Welcome to SMM’s first year-end “Best Albums” list! There’s been a lot of great music this year, and it’s been a tough pick. Keep in mind that on SMM, we’re focused on the weird and experimental side of things, and this “Best Albums” list is no exception. I hope you enjoy, and leave a comment if you think I’ve overlooked something!
–Justin A. Burnett
Daughters You Won’t Get What You Want
Without a doubt, the latest Daughters album storms the album of the year slot. Following nearly a decade of silence after the release of their self-titled effort, You Won’t Get What You Want came crashing down from a distant planet like a maddened beast, giving the lie to the old assumption that bands tend to mellow with age. This album is loud, unsettling, and a continual display of carefully considered sonic manipulation. Fans of Swans are destined to fall in love with this dark masterpiece, and it definitely deserves every bit of the laudation its received this year, plus some.
Piggy Black Cross Always Just Out of R.E.A.C.H.
Always Just Out of R.E.A.C.H was nearly as good as getting another Kayo Dot release this year, and long term readers will recognize this as nearly the highest praise I can bestow on an album. This brilliant meeting of the minds of Bridget Bellavia and Toby Driver is all a long term fan could hope for. Continuing with the neo goth synth-infused sonic palette of Plastic House on Base of Sky, Driver and co stretch into some sinister yet slightly more straightforward territory with Piggy Black Cross. It’s more than a worthy listen, and has boldly held its own throughout the year as one of 2018’s top releases. That it hasn’t received more recognition is a shame.
Deena Abdelwahed Khonnar
Even though I only reviewed this album a few days ago, I’ve put it on steady rotation since to allow for second thoughts before including it here. I can honestly say that it still has much to offer after repeated listens, and certainly stands head to head with the strongest releases of the year. Tunisian producer Deen Abdelwahed comes out swinging with Khonnar, a folk-infused slab of edgy experimental electronic dance music that accumulates in an overall atmosphere fit for a nightmare. This release is certain to turn some heads in the electronic music world, despite the brilliant outpouring of creative, cutting-edge material from the genre in recent years.
Puce Mary The Drought
This year’s release from Danish industrial artist Frederikke Hoffmeier under the Puce Mary moniker is truly something to behold. The Drought is a creeper liable to pass underappreciated over the first listen or two. It operates in a more minimal space than its cousins in the dark electronic and experimental world, making it more difficult to spot in a genre overrun with lavish and complex arrangements. However, when the subtlety and atmosphere of this monstrous leviathan of a release sink in around listen three, there’s no going back. Swimming (or drowning, rather) in the blackest of bass tones punctuated by understated spoken word refrains by Hoffmeier, this album promises to get under your skin in the best of ways. I would’ve liked to have seen more hubbub around The Drought this year, but I guess we don’t always get what we wish for.
Sleep The Sciences
I must admit that I haven’t paid as much attention to Sleep as I should’ve over the years. I was late to appreciate sludge/stoner metal during its rise to prominence in the metal scene, intent on focusing, instead, on developments on the tech-death and black metal fronts. The Sciences is certainly one of those sludge releases that gives me the painful realization that I’ve truly been missing out. The Sciences is everything you could hope for in this genre. The riffs positively drip with fuzz, the hooks are strong, and, even better, a careful attention to harmonic instrumentation saves this release from the frequent pitfall of oversimplification. This album is particularly interesting in that I didn’t expect it to make this list; that it’s from a genre I generally undervalue should testify enough to its greatness.
Amnesia Scanner Another Life
This one nearly slipped under my radar this year; I’m glad it didn’t, since passing over Another Life without comment would’ve been a serious mistake. This UK duo makes some seriously chopped and edgy electronic… uh… “dance” music, and I mean that hesitation in the best of ways. This was my first exposure to Amnesia Scanner, and it was easily the most perplexing and unexpected listen of the year. While the vocals–drastically manipulated to the point of suggesting a posthuman motif–can seem messy and utterly disorienting at times, the album doesn’t let the listener dismiss it so easily. A method arises from the madness as the album progresses, consisting of a series of challenges to the lister’s conception of, very broadly speaking, pop music. Another Life simply must be heard to be believed, although it certainly won’t be for everyone.
Julia Holter Aviary
Aviary is certainly Holter’s finest achievement since Loud City Song, and that’s saying a lot. The lush, otherworldly, atmospherics are back, this time relocated from the dim and foggy cityscape to an overgrown and deeply sinister Garden of Eden. The more stripped and simplified sound of Have You in My Wilderness is, thankfully, left behind in favor of combinations of chamber arrangements, electronic soundscapes, and, well, bird sounds. This is everything I could’ve hoped from a Holter release, and more. Aviary is easily one of my shining stars for 2018, just as Loud City Song was five years ago.
Imperial Triumphant Vile Luxury
Vile Luxury is much, much more than just a blackened death metal album. Like much of Kayo Dot’s earlier work, New York’s Imperial Triumphant are just as intensively focused on keeping things engaging as they are in pummeling listeners with a brutal onslaught of towering riffs. Pianos, horns, and an assortment of other miscellaneous instruments periodically crash into the mix of swirling guitars and gut-churning shrieks, resulting in a very tasteful diversity you won’t commonly find in the dissonant black metal bloodline going back to Deathspell Omega. Vile Luxury’s thick and cleverly-constructed atmosphere makes blackened death metal exciting and new all over again, and there’s really no higher honor a band can achieve in this genre.
Polyphia New Levels New Devils
Damn, this thing is good! New Levels New Devils is easily the coolest new album on this list. Finally moving past the weary djent format the band has deployed in the past (albeit from a vantage point generally ahead of the curve), Polyphia infuses their highly-complex instrumental metal with a rhythmic and groovy approach that feels uncannily close to hip hop. What a pleasant surprise! New Levels New Devils also leaves some of its sharper corners unsanded–while the production is top-notch, it’s not produced right out of the realm of manual instrumentation like most djent albums. Smart, strange, and downright fun, New Levels New Devils marks a much-needed turning point in the rapidly stagnating swamp of instrumental metal music.
Earl Sweatshirt Some Rap Songs
Fans are calling this album Earl Sweatshirt’s Madvillainy, and I have to agree. Hailing from the legendary Odd Future collective (home of Tyler, The Creator), Earl Sweatshirt has generally been known for dropping quality releases in his extremely laid back, casual style. Although I’ve somewhat enjoyed his work in the past (particularly in the case of 2013’s Doris), nothing prepared me for an album that would make the top twenty weird albums of the year. Some Rap Songs is dark, harsh, and challenging, constituting a welcome new phase for Sweatshirt. This album has certainly accelerated him from the hip-hop peripherals to one of the forefront artists worth watching, for my money. I can’t wait to see what comes next!
A Forest of Stars Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes
Of all the metal albums I reviewed on this site earlier in the year, Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes is by far the most worthy of recognition. This folk-infused blast of highly eccentric and deliciously captivating metal is as strong as ever; fans of Current 93 would find much to love here, along with listeners who prefer a little tasteful melodrama in their forward-thinking black metal. If you only listen to one metal album from this list, make it Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes, especially since the music world of 2018 seems liable to overlook this gem. What a tragedy. This is easily one of the most rewarding listening experiences of the year.
Young Echo Young Echo
I almost missed this one this year; thank god that didn’t happen! This 11(!)-person hip-hop collective’s latest release is every bit as trippy, off-kilter, and stunning as Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs. While some critics complain that this 24-track behemoth feels underdeveloped in terms of individual songs, as an album, this slight fragmentation works to Young Echo’s advantage. A pastiche of stylistic emphases drift through this opaque world of shadows, seeking to accompany each member to his or her strength; the resulting fragmentary collage of voice and color still feels utterly cohesive and painstakingly-crafted. Don’t listen to the haters. Young Echo is amazing.
Hermit and the Recluse Orpheus vs. The Sirens
Mythologically-themed hip hop? Count me in! Orpheus vs. The Sirens is an intelligent, literate, and magnificently-performed rap album. Favoring the laid-back, casual vocal delivery (which seems to one underlying factor among the hip-hop albums on this list) Hermit and the Recluse are perfectly at home among the tasteful, more traditional beats featured on this release; the mythology theme never feels gimmicky, and the influences are never nostalgic. Orpheus vs. the Sirens, despite its older instrumental aspect and even older theme, never feels less than cutting edge. If you click away from this list to listen to one hip hop album, make it this one.
Nine Inch Nails Bad Witch
As much as I’ve enjoyed following Nine Inch Nails over the years, I didn’t expect to include anything from Reznor and company on a best of list. As a semi-casual fan, admitting that Nine Inch Nails has maintained a very slow but steady decline in relevance poses no problem; instead of continuing that trajectory, however, Trent turns things around with a delightfully forward-looking and, dare I say experimental, offering which seems to have revived the sleeping fanbase a bit. Trent’s bite is back, and in a better way than some trite “return to form” could’ve accomplished. This is unlike any Nine Inch Nails album you’ve ever heard, and it seems set in the best musical direction Trent could’ve possibly taken at this advanced stage in his career. Bad Witch gets an enthusiastic round of applause from me, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Death Grips Year of the Snitch
While I, like everyone else, was crazy about The Money Store, Death Grips’ follow ups consistently felt underwhelming to me. Year of the Snitch marks a triumphant return to relevance for Death Grips, moving past the strained, glitched-to-ten sonic assault to explore more melodic and diverse territory. This is the exciting Death Grips all over again, and I hope they’ll continue to push boundaries in this direction. While this came out relatively early in the year, it still gets a remarkable portion of playtime. This album manages, somehow, to be harrowing, beautiful, and extremely playful all at once.
Jack White Boarding House Reach
No inclusion on this list surprises me more than Jack White’s Boarding House Reach. I loathed the White Stripes back when it was imperative to own a copy of 2003’s Elephant, and Mr. White’s solo career left me even colder. Jack White’s entire approach seemed to insist on looking backwards, which clashed with my strongly-held belief that music, while embracing its roots, should always seek to transcend them with something new and innovative. And that, much to my surprise, is exactly what Jack White has finally done with Boarding House Reach. This album is experimental, bold, and truly forward-looking in its assemblage of dance, classic rock, soul, and who-knows-what-else. I hope this marks a turn in White’s career. He has finally proven himself an artist with the potential to offer something exciting and new.
Toby Driver They Are the Shield
I still feel profoundly disoriented about this release, but not in a bad way. Given Driver’s turn to a more bare and understated sound on 2017’s Madonnawhore, it should be no surprise to see him push a bit further in that direction with They Are the Shield, although, as usual, it’s more than different enough to ensure that no one can fault Driver for inhabiting the same space for too long. This album demands patience and attention even to a greater extent than its predecessor with its ethereal formations and its frequently strange invasions of heavy synth sounds reminiscent of the last two Kayo Dot albums. If you meet the album half way, however, you’ll find yourself on a strange and beautiful planet. Do yourself a favor and dive into the otherworldly pop dreariness that is They Are the Shield–it generously rewards an unhurried ear.
Current 93 The Light is Leaving Us All
In the early hours of this album’s release, I read that David Tibet’s new offering marked a departure from the more ethereal and haunting atmosphere of 2014’s I Am the Last of All the Field that Fell: A Channel, which made me somewhat worried. While it’s true that, instrumentally, The Light is Leaving Us All abandons the ultra-spare arrangements that have dominated Tibet’s output of late, Current 93 is just as weird, melodramatic, and haunting as ever. The production on this album is excellent, giving Tibet and company a new sheen that absolutely works in this otherworldly setting of bells, strings, and subtle percussive elements. Tibet magnificently over the top here, painting dreamscapes of a mystical apocalypse with his usual fervor. If you’re an acclimatized Current 93 fan, there’s nothing to fear here; dive on in.
Low Double Negative
If Tim Hecker’s release this year was somewhat underwhelming, Low more than makes up for the lack of noisy, dreamy electronics this listener has come to anticipate from Hecker with Double Negative. This beautifully simple and somehow continually disintegrating album continues in the vein that Low initiated way back in 1994, albeit fully updated with a millennial, glitchy aesthetic that seems like it shouldn’t work but does. Double Negative seems to operate in borderlands, such as those between sleep and wakefulness, noise and melody, fragility and harshness. While structurally weak at times, this album’s tastefully strange amalgam of pop and ambient is innovative enough to demand serious attention in 2018.
L’Enfant De La Foret Strangled
The latest, dropped-out-of-nowhere release from James Kent (AKA Perturbator) is really good—even better, I’d argue, than 2015’s Abraxas. Kent’s made quite a stir on Bandcamp with his terrifying soundscapes under the L’Enfant De La Foret name, and Strangled represents the creative pinnacle of what we’ve heard from this particularly gruesome corner of the music world. Layering haunting synths over variations ranging from dance beats to black metal inspired noise and dark ambience, Strangled is possibly the strongest shade of evil that 2018 produced, surpassing even this year’s Gnaw Their Tongues split with Crowhurst. This album stands proudly with the best of this year’s dark music; it’s definitely owed some recognition.
-Justin A. Burnett