2018 Albums of the Year; 20–11.
20. Rivers of Nihil — Where Owls Know My Name
Fuck yeah, man. I saw the album cover for this record and didn’t expect much beyond what the standard bearing metal bands do. Lots of guitar solos and lots of weird pig sounds. I was loud wrong. I’m super judgemental overall when it comes to METAL, so maybe this is what metal sounds like now, but it seems smarter and more engaged in trying to become something more than a metal record within the genre. It takes so many steps in different directions while still bringing the double-bass, the shredding, the breakdowns and so forth. It never feels like they’re throwing stuff in to experiment with new ideas to see what happens, but instead are crafting a brand new functional mixed martial art. This is one of those records that transcends specificity of genre and not only begs to be experienced by those who are intrigued by the genre, but also placed before those who are cynics of it. Sure, there are still moments where the double bass sounds so fast that it feels like your teeth are going to be rattled out of their sockets. Sure there are howling and gnarly guitar galaxies being born. But with all of that in tact, there is still a generational evolution present that I believe will not only bring me personally closer into the genre to keep a keener eye on it, but I believe that all bands will strive to elevate their game to where these guys have brought it.
Check Out: Hollow
19. Emma Ruth Rundle — On Dark Horses
Dark Rock, Illuminated
I saw Marriages open up for… Cursive(? Maybe?) several years ago, right when they’d released their EP and got me really excited for what they were going to be doing to dominate the dark and brooding scene at the time. This is how I found out about Emma Ruth Rundle, and several years later, her record Marked For Death completely blew me away. She would be forever on my radar. Her work with Earth’s Dylan Carlson is one that further solidifies her mantle on my shelves. When this new record was announced, I had the date circled on a calendar and was very excited for the release. This record explores a very different emotional space, seeming to emerge from a writhing and clinging darkness to instead reveal a purified vessel through an alien neutrality. Instead of challenging and conflicting with the emotions and scenarios head on, trying to intimidate them or rend them directly, these songs feel far more contemplative. The sounds that Rundle manages to create with her instrument create an inner depth to the music that feels heavy like trenches and chasms in the ocean, ones that steal light and birth creatures shaped for reckoning, but she controls them, has them wrangled and tempered. There is a fury in the eyes but she has given the beast a saddle and she sits atop it as a calm master.
Check Out: Light Song
18. Royce da 5’9” — The Book of Ryan
This album for me is one best taken in doses. Similar to a film that has a singular act that is completely flawless, and one is simply the build up and the other a total comedown, there are quality tracks that exist before the heart of it as well as songs that close the record strongly. But for me, the personal story, the true Book of Ryan exists in some of the most introspective personal stories that Royce tells about the downfalls within his life and some devastating reality about his father, his brother and his life overall. The first fifteen minutes of tracks are strong, highlighted for me by Dumb. After this track, we hit a point where it sounds like Royce is interviewing his father, and from here on in, the tracks are pinpoint dissections of events of his life that have made him a better or worse man. Each track hits heavily home. Boblo Boat speaks of an amusement park close to Royce’s life with many milestones in his life coming to life there, while Cocaine is a track that illustrates a time when his father chose sobriety and his kids over addiction. Far from traditional rap content, this is an album that creeps its way in, much like a found journal. It’s not all going to be crazy heartache and massive events, but when the tale begins to get unfurled, you’re going to get as close to one’s humanity as is possible. Some of these events cast barbs deeply, sticking with you like some of the best episodes of television. Power breaking down some tragic events in the family household during Christmas (with a banging beat that you must not let overshine the narrative), Strong Friend which begs you to keep an eye on the friends around you that seem to need help the least, and Protecting Ryan a piece that shows a series of events that created a massive rift between he and his brother. I feel like this record transcends what the expectations are for a hip-hop album and far exceeds the standard. An absolutely beautiful gesture to himself and those around him, Royce makes a timeless record.
Check Out: Boblo Boat
17. LLNN — Deads
The Heaviest of Landscapes
So heavy and muddy and distorted. Deads is my introduction to LLNN and what a fantastic handshake these boys have given me. The creaking from rusted and forgotten tools in the heaving background and the slow nodding of the constant breakdown and patient china cymbals are exactly the marriage I want to attend. The aching of rowing punishment becomes the jacket you’re wearing through this tundra. The sizzle of wait between tones and crashes become true suspense, no matter how small the space. There are great separations here, namely in space and time in this record, and LLNN have done a wonderful job of giving you both the feeling of claustrophobia but also hulking empty nothingness in a grieving expanse. There’s a pain in the vocals, a reckoning sought, and the music that comes with it brings an armory. For what it’s worth, I really believe that this is some of the best heavy music that came out all year, but what really elevates it above so many other records from this year are the interesting atmospheres that have been created between and around the mayhem, swelling biodomes that seems to expand and wheeze like titan lungs.
Check Out: Parallels
16. Unknown Mortal Orchestra — Sex & Food
These songs have a Jamiroquai kind of vibe, very influenced by funk and disco in their structure, but played at a restrained clip. They float smoothly over the atmosphere, giving everything a smokey and dreamy buzz. It’s guitar forward, but not focused on solos and bombast, but atmosphere instead. The high pitched singing voice grants things an even more surreal kind of feeling, crooning crystal clear over these minimal musical parts, hooks grabbing you by the hand and guiding you deeper into a robust and welcoming dance floor. I feel like this is an alternate dimension Portugal. the Man, where instead of going down a more pop-influenced festival sized direction, they stripped down more and used the same powers to go a more folky route to end up at the same place. Different skill trees.
Check Out: Hunnybee
15. King Princess — Make My Bed
Short and sweet, this five track EP is brilliant from open to close. Smooth and sexy pop songs about chasing down love and examining it in the dawn post-coital light. In these songs we hear regret and we hear obsession and we hear lust, each in varying tiers of some of the most incredible and well-written hooks I’ve ever heard. The only drawback of this record is that it ends too quickly and there is just not enough of it. An absolutely genius record.
Check Out: Upper West Side
14. Jeff Tweedy — WARM
Man With His Guitar
This record is austere and broad, lap steel and guitar painting wide strokes to get lost in. Vocally, Tweedy slowly reveals himself to us. There is a reluctance in the delivery which feels more earnest than someone belting these experiences to us, and while the creative flourish is still in the writing, these words are earthen and direct, far more like a written letter than a penned memoir. There’s a personal hidden space that it feels like we’re getting a peek into, one that has a feeling of an impromptu set-up solo show instead of the full band. Eye contact lines like “We all think about dying, don’t let it kill ya” and “Suffering is the same for everyone” are offered like fatherly advice, little notes written on scraps of paper and left on a night table before heading out on a long trip. The way that some of these songs stretch out remind of parenthesized silences spent together with my parents in my middle age, and them in their older years, and all that has had to be said has been said, all the lessons learned, and now what’s left is to care for one another and make existence as peaceful and loving as possible, even if that means just being near one another. There is a deliberate sense to each slow pause, a hesitation that feels thoughtful and longing. Even the suddenly frazzled and turmoiled building fuzz in The Red Brick feels like pure emotion, one of cataclysmic internal hell that hits its boiling point and then gives up, returning to focused clarity. And in the end, the final track How Will I Find You does nothing by way of open lyricism or wild maned scrawling on tattered paper for words, but simply asks the question again and again. It paints for me a picture of the sense of afterlife, where there is nothing or there is something, and we will be longing to find that other, those others, those flames that kept us burning throughout our waking life. Who are we and who are they, and will we rejoin them once our time has come? This record feels like a warm and honest look at mortality, offering inquiry to Death delicately yet firmly, and fearlessly awaiting answers.
Check Out: How Hard It Is For a Desert to Die
13. Yo La Tengo — There’s a Riot Going On
Because I spent so much time in my life listening to scene and hardcore music, never went away to college, spend a lot of time in the car listening to alternative radio and not diving into blogs but rather listening to whatever Spotify algorithms and friend suggestions come my way, I knew about Yo La Tengo, but never knew what their sound was. I assumed they were another Ra Ra Riot type band, one with twelve distinctly catchy songs for relatively the same reason with 12 distinct hooks, one of them being primarily the repetitive syllables of a woman’s name. I was very wrong. This is an album that feels more like a muted tapestry, one built of slowly breathing fractals to let stare into you as you experience the pulse of a night. There’s a sense of vintage production, ancient fuzz carrying over many of the songs, the way that the snares can have that puffy sound instead of a modern snap, synthesizers have the rounded and buffered sound of a billion cables. I found the heart of this one a little later than its release date, somewhere closer to the summer months, and it was a perfect soundtrack to the outdoor heat under an umbrellic shade, a record for major reflection and introspection, a saltwater bath for the pressure you have to stop heaping on yourself. You can slip into deep breathing techniques almost by accident while this record is on, especially in the rolling middle of Dream Dream Away and Shortwave (and again later with What Chance Have I Got), songs that will gravity blanket you deep into your pineal gland’s nest.
Check Out: For You Too
12. Teenage Wrist — Chrome Neon Jesus
This album is great from front to back, guitars distorted and fuzzed like a record directly out of the 90s grunge and alternative scene. Vocals feel far more like a shoegaze delivery, with a driftier lilt over all of it. The cover of the record presents itself perfectly, a blue photograph in a drained pool, taken in the darkness, but illuminated with almost harsh spotlighting. There’s a forgotten sense to these songs, perfectly suited to the nostalgia that it instills. It’s very straight forward, but littered with strong hooks that seem to fall together effortlessly in brilliant ways. They never reveal a deeper urge to become a pop band or to reach a countdown. These are big songs that have a sonic immensity that can feel crushing at the right volume, but beautiful if you know how to properly navigate the surf. I love this heavy and sad record so much. This was one that as soon as I heard it, I went and picked up the vinyl, simply to get deeper into that analog fuzz they were crafting.
Check Out: Waitress
11. Lifted Bells — Minor Tantrums
Bob Nanna’s Modern Emo
Openly: Braid’s Frame & Canvas is one of the most important albums in my life. Somewhere up in that echelon is Hey Mercedes’ Everynight Fire Works. To say that Bob Nanna holds a special place in my musical life and library is a massive understatement. His signature style of stretched silky vocals are the soundtrack to many of my emotional meltdowns and his noodly and fractured guitar lines either are my favorite riffs or have inspired dozens of other bands to make their own, and interestingly enough, this band sort of embodies that exact sentiment as Nanna entrusts all guitar duties to a couple of other guys as he solely sings here. This is a record that’s beautifully produced, allowing each guitar twinkle to shine, showcasing the drum acrobatics perfectly. There’s an uplifting presence throughout this record, a positive feeling from track to track. When I think back to trying to answer questions about what kind of music was my favorite, and my most frequent answer would be Midwestern Emo, this sound is exactly what I was describing. Frenetic and explosive emotional outbursts on the cusp of a total breakdown, while still maintaining a sense of composure. Vocal delivery that felt suited for a small room, but with sentiment that felt like it could envelop the entire globe. There’s a comfort for me in this familiarity, knowing this voice, knowing the spider-webbing guitar parts are going to cascade and effervesce into magnificent blossoms. It feels like I’ve known this album my entire life and am just being reminded of some of the songs on the flip side of the record.
Check Out: Three Doves