Top ten pop/electronic albums of 2018

Pop music in 2018 wasn’t one for the history books, but it has delivered its fair share of healthy distractions, and in the current political and cultural climate, sometimes that’s all anyone is looking for. Below are ten of the best English-language and/or Western pop and electronic albums of the year — ten albums, in no particular order, that made the year just a bit less unbearable and proved there is no end to the styles and content that can be mined from such rich and broad genres across continents.

Ariana Grande: Sweetener
Ariana Grande has spent this year conducting herself with a poise and dignity beyond most pop stars’ capabilities. As proof, Sweetener showcases a notable maturation of Grande’s sound: the album trades most of the Max Martin tent-pole hits for slower, groovier numbers like “The Light is Coming” and “Everytime.” Fans of the pop-maestro need not worry, as commercial demands necessitate the inclusion of some of the album’s best tracks for radio singles, like the effervescent “God is a Woman” and “Breathin’.” But unlike past albums stitched together with equal parts Martin and Grande, Grande alone carries Sweetener with her singular vocal talent, a voice that blends a dizzying assortment of soars and coos and reverb, curated for maximum effect.

Allie X: Super Sunset
It has been a pleasure and a pain to watch Allie X grow as a pop star only to be denied widespread recognition. While it’s easy to write off the artist with a glance at her very Lady Gaga-like visuals, the content of her compositions belies any sense of mere copycat. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of music that is released each week, with Spotify and Bandcamp and YouTube all making grabs for ever-decreasing attention spans, though it does make it all the more magical when something brilliant like “Science” cues up, all twinkling synths and epic chorus breaking through the routine of sonic wallpaper. It’s both story and song, a 4D experience you can touch and feel, the wind hitting your face from top to bottom in degrees as Allie punctuates and draws out the win. dows. ro-o-o-o-o-o-lling down. It’s fresh, it’s fun, and it eschews half-measures for the big win; it’s the kind of serious pop music we haven’t heard in years outside of last year’s CollXtion II.

Charlie Puth: Voicenotes
One year ago, anyone would have laughed at the idea of Puth being a viable contender for that elusive gap in our charts: the male pop star. Certainly no one is counting on Justin Timberlake or Nick Jonas any longer. Yes, Post Malone and Drake have massive chart presence where Puth has almost none, having taken grave missteps with his poor debut album and Meghan Trainor collabs, but Voicenotes portends a welcome change. Gone is a reliance on the retro, doo-wop of a youthful Michael Buble, the sort of music that passed through the ears of listeners quicker than a passing siren. Voicenotes shows Puth a bit older, a bit wiser, and most importantly, a bit more honest. Puth finally sounds like a real human being, a person with insecurities and skeletons finally spilling out of a closet previously packed tight with crisp shirts and shiny shoes, and it is only by finally revealing and owning his truths, with a dash of inspired Hall & Oates, that he can finally find a place among the cheesiest of pop stars and their fans, all just as uncool as the rest of us.

Dance with the Dead: Loved to Death
Just like your favorite mass market paperbacks, you can tell just by looking at some covers exactly what the contents will be like. Perhaps it’s the famous clinch, or the back of a shadowy, running figure, or even a a cover taken up entirely by the enormous font of an author’s name. Some of the best genre paperbacks were designed in the 70s and 80s for horror fiction, lovingly chronicled by super-fan Grady Hendrix in Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction. Any one of these tales, from the one about Nazi Leprechauns, to Satanic nuns, to children with kinetic abilities look like they could be accompanied by one of Dance with the Dead’s albums. Their aesthetic, like the look of all darkwave, looks ripped from the pages of a Stephen King novel, and their latest, Loved to Death similarly leans in hard. Justin Pointer and Tony Kim, the duo behind these morbidly fun 80’s synth-horror tracks, expertly weave in all of their influences, from Justice to John Carpenter to Metallica to create instrumental sonic treats that brim with crunchy energy, like “Salem” and “Oracle,” and guitars, especially on tracks like “Into the Shadows.” Highly danceable, playfully creepy, and always entertaining, Dance with the Dead will fit in nicely with your Stranger Things viewing party next summer.

Janelle Monae: Dirty Computer
Sometimes an artist’s greatest album isn’t a personal favorite: certainly, Monae’s previous album The Electric Lady contained just as many, if not more, attention-grabbing songs and as much style. In fact, Dirty Computer seems a touch less effortless, maybe a bit too glossy, a tad obvious. But it is hyper-stylized for a reason: it’s the logical conclusion of experience, and of time spent in the presence of luminous mentors and the trenches of viral Internet warfare. Slapping a concept film on this album does little to enhance what is already Monae’s winning hand: ability, ambition, and personality. Natural talent puts all of these to work and an appreciative audience hungry for the gospel allows this star to finally come into her own — part cyborg, part human, all American.

5 Seconds of Summer: Youngblood
If you’ve spent five seconds in the electronics department of a Target, you’ve heard 5 Seconds of Summer, who’ve blared from the giant monitors every time I’ve set foot in one over the course of the summer. This relentless repetition makes it easy to forget how fun Youngblood is. Look, it’s hard out there for an English-speaking boy band. Just ask Why Don’t We. The boy band mini-revival rose and set in the shadows of One Direction, and its future is now being pulled into question. In response, 5SOS have released one of their most musically accessible albums, a triumph of synths and enormous pop hooks. Their third studio album sounds like a group that has finally embraced their place in the pop pantheon and taken it to its biggest, most obvious conclusion, whether it’s the lyrical staples of “Want You Back,” “Better Man,” and “Why Won’t You Love Me,” or blissful, windows-down jams like “Talk Fast” and “More.” Part of the ability to appreciate this album will hinge on how much someone is willing to concede that the world hates teenage girls and everything they touch, but once a person can come to terms with the idea that the things girls like and things that are great are not exclusive, we can all evolve as a species together.

Sarah Reeves: Easy Never Needed You
Contemporary Christian, Christian pop, “inspirational music,” or whatever you want to call it, has been mostly segregated to the outskirts of the mainstream. It’s a tough genre to define when it can sound just like anything else on the radio, but you’re not quite sure if it’s about a significant other, or actually Jesus. It’s a tough call to make, and Easy Never Needed You has a good time playing around with those perceptions and doubts. Sarah Reeve’s voice, as soft and pillowy as Ellie Goulding’s, also seems to be taking inspiration from the artist’s music, with fast-paced Top-40 pop like “Something About You” and “Right Where You Want Me.” The album’s more obvious references to faith, like “Nowhere,” and “Faithful,” never feel as preachy as they could; it’s a true crossover album, the kind that blurs the distinction between holy and secular, and when is the latter ever devoid of the former, in a non-religious sense? Music only ever means what you believe it does, and any proscribed interpretations are always presumptive. To whit, Sarah Reeves won’t be making any converts any time soon, but she has made one hell of a pop album.

Rita Ora: Phoenix
Rita Ora is a jack-of-all-trades: it’s been six years since she released an album, but in that time she’s managed to find time to act in mega-blockbusters, shill for major corporations like Skullcandy and DKNY, design clothes, and host reality television shows like America’s Next Top Model. It’s all in a day’s work for today’s young celebrities, but one thing you can’t say is that Ora hasn’t worked hard hitting up every medium, besides, like, podcasts, to remain as relevant as possible. Spreading oneself so thin usually results in poor work, a sign of scattered focus rather than deep dives into true passion projects, but Phoenix, its title a reference to Ora’s trouble with past record label Roc Nation, soars as high as any big-budget pop album in its class. Opener “Anywhere” sets the tone for the record’s trendy EDM hooks and functions as both a statement of intent and a litmus test: non-interested parties are invited to disembark immediately at the next stop. Ora doesn’t have the most versatile pipes, but she’s the perfect fit for an album that would have made more sense released in the summer, perfect for windows-down, volume-high cruising. This is not the type of album that can move mountains, but it can get you out of your chair, and that’s a lot more useful in the day-to-day banality of the average person’s life.

Neon Nox: Syndicate Shadow
What happens when you have the capabilities of a sonic storyteller, but no contract with a film studio? Johnny Jewel and his label mates over at Italians Do It Better are sure to steer you in the right direction, but there is no shortage of artists outside that particular milieu who have their own original Drives and Blade Runners to score. If Dead Can Dance’s specialty is horror, than Neon Nox’s is the 80’s action flick — except few 80’s action flicks in the U.S. were heavy on these particular massive synths, culled from all the best glittering gems on the italo-disco circuit, like Vincenzo Salvia on steroids. There is no shortage of these kinds of synthwave artists (many featured on this list!), and a quick visit to NewRetroWave’s page gives you an assorted menu from appetizers to these kinds of full courses that do everything but hand you a script. Rather, the opening track recalls TRON: Legacy‘s “The Grid” in setting the scene and then inviting you to use the song titles as prompts and the limits of your own imagination, like a sonic storybook. The unique perspective each person will bring to “the score” in the interactive nature of the genre  is part of what makes this particular sub genre so compelling, and Syndicate Shadow so fun.

Troye Sivan: Bloom
Troye Sivan has had a whirlwind year, least of which is collaborating with Charli XCX on one of the year’s most fun singles, “1999.” Like Rita Ora, when he’s not discoursing upon Justin Timberlake’s “inspiring” ‘N Sync ‘do, he’s working on any number of side hustles, including acting (no big deal, just critically acclaimed flicks like Boy Erased). This year also saw the follow-up to his debut album, Blue Neighbourhood, and like “1999,” it’s a bit of a throwaway, with playful tributes to the dawning of 90’s teen-pop, down to that Michael Jackson and Naomi Campbell 2-tone vibe in single “My My My,” haunting each catchy, hook-laden corner. It’s never more apparent than on the stand-out titular track “Bloom,” and “Lucky Strike,” which meld funky tempos with finger-snapping beats. While I’m not entirely sold on the album’s more introspective moments, when Sivan is at his most confessional, it proves the album is more than just surface: a deep heart beats beneath Sivan, a dual nature that captures life’s black and white, its good, its bad, its highs, its lows, and the beautiful moments in between.

Honorable Mentions

Robert Parker: End of the Night
Kimbra: Primal Heart
Midnight Danger: Malignant Force
Wild Moccasins: Look Together
Annalisa: Bye Bye

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Top 10 hard rock/metal albums of 2018

Unholy cardinals, power vocals, raging battle cries, sludgy doom, and even the type of rock that requires being draped in multiple bohemian scarves: this list has it all, in no particular order, proving that, at least in 2018, rock music was far from dead.

Khemmis: Desolation
It shows a lot of optimism that Steel Druhm’s review of Desolation for Angry Metal Guy considers Khemmis “early in their career” when so many bands release a couple of albums and an EP and disappear. But it’s hard not to share that optimism about Khemmis: both of their previous albums found their way on to many year-end lists, showing off an enviable career trajectory that shows no signs of dipping. The band keeps it tight with six tracks, most stretching out anywhere from 6 to 9 minutes of oozing doom metal, like wet silt in slow motion. Moments of stereotypical cookie-monster growls can retard the album’s momentum (“Maw of Time“) but the album never loses its grounding in Ben Hutcherson’s soaring vocals. In Decibel Magazine, he attributes the band’s success to the healthy competition that ignites proverbial fires underneath simmering inspiration, separating the hobbyists from the die-hards. With this pattern of hard work, reflected in both the members’ personal and professional lives, it’s easy to get swept up in the hopes that this really is just the beginning, in the possibility that there could be work comparable to, or even surpassing, Hunted and this year’s Desolation; I trust the far-more knowledgeable Angry Metal Guys and look forward to hearing more great things from this band in the years to come.

Atreyu: In Our Wake
There’s only one reason to return to a band you had already written off as dead years ago, and that’s in the hopes that they are still capable of resurrecting the same passion they conjured at the beginning of their career. But Atreyu aren’t interested in nostalgia, and you have to respect their determination to move forward, rather than re-live glory days. In Our Wake sounds nothing like Suicide Notes and Butterfly Kisses or The Curse; it sounds, instead, like sonic alchemy, the perfect combination of Avenged Sevenfold (who make a brief appearance here) and old Killswitch Engage, an aggression mixed with melodic highs never short on a couple of trademark screams. Post-hardcore might seem like a sub genre with limits — those limits having been hunted in the mid 00s to extinction — but the most ambitious bands no longer scrape the barrels of stand-bys, instead incorporating the spiraling rise and falls of slick, Mutt Lange-era metal with intense riffs (and here an unfortunate caveat: the terrible lyrics to go with it). It’s probably too mainstream to gain any wider recognition in the world of hard rock, but Lange had no shortage of haters in the 80s either.

Ghost: Prequelle
The revelation of the identities of the erudite lead singer and former Not-So-Nameless Ghouls of Ghost through the latter’s legal dispute seems to have freed something in Tobias Forge, the mastermind behind “Circe” and “Square Hammer.” The stage is opulent, the costumes razor-sharp, and the music particularly laser-focused. While previous albums mostly relied on the Satanic shtick to conceal very universal human conditions (as James Poniewozik noted, “Religion makes great material for horror stories”), Prequelle has a very personal resonance masquerading under the larger umbrella-concept of The Black Plague. This concept can be read as the story of Forge’s betrayal by those in whom he placed a lot of trust, from the album’s lead single “Rats,” (disease-carrying, and human-variety) to “Faith” (not specifically ecumenical trust), all the way down to “Pro Memoria”‘s promise of otherworldly vengeance, an ashes-to-ashes promise that comes for us all. Along the way, we get catchy hooks and giant choruses that evoke everything from disco (“Dance Macabre“) to jazzy saxophones (“Miasma”), wrapped in the band’s signature riffs and guitar solos. It’s their poppiest, most accomplished album to date, one that pays close attention to visuals and storytelling, and rewards repeated listens. The genius of Ghost was never the secrecy, though it did parallel a certain sensual mystery to a religion historically obsessed with such opulence, but the very real man behind the music who is finally reaching the full glory of his potential, and the recognition that comes with it.

Caravane: Supernova
Ever since Kent, Sweden’s greatest band, announced they were breaking up, there’s been a hole where all the best moody, electronic-influenced rock music used to reside. Judging by their last couple of albums, nobody would have guessed that Canadian rockers Caravane were capable of carrying the torch, but Supernova proves that the band is still on a quest to find their perfect sound. Unlike the more sedate Fuego or Chien Noir, Supernova is as big as its name implies: for the first time Caravane releases all the drama and passion absent on their earlier efforts. Huge, sublime numbers like “Karma,” capture rage without sacrificing the kind of cool that makes it all seem effortless, while the near-perfect “Hong Kong” blends it all with the melancholy sheen of the album’s slower moments. Discovery is around any corner, and Caravane sound like they finally stumbled upon the most important one they’ve been looking for: purpose.

Brainstorm: Midnight Ghost
Normally, a band that’s been around for eighteen years won’t have many rabbits left in their hat, but every once in a while, that axiom gets blown to pieces. While Brainstorm’s twelfth album Midnight Ghost doesn’t break any new ground, this German metal band gamely sing for their supper in a concise crash course in Metal, blazing through big tracks as reliable as they are heavy. Album standout “Jeanne Boulet (1764)” captures the essence of this band at their best: storytellers with a penchant for those Iron Maiden tales, funneling something novel into what would otherwise be nothing more than rote homage. It doesn’t get any more classic than this.

Visigoth: Conqeuror’s Oath
Power metal now has such a long, storied history, that it seems almost impossible to wring anything new out of the genre. But all of the clashing swords and medieval castles are just window-dressing on Visigoth’s new album Conqueror’s Oath. A true power metal album preoccupied with sorcery and adventure, the album’s opener “Steel and Silver” sets the tone with brisk guitar licks and dynamic vocals gliding over drum beats marching you straight to war. It’s the geekiest album on this list, but its dedication to capturing the authentic spirit of what Steel Druhm at Angry Metal Guy calls “olde timey metal magic” is unequal. Not bad for a band that hails not from the frosty, medieval hills of Eastern Europe, but a little town nicknamed The Beehive State.

Michael Romeo: War of the Worlds, Pt. 1
All things in moderation is sound advice, up to a point, but if Romeo had taken those words to heart, we never would have gotten War of the Worlds, Pt. 1, this year’s finest melding of metal and symphony. The album is the incendiary follow-up to 1994’s The Dark Chapter, and is propelled by Romeo’s singular brand of excess; heavy, fast, and perpetually accelerating, the album exploits every instrument in its arsenal, not the least of which is its orchestral elements ripped from the heads of stated influences John Williams and Bernard Hermann, and guitar solos that rip through songs with the speed and choreography of a big-budget action flick. The follow up, War of the Worlds Pt. 2, is already long-awaited and if even half as good, is expected to blow out eardrums in a set of headphones near you.

The Amity Affliction: Misery
Over time, some genres end up sounding more dated than others. Post-hardcore/metalcore can be one of those genres, perhaps because it still lives in enough embarrassing collective memories of the years your bangs covered half your face and wearing a button-down with the collar popped out beneath a T-shirt was a great look. The Amity Affliction doesn’t have time to wait long enough for these memories to become wistful, rather than cringe-worthy, and so they soldier on, unleashing their inner Hawthorne Heights like they did from the very beginning. And despite all of the odds, it works beautifully. The band really excels at teasing out all of the genre’s strongest elements, from the exclamation point of chugging growls to the quiet declarative verses, like “Burn Alive,” or the album’s title track “Misery,” which bounces expertly back and forth between the two. It’s like 2007 all over again, but it feels so good.

Thundermother: Thundermother
With Greta Van Fleet causing a commotion in the world of classic rock, it’s easy to overlook Sweden’s bumper crop of classic-rock revivalists. The country has been hard at work churning out a roster of Thin Lizzy/AC/DC sound-alikes to the tune of Honeymoon Disease, Travelin Jack, Hallas, and Spiders. But the best of these this year is Thundermother’s self-titled album, a brash, energetic distillation of this updated sound. The group sounds less like a parody than a band enjoying the heck out of their favorite type of music. There’s no shortage of this type of sound (really, there’s no shortage of any type of sound anymore, if you look hard enough), but Thundermother make themselves easy to spot among the long-haired, vest-wearing, scarf-trailing stadium crowd.

Greta Van Fleet: Anthem of the Peaceful Army
No rock debut has been as divisive this year as Greta Van Fleet’s Anthem of the Peaceful Army. Pitchfork opens its review with this damning lead: “Greta Van Fleet sound like they did weed exactly once, called the cops, and tried to record a Led Zeppelin album before they arrested themselves.” Rolling Stone acknowledges the band’s shortcomings (though they seem to save the most pointed vitriol for the members’ ages), but admits that “there’s also a charm to their guileless, retro-fetishist conviction. And dudes have chops,” in the very definition of a back-handed compliment. While RS’s review wants to be more forgiving, both illustrate the problem with the gate-keeping impulse of “true” music fans, the kind who have forgotten how to enjoy anything remotely commercial and not oozing authenticity. It’s not surprising, but it’s disappointing. Mostly, I think people hate Greta Van Fleet because they look like they’re trying a little too hard in the wardrobe department, as if the only thing Led Zeppelin ever cared about was the music, man. It’s a shame because this album is a fun tribute, with fiery vocals and propulsive drive, and if it all feels just a little too derivative, well, it’s not like the band is pretending otherwise. That’s more than anyone can say for publications trafficking in a deluge of tobacco and pop star-endorsing ads while claiming to hold the higher ground.

Honorable Mentions

Rising: Sword and Scythe
Satan: Cruel Magic
Crying Steel: Stay Steel
Spiders: Killer Machine
Amorphis: Queen of Time

Top ten debut albums of 2018

Debut albums are opportunities to establish a voice, a sound, and a vision — a promise of what’s to come. Sometimes this long-labored effort is never replicated again, and what we’re left with is one great moment, no less worthy because of its singularity. Who will be the unlucky few not to make it? That debate is fun, but not nearly as much as watching someone, against all odds, succeed and grow as an artist. If all of us have at least one great work of art within us, these are ten, in no particular order.

Ella Mai: Ella Mai
Ella Mai is the logical love-child of SZA’s breakthrough last year and the lingering chart run of the magical Khalid & Normani duet “Love Lies.” Ella Mai could do without all the cheesy talking (personal pet peeve) and I’m not sure why anyone is still letting Chris Brown be a thing, but this album’s cool evocation of 90’s R&B styles (see “Boo’d Up”) is a lovely addendum to a year full of them.

NINA: Sleepwalking
Italo-disco inspired, heavy retro-pop done expertly, with all the best intentions, from cited influences Depeche Mode and Kavinsky. Don’t expect the latter’s heavier electro bits: this isn’t Drive. It’s more delicate than a lot of the usual from the synth-wave/Bandcamp set, but no less evocative (“It Kills Me”), and no less rich in wistful affection for the kind of dreamy 1980s you can only find in music (“Beyond Memory,” “80’s Girl“).

fromis_9: To. Heart
Melissa Johnson does a phenomenal job tracking all the rookie groups in a given year, and brace yourself: there are dozens. It’s hard to bank on any when so many come and go quicker than mouse clicks, so it’s no use predicting if fromis_9 have any staying power. But they have released two EPs this year, and like many of the recent girl groups before them, expertly re-imagine the best parts of early Girls’ Generation (SNSD): fluffy pop confections lighter than meringue and just as sweet.

Chloe x Halle: The Kids Are Alright
Their 2016 EP and 2017 “not really a mixtape” hinted at what this duo could achieve, but the two young sisters, Chloe and Halle, surpassed expectations with their first studio album The Kids Are Alright. In what is becoming the new-traditional, the girls were discovered on YouTube, but prove they are more than their origin story on this electrifying debut that’s so good you can forgive the typo.

Hayley Kiyoko: Expectations
This personal collection of songs is less specific than it is general, a gift to anyone looking for direction, or even just company. It is wonderful having a person in the mainstream whom someone confused or overwhelmed can look up to, and not only is Kiyoko happy to represent, but like peers Dua Lipa, Kehlani, and Kali Uchis, she shows great potential as a pop artist.

Fickle Friends: You Are Someone Else
This British synth-pop duo have carved a commendable niche for themselves in a genre brimming with second-rate hacks and overindulgent copycats. Perhaps this is because the group is committed to relatable dance-pop gems like “Glue” and “Hard To Be Myself” that express a realness often glossed over as inconsequential, laying bare even the smallest anxieties and truths of the everyday mundane by spinning them into noble anthems that make even the tiniest doubts worth chiseling in stone.

Black Honey: Black Honey
The reissue of Garbage’s Version 2.0 has exposed a void left behind by Shirley Manson’s lithe vocals and industrial-sized rock. Black Honey might not fill that hole perfectly, but they could, and lead single, “Midnight Honey” off of this debut album tells you exactly why. Without losing a sense of fun, Black Honey rocks as hard as any mainstream album released this year.

Laurel: Dogviolet
Bedroom singer-songwriters are a dime a dozen, so it takes a lot to stand out from a crowd of pushy opportunists. But Laurel has an ear for melody, one that takes the form of lingering drums and rich piano, of raw guitars pillowed by scratchy vocals. All of these elements come together on Dogviolet, a promising debut album that proves there’s still plenty of room for anyone willing to put in the work to make cliches sound oh so new again.

DIAMANTE: Coming in Hot
Although there’s no shortage of female vocalists in hard rock and metal, most of these powerhouses tend to be found in bands. Very few have made it on the strength of a solo career in the genre. Whether or not DIAMANTE ticks past her fifteen minutes remains to be seen, but Coming in Hot is an especial treat given its draw: there have been many interesting debut albums this years, but none as arresting as this dichotomy — a blue-haired siren delivering tough-as-nails vocals ripped from the throat, straight to your gut. But these are not just the gripes of a teenage brat with a recording contract (and really, it would sill work if it was): DIAMANTE has steel here, in songs like “Bullet Proof,” “War Cry,” and the gritty “Haunted.” It’s the unexpected violence that fascinates, the frustrations of young womanhood given an aggressive, super-melodic outlet with a willingness to fall just a touch too far outside the acceptable, classically-trained, pretty-angry zone that makes it so honest, and so important.

Eves Karydas: Summerskin
When Eves Karydas disappeared to hone her songwriting skills, no one expected her to come back with such razor-sharp precision. Melancholy like Lana Del Rey (“There for You” sounds particularly reminiscent), moody like Lorde, but as charming as Baby One More Time-Britney, Karydas’s debut album is a promising addition in pop’s new emphasis on authenticity and the realities of first-person, lived experience. Summerskin has all of it, and gorgeous melodies on top.

Honorable Mentions

Shannon Shaw: Shannon in Nashville
Frozen Land: Frozen Land
VHS Collection: Retrofuturism
RIRI: RIRI
Party Nails: Past Lives & Paychecks

Top ten remastered/reissued albums of 2018

Every year the new releases keep piling up, and not far behind them is a long stretch of music history, staying fresh in memories with the sheer number of remasters and re-releases that grace our ears each year. With glossy new packaging and technological studio wizardry polishing up those dusty old master tapes, it’s easy to make the old look and sound just as fresh and exciting as any debut artist, with an added bonus: there’s no work involved in learning to love what is already familiar and comfortable, just a chance to re-appreciate a classic. Here are ten albums, in no particular order, that were remastered and/or re-released this year, across genre and language, that sound just as good as we remember, and now, even better.

Metallica: …And Justice for All [1988]
Metallica has been busy remastering their back catalog in chronological order, and in several formats that range from bank-breaking deluxe LP boxes to gate-fold digipaks sold for $5 apiece at Walmart. …And Justice for All is their latest, though anyone hoping for a louder bass line in the mix will be disappointed. However, …And Justice for All‘s infamous sound mixing is part of band lore, and to tinker with it to the extent that the entire soundscape would have changed would have fundamentally stripped the album of everything it is: the story of a band in turmoil, working through grief the only way they knew how; the last of an era. Of course, these backstory bits are fun, but unnecessary for enjoyment. What you’ll get here is the album exactly as it was released in 1988, just cleaner, louder, and with none of the surprises. Let’s hope we get a stateside remaster of the Black Album next.

Various Artists: Katamari Damacy (Original Video Game Soundtrack) [2004]
One of the most delightful video game soundtracks of its time, Katamari Damacy remains a beloved favorite of both gamers and J-pop enthusiasts alike. All of the jazzy, J-pop numbers, as well as iconic theme music are present on this gorgeous re-release, pressed onto vinyl by Mondo for the U.S. for the first time. First pressings that came in a glossy gate-fold on colored and swirled vinyl sold out quickly, but alternate second pressings continue to breathe new life into this masterpiece of game music.

Garbage: Version 2.0 [1998]
One of the definitive bands of the 90s finally got their due this year in a 20th anniversary remaster of their Grammy-nominated second album Version 2.0. Containing the band’s most popular songs, the album was an instant classic that catapulted the band into stratospheric fame beyond what even their debut effort could have foretold. Everything from “I’m Paranoid” to “Push It” sounds crisp on this 2-disk/3-LP set that also contains all of the era’s B-sides.

Megadeth: Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good!: The Final Kill [1985]
This is not the first time Killing Is My Business has been remastered — most of Megadeth’s albums were re-released in 2004, along with a couple of anniversary editions following. The original remastered Killing, ca. 2002, censored the cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” due to copyright claims, but it reappears here with rerecorded vocals and its original lyrics intact. In fact, many of the songs have parts that seem rerecorded. Purists claims this sullies the original release, and the whole point of remasters in general, but the trade-off is that it allows Mark Lewis to massage an impeccably modern, crystal-clear sheen out of what once sounded closer to a description Patricia Lockwood made about her own father’s guitar playing: “like a whole band dying in a plane crash in 1972.” Whether or not Killing was ever meant to sound so clean or if that messiness was part of its charm, and no matter which side you fall on the loudness wars, the spirit of Megadeth’s debut studio album has been preserved. One hopes this is as truly “final” as the subtitle implies and Mustaine can rest satisfied with this mix that includes several bonus live tracks and demos.

Red Velvet: The Perfect Red Velvet – The 2nd Album Repackage [2017]
The Perfect Red was an appears Top Ten Album last year, and like most K-pop albums, quickly received a re-release two months later to make a couple of extra bucks with the addition of new songs “Bad Boy,” and “All Right.” But just because the new songs and hyperbolic title don’t do much to enhance an already seamless record, you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to enjoy this K-pop gem all over again.

Alan Menken: Walt Disney Records The Legacy Collection: Beauty and the Beast [1991]
Walt Disney’s Legacy Collection had been re-releasing soundtracks on an anniversary schedule, but have slowed down considerably since 2015, with only one release in 2017 and one for 2018, this gorgeously reproduced 2-disk edition of the 1991 film soundtrack to Beauty and the Beast. Unlike the 2001 special edition, this one also includes previously unreleased material and demos from masterminds Alan Menken and Howard Ashman that provide a window into how subtle changes in lyrics, vocalists, and tempos can change a piece entirely. I’m not sure how “remastered” these tracks are, since many of them don’t sound too much different than those included on the 2001 edition, (though I am assured by experts more knowledgeable than me, that it is indeed much better) all of the original cues remain as sumptuous and sweeping as they first appeared, and anyone familiar with the film can clearly envisage the visuals with the album’s chronological track-sequencing. While Beauty and the Beast is not my personal favorite Menken/Disney soundtrack, it is without a doubt one of the finest, most timeless pieces of music set to a Disney film ever, and can now be fully appreciated with additional liner notes, nicely thick packaging, and stunning gouache artwork by Lorelay Bove that mimics that of the great Retta Scott Worcester. Aladdin next?

The Beatles: The Beatles [1968]
There is no new ground to cover here, considering this is one of the most iconic rock albums of all time, famous not just for its music but for the story of a legendary band on its last legs. Cracks and all, this album is track-for-track the definitive distillation of two of the Western world’s best songwriters, and their equally talented friends (what were their names again?). This 50th anniversary remaster, a further expansion of the Beatles’ 2009 re-release series, comes in several iterations with varying degrees of bonus material that will leave fans occupied for weeks.

Alan Silvestri: The Mummy Returns (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) [2001]
Intrada continues to do the Lord’s work with their remastering of the action-adventure saga The Mummy Returns, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, the sequel to The Mummy. While Jerry Goldsmith laid fine groundwork with the original (also remastered by Intrada this year), Silvestri’s score really gives a sense of power, with varying tempos, obligatory swelling violins, and rollicking percussion, working within the film’s very smart ode to classic action-adventure films like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Silvestri’s work is in its own league, and though opinions on this will vary, his continuation and expansion of Goldsmith’s score is, in a sense, closer in spirit to the thematic elements of the swashbuckling visuals. Both soundtracks were remastered from the original sessions, and include bonus material left out on the hasty original releases.

BAND-MAID: MAID IN JAPAN [2014]
MAID IN JAPAN is the J-rock group’s debut album that made all the impact of a forcefully lobbed cotton ball. Due to the limited press of its initial run, the album sold out quickly, leaving a legion of new fans without access to it. The album was re-released in new packaging this year alongside their new album WORLD DOMINATION. This coincided release really emphasized how much the band has evolved and grown in as little as four years, with the sophistication and ease of WD contrasting nicely with the simpler, but no less passionate MIJ. It’s a nice little time capsule of a band on the verge of figuring out just what kind of band they wanted to be.

Iron Maiden: The Number of the Beast [1982]
Iron Maiden are going a second round with remasters, the first being in 1998 (although these digital remasters are the same as those available on the vinyl editions released in 2015). For all the purists who hated the edits of the 1998 versions, these have preserved the mixes of the original vinyl releases. So far, their first four albums have been released, and you can take your pick at any one of these foundational NWOBHM releases, though I’m partial to The Number of the Beast, which includes the band’s first appearance with Bruce Dickinson on vocals, and a personal favorite song. Though there’s no new bonus material here (unless you’re into Eddie figurines), it’s never a bad time to get a louder Maiden CD into your collection.

Honorable Mentions

Guns ‘N Roses: Appetite for Destruction [1987]
John Willians: Harry Potter: The John Williams Soundtrack Collection [2001-2004]
Ramones: Rocket to Russia [1977]
Pet Shop Boys: Please [1986]
Def Leppard: The Collection: Volume One [1980-1987]

Top 10 albums/20 songs of 2009

10. Lady Gaga: The Fame Monster

“Bad Romance” is topping more year-end lists than Animal Collective, and not without reason: if “ra-ra-ah-ah-ah, roma-roma-ma, ga-ga-oh-la-la” is the only thing we’ll remember about Lady Gaga, we’ll still look back fondly while overlooking some of her more dubious wardrobe choices. But The Fame Monster boasts more than just the notorious song: “Dance in the Dark” and “Monster” are also among the signature Gaga entendres, club-ready and unapologetically catchy.

09. Meisa Kuroki: hellcat

If I had to pick one successor to Namie Amuro, Meisa Kuroki would be it, and since Amuro has shown herself to be forging new territory with PAST < FUTURE, it looks like Kuroki is the likeliest competition. hellcat doesn’t have the intensity or acumen behind albums like Queen of Hip-Hop or PLAY, but it’s one of the most fun debut albums I’ve heard in a while and shows great promise, a promise Kuroki is looking to fulfill if the first single off her upcoming album is any indication.

08. Big Bang: BIGBANG [ read full review ]

Korean pop bands are taking over the world. This is not the first time I’ve said it, and I’m sort of hoping it will be the last, as we can now move forward with this knowledge intact and focus on individual artists. Big Bang finally made a break in Korea with “Lies” but it’s their dominance of the Japanese market that finally put them on the map. As a testament to the members’ individual talent, G-Dragon also released the award-winning Heartbreaker which topped Korean charts and showed the band had the potential to be indestructible. With their 2010 album already in the works, one can only hope they continue to prove themselves as adept and proficient as BIGBANG.

07. Mr Hudson: Straight No Chaser

Mr Hudson’s Straight No Chaser is more than just a rap record: it’s a rap record that doesn’t resort to petty clichés, revels in pop appreciation, and isn’t afraid to show its vulnerability as much as it does its ire. More than a bid for authenticity, Mr Hudson never lets on that he has something to prove, instead teaming up with artists like Kanye West and Kid Cudi to craft clever rhymes and confessions, a sort of mea culpa that at the last moment, decides it wasn’t in the wrong after all. At its core, it’s just another break-up record (the track listing is almost unbearably linear: boy tells lies, boy loses the girl, boy begins to reminisce, boy learns to live without love, boy cries, boy gets angry, boy comes to terms), but it’s rendered in such brilliant music, it becomes more than just another entry in Kanye’s blog.

06. BoA: BoA [ read full review ]

BoA is everything a pop fan could wish for. Far more commercial than anything she had yet released, best-selling Korean artist BoA portrays an incredible bevy of talent: deft grasp of the English language, stunning dance skills, and a knack for mainstream sound. Made all the more brilliant in comparison to Hikaru Utada’s own second English language album released the same week, which fared poorly with both critics and fans, a lot of credit must go to the writers and producers who assembled songs very of the moment, nurtured BoA’s strengths, and kept the electropop tone consistent.

05. Lights: The Listening [ read full review ]

A synth-heavy record, Lights’ The Listening is a very mature record that tackles very adolescent issues, centering around the clichéd angst of growing up. The album might be too unrealistic for some listeners, reveling in fairy tale notions of attraction and nostalgia for childhood (and the early 90s that accompanied it), but it’s still a stunning full-length debut record that explores just how hard it is to define adulthood.

04. Nadia Ali: Embers

Trance albums rarely make my year-end lists (Oceanlab was the first last year), though this has more to do with the fact that trance is a very single-based genre with mostly big-name artists releasing full-length albums. I guess Nadia Ali is further exceptional considering her music is not traditional trance, but more of a typical dance style with heavy elements of euro. In glowing tribute to a broken relationship that refuses to release its spark, Embers is steeped in accusations (“Point the Finger”), longing (“Ride with Me”), regret (“Be Mine”), and finally, self-preservation (“Fine Print”). It’s dance music you can’t dance to, stoking and re-stoking what’s left in the ashes of loss.

03. Donkeyboy: Caught in a Life

I’ll admit I’m hypocritical when it comes to the 80s synthfluence of the 00s; on one hand, it’s becoming redundant, on the other, it’s still inspiring some pretty amazing music. Donkeyboy may not have the brash sex appeal of a Gwen Stefani or the Pitchfork-endorsed review of a Neon Indian, but they have the gifted ability to work within the confines of Scandinavia’s celebrated track record to produce some of the most fundamental pop music of the decade. The cheerful melodies set against gloomy lyrics are a testament to the quintessential pandering of youth, meandering its way through real world infancy; Caught in a Life is dreamy and escapist without being immune to the harshest glare of life’s headlights.

02. Florence + the Machine: Lungs [ read full review ]

Lungs is not a perfect album – a few tracks still disrupt the musical narrative, tending to stick out like sore-thumb intervals – but in spite of its flaws, it remains a grand, sweeping album that asks more questions than it answers, provides more enigma than understanding, and never lacks for want of a desperate, sometimes frantic search – for passion, for comfort, for spiritual enlightenment. Florence Welch’s voice cuts through tempos and soars somewhere in the highest realms, lingering far above the already massive melodies, wallowing in the heady first days of romance, the agony of losing love, and finally finding it again in the least expected place.

01. Kent: Röd [ read full review ]

Kent is relentless; releasing masterpiece after masterpiece is one way to show you have enough talent to start throwing it away on B-sides, but the other is simply to keep doing what they do: releasing intricate, carefully crafted albums that build upon previous work without showing any sign of strain to which so many bands two decades old succumb. Any weaknesses the band has never appears on the record, a heady cocktail of fear, aggression, anxiety, and coping with a sort of self-inflicted isolation. Kent is nowhere near where it started in 1990, but Röd is an incredible place to land and probably more than even the most enthusiastic fans could have dreamed.

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2008 reconsidered, or, I’m gonna’ defend The Killers guys, I swear I’m gonna’ do it, watch me

This has either everything or nothing to do with the fact that every single time I read an interview with Brandon Flowers, our musical stars align: his current favorite artists or sounds he’s inspired by are almost always freakishly similar to my own. I’m not inclined to save interviews or jot down quotes unless I’m in the midst of research, so I’ve never made note of these cosmic moments, but I always remember that struck-dumb moment when I stop for a second and think, Fuck, some dude who wears epaulettes made of fowl is my musical soul mate.

This has either everything or nothing to do with the fact that every single review compared Sam’s Town to Bruce Springsteen as if it came with the press release and everyone was only clever enough to switch the syntax. I mean, I got it, I get it, I really do, but in rock criticism, it’s greater cultural cache to be inspired by Springsteen than the Pet Shop Boys so by the time the third album comes along and there’s no press release or immediately noticeable rock influence, people become strapped for words, like hey, are they a rock band or a pop band? Because they certainly can’t have it both ways, right?

This has either everything or nothing to do with the fact that 2008 was a pretty poor year for albums: hello y’all, Britney Spears’ Circus was a pretty good album, but I couldn’t even find three better albums, solidifying its position as the appears number eight album of 2008 – to be sure, revisionism makes everything seedier: Neon Neon’s Stainless Style definitely should have been on that list; PlayRadioPlay! not so much. But I’m correcting this error now: Day & Age should have been a top five.

This has either everything or nothing to do with the fact that Sam’s Town was a precious slice of Americana, held at just an arm’s length away enough to exude that hint of irony, prompting everybody from hipsters to alt-country purists to offer discourse on its subtext. But when the curtain fell and it didn’t look like the band was all that comfortable with their Fu Manchus after all, pity the record that channels British synth pop instead of this generation’s (attempted) answer to Born to Run, even when the band’s first record made no secret of its love for dance music.

This has either everything or nothing to do with the fact that I was honestly under the impression by those around me that Day & Age was a ridiculous farce of music (these being the seven or so rare fans of Sam’s Town who were WTF-ed into paroxysms of shock by admittedly questionable lyrics – human/dancer, etc.; one acquaintance called it a soundtrack to Women’s Workout World, which made me sad because it was a double slam against the band and, apparently, the musical sensibilities of females who stay in shape) before noting that, critically, Day & Age did a whole lot better than Sam’s Town. Popularity does not equal quality, but misunderstanding can often lead to condemnation; I thought if they could only understand Flowers’ clear homage to Lowe/Tenant, they would like this record. But the album fared tremendously not only in the US, but in the UK and other parts of the world, making the distance I have to travel to find supporters so much less: it’s true devoid-of-borders, open-to-interpretation, wearing-its-heart-on-its-sleeve pop.

Day & Age is like ABBA’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: it never needed your validation.

Five disappointing albums of 2009

We’ve managed to get through the first week of December with nary a leak of the new Namie Amuro album, so for the record, it still has the possibility to make a revised version of this list (though I do very much like WILD, I’m already iffy on the promo clips of “LOVE GAME” and “The Meaning Of Us” – plus I’m still pretty mad about BEST FICTION thwarting the 60s 70s 80s single a proper album release). But if the weakest musical months are that dreary space between Thanksgiving and New Year when readers and writers are left maneuvering the sinking ship that is year-end lists and retrospectives, then who am I to abandon it at such a critical junction? Here is the first of my own: the five albums that disappointed me the most this year.

05. MEG’S BEAUTIFUL

MEG hit a low point in February when she ditched producer Yasutaka Nakata for Hadouken! on FREAK, a single so atrociously bad everyone pretended it never happened when BEAUTIFUL was released in May. But finally reunited with Nakata, the follow-up to 2008’s STEP was her first album to crack the Oricon Top Ten, a feat that would have been rendered impossible without the man behind the curtain. Magician to every female vocalist in his canon, Nakata’s precision and knack for finding just the right vocalist to suit each of his projects was already being taken for granted in 2009, a year which on one day alone (July 22) saw the release of four copycat albums (Mitsuka Aira’s PLASTIC, Ayaka Ikio’s Gossip, SAWA’s I Can Fly, and immi’s WONDER), rendering the entire genre expendable while exposing its redundancy. In 2008, MEG’s STEP was an appears top ten album with a B-side claiming the number one East Asian Pop/Rock spot: in 2009, MEG barely registered on the shibuya-kei radar. With mini-album Journey in August, she fell off entirely.

04. alan’s my life

alan’s first major stroke of popularity as vocalist for Red Cliff‘s theme song finally offered gravitas to a classically trained Tibetan; 2009 was turning out to be a flagship year when she scored her first crossover Top Ten Oricon hit with “Kuon no Kawa.” Without compromising her vocal talent or that monstrous Tibetan wail, so shrill it has the power to incinerate, alan proved that popular singers could be all things to all people: talented, intelligent, beautiful. Determined to stay in the comfortable ballad niche that was her hallmark, alan reworked most of her Chinese hits for her first Japanese-language album Voice of Earth. But by November, the record company was looking to expand the market on such a profitable young woman and stretched her repertoire to lite-pop as lifeless as a hangman’s corpses. alan could have been China’s answer to KOKIA or RURUTIA, but instead she became forgettable.

03. Perfume’s TRIANGLE

I’ve already discussed that icky, no good, very bad turn that shibuya-kei took in 2009, prostrating itself to the commercial gods in hopes of bandwagon success that eventually prompted Ian Martin of the Japan Times Online to predict that “the failure of any of these new electropop acts to reach anywhere near the success of Perfume suggests that it remains a niche genre and that supply may already be outstripping demand. In fact, with the appearance of an all-girl idol trio called Cosmetics, […] it looks like the whole genre has already descended into self-parody. Stereotyped and faintly sexist group names based on “things girls like” to look out for in the future include Accessories, Cooking and Rich Husband.” So let’s not revel in nostalgia. And anyway, TRIANGLE fans seem to be split down the middle, one half consisting of longtime listeners disappointed not so much with the sound, but with the lack of innovation, the inability to capture the spirit and elan that made GAME such a thrill, and newer fans unfamiliar with the group’s indie days, content to enjoy a pop record better than its mimicking peers. But I’m not complaining. It was great while it lasted: Yasutaka Nakata produced enough records in the past few years to solidify his reputation as a master of sound, one of those post-millenium everymen who oversaw a handful of wonderful projects and can ride the wave of dozens of hits without having to repeat too many during a DJ set. Perfume themselves worked incredibly hard to maintain their fan base this year: photo books, increasingly bigger live shows with precise choreography; they may yet resurrect from these ashes. Perfume is dead, long live Perfume.

02. AFI’s Crash Love

Rock music is in a sad place these days; toeing the line between electro and indie isn’t just tough to sell in a decade of music that’s so beyond hip it passed lame and went back to hip, it’s nearly impossible. And like Kill Hannah’s Wake Up the Sleepers, AFI’s Crash Love has yet to evolve past its major label debut to relevancy six years later. The problem really lies in the restrictions of guy-liner rock, a style which had its heyday when Panic at the Disco still used exclamation points. After the Blaqk Audio solo project by band mates Davey Havok and Jade Puget failed to produce more than one successful single that tapped into the decade’s electronic zeitgeist (follow-up pending), AFI reconvened to record Crash Love, essentially a duplicate of formulas that ditched punk aesthetics for upscale studio wizardry. The album is the mark of an entire genre on unsteady ground, stuck in the drippy anachronism of its past and afraid to pioneer a new, radical sound.

01. Koyote’s Jumpin’

Most of the albums on this list aren’t necessarily the worst albums of the year, just low points in particular artists’ careers, ones for which I either had a lot of hope for or which I expected better, but this one is an exception: the ridiculous and flashy cover should be enough to convince you. Koyote started out as a pop trio in 1999, going through several permutations where the only consistent member involved female vocalist Shin Ji. Despite Koyote’s strong beginning, the group quickly spiralled into a series of reprised sounds, sticking to their 90’s Eurodance schtick instead of embracing the rising dominance of hip hop and electro influences that would later provide an increasing level of interest of Korean pop groups hoping to break the Japanese music market. By their sixth album, Koyote was a joke but with their tenth, 2009’s Jumpin’, they’ve become the aural equivalent of pity, their work now a pointless, non-existent discussion on no one’s Korean pop forum.