop, it becomes obvious why Musgraves stands at the forefront of country’s revival.
- When you’re a pro at conjuring alternate creative universes and inhabiting android alter-egos, the most radical next step would surely be to strip away the artifice. This is precisely what Janelle Monáe set out to do on her first album in five years, explaining to the New York Times, “I knew I needed to make this album, and I put it off and put it off because the subject is Janelle Monáe.” Emotional honesty never comes at the expense of ambition, however, and Monáe maintains her reputation as Kansas’ most innovative musical export, serving up complex arrangements that encompass pop, funk and soul, with a little help from Grimes, Pharrell, Brian Wilson and her late-mentor Prince. Add frank discussions on race, gender, sex and societal inequality to the mix, and you have one of 2018’s most audacious records so far.
- A strict Evangelical Christian background is part of what makes Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty. He makes simple, warm pop informed by late teen years listening to Bob Dylan at his most Christian, all topped with sweet observation and caustic irony. Tillman’s fourth album under this moniker feels a logical next step from its two immediate predecessors: I Love You, Honeybear was breathtakingly comic and loved-up, capturing Tillman meeting his wife, while Grammy-winning Pure Comedy was smug and gloriously over the top. Now on God’s Favourite Customer, for all the wry title might suggest otherwise, we find him more honest, desperate, and vulnerable than ever, scrambling to save his relationship. Soaring, heartbreaking and beautifully earnest, Father John Misty proves he’s far more than just another irony bro.
- Scottish producer SOPHIE has carved out a name for herself as the creator of metallic, colourful, exhilarating beats: the PC Music-affiliate knows how to make glossy and strange experimental pop that is, in short, breathtaking. This debut album distills the soft, breathy beauty of someone like Björk but pulses with brash and daring kineticism: it’s strange and raunchy in a bold patent leather kind of way (let’s not forget SOPHIE released her compilation Product in 2015 with the free gift of a sex toy). Immersive, charged, cathartic in its causticness and as iridescently gorgeous as the album cover might suggest, Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides sounds like a pop record from the future that someone smashed up and put back together again.
- It’s fair to say there’s been just a bit of hype surrounding Jorja Smith, be it Drake giving her the co-sign of a lifetime on his More Life project, her featuring on Kendrick’s incredible Black Panther soundtrack, or her winning a little something called the BRITs Critics’ Choice Award (FYI: former awardees have included Florence + The Machine andAdele). Thankfully, the Walsall-native’s debut is very much worthy of the acclaim - this is an album of soft-focus R&B-meets-soul-meets-UK dance, confronting teenage romance and even some social justice. All yearning, shining production and delicately fluid vocals, Lost & Found is an impressive first album poised to cement Jorja Smith's stardom.
- The king of the current jazz scene is back with album number two, and it's as smooth and engrossing as you'd expect - but it's more overtly political this time around. Los Angeles saxophonist Kamasi Washington shot to fame following his work on To Pimp A Butterfly, and his latest feels in keeping with the searing commentary of that release, dealing in impassioned reality and celestial imagination. A double album, the rallying cries on the Earth record are met with dreamy aspirations on the Heaven disc. It's not as serious as that might imply though - both albums cascade with sleazy '70s-film-soundtrack-esque sounds that are a lot of fun. On Heaven and Earth Kamasi Washington proves himself and his band to be more ambitious and immersive than ever.
- “That rock’n’roll, eh? That rock’n’roll, it just won’t go away.” So went Alex Turner’s infamous (and bizarre) speech at the BRIT Awards back in 2014, when Arctic Monkeys won big for their last album, AM. Oddly, he had a point: while the trends and forecasts might overlook it, the Sheffield band’s longevity is testament to the enduring power of rock’n’roll. This is their sixth album, and it finds lush songs inflected with Serge Gainsbourg-esque jazz rigour, contemplating technology and our willingness to distract from tragedy with pop cultural escapism. Often as searingly vulnerable as it is softly grandiose, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino ultimately lives up to that wild speech: for anyone still questioning the relevance of rock’n’roll, this is Alex Turner’s mic drop.