Yes, there’s still a whole month before we say farewell to the year. But let’s be honest, nobody releases revolutionary music in December. So, in an attempt not to be influenced by other end of year lists, I’m getting in early with my best albums of 2018…
Tune-Yards – I Can Feel You Creeping into My Private Life
One of the more noticeable (and welcomed) trends this year has been the number of pop stars putting sexual and gender fluidity at the forefront of their music. Admired artists such as Christine and the Queens, Sophie and Janelle Monae have taken a refreshingly frank approach, matching their honesty with bold sounds that also refuse to be labelled.
Yet for Merrill Garbus alias Tune-Yards, this probably seems rather old hat. Having shared thoughts about gender identity yonks ago, she swiftly moved onto institutional racism and white privilege for her latest offering. Hardly sounds fun. Only, that’s exactly what it was.
With so much energy flowing through its veins, I Can Feel You Creeping into My Private Life became one of this year’s most upbeat albums. For every uncomfortable lyric about oppression or racial struggle, there was a wonky tune to partake in some wonky dad dancing. If a single muscle didn’t twitch during Heart Attack, Coast to Coast or Honesty, it was best to check your pulse. But if shaking your thang just wasn’t your style, there was more than enough charisma to thrill the mind too. No discrimination here.
Also good: Christine and the Queens – Chris
Having made a splash with her debut, the French artiste adopted a masculine alter ego for this self-produced follow-up and created waves with its irresistible melodies.
Hookworms – Microshift
If Hookworms sounds familiar to you, it might not be for positive reasons. Nasty infections aside, the name belonging to an acclaimed five-piece band from Leeds has somewhat been tarnished by sexual and mental abuse allegations made against its frontman. Details remain unclear and disputes are still in force, but it resulted in their decision to call it a day in October.
Nine months earlier, it was a different picture. Having lost material after a flood destroyed their studio, they were bouncing back with creativity thanks to crowdfunding and generosity from friends. As if to show gratitude, they presented their most likeable album by shifting previous psychedelic leanings into a more euphoric direction.
The electro-rock vibe suited them. As each song on Microshift builds and explodes in all the right places, it leaves you wondering how exhilarating it would sound being echoed around stadiums. The fact we might never get to witness that is a little disheartening. But whatever lows surround their split, at least they musically finished on a high.
Also good: Django Django – Marble Skies
Once at risk of forever being associated with endorsing Google products, these art rockers proved their blend of digital sounds and sunny harmonies had real staying power.
Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar
When Edinburgh trio Young Fathers defied odds by winning the 2014 Mercury Music Prize, the likely response being echoed around the country was… who? Having sold just over 2,000 copies, their debut DEAD was one of the lowest selling albums to ever be shortlisted. Yet its unexpected take on British urban music made it an accepted champion.
Often labelled as a hip hop outfit, they steered into electropop and avant-rock with their follow-up White Men are Black Men Too. Although critically adored, it set the tone that this was a group clearly uninterested in any commercial opportunities handed to them. Which made this year’s Cocoa Sugar even more of a surprise. Sure, it still followed its own fidgety path. But it also had enough hospitable tunes to make it a hit. In My View, Border Girl and Toy promised real pop anthem potential, while the gospel-tinged Lord practically melts under its own spotlight.
Yet despite being their easiest album to process, it’s the hardest on this list to define. So, do yourself (and me) a favour and listen.
Also good: Let’s Eat Grandma – I’m All Ears
Although a very different sounding beast, this duo’s fearless brand of “experimental sludge pop” (their words) lands somewhere between Daft Punk and Shampoo. Only better.
Sons of Kemet – Your Queen is a Reptile
If you like dipping your toes into the contemporary pool of multi-instrumental jazz that fuses politically charged aggression with spiritual escapism (I mean, who doesn’t?), then you should check out Kamasi Washington’s two-and-half-hour musical epic Heaven and Earth. But if you don’t have that kind of time to invest, just swap saxophonists.
Now a key figure in the much-hyped British Jazz Explosion, Shabaka Hutchings has his musical fingers in all kinds of pies. And by merging orchestral craft with afro beat, dub and grime, his London based group Sons of Kemet found huge crossover appeal with this year’s Your Queen is a Reptile. Although it didn’t quite elevate jazz into new territory, its political commentary and nods to black female activists gave it more than enough relevance. It also became this year’s most unlikely party album.
Earning a place on the Mercury Music Prize nomination list, it received enough praise to become the bookies favourite to win. Alas, it didn’t. Which is a shame. If ever there was a year for the token jazz album to swoop up the gong… this was it.
Also good: Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth
Hailed as a genius reviving the west coast jazz scene, the composer returned with a two-part saga that took weeks of listening pleasure before revealing its masterpiece potential.
Gaz Coombes – World’s Strongest Man
Britpop. It’ll either have you reminiscing with fondness, or covering your ears in repulsion.
If you fall into the former, you’ll be more than familiar with Supergrass. Heck, you might even agree that underneath those sideburns were the unsung heroes of the entire scene. Still, you probably wouldn’t have bet good money on frontman Gaz Coombes emerging from the Gallagher shadows to outshine them with a sparkly solo career. But six years into his stride, he did just that.
By far his sturdiest album, World’s Strongest Man offered a cheeky wink to the glory days with enough fresh ideas to avoid it sounding stuck in the wrong decade. Fleeting from stomping guitars (Deep Pockets) to oddball funk (Walk the Walk), to cinematic loveliness (Slow Motion Life), to Pink Floyd-esque choirs (Wounded Egos), to rhythmical grooves (The Oaks); it was the sort of creative crop you could imagine Thom Yorke sowing, if only he’d pick up some actual instruments again.
Despite the bold title, Coombes lyrically tackled isolation, mental health and the fragile impact our idea of masculinity is having on its subjects. It’s as far removed from Alright and Caught by the Fuzz as you can get. And at this stage in his career, that’s a very good thing.
Also good: Parquet Courts – Wide Awake!
Their punk roots remain. But by recruiting eclectic producer Danger Mouse for this sixth studio album, these New Yorkers advanced their sound for the next generation.
Lump – Lump
Short LPs have been all the craze this year. If it didn’t clock in at around 30 minutes or contain less than nine tracks, there was a risk of it being considered a slog. Grasping this notion well was Lump, a collaborative project between Lindsay Buckingham and Laura Marling. Packing half an hour of radiance into just six tracks, they then used a seventh to melodically resurrect those long-forgotten album credits for the download generation.
Had this been a Marling solo project, much would have been made of its folktronica change in direction. But with Buckingham behind the scenes, the multi-layered textures provided a perfect backdrop for the pure instrument of her voice. As it soars on May I Be the Light and Curse of the Contemporary, Marling has never sounded more beautiful.
Released right in the middle of the heat wave, Lump became the soundtrack for those warm drowsy evenings. And with each dreamlike song flowing into the next, it left you with a calmness that (on this occasion) had you pining for more.
Also good: Kadhja Bonet – Childqueen
Blaxploitation funk, classical, jazz, gypsy-folk, ethereal, soul… multi-instrumentalist Bonet took it all in her stride on this intergalactic mind bending bonanza.
Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts
Whatever you might think about Kanye West, you can’t deny that he’s (musically) taken hip hop to pioneering places. But even this was in jeopardy over the summer when five West-produced albums were released in as many weeks (known as the G.O.O.D. Summer Album Series).
With his creativity seemingly spread thin, the overall result was patchy. There were thrilling moments on each, but it left you wishing he’d cherry picked the better tracks to offer one solid album that would rival his best work. The bulk surely would have been made up of this collaboration with Kid Cudi, under the guise of Kids See Ghosts. It didn’t boast a body of bangers, but avoided all the usual clichés associated with rap music. Having talked openly about his struggles with mental health and bipolar, it almost felt like West was trying to express the inside of his mind by packing imagination and peculiarity into 23 brief minutes.
Yet Kids See Ghosts was far more than just The Yeezy Show. In fact, it wouldn’t have worked without the equal presence of Cudi counterbalancing any bravado with empathy and depth (often missing from his own work). On this alone, long may their partnership continue.
Also good: Pusha T – Daytona
Daytona might have initially grabbed headlines for its cover photo of Whitney Houston’s drug-infested bathroom, but it was the addictive music that soon got us talking.
Tirzah – Devotion
When music has a hold on you, its grip is usually tightest when kept simple. Strip away the bells and whistles, and it’s often an affecting chord or piano loop that has you clasped.
Take this year’s Devotion by Tirzah. It felt unfussy, uneven and a little unfinished. It was also hypnotic. The sparse DIY approach initially sounded modest, yet hooked and reeled you in with its intimacy. The lyrics about love and loss perhaps lacked maturity, yet connected with raw emotion. And while the vocals barely sound like a murmur at times, a humble falsetto revealed the kind of soulfulness most divas spend a career searching for.
Although in her 30s, Devotion presented Tirzah as a sullen student still finding her feet with all this song writing lark. She’s like the musical offspring of Tracey Thorne and Tricky. Where she goes from here is anyone’s guess. But here’s hoping she’s not in a hurry to grow up soon.
Also good: Blood Orange – Negro Swan
Negro Swan’s mosaic of dreamy vocals, assorted instruments, audio inserts and meandering melodies makes it the musical equivalent of a constantly shifting mood board.
Anna Calvi – Hunter
“I dressed myself in leather with flowers in my hair” begins the title track to the third (and gutsiest) album from Anna Calvi. It’s a line that sums up its protagonist well; part feral alpha exploring dark sexual freedom, part feminine dreamer longing for light romance.
While the latter has always been evident in Calvi’s music, it was her wilder self that set this year’s Hunter apart. Perhaps a result of ending an eight-year long relationship, her crisp confidence found her howling, panting and strumming her way to liberation. The melodies were more prominent, the production more jagged, the gender bending lyrics freer. You only needed to listen to highlights Don’t Beat the Girl Out of My Boy, Indies or Paradise and Chain to recognise this newfound certainty could no longer be contained.
Yet underneath all predators lurks vulnerability. PJ Harvey and Nick Cave are the obvious references, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else delivering Swimming Pool (the best should-have-been-a-bond-theme since Radiohead’s Spectre) with such haunting exquisiteness. Seven years on our radar and it felt Calvi had finally arrived.
Also good: Mitski – Be the Cowboy
The cooler, grungier musical cousin of Lana Del Rey returned with a slightly more upbeat sound to become the cooler, grungier musical cousin of St Vincent. A worthy transformation.
Neneh Cherry – Broken Politics
And now to one of the coolest people on the planet. Not that Neneh Cherry would necessarily agree. “Just because I’m down, don’t step all over me” she pleas on Fallen Leaves, the opening track to her fifth solo album. Its defencelessness is striking coming from the same self-assured woman who first commanded our attention by strutting heavily pregnant to one of the best pop bangers of all time. Since then, she’s tackled earthy hip hop, bluesy trip hop, freestyle jazz and sparse electronica. Despite shredding a few fans along the way, you could never accuse her of giving us what’s expected. Until now.
This is far from a criticism. With five decades of experiences to draw upon, it’s more that Broken Politics sounds like the work of someone who knows exactly who they are. Songs about refugees, abortion, propaganda and gun violence would risk sounding preachy or contrived in most hands. But Cherry radiates warmth, setting them to organic and skittish backdrops that make the sweet spots even sweeter without ever being sickly.
Take lead single Kong, a stirring Massive Attack-style ballad that rubs against crunching beats and muffled dub, accompanied by a thought-provoking video that proves Cherry can still rock an outfit or five. It set the template well for Broken Politics, a slow burning body of songs that are both subtle and stylish. But just as you fear it could be a one-tempo-trick, she drops the storming Natural Skin Deep to prove she can still rock a banger too. She’s awesome.
Also good: Joan As Police Woman – Damned Devotion
Having wobbled the fine line between retro-tinged soul diva and doomed-laden torch siren, Joan Wasser finds her balance spot on with this year’s Damned Devotion.