Shawn’s Favorite Albums of 2018

Fav albums Thumb 2018Once again we come to that time of year when all the people who love and listen to music foist their opinions on anyone who will listen. And yes, dear reader, I openly admit that I am no different. If I hear something that I like I want to spread the word to the world; I love when people recommend albums, books, movies, comics, podcasts, and anything else they think I might enjoy, so I try to return the favor.

I stopped calling this a ‘best of’ list a few years ago, simply because these are my favorites, and while I think I have pretty good taste, taking on a wider view, I can’t argue that anyone can or even should agree. So bearing that in mind, and the fact that every year as soon as I post this list I find something I missed, here is my top ten favorite albums of 2018:


Preoccupations - New Material

Preoccupations – New Material

Preoccupations was new to me last year; one of those bands I’d been meaning to give a spin as far back as when they were still called Viet Cong. The name change aside, Preoccupations feels like a better fit, so in the end it works. This is, for me, a very visual group who put out a very visual album this year; an interesting amalgam of punk song-writing aesthetic and modern instrumentation. New Material  flows beautifully from start to finish, doesn’t beat me over the head with the politics I know is there and enjoy engaging with, and what’s more, the synths add a layer to the punk rock pastiche that makes me feel as though someone weaponized Massive Attack.

Mandy OSTJóhann Jóhannsson – Mandy OST

I saw a lot of fantastic horror movies theatrically this year. I don’t know that Mandy wholly constitutes a ‘horror movie,’ or at least I may have had some question on that point until I listened to the score the first time, walking through Santa Monica at night with my headphones in. That’s when the creep factor of the aural- scape of the film skyrocketed for me.

Jóhann Jóhannsson has crafted a primordial soup from which the nameless guitar horrors of Stephen O’Malley occasionally slither up from the dense, psychedelic goo of shattered stars and burning moons; a real double dose of aural LSD that reverberates in your brain matter at close range, or shakes the fucking roof on the turntable when it’s turned up to eleven. And that’s the way this record should be played: LOUD.

Sadly, the composer passed away shortly after completing this score, but as a final missive to the world, it really could not be better than this. Both the music and the film it envelopes are among my favorite things in the world, and helped define the texture of my year.

The Atlas Moth - ComaThe Atlas Moth – Coma Noir

I had never heard of the Chicago, post-metal band The Atlas Moth until a few months ago when a friend recommended them. I began with their 2011 album The Ache of Distance, and knew pretty much from my first spin that I’d found a new band’s discography to plumb the depths of.

This discovery buzz – as I call it – was only amplified the further into The Atlas Moth’s work that I went, tripling in effect when I heard this year’s Coma Noir. This is one of those albums where the each listen reveals something new, even now, after dozens of listens. Maybe it’s because I have access to so much more music now, but I really feel like I’m sinking into this record slowly and through a mostly occulted path, kind of like the way The Maxx sinks into the Outback; with each listen the details of a hidden world flash by like spokes on a giant wheel. There’s a thick cohesion to the songs, which makes them feel like acts in a larger work, and subsequently a very ‘literary’ approach to the presentation. I’ve mentioned this music-as-literature theory before, and it kind of ended up defining a lot of this year’s music for me.

Ghost Cop - TrickGhost Cop – One Weird Trick

So then let’s continue the metaphor and jump next to a band I discovered via an author I love. Warren Ellis’s weekly email Orbital Operations has turned me on to a lot of great art, but nothing that’s hit me as hard as Ghost Cop’s One Weird Trick. This album is a rocket from the not so distant future, the first electronic piece in a while that sounds like “Future Music” to me. Its synth/beat driven electric songs are constructed to move in between what we know as “Electronic”, “Rock” and “Pop”, injecting a very Sci Fi landscape into arrangements that seem familiar yet slightly… off? I believe this effect is partially achieved by Lucy Swope’s often disaffected vocals and, finalized by Sean Dack’s push-pull between hardcore cyber-gaze and straight up foot tapping beats. There’s a strange feeling of mesmerism and introspection here, like drug music that is no longer concerned with appealing to drug culture, a concept I wholeheartedly embrace.

Windhand - EternalWindhand – Eternal Return

The Richmon-based doom wardens do it again! There’s no massive overhaul from Greif’s Infernal Flower here, but there doesn’t need to be. Eternal Return is the band further exploring their sound and refining the cosmic elements of their song writing. Dorthia Cottrell’s voice is better than ever AND is finally brought up and out of the fuzz of the mix – a huge feat for stoner/doom bands everywhere. Jack Endino intuits exactly where to place her haunting melody lines for maximum effect, juxtaposed against the sludgy walls of the twin guitar tower and plodding doom of the rhythm section. Eternal Return is as hooky and memorable as its predecessor, but feels further matured, especially with final track Feather, which feels as though it reaches that timeless, epic quality Zeppelin did at their long-winded best.

I wonder where the band will go from here. Windhand is so dialed in at this moment, the king’s of the stoner/doom zeitgeist, that Eternal Return may be the moment they transcend it. Which could only be a good thing. They’re definitely on the right path, especially with the strategically perfect move of bringing Endino on board as producer, which shows they are not afraid to outgrow their roots and further explore the cosmos they have crafted for themselves.

Deafheaven - OrdinaryDeafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love

This one almost suffered from pre-exposure. I was so excited for Deafheaven’s follow-up to New Bermuda, that when the band released first single Honeycomb, I really dug into it, going so far as to make a playlist that dropped it smack dab in the middle of some odds and sods I’d found on Apple Music (Kettle onto the Coil and their half of a split with Bosse-de Nage). This proved to be a bad idea; getting to know Honeycomb in a context other than the eventual album of its release ended up splintering my initial experience with Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, an album of that moves Deafheaven even further out of the ‘black metal’ genre they have never been content residing inside. Eventually I worked it all out, but it took about a month away from the record in general, so I could hear it again with fresh ears.

It’s funny how many people criticize this band for some imaginary crimes against Black Metal. Funny, because it seems obvious to those of us in on the joke that Deafheaven were never interested in fitting into any genre, let alone one that can enforce a quagmire of rigidity on anyone associated with it. Sure, like most bands they began playing inside a specific musical sphere, but pretty much from as far back as Roads to Judah, there are signs they wouldn’t be staying long. And to return once again to our previous metaphor, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is possibly the most “literary” album on this list, so much so that the title was inspired by a Graham Greene novel, and the opening track contains a spoken word excerpt from Tom McElravey’s short story Black and Borax.

Ordinary Corrupt Human Love begins with hazy, lilting piano and ends with thrashy, melodic guitar refrains (my favorite among the band’s body of work), but along the way stretches from soft, melancholic shoegaze to powerfully righteous metal, without breaking its own unique, internal tone that is 100% unlike anything else and thus, 100% Deafheaven.

The Body - Fought Against ItThe Body – I Have Fought Against it, But I Can’t Any Longer

The Body is such a prolific band – they released three albums this year – that my knee jerk reaction was almost to dismiss a lot of their records off the cuff.

That would have been a mistake.

I Have Fought Against it, But I Can’t Any Long came to me sideways, when the track Nothing Stirs ended up on a playlist I’d thought was entirely Chicago shoegaze group Airiel. The opening, ominously lethargic synth beat caught me unaware, and by the time I figured out who I was actually listening to, guest vocalist Kristin Hayter’s ravaging crescendo was already melting my brain. It was love at first sight, so to speak.

Nothing Stirs sits smack dab in the center of the album, and in my opinion is not only the strongest track here, but also the perfect pinion from the front half of the record to the more fractured fugue of the back half. But there’s a strategy to the chaos gods The Body invoke that often leaves me breathless, and for that alone they have quickly risen to the top of my, “Must-listen-to-every-new-thing- they-release-right-away” list.

Alice in Chains - FogAlice in Chains – Rainier Fog

Here’s something I never expected to happen again. While most of this list is not in any order of importance, the top three definitely are, and AIC’s Rainier Fog just barely missed being my number two favorite album of the year. It’s like it’s bloody 1995 again.

AIC were my band during the back half of high school (’93-94), and Layne Stayley’s passing was the first of the three ‘rock star’ deaths that ever personally affected me. When Jerry Cantrell tried to give a go to publishing his vision of rock/metal under his own name, he made some great albums but never quite got up on his legs. That’s why, when AIC reconvened with Black Gives Way to Blue in 2009, although I was hesitant, I ended up accepting the album. Also, it doesn’t hurt that Cantrell wrote over half of the music in the original incarnation of the group, so the sonic signature is largely still there.

As much as I liked that first Alice returns album, the follow-up felt bloated; there’s a solid five songs on The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here that strike me as up to par with the rest of the band’s work, but the rest is forgettable. Thus, I assumed that was the end of my interest in this new version of the group. Then I heard Rainier Fog; this isn’t just another great album from the new iteration of Alice in Chains, this is a reboot; a reinvention of their original sound in a new, considerably lighter way. Dirt will always be among my favorite albums ever, but as I aged and found it often unapproachable it dawned on me why AIC disappeared from the same radio stations that still play Nirvana: the original stuff – especially Dirt – is just too emotionally draining to engage with on a regular basis. Rainier Fog is not better than old Alice, but it’s just as good and that’s a feat of no small import.

If you had told me six months before this album’s release that it would be in my top three of the year, I wouldn’t have believed you. Now, I can’t wait to see where they go from here.

Emma Ruth Rundle - MarkedEmma Ruth Rundle – Marked for Death

Speaking of emotionally draining. Emma Ruth Rundle’s Marked for Death is an album that crushes me in all the best possible ways. There can be a deliciousness to darkness, depression, and that solitary state of mind that often haunts us into existential crisis. Marked for Death revels in that darkness. Not because Emma Ruth Rundle wants to exploit her pain. To the contrary, in a recent interview with the Independent, she talks about the eagerness she feels for the songs on this album to be behind her. The reason this record revels in darkness is because it’s not so much an album as it is an exorcism; Marked for Death taps into my own darkness – something I haven’t quite identified with in years, but strangely sometimes miss – and helps me feel that, as dark as the path is, the light is most assuredly up ahead, just around a corner I don’t even know is there yet.

Marked for Death also has possibly my favorite final track of the year, Real Big Sky, which is somewhat akin to planting the tombstone after the body’s finally been laid to rest.

Zeal & ArdorZeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit

I admit it. Initially, I was concerned that Zeal & Ardor would not be able to follow up last year’s debut EP with a full album’s worth of material as strong as that first micro-produced batch of music. I knew whatever came next would be good – hell, I knew it’d be great. But I never thought it would be this goddamn good. Stranger Fruit is not just a reiteration or redefinition of the sound Manuel Gagneux created in his kitchen in France, it is an opening to a much larger world, a world populated by a man I believe to be the most original and powerful creative force in heavy music today.

Stranger Fruit toys with the same field hymnal/black metal crossover ideas the EP did, but it also uses those sounds as a jumping off point. Where a lesser artist might be tempted to continue doing what had already earned them a unique place in people’s hearts, Manuel and his newly formed band – along with some actual production money behind them – stretch the idea of their premise and tone, and create songs that occupy completely new places in the landscape of heavy music. There’s sonic textures, rhythmic explorations that border on the ritualistic, and melodic, heartfelt moments that don’t seem out of place, but rather elevate everything else into a much greater field.

This is the future, and interestingly enough the past, combined to make a wonderful ripple in the Now.

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

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