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THIS IS OUR MUSIC: Our Favorite Albums Of 2018

Beatles_FINAL
Artwork by JOHN PATRICK BYRNE

Upon returning to England in the spring of 1968 after a disillusioning pilgrimage to India to study Transcendental Meditation at the feet of the guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles set about working on music for their follow-up to Magical Mystery Tour, a slapped-together compendium of psychedelic odds and ends and orphaned singles like “Strawberry Fields” and “All You Need Is Love,” released in November of 1967, and Sgt Pepper, the landmark, kaleidoscopic ur-text of the Summer of Love, released the previous May. Having forsaken druggy fantasia in favor of meditation in the wake of their newfound fascination with Eastern spiritual exploration, the Beatles eschewed the now-fading dayglo trappings and incense-and-peppermint tropes of psychedelia that they had been evangelizing about since the spring of 1965, when Lennon and Harrison, along with their wives, were unknowingly dosed by a dentist at a fancy dinner party, resulting in a mind-melting four-way nervous breakdown of paranoia and hallucination. (At the tail end of an American tour in August of 1965, a follow-up acid trip, which included McCartney and Starr, ended with Fab Four, accompanied by Peter Fonda and David Crosby, lounging in the empty bathtub at Zsa Zsa Gabor’s rented mansion in Bel Air, zonked out of their heads. It was then that Fonda uttered the infamous line “I know what it’s like to be dead,” memorialized in Lennon’s “She Said She Said” released on Revolver in August of 1966.)

This turning away from the florid psychotropicalia of the previous three years was symbolized in Lennon and original_614Harrison’s decision to sandpaper away the trippy sunburst paint job on their guitars, to let the wood “breathe” in the pursuit of achieving a purer tone. This reversion to naturalism would extend to the sound and the tenor of the songs they had been writing on acoustic guitars in India during downtime between marathon lectures and mediation sessions at the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh. In May of 1968, the four Beatles decamped to George’s bungalow in Esher, Surrey, and in the course of a day and a night, recorded stripped down acoustic demos of the bulk of the songs which would eventually wind up on The Beatles, aka The White Album, which was reissued in Super Deluxe form in 2018: a remastered version of original double-album; a revelatory new mix of the album overseen by Giles Martin, scion of longtime Beatles producer George Martin; the aforementioned Esher Demos, along with a vast compendium of outtakes and alternate takes, along with embryonic versions of now-iconic tracks like “Hey Jude,” “Lady Madonna” and “Across The Universe” that would trickle out on later albums.

Upon its release in 1968, The Beatles quickly became known as The White Album for the snow white blankness of its cover, which, like the sanded down guitars, was emblematic of stripping away the suffocating layers of psychedelia from the Beatles’ music and mind sets. Still, while the electric satin Sgt. Pepper uniforms where left back at Strawberry Fields, this was hardly a return to the four lovable moptops “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”-ing of early ‘60s Beatlemania. The Beatles continued to paint with the wildly eclectic brush of surrealism, albeit in darker hues of a world growing more dire by the hour. Nineteen sixty-eight was the annus horribilis of the swinging ’60s, and if you listen closely you can hear the horrors of Vietnam, assassination and riots in between the notes. The album opens with the sonic whoosh of an Aeroflot jet morphing into fairly blazing Chuck Berry/Beach Boys pastiche/semi-ironic ode to the collectivist joys of communist Russia (“Back in the USSR”), which was a pretty radical artistic statement to make at the height of the Cold War when such sentiments spoken aloud could still get you shot in certain parts of America, and put on an FBI watchlist in the other parts. “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and “Bungalow Bill” spoofs the gun crazies, “Revolution” shoots out the legs of radical chic and “Helter Skelter” augurs doomsday. Even though it’s a song ostensibly about going down a playground sliding board, you can hear why crazies like Charles Manson heard it as an invitation to slaughter the squares. His criminal mind doused daily with messianic doses of mild-altering substances in the vast Biblical isolation of Death Valley, Manson pored over the tracks on The White Album the way Talmudic scholars hunch over the Dead Sea Scrolls. Try and imagine what a psyche-shattering track like “Revolution 9” — still terrifying and utterly mind-fucking a half a century later — sounded like to Manson in 1968. According to his deeply warped reading, the album was a roadmap to an apocalyptic race war that triggered some of the most infamous murders of the 20th century. That darkness will forever be entwined in mythos of The White Album — there will always be blood on the tracks.

The remastered version of the original mix is bright and clean, like an antique polished to a high shine. The real revelations here are the Esher Demos, which serve as both a window on the Beatles’ creative process and a collection of one of the most iconic, sonically-diverse albums of the Fab Four canon writ as coffeehouse folk music. And the endless outtakes, alternate takes and ultimately abandoned song sketches serve as both sweet manna for completists and historians and incontrovertible evidence that nothing the Beatles ever released was borne of immaculate conception. Despite the prevailing cultural perception to the contrary, the Beatles were in fact mortals capable of shit ideas every now and then. But the reason why The Beatles Super Deluxe gets my vote for album of the year is Giles Martin’s astonishing 2018 re-mix of the individual tracks drawn from the master tapes. Freed up from the claustrophobic confines of then-state of the art four-track recording, scraped clean of the acoustic muck and sonic barnacles accrued over the course of 50 years in the Abbey Road Studios vault and/or your parents/grandparents’ record collections, this collection of songs sound both raw and elegant, louder than bombs and smoother than silk, endlessly bewitching and beguiling, and thoroughly modern. And a strong argument can be mounted that it is the Rosetta Stone of everything white that came after: hard rock, soft rock, heavy metal and punk rock. Today, just as it was in the beginning, it remains the soundtrack of the worst years of our lives. Long may we let it be. – JONATHAN VALANIA

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JANELLE MONAE_large
JANELLE MONAE
Dirty Computer
(Bad Boy Records)
Dirty Computer may be less kaleidoscopic, less dizzying and less futuristic than Janelle Monae’s previous android-obsessed albums. But it’s also more immediate, more pointed and more fun. Monae updates Prince’s party-through-the-apocalypse credo for our own end times, most blatantly on “Make Me Feel,” which joyfully turns The Purple One’s “Kiss” inside out. On “Screwed” she sings, “We’re so screwed / Let’s get screwed,” joined by Zoe Kravitz, before noting “The devil met with Russia and they just made a deal / we was marching through the street, they were blocking every bill.” High profile guests drop in (Brian Wilson, Pharrell Williams, Grimes, Stevie Wonder) as do sly musical allusions to Rihanna, M.I.A. and Chic. But this is Monae’s show, celebrating a nonbinary, nonwhite vision of inclusivity. “I am not America’s nightmare / I am the American dream,” she sings in “Crazy, Classic, Life” on this crazy, classic, life-affirming album. – STEVE KLINGE

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CAR SEAT HEADREST

CAR SEAT HEADREST
Twin Fantasy
(Matador)
Will Toledo originally wrote Twin Fantasy when he was 19, and the album’s narrative is suitably laced with all of the fretful uncertainty and churning anxiety that comes with being 19. I was in the middle of a breakup when the album dropped in February and remember walking Broad Street, body hunched against freezing rain, “Bodys” wailing on loop. I was drawn into the dark humor, self-deprecating monologues and manic-depressive mood swings of Toledo’s mind. As listeners, we are locked into the narrator’s consciousness, eavesdropping on his deepest desires and insecurities, reliving his memories and fantasies. There are verses about feeling trapped in your own body, about turning to destructive forms of escapism, about being afraid of death, about trying to sort out your sexuality. He is full of obsessive, directionless romance, he wants to feel so close to someone that they merge together into one person. Toledo’s flat, droning voice falls into murmuring spoken word like he’s having conversations with himself. The instrumentals are sharp, sprawling, unpredictable. The whole thing is driven by the existential notion that the world is falling apart and we’re all slowly dying day by day: “Don’t you realize our bodies could fall apart any second? / I am terrified, your body could fall apart at any second.” — MARIAH HALL

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snail-mail-lush-album-art-cover-art-red

SNAIL MAIL
Lush
(Matador)
On one of those too-hot-to-move days this past summer, I found myself home alone with nothing to do and nowhere to go that justified sweating through the immense heat. So with a glass of homemade iced tea and some noise-cancelling headphones, I decided to spend the day sprawled across two chairs on my porch, catching up with all of the new music I’d missed. Snail Mail’s Lush was first on my list, and it became all that I listened to that day. The twinkling guitar work and wise-beyond-her-years lyrics of the band’s frontwoman Lindsey Jordan became the soundtrack of my summer, the rhythms of tracks like “Pristine” and “Golden Dream” following me on morning walks to work, late-night Sangria-fueled discussions, and eventually even my own dreams. Now with Lush topping best album lists for nearly every music publication, I can’t help but revisit the lazily warm memories it punctuated for me this year, and ache for traces of them to return to my life again. – SOPHIE BURKHOLDER

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The Hermit And The Recluse_Orpheus Vs The Sirens

HERMIT AND THE RECLUSE
Orpheus vs. The Sirens
(Obol For Charon Record)
Beneath the rap radar of Twitter beefs and Presidential posturing, Ka, a 46 year old firefighter from NY and Animoss, a prolific, but deeply underground West Coast beat maker, quietly put together a masterpiece of form and function. Working under the name Hermit and The Recluse, Ka and Animoss pieced together Orpheus Vs. The Sirens, a deeply philosophical album full of quiet introspection and a prophetic outlook on the ills that plague mankind on all levels of modern society. Ka has a quiet, purposeful flow, while Animoss’ production is devoid of gimmicks. Almost beat-less, with an ear for sampling that would have been right at home in ’95, this is an album that demands patient listening. The duo, much like the titular character from Greek mythology, dives deep into the underworld, only to emerge unscathed only to be defeated by an army of listeners deaf to their sounds. So listen up. – MATT SHAVER

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DEAFHEAVEN

DEAFHEAVEN
Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
(Anti)
Deafheaven are a big part of a small, but important fusion of post-rock and emo that has been on a slow rise in the past twenty-or-so years. They take it a step further with vocal styles that swing between angelic harmonies and pure black metal. Their post-rock instrumentation reaches shoegaze-level washes of sonic domination, and so they have become a must-hear among blackgaze bands (yes, blackgaze is a thing). What makes Ordinary Corrupt Human Love special is its use of diverse musical influences in giving it both character and accessibility. On “Glint,” I hear Explosions in the Sky. On “Night People,” I hear Depeche Mode. Throughout the album’s climaxes, I hear rock & roll guitar riffs that remind me of Coheed and Cambria’s Claudio Sanchez. And somehow, these influences are woven flawlessly into the explosive percussion riding atop waves of atmospheric tremolo-picked guitar and George Clarke’s screeching. Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is a bridge that can unite fans of post-rock, shoegaze, black metal, and emo. Deafheaven is bringing America together four genres at a time. — KYLE WEINSTEIN

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black-panther_

KENDRICK LAMAR
Black Panther Soundtrack
(Interscope Records)
When Marvel Studios decided to go with Kendrick Lamar as the producer of the soundtrack for their newest superhero blockbuster, Black Panther, audiences and critics alike were surprised yet thrilled at the same time. The pairing paid off immensely as evidenced by the edginess, eloquence, and freshness of creative direction delivered by this Lamar produced joint. How do you create the cultural sounds of the fictional modernized African country of Wakanda? Infuse American hip-hop and African-based soundscapes with African, English, and Californian-based artists/producers to create an ominously futuristic score to a film audiences had never experienced before. The Black Panther Soundtrack gives you that feeling from the scene of The Matrix Reloaded when the entirety of Zion is raving to primal house beats. The production is raw, the love ballads are sincere and painful, and the hip-hop bangers are heavy-hitters that even topped some billboard charts. No matter if you are a trap/hip-hop, The Weeknd & Jorja Smith, or a modern electronic music fan, the Black Panther Soundtrack encapsulated an entire culture of not only Wakanda but 2018 America, as well. – HENRY SAVAGE

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Frankie Cosmos

FRANKIE COSMOS
Vessel
(Sub Pop Records)
Greta Kline has become something of a poet laureate of the New York DIY scene. Her lyrics are blunt and poignant, and have a way of making the smallest, most insignificant moments feel profound. Vessel is compact, and at times formless. The album maintains that twinkling, dreamy indie-pop sound, but a full band gives the minimal instrumentals more weight. The shortest song, “My Phone,” is 30 seconds about a phone dying. “Ur Up” asks that nagging question with Kline laughing sweetly when her fingers fumble on piano keys. These brief vignettes build a larger story about being vulnerable, making human connections, and finding meaning in those nothing-moments. – MARIAH HALL

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SLEEP

SLEEP
The Sciences
(Third Man)
Ending the four-year of silence since the 2014 single “The Clarity,” Sleep, doom metal’s most blissed out trio, finally bestowed upon us its fourth LP dubbed The Sciences. Appropriately released on April 20th (FOUR-TWENTY, DUDE!), The Sciences follows the band’s gargantuan single-track LP, Dopesmoker, thankfully keeping up with an expected level of decibel purveyance and marijuana-concerned treatises (“Marijuanaut’s Theme,” “The Botanist”). On the band’s first LP with touring drummer Jason Roeder, Al Cisneros (singer/bassist) and Matt Pike (guitars) retain (and maybe surpass at times) the established might and riff-dominant purity of their sound: beautifully elongated serpentines of bass tone charged by Pike’s masterful fretwork. The long-standing track “Sonic Titan” (which appeared as a live bonus on the Tee Pee Records issue of Dopesmoker) introduces a three-song block of ten-plus minutes of excellence that includes the muck-riddled crawl of “Antarcticans Thawed” and the perfectly titled “Giza Butler.” – SEAN CALDWELL

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earl-sweatshirt-some-rap-songs-1542727602-compressed-1-1543531594-compressed

EARL SWEATSHIRT
Some Rap Songs
(Tan Cressida/Columbia)
It sure seems like Earl Sweatshirt (real name Thebe Neruda Kgositsile) has finally achieved the elevated level of consciousness he has been climbing towards since the end of his gloriously misspent youth. Some Rap Songs is the culmination of Sweatshirt’s innovative rhyme schemes and drowsy, hypnotic voice that carries us through a narrative of a changed man who grew up seeing the world, navigating fame at a young age, and dealing with losses. Throughout the album of heavily sampled soulful jazz with production assistance from producers like Sage Elsesser and a feature from Brooklyn’s Standing By the Corner, Earl Sweatshirt gives us more prophetic wisdom about life, relationships, human existence and real hardships over his hazy, lo-fi mystical beats we’ve come to love. – HENRY SAVAGE

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Beach House 7

BEACH HOUSE
7
(Sub Pop)
Unlike most of my friends, I never listened much to Beach House until this year, and hadn’t even heard of Bloom or Teen Dream at all while in high school (a crime I was repeatedly reprimanded for). I listened to songs from 7 on the radio when they played, but never sat down seriously with this band’s discography until about two weeks before their stop at the Tower Theater back in July. But it was my first attempt to focus in on the abstraction of shoegaze-y music, and my mind let the haunting echoes fall into the background. That is, until it was forced to confront them at a bewitchingly psychedelic show of light and sound that changed Beach House’s music for me forever. The beauty in that same abstraction suddenly felt tangible, and the live rendition of lead singer Victoria Legrand’s contralto melodies lifted me to some kind of epiphany of infatuation. The grounding rhythms behind tracks like “Pay No Mind” or “Woo” infuse hints of the Smiths and My Bloody Valentine into 21st Century production while also providing a modern take on the hypnotic and spirit-cleansing circularity of Gregorian chant. Now, 7 holds a comfort for me that I return to in every liminal space I confront – whether they be these dwindling days before the new year or anxious late nights in need of a guide across waking and dreaming. – SOPHIE BURKHOLDER

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JON HOPKINS

JON HOPKINS
Singularity
(Domino Recording Company)
It’s one thing to have the ability to make “good” music, and, another entirely to have control over sound. Jon Hopkins has both. He maintains an uncanny ability to bend sound to his will, blending the ideas behind many genres in to one, undeniably listenable vision of what music can be. Classically trained musicians operating in the techno space is nothing new, but what Hopkins accomplishes is light years ahead of his contemporaries. His command over traditional instruments, and his ability to weave them in to the fabric of samples and synthesis, is infused with magic. Listen to the way that “Emerald Rush” slowly builds from fluttering plucks and bleeps in to a pulsating dance rhythm of cinematic quality, or the way that “Feel First Life” shimmering piano transitions in to Zen-like chanting, stopping all space and time around it. A beautiful reminder to stop and smell the roses. – MATT SHAVER

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LITHICS

LITHICS
Mating Surfaces
(Kill Rock Stars)
A smartly succinct and evocative collection of songs from this Portland post-punk four-piece, Mating Surfaces embraces Minutemen’s “jam econo” ethos while referencing both the anti-melody idiom of No Wave (“Boyce,” ”Cheryl”) and the stabbing guitar textures and low end prominence of bands like Glaxo Babies or Gang Of Four (“When Will I Die,” “Specs,” “Be Nice Alone”). While the music is often sharp and up tempo, vocalist Aubrey Horner adds contrast to the performances, her stanzas more or less spoken with an outward calm that somehow fits even the band’s most immediate offerings. A modern and compact interpretation of the highly inventive post-punk era, Mating Surfaces is an exuberant listen, from its gratifying and lively opener “Excuse Generator” to the fumbling outro of “Dancing Guy.”  – SEAN CALDWELL

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MGMT

MGMT
Little Dark Age
(Columbia Records)
You never know what to expect when a band releases a single five years after their last studio album, so I was a little apprehensive when I clicked on “Little Dark Age,” the new album’s title track and lead-off single. What I heard was something I’d never quite heard out of MGMT before – a sonically darker side, somewhere in the realm of neo-goth pop – and I immediately knew the album to come would not disappoint. It didn’t. While Little Dark Age is less of a psychedelic trip than their previous endeavors, it embodies a new groove for MGMT. Lyrical content ranges from self-loathing about being out of shape to suicidal ideation to “time spent looking at my phone.” Which lead me to go back through their discography and come to realize that their lyrics have been pretty dark all along, but were being softened by colorful waves of shapeshifting sounds. Little Dark Age brings lyrics to the forefront backed by ‘80s synth-pop revivalism. It’s one of those highly sought after examples of a positive evolution in a band’s career. – KYLE WEINSTEIN

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ROLLING-BLACKOUTS

ROLLING BLACKOUTS COASTAL FEVER
Hope Downs
(Sub Pop)
Guitar rock may be a niche market now, but it can still be a vibrant source of indelible joys. And if you’re a record geek who’s old enough, or geeky enough, to remember the venerable indie labels Flying Nun and Postcard, young bands such as the Courtneys, the Beths and, especially, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever will remind you of the power and pleasure of layers of interlocking guitars. The five guys in Rolling Blackouts hail from Melbourne, Australia, and seem to share an appreciation of Orange Juice, The Verlaines and fellow Aussies The Go-Betweens. On Hope Downs, their debut album following two excellent EPs, the guitars strum and jangle, with some surfy reverb and judicious feedback, and unless you’re paying close attention, you don’t notice the lead vocals shifting among the three singer-songwriter-guitarists (part of the fun of the great show they did at Johnny Brenda’s this fall was seeing who did which vocal or guitar part). This is stately, state of the art guitar pop for now people — STEVE KLINGE

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neko-case-hell-on

NEKO CASE
Hell-On
(ANTI-)
Forty-two years after the words “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” entered pop culture via the movie Network, Neko Case has remade Howard Beales’ grand statement of end-of-your-rope exasperation with the state of modern life with Hell-On. She’s had enough of this shit and the weariness has produced a beautifully realized set of songs that are her most eclectic yet. While there is an roster of collaborators, the signature stamp on the declaration of FFS is 100% Case.  The songs gently swell, the voice is sometimes sullen, but always uniquely Neko. “Lion Of Albion” explores our human interests in conquering things, and the toll it takes on the world, while “Halls Of Sarah” is an epic of the #metoo era, but guaranteed to outlast even the most popular of hashtags.  Neko is a proxy here for people from all walks, and one would be wise to listen up – her message might just deliver us all from ourselves. – MATT SHAVER

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