Exclaim!'s Top 31 Albums of 2018 So Far
Published Jun 18, 2018
21. Hop Along
Bark Your Head Off, Dog
The going line about Philly indie folk-punk quartet Hop Along is that they're a band built around Frances Quinlan's uniquely ferocious voice. While the act's previous material easily fit that description, their fourth album, Bark Your Head Off, Dog, marks a compositional departure. These songs are Quinlan's most polished to date, and many of them shift gears and build to sugary codas when you least expect it — shaping themselves in a way that frames the storytelling rather than following it.
As a result, the controlled chaos of Quinlan's vocals is more restrained in the service of exceptionally precise, complexly produced songs. Often tightly wound in symbolism, Quinlan's lyrics create self-contained worlds that connect more broadly when they break into simple refrains. "I don't know why I'm so mean each time I come to visit," she confesses on "Somewhere a Judge." It's an intimate thought that feels universal in its hooky presentation — an emotional power the band nail throughout.
20. Jeremy Dutcher
There's literally nothing else out there like Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. On Jeremy Dutcher's debut album, the Indigenous opera singer has taken archival recordings of his ancestors singing traditional Wolastoqiyik songs and used them as the basis of new orchestral compositions. The original recordings are incorporated into the new recordings in myriad ways, often allowing Dutcher to duet with his ancestors, providing context as well as unique elements flawlessly integrated into the modern works. Dutcher's mission to reunite the Wolastoqiyik — and the world at large — with songs and language on the verge of extinction is flawlessly executed here.
Beautiful conceit aside, the songs stand on their own as rich neo-classical compositions, anchored by Dutcher's booming tenor. Rich with meaning and orchestral texture, they effectively incorporate elements of pop, jazz and opera. It's an educational and innovative debut that showcases Dutcher's powerful voice, both literally and figuratively.
19. Courtney Barnett
Tell Me How You Really Feel
(Mom + Pop)
Courtney Barnett's latest offering is quieter and more subdued than her earlier releases, but what it lacks in angsty venom, it more than makes up for in searing self-confidence.
Stylistically, Tell Me How You Really Feel is pretty diverse. The overarching aesthetic is Barnett's signature deadpan grunge, but individual tracks range from dark and brooding ("Help Your Self") to raucous and almost anthemic ("Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence").
With backing vocals provided by alt-rock royalty Kim and Kelley Deal, and an experienced band of extremely talented musicians playing the current world tour, this could be her biggest and most self-assured release yet.
Tell Me How You Really Feel manages to be both lyrically self-reflexive and subtly political. In one breath, she offers morbid life advice and self-help ("You know it's okay / To have a bad day") and in the next she fulminates against men's violence against women. In many ways, it feels like a collection of ballads for our troubled times.
18. Nils Frahm
While most albums can be called a labour of love, All Melody is a project that borders on obsession. Created in Frahm's custom-built studio in the historic Funkhaus — a 1950s-era recording complex in former East Berlin — All Melody is an intricate, at times sombre record that transforms into a study of atmosphere, of process.
From classical, meandering piano ballads to staccato compositions that transform into brass marimba halfway through, Frahm's album is a shape-shifting exploration of, well, all melody. Intimate and grandiose in equal measure, All Melody is the kind of album that allows listeners to delve a bit further into Frahm's impressive mind.
17. Kali Uchis
"Now I'm packing all my bags and I am leaving it behind," Kali Uchis croons on "Body Language," the brisk intro to her debut. It's the first of many escape attempts on Isolation — apt for a songwriter who refuses to be confined to one genre. From the retro-soul fatalism of "Flight 22" to the faux-carefree electro-pop of "In My Dreams," the Colombian-American singer and her talented roster of collaborators dart through an eclectic array of moods and styles.
This versatility could border on flightiness for other artists, but Uchis knows when to stand her ground. "Just a Stranger" and "Your Teeth In My Neck" are assertive R&B kiss-offs to those who seek to judge or profit from her, while "Miami" twists her mercurial streak into an empowering origin story. It can be tempting to play it safe in times of upheaval, but on Isolation, Uchis harnesses chaos to make something indelibly personal.
16. Arctic Monkeys
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
While writing the new Arctic Monkeys album, singer Alex Turner dubbed his makeshift basement studio the "Lunar Surface," after the conspiracy theory that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing. He took that theory and blasted off into his own celestial exploration — and apparently there's no garage-rock in space.
The result of that exercise is Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, a sprawling, mid-century lounge jazz space opera with lush production and a hint of classic Monkeys edge. The album is still rife with Turner's signature wit and snark, but it's packaged differently; at one point he sings "I launch a fragrance called Integrity, I sell the fact that I can't be bought."
Sonically, there's very little in the way of pummelling punk rock. Instead, the guitars are spacious and open. The reinvention is startling, maybe even alienating, but if you're open to an album of luxurious, lunar lounge, you'll dig Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.
Songs of Praise
South Londoners Shame released their debut record in January to critical acclaim; the collection of sharp-tongued post-punk presented them as a fully formed group.
Comprised of tracks the band honed during their years on the road, Songs of Praise balances social commentary with vigorous, insistent delivery. The band have a handle on balancing melody and abrasion, as evidenced on the glorious, riff-laden "Tasteless." Each member plays with a heightened awareness of the others; they know just when to unleash their full, heavy energy.
Vocalist Charlie Steen is a highly engaging lyricist, posing necessary questions such as "Do you detach from necessity and apply the act of greed?" on album highlight, "Friction." Elsewhere, the album's tender closer, "Angie," and the sleazy storytelling of "Gold Hole" explore the group's dynamic range. Shame are just getting started and have already set a high standard for themselves.
14. A.A.L (Against All Logic)
2012 - 2017
Mysteriously uploaded to the internet earlier this year under a pseudonym, 2012 – 2017 was a surprise release. But for those familiar with the work of Nicolas Jaar, it was also a surprising release.
The Chilean-American producer has mostly been focusing on heady experimental electronic for the last few years, but this collection of tracks, released under the name A.A.L (Against All Logic), is a celebration of old-school dance music, pulling together an avalanche of vintage soul, disco, house and R&B. Using a simple blueprint, while keeping rhythms buoyant and melodies repetitive, Jaar has released a left-field classic dance album that's nuanced and heady at the same time. Perhaps he should have adopted the moniker Against All Expectations.
(Third Man Records)
Put this in your pipe and smoke it: Sleep's first album in 14 years arrived this 4/20 without warning and without precedent. Not since Electric Wizard released Dopethrone has the awesome power of Black Sabbath-inspired stoner metal been cranked up to 11 like this. The rolling waves of mammoth distortion that propel songs like "The Botanist," "Giza Butler" and "Sonic Titan" sound less like music, and more like an extended experiment about whether or not Matt Pike's audio THC tone can cause tidal shifts.
The Sciences reaffirms Sleep's place at the very top of heavy rock's pantheon, despite the band now being in their mid-40s. It's enough to make you want to drop out of life (with bong in hand) all over again.
12. Royce 5'9"
Book of Ryan
With his breakneck cadence, dense wordplay and quiet confidence, it's a given that Royce 5'9" is one of the most technically proficient rappers of his time. But on his autobiographical Book of Ryan, Royce showcases true artistry in addition to skill.
Building on his triumphant album Layers, Royce blends lyrical prowess with cinematic storytelling to deliver an immersive and deeply courageous effort. He's a gifted narrator with a knack for maintaining balance: he explores his life's most painful moments without venturing into self-pity; he's candid about his challenges and inner demons, but puts as much care into highlighting his triumphs. That equilibrium keeps Book of Ryan honest, and distinguishes it from other artist's attempts at soul-baring. It's a defining work in Royce's stellar career, and one of 2018's best yet.
11. Car Seat Headrest
Back when Will Toledo was a teenage Bandcamp wunderkind, his no-fi 2011 album Twin Fantasy became a cult fave. Now with a full band and access to professional studios, he's rerecorded the entire thing and given these towering songs the touch-ups they deserve.
The arrangements are epic and ambitious, consisting of suites that sometimes sprawl well past the ten-minute mark, but the economical, guitar-focused instrumentation keeps them from ever sounding fussy. With lyrics that document a fraught relationship (and are apparently based on true events), it all adds up to over 70 minutes of poignant longing and glorious hooks. Seven years since these songs were first written, they sound as urgent as ever.