Like I wrote in one of the earliest Editors’ Picks of the year, there’s no better indication for the health of a musical year than variety. This ended up being the pitfall for 2017 for plenty of our Staff, even though overall it was very strong for certain genres. When you have a wide variety, it’s easier to get onboard with the “this is a good musical year” narrative, since you are met with enthusiastic voices from all across the board. Simply put, there’s something for everyone and when everyone is happy, you’re happier as a direct result.
Running even a brief glance over the list below, it’s easy to see that 2018 is not planning on slowing down anytime soon, both in the volume of releases and in the strength of specific genres but especially in variety. When brutal death metal, chamber pop, post-metal, R&B, noisecore and more all meld into one month, you know you’re set for something great. It’s not only genre variety, however, that makes this list impressive but also the wide gamut of experience represented. From young artists like Sectioned, Lack the Low and LLNN to mid-career close-to-veterans like Janelle Monae or Ingested to old-school titans like Sleep making a comeback, the number of “career moments” represented in this list is impressive.
The end result should be simple enough to grasp: listen to everything on this list. There’s something here for everyone, whether you’re looking for heavy music or pop, fresh new artists or veterans, there’s something on this list that’s going to reach and touch you. And that’s, for us, the main ambition of this column. What do we think rose above the mark in an already excellent time for music? What, for us, represents the incredible variety of music being released every month? For April, see below. For the rest, at least for the next few years, stay tuned.
Ingested – The Level Above Human (brutal death metal, slam)
I have a weird love-hate relationship with straightforward death metal. Being more into the progressive/technical side of the genre, I often find the less adventurous aspects of the genre relatively uninteresting. But every once in a while, we get that one release that’s simply a cut above what one would think it would be given a sum of its parts. Enter Ingested.
Ingested have always been a top player in the field of slammy death metal. The Level Above Human is their fourth album, and it’s not necessarily bringing anything new to the table. But it’s just so damn good. The production is tight, taking more influence from recent Aborted than something like Waking the Cadaver. No ringing slam snare here. The high-end sound they have definitely contributed to their legitimacy as full-on death metal band, and it’s clear that they’ve slightly realigned themselves here.
Striving more towards a modern death metal sound than a brutal death metal influence might alienate some fans, but Ingested pull it off perfectly. Other bands, like aforementioned Aborted, Dying Fetus and Cattle Decapitation, have gone through a similar transformation, eschewing some of their underground roots of grind. Usually, it feels like the bands lose something when they make this shift, but Ingested feel like they’ve made a net gain. The core of their sound is still preserved, more so than most of their peers who followed a similar path, and what they’ve added on is just excellent.
In the end, The Level Above Human is a damn good time. Chock full of pumped up and memorable death metal moments, it’s a must-listen for fans of death metal.
Lack The Low – One Eye Closed (art-pop, chamber pop)
As avid music listeners, we’re often guilty of a somewhat jaded attitude when it comes to new music we hadn’t previously been anticipating. The relentless torrent of new music crossing our desks every day is often accompanied by PR pitches that sing high praises of the albums’ revolutionary music, an assertion that’s commonly misleading once we press play. In all honesty, I actually appreciate the inherent critical dichotomy this creates. Having such ease of access to music new and old provides a much more nuanced basis of comparison for every genre. So when One Eye Closed immediately latched onto my emotions and commanded my full attention, it was apparent that Lack the Low had crafted art-pop that reached well above the genre’s average fare. As the radiant piano on “Do Your Worst” first filled every corner of my apartment, I couldn’t help but pause and bask in the stirring reverberations of the opening track and ensuing compositions. Though I’m surprised this is Kat Hunter’s debut album as a singer/songwriter, I’m equally eager to hear how she’ll top an album as phenomenal as One Eye Closed.
Whether beautifully recounting tales of love and loss over sparse piano chords or letting her voice soar over lush arrangements, Hunter proves herself as a subtle, detail-oriented composer focused on consuming her listeners with innately gorgeous instrumentation. One Eye Closed touches down on territories laid by Fiona Apple, Feist and Joanna Newsom with equal measures of Björk and Radiohead‘s penchant for crafting soundscapes, a combination that ultimately feels both expansive and deeply intimate. Along with her own enthralling voice and piano playing, Hunter fleshes out the album with choruses of vocals, well-placed percussion, a variety of brass accompaniments and her own instrumental talents (organ, guitar, violin, cello, alto saxophone, banjo, electronics…just to name a few).
The resulting track listing is as diverse and rewarding as you might expect; there are minimal piano ballads like the aforementioned “Do Your Worst” which flow into soaring crescendos on tracks like “Progress.” Hunter adjusts her vocals accordingly to perfectly match the mood of each song, ranging from angelic crooning to more narrative-based vocal lines. On “Seven Different Species,” Hunter confidently spins prose with clever lyrics and creative vocal lines over an ever-growing brass chorus, ultimately bolstering her delivery with drama and strength. Finally, “God Knows Why” arrives as the perfect closer for the album, with the lushest composition in the tracklist and a truly explosive climax. While drummer Bobby Eggleston contributes balanced percussion throughout the album, he erupts on this final track, weaving crashing cymbals and thundering drums through Hunter’s emotive vocals and walls of strings.
To bring this commentary full-circle, I’d like to spotlight a line from the album description for One Eye Closed: “Hiding under the fluttering harmonies, every listen bears something new to find.” Considering all the hyperbolic and off-the-mark album pitches we sift through from our inboxes, it’s refreshing to hear an album that matches (and often times surpasses) it’s own self-description. Hunter has created one of the strongest debut albums I’ve heard in some time, and though One Eye Closed will undoubtedly be fresh and invigorating for some time to come, I’m still eagerly anticipating what else she has to offer under her Lack the Low moniker.
LLNN – Deads (post-metal)
The fact that we seek enjoyment can’t account for all the reasons why we listen to music, especially heavy music. Oftentimes it creates within us emotions or aesthetical responses that are completely inimical to our enjoyment. Why then do we seek these pieces of art out? The answers to that are many and various; some of us to do it to exorcise our demons, seeking the catharsis in entertaining violence or pain. Still, others do it to exercise empathy, to expose ourselves to an other’s pain and suffering. Most of us don’t know exactly why we’re drawn to darker sensations, simply gravitating towards ill-lit nebulas of suffering.
LLNN have something for each one of those types of attraction. On Deads, they’ve stripped down their version of post-metal, forcing it to stand under the harsh light of bare production, abrasive vocals and an overall sensation of crumbling mega-structures, a dark presence which looms constantly over the listener. To say this album is oppressive is to miss the mark (though I said so myself in my review); it’s more that it inspires the kind of awe which works within us when we look at a desolate mountainside or a blasted landscape.
Regardless of exactly how the album works its magic on us, work it does. Deads further establishes LLNN as the heirs of the void left behind when The Ocean turned towards more progressive (and still excellent) directions, scratching the itch within us for something truly diluvian, deep and intimidating. If you’re looking to dance with the devil and look inwards darkly, this is the album for you. It has some of everything: your own pain, the pain of others and a weird gravitation towards darkness. Turn off the lights, turn up the volume and let the filthy guitars wash over you.
Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer (pop, r&b)
Janelle Monáe should have already been a megastar by now. The multitalented singer, songwriter, actress, activist, and more has made an indelible mark on everything she has touched since officially launching herself into the public eye with her Metropolis EP one decade ago. Taking on the cipher persona of messianic android Cindi Mayweather and pumping out three albums of funky, genre-bending bouts of pop, r&b, soul, jazz, rock, and far more all through an afro-futuristic lens of oppression and otherness against minorities and anything “queer,” Monáe has been an undeniable talent and critical darling simply waiting for her moment to explode into the greater popular consciousness. And yet, in spite of the more recent success and ascendance of the so-called “pop opus” like that of the Knowles sisters – Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Seat At The Table – that manage to weave broad pop sensibilities with exploration of personal strife and peppered with provocative social commentary, Monáe’s work up to this point has been viewed with a kind of distance, not quite breaking out into massive mainstream success.
Now five years after her previous release The Electric Lady, and with a couple of high-profile acting turns in Moonlight and Hidden Figures, Monáe is back to claim the crown she so rightly deserves with Dirty Computer. Perhaps understanding the need to strip back her own android facade to connect immediately with more listeners, Dirty Computer stays well within the overarching themes and milieu of her previous work while taking on a much more personal narrative and existing as a standalone piece. Though in reality Dirty Computer continues the move towards the more personal that Monáe began on The Electric Lady, Dirty Computer goes all-in on Monáe and her struggles to feel safe and accepted as an openly queer (as has been reported widely, Monáe officially came out as pansexual right before the release of the album, though it has been an open secret for years both within and outside of her music that she was at least bisexual) female black artist as the star of the show.
And Monáe isn’t afraid to bite throughout. On “Crazy, Classic, Life,” she speaks to the disparity in treatment of black and white individuals by the law and more – “Me and you was friends, but to them, we the opposite / The same mistake, I’m in jail, you on top of shit” – while insisting that “I’m not America’s nightmare / I’m the American dream.” Elsewhere, she comments on everything from female empowerment/male culpability and accountability (“Django Jane” and “Pynk”), the overall sense of millenial ironic helplessness at the current state of the world in “Screwed” (basically the musical equivalent of the commonly sighed “lol nothing matters”), all the while taking a few choice swipes at Trump and those in power without ever directly naming anyone – “The devil met with Russia and they just made a deal / We was marching through the street, they were blocking every bill” on “Screwed” and “If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back” off of “I Got The Juice.” She saves her most scathing words for the final track, the funky rockabilly of “Americans,” in which she lampoons all of the racist, misogynistic, and anti-queer views still pervading through the country she still loves and calls her home.
More often though Monáe speaks to her fears of being accepted for who she truly is, pulling back just enough of the veil to allow fans and more to see the beating heart under her metal exterior. “I Like That” is a personal reflection on a lifetime of struggle and being told she was defective in some way for being different by her peers and more in spite that she “always knew [she] was the shit.” “Don’t Judge Me” and “So Afraid” reveal why Monáe has worked so hard up to this point to maintain her alter-ego personality and what she is most afraid of losing by putting more of herself out there.
Of course, what really makes Dirty Computer an incredible success is that it is an album filled front to back with amazing music. The first ⅔ of the album is really nothing but straight-up bangers coming one after the other. Although some of the more elaborate and high-brow compositional work of Monáe’s previous “suites” is missing, she has done well to streamline her talents and sound without sanding down her edge and musical personality. “Take A Byte” and “Screwed” are nothing short of instantly classic examples of modern electro-pop. Much has been made of the late Prince’s influence on lead single “Make Me Feel” and elsewhere, and though his untimely death meant that his direct contributions to the album were minimal, his musical and spiritual legacy is beating throughout, which only further cements Monáe as the most likely successor to his icon-producing talent and work. Also a continuation from The Electric Lady, Monáe pushes herself in her rapping, spitting fire on “Crazy, Classic, Life,” “Screwed,” “I Got The Juice,” “I Like That,” and the entirety of “Django Jane.” There are still plenty of more soulful moments though that remind the listener just how unbelievably versatile a singer she is, most notably on the beautifully delicate and sensual “Don’t Judge Me.”
Speaking of versatility, in most hands the ironically cheesy 80s Americana of “Americans” would veer too far into mocking territory to hold up well on its own, but Monáe succeeds in turning a rebuke into an anthem unto its own. It is a final call to action to reject the forces of hatred, oppression, and close-minded regression that continues to grip much of America and the world in favor of defiance, open-mindedness, and empathy. Musically, lyrically, and personally, Dirty Computer attempts to thread multiple strings through a single needle and somehow manages to come out on top. Like all of her work, it’s complex, sprawling, and at times a bit messy and less than graceful (why people continue to bring Pharrell in for guest spots is beyond me, especially when we’re then forced to hear him talk about drinking women’s “squirt” by the cup). Even at her most accessible and streamlined though, what Monáe never is is safe. Her work is as engaging and provocative as ever, but Dirty Computer is an official invitation to others to celebrate their stories and fears alongside her own, opening up a tent wider than the crazy pussy pants she sports in the video for “Pynk.” All hail the Archandroid.
Sectioned – Annihilation (noisecore, metalcore, beatdown)
A second or two of feedback, a scream, and then a tidal wave of guitars and drums. Annihilated, the long-awaited debut album from Scottish mathcore artillery Sectioned (the “other band” from Frontierer leader and general noisecore savant Pedram Valiani), literally could not begin with a larger “fuck you” to its audience than this. It’s an unbelievably strong opening salvo from a band that describes themselves as “sonic ordnance” – equal parts warning of what lies in wait down the line and mission statement that Sectioned is absolutely not here to fuck around.
Most albums that invoked such chaos less than ten seconds into a 40-minute-plus runtime would spend the rest of their energy trying to match the standard they’ve set for themselves. Annihilated is not most albums. Sectioned sprints from the starting line and never lets up; there’s a sense of savage, desperate ferocity to the entire affair that only gets more and more palpable as the album goes on. The production perfectly accentuates everything good about this album as well; everything is rough and loud and unrelenting, yes, but the guitars sound full and robust and the drums punch through the cacophony.
Everything on Annihilated is cut from the same cloth and it’s easy to say that this record could have been trimmed down to a slimmer 35 or even 30 minutes in length, but if there’s one problem that I’ll take with a record, it’s having too much of a good thing. Plus, when fans have been waiting five-plus years for Annihilated, it’s tough to fault Sectioned for giving people what they want. As it stands, this is one hell of a debut album, and unless something truly wild happens over the next seven months, it’s easy to see Annihilated being one of the year’s best mathcore albums. Don’t sleep on this one, folks.
Sleep – The Sciences (stoner metal)
Expectation is a fickle thing, particularly in music. It has the unique ability to serve as a great sustainer, keeping music-lovers engaged in a band’s content and potential future releases as decades pass between records. It’s also a ruthless annihilator, serving to hype up releases beyond all reasonable or realistic expectation, only to crush careers and fans’ dreams as releases fail to live up to their fantastical promise. Sleep is a band that has been surrounded by such unreasonable, ludicrously overblown hype for a not insignificant amount of time. With multiple stone-cold classic releases under their belt and band members hinting at new music for years, it’s hard to blame their devoted following. Reaching Tool levels of hysteria is not an easy thing to do, but Sleep got really close. That is, until 4/20/2018 brought with it the end of overtures. No more veiled messages. No more goofy answers to interview questions. Just the band’s long-awaited full-length record.
Beyond all reasonable expectation, it’s exactly what it needed to be and everything it could be. In short, magnificent.
It’s genuinely shocking how good The Sciences is. With the band’s legendary history in tow, one would think (and with good reason) that it would be extraordinarily difficult if not impossible for this record to match the stratospheric heights of its predecessors. But match them it does, while also creating its own unique space within the band’s discography and stoner doom as a whole. It’s the complete package that Sleep fans were hoping for, and well worth the wait.
Kicking off with the instrumental title track, the band immediately assure listeners that the bones of Sleep are still fully intact. The reverb-laden, absurdly fuzzy intro serves as a brief yet wholly effective reassurance that the band we know and love from Dopesmoker hasn’t gone anywhere, but has simply added some new tools to the roster. Those tools come in the form of Al Cisneros’ work with Om, which are pervasive and highly effective. You can hear these influences loud and clear during “Marijuanaut’s Theme” (which may be the single best track the band have written outside of their hour-long opus) and “Titan’s Theme”, which create fantastic interplay between the band’s heavier and more atmospheric sides. “Antarcticans Thawed” plays out with similar ease, balancing these elements gracefully. Then we get to “Giza Butler”, which is well beyond as ridiculously good as any Sleep song has the right to be. The riffs are diverse, catchy, and among the best of the band’s career. It’s also one of the more unique songs in the band’s catalog to my ear, creating space for new levels of experimentation, which by itself is both ambitious and impressive for a band that’s thirty years old.
Start to finish, The Sciences is everything I wanted it to be and more. For once, the hype machine delivered a record that met if not exceeded expectations. One of the best stoner doom releases in a long time, and one of my favorite records of the year. Drop out of life with The Sciences, and you’ll be quite pleased with the results.
Grouper – Grid of Points (ambient folk)
Despite its short runtime, Grid of Points contains as much raw emotional depth as fans have rightfully come to expect from a new Grouper album. Liz Harris remains one of the most talented, inventive singer/songwriters in modern folk, and Grid of Points is no exception.
Messa – Feast for Water (doom metal)
You know that face you make when a massive riff comes on? What if you could make an entire album made of that riff and then add great drone segments, wind instruments and amazing vocals to it? Why, you’d have Messa! These Italians doom aficionados are back to show everyone how it’s done, producing an album filled with fuzz, power and variety.
Panopticon – The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness (I and II) (atmospheric black metal, folk black metal)
Austin Lunn is one of black metal’s most talented practitioners. This album does nothing to change that reputation. Split into black metal and acoustic halves, Scars is perhaps Panopticon‘s most ambitious release, and most certainly among the best.
Reformat – The Singularity (post-rock, electronic)
Sitting alongside other recent acts that have expertly blended the more visceral and analog sounds of post-rock with electronic sounds and dance/EDM grooves/beats like 65daysofstatic and Three Trapped Tigers, Reformat’s debut LP should provide the perfect soundtrack to explore future dystopian (or utopian really depending on how you feel about it) worlds ruled by our robot overlords.
Unravel – Eras of Forfeit (grindcore, death metal)
Unravel sounds exactly like a band that describes itself as death metal, grindcore, and hardcore punk should. Eras of Forfeit has no problem jumping between riffs that smack of OSDM, ferocious breakdowns, and d-beat sections, taking the best parts of the genres they love and mixing it together in an invigorating blend. It’s a little meat-and-potatoes, but hey, who needs creativity when you’ve got riffs like these?
Aesthesys – Achromata (post-rock)
Ails – The Unraveling (melodic blackened death metal)
Aseitas – Aseitas (avant-garde death metal, progressive tech death)
Chaos Echœs with Mats Gustafsson – Sustain (avant-garde metal)
Cosmo Sheldrake – The Much Much How How & I (art pop, freak folk)
Ganser – Odd Talk (post-punk)
Heads. – Collider (post-metal, grunge)
The Family Crest – The War: Act I (indie rock, prog rock)
Father Murphy – Rising. A Requiem For Father Murphy (dark folk, post-industrial)
Half Waif – Lavender (indie pop)
Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog (indie rock)
Lonker See – One Eye Sees Red (avant-garde jazz-rock, psychedelic rock)
Okkervil River – In the Rainbow Rain (folk rock, indie folk)
Panda Rosa – Monastery (post-rock, ambient)
Paul de Jong – You Fucken Sucker (ambient, folktronica)
PinioL – Bran Coucou (avant-prog)
Rafiq Bhatia – Breaking English (experimental, jazz, electronic)
Scientist – Barbelith (progressive sludge metal)
Toundra – Vortex (post-metal)