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Music

A historic sophomore effort: Lucy Dacus’s second release is a first-class piece of music

Former SVM editor lays out his list of 2018's best music

I doubt there is an actual “guestbook” somewhere of every recording artist in the music industry that has released a record at some point in their career. It would be really, really cool if such a book existed.

It would be littered with bands and artists that only had one really good record, or hit, in them. Heck, it’d be littered with artists that had no good records in them!

My point is that few artists have staying power in rock music, especially in this era of streaming and free downloads. More bands are out there to be heard, but that also makes it more difficult for artists to stand out.

I’ve always had a soft spot for new bands, or those that have been around for a bit that are still trying to break through. Which is one of the many reasons I thoroughly enjoy sharing with you my list of my favorite rock records of the year.It’s a chance to introduce you to music that deserves to be heard, that maybe you will hear for the first time.

Like most years, my 2018 list has a number of artists who made their debut or their second record during the past 12 months. Some of them gained a foothold in the industry this year; some are still trying. It would make me immensely happy if this list turned you on to just one of the included bands. Music, and the people who make it, are a gift.

A few disclaimers before I get started.

“Best of” lists, like any review, are subjective. What I like might be completely different from what you like. And that’s perfectly OK.

I listen only to music that interests me, and that I’m likely to enjoy. I prefer alternative, indie rock. I don’t listen to country music. I don’t listen to “Top 40” pop music. Janelle Monae is an artist who is toward the top of many critics’ 2018 “best of” lists. She’s not on mine, because I didn’t listen to her record. It’s not my kind of music. And that’s perfectly OK.

Finally, determining where on the list a record gets ranked is incredibly difficult. So little separates the No. 1 record from the No. 10 record on this list, or the No. 5 record from the No. 50. Each of the releases listed was in the top 10 percent of what I listened to this year.

Here they are:

60. Food Court – “Good Luck” (Second LP)

59. Restorations – “LP5000”

58. Editors – “Violence”

57. Parquet Courts – “Wide Awake!”

56. David Byrne – “American Utopia”

55. Frank Turner – “Be More Kind”

54. Jukebox the Ghost – “Off To The Races”

53. Muncie Girls – “Fixed Ideals” (Second LP)

52. Dream Wife – “Dream Wife” (Debut LP)

51. Turbowolf – “The Free Life”

50. The Get Up Kids – “Kicker” EP

49. Active Bird Community – “Amends”

48. The Struts – “Young & Dangerous” (Second LP)

47. The Frights – “Hypochondriac”

46. Twenty One Pilots – “Trench”

45. Justin Courtney Pierre – “In The Drink”

44. Rat Kid Cool – “Year of the Rat” (Debut LP)

43. Remember Sports – “Slow Buzz”

42. Rayland Baxter – “Wide Awake”

41. Bloods – “Feelings” (Second LP)

40. The Joy Formidable – “Aaarth”

39. We Were Promised Jetpacks – “The Less I Sleep the More I Dream”

38. Something To Do – “Design For Living”

37. Florence + The Machine – “High For Hope”

36. All Get Out – “No Bouquet”

35. Real Friends – “Composure”

34. Arctic Monkeys – “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”

33. Joyce Manor – “Million Dollars To Kill Me”

32. The 1975 – “A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships”

31. Basement – “Beside Myself”

30. The Dirty Nil – “Master Volume”

29. To Kill A King - “The Spiritual Dark Age”

28. Courtney Barnett – “Tell Me How You Really Feel”

27. Weakened Friends – “Common Blah” (Debut LP)

26. Fatherson – “Sum of All Your Parts”

25. Spielbergs – “Distant Star” EP (Debut)

The Norwegian guitar-heavy indie rock band’s debut thunders in with the melodic rocker “We Are All Going To Die,” that includes a 2-minute jam reminiscent of The Joy Formidable’s wonderful “Whirring.” The diverse, 23-minute set includes the epic and measured “Ghost Boy” and the beautiful ballad “Setting Sun.” Spielbergs are definitely a band to keep an eye on.

24. Mitski – “Be The Cowboy”

The Japanese-American Mitski Miyawaki’s fifth record has more of the same mesmerizingly odd singer/songwriter fare that has made her a critical darling. But “Be The Cowboy” adds a bit of punch to her pretty, lush songwriting. She even ventures into pop/disco on the fantastic single, “Nobody.” Rightfully, you’ll find this record on a number of year-end “best” lists.

23. The Wrecks – “Panic Vertigo” EP (Second EP)

This is the second consecutive EP released by this Los Angeles-based band that is burstingwith catchy pop rock goodness. The Wrecks have released 8 songs in its roughly 4 years of existence. Each one if full of earworm hooks and choruses. They’ll need to ratchet up the productivity soon, but The Wrecks are a band with the potential to be big.

22. Superchunk – “What A Time To Be Alive”

A brash, fast and vibrant release from the veteran indie rockers that are at the top of their game nearly 3 decades in. Singer Mac McGuaghan turned 50 last year. His bandmates are in their 50s, as well. But they sound as fresh as ever – and maybe more angry than ever. A perfect blend of grit, bounce and melodies.

21. The Rock*A*Teens – “Sixth House”

“Sixth House” is the first album in 18 years by indie rockers The Rock*A*Teens. The Georgia band released records in 5 consecutive years at the end of the 1990s. Each was a raw and driving mix of garage rock, alt country, and rockabilly. On “Sixth House,” the band is older, wiser, more polished, more melodic, but still edgy. It’s a treasure.

20. Hot Snakes – “Jericho Sirens”

I was blown away by how much I loved this record by veteran post-hardcore punkers Hot Snakes. It’s a blisteringly beautiful, relentless, pulsing, angry shred fest. If you prefer your alternative rock loud and chaotic, “Jericho Sirens” is a must-listen, opening with the driving “I Need a Doctor” and punching hard right through to the closing “Death of a Sportsman.”

19. Cloud Nothings – “Last Building Burning”

Cloud Nothings followed their stellar 2017 release “Life Without Sound,” with the equally strong “Last Building Burning.” Where “Life Without Sound” successfully meshed Cloud Nothings’ raw punk sound with their melodic tendencies, “Last Building Burning” focuses on the frenetically paced guitars, drums and screams. It’s gloriously loud. The Cleveland rockers are clearly in their prime in this later half of the decade.

18. Tokyo Police Club – “TPC”

Tokyo Police Club is as consistently good of an alternative guitar rock band as any out there these days,and the band’s fifth full-length release is predictably fantastic. “TPC” sees the band focus more on guitars and less on keyboards, more on grit than polish.Dave Monk and the boys sound like they’re having as much fun as they’ve ever had.

17. Asylums – “Alien Human Emotions” (Second LP)

These British indie rockers are one of those you fall in love with and wonder, how is that group not bigger than it is? They describe their music as “art rock” and “agitpop” (a blend of agitation and pop; sure, OK). “Alien Human Emotions” is a bit more polished and reserved than Asylums’ fantastic debut record, “Killer Brain Waves,” but it maintains the same frantic, frenetic guitar rock filled with ridiculously hummable choruses. Fun.

16. Thin Lips – “Chosen Family” (Second LP)

Emerging from Philadelphia’s impressive alt rock scene, Thin Lips plays an interesting mix of punk and math rock. Its debut, “Riff Hard,” was equal parts grungy and catchy. “Chosen Family” adds a dose or two of anthemic rock to the mix, and is a significant step forward for the band. The three-song stretch of “Gaslight Anthem (The Song Not the Band),” “A Song For those Who Miss You All The Time” and “Smoking’s For Quitters” is as good as any you’ll find on a 2018 record.

15. The Tracks – "Treasured Memories" (Debut LP)

The best record of November came from this Chicano band from Los Angeles. But “Treasured Memories” sounds far more mature and confident than most debut records. The band has a definite 80s flavor to its alt guitar rock, evoking the sounds of The Smiths, The Alarm, and The Cult. And frontman Venancio Bermudez sounds an awful lot like The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser at times.

14. Rock Eupora – “Rock Eupora”

Clayton Waller handles the songwriting, performing and producing on Rock Eupora recordings, and he excels at each task. His sound is an interesting, bouncy brand of fuzz pop, with a Southern flair. That holds true on Rock Eupora’s third record, which adds little touches throughout of late ‘50s, early ‘60s guitar twang. Waller uses the guitar as essentially a second vocalist. The guitar hooks stick with you as much as the choruses.

13. Foxing – “Nearer My God”

The third full-length release from St. Louis’ proggy alternative band Foxing is a tremendously hard swing for the fences. And “Nearer My God” knocks the ball way out of the park with its grandiose and beautiful 10 tracks. Foxing’s sound is huge, far bigger than the small clubs they play. But “Nearer My God” works because of its patience. Its songs build, layer by layer, to rapturous crescendos. Fantastic.

12. Cursive – “Vitriola”

Cursive, one of the most difficult to define indie rock bands out there, returned to form with the alternately sinister and beautiful “Vitriola.” Perhaps the best way to describe Cursive is that the band sounds like The Decemberists, only more edgy, loud and deranged. The cello returns on “Vitriola,” a development that had the band’s fans rejoicing. “Vitriola” vaulted right toward the top of the band’s eight-record catalog.

11. Bad Moves – “Tell No One” (Debut LP)

When I listened to these power poppers’ EP in 2016, I thought it was decent. But the leap this Washington, D.C., band took with “Tell No One” could not have been forecast. The bouncy, catchy guitar-driven pop from Bad Moves is right next to The Beths’ “Future Me Hates Me” in the running for best power pop record of the year. Gloriously unexpected.

10. Boygenius – Boygenius EP (debut)

2018 was definitely Lucy Dacus’ year. Not only did she release the brilliant “Historian” LP in March, but she teamed up with fellow indie-folkers Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers to form boygenius for this pretty and brilliant self-titled 6-song EP. The three trade vocals, but it’s Dacus’ sultry, husky voice that stands out on EP standouts “Bite The Hand” and “Salt In The Wound.”

9. IDLES – “Joy as an Act of Resistance (Second LP)

The British invasion in 2018 was in post-punk, with IDLES and Shame leading the charge. The brash and rowdy IDLES topped its outstanding 2017 release, “Brutalism,” with “Joy as an Act of Resistance.” Here, IDLES ratchets up the intensity, while also writing songs with a broader, progressive world view. “Danny Nedelko,” a ripper that promotes immigrants and immigration, is one of the year’s best. “June” is a devastating slow burner frontman Joe Talbot wrote days after his daughter’s death. Amazing.

8. Mastersystem – “Dance Music” (Debut LP)

It’s difficult to understate how hard it is for me to listen to one of my favorite records of 2018. Mastersystem was a alt rock supergroup of sorts, featuring Scott Hutchison on vocals and guitar. Hutchison was also the lead singer of Frightened Rabbit, one of my favorite bands. Days after the release of “Dance Music,” Hutchison committed suicide in a manner he’d referenced in songs with Frightened Rabbit. Such a tragic, unnecessary loss. Hutchison left this earth one last gift, “Dance Music,” a ripper of a record. It seems trite to say much more about the record, so I won’t, other than to say it’s brilliant.

7. Jeff Rosenstock – “POST-“

The year began with a roar, the surprise release of “POST-“ from punk rocker Jeff Rosenstock, which continues the frantic, anxiety-ridden rock sound he established on “Worry,” one of the best records of 2016. The bookends of the record are the fantastic, anthemic longer-form “USA” and “Let Them Win.” In between is a series of sing-alongs, or rather yell-alongs, like “Yr Throat,” “Powerlessness,” and “Melba.” The dude is clearly on a roll, as his 2018 collaboration with Chris Farren, “Love in the Time of E-Mail” by Antarctigo Vespucci,” further exhibited. We’d welcome any 2019 surprises from Rosenstock, as well.

6. Car Seat Headrest – “Twin Fantasy”

“Twin Fantasy” wasn't exactly new in 2018 – it was a reboot of the very low-fi recording of the same name in 2011. This time, instead of being recorded in the backseat of Will Toledo’s car – which is how, legend has it, many of the early works by the prodigious Toledo were recorded – “Twin Fantasy” benefits from a full band. And it’s fantastic. Perhaps not as good as “Teens of Denial,” the Car Seat Headrest release that topped the list of my 2016 favorites, but close.

5. Gang of Youths – “Go Farther In Lightness”

OK, OK, this record was technically released in 2017. And, yes, I listened to it and graded it last year. Somehow, I gave it a “B” grade. Which I realize now was ridiculous. I’ve since reconsidered, and having seen the band in two absolutely transformational live shows in 2018, feel I must give this record its due. “Go Farther In Lightness” is a beautiful, anthemic rock opus. It’s wonderfully written, performed and produced. Frontman Dave Le’aupepe marks U2 as a musical influence, one that’s definitely reflected in Gang of Youth’s music and performances. There’s also a Springsteen-esque vibe. But don’t let all of that fool you, Gang of Youths sounds like no one else you’ve heard. And if you aren’t listening, you’re missing something special.

4. Father John Misty – “God’s Favorite Customer”

A mere 14 months after FJM released the best record of 2017, “Pure Comedy,” Josh Tillman’s alter ego returned with the unveiling of “God’s Favorite Customer,” And, predictably, Father John provided another record-of-the-year contender. No artist is on a hotter streak right now than Father John Misty. Including his fantastic 2015 release, “I Love You, Honeybear,” Tillman has in the past 4 years released three of the best records of the decade. Musically, “God’s Favorite Customer” doesn’t stray far from the successful formula of “Honeybear” and “Pure Comedy.” It’s perhaps a bit less grandiose and a tad more accessible. But it’s still alternately heavy and humorous, something very few musicians can pull off. On “God’s Favorite Customer,” we find Father John Misty in a hotel room, enduring personal crises – apart from his wife, and desperately searching for his better self. It’s more introspective, which might be more palatable for those who blanch at FJM’s trademark acerbic social commentary. The music is alternately beautiful, haunting, inspirational and devastating. It has a ‘70s rock flair, similar to “Honeybear.” Is it too much to ask FJM to return in 2019?

3. The Beths – “Future Me Hates Me” (Debut LP)

I’m not sure why, perhaps it was the timing of the August release, but I didn’t listen to this ridiculously fun and catchy debut release from The Beths nearly as much as I should have. And I listened to it a lot! The New Zealanders’ release “Future Me Hates Me” was hands down the best pop rock record of 2018. Not even close. The music is bouncy and breezy, with enough lilt in Elizabeth Stokes’ voice to satisfy pop fans. But The Beths aren’t lightweights. Far from it. There’s enough thumping drums and fuzzy guitars to please harder rock fans. And there’s heavy doses of snark and angst in the record’s lyrics, as suggested by its title. And while most of “Future Me Hates Me” is uptempo, it never gets tiring or repetitive. The future appears to be as bright as their music for The Beths.

2. Shame – “Songs of Praise (Debut LP)

No record grew on me as much in 2018 as this one from British post-punkers Shame. And there was no record I listened to more when I wanted something loud, aggressive and fun. Shame has all of that in spades. The band’s sound and bombast are reminiscent of 1970s punk bands when the genre was gaining a foothold in Britain and then the U.S. Listen to the record’s blistering opener, “Dust on Trial,” and you think of Johnny Rotten or The Clash. “Songs of Praise” is full of fist-pumping bangers, like “Concrete,” “Tasteless” and “Friction,” but Shame displays some versatility on the record with “The Lick,” a menacing prowl of a tune, and the majestic 7-minute closer “Angie.” These kids – they’re all in their very early 20s – really have “it.” It’s on full display in their rowdy live shows. With a career launch as impressive as this, there should be no limit on how far Shame can go.

1. Lucy Dacus – “Historian” (Second LP)

As strong as this year’s releases from Shame, The Beths and Father John Misty were, none compares to the beauty, grandeur and craftsmanship that Lucy Dacus and her band display on her gorgeous sophomore effort, “Historian.” While Dacus is often described as a singer/songwriter, that distinction does her no justice. Yes, Dacus’ voice is as lovely, smoky and sultry as anyone’s in rock music today. And, yes, Dacus’ wordsmanship is top notch. But Dacus’ music is so much more than voice and words. Each verse, chorus and bridge on “Historian” meticulously takes each song on new, surprising and invigorating travels. Unexpected guitar charges in the brilliant opener “Night Shift.” A soaring bridge in “The Shell.” A scream and a burst of horns toward the close of the fantastic “Pillar of Truth.” All recorded and released before Dacus turned 23. Dacus’ smart, sweet and sometimes snarky lyrics – combined with brilliantly crafted musical twists and turns – allow listeners to hear something new and interesting in each song on “Historian” in repeat listens. I loved the record the first time I heard it. I love it even more when I listen to it today.

Check out songs from each of these records, plus a few more, on a Spotify playlist that’s linked to this story online. Happy listening, merry Christmas, and happy new year!

Jeff Rogers is a former editor at Sauk Valley Media and current director of the Illinois Press Foundation. You can reach him at jrogers@illinoispress.org

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