2018 was supposed to be the year everything finally fell into place. Professionally successful, no longer alone, and at last truly happy and fulfilled. Yet it did not come to pass like that, and much of 2018 was a struggle of attrition between tremendous victory and accomplishment, and crippling anxiety, grief and pain, as life passed through the darkest tunnel in seven years and nearly left me stranded. As I stand on the edge of 2019, those days recurred again briefly, but are receding behind me quicker this time. You’re never the same afterwards, and permanent impacts have been left behind on this list. My increased selectivity in musical taste and what makes an album get repeat listens mean that I will be cutting down my top list from 30 to 20, to better reflect the albums with staying power. Links to full albums, if possible, are available; you will get as much as I can provide otherwise.
DID I SAY SPOILER ALERT?!
20. Tool – Fear Inoculum (Progressive Metal, Alternative Metal)
While it certainly had not been 10,000 days since the release of 10,000 Days, we may have been forgiven for thinking Fear Inoculum would never see the light of day, but once it did, it became clear just why it required so much time. While the intensely meandering, oftentimes very mellow and ambient soundscapes of the album are very challenging to navigate and only a song like 7empest really allows Tool to surge forward with furious alt-metal angst, the combination of ridiculous complexity with seemingly endless subtlety and grace is simply unmatched in modern music. Drummer Danny Carey in particular is the absolute standout, never sounding like he’s breaking a sweat or playing outside the song structures, but playing patterns that will take perhaps 10,000 days to decipher, and while there are few overt jam sessions, the ambient electronic percussive instrumental Chocolate Chip Trip certainly takes a welcome left turn from musical self-indulgence to become one of the single most intriguing and original songs of the entire year.
19. Aramid – Mountain Sounds (Ambient)
As ambient leftovers from Shallow Dialects from 2016, this EP is expansive enough to merit inclusion here, Aramid’s Pacific Northwest-infused prog-ambient-post-rock mixture here scaled down into primarily ambient music to produce a gorgeous selection of soundscapes. Percussion or anything beyond piano, synth, and clean guitar is rare, but additional instrumentation does make its presence felt on pieces like the utterly haunting album highlight Heart of Stone, built around a muted, reverb-heavy piano line with an oscillating time signature and eventually building into a sorrowful violin and a hollow, equally reverb-heavy snare tolling in the background. Occasional glimpses of nature’s danger are present on songs like the vaguely ominous I’ve Seen This Place Before, but largely the collection is a serene, sometimes melancholic but often uplifting and soothing affair with more than enough varied textures to keep the running time feeling even shorter than 35 minutes and establish Aramid as a unique and compelling representative of the scene.
18. Hemina – Night Echoes (Progressive Metal)
The development of Hemina’s running conceptual storyline has been synchronous with their beginnings as a very highly progressive outfit to a more tightly focused unit, and on Night Echoes the Australians have perhaps produced their most direct and memorable effort to date to complement its very unflinching subject matter. Where the debut Synthetic dealt with the life of an angel conceived on earth as the child of rape and eventually unable to cope with the pressures of life, Night Echoes picks up the narrative from the angel’s own son grieving the pain of his father’s suicide during the travails of his own teenage years, and many of the lyrical sentiments are uncomfortably direct and give the album a poignancy unlike any other release’s this year. The more 80’s influenced style appears to lighten the mood on a song like What’s the Catch? as the teenager navigates the exciting but frightening world of his first love, but the wrenching pathos of the very serious cuts dominates, like the seven-string-laced window into his world that opens the album, the heartbreaking ballad Flat where he realizes just how numb to anything but anger and resentment of abandonment that trauma has left him emotionally, and the nearly ten-minute epic In Technicolor where through the sheen of sparkling synths and group choir vocals, he looks at a world that seems colorful while feeling so trapped in eternal blackness that he cannot touch it.
17. Pretty Maids – Undress Your Madness (Heavy Metal, Hard Rock)
I was surprised when first checking out this long-time representative of Danish heavy metal that they had existed for over three decades, because it seems as if the band has improved significantly in their age. Calling them Denmark’s metaled-up answer to Bon Jovi isn’t wrong musically, their arrangements infectiously catchy and drawing heavily from arena rock and AOR, but they utterly avoid the saccharine temptations of glam that sometimes characterized earlier albums in favor of razor-sharp riffs, huge grooves, and vicious vocal swagger difficult to conjure up after so many years. Yet even amidst instantly sing-alongable heavy metal barnstomers like Slavedriver, Pretty Maids’ melodic side shines very brightly, more AOR numbers like Firesoul Fly and the balladic pieces like Will You Still Kiss Me (If I See You in Heaven) and Strength of a Rose sparkling with positive energy and optimism that balances out the heaviness as superbly, or more so, than any of their peers in a way that can only come through decades of experience.
16. Voyager – Colours in the Sun (Progressive Metal)
For the third album in a row with the same lineup, the Aussie new-wave-prog-metal juggernaut continues to produce inventive and bizarrely catchy material even without directly reinventing their sound. The oftentimes dark and melancholy style of Ghost Mile appears somewhat less prominent due to the vibrant cover art, even though Colours in the Sun contains brutal death metal-infused cuts like Reconnection pummeling with Meshuggah-esque djenty grind, chaotic time signatures, and a militaristic final verse in Russian of all languages, in favor of brightly sparkling dance-pop cuts like the Tesseract-influenced stomping title track and subtly emotive Brightstar. The contrast between concisely ordered songs and busily chaotic arrangements, hummily memorable and brain-vexing avant-garde styles, and radio-melodic and brutishly technical, is simply unparalleled in any of Voyager’s peers and remains even more vital than ever as the band matures.
15. Ole Børud – Outside the Limit (Pop, Jazz)
The famed composer of Extol’s catchy, memorable, uplifting Christian progressive death metal (seven words that rarely ever go together in the same sentence) also is famed in his native Norway as a pop and R&B composer, and I never willingly ventured into this style but found that, when I did, even if I don’t have a reference point to compare this album to in its genre, Outside the Limit is an incredibly memorable piece of music crossing between rock, blues, jazz, and pop as seamlessly as he crosses through metal genres. The most recognizable touchstones are the quirky jazz-pop of Steely Dan, appearing on cuts like the opener Put My Money, but also 80’s Phil Collins and Børud’scountrymen a-ha, the latter’s signature processed percussion being front-and-center to the dance-like rhythm of the title track. His combination of soulful musical styles actually might work even more to the favor of his spiritual messages, a blues-soul vocal scatting the words “Savior, come and rescue us all” feeling eminently fitting, and yet a similar feel-good vibe cast across almost the entire album is, to my ears, totally irresistible and makes this record a very proud guilty pleasure.
14. Brad Couture – Strung / Focal (Ambient)
This relatively unknown New Hampshire composer has actually been appearing in commercials and movies with his starkly beautiful post-rock and ambient explorations whose alternately solemn and triumphant, but always meditative tones betray a sense of honest emotion and expression of deep human longings. Strung is divided into five pieces and Focal three, mostly released in 2018 but with some of Strung and all of Focal in 2019 and thus classified as a 2019 release, and I have come to see them as two individual pieces but also two parts of a greater piece. The very bittersweet, sadly uplifting piano-based tone of much of Strung, gradually making its way into light by its end, contrasts with the resoundingly uplifting and more up-tempo Focal, which depicted two sides of love – one the willingness to embrace it against fear, the other the aftermath of losing it and the willingness to rebuild again – and continues to write the thematic story of my life as much as it seems to Couture’s.
(NOTE: Focal pictured and linked)
13. Pray for Sound – Waves (Post-Rock)
From more typical harder-sounding post-rock all the way towards ambient music on Waiting Room, Pray for Sound have evolved stylistically across genres more than most bands in the genre, but on Waves they return to their roots but with more maturity and emotion than before. Comparisons to bands like 65daysofstatic, This Will Destroy You, God is an Astronaut, and even the more up-tempo post-rock of sleepmakeswaves are difficult to avoid, but there is also a loose alt-rock/indie feel to the arrangements that keeps them bright and uplifting despite the forceful and dynamic playing. From energetic opener All the Days to elegiac and life-affirming closer Ezra, Waves is perhaps the purest expression on this list of light-toned music in this genre for this year.
12. Lance King – ReProgram (Progressive Metal, Heavy Metal)
While we may be forgiven for thinking A Moment in Chiros was a one-off, one of the most hastily thrown-together albums in prog-metal of late but that didn’t show it whatsoever in its colorful musical palette and intensely profound lyricism, I am very happy to re-experience King’s winning combination of riff-based catchy melodic prog-metal with optimistic attitude. A Moment in Chiros brought tremendous hope and hunger for spiritual seeking into the almost terminally bleak fall of 2011, and ReProgram is a much more direct and aggressive effort that depicts the cycle of negativity we fall into and publicly sponsored ignorance that feeds into it, and delivers some biting truths and messages of hope. Lean, mean-but-nice melodic cuts like “Limitless” declare that nothing, no one, no obstacle, fear, criticism or hatred, and no negative message we’ve been falsely conditioned to believe, has to constrain our capabilities and dreams, and the King’s X meets Pink Floyd “Wide Open” grooves along with an anthemic momentum as it calls for a re-awakening, the alarm-bell guitar line under the words “It’s time to wake America” as inspiring as it is ominously menacing in this age of socio-political deception and a society threatening to come apart at the seams.
11. Soen – Lotus (Progressive Metal)
The Swedish dark-prog outfit best known for including Martin Lopez as the skinsman and for the pervasive Tool influence has, as many have noted, grown far beyond that shadow, but on Lotus Soen has taken a huge step forward in defining and refining their sound’s earthy and organic qualities. The clean-cut and naturalistic aesthetic of Swedish neo-prog like Kaipa could be a touchstone if only in philosophy, as Lotus is primarily driven by grooving mid-tempo rock and metal riffs with tight drumming and throbbing basslines in concise but still inventive 5-6-minute song structures. Joel Ekelöf’s voice rarely rises above a smooth low tenor but carries enough classy gravitas to front the coolly collected energy of the band, equally able to complement very delicate material and the splashes of consonant dissonance similar to Opeth, yet the entire band fires on every cylinder to create Soen’s most focused effort to date.
10. Widek – The Garden of Existence (Progressive Metal, Djent)
From Maciej Dawidek’s beginnings as a primarily djent artist with strong spacey ambient influences, in fact merging the styles very smoothly, to a gradually more nuanced and melodic style, The Garden of Existence is the Pole’s coming-of-age album where he sets his style apart further from his peers and distinguishes himself from all of his prior songwriting formulas. The line between djent and prog-metal has always been roughly trod, but this time out his bent is clearly toward the prog, the sharp djent riffery smoothed out into more complex harmonic and melodic structures with songs crossing well over six and even seven minutes. The wonder of Widek’s ambient moments is maintained and even left to thrive on songs like the aptly named Wonders, packed with many diverse soundscapes but centered around a lush, uplifting melodic tremolo passage that, perhaps better than any other moment to date in Widek’s discography, depicts in a truly humbling fashion the awe-inspiring wonder of the vast stellar universe he conjures with his eternally blue album artwork and astronaut-fan-service song titles.
9. Dream Theater – Distance Over Time (Progressive Metal)
If The Astonishing felt more like a Petrucci and Rudess effort, Distance Over Time returns solidly to a jam-band format, with the entire band writing and contributing lyrics (lyrically minus Rudess, but including Mangini), and producing some of their most inspired and fresh-sounding material of late despite not making radical reinventions. The jam-driven songwriting leads to a very guitar and bass-heavy record with concise songcraft, but with Mangini leaving an enormous imprint on the precise musicianship and smooth progressive stylings and LaBrie’s voice given a very melodic spotlight to astonishingly (pardon the pun) memorable effect. From the absolute heaviest on the grimly fatalistic Room 137, to absolutely most emotionally crushing on the wrenching tale of a sexual abuse survivor on At Wit’s End, to most utterly jaw-dropping MENSA-level musical intelligence shot through with staring from our puny perspective into the universe’s frightening breadth on the appropriate ode to Carl Sagan Pale Blue Dot, everything that Dream Theater represents at their wildest and most expansive is distilled without diminishment into a beautifully concise and efficient statement.
8. Mother of Millions – Artifacts (Progressive Rock, Progressive Metal)
Comparisons to another band on this list, Soen, are inevitable, but this Greek outfit leans significantly less in the dark and haunting direction, a sense of haunting ambience in the background of somewhat lighter and brighter-sounding material, but with the very rhythm section-heavy arrangements intact. The use of choir vocals and cinematic influences in the vein of more modern outfits like Earthside and Kingcrow, with other small nuggets of experimentation like spoken word narratives in the ever-mysterious Greek language, lend a sense of crypticism to the relatively sparse musical space and lyrical content. The overall atmosphere remains melancholic, though, with the mid-range vocals and the sadly recently deceased Makis Tsamkosoglou’s keyboard and piano playing emitting a lite-Katatonia sense of introspective stillness that rings more true in the light of the latter tragedy and the frequent lyrical sentiments of yearning for a way to ascend from a rapidly reproducing, poisonous global atmosphere represented by the plant that gave the band its name.
7. The Sun Burns Bright – Longing for a Place, Yet to be Seen (Post-Rock)
By far one of the most exciting and remarkable post-rock albums of the latter 2010s, the pseudonymic project of the native Brit Chris Garr debuted with Through Dusk, Came the Light and immediately displayed a talent for depicting his gorgeous imagery with equally gorgeous music walking a continuum between fragile and heavy emotions, inexpressible beauty and unspeakable sadness. While Longing for a Place, Yet to be Seen does not possess the same pristine production as its predecessor, its more mature and distinct style, drawing from his current Pacific Northwest surroundings by incorporating Agalloch-esque string orchestrations and progressing with a very reflective, placidly marine tone set immediately by the droning ambience and repeated shoreline guitar motif in the intro. Garr’s guitar phrasing feels alternately world-weary and introvertedly reflective, yet deep within the melancholic melodies point decidedly towards the spiritual light of a brighter place “yet to be seen” and, when transmitted through evocative song titles like Never Let Go of the Light and Arms Unfurled, Embrace the Change, moving me very profoundly.
6. Christoffer Franzén – Mountain (Ambient)
One of the mellowest albums to ever make my list, the music under the Swedish cinematic luminary’s solo name is decidedly quieter and ambient-based, this time liberally ripping pages from the Goldmund playbook by relying almost completely on lo-fi piano and a nature-based ambience drawn from the alluringly beautiful and unspoiled Swedish forests. While his prior solo work Phenomenon was a dedicated movie score, its flow feels more fragmented than this unified statement that feels like an intimate walk through endless verdant pastures with someone as our heart gradually discovers how special they are, reinforced by song titles like “Too Young to Know,” “Epiphany,” and “As She Dreams.” There is a poetically relaxing delicacy to the material, subtle shades of orchestral synthesizers poking around the corner and twinkling xylophone and glockenspiel representing the unspoiled innocence of both natural and romantic beauty, and proving to be singularly therapeutic and encouraging during this emotionally intense year.
5. MONO – Nowhere Now Here (Post-Rock)
After two of the greatest albums in the genre’s history, then a double album of light and dark, MONO seemed to have nowhere left to go, and were beginning to show it somewhat on Requiem For Hell, to then finally end the era of their classic lineup and be left to rebuild their sound completely from scratch on Nowhere Now Here. While it doesn’t achieve the same unified coherence of their classical-post-rock mélange, the album seeming somewhat fragmented at times, it does have a distinct experimentalism with varying styles and instrumentation, and a very appealing darkness with moments of light driven by its thematic focus on death, absence, and grieving. The nastier, grimier punch from cuts like the sludge-influenced proper opener “After You Comes the Flood” returns in spades, but still is tempered with MONO’s distinctly Japanese sense of delicate fatalism in beautiful titanic destruction, yet perhaps the most nakedly vulnerable and stark piece in MONO’s discography follows directly afterwards, a vocally sung piece with chillingly haunting organ mixed into their signature tremolo guitars that only appear to bring the piece to a tremendously emotional climax.
4. Darkwater – Human (Progressive Metal)
The Swedish five-piece that strikes the perfect middle ground between four other Swedish outfits, the angularity of Andromeda, the cerebrality of Pain of Salvation, the pop melody of Seventh Wonder, and the melancholy wrenching heaviness and emotion of Evergrey, took nine years to follow up their previous two slices of icy Scandinavian darkness with an album that shows their emergence from said darkness. Only small glimpses of hope were present before, but Human is, despite some very dark material like the window into mental illness through its longest track, a much more optimistic affair, with songs like Alive affirming the intrinsic value of life despite its terrible struggles and other cuts speaking frequently of Turning Pages from past hard times, carving out A New Beginning, shedding one’s Burdens by confiding in another, and accepting help when needed when it is placed In Front of You. While the vastly increased length, all the way up to 78 minutes, and the significant leap in metal heaviness can be very daunting, the extra bump in progressive elements also adds texture and surprise to the material on Human to keep interest throughout all of the emotional lyrical content.
3. Our Destiny – Awakening (Pop, Post-Prog, Progressive Rock)
At times, Awakening was becoming the soundtrack to my existence in 2019, so fitting seemed to be its depiction in Vikram Shankar’s story arc of overcoming the great darkness of 2018 to arrive at this predominantly lush and uplifting Anathema-esque proggy pop sound with the most hopeful lyrics of the year. The crystalline vocals of Lauren Nolan are the basis for the entire album, her style able to mold itself into her two biggest influences Lee Douglas and Anneke van Giersbergen on dynamically rich cuts like the swelling title track and the joyous folk of “The Promise” as easily as the ghostly cloaked voice of PVRIS on dark pop cuts like “Presence” and “Don’t Fade Away,” but Shankar’s ability to convey elegance in every musical environment, subtle prog elements in simple structures and stripped-down musical space, and tremendous hope in every slump, makes Awakening far richer than the vast majority of pop music nowadays. And I really need to devote the entire third sentence to the absolutely stunning closer, Shankar’s processed voice echoing over pensive, life-affirming piano and acoustic instrumentals like a desperate phone call to an ailing friend about to end it all, putting the icing on top of a slice of pure, unadulterated compassion for everyone clinging to life and yearning for their sorrows to end and to finally live, like I so often have over the years.
2. Devin Townsend – Empath (Progressive Metal)
The “Mad Canuck” has exemplified his nickname throughout a cornucopia of styles and personal evolutions over a couple of decades by not only crossing borders with a combination of reckless musical abandon and a schizophrenically serious and lackadaisical, self-parodic lyrical aesthetic, but also by embracing his identity and depicting both sides of a long-publicized battle with mental health as art. The title Empath is, I only realize now, a statement about being one, the rapid ability to change musical style across tracks from a rage-filled death metal assault to a musical theater piece, and even within songs like the 23-minute epic closer Singularity that traverses all of these styles within mere minutes, indicative of the ability to feel wild, unpredictable, and intense emotions that make us deeply human, but perhaps struggling to control them. Yet while there is a very deeply vulnerable and nearly unhinged energy to Empath, it also exists as the deeply fractured entity that it is for a very poignant reason that earns its elevated spot: its positive energy outweighs the very real and brave depiction of the monsters within us and the world, telling us that words are not enough, but we must be there for each other and ensure that we know we are all united in struggling and we are all loved, if we are to survive those inevitable monsters that threaten to swallow us whole.
1. Evergrey – The Atlantic (Progressive Metal)
How do you rank an album that has stood tall amongst all others as, especially as shockingly for the melancholia-mired Swedes Evergrey, a beacon of hope and symbol for rebirth, transcending tremendous loss and pain and become the soundtrack of your single proudest moment in your entire life? From the devastating breakup of Tom Englund’s 16-year marriage came The Atlantic, the heaviest, most emotionally wrought, and greatest Evergrey disc, its torrential walls of brutal riffage, haunting nautical ambience, and bittersweet but ultimately life-affirming melody confronting head-on the capsizing of everything that had defined Englund for a third of his lifetime and the hurricane of emotions that breached his hull and left him floundering in the sea. From self-reproach at how and why it all ended, to self-examination to realize that some changes in life may destroy you, but be ultimately for the greater good, to self-actualization as one reclaims oneself from the ashes, perseveres through fighting every demon of the past, and looks gratefully even at the saddest end as just the happiest new beginning, The Atlantic is a heart-rending ride through 40 days and 40 nights of storms into comforting light beyond the rainbow.
After having walked away from an unrequited love just weeks prior, an event that completely wrecked my mental health and professional career, but that redirected me however roughly into a much healthier place I never would have otherwise been and was responsible for starting me on the road to my trip to Prague, the events of The Atlantic became so frighteningly real that its thematic symbol of oceans became woven into my very life’s threads by appearing prominently in my presentation A World Without Borders.
If you noticed that I broke my three-sentences rule, it’s something I chose after careful discretion and might never do again, as it is simply impossible to explain the enormous significance this album possesses in any less, not even to say in this one sentence that there was absolutely no question that it would rank as my album of the year for 2019.