For each of the last four days of 2018, Max is looking at the best music of 2018 through the prism of a different emotional state, placing them within a narrative to acknowledge the necessarily emotional and personal frames through which we interact with music. From anger and restlessness to depression, and finally arriving at a state of peace, we hope you’ll enjoy his exploration of the most electrically barbed and beautifully poignant songs of the past year. Read Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
The doctor looked at me and withered: “Now, what’s your alcohol consumption like?” Pretty fucking high, no thanks to the lack of help. “Well, that won’t be helping with your anxiety levels, will it? I suggest you cut back and come back when you’re drinking less.”
I want to be treated like enough of a person for them to give me the medications I need – is that expecting too much? I head back, wanting to kick a bin on the way out, and have to stand on a bus with an elbow jabbing me in the ribs at every lurch.
I see a man slam his hands on the bonnet of a car and instantly wish for him or the driver to get hurt.
Anger is by far one of the scariest, most uncontrollable things you can feel; when you see red, it transforms your whole world into a bristling crimson mess. You aren’t confined to a destructive space, though: finding a musical outlet for rage is, in my experience, one of the best ways of diffusing anger (if you don’t believe me, go have some conversations with some thrash metal fans: they are often the most laid-back people you can meet), and any artistic outlet further allows us to make something useful of rage. The music collected here is therefore both an escape route from anger’s frightening ungovernability, and a map towards its legitimate applications in the political sphere, all through songs released in 2018 for whose existence I’m grateful.
Dream Wife’s “F.U.U.” from their self-titled debut, was one of 2018’s most succinct expressions of rage: “I’m gonna fuck you up, gonna cut you up, gonna fuck you up.” What started as a song about a haircut (the vestiges of this are found in the chorus) became, in their words, “an unapologetic, no fucks given assault on what’s making you MAD”.
Demonic rage features in Blanck Mass’ single “Odd Scene”, with a “hell hammer rushing over me”, as well as when Death Grips shout about “my satanic urges” on Year of the Snitch’s “Black Paint”, a song on which they incorporated novel guitar punk elements in their always-unique music. One of the stylistically closer musicians to Death Grips – although he hates the comparison – is JPEGMAFIA, who combines excoriating sounds with incredible wordplay on “Baby I’m Bleeding” from his striking album Veteran: “Chains on my body, looking like a rapper / Acting like a slave when I’m gunning for my masters”. I dare anyone to get in his way.
Daughters’ “City Song”, the opener to their brilliantly dark You Won’t Get What You Want, portrays a city as an “empty glass”, punctuated with unsettling shrieks and weeps. Shame’s Songs of Praise has an equally strong opener – “Dust on Trial” – with Charlie Steen howling “What’s the point of talking / When all your words have been said?” amid a surge of rabid guitars – if anything, the album proves that there really is a point in talking when your lyrics can be as potent as theirs are.
2018 has been a particularly good year for music containing political anger, though (is anyone surprised given what the news cycle has become?) For me, it’s clear that the origin of most of my anger and the best direction it can take are political. Against the onslaught of ruthless austerity, the imminent environmental or nuclear apocalypse, racism, sexism, queerphobia of all stripes, the list goes on…, it’s not surprising how many musicians are moving from apolitical lyricism to overtly partisan causes.
Janelle Monáe did so, with her pop sloganeering fighting for black, queer, and women’s rights: “we gon’ start a motherfucking pussy riot”, she raps on “Django Jane” – and all of her Dirty Computer (and the “Emotion Picture” that accompanies it) is worth your time. The Carters reclaiming the Louvre (a space where black faces in paintings are those of slaves rather than any powerful black icons) in their jubilant video for “APESHIT” also hit the mark. The song’s lyrics demanded “repect on [Beyoncé’s] check” and critical recognition for Jay-Z’s 4:44. In 2016 and 2017 already, Beyoncé and Jay-Z had made radically politicised statements with “Formation” and “The Story of O.J.”. Since, their awareness of their rare pop cultural status as black musicians at the top of the charts has made them eager to use it to provoke and destabilise racism both overt and covert through their very existence.
Perhaps you’re more into guitar music, though: Courtney Barnett’s “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” from Tell Me How You Really Feel, one of her grungiest in terms of sound, will have you screeching along in the faces of self-important (and far too often male) twats; so will Jeff Rosenstock’s seven and a half minute “USA”, with its feelings of betrayal in light of Trump’s election perfectly crystallised into a chant of “et tu, USA!”. Like the rest of the album, POST-, which marks the irreversible break that occurred on 8 November 2016, this song portrays Rosenstock as “trapped in [his] room while the house was burning”, a common feeling among many of us whose countries have been imploding around us.
Maybe, though, you’d prefer jazz to pop or rock, in which case Sons of Kemet’s energising Your Queen Is A Reptile is the best way to spend an hour. Each track celebrates a different powerful black woman with which to replace the British (reptilian?) queen, and as they say on opener “My Queen Is Ada Eastman”, on ode to the saxophone player’s great-grandmother: “They want to keep us grimy / But my politics still lively”, something they more than prove over the course of the album.
Anger doesn’t have to be a negative emotion: if you pacify it when it’s out of hand, and you know when to direct it towards that which deserves outrage, it can be our most powerful tool.
-- Max Bastow, December 28, 2018