I’m tempted to go back and retroactively add Neneh Cherry’s Broken Politics to my list of the best records of 2018. But I didn’t discover this record until pretty recently, so I’ll just say that this year it’s one of my favorite new discoveries. ‘New’ is all relative, of course; Cherry is 55 and used to be a member of the trailblazing female punk band The Slits. If she sounds like she sprang fully formed from the digital whirlpool of right now, it’s a testament to her hear for what ‘right now’ is.
Elle King got famous in 2015 for having the rollicking slut-pride anthem of the year. Then she found out, as many before her have done, that sudden fame exacerbates one’s worst impulses to the thousandth degree. King went on the rookie pop star roller-coaster of self-destruction: heavy drinking, burned bridges, self-recrimination, another bender, rinse, repeat, rehab. It took the steam out of her career, but it did give her material for a more mature second album. Facing down demons has always been a songwriter’s right of passage, and Elle King is working to ascend the pinnacles of blue-eyed soul. She may not be up there with Joplin and Winehouse, and if she wants to continue being alive, she shouldn’t aspire to it. But she did make a really good confessional rock album, and hopefully she’ll be able to mine more from her journey.
Is it a blessing or a curse when edgy artists suddenly go mainstream? On one hand, niche artists who happen to fluke into wide popularity often find themselves either pandering to the masses or flailing around to get their original voice back. On the other hand, the mainstream needs regular infusions of weirdness and irregularity to keep it keeping up. If there’s one thing the wider market needs, it’s more queer women’s voices from diverse backgrounds. Enter Janelle Monae, who’s been doing her freak thing out on the edge for a long time, and now she’s got one of the biggest and most acclaimed records of the year. The thing with Monae, though, isn’t that she got lucky with a fluke groove or – god forbid – sold out her aesthetic to become more appealing. She got wildly popular because the world was ready for her. The public didn’t used to take an interest in what a crazy black girl had to say about pushing gender boundaries, same-sex love or being a female artist in a still-very-normative world. Now the tides have changed, and people want to hear as many voices as they can, anything but the same old white-guy angst. The experience of being young, black, gay and creative in a world that is unstable, swiftly-changing and dangerous to differences is suddenly very relevant, and not just to people who’ve lived that particular experience. It’s relevant to anyone who’s come to the realization that the pop cultural figures they’ve been told to relate to are garbage. We’ve been living in a tyranny of forced empathy, being told from childhood that the most valid, universal and important human experience is the puberty-pain of middle-class white males, and we’re fucking sick and bored of it, and we want to learn about other people, and we want to be heard for our own stories. And we want more music and pop culture that reflects that. It’s not a matter of the outsiders storming in at the expense of the old classics, it’s just the Zeitgeist being ready.
I wasn’t there when Neneh Cherry’s debut album Raw Like Sushi was a critics’ darling in 1989. I wasn’t around to question why, instead of becoming an R’n’B sensation, Cherry only made four more albums. As far as I’m concerned, Neneh Cherry is a brand new artist fresh off the boat from Sweden. I only found out about her new record Broken Politics because some critic thought it was one of the year’s best. And much to my surprise, it was. It takes a special kind of giftedness to write a sexy slow-jam about deep vein thrombosis, but Cherry does it. (Go ahead look up Deep Vein Thrombosis by Neneh Cherry, I’ll wait.) Imagine my surprise to learn that this gifted rising star is a woman of 55 who had her shot at pop stardom in 1989, decided it wasn’t for her, and has been quietly honing her chops on her own terms ever since. Obviously, I regret not paying attention sooner.
Franz Ferdinand’s Always Ascending was one of my favorite records of 2018. As its name implies, it provided some much-needed uplift. You can’t underrate the spirit lifting value of some good, snappy, tight rock songs. Franz Ferdinand long ago proved that they’re about as deep as their trouser cuffs are wide. That is, not very. They know their place, and it’s making tight snappy rock songs. It is not at all detracting that all of their songs come from the perspective that when you’re very handsome and dapper there’s nothing in life worth worrying about except the next drink and the next short-term love affair. In fact, it’s charming as fuck, because handsome and dapper boys, even when they’re approaching middle age, shouldn’t have to pretend to be anything deeper than what they are. It worked for Duran Duran.
I just realized that I haven’t been doing much to introduce new artists lately. That’s partly because of the hassle of updating my playlist format as I change over from iTunes to Spotify. Like, seriously, that shit is tedious. But trust that I have very much been making a big effort to keep up with and take note of new releases and exploring new artists. (This is something that using Spotify gives me a leg up on, so yay for that.) From here on out, I’m going to be more actively filtering more new content in with the old faves. Today, here is someone I discovered last year, and if y’all’s public playlists are any indication, a lot of you are in love with her too: Kacey Musgraves. Okay, she’s not exactly an unknown off of the street here; she’s won a basketful of Grammy awards, and her album was one of 2018’s most acclaimed. Still, she’s a relative newcomer who didn’t break mainstream until recently. I think she represents what I hope is the future of country music, and not just alt-country or roots-country or whatever you want to call it, I’m talking about what they actually play on the radio. That future is young, female, empowered, and progressive. We really, really need this next generation of young artists to wipe away the pandering beer’n’tractors cliches and the stink of unwashed MAGA hats. Mainstream country music has for far too long been a last bastion of glorified toxic masculinity and thinly coded bigotry. We need young artists like Musgraves who can write tuneful songs with mass appeal, minus the redneck posturing, and with something relevant and positive to say.
It’s hard to imagine Florence Welch reigning in her flair for drama. She is the queen of making everything epic. However, when she does strip it down, as she did on her last album, it’s even more devastating. Because of the sense of just how much held back emotion is still waiting to be set loose. She got very intimate on that last one, with a definite sense that there’s plenty more to unveil. I can feel, listening to a relatively low-key confessional song like this one, that it’s a tip of an iceberg. There’s an underwater archipelago of heartbreak and rage, years of work to be done. That, frankly, feels very inspiring to me, because don’t we all feel that way? And the turmoil of Florence, up close and personal and raw, is more epic than tales of faerie queens.