Another year, another bumper crop of tunes. But while some years display a discernable shift in musical trends or production styles, 2018 was a year of fragmentation. Great albums were peppered out throughout the year across a broad spectrum of genres.
Drake, George Ezra, Calvin Harris and Ariana Grande were among the familiar names to rule the pop roost; Justin Timberlake’s country turn failed to impress; Beyonce and Jay-Z’s team-up delighted critics but failed to inspire the commercial critical mass they’re accustomed too. Meanwhile, two of the most popular albums of the year ended up being movie soundtracks.
My personal list is but a taste of the great music made this year, and I’d suggest if you’re after a more varied diet you peruse some of the honourable mentions at the bottom.
Arctic Monkeys – ‘Four Out of Five’
In 2018, Arctic Monkeys went so far off-reservation they ended up off-planet. They followed up their world-conquering behemoth AM with the beguiling Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino – a concept album set on the Moon. It was striking, cinematic and sensual; critics largely gushed, but causal fans were left rather perplexed.
The centrepiece of Tranquillity Base is ‘Four Out of Five’. It’s a loping, epic rock song that combines elements of the band’s traditional riff-based song-writing with lyrics about a new taco stand. A nice meta moment is Alex Turner’s meta musical moment – singing “I can lift you up another semitone” just before the music does exactly that.
In its wake it left a dearth in the marketplace for the holy grail of contemporary music – an act that can simultaneously unite critical adulation with commercial success. Late in the year, there was an unlikely challenger to obtaining that rare alchemy with the latest release from The 1975. While previously they had been written off as a rather average yet, yet rather successful band, their latest release A Brief Inquiry Into Online relationships has been topping end of year critics lists and sales charts alike.
Beach House – ‘Lemon Glow’
However, while the former was greeted was acclaim, the latter was a comparative letdown, hinting that perhaps the band was too stuck in its formula.
However, the world’s prime purveyors of contemporary ‘dream pop’ were back this year with one of their best albums yet – 7. While the ‘dream pop’ moniker gives the impression of fuzzed out ‘Wall of Sound’ production married with delicate pop melodies (think Cocteau Twins’ ‘Cherry-coloured Funk’, Suicide’s ‘Dream Baby Dream’ or even back to Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’), with 7 Beach House continued to explore darker corners while still incorporating the trademark elements of their sound.
‘Lemon Glow’ starts by following the traditional Beach House formula. Blissed out synths chords, a swaying mid-tempo groove and Victoria Legrand’s dreamy vocals. Yet it’s the subtle shades of distortion, metallic clanging of drum machines and occasional abrupt shifts in direction that show that Beach House’s version of ‘dream pop’ is capable of inspiring nightmares.
Childish Gambino – ‘This Is America’
There was no greater indication that the world of 2018 entered the darkest timeline than the disparate fortunes of two of rap’s biggest names.
Kanye West, who has a decent claim to being the most influential musical artist of the century, showed signs that his MAGA hat may be poisoning his productivity. Coming in at a sprite 23 minutes, his album ye is the weakest release of his career. Thankfully, Kid Cudi roped him back in for a follow-up release, Kids See Ghosts, to prove he’s still got something left in the tank.
Meanwhile, Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, meanwhile has a decent claim to being the most sickeningly talented man on the planet. Not content with just being an accomplished stand-up comedian, sit-com star (his show Community birthed us the ‘darkest timeline’ meme), rapper/ singer/producer/pop star, 2018 saw Glover’s film career continue to blossom with a turn as Lando Calrissian in Solo, continuing acclaim for the TV show he writes, produces and stars in, Atlanta, while also headlining music festivals around the globe.
To top it all off, he put out one of the most searing musical statements of the year. While Glover’s musical endeavours have largely shied away from cultural criticism in favour of pop hooks, This is America turns its attention to the timeline of Trump’s America. While referencing race relations, drug cartels and police brutality, the song bounce back between chirpy soul melodies and menacing trap-influenced beats.
The stunning music video (also one of the year’s best) seems to indicate even darker: that amidst the continuing descent into an even darker world, we seem to be happy just to dance around and ignore it.
Courtney Barnett – ‘Need a Little Time’
Like many aspect of society, music is afflicted by a recency bias. How else is there to explain how Courtney Barnett’s sophomore album Tell Me How You Really Feel seems to have slipped behind her debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (https://dailyreview.com.au/sometime-i-sit-and-think-and-sometimes-i-just-sit-courtney-barnett-album-review/21100) in the estimation of many?
A debut album has few expectations and usually little fanbase to alienate with a change of direction – a perfect combination to garnering acclaim while escaping concerted dissent. Note for example, Pennsylvanian slack-rocker Snail Mail’s debut album’s ascent to near the top of many notable publications end of year lists. (Lush is very good album but not quite in the ‘best of year’ conversation.) It’s what makes a second album so difficult.
But Courtney Barnett sidestepped these pitfalls with relative ease. Tell Me How displayed an impressive maturation in her musicianship and evolution in her song writing skills. Need A Little Time has Barnett working out a souring relationship, while churning out some classic guitar solos and a catchy chorus.
Disclosure – ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’
After leaping from to international stardom with their bedroom-produced dance record Settle, brothers Howard and Guy Lawrence showed an uneasy hint of second-album syndrome. 2015’s Caracal (https://dailyreview.com.au/disclosure-caracal-album-review/30996/) was a bit of a stinker; its by-the-numbers pop turns and radio-ready production smoothed out most of what made them interesting in the first place.
However, things are looking decidedly rosier in the world of Disclosure. A late-year blast of unheralded singles from the duo hinted that not only may they be back on form, but their best may be just around the corner.
These latest singles saw them indulging in their left-field ear for earworms and out of the blue samples. The best of the bunch is ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’, which prominently features a sample of 60s a cappella group The Four Freshmen’s take on the classic crooner song ‘Fools Rush In’. It’s a wonderful idea that mixes classic melodies with contemporary production; but most importantly it feels like the brothers are back to having fun.
DJ Koze – ‘Pick Up’
Before this past year, Stefan Kozalla, aka DJ Koze, had developed a reputation for being one of the most innovative, experimental and entertaining acts on the German techno scene. Decade’s worth of club singles, EPs and remixes had failed to pin him down to any particular musical movement; perhaps his biggest recent hit being a reworking of British pop singer Låpsley’s hit ‘Operator’.
His 2018 LP, Knock Knock, is my personal pick for album of the year. A sprawling kaleidoscope of musical genres and production wizardry, it somehow incorporates everyone from Swedish folk troubadour Jose Gonzalez, alternative rocker Bon Iver, the rapper Speech from 90s group Arrested Development and Irish pop singer Róisín Murphy.
Pick Up is another one of those ‘what the?’ moments. A staple of his live sets for years, the song samples the Gladys Knight song ‘Neither One Of Us (Wants to Be The First To Say Goodbye). Somehow, Kozalla turns little more than that song’s title into a sprawling house epic. Pick Up shies away from some of the cheap tricks and generous drops that other electronic artists sometimes indulge in, and instead creates a masterpiece of hypnotic disco-infused house.
Father John Misty – ‘Please Don’t Die’
Rock star falls in love, careers are launched into the stratosphere, yet substance abuse and humiliating public performances lead to a devastating downward spiral. It’s a tale as old as time; well as old as 1937, but the current cinema reworking seems to show that it continuous relevance. There are some differences between the recent history of Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, and Bradley Cooper’s character in A Star is Born, but the similarities are chillingly familiar.
The Father John persona is a preacher of limitless love and unending excess. On prior albums, particularly Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear, these mantric mysticism were turned into something that felt truly profound by Tillman’s endearing turn of phrase. But 2018’s God’s Favorite Customer (sic) was the story of Tillman at a terrifying low: holed up in a hotel for months alone, questioning his own sanity and seemingly staring straight into his own mortality.
‘Please Don’t Die’ would slot perfectly into the track listing of A Star is Born. Its lyrics are a back and forth between the two lovers, one lamenting the “endless benders with reptilian strangers”, the other simply beseeching him the “honey, I’m worried about you … you’re all that I have”. Let’s hope his sotry has a happier ending.
Kurt Vile – ‘One Trick Ponies’
While his former group The War on Drugs were transforming into a group capable of headlining festivals and selling out stadiums, Kurt Vile has continued to find ever-increasing success by simply just doing his own thing and at his own time.
This philosophy carries over to his music. He creates beautiful, sprawling jams that seem to float along devoid of any particular direction and apart from nay time or space. His latest album, Bottle It In, heads off to places that aren’t always particularly interesting and in ways which are not always enthralling. But when Vile is at his best he delivers songs have can transport you into an ethereal dream-like trance.
‘One Trick Ponies’ is one such song. For another artist dropping the words “mystical rationalisations” and “perpetual motions” would come off as insincere, but Vile is so damn likeable that he can get away with near anything. It’s hard not to get swept up into the path of ‘One Trick Ponies’ rolling rhythm and riffs, but when the journey is this pleasant, who really cares where it’s going?
Rufus Do Sol –‘Treat You Better’
After finally settling on the elongated name Rüfüs Du Sol, the Sydney group formerly known simply as Rüfüs, continue to go from strength to strength. Their third album Solace was another solid release that melded pop hooks with electronic dance production techniques.
Rüfüs Du Sol don’t seem to show a proclivity towards becoming the most barrier bursting band in the world, but they are continuing to evolve in a pleasing fashion. The most impressive element of their music is its easy-going nature and deceptive simplicity. It’s what makes so many of their songs as equally at home on a late night dance floor as they are to soundtrack a BBQ, or be on in the background while your barista brings over your breakfast brew.
‘Treat You Better’ is the perfect distillation of the best elements of their shtick. Soaring in on ghostly synths, before a throbbing beat burst in and sing-a-long chorus comes around. It’s already gone down as one of the staple songs of the Australian summer.
Robyn – ‘EVER AGAIN’
It took eight long years for Robyn to follow-up Body Talk, but the wait was worth it. Her 2018 album Honey cemented her place as contemporary pop’s most engaging and interesting voices, with longevity and a canon to match anyone else’s.
The Swedish songstress went through a rough patch over the intervening years; her producer and friend passed away, while she went through a breakup and eventual reconciliation with her partner. All of that pain, loss and beauty plays out across the breadth of Honey.
Tacked on as the last song on the album, Ever Again is a sumptuous breath of fresh air after the trials and tribulations that have gone before it. While Honey is chock full of gorgeous and dense production, Ever Again bursts in on a spritely minimalist bass, synth and drum arrangement; barely breaking out of this for the entirety of the song.Instead it allows for the focus to remain on Robyn’s sassy lyrics, pristine vocal take and the catchy-as-hell chorus melody.
Against All Logic – ‘I Never Dream’
Anderson .Paak – ‘Til It’s Over’
Car Seat Headrest – ‘My Boy (Twin Fantasy)’
Christian Loffler – ‘Haul’
Drake – ‘In My Feelings’
Frank Ocean – ‘Moon River’
Generationals – ‘It May Get Bad When You’re Lonely and Cold’
George FitzGerald – ‘Roll Back’
Gorillaz – Humility
Jon Hopkins – ‘Emerald Rush’
Julia Holter – “I Shall Love 2’
Kacey Musgraves – ‘High Horse’
Kamasi Washington – ‘Testify’
Lady Gaga – ‘I’ll Never Love Again’
Marlon Williams – ‘What’s Chasing You’
Mitski – ‘Nobody’
Moodyman – ‘Got Me Coming Back Rite Now’
Public Service Broadcasting – ‘White Star Liner’
Rhye – ‘Taste’
Snail Mail – ‘Pristine’
Sons of Kemet – ‘My Queen is Ada Eastman’
SOPHIE – ‘Immaterial’
The 1975 – ‘Sincerity is Scary’
Twin Shadow ft. Haim – ‘Saturdays’
Unknown Moral Orchestra – ‘Honeybee’
Zhu ft. Tame Impala – ‘My Life’