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, Shame's guitar licks, Janelle Monáe's conceptual dreamwork or Arctic Monkeys going a bit Nick Cave, we've rounded-up our picks from 2018 so far and there's definitely something for you.
- 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.
- “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.
- Too principled and uncompromising to tow the line let alone jump through hoops, Young Fathers never looked likely to make the required concessions to translate their 2014 Mercury Prize win into mainstream success. Regardless, four years on Alloysious Massaquoi, Graham ‘G’ Hastings and Kayus Bankole are still reaching new artistic peaks. This third LP is every bit as stylistically unclassifiable and lyrically-barbed as both Dead and White Men Are Black Men Too, but the Massive Attack-approved trio have finessed the aggressive cacophony to create arguably their most potent and energetic set yet. Summoning bittersweet pop hooks from an abrasive palette featuring fractured hip hop beats, discordant piano and minimal synth figures, Cocoa Sugar is a triumph.
- On Boxing Day 2015, heavy rain caused the River Aire to burst its banks, devastating areas of Leeds and flooding the recording studio of Hookworms-frontman MJ. Following a colossal clean-up job, the very existence of this – their third album – is a victory in itself, and that’s before you even consider the huge strides forward they’ve made creatively. Where previous records lurked in the vicinity of scuzzy garage and psych-rock, Microshift finds the five-piece drawing on Krautrock and embracing loops, programming and electronic sounds, eliciting euphoric results. Throughout, the soaring sonics are carefully balanced by MJ’s searing lyrics, which tackle issues as weighty as grief and Alzheimer’s, anxiety and body dysmorphia. A superb album, from start to finish.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Shame have been pretty consistent in their unapologetic, unfiltered outlook ever since they first emerged at the tail-end of 2014. Happily, the South London punks continue to be led by the gut on this, their incendiary full-length debut. Recorded in just 10 days, Songs Of Praise is entirely flab-free, and ably captures the visceral energy and the grimy, claustrophobic feel of the five-piece’s legendary live performances. Frontman Charlie Steen spends the set flailing between studied apathy, simmering contempt and explosive fury, and the band showcase a range that extends from The Fall at their most menacing (‘The Lick) and bratty punk spleen (‘Lampoon’) to dreamy jangle-pop (‘Angie’). A richly realised debut set that’s so instantaneously infectious it could be a greatest hits.
- Following her last album Sheezus, the sound of which she has since said was shaped under pressure from her label, London popstar Lily Allen’s fourth album finds her embracing what she wants to do. The result is a sweet and honest release, full of insights into a past full of the hedonistic excesses of fame, jarring candour about her divorce, and a stirring ballad from the imagined point of view of her children trying to cope with an absent, touring mother - “Please don’t go, stay here with me / it’s not my fault, I’m only three”. If Allen’s identity felt a bit lost on her last album, No Shame finds her more confidently vulnerable and assured in herself than ever.
- 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.