50 Best Albums of 2018

•  •  •

40. Susso Seki Singh – Orange Sunshine

This might be the most under-known album on the entire list. I’ve been pushing this album on friends ever since it crept into my weekly rotation in early summer. Orange Sunshine is the first album from a global trio composed of Jally Kebba Susso on the kora, Andrea Seki on harp, and Kiranpal Singh on santoor – with producer Youth behind the production boards, connecting this transcontinental triangle with light electronics and atmospheric glue. At its most basic, this is a set of modern minimalism inspired tracks that feel like a natural descendant of twentieth century explorations by Steve Reich, Midori Takada, Hiroshi Yoshimura, and even synth pioneer Pauline Anna Strom. But the effect upon listening to this alone in the dark is frankly magical. The music here, blending instruments, artists, and styles from three wildly different traditions, somehow comes together in a truly pan-global hypnotic fashion. Subtle melodic drift, shimmering arpeggios, and haunted reverb propel the music into ecstatic flights across the entire album. It’s not for everyone, but it is the exact perfect thing for some of you. Don’t sleep on it.

•  •  •

39. Kaoru Inoue – Em Paz

Em Paz is mystical, genre-agnostic music that floats between ambient, Japanese classical, spiritual jazz, always just out of reach and unable to pin to any time period. While this stylistic freedom blooms in 2018, the sounds here casually shrug off any chronological markers. This is gorgeous, heart pumping work from an electronic music veteran more known for his beat-centric creations than anything so dreamy, so searching. It’ll find a home next to albums by Kuniyuki Takahashi, Midori Takada, or even jazzy, balearic tinted artists like Arp and Mark Barrott.

I really like the short, likely Google-translated description on the album’s release page, so I’m just going to paste that here:

A celestial ambient collection that will drive us through a beautiful imaginary place where the quest for peace is central. In fact, all kinds of peace. “Em Paz” will spontaneously make you seek for some Brian Eno, Jon Hassell or celebrated japanese ambient albums because it emerges from that same timeless place. A very strong conceptual and listening album from the beginning to the very end.

•  •  •

38. Félicia Atkinson – Coyotes

Félicia Atkinson is a French composer, sculptor, painter, and poet who came to my attention via her collaborations with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma over the past couple years. Paired up, she teased out the inherent experimental nature of his guitar work, which gave me the impression that her solo work just might be even further out there than his own. I was right!

Following a “fruitful run of eerily blissful, serenely euphoric sounds,” this compact release, composed of two freeform fifteen minute pieces, brings to life Atkinson’s inspiration from a voyage to New Mexico last year. Taking in some of the same vistas that inspired Georgia O’Keefe and Agnes Martin, she was struck with a deep recognition of the necessity of conservation of these natural spaces. She wanted to create Coyotes as a “Carnet de Voyage,” a tape meant for imaginary road trips, sentimental journeys to these threatened, final places on the planet.

The music itself is a mystical, loosely experimental cloud of buzzy piano, midi warbles, marimbas, organ, bells, and electronic bass thump, shot through with elliptical spoken poetry. Listening on loop feels like watching detached, context-free moments from great nature documentaries, all flashes of beauty and strangeness, connected only by an ambiguous, unnamed tension. It feels sacred and sad, portentous and elegaic. It feels essential.

•  •  •

37. Rival Consoles – Persona

I like this quote from Rival Consoles, aka Ryan Lee West, as he was explaining his new album Persona: “Like Legowelt once said ‘a synthesiser is like a translator for unknown emotions,’ which I think sums up what I am trying to do. I think all these emotions we have make up our persona. So in a way by finding new ones you alter or expand your persona. And that is what I want my music to try to do. I deliberately aimed to be more sonically diverse with this record. I wanted to experiment more. I wanted to create new sounds and new emotions.” It’s very open, plainly spoken, and straightforward in a way many purposely-mysterious electronic producers are not. It explains the appeal of this album quite handily, too.

Persona was named after the enigmatic Bergman film about identity itself, and the cascading synth shards and nocturnal dynamic shifts play it out. The production across this wordlessly narrative album combines analog synthesizers, acoustic and electric live instrumentation, and – most endearing to my tastes – a massive amount of effects pedals that’d make any shoegaze band blush. This is lush, adventurous, architecturally minded electronic music that harkens back, in spirit at least, to the best 1990s IDM records, freely mixing the avant and the booty-shaking ends of music to unabashedly fun effect.

•  •  •

36. Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth

After debuting with a three disc, three hour album literally called The Epic back in 2015, Kamasi Washington became an instant star, a beacon for those all to eager to see jazz re-enter the limelight of pop culture. Of course, a lot of these folks were under the impression that jazz had died and was in fact being resurrected – when the truth is that it simply evolved and grew with time, and it didn’t look like it did in its 1970s heyday, when Joe Henderson and Alice Coltrane and Don Cherry and Sonny Sharrock and Pharoah Sanders and dozens of other superstars were making fusion, spiritual, and free jazz epics on the seeming regular. So when this guy comes along with a fifteen piece band informed by hip-hop swing and post-Miles Davis funk, the casual jazz world understandably fell to its knees in awe. Here was the real deal!

Once the honeymoon phase wore off, I saw a lot of folks going “you know, he isn’t really doing anything new,” or “he’s not actually free jazz,” as if Washington ever even made these claims. Sidestepping the too-quickly-built mythology around him, he relentlessly toured over the next few years, dropping only the brief Harmony of Difference EP in the meantime while apparently marshaling his forces in the background. Because instead of ratcheting down the ambition, his second album is another absolute monster: two-and-a-half hours (over three if you count the bonus disc The Choice, hidden inside the physical packaging on the vinyl and CD editions) of spacey, funky, cinematically-focused jazz produced with the most lush attention to detail. The detractors were right about the fact that he’s not bringing anything truly new to the jazz world; their problem is that this fact is entirely beside the point.

What Kamasi Washington does, that no one else is doing right now, is bring a grand, blockbuster presentation to a genre that was – at least to mainstream audiences – on life support for the past few decades. He’s bringing in hip-hop heads with his focus on rhythm and bass, he’s got psychedelic explorers hitting repeat for more of the syrupy string-drenched choral adventures that regularly soar past ten minutes, and he’s got the balls to put this all out in a format that streaming corporations are trying to convince us is dead. The music here is a big refinement of the formula he busted out the gates with a few years back, with sharper focus on the funk, the blissed-out soloing, and the galactic scale of it all. Just click play below and try not to nod along.

•  •  •

35. Jenny Hval – The Long Sleep

I’m just going to post the spoken lyrics to the final track:

What am I doing here? Am I communicating? Am I promoting? 

I just want to tell you something. 

There should be something I could tell you, there should be something I could do to reach you directly, but there is nothing useful in the way we define “you”, or “me”. There should be something I could tell you, there should be something I could say directly without lyrics and melody. 

Maybe that’s what I’m trying here. Something else than lyrics or melody. It’s not the words. It’s not in the rhythm. It’s not in the streaming. It’s not in the “message”. It’s not in the product. It’s not in the algorithms. It’s not something you decided. It’s not something they decided for you. 

I want to tell you something. I just want to say: Thank you. I love you.

•  •  •

34. Yo La Tengo – There’s a Riot Going On

Yo La Tengo are well into their third decade as a band and shouldn’t be offering up any surprises at this point. Even for a band that’s crafted everything from noise punk to undersea avant jazz, there’s been a gentle reassurance for the past several albums that you’re going to get a refinement of the experiments that came before, with little stylistic flourishes and production tricks to keep the texture interesting. There’s a gentle reassurance that you’re getting a set of music composed by a trio with so much love and affection for each other and their craft, and it comes through in the lyrics and warm arcs of their songs. This time around, that gentle reassurance instead comes in the form of the music itself. They’ve taken the latent shoegaze influence and hushed reverence of their deepest tunes and buffed it into a cloudlike haze. But instead of dream pop, they’ve made ambient rock. There’s a Riot Going On is a soothing balm for those of us caught up in the pain of the world at large – an image provoked by the album title, itself sourced from Sly Stone’s 1971 angry funk rock masterpiece. Rather than confronting the darkness of their time like the album’s namesake, Yo La Tengo are just trying to help us get through our day.

•  •  •

33. The Field – Infinite Moment

There are no surprises here for fans of The Field, but there are endlessly looping pleasures to revel in. This is yet another refinement of the Swedish producer’s signature micro-detailed techno sound, as expansive and heady as it is meticulously crafted for maximum emotional payoff. Axel Willner established his blueprint with his first album over a decade ago and has barely deviated across six major releases since, but within that seemingly narrow band of sound, he’s conjured and fully explored entire worlds. This is starfield-crossing intergalactic shit that I blast in the car on solo drives, in headphones when I’m working late alone, and most especially on long walks at night. There’s a lot of room to question existence in here, or just ponder the intricacies of the multitudinous layers happening at any given second in this massive slab of music, and like all prior Field albums, it’s all too easy to hit repeat and loop back for more.

•  •  •

32. Cupcakke – Ephorize

When I first heard this album back in January, I must have been sick or hungover or something, because I ended up ignoring Cupcakke all year. Which was a huge mistake, because she’s fantastic. When I revisited Ephorize last week, I was instantly smitten with her; it takes only a moment to realize why. This is one of those times where I can just feel the explosive energy, that raw hunger, that fight in a new artist. This energy just electrifies everything about the album, the way her cadence meshes perfectly with most of the production – itself surprisingly electro-cohesive despite a roster of producers. But most of all, this energy erupts in huge grins and outright laughing when I hear her wildly creative, sex-positive, emotionally direct, hilarious, and utterly fearless delivery. With every listen, I’m astounded by another lyrical twist or layered joke, or the way she’s got more (and far more creative) euphemisms for genitals than I’ve ever heard from any rapper before. Her verbal dexterity is matched by her uniformly clever, catchy, deeply funny writing on almost every track, and the few times she goes maudlin or strikes an off tone, her earnest enthusiasm carries us onto the next linguistic gem. Nearly every track is cartoonishly sexual, and she makes it work so hard it’s unbelievable – there’s no separating the form from the content, or Cupcakke from her outrageous, meticulously crafted persona. I grew up on any and every parental advisory tape and CD I could get my hands on, way before I should have, and some of these tunes still manage to make me blush like a kid and giggle at the sheer audacity and raw talent on display.

•  •  •

31. Kyle Bobby Dunn / Wayne Robert Thomas – KBD/WRT

The two tracks on this split LP make a convincing case for the power of sustained ambient drone in the year 2018. They form a kind of tidal system, two complementary shapes ebbing and flowing into each other, on a loop forever if you let them. These immense tracks feel like entire ecosystems unto themselves, a pair of twin worlds orbiting each other in the limitless ambient drone space. It’s perfect for getting lost in, without the vast time commitment of an album like Dunn’s last full length, the two-hour Kyle Bobby Dunn and the Infinite Sadness.

This is the kind of pure ambient music that subsumes the listener through apparent stillness, so overwhelming in its singular focus. Think minimalists like Gavin Bryars and LaMonte Young; think drone forebears like Stars of the Lid and William Basinski. You’re on the right track.

For a lot more background and thoughts on this release, see the review.

•  •  •

50-41  |  40-31  |  30-21  |  20-11  |  10-1

12 thoughts on “50 Best Albums of 2018

  1. You know, I don’t read your blog too often, but I come here every year without fail for this list. It’s always turns me onto so much great stuff that I missed throughout the year. Thank you so much for your efforts – An old last.fm buddy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting, this is really encouraging! It’s exactly why I make these lists. Becoming a father and all that life stuff means I don’t get to write as often but I make sure to collect all this great music because it deserves to be heard and I just want to connect people with music they’ll love. I hope you find some great stuff this time around too!


  2. Like someone else said in this comment section, i come here every year since i found this blog to check your best albums list. Tons of underrated stuff here. Thanks for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: ZONE [mixtape] | Optimistic Underground

  4. Pingback: 50 Best Albums of 2019 | Optimistic Underground

  5. Pingback: 20 Best Ambient Albums of 2019 | Optimistic Underground

  6. Pingback: Best Techno of 2019 | Optimistic Underground

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.