Before we get into the top 10 I wanted to recognize some great music I listened to this year that didn’t make it on this list for various reasons. I revisited a bunch of albums I missed in 2017 and three really stood out; Phoebe Bridger’s Strangers in the Alps, Paramore’s After Laughter and KB’s Today We Rebel. I listened these albums a ton and had I caught them in 2017 they certainly would’ve made my list from that year. Chance the Rapper released 6 singles this year and I listened to them pretty much nonstop. Had those songs been an album, it’d be listed below for sure! Lastly, when I checked my Spotify stats for the year my top artist was Caspar Babypants… who is Caspar Babypants you ask… it’s a band that makes children’s music and my boys are big fans, but honestly I like the music as well. So pro tip, if you have kids definitely check out Caspar Babypants, they have a substantial back catalog and basically put out an album ever year. Now, without further ado, here’s my top 10!
10. Social Club Misfits – Into the Night
Social Club Misfits is a rap duo made up of MCs, Marty Mar and FERN. Their newest album Into the Night is one of those albums you put on because of how fun it is. As Marty and FERN trade off verses there’s a clear chemistry between them. They also have a playful, upbeat vibe. In terms of production it’s hook after hook on Into the Night. These songs will not only get you moving but they’ll be stuck in your head the rest of the day. In many ways this feels like it could be a mainstream rap album. The difference is these guys aren’t just going through the motions of making hit songs. There is clearly thought and intention behind every minute of this album. You can hear it in the interplay between Marty and FERN, or in the way their rapping and the production perfectly complement each other. The lyrics are also well thought out and well constructed. Marty and FERN also happen to be Christians, so their faith certainly comes through in their words. But again they veer away from the mainstream; this isn’t cheesy, sugar coated Christian music. They go deep into their struggles and give God the praise for getting them through it.
9. Jon Batiste – Hollywood Africans
If you’ve ever watched The Late Show with Stephen Colbert then you at least have some knowledge of who Jon Batiste. Batiste is the music director and band leader at The Late Show and it’s how I first discovered him. From the first episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert I was immediately captured by the show’s funky theme song and by Batiste’s huge smile and energy. Plus he was dancing around the stage playing a melodica… who plays a melodica, let alone as the leading instrument on a late night TV show!? As much as I love Stephen Colbert I found myself tuning into to hear Batiste and his backing band. Around the same time I was starting to get into Jazz music and found Batiste had a back catalog of Jazz albums. I ate them up. His style of Jazz was so unique and infectious. Plus I happen to really love piano and Batiste plays the piano like no other. All that to say, I’d like to now introduce his newest album, Hollywood Africans, which happens to be the first time I’ve had a jazz album make one of my annual lists. This album embodies all the things I love about Batiste and in a lot of ways it’s so much more than just a jazz album. In addition to jazz it features, blues, classical, contemporary pop, and modern pop. There’s a mix of songs featuring Batiste’s wonderful vocals, and others that are purely instrumental. Some covers and some originals. One song I’ll highlight is “It’s a Wonderful World.” Initially I was a little bummed to see this song… I thought, do we really need another cover of this song, but when I heard it I was blown away. It’s a beautiful version playing tribute the original while adding a whole new twist. Most notably it’s Batiste’s piano arrangement that makes this cover so special. He uses the whole keyboard making it a bit over the top, but in the best possible way. Batiste highlights a well written song with his own touches. This album is a special one, definitely check it out.
8. Jeremy Messersmith – Late Stage Capitalism
Jeremy Messersmith used to teach a class on songwriting at MacPhail Center for Music here in Minneapolis. It makes sense because he strikes me as someone who could have a PHD in Songwriting. He writes incredibly well-crafted pop songs and his latest album Late Stage Capitalism could serve as thesis for such. Nearly all the songs could be a single made for radio, but unlike mainstream pop, there’s a precision and intentionality to every aspect of each song. Most people like pop hits because they’re catchy without a care as to what the song is saying, what instruments are used, how it’s arranged, or how it’s produced. The songs on Late Stage Capitalism are incredibly catchy and yet well thought out. I’m not sure if Messersmith is a perfectionist, but this album feels perfectionistic, in a good way. Messersmith is also really good at writing sad songs. Here he covers such topics as lost love, humanity’s poor treatment of the earth, the pitfalls of televangelism and on my favorite song “Monday, You’re Not So Bad” he argues that Monday is actually pretty good because the rest of the days aren’t that great. The somewhat pessimistic tone is carefully hidden and contrasted with bubbly upbeat melodies. Musically Messersmith captures some pop vibes reminiscent of the 60s as well as folk and rock influences. He’s once again surrounded by his usual cast of characters who provide great accompaniment, backing vocals, and production. I listened to a recording of Messersmith and his band giving commentary on the album and it sounds like they had a lot of fun making it, which comes through on the album. It’s actually somewhat contrary to what I mentioned before about the perfectionism of the song writing as the performances themselves feel more carefree.
7. Leon Bridges – Good Thing
I don’t typically go for soul music or R&B, but every once in a while there’s an artist or album that really grabs me. Leon Bridges is that artist and Good Thing is that album. When I first started listening to Good Thing I liked it, but figured I’d get bored with it after awhile. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I kept coming back to it over and over, and found myself singing and dancing along. Bridges’ first album felt like a throw back to a different time, whereas Good Thing feels distinctly modern. There’s still plenty of throw back influences from the 50s and 60s and even some song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Prince album. The difference being, those influences give flavor to a fresh sound rather than just mimicking the original. Bridges pulled together a talented team of producers and songwriters who together helped create a soulful, energetic, and sexy album playing to Bridges’ strengths. His vocals range from smooth to smokey and he hits his higher register and falsetto with precision. Lyrically Bridges grapples with finding true love for the first time and trying to balance that with being a touring musician. Does he settle down and possible risk his career or does he pursue his dreams and maybe miss out on love. There’s tension and Bridges captures those emotions so well in both his lyrics and his vocal performance. I’m not sure if my love for Good Thing will turn me one to more music in this genre, but I do know it definitely made me a Leon Bridges fan and I can’t wait to here what he does next.
6. Thrice – Palms
Palms is Thrice’s second album since coming back from hiatus and with this release it’s become clear, this is a new era for Thrice in more ways that one. In 2007 and 2008 Thrice released their very ambitious concept album The Alchemy Index which found them at their most experimental spanning numerous genres. For their next couple of albums Beggars and Major/Minor Thrice responded in typical Thrice fashion by going in a stripped down, straight forward rock direction. In some ways it felt like something was missing from the Thrice catalog, something that belonged as a bridge between The Alchemy Index and Beggars. Now post hiatus Thrice is filling that missing gap with 2016’s To Be Everywhere is To Be Nowhere and particularly with this year’s Palms. Palms employs many of the electronic sounds that have been mostly absent since The Alchemy Index. Right out of the gate the opening track “Only Us” starts out with an eerie synth part which sounds reminiscent of the Stranger Things score. The song builds beautiful as the vocals come in, then drums, then after a minute in we get some deep crunchy bass, and finally in come the guitars. Thrice takes those elements and constructs each track sounding both like the Thrice we know and love and sounding like something totally new. I’ve always been a big fan of brothers Riley and Ed Breckinridge who play drums and bass respectively. Their parts really shine on Palms providing a nice backbone to the lead parts. Lead guitarist Teppei Teranishi also does some great work on the guitar sounds and brings back his skills on keys in full force. Going back briefly to this being a new era for Thrice, I think a big part of that is frontman Dustin Kensrue’s lyrics. Kensrue has always been pretty open about his Christian faith especially on the couple albums prior to their hiatus. But in recent years his worldview has changed. He still claims to be a Christian, but no longer in an orthodox sense. Many of the lyrics on Palms address these changes. I’ll admit I don’t connect with these lyrics as much as I have on past Thrice albums since I don’t share many of Kensrue’s new beliefs. However, I do still really love his writing and still find truth in these songs. Kensrue also seems to get more and more comfortable with his vocals with each new album. His vocals on Palms are raw and prominent in the mix and is one of his best vocal performances to date.
5. mewithoutYou – [Untitled] and [untitled] e.p.
mewithoutYou released both an LP, [Untitled] and an EP, [untitled] e.p. this year. I’m primarily going to talk about the LP, but definitely check out the EP as well. It serves as sort of a companion piece to the full length album and is excellent in it’s own right. With that said, mewithoutYou is one the most unique rock bands of the past 20 years. There are not many bands to really compare them too. Over their career they’ve gone from post hardcore, to folk, to experimental indie rock. All while being lead by Aaron Weiss’ unique mix of spoken word, screaming, and singing vocals. They continued to innovate from album to album and [Untitled] finds them pushing their sounds in directions they’ve never gone before. In many ways they’ve returned to their heavy roots. Some of the new songs are some of their most aggressive with Weiss using his signature scream much more than he has on the past few albums. Not to mention plenty of distorted guitars and hard hitting drums. At the same time [Untitled] features some of mewithoutYou’s most subdued songs in which they incorporate ethereal and ambient vibes not previously present in their catalog. To describe this album in cinematic terms I would say it paints an eerie almost post-apocalyptic landscape. But the driving force of any mewithoutYou album is Aaron Weiss and the same is true for [Untitled]. Weiss is an interesting character, who’s life has been shaped by various faith traditions including Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. His lyrics are very poetic often dripping with religious and Biblical symbolism. It can sometimes be hard to understand what he’s singing about, but on [Untitled] there seems to be a theme of seeking. Weiss got a married a few years ago and now has daughter. I could be wrong but I image some of these changes in his life have made him reevaluate the meaning of life and how it connects with faith and God. Either way there’s a wealth of fascinating lyrics to dive into here, and I’m pretty sure I’ve just scratched the surface.
4. boygenius – boygenius
boygenius is a collaboration between Phoebe Bridgers, Julian Baker, and Lucy Dacus who are three of the best up and coming song writers in the indie scene right now. Phoebe Bridgers’ album Stranger in the Alps was my favorite album from this year that came out in 2017. Julian Baker’s album Turn Out the Lights was number 11 on my list last year. I’m just becoming familiar with Lucy Dacus, but let’s just say when it comes to boygenius, I was already a big fan of two thirds of the band before it even existed. Each of these women write deeply stirring songs full of passion and imagery. They also each have beautiful voices, each unique in their own right. Bring them all together and the result is something really special. Their debut album is just six songs, but considering their short writing and recording time these songs are the best of the best. There’s no filler on this album, it’s exceptional song writing from three exceptional artists. Bridgers, Baker, and Dacus each brought one song idea to the table and then the three worked together building upon those ideas and co-writing the rest. Their three voices harmonize beautifully together and musically each of their strengths plays off the others making for a truly collaborative album. The three each have a propensity for the melancholy, which is certainly present here, and yet there’s a sense of togetherness if not commiseration. It’ll be great to continue to follow these women as they continue what I’m sure will be incredible solo careers. Whether or not we’ll get more boygenius remains to be seen, but even if this is it, what a great little album it was.
3. Roma di Luna – We Were Made To Forgive
I first encountered Roma di Luna performing in my friends’ backyard in north Minneapolis for a house party. The performance was stripped down and featured the then married couple Channy Leaneagh and Alexi Casselle. Their intimate performance of folk songs both originals and covers instantly won me over. I bought a CD from Leaneagh afterwords and we talked a bit about their bass player James Everest who I was taking guitar lessons from at the time. It was an experience I’ll never forget. Roma di Luna would go grow in their sound over the years and release a couple more albums before Leaneagh and Casselle divorced putting an end to the band. Not long after Leaneagh became the front woman of the synth-pop band Polica. Polica got fairly big as Twin City’s bands go and had some national success. It would seem Roma di Luna was a long distant memory. Then something interesting happened. A couple years ago Leaneagh start jamming with some of the Roma di Luna guys again and formed a new band. But the new band was short lived and after a series of events Roma di Luna official reformed. Some reunion shows followed and eventually they got back in the studio and recorded We Were Made To Forgive. The title kind of sums it up, doesn’t it? A band that ended due to the divorce of it’s two leading members is back together. Forgiveness and reconciliation would have to play a part in that equation. The songs on We Were Made To Forgive mostly sung by Leaneagh catalogs the pain she and Casselle caused each other but also the fruit of finding forgiveness and peace. What a great example for us all to follow. Musically this feels like a whole new Roma di Luna. They sound much more like a seasoned indie rock band and I think Leaneagh brought some pop sensibility from her work in Polica. I was really blown away honestly. Roma di Luna always felt like a live band to me, but We Were Made To Forgive is amazingly written, produced, and recorded. I’m sure it sounds great live too, but it’s definitely a studio album. Lastly I wanted to mention Casselle’s role on this album. He only performs on two songs which are delivered as spoken word performances over ambient music. The first serves as an interlude in the middle of the album and the second closes out the album. They are really incredible performances and the add a perfect unexpected touch.
2. Dessa – Chime
I’ve never been a huge Dessa fan, but I’ve liked her stuff enough that I’ve casually followed along over the course of here career. Her latest album Chime completely changed that. From first listen I was hooked and have been diving in ever since. Dessa splits her time as a musician between being a member of the hip hop collective Doomtree and releasing her own solo albums. While Dessa does some rapping on Chime it certainly isn’t a rap album. However, it does have a fair amount of hip hop influence primarily in the production. Chime is produced by Doomtree alum Lazerbeak and Andy Thompson who is a long time calibrator with the aforementioned Jeremy Messersmith. Lazerbeak and Thompson bring a more beat driven approach to Dessa’s songs. Dessa adds in flair and personality with her vocal performance and melodies making for dynamica album full of energy. Another area where Dessa shines on this album is in her lyrics. Like many rappers she has a way with words particularly in her use of metaphors. In the song “Velodrome” she uses the idea of racing in a velodrome as a metaphor for facing life’s challenges. You race fast around the track leaning hard into the steep banks on the edge of control and sometimes you just can’t hold on. Dessa also happened to put out a book this year titled My Own Devices. It is a collection of essays about her life and it provides an inside look into her lyrics and the way she thinks about things. One of the main themes in the book is her difficulty of getting over a long time love interest and going to extreme lengths to do so, even going as far to participate in neurofeedback therapy in an attempt to scrub her brain of her romantic feelings toward this person. This theme is also explored on Chime as well as her experience being a woman in a man’s world, her thoughts on freewill, grief, pain, and growing up. It’s definitely a deep dive and well worth the journey.
1. Shad – A Short Story About a War
I’d like to start out with a quote about this album which I feel like perfectly captures it, “We found [Shad’s album A Short Story About a War] satisfying and engrossing, like a good book… it’s not background music and it’s not going to help you turn off your brain.” This was said by by Frannie Kelley as an intro to her and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s conversation with Shad for their podcast Microphone Check. Another thing I wanted to mention about this album is it was my most anticipated album of 2018. Shad is my favorite rapper and it’s been five years since his last full length album, Flying Colours came out. Also, Shad does an excellent job of speaking into what’s going on in culture and I felt his voice was one we really needed to hear during these crazy times we find ourselves in. However, when I first put on A Short Story About War, I wasn’t really feeling it. But as the quote above implies this album is not an “easy” listen, it’s not one you just put on for fun, it’s one that requires some time and thought. Because I love Shad’s past work so much I knew this album was worth giving a chance and sure enough it got better with each listen. It started out at about 15 on this list and slowly but surely made it’s way to number one! One of the reasons this album takes time to digest is because it’s a concept album with many layers. As you might have guessed from the title the album tells the story about a fictional war with a couple of key characters, the sniper and the fool. The music unfolds a bit like a play, with Shad providing narration in the form of interludes throughout the album. While the story is fictional it pulls truth from the real world we live in. Shad speaks to the violence and injustices in our world and highlights how some are blind to these things and others are impacted by them daily. The production is fairly dark, but masterfully matches the mood of each scene in the story. There’s a mix of heavy beats, samples, and some nice jazz influences in the interludes. Shad’s rapping, lyrics, and word play are on point and could honestly go toe to toe with any of the top rappers out there. Here’s a taste from the song “The Stone Throwers (Gone in a Blink)”:
Game hasn’t changed, same ol’ monopoly
Same couple players own all of the property
I ain’t a prop, don’t give no props to me
My people still don’t eat properly
Think we forgot? We was just property
Think we’ll be bought again?
Think that they brought them democracy?
I think they brought back them poppy seeds
My people locked up for chopping
We wasn’t thought of
We wasn’t brought up and taught we was set up
That’s why we get caught up
Y’all discarded us
Put them bars up
Of course we got guards up
We hard cuz we’re hard up
They got them start-ups and Starbucks’
We got a couple of stars till they turn ’em to stardust
They starve us
Can’t even drink water
Up North with that Flint water
All in the sink as they sink farther
Kids on the brink
Y’all went to Harvard and Stanford
Think harder for answers man, think
We’re far below standards
Don’t tell me anger won’t help us
You told me the cancer would shrink
We need a shrink
We just see boys making bands: N’Sync
Open your eyes my fam, we all could be gone in a blink
As I alluded to before, the lyrical themes go deep on this album and requires repeat listens to fully take it all in. I don’t think I can even come close to doing this album justice in a short review. My hope would be, if this sounds interesting to you in anyway, go give it a listen. It’s worth digging into and chewing on a bit and you get some great music along the way.