While the year might only be four months in, there have already been many albums released — with more than a few that are worthy of your attention. For your convenience, the Sheaf has compiled a list of the best sounds of the season.
First up is Titus Andronicus’ collection of off-kilter Americana, titled A Productive Cough. Following 2015’s overly ambitious rock-opera, A Most Lamentable Tragedy, punk-rock visionary Patrick Stickles has returned with a series of stripped-down folk ballads. The album sees Stickles working with a larger list of collaborators than usual, but his lyricism and songwriting is as personal as it has ever been.
Titus Andronicus’s origins as a punk band have been relegated to the lyrical content of these songs. One of the album’s best tracks, “Crass Tattoo,” is a nostalgic folk hymn, sung by Megg Farrell, that recalls the importance of a first tattoo. Stickles’s lyrics describe his dedication to Crass — the uncompromisingly anarchist British punk legends — elevating his chosen sigil from fandom to life purpose.
A Productive Cough shows signs of growth from the famously temperamental rocker who once gleefully sang about throwing up under streetlights and relighting tossed-off cigarette butts. On this outing, it looks like the band is finally crawling out from under the shadow of their beloved second LP, The Monitor. It also includes a goofy, go-for-broke cover of a Bob Dylan song — so your mileage may vary.
Soccer Mommy’s Clean is another of the best albums of the year so far. A product of Nashville singer-songwriter Sophie Allison, the album combines contemporary country influences with the heavy distortion of 90s alt-rock.
The melancholic suburban love songs on Clean sound like the work of a songwriter operating just outside of Nashville’s pop-country machine. Allison utilizes the soft-loud dynamic prominent in the grunge movement to make music that the Pixies would be proud of, while subtly incorporating country-western influences. The end result is inventive and irresistible.
Each song on the album works as a lyrically ambitious power-pop throwback. In a music scene that’s slowly been accepting more grunge revival projects, Soccer Mommy stands above the rest because of her ability to effortlessly cycle between quiet reflection and intense guitar riffs. Clean is an excellent offering by a talented young songwriter in a niche all of her own.
Smell Smoke, a new release from Boston art-rock duo Vundabar, creates catharsis within the framework of post-punk and new-wave music. The songwriting process for the album was inspired by lead singer Brandon Hagen’s experience caring for a physically ill loved one. Smell Smoke deals with illness, capitalism, death, love and how our conceptions of self can be shattered by uncontrollable circumstances.
Despite these heavy themes, Vundabar’s music is actually a lot of fun. The songs on this album are fast, insightful and inventive, and the two-piece band sounds like a mathier, more technically accomplished Antics-era Interpol. The album’s opening track, “Acetone,” is a perfect encapsulation of the band’s sound — mixing introspective lyrics, machine-gun snares and a guitar riff that lands somewhere between a funeral dirge and a celebratory march.
Vundabar wears their influences on their sleeves here, with lyrics that reference the short-lived art-punk band Mission of Burma. Much like Burma, they know how to mix fun, inventive rock music with complicated political and philosophical themes. Amongst all of the meditations on death, Vundabar manages to make an album that sounds positively jubilant about the prospects of existential angst.
Finally, Edinburgh-based experimental trio Young Fathers returns with Cocoa Sugar, a powerful genre-defying work. Cocoa Sugar owes its greatest debts to hip-hop and R&B, but it also includes post-punk and gospel influences and a healthy dose of the avant-garde.
Cocoa Sugar starts as a collection of battle-ready, gothic gospels before it borrows from the sonic palette of Death Grips’ misunderstood but rewarding Government Plates for the track “Wire.” It’s a truly unexpected track on an album already bursting at the seams with ideas. There are also hints of Joy Division and Frank Ocean elsewhere on the album.
Despite being completely unmoored by genre conventions, Young Fathers has created some remarkably accessible music for this record. In what is essentially a hip-hop album, the band chooses to use pop structures, but what they do within those simple structures is impressive. Young Fathers’ latest is a sweeping, apocalyptic collection of creative pop songs.
With the better part of a calendar still left, 2018 is shaping up to be a great year for new music.