Hello music lovers! It's the midpoint of 2018 and time to pause for a little retrospective reflection and see just what music has really reached into our souls this year. 2018 has seemed like a fairly active year musically, with lots of things being released (some digital only, which we will not consider here as they don't really exist except in a purely cyber world, right purists?), and with every exciting release, there seemed to be a few unfortunate letdowns. Face it, everyone has them. Even Gorillaz, who had a minor blip last year with Humanz, their first album in seven years, comes roaring back here a year later with The Now Now, one of the best albums of their career. Go figure! I can't really think of any major disasters, but some seemed a little less inspired or lackluster than usual, while others maintained their high quality of delivering time after time, or elevated their sound to something new while still engaging the listener. Below is our list of our top favorites of the first half of 2018. Did any of yours make the list? If the first six months were this full, imagine what the next six will bring...
1) FATHER JOHN MISTY--God's Favorite Customer
Somewhat more reined in than last year's Pure Comedy but no less brilliant, Josh Tillman now turns the spotlight on himself and his own insecurities on a less indulgent album, maintaining his high quality of melodicism while finding new ways to approach lyrical conceits that may seem all too familiar. He makes them work here, especially in songs like the heartfelt "Just Dumb Enough to Try" and compelling "The Songwriter", while single "Mr. Tillman" is an ode to himself featuring lyrics name-checking Jason Isbell! As Josh continues chipping away at the persona that is Father John Misty, the lines are beginning to blur as we get closer to the real Mr. Tillman. It's been an interesting journey so far...
2) GORILLAZ--The Now Now
Now now this is more like it. Last year's Humanz was a bit of a scattered mess...Interesting yes, but a hodgepodge of rounded up tracks strewn across Damon Albarn's floor, picked and sequenced to make some kind of statement while dodging core politics (he decided not to namedrop Trump or Theresa May anywhere in order to keep them from getting any more publicity). It came across more as "Look what I can do with my bag of tricks" and not "Here's an album you're going to fall in love with". Maybe had he mixed tracks from Humanz and The Now Now, it would have given fans the respite they were looking for with Damon's voice being more omnipresent. However, by not mixing them together, he has ended up with the most concise and consistent Gorillaz album to date. Damon sings every song but one (an instrumental) and guests are kept to an extreme minimum (three as opposed to 25+), making for one superb, cohesive, happily melancholic and super summery album. The Now Now really feels like the now now, and Damon manages to give the fans mostly what was missing from Humanz. Try mixing tracks from both for an awesome mixtape!
3) PARQUET COURTS--Wide Awake
Parquet Courts have, over the course of a few albums, maintained a constant push toward something more refined that doesn't sacrifice any of their ramshackle spirit, and with Wide Awake (assisted by star producer Danger Mouse), they are reaching that sweet spot between artistic credibility, musicality, passion, and drive. The album features a variety of styles and sounds, channeling their punky spirit on album opener "Total football" (ending with the chant "And fuck Tom Brady"), forays alternately into gentle psychedelia and raucous chantalongs, and Talking Heads-grooviness on the title track. It's a fun and engaging listen that also has something to say, and that's not an easy thing to do. Check it out if you have not.
4) SHAME--Songs of Praise
Shame is an indie band from England, so they are already saddled with expectations before uttering a note. What Shame brings that makes them unique is their spoken/yelled lyrics that can evolve into catchy melodies from vocalist Charlie Steen (some Mark E. Smith tendencies), a band that can play both playfully loose or wound up tight, and a somewhat confrontational stage presence that is riveting in its commitment to the cause. They are the real deal, and Songs of Praise is a must have for any self-respecting fan of UK alterna-punk of the 80's and beyond. Just listening to Steen utter the word "gynecologist" is pretty riveting on its own.
5) JANELLE MONAE--Dirty Computer
What else can be said about Janelle that hasn't been already? Talented singer, actress, activist, artist, etc. After setting screens ablaze with her appearances in Oscar winning films like Moonlight and Hidden Figures, I have to admit I was a bit worried she wouldn't return to the world of music. What a gift that she did. So much of Dirty Computer is imbued with the spirit of Prince, frequent Monae collaborator and advisor...even "Make Me Feel" is like Prince's "Kiss" piped in from another time. While Monae seems to have temporarily abandoned the Cindy Mayweather narrative somewhat that she has employed on her past three releases, the new album resonates with the spirit of the #Metoo movement and empowerment. Face it, Janelle, this girl from Kansas City who's mom used to clean hotel rooms, is unstoppable, and we are all the more blessed for her voice in these troubling times.
6) GANG OF YOUTHS--Go Farther in Lightness
Actually released in Australia in 2017 but physically issued in the US in 2018, this Australian band came up with an album full of optimism after the lead singer dealt with a situation involving his girlfriend's cancer diagnosis and how one moves on after such a devastating situation. An epic sprawl of an album befitting a classic Arcade Fire record, Go Farther in Lightness is full of bursting energy, quiet reflection, heartfelt lyrics, abundant melodies, bookending interludes, and is simply one of the most engaging albums you'll hear all year. Do yourself a favor and make this one part of your collection the way I have. It deserves a much wider audience.
7) BEACH HOUSE--7
While Beach House are beginning to seem like old pros at this music thing, here they expand their sonic palette for album 7 by employing producer Sonic Boom (ex-Spacemen 3). The result is a big sounding album full of buzzy synths and distorted textures befitting a My Bloody Valentine ballad. There's still a wooziness on some tracks like the ethereal "Lemon Glow", but tracks such as opener "Dark Spring" displays a newfound aggression not present in much of their other music. This is a way for Beach House to move forward while still giving the fans what they want or expect. It's an endearing record that develops it's charms over repeated listens, and is their best effort since Bloom.
8) NATALIE PRASS--The Future & the Past
Talk about taking it to the next level. Natalie Prass' debut a couple years back was a pleasantly engaging listen, wonderfully arranged and written, but when she set out to make album number two, the #Metoo movement and Janet Jackson stirred her consciousness. This directed the album toward an airy sort of funk, the kind of record Steely Dan would have made if they'd had a female singer back in the 70's. A couple moments of pure Karen Carpenter-balladry slip in here and there, but overall, this is one for the sisters who are doin' it for themselves. It's catchy AND meaningful, not an easy thing to do, and it leaves the listener wanting more.
9) NINE INCH NAILS--Bad Witch
Trent Reznor continued his exploration of the rawer side of Nine Inch Nails with the third of his three planned EP's (or new album, depending on what you think of a six track record with at least one instrumental and a total running time of about 30 minutes). Bad Witch is the most successful of the three, as it opens with a couple grinding NIN stormers, followed closely by some Low-era Bowie sax playing and crooning, something he's never really done this way before. Trent and Bowie were pretty good friends, and Blackstar (Bowie's final record) looms large over this project in scope and tone. It's bracing stuff, and shows a new path for future Nine Inch Nails material.
10) TRACEY THORN--Record
At this point, every album Tracey releases is a something special. Record is her first effort since 2010 (if you don't count 2012's Christmas album, Tinsel and Lights). She has stated that she now suffers from severe stage fright, and has not performed on stage for nearly twenty years, retreating into motherhood, songwriting, and becoming a lauded author (she has released a couple very good books). One gets the sense that Record, one of her most personal efforts, loosely traces the journey of her life from song to song, as indie musician, member of Everything But the Girl and eventual wife to Ben Watt of said duo, and then motherhood and the mothballing of EBTG and middle age. It is her third solo since their break, and shows just how much she has come into her own. Oddly enough, there is never much mentioned about her history in EBTG or her current home life (although Ben shared quite a bit of himself in his autobiography after his near death around 1990). Record lets us in just enough (although on first listen you wonder if things are well at home), and there are some stunning songs like the epic "Sister" and the poppy "Air", both featuring guest women artists in Corinne Bailey Rae and Shura. Welcome back, and don't wait so long next time.
11) CHARLI XCX--Number 1 Angel/Pop 2
Bratty pop from a fascinating artist who goes all in on what she calls "mixtapes" here. The amount of collaborations sort of lends itself to that, but most pop singers' main records don't sound this fully formed or brave for that matter. That makes it hard to know where exactly to put this project, so maybe we're just better off enjoying it for what it is...a couple really good collections of catchy modern pop tunes.
12) ARCTIC MONKEYS--Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
Much has already been said about this album and its difficult nature, so I will say less here, except that it's a very enjoyable concept album about a rock star moving to another planet. It takes more than three minutes to tell the story, so you have to listen to the whole 45. Do you have the patience?
13) BREEDERS--All Nerve
Proving you can go back, The Breeders reunited with all four original members for this new record for the first time in over 25 years and came away with an album that actually lives up to the promise of follow-up to Last Splash! It makes one wonder what sort of music we could have been getting all along from this band, much less others who seem to have gone silent or mixed it up with different people when there was a certain chemistry that just worked. Belly (featuring Tanya Donnelly who used to be in the original Breeders) recently reunited and did the same (Lush and Stone Roses tried but couldn't bring themselves to reach the finish line). Sometimes it has to be about preserving your legacy, and whatever the motivation here, it worked, and better than the recent Pixies albums.
14) CAR SEAT HEADREST--Twin Fantasy
Will Toledo has got something. After Ric Ocasek rained all over his parade on previous Teens of Denial, Will went to his comfort zone and re-recorded an earlier album of his, Twin Fantasy. It was a mostly successful endeavor as it benefits from sharper (and more expensive) production. Twin Fantasy is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of Will and into the mind of a young gay man searching for love, not something you're likely to find in heaps of rock records from the past.
15) FLORENCE & THE MACHINE--High as Hope
Florence dials it back here, employing a bit less-is-more ethos, and it seems to help reach a certain level of depth and intimacy that she hasn't quite reached until now. By making a more personal record, she has given the listener something familiar and something new simultaneously, another win-win for Ms. Welch. Where on earth will she go from here? Will we ever know what The Machine is all about?
16) KAMASI WASHINGTON--Heaven & Earth
Kamasi took some time making this latest magnum jazz opus, and it was worth the wait. Of course, if you're making an album over two hours long and then add a 40 minute EP to it, that's gonna take some time. Coming off like a modern Sun Ra gone funky, Kamasi mixes different kinds and sizes of groups, sometimes including vocals and choirs, to achieve a heady mix of psychedelic acoustics that are quite effective as something to focus on or alternately a soundtrack to a life. Fascinating stuff, but prepare yourself...You're gonna need some serious time to digest it all...
17) NEKO CASE--Hell-On
The chanteuse of Northwestern indie darlings New Pornographers may have introduced Case and her distinct vocals to a larger audience, but her most interesting work continues to be what she does outside of the band. A couple years back, she participated in a trio with other ladies of the north Laura Veirs and k.d. lang to stunning effect, and now she is back on her own, delivering an album of intricately written and arranged songs, featuring a few male guest vocalists (Mark Lanegan, Eric Bachmann, Porno's own A.C. Newman), and yet she has never sounded more self-assuredly Neko. A series of unfortunate events was the inspiration for this effort, and it feels like much of her life is always on fire somewhere, just as reflected in the album's crazy cover art. It continues the trajectory of an artist who keeps things interesting while she continues to explore her world.
18) COURTNEY BARNETT--Tell Me How You Really Feel
I have to admit I wasn't much for Courtney's shared album with Kurt Vile last year. They are two artists that are great on their own, but for some reason, they just didn't mesh for me as well as I would have liked. Maybe they're each a little too blase about their vocals that two of them at once was too much. I'm not sure. In any case, I am very glad to have Courtney back on her own here, and she rises to the challenge with an album full of great songs and lots of humor to boot. Hopefully she sticks to herself for a little while and develops her sound a little more, as the results here are much more endearing.
19) KACEY MUSGRAVES--Golden Hour
Kacey is one of the few country artists on this list, although I hesitate to use that moniker, as she is constantly growing and changing. It amazes me that she manages to live in a Taylor Swift world and yet is still making music that can be considered "country" that still appeals to lots of former Swifties. Golden Hour is her most pop-centric effort to date, but her lyrics and vocals tend to take her in more of a breezy country route. This album has been one of the highest rated albums of 2018, and it's not hard to see why, as there is nothing extraneous, no fluff, just a tight and well-made record that makes you wanna play it again as soon as it ends. That's the sign of something remarkable.
Another reinvigorated band of the past returns with all it's original members, and while Dove doesn't rewrite the playbook, it gives us a more mature version of Tanya Donnelly as a vocalist 23 years after King was released. It's pleasant enough stuff, and also has the added effect of reminding us how much autotune and studio trickery is a part of all music now, as this is a pretty straightforward record made with their original producer in order to preserve something of their legacy. Just fine the way it is.
21) OF MONTREAL--White is Relic / Irrealis Mood
Their most invigorating album in years, and the psychedelic electro-funk would make Prince happy.
22) WYE OAK--The Louder I Call the Faster it Runs
Brilliantly talented duo soldiers on after moving around and side projects, now incorporating all elements of their abilities full on. It only goes up from here.
23) GRUFF RHYS--Babelsburg
Super Furry Animals' lead singer returns with a great chamber pop album that reminds one of both Scott Walker and The Divine Comedy. One of the best things he's ever done.
24) JOHNNY MARR--Call the Comet
Marr continues to grow and develop as a singer and songwriter years after his first gig in the Smiths, and this latest is one of his best so far. Oasis fans take note.
25) PREOCCUPATIONS--New Material
Formerly Viet Cong, this Canadian band is sometimes difficult to figure out and can be quite dark. Preoccupations is laser focused on presenting a certain sound and feel, which they achieved here.
26) BELLE & SEBASTIAN--How to Solve Our Human Problems
The strategy of releasing 3 EPs over a three month period was sort of genius but also a bit confusing. If one gets to the heart of the songs contained in these EPs, we'd have an excellent full album to hear in one full listening.
27) TRACYANNE & DANNY--Tracyanne & Danny
Camera Obscura lost keyboardist Carey Lander at age 33 to bone cancer, and singer Tracyanne felt lost. After taking a break and taking care of her young child, she has taken steps back toward music with the help of her friend, Danny Coughlan. Their debut is a bit of an ode to an American road-trip, something to help take Tracyanne to a new place mentally and spiritually. Light from darkness.
28) LO MOON--Lo Moon
If you liked Talk Talk and missed their Colour of Spring era music, this is the closest you're going to get to a rebirth as they have long called it a day. You could do a whole lot worse for inspiration or execution of a sound than this. Featuring Dave Stewart's (Eurythmics) son with Siobhan Fahey (Bananarama, Shakespear's Sister) Sam on guitar as an added bonus.
29) ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER--Rebound
Eleanor went to Greece after her last record, and not only did she make a different sounding record (less band involvement), she also reflected a little on what was going on in the US viewing it as a spectator from the other side of the world. Another winner from her.
30) KALI UCHIS--Isolation
One of the brightest new artists to jump on the scene is Colombia by way of DC based Kali Uchis. You may have heard Uchis but not known it was her, as she has appeared on recordings with Gorillaz and Damon Albarn (on her album too), Tyler the Creator, Jorja Smith, Juanes, and Lana del Rey among others. Isolation is a unique but self-assured debut.
More great albums:
JOHN COLTRANE--Both Directions at Once: the Lost Album
LUMP featuring Laura Marling--Lump
JACK LADDER--Blue Poles
FRANZ FERDINAND--Always Ascending
THE VACCINES--Combat Sports
LAURA VEIRS--The Lookout
FIELD MUSIC--Open Here
SHANNON SHAW--Shannon in Nashville
OUGHT--Room Inside the World
DJANGO DJANGO--Marble Skies
MGMT--Little Dark Age
STEPHEN MALKMUS & THE JICKS--Sparkle Hard
DAVID BYRNE--American Utopia
HOLLIE COOK--Vessel of Love
LILY ALLEN--No Shame
CHVRCHES--Love is Dead
GAZ COOMBES--World's Strongest Man
HOP ALONG--Bark Your Head Off, Dog
CREEPSHOW featuring John Grant--Mr. Dynamite
TUNE-YARDS--I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life
YO LA TENGO--There's a Riot Going On
SUNFLOWER BEAN--Twentytwo in Blue
THE VOIDZ featuring Julian Casablancas--Virtue
JOSH T. PEARSON--The Straight Hits!
BUFFALO TOM--Quiet & Peace
BRANDI CARLILE--By the Way, I Forgive You
DECEMBERISTS--I'll Be Your Girl
FIRST AID KIT--Ruins
CALEXICO--Thread That Keeps Us
US GIRLS--In a Poem Unlimited
I AM X--Alive in New Light
SIMPLE MINDS--Walk Between Worlds
RY COODER--The Prodigal Son
TY SEGALL--Freedom's Goblin
RYLEY WALKER--Deafman Glance
SARAH SHOOK & THE DISARMERS--Years
SUPERCHUNK--What a Time to be Alive
THE DAMNED--Evil Spirits
DAMIEN JURADO--Damien Jurado
BLACK REBEL MOTORCYCLE CLUB--Wrong Creatures
MANIC STREET PREACHERS--Resistance is Futile
DAPHNE & CELESTE--Daphne & Celeste Save the World
What did we miss?