Music and I are in a strange place right now. I’m not quite in the “get off my lawn” old man phase yet, but I can see it on the horizon. I still eagerly await new music by my favorite artists, but I don’t have the tolerance to seek out new stuff like I used to.
Having an 11-year-old daughter who loves music has been an experience. 2018 was the first year one of my kids introduced me to music instead of the other way around. We can’t spend more than five seconds in the car (not exaggerating) without Phoebe saying, “Dad, put on Hits One,” like a demanding little bubblegum pop snob in the backseat. Every time I want to argue I think how I would’ve felt if mom or dad turned off WIXX back in 1987 and I oblige. To be honest, most of the stuff on the hits makes me want to punch someone in the face. Every time I hear Panic! at the Disco or Imagine Dragons yelling some bullshit through my speakers the chances of me being involved in a road rage incident increase. On the flip side, I’ve come to enjoy the likes of Ariana Grande and Charlie Puth. I’ll never forget where we were in the minivan this summer when I heard a song I liked on the radio and I said, “Phoebe, who’s this?” She eagerly replied, “It’s Charlie Puth. He also sings…” and at that moment I realized I became the old, uncool dad in this scenario. She rattled off a list of songs I’d never heard of.
You know what? Good. Kids are supposed to be on top of that shit and dads are supposed to bore their kids with the old stuff.
The other reason 2018 has been an unusual year for me in music is because much of my favorite “new” music of the year is not new at all. It’s old stuff I discovered for the first time this year. I’ve been listening to the jazz/funk guitar of Grant Green for years, but a pair of Record Store Day releases this year led me in to a Grant Green rabbit hole from which I have not emerged. I’m not sure I played any album in 2018 more than Alive!, an album Green released in 1970 crammed full of more familiar hip hop samples than most James Brown records.
Thanks to the brilliant TV show Atlanta I was also introduced to jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. Pianists all sound the same, right? I mean, they’re playing piano. What could they be doing differently? I’m not proficient enough on the keys to give an educated answer, but I can tell you Jamal is doing something. I just don’t know what it is. Something about the way that man plays speaks to me. I’ve spent many nights this year dropping the needle on “At the Pershing: But Not For Me” and “Tranquility” and they blow me away every time. With all due respect to Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock, Vince Guaraldi, and many others, 2018 was the year Ahmad Jamal became my favorite jazz pianist. When I hit a record store the first artists I’m looking for in the used section are Prince, Grant Green, and Ahmad Jamal.
I have to mention Snoh Aalegra. I got in late on her album Feels and if it had come out in 2018 it would’ve been my runaway favorite album of the year. I discovered it in 2018 thanks to a damned catchy Apple commercial, but it was actually released in October of 2017. I’d like to retroactively award Feels with my 2017 Album of the Year award.
There is still new stuff that was actually released in 2018 that I love, and that’s what this list is about. Here’s my mixtape of my favorite new music of 2018. As with all of my mixtapes, there are rules. Here they are:
- The song had to be released this year. After all this is the best songs of 2018, not the best of 2018 but also some stuff from 2017 that I snuck in. I’ll never forget when Pitchfork released their best songs of the 2000’s and their number one song was “B.O.B.” by Outkast, a song from an album released in 1999.
- Only one song per artist. This does not include features, because I do have an artist who appears on this list twice. I could easily take five songs from Anderson .Paak’s Oxnard and three or four from Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, but I wanted to dig deeper than that.
Those are my only rules. I’m going to list them in the order that I would if I was making a mixtape. Here goes:
This is America – Childish Gambino
I follow Saturday Night Live on Twitter and Instragram. Been a fan of the show for more than three decades. The SNL Twitter account frequently asks, “Who would you like to see as host/musical guest combo?” My answer was always Donald Glover/Childish Gambino. On May 5, 2018, they listened. Not only was he a hilarious host worthy of an Emmy nomination, he set the Internet on fire with his second musical performance. Glover, as he so often does, debuted a song that had me thinking, “I’m not sure what the hell is happening here, but I know I like it.” Within 24 hours the video for “This is America” had millions of hits on YouTube and Glover’s legend had grown yet again.
I’ve been hesitant to analyze this song on the blog because it’s been done repeatedly. Now that the analysis has died down I’ll put my two cents in because I haven’t heard anyone break it down like this. Consider the source: a middle-aged white dude in Green Bay. This song fluctuates between two distinctly different, extremely catchy vibes. The minstrel show sound of the intro and choruses and the dark “This is America” rapping of the verses. I think both sounds tell a story about feeling tortured being black in America. However, the best part of the song is undoubtedly at the 2:55 mark when the two sounds are combined. Glover yells, “1, 2, 3…GET DOWN,” and for 15 glorious seconds the singing from the chorus is mixed with the dark bass from the verses. It’s beautiful and funky. The Teddy Perkins/Darius argument applies to this song: great art comes from great suffering. This song is tragic and beautiful at the same time. Donald Glover’s experience as a black man in America.
Finesse (Remix) – Bruno Mars feat. Cardi B
When I saw 2018 next to this song I was kind of surprised. It felt like a 2017 song to me. Nope. The remix dropped on January 4, so it barely made the cut. I’m gonna flip my “get off my lawn” switch on now so beware. I don’t get Cardi B. I’ve seen her interviewed and she’s hilarious. She has a magnetic personality. I don’t feel it in her music at all. She’s not a good rapper. I have no interest in whatever she has to say on wax. I do, however, have interest in Bruno Mars singlehandedly resurrecting New Jack Swing. My kids love this song so much I tried a little experiment with them just for fun. I played the 1988 Guy classic “Groove Me” and told them it was Bruno Mars. They loved it, rightfully so. That song is dope as shit. So is “Finesse” and most of what Bruno Mars does.
100 Miles and Running – Logic feat. Wale
A few months ago I got a text from my guy Colin telling me I needed to listen to Logic’s YSIV immediately. I had given Logic a chance in the past and I’ll sum up my reaction in one word: Meh. But, if anyone in Green Bay loves good hip hop more than I do it’s Colin. I’ll give it a try. I went through the first 5-6 tracks thinking, “OK, I can get used to this.” Then “100 Miles and Running” dropped and I said, “Oh shit!” They took the old MC Hammer “Turn This Mutha Out” beat and sped it up. Then Logic just went nuts. From a purely rapid fire, linguistic, spitting-a-million-words-a-minute perspective, the only rappers I’ve heard do anything like this are Eminem and Busta Rhymes. Logic is dope. Here’s the curveball: Much like he did on The Roots’ epic “Rising Up”, Wale steals the show. He proved on his own 100 Miles and Running mixtape that he can spit verse after clever verse with no breaks and no hooks. He does it again on this track. Logic gets and A for his performance on this track, but I give Wale an A+. Clever, witty, and skilled with no gimmicks.
Black Hole – Chris Dave and the Drumhedz feat. Anderson .Paak
Chris Dave is a drummer who’s flown under the radar for years. He’s drummed on my two favorite albums of the decade; D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and Anderson .Paak’s Malibu. When I saw early this year that Blue Note was putting out a full album by his hip hop/R&B “group” Chris Dave and the Drumhedz I pre-ordered immediately. The album doesn’t disappoint, and the highlight for me is .Paak’s “Black Hole”. It’s not .Paak’s performace that makes this track for me. It’s the shuffling drums and gliding horns that weave in and out throughout the track. I can’t quite get a mental grasp on what Dave is doing on the drums but I love it. Instrumentally, it’s a really cool track. Add .Paak’s vocals and this is easily one of my favorite songs of the year.
6 Summers – Anderson .Paak
Speaking of .Paak, I’ll just put him on the mixtape next so he gets back-to-back tracks. The most difficult task for me creating this mixtape was deciding which of his tracks to include. Not only is Oxnard loaded with hits, but “Bubblin'” was dope as well, and he upped the ante with the Busta Rhymes remix. “Tints” is pure MJ “Off the Wall” era fire. “Anywhere” is a throwback to R&B jams of the 90’s and Snoop’s voice on the track takes me back to the days of basement parties drinking Sunny D and Five O’Clock gin. I could go on. The track that I keep going back to is “6 Summers”. To borrow from the lyrics, this shit bangs. His opening line, “Trump’s got a lovechild and I hope that bitch is buck wild,” had me laughing out loud. If I’m alone in the car I’m yelling it along with him when the track starts. I laughed even harder at, “Bitch don’t spill my sake. You gon’ make me kick you out this ‘partment. You gon’ have to kick it in the lobby.” Forget about the humor, though. The song turns in to an essay on gun control and the need for us to be rid of Trump/Trumpism in America. This shit does bang, but it brings you back to Earth when he says, “Ain’t shit gon’ change for at least three summers,” and you quickly realize he’s singing about Trump (hopefully) being out of office in the summer of 2021.
I Might Need Security – Chance the Rapper
Chance is normally a beacon of brilliant light in an otherwise (mostly) dark world. This track features at least an F-bomb per second. If you read the lyrics, you see why in a hurry. After some of his recent music I think people took Chance for granted and thought he was soft. They forgot even with all of the positivity he’s still a kid from the south side of Chicago. Soft doesn’t exist there, and he reminds everyone. As someone who considers himself a “good guy” I’m especially a fan of the line, “I’m not no nice guy, I’m just a good guy. The bad guys should really stay on my good side.” Preach, Chance.
August 10 – Khruangbin
If you don’t watch NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concerts on YouTube please remove the rock under which you’ve taken residence immediately. They take an artist/band, stick them behind a desk in a venue that looks like either a bookstore or a library and watch them play a 15 minute concert for a few people. It’s cool to see how artists rearrange their music to fit that small venue. I check in on Tiny Desk on YouTube a few times a month to see if anything new has popped up. I’ll give damn near every artist on there that’s not country at least a few minutes to win me over. Sorry, country. You’ve failed me far too many times. You’re out of chances. Early this summer I can’t remember if I found them or my brother did, but it did not take long for the iMessage chain to start. “Did you see this shit? Who are these people?” These people are/were Khruangbin. Their music is difficult to label. Instrumental funk from south of the border? I have listened to their album Con Todo El Mundo no less than 75 times since and downloaded all of their earlier music. It’s difficult to choose one track because they all have a similar chill feel. If they have one song that’s not chill, it’s “Maria También” and this track is the cool down afterward. Cool band, cool music, and a cool tenency to have the lead guitar and bass harmonize with each other, which feels unusual. Like Abed Nadir says: Cool, cool, cool.
Done for Me – Charlie Puth feat. Kehlani
As I mentioned above, I have Phoebe and SiriusXM’s Hits One channel to thank for Charlie Puth. I was already familiar with Kehlani and liked her record from last year. I had no idea who the dude was singing on this track when I first heard it and was quickly put in my place by Phoebe. I’ve been listening to Charlie Puth’s album Voicenotes for six months and I still can’t figure him out. R&B with just enough laid back funk. It’s so lazy to compare a white dude to other white dudes, but he definitely has a blue eyed soul feel to him. He doesn’t have Daryl Hall’s pipes (who does?) but his falsetto is solid. He even brought in Boyz II Men for a throwback 90’s slow jam and he scores huge points with me for that. Then you see the guy perform and dance. There’s nothing cool about him. He was on Fallon earlier this year and I swear he was performing in khakis and a sweater vest. It was like if Chandler Bing was an R&B crooner. He’s not a good dancer. His videos are ridiculous. I’m not even sure he’s trying to be cool, because anyone trying wouldn’t attempt to dance the way he does. No matter. I like the music and enjoyed the hell out of his album this year.
Lions – Leon Bridges
No sophomore slump for Leon Bridges this year. How could someone with a voice and style like Bridges possibly slump? The music on this album sounds a lot closer to the 21st century than his first album, but the results remain the same: great music. I tried something different with Good Thing that I don’t do very often: I waited for the vinyl. Barnes & Noble had an exclusive yellow vinyl, so my son and I stopped there on our way to the theater to see Infinity War, which was a colossal test of a 9-year-old’s patience. After a satisfying side A, I flipped over to side B and was almost knocked off of my chair by what I heard. A gritty, soulful track called “Lions” with a bass drum and clap percussion part so sloppy it’s jarring. The vocals on the track are Bridges at his usual Sam Cooke-level perfection The instrumentation on this record is what sets it apart. It’s as if the band was just half-ass rehearsing and they didn’t realize they were being recorded. Instruments join in, then drop out, as if they were able to decide on a whim whether or not they are in the mood to play. The hand claps on the track are so far off I would swear they hired my 7-year-old daughter to perform them. It’s as close to D’Angelo as I can remember from a song that wasn’t actually D’Angelo.
February 3rd – Jorja Smith
Another Tiny Desk find for me. If there’s an award for “most potential” I give it to Jorja Smith. One-of-a-kind voice. Reminiscent of Corinne Bailey Rae if she also had the power to blow you out of a room. I can’t wait to hear what she does on her next album. I liked this year’s Lost & Found, but I found it kind of like watching this year’s Green Bay Packers. I listen to it thinking, “This should be better.” When she’s good, she’s damn good, but the album is uneven for me. “February 3rd” is a pretty straightforward melancholy pop/R&B song, but it’s my favorite track on the album. I’m not trying to say she should take fewer risks. I just like chill R&B shit.
R.E.M. – Ariana Grande
Let me start with this: I don’t care about the tabloid shit. I see people on Twitter act like she’s the most miserable, spoiled brat on the planet. Maybe it’s true. I don’t care. Here’s what I do know: My daughter adores her and has been watching her since she played that annoying sing-songy character on Nickelodeon (Which one was she anyway, Sam or Kat?). Every time I see her on The Tonight Show or SNL she seems charming and funny. When a bunch of people were killed by a bomber at her concert in Manchester in 2017 she couldn’t have handled it better. When Aretha Franklin passed away earlier this year she showed up on The Tonight Show with The Roots and brought the house down with a perfect tribute that could bring you to tears. She’s the best female vocalist making music right now, period. From a pure voice standpoint she belongs in a category with Whitney, Mariah, and Christina, and I like her music better than any of theirs. When I started typing this I had “God is a Woman” on this list as the track for this mixtape. “God is a Woman” is an Ariana Grande track, but it featured one of the best hip hop beats of 2018. Turn that track up in your car and people will hear the trunk rattling for blocks. Then I started listening to the album and swapped in “R.E.M.” instead. The choice depends on your mood, but as I stated directly above the picture of Ariana sitting on top of the world, “I just like chill R&B shit.”
Morning Light – Justin Timberlake feat. Alicia Keys
When Justin Timberlake releases a new album it’s an event for me. FutureSex/LoveSounds and The 20/20 Experience are two of my all-time favorites. Under most circumstances the release of Man of the Woods would’ve meant me taking my headphones and immersing myself in a new album for a few hours. In this case, the album was released on Friday, February 2. On Thursday, Feburary 1, my wife had surgery to remove cancerous tumors from her breasts. A procedure that was supposed to take a few hours instead turned in to something that took us well in to the night. I wrote about the whole surreal process. The surgery left my wife in a lot of pain and looking like she lost a knife fight. It also did not produce the results we were hoping for, and we left the hospital knowing that she had more surgery and months of chemo and radiation ahead. It was about as low as we’ve ever felt. It was under that cloud that Justin’s album was released. Being a vinyl head, I had to get to Target to cop the limited edition orange vinyl. That Friday morning Chels needed some medical supplies like ibuprofen, gauze pads, and I don’t remember what else. It could’ve been a trip to CVS just up the hill, but it was my excuse to sneak in a Target run. I returned with the requested supplies and my orange vinyl. Chels dozed off on the couch and I grabbed my headphones. Turns out, that was the worst thing I should’ve done. While I should’ve spent 2018 with tracks like “Filthy” and “Sauce” on an endless loop, honestly, all those songs do is bring back that day. Cancer ruined Man of the Woods for me, and I actually spent a lot of this year trying to avoid that album. It’s impossible for me to hear those songs and not remember that day. However, in the middle of the album there’s “Morning Light” featuring Alicia Keys. These are two of my favorite artists of the past 20 years. It’s a beautiful song about waking up in the morning and not wanting to leave the one you’re next to because you don’t care about anything else…a feeling I’ve had for years with Chelsee. At that moment I saw her knocked out cold on the couch covered in bandages and all I could think was how I just wanted to go back to the carefree days Justin and Alicia were singing about. This song became a beautiful reminder that there were going to be better days ahead.
All the Stars – Kendrick Lamar feat. SZA
Black Panther was the best movie I saw in 2018. Possibly my favorite movie experience of my life. Action packed, thought provoking, smart, fun…every complimentary adjective in the dictionary. I saw it three times in the theater. The first time I went by myself because that’s what I do. As the screen faded to black on Wakanda and I basked in the euphoria that one gets from an amazing movie-going experience the credits started rolling. This song accompanies those credits. It’s the perfect cherry on top of the Black Panther sundae. I spent the summer hearing another Black Panther song – “Pray for Me” – on the radio. It’s a cool song, but I kept thinking, “This isn’t the song. They should be playing that Kendrick Lamar/SZA song.” I thought I was alone, but apparently I’m not. I’m pretty sure this song was just nominated for every Grammy. I feel vindicated.
I Like That – Janelle Monáe
I came in to 2018 with high hopes for Janelle Monáe. Electric Lady is still in my rotation, but it’s five years old now. “Yoga” was an amazing little bone she threw us in 2015, but I needed new music. Damn if she didn’t deliver. She wins all of my awards for 2018. Dirty Computer is my favorite album of the year. “I Like That” is my favorite track of the year in the midst of an album loaded with classics. Every track is a different personality and you can feel Prince’s influence throughout. By the time you’re ten songs in you get to the masterpiece. As I mentioned above, 2018 was a difficult year and it needed an anthem. Once again, Ms. Monáe came through. “I Like That” is a big, (mostly) polite, inspiring middle finger. A reminder to be yourself regardless of what anyone around you is doing or saying. As if she hadn’t already won me over with the first 150 seconds of the song, she starts a rap verse that ends with the line, “But even back then with the tears in my eyes I always knew I was the shit.” PREACH! My daughter, Phoebe, loves Janelle Monáe and I struggle to find someone better for her to look up to. I can’t think of a better song for a teenage girl…or anyone, really…to use as an anthem. I hope my girls learn something about self-confidence from her. I know she inspires me.
This album and song helped me get through some tough times in 2018 and it’s a fitting end to my 2018 mixtape. If you want to check out the mix on Apple Music click here and enjoy. Here’s to better times and more great music in 2019!