Looking back over the past twelve months I’ve been in an eclectic head space musically speaking. That said, you will find though more often than not that my heart will always veer towards my comfort zone in music, which is alternative or indie rock. On the subject of rock, I’m seriously sick to death of hearing how rock is dead or that it is at an ‘all-time low ebb’. Has nobody heard of Halestorm, Snail Mail, Wolf Alice, St. Vincent or Courtney Barnett? The parameters of rock music has shifted folks! It’s no longer the exclusive domain of white dudes and if you bothered to look at the charts and the albums that top the charts nowadays, you will notice female artists are beginning to stake their claim not only in rock and its spin-offs, but pop, R&B and country too.
It is no accident that my top ten reflects a strong and wide representation of female artists again this year. As I said to a friend recently, it’s a reflection of the impact of the groundwork being made by women in music. It’s only fair to recognise the hard work and talent that goes into making great music. And so, as the year draws to a close and everyone has frantically put out their lists, I too, have gathered some of my thoughts on the best albums this year. Without further ado, I invite you to check out the ten most influential albums I’ve listened to repeatedly this year.
10. Paul McCartney – Egypt Station (Capitol).
I dare say the only music fan that will probably give a shit about Egypt Station are Paul McCartney fans? I am one of those fans and for me almost anything McCartney releases will eventually end up in my hands. Yet I probably don’t give him enough credit considering he is likely still on a high at the moment having achieved a rare feat that has eluded him for 36 years. He has earned this year his first no.1 album on the Billboard chart since Tug of War did so in 1982. Interestingly, Egypt Station is the first real McCartney album that I’ve taken to immediately since Flaming Pie in 1997. It is truly a wonderful return to form for the former Beatles and Wings frontman.
So what is it about this new album that sees it sitting pretty in my best albums of 2018 list? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that McCartney (76) is not afraid to keep at it, always continually experimenting the best way he knows how and never giving in to being locked into one way of making music. If his solo years tell us anything about him, it is that his eclectic nature to record whatever he fancies is usually either great or it stinks. Here on Egypt Station he shows us that he still has it when it comes to writing decent pop songs. His voice might creak and he definitely can’t get to those high notes anymore but he can still rock! In short, Egypt Station has been talked about as like a concept album, but he pretty much covers a lot of ground from randy love on Fuh You, drug use on Happy With You, friendship on Confidante and hating on Trump in Despite Repeated Warnings.
9. Kasey Musgraves – Golden Hour (MCA Nashville).
Golden Hour is my introduction to Kacey Musgraves and her country-pop inspired world. She still manages to plays around with the familiar country sound that brought her to the world’s attention in 2013, but this album is the closest thing she has done that can be called a sweeping pop-inspired crossover. Surprisingly, I think everything on this album works. Velvet Elvis with its synth beats stands as my favourite track, but I’m also taken by her attempt at crossing over to ‘70’s soft rock territory with the album’s self titled track Golden Hour. The disco spirit of High Horseis also irresistibly catchy, while her ode to LGBTQ rights with Rainbow, a testament to her unequivocal goal to continue to speak to and for the LGBTQ community, is admirably as the album’s last track.
8. Dorothy – 28 Days In The Valley (ROC Nation Records).
In 2014, Rolling Stone called Dorothy “a swamp-rock stomp electrified by the caterwaul of lead singer Dorothy Martin.” Whatever the case, you cannot deny frontwoman Dorothy Martin has one of the most incredible voices of the last decade. It’s a shame though that Dorothy (the band) doesn’t get the mainstream exposure they deserve, but then again I’m happy for them to circle around the mainstream as one of bluesy hard rock’s best kept little secrets.
Dorothy’s sophomore album 28 Days In The Valley, released earlier this year in March, just might be their best effort yet. It starts of strongly with their lead single and album opener Flawless and builds with momentum on Who Do You Love and subsequently boils over on another half-dozen tracks across the album; with Martin’s incredible wailing and what seems like a relentless never-ending attack of electric guitars. But Dorothy also shows that they can change gears on the album with their salute to blues rock on tracks like Pretty When You’re High, Mountain and Freedom. In short, this album will keep the hard rock faithful quite content.
7. Artic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino (Domino Records).
When the Arctic Monkeys announced their comeback after a four year hiatus some of us breathed a sigh of relief. But then their lead single Four Out Of Five was released and fans didn’t know whether to love or hate it. That said, you’re forgiven if you are wondering what the hell are these English lads on about on Four Out of Five. It’s a far cry from what we would expect from them, but if you are truly a deep-dive kind of music fan, you’ll dig this song and maybe also the entire new album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is not your typical album from the Arctic Monkeys. It showcases their flair to be different here, both sonically with an emphasis on keys and lyrically bordering on the wildly absurd. But if you scratch a little digger the underlining elements of what makes them the Arctic Monkeys are still there. You just have to listen. Standouts include Four Out Of Five, Tranquility Base & Casino and Batphone.
6. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel (Milk!/ Remote Control Records).
With so much music demanding our attention these days, your first port of call should always be what’s going on in your own backyard. My backyard just happens to be vibrant Melbourne, the home of the unstoppable Courtney Barnett. That said, Courtney’s not home as often as we would like, gallivanting around the globe with the level of success many aspiring musicians could only dream of today. She first took America by storm in 2015 with her garage rock chops and self-deprecating humour with her debut album Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit and has ever since then been lauded as that singer songwriter from Australia who has turned music on its head. This assessment seems to ring true as the success of her new album Tell Me How You Really Feel has smashed multiple music (genre) charts worldwide this year.
Having almost completely obsessed over her album this year I still can’t put my finger on it as to why I like it and Barnett so much. Whether it’s her deadpan talk out loud approach to singing, delivered in her straight-up Aussie accent or how she hypnotises me with that fuzzed-out guitar sound, I honestly cannot say. But what I will say is that the eccentric Ms. Barnett never fails to find something relatable and new to talk about on an album that is a little darker, reflective and melancholic than her first album. A number of standout tracks – Need A Little Time, Nameless, Faceless, City Looks Pretty and Charity – provide enough substance to make this album shimmer. It’s not perfect but you’ll definitely play it over and over again.
Interestingly, Tell Me How You Really Feel is very, very unlucky to have lost out to Amy Shark’s Love Monster more recently as Australian Album of the Year.
5. Courtney Marie Andrews – May Your Kindness Remain (Fat Possum/ Mama Bird Recording Co.)
Earlier this year Courtney Marie Andrews released her acclaimed album May Your Kindness Remain and it has been played almost to death on my record player and I still can’t get enough of it. Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me if it ends up topping several lists as one of this year’s best albums.
It contains a rich collection of songs that speak to the soul, even though many of them seem sad in nature. That said, I wish there was more love commercially for the incredibly talented Andrews. She has one of the most amazing voices in music today. She may be only 27 but she has an old soul and deft touch at understanding the power of music and words. (I had the pleasure of seeing her play an intimate show here in Melbourne a few months back and I was taken aback by how wonderful her voice really is with that alto croon. You can feel not only her power but also the intimacy in her voice, which gave me goosebumps through the whole show. Importantly she is also a great storyteller making you feel truly a part of her performance.)
The album’s title track is a wonderful example of some of the big song ideas she loves to write about that every person can relate to. I like to think of it as a universe plea for tolerance: “If your money runs out/ And your good looks fade/ May your kindness remain”. Elsewhere, Andrews shines on tracks like Took You Up, Kindness of Strangers and Two Cold Nights In Buffalo on an album entirely sung and played on guitar (expect one track) by her.
4. Kurt Vile – Bottle It In (Matador).
Is Kurt Vile simply the most awesome laid back dude making music today? If anything, his approach to indie rock is infectious, especially his guitar work. But his honesty and knack for great lyrics and the stories he tells through his music is what drives me to listen to him.
There is something old school about Vile that intrigues me that I just can’t pinpoint. Sure the dude needs a good haircut, but beyond that scruffy exterior is an honest man, making honest music. Bottle It In is no different to what we have come to expect from his laid-back psychedelic-folk-rock. But this time around he has sonically expanded his horizon with colour, some fun with also some very expansive tracks. On the albums opener Loading Zones, he makes parking in a city and avoiding tickets sound like a crusade we should all take up. Importantly, I love how the song builds towards his swirling end of song guitar solo. While on highlights like Skinny Mini and Yeah Bones we are treated to some amazing guitar distortion and hypnotic electric riffs. But it is his epic woozy existential Bassackwards and how he sees the world, set against a pleasing acoustic riff and pulsing-like psychedelic guitar that is arguably the album’s crowning achievement.
3. Halestorm – Vicious (Atlantic Records).
Who expected this? The fourth album by Halestorm is as confident statement as anything they have released so far. Buried in the mix of hard rock/metal Vicious resembles probably what is like to be at one of their shows. It’s full of energy, loud guitars, great riffs and solos, while remaining forceful and melodic at its core. But lets not forget there is a tender side this band, often knowing exactly where it needs to change gears with a number of unashamedly super cool ballads in The Silence and Heart of Novocaine.
The importance of Lzzy as Hailstorm’s leader also cannot be underestimated in the success of this album. She really comes into her own as hard rock’s new saviour, the only way she know how, by being her unapologetic self on a swag of great songs. With lyrics like “Thank you for the pain/ Thank you for the hate/ Thank you for the way you left me scared” it’s easy to feel her pain. But on the flip side she even has time to tell us she’s super pissed on tracks like Black Vultures.
2. Sarah Blasko – Depth of Field (EMI).
Amy Shark might have won this year’s ARIA Award for best Australian album, but if you ask me Sarah Blasko’s Depth of Field is the far better album. But that said, it didn’t win, in fact it wasn’t even nominated in any of the best album categories. It’s a conundrum considering Blasko’s album has been an undeniable influence not only on my listening habits, but also a wider audience in Australia and Europe.
Despite my little whinge about its snub by the Australian record industry, Depth of Field nonetheless finds itself highly placed on our ‘best album’ list this year. Why? Because I honestly cannot escape the incredible aura of this incredible album. It is without exaggeration one of the finest sophisticated pop albums of recent years that contains some of the most memorable songs of Blasko’s career to date. From the circling sounds of synths on the album opener Phantom to her unnerving and haunting wail on A Shot, the simple desperation of Never Let Me Go to the pulsating confessional that is Making It Up, each song has drawn out the best of Blasko’s strengths and insecurities. These songs and a host of others are all worthy of our attention and all have something interesting to say about how a modern songwriter is able to craft songs all the while looking at the world around her.
No.1 album of 2018: Bryde – Like An Island (Seahorse Music).
When I set out to compile and rank my album of the year it had to have three things: a freshness about it, a distinguishing quality that separated it from the rest and probably the most important quality of all, it had to move me emotionally. That is why Bryde and her album is the best thing that has happened to 2018!
It’s quite apparent from the first moment of Bryde’s solo debut album Like an Island that there’s something undeniably special about her music. From her breathtaking vocals, with a faint but recognizable Gaelic lilt, to her grungy swirling guitar, Bryde takes us on a deep melancholic journey. Interestingly, the former frontwoman of Paper Aeroplanes may find reassurance or safety in her Welsh acoustic folksy roots with songs like Euphoria and Steady Heart, but it is her adventurous spirit to switch between folk and indie rock that makes this album come alive. It is her gentle guitar with tribal-like drums that eases the listener into the sweeping moving album opener called To Be Brave before letting loose on some of the most gritty indie rock that I have heard in a while. Flesh, Blood and Love, Peace and Fast Awake are all outstanding tracks with Desire rounding out what is a hard-hitting emotive album. But as for my favourite track, I seriously can’t get the song Less out of my mind. Bryde’s infectious vocals and her electric guitar are simply Wow!
Bryde and her album will probably continued to invaded my consciousness in the same way a tree blossoms in the spring with its most beautiful flowers likely into the new year and beyond. It really is a remarkable debut by an extraordinary young woman, affected by the things around her from which she draws inspiration. Interestingly, more recently Bryde has drawn on new inspiration, to put out a totally new track called On The Subject of Breathing, which she feels like is “the sound of things to come”. It’s great news for fans of Bryde!