It often seems that great albums are supposed to be things that belong to an earlier era, as the over familiar titles in “50 Greatest Albums” lists seem to suggest. This prompts the question of whether the people who compile them don’t ever just get bored of listening to the same old shit over and over again. And there’s really no need. There were plenty of great records released in 2018 which were as emotionally engaging, intelligent, fun and above all as immensely enjoyable as music has ever been, whether you compare them to those released last year, or some fabled time in the dim and distant past (which wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, if i’m completely honest). Anyway, I’ve picked my ten favourites from 2018. I’d like to hope you’ll enjoy at least some of them, but I offer no guarantees; it’s fair to say that my tastes are not as broad as they once were and I could certainly do with having a wider musical palette (which doesn’t mean I’m about to get one, but it’s a nice aspiration to have). Remember though: if you don’t like the Fred Thomas one, you are objectively wrong.
Anyway, ten great records! Starting with…
Bas Jan – Yes I Jan
Serafina Steer’s first LP with Bas Jan managed to find poetry in both the mundane and the romantic. Whether it’s struggling to make ends meet between jobs, a quick but enjoyable fumble in the back of the recording studio or buying an unexpectedly large gherkin on a day trip, everything here seems to transcend the ordinariness of its situation, helped by Serafina’s clipped, mannered tones and deft lyrical touch. Changing course again after her last, harp based, solo lp “The Moths Are Real”, “Yes I Jan” takes the violin driven post punk of early Raincoats and give it a modern slant. There’s inventive synth use and plenty of stylistic flexibility here, making each track far more likely to be an interesting left turn than a predictable wander through the late seventies. Last year’s terrific “No Sign’ single still stands out, but the warm, infectious “Wilderness” and the emotive synth pop of “Sat Nav” provide the easiest way in and show an unexpected fondness for car travel. Yes they jan!
Frankie Cosmos’s third studio LP hit upon a balance between the lo-fi strums on which Greta Kline cut her teeth, and the snappier, slightly synthetic guitar pop of 2016’s “Next Thing”. It cohered wonderfully well as an album, with heartbreaking acoustic confessionals like “This Stuff” sitting easily alongside killer singles such as “Jesse”. Kline’s vocals were as innocent and delicate as ever, but thematically her lyrics were a little more adult than last time around, as she comes across as something of a siren on opener “Caramelise” (“I’m kinda pretty, that’s why you want it so bad”), and elsewhere, more predictably, as a confused, bewildered lover (“I wasn’t built for this world, I had sex once now I’m dead!” she memorably states on “Cafeteria’). But the central planks of “Vessel” are, as ever, crippling neurosis and aching romance and it was these that made it such a relatable and compulsive listen. As examples of the latter, “Duet’ and “My Phone” could melt hearts at thirty paces, but it was Kline’s desperate desire to become “part of the scenery” on “Jesse” that hit home. “Vessel” provided wallflowers everywhere with a sympathetic friend they could identify with and, if there’s any justice, it ought to win over a few more cheerful souls as well.
I never really rated the first Goon Sax record and took my prejudices against it into their second, only to have them fall away within the time it took to play two brilliant singles. After that I was hooked and remain so now. “We’re Not Talking” is a major leap forward from their debut, musically dense and sophisticated in contrast to its bare bones predecessor. James Harrison’s “She Knows”, with its wailing guitar and ominous, rumbling groove, is his best song yet and his tracks provided a strong foil for Louis Forster’s this time around, with his nervy vocals and ingenuous, slightly panicked lyrics having made bold strides over the last couple of years. Forster himself was on great form, especially on vulnerable ballad “We Can’t Win” and the impassioned “Get Out” , but it was drummer Riley Jones who stole the show, with the glorious, unsettling “Strange Light”, and her addition to the writing credits has clearly had a major role in the band’s all round improvement. The Goon Sax are shaping up to be the big DiY pop heroes of the next decade and “We’re Not Talking” feels like the launchpad for a glorious career.
Beset by disaster at every turn, including a serious accident just before it was originally set to be released back in 2017, Melody Prochet’s second LP somehow managed to turn out remarkably well in the end. “Bon Voyage” wore its adventurous nature on its sleeve, with songs that stuttered, broke down, collapsed into entirely different rhythms at random moments and generally poked at the idea of what a pop song was meant to be. But for all that, these were certainly still pop songs and this was a hugely listenable record, taking in elegant psychedelia, bouncing dub crossovers and shimmering disco in such a way as to keep the listener entertained even as they were constantly being jolted at every musical twist and turn. “Breathe In, Breathe Out’ and “Cross Your Heart” were both terrific radio hits and the sinuous “Desert Horse” was the ultimate grower. But in a way, it was Melody’s story through a dark period of her life that was the main focus of the album, running through the lyrics like a vein through rock. However, she still manages to provide some uplift in the end, as she declares on “Quand les larmes…” that she’s “found somewhere to hide, someone to be held by”, and what more can any of us really aspire to? Ultimately, “Bon Voyage’ was a brilliant, daring record from a musical force to be truly reckoned with. One can only hope she has a better time of it for the next one.
The Middle Ones – There You Made Me Funny
Given that it’s over four years since they last released a record, I’d wondered whether The Middle Ones would ever return, but in the end, they came back at just the right time with an album to remind people of everything that makes them so special. “Funny” stripped away some of the more obviously folky leanings of earlier records, with the music largely consisting of just guitar and occasional percussion. Some bands might find their material exposed by this minimal approach, but the spellbinding interplay of Anna and Grace’s voices was always going to be more than capable of carrying an album in this way. There’s a certain drill to Middle Ones records that I’ve become used to but never tire of. I particularly love how the lines of vocal melody weave and intertwine in such a way that it seems the whole fragile construction must tumble at some point, but still somehow they roll on, their voices supporting each other in the frail but sturdy manner that seems to characterise their approach to life in general. Their generosity and easy good nature still cuts through in the lyrics throughout; whether they’re describing something as awkward and complex as maintaining a long distance relationship (“The Place”), or as simple as taking a swim in the sea (“Cromer”), their emotional commitment and exultation in love and friendship are, as ever, placed front and centre. It’s a miserable, shitty world out there, but there are still some people standing up for kindness, and “There You Made Me Funny’ is a record that makes the daily horrors seem that little bit more bearable for its existence.
The second LP from The Ophelias seems cuddly enough at first listen, but the further you go in, the more it begins to scrape and jar a little. Warm acoustic guitars and gently processed rhythm tracks provide much of the backbone for an intriguing, magical record, but frequent dischords and unsettling time signatures mean that it’s not always an easy one to relax into. Spencer Peppet’s vocals have a dry, detached feel to them which adds an odd sense of distance to many of the songs, and this is of a piece with the more oblique parts of her lyrics, which tend to be rooted around loneliness and difficult relationships. Jane Siberry is a touchstone for some elements of the band’s quirky musical style, especially the gorgeous harmonies that swoop and glide through “Fog” and “Lover’s Creep”, and also the awkward song structures on more difficult tracks like “O Command”. But “Almost” feels a lot like a band settling into a sound very much of their own, and I struggle to think of anyone making records that sound a lot like this; certainly, there are very few people making anything remotely as good. Single “General Electric” stands out, seducing with its easy, rolling groove whilst smuggling in a tale of a nervy, masochistic relationship, but “Almost” is an album that absorbs you from start to finish, the work of four talented women who are at the very top of their game.
The final part of a remarkable, career defining trilogy, ‘Aftering’ finds Fred Thomas in a reflective mood, revisiting childhood pain, examining the mixed emotions that surround his lack of commercial success and focusing on wider ideas of fear and pessimism. Musically, it ranged from sparkling two minute pop songs to grinding nine minute dirges, though somehow it managed to square the circle and keep the album feeling like one complete thought, rather than a series of disconnected snapshots. But what comes back to me when I think of “Aftering” is a series of truly remarkable moments where the songs that they’re part of turn from so many highly enjoyable tracks into something more like one masterpiece after another. The swoonsome sweep of the strings in “What The Sermon Said”, that marks the transformation of the song from a cold, desolate winterscape into a darkly comic retelling of childhood reminiscences; the little stutter of studio chatter before the second chorus of “Hopeless Ocean Drinker”, where the music suddenly kicks back in and the already fierce intensity manages to find an even higher gear; the juddering, scraping guitars just before the coda on “Good Times Are Gone Again”, which seem to herald nothing so much as some kind of joyous apocalypse. Any one of these songs could be a standout track that puts everything else into the shade, but ’Aftering’ had them all and lots more just as stunning. A record so unbelievably good that I’m a little embarrassed for anyone who’s heard this and hasn’t bought it already; like, what is wrong with these people?!?
Ellis Jones’s witty lyricism and melodic brilliance were still a mainstay on Trust Fund’s swansong, but it turned out to be their most eclectic record yet, taking in glam pop, electronica, acoustic folk and hard riffing along the way. But for all this experimentation, it still most often reverted to their now familiar power pop jangle, though this time the lines were cleaner and the choruses more designed for communal singalong chants, rather than my usual tuneless bedroom shouting; ironically, this might have been the album to break them commercially if they hadn’t been so keen to wander off altogether. The lyrical themes of disappointed romance and warm friendship were still there, but there was also an increased peevishness that crept in, giving a sense that being a neurotic misfit and underground pop star was not a life that interested Jones too much anymore. But as ever with Trust Fund, ”Backline” was a powerful, emotive and occasionally very funny record, where the highlights were far higher than almost anything else this year. “Blue X” provided the perfect mix of energy and ennui to kickstart the album, but it’s “Abundant” that still sticks with me now; the images of departure from a failed relationship feeling all too appropriate from a now silent group who struck a resounding chord in me for so long. “Bringing The Backline” was monumental effort and a fitting memorial to one of the best bands of the decade.
“We all know what’s right” sings Meg Remy on “Poem”, and it’s a moment that captures the mood of her 6th LP as U.S. Girls. Lyrically, it’s an album as moral as it is political, taking in subjects like rape revenge, environmental damage and presidential neglect across just the first three songs. Remy never fails to stand up for what she believes, singing sometimes with a righteous fervour which is as infectious as the songs themselves, but is unafraid to use subtlety to get her message across as well. Musically, it moves on from the icy, monochromatic sound of her last LP, “Half Free”, taking inspiration from disco, funk, Madonna and blues rock on a record that manages to move seamlessly across styles and genres without ever missing a beat. “Rosebud” was one of the great singles of this and many a year, it’s elegant strings and blissed out summer sound as ever disguising a darker message, while “Rage of Plastics” seemed like a bastard cousin of ‘Black Velvet’ by Alanna Myles, and in a surprisingly good way too. But, again, it was the calm, damning synth pop of “Poem” that best expressed the take home message of the album – “how did we end up this way?”, a question which has bothered me ever more as this year has gone on.
Vital Idles are a band who’s only previous single ,“My Sentiments”, made a big impression when it was released two years ago, and while “Left Hand’ doesn’t quite pick up where that particularly vicious record left off, it offers plenty more to enjoy from Jessica Higgins and her scabrous post-punk outfit. Higgins’s wordy, garrulous delivery is the first thing that stands out, and her sharp semi-ranting monologues are the source of much of the band’s appeal. But looking further, their musical austerity, reminiscent of early Fall, offers plenty of less complicated thrills, stripping things down to a guitar/bass/drums line up which creates a raw but highly effective sound, capable of both ringing in your ears on tracks like fierce opener “A Premise”, or meandering serenely through more restrained numbers like the epic “Cave Raised”. In a year where their semi-namesakes Idles’s borish, tedious sloganeering was heralded as the saviour of guitar music, it was good to find a band operating on a different level, who showed that within such basic limits you could still make an intelligent and memorable album that didn’t pander to the lowest common denominator. “Left Hand” may not always be especially original, but it is highly engaging and often pretty fucking great.
Aside from that, there were a few other records that I enjoyed a lot this year which were just bubbling under, either because I didn’t come back to them as much as the others, or I discovered them late and felt like I hadn’t had time to get the measure of them properly (and also, if I’m honest, I really didn’t have time to write about any more stuff anyway, we’d have been here til god knows when). So, honourable mentions go to “Ecstatic Arrow” by Virginia Wing, “Silver Dollar Moment” by The Orielles, “Grid Of Points” by Grouper, “Future Me Hates Me” by The Beths, “Trunks” by Seazoo, “Bell House” by Shy Boys and “Pig City” by Tigercats, all of which are very good and well worth a listen too.
And that’s it. There’s a final retrospective piece I’m going to do after the new year, which will be about a few old records that I’ve discovered in 2018, and then we’ll be back to new releases again, as Deerhunter and Tullycraft have albums out in early 2019 that I’m really looking forward to and which I may or may not write something about. I hope everyone who read this year found something that they enjoyed and, just in general, thanks for taking the time, it’s been fun.