The Best Albums of 2018: the Top Ten!

So, here we go with our favourite ten albums of 2018. It is very much a personal choice, hence the lack of jazz, rap, grime, classical ... but hopefully there is something for most to enjoy! And do take a look back at he whole top 30 plus more in our previous posts. Comments welcome ...

10. Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino Arctic Monkeys
This came as a bit of a shock to many long-standing fans, being perceived by some as an Alex Turner solo album. Gone was spiky guitar and riff driven indie – this is a concept album set on a future space station, and was composed on piano; at times, it sounded like some futuristic lounge singer in the bar at the end of the universe. I loved it, my wife, a big fan of the band, thinks it is their worst album by some way.

9. Golden Hour Kacey Musgraves
Should Ms Musgraves be a place or two higher? This has done very well in the serious critics’ year-end lists, which is amazing for a “country” singer. But this is only vaguely in that genre – it is very clever “pop” music in the broadest sense. Musgraves has always had the knack of writing tunes that you think you’ve heard before (like the one below), and half this album falls into that category. On Slow Burn, the vibe is Beck in his laid-back phase; she even does disco on High Horse. My only complaint; I do miss her original and lovely country girl look, she looks so glossy and Instagram-ready now …

8. Keepsake Elizabeth and the Catapult
One of the pleasant shocks of the year, Elizabeth is classically trained pianist Elizabeth Ziman from New York. Of all the vaguely indie / rock / folk female singers this year with strong albums listed here, she brought for me the most interesting variations, such as clever use of strings and the stunning piano runs on Mea Culpa, plus a voice that reminded me of Suzanne Vega, Aimee Mann and Joni Mitchell by turn. Excellently tuneful, often witty songs and very hard not to like!

7. Chris Christine and the Queens
Is this as good as her stunning 2016 debut (our album of that year)? Maybe not quite ... a few of the tracks just weren’t very memorable, but on the positive side, there were stand-outs like 5 dollars, as strong a song as any this year. She covers issues such as bullying and sexual orientation with a light but perceptive touch, and while the dance-pop music here was shinier and more Jackson-influenced (Michael and Janet) than on her debut, Christine continues to stun us with her talent, creativity, intelligence, charisma and humility. OK, maybe I am just a little bit in love …

6. I’m All Ears    Let’s Eat Grandma
What would the Norwich girls do next after their deeply weird and stunning debut of 2015, featuring songs written when they were 13? How about a marginally less weird but just as thrilling album of songs written when they were… 17 maybe? (They're virtually old ladies now, all of 19). The closing track for instance is the expansive and adventurous 11-minute long Donnie Darko, which combines psychedelic folk, trance-y electronica and gothic rock and is strange but quite brilliant.  There are more straightforward, very tuneful dance pop “bangers” too, and why this album wasn’t nominated for the Mercury Prize is a total mystery to me. The track here is one of the more conventional on the album, we should say – it's good, but not the best by any means.

5. Microshift   Hookworms
This was a tough decision. Matthew Johnson, the band’s lead singer, main songwriter and producer got embroiled in accusations of physical and mental abuse from an ex girlfriend, made worse for him because he had been a very voluble “woke" guy on Twitter, saying things like “we must always believe the accuser”. So when he got accused… there was a bit of schadenfreude around. So should I leave them off the list because of his alleged behaviour? No, that would not be fair on the rest of the band (which has now split up), apart from anything. With influences from Arcade Fire to Joy Division, this is driving, rhythmic music, with strong tunes and emotional vocals all adding up to a powerful and impressive rock album. Indeed, at one point this was possibly my album of the year and stays right up there, despite the ethical issues.

4. Dirty Computer   Janelle Monae
This exotic and often erotic (see the video to PYNK below, although it is humourous rather than really rude) artist produced an unexpected classic here. Channeling everything from lovely soul ballads to contemporary rap (and gosh, can she rap) to the Beach Boys (Brian Wilson guests on the title track) and most notably Prince (Make Me Feel is simply the best track he never made), this is a varied and exciting mix of absolutely of-the-moment, socially and politically aware pop, R’n B and soul from the super-talented Ms Monae.

3. Rifles and Rosary Beads   Mary Gauthier
Gauthier is a long-established New Orleans born singer-songwriter with a folk-influenced style. Here, she works with the five-year-old SongwritingWith:Soldiers program and takes lyrics co-written by military veterans and their families to create a stunning, powerful set of songs that are moving but never sentimental. With simple often acoustic arrangements, the tunes are strong too, as she sings of the challenges of coming back to civilian life, the comradeship of war, and other matters most of us will fortunately never have to consider. Its not a “difficult” listen in any sense but be prepared for the odd lump in the throat or tear in your eye. This is quite simply, an important album that will be considered a classic for years to come, I’m sure.

2. Double Negative   Low
Wow. I only discovered this about two weeks ago and it very nearly went straight to number 1 on the list. Low have produced many albums in their “slowcore” style, lovely tunes played VERY slowly, bursting with atmosphere. But here, producer BJ Burton pulls their music apart, with all sorts of strange electronic sounds and effects then intervening as he glues it together again, so sometimes you can only just hear the (still lovely in some cases) “tune” in the background. The first track will make you think your device is playing up; other tracks only just qualify as “music” as we know it. Yet I found the whole effect totally engrossing – listen with decent headphones and it is quite extraordinary. It’s certainly the best reflection this year of the weird and turbulent world of Trump, Putin, and Brexit in which we’re living.

1. A Brief Enquiry Into Online Relationships    The 1975
What contrasts we have in our top 5 albums - all of which could have been worthy winners! The 1975 takes on the task of exploring our relationship with social media, and therefore with our own selves, as well as discussing addiction, love and other meaty topics, through the medium of generally joyful tunes that cover quite a range of styles – pure shiny and sharp pop, to tracks that are close to jazz, soul or even “electronic garage”. If Double Negative (above) is disturbing in its message that the world is difficult and complex, then this gives the same message but with a more optimistic take on it – we’ll probably all be OK in the end, it seems to say, if we reach out to each other. Matty Healy’s wit and disarmingly unpretentious self-analysis shines through all of it, and while this is an uneven album (it is far from a coherent work such as last year’s winner here), we give them the no. 1 slot on the basis of ambition as well as great songs like this.

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