The Top 10 Albums of 2018

#10: Robyn/ Honey

robyn honey

Ironically or intentionally, the first album we’ve received from Robyn in eight years begins with the throbbing bass pop of “Missing U”, which essentially equates to how fans of hers have felt about her prolonged absence. Quite worth the wait, Honey lives up to her previous work on every level and arguably bests it, especially within the glory of its centerpiece title track. This collection is more concise and atmospheric than ever before, sacrificing pure pop for a refined lounge groove that really suits her entire vibe. Soft beach beats permeate standouts like the aptly named “Beach 2k20” and “Baby Forgive Me”, which melds effortlessly into the big house beat of “Send To Robyn Immediately”– these are really the moments show true evolution on this album, with such subtlety and nuance that stand in contrast to her previous work. There’s a disco catchiness to the bittersweet reminiscence on tracks like “Because It’s In The Music”, pop perfection on “Between The Lines”, while the understated closer “Ever Again” is perfectly placed and lets us off delicately. Body Talk may be a modern classic for the style, but reasonable music fans may be allowed to disagree in regard to the overall quality of this album in comparison; others may simply be grateful that this album was finally released, and prefer to sit back and enjoy both.

#9: Kali Uchis/ Isolation

Isolation

Colombian-American Kali Uchis made one of the year’s most simulatenously accessible and genre-defying albums, merging Latin beats with American pop in a style all her own. From the opening beats of “Miami”, the raspy voice of the 24-year old vibrates bilingually  between the funk grooves of “After The Storm” and club beats of “Just A Stranger”, which offers the fantastic line “She wants my hundred dollar bills/ She don’t want love.” The pure pop of “Your Teeth In My Neck” and the revenge breakup track “Dead To Me” stand in total contrast to the slow core lounge vibe of “Flight 22” and closer “Killer.” But the centerpiece “In My Dreams” really slaps, displaying synth-pop perfection over a concise, upbeat keyboard riff, complete with a cameo from none other than Damon Albarn. An effortless transition from the catchy “oh-oh-oh” lines of the verses into its soaring chorus comes complete with some serious demonstration of her impressive vocal range through the coda; this is a track to escape to on an album full of them.

#8: Kamasi Washington/ Heaven And Earth

Kamasi Washington- Heaven and Earth

Washington’s new-age jazz pedigree puts him on another level within his genre, and his follow-up to 2015’s 173 minute The Epic re-establishes that claim, checking in at an even more substantial 183 minutes. Gritty saxophone, piano and string arrangements combine with g-funk grooves as lifted gospel vocals engulf the immediately enthralling and politically-driven opener “Fists of Fury”, while the spacious, atmospheric “Connections” is gripping. The highlight track is “Street Fighter Mas”, as melodic vocals lead into Washington’s playful saxophone riffs all above a robotic synth bass groove. As always, these songs are all constructed with perfection, but they are indeed challenging. There’s a harshness to the weight of all of this, but pound for pound, on a musical level, Washington is in a league of his own.

#7: Snail Mail/ Lush

snailmail2

When I wrote about Lorde’s Melodrama a year ago, I conveyed something along these lines: “As much as mainstream pop from young girls barely old enough to drink in the United States really isn’t my thing, it would be hard to deny that there isn’t a single weak moment on this very strong and impressive record.” While Lindsey Jordan’s pitch-perfect and guitar hook-driven Lush doesn’t really contain any similarities whatsoever to that coming-of-age pop album aside from the age of its producer (she’s actually 19, so not of legal drinking age), a simple reality is clear enough to me regardless as that same notion still holds true- I for one experienced my most intense emotional reactions and realizations when I was in my late teens, so it shouldn’t be surprising that today’s youth is articulating the same through music, despite the fact that I am getting older. You’d be hard pressed to find many more moments of simplistic but poignant clarity on any album this year than are present here. Wise beyond its author’s years, “Pristine” kicks things off with a combination of rawness and warmth that is true to its title, while “Speaking Terms” is coated in a soothing sort of heartache. For all the press songs like these and “Heat Wave” received, there isn’t a better moment on an album full of them than “Stick”, where Jordan sings lines like ““And did things work out for you/Or are you still not sure what that means?” as her voice escalates into a strain and the chorus builds into its crescendo. The overall polish present here is rarely seen from such a young artist; time will tell if added maturity takes her to the next level musically, or if the true glory of this record lies in its innocence.

#6: Father John Misty/ God’s Favorite Customer

Father John Misty- God_s Favorite Customer

I suppose perhaps I’m just a sucker for concept albums in general, but when an album of that nature arrives in such drastic contrast to what came before it, it’s simply impossible to ignore. Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, spent two months living alone in a dreary hotel room where he wrote this album, presumably separated from his wife Emma, who two albums back was the focus of his breakthrough record I Love You, Honeybear. God’s Favorite Customer is a return to that prior form for an artist that had turned pretentious, omniscient and self-indulgent on the cynical Pure Comedy that came in between, as Tillman has not only grown wiser but benefits from an impressive sense of… vulnerability in lieu of ego. The beauty is that his usual knack for next-level songwriting, both in terms of lyrical wit and killer melodic hooks, is arguably better off for it. “Mr. Tillman” is pure, self-deprecating genius as the song spends its entirety re-telling a surely not-so-hypothetical interaction between Tillman and his hotel clerk, perfectly straddling the line between the comedic and pathetic (he even whistles) elements of the situation his current mental state has placed him in. Gorgeous ballads abound, from the dream-like piano on tracks like “Dumb Enough To Try” and “The Palace” to standout “Please Don’t Die”, a heartwrenching plea sung partly from Emma’s perspective that finds Tillman as honest as we’ve ever heard him as he sings about “All these pointless benders, with reptilian strangers” between harmonica, perfectly timed 7th chords and a lifted falsetto through its chorus. It’s refreshing to hear songs like the tone-setting opener “Hangout At The Gallows” and the bouncy, warmly self-reflective “Disappointed Diamonds Are The Rarest of Them All” from an artist that seems to have switched from looking inward to looking upward.

#5: DJ Koze/ Knock Knock

Knock Knock

Sprawling and ambitious, one might be tempted to call Knock Knock overlong if it wasn’t so varied and encapsulating, wholly definitive of the German producer DJ Koze’s vast musical background and knowledge. The snares on tracks like “Baby” and the dance floor-ready “Lord Knows” hit with well-aimed cohesion, while the bus-horn, Casio synth repetition and ghostly Bon Iver sample on “Bonfire” are calculated down to the millisecond, and the longing chimes that conclude the airy, remorseful “Muddy Funster” show the meticulous electronic orchestration present here. The stylistic diversity is at once startling and welcome, and keeps the album moving with momentum over its nearly 80 minute length. The darkly lit trip hop ambience of “Scratch That” features the revelation that is Roisin Murphy, who also adds vocals to the nocturnal propulsion of “Illumination” as well as the spacious, nirvana-coma-inducing closing track “Drone Me Up Flashy.” In fact, every guest spot is carefully chosen, however obscure- even Speech from Arrested Development saves the otherwise contrived “Colors of Autumn”, while Jose Gonzalez soars on the bright, warm and reassuring “Music On My Teeth.” The album really hits its true stride over the course of its back half, and that might be asking a lot for some, but when centerpiece “Pick Up” hits in all of its glory, with its single loop of unparalleled precision and catchiness carrying sampled vocals from Gladys Knight, you’ll be glad you stuck around. There’s a stunning juxtaposition here that merits attention; a combination of upbeat house grooves and bittersweet melancholy.

#4: Against All Logic/ 2012-2017

2012 - 2017

Nicolas Jaar has been one of the most prolific experimental artists of the decade, so it seems only fair that in a year so heavily influenced by electronic music, that he would deliver the best of the genre. Working under a new moniker, this collection of songs shows a penchant towards dance-floor ready house beats inter-spliced with Jaar’s trademark acumen for the perfectly timed sampling of rousing soul cuts. Opener “This House Is All I Have” carries some of the same psychedelic lounge grooves reminiscent of his Darkside project, but after that, harder beats dominate a record that is remarkably intriguing and nuanced considering its general accessibility. Attention to detail is evident on the intense banger “Some Kind of Game”, while the sample heavy “I Never Dream” shows off impressively intertwined percussion elements. The downright comical bubble-gum pop of the rollicking “Know You” demonstrates the overall diversity and fun that is present here, while the hypnotic piano keys on “Cityfade” lead into a back half that probably doesn’t quite hold up to the first half, but a compilation such as this can’t possibly be expected to flow with immaculate congruence. 2012-2017 was probably the best album to turn on and enjoy this year, blended into the background of the proverbial dinner party without any frills whatsoever.

#3: Yves Tumor/ Safe In The Hands of Love

safeinthehands

What is this exactly? This is everything. This is the future of music. This is something unlike anything you or I have ever heard before. This is not genre specific, or dare I say, gender specific. This is an alien. This is what we would hear for eternity if we were ever invaded by extraterrestrial life, and we’d be lucky. This is balanced- “Honesty” provides incredible club grooves, “Noid” is impossibly catchy with its contagious, slightly discordant violin sample and refrain (911!) alongside an unorthodox time signature, “Lifetime” cascades elements of percussion, haunting piano lines and subtly intertwined horn, “All The Love We Have Now” fits the wildly underrated lounge bar scene, and closer “Let The Lioness In You Flow Freely” is terrifying and may be the single best conclusion to an album this year even if it gives you eternal nightmares. This is amazing. This is daring. This is Yves Tumor rapidly evolving.

#2: Low/ Double Negative

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In recent memory, there hasn’t been an album that so fully at once encapsulates the dreariness and hopelessness of existence alongside its beauty. The key is the usage of space, and prioritizing restraint above ego to create a consistent, unsettling mood, and on their 12th album, the inventors of the entire genre of slow core are not new at this, they’re just better at it. As a result, Double Negative requires patience, with its glitchy synths, processed vocals and looming dread, but it rewards with repeated listens. The tribal beat of the terrifying “Dancing And Blood” segues perfectly into “Fly” like silk, where a softly rolling bass line picks up subtle piano chords intermittently beneath Mimi Parker’s gorgeous falsetto. The repeated use of the word “always” is noticeable here, to an extent that has to be considered intentional. Highlights abound on tracks like the synth-driven, melodic “Always Trying To Work It Out” and the utterly gorgeous “Always Up” that precedes it; even the devastating penultimate track “Rome” has “Always In The Dark” parenthesized. Ultimately, the point here is the reality of a hopeless permanence, which is startling and practically contrarian due to its surrender as opposed to its protest. In short, like the rest of us, this band isn’t a fan of Donald Trump.

#1: Beach House/ 7

Beach House_7.jpg

I can still vividly recall the first time I ever saw Beach House live. In 2007, they were relegated to what was then called the “tent” stage at Pitchfork Music Festival, back in the days when that event was attended by a mere fraction of the masses that attend it now- there might have been two dozen people total in that tent with me. Ambient nearly to a fault, their debut album managed to fit a niche nonetheless, pleasing to the ear without really ever moving the mercury on the thermometer. Simply put, it would have been impossible to imagine that the band in that tent would EVER be capable of creating an album that sounds like this one does.

It didn’t happen overnight, and I’m not of the opinion that 7 is even a better record overall than Teen Dream or probably even Bloom, the former of which was the band’s true indie breakthrough. Yet, it’s arguably more impressive and striking simply because of the musical evolution it demonstrates. This will always be remembered as the album where Beach House went full, unapologetically shoegaze, and the results are exquisite and well-orchestrated in a spot where lesser artists attempting to make a similar leap would have fallen flat on their face. Consider the moment where the gripping and propulsive opener “Dark Spring” melts into the immaculate transition that preludes the slowcore, hypnotic groove of “Pay No Mind.”

The perfection of “Lemon Glow” deserves special mention, as synthesized keyboard opens the track on a menacing note as the shoegaze textures of Alex Scully’s guitar provide the perfect backdrop for Victoria LeGrand’s sultry, intimate vocals over lines like “I come alive/ You stay all night”. But it isn’t all fun and games; there is tension and grind within the repetition of the persistent synth line that dominates here, as well as abrasive percussion elements, all of which add a realistic element to the representation of a true relationship, sexual or otherwise. The beauty of Beach House is their ability to capture exactly that in a surreal ambiance that runs to the contrary.

Victoria LeGrand switches things up with French vocals on the show-stopping “L’Inconnue”, a stunning track that changes gears on a dime without sacrificing one iota of its ethereal beauty, while “Drunk in LA” conveys the type of hungover lounge vibe that made this band, but with an orchestrated textural element that defines its pinnacle. The shapeshifting “Dive” is nearly perfect, opening on a slow, practically a cappella note before exploding into a monstrous guitar riff. If playing devil’s advocate, 7 doesn’t finish as powerfully as its predecessors, as “Beyond Love” redux “Girl of the Year” doesn’t hit nearly as hard, and closer “Last Ride” is a serious notch below songs like “Take Care”, not to state the obvious. Still, in a year that saw the true beauty of music take a backseat to the absurdity of manufactured pop songs, it is hard to quibble. This is the greatest band of the decade staking its full claim to that title with effortless nonchalance.

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