Countdown to Freedom : Re-Critic's Top 10 Albums of 2018
As the year comes to a close, we look back and take stock of the year that was. Here are The Re-Critic’s favorites from 2018, if you’re wondering how we fit eleven albums into a Top 10, well…maybe don’t worry about it.
Before we get started, if you are at all interested in our favorite songs from the year, we invite you to check out this sweet playlist on Spotify.
And now, on with the list!
- The Whole Thing Is Just There's second track "Saganism vs. Buddhism" starts out simply enough with some downtrodden and world-weary lyrics. Then it breaks into a section of throat-tearing screams. Then it features an extended instrumental break that plays like a rock n roll take on free jazz. And then it offers angelic vocalizations that lead into a breathlessly frenzied musical coda. The song is a journey that sounds as if the world has fully turned within its seven minutes. It is a melancholic but revelatory piece of self-discovery for its narrator. It is a piece of music that feels vital and of-the-moment in its presentation. And as it encompasses all these things it offers a decent encapsulation of the musical heroics on display over the course of the LP. "For Nana", a paean to a lost loved one, offers a thesis statement of sorts: "I won't see you anymore / life's a fit of moving on / blood and breath will leave you sore". This is possibly 2018's most aching and heartfelt record and yet it carries a pervasive sense of hope.
- It feels like cheating to put Sparkle Hard on this list for a couple reasons:
1. I've been a Malkmus stan since my early teenaged years, so it could be seen as a given that their new work would be one of my favorites.
2. The band is just so reliably good, so casually fun and effervescent, that giving them a spot here makes it seem like I haven't really analyzed the record's merit so much as I've just assumed it belongs here.
And yet. Even with all that misgiving on my part, SM and The Jicks put out possibly their most thoroughly enjoyable work with Sparkle Hard. The songs are crafted precisely but presented in a way that makes it seemed like they are mostly improvised. New territory is charted here with the use of strings, fuzz bass, autotune, and a newfound reliance on synthesizers. "Middle America" stands out as one of Malkmus' most accomplished pieces of pop songwriting since the Pavement years, and "Refute" makes room for another iconic 90s presence in Kim Gordon, who contributes her trademark husky vocals. I just can't quit on SMATJ, and this album emphatically shows why.
- Everything Is Recorded is the alter ego of XL Recordings' founder and chief Richard Russell. XL has long been a bastion of diversity and new voices in the markets of Hip-Hop, Electro, and World music, just to name a few. It stands to reason then that Russell's first foray into making music as an artist would be as varied and exciting as the acts that XL has championed over the years. A few of the experiments don't work, though they are still pleasurable attempts. But when the album is on, as it is most of the time, it is ON, offering high-watermark vocal turns from Sampha, lush instrumentation from Kamasi Washington, and intriguingly beautiful work by Ibeyi, among others. Taken as a whole, EIR is one of the most satisfying spins of the year in that Russell created that most rare of mythical beasts: a (sort of) concept album that works as a label sampler and a finger on the pulse of multiple genres all at once. The jury is out on how it will hold up over time, but this was easily one of my best of the year.
- Sister Cities feels like an unexpected lateral step for The Wonder Years, who have spent over a decade cultivating an air of indisputable pop-punk authenticity by virtue of both swing-for-the-fences songwriting and passionate live shows. Where past work has gone for broke almost to a fault, Sister Cities often pulls back, resulting in a record that reflects an increased maturity in their songwriting. Without sacrificing any of their infectious energy, the Philly band solidifies themselves as the go-to source for a certain brand of thoughtful but exceedingly pop-sensible rock music that is as comfortable sighing inwardly as it is beating its chest, sometimes expertly operating in both modes within the same song ("It Must Get Lonely"). It feels like the group's sense of song dynamics has finally caught up with its ability to create fist-pumping hooks, and the future looks bright.
- Winding and chugging guitars, spazzy keys, cavernous vocals, urgent rhythms, world-class production, and a sense of dignified restlessness, these are what makes Room Inside The World a special album. An album that rides the lines between post-punk styling and a skewed reverence of alt-country musicality takes a bit of getting used to, but it is more than worth putting the time in. "Desire" proves to be worth the price of admission all on its own as Tim Darcy delivers one of indie rock's best anti-anthems of the year, replete with lyrics that are poetically obscure ("the feel of your honey in the corner of my mouth / like a loop around the block / like a shadow in your notebook") and a final minute that is no less than transcendent in its choral splendor. Ought is a band that ought to be getting much more attention than they currently are and this LP is bracing, beautiful, and unique.
- More than any other album on this list, Double Negative is about textures. Distortions and buzzes and hisses abound and engender a sense of malaise that registers as somehow vaguely dystopian. Anxiety permeates, beauty is buried beneath the layers of erosion. In the hands of a lesser act this would get tiresome or maybe feel like it wasn't worth it, but the fundamentals of Low's songwriting here are as good as they've ever been so the added ornamentation is welcome on songs that would be very good even without the flourishes. Nightmare fuel has never sounded this good.
- Even if there weren't great songs here ("Grand Paradise", "Nearer My God", "Won't Drown" and others), Foxing would still deserve a spot on this list for the sheer gutsiness and ambition on display throughout Nearer My God. Through the course of the album the band chameleons its way through wildly discordant styles and sonics, aided by vaunted indie rocker Chris Walla on production, and somewhere along the way the St. Louis outfit becomes an almost entirely different band than the one that made Dealer a few years back. There is a lot to chew on here (some of it works and some of it less so), and the band's throw-everything-at-the-wall approach defies all expectation and may polarize, but ultimately it will open minds for years to come. This is the kind of album that feels ahead of its time and could well inspire people to start their own bands.
- These records are tied for the same placement because they have some similarities: both bands are British (hailing from Bristol and South London respectively), both feature frontmen whose live antics are already legendary even though the history for both bands is relatively brief, both attack their respective styles in a way that both glorifies them and takes the piss out of them. IDLES presents abrasively melodic punk with an agenda that kneecaps the genre's most aggressive and masculine tendencies (we submit "Samaritans" to the court as Exhibit A), while Shame takes aim at the detached clinicism of post-punk with results that are equal parts ferocious and hilarious (see the lampooning of "The Lick"). While the albums are very different, they are both cathartic listens in themselves and they each make a strong case for the continued relevance of hard rock as a voice for the masses.
- If Low's Double Negative is a visceral triumph of eerie textures, All Melody is a love letter to the craft of recording. In the legendary confines of Berlin's Funkhaus recording studio Frahm set up shop with plenty of space for all his instruments. In the liner notes, he writes he was "…playing and improvising for hours, recording all of it", noting that finding the "magic moments" to start and stop was actually the most difficult part. As a document of (mostly) acoustic instruments in a beautiful sounding room playing songs that are almost beyond description in their otherworldliness, All Melody proves that the magic moments were hit perfectly more often than not. Listen closely before and after songs to catch snippets of studio noises picked up by the microphones, the button clicks and stool creaks are further testament to the album's warm and welcoming vibe.
- "This is your time. Their time is done. It's over. I'm sick and tired of hearin' about…SCREW 'EM!" These are the first words on Freedom, delivered via spoken word sample from what sounds like a five-year-old child, and to an extent it feels as though Amen Dunes mastermind Damon McMahon has taken the words as a directive to make a pleasant-but-uncompromising, take-no-prisoners record. McMahon's appealingly nasal tenor and inspired conversational lyrics do most of the heavy lifting, though he is aided by a lights-out band that includes Nick Zinner on a couple of tracks (bonus points for instrument credits that include "I care because you do percussion", "Business solos", "Dancing past gas lamps on a dark night guitars"). Thematically, Freedom is awash in ideas of mythology, regrets, escape, and the possibility of a higher power above it all. The rollicking guitars of "Skipping School" and bouncing bass of "L.A." play like versions of nostalgia that we could all live with even as the backlash against sentimentalism nears its apex, this is the type of backward-looking that tells the truth even while presenting the best possible version of memory. Elsewhere, the title track offers a palliative to the irresponsible fantasy of pure escapism, reminding us that "wherever you run, there you are." Freedom is a record that works on a road trip as well as it works on headphones in a bedroom, exquisitely made and perfectly calibrated. Damon McMahon's foot is on the gas pedal even while he gazes at the rearview, and his fifth album as Amen Dunes is a masterpiece befitting of its time and place in 21st Century America.