It’s not a small amount of dread that comes with compiling a ‘best of’ list at the end of the year. Turning art into a competition is one of my pet peeves, so it’s with reluctance but with an understanding of my editorial responsibilities to air my opinions on the internet that I post this list. That warning aside, listening to album that blows your mind or makes your day is pretty special and therefore warrants a shoutout, at the very least. Or, at the very least, you should support the hell outta the bands you love. Tell the world, spend your hard-earned money on them and do what you can to let them avoid a day job to continue making their art.
As I look back over these picks, I’m noticing similarities in my choices. I’m a sucker for melodic music, which isn’t odd. But every album I chose has some sort of protest element – a necessary tonic in these fucked times. I think all these picks, and to a greater extent, all good music (using good the only way I can, as pure opinion), needs to be challenging either in content or structure. When form and function live in harmony (you see what I did there), that’s the root of good.
In no order, here’s my picks for 2018
Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer
Future EGOT and GOAT, Janelle Monáe released Dirty Computer to much deserved fanfare. Only a fool would contain their excitement for a Monáe appearance on screen or audio and this latest album is arguably her strongest. Killers like Django Jane, Crazy. Classic, Life, Take A Byte, or any other song on this album show that there’s no filler here. Having a listen through before reading about the writing and production, I thought there was a lot of Prince influence on this album and of course, Dirty Computer was one of his last projects. Make Me Feel takes many cues from Kiss, but still stands alone as its own. Like all of Monáe’s long-playing releases, Dirty Computer lays out a concept, this time a strong dialogue discussing black feminism and sexuality and pulling no punches beating down the bullshit of Trump, racism, sexism and homophobia. Beautifully written and produced primarily by Monáe, the songs live in a sweetly mixed realm of R&B, funk, rock and pop along with all her glorious theatrics. While we’re not likely to see another release from Janelle in 2019, there’s enough layers on the songs of Dirty Computer to keep us listening again and again until the new one comes.
Father John Misty – God’s Favourite Customer
Another year, thankfully, another album from Josh Tillman. This one lacking the lux production of Jonathan Wilson (while playing guitar in Roger Waters’ The Wall band) and hammered out in likely a shorter amount of time than 2017’s opus Pure Comedy. Normally a press delight, Tillman chose to not do interviews for this album, leaving the album’s explanation up to a small bio. But the impetus of God’s Favorite Customer was a period of estrangement and distance from his wife in LA while hunderking down in NYC for a combination of getting his shit together and losing it entirely. The true life story portrayed in the album is both sad and funny enough that only Jim Carrey could play Tillman in the movie version. While the first single, Mr. Tillman is full of hilarious moments standing alone, in the context of the album, it’s hard not to worry about poor Josh stumbling around the Bowery in the wee hours. Tillman, writing as or in Father John Misty, has edged close to mastery of writing love songs, in his own way. That way is a raw blush-worthy honesty that’s closer to the truth than anything else written about the topic for a long time. In the fresh days of 2019, one of my fondest hopes is to hear a new album from Josh Tillman this year. Having taken a well-deserved break after a long tour cycle last year, my review of his next may have to wait until 2020.
ionnalee – Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten
Not a household name outside of Stockholm, Jonna Lee’s career has been wondrously all over the place. Breaking from her electronic iamamiwhoami multimedia project, Lee recorded Everyone Afraid mostly herself, tackling all writing and production. While her previous iam releases were lush, clever synthpop compositions, Jonna Lee has added an edge to this album. The beats are harder, the vocals while still soaring and melodic are more aggressive. And of course, she just had to make an almost-hour long film to support this album. You can watch it here.
US Girls – In a Poem Unlimited
Meg Remy is simply divine. Her smooth voice coats her slinky music, a pop derivation-made new. Dance to this shit, yes you will. But a starting point to lose yourself to the best is in Mad As Hell‘s disco rant at Barack Obama. Yes, you can still dance to it despite its political love/hate letter. In fact, that encapsulates In A Poem Unlimited. This album is very political, not just anger at feckless, greedy governments but also calling out the violence and privilege of men and environmental horror. And yet, those messages are delivered with some supremely funky music. Who’s to say that activist songs shouldn’t make you shimmy. Extra rings go to Remy as a new Canadian, calling Toronto her new home along with hubby and Girl, Slim Twig. Lovely to have you here with us, Meg.
Lucy Dacus – Historian
2018 was a great year for Lucy Dacus. The 23-year-old released her own acclaimed album, Historian, she was arguably the strongest third of indie supergroup boygenius and she filled great supporting slots and tours with Father John Misty, The National, Jonathan Wilson, Big Thief, Sylvan Esso, Car Seat Headrest as well as being on the lineup of every big music festival in the US. With a lovely voice, great guitar playing and raw and real lyrics, it’s no surprise that this addition just seems to be another leap on the dog pile of appreciation of this album and artist.
Jeff Rosenstock – POST-
When I first listened to POST- on the social media shoutouts from a friend, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t expect it to be aggressive, angry AND fun. And certainly didn’t think it would contain a deep thought, sociocultural study song like 9/10. POST- feels like an album that’s about yelling at your racist uncle. It’s some of that art that’s the ONLY good to come from TR*MP. As if following direct orders from Henry Rollins in the most wonderful sentence of the modern political landscape.
“This is not a time to be dismayed, this is punk rock time. This is what Joe Strummer trained you for.”
Jeff listened whether he heard the quote or not.
Note: I bought this album at a PWYC price with 100% going to Defend Puerto Rico. You can still do the same here.
Jaye Jayle – No Trail and Other Unholy Paths
I came to listen to No Trail when I was doing my research for an interview with Emma Ruth Rundle (Jaye Jayle mainman, Evan Patterson’s wife and bandmate). Within the first minute, I realized that I had never heard anything really like this album. Trying to define it does nothing to add to its value. It’s a fuckton heavy pile for you to untangle and decode. Where this album starts, with No Trail: Path One and where it terminates, at Low Again Street is your unholy path. It’s dark, it’s like a dream you can’t wake from. It’s the moodiest piece you’ve heard in a long time. It’s entrancing, droning, meditative. It clangs and crashes like cast iron down wooden stairs. At its poetic heart, this album feels like a series of tableaus – words and music that create images in sepia. How Jaye Jayle wrote this album is beyond me – my only guess being scrawled by the rib of a crow in blood on handmade black paper.
Palace Winter – Nowadays
Likely the biggest unknown on this list, Palace Winter are a Copenhagen-based duo, consisting of Carl Coleman and Caspar Hesselager. Their music ticks a lot of boxes for me, a bit psych, sorta pop, a bit electronic, but with lots of nice melodies and cool sounds. It’s hard to pick just one, but Take Shelter is a fave off this great album.
Mitski – Be The Cowboy
I honestly don’t know what I can add to the myriad raves for Mitski’s 2018 album. Her previous album, Puberty 2 topped many of 2016’s charts but the development of Mitski Miyawaki’s musicianship and songcraft since that album is a wide leap. Still leaning on some of the minimalist drum machine beats from the previous album, Be The Cowboy adds horns and some more skilled keyboard playing. However, the depth of Miyawaki’s voice is highlighted on this album as there’s not much to hear in the way of vocal harmonies. It’s just Mitski alone singing a lyrical blend of stage direction from a script, journal entries and confessions into your ears. The starkness of the vocals gives all the rich instrumentation on Be The Cowboy room to shine.
Adam Faucett – It Took The Shape of a Bird
I first discovered Adam Faucett back in 2011 with his album More Like a Temple. Not sure if this Little Rock, Arkansan’s music was folk or southern rock or alt-country or all swamped together, I soon realized his genre didn’t matter (as if it ever does). Faucett’s voice swings from drawling plea to demanding yell with lubricated ease. Saying emotion is the rod through his unique and powerful vocals is an understatement. His songs are dark yet beautiful, best demonstrated by Living On The Moon, a song he describes as about being a lifelong weirdo and not in a good way. I think he’s all the right kind of weird if this is the art we get from him.
Beacon – Gravity Pairs
I love pop music. Always have, always will. Especially synthpop. There’s something about the strength of the vocals and the melodies, the layered synths that sweeten the melodic density. It all works for me, but I’m fairly prejudiced against male vocals in synthpop. I prefer to hear a woman’s voice, for whatever reason. However, one of the few male synthpop bands that I love is Beacon. While still listening to 2016’s Escapements, I was delighted to see Gravity Pairs come out in 2018. Whether it’s the velvety voice and the thoughtful playing of Thomas Mullarney and Jacob Gossett (and drumming by Rory O’Connor), having any song off Gravity Pairs pop up on my phone put a smile on my face in 2018.
Honorable mentions go to:
Khruangbin-Con Todo El Mundo
LP-Heart To Mouth
My Brightest Diamond-A Million and One
The Good, The Bad and The Queen-Merrie Land
Poppy-Am I A Girl?
Pale Waves-My Mind Makes Noises
Man Without Country-Infinity Mirror
Thus Owl-The Mountain That We Live Upon
Emma Ruth Rundle-On Dark Horses
The Holydrug Couple-Hyper Super Mega
The Lemon Twigs-Go To School
Johnny Marr-Call The Comet
Wye Oak-The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs
Unknown Mortal Orchestra-Sex & Food
Jonathan Wilson-Rare Birds
The Silver Seas-Moonlight Road