This article previously appeared on Crossfader
In lieu of releasing a best of the year thus far list, we asked our writers to write about what they thought was underrated, underplayed, or currently too under-the-radar. The result was a mix of albums we covered that didn’t get enough shine, or things we hadn’t written about altogether. As we’ve reached the midway point in the year, try on some of 2018’s underlooked gems.
A.A.L (Against All Logic) – 2012-2017
Genre: Deep House
Nicolas Jaar is silently one of the most prolific artists of the decade. While Jaar has only released two official studio albums under his own name, the Chilean producer has gifted the world an embarrassment of audio riches. Between his Darkside collaboration with Dave Harrington, a deep collection of EPs and soundtracks (including the NYMPHS series and POMEGRANATES, two of 2015’s best releases), and an almost unfathomable amount of material on his mysterious Other People radio network, Jaar has put out so much music even an obsessive die-hard fan like myself can’t parse through it all. Among his relatively unheralded releases, none rival the quality of this year’s 2012 – 2017, a record unceremoniously released under his A.A.L alias. So unceremoniously, in fact, that it took all the major music publications over a week to notice.
The record begins, as all Jaar projects do, with a brooding, powerful energy, but the payoff arrives much earlier than usual. It’s something of an outlier on a record filled with direct-to-dancefloor cuts (they themselves are outliers from most of Jaar’s discography); “This Old House” finds a groove, but it’s not nearly as enthralling as those on the following 10 tracks. Jaar immediately cranks up the heat on “I Never Dream,” a swirling, psychedelic collage of vocal samples that cascade over one of the bounciest beats he’s ever produced. He raises the BPM again on “Some Kind of Game,” a frenetic track that, like many of those on 2012 – 2017, has been featured in many of his live sets in the past few years. He dips into his darker side on tracks like “Hopeless” and “Rave On U,” both of which would be right at home being spun deep into the night at an underground party in Berlin.
The two immeasurably high peaks on 2012-2017 come courtesy of “Know You” and “Now U Got Me Hooked,” the purest sources of elation Jaar’s ever put to tape. The former relies heavily on a borderline chipmunked vocal sample paired with insanely crisp percussion that cracks like a whip. The latter has some killer disco and funk samples of its own, most notably The Dramatics’ track “Now You Got Me Loving You.” The percussion smacks even harder on this track and is a masterclass in Jaar’s signature ability to simultaneously build and release tension. It’s like riding a rollercoaster from another dimension where the climbs are just as, if not more, thrilling than the drops. The inclusion of “Now U Got Me Hooked” is especially cathartic for me, as I’d been chasing the high of hearing it live on his 2016 tour (I’ve watched this video at least 100 times).
2012 – 2017 may be the most unexpected and unique project Jaar’s released to date and it is head and shoulders above every other album released so far in 2018. [Ryan Moloney]
Holy Motors – SUNSET SLOWDOWN
Genre: Dream Pop
Holy Motors’ vocalist Eliann Tulve has a slightly lower register than Hope Sandoval. Her voice is huskier, and rather than float atop the the band’s dusty dream pop, it melts into it. Nonetheless, the parallels between Mazzy Star and Holy Motors are undeniable, as both make aetherial desert rock that is at once beautiful and somewhat terrifying, not unlike the American flatlands that their music conjures. SLOW SUNDOWN, the groups debut, is a hushed, whispering pinnacle of neo-psych Americana, capturing the vastness of the desert all the way from the band’s home country of Estonia. This decade, American acts like Gun Outfit, William Tyler, and even Mazzy Star themselves have captured some version of this sound, invoking dreamy mirages of the Southwest, but Holy Motors tap into a chilling and drunken darkness with every song. It is from another country and with an outside perspective that the group are able to create this sweeping, arid soundtrack for barren wastelands, and the weight of that American imagery carries a delightfully woozy sinisterness coming from foreigners. Tulve isn’t helpless in her cries as Sandoval sometimes is, and Holy Motors aren’t gleeful gypsies or sunburned poets like Gun Outfit or Tyler, instead harboring a cultish, perhaps fearful, respect for the desert’s vastness. The echoing bend to the guitars and bass on tracks like “I Will Try” or “Valley” ache, swelling to create the feeling of a slow, plodding trek across the sand. Likely because of its obvious influences, albums like SLOW SUNDOWN don’t seem to come out often, but Holy Motors crafted an excellent one worthy of your attention. [CJ Simonson]
Launder – PINK CLOUD
Genre: Dream Pop
Because of Derek and the Dominos, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Journey, the concept of a supergroup usually leaves a bad taste in my mouth. However, Los Angelino dream pop act Launder has proven to be an exception to my general distaste for the virtuosity-over-good-songwriting approach that elite collaborations often seem to embrace. The partnership between DIIV’s Zachary Cole Smith, singer-songwriter and actress Soko, Day Wave’s Jackson Phillips, and the “yew sup dawgies” vape meme guy pulls from exactly the same breed of bleary-eyed dream pop you would expect from a crew that universally embraces immaterial sonics in their other projects. Lead single “Fade” features a simple but catchy Kraut-indebted guitar riff on loop, with a breezy Roland Juno lead and straightforward drums propelling the track. John Cudlip (the aforementioned notorious vaper) whisper-sings humble lyrics about a crush that captures an endearing middle school whimsy. “Annie Blue” sounds like an unearthed lost track from Beach Fossils’ 2010 debut LP. Major key dueling Fenders played at an upbeat tempo leave me begging to ask why the track isn’t already playing in autonomy-friendly boutiques and cafes nationwide.
The group’s songwriting formula never hesitates to cradle pop sensibilities, but Launder’s sold-out inaugural show in Downtown LA proved that they possess the same hardiness employed by their punk and shoegaze forebears. Hosted by teenage show promoter Minty Boi at consistently grimy DIY space The Factory, the glow of pink Christmas lights was dulled by a haze of cigarette smoke and warehouse district smog. Launder only played five songs, but the crowd of surprisingly authentic LA artists and music nerds bobbed along to a tight set that showcased the same humanness that makes PINK CLOUD such a disarmingly fun listen.
Even as a man who wears high-cuffed Dickies with Doc Marten 1461s on a daily basis, I can’t deny that there are far too many lo-fi dream pop bands putting out music at the current moment. 2018 has unfortunately found me pulling away from my love affair with indie pop, but Launder is one of the few new artists in its niche that feels like more than just another overlooked cassette in a Brooklyn record shop. I’m not entirely sure how Cudlip managed to be lucky enough to link with some of the coolest rock musicians working in Los Angeles today, but whatever sorcery he employed to bring Launder into existence has proven to be a godsend for genre fans in 2018. I can only hope Launder looks past the novelty of their supergroup status and continues to release records and play shows. [Ted Davis]
Lil Wayne – DEDICATION 6 RELOADED: GANGSTA GRILLZ
Genre: Pop Rap
Believe me, I get it. The holistic downhill slalom of Lil Wayne’s career following 2010’s ill-fated REBIRTH (which is still absolutely bonkers, by the way) is the stuff of legend, and apart from the “sure, it’s fine” interlude of THA CARTER IV, things reached a nadir in 2013 with the abysmal I AM NOT A HUMAN BEING II. Though Weezy wasn’t entirely quiet, with the modest and generally palatable FREE WEEZY ALBUM and SORRY 4 THE WAIT 2 popping up in 2015 and the grinning, “rediscovered” album T-WAYNE enjoying a few spins in 2017, a late-game, mixtape-series sequel from the legally belabored 35-year-old was an obvious candidate for oversight. And oversought, it was! But I’m here to tell you that absolutely everyone I’ve forced to give this a chance has said one thing and one thing only: “Holy shit, Lil Wayne is back.” DEDICATION 6 RELOADED: GANGSTA GRILLZ is still one of the hungriest rap releases of the year, Lil Wayne sounding like a man possessed with new purpose and something to prove, turning in blistering bar after blistering bar that hearkens back to and arguably even trumps the lyrical acrobatics that brought him to our attention in the first place. In fact, I’m going to say it: DEDICATION 6 RELOADED is the most impressive technical outing of his career, a reinvigorating and oddly self-affirming competition with his demons and contemporaries to show that we never should have doubted him. With beats that weren’t riffs on modern rap radio there would be even more of a sense of curation and authorial presence, but Lil Wayne taking on staples such as “Gucci Gang” and “Thought It Was a Drought” (an easy highlight) adds to the appeal, a winking refutation of the SoundCloud era and a bona fide demonstration of honest-to-goodness old school effort. While some will find the interview segments plodding, in many ways, I find them necessary in the grand scheme of the release, a bizarrely wholesome and accessible look into one of the genre’s former greats, grappling with middle-age, family life, and his own legacy. It’s sobering to think that a teenage hip hop fan coming-of-age in the current moment might have little-to-no idea who Lil Wayne is, and a likely disdainful idea at that. DEDICATION 6 RELOADED: GANGSTA GRILLZ is about as perfect a reintroduction as one could hope for. [Thomas Seraydarian]
Princess Nokia – A GIRL CRIED RED
Maybe it’s because I never gave her highly praised debut album 1992 DELUXE a listen that I enjoyed this mixtape so much. It probably helped to have no expectations of it, because I found it to be one of most successful and eccentric forays into the oversaturated emo corner of the rap market. The lyricism borders on a parody of the genre itself—there’s a song called “Your Eyes Are Bleeding” for Chrissake—but Nokia’s knack for melody, production choice, and innate passion keep it from becoming laughable. Plus, I don’t see anything wrong with remaining shamelessly faithful to the emo touchstone. As a longtime fan of the genre myself, Nokia’s A GIRL CRIED RED makes for a rather endearing experience. Even when parsing the songwriting here, there’s plenty of gems worthy of an AIM away status. On “Your Eyes are Bleeding,” she plaintively admits, “Everyone I love has an expiration shelf.” Later in the song, she introduces a recurring lyric that may be the ripest sentiment to ever grace a Trapper Keeper notebook or Converse sole: “Smash my heart in pieces, it looks so good on the floor.” It’s simple, but the imagery is extremely potent.
The following track, “For The Night,” emerges as the project’s best, and maybe even from the entire emo-rap archive itself. The production is intoxicating as it plinks along, intermittently abutted by a current of eerie, chopped and screwed guffawing as Nokia broaches the break-up topic with a refreshing amount of self-empowerment, declaring, “I make money to replace you / used to love you, now I hate you.” Okay, so it’s still only a bit more mature than anything on a Senses Fail record, but the sheer fact that we’re hearing these words from a female is what really matters and wherein the strength of the mixtape lies. Whereas all those emo bands (and the acts of this subgenre that pay tribute to them) turned the woman into this faceless, formless entity of evil and betrayal, Nokia doesn’t just turn the tables, but entirely upends them. Most explicitly this is done on “Morphine” as she mocks all the “Lils” currently reigning: “I’m an emo little boy and I want someone to hold me / But my money like a blanket and I hold it when I’m lonely.” It’s shots fired at all of the proto-sad-boys, bands like Brand New or Taking Back Sunday, as well as the current incarnations, making their plights sound even more threadbare as she highlights all the materialism ingrained in rap. Perhaps we actually aren’t supposed to take any of this seriously. Perhaps Princess Nokia released one of the most stinging (and necessary) satires of 2018. That it’s also particularly enjoyable is just a testament to her talent. [Nick Funess]
Caitlyn Smith – STARFIRE
Genre: Contemporary Country
STARFIRE might not have caught fire in the way it deserved, but it’s definitely one of the hottest albums to come out this year. Caitlyn Smith has written pop and country hits over the last few years in Nashville for other artists—over 500 credits—and finally released an album of her own since her debut EP in 2014.
Aside from her amazing vocals, which she masterfully belts out and then reels back into a fraction of a whisper, the best part of STARFIRE is the perfect composition. Though she definitely played it safe, the skills that went into it are rare for a first album: the drum lines are dance-worthy and executed flawlessly, the guitar riffs complement her genre-less (or should I say genre-full) style, and the lyrics are genius. The shame of it being underrated, underplayed, and under-the-radar for most means this talent is being wasted. They say youth is wasted on the young; unfortunately for Smith, her youth is full of unrecognized talent, whereas other young artists get their turn in the spotlight early while taking years to acquire the skills that she effortlessly displays in STARFIRE. If the range of techniques, genres, and styles don’t impress you, than hopefully the variety in her lyrics can still sway your stone cold heart. Smith writes an excellent love ballad, but even better are her snapshot pieces like “Scenes from a Corner Booth at Closing Time on a Tuesday,” or the ode to the first city that marked for career, “St. Paul.” If you only listen to one track, then I recommend the vulnerable “House of Cards (“spinning on a planet, being told to dance”) or the power house “Before You Called Me Baby.” [Liliane Neubecker]
Sons of Kemet – YOUR QUEEN IS A REPTILE
Sons of Kemet may have released the most interesting and grand album of 2018 when you weren’t paying attention. It’s not your fault though—not many are on the lookout for a major jazz release in this day and age. So when I found the song “My Queen Is Harriet Tubman,” I was enthralled. From from the moment the horns come in, you’re taken to a higher ground. Then the album just keeps elevating and elevating as each musician in the group bounces off each other, adhering to one another’s ability. At the end of that track you find yourself saying to yourself, “Damn, they really went for it.” Then you listen to the listen to the rest of the album and say, “OH, THEY REALLY WENT FOR IT!” Songs are often carefully and meticulously planned down to every second, often not leaving a lot of room to breathe. Yet YOUR QUEEN IS A REPTILE is given room to live. All of it feels like a version of chaotic perfection from the minds of the imaginative group behind it. Listening to them reminded me of watching the early Splash Bros. era of the Golden State Warriors, in which guys were running the floor and playing fast and loose, working as one to become the best team in basketball. That’s what YOUR QUEEN IS A REPTILE is: fast and loose. Creating a tone and atmosphere that’s as energetic and flamboyant as can be the case for jazz in 2018. [Mohammed Ashton Kader]
Charlotte Day Wilson – STONE WOMAN EP
Genre: Alternative R&B
STONE WOMAN EP is probably the smoothest R&B release this year that you didn’t even know existed, but that’s not your fault. Until she collaborated with fellow Toronto natives BADBADNOTGOOD on their 2016 album IV (see her on their Tiny Desk Music Concert), Charlotte Day Wilson was just another talented musician I’d never heard before too. BBNG drummer Alex Sowinski described his former high school friend as a “talented young saxophonist that I didn’t know had a vocal that would blow me away later in my life.” February’s STONE WOMAN, though not quite her formal debut, is just a few songs shy of a truly great album. The self-produced, Canadian multi-instrumentalist layers impressively tailored sounds for someone just 25 years old. A scintillant, atmospheric glue welds together juicy bass lines and the butteriest vocals I’ve heard this year (or in a few years). Her breathy voice is lusciously old school, full of yearning, but with a measured tone that almost feels like Wilson is reigning in an even wilder beast within herself. STONE WOMAN doesn’t have songs that “explode,” but they do rise in intensity and energy, while her calming voice casually looms over their fiercest parts. “Nothing New” is maybe the best example of this.“Doubt” appears set as the track that would draw the most ears to STONE WOMAN, and it is certified fire, but this doesn’t do justice to one of the best songs this year, “Falling Apart.” The lightness of being I feel when I listen to this song . . . I can’t give that enough praise. To me it’s the perfect vessel for Wilson’s achy yet oh-so-sweet voice. It’s probably her lack of a label, her heritage in a cramped Toronto music scene—maybe she just needs to get out a full length LP—but whatever the reason, it’s too bad more ears aren’t perked for the next Charlotte Day Wilson project. Here’s a chance to say you heard her before she was huge. [Tanner Hewitt]