Jonah Skeen’s Top Ten Albums of 2018
Hey folks welcome to my second annual countdown of the best music of the year. There was a lot of great music this year and, unlike last year, I kept pretty up to date on the hot new albums. Everything on this list is truly worth hearing.
- Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune – Swamp Dogg
Autotune is the most deverse current sound in popular music and I love it unabashedly. I especially love when artists who I don’t expect to use it. One of my favorite uses of autotune ever was Bon Iver’s 22 A Million. I was in sheer delight when I found out that the 76 year old R&B singer Swamp Dogg had recorded an album in Bon Iver’s studio and made similar use of autotune. This album is cut from the same cloth as 22 and by is far funkier, funnier, looser and maybe even weirder in the simple fact of it existing. “$$$ Huntin’” updates the talkin’ blues formula for these trap heavy times. The most beautiful moment on the album is the cover of the standard “Stardust”. It sounds like I’m picking up a transmission from space of aliens approximating human music.
- Boygenius – Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers
Boygenius is a supergroup made up of Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers. If that sentence doesn’t make you excited then you have some catching up to do. These women have put out a few of the best indie albums in recent memory. And now they have joined forces for a tour and an all too brief EP. Despite their variety of styles (Dacus is more fuzz rock, Bridgers is more folk influenced, Baker somewhat emo leaning), they sound like a natural fit. The highlight of this EP are the harmonies which are tear inducing. This is powerful stuff. If you’ve just gone through a break up or something of that nature, listening to this will be cathartic.
- El Mal Querer – Rosalía
I wish I still took Spanish so I could understand the lyrics on this. I hear that they’re great. What I can understand is the music which is groundbreaking. Rosalia uses the sound of revving motorcycles as percussion! There’s a song that does James Blake even better than James Blake does himself! The whole thing is as fun as any pop record you’ll hear this year. It’s equally at home at a house party as it is during the comedown. It’s rare to hear experimental and pop instincts balanced this well.
- And Nothing Hurt – Spiritualized
If Jason Pierce is to be believed, this is the last Spiritualized album. Which is sad news but what a way to go out. Unlike their earlier records, this record is not a grand statement. There’s no Elvis samples, 17 minute song about killing cops, orchestras, or gospel choirs. And Nothing Hurt is simply a set of well constructed songs recorded in Pierce’s home studio. The strings and horns come from samples from his record collection. What’s amazing is that Pierce can still write such deeply affecting music this late into his career and how lush this album sounds despite its modest origins. The lead off tracks are my two favorites: “A Perfect Miracle” starts off with ukulele and sounds like a straightforward love song before the narrator shifts from love to ending the relationship over the course of a few verses and the music builds into a beautiful crescendo. “I’m Your Man” is the ideal classic rock. There’s a guitar solo that wouldn’t sound out of place on a late Beatles record and lyrical similarities to the Leonard Cohen classic where it takes its name. This song, like the whole album, positions Pierce in the lineage of classic songwriters. I think it succeeds.
- Daytona – Pusha T
Back back way back in december 2015, Pusha released the clunkily titled King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude which was to serve as an appetizer for King Push, his planned magnum opus. King Push never materialized but Push did drop his opus. Daytona is all killer, no filler. Just straight bars. This record barely bothers with hooks, which normally spells disaster but with a rapper as talented as Push, this is a huge plus. And the production! Ho boy! There’s this playlist called Kanye West – Producer of The Year that’s posted on Pusha, Kanye, Teyana, and 070 Shake’s Spotify pages which clearly signals that Kanye is aiming to be nominated for Producer of The Year at the Grammys. He shouldn’t get it, but listening to Daytona made me hope that the Wyoming Session albums would be a return to classic early Kanye. I was wrong, the production on Ye is his least focused ever, but at least I got Daytona out of it.
ALSO DRAKE WAS HIDING A CHILD COME ON
- Thresholder – Ian William Craig
This isn’t an album. It’s a compilation of outtakes recorded between 2014 and 2016. This album doesn’t really have songs on it; it mostly has sounds. But what glorious sounds! Ian William Craig is an artist like no other. He builds his music by combining avant garde tape manipulation with his magnificent opera trained singing voice. The end results bring to mind Bon Iver at his most experimental, a more minimal Sigur Ros, and William Basinski’s classic The Disintegration Loops. This is music that is both alien and somehow deeply human. All of Craig’s albums, particularly Centres, are worth checking out but Thresholder showcases what he does best in a comfact runtime.
- Sparkle Hard – Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks
My love of this album started with the lead single “Middle America”. It’s a ballad which Malkmus doesn’t do often but when he does it leads to classics like “Gold Soundz”, “Church on White”, “Freeze the Saints”, and “Spit on a Stranger”. I hoped that the rest of the album would be mature and understated. I was wrong. Sparkle Hard is a little of everything Malkmus does best. It has an extended stoner jam (“Kite”), garage rock (“Shiggy”), a country duet with Kim Gordon (the hilarious “Refute”), and a two part electronic experiment that turns into krautrock (“Difficulties – Let Them Eat Vowels”). Even more astonishing is that this isn’t even the album Malkmus planned to release. He made a completely electronic album that he planned to drop before his label told him to put out a more traditional release first. These were the songs that Malkmus just happened to have lying around. I am also extremely biased about this album for two reasons 1. I eternally love Malkmus for his work in Pavement and 2. I saw Malkmus live front row and he played most of Sparkle Hard. The songs are even better live and it felt that I was sitting in on a band practice because I was so close to the band. During the encore, Malkmus sang “Freeze the Saints” directly to me and it was among the greatest moments of my life. So listen to this album but maybe listen to a Pavement classic like Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, or Slanted and Enchanted first.
3. Knock Knock – DJ Koze
This album will take you on a journey. I know a lot less about dance music than I ought to but I do know that this record is dance music at its best. This record brilliantly uses a plethora of samples, synths, and newly recorded vocals to create a deeply psychedelic listening experience. The track that drew me in was “Bonfire” because it has vocals from Bon Iver and I will listen to anything that Justin Vernon sings over. The whole record is worth listening to straight through but the highlight is “Pick Up” which should’ve been a huge hit.
- Some Rap Songs – Earl Sweatshirt
To quote my roommate Jackson, this decade finally has its Madvillainy. Earl has been one of the most adored MCs in the game since way back in ‘10 when he was a wee lad of sixteen. Now he’s 24 and just ended a three year hiatus with his best, and most experimental, record. This year has been a big one for short albums. All of the five Kanye produced Wyoming albums were 7 or 8 songs in under half an hour. Earl one ups Ye. It’s 15 songs in only 25 minutes! And each one is a winner. There is not a wasted second on this record. Every verse is insightful, filled with allusions, and poetic. Earl isn’t rapping with precision; he’s rapping with purpose. He turned from the prodigy of Odd Future to a wizened philosopher. The beats on this thing are just insane. They’re more like soundcollages than traditional rap beats but hit all the pleasure points of classic old beats from someone like Dilla or Madlib. Earl’s father, South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, died earlier this year and though much of the album was completed prior, his death hangs over the project. This album is both surreal yet hyper emotional. People will be dissecting the meaning of the lyrics and trying to wrap their heads around these mind-bending beats for years.
Before my number one pick I’d like to shout out a few honorable mentions that didn’t make the list:
Iridescence – BROCKHAMPTON: BEST BOY BAND SINCE 1D! Also, “San Marcos” may be my absolute favorite song of the year.
Freedom’s Goblin – Ty Segall: a great double album covering everything from hardcore punk to folk to psychedelic rock.
KTSE – Teyana Taylor: Underrated R&B vocalist backed by old school sampled heavy Kanye beats.
Room 25 – Noname: live soul beats with unmatched lyrical wit.
Virtue – The Voidz: Strokes frontman returns with his best record since Room on Fire.
Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves: Psychedelic country recorded in Sheryl Crow’s barn.
The Longshot – The Longshot: Green Day frontman solo album in disguise. If it were a Green Day record, it’d be their best since American Idiot.
- Be The Cowboy – Mitski
The first time I heard this album, it was on the train into Manhattan with two of my friends. We were all listening to it and exchanging excited looks. The second time I heard this album was about two hours later and it was live. Seeing Mitski the day this album came out no doubt influenced my opinion on it. I didn’t care for the single “Nobody” until I saw her singing and dancing and realized it was meant to be sarcastic. Now, it’s among my favorite tracks of the year. This album is Mitski’s huge leap forward. Her last record, Puberty 2, was a great breakout album that cemented her as one of the most popular up-and-coming artists in indie rock. This album loses the grungy guitars, screamed vocals, and most other indie signifiers. It cements Mitski as one of the greatest artists of our time, full stop. Not just indie. Over 14 songs, and only 32 minutes, Mitski breezes through too many genres to name and often forgos standard verse-chorus structure. Sometimes, her lyrics read more like freeform poetry than pop lyrics. Yet this does not feel like an experimental album. It is as catchy and emotional as any of the best pop records. Each song conveys an incredibly detailed story in around two minutes. It is truly hard to pick highlights on a record as great as this, but “Remember My Name” is sung from the perspective of a lonely musician who wants her audience to keep her in their mind after she’s done performing. There is no way I’ll ever forget Mitski’s name after this album.
Written by Jonah Skeen ’21