1. High Plains. Pilot Hill.
Scott Morgan (electronics) and Mark Bridges (cello) released this on Bandcamp, and it is a haunting combination of sounds that transport you to a landscape. High Plains’ universally lauded Cinderlandevoked the cold, expansive loneliness of Wyoming’s mountains. These six songs take daytrips from the region to bring a broader sense of the American West to the listener. Nature exudes from every pore of this music, and its economy is alternatively heartbreaking and beautiful. The sounds here are more scrub brush, grasses and wild horses than rocks, and no trucks invade the scenery (it makes sense if you listen to both albums intently). Close your eyes and explore the Dakotas to as far south as Northern California. The combination of sound recordings, electronics and mournful cello is absolutely masterful.
2. Jon Hopkins, Singularity.
Have you ever travelled cross-country and were listening to an ambient radio station in your car when that signal started fading out and a techno station from the new area started taking over? That’s what this music sounds like—sometimes club-like, sometimes meditative, sometimes both at the same time, sometimes accidental and sometimes even downright wrong, but compelling throughout.
3. Steve Tibbetts: Life Of.
It’s been a long time since the master guitarist put out a new release (there’s an inspiring history of why on his website), and the last two were meditative collaborations with Vietnamese vocalist Choying Drolma. Here it is just him and percussionist Marc Anderson, and they work miracles again in creating sometimes-soothing, sometimes-disconcerting eastern-western hybrid soundscapes. Consistently more contemplative than Tibbetts’ earlier progressive-jazz-fusion releases, it rewards those looking for post-rock music that surprises and engages them.
4. Chehei Hatakeyama:Far from Atmosphere.
The man released six, yes, six albums in 2018: all shoegaze ambient, all simply constructed, yet each beautiful in its own surprisingly unique way. There is considerable sameness in Hatakeyama’s compositions, yet some transcend. Far from Atmospherestruck me as somehow heartbreaking despite the coldness of space that these dark soundscapes contain. Go ahead and listen, then tell me you don’t feel like you are on a ship far from earth, aiming to return yet knowing you will not make it in your lifetime.
5. Young Fathers: Cocoa Sugar.
Thank you, Andrew Smith! Every year I can count on you introducing me to one new band. As he says: "I can't really tell you what Young Fathers is like, but there is something deeply satisfying [about them]." This is a band for those of us bored with the status quo and yet who still believe music can be new. You wouldn’t be wrong to call this funk-infused album R&B or hip-hop, but it’s not likely to appeal to mainstream fans of either (especially not the punk and/or psychedelic aspects). It’s the most interesting music I've heard this year, and it deeply satisfies my brain. After about 10 listens, it’s starting to seep into my heart.
6. Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto: Glass.
The pair that brought us the haunting soundtrack to The Revenantreturns with a mesmerizing, meandering, icy-cold (in a different mode than the astounding Revenantsoundtrack) atmospheric experience created to accompany the opening of a recently preserved glass house in Connecticut. Fans of ambient music often say this is music for background listening, but artists such as Noto+Sakamoto (and Loscil, High Plains and Stars of the Lid) transcend this definition; this is meant to be listened to deeply and intently.
7. Confidence Man: Confident Music For Confident People.
Too much music takes itself far too seriously. Confidence Man is not one of those groups. This post-dance group provides a party-club vibe that is perfect for when you’re taking yourself too seriously and want to bop. What if the original B-52’s band kept recording all along (and added a member or two from Danielson)? This might be what they became: clever, eminently tuneful and ironic.
8. Neil & Liam Finn: Lightsleeper.
Quick: how many father-son duos in rock music have ever made music together worth listening to? Then, how many of them can you honestly say featured legitimate contributions from both artists? Neil Finn, often cited as the world’s finest living songwriter (I don’t think it’s hyperbole), combines his gift for compelling lyrics and riveting pop hooks, with son’s psychedelic quirkiness to create an album of engaging 21st century gems.
9. Say Sue Me: Where We Were Together.
The 80’s are not dead. The busy production, jangly guitars and unabashed new-wave melodies of South Korea’s Say Sue Me exhibit a band exploring the range of emotions all in a post-New-Romantic timbre. At any given moment, they evoke New Order, The Knack, Darling Buds, Cocteau Twins, The Cure, Shelleyan Orphan, New Order again, before returning to Darling Buds one more time. My favorite song title for 2018 comes from this album: “About the Courage to Become Somebody’s Past.”
10. Parquet Courts: Wide Awake!
Post-punk (another of those ridiculous terms for the evolution of a genre, so it might as well be called punk) stuff that brings some different elements into the mix (funk, dance, pop), and doesn't ruin the mix by turning up all the levels to ten. You can do that for yourself at home, and then sing at the top of your lungs. Try not to sing out loud to “Wide Awake.” I don’t think it’s possible. The best songs are strangely, and effectively, reminiscent of Sandinista-era Clash, and they’re more at the end than in the beginning.