My favorite records of 2018 reflect several musical approaches to living in troubled times. Click on each album title to hear selections from each record and instructions to support the musicians by purchasing their work. This list is limited to ten, but I encourage readers to seek out additional worthy recordings from the past year by The Ex, Thalia Zedek, John Prine, and Barbara Manning.
Some of the most cogent popular culture critiques of this year come from Australia. Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette takes the form of standup comedy to produce a searing critique of the misogyny at root in Western art, politics, and society (including comedy and the comedian). Tropical Fuck Storm (featuring Gareth and Fiona of the Drones) examine the corrosive effects of online discourse in late capitalism on A Laughing Death in Meatspace. My description gets at the lyrical content, but does not capture the tone or the music – this is bleak but also playful, brimming with energy, wordplay, tangled guitar lines, and male-female call-and-response vocals that owe a debt to Fela Kuti. At its best (like the album closer “Rubber Bullies”), this is bracing, witty, immediate, pulsating music, stuff that makes the listener hunger for what TFS will do next.
What this review is missing is adequate description of just how funny TFS are. I could quote the lyrics of “Soft Power” about “either going to Mars or war” or that song’s goofy coda referencing The Wizard of Oz and Happy Days, but instead I direct readers to watch the videos for “The Future of History,” “You Let My Tyres Down,” and “Chameleon Paint.” It’s an imperfect comparison, as the Drones released a lot of impressive music, but A Laughing Death in Meatspace feels like the advance for Gareth Liddiard’s music that the albums Post and Gossip represented in Paul Kelly’s career.
Mint Mile began as Tim Midyett’s post-Bottomless Pit solo project and have evolved into an honest-to-goodness band with some echoes of the Byrds and early-Sausolito Van Morrison. (Think especially of the feel and structure of Saint Dominic’s Preview, only without horns.) The interplay between baritone 12-string guitar and pedal steel guitar hits a sweet spot for me, and every one of the four songs here rank with Midyett’s best work. The closer “Disappearing Music” is as close to ABBA as Midyett’s ever gone, a cheerful roller disco anthem of life’s impermanence that I’d be happy to have my survivors play at my funeral. (Or not; I mean, I won’t be there to know one way or the other.) Heartroller is the third and best EP Mint Mile has released, and this is a terrific introduction for newcomers.
My favorite instrumental record of the year features Chris Brokaw leading the rhythm section of Kid Millions and James McNew through five guitar workouts. That description could raise warning signals of noodling to those unfamiliar with Brokaw’s strong sense of structure, but from the shortest (“Play La Ticla,” a playful number under two minutes) to the longest (the hypnotic 18-minute title track), each piece is grounded in a strong sense of rhythm and rewards repeated listening.
Escovedo’s written on the immigrant experience of America before, not least on his wonderful By the Hand of the Father, but this album presents a new dimension of Americana with the tale of two friends — one from Italy, one from Mexico — and their experiences in Texas. Escovedo’s use of strings is one of the distinctive aspects of his sound, whiich will be familiar to fans of his work since the early 90s. Wayne Kramer’s presence on “Sonica USA” gives an idea of what the louder rock songs sound like, and their ferocity supports lyrics that are disgusted with how the white supremacist blood lust that dominates American political culture in 2018 has horrific consequences for vulnerable peoples as well as for the good people who actually are trying to help vulnerable peoples. The Crossing is an elegant expression of how diasporic movement of peoples is at the heart of American culture, no matter how much the modern Republican Party has reconstituted itself as a fundamentally racist movement attempted to restore an imaginary golden era of white supremacy like the Ku Klux Klan’s postbellum revolt against Emancipation. Escovedo’s music has always served as a cultural response against such revanchism and a better America would have 62 million people listening to him and no more than a few thousand thugs supporting Donald Trump, Cindy Hyde-Smith, and the rest of the Confederacy.
CONCORD does not sound like a band that had not put out a record in seven years. Actually, that span of time is not quite accurate, as Brian Orchard’s trio played Crazy Horse to Andy Cohen’s Neil Young on last year’s Unreality. The Crazy Horse comparison is apt, as like that band, Light Coma has a terrific feel for raw rock songs. This band has a tighter rhythm section than the Horse, and fans of Orchard’s previous bands .22 and Bottomless Pit will find CONCORD to be another stellar, no-nonsense collection of the kind of music that makes me miss living in Chicago.
Twenty years after Hurl decided to end the reign of the greatest math-rock band to call Pittsburgh home (yes, I said it), drummer Noah Leger has become the backbone of some of the best rock bands in Chicago. In recent years, he has played in Disappears with Brian Case, and now those two form 2/3rds of FACS, producing spare, heavy atmospheric rock that fits well in a set with the moodiest tracks from Tar and Bailter Space. Readers may take that description as confirmation that Negative Houses is mostly thick guitar, rumbling bass, and drums, but the epic “Houses Breathing” adds saxophone to the textures to great effect.
If you want to use one word to describe Canadian composter Davachi’s music, “minimalist” gets you in the ballpark. This album, recorded in part with members of Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mount Zion, and in part solo, draws on European Christian influences (both religious music and the acoustics of churches), and a mix of acoustic instruments, synthesizers, and room ambience. Gave in Rest sounds like something that wouldn’t sound out of place as a 4AD release c. 1986, and is perfect accompaniment to grey rainy mornings as the winter solstice approaches.
James McNew’s second appearance on this list in records produced by a trio comes with this album marking Yo La Tengo’s 34th year as a band. The title does not reflect the gentle textures within; Ira Kaplan’s guitar work leans more to his mining of the Velvet Underground’s post-John Cale melodies rather than the sheets of feedback that mark his more aggressive work. The music marks a return of sorts to some of the quieter, gently electronic sounds the band explored at the turn of the century. The lyrics reflect attempts to be good to one another amid troubled times, and that’s what I understand is the context for the title of this album.
Henry Threadgill’s approach to bandleading has always appealed to me, as he strikes the balance between being a distinctive leader and organizer with a coherent compositional identity with being a collaborator allowing space for his bandmates to shape their work together. This is true of his work in small groups such as Air, larger ensembles such as Very Very Circus, or now this 15-piece band 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg. Not many composers use tuba and cello together, but both instruments are staples of Threadgill’s work. The sweep of this large band’s sound makes it a rich new chapter in Threadgill’s long career, and brings to mind the dedication and engagement Duke Ellington gave very late in life to his And His Mother Called Him Bill project.
Two years ago, I called SAVAK a virtuosic and adaptable rock band from Brooklyn whose debut record Best of Luck in Future Endeavors ought to appeal to anyone who knows what the names Graham Maby or Greg Sage represent. That description holds true for their most recent release Beg Your Pardon. SAVAK continues to produce muscular, melodic rock with a good dose of horns. I wouldn’t call Beg Your Pardon power pop, exactly, but if you are looking to surprise a Cheap Trick or Lookout! fan with a record that mixes hooks and noise, you could take a reasonable change of introducing them to SAVAK with this record.