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Opinion | Hear her beat: 10 women who made waves in 2018

It's the top 10 albums by women in 2018 that you have to listen to before the year is out

The album cover of ‘Dirty Computer’ by Janelle Monáe.
The album cover of ‘Dirty Computer’ by Janelle Monáe.

It’s the time of the year when everyone does their “Top Albums of the Year" list and magazines, websites and other publications have put out dozens of such lists this month—some have their Top 10 lists, others their Top 50, and, because 2018 has been a remarkably prolific year in terms of the number of albums released, many have published their lists of Top 100 albums as well. In keeping with the ubiquitous end-of-the-year spirit of list making, here’s one more. With a difference: it’s the top 10 albums by women in 2018 that you have to listen to before the year is out.

Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe. Nearly two years after Prince died, Monáe, 33, sounds like she’s carrying his baton. In fact, the flamboyant pop star collaborated with him on her third full-length album before he died. Back in 2007, Monáe debuted with an EP where she created an android alter ego of herself, a theme that runs through her later work, including Dirty Computer. Her brand of funk and R&B has influences of Prince (of course) but also Michael Jackson, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and even the Beach Boys, whose Brian Wilson collaborates on this masterpiece album, harmonizing on the opening title track. Track pick: Pynk, which interposes Aerosmith’s Pink, and is about female empowerment.

Honey by Robyn. The Swedish singer’s music is described as dance-pop or post-disco but the difference lies in the lyrics. Robyn, 39, makes eminently danceable music but with words that are often tinged with heartache. Honey comes after a eight-year break and the death of a close friend and producer. The nine well-crafted tracks are perfect for dancing at the club but with your ears primed to catch the melancholy lyrics. Track pick: Missing U on which she sings: “There’s this empty space you left behind/ Now you’re not here with me/ I keep digging through our waste of time/ But the picture’s incomplete."

12 Little Spells by Esperanza Spalding. In her newest album, jazz bassist and singer Spalding, 34, who won four Grammys in 2011, has dedicated each of the tracks to a part of the body, opening with the title track, an ode to the 12 vertebrae in the thoracic spine. Improvisation, experimentation and full on pushing of boundaries always marks Spalding’s work, not to mention her exquisite bass lines and honey-dipped vocals, and 12 Little Spells is no exception. Track pick: Thang, which is dedicated to the hips.

Whack World by Tierra Whack. The debut album from Whack, 23, a rapper from Philadelphia, has an unusual format: each of her 15 tracks is just a minute long and is accompanied by a short film. The songs are well layered and styles transform mercurially through the album’s short span but it is the seamlessly changing audio-visual aspect of it that stands out. A shape of things to come? Track pick: the album, actually the entire video; it’s short.

Be The Cowboy by Mitski. The 14 songs on the Japanese-American indie rocker’s fifth full-length are restless and form-shifting. In the new album, Mitski, 28, creates the character of a woman settling into married life but longing to break free. The songs, rarely more than 2 minutes long, have intense, confessional lyrics with unpredictable rhythms and often-fuzzy guitar and keyboard licks. Track pick: Me And My Husband.

I’m All Ears by Let’s Eat Grandma. Okay, quick disclosure: I was first drawn to this British duo because of their band name. Teenagers Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton are childhood friends whose experimental art pop has found critical acclaim. Their songs deal with an honest and cutting reflection on teenage, feminity, and relationships. This second album melds different styles, including some prog-rock, and offers an adventurously fresh sound that grows on you. Track pick: Hot Pink on which they sing: “I’m just an object of disdain to you/ I’m only 17/ I don’t know what you mean."

Isolation by Kali Uchis. The debut album by Colombian-American Uchis, 24, is star-studded with collaborators: Rapper Tyler the Creator, Blur’s Damon Albarn, bassist and producer Thundercat, and others. But Uchis needs little help to impress you with her music. Her brand of R&B and soul is a mix of both—retro and modern. There’s funk, there’s pop, there’s Brazilian-style bossa nova in her music and her debut could be the first stop toward becoming an icon. Track pick: Miami (“Had my sights set on a bigger world/ Got myself a visa/ And started catching flights to where the grass is greener").

The three other women who made waves with their albums this year are ones that this column has written about in past months. Cat Power (or Chan Marshall, 46) released her tenth album, Wanderer, minimalist, and introspective but also featuring a surprising cover of a Rihanna song, Stay. Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett, 31, many of whose songs are like micro fiction—tiny yet captivating stories about mundane things—released Tell Me How You Really Feel, a darkly satisfying album. And Lucy Dacus, 23, whose most recent project, Boygenius, is as an all-woman trio with Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers, released Historian, a set of songs that grab you right from the opening line of the first track, Night Shift: “The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit/ I had a coughing fit/ I mistakenly called them by your name/ I was let down, it wasn’t the same." These 10 albums. Don’t let 2018 go by without giving them a listen.


The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Pynk’ by Janelle Monáe from ‘Dirty Computer’

2. ‘Miami’ by Kali Uchis from ‘Isolation’

3. ‘Night Shift’ by Lucy Dacus from ‘Historian’

4. ‘Me And My Husband’ by Mitski from ‘Be The Cowboy’

5. ‘Thang’ by Esperanza Spalding from ‘12 Little Spells’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

He tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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