Some say that every year is just as good as if not better than the last: here's the brand new vintage, nothing can better this etc…
Well, 2018 started for little me with an album that was released in the long hot summer of 2017 but I didn't connect with it until reading some other end of year polls. It stood at the peak of the R n B mountain, a more than worthy successor to Solange’s ‘A Seat at the Table’. I have listened to its sinuous, sensual grooves almost every week, sometimes twice a week since January to date and I am yet to be even remotely bored. SZA’s ‘Ctrl’ is a raw, honest celebration of being in your 20s, discovering love, life and the vagaries of relationships. It birthed a perfect slacker anthem in ‘Drew Barrymore’ and boasted breath-taking production skills from the likes of Scum and Thankgod4Cody that make Kanye and Rodney Jerkins - even Timbaland himself - resemble rank amateurs.
Having said that, Kanye did sneak in through the back door with some superlative skills on Nas’s slept on comeback ‘Nasir’ that clocked in (like most Kanye-related releases during 2018) at just over 30 minutes. His flow remains intact and focused on present problems, clear and dynamic, with some tracks even equal to his earlier, classic work from the mid-90s.
The other LP doing the rounds on my car CD player – I am so old school, but I wouldn’t have it any other way – since I managed to purchase it in March / April is the major label debut by Rapsody called ‘Laila’s Wisdom’, a concept album of sorts which more than hints at a burgeoning talent worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as Lauryn Hill. However, her delivery is harder, more urban and direct yet blessed with a softer, more reflective side. She first came to the party on King Kendrick’s ‘Complexion’, a standout anthem from ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. Her star is going to expand still further in the months and years to come.
2018’s earlier notable releases included Kendrick who has managed to birth close to one new release every year since he emerged mid-decade to slay all comers and sometime pretenders. This time around it was the superlative, richly varied soundtrack to ‘Black Panther’ which contained the single of the year in ‘All The Stars’ featuring SZA on the stellar, big huge universe of a chorus - a monumental tune on stilts, bestriding the pop universe and literally dwarfing the competition. KLam exhibited his superlative skills on several tracks and his positive influence permeated several of the other tracks.
Around the same time Daniel Avery introduced his second LP, dreamily entitled ‘Song For Alpha’ which revisited the origins of techno and electronica in moog heavy existential musings, powered by massive bass lines and songs that lasted for 10 minutes or more – music to be completely swallowed up by, consumed then reborn: for the head, heart, soul and, occasionally legs with its discreet nods to 90’s rave culture.
Another LP that appears to have been overlooked in many end of year polls is ‘Damned Devotion’ by Joan As Police Woman. Her original and open-minded approach to song-writing has taken her from torch song to deep grooves then upbeat indie pop – yet she remains an enigma, which naturally makes her all the more fascinating. Every release reveals a new side to her lyrics and she is privileged to retain an amazing band to expand her ideas and, boy, does she know her way around a chorus!
Mid- 2018 birthed a swathe of quality, ground-breaking and stretching releases from a wide variety of established artists. I emphasise that word, since these mortals are more than just songwriters, lyricists and performers. Kamasi Washington, another mate of King Kendrick, has moved onward and upward from his astonishing debut ‘The Epic’, downsizing from a triple to a double LP on ‘Heaven and Earth’, a jazz odyssey clocking in at about 120 minutes that, at times, is in danger of overreaching itself but retains its sanity by being infused with an exuberant love of experimentation and an unbridled joy in the possibilities of big band expressionism. It is MIGHTY and MAJESTIC and it may, at times, exhaust you with its ambition: but, would you want it any other way?
Following swiftly on its heels came a potentially life-changing release from J Cole who has been languishing in Kendrick and Drake’s shadows for too long. I must admit I was not as aware of his influence as I should have been but this man has a unique flow: staccato, syncopated, experimenting off the beat and overflowing with a richness of original ideas. What makes ‘K.O.D.’ stand out so brightly is the way in which his delivery takes absolute centre stage against subtle, minimalist production mostly beats and few samples. When he launches into closing track ‘1985’, you can only listen in slack-jawed respect and astonishment. He is a landmark MC for these troubled times.
Ben Howard’s star waxes and wanes a little when he is not around but he returned with a smouldering masterpiece in June, entitled ‘Noonday Dream’. It is a little miracle of an album, full of suggestion and heavy with dreamlike atmospheres, gorgeous chord changes and whispered vocals that occasionally erupt in amongst raucous guitars. It is the new heir to Talk Talk’s crown and, although he lacks charisma in person, this is transformed amidst the grooves. It sounds like it could have been composed anytime in the last 50 years – in other words, both timeless and timely.
As the year moved into autumnal bliss, Courtney Barnett clung to the coat tails of a festival summer with her punky, lo-fi brilliance and disarming musings on love, life and the awkwardness of relationships with ‘Tell Me how you really Feel.’ Teaming up with The Breeders on a couple of tracks aided her seemingly innate ability to forge an alchemy of breezy indie pop with brio and sheer muscle. Mosh with me if you dare. She is a slacker genius but that belies the real, effortless genius of her approach. There is way more to come from Courtney.
The holy triumvirate spread their multi-coloured wings at the nights slowly began to draw in. Firstly, Julia Holter went all Laura Nyro mixed with a psychedelic prog folk excursion that entirely defied categorisation – like Kamasi, a double album but shorter, though not by much. Mixing electro with ululation and some tracks that were almost entirely instrumental, save for her sky-eating vocals that are at times barely there, she drove a cart and ravishing horse through the mainstream with ‘Aviary’ a unique creation that this reviewer will still be getting his head around come next July. Bold, utterly spellbinding and just what we all desperately need in this age of formulaic pop pap.
Next comes a firm, personal favourite, a man whose lyrics and musical arrangements tug constantly and consistently at the soft parts of my heart and brain. Looking at the cover of ‘Love is Magic’ you might have been forgiven for thinking that John Grant had finally, possibly, lost his marbles. Of course not: what the brave listener encountered was a heady mix of very 21st century electronica with enthusiastic nods to Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, amongst others. He perfectly blends cheeky quips on ‘Preppy Boy’ with the mordant musings of ‘Smug Cxxt’, the deathless beauty of the title track then closer ‘Touch and Go’, a study in loss and regret that leaves you smiling and wanting at least two more minutes to luxuriate in the frankly gorgeous chorus. It’s frankly not fair that one man can give so much and seem to gain so little in return. I adore him. Full stop.
This masterwork competes for space on my balsawood podium with ‘Chris’, the second full album from Christine and The Queens. To say this woman is making the finest, bittersweet dance pop since Madonna in her pomp is an understatement only matched by Donald Trump’s ability to show compassion for any other human being… Indescribably addictive and pre-loaded with 360 degrees of poise and panache, songs such as ‘Girlfriend’ and ‘5 Dollars’ out perfect perfection and lend weight to any argument that the contents of this LP be placed on the National Curriculum. It is not hyperbolic to exclaim that ‘Chris’ is the absolute finest POP album of this decade and perhaps going back further than that.
Invest your time wisely, listeners and enjoy what’s left of 2018.
Review by Hugh Ogilvie