Saturday, February 09, 2019

Best Of 2018: Rock, Folk, Etc.

The “Etc.”in this category used to mean mostly jazz, Latin and what I’m calling “global” to refer to music from outside the U.S. that doesn’t easily slot in elsewhere. But in an effort to tame the beast, I’ve now broken those genres out into their own list. Not only will this help make this post more coherent - especially when listening to the playlist - but it will ensure that extraordinary albums from those areas don’t get lost in the shuffle. A future post will give them a place to shine.

Even so, nearly half of the songs and pieces I put in my general “Of Note” playlist for 2018 were sorted into rock and folk. Part of that is likely due to the fact that I was born in 1964, which makes rock & roll one of my first languages. But mostly I think it’s due to the power of song and its abilities as a form of communication. Of course, much of what follows is sonically adventurous as well, which speaks of the protean nature of this music, some of which was deemed simplistic at its birth. But there is a wide gulf between simple and elemental and those whom these records touch will be firmly aware of the difference.

Besides the brilliant records in this category that demanded a place in my Top 25, I found time to point you toward other great music in the previous posts I list below. Don't miss Seabuckthorn's misty acoustic fantasias, David Garland's alchemy of folk, electronic and classical, Courtney Barnett's guitar-driven deep thoughts, Father John Misty's wry soft-rock, Melody Fields' lush psych, Snail Mail's emotionally piercing indie or the tough yet melodic sounds of Starcrawler, Wand and Wooden Shjips. Unclassifiable albums by Ethan Woods, Oracle Hysterical and Thomas Bartlett & Nico Muhly should fascinate listeners of folk, chamber music and even prog rock. Then there's the gimlet-eye of Eddie Dixon, the classy pop of Dubstar, the even classier folk of Olivia Chaney, gorgeous takes on Americana from Ocean Music, John Calvin Abney and The Dead Tongues, and, finally, soul-infused folk-rock from Phil Cook and Billy Joseph. Whew! Following that are very brief takes on many others that you really should hear. The story of music in 2018 would be incomplete without at least a passing familiarity with all of them.

Previously Noted

One Day In 2018

Ethan Woods - Mossing Around

Outliers, Part 1
Oracle Hysterical - Hecuba
Thomas Bartlett & Nico Muhly - Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music

Outliers, Part 2
Seabuckthorn - A House With Too Much Fire
David Garland - Verdancy

Record Roundup: Rock 100's
Courtney Barnett - Tell Me How You Really Feel
Father John Misty - God's Favorite Customer
Jane Church - Calimocho Molotov! (Note: the version of the album reviewed here is no longer available; the new version is one of the best releases of early 2019 and will be reviewed later!)
Melody Fields - Melody Fields
Roaming Herds Of Buffalo - The Bugbears
Snail Mail - Lush
Starcrawler - Starcrawler
Wand - Perfume
Wooden Shjips - V.

Best Of 2018 (So Far)
Eddie Dixon - Coinstar

Record Roundup: Forms Of Escape
Dubstar - One

Record Roundup: Cornucopia Of Folk And Americana
Olivia Chaney - Shelter
Ocean Music - Various Releases
Phil Cook - People Are My Drug
The Dead Tongues - Unsung Passage
John Calvin Abney - Coyote
Billy Joseph & The Army Of Love - You Know Which Way To Go

Indie Rock, They Call It

Car Seat Headrest - Twin Fantasy While I hope Will Toledo isn’t planning to remake all 459.33 albums he released on Bandcamp before his move to the upper echelons of indie success with Teens Of Denial, I get the impulse to apply a bigger budget and band to these songs to push them to their full potential. And damn if it doesn’t sound even more epic than you could have imagined, a furious distillation of all the best angst-ridden guitar music from the last 30 years. If he can’t ignore the retrospective impulse, however, I recommend a live album as he is a true rock & roll legend on stage!

Phantastic Ferniture - Phantastic Ferniture Julia Jacklin is an Australian treasure and her debut album Don't Let The Kids Win was one of the best of 2016. This side project, dashed off with old friends Elizabeth Hughes (guitar) and Ryan Brennan (drums) occasionally feels too dashed off, with underdeveloped guitar riffs, but when it rips, it really rips and it's a thrill to hear Jacklin let loose. Stoked for her next album, Crushing, out on February 22.

Nap Eyes - I’m Bad Now If you opened your mouth to sing and a voice rather similar to Lou Reed in his sweeter moments came out would you end your music career? Or start it? Nigel Chapman, singer for this Nova Scotian quartet, took the latter approach and I have enjoyed watching Nap Eyes grow up in public since 2011. This third album finds their trademark warmth and humor applied to songwriting that seems more focused and extroverted, led musically by Brad Loughland’s guitar, which has a new and welcome sting to it. 


TV Girl - Death Of A Party Girl While the hints of hip hop have drained away, Brad Petering’s vision of a take on 60’s sunshine pop assembled from spare parts continues to be durably delightful for much of this album. The lyrics, which sometimes seem to be cribbed from text exchanges between hungover yet sensitive bros regretful about repeating their mistakes, provide pithy twists and turns along with the catchy melodies. 

Watoo Watoo - Modern Express After quenching the thirst of fans of St. Etienne, Stereolab, and Air for the last decade, this French duo has announced that this is their final album. They might say, “C’est la vie," but I say “Quel domage,” as their smart, breezy pop almost never fails. 

Historian - Distant Wells When I included a song from this in my Off Your Radar mixtape, I said: "Chris Karman should be a household name — at least in any household that values chamber pop. His songs as Historian often feature exquisite string arrangements, for one thing, and usually seem designed to accompany a rainswept view seen through murky glass.” If that’s your thing, look no further. 

Alekesam - Sound Proof Heart It’s been three years since All Is Forgiven, the first single I heard from this duo of Sal Masekela (son of Hugh) and Sunny Levine (son of Hugh’s longtime producer, Stewart). I was starting to wonder. Maybe the delay was due to trying to come up with more songs to match that propulsive, haunting tune. To be honest, they haven’t - but they’ve come close on many of these tracks, using elements of hip hop, soul and dub to arrive at a unique form of pop. Masekela has a great voice, too, and sounds like he was born an old soul. Even when they stumble, I can’t really say anyone is doing what they do. I was also thrilled to see they had dragged my beloved BLK JKS (whose debut, After Robots, was my #1 album of 2009) out of hiatus to record a stirring cover of Hugh Masekela’s The Boy’s Doin’ It, in tribute to the master. 

On The Arty Side

Rafiq Bhatia - Breaking English This guitarist-composer is known for the rich sonic environments he helps create for Son Lux. On his own, he sticks to instrumentals and displays an uncanny ability to convert noise, melody and chord sequences into pure emotion. While he has been “file under jazz” in the past, the tempos, rhythms and level of distortion here should thrill anyone who believes in the power of rock music. Strong lashings of gospel feel also lend a spiritual aspect to Bhatia’s music. Truly remarkable how much Breaking English speaks to me without saying a word. 

Big Red Machine - Big Red Machine It’s always a bit dodgy when someone whose music you love, in this case Justin Vernon (Bon Iver, Volcano Choir, etc.), joins forces with someone who leaves you cold, specifically Aaron Dessner of snooze-rockers The National. But I’m happy to say that this record hits all the right buttons for me, with exploratory settings for heartfelt songs. Perhaps it was producer Brad Cook or all the other collaborators who kept things down to earth. And could there be a more “Justin Vernon” opening line than what he sings on the gorgeous Gratitude: “Well, I better not fuck this up”?

Sunwatchers - II I’ve been rooting for these guys ever since a well-written recommendation had me buying their first album off the wall at Record Grouch, sound unheard. Their shamanistic, mantric free-jazz-rock was a bit schematic on that album, but on this follow-up they come loaded for bear. The arrangements are tight, with swerving tempos and shifting dynamics. Go deeper with Basement Apes, Vol. 1, a collection of live tracks and other material. And if you’re curious about the source of the passion behind their instrumental tracks, look no further than the cover, which states, “Sunwatchers stand in solidarity with the dispossessed, impoverished and embattled people of the world.” Amen. 

Fenster - The Room Made up of three Germans and one American, Fenster wowed me with debut album Bones in 2012, but there's been a bit of a diminishing returns scenario since then. Now they have my attention again, their off-kilter art-pop lusher and wittier than ever.

Lanz - Hoferlanz II Benjamin Lanz, who has toured in the bands of both The National and Sufjan Stevens, seems to agree with me that George Harrison's It's All Too Much is one of the greatest ever songs by The Beatles. That same sense of groovy joy infuses this album, although it travels far afield from that core of inspiration. Enjoy the journey. 

Epic 45 - Through Broken Summer Seven years on from Weathering, which was in my Top 20 for 2012, these poets of a lost England return with plenty of shimmering guitars and synths to accompany their hushed vocals, creating waking dreams. The occasional introduction of 80’s production tropes is something they may want to keep an eye on.

Empath - Liberating Guilt and Fear This four-song EP by my second favorite Philly art-rock band (after Palm) is a statement of purpose, blending the tempos of hardcore punk with complex guitar parts, spraying harmonic dissonance under vocals that shout and speak, sometimes sweetly. Adding their two singles (both called Environments) made for an excellent playlist if you're looking for an album-length experience - and I definitely am!

Golden Drag - Pink Sky Sometimes it’s the side project that connects, as with this new band from Shehzaad Jirwani of Greys, who are usually described as a “noise-punk” band. With Golden Drag, Jirwani has unleashed both his gift for melody and his love for 70’s art-rock (think Eno’s first two albums) for nine punchy, colorful tracks that will have you seeing him in a whole new light. 

Young Fathers - Cocoa Sugar It took three albums, but this trio from Scotland finally caught up with their own ideas and made a near classic. This is the kind of record Tricky used to make: sonically inventive, lyrically ambitious, only coming into focus after a few listens - and demanding further engagement.

On The Heavier Side

Uni - 2018 Singles This glam-psych explosion helmed by Charlotte Kemp-Muhl (bass, songwriting, evil designs) and David Strange (guitar heroics) has been teasing us with singles since 2017 with no sign of a full-length. Pretend these six crunchy, shiny, highly melodic and maximally heavy tracks are Side One. Kemp-Muhl has been on my radar since she and partner Sean Lennon teamed up brilliantly as the Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger. Now that he’s off wanking around with the obnoxious Les Claypool, she’s the one keeping up the quality in their household. And the name is pronounced “Oonee,” which doesn’t make it any easier to Google. Put in the work, though - it will be worth it. 

Idles - Joy As An Act Of Resistance On their second album, this Bristol-based quintet finds the line between anger and compassion - and anthem and abrasion - with powerful consistency. I've heard they deliver even more on stage, so hoping to see them at Brooklyn Steel in May.

Acid Dad - Acid Dad If you seek the tight, melodic and kick-ass, look no further than these Brooklyn rockers as they deliver on the promise of their 2016 EP, Let's Plan A Robbery.

Mt. Wilson Repeater - V’ger While I try to keep up with Merge Records releases, I had never heard of this solo project by Jim Putnam, his main gig, Radar Brothers, or, in fact, Putnam himself. I don’t feel totally to blame as the most recent Radar Brothers album was five years ago and Putnam’s last under this moniker was a full decade in the past. No matter - I started here and fell fast for his fuzzed out psych rock, which seesaws from high energy jams to spaced out mantras. Climb aboard and see if you enjoy the trip as much as I do. 


Caroline Says - No Fool Like An Old Fool Caroline Sallee likes to play with perceptions and expectations, taking her band name from a Lou Reed song and using titles like Sweet Home Alabama, Rip Off and Cool Jerk on this, her second release. I think it’s a defense, cloaking her intimate, seemingly revealing songs in these costumes of the past so maybe they don’t feel so personal. I’m in favor of whatever she needs to do to get her songs finished and out in the world because they are lovely and more well-realized than ever. 

Hovvdy - Cranberry The name of this duo is pronounced “Howdy” - perhaps Charlie Martin or Will Taylor had a typewriter with a broken “W” - and some of that fuzzy 90’s slacker attitude (remember Lost In Austin on MTV? These guys are based in Austin) drifts into their low-fi, strummy aesthetic. What’s amazing is how often what seems aimless coheres to hit its target in song after song. 

Loma - Loma I’m not sure if this is a debut or a one-off as it involves Jonathan Meiburg, who’s usually pretty busy with Shearwater, and two other members, Emily Cross and David Duszynski, who have (had?) their own band called Cross Record. They met on tour, hit it off and came up with a compelling blend of haunting folk and immersive sonics. As stunning as the production is, however it would have no impact if the emotional well wasn’t overflowing. Let it quench your thirst for all the feels. 

Tomberlin - At Weddings “I wish I were a hero with something beautiful to say,” Sarah Beth Tomberlin sings on A Video Game. Well, anyone who can transform what sounds like an isolated childhood into the fully realized art of the songs on this debut is a hero to me. Singing hymns in church may have instilled her with a structural awareness as these songs, while ethereal at times, are solid as a rock. 

Elizabeth Owens - Coming Of Age All credit due to Doug Nunnally, the fearless editor of Off Your Radar, whose new publication, The Auricular, turned me on to Owens. Her prog-folk is more well-developed from the standpoint of songwriting and arrangement than production (the drums, especially, lack warmth), which is, I imagine, due to budgetary constraints. But she is a true original (although Ode To Joni gives a clear clue about her inspirations) with a beautiful voice that demands close attention. I get chills imagining the moment when her ambitions are fully realized. 

Marissa Nadler - For My Crimes On her eighth album, Nadler’s rich voice graces 11 mesmerizing songs, some tinged with an exquisite darkness. The production, spare and atmospheric, is perfectly suited, and if you don’t get a lump in your throat when she sings “I can’t listen to Gene Clark anymore without you,” perhaps you should pay closer attention. 

Bettye LaVette - Things Have Changed Bob Dylan might want to hire the devastating team of Bettye LaVette and Steve Jordan to work on his next album - Jordan to produce and LaVette to help with song selection and maybe to tweak a lyric or three. That’ll probably never happen but we’ll always have this ripping set, which finds LaVette singing the hell out of a rather distinctive selection from the master’s catalog. LaVette has been making records since 1962 so she knows what she likes and also won’t suffer singing something she can’t feel her way into. For a taste of the true magic underway here, check out her rescue of Political World, a song I used to skip on Oh, Mercy, an album I otherwise love. Other times she turns her attention to songs I always knew were great but had trouble convincing others of their worth, like Seeing The Real You At Last or Going, Going Gone. If you’re having trouble finding this gem, look no further than the top of any list of single-artist cover albums. Or late-career resurgence albums. But don’t wait, whether you’re a Dylan fan or that other kind of person. 

There’s Still An Etc. 

Thom Yorke - Suspiria Yorke's Radiohead comrade Jonny Greenwood has been plying his trade in cinemas for years, but this is Yorke’s first feature-length score. While it would have been tempting to imitate or update some of the slippery Euro-prog of Goblin’s score for the original film, Yorke has taken a different approach, or approaches as there are several styles at work here. Perhaps some of the more fear-inducing tonal pieces on this double album, impressive as they are, should have remained in the darkened theater as they tend to obscure the more characterful selections, i.e. the songs, which is where Yorke truly excels. What that means is that you will want to dig through to find gems like Suspirium, one of the most beautiful piano ballads Yorke has ever recorded. 

Listen to selections from all of these albums, except Mossing Around (come over, I’ll play it for you) here or below. You can also explore more in these genres with this handy archive playlist

You may also enjoy:


  1. Thanks a lot!

    Hopefuly there'll be a final Watoo Watoo gig one day.

    Now I play with Vacance

  2. That would be something to see! And thanks for the tip on Vacance - will investigate!