2018 in music (so far)

A long time ago, I wrote about music every now and then. So here I am, doing it again.

I've always been the kind of person to latch onto a few new albums each year with a terrifying grip and play them over and over again, but writing about that music—as with so many other things—usually helped me to let go in a healthy way. In writing, I could appreciate those albums for what they were, enshrine them in some permanent way, and leave myself free to set them back on a metaphorical shelf and start searching for something new.

It's May of 2018, and here are my favorite records of the year (so far).

Dirty Computer

Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe is a phenomenal artist, and Dirty Computer is a phenomenal album. I don't want to try to sing all of its praises here, because I know plenty of people have done a better job, and also because I know it means a lot of different things to different people, and also also because I know there's a really good chance that you're listening to it right now.

I'll just put it this way: most artists would kill for just one song like "Screwed," "Django Jane" or "Pynk" at any point in their career. Monáe has all three, back-to-back, on the same album. And there are plenty more killer singles stuffed into this album on top of those. It's just absurd how many good songs there are here.

Bark Your Head Off, Dog

Hop Along

Hop Along has always been an awful lot of fun to listen to, but this is the album where singer/songwriter Frances Quinlan's whole thing really comes together. Every track brings some new idea to the table and carries it through with confidence and precision.

Bark Your Head Off, Dog is sort of an embarrassment of riches in that there isn't a single song on here that hasn't been stuck in my head for a decent period of time. But the album's standout is "Prior Things," a masterpiece of a closer that weaves anxious inward reflection with interlocking guitar and bass hooks, powerful and meandering vocals from Quinlan, and it's all tied together with this string presence that's totally unexpected in a Hop Along track. But it all works together wonderfully, capping off the band's best album to date with an unforgettable and infinitely re-listenable hit.

I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas

Various artists

This is less of a specific album recommendation and more of a full-throated endorsement of Joseph Fink and John Darnielle's one-of-a-kind podcastI Only Listen to the Mountain Goats. 

Over the years, I've found in Darnielle an uncommon and essential poet, a 21st-century American troubadour, and a devoted student and admirer of subcultures (his last two albums were about professional wrestling and goths, after all) that are otherwise ridiculed or misunderstood. There's a wisdom and an earnestness to his music that starts in his writing and comes out in his performances, and here on this show, we finally get to meet the man—a truly humble and thoughtful human—and understand where this essential album of All Hail West Texas came from.

The covers on this album are hit-or-miss, but as a companion piece both to All Hail West Texas and as an artifact of the unexpectedly revealing podcast interview series, it holds a special place in my life right now.

If you're new to the Mountain Goats, give All Hail West Texas a shot. If you don't care for it, maybe also give the podcast a shot.

It's impossible to understand the Mountain Goats without understanding who John Darnielle is. But when the original album, this podcast, and its accompanying cover album are all taken together, a more complex and robust story emerges and stands as testament to Darnielle's singular career.

All at Once

Screaming Females

This album just straight-up fucking rocks. The laborious build-up on opener "Glass House" gives way to "Black Moon," and then it's off to the races with an album that's raw, defiant, and enthralling as hell.

Celeste (Original Soundtrack)

Lena Raine

Celeste is my favorite game (so far) of 2018 because it blends impeccable game design seamlessly with an authentic story about battling one's inner demons. But it's Lena Raine's soundtrack that really makes it all come together.

Even if the game's not on your radar, this soundtrack has become my go-to for when I'm trying to focus at work.

And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out

Yo La Tengo

So this album came out in, what, like...2000? It's old. But I somehow never listened to Yo La Tengo back in the days when they were first making it big. Actually, I only stumbled upon this album and band at all because Michelle Zauner (of Japanese Breakfast) has this awesome Spotify playlist she curates, and "You Can Have It All" was the first track on there.

This is a wonderful, mellow, rich, contemplative album to exist around. I keep coming back to it on sleepless nights and during intense work sessions. 

And there's really something about "You Can Have It All." I can't really describe it.

The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs

Wye Oak

I know it's ridiculous to have a "favorite" band, but if I had a favorite band—and I do—it's Wye Oak. For me, something about their entire body of work strikes hard and sinks in deep over their years. It's definitive for me.

The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs is—ugh, this feels loaded to say, but I'll say it—Wye Oak's best album to date. I'm still discovering new motifs, themes, and through-lines that connect this collection of songs in a way that none of their prior albums quite had the ambition of achieving. (Which isn't to say they're any lesser for it; for my money, Wye Oak has only put out excellent albums.)

Jenn Wasner's vocals and guitar-playing are taken to new levels of nuance and sophistication on this album, and Stack's instrumentation and drumming are, for lack of a better word here, intoxicating. This is an album to drown in, or at least flop around upon until you're good and filthy.

The standout track on this album might be the title track, but it's the lyrics on "Lifer" that I'm hung up on. Stanzas have been floating through my head like koans lately. Like any great art, it doesn't tell me what to think or feel, but it presents ideas in such a beautifully obscured manner that, in the teasing apart of each discrete piece, a small exchange of wisdom seems to take place.

I realize the relationship I have with this band is probably pretty deeply personal, and not everyone's gonna get the same experiences out of it. But I feel like wherever I'm at in my life, whenever Wye Oak comes back into it, they always arrive bearing the wisdom and the tone I'm most in need of.

I'll leave you with this, from "Lifer":

There is a logic to the rule
The end is kind, the mean is cruel
I have to love the life I make
Make up for all the space I take

Nick Cummings