This is, I think, the second year since 1998 that I haven’t had a ballot to fill out in the Village Voice’s once-annual Pazz and Jop national critics poll. The other year I missed was due to a work email change. That might have been a problem this year too, except that the Voice, and its venerable poll, went kaput around the same time I was changing venues.
This further diminishes whatever meager professional connection I still have to music criticism. I still voted in the Nashville Scene’s annual country music critics’ poll, but most of my writing is now on other subjects and my favorite piece of music writing I did in 2018 was the one non-listy thing I wrote on this site, strictly out of personal compulsion. It’s also the reason I’m not doing a singles list this year.
I’m still adding the Pazz and Jop scoring (100 points for 10 albums, max of 30, minimum of 5) to the Top 10 of my Top 20 albums below, because it better conveys what was, for me, a year of five tightly bunched favorites followed by lots of other records I liked, but a little less.
And those five favorite albums happen to include a couple of twinned pairings.
Parquet Courts (New Yorkers with Texas roots) and No Age (a SoCal duo) each have catalogues now half-a-dozen albums deep without a single misstep, something I’m not sure any other ongoing indie bands can say, though No Age have stretched theirs over a little more than a decade while Parquet Courts’ headlong rush didn’t start until 2013. Both bands established new career peaks this year, I believe, on albums that come from the same corner of the culture but engage the broader world differently.
For Parquet Courts, that means aggressively, passionately. For No Age, that means hardly at all.
The former’s Wide Awaaaaake! is a kind of embattled post-punk manifesto, drawing from arty forbears such as Gang of Four and the Minutemen, but deeply in its own political moment. Sample lyric: “Collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive/Those who find discomfort in your goals of liberation will be issued no apology/And fuck Tom Brady.” Also: “Get love where you find it/It’s the only fist we have to fight with.”
No Age’s Snares Like a Haircut, named for an instrumental track that delivers exactly what the title says, is a more insular, more formal album. Drummer-singer Dean Spunt bashes out tunes with his hands, vocal chords, and heart, and guitarist Randy Randall turns them all into a kind of one-man guitar-skronk symphony. Of every album listed below, it’s the one I’d be most reluctant to recommend to others. And yet it’s the 2018 album that was my most constant companion. My favorite driving album. My favorite writing album.
I don’t know if any 2018 albums expressed individual personalities as fully as Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy and Noname’s Room 25, two hip-hop thesis statements from two black women who see the world differently but with an equal fierceness and their own individual brands of smarts and good humor. One’s a pop blockbuster, the other a cult item. Cardi B is the more familiar figure, if still fresh, her striving taking a combative form. “Pussy’s so good I say my own name during sex,” she boasts. Quick-thinking, light-on-her-lips, but musically understated, Noname answers from the other end of hip-hop’s cultural spectrum : “My pussy teachin’ ninth-grade English/My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism.”
In hip-hop now, as in most of the rest of things, women are where it’s at. That’s one story of music in 2018. I’d add hip-hop-adjacent Janelle Monae, rounding out my Top 10 with what I think is her best album, the one where front-to-back musicality finally catches up her long-fetching concept. And while I admire 2018 newcomers Tierra Whack and Cupcakke, they’re topped by a couple of 2017’s I was late getting around to: Princess Nokia and Rapsody. (Years are, per usual, arbitrary cultural distinctions.) Pusha T, as always, raps his ass off, and the shortened form of Daytona only heightens the impact. Kendrick Lamar presided over a soundtrack that might have been even richer than its blockbuster host. But when it came to hip-hop in 2018, I mostly wanted to hear women. (Drake? As always, no thanks.)
In this regard, hip-hop caught up with country, which has been dominated by women for years now, at least artistically, if not on the charts or on the radio, and as much as I like Kacey Musgraves’ pop breakthrough (which is indeed her mostly fully realized album), that means my personal chart-topper-by-a-nose, the third and best album by three (Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley) of the half-a-dozen-or-so most important women in country. If Musgraves’s roots-pop-disco Golden Hour was a great country album for people who don’t much like country music, Pistol Annies’ Interstate Gospel is a great country album for people who do. The Annies work their titular concept with a few high-concept songs that are high-end country craft, but this is an album about collective songwriting and collective singing that goes deeper than before, especially on Song of the Year candidates “The Best Years of My Life” and “Milkman.”
My real Song of the Year, though, might have come from another of those half-dozen-or-so country women, Lori McKenna’s “People Get Old,” even if the fine album it’s from, The Tree, couldn’t quite make the Top 20 cut. Ones who did: Roots-rockin’ Becky Warren, folkie Mary Gauthier, wild woman Linda Gail Lewis partnering with Robbie Fulks, and Bettye Lavette rewiring Bob Dylan, joined by a couple of national monuments (Willie Nelson, John Prine) whose easeful, good-humored takes on age and mortality in 2018 should be an example for all lucky enough to last so long. People get old, right. But some age like wine somehow.
With the 75-percent dude Superchunk cracking the Top 10, my indie-rock faves were pretty white guy this year, but they were followed by Courtney Barnett, a great artist who made a good album, and a coterie in the form of Lucy Dacus solo and with pals as Boygenius. (I’m assuming a double-review of Pistol Annies and Boygenius has been done.)
Incidentally, my other favorite song of 2018 from an album non-finisher: Wussy’s “Aliens in Our Midst,” a righteous cover of a regional punk obscurity unknown to me. The album list:
- Interstate Gospel — Pistol Annies (15)
- Snares Like a Haircut — No Age (13)
- Room 25 — Noname (13)
- Invasion of Privacy — Cardi B (13)
- Wide Awaaaaake! — Parquet Courts (13)
- Daytona — Pusha T (7)
- Golden Hour — Kacey Musgraves (7)
- What a Time to Be Alive – Superchunk (7)
- Rifles and Rosary Beads — Mary Gauthier (7)
- Dirty Computer — Janelle Monae (5)
- 1992 Deluxe — Princess Nokia (2017)
- Historian — Lucy Dacus/Boygenius EP — Boygenius
- Last Man Alive — Willie Nelson
- Things Have Changed — Bettye Lavette
- Black Panther — Kendrick Lamar/Various Artists
- The Tree of Forgiveness — John Prine
- Undesirable — Becky Warren
- Tell Me How You Really Feel — Courtney Barnett
- Wild! Wild! Wild! — Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis
- Laila’s Wisdom — Rapsody (2017)
It was a decent year for the union of art and commerce as blockbusters Black Panther, Mission Impossible: Fallout, A Star is Born, and blockbuster-to-be Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse were also really good movies. I enjoyed and admired all four.
Roma was the most impressive 2018 movie I saw, and for a second time on the big screen over the holidays (thanks Twin Cities). It’s far from a bloodless technical feat, but it didn’t quite grip my heart as much as the other four movies it joins in my Top 5. Roma seemed like one of those big international cinema masterpieces of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, like some midpoint between Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Fellini’s Amarcord. Not every “masterpiece” is a masterpiece, but I’d say Roma is closer than most. I still think Y Tu Mama, Tambien and Children of Men are Cuaron’s best films.
Roma didn’t slay me like Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s portrait of a makeshift family — a bunch of small fish swimming together — on Tokyo’s economic margins. I also saw it for a second time on the big screen thanks to a Minneapolis trip and its tumbling third-act revelations, close-up testimonials, and final triptych of small moments accrued power on repeat viewing. Its visual artistry is far more subtle than Roma, but that too became more apparent on repeat viewing, especially its birdseye view of its six subjects gazing up at the sound of fireworks.
Support the Girls, Andrew Bujalski’s day-in-the-life workplace comedy set at and around a suburban Houston Hooters knockoff, works as well at any size, but requires an attentive eye and especially ear. Modest on the surface, its every visual and aural cranny is packed with sharp but good-humored social observation. No 2018 film that I saw has as much to say about American life circa right now. Maybe Minding the Gap, a years-spanning documentary about three Rockford, Illinois skater buddies navigating adulthood, comes close. These two small films both debuted in Memphis at the Indie Memphis Film Festival and are further united by defiant, righteous endings.
My biggest filmgoing regret of 2018 was not seeing Leave No Trace, director Debra Granik’s follow-up to Winter’s Bone, about an Iraq War vet and his 13-year-old daughter as they try to live undetected in the Oregon woods, on the big screen when I had the chance. The movies list:
- Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
- Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski)
- Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
- Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
- Minding the Gap (Bing Liu)
- If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
- First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
- The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)
- Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller)
- Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis)
- Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)
- Paddington 2 (Paul King)
- BlacKKKlansman (Spike Lee)
- Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham)
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rotham)
- Wildlife (Paul Dano)
- Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
- A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper)
- Mission Impossible: Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
- Game Night (John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein)
Per usual, this isn’t a list of favorites but a list of everything from 2018 I ended up watching in full. Only the first two are things I would tout without reservation. (I liked season one of Atlanta a little more, but the show remains wondrous.) I have no idea why I actually watched all of Westworld. I won’t make that mistake again.
- The Americans
- The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
- Better Call Saul
- The Deuce
- Ugly Delicious
- Sharp Objects