Here’s the generic opening sentence where I mention that 2018 was another fantastic year for music and that I listened to more new stuff than ever before.
That’s technically true.
Here’s a more honest opening: 2018 was both a little bit underwhelming for new music (2017 was a lot better) and a scattered year for my listening habits. My hierarchy of audio consumption over the past calendar year was something like: 1) sports podcasts; 2) old jazz, as two friends and I sought to explore the 52 [now 54] sub-genres listed on Wikipedia in 52 weeks; 3) extended loops of the Persona 5 soundtrack, especially this ten-hour cut of “Beneath the Mask” that I probably listened to more than I played the actual game; 4) new music from 2018.
Nothing released this year cracks my all-time album hall of fame, as was the case in 2016 and 2014. Seems like there’s something about even years lately. And as with every year, critical consensus has tended to overrate some fairly mediocre releases while overlooking the more exciting underbelly of the musical world. I will say, however, that I have been impressed with my survey of lists this year; many of the albums I would (and will below) hail as underrated gems have gotten at least a modicum of recognition. It’s been a banner year for underground metal especially. Heck, I released an album, and even that found its way onto one major-site critic’s year-end list! But I always love doing my part to highlight those lesser-respected works of art, so I hope you enjoy my 40 favourite releases.
One quick detour before we begin: two releases from 2017 deserve a mention. One is We Pyrrhic Conquerors’s album The End Is Nigh, a solo zeuhl project that makes heavy use of samples to create a massive and richly layered orchestral sound. I reviewed it at length early in the year, and it would have been in contention for this list had it not been sneakily released on December 31 of last year. Second is Layma Azur’s Zeii, a mind-boggling post-everything masterpiece that sounds like an alternate-timeline evolution of Kayo Dot’s Coyote era, and would have probably been a top-5 album of 2017 had I known it existed. Now, on to the present!
40 – 21: The Good Stuff™
40. Louis Cole – Time
A musical genius for the YouTube generation, Knower mastermind Louis Cole splits the difference between Jacob Collier’s theory nerdery and Bill Wurtz’s intelligent silliness. Cole shares his prodigious talent in the goofiest, least serious possible ways. Time is at its best when leaning into its manic funky energy, but suffers from a few too many traditional, balladesque interludes interrupting that flow.
39. Dirge – Lost Empyrean
Every year I say “post-metal has been dead for years”, and every year one or two albums prove to me that there are still seeds of life. Dirge offers dense, meaty sludge riffs backed up by outstanding production and occasional electronic overlays. Memorable sections like the climax of “The Burden of Almost” or the title track’s groove make this a worthwhile addition to the dormant smoulder of the genre.
38. The Lion’s Daughter – Future Cult
After a fairly solid showing with 2016’s Existence Is Horror, The Lion’s Daughter could have easily slid into a generic pool of soundalikes. Instead, they took a left turn into weirdness by featuring synth as the lead instrument on a vicious blackened sludge album. Far from just another record on the pile of experimental heaviness, Future Cult grabs you by the throat and demands to be heard.
37. Laudare – d.é.o.m.é.
A beautifully woven tapestry of blackened post-hardcore, d.é.o.m.é. combines threads of emotive aggression reminiscent of Oathbreaker with intricate acoustic sections, and sometimes merges the two in unexpected ways as in the mesmerizing “… And Coherence”. Harsh vocals carry the music through all its meanderings, which opens space for the instrumentation to tense and release, suspend and resolve with unorthodox unpredictability.
36. Azusa – Heavy Yoke
I’ve been a massive Extol fan since I first started listening to metal nearly two decades ago. The band has splintered and reformed into a number of projects since their heyday; Azusa is the latest, featuring original guitarist Christer Espevoll and drummer David Husvik. Their sound has not lost a step since the Synergy era, yet is evolved and modernized thanks to Eleni Zafiriadou’s ability to fluctuate between thrash-style shrieks and cool, lilting falsetto pop vocals. Though the individual songs and overall album are too short—a little too tightly wound, perhaps; could’ve used a bit more breathing room in some of the tracks—the top-notch musicianship and unique sound place Azusa right alongside Fleshkiller and Mantric in the post-Extol pantheon.
35. Thou – Magus
Listening to Thou is like bathing in mud: warm, comfortable, immersive, constricting. Sometimes it’s too much (Heathen), sometimes it’s amazing (Summit), sometimes the mud is getting flung at you (series of EPs and miscellaneous releases). Magus leans decidedly toward the positive end of the spectrum, featuring outstanding moments like the ending of “The Changeling Prince” and the psychedelic climax of “Elimination Rhetoric”.
34. Entropy Created Consciousness – Impressions of the Morning Star
Blistering black metal, ambient drone-doom, and thinly veiled stoner-sludge riffs are merged in this mysterious solo release. If you’re going to use a drum machine, this is how to do it: prominently and unapologetically, but in a way that serves and supports the music without becoming a distraction. On one level, the overall effect is a wall of sound that swallows you up until your ears attune to it; beyond that, though, there is a cornucopia of melodic motives awaiting those within its grasp.
33. Noise Trail Immersion – Symbology of Shelter
You could try to encapsulate Noise Trail Immersion’s sound in a simple phrase like “blackened mathcore”, but such a reduction cannot do justice to the immensity and complexity of this album. Imagine the dissonance of Dodecahedron, the intensity of Frontierer, the swirling groove of Nero di Marte, and the patient plodding of Buried at Sea walk into a bar. Somewhere in the drunken brawl that ensues is the genesis of Symbology of Shelter.
32. Veilburner – A Sire to the Ghouls of Lunacy
There are myriad ways to earn the adjective “experimental”. Some artists juxtapose two disparate genres, without necessarily blending them, some artists seek that blended sound and overdo it, rendering themselves all but unlistenable. Veilburner walks the latter path, but without the error of overdoing it. At every moment in every song, something out of the ordinary is happening—a good touchpoint here is Dødheimsgard—and, more often that not, it works in an engrossing way. Whether it be a psychedelic guitar riff, a spot of electronics, or an unusual vocal delivery, Veilburner keeps you guessing with their truly experimental mix of black and death metal.
31. H E X – H E X
H E X sounds like the product of a sentient music-making machine, an abandoned industrial city come alive. Bleak beats pulsate beneath dramatic synth and ephemeral, background vocals. The polished product comes off as something like organic darkwave; if Cult of Luna played Perturbator, perhaps (or vice versa). (This is the kind of thing I wish Bliss Signal was.)
30. Mournful Congregation – The Incubus of Karma
Mournful Congregation traffics in great big funeral doom, but without the façade of impenetrability: pop funeral doom, inasmuch as such a thing can possibly exist. Like their past works, which I only started checking out this year somehow, The Incubus of Karma is suffused with enchanting melodic leads. Heck, the three-minute instrumental intro, with its delayed lead riff, might be the best thing on the album. Beyond that, there’s nothing groundbreaking, but the whole release is solid when slow-and-heavy is what you’re looking for.
29. Aviations – The Light Years
A breathtaking whirlwind of instrumental and vocal technique, The Light Years is about as good as modern prog can be. Some of the tones fall flat for me, particularly the not-quite-distorted guitars, and the composition can be a bit overindulgent and hard to follow. But the talent showcased is unimpeachable and deserves acclaim.
28. Southern Empire – Civilisation
Unlike Aviations, Southern Empire isn’t “modern” prog in any meaningful way; instead, they follow the lineage of neo-prog acts like IQ and Transatlantic, and take care of business pretty well. I haven’t a clue what they’re talking about half the time, as on album opener “Goliath’s Moon”, but that isn’t the point. I always have a soft spot for well-executed prog, especially in long-form, and Southern Empire taps that nerve capably.
27. Frontierer – Unloved
Welcome to the musical equivalent of getting hit by a tractor-trailer, except continuously for nearly an hour. Frontierer writes music that sounds like they don’t want you to live to hear the end of the album. For my money, this is the winner of the brutal mathcore royal rumble, over Sectioned and Car Bomb.
26. Antisoph – Antisoph
One of the more utterly unique and hard-to-categorize metal albums in recent memory, Antisoph’s self-titled debut grounds itself in twisted, technical blackened thrash that draws from elements of Voivod and Synergy-era Extol. They complement that complex musical backdrop with a strained clean vocal delivery that has no obvious parallels. The instruments are tightly synchronized together, yet the compositional flow has a looseness that often feels almost improvised, as time signatures seem to be an afterthought. Equal parts bizarre and brilliant, Antisoph must be heard to be believed.
25. Fire-Toolz – Skinless X-1
After blowing minds with two 2017 albums, Fire-Toolz keeps the momentum going with an effort that is more subdued than Drip Mental and more focused than Interbeing. Angel Marcloid retains her characteristic snippets of melodic intrigue, surgically arranged and staggered to produce a feeling of weightlessness as motives drift past ephemerally. The sample library used is a wealth of references for astute ears (personally, I couldn’t miss the opening snare roll of Norma Jean’s “The Entire World Is Counting On Me, and They Don’t Even Know It” found in Fire-Toolz’s “Second Life”), and more nods to Angel’s inspirations are hidden in plain sight in titles like “Response to Subdivisions ☾”, “Shadowfacts”, and the album name itself.
24. Cult Leader – A Patient Man
In a short career, Cult Leader have established themselves as masters of the blackened hardcore sub-genre. Why, then, they would dedicate nearly half of their sophomore full-length to “four beautifully brooding epics” is a bit dumbfounding. Other bands have behaved similarly by putting a single out-of-character curveball track on an album. Wise bands simply craft songs that showcase all their sides. Cult Leader does veer back into aggression at the end of “A World of Joy”, and album closer “The Broken Right Hand of God” does its brooding in a distorted context, but the other two “epics” just feel like a bait-and-switch: not the material people come to Cult Leader for. The intense metal they produce is as good as ever, and some dynamics are welcome, but the arrangement thereof was not well executed here.
23. Slugdge – Esoteric Malacology
Nobody makes mollusk-based blackened death metal quite like Slugdge, and this year they took that to a whole new level on Esoteric Malacology. An uncanny knack for heavy guitar melodies combined with spots of clean vocal delivery make this a remarkably harmonically satisfying extreme metal album. Not many bands pull off intelligent songwriting (see the intro of “Crop Killer”) while maintaining this much balls-to-the-wall intensity (see the intro of “War Squids”).
22. Ryan Porter – The Optimist
By now, any casual fan of modern jazz should know the name “West Coast Get Down”, a troupe of collaborators who prolifically write, refine, and record cutting-edge cool and bewildering bebop in southern California. The group broke into mainstream consciousness with Kamasi Washington‘s 2015 masterpiece triple album The Epic, and several of Kamasi’s bandmates from that release—including pianist Cameron Graves, bassist Miles Mosley, and drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr.—have offered their own takes on the style since then. Trombonist Ryan Porter’s debut double album is in many ways closest to Kamasi’s pure jazz stylings, though it trades off with less intricate layerings and more complex time signatures in its increasingly long-form compositions.
21. Haken – Vector
For an album I regard so highly, there are a lot of negatives to Vector, the fifth album from one of prog metal’s brightest current beacons. Clocking in at under forty-five minutes, it’s 25 % shorter than any other album of theirs. As a consequence, only one song cracks even eight minutes in length: the centrepiece “Veil”, which functions as the album’s obligatory epic. It serves its purpose decently enough, but overall it suffers from a microcosm of the same flaws of the album, namely a lack of memorable and gripping moments. The band’s technical chops and ability to stop-and-go on a dime are as crisp as ever and are a sight to behold, hence how they manage to climb this high with such an otherwise weak offering. With previous albums, there was always a signature song or two that burrowed itself into your skull—“1985”, “Cockroach King”, “Atlas Stone”, and so on—nothing like that emerges here. Vector is… fine. It just could have been so much more.
20 – 11: The Very Good Stuff™
20. Malthusian – Across Deaths
The long-awaited debut full-length from a band I originally knew as the post-Altar of Plagues project of drummer Johnny King does not disappoint. Malthusian’s aural assault blends cavernous production with technical precision, conveying a weighty warning against consumerism (a popular theme among dissonant death acts this season!) Penultimate track “Primal Attunement: The Gloom Epoch” stands as the album’s pinnacle, particularly thanks to its dramatically pensive dirge of an outro. See my September review for full details.
19. Hago – Hago
This Berkeley school band does itself no favours by reducing their sound to the crude descriptor “falafel djent”. While there are elements of djenty modern metal to their aesthetic, that constitutes just one axis of their sound, which pivots to Middle Eastern music, jazz fusion, and classic tech-prog à la Liquid Tension Experiment. Even as a vocal maligner of instrumental metal, I couldn’t escape the riveting and wondrous richness of Hago’s music. With expert piano and sax integration, they pull off perhaps the single best metal-meets-jazz-fusion fusion (reduplication intentional) in music history; at one moment Motoi Sakuraba, at the next Haken.
18. Karas – Karas
As I waited patiently (and fruitlessly) for Dystopia Nå’s next album in 2018, Karas came along to slake my thirst. On their self-titled debut, the band hits every note that makes post-black worthwhile: technique, texture, emotion, complexity, diversity, and originality. They’re even brazen enough to pull out the minor-second interval (colloquially and lovingly, “reet reets”) in 2018 on “Astray from Veins”, and it works! Karas dip their toes into a lot of styles, from sludgy post-hardcore to psychedelic space rock, and pull everything together into a captivating offering.
17. Súl ad Astral – Oasis
Súl ad Astral announce themselves with a shockingly crunchy guitar tone that takes some getting used to, but once that hurdle is cleared, those guitars serve as the backdrop for a dynamic dual vocal performance by Michael Rumple. His death metal growls seem oddly set in the nominally post-black project, until you hear him unleash soaring cleans that sound suited for a synthwave chorus (see “Pennies down the Infinity Well”’s whoa-oh, whoa-oh, you cut it clean section). I criticize other albums on this countdown for not having enough hooks; Oasis is loaded with them, gripping and focused as it carries the listener on an emotional and musical journey.
16. Wild Hunt – Afterdream of the Reveller
After the death of guitarist Drew Cook in 2015, Wild Hunt has continued as a two-member endeavour. Afterdream of the Reveller, their first full-length since their 2012 debut, features touches both physical and spiritual from Cook as well as some guitar work from former member West Lenz. Along with Lenz, continuing guitarist Greg Brace weaves a jaw-dropping web of intricate melodies, often with three counterpoint passages swirling together. Fans of Yellow Eyes’s opacity and Panopticon’s artistry will find themselves enraptured by what Brace has pulled off here. Drummer and vocalist Harland Burkhart carries his weight brilliantly as well. The songs incorporate feverish black metal passages and exhale into cavernous atmospheric doom. The textural density can be almost overwhelming and hard to latch onto, which is just about the only critique I have of this album.
15. Ion – A Path Unknown
Up front, I have to say I don’t know what’s going on with the structure of this album: the three tracks are named “I, II, VI”, then “V”, then “III, IV”. If that doesn’t set off your personal OCD alarm, what you’ll find in those cryptically named songs is a gigantic slab of expansive progressive black metal with heavy tinges of chaotic psychedelia and chaos, like Wormlust run through a flange pedal. The track lengths—each between seventeen and thirty minutes—obscure the relentless ferocity of the band’s approach when they hit full tilt. They do provide respite with atmospheric passages, but without ever feeling like droning filler or track-length padding. Ion is one of the boldest and most uncompromising acts in the black metal realm.
14. Respire – Dénouement
Another album that grabs you from the moment you press play, the expansive opening chords of Dénouement jangle ethereally for but a moment before they are met and transformed by blast beats. Respire uses melody to create emotional weight in a way that most heavy bands simply cannot. If the full album lived up to the potential of the first three minutes or so, this would have been much higher on the list. Sadly, the staggering peaks are surrounded with a few too many drooping and dragging valleys, so that the journey lacks a certain character and dynamic; it’s almost as if the album consists entirely of parts that would be the cathartic climax of another album. The craftsmanship on display is breathtaking, but when the band tries to keep taking your breath continuously, the end result is suffocating.
13. Abstract Void – Back to Reality
How many listens are required before a seemingly novelty album is allowed to be judged as a real work of music? Whatever threshold you set, I listened to Back to Reality more than enough to meet it. Abstract Void’s 2017 debut was the first attempt at actualizing the inevitable genre-clash of blackwave (i.e. blackened synthwave). It had to be done, and they did it, but the result was uneven and didn’t totally stick. With this year’s Back to Reality, though, the band pulls off the best pure black-electronic fusion since Germ’s phenomenal 2011 album Wish, providing an absolutely addictive hybrid of sweeping retro synths, waves of distorted guitar, and soaring screams where the quality far transcends the gimmicky premise.
12. Panegyrist – Hierurgy
The visual, musical, and spiritual art of Elijah Tamu took the metal world by storm in 2018, primarily as a result of the release of the unique and promising Hierurgy. With a Christology so orthodox that it appears unorthodox—perhaps akin to Reverorum ib Malacht’s twisted incarnation of Roman Catholicism—Panegyrist spin together threads of progressive black metal with baroque sensibilities, curving at curious angles through liturgical passages like a more honest Batjuška. Rare indeed is the black metal album whose lyrics cry for “Christ aflame” in a positive context! Spirituality aside, the music realized here is meticulously crafted in every phrase and utterly unlike any contemporaries in the genre.
11. Basalte – Vertige
Vertige is a tough album to sell to an impatient listener; a thirty-second snapshot will not suffice. Its four gigantic tracks push and pull throughout their durations, skating from Krallice-like counterpoint layers (which sometimes sound, in the best way, like two different, complementary songs playing at once) to Skagos-like primal blackened viciousness, to swaths of blackened doom. They can even veer all the way to crust on “Acouphène” and to sprawling, stripped-down wails on “Éclat de verre”. Distorted and clean tones dance together in a disorienting miasma, defying traditional categorization of “heavy parts” and “light parts”. Basalte is the smartest and most innovative band to come out of the Québecois scene since Gris.
10 – 6: The Better Stuff™
10. Rolo Tomassi – Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It
One of my favourite pastimes in 2018 was to have a friend put on this album from the beginning, with no explanation of what they’re about to hear. First up, they get “Towards Dawn”, an ambient and melodic electronic introduction that is long enough to lull them into thinking they might be listening to a chill post-rock album like Hammock or Mew. When “Aftermath” kicks in, they are instantly met with the gorgeous singing voice of Eva Spence—which reminds me of The Rocking Horse Winner’s Jolie Lindholm—and more traditional rock instrumentation playing a deceptively mathy indie progression. This song builds to a gargantuan, heartrending climax at 2:30 that evokes some sort of heavy shoegaze; at this point, one would be forgiven for neglecting the remainder of the album just to listen to this song on repeat a few dozen times. But when you proceed, you get hit with the unexpectedly dissonant and crunchy opening of “Rituals”, and when Eva Spence finally launches into screaming-banshee mode over chaotic blast beats, the listener’s jaw bruises on the floor below. In under twelve minutes, Rolo Tomassi covers more sonic territory more capably than almost any other band dared this year. This stretch is the album’s strongest, and nothing else on it matches the shimmering beauty of “Aftermath”, but the remainder is similarly masterful, continuing to show the band’s impressive range and skill.
9. 明日の叙景 (Asunojokei) – わたしと私だったもの (Watashi to watashidatta mono) / Awakening
I wrote extensively about Awakening way back in February, but, in short, its highlights include a refusal to be boxed into any typical black metal (or even post-black) conventions, extraordinarily jazz-tinged chord choices, and Borisian experimentation. Every song brings something new to the table without ever feeling out of place, and that’s the hallmark of a band who have a deep understanding for both general musical craftsmanship and their own specific abilities.
8. Sunless Dawn – Timeweaver
No frills, no adjectives, no gimmicks: Timeweaver is the best straight-ahead progressive death metal album in recent memory. You know the style; you’ve heard it before, probably a million times. But Christoffer Hildebrandt’s contribution to the canon refines and perfects the elements of melodic death metal, balancing technical performance and intelligent composition in a perfect synthesis (where most bands that aim for this target err too far on one side or the other, usually overemphasizing technicality). Sunless Dawn offers pure harmonic joy; I can’t imagine the metal fan who wouldn’t enjoy this album, and I can’t wait to hear more.
7. Entropia – शूत्य स्थान (Shoony sthaan) / Vacuum
Invisible Oranges’s Andrew Rothmund quoted a commenter in his year-end blurb about this album: “Oranssi Pazuzu opened a swing club?” That commenter was me, and I expanded on that sentiment at great length in my full review of Vacuum earlier this year. Entropia brings a totally new element to the black metal party, shining their psychedelic stylings through a swing lens and producing a weirdly warped wavelength of light on the other side. It might not satisfy everyone, but it sure does the trick for me.
6. Imperial Triumphant – Vile Luxury
The universal, completely merited critical acclaim heaped upon an album as extreme as Vile Luxury is unlike anything I’ve seen since Vektor’s magnum opus Terminal Redux. It takes all of five seconds for the brass quintet that opens “Swarming Opulence” to convince you that something special has been accomplished here, but it’s not until you hear how frequently and seamlessly those horns are fused with the dissonant blackened death metal that you know for sure the band has wrought a true masterpiece. Without the brass, this would still be a mind-bending trip; with it, I can confidently say that Imperial Triumphant have leapfrogged Portal, Mitochondrion, Ulcerate, Ad Nauseam, and all other acts in the burgeoning dissonant death (please don’t use the “sk-” word) scene to produce the definitive album of the sub-genre.
5 – 1: The Best Stuff™
5. Tangled Thoughts of Leaving – No Tether
I mentioned earlier that it takes a certain calibre of instrumental music to earn even the slightest measure of my attention. Once I gave No Tether that inch, it took several miles. This is perhaps the most difficult of the top-tier albums for me to write about; I am simply not equipped with the right descriptors for what’s going on here. There are elements of post-rock, math rock, noise rock, ambient drone, film score, and more, yet, none of those things encapsulates the bewildering palette of styles at work here. Guitars, piano, drums, and noise layers flit in and out as songs roil with of decadent intensity and wistful restraint. The higher-intensity songs, like “Signal Erosion” with its sludge-noise climax and “Binary Collapse” with its head-spinning keyboard melody, showcase a level of creativity that exceeds any other act of 2018, including even the four I have ranked higher.
4. Between the Buried and Me – Automata I & II
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably surprised to see such a… *scoff*… “common” album so high. Sorry to disappoint you with my sub-avant-garde taste, but I must soberly inform you that the band who has held the prog metal title belt since 2007’s Colors is not ready to relinquish it just yet. It is almost unheard of for a band to hit their personal peak and stay that high for this long. But ever since Colors redefined extreme prog a decade ago, Between the Buried and Me has maintained absolute consistency in their regular releases. 2016’s Coma Ecliptic saw the band take a turn for the marginally less extreme, perhaps the effect of some of vocalist Tommy Rogers’s solo material bleeding into the larger group’s compositions, but even that had its charm and genius. The combined half-releases of Automata this year saw a return to metallic ferocity, along with the ever-present incorporation of novelties; in this case including atmospheric melodic rock on “Millions” and unabashed Diablo Swing Orchestra worship on “Voice of Trespass”. The longer pieces—“Yellow Eyes”, “Blot”, and “The Proverbial Bellow”—instantly join the pantheon of great tracks from years past, like “Ants in the Sky”, “Swim to the Moon” and “Telos”. At the end of the day, it’s BTBAM: if you didn’t like them for the past eleven years, you won’t now. But if you did, there’s more of them to love, with no lingering scent of stagnation. They still got it.
3. Soldat Hans – Es taut
A strong contender for the year-end crown, Es taut earned heaps of praise and exposition in my March review. I compared it frequently and diversely to a number of Kayo Dot releases, which is all you need to know to understand how it landed here. The music of Soldat Hans is slow and vast, somber and raucous, immersive and immediate. As noted with other releases on this list, a small snippet will not do; you must experience the sprawling splendour of each track to fully appreciate it. Droning organ undergirds calmly wandering saxophone and jangling guitar, fit into song structures that are more than content to stay in exactly one comfortable place for as long as necessary, then a few minutes more. Soldat Hans make stuff that nobody else is patient enough to make, and it’s a treasure to absorb.
2. Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth
Kamasi Washington is not here for subtlety and minimalism. Coming off a 2015 debut triple album audaciously (and accurately!) titled The Epic and a 2017 EP that culminated in a fifteen-minute suite called “Truth”, Kamasi pushes even more of his chips in with the loftily named Heaven and Earth. This time, it’s only a double album, but the vinyl release includes a hidden record dubbed The Choice with yet another nearly forty minutes of music, pushing the total combined length over the threshold achieved by his debut. Kamasi, in his trinity of forms—saxophonist, bandleader, and orchestral arranger—is once again in top form across this afternoon’s worth of jazz brilliance. As on The Epic, almost all of the myriad sub-genres and styles of jazz are represented here: modern fusion, classic bebop, percussive latin, tender vocal, aggressive political and sentimental spiritual. Many tracks feel like natural evolutions of his previous work, such as opener “Fists of Fury” growing out of “Malcolm’s Theme”. But the most memorable moments come when something new is introduced, whether it be the synthesizer solo on “Can You Hear Him”, seventies’ city-funk guitar on “Connections”, or most beautifully the Daft Punk homage vocoder singing on “Vi lua vi sol”, one of the highlights of both the album and the year at large. Nobody does jazz bigger or better than Kamasi and company.
1. Azure – Redtail
The other 39 albums made this list because they were extraordinarily good music, but ultimately just that: music. Redtail, in utter defiance of its paltry twenty-minute runtime, takes the top spot because it is more than music, it is magic. It took two full listens for the concept suite to fully register with me, but once it did, it was quite literally the only thing I wanted to listen to. Rich with lore and riveting story, Redtail follows the arc of its titular horned monster, a sort of fairy or demon depending on your vantage point, who serves as the quiet, unrecognized protector of a village that eventually discovers and seeks to destroy the beast. In classic tragedy style, the beast in turn takes out vengeance on those who torched its home, only to realize that in doing so it has earned the reputation for which it had previously been erroneously reviled. Azure complements this concept with picturesque pastoral prog rock, drawing on the essences of great storytellers like The Tea Club and Haken, but ultimately carving out a sound all their own. Their sense of melody, both in itself and in conjunction with the underlying lyrical narrative, is virtually unparalleled, and they reinforce this by tethering the piece together with a bevy of repeated motives and musical phrases. Astute fans will even detect deliberate musical references to older material from 2017’s full-length Wish for Spring and 2015’s debut EP (Dreaming of) Azure! This confirms the fact that the band has a broader concept in mind, something akin to Ayreon’s broad science-fiction timeline. Past lyrics along with the band’s visual aesthetic suggest their stories explore the ideas of gender and social ostracism; as with all good fantasy, metaphors rooted in oft-oppressive reality. But I haven’t even spoken yet about the single element that pushes this over the top and earns it the acclaim of 2018’s best album, and that’s the indescribably sublime vocal performance of the brains of the band: Chris Sampson. His high range hits a timbre unlike anything I’ve ever heard in music, and even when it is occasionally strained, it never misses the mark and always resonates with the emotional intensity of the music. Galen Stapley contributes lead guitar, including one of the most beautiful and dynamic solos of all time toward the end of the piece. While the drums (certainly) and some of the melodic instruments (possibly) sound like slightly-glorified Guitar Pro tabs in character, something Dave criticized in his assessment of the album, this almost certainly must stem from a paucity of resources on Chris’s part. (There is a credited drummer, but it’s clear he did not perform on the recording; however, nothing on the album would be particularly challenging for a capable human drummer.) While I do frown on programmed performances, as well as twenty-minute EPs, neither of those red flags ends up bothering me here. For whatever nits one may choose to pick with it, the sheer undeniable brilliance of the full product overwhelms its drawbacks. In my mind, there is no doubt that Redtail is the single greatest piece of music released this year.