Sugar Mountain may have come out of grief but Jack River’s debut album isn’t sad. The 27 year-old NSW musician found solace in the Jack River project after her sister died early in her teen years. The album begins with a heartwarming tribute to her sister Her Smile which sees her in hindsight singing “let go” and that’s a battle she fights throughout the record. The album title’s two words are juxtaposing and that’s exactly what the album is. It’s Jack River fighting fear, grief and loneliness alongside sugary moments of euphoria. That euphoria comes in waves - in the bursting chorus of Ballroom, the wanderlust of Stardust & Rust and the ambition of In Infinity. Jack River’s ability to recognise the importance of those moments is what made her the most triumphant Australian artist this year.
Mitski has never released a bad album in her career but she did something that artists rarely do on their fifth album - stepped up. From the sweeping grandeur of Geyser to the chic disco of Nobody, she went unashamedly large, embracing big pop melodies while still serving gritty guitars and thrashing drums. On Be The Cowboy, Mitski is the cowboy. She’s strong, resilient and in control whether she be taking on topics of loneliness or adoration.
We’d thought we’d seen the best of Lily Allen when she gave us the underwhelming Sheezus. For the first time in her career it sounded like she’d lost her sound and sense of where she sits in the industry but on No Shame she pulled it all back. No Shame is so successful because Allen truly believes that. Whether she be singing about being the breadwinner (Family Man) or galavanting around the world with different guys (My One), she’s not ashamed of her past but full of lessons for the future. It’s a tough job to wrap those songs up in endlessly enjoyable pop songs but Allen has never been one to write about conventional subjects (see Alfie).
This year was full of beautiful, honest declarations of self and Ryan Beatty’s Boy In Jeans was one of those. It’s a supremely executed record that sits somewhere between soul and pop but more importantly it sounds like Beatty’s DNA. He embraces his sexuality with glimmering sunlight that you can’t help but smile about when he’s optimistically declaring, “it starts right now,” or singing about finding spirituality in the bedroom (God In Jeans). Boy In Jeans is the best debut album of the year.
Troye Sivan has always been honest with his songwriting and while Bloom may feel like a revelation for his writing it’s not really, it’s a statement of where he is right now. Whatever age or stage of life he’s at, Sivan releases records that reflect that and Bloom sounds every bit the 23 year-old man he is right now. With age and experience comes a new sense of liberation from Sivan as he celebrates sexual tension on the flaring My My My! or as he uses floral imagery to for an effortless pop song about bottoming on the title track. Sivan is also just as in control when he slows things down, sizzling on the gorgeous closer Animal and breaking hearts on the raw Postcard. Bloom confident and proudly queer but more importantly it’s a really bloody honest statement from a songwriter who can tap into his emotion better than most.
A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships feels like the work of a band that’s matured. It’s like Healy has realised that making sweeping realisations looking outward is not half as powerful if you’re not also looking inward. Of course, at times it’s over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek but for the first time the band feels human, like they’ve stepped off their pedestal. When you think about the greatest bands of all time, they don’t go down in history because they were more intelligent than the rest of us, they do so because we felt that they tapped into our feelings in a way we couldn’t.
In 2018, the Beyonce and Jay-Z saga that started in an elevator and birthed at least two albums, came to a peaceful resolution. Bey and Jay teamed for that long-rumoured collab album and amplified each other’s strengths while also dabbling in each other’s. Bey rapped better than she ever has before on Apeshit while Jay offered a level of introspection previously unheard on Friends. EVERYTHING IS LOVE addresses their struggles but best of all it celebrated their union. They’re one of the most powerful couples in the world and if you don’t feel that on Black Effect we can’t help you.
Christine & The Queens is the most boundary-pushing artist in pop right now and Chris saw her take on a masculine persona for a punchy, powerful record. Over ‘80s-inspired beats, Christine gave us Prince, Kate Bush and MJ rolled into one while exploring her pansexuality, spirituality and and personal freedom. At times, Chris feels hopeless like on the nihilistic Doesn’t Matter but at other times she’s demanding and confident like on Make Some Sense. She may be beaten down by the world’s troubling view on things or her relationships with others but she finds strength in the music with every shuddering beat.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that every Noname release is a snapshot into her life in between drops and Room 25 sees her in a very interesting place. Since her last record Telefone, Noname discovered sex and with it came a record that was far more self-assured, sexy and curious than its predecessor. “My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism,” is an unshakeable statement about where she is as an artist right now and a better line than most opening tracks on albums offered this year. While Room 25 is refreshingly braggadocious though, it’s also a considered, current reflection of what it feels like to be a PoC in a country currently run by “bad government”. Few could be as open about their sexual liberation while examining US politics in the same breath. Noname is truly one of the best lyriscists out there right now.
Kanye said that this was the best of the five albums he produced this year and he’s not far off. Teyana Taylor’s could’ve easily been the forgotten record tacked on at the end but after four hip-hop records, the injection of classic R&B was a much-needed addition. The minimal production on K.T.S.E. is spectacular but it never would’ve worked if it weren’t for Taylor’s flawless vocals. She’s sensual, autobiographical and passionate, telling stories on Rose In Harlem and giving us unmatched intimacy on 3Way. There’s no one taking R&B back to basics right now and this record was a real highlight of 2018.
ROSALIA was already huge in Spain before this year but she took over the rest of the world quickly with her genre-bending, ambitious pop music. Her second album, El Mal Querer sees her pay respect to flamenco music while synthesising it with experimental, current pop music. The result is a powerful, sharp album that you can feel the blood pulsing through at every moment. MALAMENTE has a militant force to it while BAGDAD haunts with ghostly harmonies. It doesn’t take an understanding of the Spanish language to be hypnotised by El Mal Querer.
Travis Scott has been trying to build Astroworld for years but he knew he couldn’t unleash his vision on the world straight out of the gates. It took him three albums to deliver his greatest vision to date and in that time he made a name for himself as one of the greatest curators in hip-hop. More than a heir to Kanye’s throne, Scott has become a cohesive, consistent artist and Astroworld is the best statement of that yet. It’s a woozy, psychedelic world that’s thrilling, melancholic and mind-bending. He’s able to make moves that few would be able to pull off like making a Stevie Wonder harmonica loop the star of STOP TRYING TO BE GOD or putting rap’s biggest player Drake on a five-minute, otherworldly cut like SICKO MODE that at the hand’s of most would be a mess. Scott is the master of Astroworld but he knew that it needed to be populated in order to pull of the grand vision.
Since 2013, SOPHIE became the faceless leader of plasticine pop but this year she stepped out and decided to place herself centre stage. OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES begins with SOPHIE singing as herself for the first time on It’s Okay To Cry. She’s vulnerable and laid bare but reassuringly in control. While her voice never really appears as unaltered as that on the record again, there’s still an unwavering idea of self throughout the wildly experimental nine tracks. OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES moves from being gloriously euphoric Is It Cold In The Water? to straight-up pop like Immaterial and yet it’s stitched together expertly, constantly detouring and tearing apart what’s been built before it.
Plenty had reason to believe that Cardi B wouldn’t live up to the hype on Invasion Of Privacy but she wasn’t one of them. Following an unexpected detour to pop with Be Careful just before the record, some thought she’d lost her way but when Invasion Of Privacy arrived it was clear Cardi was exactly where she needed to be. Her tight debut album amplifies all the aspects of her personality that have found favour with the public. She’s foul-mouthed (Bickenhead), triumphant (I Like It) and unashamedly vulnerable (Thru Your Phone). There are few rappers that could end their debut album by rapping, “If they can make you richer, they can make you cum,” but there are also few rappers like Cardi, period. She’s the most wildly entertaining, versatile superstar to emerge in years and 2018 was rightfully massive for her.
Kali Uchis is truly an anomaly. She’s a vintage-inspired, forward thinking RnB who, despite being a frequent collaborator, sounds nothing like anything around right now. Instead of trying to position herself closer to what’s in vogue on her debut album Isolation, it’s a unique artistic statement that sounds really expensive. Uchis is a sensual, intoxicating host, wrapping those velvety vocals around beats that sound like they’re from a futuristic jazz lounge. From the music videos to the photo shoots, no other artist in 2018 paired their sonics with their visual better than Uchis.
Pusha T’s album was the first cab off the rank with Kanye’s five albums in five weeks experiment and yet it lasted five weeks at the top of the pyramid. The record sparked a beef with Drake but it’s unlikely that’s what DAYTONA will be remembered for. Starting with the hard-hitting If You Know You Know and ending on the powerful Infrared, Pusha didn’t let a second go by without injecting it with purpose and passion. He’s never been this on form lyrically and maybe that’s because the seven track length allowed him to trim the fat.
Sweetener came after an incredibly dark period for Grande but instead of translating that darkness onto a record, she decided to combat it and find solace in music. This is the first record that sounds like Grande's musical DNA. Together with Pharrell and Max Martin, she crafted a musical cloud of an album that references '90s RnB but ultimately looks to the future. It's made for her vocals only and is a masterclass in lofty runs and multi-coloured harmonies.
Once again on ‘Honey’ Robyn forges forward, transforming pop. She’s completely unphased by trends and instead she’s looking at what she can do for herself and her listeners. ‘Honey’ is ready to inform a whole new generation of heartbroken, bemused and wondrous kids on the dance floor as well as those that have been there since day one. Come get your honey…
“Born in a hurry, always late, haven’t been early since ‘88,” Musgraves sings as she opens Golden Hour, effortlessly introducing newcomers to herself and also summing up the record’s tone. On Golden Hours, Musgraves takes time. She takes time to open her eyes to what’s immediately around her and appreciate those within her vicinity that make her feel needed. In the past, she’s taken on politics and the world at large but on her best record to date, she zones in on herself and finds beauty in a year where we so desperately needed it. Whether she’s blushing and giddy because of love (Butterfly) or skeptical about supreme happiness (Happy & Sad), she always sounds starry-eyed and optimistic. While she’s blissfully content, she does save one moment for the assholes though - a glittery, disco-tinged middle fingers to anyone that tries to bring her down. Nobody was going to fuck up Musgraves’ 2018 for her.
In 2018, we all aimed to be the free-ass motherfucker that Janelle Monae projected on us with Dirty Computer. Monae has always been a visionary but she’s used characters to make up her world. This time around, she placed herself at the centre - daring, bold and completely unashamed. Dirty Computer is for all those who feel like their most pure self is not enough for the world. It’s easy to get down when the president of the United States is a documented racist and misogynist but instead of being angry about it, Monae takes the high road and throws one hell of a party in the meantime. She’s liberated on the loose and funky Make Me Feel, living her best life on Crazy Classic Life and empowered by her femininity on Pynk. She leaves it right until the album’s dying moments to get political with the powerful, inspiring Americans that reclaims America as a place that embraces individuality and does away discrimination. Monae is uniting the dirty computers and we’re a pretty powerful bunch.
Tierra Whack - Whack World
Brockhampton - Iridescence
Nao - Saturn
The Internet - Hive Mind
Camila Cabello - Camila
KIDS SEE GHOSTS - KIDS SEE GHOSTS
Blood Orange - Negro Swan
Sheck Wes - Mudboy
Rae Sremmurd - SR3MM
Rae Morris - Someone Out There
Mariah Carey - Caution
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