70. Gregory Alan Isakov – Evening Machines (Dualtone)
Gregory Alan Isakov turned to night’s darkness as the inspiration for his October release, Evening Machines. A master at creating an atmosphere within his albums, Isakov’s reliance on ethereal instrumentation and hushed vocals recreates the night’s solitude. The depiction of darkness and the emptiness associated with the night’s expanse resulted from Isakov’s recording schedule. The album was cut in the evenings after he tended to his farm. Much as painters often broke their landscapes’ dark nights with a glimmering moon, Isakov named Evening Machines after the glow radiating from his recording equipment.
Despite the album’s title, Evening Machines is not representing an ersatz existence. He magnificently threads an appreciation for nature and the earthly wonders surrounding him. His lyrics burst with fecund imagery meant to show the listener what he sees. Evening Machines poetically demystifies darkness while rendering nature’s vibrancy. Throughout, Isakov incorporates orchestral bursts to imbue his music with an even higher celestial vibe. His penchant for the cosmos is evident on Evening Machines and throughout his oeuvre. With his bandmates, Steve Varney, Jeb Bows, John Paul Grigsby, Philip Parker, and Max Barcelow, Gregory Alan Isakov’s Evening Machines resplendently avows symmetry between the universe and a dark night. – Elisabeth Woronzoff
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69. Ghost – Prequelle (Loma Vista)
The potential for Ghost to metamorphose into a major headlining rock/metal act was always there, which is why Loma Vista signed the Swedes to a lucrative deal in 2012. Since the 2010 cult favorite Opus Eponymous it’s been a slow build, but over time more and more curious listeners have been drawn to mastermind Tobias Forge’s devilishly delicious blend of accessible hooks, blasphemous lyrics, and a carefully honed visual aesthetic that hearkens back to the shock rock glory days of the 1970s and ’80s. Fourth album Prequelle was the one that hurled Ghost over the top, thanks in large part to the blockbuster singles “Rats” and “Dance Macabre”. However, there’s a lot more than pop-friendly melodies on this ambitious record. Forge tips his hat to the garish heavy metal of King Diamond (“Faith”), the theatrical balladry of late-’70s Alice Cooper and Queen (“See the Light”, “Pro Memoria”), and the perpetual influence of Blue Öyster Cult that looms over the band (“Witch Image”). However, the most revelatory moments are found on the instrumentals “Helvetesfönster” and “Miasma”: the former reminiscent of vintage progressive rock band Camel, the latter an uproarious, wildly entertaining soundtrack to a giallo film lurking in Forge’s vivid imagination. –
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68. Kyle Craft – Full Circle Nightmare (Sub Pop)
Louisiana-born, Oregon-based singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Kyle Craft burst on the scene in 2016 with his debut album, Dolls of Highland, a terrific slice of glittery, glam rock, power pop. He proved he’s no one-trick pony the following year with Full Circle Nightmare, which managed to actually top that first album in terms of both songwriting and performance. With Chris Funk of the Decemberists handling production duties, a full band was employed, giving the songs a rambling-yet-melodic sound reminiscent of the Band or Exile on Main Street (Craft admitted to PopMatters that the 1972 Rolling Stones classic was in heavy rotation during the making of the album). The barroom country-funk twang expertly matches Craft’s Dylanesque wordplay on songs like the beer-buzzed “Heartbreak Junky” and the morning-after epic “The Rager”. Craft also manages to shift gears seamlessly from waltz ballads like “Bridge City Rose” to the lightning-fast rave-up of “Fever Dream Girl”. Kyle Craft is a gifted artist with an immense appeal and has managed to craft a masterpiece only two albums into his career. – Chris Ingalls
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67. Tracey Thorn – Record (Merge)
Part of the appeal of Record is the way it brings you back to the ’90s, reminding you exactly what was so special about Everything But the Girl, reminding you just how deeply moving Massive Attack’s “Protection” is. If that was all it did, Record would be fine; that it brings that voice gracefully and forcefully into 2018 is an utter feat. “Sister” is an anthem to womanhood that is simultaneously powerful (“I fight like a girl”), venomous (“Oh little man, you’re such a baby”), and resigned (“Oh what year is it, still arguing the same shit”), and it may well be Thorn’s crowning achievement. “Babies” is a tribute to both birth control and motherhood with a wicked sense of humor, and “Smoke” is a beautiful little folk song that might be about war, and might be about Brexit, and might be about class warfare. Thorn’s language is frank, her wit is sharp, and her sense of melody is bang on. Record is brilliant. – Mike Schiller
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66. Dilly Dally – Heaven (PTKF)
If all Dilly Dally did was make a kick-ass record with Heaven, that would be enough to elevate it to being one of the year’s best. Thankfully, there’s substance to the swirling chaos of noise that Dilly Dally create. Heaven shows a band slowly refining their sound while still retaining the looseness that made them exciting in the first place, but the real evolution is in the lyrics and vocals of Katie Monks. Heaven is Monks’ lyrical tour de force, a journey through Monks’ emotional turmoil as she sorts through years of interpersonal conflicts, her band’s near-breakup and the destructive allure of binge drinking. In lesser hands, this would be a dour record, but Monks’ songs are alternately relaxed and intimate and distorted rave-ups that remind a listener of the power that rock music can have. Proclaiming any band to be “saviors” of a genre, but if there needed to be someone to revive rock ‘n’ roll, Dilly Dally might be up to the task. – Kevin Korber
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65. Armand Hammer – Paraffin (Backwoodz Studioz)
Armand Hammer is the collaborative effort of Elucid and billy woods. Unmoored from limitation yet still indebted to a New York, East Coast sound, the duo is experimental in an abnormal way. Unlike the abrasive styles of Death Grips or Dalek, Armand Hammer utilizes the brilliance of its two lyricists to abstractly convey the ills of Western government, capitalism, and racism on its excellent 2018 release Paraffin. Elucid and woods’ verses crackle with vivid, disjointed imagery generating a kaleidoscopic vision of the existential malaise of contemporary black Americans. The production works similarly, as beats fade and reenter, only to often submit to ferocious distortion or tangled warping. The verses in each song burst with severity and imagination; listen to Elucid dance through his section in “Rehearse with Ornette” or woods’ forceful declarations on “If He Holla”. While many albums touch on a similar subject matter, few come with such careful, delicate, and verbose ferocity. – Jared Skinner
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64. Florence + the Machine – High As Hope (Virgin EMI/Republic)
Florence Welch and her eight-piece Machine are a pop staple four albums into their career. And yet, they don’t receive the kind of praise due them either from the pop crowd or the critics. Sure, Welch has been lauded for her great vocals and their albums are received generally well. But High As Hope proves the band to be not only generally good, but stellar. The lush songcrafting and Welch’s compelling delivery of every line are uplifting without being sweet and overly optimistic. Instead, the hope that Florence and the Machine deliver is deeply rooted in sorrow, and the knowledge that sorrow is a common ground we all share. When we’re vulnerable enough to bear sorrow together, Welch argues here, we find comfort in moving towards a higher hope and higher love together. – Chris Thiessen
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63. Brandi Carlile – By the Way, I Forgive You (Elektra/WEA International)
Riding the line somewhere between Americana, catchy pop hooks, and unfettered rock, Brandi Carlile has always made an impression with her ubiquitously relatable songwriting and the stunningly dynamic way with which she delivers said writing in her performances. On the one hand, By the Way, I Forgive You is another installment in a long line of consistently good releases from the singer-songwriter, having earned herself a passionate fan-base over the years. It doesn’t cause quite as much of a stir as The Fireman’s Daughter may have, but it’s an introspective, sincere release that soars with symphonic and stripped-back arrangements alike. The powerful clarity of Carlile’s vocals as she commands a string orchestra on “The Joke”, or in the way that she handles telling the story of her motherhood with such impeccable curtness, makes this another multi-sided release from the artist.
Altogether, however, it feels like a step forward towards another era for Carlile. It feels like we are just discovering another side of her on By the Way, I Forgive You—one who is further matured and adaptable, willing to express deeper tales, sometimes tragic, with either a passionately open frankness or just a dash of charming sardonic wit when it’s called for. Either way, it’s another step forward for an already greatly talented storyteller. – Jonathan Frahm
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62. Pusha T – DAYTONA (GOOD/Def Jam)
Kanye West’s spring 2018 album onslaught was quite exciting at the time. Things have changed, as they always seem to with Ye, but we can still look back in awe at the pace of the releases. Pusha-T’s
Daytona came first, and because of its primordial placement, it got a little lost in the smoke. So much press came after the release of Daytona, with Nas releasing his first new album in years, and Ye hosting parties in the woods with A-list celebrities and all. But, as we forget about the green of the leaves and settle into the dull gray of winter, one album from the group is the most lasting: Daytona. The formula is simple: a good rapper meets a good producer. Both Pusha and Ye are at their peaks here. Album opener, “If You Know You Know” stutter starts for a minute and then pops open, allowing Pusha-T the space he needs to do what he does best, spit confidence into a microphone while weaving melodies into wordy verses. “When we all clicking like Golden State,” he says. Ye came out on top for a week in May 2018. Truly, the title says it all. If you know you know. We know. – Christopher Laird
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61. Gwenno – Le Kov (Heavenly)
Best remembered as a member of the Pipettes, Gwenno Saunders re-emerged in 2015 with Y Dydd Olaf, a jaw-dropping sci-fi concept album sung primarily in Welsh that mined the innovative sounds of such art rock legends as Can, Stereolab, and Broadcast. Three years later, Gwenno’s follow-up continues to develop her unique, ebullient Krautpop, but her language of choice this time around is Cornish, which she grew up speaking, and which she felt was her duty to help preserve the obscure language. With the help of collaborator and producer Rhys Edwards and Super Furry Animals members Gruff Rhys and Gorwel Owen, Le Kov feels a lot richer musically, as Saunders continues to exhibit enormous talent when it comes to creating dreamy, otherworldly soundscapes, gracefully alternating between pulsating (“Tir Ha Mor”) to playful (“Daromres y’n Howl”). You’d think that such an ambitious album would be laced with gravitas, but Gwenno charms the listener time and again. Hell, at one point she sings about cheese, because of course she can: “Is there cheese? / Is there or isn’t there? / If there’s cheese, bring cheese.” What’s not to love about that? – Adrien Begrand
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60. David Byrne – American Utopia (Todo Mundo/Nonesuch)
The utopia David Byrne envisions on his first solo outing since 2004’s Grown Backwards isn’t “an imaginary or possibly impossible place”, as he writes in the album notes. Instead, it’s his depiction of “the world we live in now”. If so, “American Dystopia” might’ve been more apt, given most of the lyrics. But although the verses express familiar Byrne themes —anxiety and unease, a feeling of dislocation, and this time an alienation that isn’t only individual but socioeconomic (“And the truth don’t mean nothing / If you ain’t got the cash”), the choruses often are upbeat (“Everyday Is a Miracle”, “Everybody’s Coming to My House”).
American Utopia is, like the albums Byrne made with Fatboy Slim, St. Vincent, and Brian Eno, a collaborative work. Byrne co-wrote most of the songs with Eno, who created the original tracks; he enlisted Rodaidh McDonald and Patrick Dillett as co-producers, with several other-of-the-moment contributors like Jam City, Doveman, and Sampha. The concise album—10 songs totaling 37 minutes — sounds assembled, rather than performed. Guitars, piano, bass, and percussion are in the mix, but they’re mostly textures in electronica collages. That’s not a knock; the arrangements are ingenious, the sonics rich, and Byrne’s vocals are some of his best in years. And when Byrne and his band perform the songs in concert, they rock. – George De Stefano
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59. Natalie Prass – The Future and the Past (ATO)
Natalie Prass’ self-titled 2015 debut contained more promise than most artists’ first records. On tracks like “Bird of Prey” Prass convincingly occupied a double personality, one an old soul and the other a savvy contemporary songwriter. How fitting, then, that Prass’ outstanding sophomore LP sports the title The Future and the Past, as she once again expertly weaves together retro stylings with a modern and even future-looking sensibility. Hearing tunes like “Never Too Late” and the irrepressibly catchy feminist jam “Sisters”, one can’t help but wonder how these songs haven’t existed as classics for decades, yet at the same time they sound very much of their present day. A jubilant and colorful amalgam of R&B, soul, pop, and even classic rock, The Future and the Past captures an intelligent and charming songwriter coming fully to her own. – Brice Ezell
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58. Old Crow Medicine Show – Volunteer (Columbia Nashville)
Old Crow Medicine Show have been delivering quality early 20th century-style string band music for years now, and Volunteer is yet another high water mark for the group. The 11 tracks here rollick, swing, and sigh, but each one, regardless of mood, is a strong song. “Flicker and Shine” is a blistering country rave-up about life on the road and being a united band. It’s joined on this album by the similarly high energy “Shout Mountain Music”, “The Good Stuff”, a honky-tonk ode to alcohol, and the fiddle-heavy instrumental “Elzick’s Farewell”. The band’s storytelling chops shine through on the bluesy “Child of the Mississippi”, the danceable, sing-along love song “Dixie Avenue”, and the plaintive “this is our life” sweetness of “Whirlwind”. Frontman Ketch Secor even writes a beautiful, sad ode to a return from touring to unsatisfying home life in “Homecoming Party”. Volunteer illustrates the extremely effective combination of songwriting and musicianship that’s allowed Old Crow Medicine Show to carve out a niche for themselves and keep it going for so long. – Chris Conaton
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57. Parquet Courts – Wide Awake! (Rough Trade)
Six albums into their career, the Brooklyn-based, Texas-bred post-punk revivalists Parquet Courts continue to create amazing work. In an attempt to lift the band out of its’ comfort zone, the quartet, this time around, enlisted producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse to man the control panels. Any initial skepticism this collaboration may have raised is immediately put to rest upon an initial listen. The cacophonous swirl of “Total Football”, the frenetic duality of “Almost Had to Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience”, and the subtle darkness reflected in “NYC Observation” are all glorious trademarks of the band’s unique sound. What’s new is the funk. It’s music that you can tap your foot and bob your head, too, actions that normally aren’t associated with the previously recorded output. For eminent proof, visit the title track. It’s a knockout dance tune that proved infectious enough to land them a performing spot on Ellen, where the show’s host gleefully grooved along to the performance with a smile affixed to her face for the duration. – Jeff Strowe
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56. Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet – Landfall (Nonesuch)
Landfall is an album as much as it is a documentation of devastation and loss. Inspired by Laurie Anderson’s experience with Hurricane Sandy, it develops its narrative through haunting acoustic music, ethereal electronics, and the gravity of Anderson’s unmistakable voice. The record evokes a beautiful sense of unease and confusion that retains a modern nuance and complexity over its episodic 30 tracks. For their first official collaboration, Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet produced a haunting project that takes a stark examination of loss and devastation. For all it’s pathos there’s still a sense of detachment to the album, one that allows the listener to appreciate its beauty instead of continuously wallowing in misery. Landfall is a complex record that trades in gloom, comfort, and grace. – Andy Jurik
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55. Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 – Black Times (Strut)
Is there anyone better suited to bring a little protest into our lives than Fela Kuti’s youngest son? On Black Times, Seun Kuti declares himself the “Last Revolutionary” and, with Egypt 80 marching behind him, continues his father’s musical and political legacy. A brilliant selection of socially relevant Afrobeat, Black Times sees Kuti deliver scathing critiques of injustice and corruption on tracks like “Corporate Public Control Department” (“You promise to give me peace / And you give me war / You promise me justice / And then they jail the poor”) and “Struggle Sounds” (“Struggle music / Struggle sounds / Struggle people / Struggle now”).
Though his music is very much in the same vein as that of his late father, Seun Kuti rides no one’s coattails. He proves himself time and time again to be a capable bandleader for Fela-founded Egypt 80, and his voice and fire is all his own. Afrobeat may have come into being to fight a specific military junta, but Black Times proves that it serves as an equally effective soundtrack for today’s struggles. – Adriane Pontecorvo
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54. Lucy Dacus – Historian (Matador)
Historian is an apt title for Lucy Dacus. Her 2018 offering is full of vivid storytelling and honest emotion, taking memories and turning them into dynamic rockers and tender ballads. The very first line of the album is one of the year’s most compelling, as Dacus struggles to move on from her past: “The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit / I had a coughing fit / I mistakenly called them by your name.” The gritty guitars which burst into the back half of songs like “Night Shift” and “Timefighter” are glorious moments. It all adds up to one of the strongest indie rock records of the year and a breakout moment for the young Virginia native. – Chris Thiessen
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53. Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer (Sub Pop/Bella Union)
This time, it’s personal. On Father John Misty’s last album, the Grammy-winning Pure Comedy, the singer songwriter took the whole world as his subject. On God’s Favorite Customer he indulges in a thorough self-examination. The album is less than 40 minutes long, and the musical arrangements are much sparser than his previous recordings. The results are introspective, painful, and funny as he sees himself and others in all our grotesque glory. As the closing track puts it, “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)”. Misty’s tails are often bitingly funny at his own expense. He uses his overindulgent experiences as portals into the unconscious mind. On the glorious “Mr. Tillman” (which is his real name), Misty sees himself through the eyes of a hotel clerk who pleasantly catalogs past problems (sleeping on the balcony and getting the mattress rain-soaked) and points out Misty’s hallucinations (the people downstairs aren’t actors in a movie set, but real clients). As Misty acknowledges on the title track, we might all be in trouble or the source of other people’s problems, but a new day is always dawning. There is a reason to hope. – Steve Horowitz
52. Field Music – Open Here (Memphis Industries)
Peter and David Brewis have been loosening up their neat and tidy compositions at such a gradual pace that their previous album Commontime‘s foray into funky rhythms came across as a natural next step for Field Music. The album was wiry but not wired, showing the brothers from Sunderland, England to be as smart and agile as ever, all the while making it sound easy. For their next feat, Open Here, the musically dynamic duo drag art rock instrumentation – strings, brass, flutes and more — out onto the dance floor with them. The results are just as lithe and purely enjoyable as Commontime, and that much more impressive for making room for every detail without coming across as overcrowded. Songs like “Count It Up” and “No King No Princess” bring social consciousness and empathy to the fore lyrically as the rug gets cut, while elsewhere songs like the title track and the finale “Find a Way To” confirm that Field Music haven’t lost their ornate, orchestral side. – Ian King
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51. DJ Koze – Knock Knock (Pampa)
Thanks to the critical success of 2013’s Amygdala, one of the decade’s best electronic albums, DJ Koze is now able to revel in his clout and call up whatever weirdos best suit his vision. Knock Knock is his most guest-heavy album, featuring everyone from Pampa Records weed-carriers to forgotten 1990s MCs to indie rock neurotics, but the star power isn’t nearly as impressive as the massive, skyscraping platforms Koze builds for them. Koze knows big, and the sweeping strings and absolutely wounding vocal samples (no producer in house can milk so much emotion out of a snatch of chopped-up diva) means Knock Knock is as much a house “artist album” as a Sgt. Pepper/Pet Sounds-style pining-for-transcendence odyssey. Compared to Amygdala, Knock Knock is a little more professional, a little more “fuck you, I’m DJ Koze”, more about his ability to make this music than about anything he really has to say. It’s a community structured around an architect’s vision, and few producers impose as fearsome a vision on their music as Kosi Kos. – Daniel Bromfield
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50. Jeff Rosenstock – POST- (Polyvinyl)
We’ve heard it a million times since November 8th, 2016: “Trump’s elected? That means punk is back.” It’s a simplistic and groan-worthy refrain, especially given that since the election there has been far more eye-roll inducing #resistance music (see the misfire that is Katy Perry’s Witness) than authentic, hard-hitting punk. With his third solo LP POST-, Jeff Rosenstock reminds us that in challenging times, what we need is not the music we expect, but something truly cutting-edge and responsive to the times.
Recorded in what must have been a blistering 86 hours following the 2016 election, POST- catalogues all the things that make Rosenstock one of punk’s greatest innovators, a fact already cemented by the legacy of his beloved cult project Bomb the Music Industry! There are as many atypical song structures as there are power chords, and throughout it all Rosenstock’s sing-screaming drives home the urgency of his music and lyrics. When on “Let Them Win” Rosenstock chants, “They’re not gonna win / Again”, you know exactly what he means, and you know why his words need to be true, now more than ever. Rosenstock presents himself as downtrodden, and at one point he confesses, “All this useless energy / Won’t hold me through the night.” But the energy of POST- is far from useless, and the title itself reflects the hope for the future signaled by this album: POST-, what? That’s the point. It’s up to us. – Brice Ezell
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49. Fatoumata Diawara – Fenfo (Shanachie)
Malian-born singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara debuted in 2011 with the gentle acoustic power of Fatou, an album featuring the likes of Tony Allen and John Paul Jones. On sophomore studio album Fenfo, she gives new edge to her sound – and far outshines any star-studded cameos. Crisp pop notes, funky dance tracks, and raw blues lines underscore Diawara’s engaging voice as she laments injustices and celebrates love. Lyrically, she stays grounded in current events, with songs that address forced migration and colorism, but her music faces forward; a careful touch of Afrofuturism comes through in the form of subtle synths. A varied ensemble of strings makes for a particularly global sound; cellist Vincent Ségal makes a few appearances, as do electric guitars, kora, and ngoni. As exquisite as the instrumentation is, though, it comes second to Diawara’s sense of self, the real star of the album. “Fenfo” means “something to say”, and Diawara has just that – about life, people, politics, and the world. – Adriane Pontecorvo
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48. Okzharp & Manthe Ribane – Closer Apart (Hyperdub)
Closer Apart is all about dichotomies. Producer Okzharp masterminds a sparse structure of electronic beats, while performance artist and singer Manthe Ribane warms each track with smooth vocal melodies. The duo never stays still for long; low-lying “Why U in My Way” sits alongside the swagger of “Zagga”; existential “Tide” comes before the blissful affirmations of “Kubona”, which leads into the dance beats of “Theletsa”. No matter how sharp the contrasts in mood, though, the pair pulls every song into a harmonious whole, looking at the big picture and the present moment all at once – a brilliant show of perspective. On Closer Apart, the mechanical and the organic are not mutually exclusive. Rather, Okzharp and Ribane use them to create tension with spectacular sonic potential. The minimalist approach both artists take only heightens the clarity of their yin-and-yang dynamic. Innovative, unpredictable, and improbably cohesive, Closer Apart signals a wide-open future worth exploring. – Adriane Pontecorvo
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47. Jon Hopkins – Singularity (Domino)
What it must be like to be inside the mind of Jon Hopkins. When listening to 2013’s incredible Immunity and Singularity, Hopkins’ newest studio record, I imagine that life in Hopkins’ consciousness is like a Terrence Malick film, all gorgeous images and restless camerawork. Singularity is aptly named; over the course of its hour-long runtime it somehow manages to wordlessly convey the entirety of the human experience, and by the end one must wonder what, if anything, is left to say. The album flows from thudding bass and electronics to moments of tranquil beauty, where Hopkins makes simple piano note progressions ring with the beauty of whole symphonies. Since 2009’s Insides, Hopkins has composed some of the most dynamic electronic music available to the public, and Singularity sits high in his discography as a vast catalogue of life itself in musical form. – Brice Ezell
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46. Ariana Grande – Sweetener (Republic)
Is Ariana Grande the most exciting pop star right now? Just when we think we have her figured out, along comes Sweetener to defy our expectations. With the help of producers like Pharrell, Grande wisely forgoes today’s trendy aggressive club bangers for a more laid back R&B vibe. The album’s standout track is “REM”, which finds Grande professing her love to a special someone over a smooth, stripped-down beat. “Better Off” is another winner. This time, she’s moving on from an ex-lover, but the same hushed sound permeates the track. And with tracks like “Pete Davidson” and “Get Well Soon”, it’s clear that Sweetener is Grande’s most personal album yet, addressing the highs and lows that have shaped her these past few years. She’s been through a lot and music lovers are better for it. – Jon Lisi
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45. CHVRCHES – Love Is Dead (Glassnote)
The reigning tastemaker in synthpop for three albums now, CHVRCHES have always straddled the line between mainstream pop and “alternative”/”indie” with extraordinary skill, and you could imagine record label execs wishing the Scottish trio would pull out all the stops in an attempt at mainstream superstardom. Instead the band followed the guidance of Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, who urged CHVRCHES to embrace their musical malleability. Produced by hit-maker Greg Kurstin, Love Is Dead reflects the band’s confidence: yes, it sporadically leans towards bigger, pop-friendly hooks (“Graffiti”, “Get Out”, “Miracle”) but it never loses touch with what has made CHVRCHES so endearing from the very beginning.
Iain Cook and Martin Doherty create a shimmering, sparkling backdrop for singer Lauren Mayberry, who returns the favor with a bravura vocal performance. And in the end, it’s Mayberry who makes this album such a resounding success, whether on her heartfelt duet with Matt Berninger on “My Enemy”, showcasing her newfound vocal strength on “Heaven/Hell”, or dominating the pulsating “Graves”. A singular act, CHVRCHES are in full command of their art. – Adrien Begrand
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44. Elysia Crampton – Elysia Crampton (Break World)
No single record can capture the range of emotions, experiences, and perspectives contained in any particular cultural moment, but Elysia Crampton’s latest album nevertheless articulates the tumult of the past year with a sonic collage of different voices and musical ideas, all from the crucial point-of-view of an artistic maverick on the periphery of an alternatingly hostile and indifferent society. Only 18 minutes long, Crampton’s dense instrumental soliloquy captured the apocalyptic feeling of today by dabbling in subterranean, marginalized sounds: southern hip-hop, South American traditions, underground club music.
The record is meticulous in its design, with erratic drum programming that contorts around whimsical melodies and theming that touches on so many of the terrors of modern existence for the oppressed: the changing face of imperialism, the grasping tendrils of corporate and governmental tech, the global fever of refugee crises, drone warfare, and surging fascism. Yet somehow the album flows with the spirit resilience, passion, and even optimism. Miraculously, in the biotic groove of “Nativity”, the anxious thrumm of “Oscollo”, and the morphing propulsion of “Orion Song”, Crampton got the noise of 2018 just right. – Colin Fitzgerald
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43. St. Lenox – Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love (Anyway)
Listening to St. Lenox for the first time is a revelation. There’s a cluster of thoughts all popping up at once. As you are lost in thought, trying to figure out if this is outsider music or capital p ‘Pop’ music, you’ll find yourself clinging to the hyper-aware observation poetry of leader Andrew Choi. Album opener “Hashtag Brooklyn Karaoke Party” has these lines: “He’s got the seven chords dropping on the floor like a Corvette mid-life crisis in a panic room.” See? Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love is St. Lenox’s third full-length and first since 2016’s Ten Hymns From My American Gothic. It’s full of the same day-to-day analysis as the past two albums.
Those albums contained tracks interestingly named “Thurgood Marshall” and “The Public School System”, both of which are actually about the titular subjects. So, as expected, Ten Fables lives up to its title. “First Date” is a run through of pretty bad dates and “Hungry Years” is about the post-college period of austerity, so many of us have to live through. There’s so much more, and it all feels so real because Choi is doing nothing but singing what he feels to be true. That’s the secret. – Christopher Laird
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42. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy (Atlantic)
It’s no wonder Cardi B’s hard-hitting banger “Bodak Yellow” was an absolute smash last year with critics and the masses alike. The hook was undeniable. Cardi’s delivery was commanding. And the lyrical wordplay was top-notch boastful boss rap. That all combined to make Cardi B the second female rapper ever to take a single to number one on the Billboard chart with a solo performance. Following such a major breakthrough is an incredibly difficult task. But on Invasion of Privacy, Cardi B combines the uncompromising confidence of “Bodak Yellow” with just enough pop appeal to create a no-filler collection that will undoubtedly have a lasting impact.
In a streaming climate that says “quantity over quality” (think Migos’ Culture II or Yachty’s Teenage Emotions or Rae Sremmurd’s upcoming triple album), Cardi’s 48 minutes and 13 tracks on her album debut are a welcome show of constraint and focus. Each track offers something emotionally, lyrically, or musically that would allow it to stand as an individual track, or even better as part of the whole. Perhaps of all the songs, “Money Bag” is the most disposable as it depends on a similar hook to “Bodak Yellow”. But even then, Cardi’s humor never misses. – Chris Thiessen
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41. Kelly Moran – Ultraviolet (Warp)
Kelly Moran is an extremely versatile artist, musician and composer, who has been combining many different genres to build her unique sound. Modern composition, neo-classical motifs and improv might be leading the way, but there is an underlying electronic music component that also defines the creative potential of Moran, and that is brilliantly exposed in her new work Ultraviolet. The use of synths and effects compliment the prepared piano, providing Ultraviolet with a richer background, filled with delicate textures and experimental notions. It is an exquisite combination of concepts and ideas, and that electronic injection that Moran introduces is able to provide the whole endeavor with both a unique ambiance, but also with a plethora of colors that enhance the modern composition aspect of the work. It is the origin of the spectrum of sounds displayed in Ultraviolet, and the pivotal quality that takes this work over the top. – Spyros Stasis
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40. Jorja Smith – Lost & Found (FAMM)
This is not a first album that sounds like a first album; it is a first album that sounds like it came from an artist who has been doing this for years and years, an artist who already has award shows and headlining tours in her rear view mirror. As such, it’s hard to keep from seeing those things in Jorja Smith’s future. Lost & Found is a revelation. It is an album years in the making — it includes “Blue Lights”, a single Smith released back in 2016, as well as “Teenage Fantasy” and “Where Did I Go?”, which have both been kicking around since last year. The construction of the album, not to mention the individual songs, is infused with patience and care. – Mike Schiller
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39. Brockhampton – iridescence (Question Everything/RCA)
The Internet’s first and forever greatest boyband demonstrates two things with iridescence: 1) Brockhamtpon doesn’t do boring, and 2) Brockhampton isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Burdened by the aftermath of severed ties with former face of the band and major player Ameer Van for sexual misconduct, they continue to break ground. Over the course of iridescence, band members walk parallel paths. They explore the dark side of success, disillusionment with their fellow man, and the harsh reality that fame and fortune don’t fix everything.
On full display with Brockhampton’s fourth album is the collective’s collective mastery of a half century of popular music—soul, R&B, pop, emo, trap, etc.—and in particular the more creative modes of modern hip-hop. iridescence is shiny and colorful, with bounds sky high. It purposefully walks the line between feel-good and feel-what-you-feel. Perhaps Brockhampton’s greatest asset, so often a group’s Achilles’ heel, is its abundance of personalities. Here, they pull it off with a chaotic coherence, where each member inevitably takes the stage, shares their message, tells their story. You really feel for these kids—you watch them grow, learn, love, lose and learn again. It’s captivating. – A. Noah Harrison
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38. Mitski – Be the Cowboy (Dead Oceans)
Mitski creates music in short, concentrated bursts. Be the Cowboy clocks in at just around a half-hour, around the same duration as your average pop-punk record. However, one would have to be a pretty big fool to mistake brevity for lack of substance. The searing songwriting that made her an indie darling with her previous two albums hasn’t disappeared with the presence of a larger audience or with the introduction of synthesizers and more electronic elements. Mitski keeps listeners at somewhat of a distance with songs clearly written in a different guise than the more direct songs on her first two albums. Be the Cowboy bubbles with energy and is even flat-out fun, at times, but the lyrics depict a tightly-wound character whose emotional shields unravel as the album progresses. It’s a pretty dramatic reinvention that is pulled off spectacularly, and it further solidifies the notion that Mitski can really do anything. – Kevin Korber
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37. Pistol Annies – Interstate Gospel (RCA Nashville)
Country’s premiere triumvirate – the Pistol Annies are solo artists Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley – could have knocked off something fun, something with a little snark and a little wink and attitude to go with a few memorable songs. Instead, they put together Interstate Gospel, an album in which each of the songwriters reflect on some serious topics without losing any of their energy or humor. If “Stop Drop and Roll One” gets silly, it only balances the serious look they take at their world, a place full of hurt and missed opportunities, but never without the spark of something better. “Got My Name Changed Back” blends concern with wit so well that you might miss the import of the song, even if you can’t miss its pleasure. In a time when Nashville is figuring out what to do with its wealth of strong women artists, the Pistol Annies have thrown down a collaborative, fully realized record that commands proper attention. – Justin Cober-Lake
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36. Eartheater – IRISIRI (PAN)
The name of Alex Drewchin’s project could be “earth eater” or “ear theater”, and either is apt: IRISIRI is subterranean music with a theatrical sense of jollity. The former Guardian Alien member is a vocal contortionist, her voice skyrocketing into a keening upper range reminiscent of Henry Cow’s Dagmar Krause when she’s not rapping, screaming, doing bone-dry valley-girl impressions or stacking her voice into layers that’d make Julianna Barwick jealous. In keeping with electronic full-lengths’ recent trend towards holistic, filmic experiences, the short tracks here blur into one another, using start-stop tension to keep us on our toes. It’s almost like a beat tape, and though hip hop looms large there are also hints of the squishy, organic microhouse of Ricardo Villalobos. Add abstracted feminist sloganeering (“inhale baby pink/exhale red!”) and we have on our hands one of the best psychedelic protest albums of its time. – Daniel Bromfield
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35. Ital Tek – Bodied (Planet Mu)
It might seem crazy now but before Ital Tek’s 2016 masterpiece Hollowed was released, few, including its author, thought it was going to be a success. The subsequent critical adulation that followed may have taken him by surprise, but it also afforded him the freedom to explore more deeply the cinematic, immersive soundscapes that he had created on Hollowed. Written in quick bursts while working on other projects, the music on Bodied is closer to avant-garde, classical music than anything remotely approaching traditional electronic music.
Ital Tek takes the physicality and geometry of his sound and creates complex, atmospheric, otherworldly soundscapes that feel as if they are actively eschewing any common physical rules. Each song feels like an attempt to extricate himself from the limitations of time and place, creating atemporal, amorphous tracks that exist somewhere wholly new. The indeterminate nature of the music he created, added to the general sense of wonder. Sounds seem to drift in a non-definable void yet are so vividly and meticulously constructed to leave an album of breathtaking scope and vision. – Paul Carr
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34. Beach House – 7 (Sub Pop)
There’s a speaker-rattling, show stopping moment that comes early in Beach House’s seventh album. The album opens with “Dark Spring”, which serves just fine as a leadoff Beach House track. It’s an emblematic Beach House song, complete with Victoria Legrand’s shimmering vocals and Alex Scally’s squalling guitars. However, just as the song ends, there’s a disorienting sonic dip that leads into “Pay No Mind”. It’s an intoxicating shift, partly credited to producer Peter Kember’s collaboration with the band. The disorienting segue into the second track hints at the sonic risks Beach House take on their latest album.
Equally as impressive is “Dive”. Clocking in at just over four minutes, the track has no problem taking almost a minute before a hint of guitar surfaces, only to have the last third of the song pummel you – and not a second sounds out of place. It’s still the Beach House that has created some of the best dream pop landscapes over the last 15 years, but 7 represents a more thematic cohesion than almost any other of their albums. It may seem incompatible for an album to boldly challenge everything that made its creators so beloved while still giving listeners the musical equivalent of a security blanket, but 7 did just that in 2018. – Sean McCarthy
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33. I’m With Her – See You Around (Rounder)
Who’s your favorite Her? Perhaps it’s fiddlin’ filly Sara Watkins with her arrhythmia-inducingly beautiful vocals. Or maybe it’s Sarah Jarosz due to her mastery of octave mandolin, guitar, and clawhammer banjo and the warm poise of her vocals. Or you could go with Aoife O’Donovan, whose snow-dappled vocals and fragrant, sensual songcraft deconstruct traditional folk songs into shadowed electric folk-grass, textured Irish-influenced meditations, and exquisite breeze-borne ballads. Together, the three evoke olde-tyme vernaculars weaved into a lush, contemporary tapestry, a sublime one-of-a-kind musical hybrid. Pick out Watkins at the beginning of “Overland” or Jarosz leading “See You Around” or Aoife in front on “Crescent City”. Better yet, take in the lush three-part harmonies, and the profoundly gorgeous song-building on what one can only hope is just the beginning of an amazingly talent-rich siren summit. – Steve Leftridge
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32. Sarah Shook & the Disarmers – Years (Bloodshot)
Years picks up where the band’s debut Sidelong left off presenting raucous, brawling songs like “New Ways to Fail” and “The Bottle Never Let Me Down” while also introducing new wrinkles to their sound, like the pop-leaning “Heartache in Hell”. Having spent most of the previous two years touring, the unit has grown as tight as they come, and they demonstrate both the breadth of their chops and the broad expanse of country music’s potential by refusing to limit themselves to a singular sonic palette. Eric Peterson and pedal steel player Phil Sullivan offer jaunty riffs that bring an uplifting lilt to the proceedings while the rhythm section of bassist Aaron Oliva and drummer John Howie, Jr. keeps things romping along. But the focus is on Shook, who sings these wry and heart-worn songs with a piss & vinegar sincerity that hits the mark. Years is a new country classic, plain and simple. – Ed Whitelock
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31. Blood Orange – Negro Swan (Domino)
Blood Orange’s third album Freetown Sound was Dev Hynes’ “everything but the kitchen sink” style album. Don’t think that Debbie Harry, Carly Rae Jepsen, Nelly Furtado, and Lorely Rodriguez can fit on the same album? Sit back and listen. Negro Swan is a more emotionally direct effort, but it’s just as focused on the themes of black identity, queer identity, and the general feeling of not fitting comfortably into any identity. The opening track “Orlando” touches on the scars of bullying, but it also is a not-so-subtle response to the Pulse nightclub shooting in that city, especially given the imagery of its bookend track “Smoke”. “I’m waiting for the smoke to clear,” Hynes sings on the closing track.
Negro Swan is a dreamy, jazzy meditation on depression. It’s not a single-listen album to tide you over until the next unannounced release that’s due to drop this week. That said, there are plenty of instantly appealing moments on Negro Swan. “Jewelry” is a poignant ode to self-expression, while “Nappy Wonder” boasts a chorus so irresistible, you’d swear you’ve heard it in dozens of tracks dating back to the mid-’70s. A line like “feelings never had no ethics” may take a few times to absorb, but damned if you don’t feel that declaration’s impact on first listen. – Sean McCarthy
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30. Benin City – Late Night (Moshi Moshi)
Like many of us, the members of London three-piece Benin City spent their formative years in nightclubs. Therefore, they understand how these places shape us. How the interactions with the characters that frequent our favorite hangouts become crucial dots on our timeline. They can also see how those profound, wonderous spaces are being systematically closed down all in the name of gentrification. As clubs shut their doors, important acquaintances disappear and personal plotlines end, leaving only a rich bounty of nostalgic anecdotes. It is these tales that Last Night tells. A paean to the nightclub in all its lager stained, sticky-floored, sweaty glory.
Musically the album draws on a rich mix of garage, dubstep, and palpitating, classic house. From the murky electronics of “Take Me There” to the celebration of the night-bus on the exuberant “Bus”, the trio draw inspiration from every facet of club life. However, this isn’t all upbeat tales of nighttime excess. “Double or Nothing” is a heart-wrenching tale of a couple stuck in a suffocating rut while on “All Smoke, No Fire”, Idehen draws a line in the sand, implicitly calling for the unyielding wheels of urban regeneration to cease as the heart of the clubbing community is ripped out.
Last Night is a multi-layered delight that relates the experiences of clubbers up and down the country. The band understand that there are typical experiences that bind all clubbers together and they revel in detailing them. Last Night is not only the perfect soundtrack for one monumental night out, but it’s also the soundtrack to the entire formative clubbing years. – Paul Carr
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29. Spiritualized – And Nothing Hurt (Bella Union/Fat Possum)
Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce has described And Nothing Hurt as “like a field recording that’s made by Phil Spector”, which is pretty accurate. Pierce painstakingly assembled this music on his own, in the spare room of his East London home, but make no mistake, the humble location has no bearing on the music he makes and it’s as wide screen and cinematic as Pet Sounds, except, unlike Brian Wilson, he’s landlocked and the noise of the occasional ambulance going by sometimes seeps into the songs.
The woozy, narcotic feel we’ve come to know and love from Spiritualized is intact here and there’s a lovely Exile on Main Street feel to tracks like “I’m Your Man”. When Pierce cranks up the tempo, he’s just as convincing. There is a brace of rockers on And Nothing Hurt which would get even the most hardcore of wallflowers shaking a tailfeather. “On the Sunshine” and especially “The Morning After” with its churning rhythm and off kilter brass and guitar parts are highlights of a record that’s peppered with good things. The latter track weighs in at 7.42, but it’s gone in a flash. And Nothing Hurt is a soothing balm to apply when the world gets just a little bit too real. That happened quite a lot in 2018. We need Spiritualized now more than ever. – Ian Rushbury
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28. Tim Hecker – Konoyo (Kranky)
For Tim Hecker’s latest album Konoyo, the process is just as intriguing as the result. While the experimental artist has continually built dense, blaring soundscapes for over a decade, his latest project practices restraint. Inspired by the late Johann Johannsson and the tradition of gagaku, Japan’s imperial court music, Hecker softens his typically heavy-handed approach to electroacoustic music. As a result, Konoyo delicately balances the medley of ancient instrumentation and modern synthesis.
In the album’s first half, Hecker quells his presence, and the gagaku textures lead: the shō facilely drones above synthesizers; the hichiriki and ryūteki sing over digital static; and, cellos even ring without effects. On the latter half, Hecker takes control with his masterful digitization of organic sounds, beginning with and most notably on the centerpiece “Keyed Out”.
Konoyo was recorded in Tokyo’s western Nerima Ward with a traditionally trained gagaku ensemble. Reciprocally trading compositional choices and communally improvising, their collaboration process gave creative agency to all actors. Hence, Konoyo is not a simple deconstruction of gagaku, but rather it is an experimental result and ode to the ancient tradition. While Hecker’s past albums followed the conventional model of electroacoustic manipulation, Konoyo approaches gagaku with restraint and respect for the millennium-old music. – Hans Kim
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27. Boygenius – boygenius EP (Matador)
Supergroups tend to be bombastic and disposable by design, but neither of those words is in any way fit to describe what Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker have done with their first release as boygenius. Over the course of five songs, the trio craft a tour de force of sorrow, rage, anger and perseverance as expressed through a particularly intimate brand of songwriting. Occasionally solemn but never frail or delicate, these songs display an emotional resonance that few songwriters could hope to achieve in their lifetime. While each of the three members of boygenius is brilliant on their own, the synthesis of their talents creates something truly special. That this EP exists and is so fine is a joy on its own; what’s even more exciting is what may yet come from this trio. – Kevin Korber
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26. Daughters – You Won’t Get What You Want (Ipecac)
It has been eight long years since Daughters released their last project, and as their latest album title suggests, a lot has changed. You Won’t Get What You Want slows down their typically frantic tempos. While visceral guitars maintain the skittering treble assaults that trembled their prior mathcore iteration, an overwhelming sludging temper consumes the ultimate pacing of the album. So, shrieking guitars, slopping basslines, and escalating drums somehow coalesce in fragile harmony, taunting the threshold of complete discombobulation. As for the content, the unrelenting, 48-minute anti-lullaby pulls boots against emotional mudslides until surrender.
The album begins with “City Song”, a slurring moan about “betrayed yearn”, and it ends with “Guest House”, a hysterical reaction to abandonment. With ten songs and no resolve, every manic word expands the definition of despair. From outstanding fear, depressing disillusionment, to deeply ingrained paranoia, the album releases eight years of pent-up emotions, creating one of 2018’s most challenging but exhilarating projects. On “The Reason They Hate Me”, Alexis Marshall demands, “don’t tell me how to do my job”. Indeed, we shouldn’t because You Won’t Get What You Want, but you will get what you need. – Hans Kim
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25. Neko Case – Hell-On (Anti-)
It’s routine for Neko Case to produce masterwork albums, yet even by her standards, Hell-On is exceptional. Top-to-bottom, it’s her strongest record since 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and, though it may be too early for such a pronouncement, it could displace that title’s distinction as her magnum opus. A spellbinding record, it finds Case employing her patented blend of the contemporary and the anachronistic, of zeroing in on modern social vignettes with naturalistic imagery and metaphors.
While she has never shied from addressing hot-button issues, Hell-On is among her most topical and culturally outspoken. It opens with the sparsely eerie anti-hymnal title track, reveling in its sacrilegiously cryptic lyrics (quotable standout: “God is a lusty tire fire”). “Halls of Sarah” is an understated feminist anthem for the #MeToo movement, while “My Uncle’s Navy” is a searing attack on toxic masculinity. On the more personal side, there is the tour deforce centerpiece of her duet with Mark Lanegan in “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” and the quiet, yearning heartbreak of her cover of Crooked Fingers’ “Sleep All Summer” (in which she shares vocals with the tune’s writer, Eric Bachmann).
Musically, the 12 songs are all over the map, ranging from the unabashedly jubilant pop of “Bad Luck” and the surging portent of “Oracle of the Maritimes” to the rich, dour atmospherics of closing track “Pitch or Honey”. All in all, it is the quintessential Neko Case album, giving each of her facets and songwriting strengths moments in the spotlight. – Cole Waterman
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24. Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth (Young Turks)
Saxophonist and bandleader Kamasi Washington has been regularly referred to as a sort of “savior” of jazz music ever since he exploded onto the scene several years ago – with his own solo work in addition to high-profile collaborations with artists like Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, and Run the Jewels. The good news is that it’s not hype. On his second full-length album, Heaven and Earth, Washington’s sprawling musical vision includes orchestras, deft arrangements, tight soloing, and a firm grasp of jazz’ history while keeping an eagle eye on the future.
Covering classics like Freddie Hubbard’s “Hub Tones” and the theme to the Bruce Lee film Fist of Fury (notably poignant in the age of Black Lives Matter), Washington also understands the importance of infusing jazz with plenty of soul and Latin influences, as he does on original tracks like “Testify” and “Vi Lua Vi Sol,” respectively. Clocking in at two and a half hours (spread across two CDs or four vinyl records), Heaven and Earth is a lot to take in, but it’s time well-spent. Kamasi Washington is jazz music’s brightest light – may he continue to burn for a long, long time. – Chris Ingalls
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23. Lonnie Holley – MITH (Jagjaguwar)
To best appreciate the music of Lonnie Holly, one should know something of his story. Born in the Jim Crow era, the seventh of 27 siblings, the native Alabamian was traded for a bottle of whiskey at age four. Over the decades, his “folk art” assemblages took major hold in the art world. Today, the 68-year-old Atlanta resident has given birth to his most divine and (inter)stellar third record, MITH.
The music grapples heavily with digital dystopia, topics of slavery past and ongoing with a mindset reflective and revisionist. Afrofuturism. He traverses soul blues, spiritual jazz, and ambience. His vocals, fierce and gentle, reflect those of Gil Scott-Heron, while the music roams the dimension of the Sun Ra Arkestra. But make no mistake, Lonnie Holley is an entity all his own. MITH contains some of the most rousing music I’ve heard from this millennium. At this moment, it feels so right, so ripe, and all the better from a man as old, wise and far out as our of a spirit guide Lonnie Holly. – A. Noah Harrison
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22. Low – Double Negative (Sub Pop)
Low has been a constant force in the broad field of indie rock, managing to produce great works through the years. It’s a challenging task to maintain a high level of quality but the band from Minnesota not only has achieved that, but on their 25th anniversary, they produced their finest moment. Double Negative is an exquisite release in many levels, seeing Low strike the perfect balance between their off-kilter characteristics and their tendency to approach a more mainstream sound. On the one hand, they retain their experimental perspective, diving deep into sound design and the extreme use of distortion, but at the same time, they manage to make the result never sound harsh. On the other end, they revel in a pop sensibility, which is much more pronounced than in their previous releases, and it is something that further reveals the emotive core of the band. The combination of these two aspects is nothing less than masterful, and Double Negative becomes a testament of Low’s capability of displaying their emotional side while also retaining their experimental outlook. – Spyros Stasis
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21. Vessel – Queen of Golden Dogs (Tri Angle)
Sebastian Gainsborough, the artist behind Vessel, has produced excellent works of forward thinking electronic music with his first two records, Order of Noise and Punish, Honey. In these early works, Vessel presented a disfigured vision of electronic music, relying on the harsher elements of noise and industrial genres to create a bombastic progression. At the same time, the influence of an atmospheric perspective was predominant in the works, as well as an ethos towards a leftfield approach to production. Queen of Golden Dogs however, sees this approach bloom into something completely different with Gainsborough injecting a neo-classical and modern composition approach on his electronic backbone.
These new elements present a completely different side of Vessel, this time with some fantastic vocal deliveries being at the record’s centre, allowing a more emotive quality to sprout forth. Yet, Vessel still brings the whole endeavor back to its point of origin unleashing some extravagant beats and progressions, collapsing the neo-classical motifs of the work. It is Gainsborough’s ability to move forward and experiment with a plethora of new ideas and concepts that makes Queen of Golden Dogs such an enticing listen. – Spyros Stasis
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20. Tangents – New Bodies (Temporary Residence)
Tangents’ post-genre intentions were clear on their 2016 album, Stateless. New Bodies, their third full length carries their poly-mode over into seven instrumental, improv-fed showcases of their increasingly ambitious work. No doubt the ‘new bodies’ that the shapeshifting Sydney quintet are contemplating in the album’s title are not mapped and rigid like the land masses we inhabit, and not uniform in structure like the human forms we all occupy. Exploration of celestial bodies is an apparent possible theme, yet those are still so far out of reach as to remain a visible but untouchable ideal. Tangents do boldly go places few or none have quite gone before, but they do handily get there. Bodies of water, then, surely. If their music were to be rendered in physical form, it could only be in liquid. – Ian King
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19. St. Paul and the Broken Bones – Young Sick Camellia (RECORDS, LLC)
St. Paul & The Broken Bones have often been pigeonholed as a retro-soul act. On Young Sick Camellia, their third full-length together, Paul “St. Paul” Janeway and his bandmates show just how misleading and deleterious this label can be. Brimming with old-school stylings and sweat-soaked funk backdrops that sound like the Famous Flames simply reassembled around a new frontman, these songs all stem from a singular ability to express oneself through a decades-old tradition. Simply calling this work “retro-soul” would be a careless critical maneuver that would miss how truly remarkable this ability is.
With the help of hip-hop producer Jack Splash, who has worked with modern-day trendsetters like Solange, Kendrick Lamar, and Diplo, the band avoids retreading the same ground they covered on 2014’s Half the City and, their sophomore record, 2016’s Sea of Noise. Young Sick Camellia is by a band at the height of their powers. These powers may be lifted from a tradition that predates them by more than half a century, but that shouldn’t be a reason to cast them aside as a mere novelty. It should be a reason to admire them more. – Pryor Stroud
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18. Rival Consoles – Persona (Erased Tapes)
Few albums immerse you so quickly and completely into a fully-formed sonic world but that is exactly what Ryan Lee West (aka Rival Consoles) has done with his extraordinary Persona album. From the smooth, alien terrain of “Untravel” to the kaleidoscopic landscapes of “I Think So” to the claustrophobic sunless skies of “Phantom Grip”, this is an album that straddles light and dark, tranquility and chaos, fixed and broken all framed around a singular concept; the exploration of one’s persona. Taking inspiration from the Ingmar Bergman film of the same name, West has created a complex sonic tapestry from a mix of analog synths, warped acoustic instruments, and typically inventive use of effects pedals.
At times wildly kinetic and at others purposely languid it’s an ever-changing, constantly evolving album that invites the listener to question the very idea of themselves that they present to the world. It’s that beguiling mix of transportive electronic soundscapes and invitation for self-analysis that makes this album one of the most soul-stirring and evocative albums of the year. – Paul Carr
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17. Christine and the Queens – Chris (Because Music)
Chris is more than an album that you can dance by yourself with. There is bliss to Christine and the Queen’s style that acknowledges the socio-political landscapes that beat down on what it means to be a person in the 21st-century. This is a record that feels unorthodox in its musicality, in spite of how it bears the essentials of electronic pop. The elements of movement and music are what make Christine and the Queens stand out.
As she dances, we dance in our own syncopated squiggles. Tracks like “5 Dollars” and “Girlfriend” have a strength to them that generate empowerment, whether through their straightforward pop or jagged electronics. She also takes the pop sentimentalities of Beyoncé on “Feel So Good” and “The Stranger” when she shifts from low and leathery notes to high ones that contain rebellion. What makes Christine and the Queens praise-worthy in 2018 and beyond is her substitution of reckless abandon with headstrong rebellion. Sure, she has both in her style, but in the end, it is the latter that showcases her identity and gathers our support. We see her as a person and an artist through Chris. – Dustin Ragucos
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16. Julia Holter – Aviary (Domino)
From her early days Julia Holter displayed a tendency for pushing the boundaries of the singer/songwriter domain. Records like Tragedy and Ekstasis showcased a defiant spirit and an ambitious vision for crafting a new art pop paradigm. However, she took a detour from that trajectory with Loud City Song and especially Have You in My Wilderness, which found her moving closer to indie folk. While both records were impressive, they didn’t display the depth that was expected from an artist of Holter’s caliber, but Aviary comes to reinstate all this.
With her new record Holter brings back this powerful ambition for reconstructing the notions of art pop and baroque pop, crafting a work that is much more complex, dense and deep than her two previous endeavors. Through the 90 minutes of Aviary, the composer loses herself in a haze of compositions, beautiful arrangements and cathartic crescendos, while always holding on to her trademark melodic temperament. It is a difficult work that requires many listens, but the world that Holter constructed redeems the listener every time. – Spyros Stasis
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15. Saba – Care For Me (Saba Pivot, LLC)
If Chance the Rapper’s most optimistic output sounds like Chicago on beautifully warm spring day, Saba’s Care For Me is the equivalent of a deep winter in that city. “I got angels runnin’ ‘way, I got demons huntin’ me / I know ‘Pac was 25, I know Jesus 33,” Saba says breathlessly on “Life”. It’s a statement that’s completely devoid of posturing. In 2017, Saba’s cousin, John Walt, was fatally stabbed in Chicago – one of the city’s 650 homicides that year. The loss looms over even the brightest of tracks on Care For Me.
On “Smile,” under an uncomplicated finger snap-like percussion, Saba chants “smile” in the chorus, willing himself to do just that despite the “Moment of madness I can’t seem to evade.” Care For Me runs a lean 40 minutes, but its standout moment takes it time to unfold. The seven-minute track “Prom/King” is a spellbinding narrative, richly detailing those moments that divide your life into “pre” and “post.” The track starts innocently enough, nailing the awkwardness of high school life in trying to secure a date (“don’t trip and just wear black”), but its second half turns into a scene of domestic hell as Saba details getting a frantic call from Walt’s mother. There were plenty of great releases in 2018, but few will linger in you like Care For Me. – Sean McCarthy
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14. Ray BLK – Empress (Universal/Island)
What Ray BLK accomplished in eight short tracks on Empress is nothing short of remarkable. To this point a talented bit player in an emerging, vital R&B scene that includes such rising stars as Jorja Smith and H.E.R., Empress puts Ray BLK firmly at the front of the line. The deep, groove-oriented beats in her music are informed by hip-hop, an influence she occasionally mirrors in her vocals via some very competent rapping, though it is Ray BLK’s self-assured attitude that most mirrors hip-hop’s greats.
Empress touches on romance and social awareness, but mostly, it is a love letter to herself in the way that it is a love letter to all strong women, which she accomplishes not by hyperbolizing her best traits but by accentuating the very real ones that make her unique. “Got My Own” is the perfect rewrite of “Independent Women” for 2018, “Girl Like Me” turns an anthem to lust on its ear by turning the camera on herself, and “Don’t Beg” is a kiss-off that demands — get this — a clean ending with mutual respect from a former suitor. Nothing is stronger than emotional maturity, it turns out. Empress is as fitting a title as she could possibly have given her album. Ray BLK is ready to take over. – Mike Schiller
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13. SOPHIE – OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES (MSMSMSM/Future Classic)
SOPHIE’s official debut album is far more significant than just the logical next artistic step for the already prolific producer: it is her brave reveal. OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES uncovers the reality of SOPHIE’s transgender womanhood through characteristically opaque strands of pop that functions equally as underground dancefloor epics, fragments of conceptual philosophy, and intimate bedroom sing-alongs. Appropriately, the album unveils the depths of SOPHIE’s creative potential; old fans should appreciate the caustic circuitry of “Ponyboy” and “Faceshopping”, but the immersive, spectral energy of ambient detour “Pretending”, the radio-ready spunk of “Immaterial”, and the emancipatory soul of bubbly anthem “It’s Okay to Cry” are revelations, bringing her flexible persona — and the inclusionary spirit of the album — into crystal clear focus. OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES is a redefinition not only of the sensual boundaries of pop music, but also of its function as an apparatus of inspiration and empathy. It also makes SOPHIE a star. – Colin Fitzgerald
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12. Yves Tumor – Safe in the Hands of Love (Warp)
Compared to Sean Bowie’s earlier eclectic and often convoluted albums under the Yves Tumor and Teams monikers, Safe in the Hands of Love is strikingly direct and accessible. His raw experimentalism, textural explorations, and power electronics are pushed to the background as pop sensibilities and a simple yet beautiful songcraft take over. But it is exactly this marriage of unabashed experimentalism and mainstream mannerism that exposes the real brilliance and unbridled creative power of Bowie’s vision. Safe in the Hands of Love is a culmination of his exploratory work, a hypermedial concoction liberated from preconceptions of form and genre that encompasses numberless styles—from deconstructed R&B, soul, vaporwave, synthpop, to rock—and sublimes them into a vivid mosaic of contemporary, internet-centric society.
Songs dance with their anachronistic, idiosyncratic, and bleeding-edge elements, structurally clean but texturally expansive and laced with influences. That is why a cut like “Noid”, which fuses breakbeat pop with alternative rock, can exist on the same level as the labyrinthine, noisy dark ambient of “Hope In Suffering (Escaping Oblivion & Overcoming Powerlessness)”. Dazzling, emotionally impactful, and genuine in its delivery, Safe in the Hands of Love exists as the world exists today, multifaceted and ambiguous. – Antonio Poscic
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11. Robyn – Honey (Konichiwa/Interscope)
Robyn’s Honey is an impassioned study of fearlessness. Returning from an eight-year hiatus, Honey showcases Robyn’s ability to determine her agency. The album finds Robyn reveling in her assertiveness and brazenly in control of her sexual wants. Whereas previously Robyn briefly alluded to her desire for pleasure, on Honey she is imperious. Fittingly, the album’s early stages were created in solitude, giving Robyn the space to explore her sexual prowess. More so, the artist is decidedly and concurrently human and vulnerable. She laments in heartache while prostrating herself before a scorned lover. But in typical Robyn style, she does not stagger from vulnerability. Instead, she is indelibly unapologetic. Honey showcases her ability to sweep across emotions while maintaining her agency.
Musically, Honey enshrines Robyn’s empowerment. She took more control of the production than with previous records including creating beats and selecting samples. The danceable spiritedness of Body Talk is evident throughout Honey, but the album also finds Robyn commandeering new soundscapes. With the change of a track, she summons a rhythmic cyclone then transforms into a quixotic impression. Honey is more than an album; it is a chimerical musical experience. – Elisabeth Woronzoff
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10. Maribou State – Kingdoms in Colour (Counter)
We are living in a period of history characterized by self-imposed isolation and willful insularity. At a time when governments are going to great lengths to demarcate their territory and reinforce their boundaries, British electronic band Maribou State produced an album that did quite the opposite. Taking inspiration from the music scenes and heritage of the places they had toured whilst promoting previous album, Portraits, Kingdoms in Colour is an album without borders. An album that straddles the globe from Delhi through to Libson, and pays little attention to where one genre starts and another ends.
From the Indian melodies, the Krautrock percussion to sweeping oriental strings, each song feels like embarking on a whistle stop world tour. Throughout the album, Maribou State skillfully layer a bold, prismatic fusion of styles that takes the listener on a beguiling musical journey. It is a daring, fascinating album that beautifully balances the organic and synthetic as the pair weave in live instruments with artfully chosen samples. By embracing a more expansive approach the band have created a beautifully heterogeneous album that illustrates what can be achieved by focusing one’s gaze outwards and embracing diversity. – Paul Carr
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9. Noname – Room 25 (Self-released)
Since 2016’s sparkling debut Telefone, slam poet-turned hip-hop phenom Fatimah Warner, aka Noname, moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. The crux of her second album Room 25 concerns that move – her personal and artistic journeys within and among the two cities. New loves, new struggles, new cultural expectations around beauty, and so on. That gives it more emotional heft than her debut, a strength that carries through her agile approach to rapping. She’s flexible verbally but also with topics; she casually switches from being funny to morose, provocative to sentimental.
Just as important to Room 25‘s success is the increased weight of the musical atmosphere. Produced by Noname and Phoelix, this is a lush, gorgeous album, meeting neo-soul with current hip-hop but also integrating other light and bright styles of pop and soul. Room 25 is a further announcement that we’re in the presence of greatness, but it’s also a display of hip-hop’s absolute versatility (something we should know in 2018, but seem to forget). And it’s yet another reminder that most of the most creative and interesting music these days is being made by women, no matter what you see on the charts and year-end lists. – Dave Heaton
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8. Lotic – Power (Tri Angle)
Electronic music, like hip-hop, is at its very core concerned with the operations of power. House and techno music were born out of struggle, from urban communities of LGBTQ people of color in need of spaces of salvation in which they could productively channel the frustration of surviving in an oppressive society. Lotic’s Power is unsurprisingly about conflict, specifically from the perspective of the disempowered; songs with titles like “Resilience” and “Fragility” wordlessly tap into the emotional weight of existential strife at the heart of a hateful society, while the assertive industrialized grooves of “Distribution of Care” and “Bulletproof” serve as acts of cultural resistance.
It’s “Hunted’s” whispered mantra, though — “Brown skin, masculine frame / Head’s a target / Acting real feminine / Make ’em vomit” — that fully demonstrates the provocative, liberating virtue of an album like Power as it brandishes authority and tenacity against systems of privilege. Lotic’s message is one of empathy and empowerment, and through its gritty, melancholy canals, Power fulfills the mission of its forebears. – Colin Fitzgerald
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7. Deafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love (Anti-)
Deafheaven are famous for combining heavy guitar riffage with melodic shoegaze-style passages and more sedate, ambient work. But the harsh screaming vocals of George Clarke have always provided a counterpoint to all of this atmosphere, sometimes pushing the band along into full black metal while at other points piercing the calmer layers of their music. On Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, Deafheaven have pushed their stylistic ambitions even further, making their most engaging album to date. “You Without End” builds a relaxed piano-guitar duet into a cathartic full band release, using spoken word storytelling and incorporating Clarke in subtler ways that don’t overwhelm the established mood of the song. “Night People” employs Chelsea Wolfe and Ben Chisolm to sing a quiet duet, while “Near” recalls Sunbather’s low-key interstitials.
But the album’s best moments, like the epic-length “Canary Yellow” and “Glint” find the band incorporating multiple moods and styles into sprawling, hugely effective pieces that expertly use Kerry McCoy’s penchant for guitar hero theatrics, Clarke’s table saw-like howl, and Daniel Tracy’s drumming versatility. Ordinary Corrupt Human Love combines big music with big feelings into one of the year’s most emotionally affecting albums. – Chris Conaton
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6. George FitzGerald – All That Must Be (Double Six)
In essence All That Must Be is about acceptance. Acceptance that life can be confusing and unpredictable. That the tangible and familiar can quickly be disrupted by seismic life changes. On his follow up to his debut Fading Love, FitzGerald gradually comes to terms with life’s uncertainties, on an often explicitly personal album that strikes the perfect balance between poignancy and escape. All That Must Be is his most cohesive work yet, retaining an organic and human feeling on with songs that are shot through with more realized pop melodies.
On slowly unfurling opener, “Two Moons Under”, FitzGerald fashions a punchy, danceable rhythm from layers of sliced and diced looped vocals while on “Burns”, he assembles ripples of airy vocal tracks that take on a meditative, almost spiritual air. The achingly soulful “Roll Back” sees FitzGerald and Lil Silva create something almost transcendentally brilliant, painting sadness with the subtlest of strokes. The carefully judged balance between urgency and tension on the brilliant “Siren Calls” embodies the overriding theme of the album, that remembering yet resisting the constant draw of the past.
All That Must Be is a musically rich, expertly layered album that sees FitzGerald gradually resisting the urge to retreat and instead embracing the new challenges, sensations and experiences ahead of him. – Paul Carr
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5. serpentwithfeet – soil (Secretly Canadian/Tri Angle)
This year saw many attempts to extract fresh insight from traditional songwriting forms, from the lonely-hearted anthems of Mitski to the experimental piano ballads of Grouper, but it was serpentwithfeet’s take on the love song in all its varieties — devotional, empowering, confessional, tear-jerking — that felt truly elucidating. soil is a swooning heart in the age of digital interference, a love-stung prayer among infinite disconnected souls. It’s about the two things we all experience both together and alone: love and ghosts. Josiah Wise is a delicate and dynamic singer capable of whispering profound declarations (“bless ur heart”) and belting out the most intimate of thoughts (“cherubim”), and as a lyricist, he imbues the poetic details of romance with universality and emotion.
Combining classical instrumentation with intrepid electronic production, the music is breathlessly dramatic, perfectly mirroring the theatricality of Wise’s soul-filled voice and giving the album a sonic fingerprint that stands alone even among the current expansion of R&B’s stylistic scope. As haunting as it is warm and as spiritual as it is humanist, soil is an ambitious vision of the complexities of modern relationships under the pressures of a society that seeks to destroy love that it doesn’t understand. – Colin Fitzgerald
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4. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer (Bad Boy)
It’s hard to argue against Dirty Computer being Janelle Monáe’s best work to date. Until this set, she was content to label herself an android while crafting (admittedly) out-of-this-world music. Naturally, then, what makes Computer so compelling is that for the first time, she has kinda/sorta shed the robotic persona in favor of something more sincere, or in her words, more personal. That’s most visible on the intergalactically funky “Make Me Feel” when she chides a questioner by asserting “you got the answers to my confessions” right before a Prince-ified guitar brightens the room. “Django Jane” is then much less colorful yet undeniably more raw, leaving the world to beg for that hip-hop-only album we so desperately need Monáe to one day unleash. And then “Americans” brings the rocket ship back to earth with defiance, confidence and optimism as she confides, “Love me, baby. Love me for who I am.” As if it wasn’t hard enough already, these 14 tracks cement the reality that it’s impossible not to. – Colin McGuire
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3. Idles – Joy as an Act of Resistance (Partisan)
The second album from Bristol, England’s Idles takes a form of music that is typically regarded as a vehicle for the expression of anger and installs in its core a big, open heart. Brutalism, the five-piece’s full length debut from only a year ago (though the band have been together for most of this decade), at times wielded a sense of irony that could unintentionally leave it open to misinterpretation. This time around, then, frontman Joe Talbot says what he means and means what he says, whether it’s about finding strength in vulnerability, loving oneself, embracing immigration and other cultures – and even when he gruffly sings “I really love you / Look at the card I bought / It says ‘I love you’.” Guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan, bassist Adam Devonshire and drummer Jon Beavis bash out their posi-core punk with celebratory fury, embracing the constructive edge of chaos, and even more so in their utterly cathartic live performances. Joy As an Act of Resistance is the angry, honest, optimistic record needed in these times. – Ian King
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2. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour (MCA Nashville)
Each of Kacey Musgraves’ three albums have had its own personality, while keeping within a certain pithy-cute countrypolitan-ish approach to country music. Golden Hour is an album of love songs, in a personal and universal sense. It’s also a slow-motion-moment-in-the-sun album; the daydreamer hitting upon a moment of clarity. This time her style of country slides into pristine near-disco and a bohemian adult contemporary that take country in a pop direction different from what most people mean when they use those two words together. The startlingly bright, gorgeous musical setting, from beginning to end, plays a huge part in the album’s power, combined with the way each song seems designed to snap listeners to complete attention.
Musgraves’ songs play around with clichés, but this time also promote a focus and immediacy tied up with our own mortality, family ties and life journeys. The songs ache with the knowledge that the sun will one day fade and never come back. The songs ache, period, but they also reverberate with wonder. Musgraves’ brand of optimism breathes melancholy but isn’t dwelling on it; she’s moved past that phase of her own personal enlightenment. The love song “Happy and Sad” lends a quick synopsis of the album’s baseline emotion: “happy and sad at the same time”. But she ends the album with a reminder of the rainbow hanging above all of our individual dark clouds.
Standing apart in several different ways from the rest of 2018’s music, Golden Hour seems built for inspiration — but in a pointed, not hollow, way. It’s packed with songs that each make their own unique and mysterious effort to burrow into our heart. She’s trying hard to convince us, and perhaps herself, that the last words of the album, “it’ll all be all right”, might just turn out to be true. – Dave Heaton
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1. Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar (Ninja Tune)
Scotland-based collective, Young Fathers have always pushed at the expectations of what a band should be. Over their 10 years as a band, the trio of Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham ‘G’ Hastings have reveled in consistently taking the road less travelled. They are a band who appreciate the value of music as artistic expression rather than throwaway commodity. At times consciously oblique, Cocoa Sugar is an album that retains an enigmatic quality. Provocative when it needs to be, it doesn’t try to answer the difficult questions, rather it invites the listener to delve into their own minds to find out the answers for themselves.
While it, is, without doubt, the band’s most accessible album to date, don’t think for a moment that they have compromised their sound in pursuit of mainstream success. They may have produced one of their most straightforward and catchiest songs to date in “In My View”, having pushed themselves to write more linearly, but the album is still brimming with astounding, off-piste detours. The rip and ripple of “Wow”, the dub groove meets Afrobeat of “Wire”, and the skittering “Toy” to name just three.
Musically, it is one of the most inventive albums of this or any other year, one that takes months to unpick. For every hook or vocal melody there is a contrasting, experimental noise, as if the band are at pains to scuff up the sound if things become too comfortable. It’s this juxtaposition that makes the album such a thrilling and rewarding listen. – Paul Carr
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