2018 was a dense year of highly publicized releases, and that’s all well and good. We loved God’s Plan, Rockstar and Body as much as everyone else. (Some of us may have loved Body even more than that.) But what happens when you want something fresh and The Algorithm is dead-set on showing you the same three Drake songs?
Fortunately, the Sideline Sounds department has spent the last 12 months fully immersed in digital crate-digging, searching for 2018’s best under-the-radar albums so you didn’t have to. So without further ado, here are the nine best albums of last year that aren’t about to come up on shuffle.
Hello June – Hello June
Out of Morgantown, West Virginia, an indie rock band formed around Sarah Rudy (guitar/vocals) and Whit Alexander (drums) premiered their debut self-titled album — Hello June — back in September. The album is composed of universal sentiments and nostalgic tones that work to embark the listener on an auditory experience that’s worth every minute.
The album opens with Mars, what NPR describes as a “Need To Hear” track coming out of 2018. The ringing and unrefined guitar make the song feel like loose fitting sweating, imperfect yet satisfying in every way; Hello June is able to employ their nostalgic and intimate indie rock sound that makes the record so homelike.
“As soon as they find out // As soon as they hear // That there’s so much more that we know // That there’s so much more to fear” – Hello June, Mars
“Candy Rain” and “Less Than Nothing” emulate the fresh and energizing roots of 90s indie-rock surprisingly well. The confident, emotive vocals of Rudy provide the perfect sing-along-ability for any distance driving.
“Problem” is impressively solid and developed; you couldn’t believe it stemmed from an album with less than 50k total views. The song exemplifies a tribute to 90s indie-rock but it never proves to be tired as the lyrics and distinct voice of Rudy ring fresh and refined.
Opening with a slide guitar, one could notice connections to 90s indie-rock hit: 6th Avenue Heartache. From beginning to end, “Problem” is a breathtakingly evolved piece that not only displays the bands distinct sound but their confidence and prowess as they venture into carving out a spot in indie-rock.
“Momma” takes a soft and comforting turn into a universal ode of appreciation of the selfless mother. Rudy describes it as “representative of the strength that [my mother] displayed and taught me and it’s a story of overcoming and the strength that comes with persevering.” The track is pleasurably rhythmic, and Rudy’s subtle background slide-guitar hints to country twang from their West Virginian roots.
Every track feels thoughtfully intricate and developed, with the album itself running a total of 34 minutes. The universal lyrics and skillful vocals make the piece attractive for any fan of indie-rock, 90’s nostalgia, or a sound that evokes such prolonged passion for authenticity as Hello June eloquently radiates.
Domo Genesis – Facade Records EP
While former Odd Future cohorts Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler the Creator have been making waves with new albums in 2017 and 2018, Domo Genesis quietly released his most potent and tight-knit group of tracks thus far, with the Facade Records EP.
At six tracks and just under 17 minutes, Facade Records showcases a wider breadth of sounds and dynamics than previously explored on Domo Genesis projects. The California rapper experiments with calmer vocal inflections as well as occasional singing; a hidden talent the young emcee has clearly been refining.
As expected, Domo’s flows are on point in each song. His lyrical dexterity and ear-catching bars just don’t ever stop, and his imagery is just as fun. The EP’s intro track, “Two Tone Durag,” sounds like the often-overlooked Odd Future alum had something to prove. From start to finish Domo is hungrier than ever, showcasing his signature 16th note flow over a thumping boom-bap beat courtesy of The Futuristiks.
Other notable highlight songs on the project include “Online” and “Creep Show,” the latter of which features a ferocious verse from East coast rapper, IDK. In each song, Domo remains tied to his g-funk roots, offering some of the most refreshing West-Coast hip-hop this year.
In a mainstream dominated by bassy beats and just-for-the-flow bars, Domo provides an oasis of a consistently head-knocking take on modern rap.
From a production standpoint, Facade Records is easily Domo’s most cohesive and well put together project to date. Although the EP comes in at under 20 minutes, it’s one of the most replayable collections of tracks released this year, an undeniable hidden gem from the crowded hip-hop landscape of 2018.
Tommy Guerrero – Road to Knowhere
The insanely talented Tommy Guerrero produced the 10th album of his life this year, however, his career as a musician has only ever been a hobby.
The 52-year old San Francisco native has lived an incredible life as an original member of the Bones-Brigade skate team, a Converse skateboarder, a co-founder of massive board company Real Skateboards, a clothing designer for Levi’s and Vans, as well as the art director for Krooked Skateboarding.
Guerrero has turned to create spiritual jazz and funk, incorporating not much more than a guitar, drums, and a maraca. The droning music is hard to classify but the depth and guitar riffs provide an incredible background sound to any occasion.
Road to Knowhere was released on October 28 as a 50-minute, 14-song project. The album speaks of a journey whose only destination is the journey itself, hence the spelling “knowhere.” Guerrero himself says the album is “the one for the blue highways and forgotten byways. It’s the one to get lost to.” The project is deep and well composed as it highlights Guerrero’s goal of making the music of a journey.
As a background sound, the album provides a great neutral setting, perfect for a night with friends, studying, or a road trip. Road to Knowhere is a well-rounded project that encompasses the journey and goal of his musical career. Guerrero says that every previous piece of his music was intended to highlight a different path, and Road to Knowhere delivers “the one for the long haul.”
This album is an important piece of work in Guerrero’s entire career through the collection of countless aspects of his professional life. Road to Knowhere may not get the people going, but it has a steady presence, perfect for a wide array of scenarios.
Big Red Machine – Big Red Machine
Like it or not, large sums of money ride on the success of most prominent artists’ work these days. Every second and frequency of every song is immaculately doctored for maximum earworminess. It’s never cool to look like you’re trying, though, so these touch-ups are always invisible: the guts and skeleton behind the immaculate shiny face of the song.
But lately, the persistent image of the impossibly perfect is beginning to backfire on us. So what happens when we get sick and tired of photoshopped models and micro-tuned vocals?
Enter Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, the enigmatic Wisconsinite with his roots in labored folk confessionals and his branches solar systems away. Sometime last year, Vernon met up with The National’s Aaron Dessner and an adoptive family of more than 40 other musicians and emerged in late August with Big Red Machine, a wandering, impressionistic daydream captured and frozen to 46 minutes of sound like Han Solo in carbonite.
The listening experience is like a fever dream; simultaneously ultra-personal and dizzyingly nebulous; full of tangents and ellipses; more a wandering detour than an unfolding story.
“Hymnostic”’s first five seconds outline the contradictory harmony of BRM’s extremes. A grinding mechanical drum loop — or what I assume was once a drum loop — lurches its way through a 1-2-3 sequence, and the ear braces itself for some seriously wack shit. The apprehension is short-lived, however: A piano steals center-stage and runs with it, and in four cozy-warm major chords, the whole song shapeshifts into a gospel ballad.
Other songs ease you into their unique soundscapes: “I Won’t Run From It” practically wears a flannel itself, it’s so drenched in the unmistakable folksiness of Vernon’s earlier work, and “People Lullaby” is achingly tender, swaddling you in a bed of soft pianos and hovering choirs as it drifts in, around, and out again.
But even in these most palatable, familiar moments, the music never sacrifices the downright weirdness with which it announces itself. The authenticity and gravity of these moments are forged through the strangeness, not in spite of it.
Big Red Machine is overwhelming and confusing, like an airport in a foreign country, but it’s also sensory and gripping, like smelling a campfire somewhere you weren’t expecting to. The disorienting is grounded by the familiar, and the familiar is transformed by the disorienting.
Hypnotically repetitive yet endlessly unfolding; storyless yet experiential; equal parts what-the-actual-hell and oh-damn-my-heart — all at the same time. Shot and chaser, mixed into one gnarly screwdriver.
Vernon & company completely invert the prescribed product-process relationship of the zeitgeist. Where many albums attempt to communicate to the listener, Big Red Machine feels more like a conversation between its constituent musicians. It might as well have never been recorded at all. The end result interrogates our expectations for what is truly necessary for music anymore.
I’ll invoke the words of Dave Grohl: “You can sing a song to 85,000 people and they’ll sing it back for 85,000 different reasons.” Big Red Machine is like a constellation, with each stanza and ellipse scattered miles apart, but held together by the album’s emotional and sensory gravity. What’s left in between is a vast interpretive space for the listener to fill with their own experiences and emotions.
Though it’s never entirely clear just what the hell is being sung about — What does “We met up like a ski team” even mean? Do ski teams have a particularly notable way of meeting up? — if we learn anything from Big Red Machine, it’s that music always comes down to the reasons you find to sing it back.
Masego – Lady Lady
Flippant, womanizing attitudes have metastasized from the runoff of hip-hop’s eclipsing cultural influence in many fields of art — few more so than R&B. Gone now are the earnest, soul-bearing R&B ballads of yesteryear.
Or so you might think. But when everyone wears skinny jeans, at a certain point it becomes cooler to defy the trend.
Masego’s latest installment in his magnetic, seductive “trap house jazz,” as he calls it, is on the forefront of affectionate R&B’s revival. Featuring lush instrumentation, crisp drums, and youth-tinged meditations on strong women and loving them, Lady Lady is refreshing, smooth, and downright fun — as much for Masego himself as the listener.
Masego has an old-soul nature, but not in place of his youthful energy. Picture the elegant tenderness of Stevie Wonder with the butter-smooth bullshitting of Anderson .Paak, and you’ll start to get the picture. His music caters to both crowds, drawing influence from black music’s past as much as its present. The result is a form of hyper-accessibility that could just as easily introduce Masego to your parents as your squad.
A self-taught multi-instrumentalist, Masego handles recording, production, and arrangement almost entirely on his own. The payoff is in the compatibility of Masego’s personality with that of the rich, nuanced textures of saxophone chirps and keyboard twinkles that lace the corners of the project. Every element of Lady Lady circles back to its infectiously charming, candlelight-and-curtains personality.
The sun is always setting and the champagne always bubbly in Masego’s musical universe, as the fading drafts of a quiet evening storm dance with the curtains and candlelight. Influences of 80’s R&B and smooth jazz meet pristine kicks and claps in the low-lit room of which Lady Lady invites you, wearing a silk bathrobe and a mischievous grin. Come on in.
Say Sue Me – Where We Were Together
Travel is often a bundle of revelations about the simultaneous diversities and commonalities shared by humanity. New places can be overwhelmingly foreign until you begin to notice the common threads. Hey! They watch Netflix? They’ve got a run-down pharmacy on the corner? Me too! Oh, look! They have problems and bars here too?
South Korea’s Say Sue Me offer yet another opportunity to recognize the shared humanity between people on opposite sides of the globe with Where We Were Together, an ode to bars and the rollercoasters escaped and awoken within them. Their second album navigates themes of indecision, loneliness, and regret the same way all too many of us do: Drinking in a bar. A lot.
The beer-stained, neon-signed four walls of Where We Were Together contain a multitude of places. Lead singer Sumi Choi furnishes it into a quiet, anonymous haven on “Funny and Cute” and a chaotic, ceaseless hurricane on “Let It Begin.” Byungkyu Kim, lead guitarist, and principal songwriter, only needs his six strings to expand the emotive potential of the music. Songs shift from tender and contemplative to writhing, howling wails from within a fairly small stylistic pocket. In all its nuance and content, Where We Were Together never leaves that bar.
For a band who titled their 2014 debut We’ve Sobered Up, this album appears to be a bit of a hard right turn. Sonically, however, everything that propelled their initial release returns in spades on Where We Were Together. Contradictions like these are Choi’s preferred vehicle for her ideas. “I just wanna leave here / but I wanna stay here,” she sings on the infectiously peppy “Old Town.” The album’s opener refrains with “Let it begin,” but the optimism is saddled with the second line’s caveat: “Let it begin again.”
Say Sue Me’s sound is far from innovative, but they aren’t coy or secretive about their lineage. They confidently and comfortably occupy their sweet spot of forlorn, floating phrases familiar to anyone who’s ever heard Yo La Tengo, Wilco, or any indie-rock in general. That the entire outfit is Korean might even not be apparent on a first listen – unless, that is, you find the two songs featuring Korean lyrics.
Their sound is familiar, but it’s not unoriginal — you’re not about to confuse Say Sue Me with anyone else. Kim is particularly fluent in the indie-rock canon, evident in his dynamic use of texture and its ability to transform the context of Choi’s lyrics. When his guitar roars with a wall of distorted cacophony or drags just behind the beat with the slurred cursive of a drink too many, you can smell the cheap beer.
In the internet age, the geographical boundaries of ideas have been blown to smithereens. Seeing a Korean band adopt and wield a style so closely associated with Western music and culture is badass, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. What’s more impressive than the trip its influences took across the planet is how effortlessly and naturally Where We Were Together makes the trip back.
Pink Siifu – ensley
ensley contains a seemingly impossible dichotomy: It’s incomplete and rough around the edges, but it’s also entirely consummate and substantial.
That this balance could be struck at all, let alone with such deft musicality and textured emotion, is an achievement and a testament to the full-blown universes of art tucked away in the corners of the internet. You’ve just gotta be willing to find them.
Born Livingston Matthews, who himself has been the vessel for several other musical acts over the years, Pink Siifu’s style is entirely his own. For practical purposes, I can say that he draws from the funky neo-soul of Anderson .Paak, the sun-soaked L.A. hip-hop of Isaiah Rashad, and the patchwork, lo-fi sampling of Knxwledge, but these are mere reference points, not parallels. Understanding ensley through its (distant) neighbors is like trying to understand NYC by reading the yellow pages.
Siifu’s sound triangulates off all its contradictory, varied elements and the result is entirely unique. Hazy, vignette-framed samples chew and drag in circles, mingling with fuzzy spoken interludes and gorgeous, minimalist instrumentals in a woozy stream-of-consciousness.
Siifu is almost an atmospherist more than an instrumentalist or a vocalist, repurposing everything from old-school hip-hop to heartfelt ballads to old-timey movie scores and churning and swallowing them beyond recognition.
Sounds and concepts recur enough to tip you off, but only their prevalence is obvious: ensley is so consistently defiant of our expected mode of receiving music that each consecutive listen further unfolds the art like an endless matryoshka doll that keeps getting larger. These songs are Harry Potter houses: Initially understated and unassuming, but cross the threshold inside and they violate the laws of physics, expanding several times larger than appears possible.
In a year of labored thirty-track rap albums that could have been twenty minutes (Culture II) and twenty-minute EPs that could have been twice as long (DAYTONA), ensley is deliberately and harmoniously vast. At 25 tracks, it can be initially intimidating, but don’t be fooled.
The song divisions are rather arbitrary; Some contain multiple “songs”, others contain fragments set aside and picked up later, and others are more like connective tissue. ensley might as well have contained ten six-minute songs. Or sixty one-minute songs. Or no songs.
Give it time and attention, though, and the collage of sativa smoke and shifting samples materializes into an image of a spiritual, earnest chameleon of a poet. Siifu’s sedative sepia tones hold meditations on faith, suicide, mental health, alcoholism, black pride, racism — and that’s just what I’ve found — so far.
Not to get too preachy, but without poison berries and sabertooth tigers to watch out for on the African Savannah, our reflex to turn from the unfamiliar hurts us more than it helps us these days. So hold your breath, dive in, and see what you find.
MorMor – Heaven’s Only Wishful
Modern music faces the challenge of keeping up with the ever-shortening attention span of the moment. As MorMor, Toronto-based Seth Nyquist creates an entrancing, nuanced world of synth-pop that swallows you in immersive moods and wide, textured production — all in an impressive 22 minutes.
Despite its runtime, Heaven’s Only Wishful harbors a surprising range of styles and tones. The production is thorough and inviting, with a nostalgic, sunny veneer, not conflicted but expanded upon by the latent grimness lying underneath its crystalline synth-walls and technicolor pop beats.
Nyquist’s characters are complex and haunting, sliding from hushed, defeated murmurs to impassioned, hard-rock frontman howls. Lyrically, they exist in a pile of overlapping vignettes scattered on the floor – but these stars are not without constellation. The fragmented storytelling orbits the music’s center, rather than holding a microscope to it.
Nyquist’s vast vocal and emotional range create and bolster the wide-open space in which these moments float, leaving more than enough room for the listener to fill in themselves.
Whether you’ve come for unrequited love, hungry rage, or cozy lullabies, Heaven’s Only Wishful delivers. Nyquist acknowledges and validates the sorrows of the moment without succumbing to them. There’s a kind of galvanized, weathered optimism in the unwavering delivery of pained sentiments and the self-actualization of meeting that pain head-on.
Sure, we may not be doing spectacularly — we may not even be doing fine, but as Nyquist exhibits, the negatives can be worked into growth, and we don’t have to take it lying down. Not a bad takeaway from the time commitment of a Netflix episode.
Jonathan Wilson – Rare Birds
If I had to guess, I would say there are no conceivable numbers large enough to express how much music has been written about and as a result of a breakup. You’d think it would have gotten old by now — sure, some cliches certainly have exhausted their emotional resonance, but trace art as far back as you can trace it, and you’ll find that some things never change: People love, they lose, and they sing about it.
Rare Birds, the most recent solo album from Jonathan Wilson, is born of the same old simple artistic algebra: (pain) x (time) = (art). Make no mistake: This is a “breakup album,” but only nominally so. Rare Birds is everything but the standard she-left-me-so-I-wrote-this-project project. Rather than retreading that familiar, dreadfully corny ground, Wilson uses his wounds as the emotional catalyst for the expansive soul-searching and artistic exploration that follows.
Much of Wilson’s musical experience comes from being on the other side of the recording booth glass. He’s worked for years in the industry, helping produce Father John Misty’s Grammy-nominated Pure Comedy and recording and touring with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame — just to name a short few. In Rare Birds, Wilson draws from that array of styles and influences, but the end result never feels derivative or contrived.
The casual lyrical absurdities (“Didn’t think a Cadillac could float above the ground”) and sprawling instrumental sections are familiar to 70’s psychedelic rock, but don’t be so quick to pigeonhole. There are passages that could have come from folk, disco, art-rock, or experimental albums.
The sonic palate of Rare Birds is something that only could have come from 2018, featuring flashes and sparks of vocoders, synths, and otherwise strange digital musical noise. Wilson effortlessly blends the two in a way that just makes to the ear, a bold achievement considering the scale and scope of Rare Birds.
Within the expansive vacancies of loss, Wilson finds a stunning level of nuance and variety in his journey through and out of the hollows and shadows of a dead romance’s empty husk. The composition itself is the primary emotional informant throughout the project, vast in the kind of way that begs the question “How long did this take?”
His opulent, detail-oriented orchestration creates room for extraterrestrial sonic landscapes (“Loving You”), neon-tinted pop peculiarities (“Miriam Montague”), and sprawling Floydian odysseys (“Tralfagar Square”), without any sound boxing another out or reaching too far away. Rare Birds is ambitious and sprawling, but never in excess.
When “49 Hairflips” swells with the strings and gravitas you’d expect in a movie theater before retreating back down to the size of the empty room Jonathan Wilson finds himself left in, he admits, with defeated removal: “I’m not leaving these walls without the prettiest song I can find.” It’s more like touching the fourth wall than breaking it; a compromise of a mission statement for not just Rare Birds but any art born from the hollows of despair.
These words can be read as an ascetic penance — choosing to stay inside the walls, returning to the room, affording the price of beauty by wagering one’s own well-being. But they can also be understood as the best way through the hardest places. Perhaps he’s not returning to the room until he finds the art; he’s following the art out of the room.
We don’t choose where we end up, but we do choose what we do from there. Wilson knows that his room opens not when he hides from its core and forgets it, it opens when he walks right into the center and makes something pretty out of it. For a dark room, it’s a gorgeous, colorful takeaway — both musically and philosophically.
Happy new year, you all. Make something pretty out of it.
-The Sideline Sounds Staff