Well, here we are at the end of another year. This was a momentous year for me as I crossed the threshold into thirty-dom. It was fairly recent and I still haven’t quite recovered from it, which is probably why I have been mulling around in mid-life existential dread ever since (although, I did knock out a good chunk of the Harry Potter marathon on USA).
But as I review my favorite albums of the past year, I’m constantly encountering this theme of change and redefinition. And maybe that’s what’s great about music. If it’s possible to evolve and grow musically, maybe that means the same is possible for each one of us personally. Here’s to new futures. Here’s my list of my favorite albums from the past year.
Wait for Love – Pianos Become the Teeth (February 15, 2018; Epitaph Records)
With their latest release, Wait For Love, Pianos Become the Teeth continue the trajectory they started with their previous release Keep You, but blend the emotion of the previous release with some rediscovered energy and newfound optimism. Whereas one felt the need to sit and ruminate while marinating in the songs of Keep You, one might be more inclined to move their feet to their latest offering.
10. There is a Presence Here – Many Rooms (April 13, 2018; Other People Records)
Brianna Hunt is bound to draw numerous comparisons to Julien Baker. Both artists were birthed out of the Nashville Emo scene and both now play intimate indie rock. And as far as the comparisons go, so should the accolades. With her debut full length, There is a Presence Here, Hunt employs lo-fi analog-esque recordings to fill out one of the most vulnerable and introspective albums of this past year. Every whisper draws you further down into her ponderings on God and redemption.
9. Erase Me – Underoath (April 6, 2018; Fearless Records)
Make no mistake, Underoath is BACK. With renewed friendships and renewed focus, the band has crafted their most accessible AND aggressive albums. Chartering a course through sleek post-hardcore similar to Project 86, I found myself tapping my foot as much as banging my head.
Listen to my interview with keyboardist Chris Dudley on episode 2 of Middle of the Dial here.
8. Multisensory Aesthetic Experience – Mae (November 30, 2018; Tooth and Nail Records)
For anyone who is marginally familiar with the band Mae, they should recognize the title of their latest album as the meaning to the band’s name. So it should make one sit down and seriously consider the ambition on this release. The band fully accomplish their vision by treating the listener to a vast array of sounds and melodies that tow the listener from emotion to emotion. The result is one of their most cinematic of albums.
7. Pilot – Hot Mulligan (March 23, 2018; No Sleep Records)
When lead singer Tades Sanville sings “So scaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrreedddddd” at the beginning of “How Do You Know It’s Not Armadillo Shells?”, oooooof, I felt that. The truth is I jammed the aforementioned song an inordinate amount of times before actually checking out the whole album. And it turns out with Pilot, Hot Mulligan are continuing that brand of heart-on-your-sleeve emo rock that is perfect for reminiscing on simpler times in your friends’ basements.
6. Saved – Now, Now (May 18, 2018; Trans Records)
a NPR Tinydesk Session MY WONDERFUL AND AMAZING COLLEAGUE LAUREN HEIMBAUGH (EVERYONE GO FOLLOW HER ON TWITTER SHES SUPES FUNNY) for me to finally check out these indie darlings after which I found myself grateful that I did and angry that I hadn’t earlier. Saved marks a departure for them as well, as they trade in distorted guitars and crashing cymbals for electronic samples and drum pads. The result is an album that flashes back to the 80’s and 90’s when electro-pop reigned supreme. And frontwoman Cacie Dalager can more than hold her own against the queens of that era, as her calm vocals elicit a barrage of feelings in the listener.
Top 5 Albums of 2018
Last year’s release of Big Fish Theory put this man on my radar, but I almost missed his third full length as it dropped with no promotion. And after coming off a crowd fundraising campaign where he promised to retire if it raised 2 million dollars, one would think at first glance a release that comes in at a meager twenty-two minutes would be a swan song. Instead, FM! is an aerodynamic addition to Staple’s discography that again aims to depict the horrors and struggles of gang life and poverty in his hometown of Long Beach, California. Only catch here is it’s presented in the format of a drivetime radio show, where each song transitions seamlessly into the next. The juxtaposition of the absolute killer beats and sleek production by producer Kenny Beats with Staples’ drab and pessimistic lyricism make for a compelling illustration and poignant statement that transport the listener to his hometown.
If anyone ever tells you that good music or art can’t be simple and straightforward and meaningful simultaneously, roll your eyes at them or drop kick them in the face (or both). On This Will Haunt Me Dollar Signs play fast, fun punk in the vein of Jeff Rosenstock while exorcizing the typical adulthood demons of never realizing your artistic dreams and how that annoying, creepy dude at work won’t leave you alone. But beneath some tongue in cheek self-deprecation, as well as some actual self-deprecation, come some powerful realizations of what can get us all through this.
Check out my full review of This Will Haunt Me here.
Listen to my interview with frontman Erik Buttons here.
It was a running theme on the episode of Middle of the Dial that Grant would mention a band/artist that I’ve heard of that I never took the time to actually investigate. Luckily this was not the case with Foxing’s latest album. When they dropped their first single “Slapstick”, I spent a good portion of my summer road trips listening to Dealer and The Albatross (well, the rest of The Albatross if you count my gazillion streams of “Rory”). I needed to make sure that I was fully prepared and had the whole context of the band before Nearer My God dropped. How naive was I to think that I would be ready for this band’s third album? Whatever formula of post-rock tinged emo melodies the band arguably embraced was all but nearly abandoned for pure rapturous explosiveness. And all those space-themed music videos aren’t simply just for show. Foxing’s music always had an expansive quality to it, but Nearer My God is almost galactic in its altitude and ambiance. This is also singer Conor Murphy at the height of his vocal powers. Just the sound of his croon will lead to you dancing carelessly like him while the pitch of his screech will cause you to thrash about like a demoniac. Safe to say this album will be remembered as another career-defining third album for a band that is about to blow up.
Canada’s best emcee (yah, you heard me right) returns from various journalistic endeavors to show that he’s still got it. And guess what: he’s still freakin’ got it. And while Shad’s lyricism has always been top shelf, he reaches even higher by penning a concept album about the human condition and its role in the various struggles present in our society told through the metaphor of a dystopian causing conflict and the parties/factions affected. One might think that a lyrical breakdown of societal injustice and analysis of human nature might become burdensome or tired coming from this academic conscious rapper (“Master P with his master’s thesis” as he puts it), but A Short Story About a War shines by embracing Shad’s affinity for a variety of beats and samples. He is just as adept with his flows over jazz backed songs like “The Fool Pt. 2 (Water)” as when he’s spitting fire on top of aggressive electronic samples like on “The Stone Throwers (Gone in a Blink)” or “Peace/War”. Long gone are the days of rapping comically about living at home with his folks. He is emboldened and passionate, evident when he says “Y’all are light work / This my life’s work / I don’t write verses / I’m talkin’ right versus wrong / There’s a fight goin’ on / Tryin’ to find the right purpose”. He is an urgent emissary from a different land with a potentially critical answer to the present conflict. And the answer is “What are you afraid of?”
Listen, any year where Brian Fallon releases music is going to be a tough year for anyone else to crack my top albums. I guess maybe I should aim more for journalistic objectivity or something in my critical analysis of music, but honestly, I really don’t care. Brian Fallon continues to cement himself as not only one of the best songwriters of our time but one of the most authentic. And listen, I was initially scared when he released his first single “Forget Me Not”. My ornery, rigid self that hates any iota of change immediately thought “Where’s this poppiness coming from? This is too different! Why is he changing?! This is a label executive’s doing! What’s with all the England references? What happened to Maria?” But then I begrudgingly removed the stick from my underside and found myself dancing along with everyone else to the sock hop jam. And while people might find similarities between Sleepwalkers and The 59’ Sound (Ted Hutt can be found behind the boards of both this and the seminal Gaslight Anthem record), from the opening electric organ chords of “If Your Prayers Don’t Get To Heaven” one knows it’s going to be musically diverse record for Fallon. Sure, some of the jazzier moments hearken back to the American Slang era, but did you really expect to hear saxophone and trumpet on a Fallon record anytime soon? The presence of both on the title track makes it the perfect soundtrack for a jaunt through the French Quarter. The distinct jazz and blues influence on several songs perhaps comes from recording in New Orleans, but Fallon still embraces the heartland sounds of the Jersey boardwalk that he gained fame for, like on “My Name Is The Night (Color Me Black)”.
Music aside, the prevailing aspect of any Fallon project has always been his authenticity. Lyrical themes of companionship and doubt and hope abound on this record, but similar to Painkillers, they’re sung with much more optimism. On “Little Nightmares” he sings in the chorus “little nightmares keep telling me you’ll go” before singing in the bridge “Don’t you know there’s an ocean of hope underneath the grey sky where you’re dreaming…We can cry together through the bad dreams”. The entire album in this way feels like a conversation between two people, each confessing their struggles and the other giving a reassuring and encouraging word. And perhaps this is a conversation with an actual person, or maybe this acts as a conversation between Fallon and the listener. Fallon has said his goal is building that connection between himself and the audience. Here he is not simply confessing his demons, or moving on from them, but creating a space where artist and audience can move on together. His songs become rehabilitative in a communal sense, probably the greatest accomplishment a musical artist could achieve.
So, yes, things are kinda different. Maria is gone, and Lily has entered the scene. Angel Station has been tagged in for the Jersey Boardwalk. But the core remains the same: heartfelt lyrics about pain and redemption. I personally hope that maybe when you listen to this album, you can find a way to expel your own struggles and find the courage and community to move beyond them in the new year. Here’s to growth. I’ll see you on the other side.
Read my review about Brian Fallon’s show at The Old Rock House in St. Louis here.
Check out Grant’s favorite music from the past year here.
Listen to both my most played and selections from the previously mentioned albums below.
Follow me on Twitter at @anotherrahulJ, and follow my cohorts as well at @bewareoftrees, @thegrigsbybear, @5dollarwrench, and @zacoldenburg.
…also follow us on Twitter at @middleofrow
…and be sure to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or listen here at www.middleofrow.com.
Happy New Year!