Max Heilman’s Top 50 albums of 2018: 20-11

Kids See Ghosts, Kanye West, Kid Cudi

Kids See Ghosts (Kanye West and Kid Cudi)

We’re nearing the end of my top 50 albums list! If you’re just now joining me, check out part one, part two and part three before diving in.

Several of these albums would have made it into my top 10 if not for several left-field releases winning me over. I attribute their demotion more to the exceptional work by the artists in the top 10. These are also albums I’d recommend to music lovers who claim to “like a bit of everything.”

We’re reaching quality levels that transcend boundaries—black metal with post-punk appeal, hip-hop with rock appeal, older folks discovering AutoTune—2018 has shaped up to a wild ride.

20. Swamp Dogg – Love, Loss & Auto-Tune
With a career spanning 64 years and 22 albums under his belt, Jerry Williams, Jr. is nothing short of a legend in R&B and hip-hop circles. A legend he was, and a legend he will remain thanks to Love, Loss & Auto-Tune. This catapults Williams to the forefront of a scene for which he helped lay the foundation.

Lead Single “I’ll Pretend” sums up Swamp Dogg’s mission statement: to use modern production techniques as an instrument rather than a gimmick. He goes beyond Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak by virtue of his voice having strength with or without the studio work. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still the old-timey balladry of “Lonely” and the streetwise ode to the urban grind, “$$$ Hunter,” to capture that classic Swamp Dogg sound. But at its core, Love, Loss & Auto-Tune represents a true revolution for Williams as an artist. Producers like Ryan Olson of Poliça and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver reimagined his vocal prowess by feeding his unmistakable voice through vocoders and AutoTune. The results not only redress Swamp Dogg for the modern era, but leave modern auto-crooners in the dust.

19. Imperial Triumphant – Vile Luxury
These New Yorkers are injecting avant-garde jazz and classical music into the ugliest aspects of black and death metal. But it’s not only for the sake of insane noise. Vile Luxury is a truly harrowing affair of atonal brass sections, disjointed rhythm changes and monstrous vocals, but Imperial Triumphant incorporates these additional colors to a striking portrait of societal corruption.

Opener “Swarming Opulence” takes as much influence from 20th-century classical composers as it does black metal madmen, and the twists keep on coming. Imperial Triumphant has no problem jumping from bluesy interludes to face-melting brutality, or throwing an improvised piano solo into a tumbling rhythmic assault. It’s a powerful example of crossing genre lines by emphasizing the right elements of certain approaches.

By all accounts, Vile Luxury is still an unflinching journey through dingy back alleys. It’s black metal for the downtrodden and road-weary—those who choose to turn their inner darkness into startling creativity. The result, in this case, is Richard Strauss meets electric-era Miles Davis meets Deathspell Omega. New York City just got a lot freakier.

18. Black Tongue – Nadir
These Brits have not only started what’s now called “down-tempo deathcore,” but take the template farther than anyone else. Their early material is a direct antecedent for Traitors and xKingx, but 2015’s The Unconquerable Dark transcended slow-motion breakdowns and bottom-string abuse by incorporating the extreme metal traditions of their home country. Nadir takes nothing from the band’s sound, doubling down on utter doom-core decimation.

Black Tongue holds no punches whatsoever. Nadir is the sonic equivalent of losing a fistfight with Satan—you’ve been beaten, and your soul is next. Where their contemporaries are content to cater to crowd-killing meatheads, these guys actually manage to incorporate evocative melody and palpable atmosphere into even their most intense songs.

The prethora of material present in each song keeps Nadir from sounding too gimmicky or studio-dependent. Yes, there’s the tough-guy fight riffs and depth-charge chugs, but razor-sharp melodies and stampeding blast-beats provide a much-needed contrast to the band’s slow-moving norm. Also, there’s a Celtic Frost cover on this thing, and it’s actually worthy of Tom Warrior. That alone makes Nadir a deathcore album of next-level quality.

17. Karg – Dornenvögel
This is an atmospheric black metal album I’d recommend to anyone. I don’t care who you are. Karg is an Austrian one-man project run by the elusive J.J., who has spent the past 12 years pushing his raw, depressive music into increasingly beautiful territories. Dornenvögel simultaneously offers his most diverse and direct material to date. He strips down his sound to be much more electric-guitar-centric, making the album’s 76 minutes a remarkably harmonious, bleak and emotive experience.

J.J.’s sound is far from abrasive. Even when at its most distorted and loud, Dornenvögel remains aesthetically gorgeous. Even J.J.’s screaming has a more vulnerable melancholy than most black metal screechers, carrying incredible emotional weight regardless of one’s understanding of German. While the hypnotic and repetitive nature of the album inevitably blends these long-winded songs together, the inclusion of four guest vocalists helps give each song its own identity without giving into post-black metal routines.

There’s a noticeable baseline of traditional European black metal, as exemplified in cuts like “F 19.5.” But the sequenced drum parts and clean guitar passages give tracks like “L’appel Du Vide” a post-punk feel, while the fleeting clean singing and doomy modulations of “Meine Freiheit war ihr Tod” cross it into neo-folk. More than a solid black metal album, Dornenvögel becomes a serene ride through a frost-bitten heart, guided by luminous melodies and sorrowful cries.

16. mewithoutYou – [Untitled]
In any conversation about post-hardcore, mewithoutYou has remained the legend of its poetry-centered spoken word crossover. Even as the words of Aaron Weiss got less bombastic and aggressive, they remain as vivid as they are personal. The band’s cult following has largely stuck with it through a transition away from punk, but anyone who missed the older mewithoutYou sound will find several returns to form on [Untitled].

“Another Head for Hydra” and “Wendy & Betsy” see Weiss return to a screamed vocal delivery mostly absent from the last couple mewithoutYou albums, coinciding with a dose of instrumental adrenaline. His lyrics are as obscure and thought-provoking as ever, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of dynamic cuts like “Tortoises All the Way Down.”

This turn for the heavy actually leads the band into weirder places than ever before. Looking beyond the humongous guitar chords and enveloping atmosphere of  “Julia” reveals several more strides into uncharted territory. Weiss’s voice training gives poppier songs like “Winter Solstice” a much more accessible quality. But his impregnably distorted rasps on “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” add to the song’s already mind-bending soundscape of psychedelic guitars. The more expansive sonics stem from mewithoutYou’s effort to make [Untitled] a non-drug-caused hallucination. The results may take some time to get used to, but taking that time is well worth it.

15. Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts
Of all the music that resulted from Kanye West’s burst of creativity and controversy, the joint effort between him and Kid Cudi is a serious contender for both artist’s best work. In fact, the only bad thing about the experience is the fact it’s under 30 minutes long. Regardless of its brevity, there’s still plenty of incredible material to be found.

The album sees both artists feed off of each other’s energy, which ends up taking them to unprecedented heights. Their shared experiences with mental illness gives “Reborn” unforgettable power, bolstered by musically intuitive production. Speaking of production, the amount of sonic ideas Kids See Ghosts bring to the table is hard to dispute.

Whether it’s the sample from a flapper jazz Christmas song on “4th Dimension” or the rock-oriented “Freeee,” the duo covers cover an impressive swath of sonics and emotion. Both artists remain as off-center as always. West’s inexplicable scatting in “Feel the Love” takes a chance and wins, while Cudi’s sad-boy baritone transcends its irritating stigma throughout the album. If this is the quality that can be expected from this collaboration, they’d better hunker down for a triple album.

14. The Body – I Have Fought Against It, But I Can’t Any Longer
As if releasing their “pop album” didn’t put them at odds with everything ever, The Body decided to make the off-kilter electronics of No One Deserves Happiness the epicenter of it’s new album. Titled after Virginia Woolf’s suicide note, The Body has no intention of letting up it’s intensely morose sludge metal experimentalism.

It’s hard to recommend this music to people in good conscience. Its sadness is powerful and at times overwhelming. Through electronic beats, mutated synths and the band’s squawking vocal style, harmonious string arrangements give cuts like “The Last Form Of Loving” and “Blessed, Alone” a heartbreaking quality as well as a harsh one.

Of all the guest appearances, the most potent are the ones by Kristin Hayter of radical feminist power-electronica project Lingua Ignota. Her spellbinding performance on “Nothing Sturs” and descent into madness on “An Urn” take both tracks’ impacts into outer space. It’s the least “metal” album The Body ever released, its emotional weight would leave the most hardened listeners stunned.

13. Anna Von Hausswolff – Dead Magic
For anyone who thought the Swedish songwriter was basically Chelsea Wolfe with an organ, Hausswolff’s latest record takes ownership of her unique blend of goth, doom rock and neo-classical. Where her past records felt a bit too dependent on her organ backdrop, Dead Magic is wholistic and beautiful in its execution.

Of the five tracks, only one has a bonafide organ feature. The rest use the massive tones she gets from an ancient church organ to contribute to several distinct vibes. “The Truth, The Glow, The Fall” is calculated in its descent from a waltz-like rhythm into a churning ocean of polyphonic strings. Her organ actually ends up taking a backseat at times, especially on “The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra,” where Swans-like acoustic guitar and thudding percussion acts as a springboard for her witchy voice as Hausswolff cuts lose like never before.

“Ugly and Vengeful” is the only song that falls under the goth-doom umbrella, making it stand out in the tracklist as the one that most adheres to the sound for which Hausswolf is known. Closed out by the serene ambiance of “Källans återuppståndelse,” Dead Magic succeeds as Hausswolff’s most fully-realized artistic statement. Her organ playing not only reaches new levels of archaic power, but also finds its most seamless integration as a part of an ensemble.

12. Yob – Our Raw Heart
Heralding the return of guitarist-singer Mike Scheidt after his near-fatal bout with a stomach ailment, Oregon doom metal band Yob has released its most impactful record. Don’t let the lumbering chugs of “The Screen” fool you. Our Raw Heart contains some of the most beautiful Yob has ever released, perfectly balancing the band’s sense of melody and primal aggression.

Our Raw Heart captures the interesting niche Yob has found in the metal scene. It’s slow and spaced-out enough for stoner rock, complex enough for prog metal, and crushing enough for sludge. The way Scheidt and company interlock moving guitar lines with glacial chords coincides with the way his voice transitions seamlessly from a full-throated growl to a soaring singing voice. The resulting chemistry remains within the stylistic lineage of Black Sabbath while also pushing the template into exhilarating new territory.

The 14-minute title track and 16-minute “Beauty in Falling Leaves” merit their lengths with the incredible amount of material Yob puts into them. If they only put half the riffs and dynamic changes in there, it would still be overflowing with ideas. In spite of all the headbanging momentum and gut-wrenching sluggishness it provides, the real memorability of this album stems from the real feelings the frontman channels into this music. It boils down to his lived experience and esoteric inner dialogues, which give listeners something to grab on to while taking a stroll through doom metal battlegrounds.

11. Rolo Tomassi – Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It
On its fifth full-length album, this English outfit continues to hone its versatility. Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It doesn’t throw too many curveballs, but Rolo Tomassi has never been a band to stick to convention in the first place. Combining voracious post-hardcore, nuanced math-rock and everything in between, Rolo Tomassi remains at the top of the scene it inspired so much.

The ecstatic ambient intro “Towards Dawn” and the exuberant math-rock burst of “Aftermath” solidifies the intent. It’s much more jubilant and light-hearted than past albums, but this transition is smoothened by  frontwoman Eva Spence and her brother James Spence. The former’s versatile singing and screaming voice, and the latter’s keyboard playing, emphasize ambient music and post-rock.

“Rituals” and “Alma Mater” still bring fiery anger in spades, but the classic post-hardcore breakdowns have an eerie dissonance akin to blackened hardcore group Oathbreaker. But Rolo Tomassi has never been content with simply battering their listeners. The album continues the band’s journey through gleefully cheesy synth leads and noisecore oblivion. For every round of destruction come passages of genuine euphoria. Closer “Risen” encapsulates the diversified soundscape the album provides for an already-respected band within the post-hardcore genre.


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