As you might have guessed, it takes quite the metamorphosis away from “normalcy” to be driven to operate one of these ill-fated “blog” things, particularly so to man one all by yourself and do so for six full years and counting. And don’t even get me started about surviving Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars.
Anyway, I’m writing this on a cloudy, chill Sunday in mid-October in Terre Haute, and a funny thing happened to me this morning: it was like my LENS was gone, my insanity, my jaded, crusted exterior with which I look at the world was gone, and my version of truth was the same as everybody else’s. What’s more, it was GOOD… I liked it this way, although everything felt different. I could see in my mind the dual continuum – that initial, apparently impossible will to just accept everything and spread love, which usually dies in most people sometime around high school, and the other will to constantly discern, to constantly dissolve, to harbor Notorious B.I.G. as the benchmark of music and develop a post-mortem popularity craze for him which probably out-balloons his entire life-span… I see how everything was this and I stepped away from it and now I’m back in it, so what the heh.
But I thought about giving this stuff and just doing movies. I wanted to grasp people’s fantasies, which, perilously, might be those fantasies sold to us, which we gobble up by the hundreds, which we lap up for daunting hours at a time in dark theaters on beautiful, picturesque days, to get away from judgment, to get away from sanity, to get away from the mind, when all the while, every year, around this time, mother nature does it for us, we watch everything die and everything is beautiful once again.
Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath
Wharfer – The Road Dissolved the View
Say Sue Me – Where We Were Together
DEEP LEARNING – Soft Confidence
Muncie Girls – Fixed Ideals
Dead Waves – God of the Wild
Jeff Tweedy – WARM
Tomberlin – At Weddings
Dig Exotic – Act Two
Sinceready – Metaphorical
50 THE FUNS – ALIENATED
St. Louis duo THE FUNS just suffered through one of the hottest summers ever and they’re not too happy about it – luckily they sound like they were in the basement all year belting out this prog-sludge to whet any rockers appetite. Wrongly pegged as “punk” on Bandcamp, THE FUNS seem perfectly catered to this age when we have all this time on our hands and this music for free but can’t seem to buy a nice day of weather. Black Mountain and Band of Skulls are clear influences, Jessee Rose Crane’s vocals oozing onto the mix like a perfect female narcotic drapery.
49 Cloud Rat – Discography 2
WOW is this band exciting – a trio from Michigan bashing MONSTROUS, DEVASTATING grindpunk for an epic, endless album that you will never forget once you hear. Hell, the female singer even kind of looks like a witch, like she just got done waltzing through a dark cemetery and casting an evil spell on all of the poor, unwitting animals hanging around there. All in all, the way they fuse punk and metal is what sells it, bespeaking awesome technical skill, focus and most importantly, originality.
48 Chester Watson – Project O
As woozy and accidental-sounding as trap, Project O beckons tensely and cautiously forth with some hazy synth and some of the punchiest snare sound I’ve ever heard (think a muscled-up reincarnation of Shabazz Palaces). Apparently somebody named pharaoh levels the project off with its cold production and North Miami’s Chester Watson handles the bulk of the laid-back, laconic rapping which seems like the perfect sneer back at a neverendingly insulting world.
47 Windhand – Eternal Return
Sludge metal seems to be the gift that keeps on giving these days and Richmond, Virginia’s Windhand summoning up all the surliness of grunge with female vocalist Dorthia Cottrell. And if that LP sounds extra grungy it could be ’cause… da**… Jack Endino produced it, the guy behind the knobs for Nirvana’s Bleach. With these guys, anyway, the m.o. is nice and simple, but the vocals are haunting and the guitar solos as trenchant as anything you’ll hear this year.
46 Wye Oak – The Louder I Call, the Faster it Runs
I could see Baltimore’s Wye Oak being the house band at this record store TD’s in Bloomington, Indiana, a place that always seemed to offer esoteric gems and was a little friendlier than the other local hipster artists: they are obstinately creative and feverishly original, drawing influence from just about every genre in the history of American music and plotting it down with succinct rhythm for their certain brand of indie rock, which on the subtle, jazzy The Louder I Call, the Faster it Runs, plays as surprisingly refreshing and vigorous, considering particularly that it’s the year 2018.
45 MonoNeon – I Don’t Care Today (Angels & Demons in Lo-Fi)
What you have to say about MonoNeon, along with how it’s very “hip” music in terms of emulating the precocious LA jazz-hop of The Internet, Kendrick Lamar or Anderson .Paak, is that he’s willing to take the rules of writing a song and throw them out the window, leaning toward hilariously honest statements like “I Wish I Never Met You.” Judging by how crazy this guy is, I’m going to go out on a limb and say he trips on acid pretty regularly, but give him credit for, when the inspiration really hits, laying down some sharp beats and at least painting a candid picture of his dating situation… what he remembers of it, at least.
44 KEN Mode – Loved
I guess metal these days is just taking forever to do what you’re apparently trying to do and “hardcore” is like actually forming some sort of musical statement before the entire audience is hungry and has grown a five o’clock shadow. Either way, KEN Mode is from Winnipeg and boy did they wake up on the wrong side of the bed. What’s more, the music, which sort of resembles The Jesus Lizard with a death metal vocalist, has a sense of URGENCY – any two spatial swatches of these songs are bound to be very different from each other, the intricacy manifesting itself in just a closely juxtaposed multitudinous nature, not some artificial poignance or grandeur.
43 Yo La Tengo – There’s a Riot Going on
It seems like there should be such a thing as a “Yo La Tengo rule” when you’re compiling the sort of end-of-the-year accolade competition like I am now: here’s a band which basically singlehandedly pioneered indie rock at the upward arc of their thirty-year career, having in There’s a Riot Going on crafted ARGUABLY the best album of their career (I said “arguably”… don’t claw at my throat yet) and… I dunno how exactly to say this but the endeavor seems so SELF-MONITORING. It’s as if the band, while still putting on a clinic on how to write a song with unique chord progre nssion patterns and of course those sublime Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley vocals, still rein it in a little bit, still leave a little something in the studio, a little something up their sleeve. It’s as if they’ve gotten used to being the underdog, even mocking their own inability to be superstars in the video for “Sugarcube” off of 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (how ironic that at that point Matador was indeed in a position to MOCK inanely hit-seeking record labels).
42 Jeremiah Jae – Daffi
These BEATS! Ohmagawd! They’re like physical in a way I didn’t know that beats could be physical, eerie in a way that’s like Step Brothers or Pharoahe Monch, all the advancements of hip-hop you’d hitherto thought impossible, realms that are laid back laced with biting snare drums or overwhelming ambience that resembles a plane taking off, switching back and forth at any time. Like MF Doom, Jeremiah Jae seems to be an American black rapper by way of England, selecting though LA as his stomping grounds rather than New York (those two seem a little more popular than Detroit, these days). His Bandcamp picture shows him with a bunch of money bills slatted on his face, as if to maybe show how financial pursuit can be deadening to identity, almost like a muzzle, and indeed the intensity of his raps carry that sort of seen-it-all type sneer, as if he’s done hearing other people sugar coat it and just has to say it himself already.
41 Wooden Shjips – V.
At a certain point it becomes an endeavor of diminishing returns describing visceral, kinetic psych-rock in terms of its rudiments and sonic accomplishments in the shadow of just zooming out, and riffing on all of the bullsh** you hear these days. For one, the last publication I saw said that this band was from Portland. No, they’re from San Francisco. Get it right. Second, these guys are so consistent, on their fifth album now of guttural and rewarding classic rock, that they’re about a million light years from this gaggle of Johnny-come-latelies (check “The Velvet Doors,” who naturally came to my mind when I graced the Shjips’ influences of “The Velvet Underground and The Doors”), of which we’ve got a stench of this year on Facebook promo. This is a music lover’s band, guitarist Ripley Johnson also doing time in Moon Duo (which yes is from Portland and also awesome), the band generally giving the impression that they’d much rather be in the studio hammering those strings and skins than dealing with you consumer types, in any way, shape or form.
40 Erika Wennerstrom – Sweet Unknown
Austin, Texas singer and songwriter Erika Wennerstrom is a woman of extremes. The name of her former band is Heartless Bastards, a choice obviously well slathered in the most sardonic spirit of sarcasm in these times. She doesn’t so much sing, either, as she does predatorily HOWL these songs from atop her own mountaintop in her mind, and despite the jesting in her old band name, she doesn’t seem to know such a thing as “halfway” when it comes to the emotion she delivers on the microphone. Knowing all this, I was rooting for her, but hadn’t been TOO enthralled with any Heartless Bastards albums since 2012’s Arrow, uneasy to for the fact that she lifted the name “sweet unknown” from the lyrics of one of my favorite Bastards songs, “Could Be So Happy.” What’s uncanny to me about Sweet Unknown is how it replenishes the repertoire of rock and roll as a whole – the deliberate, haunting organic drum beat and the layers of sound that peel off like walls of light – without straying from the artist’s original m.o. in her old band too much. It’s as if, instead of trying to change, she’s telepathically reached back on to all of their instruments and delivered the exact purposeful, imagistic and glorious rock and roll album she wanted to the whole time. Highlights include “Extraordinary Love”; “Staring out the Window” and “Like a Bird.”
39 Brian Eno – Music for Installations
Strip away the star power. Kick out the unneeded cooks in the kitchen. Look around at the birds, the trees, your house, your own British pride, your sense of who you are and who you have been – that is the kind of album Music for Installations is, approximately the millionth album of career by pioneering ambient drone producer and English sound extraordinaire Brian Eno. Actually, given his fame as a producer and general hand-dirtier in the music industry, also penchant for collabos with the likes of David Byrne, this is regrettably his career STARTING point for me. Well, it’s an hour-plus of irregular, barely audible blips and found sounds, so I’m sure he’ll forgive me.
38 Liars – Titles with the Word Fountain (TFCF Deluxe Edition)
Good God, I love Liars… I love Angus Andrew as a vocalist, songwriter and general psychopathic visionary… anybody who has seen my playlists knows this. But if he one day commits a homicide I probably won’t be, like, face-meltingly shocked… let’s put it that way. Eh, here’s to resisting all the urges that make you wanna go out and kill, like Ween said. Titles with the Word Fountain outdoes last year’s TFCF in terms of darkness, tension and rhythm, as always being birthed by nothing else but Andrew’s own madness and tenacity.
37 Poppy Ackroyd – Resolve
Sort of like a thief in the night, CLASSICAL music (yes, classical) has infiltrated the Dolby Disaster world of this year, possibly owing to some decreased importance of the written, published word (affirmed by if nothing else by my own behavior, me a former English major). Well Brighton, UK’s Poppy Ayckroyd is “resolved,” no doubt, to breathe life back into all of us, and she does it here with a attention-span rewarding full of textural pianos and most importantly, the sorts of shifting moods which express both joy and darkness within selfsame tracks and almost simultaneously. Four Tet has abandoned his drum machine and really orchestrally trained himself on piano… or that’s how it sounds, at least.
36 April + Vista – You Are Here
Droll and chill ambient-wave on first listen, these songs by Washington DC’s April + Vista are marked apart for their fluid ease of metamorphosis, springing from loungey R&B to wigged out, tormented Autechre-style I.D.M. on a dime, then to captivate themselves in the pristine vocals once more which sort of remind me of a black, happier version of Bjork.
35 Big Twins – Grimey Life
See, what threw me off was the cover art, with its purples and yellows that made me so sure this was a California sunset we were looking at. It turns out this Big Twins (which to me just sounds like one rapper the whole time) came out of Queensbridge, which according to Wikipedia is “the largest public housing development in the Western Hemisphere.” Grimey Life is pure boom-bap and Big Twins really knows how to do it, giving props on Bandcamp to all the producers and emcees he works with, one of which is The Alchemist actually, but all the while really roasting all of them the whole time with his own verses, which nail fake emcees to the wall and just dare you to think you could walk a mile in his shoes.
34 Nostrum Grocers – Nostrum Grocers
The verbal showmanship is on full display here in New York’s Nostrum Grocers, who spit sharp bars over spare, almost ambient beats (how’s that for turning popular music on its head). It’s infectious hip-hop in the vein of Digable Planets or A Tribe Called Quest, with even less of an ear to the mainstream railway, content to leave things dark, gritty and ultimately unsettled, in hopes that it will actually soundtrack the lives of people living them better than a happy ending would.
33 MIKE – Black Soap
Although I’m having a hard time locating artist information on Bandcamp or Wikipedia, I do for some reason have a memory of listening to this album on Bandy (it’s also on Spotify), and encountering the information that the artist was from NYC (I believe Harlem). But then, MIKE apparently enjoys being esoteric. I mean, I have no idea why he chose to cloak his introductory track in two minutes of spoken-word, inscrutable African dialect, and then blend said track into his actual introductory MUSIC session, with no spaces between. Well, this bulbous intro and the fact that this “album” only has seven tracks in total speaks volumes of the artist’s impression that there’s less and less to say in hip-hop these days, but he seems to lay in these cuts like blood the whole way through, and he’s got this funny delivery that makes you know he’s honest and street, and yes, from New York, I think.
32 Dustin Wong – Fluid World Building 101 with Shaman Bambu
I was a Dustin Wong devotee for life after hearing 2012’s Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads, an awe-inspiring instrumental opus and overall clinic in looped guitar, so it would have taken a pretty big disappointment to get me off the bandwagon on this year’s Fluid World Building 101 with Shaman Bambu, a no less arduous title to transcribe as it were. Well, there’s no devolution into trap here, or guest appearance by Taylor Swift, so I think we’re good – just a whole bevy of busy, impeccably enmeshed and funky sounds, which, despite the apparent allusion to some “shaman” instrumental on this product, was all composed and recorded by Wong himself. Dustin Wong hails from Tokyo, Japan.
31 The Moondoggies – A Love Sleeps Deep
Bursting onto the scene this year in full force, getting the call for a KEXP (Seattle) in-studio performance and a set at multiple festivals around the country, The Moondoggies have made a 2018 name for themselves ironically by doing something fairly retro – belting out patient, Fleet Foxes and My Morning Jacket influenced folk rock. It’s another gang of scraggly-beard types who, despite the stereotypes and clichés, really have a patient hand for crafting a studio sound and putting it to work on an album here that always seems to gritty to be psychedelic and too celestial to be ordinary.
30 Hilary Woods – Colt
Somehow in ingesting all the hype over this new artist Hilary Woods, then hearing the otherworldly musical avenue she harvests on Colt with gentle piano and dark, soft vocal sentiment, it was lost on me the entire time that she hails from Dublin, Ireland. This is important and it isn’t, although Ireland itself is obviously a considerably “dark” place, both literally, with the weather, and sociologically, with how there are now twice as many Irish-Americans as there are people in Ireland, in total. Yet, this music is so quintessentially American, like if Lower Dens shed their electro-pop shtick and boiled things down to a St. Vincent piano-and-vox model. The longing continues.
29 S.H.I.T. – What Do You Stand for?/Complete S.H.I.T.
I couldn’t find much information on this hardcore punk gang of weirdos, other than that they’re from Toronto and they’re obviously fairly funny (what a band name)… the music itself sort of falls somewhere between early Bad Brains and Meat Puppets, utilizing what is probably by this point in their career (it looks like they’re at least half a decade old or so) pretty heady production and miking techniques for sort of that full punk sound all those ‘80s bands might have gone for but not achieved. Complete S.H.I.T. compiles their various EP’s from over the years and What Do You Stand for? is the LP from this year, even more ferocious than its predecessors, if you can believe it.
28 Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – Sparkle Hard
Without question, Stephen Malkmus, after that initial (apparently unofficial) promise that a tour with Billy Corgan or the full Pumpkins lineup was coming up, has retreated into separation from the limelight this year, since the May release of his band’s seventh album, Sparkle Hard. Well, amazingly, that is two more albums than Pavement put out their entire career, so you might say he’s a pro at handling these forays into the public eye, now sitting back and letting his music do the talking. What stands out to me as commendable on Sparkle Hard are the variety and sequencing – how the sublime, stately grace “Solid Silk” melts right into the direct rocker “Bike Lane,” which seems to once again indulge in Malkmus’ apparent weakness for enigmatic urban protagonists with good-ol’-boy names (see Real Emotional Trash’s trippy ruckus “Hopscotch Willie”).
27 Foxwarren – Foxwarren
Spontaneous combustion in music is usually a good thing, but Saskatchewan’s Foxwarren take the concept to an entirely new level all together — these songs implode not with sharp alterations of sound or volume but within disparate styles of indie rock, from the warm, organic guitar of lead “To Be” or the deliciously awkward post-punk devolution of “Everything apart,” the entire project seeming to wield the capability of yanking you by the neck through any cinematic lo-fi tapestry.
26 Still Corners – Slow Air
WHOA does lead singer Tessa Murray sound like Hope Sandoval here, and yes in a good way (not sure if there’s a bad way to sound like Hope Sandoval), as these songs creep along with a vaguely psychedelic gamut of background ooh-ooh’s and trippy guitar solos. London’s Still Corners another band that has been around for years but still sounds so embryonic, innocent and fresh, like the manifestation of their sixth album is and it being a career-defining statement only proves that this is exactly what they’re supposed to do.
25 Gazelle Twin – Pastoral
Yeah, I guess I was surprised to learn that UK’s Gazelle Twin was actually a girl, partly since the computer-modulated voice depicted in “Better in My Day” is apparently the deep, brusque timbre of a man (the song hilariously mimics some whiny old dude just repeating the words “It was much better in my day”, which we all know to be a common hoax). In the end, though, it makes sense with how dark and dense this stuff, purposeful like Ikonika (Sara Abdel-Hamid) or the relentless way the booming drums and bass attack each other with overlapping rapidity like Chicago’s also female Nmesh.
24 Komplex Kai – Still
Most people’s conception of Seattle is that it’s so “white,” full of Starbucks, flannel and fish markets, that it’s easy to forget that there is SOME rap history to the city even dating back concurrent with grunge, which would include among others Sir Mix-a-Lot and Ishmael Butler (Digable Planets/Shabazz Palaces). Like these cats, Komplex Kai raps as if nothing has really changed in the Emerald City since 1989 and WHOA are those beats phat, sometimes dipping their toes vaguely into rock/rap zoning, all the better for pre-workout or during-workout pump-up action, of course.
23 Method Man – Meth Lab Season 2: The Lithium
For some reason I just had a FEELING Method Man would drop something ferocious this year. Well, we shouldn’t be too surprised about getting some head-banging hip-hop in our stocking: N.E.R.D. after all put NO ONE EVER REALLY DIES, with Kendrick Lamar on us, last December 15, making you wonder why people do these lists so early. Method Man sounds great. That much isn’t surprising. What is is that he doesn’t lean on Redman like a security blanket, lassoing Snoop Dogg, Rae, Ghost and Street oh my… and then of course Redman, but not ’til later in the album. Also surprising are the decent skits which handle paying for studio time with food stamp money and U-God drinking too much, among other things.
22 Dirty Projectors – Lamp Lit Prose
Lamp Lit Prose is a quintessential Dirty Projectors album and that’s exactly why I like it – it’s full of effusive, verbose and busy funk-rock which fits the Big Apple they call home, but most importantly, it’s got the sort of ubiquitous conscience which keeps it from being the “love album” that Vinyl Me, Please dubbed it as, positioning it instead as an important centerpiece for humanity’s quest to glean purpose out of every day and develop a plausible “lifestyle,” even if it does involve turning everything on its head.
21 Part Time – Spell #6
I got wind of this project from Burger Records, which is typically a sort of lo-fi punk imprint out of So Cal, and I have to say the last thing I expected was this – a golden-lunged boy-wonder professing things like “I promise that you’ll never be alone” and “I can treat you better” all over loungy, romantic ’80s post-punk. Well, it’s better than The Cure, easily, and White Prince sort of reminds me of Huey Lewish, albeit perhaps too much of a “woman’s man,” similar to the Bee Gees, for that spot at the poker table. Anyway, Spell #6 is saved, or aided at least, by some great stylistic variety and some sax solos with attitude.
20 Lando Chill – Black Ego
I’ll be da**ed if I’d ever heard of this Lando Chill dude out of LA before this year but this album ended up being very much up to the hype, with eclectic, textural and jazzy beats by The Lasso and gritty but not pretentious street news on the mic. One thing you’ve got to like about him is that he’s just a wild dude, dreadlocked and prone to sort of a quirky delivery a little bit like Mystikal without the gimmick (and of course SOME of the personality but we’ll forgive him for that). Rapping abounds all over this project along with a couple singing numbers like “Peso” and “Dah Vapor.”
19 Various Artists – Sichten 1
Available on Bandcamp, Sichten 1 is a strange and wonderful LP of inherently rhythmic music ranging from underground rap to nervous IDM and back, great for putting on at work or during a stoned session of watching the snow fall… but good luck remembering all these artists! A couple of my favorites so far as the spooky jazz-rap of HPRIZM and the angular electronic madness of Pierce Warnecke.
18 bod – Limpid Fear
Spanning an eclectic array of temporally expansive influences like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Four Tet and Fu** Buttons, bod’s Limpid Fear is composed of two tracks, “Side A” and “Side B” on which percussion and languid, ambient melody criss cross in balanced upheaval to invite you into the LA drone scientist’s dark and patient world. One compelling thing about it, to me, is that at one point it seems like the PERCUSSION elements are all organic, triangle, xylophone and drums, and the programmed electronic parts – spliced snare, muffled kick, etc. – come in as a sort of extraneous adornment, like the work of a little musical Dennis the Menace messing the whole thing up and giving it some unique flair.
17 The Growlers – Casual Acquaintances
Considering the voice that Brooks Nielsen has, it wasn’t surprising to me to learn that this California band has been together for close to a decade, or that they have their own Wikipedia page, despite their, um, “cheap” sound. But those little MacBook drum beats almost make the perfect backdrop for Nielsen’s otherworldly, nasal croon which might call to mind Kevin Richard Parker of Tame Impala: it’s like, I can make a great album with THIS. And he did, it’s just that I, and everybody else, probably underestimated how much grit, sweat and playing to empty basements went into this, since this is still a small-fry Facebook-promoing outfit with no Bandcamp page.
16 Julia Holter – Aviary
I’ve been on this side the whole time, to be honest. I never left. You’ll hear a lot about this album from other sources: how it’s DEFIANTLY experimental, how it’s difficult, challenging, obtuse, and all that business, but given how gritty and bold Julia Holter has been her entire career, the hit-single pandering Have You in My Wilderness (which I hated) is the exception, and this collection of seven-minute songs where she often chirps like a bird on the microphone is the rule. One time on the IUSB campus this Pakistani dude was walking around chirping like a bird, on like the fifth day of summer break or so, a cool and cloudy day in mid May. I needed that worse than a hit single, easily.
15 Nubya Garcia – When We Are
I’m not sure if it’s just a coincidence or not that London’s Nubya Garcia, formerly of Nubya’s 5ive and now presiding over a lithe, nimble unnamed quartet, calls the saxophone her specialty just like the other most important jazz musician of this decade, Kamasi Washington. Either way, as with Mr. Washington she takes the genre and completely turns it on its side, to where when you first put it on what you primarily notice are the sheer sound waves and intensity of her artistic focus. This is mean, street-minded jazz for the 2020s with BITE.
14 Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo
El Paso’s Khruangbin have been busy this year – touring, doing any number of festivals and even compiling and documenting their own DJ set, an enterprise typically reserved for E.D.M. rats… so you might be surprised by just how RELAXING and lounge-worthy their peppery brand of funk-rock is. This is funk for the afterparty, when everybody’s stoned and the very CONCEPT of musical incompetence is the furthest thing from anybody’s mind. Con Todo El Mundo is the band’s second full album.
13 Gitkin – 5 Star Motel
To pigeonhole Gitkin as one-dimensional surf-rock would be about the furthest thing from right – this is forthright, West Coast veneer with a veritable plethora of tools at hand for deepening the listening experience, whether it’s sprinkling in some light rhythm guitar stabs in “Cancion del Rey,” laying down the bass funk which somehow scurries up to marry tempo, or just getting lower, and showing the howling texture of that guy’s guitar, which is featured in the bed next to him in the “5 star motel” on the album’s cover. Well, even if the operation going into this album might have been a little on the low-brow side, at least he’s got his baby there, and such a thing is in the eye of the beholder, anyway.
12 La Luz – Floating Features
In what might be the world’s first ever swatch of surf-heavy-metal, and surely the first of that piloted by all women, “Loose Teeth” has this melancholic, poignant vibe that almost slows things down into surf-grunge (which I can certainly enjoy, and which is appropriate since La Luz is a Seattle unit), these sirens like Shana Cleveland and Alice Sandahl capable of elevating this music into the heavens on vocals.
11 Joy Postell – Diaspora
Jesus, just coming across a vital, unifying diva who isn’t from LA once in a while is significant gratification in and of itself – Postell pipes in here for her first LP, a gargantuan slaughterhouse of soul, funk and rap, from the gritty Baltimore, and she’s road-worthy, hungry and mean, and most importantly black, setting you straight on “Consciousness” with references to Nina Simone and James Brown and the exclamation “I’m black and I’m proud / I’m black and I’m loud”. Perhaps envisioning distancing herself further geographically from the Charlottesville rednecks, she manifests a diaspora of sound waves into a musical sovereignty which draws Lauryn Hill as a key influences but comes across as more rhythmic, less poppy and predictable.
10 Spain v Spain – Get to Work
Right about now, the funk soul brothers are taking a very ironic visage, naming themselves “Spain V Spain” despite lodging in England, making these songs come to life with vibrant, weed-informed piano belied by the initial static digitality. The album is billed as a “diary of city life” on Bandcamp, so fittingly, there’s a bunch of people singing on it and I have no idea who they are.
9 IDLES – Joy as an Act of Resistance
It’s ironic to me that England’s IDLES are classified as “punk rock” and that they have these punk-type titles like “Brutalism” and “Joy as an Act of Resistance” because musically, this is like a punk Frankenstein – it takes the raw materials and morphs it into something infinitely more twisted, damaged, human, and most importantly, up-to-date, a finely sequenced amalgamation the whole time on the strength of a charismatic lead singer in Danny Nedelko (who yes is that obnoxious shirtless dude who kind of looks like the guy in Eagles of Death Metal). The grooves are infectious and throat-grabbing all the way through here but the mix is spooky and spatial, post-apocalyptic very much like Killing Joke’s ballsier career statements.
8 Eminem – Kamikaze
It’s funny how all of the Eminem album titles have a way of actually semantically representing the discursive innards (as well as the musical quality itself) of the components of the albums – there was the definitiveness, the finality, of the first two LP’s, the element of The Eminem Show still being very hubristic but also offering a more personal look into his life, Encore being thin, Relapse really sucking, this dude I work with being like “Oh yeah, Recovery is pretty good,” sort of like he was commenting on his uncle’s progress in AA or something, MMLP2 being as painful as most sequels are – Kamikaze really is like a dive bomb back into everything that made him great, from dissing, to fast flowing, to actually not sounding like he has Down’s Syndrome, and it came unexpectedly too… that’s right he’s moving really fast here like a suicide bomber plane and he even “got weird and grew a beard” (well he got weird like 10 years ago so I guess that was a giveaway)… and the beats are still on point by Dre, who still rocks his khakis with a crease, like all doctors should do.
7 Cat Power – Wanderer
Even more surprising than that Atlanta, Georgia’s Chan Marshall, morphing then at will into the superhero “Cat Power,” would release the best album of her career in 2018, is probably the fact that Matador REJECTED it upon hearing it, claiming its lack of radio playability. What is the world coming to? Ironically, the imprint that picked it up, Domino, isn’t really “indie” at all, like Matador is, having the parent company of Warner Bros. (the same conglomeration responsible for that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot fiasco, appropriately enough). It makes you wonder how good 2012’s Sun could have been with such evasion of interference (I don’t particularly care for that project all that much). Wanderer, ultimately, dapples canary-like croons all over celestial piano and acoustic guitars brought to daemonic life by skilled producer Rob Schnapf, but as always at the center is Cat Power’s ability to grip your heart with her lyrics and real-life experiences. “Horizon” might be the most beautiful love song I’ve ever heard… and it’s directed to another woman.
6 Low – Double Negative
It is a very interesting album Duluth, Minnesota’s Low have given us this year indeed, a project composed of sounds so punctiliously smashed and sequenced that it immediately obliterates your conception that they even know how to be conventional. The musical statements are original, purposeful and of undeniable distinction, raucous caterwauls giving way to lengthy drone sessions and tiny little raindrops of organic piano for a beautifully eclectic instrumentation. Basically everything is spooky and esoteric, all the better showcasing Mimi Parker’s voice on “Fly” which actually sounds sort of like a black R&B singer. There is no doubt: this stuff pipes in from a magical place.
5 Kind Habitat – At the Auction House
With the kinetic velocity of Interpol and the magnanimous vocal presence of The Shins, rock outfit Kind Habitat has pumped in this year some tense, ironic, uneasy and glorious rock and roll. It’s a little hard to find information about this unit — they don’t have a Bandcamp page and their Facebook isn’t much help, and I would message them and ask but musicians are always so heartbreakingly nice. And the madness of this album, belying such disposition, is written right there in “Bruxist”: “You seem ok / Now go away”, perfect for the dysfunctional family Christmas in all of us.
4 Armand Hammer – Paraffin
A nasty duo of billy woods and ELUCID which sounds a lot like Aesop Rock but just a little more patient and plotted, bringing beats that are just a little bit darker and shiftier, Armand Hammer make a dynamite pair to lead us into the 2020’s of hip-hop. If I had to guess, I’d say that billy woods were the arm, the more conscious of the two perhaps with a sharper penchant for chorus and a prouder career under his belt (last year’s excellent Known Unknowns and the Blockhead collabo of a few years back) and ELUCID the hammer, dropping crushers like “Your favorite rapper is a corporate shill / Who dresses like a banker in his spare time / Don’t you dare compare mine”. But my game ball still goes to Willie Green, without whose gritty but nervous production and mastering on Paraffin this album is largely just another underground vent-fest with no true psychedelic teeth. For any curious parties, a “paraffin” is apparently a complex, flammable mix of hydrocarbons used for coating candle wicks and other things. Armand Hammer’s Paraffin Bandcamp page offers a nice little bit of prose poetry explaining the group’s fixation on this ideal, sort of obviating their mission of exploding into something different and unexpected at any time, and really lighting you up.
3 Big Red Machine – Big Red Machine
It’s funny. I get to listening to so much music during the course of the year that it makes it hilariously easy to lose track of who’s behind the knobs of certain projects. Thanks to Bandcamp, an inordinate proportion of the tunes I take in are especially good, so that helps, but still, this Big Red Machine got lost in the shuffle big time in terms of who the artists were responsible for it, and even a second ago when I gave it another listen, I was like, yeah, this is probably another black electro artist like Actress or Sampha, albeit one with a synth tone so beautiful and reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Everything in its Right Place” that not to rank it number one almost seemed to be a crime. Then I even saw these two white dudes on the Big Red Machine Bandcamp page and figured, that’s gotta be a different band, especially seeing as they were classified as “alternative” (probably as a direct result of their race.. don’t doubt it). Then the truth came out, or so I thought: that Big Red Machine was based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin (surely some white-bread Dinosaur Jr. ripoff, or so I thought) and then the one I was showcasing hailed from across the country in Upper Hudson Valley, NY. So there it was: this Big Red Machine had the hip-hop sense I’d originally attached to it, the furthest thing from middle America possible. Well, it wasn’t that simple: as Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon turns in easily his best side project of his career here, as well as his best music at large since 2011’s Bon Iver, in tandem with Aaron Dessner who much to my barraged astonishment is like the mastermind behind most of the music of The National (who yes call New York their home), with Matt Berninger primarily handling the lyricism and singing. Anyway, they emerge here on an LP that rather carrying the bombastic self-importance you’d theoretically attach to such a supergroup, gushes forth with an especial sense of urgency and artistic inspiration, Justin Vernon’s voice sounding alight with emotion just like it did on For Emma, Forever Ago yet also more ragged and world-weary. He**, I thought he was black didn’t I? That should tell you something right there.
2 Kadhja Bonet – Childqueen
Fully steeped in American funk and soul from a rudimentary standpoint, Childqueen lunges out into a shocking tapestry of classical pop and R&B, beginning with the proud declaration that “Every morning brings the chance to renew” on album opener “Procession,” and then proceeding to balloon out into a manifestation of the very ideal of said renewal, potentiated into a truly rare musical creation. As I state in my review, the title track is beautifully Sufjan Stevens-inspired, barking out these little missives of vocal falsetto that play like an anthem for a beautiful progression of American music which is shockingly distinct and undeniable while also essentially lacking in anger. Everything is rhythmically complex, the whole way through, but tight, the string-heavy instrumentation making for a constantly fresh and invigorating soundscape. “Another Time Lover” plays as classic American funk but the vocals of Bonet (who dispatches to us from either LA or Richmond, California… she’s certainly pretty secretive in her social media practices), Bonet’s vocals though making things magically jazzy, to cement Childqueen as an undeniable hodgepodge of a furious array of American genres, and most importantly, making Childqueen really pump out as something purposeful and original, rather than the offspring of some style or genre coercion, which seems to rear its head all too often these days.
1 The Vaccines – Combat Sports
I couldn’t be more thrilled with this England band The Vaccines. It’s like BETTER than indie: it takes me back to my ’03-’04 days of going to see The Strokes and always finding some band opening for them that embodied this founding spirit of rock and roll. What makes it even better is that this hasn’t even really been DONE in the UK ever — the bands I’m thinking of are more like the Kings of Leon, The White Stripes, The Sounds and maybe the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to an extent, these guys then taking this energy and funneling it through a Gaslight Anthem directness for songs with sharp chord progressions full of sacrifice and elusive darkness. What’s really weird too is EVERYBODY on the Facebook feed dissed this band. People were spitting shameless bile and vitriol at them, not for any reason but just for saying that they “suck,” which sort of reminds me of how Chicagoans would despise The Smashing Pumpkins in their early days for no other reason than putting themselves in a high stature and belting out music that makes an undeniable impression, rather than being self-mocking or crowd-coddling, in any way. Well, let Combat Sports soundtrack your holidays when the Christmas music gets too much, that’s what I say: even if you have to diss them first for 11 months and then do it next Thanksgiving. And if you see people doing that, don’t look too surprised.