The opening track of George Ezra’s album Staying at Tamara’s moans ‘Why, why, what a terrible time to be alive’, and in 2018 this seemed an appropriate refrain for many others to moan in chorus. Written in solitude, gripped by anxieties about the world’s unpredictable turbulence, Ezra cries out, literally so in the call and response verses of ‘Don’t matter now’, for some kind of united resistance to the paralysing fear of standing alone on ‘an island in an ocean full of change’. But far from stridently confronting such fear, the sonic richness of the record, with effervescent gospel backing, opulent brass instrumental accompaniment, and a-cappella-clap-along-choruses knowingly designed to play into the winning hit-making formula of 2014’s Wanted on Voyage, constantly fights against a reality of isolation and despair. Ezra’s warm and striking baritone instead turns to simpler (and more marketable) visions of hot summer sun, reckless dreams, and the heady pulse of romance running like ‘paradise through… your veins’.
Ezra’s decision to shy away from the shadowy depths of the year’s political nightmares was counterbalanced by the work of many artists, who instead began to revel in their pessimism. LA-based Family of the Year released their highly-anticipated Goodbye Sunshine, Hello Nighttime and with masterful folk harmonies and an unavoidable wistfulness of tone, the band wrote forlornly of a time when things were just a little easier, and the Malibu sun shone just a little brighter. ‘Bitter Mind’ reminds us that ‘nothing lasts forever, things will only get so much better’ and though the album perhaps lacks the youthful, free-spirited energy of their earlier work, the music’s heavy nostalgia redolent with escapism and reverie seems unwaveringly appropriate for a year when youthful enthusiasm became harder and harder to retain.
Others too couldn’t ignore the melancholy atmosphere – Courtney Barnett’s Tell Me How You Really Feel is a dark and desolate expression of crystalline vulnerability and frustrated anger at modern misogyny (quoting Margaret Atwood: ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them’). Even MGMT’s Little Dark Age, while at once full of curiosity and the psychedelic fun of 80s synth-pop, sees the duo a decade on from the fluke-hit of their mocking debut ‘in the front row’ of reality. The sinister undercurrent of their previous music moves to the forefront as they end the album with a gloomy elegy in ‘Hand it Over’ acknowledging that ‘the joke’s worn thin’. And as MGMT seem finally, belatedly, to have discovered the real world, so too Jon Hopkins’ explorations of the cosmic awe of heightened consciousness take a space walk through our own world with immeasurable, celestial soundscapes mapped out in the uncomfortable and unstable rhythms of Singularity, which thrum with uncertain significance long after their trance-like beats fade. Hopkins’ album is distinctly about our world, but also distinctly about something else, and this trait of escapism ran throughout the music of 2018.
The long five years since Arctic Monkeys’ epochal AM finally culminated in the release of Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino in which Alex Turner swapped the muscle clenching, swaggering guitar riffs of Arctic Monkeys past for a seat behind a piano in a cocktail lounge in space. Though the crooning tone of ‘I Wanna be Yours’ remains in the falsetto backing of ‘Star Treatment’, it is transformed by retro piano sounds, and even the distinctly ‘rock-music’ intro and slamming guitar that begin ‘She Looks Like Fun’ fade as Turner’s clear voice cuts petulantly through. The record is almost resistant to the music the band previously produced, though it holds the same arrogant disdain for conventionality it has none of the gritty, snarling defiance of ‘Don’t Sit Down Cos I’ve Moved Your Chair’ or arrogance of ‘I Bet You Look Good on The Dance Floor’. The insistent pace is absent, it’s sluggish, brooding, languid: this music was not written to be played to packed arenas surging with pulsating fans. It’s almost unaware of its audience, written into a void, played to be listened to through a veil of wisping cigar smoke and liquor. Turner’s voice drips with smooth irony as he croons ‘it took the light forever to get to your eyes’ in acknowledgement of the refracted and scattered messages of the almost impenetrably abstract music.
Not all artists experienced 2018 through such convoluted dreamscapes: Janelle Monáe’s unforgettable Dirty Computer combined rap, pop, R&B, soul and rock into a liberated and limitless celebration of resistance to oppression, the Black Panther Soundtrack curated by Kendrick Lamar assembled an eclectic and powerful mix of artists, as well as a socio-political rage that accompanied the film’s message, Years&Years’ Olly Alexander explored modern masculinity and queerness in the bittersweet and euphoric Palo Santo, and even Ariana Grande attempted to follow in the footsteps of Rihanna’s ANTI or Beyoncé’s Lemonade with the assertion that her new album Sweetener was like her previous music, but with a message: ‘Here is my bleeding heart, and here is a trap beat behind it’ as she told Fader in an interview.
But despite a heightened political engagement in popular music, perhaps far more striking is many artists’ willingness to display their disillusionment, their desire to be elsewhere, in another era, or in another world. From George Ezra’s summer escapism and the irreverent pop music of Confidence Man, the post-punk indie anthemic hits of Shame’s Songs of Praise, and the scattered ideas of the statement-making A Brief Enquiry Into Online Relationships, 2018’s music displayed a typical contemporary anxiety: whether to sit up, listen and engage, however futile it may prove, or simply to drown in the music, and dance until the year is over.