Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The Best Of 2018 (So Far)

Anyone who is not completely overwhelmed with musical choice in 2018 is either not paying attention, stuck in a rut, or phenomenally lazy. In my Of Note In 2018 playlist, for example, I’m tracking over 400 releases from all genres and the year is just at the halfway point. As a point of comparison, the same playlist in 2017 topped out at just over 500 entries. Unless we’re due for a sonic drought over the next six months, this should be a banner year. Of course music is not a numbers game and when it comes down to what is going to nourish your head, heart and body, there’s always going to be those few that demand compulsive listening and get you through your days. Here are the 25 new albums that are really doing it for me this year.

1. Holly Miranda - Mutual Horse Through the alchemy of her craft, Miranda transmutes difficulties in her life into glorious sonic adventures while never losing touch with the raw emotions behind it all. 

2. Jonathan Wilson - Rare Birds Despite a dodgy lyric or two, Wilson’s third album is a passionate masterpiece filled with intricate layers, novel textures, and less fealty to classic rock tropes and traditions. Need convincing? If you’re in NYC on July 29th, let him close the deal at a free concert at the Lincoln Center Out Of Doors festival. 

3. Pusha-T - Daytona Cutting through the noise of Kanye West’s “no apology tour,” this first in a string of spring releases from G.O.O.D. Music’s Wyoming sessions delivered ALL the goods. West’s production is both diamond-sharp and packed with grit, marrying rare soul samples with sleek beats to stunning effect. Even better, it is solely focused on showing off King Push’s precise and passionate flow, dripping with contempt for his inferiors and pride in all he’s accomplished. In addition to his trademark cocaine rap and salvos in an epic beef with Drake, Push takes time out in Santeria to remember his friend and road manager, De’von Pickett, expressing the pain and vulnerability he felt in the wake of his murder: “The Lord is my shepherd, I am not sheep/I am just a short stone's throw from the streets/I bring my offerin', I will not preach/Awaken my demons, you can hear that man screaming/I'm no different than the priest...” At just 27 minutes, Daytona is a heat-seeking missile that wastes no time and hits targets over and over again with devastating accuracy. On his third solo album, Pusha-T has finally matched the consistency and power of his best work with Clipse. The fact that Kanye, whose loyalty to the culture has been in serious question, crafted these perfect beats and bequeathed them to his colleague is a sign that there is still love in the man - and maybe hope for us all. In fact, West might have benefited from a few of the beats here and on Kids See Ghosts, his very good collaboration with Kid Cudi. His own album, despite having its moments, was the weakest of his career.

4. Olivia De Prato - Streya Like Michael Nicolas's cello album Transitions from 2016, De Prato's solo debut is as perfect an exemplar of a modern single-instrument album as you're going to hear. Flawlessly played and curated, Streya is an unforgettable journey through the sonic possibilities of the violin.

5. Hollie Cook - Vessel Of Love Third time and continuing to charm, Cook's delicious update on rocksteady reggae comes with a bittersweet sting that just makes it more addictive. 

6. Natalie Prass - The Future And The Past When I saw Prass back in 2015, she used a customized mix of 90's R&B and hip hop to warm up the crowd before her set. So I was not entirely surprised to find her second album full of intricate and slyly funky grooves. Not only is her versatility on full display here, but so is that of Matthew E. White, once again in the producer's chair, and his stellar band of Richmond, VA musos. While there are still plenty of the intimate relationship songs Prass is known for, like Lost ("I get lost, I get lost, when I'm with you/But at what cost, at what cost, do I let you do what you do"), there are also politically acute numbers like Sisters ("One time for our girls at school/Who can’t get ahead no matter what they do/And when they grow up and they try to work/Oh no, but they ain’t nothing but the shorter skirt, hey") and Ship Goes Down ("And I will never kneel when/Power is in fear/And aimed upon me/Oh no, no, I am never drowning"). One model here is the world-beating songwriting of Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic, who always tried to have "big idea" on which to hang their gossamer but deep dance tracks. Part of the disco movement was about solidarity among outsiders, literally expressed on the dance floor. So invite your friends and neighbors over for a Prass party and when the sun comes up call your elected officials and remind them who they work for.

7. Father John Misty - God’s Favorite Customer Mr. Tillman shows no sign of slowing down, following up 2017’s epic Pure Comedy with this relatively stripped-down collection of songs. Featuring both his trademark dark humor and a new sense of vulnerability, even if occasionally cloaked in 70’s soft-rock bathos, Tillman knocks a few new holes in his wheelhouse on his fourth release as FJM. Jonathan Rado’s smart production can also have a rocked-out edge, something that’s been MIA since Fear Fun in 2012

8. Jonny Greenwood - Phantom Thread and You Were Never Really Here OK, I know I'm cheating here, but maybe by the end of 2018 I'll figure out which side of Greenwood I like better: the Bernard Herrmann-esque romantic of Phantom Thread or the chilly dealer in dread of YWNRH. Both are tours de force of cinematic music-making that intrigue and delight whether you've seen the films or not.

9. Palm - Rock Island Shimmering blasts of knotty repetition define the sound of this Philly-based art-rock band, combining the brittle funk of Talking Heads with sunshine-drenched melodies in a single-minded pursuit of cerebral ecstasySee them live if you can!

10. Scott Johnson and Alarm Will Sound - Mind Out Of Matter Johnson is the master of notating speech and composing musical accompaniment, a technique he’s been perfecting since the 1970’s. These settings of the philosophical, theological and scientific musings of Prof. Daniel C. Dennett (based on his book Breaking the Spell (Religion as a Natural Phenomenon)show a new subtlety in Johnson’s approach to language. And the music is so full of sparkle and interest that you will keep listening long after you’ve absorbed all the text. Naturally, the playing by Alarm Will Sound is virtuosic and full of verve, a fitting reminder of the extraordinary legacy of their founder, Matt Marks, who died suddenly earlier this year. Come out to Roulette on Thursday, August 16th as the new music community gathers to remember him with performances and conversation.

11. Courtney Barnett - Tell Me How You Really Feel Smart songwriting, gritty guitars and a tough rhythm section honed from two years of touring add up to Barnett’s most confident album yet, even if one song is called Crippling Self-Doubt And A General Lack Confidence. If we can name our fears, we can conquer them.

12. Andy Jenkins - Sweet Bunch The other great Spacebomb release in 2018, this is a sweet bunch of songs indeed, long on sticky melodies and hooks and full of heartfelt singing and expert playing. At this point Matthew E. White could start his own festival with just the artists he’s produced and it would instantly be one of the best in the land. 

13. Shame - Songs Of Praise Not the second coming, just a damned good rock album steeped in the verities of classic post-punk and filled with energy and invention. Still trying to see them live, hopefully I'll have a chance in the fall

14. Seabuckthorn - A House With Too Much Fire Andy Cartwright uses the organic textures of various guitars layered hypnotically with loops and electronics to create immersive mood exercises perfect for soundtracking your next walking meditation. 

15. Kali Uchis - Isolation After The Storm, one of the singles from this debut showed up in my Discover Weekly playlist (it can work!) and I was immediately in the groove. Having Bootsy Collins guest on bass and vocals didn’t hurt and somehow Tyler The Creator was restrained enough to not overshadow Uchis’s voice, which is both airy and earthy. That doesn’t mean I expected the album to be this strong, however, especially when I got a glimpse of the cheesy cover. But, lo and behold, Uchis has assembled one of the most compelling R&B albums of recent years, with catchy melodies, slinky beats and just enough wit and contemporary edge to keep it from being retro. Get some of these tracks on your BBQ playlist STAT. 

16. Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet - Landfall This elegy for NYC after Hurricane Sandy finds these old school avant gardists meshing seamlessly and producing one of the most soulful albums of their lengthy careers. 

17. Black Milk - FEVER Mainly known for his skills behind the boards, the Detroit-based producer-rapper fully comes into his own as a double threat on this album. Most importantly, his finesse on the mic has freed him up to make the most personal record of his career, full of relatable thoughts and feelings. He’s been on tour with a live band - show up and cheer him on. 

18. Maya Baiser - David Lang: The Day Made up of two lengthy works for cello, electronics and voice, this album sets in stone some of Lang’s finest music, World To Come (2003) and The Day (2016). Seeing Baiser perform them only confirmed how deeply involved she is in this music, playing their commemoration of the post-9/11 landscape with compassionate virtuosity. 

19. David Garland - Verdancy In which the New York radio legend moves to the country, borrows a guitar modified by his son for Sean Lennon, and uses it to explore previously unmapped terrain between folk and contemporary classical music. There’s only one track I don’t care for over four hours of music, so this is definitely verdant territory

20. Wang Lu - Urban Inventory This portrait recording features six of Lu's compositions performed by a starry array of ensembles including Third SoundICEAlarm Will Sound and the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Their involvement is a tribute to Lu's dazzling music, which shows a complete  mastery of orchestration and dynamics as well as a polyglot style based on a broad field of influences. Listening is like being in the hands of a great storyteller as each piece pulls you through its narrative in a series of musical page turners. The vignettes of the title piece may be based on Lu's formative experiences in Beijing but her sonic translations are universal enough that any city dweller will feel a burst of recognition. Urban Inventory announces the arrival of an incredible talent whose gifts will likely only continue to grow.

21. Clarice Jensen - From This That Will Be Filled This solo debut from ACME's Artistic Director includes one of the last works by the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson alongside a piece by Michael Harrison and a two-part composition by Jensen herself. Jensen's ideas about what the cello can do in various enhanced environments are never less than fascinating and the playing and recording are always sublime.

22. Eddie Dixon - Coinstar On his first album in four years, this master of gnarled and tangled Americana strips down his sound, letting his guitar dole out rock & roll wisdom in between lyrics that limn the realms of the have-nots (“Everything’s a brass ring, everything's a sweepstakes car,” he sings in Coinstar, “If I get to heaven, can I finally see a doctor, please?”) and point out just how much American exceptionalism is based on oppression. This is the perfect companion to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled And Dimed or Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States, but it’s got a beat and you can dance to it. If you feel scarred by Dixon’s scabrous wit, that’s just because we’re all implicated in one way or another.

23. Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino We can all debate whether this is an Alex Turner solo project or a great, lost Last Shadow Puppets album, or we can just listen, floating off in a woozy fantasia of retro sci fi musings that take place in a future that seems strangely familiar. Turner slows down his usually motor-mouthed vocals to a Lennon-esque drawl that weaves its way through spacious arrangements of burbling bass, chamber-pop keyboards and witty drums. The guitars, so central to the Monkeys sound in the past, serve mainly as punctuation, a reflection of the fact that Turner did much of the songwriting on piano, which also expanded his melodic horizons. Kudos also to Turner's compatriots Jamie Cook (guitar, keys), Nick O'Malley (bass) and Matt Helders (drums) for strapping in for this unusual mission. I admire any band that can make a complete u-turn when following up their most successful album, potentially sloughing off legions of fans in the process (check out the Arctics Facebook page - not a comfortable place these days!), but the fact is I would book a long stay at Tranquility Base under any name.

24. Jane Church - Calimocho Molotov! I picked this up on cassette (download code included!) at one of their many gigs and, trust me, it's more fun than a vintage convertible on a sunny day. In wake of their recent signing to Greenway Records it seems the rest of you will have to wait for a more official release in the fall. Matt Stevenson writes and sings songs that stick and the backing by Ali Awan (lead guitar), Turner Stough (bass), and Peter Hilton Jr. (drums) could not be more engaging. Hilton especially deserves credit for the murderous swing of the sound. Pure joy - get on board.

25.  Elsa Hewitt - Quilt Jams Hewitt released three albums of her warm, fuzzy electronic compositions last year so I would not have looked askance if she had taken the year off. Apparently, that's just not in her nature. Not only has she just released this collection of minimalist sketches for guitar and electronics but there's another, livelier album promised for the fall. Quilt Jams does just what it says on the tin, enveloping the listener in a comforting wash of sounds. If you have a tape deck, you can buy it on cassette, which adds to the density of the sound. It also comes with a handmade sleeve - but act fast, there are only three left!

Listen to a sample of most of these albums with this handy playlist:

Keep up with everything I'm tracking with these Of Note In 2018 playlists:

Of Note In 2018 - Includes all the tracks in the genre-specific lists
Of Note In 2018 (Classical)
Of Note In 2018 (Electronic)
Of Note In 2018 (Hip Hop, R&B & Reggae)
Of Note In 2018 (Rock, Folk, Etc.)
Of Note In 2018 (Reissues)

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