The List 2018

At the end of each year I make a list of the twenty albums I enjoyed the most. To be eligible, a record has to be of album length (at least ~30 mins), and contain entirely (or almost entirely) new material; live albums, cover records, and compilations are ineligible.

  1. JAGUWAR — Ringthing

Sometimes you need some shoegaze. Or, rather, sometimes I just need a sound I can hide my head inside like a great cloud of candyfloss. The peddles are less aggressively tuned, and the layering of tracks frequently too sparse for this to be considered true shoegaze, but JAGUWAR have put my bloody valentine and Battles in a blender, with a dash of The Cure, and poured something out. Sometimes it sounds amiably mournful (‘Crystal’), sometimes it’s mournfully amiable (‘Away’). In either case, I’ve been happy to spend quite a bit of time with headphones on letting this rain down on me.

  1. John Tejada — Dead Start Program

Headphone electronica from a journeyman of the genre. This is a record that is uneven in terms of its moods, but unflagging in terms of quality. Tempos and timbres alter from track to track — frenetic and impatient on ‘All at Sea’, upbeat and celebratory on ‘Heal’ — but throughout there’s an attention to detail, and a well-honed sense of experimentation that keeps the listener guessing and the rhythms interesting. Album highlight for me since first listen has been the joyously off-kilter ‘Detector’, which seems to dare you to connect either with its cheeky melody or its grimy bass, and then try to marry the two in your mind.

  1. Snail Mail — Lush

I closed last year’s list with a note on my amazement that Jay Som’s Everybody Works had emerged from one woman’s bedroom a finished and singular project. I’d like to reiterate those sentiments here with respect to Lush — I don’t understand how a 19 year old can listen (in all likelihood) to a whole bunch of Sonic Youth and Elliot Smith records, and then produce something this heartfelt and eloquent. Even though, in this instance, she’s playing with a band rather than multi-instrumenting it, the question remains: how does one find one’s artistic voice with such clarity? In particular there are some really nice lyrical moments here that elevate simple but effective song structures to something very memorable.

  1. This Will Destroy You — New Others Part One / Two

I’ve been awaiting a new TWDY release since I discovered their self-titled album a few years ago in a lull between Explosions in the Sky LPs. And that’s what’s on offer here. Given to slightly less bombast than their fellow Texans, but painting with similar colours in a similar style, this is wide open music with a big heart and dreams as big as its regrets.

Two albums by the same band, which share a title, but were released weeks apart. So… you’re not going to let me have both, are you? In which case I choose the slightly more familiar, warm embrace of New Others Part One over the marginally more experimental, slightly rougher-around-the-edges, …Part Two. If only they’d released this as a double album though!

  1. Black Belt Eagle Scout — Mother of My Children

The DNA of this record sounds more complicated to me with each passing listen. What I thought, at first, was a relatively straightforward collection of heartfelt, understated indie-folk started to express different parts of itself the more I replayed the album. There’s some Hole in there somewhere, and some influences or at least similarities with other acts on Saddle Creek. The guitars are by turns strummed or else distorted and contorted. The drums sometimes think they’d like to be on a different album. The vocals are perhaps the most consistent element of the record’s shifting composition, but they’re used to convey lyrics that first burn then soothe; that are twisted with grief, and then adamant with resilience.

All of this starts to make more sense when you learn that the woman behind the record — it’s a solo project by Katherine Paul — identifies as a radical indigenous queer feminist. This is an album that is grown from the soil of both personal losses, and the protests at Standing Rock. It strives to capture something both intimate and universal about loss and change. And from the fuzzed up opener ‘Soft Stud’ to the sad, slight closer ‘Sam, A Dream’, it succeeds again and again.

  1. Oh Pep! — I Wasn’t Only Thinking About You…

Listening to this record calls up for me a history of enjoying the output of Laura Veirs, Azure Ray, Jenny Lewis et al. It’s a lightly whipped mix of indie guitar and personal vocals with the kind of modest scale that means I would rather see them perform at Camden Lock than Brixton Academy. There’s a cute PR backstory about how the two members met by accident and formed a band out of necessity, but the important part is that their twin vocals work superbly well together. The instrumentation is relatively slight, and everything is handled with a deft lightness of touch, counterpointing the sometimes downbeat lyrics. This isn’t a record that demands much of the listener, but provides excellent company whether used as walking-around music, or bright afternoon stereo listening.

  1. Screaming Females — All At Once

The bedrock of Screaming Females’ sound is a combination of moderately treated guitar, fuzzed-up bass, and largely simple-but-effective drums. Theirs is a sound that, if encountered on the radio, would these days leave you guessing which of the last three decades it had come from. The key is doing it well, and this record is proof enough that the formula still works. The band’s marquee attraction comes in the form of Marissa Paternoster’s vocals. There’s a little Kim Deal here, and a dash of Laura Jane Grace: as driving as the guitars, as rough edged as the bass, and as straight-to-business as the drums. The record’s signature attraction for me is her ability to wind the vocal melodies around her own impressive guitar lines.

  1. Tove Styrke — Sway

Pop music! Who doesn’t love (some of) it? Over the years I’ve learned to accept that when a song or album or artist just works for me, I shouldn’t question it, just enjoy it. So, here’s the third album by a Swedish electropop artist I’ve never heard of before.

‘Mistakes’ is a brain limpet of a potency only equalled by a few songs this year; one of them is titled ‘Sway’ and it opens this album with an impossible-to-follow dopamine pop of pure, fleeting pleasure.

Will I still be listening to this album in a couple of years? Unlikely. Did it offer me a lot of unfiltered joy this year? Yes, yes it did.

(For the record, my favourite pop song of the year was probably Ariana Grande’s ‘the light is coming’.)

  1. Young Fathers — Cocoa Sugar

Like most, I first encountered Young Fathers when they won the Mercury in 2014. I’m remiss in not doing my due diligence in the years since, only catching up with their second LP (White Men are Black Men Too (2015)) late. But I was there for the release of Cocoa Sugar, which immediately won a place on this list with its mercurial strangeness. Like a more introverted TV On The Radio, this is a group that seems to make its music by taking a melody or a bass line or a lyric, and twisting it until it deforms into something else.

‘In My View’ is the album highlight, doing something with syncopation and muted vocals that I haven’t heard used as effectively since Woodkid’s ‘Iron’ (2011). But there’s plenty to love and explore here, whether it’s the dark thicket of ‘Wow’ or the upside-down anthem ‘Picking You’ that closes the record. Come for the eye-catching album cover, stay for… whatever is happening sonically here. You’ll get something from it, even if it’s difficult to predict what, exactly.

  1. Say Sue Me — Where We Were Together

If a Korean band release a pop record, is it K-pop? Actually, this couldn’t be further from the hyper-stylised output that’s increasingly making its presence felt in western charts. This is as good a collection of understated pop-verging-into-rock songs as any I heard this year. It’s warm and enthusiastic, and cribs from a whole range of western pop influences going back as far as maybe the Beach Boys. The production also has a glow to it that I really like, making it sound at times like elements were recorded in a large room, whilst the vocals remain up close and personal - sometimes barely above a whisper. The effortless, propulsive ’Old Town’ and ‘I Just Wanna Dance’ are where the record really shines, but epic closer ‘Coming to the End’ also deserves a shout out for hinting at ambition the rest of the album hadn’t showcased.

  1. GoGo Penguin — A Humdrum Star

I cheated a bit when searching for a way to describe GoGo Penguin (who are new to me this year despite several records and a Mercury nomination in their past). Here’s a quote pulled from their official site:

Their music has been described as acoustic-electronica but they draw equally on rock, jazz and minimalism, game soundtracks and glitchy-electronica…

I’m sure that enables you to guess precisely what this record sounds like (if you haven’t heard it). For me the closest touchstone is perhaps Portico Quartet in their original incarnation, before they discovered synths. ‘Transient State’ almost runs away with itself, but deceptively complex jazz drumming keeps the piano just about in check. ‘Reactor’ rides its funky bass line down a series of tilting corridors, and ends up somewhere interesting. Sub 3-minute tracks sit alongside 8-minute plus odysseys, as this group of fine musicians seem to just enjoy exploring where they can take their sound.

  1. DOTT — Heart Swell

There’s nothing new or particularly inventive about this record. I haven’t gone back through the band’s catalogue, but I’m guessing they have been doing more or less exactly this for a while. Power-chord pop, lightly treated vocals, bouncy bass lines, sometimes over-enthusiastic drum fills. They’re simple proof that these particular mines still have some gems left in them to find.

Opener ‘Bleached Blonde’ is a clarion call for enthusiasm, requesting that the listener throw caution to the wind and their arms to the sky. ’Like A Girl’ is a feminist anthem in the making (with a fun video to match). The stand out, for me, is the almost-too-simple ‘How Do I Feel?’: under 2 minutes of pop perfection that could have been released any year since the mid 50s, but still fresh sounding after it has been playing in my head all day.

  1. Middle Kids — Lost Friends

Every year I have at least one record full of three minute pop songs. This year it comes from an Australian trio, and it’s a little more emotionally diverse than perhaps is usual. ‘On My Knees’ is raucous and built for festival crowds, ‘Hole’ is plaintive, ‘Please’ is anthemic and optimistic, and ‘Mistake’ just might be my favourite song of the whole year (it’s certainly among the most infectious).

Hannah Joy’s vocals are characterised by a strength shot through with wavering vulnerability, and it feels as though the rest of the band’s sound has been modelled around it. This is a sweet record, but one with bruises. Its heart is on its sleeve, and it wants to link arms with you and sing together.

  1. Shinya Fukumori Trio — For 2 Akis

You might be expecting by now that each of my lists comes with a token jazz record. I listened to less of the genre than I would have liked this year, with only a handful of releases really breaking through. The most notable amongst them, and the one I played more than any other by some margin, was this debut offering by the Japanese drummer’s newly-formed ensemble. Subtle, creative percussion; sweet, explorative tenor saxophone; contemplative piano. I could listen to this sound all day, preferably on headphones so as to get the most out of the record’s production, which allows each instrument a lot of space and the listener room enough to wander between them.

  1. Low — Double Negative

Low are a band that sit squarely within my pile of shame. Formed in 1993, and with no fewer than eleven albums preceding this one, I’ve paid criminally little attention to them if this record is anything to judge by. My guess however (and it is just a guess, since I haven’t done the legwork), is that they weren’t making music that sounded like this in the mid-90s. I could be wrong, but in particular the use of decayed samples here seems very much of the moment.

I love everything about this record, starting with the art direction, and on through its warm production, its subtle instrumentation, and the dreamy texture of the vocals. (This is also my headphone album of the year!) I feel like there’s at least one record every year that I say this about, but every moment of Double Negative speaks to a band at full command of their powers, masterfully employing every tool at their disposal to get the sound in their heads onto tape. On every listen through, 49 minutes flies by and I’m left wanting to re-experience the whole thing.

  1. Beacon — Gravity Pairs

Here’s a case of first-listen certainty. In fact, arguably, this was a near lock for the list after I had heard only the leading single ‘Be My Organ’, which remains among my favourite tracks of the year.

This is an electronica of smooth, reflective surfaces, that also makes use of acoustic instrumentation (notably piano) to augment it. Layered on top are subtle vocals that are almost played like an additional instrument rather than being the focal point of any of the tracks. It’s melancholy stuff in places (eg. ‘Bending Light’), but many of the melodies are quite beautiful. The group’s most valuable talent seems to be a sense of exactly when to modulate emotions either within individual tracks, or over the album as a whole. As a result Gravity Pairs fits together like a polished crystal - smooth to the touch, but full of fragments and distortions.

  1. Elohim — Elohim

Here’s a slightly confusing situation. You may recall that the number 3 spot on 2016’s list was held by Elohim’s self-titled debut album. At the time she was very much talking about it as her first album, but at some point since has decided it was a 10-track EP. To make matters worse, this year she released what she now considers her debut LP… and gave it the same title.

Forget all of that. It makes no difference to the fact that ‘I Want You’ is light and breezy electronic pop of the highest order, ‘F**k Your Money’ is understated and darkly sly, and ‘Panic Attacks’ is an exquisite club anthem with the volume turned waaaaay down.

As far as I’m concerned, Elohim can make whatever she wants and title it whatever she likes. After these two releases, I’ll be there to find out how it gets weirder.

(PS. I really wanted to put this at number 3, just for the symmetry, but…)

  1. Takeleave — Inner Sea

In a year without an album release from my soul’s resident musician Submerse, to whom am I to turn for premium grade liminal electronica™? This is literally the thought process that found me listening to everything Berlin label Project Mooncircle put out this year. And among a veritable bevy of delights I was relieved and overjoyed to find this from Takeleave. It shifts, it glows, it washes over you in waves timed to your slowing heartbeat. Call it downtempo house, or ambient techno, or broken beats… I don’t mind. This is the sound I need to frequently bathe my brain in, and it was so nice to find someone else making it.

  1. Anna Burch — Quit the Curse

On her debut record, Anna Burch sounds like the finished article. And she’s bringing along a complex melding of folk, art-rock, indie, and old-fashioned pop hooks. I don’t know how she got surf-adjacent guitar to sit alongside Pavement vocal stylings. Maybe if Ben Kweller and Lana Del Ray covered Surfer Blood, and you played it back at 2/3 speed it would sound like this?

However she’s managing to do it, and make it sound effortless, Quit The Curse is a very pretty record with its makeup smudged, wearing the same clothes it wore yesterday. I could listen to it all day. Try ‘2 Cool 2 Care’ and ‘In Your Dreams’ and you’ll either fall head over heels for it, or discover your heart has been hardened against all the world’s beauty.

  1. AAL (Against All Logic) — 2012-2017

OK, this is where the fun begins. First of all, don’t be fooled by the artist’s name: this is a new record by Nicolas Jaar, working under one of his many monikers — presumably to avoid being pigeonholed. His previous release, Sirens (2016), was one I struggled with leaving off my list for that year. I had no such internal conflict with this one; right from the first time I heard it (in February), I knew that 2012-2017 would make the final cut.

Where I do need to make special pleading, arguably, is the fact that some of the work here has appeared within continuous mixes that Jaar has done for various outlets over the last couple of years. Many tracks are entirely new, but portions of a few have cropped up before. Nevertheless, this is the first time any of the work has been released in record format, so I’m claiming it.

This is precisely at the epicentre of one of my favourite electronica subgenres: endlessly exploratory, and happy to bring in influences from all over the musical spectrum to colour its own sound. Opener ‘This Old House Is All I Have’ twists blues into the mix, album highlight ’Know You’ hijacks soul and funk… and so on. But the record’s sound is also miraculously cohesive and quite singular, providing consistent thrills throughout. Some of music’s most thrilling moments of 2018 are contained herein for me, and they’re couched in a shifting bed of melody that I was absolutely entranced by.

• • •

Notable Mentions (aka the next 30, in alphabetical order)

  • The Beths — Future Me Hates Me
  • The Breeders — All Nerve
  • Cat Power — Wanderer
  • Chastity — Death Lust
  • Cosmic Thoughts — Work Night Out
  • CUTS — A Gradual Decline
  • Lucy Dacus — Historian
  • Djrum — Portrait With Firewood
  • Father John Misty — God’s Favorite Customer
  • Forth Wanderers — Forth Wanderers
  • GoGo Penguin — A Humdrum Star
  • Mass Gothic — I’ve Tortured You Long Enough
  • Holly Miranda — Mutual Horse
  • Nas — NASIR
  • Prefuse 73 — Sacrifices
  • Profligate — Somewhere Else
  • Proud Parents — Proud Parents
  • Rejoicer — Energy Dreams
  • Rival Consoles — Persona
  • Robyn — Honey
  • Caroline Rose — Loner
  • Jeff Rosenstock — POST–
  • Ross From Friends — Family Portrait
  • Superchunk — What A Time To Be Alive
  • TSVI — Inner Worlds
  • Tangents — New Bodies
  • Tanukichan — Sundays
  • Throwing Snow — Loma
  • Tirzah — Devotion

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