2018 Top 10: Art Pop and Ambient Pop
Low - Double Negative
Julia Holter - Aviary
LUMP - LUMP
Tirzah - Devotion
Robyn - Honey
Audiobooks - Now! (in a minute)
Emma Louise - Lilac Everything
Loma - Loma
Yo La Tengo - There's a Riot Goin On
St. Vincent - Masseducation
This is the last list and the best list. Low and Julia Holter are my top albums of the year, and the quality stays really high on this list as you go down. All 10 are must-listen albums that blur the lines between pop music and art in challenging ways. Whether it's in composition, voice modulation, genre twisting, or the very sound bed that the music lies in, these albums subvert expectations and challenge the listener. Note that there's often a wide separation here between songwriter and producer that makes this list feel like it has a lot to do with exemplary decisions that were made with, generally, good songs from good artists.
Double Negative is probably not the best Low album but it's the best album this year. It's the only album from this year that I'm pretty sure deserves five/five stars. It's probably a challenging place to start with Low unless you really like glitchy industrial music. If you like it though, it actually might serve as a bridge to some heavier, more difficult music. Though it's much more, it's at least a great way to illustrate how otherwise unpleasant sounds are beautiful in context. I'm always looking for ways to show people that, because I happen to love mechanical whirs and not eveyrone does.
Aviary is a lot more difficult, in my mind, and is my other possibility for five stars this year. Julia Holter is a singular artist in whatever her musical landscape is, and this album is probably a masterpiece, I'm still trying to figure it out. It came out a little too late in the year to properly digest, especially because of its 90 minute running time. There's also fairly large chunks of it, especially in the first third, that have to be observed rather than enjoyed. I'm okay with this experience, on the conditions that A) I believe it's in service to the work, B) there is contrast to it. And there's definitely contrast! There is so much beauty that it's a little overwhelming.
In comparison to these mammoth artist statements, LUMP is a cute little oddity. This might mostly be for Laura Marling superfans. It's six good to great Marling songs set against really interesting production from Mike Lindsay of Tunng. I'm hoping Marling continues working with challenging producers and gets out of her comfort zone that she's been stuck in for a record or two now. Speaking of collaborations, Tirzah's Devotion is a similarly successful collaboration between songwriter and producer with somewhat blurrier lines between the two. Tirzah is a great muse for Mica Levi and Mica's production really sets this apart this from other alternative R&B.
Honey is a satisfying comeback for Robyn, whose projects have been decent collaborations but not really Robyn albums since 2010. It doesn't really have any bangers but it's definitely consistently good. Audiobooks is a lot more hit or miss, but somehow has a consistent personality that permeates the different ideas. It's a wacky record that's equal parts artsy, goofy, and good.
Emma Louise is new to me, so I'm not disappointed like other people at her vocal modulation on Lilac Everything. It's a beautiful record, but like all the artists on this list, if you don't like the vocals, it won't really work for you, since they are such a huge instrument in the mix (just like actual pop music). Emily Cross is back with Loma, which is pretty consistent with Cross Record from the past with its psychedelic mix and big dynamic shifts. Yo La Tengo ages gracefully with their most relaxed record that sounds like them putting lyrics to their soundtracks. Also interesting is St. Vincent's elaboration on her previous material with the piano-only MassEducation.