It was yet another year spent on Last Rites Semi-Permanent Probation for Manny. Sure, the crew briefly allowed me off after Maryland Deathfest, but alas, it was merely a tease. I was back on Last Rites Semi-Permanent Probation within days. Don’t cry for me though, as being the bumbling town idiot at Last Rites has its privileges. Most cherished is the fact that I get to hang around this collection of music nerds on a daily basis and absorb their ancient metal wisdom. Look as far and wide as you want, you won’t find a group of people that can provide a more rich oral history of metal. Therefore, it is with humility and thanks that I present my 2018 list alongside the great and handsome staff of Last Rites.
Every year these intros go the same way, right? This is the part where I talk about all the bad things that happened in 2018 and say that it’s the worst year ever. Then I fret about what could possible be around the corner in 2019 and then I go through a list of people we lost this year. Well, that’s fine and well but it’s also rote and boring and pretty depressing. Maybe a bunch of good things happened this year (they didn’t) and maybe 2019 hold in store even more tremendous triumphs (it doesn’t). Since this is where we are left, and since this is my article, let’s look at a few things I’m proud of from 2018.
First, Ask 2 Idiots finally got off the ground. The concept began a few years back when resident funny man Captain was talking about doing “Ask a Medieval Guy.” Great idea, right? Naturally I wanted to hop on board and share some of that sweet, sweet glory for myself. Therefore, I asked to be a counterpoint to his meandering, often pointless point. And it was with that stroke of genius, the combining of two of the handsomest and best minds on the planet that Ask 2 Idiots was conceptualized, born and nurtured. Look for another installment soon! And remember, if you have a question, just find one of us on Twitter and ask us your stupid question so we can berate you so hard that you go back to hiding under that rock your parents left you under.
Second, I got to finally meet most everyone on the Last Rites staff over the course of a few meetups, festivals, and weddings. While everyone let me down with their looks (they are still ugly, although better-looking online), they floored me with their kindness, warm hearts, open arms, and their ability to punish their livers over and over and over in the name of pretending we’re still young. Most importantly, when things got tough for Manny (something that’s happening far too often lately) it was the Last Rites crew (well, most of them) that stepped up and cradled my tiny little emotions in their support hammock while I got through whatever tragedy had currently befallen me.
On a really exciting note, the Last Rites family grew just a bit with the addition of Ryan. Ryan was a little guy I selfishly enjoyed all on my own through his Twitter musings and his above-average reviews. Maybe it was part of a self-help book or a 12-step program I joined, or maybe it was just those brief months I spend in that cult, but I learned to be more selfless. That selflessness – for which I deserve monumental praise and yet ask for none – led to me introducing Ryan to the crew. He fit in like a broken-in old pair of buffalo-dick boots on the weathered feet of a traveling salesman just trying to make a living selling tinctures and Bibles.
At Maryland Deathfest, Migration Fest, and countless concerts, I met so many Last Rites readers and alumni. Each of you shared hilarious stories and beautiful times, and I just want to thank each and every person that took the time to say hello. There is no ego in this game. The crew at Last Rites does this for the love of the music and nothing else. We write for the sole purpose of turning people on to new music and helping fellow music appreciators (FINE. “Nerds.”) find a place to feel at home, even if that place is on the internet. We are all one, and the bond of music – the bond of the shared love of art and artistry – is a bond that is eternal and transcends all feuds and differences. So I look forward to more in 2019 and beyond.
On a sad and final note, the death of Mark Shelton hit us all pretty hard. Manilla Road was a sort of beacon for the Last Rites crew, and The Shark’s personal connection to his fans, his accessibility, his realness and his overall “never say die” attitude was something we all held in high regard. Captain wrote a beautiful piece about his life and work, but there’s no real way to summarize what The Shark meant to us and so many Manilla Road fans out there, without living the discussions and being there for the multi-day binges of all his work. While his body may be gone, his soul lives on through the music he left behind and a piece of him, just a little one, lives on in the hearts of every metal fan that was ever baptized in the brilliance of Manilla Road.
20. Outre-Tombe – Necrovortex
The old school will always be as it was. It’s history at this point. Thankfully, bands like Québécois’ Outre-Tombe keep the torch aflame. Despite some lineup changes, the riffs abound and the solos rip. This little guy had the whole staff headbanging during work hours. Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone! This is one groovy avocation for you to partake in.
19. Kriegsmachine – Apocalypticists
Containing members of Mgła, Kriegsmachine differs from that project mainly by focusing more on unsettling atmosphere and anxiety than on riffs. Discomfort and tension dominate across a release tinged with subtle industrial elements. Steel-toe boots not necessary. You can enjoy this one in your regular civvies. This one deserves and requires intense listening for the subtlety involved.
18. Torture Rack – Malefic Humiliation
Speaking of brutal, Torture Rack call to mind the old days of Autopsy and Cannibal Corpse with this shredtastic but brief affair. With a runtime under 30 minutes, the album flies by without an ounce of aural torture. It’s muffled, filthy, horrendous, and altogether as appetizing as a fresh bowl of cat vomit. Don’t forget to lap it all up, ya puke. A very exciting LP that provides a much needed shot in the arm for the American death metal scene.
17. Skulmagot – Skulled to Death
Probably the album of which I was most proud for ending up on our team list, Skulled to Death is a fetid romp through a festering, rancid, rotted swamp. This Finnish duo combines brutal themes with good old-fashioned death metal–the way the great Dark Lord intended. The crew of Skulmagot devotees is yet small, but expect the ocean to fill with legions of lesion-faced monsters in the coming months. You are the cum culprit. So fill your chalice with sewage and raise it aloft in a toast to the Lord of Filth.
16. Deceased – Ghostly White
When death metal isn’t busy being any of the other adjectives contained within this article, it’s probably just off being FUN. Ghostly White is another Deceased record with all the charisma, good looks, and pimple-y charm of your high school crush. There’s death, thrash, trad, and a whole bunch of hooks to be had across this nearly one-hour journey. It’s for popping beers with your buddies, breaking up with loved ones, hosting interventions and coming out parties, and just generally living your life the way you want to live your life. Deceased is your metal multi-vitamin– it just doesn’t have that awful scent that most multi-vitamins possess. Ingest it or perish.
15. Svartidauði – Revelations of the Red Sword
Despite their 16-year career, this Icelandic trio has released only two full-lengths. I would complain, but the quality of those releases completely makes up for their silence. This is another album both furious and atmospheric at the same time, black metal for any season provided your emotions are in the red. Need a pick me up, and want that pick me up to be a black metal record that provides not only beauty but also blasting genital blisters? This is the one. Quality > Quantity.
14. Hyperdontia – Nexus of Teeth
My most anticipated album of 2018, Hyperdontia proved that Denmark refuses to relent in the production of stinky, mold-riddled death metal. Whether the track is blistering or deftly slow, the compositions on Nexus of Teeth belie the band’s individual talent as they purposefully restrain themselves in the name of unity. No, this album isn’t what the Danish death metal gods promised when they unleashed Nexus of Teeth, but it’s a really, really great death metal release with swirling riffs and vocals so low your dogs might get diarrhea. Spin this record many times but do not ever, under any circumstances, google “hyperdontia.”
13. Ulthar – Cosmovore
Some of the most bonkers death metal of the year was produced by Ulthar. A side project for a few death metal behemoths, the ante has been greatly upped for experimental projects on the west coast of America. Embrace your discomfort and fall in love with this brilliance. Asymmetric is putting it mildly. This is metal for people who are standing on scaffolding 356 meters above the ground balancing on their middle toe (or the ring toe – I don’t know the names of the individual fucking toes, OK?) while they play a Rahsaan Roland Kirk piece on myriad instruments they brought to work in their lunch pail that also doubles as a fanny pack. When the battle clears and the last cauldron of steaming molten metal is poured, there will stand Ulthar upon the parapets, waving blood encrusted flags of victory.
12. Cosmic Church – Tättymys
An album that will force the listener into a trance as an alternative to the threat of water boarding, Tättymys is alive with all aspects of nature. Barking, harsh vocals combine with hypnotic keyboards and nearly clean instrumentation (that either sounds like trumpets, or I’m on drugs) to deliver an organic experience of black metal allure. The entire album is produced as if swathed in moist velvet giving the listen an experience akin to ingesting black metal pudding. I can’t really believe I used the word “moist.” I really hate that word. Also, who wants to wear moist velvet? Is that better or worse than wet denim? Jesus, Manny.
11. Varathron – Patriarchs of Evil
Greece produces a bunch of really, really good metal. While some Hellenic black metal bands might overshadow Varathron in popularity, they are not necessarily better. Patriarchs of Evil is the proof. And if the proof is in the pudding, then your ears and brain have become the pudding. Probably some gross flavor like banana-lime, and it’s all congealed because your brother left it out over night again. But you get the point. Believe it or not, complete with riffs that given lighter drumming could work on a traditional metal record, this album was a legitimate contender for my number one slot. It’s only a few hairs below everything that follows. This is how Greek black metal should sound.
THE TOP 10 ALBUMS OF 2018 AS ACCORDING TO MANNY-O-WAR
10. Mortuous – Through Wilderness
Carbonized Records merely had to put out one record in 2018 to say they had a great year. That record was their collaborative effort with Tankcrimes, AKA this very album. An album of perfectly ripping death metal, the way death metal was meant to be, Through Wilderness will tear your cassette player, melt your turntable, scramble your CD player, or just eviscerate your digital media player. Rippingly vicious vocals, patience in rhythmic pacing, and riffs terrorizing riffs make this album an absolute essential for fans of actual death metal. One pass through “Chrysalis of Sorrow” should be enough to forever connect this putrid festival of musical acumen to your heart. I don’t have some fancy story about my minimum wage job and how I once threw up at work because I couldn’t hold my liquor, and this record somehow reminded me of those horrible times from which I haven’t moved on. I merely hope to have your trust when I implore you to purchase, spin, and hail this record as a great triumph of death metal.
9. Necros Christos – Domedon Doxomedon
Sadly, nay tragically, Domedon Doxomedon is the final release for these absolute stalwarts of the blackened death genre. Many a friendship has been made between two potential psychopaths about how much they adore Necros Christos. Fortunately, the cult leaders went out with a bang: a 113-minute triple album. Like many of their works it may seem bloated at first blush, yet every track and all the myriad thematically intertwined interludes serve a purpose. Their albums are, much like a sorority coed slipping a lime into the neck of a Corona Light, ritualistic. Their lyrics and themes are steeped in the Bible, fringe religions, and ancient theories of death. Biblical themes aside, despite the commitment to thematic consistency, Domedon Doxomedon is a musically interesting and inspirational album. As I just said, it is unfortunately the band’s last, a fact that, as I type this, brings me much sorrow. You see, I’ve stored all this blood for ritual sacrifice, and now I won’t have future Necros Christos albums upon which to sprinkle said blood. (On a related note, I have some blood for sale. Not sure of the type, but I have a whole bunch of it.) Whether you get through one disc or all three, absorbing Necros Christos’ music as a whole, as a thematic exploration, is an experience unlike any other. The important thing is to listen.
8. Judas Priest – Firepower
It feels, at least to me, almost cheap to put Judas Priest on this list. Judas Priest rules. No shit, right? But, unlike recent releases, Firepower is not an album that must require an article written in its defense. It’s not an album with one or two tracks you might see live. Rather, it’s an album that can played in its entirety live, and the fans would go home happy. It’s a [near] return to the brilliant days of early Priest. It’s an album you can enjoy with your old man over a cold beer while he reminds you that you never lived up to be the child he wanted you to be. Maybe your mom will chime in and note your one or two worthwhile accomplishments. But that’s unlikely. She’s with Ted again. Affairs aside, there isn’t much point in describing the album here because it’s Judas Fucking Priest, and it’s fucking great. So, if you like riffs, absolutely incredible frontmen, backlines for the ages, and you live for heavy metal, you should spin this album as loudly as possible. Your neighbors will thank you (unlike that time you urinated on their front door because you thought it was an outhouse because you were tripping balls on bath salts).
7. Messa – Feast for Water
While doom predominates on this absolutely stunning release, jazz (“jazz noir” as my colleague Dan brilliantly put it) finds many a home among the peaks and valleys. Feast For Winter is as captivating as it is devastating, and, trust me, you need some devastation in your stupid life. Sara’s vocals criss-cross from pained to physically dominating to truly jaw-droppingly awe-inspiring. Quietly confident, Messa lets the album speak for itself as it slowly drones and burrows itself from brain to soul. Electric piano, nimble guitar solos and appropriately-timed crescendos highlight this magnificent work. Drawing heavily from doom’s blues-y roots, Messa has composed, produced, and delivered a genre-obliterating album that is an absolute must for all people with a pulse. Actually, if you don’t have a pulse you should listen to this album as well — it might wake you up.
6. Mournful Congregation – The Incubus of Karma
Admittedly, there were mixed feelings about Mournful Congregation’s fifth LP. Some people I know — not very smart people — thought it didn’t live up to Monad of Creation or Book of Kings. Those people, as I said, are stupid. This album is keeping funeral doom alive and true while many of its torchbearers are sliding off towards death / doom and softer. The opening track, a simple ambient intro, contains the year’s most addictive lead line. From there the album builds predictably slowly into a catastrophic experience dragging the velveteen rabbit behind it for enhanced dramatic measure. At well over an hour, The Incubus of Karma is an immersive experience that tears at your soul and tugs at your heart strings. At times leaning more death doom and at times spiraling hard into the mortuary of funeral doom, Mournful Congregation weaves an album truly worth celebrating for its, uh … mourning. Brief aside, I finally saw these Aussies live in 2018, and I recommend the experience for all people who have parents willing to let them stay out past 8 o’clock at night.
5. Sargeist – Unbound
It’s a year-end list so I can get a bit personal. This year I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Sargeist live. I had long heard that they were one of the best, and they exceeded all my expectations and hopes. That said, I didn’t expect them to release an album that could rival Let the Devil In for top spot in their catalog. But in October of 2018, they did just that. Unbound is another brilliant addition to their catalog that will stand at or just below their best work. Sargeist is black metal for people who love black metal. They are a band steeped in the traditional yet unafraid to build on that framework. They don’t fear riffs, yet they don’t focus on them over atmosphere. They are a band producing music that is more than what sits on the physical product. Sargeist is an experience, one that bleeds through from their live performance to your home speakers. And the guitar trills, particularly on “To Wander the NIght’s Eternal Path” are just hypnotic.
4. Mörkö – Ulvova Tyhjyys
Let me go on record (see what I did there?) as saying that vocals are — or at least can be — far more horrifying when they are whispered instead of screamed. There’s something in the restraint, perhaps the casual almost intimate nature with which your terrorizer operates. Thus, when the vocals increase in fervor, moving from casual whisper to hurried pleading, the mood of the record is heightened. Basically, if you start at 10/10 where are you going to go from there? Mörkö has vocal amps that go to -14. Mere vocal delivery aside, Mörkö has a touch for ambiance and off-kilter discomfort matched by very few bands. You might feel like your socks are suddenly on the wrong feet. Or perhaps you feel like that kombucha you just drank was a little too fermented. Maybe that dog is looking at you strangely. After all, your head is made of ground chicken and live salmon. The mix of synthesizer and keys with all kinds of guitars, be they clean or distorted, creates a soundtrack that feeds off, and builds scenes from, your own mind. Ulvova Tyhjyys is at once a terrifying and exquisitely charming experience of experimental black metal.
3. Madder Mortem – Marrow
For good reason, Madder Mortem is an absolute favorite among the Last Rites staff despite our diverse tastes. Yet the world at large seems to gloss over their records as if they weren’t utterly brilliant. It’s high time we got the guillotine out and made some converts out of you people. At the core of their sound is grievous emotion whether it be projected by the strings, rhythm section, or the incomparable pipes of Agnete Kirkevaag. Their balance, use of effective interludes, and ability to seamlessly marry harsh and clean vocals makes Madder Mortem an elite in the arena of progressive doom, hovering brutally close to nu-metal territory yet never offending as did the cargo pants and baggy shirts of the late 90s. Marrow is another step forward and another step towards peaceful calm for Madder Mortem who continue to surpass their previous brilliant works. Swathed in beauty and dripping with benevolent forgiveness this album will grow and grow in importance and depth with each listen, unlike you, who will remain as useless as ever!
2. Sear Bliss – Letters From the Edge
My colleague Dan said it best in his review when he said (to summarize) that to discuss what makes Sear Bliss different and unique, i.e. the use of trombone, is to reduce them to nothing more than a novelty act and thus do them a grave disservice. They are a band without much acclaim. In fact, they have far less acclaim than they should. They should have acclaim equal to that of mid-era David Letterman bantering with Paul Shaffer while Howie Mandel awkwardly fidgets in his seat while trying to sip water from the coffee mug provided by NBC. Letters From the Edge should change all that for this Hungarian black metal outfit. It should catapult them to the upper echelons of avant-garde black metal elite, right alongside people who tirelessly sell street meat despite the cold weather, providing hard-working blue collar folks with much needed tube-shaped meatstuffs. Without a single track to highlight, Letters From the Edge is merely a work of total, beautiful, breathtaking perfection. Many bands attempt to do what Sear Bliss so seemingly effortlessly achieves. Yet, no band that attempts comes close. They are squarely in a league of their own where crying is not only allowed but encouraged.
1. Amorphis – Queen of Time
The record I spun the most this year also contained my favorite track of the year: “Among the Stars.” If you haven’t guessed yet, that’s a track on Amorphis’ 2018 album Queen of Time AKA Last Rites No. 1 Album of the Year, and a track that features Anneke van Giersbergen on vocals. While Amorphis may sound like other bands, like many bands atop this list, they are unique and unmatched. What’s most surprising is that Queen of Time isn’t only great, it’s potentially Amorphis’ best album in their storied history. (The more I spin it, the more I believe that it is their best album.) Despite a runtime of more than an hour, there is not one single mistake or misstep across its entirety. Simply put, this album is the pinnacle of what I will refer to as “melodic doom,” as it is both melodic and doom-y, but it contains so much more, and it’s the progressive nature of the album that truly shines. It is perfect and thus, as a perfect album, cannot be topped. This is the part in the blurb where I would tease you about being inadequate, but I think Amorphis do a pretty good job of that on their own. Think you’ve done something good with your life? Well, Amorphis has done more, and they’ve done it better.
EXTENDED PLAY RECORDS
3. Radux – Disaster Imminent
Finland is just toying with the rest of the world at this point. “Hey, here’s a group of children who can play early thrash better than all of you can. How funny to watch their faces as we annihilate them with our effortless talent.” (But they said that in Finnish.) Radux backs that claim right the fuck up. Paying homage to Nuclear Assault more than anyone, Disaster Imminent is a fitting vinyl debut for these youngsters. Four tracks tear through your face like a boiled potato with a knife in the center. Do not fear the nuclear Armageddon. It’s coming but, until then, we have THRASH to save us. Did I mention that these guys even look like it might as well be 1986? Because they absolutely do. Time for you to get a debriefing and check these little dudes out.
2. Cerebral Rot – Cessation of Life
Not available on Bandcamp (come on) and not being released by a major, or even minor, label probably hurt the chances for Cerebral Rot to make the entrance they deserve. Yet, good news ahead: 20 Buck Spin has picked them up, and we can hopefully expect a repress of this 7” or, better yet, a debut LP in the coming months. Cerebral Rot are the essence of putrescence that all death metal fans will love. Cerebral Rot is the death metal you don’t deserve, yet you’re somehow allowed to digest along with that pizza and sausage Hot Pocket you just left in the microwave for 90 seconds too long. Go clean your microwave, idiot. Most surprisingly they are from America. Cerebral Rot is from America. Not the Hot Pocket. Well, maybe the Hot Pocket too. But you don’t deserve either. What a world we live in!
1. Tragedy – Fury
A band I can’t say enough great things about. From their early days in His Hero is Gone, those even tangentially related to this band have been influencing how I view the world, how I hear music, and how much I hate myself (in a good way). Their 2018 EP Fury is no different. A very welcome return to origin form following 2012’s Darker Days Ahead LP, Fury has all the trimmings of a great Tragedy release, except for longer runtime. Consistently brutal, aware, nihilistic, and most importantly, post-Armageddon, Tragedy have proven yet again that age doesn’t matter and punk rock is for life. It’s amazing what this band is able to produce with just a little depleted uranium, some oil drums, and a few cadavers.
THE BEST NON-METAL ALBUMS OF 2018 AS ACCORDING TO MANNY-O-WAR
Well, the cat has done leapt out of the bag. A few of us around here (I won’t name names because I don’t want to get blacklisted at Hop Sing’s) listen to more than just heavy metal. A lot more than just heavy metal actually. And, if you also step outside of heavy metal you’ll know it’s an undeniable fact that 2018 was dominated by a stream of absolutely tremendous jazz records (including a Sonny Clark remaster of the brilliant 1960 Time Sessions). Further, there was not one but two previously unheard albums from jazz giants, both recorded in 1963, discovered, mixed, mastered, and released. I’m told by a few unnamed colleagues that electronic music had a great year as well. That’s something I hope to explore more in 2019. On the other hand, what’s missing in 2018 is a stream of quality alt-country like the one from which we fished in 2017. What’s also missing from this list is indie rock. Aside from a brilliant release by Low, there truly wasn’t much on the indie front this year. Maybe used sweaters from Goodwill and New Balance sneakers aren’t popular anymore — I wouldn’t know. But I would appreciate some indie rock bands getting off their motorized kick scooter and back into the rehearsal room. So, if your trve kvlt statvs prevents you from listening to anything not recorded by vvolves of the tvndra vvhile vvearing trve forged iron, thus ends your portion of the list. Similarly, if you’re having trouble remembering which way is front on your Suffocation sweatpants — a problem I’ve personally encountered — you might want to scroll back up and read this again. Hell, you’re baked out of your mind. No way you remember what you just read. But if you’re a human being, please continue and enjoy these twenty selections that hardly do the year justice. And if you’re into the hip and the hop, you should check out the two Black Thought EPs (Streams of Thought, Vol. I and Streams of Thought, Vol. II) released in 2018.
20. Nothing – Dancing on the Blacktop:
The 1990s might seem like a lifetime ago (they probably are for some of you), but you don’t have to get in a time machine to hear the alternative brilliance that abounded across the airwaves. Nothing kicks out the 90s alt-jams like no one’s business. Mix in a bit of shoegaze and some grunge, and you’ve got a soundtrack for a fun car ride. The cover is, well… absolutely fucking horrifying, but the music, which is what counts, is stellar.
19. Khruangbin – Con Todo el Mundo:
Sometimes an extremely lovely album can also be disorienting. Example: you listen to Khruangbin and start to believe you’re actually a character in a 1930s Italian spy film. You sip a macchiato before hopping on your motorcycle to tear along coastal, mountain roads in an effort to escape the evil mustachioed man who pursues you. Middle Eastern and far eastern music combines to make one of the smoothest, most intoxicating records of the year. Psychedelic, funky, folksy and positively hip, Con Todo el Mundo will improve the vision you have of yourself in an endlessly positive way. It’s OK to dance.
18. Pink Siifu – Ensley:
Avant-garde would be putting it mildly, at least for the arena of hip hop. Pink Siifu is a rapper that has been all over the place stylistically. Here. he’s at his most intimate while also being at his most artistic. What you can count on (and this goes for all of his other releases) is an intimate, private experience where he tells you about life, political theory, and the day-to-day as casually as would your best friend.
17. Dead Can Dance – Dionysus:
To begin with the positives, Dionysus is another adventurous journey for Dead Can Dance. This one heavy on tribal, Middle Eastern, and world sounds. Split as two tracks, the album is slightly short. Most frustrating is the lack of vocals on the first track (listed as an “Act”). Regardless, the excitement of a Dead Can Dance album cannot be frustrated even by the glaring omissions across Dionysus.
16. Torae & Praise – All Praises Due:
A late addition to this list, All Praises Due is proof that it pays to have friends that spam you with music texts. While technically an EP (despite its eight tracks), Coney Island’s Torae is using this as a teaser for multiple upcoming projects in 2019. Let’s hope that those projects live up to the lyrical and production value of this “EP.”
15. The Exploding Eyes Orchestra– II:
Svart Records really reminds me a lot of Last Rites. I picture their staff as just being a wonderful group of goofy metalheads that have a very broad range of interests and just put out what’s good without any regard for what’s cool or likely to make money. They have integrity. Thus, when any promo from Svart arrives, I make sure to put aside time and give it the respect it deserves. Thankfully, The Exploding Eyes are on Svart Records. Despite cool cover art, I might have totally missed this album had it not been backed by a label I respect so much. A side project for Jess and the Ancient Ones guitarist and songwriter Thomas Corpse is a band that transcends genres and sounds timeless. I highly recommend a plush, velvet chair and some top notch headphones for this journey.
14. The Motels – The Last Few Beautiful Days:
Now a full double Chai removed from their origins, The Motels are still alive and kicking writing straight rock and roll that would be at home before their MTV era or earlier days of Martha Davis’ LA club-scene fame. The tunes are fresh, and Martha sounds as glorious as ever. A welcome return from an old-time stalwart.
13. Sons of Kemet – Your Queen is a Reptile:
Another group from the motherland (Britain), this one fronted by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings. Sons of Kemet produce a rhythmically diverse project specked with horns, voices, soca and afrobeat. An ambitious project that reaches outside the confines of jazz to do what jazz does best: create new genres through musical conversation. This one is special.
12. Kenny Barron Quintet – Concentric Circles:
At age 75 Kenny Barron shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, he’s becoming more powerful as witnessed on Concentric Circles. The quintet setting is perfect for his eclectic composition style. From simple waltzes to rhythmically astounding Barron’s soloing is precise, gentle and not at all reliant on his bop roots. It’s amazing what happens when jazz musicians are allowed to grow old.
11. Emma Ruth Rundle – On Dark Horses:
These days there is a myriad of songwriters playing dark rock and living their lives adjacent to metal. With On Dark Horses, Emma Ruth Rundle proves that she is the leader of her genre. The album is at once sublime, emotionally invested, airy, and altogether warm. It is indeed her time to shine.
10. Roc Marciano – Behold a Dark Horse:
One of, if not the single most underrated rapper currently working is Roc Marciano. Going back to 2010’s Marcberg reveals a golden brick road of LPs, mixtapes (Cognac Tape with Hus Kingpin!) singles and EPs from Roc Marciano. All of that somehow flying largely under the radar of even underground fans. Now far from his days as part of Flipmode Squad, Marciano is working tirelessly to make sure people understand his genius. Behold a Dark Horse is another chapter of that genius and one to be taken very seriously. You can be sure that more Roc Marciano will be available in the almost immediate future.
9. Apollo Brown & Joell Ortiz – Mona Lisa:
Apollo Brown remains one of hip hop’s greatest producers. His instantly recognizable style of gritty-yet-smooth beats shine across Mona Lisa. While the pairing with Joell Ortiz may see odd at first blush, Ortiz slows his usually more aggressive flow to match the beats, and what results is a masterful performance full of poignant moments and classic hip hop attitude.
8. Bobo Stenson Trio – Contra La Decision:
Blindly purchasing any ECM record is never a bad idea, and this soporific adventure will make many a happy customer. Delicate and gentle, the trio evokes maudlin emotions across this eleven-track stroll. With the touch of Keith Jarrett, Bobo Stenson softly and magically guides his fellow bandmates throughout. An album perfect for contemplative evenings.
7. Maisha – There is a Place:
Another jazz project led by a drummer, this British sextet is taking up the reins of spiritual jazz. While you might think of Sun Ra or Pharoah Sanders when you hear There is a Place, make no mistake that Maisha is an original act. Brilliant in every regard, this unique mixture of instruments (including a harp) are sure to find a home in the heart of any fan of jazz since 1960.
6. Robyn – Honey:
While the mainstream billboards (and me) continue to fawn all over Ariana Grande, it’s important to realize none of her music would be achieved without the decades-long work of Robyn. Since 1995, she’s been releasing albums that make people dance, cry, and think about life. Honey is her sardonic attempt at a happy album; think about The Cure doing house music.
5. John Coltrane – Both Directions at Once:
The Lost Album: The undisputed king of jazz left this 1963 gem hidden in the tape cartridge. Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and McCoy Tyner are unflinchingly great across both discs (or four LPs), compiled by Ravi Coltrane and mixed by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder. It’s criminal that the world was forced to wait until 2018 for more Coltrane. While perhaps not as catalog-smashing as the Thelonious Monk reissue, it’s undeniable that Coltrane is, and will always be, the force to be reckoned with in modern jazz. Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album seamlessly joins his flawless discography and only adds to his unparalleled genius.
4. Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings:
So much can be said without the use of words. That’s primarily the genius behind jazz (aside from all the technical music theory stuff, of course). With four quarters to the album, set in New York, Chicago, London, and Los Angeles respectively, drummer Makaya McCraven gets at the heart of the cities using clever composition and infectious rhythms, what he deems “organic beat music.” As double bass cleverly squeaks out noises and bows harmonies, the essence of each city, no matter how uncomfortable, is revealed through a number of soul-crushing tracks that will leave you bopping in your seat or toe-tapping your way through the urban landscape.
3. Kamasi Washington – Heaven & Earth:
By this point in life Kamasi Washington and his larger-than-life persona with an alto saxophone in his hands need absolutely no introduction. Heaven & Earth, and its accompanying EP The Choice, were a brilliant follow up to his 2015 behemoth of an effort, The Epic. Another album closing in on three hours in length, Heaven & Earth is a magical ride whether taken in one sitting or broken up into parts. With enough personnel to populate the Metropolitan orchestra pit, Washington once again establishes his foothold not only in jazz, but in modern music as a whole. A fitting tribute to Freddie Hubbard, via “Hub-Tones” blesses the first disc.
2. Thelonious Monk – Mønk:
Unlike the Coltrane “lost” studio recording, Mønk captures a live show in Copenhagen, albeit, a very cleanly recorded one. The only thing getting lost in the mix is excessive audience noise and the ovations due Monk and Co. While you’ve heard these songs before, you’ve likely not heard Monk playing them this earnestly and without flourish. Recorded in 1963, Mønk is equal to Thelonious’ impressive quartet catalog ranking easily among some of his best recordings. The Quartet rounds out with the expert playing of Frankie Dunlop (drums), John Ore (bass) and Charlie Rouse on tenor.
1. Wayne Shorter – Emanon:
Pretty much forever in the works, Emanon is a comprehensive masterwork by Wayne Shorter. Perhaps what will be his final contribution to jazz, Shorter creates an immersive experience across three LPs complete with artistic packaging and an illustrated, graphic novel. Shorter is every bit himself, grabbing sounds and styles from across his illustrious career. Forget about Wayne Shorter being anyone’s saxophonist, he’s entirely his own man and Emanon shows that his place in jazz history is firmly cemented among the most legendary of greats.
If you’ve made it this far I just want to say, “thanks for reading, mom!”