Last week, Recess released its staff picks for the best culture of 2018. As usual, though, I couldn't help forming a list of my own — so here are a handful of the best albums I was listening to this year. Of course, this list is by no means an exhaustive sample of all the great music released this year (that's part of the fun of lists), but take it as an entry point into the various genres and trends defining popular music in 2018.
10. Renata Zeiguer, “Old Ghost”
Guitar-based indie music can be so monochromatic that it’s exciting when a new artist finally breaks the mold, creating something that relies more on melodic substance than the usual washed-out aesthetic. Cue Renata Zeiguer, who began her training in classical and jazz music as a child before moving into the indie scene with an EP in 2013. Zeiguer released her debut album, “Old Ghost,” this spring on Brooklyn-based label Northern Spy — which is putting out some of the most consistently interesting and outré independent music today — and the record lives up to the rest of the label’s catalog. Each of the nine songs on “Old Ghost” is packed full of unexpected melodic bends, builds and releases, and highlights like “After All” showcase Zeiguer’s talent for couching baroque sensibilities within an accessible framework.
9. Kali Uchis, “Isolation”
Kali Uchis reportedly wrote the song “Killer” at age 17, during a time when she had been kicked out of her house and was attempting to write songs out of the back of her Subaru Forester. Years later, that song makes an appearance on her debut album, “Isolation”—but only after 14 new tracks that form a bold statement from a young artist often described as “genre-defying.” With the blessing of a major label in the form of Virgin and Universal, Uchis has assembled a veritable brain trust of collaborators on “Isolation,” from the Tyler, the Creator and Bootsy Collins features on “After the Storm” to the Damon Albarn cameo on “In My Dreams.” Her penchant for cleverly sophisticated songwriting — no doubt influenced by her training in piano and saxophone — shines on tracks like lead single “Tyrant” (featuring Jorja Smith), whose lightweight bounce belies the apocalyptic subject matter of Uchis’s lyrics.
8. Earl Sweatshirt, “Some Rap Songs”
Earl Sweatshirt’s defining quality, since he first arose as a preternaturally-gifted member of the rap collective Odd Future at just 15 years old, has always been understatement. Sometimes, this trait has been to his detriment: Ambivalent about his sudden rise to fame, the rapper born Thebe Kgositsile has often shied away from the spotlight, whether deferring to guests on his major label debut “Doris” or delving into total emotional blankness on 2015’s aptly titled “I Don’t Like S---, I Don’t Go Outside.” For this reason, too, new Earl Sweatshirt releases are few and far between. Despite its unassuming title, though, “Some Rap Songs” may in fact be the greatest statement in Kgositsile’s decade-spanning career. In a way, “some rap songs” is actually a fair description of what goes on here: It’s a rather minimalist, rough-around-the-edges affair, its production recalling the kind of rap purism that MF Doom and Madlib championed in the 2000s. The real treat of this album, though, is how the mixing buries Kgositsile’s vocals (and those of collaborators like MIKE and Navy Blue) down to the same level as its array of skewed samples and found sound, so that each element works to equal effect. The result is almost alien to “rap,” a dense, experimental collage from a now-mature artist.
7. Kero Kero Bonito, “Time ‘n’ Place”
With their 2016 album “Bonito Generation,” English trio Kero Kero Bonito showcased a knack for sickly sweet, J-pop-influenced earworms, quickly gaining them a cult following (stemming, I can only assume, from the same very-online music communities that frequent r/indieheads and Anthony Fantano). Their first album on indie label Polyvinyl, “Time ‘n’ Place” is, at least stylistically, a total left-turn from that template. But the newer album retains the same sugar-rush infectiousness that marked the debut — only this time, it’s in the form of twee indie rock, trading in samplers for a more traditional “band” setup. Somehow, KKB manages to make that well-worn genre interesting again, running wild with key signatures and song structures and interrupting it with bursts of noise whenever it gets too predictable (even the catchiest song, lead single “Only Acting,” stutters to a halt three-quarters of the way into the track, like a broken tape player). Meanwhile, vocalist Sarah Midori Perry’s simple, almost nursery-rhyme-like lines belie a distinct sense of melancholy as she reflects on memory, loss and the inexorable sweep of time on tracks like “Make Believe” and “Dear Future Self.” The seamless transitions between tracks make “Time ‘n’ Place” almost too easy to burn through (sometimes more than once) in a single sitting. Altogether, it may be the most fun — and unexpectedly inventive — album released this year.
6. Mitski, “Be the Cowboy”
Mitski Miyawaki may be the most talented songwriter working in the indie world, and 2016’s “Puberty 2,” as excellent as it was, seemed only to hint at her potential as an artist. With this year’s “Be the Cowboy,” Mitski has finally attained a certain ubiquity, and she delivers on that heightened platform with a collection of 14 masterful pop tracks that manage to be both her most accessible and most adventurous work to date. Despite all evidence pointing to it being Mitski’s star-making album, with a higher production value and a sold-out tour to prove it, “Be the Cowboy” is a surprisingly challenging listen: While tracks like “Geyser” and “Pink in the Night” are just as nakedly cathartic as, say, earlier favorites like “Townie” or “Your Best American Girl,” the newer songs resist easy resolution, largely eschewing a simple verse-chorus-verse format or even repeating melodic phrases. This, combined with the fact that only two tracks on the album surpass three minutes (one is the dance-ready single “Nobody,” something of a 21st-century take on The Cardigans), means it can be easy to miss the best moments on “Be the Cowboy” upon first listen — they just pass by too fast. By the time the piano-based ballad “Two Slow Dancers” closes out the lean 32 minutes, you’ll want to press play again.
5. Josephine Foster, “Faithful Fairy Harmony”
As the title of her latest offering suggests, Josephine Foster recalls some of the same bucolic primitivism embodied by artists like Vashti Bunyan and Joanna Newsom. But Foster’s weirder tendencies set her apart from this mold, and “Faithful Fairy Harmony,” a treasure trove of a double album that contains four distinct song cycles over a runtime of 76 minutes, exudes an inviting warmth even in its most bizarre moments. Most songs center on Foster’s otherworldly, opera-trained voice alongside guitar, piano or autoharp, while touches of pedal steel, organ, percussion and distorted guitar peek in and out of the periphery. Despite its unhurried runtime, “Faithful Fairy Harmony” never once feels monotonous, each song transitioning splendidly into the next and reading like a history of American folk traditions, from the ecstatic reverie of “Force Divine” to the haunting, hymn-like “I Was Glad.” The centerpiece amid it all is “Lord of Love,” a seven-minute-long psychedelic folk opus that chugs forward with a gorgeous intensity. “Faithful Fairy Harmony” is a record to get lost inside, a comforting response to the question repeated on “Lord of Love”: “Is there anything you need to be afraid of?”
4. Yves Tumor, “Safe in the Hands of Love”
As the artist born Sean Bowie’s first album on Warp Records, “Safe in the Hands of Love” may be remembered as Yves Tumor’s breakthrough album, having already garnered rave reviews from tastemakers like Pitchfork. Coming from an artist adept at creating shifting, subtly catchy soundscapes through the use of samples, organic instruments and his own voice, the new album is Bowie at his most streamlined, confident and accessible: At times — as in the lead single “Noid,” with its canned strings and borderline-emo delivery — Bowie evokes both Lil Peep and Throbbing Gristle in equal measure, summoning the spirits of rock, hip-hop and grinding industrial techno within the span of a single song. “Licking an Orchid” is another highlight that finds Bowie trading vocals with New York-based experimental musician James K, while “Let the Lioness in You Flow Freely” forms a punishing assault of noise that closes out the record. Listening to Yves Tumor, one can practically hear a mind bursting with ideas, and the results on “Safe in the Hands of Love” are overwhelming, alternately tender and abrasive.
3. Pusha T, “DAYTONA”
The rumored Summer of Kanye pretty much fell flat, thanks as much to Kanye’s self-destructing PR as to the simple fact that, of the five albums produced by the rapper, only one was really any good. But one for five is better than none, and fortunately, that “one” was Pusha T’s “DAYTONA,” a fleet, uniformly tight statement of purpose from a veteran MC. At 41, Pusha T continues to modestly affirm his status as one of the most skilled rappers active today. “DAYTONA” finds him going after younger rappers who don’t have the street cred to back up their boasts (“If You Know You Know”), calling out industry “sock puppets” (read: Drake) and, as is his custom, generally ruminating on drug-slinging opulence. It also happens to be the one Kanye-produced album from this summer that doesn’t sound like it was finished 20 minutes before its release, and West’s involvement on the project — aside from the non sequitur image of Whitney Houston’s bathroom on the album cover, and some underwhelming bars on “What Would Meek Do” — proves to be nothing but positive. West and Push reportedly spent days trawling through record bins during the production of the record, and it shows: West’s beats are as sharp as they’ve ever been, with rich samples driving these often-hookless tracks. And at just 21 minutes, “DAYTONA” never overstays its welcome. Minus that Kanye verse, maybe, it’s near flawless.
2. Let’s Eat Grandma, “I’m All Ears”
This summer, Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” earned accolades for its honest depiction of adolescence in the age of social media and widespread technology, a task that, in the hands of most of the adults responsible for producing our movies and books, can so easily come across as hackneyed and out-of-touch. If there was one musical equivalent of that particular sensation released this year, it was “I’m All Ears,” the second album from Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingsworth, the British duo known as Let’s Eat Grandma. Musically, the album is something of a spiritual successor to last year’s “Melodrama” from Lorde, digging through the universally relatable emotions associated with young adulthood with a cutting specificity relevant to the modern age: “I don’t want to say goodbye / Guess I’ll see you when the screen is vibrating,” goes a characteristic line on “It’s Not Just Me.”
Although this album largely forgoes the more playful experimentalism of 2016’s “I, Gemini” for dance floor-ready bangers (courtesy of producers like SOPHIE, fresh off her own breakthrough LP), it is Walton and Hollingsworth’s songwriting ability that sets them apart from their more mainstream peers. The best tracks on “I’m All Ears” — like the disco burner “Falling into Me” or the proggy “Cool & Collected” — begin unassumingly and build steadily through four or five separate melodic ideas over the span of five or more minutes, culminating in a cathartic rush. Across its 51 minutes, “I’m All Ears” follows a definite emotional arc, yet each track could go toe-to-toe with anything on the Top 40. Really, it’s a wonder that this album hasn’t had more crossover success. At any rate, the best is yet to come for Let’s Eat Grandma.
1. U.S. Girls, “In a Poem Unlimited”
U.S. Girls’ “In a Poem Unlimited” came out in February, but no other album released since then has matched the heights of Meg Remy’s latest project. Remy, an American native who relocated to Canada in 2010, has demonstrated a stunningly consistent creative evolution between every record she has released this decade, from the tape-loop experiments of her early albums, including 2010’s “Go Grey” and 2011’s “U.S. Girls on KRAAK,” to the girl-pop homages of 2012’s “Gem” and the dub-influenced R&B of 2015’s “Half Free.” “In a Poem Unlimited” is Remy’s second album on the revered independent label 4AD after “Half Free,” and she has used this increased platform to expand the scope of her sound, inviting a whole host of session musicians into the studio for her newest effort. Her vocals, once submerged beneath layers of reverb and distortion, now stand front-and-center, but it is the production she’s assembled around her — all engineered and mixed with an analog-like clarity — that makes mentioning David Bowie’s “Station to Station” and Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” in the same breath as this album feel less like hyperbole and more like a comparison of equals.
Yet despite these touchpoints, the record never feels at all nostalgic, even as it alternately evokes Blondie (“M.A.H.”), Giorgio Moroder (“Poem”) and Madonna (“Pearly Gates”). The world of “In a Poem Unlimited” is clearly the world of 2018, and Remy is preoccupied with the violence, anxiety and urgency that marks this particular hour of history. She’s far too smart, though, to make this an overtly “political” album — as if such a distinct category truly exists. Remy has the political and intellectual spirit of Susan Sontag and the encyclopedic knowledge of pop to match it, and the lyrical references on “In a Poem Unlimited” are as abundant as the musical ones, without ever veering into pretension. From the exhales that open “Velvet 4 Sale” to the gradual, squealing disintegration of eight-minute finale “Time,” this album is a masterwork from Remy, the expansive pop album she always wanted to make but, up until this point, simply never had the resources to. It’s the most exciting (and perhaps underrated) record of this year, and — in this editor’s admittedly biased opinion — it deserves to join the conversation as one of the greatest album-length statements this side of the 21st century.
Will Atkinson is a Trinity junior and the Recess culture editor.
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