Our Favorite Records of 2018
2018 proved to be yet another bumper year for new music releases. We were treated to break-out work by new artists, important artistic statements by already established acts and newly unearthed archival material from departed greats. All in all, this has made for a heady and varied collection of sounds that has kept us going and grooving as 2018 has worn on. While we’ve highlighted some new music over the year through both our DJ sets and ‘Song of the Day’ picks, we also wanted to take the opportunity to specifically call-out some of our favorite new music released over this last calendar year.
DJ D-Mac’s pick #1:
Kacey Musgraves Golden Hour
Featured track: “Slow Burn”
On her first two major label releases (unofficially her fourth and fifth full-length albums, if you count three regional releases from her teenage years), east Texas-bred singer/songwriter Kacey Musgraves displays a strong reverence for country music traditions while making sharp-eyed observations of small-town life. Album titles alone—Same Trailer, Different Park and Pageant Material—hinted at a rebelliousness and a gentle “honey, we gotta get out of here” posture.
But on her third album, Golden Hour, the newly-married Musgraves jettisons witty lyrical observations for straightforward emotional sincerity. On the lush acoustic album opener, “Slow Burn,” she pronounces “I’m alright with a slow burn / Taking my time, let the world turn” as she embraces the newfound comforts of marriage. On the entirety of Golden Hour Musgraves inverts her established approach; where she was previously lyrically progressive and musically traditional, now she combines heartfelt simplicity with a sonic adventurousness rarely heard elsewhere in contemporary country music. Collaborating with a team of songwriters and producers, Musgraves delivers instantly memorable, heartbreakingly beautiful country melodies in productions that bear scant resemblance to country. Vocoders mix with banjos, references to John Wayne are set to a glittering disco pulse, yacht rock smoothness earns a country queen lilt, while the stars over east Texas go full-on cosmic country. Every sound is shaped and polished until it gleams in high relief.
The ambitious high production approach, though, never outpaces Musgraves herself. Everything is in service of her blissed-out vision. Golden Hour confidently takes its sweet, seductive time unfolding over its thirteen tracks, creating a warm sonic embrace that bears repeat listening. More than any other record this year, I returned to Golden Hour again and again.
DJ D-Mac’s pick #2:
Kikagaku Moyo Masana Temples
Featured track: “Dripping Sun”
Japanese psych rockers, Kikagaku Moyo (their names translates to “Geometric Patterns”), toiled in relative obscurity for years, but managed to take a big leap forward with this year’s stellar release, Masana Temples. The band have streamlined their approach and become less reliant on jamming, resulting in their least profligate and arguably best record to date. The band recorded the album in Lisbon with the help of jazz guitarist Bruno Pernadas, who helped them focus and hone their sound. The influences remain (Krautrock, British folk-psych, West Coast psychedelia, European raga rock), so long-time fans of the group need not worry. While the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach that served the band for years is largely gone, the group remain as dynamic and imaginative as ever.
“Dripping Sun” sees the group’s new approach paying dividends. Powered initially by a furious wah-wah guitar psychedelic swirl, the song eventually drifts into to a gentle acoustic ballad before picking up speed and cresting again into a full-out electric freak-out. The use of dynamics and the subdivision of the song into discreet musical movements speaks to both Kikagaku Moyo‘s compositional aspiration and their new-found musical discipline.
This dynamic approach also informs their live show. Playing to a small but enthusiastic crowd on the tiny Black Cat backstage (RIP) in October, the band tore through the Masana Temples songs (and highlights from their back catalog) with a hypnotic, motorik precision. Simply amazing.
DJ Ty Hussell’s pick:
Prince Piano and a Microphone 1983
Featured track: “Strange Relationship”
This is a one-take, one-mic, basement recording of one man and his voice at an upright piano. This is an intimate 35 minute session, recorded in Prince‘s Kiowa Trail home studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota in 1983. At the time this was recorded, Prince had just released 1999 and had yet to release Purple Rain. I’ve been in love with this man’s music since elementary school, but this recording is not just for us crazy super fans.
This is beautiful, touching music pouring out of a virtuoso-creative-genius-artist. You’ll hear glimpses of alternative versions of songs that had yet to be recorded, songs that were never officially released and covers. If this is any indication of the kinds of future releases that we’ll be seeing from Prince‘s estate, I’m beaming already. Thank you Prince, its incredible to be able to have this window into your creative process!
DJ KC’s pick:
Peggy Gou Once EP
Featured track: “It Makes You Forget (Itgehane)”
Picking “a song” of the year gets tougher and tougher as music continues to fragment into genres with zero overlap so I’m going to go with a song that peaked my ear when I first heard it and continues to delight whenever I catch it as a dancer on a dance floor. “It Makes You Forget (Itgehane)” by Peggy Gou is funny enough a reminder of how great 90s deep house was.
Full of soulful sounds and squiggly bass lines, the record has plenty of upbeat sounds combined with a melancholy lilt to the tone of the winds sung in Korean giving it a touch of head-down hands-up deepness without being overwrought. It’s new yet familiar and the production is spot on. Not understanding the words allows them to melt into the track as melody. It reminds me of the urgent yet dark music of Kraftwerk in approach if not sounds. It’s a great addition to her catalogue of other retro tinged club wigglers like 2016’s Gou Talk.
DJ Stereo Faith’s pick:
Spiritualized And Nothing Hurt
Featured track: “I’m Your Man”
It is hard to believe that Jason Pierce has been making records for 32-years, between his first band Spaceman 3, and since 1992, as Spiritualized. Pierce has hinted that And Nothing Hurt may be the final record he makes as the legendary space rock project, and if that proves to be the case, it may be the perfect way to go out. The album is a gorgeous laid back affair.
“I’m Your Man” is a standout track from the album that features Pierce‘s songwriting augmented by gorgeous string and horn arrangements. The track even has something of a classic George Martin-era Beatles vibe. This is Spiritualized firing on all cylinders and making music that is at once dreamy, druggy and emotionally moving.
DJ Neville C’s pick:
James Booker The Lost Paramount Tapes
Featured track: “Tico Tico”
My favorite release of 2018 was actually recorded in 1973: it’s James Booker‘s The Lost Paramount Tapes. Booker was a legendary New Orleans piano player who passed away in 1983. Dr. John described him as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.”
This set was recorded in Los Angeles with some well-known New Orleans musicians and its a real treat to finally see it released. The music on this collection really underlines just what made Booker‘s music special and why he remains a unique musical voice. Booker‘s rollicking read of the Mardi Gras standard, “Tico Tico”, is one of the many standouts from the record. Listening to some of the piano runs that Booker pulls off, be prepared to pick your jaw up off the ground.
DJ Stylus’s pick:
Phonte No News is Good News
Featured track: “To the Rescue”
Phonte is the emcee’s emcee, and has been consistently in my personal top five rappers since his days as part of the group Little Brother. When you’ve been listening to hip-hop well into your fourth decade, you need your rap to grow with you. And if that means an expectation of bangers, thoughtful tracks, smooth jams and straight up raw bars, Phonte delivers.
This tidy package of ten songs clocking in just over 30 minutes amazingly covers all of that ground. He goes from dismantling rap competitors to two-stepping dancefloor grooves to a deep examination of the racial disparities in health and aging to an ode to marriage and wraps it up with a message of personal triumph, all with wit, humor, technical brilliance and solid beats. A solid read on this album can be found over at the Billboard website.
DJ M Dot’s pick:
Khruangbin Con Todo El Mundo
Featured track: “August 10”
Khruangbin did something new and exciting on their new LP, Con Todo El Mundo. They moved away from the ’60s and ’70s Thai cassette inspirations of their debut in favor of musical references from the Middle East and specifically, Iran. Despite the difference in inspiration, Khruangbin did not abandon their earlier sound altogether, rather their new work is more of a fusion of influences.
“August 10” is a wonderful track from Con Todo El Mundo that not only showcases the disparate and gorgeous elements of the album, but is also an almost perfect introduction to Khruangbin. A gentle-guitar line, mild psychedelics, funky drums, a relentless bass-line and ethereal, chanted vocals are all showcased. The different elements all mesh perfectly together into something greater than the sum of their parts.
John Coltrane Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album
Featured track: “One Up, One Down”
Every year throws its share of archival releases at us by dearly departed musicians. Frequently these come in the form of reissues, demo compilations and other odds and ends. While these releases tend to be illuminating for purists, they rarely represent a major artistic statement or change the way we see a particular musician. It also gets hard to shake the feeling that the audience for these releases is living in the past, especially with the vast quantities of wonderful new music released every year.
And yet, the new release I’ve listened to the most this year is this recently unearthed John Coltrane album, Both Directions At Once. The record was originally recorded in 1963 and features the “classic quartet” consisting of Coltrane, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison. The record catches Coltrane just as he was beginning to experiment with the more astral music he would be making up until his tragic, premature death in 1967 and as such, is absolutely fascinating.