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.

Shake It Out

“I think I came to the studio with a bit of a hangover, and it was one of those strange days where you’re not really sure where a song comes from. [Producer] Paul [Epworth] just had these chords on the organ, and they sounded optimistic and sad at the same time. And I was thinking of regrets, like, you know when you feel like you’re stuck in yourself, you keep repeating certain patterns of behavior, and you kind of want to cut out that part of you and restart yourself. […] So this song was kind of like, ‘Shake yourself out of it, things will be OK,’. [Because] sometimes I have to write songs for myself, reminding me to let it go. But then, the end refrain of ‘What the hell’ is really important as well, because you’ll dance with the devil again at some point, and maybe it will be fun. I’ve heard he does a really good foxtrot. […] I feel weird because I’m always talking about how I’m writing songs when I’m hung over most of the songs weren’t but ‘Shake It Out’ was. Like ‘Cosmic Love‘ (it was) written when you’re not feeling too great. It became the ultimate hangover cure, and then it became about something bigger. Like trying to get rid of ‘hangover ghouls’.” – Florence Welch

There you go, “hangover ghouls”. Clearly, Florence Welch is a woman after my own spirit. She knows that you have to dabble in a little self-destruction to fuel the creativity. It’s constant cycle of wreck and rebuild. But she makes is sound like such dizzy heights though. I wish I could build such mad magic out of my hangovers.

Seven Devils

This is Florence Welch is full pagan priestess mode, which is when I love her best. She has a bit of a dual-sided persona. Sometimes she presents herself as a regular (or regular-ish) English girl who struggles in love and drinks too much. Then there’s the Florence who appears to know the path to fairyland and wants you to know that it’s not necessarily a very nice place. Those two sides intersect, of course. If you give regular old Flo too much trouble, she’s bound to unleash forces from the world beyond. Her new album, and the one before it as well, both felt more firmly rooted in real experience. The artist has been turning away from the baroque and more towards the personal. Not that she would ever entirely reject grand gestures, but it’s been a little bit more intimate with her lately. I still love Ceremonials most dearly out of Florence’s oeuvre thus far, for its epic sweep and having grandest, most baroque orchestration. It’s the artist as the madwoman in the woods, invoking fire and brimstone and deluges.

Remain Nameless

There needs to be more baroque pop. There need to be more performers with a self-contained aesthetic and sense of drama. There needs to be more Florence Welch. She has no shortage of dramatic aesthetic wonders up her flowing gossamer sleeves. Listening to a Florence + the Machine record is like submerging yourself in a heady vision, a world filled with medieval and Pre-Raphaelite imagery and possible witchery. Those are things that spring to mind, and would do even if Flo didn’t contribute vividly visualized videos to flesh it all out. It doesn’t hurt that she has the kind of face that’s meant to be rendered eternally and larger-than life. In centuries past, she would have sat for painters. In decades past, she would have been a Hollywood icon. In today’s world, she commands the live-streaming video screens that loom over concert stages. It’s the kind of superhuman charisma that stands out, even in a field already dominated by the charismatic – and inspires florid prose from besotted armchair critics.

Queen of Peace

The visual album is the future. It has been known, since Queen Bey made it so. But I haven’t noticed a stampede of artists trying to emulate the success of Lemonade. Understandable enough. It’s a high bar, making an album is challenging enough without the extra work of producing a visual narrative, and not many people have that much creativity or resources. Still, it’s the future. One artist who has been working in visual album territory is Florence Welch. She released an interconnected series of videos in support of her last album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Though the final film changes the order of the songs, it encompasses the album and tells a loose narrative reflecting its themes. It’s an emotionally turbulent story of the singer’s personal struggle, of dealing with heartbreak, family, heritage and selfhood. Though she has not shared the details of the specific events that inspired her, she has spoken of dealing with depression recently, as well as the isolation and exhaustion that come with stardom – all of which lead to relationship trouble and heavy drinking. All of which is ample material for a dramatic narrative, albeit a fictionalized one that leans on allegory and symbolic imagery.

Kiss With a Fist

First off, this is a really great and memorable song. Yes, it is, obviously, thematically problematic. I’m far, far from being the first person to point out that it could be mistaken for condoning domestic violence. That’s an easy conclusion to jump to, but come on, nobody condones domestic violence. Not even Chris Brown condones domestic violence (he just likes to do it.) Clearly Florence Welch is just using violent imagery as a metaphor, for, I think, the way some couples are only able to interact by pushing each other’s buttons. You could even view  it as a more widespanning metaphor for those people, known colloquially as ‘drama queens’, who don’t feel fulfilled unless embroiled in some sort of conflict or violence of the emotional sort. Some people just compulsively hurt their loved ones because they’re not able to communicate in a normal way. We all know someone who is like that. That’s what I believe Florence is trying to communicate, although I do see how the choice of metaphor could be seen as tasteless, offensive or even triggering. Personally, I don’t find it bothersome, despite being a survivor myself, but again, I can easily understand how it might affect more someone more sensitive. I do have a mild suspicion that, it being Florence and the Machine’s big breakout single, that there’s an element of calculated shock tactics at play, since controversy is a fantastic means of getting attention. I don’t recall the actual controversy being anything hotter than a mild debate, with Florence clearly stating that her lyrics are nothing but metaphorical, but I’m sure that the extra press didn’t hurt. It goes without saying that a similar song from a male artist would rightfully have stirred up a shitstorm of negative publicity, but take a minute to think about how this song would have been received forty or twenty years ago. Without a blink, I would guess. I think that it says something positive about our society and the progress we’ve made that people sit up and say ‘what the fuck?’ when presented with a song that appears to depict, either explicitly or metaphorically, an abusive relationship. I’m certain that if Florence Welch had come along with this single in 1973, no one would have questioned her lyrical intents and just accepted that having your lover break a plate over your head is a perfectly acceptable topic to sing about.

ACL Fest Special

In honor of a long and grueling Austin City Limits weekend, I’m doing a little feature on some of the acts I saw there (and elsewhere). This is partly in benefit to people in my life who have access to my photo galleries but may not know who-all everybody is. So, in order, chronologically…

He’s My Brother She’s My Sister

A new discovery, highly recommended

 

Patrick Watson

Misrepresented in the schedule as ‘Patrick Wilson’, another new discovery. Recommended, for fans of the mellow and emo.

 

Esperanza Spalding

A brilliant musician, well-deserved Grammy winner, and a great beauty.

 

Florence + the Machine

Quite simply, a goddess.

 

Zola Jesus

Her atmospheric style would have been better served playing at night, but she worked it. A beautiful voice and image.

 

Rufus Wainwright

I’ve found Rufus to be too campy in the past, but his new song for his little daughter is absolutely sweet.

 

Andrew Bird

A very good songwriter and musician, but a bit too low-key for the big stage, in my opinion.

 

The Roots

Really expected it to be torture to sit through, because I hate hip-hop, but DAMN! These guys are old school – they have things to say and they are real musicians. Damn good ones.

 

Neil Young & Crazy Horse

As cantankerous as ever. No playing the hits for old Neil. Just blistering, ear-shattering, never-ending brand-new songs, generating more noise than

 

Kimbra

I didn’t have very high expectations for Kimbra, because I only knew her from her collaboration with Gotye, which was kind of a typical slightly annoying pop song (ok, kind of good actually). But, if it makes it any easier, think of her as an EDM Kate Bush.

 

Iggy & the Stooges

Iggy fuckin’ Pop.

 

Die Antwoord

Weird South African hip-hop. Not for everybody, ok. But how can you not love Yo-Landi?

 

Sleigh Bells

I’ve promoted this noise pop duo before. They’re loud and pretty and harsh and modern all at once.