In Brief: Eh… it’s another Switchfoot album. A little heavier on the ballads and programming than I would like, but it’s not terrible. Every now and then, the band tries something inventive here that updates their sound just enough to not seem like it’s old hat. But a lot of it is Switchfoot by the numbers, which admittedly is kind of a tricky thing for them to avoid now that they’re 11 albums deep into their career.
Artist: My Brightest Diamond Album: A Million and One Year: 2018 Grade: B-
In Brief: This album further revises the MBD sound, taking Shara Nova’s already rhythm-heavy approach in even more of an electronic direction while dropping some of the more ornate instrumentation. It’s a bit all over the place, musically speaking, but I do appreciate it as a bold expression of her independence and artistic ambition.
Artist: Matthew Thiessen & the Earthquakes Album: Wind Up Bird Year: 2018 Grade: B-
In Brief: It’s actually not that far of a stylistic leap from some of the mellower material on Relient K’s latest album to their lead singer’s first solo album. While I enjoy the clever indie/baroque pop arrangements and witty wordplay, I have to admit that only a handful of Thiessen’s songs on this album continue to stand out in my mind, beyond the initial novelty of hearing him do an acoustic record.
Artist: Death Cab for Cutie Album: Thank You for Today Year: 2018 Grade: B-
In Brief: There’s a delicious irony in the standout tracks on an album that decries gentrification and the cruel passage of time being the ones that are the most slickly produced and sample-heavy. But Death Cab doesn’t need to fight it. At this point I think they’re better off as a pop band than they are as legendary heroes of indie rock or whatever.
In Brief: Whether it’s electrified country-rock, twangy folk, or a down-tempo piano ballad, Cash’s voice is as warm and reassuring as ever throughout this album, and her songwriting remains as intriguing as ever. This is more of a subdued record than a flashy, genre-bending one, but it’s a smartly crafted one with some deeply felt joys and pains behind its songs.
Artist: Mae Album: Multisensory Aesthetic Experience Year: 2018 Grade: B- In Brief: Mae’s long-awaited comeback album is about half comfort food for those who loved their heart-on-sleeve style of high-octane pop/rock, and about half experimental/progressive stuff, not all of which fares as well as the band seems to have hoped. I’m thrilled to have them back, but wish they’d taken a little more care to make the final product a bit more cohesive.
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.