3 January 2019

My Top 10 Albums of 2018

It used to be the case that producing a top 10 albums of the year if you were not the NME or similar was just a cute way to get a conversation going with your musical friends. In all honesty, that's all it still is, however, the advent of the interwebnet, streaming and digital distribution channels has levelled the playing field, now the NME's top 10 albums of the year are much closer in the value of their cultural capital to your own personal musings than they would have been in days gone by.

Mass market taste makers of yore are pretty much as lost as anyone else when it comes to distilling the embarrassment of cultural riches that litters our digital pastures in current times. It so happens that I buy all my new music on Bandcamp, so all of my albums of the year come from Bandcamp. Does that mean no good albums were published anywhere else? Well, possibly they may have been from a purely aesthetic standpoint, but there's more to the act of selection than pure aestthetics.

My Top Ten isn't just a list of awesome new tunage that filled my ears and imagination with joy in 2018, the delivery mechanism via the Bandcamp platform is the most direct connector of artist and fan community. The amazing things I have heard via Bandcamp and the way of supporting the artists who produce that amazing material directly are a statement in themselves. The medium is the message, never has this been so true.

The power and influence of Bandcamp in certain musical "scenes", particularly synthwave and downtempo, cannot be underestimated. Bandcamp has delivered a mechanism for uniting fans and content creators the like of which has never been seen before. The platform ends up being more than just a storefront, and yet, in functionality that's exactly what they are, a fan is forced to venture into other social media in order to take the engagement with their favourite artists further. What Bandcamp sacrifices in social networking features it more than makes up for in the power of doing its one job incredibly effectively. On a weekly basis, the storefront serves up a steady diet of all the new music you can possibly stand and it shapes the audience priorities in the music market.

I have been a Bandcamp user for three or four years now and slowly it has become the only place I go for new music. That might sound like a list of my favourite albums of the year might be restricted in sound or scope, but if I bought all my albums of the year from the same brick-and-mortar store you might not think that, even though it would necessarily be closer to the truth. In the physical world the choices of other humans consciously or unconsciously curating the content I can view as part of my choice change the ultimate choices I make.

There are still barriers to my discovery of new music via a store like Bandcamp but they are restricted to problems the artist has communicating to me, the consumer, that there is something on their profile I might like to listen to. All the other intercessions of cultural curators, philosophical and commercial, are pretty much removed. That distils the important power of the Bandcamp process.

That said, let's dig in. The albums are arranged alphabetically, so although it's a top 10 that's where the hierarchy ends, these are 10 amazing cuts and none are better or worse than others. Also, the bar this year was stupidly high. These 10 just represent works that managed to travel that little bit further, reach that little bit higher, but so, so many others came so close. The artists included should know they did something above and beyond to make it into this list because the competition was crazy hard.

30 Years Later - An Akira Tribute

No less notable for being a multi-artist "theme" album for 14 artists to pull their absolute A-game for a project just tells you how lovingly they all embrace the granddaddy of the cyberpunk anime genre. Crossing between cyberpunk, darksynth, synthwave, industrial this collection could have been all over the place, an incoherent grab bag. The fact that it is so tightly focused on delivering that Akira experience tells you how far that movie has penetrated the cultural soul of huge amounts of modern technological society. Every track on this album is rich with the thrum of electronic creativity and the dystopian visions that are a staple of the various genres they exemplify.


Antwerp

A monster synthwave release for being at once so on the nose in terms of synthwave albums but also so accessible to newcomers to the genre. The stroke of genius in this album is the fusing of the neo-retro synthwave vibe with a nostalgic approach to composition that layers samples and sounds like proper old-skool house or hip hop tracks. The result is an album that sounds both new and old in two different ways. The synthwave movement has always sought to draw on the soul of 80s electronica to give the tunes a beating nostalgic heart, but the revolution here is to strip down the sound whilst improving the clarity of the production. Dropping nods to break dancing, Terminator, Ferraris and Donkey Kong is just the icing on the cake, there's nothing sly or subtle about the execution from that point of view, the breakthrough is that this is a synthwave album that actually has something to say about synthwave as a scene and the scene's obsession with the neon-drenched vistas of the 80s as viewed through a cyber-rose-tinted marketer's bio-augmentation visor.


Creeper

An epic collision of sparse-ish techno, head-wobbling bass and horrorsynth make ZombieNick one of the most distinct voices in modern electronic music. In Creeper (as with his previous release "Dead Boy") the attention to detail in the creation of a sinister, threatening electronic soundscape is partnered with a deep love of throbbing bass and insistent drum loops that deepen the general atmosphere of paranoia and dread. The result is a sonic experience as at home in a slasher movie as in the night club, although it has to be said I've never actually visited a night club that would have the balls to put one of these tunes on because, don't doubt, this is the electronic music equivalent of a really harsh horror movie. Something about the sound is deliciously, I don't know, off and that's what the horror fan savours even as the inner clubber throws its shapes in response to the incessant, pounding beat.


Death & Glory

Like many of the albums on this list the heart of this release is the fusion of elements to create something a cut above. Somewhere inbetween darksynth and techno Lazerpunk delivers an all out sonic assault layering harsh square bass and pounding drums to devastating effect. The secret ingredient in Death & Glory is the heart poured into the release. The physical release of the album comes with a notebook "commentary" outlining the personal nature of the album and the emotional energy bleeds through into the music, no doubt. There have been a fair few harsh dark synth releases this year but what makes this one stand above the rest is the sheer catharsis on display. Death & Glory alternates between outpouring, cleansing and maniacal glee but one thing it isn't, ever, is laid back.


Infiction Soundtrack Remixes

This was not a pick I expected to be making as the albums of the year drifted together. It's an album of remixes and my rational mind told me that an album of remixes couldn't compete with original work. In most cases this would be the correct call, in order to ascend into the "best of the year" territory the work has to be on another level. So, it's a very good job that InFiction's work on several well-known (and some not so well known) movie score pieces did in fact manage to surmount the restrictions usually due to reworks like these. The key is in the balance between preserving the beating heart of each piece whilst, at the same time, creating something fresh on each and every track. You still recognise moments from the The Thing, Escape From New York and Hallowe'en 3 but now they are re-puposed, clean, danceable, something other than they were. InFiction clearly approaches each work with love and respect and these shine through in the finished products.


Invaders

Every list of this type needs an "Invaders", something that strategises from a different playbook. In addition to marking out its territory as "not-your-average synthwave album" Invaders inhales a great dose of 50s sci fi grandiosity, faux-soundtrack playfulness and operatic sturm and drang. The result is a theremin-laced sucker punch of synth insanity, giddy in its aspiration and its bare-faced cheek. So many synth releases are intended to be soundtracks to B-movies you can only wish really existed, but Invaders is the only one where you can almost see the chiarascuro of the majestic cinema screen as the flicker of the otherworldly images play before an audience agog, held in a trance by this tale of black saucers and the band of fighters who resist their waves of destruction. A confection, a narcotic, an outstanding aural carnival.


Lost Track

Sometimes, on the other hand, it's all very simple. This is the ultimate boiled down, energetic boom bap release of the year. The rhymes are clean, the flow is smooth and the beats and loops are just divine. There's really not much more to add on this, it is a paragon of the beat-maker's art, it might not be modern hipster-hop but it is a succulent treat for fans of the old school.


Rabbit Junk Will Die: Meditations on Mortality by Rabbit Junk

Any year in which Rabbit Junk offer up a release that release will likely find its home here. Rabbit Junk, to a certain extent, remind me of The Prodigy, or rather, what the Prodigy eventually evolved into, the good news being that RJ have started at that point of delirious creative flow that other artists have to warm up to. The collision of influences from rock, industrial, EDM and even pop are always mindful to remain on target. I have listened to too many albums where it sounded like every track was by a different artist or one artist struggling to find a sound, RJ's sound is the polar opposite of that. From day one it is clear what the sound was always intended to be and the only real difference has been in the increasing skill of application. For which reason Rabbit Junk Will Die amazes not just because of what it delivers but because of what it promises for the future.


Sinner's Syndrome

Words like "outstanding" get bandied about a lot in lists like these, and rightly so, really. All the releases on this list are outstanding in one way or another. They are my 10 outstanding releases of the year and, even in bandcamp land, that's 10 releases out of a buttload of releases. It's rarer to employ the word "remarkable". That's what Sinner's Syndrome is.

The layers of old and new collide and combine to create something utterly unique. It's an album of your classic late 90s downtempo trip hop vibes, a la Portishead/Massive Attack/DJ Shadow/Herbaliser but it picks through a 60s blues/rock/pop theme cleverly and carefully to sound like the soundtrack to the more upbeat, hipper reboot of Twin Peaks. Simultaneously it riffs on cultural notes from rock-a-billy, to psychobilly, to hip-hop (natch), to plunderphonics, to classic soundtracks, to kitsch pop, jazz, blues rock and lounge. And it's not just the sheer breadth of the influences, either. It's the expertise with which they are blended, layered and fired out of your speakers with a mean attitude and a mischievous confidence. Sinner's Syndrome is a contender not just for one of the best downtempo releases of the 2018 but must surely want to elbow its way into the all-time Hall of Fame for slow beats and cheeky jazz samplage along with Endtroducing and Very Mercenary.


T2

There had to be some balls-to-the-wall industrial in this list and Cyanotic hammered out a space for themselves with this album which, technically, is a remix album of their 2017 release "Tech Noir". It's one of those cases where the remix album refreshes the original and goes on to elevate the material to an entirely new level. Incorporating elements of Drum and Bass is the masterstroke here, which, in some cases, could result in a mess but are thankfully applied with the right touch to be always production appropriate in this instance. Slamming jackhammer beats and anguished vocals twisted by synthesizers make T2 the BIOS for an extremely angry robot with a program to kill.

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