Top 10 of 2018
10 :: Mount Eerie — Now Only and (after)
Phil Elverum has never really made “accessible” music by conventional standards, but last year’s A Crow Looked At Me reached a new level of challenging as it unflinchingly chronicled the death of Elverum’s wife and the grief and pain in the wake of this life-shaking event. Crow is an outstanding record and was my favorite from last year. Now Only and the live album (after) complete the story that began in that record. It’s very difficult to fully appreciate these records outside of the context of Crow, but these are nonetheless masterful releases.
(after) is a document of Elverum’s public airing of grief, and Now Only shows the impact of such shows and the latter stages of the grieving process. For those unable to endure two records about death and its visceral effects, (after) serves as an effective summation of the moods and messages from these last two studio records. It can serve as a stand-alone piece or a fascinating companion for those who have followed along with the unfolding grief that Elverum has spent the last years documenting.
Now Only features some of Mount Eerie’s loveliest and most macabre writing in one package; the irony certainly isn’t lost on him that the most ebullient music on the record is set to the chorus “People get cancer and die/People get hit by trucks and die.” The callbacks to Crow in “Two Paintings By Nikolai Astrup” are haunting, bringing this sort of “Death Trilogy” — or whatever people will call these records 10 years from now — full circle.
09 :: Haley Heynderickx — I Need to Start a Garden
Haley Henyderickx is one of the most capable and promising singer-songwriters to release music in 2018. Her debut full-length, I Need to Start a Garden, is a collection of lush folk and rock songs that spin together golden vocals, idiosyncratic metaphors, deadpan humor, and intricate guitar work. The styles employed by Heynderickx are fairly well-worn; it could be easy for her and her bandmates to disappear into the din of overrated, mediocre indie rock that seems to have cropped up with a vengeance this year. However, Heynderickx’s unique prose and timeless atmosphere make her stand out from the crowd.
Moreover, there are delightful little surprises nestled all throughout the record. Horns and rattles play a symbolic role in “The Bug Collector,” which also features the funniest and most effective single use of profanity in music this year. “Show You a Body” begins with a gorgeous, dramatic swell, and “Untitled God Song,” ends with a breakdown that kinda shreds (especially at Heynderickx’s incredible live shows).
From the sprawling “Worth It” to the jaunty “Oom Sha La La,” I Need to Start a Garden keeps its listeners on their toes, both playing it straight and taking unexpected detours at just the right moments. Haley Heynderickx is definitely an act to watch, and I predict that she will remain an enduring voice in indie folk.
08 :: Yo La Tengo — There’s a Riot Going On
There’s a Riot Going On is all about atmosphere, and boy does this record have it in spades, from its opening gentle build to the fake fade out in its closer. Cuts such as “Shades of Blue” and “Let’s Do It Wrong” add some proper levity to the flow of the record, while other moments like “Ashes” and “What Chance Have I Got” are much lazier affairs.
The album’s centerpiece is the ethereal three-track suite of “Dream Dream Away,” “Shortwave,” and “Above the Sound.” The reverb-laden guitars of the first track build into an enveloping shroud, leading into the second track, which is a smoky, mysterious ambient instrumental. “Above the Sound” features some of the record’s most compelling arrangements, as jangly percussion and upright bass propel the track through layers of saxophone, piano, and synthetic bleeps and bloops.
Despite its title, the latest from Yo La Tengo feels like a warm sweater and a cup of coffee on a brisk autumn evening. It’s moody, textured, and just plain gorgeous. Few records in 2018 had such an immediate positive effect on me. Upon my first digital stream, I went to my local record store and picked up a physical copy that same day. Overall, There’s a Riot Going On is a mesmerizing trip that you’ll want to take again and again.
07 :: MGMT — Little Dark Age
After two albums of intentionally alien(ating) music, MGMT has returned with something more accessible without compromising their songwriting skills. The lyrics are at times strange (“Little Dark Age”), at others comically nasty (“When You Die”), and at others cutting and insightful (“TSLAMP”). “Me and Michael” is the feel-good pop anthem of the year, and its accompanying music video is also one of the year’s best.
Musically, Little Dark Age feels decidedly more 1980s, though the band’s synthpop approach is graced with psychedelic and gothic flourishes. Opener “She Works Out Too Much” is delightfully off-kilter and propulsive, while the midpoint “James” is hazy and almost serene. The two downtempo ballads that close the record slow down its momentum a bit, but they are still fine songs in their own right.
Little Dark Age is both a return to form and an exciting new step for MGMT. It’s familiar, but not too familiar, and it sports some of the band’s best songs ever. Here’s to hoping that it doesn’t take them another eight years to release a masterpiece.
06 :: Makaya McCraven — Universal Beings
This past year was my first year really getting into jazz, so I’m still not very confident in my abilities to write about it intelligently or comprehensively. It also doesn’t help that I’m not a musician in any way, so I don’t know if I can fully appreciate the complexity of some of the techniques on display in this record.
All that being said, of all the jazz records I heard this year, Universal Beings really blew me away. At an hour-and-a-half, it’s a meaty record, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Divided into four different sections by their recording sessions/locations, the styles at play are widely varied, but the album still holds together as a cohesive unit. The collaborations are top-notch. McCraven’s approach to production and arrangements is wildly creative. Universal Beings is everything a jazz album should be.
05 :: The Chairman Dances — Child of My Sorrow
This album is fantastic, and I actually wrote a full piece about it earlier this year. This is a long post already, so please forgive me for lifting some of my older words:
“The Chairman Dances has put out one of the best indie rock records of 2018, an album that’s simultaneously more grandiose and more intimate than their previous recordings … The band continues in their established style of lyrics-focused, narrative-driven songwriting set to preppy, meticulously arranged indie rock. However, there are moments in Child of My Sorrow where they almost feel like a different band … This album can almost be described as a series of beautifully woven vignettes of mental breakdowns. By centering their lyrics on more general, isolated plotlines rather than adhering to an obvious continuing narrative, The Chairman Dances feels closer than ever. Thanks to their developments in musical stylings, the band also feels more alive than ever …
“For listeners looking for a thoughtful exploration of heartache, Child of My Sorrow is an essential listen. The lyrics are intimate and immediate, and the production appropriately amplifies the emotion of the songwriting. If you weren’t watching The Chairman Dances before, you certainly should now.”
04 :: Daughters — You Won’t Get What You Want
You Won’t Get What You Want is a psychotic breakdown in album form — and whether you find that prospect intriguing or not will largely determine your appreciation of this record. However, to be frank, I didn’t go into this album expecting to like it just as much as I did.
Despite the sometimes-overwhelming cacophony, every piece of You Won’t Get What You Want feels incredibly intentional. There isn’t a wasted moment. Even the midpoint slowdown “Less Sex” doesn’t impede on the album’s deliciously sour onslaught. Discordant guitars and thundering drums churn throughout the record, and it’s nearly impossible to explicitly name or adequately describe the rest of the sounds. It’s unnatural and distressing, but oh-so invigorating.
You Won’t Get What You Want is undoubtedly the best album experience from 2018. After one of my early (and, appropriately, very loud) listens, my heart was literally racing. It’s a thrill ride through and through, and I’m really glad that I gave it a chance.
03 :: Parquet Courts — Wide Awake!
Parquet Courts penned some of the sharpest lyrics of 2018. However, while the lyrics are indeed insightful and cerebral, the music is punchy and visceral. Emphasized by Andrew Savage’s forceful, oft-monotone vocals, no record in 2018 felt more immediate. In “Violence,” words tumble out so fiercely that the verses almost feel more like spoken word. The song speaks to violence’s unfortunate ubiquity in modern Western society, referencing the Trail of Tears, the painting Open Casket, and recent school shootings. It’s heartbreaking, enraging, and absolutely brilliant.
Musically, however, not everything is so grim. “Wide Awake” is the funkiest, grooviest rock song to come out this year. “Freebird 2” is a near-schmaltzy romp, and closing track “Tenderness” is bouncy and sweet. The stylistic influences are all over the map, drawing from art-punk and dance-rock as much as indie and classic rock.
The album’s centerpiece is the two-part track “Almost Had to Start a Fight / In and Out of Patience.” The transition between the two parts is one of the best single moments of music in 2018, and the words are wonderfully cathartic. It’s a microcosm of Wide Awake! as a whole: urgent, fun, serious, and diverse.
02 :: Damien Jurado — The Horizon Just Laughed
The Horizon Just Laughed is Jurado’s first LP not produced by Richard Swift in 10 years and his first self-produced record in nearly 20, so it was hard to gauge what this project would sound like. I was at first surprised and a little disappointed that I didn’t immediately fall in love with The Horizon Just Laughed. Damien Jurado has topped my lists before, and his live shows have been some of the most magical and special concerts I’ve ever attended. But, after my first spin, I wasn’t sure what to make of this record.
However, after repeat listens and seeing Jurado perform most of the album live, I can say that these songs are among his best. While not as spacey as those on the Maraqopa trilogy, the arrangements are lush and inviting. Jurado’s lyrics have stayed cryptic (gone are the straightforward story ballads of his past discography), but the metaphors and turns of phrase are more poignant than ever.
At times looking inwards and at others across the environs of Jurado’s now-former home of Washington state, The Horizon Just Laughed is gorgeously intimate in composition and production. It’s an essential release of 2018 and one of the top highlights in Jurado’s extensive discography.
01 :: Richard Swift — The Hex
My introduction to Richard Swift was through his work with Damien Jurado on his Maraqopa album trilogy and it’s predecessor, Saint Bartlett. When Swift passed away in July 2018, it was sad to hear that such an undeniably distinct voice in music would no longer be with us. Thankfully, his swan song and masterpiece had already been completed. The Hex was released on September 21, 2018, one day after what would have been his 21st wedding anniversary.
You would be most likely to classify The Hex as a psych rock album, but I daresay that it’s even more transcendent. It feels deeply spiritual. The atmospheres are rich and dense. It’s pretty, but still prickly. With as weird and wild as the record is, it maybe shouldn’t work. But it does.
Swift performed and produced everything on The Hex, which makes it even more of a wonder to behold. The record holds a wealth of sonic surprises. When you most expect a cymbal crash, he holds; when you do hear a cymbal crash, the effects and distortion turn it into something else entirely. A whole book could (and maybe should) be written on Swift’s delightfully unconventional production style, with a whole chapter dedicated to the drum tones on this record (listen to the track “Wendy” for a prime example).
The Hex encapsulates everything that made Richard Swift a phenomenal producer and songwriter. Each track is memorable, bearing its own unique personality. There isn’t a track that doesn’t stand out, from the opening mood-setter to the heartfelt closer. “Dirty Jim” brims with a measured, mature sense of optimism, while “Nancy” overflows with crushing heartbreak. “Broken Finger Blues” is as soulful as its title implies. The title track casts a mystical haze over the record that follows its opening whispers.
Towards the end of the album is “Kensington!,” which was previously released as a 7″ flexi-disc in Joyful Noise Recordings’ 2012 Flexi-Disc Series. It’s a spoken word piece over a free-wheeling, vaguely-menacing instrumental. Despite it being the hardest track to take in, it doesn’t feel out of place, even just before “Sept20,” the most tender and sparse cut on the record. This song, which closes the album and was also the final song Swift ever wrote, is an affectionate ballad for Swift’s wife. It ends with an echoing whistle, fading into silence. It’s heartbreaking that this is the last we will ever hear from Richard Swift, but The Hex will undoubtedly echo on as a priceless treasure of a record.