Top ten pop/electronic albums of 2018

Pop music in 2018 wasn’t one for the history books, but it has delivered its fair share of healthy distractions, and in the current political and cultural climate, sometimes that’s all anyone is looking for. Below are ten of the best English-language and/or Western pop and electronic albums of the year — ten albums, in no particular order, that made the year just a bit less unbearable and proved there is no end to the styles and content that can be mined from such rich and broad genres across continents.

Ariana Grande: Sweetener
Ariana Grande has spent this year conducting herself with a poise and dignity beyond most pop stars’ capabilities. As proof, Sweetener showcases a notable maturation of Grande’s sound: the album trades most of the Max Martin tent-pole hits for slower, groovier numbers like “The Light is Coming” and “Everytime.” Fans of the pop-maestro need not worry, as commercial demands necessitate the inclusion of some of the album’s best tracks for radio singles, like the effervescent “God is a Woman” and “Breathin’.” But unlike past albums stitched together with equal parts Martin and Grande, Grande alone carries Sweetener with her singular vocal talent, a voice that blends a dizzying assortment of soars and coos and reverb, curated for maximum effect.

Allie X: Super Sunset
It has been a pleasure and a pain to watch Allie X grow as a pop star only to be denied widespread recognition. While it’s easy to write off the artist with a glance at her very Lady Gaga-like visuals, the content of her compositions belies any sense of mere copycat. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of music that is released each week, with Spotify and Bandcamp and YouTube all making grabs for ever-decreasing attention spans, though it does make it all the more magical when something brilliant like “Science” cues up, all twinkling synths and epic chorus breaking through the routine of sonic wallpaper. It’s both story and song, a 4D experience you can touch and feel, the wind hitting your face from top to bottom in degrees as Allie punctuates and draws out the win. dows. ro-o-o-o-o-o-lling down. It’s fresh, it’s fun, and it eschews half-measures for the big win; it’s the kind of serious pop music we haven’t heard in years outside of last year’s CollXtion II.

Charlie Puth: Voicenotes
One year ago, anyone would have laughed at the idea of Puth being a viable contender for that elusive gap in our charts: the male pop star. Certainly no one is counting on Justin Timberlake or Nick Jonas any longer. Yes, Post Malone and Drake have massive chart presence where Puth has almost none, having taken grave missteps with his poor debut album and Meghan Trainor collabs, but Voicenotes portends a welcome change. Gone is a reliance on the retro, doo-wop of a youthful Michael Buble, the sort of music that passed through the ears of listeners quicker than a passing siren. Voicenotes shows Puth a bit older, a bit wiser, and most importantly, a bit more honest. Puth finally sounds like a real human being, a person with insecurities and skeletons finally spilling out of a closet previously packed tight with crisp shirts and shiny shoes, and it is only by finally revealing and owning his truths, with a dash of inspired Hall & Oates, that he can finally find a place among the cheesiest of pop stars and their fans, all just as uncool as the rest of us.

Dance with the Dead: Loved to Death
Just like your favorite mass market paperbacks, you can tell just by looking at some covers exactly what the contents will be like. Perhaps it’s the famous clinch, or the back of a shadowy, running figure, or even a a cover taken up entirely by the enormous font of an author’s name. Some of the best genre paperbacks were designed in the 70s and 80s for horror fiction, lovingly chronicled by super-fan Grady Hendrix in Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction. Any one of these tales, from the one about Nazi Leprechauns, to Satanic nuns, to children with kinetic abilities look like they could be accompanied by one of Dance with the Dead’s albums. Their aesthetic, like the look of all darkwave, looks ripped from the pages of a Stephen King novel, and their latest, Loved to Death similarly leans in hard. Justin Pointer and Tony Kim, the duo behind these morbidly fun 80’s synth-horror tracks, expertly weave in all of their influences, from Justice to John Carpenter to Metallica to create instrumental sonic treats that brim with crunchy energy, like “Salem” and “Oracle,” and guitars, especially on tracks like “Into the Shadows.” Highly danceable, playfully creepy, and always entertaining, Dance with the Dead will fit in nicely with your Stranger Things viewing party next summer.

Janelle Monae: Dirty Computer
Sometimes an artist’s greatest album isn’t a personal favorite: certainly, Monae’s previous album The Electric Lady contained just as many, if not more, attention-grabbing songs and as much style. In fact, Dirty Computer seems a touch less effortless, maybe a bit too glossy, a tad obvious. But it is hyper-stylized for a reason: it’s the logical conclusion of experience, and of time spent in the presence of luminous mentors and the trenches of viral Internet warfare. Slapping a concept film on this album does little to enhance what is already Monae’s winning hand: ability, ambition, and personality. Natural talent puts all of these to work and an appreciative audience hungry for the gospel allows this star to finally come into her own — part cyborg, part human, all American.

5 Seconds of Summer: Youngblood
If you’ve spent five seconds in the electronics department of a Target, you’ve heard 5 Seconds of Summer, who’ve blared from the giant monitors every time I’ve set foot in one over the course of the summer. This relentless repetition makes it easy to forget how fun Youngblood is. Look, it’s hard out there for an English-speaking boy band. Just ask Why Don’t We. The boy band mini-revival rose and set in the shadows of One Direction, and its future is now being pulled into question. In response, 5SOS have released one of their most musically accessible albums, a triumph of synths and enormous pop hooks. Their third studio album sounds like a group that has finally embraced their place in the pop pantheon and taken it to its biggest, most obvious conclusion, whether it’s the lyrical staples of “Want You Back,” “Better Man,” and “Why Won’t You Love Me,” or blissful, windows-down jams like “Talk Fast” and “More.” Part of the ability to appreciate this album will hinge on how much someone is willing to concede that the world hates teenage girls and everything they touch, but once a person can come to terms with the idea that the things girls like and things that are great are not exclusive, we can all evolve as a species together.

Sarah Reeves: Easy Never Needed You
Contemporary Christian, Christian pop, “inspirational music,” or whatever you want to call it, has been mostly segregated to the outskirts of the mainstream. It’s a tough genre to define when it can sound just like anything else on the radio, but you’re not quite sure if it’s about a significant other, or actually Jesus. It’s a tough call to make, and Easy Never Needed You has a good time playing around with those perceptions and doubts. Sarah Reeve’s voice, as soft and pillowy as Ellie Goulding’s, also seems to be taking inspiration from the artist’s music, with fast-paced Top-40 pop like “Something About You” and “Right Where You Want Me.” The album’s more obvious references to faith, like “Nowhere,” and “Faithful,” never feel as preachy as they could; it’s a true crossover album, the kind that blurs the distinction between holy and secular, and when is the latter ever devoid of the former, in a non-religious sense? Music only ever means what you believe it does, and any proscribed interpretations are always presumptive. To whit, Sarah Reeves won’t be making any converts any time soon, but she has made one hell of a pop album.

Rita Ora: Phoenix
Rita Ora is a jack-of-all-trades: it’s been six years since she released an album, but in that time she’s managed to find time to act in mega-blockbusters, shill for major corporations like Skullcandy and DKNY, design clothes, and host reality television shows like America’s Next Top Model. It’s all in a day’s work for today’s young celebrities, but one thing you can’t say is that Ora hasn’t worked hard hitting up every medium, besides, like, podcasts, to remain as relevant as possible. Spreading oneself so thin usually results in poor work, a sign of scattered focus rather than deep dives into true passion projects, but Phoenix, its title a reference to Ora’s trouble with past record label Roc Nation, soars as high as any big-budget pop album in its class. Opener “Anywhere” sets the tone for the record’s trendy EDM hooks and functions as both a statement of intent and a litmus test: non-interested parties are invited to disembark immediately at the next stop. Ora doesn’t have the most versatile pipes, but she’s the perfect fit for an album that would have made more sense released in the summer, perfect for windows-down, volume-high cruising. This is not the type of album that can move mountains, but it can get you out of your chair, and that’s a lot more useful in the day-to-day banality of the average person’s life.

Neon Nox: Syndicate Shadow
What happens when you have the capabilities of a sonic storyteller, but no contract with a film studio? Johnny Jewel and his label mates over at Italians Do It Better are sure to steer you in the right direction, but there is no shortage of artists outside that particular milieu who have their own original Drives and Blade Runners to score. If Dead Can Dance’s specialty is horror, than Neon Nox’s is the 80’s action flick — except few 80’s action flicks in the U.S. were heavy on these particular massive synths, culled from all the best glittering gems on the italo-disco circuit, like Vincenzo Salvia on steroids. There is no shortage of these kinds of synthwave artists (many featured on this list!), and a quick visit to NewRetroWave’s page gives you an assorted menu from appetizers to these kinds of full courses that do everything but hand you a script. Rather, the opening track recalls TRON: Legacy‘s “The Grid” in setting the scene and then inviting you to use the song titles as prompts and the limits of your own imagination, like a sonic storybook. The unique perspective each person will bring to “the score” in the interactive nature of the genre  is part of what makes this particular sub genre so compelling, and Syndicate Shadow so fun.

Troye Sivan: Bloom
Troye Sivan has had a whirlwind year, least of which is collaborating with Charli XCX on one of the year’s most fun singles, “1999.” Like Rita Ora, when he’s not discoursing upon Justin Timberlake’s “inspiring” ‘N Sync ‘do, he’s working on any number of side hustles, including acting (no big deal, just critically acclaimed flicks like Boy Erased). This year also saw the follow-up to his debut album, Blue Neighbourhood, and like “1999,” it’s a bit of a throwaway, with playful tributes to the dawning of 90’s teen-pop, down to that Michael Jackson and Naomi Campbell 2-tone vibe in single “My My My,” haunting each catchy, hook-laden corner. It’s never more apparent than on the stand-out titular track “Bloom,” and “Lucky Strike,” which meld funky tempos with finger-snapping beats. While I’m not entirely sold on the album’s more introspective moments, when Sivan is at his most confessional, it proves the album is more than just surface: a deep heart beats beneath Sivan, a dual nature that captures life’s black and white, its good, its bad, its highs, its lows, and the beautiful moments in between.

Honorable Mentions

Robert Parker: End of the Night
Kimbra: Primal Heart
Midnight Danger: Malignant Force
Wild Moccasins: Look Together
Annalisa: Bye Bye

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Why the world needs a new “Feel the love” PV

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Although Ayumi Hamasaki’s 15th studio album, currently untitled as of this date, won’t be released until July, several previews have already been released, including the digital single “Hello new me,” the dub version of “Terminal” (produced by mega-trance mastermind Armin van Buuren), “Angel,” “What is forever love,” “NOW & 4EVA,” and “Lelio.” Based on the list of producers alone, including RedOne and Fedde Le Grand, the album is touting itself under the massive umbrella term “EDM,” perhaps in a bid to update Hamasaki’s typical sound, and step as far away from her last three albums as possible. This isn’t entirely new musical ground for Hamasaki, at least in terms of original material; remixes aside, 2009’s NEXT LEVEL was heavily influenced by electronic dance music and back in 2002, she collaborated with famed trance producer Ferry Corsten on “connected.”

What remains to be seen is just how much of this album is really a “new me” and how much of it is the same Hamasaki cocktail we’ve come to know and occasionally crave. What you’ve expected for the last ten years: pop/rock songs, heavy on the guitars, poppy ballads, drama, tragedy, grand-scales, heavy-handed declarations, specific references to who-knows-what events, personal revelations — but only behind an I know something you don’t know smile — and a handful of extraordinary risk takers, the few songs penned by new or unknowns that leave us wondering why someone didn’t push Hamasaki further into that vast territory of the au courant. Here are the missing variables: Is Hamasaki sabotaging herself by insisting on more of the same? Has she lost her touch for recognizing moving and exciting material? Is she resting on her “brand”? Does she seriously think “Hello new me” is anything new at all? Are the intriguing songs like “Lelio” just luring us into believing there is something of relevance here, or are they just echoes of a trendy genre, desperate to sit at the cool table? Maybe more than correcting the musical missteps of the recent past, there’s clearly a desire to correct the mistakes of the present.

The music video goes like this: A blonde, overweight girl with big glasses sits in her bedroom, taping a picture of herself onto another picture with a good-looking, fit, muscular man she has a crush on. She leaps up with determination, goes outside, and starts running. This profile shot of the girl running extends almost throughout the rest of the video, interspersed with an animated version of the girl swimming and/or doing anything else they didn’t have the budget to accomplish with live action. The girl stays the same size throughout her many days and nights of running, only stopping towards the end to get a haircut and go shopping for dresses (there is a scene where she dances a little, and another where she’s gnawing a chicken leg while running because overweight people just can’t stop, can they?). She runs into a park and sees the man from the photo, but he ignores her. She trips, and when she gets up, she’s Ayumi Hamasaki wearing a short, revealing pink dress. The guys sees her and immediately takes notice, amazed at her beauty. Ayumi makes girlish hand gestures, touches her face, winks, saunters over, and they walk off into the sunset together happily ever after. This is not irony, or satire. This is the actual music video for “Feel the love,” the Tetsuya Komuro-penned single released late last year.

In short, the video encourages changing the most fundamental things about yourself to be noticed by a man, the idea that a man will only accept you if you are thin and beautiful enough, a preoccupation with unnatural or unrealistic standards of beauty, and the willful acceptance that you are inferior and unworthy as you are.

A few weeks later, the “full version” of this promotional video was released. Hamasaki herself addressed fans’ concerns over the video by tweeting: “Of course I will listen all my loBely’s [sic] opinions anytime. But thing is that you all haven’t seen the real ending yet. Don’t worry ;)”. The “real ending” consisted of a four second epilogue where Hamasaki turns back into the overweight blonde girl mid-hug while the guy looks at her in disbelief, confusion, and possibly horror. Now, this obviously does not change or make any apologies for the rest of the video, including the part where the girl tries to run on a treadmill and falls on her face — presumably, because fat people are just really funny when they try to exercise. Even the most apologetic fans have to see this as mean-spirited, particularly after a video like “how beautiful you are” where people of all races, ages, genders, sizes, and sexual orientations are portrayed positively. Not every pop song or music video has to be a Statement piece, but when you are making one, your statement probably shouldn’t be: lose weight and all your dreams will come true. There is a way to promote health and fitness without using shame, portraying overweight women as caricatures, or using the attention of men as an incentive for weight loss. From Brown University’s Health Education web site:

“Then there’s the issue of romance. Media messages, particularly those from advertising, strongly emphasize the role of appearance in romantic success. “Getting” the guy or the girl is reduced to possessing a stereotypical set of physical attributes, with no appreciation for personality, background, values, or beliefs.”

In The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance is Hurting Women, Men-And Our Economy, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett emphasize that “[t]he message to women and girls in all media is that their appearance should be, above all, tailored to the “the male gaze.” You exist at all times in a world where men are looking at you, and you must please them” (140).

Needless to say, the promotional video garnered a lot of mixed to negative reactions from fans after its release. Here are some reactions from fans on the Ayumi Hamasaki Sekai forum who weren’t really feeling the love:

“Dont know if it was funny or absolutely cheap and ridiculous” (Mirrocle Monster)

“Am I the only one who didn’t get the ending? When it finally seemed to me the girl accepted her body-shape…? What was that, if you run a lot and cur [sic] your hair you turn Japanese?” (Gustavopc)

“The main message is: Unless you change your body (and maybe your race), you’re a crap and the boy will run away from you” (Elednist)

“In my opinion, encouraging someone to change their appearance for someone they like under the guise of “working hard for something” is unhealthy and wrong.” (Becky)

“I don’t think they wanted the PV to look offensive but it can totally be seen as such.” (Maemi)

These comments were accompanied by several positive responses arguing that the music video is merely an encouragement to stay focused and work hard towards a goal. Working hard at what you want is a good principle to follow, but again, equating weight loss with success at anything other than weight loss, is a dangerous precedent. Reflecting on all her years of trying to lose weight, comedian and activist Margaret Cho remarked, “There were whole years that I missed. Those were the loneliest times of my life when I had the least amount of love. I just thought if I could get to a certain weight, then I could be alive. But that is a counterproductive idea. Like why can’t you just be alive now? … It took almost half my life to get there.”

Perhaps reacting to the negativity around the video, especially from girls who see her as a role model, Hamasaki is creating brand-new music videos for both “Feel the love” and “Merry-go-round” (why both is a bit of a mystery — the latter’s most egregious sin was being boring). Whether or not the damage can be repaired, it’s obvious Hamasaki is gauging feedback and using it to tailor an album that’s more satisfying for both its viewers and listeners, though perhaps at the expense of genuine creativity, change, or even insight.

R.I.P. Trance Around the World

Here is how powerful the EDM marketing strategy is: After hosting 450 weekly broadcasts of their popular radio show Trance Around the World, Above & Beyond are ending the show with their final Bangalore soiree and starting Group Therapy Radio. While this brand change would seem to effectively erase the association with trance in particular, to electronic dance styles in general, the group states there won’t be any major changes:

[T]he music policy will remain the same. Above & Beyond will continue to present 90 minutes of the best in trance and progressive, with a 30 minute guest mix from some of their favourite artists each week.

But eerily enough, it’s already somewhat difficult to define modern trance as the EDM boom waters down the essence of most styles: nothing new for big industries attempting to amass larger revenue by providing audiences with a more all-encompassing, streamlining label of the myriad subgenres of music. As usual, this seems to have created a whole new genre in the process. Quotes Sami Yenigun in NPR’s two cents:

“Everything that’s being presented as EDM falls so much within one particular corner of the scene, which is generally a more commercialized corner, a corner with more marketing muscle behind it,” says Philip Sherburne, who writes for SPIN and has covered dance music for more than a decade. “[The term has] been adopted mainly by an American audience to apply to big tent electro-house, American dubstep and things like this.” These things don’t all sound the same. […] In reporting this article I spoke to more than a dozen DJs, industry insiders and dance music journalists (and many, many more in clubs and at festivals), but nobody I spoke to could draw a clear sonic line between EDM and other subgenres of dance music that they don’t consider EDM, like deep house or techno. […] But as the ever-shifting vernacular around dance music has started to congeal, some sort of consensus has formed around its definition: EDM is a pop-driven, mostly high-energy, commercial strain of dance music.

Lest one begins to rank the positive and negative outcomes, it’s important to recognize that anything seeking to emulate a “commercial” value will itself create a highly competitive market for its own best music. While it may not be the most interesting or even challenging sound, EDM encourages a music-making pool similar to the greatest pop: making music for large numbers of people without sacrificing the care and attention it takes to craft a genuinely catchy or meaningful song.

Above & Beyond’s own shift falls under the same ethos. While Trance Around the World confined the group within a certain niche, the change opens the show to possibilities it may discover it wants to pursue. Without relishing its own status as something of a trance legacy, Above & Beyond is choosing to move forward rather than rest on the group’s veteran reputation by making a risky decision that could ensure the group’s survival past EDM’s inevitable rise and fall (which may actually have occurred this summer). Group Therapy is already a phrase I’ve evoked as a kind of otherworldly term for trance, specifically the kind that Above & Beyond are known for: it’s an all-inclusive term that acknowledges how people themselves are an integral experience of the music. Where there’s genuine appreciation, sometimes the more, the better.