Welcome to my top 10 list column.
As I mentioned last week, we have nine very good records and one great one to get through. And as I may not have mentioned, the fact that the gulf between the great album and the very good ones is so massive means that we’re really dealing with my personal taste here. If you want to quibble with any of these (except the top pick, of course) and suggest that any from my honorable mentions column should be here instead, I won’t argue. These are just the ones I listened to most, the ones that resonated with me. Your mileage may vary. Except for the number one pick. I’ll dig in pretty hard on that one.
OK, let’s get right to it. Here is my 2018 top 10 list in all its glory.
#10. Neneh Cherry, Broken Politics.
I’ve been a Neneh Cherry fan since the release of her extraordinary second album, Homebrew, in 1992. Since then she’s proven herself again and again as an unpredictable and fearless artist. Broken Politics is her fifth album, and her second with Kieran Hebden, also known as Four Tet, behind the boards. It’s her most pointed work, taking aim at a host of social ills, but it’s also perhaps her most beautiful. Cherry and Hebden concocted some gorgeous near-ambient electronic settings in which to place Cherry’s fitful, restless voice, and on songs like “Kong” and the awesome “Faster Than the Truth,” that combination strikes gold. Cherry has never let me down, and on Broken Politics she aims high and gets there with apparent ease.
#9. The Choir, Bloodshot.
The Choir remains perhaps my favorite band. So when they asked in 2017 for my money to fund the creation of Bloodshot, I ponied up with no questions asked. I had no idea what we were going to get. It turns out that Bloodshot is the saddest, most difficult and most earthbound album the band has made. It focuses on drummer Steve Hindalong’s painful divorce, and the band sets aside most of their ethereal, ambient soundscapes in favor of tangible, strummy songs that pick at the pain, opening it up wide. Songs like “Bloodshot Eyes,” “Only Reasons” and “House of Blues” are dark things, and the band measures them against rockers like “Summer Rain” and “Magic,” culminating with one of their best anthems of hope and forgiveness in “The Time Has Come.” This album is doubly bittersweet as it is the final recording project for bassist Tim Chandler, who died earlier this year. I will miss him terribly, but I’m glad we got one last Choir album with him on it, and that it’s such a powerful and important one.
#8. Frank Turner, Be More Kind.
I thought a lot about this record over the past several months. There’s no doubting it comes from a place of white man’s privilege, Turner surveying the current political landscape and arguing that things would be better if we could just be nicer to each other. He isn’t intending to give short shrift to the injustices playing out in spheres he doesn’t inhabit, but I still worry that Be More Kind is a bit blinkered. But it’s also a great album of wonderful, well-intentioned songs, ones that I found myself singing over and over as this crazy year had its way with everyone I know. Turner isn’t wrong when he suggests we should interrogate our own assumptions, admit we might be wrong and work on reconciliation, and he gets angry when he needs to, as on “1933” and “Make America Great Again.” Nestled near the end of this record is “The Lifeboat,” which may be the best song he’s ever written – it’s about leaving the old world in flames behind you and building a new one based on kindness and justice, which is exactly the way I feel coming out of 2018.
#7. Wye Oak, The Louder I Call The Faster It Runs.
Jenn Wasner has been moving toward something this compelling for a long time. The Louder I Call takes the synth-heavy sound Wye Oak had been toying with and marries it to a fantastic set of songs, emerging fully formed as an entirely new thing. The star of this record is Wasner’s voice, both as a singer and a songwriter, and it’s remarkable how completely she has transformed here from her scrappy indie origins. She’s never written a song as complex and powerful as “It Was Not Natural,” a highlight not only of this record but of the year. It surprises me that those singing her praises years ago have all but ignored this album. This is the record on which Wasner has come into her own, and it’s a glorious sound.
#6. Derri Daugherty, The Color of Dreams.
Yes, Derri is here twice, and yes, his solo record hit me harder than his work with the Choir this year. The very idea of a solo project from Daugherty, the golden voice atop the Choir’s blissful noise, has been a running in-joke among fans for close to 20 years. The Color of Dreams was well worth the wait. Daugherty’s voice works very well with the stripped-down country-inflected folk music he gives us here (and has given us with the Lost Dogs and Kerosene Halo), and given that framework, Color is a surprisingly diverse album – we have the straight-ahead rock of “Unhypnotized” and “We’ve Got the Moon,” the crawling darkness of “I Want You to Be” and the six ambient tracks at the end. But most of all we have the songs, and they’re wonderful things, from the tricky acoustic skip of “Saying Goodbye” to the aforementioned swipe at fundamentalist religion that is “Unhypnotized.” The highlight for me is “Your Chair,” Daugherty’s memorial for his father, which is easily in the running for best song of the year. It took a while to arrive, but The Color of Dreams is superb.
#5. Low, Double Negative.
Whatever I write here about Double Negative, it will not match the unsettling, skin-crawling experience of hearing it. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have thrown out their own rulebook on their 12th full-length, dispatching not only with their classic slowcore sound but with even their recent sonic advances. Double Negative is a nightmare, deliberately crafted and mixed to put you off balance. Static and noise hold sway, and underneath are some sweet and gentle songs trying to poke through, met with flamethrowers when they poke their heads up. The whole thing is designed to cause dread, and to capture the feeling of living in a world where disaster can happen at any time. As a reaction to the year, it succeeds wildly. For better and for worse, it may well be the most 2018 album to come out in 2018.
#4. Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Look Now.
Do I even need to say at this point that Elvis Costello is one of the finest songwriters alive? In recent years he’s dabbled in country-folk with the great National Ransom and collaborated with the Roots on the noisy Wise Up Ghost, but Look Now finds him returning to a classic pop sound. There are shades of his more ornate work with the Attractions and his tunes with Burt Bacharach here, but beyond the trappings there are a dozen perfect little Costello songs, arranged and performed with gusto. And that’s all Costello has ever needed to impress. He co-writes here with Bacharach and Carole King, and is in their rarified air, turning out wonders like opener “Under Lime” and “Mr. and Mrs. Hush,” tales of hard luck and harder people set to gorgeous orchestration and some fine playing from the Imposters. If an album is only as strong as its songs, this one’s unbreakable.
#3. Jukebox the Ghost, Off to the Races.
I think I played this album more times than any other this year. I’ve been somewhat dismayed as Jukebox the Ghost followed their pure pop muse away from the more complex and Queen-like work of their earlier records, but Off to the Races is the album on which they sold me on their new sound. It helps that this is the most Queen-influenced effort they’ve made, but they have married those excesses with some of their catchiest and most direct piano-pop. The result is joyful almost beyond description, from the danceable delight of “Fred Astaire” to the romantic “Simple as 1 2 3” to the rip-roaring “Boring,” an ode to settling down. Off to the Races is short – 10 songs in 34 minutes – but it’s as pristine and enjoyable a pop record as anyone could hope for.
#2. Darlingside, Extralife.
This one edged out Jukebox, but only just. It’s the prettiest thing I heard this year, building on the gorgeous folk of Birds Say and emerging with something that approaches transcendent. The four members of Darlingside all sing in perfect, soul-lifting harmony, and the moment in each song when the vocals intertwine and ascend is magical. It’s the same trick, but they pull it off a dozen times here, and it never gets old. The songs are lovely, from the absurdly beautiful “Hold Your Head Up High” to the rhythmically tricky “Indian Orchard Road,” and all together this album fills me with a peaceful feeling that I can’t explain. It’s alchemical in some way, but it was much needed during a year of chaos and pain.
So there you have nine very good albums. But none of them were truly great. I only heard one that fit that description, and from the moment I heard it I knew it would sit atop this list. There could be no other choice, really.
#1. Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer.
When this album came out in May, I wrote a lengthy review of it that summarizes my feelings. I won’t rehash that here, so if you’re inclined toward the deeper dive, please read it. In addition to all that, I want to talk about what makes Monae’s astonishing third album not only the best but the most important record of 2018. I know a lot of people who have been searching for an artistic response to the wave of hatred that seems to be taking over the world, searching for music that plants a flag of protest against what seems to be a rising tide of bigotry. And for me, Dirty Computer was that record.
Dirty Computer is a stomping, sex-positive sci-fi narrative about a government that erases experiences it does not approve of from the memories of its citizens. But more than that, it chronicles the awakening of Monae herself, who leaves her previous role as an android behind to be fully human here. This is an album about a black queer woman being fully herself – it is fearlessly liberated, unafraid to express that identity in bold terms. Songs like “Django Jane” and “Pynk” and the wonderful “I Like That” find her facing the fear of embracing who she is and coming out the other side in triumph. Monae is well aware that just being herself is a political statement, a stand against those in our government and in our churches who would oppress her just for being alive.
Even if Dirty Computer were just that, just a full-blooded “here I am” shouted from the mountaintops, it would be an extraordinary thing. But it’s so much more. It’s a powerful look at America from a point of view that is not often heard from or celebrated. With “Screwed,” which may be my favorite song of the year (and the most transgressive thing I have ever loved), Monae posits that sex must be powerful, since so many want to control it. With “Americans,” she takes direct aim at the bigotry she obliquely references throughout this album, and with the help of Pastor Sean McMillan, sets out a list of goals that will truly make America great: “Until women can get equal pay for equal work, this is not my America. Until same-gender-loving people can be who they are, this is not my America….”
The entire thing is executed with such vision and precision that it feels like a single thought, and taken as a whole, Dirty Computer is the most politically minded protest album I heard this year, a bulwark against a rising tide. It’s also musically astonishing, from the Princely grooves of “Make Me Feel” to the prog-rock overtones of “So Afraid” to the ultimate dance floor liberation of “Screwed.” Janelle Monae has always been brilliant, but this is the first album on which she has harnessed that brilliance in service of herself, with no disguises, knowing full well what an act of rebellion that in itself is during these times. In doing so, she made not only the best album of 2018, but the year’s only truly great statement.
Here’s hoping in 20 years we look back on an album like Dirty Computer and shake our heads in disbelief that it was ever necessary. For this year, it’s vital. And it’s without question my number one.
And that will do it. Next week is Fifty Second Week, and another year is done. Thanks to all of you who came with me on another year of this silly music column. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.