Sampler: New Of Monsters and Men Leads the Way

New music from Of Monsters & Men kicks off this week’s indie and alternative packed single sampler.

New music from Of Monsters and Men kicks off this week’s indie and alternative packed single sampler.

Alligator by Of Monsters and Men

It’s hard to believe that Of Monsters and Men has already been around for a decade. The Icelandic indie folk/rock/pop act has been making steady waves since 2011, when their first single Little Talks got picked up by then prominent Philadelphia Radio 104.5, a lucky break that propelled the band to international name recognition. Both Little Talks and the album it came from, My Head is an Animal, went number one in Iceland and the latter debuted at number 6 in the U.S. The album has since been certified platinum. Since that fateful debut, they’ve shown no real signs of slowing down. Their sophomore effort Beneath the Skin debuted at number three and earned them their first Grammy nomination, as well as TV appearances, a spot at Coachella, and the honor of being the first Icelandic artist to cross 1 billion streams on Spotify. Now four years later, Of Monsters and Men are back for round three with Fever Dream and its dynamic first single Alligator. Alligator has everything we’ve come to expect from the band: a lush enveloping soundscape, an immediately catchy stadium chorus and a bonus equally catchy bridge all wrapped together with the crisp indie-pop production that has been a staple of their sound since the onset. But this single also veers into some new territory for the band, namely a rhythmic, electric guitar driven “breakdown” in each post-chorus. It’s a choice almost reminiscent of Scottish arena rock icons Biffy Clyro and certainly the most “rock” thing Of Monsters and Men has gone for during their recent slide into more alternative sounds. It will be interesting to see if this new theme carries through the rest of Fever Dream when it officially releases July 26.

Find Me Out by Ronjo V

Austin’s Ronjo V are putting their own spin on a long tradition of meat n’ potatoes alternative in the line of Beck and early Wilco. Their newest single, Find Me Out, is a clinic on dynamic movement and layering; shifting between acoustic led rhythms, creamy leads, punchy electric chords, and tactful blues riffs that are both impressive and purposely understated. In fact “understated” is probably the best descriptor for Ronjo V’s whole operation. Nothing draws undue attention to itself, which often masks the fact that there’s actually a decent bit going on at all times, whether it be overlapping guitar leads in the latter parts of the verses or a subtle tambourine in the chorus. This creates a sensation of movement that is felt without always being heard and it also opens up exactly the amount of space needed to let the listener focus on what lead songwriter Ryan Joseph wants them to hear. And once he has your undivided attention Joseph doesn’t disappoint. A falsetto harmony marks a succinct, ear catching pre-chorus, before hitting an absolutely killer chorus that would have been guaranteed radio fodder ten years ago when alternative radio still played alt-rock. This is broken up by not one, but two guitar instrumentals, the first a plodding riff with vaguely Spanish undertones in the bridge, and the second a bluesy accent solo in the outro that calls to mind The Eagles. All in all, Find Me Out is a must hear for alternative fans as well as indie-rock aficionados looking for a little more rock in their indie; a stand out new single from a promising young project.

Anthem For the Weak by The Harmaleighs

Haley Grant is battling depression her own way. She is the lead songwriter for the emotive Nashville folk duo The Harmaleighs, alongside her compatriot and bassist Kaylee Jasperson, and like many other artists who struggle with depression, she is using her creativity as both a platform of expression and a weapon in the chemical war inside her head. Though many other artists have used creation as an outlet for processing their mental health, the way Grant goes about it is uniquely her own. The Harmaleighs’ new album She Won’t Make Sense, due out on August 2nd, is a conversation between Grant and her personified depression, which she names Susan. As the album goes on, Grant and Susan engage in a struggle for control, culminating in the final song I Don’t Know Myself which begs the question: “do the darkest parts of ourselves make us who we are?” On the opposite end of the album sits the most recent single, opener Anthem For the Weak, a dusty, melancholy folk song with cutting lyricism reminiscent of rising indie star Phoebe Bridgers. The song is a sonic departure for the duo, delving further into full-band soundscapes than their prior brand of sparse pop folk, and it pays off dramatically. The airy synth sounds, subtle organ, delay-heavy drums, and selectively used slide guitar create an atmosphere that captures the emotional unease and distance of depression to a tee, without delving too far into the soul-crushing existentialism typical of the subject matter. Instead Grant’s lyrics dance through light, catchy pop melodies that stick on the first listen, and they do so without compromising any of the desired impact. For these reasons The Harmaleighs’ impending album is one of our most anticipated releases of August.

I Don’t Wanna Take Too Much by The Brazen Youth

I’ve often heard it said, especially of music, that there is nothing new under the sun. The Brazen Youth are simultaneously the biggest proof and the biggest challenge to this notion. Formed in a 300-year-old farmhouse in rural Connecticut by middle school friends Nicholas Lussier and Charlie Dahlke, The Brazen Youth’s earthy, folksy, roots rock is filled with familiar tones, feels, and motifs. There’s the old raggedy piano, the sharp honk of the blues guitar, the shriek of the organ, and the storytelling lyricism, one part personal narrative and one part esoteric wanderings like many of the great songwriters that came before them. But somehow the music that they create is wholly their own, defying any apt comparison and masking any direct influences the songwriting duo may have had. The result is something incredibly rare: a sound that pulls you in with familiarity, but keeps you interested with unpredictable mystique. It’s as if The Brazen Youth have tapped into something beyond themselves, a living history much like their beloved farmhouse, something timeless and packed with nondescript emotional power. This distinct feeling is only hammered home by mystical lyrics like “I’d like to harness the most divine state” and “one collective human body/ 15 billion eyes just belonging to somebody.” It’s the kind of song that puts you in its own state of being, and when it’s over you can’t help but want to experience more. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait until September 19 to hear the rest of their new EP 15 Billion Eyes, but in the meantime you can continue to cultivate your longing by playing I Don’t Wanna Take Too Much on repeat.

Just You by Steven Bowers feat. Meaghan Smith

Steven Bowers’ brand of folk music combines the storytelling tradition of writers like Jason Isbell, Ryan Adams, and John K. Samson with a larger than life, cinematic kind of spirit. His latest, Just You, takes on a almost post-apocalyptic type of character, not the violent and future-western apocalypse of Mad Max, but a reflective and emotionally present take on what is lost and the almost spiritual journey to reclaim it. “I wanted you when we were strangers/ then one you were coming over/ suddenly twenty, thirty years are going by.” But as time dissolves and takes with it its victims, Bowers pushes back in a triumphant flourish: “so build a fire from whatever kindling you can find/ when all the world is ending/ and it’s beginning all the time/ no goodbyes, no goodbyes/ polar bear looking for the ice/ Frankenstein waiting for the lightning/ one day your heart will reanimate/ just you wait.” Supporting his vivid images are swelling guitar, lush piano, stadium toms, and layers of harmonies whisping ethereally in the background. The result is a song bursting at the seems with emotion, dramatized enough to draw out a powerful reaction but realistic enough to still be real-world relatable, equally perfect for the climactic ending to an indie film or for listening while staring at the rain out your bedroom window.

Sampler: Earthy Tones in Folk, Blues, and Jazz

Four earthy tracks from multiple genres that are perfect for your Sunday afternoon.

This week we’re breaking from our genre oriented samplers to give you something new: four earthy tracks from multiple genres that are perfect for your Sunday afternoon.

Nothing Turns My Lock by Kate Vargas

Kate Vargas’ brand of earthy, muted jazz is beautifully classic, but her perspective is anything but old-fashioned. Nothing Turns My Lock is a manifesto on sexual liberation, pulling out every stop and holding back zero punches. As each verse unfolds, Vargas confidently pushes the envelope farther with lines like, “I like good loving, that don’t make me bad”, “I’m not a big believer in monogamy”, and the god of all stanzas: “I don’t discriminate between Johnny and Sue/ He, she, they, and you can come (wink, wink) too/ Yes it may take many, many, many men and women to satisfy my needs/ But nothing turns my lock like your key.” It’s an expansion on the jazz standard form, which to use Vargas’ words is “usually pretty hetero and monogamous”, but it never loses the timeless feel of it’s source material. Her energy is defiantly infectious. As soon as her smoky jazz voice hits your ears in all its raspy, irreverent glory you can’t help but get hooked. Nothing Turns My Lock is a must-listen even if you aren’t usually a jazz fan, it’s a witty pop statement from a supremely talented rising star. We can’t wait to see where Kate Vargas goes from here.

Eyes to the Sky by David Ellis

Folk as a genre has exploded in the past decade, but even in such a crowded and diverse genre David Ellis has found a niche that makes him stand out from the crowd. Where the scene is largely dominated by pop folk acts cashing in on the Mumford & Sons/The Lumineers explosion at the start of the decade, one guitar male/female duos with tight harmonies, and emotive Justin Vernon-inspired experimental projects, Ellis has turned instead to the 70s to capture and modernize an up-beat, rhythmic kind of hippie folk that is both catchy and creative. A self-described “Pagan Rock” artist from London, his aim is to make earthy and spiritual music for an increasingly spiritually deprived Western culture, encouraging the listener to connect with the beauty of the world and find happiness within themselves. On his latest single, Eyes to the Sky, he does exactly that, creating an optimistic and nuanced song about love in the grander sense that is imbued with an undeniable vitality. The album it was taken from, Misty Heights, recorded and produced by Ellis while living next to the Byrdcliffe Colony in Woodstock, is slated for release August 15.

Caught Between Our Troubles by The American Buffalo

The 1970s were the heyday of rock music, marked by watershed releases from bands as varied as Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, The Eagles, The Ramones, and Rush. One particular subculture of 70s rock, however, largely faded into obscurity in the following decades except for two of its figureheads, Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Southern Rock was a thriving sub-community in the rock landscape of the 1970s, focussed on virtuosic, earthy guitar playing and storytelling lyricism more often than not about the everyday experience of the common man. On Caught Between Our Troubles, Dayton-by-way-of-Nashville artist The American Buffalo channel the 70s Southern Rock movement in sound and in spirit, resulting in a powerful mix of folk, country, and blues that paints a simple, but resonant scene: two brothers sitting in a park, deep in reflection over a pack of smokes. It’s part of singer-songwriter Josh Edwards’ modus operandi: dissecting the oft-ambiguous role of the white American male in a culture of white patriarchy. He does this with probing, storytelling songwriting in the tradition of American Popular Music (not to be confused with American Pop Music), a very historically aware movement including a wide variety of genres that is meant to be in direct conversation with the cultural meta-narrative. As a result, Caught Between Our Troubles feels timeless, a thoughtful track that is relevant today and would have been relevant even in the era it emulates.

FOMO by Great Aunt

Americana usually calls to mind the bayous of Louisiana, the pocket communities of the Appalachian mountains, or the great plains of the American heartland, but Melbourne, Australia’s Great Aunt prove that, despite its name, not all great Americana comes from the United States. Comprised of songwriters Megan Byrd and Chelsea Allen, Great Aunt have been steadily making a name for themselves in the Australian Country Music community since 2016 with their tight harmonies and instrumentals that are elegant in their simplicity. Lyrically they pull influence from old time, bluegrass, and gospel traditions, writing downtrodden music that masks its latent sorrowfulness in the joy of its expression. On their newest single, FOMO, Great Aunt drop back off their usually vocal-driven sound and instead highlight their guitar playing prowess, arranging the song around a set of slide guitar riffs that sound straight off a Georgia front porch. The sparse lyrics accent these riffs beautifully, creating an almost haunting vibe with their hushed, close harmonies. The sound feels like a captured live performance, creating a sensation of immediacy that draws the listener in to the deep valleys and dangerous peaks of the song as it undulates between dynamic extremes. 

Sampler: 4 Downtempo Indie Singles for Your Rainy Weekend

It’s a Friday night in Pittsburgh and I’m sitting at our dining room table as the thunder booms outside. I should be used to the rain by now, we in Pittsburgh get less sunny days each year than even Seattle, but even after living here for almost 25 years I still slip into a general malaise every time it storms. If you too are stuck inside on this rainy weekend and feeling a bit gloomy, this week’s sampler series could be the perfect soundtrack to your day. Here are four new, downtempo indie singles that we thought deserved to be heard:

Not My Body by Sam Lynch

“This is not my body, no, they made a mistake” singer/songwriter Sam Lynch croons softly over subdued synth pads. Her delivery is at once stunning and haunting, occupying that perfect space between the hollowness of disembodiment and the rawness of yearning for something more. That yearning through uncertainty informs the central theme of Not My Body, the loss of one’s self and the probing question: “is it all a mistake?” As the track works its way into a powerful crescendo led by piano, distant harmonies and strings, her voice grows more convicted and she hits one final, emotive and relatable line: “maybe all that’s left are fragments of myself/ never feels like enough to be set so I drown it out instead.” If you have ever experienced the distinct sensation of looking yourself in the mirror and wondering what really makes you, well, you, then this song should resonate strongly.

In Between by Junaco

California indie rock bands are usually known for beachy sounds, but Junaco break the stereotype in grand fashion to create an immersive and emotive soundscape reminiscent of Wilco’s The Whole Love. Overtop the dreamy atmospheric guitars and laid back groove, vocalist Shahana Jaffer sings calmly and effortlessly as she weaves a story about letting go, leaving because you know you have to, but not knowing how leaving will change who you are. However, where most songwriters would convey this through a sense of restlessness, she delivers her story with what seems a lot more like acceptance. Her voice melds into the surrounding instrumental, creating a general feeling of interconnectedness in the track that mirrors the complex interconnected emotions of Jaffer’s lyrics. In Between is sad without being hopeless, happy without being exuberant, and resolute without being harsh, the kind of song that gains power with each repeat listen.

Between Worlds by I Am Oak

Continuing with the theme of transitions, Utrecht, The Netherlands’ ambient folk project I Am Oak ask a unique question on their newest single Between Worlds: “What do I do in the mean time when it’s mean time all of the time?” It’s a question with existential weight, but songwriter Thijs Kuijken asks it almost as if it were a passing idea, as if he were sitting on his porch deep in thought and just taking in the world around him. Nowhere to go. Nothing really to do. But Kuijken doesn’t seem upset, instead he takes a step back and watches, allowing everything to unfold. The instrumental captures this mood perfectly. Though I Am Oak is known for being a folk band, here they take on a sonic palette more akin to a downtempo Snow Patrol, building on a subdued beat and a hushed acoustic guitar, but flourishing in each chorus with distorted guitar and melodic piano. All of this comes together to create a lush, dynamic song that stops the listener in their tracks. 

Everyday by Joel Ansett

To end off our list is a track that’s a little bit more uplifting, but don’t worry, it’s still very downtempo and won’t break the mood. Joel Ansett is a Denver, CO songwriter whose music combines ambient, folk textures and writing with subtle nods to RnB. On his newest, Everyday, Ansett sings of love in hushed tones: “wisdom when I lose my way/ you’re the magic in all of this mundane.” It’s a beautiful line and also a perfect description of Ansett’s art as a whole. With very little melody from the instrumental and tons of open space he is able to create a song that feels more than a little magical; a track that is engaging and emotive even in its minimalism. To top it off it also has an immediately catchy hook: “I know more than ever now, I need you, oh I need you… I need you everyday.” It is a wonderfully peaceful song and the perfect way to finish off this rainy day sampler.

Review: Better Oblivion Community Center (Self-Titled)

“Better Oblivion Community Center is easily one of the best albums we have heard this year. Not only is it an example of phenomenal folk-rock songwriting, but also a truly fun project for as serious as the subject matter is.”

FFO: Phoebe Bridgers, Bright Eyes, Folk-Rock

Apparently, Phoebe Bridgers really likes working with other people.  After releasing last year’s excellent boygenius EP in October with fellow indie stars Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, she has returned with another collaborative album, with virtually no prior warning.  This past Thursday, our ears were blessed by the self-titled debut from Better Oblivion Community Center, a collaboration between Bridgers and emo-folk veteran Conor Oberst (most famous for his work with Bright Eyes). 

Although the album was a surprise to everyone, it is not the first time that the two have collaborated.  Bridgers’ excellent debut Stranger In The Alps (2017) features a duet with Oberst on the back half of the record called “Would You Rather.”  The collaboration made sense on the album; Bridgers’ blend of haunting lyrics and folk-rock melodies bears obvious influence from Oberst’s work, which she likely would’ve listened to while growing up.  It was a point of connection on the record to a previous generation of songwriters, showing the progression of the genre over time. 

While “Would You Rather” is a duet and sounds like one, none of the songs on Better Oblivion Community Center play off as duets.  It definitively sounds like a band effort.  Although some songs have a more hushed, acoustic environment, most have some sort of full-band arrangement.  And, while Bridgers and Oberst do take turns on lead-vocal duties, they are more often singing at the same time.  Although side-by-side their voices can sound like an odd pairing (to me, Oberst’s nasally, cracked voice always sounded kind of funny next to Bridgers on “Would You Rather”), when they sing together the contrast works quite well.  Sometimes Bridgers is mixed louder and sometimes Oberst is, but it is done in a way that spreads the tonal emphasis perfectly, helping their two distinct voices to blend and compliment one another. 

The album also showcases both singers’ abilities as lyricists.  The haunting opener “Didn’t Know What I Was In For,” is a Phoebe lead track where she, in her detailed style, takes the listener down the road of an existential crisis in the form of cosmic helplessness, “I didn’t know what I was in for / when I signed up for that run / there’s no way I’m curing cancer, but I’ll sweat it out / I feel so proud for all the good I’ve done.”  Conor joins her on the chorus, and although you can surmise that this is a Phoebe song, he sounds perfectly natural singing along with her. 

Although Oberst does not disappoint at all as a lyricist, his writing voice is so unique that Bridgers occasionally has a hard time keeping up in the same way that he does on her songs.  The Oberst songs are the ones that, while strong, sound less like a band, and more like a Conor Oberst project.  Again, this is not necessarily bad, but it makes the record slightly uneven at points.  This is perhaps the strength and weakness of the album.  Having more than one fantastic songwriter on the project is a dream, but as a result, it lacks the cohesion and emotional tension of both artists’ previous work at some points. 

Better Oblivion Community Center is easily one of the best albums we have heard this year.  Not only is it an example of phenomenal folk-rock songwriting, but also a truly fun project for as serious as the subject matter is.  This record sounds like it was a joy to make and collaborate on; it comes through in every performance.  While it may not be as emotionally gripping as their solo work, it doesn’t have to be in order to be a great record.  Also, I’ve got to say, I really, really hope they tour together. 

Rating: 8.0 (Best New Music)

For info on how we score albums see our rating scale.

Label: Dead Oceans

Release Date: Jan 24, 2019

Review: “Princess Diana” by The Mañana People

“Princess Diana, the debut full-length from German freak-folk/psyche-country duo The Mañana People is the kind of album that almost seems tailor-made for a quirky coming of age indie-movie.”

FFO: Space-Westerns, Olde-Timey, Freak Folk

In the early 2010s there was a string of movies where the protagonist somehow ends up involved with an eccentric indie band. Jim Carrey fell in love with the singer of an avant-garde noise pop band in Yes Man, Michael Fassbender wore a giant papier-mâché head and fronted a psychedelic rock band in Frank, and of course Ellen Page and Michael Cera formed their own quirky folk duo in the smash hit Juno, which briefly popularized bubbly, cutesy folk with its accompanying soundtrack. It was such a popular trend for those few years that it almost became its own subgenre and launched specifically Michael Cera and Zooey Deschanel into the spotlight. 

While these movies put a ton of underground artists in the spotlight for a brief moment, there was a certain sense that the viewer was supposed to see these kinds of music as weird, perhaps endearingly so, but still other to them. Where the obscure musician stereotype wasn’t fetishized (like in Scott Pilgrim V.S. the World) it was often played as a sort of joke. Fortunately for the actual artists in these obscure corners of music, these movies had an unintended side effect: a bunch of kids who never would have known these genres existed genuinely fell in love with the new musical world now in front of them. I was one such kid. 

Princess Diana, the debut full-length from German freak-folk/psyche-country duo The Mañana Peopleis the kind of album that almost seems tailor-made for a quirky coming of age indie-movie. Their blend of lo-fi country, harmonies that fall somewhere between The Beach Boysand The Eagles, and inventive sci-fi storytelling plant them firmly in a niche all their own. Top that off with the occasional whirligig synth line, a few timely handclaps, and the always-essential theremin solo, and you have the recipe for an immediate cult classic and/or the soundtrack to the next popular Sundance film. It’s infectious fun from the very first song, practically oozing with good-natured joy. 

The Mañana People draw from quite a variety of host material to create their unique brand of entertainment. What is particularly impressive is the way they contour their harmonies to further distinguish each song. On Matchstick Manthey resemble The Beach Boys, while on Anthrophagus they sound more like 70s Southern rockers The Outlaws, and on People Who Don’t Know They’re Deadthey once again reimagine themselves as a barbershop quartet. Musically The Mañana People are equally prone to experiment, usually leaning on old-timey country guitars, but occasionally dipping into Frankenstein organs, surf guitars, lo-fi electronic drums, and old-English balladry, doing each separate style justice and maintaining their indie-pop chops throughout. 

The lyrics more often than not tell tales of zombies, murder mysteries, and traveler’s woes, calling to mind the classic monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Though hoaky at points, both writers consistently display a talent for penning gripping lines that jump beyond their narrative context. Perhaps the best example of this comes on the chorus of the penultimate track It’s Harder to Try, a old-timey country tune akin to The Carter Family“May the road rise to greet you / May the songs fill your head / May your house be safe from tigers / May your youth be well-spent / It’s so hard to be kind / But it’s harder to try.” While their particular brand of lyricism certainly isn’t for everyone, it is unusually captivating for what it is. It takes a rare songwriter to get a listener invested in a song about zombie battles, but The Mañana Peoplepull it off more times than not.

While Princess Diana is a very unique album and generally quite engaging, it can feel a bit disjointed at times. The album’s composition is a little inconsistent, with the track order sometimes seeming very thought out and at other times haphazard. It sits in that awkward, uncanny valley between albums that were designed to be cohesive and albums that were really just a collection of songs, not really committing to either side. This makes listening to Princess Diana as a unit an uneven experience, despite each song for the most part standing on its own merits. Despite this, however, it is still quite a fun and enjoyable collection of tunes.

All in all the debut LP from The Mañana People makes for an intriguing listen, so unique as to peak your interest and yet with enough familiar ground to keep your attention focused. Fans of freak-folk and psyche-country will find plenty to enjoy here, but Princess Diana is such an endearing album that it also merits a listen from any outsider who might be curious. While it may be fairly obscure as an art-form it is also so laden with catchy hooks and infectious, quasi-space-western energy that most anybody can find something to enjoy.  

7.3/10 (Stand-Out)

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

Label: Unique Records
Release Date: January 18, 2019

Review: “Heard It In A Past Life” by Maggie Rogers

The record is teaming with life and joy in terms of the richness of its lyricism and musicianship.

FFO: HAIM, boygenius, Stevie Nicks, “After Laughter-Era” Paramore.

Singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers has a modern version of a classic success story.  She did not grow up in a particularly musical family, but at age seven began taking harp lessons, and as her love of music grew, she expanded her instrumental pallet to include guitar and piano.  During high school, she attended a Berklee College of Music summer program and won their songwriting contest, spurring her to continue to focus in that area. 

Eventually she found her way into New York University’s prestigious Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, where she recorded and self-released a folk album in the vein of early Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens.  During this time, she studied abroad in France where she started listening to house and dance music, and after experiencing an extended spell of writer’s block, began creating new music that combined her folk melodies and lyricism with the backbone of the dance genres she fell in love with in France. 

Her real success came in the form of a viral video.  The legendary Pharrell Williams, an in-house musician at N.Y.U. at the time, visited a music production class that Rogers was enrolled in to critique the students’ work.  In the video, a visibly moved Pharrell tells Rogers that her song “Alaska” is basically perfect, saying “I’ve never heard anyone like you before.”  Coming from one of the most influential pop/hip-hop producers of the past two decades, this was about the best endorsement she could get, which launched a massive major label bidding war.  Now, nearly two years later, her debut full-length has arrived via Capitol Records. 

This context is necessary because it takes up a fair amount of the subject matter of the album.  In many ways, Heard It In A Past Life is the story of an introvert suddenly thrust into the spotlight.  One of the album’s lead singles, the folk-pop “Light On,” deals with this head-on in the first verse, “Oh I couldn’t stop it, tried to slow it all down / crying in the bathroom, had to figure it out / with everyone around me saying, ‘you must be so happy now.’”  It’s not angry or whiny, but a genuine expression of confusing emotions; her story is one that many dream of and strive for, but is terrifying when actually experienced. 

But the record does not wallow too long in this specific space; It is teaming with life and joy in terms of the richness of its lyricism and musicianship.  The Pharrell-approved “Alaska,” exemplifies the instrumental Rogers’ instrumental depth.  The beat is intricate and layered, with subtle syncopated synths adding a bass-layer of melody as Rogers’ voice floats overtop, “I was walking through icy streams that took my breath away / moving slowly through westward water / over glacial plains.”  The imagery shows her deep-connection with the natural world, which makes her stand out in the context of most pop musicians.  Elsewhere, she uses samples from nature that she collected on hikes; “Overnight,” sounds like it samples a bird call as a percussion instrument.  It’s fresh and creative while still being accessible to pretty much everyone. 

Despite the danceable beats and sugary hooks, Rogers remains first and foremost a songwriter throughout the album, with her lyrics as a central focus on the record.  Back-half highlight “Retrograde” features one of the album’s most passionate vocal performances, in which she belts the chorus, “Oh here I am, settled in on your floor / quieting all the world outside your door / and I am reckoning.”  It is authentic, passionate lyricism rarely found in much of today’s pop music. 

Ever since Lorde’s debut Pure Heroine in 2014, much of the pop landscape has been defined by cool detachment and cynicism, or simply over sexualization of the star.  Maggie Rogers requires neither of those things to be successful.  The way in which she throws herself into her music with such genuine love and passion is refreshing because it relies not on cultivating a pop image, but just in being her and sharing music that she is passionate about creating.  Rogers is clearly making music that she loves, and it is a joy to be able to breath it in with her. 

What holds the album back from being great is the major label-ness of it.  This is not to say that top-tear production is bad; I myself am a big fan of pop music, and high-end production is not a strike in my book.  But, there are moments when the album lacks a certain edge, when the crispness of the drums and guitars are a bit too crisp, and it feels a bit wrong.  It’s not inauthentic, but it holds some moments back from being as cutting as they could be. 

That said, the record remains a breath of fresh air for fans of pop and folk alike.  It is one of the only folk-pop records that I have genuinely enjoyed, because it’s not soft and dumbed down, but is a creative testament to what can happen when an artist takes genuine inspiration from the two seemingly opposed genres.  More than anything, it establishes Maggie Rogers as an artist to follow in the coming decade. 

Rating: 7.8 (Stand Out)

For info on how we score albums see our rating scale.

Release Date: Jan 18, 2019

Label: Capitol Records

Review: “Tomb” by Angelo De Augustine

Tomb leaves the listener feeling refreshed in the way one feels after a good, healthy cry.

          When someone experiences a significant breakup or loss of a romantic partner, there is usually a rush of conflicting feelings.  Sometimes they manifest in betrayal and anger.  Sometimes there is only shock and an inability to process the event.  But more often than not, the most overwhelming feeling is one of deep mourning over the fact that something that was once good and beautiful is now gone.  The mind spins trying to make sense of everything; relishing memories, attempting to sort out how we got from there to here.  On the title track and album opener of Angelo De Augustine’s excellent Tomb, he captures this initial feeling perfectly, at once evoking remembrances of a beautiful relationship, wondering how it is now gone, “I walked into your life at the wrong time / never quite been perceptive of real life / it was not your fault or a fault of mine / but it’s hard to let you go this time.”  It is more than mourning; it is a search for justification, a deep and resounding “why?” 

            Part of what makes these lyrics so powerful is the instrumentation.  In a soft falsetto comparable to Sufjan Stevens (his label-mate and owner), Augustine’s double-tracked vocals hover over soft guitar plucking, with subtle piano underlying the second half of the track.  The result is melancholy, melodic, and incredibly captivating.  However, this is not your run-of-the-mill indie-folk record.  The following track “All to the Wind” calls to mind a McCartney-penned Beatles track, with snappy piano-pop chords and subtle guitar parts providing more layers.  “I Could Be Wrong,” sounds like something from the Postal Service or Sufjan’s Age of Adz, with a simplistic electronic beat and minimalistic synth textures.  This album is no sleeper; at no point does the instrumentation feel mundane. 

            What makes this album stand out is the way it intersects beauty and pain.  The record was written in 2017 in five days – December 20th-25th.  The feeling that it evokes is similar to what many feel around the holidays.  For a lot of folks it is a time of reflection and reckoning with one’s place in life within the context of somber beauty.  The chorus of a stand-out track, “You Needed Love, I Needed You,” captures this reflective mood, “Life’s been hard and you’ve lived a few / did I give too much love to you? / I’m sorry but it’s what I had to do / you needed love and I needed you.”  It’s heartbreaking in that it recognizes the situation, but does not desecrate the beauty that once existed in the relationship. 

            This song also exemplifies effective songwriting in its use of images that are specific enough to give the listener a clear picture, but also general enough that most people can relate to them without being generic.  “Back in my hometown looking for a silver Honda / but there’s too many all around / and I fear I’ll never find you / so I walk around.”  Everyone in the civilized world knows what a silver Honda looks like, yet it’s a specific enough image that it feels real, allowing the listener to attach their own associations to it and cry right along with Angelo. 

            While much of this album deals with heartbreak, it also goes beyond it.  That is to say, the breakup is not isolated; it is contextualized in the songwriter’s world.  Hushed acoustic track “Kaitlin” invokes memories of family, “Mother left you in the night / my father faded into the same light / now we’re both hoping to find someone.”  The record has wide vision and it immerses the listener deeply into its world. 

            Tomb leaves you feeling refreshed in the way one feels after a good, healthy cry.  It’s not panicky or hopeless, but an honest attempt to reckon with loss that is just as normal and human as it is to weep for things worth weeping over.  It is appropriately named, as it is a monument to something that was at one time good and beautiful that deserves to be remembered in the minds of the artist and listener alike. 

Score: 8.8 (Best New Music)

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

Review: “The Mystic and the Master” by Laura Stevenson

Laura Stevenson has been quietly making a name for herself for the better part of the last decade. After a stint playing keyboards for the now legendary punk band Bomb the Music Industry!featuring none other than the eternal Jeff Rosenstock, Stevenson embarked on her own as a singer/songwriter, releasing her first solo offering A Recordin 2010. Since then she’s released three more full lengths and garnered a modest, but devoted following on the back of her artfully introspective lyrics and emotive singing voice. Despite her real-world success though, Stevenson has largely flown under the critical radar. This is confusing not only because of her clear talent as a lyricist, but also considering she runs in the same circle as recognizable artists like Jeff Rosenstock and Chris Farren. Her predicament calls to mind that of Kevin Devine, another artist who is almost as talented as he is criminally underrated and whose situation seems to defy all prevailing logic. 

The Mystic and the Masteris the first new release from the New York songwriter since her 2015 full-length Cocksure.It is a two-song double single released on her mother’s birthday as a nod of appreciation for “enduring” the raising of her and her sister. In contrast to some of her prior work, both tracks are performed with only acoustic, strings, and voice. This stripped back arrangement feels even more intimate than usual for Stevenson, who makes use of the opportunity to deliver some of the sharpest and most nostalgic lines she’s penned yet. 

On the title track she paints a stunning portrait of her mother: “Cause she loves you ’til she shrinks and she thins / Like a violet in a violin / And she’ll paint you a shiny porcelain tooth / Like the one that hangs in hunch / From her second man’s sucker punch.” With each subsequent line Stevenson blows the dust from the family photo album, providing vivid if melancholic snapshots of family tradition, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. It’s storytelling through embodiment, unpacking the person of her mother into an engaging narrative. When she moves on to the second track, Maker of Things, she pivots into a more traditional storytelling method, but achieves the same effect. Here she juxtaposes a fight between her sister and her mother at a gas station during her childhood with witnessing the closing of the same gas station as an adult. Staring into the parking lot, surrounded by “for sale” signs, Stevenson trades her air of nostalgia for resolve: “I don’t feel small / I don’t wince, I’m not ashamed / I feel big, I push back, only time I did that.” 

Though brief, The Mystic and the Master double single is one of the most gripping releases from this December, a clinic on emotive storytelling and a reminder of the underappreciated songwriter’s superior skill with words. For those unfamiliar with Laura Stevenson’s back catalog it also provides an easy launch pad into her work; some of her most potent songs put into a succinct and accessible package. Hopefully this movement on her part foreshadows a full form return to new music, because with her writing the sharper than ever, 2019 could finally be the Stevenson breakout we’ve been waiting for.  

7.4/10 (Stand Out)

For more information on how our scoring system works see: https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/

Review: Central States EP by Mr. Golden Sun

There’s a certain kind of calm that can only be experienced on the open highways of the American Mid-West. Long before the journey takes its toll and the stir-crazy sets in there is a fleeting period of serenity that envelops travelers in this region. For only a moment the passenger chatter dies down, the traffic all but vanishes, and the landscape dissolves into green and brown pastels. The only sound is the rumble of the road. The world ahead looks open and endless. In the same car once filled with hectic energy there is, if only for this moment, peace.

Mr. Golden Sunhails from Kansas City, Missouri, well within the range that this pleasant phenomenon regularly occurs. Perhaps that is why the newest offering from the Matt-Hamer-led folk-rock project, Central States EP, seems to capture and personify that specific mood so perfectly. It’s an EP content to breath easy, immersing you in soft acoustic guitars, soothing melodies, and dreamy, atmospheric production. Make no mistake though; this is not a chilled out, stripped-down mood piece. Rather it stays in steady motion from opener Place & Timeall the way through closer The Comedian, never really gaining or loosing too much momentum, just maintaining a comfortable, sleepy pace; gliding like a car down an empty highway. 

It’s fitting then that Central States EP begins with the narrator breaking down on the interstate. Here on the standout track Place and Time, Hamer displays a knack for turning everyday inconvenience into something distinctly romantic. “I was sure when the chorus dropped/ That Kansas City was the will of God” he croons in a song that begins stranded on the shoulder of the highway and ends in a fulfilling marriage. Hamer’s storytelling is one of his strongest points, writing characters that feel real and personal. While rarely overt, there is also a certain spiritual undertone that helps connect each song on the EP, using religious images like “living water” and “pillar of cloud/…pillar of flame” while playing with themes such as rebirth. This helps Hamer frame his songs about everyday life in a loose, but powerful grand narrative. Nowhere is this more evident than in the penultimate track Goldfinches, another clear standout, where Hamer forsakes the slow drive of much of the album for a 6/8 waltz that sees him searching for the spiritual connection between the migration of birds and the language written in his own chest. It’s a track brimming with real yearning, easily relatable whether applied to the concept of God, some vague transcendence, or even just the search for meaning and connectedness.

Central States is not without its weaknesses, however. The consistency of the mood is both one the EP’s greatest strengths and also what keeps it from breaking much in the way of new ground in its genre. In six tracks, only Flyover Country really breaks the sleepy spell cast over the work as a whole, and though the song in isolation is a great track, its vaguely chip-tune synths make it feel just a hair out of place on an album that doesn’t give much context for that particular experiment. That leaves the song in an unfortunate catch twenty-two where it does provide a needed pace-change, but in doing so it also ruptures the immersive atmosphere set up by the tracks both preceding and following it.

All that aside, Central States does what it’s trying to do well. The mood is relaxing and pleasant, the writing is both engaging and thought-provoking, and the instrumentals shine when given their proper spotlight. While it may not be radically ground-breaking, it is still quite good within its folk-rock context and certainly merits a listen the next time you hit that moment of sacred peace on a cross-country road trip. One of the benefits of its mood and genre is that it is widely listenable and enjoyable across demographics, so most anyone can readily find a situation for it. For Mr. Golden Sun it serves as a nice foundation on which to build for the future; a solid first offering from a clearly talented songwriter.  

6.6/10 (Solid)

For information on what our album scores mean 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)

a0183381647_10

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)

jeff20tweedy_warm

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)

a0639100130_10

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)

a0270068217_10

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)

a2336397456_10

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)

a3262994134_10

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)

a2522175680_10

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)

Kamasi20Washington20Heaven20and20Earth

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)

a4274660577_10

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)

lucy

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)

a3317122431_10

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)

a0847635984_10

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)

e8ae16-20180213-jeremy-messersmith-late-stage-capitalism-1

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)

snailmail2

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)

Ta13oo_by_Denzel_Curry

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)

blood20orange_negro20swan

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)

deaftheaven_albumart

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)

a3702743229_10

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)

a0781820650_10

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)

91PmAi8KN4L._SL1500_-768x768

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)

slow mass ow

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)

a2041384707_10

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)

600px-A_Brief_Inquiry_into_Online_Relationships

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)

180910-noname-room-25-album-cover

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)

a2717798964_10

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.