2018 Album Superlatives

2018 Cover Image

An incredible amount of amazing music gets released every single year. It’s beautiful to think that there are so many creative people in the world creating music that someone can relate to, and have their own experiences with. Certain albums may remind you of a specific person, place, or memory, serving as a soundtrack to our lives. Here you will find Radio UTD’s favorite albums of the year, along with superlatives and an explanation of what makes them memorable.

Best Storytelling
Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy

A reworking of their earlier 2011 project (now referred to as “Twin Fantasy (Mirror To Mirror)” to differentiate it from this version), Twin Fantasy deals with a relationship frontman Will Toledo was in during an earlier point in time and grapples topics such as internalized homophobia, depression, and fear of aging. While the album is more of a concept album, many of the tracks feature lyrical and musical callbacks with varying degrees of subtlety, which rewards relistens as newer details are likely only going to be picked up the second or third time around. This goes double for those who are familiar with the original version of the album, as there are quite a notable amount of detailed changes that showcase Will’s current attitude and tastes, such as desiring “Frank Ocean’s voice” in this version compared to Dan Bejar’s in the original, and a different spoken word monologue at the end of “Nervous Young Inhumans”. If you love analyzing and interpreting lyrical details, this is one of this year’s albums you should not miss out on. – Emi Chavez Armas

Quick Therapy Session:
Adrianne Lenker – abysskiss
Adrianne Lenker - abysskiss cover

It might be indicative of something special – perhaps the immense power behind creative solitude – that the albums which resonate the most with me are the solo projects of well-established frontpeople. Tied with Florist’s Emily Sprague (whose 2018 release Mount Vision I’ve detailed below) in “amount of time I’ve spent crying to their records”, Adrianne Lenker similarly knows exactly how to cut directly to a feeling. “I’ve felt since I was a kid this desperate longing to be closer to…something bigger, to be in conversation with the mystery of everything… We pop into existence and we know that we die and we know that we lose everyone that we love and we know we even lose our own bodies… What a mystery,” Lenker discusses with NPR, and abysskiss is the materialization of that romantic, albeit dark, sense of wonder.

The instrumentation of the record rarely reaches past Lenker’s expertly light handling of an acoustic guitar. The chords are just soft enough to not distract from the vocals but mesmerizing enough to completely immerse themselves in a quiet atmosphere, with the consistent quiet hum created by the pairing of the two so alluring that the record could repeat a few times before you realize you’ve heard the tracks before. “The thread that connects these songs is not something that can easily be put down in words. Intuition connects these songs. They are a record of a time,” reads the record’s one-sheet, and the thread that connects the songs to the listener exists just as strongly, enigmatically, and individually. There are so few ways to speak objectively and correctly about abysskiss because the most important experience gained from listening to it is so intensely personal that it becomes impossible to share a direct connection with another through it. In that way it is both universal and completely individual, making it ideal for a “quick therapy session” – it brings forth a fountain of emotion and forces you to confront it, time and time again.             – Dawood Nadurath

Best Album Cover:
Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar
Young Fathers - Cocoa Sugar cover

Breathe in that contrast. Stark black against billowing cool gradient. So many emotions are taken in at once from this piece. Calm, pride, strength, allure, intrigue, and spunk are all on full display with this deceptively simple image. It’s an apt theme that runs parallel to the music of Cocoa Sugar: so many different feelings fitting together so harmoniously. Even without mentioning the obviously significant boundary-snapping of the black figure overtaking the Hollywood-imposed white cowboy character in such a bold way, this cover just serves as a peaceful yet striking visual mantra for the ethos, pathos, and logos of Young Fathers, and the musical scenes they operate within. You don’t need me throwing artistic jargon at you; just look at those rich colors. – Matthew Devoll

Worst Album Cover:
J. Cole – K.O.D.

J Cole’s 5th studio album “K.O.D.” has been relatively well received by critics. I personally enjoyed the album overall. The album cover, however, has its issues. Artistically, I admire it for its colors and originality. The problem has to do with how it relates to the music and the message it attempts to portray.

The album name K.O.D has three different meanings according to J Cole’s Twitter. “Kids on Drugs”, “King Overdosed”, and “Kill Our Demons”. These themes are displayed on the album cover picturing J Cole with a crown completely dazed along with several faces of children doing drugs such as cocaine and lean below him. J Cole attempts to talk about society’s use of drugs and how it is abused by the media as well as his own struggle with substances. This is an interesting concept overall and the cover matches it well, but this topic seems to be dropped about halfway through the album making the cover less relevant and therefore not as appealing.

In addition, the album can be offensive and disturbing to some people. A child snorting cocaine obviously isn’t the most appealing to the eye. It also abuses shock value as its strong point which doesn’t hold up that well. It feels like it’s trying too hard to disturb the reader. Overall, the front artwork doesn’t serve its purpose in capturing the full album’s tone and can be seen as somewhat offensive which is why K.O.D. is the worst album cover of 2018. – Ethan Weinberger

An Album for Early Morning Meetings with Nature:
Julia Holter – Aviary

When I was a little kid, my dad asked me to help plant turnips in our backyard garden at around 6 A.M., and the first thing he taught me to do was to check the soil for nutrients by smelling it. The method behind this was to verify that the soil has the right ammonium content as to not make the roots upset, and then we planted the bulbs and hoped some nice healthy turnips would show up in the next six months.

Fast forward 16ish years after that lesson, I listened to Julia Holter’s new avant-garde electronic masterpiece Aviary, and those sensations from that day popped back into my body at a very deliberate but visceral pace. The feeling of the sun against my skin, the Houston humidity, and the unbridled curiosity of birthing a plant for the first time were all present when I was starting my journey through this album with “Turn the Light On”. As I made my way through Holter’s twinkly string licks and ethereal chord progressions, more of the sensations started coming back, like the smell of the soil and even the wriggly touch of worms crawling over my gloved hands, and by the time I was listening to “Another Dream”, I could see myself putting the bulbs in the soil and my dad joking around about me having a green thumb. Once I got to the last third of the album, or around “I Would Rather See”, it seemed like the synthesized instruments started to become living beings. The sycamore trees grab you by the wrist to dance with them, and then tuck you into the softest peat bog Mother Nature has to offer. This album deeply connects you to every part of mother nature’s psyche; every memory, mistake, trauma, and accomplishment she experiences and has harbored is all for you to see once you listen to this album. Plant some turnips to this album, and, unless you’re heavily cursed, they will be sure to thrive. – Daniel Keane

Best Album by a Trans/NB Artist:

Try to name an artist that had a quicker rise to stardom this year than SOPHIE. Most fans know she has been at it since around 2013, but in coming out as a trans woman and presenting herself as the focal point of a stunning music video for “It’s Okay To Cry,” SOPHIE’s relevance skyrocketed, culminating in one of the most essential listens of 2018. Contrary to what music journalists may tell you, OIL’s appeal doesn’t rest solely in the boundary-pushing, rubbery dance production that made SOPHIE’s name earlier in the decade. While that certainly shan’t be ignored, the lyrics OIL are surprisingly deep-cutting, diving into dysphoria, self-image, existentialism, kink, and most other stressors non-binary folks deal with on a daily basis. It’s a fireworks show of talent, personal catharsis, and glorious unabashed confidence. – Matthew Devoll

Best Local Album:
Steven Leftovers – No Dreams

In June, Steven Leftovers released what should be a staple album in the Texas local music scene. No Dreams uses captivating percussion and ornate lyricism to create an extremely special and seamless album. The enticing harmonies and unique instrumentation blend many genres, while still creating something new and incredibly engaging. Acoustic guitar driven tracks like “Bitter, Angry” and “One of These Day’s I’ll Get Shot” create stories that tug at your heartstrings, while more exhilarating tracks like “The Bull Tattoo” stand out as a testament to the album’s versatility. The touchingly personal lyrics tell stories and craft emotions that are puzzling, heartbreaking, and familiar all at once. No Dreams is truly one of the most outstanding local albums of 2018. – Tyler Hormell

Album That Is Acceptable to Play In Front of Your Parents Without Them Getting Mad:
Beach House – 7

On 7, Beach House evolve their dreamy songwriting without making the album seem unfamiliar. Without straying too far from their traditional sound, the dream-pop duo deliver some of the most enjoyable and accessible songs this year. Through cascading guitar melodies and delicately sung vocals, the music is equal parts gorgeous and inoffensive. This exceptional piece of the bands discography stands out as one of the most interesting and agreeable albums to come out in 2018. Mom and/or dad will surely hear this one and think “oh. ok.” – Tyler Hormell

Best Album to Charge Crystals to:
Spirit of the Beehive – Hypnic Jerks

Philadelphia based fuzz-rockers Spirit of the Beehive deliver a hazy warmth wrapped in non-conventional structure and incredibly unexpected transitions, hence its namesake. But it ultimately relaxes and instills a sense of dreamy renewal as well, never actually feeling like you’re experiencing something as jolting and inelegant as a seizure, and is the perfect album for gathering energy to take on the day looming over your soft noggin.

To begin, let’s lay out some crystals of your choosing. As the girl in the beginning voiceover of “nail I couldn’t bite” does her countdown, start channeling your prana into those crystals that are laid in front of you (you can do this by speaking intentions, meditating, etc.). Towards the middle of the album, you can start casting spells with your crystal, and “can I receive the contact” is really great for grounding your spell’s intentions, with its fuzzy, grungy ambience ideal for setting setting the intent front and center of your prefrontal cortex. The last step is to cast out the bad energy that the crystals may be harboring, and normally you would do this with a singing bowl, but the R.E.M. inducing vocals and harp-like guitar rips being suitable to purify the crystals. At the end of this process, you should feel the prana pulsing throughout your whole living space, and any energy that has caused you discomfort, pain, or lack of peace should be banished at least for the time being. – Daniel Keane

Album That Your Teenage Self Would Be Most Disappointed That You Enjoyed:
Post Malone – Beerbongs & Bentleys

The most important thing to square away about Post Malone is that he’s not a rapper. At least not in the traditionalist sense. Perhaps he has flow and similar lyrical themes, but his focus on melody sets him apart from his contemporaries in that he’s essentially a singer-songwriter, but instead of backing up his ballads with acoustic guitar (with exceptions), he taps hot and in-demand trap producers to lay the foundation for his tunes. The result is far more harmonious than I anticipated, with surprisingly emotional chord changes and performances passionate enough to put any number of mumble rappers to rest. Of course, Post isn’t immune to the occasional corn-fest (see the tracks “Spoil My Night” with Swae Lee and “Same Bitches” with G-Eazy and YG), but the majority of the album culminates into a shockingly consistent sugar high. – Matthew Devoll

Best Album Without a Single Word On It #1:
Emily Sprague – Mount Vision

Emily Sprague is the vocalist and primary songwriter for Florist, an indie folk band with roots in the SUNY Purchase and Double Double Whammy-tangent crowd of musicians like Gabby’s World (fka Eskimeaux), Bellows, and Told Slant. However, her creative process shifts entirely as she sets down her acoustic guitar in favor of her modular synth setup. “When I write songs for Florist, it’s so structured. That was my world, that was my relationship with music for a long time. But when I started making music with modular synths, I realized that I can make something that’s just completely unstructured. That’s what I like about it,” Sprague said to The Creative Independent, and the freedom of being guided by her intuition beautifully translates into her 2018 release.

Mount Vision is a natural continuation from her first modular synth release, Water Memory, only in that it perfectly captures a snapshot of a fleeting feeling, gently storing it on the A-side of a cassette without ever speaking a word. Both tapes come with a small piece of writing on the insert, with Mount Vision’s reading:

i came to clarity through sunshine

and lizard sighting

    blue through the original

        sea salt

    next time”

Sprague provides the only words needed in order to understand the feeling these tracks are meant to emulate. The first track, “Synth 1,” immediately moves you to the top of a hill, overlooking the vastness of a landscape like West Texas while watching a bird cut through the beautiful monotony of a clear, blue sky. The rest of the tracks are similarly titled, their stark simplicity subsequently increasing the project’s value as one continuous moment instead of splitting the feeling between track titles. The piano tracks feel clumsy in the most delightful way possible, like a young tipsy socialite stumbling through every fourth step while dancing at a party. “Piano 1,” making use of the instrument for the first time in these projects, sounds much more light-hearted than the finality that comes with the closing track, “Piano 2.” The synth tracks lull you into a daze before quickly bringing you back to the surface of the warm soundscape with an additional, erratically-placed new loop. Together, they all culminate to bring you, wordlessly, to the forefront of Sprague’s creative process in the two special days in September that they were recorded. – Dawood Nadurath

Best Album Without a Single Word On It #2:
James Ferraro – Four Pieces for Mirai

After Skid Row released back in 2015, it’s been a tricky time being a Ferraro fan as most of his releases strayed even further into the left field, dropping his R&B tendencies that had hung around for a few years in exchange for more traditional compositional styles with rather unorthodox sound pallets. With “Four Pieces for Mirai” however, Ferraro reminds us why he’s even a name on the map in the first place. While Ferraro flaunted his accelerationist tendencies a decade ago as a strong force within LA’s Hypnagogic Pop Scene, and as a forerunner to vaporwave music, Ferraro yet again manages to stay ahead of the curve in producing a work that showcases his vision of what comes after rampant technological expansion. Ferraro succeeds in having such an artificial work sound human, something that was lacking within his peer OPN’s “Age Of”. A slew of electronic production techniques applied to classical compositions of Ferraro’s creates a rather enticing experience. This is especially true as Ferraro begins to imagine a path into a future instead of warping a view of the past, a future laden with digital corruptions of rather organic aspects of life. Although “Four Pieces for Mirai” may have flown under the radar when compared to his contemporaries like OPN or Yves Tumor, it’s quite a promising EP that shows quite a bit of promise for where Ferraro is heading next. – Yousseff Mahmoud

Best Album to Hoedown To:
Goodnight, Texas – Conductor

Goodnight, Texas has always been a great choice for a hoedown based on their strong songwriting and great mandolin playing. Just ask the residents of Pinos Altos who threw money at the band to keep them on stage and partying all night long. The band’s long awaited third album, Conductor, builds on their strengths with the addition of electric guitar and more rock-influenced compositions. Songs such as “Taking Your Word For It” and “Cassie, Come On Over” have everything you need for a two stepping party: a fun beat, cool guitar riffs, and catchy lyrics.
If I’ve convinced you to give the album a listen so far then when you put it on, you’ll likely be surprised that it starts out with two minimal, slow-burning songs. Some of the best moments in the album come from the quiet or slow songs, which is what makes this release so special. GNTX beautifully balances the album with a good mix of contemplative and fun songs, calm moments and crescendos, happiness and heartbreak. You can hoedown then slow down. – Molly Harras

Most Solid As They Come:
MGMT – Little Dark Age

It’s not a question now- with a half-decade wait and the musical influences of Connan Mockasin, Ariel Pink and Chairlift, MGMT was destined for a triumphant return to music. Pondering themes of social media, the current political state, and death, it seemed the album could have turned out as many albums of the kind do (that is to say, mediocre). Rather than providing answers, however, MGMT appears as unable to navigate these questions as we are. Vulnerable yet upbeat, the atmosphere the album creates is the soundtrack of modern anxieties. You are embedded into a world this is familiar yet new, lonely yet comfortable. If you are a new fan, the album raises questions about navigating this world through lavish synths and a unique psychedelic pop experience. If you are an old fan, this album is like seeing a dear childhood friend; no matter how much time has passed, you know they are the same old friend. Yet despite this, they are also someone completely new- smarter, more sure of themselves and who they want to be, but most importantly they are self-aware. And you’re more proud than ever to see them grow into someone they’re proud to be.               – Isabel Magaña

Best Sample-based Production:
Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs

Some Rap Songs
starts out with “Shattered Dreams,” which features a short musical phrase that is looped over and over again throughout the whole two minute run-time of the track. It’s made up of samples that have been chopped up and manipulated in various ways, and that’s exactly how the rest of the project continues. The loop in “Shattered Dreams” is the shortest on the album, to some being overly repetitive. But the loops and samples only get more complex, creating a hazy, entrancing sound. At only 24 minutes long, many fans were disappointed about getting another very short project from Earl. However, Earl makes the most out of those 24 minutes. It’s incredibly dense, and he has a lot to say on this project. It’s repetitive production and Earl’s off-beat flow forces the listener to pay attention to what he’s saying, getting his point across in a concise manner. The sample-based production of the album is meticulous, every phrase looping perfectly and creating a murky atmosphere.          – Roman Soriano