Top Ten Albums of 2018

Here it is, ladies and gentlemen! My picks for the top 10 albums of 2018! Thanks to everyone for a great year, and here’s to a fantastic 2019!!

10. John PrineThe Tree of Forgiveness

2018 has been a year full of legacy records, and few were more enjoyable than that of country and americana icon, John Prine. The Tree of Forgiveness is many things, not the least of which is a masterclass in traditional country songwriting. Each track is well-formed and buries its formulaic nature in a heap of heart and wit. We even get a fun feature from Amanda Shires on backing vocals early in the record.

Above all, the album is a showcase for a beloved figure in country music. Prine’s vocals hold the character of his many years atop the charts and his guitar work is as proficient as ever. Importantly, he avoids many of the trappings of legacy record, forgoing the sad longing for the past in favor of upbeat, enjoyable stories. There are heartfelt moments, notably in tracks like “Summer’s End,” and “When I Get to Heaven,” but they’re each softened by Prine’s persistent charm.

9. Kamasi WashingtonHeaven and Earth

The follow up to Washington’s 2015 debut, The Epic, Heaven and Earth is a sprawling jazz epic which fills a nearly three hour runtime to the brim. Intimidating, right? Luckily, Kamasi finds a way to make his music relatively accessible as well. The record ranges from fun and danceable to breathtaking in scope, never really feeling like a slog, despite the length. With the jazz genre having fallen off in popularity over many years, Kamasi is bringing the sound back to the mainstream better than maybe an other artist.

The instrumental pallet is a real pleasure on this one, pulling in choirs, theremins, congos, and a multitude of horns. On the other hands, the staples of his band turn in incredible work as well. The drums never stop and utilize cymbals better than any album I’ve heard all year, the piano is reserved, yet peaking in at the most opportune times, Thundercat’s bass drives each track along with a flare and Kamasi’s saxophone is just undeniably powerful. This is a forceful but gentle sophomore project from one of the most exciting artists in the jazz world today.

8. Post MaloneBeerbongs & Bentleys

Every time I start to think that trap is fully dead with no more quality records left to be made in the style, a record like Beerbongs & Bentleys comes along to reinvigorate it. On one of the catchiest and most successful albums of this decade, Post Malone delivers one fantastic hook after another, separated by well written verses and some excellent instrumentals. Tracks like “Zack and Codeine,” “Better Now,” and “Psycho,” will likely be large parts of our musical landscape for many years, thanks in no small part to Post’s vocal performances and several well placed features. 

Perhaps the highlight of this album, however, is the production by a massive team, lead by Louis Bell and Frank Duke. Each track is so well layered and benefits from a clear understanding of the sound they’re trying to achieve. This an especially apparent on the highlight of the entire tracklist, “Stay,” which wonderfully blends folk music with trap production. In the end, it’s an extremely listenable album with high replay value which we’ll talk about for many years to come.

7. Arctic MonkeysTranquility Base Hotel & Casino

Following a long and critically acclaimed career, the Monkeys announcement of an upcoming 2018 album left me wondering if they’d continue in the vain of their traditional, blues-inspired garage rock or pull in a few outside influences. I could’ve never expected something like this. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino takes a hard left turn into psychedelic and glam rock territory with full confidence and the new sound benefits the band well.

Alex Turner’s vocals are especially excellent here, channelling his inner David Bowie to deliver a smokey and intriguing performance on every track. Additionally, much of the band took something of a backseat, trading in the guitar heavy sound of the past for a more atmospheric tone, which means that when the guitar finally roars in, each solo is impactful and well placed. Chiefly, TBHC has a tangible space to it and feels like a sonic profile of a real place.

6. Florence + The MachineHigh as Hope

Another simple album, High as Hope is the fourth studio album from Florence + The Machine, having established themselves as alt-rock powerhouses in the previous, indie-centric era. Here, they don’t aim to reinvent the wheel, but instead craft an enjoyable piece of orchestral pop-rock. The drums are very well produced and, though the pallet leaves a bit to be desired, the majority of instrumentation is quite excellent.

All of this is secondary, however, to Florence Welch’s remarkable performance as lead vocalist. She’s remarkably powerful on tracks like “Big God,” and yet sweet and gentle on “June.” Her phenomenal control lets her bring her Irish influences to the front in the form of a multitude of tight runs and she’s so dynamic that she’s able to paint thoughtful melodies over the various tracks, never once seeming to repeat herself or run out of ideas. The group doesn’t let their ambition outrun themselves, but instead create a high quality version of the sound that’s brought them massive success.

5. NonameRoom 25

One of the most surprising releases of the year, Noname’s theme heavy, jazz-rap album is starkly gorgeous. Her poetry background means that every single verse is jam-packed with wordy soliloquies that rely on a softer tone and flow to fit in the timing. After finding some mainstream acclaim with a feature on Chance the Rapper’s 2016 LP, Coloring Book, Noname finally realizes her potential two years later with this album.

Themes like race, feminism, and inequality bleed through this album, boldly informing her writing throughout, as is the case with much of the art that comes out of Chicago. The drum work is nothing short of incredible, setting complex grooves throughout and leading along an impressive team of instrumentalists, all of whom sound incredible thanks to great production, especially for an independent release. In an oddly weak year for rap music, Room 25 was a thoughtful commentary on the modern world and a fun listen all in one.

4. Richard EdwardsVerdugo

After ending his supremely successful run as the frontman of the indie rock outfit, Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s and recovering from worrisome medical issues, Richard Edwards finally returned in 2017 with Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset, his first solo release which promised the release of a sister album this year. While I expected a lot from the follow up, Verdugo crushed every expectation and stands as one of my favorite Edwards project to date.

The album continues, stylistically, where LCCS left off, but this time fleshing out the unique, orchestral folk sound much better. The songwriting is excellent here as well, both in terms of lyricism and hooks, with each song taking turns sticking in your head. Richard’s vocals are simply stunning on this record, especially on the more intimate second half, with “Something Wicked,” being one of my favorite tracks in his entire catalog. Last year’s project landed in the top ten of my 2017 list, but with Verdugo, he cracks my top five for the first time.

3. Father John MistyGod’s Favorite Customer

His fourth studio record and less than a year after his 2017 masterpiece, Pure Comedy, Father John Misty has established himself as one of the foremost songwriters of this decade. While Comedy took a frigid and cynical dive into the horrors of the modern world, God’s Favorite Customer is self-reflective and contemplative. He touches on alcoholism, maturity, loneliness, and much more in a terse runtime that never once feels either bloated or underdeveloped.

Misty is one of the best lyricists writing right now, and he proves that repeatedly on this album. “The Songwriter,” is a moving tribute to the medium of songwriting itself, while “Mr. Tillman,” is a snarky retelling of his own bender is through the eyes of a hotel employee. The way he toys with metaphor, point of view, and tone is fascinating and shows him to be a seriously elite writer. Ultimately, God’s Favorite Customer may not feel quite as prescient as its predecessor, but it’s still a masterclass in songwriting and a remarkable achievement, considering the quick turnaround time.

2. DaughtersYou Won’t Get What You Want

When it came to ranking this years releases, there were exactly two albums that had a shot at the top spot and, in the end, You Won’t Get What You Want came up just a hair short. Once an extreme metal band with songs lasting about 60 seconds, Daughters had blossomed into one of the most unique acts in all of hard rock by the time of their self-titled farewell record eight years ago. Upon their revival this year, however, the band gave us one of the inexplicable music experiences of 2018.

You Won’t Get What You Want incorporates elements of doom, industrial, grunge, punk and a multitude of other sounds to craft an unforgiving soundtrack with a particularly bleak outlook on the world. The lyrics are almost poe-esque horror stories, each conveying some vague sense of impending annihilation, telling succinct tales in of themselves while also having far reaching implications on the political and social landscape of our time. It’s unpredictable, it’s engulfing, it’s terrifying, and yet somehow it’s intensely personal. Easily the best paced album of the year, Daughters slowly and methodically unveil a brutal hellscape that is every bit as sprawling as and psych-rock piece and will remain forefront in the minds of listeners long after the first listen.

1. IDLESJoy as an Act of Resistance

When it came down to it, there was just no other record that could occupy this spot. No other band has so adequately recognized the state of the world in all its glory and shame while providing a fun, singable piece of work. After bursting onto the scene last year with Brutalism, IDLES continued this year with the best punk record in 30 years. This may seem like sacrilege, but I would put Joy as an Act of Resistance up against the seminole efforts of groups like The Clash, The Dead Kennedys, and The Ramones without hesitation. It’s that good and that important.

The overarching purpose of Joy is to examine modern masculinity, worts and all, to see what is worth keeping and what needs to be changed. Short of quoting large sections of lyrics, it’s difficult to explain how well Joe Talbot addresses this topic, following as it spirals through topics like immigration, violence, racism, love, and change. The instrumentation is thrashing and powerful, but it’s somehow still overpowered by the lyricism and Talbot’s performance. In the end, having aggressively hacked away the blocks that exist in society, the record stands simultaneously as a touching celebration of the beauty in the world and a visceral attack on that which robs us of this beauty.

Joy as an Act of Resistance the first album to ever receive a 10/10 score from Brendon’s Beats, and for my money, it’s the undisputed best album of the year. 

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Noname Drops Incredible Jazz-Rap Project as Sophomore Release

Noname’s flow and lyricism land her in the top tier of modern rappers and when she’s given such impressive instrumentals, helmed masterfully by Chicago producer L10MIXEDIT, she shines brighter than almost any of her contemporaries.

     Noname is an American rapper and poet from Chicago, Illinois. She’s a darling of the indie hip-hop world, but she is perhaps best known to the general public for her work with fellow Chicago native, Chance the Rapper, featuring on both Acid Rap and Coloringbook as well as an appearance on the Merry Christmas Lil’ Mamma mixtape. She’s known for her flow which is fast and dense, yet quiet and understated. Her lyrics are thoughtful and poetic, focussing heavily on issues of race, gender, and love.

   Her own personal debut came in 2016 when she self released her own mixtape, Telefone. The project received universally positive reviews from critics and fans alike, landing on several end of the year lists and rocketing Noname into the national conversation as a key pillar of the new Chicago sound. With the release of her first true LP, Room 25, she is faced with the task of living up to expectations, while trying to top one of the best records of 2016. This is a task which she knocks out of the park.

   The album opens with a short, simplistic intro in “Self,” which sets a clear tone for the rest of the 35 minute runtime. In the track, she speaks to the purpose of this album, a few situations where she feels it may be appropriate, and spends the rest of the 90 second track touching on race, love, politics, religion, and gender, all in a couple verses. It’s an excellent intro, and it sets listeners into the mood right away.

   Easily the highlight of this album is Noname’s flow, which shines even more on this album than in past work. “Prayer Song,” and “Window,” run back to back, and show her abilities quite well. In them, she shows an interesting tendency to repeat a word at the end of a line to set her structure, and then packing her verses full of internal rhymes that play well off of the complex, jazz rhythms in the background. It’s a unique tendency that sets her apart from the growing wave of jazz-rap artists, especially coming from Chicago.

   Her lyricism, as well, is impressively fearless for such a young artist, especially dealing in interesting topics. “Blaxploitation,” for example, speaks on African American representation in media over the years and uses this as a prism to deal with gentrification and racism. “Regal,” on the other hand, focuses on the poisons of black and white, two-sided politics and its tendency to force adherents to defend beliefs which they don’t hold. Each track is a puzzle with multiple levels layered on top of one another.

   Instrumentally, most tracks are simplistic, but this shouldn’t be mistaken for unimpressive. The bass guitar work on “Don’t Forget About Me,” is excellent and melodic, the lead guitar on “With You,” is the best part of an already awesome track, and the drums throughout are complex and driving, accenting Noname’s vocals perfectly.

   The feature list isn’t quite star studded, but it manages, for the most part, to add something much needed. Raven Lynae’s vocals on “Montego Bay,” is one of the best parts of the song and the largest cast of voices on “Part of Me,” is much appreciated. If I had a complaint in this department, it would be Smino’s verses on “Ace,” which is the weakest track in the list and isn’t helped by his underwhelming performance.

   The best song, by far, on Room 25 is the closer, “no name.” This track is just beautiful. An excellent, extended intro that features a very listenable bass line, followed by Noname’s performance of one of the best verses on the album, and finished by a soulful outro from Yaw and Adam Ness. It’s one of the best rap songs of the year, and an example of what makes the jazz rap movement the most exciting in the genre.

   While I loved the experience, I certainly had a few complaints. The album lacks sonic diversity in many places, and as a result the pacing really suffers. A 35 minute runtime should feel like a breeze, but on Room 25, its a bit of a slog, if an enjoyable one. The feature list, while admirable, could certainly have been better. Noname has worked with the likes of Chance the Rapper, J. Cole, and Taylor Bennet, any of whom would’ve fit really well on this album and given a unique sound which may be missing from the finished product. Regardless, Room 25 is one of the best albums of the year as it’s predecessor was in 2016.

   Noname’s flow and lyricism land her in the top tier of modern rappers and when she’s given such impressive instrumentals, helmed masterfully by Chicago producer L10MIXEDIT, she shines brighter than almost any of her contemporaries.

8/10

HEAR ROOM 25: https://open.spotify.com/album/7oHM3Sj0l2nXAzGAxW0KOt