The World is a Mess but Music is Still Magical: A Mid 2019 Guide To 2018 (or) 50 Releases From Last Year Worth Your Time
Yup, I did it. I put together a list of my favorite 50 albums of 2018 a full six months after the year had already ended. “But Casey”, you might say, “2018 was traumatizing- the continued rise of alternative facts, kids in cages, Pete Davidson and Ariana Grande breaking up- nobody wants to relive that shit.” Which is fine. I totally get it. But I mean, do you realize how slow the film industry can be for a freelancer during January? Like, there were only so many times I could get off to the breathtaking passing of The Joker before I needed a change of pace.
Besides, I’ve always found the early December drop date for end-of-the-year lists premature. There is a reason the Oscars don’t usually happen until March: The Academy needs time to absorb a year’s worth of content before voting (and even then, the wrong films often win). Finances and attention spans may dictate that critics crown masterpieces quickly, but legacies are cemented with the clarity of time.
2018 was an odd year in music. Much like 2014, there was an abundance of quality but not much that stands out as an immediate classic. Usually, there is an album or two that worms its way into my soul and causes an unquenchable hunger for repeat listens. A parasite without the associated nutritional deficiencies. This year, I was more like a middle schooler cycling through the latest fad… enjoying myself in the moment but unsure of whether the record I purchased might wind up stashed in my parents’ attic next to the baseball cards my Mom keeps hinting I should throw away.
The decades-long pattern of young musicians planting a stick of dynamite into the concept of “genres” and lighting the fuse continued. The year’s best albums pushed the boundaries of genre until they became as blurry as an episode of standard definition television (after 5 shots of gin. And a bump of ketamine). Meanwhile, the rapper that everybody hates themselves for loving led the charge in popularizing the release of EP’s disguised as albums. Seriously, Kanye decides he’s gonna produce a series of albums that are exactly 7 songs long and suddenly everybody is getting off on the short shit. As if his ego needed any reason to get bigger.
It makes sense though. Most people seem to listen to Spotify on shuffle and it’s killing the album as an art form. Which is exactly why I started making lists like this… to shove the value of the album down your throat like a dad pushing vegetables onto his toddler (or dog since the internet is now a thing). Think of me as a more pleasant version of your grocery store’s resident vegan. I may be opinionated and self righteous, but at least I’m not gonna try and sell you on the merits of tofu.
Rule 1: The Tiers
I could sit here and shift an album’s placement around and around and around. I’m really good at channeling my inner Rob Gordon. (And I’m not just referring to the fact that I’m a hopeless romantic with a serious habit of self sabotage.) Ranking albums is hard and completely reliant on the whims of the day. With that in mind, I’ve decided to take the approach that my favorite basketball podcasts take when analyzing playoff contenders and create tiers.
Rule 2: Ten Listens
This one is straightforward. In most years, I have a tentative list of roughly 40 albums by the time December rolls around. I then binge various end-of-the-year lists for 2 months and expand to 50 or 60 albums from there. This tends to promote a sort of recency bias. Albums from the beginning of the year that I’ve listened to dozens of times get pushed down the list in favor of newer discoveries. Thus, I force myself to listen to every album at least 10 times before including it here.
Rule 3: No End of the Year Discoveries in the Top 10
The logic behind Rule 2 and Rule 3 are identical. Preventing recency bias.
THE 40 OZ. TO A HANGOVER (WHEN YOU'RE 32) DRINKING GAME:
TIER 6: (Honorable Mentions)
Okay, I claimed this list was “only” 50 albums deep… But I’ve already touched upon the fact that I’m an indecisive twerp. (I used to drive my friends crazy anytime we made a Friday night trip to Blockbuster.) I’ve also been informed that all the things Boomers don’t like about Millennials can be blamed on the fact that we were given participation trophies as children. So it seems only fitting to celebrate a tier of albums one might call “Pretty, Pretty Good” with a series of loglines.
60) Nothing: Dance on the Blacktop [shoegaze, metal] After getting jumped by a fan after a concert, Dominick Palermo developed CTE and coped by bathing in a tub of glittery grunge revivalism.
59) Smino: Noir [hip-hop, alternative r&b] Slushy hip-hop melts in the summer sun leaving its listener sticky sweet and jonesing for a refill.
58) Hookworms: Microshift [indie rock] In a world where emotionally wrought and danceable indie rock is sooo 10 years ago, there exists a clan for whom dancing yourself clean is considered a bi-weekly ritual (and there is nothing objectionable about another worthwhile entry in the DJ database).
57) Ross From Friends: Family Portrait [deep house] A guy who named himself after one of pop culture’s most insufferable and neurotic characters creates transfixing house music for beautiful bohemians to grind their teeth to in the company of cacti-covered roads and moonlit skies.
56) Natalie Prass: The Future and the Past [pop, soul] Natalie Prass refuses to shy away from the politics of The Now while dancing to the funky soul of The [Back] Then. (Rosie O’ Donnell fails to make a cameo.)
55) R+R = Now: Collagically Speaking [nu-jazz] Pianist Robert Glasper gathers a bunch of his friends to “reflect and respond” during a jazz session that bops to its own magical (and very modern) beat.
54) Nine Inch Nails: Bad Witch [alternative rock] A kid reverts to his high school self and finds himself listening to a plethora of Nine Inch Nails- except that Trent Reznor has evolved into an Oscar winning composer channeling [Black Star] Bowie.
51) Hop Along: Bark Your Head Off, Dog [indie rock] A music nerd dismisses a shift in tone from one of his favorite indie bands, and the album only clicks once he is putting the finishing touches upon a months-long project... at which point he is too lazy to find its proper place within the list and write it a full review.
SIDE TANGENT 1: FOR THE LOVE OF THE [VIDEO] GAMEThose of you who grew up playing old school video games understand the concept of a save point. You’d grind your way through a level, successfully fighting off the zombie apocalypse in spite of clunky controls… and it would all be for naught if you couldn’t find a typewriter before your mom decided you had played enough video games for the day. How is this relevant? Well, since I’m fully aware that Americans are overworked, short on time and mostly lacking in the attention span to required to absorb long form “journalism”, I’m going to institute save points within all my blabbering. That way you have an easy point of re-entry should you not want to consume this in one sitting.
Save Point One Reached
50) Vince Staples: FM [rap] College kids these days have it so good. I mean, sure, tuition rates are still outrageous and political correctness on campuses is as prevalent as AIDS in the late 80s.... but at least they don't have to suffer through Lil’ Jon shouting “til the sweat drip down my balls” every time they attend a party. This generation of rappers just does bangers better, and FM is a succinct stack of them.
Since rattling the rap world with Summertime 06’ back in 2015, Vince Staples has become the king of the crossover. Flume, James Blake, The Gorillaz: he’s collaborated with all of them. In the process he has broadened not only his appeal but also his sound. His beats have warped in a noticeably electronic direction with tinges of future bass, footwork and house music now clouding his west coast sound.As the title implies, FM is formatted to emulate a top 40 radio station complete with DJ’s, radio call-ins and snippets of advertisements. On the surface, FM is a strikingly superficial release from a man who has long been celebrated for his cerebral spin on gansta rap. Gone are the cynical jabs at Obama, the pointed snipes at racial heirecies or the crass call-outs of the one percent. Yet its festival of brash materialism and violence sits under a nimbostratus of subtle satire.
49) Ought: Room Inside the World [new-wave] Ought’s brand of art rock has often landed somewhere between the intellectual spirit of the Talking Heads and the visceral spontaneity of Sonic Youth. On the band’s first two LPs Tim Darcy tended to mumble-sing conversationally over chaotic chords that lurched with the urgency of youth. Room Inside the World, the group focused on sharpening their songwriting and expanding their sound even if their music is still very much fixated on the human condition (and maintaining positivity amidst the white noise).
Darcy told The Skinny. that the band “wanted to take time we hadn’t taken before to write in that really concentrated way”. The songs on Room Inside the World are concise yet eloquently composed. The rawness that defined the band has been sanded and polished. Album centerpiece “Desire” features a 70 person backup choir while “Brief Shield” utilizes a dissonant orchestral arrangement. Darcy’s whispered yelps, meanwhile, have evolved into a full-fledged crooning that would make Morrissey proud. Room Inside the World could be accused of being the sum of its 80’s influences, but it’s also a surprisingly delicate and mature album.
48) Anna Calvi: Hunter [art rock] There was a lot of hype surrounding Calvi when she first appeared at the beginning of the decade. Brian Eno even referred to her as the “best thing since Patti Smith”. With such hyperbolic language straight from the lips of a visionary producer, one would presume that Anna Calvi would be a bigger name at this point in her career. Yet this is also a woman who once boasted that she approaches each album hoping “to make the most uncommercial music I possibly can” and claims her music is influenced by the films of Wong Kar Wai. For those out of the loop, Wai is a Chinese autuer known for his known for his hyper-stylized, defiantly plotless arthouse films.
In other words, it’s actually not too surprising that Calvi is still a cult act despite her immense talents. Hunter is unabashedly gothic in its sensibilities. Anna’s operatic wail floats above her sparse but emotive guitar. It’s a style that’s as prone to bluesy freakouts as it is empty spaces. Her lyrics focus heavily on queer identity and gender fluidity while also using imagery suited for a neo-noir script. She’s sort of the U.K. equivalent of Lana Del Rey- a notion that should tell you right now whether this album is for you.
47) Rejjie Snow: Dear Annie [hip-hop] You would never guess Rejjie Snow was from Dublin, Ireland based off his (lack of) accent. Dear Annie sounds like an export of Southern California. A mutt of woozy R&B and funk driven rap, the album brings to mind artists like Tyler the Creator and Anderson Paak. It’s an ambitious and sprawling maze of brooding emotions. Regret, hope, grief, joy and longing ferment in a cask of Kaytranada (and like-minded) beats. Conceptually it loosely follows a relationship that develops while Snow is on tour and quickly sours, but the lyrics hardly matter. It’s Rejjie’s flexible flow and the slick production that demand attention. This is a voice with a vision, a rapper capable of putting out a masterpiece- if only he can bring himself to trim the fat on the next go-round.
46) Armand Hammer: Paraffin [hip-hop] Armand Hammer = rappers Billy Woods and Elucid making the type of abstract and sample heavy hip-hop that defined the New York underground of the 2000’s. It makes sense when you connect the dots. Billy Woods has deep ties to the now defunct Def Jux label that was home to not only Aesop Rock but also founder El-P (who later gained mainstream fame via Run the Jewels). Cannibal Ox rapper Vordul Mega was the person who first encouraged Billy to pick up a mic. He also introduced Woods to Blockhead, the beatmaker behind Aesop’s most iconic works, and they would go onto to collaborate on three separate albums.
The beats on Paraffin are ever-shifting and claustrophobic like a Blockhead track drowning in an elevator of honey. It’s the perfect pairing for the album’s gritty and dense lyrics. Elucid and Woods are preoccupied with the constant hustle forced upon city dwellers by rising costs and stagnant wages. Their rhymes are littered with images of poverty and cold eyed observations about late stage capitalism fogged in metaphors and a splintered train of thought. Paraffin = an album that manages to be old school in its vibes while also nailing the aura of 2018.
SIDE TANGENT 2: DEAR MR. BANCROFT
Apologies to my high school (freshman year, specifically) grammar and mechanics teacher. I swear I still know the difference between an independent and dependent clause. Good grammar is simply stylistically outdated. If it eases your concern, I scored highly on such things when I took the SATs… so you totally helped me get into college.
Also, you were right on the morning of 9/11... America never recovered. (That won’t make you feel better, but it does cause me to think of you from time to time.)
45) Courtney Barnett: Tell Me How You Really Feel [indie rock] On the one hand, I’m surprised a Courtney Barnett record has managed to land this low on my list. On the other, I’m sort of grading her on a curve. Tell Me How You Really Feel is only Barnett’s 2nd LP, but I consider her debut Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit (and the double EP that preceded it) to be among the finest offerings any musician has given us this decade. The Australian’s voice is nothing to tweet home about, but she makes up for it by being a shrewd lyricist and a wicked guitar player. The Stephen Malkmus, J Mascis blueprint basically.
The last time I saw her live a (female) friend turned to me slack jawed and said “I didn’t know women could play guitar like this”. I think of that moment whenever Tell Me How You Really Feel is spinning on my turntable because misogyny is a reoccuring theme within the album. She even slips a Margaret Atwood quote into the snarling chorus of “Nameless, Faceless:” “I wanna walk through the park in the dark/ Men are scared that women will laugh at them/ I wanna walk through the park in the dark/ Women are scared that men will kill them/ I hold my keys/ Between my fingers”.
Barnett seemed to be throwing muses to herself in a field of self reflection in her earlier work, but on Tell Me she speaks directly to her audience. The songs fluctuate between abrasive grunge and sunny alt-rock while maintaining the poetic turn of phrase that is Barnett’s trademark. “Shave your head to see how it feels/ Emotionally it’s not that different /But to the hand it’s beautiful”... Tell Me How You Really Feel might be Barnett’s least ambitious work, but damn do lines like that hit this bald guy hard in the feelings place.
44) Matthew Dear: Bunny [synth pop] Matthew Dear’s synthesis of techno, post-punk and electro pop is less jarring than it was ten years ago. The base elements of his music have all grown in popularity over the course of the decade. Perhaps that is why Bunny finds Dear (whose music has drawn comparisons to artists ranging from David Bowie to Depeche Mode) embracing the popier side of his enigmatic palette. Or maybe it’s that the musician is now a father of three.
Either way, songs like “Horses” (which features Tegan and Sara) and “Bunny’s Dream” are built around the ominous rhythms that have become Dear’s trademark, but the textures surrounding them contain a levity that was absent from his previous work. It results in an a welcome ambiguity in Bunny’s tone. If albums like Black City were striking in their ability to set a scene, Bunny stands out for its adaptability to any mood. Somewhere in America is a kid is giddily doing The Floss to “What You Don’t Know” while his depressive high school sister sits on the couch painting her fingernails black.
43) Khruangbin: Con Todo El Mundo [psychedelic rock, funk] Much has been made of the fact that the Khruangbin took their band name from the Thai word for “engine fly” because it so perfectly fits the Texas trio’s worldly music. Most reviews of Con Todo El Mundo mention the funk scene of 1960’s Thailand as the reference point for the album’s sound. That’s a segment of music history I know nothing about (though Khruangbin released a playlist for the curious), but it’s an album that also brings to mind the work of Santana and Sandy Bull.
Suffice it to say that Con Todo El Mundo is full of mellow, funky surf rock that would make the perfect soundtrack to a beachside bonfire. The band has referred to their creation process as an “improvised dialogue” between the musicians which is reflected the jam-centric nature of the album. It's a mostly instrumental affair; any vocals are muted and function as simple seasoning to groovy baselines and rootsy guitar. This is dance music at it’s most timeless; the unicorn capable of uniting millenials and baby boomers in its virtue.
42) Father John Misty: God’s Favorite Customer [singer/songwriter] The music of Father John Misty (aka Josh Tillman) has long induced the same sense of distaste that a 3 hour old pot of Folgers stirs inside of me. Sure, I could probably use the caffeine, and there are few things I enjoy more than a cup of good coffee... But the key word there is *good*. No matter how much cream and sugar I add to it, Folgers is still going to leave me unsatisfied and suffering from a bout with excess stomach acid. And if I wanted to listen to somebody imitating Elton John, I’d go to my local piano bar...
Except that God’s Favorite Customer changes the formula and, by doing so, my perception of the musician. Album opener “Hangout at the Gallows” sounds like peak Beatles, and its bluesy piano and bursts of electric guitar set the tone for the rest of the album. This is Father John embracing good old fashioned rock and roll, and it suits him. There is an edginess to the proceedings as John shows off his falsetto while sprinkling in backing vocals and the minor keys of his piano. The instrumentation is more fleshed out, layered and lively.
Father John Misty’s lyrics, which balance humor with the philosophical and confessional, are what earned him his large cult audience, and they do not disappoint on God’s Favorite Customer. “Mr. Tillman” gathers a series of one liners that Josh has presumably received from hotel clerks over the years and uses them to paint a poignant portrait of life on the road (and the questionable behavior it triggers). Meanwhile the chorus of the aforementioned “Hangout at the Gallows” provocatively asks “What's your politics?/ What's your religion?/ What's your intake?/ Your reason for living?” of its listener.
Music will always be a personal experience. There are people who will scoff at me calling God’s Favorite Customer “the best” Father John Misty album when his prior work is universally acclaimed. So instead, I’ll encourage people who didn’t think I Love You Honey Bear was the best Hipster invention since goat yoga to give it a listen. Cause his die-hards have already heard it anyways.
SIDE TANGENT 3: EVEN RAY CHARLES WAS WRONG SOMETIMES
My parents are amazing people. I hope that doesn’t come across in a “my baby is adorable” (but really looks like a soggy cheeto) sort of way. By all metrics that are used to measure such things, they have been great parents. A) They preached empathy and critical thinking. B) They never pressured me to become a doctor or a lawyer. C) They managed to raise my brother and me without murdering us during our teenage years. (Even after my fourteen year old brother stole the car during a blizzard and crashed it into a fire hydrant. Or I stole my mom’s credit card to buy cigarettes, sugar cookies and masturbation material for my fellow neighborhood delinquents.) D) They don’t watch Fox News… which is vital to my sanity as an adult.
That said, one of the on-going battles we’ve had over the years revolves around the merits of hip-hop. (They would call it rap). The media’s war on the genre during the 1990’s definitely corrupted their ability to hear clearly on the issue. “Even Ray Charles scoffs at the idea of calling it music” was the expected rebuttal during my teenage years. That stance has softened with time, but anytime I’ve attempted to play my father hip-hop that demonstrates the poetic nature of the medium, he complains that the rapper is “talking too fast to understand”. I always figured that to be nothing more than excuses... and then last year, I realized I was struggling to catch lyrics from a lot of my favorite rappers.
I must be reaching the age in which evolution intended me to be a parent. That or I should have listened to my dad when he warned that listening to my Ipod Classic at full volume was a bad idea. (Even our parents are right sometimes).
41) Mick Jenkins: Pieces of a Man [hip-hop] People were quick to label Mick Jenkins as the next big voice in hip-hop after he dropped his mixtape The Water(s) in 2014. It was a heady release built around the metaphor of drinking water as feeding your soul (and the assertion that people aren’t drinking enough H20). That may sound pretentious but The Water(s) escaped such accusations because A) Mick Jenkins was not excluding himself from the thesis and B) the beats were often intoxicating. His major label debut The Healing Component (2016) was even more ambitious with its drowsy, indie electronica influenced beats tangled around themes of love and oppression. When it went largely unnoticed despite being one of the year’s better albums, Mick Jenkins could have used his lack of commercial success as reason to dumb down his artistic ambitions. Instead, he twists his sound in new directions while staying true to himself.
Loosely inspired by the Gil Scott-Heron album of the same name, Pieces of a Man finds Mick exploring the way we mask our true self from others and its implications. “People forget that what we see of somebody at work is a work persona… most of the time we’re only getting pieces of people, but we do not refrain from making that be the whole you” he told Dazed in September. It’s another dense concept from an artist who refuses to abandon his poetic side. Perhaps the beats on Pieces of a Man are meant to compensate, as they are surprisingly straight-forward. The album borrows a boom bap template but binds it with the sounds of Mick Jenkins hometown of Chicago and its vibrant jazz scene. Drum based loops are fleshed out with live instrumentation and a dash of electronics. It’s a throwback sound that should appeal to hip-hop heads longing for an escape from trap or for lyrics worth digging through.
SAVE POINT 2 REACHED (finish your drink)
40) Snail Mail: Lush [indie rock] Lush is, at first listen, just another chronicle of heartbreak in a long line of ethereal indie rock albums. Pick whichever you detest and stake your claim. And if both of those are your jam then there is a good chance Snail Mail's debut album will be the auditory equivalent of this. Don’t get me wrong, I love me the shit out of some ethereal indie rock (see: the rest of this list) and own a good number of breakup albums on wax. It’s simply that the nuances that make Lush special take a moment to appear. (What we have here is a grower.)
Snail Mail = 18 year old Lindsey Jordan, her guitar and occasionally some drums. It’s extraordinarily simple music. Except that her guitar is dripping with texture and her chord structures are deceptively intricate. Jordan’s lyrics also retain a vagueness that amplify their power. Instead of a breakup album, Lush reveals itself to be a meditation on romantic rejection and the knotted emotions and insecurities that ripple forward from such experiences (whether that be as an eighth grader sputtering in front of a crush or a freshly divorced dad in a dress).
39) serpentwithfeet: Soil [r&b, art pop] If this album had come out it 2000, it would have wound up more controversial than The Marshall Mathers LP… presuming enough people were secure enough in their sexuality to actually listen to it. Soil is proudly gay, and it discusses sexuality with a flippant vulgarity that will make some people squirm. The production on it also sounds like nothing else you've ever heard. One might call Soil a trip-hop gospel album for those who have sinned but aren't bad people. Josiah Wise sings with a warbling tenor that aches with sincerity over grandiose instrumentals that amplify the subjective until it borders on objective. Orchestral arrangements blossom into devotional chants; disjointed beats throb underneath religious imagery. Mundane thoughts have rarely felt so epic. Soil is an album that one is liable to either love or hate, but it is impossible to deny its imagination.
38) Boygenius: Boygenius EP [indie rock, folk] If Julien Baker is her generation’s Elliott Smith then Phoebe Bridgers is Conor Oberst (who she happens to have just released an album with). Both women specialize in delicate, confessional indie rock- i.e. music that could be categorized as emo but manages to appeal to a
larger adult audience due to its combination of sincerity and elegance. Bridgers prefers a twangy take on indie-folk while Baker meditates in a space that emphasizes fluttering reverb. The startling Sprained Ankle was an exercise in wounded minimalism while 2017’s acclaimed Turn Out the Lights fleshed out Baker’s sound by adding piano and sparse string arrangements.
Boygenius is a collaboration featuring the two of them and musician Lucy Darcus whose music is more upbeat but equally self-reflective. It’s the rare supergroup that works because the sensibilities of the three women overlap seamlessly and no one ego overrides the proceedings. One only needs to hear the intricate vocal harmonies on opener “Bite the Hand” to realize that these three women have serious chemistry. This is an achingly elegant batch of indie rock that’s only flaw is that it’s only six songs long.
37) Melody’s Echo Chamber: Bon Voyage [neo-psychedelia] French singer/songwriter Melody Prochet is aptly named. Her band Melody’s Echo Chamber is too. She was apparently inspired to create the band after “having a dream in which “ the acoustics of her bedroom projected into an infinite delay”. Bon Voyage is her sophomore release, and it took six years to see the light of day after its release was delayed by an undisclosed injury that shifted Melody's priorities away from music. The album is a psychedelic swirl of 60’s era sounds that have been meticulously layered into a kaleidoscope of melodies and modern production flourishes. Unfortunately, Bon Voyage is a mere 7 tracks, 33 minutes long, but considering Melody is unsure whether she will continue releasing music, I’m just grateful it exists at all.
36) Blood Orange: Negro Swan [left field r&b] There are few modern musicians as talented as Devonte’ Hynes. The multi-instrumentalist mind behind Blood Orange began his career combining new wave with dreamy R&B to create a sublime flavor of uppity chillwave, but the production values and left field tendencies have increased with each album. When the phenomenal Freetown Sound dropped in 2016, my friend’s wife complained that “[Hynes] used to make music to dance to, but now he makes weirdo baby making music”. (And she’s not necessarily wrong.)
Negro Swan shares Freetown’s subdued tone, themes of self-identity and its tapestry R&B. It’s the first album in the Blood Orange discography that feels like a direct sequel, and yet, that’s not a bad thing. There are so many genres in play, and his compositions are so unpredictable, that there is plenty of wilderness left for Hynes to explore. If anything, he has so many ideas that it results in a sketchbook quality to Negro Swan. Hynes is that DJ who can’t wait for one song to finish before switching to another yet lands the fade perfectly. It’s a gorgeous and heartfelt listen (that might also leave you wishing that the upbeat side of Blood Orange still showed its face).
SIDE TANGENT 4: WHY I BUY RECORDS (OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP SHUFFLING AND LOVE THE LP)
There are people in my life who find it odd that I will listen to an album multiple times before writing it off as not for me. Take Tame Impala: Despite his Australian roots, Kevin Parker’s guitar is the American cheese of modern rock... over-processed in all the wrong ways. And why do their drums sound like they’ve been covered in styrofoam? That remained my attitude for years (even after seeing them live twice). Yet every once in a while, I would put one of their albums on just to quadruple check that it wasn’t actually my opinion that sucked. (Spoiler alert: it might have been).
Back in the days when I was a teenager, we had these things called compact discs. If you happened to hear a song you liked on the radio, and you wanted to listen to it on demand, than you bought the CD. Should, upon purchase, you discover that the single had deceived you and an album was outside of your typical wheelhouse, then you had two options: 1) Sell it at a discount or 2) keep listening.
Thing is, whether it be White Blood Cells, The Lonesome Crowded West or Blood Sugar Sex Magik (if you are a fan of these bands, hit those links like they’re a blunt at a Cypress Hill show), most of the albums that wound up leaving a lasting impact on me were jarring upon first listen. Stagnation is the enemy of creativity; most art isn’t meant to be easily consumable. Where reality television has stained our intellect, the age of Spotify has rotted our patience.
35) Black Panther: The Album [rap] Everything Kendrick touches turns to gold. It’s why nobody spoke up when he dared to call himself the greatest of all time last year. This collection of songs (“from and inspired by” the most popular movie of 2018) sits right alongside Dazed and Confused, Pulp Fiction and Garden State as it pertains to best soundtracks of all time. The album, which is curated by Lamar, serves as a showcase for some of the decade's most talented musicians. SZA, Vince Staples, James Blake, Anderston Paak, Schoolboy Q, and Kendrick himself make appearances. It’s surprisingly cohesive and politically relevant release, and there’s nary a misfire to be found. And while one could accuse it of being Kendrick’s at his most commercial, he manages to cement his legacy in the zeitgeist without sacrificing any of his artistic ambition. Kung-Fu Kenny has struck again.
34) The Orielles: Silver Dollar Moment [indie rock] You know when you know how to use a phrase but you aren’t sure of its exact definition? (Like that parent from the 1990’s that referred to every video game system as “the Nintendo”.) Well in trying to describe Silver Dollar Moment, “jangle pop” is the first thing that popped into my head… except I wasn’t sure what that actually meant. Luckily, Google is my friend and told me that jangle pop is “a subgenre of pop rock and college rock that emphasizes trebly, ringing guitars (usually 12-string electrics) and 1960s-style pop melodies”. Sounds accurate.
This album would have been at home during the Brit-Pop movement of the 1990’s (whose bands were usually influenced by the music of the 1960’s). The guitar in Silver Dollar Moment is draped in guitar pedals and prone to tantrums, but doesn’t have that typical garage rock crunch to it. These are tightly structured songs that rattle around in your head before dissolving into shambles. Lead singer Esmé Dee Hand-Halford treats her high pitched voice as an accessory, but when her lyrics make it to the forefront, they are often sardonic and riddled with pop culture references. There’s even an anthem for embracing your inner child that uses Yorgos Lanthimos’ masterpiece Dogtooth as the reference point for its rallying cry. Silver Dollar Moment is completely out of touch with the “in-sounds” of 2018 which makes it one of the most refreshing indie rock albums of the year.
33) Mitski: Be The Cowboy [indie rock] When Mitski appeared on The Daily Show this summer, the Asian-American musician told Trevor Noah “The idea of a cowboy is so American. The idea of a guy riding into town, wrecking shit and walking out like he’s the hero. I think [my album’s] protagonist is somebody, like me, who wants to embody or channel that energy”. Mitski is 28 years, old and her past albums have dealt with the theme of loneliness through the lens of social alienation and a teenage-centric desire to belong. Be The Cowboy alters the angle of the camera by focusing on the ways in which marriage and societal expectations can trap a person.
The fourteen song tracklist is a whirlwind of emotions anchored to a relationship on the rocks. There are only two songs that broach the three minute mark, and the rapid fire nature of the format adds to their impact. Guitar, horns, synths and piano are twisted into unconventional shapes by her band, but Mitski’s distinct and theatrical vocals are the album’s heart. She values music’s ability to tell a story and generate a connection through shared experiences and emotions. In deviating from the autobiographical, she has managed to create her most relatable narrative to date.
32) Cloud Nothings: Last Building Burning [post-hardcore] Cloud Nothings are a very consistent band that blends pop-punk and hardcore in very pleasant directions. When they feel like being bold, they are capable of crafting masterpieces. Since producing the unparalleled Attack on Memory in 2012, they have settled into a groove and released a couple of very solid but relatively predictable albums. Lead singer Dylan Baldi’s lyrics indicate that he recognizes that. “I gotta learn man that the weight of the world surrounds you/ I gotta let go of the pressure I feel to outdo/ The thing I just did and what I'll do today/ And work to live in my own way”.
The theme of being stuck and attempting to push forward permeates the album even if the language remains vague enough to allow dual meaning. Less attention is paid to a potential formula as the band’s emotion bleeds through their performance and into you. The songs are catchy and tightly wound while remaining slightly unhinged. The climax is the eleven minute “Dissolution,” which begins as palpable pop rock but then mushrooms into a coil of guitar feedback and a drum solo so epic that it should earn drummer Jayson Gerycz an MVP trophy. (It’ll probably go to a guy with a better stat line.)
31) Caroline Rose: Loner [indie rock] Caroline Rose started out as a folk artist before deciding pop music was the better medium for displaying her subversive and witty sense of humor. Loner is her 3rd album and it has more hooks in its brief 35 minute runtime that almost any album on this list. Her ode to the ways in which we sell our soul for “Money” sounds like Jack White at his most catchy- as a cascade of surf riffs dare you not to dance. “Jeannie Becomes A Mom” takes the cheesiest notes a keyboard can produce, stirs in some kick drums and turns it into something sublime.
These are pop songs to brighten the mood even if Caroline uses them to satirize very serious problems. In an interview with Vinyl Me Please, Rose mused that “I think something amazing happens at like 25 when you stop caring so much about these incredibly lofty aspirations you have for yourself in your early 20’s- all this pressure you put on yourself and caring what other people think. It just kind of starts being dismantled.” Loner is an album by an artist who has stopped taking herself so seriously, but still sees things worth being serious about.
SAVE POINT 3 REACHED (chug like you're still in college)
TIER 3: (Near Perfection)
30) Ty Segall: Freedom’s Goblin [garage rock, neo-psychedelia] California native Ty Segall has to be the most prolific musician of his generation. The dude has released 11 solo albums in this decade while also collaborating on others and maintaining a remarkable consistency in quality. Like a lot of older Millennials (most of whom were raised by Baby Boomers), Segall has a classic rock fetish. His discography is a hodgepodge of garage rock, punk, metal, neo-psychedelia, and Beatles-esque acoustic numbers.
Where most of his earlier work found Segall picking a style and sticking to it, Freedom’s Goblin plays like a greatest hits of everything Ty is capable of as a guitarist and songwriter. It’s produced by indie-God Steve Albini who coaxes a 19 trackset list out of the band that feels both sprawling and focused. Albini is known for his fondness for rough edges and, accordingly, nothing feels over-produced. There isn’t even much of an attempt to shuffle the songs into an order that promotes cohesion. Instead songs that bring to mind Black Sabbath or Frank Zappa sit side by side with songs that recall Neil Young. As Segall put it when talking to Stereogum, “I think the idea was that’s why it’s called Freedom’s Goblin, to have no rules or restrictions in what it would be.” But it’s still a very Ty Segall album... and one of his very best
29) Noname: Room 25 [hip-hop] There are certain albums on this list that require your full attention to truly absorb. I’m talking a keep-the-phone-away, sit-your-butt-down level of focus. Room 25 is one such example. Noname constructs her music around an Alice Coltrane-does-hip-hop vibe and cunning linguistics. “I'm looking like I'm the homie/ I'm tatted from head to shoulder/ I'm colder when he don't hold me/ I'm warmer inside the casket/ Basket to tie my hair/Africa's never dead, Africa's always dying.” Her verses unravel stories with a train of thought that allows for wily turns of the tongue. Her Hanzo-sharp wordplay is complimented by a stutter-step delivery and brutal self-awareness: “I knew you never loved me but I fucked you anyway/ I guess a bitch like to gamble/ I guess a bitch like to lonely” she muses on “Window”.
The beats boast a level of originality that match the words. Dizzy, jazzy rhythms are paired with string arrangements and backing vocals that disarm you with their melodies. Room 25 also features some of the year’s best cameos. Smino and Saba flash their flow in album highlight “Ace” while up-and-comer Ravyn Lenae adds a classy swing to the swirling “Montego Bae”. It all adds up to one of the year’s more impressive studio debuts- one best listened to with eyes closed.
28) Earl Sweatshirt: Some Rap Songs [experimental hip-hop] It was easy to write off Odd Future as juvenile shock rap when their off-kilter, inflammatory mixtapes blew up the internet at the beginning of the decade. One only needed view their music videos to conclude the group was designed to provoke viral reactions via the visceral. Earl Sweatshirt was the youngest of the eleven person crew, and when his mother heard the grim and homophobic rhymes her 16 year old son was producing, she shipped him to a Samoan boot camp for the remainder of his adolescent years. The thing about teenagers though- is that they are simply sorting through their own shit and coming to terms with the vicious world around them (as evidenced by the fact so many alumni of Odd Future have now come out of the closet).
These days, the artist Pitchfork once called “American Psycho meets Jackass” is less a “reincarnation of 1998 Eminem” than he is a moodier MF Doom. Earl’s music still revolves around his battles with chronic depression, and his poignant word play and multisyllabic flow remain intact, but Earl is long past any attempts at pandering for marketability. Nearly every track on Some Rap Songs clocks in at under two minutes and not a single one hits the three minute mark. Sample-heavy beats ooze like codeine cough syrup over Earl’s monotone delivery blurring the ability to sense where one song ends and another begins. Where 2016’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside insulated listeners in minimalist electronics, Some Rap Songs embraces free-form jazz and hip-hop’s relationship to it.
Or as Earl told NPR: “black expression is directly related to pain- at least [hip-hop] is. And then if you want to compare it to jazz, when it started getting avant-garde… N***** was wailing. N***** using these instruments to express very crazy emotions, like that come as a result of [a] sometimes cursed existence… I’m going back to what [rap] is”. Some Rap Songs is proof that maturity comes with age even if peace of mind may not.
(LONGWINDED) SIDE TANGENT 6: THE SEARCH FOR BLISS
It’s odd that there is so much punk music within this list. (This could be labeled foreshadowing, but it might be a red herring). People often outgrow the genre after high school, and I didn’t even listen to it as an adolescent. The little brother rocked Rancid; I crushed Queens of the Stone Age. (Both choices remain quality in retrospect.) So how did I get here? (This isn’t my house.) How did I turn into a 32 year old addicted to a teenager’s game?
Post-punk has been in the midst of a resurgence for over a decade now, and it doesn’t seem at risk of fading away. And why would it? Politics are coded into the very DNA of punk. Bands like The Clash and Sex Pistols were a product of the economic inequality facing the U.K. in the 1970’s. Class struggle, mindless mass-consumption and rampant unemployment amongst youth were at the center of albums like God Save the Queen and London Calling. Where the Clash’s music was meant as a sincere response to the times. The Sex Pistols were an absurdist retaliation meant to provoke the status quo. Meanwhile, bands that added the “post” to the punk (ala Gang of Four and The Wire) remained political while expanding beyond the concerns of the white working class. Topics of identity like systemic racism and gender norms came into focus.
Influenced by the post-modern literature and theory of the era, they also believed that radical content demanded radical form“ and began a shift away from the simple 3-chord structure that defined early punk. As The Wire told Rolling Stone: “We thought those bands’ approach was conventional, because most of them were R&B-based. We didn’t want to do what other people were doing. We started absorbing early German electronic music and early Pink Floyd into what we were doing. We were more interested in Patti Smith and the Ramones, Talking Heads… because it was art-based.”
The push towards the avant-garde that post-punk musicians craved was rooted in the belief that, during such turbulent times, it was important that music trigger bliss in the listener rather than pleasure. Whereas“ pleasure can be experienced in the presence of art or culture that confirms the status quo… that comes from culture and does not break with it, the experience of bliss is contingent on unsettling the listeners’ historical, cultural and psychological assumptions”. “[It] comes from the feeling of being overwhelmed [and a} breakdown of linguistic and musical order”. In other words, the pioneers of post-punk strove for a difficult listening experience that better represented the world view of their music.
40 years later society has come full circle. Youth throughout the world find themselves disillusioned with the establishment and eager to upend it. Economic inequality in America is at its highest rate since before the Great Depression. A bunch of sun-spot covered millionaires- who are closer to death than retirement age- are in power and completely oblivious to the dire straits facing younger generations. Or worse, they simply don’t care. Politicians would rather protect their bank accounts than acknowledge mass extinction is a reality. Wide scale reform is scoffed at as pie-in-the-sky while blame is intentionally shifted away from the 1% and onto immigrants. Bigotry and ignorance run rampant, and everyone points at Russia instead of a decades-long war on intellectualism and critical thinking. Society is slipping backwards like a toupe in a windstorm, and it’s a prime habitat for punk music to thrive.
Of course, that which is weird often normalizes. Especially within the ecosystem that is the US economy. Subcultures become co-opted, shock value melts into meaninglessness as the absurdity of our surroundings escalate. Mass shootings, mass surveillance, massive egos with bad spray tans… A brand of music that has existed for decades becomes a touch passe’. But that doesn’t mean that the genre isn’t perfectly suited for our times or that the search for bliss is over.
27) Iceage: Beyondless [post-punk] Danish punks Iceage begin their 4th LP with a blistering takedown of the globalist military industrial complex. “Oh yes, we're living it large/ Supplied with big-ticket gear/ Pardon me, good sir/ I consider myself a peaceful man/ But I got orders to make you flee your home/ Split your family and pillage your town.” We are 45 years removed from the end of the Vietnam War, but the way Iceage sees it, things haven’t changed much. Governments have simply become more savvy in their execution of for-profit war. Two songs later lead singer Elias Ronnenfelt switches his point of view to that of a religious extremist while remaining opaque enough to let the listener pick their flavor. The religion itself is irrelevant. What matters is that the narrator is willing to sacrifice the well being of the world around him in the name of chasing God’s approval.
If the themes of Beyondless seem bleak, they don’t necessarily sound bleak. The band is several albums removed from their harsh and lo-fi origins. Horns, cello and violin add a Rolling Stones-esque grandeur to Beyondless’ lavish but loose compositions. As Ronnenfelt told DIY Magazine: “We’ve always had a high-octane sloppiness, and that’s just our groove… [but Beyondless comes] from a desire to take what you had and push it into something that feels rejuvenating and new”.
26): Idles: Joy as an Act of Rebellion [post-punk] The next time somebody tells you rock is dead, play them this album after you finish rolling your eyes. Joy as an Act of Rebellion is the musical equivalent of a triple espresso- a blistering torrent of energy straight to the gut. It’d be an oversimplification to call the UK band punk (a classification has caused frontman Joe Talbot to bristle), but they also have a hardcore edge that brings to mind bands like Fugazi and Rise Against. And like those bands, Idles makes music that is fascinated with the space where the political and the personal intertwine.
Joy as an Act of Rebellion laments economic inequality, toxic masculinity and the ways in which we damage each other emotionally, but it’s also a raucous celebration of humanity- the fact that we are all made of flesh and blood. As Talbot told The Skinny, "For a long time, I was angry at the universe about things that had happened to me. But that was stupid because I'm unimportant. What matters is that people feel disillusioned- there's this sense of loss in Europe and America and my side are calling people ugly, stupid and racist while the right takes advantage. Some are racist, of course, but some want to make a change. We want to challenge the passion we have through angry music, allow people to breathe and look within. When you regroup, you love yourself and are more open to other people's ideas." Protest via positivity. It’s a conceit that sounds ham-fisted in theory but winds up being spiritual in execution.
SIDE NOTE: At what age is a person too old to enter a mosh pit? And is the answer to that question the same as when one asks “how long do I put off seeing a doctor?”
(Answer: It depends on your health insurance.)
25) Tune-Yards: I Can Feel You Creeping Into My Private Life [art pop, dance] Merrill Garbus has always had a dynamite voice. Her 2011 album WHOKILL was on the front lines when it came to experimenting with the possibilities of vocal looping, and managed to build a captivating listen around little more than the bass lines of Nate Brenner, a ukulele and the wings of her vocal chords. Over the years Garbus has grown leaps and bounds as a producer of idiosyncratic pop music without losing any of her political fire. (Which is why she made the perfect composer for Boots Riley’s seething satire of late-stage capitalism Sorry to Bother You.)
In fact, the biggest critique of Private Life seems to be that it is too overt in its politics, that Garbus is trying so hard to be woke that it borders on cringeworthy. And there are certainly instances within the greater whole that reek of white guilt- particularly on the mid-album track “Colonizer”- but there are far more moments where Garbus’ observations about 2018 America ring true. More importantly, the music itself is ambitious, catchy and unpredictable. These are songs that encourage the listener to embrace their anger and disillusionment... and then dance it all away while shouting “it’s giving me a heart attack/ Don’t let me lose my soul”.
24) Arctic Monkeys: Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino [art rock] The Arctic Monkeys’ first album in 5 years has little in common with their previous work. Sure, their talented rhythm section is as prominent as ever (and is actually bolstered by the addition of Tame Impala bassist Cam Avery), but aesthetically not much else remains. Gone are the fuzzed out blues riffs that have defined their recent albums. Ditto for the pop/punk sensibilities that dominated their early work. Instead, TBH&C draws heavily from 70’s glam rock while “chasing the live ensemble sound of Pet Sounds”.
Lead singer Alex Turner crafts a 1st person narrative from the perspective of an aging baby boomer who is working as a lounge singer on the moon. This is a band making a Bowie album out of a lost Kurt Vonnegut novel. Tranquility is drenched in pop culture and non-sequiturs as our unreliable narrator muses about his grievances with technology, his fading memories of Earth and the inconveniences of old age. Like any great work of science fiction, the album builds its universe by merging the unpleasant realities of our world with anxieties of what may lie ahead. It then mines that universe for insights into the human condition. Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino is a dense, vibrant work that gets better with each listen.
SIDE TANGENT 7: WHITE MEN CAN’T DANCE
If I’m being honest here… flamenco has never done anything for me. Likely due to my white ancestry and the accompanying reality that I’m a very mediocre dancer. Don’t get me wrong- I LOVE to dance- and if I’m at a wedding comprised of Caucasians, an elderly woman is bound to flatter me with a “you’re such a good dancer”. “Yeah, for an enthusiastic white dude, grandma”. [Apparently your standards are lower than my ability to adjust to a tempo that moves past a 4:4 time signature.]
23) Rosalia: El Mar Querer [latin, art pop] And since we are on the topic of my milky skin, Rosalia sings with a fluctuating tremble that reminds me that I am incapable of rolling my rrrr’s. The Spanish musician takes the skeleton of her country’s musical history (flamenco, latin pop) and fleshes it out with hints of R&B and hip-hop. “I think of any genre as a snow globe- you don’t admire it for its stillness. You have to shake it up and see how it explodes” she told Rolling Stone last November.
It’s the perfect metaphor for her music. Songs range from high tempo numbers soaked in auto-tune and hand-clapping (“Di Mi Nombre”) to epic orchestrals (“Reniego”). The album highlight is probably “Bagdad” which wraps Andalusian melodies around clubby electronic beats. Rosalia’s music swings in a dance hall where Spanish is the native tongue and the traditional is confronted with the urban. It’s a daring and alluring combination that allow El Mar Querer to proudly stake its ground as one of 2018’s most unique releases.
22) Soccer Mommy: Clean [indie rock]Sophie Allison is not a mommy and there's no guarantee that she even likes soccer. She got her break via Bandcamp just after graduating high school, and her intimate sound is a reflection of that. This is music made without a large budget and her songs are about topics of relative innocence and youth: making out in the park, getting your stomach rocked by the butterflies of anxiety, the desire to be considered cool. This album personifies the high school experience without limiting its appeal to that demographic. Clean's brand of hazy indie rock brings to mind both Julien Baker and Jay Som (who she has toured with). Fuzzy but angular guitar, liquid melodies and a prominent baseline… Clean is a calamine bath for my indie rock fetishes. It’s also further proof that women are at the forefront of keeping
indie rock relevant.
21) Loma: Loma [indie folk] Where post-rock meets folk, Loma makes music. Sub Pop’s press release described their debut as an album that “reveals a band obsessed with songs as sound.” A more fractured Gravenhurst or Songs:Ohia on a Talk Talk kick... These are the analogies that come to my mind. The problem being that those bands are all fronted by men whereas the angelic voice behind Loma is Emily Cross. The band members met while Cross and her husband Dan Duszynski were on tour with indie darlings Shearwater. Shearwater singer Johnathan Meiburg grew enamored with what he has referred to as the duo’s “mysterious and open-ended" sound and asked them to collaborate. This is a masterfully engineered headphone orgasm that revels in melody through flickering rhythms. It’s an album you listen to while sipping on tea during an autumn morning. Music that blankets your soul and soothes a restless mind. Loma raises your attention and leaves you eager for a follow up that will never happen.
SAVE POINT 4 REACHED (drink a glass of water)
TIER 2: (Perfection)
20) Mac Miller: Swimming [hip-hop] Historically I’ve been rather dismissive of Mac Miller. Watching Movies with the Sound Off had its moments, but other than the highs of that album, his music has always struck me as glorified frat rap. And let’s be honest, most frats have shit taste in music. It’s inherent to their bro-ey essence. That shirtless white dude who (thinks he’s ripped but really has a dad bod at age 20 and) can’t wait for the beat to drop? Yeah, he’s probably in a frat. Anywho…
Swimming is really, really good. The production reflects the album title- its buoyant and heady sound envelopes you in jazzy electronics and live instrumentation. The album finds Miller coping with his breakup with Ariana Grande, but the lyrics are rarely on the nose and often find him placing the blame at his own feet. “Sometimes I wish I took a simpler route/ Instead of havin' demons that's as big as my house/ Isn't it funny? We can make a lot of money/ Buy a lot of things just to feel a lot of ugly”. Mac sees his habit of letting himself and others down and feels it swallowing him whole. Swimming is a documentation of a man examining his own psyche, coming to terms with his flaws while looking to the future. Which makes his sudden death via overdose even sadder. He thought he had “all the time in the world” but instead ran out of jet fuel. At least he went out on top.
19) Parquet Courts: Wide Awake [art punk, indie rock] Wanted to feel needed so I fed my cat”. The title of the album says it all. Wide Awake is 2018’s most potent (and witty) response to a year that often felt that being stuck in “the chaos dimension”. This is a statement record from a band that started its career feeling like a (very well done) homage to minimalist punk and DIY indie rock. They enlisted production wizard Danger Mouse to help them expand the boundaries of their sound, and it results in a collection of songs that demonstrate a massive leap forward in songwriting. They are still very much indebted to their influences, but they have managed to step out of the shadow. This is a confident and varied batch of rock and roll, and every song has something to say. Climate change, late-stage capitalism and the punchable face that is Tom Brady are all up for discussion… It’s one of the best conversations you’ll hear all year.
18) Shame: Songs of Praise [post-punk, indie rock] The buzz surrounding Shame popped up quicker than a condominium complex in a gentrifying neighborhood. The difference being that you won’t find yourself grossly disappointed upon moving into Songs of Praise’s rambunctious confines. This is the band’s debut album, and none of its members are much past their teenage years- facts that are reflected in their helter-skelter live shows and snide regard for the status quo.
“My nails ain't manicured/ My voice ain't the best you've heard/ And you can choose to hate my words/ But do I give a fuck” growls lead singer Charlie Steen on “One Rizla”. It’s an apt summation of the UK band’s gritty post-punk aesthetic. Jagged bass lines zig past hyper drumbeats and crooked guitar. The Converse-wearing crowd might call it dance music. Others will want to lower a shoulder and mosh. Everyone will be singing along. “A lot of fucking indie bands are more interested in selling records and don’t want to divide opinions” mused drummer Charlie Ford during an interview with Loud and Quiet. Brexiters buy sneakers too after all. Yet Shame’s music is driven by the ideology that being “like Mike” is what got us here in the first place. Or as Sheen phrases it “You say it's going forwards/ But I feel it flowing backwards/ In a time of such injustice/ How can you not want to be heard?”
17) Kadhja Bonet: Childqueen [psychedelic soul] If this album had been made in the 1970’s a couple of its songs probably would have wound up on the Jackie Brown soundtrack. Kadhja Bonet is a classically trained musician who began playing the violin at a young age before adding other instruments to the arsenal. On Childqueen the R&B artist entangles listeners in an atmospheric web of cosmic jazz, soul and classical that screams “use me in a movie Quentin”.
Songs like “Joy” and “Wings” lean heavily on orchestral arrangements while others (“Another Time Lover, Thoughts Around Tea”) rely on groovy baselines and dinky electronics to set the tone. Childqueen’s center of gravity is Bonet’s phantasmagoric vocals which are capable of soaring through the air like a young Vince Carter. Seriously, they latch onto your subconscious and narrate your dreams. [Or maybe that’s just a side effect of regularly using this record as a sleep aid]. Jazz is in the midst of a renaissance thanks to artists like Thundercat, BadBadNotGood and Kamasi Washington. With Childqueen, Kadhja Bonet adds a distinct contribution to the festivities…
16) Robyn: Honey [electro pop] 25 years is an eternity in the unforgiving, cosmetic realm of pop music but Sweden’s Robyn has survived by undergoing several slick but subtle transformations along the way. After freeing herself from control of her label at the turn of the century, she pivoted away from the R&B geared pop that had defined her 90’s output and began exploring the rapidly changing soundscapes of electronic music. She has always valued quality over quantity… Honey marks only her third release in a thirteen year period, and every release has bordered on landmark. She’s an electro-pop Queen that seems most comfortable living in the crevices of cultural consciousness... only occasionally emerging to re-assert her control of the subscene.
The root of Robyn’s power is her ability to sneak genuine emotions into her dancefloor inventions, and Honey finds her at her most sultry. These are broken hearted anthems disguised at club music. If 2010’s Body Talk mutated techno into wacko bubblegum pop than Honey is what happens when Robyn slows the BPM to a jog and uses trance and deep house as her foundation. The songs on Honey are compact- only one song elapses 5 minutes- yet they unfold with patience and precision. The pulse of “Send to Robin Immediately” is a slow throb that pushes forward with the momentum of a runner gradually upping the resistance on a treadmill. “Between the Lines” utilizes a ricocheting disco twerk that recalls Fatboy Slim or Disclosure.
Robyn’s goal is ratcheting up your heartbeat and providing a sense of euphoria. She has openly discussed how difficult the past decade has been for her due to events ranging from a major breakup to the death of a close friend. Honey is her way of finding an appreciation of life through sadness and providing a space for others to do the same.
15) Kacey Musgrave: Golden Hour [alternative country] Sings with a twang? Check. Mention of pickup trucks and/or Elvis? Check. Heavy use of the banjo? That’s a bingo. By all accounts just given, Golden Hour should have been an album I detest. Country music has historically rated very high on my index of hate. Somewhere in between the Los Angeles Lakers and bologna sandwiches The thing about Golden Hour , though, is that Kacey Musgraves has a very 2010’s take on country. She isn’t afraid to add some green chilies to her macaroni and cheese and then deep fry that sucker. Wait, I’m not sure where I was going there. And now I’m hungry…
There have been more than a couple bands over the years (Wilco, My Morning Jacket) who found a happy space between country and indie rock then sat there for a while, but Kacey Musgraves is a country artist first and foremost. She just happens to use the spices of other genres to give her music a little production kick. “Happy and Sad” begins with a drum machine, “High Horse” with a disco-synth rhythm that could have be sampled off a Random Access Memories b-side. It was reported that the song “Mother” was written by Musgraves while tripping on acid (prompted by a text message from her mom), and Golden Hour is an incredibly trippy listen (a word she has used herself to describe the album). There are so many layers of sound underneath all the cliches and top 40 vibes that it’s easy to get lost in them. This is an album capable of shredding genre bias and challenging people’s taste in music.
14) Jorja Smith: Lost and Found [neo-soul, r&b] Lost and Found is not your typically singer/songwriter affair. Like Amy Winehouse (whom Jorja has called her biggest influence), Smith’s work can loosely be termed R&B. But whereas Winehouse’s brand of R&B was a quiltwork of timeless sounds from the jukebox era, Smith is using a thoroughly modern template. The 21 year old isn’t old enough to remember the 1990’s but she is clearly well-educated in the music of The Fugees and U.K. trip-hop both of which feel like touchstones here. Yet, despite the various comparisons I (and many others) have dropped, Jorji’s album feels distinctly organic. It’s an observant and literate album that manages the trick of never sitting still while remaining cohesive. “I don’t write for anyone but me… I like things that feel real.” Jorja told V Magazine last year.. “I just wanted to make a classic, or what I thought was classic.” With Lost and Found, she comes pretty damn close.
13) Yves Tumor: Safe in the Hands of Love [experimental electronica] If Draco Malfoy likes to dance, this album is probably his jam. Yves Tumor’s label debut was 2016’s Serpent Music. I have not heard that album, but its title is an apt description for the slithering nature of Sean Bowie’s music. Sean grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee and began making music as a means of escaping his conservative surroundings. Despite now calling Italy home, his experimental breed of electronica would seem to indicate a soul who is still suffering from a deep sense of alienation. Safe in the Hands of Love is equal parts Depeche Mode, Dead Can Dance and Menomena. Bouts of extreme noise are followed by vocal harmonies that flutter above skittering drums and funky baselines. The tone is consistent, the instrumentation varied and the style fluid. Sean is intent to let his music creep towards a crescendo or crash abruptly. There is a volatility to the process, and it results in one hell of a ride.
SIDE TANGENT 8: CRAZY, STUPID LOVE
I have this theory that when a couple starts dating they slowly dumb down each other’s tastes. This theory is completely unsubstantiated and entirely based around what happened to my parents. Out of love and respect for one another, they intentionally avoided playing music that the other person wasn’t particularly fond of. The more adventurous aspects of their tastes gradually dissipated, and my brother and I were left to grow up in a sad puddle of Shawn Colvin, Dixie Chicks and (post-prime) Bonnie Raitt. Granted, a little Mary Chapin Carpenter can be fun here or there. But not as much fun as Led Zeppelin live at Red Rocks. Which apparently was a thing my mom did in back in the days before she was at risk of my dad’s patented tangents on the vanity of the guitar solo.
(Theories like these are why I’m still single at 32).
12) Amen Dunes: Freedom [indie folk] Freedom is an album my dad would have appreciated in his younger days as a folkie. Dunes makes folk rock that is so hazy it can make you feel drunk. He sings with a stuttering drawl over swirling melodies that seem to be asking if you want a glass of bourbon. Freedom is Dunes’ most upbeat music to date and his most accessible because of it. Whereas the drums were either muted or missing in his previous work, they are vibrant and ever-present in Freedom . The album is less Devendra does Velvet Underground and more Banhart does If I Could Only Remember My Name. There is an actual band in place; the song structure is loose and jammy but also well-composed. Dunes’ lyrics come at you in waves. Entire sentences get trapped underwater while fragmented phrases drift by. The words are beside the point. The meaning is in the mood. And the mood should be one of celebration for anybody who grew up worshiping classic rock.
11) Kali Uchis: Isolation [r&b, neo-soul] Kali Uchis knows the grind of the starving artist. The Columbian American songwriter lived out of her car as a 17 year old high school student. She would attend her high school classes during the day and then write songs from the cramped confines of her Subaru Forester well into the Virginia night. Seven years and one buzz heavy mix-tape later, Uchis has worked her way far enough up the food chain to release an album that features cameos from a who’s who of industry veterans (including Tyler the Creator and Damon Albarn).
Isolation is full of music that makes your feet float and your hips sway. The rhythm section is almost always at the forefront, but the instrumentation borrows from elements of neo-soul, funk, jazz and electronica in ways that add an airy dreaminess to the whole affair. Uchis writes all of her own lyrics and uses Isolation to tackle themes of heartbreak, materialism and self-perseverance. She is also unafraid to embrace her Hispanic roots, often switching between Spanish and English with ease over Latin tempos. Everything about this debut LP is startlingly bold and meticulously executed. It’s the best R&B album of 2018.
10) U.S. Girls: In a Poem Unlimited [art pop] U.S. Girls has but one lady at its center and that is Meg Remy. One must presume, then, that the plurality of the band name refers to the female-centric narratives of her lyrics (and the feminist politics inherent to them). Her music has long been preoccupied with the difficulties of being a woman in a country (and industry) where men are usually at the top of the food chain. It takes all of one song for In a Poem Unlimited to make it clear that this album is no different.
Album opener “Velvet For Sale” is a simmering Portishead-esque track about domestic violence and fantasies of revenge. Follow up “Rage of Plastics” is disco music tailor cut for a neo-noir film. As raging horns and high tempo piano dance with a Fruciante-like guitar line, we are introduced to a woman who has become barren from years of living near a factory that processes plastics (and is now questioning her faith). Yet whereas previous U.S. Girls albums bore an unsettling, synth heavy tone that matched Remy’s lyrics, Unlimited is upbeat and fun. Remy has enlisted the musical collective Cosmic Range to help her flesh out her previously insular sound, and it results in an eccentric but catchy pop album. Part classic rock, part disco, part trip-hop… completely brilliant.
SAVE POINT 5 REACHED:
(Boss battle lies ahead. Make sure you are equipped with Pedialyte before continuing.)
TIER 1: (Pure Bliss)
SIDE TANGENT 9: TEAM NSYNC
An appreciation of pop music was always buried somewhere deep inside of me. Next to memories of forced bowl cuts, long deceased Neo Pets and that should-have-been-chucked-once-the-90’s-ended plaid couch that used to occupy my parent’s basement.
If we're being honest with ourselves, every millennial bordering on 30 was either on Team NSYNC or Team Backstreet Boys at some point in their life. And I’m pretty sure that utilizing the early stages of the internet to search for nudes of Britney Spears was a universal coming of age experience for my male friends… even the ones who would later come out as gay. That said, the bland flavor of bubblegum pop (combined with a subconscious desire to shield myself from inquiries related to masculinity) resulted in a decades-long cold shoulder towards the genre on my part.
Blame America. Or top 40 formatting for creating a soundscape so derivative that Adele owns the second highest selling album of this century. (and two of the top 10). It became easy to write off anything labeled as pop until this decade came around and decided to make things interesting.
9) Let’s Eat Grandma: I’m All Ears [art pop] Okay let’s get this out of the way. No, Let’s Eat Grandma are not suggesting that you eat your grandmother. They are telling their grandma that it’s time for supper to start. The teenage duo is composed lifelong friends Rosa Walton, and Jenny Hollingworth, and the two approach punctuation with the same playfulness that they do thier songwriting. Their 2016 album I, Gemini was a surreal and I, Gemini was a boundary pushing album of DIY pop that served as the perfect soundtrack for my travels through Southeast Asia. I’m All Ears is as equally transgressive in its tendencies but ups the production values significantly while easing listeners into its bewitching world.
Lead single and album opener “Hot Pink” is as straightforward of a song as the ladies have made- its slugey bass is tailor made for sticky after-hours dancefloors. It’s a slight of hand that allows Let’s Eat Grandma to draw in the casual listener before unfurling their eccentric side. Aided by the production of David Wrench (the XX, FKA Twigs), they giddily shift styles- oftentimes doing so within the same song. For example, the eleven minute “Donnie Darko” begins as angular and downtempo indie rock before morphing into peppy synth pop that fuses piano with flute in a way that makes you wonder if you’ve just entered the Zelda universe. The intertwining vocals of Rosa and Jenny serve as the connective tissue to the album’s ambitious scope. Both women are malleable in their delivery, and they bounce off each with the chemistry of a hip-hop crew. It all adds up to one of the most unpredictable and addictive albums of the past couple of years.
8) Brockhampton: Iridescene Brockhampton is a prolific and diverse hip-hop collective from Los Angeles. Their sound is not easily defined. Bone Thugs styled R&B and Rhymesayers could be argued as touchstones, but this is also a group that proudly proclaims itself a “boy band”. Needless to say, their sound swings wildly from track to track. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the group has been made up of as many as thirteen members over their short history. Each rapper has a distinct flow and, likely, different sensibilities.
After releasing three acclaimed albums in 2017, Brockhampton returned again last year to drop Iridescene. It’s their most alienating album to date. The melodies that permeated the Saturation Trilogy are often missing in action. Beats are often industrial and intrusive… this is the type of music that the parent of a teenager is liable to call “noise”. Yet the group’s chemistry shines and the album’s hidden hooks are liable to sink their teeth into you. Eventually the eccentricities that make Iridescene disorienting become what make it an album worth treasuring. The epiphany of “I’ve never quite heard hip-hop like this before” hits and then you restart the album to re-examine what you thought you knew.
7) Saba: Care for Me [hip-hop] Saba (who broke into the mainstream via his cameo on the Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book) wrote Care for Me while grieving over the death of his murdered cousin. It’s a subtle and sincere record full of pain and anger. “Congress got the nerve to call itself religious/ Rich just gettin' richer, we just tryna live our life/ Momma mixed the vodka with the Sprite/ They killed my cousin with a pocket knife” he rattles off in “LIFE”.
Saba is articulate, emotive and a deeply observant storyteller. Care for Me calls to mind early Atmosphere for those reasons- except that Saba is more nimble in his flow than Slug. He’s also far more eager to sing and prefers live instruments to samples. The beats are thoroughly Chicago- swimming in melodic pools of jazz and vocal harmonies ala Chance or Noname. Care for Me may not be the most original album released last year, but it is certainly the one that I came back to the most often. It’s a soundtrack for soul searching: that hole-stained hoodie you instinctively reach for on a chilly day.
6) DJ Koze: Knock Knock [experimental electronica, downtempo] Knock Knock finds one of Germany’s most acclaimed DJs sifting through electronica’s very large closet and concocting a wardrobe that perfectly meshes the styles of the past and present. The third track of the album is titled “Moving in a Liquid”- which is exactly how I’d describe the listening experience of the entire album. Whether it be a song that bends towards pop, minimalist techno or washed out samples, the music on Knock Knock replicates the sensation of floating down the river on a sunny day.
Texture and tone take precedence and provide a continuity that allow DJ Koze to experiment with method. The closest comparison might be Jamie XX’s groundbreaking In Colour but Koze proves more eager to utilize guest vocals and venture outside of the house than Jamie’s largely instrumental affair. Koze has cited his love of hip-hop as the foundation of Knock Knock, and there are times where the proceedings can also feel like a sleepier Kaytranada record. Yet using direct point of comparisons feels like a disservice to an artist whose music stands on its own merits.
So I shall end this blurb with a story: I spent a lot of time watching basketball with my brother during the holiday season. This should be of no surprise- hoops and progressive politics are the primary catalysts to our brotherly bond- what matters is that I chose to play Knock Knock for my brother while we rooted against the Lakers on one particular evening. In between Lebron dunks and Lance Stephenson’s signiture chucking, my brother repeatedly turned to me and asked “I like this song, but is this still the same artist?” I can think of no better compliment for this masterpiece.
5) Young Fathers: Cocoa Sugar [neo soul, hip-hop] Young Fathers is a Mercury prize-winning Scottish trio whose multiracial makeup tends to be reflected in their socially conscious lyrics. “Wanna turn my brown eyes blue/I’m not like you” croons one member before another bursts in with a mumble-chant of “always been this way” during album highlight “Turn”. Cocoa Sugar is full of similar musings and manages to land them with poignancy. The music itself, like most of the albums at the top of this list, is influenced by numerous genres (reggae, hip-hop, R&B, gospel) and escapes easy categorization. It’d paint a vague picture to say that the album sounds like TV on the Radio decided to make a hip-hop hop album that could serve as a prayer to the heavens. Soulful vocals overlay tribal beats for surviving tribal times. It’s unlike anything you've heard, and one of 2018's most remarkable listening experiences.
4) Low: Double Negative [indie electronica] “We want to punch new holes in the possibilities of music” might sound like an extremely pretentious thing for a band to say during an interview, but context matters. The Minnesota band Low is the godfather of “slowcorror”- the brand of skeletal, atmospheric rock that arose out of indie scene of the early 90’s (as the antithesis to grunge). In a classic example of “ahead of your time”, slowcorror never moved beyond a niche audience while proving deeply influential on other musicians.
The genre’s emphasis on glacier-paced melodies, vocal harmonies and simple chord progressions helped lay the groundwork for the indie rock of the early 00’s. Yet music has moved in a decidedly electronic direction in the 25 years since Low debuted their distinctly unprocessed sound. Autotune and synthesizers are king in 2018, and a band whose first album was titled I Could Live in Hope has also grown more cynical. Double Negative is representative of those realities.
The band dumps Agent Orange onto their process and mutates their sound into an electronic jungle of warbling dissonance and haunting beauty. Static ambience boils into a pulsating backbone and then disappears. Vocals distort until they are an indiscernible falsetto wailing above disintegrating synths. Music this enigmatic is rarely this melodic, and a band rarely make albums this memorable so late into their career. But as singer Alan Spark explained to The Guardian, ”My reaction to a more chaotic world is to fight back with something more chaotic… As long as we arrive at something we think is artistically interesting and has a purpose, it’s still us. We’re going on the assumption that we can do whatever we want.”
3) A.A.L. (Against All Logic): 2012-2017 [deep house] In an alternate reality in which a musician’s talent dictated how popular they are Nicolas Jaar would be the most well-known man in electronic music. Dude is a chameleon of his craft shifting between pseudonyms and styles in a way that would make Bowie proud. The Chilean’s solo work emphasizes downtempo, worldly and texture-rich compositions that envelope you (or your tv show) in atmosphere. Meanwhile, his work in Darkside merged jazz and cerebral EDM in what felt like a tribute to Pink Floyd that you didn’t realize you needed.
A.A.L. finds Jaar reaching into his past and dabbling in house music. It’s a funky, sample heavy affair in which Jaar seems determined to show he can make dance music with the best of them. His hypnotic voice is jarringly absent, but it’s a calculated decision. This is far and away Jaar’s most upbeat album and the vocal sampling scattered throughout 2012-2017 is reflective of that. This is the musical equivalent of escapism, but unlike most escapism, it has a soul.
2) Deafhaven: Ordinary Corrupt Human Love [metal, shoegaze] “Metal is metal dude. If I gotta explain it, it ain’t for you. You either get it or you don’t”. That’s what a friend texted me after I asked him how he would define metal. This is a big Viking looking mother-fucker we’re talking about- one that used to play American Football in Serbia and considers Iron Maidan his God- so I’ll take him at his word. But I’m still not sure if Deafheaven should be considered metal or not.
It’s a question that the internet has been arguing about since the band arrived on the scene with 2013’s critically adored Sunbather. The term “blackgaze” suddenly became a thing since the easiest way to describe their sound is as the offspring of black metal and shoegaze. The phrase shoegaze originates from an indie scene of the early 90’s that was so dependent on pedal effects that the live shows largely consisted of unmoving guitarists starting at their feet. We’re talking a Mexican border-sized wall of shimmering guitar. Meanwhile, black metal is celebrated for it’s Ferrari fast tempos, excessive shrieking and extended song structures. (I had a friend in college who listened to lots of it. He was a Bethesda, Maryland kinda guy who beat up skinheads in his spare time but was really good at working the stock market.)
Deafheaven’s merging of the two genres creates a surreal juxtaposition- calming cascades of delicate melodies alongside blasts of machine gun drumming and the hailing screams of George Clarke. It’s a contrast that has grown more sophisticated with each album. Listening to Ordinary Corrupt Human Love stirs my inner monologue. It echoes the world around us. Rain pouring from magenta skies and pit bulls launching towards chain length fences as I jog past shadows in tents and the stench of medieval diseases | A mother sweating through vivid, multi-colored robes as she and her young son toil in a lake of plastic | A detached face peering up at masked surgeons taking photos… This is where Bliss lives.
1) Oneohtrix Point Never: Age Of [experimental electronica, downtempo]“Fool to dream machine to dust”. Those lyrics from the 10th song on Age Of sum up the album's themes. This is a cryptic concept record dealing with the rise and fall of civilization and the cyclical nature of life. Oneohtrix Point Never (no, I don’t know how you are supposed to pronounce Oneohtrix… just call them OPN) is the creative outlet of musician Daniel Lopatin. The man is a musical arsonist who has no patience for the concept of song structure. His 2015 album Garden of Delete’s acclaim was matched only by the disorienting detachment it produced in listeners. One might call it the Tree of Life of electronica.
With Age Of, Lopatin adds a badly needed dose of melody to his fragmented tonal poems. He was reportedly inspired to create the album after watching 2001: A Space Odyssey (which helps explain the album’s deeply cinematic vibe). The instrumentation on Age Of forms a symbiotic relationship with the listener’s imagination and transports them into another world. Lopatin is a master of stitching together familiar but disparate sounds in a way that creates something riveting and alien. Age Of Of he takes touches of glitch pop, industrial, opera, folk and eastern harmonics and stirs them into a glorious cocktail best served with a dose of LSD.
Other musicians mentioned or hyperlinked [an index]
Kanye West , Ariana Grande , David Bowie , Tunng , Rico Nasty , Flume , James Blake , The Gorillaz , DJ Rashad , Lil Jon , Talking Heads , Sonic Youth , The Smiths , Brian Eno , Patti Smith , Lana Del Rey , Tyler the Creator , Anderson Paak , Kaytranada , Aesop Rock , El-P , Run the Jewels , Cannibal Ox , Blockhead , Stephen Malkmus of Pavement , J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. , Throwing Muses , Depeche Mode , Tegan and Sara , Santana , Sandy Bull , Elton John , The Beatles , Eminem , Ray Charles , Elliott Smith , Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes , Phoebe Bridgers , Lucy Durcus , Julien Baker , Cypress Hill , Tame Impala , Kendrick Lamar , SZA , Schoolboy Q , Jack White of The White Stripes , Black Sabbath , Frank Zappa , Neil Young , Alice Coltrane , Ravyn Lenae , Rancid , Queens of the Stone Age , The Clash , Sex Pistols , Gang of Four , The Wire , Pink Floyd , The Ramones , Odd Future , Syd , Frank Ocean , MF Doom , The Rolling Stones , Fugazi , Rise Against , Jay Som , Gravenhurst , Talk Talk , Songs: Ohia , Shearwater , Danger Mouse , Thundercat , BadBadNotGood , Kamasi Washington , Fatboy Slim , Disclosure , Wilco , My Morning Jacket , Amy Winehouse , The Fugees , Massive Attack , Dead Can Dance , Menomena , Shawn Colvin , Bonnie Rait , Mary Chapin Carpenter , Led Zeppelin , Devendra Banhart , Velvet Underground , David Crosby , Damon Albarn , Portishead , John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame , Adele , NSYNC , Backstreet Boys , The XX , FKA Twigs , Bone Thugz , Atmosphere , Chance The Rapper , Jamie XX , TV on The Radio , Sparkle Horse , The Microphones , Sun Kill Moon , Darkside , Iron Maiden , Slowdive , My Bloody Valentine
I also referenced Insane Clown Posse (but it’s a stretch to call them musicians).
Other albums cited [an index]
Blackstar (David Bowie) , You Are Free (Cat Power) , Summertime ‘06’(Vince Staples) , Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Courtney Barnett) , The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas (Courtney Barnett) , Black City (Matthew Dear) , The Waters (Mick Jenkins) , The Healing Component (Mick Jenkins) , The Marshal Mathers LP (Eminem) , Sprained Ankle (Julien Baker) , Turn Out the Lights (Julien Baker) , Freetown Sound (Blood Orange) , White Blood Cells (The White Stripes) , The Lonesome Crowded West (Modest Mouse) , Blood Sugar Sex Magic (The Red Hot Chili Peppers) , Attack on Memory (Cloud Nothings) , London Calilng (The Clash) , God Save the Queen (Sex Pistols) , I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside (Earl Sweatshirt) , Whokill (Tune-Yards) , Pet Sounds (The Beach Boys) , Watching Movies with the Sound Off (Mac Miller) , Body Talk (Robyn) , Random Access Memories (Daft Punk) , Serpent Music (Yves Tumor) , If Only I Could Remember My Name (David Crosby) , Drunken Babble (Kali Uchlis) , I Gemini’ (Let’s Eat Grandma) , In Colour (Jamie XX) , Sunbather (Deafhaven) , Garden of Delete (Oneohtrix Point Never)