My Top 12 Favorite Albums of 2018.
12. Ectotrophia – Happy Rhodes
The only reason this is lower on the list, really, is that it’s a retrospective release of older material. If you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing Happy Rhodes’ singular voice, I highly recommend this. This represents some of her earlier, more stripped down work than what came later. I was actually first exposed to her through some of the later work, and I love that. But there’s no denying the beauty of what’s on here. It’s a well selected group of songs. My personal favorites are “If So,” “Would That I Could,” “If Love is A Game, I Win” and the epic album-ender “To Be E. Mortal.”
11. Moon – Alison Sudohl
Sudohl used to perform under the moniker A Fine Frenzy, and I discovered her first album under that name when it first came out. It was only recently that I found that out, because I knew her as the actress that played Queenie from the Fantastic Beasts films (a character I really love.) I was so happy Sudohl was putting out more music, and this lovely EP really impressed me. The opening track “Escape The Blade” is a meditative and beautiful song that I have listened to over and over again. Sudohl’s voice is gorgeously textured. It enters your ears as smooth as honey, but there’s a wonderful, almost smokey bite to it as well. There’s not a bad track on the album, but I’d say “Lonely Love” is another real standout. It’s only five songs long, but feels like a complete experience, really. The vinyl is on its way to me, and I can’t wait to give it a listen that way.
10. Bigger, Brighter – Lyla Foy
I fell hard for Foy’s debut album, Mirrors The Sky in 2014. I was so excited for her follow-up, and it did not disappoint at all. The intimacy of her vocals is still there, as though you were sitting on the floor of her bedroom while she serenaded you. Her voice has a wavering fragility at times which brings a potent emotionality to her music. Sonically, though, she really mixes it up here from tracks like the driving “Far Behind You” and “Try My Heart” to the gorgeous and quietly epic “No God.”
9. A Moment Apart – Odesza
I discovered Odesza with their 2014 album, in return. I excitedly awaited their follow-up, A Moment Apart. But after listening to the singles leading up to the album, I somehow missed the actual release of the album until recently. I have made up for lost time. This is my favorite kind of electronic music. It’s beautiful, quiet, loud, epic, fragile, and utterly listenable. It feels like it’s there for you to connect with in whatever way you want. It’s great background music. Great driving music. Great sitting with headphones and just listening music. For a song with lyrics, try “Line of Sight.” For an instrumental, try the gorgeous “Thin Floors and Tall Ceilings.”
8. Hymn – Sarah Brightman
It’s kind of hard not to love Sarah Brightman. At least, I think so. She seems incredibly lovely as a person in interviews, for one thing. And her voice… well, that reputation is well established. One of the joys of her albums is seeing how she’ll interpret songs from across the spectrum of classical and popular music. Sometimes I’ve heard of them, some I have not. I’d go out on a limb and say this is one of her best albums ever. It’s incredibly consistent in quality and is pulled together with a pretty simple theme—she wanted something uplifting and hopeful. Now, there are (as one might expect) plenty of religious themes here. As an atheist, this can sometimes grate. It doesn’t here at all. So even if I might not be into some of the particulars, the joy of music is that it can often transcend that. There’s a joyousness to the music that carries me along. The best part is that it’s a very complete, glorious whole. It’s almost hard to pick out tracks because of that because it’s all so well sequenced. But her rendition of Eric Whitacre’s “Fly to Paradise” is fantastic. “Follow Me” is the love theme from Mutiny on the Bounty, but here it sounds like it could have been a Bond song.
7. Bloom – Troye Sivan
I was immediately taken with Sivan’s debut album Blue Neighborhood. I was just so incredibly impressed with the level of songwriting. And, it kind of gives me a thrill to see a young gay men being totally himself and having such success. I even got to see him in concert. And (safely perched on the balcony away from the throngs of teens) I enjoyed the hell out of it. I’m so happy that his new album lives up to his first. It’s a little more tightly focused, I suppose at 10 tracks. Which isn’t a bad thing. The songs are often equally personal and danceable. Again, the whole album is great. But my favorite tracks are “Bloom,” “Dance to This,” and “Animal.”
6. so sad so sexy – Lykke Li
Lykke Li is an artist I’ve heard a lot ABOUT but just never had a chance to listen to. But I ran into one of her songs from her new album on Spotify and was immediately captivated. The album is entirely listenable from start to finish with pulsing rhythms and elements of dream pop, indie pop, electro pop, and a hip-hop vibe on some tracks with Li’s gorgeous voice pulling it all together. There is LITERALLY not a bad track on this album. There’s something to hook your ear on all of them. If I had to pick some favorites, they’d be “hard rain,” “jaguars in the air,” the title track, and “sex money feelings die.”
5. Palo Alto – Years & Years
This was the album I discovered Years & Years with and I had my listening time hijacked by this album for months. It blasts out of the gate with its best track “Sanctify” and never really lets up. Other stand-out tracks include the reflective “Hypnotized,” and the title track. There are some songs that feel a little out of place. “If You’re Over Me” is one of them. But it’s so jaunty and agreeable I can’t get too grumbly about it. And the back-half of the album includes some of my favorite songs like “Howl” and “Don’t Panic.” Again, as with Troye Sivan it’s so exciting for me to see a young queer gay man out there being totally open. I mean, one day this is going to be nothing special. Hell, maybe we’re already here in some ways. But that’s part of what the thrill is here. It’s just a fabric of a larger work. It’s not what the work is about. If there’s anything that feels like a counter to the tide of hate that’s been churned up in the US lately, it’s music like this. Unapologetic. Queer. And just HERE. Being.
4. High as Hope – Florence and the Machine
It says something about the quality of all the albums this year that I’m putting a F+TM album fourth! It has to be said, these last four are pretty much in a dead heat for my affections. High as Hope feels like Florence Welch has calmed down a little bit from some of her past albums. But just a little bit. There’s maybe nothing quite as epic-sounding as “Cosmic Love” or “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” here. The songs feel smaller in places. Some songs like “South London Forever” or “No Choir” are given space to just sort of meander. This is not a complaint. It actually provides a nice contrast to the more dramatic or driving songs like “Big God” or “Patricia.” But the overall effect is an album that’s a little more intimate.
3. Art of Doubt – Metric
Again, this is another album that any other year would have easily taken number 1. Metric are my favorite band. There are times when I feel like Emily Haines is jacked into my brain, but maybe a part of my brain that I’m not even that well connected to. This is a little hard to explain. But I’ve never been a fan of “angry” music. Heavy metal, punk… I just don’t connect to it that much. I have to be in a very particular mood. I feel like Metric makes my kind of angry music. It’s anger that seems very deep-seated but that filters out through these different lenses of analysis. It’s less “fuck you world” and more “fuck you world, but I guess I can see why we’re here—not that it doesn’t suck and people are kind of shitty—but I’m also kind of shitty in my own way too… so maybe it should be fuck you world, and fuck me too… or maybe I should be less hard on the world or myself.” It’s… complicated. “Now or Never Now,” “Art of Doubt,” and “Dressed to Suppress” are my favorite tracks.
2. Dirty Computer – Janelle Monae
I picked up Monae’s debut album Archandroid because I loved the album art. That’s all there is to it. I bought it purely based on the fact that it looked cool as hell. I was amazed at the actual music. But, here’s the thing… despite enjoying that and The Electric Lady… despite the fact that I was living for the sci-fi themes, the intelligence, and the listenability of them… they never ended up on my best of list. But when Monae released the one-two punch of “Django Jane” and “Make Me Feel” I was just floored. It felt like everything that made Monae great refined into it’s sharpest and most perfect form. And the thing was, both songs are so different. The singles got me excited, but nothing could really prepare me for the full album itself. This is Monae’s crowning achievement so far. It is a complete, beautiful, challenging, intelligent, queer, defiant, and bold album. I AGONIZED over which album to put on the top of my list. I have copied and pasted them back and forth many times now. Because not only is the album an amazing piece as a whole, but some of my favorite tracks of the year are on here. “Crazy, Classic Life,” “Screwed,” “I Like That,” “So Afraid,” and “American” join the two singles I mentioned as my favorite tracks.
1. Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten – ionnalee
After releasing a series of amazing audiovisual albums as part of the project known as iamamiwhoami with an album of mysterious electropop and a movie to accompany it. She released a few tracks at a time leading up to the album’s release, including “Samaritan.” By the time the album was out, my desire to hear the whole thing was at a fever pitch. I was not disappointed. The thing is, I have gotten all her albums (including the excellent live album) on vinyl. These are not cheap, as they have to be imported. So, they usually run about $60 with shipping and exchange rates. I have never regretted getting these for even a second. I’m going to say something that might sound stupid. Maybe it’s the presentation with the videos… but to me her work almost transcends a regular album into something more like art. Yes, of course albums are art. But I think there are albums that are incredible collections of songs… and there are some that somehow reach beyond that. This is not something I can quantify. In fact, I’m sure it’s rooted in something very personal. But this is an album that calls out to me, and speaks to me. As an aside, I backed her tour on Kickstarter, and she came to Chicago. I couldn’t believe it. It was a small club, I was dancing around all the time, throwing my hands in the air. I am a terribly self-conscious person. But the energy and love in that room between performer and fans was palpable. I think it’s actually this live experience that gave this album a SLIGHT edge over Dirty Computer. According to Spotify, I listened to this album over 60 hours this year. And that’s not even counting listens on vinyl.
Honorable Mentions (Almost made it):
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – James Newton Howard There aren’t a ton of soundtracks I come back to again and again, but this is one of them I have many times since the movie came out. I was a fan of the movie, so that might help. But as a listening experience it’s been very enjoyable, especially as I’m reading or doing some writing. It starts off with the dark and lively “The Thestral Chase” but it has so much charm, energy, and awe throughout its runtime. It’s kind of hard to pick favorites, but “Queenie Searches for Jacob” is achingly beautiful. “Leeta’s Flashback” is gothic and dramatic. “Salamander Eyes” is a beautiful score for Newt and Tina’s relationship. The titular track (toward the end) is also… well, fantastic.
Lost Souls – Loreena McKennitt
I’ve been a fan of Loreena’s since 1996 or 97. A new album by her is always something to treasure, and there’s so much to love here. The opening track “Spanish Guitars and Night Plazas” starts off the album very strong. “Ages Past, Ages Hence” is also great. The problem is a lot of the album sort of comes and goes and is lovely but didn’t always leave a strong impression in my ear. It sort of meanders and flows and you’re kind of just along for the ride. This is not a bad thing, but I’m sort of used to having one or two more emotional punches.