by guest writer Arturs Simanovskis
If you tried to describe the current landscape of the music industry you’d run into one brick wall after another, with each passing year the distinctions between genres, cultural influences and time periods are slowly eroding. While this might give music journalists endless migraines, for artists it has given new opportunities to carve out their own distinct style that they can further develop. So let me introduce you to some of my favourite releases of this year that stood out from the others.
18. Tim Hecker – Konoyo
One of my favourite ambient artists is back and he has found a new target to send through an endless array of digital augmentations. On this album he works with Japanese instrumentalists to recreate the music played in the courts of early medieval Japanese empire – gagaku. He then takes this already unrecognizable and strange source material and creates a dialogue between the ancient and the modern.
17. DJ Healer – Planet Lonely
My reason for including this album is fairly simple, I want to give people an alternative for “lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to”. If you’re downtrodden by the constant anxiety and stress of your day to day life, listening to this album is like going on a vacation to Hawaii. With a running time of 3 hours, it never dips in quality and remains ever evolving and dynamic, going from fairly abstract ambient pieces to energetic deep house tracks that will make you want to get up and take a break from studying by dancing.
16. The Voidz – Virtue
The Voidz is a project initiated by The Strokes vocalist Julian Cassablancas, it’s most apparent on Leave It In My Dreams which wouldn’t be too out of place on Is This It or Room on Fire. But what makes this album interesting is the innovative approach to rock on songs like QYURRYUS or ALieNNationN. The psychedelic grooves re-appropriate the musical aesthetic of the 80s and mix it with modern indie rock resulting in something similar to Tame Impala, but with a more experimental and unique vision.
15. Kali Uchis – Isolation
Kali gained my attention with her 2015 EP “Por Vida” that made me fall in love with her voice, but didn’t feel mature enough to go beyond all the comfy bedroom pop artists that plague everyone’s youtube recommendations. But now in Isolation, with songs like the reggaeton bop Nuestro Planeta, the psychedelic In My dreams or the funky After the Storm featuring Tyler, her evolution is noticeable. By drawing from a wider array of influences and exploring new genres, there’s no clear singular sound in the album beyond her dreamy voice. This makes each subsequent track stand out on it’s own and the listening experience dynamic and wonderful, especially for a pop record.
14. Mid-air Thief – Crumbling
Mid-air Thief takes Korean folk, enhances it with modern production and sprinkles it with psychedelic elements. Pleasant in every aspect, this album is absolute JOY to listen to. String instrumentals that sound like a bubbly water spring rolling down the mountain and dreamy vocals makes you feel like you’re floating through the sky. If you like Fishmans, this album should be right up your alley.
13. Playboi Carti – Die Lit
I came across Die Lit in a rather anecdotal way, I saw a minecraft parody of “Fell in Luv” titled “Fell in Lava” on youtube. I went in fully expecting to cringe and laugh at it, but midway through I realized I was nodding my head along to the beat and enjoying it. It gave me just the right mentality to listen to the full album – after a long, exhausting day, turn off your brain and let the hypnotic beats mend it. The dumb adlibs and amusing lines make it one of the most fun and easy to listen to albums of 2018.
12. Noname – Room 25
On the surface Noname is sweet, charismatic and bubbly, but underneath that she has a sharp tongue that’s highly critical of the world around her. On top of beautiful jazzy instrumentals she raps about systemic racism, sexism and economic exploitation in a way that doesn’t feel overly bitter. She’s a ray of sunshine that wishes to seep through the cracks in the flawed system to illuminate and reveal the humanity inside each one of us.
11. Anna von Hausswolff – Dead Magic
Ethereal, terrorizing and full of pain, it sounds like the ghost of an 18th century duchess locked away in a mansion by her husband is singing through her. The album is carried forward with stellar instrumentals – heavy drums, dark synths, distorted guitars and a haunting organ. These serve as a platform for Anna to shine on, her vocal delivery is what makes the album. The second part of The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra has stuck with me since the first time I listened to it.
10. Hermit and the Recluse – Opheus vs. the Sirens
Hermit and the Recluse is a collaboration between the rapper Ka and producer Animoss. Ka is a 46 year old NYC firefighter by day and a mythical storyteller by night. With maturity and a laid back attitude he ties together his rough childhood in a violent environment with the Greek myths of heroes that overcame hardship and came out triumphant. This album has no desire to impress the listener with flashy production, hard hitting beats or a dynamic flow. The drum usage is minimal which gives the beats a feeling of no solid base, they’re wavy and atmospheric like a sea covered in mist and Ka’s voice is a ship that steadily floats through.
9. SOPHIE – OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES
Sophie first gained attention with the singles that were later combined in the Product compilation. Songs like VYZEE and BIPP sound like pop music taken to its logical end-point, naively fun and sugary, they will wiggle into your head like a worm and stay there for weeks. The more industrial sounding HARD was a hint of what was to come on her first full LP, songs like Faceshopping and Ponyboy contrast high-pitched feminine vocals with metallic sounding bass that cuts deep into the song and rips it apart. Most notably, SOPHIE is finally ready to make a statement with her music. The lyrics deal with her experiences as a transwoman, through paradoxical statements like “I’m real when I shop my face” on Faceshopping and optimistic “Immaterial, I could be anything I want” on Immaterial she conveys the liberation she feels by being able to construct her own identity and appearance through make-up, clothing and digital manipulation. In her own words from an interview with Billboard, “Transness is taking control to bring your body more in line with your soul and spirit so the two aren’t fighting against each other and struggling to survive.”
8. Death Grips – Year of the Snitch
Death Grips have been popular in online music communities for a while now, yet the attitude towards them wasn’t the best a serious artist could wish for – a sort of meme you listen to ironically. But now on Year of the Snitch they feel fully confident in their sound and take it to new, unexplored places, if you’re not ready to follow them in this journey, they don’t need you. Songs like “Death Grips Is Online” or “Black Paint” seem propelled forward by some unstoppable and inhumane energy tearing through everything in its way, “Hahaha” feels like you’re in a rocket shooting into space, unhindered acceleration forward is the best way to describe how this album sounds and the musical evolution of Death Grips themselves.
7. Denzel Curry – TA13OO
After listening to Denzel’s 2016 release “Imperial” my first feeling was that he’s at the forefront of wherever hip hop is going and his next album is going to be an even bigger banger. And he delivered more than I expected by demonstrating fantastic newfound versatility. The album is divided into three parts, going from Light to Gray, to Dark. Light is filled with fantastic soulful vibes, BLACK BALLONS is his grooviest track yet and it would fit right in on Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Gray is filled with soundcloud emo trap bangers with a great feature from JID. Dark serves as an impressively solid end to the album with Denzel waking up from the pills he popped in Gray and delivering a hard-hitting flow that leaves you full of energy for another relisten.
6. JPEGMafia – Veteran
Provocative and distinct, JPEGMafia aka Peggy is one of the most interesting hip hop artists to emerge in recent times. His music is abrasive and confrontational, but from his statements it’s simply a reaction to the hate and hostility he has experienced. After moving to Alabama when he was 13 he was the victim of open racism from his peers in school, the toxic environment in the military he saw filled with sexual abuse and now more than ever the open bigotry in all forms he sees festering in internet communities. “Online” is a good way to describe Peggy, he’s well aware of how internet culture works and uses this knowledge to draw attention to his music. Song titles like “My Thoughts on Neogaf Dying”, “Libtard anthem” or “I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morissey Dies” are sure to draw interest from anyone glancing over them. The wit goes beyond the titles with hilarious lines like “AR stacked like Lena Dunham” or “I’m draggin’ bodies like it’s Metal Gear”. Starting out as a producer during his service in the US army, he has developed a unique production style that fits great with the content of his lyrics. Noisy, distorted and glitchy beats on songs like “Real Nega” make it impossible to not pay attention to the song and his attitude. He also displays the ability to make a more easy to listen to and commercially accessible sound, on the opening track 1539 N. Calvert he draws the listener in with a chill and serene beat that would make for a great addition to a late night driving playlist amongst songs like Lil Uzi’s XO Tour Llif3.
5. IDLES – Joy as an Act of Resistance
IDLES 2017 release “Brutalism” was a perfect example of how to do a punk rock album in the 21st century. Raw, aggressive and rebellious through its lyrics and instrumentals without relying on muddy and unfinished production to give an illusion of authenticity. Now with Joy as an Act of Resistance they further develop the same sound and themes, but instead of fuelling the energy purely through anger and alienation from the world around them, they now add joy and passion to the mix. Underneath they maintain similar themes as on Brutalism, the lyrics mostly deal with feeling like a disappointment and a waste of space resulting from failing to satisfy the expectations placed by parents and society as a whole, “I am my father’s son, His shadow weighs a tonne” on Colossus or “I’m minimum wage job, I am a mongrel dog, I’m just another cunt, I’m scum, I’m scum, yeah” on I’m Scum. IDLES wants you to not internalize this feeling and blame yourself, but turn it around and use it to raise solidarity with people in the same position, overtip the waitress, tell your friends to love themselves and don’t deny yourself the opportunity to have fun. You’re not alone, we’re all in this together.
4. Daughters – You Won’t Get What You Want
If you hang around online music forums that have noise rock fans, there’s next to no chance you have missed this. It’s one of the most rage fueled albums I have listened to, it’s like finding yourself in a dungeon with an old man whose been locked in there for decades and him using the opportunity to release all the anger and discontent he has gathered onto you. The title itself isn’t a personal life lesson, it’s a prophecy for us, the listeners, or a wake up call for us to reevaluate what we seek from life. While it may seem pretentious or egoistical to lash out at the world in such a way, making this sort of record takes a lot of vulnerability and honesty. They’re not making this to receive critical praise, they just want people to listen. And for a noise record, oh boy, it is fun to listen to, “The Reason They Hate Me” is almost danceable, “Satan in The Wait” has beautiful melodic moments and “Less Sex” is the grooviest noise track I’ve heard. Even if you’re not a fan of harsh and industrial music, there’s plenty of reasons to give this album a chance.
3. Yves Tumor – Safe in the Hands of Love
One of the biggest surprises of this year, I had no idea what I was going into and immediately fell in love. One of the most interesting albums this year, it has noise, drones, jazz, psychedelia, trip hop, R&B, IDM, everything you could wish for. Licking an Orchid has a fantastic and addicting guitar riff, Honesty sounds like a borderline dance track, Let The Lioness in You Flow Free displays a fantastic use of noise to form a melody, there’s a lot to explore on this album. The sound at times is abstract yet warm and comforting, listening to this album feels like its title. Yet underneath the warmth, there are hints of paranoia and fear. It’s fitting with the lyrics that mostly deal with the desire for the comforts and love in a relationship intermingled with the insecurities and worries of everything that can go wrong.
2. Low – Double Negative
This album is a memory, a memory of your relationships, a memory of your life, a memory of your favourite album. On my first listen it felt cold and distant yet eerily familiar, and when it ended I had trouble remembering how exactly it sounded. On each subsequent listen it’s like I’m remembering it as it progresses. Beautiful use of digital effects commonly used in ambient music distort the underlying pop tracks into something that’s hard to describe with words, at times the vocals disintegrate and become the static texture accompanying them. It feels like there’s some invisible barrier separating you from the music and it’s trying its best to break through to you. The opening of Dancing and Blood is a straight up earthquake. There’s not much else I have to say, besides telling you to listen to it.
1. Against All Logic – 2012 – 2017
Against All Logic is an alias of Nicolas Jaar, a Chilean-American electronic musician known for being widely experimental with the sound of house. His previous releases like Space is Only Noise are generous with their choice in samples from which he built rich and interesting soundscapes, voices of children playing outside, the sound of water flowing, there’s nothing he wasn’t ready to utilize. But in 2012-2017 Jaar seems to have placed strict constraints on himself to create a classic deep house record. He digs up funk and soul samples that served as the backbone of early house and dresses them up in modern production. He plays around with the textures of the samples in a way that wasn’t possible before, creating some fantastic moments like the way the vocal sample breaks apart at the end of “You Are Going to Love Me and Scream”. On the surface the songs are fun, groovy and catchy, but Jaar demonstrates great amount of care put into small details. For someone willing to dip their toes in house this is a great introductory album and a must-listen for any fan of electronic music.