10. Alex Dingley – Beat The Babble [Libertino Records]
While it had already seen a release on the other side of the Atlantic, a deal with Libertino Records finally saw Alex Dingley release his third album, Beat The Babble, to a UK audience. Continuing a recent Welsh tradition of going to Los Angeles to record your album, Alex decamped from Llansteffan to the West Coast, teaming up with Cate Le Bon, Tim Presley and Samur Khouja, and produced a record that is as odd, wonderful and wonky as its back story would suggest.
There’s a sense of everyday surrealism that runs through Alex’s lyrics, images of the mundane and ordinary viewed through a lens of idiosyncrasy and eccentricity. It isn’t just the lyrics that create the sense of individuality, the music too isn’t quite like anything you’ve heard before, it may nod to the likes of The Velvet Underground here or H. Hawkline there, but his scattergun vocal, skeletal guitar forms and muted percussion, create a sound that is unmistakably Alex Dingley. Beat The Babble is a record brimming with ideas and style, from big flourishing ballads, like the pained and beautiful Lovely Life To Leave, through the propulsive and primal beat of Not Alone In The Dark, and the frankly bonkers, theatrical melodrama turned ever accelerating fairground-waltz, She Just Came By To Say Hello, that feels like a lost Beatles B-side they discarded for being a bit too out there. The whole thing builds to the most fitting finale, In The End, an arpeggiated meander of piano, and Alex’s cracked, perfectly off-key vocal, “in the end it will be okay I promise, in the end such a strange bird of paradise”. We couldn’t have described the record any better, a strange bird of paradise that soared and danced and won our heart in the process.
9. Mélissa Laveaux – Radyo Siwèl [NØ FØRMAT!]
Mélissa Laveaux might be Canadian born and bred, but it was her parents homeland Haiti not Ottawa that so heavily influenced her stunning 2018 album, Radyo Siwèl. Inspired by a trip in 2016, her first Haitian visit for two decades, Mélissa set out to honour her ancestry and learn more about the islands history. By exploring the country’s music, Mélissa found out so much about Haiti, discovering the protest songs of the American occupation, and the presence of vodou and its many loas, or divinities, who were summoned to protect the Haitian people and to aid in the fight against their oppressors.
On returning to Ottawa, with a mind full of melodies, moods and stories, Mélissa went into the studio and in just five days recorded one of the year’s most exciting and intriguing records. Attempting to fuse two contrasting musical heritages can be tricky, yet Mélissa seems to do it with ease; Radyo Siwèl is a record that always knows when to be slinky and sinuous, and when to put a propulsive indie-rock rhythm behind it and drive the whole thing forward. As Hurray For The Riff Raff did last year on The Navigator, Radyo Siwèl is simultaneously a celebration of its roots and a protest against a world that can be keen to whitewash them. A celebration of Haitian history, the moments of hope and passages of darkness, they are all present on this very special record.
8. Ezra Furman – Transangelic Exodus [Bella Union]
Described by its creator as, “a queer outlaw saga”, Ezra Furman’s latest album, Transangelic Exodus, was probably the most ambitious of their career to date. A sort of middle ground between a concept album and a collection of short stories; personal half-true memoirs colliding with fiction and fantasy. The record was such a musical sidestep, Ezra even retired his old backing band, The Boyfriends, and emerged with a new supporting cast, The Visions.
In many ways, Transangelic Exodus was a slightly more stripped back affair than we’ve come to expect from Ezra, the rambunctious rock’n’roll of previous album, Perpetual Motion People, replaced with something more intimate, varied and intriguingly different. From the moment the record was introduced to the world, via Driving Down To L.A., it was clear Ezra Furman is an artist not interested in standing still; skeletal electronic twinkles entwine with almost gospel backing vocals, then explode into life with howling bursts of distorted lead vocal and imposing processed beats. Elsewhere, Ezra explores lo-fi Mariachi on The Great Unknown, Tom Waits-like odd-ball jazz on Come Here And Get Away From Me and even found time to write not one but two of the year’s best pop-songs in the shape of the stunning, Love You So Bad and Suck The Blood From My Wound. A record of transition and triumph, fittingly for this time of the year, like Clarence Odbody, this record saw Ezra Furman get their wings, and soar. Whether the world was ready for it or not, more than ever Transangelic Exodus was Ezra Furman being Ezra Furman, and sounding all the better for it.
7. Cult Party – And Then There Was This Sound [Icecapades]
Cult Party started off life as the project of Manchester based multi-disciplinary artist Leo Robinson, and has since flourished into a fully fledged band. 2018 was a busy year for Leo, seeing not just the release of his latest album, And Then There Was This Sound, but also the debut solo show of his acclaimed visual art. Perhaps it should be no surprise then that this year was a new creative peak for Leo and his music.
Building on his previous minimal musical offerings, for And Then There Was This Sound, Leo recruited a crack team of some of the finest Mancunian musicians including the likes of Kiran Leonard and Songs For Walters’ Laurie Hulme, who both released excellent albums themselves this year. And Then There Was This Sound was only four tracks long, yet spanned nearly forty minutes, thanks largely to the colossal opening track, Hurricane Girl. Twenty minutes of gently flowing majesty, it’s a track that seems to be on a far reaching, winding journey; Leo’s guitar and vocal the constant narrator, as other instruments dance in and out, forming driving crescendos then collapsing to sparse minimalism, it’s a testament to the quality of the song that it never seems to lull. Elsewhere on the record, Rabbit Dog has a twanging meditative quality, Pastures Of Plenty is a slow burning droning beauty and I Got The Blues This Morning is a simply majestic slice of country-blues, like the middle ground of Bill Callahan and Leadbelly. A bold and different voice on the musical landscape, Cult Party feels like an artist creating art entirely in his own image, and it felt more personal and unique than almost any record made this year.
6. Mothers – Render Another Ugly Method [ANTI- Records]
After a successful debut album, Mothers, the musical project of Kristine Leschper, could have been forgiven for trying to smooth out the edges of their artful, angular indie sound, instead on Render Another Ugly Method, they did the absolute opposite. If their remarkable debut album, When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired, merged folk-tinged minimalism and syncopated maths-rock, on Render Another Ugly Method they upped the intensity and complexity to bold new levels.
Mothers have always been a band unwilling to bend to conventional song structure or to follow an obvious path; take opening track Beauty Routine, from a woozy intro, it becomes over-driven and angular, Kristine’s vocal distorting and warping as she sings of wanting to fade into the shadow, “show me a beauty routine, to erase me completely”. It is a trick repeated throughout Render Another Ugly Method, the moment you even begin to feel comfortable, the track lurches off into something jarringly different, sometimes exciting, sometimes unnerving. Take the single Pink, with its driving drum beats and a brilliantly tumbling guitar phrase, it is arguably their most accessible track to date, then again it was also seven minutes long and ended with a wall of the finest white noise. While on their debut album, the louder more challenging moments were paired with quieter more reflective ones, here even when they turn down the volume, as on the haunting, Mother And Wife or, It Is A Pleasure To Be Here, it is never straight forward; if anything, the way they drew you into their weird atmospheres, it just makes the quieter moments all the more disturbing. Across Render Another Ugly Method, Mothers remain a band pushing the boundaries of popular music, it is a record without any concessions, no attempt made to provide anything but their own take on a world which isn’t always easy, and it is all the more challenging and exciting for it.
5. Fightmilk – Not With That Attitude [Reckless Yes]
Formed back in 2015 from two friends becoming simultaneously, “romantically redundant”, Fightmilk have gone on to become one of the DIY-scene’s most loved bands. Their nostalgic take on the alternative angst of the 1990’s, was previously shared in the shape of two well received EP’s, however they didn’t really prepare any of us for just how good their debut album would be. The album, Not With That Attitude, was written not in the full-blown malaise of relationship breakdown, but with the hindsight that only time to process can produce; a record about reflecting on your past, sometimes with sadness, and often with a wry smile at why you were ever that bothered by it in the first place.
Musically, Not With That Attitude walks a line between the seriousness of classic jangling indie and the more playful end of pop-punk, it is a record that can do seriously sad, then throw in a riff so bombastically joyful that Fall Out Boy might consider it a little too much. The many musical faces of Fightmilk were given a cohesive flow by the record’s one constant, Lily Rae’s vocal; whether channelling Blondie fronting Bloc Party on Dream Phone or perfecting a British take on Diet Cig on Summer Crush, Lily was the perfect counter point to the band’s varied musical sketches. Possibly the most tantalising sketch on the record was penultimate track, Solving Crimes In Sweden, an anthemic, arena worthy pop-song, its rich production adding piano and even swells of brass to a track that feels like a band finding their feet, and showing no fear of experimenting or taking their audience with them on this intriguing journey. With that attitude, Fightmilk’s music could take them anywhere their imagination will let them.
4. Adwaith – Melyn [Libertino Records]
From the ever fertile musical soils of Wales, some of 2018’s finest music emerged, our favourite of which was created by the Carmarthen trio, Adwaith. The band’s debut album, Melyn (Yellow), is a remarkable record, fusing the bristling post-punk of the mid-1980’s with a modern world view, tackling subjects from the personal to the political.
Those who’ve followed Adwaith carefully will already have seen the exciting evolution of their music, Melyn is a record that seems to take those ideas and run with them in every direction you can imagine. Older tracks, like Pwysau, which lives up to its weighty title, and Fel I Fod, already one of the most listened to Welsh-language songs in history, showed their folky roots and ear for a beautiful melody, and elsewhere Adwaith take their music places we couldn’t previously have imagined. Dan Y Haenau bristles with an almost Joy Division-like intensity, Y Diweddaraf had a slight baggy strut, while the bold decision to close the track with a hazy instrumental, Tair, feels like a masterstroke. There’s a tendency to analyse records outside of your own language with an almost academic appreciation, what Adwaith do so well on Melyn is create an album that doesn’t just impress, it carries an emotional weight with it. Without understanding the words you feel the energy and anger within it, a reminder of universality of music and its ability to transcend borders and nationalities, Adwaith translates as reaction, and listening to Melyn that’s exactly what you’ll get.
3. Chorusgirl – Shimmer And Spin [Reckless Yes]
Chorusgirl’s second album Shimmer And Spin, is a record that emerged from the darkness of insecurity to become an anchor in the gloom. The record was written at a time when, at almost every turn, things seemed to get worse for the band; from family illness, through anxiety and the end of their previous record label, somehow Chorusgirl managed to scramble and create a record that not only managed to exist, but to thrive and push their music into new and fascinating directions.
As opening lines go, “there’s always someone else who looks more popular or clever it’s true, more confident than anyone, but certainly not better than you”, is an undeniably intriguing place to begin, and that’s where Chorusgirl began on the sublime, In Dreams. Much of Shimmer And Spin continues in a similar vein, laced with self-doubt and insecurity, yet fighting against them, battling to believe in yourself, to believe your dreams are worthy of pursuit. It’s not a battle always won, sometimes life overwhelms; there’s moments of resignation, as on Stuck, when Silvi sings, “the future, turned past now, well it was never ours”, and moments where self-doubt takes control, as they sing on Not Yours, “my brain keeps broadcasting clips of doom, my introversion is strong”. If lyrically it was a record of personal reflection, musically it was a bold step into new musical territory, the glistening guitars more sharp and shimmering, the rhythm section more solid and creative, the newly discovered vocal harmonies, a subtly perfect. There’s one particular moment on Shimmer And Spin, we find we just keep coming back to, a brief perfect collection of just a few seconds, it comes just short of three minutes into Stuck, as Silvi sings, “stuck in my mind, stuck for all time”, and for just maybe 20 seconds all sense of control is lost; the guitars become an overwhelming rush of feedback, the drums a clattering chaos, and beneath it all, the perfect bass-line pins it together, carrying on as if nothing had even changed, then as quickly as it arrived it is all gone. You almost have to rewind to check it actually happened, yet it did and it has the same effect listen after listen after listen. Shimmer And Spin is a record that emerged from the darkest of places to glisten and sheen, a triumphant celebration of just about getting through, a record even better than we ever thought it could be.
2. Neighbor Lady – Maybe Later [Friendship Fever]
Beginning life as the solo project of vocalist Emily Braden, Neighbor Lady were formed when Emily realised she was too nervous to get up on stage as a solo artist, “so I asked my friends to play with me”. Now based out of Atlanta, the band originally formed in the musical hot-bed of Athens, and it is perhaps unsurprising, considering that location, that the sound of their debut album, Maybe Later, was built on the twin pillars of country and indie-rock.
From the opening bars of the first track, Let It Bleed, the intensity in Neighbor Lady’s music and the quality of Emily Braden’s vocal are both laid out for the listener to admire. The echoing, lightly distorted guitar ebbs and flows as pounding snare hits, clattering cymbals and nagging, propulsive piano chords, give the track an intensity and a drive. Atop all that wonderful noise, Emily, in her voice, the middle ground of Patsy Cline and Jessica Lee Mayfield, paints a picture of casting off whatever is weighing you down, “you said you’d do anything for me. But you hardly even know me”, Emily sings, before cathartically declaring, “I let it bleed”, atop a particularly wonderful crescendo. If Let It Bleed was the perfect introduction to Neighbor Lady’s sound, across the rest of the record they demonstrate they are no one trick pony; Oh Honey is a strutting Natalie Prass like slice of classic pop, I Wish Nothing dials up the country influence and delivers a perfect two-stepping rhythm, while Silent Separately adds a Shadows-like twang and a flamenco strut. A beautifully produced and performed record, Maybe Later, is a new take on an old style, one of the year’s finest new voices, delivering a stunning, sumptuous record, in which to get lost, and charmed, time and time again.
1. Loma – Loma [Sub Pop Records]
If we’re completely honest, when people collaborate outside of their main band, it doesn’t always go that well. Thankfully there’s an exception to every rule, and this year that exception came in the form of Loma, a collaboration between Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg and Emily Cross and Dan Duszynski of Cross Record. The trio decided to make music after the two bands had toured across Europe together, and decamped to Dripping Springs, the studio which Emily and Dan called home. During the album sessions Dan and Emily went from a married couple to a separated one, leaving Jonathan in the middle of a somewhat charged atmosphere. The record almost never happened, only a shared love for the music they were making holding the whole thing together.
It would be easy to listen to Loma’s stunning self-titled album, and try to read the creaking end of a relationship into everything you hear, the reality is of course a little more complicated. The album’s words were written by Jonathan, many of them were written before he even knew the relationship was ending. Perhaps subconsciously he picked up on some of those tensions, or perhaps something is present in Emily’s translucent flicker of a vocal, ultimately though, it’s perhaps the tangible tension and energy of the music that better reflects the circumstances of the record than any lyrical soundbite.
Loma is a record to devour as a single piece, its charms and buried energies slowly revealing themselves with each new track and every repeat listen. Black Willow, the album’s closing track and first single is a fine introduction, all haunting, echoing harmonies and gently moving musical backing. Across the album through the use of found sound from around the house, whether that’s barking dogs or chirruping cicadas, Loma managed to anchor a record rich with modern electronic sounds to somewhere very natural and fused to the place of its creation. The album’s biggest departure, and most obvious pop song is Relay Runner, a track that formed from a miswired tremolo pedal and slowly evolved from the black sheep of the record, almost omitted entirely, to the propulsive, strutting wonder it became.
Loma’s album is one that is both creative and emotional, from the haunting I Don’t Want Children to the quietly complex Sundogs, it seemed to burrow its way into the listeners mind and demand to be revisited. It wasn’t loud or brash, it didn’t offer moments of great catharthis or resolution, Loma just shined with its ability to make a connection, and was a record that even now still offers new subtle revelations on every listen, put simply, it is a masterpiece.