Was 2018 a year of the woman in pop music?
The best-albums list that follows might lead you to believe so. To my ears, Janelle Monae clearly made the album of the year, both for what it stood for and for how much fun it was to listen to.
The five other women in my Top Ten are young, growing artists making their diverse voices heard. The worthy guys on the list are mostly wise old veterans rather than fresh voices. And my honorable mentions are loaded with female songwriters coming into their own, like Snail Mail and Soccer Mommy and Lucy Dacus, who easily could have slid into the top tier.
But although women are in the majority on this list, as well as most others in this season of Listomania, the gender balance still tilts the other way when it comes to the most popular streaming music.
That’s true in part because of a lack of 2018 releases by the biggest female superstars in pop: There was no Taylor Swift, Adele, or Rihanna album this year, and although Beyonce did put out new music, it was in conjunction with her husband as the Carters.
Nevertheless, the male domination of the global streaming numbers on both Apple Music and Spotify is startling. Drake is the most streamed artist on both services. On Spotify, the top five is drearily rounded out by Post Malone, the late emo rapper XXX Tentacion, Colombian reggaeton singer J Balvin, and Ed Sheeran. The most streamed tracks list on Spotify is also all male, and on Apple music, Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy is the only album by a woman in the Top 10.
What does all this mean? There’s a difference between being popular and being good. And though lots of women made excellent music this year, they’re still being crowded out by dudes making less artistically compelling work. There’s still work to do!
On to the list:
Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer. Janelle Monae has always been an ace synthesist and high-wire conceptualist. She mixes funk and rock and pop and soul, and employs futuristic conceits. She’s not a human, she’s an android!
After taking a break to be in the movies, Monae returned with music that’s more personal. The sci-fi gamesmanship isn’t gone: There’s still a dystopian storyline running through Dirty Computer, but she’s less guarded, more playful. The new Monae embraces her sexuality on “Pynk,” loosens up on “Juice,” and gets busy on the Prince-ly “Make Me Feel.” And what really lifts Dirty is its staunch belief that inclusive vision is worth fighting for and will prevail. “Don’t try to take my country," she sings on “Americans.” “I will defend my land.”
Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour. Without leaving country music entirely behind, East Texas native songwriter Musgraves moved quietly and confidently away from the sassy “Spacey Kacey” twang of her previous album, and into a more 1970s soft-rock, easy-listening mode. That took some getting used to for her alt-country fanbase, and it might have sapped the character out of her music if the songs on Golden Hour weren’t so inviting in their unadorned simplicity.
Mitski, Be the Cowboy. “I need somebody to remember my name,” Mitski Miyawaki sings with characteristic calm and composure. “I need someone to remember me.” With Be the Cowboy, her fifth and best album, the 28-year-old guitarist wrestles with fame and anonymity, love and lust making sure she’s heard — and will be remembered — by coming through with a marvelous set of intimate songs that retain a cool distance and intriguing sense of mystery.
» READ MORE: Review: Nothing can stop Mitski at Union Transfer
John Prine, The Tree of Forgiveness. The 72-year-old Prine gets the venerated legend spot on this list, on merit. His pal Kurt Vile, who played with him at the Merriam Theater over the summer, calls Prine “America’s greatest living songwriter,” and that may be the case. It’s been said Prine write children’s songs for adults, and there’s evidence of that on Tree of Forgiveness, where he’ll captivate with sing-song melodies and wry observations before stinging you hard with home truths.
Pusha T., Daytona. Maybe the most depressing music story of 2018 was the public meltdown of Kanye West, from his slavery is “a choice” TMZ interview in April to his bizarre Oval Office appearance with President Trump in October. (OK, maybe the rise of Post Malone was equally depressing.) The rapper’s own music was at erratic best. But West did at least one thing right in producing this tight, hard-hitting set by Pusha T, the veteran rapper who also made his mark with his hit piece Drake-dis track “The Story of Adidon.”
Caroline Rose, Loner. Nothing against plaintive guitars, careworn vocals, and sincere soul searching, but earnest Americana can get predictable and boring after a while. Caroline Rose’s previous output was respectable but not distinguished in that realm. So her makeover into a synth-happy tracksuit-wearing satirist is a welcome change, allowing her make her points about misogyny, conformity, and consumer capitalism while making you dance.
Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy. Since Cardi B got famous as a reality star before making the move to rap, the sudden stardom she achieved with last year’s “Bodak Yellow” was regarded with suspicion. She has to be a one-hit wonder, right? Wrong. Invasion of Privacy captures the irrepressible personality of the artist born Belcalis Almanzar, starting with the opening Meek Mill-reminiscent street rap “Get Up 10,” and never loses its spirit and sense for its duration.
Black Thought, Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 and 2. Until this year, Roots rapper Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter had never released a solo album. Technically, that’s still true. But at a time when mumbling emo-rappers — some of whom are good; check out Juice Wrld — are dominating hip-hop, the emcee with the voluminous vocabulary and has begun to release a series of EPs that argue for the value of old-school virtues. Besides boasting a welcome cerebral lyricism, the individual Streams EPs have more music on them some full-length albums, plus there are two of them, so I’m counting them here.
» READ MORE: Is Black Thought better than Kanye West?
Tierra Whack, Whack World. Speaking of album lengths, Tierra Whack wins the 2018 brevity is the soul of wit award. The North Philly rapper and whip-smart conceptualist made a name for herself with this 15-song mini-album, playfully moving among genres and moods, with each minute-long track accompanied by an imaginatively executed straight-to-Instagram video. And, yes, that is her real name.
Jeff Rosenstock, Post-. Shortly before the presidential election in 2016, Long Island punk-rocker Jeff Rosenstock put out an anxiety-ridden album called Worry. On Jan. 1 of this year, he followed it up with Post-, a combative statement of anger, frustration, and ultimate optimism about corny stuff like the enduring power of the human spirit. It’s a punky political record, but a personal one for Rosenstock, and impassioned Post- rockers like “All This Useless Energy” have stuck with me throughout the year.
Honorable Mention: Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel; Elvis Costello, Look Now; Lucy Dacus, Historian; Hop Along, Bark Your Head Off, Dog; Parquet Courts, Wide Awake; Pistol Annies, Interstate Gospel; Amy Rigby, The Old Guys; Snail Mail, Lush; Soccer Mommy, Clean; Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth.