XLR8R’s Best of 2018: Releases
We run through our top albums and EPs of the year.
There’s been a lot of discussion around the need for albums of late. This ties in closely with the ongoing Spotify debate and particularly with Drake’s Scorpion, 2018’s most streamed album despite 63% of its total streams being accounted for by just three songs. If the biggest album in the world isn’t even being listened to as an album, is it an outdated format for music delivery? Some would suggest so—”I pay for 10 songs when I only want to listen to eight,” says one Reddit user—but a quick reflection on 2018’s finest releases suggests something different.
The last 12 months have blessed us with some exceptional long-players. And while some of these do certainly have some standout tracks, and some, too, that may be slightly less impactful, almost all of these releases are better when listened to as an album, from start to finish, front to back, again and again; only then can you appreciate its quality and depth. Moreover, this is not to say that 2018 has been weak in terms of EPs, but the most forward-thinking, memorable, and captivating listens have been the longer ones. So with no further avail, here are the releases and artists that connected with us, that we couldn’t shake off, in no particular order.
Yves Tumor Safe In The Hands of Love [Warp Records]
Sean Bowie set the benchmark extremely high for experimental music this year. Since 2010, the enigmatic Tennessee-born artist has released several EPs and now three albums, the latest, his first as Yves Tumor on Warp, was as difficult to place into any genre as Bowie is to pin down; shoegaze, trip-hop, noise, alt-rock, and pop all come to mind in a musical concoction that’s introspective but loud; profound yet fun; intense yet delicate. Contributions come from James K and Croatian Amor. It’s hard to think of a more memorable and original album this year. — XLR8R Staff
Mary Lattimore Hundreds Of Days [Ghostly International US]
Ghostly International released LA-based harpist Mary Lattimore‘s new album in May, a follow-on from March 2016’s At The Dam, itself recorded during stops along a road trip across America. Much of this album was recorded during a residency at the Headlands Center For The Arts, in the hills outside of San Francisco, and it’s delightfully delicate and melancholic, but also uplifting at times. Few artists can evoke such a range of emotions with such simplicity. The beauty is in the detail. — XLR8R Staff
Rival Consoles Persona [Erased Tapes]
It was easy to overlook Ryan Lee West‘s Persona LP given the hype around Jon Hopkins and DJ Koze, both of whom dropped albums within similar aesthetic realms. And the expectation around Nils Frahm’s return, also on Erased Tapes, overshadowed Persona, a work of at least equal majesty. The London producer has been a fan favorite since 2015’s Howl, but Persona is more compelling, meditative, and also experimental; consider it a real masterpiece in restrained, downtempo electronica. — XLR8R Staff
The Caretaker Everywhere At The End of Time Stage 4 & 5 [History Always Favours The Winners]
The Caretaker embarked on his most ambitious project in 2016, Everywhere At The End of Time, a sonic interpretation of the psyche experiencing the different phases of dementia and memory loss. The music has been cut up into six releases and major phases; 2016’s Stage 1 brought together mostly untampered ballroom 78rpms, setting the stage for the heavy tape alterations that filtered into the next two releases. Stage 4 and Stage 5 dropped this year, showing the more chaotic and ruptured states the series has to offer. This is the period when dementia fully unravels and perception of the world is altered heavily. Everything is warped and there’s no sense of center, a reflection of the mental state one can only imagine exists once this phase of dementia sets in. Much of the music across both Stages 4 and 5 follows this formula, presented in a jarring and darkly surreal form. There are also moments of fragility and peaceful resolve, especially in the piano-driven “Stage 4—Temporary Bliss State” and the ambient-soaked “Stage 5—Synapse Retrogenesis.” — Erik Otis
Autechre NTS Sessions 1-4 [Warp Records]
The arrival of Autechre’s NTS Sessions 1-4 remains one of the more extensive sets of the year, offering eight+ hours of new abstract IDM. It’s a staggering amount of music and really opens up the lens to the amount of variation the group can achieve. Released with Warp Records as an illustrious box set across CD and vinyl formats, the music was initially revealed with London’s NTS Radio in four different segments aired once a week. As you’d expect, the music is exceptional, encompassing a range that dives into drum heavy works and ambience; it’s simply unparalleled in volume and quality. — Erik Otis
Various XLR8R+003 [XLR8R+]
Aiming to support independent journalism, XLR8R launched XLR8R+ earlier this year and has so far released exclusive tracks from SIT, Vril, Varg, Hunter/Game, Fred P, Huxley Anne, and many more. Of all the releases, however, it’s 003 that stands out, with tracks from Roman Flügel, Wata Igarashi, and Einzelkind, plus artwork from Halo Varga/Authentik Paper. Frankfurt-born artist Einzelkind closed the package with a delightfully groovy minimal roller, preceded by some hypnotic Japanese techno of the highest quality, and a shimmering summer cut from Flügel, completing one of our favorite EPs of the year. — XLR8R Staff
You can find more information on XLR8R+ here.
Christina Vantzou N°4 [Kranky Records]
Composer and synth player Christina Vantzou occupies an important space in contemporary experimental music, releasing some of the world’s most spellbinding and emotive minimalism with Kranky. Her debut, N°1, hit the world in 2011 and she’s gone on to create three more LPs. N°4 is the latest on Kranky, and sits in the realm of soundtrack scores, deep headphone meditation, and art gallery installations. It features Neil Leiter (viola, string arrangements), Clarice Jensen (cello), Kat Bumbul (gong), Marilu Donovan (harp), John Also Bennett (synth), Steve Hauschildt (synth), Birgit Eecloo (marimba), Beatrijs De Klerck (violin, piano), Margareth Hermant (Rhodes, violin), Simon Decraene (vibraphone), and vocalists Angel Deradoorian and Kristin Leitterman. Creating N°4 through rough sketches and improvisatory studio sessions, each musician was given editing access to anything captured—a unique recording process that leaves the layering sparse and the emotional impact vast. Despite this, the music feels finalized, with nothing wasted or overindulged. There are very few albums that can leave space this open and still retain a vast sense of richness in emotional depth and layer complexity. — Erik Otis
Ras G & The Afrikan Space Program Stargate Music [Leaving Records]
Ras G has been a critical entity in Los Angeles’ identity for over a decade. Releases under Brainfeeder, Leaving Records, Fat Beats, and Poo-Bah helped pour the foundations in the diverse trajectory of LA’s storied beat movement, and he hit an apex on that path with the Stargate Music LP. Released with Matthewdavid’s Leaving Records under the moniker Ras G & The Afrikan Space Program, the music is celestial and soulfully rooted, with lush rhythm sections and vibrant overtones that project light all over. Ras G has always produced music with deep purpose and the album follows that lineage with conviction. — Erik Otis
William Basinski & Lawrence English Selva Oscura [Temporary Residence Ltd]
In October, acclaimed ambient artists William Basinski and Lawrence English released Selva Oscura via Brooklyn-based Temporary Residence Ltd. With English residing in Brisbane and Basinski in Los Angeles, the album was created simultaneously between both locations, sourcing the title from 14-century Italian writer Dante Alighieri’s poem “Inferno.” The music was modified and retooled after their respective sessions, blended as one ever-evolving shape of sound, resonating with a depth that touches on the archaic and the futuristic. Described by Temporary Residence Ltd. as “an acoustic topography that draws on the concept of drifting into the strange familiar,” the album’s depth of emotion stems from the duo’s mutual friend Paul Clipson, a highly respected filmmaker from San Francisco who passed away this year. The result is one of the defining ambient albums of 2018. — Erik Otis
Barker Debiasing [Ostgut Ton]
If in five years time, trance is as cool as electro is now, Debiasing will go down as a landmark release in the genre. While Lorenzo Senni resurrected trance and turned its tropes in on themselves, Barker has created a record edgy enough for the clubs of Kreuzberg with enough frenzied jubilation to pop up in an Above & Beyond group therapy mix.
But regardless of genre, Debiasing should forever be revered. Listening to the EP from the first rabbit-punch string combo of “Cascade Effect” to the shivery spine tingles of “When Prophecy Fails” is like having your body possessed by some higher being and watching the ground fall away as you’re lifted into the clouds. I’ve always loved trance anyway. — Sam Davies
Low Double Negative [Sub Pop]
Low’s Double Negative sounded like nothing else released this year. Arriving 24 years after the Minnesota band’s first album, Double Negative plays out like a sonic representation of a year filled with so much turmoil, fear, and anxious energy. Its 11 tracks completely undermine any genre touchstones or buzzwords; instead, they sit in a harsh, noise-filled space as beautiful as it is unsettling. It seems cliché to say an album unfolds and opens up more and more with every listen, but Double Negative, more than any album in recent memory, does just that. Tense, ominous, fragile, and affecting, it was one of the year’s most inspired and unforgettable pieces of music. — XLR8R Staff
Raime Am I Using Content Or Is Content Using Me? [Different Circles]
Raime only released two EPs in 2018 but they were two of the year’s most inventive releases. While the duo’s We Can’t Be That Far From The Beginning EP kicked off their new RR imprint with a set of sonically confounding tracks, it was their EP for Mumdance and Logos’ Different Circles that really stood out—it was also unlike anything heard from the pair in their career to date. Across four tracks, crystalline samples bump and roll around minimalistic bass frequencies, vocal sighs, and cinematic synths, all arranged in ever-evolving patterns that snake and twist with every new bar. Am I Using Content Or Is Content Using Me? is a singular release that positions Raime as two of electronic music’s most inspired artists.— XLR8R Staff
Various In Death’s Dream Kingdom [Houndstooth]
The compilation album is a staple for most record labels. Often, they are used as a primer to the array of artists an imprint has on its roster. They can function like a Greatest Hits record, offering listeners the best bits from their artists’ catalogs and tempting them into exploring the rest of their work. Houndstooth’s In Death’s Dream Kingdom, released in January this year, does all of that, but what sets it apart from the year’s other V/A comps is the sinister evil planted deep inside before a single note was recorded.
Houndstooth gave 25 artists a stimulus, T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men,” and told them to interpret as they saw fit. The results were some of the darkest, dizziest, most captivating recordings in recent memory. At 146 minutes, a complete listen to Dream Kingdom is an intimidating prospect, but its sinister murk favors patience. I usually find that after seven or eight tracks I’m completely intoxicated; paralyzed somewhere between fear and primal thrill. My favorites change with each listen, but you can’t get much creepier than Koenraad Ecker’s “Rat’s Coat.” — Sam Davies
Objekt Cocoon Crush [PAN]
Don’t let the absence of kick drums in Objekt’s recent mixes fool you into thinking he’s lost his interest in rhythm. If anything, the opposite is true. Cocoon Crush, TJ Hertz’s second long-player on PAN, is a masterful exercise in pace. At times, Hertz propels you forward into a dazzling future, as on “35”; on “Nervous Silk” he stretches the seconds into minutes, allowing you to peer through the sonosphere as it unfurls in slow-motion; frequently, he does both in the same track—like with “Runaway.” All this leaves the BPM needle bent double, head spinning, unsure which way is up or down.
Cocoon Crush offers ammunition to any DJ daring enough to challenge the 4/4 regime. Among those already mounting a challenge are Hertz himself, Helena Hauff, and Dr. Rubinstein, all of whom are exploring exciting new approaches to rhythm that could free clubland from the grid forever. It might make him bashful to hear it, but Cocoon Crush has established Objekt as one of the most singular musical voices of the 21st Century. — Sam Davies
SOPHIE Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides [Transgressive]
Was there an album in 2018 that sounded more radically new than Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, the debut full-length from producer and singer SOPHIE? Having previously worked with A. G. Cook’s PC Music label, the Glaswegian’s warped pop has been shaped by an affinity for both singalong choruses and ’90s rave.
SOPHIE’s prowess in the studio has seen her tapped by Charli XCX, Vince Staples, and Madonna, but never have we heard the emotional power coursing through her voice like on Un-Insides. With laser synth riffs lifted from late ’90s Euro-trance and a bounce reminiscent of happy hardcore, the sooner tunes like “Is it Cold in the Water?” become commonplace in clubs, the better. — Sam Davies
DJ Healer Nothing 2 Loose [All Possible Worlds]
Nothing 2 Loose might be the most complete work we’ve had from the sole inhabitant of Planet Lonely, but it comes from an artist who defies albums as a standard format. As well as Mudshadow Propaganda, which was released alongside Nothing 2 Loose, the anonymous producer’s oeuvre also includes a 23-track, eight-disc album as Prince of Denmark, a series of all-original mixes sporadically uploaded and deleted to the Planet Uterus Soundcloud page, and the three-hour collection of b-sides which surfaced shortly after this year’s double album drop.
His sound—driving, spiritual, transcendent—is immediately recognizable in all of it. No other music released this year is as enticing as “Great Escape,” as hypnotic as “2 the Dark,” or as devastating as “Protectionspell.” And no other artist has enraptured their fanbase quite like DJ Healer. — Sam Davies
Space Afrika‘s Somewhere Decent to Live just grows and grows on you, getting better with each listen. It’s been on heavy rotation in the XLR8R offices all year for this reason, but the deep, dark, ambient rhythms make it suitable for various different settings: the commute to work, in bed, or even just for working at the desk. The project is that of Josh Reidy and Joshua Inyany, two Manchester-based boys whose profile is set to grow after this masterful album debut of ambient dub-techno rhythms. — XLR8R Staff
Farai Rebirth [Big Dada]
“Theresa May, who’s to blame for all this fuckery?” demands Farai on “This Is England” as a bassy synth grinds ominously below. At the time of writing, said fuckery is ongoing, and few artists have challenged it with the ferocity heard on Rebirth, the debut album from Zimbabwe-born, London-raised vocalist Farai and producer TONE, who has Afro-Guyanese and Welsh roots and grew up in Germany and the UK.
It’s hard to think of another record from 2018 with as much multicultural influence as Rebirth, and that shines through in its sound, which comprises electric guitars, motorik drum beats, menacing synth loops, and raucous lyrical confrontation. Released through Roots Manuva’s Big Dada Records, the album was largely recorded in a few takes at TONE’s DIY studio, between noise complaints from the neighbors. Is it trip-hop? Is it rap? Is it punk? Who cares. It’s fucking quality. — Sam Davies
DJ Koze Knock Knock [Pampa Records]
Stefan Kozalla (a.k.a DJ Koze) returned this year with a new album, Knock Knock, one of the year’s most highly anticipated releases. And for good reason: not only was it the German artist’s first long-player in over five years, but all that had preceded it—2013’s Amygdala, 2005’s Kosi Comes Around, and a slew of EPs—had established the enigmatic German artist as one of the most original names in contemporary electronic music. It goes without saying that Knock Knock did not disappoint: featuring a number of guest cameos, among them José González, Róisín Murphy, and Bon Iver, it was a weird and wonderful concoction of pop, disco, hip-hop, R&B, funk, psychedelia, and so much more. It’s a record “notable not only for its considerable length (16 tracks) but its sense of cohesion and staggering brilliance,” said Ben Murphy in his album review. — XLR8R Staff
Read more on DJ Koze in our full-length feature here.
Jon Hopkins Singularity [Domino]
Depicting a serene desert dawn with a constellation of stars in the shape of a DMT molecule, the active ingredient in psychedelic drugs such as ayahuasca, the cover of British electronic musician Jon Hopkins’ ninth album (if you include his collaborations with Brian Eno and King Creosote, and several film soundtracks), Singularity, is fitting for such a trippy release—one of this year’s most eagerly awaited. Over nine tracks, contrasting moments of intensity and harshness with blissful beauty and meditative introspection, the UK artist met the expectation head-on, validating those who consider him one of the most forward thinking and original artists in contemporary music. Best of all on the album is “Luminous Beings,” the album’s centerpiece, a heartbreaking psychedelic journey that fuses otherworldly ambience and a twisting analog bassline that swims among a gorgeous melody and techno drums. — XLR8R Staff
Skee Mask Compro [Ilian Tape]
Skee Mask‘s sophomore album landed in May following a succession of 12″s and his 2016 Shred LP. The man behind the project, Bryan Müller, is as media-shy as they come: besides the fact that he’s German, lives in Munich, and produces also under SCNTST—and most likely several others aliases—it’s impossible to find anything of real note on him. The fact that his work is so highly sought after without any promotion is testament to its enduring quality. It really does sound like nothing else out there.
In typical Skee Mask fashion, Compro is full of low-end frequencies, but it’s headier; a feeling of restraint overarches the work as breakbeats flutter around dreamlike atmospheres and subtle melodies, measured with precision for maximum effect. “Caimance (Delay Mix)” is the obvious track of choice, but “Flyby Vfr” is similarly brilliant. — XLR8R Staff
Gacha Bakradze Word Color [Lapsus Records]
Gacha Bakradze debuted on Barcelona’s Lapsus Records in April, delivering nine tracks of gorgeous introspective electronica—think experimental rhythms, wistful melodies, and absorbing textures. The Georgian producer had shown his brilliance with releases on R&S’ Apollo, but this mini-LP is a highlight in both his discography and this year’s releases. “The Prayer” is an engrossing track that draws you in as soon as the beat drops; but “Word Colour” and “Sarphi Rocks” are standouts too. Exciting things are expected. — XLR8R Staff
The Fifty Eleven Project is an extremely ambitious ambient concept album, and an entirely different side to Kasper Bjørke. As the Danish producer detailed in his recent Real Talk, the album is intended as an interpretation of his emotional state during the five years of regular checkups following a shock cancer diagnosis in November 2011. He describes the project as a “therapeutic way of processing the diagnosis, the constant fear of relapse, and the light in being healed.” Sonically, it’s dreamlike, darkly beautiful, but ultimately empowering—and even more so when you know the story behind it. Collaboration comes from synth wizard Claus Norreen, Italian composer Davide Rossi, and Danish musician Jakob Littauer. — XLR8R Staff
Nils Frahm All Melody [Erased Tapes]
An obvious choice, perhaps, given Frahm‘s standing as a flag-bearer for this so-called neo-classical scene of which Robert Raths’ Erased Tapes sits at the center. January’s All Melody, Frahm’s ninth album, proved worthy of the fanfare that preceded it, another dose of melancholic electronica that has proven so popular—and it saw Frahm broaden his range, folding in influences from jazz and choral music. There were some who wanted more delicate piano—more “My Friend The Forest”— and fewer techno textures, but this a record of experimental beauty that deserves to be treasured. — XLR8R Staff
Francis Harris Trivial Occupations [Scissor and Thread]
Back in October, via his own Scissor and Thread imprint, Francis Harris released Trivial Occupations, his third solo full-length album, following on from 2012’s Leyland and 2014’s Minutes Of Sleep. In opposition to the concept-driven nature and heavy content of those previous efforts—both recorded after the death of his father and mother respectively—Trivial Occupations found Harris casting away the concept shackles and instead making “an artist album for no other reason than just making it,” as he told William Ralston in a late-September interview. The resulting album gifts listeners 10 gorgeously produced tracks that subtly weave together all of Harris’ most-loved hallmarks: atmosphere, intricate rhythms, and deep emotional resonance. While it has no direct concept and was created over the last four years just for the love of making music, Trivial Occupations might just be Harris’ best work to date—and his most pure and personal. — XLR8R Staff
Mutant Beat Dance Mutant Beat Dance [Rush Hour]
Now a trio consisting of Traxx, Beau Wanzer, and Steve Summers, Mutant Beat Dance this year released a highly ambitious 25-track self-titled LP that looked to “push the boundaries of a conventional album” and included 12″, 10″, and 7″ formats, all of which came packaged in a beautifully conceived album booklet. Featuring further instrumentation and vocals from LCD Soundsystem members Tyler Pope, Patrick Mahoney, and Gavin Rayna Russom, Mutant Beat Dance is a freewheeling ride through early American influences—namely Chicago’s Music Box era—and the intersection of post-punk, wave, industrial, disco dub, and early house. Raw, loose, and covered in grit and sweat, Mutant Beat Dance found the trio mining the past for the unconstrained ethos of early electronic explorers and bringing it into a modern context. With digital streaming platforms squeezing the life out of the physical format and longer-form releases, we thank the world for acts like Mutant Beat Dance. — XLR8R Staff
SIT Invisibility [Sushitech]
SIT—the duo of Cristi Cons and Vlad Caia—produce some of the finest music in what could loosely be termed minimal. Their music oozes personality and style and on Invisibility, their two-part LP for Sushitech, they presented their most accomplished work yet. Although it’s an album of club-focused cuts, Invisibility is still best experienced from start to finish; it’s flow and curation impeccable. Minimal is often shrugged off for being too abstract or lacking in musicality; however, Invisibility is a deep, dubby, and constantly evolving tour de force from two masters of the craft. — XLR8R Staff
Bruce Sonder Somatic [Hessle Audio]
There’s been much ado about Sonder Somatic’s sound design—and rightfully so, as there’s an all but physical presence to its rumbles, buzzes, bleeps, and thumps. Have kick drums ever felt so kicky? But none of that would be more than an impressive technical achievement if Larry McCarthy didn’t know how to work those sounds into the kind of tracks, ranging from abrasively rugged to hauntingly transcendent, that feel fully, thrillingly alive.— Bruce Tantum
The Field Infinite Moment [Kompakt]
Axel Willner hasn’t reinvented the wheel on his sixth album as The Field: Infinite Moment is still defined by the kind of graceful looping and near-regal aura that’s become his calling card. But here, he seems to be edging ever closer to the Field’s essence, zeroing in on a dreamlike romance that’s both intimate and infinite. — Bruce Tantum
Various 15 Years of the Bunker [The Bunker New York]
Over its decade-and-a-half lifespan, The Bunker New York has morphed from a little Lower East Side party dedicated to left-of-center techno into something of a mini-empire dedicated to…well, left-of-center techno. It’s a testament to Bunker boss Bryan Kasenic’s curatorial skills that his dominion’s attendant label has become one of North America’s, if not the world’s, leading homes for forward-thinking dance music, and this compilation from the Bunker’s extended family succinctly sums up why. — Bruce Tantum
Aphex Twin Collapse [Warp Records]
Launched on Warp Records in September, Richard D. James‘ Collapse is exploratory in its compositional form, fueled by waves of detail that are pushed into the deepest pockets of the mix. The UK artist has always found a way to stretch the limitations of sound and he brings that flight-like sense of movement to every track on Collapse. With stunning speed and variance planted into the rhythmic structure, razor-sharp drum patterns interlace the music with power, adding the signature rubbery basslines of past works. Coupled with the Weirdcore-created video for lead single, “T69 Collapse,” the EP summarizes why Aphex Twin is still ahead of the curve decades after his debut album, Selected Ambient Works 85-92. — Erik Otis
Marie Davidson Working Class Woman [Ninja Tune]
Working Class Woman, released via Ninja Tune in October, was Marie Davidson’s fourth full-length and “most self-reflective record” to date. Drawing on her experiences within dance music and club culture, as well as inspiration from influential writers, thinkers, and filmmakers, the album is a dark, fun, paranoid, and humorous look into the mind of its creator. More so than her previous full-length efforts, Working Class Woman draws on Davidson’s hard-hitting live sets for 10 ferocious cuts that expertly balance driving acid lines, gut-punching drum-machine rhythms, and Davidson’s raw, honest, and, at times, humorous spoken word for a masterclass in not giving a fuck. — XLR8R Staff
Albrecht La’Brooy Tidal River [Apollo Records]
Like many of the year’s most memorable releases, Australian duo Albrecht La’Brooy’s Tidal River defied genre categorization and instead seemed to sit in a sonic area all on its own. Over the years, mostly via their own Analogue Attic imprint, the duo have built a formidable discography that proudly celebrates Australia and their Melbourne home base. Tidal River, released via Apollo in February, was inspired by a visit to the beautiful Wilson’s Promontory, a remote national park on the South East coast of Australia, with the tracklisting running from morning to night. The tracks flow perfectly into one another in the same way that hours melt together on a lazy day by the beach. Subtle field recordings of tidal swells and far-off birds are complemented by gorgeous piano lines and, as the record moves along, head-nodding grooves. To most of the world, Australia is a distant myth of a continent, a faraway, wild oasis, but with Tidal River, Albrecht La’Brooy have perfectly encapsulated its breezy, relaxed beauty and delivered it to the world via one of the year’s best releases. — XLR8R Staff
DjRUM Portrait With Firewood [R&S Records]
Portrait With Firewood is a little bit different to much of DjRUM‘s catalog, partly because it sees the UK producer experimenting with a hardware synth for the first time. While samples are used for textures and percussion, it is the piano that sits at the basis for much of the music. It certainly wasn’t in everyone’s favorites of the year, and there’s much debate as to whether this is even the best of DjRUM, but we couldn’t stop going back to this record after giving it a few chances. It’s one of those records that requires patience to appreciate and must be listened to as a whole or not at all. — XLR8R Staff