Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2018’s New Releases, Part One

We now shift into the first part of our roundup of the best new releases of 2018, and below (and right off the bat) you’ll notice a few labels popping up more than once. More than twice, even. After much consideration, this is just how the cookie of quality crumbles in this calendar year, though the juxtapositions are still worthwhile.

10. The Chills, Snow Bound (Fire) & Modern Studies, Welcome Strangers (Fire) Led by singer-songwriter and sole constant member Martin Phillipps, New Zealand’s The Chills have long been one of my favorite melodic-rock endeavors. As a youngster in the 1980s, I grabbed the band’s early records towards the tail end of that decade; they were on the Kiwi label Flying Nun, a sure sign of quality, though the platters were released in the US at the time through Homestead. As the scope of Phillipps’ songs continued to grow, his profile rose as he moved on to Slash. After ending a long break in recording in 2013 The Chills found a solid home with Fire in the UK. Best lists routinely focus on groundbreaking or at least considerably ambitious stuff, but Snow Bound isn’t blazing a trail, with the main ambition here to write and record a solid, memorable set of songs; what they’ve achieved is another batch of notably strong Chills material nearly 40 years after Phillipps formed the group, and that is no small thing.

Modern Studies are a band from Scotland-via-Lancashire whose 2016 debut Swell to Great impressed me quite a bit. I also dug their track on “Avocet Revisited,” which was a short V/A covers tribute to the very cool Bert Jansch album. Welcome Strangers expands upon their prior baroque folky atmospheres while never totally leaving them behind, in part through their continued use of organic instrumentation, including double bass, harmonium and piano alongside electric guitar and bass, brass and string arrangements and the occasional tasteful use of electronic rhythms. Often dancy and poppy in way that could trigger rampant delight in a busload of ABBA fans, the tandem vocals of Emily Scott and Rob St. John are invitingly warm, but there are also experimental (though never discomfiting) elements aplenty (plus some Krautrock-ish undercurrents), and the cumulative effect is bold without ever faltering into the grandiose. Without ever faltering much at all in fact, across a record loaded with unexpected twists.

9. Madison Washington, (((( FACTS ))))) (Def Pressé) & Obnox, Bang Messiah (Smog Veil) Where so much contemporary hip-hop zigs, Madison Washington zags, and that’s cool with me. The duo of California/New York-based emcee Malik Ameer and Sheffield, England resident DJ/producer thatmanmonkz are named after the man who led the first and only successful slave rebellion in the USA, so rest assured that (((( FACTS ))))) (which follows up their debut EP “Code Switchin’”) will leave you feeling smarter, though to call Madison Washington a scholarly thing is inapt; throughout this 2LP, they instill much more of a party vibe. I said they like to zag, and after an opener that sorta picks up where the EP left off, the thrust shifts into a funky zone (underscoring Ameer’s bi-coastal situation) that references P-Funk and reminds me at times of Outkast. But it’s all so much more than a revamp/ rehash. To restate sentiments from my earlier short review, it’s some of the best hip-hop I’ve heard in a long time.

Hip-hop and a general sense of funkiness are but flavors in Bang Messiah’s overall recipe, but they are essential ingredients rather than the sort of slapdash additives that seem like a good idea but then turn out to be barely palatable at best (the dangers of cooking while high). Main Obnox man and Clevelander Lamont “Bim” Thomas’ prior credits are substantial, including the Compulsive Gamblers, Bassholes (with former member of the Gibson Bros. Don Howland), and This Moment in Black History, bands that might make it clear to the uninitiated that Obnox combines hip-hop and rock, though the garage/ punk/ scuzz background keeps this far away from a baseball cap turned backwards scenario. Instead, Bang Messiah is a weird and noisy affair, and with staying power as it connects as a record of ideas. And as Obnox has amassed a sizable discography, it’s been this way for a while; I haven’t heard everything, but I’ve soaked up more than a few. This is the best one yet.

8. Mary Lattimore, Hundreds of Days (Ghostly International) & Zaïmph, Rhizomatic Gaze (Drawing Room) Harpist Lattimore is becoming one of the reliable joys on the current music scene, partially through the diversity of her pursuits. Although she took part in The Valerie Project and was heard on a few things prior (including Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts), Lattimore debuted solo with the very nice The Withdrawing Room in 2012. She’s added a handful of worthy follow-ups to her discography since, but she’s perhaps more noted as a guest contributor (the credits are bountiful) and collaborator: more than once with Jeff Zeigler, and just this year with Meg Baird. In some ways her own stuff has taken a back seat, but with the release of Hundreds of Days, not any more. Considerably expanding the landscape of her music with additional instrumentation, much of the record leans into ambient territory, and if there’s been a prettier album released in 2018, I haven’t heard it.

Zaïmph, which is the project of multi-instrumentalist Marcia Bassett, isn’t pretty on Rhizomatic Gaze, but that’s cool. Instead, the music is dark, but in a thoroughly non-overzealous or corny way. As this long but in no way overstuffed record spins, it’s clear that Bassett is a veteran; Zaïmph has put out a serious stack of records since 2005 (like, in the neighborhood of 20 full-lengths), and before that she’s was part of Un and Double Leopards, an outfit I remember seeing at the Noise Against Fascism event at the Black Cat, Washington, DC back in 2005 that coincided with the inauguration of George W. Bush. However, if you’re painting a mental picture of Zaïmph as a noisy affair, that’s a bit reductive. I think it fits to describe a fair amount of what transpires on Rhizomatic Gaze as being in the same ballpark (if not the same dugout) as Sarah Lipstate’s work as Noveller. Which translates to high praise, indeed.

7. Tallawit Timbouctou, Hali Diallo (Sahel Sounds) & Okonkolo, Cantos (Big Crown) Back in the day, whenever someone suggested (or my own curiosity led me to) checking out a record in the wide-open “genre” that was then called World Music, far too often the results were pleasant but too well-mannered and suspiciously crafted to complement an upscale way of life. Of course, there was good (and great) global stuff around back then, but good luck hearing it; ‘twas not the kind of stuff one could buy at the mall. If there’s still a mall in your town or city in 2018, I seriously doubt you’ll find Tallawit Timbouctou there either, for Hali Diallo is raw and heavy. Playing the traditional takamba music of Northern Mali, the music rolls forth in an uninterrupted hypnotic pounding stream with vocals and tangles of electric guitar so sharp they sound like they could cut through steel drums like a hydraulic hacksaw. It’s an altogether amazing thing to hear.

You could say that Tallawit Timbouctou is a “punk” extension of the Malian desert sound, with Hali Diallo’s unrelenting intensity differing markedly from the transformation of Yoruban Santeria music offered on Okonkolo’s Cantos. One thing they do share is that there’s almost no chance either group will slip easily into the background on a drive to pick up some organic groceries. Another aspect in common is a spiritual dimension, though this is more immediately tangible in Okonkolo’s work, with the nine tracks on their second release (following a 10-inch from 2016, also issued by Big Crown) described by the label as “religious epiphanies.” There are plenty of sweet sections, many of them the byproduct of the rich and powerful vocals, with the rhythmic thrust potent and the horn and string arrangements helping to differentiate Cantos from the traditional Yoruban Santeria approach. It can be gorgeous, but it has weight, and yet it really moves.

6. Josephine Foster, Faithful Fairy Harmony (Fire) & Marisa Anderson, Cloud Corner (Thrill Jockey) Josephine Foster has made a lot of records, and I haven’t heard one that didn’t suit me just fine. I discovered her work in the midst of a deep ’00s plunge into the neo-folk scene, but her stuff stood a bit apart in that unlike some of her contemporaries, who could sound a bit forced, or if not exactly that, then at least New and Weird (which was just fine), she came across on record as being timeless. A big part of the reason was her voice, big but unstrained with a sound at times reminiscent of Billie Holiday (yes, I know those are big shoes to fill) but her skills as a multi-instrumentalist were also part of the equation. On her new record, a double set, she plays guitar, piano, organ, harp and autoharp while regular collaborators Gyða Valtýsdóttir and her husband Victor Herrero (plus others) lend support, and the results are as magnificently untouched by contemporary trends as ever.

You could also call Josephine Foster worldly, though unlike a suitcase covered in stickers, she doesn’t flaunt it. While I wouldn’t have necessarily thought so before hearing her superb new record, worldly is also a descriptor that applies to guitarist Marisa Anderson. For evidence, there’s “Slow Ascent,” the second track from Cloud Corner, which is influenced by the Tuareg tradition of Northwest Africa (a style affiliated with Tallawit Timbouctou above), But like Foster, Anderson’s not showing off, she’s just exploring her own curiosities in the making of a record that not only holds up to repeated spins, but will be standing tall for decades to come. Anderson records sans vocals and can fingerpick like nobody’s biz, but her array of techniques is wide, as are the moods she creates. In the ranks of contemporary guitarists, she’s continuing to carve out her own niche.

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