Top Ten Albums of 2018

Time to recap my favorite music from the last 12 months — mostly indie rock/pop with a retro flavor. My top ten in no particular order:

Snail MailLush – Lindsey Jordan was taught guitar by Mary Timony, who led 90s indie rockers Helium. Her first EP, Habit, caught national notice, and got her profiled in Pitchfork while she was still in high school. She was signed to redoubtable indie rock label Matador Records shortly afterwards. The music cognoscenti were clearly ready to anoint this young prodigy the next Liz Phair or Fiona Apple. It’s not always easy to deliver when expectations are high. But Jordan comes through with songs that are emotionally sincere and wise beyond her years. The band and production bring out the best in her material, putting her efficient guitar work up front. Unquestionably indie rock’s rookie of the year.

The 1975A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships – The 1975 have updated and refined rock/pop for a new generation. They cover plenty of well-traveled rock territory, but with their own retro style. For example, there’s the song about drugs thinly disguised as being about something else (friends, girls, relationships) — e.g. Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down”, The La’s “There She Goes”, Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life”. “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” is their estimable addition to that canon. “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” is about the consequences of infidelity, to a bouncy pop beat. “Give Yourself A Try” is an emo-esque anthem about being true to yourself, couched in a surprisingly edgy guitar loop. “The Man Who Married A Robot / Love Theme” comes off as their version of Radiohead’s “Fitter, Happier”. Not groundbreaking, but a rewarding listen all the way through.

SemblanceI Love You [EP] – A couple of talented teenagers from the Philly area get together to form an electro-rock band. As the song titles (“Angel”, “Hell” “Ghost”, “Sex”, “Two Hearts”) clearly portend, they do not shy away from “big” topics. The songwriting is authentic and the production is impressive, with deft synth and post-rock touches. I think they have a ton of potential, and I’m looking forward to the full album. In the meantime, I’ve got the EP on repeat.

ChvrchesLove Is Dead – The gleaming synth-pop production is almost too perfect, bordering on the edge of sterile. But Lauren Mayberry’s voice imbues with it passion and heart. And their knack for hooks hasn’t diminished. Chalk up another winner for the Scottish trio.

Calvin HarrisFunk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 – Yes, I am aware this came out in 2017. However, I completely missed it until early 2018. And I listened to it so much that I felt it would be unfair to exclude it from the list. It seems like uber-producer Harris knocked this out on a lark, but with a relaxed summertime vibe, it’s a low-key gem. The warm old school beats pair well with the bevy of guest artists. It’s all based in hip-hop, but there’s tons of variety, from warped radio-pop (e.g. “Feels” feat. Katy Perry) to retro-R&B styling (the Amy-Winehouse-esque “Hard To Love” feat. Jessie Reyes) to unexpected Caribbean-flavor (“Skrt On Me” feat. Nicki Minaj). Just a fun and solid listen all the way through. Here’s hoping for a Vol 2.

Beach House7 – The most reliable purveyors of modern dream-pop keep adding subtle touches to their signature sound to keep things interesting. Their hypnotic melodies and Victoria LeGrand’s rich, potent vocals are in excellent form. But this time around, they bring in James Barone to provide live drums and a new producer who experiments with a wider range of synth and sound effects without getting gimmicky or annoying. The result is a fresh twist on their winning formula.

Twin ShadowCaer – His brooding, Prince-meets-Morrissey style and willingness to experiment occasionally leads to unsatisfying results. But when it all clicks, George Lewis, Jr. can produce some transcendent music. On his latest album, the hits far outnumber the misses. “Saturdays” is a lost hit that could sit comfortably next to Bruce Springsteen or Prince on any 1980s radio dial. “Brace” is informed by the tour bus crash that sidelined him for months. “18 Years”, “Littlest Things” and “Obvious People” seem to be about idealized young love and heartbreak. “Sympathy”, “When You’re Wrong”, and “Bombs Away (RLP)” are a bit more dark and gritty. For me, “Little Woman” is the only true misfire, but, as is common with Twin Shadow, I can imagine it being someone else’s favorite.

Timecop1983Night Drive – I’ve been enamored with Timecop1983’s chilled-out, synth-wave productions for a while now. On his latest album it’s just more quality material, with some solid vocal collaborators. He’s developed a signature sound — which can seem formulaic, but there’s really nothing else quite like it. If you loved dark 1980s synth-pop and/or the revival kicked off by the Drive soundtrack, this is definitely worth checking out.

The BreedersAll Nerve – Reunions are always a tricky business. Kim Deal spent the better part of the last two decades touring with the re-united Pixies, and working on her own material by re-forming The Breeders. The Pixies were a touring success and the Breeders output was decent, so she had managed pretty well. In 2013, the Breeders’ classic lineup (the Deal sisters, Josephine Wiggs and Jim MacPherson) reunited to tour behind a deluxe 20th anniversary re-issue of the seminal Last Splash. The tour was a success, but this lineup managed to do something most reunions (including Deal’s previous ones) never do. Recapture the original magic in the studio again. All Nerve is more confident and consistent than Last Splash. It sounds like it could have been recorded in the 1990s, a couple years after Last Splash, if Kelley Deal had never gotten busted for drugs. It’s probably too much to expect the singles to fully scale the heights of “Cannonball” or “Divine Hammer”, but “Stay In The Car” rocks hard, “Nervous Mary” is tense and pithy, and “Spacewoman” is both affecting and disturbing. Simply put, if you are a fan of vintage alternative rock, this is top-notch, all-new, must-hear music.

Kali UchisIsolation – Isolation pulls off some difficult balancing acts. It’s a whirlwind tour through expertly crafted, smooth pop and R&B stylings, with both modern and vintage touches . Uchis moves effortlessly between English and Spanish. The grooves are old school funky, but with up-to-date R&B production flourishes. There are many collaborations, but the guests only add distinctive touches, they never take over the songs. Contemporary pop rarely gets this good.

Best re-issues:

PosiesFrosting On The Beater (Deluxe) / Amazing Disgrace (Deluxe)
Pet Shop BoysPlease/Actually/Introspective/Behavior/Very/Bilingual/Nightlife (2018 2-CD reissues)
Guns ‘N’ RosesAppetite For Destruction (2-CD deluxe)
Liz PhairGirly-Sound To Guyville
The CarsShake It Up (Deluxe) / Heartbeat City(Deluxe)

Top Ten Albums Of 2017

Another year, another list of my favorite music from the past year. This year’s list skews to established indie rock/pop artists, especially ones with a slightly retro bent. Here’s my top ten albums in no particular order:

The NationalSleep Well Beast – The band with the difficult-to-Google name returns with an energetic new album. The two uptempo singles (“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, “Day I Die”) effectively deploy repeating guitar motifs as hooks, and the slower numbers have hypnotic drum and synth patterns that provide an ideal accompaniment for Matt Berninger’s sonorous baritone and jagged, impressionistic lyrics. I’ve been a fan of the band for a decade and a half, and this is one of their finest albums alongside Alligator and Boxer.

The War On DrugsA Deeper Understanding – Building on the success of their 2014 album, Lost In The Dream, the band has crafted a near-masterpiece. Classic rock (from both vinyl and cassette era) remains an abiding influence, but the rich, layered music stands on it’s own against the very best of the past. Only the click-track drumming seems occasionally rote. The lyrics are emotionally charged with a hint of pathos — affecting and powerful. The War On Drugs seem to be scaling new heights with each successive album. With A Deeper Understanding, they have reached rarefied air.

The Pains Of Being Pure At HeartEcho Of Pleasure – If you are a fan of indie-pop with a bit of a sentimental streak, Kip Berman, the leader and only constant member of The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart is still delivering the goods. The knock on the band has always been that they aren’t very original. Sure, they remain in debt to their 80s/90s forebears, but they also continue to write refreshing and catchy songs that, while not expanding boundaries, are certainly welcome additions to the indie-pop canon. I think The Skinny summed it up best in their review of the album, “It’s a low-key record for a certain type of listener – this isn’t a band clamouring for arena-rock status, just one that is happy making good music and having fun doing it.”

Day WaveThe Days We Had – The proper album follow up to last year’s compilation of EPs, Headcase / Hard To Read, this is more of the same in the best way possible. If you enjoyed that release, you definitely need this new album bursting with subtle, earworm tunes. If, in spite of Jackson Philips’ songwriting prowess, you found the songs too same-sounding, well, this doesn’t have much more variety than the last release. I happen to find his take on indie-pop/rock entrancing, so it was a big winner for me.

Arcade FireEverything Now – More so than any other modern artist I enjoy, Arcade Fire have built their career on concept albums. Their masterful debut, Funeral, a celebratory, life-affirming, meditation on loss was an absolute classic. Neon Bible was a less successful treatise on religion. They nailed the finer details about coming of age in the suburbs with the aptly titled The Suburbs. Reflektor was an ambitious tour of Jamaican and Haitian music styles, filtered through an art-rock prism, a la Talking Heads. Everything Now finds them grappling with everything the Internet age has wrought – information overload, social media anxiety, Internet celebrities, etc. Musically it leans towards a 80s synth/dance-rock style, with their trademark pulsing grooves and tempo-changing intros/codas. The overall message seems to be that the conveniences of the modern age have led many to a lifestyle that is more lonely, distracted, and unsatisfied than ever before. It’s an admirable theme, but one that is hard to pull off without coming off as too earnest, didactic, or curmudgeonly. To their credit, Arcade Fire manage to stay on the right side of that line for the majority of the album, delivering another winner.

SlowdiveSlowdive – This self-titled comeback album took me by surprise. While the brilliance of their 1993 album Souvlaki is undeniable, I have always preferred Ride and Lush when it came to the more pop-oriented shoegazers. Lush reformed in 2016 and released the decent Blind Spot EP before breaking up again. Ride returned this year with Weather Diaries, which had some passable tunes, but completely lacked the depth and atmosphere that marked their best work. Slowdive, on the other hand released an album which is on par with their very best. It’s very much how I would hope any shoegaze band might have matured. The sound is cleaner and more controlled than in the past, but the swlirling guitar melodies are better than ever. Many band comebacks are doomed to fail. Here’s to hoping this one continues to bring us more quality music!

PhoenixTi Amo – A loose concept album about a fantasized summer holiday in Italy. The songs set the scene perfectly — hot weather, cool gelato, even cooler Italian discos, and, of course, summer romance. It’s a very conscious escapism — in the face of all the negative forces in the world, it makes enjoying the simpler pleasures in life seem like an act of defiance. Phoenix have completely mastered their rock-pop/disco-lite sound, and the little lyrical flourishes in Italian and French give the songs an authentic continental feel. It’s their finest album since Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix back in 2009. Godere!

White ReaperThe World’s Best American Band – I’m not sure if White Reaper completely do their audacious album title justice, but damn if they aren’t close to hitting that lofty target. They’ve polished their warm, fuzzy, power-pop sound into a gleaming, powerful buzzsaw. It makes their best songs hit with that much more impact. Conversely, lesser songs don’t have as much sonic space to let their charms develop and win you over. Still, they sure know how to hit those basic rock and roll verities. As one of their choruses goes “If you make the girls dance, the boys will dance with ’em”. Indeed.

SpoonHot Thoughts – I don’t think Spoon has ever made a bad album. Considering their career stretches 9 albums and over 20 years, that’s pretty impressive. They’ve come a long way from the Pixies-style rave-ups on their first album Telephono to develop their own signature sound. Spiky, lean, muscular grooves that are somehow perfect and off-kilter at the same time. Austin’s finest band is really something special, and their new album Hot Thoughts is one of their best. Savor it.

The XXI See You – On their third album, they finally open up their sound just a little bit and it’s wonderful. The he-said/she-said vocals and subtle melodies are fully intact. But an unexpected sample here, a melodic flourish there — it gives the music depth — like a color splash photo; black and white, but with one color to emphasize an object or mood. They are really starting to hit their stride. Definitely their most accessible album, and very possibly their finest.

Honorable Mention:

Timecop1983Lovers (Part 2) EP
Future IslandsThe Far Field
HaimSomething To Tell You
Ted LeoThe Hanged Man
Com TruiseIteration

Best re-issues:

RadioheadOK Computer (OKNOTOK 1997-2017)
PrincePurple Rain (Deluxe)
Hüsker DüSavage Young Dü
Richard Hell & The VoidoidsBlank Generation (40th Anniversary Deluxe)
The CarsCandy-O (Deluxe)
The SmithsThe Queen Is Dead (Deluxe)
R.E.M.Automatic For The People (Deluxe)

Top Ten Albums of 2016

Time for a recap of my favorite music from the past year. I decided to make two lists: one for my top ten favorite albums, and one for top ten favorite songs (outside of those on the albums). For the first time in many years, I enjoyed numerous singles where the corresponding albums didn’t impress me nearly as much. I felt like I had to represent those fairly.

To start things off, here’s my top ten albums in no particular order:

A Tribe Called QuestWe Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service – A pretty much perfect comeback album from a legendary act. Coming 18 years after the tepid Love Movement album, it was hard to know what to expect. What they deliver is denser, a shade darker and more political than before, but with the same Native Tongues ethos. This album marks the last time we’ll hear the classic dynamic between primary emcees Q-Tip and Phife Dawg (RIP), who are on point as always. Because of Phife’s passing, we get a taste of little-heard Jarobi on the mic (who manages to hold his own). Guests range from old friends (Busta Rhymes), similarly eclectic artists (Andre 3000), and young admirers (Kendrick Lamar). They all contribute, but each song is clearly a Tribe joint. With Ali Shaheed Mohammed unavailable, the production is mainly handled by Q-Tip who does a fine job of crate digging for unusual samples to loop and layer over sturdy hip-hop beats. Occasionally the samples get too random and cluttered, and on some tracks Phife relies too much on his Trinidadian patois, but this album is among the group’s best work, only surpassed by unassailable golden-age hip hop classics Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders.

Cymbals Eat GuitarsPretty Years – Like many of their contemporaries (e.g. The Hold Steady, The War On Drugs) have already done, Cymbals Eat Guitars bring classic rock influences to bear on their 4th album. That is evident just from the song title references to Bruce Springsteen (“4th Of July, Philadelphia (Sandy)”), and Led Zeppelin (“Dancing Days”). Musically, the tempos are slower and the melodies more pronounced than on previous albums. The use of synth, piano, and occasional brass flourishes keep the music firmly in indie-rock territory, but when the guitars come in, they are more assertive. What makes the album truly special is how the slower building tunes amplify the songs, which are powerful meditations on the possibilities of love, the pain of loss, and dealing with anger and violence. Their best album ever, and the finest indie rock of the year.

The RangePotential – Brooklyn-based producer James Hinton’s second album as The Range is a testament to the power of listening. The vocal samples woven and layered into his instrumental hip-hop, dubstep, and electro-pop are taken from random people singing and rapping on YouTube. The magic is in his recognition of the the emotional power in many of these seemingly ordinary snippets and his ability to re-contextualize them and build amazing songs around them. Even without knowing the concept behind the songs, it’s a fantastic listen; Hinton appears to have been motivated by the concept to produce some of his most memorable music. He even gave the sources of his YouTube samples a share of his publishing!

Day WaveHeadcase / Hard To Read – This combination of two EPs produces a pretty awesome indie-pop album. Day Wave a.k.a. Jackson Philips has a knack for subtle, melodic songs that can both entrance you in a moment and really stick with you long term. Similar instrumentation and tempo can occasionally make the songs blend together, but he’s just such songwriting talent. Day Wave has released a couple of other singles and EPs well worth tracking down, but this release is the best place to start understanding the magic of Day Wave.

BroodsConscious – A talented brother-sister, synth-pop duo from New Zealand continue to expand their reach on their second album. Georgia Nott provides the breathy, emotive vocals and older brother Caleb Nott provides a lush electronic backdrop with elements of trip-hop and indie-pop integrated into the electronica. All of the songs are extremely well arranged, but the best ones are where Georgia’s vocals reach their peak. When she sings “heartlines” so it sounds like “hurtlines”, it’s something special. Look forward to more from Broods.

Empty HousesDaydream – Forget the punchy, tastefully retro, Motown-girl-group-by-way-of-Amy-Winehouse sound of this album. It’s all about the songs. It’s rare to find such consistently well-written songs arranged and performed so skillfully. Combined with the expressive and powerful vocals of Ali Shea, they lift the album far above being a mere genre exercise. Timeless and irresistible after just a couple of spins.

Moving UnitsDamage With Care – Well over a decade has passed since Moving Units released their self-titled debut EP featuring “Between Us & Them”, an impressive opening salvo that portended greatness in the nascent dance-punk scene. But after a promising debut album which reprised that song, the band released a couple of decent, but lesser, follow-ups and finally split in 2012. Given the decline of the dance-punk scene that spawned them, it seemed unlikely we’d see new music from them. But here it is in 2016 and a new lineup built around founder Blake Miller released perhaps their best music since the debut. They band sounds fresh and energized. A must listen for dance-punk fans.

Pr0filesJurassic Technologie– A few years ago, the soundtrack to the movie Drive along with the stable of artists on producer Johnny Jewel’s Italians Do It Better label (Chromatics, Glass Candy, etc.) made 80s-style synths cool again. This spawned a whole slew of ‘synth-wave’ revivalists. Many of the artists produced instrumentals that sounded like mediocre music from video games. It’s far too easy for synthesizers to sound cheesy. Danny Sternbaum of Pr0files has clearly learned his lessons from Johnny Jewel well. He has a way with a dark synth-pop hook. Vocalist Lauren Pardini has as a powerful a voice as you will find in the synth-wave scene. Together as Pr0files, they’ve written a batch of impressive songs. If you liked the Drive soundtrack, any of Johnny Jewel’s projects, or edgy synth-pop in general, you owe it to yourself to check this out. A great article about this underrated album is here.

OperatorsBlue Wave – Operators, the synth-centric side project of Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner, merges Cold War era feelings of malaise and dread with paranoia about the prospect of an Orwellian society. These are not easy feelings to express in a pop music format. The trick is turning the songs into danceable pieces of art that even Big Brother could appreciate. The chilly synths and discordant vocals can sometimes make the songs sound like half remembered dreams, but they set a distinct mood and the tension is not always released. If you like The Faint, definitely check these guys out.

Timecop1983Lovers (Part 1) EP – The very best of what the synth-wave scene spawned. Young, talented artists getting interested in 1980s style synthesizer music and making it their own. Dutch artist Timecop1983 (a.k.a. Jordy Leenaerts) is amazingly skilled at making the cold sounds of the synthesizer burst with the warmest arrays of human emotion. Sure it’s unabashedly retro. But even without vocals, the songs are gorgeous. When paired with sympathetic vocals, the songs truly soar. Lovers (Part 1) is merely an entry point into an already deep catalog that stretches back several albums and 3 years. Previous albums Journeys (2014) and Reflections (2015) are stunning. If you have any interest in 80s style pop or even just pop in general, check out Timecop1983. Entire albums are available to listen on YouTube (links below), but if you like his stuff support the artist on Bandcamp!

Honorable Mention:

twenty one pilotsBlurryface
The 1975I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

Best re-issues:

Phil CollinsSingles (3CD UK Version)