Wednesday, December 19, 2018

18 for 2018: My Favorite (Mostly) Indie Music Releases of the Year

Why do we make lists? Why do we rank things that are 100% subjective? Why am I writing this article?

It would take too long to answer the first two questions, but the third one is easy. I hear music that I enjoy, and I like it when other people discover that music through my recommendations. So, as I often do as the year dwindles to an end, here are 18 music releases that I enjoyed over the course of 2018. Most of them would be classified as "indie" music, aka music that was released independently of large record labels and didn't get much attention beyond the underground music scene. No single genre is favored, though I'm kind of a rock guy (as opposed to hip hop or country or polka or whatever). I tend to like stuff that gets lumped into the "alternative" category, though the only meaning of that word seems to be "stuff that you almost certainly won't hear on pop radio". It ranges from fairly straightforward indie rock to super experimental stuff. I've included a song sample for each release, though it would behoove you -- assuming you enjoy the sample tune -- to check out the full albums if possible, all of which were released in 2018.

Anyway, enjoy. Note: these are presented in alphabetical order only; the whole "ranking of art thing" irks me.

Beak>: > > >

Invada Records/Temporary Residence

Yes, their name is Beak>. Yes, their album title is the rather unsearchable > > >. They're a Bristol, UK-based band that includes a member of Portishead, and like most of the music I enjoy, they're weird (or at least their sounds are weird; I know nothing about them personally). The song "Brean Down" had an immediate appeal to me when it was released in July. I don't know how to classify it genre-wise, and perhaps that's for the best.

The Bevis Frond: We’re Your Friends, Man

Fire Records

So, this is kind of funny, I guess. While perusing new music with Christina one morning, I came upon this release by a London-based band called The Bevis Frond. I'd never heard of them before and initially assumed they were a new artist. Then I started doing a little research and discovered that their origins go all the way back to the late '60s. This band that I thought was new is literally older than me. As my friend Jim said when I professed my discovery of them, "Damn Zak... welcome to 1988!" Anyway, their new album that was release just a couple of weeks ago is absolutely great, and I want to be sure that more people don't do what I did, which was to sleep on their excellent band.

Childish Gambino: “This Is America”


This would not be an indie release, or an album like the other items on this list. I mean, it's pretty much the opposite; it has four Grammy nominations including song and record of the year. No, it's on this list simply because this would be an Important Fucking Song, a single that a huge impact and will be remembered as one of the most defining songs of 2018. As of the moment, this video has 445,809,752 views on YouTube, but its importance isn't really about its popularity. It was back in May, when 'Bino's alter-ego Donald Glover did double duty as the host and musical guest on SNL, and simultaneously released this song that addresses aspects of being black and dealing with gun violence in the USA, and the message of "This Is America" was widespread and eye-opening for a wide swath of the population going far beyond the hip hop community. The video itself is a work of art on its own, directed by Hiro Murai, and it's unthinkable that I'd put out a year-end list and leave this off. By the way, the song is also great on its own.

Dungen + Woods: Myths 003

Mexican Summer

I've enjoyed the music of Dungen, a Swedish psychedelic folk band for quite awhile. I'd appreciated the work of Brooklyn-based folk rockers Woods, though never considered myself a huge fan. But this album where the two like-minded groups got together was like putting chocolate with peanut butter and creating a delicious and sweet musical snack. The two bands are label mates and friends, and knocked out this album in a week while both bands were in Marfa, TX for a festival. I like it.

Hanterhir: The Saving of Caden

Easy Action

Hantehir is another UK-based psych folk band -- I mean, these lists are deeply influenced by the individual tastes of the list makers, right? -- and I enjoyed them from the moment I heard them when this album was released in June. This release takes the extra step of being a 21-song concept album in both English and Cornish. I genuinely don't know as much as I should about Cornwall or any Celtic ethnic groups. It all seems very interesting, and the album's theme -- a boy who tries to drown himself in a lake but is saved by a cursed spirit -- is pretty geektacular. The music is adventurous, the band has a story to tell, and it doesn't sound like anything but itself. What's not to like?

Sean Henry: Fink

Double Double Whammy

Every year, I stumble onto some guy with a somewhat bizarre voice and an interesting sound... think Connan Mockasin or Jib Kidder. I really enjoy what Sean does on Fink. It's fuzzy guitar-driven but also soft; it throws in some odd time signatures while remaining poppy; it has ambivalence of being simultaneously silly and sad. This is his debut studio album, and I'd like to think he'll continue to mature as an artist (and hope that said growth doesn't cause him to lose the vibe that he offers on this album). Here's something odd; for whatever reason, I don't find Fink to be particularly likable, but I do find it relatable, which probably says more about me than it does about the album.

Julia Holter: Aviary

Domino Recording Company

I said up top that I wasn't going to rank the releases on this list. That having been said, Aviary by Julia Holter is one of the most amazing and unique musical listening experiences of my life. It's so good that I almost can't listen to it. Hearing what a true modern avant-garde artist can do can be slightly depressing for me, as I inevitably compare my level of talent and musical adventurousness to hers. But every track on this double album is mind-blowingly beautiful and lush, and it certainly qualifies as one of the best of 2018. I'm definitely not alone in this opinion; Aviary made many year-end best-of lists, and Julia deserves every possible accolade she gets from this album and everything else she does.

Jo Passed: Their Prime

Sub Pop

My enjoyment of bands that don't try too hard (or at all) to pretty-up their sounds has been around for a long time, going back to Sonic Youth, the Pixies, and many others. Their Prime is the debut album of Jo Passed, a band from Vancouver. Its sounds are ambitious while remaining grungy, making them rather classically appropriate for their label Sub Pop. I found it genuinely enjoyable, though if I had to pare down this list by one, this would probably be the album on the chopping block. Sorry kids. Still good, though!

Adrianne Lenker: abysskiss

Saddle Creek

Here's another example of how not to overthink an album. Adrianne Lenker recorded abysskiss in a week or so, and it's sweet and pastoral, with really well-performed acoustic guitar. I like the sparse production that allows the song to be the star. I am not familiar with Adrianne's band Big Thief, but I certainly intend on checking out their albums after having discovered her first solo piece when it was released in October. Really nice, contemporary yet timeless singer-songwriter stuff here.

The Love Language: Baby Grand

Merge Records

It's funny; I have an entire mental category of music that I call "KCRW music". KCRW is our local NPR affiliate here in the Los Angeles area, and they are definitely one of the most highly influential radio stations in the world for breaking new music. That having been said, there is a particular vibe that seems to cross over regardless of which DJ is spinning records, and The Love Language's Baby Grand definitely has that semi-indescribable vibe. Bubbly synths meet textured guitars and great lyrics. I can't help but like it.

Metric: Art of Doubt

Metric Music International

The second Canadian band on this year's list, Metric's Art of Doubt is perhaps the most straightforward rock band I've chosen to highlight for 2018. Reminiscent of other great female-fronted rock/pop crossovers like Blondie and Garbage, I've always enjoyed the band, but there are certain aspects of darkness ni the album's songwriting and production that I was drawn to for this release. That, and Emily Haines just sounds fucking great. Enough said.

Mitski: Be The Cowboy

Dead Oceans

I usually prefer to feature artists on my year-end lists that the majority of people have yet to discover. That may still be the case with Mitski, but in my musical circles, this album was toward the top of just about every "best albums of 2018" list. Like, just about everywhere from Pitchfork (#1) to Paste (#6) to Consequence of Sound (#1) to... well, you get the idea. Something that matters only to me: I discovered Mitski's music in 2016, when my band They Stole My Crayon released our debut which did fairly well, and I was looking at other releases at the time that were also getting noticed via Bandcamp, and her previous album Puberty 2 was up there on the charts. I liked her then, but I was not prepared for Be The Cowboy, which is one of the most impressive collections of indie rock music I've heard in a long time.

Mount Eerie: Now Only

P.W. Elverum & Sun

The story of Phil Elverum and Mount Eerie goes back aways. He was the frontman and main songwriter for the Microphones starting in the '90s, and switched the name of the band to Mount Eerie in the early 2000s. I've enjoyed his stuff off and on for quite awhile, but Now Only is a masterful collection of singer-songwriter tunes, full of acoustic beauty and vulnerability. It's a sad album, but it doesn't dwell too deeply in its melancholy vibe. A great album for a rainy day and feelings of introspection.

Jeff Tweedy: Warm

dBpm Records

"Warm" is a good description of Jeff Tweedy himself, as well as the happy familiarity of his voice after many years of enjoying him in Wilco and Uncle Tupelo. I enjoyed the hell out of Sukierae, the album he did with his son Spencer in 2014. Warm, his first solo album of entirely new material, is apparently a companion piece to Jeff's recently-released memoir that I haven't gotten around to reading yet (but will). I can imagine sitting on a patio of a rented cabin in Joshua Tree on a spring day and putting this album on and eating nachos while watching lizards scurrying by. I may do exactly this at the next opportunity.

Kurt Vile: Bottle It In


This is, perhaps, the only artist/band on this year's list of whom I've been a massive fanboy at an embarrassing level for a long, long time. As a performer, I've covered Kurt far more than any other indie artist, to the point that there are probably hundreds of people who could sing along with songs like "Never Run Away", "Shame Chamber", and "Pretty Pimpin" who have never heard Kurt's versions of those tunes... just mine. You're welcome, buddy. Also, I adored Kurt's 2017 Lotta Sea Lice collaboration with Courtney Barnett, and we saw them do that album live last year, which was awesome. I always get a bit nervous that the artists who I really enjoy are going to fuck things up out of boredom or bad influence, but Bottle It In is exactly what I was expecting from a new KV album. It's totally enjoyable and laid back, and continues to show that when you have artists who are driven by the same sounds that drive you, nothing but good things happen.

Kamasi Washington: Heaven and Earth

Young Turks

I was a somewhat early passenger on the Kamasi Washington train, having taken notice of him as a sideman on albums by Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus before he released his label debut album The Epic in 2015. I first heard some of the material for Heaven and Earth while watching the live stream from Coachella last spring, and knew that this was going to be something special. At this point, I have a slight amount of that silly hipster resentment, with a bunch of people in both the jazz and pop worlds suddenly finding out about this guy (and trust me, this album is on many of the world's "best of" lists at this point). But there's no denying his special skills as a writer and, above all, a performer on the tenor sax who will be regarded as one of the innovators of jazz for years to come.

Erika Wennerstrom: Sweet Unknown

Partisan Records

Here's a case -- it happens sometimes -- where someone comes out of a band I'd never heard of, but I get totally into that person's solo material. Apparently, Erika Wennerstrom was in a band out of Cincinnati called Heartless Bastards (whom I should probably check out retroactively), and did this solo album, her first, during a hiatus. It was released in March, and I love it. I love her songs, I love the guitar tones, I love the organic vibe... but most of all, I fucking love her voice. The songs aren't particularly challenging to listen to, but that's cool. I'd put this on and drive through the desert in the late afternoon as the shadows grow long and the sun dips down over the rocky horizon.

Yawning Man: The Revolt Against Tired Noises

Heavy Psych Sounds

To have any clue about Yawning Man, you first have to familiarize yourself with an entire scene of music that is called either Desert Rock or Stoner Rock. Tons of bands that came from that scene or were influenced by it, like Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age, Fu Manchu and many more, were first inspired by Yawning Man. Here's the weird thing about them: they were playing at generator parties in the SoCal desert going back to the mid-'80s and were a great live band, but never put out a studio album until 2005. We got to see Yawning Man's frontman, Mario Lalli, as part of his other band Fatso Jetson at Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown a few years back, and it was a remarkable experience. Anyway, The Revolt Against Tired Noises is a case where the album title lives up to its name. Plus, it includes "Catamaran", a song that Kyuss covered and released in 1995, and has only previously been available by Yawning Man on nearly unlistenable noisy cassette tapes. Hallelujah!

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