My favourite album of 2018 is Double Negative by Low. Low are a fine band with a discography built up over 25 years that, while unshowy, must surely make any other band weep. Like the songs of, for example, Leonard Cohen, beneath what may appear like superficial gloominess has always been a beating heart of optimism and beauty. Double Negative is a departure, and my favourite Low album since Secret Name. Alan Sparhawk’s and Mimi Parker’s ordinarily ice-clear harmonies are buried within fuzz and distortion, often squeezed out as a Sparky’s Magic Piano-esque squelch. I’m a fan of deteriorated sound, that’s for sure, but amidst all this degradation the occasional surfacing of untampered-with vocals feel like glimpses of something divine. It’s the most wonderful album, and ‘Tempest’ is my favourite song of the year.
Modern soul isn’t usually my thing, but Childqueen by Kadhja Bonet absolutely is, filled as it is with gorgeous melodies and lush orchestration. For the most part, the best aural (as opposed to vocal) comparison I can think of is Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, though there are shades of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, and the slick production of ‘Mother Maybe’ reminds me strongly of one of my 80s guilty pleasures, Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’. I can’t think of another 2018 album that feels so pleasurable throughout its running time. In addition, Kadhja Bonet was responsible for the entirety of the album; everything written, sung and played, and she produced and mixed it too, which I find incredible.
The drone album I’ve enjoyed most this year is Rausch by GAS. It’s difficult to describe why one lengthy drone is preferable to another, but there’s a depth to these seven tracks that just, I don’t know, takes me away… It’s only now, listening carefully and attempting to analyse it, that I’m able to identify particular elements: tapping hi-hats, bass thrums, reversed cymbals. Previously, I wouldn’t have been able to describe what produced the effect, only that’s the whole is absorbing and hypnotic. For me, this album is up there with Biokinetics by Porter Ricks and What?? by Folke Rabe.
Click ‘Continue reading’ for lots more picks and a playlist.
After the aforementioned Rausch by GAS, the ambient/drone albums I enjoyed most were Daughters of Time by Blue Chemise (again, like Rausch, it’s difficult to pin down why, other than that it’s acted as a soundtrack to writing a huge amount, and it just works), Thresholder by Ian William Craig (an artist I’ve been ambivalent about in the past, but here the compressed chorals feel somehow more in keeping with the general decay), Divine Weight by Alex Zhang Huntai (and it’s a huge relief that his apparent abandonment of the Dirty Beaches name hasn’t affected his aesthetic), Locations, Processed by Chris Watson (incredible field recordings of Central Park, Times Square etc), What Light There Is Tells Us Nothing by Janek Schaefer (the 21-minute opening track featuring samples of Robert Wyatt is terrific), Criss-Cross / Hanover by Alvin Lucier (performed by Oren Ambarchi and Stephen O’Malley, the former eclipsing his own releases this year, though his albums Hence and Panama/Suez, the latter with Konrad Sprenger and Phillip Sollmann, are both excellent too).
A separate sub-category of drone, for which I’m unable to muster an adequate label, belongs to a series of instrumental, experimental albums by women who’ve produced incredible work that’s demanding and which seems rooted in the distant past while also sounding utterly of the now: RECKONINGS by Laura Cannell, Gave in Rest by Sarah Davachi, Become Zero by Helen Money, Brass Orchids by Anne Guthrie, Paradise 94 by Lucy Railton, Entanglement by Jessica Moss. I’ll be honest, I’d struggle to describe where one starts and the next begins as I’ve listened them merged together, but they’re all outstanding.
My favourite indie-pop (for want of a better category) albums this year were You Turned into a Painting by Competition (lo-fi nasal naïve hip-hop-ish mutterings; a Geordie Doseone), Mogic by Hen Ogledd (an album I hunted down because Newcastle’s finest, Richard Dawson, is in the group, though he’s only really evident in one track; the rest is a Super Furry Animals-ish mishmash with no two tracks having a tone in common), And Nothing Hurt by Spiritualized (with its immense opening track, ‘A Perfect Miracle’, one of my favourite tracks of the year), Slow Sundown by Holy Motors (a swoon in the Twin Peaks Roadhouse), On the Streets of Dreams by The Space Lady (her ‘Be Thankful for What You’ve Got’ is my favourite cover version of the year) and Bon Voyage by Melody’s Echo Chamber (stupidly happy).
The more-or-less pleasant albums I’ve listened to most are Solan Goose by Erland Cooper (if I’m honest, I’m still unsure whether I find it too pleasant, but nonetheless I’ve played it a great deal), Slowly Paradise by Eric Chenaux (woozy in a good way) Grid of Points by Grouper (surprising unwoozy), Songs of Love and Horror by Will Oldham (unforced and accomplished) and Penelope Two by Penelope Trappes (another album that summons a haze).
The acoustic guitar albums I liked the most were The Giant Who Ate Himself and Other New Works For 6 & 12 String Guitar by Glenn Jones (absurdly pure) and A Broke Moon Rises by Papa M (spare and hypnotic).
For weird, dark vocal albums, my favourites were The King by Chaines (particularly the final track, ‘Eraserhead’, which wouldn’t be out of place playing in the bar of the Overlook Hotel), What the Night is For by Teresa Winter (unsettling, borderline nauseous beats , abrupt stop-starts, a fine voice, some terrific song titles), Pastoral by Gazelle Twin (Gazelle Twin tracks have appeared in my ‘starred’ list far more than any other act this year; the split release with Shapednoise, The Dream Ends / Ghostly Metafiction is my favourite EP of the year), Suffuse by Roy Montgomery (due to its guest vocalists, from Julianna Barwick to Grouper’s Liz Harris, as much as the production), Adoration by CECILIA (halting rhythms that recall two of my favourite experimental albums of recent years, Marina Rosenfeld’s P.A. / Hard Love and Holly Herndon’s Platform).
My favourite freakouts were Rats Don’t Eat Synthesizers by The Dwarfs Of East Agouza (like Beefheart conducting a conga troupe) and The Hands by the always-dependable Fire! (the title track especially).
My favourite minimal techno albums were Arabian Nights by Bit-Tuner (which would have been a preferable soundtrack to Blade Runner 2049) and LAGEOS by Actress & The London Contemporary Orchestra (an odd-on-paper collaboration which makes sense immediately).
My favourite noise albums of the year were Mental Wounds Not Healing by Uniform & The Body (any album with a track titled ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ has a headstart, a punishing soundscape that’s also an album highlight), Clustered Non Symmetry by Diaster (relentless chugging that for whatever reason I find conducive to mulling over story ideas), and two albums by Mika Vainio: Ignis and Live 2002, the latter featuring Ryoji Ikeda and alva noto.
My favourite reissue was Bush Lady by Alanis Obomsawin from 1985 (which I barely understand, but find incredible all the same) and my favourite old-new release was Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album by John Coltrane (especially the outstanding version of ‘Nature Boy’, one of my favourite standards).
My favourite compilations were The Black Book (celebrating 20 years of iDEAL Recordings, with standout ambiences from Jim O’Rourke and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, explicitly channelling Folke Rabe) and Don’t Look Now: Aural Apparitions from the Geographic North (excellent dark-ambient Hallowe’en tracks from artists such as Félicia Atkinson and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, whose long-from release Limpid as the Solitudes is also very good).
Here’s a Spotify playlist of some of my favourite tracks of the year. Given that many of my favourite albums (especially drone) don’t lend themselves to picking an individual track, there’s a weighting towards songs with vocals; overall I’m surprised that it’s relatively upbeat. Though a fair amount isn’t.