If you want to skip my reviews and just get to the music, here’s my 2018 mix Spotify playlist.
The intros for my 2017 and 2016 mixes were as much laments as anything: laments for the current state of our nation and political system, for the rise of hatred and racism, for the betrayal of so many values and scruples. And here we are, 12 months later, and nothing really has changed. Trump is still president, pushing forth both his incompetence and disdain on an international scale. And yet, great music keeps being made, politics be damned.
Indeed, great music always comes as a result of social upheaval, strife, and uncertainty — it comes in spite of those things. Humans, being the weak, frail, and troubled creatures that we are, can’t help but push for beauty, truth, freedom, and independence.
Your explanation for that likely depends on your religious, spiritual, and/or philosophical convictions. For me, it’s proof that we were meant to experience beauty, etc. fully and perfectly, but we only experience them partially and haltingly this side of eternity. Truly great music (and movies, TV shows, books, video games, etc.) give us a foretaste. Or as G.K. Chesterton put it, they’re remnants of a “cosmic shipwreck” that remind us of our true home.
And as far as I’m concerned, these songs are truly great, for myriad reasons. Some of them are truly beautiful, bringing peace and joy. Some fill me with nostalgia while others fill me with awe and terror. And some just plain groove, which is divine in its own funky way.
Originally released in 2007, The Angelic Process’ final album, Weighing Souls With Sand, was reissued earlier this year, giving listeners another chance to experience the duo’s stunning blend of black metal and shoegaze’s atmospherics. On “The Promise of Snakes,” these seemingly disparate elements come together in a powerful maelstrom that’s as beautiful and stirring as it is raw and deafening.
South Korean producer Aseul first caught my ear with “Sandcastles,” which was a lovely slice of dreampop. But “Always With You” is a shiny dance-pop number more reminiscent of Sally Shapiro’s immaculate italo disco. Aseul’s soft, cooing voice (singing in both English and Korean) melds perfectly with the production’s chiming synths and pulsing rhythms. The result is perfect music for dancing the night away in the club that is your bedroom.
While the beats in City Girl’s music are definitely solid, what elevates the enigmatic producer’s charming music is how they layer in other elements, be it jazzy piano, soulful vocals, or pensive guitar melodies. Or, in the case of “Neon Impasse,” shimmery atmospherics that evoke Treasure-era Cocteau Twins. On paper, this combination shouldn’t necessarily work, but listening to it proves to be an absolutely beguiling experience.
After a thirteen-year hiatus, Fine China released arguably their best album to date, Not Thrilled. The same influences (e.g., New Order, The Smiths) were present but Fine China used those sounds to craft pristine, poignant pop songs filled with sterling melodies. What’s more, the ensuing years have imbued songs like “Anybody Else” with a middle-age melancholy that makes Fine China’s music all the more affecting.
Composed as the soundtrack for a fictional children’s book, Hampshire & Foat’s The Honeybear is as enchanting as such a premise sounds — and not as pretentious or precious as it might suggest. That’s because on a song like “Honey Dreams,” the duo imbue their enchanting music with a solemnity through the use of melancholy strings, playful-yet-poignant woodwinds, and some simple, folksy guitar.
Steve Hauschildt’s Strands (2016) was a truly lovely ambient/electronic album that featured songs you never wanted to end, so I was very excited when his followup, Dissolvi, was released earlier this year. “Saccade” is the album’s clear highlight, due in large part to the presence of Julianna Barwick’s sighing vocals, which pair perfectly with Hauschildt’s elegant arrangements. In another day and age, this might’ve been labelled “new age” music; whatever the genre, it’ll certainly leave you feeling tranquil enough.
Hiemal’s wintry dark ambience conjures up ominous frozen landscapes with the best of them. But what’s surprising about a longform composition like “At the Edge of the World — Winter’s Gate” — the opening track on Guardian of Winter’s Gate — is how intimate and emotional the French producer’s drones and atmospherics become. In a genre so often focused on simply overwhelming listeners, that’s a nice change of pace.
Although he got his start writing unassuming-yet-heartbreakingly beautiful indie-folk, Damien Jurado underwent an evolution in recent years, combining his heartfelt songwriting with spacy, psychedelic elements (due in part to his fruitful collaborations with the recently departed Richard Swift). “Allocate” is a perfect example of this evolution; it has the hushed intimacy of his earlier folk music but with a simmering string arrangement and fluid bassline that recalls The Clientele.
Khruangbin was one of my favorite musical discoveries of 2018. On paper, their blend of Thai funk, psychedelia, surf rock, and soul music sounds almost too good to be true. But then you listen to the fluid basslines, crisp beats, and fiery guitar licks, and you realize it’s even better than that. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to “August 10,” but it’s so effortlessly smooth that every listen feels like the first one.
Amy Klein’s “Nothing” was a delightful surprise, a moody goth-pop single from an artist who typically opts for something a bit more on the singer/songwriter end of the spectrum. But “Nothing” is chock full of swirling, churning guitars and Klein’s siren-like vocals. As I wrote in my original review of the single, “If the idea of Kate Bush fronting The Sisters of Mercy sounds appealing to you, then this is the song for you.”
With Double Negative, Low gave longtime fans like myself an early Christmas gift: 25 years into a storied career, they radically reinvented their sound while remaining faithful to the essence of what made their sound so great in the first place. Throughout “Fly,” the band’s slowcore aesthetic is bruised and distorted with glitchy, cut-up electronics, but Mimi Parker’s voice — one of the band’s defining elements — is as heartbreakingly beautiful as ever. (And don’t overlook Steve Garrington’s sublime bassline.) “Fly” is unmistakably Low, but quite unlike anything we’ve heard from them before.
Tor Lundvall recorded his most recent album, the aptly titled A Dark Place, in his bedroom at night, and that intimacy and loneliness defines the album. The dense, somber atmospherics and minimal beats of “Quiet Room” immediately draw you into Lundvall’s nocturnal world, as his unassuming voice sings about encroaching nightmares that “cut the soul from this hollow life.” Those lyrics are pretty maudlin until you learn that A Dark Place was borne out of grief and loss. Then they take on a sense of urgency that only adds to the music’s emotional heft.
Thanks to their effortless replication of classic ’80s alternative sounds (e.g., The Smiths, New Order, The Cure), The Mary Onettes have been a longtime favorite ’round these parts. Their recent releases, however, have found the Swedish band running those influences through a filter that owes much to balearic house’s dreamy, euphoric sounds — with the resulting music still sounding fantastic. Case in point: “Cola Falls,” the band’s latest release for the Cascine label. Shimmering guitars, snappy beats, retro-tastic synth flourishes, and a wonderful sense of melancholy thanks to Philip Ekström’s vocals… this song has everything I could ever want from The Mary Onettes.
Miracle’s music could be filed under “synth-pop” — Depeche Mode circa Black Celebration and Violator is definitely an influence here — but the duo’s music is also a good deal more varied and esoteric. Which would explain the slashing guitar riffs on “Light Mind” that hearken to the band’s metal roots as well as the cryptic lyrics (“All things choose to fall away/Right thoughts lead to light mind”). My initial reactions to The Strife of Love in a Dream were fairly cool, but songs like “Light Mind” wove a spell that I eventually found impossible to escape.
Ogre’s soundtrack for The Chairman short is filled with ’80s-inspired synthwave and woozy vaporwave, stuff that’s become all the rage in our post-Stranger Things world. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fresh and evocative in its own right. Case in point, “She’s Definitely Receiving, Now Send Her A Signal,” which begins with ominous atmospherics that suggest shadowy psychic experiments before eventually morphing into some of the album’s most beautiful moments.
With “Sister,” England’s Petrol Girls have crafted a powerful feminist anthem, from Ren Aldridge’s impassioned cry of the song title to these manifesto-like lyrics: “We will decode this world together/We will write our existence in/Because the planet will not survive/In the hands of toxic men.” And it’s all delivered via post-hardcore that more than lives up to the lyrics’ sense of urgency and desperation.
Ride was one of many shoegaze veterans to experience a resurgence in recent years. However, “Catch You Dreaming” eschews many of the usual shoegaze sounds. There are no walls of effects-laden guitar; instead, this collaboration with DJ/producer Erol Alkan opts for a more balearic house-oriented sound, with pulsing beats and gauzy electronic textures. “Catch You Dreaming” doesn’t sound like the Ride of yore, but it sounds fantastic nevertheless.
I didn’t know this when I first listened to The Embrace Between the Circus and the Sky, but Silk Demon is actually one of the many, many aliases of David Russo, who is best known as Hong Kong Express and the founder of the Dream Catalogue label. While Russo was instrumental in the growth and evolution of vaporwave, his Silk Demon work trades many of that genre’s retro-nostalgist trappings for dreamy ambience that feels like the aural equivalent of Photoshop’s “Gaussian Blur” filter. Put another way, this is some of the best and most captivating music that both Russo and Dream Catalogue have released in awhile.
Given that some of Thousand Foot Whale Claw’s members are also in the Texan synth outfit S U R V I V E with the guys who composed the Stranger Things soundtrack, you might think you know what to expect with “Double Abyss.” You’re probably wrong. Instead of composing ’80s-sounding synthesizer tracks, Thousand Foot Whale Claw is more indebted to vintage German krautrock and kosmiche. The band’s dense, spacey sounds come to a head on “Double Abyss,” which closes out Black Hole Party with a captivating slowburn that ultimately erupts in a mind-expanding supernova of crashing drums, fiery guitar solos, and sweeping synthscapes.
I first heard WMD’s “Coniferae” on NPR while driving to work one morning, and the short snippet I heard was so captivating that I had to find out more as soon as I could. And I still feel that way with each subsequent listen. In just under four minutes, Michael Erickson gracefully blends downtempo beats, crystalline piano notes, chilled out synthesizers, and delicate guitar riffs to create some truly sublime, nostalgia-soaked dreampop.
Young Hierophant’s “electronic music” feels neither futuristic nor retro, just otherworldly. Much like the hauntology of the Ghost Box label, Andrew Horton mines the sounds of the past (e.g., classic horror soundtracks, ’70s educational films) to paint an evocative sonic picture of another world that feels like ours, only slightly off. “Sylvan Dread” is catchy, and dare I say, its synth arpeggios even get a bit funky. But there’s something skewed and spooky about it all, like you’re listening to dance music composed, not for the discothèque, but rather, for ancient rites performed in darkened woods and fallow fields.