Welcome to the 2018 ATVS Music List Blowout. 2018 has been pretty rough for all of us but music remains one of the lone constant good things. The thrill of discovering a new album, participating in the zeitgeist of a major release or touchstone, or returning to the warm comfort of a well-worn record has not abandoned us. In light of that, we are here to celebrate albums, songs, and artists that we deem worth celebrating.
Albums Of The Year
Honorable Mentions: Dirty Computer | Janelle Monae; Forever Neverland | MO; RINGOS DESERT | ZHU; Love Is Dead | CHVRCHES; iridescence | BROCKHAMPTON
#10: BEASTMODE 2 | Future
The Future Renaissance is fueled by pain. This is nothing new, I wrote about this phenomenon back in 2016 when I placed EVOL in my top 10.
It sounds silly and overanalytical to say “yes, Future is rapping about what he is making models do to each other in the VIP section, but he’s doing it because he’s in pain”. I fully understand that. But it’s true, and it’s never been more obvious than it is on BEASTMODE 2. There are only two driving trap bangers (“DOH DOH” and “WIFI LIT”), despite what the album title may lead you to believe.
Outside of that, the album really bites deep with songs like “RACKS BLUE” which provides a very real moment where Future realizes that he is making money hand over fist and doing nothing of worth with the fruits of his labor. This concept is revisited on “WHEN I THINK ABOUT IT”. “SOME MORE” is a return to Future’s lament of placing his trust in a woman who turned out to be unfaithful and it leads into “HATE THE REAL ME”, which unlike the album title is exactly what you think it’s about.
Also, “DOH DOH” is one of the best bangers of the year. Future truly is the best example of the duality of man.
#9: High As Hope | Florence + The Machine
Nearly 10 years since Lungs, Florence Welch has come back around. Her standout freshman albums (along with part of Ceremonials) were primarily happy and uplifting albums. But between Ceremonials and How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, her music began to deal in heartbreak more and more. It was still beautiful because well, it was Florence singing but HBx3 was no doubt a different album in tone from Lungs.
High As Hope marked a return to happiness, but with a decade of life and experience in tow. It’s a familiar place, but the added context makes it enough of a new experience. Even the album’s tense and anxiety-based “Big God” is built on an immense longing for a person.
In the finale “No Choir”, Florence confesses that it’s hard to write songs about happiness because she finds it to be so uneventful, which in a way is the most positive sentiment she uttered. Lungs was an album born out of passion, High As Hope is an album born out of experience in finding joy.
In the end that doesn’t really matter, because I would gladly listen to Florence read the phone book. Sonically the album is not only diverse, but skilled in its variety. High As Hope is one of the best produced albums of the year, and Florence’s vocals are top-tier as always.
#8: In A Poem Unlimited | US Girls
The sixth album from Meghan Remy’s side project U.S. Girls hooks you with a variety of different snazzy beats in the same way that a good pitcher mixes his pitches. The album opens with a psychedelic, slow-driven bass riff on “Velvet 4 Sale” and then drops into a swinging jazz riff for “Rage of Plastics”, a story about factory life making a woman infertile. That’s followed by one hell of a “Heart Of Glass” impersonation in “M.A.H.”
The exceptional backing instrumentation is the first takeaway from the album, but over time the lyrics quietly sneak in and take center stage of the album, much like the conceit of Poem, your standard “capitalism is bad, actually” song that lends the album its name. At times they are little cringe-worthy (“M.A.H.”, “L-Over”) but their poignant moments are more than redemptive.
Rage Of Plastics’ story frames a woman’s frustrations well, “Rosebud” borrows the Citizen Kane plot device to explain how important personal history to us. Most notably, “Pearly Gates” is a surrealist fantasy that sees St. Peter coerce Remy into sex in return for admittance into heaver, a commentary on the sexual favors required for career advancement ala the Weinstein accusations. “Incidental Boogie” is a stressful story of a woman breaking free of an abuse relationship only to once again fall into the trappings of another one and Stockholm Syndrome.
Sometimes the anger and cynicism get a little heavy-handed, but it’s far from unjustified or incorrect.
#7: Awake | Alison Wonderland
She gives into the trappings of the standard EDM clichés that built a large part of her fanbase, but at the heart of Alison Wonderland’s Awake lies a heavy and open heart.
You’ll never expect it after listening to the tense buildup on the intro track “Good Enough”, which uses staggered keys and strings to perfectly increase anticipation for the first of a surprising few number of drops. After the conclusion of “Good Enough” we move into “No”, the first of several songs drenched in emotion in addition to excellent production and song structure.
“No” deals with the fine line she walks between maintaining a friendship and becoming an enabler to somebody. “Easy” is one of the more vulnerable moments on the album, where she regrets her tendency to complicate issues that do not need them otherwise. On the opposite end of the spectrum, “Church” addresses a lover who doesn’t appreciate her in the ways needed to validate her commitment to the relationship. On back to back tracks, Alison’s states that “hope is a dangerous word when I give you everything” and “sometimes love just isn’t enough.”
Awake is not a happy album, it’s not depressive either. It’s one of the most realist albums of the year. And at the end, all the themes that have haunted her through the albums have the door slammed on them with the titular track, an anthemic tour de force and one of my favorite endings to an album.
#6: POST- | Jeff Rosenstock
POST- was billed as reaction album to year one of the Trump administration, but just the first and last tracks are about that. In the first track (“USA”) we see a still-stunned Jeff express his utter betrayal, forcing him to wonder if every stranger he sees on the roadways was somebody who kicked off the most divisive era in American history. The album concludes with “Let Them Win”, a call to action to both the polls but also in general to the hatred used as a tool to unify. Oh, and then there is the aisle-neutral interlude “Beating My Head Against The Wall”.
What lies between is pure Rosenstock, full of self-loathing and nihilism. If you’ve listened to any of his solo projects, you know exactly what that means. His brand of unique relatability regarding nearly all the pains of self-realization and struggles in the road to improvement are unmistakable. His ability to tell such personal stories that you eventually confuse as your own is a skill, one that Rosenstock uses well.
Nowhere else is this more evident than “9/10”, a song that almost makes you long for a breakup just so you can try the song on for size. That’s how perfectly he nails the dejection of a rejection, perfectly describing what it feels like to go through your day to day life without any real purpose or direction.
And to bring things full circle in that regard, “Let Them Win” concludes the album with a flowing six-minute long synth instrumental that feels like a palate cleanser. It’s off-script for Rosenstock, but it’s a nice reminder that occasionally we all need to come up for air.
#5: Caer | Twin Shadow
I’ve done a lot of lyrical dissection (and will down the list), but not here. Caer is just an outstanding pop album. The lyrics are good, but nothing that really reinvents the game.
Where this album shine is when George Lewis Jr. tailors the songs to match the lyrics. This seems like a given, but it’s a hidden strength inside Twin Shadow’s songs. “Brace” is the perfect intro to an album, where a spaced-out verse about falling back in love builds to a high of infatuation complete with harps and a Tom Petty freefall reference (penned before his death) dropping us back into the verses.
With the help of HAIM, “Saturdays” is a natural 80’s pop rock throwback. “Sympathy” kind of jacks the harmony from the Chainsmokers’ “Closer”, but in a way improves upon it. The “can’t live without that/can’t live it like that” background response to the calls on “When You’re Wrong” fits the feeling of doubt perfectly.
The lyrics do take center stage on “Obvious People”, a crushing song about a lover leaving him at his lowest moment in a dour and bass-drenched synth backline.
I know a guy who said people go out to eat at new restaurants for the experience, not the food. When they want to eat something that makes them truly happy, they get Chinese takeout or fast fried chicken of their choosing. Caer is just that, something comfortable and easily digestible that we can listen to going to or from work that lightens our day.
#4: Death Of A Party Girl | TV Girl
With their signature rapier wit and low-fi production, TV Girl’s third album remains grounded in what makes TV Girl great while also dipping their toes into the field on conceptual albums.
The hopeless romantics still sing about one-night stands, heartbreak, and longing in a tongue in cheek manner, but on Death Of A Party Girl, they do so through the lenses of growth. This theme is directly addressed on “Legendary Lovers”, but pops up throughout the album.
A prime example of this is “Blue Hair” where our protagonist eventually lets go of her attention-seeking behavior and cuts off her dyed hair. This echoes “The Blonde” from their debut album, an ode to how much more favorably blondes are looked at in our society. “7 Days Til Sunday” was one of my personal favorite and most listened-to songs of the year, and it was about how indifferent the narrator was towards a relationship that was mostly failed one-night stands. “King Of Echo Park” tells a story of a bachelor whose lady has left him to pursue larger dreams than he had envisioned.
The album ends with a pair of songs that cement the theme of Death Of A Party Girl, “Every Stupid Actress” and the titular track. The first tells a story of the stereotypical waitress who realizes her big break on the screen will never come while the finale is a somber tale of a wild girl who didn’t have that moment of clarity in time.
#3: Swimming | Mac Miller
It’s hard to write about without falling into the same trappings, but the situation oddly mirrors David Bowie’s.
As somebody was never passionate about Mac Miller either way, Swimming totally won me over for him in about a week. I can even pinpoint it: the first time I listened to the bassline on “What’s The Use?” with headphones on. It is without a doubt his best album and it’s an absolute travesty he is not here to observe the celebration of it. Miller’s passing has no real sway on my perception of the album.
But I’ve hardly returned to it since his passing. Because of that, it’s probably the least listened-to album on this list. It’s tough to listen to because of the content and it really does require some mental preparation. That’s because Swimming is an incredibly personal album, one where Mac Miller really bears his soul. The major themes of the album are loosely related to self-care and introspection. Mac openly addresses the dive he took following his breakup with Ariana Grande and his struggle with dependency on vices that would eventually claim him.
“Wings” is tough because Miller claims that he’s grown to leave his past in the past and turn a face to his future without them weighing him down. It was already a heavy listen before factoring in his passing.
The hardest listen of the year is “2009” where a seasoned and withered Mac reflects on his pre-breakout days of youth and is glad that he knows what traps to avoid.
#2: DAYTONA | Pusha T
It’s time to consider Pusha T’s place among rap legends, because he’s probably better than your favorite.
Clipse’s Lord Willin’ dropped in 2002. Pusha has been riding at the same consistently great level since. What rapper has had a 16-year career without and real dip in quality? The list is light.
Outside of Grindin’, King Push has never really had a moment to be the center of attention and get his proper due. Sure, he was a feature on a popular song here and there, but he has never been properly celebrated.
That changed with DAYTONA. The album only lasts 21 minutes in total, but that’s part of what makes it so good. Pusha has never been one for excess in his music. He has always been blunt and to the point when he is at his best, and he is at his best on this short spin of an album. He really raps about one thing: dealing drugs. That’s a standard for rap music, especially the money made from dealing drugs. But what makes Pusha different (and to date something I’ve only really heard from Freddie Gibbs) is how he doesn’t hide the ugly blemishes of the trade, the stress and paranoia of it all.
The album being so short mean there’s no filler in it either. I was ambivalent on the rest of Kanye’s Wyoming sessions, but the production is different enough from song to song while still serving well to Pusha’s style. And for what it’s worth, I can’t remember the last time had Pusha had 21 minutes worth of raps as cold as he is on DAYTONA. Picking out a favorite flow is impossible, but between the rapping, productions, and sample, “Come Back Baby” might be the best rap song of the year.
#1: Wide Awake | Parquet Courts
Where to even begin. I spent most the year just waiting to hear an album that could contest Wide Awake for the top spot. DAYTONA came close, but I couldn’t remove Parkay Quartz from the top spot.
The Album of the Year opens with “Total Football”, a song using the Dutch soccer philosophy as a metaphor for collectivism. I really can’t sum up the song (and the album) any better than the lyrics to the final verse can:
Swapping parts and roles is not acting but rather
Emancipation from expectation.
Collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive.
Those who find discomfort in your goals of liberation
Will be issued no apology.
And fuck Tom Brady!
There is no better way to make a good first impression than to take an anti-Tom Brady stance.
The forbidden socialist boogie is undeniable throughout, but Parquet Courts have always been a funky bunch. But this time around, the lyrics have weight. “Violence” is an unshakeable commentary on how commonplace “senseless” and “random” acts of violence have become in our society and how utterly numb we are to feeling anything other than actionable outrage over it.
Freebird II gets its name because of how accidentally eerily similar it sounds to Skynyrd’s song, but by itself is an incredibly relatable song about liberation from a past time where we were not entirely in control of our situations. The band’s Talking Heads influence is front and center on the titular track, a commentary on “woke culture” where the narrator doesn’t say much outside of how awake they are.
But what really completes the album is the ending. In a truly meta moment, the album closes with “Tenderness”, a warm song with a piano riff at the heart of it. In it, A. Savage laments how much he has let his life become defined by a steady alteration between nihilism and outrage in probably my favorite lyrics of the year:
Well I can’t how many times I’ve been outdone by nihilism
Joined the match that splits an open heart into a schism
I cower at the thought of other people’s expectations
And yet still, hand over mine to them
Best New Artist
SOB X RBE
I don’t even have any honorable mentions for this category. SOB X RBE had Best New locked down since February, when the Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack dropped.
On the 7th track of the album, “Paramedic!”, we get an intro from Zacari and then three lines from Kendrick before magic happens.
Slimmy B takes over his flow from there and then, one of the best coming out parties in rap history unfolds. Lul G, DaBoii, and Yhung T.O. rip up the rest of track, and honestly ruining the rest of the album because nothing else in the track list comes close to it.
This was my first exposure to SOB X RBE, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that regard. To coincide with their appearance on the Black Panther soundtrack, their group dropped their sophomore album GANGIN. I’m usually reserved in person, but I had a true Big Quint reaction when I heard the intro track, “Carpoolin’”. I still haven’t properly gotten over how impossibly hard that song rides.
The rest of the album was pretty good, and later in the year the group dropped GANGIN II, which mostly felt like extras cut from the album along with side project Tutuland. They are at their best when they’re composing standard heaters, but they’re versatile enough to lead me to believe they have a complete album up their sleeve. I’m violating a cardinal rule by giving this award to an artist who had their debut in a prior year but considering that this the year they really broke into the forefront I’m going to let it slide.
Nobody else really stepped forward from the shadows with heat like SOB X RBE did.
Artist Of The Year
Honorable Mentions: Pusha T, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Mac Miller
I liked ASTROWORLD. It had some high highs for sure, but I feel that it fell flat in some areas, much like his first two records. It was a good album, well above average but not elite.
But this isn’t about explicitly the actual content of ASTROWORLD, rather what it did. The album dominated the charts when it dropped, and “SICKO MODE” is still reigning over the landscape of rap. “YOSEMITE” became the quintessential Scott song with a diamond-level production value while “WHO? WHAT?” is pound-for-pound one of the best bangers of the year.
But even outside of ASTROWORLD, Travis was everywhere. The dust from Astro didn’t even settle when his collaboration with Metro Boomin and 21 Savage dropped. He was featured on long-anticipated Tha Carter V, Culture II as well as Quavo’s solo debut, had the most infectious part of Playboi Carti’s sophomore album, and Sremmlife 3. He had a baby with one of the biggest members of the Kardashian-Jenner clan. He was everywhere.
Not only was he everywhere, he was worth inclusion. Having an album on it without Travis on it means it wasn’t a large release or it wasn’t guaranteed to have one great song. This was the year Travis developed his own sound and fully fleshed it out. No longer is he another Kanye protégé, he is a headliner of his own right and his production skills are starting to creep mighty close on Yeezy’s.
Nobody left a mark on 2018 like Travis Scott did...
Song Of The Year
Honorable Mentions: Tenderness | Parquet Courts; 9/10 | Jeff Rosenstock; Shallow | Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper; Mo Bamba | Sheck West
“SICKO MODE” | Travis Scott (Ft. Drake, Swae Lee & Big Hawk)
I went with the populist pick this year and gave a brace to Travis, but I have my critical reasons.
First off, it’s kind of amazing that “SICKO MODE” has/d the cultural sway that it did. Obviously a Travis/Drake banger will move the needle, but it’s a five-minute track with three (3!!) beat changes. Not only that, the beat switches make total sense and seem natural: Drake comes of the intro over screeching synths, which transitions to a bouncing beat for Travis’ icy cold verses. After Swae Lee and Big Hawk’s verse, the beat switches for the final time to a gleaming organ that reintroduces Drake.
I have my problems with Drake and him bragging about being knocked out from half a Xanax is probably the weirdest flex of all time, but the rest of his verse is serviceable and the “like a light” call and response with Travis is one of the most infectious moments in hip hop.
“SICKO MODE” was Travis’ crowning achievement in his dominating effort on the year, despite the album falling in some critical areas. It the rare song where it was inescapable, especially at sporting events, but you didn’t mind that. For the longest time Travis was “the next big thing” in the rap world, always showing promise but never really breaking through and dominating the landscape. He was able to do that with “SICKO MODE”.
Pop music is dead. Long live pop music.
First, let’s get to the dead part. The final numbers aren’t in, but the best selling album of the year is going to be The Greatest Showman soundtrack, which currently has sales of 1.3 million. That would make it the lowest selling year-end album sales leader in history, beating last year’s record. It might be the first year-end chart-topper to fail to sell two million copies. 20 years ago, every album in the top ten sold at least two million copies.
But it’s more than that. The #3 album is Ed Sheeran’s Divide, which was last year’s best-selling record. And if you look at Amazon, their top three selling albums are all soundtracks (A Star is Born and Hamilton rounding out the top three). The top selling original artist is Lauren Daigle, a Christian artist.
What I’m saying is that pop music has never been less popular. Everyone has gone to their separate corners and thanks to the internet, we all just listen to the genres we like. The balkanization of culture is near complete when it comes to pop music. There is no mainstream anymore. Which… is sort of awesome. This means music, like TV, is incredibly niche oriented and there’s no demand to soften your sound to appeal to a wider audience. Why bother? Let your freak flag fly. So whatever genre you like, it’s probably thriving right now. Because when nothing is popular, everything is.
It’s created a pop music landscape when there is literally too much to keep track of. I’m overwhelmed by the sheer number of releases, and that’s before we get into the underbelly of the music industry at Bandcamp. For example, Aquarium Drunkard’s year end review had 100 records on it and I had, charitably, heard of about half of them. It is literally impossible to keep up. How great is that?
In that spirit, my top ten records of the year has eleven entries.
#11: Dream Wife | Dream Wife
Given a boost by a prominent place in the recent Orange is the New Black season, Dream Wife began its existence as an art school project. I guess the project worked, and now they’ve graduated to an actual band combining art rock punk, and dance pop into one mix. They tackle feminist issues head on (“I am not my body, I am somebody”) but also bring the fun. I endorse any song that culminates in the band chanting “What do I spy with my little eye? Bad bitches!” Art rock need not be unapproachable.
#10: By the Way, I Forgive You | Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile is at the forefront of a sort of shadow country music industry that has cropped up in the past decade. She’s worked with producers T Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin, and such luminaries as Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, and the Avett Brothers have appeared on her records. Her current release is produced by Shooter Jennings. Carlile takes the mantle of country music seriously, playing in women’s prisons and at various protest marches. Without the benefit of much radio airplay, she’s established her self as one of the pillars of the alt-country music scene. She’s been embraced by those who matter, but not the tastemakers in Nashville. The breakdown of traditional gatekeepers benefits an artist like Carlile more than just about anyone. Oh yeah, and her songs are great.
#9: Goat Girl | Goat Girl
Named after a Bill Hicks character, Goat Girl doesn’t quite fit in a genre. They have the snottiness of punk, the twang of country, and the swagger of rock n roll. The song “Country Sleaze” probably best describes their sound, as Clottie Cream sneers “Touch my body, touch my soul, touch that deep and disused hole.” They have a video dedicated to giving you a seizure as well as another video of close ups of people slowing spitting out Cream of Wheat. This is band that is dedicated to the practiced art of not giving a shit.
#8: Room 25 | Noname
Two of the best rappers in the game right now, Vince Staples and Earl Sweatshirt, each released 20-minute albums that lived up to the all-killer, no-filler ethos. The thing is, that’s an EP, y’all. It’s not as impressive to give me no filler if you can’t even fill a half hour. Noname sounds like the quiet, nerdy kid sitting in the back of the class just got called on and forced to the front of the class to perform as a cruel prank. But here’s the thing, that quiet, nerdy kid has been studying every rhyme, every nuance of technique and delivery, and she shows up and just crushes it. Completely without pretention and with a minimal amount of bombastic production, Room 25 pushes the rhymes to the front, where they belong. It almost sounds like she’s having a conversation with you, albeit backed up by a string arrangement in the background. In a hyper-masculine genre in which everyone is trying to push forth the best image of themselves, Noname seems to have opted out entirely, and just lets herself by herself. She sounds like a seasoned pro.
#7: Vitriola | Cursive
It was a good year for aging indie rock acts. Low and Superchunk both released some of the best records of their illustrious careers, the Breeders and Hot Snakes reunited with great records, and even Alkaline Trio released, well, another Alkaline Trio record. But Tim Kasher tried to go home again, putting Cursive back together again and recording with a cellist for the first time since the early aughts. Cursive this time turns their caustic wit to the state of everything, but in typical emo fashion, blaming themselves most of all. Kasher yells out “I am a parasite/I am a shill/I am a cannibal/Eating my own words.” But he keeps flying the idealistic banners of days gone by, as cynics are just romantics with broken hearts. He still rages against the capitalist machine, crying out that “There’s no future, only money, money.” He’s not wrong, even if no one wants to hear it anymore. We’re all too busy cashing in on the reunion tours.
#6: How to Socialise and Make Friends | Camp Cope
Let’s be honest, Camp Cope has never read that book, nor are they going to. What starts as a confrontational set-up, accusing others for their sexism and shortcomings instead transforms itself into something more interesting, more of a confessional. The spartan arrangements highlight Maq’s vocals which she wields as a weapon both against others and herself. She wants to project strength, but instead highlights her own vulnerability, culminating in the album closing ballad about her father, “I’ve Got You.” She cuts to the core of any of us with complicated relationships with our parents (“A defender of freedom/An advocate for truth/I’m so proud that half of me grew from you/All the broken parts, too”). None of this works without their finely attuned bullshit detectors which strip away the lies regarding, say, how we don’t believe famous we like could be guilty of sexual assault in “Face of God”. They feel like a garage band that was just too big to stay bottled up in their own neighborhood.
#5: The Tree | Lori McKenna
First off, Posette is going to be mad at me for including a country music release that isn’t Ashley McBryde or the Pistol Annies. Sorry, hon. But one of the best things about the fracturing of the music industry is that people can now release albums that feel like they were made just for me, such as The Tree. McKenna is an industry vet, working as a songwriting hitmaker for Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Mandy Moore, Little Big Town, and Keith Urban for starters. She’s also keeps her more personal material for herself, and she released the great parenthood record of the year. The centerpiece is “People Get Old” which inverts the old mantra of live fast, die young because most of us won’t, and then we have the messy business of living still left to do. “Full of pride and love, he don’t say too much but hell, he never did/ And you still think he’s forty-five and he still thinks that you’re a kid.” The central metaphor of the album is that of the apple tree. We think we rebel, and we try to move on from our family and remake ourselves into something new, but for all our youthful rebellion, “I’ve tried stayin’ ever-changing and standing in one place just like that tree… That’s the fate of the falling seed/No matter how many times I’ve denied it/The apple never falls far from the tree.”
#4: Bark Your Head Off, Dog | Hop Along
Another year, another Philly rock band on my top ten. Frances Quinlan’s extreme lyricism is right up my alley, as her digressions have digressions and her voice is ragged and distinctive. It’s a shame we’re all so busy trying to bury rock n roll, because Quinlan deserves to be placed up there with the giants. She’s a fantastic frontwoman and her off-kilter sensibility informs the rest of the band’s sound. “Not Abel” examines that it is the murderous brother who gets to speak to God again, as Quinlan looks for empathy towards Cain, “What if the details were suddenly shared/Tender moments that siblings keep secret?” But the song itself follows her lyrical lead, stopping and starting, going on musical digressions before finally coming together in the coda as the beautiful pop song that was always hiding underneath. This is a great rock band working at the peak of their powers.
#3: Mith | Lonnie Holley
Holley is a famed found-object artist who has been in the public eye since his first installation in the Birmingham museum of art in 1981, but it wasn’t until this decade that he turned his artist’s eye to music. His previous records were more off the cuff home recordings, but here he goes into fully formed songs which deal from everything to expanding one’s consciousness of time to contemporary politics. The album centers on the near spoken word poetry of “I Woke Up In a Fucked Up America” which starts as a condemnation of a dream world but slowly morphs into confusion that the dream is reality, “I woke up in a dream/ In a death dream/Please go/Let me out of this dream.” But it’s not all lamentations, it’s also a fun record, closing with “Sometimes I Wanna Dance.” At this point, we’ve earned the dance.
2 Tell Me How You Really Feel | Courtney Barnett
We are in a golden age of female singer/songwriters. Once forced to the margins of pop music, we are now awash in great, confessional albums from the likes of Snail Mail, US Girls, Soccer Mommy, Lucy Dacus, Neko Case to name just a few from this year alone. Barnett is also taking up the mantle of politically charged pop songs from the likes of Jeff Rosenstock, who also had a terrific release that pops up on other ATVS top tens and narrowly missed mine due more to the depth of quality of the year, not any flaw in the release. But Barnett outshines them all. She is already this generation’s Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, if she wanted the title, which I doubt she does. Her single “Nameless, Faceless” references Nirvana while quoting Margaret Atwood in the chorus, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” Barnett somehow makes that charming, but make no mistake, she’s not out to make friends, she’s out to conquer the world.
#1: Joy as an Act of Resistance | IDLES
Remember when Trump was first elected and a bunch of assholes said things along the lines of “Well, think of all the great punk rock records we’ll get?” You know, as if locking children in cages is worth it if we get the second coming of the Dead Kennedys. Well, here we are, the great political punk rock record of this era and A) it’s British and B) it’s about toxic masculinity. IDLES laments that “I am my father’s son, his shadow weighs a ton” in the epic “Colossus” but instead of turning that into a whine, it turns into a challenge. Bad and absent fathers dominate pop culture, but here, fathers are an inspiration to be better, to raise sons the best they can, and to be better than themselves. They repurpose Fred Astaire, 80s wrestler Ted DiBiase, famed British criminals the Kray brothers, and even Jesus Christ, taking the positive and the inspirational and making that part of their persona. They will fight for joy. The anthem “Danny Nedelko” is a love song to male friendship doubling as a pro-immigration anthem (it is about the Ukranian frontman of Heavy Lungs). But none of that would matter if the album didn’t rock. IDLES scream and rage, making my favorite kind of music, that of joyful noise. Play it loud.
Song Of The Year
“This is America” | Childish Gambino
How could it be anything else? It’s at near 450 million views on YouTube at the time of this writing, and it is the video which launched a million thinkpieces. The song starts with a groovy folk music vibe, only to be shattered by a gunshot, a conceit he will return to halfway through the song to cut off the gospel choir. It’s a song about the commodification of culture and the reality of the violence in the black American experience. It is a tour de force of a pop song, and it is still a punch in the gut nearly a full year after its release.
“Time + Space” | Turnsitle
I think you need the 45 second slow jam disco intro, but if you want to skip ahead, be my guest. When the hammer drops, it drops hardcore. Seriously, watch this video and ask yourself if that doesn’t look like the greatest live show you could imagine. How much fun is this? Punk and hip hop have always been musical siblings, born at nearly the same time, but the song’s drop on the dime tempo changes make the comparisons never so obvious. Hardcore has a new reigning champion.
“Got My Name Changed Back” | Pistol Annies
More and more, pop music has become about celebrity more than the music. So the next logical step is for Miranda Lambert to aggressively get the last word in her high-profile divorce to Blake Shelton. She even gets to call Gwen Stefani a whore, so win-win. In the course of writing a diss track, she also made a universal anthem for anyone who has gotten a divorce and a new lease on life. “I broke his heart and I took his money!” is the new post-divorce mantra.
“Rainbow” | Kacey Musgraves
Not one of the singles off the album, “Rainbow” shows exactly why Kacey Musgraves became such a crossover success this year. She channels her 1970s dive goddess self while also singing a beautiful song that apparently was her grandmother’s favorite from her catalog. The arbitrary borders between genres are rapidly collapsing and Musgraves is at the spear’s tip.
Artist of the Year
In May of this year, the body of Scott Hutcheson was found washed up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. Nearly a decade ago, Hutcheson wrote the lyrics to a heartbreaking ode to a disintegrating relationship, “Maybe I’ll save suicide for another day.” The title of that song? “Firth of Forth.” Scott Hutcheson succumbed to his disease, a very public struggle with depression he fought his entire life.
Frightened Rabbit was one of my all-time favorite bands. I first discovered them by accident. They were the opening act for another band, at a show I didn’t even really want to go to. But they blew me away with their anthemic sound and the way Hutcheson could tap into those darkest parts of your subconscious. He made isolation and self-doubt sound beautiful, and I latched onto the profane yet poetic line that “You won’t find love in a hole.”
This is not to wax rhapsodic about how depression is required to make art. Quite the opposite. I feel like his disease has cost the world even more great music from one of the great bands of our time. His music will live on, but he is missed. I am devastated he never found that peace in his life. His friends and colleagues put on a benefit show for the Scott Hutcheson Fund, created to help those struggling with depression. The show literally sold out in seconds. And it gifted us with a final chance to say thank you and goodbye. This cellphone footage of Julien Baker cover of one of their hits is a fitting final statement, but I’ll always think of Frightened Rabbit as they were in the second clip, as a band that could bring together an entire room, singing lustily along in one voice, even if we were all off key.
We have a special guest joining us in this year’s rank-a-looza, Nick Suss of the Clarion Ledger, formerly SEC Country LSU.
Albums Of The Year
Hi everyone. My name is Nick. Some of you may remember me from my wildly-successful stint working for a website that totally didn’t go out of business and delete two years of my writing off the internet. And if you don’t remember me, that’s fine too. Because, like, who cares?
Anyway. 2018 was weird. I’ve moved twice, lived in three cities and had enough whiny relationship drama that I’ve started to empathize with J.D. from Scrubs. Not a great sign. Just too much weirdness for my taste.
That applies to my music too. I don’t normally have mainstream tastes, and I usually don’t spend much time listening to music recorded in the present. But I made a Top 10 list anyway. This is gonna be weird and bad, y’all.
Before we start: I’d just like to acknowledge that three of my 10 favorite modern acts put out EPs this year. I won’t be including them since they aren’t full length, but please check out The Regrettes’ Attention Seeker, The Front Bottoms’ Ann and Nina Cried Power by Hozier. All good listens. List time!
#10: Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino | Arctic Monkeys
This album is very weird. It took me five or six listens to even understand that they were singing about a taco stand on the moon. And even then I didn’t know if I cared to understand. It’s an album without hooks, which is weird for a rock band known almost exclusively for great, catchy hooks. But I like when bands experiment. And this might’ve been the biggest experimental departure from a formula I heard this year. It gets some points, even if a song called “The World’s First Monster Truck Front Flip” ended up being a lot less badass than it sounds.
#9: As Long As I Have You | Roger Daltrey
2018 was a big year for ancient classic rock stars releasing albums. I think my favorite of that bunch was The Who frontman Roger Daltrey’s As Long As I Have You. If a Roger Daltrey gospel/blues album doesn’t sound like your thing, that’s fine. But Pete Townshend plays guitar on more than half the tracks. Which almost makes this a Who record. And Roger’s voice might not be what it used to be, but it fits the sad, bluesy vibe he’s giving off. It’s definitely better than Paul McCartney releasing a song called “Fuh You” in 2018 and narrowly edges out Paul Simon re-recording deep cuts and calling it a new album.
#8: Season 3 Soundtrack | Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Cast
This might be cheating a tad since this soundtrack includes songs from episodes that aired in 2017 and 2018 (Ed: it is) . But it’s my earth-bound duty as a sitcom nerd to deride you for not watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. You have no excuse. It’s a brilliant musical comedy that mocks romantic comedy conventions and de-stigmatizes mental illness and traditional views on masculinity and femininity. Plus it had songs in early 2018 called “Without Love, You Can Save the World” and “Nothing Is Ever Anyone’s Fault” which kinda informed my weird year. Seriously. Watch this show.
#7: High as Hope | Florence + the Machine
Sure, High as Hope isn’t the best album Florence and the Machine ever put out. But it still consistently makes me want to turn into a raven and soar high above a city skyline. So I guess that’s a compliment. If you didn’t spend a chunk of this summer blasting “Hunger” through your car stereo with your windows down while drivers next to you gawked at your terrible Florence Welch impression, you and I had very different summers.
#6: Blue Mirror | Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox
If you’ve never listened to PMJ, they’re pretty much a collection of all the hipsters you know who think music peaked with jazz, but they actually back it up. On Blue Mirror, Scott Bradlee and the crew brought an old-school flair to songs like My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade”, David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, as well as embracing meme culture with a pretty good “Africa” by Toto cover. But the gem of the bunch is the Queen-inspired cover of “Video Killed the Radio Star”. It’s legitimately great. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a week after I heard it. Hopefully you won’t be able to either.
Most of the music I listened to in 2018 didn’t come out in 2018. For your reading pleasures, here’s a month-by-month list of the individual songs that got me through 2018. As a fun game, try to rank which months you think were my best and worst just by the song that I was listening to the most.
January: “Modern Love” | David Bowie
February: “Life is White” | Big Star
March: “Books About Miles Davis” | The Ergs!
April: “Glitter” | Charly Bliss
May: “Plastic Flowers” | The Front Bottoms
June: “Get Old Forever” | Jeff Rosenstock
July: “Going to Georgia” | The Mountain Goats
August: “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin” | Colin Hay
September: “In the Meantime” | Spacehog
October: “Walk Through the Fire” | The Cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
November: “Goodbye to You” | Michelle Branch
December: “Is This It” | by The Strokes
#5: Twin Fantasy | Car Seat Headrest
OK. This is a weird one. In 2018, the fantastic rock band Car Seat Headrest released a sprawling, awesome concept album called Twin Fantasy with songs stretching longer than 10 minutes long and lyrics that talked to the listener as much as they did themselves. It wasn’t until I’d already listened to it four or five times that I learned Twin Fantasy is actually a re-record of a prior Car Seat Headrest Soundcloud album from 2011. The albums are different. The 2018 version is about 10 minutes longer and sprawls a little bit more. But Bodys is one of my favorite songs of 2018 and I wanted to talk about it, even if it might secretly, sorta kinda be seven years old.
#4: A Star Is Born | Cast Recording
What else can I say about this movie other than it’s really good? Like, it’s super solid. The songs bang. “Shallow” gets most of the attention, and it deserves it. “Maybe It’s Time” sounds every bit like Jason Isbell wrote it and guess what, he did. Even the supposed-to-be-bad songs are catchy. (Let’s call that La La Land syndrome.) But the standout song on the record, and in the movie, is “Always Remember Us This Way”. Lady Gaga has rarely sounded better or rawer than she did singing about that Arizona sky and California gold. It’s a really pretty song. That, if you’re in the right frame of mind, can very easily make you cry too. Hooray emotions!
#3: Tell Me How You Really Feel | Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett is one of the best songwriters on the planet. She released an album in 2018. That’s really all I need to say. From the second the first note starts playing in the album’s opener, “Hopefulessness”, you sense this is going to be a darker record than we’re used to. And it pays off. The chorus on “Charity” is my favorite hook of 2018. And if you can’t get behind a song called “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence”, congratulations on your self-esteem. Spare some for the rest of us.
#2: A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships | The 1975
Like every rock critic on the internet in the last month, I’ve fallen in love with The 1975’s latest album. Is it cheesy at points? Hell yeah it is. There’s an entire spoken word song about a man falling in love with the internet and one of the lead singles has a bridge that’s nothing but a recitation of Trump tweets. But it’s also a brilliant musical condemnation on internet culture that borders on ethereal with high points like “I Like America & America Likes Me” and “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)”. That’s not to mention “Give Yourself A Try”, which is one of the best pop songs of the decade. The whole album might not be your thing. It’s club pop for a generation of people afraid to leave their bedrooms. But it sounds good. And that’s the point of music, right?
#1: POST- | Jeff Rosenstock
It’s sort of a cop out that my favorite album of 2018 came out on Jan. 1, 2018. I made up my mind pretty early on this one. But the poet prince of punk rock made a brilliant album and I’m not going to put it anywhere instead of No. 1. If The 1975 is condemning internet culture, Jeff is riffing on a world he has watched slip out of his grasp. The first time I listened to POST- felt a lot like the first time I ever listened to Weezer’s Blue Album. The expansive sound collage of “Let Them Win” as the album’s closer played the role of “Only In Dreams”, making me sit on the emotion and the anger and the frustration and the confusion of the record. “USA” is an operatic scream-along track. “Melba” is a poppy punk jam. “All This Useless Energy” hearkens back to Jeff’s first major album, We Cool?, with stories of isolation and self-doubt. “TV Stars” pokes a hole in our reliance on celebrity and television, as well as a dependence on the intermingling of cable news and politics. “9/10” is everything you’d want from a breakup song. And, more than anything else, there’s “Powerlessness”. How can you solve all the problems around you when you can’t even solve the ones in your head? It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves. Jeff screamed it at me a couple hundred times this year. It’s one of my favorite modern punk rock songs ever written. It’s frenetic and it postures and it paints a weirdly beautiful picture about isolation, flash grenades and Polish bars. I think this album is going to feature pretty prominently on my end-of-decade lists too. It was too good to be contained within 2018.