Wow, 2018 has been great for music! From drones to clangs to lush electronics, here’s our annual review of the albums that have kept us coming back for more throughout the year.
17. Adrian Utley & Will Gregory – Arcadia
A wonderful slice of modern hauntology from the Portishead chap and the Moog maestro, with burbling, woozy synths recalling the best of Italian horror, library music and BBC Schoold weirdness, topped off with a hazy brace of heavily-manipulated traditional arrangements sung by folk legend Anne Briggs.
16. Poppy Ackroyd – Resolve
What you might call “modern composition” for want of a better name is definitely having its moment, with a number of excellent artists following in the footsteps of Max Richter and Nils Frahm and expanding their palettes. Poppy Ackroyd’s latest is one of the best examples this year, with a beautifully lush range of sounds and moods.
15. Daniel Avery – Song For Alpha
The 90s called, and they brought some high-end retro electronica with them. Song For Alpha channels prime Aphex, old-school LFO and even Jeff Mills-ish techno vibes into this pleasingly fluid collection. Twist that resonance knob! Get those open hi-hats going!
14. Less Bells – Solifuge
One of the loveliest ambient albums of the year from violinist Julie Carpenter, who blends reverb-soaked string lines with subtle electronics, modular synths, organic instruments and vocal manipulations, this is a rich and nourishing essential for fans of A Winged Victory For The Sullen. Check out the pulses, swells and gentle xylophone lines of “Forest Ghosts” – it’s good enough that I won’t even complain that technically it should be Fewer Bells…
13. Lubomyr Melnyk – Fallen Trees
Classic Erased Tapes territory – beautifully spontaneous, gorgeous waves of piano like a cascading waterfall. He calls it “continuous music”: using the sustain pedal to generate reverb and echo, blending notes together into great rushes of sound. Really lovely.
12. Nils Frahm – All Melody
A wonderful summation of everything Nils Frahm has already given us: multi-layered, arpeggiated builders, gentle piano-led heart-warmers and the occasional absolute banger. All Melody? All delight.
11. Sons of Kemet – Your Queen Is A Reptile
A dynamic, wonderfully-paced collection of propulsive avant-jazz instrumentals. Just saxophone, tuba, clarinet and two or three drummers create a sound that’s stripped down and simple but also evolving and involving. This album is a joy from start to finish.
10. Meg Baird and Mary Lattimore – Ghost Forests
From “Forest Ghosts” by Less Bells to “Ghost Forests”, 2018 has clearly been a spooky and arboreal one. This is one of the year’s loveliest and most understated releases, but one that swims with layers of detail that reward the closest of listens. Interspersing instrumental dripping with faerie magick with gorgeous vocal-led songs, it might just be Meg Baird’s best work since Espers.
9. Miss Red – K.O.
A perfect team-up between the needle-pushing, devastating production of The Bug and the hyperactive flow of Miss Red, this is at its best played at the kind of volume that shakes the fillings from your teeth. Aggressive, danceable, brilliant – a breath of fresh air.
8. Rival Consoles – Persona
Another belter from Rival Consoles that I’ve found myself coming back to over and over again this year. There’s not much to touch his warmth of production and and ear for a melody (except perhaps the immortal JH – for more of which see below) – and what I love about this album is how thoughtful it is. Each sound has been carefully considered and adds to the track – there’s absolutely no wastage and every last second is a great listen.
7. Tape Loop Orchestra – Lead Us Into The Light
This is the definition of musical hypnosis. Two tracks of 17 minutes each, in which ostensibly very little is going on besides some warmly-distorted loops and a faintly disembodied voice intoning things like “you are the light” or “to the light that you are”. But TLO aren’t afraid to hold the moment, and build upon it, until the very minimalism of these two tracks sucks you in, hypnotised like the proverbial snake victim. Amazing stuff.
6. The Messthetics – Messthetics
Imagine if Fugazi met Cave in a darkened studio and bashed out some Ash Ra Tempel-style psych wigouts – imagine no more, The Messthetics are here! Brendan Canty and Joe Lally provide their usual abrasive funk rhythmic backdrop, over which guitars lay down everything from no-wave clanging to spaced out Popol Vuh vibes. Fantastic.
5. Ian William Craig – Thresholder
It never ceases to amaze what IWC can produce with such a simple setup of kit – taking one (beautiful) singing voice and a pile of old tape recorders and crafting something unique and compelling from it. Thresholder takes tape and vocal improvisations (which, admittedly sounds horrible when you write it), adds a few carefully-chosen synth parts and comes up with one of the most beautiful releases of 2018.
4. Gazelle Twin – Pastoral
What a top four this year – in any other year, any of them would have taken top spot, but 2018’s been exceptionally kind, at least in a musical sense if not in a geopolitical one. Gazelle Twin is just getting better and better, and Pastoral combines her musical abrasiveness with lyrical content to match, taking on the divisive atmosphere pervading the UK since the Brexit vote and creating a visceral response. Elements of ye olde English musick float in and out with inventive use of that most damned of instruments, the recorder. “Better In My Day” is three minutes of blind rage driven like a stake into the heart of Middle England.
3. Jon Hopkins – Singularity
How can Jon Hopkins keep getting better? It seemed impossible to top Immunity, but Singularity is almost perfect. The attention to detail is extraordinary, with every last note seemingly created from a patchwork of musical ideas, each of which on its own would make an outstanding track from most other artists. The absolute summation of what electronica music is in 2018, and can be in the future.
2. Anna von Hausswolff – Dead Magic
Without question, Anna von Hausswolff gave me my favourite live show of 2018 earlier in the year, touring the five breathtaking pieces that make up Dead Magic. Her music grows more grandiose, bombastic and outright dramatic with every release. Press releases and reviews make a lot of whichever colossal mega-organ is being used on each album, but the star of the show is her voice – an absolute force of nature. In fact, the only thing that could possibly have kept this from my 2018 top spot…
1. Low – Double Negative
…is that fact that Low released this. Twenty-five years into their career, and with a sound so well-defined that they almost seemed boxed in by their own sonic definition, it seemed unlikely that Low would ever change greatly, and impossible that they might emerge with something as unutterably fantastic as this. In response to the state of the world in 2018, Low’s response is characteristically oblique, but stylistically out of nowhere, taking a hammer to their own sound, carving chunks out of songs, burrowing out the undercarriage from others, and burying their clarity under waves of distortion and noise, to astonishing effect. A future classic.