Five Overlooked Albums of 2018
It's the last week before Christmas, which means most music is done coming out for the year, and we're fully immersed in Best of 2018 mode. BrooklynVegan has a Top 50 and other best-of lists coming very, very soon, but meanwhile, the end of the year is also a good time to look back on some worthy music that may have passed you by, that may not necessarily be the popular "best" albums. I review five albums a week for my Notable Releases column, and of course I still miss tons of stuff. To make up for some stuff I missed, here's five overlooked albums of 2018.
Inclusion on this list doesn't necessarily mean the album was "overlooked" across the board -- all of these albums have gotten acclaim in certain circles -- it just means that we want to give them more attention than we have. None of these albums have been reviewed or discussed on BrooklynVegan previously. They might not be the most overlooked albums of 2018 (whatever that means), but they’re all albums that passed me by during this very busy year and that I’m strongly recommending now.
Check out my picks below, and let us know in the comments what albums you thought were overlooked this year. Happy holidays and see you next year!
Colin Self first came to prominence as a member of the drag collective Chez Deep and a collaborator of Holly Herndon. He returned in 2018 with his sophomore album Siblings, a massive-sounding album of dance music, experimental pop, and ruminations on queer relationships that tops his already-impressive 2015 debut. The most striking thing about Siblings is how powerful Colin's voice is. It's operatic and choir-like but still firmly in the realm of modern pop. Colin's voice could instantly fill any room, no matter how large, and it's not like much else out there. I've read comparisons to everything from Perfume Genius to Enya, both of which share some common ground with Colin but neither of which truly sound like him. And the sound of his voice only becomes more powerful once you realize what he's singing about. It's a concept album inspired by feminist scholar Donna Haraway, and as Colin puts it in an interview with NYLON, topics range from "Whose stories are told, whose get heard, whose determine our lived experience?" ("Story") to "the reality that we don’t have news stories talking about collective resistance, or care, or community organizing, because these stories, which are happening all the time, aren’t seen as important as a bomb threat" ("Foresight"). And as an overarching theme: "Queer relationships are at the core of this record and what drew these songs together." As powerful as Colin's voice is, it's underselling this album to talk about it only as a vocal-oriented pop album. There's also the beatwork of songs like "Stay with the Trouble (For Donna)" and "Transitions," which rank among the most forceful and heady dance music of the year. And the production on the less danceable songs is very inventive too. Colin tackles everything from blissful ambience to chaotic glitch. As a producer, he's up there with Arca or Oneohtrix Point Never or any of the other warped minds shaping the future of electronic music and pop. He squeezes a lot into one album, and if it ever becomes taxing to try to consume it all at once, well, that's probably just a taste of the struggle that inspired him to make it.
What's more modern than a female rockstar? That's the question Cleveland punks The Sonder Bombs ask on the track "Title" (not the title track) of their attention-grabbingly-named debut album MODERN FEMALE ROCKSTAR, and in 2018, it's a great point. We deservingly see more and more articles about women dominating rock, we see more and more women deservingly dominating year-end lists, and there seems to be some improvement but we still sadly don't see enough women on package tours and festival lineups. Camp Cope (who The Sonder Bombs sometimes remind me of) sang about this on their killer 2018 album opener "The Opener" and The Sonder Bombs open up "Title" on a similar note: "I don't wanna be your merch girl / I wanna be your goddamn idol." With a modern feminist punk spirit and hooks that sound like RIOT!-era Paramore, it's a powerful, super catchy sentiment and it makes me want to listen to this band over and over. "Title" is a clear standout, but the other eight songs on MODERN FEMALE ROCKSTAR are just about as great. They're not just lyrically powerful and stuffed with great choruses; there's some really interesting instrumentation going on here too. The drummer is a beast (listen to things get kinda metal at the end of "Title"), and The Sonder Bombs manage to pull off an album of punk (or pop punk) songs that make prominent use of ukulele. It works out surprisingly well (even on the 30-second skate-punk fury of "Shoot 2 Kill") and it adds a big, warm texture that you rarely hear in music like this. Singer Willow Hawks can do a lot with her voice -- she goes from a pop punk snarl to a tamer indie rock sound to an unbridled roar that sometimes sounds like Hop Along's Frances Quinlan (like on "Wild"). And the album ends with the powerful ballad "Twinkle Lights," which brings in some piano and sees Willow singing about assault with the kind of frank, unfiltered lyricism that will leave you chilled to the bone.
After Swedish band Totem Skin came to an end, guitarist Chris Öster turned his attention to his one-man band Dödsrit, who released their second album Spirit Crusher in 2018. And if you like your metal ass-kicking but also absurdly catchy, I can’t recommend these four lengthy songs enough. Spirit Crusher is part black metal, part crust punk, part post-metal, part melodeath, and it reminds of stuff like the latter-day material by fellow Swedes Martyrdöd or the sadly defunct US band Nux Vomica. Like those bands, it's blackened but bright. The production isn't over-polished, but it's clean enough to really let Öster's orchestra of guitars soar through the mix. It's the kind of record where you'll probably find yourself humming along to the riffs before you start learning the lyrics, though it shouldn't go overlooked that Öster is a master screamer with a knack for a metallic shriek and a hardcore punk shout. (And if you can even understand the lyrics, apparently Öster is singing about his distaste for the rise of fascism in Sweden on at least one of these songs.) The album has pummeling breakneck-speed crust punk one minute, and towering, epic, Neurosis-style post-metal the next. There's so much to like here, and not once during its 45-minute-ish running time does Spirit Crusher let up on the intensity.
P.S. This album, along with 14 other metal releases I recommend, also appears on my Best Metal list over at IO.
New, innovative jazz music existed before Kendrick Lamar's 2015 jazz-rap odyssey To Pimp A Butterfly and the subsequent crossover success of Kamasi Washington, but the thirst for it has been increasingly widespread since then. And as legendary disc jockey and Acid Jazz founder Gilles Peterson would agree, a lot of the best modern jazz is coming from the UK. "Wherever I’m travelling, whether it’s in the States, Argentina, Japan, or all over Europe, everyone is talking to me about the British invasion," Peterson told The Guardian earlier this year. "I’ve had people talking about Courtney Pine and Steve Williamson in slightly hushed tones, but I’ve never had this before. They feel this is a very important movement." Having already helped popularize acid jazz, Peterson is now on track to help popularize the new wave of British jazz, which -- like Kendrick Lamar and Kamasi Washington -- tends to cross over with audiences of modern hip hop and electronic music. This year, he put out the We Out Here compilation on his Bronswood label, and it's basically a who's who of the current UK jazz scene: Maisha, Ezra Collective, Moses Boyd, Theon Cross, Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings (of Sons of Kemet), Triforce, Joe Armon-Jones (of Ezra Collective), and Kokoroko. With just one track by each of the nine artists, it's a perfect primer for anyone who might not normally be immersed in modern, forward-thinking jazz and wants to learn more. Each song is great, and while the compilation is sequenced in such a way where it plays like an album, each artist's distinct approach comes through loud and clear.
It opens on a shimmering, psychedelic note with Maisha's "Inside The Acorn." It's a perfect way to gradually introduce the comp and a highlight for anyone whose tastes lean in the trippy and atmospheric direction. Next is one of the major standouts, Ezra Collective's "Pure Shade." Having also released a song with Jorja Smith this year, they especially seem primed to breakout amongst hip hop audiences, and "Pure Shade" is another great taste of their crossover appeal -- I like it even more than their 2017 EP Juan Pablo: The Philosopher and I can't wait to see where they head next. With a bassline that sorta sounds like "A Love Supreme" keeping things grounded, "Pure Shade" goes off in all kinds of delightfully unexpected directions, but always returns to a memorable horn hook before things go too far into outer space. Maybe even better than that Ezra Collective track is the track from Ezra Collective co-founder Joe Armon-Jones, "Go See." Armon-Jones also released a must-hear 2018 album (Starting Today), and like the songs on that album, "Go See" is chilled-out and trippy and locks into a groove that would be perfect for someone like Kendrick or Noname to rap over. And Armon-Jones' keys are just sublime.
For something that really shares common ground with hip hop beats, there's drummer Moses Boyd's "The Balance." The guy's a master behind the kit, and he offers up neck-snapping rhythms that drive this song home. Theon Cross makes his tuba sound like a fat, thumping synth-bass on "Brockley." Saxophonist Nubya Garcia (who also caught my ear on "Suite Haus" off this year's killer Makaya McCraven album) delivers a stunning, fluttering performance on "Once." Shakaba Hutchings (who's also on that Makaya McCraven album but even more famous as the leader of Sons of Kemet) offers up "Black Skin, Black Masks," which is a little more laid back and rounder around the edges than Sons of Kemet's Afrobeat-inspired jazz, and it fits the vibe of this comp even better than Sons of Kemet would. Triforce's "Walls" starts off in '70s jazz-fusion territory with its wailing electric guitars, but it does a 180 when it becomes the kind of reverby, downtempo soundscape that you could picture SZA singing over. And just as the album opened on the perfect opening note, it closes on the perfect closing note with Kokoroko's "Abusey Junction." After a collection of songs that went in all kinds of heady, complex directions, "Abusey Junction" is the perfect comedown. It's a laid-back tropical jam that sounds like the sonic equivalent of swaying in the warm wind, and the "wahoooooo"s that come in at the end are the perfect send-off.
Glasgow singer/songwriter Kathryn Joseph's sophomore album From When I Wake The Want Is already seems like it's gotten a lot of love in her home country and in the UK, but it seems slower to catch on here in the US and I hope that changes soon. She's a one-of-a-kind songwriter and she's got an absolutely stunning voice. It reminds me (and many, many other people who have written about her music) of Joanna Newsom, though Kathryn herself says she was never familiar and doesn't hear it (she instead cites Tori Amos, Bjork, and PJ Harvey as major influences, and fans of those artists will probably like Kathryn's music too). But whether or not you think her voice sounds like Joanna Newsom, her instrumentation certainly doesn't. Kathryn writes atmospheric piano ballads (which is where you can really hear the Tori Amos influence), where her notes trail off into the distance as swirls of natural reverb take over. It's not the kind of music that grabs you immediately; you may have to listen to it a few times for Kathryn's unique talent to really become apparent, but once it does, you're hooked. Like a lot of other albums you might call "growers," From When I Wake The Want Is can function as "background music" -- something you might like to work or read or fall asleep to -- until one day it's the exact opposite. When I listen to it now, I find myself getting sucked in to Kathryn's weird, witchy musical world and too frozen to escape if I tried (in a good way). It's pleasant on the surface, but has a dark, gripping core that only reveals itself later on.