2018: Favorite 50 Music Releases Maintenance and palliative care in the sounds of 2018

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series


Click, click, click, and post. Imagine a world like that, on the blockchain, saturated in computation. Imagine archived conversations rendering half-correctly. Imagine changing history, and therefore reality, by Photoshopping an image. Imagine missing the next bull run. Imagine getting sick, and then letting toxic chemicals show you how not to feel. Imagine caring for that person. Imagine your data getting leaked, then imagine a robot, built only to suffer, bleeding on you. Imagine being in a kiosk, as hidden software scans your face to file away. Imagine dismissing art because of your political identity, then imagine compiling a year-end list before hearing Caution and Some Rap Songs. Imagine swerving randomly within a probabilistic framework, on this pale blue dot, this mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

It’s the end of 2018, and everything feels like maintenance — mending physical and metaphorical wounds, patching relationships for a semblance of continuity, tying loose ends that never actually end. Even our music was a palliative means of upkeep, complementing our transmutation and individuation (Sheck Wes), validating our disassociation and anxiety (Fire-Toolz), reinforcing our generosity and desire (serpentwithfeet). Through forgotten memories of the past (Simple Affections), the noxious ambiance of the now (Playboi Carti), and a reimagined hyper-technological future (Seth Graham), the music of 2018 found us aching while also feeling joy (Yves Tumor, Charli XCX), grieving while also experiencing catharsis (Mount Eerie, Shygirl). Its reach extended beyond our encoded gestures (Eartheater) and burrowed deeper than skin and skeleton (SOPHIE), to where we could confront our own minds (Kanye West), hear our own pulsations (Elysia Crampton), and re-feel the warmth in our hearts (Perfume).

We needed this maintenance because we needed healing, and we needed healing because we needed resolution, and we needed resolution because we can only give and take so much. Maintenance, after all, is intimately tied to preservation, to self-care (RIP), to livelihood. But through the emergence of lattice-based crypotography and deep fakes, neural networks and image synthesis, through the possibilities of metallic hydrogen and the decentralizing promises of new consensus mechanisms, what does maintenance even mean nowadays, and who or what are we maintaining? Which people? Which political systems? Which networks? More specifically to our concerns, what should we build if not new musical worlds? How can we assert control over our creativity? What can we learn from the crisis of the individual? How will we know when we’ve been loved?

Extraordinary things never happen. Then again, perhaps they always do. 2018 is coming to a close, and that’s all I can think about.

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50

Sheck Wes

MUDBOY

[Cactus Jack/G.O.O.D. Music/Interscope]

[WATCH · READ]

Given the expectations and build-up for it, MUDBOY’s greatest triumph was surprisingly subtle. What held these tracks together and pushed them forward, beyond a massive single, was hidden in the engine room, so to speak. Sheck Wes’s supremely refined style didn’t rely on flashy hooks or production clutches, but on the way his personality and flow merged with the beats. On how Wes’s energetic rapping collided with an often mechanic production, then splintered to be enveloped by a multi-faceted flow that worked for both tension and introspection. A complex combination that gelled only because it rested on a personality that could sell it all, turning what looked like simple tracks in terms of structure and text into paradoxical artifacts of unceasing transmutation and individuation. Dispatches from a cauldron boiling with young lives that refused simplification. In sum, a testament to the forces that have shaped the “diamonds in the rough” that Wes rapped about, forming but not restricting the mudboy who in this album emerged ready for glory.


49

Satoshi Nakamoto

dOPENet [NYPD Records Volume 2]

[NYPD]

[LISTEN · READ]

It’s 2038. The internet has become one huge TCP/IP error after a massive solar storm, and the US government has collapsed after President Bill Gates’s disastrous bet on Ethereum Classic. Elon Musk is dead, Bitcoin is worth $2 million a piece, and survivors of the plague of 2035 buy recycled water, bootleg opioids, and exoskeletal gruel for Satoshi subunits exchanged on hard wallets. Everywhere rats and filth, rot and ruin, teenage gangs roaming the streets screaming out Mobb Deep lyrics. Setting up in the dank recesses of what was once New York Penn Station, Beat Detectives plug in their Mirage DSK sampling keyboard and Polysix synth, beaming their warped, psychedelic dub out into the great expanse with old military-grade satellite tech. Then, the whole world becomes Bushwick, becomes dreams of blunts and $1 slices, dreams of the Empire State ca. 1994, “Sabotage” on repeat, the 7 train to Flushing pulsing with activity. But wait. Has any of this actually happened, or am I just listening to Satoshi Nakamoto’s dOPENet?


48

Amen Dunes

Freedom

[Sacred Bones]

[WATCH · LISTEN · READ]

“I couldn’t reconcile my pop self and my more experimental self.” This is what Damon McMahon earnestly admitted to me five years ago in an interview. At the time, he was coming off of Through Donkey Jaw and into Spoiler, an album he released via his own label. McMahon was still in an honest hunt for his musical identity, turning headlong into his pop self via 2014’s Love to equally mixed results. This was not the case with Freedom, the exuberant and yet haunting piece of pop-art McMahon seemed to be chasing half a decade ago. The lyrics came from McMahon’s grimdark fantasy world, where every action has a dark consequence. Yet the melodies of Freedom were doves in flight, tugging against an oppressive leash to break free from and fly toward an incandescent sun. McMahon was no longer spitefully obscuring one eye to pick the sights of the other. Although the earthen pull will keep his flesh tied to rock and mud, his spirit will always keep a watchful eye toward the heavens.


47

JPEGMAFIA

Veteran

[Deathbomb Arc]

[WATCH · LISTEN · READ]

The video for “1539 N. Calvert” opened with figures lost in the ecstasy of dance. As the song concluded, JPEGMAFIA’s Veteran transitioned to spastic drumming dragged along by ODB’s voice. The juxtaposition of these moments served as an incisive critique of experimental and DIY cultures. In the video, the camera focused on the diverse people who occupied the closed Bell Foundry DIY space, showing the life-sustaining force of inclusive DIY spaces, while Veteran further complicated DIY’s underlying appeal to inclusiveness and gentrifying tendencies through an expansive sonic palette and uncompromising lyrics. Here, Peggy darted from digital droll provocations on “My Thoughts on Neogaf Dying,” to the wretched-apart soundscapes of “Williamsburg’s” landscapes, to the blood-spattering finale, “Curb Stomp.” While the “Calvert” video illustrated the existing possibility of an inclusive DIY, Veteran heightened the urgency to create such spaces; Peggy denied the thinly veiled racism of appealing to experimental DIY preservation by underscoring the always already experimentalism of t/rap. Indeed, Veteran challenged rap during one of its most aggressive eras to engage with the sounds of DIY experimental music. Now, DIY must engage with its lack of hip-hop to move beyond liberal inclusion and toward radical openness.


46

GAS

Rausch

[Kompakt]

[WATCH · LISTEN · READ]

Rausch, the latest, immersive album by Wolfgang Voigt’s GAS project, was designed to carry us along for a full hour, lost in the sweep and direction of the music. Absorbing our surroundings and feeding it back to us in musical form, Rausch was like a float along a river, the steady current carrying our rickety craft downstream into parts unknown. But while the surroundings were beautiful — lush, inviting, and full — everything else about the journey was unsettling. The landscape seemed to breathe with unseen creatures, and it sounded like the rumble of an animal herd or a group of attackers was always just out of view, forever approaching from a distance. That neither seemed to fully materialize only increased the anxiety, with even the destination a complete mystery. But there was no turning back. We were all on this terrifying ride together, at the mercy of forces beyond our control, and the only way was through it.


45

Parquet Courts

Wide Awake!

[Rough Trade]

[WATCH · READ]

On their sixth studio album Wide Awake!, garage punk philosophes Parquet Courts found an unlikely collaborator in Danger Mouse and delivered a biting treatise on how infuriatingly weird it is to be human in 2018. This was the album where existential dread meant feeling numb about death. Where feeding your cat was a moral imperative. Where communitarianism meant telling Tom Brady to fuck off. Hard-ass grooves went toe to toe against propulsive punk stampedes, pummeling our bodies with rhythm while lyricists Austin Brown and Andrew Savage prodded our brains with an uncanny fusion of high-minded metaphysics and light-speed melody. (No rock group has the right to make the line “Passion dissipates when it’s fastened to the faces we wear only to become them” as catchy as it sounded on “Extinction”). Wide Awake!’s songs were funkier and more dance-oriented than the ones from Parquet Courts’ past records, but what ultimately shone through on this album was the ire of a band with nothing left but an axe to grind and a shit attitude.


44

Jeff Witscher

Approximately 1,000 Beers

[Salon]

[LISTEN · READ]

In case you didn’t catch it due to the transcriptions rendered and manipulated to the point of borderline incomprehensibility, Jeff Witscher “drank approximately 1,000 beers in three days,” and listeners were left stumbling and wondering about the songs permeating the airwaves in America’s oft-lauded heartland. Those tunes are frequently the butt of coastal jokes due to the unusual fondness that some country musicians have toward terrible beerpiss and workhorse pickup trucks, but on this album, Witscher deconstructed to such an extent that satire just couldn’t have been the conclusion. Tracks like “Math Calculation” musically contradicted the stated theme almost entirely, while the inclusion of lines delivered in English accents (courtesy of naturalreaders.com) seemed more the result of Witscher’s spontaneous approach than a commitment to a particular style or message. Neighs and actual country music were matched by a seemingly equal percentage of gosh darn weirdness. The final swig of a coach’s outburst arrived nonsensically, yet not without appreciation for its pro baseball origin. 1,000 Beers was ultimately “yee-wha?” delivered in a concise four-pack.


43

Hermit and the Recluse

Orpheus vs. The Sirens

[Obol for Charon]

[WATCH · READ]

In a 2016 interview with Red Bull Music Academy, the bard of Brownsville described his art as “pain in the spoken form.” When asked about musicians he had been listening to, Ka, now working as the duo Hermit and the Recluse with L.A.-based producer Animoss, cited FKA twigs, Frank Ocean, and James Blake before any rappers. Each of these songwriters is acclaimed for a progressive use of the human voice that rekindles a vulnerability that our well-worn forms fail to express. Praise for Ka often spotlights his lyrical savvy at the expense of his “affectless” delivery or “minimalist” take on 90s hip-hop. The terms of discourse regard him as a quaint relic without addressing why his work is so affecting in the present day. Who else could summon Greek mythology to signify a reclamation of fate and avoid sounding gimmicky? How many loops ring out with such an unassuming yet stately drama? And what voice, what scarred, resolute, heartening voice could speak to life a loss that no perfectly clever internal rhyme could relinquish? For now and “for the life of our seeds,” this burrowed deeper.


42

Matthew Revert / Vanessa Rossetto

Everyone Needs A Plan

[Erstwhile]

[WATCH · READ]

I feel so… What’s the word? Trying to remember. I can sense it, the peak of meaning. On the tip of my icy white tongue. Should be easy. But there’s so much more to a word, ain’t there? Its real size is deceiving. Its foundations lay deep. Words are familiar music. Brief yet powerful. With repetition, inflection, order, and context, they do many things, in many ways. And timing… well, that’s everything. Wait. Wait. Wait. Words hold familiar feelings. I heard, in Revert and Rossetto’s gentle grain: sarcasm, pride, embarrassment. Sometimes nothing at all. No opinion. Blank. These expert speakers effortlessly conveyed a music just shy of sense. Not a story, per se. Starts of sentences, mood buoys. A social intravenous drip. Doesn’t matter, anyway. Sense finds a place, rushes in. Melts the gold. Strokes the brain. An hour and 15 minutes of little empathetic gains. Where’d I put that damn word? In what dark data does it lay? Search my mind. Where’s it hiding this time? Which memory, like a door, to try again and again? Memory refreshes, never looks the same. Meaning shifts and cracks in twain with age. This instrument I am born with. Use it to make beautiful the plain. Everyone yadda yadda.


41

Delroy Edwards

Rio Grande

[L.A. Club Resource]

[LISTEN · READ]

Delroy Edwards discovered his lo-fi sound in 2016 with Hangin’ at the Beach, a collection of 30 tracks that marked the beginning of a prolific period that continued in 2018. This year, Edwards released a whopping three records: two solo efforts and a collaboration with Dean Blunt. The first of the three to arrive was Rio Grande, another 22 disintegrated tracks developing Beach’s sketches into complete visions while ramping up its funky and playful possibilities, tape hiss and all. Major-key piano lines abounded throughout, echoing Edwards’s relentless California positivity. “Time Out” was a throbbing example of desaturated synths, murky bass lines, and flanged percussion. “The Hawaii Guys” nodded to Miami (despite its title), while “Take Me How I Am” was a warped rethinking of acid. And who could deny the bass on “Smooth Street” or the melody on “Knock Em Out?” Bedroom producers everywhere, take note: hypercompression and sidechaining aren’t the only games in town.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series


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