After 2500 submissions and 350 reviews, we finally have a winner! Our top album of 2018 comes from a prolific female artist who has unveiled a dozen releases in the last five years. This one is her best to date.
Beyond that, it was a tight race, our closest one yet. Our next two picks are separated by the thinnest of margins, as are #s 11-20. This is evidence of what many staffers pointed out throughout the year: it was a great year for good music, but only a good year for great music. In 2018, music took a back seat to the stories behind the music, as demonstrated by our overall selections.
The year’s top story is the continued attention to female artists, five of whom are represented here. Women have always been making incredibly valuable music, but have confronted barriers from the gatekeepers of the industry. Now in many places they are the gatekeepers. This being said, there’s still a long way to go. While many of our top albums come from female artists, female artists still represent less than 10% of music submissions to our site. Another major story is the continued anger and frustration of the wider artistic community in the face of xenophobia, racism and sexism, apparent in the liner notes of many new releases. Finally, we’ve become even more concerned about the state of our planet.
Not every artist on our list is political, but all of them are relevant. These albums come to us from locations as disparate as a tropical island and an Alpine mountain. One artist incorporates Arabic influences; another incorporates a gagaku orchestra; still another plays their own vegetables. The diversity of this list reflects that of humanity: a sign of hope in the midst of a troubled world.
And now, A Closer Listen presents the Top 20 Albums of 2018!
Our cover image comes from staffer Nayt Keane, who sets the raised hands of the #MeToo movement against the Chrysler building in a wash of color and light ~ thanks Nayt!
1) Sarah Davachi ~ Let Night Come On Bells End the Day (Recital)
By any measure, it has been a remarkable couple of years for Sarah Davachi, who has released a sequence of outstanding records, from Vergers at the end of 2016 through All My Circles Run to Gave in Rest. She’s also played nearly 90 live shows, often performing completely different works from one day to the next, from Braga to Kyoto to Chicago. Yet this busy-ness is in contrast to the music itself, which often has a contemplate, meditative air. That is certainly the case on Let Night Come On Bells End The Day, which we suggest is her finest work to date. The weight of the three drone pieces is offset by the repeating patterns of the other two compositions. Together, they form a near-perfect sequence of music that can be slowly and patiently absorbed over time. My initial review suggested this should be played loudly at the moon; after several months of listening, that response has developed. Allow the textures to wash over you as night moves in: to pray, to sleep, to dream. (Jeremy Bye)
2) Ian William Craig ~ Thresholder (Fatcat/130701)
We’re used to thinking in boundaries, with objects contained within the limits of their contour, but Thresholder asks us to consider the opposite: what if – like the sounds of a voice melting into tape hisses and crackles – that outline is but a way for us to reduce infinity to something with no need of contemplation? What if – like the noisy drones that overlap all the way into far-flung aural horizons – a true vision of the finite leads directly into the infinite? Every object of the cover, just like every sound, is potentially connected to an endless variety of other things and ideas. Like in “Idea for Contradiction 1”, you could have an angelic, divine figure behind it all, but you could also have a hopeful, warm and multiple emptiness (“Idea for Contradiction 2”) as the connecting thread of everything. Either way, you’ll have a grand time listening to Craig’s musical suggestions about it all. (David Murrieta Flores)
3) Jerusalem in My Heart ~ Dada’iq Tudiaq (Constellation)
Simultaneously mournful and sentimental, the first half of Daqa’iq Tudiaq is a poetic entry into the sublime sound-world of JIMH, characterized by an experimental approach that lays bare the intensity of Arabic melodies and their labyrinthine flows. They grow and slide into subtle distortions, the traditional instrumentation lending an air of both nostalgia and a sense of being temporally displaced, songs of love lost somewhere, sometime beneath the cracks of a war-torn wall. The second half of the album wonderfully potentializes the heartbreak of the first, both in the complexity of the instrumental sections and the genuine tone of sadness of its vocals, subjected to monstrous echoing by means of electronic processes; tradition shines a light, but it is not enough to clear the skies from the smoke of missiles. Such is the promise of new music: a brilliant something beating at the heart of novelty, an aesthetic path to freedom that does not entirely reject the old but builds upon it. (David Murrieta Flores)
4) Floex & Tom Hodge ~ A Portrait of John Doe (Mercury KX)
A rare gem of a conceptual album, A Portrait of John Doe attempts to distance itself from both enthusiasm about the common modern human (think here of Aaron Copeland) and its opposite (say, Milton Babbitt). The result is mesmerizing, its mixture of the humanist associations of classical music with the cold distance of electronics an effective synthesis of the ideal and the material. Just when you’re getting into a string melody that makes you look upwards, a techno beat pulls back the simple clarity of the sky into the multicolored density of the dance club atmosphere, rendering the passion and the alienation of the ‘everyman’ as the interplay of the warm and cold. But the associations are not clear-cut or obvious, because sometimes you’ll find warmth in the abstractions of electronics, while the orchestra moves towards a tense minimalism in which any calm is absent. You’ll find your own portrait here somewhere, and I assure you, it’ll be moving. (David Murrieta Flores)
5) Tim Hecker ~ Konoyo (Kranky)
Starting with siren-like wails sets the disquieting mood for Konoyo, a record meditating on themes of globalization and spirituality through the analogue of blending traditional Japanese with digital instruments. Collaborating with gagaku ensemble Tokyo Gakuso in a temple on the edge of Japan’s capital, Hecker captures in pockets the airy, mystical quality of the materially unencumbered (“Is a rose petal of the dying crimson light”). More prevalent, however – and the record’s theme – is the ascetic lifestyle’s increasing corruption, as droning flute lines fight to be heard (“A sodium codec haze”) or are ensnared and warped (“Keyed out”). Spirituality is being confronted by greater scrutiny, greater opposition, greater commoditization – in essence, greater noise – and it must adapt to recapture the blissful silence it covets. With its droning whispers and melodic fragments, Konoyo is a wonderfully eloquent retaliation to increasingly banal density. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
6) Birds of Passage ~ The Death of Our Invention (Denovali)
There’s a deep ache at the heart of The Death of Our Invention, one that is not easily healed. Alicia Merz’ album feels intensely personal, drawing on traditional folk music themes of death, lost love and betrayal. By the end, we’re not sure where Birds of Passage ends and the wider world begins – just that it’s an isolated, wind-swept, cold place to be. The music is so fragile that it feels like it could break apart at any moment. Merz’ multi-layered voice is accompanied only by atmosphere and ambience (save for an occasional guitar and piano). Yet, this music does uplift. Although it sounds bleak, there is a comfort to be had here – a sadness to be shared, a burden to be carried together, an understanding between artist and listener. (Jeremy Bye)
7) Michael Price ~ Tender Symmetry (Erased Tapes)
Absorbed by the ghosts of the inanimate, acclaimed composer Michael Price was inspired by and recorded in seven historic locations across England for Tender Symmetry. From the home of a Brutalist architect to battle-scarred caves in a shoreline cliff, each location imparts stories ranging from heroic to horrific that guide the sober mood and gentle dynamics of the compositions. They also provide unique acoustic properties that define those dynamics (listen to the sumptuous reverb on the vocal in “Willow Road”), adding a literal sense of place through details shying away in corners – the sounds of children playing, birds singing. Sweeping through dusty corridors that take us from tension to gratification, this set prioritises atmosphere above all, with fewer of the swelling, wrenching ostinato passages of Entanglement (“Quarry Bank” excepting) ~ but at its close Price finally turns to the future, to new beginnings and to hope. To shared spaces and new stories. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
8) Lea Bertucci ~ Metal Aether (NNA Tapes)
While Lea Bertucci is increasingly writing compositions for others, Metal Aether showcases her own skills as a performer, honed over years of research, recording, and composing. Her work explores psychoacoustics, overtonal accumulation, and the affective impact of noise, all of which are fundamental to these compositions. Bertucci’s music brings together strands of pulse-pattern minimalism, microtonal drone, and noise, sometimes migrating from one idiom to another, but more often fusing them together through a cultivated synthesis. At times hypnotic in its use of repetition and sustain, Metal Aether is also unafraid to be aggressive. In contrast to the soothing tones of the bass clarinet that dominated much of her past work, Metal Aether is marked by the timbre of the alto saxophone, whose high frequencies can be, at times, almost abrasive. Bertucci’s horn playing gets a lot of attention, but her use of tapes, field-recordings, and spatialization techniques are no less central. A metal aether seems like a contradiction in terms, yet Bertucci finds harmony in contrasts, as space and medium become inextricable from texture and tone. (Joseph Sannicandro)
9) Daniel Bjarnason ~ Collider (Bedroom Community)
Collider continues the projection of Daniel Bjarnason towards the astral heights of modern composition. As composer and conductor, he stretches the Iceland Symphony Orchestra from diaphanous ambience to rambunctious crescendi with three pieces composed for U.S. orchestras. The agitated syntax in which he has always written remains here to bind the trio, yet each wields distinct form and incursions of patient minimalism. “Blow Bright” is unsettled, building restlessly and almost imperceptibly for 10 minutes, until shrill violins and desperate horns stretch the sinews to breaking point. “The Isle Is Full of Noises”, musical adaptations of three scenes from The Tempest, rides on swelling waves that toss the crew from bow to stern, before the waters cede to the calming presence of ethereal voices. Are they guiding us home or into rocks unseen? Finale “Collider” starts with a slow, organic building of tension whose peak initially underwhelms, but whose remaining 10 minutes are an exquisitely controlled flurry of avant-garde false starts and frenzy. Collisions are spectacular, but here Bjarnason heeds the greater drama in the approach. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
10) Ebauche ~ Mutable (Self-Released)
Mutable ticks a ridiculous number of boxes, sitting between ambient, drone, field recordings and electronica without ever wholly committing to one. (At the time of review, we tagged it as drone – on a different day we might have chosen differently.) Plus, the whole package looks gorgeous: beneath the stunning cover, artist Adrianna Snochowska has painted a work for each piece which alone justifies the physical purchase. Producer Alex Leonard has taken his time on this record, and the dedication has paid off: you can feel the amount of love and attention that’s been poured into the grooves. The gradual shifts in the compositions have a transforming effect on the listener: you start off in one place and end up somewhere else altogether. Then you go back to experience Mutable all over again. (Jeremy Bye)
11) Siavash Amini ~ FORAS (Hallow Ground)
An outside environment will affect, shape, and influence the psyche, and Siavash Amini has spent a long time in his musical laboratory studying the phenomenon. It’s reaped FORAS, which is Latin for ‘outside’, an intense record populated by dark roads and the eerie play of midnight light on a lonesome lane. The Iranian sound artist interposes abrasive electronic noise with classical elements, creating a waspish dissonance between inner mental activity, the many, narrow caverns of the mind resembling a place like Fraggle Rock, and uncontrollable, random events. Exploring how individual sorrow relates to and is triggered by space, and inspired in part by late theorist Mark Fisher’s essay, ‘The Weird and the Eerie’, Amini’s music is a study on psychogeography. Landscapes and buildings hold memories inside them, but they emanate from personal experience, the inner world imprinting itself like fingerprints on Hollywood concrete or Victorian brick, leaving behind its invisible ectoplasmic residue. The music transmits a psychic energy, zinging like lethal and raw electricity, and there’s plenty of hidden danger. Either seeping from a ‘bad’ place, a negative memory, or something manifesting in the physical world, the result is still the same: it’s real to those experiencing it. (James Catchpole)
‘..by passing through a space haunted by collective memories of loss or tragedy, or by means of interpersonal dialogue, or even a memory of such events in each individual’s mind’.
12) Félicia Atkinson ~ Coyotes (Geographic North)
Coyotes was hit by a severe drought. Felicia Atkinson’s sparse melodies recollected and reminisced over a time spent in New Mexico, and the American sunshine burned into its long, hot asphalt. It passed through Roswell, with its oscillating drones and its drunken sci-fi whirs appearing in the sky like a flying saucer in distress. Although Felicia’s music came in peace, the sounds were still strange, the anatomy of the two tracks a little exotic, its skin an off-colored shade of grey. And coyotes, native predators, stood in the distance. One started to hallucinate as dehydration kicked in: was this a mirage, or was it a crash site of the auditory kind? A crumpled piece of glittering aural debris began to unfurl, lighter than aluminum. Sparse melodies littered the arid land. Felicia’s gentle vocals whispered their scientific discoveries, disclosing thoughts and findings into her tape recorder. Not content with playfully exploring the history of these empty fields, Atkinson absorbed the feeling of New Mexico and its immense landscape of vacant beauty. Greetings from New Mexico, USA! (James Catchpole)
13) Somni ~ Bloom (Friends of Friends)
I would dare to say that Bloom is the catchiest unconventional record of the year. It does utilize conventional resources from recent dubstep and EDM, but it’s built like an ambient album, multifaceted, layered, brimming with jazzy harmonies that emerge from cut-up sounds. With its collage-like nature oriented towards the idea of a field in bloom, all of the short beeps and noises come together in the same way that a pointillist painting does – every element by itself is just a weird little electronic bit, but their relations, their individual interactions, present us with a colorful, coherent landscape. An even more daring take would be to call this a very pretty glitch album, perhaps the prettiest there is. All the marks are there: the sounds that seem incomplete, the evident electronic manipulation, the sense that all of its aural qualities derive from very particular errors in the production line (hardware and software), and the fragmentary growth of something unified. But call it whatever you like – the important part is that it’s just plain gorgeous to listen to. (David Murrieta Flores)
14) Gonçalo F Cardoso ~ Impressões de uma Ilha (Unguja) (Edições CN)
Who wouldn’t want to live in a beach hut on a remote island?! For a month, Gonçalo F Cardoso did just that; except, instead of returning with a postcard, he returned with a soundscape. As a surreal collage of location recordings, Impressões de uma Ilha (Unguja) portrays an idyllic Unguja beach community in the Zanzibar archipelago. All throughout, the community buzzes with activity: fishermen chatter after a long day at sea, crabs scuttle across the beach, children play freely, radios careen between stations, and, eventually, when the sun sets, flutes serenade fields of crickets. Impressões de uma Ilha (Unguja) is a tale of the tide, rising, then falling, then rising again, suggesting the passage of time in a place that we can only dream about. Even a trip to Zanzibar wouldn’t sound like this. (Todd B. Gruel)
15) Chris Corsano & Bill Orcutt ~ Brace Up! (Palilalia)
The sheer joy of playing is often lost in recording music. This lightning in a bottle can invigorate a live performance but somehow disappear from one side of the mixing desk to the other. So it’s particularly pleasing that Brace Up! connects directly to the listener with nothing in the way. The album is a first studio collaboration for Orcutt and Corsano made during their European tour in March. Playing the album at home puts you immediately in the audience, maybe not the stage-diver on the cover but one of the crowd below. Orcutt’s savage desert blues guitar is perfectly balanced by Corsano’s ferocious assault on his drum kit – one acts as a tether for the other so the music remains free but isn’t completely unrestrained. The duo’s own off-mic whoops and hollers are the perfect summation of the music – this captures the joy of creation. (Jeremy Bye)
16) The Vegetable Orchestra ~ Green Album (Transacoustic Research)
The Vegetable Orchestra may be the first roots band with ties to both a music tradition and ties, literally, to the ground. The group has been making music, exclusively with vegetables, spreading the gospel of edible instruments for 20 years and growing. A true fusion between modern classical compositions and West African folk, this band plays it all: bell pepper trumpets; leek violins; carrot kazoos; and more! And it’s dynamic; consider two tracks back to back: “Perfect Match” could almost be a Fraggle Rock rap battle gunning for Top 40, its pounding gourds ground helium vocals; the psychedelic “Fasern” rides a rock groove resembling Rafael Toral’s Space Quartet—like Toral’s music inventions, these instruments are also home-made, although The Vegetable Orchestra’s have the additional benefit of first being home-grown. Seeds not included. (Todd B. Gruel)
17) Jessica Moss ~ Entanglement (Constellation)
On her second album, Entanglement, violinist, composer, and singer Jessica Moss communed with the cosmos. Her compositions stretched and dilated in another, wider dimension than this one, existing in an ungraspable area of space. Her electronics met with the violin to produce balanced levels of awe and suspicion, radiating a sense of relentless space and a primal feeling of dread directed at that which we don’t understand. Everything developed at just the right time, even if it was initially unexpected. Fear of the unknown was to be expected, but Entanglement gazed at the stars in wonder. Moss sculpted her elements together in a (largely) non-threatening way. In creating a record of unbelievable size, scope, and density, while also conjuring up a beguiling, fascinating atmosphere, Entanglement showcased her maturity as a musician and placed her amongst the interstellar. (James Catchpole)
18) Institute of Landscape Architecture ~ Melting Landscapes
Melting Landscapes will intrigue even a devout global warming denier. Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture, Christophe Girot, and his team of staff and students, spent three years studying glacier melt in the Morteratsch region. Except, instead of collecting data, they collected sounds, dipping microphones into crevases, dunking them into ponds and rivers, and burrowing them under falling snow. The recordings are, quite frankly, sublime, part documentary and part sci-fi soundtrack for an apocalypse to come—if humans don’t take heed. The accompanying fine arts book captures the visual details with equally visceral black and white photography, every photo an intimate biography of Earth’s neglected history. The Institute of Landscape Architecture has created a moving tribute to a fleeting landscape which, if we global stewards are not careful, might not exist much longer. (Todd B. Gruel)
19) Manu Delago ~ Parasol Peak (One Little Indian)
While making picks for our specialty lists, we realized that Parasol Peak could have appeared on almost all of them: Best Winter Music, Best Packaging, Best Music Videos, Best Film Scores and The Happiest Music of the Year. Since it was already scheduled to appear on our list of The Year’s Best Modern Composition, we cut down on the other appearances a bit to give other artists some space! Parasol Peak was hard-earned on a stormy trip to the Alps, but the work paid off with an across-the-board triumph. It’s perfect for the season, makes a great gift, and inspires repeat views and plays. Smiles all around and hot chocolate for everyone. (Richard Allen)
20) bvdub ~ Drowning in Daylight (Apollo Records)
Drowning in Daylight was a dream cruise from San Francisco’s Brock Van Wey, aka bvdub. The musician’s debut on Apollo was a golden record where vocal enchantments and swirling ambient textures collided. Echoing all the time, the blurred vocals were caught up in a tropical ambient hurricane, its melodies dancing in the air like loose strands of hair blowing in a storm, lost in the gulf but found by the listener. The light, rhythmic motion of those beats forever swayed. The rhythms never outstayed their welcome, either, and the tracks were ocean-deep. Some of them segued halfway, transforming in the midst of their ambient gloop and blooming into an eternal chord progression. Beats became silent as the tsunami grew, only to drop once again, recalling his love of house in the track’s triggered breakdown, but doing it in proper ambient style, the whole harmonic web slowing down and becoming elasticated. Drowning in Daylight held a flood of emotions; it was a cathartic release and an invitation to explore deeper realms. (James Catchpole)