By Spencer Davis. Typically, great art is borne of terrible times. So in these days when hate is rising everywhere, days when some are questioning the decline of democracy itself, you’d expect that “serious” music—particularly music with a strongly political bent—would be experiencing a renaissance. Yet it’s confounding that two years into this critical juncture in history, we’re seeing so little music that speaks to the moment, that provides a vital commentary on the state of our union comparable to the creative explosion of the 1960s or the literary revolution of the interwar period. Music is still searching for a way to do something new, and the best answer anyone’s come up with so far is to cross-pollinate genres or historical influences in a way that aspires to accomplish a seamless new blend—hopefully obscuring the fact that there’s nothing truly new or original about it.
But while my 2017 list bemoaned a particularly weak crop, I’m happy to say that in 2018, the road is curving back in the right direction. And there are even signs that maybe, just maybe, this historical moment of ours could be on the cusp of sparking the next great creative explosion. My hope begins with this year’s brilliant new evolutionary leap from Leon Bridges.
1. Leon Bridges – Good Thing
2. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
3. Kendrick Lamar – Black Panther Soundtrack
4. Nils Frahm – All Melody
5. Robyn – Honey
6. Jorja Smith – Lost & Found
7. Glen Hansard – Between Two Shores
8. John Coltrane – Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album
9. Miya Folick – Premonitions
10. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – Tearing At The Seams
11. Pinegrove – Skylight
12. Laurel – Dogviolet
13. Tom Misch – Geography
14. Isaac Gracie – Isaac Gracie
15. Let’s Eat Grandma – I’m All Ears
16. The 1975 – An Inquiry Into Online Relationships
Bridges’ 2015 debut, Coming Home, was an exercise in looking backwards. To be fair, it was a damn good one. But the remarkable thing about that album was how precisely Bridges was able to mimic every last tiny nuance of 60s soul music, from the vinyl-like crackle of his voice to the vintage twinge of his guitar amp. It was such a stunning facsimile of a bygone era that even a Baby Boomer might not be able to tell the difference between his record and the real thing.
But the trouble with being a throwback artist is that everyone expects you to stand frozen in time like that forever—and when record after record sounds exactly the same, you can expect only diminishing returns. Leon Bridges made a bold decision to break the cycle now, on his second record. And that’s a move that has just as much potential to fail, as loyal fans who wanted one thing and got another turn their backs.
Good Thing was aptly titled, though, because in blending his retro sensibilities into 21st century songs and sounds, Bridges comes closer than anyone in recent years to achieving something timeless. The music here bounces with the rhythms of hip-hop; surges with the propulsive pop libido of a Timberlake or Pharrell single; and flirts with the electronic in ways so subtle that you feel it more than you hear it. And yet the album doesn’t reject the past either, couching these new sounds in songs that deal in age-old subjects like love and loss and fear and doubt—and even a few odes to that most forgotten of song topics, true happiness. If Good Thing is a throwback at all, it’s a throwback to the days when art could still talk about life in the language of unashamed romance. That Leon Bridges dares to deal in such worn-down sentiments while sounding fresh and urgent is a subtle kind of revelation. And maybe it’s just the political statement we need in this era of all-pervasive cynicism: not a jaded critique of our institutions and our faded values, but a forward-looking reminder of how it once was and how it could be again.
Following right on his heels is another past-meets-the-future effort, the stunning Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves. After two albums of clever country wordplay and faithful Nashville sounds, Musgraves made an album that’s country in spirit—but not in sound. Her voice is still distilled in Americana, but the instrumentation sheds all the omnipresent country tropes of steel guitar and fiddle in favor of airy swells of synth and harmonic drones of electric guitar. It gives her words room to breathe in so much empty space, and she answers with a series of defiant poems steeped in female strength and rebelliousness. Like Leon Bridges, it flirts with timelessness, and brings hope that maybe music can yet find unexplored territory at the frontiers of the familiar.
Rounding out the top five, on the Black Panther soundtrack, Kendrick Lamar managed to turn the typical cash grab of a movie soundtrack into a coherent artistic statement of its own, capturing along the way the sonic identity of the film so perfectly that his music practically becomes a character on the screen. Pianist/composer Nils Frahm gave us a film score without a movie in All Melody, an instrumental album so intricate in its beauties that the ear never gets bored, even without words. And dance icon Robyn returned to the scene after a long hiatus with Honey, a haunted electro-pop tapestry about loss and healing that pulses with dark energy.
British R&B songstress Jorja Smith parlayed an apprenticeship with Drake into an album with much deeper aspirations, channeling the likes of Adele and Lauren Hill and even Massive Attack into songs that tackle ambitious topics like police violence and urban decay. From nearby Ireland, the always-dependable Glen Hansard wore his heart raw on ten folk ballads that explore the quiet pains of middle age and the choppy seas between heartbreak and recovery. Jazz titan John Coltrane came back from the dead with a lost album from 1963 that straddled the crossroads of his classic era and his avant-garde experimental period so flawlessly that it encapsulates, for the first time in one place, everything that is loved about his music.
On her full-length debut, Miya Folick challenged the definition of pop itself with a collection of house, punk rock, and new wave-influenced dance tracks so schizophrenic in their sensibilities that the only common tie between them is Folick’s innovative wit. Like Leon Bridges, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats managed to transition from the past to the future on an album that retains their brassy, 70s barroom sound while slapping on a punchy new coat of paint with shimmering guitar tones and a more contemporary songwriting flair.
Alt-country troubadours Pinegrove came back from a controversial, self-imposed exile with Skylight, which doubles down on their Coldplay-meets-Ryan Adams palette with a tight series of vignettes that spans just over half an hour (and yet has more to say than albums twice that length). Dogviolet, the debut from East London’s Laurel, is a dark, glistening tour of indie guitar pop with catchy melodic hooks reminiscent of Florence + The Machine or CHVRCHES. Also from across the pond, multi-instrumentalist DJ Tom Misch, who has collaborated in the past with favorites like Loyle Carner and Jordan Rakei, ventured out on his own with a sprawling set of modern jazz, hip-hop, and funk-inflected tunes that lay his claim to the crown previously held by super-producers like Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars.
London singer-songwriter Isaac Gracie hit the scene with a sharp, soaring sound that weds the best elements of Jeff Buckley and Oasis. And from further north, Norwich-based electro-pop teenage duo Let’s Eat Grandma made music so inventive it should shame their Millennial elders, armed with little more than a laptop and an affection for buzzsaw synthesizers and pounding beats.
And lastly, a word about The 1975 (or as Stereogum immortally called them, “these fucking guys”). A band this pretentious and twee is easy enough to despise, and yet they frustratingly keep making 80s rock anthems with irresistible hooks. Not so this time on An Inquiry Into Online Relationships, their most serious bid to date to be taken seriously. This album enraged me and then enraged me again: first, for its unholy saturation with AutoTune in the album’s cloying first half, and second, for the moment when they abandon all that halfway through in favor of a long closing run of sparse, introspective ballads that deprived me of the chance to throw this whole thing in the digital trashcan. Never have I been more frustrated by an album—one that makes you hate it for not quite allowing you to hate it. That damn AutoTune automatically disqualifies it from my top 15 on sheer principle. But just when you think you’re out, The 1975 pull you back in.
Boygenius – Boygenius / I’m With Her – See You Around / Cloud Nothings – Last Building Burning / Bob Moses – Battle Lines / Natalie Prass – The Future And The Past / Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel / The Milk Carton Kids – All The Things That I Did And All The Things That I Didn’t Do / Buddy Guy – The Blues Is Alive And Well /
Stryker Brothers – Burn Band / The Marcus King Band – Carolina Confessions /
Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats – Wasteland / Bonny Doon – Longwave / Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy (Face To Face) / Death Cab For Cutie – Thank You For Today / Black Metal Motorcycle Club – Wrong Creatures / Dustin Tebbutt – Chasing Gold /
Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper – A Star Is Born Soundtrack