Hey, it’s the end of 2018! Another year done in the Bad Place.
Not that we ever tried to be definitive, but this year we’re just going to (mostly) concentrate on the things we didn’t write about. We didn’t cover a huge amount on the blog this year, so it’s safe to consider everything we didcover is also part of this Best Of.
So on to the things we didn’t…
Everything Old is Off-kilter Again
Yves Tumor turned up with a bunch of early release tracks that seemed to be mining a Trip-Hop-y late 90s sample culture vibe…and then unleashed the full fury of Safe in the Hands of Love. While Lifetime’s cascades of emotion (even managing to get away with a buried string section) were eye-catching, it was the layered noise of Let the Lioness in You Flow Freely that battered its way onto this list. Waves of crashing horns and desecrated drum kits assault the vocals throughout. It feels like trying to hear the ending of something when you’re standing at its centre.
Smerz manage to merge a woozy blank vocal to a vast array of experimental sounds. Work It is a pitch black version of Jessie Lanza’s unsettling drum programming. A track that begins with punishing percussion and a synth that sounds like bees before dissolving into the type of ambient music that plays before your ritualistic death at the hands of a UFO cult.
Half way through the year Serpentwithfeet finally blessed us with his collage of R&B, Noise, funeral marches and maximalist Industrial. From that, Cherubim was the standout. A pastoral, pagan incantation. A nursery rhyme for the damned.
Big surprise entrants into vocal-led Noise this year were Low. A band I’d not really thought about for about a decade, but here we are. With Lynch and his Industrial Symphonies having a resurgence during the last few years, there’s a certain inevitability to Low putting out a massive Industrial record. The extent to which it worked with their haunted vocals should also perhaps have been expected.
Dancing in Blood is almost minimalist. Huge drums that sound like sheet metal, something filtered beyond recognition and Mimi’s vocal, floating through ambient synths. There are more abrasive tracks on the record but the looming terror inherent in this, is very 2018.
Avant Wind Instruments of the Year
Ben Vince did make it onto the blog this year but he’s symptomatic of a good time to be playing a wind instrument in experimental music. His excellent collaborative EP on Where to Now? ended with the title track Assimilation. A disorientating solo work, underpinned by a building rhythm track every bit as menacing in its martial indifference as Low’s above.
Colin Stetson has obviously been pushing the haunting, rhythmical wind instrument cart uphill for quite a few years by now. So this year we went along to see his metal super-group Ex Eye at the Barbican, supported by the wonderful Caterina Barbieri. We couldn’t find any video of the event but their sort of music video / sort of trailer gives you a fairly good idea.
Stetson’s unique sound also made its way into one of the obvious games of the year. In Red Dead Redemption 2 we find ludicrously budgeted videogame development focussed on making you care, really care, about your relationship with your horse. Sure there’s a fairly decent 60 hour story about loyalty and redemption but the care lavished on the systems that the world rests on are the stars. A blockbuster of a game which seems at times as invested in composing breath taking vistas and small moments among the scrub as it does in large set pieces. A game that actually manages to reject the black pill nihilism (that GTA is overly guilty of) and craft something moral ambiguous but hopeful. Which are our 2019 goals.
At the other end of the videogame spectrum is the Ghibli-esque crowdfunded Hollow Knight. A kind of 2D Dark Souls featuring anthropomorphised insects clutching tiny needles as swords. Minimally plotted, utterly beguiling, brutally hard in places and with an excellent soundtrack.
Pop / Weird Pop
Charlie XCX remains the most efficient pop star if your metric is an intoxicating blend of outsider electronics and a hypersexualised avatar. It’s a pop-sex that’s so relentlessly over the top that it becomes another aesthetic deployed in the engine room of perfecting the next mutation of Pop. The PC Music collaborations have given way in the Trap-baiting, nihilistic 5 in the Morning. Then there’s a the Minimal House of Focus that frequently bursts with the sheer cooing joy of Charlie’s vocal (not to mention an excellent Yeaji remix that takes it more 90’s Detroit Techno). And finally there’s the nostalgia-straight-to-my-veins of 1999. Replete with what must be the most enjoyable music video of the year.
There will, at some point, have been a record industry meeting to discuss ROSALÍA. With Spanish language music now absolutely massive in places that don’t speak Spanish it really is probably now or never for Sony to back a flamenco album that borrows heavily from outsider electronic music and covers Justin Timberlake. This feels like the moment in the 60s when major film companies were giving money to European Art House directors and not knowing what to do with them. Luckily ROSALÍA knows exactly what she’s doing and brings along old friend of the blog El Guincho.
DE AQUÍ NO SALES (Cap.4: Disputa) is the ‘Holly Herndon one’. Filtered vocals become percussion, along with the noise of motors and screeching tires to create some transcendent urban flamenco.
Serendipitously, another artists in that El Cuincho post was U.S. Girls; who’s been putting out consistently great music in the ten years since then. This year was no different but far more disco. Rosebud is from In a Poem Unlimited. It’s a shuffling sort of disco. A low key club backing for Meg Remy’s incredible diva vocal.
Empress Of returned in 2018 with a far more Pop than Weird Pop album. When I’m With Him is very much the late 80s gated drum track of your first love’s dreams. Sunsets forever, sitting by the landline waiting for your heart to break.
Donald Glover of the Year
Atlanta is a fucking masterpiece and Season 2 managed to better the first in almost every way (slightly less Lolz, vastly more character). Intricately plotted episodes like Crabs in a Barrel rub up against the devastating portrait of depression in Woods and the fame-horror of Teddy Perkins. Giving each character an episode limited the screen time of the core group but when the episodes are this good you can comfortably make that trade off.
Solo didn’t actually happen so Glover’s other contribution to pop culture was his instantly dissected video as Childish Gambino. This is America was the 2018 fever dream we all wanted / didn’t want. Filled to bursting with allusions to the darkest parts of black American culture as well as our complete complicity in it as consumers of black American culture. And in another very 2018 moment, once the 20 Things You Missed in This is America listicles were bashed out over the course of a week and the millions of views were logged…we just stopped talking about it.
Because it’s 2018, the Best Melancholy Tracks of the Year
Music in 2018 got very good at being sad. Or at least downbeat in that looking blankly at the dying of the light way. This was music for standing on the blasted shore looking back at the land you’re running from. A kind of ecstatic acceptance of decline.
Colin Self’s album drew on the work of Donna Haraway and her writing on ecological devastation. As such it was always going to be coloured by an overwhelming, barely comprehensible sadness. That he managed to make something so beautiful is at least testament to the capacity of some of our species, while damning others by comparison.
Johnny Jewell’s ode to weather, in particular the rain he misses now he’s based in LA, was released deep in winter at the start of the year. What If is the Eno via Badalamenti heart of the album. A wordless elegy. A drone to fill the dullness of cloudless skies. And in the end, a shimmering moment of peace.
RP Boo managed to make the saddest piece of Footwork I’ve ever heard. A minor key piano loop sits under the skittish drums. A chopped sample sings ‘you don’t know’ under a while RP Boo asked If he should give away his soul.
Beach House are nailed on for this section. Permanent 5am awaiting the dawn music. Dive enacts a call and response between Victoria Legrand and herself while guitars presage the ascendant shoegaze via krautrock denouement. A swirl of metronomic percussion and layers of guitars. A sweet, sweet oblivion.
Sharon Van Etten ends out year of melancholy with Jupiter 4. Slow like a low camera track through a midnight swamp. You can almost feel the black and white dripping from the screen. Which is a kind of delight when you realise the video is almost exactly that. A shimmering dreamscape of a record for these dark, dark times.