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.

Emma Ruth Rundle Delivers Another Masterpiece With “On Dark Horses”

My favorite album from 2016 was Emma Ruth Rundle’s Marked for Death. My favorite album from 2018 will be Emma Ruth Rundle’s On Dark Horses. I say this with confidence because it’s that good. It’s so heavy and beautiful, with emotion and intensity oozing out of every note. Nobody else I’ve heard is making music that is this immersive with such a balance of intimacy and raw power.

Rundle stands alone at the intersection of about 30 different musical genres. Sometimes she sounds like dream pop, other times she’s metal, or alternative rock, or post-rock. She often gets called folk, which I kind of get, but it just makes me think that it’s futile to try to describe her in simple genre buzzwords. It’s music that resists easy labels because nobody else has ever made it before. There are a lot of reference points and influences, clearly, but I consider her a true original with no real comparisons. She sounds like everything else and nothing else at the same time.

Rundle’s arrival at this distinct sound was one of my favorite parts of Marked for Death: more than any artist I’m a fan of, she naturally evolved her style from record to record until reaching what felt like a pinnacle. At the time, I was tempted to call it her masterpiece, and the only thing that stopped me was the thought that she was possibly capable of topping it. With On Dark Horses, she has.

Like her last album, On Dark Horses is all about the slow burn. The songs are methodically paced, which creates space for Rundle to do what she does best: create a mesmerizing atmosphere with her guitar. Her songs tend to simmer and then boil over, the quiet verses giving way to loud choruses and powerful dramatic climaxes. This is basic alternative rock quiet-loud stuff, but the way Rundle executes it feels very different. It never feels like a formula; it’s just the natural path the songs go down as Rundle expresses herself. She balances the quiet and loud aspects of her sound perfectly, creating maximum catharsis in every song.

As a singer, Rundle has the versatility to match her guitar. She and her instrument are always intertwined, and she is capable of singing lovely quiet songs, like “Races,” and also belting out some massive rock choruses like the radio-ready hook on “Dead Set Eyes.” It’s crazy that a few years ago, she was doing instrumental music or burying her voice under layers of guitar. Now she is singing with confidence and seems to know how good she is. That never quite manifests itself in conventional rock frontperson swagger, because that isn’t her style, but it’s a feeling that I get listening to it. If the non-music story of Marked for Death was her finding her sound, the story of On Dark Horses is her expanding on it with complete self-assuredness.

That confidence also translates to her lyrics, which may be the biggest shift from her last album. The words on On Dark Horses are more direct and tangible while retaining the poetic ambiguity that they’ve always had. They also play off some of the expectations formed by Marked for Death, which possibly led some to pigeonhole her as another in a line of tormented doom-and-gloom songwriters. “Light Song” is a love song about her husband (who sings and plays on this album) while “Darkhorse” is an encouraging song to her sister, with the lyric “in the wake of weak beginnings, we can still stand high.” Of course, this album still isn’t peppy or upbeat by any stretch of the imagination, but there is more nuance in it than it might get credit for.

But really, I’m not all that concerned with breaking down the lyrics and trying to figure out the “meaning,” because I think the power of Rundle’s music is in its gray areas and the way it washes over the listener without compelling them to feel a specific way. It fits Rundle’s whole style, which exists outside of all of these artificial borders that get ascribed to artists, where they’re expected to fit into certain invisible categorizable boxes. Over her last couple albums, she has created her own genre, and right now it’s my favorite.

#1: Emma Ruth Rundle – “Marked for Death”

Possibly the most satisfying feeling I get as a music fan is hearing an artist I like become an artist I love. After showing potential with all of her previous work, Emma Ruth Rundle finds her voice as a solo artist on Marked for Death, a stunning album that is brimming with intensity and musicality.

Rundle’s development as an artist has been fun to track for the last few years. I first heard her playing with her band Marriages, and on their debut, Kitsune, she showed a gift for creating gloomy, heavy guitar riffs. But her singing mostly took a backseat on that album to her guitar and was used as an instrument to blend in with the music — it was much more about the atmosphere and mood than the lyrics or Rundle herself. Her solo debut, Some Heavy Ocean, went in more of a folk direction while retaining her ambient style. It was one of my favorite albums from that year, but I sensed Rundle had more in her.

Last year, Marriages released Salome, which put Rundle in a different role from her previous music as a more traditional rock frontwoman. This was when I began to notice her singing and lyrics, which became much more integral to the music, and I noted in last year’s year-end extravaganza how Rundle’s passion and intensity as a singer made that album work.

On Marked for Death, all of her skills crystallize on one album, and the result is spellbinding. While it takes the form of a traditional singer-songwriter album, nothing else quite sounds like this. It all comes back to Rundle’s abilities as an ambient composer: while I feel a lot of folk focuses on lyrics at the expense of sound, the gloomy, haunting landscapes she creates with her guitar make Marked for Death an album that would work even if there were no lyrics or vocals.

Rundle is my favorite kind of guitarist: her instrument feels like an extension of herself, and it’s used on this album to build an atmosphere while creating a cohesive whole with her voice and lyrics. It lurks out of the spotlight and supports the vocals, until it springs out of nowhere like on “Protection,” where it shatters the quiet with a massive, scuzzy riff. Even on the acoustic finale, “Real Big Sky,” Rundle’s guitar has a heaviness to it that gives the song an apocalyptic, doomy feeling.

This album sounds so good (which I know is non-descriptive, but like… it just does) that the lyrics and vocals almost feel like a free bonus. But it’s in these areas where Rundle shows the most improvement from her previous music. Her voice works on a similar level as her guitar: she sings in quiet, hushed tones, but then will show the true power of her vocals when the music gets loud, like at the end of “Heaven.” Her lyrics are obsessed with death and the afterlife, with a lot of religious themes and symbolism, which fits her sound and leaves room for interpretation for the listener.

It’s hard to describe why this album works so well (if you can’t tell), but it started to make sense to me when I watched this performance of Rundle performing in the Oregon woods in a rusty old truck. It’s a perfect setting for her music because it underscores her naturalness as a performer. Marked for Death is so original and different, but it’s not an album where the artist is self-consciously trying to sound like nobody else has ever sounded. Rundle is just being herself, and this album firmly establishes her as one of the most unique and compelling artists in music today.