Breaking Down the Best Pacific Northwest Albums of 2018

2018 Countdown, Reviews
12/21/2018
KEXP

Music moves faster than ever. If you disconnect for even a day, it feels like you’ve missed 10 or more albums that people are calling “essential listens.” It’s a good problem to have, sure, but it means it’s nearly impossible to constantly keep up. That’s true on a national level, but it’s also true regionally. The Pacific Northwest is a consistent source of remarkable new sounds and 2018 kept up with that tradition. From Portland indie rockers spearheading a new wave of guitar-driven anthems to Seattle rappers and producers crafting a new sound for the region, you could listen exclusively to Cascadian artists and have your fill of fresh new sounds almost daily. These 20 records on this list are far from definitive, but they give a broad view of the eclectic and electric sounds coming out from our own backyard. Dive into some of the KEXP digital content team’s favorite PNW albums, presented in alphabetical order. 


AJ Suede - Melancholy Trill II

If this were an MVP ballot for Northwest music acts, AJ Suede would be my #1 pick without impunity. One of the city’s best rappers since he crashed on Wolftone’s couch and decided to say, Suede released six projects in 2018, all with varying moods and textures but the same startlingly high level of quality. His first release of the year, Melancholy Trill II finds the goth-rap legend in the making weaving through a small and impressive collection of onyx-toned beats: The Cure’s “A Forest” is sampled and fitted for a thunderous trap beat on “Expensive Conversation” while traveling the country and multiverses (without Morty Smith as a confidant), keeping distance from others, and wiping off muddy cleats. Wolftone’s chiming, ambient bounce serves as the backdrop for Suede and DoNormaal trading melodic verses about grief, self-medication, and raging against the machine on “Refinery.” “Smoke and Candles” finds Suede practicing brujeria long before Darth Sueder II. An auspicious start to Suede’s breakout year. - Martin Douglas

 

Alien Boy - Sleeping Lessons

When I first heard “Somewhere Without Me,” the opening track to Alien Boy’s debut LP Sleeping Lessons, I was overwhelmed. Just from the opening salvo of guitars stretching into the abyss in a swirling rhythm, I could feel the isolation and loneliness in embedded in the ethos of the song. I have a theory that most music critics are searching for that elusive feeling of comfort and understanding that they first got from hearing their favorite bands when they were young. Sleeping Lessons did that for me, and not just because I grew up binging on pop-punk and indie rock that was “too cool” to call itself emo. Alien Boy tap into candid, “fuck, I feel that too” emotional cores and do it all with undeniable hooks. When a melody gets stuck in your head – and pretty much every song on this record will take up space in your brain – it’s going to replay in your head like a mantra, whether you want it to or not. It’s what makes Sleeping Lessons such a harrowing and cathartic listen. Listening to this album is like living with your own grief, coming to terms with who you are the relationships you keep and finding relief at the end of it all. - Dusty Henry

 

Black Belt Eagle Scout - Mother of My Children

On Mother of My Children, Black Belt Eagle Scout 's Katherine Paul is in mourning. At the moment in time of making the record, she was simultaneously mourning the ending of a relationship, the death of her mentor, Geneviève Castrée, and the respect of her country as her loved ones protest at Standing Rock. It’s unfortunate that all these things compounded at once, but because of her predicament the songs that make up Mother of My Children become incredibly accessible for anyone going through any sort of turmoil. It can’t be categorized as a “breakup” album or a “death” album or even a “political” album, it’s just an exploration of anguish. As a self-described “radical indigenous queer feminist,” Paul’s perspective is important. The Portland-based musician grew up in the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, a small Indian reservation here in the Puget Sound, where her first experiences with music were strongly tied with her spiritual heritage. In “Indians Never Die,” Paul quietly expresses her anger by asking you “Do you ever notice what’s surrounds you?” – a plea for us to care more about her people, land, and traditions.

“Indians never die because our traditions will never die, our customs will never die,” Paul said to KEXP in an explanation of the song. “You may kill us, but our spirits live on in the generations of us that will protect and preserve this land we live on. We have and will always do this.” The album highlight is the opening track, “Soft Stud,” which tackles the hardships of queer desire within an open relationship. Paul’s primal call of “Need you, want you/I know you’re taken” can be felt by anyone of any sexual affiliation. Overall, the instrumentation on Mother of My Children is simple and straightforward which serves to highlight Paul’s songwriting chops. Personally, I’m really excited to see how she grows as a musician. This certainly isn’t the last we’ll see of her. - JA

 

Bujemane - Sorry We Couldn’t Wait For U

Take it from someone who has logged countless hours listening to stuff on Soundcloud; “Mumble rap,” “Soundcloud rap,” or whatever you want to call it, is largely personality deficient. Though there are a few exceptions, the subgenre is mostly populated by 20-year-olds with face tattoos who blather on about girls, drugs, ultraviolence, and Gucci belts without much verve in their writing or speaking voice. This depressing reality is what makes Sorry We Couldn’t Wait For U an island in a sea of borrowed and dull waves. He may not consider himself to be a rapper, but Bujemane is clearly a disciple of Lil B, adopting Based God’s stream-of-consciousness and penchant to flow like a low rumble over vibe-heavy beats (see: the steel drum arpeggios of “Not Important” and the piercing organs of “CTRL Her”). Buje bolsters this approach by imbuing his enormous personality; moonwalking onstage, offering favorable comparisons to *NSYNC, laughing at social media vultures swooping down for a follow back, and “creeping like a salamander.” It’s easy to see why Bujemane doesn’t claim any OGs – he’s one of a kind. - MD

 

Car Seat Headrest - Twin Fantasy

Second chances don’t come often in recorded music. Remasters and reissues can help enhance what was already done, but you’re still chained to the work of your past self. However, Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo found a way to return to one of his most beloved works in 2018. The re-recorded version of Twin Fantasy, which was originally released via the project’s Bandcamp page in 2011, does more than just give us a newly polished version of an old favorite. The new Twin Fantasy feels vital and fresh. It’s not just because Toledo took some liberties with the changing select lyrics, either. This feels like the fully realized version of the prolific songwriter’s masterwork. While the lo-fi recording of the original matched the desperation in Toledo’s writing, hearing this set of powerful indie rock confessionals in high-fidelity makes it feel even more vulnerable. In the endless scroll of records floating and disappearing across the web, there’s something heartwarming about a record reemerging and finding new audiences. Twin Fantasy was always too good to not be heard and fully realized. - DH


Chong the Nomad - Love Memo 

I first saw Chong the Nomad in 2017, when she was the sole female DJ competing in Do206’s production challenge BeatMatch. While she didn’t win, her energetic performance displayed her potential for star power. It’s been so exciting to watch her grow into a respected producer that’s adding an important feminine voice into the far-too-masculine electronic genre. Straight out of the gate, Chong (real name Alda Agustiano) creates a cohesively textured and atmospheric world on her debut EP Love Memo. The vibe of the EP was actually a big surprise to me because Agustiano’s shows are lively, high-energy events that can see the producer doing everything from playing the ukulele to beatboxing, all while keeping the beats coming. Love Memo, on the other hand, is an atmospheric and moody production, with spoken-word moments punctured throughout for added intimacy. It’s for headphone-listening rather than club-dancing. Suited best for dark nights alone or with someone special. Her background as a trained chamber-music composer (she studied at Cornish) is likely a factor in her ability to create layered soundscapes that grab hold of the heart as well as the ears. - JA

 


Grouper - Grid of Points 

Ambient songstress Liz Harris lives in the abstract as Grouper. Over 11 albums she’s created her own world that doesn’t seem to exist in any certain space or time. Grid of Points is no different in this regard but its brevity and sparsity, especially compared to 2014’s Ruins, does mark a new change. Accompanied solely by piano, Harris stretches and loosely molds each brief song. At only 22 minutes, it might not even technically count as an album but Harris claims it is complete. “The intimacy and abbreviation of this music allude to an essence that the songs lyrics speak more directly of,” Harris previously explained. “The space left after matter has departed, a stage after the characters have gone, the hollow of some central column, missing.” Indeed it does feel lonely and nearly inappropriate to listen to while in the company of others. With field recordings of trains and loose, drawn-out piano chords, Grid of Points feels like a detached meditation, of which Harris is an expert. - JA

 


Jenn Champion - Single Rider 

Jenn Champion has had quite the interesting music career. Single Rider, her debut under the new moniker, is a far cry from the “sadcore” of her former band Carissa’s Wierd. Even in her following solo work under the unfortunately-named Jenn Ghetto and then simply the letter S, Champion’s focus was on the sad and intimate. Rather than curling up in bed, Single Rider takes the sadness to the dancefloor and as her first foray into synth pop, the record really shouldn’t be this good! Pop artists typically have teams of songwriters and producers to create the kind of hits that Champion has made with “O.M.G. (I’m All Over It),” “Time To Regulate,” and “Mainline.” Champion still keeps it real with her signature confessional songwriting. Personally, I’d much rather dance along to lyrics that feel genuine and empathetic like “Sometimes you are sad and you just want to dance about it” than “You’re such a fucking hoe, I love it.” But that’s just me. - JA

 

Knife Knights - 1 Time Mirage

The imagination of the collective known as Black Constellation knows no bounds – as if any further proof were needed. By and large, a group effort spearheaded by Ishmael Butler and Erik Blood (and named after the credited production duo for Butler and Tendai Maraire’s interstellar Shabazz Palaces), Knife Knights’ debut full-length is unsurprisingly spacey and almost gleefully low-stakes. But that’s not to say it’s uninspired. Songs like “My Dreams Never Sleep,” “Low Key,” and “Give You Game” sound like the soundtrack to an interdimensional highway. “Can’t Draw the Line” is perfect for your next space disco party. “Drag Race Legend” does Soundcloud rap a hundred times better than most Soundcloud rappers. The “all hands on deck” approach to collaboration on 1 Time Mirage has led to the album sounding like a greatest hits compilation out of the gate - MD

 

Lithics - Mating Surfaces

From our Throwaway Style review of Mating Surfaces: “Lithics are extremely reminiscent of a very specific type of band, the kind which mostly played factory basements in 1980s Essex. Much in the spirit of this, the Portland quartet exists spiritually in kind with New York City legends Bush Tetras; guitars-and-drums dance music broken into pieces with a hammer and glued together by sharp, staccato dissonance. There’s an artiness to it, but it still makes you dance, even when the tempos shift.

For the past few years, Lithics have trafficked in the kind of skittish post-punk completely unreliant on formalism; guitars sound alternately like plucked rubber bands, squelching bike horns, and industrial-strength digital clock alarms, the rhythms are herky-jerky to the point of causing whiplash. They practice the patchwork art of jagged song structure, piercing noise in fractured pieces where so many bands – with all due respect, good bands – of their kind and many others stick to a delightfully rigid backbeat. The band’s genius lies not only in the idea of doing so much with so little but also creating an immersive experience with such serrated edges. It’s a storage locker party where everyone is dancing barefoot in glass shards but are having too much fun to notice.” - MD

 

Darto - Fundamental Slime

In times of trouble, I turn to Darto. Following up on last year’s excellent Human Giving, which saw the group processing ego death, the Seattle group returned with a short-but-heady Fundamental Slime EP that hits the hallmarks of what makes Darto great. Opening with the blasting bass bounce of “Brotherhood,” Darto continue to fight against tyranny in all forms while staying on the fringes of the avant-garde. Band member Nicholas Merz bellows a sarcastic scoff at the white male patriarchy (something he explored in depth on his wonderful solo LP The Limits of Men). A purely democratic group, there are no prescribed roles in Darto. As such, there are startling mood and sonic shifts on the EP, “Brotherhood” segueing into the eerie haunt of “Totality” and then into the spacious “Persona” and squall of closer “Everyday Actor.” Guest player Neil Welch of Seattle jazz duo Bad Luck is the consistent thread that holds it all together with feverish shrieks of his saxophone. Every Darto release is an exercise in self-examination and Fundamental Slime is no exception and continues to be exceptional. - DH

 

Haley Heynderickx - I Need to Start a Garden

After a year like 2018, starting a garden sounds pretty goddamn peaceful. Disconnecting from our hectic, social media infected lives and finding bliss in dirt and bugs. I never personally got around to starting a garden, but Portland songwriter Haley Heynderickx’s I Need To Start a Garden was an ideal substitute. Heynderickx crafts a collection of songs that are equally representative of her skill and prowess as a musician as it is flourishing in its fantastical approach. Her acoustic fingerpicking is nothing short of masterful. You needn’t listen to more than the first few moments of standout track “The Bug Collector” to realize this. More than just technically proficient, the movement of the music mirrors Heynderickx’s own searching and longing. Her words glide like transcendentalist poetry, basking in the glory of nature as she processes her own heartache and musings. Even on rock-leaning tracks like “Oom Sha Lala” and “Untitled God Song,” she feels steeped in the glory of the earth beneath her feet – a spiritual grounding that holds I Need To Start a Garden together. The mostly-stripped down arrangements feel like a calling to a simpler life, a search for comfort with the dirt sinking between your toes and fingers. With this record, Heynderickx quickly ascends to one of the most accomplished and vital singer-songwriter talents in the Pacific Northwest. She already sounds accomplished, though she surely has just begun to bloom. - DH

 

Mount Eerie - Now Only 

Did I want more songs about Phil Elverum’s grief over his wife’s death? No, I don’t think I did. I haven’t been able to listen to A Crow Looked at Me in quite a while. I cry too easily as it is. Do I appreciate the six songs Elverum offered us this year on Now Only about his grief over his wife’s death? Completely. While A Crow was created in the fog of immediate grief, Now Only tackles grief after returning to life and trying to process death and its effects in an occasionally comical and incredibly detailed manner. While the subject matter is technically sad, it’s not cry-inducing. Elverum’s lyrics meander about in a diaristic manner to tell us more about the storied Geneviève Castrée and his life both with and without her. The title track sits in the middle and stands out with a jaunty child-like chorus of “People get cancer and die/People get hit by trucks and die/People just living their lives get erased for no reason with the rest of us watching from the side” punctuated with windingly crushing phrases that examine the oddity of his life now, playing songs about his wife’s death at festivals where people are just there to have fun. “I was standing in the dirt/Under the desert sky at night outside Phoenix/At a music festival that had paid to fly me in/To play death songs to a bunch of young people on drugs.” I don’t know how anyone could possibly write anything more honest and austere than Elverum has on Now Only. (Complete side note: because of Elverum I’ve decided Geneviève is the most beautiful name to ever exist. I sometimes say to myself when I’m alone just to hear its beauty and the way it flows out of my mouth.) - JA

 


NAVVI - ULTRA 

On the electro/pop duo’s sophomore album, NAVVI created a cinematic and expansive universe of sonic textures. Best fit for late-night driving, the album is perfectly placed among their Hush Hush peers that specialize in the “Night Bus” aesthetic. Kristin Henry’s vocals are as sultry as ever, choosing the perfect moments for power and when to pull back to a hushed sigh. Brad Boettger is flexing his production muscles on ULTRA, taking his inspiration from Aphex Twin and Massive Attack to build methodically dense beats for Henry’s ethereal vocals to glide over. While the lyrics aren’t necessarily important when the production and vocals are this good, the introspective songwriting on ULTRA ultimately helps to serve as a cohesive theme. This is by far the duo’s best release to date, a bold and elegant piece of work that will no doubt hold up for years to come. - JA

 

Lena Raine - Celeste (Original Soundtrack)

Lena Raine may have secretly had the biggest year of any Northwest artist, but her astounding arc didn’t play out in the typical modern music narrative. In the gaming world, there wasn’t a bigger indie developer success story than Celeste – a game that’s ostensibly a metaphor for mental health, starring a young woman named Madeline climbing a mountain and having to reckon with her fears and doubts along the way. The game was met with rapturous praise and received a coveted perfect 10 score from IGN. Among the game’s many accomplishments is its music, crafted by Seattle composer Lena Raine. Raine doesn’t just provide a score that matches the tone of Celeste – the music feels integral to the gameplay. When I first booted up Celeste, I was immediately overcome by the surging rush of dazzling synthesizers. Raine’s instrumentals get to the heart of the game. You can feel Madeline’s struggles, her triumphs, and uncertainty from the music alone. Raine’s work wasn’t an afterthought either, she worked alongside the developers in a beautifully symbiotic process. Celeste walked away with big accolades at The Game Awards earlier this month, including Raine being featured as a performer alongside Hans Zimmer (yeah, that Hans Zimmer). You needn’t be a gamer to recognize the accomplishment that is the Celeste soundtrack. This expansive collection stands up against some of the best electronic albums of the year even without the game. Celeste is an instant classic soundtrack that sounds just a vital and invigorating in everyday life as it does when you’re climbing a virtual mountain. - DH

 

Tres Leches - Amorfo

Crowd-pleasing, fist-pumping alternative rock. Post-punk. Punk-funk. A ska-styled cover of a Leadbelly children’s song. English. Spanish. A guitarist who switches to drums. A bassist who switches to guitar. A drummer who can play either and sing lead. Songs about the scourge of capitalism. Songs about the pitiful and craven state of American healthcare. Sprints that slow down without warning. Mid-tempo bangers that speed up without warning. Amorfo, as it pertains to both their debut album and the word’s translation to English, is synonymous with easily changeable. One of the reasons why Tres Leches have become one of the biggest breakout local bands in 2018 is because they’re so hard to pin down; they wield the element of surprise as deftly as their instruments. - MD

 

Parisalexa - Bloom

When Bloom came out earlier this year, Seattle songwriter Parisalexa was only 19-years-old. You wouldn’t guess that listening to this EP, packed with mature and refined musings on the woes of romance and finding confidence in your own identity. Bloom was just the beginning of a meteoric year for Parisalexa, kickstarting the momentum that she’d carry through with her fiery follow-up Flexa and a slew of buzzed-about festival performances and shows across the city. Her star is shining brighter with each passing day, which only makes the subtle simplicities of Bloom that much more engrossing in retrospect. Her songwriting is sharp, her voice is effortlessly powerful, and her magnetic R&B instrumentals flutter like a heartsick heartbeat. As time goes on, Bloom will assuredly continue to grow in stature as one of the earliest recorded examples of Parisalexa’s immense talent as she continues to make her glorious ascent. - DH

 

Sax G - Tomorrow's New Villain

Sax G’s music exists primarily in swift, passing moments. Glimmering, fleeting beats that disappear nearly as you start to settle into the groove. His latest work, Tomorrow’s New Villain, is no exception as it traverses 10 tracks in just over 20-minutes. The brevity and pacing are some of the record’s (and Sax’s, for that matter) greatest strengths. Tomorrow’s New Villain plays out like a surrealistic, phantom fantasy. Chopped beats beget blurry daydream visions. Sizzling vinyl static and drum loops sputter underneath Sax’s villainous rhymes and features from Georgia Anne Muldrow, SassyBlack, and Christine Urbina that play out like transmissions from far off galaxies. Each time the record plays through, it’s hard not to want to start it right back up again. Like the greats J Dilla and Madlib, Sax G’s beats are meant to be looped back and gawked over. An eternal, circular motion that keeps the universe in orbit. It’s Sax’s finest work yet, positioning him as one of the city’s most elusive and mythical producers. - DH

 

Whitney Ballen - You're a Shooting Star, I'm a Sinking Ship 

Issaquah’s Whitney Ballen unveiled her hauntingly beautiful debut album in August. The incredibly personal record lays all of Ballen’s insecurities on the table without embarrassment or shame. Overall, it could be considered a breakup album since most of the songs revolve around the different stages of a relationship that has or will be ending but, personally, I’d say it’s more of an examination of self-worth. “Fucking” is the most obvious example of this, where Ballen struggles with the thought of her ex (or currently cheating) partner fucking someone else. In her mind, she’s obviously got to be much cooler than she is, with soft hair, torn jeans, and a nose ring. It’s a relatable feeling and also not a very “cool” thing to admit but Ballen’s not here to look cool. And truly, any music that’s made with the intention of looking cool isn’t music I want to listen to. The most gutting song on the album is “Rainier,” which sees Ballen waxing on about all the minute details of her day that she wishes she could call up her ex about. Her Joanna Newsom-esque vocals whisper and crack before soaring to cry out what she really wants to tell them: “I’m sorry.”

Midway through the record, we see the influence of Phil Elverum (whose studio Ballen recorded the album at) in “Black Cloud” and “Nothing” which explode with distortion only to break to gentle strumming, alternating back and forth to create a Microphones-esque freefall of emotion and dynamics. Gentle strummer “Moon” analyzes the end of a relationship in the context of what she’s learned from it, “Thanks for everything, thanks for showing me a thing or two about love.” It’s essentially the “Thank u, next” for the indie folk crowd. Which is a relief. By the end of the record, we’re rooting for Ballen! We want her to grow! We want her to believe in herself! “No YOU’RE the shooting star,” we scream at her. Hopefully, on her next record, she’ll believe it. - Jasmine Albertson

 

Wimps - Garbage People

Here is a pretty poorly kept secret: Wimps have been one of Seattle’s best bands for more or less the half-decade since Repeat, their compulsively replayable debut LP, hit the merch tables of choice local DIY concert spaces and tiny music venues. Their songs sensationalize the mundane in hysterical and surprisingly insightful ways. For a band with five years of stellar tunes, Garbage People is definitively their greatest work yet: Their musicianship as tightly wound as the neuroses behind songs like birthday anthem “Trip Around the Sun” and dance craze “Mope Around.” It abounds with squalling saxophones and Flying Nun-inspired keyboard lines. Songs about the world’s dramatically dwindling bee population share space with surrealist office vignettes and songs about Dave Ramm swiping thy neighbor’s pizza. If ever anyone wanted to adapt their sprightly, conversational songs into a sitcom about too-smart-for-their-own-good thirtysomething underachievers stained with ennui and pizza sauce, you could easily crib your plot lines from Wimps songs. (Just make sure you offer them a writing credit. And a dream sequence with skateboarding hot dogs.) - MD

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