The Top of the Top
1. Mitski — Be The Cowboy
To the degree that my taste in music is a predictable algorithm — which is more the case than I (or most people) would love to admit — Be The Cowboy neatly checks all of my classic boxes: intimate self-aware lyrics that reveal transcendent or global ideas through thought-provoking, semi-cryptic poetry; themes related to emotional complexity and human relationships; a primarily melancholic soundscape; a unique and confident personal aesthetic; surprising but satisfying instrumental choices; no skippable tracks; and relatively short length. Indeed — Cowboy is so solidly my favorite album of the year so far that it’s hard for me to imagine anything better coming in the next few weeks.
But in addition to floating my personal B.O.A.T. (which I have always assumed is an acronym for Bespoke Orb of Artistic Truth), I also believe Mitski’s newest collection is multi-faceted enough to be intensely, genuinely accessible to a diverse audience, and its critical acclaim thus far seems to reveal the same thing. At once catchy and eclectic, funny and tragic, ferocious and tender, the album drips with intrigue from its very first moments, when Mitski delivers the trite romantic line, “You’re my number one / you’re the one I want,” with the enthusiasm of a stone pillar. It doesn’t take long to understand that Mitski has complete control over her sonic world and that she is not satisfied with straightforward stories; instead, like almost any artist worth listening to, she’s here to fuck with the status quo. The feigned stability of the relationship described in the first track turns out to be the icy surface of the Cowboy’s deep frozen lake: a cold, shiny, and fragile surface that gradually melts to reveal the complex emotional ecosystems of a human life.
Speaking of literary devices, the album’s story is not told chronologically, and it is probably not even one story. Instead, it comprises fourteen emotional sketches or vignettes. In each efficient track — most often clocking in around two minutes — Mitski gives you an important piece of a relationship puzzle that may never be solved by you nor the “narrator.” One of the issues is that she keeps forgetting where she put the pieces (“Why Didn’t You Stop Me?”); another is that she at times tensely pretends the puzzle is already finished (“Me and My Husband”). The relationship might be with a person, but she has also indicated in interviews that it may be with the music itself, or with the audience. Along the way, she observes in her — in our — humanity the toxic power of habit, the painful and inescapable partiality of memory, the gravity of intimacy, and even the connections between love and mortality. On Cowboy, Mitski is a brilliant, participatory tour guide of the human condition, and it is a gift that we get to remember ourselves with her.
2. BROCKHAMPTON — iridescence
Imagine if you tried to cram every music trend of the last 15 years into one album. You might think this sounds like a bad idea, an impossible task that can’t possibly result in a cohesive or compelling product, and by golly I actually agree with you in theory. The reality, though, is that BROCKHAMPTON have not only successfully executed this ambitious artistic approach — in iridescence they have created a record that manages to be deeply personal and nuanced not in spite of, but because of, its intensely high level of artistic inclusion.
The self-proclaimed “boy band” is inclusive and exploratory in every way. In a literal sense, the group is large and has an ever-changing number of members (currently 14 on Wikipedia at the time this sentence was written), and in terms of musical influence, their sound incorporates musical elements from contemporary and old-school hip-hop, 2000’s emo, 2010’s indie pop, grime, dancehall, and — sometimes but not that often — traditional 90’s “boy band” vocals. The group’s insatiable use of vocal effects even splits each individual into different personas, as though to gesture smirkingly that 14 members is not nearly enough. Sometimes multiple personas of one member even deliver verses one after the other, like in “TAPE” when a grown-ass Kevin Abstract is followed by an adolescent one, or in “VIVID” when hype Dom McClennan literally interrupts a calm version of himself. Indeed, at any given moment on iridescence, identifying the member who is singing or rapping is a total toss-up, and without the assistance of lyrics websites like Genius, this entire paragraph would have been much shorter.
Once you learn that most of BROCKHAMPTON’s members originally assembled themselves through a Kanye West fan forum, it makes sense that they would pursue high-risk-high-reward projects together. The good news is that when you take a Kanyian desire to create the provocative next best thing, and you give it to a diverse group of young people who are actually aware of what’s going on in the world, you end up with something that is not only thematically and artistically compelling, but also compassionately performed and frankly super fun to listen to.
3. Bad Bad Hats — Lightning Round
The stacked and talented indie scene of Minneapolis is lucky to have Bad Bad Hats at its helm. For those readers who are not already aware, just know that the band’s first full-length album, 2015’s Psychic Reader, is one of the catchiest albums to come out of the Midwest in years. Like its predecessor, Lightning Round, instantly lodges itself in your head for days and continues to define the Hats’ strong brand of pop through Kerry Alexander’s clever, idiosyncratic turns of phrase; the characteristic quirk of her scooping, playful vocals; and the crisp bounce and simplicity of the group’s instrumental section. Thematically, Lightning Round sees Kerry further exploring the complexities of love, especially the difficulty and reward of healthy communication. On the opening track, “Makes Me Nervous,” a dead cell phone is a device literal and metaphorical, blocking verbal communication but also symbolizing deeper issues; on my favorite track,“Automatic,” love still comes easily when actual speech is awkward. All in all, Lightning Round manages to live up to the very high bar that Kerry and company set with their first album, and it is a welcome addition to their increasingly solid discography of intelligent, cute, and cutting indie pop.
4. Wilder Maker — Zion
When you consider the number of ideas and musical influences that comprise Zion, it seems like the album should fly apart in all directions. Instead, it is impossibly cohesive: each ambitious track is held together by the palpable chemistry among the group’s members, and from the album’s seven tracks — which I’d rather call “movements” — blossoms a realist document of one Brooklyn life: a swirling amalgam of tedium and excitement, transcendent joy and frustrated ennui.
(To hear more about the album from the person who wrote it, please check out my Frontrunner interview with songwriter, vocalist, guitarist, saxophonist, and thoughtful guy Gabriel Birnbaum.)
5. Mountain Man — Magic Ship
Mountain Man’s mostly a-cappella music sounds like friendship so cozy you forget there’s a blizzard outside. On Magic Ship, the vocal harmonies of Amelia Meath (of Sylvan Esso), Molly Sarle, and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig achieve the kind of unique beauty that’s only possible together, at the same time commanding and calming. The magic of the trio’s chemistry comes partly from the high level of raw talent in the room, but what’s truly special about this recording is that you can hear the mutual respect and love in every syllable. This kind of mutual love and respect is also arguably the major theme on Magic Ship, as many of the tracks act as snapshots of what healthy relationships look like: with parents, with friends, with a new partner, with a soon-to-be-former partner, with a pet, even with yourself. In a display of admirable emotional breadth, Mountain Man’s record captures these relationships through moments of tipsy joy, sleepy sadness, wry and sincere nostalgia, youthful regret, and wise acceptance.
6. Young Thug — On The Run
Call your mama, Thugger / tell her that you fuckin’ made it
7. Noname — Room 25
I’m just writing my darkest secrets like wait and just hear me out
Saying vegan food is delicious like wait and just hear me out
8. Travis Scott — ASTROWORLD
For this life, I cannot change
Hidden Hills, deep off in the main
M&M’s, sweet like candy cane
Drop the top, pop it, let it bang (pop it, pop it)
9. Santigold — I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Sessions
Y’all listen here I’ma get me what I want
I don’t even want none
I don’t want
10. Blood Orange — Negro Swan
You asked me what family is, and I think of family as community. I think of the spaces where you don’t have to shrink yourself, where you don’t have to pretend or to perform. You can fully show up and be vulnerable, and in silence, completely empty, and that’s completely enough. You show up, as you are, without judgment, without ridicule, without fear or violence or policing or containment, and you can be there, and you’re filled all the way up.
So we get to choose our families; we are not limited by biology. We get to make ourselves, and we get to make our families.
— Janet Mock, “Family”
11. Big Red Machine — Big Red Machine
12. Ivy Sole — OVERGROWN
13. Oneohtrix Point Never — The Station EP
14. Joey Purp — QUARTERTHING
15. Troye Sivan — Bloom
16. Lil Wayne — Tha Carter V
17. The Little Miss — American Dream EP
18. We Were Promised Jetpacks — The More I Sleep, The Less I Dream
19. Cantrell — Stardust 2 Angels
20. The Internet — Hive Mind
Foxing — Nearer My God
Hozier — Nina Cried Power EP
Mac Miller — Swimming
Mutual Benefit — Thunder Follows The Light
Your Smith — Bad Habit EP
So Bad I Have To Say Something
Iggy Azalea — Survive the Summer
This August, a famous white rapper put out a collection of really disappointingly bad songs that showed they continue to awkwardly struggle to understand their role in society.
If you think I’m talking about Eminem, well — you’re not wrong: Kamikaze is ultimately not worth listening to more than once or twice. However, despite the almost unanimously negative critical reaction to Eminem’s most recent album, it actually does have its moments of brilliance. As a friend of a friend so eloquently put it, listening to Kamikaze is a lot like going to the dentist: “there is lots of technical work that I can appreciate, but I do not really enjoy the feeling or noises it is making in my head.”
Iggy Azalea’s Survive the Summer, then, is more like what would happen if you asked a random person to remove your molar with whatever they had around the house, and they went through with it while flirting with you the whole time. Here are five reasons that Kamikaze unfortunately wasn’t the worst thing I heard between July and September.
- It doesn’t include lines as inane as “my dope the dopest,” or as confused about cars and watches as “fuck me in the Rolls, get the Rolex.”
- The number of times that Eminem brags about someone “feelin’ on my booty while I fill that glass” is zero times. (Yes: brags.)
- None of its tracks feature, “Ass /cash / cash / ass / bags / bag” as the entire chorus.
- At no point does Eminem refer to his own body as “white chocolate.”
- I apologize — I’m so mad I can’t think of a fifth reason.