10. SOPHIE – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides
Artificiality gets a bad rap. Despite the divide between “natural” and “unnatural” being a nebulous and slippery one, many people are highly invested in establishing and maintaining a hierarchy between the two. These people affix the “unnatural” label onto a laundry list of new, scary phenomena, from smartphones to genetically modified foods, hoping everyone else shares their assumption that artificiality is inherently negative. Somewhere on that list, you’ll find pretty much everything queer people do. Same-gender relationships are “unnatural.” Lack of sexual desire is “unnatural.” Feeling that you’re a different gender than everyone says you are is “unnatural,” as is anything you might do to feel more like that gender: makeup, hormone replacement therapy, plastic surgery, etc.
SOPHIE has no regard for such condemnations; throughout Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, she revels in the artificial. She takes the raw electronic elements of club bangers and alternately fashions them into blasts of industrial surrealism or impressionist strokes of ambience. The voice that declares, “My face is the front of shop” and sings about “immaterial girls” is not her own; when she does grace the mic, her voice is so unintelligibly distorted that a listener can only just make out her command to “synthesize the real.” Not since Floral Shoppe has such an engaging album sounded so much like it was made by a machine, but unlike Macintosh Plus, it’s abundantly clear that SOPHIE is human. Her face is right there on the album cover, not to mention the video for opener “It’s Okay to Cry”. And of course the album has to open with that song, the one in which SOPHIE, sounding almost human, sings, “I think your inside is your best side.” At the origin of SOPHIE’s artificiality is something as natural as sunlight: an internality, an inner truth about herself. She sees and appreciates that same inner truth in everyone — “I love every person’s insides” — and she wants you to know that, if you need to embrace the artificial in order for that inner truth to bloom outward, then why not enjoy it, as she does?
So let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that this album, this statement, made it into our Top Ten Albums of 2018 — and it was far from the only year-end accolade the album received. In an exceptionally tumultuous year for trans rights, the music scene as a whole was incredibly receptive to an album by a trans woman about the trans experience. That’s not exactly a replacement for legal and political recognition of trans people’s existence, but it’s a heartening sign that we’re on our way. –Dean M
9. Night Verses – From the Gallery of Sleep
Making art out of loss seems to be a discipline in itself for the three remaining, and now fixed, musicians playing in Night Verses. Following lead singer Douglas Robinson’s departure, the band decided to take two steps back and one leap forward before starting to experiment as a full-time instrumental outfit. An early EP called Copper Wasp served as a first taste of what the trio were plotting, but it was just a snack compared to what they have discharged in From the Gallery of Sleep. Nick DePirro, Aric Improta, and Reilly Herrera are — each one of them — masters in their craft, as their impressive musicianship illustrates every multicolored soundscape Night Verses have carefully designed. The occasional vocal samples serve as beacons, while the listener is left to wonder and wander through the outfit’s world of dreams and reveries, like a fascinating journey through Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. The band bend and dilate reality like a colossal hand varnishing the surface with the softest of brushes, successfully creating one of the finest instrumental albums of the year. If an image is worth a thousand words, you can be sure that From the Gallery of Sleep is worth millions. –Dewinged
8. The Ocean – Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic
The crushing weight of The Ocean Collective’s Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic is as vast as the concepts to which the group entail their sonic landscapes. The album itself is a juxtaposition of sounds, combined in a way that shows a gentle rising of the group’s more textured cleans and recedes with a blasting of mayhem. The deeper the listener peers into the darkening abyss, the more they’re likely to find. Phanerozoic is monolithic and somewhat unending, tying well into the contextual themes that pour through every minute of music.
It’s worth noting that The Ocean’s philosophy on their music doesn’t stem from an outwards show of flamboyance, instead maintaining a firm grip on what is real and what works for the band as they channel each part of a storyline. The music itself ebbs and flows naturally, crescendoing where it needs to then letting the pressure go. Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic is melodic, heavy, conceptually intelligent and well-placed, leaving listeners with an album as beautiful as it is expansive. We’ve heard Part 1; now we’ve just got to wait for the second chapter. –Nocte
7. Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog
“The personal is political” is a mantra decades old, and one espoused by several of my favourite artists. Julien Baker, for example, used it as as a justification for her last album’s excessive concern with the ego, in a time of seemingly unending political turmoil. Frances Quinlan, on the other hand, side-steps this notion altogether on Bark Your Head Off, Dog, an album personal and political in equal measure, though also — strangely — not. This is, in large part, due to Quinlan’s ability to blur the line between anecdote and narrative with considerable success, blowing apart such dichotomies with disturbing ease. For this reason, the repetition of a line like “so strange to be shaped by such strange men” serves a multitude of purposes. On both “Not Abel” and “What the Writer Meant”, it allows Quinlan to question the common wisdom of the Bible. The former, in particular, exudes a striking empathy for the murderous brother within the story of Cain and Abel: “What if the details there were suddenly shared? / Tender moments siblings keep secret.” Later on in the song, however, she reframes God’s question, “Where?”, and answers in her own voice, “When you asked me that question it sounded like a joke / A rubber hand extended to shake”. It’s difficult to ascertain just what Quinlan’s mind turns to at that moment, but her response is too impassioned, too readily-given to be shrugged off as impersonal. Out of context, the line is also quite literal: how strange, indeed, to be dictated by institutions helmed by people as weird — if not weirder — than the rest of us, weird as we are. That isn’t any kind of ‘statement,’ however — it’s framed more as an observation, filled not with just disdain and confusion, but empathy and compassion and a desire to understand.
As both Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene and Sputnik’s own theacademy so aptly put it, Quinlan’s voice is one that “cuts.” It’s one of ample emotion, both in terms of power and plasticity, conforming the distinct voices of the album’s various characters while, at the same time, remaining all her own. Bark Your Head Off, Dog is, despite this, Hop Along at their most straightforward. Both the songwriting and progression of the album are linear in nature. Yet the album is, more often than not, quite complex, even elusive. It’s an emotional powerhouse in spite, and as a result of, its simplicity. –BlushfulHippocrene
6. Deafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
In many ways, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love feels like the sequel to Sunbather that New Bermuda didn’t. As good of a record as Bermuda was, its deviance into a more blackened and primitive sound felt reactionary, as if Deafheaven were trying to prove to the haters that they, too, could belong in black metal. Ordinary Corrupt Human Love doesn’t feel bogged down by that baggage, but rather carries the vibe of a band freed from expectation. It holds steadfast to classic Deafheaven-isms — shimmering, glitter-soaked guitars smeared across a maelstrom of necrotic rasps and militant drumming — but also allows the band to revel in their newfound sonic liberation. Embracing the glut of their non-metal influences, this is easily their most ‘alternative’ effort; Deafheaven have never widened their scope as much as they have there. The album’s overall aesthetic reeks of grunge, while tracks like the Chelsea Wolfe/Ben Chisholm-fronted “Night People” pinpoint a dark and despondent post-punk influence in its icy duet. These elements have always been a part of their sound, but never wielded on this scale and with this much confidence. And despite this increase of ‘outside’ inspirations, Deafheaven have retained their nuance, reducing the would-be disparities to a cellular level, and renewing them into something whole and cohesive. Ultimately, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is probably the most “Deafheaven” album to date, and another de(a)fining statement in their controversial yet illustrious career. –TheSpirit
5. Foxing – Nearer My God
I’ll never forget first discovering Foxing a year before my start at university, drawn to the emotional outpouring that was “Rory” (from The Albatross) and fascinated by their unique approach to the emo scene. After moving to their hometown of St. Louis and discovering Conor Murphy nearly shared my name and a love for wailing trumpets, I felt this intense connection to the band. Like watching a child grow up, I was there for their album release party for Dealer, an album that slightly departed from their roots, but one that gained a certain beauty within the restraint found amidst its atmosphere. Their growing success didn’t come without hardships, however, as seen with the loss of their founding bassist Josh Coll and a severe car accident that left the band traumatized and appreciative of their life here on Earth.
In comes Nearer My God, a burst of fervent energy that contrasts lyrics like, “I feel like a houseplant” or “When all you really want is somewhere between here and the ground.” Emotionally drained now, Conor sings of false love and lack of hope, often employing his wispy falsettos throughout the course of the album. Instrumentally, the band break the boundaries of their own sound, often exploding into symphonic beauty like on the closing of “Grand Paradise” or the face-melting solo of “Lich Prince”. Single “Gameshark” sounds closer to Portugal. The Man rather than Prawn or Moving Mountains, featuring upbeat electronic drum samples and anthemic hooks carried by the Conor’s weightless vocals. Even at their most adventurous, they succeed wildly, as seen within the 9-minute epic of “Five Cups”, the first of Nearer My God‘s songs to turn down the energy a bit in favor of elongated synthetic hallways that maze in and out of each other. Although I’ve probably taken on the false role of a proud father, watching this band grow into their own shoes over the course of the past 7 years has been equal parts rewarding and heart-wrenching. Yet, as the airplanes land on the melancholy runways of “Lambert”, Conor simply turns away and says, “Gave back a note from the other one / To tell them all to go home.” –Connor S.
4. IDLES – Joy as an Act of Resistance.
I once dated a punk girl. Her definition of punk was, roughly, “to defy the norm and what’s expected of you at all costs.” I always found this definition to be quite at odds with the genre at times. While I generally love music that defies expectations, I never found punk’s listless lack of variation from the same three chords and some guy screaming over repetitive guitar riffs all that interesting, let alone revolutionary. I mean, sure, when it grew out of a resistance to pompous and overwrought rock music at the time, it was groundbreaking. But artists have been regurgitating the same music for decades now, capitalizing on the very ideas they’re ‘rebelling’ against.
Then in come IDLES.
While I mistook their debut for delivering more of the same, this album definitively supplants them as the new punk giants, taking cues from the old lurching acts of brazen aggression and fusing it with progressive lyrics and unexpected musical homages. They defy punk music’s norms in thrilling ways, therefore becoming closer to its core values. It’s punk to deliver a ballad about your stillborn daughter in the middle of your punk record. It’s punk to defy the ferocious conservative hatred in your home country. It’s punk to make whatever in the beautiful fuck “Colossus” is and then use it as your opener. It’s punk because we’re not expecting it. They just have to be careful now — next time it will be. –neekafat
3. mewithoutYou – [Untitled]
2018 was a banner year for Sputnik darlings mewithoutYou. In August, the band announced an EP to precede a new full-length album, and already the community was shoveling coal into the hype train’s furnace. While the EP is, comparatively, a slower, crackling burn, this album is a roaring blaze — sending plumes of black smoke to the sky as the vehicle that is mewithoutYou melts the rails beneath their wheels, seemingly destined to come off the track at any second.
From the album’s first moments, the band affirms that the LP will be a wild affair, and they do not disappoint. Aaron Weiss’ lyrics are god-tier, as always, but he has a new vigor in a voice revived, turning in a remarkable performance — especially for a guy that has been doing this for nearly 20 years. He even ups the ante with “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore”, eschewing animals and parables to offer the listener an unmasked glimpse at what has been tormenting him so. In fact, the entire band sounds fresh, as if each member knew he had to pull out all the stops to bring out the best in one another.
This album is certainly not be the doomsday that closed out Pale Horses, but it takes the urgency of “Rainbow Signs”‘ most desperate moments and almost normalizes it across the canvas of an entire album, creating a declaration against the mental struggles of every day life. With [Untitled], mewithoutYou have somehow exceeded insurmountable expectations and have even managed to bring some old fans back into the fold, providing an album that listeners will be talking about for years to come. –dbizzles
I lay down to write this blurb. I just got back from a 12-hour overnight shift after a normal 10-hour day before. I am exhausted, but in the way that I won’t think too carefully so that I’ll drown out my thoughts with over-analysis. I’ll probably even forget to properly edit this before I inevitably crash.
I tend to feel things more easily and deeply when I’m tired. Just now a whole wave of emotions from guilt to love to anger to loneliness hit me all at once, right as I’m supposed to get this write-up in on time. It’s a bit on the nose, sure, but this sudden eruption of feelings and thoughts with no care to restrain them evokes the colorful shattering of what was once a neatly contained orb on the album cover in front of me. The music ascribes to the same belief: unrestrained thought or feeling, ideas and emotions changing suddenly and breathless on whatever whim float its way. This is best emulated on the album highlight/opener “9:27a.m., 7/29”, which at once sounds like it has no clue what the fuck it’s doing, yet on the other hand, sounds like a meticulously crafted extremity of every emotion possible. Every sound and emotion here has a massive scope, and it’s realized to its full potential. It’s everything a rock album needs to be today, in that it functions through as many twisting, clashing forms as can possibly fit neatly into the term ‘rock.’ And as I lay here, desperately fighting off sleep, I let myself feel my feelings through this album. And I find my life to be exactly album is: exhausting, exciting, and fucking exhilarating. –neekafat
2. Rolo Tomassi – Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It
Rolo Tomassi’s mixing of styles plays artfully on the lush, vengeful sounds of indie meets metal. No longer quietly achieving, the stereotype so eagerly presented with “math-y” releases gives way to an unrivalled and unyielding definition of a band hitting their stride. Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It allows for a circumspect point of view on what is actually possible within rewriting textbook ideas. From the scenic views of “Aftermath” and its angelic offerings of electronics to the sheer drop of exhilaration that is the rest of the album (see: “Balancing The Dark”, “Rituals” or “A Flood Of Light”), Time Will Die… remains somewhat pensive, giving room for the tumultuous mannerisms that bring one element to the next and wrap it into a succinct musical display.
For most, Rolo Tomassi’s newest piece literally came from nowhere, but the band themselves have honed their craft into a separate niche. Time Will Die… is cohesive, balanced, and artfully varied. It’s this combination of talent-meets-force that has propelled this young British group to the lofty heights with little to no neighboring acts to mention this year. Eva Spence may be little in stature, but no longer will she be underestimated in status. –Nocte
1. Daughters – You Won’t Get What You Want
This record is a complete dearth of lightness. The horn ensemble during the apex of “Guest House” might be the closest thing to reprieve the album has to offer purely because it has something melodic to hang onto, and even still, it comes off more as an extra weight on the conscience than a full relief of tension. I spent a few months this year trying to extricate myself of a number of life-threatening decisions a close family member had been making, seemingly in perpetuity. It didn’t really matter how much autonomy I tried to apply to their character profile in my head; guilt doesn’t really take any prisoners. I couldn’t get what I wanted. They weren’t getting the help I felt they needed. And while Daughters’ reasoning behind the title of this record seems to be something a little more straightforward on the surface, I can’t help but feel my attachment to their creation is some kind of vicarious coping mechanism. I want to know what it feels like to write something as unflinchingly destructive as “The Flammable Man”. I want to live in the headspace that bore “Satan in the Wait” while it was happening, and see if I could use the experience as confirmation bias for the validity of my own issues. Of all the uplifting records released this year, I’m finding it necessary to pry whatever ounce of hope I can from this one in particular — and every time I fail, it feels even more necessary to try again. Through the waves of tormented noise is a sense of quiet. In the chaos, catharsis. You Won’t Get What You Want is an achievement, and its roar will no doubt echo on for decades to come. –ramon.
A thank you to the following writers (alphabetical order): Bloon, BlushfulHippocrene, Chortles, clavier, Conmaniac, dbizzles, Dewinged, DrGonzo1937, hesperus, linguist2011, MarsKid, McTime50, Mort., neekafat, Nocte, PistolPete, ramon., SherlockChris9021, Storm in a Teacup, TheSpirit, WinesburgOhio
Additional gratitude to SandwichBubble for creating all album artwork that wasn’t recycled from the staff feature (in other words, you can thank him specifically for that KEN Mode art).