2018 felt like a very good year for music, but I’m not sure if that’s just because it felt like a very music-filled year for music. It’s hard to say if this is how things will continue to develop moving forward into our inevitable scorched Earth future. But the advent of streaming has continued to provide so many music-listening options that it feels both overwhelming and endlessly satisfying to be a music fan. That is, if you’re willing to remain open to the bevy of great new artists waiting to be discovered. This year I found a few of those, as well as some old favorites still able to rattle the cage of this ever-changing music landscape. Let’s dive in.
illuminati hotties – Kiss Yr Frenemies
Elvis Costello – Look Now
Lucy Dacus – Historian
Jeff Rosenstock – POST-
Christine & The Queens – Chris
This album is by no means perfect, but it scores a lot of points based on ambition alone. There are a few songs on Dose Your Dreams that I would probably even say I don’t necessarily like. But they’re so of a piece with this genre-bending bombast-embracing epic, that it somehow makes the songs that do work so much more exciting than a punk-meets-classic-rock album has any right to feel in this day and age. But again, that bombast is combined with so many sounds, both modern and classic, it’s the stuff dreams are made of. I’m just not entirely sure what kind of weirdo would dream up such a thing.
This album takes less chances, and yet is carried effortlessly by this band’s ability to sound wonderfully like themselves. I suppose that’s when you really know a band has emerged as one of the greats – when they can consistently deliver the sound they’re known for, and yet reorganizing it in subtle little ways will still make for fantastic results. I know I’ve often gone back and forth on how much I really do enjoy Beach House, considering well, let’s just say it… they’re great in a very boring way. But this album solidified the fact that this boringness is a sign of the band’s ability to deliver great-sounding albums, and I doubt 7 will be the last of them.
As someone who spends a lot of time digging through record stores for golden nuggets from music’s past, I also spend a lot of time thinking about pop music’s history. So I’m always impressed when I can find an artist who captures the vibe of the past, and yet feels so distinctly modern. Kali Uchis has admitted to using ’60s pop as a kind of blueprint for her sound, and yet her Colombian roots as well as a penchant for hip-hop and modern pop can’t help but bleed into her music. And in the process creates something hard to categorize, but easy to let waft through your ears and into your pleasure centers.
I think I’m starting to notice a trend in my list, and that a lot of it is comprised of albums that simply took me by surprise. I don’t think I was expecting a band as rock-solid and dependable as Superchunk to craft one of the wildest, angriest records of the year. But these are wild, angry times, and somehow Superchunk managed to potently sum up the helplessness and fury that seems to go hand-in-hand with living through this current political moment. There’s also is just something I find very liberating about seeing a veteran band like this go more punk than they’ve gone in decades and in the process not only avoiding sounding stupid, but sounding as vital as ever.
Ok, you can discredit me for putting an EP on an albums list. But you could also discredit the fact that a lot of rap albums that are about as long as this release are showing up on year-end album lists. So do labels really matter that much considering the fluidity of how music is released these days? And when you take in the broad spectrum of 2018 music, there were few self-contained little pockets of calmness sounded as inviting as Boygenius. These three songwriters created something unexpected and also absolutely essential, and its modesty just added to that.
As you could probably guess from my exhaustive post on Neko Case’s discography, I’ve thought about the venerable singer-songwriter quite a bit this year. It’s hard to say where Hell-On would rank in terms of my favorite Neko albums, but that almost seems beside the point. This is a continuation of the many different things she’s been chasing throughout her career – the restlessness, the obsession with nature, the desire to assess the past with zero nostalgia. It’s all here on Hell-On and it’s probably been there on other albums, but here everything feels just a little bit deeper, a little more lived in, and a little more like Case will always find new ways to make her unparalleled voice sound like it has something to say.
An album that easily falls into the “something that took me by surprise” category. Granted, I am a bit of a sucker for any time a hip-hop artist can effortlessly fuse their sound with jazz and neo-soul, but Noname has such a peculiar way of delivering rhymes that it feels weird even classifying this as hip-hop. But whatever it is, Room 25 had a very easy way of luring me in with its unassuming production and then holding on to me with Noname’s similarly unassuming, but slyly perceptive verses. Which is to say, I have a hard time putting into words why I like this album so much, but its spell over me has only grown stronger since it came out and I have to assume Noname has a bright future ahead of her. Not bad for an artist that was thinking about quitting music just a year or two ago.
Something I didn’t mention in my intro is that unlike 2017 (ahem, DAMN.), 2018 wasn’t really a year in which a clear-cut winner emerged as the most critically lauded album of the year. Though I suppose all of my top three would be in the conversation. Because my tastes are boring and unsurprising I guess. That said, I’m still not sure if I like Be The Cowboy better than Mitski’s 2016 release Puberty 2 (maybe it’s just because I’m a guitar guy). But regardless, this album saw this now-established artist proving why she’s now established, and why she’s emerged as one of the great white hopes in indie rock. Which is made all the more impressive by the fact that she did it while creating an incredibly sad dance-rock record. I guess that’s just 2018 for ya.
Well, actually… this album seemed to be one of the more critically acclaimed albums of the year, but for some reason has lost a little bit of steam heading into end-of-year time. All I know is every time I put on Dirty Computer, the only response I have is “damn, this record sounds good”. Maybe that’s because a record as confident as this one is very hard to find, and feels even greater when it has been a long time coming. By now, Janelle Monáe has been around for a while, but it took the madness of modern life to push her to embrace what feels like the purest version of herself, and the most purely satisfying album she’s ever put out.
This album was already well on its way to being one of my favorite releases of the year when it was released in the Spring. I liked Kacey Musgraves last, more country-ish album quite a bit, and Golden Hour somehow felt like a leap forward and yet also sounded like the easiest album to record ever. There’s just something so simple and so content about the way Musgraves sings these songs, and I have to assume much of it had to do with being in love while writing them. I don’t want to get too much into the personal logistics of what this year held for myself, but I think I was going through a lot of these same feelings while listening to this record and driving around during a golden summer while it blasted from my speakers. It added an extra layer of appreciation to a record that’s easy to love no matter what state of mind you’re in, and proved that even in a mostly shit year like 2018, good things can happen if you let a little light in.