Baldwin’s Top 20 Albums of 2018

My process of music consumption is simple, but not easily explained. Many great albums take time to grow on me, which is a normal occurrence for a lot of listeners. But certain pieces of music have an almost paranormal quality. I listen to some albums once and immediately know that the artist has hit that magical mixture of cohesion, theme, execution and spirit.

Concerning the albums on this list, I knew right away they were something special. The track flow is perfect, the musicianship is where it needs to be, the production appropriate for the sound. More importantly, these albums have a lot of spirit. You can’t pin this spirit down by measures of uniqueness, dynamics, genre or even the personal traits of the artists themselves. It’s just a feeling; a feeling that says that every plucked string, vocal line and pushed key is right where it needs to be – music that comes from a place of honesty and a subconscious desire to be heard. Bravo to these artists, and thank you.

Before we get into the list, here are 5 runner-up nominations.

sleep-the-sciencesSleep – The Sciences

Such a strong comeback album from these stoner metal legends. “Sonic Titan” bores me a bit, which keeps the album off the list. I still highly recommend giving it a listen.

Kero Kero Bonito – Time ‘n’ Place

Indie pop weirdness, and a catchy listen despite its detours into noise rock and shoegaze. It’s a little short and perhaps a bit thrown together, but their mystery flavor bubblegum vibes are undeniable.

The Devin Townsend Project – Ocean Machine Live at the Ancient Roman Theatre Plovdiv

This would have absolutely made the list if I had allowed myself to include live albums. It’s one of the sharpest sounding performances I’ve ever heard. The song selection is amazing, the vibe is tremendous, the mix is perfect. Maybe my most listened-to album of the year.

Oneohtrix Point Never – Age Of

Such a weird, intriguing electronic album. It’s like some sort of 1980s commercial music/1970s UFO soundtrack hybrid of subliminal technological propaganda. Unfortunately the auto-tuned vocals are a bit distracting.

Nine Inch Nails – Bad Witch

This could have been a much longer album. I didn’t include it on the list because it’s practically an EP. Trent Reznor is finding his place again in music by taking risks. Many of the tracks here take influence from krautrock, jazz, punk and ambient. The saxophone is a weird and welcome addition to the Nine Inch Nails sound, and for the first time in a while, I’m really looking forward to hear more from the man.

20. Gunship – Dark All Day

You can make the argument that Gunship is just another group riding the synthwave craze. The duo is up to their pink mohawks with 1980s trademarks – big synths, booming choruses, nocturnal cinematic filth. But nostalgia is different than plagiarism. Gunship is a parallel dimension where we never lost the bombastic behavior and flare of the Cold War era. We race drones, surf cyberspace, wax poetic about young love, maybe blow on a smoking pistol after rescuing a person we love, if we’re cool enough.

19. Drudkh – They Often See Dreams About the Spring

Although Drudkh don’t stray very far from black metal tradition, they know how to craft an album with natural flow and singular vision. Their interest in the transitional seasons is a refreshing detour from black metal’s obsession with the drear and dread of winter. This is still spring however, a turbulent time of year when winter desperately fights its futile battle with the promise of warmth. And so the Ukrainian band constructs a convincing soundtrack to that conflict with emotionally gratifying black metal riffs that are equal amounts wildfire and wildflower.

18. Pusha T – Daytona

Brevity is a new and welcome addition to the hip hop world. Kanye West was involved in a series of albums released this year that are seven songs each, under a half-hour running time. He had his hand as a producer in Pusha T’s latest as well, decorating his laidback drug culture lyricisms with an equally relaxed jazziness. The whole thing is over soon, yet still leaves a nice digital footprint. I’m sitting on a porch the morning after a crazy party, listening to a fellow guest spilling his shit out to the sunrise as he spits into an overflowing ashtray. Despite his troubles, I feel happier than ever.

17. Winterfylleth – The Harrowing of Heirdom

This is pagan folk music perfected; a beautiful and pastoral album of acoustic guitar, chants, and strings that bring to mind a lonesome wayfarer traveling the wilderness of an English valley. He makes a campfire in a different place each night, caught in a battle between reverence for Mother Nature and the depression of his overbearing solitude. He sings songs to the mountains and to the lakes and the smoldering embers. He asks new frontiers for a place to call home. Listening to this, you yourself may feel a kind of sad comfort, like turning through happy memories of a lost family life.

16. Daughters – You Won’t Get What You Want

Daughters created an entire album of horror movie climax. They harness the shrillness, the drilling and screwing and maddening terror that comes with an accidental fall off the ledge of a skyscraper, or the cold clenching hand of a deranged knife-wielder on your shoulder. These are songs of life-ending fuck-ups. Even the occasional reprieve offers up nothing but grotesque anticipation for your inevitable last moments. You’re holding your hand to your ears, curled up on the floor and swinging back and forth because the noise in your head is just looping over and over like a deranged zoetrope. But why are you smiling like that?

15. Ghost – Prequelle

Ghost is a pop band. More appropriately, they’re a metal-flavored pop rock band. I think that fixes things. I think butthurt metal fans will finally be able to heal. For the life of me, I can’t think of anything about their music that’s wrong or objectively bad. This is a solid album of catchy songs – an album with stupendous flow and a nostalgic, campy arena expanse that delights that part of me that fucking loves Journey and Toto. Ruminating on their alleged usurped position at the top of the heavy metal conscious isn’t really what’s important to me here. What’s important is good music, and Ghost has been consistent with that.

14. Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs

This dude raps like he’s falling asleep. I think I might be falling asleep. I’m not bored or anything, but it’s hard to concentrate on the world around me. The lawnmower sounds are seeping into my stereo. Car horns are taking the springs out of the mattress and I’m sinking in. Rap songs sound like someone muttering from somewhere in my house. The leaky pipes, the floorboards, TV and the mice getting their necks snapped in traps are all in a medley. These opiates are just what I need. Time to sit and sink into some rap songs; an album that’s way less thrown together than the title implies.

13. Gas – Rausch

gas

Wolfgang’s latest work is a familiar environment. Soft techno pulses, orchestral hums, and plucking harps still give that unique sense of walking alone through a forest, hearing a distant rave party raging somewhere through the trees. Yet this album is a bit more particular, Wolfgang himself stating that Rausch is influenced by his German heritage. This is still ambient music, so the cultural angle is merely an abstraction. I’m walking through the Black Forest, haunted by breathy memories of folk tradition, industrialization and war. I envision old brass instruments lying abandoned against tree trunks, droning on about a past full of pride and pain.

12. Death Grips – Year of the Snitch

Death Grips have rattled and blurred their foundations even further on this release, sacrificing a bit of the harshness of their hip hop parts to make room for some new “rock” flavors. Make no mistake, they still sound like a cyberpunk car chase (Shitshow, Little Richard), and a mescaline freak-out in a Miami Beach nightclub (Death Grips Is Online, Streaky). But now they’ve added influences from krautrock (Flies), hardcore (Black Paint) and psychedelic/surf rock (Dilemma, Hahaha) to the fold. They’ve achieved a remarkable amount of warmth for a record that remains as unhinged as ever – like some prophetic bastard of lost music uncovered from the 1970s.

11. YOB – Our Raw Heart

This album forms a metaphorical equilateral upside-down triangle. For the first half we’re descending, sliding reluctantly into a pit of fire. We’re standing in a burning room, lowering ourselves into a flaming easy-chair. Then “Beauty In Falling Leaves” enters and we reclaim our strength. We jump and climb the opposite edge, away from the dreamy flames. By the time the title track finale arrives, we’re commanding where and how our house is consumed by fire. Things are still falling apart, but from the particularly singed pieces of our old house, we connect the rubble and build life anew.

10. Anna Von Hausswolff – Dead Magic

This album is a full package of contradictions, towing the line between gothic darkness and celestial peace; foreboding ambience and towering rock anthems; electronic experimentation and medieval vampiric melodies. Most of it revolves around Anna’s powerful voice and spellbinding pipe organ playing, painting a crimson world that drowns in the blisses and dangers of occultism – the blood of open wounds and matters of the heart. Album highlight “The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra” might be the song of the year, pounding the listener with a hypnotic guitar/drum incantation as Anna bellows like an insane woman calling for her incubus.

9. serpentwithfeet – Soil

serpentwithfeet_ soil

I’ve never heard a soul album like this. Then again, my exposure to the genre is limited. It took me awhile to come around to exploring this music, and even now there’s a great deal of it that doesn’t appeal to me. What makes this different? It’s a real oddity. It manages to mimic that classic soul sound of vocal-centric songwriting, deep bass and slow movement. But we also have eccentric vibrato masturbation, celestial instrumentation and production effects that make it sound like I’m stuck on the Discovery spaceship and Hal 9000 is singing right into my ear. His robotic imitation of spirit and artificial understanding of human relationships is a little off-putting, a little endearingly wishful.

8. Jack White – Boarding House Reach

The most polarizing album of 2018; Jack White’s most experimental album by far. Critics have complained that it’s unfocused (I’m still trying to figure out what the fuck they’re talking about) and indulgent (yeah, so what?). If rock is ever going to dig itself out of the bland and uninspired hole that its dug thanks to post-grunge and Greta Van Fleet creative dead ends, fans and musicians would be wise to embrace indulgence, experimentation and the new. This is an album full of oddball blues rock, spacy playfulness, zany spoken word that revitalizes the rebellious roots of rock and roll by violating and reconstructing rock into something unrecognizable. Perhaps that’s the only way to a comeback.

7. Sophie – Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides

This album was a shocker, even though we’re supposed to be living in a musical age when nothing should be shocking anymore. I love musical experimentalism done right, but there’s something so wrong with what Sophie’s done to pop music. This is an album that obliterates mainstream songwriting technique and reassembles it into such a daring, loudly flamboyant and in-your-face hodgepodge that I was honestly intimidated by it at first. Sophie throws her transgender identity into tracks of infectious pop deformity and deconstructed dance, shoving it in your ears as if she’s saying, “This is the future of music you fucking shits, deal with it.”

6. Judas Priest – Firepower

This is an album that makes the list for a number of reasons: production, songwriting, musicianship and uniqueness. That’s right, fucking uniqueness. Let’s not forget that Judas Priest spearheaded much of what we consider as the quintessential heavy metal sound. On Firepower, their eighteenth album, the band performs like a demonic monarch with the same force of power, volume, accessibility and rebellion that they’ve always stood for. Yet they also haven’t sounded this revitalized and youthful since the 80s, constructing song after song with riffs and vocal acrobats so heavy and wicked that they can impregnate the devil with the seeds of war through a busted leather prophylactic.

5. Idles – Joy as an Act of Resistance

idles joy as an act of resistance

One of the best rock albums I’ve heard in years. Idles is like the derogatory ramblings of a bitter uncle or your shitty teenage son set to rousing hardcore punk. Except these dysfunctional family members are actually, drunkenly passionate about standing up against all the right things – homophobia, xenophobia, macho masculinity and various other examples of idiocy and ignorance in the modern world. It feels great to fight bigotry with a record that sounds like it was thrown together after downing a 30-pack of watery beer in a gym locker room. It’s like giving them a taste of their own medicine.

4. Tim Hecker – Konoyo

tim hecker

Hecker is an ambient composer that knows how to treat someone who could be a first-time listener of minimalistic music. His soundscapes are a bit busier, his palette emotionally gripping. His albums are shapeless soundtracks for movies never made. And what is the movie this time? Something that straddles the line between science fiction, space age documentary, dystopia and maybe a little bit of supervillain drama. There are reasons to be fearful of technology, corruption, and the apocalypse. But it’s not the type of fear based in paranoia. It’s the terror infused in the multifaceted, nameless, authoritarian machine of our destruction that we’ve made for ourselves. Look at that thing on the front cover! Look how it’s going to fucking destroy us…

3. Portal – Ion

What the hell IS this thing? Portal has abandoned the murky production in their sound and on Ion, have shown us exactly how frightening and unexplainable their music can be. Extreme metal hasn’t reached heights like this before – an album that straps you to the hollow globe of a supercharged Van de Graaff Generator while Dr. Frankenstein is reanimating the dead. Maniacal guitars oscillate, whir and staccato strike your ears like Bishop in the Aliens film punching his fork with rapid succession in-between Bill Paxton’s fingers. And I’m screaming like Paxton is screaming, filled to the brink of madness with the saliva of elder lightning gods.

2. Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth

I’ve heard many complaints from jazz enthusiasts that Kamasi makes jazz music for people who don’t get jazz. Okay then, I don’t get jazz music. Now that we have that out of the way, let me say that this is one of the most uplifting records I’ve ever heard. Musical purpose is what I look for – do I feel like the music has a solid artistic foundation and a sense of growth? Heaven and Earth manages to use the flavor of jazz to bring me to an emotionally tangible place. Orchestral horns, ethereal choirs, piano and a very tastefully restrained rhythm section combine to make a celestial sphere of love supreme; a divine backdrop to Kamasi’s expressive saxophone playing and the occasional, inspiring R&B croon. Epic and beautiful.

1. Julia Holter – Aviary

Holter‘s latest is like walking into a rainforest of unnamable flora and fauna. In the first track you’re trying to break through numerous vines and low-lying branches, pushing aside huge shelves of tree fungus to get into the jungle. Now that you’re in here, it’s going to take at least a couple of hours to explore everything. There’s a string quartet in a circle of ferns. There’s an indie pop band playing in a tree trunk. There’s krautrock in the poison of darting tree frogs and a lonely girl’s voice in the sun that breaks and crashes in cut-up rays across the soft, mossy undergrowth. I’ve never ever felt so overjoyed to be so marooned by an album’s atmosphere. When I listen to Aviary, I don’t ever want to find what I’m looking for, and I don’t ever want to be found.

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