With the halfway point of 2018 having passed with the beginning of this month, the staff at The Southern Sounding wanted to spend some time looking at some of our favorite records from the first 6 months of the year. As with most years, 2018 has provided an embarrassment of riches in terms of quality releases. From established indie rock veterans to newcomers whose sounds are more than simple nostalgia (as well as austere hip-hop diatribes and oscillating waves of electronic awe), these 20 albums have been receiving constant play from us over the last half-year. Let us know if we missed some of your favorites in the comments section.
Kacey Musgraves - "Golden Hour"
Kacey Musgraves may not see herself as the savior of modern country music but her tendency to buck convention and spool in unexpected musical references make her someone for whom tradition is anything but a restriction. By trading on country music's rural past as well as its pop-minded present, Musgraves builds on a future unencumbered by muddied assumptions and allegiances to specific rhythmic lineages.
Her latest record, "Golden Hour," is a compendium of dozens of musical influences, all woven seamlessly together into a peculiar and wondrous whole. But Musgraves isn't simply concerned with rebuilding an established history just for the sake of change -- she has a way of organically altering your perception of these sounds without letting you know what's going on. Opening track "Slow Burn" finds her exploring a more typical country-pop gait before the landscape falls away to reveal a wide expanse of sounds and textures. From the twangy sophisti-pop of "Space Cowboy" to the disco-y "High Horse" and experimental "Oh, What a World," she doesn't feel beholden to any given aesthetic but wields these eclectic noises with a nuance a largely overlooked among her peers (not that she has all that many). "Golden Hour" is a rare and beautiful thing, filled with meticulous production, complex emotional payoffs and choruses that you'll be singing for weeks. -Joshua Pickard
Oneohtrix Point Never - "Age Of"
Can we just agree that Daniel Lopatin, AKA Oneohtrix Point Never, is the greatest electronic artist currently, you know, twiddling? The arguments against get even fainter after a listen to his new record, Age Of, a dizzyingly chameleonic and occasionally terrifying exhalation of digital beauty. Now, for those of you who hear "electronic artist" and think Marshmello or Bassnectar or Flosstradamus, get out of here with that mess. There are some pink knee-high feather boots you need to go buy. (Jk, I get it. Drugs are fun.) But for those of us who really like to surrender to alien, anomalous sonic worlds, this is some through the looking glass shit. Influences pervade from all over the spectrum. The Books, Autechre, Bach, Stockhausen. I just think of the probe from Star Trek IV that goes around the galaxy soaking everything up. This is what Lopatin does. He listens. Then he gets weird with it.
His last LP proper, Garden of Delete, was heavily influenced by his stint as opening act for Nine Inch Nails. And it was a fanged howl of a record. His take on industrial and grunge, really. Age Of approaches things slightly differently. For one, he has apparently fallen in love with harpsichord. It's all over this record, which does two things; it gives this spaz out of an album some sonic continuity, and it adds an almost baroque texture to these little maelstroms. In addition, his relatively new habit of actually singing on several tracks helps keep things from getting too abstract. Because under all the hair pin turns of this record, lie beautiful melodies and even weirdo pop construction. It really is a wonder. It feels unearthly. And at a time when this planet is feeling less familiar than ever, that's not only reassuring, it's necessary. -Jeremy Pickard
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - "Sparkle Hard"
It’s often easy for older artists to sound stale; trying too hard to satisfy an aging fan base while reaching for newer converts. It’s rare for these artists to put out amazing records late in their career. With Sparkle Hard, Stephen Malkmus has somehow managed to create a record that sounds simultaneously familiar and fresh. And it may just be his best yet.
There is something here for Pavement fans who cling to those off-kilter, carefree grooves in songs like “Middle America,” “Solid Silk,” and “Kite.” Jams like “Shiggy” or “Bike Lane” are driving, fuzzed-out reminders of Malkmus’ status as a guitar god. “Rattler” is unlike anything else in the Malkmus canon, where auto-tuned melodies occupy the verses before the song explodes into walls of guitar-wizardry. And then there’s the alt-country heartbreak of “Refute.” The song features a fiddle, steel guitar, and Kim Gordon, who sings the second verse. While there is still the stream-of-consciousness feel to the lyrics (which only Malkmus can pull off with such ease), Malkmus also gives us some of his best poetry. In “Middle America,” he croons, “Captured in a mason jar / Will you be my whisper unnamed star? / In a galaxy so far far far / From the wintertime.” Even when the album delves into the darkness of the American justice system (“Bike Lane”) or failed relationships (“Refute”), Malkmus is able to comfort us with the sweetness that has graced his voice for decades. With each listen, Sparkle Hard will surprise you. This is Malkmus at the top of his game; lighthearted, but still deeply emotional. Seasoned, yet still young-at-heart. -David Haynes
Pusha T - "Daytona"
Pusha T has long been known for his brutally honest street stories and drug dealer diatribes, but behind all the swagger and bravado, he's always managed to evince an otherworldly sincerity which kept his songs from wallowing in the grime and degradation of their surroundings. Insightful and prone to fits of u bridled honesty, he's one of the last of a vanguard of hip-hop artists who don't see the genre as just a "game" but understands its importance within the fabric of modern society.
With his most recent record, "Daytona," he teamed up with Kanye West to distill the essence of his lyrical and musical distinctiveness into a 7-track album of austere beats and vicious take-downs, making it the best West-associated record since "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy." In just 21 minutes, he says more than most musicians can say in triple the time, exploring both a melodic minimalism and subtle emotional complexity that makes these tracks feel much longer and larger than they initially appear. His hustle is still on proud display, but he's adapted his approach to be more aware of the dangers of that lifestyle -- it can often be seen as an endless downward spiral with only momentary spots of light, but that illumination is fiercely protected and nurtured by the street-wise hip-hop laureate. -Joshua Pickard
SOPHIE - "OIL OF EVERY PEARL’s UN-INSIDES"
Scottish musician SOPHIE exists in a particularly liquid pop state -- her voice stretched and modified beyond recognition at times and always thirsting for the realization of some gauzy concept of self and purpose. There are no constants in her world, only the feeling of spontaneous movement and radical internal revolution. Music made here doesn't conform to, or even resemble, mainstream perceptions of what pop music is supposed to be. It's wholly its own animal, a glistening array of beautiful arrangements, synthetic rhythms and fully human intimations.
And on her debut record, "OIL OF EVERY PEARL's UN-INSIDES," she explores this intersection of gender fluidity and pop relevancy with uncommon ease amid a host of dense emotional associations. These songs can be dense and murky, filled with rumbling hearts and rushing blood, or they can be brittle and fraught with unresolved tension. She manages to be both inviting and challenging, drawing you in before unleashing the full weight of her complicated vision upon your shoulders. This collection is simultaneously ageless in terms of its universal sentiment and hyper-aware of its own pop necessity. -Joshua Pickard
Snail Mail - "Lush"
Deceptively simple. When I think of Snail Mail, those are the words that come to mind. Lindsey Jordan has become a household indie rock name. Lush is the perfect title for her latest offering. The arrangements are sparse, but oddly warm. The melodies are bittersweet, yet resounding. Jordan has tapped into something truly unique – simultaneously paying homage to indie rock’s dense history while imbuing her songs with an unprecedented pop sensibility. Her confessional lyrics find a perfect home in the guitar noodling.
The single, “Pristine,” is a perfect example of what Jordan does best. Though the chords and song structure sound simple, the guitar work is anything but simple. The chords sound simultaneously major and minor, bringing a “summer’s end” vibe to the song. Jordan uses hints of reverb and chorus on songs like “Speaking Terms” or “Golden Dream” but never over-saturates with effects. There’s a purity on this record that is uncommon in indie rock. Jordan’s songs are good enough: they don’t require gimmicks in the mix. Lush is a record for warm August nights, when we start to dread the shorter days coming. -David Haynes
Beach House - "7"
Beach House never seemed to care much about random shoegaze and dream-pop expectations -- they were far more interested in how to bring these darkened sounds and cavernous melodies to light in the present day, both in line with their well-worn musical histories and in terms of allowing them to stand on their own. Comparisons to the genres' heavyweights were always going to follow the band around, but in recent years, those voices had died down as they've managed to carve out a place all their own. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have stepped away from the shadow of their influences and developed an informed musical language that's able to bear the substantial weight of their cathedral rhythmic explorations.
"7," their latest record, is a sprawling, reverb-laden affair that still pulls at our collective memories of bands like The Cure and Cocteau Twins while subverting that same nostalgia in service to the band's clever and wickedly imaginative production. By adapting these sounds into something vaguely familiar and also utterly unique, the band has fashioned a record of immense beauty and vivid experience. The songs boom and shake while producing some of the most affecting and emotional melodies of the year. You don't simply listen to "7," -- you fall helplessly into its depths. -Joshua Pickard
Father John Misty - "God's Favourite Customer"
Under the guise of Father John Misty, J. Tillman has made some of the most loving and acerbic soHengs of the last decade and has done so with an incomparable melodic awareness. His songs aren't just about love and fear and vicious narratives about unfortunate characters; they're microcosms of musical reality and emotion. Both literate and instinctual, Tillman's work operates on a far deeper level than most of his peers and can lacerate while also slyly winking in regards to the frivolity of it all. And on his latest record, "God's Favourite Customer," he once again peers into that black void of society and finds humor and pain and all the beautiful and ugly details that surround our lives.
His ego is still very much a guiding force on this album, but he's discovered that a little empathy can go a long way in softening the majestic self-absorption which has come to characterize his work. In fact, "God's Favourite Customer" acts as a sort of reboot for his over-sized persona, dialing back the dense complexity while still maintaining the insight and dedication to craft. It seems as if he wants to reevaluate himself, especially in light of all the different characters he's taken on over the past few years. It's a relatively grounded collection of songs which finds Tillman staring starry-eyed at the world, finding new grace and hope in place of weary desperation and the ache that can so often envelop our heart. -Joshua Pickard
Iceage - "Beyondless"
Danish punk rockers Iceage revel in the idea that they are not what you expect. Their music has always side-stepped easy characterization and opted, instead, for something brutal but beautiful, a mash of muscled melodies and barked diatribes which seem to inch ever closer to the rapture that most modern pop music affords. But the band maintains a visceral punch unlike any other band currently releasing music -- they manage to have their punk and play nice with the darkened popsters too. "Beyondless," their latest record, marries their post-punk history to a newfound rhythmic freedom, the result of their continued musical evolution.
The band stomps and churns out their serrated punk rhythms with the same breathless energy, but on "Beyondless," they spike this brew with a scorched pop acidity. Alongside a barrage of blunt guitar riffs and percussive pummeling, they bring in horns, strings and other things that would turn the heads of old school punks. But even with those flourishes, the record still sounds dangerous, envenomed in its production and execution. This is the sound of a band pushing their limits and finding new ways to broaden a well-worn sound -- they're not simply punk rock but punks with a mission to subvert our expectations at every turn. And "Beyondless" makes a grand statement that there's so much more for the band to explore within the confines of punk music than anyone thought possible. -Joshua Pickard
Mount Eerie - "Now Only"
Death hangs heavy over the songs on Mount Eerie's latest record, "Now Only," just as it did on last year's "A Crow Looked at Me." Both albums echo the sadness, desperation and anger that Phil Elverum has experienced in relation to the death of his wife, Geneviève, in 2016. Almost uncomfortably intimate and emotionally raw, these records feel somewhat voyeuristic, as if we really shouldn't be listening to him as he tries his best to cope with such a monstrous event. And where "A Crow Looked at Me" was skeletal and viciously stripped-down, "Now Only" is filled with ideas and movements that attempt to combat the loneliness that continually tugs at the chambers of Elverum's heart.
This record allows him to vent those poisonous feelings, to release that black stuff, those memories, in his body to the night air in Anacortes. His breathy, almost invisible voice carefully wanders through these songs, sidestepping droning noises, static-y jams and the brittle echo of his acoustic guitar. It seems as if he knows we're there with him but never quite calls attention to our presence. Maybe he just needs to know that he's not alone, that there are people waiting to support him, and that gives him a fragile strength to continue working through her death. Great art doesn't have to comfort us; it doesn't have to make us feel better. Sometimes, art reveals the bleak nature of life and our temporary place within its embrace. "Now Only" can be seen as a statement on the futility of life and emotional connection, but I think Elverum would rather us see it as a testament to the necessity of physical human contact regardless of our own endings. -Joshua Pickard
Saba - "CARE FOR ME"
Saba's cousin was stabbed to death in Chicago last year, and this tragedy looms large over the horizons of his latest record, "CARE FOR ME," a scathing, occasionally hopeful but generally resigned look at the darkness welling up around us. Saba has a love of piano-centric hip-hop arrangements, and this album continues that trend as most songs feature the instrument. But it's the words and sentiment that cling to the recesses of your heart; they bury deep into that soft tissue and express a kind of unvarnished anger at the world which had the callous motivation to take the life of his cousin. These songs bleed profusely, cough and exude a poisoned perspective at times, but they can also be weightless and filled with a hesitant and weighted hope.
"CARE FOR ME" is Saba's personal manifesto, a tirade against injustice and unnecessary violence. And it's all held together by a strident faith in some higher power that will right the wrongs of this world, even if it's done a bit later than he would like. Turmoil and dread infuse these tracks, casting a dark shadow on Saba's ability to let go of the fury that has been welling up inside him since the day he learned of his cousin's death. This collection is a way for him to grapple with the concept of his own mortality, to look at the consequences of actions far in the past and ones that may still sting his recent memory. He paints a vivid and barbed perspective on reality, but it's all filtered through a divine plan -- and Saba allows that plan to instill in him a sense of optimism even when everything around him suggests a darker path. -Joshua Pickard
Amen Dunes - "Freedom"
As Amen Dunes, Damon McMahon has created some truly memorable gothic pop rhythms and woozy melodies that feel apart from any specific musical history -- even his influences begin to shimmer and dissipate after enough time has passed. The resulting wash of sound is often as impenetrable as it is fascinating. But with "Freedom," McMahon's latest release for Sacred Bones, he's opened up a bit, choosing to embrace aspects of the world instead of sealing himself away from it. He takes the feeling of '70s FM radio and adapts it to service his own kaleidoscopic vision.
These songs are born from a cross-section of the last 50 years of music -- they may not always reinforce particular genres, but taken as a whole, you can certainly see how he was inspired by everything from classic rock 'n' roll to '80s pop to buzzing indie rock. The album finds McMahon confronting the world around him and seeing how each moment connects to the next without losing any of their emotional resonance. Bits of psych-folk and late '80s college rock roam without restriction, resulting in a sound that feels inclusive without sacrificing its individuality. Whereas his earlier records felt a bit hermetic, "Freedom" widens his perspective, on both life and music, and allows him to create a series of songs that reveal a journey toward some elusive revelation -- and with each passing song, you can hear that the revelation is almost within his grasp. -Joshua Pickard
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever - "Hope Downs"
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever makes music that feel comforting and elusive at the same time. Their '80s jangle rock-college rock hybrid recalls the work of The Go-Betweens and vintage REM, but the band isn't content to dig through their record collections and regurgitate the sounds they find. Their music is a twist on the familiar, a subversion of what we often consider to be the template for '80s indie rock, the progenitor to the alt rock of the early '90s. And after 2 remarkable EPs, the band has released their debut LP, "Hope Downs," and it continues that motorik fury of post-punk's determination and alt-pop's clever infectiousness.
It would be easy (though fundamentally incorrect) to label their work as nostalgic. The band does carry that spark from earlier bands but they so completely make it their own that any sense of musical grifting is quickly laid to rest. There's a spontaneity to their music which begs further examination -- you can hear all those twisting melodies and catchy choruses, but there is always something hiding below the surface which is ready to consume you should you get too close. The band trades in a jangling pop euphoria matched only by their need to explore the anxiety of post-punk's darker impulses. And on "Hope Downs," they make the case that beneath the calmness of familiarity lies a deeper, more thoughtful evocation of what can be accomplished when communal sounds are rearranged beyond the recognition of their source material. -Joshua Pickard
Neko Case - "Hell-On"
Neko Case has always had a whirlwind voice, one that can simultaneously destroy buildings and slid a glass across the floor a few inches -- it comes in measures, filled with anger, hope and primal frustration. Her songs are equally prismatic, containing numerous angles from which to view the calamity within. And calamities there are, for Case often finds herself staring into the void and holding its advance at bay by sheer will alone. You can hear her starting to win this years-long battle on her latest record, "Hell-On," a collection of fiery sentiments, bold narratives choices and collaborative intuition.
On previous records, her songs were often ringed by abstract concepts, but here, she offers a more humanist perspective, even if that means the evil that she addresses is all the more terrifying. But she has some companions to helps soften that terror, including Mark Lanegan, Eric Bachmann, some close friends from The New Pornographers and case/lang/veirs and producer Björn Yttling (of Peter, Bjorn and John). The squalling alt-country, power-pop tempests roar loud and vicious, compiled from moments that often make you shiver, gasp and hope that things can change for the better. In a way, Case is both demystifying her past work and is adding a new layer of mythology to what might come in the future. "Hell-On" is a response that some things are actually as simple as we believe them to be while others are too complex to understand at first glance. These songs dig deep into the subconscious of consequence and motivation and reveal both the dark heart of humanity and its saving graces. -Joshua Pickard
Parquet Courts - "Wide Awake!"
In his review for the film "Fargo," Gene Siskel used a lovely, little phrase that perfectly and succinctly described his feelings about this movie he loved so much. Very simply, he lauded it as a "grinning joy." I find something delectably musical about that term. This is how I feel about the new Parquet Courts record, "Wide Awake!" A lean, smart-ass rock record, both filled with, and utterly devoid of, pretension. Born, really, from the ever fecund sounds of late 70's New York punk rock and early nineties lo-fi, Parquet Courts blew up immediately with their 2013 debut "Light Up Gold," and have managed to keep getting better with each new release.
We have an embarrassment of lyrical riches flowing from the pens of modern indie song-writers (Olsen, the Crutchfields, Barnett, etc.), and I'd hear arguments that Courts' A. Savage is the absolute best of them all. "I've learned how not to miss the age of tenderness/That I am so lucky to have seen once," from "Freebird II" (yep), pretty well exemplifies the curly, savage, surgically precise future Facebook posts that this guy flings on us song after song. The instrumentation is equally exacting. Sloppy and measured at once, tracks like "Violence" and "Total Football" are absolutely thrilling in their pitch-perfect Modern Lovers/Pavement worship. A grinning joy then, yes, and a reminder of how much can be done with scratchy guitars, assholery and brains. -Jeremy Pickard
Soccer Mommy - "Clean"
Sophie Allison wears her influences stitched into the chambers of her heart, but as close as she is with them, they never overwhelm her own distinctive stripped-down indie rock creativities. As Soccer Mommy, Allison creates streamlined indie rock with more than a touch of nostalgia, but its less about imitating a particular sound than it is about redefining what those sounds mean to her. There's still some roughness around the edges, especially when she confronts a series of rather pained experiences from her past. The guitars echo and shake and her voice is defiantly conversational, drawing you within its reach with little effort.
On her studio debut, "Clean," she harnesses both the DIY nature of her lo-fi releases and a more clean-cut production highlighting her lyrical expressiveness and the subtle personalities of her music. These songs are born from a youthful hesitancy, a desire to cling to both the comforts of your younger years and the need to reach for something beyond the grasp of your current circumstances. "Clean" is the sound of indecision, lovesickness and the necessity of change, themes that Allison explores through a lens of maturity which few of her peers might achieve. This the clamor and struggle of complicated ideas and thoughts all meshed into a summer of infatuations and road trips -- it's the sound of life revealing itself in 3-4 minute increments. -Joshua Pickard
U.S. Girls - "In a Poem Unlimited"
Mirroring the violence she's sees around her, Meg Remy has filled her latest record as U.S. Girls, "In a Poem Unlimited," with those same physical threats and dangers. These acts can be implied or overt, but they cling to her music, creating a dark and spiraling discussion about the #MeToo movement, political ineffectiveness and the desire to take ownership of your own body and life. Over the last few years, her work as U.S. Girls has become increasing inclusive, ditching the bedroom loneliness of her earlier records for something that feels more fleshed-out and consciously produced.
And across these 37 minutes, she wages a ferocious war with members of Toronto musical collective the Cosmic Range and her own husband, Max Turnbull. Vicious, barbed and often quite danceable, these songs explore a vast array of influences while never ceding their informed personalities. Moments of psych-pop lucidity vie for your attention alongside disco-y rhythms and avant-rock arrangements. There's never a moment of sedentary introspection -- this is a record of movements, anxious and poised to attack what she sees as the established political and social institutions that harbor distinctly male-driven directives and casually repress the female perspective. "In a Poem Unlimited" is a call to arms, a fist raised in anger and solidarity. And it feels like this is just the beginning. -Joshua Pickard
H.C. McEntire - "Lionheart"
Sometimes a record comes along that strikes at the heart of what it means to be human and broken and different from those around you while also celebrating those differences -- and "Lionheart" from H.C. McEntire is that kind of record. Presenting a view of the American South without reserve, without restriction, she finds honesty and freedom in gravel roads, open fields and her own connections to the land. But this album is also a statement on the complexity of being queer in a place where families can be ignorantly broken apart simply on the basis of those feelings. McEntire rewrites the rules of country music across these 9 tracks, finding solace and a fiery determination in the twang and shuffle of her work.
With a voice that can etch out pained vulnerability and steel resolve, she pushes back against the genre's conventions, opting for something wholly personal and utterly compelling. These are the words of a woman who felt stifled by the atmosphere of her youth, but who also found a deliverance of sorts in bluegrass, country and gospel music. She's reworked these familiar sounds into a mass of emotional relevance and rural geography. Guitar strings moan and stretch as McEntire sings to the heavens about the woman she loves and how music functions as salvation for many who have to keep their own secrets. The blues also plays heavily into her musical perspective, its longing and raw desire bubbling up often to provide a kick of inspiration. "Lionheart" is gentle but fierce, loving yet hesitant to reveal itself fully -- it's the sound of country music being effortlessly dismantled and rebuilt. -Joshua Pickard
serpentwithfeet - "soil"
Love is dangerous. Love is joy. Love is collaborative. Love can be limitless. Josiah Wise, the man behind serpentwithfeet, knows these feelings better, and is better able to articulate them, than almost any other musician in 2018. His eclectic pop sensibilities lend themselves well to his theatrical and complex diversions into the chambers of the heart. On his debut record, "soil," he slides his fingers into that knotted bunch of muscles and discovers both a subtle and overt affection. His songs sway and swagger and withdraw, developing a unique and wholly affecting musical perspective. With help from producers Clams Casino, mmph and Katie Gately, he stretches pop and r&b into a beautifully intertwined pattern which reflects his own internal romanticism.
This album is full of sweetly sung melodies and raucous emotional release; it's a culmination of sorts of the sound which he's been exploring over the last few years. From serenading the man he loves to envisioning the loss of that love, he finds this affection is less a thing of which to be weary and more something to be embraced and shared. He's able to create a broad expanse of experiences, all linked by their communal ideas about relationships and the entwining feelings that mark each moment of our lives. Few artists manage to feel so detailed yet so ambiguous, so personal yet so universal. When he sings of the upper limits of love, you see that he's not crooning to empty seats but to a whole congregation of people who want to believe in the legitimacy of love. -Joshua Pickard
Let's Eat Grandma - "I'm All Ears"
Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton are 19 years old and make music that would escape the abilities of even the most seasoned artists. Friends since kindergarten, they meld bright pop expulsions to prog and psych-folk foundations -- it's a beautiful mass of tones and patterns that clamors for attention and respect. Youth isn't an impediment to them; it provides the fuel for their voracious creativities. Their new record, "I'm All Ears," finds them dealing with typical experiences in less than typical fashion. Love, femininity and identity are subjects which they embrace wholeheartedly, allowing the amorphous feelings of these idea to wash over them in unvarnished waves of rebellion and curiosity.
Their blend of operatic synth-pop melodies and segmented psych rhythms allows for a much more free-form approach to these sounds. They're not simply rummaging through some collection of old records looking for some inspiration that strikes their fancy; they're looking for new ways to assemble these specific sounds. Hollingsworth and Walton maybe be young, but their work shouldn't only be assessed through the lens of age. They takes some truly impressive steps here to push pop forward, leaving little room for anyone to doubt either their resolve or talent. These songs hum and shimmer with an inherent incandescence, illuminating the joys and obstacles of growing up while accepting that you don't have to conform to any given set of expectations. And on "I'm All Ears," Let's Eat Grandma casually demolish your assumptions about the music they make and their own fluid self-awareness. -Joshua Pickard