Albums of the Year 2018

December 15, 2018 at 12:15 am Leave a comment


Somehow, 2018 managed to be an even more execrable 12 months than 2017. It was also a slightly odd period for music, insofar as a few (though certainly not all) of the most exciting releases seemed to come from artists who appeared way past their best—having by all accounts produced little of note for years… decades, even.

Take that assessment with a pinch of salt, as it comes from a distinctly middle-aged perspective. Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny that 2018 witnessed some quite astonishing returns to form, not to mention many veteran artists continuing to produce exceptional work. But why? One theory: frantic pre-apocalyptic bursts of creativity.

See, the dark times don’t seem to have impacted musical aesthetics quite as much as you might have expected—at least if what you were expecting was an upsurge in didactic protest music. Arguably though, the times they have a-manifested musically in all sorts of subtle ways. Are previously long-complacent artists rushing to create something of worth… while they still can?

This isn’t really the place for substantive analysis, much less depressing political commentary. This is the place for LIST. This is the place where you learn what one person with a distinctly middle-aged perspective thinks were the best albums of the year. How all this ties in to that individual’s relationship with geopolitical bedlam and environmental meltdown…

Well, if you had an opinion about that, you could always post a comment in the comment box, like people did in ye olde blogge dayes. In the meantime, please enjoy the following list, which—as usual—was written in one bleary-eyed sitting with far less thought than it deserved and absolutely no proofreading.

Top Ten Albums of the Year


1. Low — Double Negative (Sub Pop) LP
Back in 2004, Low released The Great Destroyer, on which a set of extremely catchy indie pop songs were pulverized by Dave Fridmann’s airless, overly-compressed production. You’d have been forgiven for giving up on the band at that point. It certainly seemed like the work of a previously strong-willed act giving in to the commercial and technical trends of the era.

Fast forward almost 15 years and Low makes an album on which the tunes are much more relentlessly bombarded with 21st-century production gimmicks… and some of us tin-eared listeners finally understand that pulverization was the point all along because beauty threatened is more keenly felt. The results are bracingly extreme and consistently beautiful throughout. Album of the year.


2. Jóhann Jóhannsson — Mandy (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (Invada) LP
The problem with Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic horror film is that the central presence of Nicolas Cage pushes the mood from sublimely ridiculous to merely camp. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s soundtrack plays things much straighter and is therefore significantly more intense—if not funnier—than the movie (which is, to be fair, hilariously intense and intensely hilarious).

Mandy was the last thing Jóhann Jóhannsson composed before his tragic death—and it ranks alongside the Arrival and I am Here soundtracks as one of his finest works. Jóhannsson wrote a decent amount of pleasant orchestral music but was at his best when things got weird. For Mandy, he went absolutely hog wild with John Carpenter synths and very metal guitars. His ultimate work in every sense.


3. Yves Tumor — Safe in the Hands of Love (Warp) 2LP
Yves Tumor’s hard-to-classify 2016 debut—Serpent Music, on Pan—showed a great deal of promise. His move to a bigger label unsurprisingly led to a more conventionally song-based approach. What is surprising is that this change actually empowered Tumor to deliver on the promise of his debut.

The songs are great and the disturbing, violent undercurrent is still firmly in place. The overall sound mixes the cinematic digital electronica of Roly Porter with the soulful noise-pop of A.R. Kane. But Yves Tumor is a unique talent and it’s a great relief to report that he has a vision which would surely pierce through the sonic murk as clear as day, no matter what odd combination of influences he was playing with.


4. Heather Leigh — Throne (Editions Mego) LP
If the Yves Tumor album is very nearly like a weird-dream-come-true conglomeration of awesome but non-obvious influences, Throne could be described as a more straightforward cross between early Kate Bush and recent Scott Walker. Clearly, that’s not straightforward at all and it could (should) be a disaster. But Heather Leigh has the talent and charisma to pull it off.

What Throne shares with Safe in the Hands of Love is its ability to simultaneously enchant and disturb. Where 2015’s I Abused Animal was stark and addictive, this new album is lush and seductive. As such, it’s both more approachable and more sustainable—something you’ll come back to time after time, despite its sometimes-alarming content.


5. Autechre — NTS Sessions (Warp) 12LP
Even for the person who very deliberately typed it, “12LP” still looks like a typo. But NTS Sessions really is 12 albums-worth of algorithmically-generated, next-level IDM. It makes previous Autechre epics like Exai and Elseq seem like mere whimsical fancies. This is a truly massive, imposing and audacious release.

Naturally, it’s also as uneven as all hell. Perhaps NTS Sessions could have been edited down into a relatively punchy double CD but then it would have lost its aura of monolithic otherness. The long stretches of alien machine-noodling are as relevant to the overall effect as the moments where everything coheres into something simply gorgeous.


6. Eartheater — IRISIRI (Pan) LP
Now that Pan has lost Yves Tumor to Warp, the Berlin label will be needing another young artist mixing abstract electronics, oblique song-writing and disquieting intensity. Not to fear—Eartheater is here and she’s very odd indeed. Definitely an extremely promising artist to watch over the next few years.


7. Hermit and the Recluse — Orpheus vs. The Sirens (Obol for Charon) LP
Veteran underground emcee Ka comes through with another conceptually-dense album that favours mood over drums. This collaboration with producer Animoss is similar in sound to Ka’s career-best Days with Dr. Yen Lo, if not quite as effective. In any case, this dude is a true individual who should be a massive inspiration to all musical artists working in all musical genres.


8. Leslie Winer & Jay Glass Dubs — YMFEES (Bokeh Versions) LP
Talking of true individuals, there’s nobody quite like Leslie Winer—supermodel, poet, trip-hop pioneer… And she’s on stellar form here, with her dry, bitter drawl taking pot-shots at all comers over Jay Glass Dubs’ bass-heavy beats. Honestly, the fact that the title is an acronym of “your mom’s favourite Eazy-E song” should be enough to convince you this is essential.


9. Alva Noto — Unieqav (Noton) 2LP
Perhaps Leslie Winer’s finest moment to date was her vocal on “This Blank Action” by Diamond Version, a group featuring Carsten Nicolai aka Alva Noto. Nicolai’s latest album is absolutely packed with juddering electro-glitch bangers in a very similar vein to that particular classic. Uniequav may even be his finest moment, at least when working in this full-on mode.


10. Cypress Hill — Elephants on Acid (BMG) 2LP
Of all the unexpected returns to form that 2018 threw at us, this has to be the most perplexing. But Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs had an astonishing run of production form this year and emcees B-Real and Sen Dog sound as hungry as they did in the early 90s. Elephants on Acid has the doomy, smoked-out vibe of stoner metal but musically it’s 100% hip-hop (at least if you can ignore a couple of dud tracks towards the end).


The Next 10

  1. The Third Eye Foundation — Wake the Dead (Ici D’Ailleurs) LP
  2. Gas — Rausch (Kompakt) 2LP
  3. Westside Gunn — Supreme Blientele (Daupe!) 2LP
  4. Fever Ray — Plunge (Mute) 2LP (technically 2017 but the physical formats dropped this year, so…)
  5. DJ Muggs & Roc Marciano ‎— KAOS (Soul Assassins) LP
  6. The Breeders — All Nerve (4AD) LP
  7. Jonathan Richman — SA (Blue Arrow) CD
  8. Sarah Davachi — Let Night Come on Bells End the Day (Recital) LP
  9. Trembling Bells ‎— Dungeness (Tin Angel) LP
  10. Kellarissa ‎— Ocean Electro (Mint) LP


Highly Recommended

Stephan Mathieu – Radiance box set
Kelly Moran — Ultraviolet (this might deserve to be a lot higher but it has not yet been sufficiently absorbed)
Roc Marciano — RR2: The Bitter Dose, Behold a Dark Horse and Pimpstrumentals
Sarah Davachi — Gave in Rest
Mary Jane Leach — (f)lute songs
Pram — Across the Meridian

Also Worth Hearing

Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto — Glass
Thomas Ankersmit — Homage to Dick Raaijmakers
Brix & The Extricated — Breaking State
Peter Brötzmann & Heather Leigh — Sparrow Nights
Capri-Batterie & Stewart Lee — Bristol Fashion
Charalambides — Charalambides: Tom and Christina Carter
Ian William Craig — Thresholder
Yves de Mey — Bleak Comfort
Jon Hassell — Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One)
Jlin — Autobiography (Music from Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography)
John Paul — No Filter
Knife Knights — 1 Time Mirage
Nicolas Krgovich — Ouch
Mary Lattimore — Hundreds of Days
Miss Red — K.O.
Steve Reich — Pulse/Quartet
Nadja — Sonnborner
Ty Segall — Fudge Sandwich and Orange Rainbow
Ty Segall, White Fence — Joy
Sleeparchive/Shigeko Akakabe — Tokyo Sessions
Suuns — Felt
Various Artists — Scale


Reissues, Rediscoveries etc.

  1. Disco Inferno — DI Go Pop and Technicolour (One Little Indian) LPs
  2. My Bloody Valentine — Loveless and Isn’t Anything (no label) LPs
  3. Carl Stone ‎— Electronic Music from the Eighties and Nineties (Unseen Worlds) 2LP
  4. Derek Bailey — Lot 74: Solo Improvisations and Aida (Honest Jon’s) LPs and Derek Bailey/Evan Parker — The London Concert (Otoroku) LP
  5. Hiroshi Yoshimura — Music for Nine Post Cards (Empire of Signs) and Pier & Loft (17853) LPs
  6. Francois Bayle — Tremblements… (Recollection GRM) LP
  7. Butterfly Child — Onomatopoeia (Dell’Orso) 2LP
  8. Akira Rabelais ‎— Eisoptrophobia (Boomkat Editions) 2LP
  9. SunnO))) — White 1 and White 2 (Southern Lord) 2LPs
  10. Robert Rental — Different Voices for You. Different Colours for Me. Demos 1980. (Optimo Music) LP

Also, reissues of albums by David Behrman, John Bender, Biosphere, The Breeders, Kate Bush, Ché-Shizu, Cocteau Twins, Coil, Shirley Collins, Alice Coltrane, De La Soul, The Durutti Column, Brian Eno, The Fall, Felt, High Rise, Jon Hassell, Haruomi Hosono, Loscil, Mobb Deep, Randall McClellan, Roberto Musci, Bernard Parmegiani, Steve Roach, Swervedriver, This Heat, Rafael Toral, Iannis Xenakis, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Christian Zanesi and many more…


Singles, EPs, Tapes etc.

  1. Second Woman — Instant/Apart (Tresor) 12″
  2. Brian Eno with Kevin Shields — The Weight of History/Only Once Away My Son (Opal) 12”
  3. Flame 1 — Fog/Shrine (Pressure) 12”
  4. Fennesz — Station 1 (Touch) download
  5. Westside Gunn — ‎FLYGOD is Good​.​.​. All the Time (Nature Sounds) 12″
  6. Sleaford Mods — Sleaford Mods (Rough Trade) 12”
  7. Event Cloak — Vague Definition (Never Anything) cassette
  8. Darto — Fundamental Slime (Aagoo) 12”
  9. Dopplereffekt — Athanatos (Leisure System) 12”
  10. Mount Maxwell ‎— Blue Highways Vol. 2 (Hotham Sound) cassette

And more, more, more, always more. Goodness knows what’s been forgotten… and what hasn’t even been heard yet. The sad truth of these lists is that you inevitably make them before you’ve discovered many of what will turn out to be your favourite records of the year. So, while it’s hard not to approach 2019 with a sense of dread, there will at least be plenty of the best parts of 2018 to catch up on. There’s always more.

Maybe too much? Add that to your sense of dread then, if you must. In the meantime, try to do something positive; try to make a difference. And if you really can’t get that together in the “real world”, maybe just get like Low, Cypress Hill, Jonathan Richman etc. and quite unexpectedly put something shockingly beautiful and inspiring into the oh-so ethereal realm of the sonic arts.

Music matters, even in dark, urgent times.

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Albums of the Year 2017

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