The bigger the internet gets, the easier it is to make and distribute music, and the more sub-genres that tend to emerge, the less consensus seems there seems to be. There is more music, more writers and more varied taste than ever before. That said I don’t really care. I like what I like, and this is the bestest for me.
- Amen Dunes – Freedom (Sacred Bones)
Every year there is always one record that just manages to get stuck under my skin, tug on my emotions and demand something akin to worship. Damon McMahon’s, (AKA Amen Dunes), “Freedom” is a rock masterpiece, in an age of keyboards and laptops. It is a perfect balance of mood and texture, filled with a sadness that somehow manages to sound joyful and optimistic. It is music filled with a patient momentum, building towards a heavy groove.
On the sublime “Miki Dora,” McMahon croons in his dusty soulful way: “Getting on fine / Catch the next wave / Get the move right / Darken the wave” This is quintessential Amen Dunes positivity filled with darkness rolling across a steady guitar and drum line that drifts into a strange new dimension. Like War On Drugs, there is a kind of modern classic rock that transcends time and place, and this time out Amen Dunes has bottled a specific kind of magic.
- Snail Mail – Lush (Matador)
Continuing with a nostalgic 2018 featuring bands that seem to be more inspired by the music of the 90’s than pop and electronic mainstream of today, Snail Mail’s 20 year-old Lindsey Jordon is mature beyond her age. With a confidently angelic voice and a punk aesthetic not unlike early Liz Phair, her rock solid debut is a perfect collection of catchy pop songs.
On the album’s signature track “Pristine” she sings: “If it’s not supposed to be / Then I’ll just let it be / And out of everyone / Be honest with me.” She balances this coming of age stream of consciousness, with crisp guitar lines and an immaculate production. Sometimes all you need is a great chorus and the naivety of youth to shake you from the reality of the present.
- Parquet Courts – Wide Awake! (Rough Trade)
On their Danger Mouse produced 8th album in five years, the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Texas, punk savants cover about as much musical ground as possible with these thirteen perfect songs. There are the pure Minutemen inspired bass-guitar dominated gems like “Violence,” “Normalization,” “Total Football,” and “Almost Had To Start A Fight,” perfect ballads like “Freebird II” and “Mardi Gras Beads.” and the Danger Mouse signature funk-retro fusions like “Before water Goes To High,” “Tenderness,” and “Wide Awake.”
But what holds it all together so tightly is the precision and decidedly clever politics that is woven throughout. Unlike the angry punk politics from an earlier generation, Parquet Courts infuse theirs with a healthy dose of humor. Like the Velvets before them, the band has important things to say but drapes them in a cool so blue, the messages just seem obvious.
- Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo (Dead Oceans)
It’s not very often that a band creates something so original that it literally defies classification. Described by some as “Thai surf rock” or “psychedelic dub” (whatever that means), Khruangbin makes music that is both style and substance. Although “Con Todo” is truly a wonderful collection of songs, it is really what the band does live that adds the necessary context to their brilliance.
As musicians, the band is as technically proficient as almost anyone playing today, but in part it is the theater of their live show (matching black wigs, bizarrely beautiful dance moves, etc.) that gives them permission to play such strange music to an increasingly large audience of zealots. Like Phish before them, they create a mood and experience that is truly revolutionary. Seeing is believing, but listening is the ultimate proof.
- Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Sparkle Hard (Matador)
Any self-respecting Pavement fan has, no doubt, been tracking the post-career music of Stephen Malkmus quenching their thirst for his hyperliterate lyrics, signature guitar lines, and one of a kind vocal stylings. On every record there are always at least a few songs that bring you right back into that mid-90’s groove, but never a record as complete and satisfying as this.
“Sparkle Hard” is a top to bottom gem – a cynic’s take on the messy politics of today. On “Middle America,” which is probably his best post-Pavement song, he laments “Men are scum, I won’t Deny / May You be shit-faced the day you die / And be successful in all your lies.” You can take the kid out of college, but you can’t take college out of the kid. Malkmus is that rare genius who can take the current state of the world and turn it into an uproarious joke.
- Be The Cowboy – Mitski (Dead Oceans)
On her first four albums, you could tell that if Mitski wanted to make something accessible – almost resembling pop music, she could. Her crystalline vocals had almost always been offset by some kind dark instrumentation leading towards something bleaker than you always felt up for. “Be The Cowboy” demonstrates something of a distant admiration for St. Vincent or PJ Harvey, relegating much of the darkness to the lyrics, and letting the instrumentation create the brightness.
Like earlier efforts, Mitski writes mainly about relationships, the raw emotional confessions that tend to happen along the way to settling into adulthood. On the breakout classic “Nobody,” she sings: And I don’t want your pity / I just want somebody near me / Guess I’m a coward / I just want to feel alright.” Don’t we all.
- Phosphorescent – C’est La Vie (Dead Oceans)
Rootsy Americana tested the mainstream with bands like Head and the Heart, Lumineers, and Mumford, but these bands have struggled to ride that wave and maintain such large audiences. The best of these bands (Wilco, My Morning Jacket) have built sustainable careers to large but not headlining audiences which has given them the flexibility to make the kind of music they want to make.
Almost 20 years into it, Phosphorescent (AKA Matthew Houck) has established himself as one of those artists. “C’est La Vie” is a mix of catchy, almost pop, songs like “New Birth in New England” with more somber country rock anthems like “Christmas Down Under.” Most of the nine songs collected here come in at 5+ minutes, giving the band a long fuse to set the scene and meander quietly towards a spot way out in the distance. Drop a log on the fire, and just listen to it flicker.
- Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Hope Downs (SubPop)
Listening to Australia’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever is like taking a graduate class in the history of guitar based indie rock. Like a totally original amalgam of The Feelies, The Fall, Real Estate and a bunch of other seminal rockers before them, they weave humable melodies into garage rock tapestries.
“Hope Downs” is filled with gems like “Mainline” where they sing: “She said, “I’ll tell you a few things, free of charge: Steer clear of jagged rock, tread careful at the higher level / This ain’t no game, but you can play if that’s what you want.” They capture snippets of the kind of conversation you can imagine taking place late night as a hipster drives across the globe. Just let these songs roll over you like lazy summer afternoons.
- Kamasi Washington– Heaven and Earth (Young Turks)
Kamasi has done more for for reviving modern jazz than just about anyone since the Marsalis clan. He is also a prolific wunderkind whose equally talented band has helped rebuild that bridge between hip-hop and traditional electric jazz. Like fusion of the ultimate fusionists – Miles Davis and Sun Ra, Kamasi performs space rock anthems that build into cacophonous explosions before settling back into something more grounded and calm.
Although it’s one side shorter than his debut album, “Heaven and Earth” is an ambitious double-album that weighs in at over 2.5 hours. It’s a lot to swallow in one sitting, but the sheer expansiveness of the landscape he’s drawn out is nothing short of amazing.
10. Spiritualized – And Nothing Hurt (Fat Possum)
It’s hard to imagine that it’s been 20 years since Jason Pierce released the seminal “Ladies & Gentleman We Are Floating In Space.” But on this bedroom recorded masterpiece, we get all that hazey, stony, slow building anthemic signature moments packed into nine beautiful tracks.
Like his spiritual brethren The Velvet Underground, the music here is pure atmospheric guitary bliss, meandering along slowly until it explodes into something sweeping and magical. Whether it’s the Lou Reed-ish “A Perfect Miracle” or the psych-rocker “The Morning After,” this is a trip down some strange and colorful rabbit hole of fun.
11. Bonny Doon – Long Wave (Woodsist)
Something about Bonny Doon’s lazy groove just kind of woes you into a kind of peaceful state of mind. The Detroit four piece band makes a kind of old school melodic lo-fi indie rock, mostly lost in an era of computer music. There is nothing flashy about the slow and rambling riffs, but I guess that’s the point: simplicity is always really hard.
Throughout the ten tunes of their sophomore album, they keep you reeled in by rolling through the quiet contemplation of a slacker dream. On one of my favorite tracks of the year, vocalist Bill Lennox sings “I should be happy / But I’m Not / I should be grateful / But I’m Not.” Sharing a penchant for clean and bright Luna-esque licks, the bands doesn’t ask very much, but manages to deliver just want you need.
12. Shame – Songs of Praise (Dead Oceans)
Punk is alive and well in South London thanks to a bunch of teens who have delivered one of the strongest debuts in recent history. The band plays loud angry rock music, but seems to infuse it with a kind of harmonic energy that helps them cross over the trashy dirge that usually tends to bog down the genre. Emerging out of nowhere, thanks to the raw power of their live shows, “Songs of Praise” is hard driving fun translating the mosh pit perfectly.
The truly anthemic “One Rizla” is a triumphant song that bottles the gruff rebellion of youth with the optimism of a long road ahead. Filled with swirling guitars and singer Charlie Steen’s raw and impassioned vocals, Shame seems like a worthy torchbearer of the flame.
13. Jungle – For Ever (4AD)
It’d be hard to imagine a sophomore effort as mind-blowing as the self-titled 2014 debut funk throwback. In the years since, you can hear their influence on modern dance music, but nothing really comes close. “For Ever” doesn’t approach the perfection of the first, but they do manage to pump out some quite amazing jams along the way. While both of the bands principle architects fell in and out of love while recording this, the album wears a bit of this on its sleeve.
“Heavy California” is built on the kind of sunny grooves you’d expect from a bunch of sun starved brits who have come to LA for inspiration. But it’s the standout “Happy Man” that cuts to the emotional punch that flavors the album. On it, in a nod to Talking Heads, we hear them ponder: “Buy yourself a dream / How’s it looking? / Buy yourself a car / And a house to live in / Get yourself a girl/Someone different/Buy yourself a dream/And it won’t mean nothing.” Amen, this is the modern world.
14. U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited (4AD)
When you have to struggle to place a record you love into some kind of identifiable category (I guess this is broadly R&B?) it is likely proof that there is something special going on. “Crtl” is the second album from Solana Rowe, whose brand of classic avante-jazz is shot through the prism of modern life, filled with dots, loops and vocal manipulations.
Falling comfortably into the Kamasi, Thundercat, Flying Lotus jazz renaissance, SZA is somewhat of a chameleon drifting in between standard stylings and slightly more radio friendly fare. On the standout “Prom,” she sings “Fearin’ not growin’ up / Keepin’ me up at night / Am I doin’ enough / Feel like I’m wastin’ time.” Like all great things, what’s old is new again, over and over again.
15. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour (Mercury Nashville)
How many times can you ignore a record on almost every reputable top ten list before you relent and take a listen? A lot. But then against my country music instincts, I put on some good headphones and just kind of fell into it. At times the songs tend to be a bit too sugary for my taste, but I guess you need a bit of that to land a near headlining slot at Coachella!
Shy of Sturgill Simpson’s debut, this “Golden Hour” might only be the second genuine country album to make the Bestest. As we know, she sings like an angel and plays with a Nashville studio supergroup that makes every moment sound silky smooth, but perhaps it was her alleged LSD daliance that provided an additional door to perception.
And a bunch of other exceptional stuff …
16. Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar (Ninja Tune) Trying to place the sparsely danceable, sonically diverse follow up to the Edinburgh band’s Mercury Prize winning debut is nearly impossible. With shades of TV On The Radio, mixing distant R&B and hip-hop with a variety of dots and loops, the band skates across a vast landscape.
17. Soccer Mommy – Clean (Fat Possum) Another great album from a fantastic young female indie rocker who channels the classic indie rock of the 90’s singing off kilter confessionals the old fashioned way.
18.Parcels – Parcels (Kitsune Musique) This Aussie band, currently stationed in Berlin, whose first single was produced by Daft Punk (not surprisingly) is about as hooky as anything you’ve heard since .. well .. Daft Punk. That’s a compliment.
19. Tirzah –Devotion (Domino) Why are so many young female brits (Amy Winehouse, Adele) so connected to soul and R&B in a way that is lost on their American peers? Maybe it’s the relentlessly bleak weather, the rich musical history, or something in the water. Tirzah (Mica Levi) is another prodigy whose music is rooted in the past and way out there in the future.
20. boygenius –boygenius (Matador) When three of the finest young female singer songwriters (Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker) make a near perfect EP, it’s hard not to pine for a full length and three more solo efforts as soon as possible.
21. Neko Case – Hell-On (Anti-) It’s hard not to love almost any Neko Case song, but this time she moves just far enough away from the country vibes of the last few to fall hard and fast for her again.
22. Yves Tumor– Safe In the Hands of Love (Warp) On this bizarre and texturally weird, almost Bjork-ian album, Sean Bowie weaves a tapestry of beautiful darkness in one of the most diverse albums of the year tackling darkness and light with equal awe.
23. Idles – Joy As An Act of Resistance (Partisan) This might be the heaviest punk record I have dug for quite a while. The English punk band uses humor as the antidote for the rage that seems to be in the water in a post Brexit UK. Put on your headphones and go for a long run!
24. Still Corners – Slow Air (Wrecking Light) The sultry, cinematic Anglo-American duo Still Corners has made a sexy imaginary soundtrack to a kind of waking dream. Like the love child of Chris Issac and Bryan Ferry, filtered through the kaleidoscope of Mazzy Star, the band creates lush soundscapes that just kind of hang in the ‘slow air’ lingering for just the right amount of time before drifting away.
25. Ray LaMontagne – Part of the Light (RCA) LaMontagne has always been an old soul, but the sonic almost Floydian psychedelic folk of his past two albums represents the kind of patient evolution of songwriter who is destined to be making music for the rest of his life.
26. Decemberists – All My Life (Capitol) Although perhaps their most straightforward album, filled with some glam rock anthems, almost every hyperliterate, expertly composed mini-symphony is drenched in that overwhelming and trademark beautifully reflective gloom.
27. Rufus Du Sol – Solace (Reprise) Following up on the band’s magical sophomore album is a tall order, but “Solace” is a fine and quick return to that same infectious dance pop that vaulted the band from obscurity to the top of the heap.
28. Let’s Eat Grandma – I’m All Ears (Transgressive) This dancey second album is a seamless continuation of the rave-synth jams that build predictably, yet move satisfyingly into some of boldest and most infectious songs of the year.