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The Year in Music 2018: Sad songs and self-discovery

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If you waded into the glum muck of hit radio this year, you won’t be surprised to learn that there was a number-one song called “Sad!” But you might be surprised to learn that there was only one number-one song called that.

Juice WRLD, NF, Post Malone—each of these put-upon rap groaners wept puddles of stagnant bongwater over a woman who’d smartened up and dropkicked his dreary ass on a dour hit he could have creditably dubbed “Sad!” But only XXXTentacion had the nerve to claim that title for his intriguing, manipulative, and reprehensible sniffle of a chart-topper. (Murdered in June at 20, he’ll likely be remembered as some tangled-up combination of cultish antihero, brutal girlfriend-abuser, and stylistic innovator.)

There can be something liberating about a collective assertion of misery, especially when the pursuit of happiness feels less like a right than an obligation and your inability to smile is treated as a moral shortcoming. And as much as the Drake-spawned sulkscape of modern pop-rap merely gussies up misogyny with self-pity, these hits did tap into an undefined cultural malaise, as even the lamest mass culture will do. Let’s face it—we’re some sad fuckers these days.

Plenty of songwriters with more brains and heart than those dopes I’ve mentioned sought to wriggle their way out of despair without belying its pleasures. Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus formed the cherished supergroup Boygenius, Robyn’s Honey worked through layers of sorrow on the dance floor, and the queen of too-smart-to-be-happy, Mitski, deepened her emotional insight as she expanded her musical range on Be the Cowboy.

But much of what I needed to hear personally in 2018 went beyond that and demanded pleasure and acceptance from this miserable world. Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy burst with the energy of a rap fan who’d seized the spotlight, celebrating that induplicable moment when a lovable pop star discovers she’s widely loved, brimming with the indomitable thrill of jacking every rap style that came her way and sounding like nobody but herself in each manifestation.

I got a more nuanced buzz from some of Cardi’s less famous sisters. The Chicago rapper Noname, who bobbed and floated atop the seductive beatstream of Room 25, dropping incontrovertible wisdom like “globalization’s scary and fuckin’ is fantastic.” The delightful day-glo Philly weirdo Tierra Whack, whose 15-minute, 15-song Whack World ended with an undeniable “I know that I am worth mo-o-o-ore.” Leikeli47, a balaclava-wearing young Brooklynite who rapped about finding love in as hopeless a place as the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station on her album, Acrylic. And closer to home, Dessa, who once more surveyed heartbreak and other frustrations with a relentless scrutiny on Chime. Each of these artists plunged into existence and came out on the other side a fuller person.

Action is another antidote for melancholy, and down in the indie-punk trenches Parquet Courts’ Wide Awake! and Superchunk’s What a Time to Be Alive each rallied the troops for a war that won’t end any time soon no matter how many blue waves crash on D.C. Meanwhile, Janelle Monáe finally lived up to the promise of her queer Afrofuturist ambitions on Dirty Computer, sexing up anti-dystopian funk for the struggles ahead.

Part of me wants to derail this essay right here and just start listing off all the unclassifiable pleasures music offered me this year. The theatrical indie-pop wit Stew, along with his group the Negro Problem, released two soundtracks to musicals he’d staged, one about James Baldwin and one about African-American Christianity, and you probably haven’t heard either. Onetime purveyor of electro-cool Tracey Thorn of Everything But the Girl shared a mature perspective over immature beats on Record. Old folks like Yo La Tengo put out great music. Even older folks like John Prine put out great music. Kacey Musgraves exhaled a gorgeous contact high of an album, Golden Hour; Mary Gauthier collaborated with returning soldiers on the remarkable Rifles & Rosary Beads. And I haven’t even mentioned my favorite album of the year yet.

The Pistol Annies know from sad. On Interstate Gospel, their third and best album as a trio, Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley struggle with marriage and divorce and family, with the way bad decisions wind up puncturing your self-esteem while seemingly sensible decisions make you regret your lack of irresponsibility. Whenever sex, drugs, and alcohol stop numbing their pain, cracking a joke puts it into perspective. “I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet” is a lyric any pharmaceutically inclined mope-rap star could get behind, but none of ’em are bright enough to think up.

Since I started this essay hating on pop radio, let me end with a note of gratitude to Ariana Grande for her chipper number one, “Thank U, Next.” One for the ages? Maybe not, but after a year of sadboy slogs, it was a relief to hear the consonant-averse star embrace the pop-psych cliché that every heartbreak teaches you something important about yourself. Yeah, yeah, I have a hard time believing that too. But if the alternative is to wind up like one of those droopy emo whiners I was complaining about earlier? Well, I’ll take it on faith, Ari.

Best music of 2018

Non-local albums

1. Pistol Annies – Interstate Gospel
2. Noname – Room 25
3. Tracey Thorn – Record
4. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer
5. Stew & the Negro Problem – Notes of a Native Song
6. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
7. Parquet Courts – Wide Awake!
8. Tierra Whack – Whack World
9. Sophie – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides
10. Superchunk – What a Time to Be Alive

11. Black Panther: The Album
12. Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog
13. Mary Gauthier – Rifles & Rosary Beads
14. No Age – Snares Like a Haircut
15. Pusha T – Daytona
16. Leikeli47 – Acrylic
17. The Internet – Hive Mind
18. Ezra Furman – Transangelic Exodus
19. Kali Uchis – Isolation
20. Speedy Ortiz – Twerp Verse

21. Becky Warren – Undesirable
22. Stew & the Negro Problem – The Total Bent
23. Mitski – Be the Cowboy
24. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
25. CupcakKe – Ephorize
26. The Spook School – Could It Be Different
27. John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness
28. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel
29. Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts
30. Yo La Tengo – There’s a Riot Going On

Local albums

1. Dessa – Chime
2. Prince – Piano & a Microphone 1983
3. Gully Boys – Not So Brave
4. Catbath – Glitterbox
5. Dizzy Fae – Free Form
6. Kitten Forever – Semi-Permanent
7. Astralblak – Seeds
8. Atmosphere – Mi Vida Local
9. Low – Double Negative
10. Four Fists – 6666

Singles

1. Camila Cabello – “Never Be the Same”
2. Ashley Monroe – “Hands on You”
3. Ella Mai – “Boo’d Up”
4. Mitski – “Nobody”
5. Ravyn Lenae – “Sticky”
6. Sheck Wes – “Mo Bamba”
7. Azealia Banks – “Anna Wintour”
8. Bradley Cooper – “Old Ways”
9. Mariah Carey – “GTFO”
10. Migos – “Stir Fry”

11. Pistol Annies – “Got My Name Changed Back”
12. Ariana Grande – “Thank U, Next”
13. Rolling Blackouts C.F. – “Talking Straight”
14. Lana Del Rey – “Venice Bitch”
15. Lori McKenna – “People Get Old”
16.. CupcakKe – “A.U.T.I.S.M.”
17. Travis Scott feat. Drake – “Sicko Mode”
18. Neko Case – “Bad Luck”
19. Empress of – “When I’m With Him”
20. Robyn – “Missing U”

Read our 2018 year in music timeline here. And read our other editors' and contributors' year-end lists here.