Terence Cawley’s best albums of 2018
“Sweetener” The beats are endlessly inventive, the melodies stick to the brain for weeks without overstaying their welcome, and Grande’s voice is expressive, versatile, and just plain impressive enough to more than justify its exalted reputation. In the context of a pop album this infectiously joyous, a line like “it feels so good to be so young and have this fun and be successful” comes off not as a boast, but as an invitation to come join the party.
“TA13OO” On the best album of the 23-year-old’s already-notable career, Curry combines the raw vitality of his fellow South Florida firebrands with conceptual daring and bars clever enough to earn even an old-school hip-hop head’s approval. Devoting as much time to melancholic ruminations on trauma and suicide as he does to belligerent flexes, Curry comes into his own as one of the most distinct, uncompromising voices in modern rap.
“Nearer My God” Long the best live act in emo, the passionate St. Louis band fulfills every one of its outsize ambitions on its third album, bolstering anthemic songwriting with sonically adventurous arrangements and Conor Murphy’s gale-force vocals. Though the lyrics are mired in feelings of guilt and unworthiness, the moments when Murphy finds the courage to howl his heart’s true desire (“I want it all”) achieve a shameless grandeur precious few young rock bands would even dare attempt.
“Golden Hour” One could be cynical and argue that, by making an album primarily embraced by country-hating pop and indie fans, Musgraves has abandoned her roots; that she’s traded her world-class wit for simplistic platitudes; that falling in love has sapped her energy and edge. But hearing a record this warmly contented, one that so acutely captures the feeling of simultaneously losing and finding yourself in someone else — well, who could possibly be cynical?
“Isolation” The Colombian-American singer’s debut album draws from reggaeton, electro-pop, soul, and R&B influences both retro and current, and Uchis deftly glides through all of them with unshakable cool. It takes a very special artist to draw the likes of Bootsy Collins, Damon Albarn, and Tyler, the Creator into her orbit without getting overshadowed, yet at 24 Uchis already has the charisma and vocal presence to do just that.
“Double Negative” Imagine falling, slowly, into the center of a black hole, and you will get a sense of how it feels to listen to “Double Negative.” Icy arpeggios and whooshing synthesizers suck the air out of the room and fill it with pure dread, while the siren song of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s ghostly harmonies lulls you into oblivion.
“Now Only ” A year after documenting the unbearable impact of his wife’s death on “A Crow Looked at Me,” Phil Elverum recorded the aftershocks of that loss with solemnity and devotion. Listening to Elverum’s plain-spoken yet deeply poetic verse, you can imagine him releasing an album this stunning every year for the rest of his life as easily as you can imagine him never recording another song again.
“Care for Me” Like Elverum, this Chicago MC struggles valiantly to make sense of life in the shadow of death, offering up every piece of his pain in an act of radical vulnerability. As he stresses about racially motivated police violence, chastises himself for talking over his girlfriend, and reminisces over his late cousin, the tender, muted instrumentals cradle his confessions like an empathetic friend.
“What a Time to Be Alive” The Chapel Hill institution’s latest pop-punk collection finds them hookier and livelier than just about any other indie band of their vintage, while the lyrics trace the wild mood swings that inevitably follow political chaos. Whether Mac McCaughan is spitting poison darts at the current administration, lamenting our shared anxiety, or stubbornly refusing to lose hope, he manages the tricky task of singing truth to power without ever settling for protest-song bromides.
“K.T.S.E.” By the time “K.T.S.E.” dropped as the last of five Kanye West-produced albums released over five weeks this summer, Ye’s MAGA-hatted antics had thoroughly distracted from what should have been this talented R&B singer’s long-awaited star turn. Yet with its soulful samples and frank vignettes of love and intimacy, Taylor’s record may have been the best one in the whole G.O.O.D. Friday series.
LOCAL ARTIST PICK
“Smell Smoke” Boston’s favorite purveyors of quirky, absurd indie rock were spurred to their greatest heights yet by a heavy subject: the financial and personal costs of illness on a family member. Brandon Hagen doesn’t sugarcoat the mundane cruelty of his situation, but hearing him find the strength to persevere (and to still find joy in the band’s trademark playfulness) is a powerful reminder of the role music can play in helping us through our darkest hours.
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