Some of our unsung favorite albums of 2018
20 albums you shouldn’t overlook in 2018
Fun fact: in a total coincidence of timing, The Key released our best albums of the year list on the same morning that NPR Music, The Guardian, and Paste rolled out their respective lists. Most other major and minor music publications followed suit in the week that followed, social media was aflurry with immense list excitement as much as total list fatigue.
The best hot take I saw in the fray came from Boston journalist Nina Corcoran (a writer for NPR Music, and Pitchfork, among others), who simply Tweeted: “The 50 Best Albums of 2018 That Didn’t Have a PR Machine Churning Behind Them.”
It’s frustrating, but true. It’s daunting when you’re reading about mostly the same albums in a slightly different order, and it begs some consideration. Like I’ve said in the past: while there is power in consensus, how does that consensus get there? Through mass recognition, through large teams of music journalists with widely eclectic tastes finding 15 or 50 or 500 albums (seriously tho, I’d love to see a top 500 list in haiku form) that they can all agree are great. And that happens when artists and their labels have the resources to seriously and steadily push those records to said journalists.
So what’s to become of a release by Philly rapper Ivy Sole, who self-released and self-promoted her outstanding 2018 outing Overgrown? Or one by Columbus psych/folk/punk collective Saintseneca, which did have label support on their beautiful Pillar of Na, easily the best record of their career, but the “campaign” behind it was limited?
My favorite lists, by comparison, are like the one you’re about to read — not driven by consensus, not presented in a ranked order. Not fostering a frustrating sense of competitiveness in an already-frustrating music scene. One that merely collects records that our team is tremendously excited about, and thinks you should make a point to spend some time with.
There are big-budget major releases in here (Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack), and they sit alongside less-discussed smaller scale albums (Kississippi’s wonderfully resilient Sunset Blush). Some, like Yves Tumor, are familiar from some of the other lists we’ve seen this season (it ranked high on Pitchfork’s). Some, like Philly rockers’ RFA’s self-titled debut, might be making their first list appearance here. The common thread: none of these records cracked our top 15 albums list, but all of them are every bit as worthy of your attention. Read on, and dig in.
– John Vettese
Col3trane — Boot — (Geffen)
19-year-old London singer Cole Basta, aka Col3trane, released his second EP this year, a mixture of pop, R&B, and avant garde that seems unique to him. I’ve been a fan of Col3trane since discovering his music through Spotify (shout out to their algorithm), and was very excited for this release. This project sees his musical style becoming more defined, while also exploring different sides of his persona. It definitely seems like the logical conclusion of a young musician raised on American rap and everything else the internet has to offer. His voice is distinctly soulful, a mixture of a Frank Ocean type of emotion and your favorite internet rapper’s rawness.
One thing that mainly stands out on Boot is the amazing songwriting. Some of my favorite lyrics come from the opening of the track “Movie Star”: “You think privacy is overrated / Your dreams are way more important / You love to prove your magic touch / And that’s why you talk way too much.” It’s this kind of simple but wildly relatable writing that makes the songs stick with me. He’s able to express his young adult experience in a way that’s so easy to connect with, it calls to mind a specific person or experience in your own life.
A stand out track from the project is the song “Tyler”. The song is filled with references to movies like Fight Club and Moonrise Kingdom. One of the best lyrics in it is “I take outrageous risks but / the cause of death was boredom.” The song seems to be about relationships that mess with your head, and sets that topic to a groovy drum beat that drives the song, along with an extremely catchy melody, and sprinkles of a xylophone to break up the heaviness.
Overall, this EP is an amazing sophomore effort from Col3trane, and it still impresses me that he was able to create all this at his age. Check out the video for “Tyler” below, and share your thoughts.
– Madorne Lemaine
Denzel Curry — TA1300 — (Loma Vista)
If Stephen King were to make a hip-hop album, it would sound like Denzel Curry’s TA13OO. The 13-track collection is split into three sections– The Light, The Grey, and The Dark Side. It is chocked-full of varying flows, unique styles, and interesting beats. Curry showcases his ability to manipulate his voice to a more forceful setting, rapping on hectic beats, along with bringing a deep level of emotional resonance to his writing.
Act I (The Light) has a dissimilar sound from the rest of the album, but introduces dark topics, expressed throughout the album, under mesmerizing production. The title track opens with the lyrics “welcome to the darkest side of taboo,” giving the listener a warning of what is to come. The track is soft, yet eerie with some contemplative lyrics, triggering a thought-provoking experience. Act I ends with “SUMO” which switches up the whole mood into heavy basslines and violent rapping to mimic the light escaping from Denzel as the listener transitions into the next movement.
Act II (The Gray), things start to get warped and somewhat disconsolate as Curry showcases that raw aggression. Lyrically, there’s great content. His fierce lyrics and bumping bass in “SUPER SAIYAN SUPERMAN” drips with venomous energy as he speaks about the current state of the music industry. The final track “CLOUT COBAIN” concludes this section by slowly edging the listener into the darkness with it’s hypnotic instrumental and unsettling hook “Suicidal doors. Call it Kurt Cobain / Suwu leather seats, like a bloody stain”.
Act III (The Dark), this is the act where Denzel sends the listener straight into hell. Pure darkness illuminates throughout the final four tracks, each in its own way. The one that stands out the most is “VENGEANCE” where Curry’s demonic rapid-fire delivery is combined with bloodthirsty verses from Zillakami and JPEGMAFIA. The raw ferocity follows immediately into “BLACK METAL TERRORIST” where Curry seems to have completely lost it as he grimaces in pain, roaring so loud that your speakers might blow out.
I’ll be honest: Denzel Curry is an acquired taste, but this album is still worth a listen. While his previous release Imperial was impressive, TA13OO allows the listeners a look into the inner workings of Curry’s psyche. His lyrics have depth and meaning behind each verse. Throughout TA13OO, he references a number of topics from Stephen King’s IT, to laundry detergent, to anime, to bipolar disorder, to racism. His music expressed a kind of pain that darkens the heart and chills the soul while capturing both his artistry and his humanity.
– Shannon Vo
Fetti — Roma — (ESGN / Jet Life Recordings / ALC / EMPIRE)
“Luxury rap, the Hermes of verses. Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive…” -Kanye West “Otis”
Ever since the early 1970s, when rap music was born out of the incubator of hip-hop culture in the Bronx, the genre has had a complicated relationship with wealth and corporate influence. The music, produced by poor African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans, was the soundtrack of the ghetto — but it also reflected the shifting, aspirational values of the post-Civil Rights generation. By the time someone decided to put this music and wax and sell it commercially, the duality was solidified. Rap music would exist as a cultural praxis in the Black struggle for independence from corporate, mainstream American life, while remaining wholly susceptible to the trappings of wealth and luxury, then, now and for the foreseeable future.
Enter Curren$y and Freddie Gibbs, two rappers from New Orleans and Gary Indiana, two cities that are outside of the music industry centers of New York and Los Angeles. For the better part of the past decade and a half, Gibbs and Curren$y have amassed a catalog of dozens of mixtapes, albums, EPs and side-projects between them. With this output, they’ve built their own fan bases and toured the world, with minimal assistance from major labels.
Their joint project Fetti, and its EP Roma (produced in full by heavyweight beatsmith Alchemist), finds Gibbs and Curren$y fully casting themselves as a new breed of rap star, two that could only be produced by the genre’s inherent contradictions. Energized by an tense but effective chemistry, the duo’s music is heavy but atmospheric, violent but introspective, corporately aligned, but essentially independent.
The project opens with “Location Remote”, a menacing drum and synth bass groove augmented by wailing gregorian chants. As Gibbs raps “Call the chiropractor, this necklace is extra heavy on my 1963 Gold D’s, I went Andretti on it…” The song conjures an impressively dark and decadent atmosphere of gangsters drugged out, speeding down the Autobahn. Not far from a rap version of A Number of Name’s techno / new wave classic “Shari Vari” played at half-speed. “The Blow” is a playful slice of cocaine-fueled hedonism over a bed of flamboyant baroque-soul. Whether through crime or music, the duo gives us a glimpse at what it’s like to achieve those two long-standing ambitions of Hip Hop and american culture in general, to be both rich and free. Gibbs proclaims this freedom with the line “stood up on my deen the machine never promoted this,” a subtle line touting his independence from the machinations of corporate rap.
“The Blow” rides a dreamy, audio collaged interlude into “New Thangs” a sleepy brag-fest held down with 70s style sweet-soul guitars. Starkly contrasting the album’s darker offerings, “New Thangs” is light, even optimistic sounding. This time, Curren$y steals the show with an in-pocket flow, charismatically illustrating a life of opulence and luxury “I’m in a suite at The Westin in the notebook sketchin’, new designs for the season. Fashion Week we gon’ sneak em’”.
Clocking in at a little over 23 minutes, Fetti is a compact work full of swagger and fire. Exploring rap music’s tried and true dope dealer / rap star archetype, Gibbs and Curren$y have combined to create one of 2018’s few truly flawless rap albums. When paired with The Alchemist’s colorful production, their tales of street hustling and corporate thuggin’ meld to create a rich, grandiose form of psychedelic gangster music.
– John Morrison
Foxing — Nearer My God — (Triple Crown)
“I want it all,” Foxing singer Conor Murphy pleads on the utterly enormous title track of the St. Louis indie rock quartet’s third LP, Nearer My God. Consider the lyric a thesis statement, as Foxing’s mad dash toward wanton ambition, freed from the 2010s fourth-wave emo blueprint the band is associated with, spills across the record’s 12 tracks.
Emerging from such a wave, Foxing’s first two releases, 2013’s The Albatross and 2015’s Dealer, were notable for weaving touches of more left-of-field influences into a revivalist emo template. Some free-jazz drumming here, some baroque pop there. On Nearer My God, such a template is blown completely apart.
Murphy is “shock collared at the gates of heaven” amid drum machines on opener “Grand Paradise,” “feel[s] like a houseplant” on “Lich Prince” (a track that manages to sit heinous guitar feedback and Mariah Carey-esque falsetto crooning together so very comfortably), and yearns to “drive with my eyes closed” across the glacial Sigur Ros-indebted nine-minute landscape of “Five Cups.” Elsewhere, Foxing brazenly arranges string-sampling electronic pop next to a glitched-out panic screed, throws bagpipes onto folk-rock because they can, and elsewhere finding ways to make every grandiose, oversized idea illogically succeed on a record bursting with grandiose, oversized ideas.
Wanting “it all,” as Murphy confesses on “Nearer My God,” isn’t just wanting the whole kitchen sink. “I’d sell my soul to be America’s poolboy,” he follows up, as synths and guitar drones swell. Murphy’s giving it all away here, confiding that this massive swing for the rafters in Nearer My God is free of shame, of modesty, replacing with a demand for validation, to be seen.
How strange and liberating it must feel to create a body of work like Nearer My God that so directly and boldly asks of its audience, as Murphy does: “Do you want me at all?”
– Marc Snitzer
Anthony Green — Would You Still Be In Love — (Memory Music)
One of the greatest things about Anthony Green is his unflinching, no-holds-barred ability to make you feel something. With the release of his latest solo LP, Would You Still Be In Love, he finds a way to break your heart and make you want to thank him for it.
While this album was pretty much the only record I spun all summer after it was released in June, it’s followed me throughout the changing seasons and managed to resonate with me in different ways than I’d initially intended it to. Green has managed to break his pattern of summer releases belonging to summer, which is what I felt happened with 2016’s Pixie Queen and his debut solo record Avalon.
Bright, springy tracks like “Vera Lynn” and “Real Magic,” – the opener and closer of WYSBIL, respectively – were the songs that got me through my first summer living fully in Philadelphia on my own. They were the songs I’d blast while I closed at my summer job. They were the songs that looped through my car each time I drove to Avalon.
But, just as I know Green intended, the album gets darker the further you listen. At its core, it’s about his personal struggle living with bipolar disorder and how he’s managed it, which is why these songs seem so back and forth in their themes and melodies. That’s also what makes this album such a great listen. So when fall came and the days slowly started to get shorter, I found myself gravitating towards “Changing Shape” and “When I Come Home,” two of the transitional tracks on the album that start to pull you in to that darkness that Green has desperately succeeded in conveying.
“Why Must We Wait” and “A Little Death” feel like a long, harsh winter personified. They’re crushingly honest in their lyrics, and the sort of songs that you masochistically put on when you’re already feeling down just to make it a little bit worse. (Often times, those are the best ones). Though sadness is a relevant and necessary theme in these songs, they also glimmer with hope, something that Green seems to always fight for, no matter how bad things might be.
Maybe I’m really biased, but this is Green’s best release to date. There has to be a reason why it’s stuck with me for so long. Whether it’s the melancholic lyrics that manage to find me just when I need them, the powerful and honest voice that has finally been given to his struggle with mental illness, or the fact that his soundscapes really seemed to have matured since Pixie Queen, it’s all important. Green has released a beautiful album that will stay with you long after summer ends.
– Emily Herbein
The Guests — Popular Music — (Sabotage Records)
Despite the fact that their music is very much rooted in the ’80s – think Heaven 17, Modern English, a Flock of Seagulls, and other mid-tempo synthy stuff from that era – The Guests are not in any way a ‘throwback’ band. Their songs, much like the band’s ever present politics, are both timeless and very much rooted in the here and now. This much is made quite clear on their latest release, this year’s Popular Music, which is also their first full length album.
Make no mistake, this is a political screed put to music. While many bands have a lot of good things to say, it’s rare to find a group that can deliver their message in such a fun way. What’s brilliant about this album and indeed everything The Guests have done is that melding of radical politics and actually catchy pop tunes. As lead guitarist Alki Meimaris told The Key in an interview when the album came out last February, “The music is a sugar pill that helps the medicine of our politics go down.”
It’s hard to pick a favorite track on Popular Music. When I was completely obsessed with the album last winter it was definitely “Kicked and Punched, Rounded Up, and Stunned,” their song about being up against the barricades and fighting for what you believe in. I felt like it followed me around everywhere I went, a perfect soundtrack for a dreary season. Revisiting it recently I was struck by the almost meditative dance beats in “Watching the War” and the anthemic “Serpentine.” I’m also really into the fact that the band ended this seemingly dystopian album with “Red At Heart,” a love song about life on the factory floor.
– Yoni Kroll
The Internet — Hive Mind — (Columbia)
Real camaraderie’s hard to come by and even harder to sustain. Anybody who’s done the hard work of keeping a family together, whether blood-related or chosen, knows this. The Internet do, too, as would anybody who’s listened to the band evolve between 2011’s Purple Naked Ladies and this year’s Hive Mind. What started as Odd Future members Syd Bennet and Matt Martians’ psychedelic meditations on love’s narrative arc evolved into five expert musicians and producers’ joint exploration of the human condition.
Like all strong families, the Los Angeles band lets its members grow on their own because that strengthens the collective. Each musician probed the boundaries of the band’s expansive sound on a series of solo releases after their previous record, 2015’s Ego Death, demonstrated the quintet’s innovative potential. Martians’ The Drum Chord Theory and “Loud,” from drummer Christopher A. Smith’s duo C&T, allowed both instrumentalists to flex their production and songwriting chops over propoulsively jagged beats. Bassist Patrick Paige II exercised his considerable rap talents throughout the dense instrumentation on his misleadingly named debut, Letters of Irrelevance. Syd’s Fin and her guitar-slinging bandmate’s self-titled Steve Lacy’s Demo used windy R&B and lo-fi funk, respectively, to let both musicians play with the swagger of being a frontperson.
Each of these solo pursuits illuminated the members’ exceptional musicianship. Hive Mind combines their skills into a much greater whole that showcases both artistic and emotional maturation. The band’s characteristic haziness and relaxed confidence evolve into something more purposeful throughout these 13 tracks, whether invoking collective ecstasy beyond criticism on “La Di Da” or imploring guileless celebration on “Roll / Burbank Funk” (which everybody should throw on the playlist for their next wedding/bar mitzvah/housewarming/dance party).
The musicians’ interdependence comes through not just on these propulsive instrumentals, but also the vulnerability that Syd, surrounded by chosen family, allows through her lyrics. Her soft-edged and agile vocals always conveyed a romantic wisdom beyond her years, and she brings that emotional intelligence to other topics on Hive Mind. “It Gets Better (With Time)” speaks to the debilitation of depression and offers understanding and support without inauthentic sunshine. She shows the flip side of that compassion on the next track, “Look What U Started,” when caustically asking a partner who dared hurt her, “before you go and ask for help, hey, do you deserve it?” with all the conviction of someone who, as the lone lesbian woman in a rap collective often critiqued for its aggressive machismo, knows her family has her back.
The Internet always eschewed pop payoff for the hard-fought satisfaction of a nuanced vibe that touches all corners of the psyche and soul. Hive Mind proves that there’s no limit to where their journey through infectious groove will take them. If you vibe with this kind of journey, then the Internet will take you well beyond the surface
– Sameer Rao
Ivy Sole — Overgrown — (Les Fleurs)
Ivy Sole’s most recent album is a meditation on self reflection and growth that explore every meaning of the title Overgrown. On the record, the North Carolina-born rapper explored her roots and the circumstances that brought her from Charlotte to living and thriving in West Philadelphia.
Ivy had to grow up fast, learning to navigate being queer in a religious household. She held tight to her spirituality despite her southern baptist church’s stance on queerness, and having to sit through sermons demonizing her personhood. “Parables” comments on that upbringing and how she can still find solace in the good book, even ending the song with a verse from Luke 8:5.
“Roller Coaster” is a throwback to 90’s era Usher, right down to the interpolation, and it explores contentious relationships and the thin curvy line between love and hate. “Lovely Fiction” touches on the past and the future as Ivy contemplates child rearing and the fears, joy and insecurities that accompany the decision. “Achilles” speaks of the walls we erect out of fear and past pain. How do you leave yourself open for growth when “every person represents your next potential blow?” Ivy owns up to her past mistakes and thanks the pain for forcing change. On “Still Wasted” Ivy and producers Corey Smith-West & Cru are on their D’Angelo game. The track oozes with the sensual neo-soul vibe that’s reminiscent of peak of the Soulquarians reign.
The title track can be read as a play on word. The song “Overgrown” means that Ivy is over being grown, causing her to remember the ease and carelessness of childhood. The album in sprinkled with motivational affirmations by Amber Wagner (@jstlbby), and the moral of the story is growth and forgiveness.
“I’m sorry for the lessons I learned at your expense
And I know it hurts that you can’t see my growth in present tense” – Achilles
– Koof Ibi Umoren
Kendrick Lamar and various artists — Black Panther Soundtrack — (Top Dawg Entertainment)
The anticipation for the Marvel film Black Panther was off the charts, and hearing that acclaimed Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar was curating and appearing on an album inspired by the film had many envisioning what Prince did for Batman. Instead of Lamar’s sole vision, however, he collaborated with many artists unknown to the mainstream. Lamar made a playlist for his own reference of South African artists to inspire him before writing and recording and ended up working with some of them.
A highlight of both the album and the film is “Opps,” a track Lamar collaborates on with rappers Saudi, Yugen Blakrok, and L.A. rapper Vince Staples. The beat is almost like house music with the refrain “you’re dead to me,” repeating throughout. Director Ryan Coogler chose to use the track during the chase through the city of Busan which enhances the listening after seeing Black Panther. The album acts as an excellent companion to the film, not only in augmenting what goes on on-screen but also in the themes of the film. Coogler (and the comic book) has strong capable women characters as well as a beautiful vision of the land of Wakanda. Lamar adds some African flavor to songs like “Redemption,” and “Big Shot,” while his beautiful song with Swae Lee and Khalid, “The Ways,” sounds like an ode to T’Challa’s crush, Nakia.
Lamar’s lyrics are also poignant in that the mythos of the character of T’Challa and his alter ego, The Black Panther, is not lost on the rapper that many can agree is the most revered of his time. The themes Lamar explored on his Pulitzer Prize-winning (seriously how cool is it that Kendrick is a Pulitzer Prize winning artist?!) DAMN are echoed here. T’Challa and Lamar are looked to as the guys with all of the answers and they are pressured to represent “their people,” whether by spilling the beans on vibranium and arming the defenseless or by saying all of the right words and having all of the right answers for hip hop fans.
“Because we don’t glue with the opposition, we glue with peace
But still’d fuck up your organization if any beef
What do you stand for?
Are you a activist? What are your city plans for?
Are you a accident? Are you just in the way?”
Soundtracks and albums that act as companions to films have been lacking in the past 20 years. It may be Quentin Tarantino’s fault for popularizing the use of already existing songs to drum up nostalgia and play on already existing bonds with the songs used. Let’s hope that Lamar and Thom Yorke (who wrote the songs for this year’s Suspiria soundtrack) have brought back the idea of original soundtracks and original songs made by thoughtful musicians.
– Maureen Walsh
Kississippi — Sunset Blush — (self-released)
“The person you made yourself out to be would feel sorry for what you have done to me.”A line from not only the most infectious song of 2018 (“Cut Yr Teeth”), but it might be a nice summary of how some things came to be For Zoe Reynolds and Kississippi.Beginning as a duo, Zoe parted ways with fellow musician Colin Kupson, and found herself writing on her own for the first time.Faced with the chance to explore her own inner workings with a little more focus, Kississippi pulled together Sunset Blush – the most nostalgic collection of emo pop music since Sunny Day Real Estate was a 3-piece called The Fire Theft.
Anticipation grew, a tour with Dashboard Confessional set the stage, and a deal with emo/punk stalwarts SideOneDummy seemed to write the final chapter.But, a restructuring at the label left Kississippi with a choice, and the one Reynolds made was to self-release.Time will tell where this will all land, but until then, standing alone in the wild is an absolutely fun-filled joyride of glistening guitars and bittersweet vocals that seem to wrap even the sharpest line with a bit of optimism.There is often a soft layer of hope – “Shamer” lands gently on “You are not like the others / In you I find some comfort,” while others like “Who Said It First” play with the uncomfortable feelings of a shaky relationship with “I, I could be better / You, you could be worse / We both said forever / But who, who said it first.”
There is no attempt to obfuscate here, this is heart-on-sleeve music.Much of what we want to say falls apart when things are lost in translation, but the communication across all of Sunset Blush is crystal clear.Zoe Reynolds and Kississippi have found their voice, and I’m looking forward to each and every heartbreaking and hopeful moment of it.
– Matthew Shaver
Restorations — LP5000 — (Tiny Engines)
It’s for your own good, it’s for the neighborhood: On LP5000, Restorations’ first record in since 2014, the Philly heartland punk band come home to tackle gentrification and cultural identity. From the beginning, on album opener “St.,” singer Jon Loudon dives right in; “You spit on the sidewalk as I’m walking away.” He immediately acknowledges his own fault in this with a line like, “Listen buddy, I paid a lot of money to tune you out,” but at least he’s trying to be better.
On power-pop anthem and highlight “Remains,” the band rages as Loudon sings, “One day we’ll all be condos, we’ll all be gutted and clean.” All you have to do is walk up North 3rd to know exactly what he’s talking about. LP5000 plays fierce with its punk roots, never relenting on the screaming guitars or a well timed drum breakdown. The record drives through the streets of Philadelphia with a burning urgency, like on the U2-indebted album centerpiece “The Red Door.” Just look at the dilapidation that graces the album cover; we can see exactly where we’re going but can’t do anything to prevent it.
But it’s doesn’t have to be a Philly neighborhood. LP5000 aches with a sense of community that feels desperately human in 2018. The bridge of the drifting “Melt” goes, “There’s good left, I’ve seen it, kids still check the telephone lines for transmissions,” like an army of rebels waiting for that last sign of hope to come through the airwaves. At 24 minutes, the record seems like one long song rather than a 7 track album, but that’s exactly what Restorations are great at; creating a world within the music, whether that be Philadelphia or the world at large. Your home is what you make it, so you better make it good.
– Tyler Asay
RFA — RFA — (self-released)
Your favorite freshly graduated DIY kick ass rock band RFA is back with new music. After almost a year since their hit single “Suzie Lee” came out in May of 2017, the boys debuted their first full length self-titled album back in April. The album weaves in and out of relatable topics aimed towards college students, making it the go-to reflection album for the graduation season. Themes of laziness, loneliness, love, and the relief of moving on in life set the tone for what it means to be a last-semester senior.
Instrumentally, the music is upbeat, catchy, and fun. Front man Dan Cousart’s lyrics are specific and in-the-moment while being rhythmically supported by fast paced and intricate guitar riffs that still give off that basement-rock vibe that they’re most loved for.
My favorite track off this album is “Farewell.” They played it at the release show at PhilaMOCA last spring and it was the most fun new song and the crowd went wild for it. The whole pit moshed to the looping chorus of “Goodbye baby, farewell,” and Cousart’s signature go all in stage presence. If you’ve ever seen an RFA show, you know things get sweaty.
This album was one that I played throughout almost the whole summer; I know the band is starting to go off in different personal directions, but I hope they always keep Philly close and try to release more new jams when they can.
– Dylan Eddinger
Saintseneca — Pillar of Na — (ANTI-)
“Turn all eternal, Eternal the wheel / Ah circle in circle, May be unbroken still” is the line that opens Saintsenceca’s fourth studio album Pilar of Na, and it perfectly sets the tone for this beautiful woven musical tapestry. The album feels meant to be lost in; if you aren’t listening from end to end, then you might just be missing the point.
The band uses imaginative storytelling methods and a myriad of unique instrumentation to create a sound all their own in the alt-folk realm. This style is on display on “Moon Barks at the Dog,” which twists listeners through a fantastical dreamscape. The band inevitably breaks the musical third wall with the lyric “weep with me in 4/4 time.”
The first single off Pilar of Na, “Frostbiter” explores the concept of life, death and the fleeting of time. They sing “Two blue hairs, stare down the bass guitar aisle / Reminiscing about the band we were in as a child / Swear to god we had the best singer in Ohio / They got crazy on blow so we never really made it past the first shows though.” The song transitions seamlessly into the nine-minute long title track, which transports listeners through all the themes of the album just to start it all over again with the closing verse: “Turn all eternal, Eternal the wheel, Ah circle in circle, May be unbroken still.”
– Rachel Del Sordo
Seinabo Sey — I’m a Dream — (Universal)
For me, good pop music is hard to come by. In the 90’s, and early aughts I considered myself to be a huge fan of pop music: *Nsync, Britney, Christina, LFO. Today, I consider the top-40 synthy vaguely reggae hits to be mind-numbingly one dimensional; I sometimes unaffectionately call this sort of genre “Uber music,” songs I only hear when I am in an Uber Pool.
Interestingly enough, it took for me stumbling upon the Gambian, Sweedish-born songstress Seinabo Sey to reawaken my passion for popular music. My first introduction on Sey was her 2015 release Pretend, which featured powerful vocals backed by sometimes spooky, sometimes surely angelic instrumentation.
Sey’s 2018 release I’m a Dream capitalized off of all of those aforementioned elements, except it got a tad more literal and personal. If vague folky lyrics are your thing, this album might not be for you, but it may be a second or third listen – that is about how long it took for me to get pulled in.
The album starts with “I Love You” and aptly titled ballad that speaks of a selfless and sometimes self-sabotaging love that is eventually set free. Instead of leaving listeners feeling like they are making bad choices in their life by giving their all, Sey’s optimism and will to love unabashedly will allow you a resolve to love that much harder.
Upon a first, superficial listen, the second track “Never Get Used To” soundz like break up song. Sey sings in her deep voice “I will never get used to not having you around.” If you are not listening to her hard enough, you might miss where she sings “calling to you is your daughter, looking for you around every corner.” Once I paid attention to this line it was clear that the song was about her late father, Maudo Sey, a popular Gambian singer who passed in 2013.
“I Owe You Nothing” was one of the first singles to be released off of I’m a Dream. The dark and slightly tribal music is a proclamation of fierceness. Despite being an artist, Sey declares that she is not here for the mindless consumption of her personhood. Sey acknowledges the unsettlingness of this act of defiance when she croons “These aren’t tears this is the ocean. These aren’t fears, this is devotion.”
One of the most notable songs on I’m a Dream is “Remember,” featuring Jacob Banks. Here we are visited by organs that were a frequent presence on Pretend and warm full-bodied harmonies. With the minimalistic music and ambient oceanic sounds, both Sey’s and Bank’s vocal range take center stage. This may be the most powerful song on the entire album.
With I’m a Dream, Seinabo Sey has restored my faith in pop music. Everything about her, down to her look, her vocals, and choice of music has been a refreshing splash. I am impatiently waiting for a U.S. tour.
– Lissa Alicia
Shame — Songs of Praise — (Dead Oceans)
I stumbled into Shame basically in my backyard. They were the middle band between Grace Vonderkuhn and Ought at Gild Hall in Arden, an insane lineup in retrospect. I have never seen and never expect to see a performance quite like it, at least here. This combination of the Sex Pistols and Joy Division played a stadium-level show to maybe 100 people, wide-mouthed in awe.
I recall a mid-set image of Charlie Steen shirtless and raging, howling spittle from the top of the speakers, as the rhythms of their catchy hit “One Rizla” dry-humped the roof of the hall. Their debut album was still two months from release, but I could not wait to see them live again.
Songs of Praise was one of the first albums released in 2018, and it arrived as a solid ten-song collection of catchy post-punk classics clocking in just under 40 minutes. It opens with the seething wall of guitars that is “Dust On Trial”, and ends on a massive shimmery My Bloody Valentine wall of “Angie,” and no filler in the middle. It’s a phenomenal album, but still only approaches the ferocity and unpredictable nature of their live shows. But even with that as a caveat, there’s nothing else like it I heard in 2018.
– Joe Del Tufo
SiR — November — (Top Dawg Entertainment)
With the release of the Grammy-nominated Black Panther: The Album, their first signee Jay Rock’s critically acclaimed Redemption, newcomer Reason’s debut There You Have It, as well dominating the first half of the year with their TDE Presents The Championship Tour 2018, it’s safe to say that making a ton of noise was TDE’s mission in 2018. Yet with all the commotion TDE made with rap music, they also low key made noise in the R&B department with the release of Inglewood’s own SiR’s debut album November, showing the variety of talent that the lies within the California independent record label.
I don’t think November was slept on; I believe that SiR not being as big as his labelmates and that his debut album was the first release of the year for TDE played a huge factor as to why it may have seemed to have gotten overlooked, compared to all the other dope albums that came out this year. But if this was your first introduction to the California R&B singer/songwriter, or you’ve been a fan since the Seven Sundays and HER and HER TOO EP’s, then there was no way you could overlook how talented of a music artist SiR is.
With the title of his debut album being his birth month, it seems that SiR made November feel a like a groovy ride inside of his mind, each song playing the part of a thought. With the help of his female robotic companion “K,” SiR is able to properly transition from thought to thought, making sure that the trip is comfortable for any listener who chooses to ride shotgun or in the backseat.
There’s a couple of emotions that hit you when taking this ride with SiR. One minute you may feel like laying back and light one up with songs like “Something Foreign,” featuring label mate Schoolboy Q and “D’Evils,” while “Something New” featuring British singer Etta Bond can make you reminisce on a love that’s forbidden. The highlights of song transitioning are in the second half of the album: “Never Home” explores the frustration of balancing a relationship and obtaining his music goals, “War” shows the dedication of trying to make his relationship work, while “Better” is a song that cries when SiR accepts living with the fact that he did his lady wrong forever. However, the L.A. crooner makes sure that love wins on funky soulful songs like “Dreaming of Me” and “November,” ending the album on a happy note.
– Rahman Wortman
Swearin’ — Fall Into the Sun — (Merge)
That Swearin’ released a record this year is something that, not long ago, we didn’t think we’d be saying. Fall Into the Sun marks the first release in five years from a band that seemed fated to never record again. But despite it all, they’re still here, and the new record has ushered the once-dormant band into a new era; one that has hints of familiarity but feels boldly new. With Fall Into the Sun, Swearin’ has proven resilient to the challenges that a comeback can pose. Songwriters Allison Crutchfield and Kyle Gilbride weave separate narratives throughout the record, alternating their storylines until they become inextricable. Writing like this isn’t only unusual, it’s an exercise in radical acceptance, thriving on mutual trust.
Their stark differences as songwriters are what shape the record. Crutchfield unfurls her sentiments in quick, wordy strains; the sharp inflection of her voice revealing subtleties. But Gilbride avoids the same urgency, his songs abstract and his tone unwavering as if to not betray too much. She veers autobiographical when it comes to starting over in Los Angeles while the rest of the band remains in Philly — “If I had never left home, would you still feel like you’re alone?” she asks herself on “Untitled (LA)”, and wonders “who I was before we met” on “Grow Into a Ghost.” Gilbride leans vague and metaphorical, leaving the listener to interpret what they will — “Love’s just a piece of the puzzle now,” he sings on “Treading.”
If not in content, the songwriters’ biggest commonality, then, is in their outlook — both acknowledge the past without dwelling in it, instead accepting and embracing what the present and future hold. With the absence of a planned-out, agreed-upon narrative, it’s more of a coincidence that the two reached similar conclusions. Exploring individually the differences time and distance can make may be just what Swearin’ needed to keep going.
– Sarah Hojsak
Yves Tumor — Safe In The Hands of Love — (Warp)
If you’ve ever been submerged in the depths of Spotify Premium’s murkier, <1000 plays electronic music landscape littered with trip hop and vaporwave records you didn’t know you needed — some awful, some good, some transcendent — stumbling across the enigmatic Yves Tumor on a dreary Sunday evening might seem like a blessing. The artist’s third album is not just a great find however; Safe in the Hands of Love is a liberationist’s auditory meditation, a revolution in the exploration of sound unlike anything preceding it.
The opening notes from the song “Faith In Nothing Except Salvation” is a rousing, horn-drenched siren, piercing through hazier samples, that seems to declare absolute freedom of thought, feeling, and sound. The album moves effortlessly between genre like a millennial Fear of a Black Planet (in fact on “Noid” Yves laments “911 / Can’t trust them”, a clear call back) or M.I.A.’s MAYA if it were raised in Brooklyn bodegas and pummeled by tribal rhythms accenting bombasitc kickdrums and distorted guitar strings on tracks like “All the Love We Have Now.”
But it’s not eclecticism for weirdness’s sake; as the melancholic chorus of “Lifetime” (“Scorpion can’t hold me back / I swear I miss my brothers) kicks in, riding a trance-inducing, warped big beat groove, the intensity is apparent and all notions of tongue-in-cheek misanthropy disappears. As on the closing track “Let the Lioness In You Flow Freely” whose layered vocal effects weave through droney, “is the CD skipping?” glitches, the record is a revolution, sure, but it is a revolution that is warm and embracing, even when it feels like utter chaos.
What we have with Safe in the Hands of Love is an artist with an uncompromising vision, a musicians whose chaotic, reverb and rhythm drenched live shows act as a totemic ritual in concert with music made for an entire other plane of existence. Blending and bending genre and gender, love and liberation, Yves Tumor is dope, Yves Tumor is emancipated and with the illuminated brilliance of Safe, he wants you to know that you are too.
– Alex Smith
U.S. Girls — In A Poem Unlimited — (4AD)
Revenge fantasies and seduction, rage and abuse — through its captivating grooves these topics are articulated with nuance and flavor for InA Poem Unlimited, Meg Remy’s U.S. Girls having evolved from a lo-fidelity solo entity into a fully-developed genre-fluid ensemble.
With help from the Canadian-based group The Cosmic Range, along with long-time collaborators Max “Slim Twig” Turnbull and Louis Percival, In A Poem Unlimited is a pop-fueled topical discourse driven by pure audible sugar, disco loops (“Mad As Hell”) and rock-infused swing (“Incidental Boogie”), sultry rhythms (“Velvet 4 Sale”) and blue-eyed funk (“Time”), an examination of sexual politics viewed through multiple lenses. And while the music is smartly accessible and pulsates with club-friendly appeal, Remy’s true success is based in narrative, her ability to expound upon complex subjects with a poet’s wit and a storyteller’s empathy essential to this work.
In the single “Pearly Gates,” Remy’s character understands the politics of sexuality well enough to gain the upper-hand, (“…St. Peter asked for one chance to be an angel in his eyes / It seemed to be the safe bet, so I closed my eyes / And opened my gates wide / And St. Peter came inside…”), limiting a powerful being by exploiting his desires. With the aforementioned “Incidental Boogie,” the illusion of control becomes reason to justify abuse, the fact that “He hits me left, hits me right, all the time but no marks, no evidence to see,” some strange conveyance of respect and adoration. Remy cancels out the “one size fits all” perceptions and solutions for addressing and fixing misogyny and sexism; instead, In A Poem Unlimited is an anthemic treatise and meditation on our current political and social reality.
Compelling, substantive, and troublingly enjoyable, with In A Poem Unlimited U.S. Girls finds a platform for acknowledgement, speaking a language profoundly relevant and also sadly overdue.
– Sean Caldwell
Dan Weiss – Starebaby – (Pi)
The path from heavy metal to jazz is not as circuitous as it may seem. The two genres share a few aesthetic qualities – technical virtuosity, a tendency to push into musical extremes, splintering subgenres – that have led many a listener from one fandom to another (including yours truly, whose bridge from Slayer to Coltrane was John Zorn’s Naked City, with its brutal riffs, screaming vocals and, not least, its very metal Weegee cover photo). That’s certainly the case for drummer/composer Dan Weiss, whose adventurous playing has used bands like Meshuggah and Metallica as reference points alongside avant-garde jazz and his extensive tabla studies, and served a short stint punishing the skins for doom outfit Bloody Panda.
Those influences converge in fascinating and mysterious fashion on Starebaby. It would be reductive to simply refer to the album as a metal-jazz hybrid, as Weiss isn’t interested in genre fusion so much as stirring together the elements that inspire him in those envelope-pushing musics in order to find a new direction for his own voice. In that pursuit he’s joined by a band stocked with metal-loving innovators: keyboardists Matt Mitchell and Craig Taborn, guitarist Ben Monder, and bassist Trevor Dunn, whose avant-jazz career has run in parallel with his work in bands like Mr. Bungle and the Melvins.
A key factor in Starebaby’s elusive blend is Weiss’ obsession with Twin Peaks: The Return, which is name-checked in a couple of song titles. More importantly, Weiss’ music is imbued with the same qualities that made the show such a mind-warping masterpiece: the alluring darkness, the omnipresent shadow of violence, the disquieting undercurrent of something wrong but undiscovered, perhaps undiscoverable. Whether those qualities stem from David Lynch’s inimitable style or the adrenaline rush of a blistering blast beat, the result is a work replete with serrated edges and uneasy atmospheres.
– Shaun Brady