The Top Most Best Albums of 2018

It’s time to take stock, yet again, of the year past and – yep! – it was a shitty one. I don’t know where we go from here, but I suspect it’s nowhere nice. In the meantime though, we can enjoy the one upside to witnessing the fall of civilization in real time: the myriad ways all that angst and turmoil can be fueled into art.

1. Negative Capability – Marianne Faithfull

In a world burning with senseless violence and Orwellian horror, what we really need is to hear from one of the Summer of Love’s last survivors. The survivor’s place, it seems, is a lonely and sorrowful one. Faithfull laments the passing of old friends, she laments the fear that haunts our time, she admits that her own faith in love is deeply shaken. Did she really need a third re-recording of As Tears Go By? Yes, as the song’s melancholy deepens with the singer’s voice. Did the pagan feminist anthem Witches’ Song need to a revisit? If it means throwing Nick Cave into the mix, absolutely yes.

2. Always Ascending – Franz Ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand proves, as they have been for years, that all anyone really needs is killer hooks, killer riffs and great stovepipe trousers. FF are rock dandies who could have been early-60’s mods, 80’s New Romantics or 90’s Cool Britannia lads – their brand of crunchy rock and swaggering attitude is that timeless, whether or not they choose to add synthesizer arpeggios or just lean into the three-guitar format. When you’re handsome and clever, the whole world’s an afterparty.

3. God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty

For a change, FJM is actually one of the less depressing entries on the list. His last album, as much as I loved it, was far from bright. He must have gotten tired of gazing into the abyss; this time he’s looking at his own celebrity lifestyle, and finding it absurd and amusing. His humor has always been one of his most appealing qualities, and it’s nice to more focus on that, rather than the total failure of all mankind. The vibe wouldn’t be out of place on the record charts in 1972, and that’s high praise.

4. American Utopia – David Byrne

How did David Byrne, long one of rock’s great neurotics, become a self-appointed champion of “reasons to be cheerful”? He set himself the challenge of writing only optimistic songs, making it the theme of his last tour and of this album. That may feel counterintuitive in these trying times, but Byrne, when he’s not being acerbic, has always known just how much joy a good pop song can incite. Cheerful doesn’t have to be boring or earnest, either – in these hands it’s gratifyingly bonkers, from the wordplay to the herky-jerky tempo changes (so reminiscent of his famous dance moves.)

5. Tell Me How You Really Feel – Courtney Barnett

Like me, you were probably waiting eagerly to see how Courtney Barnett, the grandmaster of turning the most intimate and mundane of everyday things into clever and insightful pop poetry, would develop as an artist now that she’s world famous. I was expecting a lot of songs about hotels and airports. Barnett, however, is several levels above that. She’s ready to tackle the whole fucking world and the constant battle of living in it as a woman. From walking in the park to appearing on television, being a female person is a constant confrontation with danger, and Barnett is taking none the bullshit that comes with the territory.

6. High as Hope – Florence + the Machine

I fell in love with Florence Welch for her baroque aesthetic. Her lyrics evoked mythology classic and pagan, her productions shied away from no harp solo. But more than anything else, it was always about the voice. This time, she sheds most of the theatrics and focuses on the very real. Even the most magical witch person struggles with bouts of self loathing, faces heartbreak and leans on her own role models for inspiration. Those are the personal revelations Flo is ready to make, turning her voice and gift for drama towards the intimate. Every artist has to strip down to the roots of what made them become an artist in the first place.

7. I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life – Tune-Yards

If you were listening to a lot of indie radio in 2014, you’ve probably heard Water Fountain by Tune-Yards, and you may have dismissed it as a novelty song. However, Tune-Yards is no novelty act, but an avant-garde musical project. Their new record is, indeed, boundary-pushing and just plain weird, in the best possible way. It’s also inspired by the state of the world we’re in, so file it under the ever-growing and trending banner of angry feminist protest art.

8. Little Dark Age – MGMT

The world needs MGMT. They’ve had some creative ups and downs since their moment of peak success in 2008 (my god, has it really been so long?) It’s hard living down a big hit, especially when you never set out to be hitmakers in the first place, but it seems like MGMT have made their identity with or without oceans of hype. They just make really catchy, sometimes trippy, sometimes snarky, always recognizable tunes. Eccentricity should always be this much fun.

9. Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt – Moby

Moby is another artist who outlived his moment at the top of the Zeitgeist, who kept working and evolving slightly below the big-hitmaker radar. He was never the pop star type, anyway. His music reflects his mild-mannered persona: just a regular guy who loves animals, cares about issues and thinks about his place in the world. And composes music that ranges from ambient to uptempo, music that’s been equally melodic and melancholic lately, but ultimately positive in spirit.

10. Dirty Computer – Janelle Monae

This is the year Janelle Monae went from acclaimed outsider to for-real superstar. This is one of those albums that will be remembered as a definitive part of its cultural moment. Not just a good record that fans enjoy, but an important record that contributed to the conversation far beyond the confines of one fandom. It’s been a year when artists like Monae – women, women of color, queer women of color, et al. – who used to be relegated to the dusty ghetto of ‘special interests’ swung into the center of the conversation and announced that their voices would be heard whether the gatekeepers liked it or not. And then it turned out that everyone did like it, and can we have more of this, please?

11. Shake the Spirit – Elle King

In 2015 Elle King’s Exes and Ohs was the gleefully naughty bad girl anthem of the year. Then she disappeared. Was she going to be yet another promising young artist lost in record label purgatory or burned to death by the insane strobe lights of fame? Almost. She lived the shooting star trajectory that should take decades – hype, hits, rock bottom, rehab, comeback – in just a few years. Being a bad girl is tough, it turns out, and Elle King is here to tell you just how much. It’s the insecurity, the desire to be liked at war with the urge to rebel, the judging eyes of others, the thirst for more thrills, the wild ups and downs of it all that make the tough girl who she is. Elle King is the bottle-blonde, zaftig floozy with the heart of gold that every girl who’s ever been slut-shamed can relate to.

12. Isolation – Kali Uchis

Kali Uchis is the surprise big pop breakout of the year. She is the standout in a dense field of young pop divas with obscurely exotic names: Rita Ora, Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande, Sky Ferreira, etc. etc. Kali Uchis can outsing each and every one of them. Her voice is way better than any mere pop star’s needs to be, and her music, while unmistakably heady pop sugar, draws on her Colombian background with touches of salsa and Reggaeton, and also harks back to the girl groups of Motown and the breezy sound of 70’s soft rock, among a myriad other influences. It is so refreshing to hear a pop record that’s this fun, smart and diverse. Is this the new Shakira?

13. Castles – Lissie

Lissie has somehow, inexplicably, been flying under the radar, although she’s been making records since 2010. In that time she has consistently delivered smart songwriting, powerful vocals and a down-to-earth sensibility. Once again, she doesn’t disappoint. She knows how to write a good pop hook, but she also leans into 70’s-style country rock influences. Her vocals can be folksy or tinged with gospel. Her approach to the commonplace topics of love and heartache is levelheaded and honest, revealing emotion without resorting to sentimental cliche – as befits an artist who chooses real life over glamorous artifice.

14. Remain in Light – Angelique Kidjo

When Talking Heads incorporated African beats into their post-punk rock music on their 1980 album of the same name, it was many Americans’ first introduction to what we know know as ‘world music’. When Angelique Kidjo emigrated from Benin to Paris in 1983, she heard her first Talking Heads album and felt instant recognition. She understood the unbroken musical lineage that connected the folk music of Africa to modern-day rock and roll, and grasped that Western audiences were open and hungry to rediscover rock’s African roots. Now, so many years later, she pays homage to that culture-bridging moment and the record that made her feel that the European world was open to her and her music. And it’s far from being an exercise in nostalgia: Kidjo makes every song relevant in entirely new ways. When Kidjo sings “All I want is to breathe” it’s a whole new message with a whole new context.

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She’s Mad

If you missed David Byrne’s Uh-Oh phase, you need to go back and rediscover it. Because first of all, with that iconic cover art, it’s downright odd that every sentient person in the country didn’t run out and buy a copy. Seriously, why wouldn’t you instantly want that? Second of all, David Byrne probably doesn’t get enough credit for always being on the cuttingest of the cutting edge. He saw the future of technology coming and he made it do his bidding. Not just in his trailblazing use of electronic sampling and the exotic rhythms of African and Latin music. Witness his immersion in the photo-editing technology that now comes pre-loaded on every personal device. Seriously, check out that animation. That was some very edgy shit in 1992. Mindblowing. 

Seven Years

Here is a duet between David Byrne and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond (who you may also know from her work with the Decemberists.) The record, of course, is Here Lies Love, the rock opera wherein Byrne gathers a winner’s circle of outstanding female vocalists to tell the story of disgraced political figure Imelda Marcos. Byrne himself is mostly missing in action, but he does take the role of incarcerated opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. Although I do recommend a quick brush-up on Filipino political history, it’s not strictly necessary. It’s a song about a man in prison and his spiritual struggle. He could be any man. But the history is fun to learn.

Sax and Violins

“Love so deep, kills you in your sleep”

David Byrne isn’t talking about his relationship with the other members of Talking Heads, that’s for sure. This isn’t even really a proper “Talking Heads” song, though it’s on the books as their final release. It’s an old demo from the Naked sessions that David Byrne slapped some lyrics on for a movie soundtrack. So, basically, a David Byrne song, as all Talking Heads songs are basically just David Byrne songs anyway, because in a band spearheaded by such a strong personality the pretense of creative equality kind of falls apart (and then the band itself falls apart). That explains why Byrne is the only one who appears in the video. Byrne’s own explanation for the song is pretty interesting: “I wrote the words later for the opening scene of Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. The movie is supposed to take place in the year 2000, so I spent a lot of time trying to image music of the near future: post-rock sludge with lyrics sponsored by Coke and Pepsi? Music created by machines with human shouts of agony and betrayal thrown in? Faux Appalachian ballads, the anti-tech wave? The same sounds and licks from the 60s and 70s regurgitated yet again by a new generation of samplers? The Milli Vanilli revival? Rappin’ politicos… sell your soul to the beat, y’all? Well, it was daunting… so I figured, hell with it, I’d imagine Talking Heads doing a reunion LP in the year 2000, and them sounding just like they used to.” Everything he imagined except the Milli Vanilli comeback has come true with a vengeance and it’s the phrase “Talking Heads reunion” that sounds like outlandish gibberish.

Sad Song

David Byrne

Throwback to 1994, when David Byrne proved that you could totally grow out your hair as a middle aged man and still be impeccably cool (but only if you are David Byrne.) That was a good year and a good look for David Byrne and incidentally David Byrne is probably my favorite solo David Byrne album. (I’m excited for his new album but haven’t listened to it yet because iTunes is bullshit and the Pirate Bay is down again.) This song is actually not very sad, but it celebrates sadness. It is saying you should love and celebrate you sadness because it’s a natural part of life, which is a comforting thought, clinical depression aside.

The Rose Tattoo

Here’s a song with literary reference. It takes its title from a 1951 Tennessee Williams play, or its better-known film adaptation. I haven’t seen the movie or the play, and I don’t understand the Spanish parts of the song, so I can’t tell you how much of a reference it really is. But David Byrne seems like he would know his Tennessee Williams, so I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I guess that’s a homework assignment for me, then.

Pretty Face

Another song from Here Lies Love, featuring the French vocalist Camille. She is best known for recording with Nouvelle Vague, and is also a solo artist. Apparently she has recorded half a dozen albums, some of which were certified platinum in France. After years of knowing her only for her Here Lies Love contribution and as part of the Nouvelle Vague ensemble, I’m curious to discover Camille as an artist in her own right. More on that at a later date.