UK punk act Idles come out tops but there were also great albums from The Good The Bad and The Queen, Kamasi Washington, Mitski and Lisa O'Neill in 2018. Have a read and a listen to what was a great year for music, new and old.
Album of the Year
Idles - Joy as an Act of Resistance
There was something in the air in 2018. Perhaps it was the smell of cordite but some kind of punk insurgency seemed to be brewing with the arrival of UK band Shame, and Irish outliers Fontaines DC, and The Murder Capital.
But in the vanguard is Idles, the Bristol band whose second album Joy as an Act of Resistance captures the insurrectionary mood of 2018. Using humour as a blunt instrument, this hugely melodic neo-punk act shelved sneering and incitement to - despite the furious fusillade of the actual music - appeal for love, reason and calm in a benighted age.
Led by the throat-shredding voice of Joe Talbot, Idles raced through these songs of frustration and bemused disgust with a heads down kind of freak punk. Opening track Colossus sees Talbot examine his own failings and weaknesses with scalp-prickling honesty, the hilariously deranged Never Fight a Man With a Perm paints a tableau of physical confrontation with a blitzkrieg of guitars, a mob chorus, and some of the most waspish lyrics since early Morrissey or John Cooper Clarke.
Elsewhere, I’m Scum bounds along on a Bo Diddley beat and nails inequality and class privilege ("I don’t care about the next James Bond, we don’t need another murderous toff. I’m just wondering where the high street gone"). However, if you thought Idles were just about agit-pop and railing against injustice and prejudice, along comes June, Talbot’s devastating song about his stillborn daughter Agatha.
Joy as an Act of Resistance will have you weeping in private but also laughing out loud on the bus at its focused, cathartic rage. Utterly ferocious and utterly captivating, it’s a tender head butt of an album. Alan Corr
. . . and in no particular order
Jon Hopkins - Singularity
Truly, a golden hour, and along with Kamasi Washington's Heaven and Earth, the most audacious of adventures. The perfectly-titled Singularity was the guiding light that shone brighter as the days of 2018 became shorter, with Hopkins' status as a tribal elder of electronica enhanced by each new listen. How he'll top this album is as hard to imagine as the record collection without it. Harry Guerin
Lily Allen - No Shame
Lily Allen picks over her divorce, grapples with maternal guilt, and delivers some great kiss-offs on her best album yet. No Shame starts with the kind of candy floss pop laced with arsenic of early Allen, slowly descends into real darkness, and emerges with a dopey smile on its face at the end. There are some tears but also plenty of laughs as she pulls herself out of the oxygen tent to ask for the latest parties. AC
Rolling Blackouts C.F. - Hope Downs
This urgent and sparkling debut album from much-tipped Melbourne band Rolling Blackouts C.F. was manna from heaven for indie fans of a certain age but should also have provided succor for anyone hankering after melodic guitar pop with lyrical substance and bite.
The obvious touchstone here is the literate pop of their fellow Australians, The Go-Betweens. It’s certainly there in the deadpan vocal delivery, the droll lyrics, and those gorgeous chiming guitars. These skewed love songs, full of romantic longing and apocalyptic hangovers ("you hardly look sharp, your guts are in an arc"), are delivered by the triple threat of vocalists/guitarists Fran Keaney, Tom Russo, and Joe White, a troika of men who know their way around a perfectly formed guitar pop song.
The trio also weave a real feast of interlocking guitars that recall the kinetic energy of Television and the indie jangle of countless C86 bands. Robert Forster of the Go-Betweens would be proud to call songs like An Air Conditioned Man, all surging guitars and spoken word middle eight, his own. Rolling Blackouts also betray their punk and country roots on the twanging Sister’s Jeans, a cruising rock song that takes off into a sky scraping riff as it fades out.
Cappuccino City also has the bemused sangfroid of Forster and we can’t think of a better recommendation than that. This incredibly catchy debut should make Rolling Blackouts C.F. your new favourite band. AC
Alice in Chains - Rainier Fog
When it came to resilience, Rainier Fog offered plenty of footholds and found Alice in Chains at their highest point as metal songwriters since their 2009 comeback record, Black Gives Way to Blue. For anyone who lost track of them in the mists of time, here was an invitation back into the fold, which from the first listen made you feel like you'd never been away. HG
Joan as Police Woman - Damned Devotion
Joan Wasser is as arresting as ever on this return to the languid, moody atmospheres and sounds of her early work. It's a nocturnal affair with melodies that Insinuate, combining slow funk jams and juddering tribal beats. Seductive lush and intimate, Wasser is as utterly absorbing as ever and who doesn’t want to hear an album which features a song called Valid Jagger? AC
The Good The Bad and The Queen - Merrie Land
At last! A Brexit concept album we could get with. 11 years after their debut, the second release from Damon Albarn side project was uncannily timed - one week after the WWI commemoration and just as the full terrible reality of the Brexit paralysis began to finally dawn on little Englanders everywhere.
Produced by Tony Visconti, Albarn, former Clash bassist Paul Simonon, 78-year-old Nigerian drummer Tony Allen and guitarist/keyboard player Simon Tong (late of the Verve), take a good hard look at perfidious Albion.
If The Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks can now be seen as a rueful Brexiteers’ concept album, Merrie Land could be a sequel to Blur’s brash Parklife as the UK churns its way through its corrosive crisis of identity.
Albarn has described the album as "Anglo-Saxostentialist crisis"; the more earthbound Simonon describes Merrie Land as a work of "modern English folk music with a bit of rub-a-dub in it". It’s a lot of both. Brexit life is rubbish.
Kamasi Washington - Heaven and Earth
That joy when a listener feels an artist gets them and vice versa was on a three-hour loop for many thanks to American saxophonist Kamasi Washington and his one play: smitten second album. Delivering on all that its title allowed, Heaven and Earth welcomed the faithful from all genres and then sent them back out to spread the life-affirming news. That Olympia debut next March already feels like the stuff of legend. HG
Mitski - Be the Cowboy
Following the release of four low key albums, Japanese-American singer-songwriter Mitski Miyawaki made her breakthrough with this gem in 2018.
These songs never sit still. One minute she’s the Patsy Cline Pixies (A Pearl has the same build and release and quiet loud dynamic of the Boston godheads, while Lonesome Love sounds like the work of a veteran country singer), the next, she’s a dead-eyed electronic artist.
These short songs - mostly just over two minutes - are packed with inventiveness and melody. After being greeted with rapt adoration at her 2018 Dublin gig, Mitski may yet transcend cult stardom. AC
Clutch - The Book of Bad Decisions
The album of great songs. Twenty-seven years into their career, Maryland's Clutch arguably made the record of it - the hard rock thrills of 2018, humour that would do Tom Waits proud, and the glow that comes with seeing survivors extraordinaire finally getting their due. Referencing Jimmy Carter, Travis Bickle, Emily Dickinson, American Samoa and the hardcore scenes of the Great Plains (not all in the one song), The Book of Bad Decisions served up an array of characters and locations - but there's still room for you and your home to be added to that list. HG
Let’s Eat Grandma - I'm All Ears
If their acclaimed debut I, Gemini cast British teenage duo Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth as a grown up version of the twins from The Shining, their ambitious and expansive second album is another matter entirely. On I’m All Ears they continue to make an art form of combining oddball sounds with heartfelt lyrics laced with black humour. It’s packed with non-stop invention and charm. Oh, Let’s Eat Grandma! What big ears you have! AC
Suede - The Blue Hour
Talk about the passion! As many of their contemporaries grin and bear it for the nostalgia shill, Suede still sound like a gang with something to prove. The Blue Hour began with them auditioning to re-record the soundtrack to The Omen, and everything that followed proved to be just as chilling and widescreen as they decamped to country lanes and fields to tramp through all kinds of turmoil. You'd be up every tree in the Northern Hemisphere trying to find a better record in 2018. HG
Lisa O’Neill - Heard a Long Gone Song
Now signed to Rough Trade folk imprint River Lea Records, this fourth album from the Cavan native was one of the most startling and stark records of the year. As the title suggests, it’s a mix of traditional songs and O’Neill’s original compositions and it says much about her extraordinary voice - feral one minute and frail the next - that it is her songs that really stand out. Full of austere beauty, this is O’Neill’s masterpiece. AC
Jean-Pierre Como - Infinite
The joy of unexpected guests... Jean-Pierre Como arrived via French radio one October night, and he looks set to take over that particular time slot for all of 2019. Joined by saxophone, double bass and drums, the Parisian pianist called one of his songs Invitation to Dream, and then made good on that offer across the other ten. Makes you wonder about all the other great stuff happening an hour ahead of us that we never hear about - there's a New Year's resolution there if needed. HG
Natalie Prass - The Future and The Past
Virginia singer Natalie Prass was about to enter the studio to record her second album when something terrible happened - the result of the 2016 US presidential election. But relax - The Future and The Past is no exercise in Trump bashing - that would be far too easy for an artist as enigmatic as Prass. This is also possibly the most sophisticated album you’ll hear all year. It flirts with exacting, almost metronomic funk slickness, the melancholia of Abba, and, on Far From You, a flawless Karen Carpenter impression, which nearly outdoes that sorrowful siren. Prass’ second album is up there as one of the records of the year. And oh, what a voice. AC
Rejjie Snow - Dear Annie
Hailing from the same Drumcondra mean streets as Bertie Ahern and Eamon Dunphy, Rejjie Snow (real name Alexander Anyaegbunam) has already blazed a trail in Ireland’s burgeoning hip hop scene but he makes his real arrival with this dazzling debut. Flagrantly un-PC and old school in its influences, the 24-year-old handles several styles with real grace and humour throughout the never dull one-hour running time. As he avers are one point "I’m Irish but not from the waist down." And like everything on Dear Annie, it’s all delivered with a knowing wink. AC
Ry Cooder - The Prodigal Son
This could be the best studio album from Ry Cooder in years. It’s soothing, melancholic, and revives old Spirituals to magnificent effect. It has a real twilight quality about it, as if he is drifting off in to the dusk. And for students of Ry, on the magnificent Jesus and Woody he even sings about a new vigilante man stalking the land. Wonder who that might be . . . ? Paddy Kehoe