- Ayreon – The Source
As with any release from the mad legend Ayreon Lucassen, this 90-minute epic tale of saving the world from destruction is full of beautiful voices, great features, and kick-ass guitar riffs. Performers such as Russell Allen (Symphony X), Simone Simons (Epica), Hansi Kursch (Blind Guardian), and plenty of others lend their talents to create yet another hard-hitting metal record from the acclaimed artist. No matter if you follow the plots of any of his albums, Luccasen is a great song writer. He can perfectly put the listener in the story. This album is engaging during it’s moments of apocalyptic magnitude of world gone wrong, as well as face melting guitar solos and screeching vocals. Everything that has been said of Ayreon’s works still applies here, which is never a bad thing. This album is a reminder of what makes metal vicious and an incredible source of art. I got lost in the screeching voices from different singers that offer beautiful moments, but also ones of high energy and excitement. The synths and folk elements here are also on point, making the album another diverse offering track after track for the mega group. I hope this guy never stops. No matter how long it takes to get these albums done, it is so worth the wait. Any of these songs can stand on their own as amazing metal tracks. They don’t have to play as fast as lightning or bellow like a mad Viking (though I do love those tracks). These tracks simply show off the range and diversity of this crowded genre.
- Gazelle Twin – Kingdom Come
Gazelle Twin both made me feel ridiculously uncomfortable and make me want to dance in the weirdest way possible on her latest release. “The Suburbs” has a hypnotic, industrial beat that grips you tight as you bob your head to the beat. “Metro,” is the opposite as it’s a track that has Twin singing like your worst nightmare standing right behind you (I mean this in the best way possible). The album wastes no opportunity to create an uneasy atmosphere, while capturing the interest of the listener with it’s melancholy, haunting production. She blends together ambient, industrial, synth production with her unique vocals so well. Twin also has excellent lyricism here which I thought was a bit lacking in previous releases. In this, she sounds like a wandering spirit from Hell. “You can’t reach me/ you can’t hurt me/ I can suck you dry,” is repeated on the track “I Consume Only.” It’s an amazing line which is made better with distorted vocals from Twin. I also love how each song flows so well. It’ll begin with a somber droning, and then transform into a whole new thing, like the song “Hallowed.” The way it progresses shows off Twin’s growing ability to create engaging and well put together songs. To me, this is her finest work. Every track on here is interesting to listen to bringing me back for multiple listens to get the same uncomfortable feeling I had on the previous go.
- Fever Ray – Plunge
Boy oh boy is this an unrelenting, exciting piece of music filled with sexual tension and a passion for excellence. It’s been eight years since the last Fever Ray album. This release marks a step up in quality for the artist in all sorts of ways. These pop songs are filled with dark, danceable beats that you will fall in love upon initial listen. I couldn’t take myself away from how hypnotic Ray makes each track. The title track is a non-vocal piece of lively and enchanting beats. Ray’s execution in creating harsh, lush, and vibrant arrangements puts her on a whole new level that makes me so excited for more work from the Swedish artist. These beats match the striking lyricism that she writes this time around. She doesn’t shy away from her feelings of love and desire on any of these songs. This direct approach of songwriting is excellent on her part. They don’t feel out of place because of how each song is laid out. “An Itch” is this unsettling song where Ray begins to feel almost threatened by her lust for others even though she is already with someone she loves. She has this urge to be touched by people who want her. Compare this to “Mustn’t Hurry,” which has her taking her time with, not only putting out a piece of work that she is proud of, but to also not to rush into a relationship that she might regret. That theme is very universal, as we could all, from time to time, take time for ourselves and not rush life. I love her writing on here, no matter the track. The standout track, in my opinion, is “This Country.” Its direct, political, sexual, harsh response to a country that faces all sorts of hardships for people is fantastic. She does not beat around the bush on this track. Her feelings, as well as thousands of others, is right in your face, as it should be.
- Billy Woods – Known Unknowns
NOBODY TALKED ABOUT THIS ALBUM THIS YEAR, AND THAT IS FRUSTRATING! I get that not everyone will get behind this incredibly dense record. I’ve listened to this record about a dozen times, including right now as I write this. No matter if you catch every lyric, or even read up on the lyrics, it’s very cryptic. With that said, I am so in love with this record. I’m interested in people approaching song writing in different shapes and forms, no matter the genre. Billy Woods is putting forth so much with enough effort, passion, and style that you must applaud him for. There’s never a dull moment in his flow or lyrics during the album. The only way I keep describing this album to myself and others is that Billy Woods heard Lupe Fiasco’s outstanding track, “Mural,” from his 2015 magnificent album Tetsuo and Youth. That song paints this huge painting on a blank canvas. The artist doesn’t hesitate what the brush does; he just leaves his mark on the canvas. Billy Woods created a whole art gallery for everyone to explore. You’ll be perplexed but intrigued during the duration of your stay. Besides Woods spitting out whatever he dares, Blockhead is back to lend a creative hand on the record. As usual, his beats are amazing. They’re upbeat, melodic, and sick as Hell. The features are also fantastic, my favorites being Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman. These two pair off so well together. I am rooting for both dudes to stay together for as long as they can. I want to keep getting lost in Woods’s lyrics, no matter how obscure it gets.
- St. Vincent – Masseduction
This woman is everything. When I say I was shaking with anticipation for this record to drop, that is an understatement. Her last album is one of my favorites of all time, arguably her best work. On Masseduction, she focuses a lot on the concept of love, regret, and power in a different angle than previous works. There’s a lot more art/synth pop going on, but that’s not a bad thing. I fell in love with St. Vincent all over again as I’ve listened to the album about a dozen times now. “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” is quite possibly one of her best songs, bringing me to tears upon first listen. The song is one of several confessional songs Vincent plays throughout. The opening track is about her thinking about a past love, regretting the mistakes that the pair made together yet she still wants to be with them. This then leads to two songs about power in two different ways. “Pills,” stab at Big Pharma companies along with her own ways to cope with a world that is finding new ways to deal with day to day life. The title track is the first song to get into the sexual nature of some of the tracks, which works really well with the album’s themes. These three tracks put together showcase what the rest of the album is going to be like. Her songwriting is consistent, never straying away from what the album is all about. I will say the downside to this album is that we are missing the sick guitar riffs that we all know she can do. There are some, but when her self-titled album destroyed speakers with how heavy and rip-roaring she can get, it is disappointing to not hear it again. Of course, it can’t be all too bad for this critic, since it is high up on this year’s list. Long live Annie Clark.
- Susanne Sundfor – Music for People in Trouble
Walking home from work during the winter time as grey clouds hung over the city and the air was cold as ice, Susanne Sundfor’s voice kept me company. Music for People in Trouble is exactly as the title suggests; these songs offer comfort for listeners, while also having them face some inner demons head on. We can’t always back away from our problems. Over the course of 10 songs, she can be calm, poetic, somber, gorgeous, and hopeful. The important part is how the album is put together. These songs flow with grace. The album starts off with the most gorgeous song I have ever heard, “Mantra.” It’s about finding positivity within the negative. She eases you in with her enchanting voice and beautiful piano. It all starts off on a hopeful note, as the next song, “Reincarnation” deals with all our worries about what the future holds, as well as other issues of morality and love. This theme is present throughout the album as well as trying to find some solace during the all the chaos.
As Sundfor carries you through this record, she departs from the production of her previous works, favoring more piano, strings, and horns, using only minor electronic elements to enhance a track with sounds of nature, as well as a very interesting spoken word portion. This approach to the album is for the better, as the songs leave a much larger impact than if she kept up with what she has done in the past. Each song has something excellent to behold. “Good Luck Bad Luck” has this smoky jazz club ending to it, while “Undercover” provides this cathartic classical arrangement that is to die for. At the end of it all, this is a success in so many ways. There are so many artists who focus on the bad in the world while ignoring what good can be done. Sundfor reminds us that, while we should never ignore the horrors of the world, we should never stray away from trying to stand up for what is right. She leads us into her mindset, one that is conflicted about so many issues, but also eager for what is to come next.
- Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Yet again, KDot manages to still be one of the best mainstream artists active right now. There’s already been enough said about DAMN. He’s angry, meaningful, and engaging. In every song, he does all heavy lifting, only to bring Rihanna and U2 with great features. Hearing him spit his excellently crafted lyrics still amazes me. Even after making his masterpiece, To Pimp a Butterfly, he still manages to write raps that have all sorts of emotions, flows, and themes carried by sick production from several different contributors. Take something like “FEEL” where Lamar battles with all sorts of feelings he has towards different issues. It’s a song that so many can resonate with as we all feel so much during these times. The genius of the song is also how simple of an idea it is. The hook is simple, yet poignant. The album is also a great way to show how a huge artist in the mainstream world can make an album that doesn’t just have one or two singles. So many of these big names, as we all know, have those singles and not much else on their releases. Lamar shows that albums should always be an artist’s best work being put forth. We as listeners know this, but it always feels like it’s being forgotten by the mainstream. Overall, DAMN is another excellent piece of work from an equally excellent artist. The world is going mad, and Lamar puts a spotlight on what makes all of us just say “Damn.”
- Sun Kil Moon – Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood
OK, first, I decided to cut down to choosing only one release from Mark Kozelek this year because I totally was going to put the Jesu / Sun Kil Moon collaboration on here. I thought it’s only fair to keep it to the one. If you know me, you know I am in love this man and anything he puts out. This past year, along with the two already mentioned, he put out a collaboration album with Sean Yeaton, another with Ben Boye and Jim White, and an EP. They’re all worth listening to.
Common as Light is a long, long album delivering some of Kozelek’s best songs that are funny and political. This record is over two hours of him tackling many different topics in various locales and pathos. Trump, his younger days as a child back in Ohio, how he loves Portugal after he had to cancel a performance there, awkward Sarah Lawrence college visits, and a lot more. Many moments among the tracks Mark is really pissed off. On “Window Sash Weights,” he’s angered by the unsolved murder of Elisa Lam, as well as frustrated about how an upcoming performance will go at Sarah Lawrence college. His head, just like any song, is swimming with all sorts of thoughts. Even though we get this frustration and angered voice, at the end, he tells us he loves us all no matter what. He’s also pissed off about a hundred other topics that we can all relate to on these songs. This is something that Kozelek does a lot. He writes songs where he gets real and raw about situations that he or we are going through. On this record, it’s vital that we hear what he has to say, considering the problems the world is facing. We don’t need a big superstar to give it to us safely so that they cause no controversy. Kozelek has, and never will, care about stirring up emotions. A good example “Lone Star” tackles Texas bigots. He continually bashes them for not treating transgender people properly. Then, it all turns to a cry out to all of us who voted in Trump, putting the blame for all these problems on social media.
In terms of production, this one most diverse Sun Kil Moon albums that isn’t a collaboration. There’s keyboards, excellent vocal distortion, heavy-bass tracks, bells, and more. Some tracks start off with a hard-hitting guitar riff (“Highway Song”), another will be somber (“God Bless Ohio”), then another starts very cheerful (“Bastille Day”), or the song combines all different emotions throughout. This is albums blooms in all sorts of ways over the long runtime. It boasts Kozelek’s effort to improve himself as an artist. He’s pushing his work to new levels, while maintaining the identity he’s made for himself. He’s still making us laugh, melancholy, root for the people he speaks about, and think about why others aren’t telling us how it is. I’m not talking musicians; I’m talking about anyone. You can’t handle these issues with a blunt honesty? You have to beat around the bush or make a statement in a very standard, non-impactful way? Kozelek will always open his heart to whoever listens, telling you about just about anything you’d like to hear about.
- Boris – Dear
There is no better nightmare I had this year than listening to this downward spiral into chaos. Boris is a dynamic trio from Japan who have been around for years. Their discography is lengthy, and if you haven’t gone through it, do it (I still have a lot to listen from them). Dear is their crowning achievement. This is their great epic on a scale not seen this year. It bothers me how this was not on Top Metal albums of the year on any publication because this is unlike anything that came out this year in the genre.
It hits you with a ton of bricks, gripping your body with a tight grip, yet you’ll never beg for mercy. “D.O.W.N – Domination of Waiting Noise,” is the perfect setup for the album. The thick-as-molasses guitar and bass give off this amplified feeling of doom and dread. It opens up with drawn out, hollow, haunting vocals. It sprawls out with the track sounding like a beginning of a terrible journey through Hell, with the drums perfectly accompanying the rest of the group. From there, the band remains cemented in a consistently heavy album that is brimming with new ways to melt your ears. At the same time, tracks such as “Kagero”, while managing the amplified strings, has a beautiful and haunting vocal performance. Boris shows off their diverse range of styles they can accomplish on Dear. This is a noisy, ferocious, violent, gorgeous, risky album. The trio does something wildly different track to track, managing to engage listeners with a never-ending barrage of noise. The wailing guitar solos on top of all of it makes it a masterpiece. The fact that this isn’t talked about more is concerning, since these guys are one of the biggest names in the genre, and they are pushing their own envelope way past the limit. This is their finest work.
- Run the Jewels – RTJ 3
El-P and Killer Mike are on a holy pedestal of heroic and inspirational quality that I don’t hold for many others. Since their formation, the duo has been an unstoppable force of power and aggression, riling up audiences with their lyrics from Run the Jewels to Run the Jewels 3. Suffice to say, this record means a lot to me for different reasons, as well as being a very poignant, aggressively thoughtful, often hopeful album that has catapulted them to being one of my favorite groups in any genre of all time. Period.
It all starts with “Down”, a track Mike and El contemplate where they are right now. The two have taken giant steps forward since their formation that they are finally getting the recognition they so well deserve. “I hope with the highest of hopes / That I never have to go back to the trap / And my days of dealing with dope.” An excellent opening lyric to the album. The hope that the two, as well any other person in their similar situation of finding success, won’t go back to their dark days, both of whom have spoken about. “I’ma do right, get a new crew / Make a new life, never boo-hoo / Never lose sight, I’m a voodoo / With a burst heart from an old soul,” spits El-P, who, good God, can produce and rap like any top dog in the game. His whole verse here gives me chills, as he lifts the spirits of anybody listening that they should never back down the pursuit for success.
The string of tracks that start with “Talk to Me,” and ends with “Hey Kids (Bumaye)” is a series of bangers that also feature the great songwriting of the duo, as well as El-P producing beats that are infefectious. They rap about the being sickest rappers, and about different political views, especially on “Hey Kids (Bumaye).” After that, the rest of the tracks, except for “Panther Like a Panther” and “Oh Mama” (though the hook there is reflective of their lifestyle) are thoughtful songs, penetrating different ideals of what is going down in unrelenting fashion. Their lyrics are reminiscent of what millions are feeling right now. We want peace, but we got fight for it. We have a lot of fear and hate, but there is always someone, “there by your side for the fight,” says El-P on “2100.” The emotions really kick in on “Thursday in the Danger Room,” a contemplative track about the loss of friends Camu Tao and a friend of Mike’s, who was shot for his chain. It features a very nice saxophone solo from Kamasi Washington. The record ends on a look for the future of the duo as well as predicting the apocalypse. This is the playlist for the end of the world.
Personally, Run the Jewels is a massive influence on me. These two inspire me, and I hope others, to not only push myself creatively to be the best, but also to get involved in the conversation of what is going on around the world. They’re vocal about their views, and while I don’t agree with Mike every time, the pair only want what is best for their community, as well as the world. They also want to savagely tear apart the rap game, and that is exactly what their doing.
On a side note: meeting Mike this past February had an impact on me, even if it was brief. I had my Uncle Ben shirt on where it reads, “With great power comes great responsibility.” He came out of the House of Blues in Boston while my brother and I got in line about 2 ½ hours early. When he saw me waiting in line to say, “Hi,” he had me cut the line just to talk to me because he loved the saying, and I told him it’s words to live by. He really enjoyed that I seriously meant. I’ll always remember that.
Run them jewels fast, Jewel Runners.
There’s a lot more to listen to, both this year, next, and the past. That’s the majesty in listening to music; there’s always something amazing and awful waiting for you. Here’s to another great year of music in 2018.