This year was not like other years.
I’ll go into this in a bit more detail next week, but my top 10 list is done, and the wide gulf between my number one pick and all the others albums I heard this year is immense. Looked at from a certain perspective, there shouldn’t be any honorable mentions, since everything that isn’t my number one pick is kind of interchangeable. They’re all good albums, but they’re nowhere near as good as the one I’m calling the year’s best.
But then I wouldn’t have anything to write about this week. The honorable mentions are a tradition here at tm3am, records that were very good but just not good enough to make the list. What differentiates this year’s selection from those of the previous years is that virtually all of these albums could have been among the top 10. They’re all about the same level of very good, and anyone arguing that any of the below entries should be one of the ten best of 2018 would get no sideways glances from me.
Heck, there are probably several albums I should have heard that could easily have been in this list of honorables as well. I did take time to hear the one cropping up on everyone else’s lists, Mitski’s Be the Cowboy, and I don’t think I agree that it should be anywhere near the top ten, but I’m happy to accept it in anyone else’s ranking. (I think a lot of people liked the Kacey Musgraves album more than I did too, but I did like it.) The only album I will fight to the death for is the one sitting atop my list.
This column is also my chance to go over the rules for my top 10 list, so as not to waste time with it next week. So here they are: Only full-length albums of original material that came out in 2018 are eligible for this year’s list. That seems really straightforward, but it actually causes a few conundrums for me during the year. For instance, this year there were a few EPs that could have been in the list, most particularly the debut from Boygenius and the second installment of the Oh Hellos’ mini-album series, Euros. But only full-length records are eligible.
Two albums I wish I could include are ineligible because they are not new, strictly speaking. Meshell Ndegeocello’s beautiful Ventriloquism is a covers album like few others, finding the depth and soul in the ‘80s and ‘90s songs she covers. This is the album that made me love Al B. Sure’s “Nite and Day,” and reminded me how much I have always liked Force MDs’ “Tender Love.” And Paul Simon’s In the Blue Light revisits some of his lesser-known material in new ways, including a stunning take on “Can’t Run But” and a perfect new take on “Love,” one of my favorites of his, featuring Bill Frisell on guitar. But there are no new songs, so it can’t make the list.
Live albums are also ineligible, which this year means that I can’t include the incredible The Roxy Performances box set from Frank Zappa. But you should buy this right now, if you have any interest at all in Zappa’s work. Seven CDs capturing every note played by one of his finest bands during a residency at the Roxy in 1973. It’s utterly amazing from first note to last. Surprisingly, though, it isn’t my favorite live album of the year. That honor goes to Midnight Oil, whose Armistice Day finds them in fine form in Sydney on their 2017 reunion tour. Seriously, this performance is fire.
While I am recommending things that cannot feature in my top 10 list, I’d point to R.E.M.’s 8-CD/1-DVD At the BBC set, a comprehensive box detailing their live performances for the BBC over their entire career; Daniel Amos’ stunning remaster and expansion of Horrendous Disc; and the two new Kate Bush Remastered box sets that give us her entire output in sparkling new editions. There are still 13 shopping days before Christmas, so go.
But before you go, here’s a quick look at the honorable mentions from 2018.
The earliest release that has stuck around for me is I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life by Tune-Yards. This is Merrill Garbus’ most accomplished piece of work, quirky yet weighty, and I kept listening to it throughout 2018. Also early on were Being Empty Being Filled, the new one from Listener, a band quite unlike any other, and Good Thing, the excellent sophomore record from Leon Bridges. The Bridges album remains a favorite, its soulful yet modern grooves a perfect fit for his buttery voice.
Florence and the Machine made my favorite of their records with High as Hope. Dawes did the same with Passwords, a reaction to the year and to the ways we talk to one another. Richard Thompson came roaring back with the guitar-heavy 13 Rivers, his best record in many years. Punch Brothers delivered another sterling document of their progressive bluegrass style with All Ashore. And just recently, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness delivered a third album of remarkable grace and beauty in Upside Down Flowers.
These are all records I like, but now we’re moving into the ones I love. I didn’t review Mount Eerie’s Now Only, just because it was too difficult a prospect to approach. But the album is amazing, continuing Phil Elverum’s mourning in the wake of his wife’s death while bringing in more of the sound we know and love from him. Deafheaven’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love gave me some of the same feelings – it’s impossibly emotional noise that is heavy enough to crush you, but prefers to gently cocoon you.
While Boygenius got most of the ink, I was more enamored with See You Around, the debut record from I’m With Her. A collaboration between three geniuses – Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan – the album delivers some of the most gorgeous acoustic folk music you’re likely to hear. The Bad Plus returned with a new piano player, the swell Orrin Evans, and a really strong new record, Never Stop II, to inaugurate their next chapter.
Two of my AudioFeed bands put out great records this year. The Gray Havens put down their guitars and went electronic with She Waits, and it’s a swell, if brief, journey from grief to joy. And Von Strantz finally unveiled Through the Looking Glass, an album they made a few years ago, and it was a revelation. Jess and Kelsey fully immersed themselves in electronic textures and ‘80s synths and wrote some killer songs.
Finally, we have the Number Elevens, the albums that I almost included in the top 10 list this year. Even more so than all of the others I listed, I wouldn’t bat an eyelash if you told me any of these final four were among your absolute favorites of 2018. Two of these featured in earlier drafts of my list, so they shouldn’t be surprises, but two are relatively new, and they knocked me out.
Those two are Kamasi Washington’s vast, unlimited Heaven and Earth and Donnie Vie’s Beautiful Things. A double album of horizon-size depth, with a hidden EP that pushes it over the three-hour mark, Heaven and Earth is a visionary slice of jazz, with gigantic orchestrations and some powerhouse playing by Washington and his ensemble. Beautiful Things is a perfect compact melodic record from the Enuff Z’Nuff mastermind, the fullest and richest album he’s made and the best argument yet for his canonization among pop songwriters.
Which brings us to the ones I have mentioned before, both of which almost made the list. Stoner metal band Sleep made a triumphant return with The Sciences, the most monolithic metal record I heard this year. ( Seriously, it contains a song called “Giza Butler” that earns that title.) And the Boxer Rebellion made what I think is their very best album with the quiet, pensive, haunting Ghost Alive. I didn’t hear a flat-out prettier song this year than “Here I Am,” and the rest of the album is gorgeous as well.
OK, next week, my 10 favorites from 2018. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.