Thursday, April 04, 2019

COLUMN: Best of 2018 - Music

Let's just admit it: 2018 was a lousy year for music. Many of our best artists were in-between records, while others put out career-defining letdowns. This year's charts were ruled by mumble-rappers, one-hit wonders, and watered-down commercial pop/rock. The indie scene was chock full of bands pushing musical boundaries but forgetting they still need to write some decent tunes along the way. Yet despite my disappointment, a handful of artists managed to release some truly incredible music this year. Here are my picks for the ten must-hear albums of 2018:

#10 - Carla J Easton - Impossible Stuff - Some songwriters suffer from an innate likability, and that's always worked to the advantage of troubadour Carla Easton. Whether on her own or with her band Teen Canteen, Easton's always had a knack for turning heartbreak and doubt into contagious singalongs. This record, the first released under her own name, is an indiepop fan's dream menu of killer hooks, exuberant confidence, and a proud Scottish brogue.


#9 - Post Malone - Beerbongs and Bentleys - If I'm being 100% honest with myself, this has to make my list. Music critics are supposed to hate Post Malone, as he really IS the living embodiment of homogenized mass appeal pop music. I fully understand all the reasons I'm supposed to despise him, but his stupid songs are just too catchy to write off. Once I figure out how to stop playing this record in my car, I'll try really hard to hate it, promise.

#8 - Juliana Hatfield - Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John - Who'd have thunk that one of indie rock's most beguiling chanteuses owes it all to a pop icon? When word got out that Hatfield was recording an album of Olivia Newton-John covers, I expected it to be a tongue-in-cheek wink to 1970s cheesiness. Surprisingly, it ended up a heartfelt tribute to a long-admired hero and breathes new life into some forgotten old school gems.

#7 - Brockhampton - Iridescence - If Brockhampton keep this up, they might actually become the "world's best boyband" they've always claimed to be. A loose collective of rappers, singers, and producers who met on a Kanye West fansite and moved to L.A. with little money and big dreams, Brockhampton's DIY approach to recording and performing has made them one of hip-hop's most exciting and versatile new acts. Even after losing a key member to allegations of sexual misconduct, they still managed to put out a cohesive, fun, emotional record that breaks boundaries and gives hope to every bedroom rapper alive.

#6 - Schizo Fun Addict - El Shoegaze Bossa Nova - Leo D'Onofrio has made a career out of being an internet provocateur. Over the years, he's been a mouthpiece for the birther movement, claimed the moon landings were hoaxed, and even wrote an online opus asserting that the lyrics of The Stone Roses herald the return of the Messiah. But when he's not busy pushing people's buttons, he makes music. GOOD music. His latest project is a fascinating and purposeful melange of tropical rhythms and hazy guitars, like if Pink Floyd got trapped in a studio but all they had for drums were the pre-programmed Latin loops of a cheap Casio keyboard. It's odd as heck, but it REALLY works. 

#5 - Robyn - Honey - It's been a long time since Swedish teen-pop starlet Robyn reinvented herself as the reigning queen of electropop. For her first album in 4 years, she's veered away from brash beats in favor of a warmer, more minimal groove. This lets the songs shine bright, as she chronologically walks us (nay, DANCES us) through the recent split and eventual reconciliation with her fiance. It's a song cycle for the ages AND the dancefloor. There's no bigger force in pop music right now.

#4 - Father John Misty - God's Favorite Customer - It annoys me how much I love this record. Singer/songwriter Josh Tillman's self-importance often climbs from big to bigger to Kanye on the ego scale, and his records are often self-absorbed odes to himself. But they're also genius. No one writes about Josh Tillman like Josh Tillman can, and his confessionals pour out like James Taylor, Elton John, and Billy Joel in a blender of magic and wit. If I was at a party and Tillman walked in, I'd probably leave. But then I'd probably listen to his record all the way home.

#3 - The 1975 - A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships - It's easy to dismiss The 1975. On the surface, they're pretty much the British version of Maroon 5 -- faceless dorky musicians with a pretty-boy frontman who make easy-on-the-ears suburban soul music that your mom would probably enjoy. But hiding behind that pop sheen is nothing less than a modern treatise on technology and the human condition, heartache and longing, addiction and recovery. It's more Radiohead than Maroon 5, just with fewer guitar squawks and evil robot voices. It's the smartest pop record you'll hear all year.

#2 - Janelle Monae - Dirty Computer - No one may ever be worthy enough to climb the stairs and sit on the funky throne that Prince built, but Janelle Monae sure comes close. It's rumored that the Purple One had an uncredited hand in Dirty Computer before his untimely death, and it wouldn't surprise me. With guests ranging from Grimes and Pharrell to Stevie Wonder and Beach Boy Brian Wilson, Monae has created a funk symphony of tolerance, empowerment, pride, acceptance, and love. The world could use more records like this.

#1 - Let's Eat Grandma - I'm All Ears - Two years ago, teenage best friends Jenny Hollingsworth and Rosa Walton stepped out of their bedrooms with a homemade record that took all the trappings of pop music and shook it up like a psychedelic snow globe. Two years later, they've returned with a more professional follow-up that's more polished but no less inhibited. Listening is akin to peering into a secret world of in-jokes and knowing glances - if the girls from "Beautiful Creatures" made music, it would sound like this. Leaping from somber psyche sludge to purified pop at a breakneck schizophrenic pace, the duo capture exactly what it's like to be a teen: Everything is amazing, little things are big deals, and no one wants to follow the rules. For the second time, Let's Eat Grandma have earned my Album of the Year accolade -- and they're STILL teenagers. Let's hope it never stops.

If you give ANY of these records a quick spin, my job is done. NEXT WEEK: A look at the year's best TV offerings.

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