There aren’t many years that I’m disappointed by the music that’s being released. If you listen to enough music, there’s always enough to excite and delight. This year has been particularly good though. I’ve got a list of 70 albums below, and even down in the 50s, there’s some really strong works I want to return to.
The top then, therefore are all excellent, and all quite different. There’s a fair amount of electronic music, since I think between that and R&B, it’s where the most exciting music sits nowadays. But there’s some jazz, some indie, some dance. Most genres seem to be producing something exciting right now.
I hope you can find something in here you haven’t yet listened to, but come to love!
1. Singularity by Jon Hopkins
It’s been five years since Jon Hopkins last released an album – a time in which he found himself increasing run down touring: “A couple years into the Immunity tour, I was feeling like I wasn’t getting any rest. It’s the best job in the world, I’m not complaining, but there’s a huge toll on the body. You can’t expect yourself to just be active and energetic in the middle of the night without some consequences.” So he turned to transcendental meditation. From learning the Wim Hof technique of breathing in California, to taking cold showers and wild swimming, or going on a psilocybin retreat outside Amsterdam, Hopkins has been exploring the outer reaches of experience.
This took him back even further, to a concept he had fifteen years ago: “I had this idea when I was 23 for a record called Singularity that had this beginning point on a very simple tone and everything expanded from there. Back then I really wasn’t able to write something that would be this complex to put together.” He wanted there to be a “symbiotic relationship between all the sounds” and to allow tracks to be “more progressive” so they don’t circle back to where they started. To “follow the build, peak and release of a psychedelic experience”.
With these goals in mind, Singularity starts with a track firmly planted in the current, often scary world. The title track of the album has “a lot of foreboding”, but rather than stay with this position of fear, from this point, the album develops into new, exciting areas. In Emerald Rush (featuring the same Swedish singer found on Collider on Hopkins’s previous album), there’s an immediate sense of hope with the rising chords pulling you into a journey.
Neon Pattern Drum was the spark of the album that Hopkins says he pursued relentlessly. It stemmed from “an interesting gated, weird pad sound that turns into a rhythmic sound.” This, like many of the tracks return to the notion of tracks progressing. Not ending where they started. This is even more clear in the two tracks Everything Connected (which Hopkins calls, not inaccurately, a “massive techno bastard”) which manages to find its way into the delicate, choral, Feel First Life. “You couldn’t just bring the choir in straight at the end of ‘Everything Connected’, it would be ridiculous. So it’s trying to get a path through that single connecting drone and and then the choir kind of swims up from underneath. I love all those unexpected moments.”
This transition, at the core of the album is spectacular, and deeply moving. Hopkins’s manipulation of technology and what he’s learned since the idea arose 15 years ago can make a 15 part choir appear “out of the fabric of electronic sounds”. It really is a tour de force.
As the album closes with Recovery, the intent was to make “the last track had to be the polar opposite of the first in every way, and yet end at the exact same point the first one began. So it was like a circle, almost something purifying itself.” Indeed, the album ends on exactly the same E flat note on which it starts.
This journey, and return makes for a work of art that has a depth and transcendence that’s so rare to actually achieve in music. It’s an album that’s hypnotic and spiritual, harsh but beautiful. It’s truly a wonderful and fascinating work: a trip that’s worth experiencing multiple times.
2. Now Only by Mount Eerie
Mount Eerie is Phil Elverum. Last year’s A Crow Looked At Me, and this are both about the death of his wife, Geneviève Castree. They are both broadly acoustic albums, and Elverum sings almost prose lyrics over this backing. The stories he tells of his wife and his experience of the time following her death are heartfelt, sometimes harrowing and always beautiful.
He is almost brutally honest with himself “When I address you, who am I talking to?” he sings in the opening track Tintin in Tibet (a story he shared with his wife in their early days dating), but nevertheless “I sing to you”. And that’s what this album consists of – Elverum addressing his dead wife in her terrible absence.
In the title track, Elverum remembers a waiting room, and how, despite being surrounded by people in a similar situation, he is unable to share in their grief – “No, no one can understand / No, my devastation is unique” – but this album contains what is probably the only ‘chorus’ on the entire album – the sound is even quite upbeat. However, the lyrics (People get cancer and die / people get hit by trucks and die) are not.
You may be wondering why I’m recommending an album full of songs sung by a man desperately struggling with grief. Firstly, the result is some of the most beautiful love songs imaginable. In Earth, Elverum sings “I’m full of the love that illuminated our house for all those years” and this bathing in the love of their relationship is a constant presence.
As the album progresses, the grief changes too. In the early tracks, it’s the sound of a man in the wreckage of a life he once knew – destroyed by circumstance. But by Crow Part 2 (a reference to the previous album), he compares her “quiet echo” to the “loud wind” of the hustle of every day life, and it’s almost as if, as he runs his fingers through the air “Touching your last breath” he is saying goodbye.
So, prepare yourself for a sad album, but as an artistic representation of a shared human experience goes, you are unlikely to find anything as brutal, desperate and beautiful as this.
3. All Melody by Nils Frahm
As technology gets more capable, it can do more and more of the work that used to rely purely on the talents and resources of the creator. If you can’t sing in tune, autotune will make it sound like you can. If you can’t drum to the beat, quantising will make it seem as though you did. For an artist like Nils Frahm, however, the analogue and the digital are all tools in his arsenal and he can bring them together, not using technology to fill analogue shortcomings, but using both as tools to create enveloping soundscapes.
Carl Sagan said “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe”. On a smaller scale, Frahm’s first step in making this album, his ninth, was to create a studio to record it in. For this he went to the Funkhaus which is an East Berlin studio built for the radio broadcasting company in East Germany in the 1950s. It’s a beautiful, wood-lined series of studios, and the one in which Frahm was based was previously used to record chamber music.
In this space, Frahm moved in his various instruments, some of his own creation, some more recognisable, but still adapted for his use. This is where the album makes use of 1950s analogue tools (such as creating reverb the old fashioned, analogue way, by re-recording elements in a large, echo chamber) and brings them together with digital elements (such as using a sequencer to play an organ).
The album requires this context because the sound is the perfect melding of old and new. There are multiple analogue, acoustic instruments playing but, such as on Sunson, they can be programmed digitally to wonderful effect. My Friend The Forest, played on an instrument of Frahm’s own design – a piano with a single string for each note – has the weight that only an analogue instrument can bring. Frahm’s breathing and the noises of the instrument itself, as keys are played give a depth an intensity that no fully cleaned, pitched, quantised track could ever have.
It’s difficult to pull out single tracks because the album is just that – an album. It works as a whole. The creation of the studio and instruments through to the release of the album almost make it a work of performance art in which the final music is one element of a much larger whole.
However, the music itself is relentlessly beautiful. It’s the sound of the past and the future, of a moment in history that feels like a turning point. In a year in which technology continues to challenge our notions of privacy, and concerns about populism and checks on power are so prevalent, to hear this beautiful music emanate from a studio formerly behind the Berlin Wall feels all the more moving.
4. Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides by SOPHIE
Billboard asked Sophie what category her music falls under. It’s worth asking because when you start this album you’ll be thrown into a series of tracks that have elements you’ll find familiar, but are extremely difficult to categorise. Her answer was “advertising” and this is a surprisingly accurate explanation of what makes her so special. This interview came from the time she’d recently made the character QT for the single Hey QT, alongside a fake drink that she’s advertising. This song takes modern advertising and presents it in a the guise of a fictional future drink, along with it’s terrifyingly catchy theme song. This embrace of advertising’s artifice, sentimentality and pop is still woven through everything Sophie creates and is the core of every track on this album.
Firstly, there’s artificiality. Listen to Faceshopping and you’ll hear a paean to photoshopping and the synthetic aesthetic. It’s backed with entirely crafted beats and sounds – not an acoustic instrument to be heard. However, deep in this artifice is something entirely human. It’s a sound that both could only be created using a computer, but could never be created by a computer alone.
Secondly, there’s emotion, but it’s often of the type you would normally see in advertising – it’s sentimental. On It’s Okay to Cry you’ll hear a naïve and simplistic drawing of emotion, but the more you listen, the more you realise there’s something deep beneath this surface, but expressed in the simplicity. This depth is heard even more in the central track of the album, Is It Cold In The Water? This is a song that brings together an unusually pure vocal track (for Sophie) floating on the top of rising and falling digital sounds that are like the water itself. And it raises the question, is the music, this artificial, technology driven music, cold? Can something so manufactured be warm?
Thirdly, there’s the poppy, catchy nature of advertising jingles. Immaterial (which is very similar to Sophie’s work prior to this album) and you’ll hear a song you can sing along with. It gets inside your mind, and the child-like, bubblegum pitched vocals makes it seem simplistic. But there’s a clue in the song’s title: Immaterial. It’s not a simple singalong – it’s a philosophical investigation of what pop can be: “I can be anything I want” – as though the changing of clothes can be a change of identity. Like Faceshopping, this is about the freedom of pop culture to allow us to be what we want to be. In the context of the work of a transgender woman, this is about the power of pop to free oneself from society and define oneself anew.
By the time we get to the closing track, Whole New World / Pretend World, it’s clear this album is less like a normal work of art and more like a modern manifesto of the artificial. It’s a love song to a world that doesn’t deride photoshopping and fakeness but one that embraces it and uses it as a tool to create something new, vibrant and exciting.
5. I’m All Ears by Let’s Eat Grandma
Let’s Eat Grandma (the name’s based on a textbook grammatical error) are Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton – two teenagers who met in nursery school and have been performing together around the Norwich area for some years. This is their second album, following 2016’s I, Gemini.
It’s an assured and often complex album, but with a strong pop streak right through the middle. Songs like I Will Be Waiting will meander pleasingly before apparently turning a corner into a chorus that you’ll be singing to yourself for the rest of the day before wandering off again into multiple complex chord progressions. Simple guitars and keyboards layer over each other as a song builds and before you know it, the album’s closer Donnie Darko has been working on you for 11 minutes without you realising that it’s burrowed right into your brain.
This variety can make it a difficult album to pin down but all the better for it. Hot Pink, the second track and one of the singles is produced by dance producer SOPHIE and when you know that, you can hear her production all over it. However, the album has so many influences and tones that without that knowledge, it still fits in perfectly with the band’s style and rest of the album.
What ties this complex series of influences and musical layers together are Hollingworth and Walton’s vocals which are unmistakably young, but not immature. In fact there’s a confidence throughout that makes the album sound much more like a work of seasoned veterans.
In an interview, Hollingworth said “I don’t mind people getting to know us through our music, rather than necessarily through what we say” and when you’re producing music of this quality, it’s easy to see why.
6. Heaven and Earth by Kamasi Washington
I loved last year’s Harmony of Difference (which for most artists would have been a full-fledged album, but for Washington was an extended EP he made for an art exhibition) but Heaven and Earth, like 2015’s The Epic is a monster of an album. At two hours and twenty-five minutes it’s longer than Janelle Monae, Phosphorescent and Let’s Eat Grandma’s albums combined.
As such, songs take their time to grow. Street Fighter Mas (one of the shorter tracks) starts out with a drum fill and a strutting baseline before leaning back into choral funk that is Washington’s signature sound. Show Us The Way (another relatively short track) introduces the choir early, but it’s only after the band has explored every aspect of the theme that the choir sing “Dear Lord, show us the way”. This is not an album which, at the track or album scale, feels the need to pay off fast.
Many tracks show a deference and enjoyment of the spiritual, as you might expect from an album called Heaven and Earth. The choir on so many tracks is the sound of gospel, layered on top of what is a jazz album rooted in John Coltrane’s spiritual phase. But for a religious jazz album, any worries that this might end up feeling stuffy can be thrown aside. The entire album drips with joy and wonder.
The album has a sense of taking time and delving into the moment which feels like a counterweight to a Spotify culture where, if a song hasn’t shown everything it has to offer in the first 30 seconds, we move along. Washington shows that music is about the journey, not the pay-off.
And as the band play some extraordinary solos, and a choir rises above a groove that, retro stylings embraced, sounds fresh and exciting, there are moments where two and a half hours of this genius just doesn’t feel like enough.
7. C’est La Vie by Phosphorescent
(Below is a repost of my review from November)
It’s been five years since Phosporescent’s last album, Muchacho. That album found an artist exploring the end of a relationship, caused in part by constant touring. It was the music of a man at the end of a period in his life.
The subsequent five years have been busy for Houek. During the recording of Muchacho, he met Australian musician Jo Schornikow, who subsequently joined the band, they married, had two children and left New York for Nashville. Houek says of his departure from New York “If you’re not actively seeing shows or going to museums or being part of the vibrant city, what are you doing there?” In Nashville, Hoeuk’s been raising children and building a new studio. It’s the beginning of the new life marked as finished in Muchacho.
C’est La Vie No. 2, the final track written on the album sets its tone. A simple series of romantic, overblown statements are shot down in turn as he sets out his new life. “I wrote all night / Like the fire of my words could burn a hole up to heaven / I don’t write all night burning holes up to heaven no more.” It’s the sound of a man grappling with a new life – grappling, as well, with his image of himself as a romantic hero. There’s even a reluctance in the acceptance – it’s not his: ‘C’est la vie she say / but I don’t know what she means’. This acceptance is something he wrestles with as the album progresses.
However, a lighter view of his new found responsibilities is found on the first single from the album, New Birth In New England. It’s an upbeat pop song that makes the refrain ‘honey, don’t I know ya?’ refer first to meeting a soul mate, then the birth of a first child. It’s a more positive view of a middle-aged man getting to grips with new, profound and beautiful, responsibilities (he even find a moment for a War On Drugs-esque ‘Woo!’). In this song, it’s not a reluctant acceptance of this new world – he is experiencing a ‘new birth’ as much as his child.
In Nashville, Houek’s been working on creating a new studio, called Spirit Sounds. He seems to have some fun on the two tracks opening and closing the album putting that studio through its paces. Black Moon / Silver Waves and the longer *Black Waves / Silver Moon* are both haunting layered compositions that set the audio tone as much as the two singles set the topic.
Around The Horn takes that tone and drags it very close to Spiritualized. Indeed, this song almost sounds more like classic Spiritualized than anything on Spiritualized’s own album this year. Keeping with the protagonist’s journey, though, he opens with “Anything is fine once you make it fine.” Unlike the broken romantic of C’est La Vie, this is almost pragmatic.
Despite Christmas Down Under’s title and references to Jesus, it’s the least Christmassy song I’ve heard in some time. Perhaps that’s appropriate for a song reflecting on Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere, but it fits beautifully with the next track, My Beautiful Boy – a love song written to his sleeping son, who, following the Christmas references, becomes like the sleeping infant Jesus: ‘Just what in heaven would I do? / Just walk around and look for you.’
These Rocks closes the lyrical songs on the album. It’s a dark, but hopeful track – the rocks being what he’s been ‘carrying around all my days’ but he ‘wouldn’t have any other way’. However, in keeping with the album, in the second verse, he’s considering ‘putting all that stuff away’. Like a reflection of C’est La Vie No. 2, the past he’s leaving behind he realises is weighing him down.
C’est La Vie is a beautiful album that avoids the schmaltz of a new parent, by giving a meditation on middle age, and becoming an adult. As in the song *There From Here* (If you’d have seen me last year, I’d have said / I can’t even see you there from here), it’s an album that understands Kierkegaard when he wrote “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
8. Your Queen is a Reptile by Sons of Kemet
Sons of Kemet have a somewhat strange line-up. Even in jazz terms, a saxophone (band leader Shabaka Hutchings), clarinet, tuba, and two drummers is pretty unusual. There’s a strange tension between using a tuba for bass (which was the norm before the 1920s when a stringed bass player took over) and the deep foundations the band has in reggae and afrobeat.
The band are more than content to wear their political badges on their sleeves. The title was explained as a reference to how the queen doesn’t represent black immigrants: “Your Queen is not our Queen She does not see us as human”. Each song is named for a prominent black woman as a queen replacement, titled “My Queen Is …” including Harriet Tubman, or Doreen Laurence, making the album a history of black strength under oppression. The only lesser-known name is Ada Eastman of the first track, Hutchings’s great grandmother from Barbados.
The music is vibrant and colourful, layered and fun, but also rebellious and revolutionary. It’s the sound of multiple strands of black culture drawn together by immigration to a single country. It’s a sign of how strong the jazz scene is in the UK right now.
9. Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe
It’s difficult to think of an album that better sums up the experience of being alive in the west in 2018 than Janelle Monáe’s third album. Although not a continuation of Metropolis theme of her first two, Dirty Computer is still heavily influenced by technology and Monáe’s exploration of what it means to be a human in a technology-driven society.
2018 was a year seen through social media. The whole album feels like that view crafted into wonderful pop songs. Crazy Classic Life is an Instagram feed of swimming pools and limousines. Screwed is the half-joking, half-serious despair of a progressive on Twitter making sense of the ‘populism’ of politics. I Like That is the sound of drifting through a Facebook feed and Pynk (one of the best songs released this year) is the #MeToo movement expressed as an ode to the vagina.
Monáe’s politics are best expressed in the closing track Americans: “Don’t try to take my country / I will defend my land / I’m not crazy baby / I’m American”. The experience of the album as a whole is like reading through a friend’s Twitter feed. The politics are clear and passionate, but they’re expressed with humour and self-deprecation. So Afraid is vulnerable and anxious like a tweet in the middle of the night (“what if I lose?”) but Screwed is sharply political and fun (“Everything is sex / Except sex, which is power / You know power is just sex / Now ask yourselves who’s screwing you”) like a meme shared with friends.
All of this combination of humour, politics, technology, race, gender and social media is set to some of the best pop songs you’ll hear anywhere this year. She’s a friend and protégé of Prince and there are moments on this album that are pushing that standard. And this from an artist that only last year was outstanding in two Oscar-nominated films, and puts on a live show that’s as good as they come. It’s difficult to imagine what an artist with her talent could achieve next, but it’s going to be exciting to find out.
10. The Future and the Past by Natalie Prass
Natalie Prass went to school with Matthew E White. Since performing together then, he’s made regular appearances on her two albums, and has a couple of writing credits here. They share a light-funk style that’s ever present on this album, a follow up to her eponymous debut in 2015.
It feels like a more mature outing, linking together themes of the state of the world with love ballads which often have a dark edge. Oh My, the album’s opener, and Ain’t Nobody at the close wouldn’t have felt entirely out of place on Off The Wall, and you can certainly hear a great deal of respect for Quincy Jones’s production across the album.
Short Court Style was the first single from the album and bears a similar tone to the Isley Brothers’s version of Summer Breeze. It has a wonderfully catchy chorus that’s about the first blush of love. There’s a great episode of Song Exploder where Prass goes into the detail of putting the song together which is well worth your time.
Other tracks seem much more like a dismantling of this love. Even by the next track love is seen as The Fire that may warm, and still feels positive, but has the question of the destructiveness hanging over it. Lost could have been a massive stadium ballad, but for Prass it’s more controlled emotionally, as though when she admits “We can’t be saved” and that “I kept falling into every lie” – she’s doing her best to keep herself together. Far From You has her asking “Tell me why do birds / do they suddenly / disappear” like a Karen Carpenter who no longer wants to be Close To You.
Between Sisters, an anthem on being empowered by women, Nothing To Say’s criticism that “Everybody’s talking when there’s nothing to say”, there’s a sense in which this is the album for the Twitter age. In Oh My, this takes the form of the experience of reading the news and everything being awful, but Ain’t Nobody, closing the album, is much more strong and hopeful. When Prass sings “No, ain’t nobody can take this from our hands” it’s not clear whether she means the love she’s been singing about, or the power she’s taking back.
And the rest…
There’s a lot of gems here!
11. Beyondless by Iceage
12. 2012-2017 by Against All Logic
13. Phantom Thread OST by Jonny Greenwood
14. After (live) by Mount Eerie
15. Daytona by Pusha T
16. EVERYTHING IS LOVE by THE CARTERS
17. Glastonbury 2000 by David Bowie
18. Two Balloons EP by Peter Broderick
19. Infinite Moment by The Field
20. Bach: The Cello Suites Recomposed by Peter Gregson
21. Both Directions at Once by John Coltrane
22. The House by Porches
23. God’s Favorite Customer by Father John Misty
24. Love Is Magic by John Grant
25. KIDS SEE GHOSTS
26. Dans Ma Main by Jean-Michel Blais
27. Thank You For Today by Death Cab For Cutie
28. 7 by Beach House
29. Clean by Soccer Mommy
30. Pop 2 by Charli XCX
31. Weed Garden EP by Iron and Wine
32. SOLACE by RUFUS DU SOL
33. Love is Dead by CHVRCHES
34. Isolation by Kali Uchis
35. Knock Knock by DJ Koze
36. Woman Worldwide by Justice
37. Big Red Machine
38. A Humdrum Star by GoGo Penguin
39. Historian by Lucy Dacus
40. For Ever by Jungle
41. Negro Swan by Blood Orange
42. No Doubt by Braxton Cook
43. Cocoa Sugar by Young Fathers
44. Landfall by Kronos Quartet and Laurie Anderson
45. Honey by Robyn
46. Tongue by Anenon
47. I’ll Be Your Girl by The Decemberists
48. In a Poem Unlimited by US Girls
49. And Nothing Hurt by Spiritualized
50. Double Negative by Low
51. Souls by Shallop
52. Marble Skies by Django Django
53. Bloom by Troye Sivan
54. Hive Mind by The Internet
55. Ye by Kanye West
56. Con Todo El Mundo by Khruangbin
57. Devotion by Tirzah
58. Suspiria OST by Thom Yorke
59. The Shakedown by Tenderlonious
60. Forever Neverland by MØ
61. Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves
62. Scorpion by Drake
63. Sex & Food by Unknown Mortal Orchestra
64. I can feel you creep into my private life by Tune-Yards
65. Little Dark Age by MGMT
66. It’s About Time by Nile Rodgers and Chic
67. Room Inside the World by Ought
68. Man of the Woods by Justin Timberlake
69. Route One by Sigur Ros
70. Cranberry by Hovvdy