10. Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog
Frances Quinlan is a rare breed. Few vocalists can turn a melody in as many directions, alternating between raspy falsetto and out-of-breath shouts in a way that sounds both melodically pleasing and emotionally poignant. But we already knew that about Quinlan, thanks to 2012’s Get Disowned and 2015’s even bigger Painted Shut; this year’s masterpiece only augments her growing legend. Bark Your Head Off, Dog remains loyal to Frances’ most endearing quirks, yet expands Hop Along’s elastic bounds with more complex and refined instrumentation, elaborate texturing, and its cleanest, most inviting production to date. It’s basically – gasp! – a pop album.
Genre categorization is of little consequence with an artist like Hop Along, though, because Quinlan & co. have established themselves as one of those outfits that are always on their way to another sound. Sure, Dog reduces the volume a tad, but it retains a certain jaggedness; this acrobatic ability to bounce between musical ideas with fleeting commitment while remaining totally unified as an album. The deft balance between eclectically adrift sound-searching and tight, focused execution of every point along that path is an artform in and of itself. Quinlan weaves between raw, piano-underscored belters such as “Not Abel” and acoustically-driven, self-harmonizing classic rockers like “Look of Love”. Every song possesses its own tiny reserve of magic that slowly leaks out until you’re immersed in it, grinning ear to ear.
To say that Bark Your Head Off, Dog is Hop Along’s most “stripped-down record” would be inaccurate because it implies a reduction in the instrumental contributions or musical atmosphere. Dog is more like a single cell in which the more you break it down, the more complex it becomes. This album sounds sleeker and more cleaned-up than previous Hop Along outings, but the instrumentation is broader, the songwriting more clever, and the melodies even more addicting. This is the fulfillment of Hop Along’s potential, a target that we’re beginning to find more elusive as they continue to elevate themselves higher up on the artistic totem pole. –Sowing
9. Thou – Magus
There’s a reason Magus has been rearing its head on lists just like this one. For Thou, it’s a brilliant exclamation point to an at times bewildering year. But instead of going on about the band’s prolificity or how weird the rest of their music was this year, I’ll leave you with this: Thou are perfect and beautiful and we should all count ourselves lucky to exist on Earth the same time as them. –Eli K.
8. Alkaline Trio – Is This Thing Cursed?
Nine albums and more than twenty years in, Alkaline Trio finally think to check if they’re cursed. The band have weathered two drummers leaving, two political administrations whose policies they despised, and endless vitriol from leagues of fans complaining they sold out, or lost the spark, or whatever. Befitting of any band stubborn enough to still be playing pop-punk in 2018, they’re back from the cursed years as strong as ever –- sellouts or not, there’s sure as hell a spark powering Is This Thing Cursed? Matt Skiba’s writing is as sharp as ever, whether he’s somehow flatteringly comparing a girlfriend to a spy plane on “Blackbird” or becoming the human embodiment of the angry shrug emoji re: Trump on “I Can’t Believe”. Meanwhile Dan Andriano, the better writer since Good Mourning, makes concessions to his sloppy punk roots with some hard-and-fast bangers, only returning to his normal role as a uniquely sensitive and mature balladeer on “Stay”. As ever when they work together closely, as on the year-best bridge of “Demon and Division”, the two bring out the best in one another, proving for the ninth time over that the secret ingredient of Alkaline Trio’s formula is the chemistry. –Rowan
7. Tim Hecker – Konoyo
The 2010s have found Tim Hecker solidifying a new stage in his sonic philosophy; he has distinguished himself from droves of other drone-adjacent artists by yoking his songs’ structural peaks to moments captured in the flux of the recording process, with minimal obfuscation to smooth out aural quirks. This is to say that the best moments of Ravedeath, 1972, Virgins, and Love Streams feel real, like they have not been mediated by a powerful creative personality but instead exist as documents of a particular moment in time — conveying the revolution of a volume knob on a synthesizer, the clank of a drumset.
The film theorist André Bazin, though he focused on an entirely different medium and might blanch at my attempt to extend his ideas, is my forebear in this kind of thinking. Bazin posited that there existed an “ontology of the photographic image” which, through the seemingly “impersonal” process of chemical emulsion, served to deliver to its audience a depiction of reality in which conventional aesthetics could not intervene. In emphasizing rather than playing down the vicissitudes of the space and time in which it was recorded, Hecker’s 2010s output — which I see as reaching a zenith with Konoyo — seems to me trenchantly “photographic” in nature, even as it siphons pleasure from the bountiful well of Hecker’s previous sonic strategies.
This album, despite apparent similarities in the recording process from his albums earlier in the decade, represents yet another distinct dot on the wildly gratifying timeline of Hecker’s musical development. A few wrinkles exist therein. Konoyo, for example, develops in an incremental, linear fashion rather than as a set of looping pieces progressing in chunks: you positively cannot zoom around Konoyo and expect to experience the thrill of the entire album (I think one could reasonably tune into, say, Virgins‘ “Prism”, tune out, and be said to have experienced something of value). Hecker also integrates elements of traditional Japanese music for the first time here, employing such instruments as the percussive uchimono and the woodwind ryuteki and hichiriki, affirming his penchant for experimentation and deepening his aural palette in one fell swoop. (The “photographic realism” I tried to describe in the first two paragraphs can also be linked, interestingly enough, to the subgenre of minimalist Japanese music called onkyo — Hecker is not one to take influence lightly or in a facile manner).
Konoyo, above all, solidifies Hecker as a preternatural talent with unimpeachable instincts; each subterranean buzz, each hit of the aforementioned uchimono, augments the sonic weave and resonates emotionally. No doubt festooned with great respect in critics’ circles and with a growing audience, this guy deserves to be recognized as no less than one of the great artists of the 21st century. A bit like his fellow Tim, Timothy Theodore Duncan, winning a fifth ring — both with a whopping 17 years under their professional belt — Konoyo miraculously finds Hecker working at the peak of his powers. Picture that. –Alex Robertson
6. Coheed and Cambria – The Unheavenly Creatures
The Unheavenly Creatures marks the awaited return to The Amory Saga, developing a new storyline that will stretch onto 5 LPs. As a result, the excitement towards this album grew considerably, since we all get to immerse ourselves into that respective universe once again. This fervor can be felt throughout the album too, as Coheed and Cambria crafted a really strong, 79-minute odyssey. The band leaned towards their progressive influences which shaped earlier releases, spitting one tight song after another. Building on familiar grounds, the powerful and melodic choruses are constantly surrounded by dynamic progressions or groovy structures. Everything is carefully crafted and refined to the last note, but designed to continuously capture your attention with catchy melodies. The Good Apollo days are well behind us; however, it’s okay to still indulge yourself in these puzzling dramas Claudio Sanchez details. The group’s enthusiasm is definitely infectious, and most importantly, they are more consistent than a large number of acts out there. –Raul Stanciu
5. Pusha T – DAYTONA
One could almost have thought Pusha T was content lording over his dark little corner of rap, where the only thing cleaner than the acetone wash was your belief that, yes, a line like “Leave you like Malcolm where X marks your grave” probably isn’t just your average rapper’s empty bluster. To casual fans, Pusha’s always been rap’s most effective character actor, swooping in to steal a scene or three before retreating back into the shadows to count his G.O.O.D. Music stacks. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
DAYTONA demolishes that myth without ever really trying. At only seven tracks, it lifts a middle coke nail to Hot 100 rap, no album bloat nor skits, just lean, muscular eviscerations. There were no marketing blitzes; a tour that didn’t lift off until after Pusha had satisfied his obligations overseeing the rest of G.O.O.D.’s June releases; only the nostalgic “If You Know You Know” served as a single with an obligatory video. This, too, is part of the Pusha mystique, the enigma behind the cold, effortless persona. After all, what more does one need to do when you have a product as pure as DAYTONA?
The record is a throwback both to Clipse’s heyday and to vintage Kanye, all brutal, scalpel-sharp verses paired with classic samples and unflashy beats. “See these diamonds in this watch face? / All that shit came from pressure,” goes one particularly apt line. On its own, DAYTONA is Pusha’s most focused effort: when taken in conjunction with the cement shoes Pusha tied to Drake’s feet four days after DAYTONA dropped, it became legendary. “The Story of Adidon” is a fitting climax, the knockout punch to “Infrared”‘s testing jabs. In less than a week, Pusha crashed his grimy realism onto both Billboard charts and gossip websites, finally allowing a spotlight to illuminate the ruthless economy of his life and his lyrics. Los Angeles writer Jeff Weiss said it best: “It never wound up a surgical summer because the operation was too effective on the first go-around.” Weiss was referring to “The Story of Adidon”, but I haven’t heard a better metaphor for Pusha’s 2018 yet. –klap
4. Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
“It’s a feeling.” This deceptively simple quote comes courtesy of Ishmael “Palaceer Lazaro” Butler, one half of Shabazz Palaces, from their 2011 debut, Black Up. That line leads into a track that blooms outward into an incisive plumbing of the philosophies that drives Butler toward and through hip-hop, the way society conscripts idols and idolatry — especially those of black audiences and artists — to deliver content and profit from it. “At a tender age we learn to turn the page,” a mere verse later, “to mind the screen and stage; to see who got the glaze.” Take even a cursory glance at the narrative that surrounded a young Thebe “Earl Sweatshirt” Kgositsile (from his infamous beginnings in the collective Odd Future through his return to a cult following, which only grew in his absence attending a Samoan boarding school), and it becomes increasingly clearer why Earl invokes the song in the opening bar of his third proper album, Some Rap Songs.
A preternaturally gifted linguist burdened with unruly expectations, Earl Sweatshirt has spent the last four years underwriting his own ascent to fame, drawing distinct lines between what could be expected from his as an artist, and the actual qualities he gravitates towards. But… it’s a feeling. Those four years underwriting has come with an honest depiction of his struggles with depression, a mode he entered and emblazoned with a streak of dark humor on 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. The sonics to match: dusty rattlers colored like negative photographs, a stream of words deliberately enunciated like they’re painful, a huff of bravado that slips into lapses of defiant un-sentimentality. And yet, always a sense of sadness and trepidation, a worldview shaped by reflexive humor and self-awareness. It was, as Earl promoted, closer to his artistic truth than what came before on 2013’s Doris.
On Some Rap Songs, Earl foregoes the photo-negative production in light of impressionistic sound collages, a slice-and-dice reckoning with soul samples and jazz inflections that are suffocated of both space and time. The effect feels pointed, the bedlam purposeful: a sonic representation piped directly from a troubled inner space. The lyrics and vocals follow suit: “I know I’m a king / Stock on my shoulder, I was sinking.” And yet, the cumulative effect is positively soothing. The aggrandized sonics and posturing that has subsumed a large faction of hip-hop culture is eviscerated in Earl’s hands, and the truths it presents are as much a product of the interplay of these sounds as they are the direct meaning of Earl’s raps, pared down to the barest symbolic gestures and their shortest syllables. That Earl accounts for production on ten of these 15 tracks is not just showboating, but speaks to something tangible in his songwriting, to further depict what he can’t when he won’t. To honor his fallen father and uncle, as he does on “Playing Possum” and “Riot!”, Earl remains silent; but Some Rap Songs feels it all. –Lewis P.
3. Julia Holter – Aviary
Over the past decade, Julia Holter’s works have been leading up to Aviary, a behemoth of an album and a tour de force in artistic freedom; or to others, an exercise in self-indulgence taken to its greatest extremes. Aviary is a difficult album in a discography rife with albums that are all challenging in their own right, whether it be from the electronic-tinged Tragedy or the minimalistic art pop of Loud City Song.
Holter, for a lack of a better word, sounds absolutely at ease in the world of Aviary, whether it be in the chaotic bagpipe dronage that makes up most of “Everyday is an Emergency”, or the majestic balladry found on “Words I Heard”. Aviary is highly indulgent, almost seemingly prideful of just how diverse it is, at the cost of being a widely divisive record in a catalogue of difficult albums. No matter the cost, Aviary is, without a single doubt in my mind, Julia Holter’s masterpiece. –Aaron W.
2. Daughters – You Won’t Get What You Want
I wonder when Daughters lost their sense of humour. Hell Songs had a song called “The Fuck Whisperer”. Their self-titled had songs that played like parodies of blues rock. And this? Well, You Won’t Get What You Want‘s first lyric is “The city is an empty glass,” and Alexis Marshall sounds equally as hollow singing it. This is a record writhing in that realm that sits just past the point of no return.
Normally when a person or an entity gives up, resigns, there is an acceptance and then a sense of calm. Daughters, cut from a misanthropic cloth, obstinately refuse this trajectory sheerly — one would assume — out of spite. The band spend the duration of this record lodged in between two diametric states: resigning to the state of the world, and attempting to warp and corrupt it with their own brand of negative, hateful energy. To contextualise it in the Daughters canon, they’ve made it out of their own little corner, only to be backed into another one.
As a result, You Won’t Get What You Want marks the transition from absurdism to stark reality, or perhaps merges the two until they’re indistinguishable, synchronous. “Less Sex”‘s buttery smooth bassline blends so effectively with the seething, astringent guitars that it comes full circle, signifying a sense of purpose that Daughters have accrued in the long interim between albums; this coming from a band who once wreaked chaos for the sake of chaos. Now they’re creating it to combat the havoc which is inherent in the world around them. This considered, it’s appropriate that the record has pushed Daughters into the broader social consciousness (exemplified by its position here); it feels very 2018, like it’s a collage of every “What the fuck is going on?!” uttered throughout the year as we watched social and partisan and cultural institutions fall into disarray. In short, it’s the quintessential reactionary album, and it feels necessary because The Shit Very Hitting the Fan is the only thing that could’ve snapped Daughters out of 1) hiatus and 2) their absurdist, high-as-a-kite aesthetic. This feels trite, and I haven’t read much vis-à-vis this album so forgive me if it actually is: with this record, You Won’t Get What You Want, but you will absolutely, unequivocally get what you need. –verdant
1. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
“The image is that of a world which presents itself to me, in any individual case, in accordance with the concepts and categories that I employ: the world of an energetic and brave man is a different world from the world of a passive and cowardly one – literally different.” –Isaiah Berlin
Golden Hour is an image of the world, its coordinates and contours bound by the imperatives of a soul whose kindness seemingly knows no bounds. It is, in this sense, the polar opposite of the album it beat out for the top spot on this list; where Daughters open their dark masterwork with the mantra “This city is an empty glass,” Kacey Musgraves gently pours water into the glass and passes it on to her audience to sip therefrom. The crown jewel in a sterling discography, Golden Hour feels like therapy, like church: we as listeners gather to participate in a communal practice of total honesty, and we exit the experience feeling renewed. This feeling of renewal is linked inextricably to Musgraves’ commitment to a seemingly unattainable philosophy, one which contends that benevolence and honesty are the same thing — the world of which Golden Hour is an image is fundamentally a good place, and her music is suffused with the fruits of this outlook.
Kacey Musgraves’ Keatsian belief that beauty is truth and truth beauty notwithstanding, Golden Hour takes on a pleasing, becalming shape no matter how far you zoom outward or inward. From the celestial strumming of opener “Slow Burn” all the way through to the clear-eyed piano of closer “Rainbow”, this is an astonishingly gorgeous album, replete with harmonious sonic details that bear out Musgraves’ ebullient musical personality. Too glossy or, yuck, “Disneyfied” for those who prefer their melodic schema raw and wholly unprocessed, Golden Hour repeatedly demonstrates the indelible pleasures of what we can broadly call “pop” music. Aesthetic and emotional gratification flows from this album like honey; on every single track, the form (how everything sounds) is matched seamlessly with the function (imparting to us listeners Musgraves’ idealism and allowing us to inhabit her dazzling world). When “Butterflies” comes around and I hear her voice, fed through a perfectly modulated vocoder, sing the affirmation “Now I remember what it feels like to fly,” I feel like I can fly, like I have butterflies, like I am in love. “Oh, What A World” makes me never want to leave it; “Mother” makes me want to call mine. I could go on.
On particular days, in the wake of particular listening sessions, the affective power of Golden Hour seems like it exceeds the boundaries of music itself, as if it were a purer manifestation of love and hope than could be explicated by the scrutiny of aesthetic qualities. This impression, of course, is an illusion, and the album’s virtues are rooted firmly in the particulars of the ethereal sound which Musgraves so deftly navigates. Yet the feeling that Golden Hour is not an album nor an artistic document but some sort of fellow consciousness remains a powerful one, finessed by an artist who wants nothing less than to transform the world and our relationship to it through the power of art. All this without a hint of political agitation or social commentary; Musgraves instead opts to lean into her latent Romanticism — her belief that music can deliver to us a new version of ourselves and therefore of the Earth we inhabit — and call forth us citizens of this wonderful environment to witness slack-jawed the setting of the sun, the formation of a rainbow. The greatest album of the year dares to communicate the wonder that exists within and without us forever and ever Amen. –Alex Robertson
List of participating writers (alphabetical order): 204409, Arcade, Atari, AtomicWaste, Correction, Frippertronics, Gameofmetal, Greg., insomniac15, Jom, klap, manosg, mynameischan, plane, robertsona, robin, Rowan5215, ScuroFantasma, SowingSeason, TalonsOfFire, theacademy, Trebor., verdant, Voivod, Willie, Xenophanes