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

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 “You seem very withdrawn .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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 6.8/10 (Solid)

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 6.2/10 (It’s solid)

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

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

fantasycamp

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

lucy

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

testing

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

corinthiax

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

Nas

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

east

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

daytona

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

Saba_ Care For Me

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

Beach House_7

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

snailmail2

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

ARIANA

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

carter

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

earl_some rap songs

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

kozelek

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

deaftheaven_albumart

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

kids

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

astro

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

sun

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

twin fantasy

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

miseryclub

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

hop along

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

pinegrove

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

Mac Miller_Swimming

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

ole-1408-boygenius

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

ye

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)

jeremy

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)

slowmass

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)

idles

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)

halfwaif

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)

1975

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)

mac

“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)

pinegrove

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)

ariana

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)

deafheaven

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.

The DIY Deep Dive: 5 Small Artists To Pay Attention To

The DIY Deep Dive is a space to showcase impressive DIY touring artists who are in the very early stages of their career. These artists may not always have the most glitzy or refined recordings, but their underlying talent shines through their budget. To qualify for this column an artist must have less than 2000 social media followers and preferably be independent, while displaying the talent and creativity of acts much larger. Think of this as a column for early-adopters: get in on the ground floor with these artists and help them get to the next level.

Here are five very small artists who have released music in the last year that left a big impression on us, and one bonus album, our Subterranean Super-Cut, for those of you who crave really underground music.

The Sonder Bombs – Modern Female Rockstar

a1882250883_10

“I don’t wanna be your merch girl, I wanna be your goddamn idol,” front-woman Willow Hawks declares on the cheekily named “Title”about halfway through an album that is equal parts bubblegum pop sensibility and fiercely unapologetic lyrics. Hailing from Cleveland, Ohio, The Sonder Bombs do their best to supplant and overturn everything you know about pop punk on Modern Female Rockstar, inverting the one-sided good-guy/bad-girl trope so common in the genre to provide a much needed counterbalance in perspective.

Where the album truly shines, though, is Hawks’ ability to avoid pigeonholing her lyrical character to create a nuanced emotional palette. Often she seethes with indignation, daringthe listener to underestimate her on songs like anthemic closer Twinkle Lights, but she doesn’t shy away from dipping into more vulnerable territory on the mid-tempo Something I Said and the slow-burn Dimly Lit. Hawks’ powerhouse vocals carry the album through each peak and valley effortlessly, dropping to low croons before climbing to a resounding bellow with just enough rasp to convince you she absolutely is the rock star she claims to be without ever jeopardizing the sing-along quality of each and every song. Modern Female Rockstar is a non-stop joy ride from start to finish, a high-energy soundtrack to the dismantling of the musical patriarchy.

Charles Walker – Whole Again, Split w/ Ben Trickey

a0706318711_10

Though not as prolific a locale as Austin, Texas, or Nashville, Tennessee, or even Muscle Shoals, Alabama – Boone, North Carolina has the sound of a place where good country music could grow. That is where self-described “sad-twang” singer and prolific songwriter Charles Walker built his brand of alt-country/emo crossover that sits somewhere between the drawl of Southeastern era Jason Isbell and the depressive introspection of Turn Out the Lights era Julien Baker. In what may surprise some and validate others, these two styles meld seamlessly in Charles Walker’s two 2018 EPs Whole Again and a Split w/ Ben Trickey.

Whole Again leans harder in the alt-country direction, led mostly by acoustic guitars and embellished with beautiful string, horn, and vocal arrangements to complement Walker’s heart-felt, confessional lyrics. The EP sets the tone early and keeps riding it with stuck-inside-on-a-rainy-day melancholic lines like “I know you don’t hate me/Sometimes I wonder when I’m walking home”, “How you feel when I speak means a lot to me”, “I know what I did was wrong/That’s not the kind of thing you say when you love someone”, and the anguished cry of “How many God/How long must I suffer/I Just want to feel whole again.” Walker doesn’t deviate from the introspective gut-punches on the much more indie-rock Split w/ Ben Trickey, leading in with Crutch, a song that hits that perfect balance between sonic nostalgia and lyrical immediacy, crescendoing with the resolved group vocal “If there is hope left it evades me now.” With two solid EPs now under his belt, Charles Walker is an artist to keep an eye on going into 2019.

Shin Guard – Cerebral

a0380252983_10

Screamo is probably the most unfortunately maligned genre-tag of the last 20 years, known more as dismissive boomer-speak for anything with harsh vocals than for its actual body of work. While the emo/posthardcore crossbreed has always had a niche audience in part due to its actual content, it’s hard not to think that part of its relegation to obscurity has to do with the unwarranted negative associations accompanying its unfortunate moniker. Fortunately the plight of the genre itself didn’t stop Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Shin Guard from releasing one of the most inventive screamo records in years at any level this last Fall.

Listening to Cerebral it’s almost unfair to limit its scope with a genre-tag. The album pulls sonic inspiration from all over the alternative spectrum, swelling into grandiose post-rock builds, delving into shoegaze-adjacent fuzz rock, and at one point, on penultimate track Intact, incorporating a banjo into what could best be described as post-hardcore without making it a gimmick. Lead vocalist Owen Traynor convincingly pulls off every contemporary vocal style sans rapping, once again without slipping into the realm of schlock: crooning on the emotional build of Intact, belting on the sing-along chorus of Cross Country, descending into primal screams on Carabosse, delving into several extended spoken word pieces including opener Forlorn, and even trying an ethereal, floating falsetto akin to Justin Vernon on the shoegazey Recant.

As if the sonic diversity wasn’t enough, Cerebral’s album composition is also top notch, comparable in musical scope, though in a different style, to The Hotelier’s 2015 classic Home, Like No Place is There. Each track maintains its own distinctive personality while each consecutive musical experiment contextualizes the next like progressing chapters in a novel. All in all Shin Guard’s debut LP stands as one the biggest hidden gems of the 2018 album crop: an impressive art-rock piece that should serve as the foundation for a newly blossoming band already flirting with greatness.

Appalachian Doom Gospel – Little Blue EP

a2696740924_10

Award winning newspaper columnist Brian O’Neil once called Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, “the Paris of Appalachia.” One county over from Appalachia’s crown-jewel in the slightly more rural Butler, the seven-piece folk/country outfit Appalachian Doom Gospel are doing their best to prove O’Neil’s point with their debut Little Blue EP. As soon as guitarist/vocalist Zach Reed slides into the opening riff of Untitled (Grandma’s Song)it’s as if he transports the listener straight to a spontaneous community jam around a backyard bonfire. That’s not to say that the Little Blue EP feels unrefined, quite the opposite, but that for its 13 minute duration Reed immerses you in something so rustic, so old-timey, and so patently southern, that you won’t believe it came from the foothills of Andrew Carnegie’s city of steel.

Appalachian Doom Gospel is one of those artists that writes deceptively complex music. On first listen it is the overall vibe, carried by Reed’s smoky baritone and a group harmony ensemble courtesy of Cody Clark and Laurel Wain, that catches your attention. Only after a few listens does it truly become apparent that there are sevenpeople playing on these songs, creating an intricate web of acoustic and steel guitars, trumpets, washboards, assorted strings, and percussion all playing off each other like a well-oiled machine. This depth gives the EP continual replay value and makes each consecutive listen a sort of discovery venture, revealing new facets to the songs that may not have jumped out before. Overall, Little Blue EP is a solid debut that we can only hope is the first of an illustrious career.

Qajaq – A Canopy Above Our Endless Sky

a0465326320_10

They’re tearing down trees night and day with the promise of great, mighty walls to come/ They’re scraping out all of the shade, but then crawling away when their towers fall far below/ There isn’t an anchor or slave, not an ocean or grave, nowhere to bury the pain/ But you seek nothing else despite all our wanting/ Your knife stays on your belt and your words are dishonest/ You seek nothing else, so we’re sleeping with caution and laying our burdens down at the place you depart” – Qajaq, The Bad Year

A Canopy Above Our Endless Sky jumps out the gate with the above run of lines, pulling together socio-political issues, personal strife, and the man/nature rift in a way that can only be described as spiritual. Over the course of the next ten songs Chicago, Illinois native David Shay, better known by his stage persona Qajaq (pronounced Kayak), delves deeper into questions about human nature, politics, God, spirituality, and reality at large, delivering line after line over a lush, expansive soundscape built from the bones of earthy folk music and celestial drone; two seeming opposites married in a way that makes them seem natural born partners. This sonic palette is itself the perfect partner and reflection of Shay’s lyrical style and chosen themes on A Canopy Above Our Endless Sky. The dusty earth of his folk leanings and the endless atmosphere of the accompanying drone sounds mirror lyrics that are simultaneously esoteric and grounded; fitting for an album that feels like it’s pulling transcendence from the earthly and the earthly from the transcendent.

At any given moment it seems that Shay is getting at something intangible in a way that feels personally confident, while simultaneously allowing the room for mystery to remain mysterious. Perhaps what is most impressive is that Shay accomplishes these lofty feats effortlessly, effectively shaping a world out of sound and inviting the listener to live in it for the duration of the album’s 45 minutes. In some ways this makes A Canopy Above Our Endless Sky more akin to a Hayao Miyazaki film that’s been distilled into audio than it is a traditional album of songs. It’s the kind of album that demands your undivided attention in order to truly appreciate it, but once you do, you will find yourself revisiting it again and again.

The Subterranean Super-Cut: Jake Rozmus – View From Your Apartment

a2616085527_10

Hailing from the town of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, Jake Rozmus’ gorgeous solo debut View From Your Apartment might be the most under-promoted album of the year. I’m pretty sure Jake played one-and-a-half shows in 2018. He barely told anyone about the record, which is a “bandcamp exclusive.” Despite the excavating it took to find it, those of us who managed to stumble across this gem were in for a rare treat.

In a style crossed between country, the soft-rock of the 1970s, and confessional emo sensibilities, Jake opens up his world, giving listeners vivid snapshots of moments in his life and the lives of those around him. Opening track Morning begins with a recording from a Christmas day long gone, when times and joys were much simpler, establishing bittersweet tone. This is immediately juxtaposed with the stream-of-consciousness Driving Old Blue, a reflection on change, “thoughts of younger days and forgotten names run through radio waves / and back through Old Blue’s rusted frame. It begs the question that haunts the whole record, “how did I get from there to here?”.

The fifth track, Second Wind, poignantly encapsulates this. In the last verse, Jake delivers the hauntingly beautiful lines, “Does the view from your apartment harmonize with your childhood window / like the memory of your mother’s voice / like our journey out on the town tonight.” It captures those moments when a memory hits you out of nowhere, causing you to pause and appreciate where you came from and where you are now, and the seemingly vast distance in between. This record is just that: a brief glimpse through a window, a familiar scent, or an old piece of clothing that makes you remember your childhood, ending with the simple yet profound musing, “I wish I was a kid / to be a kid.” Here’s to hoping this is not the last Jake Rozmus album because this conclusion leaves me dying to hear the next chapter.

Underrated Albums: Club Misery EP by Misery Club

Misery Club is an emo-rap supergroup comprised of Wicca Phase Springs Eternal (founder of hip-hop collective Goth Boi Clique), Lil Zubin (lauded by many as the Soundcloud Weeknd), Fantasy Camp (renowned underground producer and songwriter), and Jon Simmons aka Coward (former vocalist of Balance & Composure). The group quietly released their debut EP this past summer, and it’s probably been one of the most addicting releases of the year.

Produced by underground hitmakers Nedarb and Foxwedding, each of the four tracks sounds sleek, effortless, and catchy. The clean guitar samples are overlaid flawlessly with tightly constructed beats, which are some of the best produced I’ve heard this year in the underground. They do not go out of their way to pull off anything groundbreaking or abnormal, but provide the perfect soundscapes to let the vocalists shine.

And man, do they shine. Perhaps the strongest aspect of Misery Club is the diversity of singing/rapping skills and delivery. The lyrical, emo drone of Wicca Phase’s sing-rapping contrasts wonderfully with the pristine melodies provided by Lil Zubin. Fantasy Camp’s understated, soft delivery makes Simmons’ harsh auto-tune pop out in a way that would not be possible without the other. The four take turns in the spotlight throughout the EP; there is no definitive star in Misery Club. Each member gets a first verse on the project, setting their own unique mood on each track.

“River of Blood” kicks off the album as Zubin’s haunting voice floats over a detuned keyboard, “Oh the river of blood in my veins went dry / last night I went to sleep and died / ghost of Zubin / bring me back to life.” The line is hilariously self-aware (and EPIC) in how dramatic it is, and when the beat drops, it’s the first “oh shIT!” moment on the record. The other three members trade verses on the rest of the track, with Zubin coming back to offer a hook before Simmons closes it off. It’s a total banger, the type of funny, sincere, and incredibly ear-wormy writing that instantly gets you hooked.

“Left Side” is the Wicca Phase fronted track, beginning with a melancholy guitar riff and a slowed-down, minimalistic beat. His monotone vocal delivery fits perfectly with the vibe of the track, as the gloom sets in, “And one time I was so drunk off of red wine / so I could talk to you and with honesty / the problems only come up when I come down / and yet I’m fine when I finally get sleep. He is interrupted by Simmons, who’s soaring melodies contrasts beautifully with the previous verse, running right into Fantasy Camp’s smooth flow, finishing off with Zubin’s trademark vibrato, leaving the listener totally satisfied and sufficiently bummed out, but in a “yeah I’m sad but I still like to party” kind of way.

“Bad Mood” begins similarly, this time with Simmons providing the hook, “Never leave you in a bad mood / girl, I promise if I had you / I’ll never leave you in a bad mood / all my life I wish I had you,” bringing Misery Club the closest to Backstreet Boys territory they have come yet. The song flows by with a similar mid-tempo, breezy feel to the previous track, but this does not serve to harm the record, building the consistency.

The final track, “Lifesaver,” starts off with nearly a minute of ominous droning and 808 hits, standing out from the slow build of the previous tracks. What follows is Fantasy Camp’s lead off verse, one of the most haunting lyrical moments on the album, “Now I’m lying on the ground, foreign objects in the sky / they shower me in blood while I try to rest my eyes / I see you in a vision and you slowly start to cry / I’m going far away now, and I always wonder why.” It closes off with Wicca Phase asserting himself as the king of darkness just before the 808s begin to fade, “I’m a high priest, I come from the fourth world / I come up with new words, even you don’t understand, no.” The EP concludes with the ghost of Zubin once again floating over the chaos.

Although this release is not necessarily groundbreaking either lyrically or sonically, it stands as one of the strongest testaments to emo-rap as a sustainable genre, and begs the question of whether emo as a whole will go in this direction in the next decade. The potential for popular appeal in this release is absurd. Between the addicting beats, #relatable lyrics and charisma, Misery Club could be America’s next boy band. With another EP on the way, and all of the members releasing their various solo music, I’m excited to see what they come up with over the next few months as this sub-genre continues to grow and evolve.

Underrated Albums: On Watch by Slow Mass

The year is 2018 and guitar-driven music is once again in need of revitalization. A few years ago the 2010’s Emo Revival hit full swing, inspiring a new wave of pop-punk-but-this-time-it’s-dorky bands, twinkly math-rock depressed with the state of life in the American Midwest, and self-described loser-rock produced largely in suburban bedrooms and determined to self-destruct at all costs. Roughly a decade ago, when all of these sounds blew up they breathed new life into a musical medium that many had already declared dead. Now with the Emo Revival beginning to lose its steam, the realm of guitar music is once again due for new ideas. Enter: Chicago’s Slow Mass and their debut LP On Watch.

On Watch opens, after a brief intro, with the screech of guitar feedback and two dueling, distorted guitars laid over frenzied drumming courtesy of Josh Sparks (Standards – Into it. Over it.). It hits with the force of a car crash, sending the listener reeling before it retreats on cue to a subdued verse led by the soft crooning of bassist/vocalist Mercedes Webb. The transition is simultaneously drastic and effortless, somehow making what should be a jarring juxtaposition of sounds seem nuanced and natural.

Throughout the album, Slow Mass continue to hold these sounds and dynamics in contrast to one another, at times bordering on pure chaos and at times producing sounds that can’t be described as anything other than beautiful. On My Violent Years, a sparse acoustic arrangement suddenly flourishes with a myriad of woodwind instruments and ethereal vocal harmonies into a rising crescendo that never loses the gentleness of the piece as a whole. Three tracks later E.D. kicks down the door with its dissonant, frenetic brand of hardcore and lays waste to the room before handing the reigns over to the calm shuffling of The Author. Sometimes, like in the plodding Suburban Yellow, they move between both moods in the same song. In still other songs, like penultimate track Schemes, the instrumental and the lyrics seem to create different moods simultaneously. It is this masterful ability to create nuance out of something drastic and extreme that sets Slow Mass apart from their contemporaries. It is this very same ability that makes On Watch a clinic on album composition.

Lyrically, On Watch often leans into the Jeff Tweedy school of cryptic and somewhat obscure. Like Tweedy, however, it is apparent that the lyrics are rarely if ever meaningless, rather they seem to dance around the subject, perhaps giving the listener its general shape but never exposing it in clear terms. In this way deciphering what the songs are about becomes a bit like the old grade-school illustration of feeling an elephant with your eyes closed and trying to explain what you feel. For the ever-shifting, somewhat mysterious feel of the album as a whole this brand of lyricism works quite well, in part because though the lyrics may be cryptic they are not vague. The imagery on On Watchis often vivid, with lines like “a walled up border collie”, “spray painted scenester/ king of the bottom feeders”, “a newborn fib/ and a loser’s lisp”, and “you peel me off like dead skin.” In the few moments where Slow Mass give you something direct it is usually simple, but impactful, such as the central line in closing track G’s End: “All I’ve wanted to say/ is I hope you find peace today.”

Here in their lyricism Slow Mass once again showcase both the tension and the compatibility of extremes, creating a lyrical atmosphere where obtuse images are juxtaposed with direct, easily intelligible phrases such as: “There’s nothing like getting up before dawn to start wasting your life.” 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. Perhaps it is exactly the kind of album that we need to jolt the guitar music world back to life.

Our Rating Scale

Trying to rate albums, like rating any kind of art, is an inherently subjective task. In order to remove as much bias as is humanly possible, we try to rate albums based on what they are trying to accomplish more so than their genre, “sound”, or authenticity. To do this we try to take into account the artist’s intentions, the content of the album, and our personal responses as listeners before assigning each album a numerical value. We love all kinds of music and it is at the core of our mission to help artists, so we do not publish negative reviews or hit pieces. We would rather praise things we think are worth praising than fish for clickbait with negative reviews that don’t help artists or our readers.

That said, it should be noted that our rating scale looks a little different than that of many of our contemporaries. Where a score in the 6-6.9 range would be considered a mixed review in some blogs, here it is the baseline positive score. Rather than signifying a flawed album that could be better, it instead signifies a strong album with a modest goal (which is often to fit neatly into a narrow genre category). The majority of the albums we cover will land in the 6-7.9 range, with a few stand out albums in the 8-8.9 range, and only a hand full of albums scoring 9 or above. The most important thing to remember is that if we are reviewing the album, we like it and think it deserves to be heard, so don’t take offense if we don’t give your favorite band a 10, it doesn’t mean we don’t like them!

Here is a rundown of our scoring system:

6.0-6.9 – It’s Solid

It’s a good example of its genre, or what it’s trying to do. It may not be the most impressive or ambitious example, but it does what it’s trying to do well. It’s a meat n’ potatoes kind of album. These are the kind of albums that you’re going to listen to multiple times over the year when you’re in the mood for a specific sound. For instance: “man I really just want a good old-fashioned pop-punk record, I’m gonna put on Knuckle Puck’s second album.”

7.0-7.9 – It’s Great For its Context

It’s a great example of its genre, or what it’s trying to do. Of all the artists trying to do this thing, these folks are some of the best at it. These albums stick out compared to other similar albums and might be great gateway albums to get people into the genre if they’re not familiar with it. These albums might be considered dark-horse classics in their respective genres.

8.0-8.9 – It Transcends its Genre/Context

These are albums that do something special and might merit a listen from people who don’t usually like the genre this album is coming from. Oftentimes these are cases where the artist pulls off something very poignant in his/her art. Or, this can happen when an artist begins to successfully experiment with new ideas and sounds that aren’t traditionally found in his/her native genre and pulls off something that feels ambitious and groundbreaking.

9.0-9.9 – A Masterpiece/ A Front-Runner for Album of the Year

We think that this album stands head and shoulders over all the other albums that came out this year (or in a down year, comparably to the prior year). This album hit all the right notes, tugged all the right heartstrings, pulled off all the right ambitious moves and left us awestruck. We will come back to this album for years to come.

10.0 – A Generational Classic

This is the rare album that comes out maybe once a decade or so that redefines what we thought was possible in music, makes an incredibly poignant and timely statement, and should be remembered as a highly potent cultural landmark for the foreseeable future. We do not give out 10s on a regular basis.

Welcome to Not a Sound

Thank you for supporting our dream to build a different kind of music journalism. In the future we hope to provide a platform that makes it easy for you to find wonderful, new artists at every level who are creating the music that you want to hear. We have big things planned for this December, but until then, we won’t have too much to share, so please bare with us until operations begin in full.