Photos by Kevin Mazur for iHeartMedia / Warner Bros. Pictures / Erika Goldring/WireImage via Getty Images
"Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die."
When Jackson Maine, Bradley Cooper’s character in A Star Is Born, croons that line after-hours in some vaguely L.A.-area drag bar, he’s forecasting a reality that has already come to pass. Jackson Maine is a myth, and the cultural monolith of a rock star as the film portrays it no longer exists in 2018.
What’s left in today's musical landscape is something more personal, democratic, and in some ways more beautiful. While we still enjoy this annual exercise where publications such as this one attempt to capture the “best” songs, albums, videos of the year, the lists are more eclectic than ever, and co-exist in a landscape where you don’t need a byline to participate in this tradition. Similar lists exist on Twitter feeds and in playlists that are more representative of how music has somehow become more individual and more global at the same time.
The process of assembling an end-of-year list -- like Cooper’s tragic figure -- is a little bit antiquated. But still, there’s gotta be some value in it, not as dictated truth, but as a contribution to the oral (er… textual?) history of this snapshot in time.
With that being said, here’s a very non-definitive take on the music and artists that most defined the narrative of 2018.
5. Kacey Musgraves - Golden Hour
4. Mac Miller- Swimming
3. Rosalía - El Mal Querer
2. Pusha T - DAYTONA
1. Cardi B - Invasion of Privacy
Honorable Mentions: Janelle Monáe - Dirty Computer, Robyn - Honey, Chloe x Halle - The Kids Are Alright, Snail Mail - Lush
The streaming economy has changed a number of things about the music industry -- almost all the things, in fact -- but the most pronounced effect of the Spotification of music is a new reality where, to really make a mark, albums have to be playlists and those playlists have to be endless.
Drake pioneered this trend, but in 2018 (save for a month-long revolt by one Kanye West that will be discussed in greater detail later on), the roster of Billboard No. 1 album holders that boast 15 tracks or more includes -- *takes deep breath* -- Eminem's Revival (19 songs), Taylor Swift's Reputation (15), Migos' Culture II (24), Justin Timberlake's Man of the Woods (16), XXXTentacion's ? (18), Post Malone's Beerbongs & Bentleys (18), Drake's Scorpion (25), Travis Scott's Astroworld (17), BTS' Love Yourself: Answer (26), Paul McCartney's Egypt Station (16) Lil Wayne's Tha Carter V (23), BROCKHAMPTON's Iridescence (15), Meek Mill's Championships (19), and the A Star Is Born soundtrack (this is a little different, but even the version without dialogue is 18 tracks, or 19, if you count both the film and extended version of "I'll Never Love Again").
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While bloated track lists may be imperative for feeding the streaming algorithm beast, the records of 2018 that conveyed the most complete artistic statement still mostly fall in that 10-14 song sweet spot.
Early in the year, Kacey Musgraves came out with an absolute force of a third album, Golden Hour. Showcasing country music that embraces the genre agnosticism pervasive among audiences today, she’s as confident in the realm of disco as she is in ethereal acoustic numbers. Lyrically, too, Musgraves transcends the paradigms of the genre for lines much deeper and curious, that whether specific (“Texas is hot, I can be cold/Grandma cried when I pierced my nose” she sings on “Slow Burn”) or universal (“And I'm the kind of person who starts getting kinda nervous when I'm having the time of my life,” goes “Happy & Sad”) feel just as relatable.
Then you’ve got Mac Miller’s Swimming, which went from the late artist’s most promising record to-date to an absolute gut punch of a listen when the 26-year-old rapper -- real name Malcolm McCormick -- died of a drug overdose in September. “My regrets look just texts I shouldn’t send,” the beautiful album begins on “Come Back to Earth”, continuing shortly after, “I just need a way out of my head.” As one of the artists brave enough to open up about mental health -- as the work to destigmatize the subject is more imperative than ever -- Miller’s thoughtful, quiet musings invite us to re-listen, and encourage us to reach out, no matter how hard it may feel.
Next, there's Rosalía’s El Mal Querer, a riveting narrative through an ill-fated relationship, touching on themes of jealousy and abuse. You don’t have to speak Spanish to feel the sharp, emotional turns the 25-year-old singer takes on the album, mostly because of her gorgeous, charismatic vocals, paired with genre-bending, relentlessly-experimental production. Be it through flamenco, hip-hop, dancehall, R&B or revving motorcycles used as the rhythm of a beat, Rosalía will get her message across.
At a brisk 30 minutes, El Mal Querer is only 9 minutes longer than DAYTONA, Pusha T’s seven-track, 21-minute mic-drop of a record. In the most fully-realized of Kanye West’s mad-dash of albums (almost there, promise) -- possibly because it was the least toiled with in the days before its release -- Push shows up on these tracks to show you what he’s always been about, better and more confidently than he ever has. It’s a reckless, but expertly-executed, reminiscence of drug-running days -- laced with pot shots at Drake and Birdman -- that finds surprising emotional resonance on “Santeria”, when the rapper pays tribute to his former road manager, De’Von Pickett, who was stabbed to death in 2015, before transitioning effortlessly back into boasts of his rags-to-riches money-making. It may not be the subject matter you want to celebrate, but damn is DAYTONA a fun hang.
The funnest hang of the year, though, has got to be Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy. The title seems more ridiculous by the day, given how the 26-year-old Bronx artist has utilized her reality star sensibilities, legitimate rap skills and unbelievable charm to vault herself into pop culture ubiquity. Since Invasion of Privacy came out, Cardi has seen a feud with Nicki Minaj boil over, publicly documented her trials with ex Offset on social media, and seemed just as confident glamming up for court dates as she did delighting Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show.
More than a few naysayers thought Cardi B wouldn’t have staying power beyond "Bodak Yellow." But as she proclaims on her banger of an album closer, “I Do”, “my little fifteen minutes lasting long as hell.” Cardi blows past the prodigy-of-Migos trap music on IOP, from the bilingual bop, “I Like It” (if this song is not on your party playlist, you aren’t throwing a party) to the vindictive infidelity revenge anthems, “Thru Your Phone” and “Be Careful”. There just isn’t a lane Cardi doesn’t feel confident in, which is why Invasion has to be considered the most re-listenable album of the year.
5. Ariana Grande - “thank u, next”
4. Travis Scott feat. Drake - “SICKO MODE”
3. Janelle Monáe - “PYNK”
2. Cardi B - “I Like It”
1. Drake - “Nice For What”
Honorable Mentions: Rosalía - “Malamente”, Ella Mai - “Boo'd Up”, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Future & James Blake - “King's Dead”, The Carters - “APESHIT” The 1975 - “Love It If We Made It”
It would be fascinating to go through Ariana Grande’s headspace after being confronted with the fact that Sweetener, her romantic opus and most sonically beautiful album to-date, had outlasted the engagement that provided much of its subject matter. If that album was a sentence, “thank u, next,” turned the period into a comma, and somehow transcended her past work both critically and commercially. Both Grande and her ex, Pete Davidson, have been put through some of the worst examples of undeserved social media scrutiny, and the song itself is Grande rising above the noise and taking control of her own narrative in the classiest way possible. For such a late addition to the soundtrack of the year, it’s remarkable how essential it already feels.
Meanwhile, Travis Scott’s “SICKO MODE,” featuring Drake, may have caused some familial rifts between the rapper and his girlfriend’s sister’s husband, Kanye West, but it showcases the best of Scott’s expert curation ability -- and even employs several of the abrupt beat switches that Kanye had perfected by The Life Of Pablo. These change-ups take advantage of our collective shortening attention span by churning out the feeling of skipping through radio stations and landing on all the best parts of all the best songs -- in one track.
While that’s impressive, it does give you a greater respect for the tracks that don’t have you itching for the next button by minute two, and Cardi B and Janelle Monáe manage that with “I Like It” -- which we’ve already discussed -- and “PYNK” respectively. Monáe’s Dirty Computer album is, among other things, a brilliant celebration of pansexuality and “PYNK” is that celebration’s most joyous moment. What starts as a series of euphemisms-that-aren’t-really-euphemisms for the female anatomy (“pink like the tongue that goes down… maybe”), gives way to an earwormy pre-chorus, which drives to a chorus (“Yeaaaah, some like that!”) that begs to be shouted out loud while you drive. It’s a simple and classic formula, but it works.
But the song of the year -- to this writer, at least -- couldn’t be more different, structurally, but is equally, infinitely enjoyable. Drake’s “Nice For What” really never finds a chorus. But it grabs you from the jump with a Big Freedia call and response that oozes New Orleans bounce, leading to a pitched-up Lauryn Hill sample that -- no matter how at odds the Toronto artist may be with Kanye at the moment -- feels very in the mold of Yeezy’s pioneering chipmunk soul style that changed hip-hop and music et al in the mid-2000s. Additionally, Drake’s storytelling is on fire here, trading personal bravado for intensely relatable lines, like, “You know dark days, you know hard times/ Doin' overtime for the last month/ Saturday, call the girls, get 'em gassed up,” that are quotable from beginning to end. At a standard three and a half minutes long, the only problem with “Nice For What” is that it feels too short, a fault that is easily remedied -- by relistening to “Nice For What.”
Speaking of Drake, let’s turn to the music video virtuoso who spent the year bringing his songs to life.
Best Videos From Karena Evans' Staggeringly Prolific Year
From Kendrick Lamar to Donald Glover, several artists have been trying to use the music video platform not just for vibe and views, but for high art, which has vaulted the platform of several video directors and made us ask the question -- “Why the hell is this person directing music videos?”
The most prominent example of this is probably Hiro Murai, who joined his collaborator Glover on the critically-acclaimed Atlanta, helming some of the FX series’ most affecting episodes, before continuing on to direct half the episodes of Bill Hader’s celebrated HBO vehicle, Barry, this year.
Poised to take up the mantle next is Karena Evans, who pretty much batted a thousand this year behind the camera. All of the 22-year-old director’s (twenty-f**king-two!!) videos feature the title graphic, “A Film By Karena Evans”, a power move that, if we’re talking about music videos, you'd better be able to back up -- and she does.
If you existed this year, you've seen Evans' work -- mostly likely on Drake’s several videos, from the cameo-filled Degrassi nostalgia bomb in "I'm Upset," to “Nice For What,” in which a star-studded roster of female actresses -- Olivia Wilde, Rashida Jones, Tracee Ellis Ross, and more -- dance the night away, to “In My Feelings”, which captures the essence of Shiggy’s viral dance challenge without feeling like merely an answer to the meme.
While those videos reveled in spectacle, Evans is just as effective when working within a conceptually smaller framework. SZAs “Garden,” for instance, packs breathtaking imagery into a hazy, romantic journey, where the singer is joined by Donald Glover in a new-age “Adam and Eve” scenario, surrounded by the lush greens of Maui. Additionally, Evans lent her talents to SZA’s Top Dawg labelmate, SiR, on the video for “D’Evils,” which complements the singer’s laid-back vocals with island imagery, panning back and forth between high definition video and vintage-esque smaller frames.
For Evans’ most satisfying work, we’ve gotta return to Drake, for “God’s Plan." There’s not a lot to talk about here, the concept is simple: Drake does good deeds in Miami. But just try to watch it without feeling almost uncontainably uplifted -- the ability to deliver that without feeling cheesy or pandering speaks to Evans’ masterwork in the director’s chair.
Best Use Of Music Videos to Drive Conversation
5. The Carters
3. Ariana Grande
2. Janelle Monáe
1. Childish Gambino
On that note, let’s shift our focus to other videos that got us talking in 2018.
Evans helped Drake deliver the most memorable videos of the year, but those weren’t the only clips to get lodged into our memory. Another that comes to mind is Beyonce and JAY-Z’s The Carters collab album. While the record didn’t reach the heights of Queen Bey’s Lemonade (to be honest, what could?) or Hov’s 4:44 album from last year, the couple’s joint album was a bookend to the most trying time in their relationship -- through Jay’s confessed infidelity to how they came out stronger on the other side. “APESHIT” is the strongest song on the album, and the pair proved they are far and away the biggest living legends we have when they dropped the Ricky Saiz-directed video for the song, set in Paris’ famed Louvre museum, which was somehow filmed WITHOUT ANYONE FINDING OUT ABOUT IT.
If that video was an event that came out of nowhere, Ariana Grande did the complete opposite by teasing the hell out of her video for “thank u, next,” a blockbuster homage to Mean Girls, Bring It On, 13 Going on 30 and Legally Blonde, flexing by bringing in many of those movies’ stars (and Kris Jenner, for good measure). The shocking thing about this video is that it kinda… lived up to the hype. In the days leading up to its release, you could see how it might turn into a bloated, indiscernible mess (it certainly has happened to pop stars before) but Grande and her frequent directorial collaborator Hannah Lux Davis brought it all together, through effective structuring, cohesive tone and Grande’s downright impressive comedic sensibility and timing. It’s no surprise this became the biggest video ever on YouTube in a 24-hour period following its release.
Monáe’s several videos, meanwhile, are not as gargantuan on the views front (in pop star-adjusted terms, that is), but are among the most conceptually interesting. Remember how we said “PYNK” has euphemisms that aren’t really euphemisms? Yeah, the Enna Westebverg-directed video doubles and triples down on that front. She partners with Thor: Ragnarok star Tessa Thompson in that video and again in “Make Me Feel,” which is directed by Alan Ferguson and has the vibe of an unapologetically sex-positive version of Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” episode -- in the best way.
Monáe, more than almost any artist this year, used her art to reflect and resist against the status quo, and joining her in that plight was Donald Glover. As Childish Gambino, Glover dropped two videos this year, “This Is America” and “Feels Like Summer,” which deserve special distinction because they didn’t just spark conversation, but meaningful debate.
“Feels Like Summer” is a sleepy track that more-or-less came and went, until the video gave it new life -- with animated depictions of current hip-hop and pop artists, living legends and other prominent figures, such as Monáe herself, in fact. Chance the Rapper, 21 Savage, Beyoncé, Rihanna, OutKast’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi, Snoop Dogg, Tiffany Haddish, Oprah and more also pop up in the clip, but the video's most controversial moment depicts Kanye -- donning a red “Make America Great Again” hat -- being embraced by former First Lady Michelle Obama, an image criticized by some as implying that women (and more specifically, black women) have some sort of responsibility to comfort and repair broken men.
“Feels Like Summer” had its moment, but Glover’s most impactful contribution to the culture this year was no doubt “This Is America” (directed by the aforementioned Murai), which currently sits just south of 450 million views on YouTube. Despite being released with no warning and no roll-out on May 5, the visceral critique of gun violence and internet culture has spawned countless reaction videos trying to make sense of its disturbing depictions of, among other things, a black church choir being gunned down, a guitar player with a bag over his head being shot point blank, and Glover prancing through all of it in seemingly minstrel-esque fashion.
This video didn’t please everyone, and many who questioned what the clip was trying to say about the motives and responsibility for police brutality, were frustrated with the fact that Glover has refused to give any insight into what his thinking for the video was, choosing instead to let it stand on its own.
Regardless of where you land on that issue, it’s not often in popular culture these days that something truly challenges its audience and encourages interpretation in such a naked way. How are we supposed to feel about “This Is America?" There might not be an answer -- and that’s what makes it so vital.
Best Song Off the A Star Is Born Soundtrack
5. “Maybe It’s Time”
4. “Music to My Eyes”
3. “Why Did You Do That To Me?”
1. “Always Remember Us This Way”
Honorable Mentions: “I’ll Never Love Again”, “Heal Me”
Come on now, didn’t we spend the whole intro talking about this movie?
We can keep this short, but let’s indulge ourselves at least a little. How often do you get a movie about a fake pop star starring a real pop star performing fake songs that turn into real bangers? Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper non-ironically embody their roles and sell the hell out of this movie, which is probably how the fourth reboot of a 1930s IP managed so much cultural resonance in 2018. It only makes sense that some of that would carry over into the soundtrack.
*FYI, this one contains spoilers*
After the film's release, one of the main debates centered around whether “Why Did You Do That To Me?” -- the pop jam that Gaga’s Ally performs on Saturday Night Live, causing Jackson Maine (Cooper), to throw a jealousy and alcohol-induced fit -- is supposed to be considered a bad song? The answer from those involved seems to be no, which is a good thing, because the track is legitimately great. Not everyone thought so from their first theater-going experience (i.e. the guy writing this), but repeat listens win you over in a way no other song on the soundtrack does. That repetitive earworm of a hook -- “whydidya dothatdothatdothatdothatdothat to meee” is impossible not to move your body to.
“Shallow” is an easy call. Haters be damned -- yes, it’s the “AHHH-ahh-ahh-ahah-AHHHH” song from the chorus -- it is incredible. It’s probably been performed at 100 percent of karaoke bars every night since A Star Is Born's opening weekend, and with good reason. Cooper does just enough at the top before stepping back to let Gaga be Gaga, and remember, real-life Gaga has a larger-than-life persona, otherworldly stage presence, and one of the greatest voices of this generation. Of courseshe was gonna knock it out of the park.
So, why doesn’t “Shallow” hold the top spot? Well, for one, it really is two hauntingly good Lady Gaga moments surrounded by an otherwise solid, maybe seven-out-of-ten song. Ally Maine’s got another ballad that has a higher floor and achieves more of its goals in terms of what the song is trying to do, and that’s “Always Remember Us This Way.”
Let’s be honest, this track, which begins “That Arizona sky burning in your eyes…”, should probably be the song at the end of the film -- the one Jackson wrote for Ally, that she tearfully performs at his memorial. “I’ll Never Love Again” is decent, but it feels a little more like a Whitney Houston b-side, than the emotional peak of the movie.
“Always Remember Us” delivers emotion in spades, and the lyrics even have a mourning, melancholy air of finality, from the “Every time we say goodbye baby it hurts,” to “When the sun goes down, and the band won’t play, I’ll always remember us that way.” Let’s be honest, Gaga is at her best when she lets those vocal cords ring out loud, and it’s that knack for performance that makes this song the most worthwhile listen of the bunch.
Best Offerings From Kanye West's Month-Long Cavalcade of Album Releases
5. “4th Dimension” - Kids See Ghosts
4. “Reborn” - Kids See Ghosts
3. “Gonna Love Me” - Teyana Taylor
2. “If You Know You Know” - Pusha T
1. “Ghost Town” - Kanye West feat. Kid Cudi, 070 Shake and PARTYNEXTDOOR
Honorable Mentions: “Rose in Harlem” - Teyana Taylor, “Come Back Baby" - Pusha T, “Santeria" - Pusha T, “Cudi Montage” - Kids See Ghosts”
Even for Yeezy stans (one of whom has the byline of the story you are reading right now), 2018 was… exhausting to say the least. Let’s go ahead and skip all of that, and just refer to the text. That is, the five albums Kanye West produced and released, mostly through live listening parties, during the month of June: Kanye’s Ye, Pusha T’s DAYTONA, Kids See Ghosts (the self-titled debut from Kanye and Kid Cudi’s collaborative effort), Teyana Taylor’s KTSE and Nas’ Nasir.
In contrast with the aforementioned 15+ song albums that dominated the Billboard charts, all of Kanye’s records turned their nose up at this new stream-gobbling span, clocking in at a tight seven songs (a move Taylor was not completely happy with), and the only one to earn a Billboard No. 1 was Ye, Kanye’s eighth album to do so.
The roll-out was -- aside from Pusha T’s album, which we’ve already discussed -- messy to say the least, driven, by Kanye’s own admission, at least partially by his own personal struggles with mental health, and you’d be forgiven for having checked out for the whole ordeal.
Still, whether or not Yeezy is operating at the same level he was before -- and more than a few would say he’s not -- he’s still arguably the best producer of our era. If you made time for him this year, there are some bright spots to point to.
Kids See Ghosts seems to have been a cathartic project for Cudi, in particular, who has gone through his own struggles with depression. “Reborn” is a beautiful meditation on the Cudder's journey back to faith, self-acceptance and peace of mind. It’s unreal how comforting Cudi’s warm, deep vocals are during the chorus, and Kanye seems to know exactly how to best point the spotlight at his friend and collaborator.
It’s not just on the boards that Kanye shines, either. He raps out of his mind on “4th Dimension,” dropping lines that, like it or not, are just fun to repeat -- “Feels so good it should cost/ Bought a alligator I ain’t talking Lacoste.” And the Shirley Ann Lee sample on the outro more or less provides the thesis for his brevity with these albums: “Just do that and then let the music do somethin', and then do that again, that'd be enough for a record. I mean, you only want two and a half minutes if you can get it, you know, three minutes max.”
Then you’ve got Teyana Taylor, whose sultry album of R&B stylings is so good, you have to wish it didn’t get so buried in Kanye’s rollout plan. “Gonna Love Me” is a high point on a record without a lot of low points, with vocal lines that seem more confident than ever. Taylor’s been putting in the work for years, but KTSE is her first real chance to showcase what she does best. It’s truly a masterwork of Kanye’s production, which is also on display for Pusha T’s album opener, “If You Know You Know,” where Ye cuts the beat out entirely for the first 37 seconds, with Push’s lines building more and more tension before the unbelievably satisfying beat drop with the titular refrain, “If you know, you know.”
DAYTONA got the most critical acclaim of any of these records, whereas Ye drew the most scrutiny -- partially due to Kanye scrapping and redoing the record in a number of days, and partially due to his lightning rod of a personality. Ye is not without its frustrating moments, but one of its accolades is “Ghost Town,” which, as the title suggests, seems to initially have been for the “Kids See Ghosts” project.
Kanye’s lyrics feel at once sloppy and deeply honest, touching on his battle with opioid addiction. But where the artist truly does his best work here is as a curator, giving each of his three collaborators on the track, Cudi, PARTYNEXTDOOR and GOOD Music newcomer 070 Shake, their time in the spotlight.
Cudi’s emotional drone, “I’ve been trying to make you love me, but everything I try just takes you further from me” is the pseudo-chorus on the song, but the true standout is Shake -- the 21-year-old singer, whose real name is Danielle Balbuena -- who completely steals the back half of the song.
“I feel kinda free/ We're still the kids we used to be,” she repeats in the extended outro of the song, which seems to provide some emotional closure for Kanye and his fans to take solace in during his difficult time. There’s no “old Kanye” or new “new Kanye” to miss or malign. Kanye, for better and for worse, has always just been ‘Ye.