Snap, Crackle and (Some Great) Pop
PHOTO CREDIT: @jsharp9066
The Best Pop, Alternative-Pop and R&B Albums of 2018
THIS will be the last of my genre-specific pieces...
IN THIS PHOTO: Robyn/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
but there will be other rundowns that celebrate the best of 2018. I am not done shining a light on the good and exceptional from this year but, when it comes to genres; let’s end with the very best Pop, Alternative-Pop and R&B albums from 2018. It has been a busy year and one stuffed with adventure, innovation and delight! I have combined some truly great and popular albums that have stuck in the critical mindset and impressed listeners. Here is a selection of brilliant records that, once more, prove what a great year...
IN THIS PHOTO: The 1975/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
WE have had for music.
ALL ALBUM COVERS: Getty Images
Let’s Eat Grandma – I’m All Ears
Date of Release: 29th June, 2018
Label: Transgressive Records
Producers: David Wrench/SOPHIE/Faris Badwan
“I’m All Ears (otherwise produced by David Wrench) translates LEG’s weirdness into proper pop: amid interludes of purring cats and trilling ringtones, their songs are mini odysseys that intertwine rave-y euphoria and menace. With its battering chorus, Falling Into Me is as galvanising as its determined lyrics. They do softness, too: It’s Not Just Me, the other Sophie and Badwan track, is dreamy and unsettling, while the rainfall on Ava makes the piano ballad even more wrenching.
LEG’s lyrics, far from their debut’s fairytale nonsense, have become uncanny and piercing, which is enhanced by their muscular vocal melodrama. There’s a brilliant line on Snakes and Ladders that confronts gender’s power imbalance and the false salve of consumerism: “How do you feel so respected, majestic? ’Cause I’m objecting to things I go off and buy into, selecting the pails I’ll be pouring your tears into.” Cool and Collected perfectly distills the desperation of social awkwardness: “I still blur in the haze that you cut straight through.” While missed connections litter the album – missed calls, disembodied names on screens – I’m All Ears is about abandoning fear and leaping boldly towards desire. It is remarkable” – The Guardian
Standout Tracks: Falling Into Me/The Cat’s Pyjamas/Ava
Finest Cut: Hot Pink
Kimbra - Primal Heart
Date of Release: 20th April, 2018
Label: Warner Bros.
“Still, Primal Heart takes listeners on a smoother journey than The Golden Echo's wild ride, and if some of these tracks are a little more straightforward, they're also great showcases for Kimbra's soul-baring. Her writing feels more personal than ever as she tackles getting older, wiser, and stronger on songs that range from "Lightyears"' soaring exuberance to the defiance of "Everybody Knows." The album's ballads are some of Kimbra's most compelling yet, whether it's "Version of Me"'s torchy drama or the late-night searching of "Real Life," which features some of the most evocative processed vocals since Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek." A consistently winning album, Primal Heart finds Kimbra hitting the sweet spot between imagination and accessibility -- if her nods to the mainstream get more ears pointed her way, so much the better” – AllMusic
Standout Tracks: Top of the World/Like They Do on TV/Version of Me
Finest Cut: Everybody Knows
Camila Cabello – Camila
Date of Release: 12th January, 2018
“Perhaps emboldened by Havana’s vast success, Cabello has developed a habit of carrying on as if her debut album is a starkly uncompromising personal statement, free from the kind of pressures that were brought to bear on Fifth Harmony’s output. That lays it on a bit thick. Cabello gets a writing credit on every song – a rare occurrence with her old outfit – but Camila is clearly a pop album made in the traditional way, by committee, with one gimlet eye always fixed on commerce. The supporting cast features everyone from Ed Sheeran collaborator Amy Wadge to Ryan Tedder, and there’s something very telling about the ruthlessness with which a succession of songs that failed to shift sufficient units as singles were expunged from the final tracklisting.
It doesn’t matter. Camila is one of those moments where the committee approach strikes gold: smart enough to avoid smoothing out the quirks and slavishly chasing trends, it’s a product of the pop factory that doesn’t sound run-of-the-mill” – The Guardian
Standout Tracks: Never Be the Same/Consequences/In the Dark
Finest Cut: Havana
Kylie Minogue – Golden
Date of Release: 6th April, 2018
“Radio On is a ballad about coping with heartache by listening to the radio, while the album’s final track – Music’s Too Sad Without You, a duet with Jack Savoretti– also touches on the importance of music as a place marker in life. Both tracks are downbeat and show a rare weakness, as her voice lacks the depth to carry them off with any great impact. Sad Kylie is much more effective when she’s dusting herself down and dancing her cares away.
Just in case you weren’t sure who you were listening to, Raining Glitter is not only in the running for the campest song title of all time award, but also a career defining key change – it’s THE sound of Kylie. But on the whole her vocals are relaxed and she sounds at ease, at home. This is pop for the whole family. She’s done a Take That; created a grown-up, Radio 2-playlist, guitar-driven, dance-flecked album with a warm glow.
Golden stands alongside her classic records; in a world of disposable music, Kylie’s return is welcome and shows how slick, smart pop music should be done” – musicOMH
Standout Tracks: Stop Me from Falling/Radio On/Every Little Part of Me
Finest Cut: Dancing
Tove Styrke – Sway
Date of Release: 4th May, 2018
Producers: John Alexis/Joe Janiak/Elof Loelv/Gustaf Nyström
“Equally at home on a made-for-radio chorus (dancehall infused ‘Say My Name’) as on the vocoder manipulated vocals of ‘I Lied’, you’re left with no doubt that Styrke’s is an force to be reckoned with. And then there’s ‘Mistakes’, the glorious musical equivalent of getting butterflies in your stomach. Shimmering, percussive production is punctuated by Styrke’s robotic vocals boldly declaring its mischievous chorus: “You make me wanna make mistakes.” It’s pure pop perfection.
Clocking in at just 26 minutes, ‘Sway’ is a succinct but comprehensive statement from Styrke – one that demands attention and declares her as a musical tour-de-force. The release of this album comes in between a string of dates with industry darling Lorde and this month’s shows with pop behemoth Katy Perry. Although Styrke is supporting them now, ‘Sway’ proves it won’t be long until she’s standing shoulder to shoulder with them” – NME
Standout Tracks: Sway/Mistakes/Vibe
Finest Cut: Say My Name
The Lemon Twigs – Go to School
Date of Release: 24th August, 2018
“Like all the best concept albums, however, we leave Shane in a good place, alone but at peace, accepting that love within oneself is more important than love from others. There are questions – why did the most popular girl in school sleep with a chimpanzee? How did Shane not realise he wasn’t human? Just how does he like his breakfast bananas prepared? – but overall, Go To School is a blast, a joyous, ridiculous journey that treads a perfect line between silly, funny and heart-breaking.
After closer “If You Give Enough”, one gets the impression that, ultimately, the D’Addarios do care about their poor protagonist, this pure chimp corrupted by human civilisation. What’s more amazing, as the spotlight fades out on Shane, alone in his tree like some anthropoid Buddha, is the fact that now we do, too” – Uncut
Standout Tracks: Never in My Arms, Always in My Heart/The Bully/Go to School
Finest Cut: The Fire
Years & Years – Palo Santo
Date of Release: 6th July, 2018
“However, what ‘Palo Santo’ has that ‘Communion’ lacked is an inventive ballad. ‘Hypnotised’, a delicate and unworldly highlight, and ‘Lucky Escape’, a palpable moment of agony and anguish, are elevated because of their intricate production (they also boast the best vocal performances from Alexander’s career).
The title track, though, is where Olly’s sermon is delivered. Here melancholia and desire battle with volatility, a hazardous tug-of-war where sexual fulfilment conflicts with loneliness and morality. The base piano is joined by skittish beats and lashings of falsetto, giving the song sweaty urgency.
In a thrilling conclusion, ‘Up In Flames’ sees Olly in unmarked territory as he grieves his relationship with his estranged father over Greg Kurstin’s ominous production and pacey beats. It’s a candid end to an overwhelmingly intimate record that makes you wonder just what Years & Years could be capable of next” – DIY
Standout Tracks: All for You/Preacher/Palo Santo
Finest Cut: Sanctify
Tracey Thorn – Record
Date of Release: 2nd March, 2018
Label: Merge Records
Producer: Ewan Pearson
“Such intuitive common sense is writ large throughout Record, which mixes tight-fitting production (by longtime collaborator Ewan Pearson) with superlative signature vocals and guest appearances by Corinne Bailey Rae, Warpaint rhythm section musicians Stella Mozgawa (drums) and Jenny Lee Lindberg (bass), and UK singer/songwriter Shura.
One-word titles imply focus rather than lack of thought, and from opening electro-pop tune Queen (“Here I go again, down that road again”) to closing Kraftwerk-referencing Dancefloor (“Where did we begin, back in the days we lived inside each other’s skin”) via the punkish Babies (“Every morning of the month you push a little tablet through the foil/ cleverest of all inventions, better than a condom or a coil/ ’cos I didn’t want my babies until I wanted babies”), and self-referencing Air (“Too tall, all wrong, deep voice, headstrong”), Thorn digs deep yet carefully, avoiding traps rather than setting them. With such insight and pop nous, Record comes across as the very, very best of Tracy Thorn: a charming, challenging mix of reflection and reaction with added beats” – The Irish Times
Standout Tracks: Queen/Babies/Dancefloor
Finest Cut: Sister
Ariana Grande - Sweetener
Date of Release: 17th August, 2018
“Songs are arranged as call and response, with Grande taking both parts, multi-tracked voices flowing in gossamer light harmonies. A short interlude, named in honour of her comedian fiancé Pete Davidson, is utterly gorgeous, a sweet nothing dissolving into blissful oohs. On closing track Get Well Soon she sounds like a one-woman doo-wop combo.
With such stellar writer-producers at the controls, the quality of the songs is high, although there are moments when they might be trying too hard to demonstrate that the teen queen is all grown up now.
Dropping an f-bomb into Better Off seems gratuitous among the gentle hugging and kissing. Abrasive guest rappers Nicki Minaj and Missy Elliott sound like they dialled in clichéd verses for a pay cheque. But as modern, branded, blockbuster pop albums go, Sweetener is a delightful confection” – The Telegraph
Standout Tracks: God Is a Woman/sweetener/no tears left to cry
Finest Cut: the light is coming
Robyn – Honey
Date of Release: 26th October, 2018
Producers: Joseph Mount/Mr. Tophat/Adam Bainbridge/Robyn/Klas Åhlund
“She delivers her own style of sexual healing on the masterful title track, describing it as something nourishing beyond mere pleasure. "Baby Forgive Me" is both soft and daring; though she risks it all by asking to be taken back, she asks so sweetly that it's almost impossible to say no. Perhaps as a tribute to her connection with Falk, Robyn made Honey with other close friends. Along with Klas Åhlund, her collaborator since the Robyn days, the album features lush, expressionistic tracks produced by Kindness' Adam Bainbridge ("Send to Robin Immediately") and Mr. Tophat ("Beach 2K20"). However, her main creative partner is Metronomy's Joseph Mount, who contributed to over half the album and brings a crisp synth-pop edge to "Ever Again," which finds a stronger, wiser Robyn promising herself to never be this devastated again. The eight years between Body Talk and this album would be a lifetime for almost any artist, and several lifetimes for a female pop star, whose career longevity isn't usually measured in decades. However, Robyn continues to make the trends instead of following them, and with Honey, she enters her forties with some of her most emotionally satisfying and musically innovative music” – AllMusic
Standout Tracks: Baby Forgive Me/Honey/Between the Lines
Finest Cut: Missing U
The 1975 - A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
Date of Release: 30th November, 2018
Labels: Dirty Hit/Polydor
Producers: George Daniel/Matthew Healy
“Perhaps the biggest surprise comes in the form of ‘Mine’, a Cole Porter-influenced jazz number that evokes golden era Hollywood, Disney soundtracks and finger-clicking crooners while reflecting wryly on modern life (“I fight crime online sometimes / I write rhymes I hide behind,”), a jarring dissonance that feels like hearing a song you’ve known your whole life for the very first time.
‘Mine’ is a breathtaking piece of work, and one of many here that proves that The 1975’s core songwriting team of Matty Healy and George Daniel are not just the most accomplished and creative duo working in pop right now but the closest thing we have to a present-day Lennon and McCartney, a pair whose golden touch makes them near-enough unassailable. Clever and profound, funny and light, serious and heartbreaking, painfully modern and classic-sounding all at the same time, ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ is a game-changing album, one that challenges The 1975’s peers – if, indeed, there are any – to raise their game” – NME
Standout Tracks: TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME/Love It If We Made It/Mine
Finest Cut: Sincerity Is Scary
Rita Ora – Phoenix
Date of Release: 23rd November, 2018
Label: Atlantic UK
“Between these already established tracks, the newer material slots in well. “Let You Love Me” is frank and affecting in its exploration of emotional barriers – “I wish that I could let you love me/ Say what’s the matter with me?” – but you don’t need to engage in its emotional crisis to appreciate this mid-tempo bop. “New Look” is catchy too, despite a beat that sounds like it’s being played on a radio with intermittent signal.
There are a few low points: “Keep Talking”, even with left-field pop connoisseur Julia Michaels on board, is frustratingly plodding, while “Summer Love” builds threateningly towards a clumsy drop. For the most part, though, Phoenix is worth the wait – whether you were doing so with indifference or bated breath” – The Independent
Standout Tracks: New Look/Your Song/First Time High
Finest Cut: Let Me Love You
Mariah Carey – Caution
Date of Release: 16th November, 2018
“With production from Blood Orange on Giving Me Life, it is hardly surprising that this is the defining and most eclectic moment on the album. With echoes of The Roof and The Beautiful Ones from the iconic Butterfly album, the chorus is an immediate classic and the breakdown towards the end of the song is a stunning showcase of that vocal range against a backdrop of electric guitars.
The album closes with the slow burning and vintage Mariah ballad Portrait. We find her at her most ethereal and reflective, and the narrative focuses on the relationship Carey has with herself. The glorious vocals towards the end are truly magnificent and the track is a fitting and definitive end to such a cathartic and phenomenal album.
The message from Carey here is clear. You can come into her life, but make it count and do not throw caution to the wind. This is why her lambs are never silent in their perpetual adoration. Sublime” – musicOMH
Standout Tracks: Caution/8th Grade/Portrait
Finest Cut: With You