Monday, January 07, 2019

What a Time to Be Alive: My Favorite Albums of 2018

Editor's note: Check out my podcast discussion with Jay Breitling about our favorite music of the year on CompCon (here's parts 1, 2 and 3). 
Life can be challenging. No matter what your political bent or ideology, music can be a way out. Things can seem pretty awful, but there always seems to be plenty of great music to keep you going. This year was no exception.

15. Hot Snakes - Jericho Sirens
John "Speedo" Reis and Rick Froberg have been cranking out top-notch post-punk rock for more than a quarter century through some seriously hot acts: Rocket From the Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, Obits, Night Marchers and the Hot Snakes. After a 14-year hiatus, Hot Snakes returned with a new album that hit all the right marks: Turbo-charged riffs, urgent vocals, high-intensity delivery. It's a welcome return for a vital rock act. (Recommended: "I Need a Doctor," "Six Wave Hold-Down," "Death Doula")


14. The Breeders - All Nerve
Another classic '90s act returned with a strong album in 2018, its first in 10 years. Kim Deal reunited the "Last Splash"-era configuration of the band: sister Kelley on guitar, Josephine Wiggs on bass and Jim McPherson on drums. Indeed, it was the first album by that version of the Breeders since Last Splash in '94. While not as hooky as its predecessor, All Nerve is full of gems worthy of the Breeders canon, from catchy riff-rock to moody explorations to drawn-out, slow-burns. Live, they sound better than ever. All Nerve is a testament to the continuing genius of Kim Deal. (Recommended: "Wait in the Car," "Spacewoman," "Walking With a Killer")

13. Buffalo Tom - Quiet and Peace
Buffalo Tom has been performing infrequently over the last two decades as its three members have primarily moved out of the music business and into the so-called real world, working regular jobs and raising families. But luckily, every so often the band reunites to record an album and play a few shows. On its first album since 2011, BT continues to deliver rock-solid gems. Singer-guitarist Bill Janovitz remains the driving force behind the band, but bassist Chris Colbourn steps up with some quality songs of his own, but also with excellent backing vocals on Janovitz's songs. Quiet and Peace proves that you can be part-time men of rock and still masters of your craft. (Recommended: "All Be Gone," "Roman Cars," "Lonely, Fast and Deep")

12. Kurt Vile - Bottle It In
Kurt Vile does his own thing, man. He just likes to play chill, meandering psych-rock jams with lyrics about getting older, parking in Philly and other everyday stuff. There's a certain ramshackle appeal to Vile's music, where it kind of rolls along and goes wherever it goes. You wonder what he'd do if he structured his songs a little more, but nevertheless he always produces enjoyable results. Whenever you wonder what the point of a particular song is, Vile's excellent guitar work swoops in to distract you. You do you, Kurt. (Recommended: "Loading Zones," "Bassackwards," "One Trick Ponies")

11. Ty Segall - Freedom's Goblin/Joy (with White Fence)/Fudge Sandwich
Nobody can ever accuse Ty Segall of being lazy. The SF-based garage guitar god has spent much of the last decade releasing a countless stream of recordings in various configurations, while managing to keep the quality at a high level. It seemed like Segall was taking more time with his work for a while, with only two albums released from 2015-2017, but he was back to his prolific ways in 2018. In January, he released the double album Freedom's Goblin with the same backing band he used on 2017's self-titled record. It's a sprawling, 75-minute magnum opus that encompasses a lot of different types of songs: unabashed rippers, disco covers, skronky post-punk, Beatles-y love songs. And it's terrific. But Segall wasn't done: he teamed up with White Fence (aka Tim Presley) to release Joy, a fine album of psychedelic Syd Barrett-Kinks-T. Rex weirdness that takes listeners on a trippy ride. It's a fun acoustic/electric romp. In October, Segall released Fudge Sandwich, a covers album that features interesting takes on a wide range of songs, including Funkadelic's "Hit It and Quit It," John Lennon's "Isolation" and Neil Young's "The Loner." He doesn't recreate so much as reinvent the songs, whether that means blistering solos, electronic exploration or plaintive wailing. Most covers albums are hit or miss, but Fudge Sandwich is an essential listen. (Recommended: "She," "Body Behavior," "The Loner")

10. Bodega - Endless Scroll  
Released on What's Your Rupture?, Bodega shares some characteristics with their labelmates Parquet Courts: a bouncy post-punk sound and a sardonic view of consumer and pop culture. Singer-songwriters Ben Hozie and Nikki Belfiglio trade vocals throughout this energetic collection, which combines danceable rhythms with its punk snarl. It all makes for an entertaining whirl of a record, one which deserves repeated listens. (Recommended: "How Did This Happen?", "Jack in Titanic," "I Am Not a Cinephile")

9. Ovlov - Tru
I guess I'm a fan of prolific indie rock geniuses. Like Ty Segall and Bob Pollard, Steve Hartlett generates a lot of output in various forms. Over the last decade, Hartlett has split up and reformed Ovlov several times, depending on what felt right at the time. The first Ovlov album in five years features more of the band's trademark '90s Dino Jr.-inspired noise rock, infused with a wash of shoegaze guitars. Ovlov's sound is more fully realized than on its previous, more lo-fi, effort Am. Hopefully Ovlov will continue on as a rock unit, because they're terrific. (Recommended: "Tru Punk," "Half Way Fine," "Spright")

8. Jeff Rosenstock - POST-
In this splintered era where rock's profile has diminished and the signal-to-noise ratio is totally out of whack, Jeff Rosenstock has become one of the most important voices of his generation. On his third solo album in the last four years, Rosenstock has used his knack for writing catchy pop-punk anthems to voice his frustration with getting older, failed relationships and the crumbling music industry. But this album deals primarily with the aftermath of the 2016 election, starting right off the bat with the 7-minute "USA" and its refrain of "We're tired and bored," which leads into the shouted chorus of "Et tu, USA!" It kinda sounds like "FU, USA," which would also make sense in context. But while songs like "Powerlessness," "All This Useless Energy" and "Let Them In" could be construed as defeatist, they're both defiant and catchy as hell. With every release, Rosenstock establishes himself as an artist with true staying power. (Recommended: "USA," ""All This Useless Energy," "Melba")

7. Sloan - 12
The 12th studio album from Canadian power-pop stalwarts Sloan is as reliably excellent as you could hope for. After the double-album extravagance of 2014's Commonwealth (on which each of the band's singer-songwriters contributed a side), this release sees each member getting three songs that highlight their strengths but also more collaboration with the others. In recent years, the band has followed a release schedule of new album/reissue/new album/reissue, touring behind each, and it has kept the new material fresh while also giving fans a chance to revisit classics from Sloan's early days. Bassist Chris Murphy turns in  melodic instant classics, guitarist Patrick Pentland provides the power with amped-up riff rockers, guitarist Jay Ferguson presents perfectly constructed '70s pop confections and drummer Andrew Scott delivers muscular but vulnerable rock gems. Sloan is so consistently good that they've been overlooked their entire career, which is now into its 28th year. But rock music doesn't get much better than this. (Recommended: "Spin Our Wheels," "The Day Will Be Mine," "Year Zero," "The Lion's Share")

6. Parquet Courts - Wide Awake!
Here's a band that has been regularly producing excellent albums since emerging on the indie scene in 2011. Wide Awake! is the band's fifth official release, but prolific quartet has also released 2014's Content Nausea as Parkay Quarts and a collaborative album with Italian producer Daniele Luppi in 2017 called Milano. Main songwriter A. Savage draws on '80s American punk influences including the Big Boys and the Minutemen, while there are also danceable and funk elements inspired by the likes of Parliament Funkadelic. Like Jeff Rosenstock's POST-, Parquet Courts vents frustration on the new album, with songs commenting on white privilege, environmental concerns, violence and political awareness. Produced by Danger Mouse, the album explores weighty issues with dance music and punk and comes up with a winning combination. (Recommended: "Total Football," "Violence," "Almost Had to Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience")

5. Albert Hammond Jr. - Francis Trouble
I have to admit, I kind of lost track of Albert Hammond Jr. for a while. I liked the Strokes when they emerged as Rock's Great Saviors in 2001, but they were never able to follow up their great debut to match expectations. Meanwhile after going through some serious drug problems, Hammond was able to recover and embark on a solo career in 2006. Now on his fourth album, Hammond has put together a collection of terrific riff-laden rockers that surpass anything his main band has done in years. The title references the lost twin who died in a miscarriage when Hammond was born. Francis Trouble is a self-assured romp through a variety of styles: power pop, hard rock, surf, all of it catchy as hell. Who needs a new Strokes album when you can have great music like this on a regular basis? (Recommended: "Far Away Truths," "Muted Beatings," "Tea For Two")

4. Courtney Barnett - Tell Me How You Really Feel
Courtney Barnett has had a quick rise to the top of the indie rock heap over the last five years or so. On her 2015 debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, her laid-back but revved-up guitar work powered wordy treatises about vegetarianism and social anxiety. Her second full-length (not counting 2017's Lotta Sea Lice, a collaboration with Kurt Vile) is more introspective but by no means less powerful than its predecessor. This record has more snarl and bite, as Barnett tackles self-esteem and relationship issues with an underlying anger than wasn't there on previous efforts. She pushes back against the Nirvana comparisons made after the last record, taking her sound in a new direction. It's bold and it sets her up to do more great things in the future. (Recommended: "Need a Little Time," "Nameless, Faceless," "Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence")


3. IDLES - Joy as an Act of Resistance
IDLES was new to me in 2018, but they blew up in their native U.K. in 2017 with their debut Brutalism. The first song off their latest release, "Colossus," starts slow and then grabs you by the throat. It's a rager that's a fitting introduction to an album that features frontman Joe Talbot bellowing about toxic masculinity, homophobia, Brexit, addiction. There's a definite Fall influence in the clashing guitars, as well as hints of Future of the Left's sardonic take on U.K. politics. The record takes a different turn on "June," which is about losing a child to a miscarriage, and the band even throws in a Solomon Burke cover ("Cry to Me"). All in all, this is an exhilarating ride that focuses on positivity amid all the clatter. (Recommended: "Colossus," "Never Fight a Man With a Perm," "Television")

2. Fucked Up - Dose Your Dreams
It was a four-year gap between albums from Toronto's Fucked Up, but it was well worth the wait.  After a fairly straight-ahead hardcore album on 2014's Glass Boys, the band returned with an 80-minute beast of a concept album that returns to the title character of its 2011 classic David Comes to Life. Beyond that, the concept itself is kind of hard to follow, and musically, the album is all over the place but it doesn't matter. This is a band stretching out like it never has before. Frontman/shouter Damian Abraham is still a force here, but it's guitarist/mad scientist Mike Haliechuk who's running the show on Dose Your Dreams. Abraham willingly stepped back from the band during the creation of the record, busy with multiple podcasts and TV ventures, and Haliechuk took the ball and really ran with it. Abraham's guttural roar remains the band's trademark, but he's aided by a plethora of guest vocalists including guitarist Ben Cook and drummer Jonah Falco, Dinosaur Jr. mainman J. Mascis and singers Mary Margaret O'Hara and Lido Pimienta. Stylistically, Fucked Up careens from punk blasts to psychedelia to industrial to electronic dance music. It's a big mess, but it all works and it's never not interesting. (Recommended: "Raise Your Voice, Joyce," "Mechanical Bull," "Normal People")

1. Superchunk - What a Time to Be Alive
Protest music isn't what it used to be. We can blame that on an apathetic populace, a struggling music industry or the fact that so much music is released nowadays that it's hard to get the word out to more than a niche audience. Whatever the case, Superchunk isn't having it. On the band's 11th album, the legendary punk act has lost none of the fire that's fueled its 30-year career. Written in direct response to the 2016 presidential election, What a Time to Be Alive finds Mac McCaughan and compadres raging against the dying of our democracy. The title track aptly sums up the band's anger: "The scum, the shame, the fucking lies/Oh what a time to be alive." Sounding like a band half its age, Superchunk races through the album like it hasn't since its '90s heyday. But its anger is converted into exciting catharsis, aided by guest vocals from Katie Crutchfield, Stephin Merritt, David Bazan, Sabrina Ellis and Skylar Gudasz. Protest never sounded so good. (Recommended: "What a Time to Be Alive," "Break the Glass," "Reagan Youth")

Honorable mention: Tony Molina - Kill the Lights; Slaves - Acts of Joy and Fear; Thin Lips - Chosen Family; Laura Jane Grace - Bought to Rot; Stove - 's Favorite Friend; Elvis Costello and the Imposters - Look Now; Antarctigo Vespucci - Love in the Time of E-mail; Exit Group - Adverse Habitat; Swearin' - Fall Into the Sun; Joyce Manor - Million Dollars to Kill Me; Oh Sees - Smote Reverser; Lucero - Among the Ghosts; Arthur Buck - s/t; Jim James - Uniform Distortion; Neko Case - Hell-On; Speedy Ortiz - Twerp Verse; Screaming Females - All at Once; La Luz - Floating Features; Poptone - s/t; Beach House - 7; Painted Doll - s/t; Shopping - The Official Body; Moaning - s/t; Judas Priest - Firepower; Wye Oak - The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs; Camp Cope - How to Socialise & Make Friends; Dream Wife - s/t; Hop Along - Bark Your Head Off, Dog; Preoccupations - New Material; The Rock*a*Teens - Sixth House

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