The Sound is a column on all things music written by Charles Park (’20) and Mark Park (’20). -Ed.
2018 was another great year for music. From the sweet, bouncy beats on Ariana Grande’s Sweetener to the introspective, ambitious Brockhampton project Iridescence, this year marked a turning point in genre-fusion and artist collaborations. Just a few observations before I get into the albums:
- “Trap” drums are permeating other genres. A drum kit that was originally exclusive to contemporary hip-hop sounds like those of XXXTentacion or Lil Uzi Vert are now commonplace in the work of Khalid’s Better or Ariana Grande’s No Tears Left to Cry.
- Artists’ personal lives and political stances have had a significant impact on the way people listen to their music. Kanye’s controversial moves, 6ix9ine’s imprisonment, Mac Miller’s death – so much discussion in the music world has been spurred by the circumstances of artists’ lives outside the studio, prompting people to rethink the age-old question: can an artist be separated from the art?
- Fans are more accepting of experimental projects. I doubt that hip-hop fans, even just a few years ago, would have been accepting of albums like Kids See Ghosts and Iridescence. Now, these artists are praised for their genre-bending and production quirks.
- The Soundcloud scene has grown at an unprecedented rate. You know that feeling when you find an artist who’s already racked up millions of plays, but you’ve never heard of them before? That’s the Soundcloud effect: when artists can get insanely popular in a matter of days, because of the viral nature of Soundcloud likes and reposts.
- Anticipation of new projects has reached a fever pitch. This may be because most of the internet has grown up with the popular artists of today; Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter are full of fans overanalyzing tweets they think are alluding to a new release, or trying to figure out if the background music in an artist’s Instagram story is an unreleased song. I thought I was going insane waiting for the new Giriboy album.
And now to my picks of 2018.
- Crush – Wonderlost
I didn’t have too many expectations going into this, mostly because I hadn’t been keeping up with how much more sophisticated and unique his production and sound had gotten over the years. So I was pleasantly surprised to hear such a refreshing, well-executed take on a Korean R&B and pop sound, not to mention the extremely clever wordplay and lyricism in some of his songs.
Favorite track(s) – Cereal, Close Your Eyes, RYO
- Khalid – Suncity
After Khalid’s impressive debut album from 2017, American Teen, I wasn’t surprised that Suncity was one of my favorite projects of the year. Sure, it may have been shorter and less ambitious, but I think it allowed Khalid to be more focused and better blend the album’s holistic meaning and timbre. Case in point: the outro to Motion includes a snippet of Better, with the chorus “nothing feels better than this” being repeated with a slightly-vocoded, pitched down, and slowed down inflection.
Favorite track(s) – Better
- Balming Tiger – ‘虎媄304’
Korean experimental hip hop collective Balming Tiger blew up this year with singles like ONCEAGAIN, CHEF LEE, and I’M SICK, taking the underground Soundcloud scene of Korea by storm. The resulting project of their collaboration was a complete 180 from the music theory and composition norms that had ingrained themselves in Korean producers; Balming Tiger’s producers cite experimental, electronic artists like Flying Lotus as their inspiration. Besides the production, Balming Tiger’s sound was defined by rapper Byung Un’s well crafted lyricism: “but do you remember? 우리 회사?
Favorite track(s) – CHEF LEE, ONCEAGAIN
- JPEGMAFIA – Veteran
Continuing with another experimental hip hop project, Veteran showed me the potential and prowess of rapper and producer Peggy. He uses samples and absurd, mind-bending sound effects that somehow stay accessible to the average hip hop fan. The fact that Peggy produced and mixed the entire album by himself shows the sheer talent that went into creating this project.
Favorite track(s) – 1539 N. Calvert, Thug Tears, Baby I’m Bleeding
- Ariana Grande – Sweetener
Ariana already has an impressive discography, but Sweetener was probably the first project from her that I genuinely enjoyed from start to finish. Although I did find Pharrell’s production to be a little over-the-top sometimes, as many did, I felt that the project was a departure from her usual pop-oriented sounds and was a step towards Ariana’s own artistic vision.
“I don’t know about the importance or significance the album holds to Ariana Grande’s career as a whole, but I do believe that the album represents an important step in maturity and growth for Grande. From her lyrics to the unique sound that she has come to embrace, the album is an accumulation of all the lessons she learned throughout her career as one of this century’s most renowned musicians.” – Andrew Hong (11)
Favorite track(s) – No Tears Left to Cry, God is a Woman
- BROCKHAMPTON – Iridescence
I started following self-proclaimed boyband and hip-hop collective BROCKHAMPTON at the end of last year, around the time their third SATURATION album was released. I loved the explosive synergy of the group’s members – Kevin, Matt, Joba, Ameer, Bearface – and was excited to hear what was next for the group as they reached mainstream popularity this year. The result was an album that I initially didn’t care much for, but grew to love. Even with a more mainstream audience, the group kept its unique and jarring production quirks and made its most ambitious, yet honest, project to date.
Favorite track(s) – NEW ORLEANS, WEIGHT, SAN MARCOS
- Mac Miller – Swimming
Mac Miller’s death left me particularly devastated because of the message of Swimming. The lyrics on the first track, Come Back to Earth,
“In my own way, this feel like living
Some alternate reality
And I was drowning, but now I’m swimming
Through stressful waters to relief”,
Made me think that Mac had overcome his substance abuse and mental issues and had finally moved on. It was a message that I’d taken to heart, which made his death even more soul-shattering. What he left behind, though, is probably my favorite project from Mac of all time, beating my previous favorite The Divine Feminine. The lyrics flow well and are meaningful (as they always have been) and the use of more acoustic instruments like bass guitar adds a nice R&B touch to the sound of the album.
Favorite track(s) – Come Back to Earth, Hurt Feelings, What’s the Use?
- Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts
Kids See Ghosts was my favorite album of the summer. I was never a big fan of Kid Cudi, so it came as a surprise to me how enjoyable this album was for me. It’s definitely not the magnum opus that many in the hip-hop community claim it to be, but it’s certainly Kanye’s most well-produced and focused projects as of recently, beating his other 2018 project ye by a mile. The production is futuristic (it reminded me of something Vince Staples would do) and the project never loses its energy for its short runtime.
Favorite track(s) – Reborn, Feel the Love, Freee
- Giriboy – Science Fiction Music
What’s always impressed me about Korean artist Giriboy is his versatility. When you listen to his older works, like 2015’s Take Care of You or 2016’s Sooljalee, you would never expect him to undergo the transformation that he did. Starting from his EP earlier in the year, hightechnology, Giriboy’s production became futuristic, forward-thinking, and incredibly ambitious, more so than many of his contemporaries, even within his own record label Just Music. The resulting project is an album I’ll probably never get bored of, for its lyrics, production value, and just how fun it is.
Favorite track(s) – I4P.kr, Keyboard, hooksong
- Denzel Curry – TA13OO
Denzel Curry reached virality a few years ago with his angry trap song ULTIMATE. The fact that it was produced by RonnyJ, who’s responsible for much of Lil Pump’s discography, should give you an idea of what kind of song it was: a mindless, repetitive workout beat, and not much more. To shift this attitude, Denzel came out with Ta13OO, a masterpiece which convinced me and many others that trap wasn’t just a phase of hip-hop and that it would lend itself to become one of the most defining subgenres of the decade. The album structure in itself – having three separate sections that each have a layer of darkness and complexity to them – is a long-needed change from the compilation-based albums that artists like Migos have been pumping out. In totality, the introspective lyrics and production of TA13OO make it my pick for album of the year.
Favorite track(s) – TA13OO, Black Balloons, Black Metal Terrorist
Honorable mentions: warrenisyellow – ALIEN, Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD, Various Artists – Black Panther the Album, Kanye West – ye, Aminé – ONEPOINTFIVE, Kamaal Williams – The Return, Sam Kim – Sun and Moon, Lauv – I met you when I was 18, Cuco – Chiquito, Vince Staples – FM!
Biggest letdowns of 2018: Drake – Scorpion, Juice WRLD – Goodbye & Good Riddance, Nas – NASIR, Joji – BALLADS 1, Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth, Rich Brian – AMEN
Featured image: Pitchfork