This is a simple overview of my favorite albums of 2018. Naturally I am only able to comment on those albums that I had the time to listen to and to find my way into. Many lists have albums from Mitski and others on there that I just didn’t totally get into. The list that follows is a mixture of albums that a lot of critics adored and others that just stood out to me. You probably won’t like all of these, but I’m pretty sure you can find something here that turns you on.
#13: Deafheaven, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. On ANTI-.
Deafheaven’s first record since 2015 sees the band moving into more melodic territory, sort of. Deafheaven is basically black metal mixed with a little Slowdive and a little Sigur Ros. The songs are often long–the opener “You Without End” runs 7 and a half minutes and the showstopper “Glint” runs over 10. The album is said to be based on Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair and you can certainly hear ordinary corrupt human love in the lyrics, or you can just sit back and bask in the sound. Basically, cool people like Deafheaven. Do you want to be cool? I thought so.
I’m by no means a black metal completist so the comparisons won’t be perfect but…
RIYL: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Jesu, Pelican, Sigur Ros
Start With: You Without End, Glint, Honeycomb
#12: Metric, The Art of Doubt. On MMI/ Crystal Math Music.
I just love Metric and Emily Haines, so this is an easy one. Fantasies is a top 30 record of the millennium. The Art of Doubt doesn’t quite rise to that level, but it’s a kick-ass rocker through and through and “The Risk,” holy lord:
Was the risk I sent to you received?
All the words we say to be believed?
I’m already over the thrill of pursuit
Where can I take this risk I took with you?
Send this kiss to someone new?
Metric is historical high-level. I’m a Gemini sun with Mars in Leo in my 10th house. I am, basically speaking, not afraid of people. What you got? Yeah, color me impressed. However…there are three women I would be a bit daunted to meet. In order:
#1: Brit Marling, actress and creator of The OA.
#2: Emily Haines, lead singer of Metric.
#3: Kristin Stewart, actress in Personal Shopper.
RIYL: Chvrches, Broken Social Scene, Emily Haines, Lower Dens
Start With: The Risk, Dark Saturday
#11: Bad Moves, Tell No One. On Don Giovanni Records.
I wrote about Bad Moves extensively here: https://thekyotokibbitzer.com/2018/12/16/crushes-and-crushing-with-bad-moves-and-swearin/. Bad ass power pop with attitude, class, and sweetness. That’s quite a combination. And Emily Park is stunning. That’s my opinion, and I am correct.
RIYL: Dirty on Purpose, Daddy Issues, Swearin’
Start With: Crushed Out, Missing You
#10: Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer. On Bad Boy Records and Atlantic Records.
I really liked her last record, and her new one is a huge step forward. Janelle is a star, no question about it. This is a rollicking record with breadth and depth and takes multiple listens to plumb. Janelle is living in public with no apologies. The record is long and dense and encompass a range of moods. The best places to jump in are the fist-pumping tracks like “Django Jane,” which sees Monae spitting fire:
Yeah, yeah this is my palace, champagne in my chalice
I got is all covered like a wedding band
Wonderland, so my alias is Alice
We gon’ start a motherfuckin’ pussy riot
Or we gon’ have to put them on a pussy diet
Look at that, I guarantee I got ’em quiet
Look at that, I guarantee they all inspired
I can’t wait to see her live as soon as possible.
RIYL: Lykke Li, Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, Lady Gaga
Start With: Crazy Classic Life, Django Jane
#9: The Hold Steady, Confusion in the Marketplace/ The Stove and the Toaster b/w Star 18/ Eureka b/w Esther.
This one is a bit of a cheat as it is not actually an album. These are the three two-song releases from The Hold Steady in 2018. If you aren’t a hardcore fan you these might have slipped beneath your radar. That’s a shame because there are some classic Hold Steady songs and some killer Craig Finn lines in these songs.
“The Stove and the Toaster” details yet another bad deal gone down, a classic Finn theme.
Got some new information from the chef and the chauffeur
The put the stash in the stove they keep the cash in the toaster
Down in Las Cruces they don’t play with jokers
I hope I still know you when this is all over.
Needless to say, the narrator and crew get burned by the chef and the chauffeur in the end. Yeah, it’s sort of Finn-by-numbers, so, basically the kind of lines other songwriters would kill for.
My two favorites here are #2 “Esther,” and #1 “Star 18.” Esther is a great song about a week long romance. It remains totally remarkable how much detail and color Finn can get across in a 4 minute song.
The party ended suddenly, suddenly it’s over
That left me and Esther all along and getting older
All alone and getting older and smoking in the street
Now everything is Esther and it’s been that way all week
Esther follows the transcendent “Tangletown” from 2017’s We All Want the Same Things as a precisely executed x-ray of a complex adult relationship. I like it a lot.
Best of all is “Star 18,” a top 10 all time Hold Steady track. It’s an upbeat rocker that would fit on Stay Positive (still my favorite record by this great band.). A tongue-in-cheek commentary on the music scene and a come on song at the same time, Star 18 features lines that help make the case for Finn as the greatest living lyricist under 70.
Sorry I’m late, I got caught in the mosh
With this dude that said he used to play with Peter Tosh
But he never brought it up again once I said, man, I don’t believe you
Hold Steady at the Comfort Inn
Mick Jagger’s at the Mandarin
Once you get good, you can get it wherever you are.
The Hold Steady gets it wherever they are, believe me.
RIYL: Rock ‘n Roll
Start With: Star 18
#8: Snail Mail, Lush. On Matador Records.
This girl is like 19. Amazing. Snail Mail shreds. Lush is one of the most accomplished and poised debuts in a while. I would compare it to Courtney Barnett’s first record, which people love, but Snail Mail is younger and the guitar is better.
Passing phrases wear you thin/ same old world that you’ve been sleeping in
And I hope it never spends you up/ green eyes, what could ever be enough?
What indeed. Snail Mail may become massive. Scratch that, they already are.
RIYL: Daddy Issues, Courtney Barnett, Soccer Mommy, Chastity Belt
Start With: Heat Wave, Speaking Terms
#7: Big Red Machine, s/t. On Jagjaguwar.
A collaboration between Aaron Dessner of the The National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Big Red Machine is actually a collective–Dessner says that up to 30 musicians were involved in the making of this album. It sounds more like Bon Iver than the National, more or less, but is totally its own beast. Slow moving, sonically enveloping, even hypnotic, Vernon carries the album over a mixture of strings and synth beats. However, unlike 22 A Million where you feel the 80s throwback super directly, Big Red Machine sounds contemporary, or better yet, out of place and time. The lyrics are not what you would call linear precise–from the opener “Deep Green”:
Well, I met her at a hard grave
A heat-wave, handshake way
But the Carmex stayed
Come back, do not answer the door
And we met up like a ski team
With it came man’s clout
As with Deafheaven, you can try to follow along, or just surrender. I recommend the latter.
RIYL: Bon Iver, The National, The War on Drugs
Start With: Deep Green, Gratitude.
#6: Broncho, Bad Behavior. On Park the Van.
Broncho kicks ass. Period. I first got to know Broncho from 2014’s Just Hip Enough To Be a Woman. From “It’s On”:
If you show up in my room with no clothes on, it’s on
If you try to bust me out with your bail bonds on, it’s on
We could go to L.A., we could drink manhattans
We could go to Chez Jays, we could get old fashion
This song is every bit as fun as it sounds. The band hails from Oklahoma and is fronted by Ryan Lindsey. Bad Behavior is a pretty capacious catalog of just that. Not a lot of great songs are about good behavior, after all. The songs are super infectious, upbeat indie-pop, and the record is the kind that after a full spin you want to pop it right back on. “Keep It In Line” for example is about an addictive a tune you would want.
You got caught and you gave it away
And then I cancelled on ya
It got hot, yeah, and you did okay
And then I cancelled on ya
On “Family Values” … starts with a super cheeky R&B style “oh, oh, oh, oh” before this lead:
I got a thing for your mother
I got a thing to teach your father
I got family values
The song is a minute 35 seconds. And it’s hysterical.
My favorite is “Big City Boys.” It’s one of those songs where you know what’s going on yet have no idea what’s going on.
I know they only take big trips, they only get the works
They throw a real tight fit all the way up in first
They only make big plans, you never get a cut
They do the runaround better than you do but
Uh huh. For sure. Oh, and the video is filled with Big City Girls. Go figure.
RIYL: Spoon, Parquet Courts, Death Cab for Cutie
Start With: Big City Boys, Keep It in Line
#5: Lyla Foy, Bigger Brighter. On Sub Pop.
A personal choice. I am totally crazy about Lyla. In my world she is a massive star. I was first aware of Lyla when she released an EP called Shoestring under the band name Wall. This remains one of the most peaceful and lovely records I’ve ever heard. Bigger Brighter is only her second full-length and her first since 2014. Bigger Brighter is a majestic record, mixing a low key trip-hop/ acoustic sound with intense and highly personal lyrics. “Try My Heart” sketches a challenging woman:
I am hard to read, not easily pleased
Don’t come near to me, until I give permission
You can try my heart, but don’t offer it around
The standout sonically is the wondrous, immersive “Ice Bar.” It’s a nice tribute to Japan, and one of the most relaxing songs I know. When I listen to “Ice Bar” I feel like I am bathing in sound.
I’m moving backwards in a dream it’s you I’d like to find
I chose a place I’d like to go an Ice Bar in Japan
I’d like to lose all the feelings that operate my heart
So is “No God,” the next track on the record. “There is no god/ but I may be wrong” sings Foy, drenched in reverb. She puts all she has into the vocal performance here and reaches serious heights.
The strongest tracks are on the first half of the record, however “We’re Different” on the backside is also spectacular.
If you would come to me I’d make sure I
Had enough to lose to stay in line
RIYL: Portishead, Mazzy Star, His Name is Alive
Start With: Ice Bar, No God
#4: Wild Pink, Yolk in the Fur. On Tiny Engines.
You know something that bothers me? When critics and people say “oh, you know, there’s no real good music being made these days. It’s all been done really.” F off dude. Seriously. You’re bringing me down.
Wild Pink has a sound that is timeless as the American plains. That is as cliched a sentiment as I can possibly write. On purpose. Wild Pink sounds like the top down going 80 on the highway, sounds like Tom Petty, sounds a lot like the War on Drugs, sound great. This album sounds great. 5, 6, 7 minute songs which slowly build to a crescendo abound. The lyrics are hard to place, mixing the personal and political without ever getting too pointed. It’s only 10 songs, however the song lengths make for immersive listening. This is a record to drive to, or to put your best earphones on and just chill on a beanbag. Every song is excellent. I love the title track. After a bridge composed of “I’m changing the path of my life” four times, comes this verse:
You think the game is a waste
Put the dreams to the grave
Being late ain’t no waste
So I’ll put some skin in the game
Amen. Wild Pink makes inspiring, uplifting, thoughtful, and beautiful music. If you just want to listen to Zeppelin IV for the millionth time, be my guest. And keep your mouth shut while you’re at it. By the way, Tiny Engines, the label, is awesome.
RIYL: The War on Drugs, Tom Petty, Springsteen, Wilco
Start With: Yolk in the Fur, Burger Hill, John Mosby Hollow Drive
#3: Phosphorescent, C’est La Vie. On Dead Oceans Records.
How can I not have this #1? Phosphorescent is my favorite band (well Luna is my favorite band, but that’s different), and they made another great record. Well, it’s #3 because #1 and #2 are just that strong in my opinion.
This one was a long time coming. Their last record Muchacho came out in 2013 and C’est La Vie was first rumored to be coming out in 2017 I think. It took a while, and the wait is well worth it. This is a mature, reflective record from lead singer Matthew Houck that follows the birth of his son and sees him taking a step back from the edge and excess that took him to Mexico in “a little bit of a freak out” before writing Muchacho. The lead of the title track “C’est La Vie #2” pretty much says it all:
I wrote all night
Like the fire of my words could burn a hole up to heaven
I don’t write all night burning holes up to heaven no more
I stood out in the rain
Like the rain might come and wash my eyes clean
I don’t stand out in the rain to have my eyes washed clean no more
Elsewhere on “These Rocks” (which Houck introduces in concert as “a song about rocks”) he is looking at his drinking:
I was drunk for a decade
Been thinking of putting that stuff away
Of course between the idea and the reality falls the shadow. The upbeat single and crowd pleaser, “New Birth in a New England” opens thusly:
I was sitting at a bar in New England
I was thinking ’bout another beer
In any case, Houck is in a better place and the flawless execution of the music is a testament to the professionalism and craftsmanship of Houck and his band. Phosphorescent is now like sort of big. They played Jimmy Kimmel this fall, and “Song for Zula” is well known from one of the Spider-Man movies, but I was chatting with Georgia from Yo La Tengo last month and was shocked that she didn’t even know who they were (that’s a music geek’s name drop right there for ya folks).
A great entry to an already exceptional catalog. There’s still room on the bandwagon folks. Come on aboard.
RIYL: Magnolia Electric Co., Strand of Oaks, Bonnie Prince Billy, Dawes
Start With: C’est La Vie, New Birth in a New England, Around the Horn
#2: Car Seat Headrest, Twin Fantasy. On Matador.
Not everyone is going to like Car Seat Headrest. That much is clear. I love them. Great teenage music never gets old, and Will Toledo and crew make teenage music in its skittering, ADD-like rhythms and speed punk overtones. But their music is also really weird, not arty weird either, like weird weird. Take the second song, the 13 minute 18 second “Beach-Life-In-Death,” which you could write a whole thesis about. It has about a five page lyric sheet and the only comparison I can come up with is Of Montreal’s mind-blowing epic “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” (which I do intend to write at length about soon).
A steam of consciousness, quasi-coherent romp across space and time, I can’t even begin to convey the experience of listening to “Beach-Life” all the way up. Here’s a bit of it:
I wrote “Beach Death” when I thought you were taken
I wrote “Beach Funeral” when I knew you were taken
I wrote “Beach Fagz”–well it wasn’t about you
But it could’ve been, well no it couldn’t have
I spent a week in Ocean City
And came back to find you were still gone
I pretended I was drunk when I came out to my friends
I never came out to my friends
This is, please note, but a tiny slice of this crazy song. Another absolute stand out is “Bodys,” which also gives me Kevin Barnes vibes and shows CSR’s penchant for breaking the fourth wall and illustrates their ability to mix morose misanthropy with off-the-wall humor:
That’s not what I meant to say at all
I mean I’m sick of meaning, I just want hold you
But that’s not what I wanted to say at all
I mean I’m sick of meaning, I just wanna hold you
“Is it is the Chorus yet?”
“No, it’s just the building of the verse
So when the course does come it’ll be more rewarding”
Toledo’s delivery here is pitched somewhere between pure punk energy and overwrought hysteria. And, “Bodys,” like almost all of the songs on the record, are totally danceable. Perhaps the best touch point for understanding CSR is the first Violent Femmes record. Twin Fantasy is, in my opinion, a true classic like the Femmes record, and in 30 years people wanting to know what 2018 felt like need look no further.
RIYL: The Violent Femmes, Of Montreal, Daniel Johnston, The Clash
Start With: Bodys, Nervous Young Inhumans
#1: Low, Double Negative. On Sub Pop.
A career capping record from one of the greatest bands around. I can’t even begin to do this record justice here. A fractured soundpiece that must have taken years to get right, Double Negative comes from another galaxy and lands in the heart of an uneasy world. It’s topical and political, while also being beyond time. Low is slow and requires patience for sure. The patient listener here will find layer after layer of pure marvelous sound to swim in. And some tough lyrics to wallow in. From “Poor Sucker”:
Some poor sucker
At the bottom of the lake
Took the wrong way up
When the ground began to break
It’s a long way out
It’s the price we’ve got to pay
On “Dancing and Fire,” Alan Sparhawk, the male lead of the band, sings “it’s not the end it’s just the end of hope.” A good Low fan will recognize a call back to their first great record We Could Live in Hope. That’s from another millennium. There’s a lot going on with this record, and Low is clearly speaking to the moment with Double Negative. Still, with art this breathtaking and allusive the reviewer is wise to be careful with interpretation, pretty much at all. My favorite track is the scratchy, barely moving, and totally hypnotic “Always Trying to Work it Out.” Here and elsewhere Low touches on almost Aphex Twin like distortion. It’s excellent.
Look, Low is a slowcore band. This is not a record you are going to throw on at a party, unless you party with miserablist aesthetes like myself. In which case, let’s get down baby. If you are looking for a upbeat record to share with company from my year end list, try Janelle Monae or Broncho. If you want to hear the best album of the year, it’s Double Negative by Low.