Big Red Machine
Big Red Machine
Big Red Machine’s self-titled LP is the result of 10 years of collaboration and friendship between Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner, which found its first signs of life in an instrumental sketch entitled ‘Big Red Machine’ sent to Vernon from Dessner in 2008. The project took shape proper through the PEOPLE festival gathering in Berlin. If BRM sounds like product of many creative outlooks, it is, the result of the open studio style of collaboration that gives anthemic shades to Vernon and Dessner’s art-rock stylings.
Australian singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin’s 2016 album Don’t Let The Kids Win won her much critical acclaim and 2018 saw her collaboration with friends Elizabeth Hughes and Ryan K Brennan as the band Phantastic Ferniture, which they are describing as a “lighthearted project”. With the aim of being less technical and more of a spontaneous thing when writing songs, the band eschewed playing their main instruments because “we wanted a low level of expertise, because a lot of good music comes from people whose passion exceeds their skill”. For Jacklin, who had only experienced playing slow folk music on stage, it was a necessary creative outlet. “I thought, I would love to know what it’s like to make people feel good and dance,” she says. As a result, Phantastic Ferniture is a collection of basement indie pop is one of the most enjoyable guitar records of the year.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Sex & Food
Ruban Nielson’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra are band that always moved between psych-rock, frenetic sonics and oddball funk. Sex and Food finds a bit of everything of the band’s established sounds in there along but perhaps with everything pushed to the fringes or testing the limits somewhat. So there’s the aggressively-charged distorted rock of ‘American Guilt’ alongside the positively ’70s yacht rock tracks ‘Ministry of Alienation’ and ‘Everybody Acts Crazy Nowadays’. “When it comes to rock, I want to get into dodgier territory.”, is how Nielson has talked about the album.
Nielson’s voice remains as the peculiar whispering floating timbre. It’s a little creepy, a little laconic, and totally unique. With influences drawn from places he visited like Reykjavík, Seoul, Auckland, Hanoi and Mexico, away from the Portland home that informed much of his 2015 breakthrough record Multi-Love, Sex and Food ultimately, is like a patchwork of their sound to date.
Jungle’s 2014 self-titled album established a band who had found gold in constructing harmony and nu-funk-lead anthemic pop songs augmented by dance-featuring music videos. Four years later and Tom McFarland and Josh Lloyd-Watson have managed to largely repeat the hook-laden trick without the sense of novelty or deja-vu. For Ever makes use of the expansive large band who have honed this music live over the last four years and it doesn’t feel like a retread at all. If anything, For Ever acknowledges the formula and builds on it with warm and well-constructed productions that continued to provide enjoyment well into the year.
Empress Of’s impressive second LP Us is a sleek and melodic indie pop record that doesn’t kowtow to trends. Lorely Rodriguez has built a reputation for approaching songcraft differently. The album is a celebration of romance. Intimacy is a key theme throughout, established in the woozy album opener ‘Everything To Me’ with its minute attention to detail “I hate when you smoke cigarettes/You hate when I mention it”. There’s an understated aspect to the production throughout the LP. Where most pop singles can’t seem to wait to beat you over the head with a weighty chorus section a track like ‘I Don’t Even Smoke Weed’ shows far more cunning and precision.
Stalwarts of the alternative indie rock scene since the mid-90s, Low have reached a point in their discography that few groups could ever aspire to reach. Double Negative marks the band’s thirteenth studio release. Low undertook the unenviable challenge of creating something human out of an industrial sound palette. ‘Dancing and Blood’ set the tone from the very beginning, contrasting vocalist Mimi Parker’s lead melody against the thud of a distorted kick drum pattern. Double Negative is coated in corrosive textures, static and layered sounds that give the album a discordant and oppressive atmosphere. Parker and Alan Sparhawk’s intertwining voices were always central to Low’s music, but against such a dystopian and degrading background, they sound like the last remnants of hope. Here is a band known for making gloomy rock music, plunge into depths unknown and producing an album that reflected an ominous year that was also one of the most individual release of 2018. By diving into the dark, Low found some devastating and illuminating light.
Ryan Lee West’s fourth full length album is strangely emotive and human. West’s dedication to sound design results in otherwise industrial sounds, take the roaring synth bass on ‘Phantom Grip’ for example, sounding alive and nuanced. This is not to say that Persona isn’t ultimately a dance record, songs like ‘Sun’s Abandon’ and the title track itself come packed with overwhelming bass and drum lines. Yet, Persona is a record intended for more than just the dancefloor. It’s in equal parts intimate and grandiose.
Ex-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s first solo album release in 14 years saw him collaborating with artists such as Brian Eno, Sampha, Blood Orange, Oneohtrix Point Never, Jack Penate and a bunch of other male contributors, a factor that resulted in some backlash for the Scottish-American musician that he addressed directly and apologetically. American Utopia shouldn’t be overshadowed by those facts. The album is engaging and engaged (like his thrilling live show), filled with certain sound elements that project his musical roots with Talking Heads yet it also proves that David Byrne is a long-standing solo artist with distinction who is still able to make relevant and engaging art-pop in 2018. – Luke Sharkey
The Factory Floor man’s debut solo record is a fine collection of dancefloor tracks drawing from disco, pop, new wave, no-wave and suitably for an album that is called Physical, it feels less like Factory Floor to be used as an escapist thing and as more of tactile corporeal soundtrack. The narrative of the album is a recreation of a night out but you can safely ignore that loose theme and enjoy tracks like the Chk Chk Chk / Knife-esque darkness of ‘Night Track’.
Vince Staples surprised released the 22-minute FM! in November, a short but realised album that takes on a radio station concept and doesn’t suffer from the schematic. Eschewing the sonic assault of Big Fish Theory, FM! returns to more traditional rap production mostly by Kenny Beats but this being Vince Staples, these are no castaways. Opener ‘Feels Like Summer’ established the oppressive non-stop West Coast heat that makes people turn violent – “We gonna party ’til the sun or the guns come out” and there are references on ‘Feels Like Summer‘ (reinforced by the video) to black art being consumed by white people, as Staples acknowledges “white fans at the Coachella / Never been touched, n**gas know better”. The brisk pace doesn’t let up and accentuates Staples’ full-clip raps. Few rappers operate on their own visceral and insightful level as Staples does here, even on such a short release.