Life, death and cosmic jazz: 2018's best contemporary classical albums

From Jóhann Jóhannsson to Laurie Anderson, via Poliça and Nils Frahm, musicians of all ages contributed vital music to the genre

Jóhann Jóhannsson was proving himself to be Hollywood’s most fascinating and effective soundtrack writer when he died this year, aged only 48. There have already been three very different posthumous soundtrack releases. Mary Magdalene is a respectful, stately score, written with compatriot Hildur Guðnadóttir; The Mercy is both more strident and more highly textured; while his soundtrack to Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic horror movie Mandy is perhaps the most interesting to hear in isolation – a piece of dark orchestral gothic that harks back to the post-punk and electronica world from which Jóhannsson emerged.

His death came in a year when many pioneers of contemporary music were making superb, groundbreaking albums as senior citizens. Lonnie Holley’s MITH saw the 68-year-old Afrofuturist forging links between ancient plantation chants and cosmic jazz. Landfall saw Laurie Anderson, aged 71, narrating the effects of Hurricane Sandy in her quizzical, meditative voice, while the Kronos Quartet’s shivery, ominous string arrangements brought her nightmarish visions to life. Listening to Pictures saw sound sculptor Jon Hassell still pushing at musical boundaries at the age of 81, burying his FX-laden trumpet under layers of African drums, distorted choirs and ambient electronic drones.

Meanwhile the new album by the 70-year-old Ukrainian-born pianist Lubomyr Melnyk, Fallen Trees, is filled with what he calls “continuous music” – his rattling, rolling, RSI-inducing piano arpeggios, which sound like a high-speed typist rattling through the same sentence over and over again, or like a single bar from a Chopin étude sampled at double-speed. These exhausting, hypnotic meditations are given a layer of intrigue by the ghostly, multi-tracked voices of Japanese vocal artist Hatis Noit.

Nils Frahm performing All Melody at London’s Barbican.
Nils Frahm performing All Melody at London’s Barbican. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Melnyk’s labelmate Nils Frahm sold out huge arenas globally this year, while his LP All Melody saw him welding string sections, glitchy electronic burps and filtered disco beats to his muted piano solos. Some of the most interesting music this year also explored similar fusions. Bristol outfit Mesadorm are fronted by singer-songwriter Blythe Pepino, and their LP Heterogaster saw Pepino’s soulful electronic and piano-led miniatures given grand and ethereal orchestrations by a band featuring cellist Jo Silverston, drummer Daisy Palmer and producer Aaron Zahl. A similarly spooky orchestral fusion project came from Minneapolis quintet Poliça, fronted by singer Channy Leaneagh. Their album Music for the Long Emergency saw them collaborating with Berlin-based chamber orchestra Stargaze, whose icy, shivery strings gave an emotional heft to Poliça’s slo-mo soul and gothic electronica.

John Lewis’s Top 10 contemporary albums of the year

1. Lonnie HolleyMITH

2. Arp – Zebra

3. Phil France – Circle

4. Szun Waves – New Hymn to Freedom

5. Kasper Bjørke Quartet – The Fifty Eleven Project

6. Yonatan Gat – Universalists

7. Chilly Gonzales – Solo Piano III

8. Laurie Anderson/Kronos Quartet – Landfall

9. Jon Hassell – Listening to Pictures

10. Poliça & Stargaze – Music for the Long Emergency


John Lewis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Contemporary album of the month – Jon Hassell: Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume I)
Hassell’s ‘fourth world’ fusion of hi-tech minimalism with world rhythms proves the 81-year-old is still experimental after all these years

John Lewis

25, May, 2018 @7:30 AM

Article image
The best jazz of 2018: new heights scaled and legends revisited
John Coltrane’s previously unreleased 1963 recordings dominated, but Myra Melford took improv to new places, and the UK had its most diverse scene in years

John Fordham

20, Dec, 2018 @5:06 PM

Article image
Contemporary album of the month - Laurie Anderson/Kronos Quartet: Landfall
The composer’s song cycle on the 2015 storm that devastated New York has the power to make us shiver with empathy. Plus the verdict on other contemporary music releases this month

John Lewis

01, Feb, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
Best albums of 2018 so far
Lily Allen dished on her divorce, Arctic Monkeys found their inner crooners, Cardi B earned her stripes, Pusha T teamed up with Kanye West and the Vaccines made an unexpected classic

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

20, Jun, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Classical CDs of the year: a year for lieder, piano recitals – and remembering
There were works by Debussy, Bernstein and pieces marking 100 years since the end of the first world war, but there were fine new releases of chamber music, too

Andrew Clements

20, Dec, 2018 @3:00 PM

Article image
The 50 best albums of 2018, No 9: Low – Double Negative
The best album of the Duluth band’s career sounds familiarly glacial and hymn-like – but recorded all wrong. It’s the sound of the world collapsing

Alexis Petridis

11, Dec, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
The 100 best albums of the 21st century
We polled 45 music writers to rank the definitive LPs of the 21st century so far. Read our countdown of passionate pop, electrifying rock and anthemic rap – and see if you agree

Ben Beaumont-Thomas (1-50); Laura Snapes and April Curtin (51-100)

13, Sep, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best albums of 2019: the full list
Our pick of the year’s finest albums brings American dreaming, teenage dynamism, heartbreak, barbed rap, impetuous indie and beautiful soundscapes

20, Dec, 2019 @9:41 AM

Article image
The 50 best albums of 2020, No 1: Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
The reclusive artist’s fifth album seemed to resonate with people’s desire to escape lockdown. But Apple’s bracing vision of justice and compassion proposed a different kind of freedom

Laura Snapes

18, Dec, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Sean Shibe: Lost and Found review | Erica Jeal's classical album of the week
Shibe’s new ‘emporium of curiosities’ interprets modern music, millennium-old melodies and Moondog, a composer who slept rough in New York dressed as a Viking

Erica Jeal

25, Aug, 2022 @2:00 PM