50 Best Albums of 2018

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30. Jay Glass Dubs – Plegnic

Jay Glass Dubs was one of my favorite discoveries in 2018. Not only is his take on dub techno uniquely refreshing; his output is so prolific that I had a ton of music to explore all year. Still, Plegnic easily stood head and shoulders above the rest and became a staple in my headphones over the fall. His take on the genre deconstructs both traditional Jamaican dub sounds and Laïko, the popular music of his home country, Greece, rebuilding it seemingly atom-by-atom into shifting musique concrete floor stompers. Think dance music that bends your mind as much as your body – my first shallow thought upon hearing this was “Aphex doing dub!” but that doesn’t remotely do it justice. In a genre so often rigidly defined, Jay Glass Dubs is making boldly outsider music that’s as catchy as it is weird.

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29. E Ruscha V – Who Are You

Celestial music box experience here: all radiant colors and pillowy synths and low-key earworm melodies mixing in unexpected, warmly experimental fashion. Eddie Ruscha, formerly Secret Circuit, Future Pigeon, and Medicine band member – and son of visual artist Ed Ruscha – has been working in the industry for decades but never appeared on my radar until his collaborative single with exotic pop jazz duo Woo caught my attention early this year. That little weirdo gem led to this kaleidoscopic dream, where I instantly fell in love. Cozy balearic atmospheres and sun-kissed, wordless vocal harmonies float with analog synth tones and quietly majestic percussion across these 35 minutes, blurring the line between musical daydream and spiritual quest. This is the perfect next listen for those into CFCF, Mark Barrott, Suzanne Kraft, basically anyone who’s been featured on International Feel, and well, people like me who still fondly remember the perfect little Air France releases over a decade ago.

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28. Terekke – Improvisational Loops

Terekke was already on my radar thanks to a string of unique techno releases over the past few years, but his casually-titled ambient release on Music From Memory instantly put him in the pantheon of producers to watch like a hawk. This is pure cyberpunk bliss music, the likes of which I’ve never really heard. The closest analogs, especially to its twenty minute centerpiece track “Nuwav2,” would have to be early Dream Catalogue highlights like HKE’s incredible HK or one of my all-time favorite ambient records, 2814’s 新しい日の誕生 (Birth of a New Day). The ingredients here are simple, but as with all great ambient music, it’s all about the balance and space and atmosphere and a hundred other seemingly small aspects that mean the whole world to stretched out sounds like this. Within these tracks I pick up the neon, downcast vibes of Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, sure – but I’m also feeling warmth and softness and vulnerability, traits often seen as too feminine for the cool latent machismo of cyberpunk aesthetics. I pick up a deep understanding of the craft, something many artists lack when moving to ambient music for the first time. I know he’ll continue to put out great records no matter what genre, but I hope Terekke continues with this sound too. There’s so much potential blooming from this merely 36 minute album, it feels like it could go on forever.

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27. Pusha T – Daytona

I hate the album cover and I hate that Kanye decided it was a good idea at the last minute and I hate the fact that Kanye’s flirtation with the fascism crowd has me ignoring his own usually-very-interesting music… but I cannot deny the masterful explosion of talent here. Pusha T goes harder than he’s gone since his former duo Clipse dropped Hell Hath No Fury in 2005. With a brief but furious running time of 21 minutes, this set packs in more breathtaking lyrical twists and surprising production flourishes than most full length bloated rap albums. Sure, he’s still blasting about coke and cars and shit, but he does it so well, with so much style and hot energy that the lyrical subject is beside the point. This is the album he’s been building toward his whole career – and the short length only leaves me hungry for more.

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26. Shackleton – Furnace of Guts

Sam Shackleton returns with a pair of hard hitting tracks that add a few new colors and further flesh out his post-apocalyptic dub-industrial sound with a renewed focus on exotic percussion and bright, spacey atmospheres. He hasn’t felt this urgent, this flat-out fun since the Freezing Opening Thawing 12″ back in 2014, itself another brief excursion between lengthier collaborative full-length albums. Sure, there are no byzantine multi-track suites here or doom-cult prophecies from Vengeance Tenfold, but in the space of less than twenty minutes, we’re taken through an extraterrestrial rainforest of alien micro-biomes, living machinery, and sentient vapor. We’re thrown through the sensory ringer, all xenomorphic edges of this sound rendered in startling high def clarity. So yeah, it’s a Shackleton release. But it’s probably the best entry point he’s made in years.

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25. Mark Barrott – Nature Sounds of the Balearics

Mark Barrott has been broadcasting his stunning balearic magic from the warm little center of a whole musical universe that I love for the past half-decade. As owner of the International Feel label, he’s helped release music by Scott Gilmore, CFCF, Wolf Muller & Cass, Len Leise, José Padilla, and so many others who have become low-key favorites of mine. Suffice it to say that new releases from the man himself are legitimate events in my musical life. Nature Sounds of the Balearics is his first full length since I’ve become a fan and it’s his most mature, carefully rendered output yet. The natural, new age, communing-with-the-rainforest vibe is in full effect, but so is his command of left-field techno vibes, to the extent that this album works perfectly in both contexts – or neither. It’s a set I’ve been able to play with friends who aren’t into techno, with its warm textures and live-action mood, all hot and humid and far from the sterile cyberpunk dance floors conjured by much of my favorite music in the genre. It’s also more vibrant, more catchy and alive than much of the bird-sampling new age I relax to at home. The whole family digs it! Personally, I just dig how upfront he is about the music here, using a title like that. Accordingly, it feels like the definitive statement on balearic sound right now.

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24. Khotin – Beautiful You

Here’s what I said to a friend when I discovered Khotin’s Beautiful You earlier this year:

“Okay, so it’s like if Oneohtrix Point Never continued on with his atmospheric synth sound from Rifts and instead of getting weirder and more conceptual just started making really warm, heartfelt, openly melodic music with those same eerie, extraterrestrial, eternally trippy synth tones.”

While it’s super reductive, it’s also pretty spot on. This album tickles my brain in the same places that were first charted by OPN a decade ago; the big difference is that Khotin cozies right up to sentimental melody and inviting ambient pads. This the perfect balm for the older fans who miss that early work, mostly crafted on the legendary Juno-60. He slides right into this musical gap where the avant garde has left behind a perfectly beautiful set of tools, ripe for fashioning more accessible music if one is so inclined. Even better, he drops in loads of wiggly, live-action synth soloing, all under the radar and flowing perfectly within the 32-bit era architecture of sound. It’s the most unpredictable and engrossing ambient document crafted all year, a truly timeless freefall through  memory and good vibes.

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23. Laurel Halo – Raw Silk Uncut Wood

Laurel Halo goes jazz.

But it’s not really jazz. This meditative, relatively brief set runs intuitively, melting from moment to moment in the warm embrace of groove meditation. There are no single standout moments; only a continuous wash of enigmatic beauty from end to end. Raw Silk Uncut Wood is an undeniably organic, cinematic, naturalistic slice of sound, built from the ground up as a trio, with cello work by Oliver Coates and percussion by Oneohtrix Point Never collaborator Eli Keszler.

This set was inspired by famed sci-fi author Ursula Le Guin’s translation of the Tao Te Ching: “What works reliably is to know the raw silk, hold the uncut wood. Need little. Want less. Forget the rules. Be untroubled.” Accordingly, the abstract music here shrugs off definition and encourages close, intimate listening to pick out those human elements, the tactile bits that reveal the humanity inside this river of sound.

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22. Gang Gang Dance – Kazuashita

Seven long years have passed since the last Gang Gang Dance album. Eight years since I saw them live at a tiny venue in Brooklyn, one of the best shows of my life. Sure, I listen to Eye Contact every once in a while because it’s an astonishing, unclassifiable album that tags so many of my various musical pleasure points – but beyond that, GGD as an entity had pretty much faded from the present tense.

And then suddenly they roar back into my life with an album picking up exactly where they left off, taking the crystalline dub psychedelia of their prior release and updating it for 2018, with a very lived-in, world-weary point of view nestled into the gorgeous, bass-flexing histrionics. Singer Lizzi Bougatsos’ post-verbal siren call is still the center of this gorgeous storm, cutting through the electronic hum, the searing guitar squalls, but her questing energy is matched by the entire band this time. This is exultant music. This is worship music for the planet itself. This is all my childhood Captain Planet daydreams stretched into their rawest shapes and colors, all the corniness drained out in favor of celestial dance vibes. The environmental flavor is made explicit during the ending of J-TREE, the first single and first real song on the album. The song mellows for a moment and we hear a recording from the Standing Rock protests, where native people were trying to defend their land against the forces of late capitalism and big oil. We hear Shiyé Bidzííl explaining the protests, their energy, their heart, and we hear the shaking anger at what moneyed interests are doing to his world. Then suddenly, as Bougatsos says, “there was this amazing moment when the buffalo showed up, a whole stampede of buffalo, and it just made me cry.” On the recording it feels like something out of Princess Mononoke – the natural world roaring up in triumph against the horrors of humanity – and the hairs on my neck raise every time I hear it. There was nothing like Gang Gang Dance a decade ago and now that they’ve returned after so long, there’s still nothing like them. This album shows me what we were missing in the meantime.

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21. Kuniyuki Takahashi + Call Super – The Call Super Mixes

Yes, this is a seventeen minute pair of remixes, and yes it’s one of the best albums of 2018. The intersection of Kuniyuki Takahashi and Call Super feels especially poignant right now, sliding right through the dead center my own personal zeitgest. While the latter dropped the #1 album of 2017, the former has infiltrated much of my musical world in 2018 through a pair of reissue albums courtesy of time traveling label Music From Memory. Call Super has become one of the most interesting techno producers on earth, bringing equal measures of tactile sensuality and warmly accessible experimentation to ears all around the world. Takahashi has seen interest in his career reinvigorated by the Early Tape Works 1986-1993 Vol.1 and Vol.2 releases, showcasing his early mastery of the psychedelic explorations of synth composition, a genreless embryonic spread of sound that acts as precursor to his wildly jazzy approach to deep house in the same way that Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92 signaled his future rise as an IDM superstar.

When these two meet on record, there’s palpable magic in the air, reverberating through every note, every synth wash, every beat of this compact, violently creative set. To be honest, I can’t really handle what’s happening here. In under twenty minutes, Call Super has transformed a pair of the Japanese producer’s tracks into towering balearic techno juggernauts. Blasting into the future, into fond memories of lazy beach days, into the unknown night ahead and the stars above, each of these pieces unfolds into something far larger than their brief runtime should possibly contain. There are so many bold ideas crossing and mixing here, I won’t try to name or describe them at all. Just know that these two songs were probably played more in the burgeoning winter of 2018 than anything else I’ve heard all year.

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

6 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!

      Like

  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.

    Like

  3. Thank you so much for taking the time to compile this list. Some great new discoveries here. Susso Seki Singh and Kaoru Inoue are both revelations!

    Like

  4. Pingback: ZONE [mixtape] | Optimistic Underground

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