Happy New Year! It’s time for my annual check-in to confirm that we’re still alive and well, and that I still have terrible taste in music.
Sample size: 71 albums
Quality: This was a pretty damn good year for music. I feel like my list is significantly stronger than 2017 and competitive with some of the best years I can remember. My top 7 could have all finished first in lesser years.
20. Horrendous – Idol
progressive death metal
Sample track: Soothsayer
It’s a trip. If you can swallow the vocals, which hit me as a bit too classically tortured to match the lush soundscape the band’s presenting, you’re going to be treated to one of those albums that packs so much subtle flavor that I think I could spin it 100 times and still find something new. It doesn’t hit the aesthetic zone of infinite repeatability for me that I think I would need to fully embrace its nuances, but it’s admirable.
19. Carpenter Brut – Leather Teeth
Sample track: Inferno Galore
Half of this album actually sounds like it was lifted out of a classic 80s video game and modernized. I guess that’s the point, and he’s not exactly the only person doing it, but this album stood out to me for some especially powerful cuts, most notably Inferno Galore. I don’t think this is an album that will stick with me terribly long. I’m not a fan of the vocals, granted they’re limited to Cheerleader Effect and Beware the Beast. The whole thing is way too abrasive for me to enjoy at length passively. But yeah, I enjoyed it more than the average album this year. Fun spin and my misgivings are trivial, not game-breaking.
18. Panopticon – The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness
Sample track: Echoes in the Snow
I had the pleasure this summer of seeing Austin Lunn headline the grand finale of a three day music festival, and that pretty well confirmed his status as my favorite personality in music. He’s also one of the only two artists to steal my number 1 slot twice. That… won’t be happening this year. The Scars of Man has a few drawbacks for me beyond its unwieldy name. Despite clocking in just shy of 120 minutes, it’s less stylistically innovative than his last three albums. The folk and metal come in distinct packages with little overlap. The lyrics are repetitive and don’t reach far beyond a basic motif of winter wilderness and mortality. The melodies aren’t particularly gripping on the whole. The vocal delivery is kind of muted. Like a lot of my favorite musicians, Lunn has an aura of heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity about him that transforms many of his flaws into points of endearment. (It’s not a coincidence that I gave Mark Kozelek first place last year.) I think, in this case, that’s more of a salvaging factor than the catapult that propels it above the competition. It comes across to me as a really spontaneous work, like he sat down and just played whatever came to him without much concern about refining it. That’s cool. I enjoyed it. Just not on par with say, Roads to the North or Autumn Eternal.
17. Bosse-de-Nage – Further Still
Sample track: Down Here
A few of these guys were members of an internet forum I frequent before they gained decent success on the post-bm scene touring with the likes of Deafheaven, so I’ll concede a bit of bias. I loved their last album, All Fours, but it took me a while to reasonably conclude that I loved it regardless of having a (to be fair, very small) personal connection to the band. Further Still hasn’t had as much of an opportunity to grow on me as All Fours did. It was released later in the year, I haven’t been in as much of a mood for that genre, and it’s stylistically very similar to their last release. Without devoting too much completely undistracted time to it, I do want to say this album brings very little new to the table, but their matured sound was great where it stood coming in. I would hardly say that more of the same is a bad thing. Basically, I like this album a lot on its surface but haven’t had much of an opportunity to fall in love with it. I think I potentially could. 17th with plenty of room to move up.
16. Sumac – Love in Shadow
Sample track: Ecstasy of Unbecoming
I feel like Sumac is on the brink of becoming my favorite Aaron Turner project. The potential is certainly there. It’s never going to roll out something on the magnitude of Isis’s Oceanic, but Sumac is definitely drifting down a path I can get excited about. I feel like large chunks of this album were the product spontaneous experimentation in the studio, and improv noodling with a metal aesthetic is emerging as a core part of his sound. It reminded me at times of one of the best non-2018 releases I discovered this year–James Plotkin & Paal Nilssen-Love’s Death Rattle. On a kind of small world aside, as I’m writing this I pulled James Plotkin’s Wikipedia page, and apparently he’s done mixing work with Isis before. At any rate, I definitely enjoyed the eclectic ride of chucking this album on in the background a few times, but more than anything I’m curious about where he goes from here.
15. Tomb Mold – Manor of Infinite Forms
Sample track: Final Struggle of Selves
Every once in a blue moon I stumble on that elusive death metal album that brings absolutely nothing new to the table and completely beats the shit out of me anyway, and Tomb Mold hit the nail on the head. I don’t even listen to death metal very often for all I meme about it, but I’ve been putting this one back on all year. It just gets everything right for my aesthetic tastes, I guess. The vocals nail a sound that feels brutal without being cheesy or grating on me. All of the tones blend together really well to form a tight package without competing against each other. It’s got a kind of groovy mid-tempo pace I can’t help but bob my head to. Guilty pleasure or not, it’s been a frequent fun ride.
14. Death Grips – Year of the Snitch
experimental hip hop
Sample track: Death Grips is Online
I managed to not discover Death Grips until late 2016, and they’ve still forced their way into the mix of my most listened-to artists ever. I think there’s a lot of really weird experimentation going on here even by their standards. It’s a pretty meaty album to try to sit down and embrace, and I can’t say I’ve ever gotten through it attentively from start to finish. Maybe not their most passively pleasing work, but there’s a lot of weird experimentation going on here that’s kept me curious throughout the year.
13. Midnight Danger – Malignant Force
Sample track: System Outage
Everyone I’ve sent this to has basically just told me “yeah, that sounds like the 80s alright.” Maybe if I was more familiar with the genre, it wouldn’t sound that special to me. I can’t say for certain; I’m not an avid pursuer of new trends in electronic music the way I am with metal. But I have definitely heard a lot of music in a similar vein to this, and none of it impresses me quite as much. I guess if you’re listening to it as “lol 80s” they might all sound alike? I think the album is packed with compelling loops and manages to plod forward with a really heavy beat while never becoming abrasive enough to shift me from that mindset of a cyberpunk dystopia. So yeah, there’s definitely a lack of extensive genre exposure on my end, but this has been my default go-to when I want to engage this sort of aesthetic for most of 2018.
12. Summoning – With Doom We Come
Sample track: Silvertine
Summoning have been one of my favorite bands for going on 15 years, and I’ve only been treated to three new albums in that span. So yeah, I was pretty hyped for this, and it would have been hard to screw up. I frequently queue up their entire discography and just let it roll for ten hours straight. I have never heard another band that sounds anything like them, and their sound pings every fantasy nerd pleasure point in my body. Much like it took Old Mornings Dawn a couple years to settle in as a rock in their anthology and not just epic by default, With Doom We Come doesn’t yet stand out distinct to me as something other than more Summoning. It’s hard to say if and when it will get there; at nearly 50 plays through, I know every track by heart but couldn’t tell you from a 30 second session which album they hail from. Maybe that’s a sign that none of them are particularly stand-out cuts. Is it as independently enticing as Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame or Dol Guldur to me? Nah, but the band that can do no wrong for me did no wrong in 2018.
11. A Forest of Stars – Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes
psychedelic black metal
Sample track: Precipice Pirouette
At this point, 2015’s Beware the Sword You Cannot See has pretty firmly cemented its slot among my all-time favorite albums. I didn’t expect Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes to compete with that, and it doesn’t, and that’s fine. If Dan Eyre’s lyrics have tipped over from dancing on the fringes of nonsense to completely incoherent rants, there’s still no lack of awkwardly well-spoken venom. If the compositions are a little more direct, they’re just as immense and driving. I’m not sure what I would think of this album if I experienced it with a blank slate regarding the band, but I would probably like it even more. They have one of the most unique and compelling sounds of the 2010s. I don’t think this is their best work, or even particularly close to it, but in terms of enjoyment, I’m just thrilled to have some new material to spin by them that doesn’t significantly deviate from the sound I’ve grown to love. I guess if I have one complaint, the album tends to meander a bit too long on some post-rocky vibes that never build up into the climaxes they’ve mustered in the past. Kind of torn on [i”>I really really like it[/i”> but want it to be more, and that’s what landed it just shy of my top 10.
10. Bongripper – Terminal
Sample track: Terminal
If you like to hear 45 minutes of the same thing repeated in deep distorted tones, this album might be for you. For better or worse, it’s for me. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done before. There’s not enough here for me to really point and go “now that was something”. They just landed on some killer riffs and grinded them into oblivion. I got to hear them play the full album live this year, and I was totally in the zone for it just rocking back and forth. I think the album experience is about the same, and half the time I click play on it I catch myself staring off into space 20 minutes later. A hell of a lot of bands play this style. Most of them don’t actually suck me in to the point of distraction. I’m not sure what’s particularly different about this one to pull it off, but here we are.
9. Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts
Sample track: Freeee
I never much cared for Kanye outside of a small handful of tracks dominated by guest artists. His lyrics and the arrogant attitude that resonates in his vocal style just rub me the wrong way. I actually had a sort of epiphany when I was compiling my year end list and this album kept popping up as a contender. It hadn’t yet registered that, for once, I just kept listening to him. I guess Kanye the rapper is a little less prevalent here–I won’t miss 4th Dimension if I never hear it again. Maybe it’s Kid Cudi’s influence, maybe it’s a general shift in focus, I don’t know, but this is the first time where I really found myself not merely conceding that Kanye is a talented producer but actually personally loving his songs. Feel the Love, Freeee, and Reborn are all fantastic, and the vast majority of the album keeps me engaged on a level I am not used to associating with Kanye West at all.
8. Haru Nemuri – Haru to Shura
Sample track: rock ‘n’ roll wa shinanai
I guess the basic idea behind this album is pretty straight forward, albeit unconventional. It’s j-pop except she’s rapping. The song writing verges off in a lot of novel directions that I have no baseline to really qualify in terms of originality, but they keep the album interesting from start to finish. The thing I like most though is her vocal expressiveness. The passion and tension and angst is impressively tangible for foreign language spoken word. I didn’t think I would have much to say about this, and I don’t. It’s great. Listen to it.
7. Thou – The House Primordial
Sample track: Diaphanous Shift
This has been one of my favorite background pieces of the year. It’s hard to describe what makes one drone-centric album more appealing than the next. I think this presents a very full wall of sound that at times approaches a state I could only describe as noise, but thick bass tones still drive the album, and it’s peppered with bluesy riffs that suck you into direct engagement just long enough to consciously remind you that you’re enjoying this without becoming a distraction. The fullness of it is definitely a distinction from the more classic doom/drone hybrids I dabbled in but could never really embrace in the early 2000s. Khanate but huge is definitely a comparison that comes to mind. At any rate, this is a style that appeals to me more and more as I get older, and The House Primordial absolutely nails it for me. It’s kind of crazy that this misses my top 5, for all I’ve enjoyed it. 2018 was a competitive year.
6. Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit
African-American folk metal
Sample track: You Ain’t Coming Back
Zeal & Ardor is a project that began with the novelty game of trying to mash up atypical genres of music. Black metal and African American spirituals worked out pretty tight, and here you go. This is a pretty exciting album for me, personally, because it’s not something I’ve ever heard done before and it approaches an idea I’ve been kicking around for a long time. Don’t let the “metal” tag deter you; I think this is an album that should be pretty accessible to people unaccustomed to heavier music. The gospel, soul, and African American folk traditions get the spotlight. The metal’s primary function is to present it in a more intense and pressing light. I think there might be some Tom Waits influence going on here too. At least, Row Row very distinctly reminded me of Clap Hands. It’s a really interesting project, and the song writing is solid on the whole. I feel like the lyrics could have dug deeper, and the studio gloss did start to wear on me after what must have been at least three dozen plays, but Stranger Fruit was a pretty integral part of my 2018 music experience.
5. Wayfarer – World’s Blood
Sample track: The Crows Ahead Cry War
Picking up where the cover art leaves off, this album sets an unmistakable western American atmosphere within the opening seconds. A brooding, atmospheric journey that calls to mind elements of Altar of Plagues and Spectral Lore, their song-writing is impeccable, but it’s the thematic niche that really sets this apart as more than a valiant rehashing of what’s been done before. So much of the black metal listening experience is a passive journey. I think the reason it’s my favorite genre is because you can thoroughly enjoy an album on repeat 100 times without zoning in attentively enough to pick up on half of its subtleties. It’s the art that keeps on giving. Wayfarer’s unique aural imagery of a bleak Great Plains landscape haunted by the ghosts of its butchered inhabitants sets the meditative focal point for immersion, and the rest exhumes itself ever more over time. This will be an album I’m still spinning regularly half way into 2019.
4. Primordial – Exile Amongst the Ruins
Irish folk metal
Sample track: Sunken Lungs
I’m not sure how I fell out of touch with Primordial, but I have no recollection of their last album. Exile Amongst the Ruins didn’t blow me away out the gate quite on par with the raw energy of the 2011 work that really made me fall in love with them, but Nemtheanga’s voice can carry just about anything, and this release might be just as compelling in a much more subtle way. I guess it’s kind of easy to dismiss because Primordial have been playing pretty much the exact same sound forever, but I feel like they landed on a really robust vibe for this album that sustains throughout. It’s morbid, but it’s all so pretty at the same time. It’s really kind of soothing to listen to, in a roundabout way. Relative to a lot of other bands I love that have put out decent-but-not-their-distinctly-best works in 2018, I think this has the most potential to stick around and continue to grow on me. Maybe a few years from now it will be my default Primordial go-to album. I think it’s possible. Nine months is a short time to form conclusive opinions about a band that’s been pumping out solid material for 25 years. I feel an endearing bond with this one that’s hard to put my finger on.
3. Tropical Fuck Storm – A Laughing Death in Meatspace
Sample track: You Let My Tyres Down
A couple of months ago someone sent me The Drones’ Shark Fin Blues, and that was the first time I’d ever encountered Australia’s reasonably well-known frontman Gareth Liddiard. I still haven’t actually gotten my hands on any Drones albums, but I scooped up his side project, Tropical Fuck Storm, the minute their first release hit the shelves. God I’m in love with this guy’s style. He feels completely unhinged and free rolling through his songs, in both his vocal performance and his chaotic brink-of-collapse guitar execution. A Laughing Death in Meatspace blasts that in your face out the gate with my favorite track on the album, You Let My Tyres Down, but this project offers a lot more on the edge beyond Liddiard’s guitar. The second track introduces an often revisited electronic side that’s just a eclectic. The lyrics tap a political frustration that appeals to me. All-around outstanding effort that pings a lot my personal tastes. This is the first time in a while I remember feeling this strongly about an album that is fundamentally rock in origin.
2. Imperial Triumphant – Vile Luxury
avant-garde black metal
Sample track: Swarming Opulence
When I linked this album to one of my few acquaintances who actually enjoys metal, the first response I got was “Gustav Holst”. I dig it. Perhaps a trifle influenced by French black metalers in the vein of Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega, New York City’s Imperial Triumphant are largely forging their own uncharted path. The album’s portrait of “vile luxury” twists high art instrumentation into demented vomit, injecting bombastic convulsions of classical brass and jazz piano into a soundscape of highly disharmonic and technical black metal. It’s a really brilliant vision, I think, derailing the traditionally sophisticated arts into pure hedonism. The theme of the album is apparent on its aural face, and they’ve got a jazz aesthetic to their performance that makes it limitlessly repeatable for me despite a level of abrasiveness that outmatches just about anything I can think of that brings a vision beyond inaccessibility for its own sake to the field.
1. Thou – Rhea Sylvia
In the broader picture of the band, 2018 might be remembered as the year when Thou lost their minds and pumped out four new albums and two splits, but Rhea Sylvia stands, for me, leagues above their feature release Magus, or anything else they’ve ever recorded, for that matter. The raw melody crafting on this album is mindboggling. Thou have never been shy about their love for the 90s grunge classics–one of their splits this year was a Nirvana cover album–but I feel like on this run they went all in for trying to actually write grunge music without changing any of their established doomy sludge tones. The result is Alice in Chains pressed under a ten ton weight, enhanced with the modern trappings of post-rock’s all-encompassing influence on metal over the past 20 years. I am blown away from start to finish.
Previous years on Shattered Lens: