Ian’s Top 25 Albums of 2018

Trying to make end of the year lists is an inherently subjective task.  Here at Not a Sound we are committed to reviewing albums based upon how well they accomplished what they set out to do given their audience, genre, and vision.  That makes ranking albums across genres and cultures difficult in many ways, because it is impossible to review Mark Kozelek and A$AP Rocky in the same way, or compare Ariana Grande to Deafheaven.  At the end of the day, our favorite records are the ones that stuck with us the most, not only in terms of technical prowess, but in terms of an emotional and personal connection.  So don’t take this list personally if your favorite record didn’t make it on here; this is simply the music that defined 2018 for me.  Just because your favorite artists aren’t on here doesn’t mean I think they’re bad.

25 – How To Fix Everything by Fantasy Camp

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Emo-rap singer and producer Fantasy Camp did a lot this year. He produced songs for other artists, helped form Misery Club, and released two of his own Eps.  The second of which, How To Fix Everything, is huge leap from the first, demonstrating crisp, focused instrumentals and pristine vocals.  As emo-rap continues to develop, it is clear that Fantasy Camp will be one of the artists at the helm.

24 – Historian by Lucy Dacus

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I have to admit that I was one of the people who only found out about Lucy Dacus when the boygenius project was announced.  After listening to her latest album Historian, I understand the hype that she has received from critics this year.  The record is a perfect example of well written indie-rock, brimming with poise and sincerity.  The best example of this is the track “Night Shift,” which characterizes her voice, lyrical style, and arrangement very well in its two part structure.

23 – TESTING by A$AP Rocky

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A$AP Rocky has had a difficult time living up to the hype that he and the media have built around him since his breakout in the early part of the decade.  Testing is no masterpiece, but I enjoyed all the weird detours and experiments he takes you on over the course of the record.  It doesn’t flow perfectly, but it’s a fun, truly odd listen that was definitely a soundtrack to my summer.  “A$AP Forever REMIX” is one of those songs that you gotta turn up to with the homies every once in a while.  It just is.

22 – Corinthiax by Wicca Phase Springs Eternal

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On this EP, Wicca Phase cleaned up his sound, and released a polished effort that is easily the most likeable and accessible work he has created yet.  The EP loosely follows the theme of seeking after “Corinthiax” – “A dark manifestation of a love that I was given by the hollow moon.”  It’s a dark, quirky listen that is an acquired taste, but one that I have learned to love given the right mood.

21 – Nasir by Nas

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One of the five albums to come out of Kanye’s Wyoming sessions, Nasir lacks some of the focus of the other five, but is still a phenomenal listen.  Kanye’s beats and Nas’ lyrics and delivery are a match made in heaven, and the album is crowded with great samples.  The album drops off a bit at the end, but the beginning warrants a spot for me on this list.  Also the song Simple Things might be one of the catchiest hip-hop tracks of the year.

20 – East Atlanta Love Letter by 6LACK

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6LACK is the artist that I always hoped Drake would be.  Unlike Drake’s bloated Scorpion, East Atlanta Love Letter is concise, and while it shares a similar moody hip-hop/modern RnB style to Drake, 6LACK sounds way more convincing than Drake ever has.  On album highlight “Scripture,” he raps, “I’m and RnB n— with a hip-hop core” and you believe him.

19 – DAYTONA by Pusha T

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On the first Kanye-produced project to arrive this summer, the president of G.O.O.D. MUSIC label made a scorching comeback.  This is a nearly perfectly constructed album – Push’s delivery is intense, sadistic, and snarky as ever before.  He spits bar after bar over Kanye’s beats and sampling, which are expertly crafted and chosen to fit the moment.  This is a daring, experimental, and daunting example of what gangster-rap looks like in 2018.

18 – CARE FOR ME by Saba

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The Chicago-native Saba wrote some of the most heartbreaking bars of 2018.  Much of the album deals with the loss of a loved one, and the aftermath.  On opening track “BUSY / SIRENS” he disdainfully and heartbrokenly raps, “Jesus got killed for our sins, Walter got killed for a coat / I’m tryna cope, but it’s a part of me gone / in this packed room I’m alone.”

17 – 7 by Beach House

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Beach House is one of those bands that I’ve always flirted with, never fully committing to calling myself true “fan,” but this album may have won me over.  I was swinging at the park up the street from my parent’s listening to it this summer when the song “Woo” came on.  The gorgeous synths, electro beats, and airy vocals singing “I want it all, but I can’t I can’t have it” made me feel like I was in a dream.

16 – Lush by Snail Mail

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A friend recommended this to me quite recently, and while I haven’t had the chance to get close to it, Lush is a strong example of what an indie rock album should sound like to me.  It is full of tightly constructed songs, passionate lyrics, and earwormy melodies that stick with you when you’re done.  Jordan’s vocals are emotional without overdoing it.  This album is one that I will return to in 2019.

15 – Sweetener by Ariana Grande

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I guess you could say I’ve been an Ariana stan (no that’s not a typo) for a while, and this album helped validate this title for me.  While her excellent debut Yours Truly was a great 90’s throwback record, and her subsequent releases yielded massive hits, it did not feel as though she had a truly unique voice in the pop sphere.  On this album she seems to have finally found it.  It’s a massive, girly, sincere, and fun album that pulls out all the stops.  This record proves that trap is the new pop, as many of her songs are oriented around trap influenced beats, while still maintaining the RnB-diva aesthetic of her previous work.  As far as pop music goes, this is as 2018 as it gets.

14 – Tha Carter V by Lil Wayne

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Wayne’s long delayed, incredibly hyped fifth Carter installment finally came this year.  For an album that he had begun working on years ago, this record sounds surprisingly modern.  Of course, in many ways it is nostalgic as all get out in terms of the lyrics and some of the beats, but it does not disappoint.  It felt like a return-to-form for Wayne, a resurrection of the master MC of ten years ago, with fast bars on top of fast bars, and punchline after punchline.  Where Wayne shines the most however is in his introspection as a veteran of the scene, as in the delightful and melodic “Mess.”

13 – Some Rap Songs by Earl Sweatshirt

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Odd Future alum Earl Sweatshirt was another popular rapper who made his return this year on the psychedelic, jazz influenced hodge-podge that is Some Rap Songs.  Earl has always been introspective, but he takes it to a new level on this release, reflecting upon the loss of his father.  He successfully ages from the angsty punk we knew from his early career to a reflective, wise adult who is on the verge of a spiritual awakening.

12 – Mark Kozelek by Mark Kozelek

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These days there’s not really that much of a difference between a Sun Kil Moon record and Mark Kozelek solo record, but it is evident upon this release.  These songs mainly consist of guitar looping and Mark’s trademark, stream-of-consciousness storytelling.  While not as engaging as some of his more dynamic work, this album is a testament to where he is at in his life and career.  It means a lot when an artist chooses to release a self-titled record this late in their career.  This album represents who Mark is, as he sings about his home town, boxing matches, memories from his childhood, and the day-in-and-day-out of his extremely normal, yet fascinatingly introspective life.

11 – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love by Deafheaven

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I don’t usually listen to metal that much.  One night this summer I was cramming an assignment for an online class, and I saw an album called Ordinary Corrupt Human Love pop up on my recommended page.  The album title is what initially caught me, as the meaning of the statement was intriguing, and the words themselves just sounded powerful.  I found myself struck by the dark beauty of the music.  I couldn’t understand the words lead vocalist Clarke was saying, but I felt the emotion of the music, and the attempt to make something huge and important.  “Canary Yellow” was blasted in my car on the way to work quite a bit in August.

10 – Kids See Ghosts by KIDS SEE GHOSTS

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This is the colab album that both Cudi and Kanye fans have been dreaming of for years.  It’s an extremely artsy-banger, with Ye and Cudi trading verses back and forth, across various genres and styles ranging from guitar-sampling rap, to straight up rock music, and even a song that sounds like Man On The Moon-era Kid Cudi.  It’s the perfect example of the genre that Kanye and Cudi have carved out for themselves over the span of their careers – a unique blend of art rap and pop rap that has gone on to influence hip-hop as we know it.

9 – Astroworld by Travis Scott

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Astroworld finally lived up to the hype that Scott has had since the start of his career.  The album is like the fictional theme park it is named after; each song is a wild ride and a new attraction.  While it inevitably drops off at some points due to its excessive runtime, it feels natural.  Like any long hot day at an amusement park, there are highs and lows: long waits in line, stops in grimy bathrooms, overpriced food.  But, most of the time, you’re still glad you went.

8 – This Is My Dinner by Sun Kil Moon

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I’ve already written about this album, so I’ll spare the details, but I will reiterate that this is one of Kozelek’s best recent works.  Rather than feeling oppressive as he did sometimes on 2017’s Common As Light, his stories here feel like they are coming from a better place of hope and often humor.  The variation of instrumentals is engaging, and captures a melancholic beauty that I am often aware of in late fall.  It is no wonder he waited to release this album until November 1st, as it was written and recorded in November of the previous year and perfectly fits that mood.

7 – Twin Fantasy by Car Seat Headrest

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I wasn’t sure if this should really count towards this year or not, as it is a re-recorded version of an album released years ago on bandcamp.  But considering the work that Toledo did to literally re-record and rework the whole thing, I believe it does stand out as a new record.  This is a densely packed, experimental indie-punk album that lays the writer bare to the listener.  It’s a long, thrilling masterpiece that is a tribute to those suffering from mental illness that is also life-affirming in its exuberant weirdness.

6 – Club Misery by Misery Club

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This is another that I’ve written about already this year, so again, I’ll spare the details.  Misery Club is one of those underground groups that you run across every so often that you realize is bound to be huge.  The melodies, tight beats, and emo lyrics are all geared perfectly towards rap’s current moment, as intense vulnerability is becoming more popular than ever.  With the right publicity behind them, this group could be one of the biggest pop-rap sensations, if not on the radio, then in the larger underground scene.

5 – Bark Your Head Off, Dog by Hop Along

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Hop Along’s third album is different than the previous two.  It has far fewer explosive moments than Paint It Shut, which initially was a setback to me.  Overtime though, the consistency of this record has caused me to come around to viewing it as potentially Hop Along’s best record.  It is paced perfectly, a fantastic example of guitar-based indie pop.  Lyrically, it touches on the emotional and personal memories, as well as on the current political moment in songs such as How You Got Your Limp and One That Suits Me.  It is a timely release that hits all the bases.

4 – Skylight by Pinegrove

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It took me a few days to listen to this album.  Given the band’s past, I had mixed feelings about their return, and it had been a while since I had listened to Cardinal actively.  In the end, Skylight turned out to be one of my favorite releases of the year.  It is not a drastic departure from their previous sound; much of it is still the same brand of country-infused emo that made them popular.  The difference here is that there is an amount of reflectiveness in these songs that hits the ears differently than Cardinal.  The first half is slow-paced and linear, and there are far fewer catchy hits on this record than before.  But give it a few listens, and you will find layers to the stories that these songs tell that will have you coming back time and time again.

3 – Swimming by Mac Miller

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Mac’s final album is his best yet.  I remember thinking this before he died, wondering where his career would take him next.  It’s the best version of what he had been trying recently – a funky style of rap that infused RnB flawlessly.  The lyrics are stark and personal, but also convey true joy and hope in the latter half.  It is not a perfect record, but it is not one that reveals a perfect man, so the flaws feel appropriate.  It’s a powerful testament to going through it (whatever your personal it might be) and coming out on the other side intact, a different person, but one who is ready and able to move on.  This is the best legacy Mac could’ve left as his last testament.

2 – boygenius by boygenius

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This is an indie-supergroup dream band.  The possibility of Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus on one project makes total sense, but I still could not believe it was actually happening when it was announced.  As three of the most powerful voices in indie-rock in this current moment, they come together to make a record that has variety, consistency, and beauty that is nearly unparalleled.  They are all different-but-similar enough for it to work without sounding like their solo releases.  Boygenius is undeniably a group effort that offers something new to fans of any of the three artists.  I’m praying they do another release eventually.

1 – ye by Kanye West

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Kanye had quite a year.  It seems that he does almost everything he can to keep people from talking about what he does best: music.  Kanye’s short, flash-in-a-pan ye is his most lyrically revealing, vulnerable album in years.  In past releases, his usual pattern is to reveal something about himself – some guilt, pain or insecurity – and then immediately cover it with an expletive or a bad joke, but on this album, he gets as close to naked as we have seen him.  The lyrics deal largely with his mental health, wrongs he has committed against his wife and the public, as well as drug addiction, and working through his role as a father.  Through it all, the music is fantastic, crackly, a bit lo-fi (for blockbuster standards), adding to the rawness and emotional energy.  As usual, it is packed with guest features, most uncredited.  They usually take on a background role: these are not designed to gain hype, but to add to the over-all product.  Despite his shortcomings as a person, ye is some of the best music Kanye has released.  It will not be viewed as an influential super-hit the way most of his previous albums are, but to fans, it is a rare and real look into the most influential man in popular music.

Top Songs of 2018

Putting together a “Top Songs of 2018” post felt a little disingenuous for both of us, considering that both of us rarely listen to songs outside of their context in albums, making it hard to put even an approximate ranking to songs as a medium on the year. We’ll leave that kind of analysis to what we’re more familiar with: albums. Instead, here are our completely subjective favorite songs from 2018, we hope you like them as much as we do.

Zack’s List

“Happy” – Jeremy Messersmith (Pop-Folk)

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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. “Happy” is Messersmith at his best, a head-bobbing earworm that is painfully sarcastic, but so upbeat that you can’t help but be cheered up at first listen.  It is the sonic equivalent of skipping through a field of flowers with a huge grin on your face and both middle fingers raised.

“Gray Havens” – Slow Mass (Indie-Punk)

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We’ve talked about Slow Mass a lot here at Not a Sound, so I’ll cut to the chase: everything about “On Watch” is good. “Gray Havens” is the first true song on the album and showcases everything the band does well: dramatic dynamic shifts, riffs that make you want to play Guitar Hero II again, and a soaring hook that’ll stick in your head for days. If you, like many people, have never heard Slow Mass before and are even remotely interested in the world of DIY punk music in 2018, this is a song you absolutely should not sleep on.

“Television” – IDLES (Punk, Post-Punk)

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Speaking of punk and punk-adjacent music, the English band IDLES put out arguably the most fun record of 2018, the aptly named “Joy as an Act of Resistance”, which is loaded with several of my personal favorite tunes. “Television” might be the most aggressively wholesome thing that has ever been recorded, an anthemic arena-punk song decrying Western beauty standards and promoting self-love. From the moment the song starts with the line, “If someone talked to you like you do to you, I’d put their teeth through” vocalist Joe Talbot demands that you love yourself, cascading into a gang shouted, sing-along chorus for the ages: “I go outside and I feel free / ‘Cause I smash mirrors and fuck TV.” Of all the songs on this list, this is the one I find myself coming back to the most.

“Back in Brooklyn” – Half Waif (Synth-Pop)

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In an age where female songwriters are finally starting to get the credit they deserve alongside their male counterparts, especially in alternative, Nandi Rose Plunkett is still one of the most underrated songwriters of the 2010s. “Back in Brooklyn” is a gorgeous piano ballad that pulls you in with the gentle rise and fall of Plunkett’s trademark soothing vocals. This song, however, has an emotional twist. When she reaches the bridge she reaches to very tip of her range for one of the best melodic moments of 2018 when she sings, “The further away I walk, the more I’m a whisper / Listen for me now / You’ve gotta listen for me know.” For the first and only time on the entire album her usually smooth voices reaches a raspy breakup and the result is a truly moving, tear-inducing climax to an already powerful song.

“I Couldn’t Be More in Love” – The 1975 (Art-Pop)

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I will be the first to tell you that I was never a huge fan of The 1975. They were a band that I thought was very talented, but their brand of pop-rock injected with a healthy dose of 80s flavor was never really my cup of tea. If you told me before December started that my favorite song of 2018 would be a The 1975 song I would have outright laughed in your face. Ironically, however, that is exactly what happened. “I Couldn’t Be More in Love” is a 90s RnB throwback that I didn’t know I wanted in 2018, but the soulful crescendo of, “What about THESE FEELINGS I got” made me audibly shout in jubilation the first time I heard it. It’s one of those songs that makes all the right choices from start to finish, landing every money note, hitting every cheeky key change, and even fitting in a guitar solo for good measure. “I Couldn’t Be More in Love” is immediate, emotional, and only gets better with more listens.

Ian’s List

“2009” – Mac Miller (hip-hop)

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“2009” was one of those songs that hit me exactly in the right moment.  This past August when Swimming was released I was driving with the windows down on my way to pick my brother up from soccer practice, listening to the album for the first time.  Dusk was beginning to fall; I think some slight rain might’ve been forming on the horizon.  The gorgeous string intro began; I turned up the volume slightly, and when Mac spoke the first line, “I don’t need to lie no more,” I was already hooked.  By the end of the last verse when he says, “with these songs I will carry you home / I’m right here when you’re scared and alone,” I had a tear in my eye, hearing the testament of a man who had been through it and came out on the other side to let us know it was going to be okay.  To me, this will always be Mac’s legacy.

“I Thought About Killing You” – Kanye West (hip-hop)

'The Jonathan Ross Show' TV Programme, London, Britain. - 28 Feb 2015

“The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest.”  The first line of Kanye’s self-titled ye summarizes the contradictions that he embodied in 2018.  This album encapsulates evil, guilt, pain, ecstasy, love, and ultimately rebirth in it’s 23 minute runtime.  Although much has happened in the world of Ye since it’s release in June that may call into question what the “rebirth” ultimately amounted to, the album remains an excellent flash-in-a-pan rendering of a moment.  The first track sets the tone, admitting to viscous pride and self-loathing with the refrain, “I love myself way more than I love you / and I think about killing myself / so you best believe I thought about killing you today.”  Also, on a less heavy note, I still crap my pants every time the beat drops.

“Portal” – Pinegrove (indie-rock)

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This short track from Pinegrove’s excellent Skylight is a beautiful meditation on a lost relationship.  It seems to be one of the oft-forgotten songs in the first half of the record, which is full of dense writing and linear structure.  What initially caught my attention was the melody – Stephens emotional vocal delivery makes the song, as he sings over the melancholic folk-rock instrumental.  Only later was I struck by the power of the lyrics, “Isn’t it lovely / I’ll never hold you / to all you held me to,” making it stand out over the rest of the album to me, and one of the songs that I have repeatedly gone back to this year.

“Get Well Soon” – Ariana Grande (pop/RnB)

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The concluding track of Sweetener is everything you could want in an Ariana song.  The staccato piano chords, soaring vocal chops, hip-hop influenced beats – it’s all there.  It features a surprisingly unconventional song structure which suits her voice and style, and allows her to shine more than many of her more popular singles that usually get played on the radio.  Ariana is at her strongest when her hip-hop influence shines, and it definitely comes through on this track as she switches between singing and rapping without over doing it.  It gets me going every time.

“Canary Yellow” – Deafheaven (Post-rock/metal)

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Post-rock influenced black metal band Deafheaven released an album called Ordinary Corrupt Human Love this year, and jeez-oh-man is it dope.  “Canary Yellow” is the centerpiece of the record.  The first two-and-half minutes of the twelve minute track consists of an instrumental post-rock build, pulling you into the experience, only to slap you in the face with screaming vocals and pulverizing blast beats.  The riff in the third part of the song almost brings to mind the classic rock of the 70’s, complete with a squealing guitar solo that ushers in the only clean vocals on the track, an eery yet beautiful chorus of “On and on and on we choke on / on and on and on we choke on / an everlasting, handsome night / my lover’s blood rushes right through me.”  By the end of that song alone, you feel as if you come through a tremendous emotional journey that you can’t wait to go on again.

Our Favorite Lyrics of 2018

This week is our year in review week at Not a Sound and we wanted to try celebrating a few things that don’t get celebrated enough. Both of our editors are musicians and/or songwriters outside of the blog and are passionate about the creative craft that goes into making good music. With that in mind, we thought it would be fun to do a pair of columns celebrating the craft of music rather than just the whole finished product. In this article we basically just wanted to geek out about a few of our favorite lyrics from releases in 2018, we hope you enjoy these songs as much as we do!

“Ghost Town”- Kanye West feat. PARTYNEXTDOOR, Kid Cudi, and 070 Shake

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070 Shake: “Oh once again I am a child / I let go of everything that I know / and nothing hurts anymore / I feel kind of free / we’re still the kids we used to be.”

“Ghost Towns” is the climax of Kanye West’s self-titled ye, in which 070 Shake leads the second half. Her child-like vocals soar over electric-guitar riffing, and when the instrumental cuts out at “I feel kind of free” leaving only her voice on the beat, it makes for one of the most triumphant, emotionally satisfying lyrical moments of 2018.

“Stay Down” – boygenius

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Julien Baker: “I look at you and you look at a screen / I’m in the backseat of my body / I’m just steering my life in a video game / similar acts in a different name”

The Julien Baker-led boygenius track “Stay Down” perfectly and simply describes the loneliness of life in 2018.

“2009” – Mac Miller

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“I don’t need to lie no more / nowadays all I do is shine, take a breath and ease my mind / and she don’t cry no more / she tells me that I get her high ‘cause an angel’s s’posed to fly / and I ain’t asking “why?” no more / oh no I take it if it’s mine, I don’t stay inside the lines / it ain’t 2009 no more / yeah I know what’s behind the door”

Released weeks before his untimely death, the penultimate track on Mac Miller’s final album is basically a perfect song, lyrically and sonically. In an album chronicling pain and rejection, “2009” looks beyond it all, accepting the past with a resolve to move forward. It is a true shame that he would not live to see this fully carried out.

“Lavender Burning” – Half Waif

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“I miss New York, but I don’t wanna think about leaving / I’m out on the road and it’s losing all of its meaning / Just tryin’ to fill this hole that once held my whole being / Is this all there is?”

The opening track to Half Waif’s critically acclaimed album “Lavender” is a stunning reflection on self and place. Invoking her grandmother’s practice of burning lavender as an image of home and identity, lyricist Nandi Rose Plunkett reflects on her life on the road and all that she left behind; those things that shaped her into who she is that she now feels distant from.

“With You” – Noname

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“I’m almost just as empty as you think I am, a penny for your thoughts / A witty pear of happiness, a pretty Ricky Ross / A maid black music, I woke up in my sympathy, became black Judas / All my everythings for sale / All my secondhand discoveries, Dungarees faded pale / All my halfway hallelujahs that tippy-toed in the mail / All the fluctuations on scales / And the missing therapy sessions of bullets treating me well”

It’s hard to pick just one lyric from Noname’s “Room 25”, an album that is packed with incredible lines from the moment it opens with “Self” to the moment it fades out with “no name.” I decided to go with the penultimate track “With You”, where Noname wrestles with her growing fame and influence and what it’s like to essentially sell your life experiences as art. This perpetual mental battle is one that all confessional writers face to one degree or another, and Noname nails the feeling with a lyrical precision and openness unique to her.

“Why” – Animal Flag

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“When your parents met, it was a lonely night / They figured yeah, who cares? People get married all the time / Then they made you up, and they brought you home / And they laid you down and said “God, what have we done? / What have we done?”

“Now you’re a speck of dust on a floating rock / You’re the fastest hand on the smallest clock / You’re a vapor bird in a body cage / And when you break out, it’ll leave everyone in pain /Oh, in pain”

“Why” deals with the ever looming existential question, “why are any of us even here?” in a way that is both artful and somewhat humorous. It opens with a lackadaisical, irreverent stanza about a married couple bringing a new child into the world before shifting into a stanza detailing the existential dread of being human in the most snide possible way. In what is perhaps it’s most clever line, Animal Flag describe the human essence, or soul as “a vapor bird in a body cage” before revealing the irony of death, that freeing that bird from it’s cage will leave everyone else in pain. What a drag.

Enjoy these songs in the playlist below.

Underrated Albums: Extralife by Darlingside

It’s over now.” Normally these three harrowing words mark the end of something: the end of an era, the close of a traumatic event, or the white flag at the end of a long war. For Darlingside this phrase signifies all of the above, but it doesn’t signify the end of the story. On the contrary, these words open the Cambridge, Massachusetts folk quartet’s latest album Extralife, a concept album set on a post-apocalyptic Earth shortly after the close of the nuclear holocaust. It is on this scorched Earth, where life as we know it ceases and anything that remains becomes itself extra-life, that Darlingside begin their musical journey surveying the wreckage; probing for signs of life and reflecting back on the choices that led to such desolation.

On Extralife, 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, each made more ethereal by a healthy dose of reverb. 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, though there is a noticeable melancholic bent to the otherwise mystical sonic palette. 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.

Though it would still succeed just on the merits of its immersive atmosphere and catchy melodies, Extralife also manages to be more than just a vibe album. Each song, or at least the discernable majority, starts contextually with the catastrophic nuclear event and becomes a snapshot of a particular experience. When put together the songs on Extralife form a sort of patchwork picture of an apocalyptic future, one where the narrators are aware of the overarching narrative, how this catastrophe arrived and all of the things left in its wake, but the listener is forced to piece together the story and its resulting message from fragments. In the title track we get a picture of the event itself as “Mushroom clouds reset the sky.” A few tracks later Futures flashes back to before the apocalypse with the words of a “Mrs. President” pleading in the chorus, “It’s not ever too late.” This refrain is juxtaposed with that of the next track, here presumably post-apocalypse again, where the narrator’s father urges him “hold your head up high”before the narrator concludes the vignette with “underground the new life thunders up and on.”

Despite predominantly leaning into their world and storytelling, there are several moments that remain poignant with or without their narrative context. Perhaps the most mesmerizing track, Old Friend, shows the narrator reflecting on an old friend who presumably has died. It is lyrically the shortest song on the album, only three stanzas of three lines each, but says all that it needs to say in just one stanza: “Old friend I/ Think of you still sometimes/ Sure as the river bending into the light.” Another theme that jumps beyond the story is the preeminence of history and what it means to find one’s place in it. In Singularitywe see a post-apocalyptic man “taking pictures of cement… for the history books on mother Earth.” On Hold Your Head Up High we once again see emphasis put on the ties between humanity and the need to preserve its likeness: “See that humankind is you/ Like all the rest, down to/ The scratches on the album that you’re singing to.” Darlingside probe at this question much more directly in Rite Hayworth, a song about famous, historical women in the early 20thCentury where the question of how one stands out “in a colorless sea” amounts to how one knows what it means to be loved. It is a fitting question for an album looking back at civilization from desolation, but also a fitting question in real, everyday life.

That is the true strength of Extralife, that the story is more than entertainment or a thought experiment, but as the final track, Best of the Best of Times somewhat reveals, it is very much real in its own right. While the chorus “We’re a long way, long way from the best of the best of times” is a proper reflection of the post-fallout predicament of the narrator, it is also buffered by images of clocks winding down, the world saying farewell, and a closing verse that begins “and I wonder/ whether our days are unnumbered” and ends with the dream of finally waking up to be pulled from a shipwreck “all equal and safe.” Here we find what feels like a real, pertinent warning that perhaps we are already a long way from the best of times in our current world and seemingly closer instead to the full collapse characterized throughout most of the album. This turns us back to the question of history and how humanity’s story will be preserved. It won’t do much good to take pictures of concrete once life is destroyed, but if we learn from our mistakes now then perhaps those who follow us won’t have to see what comes extra-life.

Underrated Albums: This Is My Dinner by Sun Kil Moon

Initially rising to fame in the 1990s as the frontman of slow-core kings The Red House Painters, singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek is now mainly known for his work under the moniker Sun Kil Moon.  Named after a Korean boxer, Sun Kil Moon’s sound has evolved drastically over the last two decades.  The band’s first album Ghosts Of The Great Highway (2003) sounded like a somewhat more folk-driven version of The Red House Painters later work, even recorded with many of the same band members.  2010’s Admiral Fell Promises saw Kozelek shedding the full-band instrumentation of most of his previous work, favoring a nylon-string guitar and his voice.  Two years later Among The Leaves was released, which featured more of the nylon-string style, but incorporated a stream-of-consciousness style of lyricism that stood in stark contrast to Kozelek’s previous writing, which was often sparse and riddled in metaphor.

2014’s Benji garnered widespread critical acclaim for Sun Kil Moon.  For the most part, Benji stuck with the same style of his previous two releases, occasionally incorporating full band arrangements, and using the stream-of-consciousness lyric style to great effect.  Most of all, listeners were affected by the brutal honesty of the songs, many of which deal with the loss of loved ones, from the perspective of a veteran songwriter who is coming to terms with being in the second half of his life.

Since then, Kozelek has struggled to gain acclaim.  2015’s Universal Themes and 2017’s Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood received middling to negative reviews, as Kozelek delved even farther into the avant-garde, with both albums including many songs spanning over 10 minutes in length.  Listeners complained that Kozelek was no longer writing with the focus seen in his earlier work, and was just elaborating on self-centered minutia.

2018’s This Is My Dinner is no different.  The album spans an hour-and-a-half over the course of ten tracks, mainly chronicling Kozelek’s time touring Europe in November of 2017.  The first track “This Is Not Possible” features a laid-back, old school jam beat over top of which Kozelek talk-sings, beginning with a story about trying (unsuccessfully) to get into a Frankfurt venue, and ending (nine minutes later) with Kozelek singing about the process of recording the song itself.  Comedically, nearly every stanza of the song ends with the band softly chanting, “Yes, this is possible!” or “This is not possible!” back to Kozelek in response to a question in the narrative, almost like the chorus in a Shakespeare spoof.  Example:

Koz: Is it possible that my favorite meal is chicken and waffles?

Band: This is not possible!

Koz: Is it possible that the United States President needs to be admitted into a mental hospital?

Band: Yes, this is possible!

Koz: Is it possible that I’m singing this song in Berlin in front of a thousand people tonight?

Band: This is not possible!

On this release, Kozelek’s lyrics jump from the hilarious to the heart breaking very quickly in the span of a single track.  The title track finds him recalling a tour in Norway during which he received a call informing him that his beloved cat is near death.  He embarks on the flight home, racing death to see his pet before she dies, “The whole thing was so upsetting / and the anxiety was building so badly on the plane / and I kept writing in my journal / ‘please Pink, don’t die on me / please Pink, don’t die on me / please Pink, don’t die on me while I’m up here in the sky / I’ll hate myself forever if I could not kiss you goodbye.’”

The second half of the album sees Kozelek revisiting his childhood and the music that he grew up with that influenced him to be a musician in the first place.  In the song “David Cassidy,” he announces his intention to cover “Come On Get Happy” by the Partridge Family several times before the song cuts abruptly, jumping right into a one-minute rendition of the classic track.  After, he plays a long rendition of AC/DC’s “Rock N’ Roll Singer,” and then wraps up the record with two now “standard” stream-of-consciousness tracks.

What makes this record great is not it’s unconventional form, or it’s humor or tear jerking moments, but the way in which Kozelek’s writing style opens you up and immerses you into his world.  While some might view his writing as boring, tedious, and at times preachy, it offers a wholly unique perspective as you enter the head of a man who sees everything, and I mean everything, as significant and worthy of being written about.

When most of us look back upon our lives, we think of the big moments.  Graduations, weddings, divorces, moves, deaths of those close to us.  While those things are certainly significant, we often fail to recognize that the majority of life is lived between these moments.  Most of our lives are lived rushing to work, going grocery shopping, staring at our phones, talking to friends, waiting for the next moment.  Kozelek’s music makes every moment feel huge and this is where his writing succeeds.  He recognizes the intricacies of our lives and pays attention to them, honoring the quiet, busy, monotonous, and annoying moments as sacred.

This Is My Dinner is easily the most light-hearted album Kozelek has released, maybe ever.  He sounds like he’s having fun on this release, moving from story to story, detail to detail, reveling in the glory of all of it.  Aside from diehard fans, most probably will not bother with this.  If you haven’t heard a Kozelek album before, go back and listen to Benji, maybe a few Red House Painters albums, and then when you have an afternoon alone, sit down and crack open a beer and throw this on, and you’ll be surprised at how often you want to listen again.