We made it. 2018 has come and gone. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to describe last year as “exhausting,” or indeed, “skull-fuckingly terrible.” But I am, at heart, an optimist; and I place enormous value on taking stock of what went right.
Despite a slow start, the roster of contenders for this list exploded around April. In fact when it came time to pull everything together, I had to make some hard decisions. And it’s always important to keep in mind that it’s impossible to truly describe what’s “best” objectively.
There were albums I perhaps enjoyed more than some of those which have made the cut. But enjoyment is just one consideration among many. Ultimately I judge an album based upon the returns I receive for my investment of time and energy. And every record presented to you today rewarded me in spades…
#10. CHVRCHES – Love Is Dead
“Turbulent” and “hellish” are two other words which come to mind when I reflect on 2018. However the word which resonates most profoundly with me is “discovery.” Diving deeper into indie scenes obviously provided the greatest avenues for this; but I also got a handle on mainstream acts that previously held little interest for me.
The first Chvrches song I remember listening to was “Warning Call.” As first impressions go, it wasn’t great. The song itself is fine. Just fine, but it was weighed down by being the theme to Mirror’s Edge Catalyst – a tedious game which I was originally hyped for.
But this year they released “Miracle.” Backed by a masterful single shot video, it tapped into the zeitgeist in ways I found glorious. Once Love Is Dead dropped in May, “Deliverance” and “Forever” blew right past it. There was a period where I left the latter on repeat, because its quality of production and momentum is enthralling.
Love Is Dead encouraged me to explore Chvrches’ back catalogue. By comparison, this album isn’t as cohesive or accomplished as their previous efforts; but it’s still a great entry point for a exciting and dynamic act.
#9. CLEAN BANDIT – What Is Love?
So I used to be ambivalent about Chvrches. Once upon a time I hated Clean Bandit.
I considered them to be one of the most milquetoast and inexplicably popular acts around. The only track of theirs I could recall was “Rather Be” – a perfect storm of tedium, and further evidence of Jess Glynne squandering her considerable talent.
I was shocked by how good I found What Is Love? to be. Chart smashes like “Rockabye” and “Symphony” piqued my interest, and it was great to find a consistent, high level of quality across the board.
Clean Bandit remain, first and foremost, a singles act. So it helps that “Solo” (feat. Demi Lovato) pops up on here. I enjoy and admire this song more every time I hear it. Even things I find a little jarring like the use of auto-tune perfectly add to what they’re trying to do. “Solo” is fun, and weird enough to maintain my enthusiasm.
And then we have “I Miss You” (feat. Julia Michaels). I’m completely confident in saying that it’s one of my favourite songs of all time. It’s opening bars are magical. I love how its themes of longing and regret are balanced by light and breezy production. Grace Chatto’s mournful cello somehow meshes perfectly with an infectious, but not overbearing, drop. Michaels’ vocals are simply beautiful.
Honestly, “I Miss You” could’ve justified this album’s place on the list alone. Luckily, there’s a lot more going on here.
#8. 4LUNG – Rat King World Champion
Okay, let’s get out there.
“Hushy” 4Lung is a maniac. A rocket-propelled raver who is somehow capable of producing music which is as tight and inspired as it is batshit crazy. I did a full review of her hysterical, demented, breakcore EP Tiny Troon Adventures back in September. But I really should have turned more attention to Rat King World Champion.
What’s great about Rat King… is how it sees Hushy branch out into a different genre (I’d call it electro-grunge, she goes with chip-punk); without sacrificing her recognisable sound or unique identity.
There’s plenty of thrashing drums and furious guitar work, but also those bleeps and bloops and retro kicks I’ve come to know and love. “Tapped Out” (feat. Cybirdo) could’ve worked on Tiny Troon Adventures, but as it’s building on the foundations “Every Single Hater” laid out; it becomes something monumental.
Hushy works in hyperspace, so this album isn’t very long; but it is still so potent. For me the undiluted high point of Rat King… is “Soggy Rice.” Mounted on a blasting backing track; it’s a series of…colourful spoken word insights into Hushy’s back story. I don’t want to spoil what the title refers to specifically; but I do want to salute how bold and, (and dare I say brave) it is to reveal so much in such a stark yet fun way.
“Hermit” is an acoustic led cover of a standard from California’s Bracket. It lets you catch your breath, so you’re prepared for “Just Be Nice (And Let Everyone Play)” to take you home. Aching muscles, blissful smile and all.
#7. PALE WAVES – My Mind Makes Noises
I went through a rapid conversion when it came to Pale Waves. As someone who runs apologia for The 1975; I was always aware of their “proteges.” But for whatever reason, I’d never actually sat and listened to them.
In the run up to My Mind Makes Noises‘ release, I decided to check them out; beginning with “Television Romance.” I’ve previously described it as ‘a near perfect pop song,’ so imagine my delight when I encountered “Kiss” – a joyous song which makes me want to sing into a hair brush while throwing myself around the room.
The biggest part of this album’s appeal comes from its youthful energy. It speaks to the fact that (while life can seem fraught with confusion and anxiety) being young is a wondrous thing. Listening to this reminds me of how it felt to be in my teens; drawing comfort and inspiration and “troof” from Manic Street Preachers album like “Generation Terrorists” and even the darkest parts of “The Holy Bible.”
“Karl (I Wonder What It’s Like To Die)” – the most distinctive and heartfelt song on the album – sees singer Heather Baron-Gracie confront her feelings about the loss of her grandfather. It’s a beautiful outro, and a fitting counterpoint to the burgeoning young love of opener “Eighteen.”
I admire this record a lot, both for what it does and what it represents. I also hugely admire the fretwork of guitarist Hugo Silvani. He’s no Joe Satriani or anything, but the textures he adds really work for me. And I have to say that I find drummer Ciara Doran fascinating. That she was a co-producer on the album goes largely unacknowledged; but I have a feeling that she could wind up being a serious force in music, far beyond the band itself.
#6. ADWAITH – Melyn
The indie scene in Wales is something I’m keen to explore in greater detail over the coming year. I’ve made plenty of references to it recently, but the depth and breadth of fascinating topics wired into it is remarkable. For example: in the context of Brexit; ideas of cultural diversity and national identity have, naturally, been hotly contested. And a scene which popularises the use of a native minority language adds another compelling dimension to this discussion.
Ultimately though, it’s the exceptional quality of work this new generation of Welsh musicians are making which is the draw. The Vega Bodegas, Accü, Mellt and Breichiau Hir – all brilliant acts who deserve great success. And then there’s the most talented and promising of them all…Adwaith.
The Carmarthen three piece received a substantial boost in 2018. James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers not only gave them an endorsement; but also produced a remix of their track “Gartref.” The original appears on Melyn and, as much as I enjoy the remix; it lacks the lilting, shoegaze quality which I appreciate so much.
The core appeal of Adwaith is simply that they are an awesome indie band. Crashing drums, throbbing bass, fuzzy riffs and Hollie Singer’s effortless, melodic and vaguely haunting vocals form the bedrock of something alluring and often trippy.
Listening to Melyn reminds me of those clubs. Ones characterised by limited capacity and tiny stages. Adwaith are that band which comes on and fills it with magic. A group who can somehow make any space feel epic.
“Lipstick Coch” reels you in with its throbbing bass and glittering licks. “Newid” oozes post-punk cool. Tracks like “Y Diweddaraf” and “Osian” get you moving. Melyn is such a great package – an exciting debut, and a record which is far, far greater than the sum of its already exquisite parts.
#5. FICKLE FRIENDS – You Are Someone Else
This shouldn’t have made the cut. On first listening to it, back in March, I found the Brighton based five piece’s debut pretty blah. Essentially striking somewhere between The 1975 and my favourite artist of 2016: Shura. Just without the qualities which made either of them such great acts.
But something happened. Months later, I realised that I’d been listening to You Are Someone Else over and over again. “Wake Me Up” became one of my favourite songs of the year; and I came to recognise the sheer excellence of tracks like “Glue” and “Swim.”
I actually struggle to explain why I didn’t click with this initially. Part of me (a very confused part) wants to say that Fickle Friends’ brand of synth-rock hinges on an almost preternatural sense of cool. It’s this which separates them from their peers; and helps enhance the vibrancy which I had somehow missed the first time around.
What they are doing; they’re doing very well. And You Are Someone Else includes “In My Head;” a cryptic song of exhaustion and confusion which is one of the best things I’ve heard all year. The image of singer Natassja Shiner lazily smoking Camels in some anonymous hotel room forms vividly in the listener’s mind; and its foolish to underestimate a band who can create such imagery.
I was too hasty in judging them because, as with Pale Waves; they’re only just being to realise the enormous potential that they possess.
#4. ALISON WONDERLAND – Awake
My discovery of Awake is a testament to the joy of a great record store. Working in one, day in day out, does not deflate the feeling of stumbling across something special in the racks. And Awake proves that cover art can exert enormous gravity, despite its simplicity.
Honestly I find that cover image of Alexandra “Alison Wonderland” Sholler fascinating. It’s beautiful and yet grotesque. On seeing it, I knew I was buying it, because I had to know what kind of music it was selling.
Broadly speaking, Sholler trades in trap, house and EDM, though she’s not one for categories or boundaries. Given her background in classical music (she performed as a cellist with the Sydney Youth Opera), it’s fair to say that she’s quite the all-rounder.
I’ve heard it argued that the experience of full orchestral performances and immense dance parties are pretty comparable. Obviously Sholler is the focal point live, rather than part of the ensemble; but the canvas being painted on is similarly vast.
Luckily she has the charisma to pull it off from behind a mixing desk. And this translates well onto Awake. An early track like “No” feels very anthemic, and it’s easy to imagine how wild the reception to it would be live. Other tracks like “Okay” follow in this vein; but what’s interesting is how Awake flowers as it progresses.
“Cry” is a great example of Sholler’s impish nature. The steel drums played during the chorus are a nice touch; and this track offers a great example of her playful side. Specifically the first few lines of the second verse: ‘I felt awake because you started to remind me/It’s no mistake that we both like space and David Attenborough/And lemonade and anime.’
“Dreamy Dragon” is a lyrical delight across the board. The vocal delivery by rapper Chief Keef is en pointe; even when delivering a line as bizarre as ‘Jump on a boat and sa-a-ail/Feelin’ like Johnny Depp.’ I think it’s supposed to invoke the spirit of Jack Sparrow. Personally feeling like Johnny Depp now means ‘considerably mocked and increasingly irrelevant,’ but whatever. It’s still an awesome song.
But I’ve wasted way too much time here; because all I truly want to gush over is “Happy Place.” I don’t leave the house much, but I would buy a ticket for one of Sholler’s gigs just to hear it live.
This song is monumentally awesome, even when it’s coming out of the tinny speakers on my laptop. Beginning with a sublime cello line, it gets supercharged with a pounding house beat that leads to the most life-affirming refrain of the year: ‘FUCK ME UP ON A SPIRITUAL LEVEL.’ Sholler has described her struggle with depression in the past, and this song is one of the greatest middle fingers ever shown to it.
#3. MØ – Forever Neverland
Mø’s debut, No Mythologies To Follow stands as one of my favourite records of the past decade. If not of all time.
With that in mind, I was very nervous that the Danish singer-songwriter would experience a sophomore slump. In my own precious way, I purposefully avoided checking out any singles from Forever Neverland. If it was going to suck, then I wanted to hear it suck in one go.
Oh me of little faith. Who was I to doubt one of the greatest artists working in popular music today? Hearing “Way Down” for the first time was such a relief. And once I was reassured that things were going to be okay, I found my swaying dreamily along with it. And then “I Want You,” and pretty much every track after that.
The jury is still out on whether or not it’s better than No Mythologies…. Forever Neverland is more expansive and ambitious. It’s bursting with ideas and so many flourishes which makes the whole thing soar even higher.
The shakuhachi flute on “Way Down,” the harmonies and robo-vocals on “Blur,” the tribal beats and biographical details entwining throughout “Nostalgia.” I could write fan fiction about every little detail of this album which I adore.
Forever Neverland makes me happy. It makes me want to dance. It gives me energy and makes me feel taller. Even a comparatively darker track like “If It’s Over” (feat. Charlie XCX) induces feelings of elevation and gratitude.
Maybe the fear will return once her next album is announced. But for now I live in a world which is better because Mø is making music within it.
#2. ROOK – Shed Blood
Some of you may be surprised that Shed Blood is only at number two. I’ve been very evangelical about Montreal based producer/performer Rook (and her various other projects) since reviewing this album back in July.
I went back and forth over whether or not Shed Blood should take the top spot. If nothing else, I consider this to be the most important album of 2018. “Important” because it solidified my confidence that writing for Pastel Wasteland was the way to go. That there is incredible music out there that more people should listen to and that I can – in my own minuscule way – contribute to spreading awareness of it.
But beyond that, Shed Blood is important because of its power. Rook states that:
…this album is about trauma and how it can hurt and be used to hurt others. It is about not knowing how to use the word family or if you want to use it at all. It is about trashgirls living on the edge of society being mobbed for the crime of attempted survival.
As a listener I found a lot of the imagery and tone of Shed Blood applicable beyond Rook’s more specific inspirations. This is some classic “Death of the Author” stuff – while I value the intimate, personal nature of the album; as a listener I found it also resonated perfectly with my experience of living through a year as shitty as 2018.
Turning on the news or visiting social media proved that the zeitgeist was dominated by trauma and people (especially minorities) struggling to survive. For my part Shed Blood did more than any other work to capture this.
The darkest art can equip us to manifest, map and confront hideous things which may otherwise be beyond us. When trapped in myself or reeling from whatever fresh hell the wider world erupted into; Shed Blood was there. It provided catharsis, it provoked honest introspection and most of all it reassured me that there is always someone out there who can understand.
Weirdly the reason Shed Blood isn’t number one is also because of its power. It’s not something I could just slip on. Like Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, it’s a masterpiece which asks a lot of you; but it also rewards you with so much more in return.
#1. VYLET PONY – Glitter
And so…the best album of 2018.
Let’s not beat around the bush: Vylet Pony now ranks as one of my favourite musicians of all time. A charismatic performer and a writer with a great eye for details. A producer who draws upon an enormous array of influences; and is capable of switching between numerous styles with confidence.
With Glitter, Vylet Pony has created an album which consistently surprises and delights. As listeners we’re invited to engage with a range of emotions and insights and experiences. There’s the inspirational (“Keepsakes,” “Squid Galaxy,” the title track), fiendishly entertaining (“The Magic of Mischief”), loved up and starry eyed (“Prom Night Equestria).”
Even the littlest things Vylet can do are amazing. For example: the stress they put on the word ‘now’ in verse four of “The Magic of Mischief” is somehow one of the most entertaining things I’ve heard in years.
Vylet’s mastery of production and performance is something to behold. But there is another crucial reason why Glitter takes the top spot. Where Shed Blood helps one confront dark and traumatic concerns, Glitter feels the void with hope and possibilities.
I hadn’t realised that I needed an album like this. Glitter takes you out of yourself. You’re swept away by its magic, and you find yourself astonished that an independent artist could produce something so accomplished and so beautiful.