Across the Margin concludes its rollout of the Best Albums of 2018 with the Top 10 Albums of 2018…
10. Stephen Malkmus – Sparkle Hard
It’s amazing to think that decades after Pavement was the young “it” indie rock band of the 90s that Stephen Malkmus may have just released his best solo effort to date. Intrinsically linked forever to Pavement, and its place in the 90s musical lexicon, Malkmus has never been one to be moored to his past like other artists who never shed the shackles of that era. Across seven solo albums he’s always been the one thing about his music that has been fluid. Pavement still thrives, albeit caught up in the nostalgia of the 90s, but Malkmus is decidedly anchored in the present day. On Sparkle Hard, Malkmus treats the listener to ornate piano arrangements on songs like “Cast Off,” driving bass grooves on songs like “Bike Lane” and “Rattler,” and inviting string arrangements on songs like “Solid Silk.” There’s an “of-the-moment” feel to Malkmus’ latest offering, and a decidingly pleasing and effortless groove to his songs. Paired with Malkmus’ characteristically seamless delivery to his vocals (see: “Middle America”) and the variations on the guitars from fuzz to funk to just good-natured rockabilly, Sparkle Hard exemplifies a Stephen Malkmus who, decades later, is still enjoying himself and the music he makes.
9. Pusha T— Daytona
Pusha T, the Norfolk, Virginia rapper (formerly of The Clipse) set hip-hop on fire in 2018. Amid what Pusha T described as a “surgical summer,” he released one of the greatest hip-hop albums of the year, and then followed it up with arguably the most potent and humiliating dis-track of all time (“The Story of Adidon” set to the instrumental of Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.” and aimed directly at Drake…a must listen!). Another album produced during Kanye West’s aforementioned “Wyoming Sessions” (see Nas’ Nasiir, #46), Pusha T’s third album Daytona is far and away his best. It took rap fans but a few hours to conclude that Daytona was an instant classic upon its release, as it is an album with absolutely no weak verses, jaw-dropping lyrical wordplay in Pusha’s trademark menacing tone, and some of the best beats we have come upon all year. Say what you will about Kanye (and we have plenty of thoughts ourselves…), it is work on albums such as Daytona that make you almost forget about his incessant tomfoolery. Almost. Not only is his production impeccable across the EP-length seven tracks, Daytona finds Kanye stepping up to the plate lyrically. On the outstanding “What Would Meek Do” he sets up Pusha for a superb verse with, ““Ni**as talking shit, Push, how do you respond?” which is followed by Pusha returning the favor teeing up Kanye for an equally hard-hitting verse. Daytona exemplifies how well Pusha and Kanye work together and solidified the fact that the cocaine rap master, Pusha T, is a legend in his own time. And if you know, you know…
8. Big Red Machine — Big Red Machine
Big Red Machine is the debut full-length release for the collaboration between Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National co-founder Aaron Dessner (a potent duo right there!). The album features contributions from the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, Bryce Dessner, Lisa Hannigan, Rob Moose, Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, and This Is the Kit’s Kate Stables. Big Red Machine has been a long time coming, an idea Vernon and Dessner had been tooling with for almost a decade. It all began when Dessner sent Vernon a rough sketch of a song for the Dark Was the Night charity compilation album. From that humble beginning was birthed a monster of an album, one that is graceful, touching and uplifting, big on heart, and rife with surprisingly catchy hooks (“We better not fuck this up” and “Well, you are who you are” for instance). Quite appropriately, the music throughout the album’s captivating ten tracks sounds like what you would expect, Vernon’s heart-wrenching falsetto and driving melodies laid atop of the sort of busy and reverberating soundscapes we have come to know and love from both Vernon and Dessner. But there is a lot more going on in regards to this release, as this project is part of something referred to as People, a large community of artists that has been collaborating for years. This being the case, we expect (and hope) that Big Red Machine isn’t simply a one-off project for Vernon and Dessner, but something long-lasting and bigger, as vast and as intriguing as the beautiful music found on this wonderful album.
6. Kacey Musgraves — Golden Hour
It isn’t often that a bonafide country star breaks into our year end Best-of compilation, but the Texan singer/songwriter Kacey Musgraves is no ordinary country star (and we aren’t country haters, just lean other ways…). We do wonder if it is correct to pigeonhole Musgraves’ latest album, her third (not counting a holiday collection), as simply another country album. Labels, in life and in music, can be limiting, and Musgraves’ best offering to date is a piece of art that we feel is something everyone should open their hearts and minds to. We are not alone, as the label on which Musgraves’ Golden Hour was released, MCA Nashville, made a conscious decision to not push the album to country radio. This album, they knew forthwith, was for the masses. Golden Hour, and Musgraves with it, have taken flight, for not only has there been critical acclaim for what she has created, but the album has been nominated for the Grammy Award for Album of the Year (a big deal for a so-called country album!) as well as Best Country Album, with the album’s first two singles, “Butterflies” and “Space Cowboy,”,receiving nominations for Best Country Solo Performance and Best Country Song, respectively. We urge you to get lost in this beautiful album, to soar through the sensuous opener “Slow Burn,” the entirely relatable “Lonely Weekend,” and onwards to the unmitigated pinnacle of the album, the wondrous ‘Space Cowboy.” Golden Hour is an album that makes our soul cry with each listen, and our heart swell.
6. Parquet Courts — Wide Awake!
Parquet Courts latest album Wide Awake! is an exceptionally bold punk-rock artistic statement. Lyrically astute and instrumental heavy, the album is thoughtfully infused with themes of our current times: gun violence, climate change, the power of money, and an overarching despair and anger with the current state of affairs. Produced by 19-time Grammy nominee Danger Mouse, Parquet Courts’ sound on Wide Awake! has been notably sharpened and amplified by the talented producer’s deft hand. Perfectly enhancing all that has made Parquet Courts great while opening up new avenues of musical exploration, Danger Mouse aids in guiding Wide Awake!’s songs as they dance effortlessly from punk to funk and beyond. Raucous and brazen, political and fun, Wide Awake! wows the listener with 13 terrific songs. Take the opener “Total Football,” for instance, where singer-guitarist Andrew Savage powerfully shouts towards the songs end: “Collectivism! And autonomy! Are not mutually exclusive! Those who find discomfort! In your goals of liberation! Will be issued! No apology!” The song is a powerful opener to an equally powerful album and “Total Football” does an excellent job of setting the tone for all that comes thereafter. Parquet Courts are an absolutely remarkable band that succeeds because they excel at making you feel everything all at once with their music. The amount of heart, raw emotion and protest spirit packed into Wide Awake! shows why Parquet Courts are one of the greatest bands out there right now. This albums message could easily be boiled down to one singular thought: to all those out there who are trying to keep the people down, know that we are very much WIDE AWAKE!
5. Phosphorescent — C’est La Vie
The sort of music that Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck creates is delicate, intricate, thoughtfully arranged and often times witty. With his latest album, C’est La Vie, Houck has taken that recipe to new heights. Five years after the release of his previous, much-loved album Muchacho, C’est La Vie finds Houck married, a newly minted father, no longer in Brooklyn and living in Nashville, TN, and crafting good-natured melodies that sing to his newfound comforts and happiness. While the rest of Houck’s contemporaries seem to be crafting music influenced by the current state of affairs in the U.S., Houck has taken a more grounded approach to his music, focusing on what he knows best: family-life. The album he has created is rich and diverse in terms of its offerings, with several notable songs pushing the limits of his alt-rock sound. “New Birth in New England” stands out because of its joyous, upbeat and blissful sound. It’s a more uptempo offering from Phosphorescent, with a giddiness and pulse that bucks the thoughtful atmospheres the artist is known most for crafting and one can’t help but tap into the current of delight that Houck has been enjoying while listening to the song. “Around The Horn” is notable due to the fact that the song is dramatically different than anything Houck has ever done before. It’s an 8 minute psych-rock extravaganza, and while a departure for him, this sort of adventurous rocking is apparently right in his wheelhouse, as he nails it perfectly. There is a maturity to the album’s songs compared to Muchacho — most likely gained from the experiences of fatherhood mixed with the five year gap between albums – but the songs that Houck presents on C’est La Vie are nonetheless clever, creative, and confident. C’est La Vie translates roughly as “such is life,” and as is evident on the songs on Phosphorescent’s latest album, Houck’s willingness to accept life’s battles and sing of the lessons learned is never in doubt.
4. Janelle Monáe — Dirty Computer
After almost a decade of being a self-proclaimed android, the dynamic Renaissance woman Janelle Monáe, stripped herself bare this year and revealed that she is a “free ass motherfucker” while in turn, dropping her most personal and self-revealing album to date, Dirty Computer. Heavily consulting with Prince prior to his death to create this brave and enticing masterpiece, we hear a vulnerable Monáe on the album (as heard on the gentle “So Afraid”), but also one who is proud and confident (as heard on tracks like “I Like That” and “Crazy Classic Life”). Unapologetic in her appreciation of self, Dirty Computer finds Monáe, a fierce pansexual woman, firm in her convictions and ready to fight for all those who feel like they do not have a voice. Dirty Computer features collaborations from Grimes, Thundercat, Brian Wilson, Zoe Kravitz, and Pharrell to name a few, and brings new sounds and excitement to what is already a roller-coaster of diverse musicality. The album is a tour-de-force showcasing a plethora of themes including individuality, sexuality, self-love, politics, inclusivity, LGBTQism, feminism and activism, all while incorporating the multifarious talents (spoiler alert: she can spit!) and breadth of our ingenue Janelle Monáe.
3. Spiritualized — And Nothing Hurt
Almost twenty years after dropping Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, a timeless piece of art certified classic (by us!), English space rock legends Spiritualized have another classic album on their hands with 2018’s And Nothing Hurt. Spiritualized frontman J. Spaceman, a.k.a. Jason Pierce, leaned into the crafting of the band’s eighth studio release with all he had. Meticulously arranging the lush soundscapes that encompass And Nothing Hurt while alone in his home studio, the album is a throwback to Spiritualized’s late-90’s heyday with the intergalactic aesthetic and the ornate arrangements that are all-embracing and flat out beautiful. The opening track “A Perfect Miracle,” along with the subsequent “I’m Your Man,” just might be the best one-two punch to commence an album in 2018, and from there the album continually soars to sumptuous heights. And Nothing Hurt (the title is a nod to the epitaph of Billy Pilgrim, the hero of Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal novel Slaughterhouse Five) is Spiritualized’s first album in six years, since 2012’s Sweet Heart Sweet Light, and Pierce has suggested that this may be their final album. If so Spiritualized are truly going out on top. Sadly, And Nothing Hurt is of such breathtaking quality that hanging it up at this point just doesn’t feel right, as Pierce and Spiritualized obviously have so much more to offer.
2. David Byrne — American Utopia
This year David Byrne, the 66 year old former frontman of The Talking Heads, released his first true solo album in fourteen years, American Utopia. As welcome as this brilliant new release was to longtime fans of the prolific artist, so too was the news that he was to embark upon an eighty-plus date world tour in support of the album. Unsurprisingly, The American Utopian tour was breathtaking, a meticulously produced and executed work of performance art that NME exclaimed it “might be the most ambitious and impressive live show of all time” (and we certainly understand why). Bolstered by a few Talking Heads classics, the lion’s share of the tour focused on the plethora of marvelous songs that comprise Byrne’s latest release. American Utopia is part of a larger multimedia project called “Reasons to Be Cheerful,” and features contributions from Brian Eno, Jam City, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Sampha, with an aim of presenting unique and ultimately positive ways to look at the world. A response to the uncertain political climate, American Utopia doesn’t shy away from the fact that the world feels as if it’s on fire (where, “The judge was all hung over / When the president took the stand / So he didn’t really notice / When things got out of hand”). But rather than allow despondency to overwhelm, the album serves as a reminder that “Every day is a miracle” and celebrates the power of companionship (“Now everybody’s coming to my house / And I’m never gonna be alone”), In true Byrne fashion genres are blended seamlessly across the album, and afrobeat, funk, electropop, disco, and rock are conjoined to birth instant classics such as “Everybody’s Coming To My House,” “I Dance Like This,” and “Gasoline or Dirty Sheets.” It is amazing that David Byrne’s music still feels so fresh and inspired this late into his career, and that on American Utopia he has somehow redefined himself once again. It is an extraordinary album, serving as a testament to his Byrne’s power and highlighting his unflappable spirit.
1. Kamasi Washington — Heaven and Earth
Heaven and Earth, the second full-length release for the Los Angeles jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington is a masterpiece of a double album. On the heels of the release of his critically acclaimed debut The Epic, and a must-listen to EP entitled Harmony of Difference, Washington has dramatically upped the ante with his latest, a concept album brimming with dazzling musicianship. Heaven and Earth is steeped in a dualism of ideas, one being a reality that we know all too well (Earth), and the other, the quinnessential and idyllic realm beyond (Heaven). It is an album about changing your reality through changing your perception. In an interview with The Guardian Washington explains, “If my thoughts and dreams can affect the world, that means essentially I am making my own world for myself. The world isn’t what the world leaders want it to be; it’s what we all make it to be. Those people don’t really have power, we give them their power. If we all took that mentality of, ‘I’m going to make the world the way it’s supposed to be, to the best extent that I can do it’, true change could happen.” In this way, Heaven and Earth is also about taking the power back. Yes, Heaven and Earth is revolutionary music, protest jazz if you will — and in this way Washington’s latest album is entirely inspiring. Yet, the album lives on a variety of planes, and simply succumbing to it on a visceral and aesthetic level is pacifying for the soul. Take the sprawling odyssey that is “The Space Traveler’s Lullaby” for instance, a dense and patient, yet entirely overwhelming, track that persistently exists on the edge of eruption. Or the buoyant, downright whimsical take on famed trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s “Hubtones,” which meanders unto dizzying and blissful plateaus. If you are not familiar with Kamasi Washington by now, then Heaven and Earth is your entryway into Washington’s genius and an album whose reach and marvel will continue to impact you. Washington is bringing his brand of jazz to the masses. Working with Kendrick Lamar on To Pimp a Butterfly surely gave Washington an allowance of notoriety, but the his otherworldly talents are the driving force behind his accent to where he currently resides, at the helm of America’s modern jazz revival.