Music News: Top trends of 2018


Mitski performs in The Current studio
This guitar, photographed in The Current studio, belongs to Mitski - one of the women who ruled rock in 2018. Why aren't they having the same commercial success as their male peers? (Nate Ryan | MPR)
Top trends of 2018
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As 2018 comes to a close, we look back at this year's biggest music trends: the evolution of the album, women rule in rock, trap dominates pop, and festivals possibly peak out.

Is the album dead?

Not if you ask the artists behind this year's biggest discs: Taylor Swift, Drake, and Post Malone. Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that albums haven't been, overall, less relevant to the music world since before Sgt. Pepper.

A lot of this year's most talked-about songs didn't come with albums: Childish Gambino's "This Is America," Ariana Grande's "Thank U, Next," "I Love It" by Kanye West and Lil Pump. All of those songs came with widely-discussed videos: even though a viral video can't drive a song up the charts quite as easily since Billboard tweaked its Hot 100 metric to more heavily weight paid streams, it still seems near-essential to making a track click...especially if it comes with a dramatic debut, like "This is America" dropping when Donald Glover played it on Saturday Night Live.

The albums that do still seem important are, increasingly, soundtracks. A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody both sent tracks into the stratosphere, and the video game soundtrack Red Dead Redemption 2 has been credited for doing more for Americana music than any album since...yep, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack in 2000.

Women rule in why aren't they getting airplay?

This year's most acclaimed guitar-driven albums were, largely, made by women: Mitski (Be the Cowboy), Courtney Barnett (Tell Me How You Really Feel), Kacey Musgraves (Golden Hour), Snail Mail (Lush), Soccer Mommy (Clean), Neko Case (Hell-On)...the list goes on. But when you look at the list of top rock songs getting airplay, what do you see? Men. Lovelytheband, Foster the People, Weezer, Muse, and of course Imagine Dragons. It's just as bad on the country charts, which just clocked their first week in three decades without a single woman in the top 20 airplay chart.

When will women start getting their commercial dues? Eventually, we can hope, since the tide seems to be turning. Girls are buying as many guitars as boys, and retailers are learning they have to break their dude-centric cultures if they want to break a profit.

When will the trap era end?

It might seem like we're not talking about trap music as much this year...Fetty Wap was so 2015, and "Black Beatles" is the song your family used to soundtrack its Thanksgiving Day mannequin challenge video back in 2016.

But trap beats haven't gone away...they've just become ubiquitous. As Rolling Stone puts it, "trap is the new pop." This year, that applied to hits by artists you wouldn't exactly call trap stars: Ariana Grande ("God Is a Woman"), Taylor Swift ("End Game"), Selena Gomez ("Fetish"), Demi Lovato ("Tell Me You Love Me"), and even Kelly Clarkson ("Love So Soft"). That's all in addition to the hip-hop smashes that go straight trap.

What is it about those tinny, glitchy trap beats that makes them so sticky? In a 2017 year-end reflection, the New York Times speculated it might have to do with the gloomy mood of the country, and/or that the style is well-suited to tiny speakers like the ones we have on our phones. Eventually, the fashion will change — it always does — but right now, trap is, like, totally mainstream.

The bigger story, as the Times notes in this year's recap, is the ascendance of hip-hop to such a dominant genre that it effectively suffuses all the others. But we'll save that story for next year, when we look back at the trends of the decade.

Have we reached peak festival?

Festivals have always been a big part of popular music, but in recent years, they've just seemed to get bigger and bigger and bigger. Beyoncé’s epic, live-streamed performance at Coachella this year set a new bar, but the bar was already pretty high. There are so many big festivals now, they're literally bumping into each other with radius clauses that prevent artists from playing anywhere nearby...and then there are the innumerable smaller, specialty festivals. Will 2019 be the year we finally get festival-ed out?

It's not looking that way. The next frontier is Asia, with its massive population and artists — notably, K-pop bands — that are increasing in international popularity. Governments in countries like China and Vietnam don't love the idea of hosting more festivals, but their citizens may not give them much of a choice. Meanwhile, festivals are taking to the waves with a cruise ship music boom; festivals are increasingly common in the winter months, not just the summer any more; and psychedelic festivals are proliferating if you're looking for a mind-altering experience.

With all these festivals comes an increased attention to safety concerns. Organizers are taking increasingly proactive steps to keep attendees safe from sexual assault — up to and including banning men.

Songs sampled in podcast
Jahzzar: "Comedie" (CC BY 4.0)
Childish Gambino: "This is America"
Soccer Mommy: "Cool"
Ariana Grande: "God is a Woman"
Beyonce: "Halo"

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