I’m long past the point of wondering if I’ll ever tire of listening to heavy metal. I’m 1.4 million years old and can still remember the very first time I heard Judus Erectus’ first demo Pangaean Stone like it was yesterday. I’ve certainly come a long way since then. Why, just the other day I managed to see a fire in a cozy restaurant fireplace without panicking and upturning every table and leaping through a window. Still can’t quite bring myself to wear anything but fur underwear, though. You can take the man out of the cave, but you can’t take the cave out the man. Something like that, anyway. At least it’s faux fur these days. Anyway, 1.4 million years later and I’m still bewitched. [Cro-Mandlemass Emoji]
Will I ever get tired of writing about metal, though? It’s been 13 years since I wrote my first review—Winterfell’s The Veil of Summer—and all those years have been spent under the same roof. On the surface, the biggest boon attached to this gig is getting a nod here and there from bands for positive words (always nice) and a whole lotta music stored on an external hard drive (very nice). One thing for certain, even if you’re lucky enough to get paid to write about music, you’ll never walk down the avenue with enough paper that you’d laugh right after dropping a sandwich you just bought onto the curb. We ain’t here for a paycheck, Mildred. Ooo! Lemon squares! Mildred brought in lemon squares! We absolutely are here for Mildred’s lemon squares.
So, why is Last Rites still here? I mean, apart from a unique form of stubbornness and the comfort of routine, of course. We’ve lost count how many times peer sites have either folded or done away with reviews entirely. Who needs to read about a record when you can listen to it straight away? The answer is simple: no one needs to read reviews. Hell, if you caught any of those articles last year that revealed just how many people couldn’t name a single author (or anyone beyond a single author), maybe our planet is well on its way to not reading at all. Modern humans glean so much news and info from headlines alone these days, expecting them to read 700-1000 words about a death metal record is pretty much Richard Pryor levels of comedy. Yet we soldier forward and continue to pen lengthy, nerdly album dissections intended for fellow metal nerds who enjoy thinking about all the ins and outs of why a record might sound like Incantation having a misshapen baby with Portal.
I guess one of the reasons Last Rites is still around is because, like a number of our peers, we still appreciate the value of the written word. Leo Tolstoys we certainly are not, but we still like to wrangle them sentences. Language is wine upon the lips, even if that wine is under $15 and you drink it straight from the bottle.
Two things I wrote in 2018 that got the most views:
That first point is important because it confirms a truth once wisely stated in the song “Total Hag” from the sadly defunct Old Lady Drivers: “Just because we’re old and grey doesn’t mean we’ll go away.” People will always enjoy Memory Lane, and most can smell palaver from a mile away, so you better have a legitimate appreciation for heritage and strong source knowledge if you step up to the plate. The Last Rites crew respects metal from the roots to the fruits, baby. We’re not really “journalists” as much as we’re fans of heavy metal who know how to write. We appreciate the notion that we’ll always be students of the genre. Expect to see more articles celebrating the old and grey that refuse to go away in 2019.
The second bullet point above is important because that day, July 27th, marked one of 2018’s most considerable losses—certainly the most significant loss for the Last Rites collective. Of course, the passing of Lemmy and Dio and others were also difficult, but Mark was a different sort of metal luminary because he was so closely connected to his fans. Shelton’s music will always be there for us, and that’s a great comfort, but so was Mark Shelton the friend, so his passing will hurt for a long time for a great many people. It’s for this reason that a special 2018 award is due to the Shelton/Chastain The Edge of Sanity: ’88 Demo Session recording that David Chastain and Leviathan Records/Pure Steel Records released in order to pay tribute to Mark.
The Edge of Sanity is quick to reveal its demo nature, but it absolutely rips from start to finish. Yes, there’s a tiny bit of regret that it’s Mark Shelton in voice only, but Chastain has always been an amazing guitarist, and hearing that familiar voice sing unfamiliar songs again is…comforting. Thanks for bringing this material to light for us all, Mr. Chastain.
Ultimately, I think the single most important reason why Last Rites is still around is because, above all else, we are a family. People who’ve been behind the curtains at one point or another have an idea of what that means. Suffice to say, like most families, we’re there for each other through ups and downs, and we’re close enough that we not only communicate on a daily basis (um… for most of the day), we look forward to seeing each other in person as often as we can throughout the year. We meet up for shows—MDF is habitual. Please join us in 2019, even if their choice of headliners continues to decline—we meet up for weddings (yes, we crash random weddings), and we do splinter group assemblages when geography and time permits. Family is vital, and I can say with absolute sincerity that my life would be far less virtuous without my Last Rites kin.
Family and friends, thanks for sticking with me for another year.
20. Witherfall – A Prelude to Sorrow
I guess people mostly prefer to reach back to the founders that set the original stones throughout the 70s and 80s when they talk about loving “throwback metal.” But at what point does a sound become “classic” and not “dated?” The difference being the clear negative connotation attached to the latter. Beats the hell outta me. What I do know is that Witherfall plays a style of progressive shred metal that’s most closely related to what was prevalent in the mid-to-late 90s / early 00s, and the fact that more people who survived on a steady diet of Nevermore don’t hail them as one of the best in the game today is a mystery.
19. Runelord – A Message from the Past
Ced Forsberg is clearly insane. In a very good way. I have no idea what he has going on in his everyday life, but my guess is that he’s capable of writing a new heavy metal song in his head while baking a traditional Frankfurter Kranz in one hand, marking up dissertations with his other hand, and juggling a football with his feet. He finally put Rocka Rollas to rest (after releasing a very solid swansong in March), two of his other bands released albums in 2017 (Blazon Stone and Cloven Altar), and he also managed to release not one but TWO records under the Runelord banner in 2018. A Message from the Past is a whopper—find it on this year’s We Have The Power list—and he’s just released another called The Battle for Greatness which might actually be even better. Sidenote: the NEW new album also offers a free-to-download PDF for a roleplaying game called Runelord Adventures if you grab it from Stormspell. Just amazing.
18. Thaurorod – Coast of Gold
Unquestionably, heavy metal’s bread & butter deals in pessimism and anger. We need that to help fuel pipe dreams of stuffing our bosses into roaring tire fires and throwing automobiles through the windows of restaurants that look at you funny when you ask for hot sauce. But it feels great to feel good, too. Like, happy good. Remember feeling good? Remember what it felt like to get out on your bike as a kid with four hours to kill before dinner? Remember getting a parking spot right in front of the venue? Remember putting on your old winter coat for the first snowfall and finding a twenty in the pocket? Coast of Gold, Jerry! Gold!
17. Khôrada – Salt
Newsflash: People are still pissed about the demise of Agalloch. No one has more right to be pissed than the individuals who make up 3/4s of Khôrada, though. The way Agalloch ended was worse than the way The Sopranos ended, and The Sopranos ending was complete horseshit. The Agalloch chapter is closed now. Period. The likelihood that we’ll get a 2hr HBO tie-in or Netflix reboot to help folks feel better about how things ended is slim-to-none. Close the GD book. I believe Don Anderson is doing a mini-tour and playing some old Agalloch songs acoustically, so go support that. Pinning Agalloch expectations to Khôrada was as unavoidable as it was unfair, but those who were able to see through all the ballyhoo were treated to something that, most importantly, showed huge potential. The closing 23-minutes of Salt that includes “Augustus,” “Wave State” and “Ossify” represent some of the year’s most exhilarating moments. Can’t wait to hear what they come up with next.
16. Mörkö – Ulvova tyhjyys
It ain’t a party until Uncle Gene falls off a dining room chair and writhes on the floor while giving birth to a tentacled alien that violently frees itself from an egg that was incubating somewhere inside his anal cavity. Wait! He’s up! Uncle Gene’s up! Man, I thought he was a goner. That alien does NOT look like it’s here for good times, though. Wait! He’s up! The alien is up! And he likes the sweet potato casserole! Elbows off the table, junior. And pass the carrots, please. Ulvova tyhjyys: quietly reaching warp 10 and spicing up the party to 11.
15. Pale Divine – Pale Divine
Something I failed to mention in my recent review of this extremely fine record is the fact that Pale Divine somehow managed to swindle Dana Ortt from Beelzefuzz to join the ranks. Actually, not such a huge surprise, considering this now means the two factions share three out of four members. But it’s great news nonetheless because Ortt is a fantastic guitar player and has a wonderful voice, so the future remains extremely bright for one of America’s greatest active doom bands. Great year for doom.
14. Madder Mortem – Marrow
Not sure that it’s terribly appropriate to consider Madder Mortem as metal’s most under-appreciated band, but they ARE extraordinary and have been so for the better part of the last 20 years. I get why they continue to cruise under the radar, though—they’re peculiar and proggy and dreamy, and some of their heaviest moments travel strangely close to nu territory (a little less so with Marrow) without managing to sound like any of the bands that made that particular sound mainstream knowledge. It’s just…very unique, and perhaps not something that goes down without flaw on first (or second) blush. But when you tie it all together as well as the band does, and when you have a voice that’s as magnificent as Agnete Kirkevaag’s, the result is nothing short of an absolute triumph.
13. Aura Noir – Aura Noire
12. Mortuous – Through Wilderness
Many, many years ago, I tied one or twelve on at a party and found myself feeling 100 miles south of fine the next morning before having to go to work at a local bookstore. I should’ve called in sick, because I was, but I needed that extra cash because I was also going to school and trying to pay rent in the quickly skyrocketing housing market that was the Bay Area circa 1999. A man approached me at the help desk and asked about some bullshit or another, and I quickly excused myself with an “I’ll be right back” before bolting into the bathroom to hurl whatever horrid contents I had in my gut directly into the terlit unfortunate enough to be in stall #1. As revolting as the entire predicament was, all I could do was laugh. I laughed as I barfed and I laughed about laughing about barfing, and before I knew it, I realized I was having the best time a person in that particular quandary could possibly have. Once I finished, I felt beautiful. Renewed. Energized. Hungry. I wanted a plate of huevos rancheros and some black coffee. I found my boss and told her I needed to go home and soak my head. She laughed and gave me an empathetic pat on the shoulder. When I think back on that morning today, I remember the entire event as being disgusting, weirdly fun and something that ended on a particularly happy note. Same sorta feeling for the death metal found on Through Wilderness. No offense.
11. Brainoil – Singularity to Extinction
Oh, what that aroma can do! A brighter day for me and you! When it seems like nothing else will, the fresh Bay Area-grown aroma of Brainoil can really get you out of bed. ♫ “The best part of waking up is Brainoil in your cup!” ♫
TOP TEN OF 2018 – AKA: THE TOP TENNEST OF ALL THE TOP TENS
10. Deceased – Ghostly White
Some bands just get it. And by “it,” I mean heavy metal. And by “some,” I mean Deceased. I suppose others also get it, but Deceased is one of those bands that consistently releases records that offer up the textbook definition of what heavy metal was, is and should always strive to be: raw, furious and destructive, but with a mindful heap of dexterity, melody and FUN. Full-length number eight, Ghostly White, continues the band’s perennial intention, but with a little more prettiness in the corners, thanks to the oodles of noodlin’ guitars. Fowley sounds every ounce of “mad scientist barking out his nefarious plans” as he did thirty years ago, and there are riffs upon riffs and raffles of riffs shuffled up to the rafters here that absolutely should appeal to any and all riff-raff who thirst for and feed upon riffs in order to survive. Good to the very last drop, you monsters! (R.I.P. Scarface!)
9. DeathgraVe – So Real, It’s Now
Here’s a funny thing: as of this date, DeathgraVe still does not appear on Metal-Archives. Here are some other great things that aren’t metal enough to be on Metal-Archives: Ratt, slow-cooked chipotle pulled-pork, the 2015/2016 Cleveland Cavaliers, and snow days when you were 11 years old. Interesting development: if you were to take Ratt, slow-cooked chipotle pulled-pork, the 2015/2016 Cavaliers, and a snow day from when you were 11 years old and crammed it all into a violently backfiring garbage disposal, you’d get sprayed with DeathgraVe. As my Pulitzer prize-winning review stated earlier this year, “DeathgraVe is likely comprised of insatiable lizard people that sometimes look at humans like they’re walking hot dogs, and their music resembles that (as of yet unconfirmed) truth. [It] blenders the bejesus out of grindcore, death, old-school punk, hardcore, sludge, powerviolence and Vinnie Stigma’s kitchen sink.” But yeah, apparently still not metal enough for the Encyclopaedia Metallum. You know what else isn’t on M-A? Me. And I’m wearing Cannibal Corpse sweatpants!
8. Binah – Phobiate
Our own Professor Sessions wrote a brilliant review for Phobiate that delivered one particular paragraph that summed up the band better than I could ever hope to: “You can’t have the Sunlight sound without thinking of Entombed and Dismember—that will never change. But while they are referenced here, they are not ghosts. They are architects. Binah is another architect, working with the same materials, producing the same kinds of structures, but with a flair all their own. Their buildings will not be confused with anyone else’s, no matter that it is all just brick and mortar.” That is terrifically on point, and the only way I can think to supplement those words right now is to underscore the fact that the flair Binah brings to this well-worn blueprint is one that’s notably dark, adventurous and sneakily infectious. A song like “Mind Tap” might sound like oldschool Swedeath, but to follow it with something like “Dream Paralysis” that’s about as uncharacteristic of the time-tested style you can get without leaving the circle outright is just…next level.
7. Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath
Swords are awesome. If you agree, then you’ve probably thought about hanging a sweet looking sword or two on one of your walls. Hell, maybe you’ve thought about hanging swords on multiple walls. We sword lovers need to be a little careful about how we express our sword love, though, because hanging a sword or swords on the wall(s) is a sure-fire way to test the tolerance of the ones you love who’d probably rather have a photo of the family dog looking down from that very same wall spot. Basically, if you love swords enough to try to make them a part of your life, you gotta figure out how to do it with finesse: reading fantasy novels on the can, pounding out daggers on an anvil behind the garage, binging GoT for the sword porn, and yes, listening to music that celebrates a swordly life. Visigoth is here to help out with that last part, and Conqueror’s Oath is worth about ten swords on the wall.
6. Sear Bliss – Letters from the Edge
When Sear Bliss isn’t too busy being under-appreciated in 2018, they’re basically fielding questions about horns. More specifically, how and why and when they decided to allow brass horns to be an equal partner with guitars, drums and raspy vocals in their brand of sweeping black metal. Letters from the Edge kind of simplifies things in that there is only one prevalent horn to deal with—the trombone—but it’s still basically the first thing that gets mentioned when people decide to chime in about Sear Bliss. That’s good, though, right? It sets them apart from 99% of the competition, and they mix into the pattern really, really well. Sear Bliss is basically the William Thomas “Will” Riker of black metal: smart, sly, capable, in control, and unafraid to bust out the ‘bone in order to slam “irresistible” home. Add the fact that Letters from the Edge also manages to cover some new and notably dreamy grounds and you’ve got—you guessed it—one of the best metal albums of 2018.
5. Skulmagot – Skulled to Death
Death metal is the only off-shoot where being at the bottom of the barrel can actually benefit a band. The bottom of the barrel is where all the essential vitamins and minerals that keep metal’s teeth and bones healthy end up settling. Sure, it might look a bit like something you’d come face-to-face with if you ever got around to sending a hook into that clogged bathtub drain, but that sort of grime is where Skulmagot lives, and Skulmagot is great. The beauty of Skulled to Death lies in the fact that it sounds like Cleveland circa 1991 when Embalmer would take the stage at Flash’s to open for some bigger acts and end up mopping the floor with them because they were hungrier and still got to go home and sleep in their own beds. Also, with songs like “Furnace Tan,” “Terror Barn” and “Gastrointestinal Armageddon,” you know these sumbitches mean serious business. All employees must put hands in toilet before returning to work.
4. Solstice – White Horse Hill
For the first time in quite a while, doom managed to have a banner year. But as good as the output was from bands such as Pale Divine, Age Of Taurus, Mirror Of Deception, Holy Grove, Iron Void and Solemn Ceremony, no one managed to top the walloping White Horse Hill. Sure, the anticipation of finally holding another physical Solstice full-length in hand for the first time since 1998 had a good bit to do with that, but it’s mostly because White Horse Hill happens to be lush with triumphant riffs, heartened leads and champion vocals, and it all gallops like the best years of Candlemass colliding with Hammerheart. As mentioned in the review, “White Horse Hill is a perfectly to-the-point 46 minutes with zero filler, and each song either heartens, broods or crushes within an arrangement that balances these effects without flaw.” The only bummer: the likelihood that I’ll be long dead before I ever get another Solstice full-length in my hands is probably around 80%. Maybe that’s good news to some of you bastards.
3. Judas Priest – Firepower
I’ve seen some real all-stars out there in the social media world snickering about folks putting Firepower on year-end lists. I assume they’re doing so because they generally equate any 80s band still active in 2018 as geriatric and that it’s somehow absurd to still hold classic heavy metal close to your heart when there’s so much modern fashion mogul metal out there ready to swoop in and place a corsage around your wrist. Hey, love what you love, T-bone. And if you don’t think you can teach a dog new tricks, I just saw an 8-year-old mutt waltz into the room on its hind legs and reciting Star Fleet’s Prime Directive in fairly solid english while delivering a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. And you know what? That’s still not quite as amazing as what Judas Priest managed to pull together with Firepower. Granted, the chocolate chip cookies were pretty damn great, but they weren’t quite “Traitor’s Gate” levels of great. Life’s full of surprises, and some of them even manage to be hugely enjoyable.
2. Voivod – The Wake
If you were lucky* enough to be a part of the Last Rites crew, you’d know that I spent about four weeks this year grumbling about how much Century Media decided to charge for the vinyl version of The Wake. It’s times like these when we’re forced to rely on evil empires such as Amazon in an effort to make sure our dollars extend to as many bands and albums as possible. Unfortunately, Amazon wasn’t much help back in September. Of course, NOW they’re selling the LP version for about twenty-six bucks—100% worth it—which makes me want to toss Jeff Bezos through a plate-glass window. Related: if you were blessed** enough to be a part of the Last Rites crew, you’d know that I spend a fair amount of time imagining that Jeff Bezos has one eye pinned on my wishlist, and that he and I are perpetually locked in a battle of “How Low Can You Go.” In reality, Jeff Bezos wouldn’t know me from a busted old shoe, Voivod didn’t get any money from my purchase through Amazon, and I just wasted everyone’s time with these words. I am truly sorry***. The moral to the story: The Wake is so good that I spent $35 to get a vinyl version into my hands.
1. Amorphis – Queen of Time
You know what’s great about Amorphis? Everything. I loved them in the early days when they were just getting evil all the time, I loved them when they started drinking lava lamp juice and tripping their yarbles off during their next interpretation, and I love the current symphonic power-prog version that dropped Queen of Time. “Wait, whaaaaaaaa,” you ask? “Power metal version of Amorphis? What sort of dried banana peels dipped in formaldehyde are you smoking,” you demand further. Okay, obviously Amorphis circa 2018 doesn’t exactly sound like Brainstorm, but a large enough portion of power metal’s pomp, legend and hook exists in the current interpretation of these guys that I’d be willing to bet that those who at least have a band like Symphony X on their radar stand to enjoy Queen of Time the most. It’s an absolutely marvelous record, explicitly, and I never walk away in a glum mood after giving it a spin. I very much wish to live inside the kingdom that is “Amongst Stars.” Anneke van Giersbergen is Queen of that realm, and gilded flower petals fall from the sky wherever she wanders. Her formidable protectors are gallant champions such as Sir Esa Holopainen of Satumaa and Baron Tomi Joutsen, and their gold-plated armor beams with the power of at least one or two suns! I don’t even need to be King of that realm—any sort of regent, viceroy or Archduke role would suffice. I’m no Greedy Gus.
I’m pretty sure I said something along the lines of this in 2015: “There’s no way these guys can top Under the Red Cloud.” Now I’m just super positively sure without a doubt that Amorphis won’t top Queen of Time.
Unlike last year, which was dominated by death metal, 2018 threw amazing records into the pile from most all of metal’s off-shoots. As far as countries are concerned, though, Finland won by a landslide simply by virtue of covering most every base with an elegance softened with Willow Grouse feathers. Abhorrence, Amorphis, Archgoat, Chevalier, Corpsessed, Cosmic Church, Ghastly, Hooded Menace, Malady, Mörkö, Musta Risti, Oksennus (two new releases), Ride For Revenge, Sargeist, Skulmagot and W.A.I.L., plus reissues of all of Demilich’s early works on LP (thanks, Svart!) and, for the first time ever, an LP reissue of Skepticism’s masterful Stormcrowfleet pulled from the original tapes (thanks again, Svart!). Say whaaaa? You crazy, Finland! The rest of the world has some catching up to do in 2019.
TOP 20 NON-METAL ALBUMS OF 2018
Stepping outside of metal, 2018 belonged to jazz. Granted, there were a number of great electronic/ambient-related albums that put a tingle in the dingle, but any year that offers up NEW old material from John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk (which I still haven’t had a chance to jump into) and Sonny Clark (actually a remaster, but whatever. It has new outtakes) effectively hands the crown to jazz. Here’s a pile of great stuff I jumped into a bunch when I wasn’t busy bonging radioactive waste to Skulmagot.
20. Richmond Fontaine – Don’t Skip Out On Me
The final album from this Portland-based punk band gone country is instrumental and written as a companion piece to frontman Willie Vlautin’s latest book of the same name. It’s mostly quiet and lonesome and as stretched as the Nevada Great Basin. It’s also an absolutely beautiful end to a fantastic band.
19. William Basinski + Lawrence English – Selva Obscura
Two of ambient music’s most notable purveyors team up for the very first time to deliver, you guessed it, a drifting effort of ambient bliss. Well, bliss is perhaps the wrong word—it’s the stillness that occurs just as you’re weighing the options of either going into or around the forest located in Dante’s Inferno.
18. The Field – Infinite Moment
The labyrinth of sounds behind Axel Willner’s The Field always more than makes up for the lack of variety delivered by its album covers. Infinite Moment dispenses over an hour’s worth of minimal techno with enough depth and divergence to keep the ear interested until the very last second.
17. Renee Rosnes – Beloved of the Sky
Sometimes you want jazz to mellow you out and accompany views of speckled city lights from an apartment window. Other times you want it to kick you in the pants like a sudden move across three lanes in order to ditch traffic. Renee Rosnes’ fantastic Beloved of the Sky covers both bases. Gotta love that vibraphone, baby.
16. Kenny Barron Quintet – Concentric Circles
Pianist Kenny Barron has been around long enough to play with greats such as Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie, but he apparently decided to wait until his 75th birthday to finally land on the legendary Blue Note Records to deliver the wonderful Concentric Circles. He’s the leader here, but Mike Rodriguez’s trumpet and flugelhorn skills are particularly significant.
15. Sonny Clark Trio – The 1960 Time Sessions
Sonny Clark was one of many VIPs of the early jazz scene whose time on this planet was cut far too short. Pulled from the original source tapes, this release re-masters the cuts from 1960’s fairly unsung Time and gives them new life. Clark on the keys and Duvivier on bass is enough, adding Max Roach on drums makes it a total no-brainer. Essential stuff. And stay away from heroin, kids!
14. Nils Frahm – All Melody
Nils Frahm has mostly made a name for himself by way of delivering fairly minimalistic, but extremely visceral modern classical that’s piano-focused and refined with bits of electronics. His ninth solo release stretches the boundaries a hundredfold to incorporate an abundance of other elements that results in something that’s a little less melancholic than previous works, but packed with enough varied emotion to make it a shoo-in for his best work to date. Absolutely stunning.
13. Shinya Fukumori Trio – For 2 Akis
Drummer Shinya Fukumori has one of the most captivating “mild but active” approaches to playing that I’ve heard in ages, and the accompanying piano (Walter Lang) and tenor sax (Matthieu Bordenave) serve to magnify For 2 Akis‘ overall sense of serene, deliberate detachment. This splendidly engaging trip is exactly as the album cover depicts: grey and solitary, but far from lonely.
12. Jon Hopkins – Singularity
Something about the way Jon Hopkins pairs looped feedback and driving rhythms that makes the brand of hypnotic techno heard throughout Singularity feel very metal, or at least in kinship with sort of metal one might turn to in order to escape earthly confines through flight. 2013’s Immunity was fantastic, but this is absolutely next level. Highly recommended for those who are unafraid of dance beats and understand that you don’t necessarily need to have your feet on the ground in order to enjoy them.
11. Steve Hauschildt – Dissolvi
The thought of dying and doing nothing more for eternity than slowly rotting away in the cold ground sucks. Conversely, the thought of dying and having an unexplainable source of energy that makes up the crux of “you” break apart and reenter the cosmos rules. Obviously not saying either is destined to happen, but Dissolvi is a perfect soundtrack to the latter.
10. Tim Hecker – Konoyo
News of fresh Tim Hecker material is always reason to celebrate. Hearing beforehand that said album would find his characteristic “layered-to-infinity” approach to electronic music scaled back and incorporating a wealth of traditional Japanese instruments such as hichiriki and ryūteki (flutes), shō (a very interesting wind instrument) and uchimono (percussion) lead some (er, me) to believe that Konoyo would sound sparse and “ancient,” but everything is folded into his typical blueprint of slightly harsh reverie so seamlessly that the record remains undeniably “Hecker.”
9. Robyn – Honey
I have very little interest in pop music that is not from the 80s or early 90s, which is probably why Robyn’s Honey works so well for me. Take equal parts Kate Bush and Jody Watley and put a modern producer’s touch to it all and this is what you get: 41-minutes of brooding electropop / R&B that feels just as modern as it does vintage.
8. Steve Tibbetts – Life Of
Steve Tibbetts is mostly known for playing a very unique and kind of “wayfarer” style of electric guitar that wouldn’t be at all out of place in a modern Western. His last two records, however—including this year’s Life Of—find him unplugging in favor of a 12-string acoustic and opting for an overall approach that’s decidedly sparse. To be honest, this record almost sounds like a collection of improvised warm-ups not actually intended for recording, but there is a warmth and strength in the dimness of these vignettes that’s absolutely narcotic.
7. Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings
Trying to think how best to describe an album this innovative in couple sentences makes my head spin. Universal Beings is largely a live recording of some of the best young talent in the NY jazz scene improvising together, but that recording then gets pulled into the studio to incorporate other instruments and styles in order to give the entire undertaking a bit of a “mixtape” flavor that still ends up feeling fully congruous. Basically, drummer Makaya McCraven is a genius, and perhaps the best and most simple way to describe Universal Beings is WOW.
6. Stefon Harris & Blackout – Sonic Creed
Vibraphonist Stefon Harris reunites with Blackout to deliver a funky, refreshed and rousing collection of originals and classics (Horace Silver’s “Cape Verdian Blues,” Wayne Shorter’s “Go,” Bobby Hutcherson’s “Now,” and Michael Jackson’s “Gone Too Soon”) that incorporate Latin rhythms and a general sense of easy-breeziness that make Sonic Creed difficult to put away. The originals are energizing, and the covers are heartfelt homages that are far from carbon-copies. “Now” was pretty in 1970, but it’s downright statuesque in 2018. Absolutely splendid.
5. John Coltrane – Both Directions at Once
C’mon… “New” old material captured right in the midst of the most crucial stretch of the quartet (John Coltrane on tenor & soprano saxophone, Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano and Jimmy Garrison on bass) around 1963 and brought to light for the first time in one collection ain’t supposed to land on a best-of list? An endless amount of words have already been written to help dissect the who, what, where and when particulars, but above all else, it’s just pretty magical to have something raw from one of the most important people in music history. As stated by Sonny Rollins in the liner notes, this is “like finding a new room in the Great Pyramid.”
4. Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo
Referring to Houston, TX’s Khruangbin (pronounced “Khruangbin”) as “the coolest band in the world right now” is probably a fucking terrible idea, but Houston, TX’s Khruangbin is the coolest band in the world right now. The trio comprised of Laura Lee on bass and vocals, Mark Speer on guitar and DJ Johnson Jr. on drums play a style of psychedelic funky soul “cool your evening dowwwwwnnnn a bit” music that’s so smooth and feel-good it could get a gargoyle laid in a convent.
3. Low – Double Negative
I have always loved Low. Perhaps not as much as Last Rites’ own Danhammer Obstkrieg, who loves Low like lowland gorillas love 20lbs of bananas, but I have always loved Low. As much as I dig the band’s early works, however, they entered a new level of love when they started incorporating electronic elements into their indie/slowcore/whatever rock with album number eleven, Ones and Sixes—something that this year’s Double Negative manages to do with an even more capable hand. Once you dive in, you do not want to come out.
2. Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth
Kamasi Washington is amazing. Pure and simple. Releasing a 3-hour (including the “secret” bonus disc, The Choice) trip as your sophomore record is as ballsy as it gets, but Heaven and Earth almost demands to be listened to in one sitting because Washington is enormously talented when it comes to flow, and he makes music that feels like an epic movie that you’d feel weird about walking away from before getting to the climactic end. This record has the soul of Isaac Hayes the boldness of Quincy Jones and the vision of Gordon Parks, and it’s an absolute beaming gem. Explosively expansive to the point of exhaustion, sure, but an absolute gem. What. The. Hell. Is. Next, Kamasi Washington?
1. Malady – Toinen toista
Oh, hello. Welcome to my most listened to album of the year, hands down. Malady is a Helsinki, Finland-based psychedelic prog rock outfit, and Toinen toista is their sophomore release. The record delivers tones and affections that are as warm and loving as mother’s embrace, and at no point during the year did I find myself not in the mood to experience these songs from start-to-finish. Toinen toista also has the unique distinction of being 2018’s only flawless record—the musicianship is impeccable, the songwriting is absurdly captivating, and the production is immaculate without shaving the fine hairs. It sounds as if it was ripped from the same superlative years of progressive rock that produced Close to the Edge, In the Land of Grey and Pink, Mirage, et al., so no, it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, but when you’ve got a song as absolutely PERFECT as the closing “Nurja puoli” (22:58) that shows you just how ensorcelling great psych/prog rock can be, who really cares. Pretty much what I’d hoped Åkerfeldt would produce after leaving metal behind, but I guess that doesn’t really matter now because I have Malady to keep me snug while the rest world goes barreling into Hell.
Thanks for reading, readers. Thanks for writing, writers.