At the start of this year, I lived in Texas, and by its end, I had driven 4,000 miles to Alaska. On the political and global stage, the word continued to shift and turn just as dramatically and quickly, leaving me dizzy as this year ends. The one constant has been a compulsion toward music, listened to in all manners of states—geographically and of being. Every year I compile a list of favorite albums, mostly for myself to revisit the music I’ve enjoyed, but this year the exercise has been particularly therapeutic—a way of tracking the year in song since it has made so little sense elsewhere. Here are 50 albums from this year in a somewhat arbitrary order that I’ve personally enjoyed more than other albums released from this year and that you might too or might’ve already but might’ve forgotten about.
Click here for the accompanying Spotify playlist: Personal Favorites of 2018
(RIYL = Recommend If You Like…)
1. Mitski – Be the Cowboy
RIYL… saying, “I feel that,” after hearing a lyric that cuts you deep, over and over again
2. Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
RIYL… descending through a poet’s clouded, troubled mental hellscape
3. Amen Dunes – Freedom
RIYL… cruising down city streets as the sun sets
4. Tirzah – Devotion
RIYL… holding a loved one on a blanket in a city park
5. Noname – Room 25
RIYL… staying up late listening to your smart friend regale you with stories and jokes
6. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
RIYL… metaphors for the love between marginalized peoples
7. Playboi Carti – Die Lit
RIYL… as the cover depicts, stage-diving into a mob of enthralled young people
8. Boygenius – boygenius
RIYL… ugly crying in public
9. Beach House – 7
RIYL… existential black and white french movies
10. Travis Scott – Astroworld
RIYL… navigating the sprawling houston metroplex with a confident guide
11. Julia Holter – Aviary
RIYL… gazing up into the night sky, searching for meaning
12. U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited
RIYL… dimly lit, hazy rooms
13. Rosalía– El Mal Querer
RIYL… losing yourself in dramatic fashion
14. Milo – budding ornithologists are weary of tired analogies
RIYL… densely crafted punchlines that complicate the rapper ethos
15. Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog
RIYL… gathering around a storyteller in the city center
16. Ariana Grande – sweetener
RIYL… mothafuckin’ artistry
17. Saba – CARE FOR ME
RIYL… the crisis of mortality you enter after losing a loved one
18. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
RIYL… flat Texas countryside and safe space dive bars
19. Sheck Wes – MUDBOY
RIYL… BALLIN’ LIKE A MUTHAFUCKIN’ PRO (punk is dead. long live the new punks.)
20. Wye Oak – The Louder I Call, the Faster I Run
RIYL… a band constantly perfecting its sound
21. Pusha T – Daytona
RIYL… bars that got Drake shook
22. The Internet – Hive Mind
RIYL… tipsy swiping on tinder
23. Half Waif – Lavender
RIYL… grabbing a stranger on the dancefloor and realizing its someone you love
24. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
RIYL… Cardi B
25. Tierra Whack – Whack World
RIYL… you got just watch this one if you haven’t seen it, and if you have, watch it again: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOTebhPy04g
26. Lucy Dacus – Historian
RIYL… songs about loss that don’t diminish your faith in humanity
27. Snail Mail – Lush
RIYL… that exhilarating but anxiety-inducing period after graduating
28. Robyn – Honey
RIYL… sugar-coated dance anthems
29. Kamasi Washingtion – Heaven and Earth
RIYL… metaphysical jazz
30. Anderson Paak – Oxnard
RIYL… viewing the world through rose-tinted shades
31. Iceage – Beyondless
RIYL… a post-punk, gothic fireworks display
32. Grouper – Grid of Points
RIYL… having your physical essence dissolve into static
33. Leikeli47 – Acrylic
RIYL… a modern, black matriarchy
34. Spiritualized – And Nothing Hurt
RIYL… imagining a miniscule version of yourself inside black-and-white landscape portraits
35. Courtney Marie Andrews – May Your Kindness Remain
RIYL… believing in yourself and the goodness of others
36. Deafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
RIYL… volleying between transcendent grace and consuming anger
37. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel
RIYL… earnest introspection that sounds sarcastic
38. JID – Dicaprio 2
RIYL… thinking about what would happen if Busta Rhymes and Kendrick Lamar raised a son together
39. Ambrose Akinmusire – Origami Harvest
RIYL… complicating the lines between orchestral, jazz, and rap music
40. White Denim – Performance
RIYL… wanting to know how a song sounds live
41. Superorganism – Superorganism
RIYL… imagining social media as pop musical
42. Jean Grae and Quelle Chris – Everything’s Fine
RIYL… cleverly masking your pain with wry comedy
43. Vince Staples – FM!
RIYL… california summers, summer fun, wondering if you’ll make it to tomorrow
44. Thee Oh Sees – Smote Reverser
RIYL… music that fuckin’ rips
45. serpentwithfeet – soil
RIYL… a self-actualizing dollhouse pagan ritual
46. Mick Jenkins – Pieces of a Man
RIYL… Gil Scott Heron in the trap
47. Open Mike Eagle – What Happens When I Try to Relax
RIYL… playing mental games with yourself to get through a party
48. Masaego – Lady Lady
RIYL… being seduced in a library
49. Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer
RIYL… Father John Misty as much Father John Misty likes Father John Misty
50. Joji – BALLADS 1
RIYL… wondering what a young George Michael would’ve posted on soundcloud
To all of my family, friends, and mentors in the DFW and to the best, most loyal athlete in sports history to whom I’ve committed y’all to metaphor
The perfect shot arcs with the miraculous bend of a note sustained at just the right time in the melody. You don’t watch the perfect shot; you hear it. In fact, you turn your back as it elevates. You raise your right hand as it bends, throw up your signature gesture—a three-pronged peace sign—and stick out your tongue as if to mock physics itself. Even without looking, you know it’s in.
The crowd knows too, though they tense up as it flies. They are watching Schrödinger’s basketball—both in and not in all at once. Until, finally, less than a second later, it splashes through the hoop, and the music of the swish fades into the roaring of the crowd.
I have seen the perfect shot. It is a basketball arcing from the hands of a man, or should I say giant?, as he appears to topple over—knee-bent, toes pointed, back at an odd diagonal with the court. There are many iterations of this shot, but I am drawn to one in 2011. You stare down Chris Bosh, dribble once, dribble twice, push your shoulder off of Bosh’s chest; the announcer calls your name. We’re (the team, I should say, but you know how sports fandom works) leading by 8 in what will be the last game of the NBA finals. And here comes the shot, picture perfect from the baseline, over the outstretched arms of the defender. I wept.
As with all great talents, an element of mythos now surrounds your shot, engineered, as it were, by a mad German scientist at the so-called Institute of Applied Nonsense. Dr. Holger and Dirk—Frankenstein and his monster—every summer in the gym, adding equipment to what y’all’ve dubbed “the toolbox.” So tall, so seemingly stiff, and but yet all that time in the lab has made you a poet with the basketball, moving with such a frantic precision.
Like many an adolescent whose formative years were the aughts in Dallas, I, too, wanted to master that shot, “the one-legged fadeaway.” Dallas courts were littered us. Just like there were once little Jordans, sticking their tongues out as they stretched for the rim, and now are little Currys, chewing their mouth guards as they lob a three from damn near half-court. I was a little black kid, when most other little black kids had their signature Iverson headbands, but I idolized you, a 7ft tall German. Always, I am, a racial confusion.
I had no gift for the sport and would soon max out an average height, forever killing the dream. Still, your shot motivated me—if not to be an NBA star then to just be.
All those years you chose to stay in Dallas, and before I knew it, your shot was how I marked time. I wrote my first story in the 8th grade, during the lead up to your first finals appearance. In your game, I have always seen a frenzied, improvised kind of poetry. Your mad scientist likens it to jazz, and certainly, the analogy works. I still thought I could ball at the time but was starting to realize that I might have to create in another medium, one that didn’t require so much of my pudgy body. Each game I watched energized me, and I would scribble nonsense words on whatever scraps of paper I could find—my own jazz-like method of creation.
When you lost, when the team lost, when we lost that final game of the ’06 finals, I heard you and your inner circle spent all night in the stadium, the pain too much to bear. Those next few years, I’ve read, carried a pressure that should have crushed an NBA career. I remember.
The next year, you would win the league MVP but wouldn’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs. That was the rhythm of those years… some success that amounted only to an early exit. In that time, your fiancée was arrested at your home, leaving you “sad and furious.” In that time, my family moved three times in the same neighborhood, trying to ignore the lurking shadow of bankruptcy. In that time, my dad suffered a third stroke. I was a junior in high school and misplaced my anger. I went to band practice instead of the hospital. We watched you play the Kings that night. You, we, lost. I didn’t tell my friends where I was headed when the youth pastor came to pick me up, to take me to visit my father.
“I see you, after the final buzzer sounds, rushing to the locker room so that you don’t have to share your emotions with the camera, and I see my dad, wiping his own tears away.”
Before the 2010-11 season, you took a pay cut and re-signed for your 13th season in Dallas. I entered my last year of high school. I thought I could die at any moment, and sometimes, the thought was a welcome one. You might remember being 18 too.
It is not fair to put any spiritual substance on that championship run. The run, after all, was just a series of games, that perfect shot connecting with the target over a thousand times, and nothing more, but when I think of it, I tear up. I see you, after the final buzzer sounds, rushing to the locker room so that you don’t have to share your emotions with the camera, and I see my dad, wiping his own tears away. Destiny achieved.
It’s not fair, any of this. You’re a person, after all, a private person but a person nonetheless, with all the messiness that entails, and here I’ve conflated skill with something even less tangible. Your career as Maverick has nothing to do with my time growing up in Dallas nor my impending departure for the Great White North, and yet when you re-signed for your 21st season, more than anyone else with one team, the emotion of that champion season swelled in the pit of my stomach.
Your shot, that perfect shot, is not those downtown trips on the DART to gallivant around Deep Ellum clubs. It is not the English teachers who encouraged and helped improved my craft. It is not learning to play the bass to join the worship band. It is not the group of writers who met in classrooms, bars, living rooms to drink and to discuss each other’s words. It is not the merry band of creative weirdos in the Spiderweb Salon that so inspire. It is not those nights bouncing around a living room in North Dallas, sweating and shouting with strangers and friends alike. It is not the students that still e-mail stories a year-or-so after the last day of class. There aren’t even convenient moments in your Mavericks tenure for me to draw satisfactory comparisons for any of the above. So why then does your shot and my time here seem so interchangeable? Is it just a constancy, like looking down at the footprints in the sand or, rather, the sneaker scuffs on the hardwood? Just a convenient metaphor for an emotionally-stunted product of the DFW branch of the patriarchy? Maybe it’s because I thought I wouldn’t ever leave, couldn’t ever leave, my financial mishaps proving too much a burden to overcome. Or, maybe, your shot truly is so perfect that, like the best of symbols, I can observe whatever, whoever I want in it… the good, the bad, the in-between.
You struggled with the move to Dallas. It’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when you weren’t the jolly German giant with murals all over the metroplex. You were once a towering teenager with a goofy haircut and one hooped earring, wandering the hot, humid Texas streets—will that be me, the average height black man with a snapback, kicking up snow in the Alaskan wilderness?
There are no professional sports franchises in Alaska, so my allegiances will not face much opposition, though you couldn’t get me to turn if you dropped me in the middle of the Staples Center with your royal blue 41 on my back. I’d still let out a hearty, “Fuck the Lakers,” and start practicing my, your, our fadeaway as I once did as a naïve little boy, dribbling on the asphalt, with dreams of being just like Dirk.