8 MNEK – Language
Fans were taken aback by the poor performance of MNEK’s debut album this year, such was the hype around the 23-year-old. He’d carved a name for himself the decade prior writing and producing for artists like Beyonce, Kylie and Madonna, and for hit collaborations with Zara Larsson and Stormzy.
But what happened with this project? You can’t fault MNEK’s bassy, velvety voice. The music certainly wasn’t lacking, either. The brash Correct and pulsating Tongue are glossily produced, instantly addictive and insanely confident.
They should have gone stratospheric, but didn’t. The nimble, joyously poppy LGBT anthem Colour with Hailee Steinfeld got a decent push via its video (and a superior lyric video), but didn’t connect either.
Language will go down as one of the most-dissected music mysteries of 2018. It’ll be interesting to see how MNEK’s next record does, and there’ll surely be one, as he’s an irrepressible talent.
7 Rita Ora – Phoenix
First things first, the presence of controversy-causing Girls on Rita’s long-delayed sophomore album is galling. What could have been her Lady Marmalade moment with Cardi B, Bebe Rexha and Charli XCX was instead a conceptual and musical low point for all involved. The tempo drags, the melody’s feeble and the lyrics, which clunkily explore same-sex attraction, are at best immature (‘Sometimes I just want to kiss girls!’ they chant like a nursery rhyme) and at worst offensive.
Silver linings, though: the song prompted Rita to disclose her past relationships with women. Phoenix alchemises this emotional honesty into a collection of finely-drawn pure pop songs that are often surprisingly vulnerable.
Half-comprised of pre-existing singles (just like the 90s!), Rita’s song with the late Avicii is Phoenix’s strongest moment: the sad, searching but entirely danceable Lonely Together was one of the best songs of last year.
Elsewhere, Your Song, Anywhere and Let You Love Me are a fizzing, mid-20s, love-induced head-fuck musical triptych. Rita’s got a strong voice but often opts for a delicate delivery here, expressing innocence and confidence simultaneously; one could believe all the songs are about the same person. Other tracks like Only Want You, Velvet Rope also click sweetly into place.
6 Years & Years – Palo Santo
Their million-selling debut Communion made a crowd-pleasing splash in 2015. And while Years & Years’ sophomore effort – a concept album about a futuristic, sexually-evolved world – had less of an impact, it’s the more ambitious and artistic of the two.
‘You don’t have to be straight with me, I see what’s underneath your mask,’ sings fearlessly queer frontman Olly on the spell-like Sanctify, the first cut from the album. It’s a strange, tense song, with tribal drums and beckoning vocals. On it, Olly invites his hetero-identifying lover to ‘sanctify’ his body. There are religious undertones, and yet, it’s as gloriously homoerotic as pop gets.
It’s telling, then, that after Sanctify didn’t light up the charts, the silly, sweet kiss-off If You’re Over Me, with its dangerously catchy chorus, was picked as the follow up single. A top 10 mainstay selling over 400,000 copies, it did its job.
But it’s not a fair reflection of Palo Santo’s weirdness, best exemplified in the title track. A depression-drenched ode to an ex, Olly sings likes he’s in a turned on trance as he longs for a past love and quite possibly destroys his new relationship (‘Do I look good in this position, just like him?’ he teases).
5 Troye Sivan – Bloom
Troye took a queer leap of faith with his second album. The thirst was real on My My My!, a euphoric celebration of gay sex and love (‘spark up, buzz cut, I’ve got my tongue between your teeth,’ Troye lulls). It’s the perfect introduction to the concise and sexy Bloom.
The sexuality peaks with the title track, labeled by fans an ‘ode to bottoming’ that paints receptive anal sex as beautiful and inviting an experience as walking through a garden. ‘The fountains and the waters are begging just to know ya,’ he says, before comparing his backside to a flower. OK, maybe this is the gayest song of the year.
The second best song is the playful Plum. Here, Troye compares the perfect stage of his relationship to sweet, ripened fruit that might be on the turn. One’s mind wanders to Call My By Your Name’s peach scene; indeed, you can imagine Elio penning lyrics like ‘jealous you can sleep, you’ve been keeping me up and I mouth the words I think I wanna speak.’
For this listener, Troye’s graceful, haunting voice underwhelms on slower tracks like The Good Side and Animal. And I feel his maddeningly underplayed Ariana Grande duet Dance To This was a massive missed opportunity. But otherwise, I’m still enthralled by this album four months later.
4 Lil Peep – Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2
Lil Peep’s second album was released posthumously last month: the ‘trip hop rapper’ sadly passed away of an accidental drug overdose last year. From Amy Winehouse’s Lioness: Hidden Treasures to Michael Jackson’s Michael, music lovers are often wary of cobbled-together collections of a late artist’s songs. And rightly so. They’re often disappointing.
Not in this case. Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2 feels authentic. It perfectly frames the bisexual star’s uniquely sombre sound. That he’s at all affiliated with the modern SoundCloud rap scene is a mystery to me. His music has more overtly in common with 90s grunge and the better 00s emo bands. The tortured, pleading Sex With My Ex could be Nirvana, and is funereal and intoxicating.
On the downtempo Cry Alone and the desolate, echoey Runaway, a lonely-sounding Lil Peep speak-sings brutally honest lyrics exploring messed up relationships, drug use and mental health. Listeners with such issues of their own should proceed with caution. The pessimism and sense of looming tragedy could prove triggering for some.
I should also mention, the guest artist on wistful bonus track Falling Down will give some LGBTIs pause for thought. The late XXXTentacion, who was murdered in July, was of course flagrantly homophobic. Lil Peep brings something gentle and searching out in him on thus bonus track, as two lost souls struggle to decipher their pain (‘your love is like walking on a bed of nails’). Listening to it with hindsight is devastating.
3 Hayley Kiyoko – Expectations
When I first heard about Hayley Kiyoko, nicknamed ‘lesbian Jesus’ by fans, and her song Curious I was…dubious. I jumped to the conclusion that ‘curious’ was being utilized in the most basic of ways. That Hayley was a gimmicky artist feigning sexual ambiguity like many before her. How wrong I was.
After warming to her stunning debut Expectations, and noting the pride and electropop revelry with which it celebrates out and proud lesbianism, I revisited Curious. I finally paid attention to the complex narrative at play. ‘I’m just curious, is it serious?’ Hayley teases the object of her affection, who’s seemingly chosen a guy over her; ‘Calling me up, so late at night, are we just friends? You say you wanted me, but you’re sleeping with him.’
She doubles down on the theme with the infectious sexual confidence of He’ll Never Love You Like Me. Ditto the sweeping, pulsating wall of sound that is What I Need, her chemistry-laden duet with Kehlani. In a parallel universe, this was the Billboard Hot 100 number one of the summer.
She switches gear on the mid tempo Wanna Be Missed, my most-listened to song of the year on Spotify. She sounds defenceless, desperate, ‘fragile like glass’, but also sexy; laying her cards on the table and insisting ‘say you can’t walk, can’t talk, go on without me.’ An amazingly mature debut album.
2 Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
After years of speculation and ambiguity, Janelle came out as pansexual on the cover of Rolling Stone this year, the same week her third album was celebrated by music critics worldwide.
Loaded with razor sharp political commentary and poetic lyrics, Dirty Computer is definitely food for the brain. But that’s not to say it’s weighed down by its own intellectualism. Its bursting with sound you can sing and dance to without much thought whatsoever.
Although you can’t miss the point of the epic, flirtatious PYNK, which conjures images of a vagina with more immediacy than even the above trousers. It also features the musical climax to end them all.
One of Dirty Computer’s best qualities is how different each song is from the next. And yet, each blends into the next seamlessly. The Prince-inspired funk of Make Me Feel is a high point, along with the pop-R&B of Crazy, Classic Life, which some of my favorite lyrics of the year: ‘I don’t need a diamond ring, I don’t wanna waste my youth, I don’t wanna live on my knees, I just have to tell the truth.’
1 Christine and the Queens – Chris
Her graceful debut Chaleur humaine sold over a million copies worldwide. It was a masterclass in top quality, intelligent indie pop. Then French star Christine, who identifies as pansexual, waited four years to release the follow up. But Chris was worth the wait. It has a broadly similar sound to its predecessor, but intensified, and powered by hyper-articulation (she uses the word ‘soliloquize’, for example) and plenty of sexual exploration.
If that makes the album sound like a chore, an easy in is the arresting Doesn’t matter. The cocky percussion and soaring, ethereal vocals combine to create light-footed dance song, full of strange synths and soaring vocals. The astonishing lyrics deal with weighty themes – suicidal thoughts, the existence of God – with elegance and honesty.
On Girlfriend, Christine plays with gender and sings with a light arrogance: ‘Don’t feel like a girlfriend, but lover, damn, I’d be your lover, girlfriend’. Here, the character she creates wouldn’t feel out of place on Grindr with the words ‘masc4masc’ on their profile…
Then there’s 5 dollars, the most beautiful, angelic-sounding song about sex work you will ever hear. The video ups the androgynous ante; I’m a gay man and the sight of Christine in a harness left me hot under the collar. And yet, for me, her voice is gloriously girlish, and that friction creates new, exciting possibilities.
The coolest, most up-to-the-minute record of the year.