10. American Utopia // David Byrne
When David Byrne released his latest album in early 2018, it took a while to click with me, citing a shaky start and a lot of risks, I remained conflicted. Returning to it since its release, however, American Utopia has shown itself as a real grower. Harking back to his work with Talking Heads, the percussive, vibrant instrumentals that back his distinctive vocals make for some excellent listening. I can’t find a dull moment in this tracklist, and highlights like “Every Day Is A Miracle”, “Gasoline And Dirty Sheets”, and “It’s Not Dark Up Here” exemplify the overall quality and energy you can find across this album, and that’s all without the aforementioned and excellent lead single. It’s a great entry in Byrne’s back catalogue and one I think is fully deserving of its place in this year’s top albums.
9. ATW // All Them Witches
2018 saw the release of All Them Witches’ fifth studio album, ATW, and like the four that came before it it was no disappointment. All Them Witches’ branding of blues rock and psychedelia has allowed them over the years to create projects with varying leanings whilst very much grounding them in their roots. Their music is hot, tactile, and very much American. Self titling the fifth album in your discography may be unusual (assuming of course ATW does stand for All Them Witches), but it feels a directed choice. ATW is without a doubt odd in places, but also spilling with charm. It feels like a ‘best of’ record but with entirely new songs. Tracks like “Fishbelly 86 Onions” is a homage to their more punky 2015 album Dying Surfer Meets His Maker, where as tracks like “Workhorse” and “Harvest Feast” hark back to their more psych driven 2013 Lightning At The Door. ATW was a treat for both summer and winter listening and not one you should have missed this year.
8. FM! // Vince Staples
I was dubious about the current trend in hip-hop for releasing albums around half the length of the standard, and this is one of a few projects that brought me on side. The looseness of Summertime ‘06 and Big Fish Theory switched me off to both of them in the end, while FM!’s tight writing and moreish production seem in part to be the result of the limited duration. Framed quite elegantly, the radio station takeover concept adds a touch of character that binds every track’s rich beats, thoughtful lyrics, and dark overtones together. Short projects beg to be replayed and FM! survives the test with aplomb, commanding attention with greater intensity than its longer predecessors and making much better use of its features too. Where Big Fish Theory’s over-reliance on its guests drowned out the star of the show, FM! keeps the spotlight trained on him. Not only that, but each track’s sense of focus draws out Vince Staples’ personality with consistency, making good of the promise that his exciting talents would soon hit their stride.
7. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino // Arctic Monkeys
Arctic Monkeys are one of the few bands on earth that can release an album and expect almost everyone to have an opinion on it. Tranquility Base was not to everyone’s taste, but I think that reflected its ambition. It would have been much easier for Arctic Monkeys to come out with AM2, but instead they opted for the greasy spoken-word sophistication of Tranquility Base. I think it was a brave, intelligent change of tact. It’s a seedy, ruminatory album that has improved with time. When people look back on the Arctic Monkeys discography I think this will rank high. It certainly does for me.
Going all in on a sonic aesthetic of smoky basement bars and one-too-many whiskeys, Tranquility Base puts Alex Turner’s lyricism front and centre. Tidy riffs, funky bass lines, and driving drumwork are not required. Instead the tracks are tightly wound and suavely packaged. The Pink Floyd-esque muscle of “Science Fiction” and “Batphone” were personal highlights, but the track list scratches a lot of different itches. It’s a limited album, but also a progressive one. Tranquility Base showed Arctic Monkeys are still capable of evolving. I think that’s really exciting.
6. You Won’t Get What You Want // Daughters
I had very little experience with Daughters before 2018. You Won’t Get What You Want is, by all accounts, a comeback record, and I was intrigued by the excitement of noise and industrial rock fans alike. I was expecting it to be loud and intense. I was not expecting it to be so abrasive and… horrifying. Indeed, the album is as frightening as it is satisfying. It totally fulfills my desire for music that is brutal, menacing, and committedly cathartic. It starts at the dark depths with “City Song”, and the rest of the record is simply trying to escape. I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed the sensation of audible claustrophobia so much. Percussive blasts dominate the senses, whilst the rest of the arrangement consumes the psyche. It takes a certain level of endurance to tolerate the sheer mania, let alone enjoy it. The guitars on this record are outright disheartening: the stabs during the chorus of “The Reason They Hate Me” sound like those famous strings in Hitchcock’s Psycho. The harmonic dissonance that these guitars exude is hypnotizing, providing the perfect backdrop for Alexis Marshall’s caustic vocals that excel in the art of repetition. He sounds deranged; genuinely insane. Michael Gira, Nick Cave, and Tom Waits all come to mind, though in truth Marshall is in his own exclusive bracket. Unhinged, bounded by rage. You Won’t Get What You Want is the most terrifying thing I’ve listened to this year. Naturally, I love it.
5. Dirty Computer // Janelle Monae
Janelle Monae joined other pop artists in making 2018 a great year for the genre. But her contribution, Dirty Computer, is the one I’ve returned to the most. With an impressive line up of collaborators including Prince, the tracklist is packed to the brim with instrumentals full of character and they’ve been my main reason to return to the album since. While the album singles “I Like That” and “Make Me Feel” have been mentioned time and again, the likes of “I Got The Juice”, “Don’t Judge Me” and “Pynk” show the other shades of the track list. Monae’s lyrics make for a lot of fun without losing substance too and remain memorable for exactly that reason. For a taste of 2018 pop, I’d definitely start with Dirty Computer, while there are some tracks that will no doubt show their age in the future, there’s a lot here that should remain relevant and, most importantly, very enjoyable to listen to.
4. Bad Witch // Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor is arguably in the midst of his most creative and productive spell since the ’90s. After a series of superb film scores with Atticus Ross, NIN returned in 2016 with Not The Actual Events. Bringing Ross along with him, the industrial rock giant essentially became a duo. 2018’s Bad Witch is the concluding chapter in a generally excellent trilogy, and it’s one of the year’s most appropriate records: and in many ways, the most relevant. The tone is bleak and practically hopeless: ‘obsolete, insignificant/antiquated, irrelevant/celebration of ignorance/why try change when you know you can’t?’ Reznor’s current outlook is one that many Americans share, and indeed us Brits too (NIN is now 50% English, after all). Upon its release I described Bad Witch as a grubby, disheveled, and damaged, though I didn’t get as much enjoyment as I had hoped. Of course, as with most post-Fragile NIN records, this has grown on me a fair amount since its release. Reznor’s despair is no longer a personal torture — now married with children, he’s more concerned about the envisioned apocalypse. It’s an urgent wake up call.
3. Bottle It In // Kurt Vile
I’ve always felt somewhat of a philistine for not having any kind of inclination to folk or country, but with Bottle It In I found myself hooked. The album’s consistent tone, measured vocals, and easygoing melodies are wonderfully soothing and rejuvenative, with equally laid back lyrics that carry enough bite to avoid any sense of vapidity. Bottle It In invites you to take things at a sedate pace without ever slowing to a crawl, drawing a soundscape that evokes lazy, contented times. The real charm, however, is in its ability to feel at once a collection of great songs and a holistic, self-referential, and contained album in spite of its length. I found myself listening again and again, sometimes back to back, ignoring the time and enjoying the ride. It’s rare to find an album that can be so serene and tranquil without ever becoming dull, but Bottle It In is one such rarity.
2. Honey // Robyn
It’s been such a low-key music year that even its best pop record is slow and solemn. Honey was a pleasure to listen to — both on its own terms and as a window into one of pop’s true evergreen talents. Robyn has nothing left to prove, and that shows in the easiness of the record. The album is gentle, colourful, and all hers. The production is aptly honeylike, glossy and sweet and comfortable. The album feels expansive in spite of its uniform, understated sound. Rejecting the bangers of conventional pop in favour of a more inward-looking approach reaps its rewards.
Honey has grown on me since its release, and I was a big fan to begin with. It’s the kind of record that rewards repeat listens, such is its texture and intimacy. Robyn’s openness breeds a familiarity that is likely to endure for years. I considered this a bit of a luxury item when it came out, and I stand by that, but it sure is good at it. This pop on another plane, the kind of thing everyone should listen to at least once. I worry that I undersold Honey in our original review, but not that much. Anyone who puts stock in the things I say is beyond help anyway.
1. Joy as an Act of Resistance // IDLES
IDLES are the band of the moment. An antidote to Brexit; a fuck you to toxic masculinity; a most crucial assurance that grief is natural, and that it’s ok to feel sorrow. IDLES is no longer just music, it’s a movement. Joy As an Act of a Resistance is not as good as Never Mind the Bollocks, but it may prove to be of equal cultural importance. “Danny Nedelko” is the pro-immigration anthem of Britain, inspired by the Ukrainian front man of fellow punk band Heavy Lungs. “Samaritans” is, in singer Joe Talbot’s words, ‘a song about the disease in the brain called masculinity’, and it provides one of the albums’ most climactic moments, as Talbot belts out ‘I kissed a boy and I liked it.’ With this one line, he indicts the virulent nature of over-masculinity for its repression of genuine male emotion, as well as the hypocrisy that comes with the constant fetishizing of female homosexuality. “Great”, meanwhile, reflects on the cause of Brexit and how society can make amends, whilst “June” dives deep into personal trauma. Musically, “June” is certainly the black sheep of the tracklist, yet it serves as the biggest representation of the overriding message. Encourage vulnerability. Love yourself.
Clear, articulate anger can draw blood like a knife. It can also be really funny. Joy As an Act of Resistance was a breath of fresh air. Straddling punk, post-punk, grunge, and a bunch of other labels that don’t quite fit, the album delights in a kind of silly, righteous fury. The instrumentals are harsh and relentless, Joe Talbot spends much more time shouting than singing, yet the results are as sharp as anything punk has produced in years. A hipster/skinhead hybrid shouldn’t be much of a surprise in 2018, but I’m delighted it sounds this good in musical form.
Hearing a band run headfirst into British topics of the day — immigration, Brexit, press sensationalism, masculinity, I could go on — feels oddly quaint. Popular music is so saturated with characterless abstractions that one forgets it can attach itself to the real world. And it’s not standoffish, necessarily. Plenty won’t be pleased about what they hear (though Islam really didn’t eat your hamster) but the music is largely playful. It’s an album looking for laughs, not fights, and it finds plenty. Joy as an Act of Resistance feels like an album people will talk about years down the line. It has that weight to it. Don’t call it a comeback, but British punk is alive and well.
IDLES have produced something different with their 2018 release. Where I’ve previously not clicked with punk rock classics and even been cold on releases from the wider rock genre this year, Joy as an Act of Resistance has not only kept me interested but shoved me right back to the top of the tracklist over and over since its release.
Filled with churning, driving energy from the first moment to the last, and never giving you what you expect from one track to another, there’s a lot to love here. Opener “Colossus” exemplifies all of the above as it builds to a climax only to drop it for something totally different. “Never Fight A Man With A Perm”, a solid favourite since my first list to the album, still sounds great here and even better in a live setting as Joe Talbot snots, snarls and swears his way through his vocals.
What’s more, IDLES have proven that noisy, angry guitar music can still draw an audience from a wider demographic and deal with topics that are often left at the sidelines of popular music. Joy as an Act of Resistance is a truly stonking album from the year and it fully deserves its place in this list.
IDLES feel like a moment for British music, harnessing the frustrations of the times in music that’s abrasive but inviting, angry but reasonable. Joy as an Act of Resistance is a coming of age for a band erring on the verge of greatness with their debut, 2017’s Brutalism, here striking a deft balance between activism and listenability. Charm, good humour, and deep sorrow are bound together in an album that tonally rises to peaks and falls to lows with impeccable smoothness. “Never Fight a Man With a Perm” is perhaps the obvious choice for a favourite, but it’s the most thrilling, hilarious British rock track I’ve heard in a long time. Combining a developed, wry sense of humour, confident ideals, an unreal ear for a vocal melody and simple but driving riffs, IDLES take each part and find their strengths doubled as a whole.