Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

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1. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Hope Downs

Call it the Little Album That Could. Unlike the two previous annual list-toppers posted on this blog, the first full-length effort by Australia’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever was not a slam-dunk for best of the year. Hope Downs is neither the final masterpiece by a beloved rock icon who’d had a career full of them, like 2016’s worthy winner, nor, as was the case with 2017’s champ, an audacious, brainy comeback inspired by the death of said icon. No, it’s simply fun, jangly indie rock, played with shiver-inducing vitality and a lack of fuss, the way God intended. Ten great songs, imbued with the familiarity of bygone groups that I adore, by a scrappy Melbourne fivesome with an unwieldy moniker and a knack for killer hooks. And in the complicated climate of 2018, that ended up being enough.

At various times in the months before I began forming my list – even after I started, in fact – all of the top five were in the mix for number one. I spent a while getting reacquainted with each, and after repeated listens my enthusiasm for picks four and five waned ever so slightly, my fondness for two and three remained roughly the same, and my estimation of this album surged. I credit two things that pushed Hope Downs to the front of the pack: (1) buying a vinyl copy, and (2) listening to it through a really good pair of headphones. I know I risk sounding like a broken record (nyuk-nyuk) by bringing up the quality of vinyl again and again, but it’s true. I first streamed this album on my phone and it sounded just fine through earbuds. But when I put the record on my turntable and clamped on the “cans,” the songs roared to life. The snare drum thwacks on the rollicking opener “An Air Conditioned Man” gave me goosebumps. I whispered an impassioned “hell yeah” to myself upon hearing the guitar strings creak on the sublime “Cappuccino City.” And as buzzing amps brought Side B to a cathartic close at the end of “The Hammer,” I very nearly threw rock horns. \m/

As far as the band’s influences go, you couldn’t ask for a finer pedigree. (The name is sometimes abbreviated to Rolling Blackouts C.F., though, oddly, that’s even more tongue-twisty.) Comparisons to the legendary Aussie combo the Go-Betweens are abundant, but I also detect traces of the Feelies, Yo La Tengo, Luna, and my all-time favourite, R.E.M. Hope Downs could be this group’s Murmur – i.e. the first in a string of great albums – or it could be a one-off. Whatever happens, it’s a keeper. Now, if you’ll pardon me, I think I’ll grab those headphones and go play it again!

[Blogger’s note: *Amid alarming reports on the demise of the album, I humbly submit my picks for the best full-length releases of 2018. Want to save this great art form from extinction? Then go out and purchase a vinyl LP – or a CD, if you must – from a real bricks-and-mortar shop. Don’t just stream random tracks to your phone! Read my extended rant on the subject here.]

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