Happy New Year’s Eve, y’all! I’m clicking publish on this just before picking up my kids from daycare and heading to a neighbor’s house to send off 2018 in style. It was a really weird year. Good in lots of ways, bad in many other ways, but I’d argue that the music was truly excellent. Here’s one more list — the albums I loved that didn’t fit into the other categories (EPs, Jazz, Blasts from the Past, and RVA), ordered alphabetically. There’s even a quick list of other jams I enjoyed at the bottom.
Thank y’all wonderful people for sticking with this dusty old blog in 2018. Be safe out there tonight. See you in 2019.
Arctic Monkeys — Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
File this under “Things I didn’t know I needed…” If you would have come up to me and said, “One of the bands you like is going to make a completely sincere album about a space casino,” I’m not sure how I would have reacted, or if I would have guessed Arctic Monkeys were the band. Then again, you could argue that the seeds for Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino were planted in the making of A.M., in which Alex Turner found a new and uniquely convincing narrative voice as a chronicler of messy late night interactions. That’s what makes Tranquility Base work so well: It doesn’t sound like Turner is acting, even though it couldn’t be clearer (ahem, space casino) that what he’s singing about is imaginary.
As a side note, I listened to this almost exclusively while on a non-imaginary trip to Las Vegas earlier this year. My first time there. Alex Turner was my spirit guide. Like I said, “Things I didn’t know I needed…”
Car Seat Headrest — Twin Fantasy
This year’s winner for Difficult Album Categorization. It’s not a reissue, since the songs have been rerecorded, but the original Twin Fantasy was released all the way back in 2011, so this doesn’t exactly feel like a new album. In the end, none of that matters, because there’s power baked into these songs, their themes, and their memorable melodies that transcends how they’re presented. And I genuinely enjoy how Will Toledo forces you to examine your assumptions about whether recording a song means it’s “finished.”
Honorable mention for difficult album categorization goes to Ryley Walker’s excellent rework of Dave Matthews Band’s Lillywhite Sessions, which were never actually released, making Walker’s album the first official Lillywhite release? I guess?
Phil Cook — People Are My Drug
This album has all of spiritual buoyancy of Cook’s Southland Mission album, and it arrived at a time when his brand of relentless optimism is needed most. I’ll never forget giving it a spin when my faith in humanity was especially low, after a creepy encounter I had while canvassing here in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District for Abigail Spanberger. I got home, put this on, made a pot of chili, and the world felt right again. Well, almost as right as it did when Spanberger won 🙂
Jonny Greenwood — Phantom Thread OST
Cooking with mushrooms will never be the same in the Jones household. Not sure what I mean? See the movie, and then try to cook with mushrooms while this soundtrack is playing in the background and not get creeped out. It’s impossible.
Lonnie Holley — MITH
Holley is a true original. I’ll never forget how his 2017 show at the Broadberry was staged — Holley on keys and two cellos. Tons of improvisation. It was wild. I follow him on Instagram, and I still haven’t seen that arrangement repeated. I was ready for anything when MITH came out, and while there’s still a wildness to the way Holley delivers his songs, there’s a sharp thematic focus to the album, with “I Woke Up In A Fucked-Up America” leading the way.
As a side note, this made the Bitter Southerner’s Best Southern albums of 2018 list, and I loved the way Chuck Reece’s podcast explored “I Snuck Off The Slave Ship.”
Jump Little Children — Sparrow
Off Your Radar readers know about my love for Jump Little Children. I was so thrilled to see the band had gotten back together and recorded a new set of songs, but given how much time had passed, I was cautious in terms of my optimism. Lead single “Hand On My Heartache” was a great start, though — and a big hit in the Jones household, given that my daughter loved it right away — and the rest of Sparrow ended up following suit. We’ve listened a bunch as a family, which I love because of how I first learned about the band from my older sister.
I had a really hard time picking a song to feature for this one, because so many of these songs demonstrate what’s been great about Jump Little Children all along. I ended up going with the title track, which opens the album with a nice balance of quiet moments and anthemic builds.
Adrianne Lenker — abysskiss
I fell hard for “cradle,” which I first heard while on a trip to Maine with my family. It seems so fitting in retrospect, and not just because I listened to the song while I was literally putting together a Pack ‘n Play. There’s such a wonderful sense of intimacy to the album. Even when Lenker is singing “No one can be my man/No one can be my woman,” the closeness of her voice makes you feel like you’re on the inside of some warm, small space that she’s constructed with her words and arpeggiated chords. I love spinning the album at home and feeling grateful for the warm, small space in the world my wife and I have constructed together.
Buck Meek — Buck Meek
The two brilliant Big Thief solo albums are back-to back alphabetically! How perfect is it that? Meek is Big Thief’s guitarist, and I love his approach — restless and inventive, not unlike Blake Mills’. I even hear some of the same guitar tones. Meek’s lyrics are just as gripping. I could go on and on about “Joe By The Book.” Who knows how many times I’ve listened to it. It doesn’t even cross the two-minute mark, but it’s a study in how details enrich lyrics, with colloquialisms like “Who’d you fool to borrow this race car?” and “You should get paid to waste my time” that feel so true-to-life that I wonder if they’re one side of a real phone conversation. Either that or the most economical short story I’ve heard since “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Blake Mills — Look
Speaking of Blake Mills and restlessness… Look came out later in the year (I’m actually still waiting for my online order for a vinyl copy to be fulfilled), and I’m still getting to know it. But I love how Mills is constantly looking for new muses — in this case it’s Japanese guitar synthesizers from the 1970s. According to an interview I read, Look is a document of Mills’ learning to use them — like a sketchbook kept by an artist mastering a new technique. Yet Look sounds like mastery to me, and I envision spending a ton more time with it.
Mountain Man — Magic Ship
This one has been within the vicinity of my record player since it came in the mail. In all seriousness, I don’t think it’s left that room. I’ve reached for it in so many situations: Cooking dinner, first waking up on the weekend and making coffee, during chaotic kid dinners. It pairs with solitude and serious contemplation just as well as it accompanies lighthearted moments of communion. Can’t wait to see Mountain Man at Capital Ale House in the coming year. Get your tickets here if you haven’t already.
John Prine — The Tree of Forgiveness
Much of what I said about Both Directions at Once in my jazz post applies here as well, since this is Prine’s first album of original material since I started getting to know his music. But I’m inclined to think this contains some true all-timers. “Summer’s End” packs an incredible emotional punch and reminds me a little of the power of “Hello in There,” and “When I Get to Heaven” offers a beautiful example of Prine’s benevolently dark humor.
Rosalía — El Mal Querer
Hypnotic spareness. Arresting, beautifully ornamental singing that lays bare the link between cante flamenco and musical traditions rooted farther east. Production from the brilliant El Guincho, who shows as much of a knack for listening here as for building out rhythm and atmosphere. Add in a track that incorporates the melody from “Cry Me A River” and you have an unreasonably generous feast for the ears, especially if you’re interested in the interconnectedness of styles from around the world.
Jeff Tweedy — WARM
I guess I never really stopped to think about the opaqueness of Wilco’s lyrics. There’s always been so much to dig into musically, especially since Nels Cline joined the band and became a focal point unto himself (one of the reasons I love Sky Blue Sky). But this whole narrative about how the lyrics on WARM are direct in a way Tweedy’s haven’t been in the past — I totally buy it. It really does feel like a refreshing creative left turn, and I feel like I understand him a little better after listening to WARM. That’s pretty incredible, given how much time I’ve spent with his work over the past decade or so.
Brocker Way — Wild Wild Country OST
I loved Wild Wild Country, and I especially loved the way it used Bill Callahan’s “Drover” in the series’ climactic scene. In that moment, the lyrics of “Drover” bring the show’s dark and complicated narrative full-circle, and the show brings out shading in the lyrics that I wouldn’t have heard otherwise. When I first saw this album at Small Friend Records & Books, I thought it would be more of a soundtrack, with songs like “Drover” included, but this is the original score, which was done by Brocker Way, brother of the creators of Wild Wild Country. When I saw it had been pressed to maroon vinyl, I had to snag it. I’m glad I did, because it’s haunting in really interesting ways — controversially so.
As a side note, you’ll see an honorable mention below for Callahan’s Live at Third Man Records album, which (coincidentally?) includes a version of “Drover.” Did I mention the song is where the show got its name?
Thom Yorke — Suspiria OST
Creepy, pretty, and perfectly suited for pumpkin carving. Thom Yorke’s first foray into the world of film scoring. Really impressive. Looking forward to hearing more from him in this format.
10 more 2018 albums I enjoyed:
Nathan Bowles — Plainly Mistaken
Bill Callahan — Live at Third Man Records
Father John Misty — God’s Favorite Customer
Mary Lattimore — Hundreds of Days
Lindi Ortega — Liberty
Screaming Females — All at Once
Shovels & Rope — Busted Jukebox Volume 2
Ryley Walker — The Lillywhite Sessions
Wilco — Live At The Troubadour L.A. 1996
Neil Young: Roxy — Tonight’s the Night Live
More 2018 in Review:
2018 in Review: EPs
2018 in Review: Jazz
2018 in Review: Blasts from the Past
2018 in Review: RVA Part 1