30. Amorphis – Queen of Time
There are seemingly as many highlights on Queen of Time as there are years Amorphis have been active, but these iconic Finns should be cheered for augmenting their folk and progressive leanings while adhering to their trademark blueprint. Founding bassist Olli-Pekka Laine has rejoined the band (it hasn’t been since 1994’s Tales from the Thousand Lakes where the four founding members played together!), which is as welcome a sight as noting that producer and so-called ‘brother in spirit’ Jens Bogren and longtime collaborator Pekka Kainulainen have returned to the fold as well.
Bogren’s steady hand cannot be understated on Queen of Time, as the record’s choral and orchestral infusions are far more pronounced this time around — especially in “Heart of the Giant” and “Grain of Sand” — which would run the risk of overpowering Santeri Kallio’s perpetually-memorable keyboards if not for Bogren’s watchful eye. Queen of Time‘s production is masterful and most certainly not ‘brickwalled to death’ (an affliction that is unfortunately becoming ubiquitous in the genre of late). The resplendent “Amongst Stars” (featuring the delightful Anneke van Giersbergen, whose soaring vocals are a gorgeous complement to Tomi Joutsen’s) is the true headliner and should have closed the album, although the Ensiferum-like “Message in the Amber”, assurgent “Wrong Direction”, bonus cut “Brother and Sister”, and astonishing opener “The Bee” definitively showcase Amorphis’ creativity and impeccable songwriting skill. –Jom
29. Beach House – 7
In a digital landscape that shifts as quickly as a scrolled webpage, Beach House are practically legacy artists, a piece of indie rock royalty that has outpaced that of their more immediate or innovative contemporaries. What is it about the duo’s morphine-drip shoegaze that has yielded so many fruitful returns? By surface discretion, it is the malleable center of that core sound, a deep-tissue fuzz that asks for nothing but sweet melodies and ethereal vocals to filter into cosmic auras and smoky, speakeasy atmospheres. But seven albums of this? No, what has gifted Beach House with longevity is their willingness to burden their “soft” music with grit, to evoke pain and hunger as the flip-side to devotion and seduction, to surprise their own blunt pop instincts with every shade of black imaginable. On 7, they course through a darker undercurrent to dwell on themes of mismatched desires, the politics of sex and autonomy, and the way femininity can feel underserved in a society ill-equipped to understand what women need. As ever, their melodies spool out like ribbon tape, captured in stunning new hues and that forever dependable, munificent fuzz. –Lewis P.
28. IDLES – Joy as an Act of Resistance.
Joy as an Act of Resistance. might just be the most relevant record of the year. British punks IDLES have already garnered a lot of attention with their ferocious debut Brutalism, but on their new album they channel their rage into something way more productive and poignant. Frontman Joe Talbot frequently uses simple words and humour to make his rants more approachable as he tackles with aplomb such timely topics as toxic masculinity, mental health, Brexit and immigration. Instead of focusing on anger, the songs exalt the virtues of community and inclusion. Talbot delivers one powerful message after another in these impassioned anthems. The most heartbreaking moment on the record comes with its centerpiece ballad “June”, in which the frontman sings about his unborn child. The album wouldn’t be so immersive though if it weren’t for diverse songwriting. Punchy bass lines, thunderous drums, and discordant guitar riffs all make for a precise sonic attack, yet the quintet aren’t afraid of taking risks as multi-faceted opener “Colossus” can attest. The ominous atmosphere permeates the song until it gives way to bombastic sing-along refrain. This is the sound of a band evolving quickly and pushing their sound in new thrilling directions. To paraphrase “I’m Scum”: these snowflakes are becoming an avalanche indeed. –Greg.
27. Low – Double Negative
From the absolutely hazy sheets of static and momentarily unsettling glitchery that litter Double Negative, you certainly wouldn’t believe for a moment that this was a Low record. But, beneath all the atmospheric obscurities that garnish this album, Double Negative is, to me, Low’s finest hour. The risk in previewing songs like “Fly” and “Tempest” paid off nicely, pairing the group’s renowned slowcore tendencies with harsh, ugly almost, melodies that wouldn’t be out of place on a mid-aughts David Sylvian record, or any of the classic Fennesz LPs such as Endless Summer or Venice. It is nigh impenetrable at first, but once you dig deep enough to find the beauty hidden within, Double Negative is a special record, not only in Low’s catalogue, but for this decade. –Aaron W.
26. mewithoutYou – [Untitled]
They’re just one of those bands. Every single time this formula, one that presents a side-by-side of an eloquent preacher and a bunch of wise old punks, feels like it’s beginning to grow rote with its inexorable drumming and emphatic riffing and passionate monologuing, mewithoutYou turn around and show us faithfuls what happens when they rearrange the dots. This time around, the outline vaguely resembles an overwhelmed man.
[untitled] pulls volte faces at every juncture and does the very mewithoutYou thing where, on the scale of theological and philosophical posturing, the big questions far outweigh the answers (which, once again, are only ever implied as a possibility and not a certainty. The hook of “[dormouse sighs]” is as ambiguous as Aaron Weiss gets). This is why I think Weiss, and the rest of the band by extension, are smarter men than most – the paradoxical realisation that, with the constantly changing face of human principle, it’s impossible to arrive at clean, all-encompassing conclusions.
So Weiss and co. retreat into the finer details: the ocean of lost screams in “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore”, the dialogue in “Wendy & Betsy” — it’s not the grand statements or Biblical posturing that set this band apart, but the smallest moments, ones that open up the spaces between the lines of what could otherwise be fairly standard (you can’t tell me you haven’t heard the chord progression of “2,459 Miles” somewhere else before) alt-rock/post-hardcore bottle rockets. They’re just one of those bands. –verdant
(tie) 24. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Hope Downs
You probably came to Hope Downs for the three-pronged guitar attack or the easygoing, bros-hanging-out style hooks, but there’s so much more to dive into here. The way a subtle sadness starts to creep in on “Sister’s Jeans”, colours the unexpected character study of “Bellarine” and then fully subsumes the beautiful “Cappuccino City”. That’s not to say there’s some larger concept at work here – the three axemen and singers share pretty much equal songwriting duties, so it’s just a testament to the beautiful efficiency of Rolling Blackouts as a unit that the hurt, sunny pop of “Talking Straight” fits comfortably side-by-side with the Dylan-inflected “Mainland” or the lovelorn “How Long?” Come for the guitars or the pitch-perfect drums, stay for songwriting that might just creep in your head when you’re not looking and take up permanent residence. –Rowan
(tie) 24. Hooded Menace – Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed
In an era where death-doom is catch-all for long-form death metal done slowly, Hooded Menace break the mold by breaking nothing. Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed is pure, unfiltered death metal by way of classic doom. Unpredictable in its delivery and evocative in its atmosphere, the band’s latest is a game-changing album. Death-doom isn’t supposed to be this beautiful. It isn’t meant to challenge or defy expectations. It shouldn’t be this damn catchy. But Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed is all of those things and more. It’s the sound of the best act in the genre making their best album yet. –Eli K.
23. Toby Driver – They Are the Shield
Y’all been so horny for Choirs of the Eye 2.0 that you may have brushed off Toby Driver’s recent solo outings as mere fodder. Understandable, given the mixed bag of toothless dark-wave retro-synth pandering we’ve been getting. But They Are the Shield is different. In it, Driver takes a surprising turn toward the lush, string-oriented sounds of early Kayo Dot, tapping into what made albums like Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue so mysterious and evocative. It elicits the same feelings of wonder when you used to think Bath was “so cool.” I mean, when was the last time Toby Driver made you feel that way?
He still pulls from recent experiments, but here they’re much more viable. The inscrutable sounds of Plastic House on base of Sky and Coffins on Io feel fully alive, but as sumptuous addendums behind something more painterly. The result is some of the most beautiful and unique work of Driver’s career. Songs like “Anamnesis Park” fluidly move with cinematic grandeur while “470 Nanometers” pops with infectious beats and hard edges. They Are the Shield is a return to the arcane and ineffable days of Toby Driver stealing music from the fucking astral plane. Once again weird and undefinable for the sake of being weird and undefinable. But even still it’s a quiet and humble digression; a rare moment of poignancy within Toby Driver’s obtuse career. –Eli K.
22. Tropical Fuck Storm – A Laughing Death in Meatspace
After releasing their sixth studio album with Australian indie rock juggernauts The Drones in 2016, Gareth Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin needed a change of pace and formed the brilliantly-named Tropical Fuck Storm. Backed up by guitarist Erica Dunn and drummer Lauren Hammel, the band is a force to be reckoned with. Their debut album is imbued with confidence and considerable musical heft, spiced up with copious amounts of dissonance. There’s a strong chemistry between band members evident on every single track. Post-punk is seamlessly fused with blues, psychedelic rock, and even a touch of industrial. The anarchic energy is contrasted with deeply sinister atmosphere. As a result, the music is raw and cerebral at the same time. Granted, this is more of a continuation of The Drones formula than a completely new chapter, yet the album is endearingly self-reflective and up-to-date with contemporary politics. Reflecting on the current sociopolitical situation, Liddiard’s lyrics are more ferocious than ever before. “Chameleon Paint” touches upon people in power who never seem to take responsibility for their own actions, while “Soft Power” serves as a trenchant critique of the increasingly aggressive foreign politics. The singer’s approach is perfectly summarized by the spat-out refrain of “Antimatter Animals”: “Your politics ain’t nothing but a fond fuck you.” A Laughing Death in Meatspace is an angry record for sure — one that makes you rebel and fight for a better future. –Greg.
21. Foxing – Nearer My God
When Foxing released five different versions of Nearer My God‘s title track, each in a different language, perhaps they were tipping their hand about the record’s scope. The band’s third full-length makes no bones about its endgame, aspiring to the most epic corners of emo and indie-rock on an album that shouldn’t be pigeonholed as either. Fluttering electronics course through “Trapped in Dillard’s”, bagpipes blast out of the speakers on “Bastardizer”, a string section swells deep within the backdrop of “Heartbeats”, and frontman Conor Murphy sounds mere inches away from losing his mind on the maniacal, falsetto-charged “Gameshark”. Nearer My God is an album that does everything, proudly.
Yet, Nearer My God is so much more than just an album that throws caution to the wind. Anyone who has followed Foxing through The Albatross and Dealer will feel the impact of the band’s growth on what can only be described as a coming-of-age. They execute their first true guitar solo to absolute perfection on the supercharged “Lich Prince”. The unhinged screams midway through “Grand Paradise” are jarring; the kind of awakening that has defined some of indie’s most notable past acts. The record’s overarching concept is paranoid yet topical, injecting apocalyptic imagery into everything from the album title to the four horses gracing the cover art. This is Foxing embracing their wildest eccentricities and growing into those massive shoes at the same time. It’s a revelation. –Sowing
20. Spanish Love Songs – Schmaltz
Here is something that I think people are missing about Spanish Love Songs’ Schmaltz: this shit is funny. Lyrics about leaving yellow sweat stains on a nasty bed? Finally finding a trendy haircut that works for you only to find that it’s the official haircut of white supremacy? “We just sit on our hands looking hard in our pleather / As we nod at the chicks and peck at our phones”? “My dad says that I’d probably have more fans / If I could learn to sing about some happier shit”? And then calling the record Schmaltz? No record released this year made me smile as much as this one. So you can think the point of Schmaltz is to wallow if you want, I guess, but I can hardly see how Dylan Slocum can still sing with his tongue so firmly planted in his cheek. And when he does get serious, as he does in “Otis/Carl” and “Joana in Five Acts”, his lyrics are so pointedly tender, so full of harrowing details that it is simply lazy to think that he is only trying to wallow. He is trying to remember, to memorialize, to contextualize the pain and loss that so often come to define us and turn them into something practical, into a way to be better, “maybe.” —Channing Freeman
19. Robyn – Honey
Listed in the order the songs were written, Honey vividly paints a picture of heartbreak and self-discovery; a story of drifting in and out of love. Robyn nimbly avoids the pitfalls of a break-up album, serving cloudy house-saavy tunes like “Baby Forgive Me” and the chilled-out disco of “It’s in the Music” which belie a sense of loss and hopelessness. A mid-point tonal shift in the form of “Send to Robin Immediately” opens the album up to endless possibilities, featuring dance-ready hits, 90s nostalgia, and formless muzak. It’s an effervescent collage of love and rediscovery as only Robyn could create.
Now, it wouldn’t be an “Album of the Year” list entry without making ponderous inferences to our current political climate. But what the hell – Robyn’s Honey is an empowering punk-rock feminist statement. After an eight year break between albums, Robyn could have given us Body Talk pt. 4. Instead, we see her at her most personal and understated, giving us sadness without sorrow, sensuality without overt sexuality. In spite of it all, Honey ends with wistfulness and hope, with “Ever Again” closing the book and mending the wounds — through love and music, Robyn is restored. –Eli K.
18. Panopticon – The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness
Panopticon’s The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness is a concept album seemingly centred around the theme of longness: there’s the long title, the even longer runtime, and the long songs convey a sense of… uh… longing. What I’m getting at is that it’s an album of abnormally large duration. Clocking up a respectable two hours’ worth of material, this Kentucky chimera consists of two distinct halves; one full of cascading atmospheric black metal riffs, the other containing twanging, bluegrass-y folk tunes. These divergent flavours are far from a regular pairing, to be sure; however, Austin Lunn has more than proved himself capable of the task over the years. Whether he’s marrying the two styles together, or spinning the mixture in a centrifuge and separating the heavier material from the lighter, this man is always at the top of his game. The Scars of Man… is a truly raw and beautiful creation, and the authenticity of Lunn’s compositions shines throughout, from the blizzards of his distorted tremolo picking to the soft plucking and morose tones of his acoustic performances. A real musical chameleon, Lunn’s vocals transition from distant screams in the beginning to relaxed melodious ditties on the tail end; in fact, the musical diversity throughout the album is a real treat, not just between the two dichotomous parts, but also within their respective domains. If you like your albums to be a rough mixture of corpse paint and plaid shirts — and really, who doesn’t? — then be sure to check out this kvlt hillbilly. –Scuro
17. Jon Hopkins – Singularity
Listening to Jon Hopkins, and in particular to his 2018 release Singularity, feels like being in a planetarium. No doubt swayed a bit by the night sky adorning the album’s cover, I nonetheless see the beauty of this album as being comprehensive, global: Hopkins’ impeccably-produced synth thrums and punchy drums sound off like massive objects falling against a vast backdrop of royal azure. The event of the so-called technological “Singularity,” in which artificial intelligence would start to rapidly accelerate in proficiency and self-awareness, in fact operates as the perfect conceptual prism through which to view Singularity itself. On the evidence of this album, Hopkins is an artist interested in blurring the lines between nature and technology, layering angelic choirs atop decorously arranged techno timbres and engineering the whole sonic environment toward an expression of organic beauty.
For certain listeners the collateral damage from this sweeping aural atmosphere might be too much, as Hopkins occasionally dips into the reserves of the Uncanny Valley to generate his celestial material; in other words, this album might be too damn perfect for some. Yet the marvelous view — widescreen, 4K, planetarium-like, whatever metaphor you prefer — which Hopkins offers us of the world around us is a nonpareil. Working within the timbres and rhythms of a musical tradition that usually finds its listeners curling into themselves, Hopkins crafts a masterpiece of utter outwardness. Singularity ends up as that rarest of things, then: electronic music as an act of love. –Alex Robertson
16. Denzel Curry – TA13OO
I keep trying to write about TA13OO, and find myself stumped whenever I write the word ‘relentless.’ It’s a good word to describe Imperial, Denzel Curry’s previous album, but it’s difficult to apply to TA13OO. In place of barking, shouting, and breathlessly cramming words into the margins, Denzel’s used this album to embrace slower tempos, upbeat vibes, the occasional malcontent emo bop, and plainspoken, metaphor-free rapping. It’s no less intense — the first song deals with his child molestation, and the entire back third is dedicated to four of Denzel’s hardest ever songs — but instead a way for Denzel to show he can cause no less impact without running through a cadre of Dragon Ball Z references. –Arcade
15. Nine Inch Nails – Bad Witch
The final part of a revitalizing trilogy saw Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross surprising fans again much like Not the Actual Events did. This engaging affair seems to me like the familiar Nine Inch Nails formula blended with David Bowie’s Blackstar and thrown into the abstract world of Twin Peaks. The two instrumental cuts evoke this feeling the most with jazzy saxophone leads on top of tribal-esque percussion (“Play the Goddamned Part”), as well as brooding ambient synths and oscillators (“I’m Not From This World”). We receive an intriguing, shape-shifting, yet unsettling vibe that runs throughout the 30 minutes, never truly revealing itself. The ugly, lyrical truth behind Bad Witch is the illusion we have of a greater meaning for our lives and overall existence as species. After questioning his relevance as an artist, the frontman decided to cut his introspective journey with this nihilistic theory. Musically, this direction was ignited by Trent’s attempt to regain his confidence in playing the saxophone and create something less predictable or by the numbers. It’s true the LP feels more volatile, as well as visceral in its approach; thus, the results are some of the most satisfying in a long time. Ultimately, the band shouldn’t care to please the mainstream audience anymore; there is no label behind to push for singles or conventional tunes. Focusing on creating something interesting for themselves brought out a newfound creativity, plus a template for future projects. –Raul Stanciu
14. Deafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
I’m in the minority loving New Bermuda, warts and all, for its awkward transitions, endless riffs, needless guitar solos, and all-around heavy metal wankery. But, I cannot deny how Deafheaven have improved with Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. They’ve embraced a gazer aesthetic this time around, and the presence of piano keys and feminine voices lends itself to Slowdive rather than Slayer. Still, it’s no less of a metal album, and it’s difficult to say whether a more consciously tasteful sound has done much to damage their standing with anyone. As a counterpoint to New Bermuda — softer, quieter, more considered, approachable, appropriate for college radio and Spotify-generated ‘Modern Metal’ playlists — Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is stylistically different, but nevertheless a great metal album for ordinary people. –Arcade
13. Brandi Carlile – By the Way, I Forgive You
In talking about By the Way, I Forgive You, Brandi Carlile describes letting any songs that were airy or “easy” fall away, leaving only the most difficult songs behind. She talks about how forgiveness has been co-opted into a Hallmark card hashtag, devoid of meaning, when instead it is one of the most difficult things you can do, an almost impossible task to perform in a manner that results in a true lack of bitterness or resentment. Forgiveness is so often accusatory and so rarely genuine, and it can harden your heart when it’s supposed to do the opposite.
Carlile, openly gay since she was a young teenager, has had to learn this lesson more than most, and it has left her with an almost unique talent for lyrics that are like needle-pricks to the heart. She sings about the eventual triumph of all marginalized peoples on some sunny day not so far away in “The Joke”, and its final lines – “I have been to the movies, I’ve seen how it ends, and the joke’s on them” – feel like a modern-day “The Times They are A-Changin'” (and she sings that one sometimes, too). She confronts the human cost of the opioid crisis on “Sugartooth”, bringing the camera in close to one man’s death and then beyond to the “hand stuck reaching back in time.” “Hold Out Your Hand” punctuates lyrics about gun violence and police brutality with a reminder that when “you’ve had about as goddamn much as you can take, the devil don’t take a break.”
Through it all, Carlile’s voice – the best in the music industry, without a doubt in my mind – sounds rugged and soft and powerful and weak all at once, scratchy with a languid, patient vibrato, and capable of selling any conceivable lyric or concept, difficult or otherwise. She could have kept writing songs about “summer and nature and animals,” and the album would have been great, but she intentionally plunged a hand into her internal darkness and pulled out something by turns sweet and bitter, an approximation of how difficult life can be and a gentle reminder that we can always make it easier for each other. –Channing Freeman
12. SOPHIE – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides
We can start with its title. Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides. Our excretion, the unique and uniquely shameful bio-hazardous material that paradoxically unites us in the shared experience of spitting, shitting, bleeding, crying. And that pearl is valuable – isn’t it? A treasure of the deep, a luminescent prize shelled off and immaculate, its contents burst forth in some declarative un- out there into the open. “Just know you’ve got nothing to hide,” SOPHIE herself intones on the opening track of her debut statement. “It’s okay to cry.”
We can start again with its title. Look closer: I love every person’s insides. That abstract place that houses our Selves, the unique and uniquely shameful immaterial that defines us or separates us in its minuscule and cavernous ways. But SOPHIE constructs a whole new world, a place of reconciliation between ourselves and our Selves, our oil and our un-inside, all beauty and mess and surreality: “Who are you, deep down? I wanna know.”
And that construct, that reconciliation! SOPHIE has long since been longform-written into electronic music’s history books for her trademark, mercurial blend of industrial music’s air-tight-earth-shattering music beds and pop music’s instantaneous loops and curlicues. On Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, she takes every step further, completing the bridge to her avant-garde pretensions with a palpable humor and grace that casts her content into constant relief. The interplay between synth-pop and rave music and ballads are as gaudy and purposeful as the plasticine pieces of a K’Nex toy, and every bit as accessible.
For experimental music to be this generous, this accessible, this pop – it truly is a radical new world. –Lewis P.
11. Rolo Tomassi – Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It
Rolo Tomassi put the softest two tracks at the beginning of their record to see who’s along for the ride. In fact, when I played this for my buddy, he was skeptical; I had to assure him that Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It does in fact bang. And this is not to say that the first two tracks aren’t great — they’re ethereal and captivating — it’s just that they’re a good litmus test for whether or not someone can handle the level of experimentation and genre-bending Rolo Tomassi play around with. Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It is more parts screaming and blast beasts than it is dream pop-esque exercises in entrancing the listener, but I doubt Rolo Tomassi consider themselves a metal band or a -core band. I’m sure they haven’t fashioned some cringe-inducing moniker for themselves like “gaze-grind” — they don’t care what you think and they refuse to be pigeonholed into one genre. Eva and company have no regard for what someone might expect out of a small-statured frontwoman, or a band with a full-time keyboard player — they’re in it for the melody and atmosphere, man. –Trebor.