50 Best Albums of 2018

•  •  •

20. Shinichi Atobe – Heat

Shinichi Atobe dropped a singular dub techno document called Ship-Scope on the Chain Reaction label near the end of its legendary run, then disappeared for over a decade. The elusive Japanese producer remained out of the public eye until none other than Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker of Demdike Stare sought him out and got him to release Butterfly Effect, a collection of tracks made across those lost years that ended up being one of the 32 best dub techno albums ever made. He’s since worked steadily, dropping projects mostly composed of pre-hiatus tracks, extrapolated and polished into new albums, but this is his first time out with a completely new set of tracks – and the crazy thing is, it’s probably his best work yet. Moving beyond the past has freed him from his old sonic toolbox; here we see the outer edges of deep house and Detroit techno, riding a spiritual wind through more spacious, welcoming production. The cover image of an old car parked on an empty beach is pretty spot-on. While Heat isn’t always warm – occasionally dipping into gelid landscapes between reverb-laden piano strikes and icy drum stabs in its midsection – it does always feel alive, pulsating with a sense of adventure on a grand scale. These lengthy tracks often have as much in common with DJ Sprinkles’ dancefloor elegies as they do with the aquatic explorations of Drexciya, which is a sweet spot I never knew existed, or that I needed it in my life.

•  •  •

19. Arp – ZEBRA

Arp, aka Alexis Georgopoulos, has been producing records for over a decade now, zooming from Tangerine Dream-inspired synth landscapes through Eno style ambient rock and spacey Durutti Column guitar sounds, but with ZEBRA he’s overshot every genre signpost and arrived somewhere all his own. Sure there are neighbors, including the balearic techno of Mark Barrott and the exotic timbres of fourth-world jazz giant Jon Hassell, but Arp has truly built something out in the middle of nowhere with his collaborative latest album.

This is a truly naturalistic set, easily read as a band effort rather than a solo project, if one shows up uninitiated. Hand percussion, rubbery bass work, and vintage synth patches all contribute to a more live-action feel, albeit one that seems beamed in from a parallel dimension where the evolution of these sounds coalesced rather than diverged. ZEBRA is perfect for listeners who have grown tired of the membranes separating shaggy psychedelia, cosmic jazz, Berlin-school minimalism, and atmospheric drum and bass, happy to mix and match the best aspects of these sounds without even a glance toward tradition or expectation.

•  •  •

18. Deena Abdelwahed – Khonnar

There’s a seductive energy here that places Khonnar in the realm of artists like Coil, Muslimgauze, and Shackleton – it’s the buzz and danger of industrial noise, the reassuring thump of cyberpunk techno, and the confident pairing of politics and philosophy with dance music, an inherently difficult format for expressing concrete ideas, especially in one’s debut album.

I think that the label writeup on her Bandcamp page says it better than I could, since I only fell in love with her music a couple weeks ago:

Pronounced “Ronnar“ (an essential detail so as to avoid facile misinterpretation by French- speakers) it is a term that makes the most of Tunisia’s cultural and linguistic spectrum. It evokes the dark, shameful and disturbing side of things, the one we usually seek to hide, but which Deena instead sticks our noses in with her debut. It is a testament to Deena’s coming into her own as a world citizen, and as an artist. A self-construction made of frustrations and constraints, borne of retrograde mindsets, which are not the prerogative of either the East or the West, and which she tirelessly strives to expose and break. 

Throughout the 45 minutes of “Khonnar“, Deena breaks down the codes of bass, techno and experimental music, and writes the manifesto for a generation that does not seek to please or to conform, taking back control of its identity – with all the attendant losses and chaos. A new creative world order is taking shape, a new tilting point between north and south, the response of a connected and liberated youth who takes the control of the new decolonization.

•  •  •

17. A.A.L. – 2012 – 2017

This is, simply put, one of the wildest, most vibrant, freewheeling psychedelic house albums released since The Avalanches’ era-defining Since I Left You in 2000. Sure, there’s a bit of unearned ‘classic-adjacent’ feel to a lot of these songs, crafted in secret by Nicolas Jaar to throw into his live sets as if they were alternate reality house anthems, but the truth is that they feel so good because they are so good. This compilation of tracks made over half a decade is arranged and mixed so well that it feels at first blush like a true blue deep house album, maybe a distant cousin to Theo Parrish’s First Floor or Moodymann’s Silentintroduction. It’s got that same hot-pavement-in-the-summer vibe, the one that The Avalanches chewed up and shredded into a million kaleidoscopic pieces eighteen years ago, and it feels lived in and alive.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s frivolous, but it’s some of the best, most carefully crafted, deeply soulful frivolity I’ve heard all year.

•  •  •

16. Dedekind Cut – Tahoe

Because I think I said it well back at the beginning of the year I’ll paste an excerpt here from my review of Tahoe:

…This feeling of instinctive dream logic informs the entire album, permeating its billowing ambient float, its blurred synth washes, its panoramic expanse, and its sumptuous level of micro-detail upon close examination. The deeper I peer into this siren abyss, the more I find: an infinite zoom into galaxies, solar systems, planets, cities, homes, people, organs, cells, molecules, atoms, and the perceptual space between them. Individual songs unfold along their own hazily recognizable arcs, more poetic drift than traditionally powered song structure.

I’m reminded of Roger Ebert’s appraisal of Werner Herzog’s hypnotic masterpiece Aguirre The Wrath of God: “He does not want to tell a plotted story or record amusing dialog; he wants to lift us up into realms of wonder.” Similarly, Dedekind Cut has crafted an ambient experience designed not to sooth and comfort, but to enlighten and elevate. He brings us through uncomfortably dark realms – spaces only waiting to be lit by the presence of a new explorer, a new observer – in the warmest vessel possible. At times, Tahoe feels like a mourning for a lost sense of the shared world. At times, it feels like an attempt to move on, swelling with romantic yearning for wordless wonder.

There’s a lot more to it, but this glances right at the core of the album, what makes it so magical even now, at the end of the year, with months of other amazing music released in the interim.

•  •  •

15. How To Dress Well – The Anteroom

I’ve enjoyed Tom Krell’s work as How To Dress Well from his first ghostly r&b transmissions on up through his more traditionally produced but emotionally raw recent albums, but was fully unprepared for the radical transformation he made with The Anteroom. Folding in noisy techno and expansive synthscapes, amorphous song structures and ideological exploration, this sprawling release finds Krell tearing the metaphysical world asunder with all the love and yearning and sadness and anger he can muster. Anchored by a handful of tunes with solid 4/4 beats and catchy-but-obscured vocals, the vast expanse of sound here is equal parts psychedelic planetary death and spiritual r&b exultation. It’s weird, it’s abrasive, it’s bewildering, it’s so heartfelt it hurts.

•  •  •

14. Joseph Shabason – Anne

Joseph Shabason has returned just one year after his best of 2017 debut Aytche with an album that’s more emotionally resonant, structurally cohesive, and daringly personal. It’s also more overtly ambient and amorphous, dissolving his fourth-world jazz influences into something altogether more intangible and satisfying.

Shabason calls it a tonal essay on degenerative illness. Anne is embedded with disembodied interviews with his dying mother, who gave the album its name. These spoken vocals float in and out of the mix, intimately revealing her tragic struggle with Parkinson’s and her thoughts on life, death, raising Joseph, her own upbringing, and how mortality refocuses personal ideas about identity and love. Shabason navigates these heavy emotions and biographic reflections in the same way he soars between genres and recognizable sound worlds. Darkly, warmly, beautifully, with a deep balance of melancholy and wonder at its core.

While the subject matter is heavy, the music itself is a dream to experience, especially by the time you get to penultimate track “November,” in which ambient god Gigi Masin adds a soothing melodic counterpoint with his signature electric, spiritually uplifting chords. It’s a burst of sunlight at the end of a long pre-dawn battle of the soul.

•  •  •

13. Oneohtrix Point Never – Age Of

Listening to Age Of feels like what I imagine Philip K Dick felt when he was zapped by that pink laser beam from space on February 20, 1974, when his mind was filled with arcane and weirdly, specifically beneficial knowledge. Sure, this supposed incident inspired the writing of his magnum opus, Valis, but more importantly for Dick himself, it provided a clue which led him to save the life of his own son. On that day, he was suddenly struck with the knowledge that his son  had an underlying illness in his brain that doctors had missed, and he was able to convince them to check in one exact place – and he was right. This brain scrambling experience that may have been a neurological fuckup was the origin point for both freewheeling creativity and a concrete, life-saving idea.

Similarly, to listen to Age Of is to experience Oneohtrix Point Never detonating the very molecular fabric of pop music and building something in the uncanny valley with the leftovers. Guitar here, vocals there, and the ghost of a children’s cartoon theme song somewhere in between, it’s his most accessible album yet – while remaining defiantly out of reach for those seeking easy pleasures in music. He subverts every expected moment, rips up moments of passive beauty with violent noise, and pushes into radically fresh territory at every opportunity. Most of all, he remembers to keep things FUN.

•  •  •

12. Varg – Crush

There’s a song on this album called “Love Economy / Anti Police Music” and it’s incredible and I think that’s important to know.

Varg has made the most deeply sincere and emotionally open techno album of the year with Crush, meant to evoke the “chemical freefall” that comes with falling in love. But it’s not your typical romantic sound. Instead, he meshes neon noir atmospheres with cavernous, submerged bass tones and crystalline synth structures. It’s all dark, but cinematically dark, cool as a cucumber despite its wide open heart and aggressive energy. This is deep, noisy techno for heads who appreciate ambient journeys as much as skull-crushing, industrial-tinted production design. Those into Burial, Sandwell District, and pretty much anything on the 32 best dub techno albums list need to jump on this right away. Varg might be a Swedish techno hero, but he’s still not nearly appreciated enough.

•  •  •

11. Leon Vynehall – Nothing Is Still

It’s crazy to think that this is the official debut album of Leon Vynehall, an English artist who’s been crafting dreamlike deep house music for years now, including the transcendent “Midnight on Rainbow Road” single that worked as a centerpiece to last year’s Deep Future mixtape. Despite the wealth of material he’s dropped so far, Nothing Is Still feels instantly like the definitive statement he’d been building towards. Moving beyond deep house, beyond dance genre conventions in general, he shot right into rarefied air way above anything I expected from an artist I was already really into.

His dance production skills are sharper than ever, yet this time they’re used to shape a suite of songs that feels more akin to 20th century minimalist masterpieces like Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air or Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi score. Field recordings of cities, sidewalks, background chatter, and old phone calls transport us into the past, part of Vynehall’s intention of dedication to the immigration experience of his grandparents in the last century. So it’s an autobiographical album on its face, but the subtext, the palette he uses, the sheer ambition of this creation tells us a lot more.

It’s a serious album, sure, but it’s never not fun. Every moment is packed with hyperspecific production details that draw in the ear, micro pieces of a grand arc that is delicately erupting with live action strings, woodwinds, and piano courtesy of a ten-piece string section and other session players, woven together with utopian future jazz production. It bumps, it beats, it soars and dips and weaves and, more than anything else I heard this year, felt like an entire feature film experience on record. This is beyond cinematic.

•  •  •

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.