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. [Read more…]