Every year, during the first third of it or thereabouts, I hear a stunning piece of work that makes me say “this is the first real contender for Album of the Year.” Of course, with the plethora of albums released every year, what this means in practice is “here, wear this target on your back for the next nine to eleven months.” Most years, that’s how it plays out; I’ve been doing this for forty years now, and in all that time, three albums I started out saying that about actually ended up Album of the Year. The first appeared in February 1987; to this day, King Diamond’s Abigail remains, for me, the greatest concept album ever released. The second was Merzbow’s Ikebukuro Dada, which climbed atop the mountain in March of 2002 and was never topped. The third? Read on.
A quick reminder of how things work around here: in order for a release to qualify for consideration, the band(s) involved must have put out a full-length release. My definition of “full-length” is that it can’t fit on a 3″ CD, so it has to be longer than 21 minutes. (There is no standard definition of EP/LP; Jenny Hval, for instance, has an “EP” on this list five minutes longer than any “LP” Nails have ever released.)
(or, the 25 other releases I would have written about if I’d had more time to write about releases this year)
in alphabetical order:
The Affordable Floors, Every Broken Heart Will Mend (Bandcamp)
Ars Magna Umbrae, Lunar Ascension (I, Voidhanger)
Bliss Signal, Bliss Signal (Profound Lore)
Current93, The Light Is Leaving Us All (The Spheres)
Daughters, You Won’t Get What You Want (Ipecac)
Disgusted Geist, Reign of Enthrallment (Pathologically Explicit)
Dûrga, De Lira Ire (Bandcamp)
Embrace of Thorns, Scorn Aesthetics (Iron Bonehead)
Feed Me to the Waves, Before This Wilderness Consumes Us (Sad Turtle)
Forest Management/Skin Graft, Low (Reserve Matinee)
Frontierer, Unloved (Bandcamp)
Fucked and Bound, Suffrage (Void Assault)
Julia Holter, Aviary (Domino)
Jenny Hval, The Long Sleep (Sacred Bones)
Imperial Triumphant, Vile Luxury (Gilead Media)
Ison, Andromeda Skyline (Avantgarde Music)
Low, Double Negative (Sub Pop)
Lychgate, The Contagion in Nine Steps (Blood Music)
Mamaleek, Out of Time (The Flenser)
Mylingar, Döda Drömmar (Fallen Empire)
Rien, The Black Tape (Staticism)
Svartidauđi, Revelations of the Red Sword (Ván)
Tangled Thoughts of Leaving, No Tether (Bandcamp)
Vitriol Gauge, Routines (Concrete//Contrôle)
Voivod, The Wake (Century Media)
Next, we have…
also in alphabetical order…
Ails, The Unraveling (The Flenser)
Remember Ludicra? If not, you should; 2010’s The Tenant was a masterpiece. It was also their last album before they broke up in 2011. Well, Ludicra’s two vocalists are back together in Ails. That alone should be enough reason to get you to pick this up. They’re straying more into blackened death territory than they did in Ludicra, and there are even hints of clean vocals running around in there on occasion.
Bosse-de-Nage, Further Still (Profound Lore)
The final album that fell when I was putting together the top ten list. If you want to understand why it almost managed to hang on past the album I was comparing it to (which you’ll meet later), hit play on “Crux”, listen to it, and then do it again with the lyric pane expanded. These folks (who seem to prefer anonymity) are writing Thou- and Clutch-level lyrics to go along with that music. Further Still has made a lot more year-end lists than this; we could be seeing them go from cult classic to next big thing as we speak. Get in on the ground floor.
Compactor, Degradation (Jouissance du Rien)
Compactor has spent the last few years fracturing techno/industrial conventions with great success. Degradation delves deeper; it doesn’t quite get into completely beatless harsh noise territory, but it’s closer than The Worker has ever gotten before. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I suspect you already know the answer to that question.
Dedekind Cut, Tahoe (Kranky)
Fred Warmsley’s first full-length since $uccessor shows that he’s still making some of the best minimal electronica on the planet, not that that should be a surprise to anyone. The jump from Hospital to Kranky had zero effect on his output, which is slightly more of a surprise (but a pleasant one, of course).
Dissilient/Skin Graft, Punched in the Face (SKSK)
Two of Northern Ohio’s best reunite for a collaborative effort (following a split 7” back in 2015). Even if you’re not into the noise/powerelectronics scene, it’s possible you’re familiar with Skin Graft, one of the few acts who regularly gets column inches in more mainstream press for Wyatt’s take-no-prisoners approach to noise. Dissilient tend towards a darker, more ominous sound that fits well in all the little gaps; as with most things Wyatt, this really isn’t noise for beginners, but it’s definitely something you want to dive into once you realize you like the stuff.
L’enfant de la Forêt, Strangled (Bandcamp)
Five years ago, Bobby Krlic introduced the world to a still-nameless concept I’ve come to think of as horror electronica—the kind of music you hear in the soundtracks of horror films, but transliterated to a minimal electronica that is oddly perfect for it. There have been a number of bands who have worked that clay since (Brood Ma, for example, who popped up on this list a couple years ago), but I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone else do it as well as Krlic until discovering L’enfant de la Forêt earlier this year. Strangled lets you know what you’re in for from the moment you see the cover and that title, and James Kent delivers the goods in track after disquieting track. (Toby Driver fans, take note: Vaura vocalist Josh Strawn contributes vocals to “Anti-All”.)
Thrainn Hjalmarsson, Influence of Buildings on Musical Tone (Carrier)
Hjalmarsson, like a contemporary of his you’ll be meeting in the ten-best list, is interested in the relationship between body, environment, and music here, as much as the cover to this album would have you believe otherwise. Performed by five different chamber ensembles (all from Hjalmarsson’s native Iceland) with five different aesthetics, this is classical music for noise kids and various other assorted people who don’t think they like classical music.
Aaron Martin, A Room Now Empty (Preserved Sound)
Aaron Martin is like Henryk Gorecki in the sense that when he gets mournful, the rest of us have a cause for celebration. A Room Now Empty may be Martin’s best work—he’s always accomplished, and his recordings show impressive control from someone who’s often playing three instruments at a time (pro tip: if you get the chance, you really, really want to see him live), but this one has that extra dimension that comes from an artist who’s plumbing the depths. If you’re not yet familiar with the wonder that is Aaron Martin, this is a fantastic place to get acquainted.
Marissa Nadler, For My Crimes (Sacred Bones/Bella Union)
More upbeat (however slightly) than 2016 Album of the Year Strangers, and nearly as satisfying. There’s no such thing as a bad Marissa Nadler album, and the current queen of the singer-songwriter genre offers up another slab of hard evidence here.
Phyllomedusa, Let Sleeping Frogs Lie (Salmonella Sickness)
Phyllomedusa operates in two modes—long stretches of silence and then bursts of activity where he’ll sometimes release an album a day for extended periods. The latter half of 2018 has been one of those, and trying to choose one release from it is nearly impossible. But Let Sleeping Frogs Lie is a perfect example of classic HNW that should be as endlessly fascinating to my fellow pareidolics as it is to me. Two hours of sheer static bliss.
Skindred, Big Tings (Napalm)
How do you follow up the heaviest, most uncompromising album of your 16-year career? Obviously, with an unapologetic bid for commercial success. Everything about that description points to “you should probably hate this”, but this is the most successful album of its kind I can think of since The Replacements dropped Tim in 1985. Yes, it’s that good.
Soell, Body (Jouissance du Rien)
Mid-to-late-90s noise had a convention that’s kind of fallen out of favor in the new century—long samples that set the tone for the noise to follow, by the end usually so fizzed-out they were incomprehensible. (The classic example is Death Squad’s “Decay”, from 1998.) Soell comes crashing back into that world with a tape so profoundly refreshing it’ll make you realize you’d forgotten you were missing it.
TRNA, Earthcult (Elusive Sound)
Russian post-rockers TRNA return with their third slab of emotional bludgeoning. Not a lot in the way of surprises here, but that’s not a bad thing; if you loved Lose Yourself to Find Peace (and who didn’t?), this one’s guaranteed to hit the same spots in your chest with equal precision.
Unlucky Morpheus, Change of Generation (self-released)
How in the world have I slept on Unlucky Morpheus for a decade? This is sterling power metal of the highest caliber, and unlike most of the great bands mining that vein today, they’re not mixing it with anything; this is as pure as it gets. One feels odd calling nostalgia “refreshing”, but there you have it, and this album just plain kills.
Johanna Warren, Gemini II (Spirit House)
Gemini I was a monster, and as a result, expectations for Gemini II were stratospheric. That it was not at all a surprise that it met every one of those expectations is a solid indicator of just how good Johanna Warren is. If you only pick up one singery-songwritery thing this year, etc. But you need two, because Marissa Nadler was back there a few entries; think of Warren as the kind of flipside of Nadler, new age-y optimism balancing out Nadler’s breathy introspection.
…and now that we have our opening acts out of the way, it’s time for…
The Ten Best Albums of 2018
10. Subklinik, Of Bones and Death (Deathbed Tapes)
We are now almost a quarter-century into the existence of Chad Davis’ flagship project Subklinik, and in that entire time, the quality has never flagged. Even the most consistent bands in the world sometimes slip a little (you’ll note the very rare absences of Clutch and Clara Engel on this year’s lists, for example). Unless, that is, you’re the god of death ambient. Davis has perfected a sound that a lot of bands, especially in the black metal realm, have been trying to figure out for years—the production is remarkably clean, and yet the material still feels like it was recorded in the darkest corner of the dankest crypt in northern Finland. These are sounds with which to fuel your nightmares.
9. Norman W. Long, Electro-Acoustic Dubcology I-IV(Reserve Matinee)
Reserve Matinee’s description of this album mentions that Long, too, has been active in his native Chicago for decades. Even given the maxim that the best bands almost always go unsigned, how in the world did no one outside the region hear of this guy until now? And why this album, at this time (which coincides quite nicely with Thrainn Hjalmarsson’s Influence of Buildings on Musical Tone [q.v.])? Whatever magic the powers that be worked to bring this to national attention should be praised far and wide, because Norman Long is doing something wonderful with this mashup of minimally-treated field recordings (think back to 2007 AotY Scenery of the Border, from Kiyoshi Mizutani, as a touchstone; Long is perhaps not quite as obsessed with birds, but you’ll find ‘em here), silence, static, and low, almost Thomas Köner-level minimal drone. What sets Long apart from those aforementioned contemporaries (as well as Eric La Casa, whose The Stones of the Threshold came to mind more than once on my first listen here) is that he’s working in a madly expanded field, which gives him ample time to develop his experiments. The shortest track here clocks in at eighteen minutes.
8. Mournful Congregation, The Incubus of Karma (20 Buck Spin)
It took Mourn.Cong. seven years to record a followup to their massive The Book of Kings, a platter I still consider raising to Album of the Year for 2011 every time I spin it. (That d.Cun. still sits atop that year is testament to Gone’s immortality.) Seven years, I might add, during which I posted at least one grouchy Facebook post annually asking where that followup was. Well, here we are in 2018, and it was worth the wait. It seems to me that half this year’s list is “bands who are doing something very new with their sound” and the other half is “they’re doing the same thing, but they’re so good at it that you don’t care.” This falls into the latter camp; Mournful Congregation are simply the best band in funereal doom, and have been for a long, long time. This isn’t the monster that The Book of Kings is, but it doesn’t need to be to be fabulous.
7. Respire, Dénouement (Belle Epoque)
The last, and hardest, decision I had to make with this ten-best list was whether Respire or Bosse-de-nage was going to get relegated to the Honorable Mention list. And, well, you see what the result was, though I will be going back and questioning it continually for, probably, years. Both bands turned in absolute monsters this year that managed to both refine their sound and build on it to create something different, however slightly, than we’d heard from them before. And Respire won by a nose for, really, the stupidest of reasons; when you read descriptions of Respire, you think “jeez, these guys probably sound like a third-rate Godspeed! knockoff.” (Or, okay, maybe that’s just me, but “Toronto post-everything”? I mean, at least Godspeed! has the Francophone thing going for them.) And then you slap this on the player and you start it up and it throws you against the wall and starts pummelling you. I’m saying this academically, really; I don’t own a sound system with the subwoofers I would need to really get the most out of this, but I’m pretty sure on the right system, the subsonics here could cause earthquakes. That’s the sort of thing that always gets me happy. And when you layer it with the massive-yet-catchy riffs that lay on top of this, and then add in those fragile, almost crystalline moments of beauty that punctuate the work, well, I’ll just say this—I’ve listened to enough post-whatever albums over the past month to make me think the entire range of subgenres is kind of meaningless… until I listen to Respire again. The last post-metal album that I could really say that about was Pray for Teeth’s Demo 2012.
6. She Walks Crooked, I Shut My Eyes and the World Drops Dead (Lost Light)
Scott Kindberg unleashed She Walks Crooked on the world five years ago, and it almost immediately became his flagship project. Along with the usual avalanche of splits and collaborations, SWC has released nine full-lengths so far, and all of them have been sterling; his debut, 2014’s I Felt So Normal and Uninteresting, has long felt like the definitive HNW album to me. Well, along comes I Shut My Eyes and the World Drops Dead, Kindberg’s most ambitious recording to date—a Vomir-length monstrosity (two hours, forty-five minutes) spread across three discs. Now, if you’re familiar with harsh noise wall, you already know that it’s not a genre for everyone. But if you’re the type of person who listened to TV static after stations went off the air (back when stations did that) and heard endless shifting patterns in the chaos, then this album is going to be right up your alley.
5. Thou, Magus (Sacred Bones)
As is often the case, a decent number of bands on this year’s list are repeat customers. When you have a great formula, stick with it, right? With the (arguable) exception of Clutch, there is no single band on the planet right now who do that better than Thou, who have perfected their throne of sludge topped with Bryan Funck’s blistering, black-metal vocal style that’s even better live (spoiler alert), the whole used to deliver lyrics that sound like they should be coming from a far, far different band than this. It all coalesces into this almost otherworldly morass of stoner metal that can be called, with a straight face, one of music’s unique experiences. Well, it would be unique, except they keep bringing the pain. Never more so than in 2018, where Magus, the centerpiece, was flanked by no less than four EPs (all of these, by the by, on different labels), a handful of splits, and a mixtape. (A real mixtape, like the kind you were given in high school by your crush. And yes, it does include Chris Isaak. No, really.) I mean, even if you didn’t like the music, you kind of have to be impressed with the hubris… but then there’s the music. I said it before, and I’ll say it again: there is no band walking the planet right now who does it better than Thou. Just take a listen to “My Brother Caliban” while reading along with the lyrics. You’ll see what I mean pretty quick.
4. Band-Maid, World Domination (Crown Stones)
I was right, it turns out, when I speculated back in 2016 that “Alone” was the first single Band-Maid had written themselves. Crown Stones, their new(-at-the-time) label, took heed of the single’s popularity, and Band-Maid have written all their own stuff since. It’s not coincidental that both Just Bring It last year and World Domination this year both made my 10 best list, methinks. They just keep coming up with killer track after killer track, and with World Domination, they’re expanding their realm. There are pieces here that veer precariously close to Jpop, a few more traditional stylings, even a power ballad. Though, it should be noted, without ever losing the hard-rock edge that has defined the band since day one, and that’s important; they can expand the theme without losing the motif, and so far, they’re phenomenally successful at it.
3. Zeal and Ardor, Stranger Fruit (MVKA)
When I hit play on the first track of Stranger Fruit, I almost stopped it after that track and figured I didn’t need to listen to it any more to dismiss it. Then the second track started, and I thought “okay, we’ll give it one more”. By the end of the album, even in the middle of a December crowded with new-to-me music (as I write this on December 27, I’ve listened to fifty-two albums released in 2018 for the first time since the beginning of the month, as well as seventeen I’ve heard before, and I still have at least forty-six to go—most of which I’m probably not going to be able to get to, more’s the pity), I hit play again and gave it another listen immediately to make sure this album is as magical as I thought it was. The simple answer is yes. The more complex one is that I inhabit a very weird space where I loathe religion and am still fascinated by the tropes of gospel music. (The continuing popularity of Ghost tells me I am far from alone in this.) Zeal and Ardor, like a number of dark roots bands, seems to have an innate grasp of how that works, and like Big Blood before them, they manage to combine the foot-stomping tent-revival gospel presentation with a decidedly secular agenda to create the kind of music I dearly wish had existed when I was a kid in the mid-seventies.
2. Puce Mary, The Drought (Pan)
Puce Mary is no stranger to my year-end lists, of course. Frederikke Hoffmeier does what she does, and she does it exceptionally well. The thing is, The Drought is not what Frederikke Hoffmeier usually does at all. I can’t say, as I did with Skindred, that this is a bid for commercialism; it’s far too intimate, in many cases to the level of being discomfiting, and it’s still, in the main, more a noise album that a trad-music piece—but this is Puce Mary like you’ve never heard Puce Mary. Hoffmeier has stretched the boundaries of her sound in order to encompass material even more painful than that she usually mines, and the end result feels like something you shouldn’t be listening to, but in the very best way. This is music that triggers in an attempt to heal. It’s a dangerous balance, and I suspect whether you believe it succeeds will be a decision personal to you. But the number of year-end lists on which it’s appearing makes me think there are a whole lot of people out there who can identify with it all too well.
Album of the Year: Raison d’Être, Alchymeia (Cyclic Law)
If you know me, this probably isn’t a surprise. Mise en abyme was #2 on my 2014 list (and would have been Album of the Year in any year when Plague Mother didn’t release a full-length—an event of nearly incomparable rarity in the music world), and I have often called in the best album in Raison d’Être’s now twenty-seven-year tenure. Alchymeia picks up right where Mise en abyme left off (this despite Andersson reviving his old electro side-projects Atomine Elektrine and Dementia and recording a whole bunch of techno-y pop in the interim), so it’s easy to say “if you liked that one, you’ll love this one”. Problem is, so few people ever heard Mise en abyme. This is a continual problem for R d’Ê, for reasons I have never quite grasped; those of us who are in the fold are absolute fanatics, but there’s some sort of weird shield that stops the rest of the world from ever hearing about his work.