My Favorite Albums of 2018

It’s December, which means it’s year-end list season and a reminder that music (and art in general) is a bloodthirsty competition. All year long, musicians put themselves out there, presenting the public with their latest work — not in hopes of expressing themselves or articulating insights about the human condition, but because they want to make it to the top and be the best. That distinction is administered upon them by bloggers and critics like myself, who understand the art form in a way that average people can’t even fathom. While artists everywhere dream of having that “1” or even “8” next to their name at the end of the year, the reality is that only a select few can make it into this privileged group. To the artists who weren’t chosen: I’m sorry that your work was an abject failure, but hopefully it can be used as motivation to be less bad next year.

The following were the only good albums of 2018. Any album not on this list is not worth listening to.

15. Tender Age – Becoming Real Forever

There is a national surplus of lo-fi, noisy rock bands out there, and Tender Age don’t necessarily distinguish themselves on the surface. This is where I’m supposed to explain why they’re different, but they really aren’t. I just really like these songs, which find the right balance of heaviness, chaos, and light, plus some Sonic Youth attitude in the vocals.

14. Peel Dream Magazine – Modern Meta Physic

If nothing else, Modern Meta Physic proves the value in stealing from the right artists. Joe Stevens’ band is very up front about how it is borrowing from past bands like Stereolab, who themselves were up front about borrowing from groups like Neu, and so on. Rather than try to reinvent the wheel, Peel Dream Magazine put themselves in that lineage, and this album plays as an earnest and thoughtfully crafted homage to the history of gentle psychedelic music.

13. Meg Baird and Mary Lattimore – Ghost Forests

By some margin the prettiest music I heard this year, this collaboration between the two folk artists conjures up woodsy, psychedelic imagery with Baird’s guitar, Lattimore’s harp, and ethereal vocals. The lengthy, spacious compositions function as their own little worlds that prove how two artists can strengthen each other’s sound through collaboration.

12. Julia Holter – Aviary

With its 90-minute run time and gloriously excessive, lush arrangements, Aviary functions as something like a meta-critique of the music listening process. While not necessarily an album I looked forward to listening to start to finish, I really enjoyed exploring all of its nooks and crannies and trying to figure it out. I’ll be honest: I still don’t know if I actually like it, and maybe I never will. But Holter’s project is a work of great purposeful ambition that raises more questions than it answers, and listening to it was a very different experience than any other album I heard this year.

11. Afrirampo – Afriverse

After eight years apart, Afrirampo picked up where they left off with Afriverse, providing an alternate vision of rock music where spontaneity, chaos, and fun take precedent over brooding and tired societal commentary. While their music undeniably seems random, there is real craft in its pacing and the use of dynamics, not to mention the technical ability of Oni and Pika, who both rip on their respective instruments. Sometimes music doesn’t need to be more than two talented people making a lot of noise.

10. Infinite Void – Endless Waves

Endless Waves is one of those albums that never really got a chance, given it was released by a band from Australia that already broke up. The world missed out, as it usually does. This is post-punk songwriting done at a high level with fantastic rhythms and dark imagery. I love music that sounds forceful but dreamy at the same time, and Endless Waves pulls that off.

9. U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited

In a Poem Unlimited was my favorite topical album of the year because it didn’t seem intended to be. While many artists pander to critics and listeners with lyrics that resemble Facebook posts, Meghan Remy grounds her arguments in storytelling while not shying away from hard truths. Her album outlines the feelings of distrust and abuse people face in different situations and puts these complex narratives in the shell of catchy, noisy pop that has a punk edge.

8. Nun – The Dome

Nun has a sound that, for lack of a better term, is very cool. The throbbing synth sounds create a dystopian atmosphere of dread typified by the album’s title, which is married with legitimate pop hooks. Meanwhile, Jenny Branagan’s half-spoken singing style puts them more in the punk realm and makes this a band that doesn’t really sound like anyone else.

7. Beach House – 7

A few years ago, I thought Beach House were stuck in a rut where they were repeating themselves too much and had nowhere else to go. Sometimes it’s a pleasure to be proven wrong. On their last two albums, they have evolved while maintaining a sound that is uniquely theirs, with a layer of darkness and introspection that wasn’t there before. I wasn’t as obsessed with 7 as Thank Your Lucky Stars, but it’s another gorgeous album by a band that feels revitalized.

6. Wax Idols – Happy Ending

The fittingly titled Happy Ending brings an end (hopefully a happy one) to a strong run from Hether Fortune’s band, which again showed its knack for goth-rock songwriting that gets into heavy, emotional material while being very listenable. This one focuses on death and loss, but as was typical with this band’s work, it’s not content to just wallow in misery. It finds nuance and catharsis in life’s darkest moments.

5. Marie Davidson – Working Class Woman

Abrasive in both its sound and the personality of its protagonist, Working Class Woman is a darkly comic trip into the mind of Marie Davidson or possibly a character resembling Marie Davidson. Her deadpan singing and ironic lyrics make it hard to tell what is serious and what is a joke on the album, which takes no prisoners in mocking herself and the perceptions other people have of her as a woman in the male-dominated club scene. Its sound varies between subversive club jams like “Work It” and the pure industrial-noise terror of “The Tunnel,” with the unifying link being Davidson’s relentless, refreshing honesty.

4. Free Cake For Every Creature – The Bluest Star

A throwback in the best sense, Katie Bennett’s band plays music that is in the true original spirit of indie pop, with an honesty and authenticity that eludes many more widely acclaimed artists. On The Bluest Star, the band’s scrappy, winning appeal is combined with something resembling ambition, resulting in a sprawling showcase of heartfelt songwriting and detailed character-driven storytelling. The sheer likability of Bennett goes a long way: she doesn’t need much more than some reverbed guitar and her near-whispered lyrics to connect with any listener.

3. The Green Child – The Green Child

This collaboration by Mikey Young and Raven Mahon arrived in January to little fanfare and set a bar for 2018 that only a couple artists matched for me. While not outwardly ambitious, The Green Child taps into all of the best parts of psychedelic music, with introspective retro-futuristic arrangements, ambiguous, thought-provoking lyrics, and Mahon’s understated vocals. It also boasts the song of the year in “Her Majesty II,” a dazzling, timeless mix of swirling synths, harmonies and guitar with lyrics that reflect on current events with a welcome touch of subtlety.

2. Melody’s Echo Chamber – Bon Voyage

The world of shoegaze and dream pop is full of artists trying to sound like their heroes from the past. Bon Voyage shows the power of sounding like no one, as well as the risk. Full of bizarre tempo changes and quirky diversions, Melody Prochet’s album is intentionally alienating and strange, the product of an artist with too many ideas and arguably not enough editing instinct. But the flaws of Bon Voyage end up being its great strength — its overstuffed aesthetic represents genuine unfiltered imagination, the kind rarely heard in music.

1. Emma Ruth Rundle – On Dark Horses

Emma Ruth Rundle is making music I always wanted to hear: something that has the massive sound of metal, the intimacy of folk, and the hooks of straight-up rock. On Dark Horses continues her evolution into a genreless force who can make relatively simple quiet-loud alt rock songs sound unlike anything else. Her 2016 album, Marked for Death, was a breakthrough; the sound, the confidence, and the emotional conviction of On Dark Horses cement her as an artist who has no peers.

Oh Right, This is a Music Blog

When I’m not complaining about social media and the state of our society, I occasionally do find time to indulge in the expressive artistic medium commonly referred to as “music.” This art form uses sound to convey messages about the artists themselves or the world they live in, and it is easily accessible via websites like Bandcamp or Spotify — or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can even see it be performed in a live setting. Given my enjoyment of the medium and the artists who practice it, I realized this could be the type of thing I could share on this website, with the understanding that other people who love music could find my posts and share in my enjoyment of it.

Here are some of the releases from this year (2018) that I’ve been listening to recently, along with some incisive and articulate commentary explaining to you why I enjoy them.

U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited

The genre of “pop-punk” is often either bad pop or watered-down punk. In a Poem Unlimited finds a nice sweet spot between those two genres — its sound mixes pop hooks and vocals with the occasional burst of abrasive noise, while its lyrics have the sharp confrontational edge of punk. Mentally, I began thinking of this album as “punk pop.”

Meghan Remy’s lyrics are politically charged, but not in the way that feels like she’s talking down to you or telling you what you already know. The key is that she grounds her politics in narratives, like the revenge fable “Velvet 4 Sale,” which is just classic storytelling with a message attached to it instead of a strident scream at the listener that demands them to feel a certain way. “M.A.H.” is another highlight that serves as a scathing critique of the Obama administration and a personal story of losing faith in your country and the people who run it.

On “Incidental Boogie,” Remy whispers “I gotta tell you something you don’t want to hear; it’s the truth and that’s never easy to hear.” That is kind of the mission statement for In a Poem Unlimited, which is pop music that isn’t content to just be pleasant to listen to.

Beach House – “7”

Beach House remains a uniquely vexing band. Skeptics rag on them for making the same song over and over, while many of their fans will say they’re happy to hear the same Beach House song forever. Meanwhile, I argue that this band has evolved and changed in a subtle way that hasn’t really been noted by the general public.

A couple years ago, I went nuts for their previous album, the grievously underrated masterpiece Thank Your Lucky Stars. It just had a different feeling than their other music to me, and 7 has a similar intangible quality, where it sounds only like Beach House, yet conjures up completely different emotions than a lot of their previous work. I don’t think it’s quite as good as Thank Your Lucky Stars, but it shows the band continuing to evolve and experiment with their tried-and-true sound.

As someone who loves to laboriously explain why I enjoy things, this band has frustrated me because it’s been hard to come up with satisfying reasons for why their music is so effective. Now I’m starting to understand that not being able to explain why they’re so good is what makes them so good.

Wax Idols – Happy Ending

This is the somewhat delayed follow-up to American Tragic, which was one of my favorite albums of 2015. In the lead-up to this album, I found myself listening to all of Wax Idols’ albums and realizing that this is one of the best rock bands going today. Frontwoman Hether Fortune is charismatic and has constantly progressed as a songwriter, and their sound has evolved into a smooth mix of goth, pop, punk and shoegaze.

Happy Ending is the most poppy effort by the band, but it doesn’t back off from dark subject matter. “Mausoleum” turns the feeling of loss and memory into a catchy pop jingle; “Too Late” is a chipper song about suicide and realizing that you’ve wasted your entire life. This is rock music that is enjoyable to listen to and also packs an emotional wallop.

Lithics – Mating Surfaces

The rhythm-centric punk sound and jittery deadpan vocals of Lithics make for an easy comparison to The Fall if their singer were a woman who was less racist and dead. They’ve channeled a lot of different punk groups into a sound that feels unique enough, mostly because of the nearly spoken vocals and abstract lyrics.

I’m sure many listeners will find this band to be unlistenable nonsense, but that’s what makes it feel more like genuine punk, the kind that alienates closeminded people. Music that is this unapologetically weird and energetic doesn’t come around too often, and it’s always something I’ll embrace.

Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

I’m a pretty stereotypical anti-country guy and have a healthy skepticism for any pop album that I feel is being graded on a curve by indie fans, like where they praise it to the heavens just because it isn’t an active assault on the senses (see: Lorde’s Melodrama). I also just really hate the city of Nashville. So I’m not exactly the target audience for this Kacey Musgraves album.

But there is an appealing simplicity to Golden Hour that makes me kind of understand why people like country music. Musgraves being a great singer helps, but it’s her lyrics that stand out: they’re basic and unpretentious, capturing every-day life while also not falling into the typical country tropes of talking down to the audience. There are some awkward half-hearted attempts at country radio songs on this album, like “High Horse,” that detract from the proceedings, but if you just ignore those this is a strong album that transcends genre stereotypes.

Musgraves is at her best on songs like “Slow Burn” that are gentle, simple, and oddly psychedelic.

Spotify Playlist: “Loomers”

In a post last year, I mentioned how My Bloody Valentine’s “Loomer” sounds exactly the way I want all music to sound due to its contrast of heavy guitars and light, feminine vocals. This playlist is a collection of songs that feel similarly to me and are the basis of my theory that “Loomer” spawned its own micro-genre of music that falls somewhere between shoegaze and metal. The songs range from artists that are doing essentially My Bloody Valentine tributes (Fleeting Joys) to bands who push the principles in “Loomer” as far as possible to explore more adventurous musical ground (metal groups like SubRosa and True Widow).

For most of music’s history, loud guitar noise has been strongly associated with machismo and was considered ugly or abrasive. I love this style of music because it twists those preconceptions with the vocals, resulting in songs that have fascinating dualities: they are ugly and beautiful, strong and fragile, masculine and feminine. These themes all get blended together in the music and start to blur these arbitrary gender lines. (I just read The Left Hand of Darkness if you can’t tell.)

On a less academic level, listening to these songs always makes me think of the apocalypse. The image the sound creates in my head is of a lone voice singing while the world crumbles around them.  

#3: Beach House – “Thank Your Lucky Stars”

There are many theories as to why Beach House released Thank Your Lucky Stars just a couple months after putting out their first album of 2015, Depression Cherry. Personally, I’ve started to think they did it just to make me feel insane. I’m not one to necessarily share consensus opinions ever, but I felt pretty alone in loving this album and in perceiving a wide gap in quality between it and its predecessors.

Worst of all, I still don’t have a satisfying explanation for why I like Thank Your Lucky Stars so much more than the rest of Beach House’s work, which drives me nuts as a writer and just as someone who likes to think about why I like the things I like. So I’m left trying to explain the unexplainable, that subjective aspect of music that makes it click for me, but maybe doesn’t impact other people the same way. If nothing else, the decision to release two albums in a year made for an interesting litmus test on taste and what we all value in the music we listen to.

My not-at-all-widely-shared perspective is that Thank Your Lucky Stars taps into something that other Beach House music doesn’t. While the band’s previous music was known for being warm and inviting, this album has a dusty chill that makes the songs feel more ambiguous. Thank Your Lucky Stars ends up feeling different while still absolutely sounding like Beach House due to some kind of musical butterfly effect: the band twiddles a couple knobs, changes some small details, and suddenly the end product feels entirely different.

These are pretty much the accepted differences in Thank Your Lucky Stars, and from there it’s a matter of subjectivity and taste. I think this vibe suits the band much more and feels a lot fresher than the played-out “warm and sunny” sound. Victoria Legrand’s vocals feel less processed and more natural, the lyrics are more interesting (especially the doomier passages like “Elegy to the Void”), and the band’s usual collection of guitars and organs actually sound better because of the different context.

Those are my basic attempts at explaining why I love this album, but I’ve accepted that part of what makes Thank Your Lucky Stars great is that it is so inscrutable and just makes me feel how I do at a gut level. It’s the album I always wanted Beach House to make, even if I’m not entirely sure why.

Beach House – “Thank Your Lucky Stars”

Once a band has released enough material, it’s easy to fall into taking a definitive unchanging stance on them. After four albums, this was my take on Beach House: they’re like a statue in a museum. Their music is beautiful and I appreciated the craft, but I couldn’t form a connection with it. After enough looking, I’d eventually get bored and walk away to the next piece.

When their fifth album, Depression Cherry, came out earlier this year, it only strengthened my stance. It was Beach House doing their Beach House thing with the slow jams that sparkle and sound lovely but are samey and not that memorable. I listened a couple times, filed my obligatory take on the band on social media, then mentally wrote the band off, figuring there wouldn’t be new material for another three or four years and that the material would be the same old stuff anyways.

To everyone’s surprise, the band came back less than two months later and released Thank Your Lucky Stars, another full length album. I met this with an eye-roll: this band already makes too much similar material and now they’re putting out two albums in one year? We get it, Beach House: you can make slow-paced dream pop songs. What are you trying to prove?

I gave Thank Your Lucky Stars what I figured would be a token listen to further solidify my ironclad Beach House opinion. Instead, the album totally won me over in a way I didn’t expect. It’s not like the band dramatically changed up their formula or anything, but something about Thank Your Lucky Stars felt totally different. While their previous albums seemed like they were behind glass, this time I could reach out and touch it.

I’m having a hard time figuring out why this is the case beyond “I like the songs more.” One reason is that the tone of Thank Your Lucky Stars is a slight departure from their other recent albums — while their previous music felt too passive to me, this album has a darker edge that becomes confrontational and forces the listener to look inside themselves. A bizarre, nonsensical feeling I had listening to the album was that it almost felt like doom metal instead of dream pop. It sounds more foreboding, the music is heavier and more immersive, and the lyrics confront doomy topics — there’s literally a song called “Elegy to the Void,” which has a mesmerizing heavy guitar section that reminds me of Deerhunter’s “Desire Lines.” It’s easily my favorite song the band has recorded.

Given my previous complaints that Beach House sounded pretty to the point of being bland, I really love the slight roughness of Thank Your Lucky Stars and think it brings out a more personal and intimate side of the band. And by making this gloomier album, a band I previously thought was one-note proved they can subtly reinvent themselves without getting away from what they’re good at. I don’t know if this will be the most popular Beach House album among their longtime fans, but it is the one most likely to turn skeptics into believers.