Best new music 2018

A christmas wreath consisting entirely of round ornaments. December 20182018 was another year full of outrageous distractions, the misconfigurations and abuses of the public sphere relentlessly encroaching on whatever space one tried to carve out for thinking, experiencing beauty or getting some rest. A year to test our commitments, abilities to act in solidarity, to continually remind us that whatever we could possibly do to counter the evils everywhere would never be enough — but counter them we must.

In music, 2018 seemed like a year that never really picked up enough steam to become particularly exciting. Each week, I continue to comb through and listen to all the music so you don’t have to, but there were many New Release Fridays when nothing of any note came out. Despite the lacklustre showing, the haul after 52 weeks still required quite a bit of sifting and curating to arrive at the list presented here. I can only offer limited “meta” insights this time around. While 2017 seemed like a very hip-hop influenced year, 2018 featured virtually nothing from that genre that kept my interest at all. I’m still very interested in where “electronic” music is going (in an organic direction, trying to sound more like “real” instruments in various ways), and in the continued evolution of R&B. Jazz, too, in its various guises, continues to be both interesting and engaging as evidenced by a few releases below (not bad for a “dead” genre).

If I had to pick one must-hear thing this year it would be Nils Frahm’s All Melody which with its musicality, optimism and elegance does yeoman’s work in pushing back against the intrusions of the world.

Onward and upward in 2019,

Arabella Steinbacher, WDR Symphony Orchestra, Lawrence Foster – Strauss “Aber der Richtige…” (Violin Concertos/Miniatures): Since early 20th century opera is such a difficult, often unpleasant listen (for me), I confess to not being closely familiar with Richard Strauss’ work. I love some of his orchestral works (tone poems). Steinbacher here puts together his violin concerto (an astonishingly accomplished early work, sort of like a more optimistic Brahms, or a lighter Dvořák) and various miniatures and transcriptions for violin and orchestra. It made me fall in love with Strauss’ instrumental music for the first time. Steinbacher’s playing is nimble, intelligent and emotive. The miniatures are never trivial even if they are meant to entertain rather than enlighten.

The Beatles – The Beatles (50th Anniversary Edition): It’s hard to imagine that the Beatles, of all musical acts, should require “fixing.” And yet, they did. At the tail end of the mono era — around 1967/1968 — two versions of their records would be released concurrently: mono and stereo. Mono was where the producers would spend most of their time. The stereo mixes were afterthoughts, a new format whose longevity was still unclear. Those early days of stereo mixing strike us as pretty weird nowadays, the hard separation of instruments (drums on one side, bass and guitars on the other) being particularly disorienting. Giles Martin, George Martin’s son, here releases his second complete re-work of a legendary Beatles record (after last year’s Sgt. Peppers), and it’s spectacular. This is a record I “grew up with,” that’s meant a lot to me over the years, and it’s never sounded better. You’ll have to try it for yourself, but the standout achievement from my perspective is that with better spatial positioning of instruments, the band actually sounds like a band, playing together and off of each other. It’s a vast improvement. Also, these remixes don’t somehow make the Beatles sound like they were recorded yesterday, so fear not: it’s still the White Album.

Big Red Machine – Big Red Machine: A fantastic collaboration between Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Aaron Dessner (The National). I can see obvious developmental vectors from Bon Iver’s 22, A Million (2016) but also hear inspirations from acts like TV on the Radio or Elbow. There’s an interesting “world music” element, too (although I deliberately put that in scare quotes). Echoes of Peter Gabriel’s best work. Wonderfully listenable, yet music that doesn’t take itself too lightly. Most contemporary “rock” still leaves me cold (I discussed this in last year’s post), but this rose above the thicket of derivative ideas and too-clever young white men with guitars.

Cat Power – Wanderer: I have long been an admirer of Cat Power’s work, and this is a welcome return after a long absence. It’s a quiet sort of record that eschews her previous thematically oriented efforts (i.e. it’s not a continuation of her updated Muscle Shoals records from a few years ago). I like the halting rhythms (the drums sound like they were contributed by a sleepily stoned Meg White); the ramshackle guitars, treated with nothing more than a vintage amp; the swirly, hinted-more-than-sung vocal harmonies. Cat Power commands you to listen. It is perhaps no surprise that this contains a collaborative track with Lana del Rey, another singer who commands attention with very basic means.

DJ Koze – Knock Knock: Fantastic, evocative, touching music from this German DJ/producer. Pitchfork’s reviewer said it best: “… combines the crunchy propulsion of French touch, the liquid warmth of ’70s soul, the precise structure of Kompakt-style minimal techno, the head-nodding funk of boom-bap, and the nameless desire of dream pop.” Not sure I can add anything. One of the outstanding electronic releases of the year.

Fatoumata Diawara – Fenfo: Until this year’s Fenfo, I had always felt that Malian guitarist and singer Fatoumata Diawara’s work suggested more promise than it delivered. This record changed my perception. I expected nothing but was drawn in and kept listening and listening. Her previous work tried for an amalgam of guitar-based indie rock and West African sounds. Here, we find more electronics, thicker (hybrid electronic?) drum sounds, production that leaves just the right amount of space for her guitar (and koras and other African instruments) to shine. The tempi are not too fast, and everything has enough dynamic range to breathe. The rhythm tracks have the same kaleidoscopic propulsion that Peter Gabriel’s or Afro Celt Sound System’s had in the 1990s.

Franco Fagioli, Il Pomo d’Oro, Zefira Valova – Handel Arias: Every other year or so, another astoundingly capable countertenor seems to emerge. Of course these are never “overnight” success stories (even less so than in pop music). Fagioli has been singing on Europe’s operatic stages for years. Here is a flawless “greatest hits” of Handel’s best known and loved arias for alto/countertenor. The Italian orchestra, led by a fairly new Bulgarian conductor named Zefira Valova, plays with fire and finesse. Fagioli’s voice has elasticity, power and conviction. These pieces really are the Baroque’s equivalent of beloved Beatles or Simon & Garfunkel songs, music to know and sing along with. Even if classical music isn’t at all “your thing,” consider this a strong recommendation for pleasure rather than education.

Geir Sundstøl – Brødløs: Geir Sundstøl is a Norwegian multi-instrumentalist (mostly stringed instruments like pedal steel, dobro, treated electric guitar, etc.). As a collaborator, he’s known via Nils Petter Molvaer and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. In his own right, he’s released a string of interesting, atmospheric records, the latest of which is Brødløs. It’s hard to classify by genre. The closest touchpoint might be someone like David Torn on ECM (treated guitars) or something like Daniel Lanois’ Goodbye to Language. I like the cinematic, calm nature of Sundstøl’s music. It’s good for listening while working. Never gets dull but never entirely takes centre stage (unless you want it to).

Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog: Still one of the only contemporary straight-up “rock” bands I can unambiguously and unironically listen to from beginning to end, and perhaps the only one whose latest release I get excited for. Frances Quinlan is a gifted songwriter who grows in leaps and bounds with every release, and a virtually peerless singer in the rock idiom. This record explores sounds pointing more in a “new wave” direction but entirely avoids any form of pastiche.

Jóhann Jóhannsson – Englabörn & Variations (2018 Re-release): This record is a re-release of a single-disc version that originally appeared in 2002. It only came to my attention in 2018, after Jóhannsson died in February. My ignorance of his work is mostly because I don’t follow film music, a genre he played a significant role in for many years. A lot of Icelandic music carries the label “modern classical.” Usually, as in the case of Ólafur Arnalds for example, this means tropes of electronic composition carried out with acoustic instruments. Englabörn certainly inherited (or co-created) some of that sound signature. But it is also a serious work that accomplishes a lot with simple means (string quartet, percussion, keyboard, vocoder). This remastered edition also includes a number of re-interpretations of Englabörn tracks, some by Jóhannsson himself, others by admirers and friends such as Ryuichi Sakamoto and Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices choir. Deeply touching music.

Jon Hopkins – Singularity: In the middle of the 1990s, this would have been called “trance,” at least in broad terms. The genre has gone by different names since then, but this is an interesting departure: Hopkins programs these synths, arps and drums in an organic way, with rhythmic uncertainties, meter changes mid-track and other techniques that infuse them with a little more “life.” It takes a while for the full effect to sink in, but this is an organic, human kind of music — not mimicry by emulating “nature” sounds as certain types of hippie trance have been attempting for decades, but by making electronic instruments sound as if they were subject to being played, not programmed.

Jorja Smith – Lost & Found: This young British R&B singer has talent in spades, both as a vocalist and a songwriter. The music, unconventionally for British R&B which usually tends more towards funk and/or big radio-friendly melodies (think Beverley Knight), sounds like contemporary trip hop, referencing Massive Attack and Portishead. I particularly love the strategically deployed pitch uncertainties on some tracks. One to watch.

Kaia Kater – Grenades: Canadian Kaia Kater is a truly fine songwriter. Where her previous two records sported a banjo-centric bluesy folk sound, here she emerges with songs that sound more like “folk rock,” her excellent band sounding closer to Neil Young’s Harvest. She writes wonderful songs: harmonically complex wonders with dream-like poetry at their core. Songs written from the lyrics, thoughtfully arranged and passionately performed, but with the kind of restraint that makes you lean in. I like that there are spoken word interludes on the second half, apparently featuring her father’s voice, describing the US invasion of Grenada and its aftermath. A record about family history; in Canada, everyone is from somewhere else.

Kendl Winter – Stumbler’s Blues: I love where certain kinds of “indie folk” are headed at the moment. Kendl Winter is a singer-songwriter from the Pacific Northwest who makes forlorn-sounding but captivating music that sounds fragile yet conveys a core optimism. There’s an old-fashioned storytelling quality to this music that says “country” like few other things right now. I’m also continually charmed by her deliberate temporal uncertainty… the songs centre on but often somewhat “miss” the intended beat, much like you have to imagine a missing harmony in a Bach cello suite. Winter sounds like someone who’s seen a lot, so you should listen to her.

Liran Donin’s 1000 Boats – 8 Songs: “Jazz” is expanding in all sorts of directions at the moment. Importantly, it’s once again becoming a destination for virtuoso instrumentalists. Geographic hotbeds include Scandinavia, the UK and the US (obviously), but also places like Israel and Germany. This is an excellent record by the Tel-Aviv-born bassist Liran Donin, best known for his work with UK-based Led Bib. The energy here is closer to (prog) rock, the musical idiom is often more folk than jazz, the balance between through-composed and improvised just right. Donin’s bass playing is spectacular, emotive, rhythmic and precise, but it’s the compositions that shine brightest.

Lisa Batiashvili, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Yannick Nézet-Séguin – Visions of Prokofiev: Strong performances of Prokofiev’s two violin concertos by this powerhouse violinist from Georgia. Like much 20th century music, Prokofiev took a little time to warm to, but I am discovering the beauty and power of this music. I like the tensions between the romantic vocabulary and the atonal/early 20th century bits, similar to Stravinsky et al. This is serious music (and less accessible than the Strauss I described above) but rewarding and enjoyable. And the Andante assai from the second concerto is terrifically beautiful, a wordless bel canto aria.

Lump – Lump: A project British folk singer Laura Marling and musical collaborator Mike Lindsay. I had no idea what to expect, but I grew to really like this. It’s smart music, a kind of folk-tronica prog rock. Something I hadn’t noticed before was just how much Laura Marling can sound like Natalie Merchant, right down to the weird mid-Atlantic accent (assuming this has something to do with Marling’s time spent in California which informed her previous few records). Lump is definitely “experimental” and may not survive long-term as a project, but it’s very good.

Mélissa Laveaux – Radyo Siwèl: Mélissa Laveaux is a born Montrealer of Haitian origin. A guitar-based singer/songwriter, her third record is the first to enter into a musical dialogue with her heritage. She picks Haitian folk and popular songs (many dating back to the early part of the 20th century when Haiti was under US occupation) and updates them with a spacious and smart indie rock sound. Her arrangements have a romantic sparseness and a 1960s heart, not dissimilar perhaps to those of Chris Isaak, and it is a joy to hear a competent “rock” band break into a Caribbean groove. There are clearly many influences here that I’m unfamiliar with but it speaks to me as a kind of “world” music reclaimed and re-absorbed through the second-generation immigrant experience, creating something unique and valuable in its own right.

Moonlight Benjamin – Siltane: Moonlight Benjamin, a Haitian singer living in France, has made two previous records that, while not unpleasant at all, sound mannered and tame in comparison to this new effort. Here, Benjamin works with what can only be described as a guitar-based indie rock band. (In fact, I think “Moonlight Benjamin” might be the name of the act as much as the singer.) The music has undeniable power and provides a much more sensible context for her powerful, occasionally angry vocals (and you don’t need to know Kreol to appreciate this). It’s not really punk but indexes “garage” rock like Janis Joplin or early Patti Smith. I think there isn’t actually an indigenous genre that sounds like this in Haiti, but maybe there ought to be.

Nils Frahm – All Melody: Nils Frahm has the great gift of being able to combine — organically and in a way that makes you think it’s obvious — natural and synthetic sounds into generous, bright and beautiful compositions that pulsate from “ambient” to “classical” via dub house and electronic folk. It would all be unbearably clever if it weren’t so captivating, genuine and touching. All Melody may be his best record yet, a thoughtful and well-planned arc that also serves as an introduction to the world of Frahm if you haven’t yet encountered it. This should only be the beginning to a full exploration of his catalogue, most of which is equally startling and charming.

Norah Jones – Live at Ronnie Scott’s: Norah Jones has long been a favourite. I think all common criticisms of “boring because neither fish nor flesh” are unjustified and miss the point. She has successfully occupied a not-so-obvious space that straddles American roots musics like jazz, country and other things we call “Americana,” and in so doing quietly enhanced and changed each genre. Neither the sustained success of Scandinavian piano trios playing “folk” instead of bebop harmonies nor the runaway fame of Gregory Porter would be imaginable without Norah Jones. That said, here’s a lively and powerful concert recording of a 2017 date with Brian Blade (drums) and Chris Thomas (bass). We are reminded of how great a pianist Jones is (on par with Diana Krall who gets a lot more credit for it), and her clear voice (with a slight veil which she expertly uses for expressive impact) tells each song’s story beautifully.

Olivia Chaney – Shelter: Olivia Chaney demonstrates what a fully realized folk record in 2018 sounds like. A classically trained vocalist who chose to make traditional/folk music her idiom, Chaney’s vocals are perhaps unparalleled in this current generation. The record has a warm, organic feel — and a minimalist cast, consisting mainly of Chaney’s voice and instruments played by her (and one or two other musicians). Despite the minimalism there is so much to hear here: nuance, multitracked instruments placed carefully in space, a bit of tape or environmental hiss, just enough reverb on the vocals. Just when you think it’s too stark, suddenly there are vocal hamonies and a hamonium providing a delicious melodic counterpoint. Even if folk or traditional music are not normally your thing, you owe yourself a listen. It will draw you in, guaranteed.

Park Jiha – Communion: Park Jiha is a Korean multi-instrumentalist who plays various traditional Asian instruments. This record is in an “experimental jazz” idiom but could just as easily pass in a “world music” context. It’s a bit hard to explain competently in a few sentences, but I highly recommend it for its daring and intelligent bridge-building. I have listened to this in two different modes: amazed and charmed by its inventiveness; and soothed and enchanted by its spacious soundscapes which wouldn’t be entirely out of place in the sort of music one might expect in an imaginary Buddhist temple. You’ll have to explore it for yourself.

Ramzi – Phobiza Vol. 3: Amor Fati: Ramzi — Phoebé Guillemot from Montreal — programs the smartest, most listenable electronic music I’ve heard this year. Having apparently constructed her drumkits entirely from “world music” samples, she layers them with just-about-intelligible vocal samples while indexing various contemporary world musics from Brazil, the Caribbean, Africa, etc. It’s all very calm and invigorating, surprisingly ideal to have in one’s headphones while working. Music like micro-dosing psychoactive drugs to enhance your creativity or increase your productivity, maybe.

Santigold – I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Sessions: A mixtape that is 33 minutes of pure pleasure. It sounds like summer, like dubby dancehall — all heavy beats with girl group vocals. Everything is carefully thought out and produced using tropes not entirely unlike, say, Major Lazer, yet it never takes a turn into the predictable or manages to lose your attention. I had it on repeat in the car on many a summer drive. One track flows into the next (in true mixtape style), and I imagine it would require a superhuman effort to not at least tap a foot. There are nods to traditional ska here, giving tracks like “Run The Road” a classic British melancholy feel. Where previously, Santigold was all promise — a stunningly talented writer and excellent vocalist whose records would often miss the mark on production, curation and consistency, here she has somehow lost all her self-consciousness (is it the casual, mixtape nature of the project?) and is entirely, 100% on point.

Siril Malmedal Hauge & Jacob Young – Last Things: Siril Malmedal Hauge is a young jazz vocalist from Norway. Here she is partnered with Jacob Young, a high-profile Norwegian guitarist known for his ECM recordings. Hauge has a round, pleasant voice, clear English diction, and a remarkable interpretive ability. Their first collaboration seems to stem from last year’s Nordic Circles release (sort of a Norwegian jazz super group), but this strips it right back to just voice and guitar. One thing that’s consistently interesting about Scandinavian jazz is its refusal to stay within the American “jazz” idiom. This is as much folk and bluegrass as it is jazz — the “jazz” label signals care, attention to detail, pride in deep interpretations of known songs, instrumental mastery, acoustic instruments. Tasteful late-night music, but far from “mere” entertainment.

Sly & Robbie meet Nils Petter Molvaer Feat. Eivind Aarset and Vladislav Delay – Nordub: This is as improbable as it is good. Sly & Robbie, itinerant Jamacian drummer and bassist, you know from a high percentage of the greatest reggae records ever made. Nils Petter Molvaer is a Norwegian jazz trumpeter, one of the heirs of Miles Davis, both in sound and in willingness to experiment with rock and electronic idioms. Eivind Aarset is a famous Norwegian jazz guitarist who’s also a sought-after studio and touring musician. Vladislav Delay is a Finnish electronic musician. This record is a fantasy soundscape that fuses live dub rhythms to choice electronic treatments or trumpet and guitar (and includes occasional vocals by Robbie). It’s all terrifically cool, the sort of thing you might hear on the PA before a concert and wonder: what are they playing? Shazam would have no answers. It would forever stick to the recesses of your mind, the sound that got away. Music to make you feel that there will always be someone cooler than you. But now you can hear it every day.

Superorganism – Superorganism: This band’s record is both completely 2018, and entirely out of time, and that’s a great thing. Sounding at times like Beck ca. “Loser,” it conjures up a time in the early 1990s when rock and electronic music were doing a dance of as-yet uncertain outcome. Superorganism’s album harkens back to a path ultimately not (really) taken. At the same time, the band’s origin story is impossible without the internet of today — they emerged from various online collaborations, recording together before ever meeting in person. The music is meticulously produced, thickly layered with all kinds of sounds and grooves, merrily stealing from influences as diverse as P-Funk, Daft Punk and the Go!-Team. Singer Orono Noguchi has the kind of voice and presence that’ll long survive this configuration. She sings the lyrics’ ironic observations with an enchanting world-weariness.

Tirzah – Devotion: Tirzah’s music sounds like a more inward-looking, folkier take on FKA twigs’ abstract, sometimes bruising R&B. It’s committed to fully spelling out one of an array of future paths for R&B/pop as a genre. It feels like music without any nostalgic or comfortable nods to what’s gone before it, and that in itself is a great achievement. Producer Mica Levi’s tracks can occasionally sound like someone fed de-tuned circus music into Ableton Live and fused them to a simple beat. Most people will find it lacking in some way — affectively perhaps, or because it sounds “unfinished.” But it’s anchored by the connective tissue of its hip-hop aesthetic, and there’s something singular and captivating about it. When Tirzah’s melodies decide to rise, they rise with great power and beauty, powerfully framed by the spare music.

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