As you get older, you fall into ruts of routine and time speeds up. I’ve been aware of this phenomenon for a long time: the way I understand it, your brain only really tries to remember novel experiences, so as you get older and are learning less, you stop storing as much. I’m someone who hates routine, preferring to falls my instincts and impulses about how to spend my time, when to eat, when to sleep. The thing is, I’ve been at my current job for more than four years now – longer than I’ve done anything – and I’ve found that dreaded rhythm. Wake up too early for my morning meeting, go to Starbucks, sit at my desk at the office, go to Taco Time, sit at my desk at home, stay up too late. I’m not miserable, I think there is actually a lot of joy in my life, but it doesn’t read that way on paper. Hopefully I’ll find a way to remix that in 2019, but before that, let me share with you the albums that helped make the those times in cars and at desks less boring than they sound.
First, I must reiterate, as always, that these are my favorite albums from 2018 as of the end of 2018. They are not an attempt to show the best the year to offer, nor do I want to feel bound to them forever going forward. This is what I liked this year, as the year comes to close, and that’s all.
Phosphorescent – C’est La Vie
Rhye – Blood
Spiritualized – And Nothing Hurt
U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited
Wild Nothing – Indigo
Snares Like a Haircut ended up being a great album for me to put on when I had no idea what to put on. No Age is renowned for creating noisy melodies out of crashing drums and fuzzy guitars, so of course my mind immediately goes to Japandroids, another drums and guitar duo that sounds way bigger than that. But while Japandroids makes affirming anthems, No Age, at least on this album, makes worlds for you to live in for three or four minutes at a time. It’s loud and huge and immersive music for a time when your attention is a real commodity. If you haven’t checked this one out yet, be sure to stick with it long enough for the occasional breaks in the action, like “Send Me” and “Third Grade Rave,” and revel in the relief they create.
Neko Case is no stranger to super groups, having been in one for 21 years, but I can’t shake the notion that her experience in case/lang/veirs had an influence on Hell-On. She seems more willing to bring more sounds and collaborators in on this record, embracing harmonies and duets on songs like “Cure of the I-5 Corridor” and “Sleep All Summer.” That said, she never lets you forget that it’s her name and face on the front of the album by peppering this album with the most Neko Case lyrics you could imagine. I’m talking about nature being dangerous, needing to be tough enough to survive, and, of course, animals being butchered. I just need to know if “Bad Luck” is deliberately a response of Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” or if that’s just, ironically, a coincidence.
Speaking of pseudo-country, Kacey Musgraves. She also turned 30 this year, my condolences. Golden Hour is just a very nice album, no doubt about it. You can tell right from the first track, “Slow Burn,” where she talks about making the decision to take her time. Yeah, that sounds pretty good. I’m struggling to even think of anything to write, it’s like, who doesn’t like this? It’s so nice! I’m just scared some day I’ll hear like Sean Hannity or whoever talk about how this album makes him proud to be a white American again and ruin it for me.
One way to get my attention is to describe your music as “lush.” I’m always looking for lush music. I think I may have just ruined that word for myself be repeating it too many times in a row. Whatever, Snail Mail shreds. It’s the solo project of Lindsey Jordan, who was born in 1999. And think about that, I feel a need to remember an encouraging story from 2018 that was born out of tragedy: the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. In the wake of that terrible day, the kids of Parkland, Florida, got together and did their damndest to bring about gun control reforms. After so many years of millennials getting shit on, my generation is finally coming to power. And the one after us? They seem even better than we are. Anyway, Lush rules.
Lucy Dacus took some risks with Historian, expanding her sound with strings and horns to go bigger than her first album, No Burden. I think that paid off, even though, given how good she already was, I probably would have been satisfied with a more direct followup. Dacus is at her best when she lets her songs stretch out a little and build up to some much-needed catharsis, and she generally indulges that aspect, especially in places like the second half of opener “Night Shift” or the breathtaking crescendo of “Pillar of Truth.” Also, her participation in boygenius is awesome; I got to see all of them in a terrific show last month that was maybe my favorite this year. So this spot is for them too.
I think Ruins is the album First Aid Kit has been trying to make ever since their first one back in 2010. In a way, it’s an excellent companion piece to Golden Hour, as this take on Americana was inspired by a broken engagement, as opposed to Musgrave’s newly wedded bliss. The lyrics are almost as direct, but tinged with shame and remorse instead of straightforward joy. This isn’t sad bastard music though, as even songs like “It’s a Shame” sound deceptively upbeat. Plus, you just gotta love these sisters’ harmonies. If Fleet Foxes aren’t going to do it, someone has to, damnit!
I’m still shocked that it’s been three years since Hop Along’s previous album, Painted Shut. But you know, it’s like I said before earlier about getting older and time and that bullshit. I was excited that this group out of Philly was back this April, and even more pleased when I found Bark Your Head Off, Dog quite addictive. There are obvious commonalities with the last couple albums I wrote about here, as this was Hop Along also experimenting with a bigger sound and really hitting their stride. Hop Along just has the advantage of Frances Quinlan’s voice, which makes every song seems that extra bit more important than anything else that’s going on at that time. I particularly love “One That Suits Me,” which you’ll hear more about if we do that Top Songs of the Year podcast (we probably won’t).
The Louder I Call, The Fast It Runs opens with “The Instrument,” a song that is equal parts dizzying and dazzling; a mission statement that Wye Oak has evolved beyond being a two instrument band. They were already going that way after Shriek anyway. I love this anxious, jittery album because it just feels right for me and for now. More than anything, I hope the band gets a chance to pull a Radiohead and do a horror movie soundtrack. All their albums have scary titles, their music has hinted at this proclivity, and they’ve even had a song on The Walking Dead. Put ’em in, coach!
But Wye Oak are not my favorite dream pop duo yet. So, first, what’s up with Baltimore? Snail Mail, Wye Oak, and Beach House all come from there… is that my scene? 2018 was the year I finally admitted that if I do have a favorite band, it’s probably Beach House, and their latest album did not give me cause to doubt that nutty assertion. Plus, this year I got to watch them play a set for free in front of a house on a beach in honor of Sub Pop’s 30th birthday. So, for those keeping score, 1988 gave the world Kacey Musgraves, Sup Pop, Die Hard, and me. Pretty good.
Burn it down. Burn it all down. Mitski wrote her latest album about the experience of being totally spent and having to rally anyway. And yeah, I’m not a critical darling going on a world tour, but girl, I get it. These are depressing times and it’s fucking hard to be an optimist when it sure does just seem like every year is worse than the last. If anything has become clear the past few years, it’s that they’re not going to give us anything, we have to take it all. So fuck ’em. Forget the heroes of our past and our outdated ideals. It’s time to step up. By calling an album of songs about toxic relationships and loneliness Be The Cowboy, I think Mitski is trying to get us to embrace the strength it takes to live with such honesty and vulnerability. So look out, because we’re coming for you.