Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Best Albums of 2018 as we see them...

Once again, another year is nearing the end, and it's time for our yearly review of what we found riveting in the world of music.  What a weird year it has been.  So much good music has been released, and yet, music seems so fractured now and the variety is so huge, there is really no way to cover all worthy titles in one simple list.  The following is not necessarily the albums we loved the most in 2018 (although we did love or at least like many of them), but they are the ones that impressed us to the point that we were moved in some way to promote or discuss them with other music fans.

So here is our list of Best Albums of 2018.  Please be kind if we omitted one of your favorites.  It was hard to remember everything...

1)  THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE QUEEN--Merrie Land

Merrie Land

Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) joins back up with Paul Simonon (The Clash), Simon Tong (The Verve), and Tony Allen (Fela Kuti) for the first time in 11 years to spin a yarn of dystopian post-Brexit England.  Albarn calls it a sequel to Parklife, Blur's big Oasis-competing album of the mid-90's, only now he wonders if all that English Pride has somehow created an Us v Them mentality of isolationism and racial preservation at the expense of its own future.  It might not hit you over the head on the first play, but over repeated listenings, this is a deeply unsettling album about a troubled nation at war with its own ideologies.  Creaky decay abounds...

2)  SUEDE--The Blue Hour

Blue Hour

Their third album after a successful reunion album and tour in 2013 (Bloodsports), The Blue Hour follows Night Thoughts as a self-proclaimed trilogy in which the band finally seem to be dispensing with attaching "London" to the beginning of their name.  It's one of their best albums yet, focusing on the death and decay one finds if they look hard enough at the suburbs of England's largest cities.  Grand in scope, it features some of their best songwriting with the final three ballads being particularly haunting.  Great seeing a band that's been through so much making such impressive artistic statements so far into their near-30-year career.

3)  LOW--Double Negative

Double Negative

From the second this album begins to play, Low demand you listen on their terms.  They are exploring new musical languages here where even their vocals get buried under layers of distortion, all in service to the overall effect.  It's rare when one finds an album in which the studio itself has been used as a musical instrument, and the ideas here are nothing short of inspiring.  A groundbreaking achievement in what one thinks of as "alternative" music, and a leap in a chapter of Low, a long-existing band that still manage to find new ways to make music interesting.

4)  FATHER JOHN MISTY--God's Favorite Customer

God's Favorite Customer

Could it be that Josh Tillman is THE singer-songwriter of this generation?  He's certainly in the running, and this is his third album in the past three years, nothing short of prolific (especially considering the length of last year's Pure Comedy).  God's Favorite Customer is a tighter, briefer album than his last, and yet there is still a wealth of ideas and arrangements.  What really stands out is Tillman's sarcasm, most evident on songs like "Mr. Tillman", which he composed while living in an LA hotel.  It's one observational piece in the puzzle that makes up the enigma of Father John Misty.

5)  GORILLAZ--The Now Now

The Now Now [Explicit]

Damon Albarn strikes again!  His second entry in the top 10 was this summer's latest Gorillaz album, The Now Now, which follows last year's Humanz (This guy's been busy).  One reason this album succeeds is how it presents itself as the antithesis to the last album, marred by too many guest spots and too little of Damon's weary, creaky Britpop vocals to balance the project (it was like a super mixtape).  The Now Now feels much more personal and fully developed, with clubby and summery tracks rubbing up against new wave styled material and forlorn balladry.  It's actually one of Albarn's best records to date.

6)  PARQUET COURTS--Wide Awake

Wide Awake! [Explicit]

One of the most surprising records of the year was the great new Parquet Courts album.  It took their ramshackle style, harnessed it to a Danger Mouse production that basically stayed out of the way but said "You guys need to bring the hooks".  What developed was an album with energy and urgency, flipping through a bunch of different styles from one track to the next, and they seem pretty comfortable with every one of them.  This is a great alternative rock record that's a throwback while pointing the future to a positive Parquet Courts to come.  And "Total Football" is a jam!

7)  SHAME--Songs of Praise

Songs of Praise

Another big surprise this year was the debut of Shame, a twitchy and punky young British act (Think Gang of Four, Buzzcocks, Wire, etc).  A band with a charismatic lead singer/howler that takes in alterna-pop fare on tracks like "One Rizla", but then goes sort of darkly off the deep end with some of their other tracks ("Gold Hole" is particularly disturbing in a Trump-y sort of way).  Not for the faint of heart but definitely worth the time, Shame has a bright future indeed.

8)  THE 1975--A Brief History Into Online Relationships

A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships [Explicit]

Matty Healy and co. continue to stretch their emo souls as they release what may be their best album yet.  Still unwieldy in structure and difficult to pin down, the latest album from The 1975 finds them taking on Bon Iver-styled electronica, ambient textures, light jazz and hip hop, rousing dance pop, and more.  None of this would work, however, were it not for the lyrics Healy comes up with, honest tropes that push the profound and the banal together in one sentence.  The 1975 may seem cookie cutter in some ways, but in reality, they are a unique band in a sea of soundalikes.  Something here for everybody.

9)  JANELLE MONAE--Dirty Computer

Dirty Computer [Explicit]

Janelle continues to thrill with her latest album, Dirty Computer, in which she takes a bit of a break from the Cindy Mayweather story of her past couple archandroid releases.  The sci-fi is still present, yet Janelle has other things she wants to discuss here, mainly more about humans, whether it be race and civil rights, sex and gender equality, shackles of poverty and an unfair justice system, and freedom for everyone.  These are heady topics that she generally nails with observational grace, and while it may lack some of the freeform aspects of its predecessors, it's an album from an artist who has become so very important to the world of popular music and a much needed voice right now.

10)  LILY ALLEN--No Shame

No Shame [Explicit]

Oh Lily.  At first we weren't really feeling this record, as she has traded much of the charming ska and light electronica that made her a hit in the first place for something a bit more trendy and trap-centric, so we sort of dismissed it.  Then we listened again.  And again.  It's like a car crash one can't turn away from.  Allen's personal life fell into shambles when she began making this record, and it plays like the diary of a very hurt individual after a painful divorce.  Lily gets more personal than ever, and while the music may sometimes be a bit skeletal, she always delivers in the lyrics and the melodies, showing why this album was nominated for this year's Mercury Prize in England.  It was likely her most difficult album to make, but the payoff is there if you stick with it.  Some of the saddest songs I've heard all year.



Baltimore's Beach House do it again with another album of soft-focus psychedelic pop that brings forth some of their best qualities that had diminished somewhat with their last two releases that came out a couple years ago almost together (Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars...not including the B-sides album of last year too).  Ultimately, 7 is one of the most enjoyable Beach House releases as it pulls together their most direct tendencies as a statement of purpose with a bit of experimentation thrown in for good measure.  If you liked Teen Dream or Bloom, this is more along those lines.

12)  GANG OF YOUTHS--Go Farther in Lightness

Go Farther In Lightness

As we previously stated, this album was actually released in 2017 but not physically until early 2018 in the US.  These Australians take the best influences from the anthemic rock of Springsteen and the alternative heart of early Arcade Fire, channel it through a bit of emo and Eno, and come up with one of the most heartfelt and engaging albums of the year, musically and lyrically.  It's an album that deals with illness of a loved one, but projects a rather optimistic future after all the heartbreak, giving the listener a ray of sunshine after the storm.  It's cathartic and moving, and one that we'll be playing for years to come, moody instrumentals and all.

13)  NATALIE PRASS--The Future & The Past

The Future And The Past

Virginia's own Natalie Prass sort of flew under our radar a couple years back with her debut, and while she continued working with most of the same people for this release, she took some artistic risks that really paid off here.  Channeling both Karen Carpenter and Janet Jackson may seem like a bit of a stretch, but Natalie imbues this album with the soul and lighter touches of Jackson's early funk balladry with the precision of Carpenter's melancholy.  It's a rewarding combination that stuns on repeated listens, and we think it's one of the most purely enjoyable albums of the year  (In other words, you really don't have to try to like it).  Her musicality also opens the doors to what the possibility of the future holds, and we can't wait to see where she goes from here.

14)  MITSKI--Be the Cowboy

Be the Cowboy

Mitski is rather new to the music "scene", having had some critical acclaim with her previous album, Puberty 2 from 2016.  Be the Cowboy is a different beast entirely, as she becomes much more comfortable with the studio and expanding her sonic palette.  The jump in production technique between the two releases is shocking, as she now seems so professional as though she's been doing this for years, and while she is musically adept, the songs speak with more fluidity as a result of this newfound sophistication.  Be the Cowboy is the album that proves Mitski is one to watch for the future.

15)  TRACEY THORN--Record


Tracey Thorn albums have become special events anymore, as she has basically receded from "the music thing" to the point that she no longer plays live (she says she has developed stage fright), and this is after several years as half of the duo Everything But the Girl (with husband Ben Watt).  Her albums now feel like labors of love, as she continues to work with longtime producer Ewan Peterson on Record, an album of seven rather brief pop tracks and an extended one (the fantastic "Sister" featuring Corinne Bailey Rae on backing vocals).  It's one of the most personal albums of the year (alongside Lily Allen and Gang of Youths) as a sort of chronological autobiography of her life journey in song as she is now fifty-something with stories to tell.  Strangely, she continues to shun working with her musician husband after nearly two decades of tiny guest spots and a few solo albums for both, yet she continues to plough her own musical path in the process.  With records this good, that seems to be an OK thing.

16)  ARCTIC MONKEYS--Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

One of the bravest and most audacious moves of the year was this album from Arctic Monkeys.  Following the super popular AM (2013), years spent doing other things (like Last Shadow Puppets) changed Alex Turner's perception of what this band could be.  Here he avoids anything that plays like a radio hit, instead coming up with an art piece describing a story of himself as fading rock star who tires of the whole thing and decides to move to Mars where he can focus on life in the intergalactic hotel and casino.  This, kids, is what we used to call a "concept album".  Few hooks and tons of lyrics, Turner stretches out and slows things down considerably for an album that may seem easy to admire and hard to love, and yet, the more you hear it, the more it settles into a very strong piece of work with moments of humor and wit.  Not your typical Arctic Monkeys record then, but with Turner at their heart, that's OK.

17)  CHARLI XCX--Number 1 Angel / Pop 2

Pop 2 [Explicit]

This is sort of cheating since Charli's two mixtapes, Number 1 Angel and Pop2 both came out in 2017 (April and December, respectively), but in today's marketplace, we didn't hear either of these here until 2018 when they were released on vinyl together.  A modern pop career that is comprised of albums, singles, collaborations, mixtapes...this new pop thing is all a bit confusing to keep up with...yet, these two collections comprising 20 tracks play as a definitive version of what it means to sound "pop" in 2018.  Number 1 Angel is the more melodic and catchy of the two, placing heartfelt ballads inbetween cut n paste dance tracks, while Pop2 is definitely more experimental.  They feature an array of post-millennial guest stars including Carly Rae Jepsen, Tove Lo, SOPHIE, Mykki Blanco, and Cupcakke among others.

18)  BREEDERS--All Nerve

All Nerve

Who would have thought the Breeders foursome that made the classic Last Splash album would reunite to make one of the best "alternative" albums of 2018?  Somehow the Breeders' reunion seemed to produce results that picked up right where Last Splash left off, and landed much closer to their former material than the Pixies' recent reboot without (member of both) Kim Deal did.  Even the artwork was 4AD worthy, echoing the look and feel of their former record label.  While there are some darker turns on this album than their usual fare, the experimentation opens the door to new areas of exploration.  This is how to do a reunion right, and here's hoping they can build on what they released here.

19)  KACEY MUSGRAVES--Golden Hour

Golden Hour

Simply put, Kacey Musgraves wins the award for the most easily likable album of 2018.  She is proving herself to be much more than the typical country artist, imbuing her songs with charm and wit, humor and heartache, and she continues to talk about things that have been endlessly written about in new and unique perspectives.  While Taylor Swift seems like she can sometimes be trying too hard, Kacey is effortless in her work and appeal.  There's not a wasted moment on this album, and if you have not heard it, here's a good example of what a good country/pop crossover SHOULD sound like in 2018.

20)  MARIANNE FAITHFULL--Negative Capability

Negative Capability (Boxset)

Has Marianne Faithfull made the bravest album of 2018?  We'll let you decide.  The 71-year old former Mick Jagger flame continues to push herself, even when it seems as though her voice is trying to leave her.  There is no place for her voice to hide here, and the years of drug abuse when she was younger have definitely taken their toll.  It's even more apparent how worn her voice has become than it was on 2014's Give My Love to London album.  One listen to her raw reworking of "As Tears Go By", her hit song written by Jagger/Richards/Oldham and released when she was 18, and comparing it to the original shows she has had a very hard life of hard living.  Even so, she bares herself more intimately than any other singer of her age and condition (or almost any other singer, really), and it's rather shocking being confronted by this sound so directly.  A couple more Dylan and Pretty Things covers mix here with originals by Nick Cave, Ed Harcourt, and Mark Lanegan.  Marianne, however, is the star of the show.

Other Highlights:

JOHN GRANT--Love is Magic
KALI UCHIS--Isolation
WYE OAK--The Louder I Call, the Faster it Runs
JAMES--Living in Extraordinary Times
OF MONTREAL--White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood
HOP ALONG--Bark Your Head Off, Dog
J MASCIS--Elastic Days
SLEEP--The Sciences
SNAIL MAIL--I Feel Pretty
JAKE SHEARS--Jake Shears
MUSE--Simulation Theory
SHRIEKBACK--Why Anything? Why This?
SIMPLE MINDS--Walk Between Worlds
KURT VILE--Bottle it in
BELLE & SEBASTIAN--How to Solve Our Human Problems 1, 2 & 3
COURTNEY BARNETT--Tell Me How You Really Feel
JOHNNY MARR--Call the Comet
GRUFF RHYS--Babelsberg
FRANZ FERDINAND--Always Ascending
JOHN COLTRANE--Both Directions at Once
SHANNON SHAW--Shannon in Nashville
MGMT--Little Dark Age
CHVRCHES--Love is Dead
OUGHT--Room Inside the World
RY COODER--The Prodigal Son
JOHN PRINE--Tree of Forgiveness
YO LA TENGO--There's a Riot Going On
SOPHIE--Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides
SUPERCHUNK--What a Time to Be Alive
LO MOON--Lo Moon
CAT POWER--Wanderer

Treat yourself and bring some of these into your life...See you in 2019...