As we prepare to celebrate another successful revolution of the sun back to an entirely arbitrary point of humanity’s own making, we take a look back at the best releases of the last year. It’s not an original idea, but it is, in our opinion a good one. People will argue rightly or wrongly that music is not created to be ranked or graded, it’s not, yet it is meant to be celebrated and we hope that is what this list achieves; a celebration of the continuing power of music to inspire, challenge and in its own special way make the world a better place.
These are our favourite albums of the year, we’ll miss some you loved, so do let us know what you think we should have included. We got into this game we call blogging out of a desire to share and absorb more music, and that’s what we’ll always try and achieve.
2018 has in someways been a challenging year, an uncertain year, where divides in our nation, and across our planet have created a certain sense of insecurity. It has crept into the year’s art and permeated so much of the music made. It’s led to some fascinating, defiant records, records that refuse to be silenced and demand a better future. Songwriters have seemed more open, honest and bold than ever before and whether deliberate or not the political has undeniably become personal. We hope this list reflects the diverse musical offerings the year has to offer, and shines a light on some records others have overlooked.
Enough with the rambling intro, please enjoy, devour and embrace our favourite albums of the year, each one is a collection worthy deserving of your attention and our acclaim. Thanks for reading!
20. Vital Idles – Left Hand [Upset The Rhythm]
Left Hand, the debut album from Vital Idles, might just go down as one of the year’s most underrated records. Already something of a cult act in their native Glasgow, on the back of self-released demos and a long sold-out 7″ single, Vital Idles arrived on the always intriguing Upset The Rhythm label, with a ready made sonic manifesto, a bare-bones take on pop music crafted from artistic minds. Nothing extraneous, nothing obvious, nothing but the essential essence of the song.
Throughout Left Hand, through the surrealist linguistic talents of vocalist Jessica Higgins, Vital Idles create a sort of domesticated angularity, pointing out all the sharp corners in every day living, like Tom Courtenay playing at being Andy Warhol. It’s a record littered with intrigue, from the anarchic brilliance of Fall Into Shape, to the drab romanticism of Cave Raised, with its musings on the tedium of teenage living, whether you’re “bowling around” or “knocking around”. What Vital Idles share less readily, is an obvious emotional connection, which makes the moments of honesty all the more jarring. On stand-out moment, the Ultimate Painting-like, Like Life, Jessica sings, “for all the people I lost”, latterly noting, “I don’t really care but I could, I should”. As they repeatedly sing on Solid States, Vital Idles may well be, “just making noise”, but what an intriguing and enticing noise they make.
19. Firestations – The Year Dot [Lost Map Recordings]
“You can build a building put people in it, make them move house and call another house a home”, so begins The Year Dot, the first new music from Firestations since 2014’s Never Closer. Instantly it created an everyday eeriness, and throughout it felt like a record of unease; loaded with shadowy characters, the questionable nature of state intervention and ordinary people just scraping by.
Musically, Firestations juxtaposed the future and the past, Their dreamy otherworldly soundscapes, cut through with almost retro-electronica. If the lyrics nodded to the novel 1984, the glacial synth tones, sounded a bit like they came from the year 1984. Their drone-laden pop music certainly wasn’t the sound of 2018, and felt all the fresher for it. As the band reflected on the album, it is a record forged from, “periods of hopelessness and moments of joy”, Firestations created something very real, very human and in doing so made one of the year’s finest records.
18. Wolf Girl – Every Now And Then [Everything Sucks Music]
If Wolf Girl’s 2016 debut, We Tried, was an album that hinted at something interesting, their follow up, Every Now And Then, is the sound of a band coming good on all that promise. The louder moments are more riotous and driving, the poppier moments are more crisp and melodic; more than anything this is a band who now sound much more confident in what they’re doing, much more confident in who Wolf Girl are.
The new found musical confidence is equally matched in the lyrical content, the nine-tracks are musings on finding your place in the world, songs about accepting who you are, what you feel and becoming happier in your own skin. There’s highlights throughout, including two brilliant singles: Toast For Dinner, a riotous romp about learning to say no to nights out and the joys of eating toast, and Maths In The Real World, a reflection on the ease of forgetting how to do the things you used to do so well. They even find room to throw a X-Ray Spex like saxophone onto the end of Breaking News, a song about “choosing to come out when you want”, in a society where queer people are forced to do so repeatedly.” Equally brilliant is Dream Partner, the first track written by drummer Christabel Williams, a retro pop song in the mould of Joe Meek or Franki Valli, which shows drummer’s don’t always have to do a Ringo and write the worst songs on the album (Sorry Ringo, I still love Thomas The Tank Engine). On Every Now And Then, Wolf Girl didn’t just become the band we’d always wanted them to be, they exceeded all our expectations.
17. Night Flowers – Wild Notion [Dirty Bingo Records Ltd]
Those who’ve followed Night Flowers’ career will know just how much thought and time went into making their debut album, Wild Notion. The band formed the best part of a decade ago and have been honing their craft ever since, becoming the hugely impressive band they now are. While taking that long to release your debut album is something of a risk for a new band, thankfully Wild Notion was unquestionably worth the wait, out shining our wildest expectation of what the London-based quintet were capable of producing.
Wild Notion is a masterclass in emotion and mood, a glistening spin head first into a spiral of the deepest longing. Whether lamenting communication breakdown on the majestic Head On, or dragging someone kicking and screaming into commitment on Hey Love, Night Flowers beautifully dissected the highs and lows of human interaction. With seemingly every note and production decision perfected, arguably across the year nobody came as close to a sonically flawless record as Night Flowers.
16. Lionlimb – Tape Recorder [Bayonet Records]
Lionlimb’s second album, Tape Recorder, began life with a piano in a Columbia University practice room, but it certainly didn’t end there. It was there that the bands chief songwriter Stewart Bronaugh sketched the skeletal structure of an album, before, inspired by the minimal composers of the 1970’s, he began incorporating violin, cello and bass-clarinet: as you do. The resultant record was one that simultaneously built on and refined Lionlimb’s sound, boiling Stewart’s songwriting down to its essential core.
The album bursts into life with opening track, Clover; waves of swirling, intense strings, and an arresting, intriguing drum-beat engulf Stewart’s keening vocal, “it descends to eternity, it descends on me”. Throughout Tape Recorder, Lionlimb create dense, orchestral tapestries without falling for any grandiose cliches, there’s an Elliot Smith-like intimacy that sits alongside their technical excellence and creative flair. A difficult record to pin down, yet one that unquestionably rewards those willing to try, with each play a new revelation emerges, a new gripping idea grabs your ear and you get a step closer to unpicking the beautiful, intriguing puzzle that is Lionlimb.
15. Juliana Daugherty – Light [Western Vinyl]
Juliana Daugherty’s music could have taken a very different route to the one it has. Growing up as the daughter of a trumpeter and a violinist, Juliana was enveloped into multiple instruments and classical composition from a young age, even attending a conservatory, before stepping away to pursue her other passion, poetry. It’s arguably that medium as much as composition that has the greatest influence on her debut album, Light.
Recorded in the Virginia countryside, Light is an album of minimalism and honesty; Juliana’s vocal stars throughout, portraying private struggles and societal ills with an understated power. The sublime title track, the first single offered from the album, serves as an arresting introduction to Juliana’s work, growing from just a minimal piano line and Juliana’s fantastic vocal, all subtle inflections and emotional weight, the track builds through some fantastically unusual percussion and eerie pulses of brass and electronics. Light is a record of great musical textures, subtle variations on a strong musical core; Player adds a Sharon Van Etten like intensity, Sweetheart has the same engulfing feeling as Boxer-era The National, and the gorgeous brass on California is Sufjan Stevens levels of beautiful. The whole album seems to come to an apex on the fantastic closing track, Wave, it’s stripped completely bare, just Juliana’s voice and the gentlest of guitar lines, barely raising her voice, Juliana seems to perfectly surmise the end of a relationship no longer doing either party any good, “things are falling out, sometimes I think you shout, just to prove that you can feel something”. An understated triumph, Light is a record of quiet revelations, deeply honest and sometimes bleak, but like any moment of darkness, it’s the prospect of the light that flickers that manages to drag a person through.
14. Whitney Ballen – Go [Father/Daughter – Substitute Scene Records]
Hailing from Washington, Whitney Ballen’s debut album, You’re A Shooting Star, I’m A Sinking Ship, is a record that seems to revel in contrasts. Atmospheric wide-screen soundscapes are detailed with intimate personal thoughts, classic Americana sounds are paired with a very contemporary interpretation of life in the digital age and noisy howls or anger are set alongside moments of serene minimal beauty. There is something remarkable in how musically confident and holistic the record feels, as if constructed by a master craftsperson, not someone dipping their toes into album making for the very first time.
The album opens with the thrilling Everything, a pulsating snare heavy drum beat and twangy guitar create an intensity, before Whitney’s vocals creep in, “everything that’s good, it goes”. If an opening lyric is meant to create a snapshot of the record to come, it’s a glorious one, as throughout You’re A Shooting Star, I’m A Sinking Ship, Whitney’s words have a visceral, honest, sometimes crushing quality. Whitney’s vocal is often mixed low, inviting the listener to strain to hear her words, making the moment one hits all the more impactful, like on Go, when having spent the whole record trying to make someone leave, she almost dismissively notes, “maybe that’s why I stay”. While Whitney’s vocal holds the attention throughout, on repeat plays the textural quality of her songwriting also shines; the way Rainier slowly swells in contrast to the repeated lyricism, Fucking’s intense, cascading anger and San Francisco’s widescreen intimacy. Perhaps it’s the title track that best tells the records story, a track about the negativity that comes from constantly comparing oneself to the fictional perfection of others, about trying to remove yourself from that place and not always being able to, “it’s just what goes on in my head, you’re a shooting star and I’m a sinking ship”. Whitney Ballen made a record that tackled sadness face on, acknowledged it isn’t a fight easily won and found the beauty in moments where, “we would touch hands and suddenly the clouds would part”.
13. Juan De Fuca – Solve / Resolve [Arrowhawk Records]
Juan De Fuca’s album was one of the first to be released in 2018, yet throughout the year it remained one of the most intriguing. It was presented back in January with a handwritten note from frontman Jack Cherry explaining where the album came from. Not a place of grief like their previous record, but a place after it; in Jack’s own words, “this record is about walking the line between finding solutions, total answers to life’s problems, or resolutions in the mundane and bodily experiences of the day-to-day”.
Solve / Resolve was a record of great intensity and one that existed outside of the bubble of any musical fad or trend. There really weren’t many people making noisy indie-rock for sweaty basements in 2018, yet recalling early The Walkmen or Car Seat Headrest, Juan De Fuca remind us there’s a beauty in that clattering noise. From opening salvo Two Years, with it’s pained, yelled refrain, “I don’t want to be cryptic so let me be clear, I’ve been stuck in the past the last two years”, through to the thrilling finale Satisfaction, it is a record that seems to never end in it’s clattering chaotic splendour. Song 4 channels The Strokes into a warning not to find comfort in excess, Instructional Video briefly slows things down in a swirling melding of chamber-pop and shoe-gaze and All The Time has something of Fugazi to it’s wiry guitar lines and thrillingly messy drum-beat. A cathartic, thrilling experience, Solve / Resolve may not have found an answer to any of the challenges life throws at us, it just reminded us there’s a triumph in picking yourself up and trying again.
12. The Goon Sax – We’re Not Talking [Wichita Recordings]
It’s almost a cliched response to a young band’s second album, yet We’re Not Talking was unquestionably a more mature record than it’s predecessor. That album, Up To Anything, was a musing on youthful lust and mundanity, and on We’re Not Talking, life got busier, bolder and a little less lustful. Thrown into the slightly odd position of being teenagers touring the world, The Goon Sax, continued to find inspiration of everyday living, not knowing how this love thing works, or what book they should pick up from the crowded shelf, searching for answers and just finding more questions at every turn.
We’re Not Talking is a bolder and darker record that its predecessor, the addition of perfectly placed orchestral flourishes, whether adding a Camera Obscura-like sheen to Love Lost or a Velvet Underground-like intensity to the end of She Knows, helped create a more sophisticated and adventurous record. Equally important to the sound was the additional presence of drummer Riley Jones, her wonderful vocal on Strange Light added a country lilt to their sound, while the harmonies with Louis Forster on, We Can’t Win were delightfully sad, “I don’t want distance, when distance always seems to be the thing that comes and hurts us”. As well as more impressive, the songwriting was also more varied, the bedroom keyboard-pop of Somewhere In Between was a wonderful aside, while closing track, ‘Til The End slowed things down and became a perfect indie-pop song. The potential and excitement of the band’s debut album passed into something different here, no longer did you wonder how good The Goon Sax could be, now you just enjoyed how amazing they already are.
11. Vera Sola – Shades [Self-Released]
As we discovered when we interviewed Vera Sola earlier this year, up until she decided to decamp to a studio in St. Lois and record her debut album, Shades, Vera had never even shared her songwriting with her family or closest friends. A tumultuous series of life events left Vera’s life seemingly unravelling around her, and from that came a creative freedom, an album that simply had to be made for the world to make any sense, and the start of a potentially life changing move into becoming a solo star.
Back tracking a little, Vera has pretty much always been a musician, most notably as a member of Elvis Perkins’ touring band, so deciding overnight to become a songwriter wasn’t quite as unusual as it might be for you or us. Across Shades’ ten, entirely solo in the played every instrument sense, tracks, Vera explored a rich vein of poetic reflections, all tied together by the album’s one constant, the presence of female protagonists. Vera cast herself as various leading ladies, finding their voices and allowing their stories to shine through her. Vera became Eve questioning why God created her as an after thought, she became a vision of America presented from the entitled position of the colonial white consciousness, she became the extinct Western Black Rhino asking why she wasn’t worth saving. A voice actor as well as a musician, Vera created these characters not just as lyrics but as actually different voices, her vocal one moment a picture of stereotypical femininity, removed from her own deeper tone, the next a rich vibrato or a guttural snarl. Musically, Vera dipped her toes into a variety of genres from 60’s pop through to country and even on stand-out moment, The Colony, an almost flamenco strut, each track a beautifully realised take, music that conjures images of the past while feeling fresh, relevant and far removed from simple pastiche. Shades is a stunning collection, we can only be grateful that Vera decided to share her songs with the world.
Click HERE for part two of our picks of 2018’s finest albums.