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.
It’s time to take stock, yet again, of the year past and – yep! – it was a shitty one. I don’t know where we go from here, but I suspect it’s nowhere nice. In the meantime though, we can enjoy the one upside to witnessing the fall of civilization in real time: the myriad ways all that angst and turmoil can be fueled into art.
1. Negative Capability – Marianne Faithfull
In a world burning with senseless violence and Orwellian horror, what we really need is to hear from one of the Summer of Love’s last survivors. The survivor’s place, it seems, is a lonely and sorrowful one. Faithfull laments the passing of old friends, she laments the fear that haunts our time, she admits that her own faith in love is deeply shaken. Did she really need a third re-recording of As Tears Go By? Yes, as the song’s melancholy deepens with the singer’s voice. Did the pagan feminist anthem Witches’ Song need to a revisit? If it means throwing Nick Cave into the mix, absolutely yes.
2. Always Ascending – Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand proves, as they have been for years, that all anyone really needs is killer hooks, killer riffs and great stovepipe trousers. FF are rock dandies who could have been early-60’s mods, 80’s New Romantics or 90’s Cool Britannia lads – their brand of crunchy rock and swaggering attitude is that timeless, whether or not they choose to add synthesizer arpeggios or just lean into the three-guitar format. When you’re handsome and clever, the whole world’s an afterparty.
3. God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty
For a change, FJM is actually one of the less depressing entries on the list. His last album, as much as I loved it, was far from bright. He must have gotten tired of gazing into the abyss; this time he’s looking at his own celebrity lifestyle, and finding it absurd and amusing. His humor has always been one of his most appealing qualities, and it’s nice to more focus on that, rather than the total failure of all mankind. The vibe wouldn’t be out of place on the record charts in 1972, and that’s high praise.
4. American Utopia – David Byrne
How did David Byrne, long one of rock’s great neurotics, become a self-appointed champion of “reasons to be cheerful”? He set himself the challenge of writing only optimistic songs, making it the theme of his last tour and of this album. That may feel counterintuitive in these trying times, but Byrne, when he’s not being acerbic, has always known just how much joy a good pop song can incite. Cheerful doesn’t have to be boring or earnest, either – in these hands it’s gratifyingly bonkers, from the wordplay to the herky-jerky tempo changes (so reminiscent of his famous dance moves.)
5. Tell Me How You Really Feel – Courtney Barnett
Like me, you were probably waiting eagerly to see how Courtney Barnett, the grandmaster of turning the most intimate and mundane of everyday things into clever and insightful pop poetry, would develop as an artist now that she’s world famous. I was expecting a lot of songs about hotels and airports. Barnett, however, is several levels above that. She’s ready to tackle the whole fucking world and the constant battle of living in it as a woman. From walking in the park to appearing on television, being a female person is a constant confrontation with danger, and Barnett is taking none the bullshit that comes with the territory.
6. High as Hope – Florence + the Machine
I fell in love with Florence Welch for her baroque aesthetic. Her lyrics evoked mythology classic and pagan, her productions shied away from no harp solo. But more than anything else, it was always about the voice. This time, she sheds most of the theatrics and focuses on the very real. Even the most magical witch person struggles with bouts of self loathing, faces heartbreak and leans on her own role models for inspiration. Those are the personal revelations Flo is ready to make, turning her voice and gift for drama towards the intimate. Every artist has to strip down to the roots of what made them become an artist in the first place.
7. I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life – Tune-Yards
If you were listening to a lot of indie radio in 2014, you’ve probably heard Water Fountain by Tune-Yards, and you may have dismissed it as a novelty song. However, Tune-Yards is no novelty act, but an avant-garde musical project. Their new record is, indeed, boundary-pushing and just plain weird, in the best possible way. It’s also inspired by the state of the world we’re in, so file it under the ever-growing and trending banner of angry feminist protest art.
8. Little Dark Age – MGMT
The world needs MGMT. They’ve had some creative ups and downs since their moment of peak success in 2008 (my god, has it really been so long?) It’s hard living down a big hit, especially when you never set out to be hitmakers in the first place, but it seems like MGMT have made their identity with or without oceans of hype. They just make really catchy, sometimes trippy, sometimes snarky, always recognizable tunes. Eccentricity should always be this much fun.
9. Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt – Moby
Moby is another artist who outlived his moment at the top of the Zeitgeist, who kept working and evolving slightly below the big-hitmaker radar. He was never the pop star type, anyway. His music reflects his mild-mannered persona: just a regular guy who loves animals, cares about issues and thinks about his place in the world. And composes music that ranges from ambient to uptempo, music that’s been equally melodic and melancholic lately, but ultimately positive in spirit.
10. Dirty Computer – Janelle Monae
This is the year Janelle Monae went from acclaimed outsider to for-real superstar. This is one of those albums that will be remembered as a definitive part of its cultural moment. Not just a good record that fans enjoy, but an important record that contributed to the conversation far beyond the confines of one fandom. It’s been a year when artists like Monae – women, women of color, queer women of color, et al. – who used to be relegated to the dusty ghetto of ‘special interests’ swung into the center of the conversation and announced that their voices would be heard whether the gatekeepers liked it or not. And then it turned out that everyone did like it, and can we have more of this, please?
11. Shake the Spirit – Elle King
In 2015 Elle King’s Exes and Ohs was the gleefully naughty bad girl anthem of the year. Then she disappeared. Was she going to be yet another promising young artist lost in record label purgatory or burned to death by the insane strobe lights of fame? Almost. She lived the shooting star trajectory that should take decades – hype, hits, rock bottom, rehab, comeback – in just a few years. Being a bad girl is tough, it turns out, and Elle King is here to tell you just how much. It’s the insecurity, the desire to be liked at war with the urge to rebel, the judging eyes of others, the thirst for more thrills, the wild ups and downs of it all that make the tough girl who she is. Elle King is the bottle-blonde, zaftig floozy with the heart of gold that every girl who’s ever been slut-shamed can relate to.
12. Isolation – Kali Uchis
Kali Uchis is the surprise big pop breakout of the year. She is the standout in a dense field of young pop divas with obscurely exotic names: Rita Ora, Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande, Sky Ferreira, etc. etc. Kali Uchis can outsing each and every one of them. Her voice is way better than any mere pop star’s needs to be, and her music, while unmistakably heady pop sugar, draws on her Colombian background with touches of salsa and Reggaeton, and also harks back to the girl groups of Motown and the breezy sound of 70’s soft rock, among a myriad other influences. It is so refreshing to hear a pop record that’s this fun, smart and diverse. Is this the new Shakira?
13. Castles – Lissie
Lissie has somehow, inexplicably, been flying under the radar, although she’s been making records since 2010. In that time she has consistently delivered smart songwriting, powerful vocals and a down-to-earth sensibility. Once again, she doesn’t disappoint. She knows how to write a good pop hook, but she also leans into 70’s-style country rock influences. Her vocals can be folksy or tinged with gospel. Her approach to the commonplace topics of love and heartache is levelheaded and honest, revealing emotion without resorting to sentimental cliche – as befits an artist who chooses real life over glamorous artifice.
14. Remain in Light – Angelique Kidjo
When Talking Heads incorporated African beats into their post-punk rock music on their 1980 album of the same name, it was many Americans’ first introduction to what we know know as ‘world music’. When Angelique Kidjo emigrated from Benin to Paris in 1983, she heard her first Talking Heads album and felt instant recognition. She understood the unbroken musical lineage that connected the folk music of Africa to modern-day rock and roll, and grasped that Western audiences were open and hungry to rediscover rock’s African roots. Now, so many years later, she pays homage to that culture-bridging moment and the record that made her feel that the European world was open to her and her music. And it’s far from being an exercise in nostalgia: Kidjo makes every song relevant in entirely new ways. When Kidjo sings “All I want is to breathe” it’s a whole new message with a whole new context.
Remember when MGMT was, like, the next big hot thing? And then it turned out that they were too weird and eccentric to be major mainstream hitmakers, and the press was all like, “where did they go?” Well, they didn’t go anywhere very far. They just stayed weird. Little Dark Age is their first record in five years, and an aptly titled one at that. It’s not going to recapture the freak popularity of Kids, but nobody is asking for that anyway. It’s exactly what you signed up for as an MGMT fan; it’s humorous and spacey and catchy, psychedelic pop with a spring in its step. I don’t know if it’s going to become one of the most remembered records of the year, but certainly it was one of the most welcome upon arrival. It’s happy music for unhappy times, and honestly, that’s actually a lot to ask for.