List Week 2018 concludes, as all List Weeks do, with Anthony’s 50 favorite albums of the year. Thanks for following our reviews and other series this year; see you in 2019!
Anthony shows some love for the 50 best singles he heard all year. Below you can check out a nifty Spotify playlist containing all the songs.
Hey everyone! It’s list time again. 2018 really flew by. (Can we get that same luxury in ‘19 and ‘20 please, too? Thanks.) Anyway, for this year’s edition of “The TND List You Don’t Really Care About Let’s Be Honest," I decided to forgo the traditional top ten ranking system. Every year, I feel more and more unsure of who to put in my top spot, and even less sure who to put in my 2-10. I usually love all the albums on my list, and it’s hard for me to somewhat arbitrarily rank them into a neat list. So this time around I’ve decided to just list the albums I enjoyed the most this year in alphabetical order. Sorry if you want a #1. I’m sure if you ask me in private I could pick one for you. But for now, I present…
15 Albums Jeremy Really Liked This Year That He Thinks You Should Listen To:
While never being the biggest Big Thief fan, I’ve always known there was something special about them. I heard it most in their quietest, most intimate moments; moreso than any of their rockers. That might explain, then, why frontperson Adrianne Lenker’s debut – which is almost painfully intimate and quiet – is my favorite BT-related thing I’ve yet heard, by a mile. Its soft power stems both from Lenker’s lo-fi and minimal pallet, as well as her hushed, beautiful voice. Above all, though, is her songwriting and melodies, which worm their ways into your mind but are laced with intriguing, abstract lyricism that moves and mystifies at the same time.
Alela Diane is truly one of the unsung figures of the American singer-songwriter scene. Or maybe I should say “under-sung.” She has plenty of fans and critical acclaim, and yet her albums never seem to make the waves they ought to be making. Perhaps that’s due to her relatively tame sound, but Diane is such a fine songwriter, a subtle miner of human emotion so deft that you hardly notice how powerful what it is she’s doing until it’s already been done. Check her hypnotic “Emigre,” the profoundly sad “Song for Sandy,” or the First Aid Kit-featuring “Ether and Wood,” which is undoubtedly one of her finest songs to date. If you’re looking for a high-quality, pretty, and smart singer-songwriter album, you can’t go wrong with Cusp.
If you, like me, first fell in love with Anna von Hausswolff when her single “Track of Time” was released in 2010, then you must also be constantly surprised at the direction she’s taken since then. While that was a staggering, piercingly gorgeous piano ballad, von Hausswolff’s music quite swiftly took a turn for the metallic, the doomed, and the dramatic. Her fourth album, Dead Magic, doubles down on that, giving us beefy, strong storms of songs, which sound more conjured than composed. Her voice remains a towering highlight, beaming above the din, but her chaos comes with great purpose, and each minute of this five-song album begs to be delved into. Let it cast its spell on you. Let it envelop you.
Beach House’s self-titled debut remains a favorite album of mine. I am fully aware it is probably not their best on any sort of technical level, but it came out at a very certain time in my life, and it eternally glued me to this dreamy little duo. Or so I thought. Their two-album stint of Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars really made me think that they lost me, or I lost them. It felt like the wheels were spinning, and the glory was fading. But 7 reaffirms what I always loved about the band, while also finally adding some much-needed tweaks to their formula. This, for once, does not sound like the exact same band that began by giving us those lo-fi autumnal tunes all those years ago. And yet, it makes perfect sense that this is a Beach House record. It’s beautiful, lush, weird, and their best record since Teen Dream. Here’s to hoping the innovation and curiosity continues.
For some reason, this album from The Field – his 6th since 2007 – finally got me. I’ve always been vaguely interested in The Field’s work, as he creates elongated pieces of repetitive, experimental electronic music. His are not average songs, as they beat and pulsate into oblivion, changing so subtly and slowly you barely notice. This is the first album of his since his debut, though, that has held my ear and my head the whole way through. Parts of this album approach a sort of ambient effect, droning on and on ad infinitum, until I’m dizzied and lost, in the best way. The notable addition of vocal layers goes a long way in spicing up The Field’s sound, and combined with the beautiful, fizzy loops, makes this possibly his best album.
Liz Harris’s work under the Grouper name has captivated me for years, ever since her impeccable Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill was released. Her 2014 album, Ruins, saw her strip almost everything away that was previously part of the Grouper aesthetic – gone were the echo–drenched guitars, and the woozy Wurlitzer, and the seemingly thousand layers of voice. But what we were left with was really a perfect distillation of Harris’s work: a minimalistic arrangement of voice and piano, soaked with just enough reverb. Her lyrics became more intelligible than ever, and her songs more emotionally crushing than ever. Grid of Points sees Harris returning to this setup, and while the results may be less astonishing the second time around, there’s still plenty to love. Some of the mystery creeps back in here, but the songs are just as moving and deceptively simple, and Harris’s voice and melodies still bring me near to tears.
Julia Holter returns with what is probably her most experimental album, the one she seems to have been hinting at all along. Her first two records toyed with experimental structures and sounds, combining them with just enough pop appeal. Then her next two went fully into the art-pop realm, with incredible results (“Betsy on the Roof”, a piano ballad from Have You In My Wilderness, is still the finest achievement of her career). But now, the composer extraordinaire has essentially outdone herself. Holter has dared herself and her listeners to go headlong into this bizarre, abstract world of hers, and it is delightful, scary, and entrancing. This may be the finest example yet of Holter as composer, so even if it isn’t the absolute best example of Holter as pop songwriter, so be it. Just jump in and get lost in the maze that is Aviary.
No matter how you feel about this new Low album, you’ve gotta hand it to the now 25-year-old band for creating something truly unlike anything else in their catalog, yet still very much has the sound of a Low album. Easily their most experimental album, and their least accessible since 1996’s The Curtain Hits the Cast, Double Negative surrounds the listener in static, harsh noises, metallic scrapes, crunched up bass and guitars, and brittle percussion. It’s an album full of surprising and austere compositions, with Alan Sparhawk’s and Mimi Parker’s signature voices cloaked in distortion, peeking out every now and then, like sun rays from behind a dark cloud. It’s not all a maelstrom of odd and abrasive soundplay – “Fly” is gorgeous and direct, while “Always Up” includes some of their indelible harmonies in clear display – but most of this album is a hall of mirrors, a storm worth flying into.
I’ve been a Laura Marling fan for a long time, but even though I really enjoyed her last album, I was wondering if she would ever try something a little more radical, or take a serious departure to shake up her sound. While that remains to be seen in her solo work, LUMP – a duo album with Mike Lindsay (of the weirdo-pop group Tunng) – delivers just that. Lindsay handles the music while Marling handles the lyrics, melodies, and vocals. The album is rather short, at just 7 tracks long (including a brief, but funny closing bit of narration), but it packs some interesting punches. It is such a nice treat to hear Marling write some weirder, more impressionistic lyrics, while also pushing her voice into some newer territories. Meanwhile, Lindsay’s compositions, full of strange beats, sounds, unidentifiable instruments, and intriguing left turns, combine with Marling’s beautiful voice to create something truly bewitching and entertaining.
This album almost feels like the opposite to Low’s. While theirs is a brutal hurricane of dizzying noise, Mary Lattimore’s Hundreds of Days is blissful and beautiful, full of gorgeous melodies. Lattimore is a profoundly skilled and renowned harpist, who enjoys tinkering with the limits of her instrument, whether through the knotty compositions themselves or through an array of effects, particularly delay. Seeing her spin her webs live is magical, but it has translated wonderfully on this new album. While songs like “Hello from the Edge of Earth” are heavenly, others like “Baltic Birch” are fantastical but lightly foreboding, and “Never Saw Him Again” engages in some very naturalistic, expansive ambient soundscapes. The harp often gets pigeonholed as being just pretty, and while Lattimore’s often is, it is also so much more complex than that. Her skills as an arranger match her skills as a harpist, and the two combine to create a transportive record.
After a slight misstep with 2015’s Pagans in Vegas, Metric are back in the rock game with the far superior Art of Doubt. Easily their best record since Live it Out, the band give us a very solid set of slick, blistering rock and pop tunes. The synths are still here, but the guitars have come chugging back, as evidenced by the first three tracks. Meanwhile, they’ve given us some truly glowing pop epics, like “Now or Never Now,” and some surprisingly edgy, harder songs, like the incredible title track. They also remind us how good they are at the softer cuts with “Seven Rules” (which reminds quite heavily of their earliest material, like “White Gold”). Metric are very much in their wheelhouse here, and though the very last leg of the album falls off just a bit, the songwriting overall and the reinvigorated performances are enough to make this one of their strongest albums in a very long time.
Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me was on my top albums list last year, and here he is again. Not for his other 2018 album, Now Only, which is very good in its own right, but for his quietly released live album, (after). Hearing these unbelievably personal songs sung out into the world in front of an audience of strangers is sort of heart-stopping in its power. Phil Elverum performs them beautifully, and the sound quality is exquisite. The songs were plenty stripped-down in the first place (especially the Crow songs), so there are not a ton of changes to be found. The main point of interest is simply in hearing these detailed, lovely, deeply sad songs played live. The audience’s hushed respect for the performer is palpable, and by the end of the night, they weren’t strangers anymore. Definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of either of his previous two albums.
With a discography as long and layered as Neko Case’s, it’s impressive that Hell-On, her seventh album, is her finest achievement yet. Working with longer songs than usual, Case affords herself the time and space to really flesh out her skills as a songwriter. The songs here are denser than many of her songs in the past, as Case dresses them up in dreamy layers of guitar, drums, synth, pianos, and many voices. Some songs, like “The Last Lion of Albion” are snappy and catchy. Others like the “Halls of Sarah” are luminous and melancholic. Some, like “My Uncle’s Navy”, are downright terrifying. Case is a master lyricist, with every song consisting of a myriad of intriguing, surprising lines, such as “Winnie”’s “Loved you so long, Winnie / Blurring softly into you.” Even her cover of Eric Bachmann’s “Sleep All Summer” (with the man himself in a duet with Case) goes off without a hitch. This is Case’s lushest album yet, and it provides the listener with countless moments of beauty, drama, and heart.
Trevor Powers’s last album as Youth Lagoon, Savage Hills Ballroom, was, for me, his finest yet. A crystallization of everything YL had been up then. It also includes at least one absolutely perfect, stunning song, in “Kerry”. Now, dropping the YL name and donning his own, Powers is back with his strangest document yet. Mulberry Violence is constantly shifting, as Powers experiments with interesting, left-field sound play, never going where you expect. His signature voice is still there, but very often it is cloaked in effects, or pitch-shifted, or distorted. This is not a typical singer-songwriter album. This is perhaps Powers’s most personal and also most alien record yet, which somehow feels exactly right. It is at turns beautiful and hideous, straightforward and complex. It draws you in in a very strange way, letting you bask in its foreboding light. The dream pop of YL is gone. The horrific electronic-noise-pop-whateveryouwanttocallit of Trevor Powers is here.
Meghan Remy’s U.S. Girls honestly never caught my attention much. But that all changed this year with the release of the project’s seventh album, In a Poem Unlimited. Don’t let the odd title fool you: this is mostly an album of catchy, groovy, polished pop songs. They are total pop perfection most of the time, while sitting just slightly in left field. One of the most sonically straightforward cuts, “M.A.H.”, is also one of its best, as it highlights with profound wit and charm a very important political conversation that is not had very often to my knowledge. Other songs, like the most meditative “Rosebud” and the ‘90s-ish “Pearly Gates,” make this one of the most varied but also irresistible pop albums of the year. Every time you listen to it, you find out something new about it. What a luxury that is.
A round-up of the greatest albums Anthony reviewed over this past month.
The weekly segment in which Anthony touches down on some of the best and worst tracks he has heard in the past week.
Hey, it's Austen again, coming at you with another HOT year-end list! For those unaware, I'm the managing editor of The Needle Drop, or in other words, Anthony's right-hand man. It's my third year making these lists for the site, and let me just say up front that this is the best one yet. 2017 has been my favorite year in music this decade, so you're in for a whole lot of gushing and superlatives. Moreover, I'm listing more albums than usual so as to not leave anyone out; you'll see when we get to the honorable mentions section. Many of the albums also happen to be very long, with a few in the Top 10 exceeding three hours. I'm not sure what to make of that – probably just a coincidence. Or perhaps Anthony's conspiracy theory about albums getting longer and longer is proving true.
With that digression aside, here's the list...
The Top 10
Thin Black Duke topped my mid-year list and, as you can see, not much has changed since then. Unfortunately that includes my inadequacy as a writer to do this album justice. I'm forced to recycle the line about this being the greatest orchestral rock album since Lou Reed's Berlin (which, for the record, is an all-time fave of mine). It's also a shame that I didn't keep the anecdote about Joseph Losey / The Servant in my pocket. The one thing the album had yet to prove at the time of my previous list was its staying power, and it has certainly done that. Every track on this album hits me as hard as it did on first listen, if not harder. It was just last month that I had the album on one night and got choked up by its centerpiece, "Letter of Note." Not only because it's a pretty tragic song, but because it's just formally perfect. It occurred to me in that moment that I'll probably never create something even half as beautiful—that's a paradoxically inspirational feeling. If you can listen to the track, or the rest of the album for that matter, and not have that response, then you and I are very different people. So, to reiterate: if you're in the market for a rock album that's artful, impeccably arranged, and emotionally overwhelming, you're not going to find much else on the level of Thin Black Duke. Except The Narcotic Story. Listen to that one, too.
In 2017, Mark Kozelek released four albums that total nearly six hours of music. This volume of output comes as a surprise even by his prolific standards. 50 years into his life, half of those spent releasing music, Mark doesn't even seem to think this is a big deal and is really taking the principle of not resting on one's laurels to the next level. I've already written a lot about Common as Light and the Jesu collab on my mid-year list, so I'm just going to use the rest of this space to touch on the Yeaton and Boye/White projects. Yellow Kitchen, the disc with Parquet Courts bassist Sean Yeaton, ended up being the most pleasant surprise of the "tetralogy" and pretty much validated my previous Scott Walker comparison—this is essentially Mark's The Drift. I was expecting some typical garage rock, but it turns out that Sean is quite the composer and producer. He mostly contributes dark ambient soundscapes that perfectly suit Mark's anxious, sometimes downright paranoid musings about his health, daily life, and memories.
Yellow Kitchen has a schizophrenic charm in its brevity and disjointedness, whereas the self-titled collab with keyboardist Ben Boye and drummer Jim White goes for a consistently nocturnal fusion of jazz and slowcore. This sound is a bit more in the Koz's wheelhouse, but the project stands out in his catalog for the trio's exceptional chemistry as improvisers, culminating in the epic "Topo Gigio." I'm also taken by Mark's terse writing in the CD insert detailing the events that inspired the album; it closes with "I sang about my days, my nights and my dreams." The man keeps blurring the line between prose and poetry, and for as TMI as it sometimes gets, I think it's beautiful. As long as he remains ambitious with his instrumental and compositional palettes, I look forward to hearing where this uncharted songwriting direction takes him.
I’ve been down on Brockhampton since the release of their first two albums this past summer. Part of that’s to do with me being partial to Odd Future, who paved the way for a similarly boisterous collective (or boy band) like Brockhampton to let their freak flag fly. Saturation had some incredible bangers—hard to top those first three tracks—and some of the low-key spots like closer “WASTE” were nice, too. Still, I couldn’t help but feel as if I’d been excited about this all before, and that was even more the case for Saturation II. I’ll give kudos for the ridiculously catchy “QUEER,” and "GAMBA," though, because after all I’m here to be nice to Brockhampton. That brings us to Saturation III, which is fantastic from start to finish. There’s not exactly a night and day difference between it and the previous two discs, but just enough has been tweaked for it to feel that way to me. Namely the presence of more beat switch-ups, as the group seems to be getting more ambitious with their song structures. Sure, the Odd Future worship is still here (especially in “STAINS,” which is nevertheless a highlight for me), but I can appreciate that Brockhampton’s subversion of rap music is more nuanced than OF’s and that the groups reach very different conclusions. Kevin Abstract and company aren’t nearly as interested in taking the piss out of the genre, and yeah, the difference in technical ability is undeniable. Listening to "BOOGIE" and "HOTTIE," I'm convinced BH has found a way to convert candy and crack into song form. Your move, 1D.
Earlier this year, Jute Gyte (Adam Kalmbach) completed an epic triptych with Oviri, which like its predecessors Ship of Theseus and Perdurance (one of my 2016 faves), proffers a microtonal, polytempic, and electronically-tinged breed of black metal that is guaranteed to give those uninitiated in the worlds of extreme music and atonal composition a severe migraine. One could also be forgiven for looking at the track titles, the lyrics, and the Bandcamp write-ups and thinking they'd need dual degrees in ancient Greek philosophy and existentialism to vibe to this music. But I think it's precisely Adam's deviation from musical convention, his unrelenting limits-pushing, that makes his work so metal. The chord progressions on Oviri are as twisted as ever, though there are more spots here that might be considered melodic than there were on Perdurance. The dense compositions still evoke the totalism of Glenn Branca, and come to think of it, there's even common ground with some of Captain Beefheart's most abrasive work. The liner notes suggest that the dissonance and simultaneous tempi aren't guided by (intentional) ineptitude in Adam's case, but nevertheless, the music in this trilogy of albums subverted my musical expectations in the same way I imagine Trout Mask Replica did for its contemporary audience. However, it's just as important to consider Adam's work as an extension of the black metal tradition—a much needed step toward (post-)modernity. Sure, the pagan mumbo jumbo has been eschewed in favor of enlightened mumbo jumbo, but I find Oviri to be every bit as emotionally potent and frightening as an album like Filosofem. It's exciting to hear the genre pushing the envelope to this extent; I only hope Adam is able to continue doing so now that it seems this phase is finished.
Almost two decades after its completion, Jürg Frey's magnum opus, l’âme est sans retenue I, has finally seen the light of day thanks to Erstwhile Records. The label has been on a roll with these massive, multi-disc sets. Last year's the earth and the sky is one of my favorite collections of piano pieces, and if I had heard Keith Rowe's The Room Extended sooner, it likely would've topped my 2016 list. Clearly I think the streak continues here with retenue I, though I don't have a whole lot to say beyond what cover designer Yuko Zama wrote in her comprehensive breakdown of the composition. Due to its daunting six-hour runtime, much of that devoted to silence, one might see this as, like, the final boss of lowercase music. In a sense, it is, but listening to retenue I is better described as an experience than a challenge. I don't get the sense I'm experiencing "more than an album" very often, but that's certainly the case here. Granted, for some listeners it's bound to sound like quite a bit less than the average album; again, we're talking about a long-form piece that's virtually silent half the time. But as far as I'm concerned, Jürg's use of silence here is the most effective I've ever heard (perhaps "felt" is a better word), and I can see myself making retenue I a regular sonic pilgrimage.
It's worth mentioning that Erstwhile is now making its catalog available on Bandcamp. This Jürg release isn't there yet, but I recommend looking around anyway. The Lambkin/Lescalleet trilogy is a good starting point. Update: It's there now.
You may remember that in one of the first episodes of "It Came from Bandcamp," Anthony and I featured an insane and monolithic plunderphonics album from an Italian producer called Impossible Nothing. Since then, he received the Scaruffi bump (that's apparently a thing) and has gone on to release four more 260-minute-long albums this year—for all I know, the absolute madman may drop another before the year is out. My favorite is the third one, Taxemenomicon, though sometimes I find myself in the mood for Tonemenomicon, which is easy-going by comparison. Honestly, I thought his album last year was cool and all, but saw it as a bit of a novelty that didn't really live up to the cosmic proportions that the artist intended. Taxeme, on the other hand, does. It might be the most incredible plunderphonics / instrumental hip hop album I've heard since J Dilla's Donuts. Except Dilla would've had to infuse Donuts with a shitload of stardust and all the excess of the Internet for these two works to even be comparable. He was also short a Seinfeld reference, but I'll let that slide. Essentially, I think what Impossible Nothing's doing here is the perfect representation of what makes our Bandcamp series worthwhile.
(Heads-up: the track below comes on pretty loud and sudden.)
I've been a fan of Tyler's since Goblin. For as excessive and E D G Y as that album is, I consider it some kind of exorcismic hip hop masterpiece and think Tyler proved himself to be a visionary producer with its consistently uncanny, synth-centric aesthetic. Rarely does a debut studio album following a hyped mixtape make such a statement. I've enjoyed Tyler's work since then, even Cherry Bomb if only because the title track was ingeniously a ready-made YouTube bass boost meme. Actually, if I have one gripe with Flower Boy here, it's that I miss some of the darkness and abrasiveness of those salad days. Other than that, I can appreciate that this is a surprisingly mature album from Tyler. His production here is lovely and he has blossomed into both a versatile rapper and a thoughtful lyricist. Of all the indie blog darlings who had blown up near the end of the Aughts, I'm glad it's been Tyler who has managed to maintain relevance and progress to such a degree as an artist.
Pure Comedy is among the most polarizing singer-songwriter albums to have come out this decade, and it's not exactly hard to understand why. It's a collection of post-ironic piano ballads written by a man who's totally unwilling to tone down his cynical and absurdist sense of humor. However, I'm not sure what it is about Josh Tillman that makes him harder to bear for some than similarly abrasive figures like Lou Reed and Frank Zappa. Hell, I could describe a lot of the album's social commentary as "Zappa-esque," though Josh seems more willing than Frank to wear his heart on his sleeve. The music has also been superficially compared to Randy Newman, Elton John, and [insert '70s piano man]; but the fact of the matter is this album couldn't have been made any time but now or by anyone but Josh. Ideological bullshit aside, I simply dig his passionate vocal performances and balladry, as well as the modern production that renders some of these pieces atmospheric and helps the whole thing sound like a product of 2017. Suffice it to say I'm looking forward to next year's Father John Misty album. But it's supposedly about heartache—sounds pretentious.
Bill Orcutt has spent much of the decade channeling the no wave energy left over from his band Harry Pussy into his (poor, poor) acoustic guitar, violently deconstructing a myriad of American standards along the way. Albums like How the Thing Sings and A History of Every One punked the fuck out of American Primitivism and capitalized on the instrument’s free improvisational potential to perhaps the greatest extent since Derek Bailey. However, Bill's gone electric on his latest release, and the results are more modest than one might expect. This is after all a self-titled album by the man who spent the last several years producing some of the most brutal acoustic guitar recordings of all time, and now that he has a decidedly more powerful weapon in his hands we're getting something low-key? Well, it was a wise move, as this is among the best solo guitar albums I've heard all decade. The only things I miss that were lost in the jump to amplification are the involuntary vocalizations Bill would make while going off on his detuned and destrung six-string. Those really added to the rawness. Bill takes things a bit easier on this album, though there is no shortage of explosive, high-attack moments, especially the closing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." For the most part, his covers are easier to recognize this time around, the highlight being his take on "Ol' Man River." There's still a ton of bite and soul to Bill's playing; he just seems more willing than in the past to preserve some of these songs' inherent beauty. Gotta respect that restraint.
For my money, Profound Lore is the best extreme music label out there, and I had trouble choosing between the two multi-disc albums it released this year. The first was Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper, a powerful piece of funeral doom that should be experienced in one sitting at least once. But the album I'll have in heavier rotation is Rainbow Mirror, which commemorates 20 years of Prurient by way of three hours' worth of noisy drones. I've had the first two discs for a couple of weeks and once I got past the initial disappointment of Dominick's growls and screams being entirely absent here, I got absorbed by the cold, staticky soundscapes. I'm really in awe (and envy) of the album's textures, as well as the trio's ability to keep the tension escalating across all of these lengthy tracks. While it's an entirely different animal from Frozen Niagara Falls and is far from Prurient's harshest project, Rainbow Mirror is at once the most mesmerizing and thrilling ambient work I heard this year. Props to Profound Lore for being a metal label that's willing to put out a 4-CD set of dark ambience.
I'm doing something a little different with this year's honorable mentions section, devoting it to miscellaneous releases. Basically I'm listing albums that're live, limited, compiled, archival, or reissued—reasons why I feel they wouldn't really fit with the ones above. Also A Crow Looked at Me because I wouldn't consider it a personal favorite in Phil's catalog, but still think its concept and aesthetic deserve recognition. Anyway, the sorting is alphabetical and the lineup is arguably just as good as the actual Top 10.
Thanks so much for reading. If you enjoyed this, below you can find the list I wrote last year. Other than that, happy holidays and New Year.