In Review: Music Of 2018 (10-1)

Well hello there. Thanks for clicking on to see the second part of my year in music review. Yesterday I got to my #11 of 2018, so let’s finish that countdown and see who ended up at #1.

#10 – The Lookout by Laura Veirs

I think it’s the first time since starting this blog where Laura Veirs has released a solo album of original material. I’ve loved her since reviewing her July Flame in 2010 and she’s since become one of my favourite purveyors of folk music. Yet, she still remains pretty much remains an unknown to most and that feels downright criminal.

The Lookout is an example of the sort of folk music that Laura Veirs does well. Her beautiful and instantly recognisable voice just seems to float above a guitar style that has become her signature. On many tracks she has perfected her formula from the last few albums (like ‘Seven Falls’, ‘The Meadow’ and ‘Margaret Sands’), but on others (like ‘Lightning Rod’) it’s good to see that she is still experimenting with possible augments to her sound and has gained a more political streak.

Is this the best Laura Veirs has ever sounded? Maybe not, but it’s another entry in a great discography. It’s also an interesting album to listen to after her collaboration with Neko Case and k.d. lang as it feels like she learned a lot from working with them.

Top Tracks: Seven Falls, Everybody Needs You, Watch Fire

#9 – Dirty Computer by Janelle Monae

I’ve been a huge fan of Janelle Monae for the last 8 years, starting with that very first play of her first studio album (and, to me, her magnum opus) The Archandroid. She’s a unique and much needed voice in the arts and has produced some of the most interesting music in the last decade (as well as demonstrating some considerable acting chops in films like Moonlight and Hidden Figures). It would be enough to make you sick, if the talent and ouvre didn’t live up and exceed the ever increasing hype.

As someone who has so been enjoying her concept album series Metropolis it saddened me somewhat that Dirty Computer would not be following up where Electric Lady left off. Thing is, that fictional series can always wait – Dirty Computer is the album she felt the need to make now and she delivered another excellent piece of work (even if I do end up skipping the ending raps from a number of tracks).

Compared to her previous work, Dirty Computer is more political and less experimental – which is why it is probably my third favourite of her three albums (and yet still in my top ten, which goes to show how stupid it is to rank Janelle Monae against herself). It took me longer than normal to get into this album, but I am there now and still finding an almost daily reason to listen to ‘Screwed’.

Top Tracks: Screwed, Pynk, Make Me Feel

#8 – Hell-On by Neko Case

Few artists are as consistently amazing as Neko Case. I think this is her fourth album in a row (including ‘Case/Lang/Viers’, her collaboration with Laura Viers and k.d. lang) that has ended up in my end of year list, and this includes some of the best songs I’ve ever heard her sing.

Her sound continues to mature in such a satisfying way. Songs like ‘Curse of the I-5 Corridor’ and ‘Hell-On’ feel like world away from what she first released way back when on The Virginian. In an age where more and more comes out about the mistreatment of women in the arts and workplaces, it’s encouraging that artists like Neko Case are still finding ways to amplify their voices.

I think that, once listening to this album, it’s really worth tracking down the episode of the Song Exploder podcast where Neko Case breaks down ‘Last Lion of Albion’. It was always one of my favourites on the record, but finding out the inspiration behind it and finding out about all the symbolism shed inserted into the lyrics just utterly floored me.

Top Tracks: Curse of the I-5 Corridor, Sleep All Summer, Last Lion of Albion

#7 – Bloom by Troye Sivan

A real latecomer to this list, to the point that I have seen Bloom climb and climb in the final weeks of the year. Despite being released in August, I was a bit prejudiced against this album as I had made the incredibly inaccurate assumption that Troye Sivan was being marketed as a new Justin Bieber.

I cannot believe how wrong I was. If it wasn’t for his collaboration with Charli XCX then I might have let this album pass me by. A wonderful and intelligent pop album that sings about things from the gay perspective. I can only imagine what an album like this would have meant to me when I was a teenager – because mainstream albums like ‘Bloom’ just didn’t exist 10-15 years ago.

It feels one part Carly Rae Jepsen, one part Lorde and other parts of various artists including Sufjan Stevens. Songs like ‘Seventeen’ just strike such a chord about the uncertainties of that first gay experience whilst others like ‘Bloom’ and ‘Lucky Strike’ are great songs about same sex love. So glad that albums like this are being made now.

Top Tracks: Seventeen, Dance to This, My My My!

#6 – Isolation by Kali Uchis

Of all the albums in my year end list, Isolation easily wins the prize of having the most collaborators. This beings in a multitude of influences from US and South American music, with Kali Uchis’s sultry vocals being delivered in tracks taking on elements of rap, tropicalia, bossa nova, R&B etc, but the album maintains a consistent character and throughline – to Uchis’s credit as well as the record’s producers.

It might also be the best sequenced album on this list as playing it out of order feels so incredibly wrong. For the purposes of writing this year end, I always play the album on random to help isolate my favourite songs. Playing Isolation this way just felt like some sort of sacrilege.

 It’s not like the songs can’t stand on their own, but together the whole thing just sounds more than the sum of its parts. That being said, there never seems to be a bad time to roll out ‘Tomorrow’. That is really one hell of a song.

Top Tracks: Tomorrow, Miami, Your Teeth In My Neck

#5 – Am I A Girl? by Poppy

It started out as a Spotify recommendation of her amazing cover of Gary Numan’s ‘Metal‘, only to have her music dominate the last few months of my year. Poppy isn’t just a cool take on what a pop star could be; she is also a fully-realised character that plays with the uncanny valley and fembots.

Poppy’s debut album, Poppy.Computer, themes itself around robots and technology, but with Am I A Girl? her character has left the inter web and is walking about us. On ‘Time Is Up’ she tells about how she will be what is left behind after humans destroy the environment, whilst in the titular track she provides a rare example of a gender-queer anthem as she questions her own concepts of gender.

Am I A Girl? is a confident, and sometimes sassy, take on electropop (and, at times, nu-metal) that has largely gone unnoticed despite collaborations with the likes of Diplo and Grimes. It may not be to everybody’s taste, but it feels like it might just be a matter of time before Poppy makes something that crosses over. Someone really worth keeping an eye on.

Top Tracks: Time Is Up, Play Destroy, X

#4 – El Mal Querer by Rosalía

When I first started writing this little piece for El Mal Querer it was placed at twelfth place. By the time I got to the second go it was ninth and now it has settled in at number four. So is the bewitching power of Rosalía’s second album, and the fact that both this and Bloom ended up dominating my internal soundtrack when on holiday in Riga (more on that when the blog posts go up… in early June 2019).

The thing that makes it so easy to come back to El Mal Querer is down to how foreign it is. The music itself is such a fusion of genres, such as new flamenco, pop, contemporary R&B, and a bit of electronica (including some interesting samples of sword fights and traffic) . So many experiments like this can make an album feel a bit disjointed and without a tangible identity – which is where Rosalía’s presence comes in.

You won’t understand her words if you don’t speak Spanish, but you always understand the emotions behind them. As I’ve found in some of the flamenco songs from the 1001 song list, the singing style is incredibly emotive and filled with an Arabian otherworldliness – which is amazing when paired with this modern musical fusion.

Top Tracks: Pienso en Tu Mira, Malamente, Di Mi Nombre

#3 – POST- by Jeff Rosenstock

At the beginning of the year I started out with the aim of listening to 100 new albums. This clearly didn’t happen, but because of this self-imposed challenge I picked up POST- on January 1st as that was the only new album. Going into this as just the first of 100, I had no idea that this would end up being near the top by the end of the year.

In all honesty, this album would have probably ranked in the lower part of the list based just on ‘USA’ – one of the few songs that gives me goosebumps nearly every time and makes me chant along towards the end. There has always been a part of me that enjoys a rockier/power pop album and POST- is so good at scratching that particular itch.

Seriously though, I can only imagine how amazing it would be to see this album being performed live. I would be in a tearful frenzy by the time ‘USA’ only to start jumping around as soon as he starts playing ‘Melba’ or ‘Powerlessness’. There is so much generational anger in this album that is incredibly relatable (probably more so in his native US) and makes this such a high energy blast.

Top Tracks: USA, Melba, 9/10

#2 – Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves

After a very slight sophomore slump, it feels like Kacey Musgraves came back with one of the best country albums that I have ever heard. Like a lot of other artists before her, Musgraves has begun to weave in some pop influences to create this release – epitomised by the Daft Punk-esque voices that bookend the truly beautiful ‘Oh, What A World’ and the disco-influenced ‘High Horse’.

Not only are so many of these songs gorgeous to listen to (or profoundly honest, like ‘Mother’ which is about a bad drug trip), but she remains a brilliant country lyricist. ‘Space Cowboy’ is a take on a breakup, with a title that makes you think of ‘The Joker’ and there’s ‘Velvet Elvis’, a love song about a black velvet painting of Elvis Presley.

With this, her major label debut and her brilliantly festive A Very Kacey Christmas – Kacey Musgraves is one of those artists that I feel I’ve been a little late to the party to (like with Bon Iver), but I am very much a fan. With Golden Hour being looked at as the example of what modern country could become, this is going to be a tough album to follow-up.

Top Tracks: Oh, What A World, High Horse, Velvet Elvis

#1 – In A Poem Unlimited by U.S. Girls

I love it when am artist that I have never heard of can swoop in and take the top spot (it hasn’t happened since Father John Misty did so in 2015 with I Love You Honeybear). The moment I got three tracks in on my first listen – I could tell that this would end the year as one of my favourites. Now, it’s hard to describe offhand just what makes this my favourite album, other than it was near impossible for me to put down for about a month and I would fall head over heels for a new song each week.

Few tracks this have had the same repeat value as ‘M.A.H.’ – her song which, much like Anohni in 2016, fires shots at the expectations of former U.S. president Obama that ended in disappointment. She does this in a modern take of the old-style girl groups, with many a neo-psychedelic twist.

The rest of the album is profoundly eclectic from the screeching brass of ‘Rage of Plastics’ to the layered sampling work on ‘Pearly Gates’. In the age of Trump there are an increasing number of albums being released with a real feminist perspective and In A Poem Unlimited managed to succeed in promoting this whilst also making some brilliantly different takes on pop. There was no question about this number one – a truly sublime album.

Top Tracks: M.A.H., Rosebud, Incidental Boogie

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