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Scene’s Year in Review 2018: Best albums of the year

, , , , , , , , and | Thursday, December 6, 2018

Lina Domenella | The Observer

In early December, as finals begin to emerge on the horizon, Scene writers take off their headphones, pause the music and look back at what they’ve listened to throughout the year. Each writer picks their personal 20 best albums, and 2018 had no shortage of albums to choose from. Old names returned to the scene, new names entered the scene and some really great music was made. Each writer’s rankings have been compiled to create Scene’s official best albums list, which wraps up this week of end-of-year lists. So without further ado, Scene presents the 20 best albums of 2018.

1. “Dirty Computer” by Janelle Monáe

By Nora McGreevy, Scene Editor

In “Dirty Computer,” the “emotion picture” that accompanies her album, Janelle Monáe has been imprisoned by a dystopian government. Monáe is a “dirty computer,” a threat to the status quo — an apt metaphor for her album as a whole, which is disruptive and expansive in the best possible way. Monáe’s songs, infused with neo-funk, hip-hop and pop influences, hit every note: rousing anthems in “Crazy, Classic, Life” and “Americans,” romantic love songs in “Don’t Judge Me” and tough, deftly-constructed confessional lyrics that thrill throughout — “hit the mute button. Let the vagina have a monologue” she commands in “Django Jane.” “Pynk (feat. Grimes)” is an homage to womanhood. The accompanying music video centers oft-denigrated visual languages associated with femininity in subtle and brazen ways, not the least of which comes in the form of lurid pink vagina pants that would put Judy Chicago to shame.

“I identify as a free a– m——f—–,” Monáe told Rolling Stone in April when she officially came out as queer, although rumors about her sexuality and a possible relationship with Tessa Thompson had circulated long before then. In her Cindi Mayweather phase, Monáe adopted an android aesthetic to escape the confines of the real world. In the soundtrack to “Dirty Computer,” most elements of science fiction have been stripped away, and Monáe directly addresses the human concerns of those who society would like to marginalize — the “dirty computers,” non-normative individuals who live in the interstices of societally-constructed identities. And in her film, Monáe leverages her acting chops and her songs to critique hegemonic structures and to articulate her futuristic vision, a joyful party of liberated expression. “I am not America’s nightmare,” Monáe sings, and the lyrics ring out as both claim and fact. “I am the American dream.”


2. “Golden Hour” by Kacey Musgraves

By Sara Schlect, Scene Writer

Kacey Musgraves transcends genre on the radiant “Golden Hour.” On her previous albums, Musgraves described small-town life with lyrical wit, but this one is different. In place of her astute, localized observations, she points out the breadth of the world, and listening is like discovering the existence of beauty for the very first time. With a wisdom not evident in her earlier music, Musgraves has effectively reinvented herself, supporting simpler lyrics with accessible, poppy beats. Yet she isn’t entirely leaving behind the genre of country where she began. “Space Cowboy” is filled with the typical country tropes of trucks, heartbreak and metaphors for rural life, but she somehow draws more attention to the very sound of her voice. With tracks like the philosophical, upbeat “Oh, What a World” and the disco-country hybrid “High Horse,” Kacey Musgraves proves she has grown beyond the conventions of one genre.


3. “Be the Cowboy” by Mitski

By Lucas Masin-Moyer, Assistant Managing Editor

Last year, Lorde’s sophomore album “Melodrama” ranked somewhere near the top of every year-end album list. This year, her tourmate, Mitski, replicated that feat with “Be the Cowboy.” But despite some stylistic similarities, the two albums are quite different. While “Melodrama” focused on love lost, “Be the Cowboy” reminisces on love never had, and all the pain, loneliness and fear of falling in love with someone without being able to act on these emotions.

In one of the album’s standout tracks, “Me and My Husband,” Mitski crafts an image of herself years down the road, having finally found the person she loves. Mitski’s notion of this love isn’t overly romantic, but more structured in long-term comfort, signing “At least in this lifetime, we’re sticking together.”

While “Be the Cowboy” doesn’t have the sonic edge of Mitski’s past work, it has all the emotional intensity and passion with a more sharply-honed storytelling approach and vivid, unforgettable lyricism.


4. “7” by Beach House

By Ryan Israel, Scene Writer

Over six albums, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, the Baltimore duo behind Beach House, have deftly twisted and bent the genre of dream pop. Creating another album presented them with a challenge: how to explore the same genre in a new way. On their appropriately titled seventh album “7,” Beach House takes their signature dreamy sound into darker territory and pull the listener along.

Grand arrangements and quiet moments define Beach House’s newfound sound. The opening “Dark Spring” acts as a roller-coaster, initiating the descent into the pitch black world that is “7” with quick drums and a radiating synth. As always, Victoria Legrand’s vocals are ethereal, whispering into the deep instrumentation found on nearly every track. On standouts “Drunk in LA” and “Lemon Glow,” she delivers ominous and captivating lyrics like a lost voice reaching out from another realm.

Put simply, “7” is an album to get lost in. True to its genre of dream pop, the record feels like an extended daydream. Yet what exactly you dream of is left open. On “7,” Beach House does not give you a picture or scene to imagine, but rather the soundtrack to your own imaginatory exploration.


5. “Lush” by Snail Mail

By Ethan Utley, Scene Writer

When writing a review about a musician younger than myself, it is difficult not to greatly admire (and be jealous of) the talent they have. Lindsey Jordan of solo project Snail Mail is no exception. Immediately after graduating high school, she signed with Matador Records to issue her debut “Lush.”

This indie-punk star creates textured, lo-fi rock with polished guitar riffs leading the bass and drums. The lyrics are strikingly emotional, and they seem to weave in and out of the songs, as if they exist parallel to the music. This makes a lot of sense, given “Lush” is Jordan’s personal journey through the disillusioned angst of teenage love.

Jordan matures through the progression of the album, as if she has created a 38-minute prescription for love-sickness. In the early tracks, she examines her deep sadness and all that has been lost. Conversely, the end of the album smiles on the past while readying to brave the future.

If you want to revisit the melodrama of a high school heartbreak, Lindsey Jordan delivers an indie, dream-pop gem, crafted for those long car rides and rainy days of reflection.


6. “God’s Favorite Customer” by Father John Misty

By Kay Bontempo, Scene Writer

When we last heard from Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, he was waxing poetically on “Pure Comedy” about politics, religion, sex and tech. By contrast, his latest effort is an album about being drunk in a hotel room for two months straight, which is apparently exactly how he wrote these songs. No longer avoiding the existential misery that seems for whatever reason to haunt him, Tillman has decided to jump headlong into it and never look back, and the result is kind of awesome, placing “God’s Favorite Customer” sixth on our list. In this stage of his life, the artist is occupied by “pointless benders with reptilian strangers,” though he still finds plenty of time for the snarky humor and navel-gazing philosophy he does best.

The hotel setting adds to the transient, restless vibe of the music. The single “Mr. Tillman” comes from the point of view of the hotel’s concierge, who expresses mild concern over Tillman having left his passport in the mini-fridge and slept in the rain. Another strong point comes on “Date Night,” as he fruitlessly tries a series of pickup lines on a nameless girl. “Do you want to go to the farm?” might not work any better than “I’ll buy you ice cream if you give me your card,” but as another track title tells us, he’s “Just Dumb Enough To Try,” and it’s kind of fun to watch.  


7. (Tie) “Clean” by Soccer Mommy

By Carlos De Loera, Scene Writer

What made Soccer Mommy’s first major label album “Clean” so good was that it was anything but clean; rather it was raw, emotional, irreverent and, at times, sloppy. The debut single from the album, “Your Dog,” starts with singer Sophie Allison asserting “I don’t wanna be your f—-n’ dog.” Very in-your-face, very cool.

Adding to the emotion of the album is the opening track “Still Clean,” a song about longing and self-reflection. Toward the end of the song, the recording cuts from the studio recording to a demo version, an unusual decision, but an impactful one because it highlights the singer-songwriter’s vulnerability while showing the original vision for the track.

The entirety of the album’s lyrics find Allison dealing with her identity and her difficulties in feeling comfortable with herself and her heartbreak. By the end of the album there is a sense that she has come out of her experience stronger and more interesting than before.


7. (Tie) “Twin Fantasy” by Car Seat Headrest

By Mike Donovan, Scene Writer

In 2011, the 19-year-old Will Toledo (prophet, not yet famous) offered his “Apologies to future mes and yous” with the sober concession: “I can’t help feeling like we’re through.” His “Twin Fantasy,” constituted, as the name suggested, an isolated recording of a neurotic teenager’s idyllic fantasy — a romanticized vision of his love and heartbreak strung out from the tendrils of ennui — but only that. Toledo’s conclusory prediction (“When I come back you’ll still be here”) rung out as rhetorical flurry, empty sentiment, not prophecy. But, “Art gets what it wants art gets what it deserves.” “Twin Fantasy” deserved more.

It deserved 2018’s “Twin Fantasy (Face to Face),” an exquisitely produced, textually refined, passionately performed and intimately loved reinvention of Toledo’s 2011 masterpiece — an album that draws many of us (the CSH lifers, “still here” as Toledo predicted) back to the emotional climax of our youth and invites many more to join our ranks (“Oh please let me join your cult / I’ll paint my face in your colors”), prepared to sing (“everyone can sing as far as I’m aware”) and dance (“everybody’s dancing every dance now”) to memories of teenage idiocy. With the release of “Twin Fantasy (Mirror to Mirror),” all past “mes and yous” are forgiven.


9. “Little Dark Age” by MGMT

By Nia Sylva, Scene Writer

MGMT’s “Little Dark Age,” released in February, is a lot of things. It is a return to accessibility for a band that experienced early success ten years ago with “Oracular Spectacular” but alienated audiences in their subsequent exploration of “obscure early-80s British indie;” it is a clever critique of our current political and societal situation, seen specifically in songs like “She Works Out Too Much” and “TSLAMP,” both of which address superficiality and technology addiction in the modern era; and it is a really, really good synth-pop album, one that clearly draws inspiration from the mid-’80s without being derivative. Members Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden seem to have rediscovered their ability to write hooks without losing the imagination and daring of their other releases. Tracks containing particularly catchy choruses are “Me and Michael,” a song that wouldn’t sound out of place in a John Hughes soundtrack, and the album’s title track, which feels much more melancholy but no less enthralling. At its core, “Little Dark Age” provides hope that MGMT has rediscovered its roots and decided, once again, to make music that is interesting and meaningful but still enjoyable to the listener.


10. “Daytona” by Pusha T

By Jake Winningham, Scene Writer

With “Daytona,” one of the hardest-working rappers in the game makes his push for mainstream recognition. This time around, Pusha T has replaced the icy synths of previous albums like “My Name Is My Name” — Pusha is probably the only rapper alive who could credibly quote “The Wire” as an LP title — with plush soul samples courtesy of producer Kanye West. This shift occurs over the beginning of the opening track “If You Know You Know,” as the first forty seconds or so sound like the Pusha of old, before giving way to vintage chipmunk soul.

Even if the music has changed, Pusha hasn’t; the coke-rap impresario is still here in all his glory to show any up-and-comers gunning for the throne that he’s not going down without a fight. Pusha T is the best pound-for-pound rapper in the world, and “Daytona” finds him taking on all comers. “Daytona” solidifies Pusha as maybe the most quotable MC working outside of 2 Chainz, and he’s certainly the only one who invokes Al Roker and Fred Astaire as easily as he does drug kingpin Big Meech. His bars are delivered with the customary aplomb, rife with references and double-entendres — of course, I can’t reprint any of them here. You’ll have to listen for yourself.


11. “KIDS SEE GHOSTS” by Kids See Ghosts (Kanye West, Kid Cudi)


12. (Tie) “Tell Me How You Really Feel” by Courtney Barnett


12. (Tie) “In a Poem Unlimited” by U.S. Girls


14. “Wide Awake!” by Parquet Courts


15. “Joy as an Act of Resistance.” by IDLES


16. “Bark Your Head Off, Dog” by Hop Along


17. “Virtue” by The Voidz


18. (Tie) “Honey” by Robyn


18. (Tie) “Room 25” by Noname


20. (Tie) “Die Lit” by Playboi Carti




Honorable mentions: “Invasion of Privacy” by Cardi B; “Queen” by Nicki Minaj; “Sweetener” by Ariana Grande; “FM!” by Vince Staples; “I’m All Ears” by Let’s Eat Grandma


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