My Top Ten Albums of 2018
I tend to connect my yearly picks for top records more with experience and catharsis than talent or ingenuity. The reflections I pen rarely include how wonderful a guitar sounded, or whether or not a band/artist did something new in the scene. Instead, I seem to have always attached music to memory, and it couldn't been the most godawful music of the year but if I happened to pair it right with the appropriate mixer to cover the taste, I'll still give it a nod of approval. Although I will admit: however much I enjoyed my time listening to Eminem's Revival while driving from Detroit to Grand Rapids with Dan and Kris on last year's Christmas Tour – that record simply cannot be included in the best of anything. So, I suppose there are exceptions to the rule (I truly have enjoyed Kamikaze, though - which you'll find below).
This morning – at the time of writing this – I'm happy and excited to sit down and rediscover the music that I loved in 2017. I've got a cup of Columbia from Messenger Coffee to my left. [They're still offering anyone I tell 15% off of whatever you want from their store – beans for souvenirs – up until March, I believe. Code is: friendly15 when you check out. (No, I'm not getting kickbacks.) Enjoy.] I've been trying to create a "writing aura" - whatever that means, some sort of atmosphere that feels relaxing and creative - in my office at home by burning incense and lighting candles on my desk in the mornings, so Nag Champa is burning to my right, smelling of sandalwood and filling the room. Brandi bought me a snow globe for Christmas, so it's shaken and lit, snowing.
My friend Jonathan started this annual tradition. At least, for me. I know everyone does it. I usually go looking through all of the big-name lists – Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, whatever shows up on a Google search – to see what I've forgotten, or how my list compares. Usually, it doesn't compare at all, and I end up wondering how I missed out on so much, or who all these people are, and where they came from. Is this a byproduct of getting older? I feel like my mom when she wonders what in the world I'm talking about.
At any rate, here is a not-entirely-comprehensive list, in no particular order, of the music I enjoyed, loved, or at the very least: appreciated this year. As always – if you feel inclined toward conversation – feel free to email and let me know what I've forgotten, how this compares to your own discoveries and loves, what you agree with or absolutely hate, and what I should fall in love with next.
Vein | Errorzone
Shortly after Underoath's Chris Dudley mentioned something about Vein'sErrorzone as one of the best recent records to drop in the heavy music genre, I jumped straight onto this Boston hardcore bandwagon.
It reminds me of the chaos I fell in love with after my wife introduced me to the scene in my senior year of high school – The Chariot, Dillinger Escape Plan. But also, weirdly combined with the nü-metal flavor of bands I'd jam on San Francisco's Live 105 as a fifth-grader, skateboarding with my neighbor around Belmont, sneaking peaks at inappropriate VHS movie covers at the rental place down the street, or buying 70¢ donuts and 30¢ grape sodas from Safeway – a $1 introduction to the first tastes of coming-of-age – soundtracked by Korn, or Limp Bizkit, or The Offspring, or whatever else I wasn't actually allowed to listen to back then.
Errorzone is studio time with Andy Othling in Cedar Crest, New Mexico last Spring, trying to figure out how in the world to program a light show using cheap LED strips and delayed MIDI signals. It's the last night of my last show of 2017, passenger seat to Dan, driving his Volkswagen home for the first real time since September, Kris in the backseat creating meme'd responses to silly Instagram questions.
It's also realizing that – upon watching the band's recent Audiotree Live session and much to my dismay – Brandi has completely abandoned the chaos for Calvin Harris. And just what do you think God is punishing me for?
Phoebe Bridgers | Stranger in the Alps
My familiarity with the name Phoebe Bridgers began when Julien Bakerteamed up with her and Lucy Dacus for Boy Genius, but I didn't listen toStranger In the Alps until about four weeks ago, after my friend Dan started playing the record on repeat every time he drove us through the dreary December days for this year's Your Friendly Christmas Tour. That said, apparently a couple weeks at the end of a year is enough to bump an artist – brand new to me – to the top of my favorites for the whole thing.
Her music is quiet, beautiful and haunting, melancholy and salted with such interesting lyrical content, candid and casually conversational (you can find a relatively succinct look into Bridgers' world / songs in this Metro Times interview). It's visual - all out there. She understands metaphor, but it's unencumbered by shadows, or the mazes that I sometimes find myself stuck in when trying to write a song that has become so allegorical that I don't know what it's about anymore, and wordplay and linguistics have gotten in the way of the simplicity I want to capture.
Well, she captures it here, through forthright, experiential storytelling that anyone can visualize oneself in: camped out in the back of the van, atop a bed at the Holiday Inn, couch conversations gone rogue and darkening, shower beers and family. Very much a fan.
mewithoutYou | [untitled] ep & [untitled]
"Out beyond all ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too big to talk about." – Rumi
My therapist introduced me to that poem this year, and has been repeating it during our sessions over the course of the last couple of months in response to so many of the fears that creep in when overanalyze this world, my faith, comparing and contrasting, arguing internally, splitting myself in two. I wonder what Aaron's reasons are for including its paraphrase in “Julia (or, ‘Holy to the LORD’ on the Bells of Horses)” – their first single released for the new record.
In 10th grade, on a rented Greyhound bus following a ski trip to Pagosa Springs – the day Sarah Henson introduced me to mewithoutYou's Catch For Us The Foxes – I never would have imagined that I'd still be enjoying this band's music at almost thirty years old. Would there even be a space for artists like myself in this music scene had it not been for mwY's contribution? I don't know. Aaron Weiss continues to floor me with his lyricism, and the band – who by now seems to have explored some combination of every conceivable genre on the rock 'n' roll spectrum – continues to inspire me with their craftsmanship.
I've included both of 2018's releases as one here – ep and full-length – as they feel inseparable. We drove beyond Cannon Beach this September, past Haystack Rock and Astoria's Goonies house, all littered with warning signs crushing the youthful excitement of touristy passersby, wondering along with Bethlehem, WV: "To which shepherd's field did which angels descend? Or is blessedness revealed to those of us who best pretend?" and "Some counterfeit ideas form ideas all their own... I watched them spread for years to my unsuspecting bones."
Weiss explores mental illness (both his father's and - possibly - his own) in ways less buried than before, commenting, “Dad tried his best, but finally fell apart at just my age... Have I established a pattern perhaps? Biannual mental collapse?” That kind of palms-up surrender (or defeat) will always resonate, I suppose, and though I continue to return to the mercy extended us, I will not lie that I often wonder / hope with him, "Someday, I'll find me."
Underoath | Erase Me
I'll be honest, I can't not include this record, however cutthroat the division it created among long-time U/O fans it has been.
Never the fan of censorship, I couldn't possibly care less about what cuss words they chose to keep on the album. It doesn't matter to me that they're not"the old Underoath" or that they went more commercial on their sound. As an artist (albeit on a much smaller scale), I know how oppressive the fear of growth, change or trying something different can be when you're reliant on people's listenership for your sustenance. More often than not, I tend to be proud of the artists who go for it, anyway, whether or not I – personally – am a fan of their direction. And frankly, Erase Me isn't my favorite direction. I suppose, at the end of the day, I have to trust the members' insistence that they are happy about it, and be stoked for them.
This doesn't have much to do with the record, but as Christianity seemed to be such a humongous part of Aaron and Spencer's conversation / PR surrounding the release, I suppose I'll chime in and say – alongside a plethora of other long-time U/O fans – no, I wasn't particularly excited about the way that they handled it. Then again, literally no one is asking me, and I also wasn't excited about the way other long-time U/O fans created their own little Crusade and sniffed them out for slaughter. I listened to a ton of interviews with the guys in the band, and felt far more empathetic than angry. Whatever "Christian" industry is, it notoriously chews up and spits out well-intentioned people, which is not to say that fault doesn't lie on both invested parties, or that intentions aren't ever skewed, but I so wish resentments like the ones expressed here were far less common than they are. At the end of the day, it makes me sad, and my heart hurts for the what-could-have-beens, and my body groans for the day we can see Jesus unencumbered by the sales pitch we made him.
All of that aside, I spent a good amount of time with the record on repeat – and especially "ihateit," "Hold Your Breath" and "No Frame" – and enjoyed the studio documentary they released in conjunction with the drop.
Honestly, I think the nostalgia attached to anything these guys create will auto-add them to my list, regardless. Saving a person's life creates a huge bias, it seems, and I've often credited – specifically – songs like To Whom It May Concern with doing exactly that, as whatever I was going through at the time Define The Great Line entered my world was assuaged by its presence.
Thrice | Palms
Most every plow Dustin put his hands to over the past however-many-years has made my list at the end.
I've already admitted that I'm not a true og. I didn't enter Thrice-world withThe Artist in the Ambulance, and Vheissu isn't my favorite record of theirs, or whatever it takes to be considered an actual part of this conversation. But ever since we were awkwardly acquainted through a school of theology we both attended in 2012 (a little more on that in my review for Carry The Fire, here), I've paid attention, and we've even become friends. I like the way Dustin thinks about the world, and the care he harbors for those of us who exist in it. Certainly there is a camaraderie that I feel with/through his music (and yes, I understand that Thrice is more than just Dustin), especially beyond the big bangs that have shot so many people out into space and on trajectories previously unforeseen.
Admittedly, Palms had to grow on me. My first impression, driving the short stretch from Denver to Colorado Springs toward the end of my West Coast tour this fall, was... confusing. It didn't hit the way that To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere did, like the immediacy of Hurricane's sweeping me up into the storm. But Palms has grown since then, and there have been moments where I've sat in the lines on that hand, tracing my own, considering divisions, liturgy and Rohr-isms, doing my best to breathe.
The content disturbs and comforts, challenges and assures, creates gaps and closes them, calls for both returns and reconsiderations, and – I believe – continues to affirm the holiness and hope sprinkled (or flooded) throughout this band's discography since their inception.
Eminem | Kamikaze
Obviously, there is always a moral dilemma when it comes to this dude. Inclusions aren't synonymous with endorsements, and there is – as with every Eminem release – plenty to get upset about here. The guy is a master at picking fights with and offending everyone.
I don't want to write much about Mr. Mathers, honestly, because there's not a lot of new to talk about, but I will say that when Interscope / Shady Records dropped this surprise release through a tweet that said, simply: "I tried not to overthink this one..." I was glad for that. Whether it's true or not, I doubt. It seems as though all Marshall has done for years is overthink everything, and it makes me sad for him, because the kind of obsessing he does appears not to be conducive with the happiest of lives. Nevertheless – despite all self-victimization, woe is me and dumb (albeit classic Slim) boasting about still being better than everyone else – this does feel like the strongest release the G.O.A.T. has put out in years. It's more playful, better produced, linguistically miraculous (how in the world he keeps getting better is beyond me), and...
It was fun watching him battle again.
Listener | Being Empty : Being Filled
It feels difficult to write about a record written by friends that you're this close to.
I have nothing but admiration and respect for this band, and the sentiment goes far beyond their music. Dan, Kris and the Listener Family Band – Jon and Tim and Evan and whoever happens to be playing whatever instrument (and you and me, of course) – are one-of-a-kind. Whatever words one might use to describe whatever genre they are... won't do them justice (I know - I tried to write a bio for them last March... it was hard).
Being Empty : Being Filled came out right around the same time I releasedCataracts, and thanks to their invitation, we both got to share stages together all over the world in support of our new releases – a full US in the Fall following a thorough EU in the Spring.
Last month, as Dan, Kris and I sat around a breakfast table at the Radon Lounge in Springfield, Illinois, our hosts invited us to go around the circle and share our best and worst memories of the 2017. My worst can remain at that table, but my best was a bucket-list tour with these friends, who gave Brandi and me the chance to travel Europe with them for the first time in the ten years we've been living this life.
Maybe that's part of what BE : BF is to me: their generosity, their friendship.
It's Money In The Walls of German basements where the sound man's ears have already bled out and – so help him god – so will everyone else's.
It's "quiet nights inside, making plans to make a life" in Utrecht, yoga with Brandi beside the wood burning stove keeping us warm in sub-nothing temperatures.
It's "fans" of Marie Curie in Linz, bonking outside the room we're eating cake in before carrying it across the frozen bridge and stuffing into one another's faces.
It's "sleeping in strange cities, our bodies foreign to ourselves (well, what's inside)" on the top bunk of a Brighton hostel before meeting up with Jessica in the morning, walking streets reminiscent of San Francisco, and just as colorful.
It's "the birds that fly free and the ones that stay" with us: most definitely flying free and giggling to death between trains stops in Munich, a liter full.
I could go on and on but, "wake up, you're dreaming again."
Just listen to the record and invent your own narratives.
Radiant Phaedrius | Lazy Deuces
I do believe I was slated to stay at what I now consider the "famous" Oasis my friend Corey Kilgannon calls home in Jackson Beach, Florida the night most of this record was conceived. I ended up driving through the night instead, winding us up toward Myrtle Beach, my friend Justin Lauer in the passenger seat trying to sleep as I kept myself awake with quality, overnight-drive-classics such as "Higher" and "With Arms Wide Open" – gifts that keep on giving thanks to the blessing that our brother Scott Stapp continues to grace us with after all these years.
Corey's side project – Radiant Phaedrius – really got into me during our September tour, when he played what felt like most of the songs from the record throughout the run.
I like to think that Lazy Deuces is beach vibes if Jack Johnson didn't know that he was already the master of beach vibes, trying to figure out how to make an even beachier-vibier record.
So, Beach Vibes to the Third Power, then.
I've loved all of the music that Corey has chosen to set his mind to, and as the saying goes, my song remains the same.
Twenty One Pilots | Trench
Trench is, hands down, my vote for the "best record" that record that Tyler and Josh have put out together. I love it. I love that it feels slightly less approachable than their previous releases while, simultaneously, increasingly resonant. Almost like you've got to work for it. I've always been a fan of concept records (or themes, anyhow - don't want to get myself in trouble with the Clique for assuming too much), and especially when the truths they convey are so excellently buried within the narrative that you only catch them slowly, deliberately, over time (or through a deep-dive, spelunking your way into all of the story's crevices).
I thought about doing a full-on dissection of what the record means to me here, but honestly... it's a bit overwhelming, and sometimes it's nice to hold onto something for yourself, too. Billboard released an insightful article in October, attempting to "decode" the record's meanings, if you're interested in that.
This year, I bought my wife a ticket to see TØP for her birthday. Well, sort of. I tried, anyhow. I didn't realize they'd gone on sale the day prior, and by the time I looked for seats, they were all gone (bands capable of immediate sellouts like this will always blow my mind). Thankfully, their videographer, Mark, was able to get us in, so I was saved and Brandi was happy. We saw them at the Pepsi Center in Denver along with 19,000 other people.
I don't know how to articulate it without some melodramatic descriptor likereligious experience. I've never seen anything like what they were able to accomplish in that room. Somehow, they combined all the elements of a huge production with the intimate smallness of something like a house show, and I felt tears well up in my eyes, watching all of those people join their chorus in something like worship that two friends deflected elsewhere, and beyond their podium.
Tyler tackled a lot in this record, and – though I would never equate myself or LTP to what he and Josh have done – with a tiny fraction of a shared fanbase, I sometimes feel like I have a small, inside view to how important their work has been for their fans throughout the years, here at ground-level. I've met so many people who's lives their songs have saved, and I'm proud of what they do. Watching them there, in person for the first time in over six years, brought so much joy to my heart, and light to my wife's eyes – the kind I only see in moments of extreme excitement. If it were but that alone, it would have been enough.
Thanks for making people feel less alone, friends.
Childish Gambino | Summer Pack
When this two-track EP dropped, I never would have considered including it in my year-end list, and technically – I suppose – it's not exactly an "album," but it's my list, so I'm doing what I want with it, doggonnit!
It’s here thanks to a September night in San Francisco, in the backyard of my step-sister’s house in the Mission, leading up to an outdoor show that she threw and killed it for Corey and me. I hadn’t realized it, but I’d been playing some sad jams as background noise for the waiting guests, and Corey walked in the house and said,
“Dude, there are some pretty bummer vibes out there... do you have any other music to play?”
Haha. I’m laughing about it now... he was right. I went out and switched the soundtrack to Feels Like Summer and Summertime Magic on repeat, and it brought the brightness right back to one of the best nights of the run.
Stoked to see Childish at Coachella this year.
Big Red Machine
Kids See Ghosts
Alright, y'all! Honestly, when I sat down to start this today, I did not think I was actually going to finish it, but after most of the day in front of this computer, I'm stoked that I did. The Top Ten List is one of my favorite things that I write. Every year, I'm a little bit tempted to stop, but always find it rewarding to sit down and spend the time to keep the tradition alive. This year's list is no different. Thanks so much for checking it out today, and feel free to hit me back / chime in with some suggestions of your own! Always down to put another band in the running for next year's listening.
Enjoy your week, friends!
P.S. In the days since I wrote this for The Fraction Club, I’ve been reminded of so many releases that I spaced when writing this – especially Many Rooms’ There Is A Presence Here and Vagabonds (particularly Luke’s singles “Honest” and “Ache.” I really would be stoked to hear your picks / thoughts. I know that Silent Planet released their new record, and while I've listened to it some, I didn't feel like I had enough digested yet to get my thoughts out about it on time. Also, I hear I need to jam The 1975's new record. What else, guys?!
P.P.S. If you have any interest in receiving new and exclusive writing from me, consider joining The Fraction Club, featuring Private Letters, Podcasts & Videos from yours truly, Written & Read to You Every Sunday Night to Start Your Week.