Top 15 Albums of 2018

Note: This list was originally posted on my rateyourmusic account at https://rateyourmusic.com/list/ecrbubs/top-15-of-2018/1/

In September I caught a nostalgic high listening to “Back Here” by BBMak over and over again. Suddenly I am 5 years old, in a suburban basement at 7am playing Rugrats in Paris: The Movie, the videogame on a not-yet dusty Nintendo 64. Smartphones don’t exist and the millennium is fresh with silvery promise. Nothing seems meaningless. I lay suspended in this cloud of memory for minutes that add up to hours.

When I think about music in 2018, I do get wistful. The past years feel better because the hyper-accelerated world we exist warps our sense of the present. It demands rapid consumption and this takes a toll on the quality of music, at least in the rap game. Case in point – on my 2017 list, 9 of my top 15 albums were rap projects. This year, 4 are. Maybe if my tastes were more inclined toward other genres I’d feel more comfortable celebrating the year in music. Regardless, I’m thankful for these releases that provided excitement and comfort in good and bad times.

Honorable mentions: Be the CowboyBEASTMODE2Care for MeDAYTONADiCaprio 2Drip Season 3Empty MeGANGINGolden HourHundreds of DaysI Am > I WasIridescenceIsolationKonoyoMansion MusickNº4Negro SwanNo News Is Good NewsNoirRaw Silk Uncut WoodSaltSR3MMTESTINGTime ‘n’ Place7

15. Low – Double Negative

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At some point this year, Low was all I really wanted to listen to (I’m doing fine, thanks). Now that I reflect upon this period, it seems only natural that the antidote to music feeling tired was feeling tired music. It is not difficult to argue that Low possess one of the most lethargic catalogs in all of rock. Much of the appeal in earlier masterpieces like Long Division and Things We Lost in the Fire lie in their lullabies. You can still sleep to Double Negative, and I will not claim (as others have) that it is their best work. But it has a unique appeal in Low’s extensive catalog as being their most experimental project, and it succeeds its aims. Essentially, it is a dub record in the style of Low. Some songs sound as if they recorded an album in their usual style and then transferred it onto the microchip seen on the cover, which is partially eroded, resulting in the warped remixes of the material. The resulting gems like “Always Trying to Work It Out” are an oddly satisfying bunch of songs.

14. Jacquees – 4275

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I think it’s been over a year since the last Birdman-sponsored Young Thug/Rich Gang release, so I’m not really sure what projects Stunna still has going for him in rap. But Jacquees under his wing results in a very successful formula: 4275 is high-quality R&B. ‘quee is happy to nod to his elders (“B.E.D.”, “Special”) as well as invoke the stylings of his contemporaries Chris Brown and Trey Songz (both have great guest appearances here). Probably optimal baby-making music, but like dude said, not when I’m 23.

13. Maxo Kream – Punken

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“Trap philosophy / Maxo Socrates”: while fellow Houston native Travis Scott made waves with his too-many-cooks approach on Astroworld, Maxo Kream kept the formula clean and consistent on Punken. It’s southern trap music with a lyrical bent that sacrifices none of the fun you expect from bigger names. It’s strong the whole way through, from the rapid-fire delivery of “Grannies” to the moving finale “Roaches”. Also I heard “Bussdown” playing at a pizza place in New York a while ago and it sounded really good.

12. Devon Welsh – Dream Songs

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When I fell in love with Cocteau Twins in high school I realized a personal penchant for dreamy music. It had probably been there all along, but it was so unlocked by this idea of “Dream Pop” that I’ve been seeking out similar sounds ever since. Needless to say, when I found out there was a solo album from Devon Welsh (of Majical Cloudz) called Dream Songs, it immediately entered my rotation. The result is predictably beautiful and unhurried music. The lyrics can feel a bit awkward at times, but like the poetry he posts on Instagram, they’re simply from the heart. The high point here is “Chances”, which with its acoustic strumming and washes of background harmonies is like a contemporary “The Only Living Boy in New York”.

11. Grouper – Grid of Points

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“This music is a room that I take care of, I help decide what is accepted. Here distortion and mistakes, silence, deep sadness and misunderstanding, they all have a place. They all fit in to the pattern.” -Liz Harris, in an email to Pitchfork from 2018

To me, Grouper’s music has always been comforting. The hazy ambiance, the whispered words that could be anything (again, ideal to a Cocteau Twins fan), it is indeed a (very sleepy) room to lay in. Something about Grid of Points is slightly more disarming, though. Maybe it’s the immediate fade-in of the intro, or the brevity of the album as a whole. Its patterns quickly envelop and let go, leaving you in the disquieted space of passing cars. But after listening, it often felt like the only option was to hop back in.

10. Julia Holter – Aviary

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Julia Holter is above us: “Look upon my birds, ye mortals, and despair!” A step away from the relative accessibility of Have You in My WildernessAviary takes full advantage of abandoning the 40-80 minute album format and pushing the envelope. No idea is left unexplored, no composition hurried. In 90 minutes, Holter lays everything out, from the grandiose (“Turn the Light On”) to the spare (“In Gardens’ Muteness”). The back half is particularly chunky, full of long gems she has been mining outrageously well since Ekstasis. Hence, we stan a queen.

9. Princess Nokia – A Girl Cried Red

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There’s something admirable about completely uninhibited emotion (that is what “emo” means, right?). 1992 allowed Princess Nokia to demonstrate a bold personality, but it didn’t hint at the vitriol on display here: “Now I really hate you / but I wanna hate you more”. Have you heard rap like this? More than just twisting your arm, it kicks your ass and leaves you bleeding. I understand this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but like, listen to “At the Top” and tell me she can be fucked with. And if “Little Angel” isn’t about Peep then I don’t want to know, because to me it’s the tearjerker of a tribute that we needed.

8. Jeremih & Ty Dolla $ign – MihTy

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Maybe the least disappointing collab of the past few years? I mean, every individual project by Jeremih and Ty Dolla $ign has at least several excellent songs, and as featured guests they are both scene-stealers, so it only makes sense that MihTy (good one guys) is a collection of hits. The croons, the well-earned flexes (“I’m in Neiman Marcus throwing tantrums” – okay bro!), it all just fits. I’ll take a MihTy 2, please.

7. Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs

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Some Rap Songs is an exhale. It’s years of straining fame, depression and grief compounded into a tight release. Maybe too tight: I couldn’t help but be disappointed initially, still wanting another Doris (the classic that will probably remain underrated forever) after the short sequel I Don’t Like Shit. But Earl, or should I say Thebe (“Earl is not my name” he states plainly), again has done exactly what he wanted to do. And really, I shouldn’t ask for more because it’s enough that the guy is working through shit and giving us a piece of himself.

6. Sandro Perri – In Another Life

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Sometimes a song is just good enough to take up one side of a record. “In Another Life” doesn’t have to be 24 minutes long, but it is. And whether I was working, making food, lying in bed last year I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It bubbles and never bursts, riding out into the sublime. The second side, a three part “Everybody’s Paris”, beginning with its soft piano and field recordings of spoken word reminds me of Montparnasse (Montparnasse est Paris, non?). It’s a lullaby, then a salsa, then a lullaby again. With the title track recalling Kaputt-era Destroyer, it only makes sense to have Dan Bejar bring things to a close. Bravo, Sandro.

5. Hinds – I Don’t Run

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“All the big bands in Spain are over 35. They’re all men. It’s such an old style, as well.” -Ade of Hinds, to The Independent in 2018

I’ve never been to Spain (well, maybe once), but I can’t imagine a much more fun night in Madrid than hanging with Hinds. They’re simply the most fun band right now, and I Don’t Run is proof. As influenced by Ty Segall as the Stones, it’s got those guitar melodies that worm their way into your brain and the nicest harmonies to accompany them. I’m surprised at the low traction on this site (RYM hates fun?), but whatever, I’ll be in my corner screaming along to “Soberland” and “Tester” into the ’20s.

4. Peewee Longway – State of the Art

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Peewee Longway, mad scientist, pours lean into a robotic replica of himself with a delighted grin. That’s State of the Art. And hey, maybe it’s nostalgia – rap just ain’t the same anymore, man! The mixtape era is over! Kanye sucks now! – but no, I’m sure that this is my favorite rap release of 2018. Not exactly DAMN., but damn, the boy Peewee can rap his ass off. The formula hasn’t changed – great trap beats and an agile triplet flow, but there are tracks here that transcend the typical trap-rap release. Gucci heightens the cockiness of “Fuck It” with more bite than I’ve heard from him in a long while. Peewee croons “they think I’m crazy” into the icy mix of “Lets Be Real”. And on “Top of the Bank”, an Otis Redding classic is re-imagined as the bonkers trap ballad that only Longway could create.

The album doesn’t end exceptionally, things kind of fall off in the last four tracks. But if anything I can say he has a better verse than Quavo and Offset (not an easy feat these days). Overall, what we get is the product of one of this decade’s great and underrated rap talents. I’ll let Peewee Longway tell it: “This shit for the old and the young, man. And the in-between.”

3. Tirzah – Devotion

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This one came out of nowhere. Described by The New York Times as “The Musician Making Love Songs for London Club Kids”, Tirzah Mastin collaborated with her best friend Mica Levi and, amidst giving birth to a baby girl, recorded an incredible ambient R&B album for Domino. It’s wholly beautiful, but not without some staggering surprises. I’m thinking of the stoned guitars and woozy auto-tune on “Guilty”. This is boundary-pushing music that, one could argue, fills in the space left by the disappearance of FKA twigs. Granted, Devotion is more mellow, but just as satisfying. It simply feels so right when those garage drums enter on “Devotion”. And one has only to listen to “Gladly” to know exactly what love sounds like.

2. Ariana Grande – Sweetener

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What do you do when 23 of your fans are killed in a suicide bombing after your concert? You break, you hold a benefit show, and months later you return with “no tears left to cry”. I gotta say, I was expecting a real downer of a ballad, but Ari must be the most resilient woman in pop. This song is so brilliant, so fully life-giving and big (Max Martin!). It’s the ultimate moral resolution to tragedy: keep pushin’! The only place to move is ahead! And then Sweetener follows.

And every Ariana album is great, but this one – it’s a real trip down the rabbit hole. You can thank Pharrell for nailing it production-wise, but it’s Ari who carries it. “Such a dream to me,” she sings on “R.E.M.” You said it girl. I am enthralled by this music. I believe God is a woman. I believe “Sweetener” is the most addictive song of 2018. I believe I’ll never leave, and even if it didn’t work out I think Pete Davidson is the luckiest man in the world for having his name immortalized as the title of a cute 1-minute ode that leads into this album’s closing track. “get well soon” is the final reverie, the last stop in this album’s dreamworld of pop fantasy. And then-*ding!*-you wake up.

1. Snail Mail – Lush

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Are we adults now? Did we do this right? If anything, we tripped into adulthood, too busy looking at our phones to notice the cracks in the pavement. Consequently, there’s been this distended period of transition that seems to make less sense every year. What to do with life? Where to live? Where to work? Who to love? God, just let us have music to sink into and sing. Every generation deserves music they can sing along to, and often we find it in these monumental rock albums. Heavy, melodic and bittersweet: it’s Loaded, it’s Loveless, it’s Lush.

10 tracks, and most of them are single material. Like, really outstanding songs. What lies at the core of them is feeling. And driving on 676 listening to “Full Control” by myself I felt it more than any other time. I feel my heart wrench at “Now when I lay back / It goes to nothing and it goes to black!” Ah, loneliness! It’s what Laura Nyro cried out on New York Tendaberry, where great artists and normal people so often find themselves, and what drives us to a range of emotions (desire, depression, anger, boredom, mania etc.) that we want to feel numb and then, conversely, feel anything at all: “It just feels like the same party every weekend”; “I’m so tired of moving on / Spending every weekend so far gone”; and then “Let’s find an out / We’ll start anew”.

At the Snail Mail show the guy behind me was singing all the lyrics, and his voice was pretty bad, and the live versions were often played with tempo changes that differ from the album, so he would get caught off-guard and rush ahead of or trail behind Lindsey’s voice. But it didn’t ruin the show because I understood the feeling he had, which provided even more of a reason not to say anything (besides, y’know, not wanting to seem like a dick). Yeah, I feel you man. This is your music and it is mine. And it gives me hope for the future.

Archive: June 27: 20 Years of DJ Screw’s “Da Streets Ain’t Right” Freestyle Session

Originally published on Monday, June 27, 2016 on ethancreis.blogspot.com

Houston’s late DJ Screw will forever be a legend. He pioneered the “Chopped & Screwed” style of hip-hop, in which the tempo of a song is slowed down significantly (screwed) with short sections repeated and/or cut (chopped). Houston Press has described “June 27”, a 37-minute freestyle session from that date in 1996, as “Houston rap’s Sistine Chapel ceiling”. This is an apt description of the monstrous track, on which eight rappers freestyle over a dazzling beat (Kriss Kross’s “Da Streets Ain’t Right”, properly screwed) to celebrate rapper DeMo’s (alternately known as D-Mo) birthday. A screwed sample of Biggie’s “Warning” plays over the track before Big Moe enters to host the freestyle session/birthday party. In between every rapper, Moe performs a quick verse in his signature half-rapped, half-sung style. Moe’s baritone croon is huge, almost elegiac, but the positive energy he exudes introducing his friends negates that description.

Big Pokey steals the show with a dazzling freestyle verse, providing what would become the sample for Paul Wall’s hit “Sittin Sidewayz” early on in a particularly ferocious run that lasts about 6 minutes. When the beat’s fried synth melody enters it seems to energize Pokey like some aural electric charge. He shouts out his friends, teams up with Tom Sawyer and rhymes “rabbit” with “dagnabbit”. The way he puts emphasis on his rhymes is stellar, especially for a freestyle: “Let them boys know, flip phone I be foldin em Fillin’ up my foreign ride with petroleum”. One more standout section: “Ain’t no preppin in my corner / Cause you’s a goner / I’m smoking marijuana / Broke em off when I snatched my diploma / I walked across the stage / I turned the page / no more minimum wage / And my corner got paid“.

Yungstar is another essential player here, flexing a quick wit and southern slang on two verses. He shouts out “baked potato with chives” in both. Before closing it out he references his “Playstation in the car / Sippin on barre / TV VCR / With the star”. Not all of the other rappers have incredible verses, but somehow, for 37 minutes, the sound of a bunch of guys hanging out and rapping becomes completely transcendent despite a lack of lyrical direction or a changing instrumental. The sound is not professionally mastered and there are obvious flaws in the recording quality (which somehow works to the track’s advantage). Yet this is more a perfect snapshot of the lives of these friends than anything that could have been commissioned by a record executive. I was 15 months old when June 27 was recorded, but it still resonates today.

The rest of the June 27 tape consists mostly of remixed tracks, all of which are excellent. Bone Thugs’ “Crossroads” is transformed into a swirling elegy. I never thought a Too $hort song would make me emotional, but the syrupy “Gettin’ It” screw, with its “I’d Rather Be With You” flip and chorus from P-Funk members is just inspiring. Excellent chops in the second verse, too. “High Til I Die” is a superb 2Pac track that I wouldn’t know about if not for this tape, and Screw even takes on reggae (yay!) with great results on “Rollerskates“. June 27 is a classic Screwtape, and I have no doubt that its towering freestyle session will be bumping throughout the world today. Rest in peace to DJ Screw and Big Moe.

Listen to the June 27th freestyle here.