Albums that caught our ear in 2018, Part two

— Features — Editor

Welcome to the second instalment in a special Guide to the Week of Music, 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, 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.

Jr. Thomas & The Volcanoes – Rockstone

Rockstone is an album of love and solidarity. Heartfelt, honest and beautifully executed by the eleven-strong musical outfit behind it. The sounds of rocksteady, roots reggae, ska and soul surge through these tracks, Thomas’ vocal on songs like Til You’re Gone indicating his appreciation for artists like Junior Murvin, while the true to form production recalls the authentic sounds of Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle productions, as well as sixties Motown hits. There are heartbreaking strings, deep rhythms and musical flourishes around every corner, amounting to a soulful, reggae-inspired LP of the highest order.

Alexander – Settle Down

Written in Nashville in 2017 before being recorded at Big Nice Studio earlier this year, Alexander’s full length debut does wonders with the short song form. No track on Settle Down exceeds three minutes in length, yet each is flush with inventive guitar work, clever musical shifts and personal lyrics. Alex’s voice has the earnest, shaky quality of that possessed by an Andy Hull or Trevor Powers, perfectly suiting the musical style and bringing an open, relatable air to the recording. Well written, recorded and structured, it’s a tremendous debut from the Massachusetts-based artist.

Space Afrika – Somewhere Decent to Live

Named as one of Boomkat’s best of 2018, the atmospheric dub techno and ambient soundscapes crafted by Space Afrika on Somewhere Decent to Live, capture the sense of disconnect one may experience late at night, surrounded by unfamiliarity, by brutalist or modernist structures that rupture skylines and atmosphere. What sounds like delay-drenched, disembodied service announcements penetrate washes of shifting tone, as surges of sub bass, pops, clicks and cracks give rhythm and foundation to these beautifully-constructed tracks. Fans of The Caretaker and Andy Stott will make a strong connection to this music, which is best enjoyed away from distractions, in a mood that permits deep listening.

Mildlife – Phase

The fact that Mildlife’s debut LP has been pressed three times tells us a great deal about its desirability. From DJs digging its disco, balearic and jazz-funk flavours, to audiophiles appreciating its rich production, synth-led jams and dreamier compositional aspects. There’s a wide range of reasons why people have been scampering to snaffle Phase on wax. Although their sound differs from that of their Melbourne-based peers, it’s possible to see connections between the music of No Zu, Hiatus Kaiyote, 30/70 and Mildlife, even if that’s simply that each has been shaped in a city with a vibrant and supportive live music scene, allowing it to take on a strong identity in the club, which has translated excellently to record. Whatever the case may be, Mildlife play like seasoned pros – their inventive compositions, wide base of influences and ability to extend a jam, make this a record that has impressed music fans of various persuasions.  

Fofoulah – Daega Rek

The working process that resulted in Fofoulah’s sophomore LP is symptomatic of the complex factors that affect how modern artists create. Yet, it is one of the most vibrant and unique records you’re likely to hear this year: fusing the sabar dance rhythms of Gambia and Wolof language lyrics of vocalist Kaw Secka, with the production styles of dub reggae and Chicago footwork. As producer and band member Tom Challenger told us recently, the band had recorded percussion and drums at Real World, one of the country’s finest recording destinations, but had then added found sounds, programmed beats and samples at their own studios and on the go. The hypnotic results as staggeringly well-crafted, layered and enthralling.  

Richard Spaven – Real Time

Richard Spaven’s self-discipline and responsiveness ensure that despite his prowess on the drums, Real Time is a record never dominated by his instrument. Instead, it’s a dialogue with talented musical collaborators: artists such as Jordan Rakei, guitarist Stuart McCallum and keys player Oli Rockberger amongst others, who help to construct delicate yet grooving and moving tracks. Spaven has a deep understanding of tone, evident in his choice of sticks or brushes, his different hi-hats, cymbals and drum configurations, as well as the patterns he plays and space he leaves. Tracks like Rescue hear his drums quite low in the mix, while tracks like Control bring his fizzy backbeat to the fore. Regardless of volume or role in the track, his playing possessing an almost mechanical accuracy every time. The chemistry and complementary skill sets of the musicians involved in this record make it a joy to listen to, reminding us that while Richard Spaven is a superb drummer, he’s also a visionary producer.

Alela Diane – Cusp

Alela Diane’s Cusp takes shape similarly to classic works by Carole King and Judee Sill – a simple, direct and unguarded beauty pervading each song. It’s a record which owes a lot to Diane’s experience of motherhood, which seems to have intensified her creative urges, and in turn, enriched her music in the finest way. Never Easy is a song in which Diane expresses her newfound understanding of motherly love, while Song for Sandy explores the story of Sandy Denny’s life and how that settles with Diane’s newfound experience. The instrumentation is delicate and often, a repetitive piano figure is enough to accompany Diane’s vocals, which always contain a strength and emotional energy. Succeeding in its simplicity, charm and emotional weight, it’s a fantastic singer-songwriter record that proves motherhood need never spell the end of an artist’s career.

Phronesis – We Are All

Phronesis’ egalitarian trio model — one in which double bassist Jasper Høiby, drummer Anton Eger and pianist Ivo Neame contribute the same amount of compositions to albums and impart equal force on the group dynamic — has resulted in several tremendous albums. We Are All, is their latest triumph: a delicate, balanced collection filled with inventive instrumentals, pushing the limits of the piano trio further than many may’ve thought possible. The group’s concern for natural processes and the environment reflects both in the compositions and the imagery accompanying the music – the flow, fragility and harmony of both referencing the world we see and the risks posed to it. Immaculately recorded and executed with mathematical precision, the album makes it abundantly clear that they are one of the most accomplished jazz trios in music today.

EABS – Repetitions (Letters to Krzysztof Komeda) Live at Jazz Club Hipnoza

Polish jazz ensemble EABS concluded their Repetitions (Letters to Krzysztof Komeda) project with the release of this live LP, recorded in Katowice, Poland on December 10th, 2017. A splashier and more spontaneous take on the studio album that preceded it, it goes to show both the band’s great versatility as performers and the great depth to Krzysztof Komeda’s catalogue. Featuring Kraksa and Svantetic in place of God is Love (Bariera XIII), Private Conversation VIII and Niekochana, the album otherwise centres around the same compositions as the studio LP, with highlights including the triumphant, uninhibited horn lines of Waltzing Beyond (The Song on the Day the World Ends), the dream-like midsection of Kraksa and the awesome drum work of Marcin Rak on Free Witch and No Bra Queen / Sult, closely followed by Paweł Stachowiak’s wicked bass solo. A daring blend of jazz fusion, hip-hop and afrobeat, the record serves as a reminder of how vital the live environment is to the energy and purpose of music.

East Man – Red, White & Zero

Anthoney J Hart’s unique ‘Hi Tek’ sound is one free of lustre – coarse, heavy and purposeful. It reflects his appreciation for dancehall, jungle and techno, but above all, is a distinctive and contemporary production aesthetic of his own, sounding like the result of a lengthy refinement process. On Red, White & Zero — a project inviting some of London’s most energising, below-the-radar MCs to the mic and accommodating a thought-provoking forward from academic Paul GilroyEast Man realises his sound fully, with a range of beats crafted over several years. An austere record standing proud in times of austerity measures, it captures the raw vitality of grime music at this present time and in years to come, will become a vital document of the time thanks to its substantial musical, visual and academic contents.

Mr Twin Sister – Salt

Unless an attentive follower of Mr Twin Sister, this lowkey, digital-only release may well have passed you by. But the band’s magnificently-produced and wildly creative third album is well worth revisiting. Their signature combination of smooth orchestration, subtle dance beats, rigid funk bass and synth pad washes are still a driving force, but the band have somehow broadened their scope even further. There are laid back, jazz-infused broken beat and chillwave vibes, tracks that make creative use of autotune and minimal RnB drum programming, as well as a strong digital dub production identity, traceable to the work of Adrian Sherwood but also Germany’s dub techno producers. Andrea Estella’s vocals are instantly recognisable, even when digitally harmonised, and her candid lyrics on tracks like Tops and Bottoms leave little to interpretation. Salt’s closer is an achingly delightful yet gut-wrenchingly painful track, capturing the tension and turmoil of mental illness and contemplating mortality, set to a spacious and dramatic modern take of trip-hop. An incredible record, requiring time, patience and attentive listening.

Imarhan – Temet

Imarhan’s sound is rooted in the Tishoumaren style pioneered by Tinariwen, but their sophomore record, Temet, draws influence from styles including disco and funk. Producer Patrick Votan helped the group achieve what was termed ‘a huge leap forward in production, as well as creatively’, alongside Tinariwen’s Eyadou Ag Leche, connecting Imarhan’s work to that which came before. Despite the music’s sprightly rhythms and heartening melodies, pain is contained within it. The lyrics to Alma are amongst the most poignant penned by any songwriter this year: ‘A vast earth, brimful of riches, inhabited by a community in distress’ the chorus translates to mean – a sentiment felt by displaced North African’s but also pertinent to people throughout the world. Both sonically and in terms of songwriting, Imarhan have made a triumphant statement with the album, which should endear them to music fans around the world.

GNOD – Chapel Perilous

GNOD’s mammoth single Donovan’s Daughter’s announced the arrival of their sixth album for Rocket recordings. The track was testament to the years worth of creative expansion and experimentation they had undergone – built upon devilish bass intervals, jagged guitars and a full-bodied drum groove. It sprouts from a seed of musical tension, reaching a jaw-clenching crescendo before swooping and rising once more in cacophonous triumph, over its fifteen-minute length. Although the opener called to mind the likes of PiL, Fingerprintz, Can and Swans with its noisy, dub-wise, snarling rock sound, the rest of the album is rather more spacious sound art, constructed with metallic clangs and industrial sound matter, ominous samples and dissonant tones. That is, until closing track Uncle Frank Says Turn It Down reintroduces blistering layered guitars and double-time drum breaks in a howling, gripping conclusion. One of the most exciting and varied post-rock records of the year!

Ryley Walker – Deafman Glance

A fair amount of emotional turmoil fed into Ryley Walker’s Deafman Glance, an album with which the Chicago-based artist wished to take a different musical direction. He has been publically self-critical in recent years; pessimism and perfectionism appearing to cause a dissatisfaction with his earlier work, yet he entered the studio confident that a great record was on the cards. However, the songwriter and guitarist felt sessions hit a wall when his anti-folk, love letter to Chicago’s musical underground, stalled – citing his own ill preparation as the culprit. All that said, the record we hear bares no scars from a lack of preparation: its complex song structures, unusual harmonies and textures, all pointing toward sessions that were fruitful in their adaptation of his strong core ideas. Walker himself is fairly hushed throughout the record, but delivers his vocals, acoustic and electric guitar parts with a calculated passion: ensuring his ideas are never showy or overtly decorative. His band is killer too: Nate Lepine’s contributions on flute and sax lifting select compositions and LeRoy Bach’s subtle keyboard and bold horn arrangements helping Walker to extend the compositions naturally and successfully. Deafman Glance takes longer to leave its impression, but when it does, you begin to appreciate the extent of Walker’s talents.

Caoilfhionn Rose – Awaken

Manchester-based singer and songwriter Caoilfhionn Rose worked closely with Gondwana records founder and trumpeter Matthew Halsall on her inviting and approachable debut LP. Also involved were guitarist Rich Williams, bassist Joshua Cavanagh-Brierley and a host of other musicians, in what she describes as ‘a deeply collaborative effort’. The record is calming and rich while its songs are refreshingly honest creations: Rose simply weaving thoughts and mutterings into warming, mellifluous songs. Caoilfhionn glides through vocal melodies with consummate ease, her clarity and conviction making each line sound effortless, regardless of how much difficulty it may actually pose. Thanks to the aforementioned qualities, the record is a delightful listen and sets the tone for what we hope will be future records packed with collaboration, beautiful melody and earnest songwriting.

Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings

Makaya McCraven’s unique workflow sets Universal Beings apart from the rest of the year’s high-profile jazz and hip-hop releases. Editing recordings of himself playing in ensembles of accomplished musicians, his mindset becomes one of the methodical beatmaker: how to edit, structure and reframe the source material to create musical and organic beats? Describing the editing as “part of the narrative” during a recent Rolling Stone interview, McCraven is entirely transparent about the process, but skilled enough to make it sound seamless. The record breaks down into four quadrants: each featuring a different combination of musicians recorded in a different location. The ‘New York side’ recalls the music of Dorothy Ashby thanks to Brandee Younger’s harp work, while its ‘London side’ features some of the capital’s finest players, working toward more forward-thinking, UK bass derived takes on contemporary jazz. McCraven’s habit of ‘featuring’ artists prominent in particular tracks in their title, is a nice touch, as well as a cool way of indicating how a track took shape and whose ideas leapt out at him while he edited the material into its final arrangement. This project could easily have been over-facing and ended up appearing incoherent and messy, yet McCraven has edited and presented the work in such a way that it’s instead a celebration of his working method, his life as travelling music and the friendships that musicians build on their travels.

Jean Grae & Quelle Chris – Everything’s Fine

Bandcamp’s favourite LP of 2018 possesses everything you’d hope to hear from an autre hip-hop record: stank-face-inducing, gravelly and wonky beats, intelligent and pertinent verses, plus a host of carefully selected feature artists, whose contributions elevate the album in keeping with its overarching theme. Predicated on the idea that everything is not fine, but that psychological barriers prevent us from properly discussing and addressing big issues – the album dismantles issues pertinent to US society in a bold and creative way. Jean Grae and Quelle Chris co-produce and spit on the record, Quelle’s to-the-bone verse on Gold Purple Orange signifying one of the record’s major points of reference. Undeniably one of the year’s most inventive hip-hop records, it sets a serious standard for politically-minded rhyme going forward.

Butcher Brown – Camden Sessions

The session that birthed Butcher Brown’s latest studio release was a somewhat spontaneous affair, but one that goes to show just how talented this group of musicians are. It was cut to disc absolutely live: meaning that once levels and signal paths were determined, the live takes were being recorded straight to disc: from microphone, to studio console, to mastering suite. As such, there are no overdubs, no touch-ups… this is the sound of Butcher Brown, in a studio, playing live and sounding phat. Opening tune Fiat nods to Zappa’s Pygmy Twylyte, with tasty wah guitar and a funky bassline straight out of a sixties heist film or seventies blaxploitation picture. Street Pharmacy is a spacious jazz-funk piece, Marcus Tenney switching — as few musicians can — from saxophone to trumpet. Front to back, this a blistering collection of fusion material, proving to any doubters that Butcher Brown are the real deal.

Chip Wickham – Shamal Wind

Saxophonist and flautist Chip Wickham described the Shamal wind as ‘an appropriate metaphor’ for the change that has blew through his life, prior to the recording of his latest LP. Wickham was fortunate to retain his playing abilities after a life-threatening battle with throat cancer, and had to practice hard to regain full strength on his instrument. The desire, purposefulness and urgency that Wickham felt during rehabilitation, courses through this accomplished record. Cut to tape at Brazil studios in Madrid, a location Wickham carefully selected in order to ‘reflect the sound I was trying to achieve as well as the type of recording process to get that sound,’ it contains the strongest takes from numerous sessions and captures a bright, breezy and spiritual side of the artist’s sound. The title track contains a gorgeous vibraphone solo from Ton Risco, but otherwise, it’s Chip’s playing that shines brightest. His rhythmic riffing on Snake Eyes evokes seventies Harlem, while his hefty baritone phrasing on Barrio 71 proves that the man can fill his lungs and wail with the best of them. Having fallen back into the swing of music, he’s intent on laying down five records in the next five years. Judging by the strength of Shamal Wind, that sounds like an attainable target and one we’ll enjoy witnessing!

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