Max Heilman’s Top 50 albums of 2018: 10-1



Here we finally are, at my top 10 albums of 2018!

If you’re just now joining me, check out part one, part twopart three and part four before diving in.

Ready for the grand conclusion? Let’s unearth these incredible albums!

10. Deafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love

After spearheading mainstream post-black-metal, Deafheaven mostly shed its extreme elements on its fourth album. The San Francisco band expanded black metal past its underground nature. Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is a record more appropriate for fans of Smashing Pumpkins and Slowdive than Mayhem and Emperor.

“You Without End” is a straight-up alt-rock ballad. George Clarke’s rasps sound out of place on first listen. It’s anti-metal. Elitists who snubbed Sunbather and New Bermuda for not being brutal enough likely suffered brain aneurysms during this track. But the album’s emphasis on poppy textures remains central even when “Canary Level” brings the blast beats and tremolo picking back. That cut contains an outro so anthemic that it may make this album the black-gaze equivalent of Metallica’s self-titled LP.

It might seem like madness to see Deafheaven nominated for a Grammy, but listening to “Honeycomb” makes its inclusion pleasantly obvious. While it brings the triumphant tremolo guitar melodies and explosive drumming many would expect from the band, it reflects a directness that permeates throughout the album. The stripped-down way the song hits gives casual listeners more to its latch on to, with evolving chord structures and hypnotic melody. It’s still very much a Deafheaven album, but the accessibility the band has in its DNA has taken its most precocious form yet.

9. Pram – Across The Meridian

Birmingham, England is the stomping grounds of Black Sabbath, and apparently this absolute oddity of a band. Any conversation about Pram inevitably devolves into endless speculation about what on earth it is. Somewhere between the realms of neo-psychedelia, modern classical and art-pop, the collective’s eighth album following a decade of silence corrals a perplexing cavalcade of sound into something cohesive and beautiful.

“Shimmer and Disappear” might lead one to believe Across The Meridian is an avant-garde jazz fusion album. But bombastic arrangements and heavily layered instrumentation is only part of the story. Sam Owen’s fairylike voice ends up bringing an odd sense of melody to the songs’ consistent strangeness. It’s a necessary component, because cuts like “Thistledown” and “Electra” would border on incomprehensible without a solid melody to grab onto.

The vast array of instruments Pram uses on Across The Meridian is impressive but not over-indulgent. Each texture has been planned carefully as a part of a larger picture. “Wave Of Translation” might sound like psyched-up improv jazz. “Ladder To The Moon” might sound like an extra-dimensional waltz. Pram’s disregard for the rules has given it an unmistakable catchy sound.

8. Julia Holter – Aviary

The world of art pop needs people like Julia Holter to show how weirdness can still be glorious and immersive. The Los Angeles songwriter’s 90-minute magnum opus is an immersive exercise in ambient music, contemporary classical and improvisation. It’s easy to lose track of time in aural world Aviary creates.

While acutely planned and executed, this album feels like the pop equivalent of stream-of-consciousness poetry. The spiraling dynamics of opener “Turn the Light On” might lead people to believe Aviary is a sprawling orchestral effort, but the staccato synth lines and marching percussion if “Whether” immediately dispels any notion that the next 14 tracks will adhere to any boundaries whatsoever. No two tracks sound the same within Holter’s unleashed musical mind.

The kazoo-like blasts in the first half of “Everyday is an Emergency” give way to wistful piano chords and Holter’s delicate voice. She knows exactly when to blend into her soundscapes and when to take control of them. She embodies power and majesty in the cinematic romp “Underneath the Moon,” but takes on a melodious melancholy during the impressionistic piano playing of “In Gardens’ Muteness.” The symbiotic relationship between Holter the arranger and Holter the songwriter allows this long-winded venture to abound with eccentricity and tastefulness.

7. IDLES – Joy as an Act of Resistance

With a firm foundation in original U.K. punk, these British rioters give vitality to a sound many thought dead before the ‘80s with unapologetic lyrics and blood-pumping sonics. If there’s a band to prove that rappers haven’t completely taken over the punk ethos, it’s IDLES and their punk rock tour de force,  Joy as an Act of Resistance.

IDLES may be a post-punk band, but for the most part this album traces its roots back to the likes of The Sex Pistols. Joe Talbot’s voice comes straight out of the Johnny Rotten handbook, but his lyrics are far more radical than hackneyed anarchism. The album’s very essence is a defiant middle finger to the status quo. Growling bass, thrashing drums and noisy guitars make a clear for joy as ideology. These aren’t angry songs; they’re calls to preserve some humanity as the world seems to fall into chaos.

“Colossus” has the brooding of Joy Division, while “Never Fight a Man With a Perm” recalls Jesus Lizard and Fugazi. These influences never escape Talbot’s cutting British humor and a staunch resolve to shirk the toxic masculinity often associated with the punk scene. IDLES present themselves as badasses who aren’t afraid to emote—friendly folks who aren’t afraid to fight for their loved ones.

6. Silent Planet – When the End Began

This West Coast progressive metalcore band has always had a bigger vision than mosh-pits and pig-squeels. It’s explored complex ideas with the fervor of a doctorate essay. As major thought leaders in the metalcore movement both musically and lyrically, these guys have more of a challenge than most with regard to expanding on their ideas. When the End Began does that without trying too hard to be different. It fits in naturally enough within the technical metalcore sphere, but it’s obvious that Silent Planet is on a different; level conceptually and musically.

The biggest difference is a much lower guitar tuning and a bigger sound. “Afterdusk” could compete with any eight-string-slinging djent metal band with its seismic string bends and chugs, while two ambient interludes emphasize how Silent Planet has built on its template. This keeps more accessible songs like “In Absence” and “Firstborn (Ya’aburnee)” from becoming generic filler. Every one of these songs has a gigantic sound to bolster its catchy melodies and shred-heavy flourishes.

Silent Planet approaches music as a medium for meaningful work instead of pointless trend-hopping. The convicting depiction of the LGBTQ homeless in “Visible Unseen” and the story of modern political corruption alongside the Spanish Civil War in “Northern Fires (Guernica)” are just two of Garrett Russell’s unforgettable narratives.

5. Polyphia – New Levels New Devils

Polyphia made the best decision possible when it jumped ship from generic instrumental metal in favor of what’s essentially jazz fusion for the trap crowd. New Levels New Devils hardly has distorted guitars at all. By letting go of the tropes of half-baked Meshuggah ripoffs, the album reveals musicality no one could have noticed Polyphia had beforehand. The Texas band pours its energy into complex chord progressions, insane hi-hat chops and exciting chemistry between all four musicians.

Even with several awesome solos punctuating the album, the real pleasure of listening to it comes from the mathematical prowess Polyphia brings to its grooves. They maintain a solid backbeat to contrast with heavily syncopated bass and hi-hats–hence, the trap influence. This allows Scott LePage and Timothy Henson’s guitars to weave dazzling melodic lines and chord changes into danceable beats.

New Levels New Devils epitomizes the concept of “groove-shredding.” Every track showcases every musician going as hard as possible from start to finish. This isn’t to say it’s  overly dense. Removing Clay Gobe’s punchy bass line from “Bad” would leave the guitars utterly boneless. “Saucy” depends on Clay Aeschliman drums coinciding perfectly with the syncopated guitar. Even as a bafflingly technical band, Polyphia emphasizes feel over flash and songs over self-aggrandisement.

4. Jpegmafia – Veteran

I knew Baltimore’s abstract hip-hop madman would make my top 10 the moment I heard him he used Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Goin’ Down” bellow on “Real Nega.” Barrington DeVaughn Hendricks throws inhibition out the window, then jumps out himself to beat any preconceptions of what trap can and should be to a bloody pulp. Part of his goal with Veteran was to show that you can remain creative within those stylistic parameters. His work has some hard beats to get the Soundcloud crowd on his tempo, but his weirdness takes hold right after the pretty banger “1539 N. Calvert.”

Before anyone utters heresy, this guy is not comparable to Death Grips. Jpegmafia’s flows and beats are much more aligned with contemporary hip-hop trends. His lyrics are much less cryptic, and his songwriting is less off-kilter. That said, he seems intent on sending fans of couple of better-known clips running for the hills. Veteran takes shots at the alt-right and Lena Dunham, and even disses Tomi Lahren and Bill Maher in the same line. There’s no shortage of controversial material, but it ends up serving unforgettable musical moments.

“Macaulay Culkin” and “I Cannot Fucking Wait Til Morrissey Dies” exemplify how terribly amazing Hendricks’ flows can get without resorting to the angry beatdowns of “Baby I’m Bleeding” and “Rock N Roll Is Dead.” The former uses an estranged celebrity to frame his depressed stupor, while the latter lambasts every irritating political hack in music, from Johnny Rotten to Varg Vikernes. His bars make you think, “Oh my God, did he just say that”  while feeling like he’s really making a point. Veteran might not be the most glamorous rap album, but its memetic decadence is too infectious to ignore.

3. Conjurer – Mire

If it wasn’t for the albums bellow, Mire would have been my album of the year. Conjurer’s debut is everything anyone could want in a metal album. It’s melodic, brutal, passionate, dynamic and obliterating. Every passage on the album is worth listening to again and again. If Mastodon’s progressive sludge riffs fell into a cross-section of melodic death metal, screamo and no-frills hardcore, it would be this masterwork of heavy music.

There are very few debut albums that fit so many unforgettable moments into every song. “Wretch” is a great starting point if you want to hear Conjurer  at its most intense, but angular guitars and blistering drumming come with a pervading sense of melody. The band’s balance of dexterity and primal aggression compares with the likes of Converge and even The Dillinger Escape Plan.

The other key element of the band’s success is how it taps into the doomier sounds that have recently gained more mainstream attention. Mire doesn’t just sound heavy. It feels heavy. Mosh riffs and sludgy chugs ooze like wet cement, giving bone-smashing weight to their triumphant melodies. Speaking of melodies, that’s what brings Mire from great to near-perfect. “The Mire” exemplifies how these rousing modulations generate incredible emotion in the midst of thrashing energy. It’s almost befuddling how compellingly Conjurer strikes its balance between barrel-chested riffs and haunting melody.  But what matters is the result. Mire is a metal album every human being on the planet should hear.

2. Daughters – You Won’t Get What You Want

Considering their grindcore debut barely cracks 10 minutes, Daughters had quite a bit of leeway as far as embellishing their artistic statement. They’ve released some of the most respected work in the noisecore genre, and have become the stuff of legend for anyone who likes their hectic punk a bit off the beaten path. Eight years after their last release, Daughters reinvent their approach to aural madness. You Won’t Get What You Want might not be what fans were expecting, but it’s exactly what everyone could want out of a noise rock project.

Daughters have gained a solid reputation for their offset lyrics, contorted amplifier abuse and chaotic drums. The record has most of these elements, but it focuses on digging deeper into decrepit sound until reaching subterranean mountains of terrifying noise. The sheer loudness needs to be stressed as much as possible. Nicholas Andrew Sadler’s guitar playing and Samuel Walker’s bass leave traditional playing behind, becoming the tools of a mad scientist engineering human extinction. Unhinged vocals detail the thoughts a mind gone rogue, as Jon Syverson’s explosive percussion slowly leads each song to a deafening culmination.

While “The Flammable Man” recalls Daughters’ ultra-dissonant hardcore, most of You Won’t Get What You Want takes its sweet time to build insanely. Daughters also push their songwriting in ways no one could have expected. “City Song” becomes a post-industrial ode to the end of civilization, while the gothic post-punk of “Satan in the Wait” brings the band’s most accessible. The album ends up centering on Alexis S.F. Marshall’s petrifying lyrical themes. It feels like a descent into the thought process of a serial killer, and it’s absolutely engrossing. Daughters have simultaneously created their most cinematic and their most nightmarish record.

1. Sumac – Love In Shadow
Remember when I said Sumac learned from its work with Keiji Haino? Well, Love In Shadow is proof. Guitarist-vocalist Aaron Turner, drummer Nick Yacyshyn and bassist Brian Cook incorporate their experimental adventures with Haino into their violent heaviness, making their newest record an absolute bastion of forward-thinking music. It not only pushes the boundaries of metal, but the concept of love, the most cliched subject in music. Sumac combines decimating riffs with warped improvisation and grating sound collages.

At its core, Love In Shadow is a deconstruction of love. Turner set out to turn the naive conceptions of affection on its head. He emphasizes the sacrifices and even harms that can result from a life of love, and the sonics follow suit. The trio still provides plenty of barraging rhythms and gargantuan riffs, but what starts to sound fairly digestible could melt without warning into harsh noise. Noise-metal epic “The Task” provides the most serene sonics from the band; a moment of delicacy after 20 minutes of pandemonium. Even Turner’s guttural growl finds a few moments of melodic passsion. Sumac acknowledge unseen beauties and tragedies of love, breaking free of heartwarming ignorance.

As Yacyshyn and Cook break out their impressive chops, Turner’s playing reaches its most obscure form. He whimsically toys with melodic ideas, tweaking noise effects to building tension and joining in a nonlinear ruckus with the rest of the band. Multiple passages defy explanation, but the deep musical bond between these three musicians keeps their work from devolving into senseless chaos. Performing these songs live in studio allowed them to capture spontaneity and risk-taking as it happened.

Sumac’s already crazy sonics now have even more unpredictability, but not at the expense of their signature head-splitting riffs. Love In Shadow is special not only because it subverts normality, but creates a musical singularity in the process. Sumac was already in the sludge metal elite, but this album positions it as true metal  innovator.

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