ROCK & ROLL IS DEAD.
I’m not sure exactly how many times I’ve heard that proclaimed over the last few years, but I’ve heard it plenty—and as it pertains to the relevance of rock & roll in the mainstream, I tend to agree. The mainstream is a bloated, watered-down wasteland engineered specifically to cater to people with attention spans measured in seconds rather than hours, so it’s not like I really care anyway, but I feel like we’re probably never going to see rock & roll return to the level of cultural relevance it enjoyed in the latter half of last century. And the main reason I believe this to be true is the same reason that rock & roll remains the most boundary-pushing and exciting genre in all the world of music: diversity. With so many flavors available it’s pretty much inconceivable that there will ever be a single band which everyone will latch onto the way people did when bands like Led Zeppelin or Metallica hit the scene. But for those of us who are willing to dig a little? To seek out that which is not deemed readily monetizable by contemporary music’s dim-witted gatekeepers? Friends, we are absolutely the better for it and I’ll take the dizzying array of options we currently enjoy over supposed cultural relevance any day of the week and twice on Sunday. I wouldn’t have it any other way, honestly. Rock & roll belongs in the underground anyway—where the people are more genuine, and the ticket prices are still affordable.
Alright, so now that we’ve got that pretentious opening paragraph out of the way, let’s get to the list proper, beginning with a few honorable mentions. And honestly, each of my honorable mentions could have just as easily been in my Top 10 because I’m not really the sort of person who sees a tremendous amount of value in the idea of subjective rankings. At best, rankings are just arbitrary collections of things, with other things excluded for no good reason. At worst, they’re just another thing for people to disagree over. That said, I myself usually find a good number of albums I somehow missed during the year by perusing year-end lists, and if what follows below serves that function for at least one person then I consider the creation of this list to be time well spent. Here we go.
Windhand – Eternal Return: Rich, earthy, and dynamic doom metal graced with Dorthia Cotrell’s enchanting vocals.
Andrew WK – You’re Not Alone: This world needs more people like Andrew WK. [Full Review]
Weedpecker – III: Weedpecker build out their blissed-out stoner rock sound and chart a course for an ambitious future. [Full Review]
Clutch – Book of Bad Decisions: Is there is a band more consistently solid than Clutch on this god-forsaken planet? No, dear reader, there is not. [Clutch Artist of the Month Feature]
Sleep – The Sciences: I am a complete and total loser for leaving this album off my Top 10 list but I only did so because I’m more of a High on Fire guy. Shitty excuse, I know.
All Them Witches – ATW: These guys are on a small Indie/Country/Americana label (New West Records) and opened for Primus and Mastodon on their 2018 co-headlining tour. All of which makes sense once you get to know their music. I love this quirky little band with all of my heart.
Ancestors – Suspended in Reflections: Like everything Ancestors have done, this album is a challenging experience that has huge payoffs if you can stay the course. [Full Review]
ASG – Survive Sunrise: Triumphant Southern-fried metal at its finest.
Graveyard – Peace: I generally hate Christmas music, but if Joakim Nilsson and company cut a Christmas record, I’d lustily sing its praises. Such is the power of Nilsson’s sultry vocals amidst Graveyard’s shambling classic rock groove. Peace kicks ass and is a welcome return for one of Sweden’s finest. [Full Review]
KEN Mode – Loved: Disjointed, off-kilter, and really listenable if you need to destroy something. I mean all of that as a compliment.
REZN – Calm Black Water: This unheralded Chicago-based band delivers trippy, hypnotic doom metal, dripping with atmosphere.
Octopus – Supernatural Alliance: Led by Masha Marjieh’s excellent vocals, Octopus deliver a rock solid debut album full of foot-stomping riffs, colorful keyboard flourishes, and time honored melodies. [Full Review]
Holy Grove – II: Between this band and Windhand, doom metal is in good hand.
10. Sandrider – Armada (Good to Die)
It’s been 5 long years since Sandrider released their last full length album, Godhead. That album, when paired with their 2011 self-titled debut, formed one of the most formidable one-two punches of any band in the past decade, which is sure to sound like a preposterous statement considering that most people reading this probably aren’t even aware they exist. Let’s fix that here and now. Sandrider hail from Seattle and while they definitely channel the ghosts of the region’s musical past, they do so without being completely beholden to it. Armada finds the band at a triumphant and ear-splitting peak–purveying a particularly unhinged brand of hard rock, imbued with measured doses of East Coast punk and hardcore. I’m an unapologetic fan of producer Matt Bayles, who oversaw Mastodon‘s Leviathan & Blood Mountain albums—and I only mention it because he once again delivers the goods here by pushing every facet of the Sandrider sound right into the listeners face, crafting the perfect soundtrack for getting rowdy out on the town. Or, if you’re like me, getting rowdy around the house when the rest of your family isn’t around.
Standout Track: Lineage
9. Deep Space Destructors – Visions from the Void (Space Rock Productions)
I’ve never been a huge Slayer fan, but if I was to make a list (because you know how I love lists) of the most appropriately named bands of all time, they would have to be on top. Finland’s Deep Space Destructors would definitely be on that list too because their name quite accurately foretells of the sonic fortune that awaits listeners on Visions from the Void, their 5th full length album. Steeped heavily in 60’s & 70’s psychedelic rock, Deep Space Destructors have delivered a rich, weighty album full of undulating textures and swirling riffage that call to mind everything from Stardust-era Bowie to more modern bands than I care to list.
Standout Track: Astral Traveller
8. The Ocean – Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic (Metal Blade)
You know how if you look up a band on Wikipedia there’s a section at the bottom that lists all the members, both current and former? And there’s that really handy color-coded graph that displays that same information linearly? Well, on The Ocean’s Wikipedia page that section actually has a link to an entirely different article because the list is so damn long, and the graph looks vaguely like one of those DNA sequence charts. For most any bands—even those with a fraction of the ambition of The Ocean—turnover on that scale would spell certain doom. Part of this is clearly by design as the project—which in the past was referred to as The Ocean Collective, implying transience—has always been known to be the brainchild of founder/guitarist Robin Staps, but I still find it remarkable that this band is capable of producing albums full of complex, beautiful, fully realized prog metal. Reportedly, Palaeozoic is the first half of a double album—the 2nd half of which is due sometime in 2019. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but it looks like maybe next year’s Top 10 list is 10% done!
Standout Track: Ordovicium: The Glaciation of Gondwana
7. Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats – Wasteland (Rise Above)
When I awarded the re-issue of Uncle Acid‘s landmark debut (Vol. 1) a spot on my 2017 top ten list, I hinted that their schtick wasn’t exactly built for longevity. By no means did I mean what I said as a slight, but I will admit that I was somewhat skeptical about Uncle Acid‘s ability to build forward momentum given the constraints of the sonic framework they’d established on their first four releases. Fortunately, Wasteland finds Uncle Acid making significant strides in songcraft and while the disconcerting charm of their basement-dwelling sonic delivery is still firmly intact, they’ve tightened up their playing and imbued Wasteland with a solid sense of melody. I don’t expect Uncle Acid to ever stray too far from the sound that brought them here–and Wasteland proves that they don’t necessarily need to–but it’s refreshing to hear Uncle Acid spreading their wings a bit.
Standout Track: Shockwave City
6. Yob – Our Raw Heart (Relapse Records)
For whatever reason I’d never really been a follower of Yob, so news of the album’s release didn’t register with the same urgency for me that it did for the rest of the metal world. In fact, I had fully finished my this list before I got around to listening to Our Raw Heart which was a big, big mistake–and one I’ve since corrected. Put bluntly, Our Raw Heart is a power trip of emotion and soul, and it resonates on a level that very few albums can. There’s a lot of layers left for me to peel back on this beast, but I knew immediately after my first listen that this album would be counted amongst the most brilliant accomplishments of 2018.
Standout Track: Original Face
5. High on Fire – Electric Messiah (eOne Music)
Call me lazy, but I don’t really feel like there’s much left for me to say about High on Fire or Matt Pike that I didn’t already say in our October Artist of the Month feature (read here). Electric Messiah is everything High on Fire fans could ask for, and it does nothing but cement their already assured status as one of underground metal’s most consistent and influential acts. And we got a new Sleep record this year as well! And I realize it completely undersells both releases to lump them together in any form or fashion other than to demonstrate that it’s Matt Pike’s world and we’re just living in it.
Standout Track: Steps of the Ziggurat/House of Enlil
4. Ghost – Prequelle (Loma Vista)
One thing I really love about the world of metal is the camaraderie amongst fans. Like any scene it has its share of douchebags, but by and large the metal community is very open minded, inclusive, and non-judgmental. These courtesies, however, do not apply when the subject turns to Ghost. I’m totally fine with that and I’m not here to try and change anyone’s mind. Prequelle (full review) is an incredibly divisive album in the metal world—I get that—but Ghost is doing something way too many bands are afraid to do, and doing it very well. Prequelle is incredibly well crafted, expertly executed, and a damn fun album to listen to. As a measure of validating talent and skill I put zero stock in the Grammy Awards, but the mere fact that a band like Ghost is receiving recognition on that level brings a devious smile to my face.
Standout Track: Faith
3. Earthless – Black Heaven (Nuclear Blast)
Earthless is a 3-piece band from San Diego known for kicking out sprawling, high energy instrumental psych rock driven by Isiah Mitchell’s volcanic guitar playing abilities. And while this isn’t the first album to feature vocals, it feels like Black Heaven is a turning point for the band in terms of sonic construct because the added dimension of Mitchell’s consistent vocal delivery gives the songs more depth and color. Mitchell has always had a great voice as he’s more readily demonstrated with his other band, the incredible (and more laid back) Golden Void. If you haven’t already, familiarize yourself with all things Isiah Mitchell starting with his stellar work on Black Heaven and work back from there. You will not be disappointed.
Standout Track: Gifted by the Wind
2. Boss Keloid – Melted on the Inch (Garganjua)
I’d never even heard of the UK’s Boss Keloid until I stumbled upon their sophomore album Melted on the Inch somewhere around the middle of the summer. These guys play a prog-infused brand of stoner rock that just oozes soul, and there are so many memorable twists and turns on this album that I kept coming back to it over and over again. Melted on the Inch also contains my favorite vocal performance of the year thanks to Alex Hurst’s righteous bellow. I have no idea what any of the song titles mean, nor do I have even a fleeting guess as to what that is on the album’s cover, but I know a great rock record when I hear one and Melted on the Inch is a rare splendor.
Standout Track: Chronosiam
1. King Buffalo – Longing to Be the Mountain (Stickman Records)
I wrestled with the decision to make this my #1 album of 2018, but not because there was ever any question whatsoever that it was my favorite release of the year. No, I wrestled with it because it is decidedly not a metal album, and even calling it a hard rock album seems a misnomer. That’s not to say that the album doesn’t have some heavy moments. The King Buffalo sound has always been constructed atop a sturdy blues and stoner rock foundation, and those underpinnings remain, but Longing to Be the Mountain finds King Buffalo exploring the sunny, blissed-out end of the psych rock spectrum with awe inspiring clarity of vision. And when I think back over the past few years and all the albums I’ve absorbed, it’s psych-leaning bands like King Buffalo, Weedpecker, and All Them Witches that seem to define the broader direction of my listening preferences these days, much the same way that the likes of Mastodon, Baroness, and High on Fire did over a decade ago when I began to truly embrace heavy metal. I’ll come back around to the heavier stuff again in due time—I always do—but when I look back on what 2018 had to offer, it’ll be the shimmering beauty of King Buffalo’s Longing to Be the Mountain that I’ll remember most.
Standout Track: Sun Shivers