A Brief Inquiry Into End-of-Year Lists: 50 Great Albums of 2018

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Compiling an end-of-year albums list always feels like a slightly futile idea.

The music is still present. It feels unfinished.

Listening to music is never a done deal, but the ubiquitous end-of-year list seeks to rationalise a year’s worth of music and box it away. Yet rarely does there come a point at which it feels fitting to compartmentalise an individual record and say “I’m done with this!” We merely move on when something else grabs our attention.

It’s worth noting the key differences between personal end-of-year lists and those compiled by publications.

Magazines online and in print (those that remain) essentially collect together opinions from a variety of contributors that serve to truncate the best of multiple genres under one umbrella, whereas personal lists should be just that: personal. If there’s any advantageous reason for paying attention to these lists it would seem to be to act as a guide for further exploration.

One might also assume that these publications have an agenda. Anyone who reads reviews regularly might notice that the artists in their list reflect the company’s principles. They almost seem to be presenting a list of ideals, and there is no doubt that one of the primary motivations for their ranking system is a given artist’s ability to cement what their publication wants to say, which in turn becomes a narrative shaped by their power for promoting artists. (It should be noted this is not a criticism; I have sought out literally hundreds of albums through recommendations this way).

One of the most revealing confirmations of a changing music industry in the eighteen short years of this new century was capsulised in Pitchfork’s recent The 200 Best Albums of the 1980s list, itself an updated and expanded take on an original from 2002. In its introduction there’s an all too real moment when referencing that 2002 list, admitting to a “limited editorial stance,” one that they “have worked hard to move past.” Magazines are now acknowledging more female and minority artists than ever before. Ariana Grande and Kacey Musgraves are both topping lists in 2018 from publications that wouldn't have even given them the time of day a decade ago.

One’s personal end-of-year list may be less diverse than that of publications, but it arguably represents something more real. Perhaps most interestingly, they highlight the difference between what we basely term best and favourite. My personal lists over the years have often felt influenced by that of a publication’s emphasis on best, but I now make a conscious effort to disregard credibility and focus solely on what I’ve gained the most pleasure from listening to. Within that boundary remains room for albums I would consider technically more brilliant, but the primary reason for ranking albums I’ve come to love should be the joy I’ve received from listening to them.

This year, music played an increasing role in soundtracking my personal experiences. You could argue this is fairly common, but my decade-old habits of listening music came from a place more academic, where I would listen to music continually even if I struggled to get to grips with it and call it exploration in the process. A lot of what I was listening to nearly ten years ago now exists as halcyon nostalgia, music that I often draw on time and time again. It’s easy to enjoy everything when you’re young and curious (if you were as enthusiastic about absorbing music as I was) because it all sounds fucking great. You have little or no real life experience with which to contextualise it.

What I mean by all this is that some music released in 2018 feels almost too raw for me to listen to. For whatever reasons I have associated with them, there are certain albums I cannot listen to without being put on a real downer. That doesn’t mean they’re not great albums, but the shit can often get in the way of finely-crafted songwriting. Angel Olsen made my favourite album of 2016 but, listening to it now two years later, I hear real trauma in that voice — a pain that initially evaded me. I guess sympathy slowly evolved into empathy.

This is the marvellous power of how art can affect us if we let it. Music particularly has this effect on me because it’s more cerebral than film.

I’m sure many of those albums that I struggle to listen to (and some are in this list) would go down a real treat in 2010, when things felt simpler, when listening could be more easily separated from experience. That doesn’t mean the music is depressing per se; our emotional reactions when listening to music are too complex to be so black and white. I suspect anyone who listens to music as a serious passion will feel the same. The number one album on this list, perhaps above all others, would be instantly termed “depressing” or “miserable” by the average listener.

Another realisation that came to me this year is that my growing preference for electronic, techno and ambient music (whatever that means in 2018) could be linked to what I’ve just discussed above. Artistic intent means something altogether different in nearly all music without vocals when compared to that of the singer-songwriter. The feelings I’m supposed to take from Cat Power’s Wanderer are much more obvious than the ones that may evolve through the slow churn of Wolfgang Voigt’s Rausch project, for example. That may be because Voigt must move through the piece and communicate a narrative in a way that is more oblique than Chan Marshall’s, but that’s a whole other topic of discussion.

One of the things I find fascinating about electronic music is its ability to suggest an almost infinite variation on texture and mood. It offers us a blank canvas onto which we can sift out a range of emotions that are suggested instead of merely dictated. It communicates emotion in a way that is more implied and thereby relies on the listener’s ability to trust their instincts. Ten years ago, I may have been looking for an artist to evoke a feeling in me, whereas now I’m happy for those feelings to prosper if they arise (and happy to discard them if they don’t).

That’s my reasoning behind the glut of electronic releases in the list below and I’m sticking to it.

50. Phosphorescent C’est La Vie

49. Kacey Musgraves Golden Hour

48. Specter Built To Last

47. Neko Case Hell-On

46. Gang Gang Dance Kazuashita

45. Natalie Prass The Future And The Past

44. Janelle Monae Dirty Computer

43. Daniel Avery Song For Alpha

42. Arctic Monkeys Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

41. Tirzah Devotion

40. Courtney Barnett Tell Me How You Really Feel

39. Adrianne Lenker Abysskiss

38. Mark Pritchard The Four Worlds

37. Alex Zhang Huntai Divine Weight

36. Let’s Eat Grandma I’m All Ears

35. Nils Frahm Melody

34. Blood Orange Negro Swan

33. Snail Mail Lush

32. Leon Vynehall Nothing Is Still

31. Mariah Carey Caution

30. Kurt Vile Bottle It In

29. Ariana Grande Sweetener

28. Richard Reed Parry Quiet River of Dust Vol. 1

27. Martyn Voids

26. Son Lux Brighter Wounds

25. Kamasi Washington Heaven And Earth

24. Yves Tumor Safe In The Hands of Love

23. Christine and the Queens Chris

22. Father John Misty God’s Favorite Customer

21. Oneohtrix Point Never Age Of

20. GAS Rausch

19. Jon Hopkins Singularity

18. Eiko Ishibashi The Dream My Bones Dream

17. Objekt Cocoon Crush

16. Cat Power Wanderer

15. Beach House 7

14. The 1975 A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships

13. Julia Holter Aviary

12. Shinichi Atobe Heat

11. DJ Healer Nothing 2 Loose

10. Mount Eerie Now Only

9. Robyn Honey

8. SOPHIE OIL OF EVERY PEARL’s UN-INSIDES

7. Skee Mask Compro

6. Prime Minister of Doom Mudshadow Propaganda

5. A.A.L (Against All Logic) 2012–2017

4. Tim Hecker Konoyo

3. Mitski Be The Cowboy

2. DJ Koze Knock Knock

  1. Low Double Negative

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