Remove Your Beliefs: On the essence and imagination of Sneaks

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An old saying tells us that a camel is just a horse that was designed by committee. Sneaks isn’t a committee—in fact, it’s not even a band, but rather the nom de plume for musician Eva Moolchan—yet you might say that the new Highway Hypnosis is something like a camel. Imagine for a moment its democratic assembly by a consortium of genre representatives—a punk who demands terseness and brevity, a bubblegum pop confectioner who doles out earworm melodies, a hip-hop producer who insists on making the whole thing out of reconstituted beats, samples, and sound FX. The end result has a clear pedigree but an odd shape; it’s not hard to unspool its DNA, yet rarely does it sound much like any one of its discrete parts.

Moolchan is a DC-based singer, rapper, spoken word artist, producer, and multi-instrumentalist whose calling card is minimalism—though Highway Hypnosis proves that such things are always relative. The album clocks in at a breezy and appealing 28 minutes, modest by most metrics but more than twice the length of any previous Sneaks album. And though its songs are all assembled from humble components—voice, bass, drum machines, a smattering of samples and keyboard effects—each one feels intellectually robust and generous with imagination. The tight framing is strategic: It brings clarity and focus to Moolchan’s resourcefulness and whimsy, how her songs always abound with invention even as they feel boiled down to their barest essence.

Nowhere is Sneaks’ gift for distillation more evident than on “Holy Cow Never Saw a Girl Like Her,” which uses just Moolchan’s voice and bass to capture the raucous DIY spirit and bruising physicality of punk, condensing it into ripple after ripple of speaker-rattling low end. The song also happens to be the most extreme example of her songwriting economy; she doesn’t craft narratives so much as she conjures feelings, sketches scenes, and offers mantras to roll around in your head, absorbing their possibility and implication through sheer osmosis. You receive Sneaks’ songs in the same way you’d receive a compilation of haiku, a collection of poems by Kay Ryan, or a set of songs by Tierra Whack—as small and precious treasures, both fragmentary and complete. In the case of this song, the only lyrics Moolchan needs are the ones in the song’s title, which take an instant of ambuscading desire and preserve it in amber. It’s bottled experience; it’s stopped time.

Punk is an obvious touchstone for Moolchan’s hardcore thrift, and she returns to it more than once; check the ominous strum and crude drumming on “And We’re Off,” which marinates in minor-key menace. Yet what makes her minimalism appealing is that it never scans as Spartan or austere; she takes spare elements and multiplies them like so many fish and loaves, resulting in songs heavy with atmosphere, deceptively opulent. There’s some real production jujitsu going on, as on the hazy trance of “Saiditzoneza,” a study in dankness that builds tension from a metronome beat, multi-tracked vocals, and thick studio shimmer. And in the album-closing “Hong Kong to Amsterdam,” a jittery slice of EDM, Moolchan orchestrates a symphony of pots-and-pans beats with the same deft touch as Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bear. Give credit to Moolchan, but also to co-producers Carlos Hernandez and Tony Selzer, who open up her post-punk simplicity with new colors and textures.

Given her rhythmic propensity and her smart use of space, it’s no surprise that Moolchan gravitates toward hip-hop and dance music, and some of Highway Hypnosis’ most persuasive moments are its formal engagements with the sounds of the club. “The Way it Goes” embodies the original value proposition of hip-hop production, assembling something concrete from isolated moments; it’s all breaks and beats, stitched together with coherence and elasticity. The ethereal wash of “Cinnamon” morphs into a master class in beat dropping, while “A Lil Close” creates dense funk through a cloud of drum loops and the serpentine twist of Moolchan’s bass.

These songs are structurally and mechanically varied, yet they are all winsome in the same way: They highlight an artist who understands her influences well enough to deploy them confidently and judiciously, making a lot with a little while underscoring just how many things a song can do. Indeed, even with their tight framing, the songs of Sneaks all find different ways to tease, riddle, and pull the rug out from under you. You may get so swept along in the tranquilizing groove of the title track—whispered chants over a trap beat—that it takes a few listens to realize that there’s a commercial for the album buried deep in the mix; by then, you’re well on your way down Moolchan’s conceptual rabbit hole. With its rickety beat, church bells, and titular mantra, “Money Don’t Grow on Trees” takes a piece of colloquial advice and turns it into something cryptic and ominous. And “Beliefs” offers the gift of deprogramming: “Remove your beliefs and start again,” Moolchan sings, another one of those mantras that begs for obsessive scrutiny. One interpretation to consider: It’s the unofficial motto for an album that delights in leaving preconceptions at the door. Throughout it, Moolchan takes up genre tropes not as binding dogma, but as building blocks and puzzle pieces—and what she assembles with them is a tiny marvel, boundless with possibility.

Take Me Back to Camp Sunshine: Bob Mould’s hopeful intentions

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It’s been a tough few years for Bob Mould, the power trio standard-bearer, college rock Founding Father, and legendary architect of Sugar and Hüsker Dü. He spent the better part of the 2000s making records that variously wrestled with middle age and the deaths of his parents—each album robust and cathartic, each one understandably introspective and glum. Finally deciding he’d endured just about enough of American life’s callous indignities, Mould decamped to Berlin where he realized just a little too late that the winters are long and grim. All of which makes it perplexing to find a brand new Bob Mould album bearing the cheerful label Sunshine Rock, with not one but four of its songs celebrating the sun in their titles. You might justifiably wonder if the famous sadsack has either finally snapped or is simply yanking our chains, a theory lent some credence by a late-album folk ditty called “Camp Sunshine,” where Mould pines for the halcyon days spent at his childhood summer camp. But its idyll is not a put-on, and neither is it a retreat into nostalgia: Rather, it heralds a real emotional sea change. Sunshine Rock is a statement of joyful intent from a man who’s made the decision to abide hope, to champion perseverance as a value unto itself, and to take up gladness and gratitude as potent all-natural mental health supplements. Mould sings these buoyant new songs not as someone who’s deluding himself, but as someone who’s weathered enough dark times to be convinced (and convincing) that brighter ones must be coming. Maybe the Camp Sunshine he sings about is a memory or maybe it’s a poetic invention, but either way it’s an oasis, a place for refuge and realignment. What these new songs suppose is: Perhaps the true Camp Sunshine is the inner Camp Sunshine.

His updated outlook comes with a rejiggered delivery vehicle; Sunshine Rock is built on the electric thrills Mould has always championed but bejeweled with a few flourishes from his new silver linings playbook. Mould’s allegiance is to rock and roll the way its framers intended it to be played, meaning short songs with clear melodies, played loud, fast, and with boisterous abandon. Here he slashes and burns through a dozen elastic, brambly earworms, rocket-fueled by the mighty wallop of the Superchunck rhythm section. It’s vivacious enough to sound like the whole thing was cut live to tape just this morning, and classicist enough that it could pass for an unearthed relic from the 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s. The album’s one opulent gesture is the inclusion of an 18-piece string section, appearing on select songs not so much to dramatize them as to add ballast and heft—cosmic swirl on the title track, panoramic denouement on “Western Sunset.” The orchestral festooning never distracts from the ferocity of Mould’s overdriven power pop, nor from the music’s thrum, crunch, crackle, and howl. He’s still a purveyor of premium-grade bubblegum—check “Sunny Love Song,” so breezy and buoyant and instantly memorable that it actually earns its lark of a title—but Mould’s love language is one of ragged riffs and clattering cymbals. Here he speaks it fluently, dealing out hard stuff aplenty: The pulverizing din of “Thirty Dozen Roses” makes it a headbanger’s ball, while “I Fought” is a banshee-wail punk anthem. A late-album cover of Shocking Blue’s “Send Me a Postcard” is played with enough withering, in-the-red intensity to strip the thread off a screw. Maybe this marriage of garage rock ruckus and symphonic décor is exactly what Stephen Malkmus had in mind with his admonishment to sparkle hard.

For Mould, hopefulness isn’t a feeling but an active verb, a prophetic witness that requires constant engagement and daily reaffirmation. There are hints throughout Sunshine Rock that positivity is still a bit ill-fitting for him: Listen to the tightly-coiled “What Do You Want Me to Do,” where spring-loaded resentments explode like booby traps, detonated by his venomous snarl. More reflective is “The Final Years,” an end-of-the-road memoir that could easily have slipped into the Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin repertoire. Here, the singer laments his “years of misplaced rage,” and reckons with the daunting task of setting his mind to nobler things in whatever time he has left. (“What will we cherish in the final years?” he asks, clear-eyed.)  There’s a lot of fury that snakes through these songs—in “Irrational Poison,” the narrator is desperate not to drown in his own toxicity— but that just makes the declarations of open-heartedness that much more affecting; while some men just grow jaded as they make it to the top of the mountain, Mould sounds like a guy who’s seen just how much of a dead-end bitterness can be. And so “Sunshine Rock,” the album’s keynote, is the sound of clouds parting, Mould ably playing the romantic hero who swoops in on his white horse and saves the day. (“They don’t love you like I love you,” he pledges.) And in “Lost Faith,” he posits despair as a kind of waywardness, but love the lighthouse beckoning us home: “We all lose faith from time to time/ You better find your way back now.” You might call it a song of experience: The testimony of someone who’s been deep in the shit and doesn’t claim to have all the answers—but he knows enough to know hope.

Born Lost: Rat Boy chooses his fate

ratboyBorn 10 years after Licensed to Ill and just two before Hello Nasty, the UK rapper Jordan Cardy is too young to claim first-generation Beastie Boys standom. Thank God for YouTube. As Cardy puts it, he was “born lost,” aimless and adrift, his only inheritance a chip on his shoulder and a pervasive sense of disenchantment. He sought solace in the skate park, passing long hours laughing and talking and smoking with his friends, eventually falling down a rabbit hole of 90s rap videos—the Beastie Boys his gateway to an omnivorous, genre-curious aesthetic with pop, reggae, and punk among its tributaries. What started as a boondoggle quickly became a regimented apprenticeship: Before making Internationally Unknown—a joyful and pugnacious record released under the name Rat Boy—Cardy built a studio space in immaculate imitation of the Beasties’ famed G-Son; he invested in 90s-vintage recording equipment; he even got a Dust Brother in the studio to shepherd him through the album’s creation. It’s hero worship elevated to an art form, but the masterstroke of Internationally Unknown isn’t that it gets the period details right; it’s that it rearranges those details into something that nods to the past while also sounding bracingly contemporary. To that end, Cardy also enlisted Rancid’s Tim Armstrong to keep things ragged and muscular, and the result is a boisterous set of songs that borrow equally from the dog-eared terseness of punk, the anti-authoritarian bent of hardcore, the good-natured slackerdom of skater culture, the loose-limbed storytelling of 90s hip-hop, and the prickly energy of second-generation New Wave bands like No Doubt, all filtered through the dankness and the lo-fi murk of the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head-era prime. It’s an album that reappropriates the DIY ethos of the 70s with the porous cross-contaminations of the 90s to tell a timeless story in a fresh way—a story of disaffection and alienation; of being young and maladjusted and having zero fucks to give.

Cardy proves his punk bona fides right out of the gate with “Chip on My Shoulder,” a barrage of choppy electric guitar riffs and pummeling drums that could almost pass for a Clash outtake were it not for Cardy’s scruffy patois and his clever interpolation of a lurching hip-hop beat. It’s a bottle rocket of a song, a flash fire of incandescence and rage that burns for a hot two minutes and then dissipates, and it sets the template for the album’s blazing hardcore intensity. Not that there’s anything formulaic about Cardy’s music, which exhibits boundaryless imagination even as he plays with familiar forms. He can be anthemic when he wants to be, as on the stadium-shaking title track, designed to have a crowd full of lads howling their alienation in perfect harmony. He’s just as compelling when he just lets loose with breakneck abandon, as on the thrashing “I Wanna Skate,” rapturous escapism manifest as pure speed. Elsewhere, he exhibits a gift for songs that are languid with atmosphere but also forceful and direct; the quasi-theme song “My Name is Rat Boy” is a warped take on dub, simmering with woozy organ, turntable hiccups, and double- and triple-timed raps, but what makes the biggest impact is its slamming momentum. He can handle lighter stuff, too: “Follow Your Heart,” a shimmering roller-rink confection, is almost featherweight; a sun-soaked horn section connects the song back to 90s ska bands, but what impresses the most is Cardy’s easeful way with a pure pop melody. His calling card is rowdiness that fudges the line between aggression and jocularity—“Don’t Hesitate” and “So What” are jock jams brimming with attitude, humor, and sly stylistic ambivalence—but the album’s sleeper highlight might be “Night Creature,” glimmering trap-reggae that demonstrates Cardy’s propensity for impressionistic studio effects. A hook from Aimee Interrupter channels prime Gwen Stefani better than Gwen Stefani has done in years.

These are songs of enormous freedom, yet Rat Boy’s narratives are mostly about feeling trapped. With a rangy storytelling approach that’s closer to Slick Rick than to the rollicking jokiness of the Beasties, Cardy weaves tales of young men who are born into cultural isolation and economic insecurity; “raised on a diet of free porn and stale bread,” inundated with “murder on the news,” “stuck in a dead town,” only ever going in circles. Cardy’s repping for a lost generation, and occasionally his perpetual middle finger to the establishment (“I never wrote a song for the businessmen!”) runs parallel to Joe Strummer’s revolution rock. And yet he’s no insurrectionist. Mostly, he just wants to skate and jam with his homies (“thank fuck we found each other”), maximizing pleasure even as he teeters on the abyss. His is a worldview where hedonism and nihilism are two sides of the same coin, and where the only real meaning is the meaning you create with the members of your tribe. In that context, the be-true-to-yourself sentiments of “Follow Your Heart” have a tinge of sadness to them; Cardy’s betting everything on his inner voice because all the other voices have let him down. “I Wanna Skate” posits motion as salvation and “No Peace No Justice” braces for a ruckus in the streets, but it’s “Don’t Hesitate” that best codifies the Rat Boy ethos. “We’re here right now so choose your fate,” Cardy admonishes, choosing joy even with the world burning all around him. He may have been born lost, but he’s learned to make the most of it; Internationally Unknown is where he finds himself.

Eternity and Other Drugs: Pedro the Lion dreams of home

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“Perhaps home is not a place,” James Baldwin wrote, “but simply an irrevocable condition.” In a pungent new set of songs, the esteemed singer and self-chronicler David Bazan gazes back at a place he left a long time ago—and if he isn’t exactly reduced to a pillar of salt, neither does he sound like he ever fully metabolized the condition of his earliest home. The album, called Phoenix, is the first Bazan has made under his Pedro the Lion banner in some 15 years, the rising-from-the-ashes connotations of its title unavoidable and by no means inappropriate. But really the album is named for the city in Arizona, the source of Bazan’s preliminary childhood memories. Its songs—sketches, case studies, object lessons, remembrances that are really metaphors that are really glimpses of greater and invisible realities—play like a flickering highlight reel, some of the details washed out by time but many of them still burning in vibrant Technicolor splendor, formative and insoluble. Each one carries the weight of revelation: Of guilt from which Bazan was never assuaged; amends he never made; longings he never satisfied; epiphanies from which he never fully recovered. “How do you know when you’re finally home?” he asks on the closing “Leaving the Valley,” a sad goodbye from a man who still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. His album-length foraging through the family photo album might have ended with a Rosebud moment, but instead it reminds him of all the personal history he’s still reckoning with, even as it reckons with him.

Bazan recruited the wrecking crew of Erik Walters and Sean Lane to make Phoenix, both offering supple support, neither having appeared in any previous iteration of Pedro the Lion. Their presence is a tacit admission that this band has always really been a singer/songwriter vehicle for a guy who prefers his lyrics to spill out over the joyful squall of a power trio, and while you wouldn’t call the arrangements here imaginative, you could certainly call them primitive, howling, and loud, which turns out to be more than sufficient. Bazan leads the new cast through chunky riffs on “Clean Up” and pummeling thrash on “My Phoenix,” but the Pedro calling card is still slow-burners where the guitars scrape and the burr in Bazan’s voice conveys lyrics like bitter pills; listen to “Quietest Friend,” wave after wave of electric thrum, or to “Black Canyon,” which has the agitated gait of a man trying to work a pebble out of his shoe. The biggest formal shake-ups come with a pair of palette-cleansers: “All Seeing Eye,” awash in ghostly reverb, and “Piano Bench,” which returns to the synth adventures of Bazan’s Blanco and Care records, framing tight couplets with a hymnal austerity.

Sonically, it sounds more or less like nothing’s changed in the past decade and a half, but of course plenty has changed: This is the first Pedro the Lion album to be released in the wake of Bazan’s Curse Your Branches, his alleged divorce from the Christian dogma he was raised on. What Phoenix suggests is, maybe that severance isn’t so easy; these songs are tattooed with the religious vernacular of Bazan’s youth, and it sounds like he’s thrown the Almighty off his trail about as effectively as Flannery O’Conner’s Hazel Motes did. (Indeed, Phoenix may be exactly what O’Conner had in mind when she distinguished the Christ-haunted from the Christ-centered.) Consider the hard-charging “Clean Up,” where Bazan reflects that he sought answers in “eternity and a couple of other drugs,” a pithy de-conversion story that will resonate with anyone reared on a certain strain of fundamentalism; then again, you don’t need any kind of evangelical baggage to identify with the sing-song mantra to “clean up, clean up, clean up your stuff”—knowing full well that you can never wash, scrub, or Marie Kondo your life enough to feel innocent again. “Yellow Bike” captures the same freedom of movement that you hear in Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” only with a bicycle instead of an automobile as the means of escape. But it’s also a song about how it’s hard to find a friend, and about how “it is not good for man to be alone” (cf. Genesis 2:18). “My kingdom for someone to ride with,” Bazan moans, as though it’s as true today as it was when he was small. Both of those songs yearn, but others fester. Listen to “Quietest Friend,” where a young Bazan is a tongue-tied witness to injustice, his silent complicity still ringing in his ears after all this time, or to “Circle K,” where a prodigal son blows his inheritance on “candy and soda pop.” But the song that best captures the Phoenix aesthetic is “Model Homes,” about how the Bazan family used to browse track homes after church on Sunday—not to buy, but just to dream. The song highlights memories preserved in amber (“shuffling our shoes on brand new carpet/ freeze tag with static electricity”) but also lifelong desires that still exert a gravitational pull (“tired of where we live/ Hoping that it’s not if but when”). What Phoenix offers is a portrait of the artist still tangled in his past and still hooked on eternity; daring to dream there’s a home for him somewhere, and that he’ll know it when he sees it.

Ordinary Pleasures: Lifestyle music from Toro y Moi

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Streaming platforms haven’t just changed the way we consume music; they have imposed a new set of aesthetic assumptions on how music is produced, optimized to provide a sense of discovery but also a comforting familiarity. At its worst, this new set of values can metastasize into what critic Jon Caramanica derides as “Spotify-core”—a milquetoast mélange of tepid R&B, middle-of-the-road pop, sleepy electronica, and anonymous folk. It’s an algorithmic blend designed as lifestyle music—airbrushed eclecticism that can be turned on and then tuned out, the unobtrusive soundtrack to daily chores or errands. But what if there is a version of the streaming ethos that perfects the underlying value proposition, offering off-handed variety, glistening surfaces, and compositions that work as mood music but also reward closer scrutiny? And what if—and try to keep an open mind here—you could do it not with a playlist but with a traditional album, short, sweet, and to the point? Leave it to Chaz Bear—the synth-pop maestro behind Toro y Moi—to pull it off.

You could make an argument for Bear as an early adopter of the streaming ethos; as far back as 2011’s sublime Underneath the Pines, he seamlessly merged bedroom acoustics with wispy Beach Boys harmonies, DIY electronic effects, and an unerring instinct for earworms, camouflaging his playful invention with a shimmering, luxurious sheen. He’s been both refining his approach and trending pop-ward ever since, and the new Outer Peace feels as tight, as tidy, and as tuneful as any Toro y Moi record yet. It’s a modest but appealing confection that embraces the boundaryless nature of music consumption in the digital world, and its breadth and virtuosity hide in plain sight behind its placid exteriors. Bear’s gift is in retrofitting the porous ambiance of an effective playlist to the scrupulous construction of the album format, and the most conservative features of Outer Peace also happen to be its most bracing: Consider its 10-song, 30-minute programming, which feels like the relic of a bygone era; listen to how Bear ends the record with the piano-and-Autotune power ballad “50-50,” pop so earnest and straightforward it feels like a tectonic shift following all gentle weirdness that proceeds it.

That weirdness comes from Bear’s hodgepodge assembly of sounds and influences, pieced together with musical and emotional logic that help the album go down smooth. The ideal for any Toro y Moi song is something that works equally well as pop or simply as a vibe, and the best songs here land squarely in both camps. Listen to the carefully-orchestrated elevator exotica of “Fading,” where tinkling chimes and chintzy percussion offset the red-bloodedness of Bear’s ecstatic, Prince-ly woops and wails. “Ordinary Pleasures” starts from a place of zen—you’ll hear the calming sound of gently running water—before it settles into am amiable uptown groove. “Laws of the Universe” reveals a composer whose love of dance music runs through the populist nostalgia of Daft Punk, and whose crate-digging geekery leaves room for in-jokes about LCD Soundsystem. “Miss Me,” a haunted chillwave ballad with guest vocals from Abra, is a master class in evocation; it sounds like its decomposing in real time, the song’s bitter sadness consuming it from the inside out. And “Freelance” is a testament to how Bear makes even his quirkiest moments feel graceful; a vocal stammer provides the song with its indelible hiccup of a hook.

The album is too small, too unassuming, too caught up in its ordinary pleasures to qualify as a statement—and Bear doesn’t intend it as one. Think of it more as a Choose Your Own Adventure, a record that lets you decide how you want to use it. “This record is a response to how disposable culture has become and how it affects creativity,” he’s stated. “While listening, you might pay attention or ignore—either way that’s ok, this is music for a creative mind.” So, it’s a low-key party album for introverts, or a fecund marinade for wandering minds, or both—lifestyle music for anyone who wants the freedom to just let songs wash over them, crafted with enough detail and care to reward anyone who listens closely.

Classics in the Right Way, Part 2: Further recommendations from 2018

pistolsI have been writing about records since I was 13, and have never enjoyed it more than I have this year. Love and gratitude to all who have encouraged me in these weekly, deep-dive reviews. I hope you’ve found it even half as worthwhile as I have.

I’ll be back with more in 2019, after a brief Christmas sabbatical. But first, a few closing remarks on this past year’s new releases. For those who want a long list of albums without my annotations, here are 50 albums I cherish and whole-heartedly recommend. (Of course you can find the commentary track here.) You’ll note that some of these I never reviewed, but only due to time restrictions—not a dearth of enthusiasm. 

50 Favorite Albums from 2018

  1. Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves
  2. Interstate Gospel | Pistol Annies
  3. Look Now | Elvis Costello & The Imposters
  4. Honey | Robyn
  5. All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do | The Milk Carton Kids
  6. Historian | Lucy Dacus
  7. Streams of Thought Vol. 2 | Black Thought & Salaam Remi
  8. This Too Shall Light | Amy Helm
  9. Thelonious Sphere Monk | MAST
  10. Love in Wartime | Birds of Chicago
  11. Sparrow | Ashley Monroe
  12. Time & Space | Turnstile
  13. World on Sticks | Sam Phillips
  14. SASSAFRASS! | Tami Neilson
  15. Dirty Pictures Pt. 2 | Low Cut Connie
  16. Isolation | Kali Uchis
  17. 13 Rivers | Richard Thompson
  18. Be the Cowboy | Mitski
  19. See You Around | I’m With Her
  20. Cusp | Alela Diane
  21. Room 25 | Noname
  22. Invasion of Privacy | Cardi B
  23. Ventriloquism | Meshell Ndegeocello
  24. Between Two Shores | Glen Hansard
  25. Beyondless | Iceage
  26. Desperate Man | Eric Church
  27. Whistle Down the Wind | Joan Baez
  28. Tree of Forgiveness | John Prine
  29. Hell-On | Neko Case
  30. My Way | Willie Nelson
  31. Out of Nowhere | Steep Canyon Rangers
  32. Vanished Gardens | Charles Lloyd and the Marvels with Lucinda Williams
  33. Full Circle | Eddie Palmieri
  34. Sun on the Square | The Innocence Mission
  35. The Messthetics | The Messthetics
  36. Currents, Constellations | Nels Cline 4
  37. Seymour Reads the Constitution | Brad Mehldau Trio
  38. Last Man Standing | Willie Nelson
  39. Heaven and Earth | Kamasi Washington
  40. Port Saint Joe | Brothers Osborne
  41. Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides | Sophie
  42. Broken Politics | Nenah Cherry
  43. Wanderer | Cat Power
  44. The Prodigal Son | Ry Cooder
  45. Whack World | Tierra Whack
  46. Still Dreaming | Joshua Redman
  47. Bugge Wesseltroft & Prins Thomas | Bugge Wesseltroft & Prins Thomas
  48. Cry Pretty | Carrie Underwood
  49. boygenius | boygenius
  50. The Window | Cécile McLorin Salvant

Disappointments

The most important decision a critic makes is on what he or she chooses to cover, and for me that means curating records that are worth the listener’s time and attention. There were, however, a few 2018 albums I ended up liking far less than expected; the following are all albums I had intended to write about but ultimately didn’t justify the effort, for one reason or another.

Ye | Kanye West
Man of the Woods | Justin Timberlake
Nasir | Nas
Colagically Speaking | R+R=Now
August Greene | August Greene
The Now Now | Gorillaz
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino | Arctic Monkeys

I will also register some mild disappointment with Teyana Taylor’s album, KTSE—though it’s not disappointment with the album’s quality so much as its brevity and its botched roll-out. She deserved much better.

Re-Issues and Older Music

Deep immersion in new music means I haven’t yet gotten to all of the year’s big archival roll-outs—not to the anniversary edition of Beggars Banquet nor even to Bob Dylan’s More Blood, More Tracks. (I will confess to some mild Bootleg fatigue.) I have listened to the deluxe edition of The Beatles, a joyous revelation not necessarily for the bonus material so much as the chance to hear such richly imaginative and playful material come spilling out of my speakers in clarion sound. A couple of other new/old releases to note include John Coltrane’s Both Directions at Once—a transitional album that nevertheless sounds sure-footed—and a sublime anthology called Gumba Fire: Bubblegum Soul & Synth Boogie in 1980s South Africa, so indelible that my six-year-old son has requested it on more than one occasion.

Classics in the Right Way: 25 favorite albums from 2018

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A few things you’ll see on my list of 25 favorite records from 2018: Roughly 16 selections by women, depending on how you want to classify husband-wife duos. Four official debuts, but also a number of accomplished works by seasoned pros. Numerous albums that carve out a space between tradition and progression, upholding lineage while pointing to the future. And, in these fractious times, several albums that embrace joy as a matter of intention—choosing a hopeful countenance even when circumstances point in the opposite direction.

Some critics have posited that the album format is in its dying days, to be replaced by playlists and data dumps. Maybe so, but all 25 albums on this list exist as cohesive, self-contained bodies of work, their songs in dialogue with each other, their sequencing precise and important.

I could have listed as few as 10 or as many as 100—and next week, I’ll augment this core 25 with some honorable mentions, some favorite re-issues and archival music, and more. For now, these are all albums that I’ve enjoyed enormously and recommend whole-heartedly.

25. Beyondless | Iceage
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Majestic and menacing, Beyondless reckons with the legacy of rock and roll’s golden era without anything resembling slavish devotion. Packed to the gills with riffs, rhythms, sound effects, and gallows humor, it’s the year’s most unpredictable rock album. The songs chronicle depravity, but from the abattoir of Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s imagination there springs florid storytelling and impressionistic poetry.

24. Between Two Shores | Glen Hansard
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For his strongest solo collection yet, the erstwhile Frames/Swell Season frontman casually intermingles autumnal folk, heartland rock, and luminous jazz for an album as familiar and comforting as a favorite afghan—or perhaps a favorite Nick Drake record. It takes the tone of a consoling friend, promising us that time will sort out all our grief eventually—and until then, there’s nothing wrong with having a good, long cry.

23. Ventriloquism | Meshell Ndegeocello
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On Ventriloquism, a jukebox record of 80s and 90s R&B hits, Meshell Ndegeocello offers a multi-layered treatise on personal canon. Playing songs largely penned by women and/or people of color, Ndegeocello swaps featherweight synths for rustic folk flourishes and live-band funk—signifiers of respectability for songs that warranted our respect all along. They refract deeper issues of genre, gender, and identity—a covers record as aesthetic argument and stylistic manifesto.

 22. Invasion of Privacy | Cardi B
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“Is she a stripper, a rapper, or singer?” asks Cardi B on a debut album that suggests she’s all these things and more, an envelope-pusher and category-killer whose identity can only ever be all of the above. The big surprises here are how rooted she is in hip-hop orthodoxy, but also how much room to roam she finds within traditional frameworks: Invasion of Privacy bursts at the seams with flows, beats, jokes, vulgarity, empowerment, and defiant autobiography. A rags-to-riches blockbuster for the ages.

21. Room 25 | Noname
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Poet-turned-rapper Fatimah Warner—aka Noname—pours forth speech, joking and tongue-twisting and free-associating a dense web of language where everything, including her black life, matters. Her proper debut, following the radiant Telefone mixtape, is sleek and assured, an album that’s at once precise and all-encompassing.

20. Cusp | Alela Diane
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You wouldn’t even need the fingers on two hands to count the great albums about motherhood, a list to which Cusp immediately belongs. But that’s not the only thing singer/songwriter Alela Diane has on her mind: She uses the particulars of being a mom to wrestle with the broader topic of becoming, how a day or a season in our life can be a threshold for personal change, a catalyst for transformation. Her songs are presented in warm, clean arrangements, their straight lines contrasting with the deep mysteries contained within.

19. See You Around | I’m With Her
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A trio comprised of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, I’m With Her is about the super-est group imaginable in today’s acoustic scene, and they betray subtle virtuosity throughout their debut album. See You Around reflects a worldview that’s respectful of folk and bluegrass traditions without ever being beholden to them, and the songs are similarly restless, full of characters seeking solid ground through seasons of tumult and transition.

18. Be the Cowboy | Mitski
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Mitski’s songs sparkle with clean pop perfection; her easeful way with melody may remind you of Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, or even Paul McCartney. She spikes those buoyant tunes with lyrics of quiet desperation. Each song on Be the Cowboy glimpses either an unattainable future or an irretrievable past—alternate realities where, for all these characters know, everything worked out just fine.

17. 13 Rivers | Richard Thompson
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One of our top-tier shredders makes a blessed return to electric mayhem on an album that’s as muscular and direct as any in his corpus. Thompson’s songs don’t so much rage at the dying light as they wrestle with the darkness in his own soul—“the rattle within,” as one song memorably phrases it. The result is a prickly masterwork, a discontented opus from a guru working at his peak.

16. Isolation | Kali Uchis
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On her luminous debut, the Brazilian singer flits from steely hip-hop to dingy New Wave to coy bossa nova; a couple of retro R&B numbers show how easy it would have been for her to fashion this album as a diva’s showcase and a soul revue, but Uchis is far too restless to live in the past. So she’s given us a pancultural pop showstopper that functions as a declaration of independence; her lyrics, about the cost of freedom, remind us that independence and isolation can be two sides of the same coin.

15. Dirty Pictures, Pt. 2 | Low Cut Connie
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Listen beyond the buzz saw guitars, the pounding pianos, and the relentless kick drums and you’ll hear a bar band of startling sophistication, their brashness and bravado belying depth and sturdy craftsmanship. Or, just pump your fist in the air and get swept along in their crackling, unostentatious energy. A near-perfect jolt of pure rock and roll, Dirty Pictures, Pt. 2 is by turns wounded, vulgar, earnest, and hysterical.

14. SASSAFRASS! | Tami Neilson
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One of the year’s most classicist country albums also happens to be one of its most colorful—at times bordering on being outright bonkers. Neilson tucks into haunted Appalachian ballads, brassy R&B, swaying nightclub reveries, even Vegas-style showstoppers; sometimes she plays it straight, sometimes she revels in double entendres and caustic humor. Throughout, she proves herself a singer of redoubtable power and control, and a writer whose wit is eclipsed only by her compassion.

13. World on Sticks | Sam Phillips
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Sam Phillips is one of pop’s most daring and resilient excavators; she’s made a career off of digging deep for truth and beauty, and on World on Sticks she rummages through the trash and ephemera of a culture given over to hollow materialism. Fortunately, she is also one of our most gifted melodists, and here powers her elastic tunes with thunderous drums, luxuriant string arrangements, and thrumming electric guitars.

12. Time & Space | Turnstile
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A document of bruising physicality but also big ideas, Time & Space is a galvanizing punk album that jostles with riffs, banshee wails, and headbanging fury. It also nods at Chess Records, branches into pure pop, and augments its hardcore wails with sophisticated harmonies. Diplo shows up to add weird keyboard effects, and it’s not even one of the top 10 most surprising moments on the album. Which is, incidentally, just 23 minutes long, every second packed with white-knuckled exhilaration.

11. Sparrow | Ashley Monroe
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Monroe, a country singer from Knoxville, Tennessee, has a legitimate claim to 2018’s MVP title; look for her name to show up again on an even higher entry. For Sparrow, Monroe proves once again that she’s unequaled at reimagining country roots and traditions for the present day. Awash with strings, it’s a colorful update on the classic “countrypolitan” sound, its lush orchestrations illuminating the contours of her internal monologues and emotional remembrances.

10. Love in Wartime | Birds of Chicago
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The warmest, most humanistic of bands cranks up the electricity for this rangy and roaming opus, jolting their gospel harmonies and brambly folk with punchy rock and roll vigor. While their previous album presaged “real midnight,” this one supposes that it’s already come and gone, and beckons us to pick up the pieces. The whole record plays out like a swift kick in the ass for anyone who thinks they have the luxury of complacency; in a dispiriting year, it was a lighthouse, an oasis, and a life preserver.

09. Thelonious Sphere Monk | MAST
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The worst possible way to celebrate the skewed genius of Thelonious Monk would be with an overly reverent tribute album—and this songbook record by Tim Conley, aka MAST, never even comes close. Instead, he chops, screws, and bedazzles beloved Monk classics, dressing them up with bells and whistles, augmenting them with lurching hip-hop beats, kicking them down a flight of stairs and then ultimately setting fire to them via a crackling live band. The result qualifies as the year’s most bewitching jazz and its most immersive electronica—an album that uses the past as a jumping off point for boundless imagination.

08. This Too Shall Light | Amy Helm
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An exercise in community and a testament to the redemptive act of singing, This Too Shall Light features songs of joy and sorrow, lifted up in smudged harmony by Helm and her troupe of harmony singers, Birds of Chicago among them. The songs come from disparate sources—Allen Toussaint, T-Bone Burnett, The Milk Carton Kids, even Rod Stewart’s immortal “Mandolin Wind” is here—and Helm brings confidence and grace to each one. She is one of our great soul singers, and here she proves herself to be both a keeper of the flame for her father’s legacy and an able blazer of her own new trails.

07. Streams of Thought Vol. 2 | Black Thought & Salaam Remi
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In 2018, no rapper had harder bars than Black Thought, an all-timer who’s just beginning to get his due. For his second solo joint of the year, he offers a head-spinning and endlessly quotable feast of language, nimbly pivoting from self-aggrandizement to sociopolitical arguments to stirring endorsements of the steel-driving work ethic he embodies. Producer Salaam Remi creates warm, funky environments, drawn largely form blaxploitation tropes, giving this GOAT candidate the regal adornment he’s always deserved. Old-head rap executed with such flair, it sounds less like the past than a whole new wave.

06. Historian | Lucy Dacus
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For her second solo album, singer/songwriter/shredder/boygenius member Lucy Dacus writes about romantic dissolution and human frailty—but always from a therapeutic remove: It’s not a break-up album or a death album so much as an album about the stories we tell, the way we make sense of tragedies, the role we play in curating one another’s history. These masterful songs—pitched between emotional acuity and writerly sophistication—are paired to sleek rock arrangements that soar, grind, and erupt as needed.

05. All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do | The Milk Carton Kids
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On their first album to feature outside musicians, the folksy duo conjures a loose, borderless Americana that recalls such inclusionary classics as The Basement Tapes and Willie Nelson’s Stardust—all the while retaining the whimsy, melancholy, and close harmonies that make them The Milk Carton Kids. The songs reflect dissolution: Sometimes they’re about wayward nations, sometimes they’re about faithless lovers, and sometimes it seems like it might be a little of both. Like Amy Helm’s record, it was produced by Joe Henry, enjoying a banner year.

04. Honey | Robyn
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In her alluring new suite of songs, recalcitrant Swedish pop star Robyn journeys through heartache, memory, self-inventory, and in the end, defiant hope. She’s always walked a fine line between steeliness and vulnerability, but none of her albums tremble quite like Honey, which features some of her most cracked vocals, her most porous song structures, and her most lovelorn lyrics. It adds up to an immersive song cycle that washes over you, waves of sorrow followed by waves of cathartic joy.

03. Look Now | Elvis Costello & The Imposters
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Has everything you might want in an Elvis Costello album—unless all you want is loud guitars and paranoid songs about girls, in which case there’s just no helping you. Intricate and tuneful, ornate and direct, Look Now consolidates decades of tutelage in pop songcraft; it has the confidence of a master but the exuberance of a young buck. Its songs—all richly empathetic, most about or from the perspective of women—make it the year’s most rewarding album by a dude.

02. Interstate Gospel | Pistol Annies

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Finding solidarity in songs of divorce, depression, and quiet desperation, the Pistol Annies emerge with their wisest and funniest album yet. The one thing Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley don’t know how to do is sugarcoat, and Interstate Gospel is bracing for its candor—yet its emotional directness is channeled through childhood remembrances, archetypes, saloon soliloquies, and randy rock and roll; meanwhile, the outlaw dreams of their first couple of albums have blossomed into a more sophisticated American roots milieu, one that’s grounded in tradition but refracted through modernity. In the middle of the worst of it, they’ve made an album that reflects the best in each of them.

01. Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves
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Festooned though it may be with disco balls and kaleidoscopic sound effects, Golden Hour is a country album through and through. You can hear it in the air, the empty space between Musgraves’ words; and you can hear it in the words themselves, plainspoken even when they’re clever. They’re not clever quite as often as they were on Musgraves’ fine earlier albums—which, it turns out, is perfectly fine. She’s toned down her impish wit for songs of disarming sincerity, perfectly wed to a colorful production palette so visceral, you can almost feel this music on your skin. Musgraves is still enough of a cynic to question her own right to be happy and to wonder when the other shoe’s gonna drop, yet what dazzles the most about Golden Hour is its sense of awe: Inspired by her new marriage, Musgraves is seduced by hope, surprised by joy, and bowled over by a world of marvels beyond anything she could have imagined. It’s an album about grown-up love and childlike wonder, and a vision of country music as something timeless, borderless, consoling, and fun.