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2018 Year-End List Extravaganza

Top 20* Albums of 2018

I’ll put the big link before the blathering: New Artillery Top 20* Albums of 2018.

Given the absurd amount of year-end lists cluttering The Internet, there shouldn’t be any sense of achievement for making one, but this list is the first I’ve finished since 2013. Every year since then I’ve worked on a list and made decent progress toward completion: selection, writing, design, formatting—just not finishing. Part of that failure is par for the course. I’ve gone thousands of words into pieces intended for this site and never shepherded them to the end. A larger part is the prevailing sense that my experience with a year of music will never be “complete” enough to put a stamp on it. I attempt to keep up with noteworthy releases from a year of music, get hopelessly behind, play Polvo’s Siberia a dozen times, realize there are fifty albums I need to hear before making a list, and think “Maybe next year is when I’ll hear everything of note.” But that is impossible, and I’m reasonably proud of continuing to add some previously unfamiliar artists to the stable of favorites who released a new record that I unsurprisingly enjoyed a great deal.

Here are ten additional songs that I enjoyed from this year, listed in alphabetical order.

The Beths / “Future Me Hates Me”

I just heard it this week, but The Beths’ Future Me Hates Me was nevertheless quite close to finding a place on my albums list. I first heard the New Zealand group on Jon Solomon’s 30-hour Christmas marathon on WPRB when he played their cover of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and he mentioned on-air that he still needed to check out their record. I made that same mental note, and Future Me Hates Me is an energetic, hyper-melodic indie pop album. Its title track is by no means the only keeper—I could have picked “Not Running” or “Little Death” without hesitation—but the overlapping vocal melodies in its final chorus are what sold me on the album.

Blanck Mass / “Please (Zola Jesus Remix)”

At this point, Benjamin John Power has been more productive in his solo project Blanck Mass than his ostensible main gig, Fuck Buttons. Over three proper full-lengths, a handful of EPs, and a smattering of worthwhile ephemera, Power has explored arpeggiated-synth ambient, BPM-crazed cardio-fuel, terrifying industrial, and warped-vocal catharsis. The four-track World Eater Re-Voxed EP compiles four remixes of songs from Blanck Mass’s astounding 2017 LP, and the clear highlight is Zola Jesus’s goth-club reimagining of “Please.” It starts off slow, but the crossing vocal lines in the final minutes wipe away memories of the stellar source material.

Christian Fitness / “Hamsterland”

I’m in the midst of writing a longer piece on Andrew Falkous’s one-man-band Christian Fitness (which hopefully will come into existence before 2023), but if you’ve never ventured beyond Falkous’s main gigs of Mclusky and Future of the Left, the closing track from Christian Fitness’s fifth (!) album, Nuance – The Musical is as good of a place to start as any. Driven by an elephantine keyboard lead (at least I assume it’s a keyboard, Falkous does some great work with guitar tones in CF), “Hamsterland” is at once calm and frenzied. “This is the bit at the end,” Falkous announces with a minute left in the song, and the lyrical zingers drop like bombs.

Let’s Eat Grandma / “Donnie Darko”

I first encountered this teenage experimental pop duo’s name on a show flyer at Great Scott in September. As much as I appreciate comma jokes, even outright groaners, I wasn’t expecting to see one while waiting for The Gotobeds to take the stage. A few months later I’d seen enough recommendations for LEG’s sophomore album, I’m All Ears, to finally check it out, and I was pleasantly surprised by the kaleidoscopic array of synth-pop textures. Not all of their ideas work, but it’s hard to complain when there’s such an incredible amount of them crammed into 52 minutes. With apologies to the blown-out hooks of “Hot Pink,” the club dizziness of “Falling into Me,” and the earnest slow-build of “I Will Be Waiting,” the record’s highlight is its eleven-minute closing track, “Donnie Darko.” Taking I’m All Ears’ penchant for sprawl to an extreme, “Donnie Darko” sounds like a previously unimagined collaboration between Lorde and Fuck Buttons.

Llarks / “What We Find Now”

Rehashing Chris Jeely’s resume would take an entire paragraph, but I first heard his music via selections of Accelera Deck’s Narcotic Beats on Epitonic in 1999 (which officially stopped existing this year), and I’ve followed his evolution through any number of sub-genres since then. He’s no less prolific with his latest nom de plume, Llarks (2018 LP Like a Daydream was preceded by the Metallic Summer Sea EP), but there’s a calmness and serenity to ambient compositions like “What We Find Now” that feels like the long-deserved resolution to an often-restless creative journey. My immediate point of comparison is Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, which are lofty heights indeed.

Midwife / “Forever”

Madeline Johnston followed up Midwife’s excellent 2017 LP Like Author, Like Daughter with the four-song Prayer Hands cassette, a slow drip of morphine for the bedridden. These lugubrious tracks would make perfect sense on Kranky Records, recalling the label’s “Going Nowhere Slow” t-shirt. You could peel away gossamer layers of fuzz for hours without reaching Johnston’s unaltered vocal tracks, and yet there’s still a clear emotional impact to lyrics like “I want to feel / Forever / I don’t know / I don’t know how” drifting in the ether.

Mogwai / “Donuts”

I’ve been a Mogwai fan for more than 20 years now, so please recognize the restraint needed to stop myself from nudging their soundtrack for the sci-fi movie Kin (which I still haven’t seen) into my top albums list by default. It’s not undeserving of praise, mind you—like 99% of Mogwai’s material, it is extremely listenable, and the final third comprised of moody post-rock explorations “Guns Down” and “Kin” and the up-tempo vocal number “We’re Not Done” is excellent—but on the whole, I prefer last year’s superb Every Country’s Sun. The highlight of the soundtrack comes at its midpoint, with the slowly pulsing synths of “Donuts” evolving into a neon-lit, mid-tempo stomp. It absolutely deserves inclusion on the next update of the six-LP best-of compilation Central Belters (which is now one proper LP and three soundtracks out of date).

Protomartyr / “Wheel of Fortune”

2017’s Relatives in Descent remains in regular rotation, but Protomartyr supplemented that tower-crashing achievement with the four-song Consolation EP. Vocalist Joe Casey is accompanied by The Breeders’ Kelley Deal (an arrangement that previously produced the superlative “Blues Festival”), and “I decide who lives and who dies!” is a chilling refrain for the pulse-of-a-nation-that’s-bleeding-out primacy of “Wheel of Fortune.” Every line cuts deep—“Wrath for sale and it is always Christmas,” “Your time is coming / That is our promise / If you’re not around your children will do,” “A man with a gun and a deluded sense of purpose / A good guy with a gun who missed”—but the wounded desperation of the song’s closing passage is truly haunting: “If you ever smile on me / Please let it be now / I wonder if you’ll fool me this time.”

Savak / “They Are Not Like Us”

Give me another month or two and Savak’s Beg Your Pardon likely makes my albums list, capping off a busy year-plus in which the group has released two LPs (just imagine I made a best-of-2017 list and the politically charged Cut-Ups is on it) along with two additional European singles (“Where Should I Start?” b/w “Expensive Things” and “Green and Desperate” b/w “This Dying Lake”), all of which are recommended. But right now, my brain’s trying to process a huge stack of records and every time I put on Beg Your Pardon, I end up focusing on the greatness its closing track, unintentionally slighting the eleven songs that precede it. “They Are Not Like Us” starts off as a slightly melancholic mid-tempo rock song about being disconnected from friends’ (presumably political) viewpoints, but halfway through, a wordless vocal part emerges over the insistent bass groove, and elegiac horns take command. Eventually everything gives way to those sighing horns, and there’s a minute-long requiem to close the song and the album. I know I need to play the rest of the album, but my desire to hear the final two minutes of “They Are Not Like Us” over and over is taking precedence at the moment.

We Were Promised Jetpacks / “Hanging In”

They released their debut LP slightly later than Frightened Rabbit or The Twilight Sad, but I still associate We Were Promised Jetpacks as part of that generation of Scottish indie rock bands. More meat-and-potatoes rock than either of those groups, WWPJ are now four albums deep into a discography that has occasionally struggled to surpass the ecstatic blast of their first single, “Quiet Little Voices.” Every album has a few songs channeling that electric charge, but The More I Sleep The Less I Dream is their first record that doesn’t lose my attention at some point. It’s tighter than its predecessors, the range of tempos and emotions is more noticeable, and choosing a single highlight is a challenge. I’ll go with “Hanging In,” a song that sways as well as it struts, that eventually builds to an explosive charge, but would have been great even if it hadn’t reached that climax.

The Haul: Clikatat Ikatowi's Orchestrated and Conducted by Clikatat Ikatowi

Clikatat Ikatowi's Orchestrated and Conducted by Clikatat Ikatowi

I’d never heard of Clikatat Ikatowi before last year, when I was formally introduced to the group by my friend Charlie. There is an underlying logic to both sides of that sentence. Charlie grew up as a San Diego punk rock kid, so the importance and visibility of an art-punk group like Clikatat Ikatowi was exponentially greater there. In contrast, my knowledge of the ’90s San Diego scene emphasizes the bigger names and more palatable sounds of Drive Like Jehu, Rocket from the Crypt, and Heavy Vegetable, overlooking the more explicitly hardcore realm of Gravity Records. At the very least, I’d be able to pick names like Heroin, Mohinder, Indian Summer, and Antioch Arrow out of a line-up. But Clikatat Ikatowi? Even after typing their name three times in this paragraph I'm unsure about the correct spelling.

Charlie was right to recommend Clikatat Ikatowi to me, however, and I was smart to snare a copy of their 1996 debut LP Orchestrated and Conducted by Clikatat Ikatowi at Mystery Train. There’s no doubt this band came from the ’90s San Diego scene (with a member of Heroin, no less), but for every passage of caterwauling screamo, there’s a confident lull closer to the quieter moments of Jehu, Slint, June of 44, or Rodan. Drummer Mario Rubalcaba, later of Thingy, Hot Snakes, Rocket from the Crypt, Black Heart Procession, and Earthless, is an absolute beast, levitating the frayed electrical wires coming from the guitars and vocals and preventing the whole apparatus from short-circuiting. There are ample doses of math-rock here, but unlike the rehearsed confidence of the recently reviewed Rockets Red Glare, those time changes often hit at breakneck speed. Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.

Those moments of June of 44-ness (minus the nautical fetish) represent an unpredictability that keeps the album slippery even after a few spins. Two songs, “Desert Oasis” and “Transmission” (.mp3), stretch out past five minutes, while others pass out before hitting two minutes. Some songs are delivered with throat-killing screams, others pick up Slint’s mumbled speech. Sometimes the guitars throw notes at a dartboard, other times the riffs congeal into fist-pumping classics. Even after you’ve recognized the patterns, their execution betrays normal order. Hell, there’s harmonica in the middle of “Desert Oasis.”

Clikatat Ikatowi’s limited discography offers a manageable addition to your to-buy list. Along with Orchestrated, they released the eight-song 1998 LP River of Souls and a live album, Live August 29th and 30th, 1995 on Gravity Records. Given that member Ryan Noel (later of A.R.E. Weapons) died of a heroin overdose in 2004, reunion shows are out of the question, but fortunately, their records hold up without the context of a sweaty, all-ages punk venue.

The Haul: Mekons and Hot Snakes

As I mentioned in the Breeders/Unrest entry, virtually every trip to Looney Tunes offers some long out-of-print album that I’m thrilled to find. This time it was the Mekons’ Fear and Whiskey, their finest album and an LP I’d been searching for since I first heard the group. Judging by Discogs prices, $15 looks like an entirely reasonable price for the album. Hot Snakes’ Automatic Midnight was a leftover from my previous visit.

One note on Looney Tunes: their just-in bin never contains anything exciting. New stock seems to be filed into the letter sections fairly quickly, so things like these Mekons LPs pop up as nice surprises.

86. Mekons – Fear and Whiskey LP – Sin, 1985 – $15

Mekons' Fear and Whiskey

Fear and Whiskey is the undeniable classic of the Mekons’ catalog, a point substantiated by a glowing Pitchfork review of its Touch & Go reissue and a somewhat more restrained Dusted take on the album. Both reviews cover the socio-political context surrounding the album’s creation, but I’ll recap briefly. The Mekons were a loose collective of leftist post-punks that formed in 1977 in Leeds (alongside Gang of Four, who provided them with the instruments for their first LP) but had splintered apart by the early 1980s. The group reformed in full during the 1984-1985 UK Miners’ Strike, playing shows in support of the striking union and debuting their newfound combination of punk and country. (Whether this record is the official start of alt-country is debateable; my feeling is that current-day alt-country bands sound far more like Uncle Tupelo, not the Mekons.) Fear and Whiskey encapsulates that era of British and American political unrest and the class dominance of both Thatcher and Reagan. It’s by no means limited to that era—a period of British history I know far too little about—and like other great politically inspired records, it speaks to countless other time periods as well.

What impresses me most about Fear and Whiskey, especially after encountering a few other stray Mekons albums, is its focus. The Mekons’ stylistic restlessness is both endearing and infuriating: it’s the sign of a band that continues to challenge the notions of its own aesthetics and refuses to take itself too seriously, but also over-indulges in irritating genre explorations. At only ten songs and thirty-five minutes, Fear and Whiskey leaves those indulgences to its b-sides. The mix of country and western, punk, and Irish folk is inspired and consistent, even when one of those elements comes to the forefront. Like W. H. Auden’s WWII-era poems, Fear and Whiskey is shaped by the urgency of its historical context.

This discussion probably positions Fear and Whiskey as an album to be admired or appreciated rather than enjoyed, but that’s not the case. Even on the more explicitly political tracks, like “Trouble Down South” and “Abernant 1984/1985,” elements like Sally Timms’ lilting background vocals and rockabilly guitar leads keep the songs alive. Less specifically historical songs like “Chivalry” and “Last Dance” linger with impossible romances and beaten-down spirits even as their melodies and Susie Honeyman’s fiddle lines keep the tone upbeat. It’s an album great enough to work on all of these levels without stretching itself thin.

87. Mekons – Crime and Punishment LP – Sin, 1986 – $12

Mekons' Crime and Punishment

A four-song EP originally broadcast as a Peel session, Crime and Punishment is a nice companion piece for Fear and Whiskey, which is exactly what 75% of it became on the 1989 Original Sin compilation along with six other bonus tracks. (Non-vinyl obsessed Mekons fans: that is your cue to buy one CD instead of four LPs. It’s out of print, but so are these LPs.) As I just mentioned, Fear and Whiskey is great in part because it’s lean and focused, and while these songs—three originals and a Merle Haggard cover—aren’t unfocused, exactly, they work better here than as padding for the album. The main difference is the intensity; Fear and Whiskey occasionally ratchets up the unease brewing underneath the surface to a palpable edge, whereas these songs, even though they’re ostensibly about drinking, prison, and misery, manage to maintain a ramshackle joy that passes by easier. Completist note: the Merle Haggard cover isn’t included on Original Sin, so if you’re interested in Mekons’ country covers, you’ll have to track Crime and Punishment down.

88. Hot Snakes– Automatic Midnight LP – Swami, 2000 – $12

Hot Snakes' Automatic Midnight

I ranked Automatic Midnight at #18 on my list of my favorite 40 albums from 2000 to 2004, above Hot Snakes’ later two albums, and I stand by that preference. Am I alone in that sentiment? Suicide Invoice is a close second, to be sure, but the straight-ahead force of Automatic Midnight works so well with Rick Froberg’s unhinged vocals. I’ve heard that John Reis played all (or at least most) of the guitars for the album, which might make Rocket from the Crypt haters cringe, but the garage-rock-from-hell approach of “Let It Come” and “No Hands” is perfect for lines like “Yeah cut ’em off me / I could do this with stumps.” The distorted keyboard/organ on “Salton City” and the Reis-sung “Mystery Boy” (homage to the Wipers song “Alien Boy”?) adds grime to the swaggering propulsion of each song. Many of the songs eschew the dexterous guitar interplay of past Reis/Froberg collaborations for maximum bludgeoning force, often accomplished through a doubled rhythm guitar. Automatic Midnight would be the perfect soundtrack for a modern Western set in a dying city of industry, mixed with the requisite instrumental bits of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The only challenge would be keeping Nick Cave and Warren Ellis from stealing the soundtrack.