Of the twenty-five components that comprise my annual top twenty album list (there are actually twenty-nine if you count ordering/re-ordering the individual lists as I write about them), this intro section is, counterintuitively, the one I tend to care about the least. It’s usually written very late in what, having traditionally started in early December and ending heaven only knows when, has by that point been a lengthy and fairly exhausting process. For this 2018 list, it came in dead last, which I admit might seem an odd way of putting your best foot forward as a writer. To be fair, and by way of context, I finished six other posts in the two months flat it took me to bring the following countdown through to fruition, comprising an approximate (and puny!) combined total of 11,000 (additional) words. I also supervised the fifth anniversary relaunch of my/this beloved little backwater, including its long-threatened change of address to the theoretically easier to say/type/remember URL www.darkadaptedeye.org, and the criminally overdue renovation of its former offensively junior varsity digs. You’ll forgive me then if I seem a little fried, and have reverted, quite against my better judgment, to doing what comes naturally here – stalling for time whilst I await the timely intervention of a fresh thought. For what it’s worth, for all my well-documented tendencies toward procrastination, I honestly don’t ever stop trying to make this list better until the second it’s posted, after which I involuntarily shirk all blogging duties for approaching a fortnight (though not to play Fortnite).
2018 was a pretty wonderful year, I thought, if only in musical terms. Hopefully you won’t hold any lingering loopiness against me. I honestly had a blast waxing rhapsodic about the twenty albums that most rocked, rolled, and resonated with me in the chronicles that follow. This process is dependably the most fun I have all year, any year, because, scattershot as I might be otherwise, I am, in effect, forcing myself to repeatedly listen to great music – and nothing but great music – and then, rather than leaving well enough alone, stupidly attempting at length to quantify why it rules. Sometimes, I do miss just throwing the horns or smiling deeply, then going about my merry way. But this stuff is precisely what makes my way merry in the first place, so it’s worth every last bit of toil and trouble. And, hey, I was able to come in ten days earlier with this countdown than I did last year, so I’m obviously trending up. Maybe next year we’ll be January babies.
Anyone who has ever stood in paralyzed contemplation of paint samples, cataloging the minute differences between “Mauve” and “Orchid” and “Mulberry” and “Thistle” and, in the process, wondering, often aloud and exasperated, whatever happened to “Purple”, may feel some kinship to my own issues identifying and parsing all the various flavors and shades of extreme metal. The truth is that vanishingly few quality metal albums are one thing alone anymore, this year or any year, and no year in recent history threw this struggle into sharper, more painful relief than the just completed 2018. Hybrid brutality is having its moment right about now, and established branches of longstanding family trees are branching further and reaching farther. Terrific, if wildly varying, albums by Harm’s Way, Skeletal Remains, and Beyond Creation each actually booked time at the “coveted” cross-genre #20 spot before, flummoxed and indecisive, I made an eleventh hour audible and booked an entirely different route home. Technical Death Metal, once the unicorn in Death Metal’s menagerie due to its novelty (and, when done properly, otherworldly beauty), dominated this year’s list to a degree that would’ve been unthinkable back in the day when, sorting through scraps, I perhaps routinely overinflated the worth of still great new releases by bands like Spawn of Possession, Gorod, and Illogicist. A full one quarter of metal’s top twenty not only played some varietal of tech death in 2018 but played it so brilliantly that it left me as a decision-maker with uncomfortably little wiggle room, and few stark differences to consider. To bring the analogy full circle, Tech Death has evolved to the point now that it could easily, and subtly, splinter further into, the, let’s say, light mauve of Beyond Creation, the medium mauve of Obscura, and the dark mauve of Irreversible Mechanism. That, in the end, only one of that accomplished purple trio should make the cross-genre countdown was no reflection whatsoever on the quality of those left behind. I loved all three albums, and simply went with my gut. It was that kind of year.
- Slugdge – Esoteric Malacology (Progressive)
- Pig Destroyer – Head Cage (Death/Grind)
- Rivers of Nihil – Where Owls Know My Name (Technical Death)
- Khemmis – Desolation (Traditional Metal)
- Deafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love (Textural Black)
- Monstrosity – The Passage of Existence (Traditional Death)
- Alkaloid – Liquid Anatomy (Technical Death)
- Irreversible Mechanism – Immersion (Technical Death)
- Behemoth – I Loved You At Your Darkest (Blackened Death)
- Tomb Mold – Manor of Infinite Folds (Brutal Death)
- Beyond Creation – Algorythm (Technical Death)
- Skeletal Remains – Devouring Mortality (Brutal Death)
- Harm’s Way – Posthuman (Metalcore)
- Obscura – Diluvium (Technical Death)
- Sleep – The Sciences (Stoner/Doom)
- Deicide – Overtures of Blasphemy (Brutal Death)
- Between the Buried and Me – Automata I/II (Progressive)
- High on Fire – Electric Messiah (Stoner/Thrash)
- Ghost – Prequelle (Traditional Metal)
- The Skull – The Endless Road Turns Dark (Traditional Metal/Doom)
2018’s slate of non-metal albums is possibly more notable for its exclusions, both from the specific top twenty below and from the combined master list later on, than what made the cut. To wit: one of my favorite bands of all time, nine inch nails, inexplicably produced, in the the howling, brief yet interminable techno-abortion Bad Witch, my least favorite album of any genre this year. All involved should cover their ears and focus on happier times/soundtracks, hopefully still to come. After two consecutive top 10 cross-genre efforts, Scottish electronic darlings Chvrches brought in outside help on Love Is Dead in an overt attempt at courting mainstream success but hit a wall instead. Hearty Sabbath worshippers The Sword took a dramatic left turn at Austin and emerged, with Used Future, as a confounding if overqualified and still not entirely unpleasant Southern Rock band. Though the reunited Smashing Pumpkins were triumphant playing reams of classic songs on stage last summer, their first attempt at new music with James Iha back in the fold fell flat. The Dave Matthews Band released Come Tomorrow, an altogether middling album comprised of songs that, following six years or more of semi-regular inclusion in concert, simply should have been better. And it seemed everybody was up in arms about the teenaged Zep approximation of Michigan’s Greta Van Fleet, whose debut album Anthem of the Peaceful Army was a frustrating grab bag featuring almost as many evocative and truly excellent individual Page/Plant callbacks as it did overly pretentious cans of corn. My advice? When plotting your career to come, try to focus on the former. Also, you don’t need my advice.
In the running but finishing (mostly) out of the money were solid new albums from five dependable bands (Clutch, Wye Oak, The Joy Formidable, Titus Andronicus, Fall Out Boy) I’ve written about at length in prior countdowns, including, in Clutch’s Book of Bad Decisions and Wye Oak’s The Louder I Call, The Faster it Runs, two efforts that were probably of higher quality than their recent, more highly touted predecessors but suffered one disqualifying flaw apiece (the former’s creeping bloat, the latter’s odd aggression). What a difference a year makes. The other half of the bottom ten provided some of the more exciting and creative indie rock – with all its stylistic permutations – I’ve heard in years. Modern Convenience and Vundabar both offered up interesting variations on straightforward pot and pan-banging indie rock, with MOD CON delightfully channeling peak Blondie in spots and Smell Smoke adding welcome scope to a trashy and thrashy aesthetic, while the fluid, florid funk of White Denim’s Performance delivered one of the year’s better auditory contact highs. I had hopes that Clean by Soccer Mommy might turn into more of a breakthrough, simply because I am taken with Sophie Allison’s voice and spare but warm songwriting, but she’s garnered significant acclaim where it counts. Finally, buzz-gathering DJ collective Superorganism proved compositionally competent if attention deficient with a self-titled debut akin to a hazy hangover spent playing around with the sample library and sequencer the morning after a killer house party.
- Screaming Females – All At Once (Indie Rock)
- Neko Case – Hell-On (Alternative Country)
- Fucked Up – Dose Your Dreams (Alternative Punk)
- Ezra Furman – Transangelic Exodus (Alternative)
- The Decemberists – I’ll Be Your Girl (Indie Rock)
- Alice in Chains – Rainier Fog (Hard Rock)
- Tash Sultana – Flow State (Alternative)
- Superchunk – What a Time to Be Alive (Alternative Rock)
- Clutch – Book of Bad Decisions (Hard Rock)
- Modern Convenience – MOD CON (Indie Rock)
- Wye Oak – The Louder I Call, The Faster it Runs (Alternative Rock)
- Vundabar – Smell Smoke (Indie Rock)
- Soccer Mommy – Clean (Indie)
- All Them Witches – ATW (Alternative Rock)
- The Joy Formidable – AAARTH (Alternative)
- A Perfect Circle – Eat the Elephant (Alternative Rock)
- Titus Andronicus – A Productive Cough (Indie Rock)
- White Denim – Performance (Indie Rock)
- Fall Out Boy – M A N I A (Alternative Pop)
- Superorganism – Superorganism (Indie Electronic)
Every year I whine the same sad line about finally being pushed to remove the stand-up comedy category from my annotated lists, and every year I seemingly receive a big fat blanket reprieve come December, sufficient to keep the lights on and the topic valid for review. This year’s last-second care package was the plumpest and tastiest morsel thus far, containing solid to excellent albums from professional curmudgeon Marc Maron, nebbishy ribtickler Jim Gaffigan, reconstructed sex obsessive Louis Katz, benevolent cult leader Christopher Titus, as well as pleasant surprises from under-the-radar but ascendant talents Emily Heller and Keith Lowell Jensen. Filled the list out quite nicely, it did. Yes, I admit I only tried Jensen’s debut out because its name brought to mind The Cramps’ psychot-odelic surf-rock classic Bad Music For Bad People. Yes, I hate to report that normally ultra-reliable hands like John Mulaney, Doug Stanhope, and Big Jay Oakerson fell off just a tad from their previous levels of sustained comedic brilliance, while still producing thoroughly worthwhile wastes of time. Yes, precisely half the albums predictably offered new old material on that most talked about of modern endangered species, the District of Columbia’s rare tufted orange wallhugger (“The man bankrupted four casinos,” observed the famously reserved Titus. “Do you know how casinos work?!”), and, yes, I laughed fairly heartily at it all in spite of an unprecedented level of exhaustion on the subject that, nevertheless, grows by the day. Yes, albums seven and eight were grouped together on purpose for the benefit of yours truly and the approximately eighteen folks who remember my long-ago writeup on post-millennium standup, because how often can the namesakes of my famed “Stanhope-Gaffigan Index” be realistically mentioned in the same breath? Yes, I know I didn’t bring up Patton Oswalt’s amazing Annihilation in this intro until now, but, like Chad Daniels last year, it wasn’t an accident. Yes, I’m thrilled that 2018, while not a great year for comedy albums necessarily, was at least another year for comedy albums, and I’m cautiously optimistic there might even be a sustainable future here. At any rate, I’m officially giving my tiresome, kvetchy reservations a well-deserved rest. See number fourteen on the combined list a bit further below for but one reason among many.
- Patton Oswalt – Annihilation
- Marc Maron – Too Real
- Louis Katz – Katzkills
- Emily Heller – Pasta
- Big Jay Oakerson – The Crowd Work Sessions II: I Promised Myself I Wouldn’t Ask
- Keith Lowell Jensen – Bad Comedy for Bad People
- Jim Gaffigan – Noble Ape
- Doug Stanhope – Popov Vodka Presents
- Christopher Titus – Amerigeddon: Comedy in a Dangerous Time
- John Mulaney – Kid Gorgeous at Radio City
The Top 20 Albums of 2018
As is often the case, the final cross-genre breakdown numbers favored metal slightly over the non – ten to nine this time, plus, as an outlier, a welcome guest appearance from the best comedy album I’ve heard since this countdown’s first year (look it up!). What can I say? Because of native conditioning to which I’ve been subject since the mid-1980s, non-metal albums just generally have a higher bar to clear for me in order to be recognized. I’m honestly pleased that so many have and continue to make the cut regardless, which is a testament to not just their quality but to that of rock as a whole. It’s a good time to be a fan. A special and long-deserved shoutout then, while it’s on my mind, to the indispensable music downloading site Bandcamp, from whom I actually purchased sixteen of the twenty albums below, and whose commitment to artist and fan engagement, and the promotion and cultivation of interesting music of almost every conceivable, form is a true inspiration to an otherwise maudlin but budding cynic like me. I thank them, and you, for loving music. Thanks for visiting, and for checking out darkadaptedeye’s sixth such countdown in its now over five years of existence. I don’t care to stop any time soon, though, with any luck, I’ll get an earlier start next time. 2018 rained down hail on lots of lives and changed plenty of perceptions forever, but if it’s any consolation, we’ll always have the music.
- Slugdge – Esoteric Malacology – (Progressive Metal) – Let’s be charitable and say that, as an artform, heavy metal music is known for its pronounced escapist bent. Imagine any setting or scenario, and if it’s sufficiently tinged with black, one or several or a small army of metal bands anxiously await to book your figurative travel. Wanna attend a viking feast and/or funeral? Amon Amarth would like a word. Dig survival horror? Try Cannibal Corpse. Have a thirst for war, or history, or both? Iron Maiden, Iced Earth, and dozens more are at your service. Medieval fantasy more your speed? Here’s half the frigging Power Metal subgenre, though I encourage you to enjoy responsibly. This door can also swing both ways, and delivers concussive force in the case of Slugdge – emphasis on “Slug” here rather than “Sludge” – who are so thoroughly immersed in a hallucinatory world of their own creation that any intersection with, or larger resemblance to, the known metal spectrum is probably coincidental. (I pronounce it “sluggage”, by the way.) A highly mobile and versatile sonic artillery column that eschews most every formal rule it hasn’t already bent into origami, the British bruisers delivered 2018’s most consistently rewarding, albeit squishy, head trip with Esoteric Malacology, an exhausting extreme deep dive into the surprisingly deadly world of all things slimy and invertebrate. Slugdge imbue grim-faced but obnoxiously fun songs like “War Squids”, “Slave Goo World”, and “Transilvanian Fungus” with enough gravitas and musical dexterity to stand apart from what was, even without them, the most top-heavy metal year in recent memory. I could see Mastodon fans especially digging this once their heads stopped spinning, digesting the drone vocals and majestic clean singing in gateway drug “The Spectral Burrows” even as they succumb to its pummeling power and slippery footing. This is precisely the kind of forceful, fanciful, and fluid racket for which dispiriting terms like “progressive” were invented, if, I imagine, still not exactly envisioned. Nobody saw this coming.
- Screaming Females – All At Once (Indie Rock) – The conventional wisdom that places a premium on live performance as a disproportionately important indicator of musical talent and longevity may, in the case of burgeoning New Jersey DIY institution Screaming Females, not at this moment be quite as conventional as the band or its fans deserve, though it would still be doubly wise. Screaming Females are the unvarnished truth. Raw and riveting, this band simply smokes in concert, and new initiates should prepare for whatever opinion they hold going in to spike between two and two hundred points the moment they leave the venue and begin processing what they’ve just seen. The two shows I’ve attended in the years since my initial writeup of 2015’s Rose Mountain catapulted the band from scrappy pros worth paying attention to into the upper echelon of bands about whom I truly care. Having, with raucous recent albums Ugly and Rose Mountain, created a singular blueprint for gutsy indie rock played with punk attitude and infused with hair metal pyrotechnics from the most unlikely of sources – outwardly diminutive, guitar-slinging frontwoman Marissa Paternoster is a demon in a housedress on stage – the Females have constructed their dream home, and a masterpiece, with All at Once, a breakneck double album on which the future live staples (“Agnes Martin”, “Black Moon”), should’ve-been hits (“Soft Domination”, “I’ll Make You Sorry”), and other assorted rewards (“Glass House”, “Dirt”, “Chamber for Sleep I/II”) keep on coming. Though a little short on the bonafide rock anthems that set Mountain so far above the pack, All at Once tops it nonetheless, displaying a mastery of intrasong dynamics, twisty composition, and melodic tricks that keep its absurdly solid fifty+ minutes coasting along from strength to strength. Give Marissa Paternoster’s guitar time to breathe, and it’ll breathe fire, guaranteed. Dig in, but stand back. On stage or on record, Screaming Females are among the very best tickets in music today.
- Pig Destroyer – Head Cage (Death/Grind) – Grind is the most characteristically vicious of all metal subgenres, and no one mainlines sheer viciousness with the style or finesse of Pig Destroyer. This cyclonic hellstorm is generally set apart from even metal’s upper echelon by the fans that are, after all, its caretakers, with an outsized presence and mysterious aura that, coupled with a merciless aural assault that scorches earth in new and invariably exciting ways on an almost second-by-second basis, has become the sort of legend that actively invites hyperbole. There is literally no way to accurately describe how good this band is at what it does that does not require wild transgressions of journalistic responsibility. Its sterling reputation and past performance all but dictate each new Pig Destroyer album is an event in the underground, sorta like being named a Heisman contender before a snap of football has been played. Head Cage has spurred controversy in some quarters for a perceived drop-off in the proportional grind of, for example, early career benchmark Prowler in the Yard. Any criticisms of somehow degraded authenticity are misguided, because the truth is that even though Pig Destroyer first broke through because its grind was like no other, its already delightfully bastardized formula has been receiving thoughtful tweaks for years now. From the berzerk thrash of “Army of Cops” and “Circle River” to towering closer “House of Snakes”, Head Cage is awash in the scary creativity of guitarist Scott Hull, singer/lyricist J.R. Hayes, and drummer Adam Jarvis, all three among the very best in metal, regardless of subgenre (The Torture Fields is an especially spectacular drumming showcase). When the unfettered grind roars back to the surface in the album’s final third, it fits like a velvet fist in an iron glove. Head Cage is every bit the big deal in practice that it was in theory, and Pig Destroyer still does grind like no other. That is, was, and always will be the point.
- Rivers of Nihil – Where Owls Know My Name (Technical Death Metal) – Like Abysmal Dawn in 2015 – a barnstorming young band, by the way, with whom they share a more than passing resemblance in stature and supreme talent, if not exactly approach – I knew intrinsically that Rivers of Nihil had made the album of the year from the moment I first heard it, last March, to the moment that gaudy ball touched down in Times Square and 2018 was, in musical terms, a fond memory. Both pre-ordained albums of the year were unconventional picks, out-of-nowhere offerings from package tour metal vets who had previously gone unnoticed by me, pushed to the last minute brink by hard-charging indie rock challengers before emerging victorious. Except. Something screwy happened on the way to publication, and the presumed order of things was subverted not once or twice but thrice. I’m at something of a loss to explain it, except to offer anemically that sometimes it can be tough to be the frontrunner too. The not-exactly-shocking concession that compiling lists like these is far from an exact science, subject to all manner of twist endings and last-second coups d’etat, should in no way diminish the achievement of Rivers of Nihil, whose earthy, eccentric, cryptically titled Where Owls Know My Name was still the most exceptionally crafted and ear-tickling artistic statement I heard all year, pushing the melodic and conceptual limits of technical death metal right up to the bleeding edge of melodic prog and then playing hopscotch across the rapidly disappearing divide. Fans whose only conception of Owls was as “that death metal album with saxophone on it”, perhaps dismissing it out of hand in the process, did both Rivers of Nihil and themselves a grave disservice that should be corrected with all speed. It only seems a transparent marketing ploy until you listen to textural tectonic shifters like “The Silent Life” and “A Home” and the device is revealed as just another paint color in an expertly wielded, fairly dazzling array.
- Neko Case – Hell-On (Alternative Country) – Underestimate Neko Case at your own peril, and to your own inevitable shame. I count myself a fairly fervent admirer, and still I’ve been there. I first became interested in the alt-country goddess due to her fruitful longtime affiliation with Canadian indie pop supergroup The New Pornographers. Her 2006 watershed Fox Confessor Brings the Flood had its spotty moments, but the glorious melancholy of “The Needle Has Landed”, among others, made a strong case I should listen further. So has the pattern continued since, with each successive album increasingly compelling if invariably a bit uneven. As a listener, I was effortlessly charmed and quite often moved, though, until now, never floored. The sad fact is that, despite her sublime vocal gifts and literate, truth-telling style as a writer/arranger, I don’t think I ever quite got Neko Case until encountering her astonishing eighth album, Hell-On, which neither brooks false witness nor affords her a single false step. The title track takes aim at no less than God Himself (or Her), imploring the deity and glut of shortsighted, self-appointed understudies who have made such a mess of creation to “have mercy on the natural world”, while the catchy “Bad Luck” shrugs off worst case scenarios, as with the tale of a woman who, “chipped my tooth on an engagement ring.” As might be expected from such an ace collaborator, two of Hell-On’s most affecting moments come in duets concerning delicate matters of the heart, with “Sleep All Summer”, a meditation on romantic listlessness written by Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers, surpassed only by “Curse of the I-5 Corridor”, a wide-ranging stunner with Screaming Trees leader Mark Lanegan that condenses the depth and feeling of a quality novel into seven enthralling minutes. Always uncompromising in her solo work and riveting on stage, Case’s finest album is sumptuous and engaging on a whole different level. It kicks down the doors of ill-informed preconception and reduces them to toothpicks.
- Khemmis – Desolation (Traditional Heavy Metal) – The essential power of heavy metal – the type begat by Sabbath and stewarded by Priest, Metallica, and the like – may be timeless, but its ingredients have a season, if not necessarily a sell-by date. Everything is cyclical, which helps explain the mass market appeal of a band like Ghost, leaving aside the brazen pop sensibilities and overreliance on clever theatrics that hurl them over the top. For metallic pleasure with nary a speck of guilt, metal fans weary of the extremity arms race are well advised to check out Coloradan traditionalists Khemmis, whose second full-length album, Desolation, represents a significant leap for a band that was already damned impressive to begin with. Built on a foundation of impactful songwriting in uncluttered arrangements, buttressed by forceful clean signing and soaring guitar harmonies, Khemmis sounds simultaneously like so many bands you probably loved as a kid and yet so few modern peers that it is a next level sort of refreshing. They aren’t showy in the least, but, rather, confident, well-rounded, and just so uniformly solid that the underlying quality punches through like a spotlight. If that endorsement doesn’t ring to your satisfaction, a listen to Desolation, on which Khemmis retrofits its never fully embraced doomier origins with something more full-spectrum and inviting, ought to soothe any lingering misgivings. The insistence on tuneful guitarchitecture, rhythms that turn on a dime into full gallop, and apparent greater emphasis on storytelling calls to mind personally no less a comparison than Iron Maiden, albeit at 3/4 speed. Opener “Bloodletting”, with its tale of a condemned man languishing in the executioner’s shadow, could be “Hallowed Be Thy Name” for a new century, while closer “From Ruin” marries the personal and epic flawlessly. Spectacular maturity displayed throughout by what is still a young band. And if the vocal lines occasionally drift into less histrionic James LaBrie (Dream Theater) territory, well, there should be some problem area to address on album three.
- Deafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love (Textural Black Metal) – Even a cursory viewing of the trailer for the forthcoming grim/frostbitten black metal biopic Lords of Chaos serves as an instructive indicator of just how far that subgenre has traveled in the days since a cadre of reckless, humorless, humorously grandiose Norwegian youth incubated in their basement echo chambers and achieved lasting infamy as alternately savage and pitiful rival personality cults. How much progress is represented by black metal’s slow dissolve in recent years into a wave of moody hybrid noise that cuts its famous atonal squall and suffocating nihilism with incongruent but potent musical chasers like gothic folk (one-woman darkhouse Myrkur), bluegrass (Kentucky’s Panopticon), 19th century gospel (sputtering avant-guardians Zeal and Ardor), and whatever the hell just inexplicably garnered California’s Deafheaven a Grammy nomination will, of course, vary wildly depending upon whom you ask. One thing for sure is that the form is nowhere close to coming full circle. We’re on the dark side of the moon here, people. As distasteful a concept as it might be to some, Deafheaven’s utterly amazing fourth album, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, may, in fact, be this subgenre’s Dark Side of the Moon, the sort of breathlessly immersive creative statement that makes what was once niche commercial in a flash. Painted in piano and beguiling female vocal accents, it is certainly the first Deafheaven album whose charms were immediately and aggressively obvious to me. Owing more to The Cure’s Disintegration than classic Mayhem, this is music that takes its listeners by the hand and, with equal deftness, facility, and impact, leads them through a pastoral meadow (“Honeycomb”) or a pit of zombies (“Canary Yellow”). “Glint” is a hard rock epic, closer “You Without End” a gorgeous stunner with cinematic sprawl. Sorry to break the news, but, with Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, black metal has officially become Deafheaven’s gimmick instead of its foundation, a crutch they might frankly consider leaving behind the next time they go off exploring.
- Fucked Up – Dose Your Dreams (Alternative Punk) – It’s a good thing I don’t know who Toronto alt-punk powerhouse Fucked Up were before they metamorphosed into the ridiculously ambitious shepherds of stellar 2011 “rock opera” David Comes to Life, because then I’d be duty bound to talk about it, and, frankly, I don’t have the real estate. I’m sure they broke purist hearts by the hundred, no matter how extraordinary their current direction. It would normally suffice to say that our titular boy accomplished a whole lot of living these past seven years, with miles to go before he sleeps, but why speculate when you can take the word of David’s equally massive, somehow more impactful sequel Dose Your Dreams, an album which leaves pretty much nothing left unsaid? With his garbage disposal voice, the irrepressible Damian “Pink Eye” Abraham, has served as Fucked Up’s focal point from their earliest days, but Dose Your Dreams, an 18-song, 82-minute opus with shockingly little bloat, inertia, or trimmable fat, portions him out much more judiciously than did David. This has the twin benefits of allowing additional songs, augmented by guest vocals, to soar on their own while enhancing those into which he fits perfectly. Those, tellingly, are not exclusive to the ledger’s harder side. Indeed, Dreams is a veritable kaleidoscope of song styles filtered through a punk lens, including mutant ska, ‘80s rock trappings, the martial heartbeat of “Talking Pictures”, the basement industrial snarl of “Mechanical Bull”, the ethereal pop of “How to Die Happy”, the steady-rolling pseudo-disco of the title track, transcendent closer “Joy Stops Time”, and, in the exhilarating trio “Normal People”, “Tell Me What You See”, and “Raise Your Voice Joyce”, pace-setters that stir a listener independent of musical leanings. In a world where emotion is increasingly conveyed via non-judicious, insultingly electronic means, it’s damned refreshing to encounter a band with empathetic insight and passion to burn that revels in creating receptive listeners via spectacular art. I’m already jonesing for a trilogy.
- Monstrosity – The Passage of Existence (Death Metal) – It can be tricky to put your finger on the qualities that make an album stand out from the crowd, not to mention tiring. In boxing parlance, the woods are full of prospects, but only so many can be contenders. You are simply supposed to know one when you see one. In the case of Monstrosity’s The Passage of Existence, the contributing factors are not one but many, not least of which is the element of surprise. I had unfairly all but written off the Florida death metal survivors, a band most famous for bestowing future Cannibal Corpse singer and anthropomorphic neck muscle George Fisher on the metal world, after the release of their rock solid but still relatively undistinguished 1999 album In Dark Purity. Seeing as O.G. drummer Lee Harrison and crew boasted only three releases over the following two decades, including a lengthy hiatus that preceded this admittedly startling but still relatively stealth resurgence, nobody should’ve blamed me. Those ten years of pent-up frustration, stifled creativity, and directionless aggression accumulating since the release of 2007’s Spiritual Apocalypse apparently reached critical mass in the interim, resulting in The Passage of Existence, a Vesuvius-like eruption of elite, precision death metal – seriously, listen to showstopper “Eyes Upon the Abyss” on headphones and then argue there’s not something extra going on – that hooked me on first listen and never relinquished its grip for the rest of the year. Naming standout performances on so polished and professional an album is unfair to the rest of Monstrosity, but the wildly imaginative and hyperactive guitar of Mark English and Matt Barnes, on “Radiated” and “Maelstrom” among others, simply compels me. Meanwhile, Harrison’s fully automatic feet shine in a dramatic kick-drumming display that would hobble players half his age. The Passage of Existence is not merely a surprising, successful comeback. It’s a show of force for the ages, one I probably couldn’t have expected in my wildest dreams.
- Ezra Furman – Transangelic Exodus (Alternative) – The late Roger Ebert famously called cinema a “machine that generates empathy”, though his analogy is valid across artforms. Perhaps my own nutritional requirements and ingrained habits similarly cause me to profess reflexive preferences, but I’ve encountered music that provides an even more direct pipeline to the profound, one that has offered me exactly as many stirring, out-of-person experiences over the years as I decided to open myself up to. Uncomfortable lyrical intimacy can cause contact burns, but is usually worth it for the proverbial chance to to walk in another’s shoes. Ezra Furman’s Transangelic Exodus, which is a “soul” album in almost every sense of the word except the commercial one, will daze and challenge you. Though not strictly identifying as transgender, the brash but vulnerable Furman has cheekily professed in interviews to doing masculinity “a bit differently”. Transangelic Exodus, his confessional song cycle documenting a non-binary firebrand’s white-knuckle roadtrip fleeing the tendrils of tyrannical government, is chock full of unrestrained musical digressions designed to get the blood pumping, combined with imagery I’d place on par with Springsteen, although Furman’s metaphors get to the point quicker. Rarely have I encountered composition more skilled at giftwrapping unvarnished truth in blatant artifice – from the flat-tuned drums of “The Great Unknown” that might as well be upturned plastic buckets, to the fuzzy, chiming, purposely de-tuned guitar of opening call to action “Suck the Blood From My Wounds”, to the buzzing trumpet of relentless rumbler “No Place” – the whole affair has the feeling of breathless street corner prophecy taking wing. Professional hand-wringers and pearl-clutchers, who feign outrage or discomfort at the thought of a bright young (male) vagabond coveting a “Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill”, should sleep soundly at night secure in the knowledge that Furman couldn’t give a damn less about their hangups, not when more serious matters are at play. I was moved by his journey, still in progress. I like his style, full stop.
- Alkaloid – Liquid Anatomy (Technical Death Metal) – Do you know the classic category on the television game show Jeopardy! called “Potpourri”? Infrequently used nowadays, it was basically a clearing house for theoretically still worthy questions that didn’t fit into one of those fitfully clever themes over which the in-house writing staff took such obvious pride. Assuming Metal Jeopardy! was a thing, that same category could easily be called “Alkaloid”, and I’ve little doubt it would be just as challenging, not to mention a hell of a lot more fun. With a pedigree that includes DNA from Obscura and Necrophagist among others, Alkaloid is a band that demanded attention from tech and progressive heads from its inception. Liquid Anatomy, the sophomore album from the German expeditionists (or should that read exhibitionists?), is unified in its tremendous musicianship and use of mechanical-sounding drone harmony vocals throughout, but all over the interstellar map otherwise, boasting a roster of songs that would make for a unpredictable round of questions and answers, indeed. Remember, both get more difficult as we go along. For $200, try the rasp, chug, and pinch harmonics of the Gojira-esque “As Decreed By Laws Unwritten”. For $400, there’s the djent posturing and weird jazzy breakdowns of “Azagthoth”. The $600 answer brings the straight prog of “In Turmoil’s Swirling Reaches” and churning jumble of “Interstellar Boredom”, followed, at $800, by the alternating wall of sound and, no lie, springtime frolic of the beautifully/appropriately named “Chaos Theory and Practice”, and the startlingly traditional balladry of the title track. Near twenty-minute closer “Rise of the Cephalopods” finishes off the category as almost exactly the bloody, epic journey across choppy seas you’d think it’d be, just in none of the ways you quite envisioned. This, simply put, is music with the training wheels removed, and metal fans who find that thought appealing won’t find a more rewarding game to play this year. Liquid Anatomy is an album of dizzying heights, formidable sights, and giddy delights.
- The Decemberists – I’ll Be Your Girl (Indie Rock) – Eighteen years and counting into such a rich and varied career, fans of Portland indie troubadours The Decemberists are every bit as finicky and exacting as the quintessentially eccentric band they adore. The contrary followers that consider 2015’s What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World among their finest work can always take comfort in the fact that, as a strong advocate for its predecessor The King is Dead, I’m something of an outcast myself. From that charming and folksy Americana cocktail, a full-on stylistic detour in an elastic catalog where clever digressions are encouraged but never stick, the pendulum has since swung back toward something approaching normalcy. The difference being that the overwrought World couldn’t fully regain its bearings and bonafides in time, whereas its successor, the homey, hook-laden I’ll Be Your Girl, delivers a far smoother, more succinct and satisfying experience. As songwriter and ringleader, head Decemberist Colin Meloy has never shied away from material that could subjectively be called pretentious, but the man certainly has not only a singular way with words but a disarming facility with ear candy of the succulent rather than syrupy variety. From the second the acoustic busker feel of yearning opener “Once in My Life” yields the floor and The Decemberists kick in sounding, of all things, like a New Wave band – “Severed” seethes with foreboding, “Everything is Awful” is a jaunty sing-along, and even the lesser songs get a shine from the overall quality surrounding them – until the title track closes again on the figure of Colin and his acoustic guitar, I’ll Be You Girl maintains a firm hold on the listener rooted in Maloy’s trademark literary blend of cheek and melodrama. Every Decemberists album, save perhaps King, has been theatrical to its bones. I’ll Be Your Girl takes the additional care to be memorable across the board, which, in the end, can make all the difference in elevating a modern classic above a worthy also-ran.
- Irreversible Mechanism – Immersion (Technical Death Metal) – The predominant attribute of metal that separates it from other, by definition more genteel forms of music is force. Not aggression, per se, or extremity, and not brutality, although the force in question is certainly often brute. No, metal, more than any other type of music, or, perhaps, more than all other types combined, is in the attention-grabbing business. How do we seek to attract attention in an increasingly competitive marketplace? We give the listener no other choice but to notice. Whether or not that attention can be effectively held and rewarded is what distinguishes the island of misfit toys that comprises metal’s top tier from the sea of relative mediocrity in which it floats. I’ve seen Belarusian tech gods Irreversible Mechanism referred to in search results as “Neoclassical Death Metal”, and sure, that’s as good a meaningless descriptor as any with which to preface a dive into the hazardously deep waters of their particular well. What they really have going for them is force. Irreversible Mechanism is a more “traditional” sort of tech in a way, almost the flip side of a band of happy wanderers like Alkaloid, as spastic and bugnuts in spots as anything the subgenre has offered in recent years – and a massive improvement on its own 2015 debut – but so self-assured and well constructed that it rises above the fray. Tech death was the mothership’s flavor du jour in 2018. It was always going to take something extra to distinguish an artist and allow it even one step out from what was still an obscenely accomplished pack. In the case of Immersion, the lowest profile release under my personal consideration, I simply refused for my gut reaction to be compromised by disproportionate competing hype. From the majestic “Existence II: Collision” to the blistering “Footprints in the Sand”, Immersion floored me the first time I heard it, and each new time after, leaving me no other reasonable choice but inclusion.
- Patton Oswalt – Annihilation (Comedy) – The evening in early 2017 when, after years of fervent fandom, I finally saw alt-comedy godfather Patton Oswalt perform live, I remember feeling anxious. Then a recent widower, Oswalt took the stage as if literally shrouded in fog, and bravely powered his way through an obviously still-evolving set whose centerpiece focused on the depths, frontiers, and technicalities of personal loss as both a spouse and a parent. You had the sense he was barely holding things together, that the work in which he was engaged not only provided a much-needed distraction but a purpose. Witnessing an ace comic I revered struggling, through no real fault of his own, and persevering, overcoming…it had a more profound effect on me than almost anything he actually said. Hell of a creative “process”, that. Long after the duckling became a swan and then a Netflix special, Annihilation arrived as 2018’s last album release of note. Turns out I’d saved a place for it, one all but reserved during the standing ovation at the end of that disjointed but cathartic night the prior year. Oswalt is more on edge than normal here, though, thankfully, no less nerdy, referencing the elephant in the room – “Donald Trump becoming president because Obama made fun of him is like the Rutgers Linguistics Department chair making fun of David Lee Roth” – and engaging his adoring front row in some charming crowdwork. So many performances later, he still appears to be attempting to postpone the inevitable. When the time finally comes to talk about his late wife and their heartbreakingly young daughter together, he doesn’t flinch but still seems to be processing – watching his brain grind is always a joy – in spite of all the time spent preparing for both this performance and moment. Workers have to work. Standups have to stand up. Poignant, incisive, and painfully funny, Annihilation is arguably the peak of an already towering career. I’m so grateful he did the work.
- Alice in Chains – Rainier Fog (Hard Rock) – Despite an underpublicized role in the early ‘90s Grunge explosion and history dating back even farther, Alice in Chains is currently following the playbook of an up-and-coming rock band almost to the letter. This script suggests that, due to an excess of great songs culled from years waiting to break, a band’s first album will pack an outsized, attention-grabbing wallop. The follow-up is almost invariably rushed, and the time crunch and comparative inspiration deficit manifest in noticeable flaws. With the third album, the band hits its stride and becomes what it’s going to be, or so the story goes. Adrift by his own admission in the seven/eleven years following original singer Layne Staley’s tragic death/departure, Jerry Cantrell released solo albums (check out his superlative two-disc Degradation Trip if you somehow haven’t) and ruminated. His reconstituted Alice in Chains, with new co-lead singer William Duvall, sounded plenty happy to be alive on Black Gives Way to Blue, if not quite born again. 2013’s The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here catered to a metal audience to its detriment instead of trusting the band’s unique gifts – within the hard rock realm – for songcraft and vocal harmony. With the band’s third, er, sorry, eighth, album, Rainier Fog, Alice In Chains finally sounds comfortable in its own skin. Duvall is trusted instead of being just a featured player, a mild revelation analogous with Cantrell’s own emergence as a singing force back in the day. Their harmonies are lovely and pervasive, stretching across metal-leaning sides of beef like “The One You Know” and “So Far Under”, delicate, not wimpy ballads “Fly” and “Maybe”, and shoulda been hits like “Red Giant” and title track. Now that Alice in Chains has stopped trying to impress upon everyone the idea that they’re essentially the same band they ever were, they can play to their considerable strengths. If Rainier Fog had directly followed Staley’s 1995 swan song, inattentive listeners might’ve been none the wiser.
- Behemoth – I Loved You At Your Darkest (Blackened Death Metal) – “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain,” goes the famous historical account by Plutarch, “he wept, for there were no worlds left to conquer.” The most aptly named band in extreme metal has likewise accomplished a colossal lot in approaching three decades of existence, building an enviable and highly influential reputation on the back of its perfectly sinful synthesis of black, death, and thrash, cranked into overdrive and shot through with a classicist’s sense of grandeur and occasion. Behemoth’s ability to turn such alchemic fruit into anything other than strictly artistic notoriety is attributable largely to the bottomless ambition of frontman Adam “Nergal” Darksi, a loose-tongued, free-thinking lightning rod equally revered and reviled in his Polish homeland. I likened Behemoth’s previous album, 2015’s simply overwhelming The Satanist, to how ants at ground level might view an advancing lawnmower. Perhaps realizing there was no ante left to realistically increase, Nergal casts its successor, I Loved You at Your Darkest, as a willfully unpredictable playground built atop a deadly minefield. A tone of defiance is set immediately, as a chorus of rebel angels comprised of literal children runs down a list of subjective religious and societal ills, proclaiming to each, “I shall not forgive!” before launching into the album proper. Darkest contrasts the punishing barrage of “Wolves ov Siberia”, propelled as always by peerless drum aggressor “Inferno”, with the heft and swirl of “Ecclesia Diabolkica Catholica” and the powerful difference-splitting of lead (ahem) single “God = Dog”, at times perversely zigging (as on the moody, almost meditative “Bartzabel”) when it might have made infinitely more sense to zag. No apologies, no equivocation. Yeah, no kidding. If The Satanist was Nergal’s understandably over-the-top reaction to not only facing down leukemia but conquering it, then Darkest is, if not its afterglow then its aftermath, an almost equally accomplished and involving album that, unlike its bombastic predecessor, understands there are more ways than one to effectively prove you lack timidity.
- Tash Sultana – Flow State (Alternative) – Musicians benefit from the barrier that exists naturally between an artist and their creation – the rough immediacy of music is a large part of its appeal, but we have to make an effort to know the people behind it to any meaningful degree – and I’m not just talking about, for example, insulating a serious talent from the baggage of their personal foibles or self-destructive tendencies. Sometimes, having no earthly clue who an artist is before you hear them actually enhances the music retroactively. For all but my single most recent spin of their utterly sparkling debut album Flow State, I had no idea whether Tash Sultana was a person, a band, or both. Now that I know they’re an insanely gifted, non-binary Australian singer-songwriter and multi-multi-instrumentalist – seriously, think embryonic Prince but with the funk dialed way back – I am terribly impressed, both with Tash and, quite frankly, myself. The ear doesn’t lie. First off, if you respond instinctively to the sort of music that serves as an active catalyst to relaxation instead of just melting into the background, do I ever have a new “chill” album for you, full of luxurious vocals and exquisite guitar, of a higher quality than music of this type probably strictly requires, anchored by drumming so simultaneously precise but relaxed that it can be difficult to reliably pinpoint as acoustic or electronic. Despite its tranquil surface, Flow State is multifaceted beyond the reporting capacity of a capsule review. Check out the hypersonic guitar solo that closes “Big Smoke”, or the cool little freak out jam at the end of “Cigarettes”, then dig extra hard on “Blackbird”, a flamenco-tinged nine-and-a-half-minute full spectrum musical showcase. Flow State was an unquestioned winner before I possessed any perspective on the exceptional talent that went into its creation, but now that I know the barest minimum more, I am both fascinated and fairly enthralled. Watch the skies for Tash’s next move. No limits up there.
- Tomb Mold – Manor of Infinite Folds (Brutal Death Metal) – The ultimate outsider music, Death Metal carries with it no mandate toward user friendliness, and, in fact, just the opposite. That being said, the listener does still warrant certain considerations. To (again) quote Roger Ebert, what a movie is about isn’t half so important as how it is about that thing. Similarly, the various intermingling flavors of death metal each have clear goals for a listener. Brutal Death Metal, the offshoot that lovingly treats the greater style as if it never evolved past 1989, is known for straight ahead pummeling, both full and half-speed, with blast beats mixed in, and, ahem, distinctive vocals that split the difference between (figuratively) choking to death and heaving up your insides. At the point on the Venn diagram where Brutal DM kisses if not entirely overlaps the flashier Technical subvariant lies Manor of Infinite Folds by Torontonian car crushers Tomb Mold, which is easily among 2018’s most effective metal albums at achieving its unspoken aims, so effective, in fact, that even its deficiencies are kinda endearing. A head-nodder in the best possible way, Manor of Infinite Folds, with its transparent allegiances, flips much the same primal switch as the current genre-wide infestation of excellent throwbacks (Gruesome, Horrendous, etc.), even if it’s a good bit more multifaceted in the final analysis. The high level details – oppressive guitar tone, enveloping sonic boom drums, pleasantly relentless approach – are both overly familiar and the better for it, though I do generally prefer my unintelligible vocals to be enunciated a little more clearly. Max Klebanoff’s voice has all the articulation and modulation of a can opener somehow downtuned to drop-D, the only perceivable weakness in an otherwise airtight formula. Even that complaint dissipates upon repeat exposure to the middle eight and walk-down chorus of “Abysswalker”, or the perfectly balanced, perfectly murderous “Final Struggle of Selves”. There’s just something undeniable about Florida Death Metal, I guess, even if in this case it’s a Canadian import.
- Superchunk – What a Time to Be Alive (Alternative Rock) – Were it not for an accident of birth, I have long contended that the not nearly beloved enough road warriors of Superchunk would have been among the prime movers and key beneficiaries of the “Alternative” revolution that animated MTV early in its second and final decade as an indispensable music tastemaker. Finding two points of musical significance in the contiguous United States farther apart in distance yet similar in senses of integrity, creativity, and civic pride informed by either than Seattle, Washington and Chapel Hill, North Carolina is a difficult task on par with having heard Superchunk anywhere other than a friend’s house or some sweaty club, even when they were at their “commercial” peak. Some things never change, but don’t let it get you down. Not only do seminal route markers like No Pocky for Kitty stand shoulder to slightly slumped shoulder with those of their lucrative, more highly publicized peers, I’d argue that Superchunk’s extended second act, featuring ferocious albums like 2010’s Majesty Shredding, 2013’s I Hate Music, and this year’s wonderful, only slightly less sarcastic What a Time to Be Alive, more represents a sustained career best streak than evidence of some dramatic renaissance, though I suppose it is that as well. There is something to be said for the simple pleasures of garage rock. Spunky and punky, this album offers pleasure to spare, from the pogo-ready “Reagan Youth” to the slash and burn of “Lost My Brain”, to the rollicking title track. I just love the band’s stubborn, 360-degree commitment to promoting guitar as a force for good, and I love equally how Mac McCaughan’s voice fits snugly into the bedlam like a puzzle piece that reveals the larger picture. Superchunk not only lives, they speak the truth. Anyone who dismissively tells you “rock is dead” isn’t looking hard enough, or in the right places.
- Clutch – Book of Bad Decisions (Hard Rock) – Or, to save time, I suppose you could just mine the lower half of my cross-genre top twenty for some not-so-hidden gems. Another year, another top twenty Clutch album. Wash, rinse, repeat – though this placement was not without its difficulties. Lest I be seen to be taking the mighty Marylanders for granted, let me just say the fact that Clutch’s twelfth studio album, the overcooked but still lively Book of Bad Decisions, barely made my final cut has much more to do with 2018 overall than with any sort of personal failing. Still, there are trouble spots scattered amongst the larger jolly rabble, which often happens when a technically single album nevertheless stacks the deck with so many songs, fifteen in this case, that its lesser cuts start bleeding together. Clutch may have jam band elements lurking beneath that fierce, chrome-plated Rocket ‘88 exterior, but, with their unparalleled gifts for punchy songwriting, brevity has served them well in the past. The precedent set by post-millennium game-changer Blast Tyrant doesn’t apply, since that truly exceptional fifteen-song album was not only the best of 2004 but my personal pick as the best hard rock album since the late 1970s. Tyrant casts a shadow over the rest of Clutch’s admittedly outstanding catalogue, and though Book of Bad Decisions cannot match that example, it still has much to offer on a song by song basis, from the sweaty, horn-fueled goodness of “In Walks Barbarella” to the straight ahead barrelling “Vision Quest”, the swanky, practically self-explanatory “Hot Bottom Feeder”, and the barnstorming political insight of Clutch’s best song in years, “How to Shake Hands,” on which original rock populist Neil Fallon bellows: “Hot damn, the democratic process! What a time to be alive! I’m here to give the people what they want, and what they want is straight talk and no jive!” Even on an album that offers its listeners more than they need, Clutch always leaves ‘em wanting more.