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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Time Has Come: Namie Amuro to retire in 2018

With the world on fire, it seems self-indulgent to grieve over the announcement that a pop star is retiring. But then, since it’s our beloved Namie Amuro, allow me to indulge a bit.

After years spent commuting long distances to train at the famed Okinawa Actors Studio, Namie Amuro debuted in 1992 with the group SUPER MONKEYS. A natural star, the group’s name was shortly changed to highlight their strongest player to Amuro Namie with SUPER MONKEYS. Their debut single, “Koi no CUTE BEAT,” was a tribute to the growing popularity of European techno, a subgenre that would eventually gain fame in Japan as “para para,” or Avex’s trademarked “super eurobeat.” Both Amuro and her back-up dancers, now re-christened MAX, signed with Avex Trax and went their separate ways. While MAX sustained a modest career pursuing the eurobeat line, Amuro was taken under the wing of an already well-known prolific music producer, former TM Network-keyboardist and current trf-producer Tetsuya Komuro. “Body Feels EXIT” was released in 1995, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the 1990s, the Japanese pop music industry was changing rapidly, with Komuro at the helm. The bubble had burst, the Golden Age of Idols was a long-gone idyll, and consumers, especially women, were no longer content to settle for less. Putting on a cute dress and swaying back and forth, warbling off-key to 4/4 treacle, was no longer enough. While being cute might have been enough in the 1980s to delay adulthood and escape the expectations of growing up and getting married, Hiroshi Aoyagi in Islands of Eight Million Smiles: Idol Performance and Symbolic Production in Contemporary Japan (2005) notes that it “gradually lost its appeal as a form of rebellion. Moreover, there was an emergent perception that “cutesy” embraced fragile femininity, which continued to become objectified by adult men.” (98) A flurry of new fashion trends emerged to replace kawaii, styes that “conjured up the figure of an assertive, self-centered young woman who is in no hurry to marry and who maintains a stable of boyfriends to serve her different needs (Robertson 1998: 65).” (98) Among these styles, Aoyagi sites gyaru and all their sub types, including “Amuraa.” Amuraa was a style adopted by Amuro’s fans in 1995 and 1996, a whole movement that helped change women’s fashion and attitude, one pair of short pants and long boots at a time.

Because by the the mid-90s, Japanese pop culture was ready for their Madonna, for their Mariah Carey, for their Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. They were ready for true artists, female solo singers not afraid to nurture their skills and show off real talent. The hours put into dancing, singing, and cultivating personal style, was just the minimum amount of effort necessary for the type of profession that required effortless grace, fearless confidence, and unapologetic ambition. Once, we had more than one of these women, firing simultaneously at the peak of their careers, changing perceptions of what it meant to be a woman living in modern Japan. But Namie Amuro was one of the first, and she made it look criminally easy.

With her modern, forward-thinking dance music, a style that eventually evolved into R&B, soul, hip-pop, and then back to dance, Amuro’s debut solo album, SWEET 19 BLUES was a landmark J-pop album that hinted at the iconic pop gems to come: “Chase the Chance,” “a walk in the park,” “CAN YOU CELEBRATE?“. It’s certainly not the strongest album of hers to date, but it cemented her central role as the new face of contemporary J-pop, the successful paragon of what producing and marketing a woman based on artistic ability and talent was capable of achieving. Whatever his faults (and there are many), Tetsuya Komuro’s business style at Avex Trax was critical in giving Amuro the platform to be more than an idol. Writing in Nippon Pop, Steve McClure quotes Komuro as saying, “The artist should come first. I always say so in interviews like this, in the hope that the Japanese music production system will change.” (87) Despite Komuro’s insistence that his protegees were still idols, they were to be “quality” idols (to be fair, his use of the term is dubious; he calls Michael and Janet Jackson both idols, which in terms of Japanese media culture, is an incorrect use of the term).

Amuro’s career since then was an exhilaration, a row of toppling dominoes sending stereotypes, prejudices, and the expectations of female performers tumbling. Seiko Matsuda struggled with criticism after continuing her career post-marriage and children in the 1980s, and as late as 1988, Agnes Chan was defending her choice to bring her son with her on national television, sparking a fierce debate over show-business etiquette and a woman’s role in politely, and humbly, mediating images of “good” women who didn’t date, marry, or have children publicly. Exactly one decade later, Amuro was passed the torch, announcing a marriage and pregnancy, defying any and all judgments of her choice. When she returned to show business, she was sorry-not-sorry, fighting to overcome the shock of her “scandalous” sabbatical and win her rightful place back in the entertainment industry with a more aggressive look and sound. She inked up, stripped down, and held on tight for the next 19 years, bringing J-pop into the 21st century alongside her labelsisters while the resurgence of hyper-kawaii idols and their countless imitators swept the charts and fought to set it back two decades, back to dependence and helplessness and exploitation.

Later, set amidst those same sisters, most losing popularity from releasing unpopular album or facing personal setbacks, Amuro released a succession of brilliant singles, her albums getting sharper and more polished over time, her discipline and professionalism astounding even the most jaded and cynical while working the media to her advantage by abstaining from a strong social media presence and remaining coy about her personal life. And then, on September 20, 2017, amid of flurry of promotions for a documentary series set to debut on Hulu on October 1 and celebrations for the 25th anniversary of her debut, Amuro announced that she would be retiring on September 16, 2018. She promised to leave her fans one final album and a series of concert performances.

The announcement follows a legal battle to secure the rights to release music under her own record label, Dimension Point (still a sub label of Avex Trax), leaving many fans speculating as to whether or not she will continue working in the music industry after her retirement in a different role, perhaps paying it forward as a producer. It would be selfish to deny someone a break after the years she put in sharing incredible music and illustrating what it means to be real, genuine people whose lives sometimes get messy, but don’t have to get dirty. For more than two decades, she showed us how to deal with setbacks, pick ourselves up, and keep moving forward without losing a sense of self-worth. So despite any sense of anger or misfortune, despite the urge to linger over our own loss in the deal, the appropriate answer is: thank you.

Whether she chooses to relax, or to keep up her enviable work ethic, I know Namie Amuro will be able to pull off whatever she sets her mind to. There are 25 years that prove it.

The half-way point: a few overlooked albums of 2017

We’re now a little more than halfway through 2017, and rather than my usual mid-year report, I’d like to share a few albums I’ve enjoyed that I haven’t noticed getting much widespread discussion/love.

Ai Shinozaki: LOVE/HATE Still quite surprised at this one myself: since 2015’s “A-G-A-I-N,” Shinozaki has put out a consistent string of lovely little singles, with last year’s “TRUE LOVE” single/EP a notable highlight. My only contention with LOVE/HATE is that there is room for so much more. Will we ever get a full-length album from Shinozaki? Short answer: hopefully, now that she’s on a major label. And also: I imagine some hesitation to give her due credit is wrapped up in the fact that Shinozaki is a gravure model/idol. This has never stopped idols from gaining popularity in the past, but she’s also not an adolescent either (I know, people born in the 90s can be in their mid-20s now?), nor is she dabbling in the conventional bubbly idol/anime-pop that younger kids are being forced to peddle. It’s a more sophisticated strain of pop that manages to trap a certain atmosphere of lightness without sacrificing its maturity. I can only hope this is the beginning of so much more.

Asako Toki: PINK This one kind of hit me out of nowhere with its understated cover art and that Rhythm Zone label gracing the spine. Toki has been releasing albums for more than a decade now, but PINK was my introduction, one I’ve been happily impressed by. While I wouldn’t say this is in the running for any year-end lists (probably?), its a humble respite from the 48 groups clogging the Oricon chart with its jazzy electronica and smooth, airy synths. It doesn’t lead me back to rest of her discography or make me reconsider my critical devotion to J-pop in all its fits and forms, 48s included, rather, it makes me appreciate Avex Trax more and more for their willingness to release something on a smaller scale like this, even while they chase the almighty idol dream across the street.

Erika Nishi: penetration This EP has nothing on 2015’s LISTEN UP, but if you are looking for that lost new jack swing/vaguely-TK, 90’s-J-pop sound that TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE used to provide on the reg, Nishi is the suitable alternative.

Sayonara PONYTAIL: Yumemiru Wakusei Even while the number of 48 groups has increased over time, I’ll concede that the top 20 of the Oricon chart has a little more in the way of variety over the last couple of years. And as it happens, a lot of that music is coming from alternative idol groups, groups frantic to secure a niche outside of that trademark sound. It’s not a question of bad versus good, as exploring why these groups are so popular, the minute differences, the broader contexts, and even enjoying music that can often sound like the same recycled chords and lyrical themes, is to an extent part of what makes J-pop so fascinating and fun. As it turns out, some seiyuu-pop isn’t instantly horrendous (Luna Haruna’s LUNARIUM, MACHICHO’s SOL)! As I’ve learned over the years, the basic structure of an idol group isn’t reason enough to ignore it — I proclaim this confidently, even after listening to 260+ new albums in the first half of 2017, 95% of which were J-pop/rock, and well over half of which I would estimate is typical idol/anime-pop that I would have outright dismissed several years ago. Most of it was indeed mediocre or average, but part of the passion is the pursuit itself, of the magical moment when something stands out from the one that came before. This is a long way of saying that Yumemiru Wakusei is in fact, very interesting. I find myself returning to this album, wondering what continues to draw me in, even while the songs never stick around in my head long enough for me to remember why I like them in the first place. Their more acoustic, scant approaches are peppered with moments that are irredeemably dull. And yet. The cover art is a bold, if somewhat eerie, statement, and the rock-influenced songs that are good have an irresistible melancholy (“Houkago TELEPORT,” “Niji”) that make them surprisingly playful, giving off serious echoes of an indie rock band like New Navy. I look forward to seeing where this is going.

predia’s “Kindan no MASQUERADE”

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It’s hard to compete with E-girls, who are one of the best J-pop groups we have right now (that the biggest influence on E.G. CRAZY/”E.G. COOL” is 1990’s Janet Jackson, makes it all the better), but I’m slowly warming to predia. They’re striving to have the same kind of edge without the benefit of distinctive and well-known individuals in their group — and the word individual is important here; we can instantly pick out faces and personalities like Ami, Reina Washio, and YURINO (or at least, personalities as they’ve been sold to us), but does a casual fan know any of the members of predia? The latter functions more like a collective unit than E-girls does, and its telling that an inability to connect with the group on any level other than superficial is mostly because none of the members stands out as more talented, or particularly interesting, than any other. I’m sure more enthusiastic fans beg to differ. Furthermore, because predia doesn’t have the advantage of sub units, like E-girls’s conjoining of dream, Happiness, Flower, etc., there’s less chance to see different sides of any of the members in other iterations.

Still, predia functions along much of the same ideology: a tougher, more-than–just-idols group (Avex would call them a “dance group,” I guess) that is built to increasingly appeal to female fans rather than male ones. It’s part of what I like about them so much. The other part is their music, which in a bid to compete against a group like E-girls, increases the chances that they’ll come out with something I like. Their new single “Kindan no MASQUERADE” is a great example of the type of aggressive pop that has become their hallmark. It’s nowhere in the realm of the funky-dance and cool that a group like E-girls now pulls off backwards and in heels, but there’s a studied skill and sharp attention to detail in the choreography, and the absence of a make-believe coyness, the sugar-coma levels of cute of a group and song like, say, Country Girls’ new “Peanut Butter Jelly Love.” They’re essentially incomparable, is what I’m saying, an instant plus.

I doubt that any one member of predia will eventually make inroads like former label-mates PASSPO☆ did, but it’s an appreciated alternative, and if their producers can break through the business-as-usual pop songs to release something that transcends their niche among the more mature sounds of groups like Da-iCE (say, a “Pink Champagne” or “E.G. Anthem“), they might prove some staying power beyond what anyone could easily estimate as their shelf-life. And hey, E-girls aren’t perfect either: they could take some tips on ways to fit all the girls on a jacket sleeve without resorting to terrible Photoshop templates.