The start of the year is a no-man’s land for music. Whether it’s the weather, the residual best-of-last-year lists that linger into late January, or the Grammys (though probably not that last one), the first few months of the year have been rather bereft of big music stories. Just look at the marquee musical releases of the first quarter of 2018 — we’ve got bloated, nigh-unlistenable releases from established superstars like Justin Timberlake and Migos (and yes, I know it’s wild that Migos and Justin Timberlake are now in the same conversation for top tier male pop acts), a half-assed but enjoyable soundtrack album from Kendrick Lamar and a total of 3.5 songs from Drake. The second tier of pop musicians hasn’t exactly risen to fill the gaps left by the A-listers either — Camila Cabello, Lil Yachty, Logic and Fall Out Boy’s albums, while mostly fine, are unlikely to lodge themselves in the upper echelons of this year’s best albums. And while the spring has already brought us an instantly distinctive pop release in the form of Cardi B’s indomitable debut, “Invasion of Privacy,” the shape of pop in 2018 is still rough.
Yet the lack of particularly inspiring pop music for the first three months of the year doesn’t mean that there’s been a dearth of good music as a whole. And while my colleague Jacob Nierenberg has already gone through 10 of the best albums of the first part of 2018 (and made note of what to look forward to over the next few months), there are still many releases that may have flown under your radar. Here are ten singles from the first three months of 2018 from independent or unsigned acts that are far more worth your time than listening to all 105 minutes of “Culture II.”
“TenderHeaded,” the lead single from Chicago/Las Vegas-based singer/producer/rapper Cam O’Bi’s debut album, “Good Ass Kid,” is one of those perfect little slices of soul-rap joy that feels as effortless as a spring day, effortlessly harnessing nostalgia in both its sound, filled with childlike laughter and “oohs” and “aahs,” and its lyrics, which tell stories of childhood barbershop experiences. Of course, such skill with the themes of adolescence is to be expected from Cam — his production work includes Chance the Rapper’s “Coloring Book” and “Acid Rap” mixtapes, as well as Noname’s “Telefone” and SZA’s “CTRL,” four of the most evocative alt-rap/R&B releases of recent years. On “TenderHeaded,” he takes the starring role, and with a welcome assist from St. Louis rapper Smino, whose more hardnosed style is a nice companion to Cam’s softer touch, he does so with aplomb.
Recommended if you like: Chance the Rapper, Noname, Anderson .Paak, Tyler The Creator
“More of the Same” sounds unlike anything else. It’s retro in its stylings — note the perfectly layered organs and chorused-out guitar lines that welcome you to the song and undergird it — but utterly strange and futuristic in its lyrical tone, in the way that Rose sneers and chants out her lyrics. That disconnect, the old-fashioned and iconoclastic coexisting in one dynamo of a pop song, is the engine that fuels “More of the Same.” Rose, who also arranged the song (as well of the rest of her excellent sophomore album, “Loner”), excels in her vocal and lyrical performance, matching pointed barbs at “alternative hair cuts and straight white teeth” with a chorus that genuinely encapsulates the monotony of modernity without being boring itself.
Recommended if you like: Angel Olsen, Phoebe Bridgers, Parquet Courts, PJ Harvey
“Useless Machine” is a song about failure, about the kind of loss that reels through you and begins to inform your entire being, but it sounds like triumph. From the opening rave-up of the bass and drums to the song’s more contemplative, acoustic-guitar led bridge, the Boston-based Cosmic Johnny don’t let up the energy on the first single off “Good Grief,” their just-released debut album. Yet at the core of all of the glorious rock bombast and chaos here is lead singer and songwriter Mike Suh’s vocal performance, which marries the grim humor of Morissey’s delivery with something like the mysticism of “Hounds of Love”-era Kate Bush. “Useless Machine” is unabashedly a rock epic, one that would make a 70s arena rock group proud. But queer post-millennial recluses like me need rock epics too, and for that I am thankful for Cosmic Johnny.
Recommended if you like: Titus Andronicus, Car Seat Headrest, Against Me!, Cloud Nothings
Drakeo the Ruler, the newly ordained king of Los Angeles’ rap underground, is a figure fully ensconced in his own world. Listening to any of Drakeo’s raps feels weirdly intimate for standard boastful gang talk — it’s almost like you’re intruding on some natural order of his world, one that should not be tampered with. when you hear him speak on a beat. That tendency is on full display on “Ion Rap Beef,” a technical collaboration with fellow L.A rap upstard 03 Greedo that nonetheless feels like a showcase for Drakeo. He starts rapping, unfurling his characteristic voice— somewhere between a snarl and a croak, and doesn’t stop, going for nearly two whole minutes before ceding ground to any other figure. And the thing about Drakeo is that his lyrics, filled with hyper specific libraries of slang and a unflinching glibness about his gang-affiliated lifestyle, draw you in so intently that you don’t want him to stop.
Recommended if you like: Vince Staples, Nipsey Hussle, Freddie Gibbs, Kamaiyah
“Cuff” spends a minute and change floating in a synth-driven haze, a spare poem with references to couches on the east side and drinking all night delivered delicately by Sarah Tudzin, the force behind the LA-based Illuminati Hotties, whose debut album “Kiss Yr Frenemies,” drops May 11. And that intro is perfectly nice! It’s fine! But it’s not the main event here — those honors fall to the chorus, a velvet sledgehammer of a thing that astonishes in its sheer bigness. Tudzin describes herself on her bandcamp as a “tenderpunk pioneer” and the hook here is a perfect manifestation of that style, a loud, uncompromising show of force that still finds the time and the skill to be vulnerable. It’s a tough line to walk, but Illuminati Hotties (who, by the way, have an excellent name) nail it on “Cuff.”
Recommended if you like: Mitski, Jay Som, Diet Cig, Khalid
Jpegmafia is the musical equivalent of a shitposter — and that’s a good thing. The Baltimore rapper/producer’s sophomore album (after 2016’s “Black Ben Carson”) “Veteran” is full of profane, iconoclastic tracks with titles like “I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies” and “My Thoughts on Neogaf Dying,” but “Baby I’m Bleeding” is one of the best songs of the bunch. After a 40 second intro of discordant, industrial rhythms, Peggy launches into two sweltering, stream-of-consciousness verses, tying together an all-consuming disdain for everyone from soundcloud rappers to the president — plus (more favorable) shout outs to Kanye West and AJ Styles.
Recommended if you like: Earl Sweatshirt, Death Grips, clipping, Brockhampton, “Yeezus”
“Deadbody” starts out spare and harrowing— a starkly defined, plainly-spoken description of a sexual assault over bare piano chords. Yet from that dark place, the song builds into something defiant and beautiful, largely on the strength of Los Angeles singer-songwriter Miya Folick’s voice and lyrics, which cover an astounding emotional range for a song that clocks in slightly under three-and-a-half minutes. Folick’s voice is one of those astounding natural instruments, able to compelling portray everything from dead-eyed determination and righteous anger to something altogether more tender. Her EPs and singles over the past three years have revealed a startling range, from the surf rock of “Pet Body” to the torch songs of “Strange Darling” and the grunge rock of “Give it to Me.”
Recommended if you like: Florence + The Machine, Screaming Females, Alanis Morissette, Destroyer
“Natural History” is a spare song— just an acoustic guitar, a few ghostly notes of piano, and singer-songwriter Jade Matias Bell’s voice, which drifts like worried fire over the track. Yet despite its minimalist composition, “Natural History” feels titanic, rushing through you as it moves from the frantic, driving pace of its verse to the trickier rhythms of the chorus all the way to the song’s outro, which slows down and then speeds up to great effect. The song, the first single off of Nightjars’ forthcoming debut album “Body of Water,” pairs that masterclass in temporal variety with a starkly drawn lyrical picture— a story of loss and memory that is cryptic without being confusing, something mystical yet powerfully specific.
Recommended if you like: Andrew Bird, Julien Baker, Moses Sumney, Big Thief
Typhoon is a ridiculous band. The group, an 8-piece Indie Rock ensemble based in Portland, Oregon, sounds exactly like what a band of that size and provenance would be expected to sound like— all grand, sweeping choruses and intricately crafted, pseudo-philosophical lyrics, over a backing of swirling guitars and strings. “Offerings,” the album from which “Remember” comes from, even quotes the work of classic Italian director Federico Fellini multiple times— it’s really that sort of album. In less steady hands, Typhoon would be a mess. And yet, there’s something in frontman Kyle Morton’s entirely earnest, unironic presence that makes songs like “Remember,” with its twisting, multipart structure and lyrics on death and the loss of memory, work. Another point in its favor— the guitar break fucking rips.
Recommended if you like: Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, The New Pornographers, Any Other Indie Rock Group From The Mid-2000s With More Than Six Members
“Maybe,” the leadoff song on Woman Believer’s debut EP “DUNZO,” fits its name. It’s a song that shines in its embrace of ambiguity, from its gently rolling 60s-soul style beat to its lyrics, a constantly crossing-over set of zen koan-like couplets that never land on one topic or decision for too long. From certain lyricists such a tendency would be annoying, an exercise in psuedo-philosophical rambling, but in the adept hands of Christine Hucal, the Detroit-based vocalist, artist, and Vulfpeck collaborator at the center of Woman Believer, “Maybe” becomes something beautiful. In its bridge, a “soundscape” credited to Vulfpeck bandleader Jack Stratton provides a certain fantastical feeling, one that lets Hucal’s snap back to reality in the song’s last hook feel all the more grounding.
Recommended if you like: Vulfpeck, 90s Joni Mitchell, Lianne La Havas, Courtney Barnett
Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu.