I said in last year’s post I wasn’t going to bother with contemporary albums in 2018 because I don’t consider the new stuff as good as the older stuff, but somehow I listened to 27 albums! However this is the lowest number since I started writing the blog in 2010. I’m not ranking them which seems pointless as changes from week to week. Although Anna von Hausswolff’s is probably my album of the year.
The goal for the top 10 is trying to find great albums. Not an easy task in the streaming era which consists of music you play a few times and then dispose of. Anna von Hausswolff, Florence + The Machine, Hampshire & Foat and Alejandro Escovedo are new-to-me artists. A number of the picks are by artists/groups who have been active a long time but still managed to deliver quality albums! So what are my choices?
Dead Magic by Anna von Hausswolff (Experimental Rock)
Should preface by saying I’ve never listened to her before but was encouraged by the album’s #8 rank for 2018 on RYM. I don’t know if Neoclassical Darkwave is my thing in general terms, I haven’t listened to Dead Can Dance. But this is the only album that truly wowed me from 2018.
The outro of The Truth, The Glow, The Fall is well done. The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra is repetitive yet hypnotic. The brooding, atmospheric 16 min epic Ugly and Vengeful struck a chord. The Marble Eye features an extended church organ solo.
7 by Beach House (Dream Pop)
The songs are very pleasant. Dive, L’Inconnue, and The Jesus and Mary Chain-esque Pay No Mind are favorites. Lemon Glow is the weakest of the four singles. The heavy distortion at times makes it difficult to detect Victoria Legrand’s distinctive vocal, for example on the opener. Dive is the most Beach House-y because she actually sounds like herself.
High as Hope by Florence + The Machine (Art Pop)
I was moved by the lyrics of South London Forever while the orchestral production on Patricia (apparently a Patti Smith tribute) stands out. The epic Big God and 100 Years are both powerful. I haven’t followed the career of Florence + The Machine so don’t know how High as Hope compares to the other releases.
Honey by Robyn (Electropop/Nu Disco)
Consistently good pop songs throughout. There isn’t a big anthem such as Dancing on My Own or Show Me Love but the standard is still pretty high. Missing U is a catchy single, with lyrics about a break-up from her boyfriend Max Vitali and sadness over the death of her long-time producer Christian Falk. The infectious Because It’s in the Music has a beautiful use of the harp. Baby Forgive Me is also hypnotic. I was less into the second single Honey with its thumping beat. Beach 2K20 has a seductive, danceable hook and a plea to go out and party, while I like the bass playing on closer Ever Again, a song about not wanting to get hurt. The lyrics have an emotional weight which is not always the case with Electropop/Dance-Pop. Robyn appears to be in a post-break-up head space.
Record by Tracey Thorn (Singer-Songwriter)
I’ve enjoyed her voice in the past, the Massive Attack collaborations, and also her underrated 2010 solo album Love and Its Opposite. Not yet explored Thorn’s Everything but the Girl albums. Her biggest talent is as a singer, while her writing on this is good but not great. Going for an 80s pop sound, the single Queen disappointed for its bland lyrics. Second single Sister impresses with its a layered production and guest appearance from Corinne Bailey Rae. Two non-singles stand out for their sadness and autobiographical nature, Face (trying to put a lover behind you), and Smoke (a homage to London and her family). The closer Dancefloor is a nostalgia-tinged tribute to the joy of the dance floor. If you’ve followed her entire career the record will likely have a bigger impact, as Thorn (now 55) is looking back over her life. I didn’t instantly enjoy the album, began to click on second or third listen.
Love Is Magic by John Grant (Synthpop/Singer/Songwriter)
Very eccentric material and not for everyone. John Grant’s fourth album, he is known for dark, humorous writing, although quite self-indulgent on this occasion. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. The synthpop production is above average and a continuation of what he was going for on his 2013 and 2015 LPs.
Testament by All Saints (Pop)
Known for radio hits such as 1997’s Never Ever and 2000s Pure Shores (from The Beach soundtrack), I was honestly sceptical if I’d enjoy their new album, as got mixed reviews by critics and you might assume the girl group (women in their 40s now) are has-beens at this stage. Turns out Testament is one of 2018’s overlooked gems. While I’m not convinced All Saints are great lyricists, there are a bunch of good songs and pop hooks, as well as a sense of urgency and emotion. Lead single Love Lasts Forever is according to songwriter Shaznay Lewis inspired by her son and about being parents. Track 7 I Would came from Lewis feeling helpless with what was happening in Syria and other places. Has been compared to Beyonce’s Lemonade as both albums are about the female perspective.
Little Dark Age by MGMT (Synthpop)
Well-produced and occasionally catchy, especially She Works Out Too Much & Me and Michael. The processed vocal is the album’s weak point as doesn’t really distinguish itself from other bands. The second half has more replay potential and is less mainstream with a bunch of unconventional synth experiments.
C’est la vie by Phosphorescent (Americana/Indie Folk)
I quite liked his last album Muchacho, especially the single Song for Zula. C’est la vie is his first album in five years. The opening and closing semi-instrumentals are pleasant but not exceptional. My Beautiful Boy is presumably about his son, there’s a lot of parental affection as well as nice musicianship. I also enjoyed There from Here for the production. Christmas Down Under grew on me, although I prefer the other single New Birth in New England which is the most upbeat here and also suggests the joy of child birth. Despite some average songs, an Americana album with enough spirit so that I could return for more.
Seasons, Pt. 1 by Jan Hammer (New Age)
A pleasant, 46 minute summer-tinged album with enough instrumental variation to keep it interesting. Not as iconic as his Miami Vice work and I wasn’t expecting it to be. The opener is a little lazy with the Phil Collins-esque drumming but some of the tracks, “April”, “Winter Solstice”, “New World II” and “Causeway Bridge”, certainly are good enough to be represented in a potential reboot of the TV show. I can imagine would be nice to chill out to on a long car journey. The weaker parts of the record go in a slightly bland new-age direction, such as 68 Reasons, Suite European and Seasons. The guitar and keyboard playing sometimes saves the lesser songs. Sounds like he’s still using the same production techniques as in the 1980s and you could be tricked into thinking was recorded many years ago. Pitchfork didn’t even mention Seasons, Pt. 1 for the week’s new album releases which is a travesty since it’s Jan Hammer’s first new album in close to a decade.
Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe (Contemporary R&B/Pop)
Don’t like the vocal distortion on the title track. Crazy Classic Life is a highlight with its catchy chorus and empowering lyrics. The instrumental intro of Take A Byte is fantastic and the track is among the better deep cuts on the LP, even if I’m not convinced by the vocal. Screwed (surprisingly not a single) starts with a wonderful guitar riff and is a fun pop song with daring lyrics ala Prince (who collaborated on the album before his untimely death).
A top heavy album. There’s some filler on the second half. The single Make Me Feel (which I find overhyped) is getting attention and is reminiscent of Kiss by Prince. The spoken word parts of the political closer Americans are passionate, though it feels like a nod to The Purple One and especially Let’s Go Crazy. To sum up, a few songs I liked, the rest of the material I’m iffy about. I don’t mind she is inspired by Prince but maybe Janelle overdid the 80s homages.
The Honeybear by Hampshire & Foat (Folk/Ambient)
Nice, relaxing background music. Had never heard of the artists Warren Hampshire and Greg Foat, went in with extremely low expectations. and was pleasantly surprised. My only real complaint is tracks 2 and 3 are pretty similar and repetitive. A short listen at approx 35 minutes. The second half of the album is more jazzy and improvisational.
Best: Honey Dreams, The Promise, Winter Bound, The Elderflower
Damned Devotion by Joan as Police Woman (Neo-Soul/Art Pop)
Better than her disappointing 2016 album Let It Be You. The second half is especially inspired, in particular tracks 6-9. The Silence, Valid Jagged, Rely On and What Was It Like are favorites for the dark mood and piano work. The closer I Don’t Mind has a great melody buried in there somewhere.
Boarding House Reach by Jack White (Experimental Rock)
Probably the most polarizing album of 2018. Many albums in the streaming age lack ambition and are flavor of the month. Nice for a change to listen to something that has aspirations to be a classic.
I admire his willingness to go in weird, experimental directions, even if not all of it hits the mark. Previously he was hesitant about manipulating with technology in the studio but now accepts the challenge.
As the year goes by and I revisit the songs, I’m feeling he had more fun making the record than I did listening. Worth exploring but doesn’t hold up as well as his two previous solo outings.
The Crossing by Alejandro Escovedo (Americana)
A concept album about the immigration experience. Salvo, from Italy, and the other, Diego, from Mexico, meet in Escovedo’s home state of Texas, waiting tables at a restaurant in the Gulf Coast town of Galveston, and bond over a shared love for punk rock.
17 tracks is a lot, and if I’m honest I struggled to invest in this project for the full 59 minutes. I have no emotional connection to US immigration, but there are a handful of memorable, accessible moments which I’ll be returning to: The Crossing, Footsteps in the Shadows, Something Blue, Sonica USA, & MC Overload
What do you think? Any favorites or albums you are interested in? As always, comments are welcome