We live in a world that is more connected than ever thanks to technological innovations over the past 20 years. Through this blog alone, I’ve been able to interact and connect with fellow music lovers from Britain, Canada, and even Iceland. It was only a matter of time before a group of musicians from around the globe decided to use the power of the internet and collaborative applications to create an album together, all while being on different continents.
Superorganism is a fitting name for a band composed of eight members from around the globe, ranging from New Zealand to Japan, from Britain to the United States. The result is a debut that is an amalgam of creative energies. Their powers congeal into one gleaming bolt of energy, the songs lighthearted, filled with joyful melodies and silly lyricism. Superorganism’s debut is what it would sound like if the Disneyland’s “Small World” children grew up and combined their positive energy for world pop domination.
19. Pusha T
[G.O.O.D. Music; 2018]
2018 was a busy year for Kanye West. Besides his latest release, he also produced albums for Nas, Kids See Ghosts, and Teyana Taylor. None of these albums matched their hype (some were unlistenable), but his album with Pusha T, Daytona, would be proof that the MAGA hat wearing maniac still has some tricks up his sleeve.
Perhaps the album’s success is due to its focus, clocking in at 21-minutes over the course of seven tracks. Besides a few verbal offerings, Kanye takes a backseat, allowing Pusha T to take the lead with his commanding lyrical delivery. Pusha takes aim at rivals like Lil Wayne, Drake, and even Donald Trump, but he also has moments of introspection, mostly notably “Santeria” where he reflects on the murder of his road manager, De’Von Pickett. It’s fitting that Kanye was at his best in 2018 when he shut up and let someone else take the lead on one of his staple soul sampling, hip-hop tracks.
18. Jeff Tweedy
Earlier this year, Pitchfork.com named Prince’s Purple Rain the number one album of the 80s, and while it may seem weird giving such an honor to a soundtrack, it’s deserved. Jeff Tweedy’s 2018 album is also a soundtrack, although this isn’t your standard film score – WARM is a soundtrack for his 2018 memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), and the results are some of his most intimate songs to date.
Tweedy has always presented songs with an emotional core, but in most cases, he has danced around them with witty word play and metaphor. On WARM, those wounds are on full display with his lyrics delving into darker terrain. On “Bombs Away” he reflects on his time in rehab. “How Hard It Is For a Desert to Die” is a straight-faced look at the recent death of his father. But the most brutal and riveting song on the album is “Having Been is Way to Be” where he directs his ire at former fans of his band Wilco, singing, “Now people say what drugs did you take?/ And why don’t you start taking them again?” On WARM, a clear-eyed Tweedy is more riveting than ever.
17. Seun Kuti & Egypt 80
Back in the 70s, Seun Kuti’s father, Fela Kuti, used his music to create a political movement, speaking out against the corruption of the Nigerian government and providing the people of Africa with a battle cry against corruption and oppression. Having a famous musician as a father is difficult enough, but having Fela Kuti as your father is even a bigger yoke to carry. Regardless, on his 2018 release, Black Times, Seun Kuti shows that he’s up to the gargantuan task.
If you’ve ever listened to Fela Kuti, you’ll quickly recognize the acrobat sounds on Black Times. Seun isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel; in fact, his backup band on the album is Egypt 80, the legendary troupe that backed up his father decades ago. The sounds may be reminiscent of the past, but Seun takes his political ire into the modern age. While many of his messages focus on the struggles of his people in Africa, many themes parallel with issues that have risen since the emergence of the Alt-Right here in the states. On the title track, Seun gives a battle cry to minorities, singing, “Let the black light shine your path,/Let it guide your path.” On other tracks, he speaks passionately over the spirited melodies, calling out corporate greed, crooked politicians, and economic oppression. Seun may have taken up his father’s battle cry for the people of Africa, but his music speaks to a world that has gotten a lot darker.
What a Time To Be Alive
When Donald Trump was elected president, many people on social media had the horrible first take of “Well, at least some great music will come out of this!” Looking across the musical landscape 1 ½ years into his presidency, and those great new protest artists are few and far between (although a couple have made this list). Indie rock stalwarts Superchunk looked around at the lack of response from the music community and decided if the kids weren’t going to speak out, the old folks would have to lead the charge.
On What a Time To Be Alive, Mac and the gang take on a multitude of issues, from small mindedness to bigotry to crony politics, but it’s all handled with enough metaphor and allusion that it doesn’t hammer the listener over the head with rhetoric (we’re looking at you, Neil Young). It’s fitting that the title includes the word “alive” because the band hasn’t sounded this energized since the late 90s. They’ve released some enjoyable material, but this one is a step above with Mac’s voice sounding as ornery as it did back when he squealed “Slack Motherfucker.” Thanks to another orange-skinned slack motherfucker, Superchunk has returned to their finest form.
15. Young Fathers
[Ninja Tune; 2018]
In the past few years, some of the most innovative and interesting music has come out of the world of R&B thanks in large part to artists like Frank Ocean, Kelela, and Miguel opening the genre up to new possibilities. One of the strongest acts to emerge in 2018 is the Scottish trio Young Fathers. They refer to themselves as a rap group, but as evidenced by their 2018 release Cocoa Sugar, they are so much more.
One element that makes Cocoa Sugar such an enjoyable listen is the unexpected twists and turns the songs take you on, ranging from gospel to funk to trip-hop. But this isn’t an ode to classic sounds; if I had to pick one word to describe this album it would be “modern.” This is what we imagined the future would sound like back in 1990 – alien yet soulful, uncomfortable yet strangely melodic. At times it sounds like TV On the Radio; at other times it is reminiscent of a soulful Animal Collective. Needless to say, this album refuses to follow expectations, and the result is an adventurous journey into a faraway planet’s wilderness.
Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
Deafheaven have always been a polarizing figure in the black metal scene, and their 2018 release, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, is their most controversial effort yet. The San Francisco band has always remained tethered to some of black metals tenets (breakneck drums, lo-fi guitars, and caterwauling vocals), but this time around, the vocals are the only remnant of their black metal past.
In fact, I would categorize the band’s work on this album as leaning more towards the grandeur of Queen than the chaos of Burzum. Don’t get me wrong, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is still as gut-wrenching and thrashing as ever, but the songs reveal themselves with pomp and circumstance. When purists balked at Deafheaven years ago, the band could have righted the ship and tried to earn the respect of the metalheads. Instead, they’ve doubled-down on their experimentations with genre, and the results are, dare I say, beautiful.
13. Tony Molina
Kill the Lights
Short songs have often been relegated to the world of punk rock. Bands like The Minutemen, The Descendents, and Guided By Voices basked in their ability to get you singing along with their punk-pop melodies in under two-minutes. Northern California native Tony Molina has also mastered the art of pop-gem morsels, but what makes his work on Kill the Lights more remarkable is that he’s able to pull it off without high-speed riffs, manic drums, or distortion.
Perhaps Molina mastered his concise songwriting while playing in hardcore bands like Ovens, Violent Changed, and Caged Animals, because not one second is wasted on the 10 song, 14 minute album. You would think songs that clock in at under 2 minutes would be lacking complexity, but Molina and his band are able to bring in more variation than you would imagine, creating arrangements that hearken back to 1960s rock and roll of bands like The Byrds, the Beach Boys, and The Beatles. Within these nostalgic lullabies, Molina ruminates on lost love and precisely captures his heartbreak in less characters than you can fit in a tweet. Molina is an artist for the age we live in, creating short masterpieces for short attention spans.
12. Amen Dunes
[Sacred Bones; 2018]
Over the course of his first three albums, Damon McMahon’s records were quintessentially Sacred Bones: grainy, smokey, and dark. He established his talents as a songwriter on those efforts, but 2018’s Freedom is Mcmahon stepping out from the shadows – the dissonance and reverb replaced by a breezy sheen.
The result of this shift in approach is an album that is more direct and confrontational. No longer is McMahon hiding between metaphor and lofi production; his tired voice is front and center as smooth organs and lazy rhythms carry him over the course of an 11 song psychiatry session. The songs unapologetically speak of illness, drugs, death, and religion. Freedom is a turning point for McMahon, revealing himself, flawed and all, and for the first time, truly connecting with listeners on a personal level.
11. Kamasi Washington
Heaven and Earth
[Young Turks; 2018]
Three years ago Kamasi Washington lit a spark underneath the jazz world when he released his three-hour debut, The Epic. Since then he’s released a couple decent EPs, but it seemed that the saxophonist and composer had exhausted himself of his mammoth ideas. Based off the two and half hour 2018 release, Heaven and Earth, this man still has a lot of otherworldly jazz sounds floating around in his head.
The double album plays in two diads. The Earth portion focuses on the world as we know it, lyrics speaking of standing up against injustice, the music urgent and lively like thee streets of New York City or a school of fish darting in-sync. Once again he dabbles from a wide array of palettes, a little Latin beat here, a touch of blaxploitation there, and a hefty dose of saxophone throughout. The Heaven portion of the album is delivered in a more serene manner, the strings sprawling, the pianos watery, the horns a whisper on the wind. This portion of the album takes on a more introspective, inward course, playing the calm after the storm. But even in its softer moments, the album as a whole emits a spirit of joy – joy in living, joy in improvisation, joy in the possibilities of tomorrow and the great beyond.
10. Anna Von Hausswolff
[City Slang; 2018]
Don’t be fooled by Dead Magic’s 12-minute lullaby opener “The Truth, The Glow, The Fall” – this album is anything but a peaceful venture. Swedish songwriter Anna Von Hausswolff has been creating goth-tinged art for the past eights years, but Dead Magic is so much more than an experimentation. It is a fully realized journey into the darkened corners of our consciousness. Strap in.
The music on Dead Magic may be propelled by Hausswolff’s playing of a 20th century church organ in a Copenhagen church, yet the true star of the show is her voice – one part Kate Bush, one part PJ Harvey, one part rabid hyena. She howls. She screeches. She bellows. All the while her musical explorations go deeper and deeper into the abyss, the dissonance and decay dripping from each tattered tapestry. All the while, Hausswolff plays the mad witch, conjuring up murky melodies that crash against each other in agony, rising and falling in dramatic fashion. There are many talented artists exploring the darker side of music, but Hausswolff somehow summons beauty out of the chaos and despair. Dead Magic is one stunning nightmare.
RAM 7: August 1791
[Willibelle Publishing & Sales; 2018]
You wouldn’t know it by listening to Richard Auguste Morse’s work with his band RAM, but he actually got his start as a punk rocker in New Jersey. It wasn’t until he moved to his father’s homeland, Haiti, that he began to rethink his music. He would go on to christen the percussive mix of post-punk, funk, and vodou traditions “mizik raisin” and master this blend over the past 25 years.
Morse leaned into his heritage even more on 2018’s RAM 7: August 1791, reworking traditional songs and singing songs about the 1791 slave revolt. The result is a celebratory album, filled with infectious melodies and irresistible beats. Donald Trump may have called Morse’s homeland a “shit-hole country” in 2018, but based on the music on RAM 7: August 1791, Haiti sure sounds like a joyful, lively place.
Be the Cowboy
[Dead Oceans; 2018]
Many fans were worried when Mitski warned them on social media that her 2018 album Be the Cowboy wouldn’t be as personal as her past work. Instead, Mitski took on the persona of a married woman. This may sound like a mis-step on the surface, but Mitski rises to the occasion, singing songs just as introspective and painful as her past work.
Her 2016 effort, Puberty 2, was a distorted, often angry album, but for Be the Cowboy, the production is much more sheen and glossy like the inauthentic marriage revealed in the lyrics. On the surface, she sings of mundane things like laundry, coffee, and high heels, but laced within this uniform imagery is real heartache and yearning for a different life. By the time the final track, “Two Slow Dancers”, arrives, the couple has begrudgingly accepted their predicament, aging and far from the youthful lovers that started the journey together. Time changes everything – even love.
7. Hermit and the Recluse
Orpheus vs. the Sirens
[Obol For Charon; 2018]
Several years ago, rapper Ka was in the media’s crosshairs when it was discovered that the 46-year-old MC was also a New York City fire chief. The salacious New York Post article focused on his anti-cop lyrics, forcing the otherwise outspoken lyricist to take a break from making music. Perhaps that explains why he returned in 2018 under a new pseudonym, Hermit and the Recluse.
Alongside producer Animoss and his woozy production, Ka tells his tale via mythological allusions on the album Orpheus vs. the Sirens. Using the story of Orpheus and his journey to rescue with his wife from Hades, Ka unravels his own tortured story. In mythology the Sirens are creatures that lure sailors with their songs, but in Ka’s mythological world, the sirens are those of the police: “We at war with the tyrants/ Blocks of outlaws, but all we watch out for is the Sirens.” Much like Orpheus, Ka refuses to back down from a challenge.
6. Damien Jurado
The Horizon Just Laughed
[Secretly Canadian; 2018]
Damien Jurado has been consistently solid for over 20 years now, but oftentimes reliability can lead to boredom from an audience looking for the next big thing. I hate to admit that this happened to me with Jurado. I own a string of his albums from the early 2000s, but began to lose interest when I started to feel that each album was more of the same. In a way, I was correct – he has always delivered well crafted acoustic songs filled with emotion and vivid imagery. He has rarely strayed outside the lines of what he’s good at, and as a result, many listeners (including myself) have taken advantage of his talents. 2018’s The Horizon Just Laughed is not only a reminder of this underappreciated songwriter, but it might just be his best album yet.
Musically, the album is more of what we’ve come to expect from Jurado – soft strumming, lush orchestration, and straight-forward vocals. The biggest difference is found in the narrator. In the past, Jurado often relied on character-driven stories, but The Horizon Just Laughed, for the most part, is an autobiographical tale. As Jurado travels across the country, he vividly describes little pieces of Americana – from Nebraska to Maine, sleeping in a car in Colorado, admiring the Brooklyn skyline, stuck in a train station, and Seattle where “They’ve now put a trademark on rain”. Moments are captured in stream-of-consciousness menageries, each detail like a photograph, painting the setting, the characters, and the emotions of our trusty guide. The Horizon Just Laughed is an album of meditation, introspection, and mid-life confusion.
Devouring Radiant Light
When lead singer Chance Garnette left Skeletonwitch mid-tour back in 2014, many foresaw the band’s demise. Not only did the Ohio band not pack up, they returned with vocalist Adam Clemans, and the new union has resulted in their best work to date, Devouring Radiant Light.
To be honest, Cleman’s vocals aren’t that much different than Garnette’s, but for some reason, Skeletonwitch sounds like a completely different band this time around. In the past their songs clocked in at under three minutes; on Devouring Radiant Light there are four songs that reach past the seven minute mark. The drums and guitars are as volatile as ever, but the songs don’t always stampede out the gates. Instead, they meander in the pasture for a spell, building up the tension before the eventual bull rush. Historically, a change in singers usually doesn’t work out for bands, but Skeletonwitch seems to have been liberated by the change and might even be having a little bit of fun.
4. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
[Sub Pop; 2018]
If I were to say my favorite band of the last few years, it would definitely be the Australian jangle rock band Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever. The fact that their 2018 release Hope Downs is their first actual full-length album makes me feel a bit stupid for making the former proclamation. My allegiance grew based off their first two EPs on Sub Pop, but the band truly shows their worth on their full-length effort, Hope Downs. Not only did they not disappoint, but they upped their game.
On their first two EPs, Rolling Blackouts CF established themselves as masters of melody, making them compact, six song albums to visit again and again and again. That same ability to catch your earworm is still prevalent on Hope Downs, but the songs are more complex in nature, the guitars buzzing around the sweet melody hive in a jam band sprint. The songs are tightly compressed machines, but the multiple guitars bounce buoyantly in the background, keeping each song fresh and begging for repeated listens.
3. Parquet Courts
[Rough Trade; 2018]
Over the course of Parquet Court’s first three albums, the band drew critical acclaim for their ability to conjure up post-punk sounds of the late 70s. Those retro sounds still reign supreme on their 2018 release, Wide Awake!, but there is a mounting energy bubbling throughout the album that wasn’t always present on past work. This undercurrent of fluidity may be a result of producer Danger Mouse, although working with Daniele Luppi last year on the album Milano probably didn’t hurt. This is a dance album of yore, live instrumentation sweltering the dance floor into a sweating mass of hysteria.
The album is also the band’s most overtly political effort, although they avoid resorting to name-calling the deplorables and bigots. Instead, the band takes the high-ground, discussing issues in a way that is timeless and incisive. The band takes on a multitude of hot button issues ranging from gun control (“Violence”), global warming (“Before the Water Gets Too High”), and white supremacy (“Normalization”). Anger often permeates the lyrics, but the warm guitar tones and upbeat rhythms are a galvanizing force, building to the crux of the album on “Back to Earth”: “Get love where you find it/ It’s the only fist we have to fight with.” In a time where we are inundated with a news-feed of corruption, intolerance, and violence, Wide Awake! is an energizing force, reminding us all to stay alert in these troubling times.
[Bella Union; 2018]
Back in 1975 when Bruce Springsteen released his signature anthem “Born to Run”, we were living in simpler times. Sure, there was Watergate and the oil crisis and the Vietnam War, but the only problem facing the young tramps in the song was the urge to get away from the constraints of their hometown. Ezra Furman’s Transangelic Exodus tells a similar story of star-crossed lovers trying to escape, but the album strays beyond the simplistic themes of “Born To Run”, delving into more contemporary topics such as mental illness, homosexuality, and unavoidable damnation.
Furman has been espousing the homosexual perspective for years, donning the stage in a dress, lipstick, and spitting out acerbic lyrics in his raspy tenor, but Transangelic Exodus is a step beyond his punk-pop efforts. In this opus of a concept album, two insecure lovers are on the run from a mental institution. His partner in crime is an angel, broken wing and all. The angel is one part fallen super hero, one part metaphor, and one part a figment of the narrator’s imagination. The duo’s trip takes them all across the country, from Los Angeles to Nebraska, from childhood homes to an abandoned beach house, and all the while, guilt and fear looms in the not so far distance. The journey plays out like a metaphor for life, Furman revealing some of his own personal struggles along the way. As the chorus of “Maraschino Red Dress” states: “Sometimes you go through hell and you never get to heaven.”
[Sub Pop; 2018]
For 25 years, Low has been creating their distinctive atmospheric slowcore, a mix of echoing guitars and heavenly, harmonized vocals. But times have changed. 2018 was a year of endless, disheartening headlines, and a constant blurring between fact and fiction. Instead of providing a calming escape from the madness, Low released Double Negative – a distorted, disjointed exploration of the disorienting days we are living in.
Mimi Rodger’s beautiful voice is still prevalent on Double Negative, but for the most part, it is drenched in a corroding mix of feedback and static. When the songs aren’t cracking, popping, and gurgling, they are simply haunting, the ominous voices filling the void with dread. The album is a statement on a world where the truth gets distorted everyday and the escalating noise on the album certainly emulates the echo chamber we’ve found ourselves in. If there’s any hope to be culled from this demoralizing, decayed album, it’s the emergence of those heavenly voices in the final track, singing a message of brittled hope, “Too late to look back on apocryphal verse/ And to be something beyond kinder than words.”