Not to be outdone by the anxious misery of 2017, this year was an unrelenting slog of awful. Time continued to dilate, making 2018 seem like it lasted a decade or more. Nevertheless, bands and performers made some kick ass music and Unwinnable was here for it all.
As has become tradition around the halls of ol’ Unwinnable Headquarters, the Best Music list is eclectic in genre, mood and language. This year’s list saw one of the most lopsided runaway choices for the top spot we’ve ever had. Only David Bowie’s final album from a few years back, Blackstar, got a higher overall score using our proprietary algorithm, but Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer appeared on more contributors’ lists than any prior album and nearly doubled the score for the number two album.
So please enjoy this year’s offerings of the Best Music of 2018, as chosen by the Unwinnable crew. I’m almost certain you’ll discover something you’ve never heard before and it’s all awesome. (Ed Coleman, Curator)
Jericho Sirens, by Hot Snakes
A new Hot Snakes album was gift enough. I dared not even consider that it might stand up to their first three, records so titanic in my mind that I may have worn some bit rot into the files on my various devices. I didn’t doubt their ability to lace up the downstrokes with caustic chants and garage-brewed cyanide, rather I just accepted of the ravages of age. But while I’ve gotten older, Hot Snakes slays as they ever did, riding in fast and lean with plenty to sing along with. They’re taking cues not just from their back catalog and previous bands, but echoes of Night Marchers and Obits sneaking in as well, building on their own legacy without losing the track of their sound. Jericho Sirens is a splash over thirty minutes of hip-grinding stompers, banging heads and clenching fists straight to the earthy end. (Levi Rubeck)
This Is America, by Childish Gambino
There’s a lot swirling around Childish Gambino’s “This is America” that makes it a complicated pick for best of 2018. There’s the indie musician that Glover clearly cribbed off of for the song’s hook, the immediate adulation it garnered from clueless white critics stampeding over black twitter to classify the single as genius and unassailable. There’s the manner in which it got swept up into the irreverent internet meme machine, culminating in Fortnite renditions of shooting up a black choir.
Despite all this – perhaps even because of it – the song does an extraordinary job of commenting on contemporary American life: it nails the troubling and contorted admixture of pop culture with social media that we’ve all become so immune to. It seems to anticipate the superficial way it has been received by burying commentary and meaning within stripped down pop lyrics and song structure. Like Kara Walker’s art, it’s controversial and a lot of black artists have come out against it for what it says about blackness and who it says it to. But it still manages to “dredge up the mucky bloodlust of race” as Walker has signaled her own goals to be. It is therefore important, this song of happy negroes, shuffling and dancing within the conflagration, hurting ourselves and becoming compromised, but managing to keep running, navigating it all somehow. (Yussef Cole)
Room 25, by Noname
“Fucked the rapper homie, now his ass is making better music; my pussy teaches ninth-grade English; my pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism,” rapper Fatimah Warner AKA Noname wryly reminisces on the opener to her studio debut Room 25. This is a decidedly modern hip hop record: part neo-soul meets R&B with all the trimmings, part chill-beats-to-study-to, part woke generation scribe admits to all the contradictions of being human in the 21st century; all tongue in cheek. It’s Noname’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it observations motor-mouthed between these instrumentals which make Room 25 a fascinating listen; “I know you never loved me but I fucked you anyway.” This is a portrait of an artist honestly and proudly reconciling her innate vices and desires with the pains of being a black woman in gentrified America, land of the colonizers; of being in love in a world that won’t love you back. And you laugh along with her at all the immoral absurdity. (Devin Raposo)
Things We Lost In the Fire, by Brockhampton
Brockhampton roared into 2018 ready to create as much, if not more, music than they did in their breakout three-album year of 2017. However, any progress was stopped dead in its tracks when they removed a member after a sexual harassment scandal and cut a tour short. I knew that they would be fine, but some listeners didn’t, until they returned with Things We Lost In the Fire Radio and my favorite moment of the year, producer Jazze Pha doing one of his signature intros over the beat to “1999 WILDFIRE.” The three tracks released as part of this summer radio program are among their best work and, though I like their full 2018 album iridescence, these singles are my favorite thing that my current favorite artist did this year. Seriously, just go put on the video for “1998 TRUMAN” and tell me you’re calm after that. (2 Mello)
Hive Mind, by The Internet
On July 17, 2018, The Internet’s official account tweeted “No skits, no interludes, no features. 1 hour of straight music. Hive Mind is out Friday”. This statement was unbelievably refreshing, considering we were in the middle of the summer that seemingly every major rap artist chose to try and prove themselves as the most in love with their own ideas, to the detriment of listeners. The Internet’s fourth album Hive Mind released just in time for the last of summer, and it is a warm, relaxed ride that never ceases to surprise with funky, chilled-out chord progressions and inventive drum sounds and rhythms. When I go back to listen to their previous albums, The Internet sounds like they are figuring out how to make digital music programming and live studio performance shake hands. On Hive Mind, these two methods of production finally take to the dance floor together. (2 Mello)
Feast for Water, by Messa
Feast for Water, the second full length from the Italian band Messa, is a monstrous record, sweeping and gloomy, powered by singer Sara’s soaring vocals but given weight by the band’s thundering rifts. In among the more typical metal arrangements are surprising sonic detours – a jazzy keyboard here, a saxophone there – giving the proceedings a slightly delirious, even transcendental feel. Feast for Water demands your attention and brings you to strange climes once it has it.
Sara is central to Messa’s sound. Her voice, surprisingly warm for this sort of music, is sublime. She tempers her power with careful control, as if something dire might happen should she unleash it completely (check out “Leah” at about the 6:29 mark, or “The Seer” at 6:44 to hear what I mean). The band follows her lead, tempering and rumbling in turn, in ways that mirror the album’s watery themes.
Is it doom? Is it drone? Heavy jazz? Occult rock? Your taxonomies are powerless here. Just dive in. (Stu Horvath)
Whack World, by Tierra Whack
Short albums have been ‘a thing’ this year. Turned around quickies like Pusha’s Daytona that make the Ramones look like Walden. But brevity is its own tool, you can swoop in and out like a specter, wild and weird. No one’s been a flash grenade like Philly’s Tierra Whack. Each track in Whack World is a playful minute; Whack sings about TV friends with ulterior motives, giving her absent dad the finger and missing your dog. Coupled with the sublime video, Whack World turns the personal into a wonderland. Clever and off the rails, Whack is the artist described in self-positivity anthem “Fruit Salad.” “They tried to rob me. They can’t deny me. You can’t define me. I don’t need no ID.” – Zack Kotzer
The Story of Light, by SHINee
SHINee’s The Story of Light comes freighted with the unavoidable context of the real world. Its gleaming, beautifully tooled surfaces are as airtight as those of any K-pop record, yet here they can’t help but reflect the absence of powerhouse vocalist and creative force Kim Jong-hyun, who died last December. The Story of Light, released as three separate EPs and combined in the “Epilogue” repackage, is equal parts raw memoriam and artistic outburst.
SHINee have never wanted for ambition, but The Story of Light is an absolute triumph. Lead single “Good Evening” is a crystalline pop masterpiece, reframing the swooning melody from 112’s “Cupid” amid yearning vocals and spacious trop-house production. The track’s video depicts the group lost and disoriented, surrounded by a glass box (“the box” being a cliché in SM Entertainment videos) and signifiers of a life spent being watched. Expressive, abstract modern dance choreography suggests the process of learning to live again after a traumatic loss. “Our Page,” a tribute to Jonghyun with lyrics by the members, makes me cry every time I listen to it, so . . . careful with that one!
The record pushes at current K-pop trends as handily as it tackles staples like trop-house and future bass: “All Day All Night” and “Undercover” could be Flume tracks; “Retro” is old-school SHINee, suave and stacked with hooks; “Tonight” is a melancholic ballad whose chorus bursts with moonlight. Listening to Onew, Taemin, Key, and Minho push forward is painful, affirming, and heartrending at once. It is all in their voices, rich and full and vital, and when they dance it all pours into their movements as clear as water. “Lock You Down,” a track added to Epilogue, features Jong-hyun’s voice, fitting into the ensemble as easily as ever. For a moment nothing’s changed, and in some ways nothing has. SHINee are here, doing what they have always done. They shine. (Astrid Budgor)
Bad Witch, by Nine Inch Nails
That Stu allowed me to take this assignment rather than writing about one of his favorite bands himself should dispel any rumors that our editor-in-chief is secretly the Grinch or Krampus.
I always got the sense that when David Bowie died, Trent Reznor did what a lot of us did: figuratively locked himself in a room with Bowie’s Blackstar until he worked his way through the grief. At times, Bad Witch feels a lot like a cathartic response to that. The sax permeating “Play the Goddamned Part” and Reznor’s own deep, soulful vocals on “God Break Down the Door” gives both tracks a Bowie-esque sheen that makes them sound like Blackstar outtakes, but those tracks play center to some of the most raw, intense and immediate music that NIN has ever put out. “Shit Mirror” hits the ground running in a way no NIN album opener has since perhaps The Downward Spiral‘s “Mr. Self Destruct.” And while many artists pass 50 years of age and are content to sit on their laurels, as much as Trent Reznor finds himself in a better place mentally, he’s back pushing the envelope in ways that can’t be described as content. – Don Becker
Album of the Year: Dirty Computer, by Janelle Monae
To speak of Dirty Computer is more than just dissecting its lush exhilaration of liberation and fearlessness; it’s also about how the album has become a pivotal conversation about cutting through white, heteronormative spaces. No longer is the graceful android and alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, taking center stage in this project – in her place is the black queer musician and pansexual goddess Janelle Monae. This is punctuated by an “emotion picture” that accompanies the album, which depicts a totalitarian world that carries parallels to our own reality. It’s a dystopia where queer and minority groups are often on the run, for fear of being prosecuted for their identities.
Dirty Computer is an extravagant pop record that is undoubtedly bold and infectious, buoyed by funky electric bass lines, pop-R&B stylings, Monae’s biting raps and defiantly smooth vocals. Yet, it’s still the fluttery synths that somehow gives this a more intimate, organic and even youthful sheen as compared to her previous outings. This is most evident in “Pynk”, the album’s centerpiece featuring Grimes, which is a brash paean about the wonders of female sexuality. Here’s where Monae croons suggestively about the pink of “the lips about your…maybe” to the groove of chunky guitar riffs and gentle finger snaps, and set in a field of electronic, melodic beeps. This is a labor of love, a display of brazen defiance – and a powerful statement of inclusivity and empowerment for women, non-binary folks, and the LGBT community. All hail our queen. (Khee Hoon Chan)
Join us for the Can You Hang Challenge! Starting January 2, brave Unwinnable contributors listen to nothing but the massive Spotify playlist containing all the albums nominated for this list. Set to random. With no skipping of tracks. We then write about our experience on a weekly basis. It’s a good time.