Best Albums of 2018: The Best Music Review of 2018

“What Devil, what shape is shifting now?
What lover, which friend pulled back and how
Into another grey year and from another cracked face as I have?
A wish for some erasure is surely coming close, if nothing else ever has

– Emma Ruth Rundle, “Apathy on the Indiana Border”

Intro

In the spirit of transparency and full disclosure, many of you are going to want to skip this intro. But, in the spirit of transparency and full disclosure, it is a work of immense genius and insanity.

Headline says it all. I have ascended. I have not fact-checked. But it is written.

This dazzling year, the year of your Lord 2018, demonstrated how you can create your own realities. If the truth sticks its greasy finger in your face, twist it. Play the victim. Or just double down and say “F*ck it.” And you, the people – you’re powerless in my reality.

If you are offended by that or any of the following words, that’s on you. I did nothing to you. Your life will go on as if you never read this. But can it, really? Can you actually read something in exact opposition to you and not have a visceral response? Because this will be the greatest music review and the greatest collective colloquy you have read this year. And you can’t look away. It’s all led to this – hook, line and stinker.

Place your bets – the deck is stacked.

While you ran to your keyboard to send your meaningless thoughts into the abyss, I rode a meteoric rise beyond your comprehension. You think you’re a role model? HA!

Gods and impetuous men failed me. Nature’s wonders, tried and true, liquefied into impalpability and decomposed into dusty sunrises. I had but one option. I turned to the only one with enough resolve to make the most of his remarkable gifts and actually deliver something worthy of my time: Me.

What is a man of infinite strength, guile and charm without ambition? You all failed because you didn’t know what you wanted. You knew what you didn’t want – equality, a difference in opinion, ALIENS – but what did you gain? Money? HA! What is currency but value put upon an otherwise worthless object by creatures that will one day amount to a grave of bones. We will leave behind nothing but a void. The universe will be worse having endured the human race because we didn’t want to gain anything of true value. Until today.

I have ascended.

To godliness.

When trekked upon by many, those numbers are attainable. When inactively listening by a cheapskate individual, also obtainable. But one man doing so by means of active listening can only mean that he has become something more than himself. He has gained divinity.

I am stronger than I have ever been, except strength implies fluctuation. This is my new state, one that exists above all, untouchable. Not Kanye, The Donald, LeBron or Thanos can touch what I am. I have gained true understanding. This is power that cannot be overthrown, it must be outmatched. And what power can rise to match me?

Spin the chamber – six thirsty bullets await.

Music boasts tremendous efficiency. Within three and a half minutes, someone can tell you exactly what they think and show you how they feel. The layers mean something. The words mean something. The silence means everything. This is why Music is the ultimate art form.

Therefore, if someone thinks the thoughts and feels the feelings of everyone in reach, what have they gained? What do they know? The answer is everything. And I know some of you have been naughty.

The Naughty List

  • Average listener who deems a Billboard Hot 100 album “ALBUM OF THE YEAR” after having only listened to six whole albums: I squash thee.
  • Fool who disagrees with this list of albums, hence forthcoming, that I have chosen to respectably represent the year of your Lord 2018 after listening to thousands of albums: Meet the worn sole of my boot of damnation.
  • The writers and media outlets I was once foolish enough to look upon as idols, decayed into crusty malcontents: Know your rightful place – FORGOTTEN!

You do not know everything. You are sheltered. You create paper-thin playlists that are for you and you alone. You do not share with others. You do not embrace what others have created. You mingle only in what is comfortable for you. You are not a one-way street, you are a dead end.

I have ascended to godliness. I have created my own reality, and you have to accept it as such – you’re powerless not to. If you try to stick truth’s greasy finger in my face, I’ll break it. You are my victims. F*ck yes. You took a gamble, but didn’t take stock of all you had to lose.

This is what I have become. I misappropriate biblical wisdom and apply to it my cause. I present your options and tactically leave out the choices that give you hope or joy. While I have gained all I’ve had to gain, you’ve fallen prey to the dirty secret, the false gamble:

You actually thought the words meant what they said.

Flip a coin – I’ll ignore your call.

Pick a hand – neither will feed you.

Cast the die – the Devil reigns.

The Albums

You’ve made it to the headliner! If you skipped the above intro, congrats for avoiding the majority of effort I put into this review – a writing exercise that ended up much more thought-provoking than originally intended.

Below, you will find the 10 albums I thought were the best, liberated from the merit of being a “favorite.” These albums are unattached to numbers (because we’re all No. 1 today, yay!), but they do have Friends-inspired qualifiers to indicate why the album was chosen. They are ordered for tonal balance. 

Thank you for being here. Please enjoy.

The Album that Sounds as Good as Its Outlook

Victory – Broken Instruments

Think of those violent summer days where the forecast can best be described as “moist” and your brain can be described as “liquefied.” But in comes a gust of divine wind, providing momentary bliss. Capture that feeling in your mind’s eye and bottle it. That is Broken Instruments.

Racial understanding and civil equality are not going to be solved in thinkpieces, Internet comment sections, or even songs. True progress requires actual legwork and understanding. And, by God, you have to know what on Earth is going on:

“Every child needs to know who they’re born to be
Am I born for greatness?
Am I born to be free?
And every day when I wake up
I hear bondage coming for me”

– “Who I Am”

All I will say is this: Beware the wealthy white man who tells you how the world is. Listen to those who actually live in it.

Bless Victory Boyd for keeping the peace. Although I am angry for her and her people, she shines as a beacon of positivity and belief that she can be anything. And that no matter how broken something is, it can be fixed.

Victory’s gentle message reverberates throughout the album, and it cannot be overstated: You can bide your time waiting for the world to change for you, or you can go change your neighborhood right now and party the night away.

“There’s been a thing that’s going on
It feels like melancholy has dawned
Where is the music? Where has it gone?”

– “Happy Song”

If you believe in the healing power of music, I hope you bathe often in its restorative properties. We’ve been angry for far, far too long. And I still get angry. You should, too. But that’s just one part of an emotionally balanced diet. 

In what I can only consider a beautiful coincidence after I had written all 10 reviews, I noticed that each album featured here has the same underlying message, despite the emotional variances. In a year where the powers at play consistently sowed seeds of hate and spit venom into our veins, how wondrous it is to have these albums as a way of expelling those toxins in exchange for something many of us haven’t had for several years: Hope.

The Album that Grew Up Too Fast

YUNGBLUD – 21st Century Liability

Behold, the greatest verified Genius annotation:

Yungblud, a wily British alt-rocker who celebrated his 21st birthday this past August, is sick of the nonsense. In particular, how mental health is  easily brushed aside. And how it’s easier to buy a gun than beer if you’re under 21. And how racism, which is so blatantly wrong and inhumane, still happens.

And you wonder what happened to our youth!

“My mum thinks I’m on heroin
And my dad just thinks I’m gone
But they don’t know fucking anything
Say ‘Youth is wasted on the young'”

– “Psychotic Kids”

As Yungblud makes clear throughout this album, finding righteous, understanding idols is not so easy these days. Heroes fall, leaders are corrupt and everyone else seems too preoccupied to care about finding out what is really troubling today’s youth.

When teenagers have to point out to the government that, when you do the math, more guns won’t lead to fewer shootings, we’ve got serious problems. And, somehow, mental health has become this generation’s monster under the bed: “See, everything’s fine. It was just a bad dream. Just go back to sleep and it will be gone in the morning.”

Adolescence, if you remember, is all about fitting in and finding your place in the world. The stakes have never been higher, and this album covers the worst of what teens go through.

Want to be remembered? Ditch everything you ever stood for and become a brand that people will watch by the millions. Oh, and keep cranking out content so people don’t forget you. Oh, and make sure you get sponsors so you can sell sell sell. Become omnipresent. Become fake. Whatever it takes to avoid being chained to a cubicle.

Furthermore, these youngsters must sit back idly while the world delves into idiocy. The result is the highest rate of school shootings for any country by far, increasing opioid addiction and ballooning suicide rates.

These are issues too heavy and involved to tackle in this post, or even a single album, but I commend Yungblud for facing these demons head-on. I almost dismissed this album from the cover alone, but the kid showed some tremendous depth in how he views the world – and how the world views him.

I used to think the voice of the youth was too naive and insignificant to matter. But, as I have matured, I see how they might be the most significant voice out there. You don’t have to be 35 to figure out what the f*ck’s going on.

Why does the youth perspective matter? Because they are the ones pulling the trigger. Because they are the ones tying the noose. Because, when you do the math, our present is killing our future.

The Album I Cleverly Dubbed “Art&B”

Blood Orange – Negro Swan

On the surface, this album is a flawless execution of timeless soundscapes and feathered beats crafted around poetic lyricism. Underneath, Devonté Hynes (Blood Orange) is reaching into the dark he left behind to salvage something resembling light.

The challenges of being both black and a part of the LGBTQ community left little room for tolerance growing up, as Hynes was bullied for his painted nails and for taking dancing classes. The ceaseless bullying caused him to fake who he was, just so he could survive (see: “Dagenham Dream”).

A book by the name of Sapiens, written by Yuval Noah Harari (must-read material), explains racial, sexual and any other kind of intolerance in scientific terms (emphasis mine): 

A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ … Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to realize this possibility. Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist.”

– Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

That sentiment comes to mind more than it should these days, but it’s especially prevalent when listening to an album that prances around a seemingly harmless individual while their childhood lost everything that brought it joy. To bring terror or destruction upon someone who embraces their inner nature – it serves no purpose but to impede progress.

It’s 2018. We’re better than this. Haven’t we said that enough? It’s exhausting at this point.

And that’s seems to be the core of this album: exhaustion. This is evident in “Chewing Gum,” with the endless, helpless refrain: “Tell me what you want from me.” Hynes is tired of being angry. He’s tired of the anxiety and depression. He’s tired of trying to qualify who he is. He’s tired of the darkness. So he’s trying to find a light wherever he can get it. Negro Swan is exactly that.

The Album Where People Kind of Have a Point

Parquet Courts – Wide Awaaaaake!

I don’t particularly like this album, nor do I love it. But this one is dedicated to you, the PEOPLE.

Every year has an album that runs rampant up everyone’s best-of charts and, if your list doesn’t allow it free passage, it’s off to the gallows with you. Many times, those albums are actually trash because people can’t see through the facade. Kool-Aid gets around.

But I tried to find the good in this record and, I daresay, Parquet Courts made an album for the PEOPLE. I did not hurt that Danger Mouse was involved (his golden touch somehow para-glides its way onto this list almost every year). Though an alt/pop producer crossing paths with a dopey-indie band is a bit jarring. As a result, the normally awkward Parquet Courts became instantly palatable for a listener of my more straightforward taste. 

Parquet Courts run the gamut on every meaningful topic here: violence and race, blue-collar workers overcome their soul-sucking overlords, climate change, dysfunctional childhoods, death. And this is not to bog you down, but perhaps to make you more in tune – see our daily strife through a magnifying glass.

“Get love where you find it
It’s the only fist we have to fight with
And soon, you’re headed back to earth”

– “Back to Earth”

The opening and closing tracks, “Total Football” and “Tenderness,” respectively, have such joyous displays of camaraderie. And this call for unison is applied in a way that seems more fitting for opposing fans at a sports bar than the entire human race – but then why does it have be any different? If only the world could be healed with Music.

I cannot say I am much familiar with Parquet Courts outside of passive listening, but, in my limited research, I can tell they carry two admirable traits: They care about what they sing and they present wise words in a tactful way. I have no qualms letting them share this space among my chosen.

The Album Forged in Dirt

Emma Ruth Rundle – On Dark Horses

What do you think about when you’re alone?

It’s a harrowing question, except for the asker and those of like mind, who use it as bait to lure in a good, clean psychological conversation.

To everyone else, the question summons a plague of darkness only found in true solitude. To ask about those thoughts is to rummage through bones in our closets or to defile crypts – it’s best to let the sleeping lie. 

Emma Ruth Rundle went mega-solo for her previous album (Marked for Death), which is to say she secluded herself in the desert and fed off each breaking point as it came. She did not let the sleeping lie. It’s an album so desolate and contained, I cannot approach it even on a bad day.

But Rundle was open to working with other musicians on this, her fourth album, On Dark Horses. She brought a band to create full soundscapes while tapping into those isolated songwriting tactics. The result is big, dark sound.

Where Marked for Death sounds like bony fingers scratching from inside a coffin, On Dark Horses sounds like a thunderstorm tormenting your feeble shed. Ah, but do you see that in the near distance? The clouds show signs of breaking.

The album is pillared by “Darkhorse,” a song about two siblings overcoming an oppressive father. It’s an incredible tale of triumph, focusing on the endurance rather than the pain, using hardship to fortify their resolve. 

“It’s the darkhorse we give legs to, that I am proud to ride
In the wake of weak beginnings, we can still stand high
It’s you and I, you and I still try”

– “Darkhorse”

Despite the name of the album, Rundle ignites plenty of light imagery, which is prevalent in “Races,” the aptly named “Light Song” and “You Don’t Have to Cry.” This can get lost in the haunting instrumentation, but maybe that’s just to show you how the tormented feel: Wanting light but hearing nothing but black.

I wonder what Rundle learned in that desert – perhaps it hasn’t revealed itself yet, perhaps the result was this album. But I can tell you what she was thinking about – I can tell you what people like us think about when we’re alone.

We think about being around other people.

The Album That Will Bear Heavy Fruits

Leon Bridges – Good Thing

Out of all the albums on this list, this is perhaps the only one that could appeal to more than 50 percent of you. And this most undoubtedly will not be the last you hear of him. Shoot, even The Gap is on the bandwagon now – Leon Bridges is breaking out.

Retro is often good when modernized, and Leon Bridges is packing soulful ballads, jazzy bangers and sloooow jamz for anyone in need of a throwback (everyone, especially on Thursdays).

I’m hitting my word limit, so I’m dipping out and giving you a breather. You know what this man can do.

The Sultry, Vintage Noir Album That Inspired Me To Write an Awful Poem

Say Lou Lou – Immortelle

Are you the essence of love or my impending death?

Strike a match at the heart

The flame catches on dry bones,

Which some call a cage

(NSFW)

The exits beckon, but I cannot run,

Not with Helen of Troy announcing my fate

I am but man –  hungry, mortal man

Did I do wrong by Venus? Did I betray the moon?

The eyes of Medusa tell me “yes,”

But they have no effect

As my body combusts, you stare in pity

For I was not as wise as I claimed to be

In my embering death, truth emerged in ash

You are not to be worshiped,

But do deserve admiration

Look but don’t touch,

Not unless asked

As you stand before me, the last beauty I see,

I know you as you say you are:

Immortelle

The Album that Braced for Apocalypse

Foxing – Nearer My God

The apocalypse cometh.

If you felt as if the world were ending at any point in the past couple years, you are not alone! Foxing frontman Conor Murphy felt this way at times. His feeling of dread was compounded by the haunting image of CNN’s grainy “Doomsday Video” and the internal fabrication that his band wasn’t actually making people happy.

Using those thoughts of uncertainty and self-loathing as the basis of the album seemed like a decent start for a raw record, except that the band almost called it quits in the middle of recording. As it turns out, trying to reconcile what’s going on in the world and filling a studio with all of that gunk is detrimental to the psyche.

So the band took the approach of, “Well, this is what it’s like to live in this world,” unburdening themselves from trying to solve whatever they read in the news that morning. So what we have in an album of reaction and pain, but more open-ended and – here’s that word again – hopeful.

Case in point, the title track, “Nearer My God,” grapples with the longing to be “the crown centerfold,” or a band that the world worships. But these are insecurities reserved for the dark days, and the song let’s us know, overall, they are OK with who they are as a band.

The country is run by people who are, at least on the exterior, confident and sure of themselves. But many of its citizens are not. Some have to deal with awful step-fathers (“Bastardizer”) or are overcome by materialistic impulses (“Trapped in Dillard’s”). And some think this is it and that the Doomsday Clock is but seconds away from midnight.

There’s a chance that the boys from Foxing may be the least cerebral bunch on this entire list – Murphy has mentioned that he isn’t the most politically savvy person. However, that does not mean the world does not affect you. The challenge then becomes: How will you affect the world?

Music is a good place to start.

The Album that Eviscerated Stereotypes

Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer

When it comes to race, sexuality and gender roles, Janelle Monáe has obtained a level of thought beyond argument and scrutiny.

Those who oppress have the intellect of a Neanderthal. Those who have ascended are eviscerating centuries-old stereotypes:

“Mansplaining, I fold ’em like origami
What’s a wave, baby? This a tsunami
For the culture, I kamikaze, I put my life on a life line
If she the G.O.A.T. now, would anybody doubt it?
If she the G.O.A.T. now, would anybody doubt it?”

– “Django Jane”
I wanted to feature another song, but I mentioned “Django Jane” twice, so this just kind of makes sense.

Monáe wrote Dirty Computer around the simple yet complicated notion of loving who you are, framed in a her odd robot metaphors. She had this album in her mind for a years, but knew she hadn’t had the life experience to adequately say what needed to be said. Lo and behold, a certain regime took power and pushed those like her to the margins of society. As a result, we have a righteous, joyous anthem that transcends generations and empowers the belittled. 

“…I wanted to make sure the black girl magic was at the root of it. The love of black women, that they felt seen, they felt heard, and they felt like they had an anthem whenever they got down, whenever they got weary.”

Janelle Monáe on writing “Django Jane”

The only problem I am having with this album is, as a reviewer, I am unraveling thousands of miles of thread within each and every song. It’s incredibly dense, and I, as a white male, can do nothing but bow in awe.

I can say this: Janelle Monáe is an absolute powerhouse and she is stunning in every way one can measure beauty. Nothing else matters.

The Album That is Actually My No. 1

Matt Corby – Rainbow Valley

Music exists in multiple planes: How it sounds, what it means, and how it affects the listener. This late into my reviewing career, I have learned that while focusing on the music and artist at hand is key, you must never underestimate putting yourself into the narrative. Music is subjective by nature and without a cause/effect, what good is a review?

With Willy Wonka whimsy and wispy wonder, Matt Corby’s sophomore album is nothing short of a musician masterclass. Stressing purity over perfection, he played and sung everything you hear, every soulful note and poignant lyric. Thousands of tiny petals, one rainbow valley. Everything is here. Everything is where it needs to be.

Upon first listen, I, a humble listener owed nothing, was instantly absolved of any negative thought congested within my heart. And then some: 

To set the mood for a night of romance: “Light My Dart Up.”

For a sweet dose of chewing on others’ hypocrisy: “All that I See.” 

To straighten my course when I’ve lost my mind: “Get With the Times.”

When I feel too tangled up in false hope: “New Day Coming.”

And so on.

No other album this year had the capabilities to both get someone through life while making that same person feel born anew. Only 28, Corby already has a talent people seek their entire lives – he heals the soul. What a difference a song makes. What a difference a year makes.

This year, year of your Lord 2018, was all about moving on from 2017. At least it was for me – and I really didn’t want to bring this up. But it’s part of the narrative.

After living through some hardships, each one was compartmentalized within various pieces of art and memories so that I did not have to relive them in one recurring nightmare after another. But tonight, I see them all at once for the first time.

Maybe it’s Corby’s heavenly heart and soulful magic. Maybe it’s that I’m done with another self-imposed, exhausting review. But those compartments are unlocked and unified now, showing not the toll it took, but the strength it made. Millions of leaves. One formidable forest. Everything is here. Everything is where it needs to be.

Comeback Player of the Year

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I’m writing this post about the upcoming midterm elections on November 6th, in which I’ll be voting in the state of Tennessee. In the past I’ve been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions, but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now. I always have and always will cast my vote based on which candidate will protect and fight for the human rights I believe we all deserve in this country. I believe in the fight for LGBTQ rights, and that any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is WRONG. I believe that the systemic racism we still see in this country towards people of color is terrifying, sickening and prevalent. I cannot vote for someone who will not be willing to fight for dignity for ALL Americans, no matter their skin color, gender or who they love. Running for Senate in the state of Tennessee is a woman named Marsha Blackburn. As much as I have in the past and would like to continue voting for women in office, I cannot support Marsha Blackburn. Her voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies me. She voted against equal pay for women. She voted against the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which attempts to protect women from domestic violence, stalking, and date rape. She believes businesses have a right to refuse service to gay couples. She also believes they should not have the right to marry. These are not MY Tennessee values. I will be voting for Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for House of Representatives. Please, please educate yourself on the candidates running in your state and vote based on who most closely represents your values. For a lot of us, we may never find a candidate or party with whom we agree 100% on every issue, but we have to vote anyway. So many intelligent, thoughtful, self-possessed people have turned 18 in the past two years and now have the right and privilege to make their vote count. But first you need to register, which is quick and easy to do. October 9th is the LAST DAY to register to vote in the state of TN. Go to vote.org and you can find all the info. Happy Voting! 🗳😃🌈

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Gott’em!

Previous Year-End Lists

2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 2017

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