Best Albums of 2018: # 5

5. Sam Phillips, “World On Sticks”

As I had predicted/hoped, Phillips’s first album in five years is another worthy addition to her discography that also includes a few new shifts in her sound. Simultaneously her cleanest, most to-the-bone record since A Boot and A Shoe, most noir-inspired release since Fan Dance and most explicitly political record ever (“American Landfill Kings”, “Roll Em”), this long-gestating collection easily makes the case for her relevance three decades after her secular debut. Working ever more closely with longtime drummer Jay Bellerose, she crafts an instrumental palette and gently caustic tone succinctly relaying the album’s title, with closer “Candles and Stars” serving as both a lament and a hymn for stability and grace.

“Candles and Stars”:

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Best Albums of 2018: # 6

6. Field Music, “Open Here”

The Brewis Brothers hit their stride with a record even better than 2016’s terrific Commontime. It’s their shortest, tightest collection in years, bookended by two epics: one ecstatic (“Time In Joy”), the other, gorgeous and dramatic (“Find A Way To Keep Me”, which aims for the fences and gracefully surpasses them.) In between are a bevy of compact prog-pop gems, some of them booming and insistent (“Share A Pillow”, “No King No Princess” ), others wistful and a bit warmer (the title track, “Daylight Saving”.) They’ll never be more than semi-semi-popular (not even as relatively big as obvious forebears XTC) but they’ve mastered their craft while retaining their tendency to view the world with an open mind and heart.

“Find A Way To Keep Me”:

Best Albums of 2018: # 7

7. Janelle Monae, “Dirty Computer”

As calculated and expected as anything she’s ever done, Monae’s return to music is easy to take for granted. However, listen closer, for she no longer sounds like she’s recklessly throwing darts and seeing what hits the target. As opposed to her previous LPs, this plays like a seamless, complete work (its compact frame helps a lot)–a considerable achievement when you parse all the genre (and of course gender) fluidity and big name cameos (Brian Wilson and Stevie Wonder) it makes room for. “Make Me Feel” is a great, great Prince rip, but a song like “Screwed” goes beyond tribute/pastiche, to the degree that one can imagine it as the basis for a good Monae rip someday.

“Screwed”:

Best Albums of 2018: # 8

8. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, “Hope Downs”

“Talking Straight” is one of those sit-up-and-pay-attention radio hits (well, College radio, anyway) that are increasingly rare, and I’m happy to say this Melbourne-based band’s entire debut LP is generally of the same quality. Of course, I’d find anyone who loves fellow Aussies The Go-Betweens as much as them difficult to hate (those vocal cadences in “Exclusive Graves” are so very Robert Forster); I’d even go as far to say this has the star power (but thankfully not the pomp or distance) of the first two Oasis albums. Here’s hoping they continue to build on their sound rather than quietly fade away.

“Talking Straight”:

 

Best Albums of 2018: # 9

9. Amen Dunes, “Freedom”

Like many, I hadn’t heard of Damon McMahon’s long-running project until this year; I point to his peculiar vocals (resembling David Gray after a few too many pints) as the reason why, and suspect this fifth album was his breakthrough because of the sheer strength of its melodies and hooks. Musically, it’s another guitar-centered indie rock record, but rarely is it obvious or overly familiar. At once, songs like “Time”, “Miki Dora”, “Believe” (with its stirring key change midway through) and the title track carry the gravitas of classic rock chestnuts and yet feel intensely personal, convincingly wavering between intimacy and expansiveness.

“Believe”:

Best Albums of 2018: # 10

10. Calexico, “The Thread That Keeps Us”

Though this is not as solid as 2015’s Edge of The Sun, Joey Burns and John Convertino still have yet to make a subpar album. Their ninth continues to explore new vistas beyond their tried-and-true mariachi-flavored roots rock: “Under The Wheels” skanks along quite nicely and “Another Space” could be a Southwestern Talking Heads. More significant is a renewed urgency in their lyrics, no doubt heightened by the current, caustic climate (both literally and socio-politically.) The ballads, from the traditional-sounding “The Town and Miss Lorraine” to instrumental “Unconditional Waltz” and gentle closer “Music Box” rank among their all-time best.

“Under The Wheels”:

Twelve Tracks from 2018

A dozen favorite songs from 2018, in alphabetical order by artist; none of them are from my top ten albums of the year (which I will roll out, one by one, starting tomorrow.)

Chaka Khan, “Like Sugar”
With the loss the Aretha and the whole year an extended shitshow in general, Chaka Khan’s regally funky return is the most soothing of balms. I await kickass lip-syncs to this on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The Decemberists, “Once In My Life”
The Decemberists going synth-pop on I’ll Be Your Girl isn’t as uneasy a fit as it sounds, but only on the opener does it fully come to, well, life. Colin Meloy is nothing if not an anthem-writer and this has an effective build, from an extended intro to swirling guitars and synths and one heck of a chorus (placed upfront, as it should be.)

Ezra Furman, “I Lost My Innocence”
A jaunty queer ode to losing one’s virginity, its chorus rhyming “Box of Girl Scout Thin Mints” with “A pack of Winstons”–what’s not to love?

Gruff Rhys, “Frontier Man”
The Super Furry Animals frontman continues to confound expectations as a solo artist, this time emulating a classic Countrypolitan sound recalling the likes Lee Hazelwood and Bobbie Gentry (love those female backing vocals, too.)

Kacey Musgraves, “High Horse”
Disco/Country is a hybrid Musgraves seems so suited for you wonder why it took her three albums to try it out. A highlight of Golden Hour (which just missed my top ten albums), sadly it wasn’t the crossover hit it so richly deserved to be, despite its charming, 9 To 5-inspired video above.

Lana Del Rey, “Mariners Apartment Complex”
She’s more a singles than albums artist but I have to admit, this September-released peak into next year’s insanely-titled Norman Fucking Rockwell has me stoked. It’s earthier and far more pastoral than she’s ever before dared to sound, and yet, still 100% pure, unfiltered Lana. What’s better: the harpsichord (!) on the intro or the no-nonsense way she sings, “I’m your man” on the chorus?

LUMP, “Curse of the Contemporary”
Instead of another Laura Marling album for 2018, we got this, a curious seven-track collaboration with Mike Lindsay from electro-folk outfit Tunng. It’s a bold stylistic leap that I’d love to see her take further; for now, this strange, beguilingly catchy song plays like a future lost gem.

Neko Case, “Bad Luck”
Her first album in five years features New Pornographers-worthy melodies while retaining the sense of space that defines her solo work. This one’s sort of a smart course-corrective to Alanis Morrissette’s “Ironic” (in that it actually makes sense), with a lyrical hook (“So I died and went to work”) commercial enough to sell furniture polish.

Roisin Murphy, “Jacuzzi Rollercoaster”
Murphy’s as much of an iconoclast as ever, releasing four 12-inch singles this year instead of a proper album. Producer Maurice Fulton (who did an excellent remix of her song “House of Glass” a few years back) might be her most innovative collaborator since Matthew Herbert. The third of those singles is a delirious rush of ’80s funk beats and ’90s ‘tude, with Murphy’s staccato-singing on the verses as irresistible as the lovably simple chorus

St. Vincent, “Fast Slow Disco”
Transforming “Slow Disco” (from last year’s MASSeduction) into the actual disco song it was always meant to be, Annie Clark reaffirms her divahood and cements her indie-dancepop stardom.

Troye Sivan, “Bloom”
An euphoric queer ode to losing one’s virginity, its chorus as catchy as a Wham! song and as blissfully serene as Steve McQueen-era Prefab Sprout–what’s not to love?

Twin Shadow, “Too Many Colors”
Caer would’ve made a top twenty albums list–it’s a little patchy but the highs are oh so high: “18 Years”, “Saturdays” (with Haim and better than anything from their last album) and this, probably my favorite single track of the year. It all comes down to the poignant melody and a sparkling clean arrangement–hallmarks of the best ’80s synth-pop in a timeless package.