Sunday, 23 December 2018

Jack's Top Ten Albums of 2018

Every year, for the past four maybe five, I’ve eagerly waited for this time of the year. This has nothing to do with Christmas celebrations, unwrapping presents, or getting stupid drunk during the day. Maybe a little with the last one. For me, December is mostly about what people in music either love or absolutely despise the most: end-of-year top 10 (20? 100?) lists. I quickly moved from using such lists as a source of inspiration, a way to make sure I hadn’t overlooked any gem, to writing my own lists for the ‘benefit’ of an unwilling and probably confounded audience on Facebook who must have been wondering the size of my ego when stumbling across these unsolicited lists full of obscure references.

Colin and Emma’s end-of-year lists – and those of the rest of the lovely people who write on this blog – have quickly become something of a measuring stick for my own tastes, which makes writing this year’s list without reading theirs first particularly challenging. Because, in fact, I usually wait until the literal last day of the year to post my thoughts on the best albums of the previous 12 months. But not this year! Would those extra 20-ish days have generated some extra discovery that would have made it into this list? I honestly can’t think about it too much or I’ll spend several more hours listening to new music and I don’t think my brain can take it right now. So let’s dive in.

One quick final note on this list: I used to include, before my yearly lists, a disclaimer saying that it was obviously based on my personal taste and musical preferences, which for the last 15 years had gravitated around California-based skate punk. I think this is increasingly less true, and in fact a fair share of the 10 albums I enjoyed the most in 2018 were not even punk. But this is Colin’s Punk Rock World, so I’ve decided to stay topical. At the end of the album list, however, I’ve included two extra features: my top 10 list of the punk songs of 2018, to recognise that there were some hidden gems even in albums that didn’t make the cut here – or indeed EPs, which I haven’t considered; and my top 10 list of the non-punk songs of 2018, just in case you’re curious about how I’ve been non-punk curious lately :D

10. Grit by No Fun At All

I never paid too much attention to No Fun At All, to my discredit. Grit is a classic skate punk sounding album that will entertain you all the way through, with a selection of proper bangers (Sucker for a Plan being my favourite from the album).

9. Entropic by Hit The Switch

Here’s another band that I had only heard about but actually never listened to. Reacting to the hype surrounding the announcement about their new album – the first after a long hiatus – I decided to give this one a go, and I have not regretted it. Entropic gives me very strong No Use For A Name vibes, with a lot of simple melodies over fast drums, all hitting the right notes. I'm definitely hoping to hear more from Hit The Switch in the future.

8. I Think We’ll Be OK by Eat Defeat

I have yet to hear a bad release by Eat Defeat. After the absolute diamond of an EP released in 2016, which sparked several European tours and even a series of gigs in Japan, with I Think We’ll Be OK the band from Leeds have reaffirmed themselves as one of the bands in the UK that does happy-sounding pop punk best, while singing of much more sombre themes such as depression and existential dread, but in a humorous and relatable way.

7. Alamort by Ducking Punches

Here’s what I thought when I listened to Alamort for the first time: this album sounds fucking MASSIVE. The guitar, bass and sounds are simply spot on, the arrangements are insanely intricate, while still fitting perfectly with the emotional vocals performed stupendously by band founder Dan Allen.

While Ducking Punches have always made music that departed away from punk rock – while having a gruff punk rock core – Alamort is probably the album where the sound has evolved the most, making it more ‘accessible’ to people who don’t listen to punk rock necessarily. That however doesn’t make it any less ‘authentic’. The song I Ruin Everything is, simply speaking, the best song – punk rock or not – to come out in 2018. It’s so honest, a fucking gut punch, so raw, and yet so mindbendingly beautiful. I can’t stop listening to it.

6. Schmaltz by Spanish Love Songs

Funny that Spanish Love Songs come immediately after Ducking Punches in this list, given that they were touring together earlier this year. But I didn’t go see them. Why? Because I had never listened to SLS until I finally decided to listen to Emma’s advice, and boy was she right!!

Schmaltz is a massively enjoyable pop punk album that follows the path laid down by The Menzingers in their 2017 hit After The Party. Hence, you can expect very personal lyrics, reflections on one’s place in the world, friendship and love, all while making you wanna dance from the sustained rhythms. The best example of what I mean is The Boy Considers His Haircut, a hilarious and yet also serious monologue about struggling with one’s own identity, fulfilling your dreams and meeting others’ expectations.

5. Cheer by Drug Church

The last of the late additions in this list (thanks Colin’s Punk Rock World crew for the tips!!), Cheer by Drug Church completely took me by surprise as I first listened to it. I would describe the album’s genre as “hardcore with catchy pop punk chord sequences”, kinda like Iron Chic but with these two components brought to the extreme. It kind of makes me wonder how this works when played live, something I look forward to finding out in the new year.

4. The Sparks That Moves by Cancer Bats

This has been one hell of a year for Cancer Bats, maybe the year they’ve established themselves as a hardcore powerhouse. The Canadian band has come to the UK at least three times in 2018, at one stretch selling out four (maybe five?) consecutive nights at the Underworld in London. Most importantly, they have released The Spark That Moves, the band’s sixth full length.

I am not a *huge* hardcore connoisseur, so maybe that’s why I don’t know any band quite like Cancer Bats. Just like all the albums that preceded it, TSTM is a collection of sludgy “mean” hardcore, infused with southern rock sounds and gang vocals that make it a beast when played live. Particularly noteworthy is the collaboration with Chris Hannah from Propagandhi in the album’s closing track, Winterpeg.

3. No Discordance by Harker

Little known fact: Harker were the first UK band I ever bought a record of. It was at the Windmill in Brixton, they were opening for Red City Radio, I had never heard of them but I was massively impressed by this punk rock ensemble where the singer is playing the acoustic guitar. It’s not something you see every day. Another little personal note: that night I decided that I wanted to get involved in the local punk rock scene, got myself a guitar, and a week after I joined Ships Down. True story.

No Discordance is Harker’s first full-length album, and Mark has now ditched the acoustic guitar and gone full electric, but the emotional rawness of their songwriting is still there. Broadly falling under the categories of ‘gruff punk rock’ and pop punk, the 10 songs on the album are in my view the best Harker have ever written. It’s not easy to identify a song that stands out from the others, but at the same time I keep going back to Caught Up, a beautiful ballad in three quarters that slowly builds up to some properly emotional “who-hoos” that I really wish would never end. A proper anthem that can only get better live.

2. Clarion Call by The Human Project

In July 2017, The Human Project released a new track, What We Always Do, announcing with it a new album, the first since Origins in 2013. Now, let me tell you one thing: What We Always Do is probably the best album concentrated of fast, technical skate punk in the past, well, five years? It showcases what writing a *perfect* skate punk song is. My point is, if aliens invaded this planet and asked me what song perfectly encapsulates 2010s skate punk – weird flex, but ok – I would probably say: “Is there a way of answering this question without all the anal probing?”, before ultimately referring them to The Human Project’s bandcamp.

The fact that WWAD was so good turned against us, however. In a cruel turn of fate, fans of The Human Project had to wait close to a year before the full length containing it, and 10 more songs, was finally released. Needless to say, Clarion Call is a blast. The Human Project are deservedly part of the UK tech-punk pantheon, but it’s a different kind of technicality that distinguishes them; there’s no frills, and the songs are mostly linear in a hugely impactful way. You actually realise how good they are when you see them live, and realise that: a) they sound exactly like in the studio; b) there’s actually a billion little details in their songs that reveal the huge amount of work that goes into them; and c) they do all of this while seamlessly nailing 3-way vocal harmonies.

It’s also not straightforward to box The Human Project in a well-defined genre. Clarion Call is in fact a multifaceted work of punk rock, ranging from more melodic, emotional tunes (like Pride Before A Fall) to angrier songs about our corrupt political system (That One Percent). The Human Project have traditionally appealed to fans of many different kinds of music, and Clarion Call has the ability to continue to do exactly so, while also representing a step up for the band in terms of songwriting.

1. Black Panther The Album (Music From And Inspired By) by Various Artists [but, like, mostly Kendrick Lamar]

Ok, I lied when I said I left out non-punk albums from this list. But I couldn’t leave this one out. Not when this particular non-punk album was THE BEST ALBUM OF THE YEAR. Not when I have so many things to say about it.

Before I continue, however, let’s clear the air: there isn’t a take in music that is as lame, and boring, and superficial as saying “hip hop is the new punk”. I don’t want to spend the rest of the space available here to list the cultural, historical, and political reasons why such a take is good only for Jack White types who can’t see further from their own noses (I’m also probably not the best person to do so). I just want this to be on the record, that it wasn’t this type of sentiment that led me to include a hip hop record on a list of otherwise punk albums. I just decided to break my own rule, there’s nothing punk about that either. Just remember: hip hop is hip hop. New punk, is new punk; for better or for worse, I guess.

Imagine being Kendrick in 2016. You’ve just finished producing DAMN., a fitting follow up to the smash hit To Pump A Butterfly, but taking a rather different turn stylistically and lyrically. You’re the most in-demand artist in the world. You’re releasing the new album in February, when you’re approached by an emerging movie director about maybe doing a few original songs for a movie that’s coming out in 2018. Which movie? Oh, nothing special, just the most politically relevant blockbuster of a generation.

Now, it’s easy to see how this could have gone sour. Overworked artist, in the whirlwind of a new album release – with all the promotion and touring that normally ensues, working in a context that could have very likely turned unfavourable – a soundtrack to a Marvel (i.e. Disney) movie talking about drugs and gang violence? Get outta here! And yet, the unlikely series of illuminated choices made by executives, combined with the genius of the talent involved, have gifted us all with one of the greatest movie soundtracks of the decade, a cohesive work 14-song album – talk of a few tracks! – with a life of its own beyond the movie it accompanies (and not just because of how the songs are criminally underutilised in the film itself!).

It’s of course reductive to credit Kendrick Lamar alone for the brilliance of this album, even though he is listed as a songwriter in all of the songs. Producer Ludwig Göransson was responsible for a lot of the research that went into the distinctive sound of this album and Kendrick was joined by other world-class musicians such as SZA, Vince Staples, Jay Rock, James Blake, Anderson .Paak, Jorja Smith, The Weeknd and Travis Scott to name a few! We should also remind ourselves that this was a *monster* of a blockbuster movie, with a production budget for the soundtrack alone that would probably dwarf what has been spent to produce the top 1,000 DIY punk albums every year for the past five years. But it’s certainly not the case that every time these same ingredients – lots of money + great artists + great production and direction – are combined, the results are always so rosy.

Listening to this album, it’s impossible not to be baffled by the sequence of banger after banger that make this record. Compared to his latest solo project, DAMN., Kendrick is less concerned about following any strictly defined style, but instead each song takes inspiration from a different style of black music, alternating African rhythms (Redemption) with massive club hits (Opps). But a few words must be spent on King’s Dead, one of the singles which anticipated the album and the release of the movie. King’s Dead sounds a bit more like a ‘Kendrick’ song, stylistically – deep basses, dreamy choral arrangements mixed with heavy beats – and lyrically, where Kendrick, Jay Rock and Future sing in the voice of the villain, Erik Killmonger, boasting his riches, his conquests despite the state of oppression he was in, and laying claim to the throne. With the social themes explored in the lyrics, this album echoes the sentiment left by the movie itself: was Killmonger actually kinda right?

Songs – Punk
1. Ducking Punches – I Ruin Everything
2. Harker – Caught Up
3. Cancer Bats – Brightest Day
4. Alkaline Trio – Sweet Vampires
5. Eat Defeat – Can’t Say I’ll Miss You
6. Captain Trips – Siren Song
7. Drug Churg – Weed Pin
8. Red City Radio – In The Shadows
9. Trash Boat – Shade
10. Spanish Love Songs – Otis / Carl

Songs – Non-Punk
1. Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Future, James Blake – King’s Dead
2. Kanye West (ft 070 Shake, John Legend & Kid Cudi) – Ghost Town
3. Pusha T – Come Back Baby
4. Mac Miller – Ladders
5. Parsonsfield – Santa Monica
6. Travis Scott – Sicko Mode
7. Frank Turner – Be More Kind
8. Childish Gambino – Feels Like Summer
9. Arctic Monkeys – Four Out Of Five
10. Cardi B – She Bad
*Bonus: A-ha // Kendrick Lamar – Take On Backseat (n04h Mashup)

This top ten was written by Jack Genovese.

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