Best New Records
1. Optiganally Yours–O.Y. In Hi-Fi
I bought this randomly because it looked interesting and it almost immediately became my favorite record of the year. Basing songs on samples from the Optigan, an early 1970s home organ that used samples recorded on optical discs, Rob Crow and Pea Hix have created an album full of beautiful songs. The Optigan gives everything an old, but somehow timeless sound, but there is no question that the songs are the star here.
2. Yo La Tengo–There’s a Riot Going On
2018 is the year I finally gave Yo La Tengo a proper listen. No, I don’t know what took so long. Two songs into their Buffalo show, I was in. The two songs in question are both from There’s a Riot Going On: “You Are Here” and “Forever.” The former, a shuffling instrumental led by feedback guitar, opens the album and opened the show. The second layers a doo-wop backing vocal, a melancholy acoustic bass line, and a tender vocal from Ira Kaplan. The remainder of the album is no less brilliant.
3. Guerilla Toss–Twisted Crystal
Gtoss follow up their amazing 2017 LP GT Ultra with a funkier, more danceable record. Twisted Crystal digs even further into the liquid sounds of Parliament-Funkadelic, noise-rock sensibilities, and punk rock intensity.
4. Phish–Kasvot Växt: í rokk
In 2013, Phish switched up their usual “musical costume.” Instead of covering a classic album, they played “a Phish album from the future,” consisting of all new tracks written for what would become their 2014 album, Fuego. The set was less than a success, but the attempt was noteworthy. The following year, they expanded the concept and covered The Thrilling, Chilling Sounds of the Haunted House, an old Disneyland Records sound effects and scary stories record, complete with a theatrical stage show. The “covers” were new instrumental tunes, one for each story on the first side of the album that made liberal use of samples from those stories. In 2018, two years after the band went back to the original well and played a David Bowie album, fans were expecting another classic record. We were instead treated to a “cover” of an album by an obscure Scandinavian group that formed in a NATO bunker in Greenland during the Cold War. The album, written by Phish in the weeks before the show, features lyrics that sound like bad translations. Musically, it sounds like Phish filtered through late 70s/early 80s synth music. The set was immediately edited, mastered and released as a download-only album. It’s easily the most creative work as a whole that the band has done for a long time and more fun than a lot of their recent work.
5. Cavern of Anti-Matter–Hormone Lemonade
Cavern of Anti-Matter push even further into driving synth music. This album features more drums than the first two, and the songs feel increasingly less like sketches and more like they’re taking one idea and seeing how far they can take it. Opener “Malfunction” takes an arpeggiated riff and a five-chord sequence over sixteen-and-a-half minutes before it’s exhausted. Very little else stretches over seven minutes here, but all feel like their simple elements have taken a journey.
6. The New Mastersounds–Renewable Energy
Another year, another great album from The New Mastersounds. This one has a little bit of everything they do well: Meters-inspired funk, late-night grooves, horn-led instrumentals, great guitar riffs, and one funky vocal track. “Pudding and Pie” is destined to be a classic.
7. Thievery Corporation–Treasures from the Temple
One year after a fantastic Thievery Corporation record, The Temple of I & I, got pushed down my top ten to number eleven, that record’s companion makes my main list. The twelve tracks here are largely outtakes from that record, but there are also a couple of instrumental mixes and two remixes of the two tracks featuring the explosive Raquel Jones, who made her TC debut on The Temple of I & I. As with that album, this one combines reggae, dub, hip hop, and late-night chill music into a cohesive whole that doesn’t sound like an outtake album.
8. Titus Andronicus–A Productive Cough
This one was a grower. Patrick Stickles talked about stopping after the magnum opus The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Instead, he changed course and made this record of stripped down songs that is almost folk rock in places. That point is hammered in by the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” It’s uneven, but the best songs (“Real Talk,” “Above the Bodega (Local Business)”) are among their best.
9. Screaming Females–All At Once
On All At Once, Screaming Females continue to make incredible guitar rock while expanding their sonic palette. Crunchy riffs and great guitar solos abound, but they occasionally slow things down and pull the loudness back a bit.
10. Orquestra Akokán Canta José “Pepito” Gómez–Orquestra Akokán
A Cuban dance record is at once a stretch for Daptone and fits in completely with their other work. It sounds like an old forgotten album recently unearthed, like the records released on Daptone’s Ever-Soul sublabel, but it’s a new recording, made in a Havana studio using old recording techniques by a group of Cuban musicians recruited to back up José Gómez for this album. The hype is real, this record is great.
Frank Zappa–Lumpy Gravy Primordial
This Record Store Day LP is a standalone release of Zappa’s original version of his first solo album, Lumpy Gravy. Released and quickly withdrawn by Capitol Records when MGM, the Mothers of Invention’s label, sued. Zappa took the stereo master back from Capitol and completely re-edited and expanded the album, interspersing the all-instrumental musical segments with dialogue recorded in a piano. The original mono edit of the album was located in Capitol’s vault and reissued as part of Lumpy Money, a three CD set exploring that album and the Mothers’ We’re Only In it for the Money. This release is the first time this album has been available in its original configuration on LP.
Grateful Dead–Anthem of the Sun 50th Anniversary Edition
The second in the Dead’s 50th Anniversary series, Anthem of the Sun includes both the original 1968 mix and Jerry Garcia’s toned-down 1971 mix. The original has been available on CD since 2002, but this set also includes a live show from the Winterland recorded in October 1967, which on its own is worth the price of entry.
Wire–Pink Flag / Chairs Missing / 154 Special Editions
These special editions include new essays, archival photographs, and interviews with the band members. But more importantly, they include all of the tracks recorded in the sessions for the original albums, most of which were originally released on non-album singles and have largely never been released on CD. They also include all of the demos recorded before each album, which shows the development of the songs from conception to the finished records as well as the songs left behind.
Best Archival Releases
Frank Zappa–The Roxy Performances
This box set from the Zappa Family Trust compiles the five shows that Frank and his band played over three days at the Roxy in Hollywood at the end of 1973. The shows were filmed for a movie that, because of several technical problems, wasn’t completed until two decades after Frank’s death. For many fans, myself included, this version of Zappa’s band was the best. The film was a holy grail for Zappa fans for decades and the release of these shows is a worthwhile supplement to the release of the film a few years ago.
Grateful Dead–Dave’s Pick Volume 26: Albuquerque Civic Auditorium, Albuquerque, NM 11/17/71 (with bonus disc)
My pick for the best of Dave’s Picks in 2018. This release pairs up a show from the first tour with Keith filling in for Pigpen with one from shortly after Pigpen’s return (12/14/71). The main show finds the band working out their stage show without their frontman. Without the big Pigpen showstoppers, the setlist starts to fall into alternating Jerry and Bob songs. The December show finds them working Pigpen’s songs back into the setlist, which is mostly new material.