Well would you look at the time? It’s January 2019 AD. How did that happen? Nobody knows.
Join me once again for the annual album of the year awards. Last year was a strange one for me, both personally and musically. But all years are like that, aren’t they?
I didn’t listen to nearly as much new music as I would like, and my particular areas of interest continued to drift in unpredictable directions. In between lots of podcasts and monotonous work, I spent a large chunk of listening time in the past 12 months absorbing all things Radiohead. Now that they’re into my musical canon, I can relax and catch up to the present.
There were a few albums I bought that I haven’t given nearly enough time to, so I once again I struggled to fill an honest list of ten. I have trimmed it down to a manageable five that I can firmly say “these is some good albums okay?”
That all being said, the list ended up being comprised of some familiar, and predictable choices from me. I would struggle to rank them, so in no particular order, here are my five favourite albums of 2018, along with some honourable mentions of stuff I will try to spend more time with in the new year.
Top Five Albums of 2018
Christine and the Queens – Chris
Christine and the Queens’ debut Chaleur Humaine was a wonderful surprise for me in 2016. I find most contemporary pop music incredibly alienating and actively annoying, and that’s not just an affectation. In spite of this something about the combination of melancholy synth-pop and Héloïse Letissier’s incredible voice landed in a sweet spot for me. It’s truly an unforeseen joy for me to feel so strongly about a modern pop act.
Where Chaleur Humaine was softly pretty and sad in that particular French way, Chris is instead strident, sharp, sexual. Its synth piano and funky FM basslines colour an overall shift in production style that draws on the best work of Michael Jackson (particularly on Bad & Dangerous). It is a much bolder and more confident record, strutting and swaggering, without losing the meticulous harmonies and soaring melodic beauty that coloured her debut. In fact many of these tracks’ eccentric subtleties are more lavish and ornate than ever – see the latter half of “Goya Soda” and the hauntingly anxious pulse of “What’s-her-face”
As the album’s title suggests, the character Letissier presents here takes on a more masculine aspect that permeates everything from the songwriting to the accompanying choreography. Speaking of the dancing, I saw Christine and the Queens at the Royal Concert Hall in November and it was among the most spectacular live performances I have ever witnessed. These songs all work on their own on the record, but they take on a whole extra dimension when they’re danced as well as sung.
Without relying on flashy stage designs or novelty swinging platforms, every single song is supported and enhanced tenfold by the expressiveness of pure human motion – which is a pretentious way of saying the dancing was good. But it was more than good – it was life-affirming. I cannot overstate what a joy it was.
And for a flavour, why not enjoy this video for “Doesn’t Matter”, whose second half is one of the strongest hooks I’ve heard in years.
Tune-Yards – I Can Feel You Creep Into my Private Life
In recent years Tune-Yards seem to have leaned full force into a spirit of activism, emphasising the ever-present thread of protest-music that’s run through their previous work. On this I Can Feel You Creep Into my Private Life, the usual overlapping looped rhythms with their syncopated hand claps and metallic clattering, and sparse funk basslines continue to form a solid and dance-able foundation. Merrill Garbus’ unique and increasingly confident voice is a celebration of the power and privilege of making music, but also the responsibility of using your energy and power as a force for good.
That being said, Tune-Yards are not really channelling the self-righteous fury of Rage Against the Machine. Instead Garbus sings of recognising white privilege and hypocrisy in her own life and music. It’s about the internalised racism that comes from living in communities and spaces that are all (or predominantly) white. Tune-Yards are still building music out of elements of Caribbean and African rhythms, and aesthetics, but there’s an open and honest confrontation of this appropriation here, notably so in the lyrics.
It’s not preachy but reflective, and it serves the songs . Your mileage may vary on all that political stuff, but when it comes alongside as powerful and unique musical vision as this, I think it works. Fight the power, confront your own assumptions and privilege, and groove along the way.
Speaking of which, here’s “ABC 123”, which is a good example of confronting one’s own bullshit, with a cool fun beat y’all can sing along with.
Death Grips – Year of the Snitch
I’m not entirely sure what to think of the weird reddit culture that exists around Death Grips – one minute I think I hate it with every fibre of my being, and the next I find myself a curiously intrigued observer. The band’s own relationship with the online morass is hard to judge, as they alternately seem to play into it and then ignore it entirely.
There also seems to be a contingent of the alt-right adjacent nihilistic internet troll community (you know, those people) who happen to enjoy Death Grips, some with a sense of let-the-world burn detached irony that is ever so dull.
In spite of all of the weirdness surrounding them, I remain a believer in the music.
Year of the Snitch, as might be expected from Death Grips, emerges fully-formed as if from a lake of blood; a curious inter-sectional mash-up of experimental hip-hop, industrial noise, electropunk, and various lo-fi electronic influences. Punches are not pulled, and solid ground is not offered. Death Grips are the pulsing black heart of modern life, a world that too often gets painted over by the bullshit sanitised and disinfected veneer of social media. This is the un-gentrified alternative music of today. This is Sacramento not San Francisco.
Year of the Snitch follows on from the outstanding Bottomless Pit, but the band appear to self-aware enough to confront their own legacy. There’s a more present undercurrent of irony and self-awareness here than on previous albums. As exemplified by a brief spoken-word appearance by Shrek and Narnia director Andrew Adamson for no apparent reason, they take their postmodern irreverence seriously. Samples of previous works are re-appropriated here, mangled into new forms, and wrapped up into a subconscious stream of the basest of human desires.
When boring people moan about there being too much political correctness in the world today, that everything is too safe, I say shut the fuck up you disingenuous boring middle-of-the-road cowards and wrap your ears around Death Grips.
Randall Dunn – Beloved
Randall Dunn is an engineer & producer who has long been associated with the incredible independent musical scene operating out of the Pacific Northwest since the turn of the century, as well as his noted synthesiser work for many of those bands, and his own group, the Master Musicians of Bukkake.
His new album Beloved is a wonderfully dense textural patchwork of ambient synth, drones, voice, arrangements for woodwinds and strings, all filtered through a range of experimental composition and production techniques. Dunn paints sprawling and sparse soundscapes that evoke deserts, mountains, plains, the ocean. Even where things take a turn for the atonal, the electronic aspects of his synthesizer work dissolve into something altogether more organic and tactile, like sparks of lightning, or wind rattling a wire fence.
The seven tracks here culminate in a particularly transcendent song called “A True Home” featuring the haunting voice of Zola Jesus calling out into a seemingly endless space, all of which is accompanied by a beautiful video filmed in Oman. It’s all so goddamn beautiful I actually cannot stand it.
David Byrne – American Utopia
This album was by an outstanding tour that I very nearly missed out. At 11PM one night I realised I had forgotten to go to the Glasgow show for which I had had a ticket pinned on my fridge for months. In the end I made it to a show at the Manchester Arena, which involved a very dumb travel schedule in the 24 hours between a 12 hour night shift and 12 hour day shift, catching about three hours of rough sleep on an overnight bus.
This show would have been worth this ridiculous adventure on the strength of his previous work, even if American Utopia wasn’t a particularly good album. Happily though, it’s actually pretty damn good.
Your mileage may vary when it comes to Byrne’s voice and style of songwriting, and the album is probably not going to make the case if you’re not already on board. The soft piano-led opening track is punctuated abruptly by choruses that are intentionally abrasive and monotonous.
In some ways, this album feels like a sequel to 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, written and recorded with Brian Eno. Here Eno is but one of several collaborators, also notably including Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never fame.
The songs here all fall under the concept of examining the small and large questions of human life in the 21st century, which is perhaps the most David Byrne idea on Earth. Lyrically, the album is a balance between clinical descriptiveness and quirky, silly, sentimentality (“the mind is a soft-boiled potato, a jewel in a chocolate shell…“), and there are a ton of memorable melodies throughout. All these songs seek to find little glimpses of beauty (and sometimes horror) in the mundane, in the abrupt interruptions of violence, and strange small joys of everyday life. And that’s all particularly comforting in the strange times we find ourselves in at present.
For an idea of how this all works in practice, here’s a television performance of the brash and brassy “Everybody’s Coming to My House”.
These are all things I heard and like, but couldn’t decide between for a top ten list.
- Black Spirituals – Black Access / Black Axes
- Aphex Twin – Collapse EP
- Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow – Annihiliation soundtrack
- Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids – An Angel Fell
- John Grant – Love is Magic
- Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth
- Nine Inch Nails – Bad Witch
- Sleep – The Sciences
- Toby Driver – They Are the Shield