Continuing our Albums of The Year 2018 series is Tom Geraghty, who muses over the records that helped define a year of worldly turmoil. If you missed the other entries into our series, be sure to catch up with all our writer’s Albums Of The Year picks right here.
10. Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth
When an album gets released with a runtime in excess of two hours, it begs the question: is the music worthy of taking up so much of my time? Heaven and Earth is, on the surface, grossly decadent, hitting a runtime of 143 minutes (180 if you include bonus CD ‘The Choice’). Kamasi Washington is no stranger to the long format, but the saxophonist and jazz wunderkind is anything but self-indulgent. Each minute of Heaven and Earth is a sheer delight, one that begins with glorious panache and navigates themes of chaos, the world around, and the individuals place within an infinite universe, all told through stimulating conceptual jazz. Expanse defines Kamasi Washington, both in his gargantuan scope as well as in his seemingly endless ability to personify such ideals with musical proficiency.
Heaven and Earth’s sizeable and ambitious worldscaping carries with it a notable tonal change between the two sides: ‘Earth’ is an examining of the worldly issues external to Kamasi whilst ‘Heaven’ explores a utopian-like examination of the self. Whilst both sides contain jaw-dropping arrangements, ‘Earth’ consists of predominantly rampant, cacophonous selections whilst tracks like ‘The Space Travelers Lullaby’ create a luxuriously ethereal cloud to submerge your brain into. Each side, although different in tone, share a singular, grandiose vision that is undeniably Kamasi’s. In true jazz stylings, Kamasi Washington’s cosmic vision may be his own, but the flourishes and depth are indebted to a host of able musicians who help fulfil such ideas: choirs and orchestras are part of a larger ensemble that consists of vastly talented musicians, such as Miles Mosley on bass and Ronald Bruner Jr. playing drums, all of which add their own personalities to the compositions. Heaven and Earth is a monumental achievement; a defining monolith of musical ideas full to the brim with memorable moments that implore repeated listens. Kamasi Washington may already be hailed as a jazz prodigy – one of the few to appeal to both the mainstream and the jazz purists – but even with Heaven and Earth, there’s a sense that we’ve only seen a glimpse of Washington’s immense talents.
9. Ólafur Arnalds– re:member
re:member provided some of the year’s most intricately detailed compositions that practically beg to be played through good headphones. Ólafur Arnalds’ piano based melodies merge elements of electronica and classical to create richly detailed arrangements that excel in space, utilising crescendos and softer segments to create dynamically engaging works.
By no means a musical tour de force, neither does re:member deserve to be relegated to ‘background music’. Take ‘inconsist’, for example: soaring violins accompany an ever-evolving melody that negates traditional pop structure in favour of engaging songwriting that almost exudes emotion. Drum tracks regularly pop in and out of focus, never derailing the songs but adding to the textural blanket that Arnalds weaves. There’s so much to unpack in each and every track on re:member that new elements constantly surprise. Moreover, re:member is such an absolute pleasure to listen to. Gently reaffirming yet still rife with adventure, Arnalds’ latest album is a wonderous testament to the beauty of restrained and nuanced musicality.
8. Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo
Life can be an exhausting, overwhelming mess. In such times where everything just feels a bit too much – and 2018 certainly had those – Khruangbin’s sophomore album served as a much-needed safety blanket; a comforting hug that soothed the ailments of the modern world. The genre-bending Con Todo El Mundo combines psychedelia and soul, drawing inspiration from both eastern and Spanish styles. And while that barely scratches the surface of the large pool of concepts that Khruangbin draw from, there remains a pleasing familiarity to much of the group’s songwriting. Their music sounds anything but overwhelming, trading largely in gorgeously intricate instrumentals, luscious riffing and gentle melodies.
Carving out a diverse fanbase (Khruangbin have supported Father John Misty as well as securing a slot at the techno-marathon Houghton festival), Con Todo El Mundo’s universality rests in technically proficient, subtle songwriting that puts non-western styles front and centre of proceedings. An elixir to the dissonance and narrow mindedness of 2018, Khruangbin have built a charm indebted to other cultures that still feels wholly unique.
7. Pusha T – Daytona
The fabled Wyoming sessions – a term that now exhausts just to even hear – threw a lot of shit at the walls to see what would stick. Daytona stuck.
Pusha T deserves his moment. An almost flawless album of vital bars, expert control and excruciating self-assurance would put anyone into universal acclaim. Unless, of course, your chief beatmaker is Kanye West, and your album is rolled out alongside several underwhelming and rushed releases as part of some sort of therapeutic ego-trip. Sprinkle on the unprecedented and unexplained following for an atrocious Kids See Ghosts album (save for a favourable review from a notable online critic), and it’s no wonder Daytona’s excellence got diminished in the mixing pot. Daytona is an outstanding album, and there’s no doubt that history will favour Pusha T.
Daytona is a refined to perfection. ‘If You Know You Know’ is an opener so assured you can practically feel Push smirking from behind vocal chops and thick bass drops. Admittedly, and paradoxically, Daytona wouldn’t be what it is without Kanye West. A loose West on production duties provides the ideal playground for Push to experiment in, dropping molasses-like flow over guitar-centric ‘The Games We Play’ and venomous bars in the unparalleled ‘Santeria’. This is an album with all the fat trimmed, stripped back and lean, and boy does it sound good. Daytona leaves enough to crave more, immediately requiring repeat listens. The short album format may be a rebuttal to the long spotify-stream mining albums a la Culture II, but if they remain as engaging as Daytona, they have my approval to stay. And hey, I didn’t even have to mention Drake.
6. Against All Logic – 2012 – 2017
I’ve previously waxed lyrical about 2012 -2017, but 10 months later I’m still struck by how fresh and exciting Nicolas Jaar’s Against All Logic debut remains. Admittedly not – at least initially – intended for the album form, it’s almost something of a shock at how well the album works as a whole. The first three tracks flow seamlessly, delivering bouts of blissed-out soul (‘This Old House Is All I Have’), drum sequenced perfection (‘I Never Dream’) and thumping piano-house (‘Some Kind Of Game’) that still remains a euphoric anthem.
The tongue-in-cheek affirmation that 2012-2017 is, in some respects, anti-puritan to the ravers (the back of the record sleeve states ‘If you don’t know jack about house, then you’ll love this!) is an argument that can, and has, been made. Sure, disco house edits have dominated the clubs for the past year or so (namely thanks to the excruciatingly basic lo-fi house epidemic), and it’s not exactly an original sound that’ll appeal to the hardcore dance fanatics. But none of that should demerit 2012-2017, an album that aims straight for dancefloor simplicity and delivers exciting music with each and every track. There are so many climatic highs, detailed electronic components and even a 10-minute electro odyssey in the form of ‘Rave On U’ that it would be derivative to label 2012-2017 as singular and basic in style.
2012-2017 was almost certainly released under the A.A.L moniker to prevent naysayers from tarnishing Jaar’s impeccable name. In reality, the A.A.L moniker provides a freedom in songwriting that allows Jaar to release a bunch of insanely enjoyable songs written squarely for the dancefloor. Perhaps the reason 2012-2017 proved to be so invigorating is exactly because of the fact it purposely avoids the cliched and stagnant ideals that hardened house purveyors champion. 2012-2017 is an exuberant record, lively and refreshing in a year oversaturated with repetitive disco-house edits that each feel increasingly sub-par.
5. Marlowe – Marlowe
‘’When you got something to say, start at the beginning’’
Some albums don’t get anywhere near the recognition they deserve. Marlowe, the collaboration between beat-maker extraordinaire L’Orange and up-and-coming rapper Solemn Brigham, is one such album.
If Marlowe was an album of instrumentals, it would still make my top ten. L’Orange is on terrifying form, pulling sample-based loops from every imaginable source and twisting them into some of the punchiest and soulful productions of the year. It’s almost impossible to mention L’Orange’s style of beat-making without throwing the term ‘‘Madvillain’’ into the ring, an infuriating practice that often diminishes the integrity of an artist’s work. And sure, Marlowe is in some respects influenced by one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever made – who wouldn’t be? – but the album more than stands on its own two feet to pleads its case and brings with it a healthy dose of originality to proceedings. And how does it do that?
In steps Solemn Brigham, content to make L’Orange’s deft productions his own with some of the catchiest hooks and refrains that embed themselves in your brain almost instantaneously. After one listen, each track’s refrain becomes a mantra that you want to shout along to. Hungry bars and an almost forceful flow demand not only attention, but respect. Marlowe rests between point-proving and almost gleeful showmanship, throwing down the gauntlet in terms of both production and bars, all without seeming to break a sweat. And whilst the album might not hold up quite so well in the middle as it does in the beginning, that’s simply because the first 8 tracks are a practically flawless demonstration of ability and skill from two artists with plenty more left to their game. Marlowe have set an alarmingly high precedent for themselves, but if their eponymous debut indicates anything, it’s that both L’Orange and Solemn Brigham have more than enough skill between them to make the future work for them.
4. Mitski – Be The Cowboy
‘’Why am I lonely?’’
Sonically, Be The Cowboy sounds like no other Mitski album. Opener ‘Geyser’ takes the template sound of Puberty 2 and Bury Me At Makeout Creek and exhorts it in one, short song that feels like a cathartic rebirth, a figurative door close on a sound that defined an already-excellent career. Gone are the gothic guitar wails of Makeout Creek, replaced with a selection of catchy, poppier bops that might just be Mitski’s best work to date. Big, electro synth throbs and horn sections puncture ‘Why Didn’t You Stop Me?’. Funky, disco riffs instigate foot taps in ‘Nobody’. Whimsical folk is the favoured style of ‘Lonesome Love’. Be The Cowboy is absolutely expansive, taking on not just one but several styles that Mitski fans are unaccustomed to. It’s rare for an artist to make even a slight change to their sound, let alone to rip up the rulebook five albums in and create an LP full of engaging new styles and aesthetics, all of which land exceedingly well.
Yet for all the sonic differences, Be The Cowboy is undoubtedly a Mitski album. Jaded cynicism and forlorn anger are common in her controlled delivery. Harrowing off-hand lyricisms remain as devastating as ever as Mitski details despair, loneliness and relationship turmoil in a manner that’s both relatable and a little too raw. ‘Two Slow Dancers’ brought me to tears earlier this year, and I’d be lying if I said it was the first and only time the album closer pulled that feat. Seemingly obsolete observations become integral to Mitski’s storytelling, be it the anecdote that ‘all gymnasiums smell the same’ or the need to spend hours on makeup just ‘to prove something’, all for it to be utterly meaningless in the long run. It’s no more unique of a brand of oblique sadness than in prior albums, but that doesn’t take the sting out of Be The Cowboy’s tail.
3. Let’s Eat Grandma – I’m All Ears
‘’We got this.’’
One of the places I least expected to find reassurance in 2018 was I’m All Ears, the sophomore album from teenage sludge-pop duo Let’s Eat Grandma. Regardless of whether I was expecting it or not, I’m All Ears soon cemented itself as an album that became vital to the year, an amalgamation of complex pop structures, playful ideals, much needed reassurance yet all still tinged with a darker tone that seemed to encompass 2018.
On first listen, I’m All Ears is almost erratically unfocused. Short, sharp electro openers sit next to ‘Hot Pink’, the SOPHIE produced slammer that deals with identity politics and might just be one of the year’s best tracks. Whimsical anthems, 12-minute epics, cat-sampling interludes, bluesy guitar ballads and so much more contribute to I’m All Ears, an album bustling with inventive creativity. And whilst repeated listens don’t refute that initial opinion, it soon becomes clear that Let’s Eat Grandma have created a lively album of exceptionally crafted songs, so much so that it’s almost impossible to contain the sheer creativity within the album format.
It’s been a long while since I heard an album with as much commercial appeal as I’m All Ears that also completely defies logical mainstream songwriting. Practically no song on the album gravitates towards traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure, instead delivering electronic compositions that evolve and veer into unexpected directions that’s as seamless as it is compelling. ‘Falling Into Me’ swerves through jilted production before swelling into anthemic sing-along territory, all before dissipating into a melancholic instrumental breakdown. Moments of genuinely exciting musicality take precedent where some other artists would stick to a winning formula; ‘Snakes & Ladders’ throws in an arpeggiated bass line in the closing seconds, ‘Cool & Collected’ plays with suspense masterfully before divulging into an incredibly detailed series of guitar riffs and piano lines, ‘Donnie Darko’ turns electro-bliss repetition into a 12-minute masterpiece. Make no mistake, this is expert songwriting that subverts preconception and delivers consistent highs at almost every conceivable moment.
It’s easy to overlook the lack of focus when each and every track is an exciting voyage into compelling and well-written territory. I’m All Ears manages to cover everything from self-worth, gender-inequality and so much more with a cynical humour, all over constantly rewarding compositions. An ecstatic album layered with potent ability, I’m All Ears marks the rise of a new breed of pop that’s not afraid to explore vital themes with buoyant integrity. Let’s Eat Grandma, the floor is yours.
2. Lucy Dacus – Historian
‘’I fought time and it won in a landslide.’’
Historian gets better and better with each listen. Lucy Dacus’ more laboured approach to album writing – Historian favours a concept-like album format – lends itself to one of the most gratifying album listens from the year. The notion of singles is almost arbitrary in relation to Dacus’ sophomore album as Historian deserves to be listened to in full, but that doesn’t stop ‘Night Shift’, ‘Timefighter’ and ‘Addictions’ from clinching the accolade of good-as-shit indie perfection, a completely made-up notion to reiterate just how great the songs on Historian really are.
Breakups, death and the concept of both universal and personal history are no strangers to the postmodern era. Lyrically, Dacus is on burgeoning form, giving genuine weight to concepts that are both widespread and terrifying. ‘I feel no need to forgive, but I might as well’ resolves a worn-out Dacus on ‘Night Shift’. ‘I am at peace with my death/ I can go back to bed’ is the barbed chorus of ‘Next Of Kin’, a devastating meditation on the nature of life, morality, and the understanding that no one life will ever be complete. And then there’s ‘Pillar Of Truth’, a haunting and lyrically flawless ode to witnessing a loved one succumb to age, and inevitably, death. Dacus’ pain is universal and worthy of empathy because it shares so much in common with our own, and so it’s no surprise that the jarring refrains of ‘Nonbeliever’ or the finite ponderings of ‘Timefighter’ reverberate deep within the listener and becoming cathartic in their own right.
Each time Historian gets placed on my turntable, I’m greeted with the same sense of awe. Lucy Dacus’ ambitious approach to song structure is astounding, levelled out by the year’s best lyrical output. Cacophonous guitar crashes accompany melancholic musings, bass lines groan with the weight of the words and drum fills fight through reverb-laden riffs to perfectly involve the themes Historian presents. An album that already feels like an old friend, Lucy Dacus’ Historian is a mesmerising display of superb songwriting that benefits a larger vision, one that tackles life’s darkest moments with an honesty and lyricism that compel and invoke a guttural emotional response.
1. Yves Tumor – Safe In The Hands Of Love
‘’I look so different/ inside my own living hell’’
Never before has there been such a disconnect between the introspective personal and the ever-terrifying world at large. What is a singular person’s place in a world that is cruel and uncaring, unrewarding and ignoring of the individual? How do we reckon with ourselves in a fractured and isolated modern existence? Safe In The Hands Of Love hardly provides a definitive answer to these questions, but rather explores variations of such notions through uncompromising, experimental and often-brutal songwriting. And if an answer is to be found, it rests in the title of the album.
Yves Tumor’s first album for Warp Records is an almost eternally dark affair. Gloomy electronic beats, harsh noise, machine-precise drumming and layers of reverb anguish fill much of the album. But to pigeonhole Safe In The Hands Of Love would be a nearly impossible feat. Full of contradicting components and dual themes, Yves Tumor’s latest album skittishly jumps from pop-sensibilities to avant-garde noisecore, and you’re rarely a moment away from wailing screams to be heard low in the mix. Take ‘Noid’, one of the most instantly accessible tracks from the album. Propulsive drums and catchy hooks are paired with lyrics about police brutality, burdened with screeching harmonics deep in production. ‘Have you looked outside?/ I’m scared for my life’ is a damning inditement of contemporary life, loaded with the confinement and paranoia of living in western civilisation during 2018. And for all the screeching anguish, torture and pain laden in Safe In The Hands Of Love, themes of overwhelming love counterbalance the dread. ‘I’m trying not to lose my only baby girl to a toxic world’ sings James K on ‘Licking an Orchid’, a devastating marriage between profound love and the true fear of loss that accompanies it. These are the dichotomies of life, the unending juxtaposition of emotions that Yves Tumor explores.
These defined lyrical themes of Safe In The Hands Of Love are further realised in the experimentality that Yves Tumor implores. ‘Hope In Suffering (Escaping Oblivion & Overcoming Powerlessness)’ is a montage of gunshots, flies buzzing around shit and a smorgasbord of apocalyptic sounds, preceded by three of the catchiest tracks Tumor has ever made. Tracks such as ‘Economy Of Freedom’ and ‘Recognizing The Enemy’ go one step further, marrying the brutal and the majestic together to create something truly ethereal and almost mystical, the latter song providing a devastating insight into the mental turmoil that accompanies love and loss. There’s such an intrigue and originality to Safe In The Hands Of Love that every track is enticing, yet also with an uneasiness that you’ll never really become accustomed to. Fascinating and unnerving, album closer ‘Let The Lioness In You Flow Freely’ is one final twisted portrayal of pain and love, a clusterfuck of demonically droning instrumentation and inflicted torture.
Safe In The Hands Of Love is a confusing amalgamation of genres and styles, a brutal depiction of real life themes told through abstract experimentalism. Prevalent with anguish, horror, the grotesque and the macabre, the album is captivating and gruelling, honest and bare. Like the most depraved of horror films, Yves Tumor depicts a fucked-up world that you can’t help but watch, all before slowly acknowledging that the world being presented is simply just a mirror to our own.