Review: “i am > i was” by 21 Savage

Popularized largely as the result of his work with producer Metro Boomin in the later part of the decade, 21 Savage is one of the Atlanta trap scene’s up and coming stars, and he comes out swinging for the fences on his December release.  This is a guy who wants to prove that he’s not just a fad or free loader riding on the capes of his contemporaries.  For the most part, his sophomore album i am > i was succeeds at this goal, solidifying him for the time being as one of the stronger members in the mainstream trap scene.

My favorite aspect of 21 Savage’s sound is his singular voice.  It’s hard, but also strangely soothing.  Unlike other comparable artists like Future or Travis Scott, he rarely employs auto-tune in his music, or he does so more sparingly; he sounds much more natural than most for the style of music that he makes.  He is cool and confident; he sounds streetwise, but above all real.  21 and his producers recognizes this strength and capitalizes on it.

Opening track “a lot” is the perfect intro and example of this.  It’s smooth and easy, with laid back beats and a melodic soul sample that carries the listener effortlessly into the record; it’s the type of song you would hear cruising with the top down on a breezy day.  Although the lyrics are stereotypically hip-hop (how much money you got / how much money you got / how much money you got) in a braggadocios sense, it’s not distracting because it’s not anything you wouldn’t expect.  If you’re listening to 21, you’re probably there because you like rap, and are used to these tropes.  The trend continues throughout the rest of the album, in the sense that the lyrics do not break into any new territory and sometimes border on cliché, but it’s ultimately okay because that’s not why anyone listens to 21 Savage anyway.

Where the record succeeds is in providing hot trap anthems to soundtrack your parties and car rides.  Taken at face value this may denote a weak album, but that’s not what I’m trying to say.  Sometimes you just want a solid album to have fun with and turn up to with your friends, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  i am > i was is just that.  It illustrates the growth of an artist over time in terms of providing a more fully developed image, which establishes him as a star to keep an eye on as his career develops.

Rating: 6.0 (Solid)

For info on how we score albums see Our Rating Scale

“Amity” by Nedarb reviewed by Ian Miller

Indie hip-hop icon Nedarb Nagrom is arguably one of the most influential people in the underground scene. Even if you don’t know the name, you’ve probably heard his music if you’ve ever opened the soundcloud app. Not only has he served as the producer of big-name artists such as Lil Peep, but he is also a member of emo hip-hop supergroup Misery Club, not to mention the cult-famous Goth Boi Clique. Ned has become somewhat of a tastemaker, breaking artists and connecting with people that have genuine star-power. Part of this comes from his love of hip-hop and emo culture, which shines through on his solo debut Amity.

Amity is a banger. The production doesn’t stray far from Ned’s usual sound, featuring pulsating 808s, plenty of lo-fi high hats, and dark synth textures that are the staple of most trap music. The first section of the album showcases Ned’s emo-rap style that he’s helped create. The songs feature many of his usual collaborators from the Goth Boi Clique crew and associates: Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, Lil Tracy, Horsehead, Mackned, and fellow Misery Club members Lil Zubin and Fantasy Camp among many others.

Album highlight “Feeling” (feat. Horse Head, Lil Lotus, and Jon Simmons) encapsulates the emo aspect of Ned’s sound very well. The track begins with a lo-fi guitar sample, calling to mind the pop-punk ballads of the mid-2000s. In comes Horse Head with a bubblegum pop-punk melody for the hook, almost fooling you into thinking you’re listening to a pop-punk record, but when Lil Lotus takes over the verse and the hi hats and drums kick in, you remember that it’s 2019 and not 2009. It sounds very punk (in a 2020s way), and hilariously emo.

Nedarb switches gears around the middle of the album, opting for a real rap sound. The juxtaposition is a tad bit jarring, but still works because of the similarity in the production choices. The guitar samples are absent, but the lo-fi beats and booming bass remain. I had never heard anything produced by Nedarb that fell outside of the emo-rap domain, and it was refreshing to hear him do something different, as on the track “2003” (feat. Big Baby Scumbag & Little Pain), dispelling all myths that Nedarb only makes music for sad white kids.

The greatest strength of Amity is the successful combination of emo and rap culture, which many have cringed at.  It is a sound that’s not for everyone. Prior to the 2010’s, the two scenes were often thought to be mutually exclusive. In the mainstream-eye, rap was for the tough and emo was for the sensitive. As someone who has taken a lot of inspiration from both subcultures, it is refreshing to see an artist who successfully resolves the two, showing that they can co-exist in a natural way, like two friends from different neighborhoods just hanging out.

What keeps the album from launching to the next category is its lack of musical diversity. Although it features both emo and rap songs, by the end of its 16 tracks, it can begin to feel a bit monotonous. If there had been a bit more variety, it might make the record more listenable to casual fans. However, this does not keep it from its biggest success: being a celebration of one end of the soundcloud universe from one of the people at the center of it. If anything, this release is further evidence that this brand of hip-hop is here to stay for the next few years.

Score: 7/10 (Stand Out)

For info on how we score albums see Our Rating Scale

Review: “You’re Gonna Miss Everything Cool and Die Angry” by Catholic Werewolves

FFO: Jeff Rosenstock, Joyce Manor, American Pleasure Club

It’s early January and those of us in the West are steeped in a holiday hangover. Just one week ago I was half a state away from home, surrounded by family and taking full advantage of any home-cooked meal I could get my hands on. Today I am back in Philadelphia, back to the 40-hour work week grind, and back to eating Wendy’s for lunch every day. With “normal” life once again in full swing it’s easy to romanticize the festivities of last week and blot out any of the frustrations that the holidays can also bring with them.

What are you doing with your life?” For many of us in our twenties that is the dreaded question, rivaled only by its usual follow up: “what are your plans for the future?” There is a prevailing unease that seems to pervade a large subset of our generation; a sense that we should probably be farther along than we are, a sense that we should be in different circumstances that seem unattainable, or for many of us who are “on the right path”, a sense that we should be happier with where we are. On their debut full-length You’re Gonna Miss Everything Cool and Die Angry, Davenport, Iowa punks Catholic Werewolves tap into this generational malaise effortlessly and effectively.

The album starts off with a patchwork of TV samples that capture the psychological environment of the prototypical “millennial burnout.” “What about YOUR goals?” “A bride suit…” “Another fatal police shooting…” “JACKASS!” “It’s yet another long series of diversions in order to avoid responsibility.” “And, uh… It doesn’t really matter. I uh… I don’t like my job and, uh… I don’t think I’m gonna go anywhere…” Before you can even piece together what’s happening the band roars in with the rousing sing along line “Hiding in your old pullover/ Not your friend, just a coworker.” It’s subtle alienation from line one; relational distance, the substitution of a cheap acquaintance where a friend should be. However, by the time the opening track reaches it’s mostly-sincere but sarcasm-tinged hook, “You’re far more than your circumstances/ Part-time job, or bad romances/ And certainly more than how your parents spin your/ Lifestyle in their Christmas letters” it’s clear that there’s more to be unpacked here than just another suburban punk record with vaguely Marxist undertones.

Where many similar albums slip either into full on “eat the rich” revolution mode or into despondent loserdom, YGMECADA lands where most people realistically are: wrestling with societal expectations that either seem unfulfillable or undesirable, trying to figure out what success means and what it’s worth, what makes life worth living and how you can pay the rent if your dead-end job is getting in the way of being a real human. Catholic Werewolves leave no stone unturned while exploring these themes, even calling into question their own anger and anti-establishment attitudes. This line of questioning culminates in one of the best lines on the album halfway through Tom Hanks: “It’s not the aesthetic of anti-capitalists/ Or the use of an anarchist plot-twist/ John Cusack has asked it/ Am I upset or/ Am I programmed by art that seems sympathetic?/ … (I am) Responsible for/ My love for my malaise.”

The immediate and easily relatable lyrics are accompanied by flurried, angry punk arrangements reminiscent of Jeff Rosenstock or early Joyce Manor, complete with frequent groove changes, melodic guitar hooks, and cathartic gang vocals. At least that’s the case on all of the tracks except the acoustic front-porch anthem Tuxedo T-shirt, which provides a brief respite from the energetic pace of the rest of the album. As a whole, the album also has a ton of replay value. For all of the grooves and shout along melodies packed into these eight songs, the full run time of the album barely tops the 15 minute marker, making it an easy listen and also leaving you hungry for more.

All that said YGMECADA does have a handful of detractors, mostly on the recording and production end. While completely listenable, the album as a whole lands just a hair more lo-fi than similar DIY punk records, which are as a rule already pretty lo-fi. The mix EQ skews a little heavy on the treble, not enough to be piercing, but enough to be noticeable. Beyond that, the performance, particularly on the vocals, is also a little shaky at points. Part of this matches and adds to the loose aesthetic of the songs, but there are several sections where the pitchiness of the vocals doesn’t come from a lack of ability, but just from a bad take on notes that the vocalist hits elsewhere on the record. With a little more attention to detail in the recording process this album would have shined even more than it already does, and it’s already a damn good record.

As it stands YGMECADA is a fun-packed and angst-filled banger, a promising debut from a young band that definitely has a lot of potential. In its niche, that little sliver of punk that isn’t fully emo or fully pop-punk but has the stronger elements of both, it stands out as one of the better recent full-lengths, combining the usual energy and catchiness of the genre with lyrics and self-awareness that are significantly more impressive. Hopefully this is only the start of what should be a very solid career, because I look forward to hearing what Catholic Werewolves become as their sound matures.

7.0/10 (Stand Out)

For more information on how we score albums, see: Our Rating Scale

“Lou Reed 2000” by Lee Scott Reviewed by Ian Miller

Hailing from Runcorn, England, rapper/producer Lee Scott’s new record Lou Reed 2000 is a lo-fi stinger. On early album highlight “TITLE TRACK,” Lee samples Lou Reed interview clips in which Lee answers the questions himself. “You seem very withdrawn . . .” says the interviewer, to which Lee disdainfully spits, “Cause I don’t like talking, I’m depressed / one-word answers, Lou Reed talking to the press.” This line might be laughable in the voice of a less mature rapper, but Lee’s deep, ghoulish sneer combined with the easy, hard-hitting beat make it sound like a threat. The track is underlined with jazz chords that call to mind King Krule, an aesthetic that is kept throughout the record’s concise 30 minute runtime. The message is here from the beginning: Lee is sad, but he’s also tough as nails.

Lou Reed 2000 is full of these types of punchlines. “ROCKET FUEL” finds Lee musing on the ins and outs of his day-to-day over a familiar beat while he sardonically raps, “Corner shop survivalist / fingering your pie n’ chips.” This sounds like a guy who wants to be taken seriously, who has his chops, but at the same time does not want to be taken too seriously. He plays the depressed thug character in a way that sounds authentic, but at the same time seems to imply that it is a character. Lee’s having fun on these tracks even when the lyrics would not necessarily suggest it.

The result is an extremely entertaining listen. “Something’s always got to give, and it’s usually me health / I’m in a league of my own, losing to myself,” closes off the final verse of “ROCKET FUEL,” while a dreary keyboard lead brings it to a close. It sounds like something you’d listen to on a rainy Saturday afternoon, considering going outside and doing something, but the sounds of the record make you want to stay in-doors, and that somehow makes you feel cool. It’s a very specific mood.

Speaking of which, mood is easily the biggest strength of the record. Sonically, it is consistent the whole way through without being repetitive, which is pretty remarkable given that most of the songs have a similar tempo and arrangement. Instead, it builds up the world around the listener, enveloping them in Lee’s (usually unpleasant) consciousness. Lines like, “They say everybody has a dream, well I don’t / I just wake up sometime mid-afternoon and think to meself I should get a scran in soon,” capture a sense of apathy (and maybe buried longing) that seems more rooted in blues and jazz traditions than the emo-rap of today. This is also supported by the chord choices and sparse vocal melodies that appear occasionally throughout the record. The blunt lyrics being contextualized in this sonic atmosphere adds to the authenticity of the message.

Lou Reed 2000 is a wonderfully immersive record that does not ask too much from its listeners. It’s possible to just enjoy this for the music alone and the sound of Lee’s voice, without needing to digest the lyrics. It is a versatile album that is perfect for listening on your own, or in the car with your friends on the way to Taco Bell at night. To anyone who is a fan of lo-fi or jazz rap, this is a record for you.

Rating: 6.8/10 (Solid)

EDIT: The original published version of this review included misquoted lyrics; this mistake has been corrected.

For info on how we score albums, see Our Rating Scale

Review: “I Carry My Awareness of Defeat Like a Banner of Victory” by “Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean”

Despite containing a wide variety of sub-genres each with their own flavors, themes, and playing styles, for many people Metal roughly translates to heavy music. While this is certainly a gross generalization, it is true that for a certain subset of metal bands the goal is unequivocally to make the heaviest, most brutally punishing music as they physically can. This is especially true in doom metal and sludge metal, where the often-frantic pace of the metal genre is slowed down to a menacing plod, trading in technicality for lower tunings and bludgeoning guitar riffs. Creating such oppressive sounds is no small feat. The best bands in these subgenres push the limits of heaviness daily, capable of creating an atmosphere so heavy that it is near suffocating. On their new EP I Carry My Awareness of Defeat Like a Banner of Victory, Springfield, Massachusetts band Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean do exactly that, exemplifying all of the best qualities of their native genre.

Titled after a line from Fernando Pessoa’s pseudo-autobiography The Book of DisquietI Carry My Awareness of Defeat Like a Banner of Victory carries, in a roundabout way, an almost positive message considering the extreme nihilism that birthed it. It wears disillusionment like a coat of arms, not knowing exactly for what reason, and knowing full well that time will bury it just the same as all other banners. But in a world that seems incoherent and meaningless, it is a banner nonetheless, a marker designating something in the endless desert of nothingness, the awareness of the void, the one true victory that the emptiness can offer. Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean mirror this bleak landscape through the EP, offering little comfort while exploring the open face of the abyss with their eyes wide and their confidence unflinching.

The instrumentals are equally as bleak and callous as the subject matter. Opening track I’ve Got a Gut Feeling plods along in a crushing down-tempo for nearly the first half of it’s 7 minute run time, before it explodes when you least expect it into a tom groove. It feels like the sonic equivalent of trying to run a marathon with cinder blocks tied to your legs; each riff seems to hit your body with physical force and drive it into the ground. The same can be said for the second track, With Every Wrist Outstretched, which grows slower and slower as it goes on, following the tortured screams of their vocalist as he leads the song into a dark spiral.

When they reach the third and last song, And Every Sword Unsheathed, Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean abandon the sheer, brute force approach and transition seamlessly into groovy sludge metal, providing a rare up-tempo shuffle on a riff reminiscent of sludge-metal kings High on Fire, though with a much colder production style. Here they pull out all the stops and show off a little, transitioning through groove changes, allowing the bass to lead the way in the verses, and even ending with a wah-heavy guitar solo. It’s a standout track from the relatively new band, and one that should garner them recognition as a solid up and comer.

I Carry My Awareness of Defeat Like a Banner of Victory as a whole should draw some attention to the Massachusetts newcomers. As far as doom and sludge metal goes, it is a very solid EP. Members of that niche corner of the metal community will find lots to like about it, though due to it’s incredibly niche nature it doesn’t have much outside appeal. This is the story of pretty much every band that plays the “how heavy can we possibly be” game, however: it makes for music that is situationally satisfying and enjoyable, but not music that many people can listen to the majority of the time. For what it is though, ICMAODLABOV is quite solid and certainly merits a listen from diehard fans of the genre.

6.7/10 (Solid)

For more information on our rating scale, see: Our Rating Scale

*On the Spotify version of the EP, the track titles and orders of the last two songs are flipped, the 5:05 track should be titled “And Every Sword Unsheathed” and should be track 3.

Metro Boomin – “NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES” Reviewed by Ian Miller

 

For those not in the know, Metro Boomin is one of the most in-demand producers in hip-hop music at the current moment.  He is behind many of the biggest trap hits of the past five-ish years, including Future’s “Mask Off,” “Bank Account” by 21 Savage, “Congratulations” by Post Malone, and Kodack Black’s “Tunnel Vision.”  His solo debut, NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES dropped a few months ago, in which he expands his sonic vision over the course of a full length record.

Although the album is wholly produced by Boomin, he does not lend a verse anywhere on the record.  The vocals are provided by the usual suspects; 21 Savage, Travis Scott, Young Thug, and Swae Lee (and others) all appear at various points throughout the album, giving it vocal variety and a collaborative feel that works mostly to its benefit.  Album opener “10AM/Save The World,” (with Gucci Mane) kicks things off slowly, with Boomin’s trademark dark production and cautionary beats.  Moody strings and piano chords set an ominous tone, and the gorgeous orchestra swells in the outro set an ominous and epic tone straight from the beginning.

This moody vibe continues for the next several tracks, as on the Travis Scott auto-tune crooner “Overdue,” and the dynamic “Don’t Come Out The House,” as 21 Savage alternates between a whispered and mono-tone delivery with his signature trap flow.  Elsewhere, Swae Lee provides melody, as everyone offers the usual swag-trap punchlines.

The strength and weakness of the record is how Metro Boomin uses the artists that he helped break into the mainstream to his benefit, bending them and contorting their voice to suit his needs.  At a run-time of 44 minutes, NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES does not overstay its welcome.  The songs often flow seamlessly into each other, giving it a cohesive feel.  Nowhere does it feel disjointed; it is clearly Boomin’s project.  He is the visionary behind the release, and his presence is felt strongly throughout.  The vocalists are simply along for the ride, and it’s fun to listen to what they bring to the table.  They are there to pay homage to Metro, giving him shout outs on several tracks.  It feels like a posse album similar in some ways to Kanye’s Cruel Summer (2012), which was a collaborative release from the artists on his label.  Everyone on here sounds like they’re having fun, and when the artist is having fun, the listener usually is too.

But, this is also what holds this record back from standing out over other mainstream trap releases in recent memory.  The features have a certain vapid quality to them, and while this is prevalent in a lot of trap music, it comes through in the fact that this is not their own record.  This album is a good example of what it’s trying to do, which is make a moody trap banger that exemplifies the sound that Metro Boomin has helped define.  If you’re in the mood for this sound it will hit the spot, but does little to merit listening in a different context.

Rating: 6.2/10 (It’s solid)

For info on our rating scale see https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/

The Top 25 Albums of 2018

Ranking albums is an inherently subjective task. When trying to evaluate the Top 25 Albums for 2018 I did my best to meet each album on its own terms, judging it by what it was trying to do more rather than an arbitrary quality such as authenticity. For each release on this list I tried to take into consideration the artist’s intent, my own emotional response, and the actual content of the piece, comprised of the writing, instrumentals, and cultural context. This is by no means an infallible list, for I am not an infallible man, but these are the 25 releases that stood out most to me this year.

 

  1. Bought to Rot – Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers (Punk/Alternative)

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The solo debut from Laura Jane Grace, best known as the frontwoman of Against Me!, is a great singer/songwriter album dressed up as a punk album. Here her usual cynical witticisms become the focal point, which when combined with crunchy distortion and a natural knack for writing immediately memorable choruses, make Bought to Rot everything you could want out of a first foray into solo music. It is gritty, honest, and as always, utterly unapologetic, another exciting joy ride from the mind of Laura Jane Grace.

  1. WARM – Jeff Tweedy (Singer/Songwriter)

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Over the last few Wilco albums Jeff Tweedy and his unique brand of obtuse lyricism has largely been contained and overshadowed by experimental sounds, courtesy of Nels Cline, and a-typical song structures. On WARM Tweedy forsakes those tendencies for more straight-forward folk-rock songs led by his trusty acoustic guitar and some of the most direct lines he’s written since his days in Uncle Tupelo. The result is something entirely different from Wilco, but still undeniably Tweedy; a vulnerable, introspective album that is sonically peaceful and musically intricate even in its sparse arrangement.

  1. It’s Hard to Have Hope – Svalbard (Metal, Post-Hardcore)

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It’s Hard to Have Hope combines the driving power of post-hardcore with elements of cinematic post-rock and melodic metal tendencies, creating an album that feels earnest, emotional, and convincingly important.  Where the standard formula in much of the post-hardcore world is to swing for the chorus and then descend into fight riffs, Svalbard’s songs seem to be continually ascending, more concerned with creating gargantuan crescendos with layer after layer of guitar than creating bone-crushing riffs. This strategy pays off, making It’s Hard to Have Hope one of the most interesting albums to come out of its genre in a while.

  1. God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty (Indie-Folk, Folk-Rock)

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Four albums deep under the stage name Father John Misty, Josh Tillman has permanently carved his name into the upper echelon of this decade’s songwriters. God’s Favorite Customer is yet another spectacular release from the prolific writer, complete with his signature lush soundscape and immediately recognizable writing voice, beginning on the very first track, revolving around a classic Tillman line: “What’s your politics / what’s your religion / what’s your intake / your reason for living.”Comparative to his prior releases, God’s Favorite Customer finds Tillman at his catchiest and arguably most accessible, though he doesn’t shy away from any of the snide, nihilistic tendencies that made him famous in order to get there.

  1. Joy as an Act of Resistance – IDLES (Punk, Post-Punk)

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With possibly the best album name of 2018, the sophomore LP from English band IDLES is a diverse, exciting listen start to finish. After the opening track Colossus one might think the album would be an ominous, quasi-industrial onslaught, but what follows is instead largely a fun, irreverent, energetic punk album about self-love and communal unity. Joy as an Act of Resistance is perhaps the most aggressively wholesome album ever recorded, filled with lines like, “If someone talked to you like you do to you, I’d put their teeth through”, “I’m a real boy, boy and I cry”, and “Islam didn’t eat your hamster / Change isn’t a crime.”As such the seemingly paradoxical title is actual the most apt description of this album: it’s the most badass album about joy you’ll ever hear.

  1. Bark Your Head Off, Dog – Hop Along (Indie Rock, Alternative)

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Hop Along have been a staple indie-rock critical darling for the better part of the decade for good reason. Along with one of the most unique voices in indie, Frances Quinlan is one of the best lyrical storytellers of her generation, and if this was ever in doubt, Bark Your Head Off, Dog should seal the deal. Here Hop Along are on top of their game, pulling stories from as disparate sources as World War I, Cain and Abel, and a drunk man yelling at the bar, all written in that trademark conversational style that makes you feel like you’re hearing them in the living room of a distant relative. Bark Your Head Off, Dog also finds Hop Along at their most easily accessible, an area they have not always excelled in, with more refrains and repeating melodies that act as touchstones allowing the listener to track with the song narratives more easily.

  1. POST- – Jeff Rosenstock (Punk)

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POST- is the closest thing to the political album that most punks were looking for in the wake of the 2016 American elections, Brexit, and the growing unrest across Western culture as a whole. Jeff Rosenstock is clear, poignant, and angsty as always on his newest release, bookending it with two monolithic tracks USA and Let Them Win that respectively delve into cultural decay and offer a triumphal resistance cry. Though not quite as experimental as his previous release Worry, Post-still has everything we’ve come to expect from Rosenstock over his illustrious career across several bands: energy, angst, cathartic shout-along choruses, and sharp social commentary.

  1. Heaven and Earth – Kamasi Washington (Jazz)

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On his latest odyssey, the double album Heaven and Earth (which is actually shorter than his last release, believe it or not), Kamasi Washington explores the dynamic between the terrestrial and the celestial. Heaven and Earth is a 2.5 hour epic split into two eight song halves, the first of which is about the world around Washington and features darker tones, African and Latin rhythms, and a re-imagining of the Bruce Lee theme Fists of Fury; and the second of which is about the more esoteric and spiritual world Washington sees inside himself. On this half Washington changes gears on a dime to transcendent sounding brighter tones, building movements, and at times borderline classical arrangements.

  1. Kiss Ur Frenemies – Illuminati Hotties (Indie Rock, Alternative)

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The “quirky indie sound” has been done a lot of times in the past ten years, so often that it has almost become a cliché, but Illuminati Hotties manage to breathe life into the genre with their dynamic new album Kiss Ur Frenemies. Where similar bands are content to ride the tropes, bubbly melodies, fuzzed out beach guitar, and simple up-beat drumming with charmingly dorky lyrics that more or less fetishize Portlandia culture, Illuminati Hotties instead utilize the same sonic palette to create an album that feels real and grounded. There is a lot of very poignant vulnerability in Kiss Ur Frenemies and a lot of musical diversity for a sound that is often very one-dimensional. It is an album that swings between melancholy and bubbly without feeling manic, encapsulating a wide range of emotions that all land effectively.

  1. Historian – Lucy Dacus (Singer/Songwriter, Alternative)

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Fresh off her first release and first critical success only two years ago, Richmond, Virginia singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus returns with a vengeance with another fantastic album, Historian. Her newest release covers a lot of emotional ground in only ten songs, chronicling failed relationships, her participation in the Baltimore protests, the life and death of her grandmother, and the unstoppable march of time. On every song Dacus is an open book, spilling her feelings and telling personal stories artfully and relatably. On top of her impressive lyricism, Historian is also an impressive instrumental album, trading in the simple acoustic chords common for singer/songwriter-types for distorted riffs and shredding guitar solos, swelling in and out between sparse arrangements and all out rock songs that keep the listener always on his/her toes.

  1. Shrine – The Republic of Wolves (Emo, Post-Hardcore)

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On their second proper LP, The Republic of Wolves find themselves filling the shoes of the recently departed Brand New. Shrine is an existential concept album based loosely on Japanese folklore, telling the story of a man who loses his soul to a mountain deity. This narrative, though perceptible across the album, is largely a conduit to explore questions about what it means to have or not have a soul, to slip in and out of a supernatural view of man and self, and the loss and re-framing of purpose as faith collapses. The struggle with these themes across the album is visceral and at times frantic, making Shrine the rare album to make themes this heady feel direct and personal.

  1. All At Once – Screaming Females (Rock, Alternative)

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In age where rock revival is led largely by bands that are more top 40 pop than rock or bands directly derivative of the era they’re evoking (I’m looking at you Greta Van Fleet), Screaming Females stand apart by just being a damn good rock band without pandering to trends or worshipping at the altar of their forefathers. All At Onceis loaded with driving beats, sludge-punk guitar tones, and high-flying solos the likes of which we haven’t heard since The Sword and Wolfmother, but in a package that finally avoids feeling rehashed like most attempts since the year 2000 to do exactly this. If you’re looking for nearly an hour of pure, unadulterated guitar music that will make you throw up your devil horns in salute, then look no further, because in 2018 Screaming Females have finally done it.

  1. Late Stage Capitalism – Jeremy Messersmith (Pop-Folk, Singer-Songwriter)

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Jeremy Messersmith’s new album Late Stage Capitalism was almost one of my picks for most underrated album this year and it is filled with snarky, cynical sing-alongs reminiscent of Father John Misty, but a little hookier and dare I say a little less pretentious. Overall it is a joyfully sarcastic album dissecting the current American cultural moment, presenting a scathing indictment of capitalism, the large-scale rape of the planet for profit, and the rampant fear of commitment in one the most connected societies of all time. All of this is done with a snide smile rather than an angry yell, flipping the bird to first world problems with songs you can’t help but bob your head to.

  1. Lush – Snail Mail (Singer/Songwriter, Indie-Rock)

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The debut LP from Snail Mail lives up to its name, immersing the listener in a lush soundscape of reverb-heavy guitars and synth-pads while singer Lindsey Jordan laments breakups with dreamy hook after dreamy hook. Lush is easily one of the catchiest albums released in 2018. It is also one of the most immediate and relatable, one that most anyone could enjoy on the very first listen regardless of their listening habits.

  1. TA1300 – Denzel Curry (Hip-Hop, Soundcloud Rap)

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Though he’s sometimes credited as the original progenitor of Soundcloud Rap, it’s hard to capture Denzel Curry’s creativity with any one label. You could call his ambitious new album TA1300 “Soundcloud Rap”, but it would hardly do justice to what is a diverse three-part odyssey with sounds all over the spectrum. Each section of the album grows progressively darker both lyrically and sonically as it goes on, making it feel like a descent into madness, a descent that is heightened by Curry’s incredibly dynamic voice that ranges from the sort of sing-song trap style that his genre is known for to a harsh, emphatic bark reminiscent of DMX. Likewise his lyricism ranges from simple and repetitive to long-form, complex bars, showcasing one of his greatest strengths: knowing when a few words will do the trick and knowing when to spell it out for you.

  1. Negro Swan – Blood Orange (RnB, Funk)

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Negro Swan is easily one of the most ambitious albums of 2018. Devonte Hynes’s newest release under his pseudonym Blood Orange is 16 tracks of conceptual RnB complete with spoken interludes dissecting themes such as self-worth and family. The songs cover a wide spectrum, utilizing various keys and synths, woodwinds, horns, and the occasional detuned guitar. Tying all of these together is Hynes’ smooth, expressive voice and expansive layers of harmonies, sometimes vibrant, sometimes haunting. The result is a probingly reflective album about finding yourself, contextualized with arrangements suited for long drives through empty cities at night.

  1. Ordinary, Corrupt Human Love – Deafheaven (Black Metal, Blackgaze)

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Black metal isn’t usually known for being emotionally malleable, usually limited to harsh, cold tones, but Deafheaven’s epic Ordinary, Corrupt Human Love is packed with so many different emotions over the course of its hour long run time that it feels like you’ve lived an entire life by the time you’ve finished it. Their brand of black metal meets shoegaze, dubbed by some “blackgaze”, first thrust them into the critical limelight in 2013 with Sunbather, and Ordinary, Corrupt Human Love is a beautiful expansion on the sounds and themes they began exploring back then. On this album Deafheaven is at their most cinematic, incorporating jazz piano, clean vocals, and various other styles into their signature huge sound.

  1. Soil – serpentwithfeet (RnB, Soul)

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The term “rock opera” was used in the 60s and 70s to describe narrative driven rock albums with a flair for bombastic or theatrical choices. Soil is to RnB what a rock opera would be to rock n’ roll, a narrative driven album with theatrical undertones, including an ensemble of vocal harmonies that provide the majority of the dynamic momentum on the album, much like the ensemble in a classic, Greek play. It’s unlike anything that I have ever heard before, mysterious and vaguely mythical despite it’s very modern and far from supernatural context. Listening to it is almost more like watching a movie than it is listening to an album.

  1. You Won’t Get What You Want – Daughters (Metal, Noise)

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You Won’t Get What You Want is one the most impressive and also one of the most unlistenable pieces of art that I have ever heard. It’s blend of heavy dissonant, distorted guitars and industrial sounds is so harsh and aggressive that it almost engages a fight or flight response when I hear it. This oppressive palette is juxtaposed with lyrics that read like 60s beat poems, incredibly articulate pointed pieces that make American, suburban life seem like a grotesque horror-scape. It is one of those rare pieces that I can’t exactly say I enjoyed, but I was so fascinated by it that I continually kept coming back to it nonetheless. Often times music this harsh is ill-thought out and played more for shock than anything, but You Won’t Get What You Want is brilliant in its intentionality, and as a result the most haunting piece of music of the decade so far.

  1. Extralife – Darlingside (Folk)

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On Extralife, a cryptic concept album about a post-apocalyptic future, Darlingside create a soundscape that is lush and vibrant, thanks in part to the beautiful melding of acoustic guitar, strings, woodwinds, and subtle electronic drones. However, while the arrangements are stunning, what really seals the deal are the near constant four part vocal harmonies that could make even Simon and Garfunkel jealous. When combined, these two elements create a feel that is much more Narnia than Mad Max. It is at once filled with immediate beauty and distant longing, the kind of album that one can appreciate equally when feeling sad or feeling happy. Armageddon never sounded so beautiful.

  1. On Watch – Slow Mass (Indie-Punk, Post-Hardcore)

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Slow Mass’s debut LP is a clinic on album composition, swinging between frenetic hardcore punk and beautifully sparse art-punk while touching on every sound in between. Alongside the ever-changing, constantly metamorphosizing music, the lyrics help create an album that seems to have it’s finger on something real, but intangible; everyday, but mysterious; pretty out there, but still grounded somewhere. It is the kind of album that is both mechanically innovative, but also emotive and thoughtful; an album that is unapologetically artsy without feeling overly self-indulgent.

  1. Lavender – Half Waif (Synth Pop, Alternative)

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In an age where female songwriters are finally starting to get the credit they deserve alongside their male counterparts, Nandi Rose Plunkett is still one of the most underrated songwriters of the 2010s. Filled with images inspired by her grandmother, Plunkett’s (Half Waif’s) latest offering, Lavender, is an elegy to time and mortality dealing with growth and collapse, self and place, and isolation and community. After several promising releases it seems that Half Waif has finally hit her/their stride. Her lyrics have never been more powerful, her arrangements never more tasteful, and her song composition has never been so on point. With this release Plunkett has absolutely made her case to be considered in the upper echelon of alternative singer/songwriters, right up with the Boygenius trio of Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, and Phoebe Bridgers as true master songwriters.

  1. A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships – The 1975 (Pop Rock, Art Pop)

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A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships was the most surprising release of 2018 for me by a large margin. I have never been a huge fan of The 1975’s blend of pop rock and 80s nostalgia, and despite rave reviews from my friends who were fans I didn’t go into this album expecting anything more than a solid pop rock record. I couldn’t have been more far off. Instead ABIIOR toys with Justin Vernon-style freak folk, jazz reminiscent of John Coltrane, 90s RnB, Oasis-inspired stadium rock, and various kinds of art pop. I expected another album about casual relationships and depression. Instead ABIIOR is the 2018 equivalent to Radiohead’s OK Computer, even directly referencing the classic robot monologue Fitter Happier off that album. It is perhaps the album most in touch with the Western macro-culture this year, relatable, relevant, and even a little frightening.

  1. Room 25 – Noname (Hip-Hop)

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For all intents and purposes Room 25 is statistically tied for the best album of 2018 for me. Chicago’s Noname is one of the most unique and refreshing voices in Hip-Hop, hyper-literate and incredibly self-aware, her lyrics are easily the most impressive of the year and cover everything from dealing with her growing influence, to the exploitation of black Americans, to her position as a woman in hip-hop. Her voice and flow are both immediately recognizable. Where most rappers either aim for relaxed or intense, Noname manages to keep her flow almost conversational, bordering on spoken word, but fitting her incredibly verbose lines tightly over the beat. Most of the backing music is also done with a full live band with dreamy string arrangements, horns, keys, pads, and jazz-influenced drumming reminiscent of Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiments, which she was famously involved in. Room 25 is an absolute must-hear album regardless of your listening habits.

     1. Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It – Rolo Tomassi (Metal, Blackened-Hardcore)

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I gave Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It the edge over Room 25 because while I think Room 25 is for sure a top five hip-hop album of the decade, Rolo Tomassi’s critical breakthrough is easily the best metal album since Mastodon’s 2009 prog-metal epic Crack the Skye. Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It is an album of gargantuan scope, dealing with the imminence of death and growth through love in the present. Musically it is immediately impressive and impossible to categorize, so rather than pointlessly try to fit it into genre boxes I’ll try to meet it on its own terms. Every song carries itself with the weight (and often the length) of an album closer, each grandiose in its own way and leading effortlessly into the next. Some, like A Flood of Light or Contretemps are cinematic to the point of rivaling cinematic-metal kings Deafheaven, others like Aftermath and Risen hardly seem to be metal songs at all, with the former more akin to shoegaze and the latter more akin to Julien Baker. But unlike most metal albums that dip this far into cinematic and experimental territories, TWDALWBI is also unashamedly heavy when it needs to be, like on Alma Mater, Whispers Among Us, and Rituals. Here Rolo Tomassi show that they are not only talented experimentalists, but also masters of their native genre, nailing the perfect sweet spot of being unfathomably heavy without ever overdoing it and becoming comical. The result is a somewhat esoteric album with the rare instrumentals that can actually carry and contain such heady themes and make them feel every bit as real and important as they are. It truly is a masterful album and one that never gets old. Each consecutive listen reveals new discoveries and rewards the listener in new ways. This is why it is the number one album of 2018.

 

Notes and Special Mentions

I chose not to include Boygenius on this list since it was an EP and not an LP, but it was one of my favorite releases of the year. I also chose to leave out Pinegrove due to the controversy and complicated circumstances surrounding the album. I’d like to give a special nod to Care For Me by Saba which would have made this list if I had heard it before I started writing, and also to Errorzone by Vein which just missed the cut but is a great record nonetheless.