A most excellent year of music, locally and internationally, with one album which will become known as one of the great Australian records. Not a bad return really.
While pop was particularly fine in 2018, there were solid returns across genres and styles; while political matters still sat at the core of popular culture, there were strong takes on emotional and inter-personal affairs. And records which were just made to enjoy with body rather than brain did it very well (and still engaged the brain).
This is a personal list obviously. Just in case it’s not clear, this is not a best albums table: those just don’t fly anymore. For a start, not every album was heard this year, not everything that was heard got a review, and some were just not ringing bells in my corner of the musicverse even though others loved them.
But the ones which did ring, rang hard. So these are the 20 albums which resonated the most with me in 2018, and you can find out more about that response via the linked reviews. For a bonus there’s also list of 10 other very good albums which deserve attention and a lot of plays.
If you like them, consider buying the full records. Remember, feed a musician.
1. DJARIMIRRI – Gurrumul
“The songs telling stories from ancient parables and drawn from interactions with traders from Malacca, reflecting the scale of life against nature or long-held philosophies, and often based around the rhythm of the yidaki (what we call a didgeridoo), are set within strings, percussion, woodwind, harpsichord and brass working in the rhythmic framework of Part and Stravinsky, Nyman and Richer, and especially Glass and Reich.”.
2. RECORD - Tracey Thorn
“Rather, it takes as a starting point the experiences of Thorn, the generation preceding her, and the generation succeeding her, and from there argues that hope is anything but lost, even in the face of a world of Lathams, Morgans and Trumps.”
3. GOLDEN - Kylie Minogue
“Better just to go along for the extremely enjoyable ride with a set of good songs that satisfy other parts of your mind/body/spirit and leave you feeling better afterwards. The way pop songs are meant to. Yes, pop songs, not bloody country, ok?”
4. LOOK NOW - Elvis Costello
“But rather than some showcase for songwriting and performance versatility, they share a clear preference for storytelling, a sensitivity to emotion that renders their characters in flesh rather than abstract, and a tone that is pitched somewhere between curiosity and wistfulness, by a vocalist and band in complete synch.”
5. HEAVEN AND EARTH - Kamasi Washington
“The distinctive large band around Washington’s tenor sax – multiple drums, thick beds of brass and wind, electric and upright bass, guitar – draws in strings, keyboards which sound fresh from a previously unpacked box of 1970s studio toys, and the chorus/choir. Together they are consistently exhilarating, buoyant in their interactions.”
6. EVERYTHING IS LOVE - The Carters
“Throughout all this, even with the sharp lines and the even sharper bite of the delivery (especially from Beyonce who now is a master of the spat-out correction), anger is channelled not just exploded. In Black Effect, with references to the falsely accused Kalief Browder and murdered Trayvon Martin, nods to Mos Def and Lebron James, and mixture of Malcolm X, clichés of black womanhood reclaimed and the chitlin circuit, the tension and fury is controlled and all the more pointed for it in a song that is halfway between gospel and throwdown.”
7. FRUIT - Abbe May
“Vocals lay over rather than take over melodies, and a contributing rapper rather than the primary vocalist provides the slight edge of agitation. But anger can still seep into songs like a rising tide. There are musical and lyrical nods to the likes of Ginuwine, LL Cool J and TLC, nods to ‘70s richness and ‘80s slickness, and sex is the subject even when it’s (not very well) hidden away in subtext.”
8. DEPTH OF FIELD - Sarah Blasko
“To say then that Depth Of Field is an album which rarely feels settled internally (even as it sounds complete and unified externally), which probes areas of emotional uncertainty within otherwise settled relationships, which questions values but often returns to the verities of commitments, which feels attractive on top but constantly tense on its edges, is to say that it is Sarah Blasko at her best.”
9. HONEY – Robyn
“That’s partly lyrical, but also tone. And Robyn’s tone has always been key because it’s risen on/connected with/and elevated the other point of inspiration: the ability to make songs to dance to that allow for feeling, and then give you space to expand on that feeling.”
10. ROOM 25 – Noname
“Room 25’s sound is organic rather than electronic. Drums have a touch of sharpness to them and the feel of a human rather than a fractal, their role supportive rather than triggering in the main, with even the crisp prominence in Part Of Me serving to lead you to her and the high, pretty backing male voices.”
11. HEARD A LONG GONE SONG - Lisa O’Neill
“Performed with backing that is as spare as O’Neill’s mannerisms, this is an album for a new austerity. It is unsparing, certainly once past the opening track The Galway Shawl, which is as close to good feeling as you’ll get here even though it is about a brief moment of love’s clarity. Though you could argue Factory Girl, which positions the pride and strength of a young woman resisting the demands of a wealthier man, centre stage, is a timely and positive revival in the age of #metoo. And sounds stirring too as its dual voices elevate.”
12. HI-VIZ - The Presets
“And this album, Hi Viz, is a play to basics, Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes have said. Strip the melodies back, prune the politics, push the elemental force forward, cut the language down to essentials: if you can build a song around one or two lines, you’re on track. So “tools down, pump it up/back to the front, poke it out”; “I like to listen to Beethoven/Everything I’ve ever wanted, everything I’ve ever needed”; “One for you and one for me, can’t you see how easy this can be”; “Martini …. Martini …. Martini”.
13. TRANQUILITY BASE HOTEL + CASINO - Arctic Monkeys
“This album is the most revealing thing Turner has written. Here on display is the sceptical man who questions himself more than anyone else could, the amused observer who thinks no one is watching him laugh, the cynical man who knows the arse kissing could disappear tomorrow, the sensitive man who would prefer no one knew how much he feared that disappearance, and the one who really believes that things matter.”
14. DEVOTION - Laura Jean
“These songs are prime Laura Jean: dark but not subterranean, pretty but not light, certain in its uncertainty, open but not quite raw. They have a companion piece in the album’s opening track, a kind of teen romance loaded with intent, Press Play, where the synth bed is like breaths released by worn bellows, and the special pleading to a lover caught between doing “right” and doing good is caught up in the messaging of a mixed tape – “my body holds the magic … press play”.”
15. DIRTY COMPUTER - Janelle Monae
“For all the commentary on matters political and social which deepen this album, it is Monae’s willingness to swim deeply in sexuality which will leap out at you. Leap out at you and consume you. Especially when she mixes all those elements together. As she puts it in the TLC-meets-CNN Screwed, “everything is sex, except sex which is power …. now ask yourself, who’s screwing who?”
16. TELL ME HOW YOU REALLY FEEL - Courtney Barnett
“But if it’s only been a handful of years it’s been an accelerated time in Barnett’s writing as well as experience. Look at the way Walkin’ On Eggshells makes its way confidently between early ‘70s piano pop and post-boogie pub rock into what is little more than a slyly lazy stroll. You will want to slip this song a beer and give it your seat on the li-lo for a loll in the pool.”
17. SOLACE – Rufus Du Sol
“Solace is the kind of record that doesn’t sit still, that disturbs the arrangement of your limbs in some way on most tracks, and yet drummer James Hunt never has you feeling you’ve gone at anyone’s pace but your own, Tyrone Lindqvist’s voice makes enquiries rather than demands, and Jon George’s keyboard sounds are conducive not abrasive.”
18. SHE REMEMBERS EVERYTHING - Rosanne Cash
“In this country rock drive which recalls peak Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Cash, Kristofferson and Elvis Costello each offer a different perspective on another school shooting, joining together in the choruses with lines such as “We pray to the god of gunfire and regrets, we pray to the god of collateral children, we pray to them all, the eight gods of Harlem”. There’s nothing overt about the messaging here; why would you need to? The stupidity and the futility do it themselves, the tragedy and pain are plain, leaving the three singers to blend in subtle shadings of observation and feeling.”
19. MAY YOUR KINDNESS REMAIN - Courtney Marie Andrews
“Her voice - part mature Linda Ronstadt, part Emmylou Harris, and all night-time country – is thick and rich, having come on substantially from the very pretty but far more innocent instrument of her earliest albums, No One’s Slate Is Clean and On My Page. Now it doesn’t do softness so much as the warmth of adult knowledge and the strength of life lived.”
20. WIDE AWAKE! – Parquet Courts
“Except this is the Parquet Courts album which might just make you dance, albeit in a way that is less about moves and more about implosions and explosions. It pushes at the edges of beats-driven song sometimes, with the title track crowding out LCD Soundsystem comparisons with whistles, congas and barebacked guitar, Normalization breaking down into a deadly bit of dank disco, and in Back To Earth there’s a psych groove to sway to next to Bobby Gillespie.”
TEN* MORE VERY FINE ALBUMS THAT JUST MISSED OUT
CAMPFIRE - Kasey Chambers
BOTH DIRECTIONS AT ONCE: THE LOST ALBUM – John Coltrane
OLD CHESTNUT - Ned Collette
DANCING WITH THE BEAST - Gretchen Peters
BROKEN POLITICS – Neneh Cherry
RAINBOW VALLEY - Matt Corby
HOPE DOWNS - Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
EVELYN IDA MORRIS - Evelyn Ida Morris
MAKE WAY FOR LOVE - Marlon Williams
FEELINGS – Bloods
*(and since it shocked me out of smug assumptions CAUTION – MARIAH CAREY)