Two years into his presidency, musicians have formed a consensus about Donald Trump: he’s a subpar president whose style of governing leaves much to be desired. Most of them don’t seem to care for his behavior one bit, and I don’t blame them. I don’t like to get too political, but heck, I’ll just say it: I don’t really enjoy Donald Trump as president either. I’ve been underwhelmed by much of his decision-making and have yet to really be blown away by anything he’s done. In fact, I think there’s a very real chance he’ll go down in history as one of our least great presidents.
Right when Trump got elected, there was a lot of chatter about how great it would be for art, as all of the brave artists would rally to “stick it to the man” and make their best work while suffering terribly. I was a bit more skeptical. I don’t think a bunch of assholes running the country is the sort of thing that spurs creativity and I’m familiar with how artists get when they feel like they need to “speak their truth” about current events. So I knew what we were really in for: a lot of songs that preach to the choir, pretending to be really daring while having an ineffectual “Trump stinks, maaaaaaaannnnnnn” tone. When I hear songs like this, I understand for a moment why the GOP is so passionate about cutting funding to the arts.
Everyone knows I’m not the type to rip into specific artists and mock their craft. That isn’t what this blog is about, and I would never use this space to add more negativity into the world. So I won’t bash specific artists (like, say, The 1975) for making music that I feel is about pandering to people with obvious talking points. Instead, like always, I want to focus on the positive: an artist who has managed to make music about these times that resonates without resorting to condescending lyrics and false bravado.
The album I’m talking about here is Julia Holter’s Aviary. When it came time to rank my favorite albums at the end of the year, this was the hardest one to peg because it had so much going on and it was hard to tell if I liked the music or just liked the process of listening to the music (I have no idea if this makes sense). Clocking in at a ridiculous 90 minutes, it’s an album that clearly is making a point through excess. There is an unreasonable amount going on even in each song, they all seem to run a little too long, and there are way too many of them. It’s not quite impenetrable, but it asks a lot of anyone listening to it.
This is all reminiscent of what living in 2018 is like, where there is a lot of overstimulation and it becomes difficult to tell what is real and what matters, particularly when it comes to political news. Her twist is to turn all that mind-numbing chaos and noise into something beautiful so that the album also functions as an escapist fantasy world, similar to Björk’s Utopia. Aviary has a lot to say about life right now, but it always shows the listener instead of telling. All of its moods are conveyed through sound and feeling.
What I come back to with Holter’s album is how it challenged the listener and rewarded them for putting in the effort. Because it was this mountain to climb, I wanted to keep listening and thinking about it until I made it to the top. Music that is explicitly about Trump could never hope to accomplish that unique feeling because the artist has chosen to anchor themselves to the type of tired commentary heard on Saturday Night Live. An album like Aviary, on the other hand, understands there is no value in telling people what they already know.
The appeal of the obvious topical music is that it is perceived to be offering a window into these times and capturing a certain mood of the populace. I have never really bought into that as a reason to praise music. Every artist is living in the present and on albums like Aviary, those traits organically came out because she was channeling her experiences and mindset into art. That holds true for every artist, even if they’re making shoegaze music with no discernible lyrics. There are many more ways to comment on life and society than quoting Trump’s Access Hollywood tape in your song.
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 – EndlessWaves
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.