Published on January 22nd, 2019 | by Dave Scaddan0
The Top 20 Albums of 2018
As he does every year, music writer Dave Scaddan gives us his top 20 albums of the year! Here’s Dave’s Top 20 albums of 2018!
In the last few weeks of 2018, several music releases for January, 2019 were leaked and it already has me excited about a new year of music. Royal Trux (a band I trust to reunite) will tour very soon and are said to be putting out a record in 2019. Tobacco and Aesop Rock are collaborating. What I’ve heard of Deerhunter’s ‘Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared’ and Toro Y Moi’s ‘Outer Peace’ promise to add more quality to already great catalogues. Plus, we’re truly living in a time when no one knows where the next great band, or performer, or style will come from, and that’s exciting in itself. Holding my horses about what’s to come, here’s a look at what was in 2018.
Editor’s Note: If you’re in #yxe, you can buy a bunch of these great albums at The Vinyl Diner on Broadway in Saskatoon! They’re on top of new stuff too, so when the hot 2019 records are released, chances are that Stu has ’em!
20 Snail Mail – Lush
I hear quite a bit of Tracyanne Campbell’s style in the work of young Lindsey Jordan. Others compare her to Liz Phair, but I really don’t see it — Jordan has more tongue-in-cheek coolness, and it sounds like she has the chops to keep writing good songs. Also, she’s a simple but confident and capable live performer – another reason why she won’t be just a youthful flash-in-the-pan.
19 Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
These tracks, which are as understated as this album’s title, see Earl adopting a drowsy, monotonous flow that gels with a narcoleptic set of loops. I like just listening to him go about doing his unpolished, unpretentious thing. Even though “spoken word” and “rap” are not necessarily different things, the approach of these songs seems to lean more to the former than most things we call “rap.”
18 Eleanor Freidberger – Rebound
By the time the first side of this record has ended, the listener has heard Eleanor Freidberger go from downbeat, quirky folk to a melodic pop style that fits her vocals without sounding forced or overtly odd. ‘Make Me a Song’ is a standout at the end of side one, but ‘Nice to be Nowhere’ at the start of side two is really the track that showcases this record’s muted tone and Freidberger’s ear for a tune. Even though I still love listening to her keeping up with her brother’s insane fluctuations of attitude and rhythm as she did with The Fiery Funaces, tunes played by a band that you barely notice are there suit her voice even better at times, and that’s what her solo albums consistently prove.
17 Trevor Powers – Mulberry Violence
Using lots of glitchy, crashing, percussive sounds does not take away from the dreamy Trevor Powers quality that Youth Lagoon fans are fond of. It would be easy to call this record overproduced — I see it more as a carefully crafted arrangement for Powers‘ spooky, sombre voice.
16 Vulfpeck – Hill Climber
Most of these tracks sound squeaky-clean enough that they could be played on the department store sound system, giving people something to listen to while looking at all the different colours of nail polish. Vulfpeck‘s sound definitely classifies as funk, but it’s not the gritty, sweaty, throaty funk of James Brown or Wu-Tang. This is funk in the sense that Hanson is funk, funk in the sense that Jamiroquai is funk. It may well hit the ear as a bit fromagey, but darned if it doesn’t put a smile on your face and a spring in your step when you’re feeling down.
15 Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Sex and Food
Still gathering steam and still building on the tight musicianship that has always been their main engine, this is a group that (wisely) places much of its trust in the songwriting of Ruban Nielson. If UMO are a psych band, (and they might not be) then Sex and Food is their quintessential record. No matter how much they muddy their sound with production, that tightness can’t be buried. The clean/dirty dichotomy this band continues to craft is a fascinating ride so far.
14 Leon Bridges – Good Thing
Without losing his penchant for classic soul, Leon Bridges brings a few new-school touches to the table on his second album. Adding a few hints of modern RnB, Leon shows he’s not just a throwback, but a vibrant vocalist and songwriter. For example, on ‘Shy,’ he does his thing over a loop that is unmistakably 21st century – later, on ‘Mrs.’, he takes us back fifty years or so and works for a few minutes as a soul minimalist, needing little more than a rimshot and a barely-strummed guitar to back him up. What all this proves to me is that Leon’s voice is going to be with us for a while, maybe at the time we need it most.
13 Beach House – 7
Dreamy, moody, and slickly produced, this record shifts from one song to another like turning a page in an old colouring book. Pay No Mind is classic shoegaze balladry. In fact, 7 is so good, it makes me wonder how wrong I was to shrug off this outfit before this point.
12 Cut Chemist – Die Cut
There are many examples of Cut Chemist tracks that rank high in my list of faves. Album-wise, he put it together in 2018 as well as he ever has. Maintaining a consistent vision when featuring a wide array of guest vocalists has been tough for many DJs and producers, and Die Cut dodges that bullet. Much like a top-of-his-game DJ Shadow or Madlib, Chemist can move through tracks, styles and vocalists without losing the thread. Whether his guests are singing pop verses or rapping lines, Chemist keeps the beats interesting, plays with spoken-word samples to set the mood, and shows restraint with production possibilities that make many instrumentalists lose their focus.
11 Prince – Piano and a Microphone
The only possible silver lining to our collective loss of Prince is that we might now get to hear some gems like this that may have been too loose, too unpolished for his approval. This record captures the great Mr. Rogers Nelson in his early twenties, recording himself singing and playing piano for about half an hour. It’s a fulfilling listen, tough under the circumstances, especially since Piano and a Microphone catches him on what sounds like it must’ve been a sad day. He still has his playful moments, especially on the second side, but the overall tone is blue. Prince tended to be very upbeat in the songs that he’s known for. ‘When Doves Cry’ and ‘Purple Rain’ are the outliers in a catalogue of singles that could, once, even make the end of the world seem like a party. So as lame as it may sound, Piano and a Microphone really does offer ‘another side’ of Prince, and if you’re prepared for a lonely, heartfelt piece of the past, this will not disappoint or shame the legacy in any way.
10 Rival Consoles – Persona
Shifting between peppy, rhythmic tracks and dark, moody soundscapes, this album is an exercise in how to make music without using traditional instruments. I was never much interested in this band until this year, when Rival Consoles seemed to find a sweet spot in the cavernous realm of opportunities that laptop-based composition represents. It’s so easy to use a Pro-Tools-type program to go overboard — that common pitfall is avoided here.
9 Venetian Snares / Daniel Lanois – Venetian Snares x Daniel Lanois
This year, somehow, Daniel Lanois was able to collaborate with Aaron Funk and make it work. Venetian Snares records always keep it interesting, but their glitched-out aural assault is too grating for most listeners to get into. What Lanois adds to the picture is a pillow-soft tonality for Funk to spaz out on. After a few tracks, their confluence begins to hit a comfortable swirl and makes for unpredictable escape.
8 Melvins – Pinkus Abortion Technician
There aren’t many success stories in the music business that can match the work of King Buzzo and Dale Crover. Melvins have only ever done what they felt like doing, never paying attention to expectations of a fan base or label executive to guide their path. They may not have made a great record for a while, but they’ve maintained a loyal following and a tireless work ethic. If you don’t like a new Melvins release, all you have to do is wait a few months and there’ll be another one, and it’ll have something new for you to consider.
If you’re a Melvins fan who’s been lost in the shuffle of their changing lineups and attitude, ‘Pinkus Abortion Technician’ is an album that might well bring you back into the fold. If you’re a Butthole Surfers enthusiast, this record (featuring Steven Pinkus as the latest in a series of revolving Melvins bassists) will return you to the kind of music Pinkus made with his former group in the latter half of their productive days, when they actually became adept at playing their instruments and shifted styles dramatically as a way of staying weird. ‘Pinkus Abortion Technician’ is full of nods to the Surfers’ sound, and that direction seems to have given them a renewed enthusiasm and sense of silliness that they wear well. Melvins can always be relied on to play heavy, and they do that here, but they bring a lot of other styles to the table also, less like the BHS album they’re name-checking, and more like ‘Independent Worm Saloon,’ where Pinkus and crew could sound like Ministry on one track, and then sound like R.E.M. on the next.
7 Spirit of the Beehive – Hypnic Jerks
This album is a modern rarity in that it’s a rock record that really goes on an artistic quest. The Spirit of the Beehive use their third album to lay down a wide range of rock styles, but they also manage to make it more than just a collection of songs. More than anything else I heard this year, Hypnic Jerks is a piece that wants to be heard as a whole; it’s shuffle-unfriendly, mixtape-unfriendly, and it’s addictive. I go back to it like I went back to Deerhunter‘s ‘Microcastle’ a decade ago, wanting to go on the ride again and again.
By piecing in odd clips of what sound like the audio from someone’s old home movies, these ten tracks get glued together into a dreamy, melodic series of waves. Hypnic Jerks (named after those adorably creepy spasms people have as they fall asleep) can sound like Mac Demarco or Radiohead for a while, and then shake the listener into a nearly Deafheavenly shift of tone. Throughout the listen, there’s a wealth of clever, sparse songwriting. As ambitious as it is, this record never sounds like it’s in danger of overdoing it. Very cool.
6 A.A.L. – 2012-2017
In a year where Nicolas Jaar did not put out an album under his own name, we still got this collection from Against All Logic, a moniker Jaar has used to foster his affection for the Detroit-area house sound. Making a house record shows Jaar’s range, which is incredible, but it also shows that his attitude toward his career is all about the music he feels like making, regardless of who might be lining up to hear it. In much the same way Larry Levan or Moodyman might chop up a cheesy R&B track into a bouncy-cool dance number, A.A.L. use mid-tempo beats and repetitive breaks to structure each song. Where Jaar‘s production genius comes into play is in the subtle tweaks of rhythm and sound filters that all producers have access to, but few know how to use well. Cool to hear a phenom with such technical ability making a record that’s mostly focused on dance and fun. On ‘Sirens’ or ‘Space is Only Noise,’ the listening is intense, but often quite serious. Here, same skill set, different style.
5 Santigold – I Don’t Want – The Gold Fire Sessions
Santigold made a really interesting and laudable choice with her web-only mix tape release in 2018. She probably has enough connections to attempt a crossover, but that’s just not who she is. Using a fresh-sounding dancehall backdrop, she writes and sings her way through a handful of thoughtful, modest RnB/dance tracks that all have something to say. Tackling materialism, machismo, and conformity, she really stakes out her own ground as a lyricist — can’t wait to see the next move. Do yourself a favour and check out the title track. It’s the most beautiful rejection of a click-and-post existence in a time when that rejection is practically punk. When Santi sings, Let them winners run,” and, “Let them think they won,” it seems to me like the most perfectly healthy response to the tsunami of appetite that is our time.
4 Insecure Men – Insecure Men
With pop sensibility to burn, Saul Adamczewski and Ben Romans-Hopcraft put their work with The Fat White Family and Childhood to the side and create one of the most catchy-yet-disturbing sets of the year. Mixing thematic ugliness with melodic beauty has worked for a small number of groups before Insecure Men, but these two wear the dissonance well. It is fitting that Sean Ono Lennon should be the main benefactor of this group, since his father is perhaps the ultimate example of using immaculate pop chops to accentuate weirdness. Like Lennon did on songs like ‘I am the Walrus’, ‘Come Together’, and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, Insecure Men thumb their noses at conventional pop while also exhibiting mastery of that form. They craft comfortable, conventional melodies, then subvert them with darkly themed lyrics and funny, wonky synth sounds. With all the charm of a fucked-up Damon Albarn, Adamczewski knows how to flaunt his songwriting talents without seeming pompous, or even aware of his own gifts.
3 Mad Professor – Electro Clubdubbing
On ‘Electro Clubdubbing,’ all Mad Professor needs is a classic reggae-dub approach. Without ever wandering off of that well-established path, this record still sounds fresh as the morning songbird and just as joyful too. Every single track here has a plodding, hypnotic bassline, an echoing drum track and a happy melody working together to brighten your day, or night, or both. The catalogue of a guy who’s put out over fifty albums can be daunting to someone trying to discover new music. In this rare case, the most recent may well be a super place to start.
2 Sly & Robbie meet Nils Petter Molvær feat Eivind Aarset and Vladislav Delay – Nordub
Here’s a TFS vlog I did about this one:
1 Homeboy Sandman and Edan – Humble Pi
Much talent is exhibited on these seven songs. Edan’s head-twisting beats and Sand’s cerebral emceeing get a lot done in just over twenty minutes. Anything coming out on Stones Throw records is worth investigating, but ‘Humble Pi’ is something pretty special. Musically, it leans a lot in the direction of Edan’s ‘Beauty and the Beat,’ but with even more force and soul. Edan samples vocal ballads, psych guitar and drum breaks into a dope mosaic that he will sometimes smash on the floor, turning it back into many broken pieces. His rhymes reflect the mind of a seeker, his wordplay tight as ever. And Sandman doing the bulk of the rhyming is no issue. Sand can totally handle it. Rapping about self without boastfulness works for so many rappers, but so few of them will do it — Sandman, with his sneering, husky voice, does not let ego get in the way of good poetry. And with a jazzy beatnik style that he can pull out of the hat from time to time, his flows stay interesting and challenging. You’ve got to admire the craftsmanship involved in putting this pie together.
Perhaps even more impressive than this, a seven-track EP, really, outshining all the other competition this year, is the Youtube video of the album release event.
In what seems to be a brick-and-mortar record store, Edan stays behind the turntables for well over an hour, and performs an incredible old-school session for those who dropped in. Using records he must’ve spent a lifetime acquiring, Edan cooly thumbs his nose at the whole idea of digital turntable artistry and masters an entirely analog set (sometimes while holding a mike in one hand and rapping) that simply has no low points – an incredible talent.