Albums that caught our ear in 2018, Part one

— Features — Editor

Welcome to a special Guide to the Week of Music: the first instalment of a two-part article gathering together some of the many albums that have caught our ear in 2018. We’ve enjoyed countless wonderful albums this year, which together, reaffirm the magic, vitality and irreproducible qualities of live performance, but also the great importance of music technology, of collaboration, cultural exchange and stylistic fusion, beyond the confines of genre or classification. We’ve revelled in the juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary music and are fascinated by how different customs and cultures, recording processes and resources, have led to recordings brilliant and wholly unique. We couldn’t possibly include every single record that has impressed us this year, but have endeavoured to bring together 40 in no particular order, that we have ourselves treasured and hope you can enjoy too.

The Fernweh – The Fernweh

If The Fernweh’s debut album has a quintessentially English aura, it may be because centuries worth of English culture feed into its broad-ranging makeup. From the quaint, bucolic quality of a Purcell sonata to the earnest and rugged presence of Britain’s folk lineage, Robin Dale’s candid shots of Northern life to the works of creatives like Oliver Postgate, whose programming enchanted the childhoods of innumerable British people. In less abstract terms, its lush arrangements reference everything from late sixties and early seventies psychedelic rock, baroque pop and R&B to older folk and classical styles. We hear layers of stringed instrumentation on Hand Me Down, differing drastically to the Pet Sounds-esque arrangement of electric keyboard, hand percussion and plucked electric bass on A Leaf Didn’t Move. Ambitious, somewhat avant-garde suites like Little Monsters show the band’s versatility and vision, while soft interludes and codas guide our hops from sonic lilypad to lilypad. Albums like this are increasingly difficult to come by; a work that evokes nostalgia without compromising authenticity, providing the much-needed transportation away from reality… for a short while, at least. If you like Billy Nicholls, The Zombies, Relatively Clean Rivers or Fairport Convention, you may just fall in love with this record too.

Sons of Kemet – Your Queen is a Reptile

When Sons of Kemet’s third studio record was nominated for the Mercury Prize earlier this year, there was an almost tangible sense that the stars had aligned; that with a booming London jazz scene behind it, a biting political presence and poignant homage to unsung female heroes of the African diaspora within it, the record would be a worthy and timely winner. It may’ve ultimately lost out to Wolf Alice’s sophomore effort Visions of a Life, but it remains a triumphant album all the same. The studious, sensitive and sensational saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings has poured years worth of purposeful reading and musical assimilation into this project. Having witnessed Soweto Kinch ‘unpick,’ or ‘decode’ historic jazz records while under his mentorship, there’s a feeling that he has done the same, arriving at the distinctive, powerful, efficient and rhythmic style of expression we hear him leading his band with. Flanked by two percussionists and underpinned by the emphatic, urbanised tuba stylings of Theon Cross, he has crafted a weighty yet relatable celebration of African heritage and contemporary music’s debt to it. A record that can be danced to, or provide the start point for a journey in social anthropology and historical discovery. A record of great significance in many impressive ways.

Anda Union – Heemor (The Wind Horse reprise)

Sometimes artists disavow work made early in their career, but very few are bold enough to completely rerecord it. Anda Union’s debut album, The Wind Horse, was a majestic collection of songs encapsulating Mongolian music and customs – they simply felt it could be better done; that they could bring, ‘a new maturity and depth of sound,’ to the music. With new arrangements, instruments, band members and a couple of additional songs to boot, what they and engineer Richard King achieved is a sound of astonishing beauty. King’s experience in recording the subtleties of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello playing equip him perfectly to capture the unique sound quality of Anda Union’s morin khuur’s (horse-headed fiddles), not to mention their array of percussion, assortment of related stringed instruments and their awe-inspiring, harmonically incredible throat singing. These ‘tales of love, brotherhood, courage, and the magical nomadic spirit’ transcend music criticism, even modern society. This record is a document of a truly epic cultural phenomenon that can thankfully never be lost.

Cedric Burnside – Benton County Relic

If you recognise the name, you most likely know half of the story. Cedric Burnside is the grandson of Hill country blues legend R. L. Burnside, and pours the same raw, honest and electric intensity into Benton County Relic that R.L. channelled on his many career recordings. A no-frills, two man electric blues record, Benton County Relic features Cedric’s vocals (a touch of slapback delay cushioning them), his electric guitar (a healthy coating of fuzz and spring reverb substantiating it), Brian Jay’s drums (sounding as natural as a kit can) and the occasional line of backing vocal from Jay too. That’s it. You wonder why anyone would ever ask for more. The album sounds exactly like Cedric sounds live: it’s gutsy and powerful, wrought with feeling and entrenched in heavy heavy groove. The songwriting is direct, the fundamentals of each song never masquerading, relying solely on their inherent power and purpose. Listen to the album and you’ll feel exactly what Cedric feels. You’ll know him to be one of contemporary blues’ truly special artists.

Great News – Wonderfault

The picturesque coastal city of Bergen has witnessed the creation of several accomplished debuts this year. The first to catch our attention was Great News’ Wonderfault, an expansive indie record packed with vibrant electric guitars and sparking synths. Tracks like Secrets recall the sounds of early eighties ‘80s new wave, with rolled-off electric bass, processed drums and cycling synth lines, whereas songs like Wonderfault have more contemporary arrangements, where swung beats, humongous guitar sounds and synths rise into euphoric choruses. The second you think you have their sound worked out, the band show you something different: Untouchable representing a timely change of pace, before Never Get My Love introduces a balearic beat and groovy, almost Stone Roses-esque groove. It’s rare that such dense productions sound so clean, tight and purposeful, but this beautifully-produced record is a fine example of one that does.

Orions Belte – Mint

Mint is another beautifully-produced LP, created at the Bergen Kjøtt creative complex overlooking the island of Sotra and entrance to the North Sea. It’s a grittier trio record to that of Great News, where the imperfections feed into the allure of the music. Rattling snare wires and amp hum fill the vacant spaces, as broad-ranging musical ideas play out. The diverse, earnest and groovy debut album wears its appreciation for desert and Delta blues, krautrock and R&B on its sleeve – each track giving us an assortment of delectable grooves, riffs and instrumental tones. This is the sound of care free musicians creating to their heart’s content, uncovering awesome ideas and crafting the coolest jams along the way.

Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo

Khruangbin’s sophomore LP is the perfect companion to the aforementioned Orions Belte work: both possessing a grubby, groovy, discovered at the back of a neglected record crate charm. Maria También sounds like it could’ve been crafted in ‘70s Morocco or Turkey, by a band like Golden Hands or 3 Hür El. Its handclaps and cool harmony between electric bass and guitar, extended Andalusian cadence and infectious backbeat, all thicken the musical intrigue, which the band brilliantly stretch over ten varied, consistently interesting and gorgeously arranged slices of worldly-wary R&B. Evan Finds the Third Room has a desert blues pentatonic guitar riff, but is otherwise your archetypical slow disco get down and that juxtaposition of elements makes the entire project tirelessly engaging.

Al Breadwinner & Nat Birchall – Sounds Almighty

Producer Al Breadwinner is a reggae engineering and dub mixing scholar, who has amassed the knowledge and equipment to master the exacting analog craft over the years. Joining forces with saxophonist Nat Birchall — a man known for his spiritual compositions but also a lifelong fan of roots reggae — he has hit upon a winning combination. Recorded stage by stage, Al Breadwinner laying down the rhythm tracks and Birchall, Vin Gordon, David Fulwood, Stally and KT Lowry layering horns and percussion on top, the dub mixing itself is done in a single pass, a performance art all of its own. Birchall’s playing on the record is clean, emotive, never flamboyant but always expressive. It’s clear that both he and Breadwinner posses a love for the music they’re cutting deep within their being and that they’re both relishing their opportunity to play with such musicians as Vin Gordon, who featured on some of the records the pair will have come up on as young reggae fans. From start to finish, it’s simply a joyous reggae recording.

Children of Zeus – Travel Light

In the run up to the release of their full length debut proper, Children of Zeus were catching the attention of influential musicians left, right and centre. Goldie, Kamaal Williams, Jazzy Jeff, Eazy E and Mr Scruff amongst those vibing to the lowkey grooves, beautiful melodies and street wisdom present in each of their early singles. The arrival of Travel Light felt like a celebration of Konny and Tyler’s respective journeys of perseverance, of Manchester’s music scene and the work of the collaborators known and behind the scenes, that brought the record together. “I pawned my chain for some studio gear” Tyler spits on album opener The Story So Far…, a track brimful with poignant lines, luscious strings and a popping beat, setting the tone for a mature, assured and eventful thirteen track record. Features from Layfullstop, DRS and Terri Walker amongst others are carefully curated, bring a warm and inclusive dynamic to the record. But were the tracks free of guest contribution, Tyler and Konny’s versatility would still see this record through. Tyler’s voice, on tracks like Hoodman2Manhood especially, is so clear, emotive and sweet that you simply never tire of it. Konny’s unguarded rhymes on Daddy’s Car bypass the mind and go straight to the heart, his urgency and passion through the album providing perfect contrast to Tyler’s contributions. One can only admire the way Children of Zeus have eased themselves through the early stages of their work as a duo, operating with foresight, never jumping the gun, giving the listeners what they need while holding enough back to make the first listen to their debut LP a truly special experience.

Donny McCaslin – BLOW.

On 2016’s Beyond Now, there was a sense that Donny McCaslin was still processing his Blackstar experience. Two years down the line, that experience has equipped him with the courage and inspiration to make a bold and experimental (considering his perception as a New York jazz saxophonist) record. The album sees McCaslin working for the first time with multiple songwriters and lyricists, exploding his compositional process and leading him into new sonic territory. It’s also the first record upon which he has noticeably manipulated his sax sound, going beyond subtle processing into more experimental modulation. He, Ryan Dahle and producer Steve Wall are chiefly responsible for guiding the album’s course, penning some hard-hitting rock songs and expertly splicing the four minutes of improvised music respectively, each shaping what proves to be a triumphant and exciting modern rock record.

Sarathy Korwar & UPAJ Collective – My East is Your West

This recording of Sarathy Korwar & UPAJ Collective performing live at London’s Church of Sound, redressing perceptions of indo-jazz with a carefully selected program of fusion compositions and reinterpretations of Indian ragas, perfectly encapsulates the wonder and irreplicable brilliance of live music. In Sarathy’s own words, ‘the only reason the record works is because that room felt so alive…it let us take risks as musicians that we wouldn’t otherwise have taken.’ Alongside a large ensemble trained in both Indian classical and North American jazz music, he explores a terrific middle ground between those two worlds, all the while drawing attention to the connotations of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ music, allowing us to consider how music and society has progressed since the first recorded meetings of Indian classical and American jazz musicians in the sixties. From spellbinding Konnakol to beautiful nylon string guitar playing, expressive soloing and harmonious improvisation, there are so many wonderful qualities to this recording that make it listenable time and time again, despite its long running time.

Adam Stone & Dead Sea Apes – Warheads

Manchester-based four-piece Dead Sea Apes have been steadily releasing outstanding records with Cardinal Fuzz for several years, but this record with Adam Stone represents their first full album collaboration. Following last year’s ‘twenty minute dystopian monologue’ with Stone, entitled In the Year 2039, they continue to explore the fears and perils of modern society through the lens of cynicism and speculative dystopian fiction. From slow-burning psychedelic grooves to high-energy post-punk, they dismantle the political constructs that pen us in, channeling a raw yet well-intentioned anger through this gripping, hard-hitting LP.

Pan Amsterdam – The Pocket Watch

A short but hilarious skit with Christopher Walken’s Pulp Fiction character, Captain Koons, is the first glimpse we get of the secretive wordsmith behind The Pocket Watch – one of 2018’s great, under-the-radar hip-hop releases. From that point on, the straight-talking and witty storyteller we now know to be jazz trumpeter and rapper Leron Thomas, guides our journey through his debut opus, with biting rhymes and extraordinary musicianship painting the picture of a talented artist on the fringes of New York’s music scene. “What’s good, this is Pan Amsterdam. I’d like to introduce myself, but I really don’t think I should.” he riffs on Plus One, before rolling into a monotone yet enthralling rhyme chronicling his life in New York state, twisting and turning with musical references and abstract similes. Thatmanmonkz on the beats produces some insanely cool instrumentals, evoking an MF Doom vibe from the project.

Ólafur Arnalds – re:member

Iceland pianist and composer Ólafur Arnalds has a masterful command of his instrument and like Max Richter, produces some of the most enthralling and delicate minimalist music out there. His latest record has provided comfort and inspiration to many this year, communicating on a level that not all music can reach. There’s nothing inaccessible or exclusive about his compositions, you may hear them used for sync or discover them organically, but either way their pull is gentle, the music’s approachability and integrity key amongst its many great assets. As Line of Best Fit explain, ‘the use of Stratus technology allows notes played on a main piano to generate different notes on two supplementary pianos’. Of course, Arnalds is far too intelligent and sophisticated a musician to allow this innovation to be anything other than a means to explore novel effects of harmony that can take his compositional talents ever further.’ His compositions on this record truly are outstanding and are perfectly suited to a late evening wind down after an action-packed day.

Ammar 808 – Maghreb United

Hailing from Tunisia but now residing in Belgium, Ammar 808 has not forgotten and will never forget, the music of his native North Africa. Alongside subby 808 drum programming, it’s a core component of his startling sound blend – krakebs, Arabic vocals, polyrhythmic drumming, traditional string, woodwind and bagpipe instruments all heard alongside forward-thinking electronic production. Described on Bandcamp Daily as, ‘a record full of intense energy—hard to define, but immediately palpable’ it’s a dizzying and unforgettable album that could only come from a well-travelled and inspired soul, such as Sofyann Ben Youssef.

TVAM – Psychic Data

Selected as one Piccadilly Records’ favourite LPs of 2018 and described as ‘one of the best debuts in recent times’ by Electronic Sound magazine, Joe Oxley’s full length debut has floored just about everyone who has laid ears upon it. Years in the making, the theme, structure and balance of the project is something which you’d expect from an artist well into their creative journey, as opposed to one crafting their debut release. The processing of instruments on the self-produced record is remarkable, the artist himself telling us, ‘I love working with old synths and drum machines, particularly Roland gear from the 80s and 90s. I’ll also use samples and sequence drums from scratch, then push the whole mix through cassette tape or VHS to lock it all together. Most of the treatment comes from household A/V equipment.’ That novel approach to creating music truly sets the album apart in the contemporary rock landscape and shows him to be a visionary producer beyond his years.

The Mouse Outfit – Jagged Tooth Crook

On their third studio album, Manchester-based hip-hop collective The Mouse Outfit assert once again their masterful touch in studio, as well as on stages throughout Europe. With its crisp, dynamic drum programming, nuanced arrangements allowing space for expansive jazz-infused ideas and various feature verses from some of Manchester’s finest MCs – it’s a record which sounds sweet over any system, but also has the elusive quality of being deep enough to relax with, to delve into the production and lyrical content behind the rhythms and hooks.

Lekhfa – Lekhfa (Maryam Saleh, Maurice Louca and Tamer Abu Ghazaleh)

Despite the challenging circumstances surrounding alternative musicians based in Cairo, they have been responsible for some of the most enthralling, genre-defying music of past eighteen months. The chemistry of Maryam Saleh, Maurice Louca and Tamer Abu Ghazaleh on their collaborative debut is a joy to behold: no one artist emerging as the distinctive leader within a soundscape that combines acoustic and electronic instrumentation and vocal parts crafted from Arabic poetry. Their arrangements are detailed and dynamic, their compositions exploring space and dissonance, harmony and strong hooks. Here they prove themselves to be versatile, adventurous and fearless artists.

Joe Armon-Jones – Starting Today

Seeing himself primarily as a composer and improviser rather than an artist working within any one particular genre, it’s no surprise that Joe Armon-Jones’ solo debut is a visionary effort, stretching out into many regions of musical expression. The laid-back R&B groove of Almost Went Too Far sounds like it could’ve been lifted straight from a RAMP record, only its treatment: the EQ, mix and arrangement – give it the feel of a hip-hop rerub, placing it in a more contemporary context and allowing the musicians to channel a different energy with their contributions. Dub reggae production techniques also influence the mix and arrangement of the record, Mutale Chashi and David Mrakpor’s bass playing giving Starting Today and Mollison Dub the weight that would hear them popping off over a true reggae soundsystem. Joe’s soloing is moving and impressive, but it never sticks out of the record, the keyboardist always wary of the overall flow of the track, never compromising the energy and direction of the music, only every enhancing. As with TVAM’s debut, it’s a record showing the maturity and assurance one would expect from an artist well into their creative journey.

Trappist Afterland – Se(VII)en

Trappist Afterland are a prolific band, to whom the full length album is clearly an art of the utmost importance. Their mystical folk songwriting, which harnesses a wide array of instrumentation and works with the musical building blocks that composers of the 16th and 17th century understood, has a wondrous quality that conjures images of wayfaring pilgrims exploring their existence in a pre-industrial world. Se(VII)en is a fascinating record, beautifully arranged and recorded, that proves simpler means can still reap incredible musical outcomes.

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