11. Kamasi Washington, “Fists of Fury”
“I use hands to help my fellow man,” sing Dwight Trible and Patrice Quinn, “And when I’m faced with unjust injury / Then I change my hands to fists of fury.” Those original lines are from the main theme from the Bruce Lee film Fist of Fury, and Kamasi Washington shows his brilliance as a jazz arranger by fleshing out that kung-fu theme into a masterful ten-minute epic. In so doing, he transforms a somewhat cheesy song into an inspired statement of action and social justice. The performances on the track, led by Washington’s soaring solos, might be highly disciplined, but make no mistake, “Fists of Fury” seethes with rage. “Our time as victims is over / We will not longer ask for justice / Instead, we will take our retribution,” the singers state soberly at the song’s climax. In a year that spawned some interesting political statements from American artists, Washington’s was easily the most powerful.
11. High on Fire, Electric Messiah (Entertainment One)
Matt Pike is my favourite guitarist in metal today. He is a riff machine, capable of robust sounding solos that alternate between all-out shredding and jazz-like nuance. From a musical standpoint his 2018 was spectacular to say the least, featuring prominently on two of the finest releases of the year. The first album I’ll talk about is the latest by his long-running project High on Fire. With Pike’s gravelly voice, the classic power trio set-up, and the band’s musical simplicity (High on Fire’s mission statement, is they had one, would be “Destroy Anything And Everything In Our Path”) the comparisons to Motörhead are inevitable, and indeed, Pike and High on Fire have become so reliable at putting out new music that doesn’t break much new ground but absolutely excels at the formula they’ve created for themselves. I prefer to avoid the Motörhead thing and allow the band’s own identity speak for itself, but Pike embraces the comparison on Electric Messiah, writing the title track in honour of the late, dearly missed Lemmy in addition to churning out a slew of speed-freak metal tunes. It’s because of that return to the speed of 2005’s “Devilution” that Electric Messiah feels so immediately rewarding, but there is a lot to discover once you delve past such catchy tunes as “Spewn From the Earth” and “Freebooter”. Namely two tracks that comprise more than one third of the album: “Sanctioned Annihilation” roars alog for ten and a half ambitious minutes, while “Steps of the Ziggurat/House of Enlil” is the best epic-length track I’ve ever heard from High on Fire, shifting from riff to towering riff. After a long period of working with different producers, the band has a true co-collaborator in Kurt Ballou, who over the last three albums has played a huge role in shaping the High of Fire sound that we know today. Electric Messiah is so rewarding from the get-go, metal at its most punishing and flat-out fun.
Carly Rae Jepsen, “Party For One”
You can always count on Carly Rae for some insanely catchy pop music, the kind of pop that doesn’t chase trends. Nah, the only thing Carly chases is the almighty HOOK. Her music is all about the pursuit of the perfect hook, and for all its minor faults (it doesn’t exactly have the “wow” factor that past songs possessed, and it’s fairly straight-laced) the effortless way she sells it with her lovable, slightly raspy voice makes it a success. It’s an understated introduction to her upcoming 2019 album, which will hopefully be in the same league as 2015’s mighty Emotion. We shall see!
12. Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, Wasteland (Rise Above)
As enjoyable as it has been watching Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats evolve from a mysterious solo project to a full-fledged band, that progression hasn’t been without its share of bumps along the way. After the revelatory Blood Lust blew ears and minds with its lo-fi blend of doom, psychedelia, and garage rock in 2011 – the product of the clear and unique vision of musician Kevin Starrs – Uncle Acid started dipping its toes in the live arena, and that more robust sound defined the very strong Mind Control in 2013, a record I was very fond of that year. 2015’s The Night Creeper, however, felt like somewhat of a step backwards, the songwriting turgid and bloated, with not many hooks leaping out at the listener like the band’s best work. Not that the album wasn’t bad – it actually has plenty of good moments – but the bleakness and lumbering pace lacked dynamics over the course of the entire record. That all changed on Wasteland, Uncle Acid’s best work since Blood Lust. This time it’s all about dynamics: just listen to the energetic opening one-two punch of “I See Through You” and “Shockwave City” for proof. The menacing “No Return” is probably the best Sabbath-inspired song Starrs has written to date, while “Blood Runner” is a very refreshing blast of early-Maiden New Wave of British Heavy Metal. After the Stooges-style groove of “Stranger Tonight”, Wasteland settles in for a concluding trifecta of moody compositions: the title track slowly morphs from acoustic guitar and mellotron to a soaring jazz-rock number, “Bedouin” is built around a bizarre yet undeniably catchy horns riff of all things, and “Exodus” sounds commanding in its doom and gloom. Accentuated by some truly fabulous art design inspired by ‘70s science fiction, this is the kind of authoritative statement a lot of us were hoping for from Starrs and Uncle Acid. I’ll be cranking this well into 2019.
13. CHVRCHES & Wednesday Campanella, “Out of My Head”
CHVRCHES made a strong 2018 even better by putting out a surprise single this past summer, in the form of a quirky little collaboration with Japanese electropop band Wednesday Campanella. Combining CHVRCHES’ trademark sound with a distinct J-pop influence makes the band’s music pop more effervescently than ever before, as singer KOM_I belts out playful verses in Japanese (at one point mentioning David Bowie) and Lauren Mayberry sings the track’s simple but extremely catchy hook in the chorus. It’s great to hear a band like CHVRCHES branch out more, and show how effortlessly they incorporate outside influences.
13. GAS, Rausch (Kompakt)
There’s a silly reason why the latest album by Kompakt Records co-founder Wolfgang Voigt is my most-played album of 2018. Or maybe it’s not-so-silly because some of you can relate. You see, I hate hearing chatter on the morning commute. Hate it, hate it, hate it. If I was in a large metropolitan area where I’d be taking subways and trains, the odds would be much better that I wouldn’t hear much chatter because I am plenty familiar with the dead, silent stare of the big city commuter. That doesn’t happen in Saskatchewan, oh heck, no. People are warm and friendly on morning buses, with their Tim’s coffee and chainsmoking stench. Meanwhile I’m still trying to wake up, to warm up, and do not want to be bothered in any way. Don’t talk to me, don’t touch me, don’t sit beside me. In the words of Frank Booth, don’t you look at me. As a result, for the last year or so I have been listening to a lot of ambient music, some comfortable drones that could drown people out and allow me to relax and enjoy whatever book I’m reading. I had a few go-to’s for a while – Earth, Sunn O))), Lustmord – but then I started hearing good word of mouth about the new record by Voigt’s GAS project, and not only was it a perfect fit for my mornings, but it turns out to be a remarkable piece of ambient art. Essentially a continuous, hour-long piece comprised of seven movements, it’s a surreal little train ride of its own. Often accentuated by a thrumming, motorik-style electronic beat, you encounter a constant push-and pull between foreboding tones and uplifting chords. It moves like a nightmare, one imposing movement giving way to relief, only to be overtaken by more impending doom. The whole thing is so hypnotic, though, that it’s far from unsettling. I listen to it and float like I’m in a sensory deprivation tank. I love starting my day with it.
14. Zara Larsson, “Ruin My Life”
With well over one billion streams (what’s that, ten bucks in royalties?) Zara Larsson is quickly ascending to pop star status, and her first single since 2017’s So Good sets the stage for global domination. There’s not much to the song – it’s textbook songwriting dynamics with cool skittering beats in the chorus and lyrics that depict a toxic relationship – but 20 year-old Larsson sells it like someone poised to become the Next Big Thing. The build-up from pensive verse to rising bridge to gracefully shimmering chorus feels flawless as she sneakily swears up a storm in a way that would have made Tipper Gore have an aneurysm 35 years ago. Here’s hoping Larsson’s new album will be just as strong as this incredible little teaser.
14. Clutch, Book of Bad Decisions (Weathermaker)
When it comes to bands that I rank among my very favourite, I’m notoriously generous and forgiving. I won’t deny it! An artist I love has to really put out a steaming pile of dog feces to make me loathe it, but it has been known to happen. I’ve been cautioned enough about using the hyperbolic term “can do no wrong” when describing artists that I’ll never say it again for the rest of my life, but I will state that Clutch hasn’t put out a bad record in close to 20 years, and at the rate they’re going, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. They’ve been on an incredible creative run since 2004, and their last three records, including 2013’s Earth Rocker and 2015’s Psychic Warfare have seen them really put in an effort to keep raising the bar. 12th full-length Book of Bad Decisions is more ambitious than the comparably streamlined previous two albums, and boasting a sturdy 15 tracks, you can tell these guys are brimming with ideas. Of course, as always Clutch’s sound is firmly rooted in heavy rock and blues, but they’re always in search of new ways to boogie, ad there are loads of such moments: the greasy “Spirit of ‘76”, the funk-fuelled “In Walks Barbarella”, the barroom jam “Vision Quest”, the tight-but-loose “Sonic Counselor”. Brooding tracks like “Lorelei” and “Emily Dickinson” are well-timed changes of pace, while the raucous “Gimme the Keys” and the maniacal cowbell attack of “Weird Times” are songs that appeal directly to the rowdier side of the band’s fervent fanbase. Singer Neil Fallon continues to improve as a lyricist, too; in the past his wordplay could be unhinged to say the least, but his psychedelic verbage has been harnessed very effectively. There’s plenty of surreal humour (“How to Shake Hands” is brilliant political satire, while “Hot Bottom Feeder” is an hilarious recitation of a recipe for crab cakes) but there are some surprisingly sweet moments too, as in “A Good Fire”, in which he reminisces about a backwoods party where he heard Black Sabbath for the first time. There’s never a dull moment on Book of Bad Decisions as Clutch keep challenging themselves and succeeding mightily.
15. Clutch, “In Walks Barbarella”
For years now, Clutch’s entrance music has been Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers’ 1987 funk tune “We Need Some Money (Bout Money)”. It was only a matter of time before that funk ferocity showed up in Clutch’s own songwriting, and wow, did it ever explode on the groove rocker “In Walks Barbarella”. Produced by Vance Powell, whose previous credits include albums by the White Stripes, Willie Nelson, and Sturgill Simpson, the track boasts one of the most fabulous horn sections I’ve heard in a metal song in a long time. The brass swings as hard as the four members of Clutch do, while Neil Fallon bellows about tractor beams, sci-fi women, gamma ray guns, and weaponized funk. It’s all so irresistible.
15. Shooting Guns, Another Wolfcop / Nosferatu (Pre-Rock)
In the wake of 2017’s album Flavour Country, Shooting Guns spent 2018 working on two special, movie-related releases that turned out to be distinct departures from their usual psychedelic-tinged, instrumental stoner jams. It was only natural that the boys were asked to create the soundtrack for the sequel to Canadian cult fave Wolfcop – after all, the previous soundtrack was very well received and did a great job accentuating the movie. For Another Wolfcop, however, they decided to stretch their sound out even more, making synthesizers just as prominent as their roaring guitars, and the end result is a sort-of garage rock take on John Carpenter soundtracks. As an album it works as a fun collection of quick jams, with plenty of variety and loads of hooks. Later in 2018 came a big surprise: on October 28, 2016 the band performed a brilliant live score to the classic silent film Nosferatu to a packed theatre in Saskatoon, and little did anyone know that they were recording it. By far the most restrained musical piece the band has ever created, the piece is the slowest of slow builds, ever-so-gradually morphing from an experiment in ambient drone music to the explosive, doom metal-inspired fifth act. As a soundtrack to the film it works extremely well, but the double album also is just as impressive as a strictly musical piece, some great mood music for those gloomy, brooding nights. With these two superb releases, it was great fun to hear just how adventurous Shooting Guns can be.