Top 10 Albums of 2018
While it’s still acceptable to look back at the previous year, this and the next post will be somewhat more retrospective than I normally am or will be. But nonetheless, nothing says good (and easy) content like a top 10 list, so here is my top 10 albums of 2018. Apart from my album of the year, these are all in no particular order, so yeah. On with it.
Noname – Room 25
It’s hard to work your way to the top of a scene like hip hop and remain as weirdly humble an individual as Noname is. In every live performance you can find online, she comes across as the most relaxed person in the world, and this part of her personality has found its way into her style of writing in this really special way. Her delivery has this laid-back feel that turns even the most serious bars on this album into feeling like she’s just having a one-to-one conversation with you. On some of the more relaxed tracks like the opener, Self, it’s almost as if she’s whispering these lyrics in your ear. This is also helped by the fact that Noname often talks about very personal topics, that one would expect to be spoken in a soft voice over a cup of coffee somewhere.
Of course, these wonderful vocals are complemented by intricate, almost delicate sounding instrumentals. There’s a great quote by former Vampire Weekend guitarist Rostam which I think sums up what I enjoy about this album. In his episode of Song Exploder, he said that “groove is defined by its imperfections”. That’s really what I think makes this album a breath of fresh air. This whole album sounds like real people made it from front to back. From the driving pocket the rhythm section produces, to the lush string arrangements that flitter in and out at the exact right moments, it’s a hip hop album that has an intensely real feeling to it. Had this album come out a few decades earlier in the golden age of vinyl, you can imagine this being a staple in people’s collections. This album brings a groove and a feeling that can only really be achieved by a group of people who know each-other and their styles well, and given the Chicago representation on the whole project, I can imagine that’s exactly what’s happening.
Having mentioned Chicago, this brings me to features on this album. Noname clearly makes an effort to recruit local Chicago artists that she’s worked with personally. This is part of the reason tracks like Ace has that energy of the three vocalists working off eachother, instead of just taking turns to have verses. Lots of the most effective feature moments on Room 25 are actually sung performances as opposed to rapped ones. For example, Phoelix’s lush harmonies on Window really make that hook stick out amongst a lot of really good songwriting. Another great example is Smino’s ridiculously catchy chorus on Ace.
Overall, Room 25 is a passionate, personal project that has really set the bar for a lot of what people should expect a good rap record to sound like. One of the things I really enjoy about listening to good music is the writer’s ability to give you a piece of their experience and let you live it. I’ve never been to Chicago, and I’m about as far as it gets from a 25 year old woman of colour, but for that 34 minutes of run-time, you are really able to walk in Noname’s shoes for a while. I can’t find the original tweet, but someone on Twitter said Noname’s music is for people with too many plants in their house. As someone who has a reasonable number of plants around, I heartily endorse this message.
Polyphia – New Levels New Devils
This album, and by extension band, totally snuck up on me. I went from knowing absolutely nothing about them, to their 2017 banger Goose pop up on Spotify one time. Suddenly, I’m checking out this new album, and before I know it I’ve watched every single tour video, playthrough video, bought tickets to their tour and transcribed a bunch of their stuff in the space of a week. And I don’t quite know how any of this happened.
I like to think I’m someone who likes a whole different range of music (and I’m aware everyone says that) but I also think that’s why I’m drawn to this album. There’s a weird middle ground this album strikes with so many genre disciplines. Not necessarily genres because it’s still a metal album at its core, but there are definitely elements of it that have heavily borrowed from hip hop culture that makes it that much better. For example, it has a real heavy emphasis on production not just as something to polish off an instrumental song, but almost as an artistic impression in itself. There’s a great video where Tim Henson breaks down two of the riffs off of the album, and the whole thing is steeped in hip hop influence, mainly citing artists like Kanye West and Jaden Smith. This idea of artistic production methods shows up all over the album, like on the opener Nasty where the guitars get really heavily pitch shifted and put through vocoder-like effects. On tracks like Drown and G.O.A.T, they use a huge palette of sound to back up what is really solid playing and writing.
Another element they’ve taken from the hip-hop scene, and in my opinion, what makes this album so good is how they feature other guitarists throughout the album. Instrumentalists tend to have a voice in the same way as vocalists do, and if your basis isn’t strong enough in terms of writing, the sound can grow tiresome and repetitive really quickly. This is a great solution to this problem, bringing in all sorts of world class players, who in turn bring their own unique styles into the mix. Whether it’s Mateus Asato’s almost abstract, whammy-bar playing the virtually transcends the instrument, Yvette Young’s signature two hand tapping melodies or CHON’s style of melody writing, there are guest solos that bring such a variety in the way that the aforementioned Noname album does with bring different rappers onto tracks.
I’ve gotten this far into this without even mentioning how ridiculously skilled Polyphia are as players. They’re all top of their game in their respective fields, and it shows. This album combines the technical finesse of a great metal album, with the swagger and attention to atmosphere of a great rap record. It’s really really good.
Big Red Machine – Self Titled
I almost went the entire year without hearing this album, and had I not randomly glanced at Twitter once, I may never have even known this project existed. This is a collaboration between Justin Vernon, famous for fronting Bon Iver, and The National’s Aaron Dessner. I know far less about The National than I do Bon Iver so I’m coming from this as someone who thoroughly enjoyed 22, A Million, the last Bon Iver album. To me, it feels like more of what made that album great; strong melodic writing the whole way through, and just great songwriting as a whole. Where 22AM is helped by its’ somewhat glitchy aesthetic, this takes that foundation and gives it a far more analogue feel. Tracks like People Lullaby have this big, haunting feel with absolutely minimal instrumentation on it. Hymnostic has a similar dirty, honest sounding feel to it, with one of Justin’s best vocal performances across all of his various projects. Let alone this song, there are moments where Justin is able to go way harder than something like Bon Iver would often allow him to. Speaking of the vocals, I do feel like one of the drawbacks of the album is that it is only Justin singing throughout. I don’t know how much of a singer Aaron is, but I do feel like some variation would make this feel like far more of a collaborative project. But that’s not to take away from how well formed this is as an album. Every song offers a unique writing or production quirk, but everything just flows and feels like a cohesive piece of art.
Plini – Sunhead
While technically an EP, Sunhead achieves a whole lot in four tracks, and is so sheerly enjoyable from front to back that I thought I needed to include it.
Plini always was a bedroom artist by circumstance, but it seems like he’s really taken ownership of it, and is now a bedroom artist very much by intention. Even in his old work, you could tell that the lack of real musicians wasn’t holding him back at all. It was only after he mentioned at his London show that the sax part on Other Things was a MIDI part did I ever take notice of that. If the music you make has so much attention to detail and finesse that you can’t tell when a fake sax is fake, you know there’s just a raw good product there that isn’t being held back by the physical restraints. With Sunhead, there are improvements in this department, like a real sax and a real drummer, but those things are merely a byproduct of Plini’s recent establishment. What actually makes this better than everything previous is exactly because it’s made in the same spirit, created in various bedrooms and studios around the world by the individuals playing on it.
All of this kind of rhetoric aside, this is insanely good music. Salt + Charcoal, the lead single (and my favourite track on the EP) does one of the best jobs on the whole instrumental scene of actually achieving a “verse/chorus” kind of structure without vocals. One of my complaints (if I were to have any) of New Levels New Devils is that verse space simply felt like filler time just to get to the hook, but Plini’s very vocal approach to guitar playing really has its own kind of syntax that really sounds melodic and intentional, which makes a huge difference. Not just that, but the surrounding accompaniment growing and changing to accommodate these changes in pace (especially the drums) have a huge impact on how this kind of music stays fresh and avoids being repetitive. The two guest solos are great, both in their own right. John Waugh of The 1975 fame delivers a solo of the kind of grandiosity that you’d expect from a Plini tune on Flâneur, and Tim Miller channels his inner Holdsworth on the title track.
This is a project that is filled to the brim of great musicianship. It puts the creation of something great at the top priority and worries about the means of getting that done after, and I believe this record (and Plini as an artist) is great for that reason.
BROCKHAMPTON – iridescence
If you’ve ever spoken with me for more than half an hour about anything at all in person, I’ve probably brought this band up. They’re a big deal to me. Their Saturation series in 2017 was a big inspiration for this project I’m working on now, and there’s just so much great material surrounding this group to get into, from the multiple albums to even multiple films they’ve made since coming together.
Being the fangirl that I am, I got a bit too interested with drama surrounding one of the members of the group in spring of 2018, that ended up in them getting kicked out of the group. It left a lot of fans wondering what on Earth was going to happen to them. Had a group that had displayed wild amounts of potential in such a short span of time just suddenly fizzled out before us? Not to mention, this all took place right before their fabled album Puppy was due to release, and it’s remained a bit of a holy grail to the fanbase ever since.
But this isn’t that album. In fact, it’s essentially a reaction and a transformation based on all the events that occurred over that summer. The process is very well documented in their film The Longest Summer In America that screened the day before the album’s release (but I’ll talk about that another time). The whole project is a huge departure from who they were. Once a hungry, underground collective doing everything they could with little they had, they were now a globally recognised group of creators, who got very quickly acquainted with how controversy feels. And all of this comes through in the music, with numerous amazing verses talking about recent struggles with their mentalities in light of everything; Dom and Joba especially have always had an amazing openness to them.
Speaking of Joba as an individual in the group, there’s a particular moment in the Saturation documentary (which is really worth a watch regardless of your opinion on their music) where he says he’s not a rapper. What seems so comical about that comment now is you only need to listen to his huge, ridiculous verse on J’OUVERT to see just how far he’s come, and by extension how far this group has come. Even on that same song, Bearface, one of the more elusive vocalists in terms of featured time, drops a rap verse on the end of this track. This is something he never would have done, having previously been exclusively a singer in the group, and yet this album is full of unique, moody rap verses that couldn’t have come from anyone else. Everyone on this album is simultaneously playing to their strengths and breaking new ground within themselves.
I think the point I’m trying to make with this is that iridescence is a unique testament to the power of solidarity in the face of adversity. In interviews before it came out, Kevin said that it was going to sound like London. As a Londoner, I can weirdly see what he means. The whole thing has a club/garage/nightlife kind of feeling that it’s hard to place my finger on, but the real London spirit comes from the legendary motivational poster from WWII era Britain: Keep Calm and Carry On. This is the musical version of keeping calm, carrying on, and continuing to grow as a unit even when all of the odds are against you.
Haken – Vector
I’m a big fan of when artists take a huge bold step in one direction or another, but it’s equally valuable and enjoyable when an artist really carves their place out and starts to explore that a bit more. That’s what I feel like Haken have done with Vector. It’s not a reinvention or a departure from anything, it’s a firm statement of the band’s sound, refining and improving on their style. I came to this band pretty late, stumbling across Affinity early last year and rinsing that album until it got boring, which took a while believe me.
Vector, for me, is the right kind of concept album. It has a narrative, it has a theme, but it’s divided up to the point where it’s not ostensibly a story unless you want to do your homework and follow it more intently. It can just be enjoyed as a group of tracks, and it can definitely be enjoyed as such. Much like a lot of what I have on the list, the musicianship is wild. I had a note in the draft of this blog about how great the bass playing is (especially on Puzzle Box) but that’s to imply that it’s better than anything else particularly, and it’s not necessarily. Everything blends, and instruments have their exact place and part in the mix. The attention to detail is so slick that things jump out when they need to and support others when they need to. But what is skill without the ability to write music? Luckily, Haken have that base covered as well, with infectious hooks and powerful vocals delivered throughout.
One could argue that this kind of perfection would have ruined an album like Room 25, which I praised pretty highly for the fact that it’s naturally quite imperfect, but for some reason I think this album gets away from it, and I think that’s because it’s meticulous in its perfection. It’s not just that the instruments are so dead in time that you could set your watch to them, it’s that it takes it to its logical conclusion, arranging to the demisemiquaver these super-intricate parts that all interlock. It did perfection and it didn’t do it by halves.
Gorillaz – The Now Now
I’m biased here. I know I am. I’m such a huge Gorillaz fan that I even enjoyed The Fall. I even loved Humaz man. Maybe I’m beyond saving. This is just to say I’m a fan of anything Damon Albarn comes within a square mile of, and Merrie Land, the other great album he was responsible for this year, very nearly made it into this top 10 as well. Anyway, on with what makes this album really really good.
This album came out during summer, and it’s a uniquely satisfying thing walking down along the beach while listening to Humility. Conversely, on that same beach I found myself staring blankly out into the void while listening to Souk Eye. This album covers a huge emotional range and somehow manages to touch on them all in impressive depth. Idaho has a weird nostalgic lilt to it, while Fire Flies is an all-out feels fest, desperation laced with equal amounts determination and anger.
Another thing I find interesting about Gorillaz as an overall project is how much the fictional canon has affected it. The last 2/3 albums have lent far less on the fictional characters representing the music and has taken on a far more abstract sonic aesthetic, which I think has helped free the creative process a bit. This has come out differently in the last few projects. For example, Humanz was this night club on the night before the end of the world. Chock full of great features and quirky song-writing, it didn’t abide as hard to the fictional world set up by the first three albums. In this album, it’s much more about the songwriting for the sake of it, which I think is a wise move. Gorillaz doesn’t really exist in the first place, so what it is and what it can be is versatile by nature, shaping to fit whoever works on each project, and for me that’s an exciting thing to follow. That’s what makes this album more than just a collection of moody synth-pop tunes, it’s another step in a big weird evolution, spear-headed by one of the most prolific songwriters in the mainstream.
Mark Knopfler – Down The Road Wherever
Mark Knopfler is one of those artists who is really out here making music for the sake of it, and in the best possible way. It feels like his records just come out like clockwork once a year or so, each one building on what the previous one tried to explore. In this album, the big emphasis seems to be on storytelling and world-building, and it delivers big-time. Every person described in any of the songs has an innately human feel to them, despite being totally fictional and only really occupying two lines of lyrics or so. It’s this exceptional storytelling ability that makes old songs of his like Go, Love or Haul Away or countless others so special. They all have this weird depth that comes so naturally to Mark in his song writing. This is perfectly complemented by his signature style of lead guitar. Much like Plini, his playing is incredibly vocal, and all of the little fills across this album really feel like call and responses with another singer. I remember in second year of my degree, I dedicated a small part of one of my presentations just to talk about how he bends notes. I’m into it.
One of my problems with Privateering, which was all-in-all a pretty important album for me, was the sheer amount of blues for the sake of blues. Not that there’s anything wrong with blues, but it felt like Mark didn’t really have a utility for that kind of song on that album. Nevertheless, he was experimenting, and this album sees a return of his blues writing to way more success. Tunes like Just A Boy Away From Home have so much more personality and grit than his old attempts at blues.
If I were to include one thing more heavily in this album, it would be flutes. Some of his old songwriting with flutes as a central focus (Border Reiver, Kingdom of Gold, Haul Away, plenty of amazing tunes) is just stunning, and I’d pay good money just for an entire collection of songs like that. But that’s to say that this isn’t a well-rounded, masterfully crafted album because it totally is, and I can’t wait for whatever happens same time next year.
Punch Brothers – All Ashore
If I had made a top 10 of albums for 2017, Chris Thile’s Thanks For Listening may well have been sat firmly at the top of that list had it not been for Saturation totally ruining my life. Him, this band and that whole scene of NYC folky-bluegrassy musicians are up to something, and they’re ridiculously good at it. On All Ashore, Punch Brothers prove that a great band is greater than the sum of it’s parts, and that’s a big ask when the individuals are outstanding in all their respective fields. And it’s much the same as most of the albums I’ve mentioned here, technical skill is one thing (which they have in spades) but it’s only when that skill is channelled into creating great music that it’s all really worth it. Luckily, every single tune on here is fun, catchy, intricate and just supremely enjoyable. Tell me where else I’m going to get a folk song in 5/4 where the latter half of the song is entirely rapped like The Angel of Doubt and I’ll buy that band’s entire back catalogue. Tracks like Just Look at This Mess and It’s All Part of the Plan boast incredibly arranged vocal harmonies, as if world class instrumentalism wasn’t quite enough for some reason. In all the live videos you can find, it’s just five guys and two mics, the rest of it comes from the amazing chemistry they have as a group and their own individual level of skill. That kind of synchronicity doesn’t come easy, as detailed in their 2011 documentary How To Grow a Band.
I can harp on about the skill and intricacy of all this, music, but that’s doing this album and this band a bit of a disservice. Punch Brothers, at the bottom of everything, is fun. It has a sense of whimsy and enjoyment that can sometimes get lost when players reach a certain skill level and start taking their art with a pinch too much seriousness. Punch Brothers defy that notion by putting the music, and the enjoyment of making music with the right people, at the forefront of their agenda.
Saba – CARE FOR ME * ALBUM OF THE YEAR *
I love this album. I absolutely love it. I couldn’t really order the rest of these records in a way that made any sense, but I can tell you with a huge degree of certainty that this was my favourite body of work to come out of 2018. I first heard Saba through his guest verse on Gallant’s Tiny Desk Concert, and I immediately got stuck into Bucket List Project, and as soon as CARE FOR ME dropped I knew my life had been ruined. Every single song on here is full of soul and honesty, with consistently world-class production and quick, unique lyricism. Saba isn’t holding back on subject matters either, with tracks like SIRENS and LIFE and most brutally HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME talking about the institutional prejudices that he and others around him have faced. His relationship with family, friends and significant others get bared on tracks like PROM / KING and FIGHTER. Much like Room 25, it’s this blistering honesty and openness that is really what makes this music hit home. I’m not a 24-year-old man of colour from the USA, and I’ve not been through a tenth of the shit that Saba’s been through in my time, but his storytelling, composition and production place me right at the scene of a crime, an awkward car ride, or a house party where something's about to wrong.
Features are used far more sparingly than they were on Bucket List Project, but much like Noname, Saba is keeping it all Chicago, and the chemistry is all there. This isn’t a vanity project where an artist has hired a team of people to make something, this is a group of people who know each-other well creating an amazing piece of art. This is exemplified in the recent Tiny Desk Concert. Saba even has his own father doing backing vocals, that’s how personal this whole project is. The musicianship is amazing, the songwriting is amazing, and for 41 minutes, no matter who you might be in the real world, you’re living this man’s life in intense detail. If you were to go and listen to any album out of the ones I’ve listed, please make it this, it’s a really unique experience. And if there's anything that really showcases his energy and creativity, it's the aforementioned Tiny Desk Concert. This is album is really really good and you should check it out.
Pusha T - Daytona
The Good, The Bad & the Queen - Merrie Land
Lydian Collective - Adventure
Will McNicol - Dragonflies, Frogs and Bumblebees
Anderson .Paak - Oxnard
Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
Bokanté - What Heat
Jon Hopkins - Singularity
C418 - Excursions
Gilad Hekselman - Ask For Chaos
Ian Ethan Case - Earth Suite
In Love With A Ghost - gay story
The Internet - Hive Mind
Kids See Ghosts - Self titled
Julian Lage - Modern Lore
Azure - Redtail
Mestis - Ekasia
Nihilism - Exposition
Nik Mystery - WHEN
Noam Pikelny - Universal Favourite
Janelle Monae - Dirty Computer
That’s all from me for now, next week is a post I’ve been preparing for since like April, I’m super excited to put it up.