In my quest for simplicity, I often feel that a list of top 50, or even top 20 albums, is too much. As much as I loved the music released in 2018, such an extensive list of best albums of the year would inevitably include some filler. This year I don’t want any albums I didn’t intimately care about. I only want to include records that took hold of me and refused to let go, ensnaring me in their web of sound and changing me in the process.
This is the kind of music that makes such an impact that you become obsessive. You hum the music as you go through the day, meditate on the lyrics before you go to bed, and annoy all your friends by constantly telling them how great the record is. An album that hits you in such a personal place becomes like a constant companion, going beyond mere music to become a life guide. More than entertainment, ingesting great music can border on being a religious experience.
So for all the seekers out there, here’s my top 5:
- Chihei Hatakeyama – Afterimage
The guy’s got a formula, and it works. The prolific ambient artist has (so far) released 5 albums in 2018. Choose any of them and you’ll be able to sink into washes of ambient tones that might make you feel as if you’re floating in a hot tub or spending the day at an expensive spa. The Japanese artist has perfected the timbre of pure ambience, shedding off any semblance of melody or chordal structure in music that, after a while, seems to disappear completely. The title track on “Afterimage,” pushing twenty minutes, is the perfect way to lose yourself in his sounds.
- The Magic Lantern – To The Islands
This album could rest solely on the strength of its single “Holding Hands.” The first time I heard that song it was as if my heart exploded out of my chest. I wanted to fall to my knees and express the profundity of every heartbreak or longing I’ve ever felt. Such is the power of the emotionally vulnerable English singer The Magic Lantern, who expresses his deepest desires effortlessly and without guile on his album “To The Islands.”
Though folk pop is known for its emotional openness and sappy bent, not many out there do it as well as The Magic Lantern. His music makes you yearn for a simpler time, an era that perhaps only exists in song. The light, easy roll of songs like “Scattered Leaves” easily garners a smile, and when he turns inward and reflective, the grief and sadness feel as natural as a turn of the season.
- Big Red Machine – Big Red Machine
A new band with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner? Yes, please. Two musicians at the top of their craft collaborating sounds like one of the best ideas this year. The result didn’t work for some, but for fans like me, “Big Red Machine” served as a compelling culmination of the two artists’ most recent sound experiments.
Over a thick blanket of sound, Vernon delivers a flow somewhere between rapping and singing, discovering an almost primal voice in the process. His lyrics are as esoteric as we’ve come to expect, yet seem fitting inside the puzzle box production of the album. Many of the songs are nothing short of epic electro pop masterpieces, with shifting sections that fit together with ease and powerful choruses that dig deep into a smart, poetic sensibility.
- Beach House – 7
“7” is easily the headphone masterpiece of the year. Beach House pulls out all production stops here, inviting us into an immersive experience of sound that will leave you gasping for air. Oscillating between genre tropes effortlessly, the band truly transcends their own limitations on the album, moving beyond what dream pop or electronic music means to many and creating a world of their own.
Such songs as “Dive” and “L’Inconnue” are perfect testaments to the vision of Beach House. The songs wash over you, shifting and sliding almost imperceptibly at times, only for the veil of sound to be ripped away to reveal a whole new color to the sonic world. It has to be heard to be believed, which is why I recommend you inject “7” into your ears as soon as possible with a pair of headphones on.
- Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo
I found out about Khruangbin this year, and what a revelation it was. Having spent quite a bit of time the last few years digging into the back catalogs of funk and soul, I was delighted to find that a current band was busy reinterpreting the most obscure annals of funk into a fresh, new sound. Their single “Evan Finds the Third Room” made my body move in ways only the classics ever could, and from that moment I was hooked.
The whole album, “Con Todo El Mundo,” is a trip through intercontinental funk-tinged sounds, coursing through Thai, Middle Eastern, and Caribbean flavors. The result is a world voyage of music, curated with love and affection by a group of Texas musicians that could have stepped right out of a retro dreamworld of sounds. For a trip into that dreamworld, check out stellar grooves like “Friday Morning” and “A Hymn.”