With Thanksgiving sneaking up on us, and a heavy travel schedule on the docket for me around and after the holidays, I hereby declare it time for my 2018 Albums of the Year Report. This edition marks the 27th consecutive year that I’ve publicly published such an annual report in either traditional print or digital formats, so it’s a venerable personal tradition for me at this point. To provide some perspective on the choices I’ve made over the years – some sublime, some not quite so – here is a complete reckoning of my Albums of the Year from 1992 to 2017:
- 1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream
- 1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
- 1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese
- 1995: Björk, Post
- 1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi
- 1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch
- 1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac
- 1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip
- 2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya
- 2001: Björk, Vespertine
- 2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone
- 2003: Wire, Send
- 2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)
- 2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything
- 2006: Gnarls Barkley, Elsewhere
- 2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom
- 2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight
- 2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic
- 2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics
- 2011: Planningtorock, W
- 2012: Goat, World Music
- 2013: David Bowie, The Next Day
- 2014: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
- 2015: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock
- 2016: David Bowie, Blackstar
- 2017: Dälek, Endangered Philosophies
2018 was a very good year for new music: I explored a lot of exciting things, there were a lot of viable contenders for the Album of the Year honoree, and I enjoyed a wide mix of tunes from old favorites and thrilling new pokes from people who I didn’t know existed 12 months ago. While there may be one or more records that come out in the next few weeks that could have made this list if I had waited longer to publish it, I generally find that I need to listen to something for at least a month before declaring it a worthy Album of the Year contender anyway, so those years when something strong does emerge at the back end, I either write up a supplement in January or just carry those late surprises forward into the report that follows a year later. No worries.
Though I shouldn’t have to note this, I know from prior experience that I do: my list is obviously built from the things that I actually listened to in the prior year, and as musically omnivorous and curious as I am, there are some genres of music that I just don’t get around to sampling. So as much as I love dialog and discussion about music, please resist the urge to write a knee-jerk note telling me that I am a cultural imperialist bastard because I do not recognize the overwhelming genius of your favorite Seychellois trip-hop bassoon and gamelan collective. I am glad to know that their latest album will top your own list when you write it, so please share that link when you do, and then we can talk. Thank you.
That nicety (or not) aside, and with no further preambles necessary, here’s my list of the 30 Best Albums of 2018, working up from #30 to my Album of the Year selection. Strap on your seat belt and let’s do this thing . . .
30. The Dodos, Certainty Waves: The long-running duo of Meric Long (guitar and vocals) and Logan Kroeber (percussion) had their moment in the bright indie rock sun a decade or so with their breakthrough/crossover album Visiter and its single “Fools.” While the fickle finger of fame has pointed elsewhere since then, the pair have plowed on, and this year’s Certainty Waves marks a new career highlight, with the usual strumming, picking, clattering and keening supplemented with some excellent studio gimcrackery, synth torturing and suchlike.
29. Goat Girl, Goat Girl: The U.K. music press has been all agog about South London’s Goat Girl, a talented all-female four-piece who make angular art rock with just enough sweet hook-mastery to grab a listener’s ear and hold it, even as it pokes the soft belly parts with uneasy bits and dark sentiments and dire pronouncements and spiky arrangements. They’re scrappy, they are, and while this album contains some of dismissible little filler bits between the killer songs, give the Goats credit for putting them out there, since I guarantee they did it over their label’s objections.
28. Sons of Kemet, Your Queen Is a Reptile: Sons of Kemet are a British jazz quartet fronted by bandleader/composer and sax/clarinet-player Shabaka Hutchings. In their third album’s liner notes, Hutchings observes that “Your Queen is not our queen, she does not see us as human,” and this nine-song treatise paints a world ruled instead by strong black queens like Harriett Tubman, Albertina Sisulu, Mamie Phipps Clark, and others. It’s bracing, unique (two drummers, tuba and sax, anyone?), brilliant, political, and highly relevant in our sad post-Brexit/Trump world.
27. Caroline McKenzie, The November Meteors: The prolific Glaswegian composer and sound manipulator has issued eight releases since 2017’s epic The Drowning of Ophelia, with new work ranging from traditional-length singles through to long-form, one-song EPs, and this, The November Meteors, a three-song suite released by the venerable David E. Barker via his resurrected Glass Miniatures imprint. “Heatherstorm” from Meteors may be my favorite ever song from McKenzie, a sixteen-minute excursion in textures, tones and tempos that grabs, holds and delivers. Perfect!
26. Teleman, Family of Aliens: I’ve been listening to the Sanders Brothers (Thomas and Jonny) and Peter Cattermoul since their earliest days working together with Pete and the Pirates, and they just keep getting better and more compelling at their craft. They’ve made regular appearances on my year-end Best Of lists both with their original band and since rebranding (with the addition of drummer Hiro Amamiya) as Teleman in 2012; this is their third full-length under the current moniker, and it’s a corker, anchored by utterly killer krautrock-pop song “Cactus,” my Single of the Year for 2018.
25. Anna von Hausswolff, Dead Magic: We had the pleasure of seeing Swedish singer-songwriter-keyboardist Anna von Hausswolff performing with The Joffrey Ballet in Alexander Ekman’s exquisite “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (no, not that one) last spring, and the next morning I went to my mailbox and found my copy of Prog magazine (nerd!!) which contained a review of her excellent new Dead Magic. It was a sign, clearly, so I queued up lead track “The Mysterious Vanishing of Elektra” (now my Video of the Year for 2018), and was hooked, you bet, for good.
24. Ministry, AmeriKKKant: I was surprised by the generally negative reviews that Uncle Al Jourgensen’s latest slab of industrial Repuglican-slaying jams received, since I thought (and think) this record provides a perfect palette cleanser for that bad stale vomit taste the Trump administration leaves in my mouth. It’s not as blistering in its assault tempos as some of Ministry’s Bush 41 and Bush 43 era records, and it plays better as a suite than as a set of standalone singles, but I still find Uncle Al’s artistry and general fighting spirit to be worthy of my time and support, always.
23. The Joy Formidable, AAARTH: I adored The Joy Formidable’s spectacular 2008 EP “A Balloon Called Moaning” but none of the Welsh trio’s full-length albums since then have grabbed and rocked me quite as well as that first foreign foray did – until now. AAARTH is just a gem of a record, with killer songs, ace arrangements, vocal and guitar pyrotechnics and a rich production that makes these tracks jump out of your stereo in the most aggressive of ways, making your heart go pitter-pat and your fist pump and your chin raise in admiration. Well done, you. Repeat.
22. The Damned, Evil Spirits: In which everybody’s completely dysfunctional vampire punk rock survivors improbably bring in brilliant Bowie buddy Tony Visconti and make the best record they’ve made since, oh, I dunno, let’s call it Strawberries in 1982, just for grins. The damned damned damned thing even sold well, too, breaking the British Top Ten for the first time, just a year or two after a band documentary (Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead) essentially demonstrated how such a thing could and should never, ever happen. Essential. Even The Captain says “Wot?”
21. Nine Inch Nails, Bad Witch: I was a fairly active Nine Inch Nails fan back in Trent Reznor’s earliest days as an industrial provocateur spinning off of the essential Chicago Wax Trax scene (see also Ministry above), but as he kinda sorta became a big deal and started winning Oscars and lifting weights, you know, ennhhhh, I just haven’t paid as much attention to him. Until this year, when I read a review of this short album that cited it as his Blackstar-inspired Bowie move, which (thankfully) caught my attention, as this is a great little cranked-up experimental noise record, reminding me how very much I liked the David-and-Trent team on “I’m Afraid of Americans” way back when.
20. Caroline Rose, LONER: Caroline Rose’s third album finds the erstwhile indie folk favorite emerging from her woodshed chrysalis surrounded by a spray of synth squiggles and a blast of brassy bossy beats, her country caterpillar now improbably reformed as a delightfully squiggly flying thing, zipping hither to yon, lighting on your psyche just long enough to lay a perfectly sweet or pleasingly fun little pop gem on you, over and over and over again. Improbable and sublime in its delightful embrasure of perverse wrongness in pursuit of something so, so very righteous.
19. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Hope Down: In the quarter-century plus that I’ve made lists like this, almost every year an album shows up that’s a regular on playlists, filled with familiar songs that I like, and that grab other people too – and yet every time I hear one, I think “Now, who was that again?” This is that, this year. Love the record, it’s the real deal, and this Australian quintet with one, two (count ‘em) three singer-guitarist-songwriters getting the job done is well worth your attention. But as soon as I finish this blurb, I will forget their name again, dammit. Sorry guys. I try.
18. Soulfly, Ritual: Max Cavalera just moves me, you know? There’s something about his approach to writing, singing, performing and recording metal music that’s unique, distinct, powerful and always grabs me, whether he’s doing his thing with Sepultura, Cavalera Conspiracy or Soulfly. This latest slab from the ‘fly finds Max’s son Zyon at the drums where his brother Igor once whaled, while long-time foil Marc Rizzo delivers the killer lead guitar licks and newcomer Mike Leon ably wrangles the bass. Verdict: the best from Max since 2008’s Conquer, I’d say. Sim!
17. Shriekback, Why Anything? Why This?: I’ve admired Shriekback since before I heard a note by them, so wowed was I by the very idea of a band with Barry Andrews (XTC) and David Allen (Gang of Four) in it. The goods held up to their billing, and with guitarist Carl Marsh and drummer Martyn Barker, the Shrieks achieved admirable ‘80s success without sacrificing the weird juju of their sound. Fast forward to 2018, and the story’s still the same: this weirdly wonky, organically ooky, scintillatingly shouty gem of an album is their best since 1986’s Big Night Music.
16. White Denim, Performance: James Petralli and Steve Terebecki have been playing together as White Denim since 2006, supported by a variety of colleagues; on this latest disc, keyboardist Michael Hunter and drummer Conrad Choucroun fill in the spaces around their vocals, bass and guitars. The music is engagingly eclectic, welding jazzy, proggy, jammy and jangly bits to a groove-fortified homespun Texas-style chassis. I was lukewarm about their 2016 album, Stiff, but this one is a welcome return to top form: accessible, intriguing and warm, soup to nuts.
15. Let’s Eat Grandma, I’m All Ears: Britain’s Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth are formidably precocious talents, with a pair of ace albums and half-a-dozen attention-getting singles under each of their belts before either of them has hit a twentieth birthday. I’m All Ears is a superb sophomore slab, anchored in a sweetly melodic sense and acutely observational lyrical approach, all then morphed, sludged and glitched to excellent experimental effect. Song structures are all over the place too, culminating with an astounding 11-minute freakout called Donnie Darko. Wow.
14. Uriah Heep, Living the Dream: I know, this is the kind of pick where you cool kids expect me to explain my choice ironically, or to make a “guilty pleasure” argument, or to craft some tortured narrative about how the Heep’s trademark organ, opera and wah-wah guitar sound has under-appreciated importance to rock’s evolution, or whatever. But I’m not gonna do any of that, dammit, because this is just a fine rock record, period, an excellent addition to a deep, deserving canon by a classic rock band who will kick your ass in concert, still. (I saw them. They did). Heep! Woo hoo! Yeah!
13. Jonathan Davis, Black Labyrinth: Another one where hipper-than-thou readers might be rolling your eyes and making dismissive noises before peeking ahead to read about the stuff that critics are supposed to like. But you’re missing the mark if you do, and I don’t care, because I sincerely believe KORN’s Jonathan Davis is modern metal’s most compelling, original singer, and his first full solo disc offers an excellent collection of electro-metal brushed with jazz tinges (mostly courtesy ace bassist Miles Mosley) and Eastern textures (violinist Shenkar in the house).
12. The Residents, Intruders: 2018 has been a tough year for the Rez, with mainstay Cryptic Corp manager Hardy Fox having de-cloaked as their primary composer and musician, just before he was diagnosed with and died from glioblastoma. But on his personal website, Hardy noted that he’d worked with Cryptic collaborator Homer Flynn to have Eric Drew Feldman (Beefheart, Pere Ubu, Frank Black) take his place, and the first fruits of that line of succession are fine fare on Intruders, which also features fellow long-standing collaborators Carla Fabrizio and Nolan Cook.
11. Hailu Mergia, Lala Belu: I collected a lot of African music in the ‘80s when I was specializing in that continent’s politics as part of my studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. One of my prized possessions on that front was an astounding recording by Hailu Mergia and The Walias called Tche Belew, capturing the sounds of Addis Ababa’s finest band during the dark days of the post-Selassie Derg regime. I was thrilled to learn that Mergia is making music again, now in the States, and his Lala Belu is a jazz-flavored delight rich with inspired and inspiring keyboard work.
10. Hawkwind, Road to Utopia: As with Ministry (see above), I’ve been surprised by negative reviews of this latest project from formidable BLANGA warriors, Hawkwind, who here reinvent seven classic songs and offer two instrumental originals, all with orchestral assistance from Mike Batt, of Wombles fame. If you take off your too-tight, too-serious hats, though, and relax a little bit, then you’d realize that this record is just a goofy delight, where you can tell that everyone involved is having fun. Remember fun? It feels good. You’d like it. Lighten up. Give it a try, yeah?
9. IDLES, Joy as an Act of Resistance: I raved about IDLES’ debut album, Brutalism, in last year’s report here, citing the English five-piece as “a potent young band, well worth rooting for in the years ahead.” 2018 counts as a year ahead of 2017, so I’m sticking with that assessment, with an upgrade to say that they may just be the potent young British band to mind these days, as their rousing, positive, anthemic rock is winning rave responses in concert, on television, through video, and on this sophomore album here. Formidable and fearsome fare. I’m a believer!
8. HOGG, SELF-EXTINGUISHING EMISSION: HOGG are a pair of Atlanta-bred, Chicago-based women who make thrillingly horror-filled and haunting post-industrial music of the most visceral, vibrating and violent varieties, mostly using only electronics, drums, bass and their astounding voices, processed in the most hair-raising ways. There’s something dark magic(k)al about the sounds they create here and on earlier discs, transcending rinky-dink instrumentation to craft vast, terrible soundscapes capable of evoking night terrors among the awakened. Brrr!!
7. Napalm Death, Coded Smears and More Uncommon Slurs: I’m on the record as claiming Napalm Death as my current favorite band, but even loving them (or anybody) as much as I do, the prospect of a dense two-disc collection of B-sides, split 7” recordings, out-takes and studio leftovers from the past 15 years didn’t really fill me with any sense of burning urgency or excitement when I first read about it. But then I listened to this collection, and holy moly, Napalm’s leftovers are better than just about any other metal band’s finest fare. Amazingly essential. Huttah!
6. Ezra Furman, Transangelic Exodus: I first heard Ezra Furman over a decade ago when he was playing with his college band in Boston, The Harpoons. Since moving to Chicago (his hometown), I’ve been glad to have the chance to see him live a few times (he’s dynamite), especially with his tight post-Harpoons band, The Boyfriends. Transangelic Exodus is a brilliant addition to his catalog, a conceptual road trip type album about growth, change and identity, wherein Furman (a gender fluid observant Jew of acute social intelligence and with a confessional creative sensitivity) and his still-ace band (now called The Visions) ably stretch their craft and chops to produce a vibrant, visceral song saga journey, perfect for uncertain and unsettling times like ours. Bravx!
5. The Body, I Have Fought Against It, But I Can’t Any Longer: Lee Buford and Chip King make some of the darkest, bleakest, hardest music imaginable together as The Body, and this early 2018 disc (they’ve put out another full-length since) finds them at the top of their game. With a title culled from a famous suicide note, this record deploys crushing electronics, grinding guitars, thunderous drums, shrieked vocals, tape looops and occasional sweet(er) leavening from singer Chrissy Wolpert to plumb the dark, lonely and desperate spaces where everything hurts, always.
4. Clutch, Book of Bad Decisions: Clutch launched this album with a quartet of videos exploring shitty electoral politics, hard touring tales from meth-addled Kansas, teen-aged sci-fi fantasias, and a killer crab cake recipe, all making it clear that the venerable Maryland quartet aren’t taking themselves too seriously these days. That fun and relaxed air permeates this thunderous 15-song studio collection and is ultimately a key to its success, along with the group’s decision to enlist Nashville producer Vance Powell, who provides a fresh sense of swing to the proceedings.
3. Paul McCartney, Egypt Station: I listen to Wings more than I do The Beatles, so my Macca biases and bona fides are firm as I declare this record to be among Sir Paul’s greatest efforts. He’s been working with the same band (Rusty Anderson, Brian Ray, Paul Wickens and Abe Laboriel, Jr.) for longer than he played as a Beatle, his songwriting is clever, sharp and strong, and that voice is still, well, that voice. This isn’t “a fine album for his age” or “a good album comparatively” or “a strong later period record,” – it’s just a great album, period, extending his epic canon once again. Bonus points: the fact that Paul ends this album with not just one, but two, long, ridiculous multi-part suites of the “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” or “Band On The Run” variety, still not content to just write stuff, still sticking stuff together to make bigger, better weirder fun along the way. Bravo, sir! Keep up the good work, you dotty ageless oldster you!
2. The Coup, Sorry To Bother You: The Soundtrack: What a torturous path this album followed to fruition: The Coup’s main man Boots Riley wrote the screenplay to his bizarre and thrilling Sorry To Bother You over a decade ago, couldn’t get it financed, put out a brilliant (but imaginary) film soundtrack with the same title, which helped get the movie into production, earning massive plaudits from all comers, and generating (in due time) another real soundtrack with the same title. Got it? If not, get it, in both meanings of that phrase. This record is a funky bomb of the very finest flavors of goodness, with Riley’s usual Coup band mates in raging organic form, supplemented with contributions from TuneYards, Janelle Monae, LaKeith Stanfield, Killer Mike and others. I’ve made a mix of the two Sorry To Bother You soundtrack albums (2012 and 2018) along with ancillary recent singles and songs from TuneYards and Stanfield’s MOORS project, and it’s about the most thrilling thing I listen most ways, most days.
1. (2018’s Album of the Year): First Aid Kit, Ruins: Surprise!! They did it again!! And I say that not to you, nor to them, but to myself, honestly, since I’ve been kicking this list around for a month or so in anticipation of this article, and I looked at a lot of records in a lot of ways, and I just kept coming back to this one as the one that gave me the greatest sense of concentrated accomplishment and joy since I finished my 2017 list a year ago. Which is a conclusion that I did not expect. In fact, I honestly found it somewhat improbable when I named this Swedish sister act’s 2014 Stay Gold as that year’s Album of the Year, but damned if it wasn’t a brilliant record at the time, damned if it hasn’t aged really well (unlike some of my other Album of the Year choices), and damned if they haven’t done it again with this year’s supremely accomplished and bittersweet Ruins, surprise, surprise, surprise!! Klara and Johanna Söderberg aren’t just blessed with incredible voices that work together in the most haunting and beautiful fashions, they’re also skilled songwriters and arrangers who produce songs that are unique and recognizable, almost instantly, but also have deep resonance and fit perfectly into the long traditions of American country, folk and pop music catalogs. Their music is timeless and universal enough (in the best senses of those words) that I suspect it will be played, covered and rediscovered for decades to come by artists of all stripes, even as these songs sound current today, or would have sounded current 20 years or more ago. So kudos to Klara and Johanna, and to the Söderberg sisters’ long-time live colleagues Melvin Duffy, Scott Simpson and Steve Moore; we caught the quintet in concert in Vancouver and they delivered one of the most engaging and delicious shows I saw or heard this year, providing a perfect accompaniment to this brilliant studio document, a truly deserving Album of the Year for 2018.
And there we have it, another year on the books. I’ll be posting my “Most Played Songs” set sometime in December (as I do each year), and then it will be time to blow up all of the set lists and begin a new year of listening, eagerly anticipating what 2019 might bring me, hoping it’s as good as what the past twelve months delivered. Music matters, and I’m glad to experience and share it, always!