Monday, December 24, 2018

Best Of 2018: The Top 25

Another year is coming to a close. In the light of the daily outrages on the geo-political stage, I am likely not the only one more fervently seeking solace and acknowledgement in music. Thankfully, some of our finest artists met that need with incredible records in 2018. What follows are the 25 that not only rose to every standard of excellence but engaged me on a deeper level, bonding to my very soul. Is that too high-falutin’ a sentiment for you? What else do you expect from AnEarful?

1. Holly Miranda - Mutual Horse Not only is Miranda’s third album a beautiful work of art, it’s also an act of giving - to her listeners, to her family, and to herself. 

2. Jonathan Wilson - Rare Birds On his third album proper, Wilson took more chances musically, lyrically and production-wise. What hasn’t changed is his wide-eyed sincerity and optimism. Some parts of the hippie ideal were worth preserving, after all, especially if the music sounds this incredible.  

3. Pusha T - Daytona It was a mad year for Kanye West fans but at least we got this one classic out of it, along with parts of Kids See Ghosts and Teyana Taylor’s album. Pusha T’s "luxury street rap" never sounded more incised in stone and some of the lyrics even allow for hints of self-reflection. As the man says, If You Know You Know

4. Olivia De Prato - Streya Stop with the Bach. This is how you make a 21st Century violin record. 

5. Natalie Prass - The Future and the Past Matthew E. White and the Spacebomb house band stretch themselves to realize Prass’s booty-shaking R&B visions. The results are sharp as a tack, with pinpoint rhythms and hooks galore. Prass delivers the songwriting goods as well, managing to always stay tuneful and positive while also letting you know that she’s very aware of all the social and political situations that are keeping us off kilter - and the vicissitudes of romance that can have the same effect. 

6. Andy Jenkins - Sweet Bunch Speaking of Spacebomb, this masterclass in songwriting by Jenkins receives the absolutely perfect sound from White, with swampy guitars, a small choir singing backup on some songs and the typically excellent rhythm work by Spacebomb house-band members Cameron Ralston (bass) and Pinson Chanselle (drums). Jenkins’s slightly rueful yet wise persona finds apt expression in his Nilsson-esque voice and all the elements add up to an addictive delight. 

7. Hollie Cook - Vessel Of Love Switching to Youth as producer and including Jah Wobble (PiL) and Keith Levene (The Clash, PiL) among the players leads to what I call post-punk’s reggae revenge - and revenge never sounded so sweet

8. Jonny Greenwood - Phantom Thread and You Were Never Really Here Another annus mirabilis for fans of the Radiohead guitarist’s film music as he showed off two of his sides: darkly romantic in the score to the Paul Thomas Anderson masterpiece (four words I’ve never put together before) and just dark in the soundscapes for the disappointing Joaquin Phoenix (also not a common phrase!) feature. I have high hopes that Greenwood scores an Oscar this time around. See the movies or don’t - but listen no matter what. 

9. Christopher Trapani - Waterlines I called the title piece, written in the Katrina aftermath and based on old blues and country classics, an instant classic when I heard it performed by Lucy Dhegrae and the Talea Ensemble, the same forces who grace this recording. The other pieces are also excellent, risky and fascinating. 

10. Palm - Rock Island On their second album - and a major leap from their 2015 debut - Palm’s tricky time signatures, glossy textures and bright melodies keep me in a suspended state of sparkle while I listen. Live, their jams are weightier, which wasn’t a bad thing at all. 

11. Anna Thorvaldsdottir - Aequa This new portrait album of the Icelandic composer’s work, performed with authority by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), is yet another showcase of her wondrous work. Thorvaldsdottir is significant because her compositional scaffolding is among the strongest of anyone writing today, but her interest in recorded sound elevates her work into an almost tactile experience. From the first notes of Scape, a solo work for prepared piano (played by Cory Smyth), you can't help but be drawn into her vivid musical imagination. Long may she reign!

12. Shame - Songs Of Praise My love of angular post-punk rock is strong enough that I can overlook some of the familiarity I feel when listening to this young band. Also, the unity of their attack and sense of conviction about what they’re doing make for a killer album. Sky’s the limit, boys!

13. Du Yun - Dinosaur Scar The only recent Pulitzer Prize winner who’s even more of a badass than Kendrick Lamar, Du Yun manages to harness her big ideas into concise nuggets of passionate information. As she said at a recent concert“Through music I always want to tell stories about human relationships,” so the results are far from abstraction. It’ll be a while before we all catch with her, but this album, persuasively performed by ICE (do they ever sleep??) closes that distance by some measure. 

14. Mutual Benefit - Thunder Follows The Light Listening to Jordan Lee, the one constant member of Mutual Benefit, follow his muse and develop his songwriting into its current hymn-like state has been a central pleasure of our young century. Horns and strings, and almost no drums, push this gorgeous album further toward pastoral chamber pop and I will follow Lee as far as he wants to go down that road. 

15. Anna St. Louis - If Only There Was A River This enigmatic singer somehow manages to sound both completely contemporary and as if she’s been with us forever. Exquisitely sensitive production and stunning songwriting make this one for the ages. 

16. Scott Johnson - Mind Out Of Matter Only Johnson, the master of orchestrated speech, could turn a lecture about religion and evolution into a piece compelling enough for repeated listening. And only Alarm Will Sound (still missing Matt Marks...) could play this complex score with such tossed-off assurance

17. Bodega - Endless Scroll I caught these wise and witty art-punk pranksters on one of New Sounds’ Facebook Live performances and was immediately captivated by their energy. Sometimes I laugh out loud at a lyric on the subway. Instead of giving me side-eye, just get the album!

18. Arp - Zebra Lush, cinematic, jazz-and-electronics-infused atmospheres for dreaming. By pulling in more influences but caring less about treating them with kid gloves, Alexis Georgopoulos, has made his most distinctive record yet.

19. Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel And Casino Alex Turner’s mind map of the titular structure provided him a means of escape from the cul de sac AM found themselves in after their last album. What was next - louder and heavier? Why? This was a brave direction to take - and one they executed to perfection. Book a room and see if you agree it’s even better than “four stars out of five.”

20. Elsa Hewitt - Quilt Jams As I said in the latest issue of Off Your Radar when I included one of Hewitt’s electronic fantasias on my mixtape: “With or without vocals, each track feels like a psychic transmission filled with crucial information about how we live now.” Dial it in

21. Scott Hirsch - Lost Time Behind The Moon What a delightful surprise this album is! I’ve long known Scott Hirsch’s name from the deep dive I took into Hiss Golden Messenger’s history a few years ago, but on this sophomore release he seems to cut loose from all forebears and find a truly individual expression. There’s plenty of variety within as well, from rootsy fingerpicked delicacies to funky Rhythm Ace-driven workouts. I've added seeing Hirsch headline to my 2019 goals. 

22. Dan Lippel, et al - ...Through Which the Past Shines... Exquisite, modern chamber music for guitar by Nils Vigeland and Reiko Füting played with warmth and authority by Lippel (also heard to great effect on the Du Yun album above), joined occasionally by John Popham on cello and Vigeland on piano. I'm also enjoying the opportunity to further explore Füting's sound world on the recently released distant song.

23. Jeff Tweedy - Warm Even though this is Tweedy's first "official" solo album, it also feels like the return of an old friend. The quiet songs seem to contain banked fires, instead of just being quiet, and the lyrics are even more acute than ever, perhaps a reflection on his recent work writing his memoir. 

24. Raoul Vignal - Oak Leaf This French singer-songwriter's second album is like a warm blanket. Each time I listen to his whisper-singing, fingerpicked guitar and gentle accompaniments, I feel ensconced in its hushed universe.

25. Domenico Lancellotti - The Good Is A Big God A lot of people view Brazilian music in their rearview, appreciating and delighting in its extraordinary legacy. Lancellotti proves that this legacy has a future with this album's kaleidoscopic view of Brazil's many musical streams, from bossa nova and samba to tropicalia and beyond. 

Excerpts to all of these, except Scott Johnson and Raoul Vignal, are found in this playlist or below. Listen and let me know what moves you.

Still to come: genre-specific lists highlighting the best of classical, electronic, hip hop, R&B, reggae, rock, folk, reissues and everything else!

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2017: The Top 25
Best Of 2017: Classical
Best Of 2017: Out Of The Past
Best Of 2017: Electronic
Best Of 2017: Hip Hop, R&B and Reggae
Best Of 2017: Rock, Folk, Etc.

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