It’s been barely a year since Phil Elverum released the instant cult-classic A Crow Looked At Me, a direct insight into an unimaginable pain – a record so insular and starkly personal it was uncomfortable. Focussing outwardly on Elverum’s relationship with life and death, Now Only was the perfect follow-up, a more relatable effort that is beguiling from start-to-finish. While A Crow… was brutally direct in its narrative, Now Only allows ideas to unfold; ‘Distortion’ is an 11-minute epic which delves through proto-punk, twee folk, and alt-country – while Elverum’s prose encapsulates the record. Elsewhere, opener ‘Tintin In Tibet’ is vivid in its lyricism and vivacious in its instrumentation; while the delicate nature of the titular track, ‘Now Only’ provides a magnificent moment of reflection.
Now Only is a record which continues the process of Elverum’s grieving, one on which we’re lucky enough to be able to eavesdrop. The human relationship with death is something everyone can relate to, but for Elverum, it is a relationship which is still all too real; this is a record with truly harrowing lyricism, but it is a credit to the project that Now Only remains an immersive listen in spite of its complexities. (JT) (LISTEN)
It’s no secret that The Student Playlist are big fans of Let’s Eat Grandma; their debut album, I, Gemini, was one of 2016’s most fun records, as their self-proclaimed ‘sludge-pop’ captured our hearts and imaginations. So when the Norwich-based duo – who, incredibly, are still teenagers – announced a second effort you can bet we were ‘all ears’ – and none of us were disappointed.
I’m All Ears is a spellbinding record which never pauses for breath. Full of personality and creativity, it encapsulates the sound of pop in 2018; from the synth-wave of opener ‘Whitewater’, to the playful one-two of the PC Music-infused ‘Hot Pink’ and ‘It’s Not Just Me’ this is a record which dares to succeed in its variations. There are moments of tranquil beauty in the sumptuous ballad ‘Ava’, a moment which best shows Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth’s songwriting prowess. There’s still time for the experimentalism to reach the forefront as ten-minute epics ‘Cool And Collected’ and ‘Donnie Darko’ show precisely why Let’s Eat Grandma have long been tipped as one of the UK’s most exciting newcomers. (JT) (LISTEN)
One may wonder what the name of U.S. Girls conceals, with the piercing sky blue eyes stare off into the distance in a both perplexed and vengeful fashion from the cover of In A Poem Unlimited. A female punk band from the United States? Maybe somebody who likes to examine the social discourse that accompanies the female existence in the modern United States? After all, it’s a mixture of all that, as the one behind this experimental pop outfit is Meghan Remy. Dressed in shimmering disco, catchy pop or brooding fusion of rock and jazz, Remy’s seventh effort In A Poem Unlimited is actually a cleverly disguised punk album in its attitude, both thrusting the knife inside and twisting it slyly with the hidden political critique.
The album is essentially one big surprise attack, concealed with a wide slightly sardonic smile as the pop of U.S. Girls makes one sway their hips as well as have a terrifying realisation mid-dance that first impressions can be very deceiving. ‘M.A.H.’, for example, at first sounds like a danceable love song, but is actually about the Obama presidency and Remy’s disappointment and anger towards his actions regarding the use of drones in the Middle East. The themes of vengeance, abuse, aggression and violence pervade and seep through the cracks of the seemingly smooth musical surface of menacing saxophone and drone noises. A female revenge fantasy set to music, In A Poem Unlimited was beautiful yet brutal. (AS) (LISTEN)
After a decade of evolving by small degrees from album to album, 7 was the moment at which Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally consciously pushed their artistic limits and ideas a bit further than usual, parting ways with long-time producer Chris Coady and enlisting ex-Spacemen 3 visionary Peter ‘Sonic Boom’ Kember instead. While Beach House have always been one of the most consistent bands, 7 only confirmed how good the dream-pop duo actually is, especially pushed out of their comfort zone. The result of this experimentation turned out to be immensely satisfying, mixing their languorous guitar tones with darker and more narcotic elements.
Effectively, 7 was the sound of same band you’d always loved, but… definitely different. Full of beautiful arrangements and stunning instrumentation, such as on songs like ‘L’Inconnue’ and ‘Drunk In L.A.’ However, they didn’t stop at the aesthetically pleasing harmonies – the duo incorporated politically inspired lyrics into their songs in a subtle way, adding another layer to the already immersive experience. With all of those weapons in their hands, Beach House managed to record an album which is captivating and moving, but also unpredictable and liberated of any limitations. (AR) (LISTEN)
Fusing soulful crooning, dirty raps and quivering electronics is what Edinburgh’s Young Fathers do best, and Cocoa Sugar was the most fully realised take on their unique vision – even more so than their Mercury-winning debut Dead. Honeyed melodies trickle down luxurious, crushed velvet instrumentals, the moods flitting subtly and quickly between light and twisted darkness. Tracks like ‘Turn’ spun a deconstructed vocal intro into one of the most soaring choruses on the album; conversely, ‘Fee Fi’ opened with a nursery-rhyme chant before delving into lines like “nice set of knives / give me a slice / I like your flesh”.
Their inclusion on the T2: Trainspotting last year gave the often enigmatic trio a shot of exposure, and brought them closer to the mainstream than ever before. Cocoa Sugar, which saw them hit the British and European festival circuits hard and draw big crowds, arguably brought them to the status of being the country’s biggest cult band – and certainly made the most unique, interesting and strange. (LM) (LISTEN)
We’d been waiting a hell of a long time for it, but Janelle Monáe’s third album titled Dirty Computer was definitely one of the most colourful releases of the year while also being a record which brought a lot of attention to the political and social topics that divide America in 2018. Sexism, xenophobia and racial discrimination were some of the issues that Monáe has woven into the album, alongside some of her most ambitious productions yet, making it a multi-dimensional and often a very profound listen.
At the same time, Monáe didn’t give up on her enthusiastic and eccentric presence at any moment on the album. More than ever, the artist was capable of pulling all of her musical influences together and building a collection of songs that excite, provoke and entertain, such as the outspoken ‘Django Jane’ and ‘PYNK’, the Prince-inspired ‘Make Me Feel’, or sensual ‘I Like That’. So is that emotional and artistic boldness what made Dirty Computer one of the best records of the year? Yes, because such flamboyant yet genuine approach to music, feisty lyricism and confidence in your own words and voice is what the pop scene needs and should embrace more often. (AR) (LISTEN)
Kamasi Washington, the modern figurehead of jazz in popular consciousness, lived up to all expectations with Heaven And Earth – an ambitious epic, much like its appropriately titled predecessor. Split into two parts – one for reality, one for indulging in fantasy of a better tomorrow – the album has a somewhat loose narrative structure, making it easier to ingest and break-apart. A necessary inclusion, provided the length of the entire record and the mount of excessively great saxophone solos, church choirs, and impeccable musicianship skill displayed on nearly every second of the album. It’s almost too much to take in, but Heaven And Earth somehow manages to stay just enough as a whole to not get tiring, leaving you craving more extravagant jazz goodness long after the 144 minutes of music have concluded.
It’s not just virtuosity pulling this album through, though, and it would be a disservice not to mention the political and social statements that Heaven And Earth makes – rarely directly, admittedly, but more through musical gestures coded in years of the history of the art-form, that Washington and his band clearly know inside-out and back-to-front. From the opener ‘Fists Of Fury’ – a rework of the Bruce Lee movie theme – the album cements Washington’s status as the perfect icon for the tradition of jazz being extended into the modern day. Heaven And Earth stays true to everything great about the genre, both as a technical skill and as politically motivated art. (EW) (LISTEN)
Are artists even allowed to release an album that’s not at least somewhat politically and/or socially conscious in 2018? Not to blame anyone who does, but how, having a medium and a platform for self-expression, is one not supposed to use it to express the ideas one would inevitably have these days? When living seems like a never-ending barrage of bad news and the world is in multiple grandiose crises all at once, most of which don’t bend to quick solutions as much as they do to resignation and apathy.
Quite amazingly, Low, a full 25 years and a dozen albums into their career, have managed to conjure up an artistic statement that doesn’t resort to unearned, desperate, confused sloganeering, rather choosing to imbue the entire aesthetic of the album itself with all the indecision, confusion, and creeping dread that accompanies the attempt to follow the news cycle these last few years. On Double Negative, the husband-and-wife duo and producer BJ Burton (previous work: Bon Iver’s 22, A Million), create a dystopian reality (or, rather, just reality) with barely anything other than sound design. Prolonged, skipping drones, granular sound textures, low frequencies that continuously threaten to swallow the entire song whole. It’s a slow, borderline ambient album, a sonic trip designed to be taken alone, in the dark. Double Negative offers no answers, only the occasional moment where the dark drones break and out of the cracks flows even more confusion. The music is utterly unique, and the humanistic statement underneath as poignant as the conclusion is depressing. (EW) (LISTEN)
“This is why you never see your father cry,” bellowed Joe Talbot on ‘Samaritans’, just one of many stand-outs on IDLES’ staggering sophomore effort, which both solidified and expanded upon the ideas set out in last year’s word-of-mouth debut Brutalism. This concise, knock-out blow represented a brilliant assault on toxic masculinity. Frustration and fragility, love and hate, kindness and ruthlessness are all set in conflict with each other repeatedly on the sonic battlefield of Joy As An Act Of Resistance.
While Brexit, and the personal and political themes that underlie the chaos of all that it has brought over the last 24 months, tends to be framing device for the context of most of the album – explicitly on the taunting ‘Great’ – there are righteous analyses of immigration (‘Danny Nedelko’), small-minded anger (‘Never Fight A Man With A Perm’) and addiction (stand-out track ‘Colossus’) as well as powerful expressions of personal grief on the likes of ‘June’. The songs exploded out of their starting blocks, their angularity and energy lighting sparks every time, but IDLES didn’t leave their ‘fun punk’ origins behind entirely, delivering these serious messages with a mischievous smirk. Channelling emotion and beauty alongside intelligence and raw anger, Joy As An Act Of Resistance is nothing less than the finest British punk album of the decade. (LM) (LISTEN)
The American-Japanese art pop musician Mitski rightly received overwhelming critical acclaim through her exciting 2016 release Puberty 2, but what she delivered next exceeded even the most optimistic projections. Heavily poignant, striking, full of gut-punching metaphors about creativity and love interchangeably, Be The Cowboy a concise 32-minute ride through sorrow and battling with one’s ego. “You’re my number one / You’re the one I want / And I’ve turned down / Every hand that has beckoned me to come” she soared on the opening track ‘Geyser’, portraying herself as a music creative who keeps sacrificing everything else in order to create.
While Mitski’s melancholic timbre, rooted in a shoegaze-y, noise rock-esque sonic collage, showed the listener around her post-breakup house of fun, riddled with desire to one-up your ex as well as “get coffee and talk about nothing”, the melodies echoed with longing and drive. The stylistic mix of indie, grunge rock and country fuses to perfectly accommodate any mood Mitski is projecting with her succinct and sharp lyrics. She might be pondering how creativity both strengthens and weakens one, likening herself to a geyser, or how love sometimes is just throwing your dirty shoes into another’s washing machine heart, but it’s all part of the same creative whole. Be The Cowboy is a perfect example of an instant classic that stays potent years to come, as its specific stylistic fusion goes hand-in-hand with the slightly exhibitionist ways Mitski dissects one’s emotional dissonances in her lyrics, as well as delivering them in a way that’s true to her alone. (AS) (LISTEN)
Tags: 2018, albums, best albums, Ed Biggs, feature, The Top 50 Albums of 2018
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