winterSmith’s Best Albums of 2018
I found lots of music to like in 2018. Here’s a brief overview, plus a link so you can sample it all yourself.
Earlier in the year I did a 2018 so far roundup of my favorite albums to date. Let’s quickly remind everyone of those efforts (with a brief excerpt) before we move on.
On The Bleak Disease, several years of pent-up rage finally boil over and the result is a song sequence that says out loud what many of you have probably been thinking. I’m especially proud to have hand a hand in the most pissed-off track, “We’ve Come to Destroy You.”
Redemption is … an achingly gorgeous addition to the [Lost Patrol] catalog. The familiar elements are all present – twangy guitars echoing off the landscape, and Mollie’s etherial vocals, which texturally map a certain ingenue gloss over a perspective that’s utterly worldly, if not a tad world-weary.
Mod Hippie – Wannabe Nobody
The latest offering from his Karma Frog label is the latest Mod Hippie – fronted by Doug McGuire – and it’s just pure Power Pop Underground coolness: “Mod Hippie (featuring members of X, The Beach Boys, and The Standells) is back with a new CD that shows the group at their most accessible and experimental.”
The Well Wishers – A View From Above
Hot Nun – Born to Blaze
This year we’ve got releases from [Jeff Shelton’s] Well Wishers and Hot Nun projects. What next, a Spinning Jennies reunion for the holidays?
And now, the rest – in alphabetical order.
Ashbury Heights – The Victorian Wallflowers
The latest AH release is decidedly poppier than 2015’s The Looking Glass Society – and maybe this isn’t for the best. However, while I personally preferred that darker sound, I suspect many of you will enjoy the greater accessibility of this year’s effort.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Wrong Creatures
Typically dark and more than a little absorbed with the tribulations that seem to follow the band around. Matt Collar at Allmusic says: “On Wrong Creatures, it’s refreshing to hear a band so wrought with spiritual and emotional demons find their rock & roll grace and let it rip.”
The Blueflowers – Circus on Fire
There has always been something powerfully romantic lingering in the cinematic dusk of The Blueflowers’ melancholy, but with Circus on Fire that romantic presence is carrying a blade.
I don’t think I can improve on what Jeff Milo writes about Circus on Fire for the Detroit Metro Times, so I’d encourage you to start there.
It seems to me that from both an an aural and lyrical perspective, CoF comes at you with more edge than past releases. And that’s a big deal.
The Bloofs have cultivated such a distinct sound through the years that it has to be an extraordinary challenge to avoid becoming captive to it. Tone, mood, atmosphere – these are such powerful, compelling elements that it’s hard to progress without risking damage to “the brand,” as it were.
Kate Hinote, Tony Hamera and company, though, have always been able to expand upon what came before, and the unavoidably corrosive effect of life in Trump’s America – how to stay on the rails amidst all the fear, loathing, loss, hatred, doom and 3am tweetstorms? – perhaps this is the slavering muse whipping the band onward.
Eels – The Deconstruction
Maybe I’ve always loved E so much because there’s a haunted melancholy in everything he does. Maybe he’s dealing with tragedy. Maybe he’s in love. Maybe he’s a bit pissed. Maybe he’s waxing wistful on the eternal flux of life’s staccato rhythms. (Not sure that actually means anything, but it sounds cool.)
In no case does he ever seem convinced that things are truly going to be all right, and listening to an E record can be as much like reading a confessionalista‘s private blog as it is, you know, listening to a record. Even when he gets the sha-la-la’s and scooby-do’s rolling, as he does in the dark, tenuous (and intensely clever) romp of “Bone Dry,” every syllable is soaked in misgiving.
He never loses hope, though. Ever.
Emigrate – A Million Degrees
Side project from Rammstein guitarist Richard Kruspe. And in many ways, it’s less like Rammstein than I might have expected.
Kruspe crafts some pretty melodic tunes, and while I wouldn’t call the compilation eclectic, exactly, there is a good bit of diversity evident in the writing and production. Tonally much of the album leans more in the direction of post-Emo hard rockers like AFI than it does toward Industrial Metal. And “You Are So Beautiful” could easily be a Killers track. Neil Z Yeung, writing at Allmusic, also notes echoes of the Sisters of Mercy, Depeche Mode, NIN and U2.
Kruspe brings in several collaborators, as well, including Ben Kowalewicz (of Billy Talent), Cardinal Copia (aka Tobias Forge of Ghost), Rammstein frontman Till Lindemann and Margaux Bossieux of Slippin Away.
In all, Emigrate feels like a guy working within the confines of a band with a clear sound and mission who’s been saving up neat ideas for a few years.
Which, one supposes, is exactly what it is.
Ghost – Prequelle
Speaking of Ghost, mastermind Tobias Forge is doing his part to Make Rock Great Again. If you liked Metal from the old days (you know, the ’80s) Ghost’s sound (which probably owes as much to Power Pop in places as it does Metal) is going to be more your style than more recent modes of weasels-ripped-my-throat-out Nu-Metal. However, this isn’t simple revivalism – the band keeps racking up awards from contemporary Metal critics. Forge is certainly dipping into the genre’s history, but he’s doing so with an eye to the future, not the past.
Forge actually writes tunes, then wraps them in crunchy guitars, pounding percussion, layers of anthemic production elements and, of course, theatrical faux-Satanic trappings (embodied by a string of anti-Pope frontman characters, including his current incarnation, Cardinal Copia).
Enjoy the video for “Dance Macabre,” with its nods to “Thriller,” Rocky Horror and the glory days of ’80s Metal.
Graham Parker – Cloud Symbols
GP has been an iconic figure for a very long time and through the years has evolved as the musical landscape has changed around him. 2018 finds him (with his new band, The Goldtops) looking back and reflecting on what he was at the outset. Cloud Symbols is an upbeat (for him, anyway) romp through the 1970s Pub Rock attic, and the inclusion of a horn section throughout adds a bright swing vibe to a strong set of tunes that are Parker to their very core.
Cloud Symbols isn’t just a Graham Parker album. It is, in many ways, an essential expression of who and what GP is and always has been.
Greta Van Fleet – Anthem of the Peaceful Army
Ah, yes – the most talked-about album of the year. A few months ago I addressed the question of whether or not these kids from the Michigan Outback were “ripping off” Led Zeppelin.
They’re young, and if they are imitating, that’s okay – that’s what young artists do. You start out falling in love with a band (or writer, or painter, or dancer, or whatever). You try and be like them. This is how the great art academies worked, even. They’d send the apprentice to the gallery and he’d spend the day in front of a masterpiece copying it.
Eventually, as you grow, you onboard more and more influences and begin transforming it all into an aesthetic is distinctly your own.
Yes, Josh Kiszka sounds like Robert Plant. You know who didn’t sound like Robert Plant at Kiszka’s age?
[Robert Plant video]
AotPA honestly sounds exactly like you’d expect it to if you’ve listened to their earlier EP: they’re talented and they fucking love Zep. If you didn’t know better you might think this was a long-lost, recently-discovered Led Zeppelin collection. Not IV or Houses, no. But packed with solid tunes and engaging performances. Josh isn’t Plant yet, but he can definitely sing. The rest of the band can flat play, especially given their ages (18-22).
I don’t expect their next album to sound this way, but I’m more than pleased with where they stand right now. Especially if, as so many are speculating, their success leads to a resurgence in Rock as a genre.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Live from the Ryman
I don’t know what to say about this album except that it features maybe the greatest talent performing in any genre right now, backed by an insanely tight band, performing a string of the best songs written over the past few years at one of American music’s iconic live venues.
Is that enough for you?
Johnny Marr – Call of the Comet
I’ve played this to death over the past few months. From where I sit, Call of the Comet almost feels like a question: remind me why I needed Morrissey in the first place? I hate to denigrate someone who has exerted such a powerful influence on music – and whatever you think of Morrissey, there’s no arguing his standing as a Post-Punk/Alternative icon – but the more I listen to Marr’s solo work, the clearer it becomes who the real genius was in The Smiths.
Lo Moon – s/t
The band released a few tracks (“Real Love,” “This is It, “Loveless”) leading up to the full album drop, and to say I was mesmerized would be an understatement. They managed to capture the atmospheric beauty of Genesis at their very best, with the occasional lead vocal that sounded a lot like Catherine Wheel’s Rob Dickinson.
When the full album was released it became clear that what we’d heard already was the best Lo Moon had to offer. So in one sense, I guess you’d call it a bit of a letdown. Still, it would be wrong to dismiss the awesomeness of those lead tracks. In sum, Lo Moon was one of the year’s nicer moments.
Metric – Art of Doubt
Imagine if Metric, this band I’ve loved for a decade, released an album that was heavily driven by guitars. Same band, same pristine, insightful songwriting, same divine Emily Haines (although a little more in your face?), but with a slight dirtiness/fuzziness reminiscent of Achtung Baby Edge?
Wouldn’t that be interesting?
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Nightsweats – Tearing at the Seams
Let me poach from Stephen Thomas Erlewine, because he actually finds the words to say things I couldn’t put my finger on:
Released two and years after their debut, Tearing at the Seams feels very much like a record worked out on the road. It’s filled with high-octane grooves and gritty vamps, punctuated by the occasional moment of acoustic reflection. Often, the vibe trumps the songs, which is actually not much of a problem. The Night Sweats know how to re-create classic soul sounds — they’re very heavily indebted to Stax and Muscle Shoals — but they can also slyly update the sounds, a tendency Richard Swift accentuates with his smooth, seamless production. Swift occasionally gives the record a bit of a high-gloss sheen — “You Worry Me” features echoing guitars that wouldn’t be out of place on a new wave record — but he usually shines a light on the hard-working band, who are there to support Rateliff. … the impressive thing about Tearing at the Seams is how he and his band seem to be synthesizing their clear influences into their own voice. That’s why Tearing at the Seams works, even if it doesn’t have a song as undeniable as “S.O.B.”: listening to it, it’s evident that Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats are in it for the long haul.
St Paul & the Broken Bones – Young Sick Camellia
When the band broke through in 2014 it was powered by Paul Janeway’s gospel-infused firehose of a voice. The man went to 11. On every. Single. Note. It was remarkable, but also extremely raw and perhaps not built for the long haul.
2018 Janeway is a far more refined talent – his voice ebbs and flows, rises and falls, it’s restrained when it needs to be and, of course, the firehose is still there. As a result, every corner of Young Sick Camellia feels polished and toned, but not in a way that detracts from the energy that made the band so compelling.
Now, to all this let’s add the band’s sophisticated lean in the direction of Philly. And a confessional element – manifested in some snips of conversations between Janeway and his grandfather. And an unmistakeable comment on the band’s concerns about the condition of the world (the camellia is the state flower of Alabama, the band’s home state, and “sick” speaks for itself). In all, there are layers of complexity here that we haven’t seen before, with the result being a textured depth both sonic and thematic.
Best effort to date, despite what some other critics think…
There were a bunch of other albums I really liked this year, including:
- Chemtrails – Calf of the Sacred Cow
- Chromatics – Camera
- CHVRCHES – Love is Dead
- Die Wilde Jagt – Uhrwald Orange
- DREAMERS – Launch
- Editors – Violence
- Electric Six – Bride of the Devil
- Humble Braggers – Cycle
- IAMX – Alive in New Light
- The London Suede – The Blue Hour
- The Longshot – Love is for Losers
- Meg Myers – Take Me to the Disco
- Nothing – Dance to the Blacktop
- A Perfect Circle – Eat the Elephant
- Rick Springfield – The Snake King
- The Shins – The Worm’s Heart
- Superchunk – What a Time to Be Alive
- Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats – Wasteland
- Underworld & Iggy Pop – Teatime Dub Encounters
If you’d like to sample the lot here’s the Spotify playlist. You won’t like it all, but you’re just about guaranteed to like something.