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The Daily Californian Arts Awards: Music of 2018

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Caroline Smith / Staff


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NOVEMBER 29, 2018


 his year, women are at the forefront of modern music. From those already at the  top of their game, such as ponytail-wearing superstar Ariana Grande, to those just getting started, such as U.K. R&B singer Jorja Smith, female artists have dominated 2018’s soundtrack with their bops, ballads and visual albums. There are other notable entries to this year’s list of musical bests — Childish Gambino, especially, should not be left out — but let’s take a minute to appreciate the women who are trailblazing through the music industry.

Olivia Jerram

Best Album

Atlantic Records/Courtesy
Atlantic Records/Courtesy

Winner: Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer broke ground — in the landscape of R&B, in making explicit Monáe’s queer sexuality and in terms of Monáe’s own artistry. Monáe breaks away from her android persona in 2013’s The Electric Lady, 2010’s The ArchAndroid and 2008’s Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) and accepts her imperfect humanity as a “dirty computer” while taking pride in her identity as a Black, queer woman. Dirty Computer traces the landscape of the U.S. — with all of its prejudices and potential — while weaving poetics about the interconnectedness of sex and power atop delicious guitar and bass riffs and ‘80s-nostalgic reverberation.

Monáe balances the explicit rap of “Django Jane” with the elusive pop of “Make Me Feel.” Every facet of the album provides a new point of view as to what makes Monáe the “electric lady” she is. The somber tones of “Don’t Judge Me” and “So Afraid” and the outright reverie of “Take a Byte” and “PYNK” are woven together in recalcitrant album closer “Americans,” which combines spoken word with an upbeat, pop chorus. Dirty Computer is more than just the year’s best album, it’s the perfect amalgamation of everything that made up — and led up to — 2018.

— Caroline Smith

Runner-up: Isolation, Kali Uchis

On her debut album, the Columbian American R&B singer Kali Uchis has taken her sound to all new heights. Isolation features her dream-pop tone swirling like pink ice cream into the richness of her Gal Costa- and Etta James-reminiscent jazzy mixes.

“Tyrant (feat. Jorja Smith)” is a bubbly ballad with lyrics slip-sliding from English to Spanish. “Just a Stranger” plays coyly with chord changes as Steve Lacy’s cool chorus dips into Uchis’ ‘90s-style power anthem. “Tomorrow” tells the story of immigrant hustle set to the backdrop of kaleidoscopic sunset rhythms and desert mirage-like electrified acoustics.

And when she sings the final lyrics — ”Como un cometa en el cielo / Nos quemaremos juntos” — her listeners desperately want to burn bright alongside Uchis.

— Maisy Menzies

Best Billboard Hot 100 Single

Winner: “This Is America,” Childish Gambino

If Donald Glover is the modern Renaissance man, Childish Gambino is his flying machine — a rapper persona whose creation has defined a new musical era. “This Is America” is arguably the best song to emerge from that entire era, but is, at the very least, the undeniable best song of this year.

Backed by a blend of trap and Afro-rhythmic beats, Childish Gambino turns the American pride anthem on its head. From his platform in the U.S. as a successful Black rapper, he addresses the history of a country defined by racism. His voice is butter in the delivery of his lyrics: “This Is America / Don’t catch you slippin’ up / Look at how I’m livin’ now / Police be trippin’ now”

The significance of these lyrics reaching the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart is hard to emphasize. And in a country where attitudes toward the disturbing details of history are predominantly focused on erasing it, “This Is America” forces an audience raised on “Halo” to pay attention to it and acknowledge their complacency within it.

Olivia Jerram

Runner-up: “I Like It,” Cardi B

“I Like It” is yet another successful instance of sampling from this year. Borne from 1997’s “I Like It Like That” by Tito Nieves, Cardi B’s take is not merely a remix — it’s referential in a way that accentuates her modern talent, as well as her Latinx background.

And on trend with the multitude of Latinx-empowering music coming out of this year, Cardi B is an artist helping to normalize bilinguality and Latinx sound in a world of music that can often be white-washed. The American songwriter and rapper has her finger on the pulse of the 2018 music scene, creating hits that are vintage and sultry, like a good, thrifted leather jacket.

— Olivia Jerram

Best Song (Non-Billboard)

Winner: “Party for One,” Carly Rae Jepsen

To say Carly Rae Jepsen is the queen of pop would be derivative — pop has its queens, and then it has its knights. But with her sword bestowed to her at last summer’s Lollapalooza, Jepsen knighted herself, becoming pop’s queen and its strongest defender all in one. In an era when everyone’s trying to push the limits of what pop can be, Jepsen is a steadfast, charming reminder of bubble-gum pop at its best and most saccharine. Her music is feminine — girly, even — and it’s upbeat, filled with ‘80s synths and groovable dance beats as Jepsen sings about boy problems, breakups and finding herself.

“Party for One,” Jepsen’s first single since dropping Emotion: Side B mid-2016, is the epitome of what her discography is all about. Jepsen knows how to make the process of breaking up sound fun — her many tracks on the matter don’t wallow, and this single in particular interprets the process of finding oneself on a literal level, continuing the age-old tradition of pop songs about masturbation. Not only did she produce the best track not on the Billboard Hot 100 list, but if you still deridingly view her as the “Call Me Maybe” girl, know Jepsen doesn’t care — she’ll just dance by herself, back on her beat.

— Caroline Smith

Runner-up: “PYNK,” Janelle Monáe

Before indie-electro artist Grimes and Elon “I can shoot a Tesla into space” Musk went to the Met Gala, before Janelle Monáe even released The Daily Californian’s album of the year Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe dropped the music video for “PYNK,” her album’s third single. From the vagina imagery present in the track’s lyricism — “Pynk, like your tongue going round” — to the music video’s explicit, instantly iconic vagina pants, what the song accomplishes is far more than a celebration of anatomy. Monáe searches for deeper truths. “Deep inside, we’re all just pynk” she sings atop simple, electrifying chord progressions, and the result is more than just an earworm: “Pynk” is an anthem for sexuality in all of its forms.

Caroline Smith

Best Music Video

Winner: “This Is America,” Childish Gambino

Childish Gambino’s charged music video spurred discussion upon its release in May and remains relevant today as our Best Music Video of 2018. Featuring a turbulent scene of brutality, the four-minute masterpiece is bound to rock its viewers’ worlds as soon as they see Childish Gambino pull a gun from his pocket.

The video is directed by Hiro Murai, who has also worked with musicians such as Earl Sweatshirt and The Shins. Murai tactfully films a one-shot montage style, artfully zooming in and out of the scene to expose more and more of the chaos to viewers. Considering the high-impact blend of violence and celebration that Murai and Childish Gambino employ in the video, It’s unsurprising that the video has amassed almost half a billion views in just seven months.

The “This Is America” music video does more than just provide a visual complement to a hit summer song; it uses music as a platform to raise awareness of the violence many Black individuals face in American society today. For this, Childish Gambino’s video will — and should — remain iconic for years to come.

Skylar De Paul

Runner-up: “APESHIT,” the Carters

After two long and wildly successful careers, the Carters released an album full of romance, grandeur and honesty — and the song “APESHIT” is the pinnacle of this.

In the music video, Beyoncé and Jay-Z stand in front of the Winged Victory of Samothrace at the world-famous Louvre in Paris, interlocking their hands and wearing couture. The two, along with their all-Black dance crew, have an undeniable aura of strength and success —  they epitomize Black excellence as they perform in front of the world’s most esteemed and most recognizable art. The video is powerful and opulent, combining experimental trap beats with classical art and fashion and perfectly characterizing the level of artistic maturity reached by the Carters at this stage in their careers.

Salem Sulaiman

Best Breakout Artist

Rex Independent/Courtesy
Rex Independent/Courtesy

Winner: Jorja Smith

Starting off strong this year, Jorja Smith asserted her place among major R&B influencers by co-writing and performing “I Am” on the Kendrick Lamar-produced “Black Panther” soundtrack — an album with the likes of Future, Travis Scott, SZA and 2 Chainz. Featured among these established artists, Smith’s single held its own and proved to be a crowd favorite.

In April, she performed “Blue Lights,” a deeply introspective song, on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” And most recently, she’s been touring her debut studio album, Lost & Found, which has been in the works for more than five years. Those aware of major R&B up-and-comers shouldn’t be shocked by Jorja Smith’s success, however. The U.K.-born singer/songwriter has been contributing her unapologetically vulnerable lyrics to other rising musicians’ work, namely the Kali Uchis single “Tyrant feat. Jorja Smith” off her new album Isolation, which also dropped this year. And her breakup anthem remixed by Preditah, “On My Mind,” which has now received more than 50 million plays on Spotify, is incredibly relevant and empowering.

Jorja Smith’s rise in popularity can be clearly traced; her lyrics are sincere and her voice is inarguably comforting. What’s more, Smith’s often blasé demeanor makes her songs appear even more authentic and, oftentimes, more heart-wrenching. Her place among the giants in the hip-hop industry is well-deserved and very refreshing.

— Christopher Chang

Runner-up: Cardi B

With the release of “Bodak Yellow” last year, Bronx-born artist Cardi B instantly became a party favorite with her charming humor and badass undertone. At only 26 years old, Cardi B is now one of the most recognizable musicians of 2018. Between the release of her killer debut album, Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1, and her many features released throughout this year, there is nothing holding this showstopper back from taking over the radio with her smash rap hits. And with her newest album, Invasion of Privacy, Cardi B has solidified her place in rap history — #1 according to the Billboard charts and #1 in our red-bottom hearts.

— Skylar De Paul

Best Artist

Chris Pizzelo/Courtesy
Chris Pizzelo/Courtesy

Winner: Ariana Grande

Personally and artistically, Ariana Grande has had an intense year. After her whirlwind romance with Pete Davidson of “Saturday Night Live” and the tragic death of her ex-boyfriend, rapper Mac Miller, no one would have faulted Grande for taking a break from the spotlight.

But instead, Grande gave us Sweetener, a joyous album full of tender vocal runs and breezy beats. Powerful, sensuous tracks such as “God is a woman” serve as ideal companions to more cheery numbers à la “raindrops (an angel cried).” In Sweetener, Grande’s full vocal and emotional ranges are on display, with sensuality and vulnerability shining through in equal parts, making her artistic growth since 2016’s smash success Dangerous Woman easy to track.

What likely secured Grande the title of Best Artist, however, was her latest single, “thank u, next.” The chart-topping track celebrating the love, patience and pain brought about by one’s exes is the perfect companion to cuffing season and turkey drops alike. Even Billboard took notice of Grande’s incredible success and resilience in 2018, honoring her with its annual Woman of the Year award. Billboard cited Grande’s commitment to her unique brand of pop music and her strength as reasons to crown her this year’s winner.

Shannon O’Hara

Runner-up: Janelle Monáe

2018 was Janelle Monáe’s year. She released the landmark Dirty Computer and its accompanying “emotion picture,” toured the U.S. (with a concert that stunned in terms of its imagery, costuming and choreography) and came out as queer. While 2016 was the year of Monáe the actress — she gave her all in her sensitive portrayals in the Oscar-nominated films Moonlight and Hidden Figures — 2018 saw Monáe combine her musical artistry with her visual repertoire in her emotion picture. In Dirty Computer, she shirks the android persona she once used to obscure her real self and embraces her past and present, her fears and hopes, and her politicized, American identities. As the year comes to an end, we’re grateful for the way she makes us feel.

Caroline Smith

Contact The Daily Californian’s arts & entertainment staff at [email protected].

NOVEMBER 29, 2018