All apologies to William Butler Yeats, but this was the year when things really did fall apart; the center really did not hold; and some rough beast, its hour come round at last, actually did slouch ever closer to Bethlehem to be born. Before our eyes we are witnessing pop music molting its grey exterior, and if we squint we can spy the bright colors of something not yet completely defined starting to peek through.
Enough flowery drivel. I’ve buried the lede: 2018 was the year when music ceased to be meaningfully defined by genre. Rapping and singing became interchangeable, country, R&B, pop and hip hop all happily jumped in the same blender, and artists clicked their way through every type of music imaginable, all at their fingertips via Spotify, SoundCloud, YouTube or Apple Music, looking for inspiration, and came up with hybrids all around.
Rap continued to rule the roost in 2018, both creatively and commercially, but its hegemony appears set to shatter. No doubt rap will still be massive in 2019 and beyond, but my guess is it will have to share an increasingly crowded stage and will take on more and more characteristics of its cohabitants even as its aesthetic continues to inform everything around it. Gatekeepers—the traditional gatekeepers in radio and the new school gatekeepers who edit the DSP playlists—are going to have to try all kinds of new things and engage in a lot of hit-and-miss, as it will be far less clear what’s going to work and where things are headed. Give it a couple of years and we’ll hit upon a new normal. But for the time being, it’s going to be a free-for-all.
My favorite record this year was “Ghost Town” by Kanye West, which gets the nod despite its auteur’s odious political shenanigans. A great rock/hip-hop hybrid, “Ghost Town” features a brilliantly unhinged vocal by Kanye, backed by heavy rock guitars. Among the song’s many co-writers is Brill Building legend Carole Bayer Sager, who really did collaborate with Kanye on the lyrics. But it’s the production, credited to five different entities, that really shines here. The song effortlessly weaves samples from gospel artist Shirley Ann Lee’s “Someday” and Dave Edmunds’ version of Trade Martin’s often-covered-but-never-a-hit “Take Me For A Little While.” But while it’s Edmunds’ version that is sampled, I swear the producers must have listened to half a dozen versions of the song, because I can hear traces of The Royal Jesters’ and Vanilla Fudge’s versions, as well as hints of other notable versions of the song by Cher and Dusty Springfield, which I’ve compiled here.
But really, I didn’t like “Ghost Town” much better than I did a number of other terrific 2018 singles, ranging from Kim Petras’ infectious dance pop ditty “Heart to Break”, to Pink Sweat$’s introspective minimalism on “Honesty,” or the lo-fi charm of Caroline Rose’s “Jeannie Becomes a Mom” and even the mega-hit slickness of “The Middle” by Zedd and Maren Morris, which feels like the never-recorded follow-up to KLF w/Tammy Wynette’s 1991 “Justified and Ancient.”
And how about 76-year-old Swamp Dogg, who showed up with what is possibly the weirdest record in a career defined by eccentricity, capped by an utterly original cover of “Answer Me, My Love”, itself a 1953 English translation of a German ballad? And did I mention he did it in collaboration with Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, using warped big band arrangements and over-the-top auto-tuned vocals? Although completely outside the mainstream and a commercial non-starter, “Answer Me, My Love” was the song that to me best summed up 2019’s utter refusal to recognize any and all barriers.
Anyway, my 2018 list all over the place, as a good best-of list should be. Hopefully, you’ll discover some nice things you somehow missed, even as yuuuge hits like “Lucid Dreams, ” “FRIENDS” and “I Like It” get their well-deserved spots on the list.
It would be unseemly to include records from our S-Curve label on this list, but it would be criminal not to give those fantastic S-Curve artists their due, especially since I love so many of their efforts from this past year. So, at the very end of this playlist—right after the Brockhampton track—you’ll find great songs by emerging alt hitmakers AJR, Eurovision winner Netta, the legendary O’Jays, former Lumineer Neyla Pekarek and several other great artists who would surely have been contenders for my Best of 2018 list if only their music had been released by somebody else.