One down, three to go, everybody.
Next up on the yearly review is music, and all the releases I kept up with despite, in a Spotify-estimated 35,000+ minutes this year, mostly listening to old Frank Zappa albums, the first four records from The Mars Volta I’ve memorized since the age of 13, and Run the Jewels 1-3 on repeat. It’s been a banner year for a lot of different artists, and this is what I liked, not necessarily what was culturally relevant enough to be the Album of the Year. I’m not going to jerk off the (excellent) Black Panther soundtrack, rank dead or imprisoned Soundcloud rappers, pontificate on the artistic and social importance of Janelle Monae’s brilliant ongoing oeuvre, express my complicated, conflicted feelings about Greta Van Fleet, or argue about Turnstile (it’s good).
Also, as a guy not (often) paid for criticism or reviews, there’s probably tons I’ve missed or overlooked. Just like I haven’t seen Widows or The Favorite because nobody pays me to go to the theater, or sat my ass down to watch The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Sorry to Bother You yet (all films very much on my radar), I simply haven’t had enough time or energy to devote to pouring over every release that’s piqued my interest or came out from an artist I like. I’m also getting old, and so a lot of what The Kids™ are into or whatever is probably irritating to me (Cardi B holds absolutely zero sway over my life) and I’d rather listen to Cursive’s Domestica for the six-hundredth time. This is also in no particular order, lightly segregated by a loose sense of genre, and if I had to guess, it’s probably going to come out to like ten with maybe a few honorable mentions. If you have Spotify, there’s links for everything!
After loving their long-awaited Untitled LP release from 2015, Detroit’s The Armed follow up a 2016 live record with one of the finest metal albums of the year, surpassing my high expectations. Adding the pedigree of America’s finest hardcore band, Converge, with drummer Ben Koller rhythmically anchoring the group with instinctual precision and guitarist Kurt Ballou as producer, both welcome additions to the member-fluid punk collective, The Armed continues to refine a dissonant, chaotic sound that’s punctuated with flourishes of odd electronics work reminiscent of a coherent form of The Locust or some of the other more experimental fare found on now-defunct LA label Gold Standard Laboratories. Somehow constantly sounding like it’s preparing to go off the rails but finding surprising groove in locating its footing again, Only Love roots itself in a defiant, revolutionary misanthropy perfect for its era, which is only underscored by the album’s companion booklet, “No Solutions.” Kings of a snotty, slick but ultimately righteous aesthetic, The Armed makes me long for my disintegrating, dog-eared copy of Politics is Not a Banana, dangerous old friends, and small, loud, sweaty rooms.
The Body, the long-running noise duo from Rhode Island, cuts together previous work as a sort of definitive retrospective in 2018’s release I Have Fought Against It. But I Can’t Any Longer. The title being a reference to Virginia Woolf’s suicide note, the album is hellishly challenging but gorgeous in its featuring of Chrissy Wolpert of the Assembly of Light Choir in between crushing, distorted, bleak brutality. A cathartic, raw exploration of taking yourself out in the face of lamenting about the end of the world, there’s a sense that it’s less afraid of an apocalypse and more coming to the realization that everything has failed, we’re just playing it out. It’s terrifying to listen to, like an auditory spiritual peer of the rote cruelty of Russian science-fiction film Hard to Be a God. The digitized screeching vocals between sampled chanting and tidal synthesizer sweeps, before the bass static of stand-out track “Blessed, Alone” gives way to Wolpert’s beautiful, warbled refrains before collapsing in a pained, demonic, inhuman growl will find you in your nightmares. The Body is the soundtrack to realizing you’re living on a planet that’s almost dead, and that everyone around you has yet to grasp the gravity of the situation, continuing instead to consume what’s left, uncaring as people around them gradually begin to succumb.
Continuing their prolific output after more than a decade with dozens of singles, splits and collaborations (including two with The Body), Baton Rouge’s sludge-royalty Thou put out five records this year, and Magus is their fifth career LP. Reliably illustrating a hatred for a bleak reality resolutely worth fighting against is kind of Thou’s ongoing thematic motif, and Magus doesn’t stray away from the trusty core of the band’s anarchist politics or nihilistic screeds against the existent. Musically, it’s as solid as ever, recalling an ethereal stoner-metal vibe with perfectly mixed vocals familiar to Scandinavian black-metal’s heyday and reaching influence, like if Agalloch and Sepultura played a set together during a black bloc demonstration.
Frontman Patrick Kindlon had a busy year, releasing two fantastic, future-seminal albums with Albany’s Drug Church and his other band, Self Defense Family (Have You Considered Punk Rock). Both grungey, dissonant punk rock albums, decrying work and glorifying the average punk lifestyle in a way that doesn’t make you want to spitefully punch an eighth grader in a Causalities t-shirt, the anthemic, sing-a-long nature of both albums really broke up the monopolistic hold that ruthless metal, old skramz standards, and 90s rap had on me for most of the year. Kindlon predicted this would be Drug Church’s “sellout album”, and while I’m seeing it on a ton of other year-end lists, it would be far-fetched to say Cheer eschews the DIY roots that established both groups he fronts as favorites among the punk listening public.
Kurt Ballou is having a hell of a year as a producer, his first career effort on the boards being Joyce Manor’s fifth LP, which finds the band losing their edge a bit, embracing the “pop” aspect of pop-punk after sitting at King Arthur’s round table of emo revival royalty. Lyrically and musically, it sounds like an Archie strip where every character has tattoos and lives in Torrance, California, a far cry from the casual substance abuse, frustrated love songs and quick, yelled ditties that characterized Never Hung Over Again and their self-titled debut. I would’ve hated this album five years ago, snobbish arrogance leading me to declaring it a sellout record, but true to the “fourth wave” of emo, my comparative age with most members of these bands has given me a weird appreciation for this kind of direction. There’s a nostalgic innocence, reminiscent of young love but filtered through the perspective of someone who has tried and failed, and tried and failed again, and is coming to learn to enjoy that process. If that puts a sunnier disposition on the traditional themes, it makes for an album just a rife with sarcasm and irony while keeping its standards.
Rarely is a band so ambitious they seek out a bagpipe player. The third album from St. Louis’s Foxing, one of the more talented bands to emerge from the influences of indie rock’s post-primordial ooze of Animal Collective, Broken Social Scene, and The Arcade Fire, very well could’ve fallen flat in a “mid-career Dewey Cox opus” kind of way, but instead pulls it off with perfect form on the right side of vintage Radiohead. Pretentious but earning and owning it, Nearer My God is ambient but not without being instrumentally interesting. Building upon the momentum of their first two releases, The Albatross and Dealer, respectively, very rarely does a band with this level of self-assured confidence in their own canonical importance deliver something so earnestly over-the-top but absolutely fantastic.
The most aptly named band in the universe, Baltimore dream-pop duo Beach House bring a thick, weighted offering in 7, their first collaboration with producer Peter “Sonic Boom” Kember. Victoria Legrand is one of my favorite vocalists in all of music, and with the backing of some of the most lulling, trance-inducing shoegaze instrumental work outside of “The Scene That Celebrates Itself.” It’s altogether another wonderful effort, somehow still fresh, new, and innovative after seven albums worth of music that somehow functions different, and yet the same, in any weather, light, or geographic location. I keep missing them on tour, but I’ve heard they’re like Mogwai-loud and the premise of Beach House played at such a high volume, that whole hum rattling your body even during the quiet parts, is really exciting to me.
Likely the second-most anticipated collaboration with the elusive MF DOOM on everybody’s list (DOOMSTARKS 2019 please), the pairing of nostalgia fiends Inspectah Deck, 7L, Esoteric, and DOOM, all vintage cartoon aficionados with ears for classic hip hop of bygone eras makes for an excellent match. DOOM, having suffered greatly in his personal life, hasn’t released a “proper” album in four years and this collaboration with Czarface sees him in a comfortable spot, clearly trying to find a full-length sized groove after guest-spotting from the UK. It’s a fun walk in the park for both entities, not the instant classic of DOOM’s earlier work but indulgent enough in what Czarface usually traffics in for a clearly wounded Villain to exercise his forte in wordplay.
Mixtape king Nipsey Hussle has, to me, the greatest name in rap, which is why I always kept my eye on him. It took ten years for him to finally jump from guest spots and mixtape features to get a full-length out. It’s a sound, presentation, and content that doesn’t really appeal to me that much, I’m way guilty of white-boy-backpack-rap-centric fandom and I don’t really give a shit, but Hussle has undeniably smooth flow and pays his dues to the pioneering West Coast sound he came up within. The production is slick, doesn’t rely on 808s constantly, and hearkens back to a lot of the foundational sounds that brought rap music into the mainstream in the late 80s. Hussle is mean though, and not quite always on-point, the borderline-tribute guest verses and spiritual successor tracks are a little hokey, but it sounds real good.
Probably the artist I’m most excited about discovering this year after sleeping on him forever is Denzel Curry. Dynamic and diverse, reminding me more of early 90’s R&B than bedroom studio internet rap, it’s probably one of my favorite rap albums in the last five years and got me questioning if my deliberate avoidance of “Soundcloud Rap” might have been foolish or if Curry is just the cream of that crop. Deeply personal and mournfully analytical, there’s verses on this record that will slay even the most hardened dude, then it follows up with something vicious and hilarious like “SUMO.” Color me so impressed.