Favorite Music of 2018
2018 might have been an intense year for some, and that’s why having music to fall back on is a must. I did a few things differently this time around, namely the monthly playlist naming conventions, which I am incredibly proud of (hyperlink this). But one thing has stayed constant; my yearly Top 10 roundups of my favorite albums. Here are the ten albums that really shaped my musical sensibilities from this past year.
TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2018:
10. ROBYN - HONEY
The second those Baba O’Reilly-esque arpeggios descend in and out of reverberation in the opening track “Missing U”, I am instantly transported to what I call Scandinavian’s Synthpop Valhalla. Sometimes referred to as Pophalla, it is the great hall of Scandinavia’s synthpop gods and goddesses that houses acts like Röyksopp, Todd Terje, Fever Ray, iamamiwhoami, Lindstrøm, Bjørn Troske, and many many others. The ruling Queen of this Norse Pantheon of gods is none other than Robyn.
Honey was a much anticipated release as her title-track and single debuted almost a year ago on an episode of HBO’s hit TV series, Girls, with not even a trace of where to find it until now. It’s been 8 years since Body Talk pt. 2 with only a few song features here and there, but with Honey’s release, this album did not disappoint. While Honey as a whole is a slower entry to her discography, Robyn still packs a dancing punch where your body loses all control. In the sparsely produced “Between the Lines”, she begs the crowd to move their bodies as a staccato synth percolates literally in between the beats, reminiscing those Detroit Club days in the 1990s.
Robyn shines the brightest in “Because It’s In the Music”, a morose disco track about heartbreak and memory. She belts out, “Because it's in the music / yeah, we were dancing to it / I'm right back in that moment / and it makes me want to cry”, informing us all that music will forever hold memories, always reminding us of those people, places, or things associated with song. We all have those breakup songs, but we also all have those songs when we find love and passion. Much like Robyn’s leading single, "Honey” that tinges with double entendre, a passionate catchy track about love and… well, steamy steamy sex.
Honey is an album for crying and dancing, where you are unsure what is sweat and what are tears. It’s a more minimalist release for Robyn, but it provides so much more gravitas in her otherwise light and fun discography.
9. mgmt - little dark age
MGMT has been quite a mixed bag since their 2007 unexpected hit, Oracular Spectacular. I am not a MGMT purist and cannot defend some of their later aesthetic choices, but Little Dark Age was a great return to form for their odd synth-soaked psychedelia.
Co-written with Ariel Pink, Little Dark Age is a retrofitted adventure into a two-dimensional, distorted land. It opens with the self-aware and hilarious track “She Works Out Too Much” accompanied by a Wii Fit Trainer voice-over, encouraging the listener to work out, but MGMT is not having it. They have always been a little out there and this record is no different. The album continues with tracks like “When You Die”, a pseudo-existential examination of our little dark afterlife. There is something really quite soothing and perfect when Ben Goldwasser sings “go fuck yourself”. They are not pop stars, after all, and never wanted to be, in case you missed the memo from 2007’s “Time to Pretend”.
“Me and Michael” is arguably the best song of the record, hearkening back to power ballads from the 1980s. They don’t try and hide this inspiration as they often play Limahl’s iconic theme to The NeverEnding Story in their live performances. The whole album is produced with this hi-fi stereo cassette aesthetic throughout. Other songs like “James” and “One Thing Left to Try” do not try to mask Ariel Pink’s fingerprints, making their collaboration such a perfect combination.
8. Forth wanderers - forth wanderers
The moment you hear the guitars to the opening track, “Nevermine”, you can’t help but to think back to 1994 when grunge and power-punk ruled all. Do you too hear those tiny moments of Weezer and Liz Phair in Forth Wanderer’s self titled record? Me too. And I really really love it.
Fronted by singer Ava Trilling, Forth Wanderers strum power cords and riffs with incredible force as she wails on the microphone about past regrets, lessons on patience, and even one-night stands. This is an indie rock record that will last long after its initial release. The instrumentation sometimes feels like a punch to the gut, but its earnest approach to poetics helps ice any wounds back to health. There is a moment in “Not For Me” during the pre-chorus where every single amp and guitar is dialed to 11 which then softens to a single lead guitar. Trilling then blasts “I can't feel the earth beneath my feet / flowers bloom but not for me”. This is the highest moment of the album and I can’t stop listening to it. The varied volume to Forth Wanderer’s immaculate self-titled album will surely never bore any hard-to-please listener.
In “Tired Games”, drummer Zach Lorelli taps away with a complicated hi-hat and snare sequence, while Ava pleads “I will try not to speak too soon / but I am tangled up in you, can't get loose / save me from who I strive to be / hard and cold and empty” like a drunken confessional, recognizing her faults but maybe incredulous to healthy change. Her almost mumbled whine quality to her voice might be a turn off to some, but it glues this album together as a wholly unique entry into the indie rock rolodex.
7. anna burch - quit the curse
Anna Burch’s inherent self-awareness with tracks like “2 Cool 2 Care” and “Asking 4 a Friend” make her one of 2018’s most curious artists. Much like Forth Wanderers and Snail Mail (see below), she writes indie rock tracks dripping with wit and earnestness. Originally as a member of folk rock quintet Frontier Ruckus, she ventured off the beaten path with her solo debut Quit the Curse, a record seeping with somber beach-like hooks and 50’s-era-diner melancholy.
Like a less distorted Best Coast, Anna Burch’s Quit the Curse explores heartbreak, love, and missed opportunities. In the dyslexically titled track “Tea-Soaked Letter” (I embarrassingly thought it was tear-soaked for 6+ months), Burch asks, “what was that you said? / that I don't exist inside your head? / you said you would communicate better. / So what? Will you send me a tea-soaked letter?”. I can see how the tea/tear swap cleverly hides the seriousness of her plea, but cleverly layering insult onto earlier self-deprecation.
In “What I Want”, Burch hooks you with a luring, melodic verse, coupled with a Devendra Banhart á la Megapuss guitar riff. Her 50’s-diner aesthetic really shows its face in the chorus as she declares “I won’t play the victim just because I can’t get what I want.” There are similarities at work here with Quit the Curse and Alvvays’ Antisocialites from last year, however Burch takes the minimal, less-dreamy approach.
6. snail mail - lush
There is something normally infuriating with improper grammar, but when Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan incorrectly uses “anyways” in “Pristine”, it completely melts me into a puddle of joy. The rest of the album plays out like an ambivalently angsty lo-fi mixtape from high school. Being born almost a decade after the Great American Grunge, Snail Mail strums her guitar as an homage to the alternatives.
I absolutely adore Lush, and much of the indie-blog world has as well. When someone wears their inspirations so clearly on their sleeves like Snail Mail does, the reactions will always be mixed. But luckily for Jordan, her inspirations are a source of abundant pleasantries. Channeling the likes of Liz Phair, Hole, Pavement, and even Red House Painters, Snail Mail is but an evergreen take on indie rock. The future of the dying genre rests on her shoulders.
Lyrically, Snail Mail is no stranger to philosophical questions; there is nothing lovey-dovey on display here. In “Golden Dream”, she laments, “God around your neck, though he never did too much for you / I wish I knew him better, though I don't think there's much he'd wanna do / I'm not yours” as a deist anthem regretting her lack of relationship with a higher power. Jordan isn’t all spiritual angst either. With tracks like “Heat Wave” and its Slap Shot-esque music video, Jordan exhibits a level of levity that makes Lush an album worthy of everyone’s attention. How she can balance the gravitas with it all is just an indicator of how incredible of an artist she is. Watch out world.
5. young gun silver fox - am waves
Have you ever dreamt of partying on a yacht in the year 1978, wearing a flared collared shirt, buttoned down a few notches, sipping on some cocktails, navigating the California coast? Young Gun Silver Fox has and with their retro record, AM Waves, they perfectly encapsulate that gaudy feeling of frivolity and excess, without exhibiting that capitalistic cash-grab of that era. It’s an honest album, paying homage to those late 70s pop jams and even to those late 70s nights where babies were conceived. Yes, this album is sex.
The opening track, “Midnight in Richmond” plays out like an Eagles cover - an acoustic guitar pop punch. It’s an invitation for what’s to come. “Lenny” is about that Cheers life, a lend-an-ear kind of bartender giving drinks out to the heartbroken, “Lenny, pour me another for the road / I don’t wanna think about tomorrow / Lenny, help me lighten the load”. Undeniably the best track of the album, “Underdog”, infectiously rings in yours ears even hours after its 4:40 length, while both the Young Gun and the Silver Fox sing about the lesser man “standing up for all of us, everyday”, unintentionally becoming Beto O’Rourke’s campaign anthem.
Did I mention this album is sexy AF? “Mojo Rising” smoothly pours its velvety harmonies and Al Green beat as it subtly seduces your senses on that silk-sheeted hotel bed. “Love Guarantee” also sounds like something you would hear in an elevator or perhaps in the Stater Bros.’s bread section - both compliments of the HIGHEST regard. I don’t know what it was about growing up in Southern California, but their grocery stores spun slow sexy jams all day long. 1970s pop sometimes get a bad wrap, but thanks to The Guardians of the Galaxy, these Rhodes-driven jams are making a comeback and Young Gun Silver Fox is here for every second of it.
4. WILD PINK - YOLK IN THE FUR
A few weeks ago, a meme circulated around the indie rock twittersphere depicting two vinyl records: The War on Drug’s A Deeper Understanding (you) next to Wild Pink’s Yolk in the Fur (the guy she told you not to worry about). Nothing sums up this album’s dreamy hooks better than that meme. It flows in the same vein as The War on Drugs’ iconic southern-indie-synth-rock, but delivers so much more to the table.
Much of this album feels like Small Black as well, and it’s an excellent release to fill that dream pop void since Small Black’s Best Blues, arguably the best album of 2015. From “Burger Hill” to their final track “All Some Frenchman’s Joke”, they carry a consistent barrage of synesthetic rock, a sweetness swirling around a sonic pool of dreams that you can taste so distinctly. The seamless transitions between songs like between “Erie” and their title track “Yolk in the Fur” solidify this as an album you must listen to in full. Every single song they wrote is dreamy, but it’s the whole LP you want to consume.
In “There is a Ledger”, Wild Pink taps pan flute synths in a seemingly hollow valley at the pre-chorus as John Ross whispers “You came and sang to me / The clover golden right under our feet / You had my heart in your hands / But I was never enough”, tinging of heartbreak. It’s a beautiful track as he continues “I hope we find peace”, willing to forgive and forget any past wrongdoings. There is also a tender storytelling quality to this album, dripping with east coast mileau. Ross paints a portrait in “Love is Better” of some unknown, quaint beach town as he sings “pick and eat blue crabs in a neighborhood the mob reputedly still haunts / there’s a sweet old man at the bar with his eyes closed / mouthing the words to the Kim Carnes song on the radio”.
3. soccer mommy - clean
Have you ever felt unwanted, uncared for, or unloved? Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison sure has, and her emotional, home-brewed record Clean feels like a collection of somber and angry journal entries from an incredibly talented twenty-year-old singer. Like the above mentioned Snail Mail, some would dismiss this as angsty banter, but there is something about her rage and sadness that is infectious.
Not only will her songwriting make you feel like a sad teenager again, her music will hook your earworms through and through. After you finished a good weep with “Still Clean” and being let go “only for a little while”, she idolizes a badass Mary in “Cool”, reversing the roles of the heartbreaker. She wants to “know her like you / I wanna be that cool” because Mary “ won’t ever love no boy / she’ll treat you like a fucking toy / she’ll break your heart and steal your joy, like a criminal”. When your heart breaks, there is nothing more therapeutic than crushing some dudes and taking down names.
Her rage continues in “Your Dog” that balances itself on a scatting bass line that ping-pongs back and forth in your mind well after the vinyl stops spinning. Sophie Allison angrily barks “I don't wanna be your fucking dog / that you drag around / a collar on my neck tied to a pole / leave me in the freezing cold” perhaps realizing that her previous heartbreaks are but a fleck of memory - forgotten.
Her greatest strength in Clean is her ability to balance the tear-soaked acoustic bedroom confessions with her pounding garage rock pulsations. “Last Girl” and “Scorpio Rising” are both immensely strong tracks on their own, but they couldn’t be any more different. There is a lively luminance to “Last Girl” when she iterates over and over again “I want to be like your last girl”. But with “Scorpio Rising” there is an innocuous sense to teenage love that rings so sweetly, kind of like watching a sunrise at age 16 and having (seemingly) deep, existential thoughts. This is not Perks of a Being a Wallflower here, this is a coming-of-age record of maturation.
2. kevin krauter - toss up
I guess one could argue that every album I really admire is just a derivative of indie rock. While Kevin Krauter’s Toss Up could be tossed into that cognate camp, this record explores some unique avenues that I haven’t heard before. Hailing from Bloomington, Indiana, Kevin Krauter also plays for Hoops, whose previous album Routines was the album of 2017 for me. That said, a lot was resting on Toss Up as it was, and boy it did not disappoint.
This record is less of a cassette-tape roadtrip and more of an aux-cable adventure, with smoother and cleaner sounds but without sacrificing those dreamy hooks that I crave from Hoops. The albums single, “Keep Falling In Love” falls in line with a groovy-get-up, much like Young Gun Silver Fox, but with the subtleties of, say, Whitney’s Light Upon the Lake. “Rollerskate” sounds like a perfect replication of Richard Linklater’s Dazed & Confused, a celebration of the weekend but with the reverence of sweet nostalgia. Toss Up has this reoccurring synthesized instrument throughout that reverberates within my entire being like a drug. “Rollerskate” ends with this synth, which leads into the tour de force of the album, “Suddenly”, a track of soothing determination. The post-chorus celestica synth that rings is a melody inspired by the heavens, while Krauter sings “I'll never slow down / I'll follow this into the morning / I'll get what I want / I'll get it oh so suddenly”, shining with optimism and hope.
The title and final track, “Toss Up” calls to mind memories of Steve Zissou telling us all about his boat, The Belefonte. A Mothersbaugh 8-bit programmed beat carries this reverent waltz about friends being there for each other, “I can carry you home and be there / and pretend like I'm strong enough”. There is still a level of uncertainty that Krauter exhibits, because the year is 2018, after all, but he stills exudes with encouraged love.
1. wild nothing - indigo
Very rarely will there be a record that squeezes itself into my Hall of Masterpieces where I will revere it until the day I die. Wild Nothing’s Indigo might just be one of those albums. It starts and ends in an azure blaze of dream pop; synths, chorus pedals, and space echo whirling together at full steam.
Jack Tatum, the man behind this barbaric abandon, crafts an album of maturity and incredible force. Rarely does he slow down here. “Letting Go”, a dreamy anthem that fittingly belongs in a Planetarium soundtrack, kicks off with an infectious chorus all about that sweet release and freedom. When we here that two-note synth line in between lyrics, it absolutely transcends me. He continues his phantom song-craft with “Oscillation”, another wild track of dream pop wonders. An acoustic guitar carries this song to the chorus that contains the power of a stadium rock band, but with the intimation of a one-man band playing on a small stage.
“Wheels of Misfortune” is a clever track that admonishes the futility of avoiding love as he sings “everyone takes their turn at the wheel of misfortune / everyone knows that love is worth the questions never answered”. What’s he saying here? The ambiguity is all the more welcome in regard to this idea, because anything more would be rote understanding of how love works.
What follows is the greatest love song ever written, “Shallow Water”. Tatum sings, “When I'm home there is nothing I'm looking for that you haven't already found / when I'm home in the shallow water you can swim around me, I won't mind” beautifully describing the safety and comfort of being home with your married partner. There is something so sweet and powerful about this song, because isn’t a strong marriage about being comfortable and safe with the one you love? Don’t we all deserve this?
I could go on about every single track on this record, but I will end with its final track “Bend”, a song that takes it’s time before the unreal barrage of sound as he howls “the moon is low tonight / and I bend to keep myself in line / it’s all I want / a strange desire come to life”. Much like the rest of the album, Wild Nothing has the power of a choir but the intimacy of an individual with a melodic dream-hook. Give me more music like this.
Hatchie - Sugar & Spice EP
While Hatchie arguably wrote the best song of the year with “Sure”, a shoegaze daydream of a track, glistening in swirls of guitar and synth reveries, her EP did not end up on my Top Ten list strictly because it’s not a full release. I loved every track she released on the EP, but I know she will have a full LP next year and it will most likely land on my Top Ten. If this EP is any indication, I have a strong inkling that her career is one I will watch for the entirety of my life, as long as she continues to write music.
Miya Folick - Premonitions
Miya Folick’s Premonitions is a pop album of epic proportions and it saddens me that it hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves. The feminist anthem “Stop Talking” is such a riotously fun track, it almost makes me feel like walking downtown! WOW! “Freak Out” is another energy-track that describes sex as feeling spiders crawling down your back in the least-goth way possible. “Deadbody” and “Stock Image” are tracks that display Miya’s incredible range, something that is praiseworthy on all accounts.
Twin Shadow - Caer
It’s hard to top Twin Shadow’s 2010 release of Forget, but it is no difficult task to eclipse his hallow Eclipse from 2015. Caer is a great middle ground between the Joy Division minimalism of Forget and the power-ballad pipe-dreams of Eclipse and it’s an incredible listen all the way through. With collaborations with pop-sister-goddesses/Taylor Swift and Paul Thomas Anderson BFFs, Haim and Rainsford, George Lewis Jr. makes a hella fun record through and through.
Beach House - 7
With Beach House’s unexpected rise to stardom with Bloom, they continued on that dream-pop tunnel of afterlife with their seventh album, aptly named 7. "Dark Spring” feels like they hung out with Slowdive one weekend and combined their more distorted sound along with their cheap keyboards. “Lemon Glow” definitely samples the janky “fantasy synth” that I had on my $80 Casio that I had in Middle School. Their inexpensive aesthetic is the stuff of dreams and nostalgia as they continue to refine their sound, for better or for worse.