Wednesday, December 19, 2018

My Top 40 albums of 2018

Another swell year for music, and another year where I couldn't possibly keep up with all of the good stuff coming out. I listened to about 200 albums this year, and these are the ones that I played the most and stayed with me the longest. I find that with each batch of 10 records, the ratings are less fine tuned, and I could probably change the order of the bottom 20 and that would be just as satisfactory to me. But I have to lock it in some time, and now is that time.

1. SuperchunkWhat a Time to Be Alive (Merge): This is the third album since Superchunk reactivated, and as terrific as the prior two were, this album uses the fuel of the current presidential administration and comes up with an inspired collection. The songs are classic Superchunk, with a bashing rhythm section, biting lead guitars, and strong melodies and hooks. These are in songs that channel anger and frustration into something hopeful and inspiring. 21st century punk rock tailor made to fuel protest marches.

2. MitskiBe the Cowboy (Dead Oceans): I saw Mitski at the Pitchfork Blue Stage, and the crowd spilled over to hear her bring the songs off of Puberty 2 to life. I was watching a star in the making. She could have made Puberty 3 (or Puberty 2 II?), but instead of continuing to update ‘90s alt-rock, she upped the ante with a musically diverse collection of songs filtered through a concept that was ideal for her keen observational lyrics. The concise tunes fly by and build resonance like a musical version of Raymond Carver book.

3. Sons of KemetYour Queen Is a Reptile (Impulse): This percussive jazz quartet led by British-Bahan wunderkind Shabaka Hutchings plays politically motivated songs that have the power of punk rock. I never could imagine how commanding a saxophone, a tuba, and two drummers could sound, but the songs have a bit of New Orleans second line jazz, funk, Afro pop, and the Carribean exploding through the speakers. As with Superchunk’s album, the political motivation behind the album (how the British monarchy doesn’t represent black immigrants, conveyed through songs about notable black women) gives it an energy and center that never cools off.

4. Elvis Costello & The ImpostersLook Now (Concord): This is the most sparkling Costello record in a long time. The album balances tarted up Brill Building pop (including collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Carole King) with some songs that have an Imperial Bedroom vibe and a couple other snappy tunes that sound like they could have performed before that touchstone album came out. The Imposters are fluid and enhance every tune, and Costello’s voice may sound better than it ever has.

5. Kali UchisIsolation (Rinse/Virgin): The 25-year old Colombian-American has been releasing singles and EPs and doing features for a while, and everything comes together on this sophisticated R & B album. Uchis covers so much ground, as everything from traditional R & B to jazz to funk to Latin music weaves in and out of the album. Uchis is an expressive singer and both her personality and cohesive sonic approach made this an album I kept going back to.

6. CHAIPink (Burger): I’m bending my rules a bit for this album, which came out originally in CHAI’s native Japan in 2017, but I’m fairly confident that had Burger Records not put it out here earlier this year, I never would have known about it. These four young women formed the band after attending university, and created a merger of post-punk and dance music that hits many reference points (Bis, Gorillaz, Yoko Ono, The Chemical Brothers, The B-52s, etc.), and it’s thrilling to hear. The band has a feminist message (neo-kawaii, which takes on beauty standards in Japan) and marries it to some of giddiest music around.

7. Tracey Thorn Record (Merge): The Everything But the Girl singer’s fifth solo album is a career peak. It’s an engaging electro-pop chronicle, mostly melodic pop (at times as close to Saint Etienne as her former band’s music) with a couple more danceable numbers. What makes it truly special are the excellent stories that she called “feminist bangers.” Somehow the songs are fizzy yet tinged with wistfulness, as she looks at key points in a woman’s life (I’m not sure how much is autobiographical), making songs that aren’t just catchy, but really tug the heart strings.

8. Young FathersCocoa Sugar (Ninja Tune): This Scottish trio continues to mix hip-hop, arty rock, and ambient noises in a blend like no other. They sing, they rap, they haunt. And on this album, they add a few more accessible, melodic numbers that are somewhat akin to TV on the Radio. It adds up to another invigorating package.

9. Fatoumata DiawaraFenfo (Shanachie): This is the second solo album from the Paris-based Malian singer-guitarist, who has worked with Damon Albairn, Bobby Womack, and Disclosure in the past. This is a great Afropop album that demonstrates how much Diawara has grown as a singer and songwriter. Her voice is soulful and passionate, and her music is rooted in Mali, but she freely integrates Western sounds into her songs, with blues, rock, and R & B informing some of the best tracks. Taking on both affairs of the heart and social problems, this establishes Diawara as a major force in contemporary African music.

10. Sunshine BoysBlue Music (Pravda): My favorite local record is this jangly, power poppish effort from a veteran trio. I used to see Dag Juhlin in The Slugs at Medusa’s, Freda Love Smith in Blake Babies at Lounge Ax, and Jacqueline Schimmel in Big Hello at Gunther Murphy’s, and here they are together, playing a fantastic batch of songs concocted by Juhlin, who is singing better than ever. His guitar alternately shimmers and burns, and the Schimmel-Smith rhythm section provide melodic support and sturdy beats as needed. These songs hit the same spot that the best Marshall Crenshaw and Tommy Keene songs, wonderful melodies with melancholy undertones.

11. Marianne Faithfull -- Negative Capability (Panta Rei): Faithfull is apparently calling it a day, but not before one album that she recorded in two weeks in France with a great supporting cast, including Bad Seed Warren Ellis, Nick Cave, and Ed Harcourt. A great mix of covers and originals, with a ruminative bent. Faithfull’s expressive rasp adds character to the stately songs, and no one swears quite as well as she does. The new version of her first hit song, “As Tears Go By”, signals how Faithfull is completing the circle, and doing so with style.

12. Negative Scanner -- Nose Picker (Trouble in Mind): There are no signs of a sophomore slump here. While Negative Scanner doesn’t till a whole lot of new ground on their second LP, further gigging and experience has simply made them a more formidable unit. I just love hearing the interaction between the band as they build their angular post-punk constructions. The songwriting is a wee bit sharper, and the lyrics have even more bite. And Rebecca Valeriano-Flores is still a commanding presence on the mike.

13. Neneh Cherry -- Broken Politics (Smalltown Supersound): This is Cherry’s second collaboration with Four Tet, and it works a lot better. The electronic music backgrounds are certainly more attuned to Cherry’s distinctive vocal style, whereas on the prior album, she sounded more like a guest on someone else’s record. Cherry has some things to say about what’s going on in the world, and her lyrics are intelligent and passionate. And back to that distinctive vocal style -- I find Neneh Cherry to be one of the most compelling vocalists around, so as long as the material is above average, it will yield a terrific album.

14. Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 -- Black Music (Strut): Kuti music is all about rhythm and groove, and he and his excellent band are really in a groove. This is simply more wonderful, vibrant, funky Afro-pop, with Kuti’s social aware lyrics and commentary. This is great to dance to and gives you something to think about. I might be underrating this a bit.

15. Rolling Blackouts Costal Fever -- Hope Downs (Sub Pop): This is even more Go-Betweens-y than The Goon Sax, the band featuring the son of one of the Go-Betweens. Okay, there’s more to Rolling Blackouts than the fact that some of their songs are highly reminiscent of a legendary band from their native Australia. Basically, these Aussies are taking jangly indie guitar rock from the ‘80s, and adding their fresh spin on it. And the three writers in the band share a common sensibility, so the record is quite consistent.

16. Kacey Musgraves -- Golden Hour (Mercury): It’s not surprising that Musgraves could adapt her songs to a contemporary modern pop context. But I was pleasantly surprised with how she did so without holding anything back, while remaining true to the traditional lyrical themes that still give many of these tracks a country aspect. Some of the corny things actually don’t work, but numbers like “High Horse” are consistent with the themes on prior albums. Which means that this is slightly flawed, but the highs are really, really high.

17. Kamasi Washington -- Heaven and Earth (Young Turks): After showing off all he could do on The Epic, Washington has been, for the most part, consolidating those advancements on subsequent releases. This double album has plenty of tracks that equal the best of its predecessor, although he’s showing some tendency to get a bit cloying. But that’s a minor quibble, as this record brims with enveloping, exciting music.

18. Teleman -- Family of Aliens (Moshi Moshi): Teleman has honed its sound to a point that they are ridiculously reliable. Pristine post-punk pop that relies as much on sonic space as the precise rhythms and off-beat melodies. The only thing that rates this a bit lower than its two predecessors is a slightly lower number of killer tracks.

19. Anna Calvi -- Hunter (Domino): The big difference between this effort and Calvi’s prior two is the lyrics. Calvi embraces her queerness and that leads to some really interesting songs. This album is bit more tilted towards atmospheric tracks, and Calvi does it well, but when she finds big hooks, she’s at her best. And she definitely finds some here, just not quite as many as the prior two albums. Regardless, she is always worth hearing.

20. Laura Jane Grace & The Devouring Mothers -- Bought to Rot (Bloodshot): A side project is just what the doctor ordered after two incredibly intense Against Me! albums. Grace, citing influences such as fellow Gainesville, Florida native Tom Petty, expands her pallet a fair amount, both musically and lyrically. And she shows just how talented she is. There are certainly some songs here that aren’t that far away from her main gig, but others would never work with Against Me!, and Grace’s sense of humor on some tracks is totally winning. I hope that this isn’t a one off, because I want to hear more of this side of Grace (and more Against Me! records, of course).

21. Tirzah -- Devotion (Domino): This is an artier version of the electro-R & B that artists like FKA Twigs, SZA, and Kelela traffic in. This is because Tirzah worked with her good friend Mica Levi a/k/a Micachu, who brings her distinctive musical touch to this style. The record has all of the sensual aspects of electro-R & B, but is often more spare and includes the quirky things that Levi utilized on her Micachu records. It’s not as in your face as on those records, because this style is more chill, but it makes this very compelling.

22. The Chills -- Snow Bound (Fire): It’s good to not have to wait so long between Chills albums, as Martin Phillips has an inexhaustible supply of good tunes. Some of the songs remind me of Submarine Bells-era Chills, as they have some muscle to them. The core sound is the same, and Phillips sings with a warmth that makes these tracks so inviting.

23. Jessica Risker -- I See You Among the Stars (Western Vinyl): Risker has been involved in the Chicago music scene in various capacities over the years, but this album is effectively her singer-songwriter debut. And fans of old artists such as Judee Sill and contemporaries like Bedouine and Jessica Pratt will find a lot to like here. These are pretty, delicate creations, and Risker finds a way to create something intimate that still can yield some hooks. I hope she follows this up soon.

24. Nao -- Saturn (Little Tokyo): Nao shows she has staying power. There are fewer hit single songs on here, but other than that, this is about as good as her debut. She flawlessly mixes old school and contemporary R & B with some jazz touches (which fits her pre-fame training). And she is growing as a lyricist, her words nearly as expressive as her winning voice.

25. Neko Case -- Hell-On (ANTI-): Neko really is her own genre, and is certainly one of the most major recording artists of the past 20 years or so. This album didn’t do as much for me than most of her other efforts, as only a couple of songs totally floored me. But merely very good Neko Case is still better than what most can come up with. And her duet with Eric Bachmann is a keeper, and the one with Mark Lanegan is even better.

26. Lithics -- Excuse Generator (Kill Rock Stars): The second album from this Portland, Oregon band is a must for anyone who likes twitchy post-punk rock. Wire is probably the first reference point, in large part to the spareness of the band’s sound, but everything from Devo to Gang of Four also fits in somewhere. The band’s playing has the right amount of precision, and the songs take familiar elements and the band invests them with their own vibe and personality.

27. Hollie Cook -- Angel Fire (Merge): Another winner from Ms. Cook, whose self-proclaimed “tropical pop” is wonderful sun-kissed melodic reggae. She moves on, sort of, from collaborator Prince Fatty, this time tapping Youth (of Killing Joke) to produce. Youth still uses beats from Fatty, but Cook shows that she is in control. The biggest difference on this album is the increasing maturity of her lyrics and some of the hooks are less immediate than on prior efforts, but they crop up in time. The best may be yet to come for Cook.

28. Pistol Annies -- Interstate Gospel (RCA Nashville): The fact that one member of this country supergroup, Miranda Lambert, is a much bigger star than her two colleagues makes no difference. These three women are truly a team, and this is a wonderful collection of songs. Many of the songs use humor to make a point, but they never stoop to novelty. Fans of more traditional country will find much to like here, yet this is throughly contemporary, basically filling the void left by Dixie Chicks, with sassy, feminist lyrics to match.

29. Jorja Smith -- Lost & Found (RCA): This young Brit’s star has ascended very quickly, and it’s in large part due to her amazing vocal chops. Although the production is thoroughly up to date, Smith’s music has a classic R & B feel throughout. At times, she reminds me a little bit of Amy Winehouse, although not as showy or jazz inspired. Her ability to evoke such feeling and fully express the words is well beyond her years.

30. Albert Hammond Jr. -- Francis Trouble (Red Bull): The Strokes guitarist makes a riff-tastic record that is brighter than what allegedly inspired the song cycle: Hammond’s stillborn twin brother. The music is as fizzy as the early New Pornographers, with a bit of a ‘90s power pop vibe (an obscure reference, but Adam Schmitt comes to mind on some tracks, Owsley on others) on most songs. Hammond is a solid singer, and an ace guitarist. And the hooks are augmented by skillful production, layering on lots of songs without overloading on anything.

31. Kandace Springs -- Indigo (Blue Note): Springs builds on her swell debut with an even better sophomore effort. She takes on the Ewan MacColl classic “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, a song that Prince requested she perform at a show up at Paisley Park. Prince clearly recognized that Springs has a similar skill set to the woman who popularized that song, Roberta Flack. Springs is a fine piano player and is equally comfortable with R & B and jazz, and she spends this album ably moving within that spectrum. Another artist who I think has even better stuff coming.

32. Mandy Barnett -- Strange Conversation (Dame Productions): The country singer from Crossville, Tennessee who is best known for her many performances in the musical Always... Patsy Cline, really asserts herself artistically on an album of well-chosen, and far from obvious, covers. As to be expected from a singer who does justice to Cline, Barnett is not just a country singer, as this album shows that she slots somewhere between Shelby Lynne and Roseanne Cash. I hope this does well, as Barnett’s talent deserves much wider recognition.

33. Noname -- Room 25 (self-released): It’s heartening that Noname’s star keeps rising, because her brand of hip-hop and soul is, in many respects, fairly subtle. Her rapping is kind of the equivalent of the old advertising tagline, “if you want to get someone’s attention, whisper.” Noname has a lot to say, and does it with crisp, quick rhymes that fit in well with the mellow grooves that she and her producers put together.

34. Alice Bag -- Blueprint (Don Giovanni): Bag’s career revival has been one of the best things going on in rock music in recent years. As with her prior album, Bag mixed in some punk rock, some girl group-ish stuff, to light funk, to a finale that is a bit reminiscent of Patti Smith. She ably marries the varied music to smart, often-feminist, lyrics, in a manner akin to Joe Strummer. The song “77" is one of the true anthems of the year.

35. Django Django -- Marble Skies (Ribbon Music): While the second Djangos album was not bad at all, it suffered in comparison to the brilliant debut. Much like the band that influenced them, Beta Band, the Djangos have a lot of things at their disposal to keep their sound fresh, while not straying away from the mix of psychedelia and dance music that is at the core of their sound. So this album falls in the middle of its predecessors, meaning it’s quite good.

36. Rosanne Cash -- She Remembers Everything (Blue Note): While Cash still works with her husband as a producer, she mixes up the songwriting, working by herself (which is never a bad move), and an array of collaborators. The result is another collection of Americana that incorporates country, folk, pop, and blues, without ever identifying too strongly with a single genre. Her singing remains expressive and she writes great lyrics, so the quality remains high.

37. Rhye -- Blood (Loma Vista): The whole “guy who does songs that sound a lot like Sade” thing works for the second time in a row. Singer/producer/auteur Milosh is now working without producer Robin Hannibal, and shows that this was pretty much his whole idea. This is sensuous R & B and definitely baby-making music, in a way that Sade isn’t, but it comes from a similar place, and we can never have enough of that type of music.

38. Jason Moran and the Bandwagon -- Looks of a Lot (Yes): Recorded in Chicago, this is a culmination of a project that Moran started with the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band, working with high school students to create a jazz chronicle of life in a rougher part of Chicago. Indeed, one member of the band was shot and killed before the debut performance of the work at the Symphony Center a few years ago. The song cycle here, a mix of originals and other material, covers a range of moods, and Moran takes advantage of having a much larger array of musicians. Moran’s compositions are good, but not his best, but the performances and the emotional arc of the whole piece make it a great listen.

39. J Fernandez -- Occasional Din (Joyful Noise): This is bedroom pop with a ‘60s soft-pop vibe, filtered through a Stereolab sensibility. Fernandez puts a lot of thought into the sonic approach, but he clearly starts with the songs, and his knack for sophisticated melodies and solid hooks is what really impresses. That being said, the record does sound really great, modern in a retro way.

40. FACS -- Negative Houses (Trouble in Mind): The band that sprung from the ashes of Disappears had already shifted membership between the time this album was recorded and the time it was released. But the vision Brian Case and Noah Leger had in their predecessor band carries forward here. What changes here is that the post-punk and Krautrock is now filtered in a more post-rock direction. It’s more subtle in spots, but some songs are right up their with Disappears’s best songs. I’m curious to say where this goes.

No comments: