Welcome back to the greatest show on the internet!
The SMA’s have returned!
Duh – Sowing’s Music Awards? It’s cute that you pretended to forget – it’s only the biggest name in sputnik user profile, end-of-year, blog-based award shows. It’s kind of a big deal.
So anyway, after a one year absence, the SMA’s are back in full force to rock your world. Forget the Grammy’s – they’re a joke. Teen Choice Awards? God help us. This is where you want to look for the best music of 2018: A place where only exceptional music earns the spotlight, and only the very best wins (Well, unless it’s one of the worst of the year categories – a brand new feature! But I won’t give anything else away.)
There’s a plethora of fun categories this year, but no award is more coveted than the seriously cool shit AOTY trophy [pictured below]. Low Roar, Sufjan Stevens, and Yellowcard (lol) have all come away with it before, and last year it would have been Manchester Orchestra. In the meanwhile, we’ve seen distinguished nominees such as Radiohead, The Antlers, and Fleet Foxes walk away empty-handed. It just goes to show that I don’t give a shit, and this is my show.
I’m still accepting offers to host the show. Judio (remember him? wasn’t he a contributor or something?) still has permanent dibs, but seeing as he has yet to follow through dating back to 2014, I’m opening up the bidding. APPLY HERE.
Without further ado, let’s move on to the ceremony. Below you will find several unique categories, followed by a list of nominees and one winner. Enjoy, and may the best artists win!
Category I: Most Disappointing
Please note these are the biggest letdowns, not the “worst” albums of the year.
Titus Andronicus: A Productive Cough
It was one thing when Stickles was impassioned and the music reflected that. The Monitor and TMLT had plenty going on, the former lyrically and the latter structurally, that his rough vocals didn’t matter so much and actually became an endearing aspect of the music – a strength, even. But do I want to listen to them sit around and sing a bunch of 7 minute power ballads? Not really, unless the songs are really, really fucking good. This has a few nice tracks that would have been excellently situated between some the band’s recognizably bullish rock, but as a whole album A Productive Cough is more of just a desperate wheez, a hamfisted attempt at paying tribute to the band’s idols without realizing that, before this record, they were at the forefront of punk in their own generation. To quote The Battle of Hampton Roads, “No one throws it away like they do.”
Meg Myers: Take Me To The Disco
Meg Myers became one of my new favorite female rock artists a few years ago. She has the perfect voice and stage presence for heavier music, as was evidenced by 2015’s Sorry. While that debut album was a smash success, Take Me To The Disco sort of faltered. It’s not an awful album or anything (‘Numb’ in particular is a jam), but it takes a definitive turn towards pop/mainstream radio. Normally that wouldn’t be such a negative thing, but in this case it sacrifices all of her toughness…her main appeal. She still has a very powerful voice, so hopefully she’ll soon return to the days of making songs like ‘A Bolt from the Blue’ and ‘Desire.’ For now, she’s succumbed to making slightly above average pop-rock.
Lydia has been gradually trending towards a letdown like this. Over the past few records, they’ve been on a slow decline as they’ve slipped away from the grit, fervor, and emotion that made Illuminate such a cult classic. There are simply too many other indie-pop bands out there peddling shimmery, sleek nonsense exactly like this. It’s all glitz, no substance…there’s simply not enough meaningful content here to make it worth returning to.
Frank Turner: Be More Kind
I get the feeling that Frank Turner simply doesn’t know what to write about anymore. It used to be that his sincerity was so overwhelming that you could get behind anything he sang; now it feels like he’s desperately trying to remain topical (lyrics about the end of the world, ‘Merica, Trump, et al) while lacking any sort of punch or fervor. He’s way too positive about it all too, and not in a good way. Be More Kind is the musical equivalent of that friend from church who nods and vacantly smiles as you tell them terrible news, then they put their hand on your shoulder and tell you everything will be okay. It’s like, okay, yeah, maybe…also please fuck off and stop touching me. That’s Frank Turner right now. An annoyingly cheery guy with nothing substantial to say who won’t leave us alone.
Big Red Machine: Big Red Machine
When I first heard that Justin Vernon was joining forces with Aaron Dessner, I lost my shit. The idea of members of Bon Iver and The National making music together was almost too awesome to fathom. Maybe that’s part of the problem, as no matter what Big Red Machine amounted to, it never could have lived up to expectations. Still, I never imagined the work would sound this inconsequential. For lack of a better term, the album is flat out boring. It doesn’t distinguish itself enough from Vernon’s other works, and it ends up sounding like any number of bands that aspire to be Bon Iver but aren’t (for example, Vancouver Sleep Clinic). It’s not horrid…in fact it’s pretty good. But “pretty good” isn’t what I came to the party for.
AND THE LOSER IS:
I expected better of Titus Andronicus, who are a mere album removed from The Most Lamentable Tragedy and who once recorded The Monitor – one of the greatest punk albums of our era. This was a bitter disappointment.
Category II: Worst Album
These albums truly sucked the big one.
Fall Out Boy: M A N I A
Fall Out Boy gets a lot of undue hatred. They’re an easy target because of their extremely basic songwriting and their ridiculous getups, but they’ve been mostly a fun guilty pleasure. With M A N I A, that changed. Almost like some kind of hater-fulfilling prophecy, they morphed into a shitty band. The songwriting is horrid, and lacks the energy, hooks, or fun of any of their previous efforts. It sounds like something they might have made 20 years from now as a reunion album, so that they’d have an excuse to tour and play their hits again. I listened to this once and never looked back.
Justin Timberlake: Man of the Woods
This record is utterly ridiculous for so many reasons, the least of which is the total insanity of trying to pretend that Timberlake is just your average guy, chopping wood in his backyard and trying to keep his family warm. It’s a thematic hell fire too, where JT is literally singing about flannel on one song and then sex and robots on the next. It’s like someone took a 20/20 Experience b-sides album and added lyrics about forests and horses. Even that makes this sound cooler than what it actually is. He’ll have a tough time recovering from this.
Greta Van Fleet: Anthem of the Peaceful Army
There’s not much to comment on here outside of the fact that Greta Van Fleet is yet another band trying in vain to be Led Zeppelin. Wolfmother did the same thing not all that long ago but they actually had talent. This band is everything that’s wrong with music. They’re the kinds of guys who say “all music sucks nowadays” and cite all the popular arena rock bands of the 70’s as evidence of “how much better” things were back in the day. It’s music for middle aged people who haven’t learned to adjust to the evolution of musical trends, or are simply too lazy to look somewhere other than a radio dial to find modern music that is actually worth listening to, so they turn to fucking Greta Van Fleet to reaffirm their idea that the only good rock was made over 30 years ago.
Imagine Dragons: Origins
“I’m a man of three fears – integrity, faith, and crocodile tears” – Imagine Dragons. Bad lyrics, stenciled alternative rock song structures, woefully contrived “emotion”…this album recycles all the band’s worst traits and combines them into a single LP. Imagine Dragons exhausted all of their ideas on their debut, and I’m not certain that they’ll ever concoct a truly unique song idea for as long as they exist. They truly have become the Nickelback of indie-pop.
Chvrches: Love is Dead
This maybe could have fit under the “disappointment” category as well, because typically I’m a big Chvrches fan. However, Love is Dead saw the band decline faster than I ever could have expected. There’s 2-3 songs with a decent hook but the rest is totally unmemorable, which doesn’t bode well for a band that relies primarily on earworm melodies. They’ve also strayed even farther from the electronic elements of their music that made The Bones of What You Believe and parts of Every Open Eye so unique and alluring. So what are we left with, a boring pop album? Pretty much.
AND THE LOSER IS:
Some of these selections were banal, others were lacking talent – but this was just insulting. Imagine Dragons have in essence created the same 3-4 songs over a span of six years and four albums. Everywhere you turn, Imagine Dragons are feigning emotional weight with basic chords and those stupid, thunder-echoing drums and it’s just too much. Origins is the worst album of 2018.
Category III: Best New Artist
Best New Artist can only be achieved by artists who released their debut LP or EP in 2018.
Lo Moon’s eponymous debut sounds like somebody tossed Coldplay, Talk Talk, and Phil Collins into a blender. Despite that rather blunt description, the results are actually pretty beautiful. Lo Moon possesses stunning textural layers alongside electronic soundscapes that rise and fall like dramatic tidal surges. ‘Loveless’ is a superb example, clocking in at over 7 minutes of dreamy ebbing and flowing. The band also incorporates some jazz elements, like on the brass-heavy ‘Thorns.’ Lo Moon is decidedly pop in their stylistic inclinations – glossing everything over with a sleek, heavy coating of production – but don’t let that deter you from some of the prettiest melodies and atmospheres of the year.
Haley Heynderickx singlehandedly obliterated the “sad indie chick with an acoustic guitar” stereotype. Sure, there’s still a little bit of a Phoebe Bridgers thing going on (which is of course a compliment), but Heynderickx’s debut album, I Need to Start a Garden, is so much more creative than what we’ve witnessed from her contemporaries. While a lot of appreciation for her stems from her clever lyrics, the music matches wits stride for stride – accenting the acoustic guitar foundation with everything from trombones to a timely electric guitar crescendo. Haley even catches us off guard vocally from time to time, especially when she breaks form on ‘Oom Sha La La’ to hoarsely shout – almost scream – the titular refrain and metaphorical rut-buster, “I need to start a garden!” It all feels very much like a creative masterpiece, which is a good sign considering that she’s only scratching the surface of what she can do.
Rad Horror describes their product as “hyper modern alternative music for the lost and lonely”, and they’re not wrong. While the vocalist can at times sound eerily similar to Brand New’s Jesse Lacey, right down to the emotional inflections and heartfelt lyrics, the music itself is far more upbeat and accessible. It sounds like late-90s/early 2000s rock mixed with some elements of grunge, and then streamlined by outstanding production. There’s a certain glow about this band, and across the two debut EPs that they introduced in 2018, they’ve yet to release a disappointing song. In the space of exciting, guitar-wielding millennial bands, you can’t really do much better than this.
A couple posts up I talked about the stereotype of the acoustic singer-songwriter girl, so it’s ironic that I’m about to sing the praises of the one who seems the most pigeonholed in that type of role. Still, Sarah Beth Tomberlin rightfully earns this nomination for Best New Artist – her music is spellbinding, stretching out over long swaths of ambient acoustic strums, pianos, and self-harmonizing. Her debut At Weddings is very subdued and focused, as it tells an entire story about a relationship from the beginning of the downward slope to its inevitable end – and then dwells helplessly and hopelessly in the aftermath of the breakup. Every time she falls down, however, she manages to dust herself off with a line like “You always say that I look so tough…But it’s because I’m tough.” At Weddings is a heart-wrenching experience, but a superb debut.
A band comprised of Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus is bound to grab headlines. Each singer is remarkably talented in her own right, and with boygenius all of those skills are combined into one group. Their debut doesn’t blend very many of their vocals or musical styles together organically, which may be the sole disappointment here, but it’s still a great EP. Every song stands on its own, displaying each songwriter’s traits separately. It may not be not the tour de force of indie folk that some of us were hoping for, but it’s a strong start for a band with seemingly endless potential.
AND THE WINNER IS:
In a year with several noteworthy new faces, no one crafted an album as cleverly expressive or musically elaborate as Heynderickx.
Category IV: Best Under-The-Radar
This is a subjective category that can be won by any artist with a perceived small fanbase.
When We Land (for Introvert’s Plight)
With a hair over 300 Facebook followers just prior to their debut album’s release, When We Land are a little known outfit from Minneapolis. They relied on an Indiegogo kickstarter campaign to fund the album, as many lesser-known artists do. There’s something endearing about a band this under the radar, especially when they have the ability to create an album as beautiful and accessible as Introvert’s Plight. It’s a winter album at heart, consisting of sleepy, somber ballads and midtempo rockers that sound like the ebb-and-flow of a snowstorm gradually covering the streets of a small town. For as little of a footprint as the band currently has, When We Land has done more than their part to spread their influence: ‘Take Me Back Again’ is a melodic earworm, ‘Wake Up O Sleeper’ is the ideal heartwarming ballad, and the somewhat epic title track/album closer feels like the defining moment of their young career. When We Land just might be on the verge of breaking through.
All The Luck In The World (for A Blind Arcade)
An acoustic indie-folk band out of Ireland, All The Luck In The World actually released an album in 2014 – a self-titled LP – to very little acclaim. A Blind Arcade may have given them slightly more exposure, but they’re still widely unknown and that’s a shame. They craft haunting and occasionally romantic atmospheres, almost strictly acoustic, and it’s every bit as gorgeous as that artwork. ‘Landmarks’ and ‘Golden October’ are obvious highlights, although some of the late-album finds – such as Abhainn – represent them truly pushing themselves sonically. Across the board, A Blind Arcade has a very natural aura; it conjures images of forests, rivers, and mountains. It’s the ideal album to take on a secluded walk, where you can allow your senses to become absorbed within All The Luck In The World’s stunning, stripped-down scenery.
Rosehall (for The First Requisite Is Life]
A project from Timothy Charles (user at both Rate Your Music and Sputnik) and Ethan James, Rosehall is off to an absolutely brilliant start. Aside from a handful of listeners who found out about this band through one of the aforementioned two websites, they’re still entirely unknown. That hasn’t stopped them from crafting one of the most unique and brilliant indie-folk records of 2018 though, with a raw sound that hearkens to the early Bon Iver days. With lyrics pertaining to existential crises and religious struggles, it is bound to resonate with just about anyone who has doubts about their faith. The future is very bright for Rosehall, and hopefully they will continue to create music with an ear towards the creative/avant-garde – as they do on their superb debut The First Requisite Is Life.
Allelic (for The Smoke of Atavistic Fires)
Another Sputnik user project that is actually worth the accolades it’s receiving. Allelic’s debut LP, The Smoke of Atavistic Fires, is a breathtaking blend of black metal and folk music that feels like a descendant of Opeth’s Watershed or Agalloch’s The Mantle. All of the instrumentation might best be described as complex, yet inviting – this is among the most accessible black metal projects that I’ve ever heard, but it doesn’t sacrifice an ounce of musicianship. The production is also impeccable given the meek and humble status of the band. It’s an epic work, too…some songs feel like they would befit the battle of Armageddon (‘In Blissful Ignorance’), while others are lush and romantic (‘As Stars Shimmer Upon The Ritual). It’s a wonder this band even fits into the under-the-radar category. Allelic belongs among the very best of household metal names.
Bernice (for Puff: In the Air Without a Shape)
Odd is the first adjective that comes to mind. Bernice is an eclectic project, mishmashing synths, lasers, electronic effects sound clips, among other things. Although there is melody to it, Puff feels less like a set of songs and more like an artistic expression that just happens to form music. It feels shapeless, like floating through an alternate dimension. Bernice definitely represents the most unapproachable of this category’s selections, but its still an underrated/unknown project that deserves more love than it gets. Besides, quirky albums like this often end up being the most memorable in the end. It’s just so damn weird – in a good way – that I can’t seem to shrug it aside.
AND THE WINNER IS:
If I could, I’d choose them all – but in this case one project achieved brilliance. Allelic could become a metal/folk powerhouse with the right representation.
Category V: Comeback Artist
Eligible nominees will typically be returning after a long absence or other obstacle.
White Ring (for Gate of Grief)
It’s only been 8 years. That’s not a long time to go without releasing an album, right? Maybe if you’re Tool or Brand New that’s the norm, but for most artists releasing fresh material after nearly a decade of absence qualifies as a comeback. That’s exactly what this electronic/house band did in 2018, unceremoniously dropping their first full length LP ever after releasing only one EP back in 2010. Gate of Grief is an in-your-face experience, too – with an unsettling evil stirring beneath the surface and rich industrial beats that recall Trent Reznor at his most visceral. The whole album fell short of the massive expectations set out by the chilling lead single ‘Leprosy’, but White Ring created a thrilling and worthwhile return to the scene nonetheless.
Pinegrove (for Skylight)
In the wake of 2017’s #metoo movement, a number of bands were effected – Pinegrove being one of the most widely known. It’s the sort of accusation that might sink a lesser band, but Pinegrove decided, figuratively, to face the music and man up. Following an apology, all proceeds made from Skylight were split evenly between Musicares, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and the Voting Rights Project. It doesn’t correct the past, but if you’re going to attempt a comeback and continue to make music, this was the right way to do it. At the end of the day, Skylight ended up being one of Pinegrove’s most beautiful moments both musically and lyrically. “I draw a line in my life…this is the new way I behave now” feels like Evan Stephens Hall’s new mantra in life, and what follows is a lush, twangy batch of eleven tracks that turn the page to what will hopefully be a better and more enlightened chapter in the band’s story.
A Perfect Circle (for Eat the Elephant)
Maynard James Keenan to White Ring: “I see your 8 years and raise you 6 more.” That’s correct, it’s been 14 years since A Perfect Circle released eMOTIVe, the lukewarmly received concept album comprised of mostly covers. Eat the Elephant doesn’t necessarily sound like it took 14 years to make, but it definitely embodies a lot of the emotions and events that spanned that time period. The album takes a decidedly political tone, but it manages to avoid sounding too preachy – an impossible task in today’s far left vs. far right polarization era. Mostly, MJK begs us to start helping each other, to take a look around and see things for what they are, and to figuratively “lift the stone” as opposed to just talking about it. I think that’s a message anyone can get behind, regardless of social/political affiliation. The time for discussion is over. Start putting in the work to fix this broken world, before it’s too late.
Daughters (for You Won’t Get What You Want)
8 years following the release of the band’s eponymous third LP, Daughters have returned with the ironically titled You Won’t Get What You Want, which in essence delivers everything that Daughters fans could possibly have been hoping for. The record is brash, discordant, loud, dissonant…basically it sounds like hell – if hell were a really cool collection of songs. It’s not easy to stay away from the music scene for so long and then return and immediately step into the “Album of the Year” conversation, but that’s exactly what Daughters did in 2018.
Pram (for Across the Meridian)
This is a comeback album in two ways: (1) The band lost founding member and longtime singer Rosie Cuckston, and (2) it’s Pram’s first album in 11 years. Long absences and shifting lineups aren’t exactly a recipe for success, but Across the Meridian is a stunning album regardless – combining shimmering soundscapes and lively jazz with an eerie, ambient aura. The whole thing is a beautifully adrift journey, winding through various tempos and styles without ever breaking the album’s form. It will likely be dismissed initially by longtime Pram fans, but those who give this the chance it deserves will not be disappointed.
AND THE WINNER IS:
A Perfect Circle
2018 was filled with excellent comeback albums, but Eat the Elephant captured the social and political climate of today’s society without preaching a left or right winged agenda. The red and blue octopus/blood/eyeliner on that horrendous album cover is a political symbol that hopefully isn’t lost on fans (same with the album title). It’s a model for other musicians, and perhaps all of us, to follow.
Category VI: Song of the Year
All eligible nominees are considered among the very best individual tracks released in 2018.
mewithoutYou: “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore”
This is one of those songs that hits home on so many levels it’s ridiculous. First, the title: a reference to both the old spiritual hymn as well as Aaron’s older brother and bandmate, Michael Weiss. It’s alleged that a phone conversation took place between the two in which Aaron admitted, “your little brother can’t paddle anymore” – basically his way of saying he feels like he’s sinking. These lyrics appear midway through the song in an extremely powerful moment. It’s also well-documented that Aaron had several breakdowns/struggles with his own identity in recent years, which is expressed through the indecipherable lyrics that span the whole song. The haunting incantation of “Peter ring them bells” along with Aaron’s seemingly casual conversation with the archangel Gabriel adds another existential dimension. The track exudes pain, confusion, and a sliver hope. It’s as brilliant a piece as the band has ever written.
The Republic of Wolves: “Bask”
Marking a distinct return-to-form for the dark alt-rockers out of Long Island, shrine was the spiritual successor to 2010’s haunting debut Varuna. No track exudes that better than ‘Bask.’ The riffs are as fiery as ever, consistently toiling in the background to create the most intense atmosphere that The Republic of Wolves have ever concocted. The visceral screams add a layer of pain and intensity, with lyrics focused on an internal conflict (“I’m telling lies about myself, to myself…”). All Get Out’s lead vocalist Nathan Hussey joins the band for an unexpected but well-placed bridge chorus of “where do all the lost minds go”, before a key change that sees the band delve right back into bleakness. The complex acoustic picking in the outro is a subtle stroke of genius. This song truly has it all, and it’s downright essential for any fan of indie/alternative rock with darker or more existential leanings.
A Perfect Circle: “TalkTalk”
I touched on this when I talked about Eat The Elephant a few sections up, but ‘TalkTalk’ is the song that embodies this album’s political nature the best. MJK has always been a tad skewed to the left of the spectrum, but that’s not what this song comes at its listeners with. This song is about walking the walk. It’s about helping out your fellow humans, and putting aside any excuses (particularly religion) that act as roadblocks to actual progress. It’s a bitter song about members of our society who basically talk constantly but do nothing. The final stanza of lyrics sums up the song’s entire message: “Talk like Jesus…try walkin’ like Jesus / Try braving the rain, try lifting the stone, try extending a hand, try walkin’ your talk or get the fuck out of my way.” I think that’s a sentiment anyone can get behind right now. To boot, it rocks harder than any song APC has created since ‘Passive.’
Ben Howard: “Nica Libres at Dusk”
I will forever associate Howard’s Noonday Dream with dry, hot summer afternoons, and that’s thanks entirely to ‘Nica Libres at Dusk.’ The song feels like a steady stream of subconscious impulses, with lyrics that at various points allude to whispering mountains, endless seas, and eagles circling overhead. Howard is more subdued than he’s ever been, letting the gentle sway of earthy drum beats and lazy piano notes lull the listener into a trance before transporting him or her off to this jaw-droppingly gorgeous alternate reality. It’s the ideal setup for Noonday Dream, which embodies every ounce of that title. ‘Nica Libres’ belongs among the most chill, relaxing, and best songs of 2018.
Haley Heynderickx: “Oom Sha La La”
It’s hard to describe my level of appreciation for this song, especially considering that of all the tracks on Heynderickx’s I Need to Start a Garden, ‘Oom Sha La La’ has the most accessible sound and a borderline Disney melodic backdrop. The instrumental aspects of the song, too, are for all intents and purposes merely average. I’ll start by saying that it has everything to do with the lyrics, and a little bit to do with the delivery. For a good chunk of my life I always felt inhibited by my introverted lifestyle; I struggled to acquaint myself with others – especially girls – and found myself spending a lot of time at home on my computer. Dust would collect in my bedroom, I wouldn’t have the energy to clean or do much else. Depression followed. I wish I had ‘Oom Sha La La’ back then – a rut-buster of a single and a metaphorical kick in the ass. “If you don’t go outside well nothing’s gonna happen, she’ll never write her number on a crumpled up napkin” might have motivated me to get out there and talk to someone. “I’m throwing out the milk, the olives got old…I’m tired of my mind getting heavy with mold, I need to start a garden!” might have made me feel just pathetic enough to go out there and do something with my life, especially with the shouted, borderline screamed final iteration of the album’s mantra/namesake. ‘Oom Sha La La’ is a brilliantly written song, and I can’t think of anyone who could have expressed it more uniquely or with more fervor than Haley.
AND THE WINNER IS:
“Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore”
All of the nominees could have been SOTY in a weaker year, but 2018 was absolutely stacked – and no track consistently gave me chills like ‘Michael.’
Category VII: EP of the Year
The best extended plays of 2018.
Rad Horror: Anti Teenage Sensation Pt. 1
Anti Teenage Sensation, Pt. 1 sounds like the start of something huge. Every time that a new, young band comes out and plays actual guitars instead of leaning entirely on synths and electronic effects, critics tend to crown them as the saviors of rock almost as an involuntary reflex. It’s funny, then, that a band with no intention of becoming the next anything may actually be the ones to fucking do it. While their influences are recognizable, Rad Horror don’t wear them on their sleeves. They’re out to make music that’s charged, no matter what form that may arrive in. On their debut EP, they’re sounding emotionally charged, highly energetic, and nostalgic all at the same time. Wherever they go from here matters little, because talent this obvious has a way of shining through.
William Ryan Key: Thirteen / Virtue
Alright, so this is cheating a bit. Ryan Key released a pair of EP’s in 2018, and because they’re equally brilliant, I refuse to choose between them. His new (post-Yellowcard) sound is not one of three chord pop-punk tracks and heartache by the sea, but rather bare sounding, stripped-down ruminations. You can almost envision him relishing the seclusion, finding peace outside of the grand spotlight that was Yellowcard. He has settled into a sweet spot of stunning acoustics and token experimentation, all bolstered by the sort of maturity and songwriting that only could have resulted from decades of professional refinement and personal growth. I’ll surely have a few stones hurled my way for saying this, but a solo Key sounds a lot like Elliott Smith. The acoustic guitars are vibrant and more complex than they ever were in the past, and the punchy verses that overlay his pristine picking sound like something right off the pages of Either/Or. This is Ryan Key in top form, and it still feels – somehow – like the best may be yet to come.
The term genre-bending gets thrown around far too often, but here the praise is befitting. Reverberations washes in with steel string plucks, solemn humming, and a harmonica. As it progresses, heavier drums and electric riffs roll in, along with the far off growls of the lead vocalist. Eventually they’re no longer distant, hovering over you like an imminent darkness that comes crashing down – all while majestic guitar riffs knife through the atmosphere like bolts of lightning. Suddenly, after a ten second transition that somehow manages to be totally organic, the sky clears and rays of sunshine poke through again: wave-like acoustic chords are overlaid with gorgeous picking, and it’s like we’re transported back to a summer meadow with sunflowers blooming and dandelion seeds floating through the air. The EP weaves back into black metal territory one more time before fading to a jig-like amalgamation of harmonicas, strings, booming baritone, and melodic electric guitars. Such is the nature of Reverberations, an EP that somehow captures the extreme realms of folk, metal, and everything in between.
mewithoutYou: [untitled] e.p.
[untitled] is essentially a series of hefty topics discussed over tea. It’s one’s “life flashing before their eyes”, if that person were society and his/her life were the history of the world. The extended play is a time-out, this calm pool of thoughts that aren’t necessarily pleasant but that need to be reflected upon before the end. It truly is the calm both after the storm and before the next one. It feels purposely out-of-tune with the urgency of these times, almost as if to temporarily retreat inward – to keep one’s thoughts focused and organized. It’s lower case [untitled] for a reason. The storm is coming, and mewithoutYou is bracing for it. Or perhaps not even preparing, and just taking one last moment to look at a timeline of human history – for all its beauty and carnage – and appreciate it.
Aphex Twin: Collapse
This EP was a late bloomer for me, but it came on strong in the fall. I’m not typically a huge electronic fan, but collapse was able to hold my interest from start to finish. With phenomenal energy and immaculate attention to detail and layering, this release doesn’t just draw you in – it sucks you in with the force of a black hole in outer space. Collapse made me a new Aphex Twin fan, and even though I’m excited to see what they put out next, I’m in no hurry – because spinning this delightful little EP will never get old.
AND THE WINNER IS:
William Ryan Key: Thirteen
Some may consider this an upset given the presence of mewithoutYou in this category, but Ryan Key is quietly making some of the best music of his whole career.
Category VIII: Honorable Mentions
Honorable Mentions go to albums considered among the year’s best that were not nominated for any of the other outlined categories.
Kacey Musgraves: Golden Hour
I’m not one to wax poetic about country music, but then again it’s rare that it inspires me as much as this record does. I love how Musgraves is in absolutely no rush. The music just seems to flow effortlessly off the page, and it sounds infinitely more genuine for it. The progressions come across as totally organic, as if you were sitting on Kacey’s back porch one morning and she strolled out with a guitar strapped over her shoulder and said “hey, guess what I just wrote.” It’s the spontaneity of driving down an unfamiliar road, if only to witness the natural beauty that rustles in the breeze just beyond the city limits. It’s the kind of album that makes me want to lay down in the grass on a cloudless afternoon and just stare into the infinite blue. Golden Hour is an exquisitely beautiful break from reality.
Shakey Graves: Can’t Wake Up
Between the obvious stylistic growth of Shakey Graves and Rose-Garcia’s ramped up creative appetite, Can’t Wake Up presents itself as the definitive album of the project’s discography. It masters its own atmosphere, swelling with confidence at each and every turn while inviting all who listen to join in. It only gets stronger as it goes on, too, with the star-lit ‘Backseat Driver’ proving to be one of the most beautiful, shimmering indie rock moments of 2018. Even the off kilter, to-and-fro hollow taps that provide the percussive bassline to the curtain-closing ‘Tin Man’ feel like an essential culmination of the subtle twists and turns strategically placed throughout the album. It’s a beautiful, weird album that only gathers steam while managing to be both simple and complex at the same time. Can’t Wake Up is a difficult album to qualify for all these reasons, but they all result in a level of intrigue that simply can’t be manufactured. No matter what, you’ll find yourself wanting more.
Let’s Eat Grandma: I’m All Ears
While the long, winding epics provide the best snapshots of I’m All Ears’ most towering moments, this is anything but a hit-or-miss album. The more straightforward tracks still thrive: ‘It’s Not Just Me’ feels like a lost Chvrches hit, bouncing excitedly atop vibrant synths; ‘Falling Into Me’ revives a good deal of the experimental overture that was ‘Hot Pink’, allowing various electronic, industrial, and pop influences to somehow harmoniously collide; ‘I Will Be Waiting’ and ‘Ava’ are vulnerable sounding ballads that each bring something different to the table. Let’s Eat Grandma more or less hit the nail on the head with their sophomore effort. It’s brazen and imaginative, but also wholly accessible. It builds on the project’s meeker indie roots by branching out into more accessible territory, without ever selling out or betraying the group’s identity. In short, it’s a shining example of personal and musical growth. There’s something to be said for toeing the line between fervent experimentation and enjoyable song craft; here, Let’s Eat Grandma walk it effortlessly.
Antarctigo Vespucci: Love in the Time of E-Mail
Love in the Time of E-Mail is a throwback pop-punk album in all the best ways. It’s a go-to breakup record, but it also works as an up-tempo, carefree summer jam. It packs in all the nostalgia of the pop-punk classics I grew up with, but it doesn’t sound like a retread at all. The chemistry between Rosentock and Farren brings every single word – and every musical idea – to life. It’s a depressing album at its core, but it never leaves you without a silver lining. This record should do for teenagers and young twenty-somethings what Ocean Avenue or blink-182’s self-titled did for me. Love in the Time of E-Mail is a companion; it’s that album you put in your car and never stop playing because it’s always applicable. As for an old man like me, I can spin this album and instantly have memories – both elating and shattering – rush back to me. I may not recall a lot of the individual songs and albums that defined my youth, but I’ll never forget how pop-punk made me feel as a teen. All I can say is that Love in the Time of E-Mail makes me feel that same away again – young, vulnerable…heartbroken. And there’s something really damn special about that.
Julia Holter: Aviary
At fifteen tracks, each hovering in the six-to-nine minute range, Aviary presents a daunting task. It’s a world that requires dedicated immersion; a commitment to its unwieldy time length but also a staunch distancing that allows you to engage its thousands of intricacies. More than Loud City Song and the semi-accessible Have You In My Wilderness, this is a record that thrives in space, with ambient stretches and experimental whims that seemingly go on forever. It’s like a dot painting; there’s plenty that can be observed up close, but it’s prudent to step back and see the entire picture for what it was intended to be. Aviary’s imagery is best experienced this way, like a panoramic overview of beauteous landscape. It should be taken in reflexively; absorbed through your senses instinctually rather than actively dissected as a traditional set of songs.
Wild Pink: Yolk in the Fur
Yolk in the Fur is a statement album. It’s an experience that flows effortlessly, combining a glistening, guitar-driven atmosphere with romantically-charged lyrics that make the whole thing nearly impossible to resist. Yolk is not an album for big choruses or hooks; it’s more of a destination to exhale and sink into – this lustrous indie-rock platform with a soft, emotional core. It’s the kind of album that feels equally appropriate whether you’re declaring your love or spending a solitary night tucked away within your own thoughts…and there will always be a place in the world for music like that.
Category IX: Album of the Year
Best albums released in 2018.
The Republic of Wolves: Shrine
Sometimes it all comes together. The Republic of Wolves, independent alt-rockers hailing from Long Island, have been a perfect storm waiting to happen for nearly a decade now. The multi-faceted talents of the band – which includes vocalists/guitarists Mason Maggio and Christian Van Deurs (both of Tigers on Trains), drummer Chris Wall (of The Kickdrums), keyboardist/vocalist Billy Duprey , and bassist Ryan Sean Cullinane – have seemingly been on the fringe of breaking out since their 2009 debut EP His Old Branches. The band has always thrived on mystique: the darker their themes and the deeper they tumble down the mythical rabbit hole, the better. From nature and spirits to literary folklore, The Republic of Wolves have always managed to transport their listeners through existential lyrics, hauntingly vivid atmospheres, and aggressively rock-rooted overtones that breathe fire into it all. When you consider all the greatest successes of their past – from the alluring mystery to the bone-chilling darkness – and roll them up into one cohesive product, you get shrine. The group’s third full-length album is easily their most accomplished, correcting the pleasant but overly soft-spoken sophomore detour, No Matter How Narrow, while also channeling Varuna’s best traits with better production (thanks in large part to Dan Gluszak, of Envy On The Coast) and more gripping melodies. shrine is a triumphant return to everything that this band does best , and it’s a thrilling, fully-immersive indie-rock album that finally puts everything on the line.
Ben Howard: Noonday Dream
Everything about the way that Noonday Dream visually represents itself is accurate. The dusty, barren artwork parallels its sense of isolation, while the title depicts the kind of nomadic drifts that characterize each song. On the heels of two vastly successful albums – Every Kingdom and I Forget Where We Were – this record is notably humble. The anthemic qualities of Ben Howard’s last effort have been willingly abandoned in favor of more muted concepts…like waves lapping up against a boat, distant conversations, or a flag flapping steadily in the wind as a storm moves in. Noonday Dream is an atmospheric experience that recalls a variety of moments in nature – from the secluded and serene to the harsh and unforgiving. It’s a beautiful progression for Howard, and one that etches his name even higher up on the artistic totem pole.
Florence and the Machine: High As Hope
Whereas previous efforts felt like an imposition of will, Florence and the Machine’s fourth album is the band’s most graceful and free-flowing. The songwriting here feels honest and natural, with room for every track to breathe. Throughout High as Hope, just as much is accomplished through pauses and silence as through rhythm or melody; it’s an artful display of restraint that never quite saw the light of day on cookie-cutter belters like ‘Queen of Peace’ from this album’s predecessor. By contrast, gems like ‘Grace’ and ‘The End of Love’ feel liberated and unfurled, uninhibited by typical indie-rock structuring and instead opting for slow, airy introductions and atmospheres that wash over you. There’s a lot of maturation evident in Welch’s craft, and even if there’s no massive single for High as Hope to hang its hat on, the record more than makes up for it by being a true album, where songs bleed into one another and share meaning rather than clash discordantly. High as Hope may not be exactly what we were demanding from her, but it is jarringly intimate, and at this point the precise kind of risk that she needed to take.
Foxing: Nearer My God
It’s a befitting time for Foxing to release an album about the end of the world, complete with four horses on the cover and lyrical references to the end times. More impressive, however, is just how much they’ve come out of their shell with Nearer My God – a record that sheds their emo label and sees them carve out a massive indie/alt-rock role alongside the likes of Modest Mouse or Brand New. It’s a shocking revelation, from the jarring screams midway through ‘Grand Paradise’ to the epic guitar solo in ‘Lich Prince’ to the frenetic, Muse-ish ‘Gameshark.’ They also get quite dazzling and lush at times, like the heavenly melody to ‘Nearer My God’ or the muted, National-esque introduction to ‘Lambert.’ And all of this comes from the same band that brought us the meek and understated Dealer. Make no mistake, this is Foxing’s magnum opus and an absolute coming-of-age.
[Untitled] is as vicious and ugly as Aaron Weiss has sounded since A->B Life, or perhaps ever. There are several moments where Weiss totally loses his shit – and I mean almost beyond recognition. There’s also wayward progression to this record that evades comfort, familiarity, and order. Weaving unpredictably between melodic tunes and all-out barn burners, [Untitled] assumes a rather entropic identity that can be disorienting. It’s more intense than it is loud, and the band wisely bides its time – planting indecipherable screams and discordant, experimental riffs like landmines in a field. The underlying sense of urgency – combined with these sudden, panicked spikes – creates a consistently unsettled feeling, resulting in mewithoutYou’s most tense and visceral creation. [Untitled] is not a comfortable listen. It feels like something not meant for our ears – an incredibly spiritual and private moment that’s bound to compelling scripture and woeful, debilitating memories. It’s unfiltered passion that evades qualification; something to which we’d be performing a disservice by assigning a title.
AND THE WINNER IS:
Any time a band as heralded as mewithoutYou releases an album that could be considered their best to date, it warrants AOTY consideration. [Untitled] is a raw, breathtakingly ugly indie-rock/post-hardcore tour de force that blows away any competition in 2018.
Category X: 2018 Playlist
A personally curated soundtrack to 2018.
Please enjoy the below 100 tracks as you see fit. It’s in order of official release [limit one song per release], so if you have 8 hours to kill, just hit play and experience a journey through 2018 through the ears of Sowing. If you’re like 99% of people, just hit shuffle and hopefully you’ll be impressed enough to keep listening. It contains everything from Camila Cabello to Rolo Tomassi, so it’s pretty eclectic. Give it a chance if it doesn’t grab you right away. Or don’t, screw you anyway!