This is the list I look forward to writing the most each year, and yet that I seem to always agonize over until New Year’s Eve arrives and I have to click the “Publish” button and freeze these opinions in time. Coming up with a good, solid list of album recommendations at the end of every year seems to be a harder and harder task as time goes by, owing to a lot of artists seeming to lose interest in the album format, perhaps putting out excellent singles or EPs, but with the full-length LP becoming almost an afterthought. Even some of the top entries here were records I got to know at least half of as pre-release singles, or as a collection of EPs, before the full listening experience was made available, and thus I regard them more as strong compilations of songs from the latest phase of an artist’s career rather than as cohesive “albums” in the traditional sense. Still, a few holdouts are doing great things with the LP format, making a case for why it’s worth roughly 40 to 60 minutes of a listener’s time to take in a collection of songs in the order presented. I think that’s an art form that is still worth pursuing, even if the state of the music industry makes it an uphill battle to keep doing so.
THE BEST OF 2018:
1. Chvrches – Love Is Dead
Any of Chvrches’ three albums thus far would be worthy of the top spot in the respective years that they were released – I just discovered The Bones of What You Believe too late to give it a nod in 2013, and Every Open Eye just barely got edged out by the swan song from Falling Up, one of my longtime favorite bands. Finally, in 2018, I can give the Scottish synthpop trio this long overdue honor. They went more aggressively pop with this album than they were already known for being, with results that definitely shoved the big hooks and repetitive choruses up front, but those who listened more carefully found seamlessly integrated live instrumentation that nudged their sound in a few interesting new directions, and a truckload of smart lyrics ensuring that those big, fun choruses weren’t just meaningless placeholders. Lauren Mayberry and co. seemingly got more personal and political with this album, and they get a lot of grievances off their chests within these 12 songs, ensuring that the music is relatably human even as most of it is being delivered through keyboards and computers. The Hansa Session companion EP released late in the year highlighted the unassailable songcraft behind 5 of these songs, and the generous setlist on their fall tour (for which I jumped at the opportunity to see the band live for the first time) illustrated just how well the new material fit in with the nearly wall-to-wall classics on their older albums. Chvrches had a hell of a strong showing in 2018. And I anticipate incredible things happening for them in the years ahead, too.
Music Video: “Miracle”
2. DeVotchKa – This Night Falls Forever
The seven years in between studio albums could have been a mysterious “Where the hell are they now?” sort of story, but the truth is that DeVotchKa never went away; they were just laying low and working on a lot of projects without rushing any of them out the door. I’m glad they took their sweet time with the follow-up to 2011’s 100 Lovers – in some ways, the two albums are quite different, but this one seems to up the ante on the rich Latin/European instrumentation that informs their theatrical brand of indie rock, while every single damn one of its ten tracks are absolutely dripping with dramatic tension. These are compositionally rich songs, with occasionally bizarre melodic twists and turns that take a few tries to fully appreciate, but once this record gets its hooks in you, it doesn’t let go for nothing.
Music Video: “Straight Shot”
3. Belle & Sebastian – How to Solve Our Human Problems
Is this a true album, or just a hodgepodge of song ideas loosely resembling one when stacked all together? Initially, this 15-song behemoth from the veteran Scottish indie pop band was released as EPs, 5 tracks at a time, in late 2017 and early 2018, the full album release coinciding with the final EP. I’m not going to pretend that listening to this sprawling set of diverse and sometimes quite eccentric songs is going to give you great insight on how humanity’s problems can actually be resolved. But plenty of those problems are well documented by the band’s three chief singer/songwriters here, against musical backdrops ranging from jangle pop to psychedelic rock to pastoral baroque pop to glitzy disco to blue-eyed soul to something resembling Motown. I can listen to this one all the way through and find more than enough highlights for it to ever get boring or repetitive, and even the weaker cuts are consistently entertaining and engaging, for the most part. What this project lacks in cohesion, it more than makes up for with sheer personality.
Music Video: “Poor Boy”
4. The Last Bison – SÜDA
A long hiatus and a drastic change in sound necessitated by the departure of several band members found The Last Bison reinventing itself as more of an “anything goes” indie pop/rock band, where they were once known for their lush and somewhat raggedy brand of folk/rock back in the days when the “folk revival” movement was still going strong. They pull of the transition quite well, incorporating a few lessons learned in world music from Ben Hardesty‘s upbringing as a missionary in South America, and taking the time to craft each song to be its own unique thing, even if the odd combinations of rock guitars and synths with the acoustic instruments they were once known for can make this a bit of a strange musical brew on first listen. Probably nothing here will replace “Switzerland” as the band’s signature song, but several of these new songs quite effortlessly became favorites of mine, most notably the album’s joyous, 70s-shaded dance/rock centerpiece “Anywhere You Go”, which managed to claim the top spot in the “Favorite Songs of 2018” list I posted a few days back.
Audio: “Don’t Look Away”
5. St. Paul and the Broken Bones – Young Sick Camellia
What do wilting flowers, hurricanes, and astronauts lost in space have in common? Honestly, I’m still not entirely sure. But Paul Janeway and co. sing about these subjects, as well as their general disaffection with the modern-day political and cultural climate of the American South, on their third full-length album, which managed to win me over to their brand of Southern soul by way of some incredible songcraft and willingness to experiment with the genre. These guys can do the heavy lifting to concoct a funk/R&B workout that has some real legs to it, just as easily as they can put together a chillingly good slow jam or Gospel-inflected torch song. The only thing this album truly lacks is simply more songs. All 9 of the songs presented here are of ridiculously high quality, but the loose narrative of interviews with an old man about the aftermath of a hurricane that serve as interludes don’t quite make up for the lack of a 10th. It’s hard not be left wishing for more when it’s this fun to hear a group of musicians jamming together.
6. Wye Oak – The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs
I’d somehow never heard of Wye Oak until this year. I still wouldn’t have, if not for a timely Spotify recommendation. This hard-to-classify duo tempts me at times to label them an alt-rock act, or a synthpop act, or an experimental indie act, and I guess all three are fitting depending on the song, but it’s incredible how seamlessly most of this album flows despite the mood whiplash from one track to the next. Lead singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner has a voice that is equal parts charming and foreboding, emerging as her own identity even if Wye Oak’s general setup reminds me of a number of female-fronted, synth-assisted rock bands I’ve fallen in love with over the last few years. I guess this might be what you would get if a boundary-pushing creative luminary like Björk or St. Vincent were to hang out with an indie pop champion like the aforementioned Chvrches or the soon-to-be-mentioned Metric. Fun, and sometimes rather challenging, stuff.
Music Video: “The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs”
7. Katie Herzig – Moment of Bliss
Katie’s last two records were both incredibly smart works of bubbly indie electro-pop with the occasional bit of pathos, and this record largely follows in that vein while bringing in some smartly layered and meticulously arranged baroque instrumentation to fill out a few tracks. Katie wears a lot of hats here, in terms of the instruments she plays and the role she plays in the creation of her own music – writer, singer, arranger, co-producer. The results are often joyously affirming in a political climate that – let’s just be honest here – hasn’t been the kindest to women. Rather than railing against the enemy, she finds solidarity with others who have been feeling oppressed or had their voices silenced, and also finds time to reflect on the profound effects of being a long-time relationship that, up until this year, she had been keeping on the down-low. Katie found her bliss with this record, and each time I listen to this record, I feel a bit of it being passed on.
Music Video: “Beat of Your Own”
8. Calexico – The Thread that Keeps Us
The plight of immigrants and other wayfarers is not a new topic to this Tucson-based band, but the arrival of the Trump administration seems to have given them license to be a little louder and messier in their outrage about how these folks tend to get treated. Since Calexico tends to take more of a subtle, mysterious, and oblique approach most of the time, it’s a bit of a shock to the system to hear just how noisy the guitars are in the first few tracks, and how riff-heavy a few of the later selections are. You’ll still get your fair-share of hushed and elliptical folk/jazz meditations, as well as a full-on Latin rock track sung in Spanish (which tends to be a highlight whenever they do it, as it is here on “Flores y Tamales”), and a few other surprises to round out these generous 15 tracks, which may well be the most cohesive and intriguing collection of songs I’ve heard from Calexico in nearly a decade of following the band.
Live Video: “End of the World with You”
9. Kindo – Happy However After
No more Reign. Just Kindo. With the rebranding comes a slight shift in sound, as electronic keyboards play more of a prominent role in their new music than the piano did on their previous albums. Either way, the band still continues to show an affinity for complex arrangements, tricky time signatures, and jazzy soloing out the wazoo, seemingly in defiance of whatever trends might currently be popular in the mainstream or the world of indie rock. These guys are skilled enough to get away with not caring what’s popular, and even with not caring that their tendency to wear their hearts unambiguously on their sleeves can make their lyrics a bit cheesy at times. The only real missteps here are the tracks that rely on sampled or pitch-shifted vocals to support the points they’re trying to make – and that’s isolated to just two tracks out of ten. Elsewhere, the band plays like a well-oiled machine, burning through jaw-dropping up-tempo jams and slow-burning ballads alike, all without forgetting that they’re doing all this in service of songs with something meaningful to say. Don’t expect them to stop and hold your hand if you get a bit lost and confused in some of these arrangements. They’re counting on the listener to go back for a second helping if they’re having trouble keeping up with what’s going on. I wouldn’t have it another way.
Audio: “Human Convention”
10. Kevin Max – AWOL
Kevin is the lone holdout these days who keeps me from ridiculing what all of the members of dc Talk have become. Shameless attempts to keep the nostalgia alive, such as the reunion cruise announced last year (and apparently set for a second journey in 2019), make the group a bit of an easy target nowadays, but if that’s what it takes to finance Kevin’s weirdly indulgent solo projects, then I guess I’m fine with it. He goes shamelessly 80s on this project, bringing moody and dance-y synths into several tracks while shamelessly evoking The Cure, U2, David Bowie and Duran Duran at different points in time, and he’s so engaging in his endeavor to be a musical chameleon that I can’t say I mind the obvious nostalgia at work here. Interlaced throughout all of it are snippets of torrid romances and science fiction escapades that probably only make sense in Kevin’s mind… oh, and the occasional assertion that he’s still a Jesus freak despite not really being down with stuffy, conservative evangelical culture. If that’s enough to make some old-school dc Talk fans uncomfortable then… well, good. He’s doing his job by not staying confined to their boundaries.
Everything in the Top 10 rated a B+ or better. Below is the best of the rest of the year’s B grade material. My recommendations here aren’t quite as enthusiastic as they would be in a normal year, but I do still think each of these records is worth your time if you’re at least somewhat into the genre.
11. Beach House – 7
The stalwarts of shoegaze-y dream pop proved that old dogs could be taught new tricks on their seventh album, and they did it without abandoning their core aesthetic, which I think was a win/win move for old fans and curious new ones alike. There are a few more tracks that spring into action here, that change direction midway through to keep a long song from droning on interminably, or that pull other studio tricks to augment the sound that has always worked for them, rather than shying away from it. Only because things get a tad monotonous in the final third of the album did this one get narrowly nudged out of my Top 10 this year. Still, having Beach House on this list at all is not something I previously would have expected.
Music Video: “Black Car”
12. A Perfect Circle – Eat the Elephant
I’ve never been big on A Perfect Circle before, and I was only really into Tool for one album, so I’m the wrong guy to tell you whether this is a long-awaited comeback worthy of APC’s classic material. I can say I’m surprised at how well the classical elements like harp, piano, strings and so forth collide with Maynard James Keenan‘s brooding and occasionally rage-filled vocals and the band’s alt-rock aesthetic overall. This is an album that demands patience from the listener by putting some of its slowest and most pensive material upfront, then kicking into high gear on a string of ludicrously catchy singles before settling into the more exploratory and unpredictable back half of the album. Not every experiment works, but I enjoyed the overall vibe and message of this album a hell of a lot more than I expected to.
Music Video: “The Doomed”
13. Umphrey’s McGee – It’s Not Us
Like a jot of groups get tagged as “jam bands”, UM’s Achilles heel can sometimes be their tendency to emphasize show-offy solos above actual song structure, and due to their genre-hopping, their albums can lack cohesion as a result of all the fooling around. Their last few records have taken strides to avoid this, and while this one’s not as singularly focused as the heavy prog rock of 2014’s Similar Skin, it’s still a hell of a consistent listen, with its best material coming in the dead center, in the form of three tracks that sound nothing like each other. The surprise instrumental metal jam in the second half of “Remind Me”, leading into the lush acoustic ballad “You and You Alone”, followed up by the triumphant electro-rock of “Forks”, really should be a combo that wouldn’t work for any band on any album. Yet it barely registers as a speed bump for UM, due to how deft the musicianship is and how memorable the melodies and riffs are in each case. And that’s really a microcosm of the entire album – there’s simply not a dud in the whole bunch.
Music Video: “Forks”
14. The Innocence Mission – Sun on the Square
This hushed folk duo from Amish Country, Pennsylvania has been around for well over two decades now, and whenever I’ve taken a chance on them in the past, I’ve heard a few snippets of gorgeous melody surrounded by a lot of slow, samey material. While this album is every bit as mellow as I’ve come to expect from the Peris clan, they seem to have really upped their game in terms of evocative songwriting and diverse instrumentation, with the couple even bringing in their own children provide auxiliary instrumentation on a few key tracks. The front half of the album in particular feels like a treasure trove of some of the most quietly beautiful and evocative songs I’ve heard all year. This is an album to contemplate during a quiet walk through the woods on a morning just chilly enough to see your own breath.
Music Video: “Green Bus”
15. Metric – Art of Doubt
Metric is a well-oiled machine, taking the precise programmed grooves and occasionally cynical lyrics that worked well for them in the past, and bringing the live aspects of the band’s performance back to the forefront on several tracks that strongly emphasize a good guitar riff or a tight rhythm section, just as much as others might emphasize keyboards and drum loops. The songs are allowed to sprawl out to longer lengths here, which is mostly a blessing since it gives everyone ample space to show off their licks and to meticulously layer a song until there’s a ton of individual parts to get bedazzled by. Even if the last third or so of the album drags a bit as a result of the band breaking out acceptable lengths for radio play, those first 8 tracks make one hell of a strong statement. This is definitely the Metric album I’ve enjoyed the most from front to back since I first got on board with Fantasies back in 2009.
Audio: “Art of Doubt”
16. Mae – Multisensory Aesthetic Experience
Mae’s full-length comeback after a near eight-year gap since what could be considered their last “album” in late 2010 feels more like a collage of ideas than a cohesive LP. A lot of those ideas are really good, though, taking the old Mae sound we knew and loved and kicking it up a notch on some of the more rock-oriented tracks, while the band gives themselves license to go in more of a baroque pop or even full-on electronic direction on others. For a band that puts its feelings out in the open without any of the lyrical poetry intended to disguise the mood, that means that occasionally you get some pretty cheesy sentiments coming to the forefront, but they’re believable ones. This album feels like an enthusiastic art project from a band re-learning the joy of creating music together after a long period of their relationships with each other being dormant or perhaps even fractured. The space between them and how good it felt to come back together seems to have informed a lot of the songwriting here, and that attempt to find unity in diversity makes the whole a lot greater than the sum of its parts.
Audio: “Let It Die”
17. Kimbra – Primal Heart
While the nostalgia doesn’t run quite as thick on the Kiwi R&B/pop singer’s third LP, she’s still got a hell of a voice and a restless creative vision, which leads her to turn on a dime from torch songs whose most powerful moments gradually sneak up on the listener, to full on dance-pop and even hip-hop influenced bangers. It’s not my favorite Kimbra album by any stretch, but there are a lot of “sleeper hits” waiting to be discovered here, and the opening three tracks are all bona fide classics in their own unique ways, especially the ballad “Everybody Knows”, which is exactly the kind of song the music industry needs to hear in the age of #MeToo.
Music Video: “Everybody Knows”
18. Muse – Simulation Theory
This is simultaneously one of the most fun albums I’ve listened to all year, and one of Muse’s most disappointing releases. How’d it still crack my Top 20? There’s something about their willingness to dive back into old sounds that haven’t aged all that well (mostly 80s synthpop, but there are a few 90s rock tropes lurking here and there for those willing to find them) and brazenly present them as dystopian billboards blaring messages back and forth in all caps about whether the tyrannical establishment or the ragtag resistance is going to win the war for some future society’s robot souls. It works best if you don’t take it all that seriously. The opening five tracks, if you can get past some of the cornier moments, are all melodically and compositionally quite dense, and while the band kind of settles into a few paint-by-numbers habits in the back half, there’s still more than enough of a neon glow to it all that I can’t help but have a silly smile on my face in spite of myself.
Music Video: “Pressure”
19. I’m With Her – See You Around
This folk/bluegrass trio comprised of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan may seem more low-key than what I might expect from other favorite acts in the genre (most notably Watkins’ other band Nickel Creek) at first, but there’s a subtle beauty to a lot of the songcraft that can really hit you with a lot of force once you realize the history and heartache that went into a few of these numbers. While a few tracks feature more prominent solos on the ladies’ respective instruments (fiddle, mandolin, acoustic guitar, occasionally a bit of fuzzy electric guitar or banjo), they’re really more about storytelling than showing off. Who knows if they’ll record together in this configuration again or go back to their respective bands and solo projects, but either way, I’m glad these three got together to create the heavenly harmonic glow that comes wafting through the speakers in several of this album’s best cuts.
Music Video: “Game to Lose”
20. Rosanne Cash – She Remembers Everything
Also on the “twangier” side of my music preferences is an elder stateswoman who, in addition to being the daughter of a country music legend, has been making excellent music in her own right since I was a little kid. She shows no signs of slowing down as a slinger of heart-rending stories as she enters her golden years, with the sounds heard on this album ranging from the somber title track about some sort of a trauma or severed relationship deep in the recesses of a woman’s brain, to the upbeat country-rock of “Not Many Miles to Go” and “The Only Thing Worth Fighting For”. While musical collaborators abound, most of their vocal contributions to this album are subtle, aside from the rather obvious guest starring roles played by Elvis Costello and Kris Kristofferson on the confrontational conversation piece “8 Gods of Harlem”. But the subtle ballads that are Cash’s alone to sing are often equally eloquent. She often croons with a heavy heart, but never gives the impression that she’s likely to ever roll over and admit defeat. That desire to keep on fighting no matter the odds makes this an easy record to admire, coming from a genre I don’t usually find myself relating to this much.
Audio: “She Remembers Everything” (feat. Sam Phillips)