Before we get on with the next 20 albums in my decade-end list, I thought it’d be interesting to break down all 100 by which year they came out.
9 of these albums came out in 2010. 17 of these albums came out in 2011. 10 of these albums came out in 2012. 18 of these albums came out in 2013. 7 of these albums came out in 2014. 9 of these albums came out in 2015. 6 of these albums came out in 2016. 9 of these albums came out in 2017. 12 of these albums came out in 2018. 4 of these albums came out in 2019.
(Yes, I know that the numbers above add up to 101. One of these albums was re-released, and I’m having a hard time choosing which version I like better. That’ll be addressed down below.)
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.
First on my to-do list as the year comes to a close is to list the individual songs that inspired and entertained me the most in 2018. Some of these may have come out in 2017, or in a few extreme cases, as singles in 2016 that didn’t make it onto an actual album release until more recently. Either way, it was all new to me this year, or else I heard it in late 2017 and I had a belated reaction to it. Explanations and video/audio links are given for the Top 30 – for the rest, if you’re curious, just click the review links where provided to learn more.
As always, many of these songs (limit one per artist) are collected in my 2018 in a Nutshell playlist over on Spotify.
Artist: Umphrey’s McGee Album: It’s Not Us Year: 2018 Grade: B
In Brief: Another strong release from UM that effectively straddles the line between their jam band noodling and more progressive, exploratory song structures. As usual, the instrumental pyrotechnics and stylistic diversity are a much bigger draw than the lyrics. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
While there’s been a ton of new music to take in during the month of May, I’ve also spent a good chunk of the month listening to old R.E.M. albums as I follow along with Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott’s mind-bogglingly weird and highly entertaining R U Talkin’ R.E.M. Re: Me? podcast, which is basically “season two” of their equally amusing U Talkin’ U2 to Me? podcast. These guys are true music geeks who are perhaps most entertaining when their differences of opinion come to the fore as they dig through every single track of every album in R.E.M.’s diverse and sometimes highly challenging discography. I’m finally discovering the magic in some of the band’s earlier work that I had previously overlooked as “all sounding the same” as a result of this. And I can’t wait for them to get to Reveal, my personal favorite R.E.M. record… though I have my doubts about whether they’ll be kind to it.
Here are my first impressions of the latest releases from Janelle Monáe, Parker Millsap, Eleanor Friedberger, Beach House, A Perfect Circle, Young Oceans, Umphrey’s McGee, and Chvrches.
A pretty significant change to my listening habits this month is that I’m trying to be more open-minded about listening to singles aside from the albums they may or may not be attached to. I largely stopped paying attention to singles years ago, around when I stopped listening to any form of radio, because the risk of getting a negative first impression of a forthcoming album, or else being frustrated that a good song had been entirely left off of a studio album, seemed to outweigh the potential reward of enjoying the song as a listening experience unto itself. As much as I love to cherry-pick favorite tracks from albums for my own personal playlists, I often don’t discover how much I truly love those songs until I get to hear them in the grander context of a series of songs they were intended to be a part of. I’m more of an “album” guy than a “singles” guy, and that’s probably not gonna change any time soon, but since singles tend to come out so far in advance of the album these days, I figure I might as well be evaluating those songs when most of the artist’s other fans are, rather than being way late to the party when the album finally drops. I probably will still change my mind about some of these after hearing them in their “full album” context, but I think I’m patient and smart enough these days to manage expectations of a forthcoming album when a sneak peek catches me off-guard in some way.
I also finally got around to “following” a number of artists on Spotify, which I’ve discovered causes individual songs to show up in my “Release Radar” playlist as they come out. Or occasionally it’ll go back and pick one for me if it’s been out for a little while but Spotify can tell I haven’t listened to it on my own yet. This should keep me from completely missing out on new albums/singles from artists I had followed in the past but then sort of forgot about, without the hassle of having to manually look them up every now and then just to see if they’ve done anything new recently. I’ve got a running playlist of my own to keep track of these new releases and helpful suggestions from Spotify, at least the ones that seem like they might be worth repeated listens. I figure once those get released on an album and/or I get sick of hearing them on their own, I’ll drop them from the playlist to make room for new stuff. We’ll see how often I manage to squeeze that playlist into my listening habits as it evolves over the months to come.
Now, for the actual albums and EPs I’ve given a try this month. Here are my first impressions of the latest releases from Mike Shinoda, Marika Hackman, Umphrey’s McGee, Sara Groves, Andrew Peterson, Belle & Sebastian, Rostam, and Charlie Peacock.
As always, I’m closing the year out with a summary of my favorite records from the year gone by. The only qualifying factors to make this list are that they must be full-length albums consisting of new material (I have a separate section for EPs and collections of previously released material), with a release date in 2014. Everything I really enjoyed this year that falls outside of those boundaries still gets a mention, just not a ranking.
It was really hard to pick a clear #1 this year. I love the top four albums on this list just about equally. Two are more “baroque” pop records that lean toward the electronic and experimental, and two are more in-your-face rock records. They’re the only “A grades” that I gave out this year. Which one is my favorite among them changes based on my mood, so I basically gave the #1 slot to the one I’ve enjoyed for the largest chunk of the year. I can’t imagine very many other people who would ever actually listen to all four of them, let alone like them all, but they all come with my highest recommendations for anyone into the types of music these individual artists are making.