I still prefer music recommendations from friends online or IRL, or stumbling across a punk band cooler than the one headlining the show, or buying a record simply because the artwork rules, or falling down the rabbit hole of random clicks on Bandcamp. Algorithms serve a function, but never satisfy the hunt, at least for me.
In my Viking's Choice column, there's a mixture of all the above, mostly focused on the fringes of sound. But even then, I don't get to feature everything, which is why this year-end episode with Bob Boilen dives deeper into the albums of 2018 that I think are just as deserving as the Hop Alongs and Tierra Whacks of NPR Music's 50 best albums of the year. (I love those records, too, for what it's worth.)
There's no ranking here, just an overview of music that hit me in strange, direct and unexpected ways. Though not by any design, this roundup is far more international than in previous years, from Italian doom metal and Chinese post-punk to South Korean psych-pop and London-based sound art. Listen above, read below — and for more, you can follow my collection on Bandcamp, and shuffle through a very long, unsequenced playlist of songs I loved this year.
There is beauty in restraint. This can be especially true in metal, where the outrageous call of bombast and chaos reigns supreme. Messa's second album, Feast for Water, simmers in bluesy seduction led by the dynamite vocalist Sara, but also in the Italian doom metal band's jazzier noir nodes, spaced out by some Fender Rhodes. Even when the riffs turn up, Messa still keeps it low and slow.
Kate Carr travels the world in search of sound, not only mapping bodies of water and landscapes in field recordings, but engaging with the environment as an active participant. Now based out of London, the sound artist collected sounds underwater and off shorelines for the thing itself and not the myth, its titled inspired by an Adrienne Rich poem. Carr submerges your ears just below the surface, but through careful editing, captures an emotional resonance in natural drones and geese overhead. A rapt experience.
There's no denying it: Dark Thoughts' Jim Shomo loves The Ramones, from his bratty punk affectation to the bubblegum punk hooks. But the Philly band also knows that there's still so much to learn from punk's tradition, heard in the ridiculously catchy two-minute-or-less songs and a leather-worn physicality of At Work. You feel every power chord and drum kick in your bones.
Imagine, if you will, the sound of a psychedelic team-up between Hollinndagain-era Animal Collective, Malian desert rockers Tallawit Timbouctou and guitar madman Eugene Chadbourne. All caught up? Now toss the whole sonic mess off a cliff. Bégayer is a trio from the south of France that howls in French and Arabic, bangs on homemade instruments and leaves a path of delirious distortion in its wake.
In a year that saw hours-long releases from Autechre and David Garland, not to mention the Blu-ray reissue of La Monte Young's microtonal masterpiece The Well-Tuned Piano, there was a lot of music that required our time. Mike Shiflet's 24-hour drone album Tetracosa does, too, but its tone, timbre and texture tessellates effervescent guitar, blasted noise and electro-acoustic detritus though the movement of a day. An absorbing work in full or (more likely) just hours at a time.
The excellent label Maybe Mars documents the current Chinese underground music scene, from the psych-rock of Chui Wan and surfy shoegaze of Dear Eloise to P.K. 14, Beijing's experimental rock pioneers. That's how I got turned onto Lonely Leary, a post-punk band that channels The Fall, The B-52s, Sonic Youth and Joy Division into this buzzing, dark and maniacal debut album, where noise needles into perversely kitschy surf riffs and hoarsely barked punctuation marks.
Mid-Air Thief makes puzzles out of sound like the video game series Katamari Damacy makes puzzles out of surreality. Not much is known about the South Korean artist, just that guest Summer Soul sings here and there, and that the person behind Mid-Air Thief ping-pongs psychedelic pop, glitched folk and electronic serenity with the collage craft of Madlib cutting up The Olivia Tremor Control.
Heather Leigh is among a group of artists like Susan Alcorn who are reshaping the sound of the pedal steel guitar. She's collaborated with Jandek and Charalambides, and released two albums this year: Sparrow Night, in what's become a very rewarding collaboration with German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, and Throne, a solo album that stretches her noise/improv background into songwriting territory. With an elastic sense of time and a beguiling voice, Heather Leigh hears a new world drenched in aqueous echo.
Four words: Death-metal Dire Straits. No, wait, come back! Metal has long reckoned with its rock and roll roots, from Entombed's Wolverine Blues to Tribulation's flamboyantly gothic King Diamond worship. Germany's Chapel of Disease may have started as a Morbid Angel homage, but on its third album it embraces '70s hard-rock swagger, proggy sorcery and, most surprisingly, the fluid melodicism of Mark Knopfler's guitar work, all atop death-metal growls and chugged riffs. There's no reason why this should work, and it's a testament to Chapel of Disease's heavily worn record collection, as the group now raises fists and beer to the storm.