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The music of 2018 was filled with contradictions. Perhaps they have always been present in pop, but they seem more obvious than ever. The tension between these contradictions drives a lot of my favorite music of the year. Is Lady Gaga-as-Ally’s “Why Did You Do That?” good or is it bad? The answer is that somehow it’s both. One of the biggest contradictions is that pop is no longer really all that popular. Pop has gradually become alternative, while The Top of The Charts are generally clogged up with…whatever. The charts seem sketchy and manufactured, conspiracy-minded stans who cry “payola” aren’t necessarily that far off, best as I can tell. In the Old World, the charts weren’t based on physical sales. The numbers could still be tweaked, but they were generally more accurate than the black box containing algorithms and streams that we see employed in the present day, which seems to lack the same accountability of a strictly sales-based system.
But I digress. As I have declared before, the time has come to smash up the charts once and for all. Fuck ‘em. Taste rules over the charts in the Modern Age of streaming music, and for the consumer at least, it feels magical and utopian. Charli XCX, Slayyyter, Janelle Monáe, Allie X, Sigrid, Tinashe, and so many others in this best of 2018 feature may not have landed hits on the Old Time radio, but they were in heavy rotation on *my* personalized daily radio station where I’m the programming director. The charts are meaningless, pop has gone alterna, and even the songs that actually achieve “hit” status increasingly contain a healthy dose of weird. 2018 was a crystal comet crashing into a burning city on Mars and shattering into a million pieces in space, and I couldn’t have been happier to have been sitting at ground zero with my headphones on.
Artist of the Year – CHARLI XCX
Charli XCX – No Angel / 1999 (feat Troye Sivan) / 5 in the Morning / Girls Night Out / Focus
Charli XCX represents everything that is great about contemporary pop music. This young woman continues to KILL IT in 2018. Hot on the heels of her very late-2017 release, the landmark achievement that was Pop 2 (she called it a mixtape, but I declare it to be an Album in the truest artistic sense of the term), Charli continued to release music all year long whenever she saw fit. First, we got the trap-induced torch song “5 in the Morning,” which conveyed a bleary-eyed sense of longing and confusion that comes along with sending a desperate 5 am text (complete with an absolutely haunting and evocative AIM new message chime sound fx). It was a perfect spring single. Then came the double A-side release (there’s a throwback term for you!) “Focus/No Angel,” which was sheer pop perfection. “No Angel” was the true highlight for me–a bright and gleaming solid pop tune about unapologetic naughtiness that was perhaps my favorite release of the year by anyone. I can’t help myself, I have to say it–NO ANGEL SHOULD HAVE BEEN A HIT!
The releases kept on coming all summer long. ”Girls Night Out” is a knees-up, paint the town red technopop singalong with rubbery synths courtesy producer SOPHIE and Stargate–talk about a dream team! The repeated “No boys! No boys!” hook was a clever lyrical counterpoint to her own summer 2017 single, “Boys.” Next, she teamed with actual doll turned popstar Troye Sivan for “1999,” which gleefully cashed in on the much-ballyhooed “nostalgia” wave with delectable abandon. “1999” was accompanied by a pitch-perfect music video (Charli as Steve Jobs will forever be the funniest thing ever to me) and a proper push for radio (keep calling those request lines, angels!). Most artists would have died happy to release just one of these perfect pop singles this year; Charli delivered nearly a half dozen plus several other excellent features on other artists’ tracks. Charli can see that the future is collaborative, hence the veritable who’s who of underground pop that were featured on Pop 2. Inexplicably, some stans seem bothered that she hasn’t delivered an “album” since 2014’s Sucker, but anyone with two working brain cells and at least one good ear can tell that she is one of the hardest working women in pop music, Charli is a visionary. Charli is the future. Charli is FUN.
Best New Artists – SLAYYYTER + AYESHA EROTICA + GLITCHMOOD
Slayyyter – BFF feat Ayesha Erotica / Ghost / I’m High / Platform Shoes
Candy / Hello Kitty / Alone
Slayyyter and Ayesha are two rising internet pop geniuses who are about to dominate the world, one exquisite, glitchmood designed single at a time. On “BFF,” producer extraordinaire Ayesha Erotica deftly appropriates electro with a post-everything twist, fusing it with an energetic sense of URGENCY that is downright punk rock. “BFF” rides a sinister bassline on its way through the rambling city streets; a hallucinogenic ride on the wild side into nightmarish bliss that felt like a neutron bomb when it dropped this summer. “We’ve been smoking all day, we walked around the city and I think we ran into your ex” they sing, and I FEEL it in my bones because I know this kind of hazy, drugged-out walk, having taken it a few times myself. Super-enigma Ayesha Erotica, aka Ayesha Nicole Smith, has several since-deleted singles of her own that still remain scattered about the dark web. She and frequent collaborator Slayyyter can only be described as an instantly legendary pop visionaries, and together they are at the apex of an emerging wave of an international underground pop movement (made up of like-minded, up and coming artists such as Dorian Electra, Boy Sim, The Pom-Poms, Robokid, Wish I Was, Crapface, EASYFUN, Lil Data, That Kid, ZLUTZ, internet gf, Graveyardguy, and countless others) that mainstream cultural watchers haven’t quite identified just yet. Slayyyter and Ayesha Erotica are the cream of the crop; clever songwriters who also happen to be masters in the art of the zeitgeist.
Slayyyter released a string of excellent infectious singles in the last quarter of 2018, in styles ranging from electro-goth (“Ghost”) to punky rave (“I’m High,” “Platform Shoes”), to delirious techno pop (“Hello Kitty”). Each single featured equally stunning, custom cover art designed by talented UK based artist glitchmood, who seems to be another key component to the hit-making formula that seems poised to transform Slayyyter into a star. “Candy” was the breakout hit, a slice of grimy Britneyfunk that rides an illegally borrowed Neptunes sample, reinforcing the punk rock/DIY sensibility of this emerging underground movement in more ways than one. Keep in mind that punk rock originated from artists reclaiming 60s rock and pop but remade on their own, aggressive terms, and Ayesha and Slayyyter are doing the same here but using McBling era late 00s pop (and a healthy dose of vintage electroclash) as a starting reference for the wild world they are creating. Decked out in glitchmood’s shiniest 3D rendered graphics (each one displaying its own distinct, cutting-edge look) this crew feels poised to take the popular imaginary (or at least the world of pop stans, for better or worse) by storm.
“Alone” is Back in Blackout mode taken to a hard-rocking, super vixen extreme–the sound of a window-smashing pop star rage-spiraling on a basement party dance floor, scream-dancing in her ex’s face while a bunch of warlocks with face tattoos and girls in blood-splattered Juicy tracksuits look on. “Fucked up every dream that you had with the scenes and the fads / Baby, you just look so lame,” Slayyyter snarls over the Ayesha-assisted production that sounds like Front 242 subbing in at the boards for Rhythm Nation-era Jam + Lewis. The veritable hit parade Slayyyter & co. unleashed upon an unsuspecting online public this year felt like a blaze of glory we haven’t experienced since like 2008. And I suspect that’s exactly how she wants it.