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Rap’s New Generation Took Over, Rock Ruled the Road and Radio Still Mattered

And more trends that defined the year in music

hip hop trends

Photo-illustration by Max-O-Matic

Hip-Hop’s New Generation Takes Over
The year in hip-hop made one thing blindingly clear: The old guard is, well, old. Kanye West executive-produced five albums over the summer, but it took a Lil Pump feature to get him any traction on streaming services. Nicki Minaj needed a duet with embattled rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine to make any real noise. The generation rushing to fill the vacuum at rap’s top isn’t always getting there on artistic merit — see the empty gestures masquerading as scintillation on Minaj and 6ix9ine’s hit “Fefe,” or Post Malone’s featherweight blockbuster Beerbongs & Bentleys —­ but, more often than not, the new class made the case that the genre was due for a change. Travis Scott’s Astroworld was a grand, sweeping album that finally got him out of the long shadow of his mentor, West; Noname and Tierra Whack produced thrilling breakthroughs without following anyone else’s rules; and Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy was a genuine, surprising tour de force that suggested a long career ahead. (Swizz Beatz, meanwhile, made likely the best album of his career with Poison precisely because he didn’t bother competing for oxygen with younger stars — it’s an exercise in aging gracefully.) The game has changed, and it’s for the better. —Brendan Klinkenberg

Indie Rock Is in the Middle of a New Golden Age
For some fans, the glory days of indie rock were the early Nineties, when bands like Pavement and Sebadoh made swirly guitars and introspective lyrics seem cool. That sound is enjoying a new golden age, thanks to artists too young to remember the Clinton years. “There was a lot of amazing guitar music from that time,” says Lindsay Jordan, 19, who records as Snail Mail (top). Her debut, Lush, exalted in emotional directness and sharp songcraft — as did Clean, by Sophie Allison (a.k.a. Soccer Mommy), 21, and Historian, by Lucy Dacus, 23. One common thread for these acts is a love for Liz Phair, who recently featured Soccer Mommy as an opening act. “Women are resonating with music that bolsters their courage and validates their experience of censorship in a hostile mainstream,” Phair says. “Sucks [to be] us, but I’m glad I can help.” —Jon Dolan

Rock Still Rules the Road
Look at the singles chart and you’ll see lots of rappers and pop stars, a smattering of DJs and country acts, and almost no rock bands. Rock doesn’t produce hits like it did in 1995 or even 2005. And yet, in the first three quarters of 2018, five of the 10 biggest tours were by rock acts. And in 2019, with the Rolling Stones headlining stadiums and Fleetwood Mac, Bob Seger, Elton John, Dead & Co., Kiss and Paul McCartney hitting arenas, the trend is unlikely to reverse itself. While hip-hop scores billions of streams, that doesn’t always translate to ticket sales; Post Malone sold fewer tickets in 2018 than Phil Collins or ventriloquist Jeff Dunham. “In the pop and hip-hop worlds it’s about the song, and many of them don’t seem to age well,” says Andy Cirzan, VP of Jam Productions. “But take a look at Greta Van Fleet. We just sold out three nights at the [5,000-seat] Aragon Ballroom. They are filling a void nobody even knew existed.” Alex Hodges, CEO of Nederlander Concerts, agrees. “We just did 14,000 people at Slayer at a soccer field in Sacramento, and then sold them out in San Jose,” he says. “You had three generations of fans there. Rock is dead? I refuse to hear that!” —Andy Greene

The Power of the Hollywood Soundtrack
Few predicted that the soundtrack to Hugh Jackman’s The Greatest Showman would be one of the year’s biggest albums, with more than 1.7 million copies sold to date. But pop stars and movie studios are working closely to create these blockbuster moments. Kendrick Lamar oversaw music for Black Panther, while Lady Gaga acted in and sang for A Star Is Born; both albums spent weeks at Number One. Sade made her first song in seven years, for A Wrinkle in Time. “Blockbuster films touch corners of the Earth that are hard to get to,” says Mike Caren of Artist Partners Group. —Elias Leight

There’s a Gold Rush for Young Rap Acts
Thanks to streaming, the recording industry is no longer hemorrhaging money. In 2018, people in the U.S. spent $8.7 billion on music — a 17 percent increase from 2017. Labels are taking the influx of cash and splurging it on one genre in particular: hip-hop. Teen rapper Lil Pump, who’s had only one hit, scored an $8 million record deal; XXXTentacion got $10 million and Brockhampton $15 million. Now that rap is the most popular genre in the U.S., the majors are forking out millions to find the next Drake or Cardi B. But the gold rush could be dangerous, as labels fling money at acts who might turn out to be one-hit wonders. “I think we’ll hit a tipping point,” warns Interscope Records EVP Joie Manda. —Amy X. Wang 

Mark Wystrach of Midland2018 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival - Day 3, Manchester, USA - 09 Jun 2018

Mark Wystrach of Midland performs at the 2018 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.
Photo credit: Amy Harris/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Nashville Is America’s New Rock Capital
For decades, the best country rock usually came from the “rock” side of the equation, from the Eagles to Wilco. Mainstream country’s own attempts to rock out usually came off cheesy and slick. But that’s beginning to change, thanks to artists like Eric Church, Brothers Osborne and Jason Isbell, mainstream acts who prize earthy guitars and Seventies AM-radio catchiness. Throw in Americana artists like Amanda Shires and Lilly Hiatt, and Nashville is becoming a rock & roll hotbed. “There’s a group of artists living near each other, sharing ideas and growing a sound,” says Cameron Duddy of the band Midland. “That’s not happening in New York or L.A., or even Austin.” —Joseph Hudak

Radio Means More Than You Think
Streaming now accounts for 75 percent of music-industry revenue, and every month about 1 million new listeners join a streaming platform. Those numbers might make radio seem like a relic, but that’s far from the case: 228.5 million Americans still turn on a radio each week, far more than the 68.5 million who use streaming audio, and 49 percent of respondents to a listener survey said they found new music on the radio, easily outpacing the 27 percent who found music through “online music services.” Radio programmers still affect the sound of music, too, helping turn songs like Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up” and Yella Beezy’s “That’s on Me” into hits. So don’t throw out your boombox just yet. —Elias Leight

In the Age of Trump, There’s No Escaping Politics 
“I don’t talk about politics,” Taylor Swift said in 2012. “I don’t think that I know enough yet in life to be telling people who to vote for.” That changed in a big way in 2018, when Swift endorsed two Democratic candidates in Tennessee, while blasting Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn for discriminatory and anti-gay policies. Swift proved that in the Trump era, the sidelines are no longer a safe space — especially after events that hit close to home, like the bombing of Ariana Grande’s 2017 concert in Manchester, England, and Vegas’ Route 91 Harvest festival, site of the deadliest mass shooting in American history. “Artists are less afraid to piss off the other side,” says a major music publicist. “The lines have been drawn. The divide is really a human divide.” Even conservative Nashville started to turn a corner; hitmaker Eric Church became a rare country star to blast the NRA in the wake of the Vegas massacre (“You shouldn’t have that power over elected officials,” he told Rolling Stone), while other country acts like Dierks Bentley and Florida Georgia Line started speaking out for gun control. “We’ve seen it firsthand,” said FGL’s Tyler Hubbard, who is currently urging fellow artists to join him as he calls for universal background checks. “Our fans and artists are getting shot.” Jason Isbell, another Nashville hero, became targeted by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which called him an “unhinged left[ist]” after he appeared at several Democratic campaign events. But Isbell wasn’t phased. “I’m hinged as hell,” he joked at a rally, later telling Rolling Stone, “We’re at a point where if I’m alive in 40 years, I’m gonna need to be able to sleep at night if I don’t do what I consider to be the right thing — which is speak my mind.” —Patrick Doyle

Albums Don’t Have the Staying Power They Used To
In the past, a new album from a heavy hitter like Lil Wayne, Logic, Eminem, J. Cole or Kanye West would’ve dominated charts and conversations for half a year. But in 2018, all of their LPs rocketed to the top and then crashed down at similarly dizzying speed. It’s a testament to how quickly things change in the digital age, when fans have more options (and shorter attention spans) than ever and artists are able to release more music more frequently. In 1998, there were 17 albums that made it to Number One on the album chart. In 2018? There were 37 as of December 1st. “It’s all about throwing out content,” said songwriter Savan Kotecha. Whether audiences will remember that content for more than a few weeks is another matter. —Amy X. Wang

Latin Pop No Longer Has to Be in English to Cross Over 
In 2016, four Latin tracks made the Hot 100. In 2018, that number was 18 — and 16 are predominantly, if not entirely, in Spanish. The success of all-Spanish reggaeton hits like Becky G and Natti Natasha’s “Sin Pijama,” and “X,” a knee-buckling club hit from J Balvin and Nicky Jam, is partly due to shifting demographics — at nearly 60 million, Latinos are the second-largest ethnic group in the U.S. But those songs couldn’t have done so well without wider support. They even received play on traditionally conservative pop radio — a sign that the appetite for songs in Spanish is increasing even among those who don’t speak the language. —Elias Leight 

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