From local and South Carolina gems to releases from afar, 2018 did not give us a lot of time to absorb one album before dropping the next treasure. But we ain't complainin'. Here are just a few of the sounds that spoke to us the most this year:
Con Todo El Mundo, Khruangbin
When every critic who hears a band seems to like it, but none are able to label it — or even pronounce its name — the band is onto something. Houston trio Khruangbin plays gorgeous, groovy music. It's soulful, mostly instrumental, and reverb soaked. Beyond that, some call it Thai funk, Middle Eastern psychedelia, or chilled-out surf rock. But who knows — it just sounds right. Con Todo El Mundo goes down like Bob Marley or a good sativa, with plenty of energy but always a mellow mood. It's an album you can come back to daily and not lose interest — a nearly impossible feat in this age of infinite options.
Rite Aid, Sexbruise?
It's been since Pharrell Williams' "Happy" or Lorde's "Royals" in 2013 that a song has gained the same worldwide ubiquity as Sexbruise?'s "Rite Aid" reached in the summer of 2018. On this unprecedented one-song album, the Indonesia-based act with Charleston roots elevates the baseline of what electronica should sound like, creating lush autotune-esque vocal harmonies despite their firm commitment to holistic, traditional instrumentation. Kanye West's Ye features samples of "Rite Aid" on each of its seven tracks, and the song is rumored to be the updated theme song for season eight of Game of Thrones. Even Post Malone was recently spotted with a new neck tattoo featuring a bruise with the band's signature "?." Just when Shovels & Rope seemed to have branded the new Charleston sound, "Rite Aid" redefined what we all wanted to hear.
The Tree of Forgiveness, John Prine
When we go hear a 72-year-old play music, we're typically not there to hear their recent material. But at a John Prine show, a new song isn't a cue for a bathroom break — it may be the highlight. Like "When I Get to Heaven," where Prine sings "I'm gonna get a cocktail/vodka and ginger ale/yeah I'm gonna smoke a cigarette that's nine miles long/I'm gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl/cause this old man is going to town." The album plays like a swan song, still ripe with aching truth and clever wit. Prine may be the greatest living songwriter, and the 10 songs over 32 minutes on The Tree of Forgiveness remind us that he's far from a cover act of his younger self — he's as poignant, gripping, and hilarious as he was half a century ago.
Filthy 2, Matt Monday
Matt barely edged out Jah's Back 2 da Dub and Benny's A Water Album on this one, and that's probably the most lavish compliment I can pay it. After a surprisingly somber intro track, Filthy 2 transforms into a propulsive mash of industrial rap beats and a powerful storytelling streak. Look no further than album highlight "Charleo" to hear a detail-drenched narrative about a drug dealer explaining his profession. "Tale of the Lost Man" sinisterly portrays a man treating a vulnerable woman with immaturity veiled as compassion, and is a solid cautionary parable. Matt's words are on point, with an added reggae inflection on his voice, but his typically great lyricism overshadows some unique electro beats. Imagine a MIDI being smacked with a piston. The rapper balances the microchip cold production with his impassioned rhymebook, and a sometimes dangerous, sometimes dark reality is created. And it's one you'll return to again and again.
KOD, J. Cole
"If practice makes perfect, I'm practice's baby." Let that sink in. I want to call "KOD" a blitzkrieg of an opener, but that implies that Cole put his best foot forward on the album of the same name. In reality, he put his only foot forward. And, while KOD was, indeed, hard as shit, the LP's strongest survival mechanism was its pathos. "ATM" is a mediation on a materialist fixation, and the gorgeously produced "Photograph" turns the same trick by making infatuation another unshakable addiction. Every moment that Cole dissects himself, the listener feels the cut. The pensive irony hanging over the album is that the pain is addicting to listen to.
You Won't Get What You Want, Daughters
Although I'm a devout follower of all things sonically rusted, noise band Daughters was a group that I barely had a passing interest in until the chilling, worldly, wordy, and elegant single "Satan in Wait." In those seven minutes, Daughters announced that they had landed on a surgical chaos, a hand-crafted dementia. "Long Road, No Turns" shows the band mastering the elusive art of noise melodies and "Less Sex" proves that this group of elder punks can make a cinematic groove when push comes to violent shove. This is the only instance I know of an artist returning from an extended hiatus with more subdued music, and (against all safe assumptions) the maturity made something more exciting than the youthful kill-'em-all stamina of the older material. You Won't Get What You Want defeated cynicism, while fluently indulging in its language.
The Wolf, E.Z. Shakes
Zach Seibert, frontman of the darkly cosmic Americana outfit out of Columbia, E.Z. Shakes, is the kind of songwriter who ends a murder ballad with a hallelujah and a prayer. And when he's anchored by pedal steel guitar player Todd Hicks on one side and MVP guitarist John Furr on the other, the music of E.Z. Shakes shimmers over questions of faith and regret with uncommon lift. The Wolf was cut live at the Fidelitorium in Kernersville, N.C., but its languid, atmospheric arrangements feel like something Daniel Lanois would have cooked to match the whiskey-soaked leather of Seibert's voice, a tantalizing match of warmth and foreboding over 11 songs that are among the very best I heard coming out of our state this year.
Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe
This was the year I dropped Kanye for Janelle Monáe as my cult leader. While Yeezus spent most of the year on the dark side and dropped a forgettable retread, Monáe took her pan-funk-rap-R&B-prog concept album's thrill-seeking chops and distilled them into a concise pop album that captures the very best of 2018 and gives no fucks for the rest of it. Whether it's the proto-Prince glee of "Make Me Feel," the boisterous rap manifesto on "Django Jane," the slinky feminist pop of "Pynk," or the positively triumphant closing "Americans," Monáe gives us hope that, for all that's very, very wrong with our world right now, we may indeed overcome.
Still Clean, Soccer Mommy
In a year full of female indie singer/songwriters turning in some of the best rock music of the decade, Soccer Mommy's Still Clean was the record that I endlessly turned over again and again. Sophie Allison is barely 21, but she has an aching gift for melody and hooks along with a cutting emotional intelligence that can level you over the course of a song. That she was able to transfer the lo-fi DIYisms of her early efforts into a proper debut that brushes against both grunge and dream pop before she was old enough to drink makes me positively tremble at the prospect of what future heights she might reach.
Things Change, American Aquarium
If this isn't the best goddamn rock album that 2018 produced, then we're not doing this right. American Aquarium singer/songwriter/guitarist B.J. Barham has taken the fear, confusion, struggle, and hope of the last five years of his life, and the country's, and crafted the ultimate confessional album, except that it's also a batch of first-rate, country-tinged rock 'n' roll. There's not a weak track on this set, whether it's "The World's On Fire," a devastating account of post-2016-election shock and despair, the soaring, full-tilt personal history of "Crooked + Straight," the bracing acoustic tour through the ravages of alcoholism in "One Day at a Time," or the album-closing expression of total devotion, "Til the Final Curtain Falls," Barham and his band hit every bull's-eye, musically speaking. No other album released in 2018, or hell, within the last 10 years or so, has managed to be this perfect a combination of poetic self-examination, unvarnished guitar rock, and honky-tonk twang. It's damn near a masterpiece.
Ritual, Glass Mansions
Jayna Doyle and Blake Arambula, a.k.a. Glass Mansions, have created an EP with so many gleaming hooks, so much grimy darkness, so much layered electronic rock-pop craft, that it's easy to forget these two are an indie band. All five of the tracks on Ritual could be on the radio right now, and we'd be better off for it. Whether it's the staggering beats and sudden tempo-and-mood-shifts of the aptly titled "Landmine," the swaggering jagged-edge future-blues of "Just Friends," or the absolutely heavenly pop perfection of "Nightswimming," (one of the best singles by a South Carolina band ever), there's not a single misstep here. And in addition to being a riveting singer, Doyle is a merciless lyricist, diving deeply into her damaged psyche without ever descending into self-pity. This is a brilliant and deadly burst of masterful electronic pop.
Love Is Dead, Chvrches
How does Chvrches keep doing this? How do they keep taking the seemingly cold elements of modern electronic music like programmed beats, icy synthesizers, and layers of studio effects, and turning them into throat-lumping moments of sheer emotional beauty? Virtually every song on Love Is Dead builds to a chorus that can stop you in your tracks and break your heart all at once. When Lauren Mayberry's voice, which somehow manages to be both jaded and an emotional open wound, hits those high notes on the choruses of "Graffiti," "Forever," or "Miracle," it's like the sun bursting through a dark bank of clouds. Lyrically, she seems resigned to having her modest romantic expectations shattered, but even in those melancholy moments, the music, and the sheer vulnerable power of her voice, hint at a glimmer of hope in the darkness.
Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe has always been ahead of her time. True fans still remember the excitement upon finding Metropolis: Suite 1 and The ArchAndroid, and no one was disappointed in her latest effort, Dirty Computer. Accompanied by a hauntingly beautiful "emotion picture," this album was Monáe's public claiming of her queerness, her love letter to women and the spectrum of sexual identities, and it's anthem after anthem of self-love packed into 48 minutes and 42 seconds.
The Kids Are Alright, Chloe and Halle
I'm not sure what people expected from Beyoncé's protégés, but even the greatness we thought we could count on was exceeded heavily by these two Atlanta sisters' debut album. Even more impressive than the songs (which are amazing) is the fact that this album was written, sung, and produced almost entirely by the two sisters, all the while they were touring with the Queen and starring in Freeform's Grown-ish alongside Yara Shahidi.
Palmetto Purple 6, Illadell
Mixtapes are considered albums in my book, and my favorite local drop this year came straight out of the mind of local DJ and music aficionado Illadell. He curates the best of the best with his ongoing series Palmetto Purple, taking standout tracks from South Carolina's tightest and brightest and giving them that signature slow, syrupy flow of the lost art of chopped-and-screwed. After six years of giving people their shine, it's time for Illadell to get his, and this latest drop is beyond deserving of his flowers.
A Water Album, Benny Starr
[Technically not out yet, but as the LP was recorded live at the Charleston Music Hall, many of us have heard it.] If you were there, you know, and if you weren't, I feel bad for you. This album was magic personified and we are all patiently waiting for the vinyls to ship during, fingers crossed, the first quarter of 2019.
Joy as an Act of Resistance, IDLES
Self-resentment, political frustration, and personal loss: With their sophomore album, these bass-heavy Bristol punkers insist you harness all those contemporary anxieties for something cathartic. With references to Brexit, Dirty Dancing, and addiction, the lyrics also provide perhaps the best one-line kiss-off for far-right hecklers. Say it with me now: "This snowflake's an avalanche."
Bliss Signal, Bliss Signal
This shouldn't work. An album of electronic black metal should sound like Kraftwerk and a bunch of those animatronic Chuck E. Cheese bands getting swept up into a tornado together. But this collection of instrumentals is different. It manages to remain blistering, atmospheric, and all-encompassing — like watching a thunderstorm spark up in the distance before it overtakes you.
Sparrow, Jump, Little Children
When I was little, my dad and I would escape his admittedly dreary divorcé duplex apartment by taking walks through the cemetery across the street. This album reminds me of that: a pleasant memory of something grounded in melancholy. Also the production is really good.
Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe
Concept album goddess Janelle Monáe delivered her catchiest album yet, but radio programers didn't bite. Though none of the songs had an impact on the airwaves, Monáe still came out on top in the culture wars. Dirty Computer snatched two Grammy nods this month, including one for Album of the Year, along with pretty high rankings on dozens of year-end album lists. The meticulously crafted, expertly produced, and socially conscious 14-track album explores femininity, blackness, sexuality, and politics with luxurious build-ups and soaring choruses. Album highlights include "Screwed" (feat. Zoë Kravitz); "Crazy, Classic, Life;" and "Pynk" (feat. Grimes).
Sweetener, Ariana Grande
"When raindrops fell/ Down from the sky/ The day you left me/ An angel cried." The opening lines of Sweetener, Ariana Grande's fourth album in five years, conjure up the imagery employed throughout the rest of the 15 tracks. Grande's rich vibrato, breathy coo, and acrobatic runs are the tracks guiding this rollercoaster of self-affirmation, love, and self-care. It's hard to imagine that an album of pop smashes could convincingly tackle such a loaded term, but Grande and her myriad songwriters pack a number of helpful tips into the three-and-a-half minute tracks. In "breathin'," a song whose radio momentum was undercut by the surprise drop of "thank u, next," Grande shares her coping mechanism for days when "things just take way too much of my energy." In "get well soon," the 25-year-old reminds listeners, "This is for everybody/ Babe, you gotta take care of your body." The self-awareness continues in "everytime," with Grande lamenting a toxic relationship. "I get drunk/ pretend that I'm over it / Self-destruct/ Show up like an idiot." Same, sis, same.
Invasion of Privacy, Cardi B
Cardi B, the loud-mouthed former stripper and Instagram celebrity from the Bronx, done did it, and American culture is so much better for it. Invasion of Privacy, the major-label debut from 26-year-old Belcalis Almanzar, packs quite the punch, and it kicked off a wild year that saw the starlet give birth to her baby (aptly-named Kulture), get into a fight with Nicki Minaj at a Fashion Week party, hit the top of the Hot 100 twice more, and break up with her husband. To top it all off, she found out she was nominated for five Grammys as she walked out of a court hearing in New York for an assault and reckless endangerment charge stemming from the Minaj incident. Iconic. All of it. Just like these couple lines from "Bickenhead," the most underrated track on IoP: "Put your tongue out in the mirror / pop that pussy while you drive / Spread them ass cheeks open / make that pussy crack a smile."
American Utopia, David Byrne
David Byrne's American Utopia is an album that I keep coming back to. I mean, it's David Byrne, who is a goddamn American treasure. American Utopia grows on me a little more each time, so it is worth each listen, worth spending time with. In this strange time where everything feels like something out of a dark Twilight Zone, I take comfort in "Every Day is a Miracle," and, in particular, the lyrics: "A cockroach might eat Mona Lisa/ The pope don't mean shit to a dog/ And elephants don't read newspapers/ And the kiss of a chicken is hot." In the interest of full disclosure, I don't know what the fuck that last line means. It's David Byrne, come on.
Nervous System, DUMB Doctors
DUMB Doctors, the 2018 City Paper Music Awards' Punk Band of the Year, are one of my boyfriend's and my favorites. Like, go-out-on-a-Tuesday-night-to-see-them favorite. As soon as KRS asked if I had a burning desire to write about any 2018 albums, I knew they needed some love. I told my boyfriend, Mike, and asked for his thoughts. Boy, he had 'em:
"DUMB Doctors' Nervous System is an unpretentious, fun album. It's great, lo-fi punk screaming about the impending nuclear holocaust and medical ailments over punchy guitars and drums. They keep it simple while playing with anxiety stemming from the inability to affect a political landscape that could lead to everything being vaporized by an atom bomb. But it doesn't feel sorry for itself — it's too busy trying to cope with this insane anxiety for any pity party."
Nothing's more punk than "Uncertain future is all that's left/ The possibility of nuclear death." Thanks for the wise words, DUMB Docs.
Kelly Rae Smith
Healing Tide, The War & Treaty
If you're hoping I'll shut up already about the War & Treaty, sorry 'bout your luck, y'all. The Nashville-based husband-and-wife duo busted out their sophomore offering, Healing Tide, this year and subsequently brought me to my knees with their raw-as-it-gets power, tear-inducing harmonies, and palpable passion for both their craft and one another. It does not get much better than Healing Tide bangers like "Love Like There's No Tomorrow," "Are You Ready to Love Me," and "All I Wanna Do," and I will shout about it until it does.
Sixth House, The Rock *A* Teens
Regretfully, I missed out on being part of the original Rock *A* Teens fanbase circa its late-'90s, early-2000s heyday. But hey, better late than never. I caught myself up on the rockin' Merge Records four-piece years ago (after befriending drummer and Charleston native, T. Ballard Lesemann), and then was quickly floored this summer upon hearing Sixth House, the Rock *A* Teens' first album in 18 years. It is front-to-back unstoppable, a masterpiece drenched in hooks, reverb, and melodies that make me — and surely, you — just rejoice. Suffice to say songwriter-vocalist Chris Lopez, and his glorious howls, have had no problem returning to exceptional form, even if it was after a too-long hiatus. But hey, better late than never.
Short Film Season, Casey Malanuk
Short Film Season was recorded and set free in Charleston before Casey Malanuk relocated to Los Angeles, a city the musician-producer has long been inspired by, which shows in everything from the opening sample (vintage vox on how major motion pictures work) in "Camaraderie" to the pastel (the essence of LA?) album cover to the lyric about the sun setting over the mountains in "Leaving with You." What makes this album so exciting isn't just the fact that Malanuk is 18 years old, or that while his classmates were finishing high school, he graduated early and dropped not one but three impressive albums this year like NBD. What's more is that this record is a seamless listen in the way that OK Computer or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are as well, the songs bound together with bits of wonder at every turn, much like Cali coast indeed.
To the Sunset, Amanda Shires
On tracks like the triumphant "Break Out the Champagne" and the otherworldly "Parking Lot Pirouette" off this year's To the Sunset, Amanda Shires' voice seems unreal. But after recently seeing her perform at the Music Hall, I can assure you it is the real deal — zero trickery, just a mighty pair of lungs and a beautifully unique approach to songwriting that brings all of her talents to the forefront and leaves listeners totally transfixed.
Mirrored Moon Dance Hall, She Returns From War
Hunter Park a.k.a. She Returns From War approached this year's Mirrored Moon Dance Hall wondering what else she could do with her sound, and answered by absolutely nailing 11 songs that shift between low-key rock replete with strings ("Athena") and the 1950s doo-wop nestled in "Dream Machine" to the Fleetwood Mac-esque titular track and sparkling melodies of "Quitting Smoking." Though the Charleston music community cameos throughout are excellent, and add so much, and Wolfgang Zimmerman's production makes it all gleam, it's Park's narrative approach to her songs — always loaded with striking turns of phrase and merciless honesty — that gives listeners more to sink their teeth into than most any other artist in town, and makes Mirrored Moon Dance Hall so goddamn special.