Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Top Ten Albums of 2018

What do three bands, three solo male artists, and four female solo artists all have in common? Yep—each earned a ranking in this year’s Top Ten Albums. The year was a solid one for ‘80s-era artists wanting to prove they’re more than nostalgia acts—with Culture Club, Rick Astley, The Motels, former Spandau Ballet frontman Tony Hadley, Swing Out Sister, and Edie Brickell and New Bohemians all releasing excellent new material. Cher was back, too—this time with a feel-good album of ABBA covers—but she defies a designated decade. There were at least two emerging artists who caught my attention with their sophomore albums, while one former frontman of an eclectic glam-rock-pop outfit really impressed with his solo bow. The Brits (again) figured prominently in my annual year-end list with half hailing from the across the pond. Last year was a hard one to beat—with favorites Alison Moyet, Jessie Ware, Sam Smith, and Paloma Faith all releasing great albums—but 2018 was no slacker when it came to outstanding music.
Without further ado, here are my favorite albums of 2018, ranked from 10th to 1st with a few honorable mentions thrown in for good measure. I hope at least a few selections from my humble annual countdown pique your interest or maybe even made your own year-end list of favorites. 

#10—TALKING TO THE MOON / Tony Hadley

Hadley—former frontman of the iconic 80s New Romantic outfit Spandau Ballet—has one of pop music’s most instantly recognizable voices that’s soulful, charismatic, and larger-than-life. It’s no surprise then that TALKING TO THE MOON—his fifth solo album and first in a decade—pairs the singer’s bombastic pipes with a slick, perfectly crafted collection of radio-friendly pop songs that allows him to show off his vocal range and versatility. Whether scaling the operatic heights of the stadium-ready “Tonight Belongs to Us” or romantically crooning the Go West-penned “Skin Deep,” TALKING TO THE MOON was designed as a re-introduction to Hadley’s unmistakable voice and vocal prowess.
Highlights: The melodramatic “Killer Blow,” ballad “Unwanted,” and the stunning closer “What Am I?” 

#9—BLOOM / Troye Sivan

On this second studio album from Australian singer and songwriter Troye Sivan, the 22-year-old confidently catalogs the everyday experiences of the modern young gay man, laying them out in with startling vulnerability and transparency in this collection of mid-tempo, luxuriant post-Lorde pop songs. The ten tracks on BLOOM are remarkable for their nonchalance with the subject matter and Sivan’s frank and unflinching exploration of his sexual orientation through song, even when topics like Grindr hook-ups with older men and the anxiety over bottoming for the first time are steeped in clever metaphors and witty double entendres. Earnest and honest and bold, BLOOM is as mature an effort as it is playful.
Highlights: The beautifully plaintive “Postcard,” opener “Seventeen,” and the title track. 

#8—ALWAYS IN BETWEEN / Jess Glynne

On her second solo outing, the one-time Clean Bandit vocalist steps out confidently on this cohesive set of upbeat, radio- and club-friendly pop-EDM that melds the more contemporary soul stylings of Joss Stone with the gospel-tinged tropical house synths of M People. At the center of it all is Glynne’s increasingly familiar full-throated warble, a voice that falls somewhere between Adele and Heather Small. ALWAYS IN BETWEEN is a perfectly-curated collection of catchy pop songs filled with piano-based beats, infectious sing-along choruses, and raucous horn sections. Pure cotton candy for the ears.
Highlights: The sassy, middle-finger-flippin’ “Rollin,” the acoustic guitar-driven “Thursday” co-penned by Ed Sheeran, and bouncy “All I Am.”

#7—HIGH AS HOPE / Florence + The Machine

The acclaimed English indie rock band—fronted by powerhouse vocalist Florence Welch—shines on its fourth studio album, HIGH AS HOPE. It’s their finest effort to date, boasting a lyrical maturity and depth that's grown steadily with each subsequent release. Instrumentally, the bombastic percussion, handclaps, and soaring strings germane to the band's signature sound remain intact, toned down just enough to elevate Welch's vocals to the forefront even more than previous efforts.
All ten tracks were written or co-written by Welch and her lyrics on this outing are as personal as they are poetic. There's a strong confessional vibe at play here, from acknowledgement of a past eating disorder and experimentation with drugs and alcohol to an admission that happiness is something transitory and fleeting—merely moments among hours of loneliness—and that catharsis may not exist at all.

In an understated collection of songs largely focusing on lament, what HIGH AS HOPE lacks in the theatrics and vocal histrionics of past records, it more than makes up for in its intimacy and beautiful ruminations on how hope is predicated on the past.
Highlights: “Hunger,” “Big God,” and the exquisite “The End of Love.”

#6—JAKE SHEARS / Jake Shears

On his eponymous debut solo album, Jake Shears keeps the Scissor Sisters sheen and adds some introspection that never gets mired in sentiment. Recorded in Kentucky and New Orleans with live musicians from My Morning Jacket and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the album is part funk, part glam-rock, part honky-tonk and completely infectious—musical swagger for the soul. Wisely, Shears never strays too far from the winning dance-pop formula of the eclectic band he once fronted, opting to stuff his first solo album with the same jubilant escapism and a wild melding of appropriated New Orleans authenticity. Whether he’s fronting a band or striking out solo, Shears proves here that he’s a pop provocateur and the consummate showman.
Highlights: The country twang of “Sad Song Backwards,” the insinuating bass line of “Creep City,” and the playful funk of “Clothes Off.”

#5—DEEPER / Lisa Stansfield

Nearly three decades after Lisa Stansfield debuted on the worldwide stage with AFFECTION—now, arguably, a classic—the English songstress returned this year with DEEPER. And—like AFFECTION and its follow-up, 1991’s REAL LOVE—it’s co-written and co-produced by her long-term partner (and real-life husband) Ian Devaney. Overall, DEEPER is something of a return to form for Stansfield, who’s described the album as the musical “lovechild” between her first two albums. Like those albums, DEEPER has a timeless quality to it, anchored by Stansfield’s husky voice—now slightly raspier, adding some grit and texture. DEEPER is a comforting slice of Brit-soul—replete with horns, strings, and Motown stylings—that gives a sly wink to the nostalgia of Stansfield’s earlier efforts without sounding dated. The only thing the album lacks is a sense of risk—something overrated in this case when you’ve got the distinctive name-brand loyalty Stansfield does after thirty years. Why reinvent the wheel when the wheel turns so well?
Highlights: The title track—with its killer ‘80s-era synth bass line—would sound perfectly at home on a new Tina Turner album, while “Hercules” is an infectious stomper and the danceable “Desire” sounds like an updated “This Is the Right Time.”

#4—DIRTY COMPUTER / Janelle Monáe

Funky, fun fabulousness from the (now) obvious successor to Prince’s mantle. The album is filled with tracks that are harmonically lush, intertwining racial and gender politics with hook-laden funk-pop punctuated at times by ferocious raps. Monáe wisely sets aside the high-concept funk-opera science-fiction stylings of both her debut (The ArchAndroid) and its follow-up (THE ELECTRIC LADY) and lets loose with some polished postmodern pop grooves and a refreshing lyrical directness that seem to liberate her creatively. The album’s influences (besides the obvious nods to Prince) are many and varied—from Janet Jackson (circa the Rhythm Nation era) and Daft Punk, to Grace Jones and David Bowie. Musically and lyrically, DIRTY COMPUTER is the pop-funk equivalent of St. Vincent’s boldly cerebral alt-pop gem, last year’s MASSEDUCTION. It’s radical, artful, and empowering music with a message that never eclipses the beats while not remaining submissive to them either.
Highlights: The propulsive funk of “Take a Byte,” the rollicking “Screwed,” and the gentle sexiness of “Don’t Judge Me.”


At least once a year—if I’m lucky—I stumble across an artist I’ve never heard of and fall in love. This year, that artist is Meg Myers and the album is TAKE ME TO THE DISCO, her second after splitting with Atlantic Records. The dozen songs here are lyrically introspective and dark—anger, anguish, and an obsession with mortality all play central roles—and combine catchy pop melodies and haunting vocals in a lush guitar-synth soundscape. Singer-songwriter Myers is the modern-rock musical lovechild of Alanis Morissette and Kate Bush, and TAKE ME TO THE DISCO is alt-rock for the thinking man's soul.
Highlights: The raw rage of “Done,” “Tourniquet,” and the wordplay of “Jealous Sea” are standouts in a collection without a single filler track. 

#2—VIOLENCE / Editors

The sixth album by this consistently inconsistent five-piece English rock band pulses with electro-rock bravado and brutal industrial edges that call to mind the goth-pop bangers of Depeche Mode and Muse while ushering the band through yet another tonal shift that brings a much-needed infusion of pop hooks and cool bass grooves. On VIOLENCE, the characteristic moodiness of previous efforts remains—anchored by Thomas Smith’s gloriously pathos-ridden baritone voice—but it’s balanced somewhat by bigger anthemic arrangements and a shimmering New Wave synth-rock exterior that bring an emotional richness that helps melt all the ice of those dark lyrical undertones. Side note: Hands-down, the best album cover of the year, too!
Highlights: “Nothingness,” “Hallelujah (So Low),” and the title track.


Approaching 40 years since the band's self-titled Capitol debut dropped, Martha Davis and company released THE LAST FEW BEAUTIFUL DAYS—the band's 13th studio recording and first album of new material since 2008's THIS—and it's easily one of their best in their long and accomplished career.

THE LAST FEW BEAUTIFUL DAYS is an amazingly cohesive, perfectly-crafted collection of AOR that channels the band's more polished production aesthetic from its 80s heyday into a thoroughly modern musical soundscape. The band's signature film noir sensibility remains intact—thanks largely to Martha Davis's distinctively sultry voice—and is juxtaposed against glossy pop-rock hooks galore to astonishing effect. The gorgeous title track alone will leave you in shambles and serves as a pitch-perfect curtain call for one of the best albums of the year.
Highlights: The aforementioned title track, opener “Punchline,” and the gorgeous “As Long As.”

Notable efforts that fell short of making my Top Ten for the year but worthy of honorable mention:

LIFE / Culture Club
RECORD / Tracey Thorn
ROCKET / Edie Brickell & New Bohemians
PRAY FOR THE WICKED / Panic! At the Disco

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