If you read DigBoston, you know our city’s music scene produces phenomenal talent with ease. Which means this list, our annual Best Local Albums of 2018 (So Far) list, is a roll call of sorts. With hundreds of artists who explore folk, rock, hip-hop, electronica, metal, R&B, experimental, and beyond come hundreds of albums that soothe the soul. Narrowing down the standouts, however, is a grueling process.
The easiest way to verify the strength of this list is by looking at the contenders who didn’t make the cut (despite churning out some quality records). Though no longer a Boston band, the Breeders reunited the Last Splash lineup for the sturdy comeback album All Nerve. Salem group SUPERTEEN won our hearts with the enigmatic Over Everything. Ultra Chapelle made a post-twee anthem with WOMP WOMP, squitch found the meeting point between math rock and art rock with Uncle Steve in Spirit, and Daeves channeled his inner Stephen Malkmus for Whatever Before the Storm. Band bedbug took a perfect snapshot of Boston’s bedroom pop scene with i’ll count to heaven in years without seasons. Blues rock duo Mr. Airplane Man released Jacaranda Blue, its first proper album in 14 years. Barrence Whitfield & the Savages revived the vintage rock soul of R&B with Soul Flowers of Titan. The often overlooked trio E—Thalia Zedek, Jason Sanford of Neptune, and Gavin McCarthy of Karate—built off their various alt-rock backgrounds on their sophomore LP, Negative Work. Grindcore act Limbs Bin finally released the heavily anticipated One Happy World. Today Junior gave surf rock a face lift with Single Forever. Folk got a friendly bump thanks to Neon by Sam Moss and The Measured Mile by sundog. Gia Greene overcame emergency surgeries to reveal her debut LP Unexpected Guest. Indie rock act Cosmic Johnny established itself as a must-know name on the Allston scene thanks to Good Grief. Psych rock trio Sundrifter launched listeners to space with Visitations. Slowcore group Tuxis Giant released its first music in three years, Here Comes the Wolf. Lowell favorites oldsoul played into the emo side of alt-rock with coy. Artists like Animal Flag and Great News played into the performative side of rock with Void Ripper and It Is Time respectively, and wowflower skated through the downtempo electronica scene with lo-fi record feverdream. Lesser Glow gave doom a post-metal spin with Ruined. At some point during all of this, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones released their first album in seven years, because ska refuses to die.
To help you fall in love with these albums the way the DigBoston staff has, we’re throwing a concert to celebrate the midyear list. Head over to the Sinclair on Saturday, June 30, to hear the magic of Kal Marks, BAERD, Edge Petal Burn, Pink Navel, and Prior Panic live onstage. Tickets cost $12, the show is all ages, and doors open at 6 pm. We’ll see you there. In the meantime, study the list below to know the creme de la creme of this year’s musical crop.
Few Allston basement bands get the chance to crawl their way to fame. Rapid as it may be, Vundabar’s ascent is the product of doing hard work with a carefree saunter. After making its own label, booking its own shows, and sharpening its songwriting process, the surf pop trio has found a comfortable balance between lower-tier national fame and their DIY heart. Set to the band’s cleanest melodies yet, Smell Smoke centers around frontman Brandon Hagen’s four-year grapple with watching a loved one decline in health—reminding listeners that the band didn’t blow up on heedlessness and jubilation alone.
You can’t erase every trace of a scar, but you can reclaim it as it fades. That’s the mentality Olivia West tried to revel in while writing the crux of Glass Cannon, the long-awaited debut album by her band Edge Petal Burn. West confronts her past experiences with relationship abuse, emotional trauma, and long-term brain damage. Along with her band, West sets her darkest moments on fire with heavy bursts of sludge guitar, Korean folk music influences, and multilayered vocal harmonies. Songs like “Five Golden Rings” and “Letters” snake their way through dark corners while bearing the type of emotional vocal delivery that gives you goosebumps. It’s cathartic, to say the least.
FREE YOURSELF UP
Lake Street Dive have straddled the line between idolizing retro motown and pushing jazz pop onto the radio for a long time now. But with Free Yourself Up, the band embraces the slicker side of pop that it used to mask in ’60s girl group tang. While that comes across as a safe move, it’s clear the band, from singer Rachael Price on down to upright bass player Bridget Kearney, wanted to inject edge into the lyrics. Want to remind an ex that you were the better kisser? Check. Want to reflect on our darkening regime under this government? Check. In that, Free Yourself Up a quiet reminder that nothing is ever quite as sweet as well-worded revenge.
WHEN WE WERE LOUD
The O.C. superfans or underground indie rock obsessives may recognize the name Francine, but there’s a good chance most of you reading this don’t. There’s no better time to be introduced to Francine than right now with When We Were Loud, the band’s first new album in 12 years. The group recreates the quintessential alt-pop, breezy indie rock, feel-good melodies of the early 2000s that made bands like the Shins and Death Cab for Cutie famous. Over a decade later, Clayton Scoble’s voice still floats with a comfortable warmth, making it all too easy to fall in love with these songs. Next thing you know, you’re sneaking songs like “Fine Afternoon” and “One Benefit” onto mixtapes for your closest friends.
NO DOGS ALLOWED
Where most musically inclined students in Boston attend college during the day and write music at night, Sidney Gish seems to create full albums in her sleep. The 20-year-old singer-songwriter runs on a steady diet of never-ending hooks and self-taught production, using that fodder to create a delightfully surprising blend of anti-folk, pleasing pop, and indie rock licks. No Dogs Allowed arrived on New Year’s Eve of 2017—an arbitrary deadline she gave herself, much like with 2016’s Ed Buys Houses, to dump a year’s worth of song ideas onto the internet—with Gish’s best use of tracklist order yet. From the casual guitar solo in “Sin Triangle” to the self-aware sigh in “Rat of the City,” No Dogs Allowed demonstrates why the innate songwriting skills of Sidney Gish are just as much a breath of fresh air in indie rock as they are a pathway toward a bigger career in music.
SPRINGTIME AND BLIND
RUN FOR COVER RECORDS
Pull any hardcore-loving kid off the street and four times out of five they will tell you straight-edge group Have Heart changed their life. Frontman Patrick Flynn is a musical hero in that sense, as his words became scripture for a generation, and his new post-hardcore band Fiddlehead continues that tradition. As a post-hardcore group, Fiddlehead—Basement member Alex Henery on guitar, Casey Nealon on bass, Heave Heart member Shawn Costa on drums, Alex Dow on guitar, and Flynn on lead vocals—hurl themselves into heavy riffs and speedy punk payoffs like a combo of Fugazi, Samiam, and Archers of Loaf. But lyrically, Flynn grapples with the death of his father by analyzing, questioning, and empathizing for his mother’s grieving process. Springtime and Blind is abrasive and emotional, and at no point does it let up on either.
BORN ON THE STAIRS
There’s a certain charm to artists who can’t imagine a life without music yet consistently treat their art with a patient approach. Despite publishing music with a rapid-fire speed, Pink Navel is a rapper and beatmaker who wraps their work up in careful thought and stress-free environments—even if the subjects they rap about are rooted in stressful events. Following a live mixtape and a collection of beats built around Mario samples, Pink Navel dropped Born on the Stairs, a 12-track record that gets lost in the feeling of being stuck in between a higher and lower state. Pink Navel spits out words with enunciated care but deviates from the rigidity of down beats, occasionally slapping words on the tail end of a bar. Though the influence of alternative rappers like milo is obvious, Pink Navel stands rooted in their personality, letting the calculated stuttering on songs like “say-the-least.dev” add meaning to their words, an affecting example of art in motion.
Listening to BAERD is like watching a forest bloom and grow before you, all sped-up sprouting and season-changing beauty. The seven-piece Americana band pulls the best parts of folk, jazz, and classical music into their work. On Crete, that combination swells like a beautiful meeting of Fleet Foxes and Skinny Bones. From the cooling vocals and dreamlike banjo of “Out of The” to the stomping energy and manic drawl of frontman Isaiah Beard’s voice on “Stand,” Crete is an album that uses crisp production to highlight how a dozen different pieces, big and small, can create a massive sound—proving folk doesn’t have to be a quiet genre after all.
EXPLODING IN SOUND RECORDS
In the past few years, Kal Marks frontman Carl Shane has seen a lot of people die. Two friends died from drug overdoses. One friend burned in a fire. He reached a new low, depression to the point of immobilization, before a new instinct rose within him to fight back, to live meaningfully, to outlast the world’s shadows. Thus the plot of Universal Care was born. The record sees the heavy rock trio welcome their bright side: Mellotron chords that wobble, a Stevie Wonder vibe on drums, lyrics that don’t want to give up. Though it still has monstrous songs—“Fuck That Guy” centers around a terrifying scream—the album is a change in the band’s catalog, showcasing a new side of Kal Marks and, with it, a reinvigorated performance style.
As someone who has spent years performing in indie rock bands, Michi Tassey didn’t expect to start a project like Nature Shots—and yet, and the same time, it was entirely unavoidable. The People Like You member picked up the moniker as a way to reflect on the loss of a dear friend, not as a method of coping with loss, but rather an extension of empathy to someone she still cared deeply about. The resulting album, Foreclosure, hangs Tassey’s voice like light strings around a bare room, her words echoing in an intentionally sparse landscape as finger-plucked guitar and slow piano fade in and out behind her. On first listen, it sounds like a blend of Grouper’s Ruins and the Antlers’ Hospice. The longer Foreclosure plays, though, the clearer it becomes the album is a bright light reflecting on the empty space of someone who passed: a beautiful, haunting, and lasting image that stands on its own.
Don’t let the slick production of Swatchbook fool you. Everything Nick Minieri created on this album was built on his iPhone. Aside from using a hand-picked sample library and a proper studio to master the final mixes, he created the 11-song record while riding the T, sitting in hotels, and chilling on park benches. That change of scenery explains why he was able to go from a lo-fi techno track or thick house number into a minimal drum and bass piece or downtempo electronic groove (The transition from “Look & Feel” into “Calibrate” is particularly *chef’s kiss*). Listen for bird chirps and distant chatter. Minieri smoothed those details out in the studio, giving the collection of songs the continuity of an album, hence its ability to suck you into a world of dance music that never quite lets you go, forcing you to move along.
FOOL’S GOLD RECORDS
Boston’s funniest rapper is all grown up. With the “Michael Cera” days behind him, Michael Christmas enters his major indie label phase on Fool’s Gold with Role Model, and with it comes heavy hitters that never sacrifice his brand of humor. “Honey Berry” sees him play the celeb status name game again while “Girlfriend” sees him reference Beck and Beyonce in the same breath. Even when Cousin Stizz, Domo Genesis, and G Perico hop onboard to share bars, Christmas holds his own, returning to the mic with the right amount of confidence to keep the spotlight on him while still showcasing how a little collaboration can deepen your own story. It’s the step up his career has been building toward without trying to do anything overtly flashy.
The biggest allure of Prior Panic’s debut album is how comfortable the record is with its imperfections—a way of living few people will accomplish in their lifetime. You can hear finger slides on guitar strings. People chatter in the background of the opening track. The cymbals occasionally flood over one another. But the way in which frontperson Julia Fulbright sings, all while plucking at their cello, makes it clear Finicky Things stands on pride and pride alone. It’s an addicting type of confidence, the kind you wish you had. By the time “Float” kicks in, Fulbright’s ability to weave their instrument through Zachary Ellsworth’s drumming or Otto Klammer’s guitar feels like a hypnotic new dance, the kind you want to learn immediately and obsesses over with repeat viewings, eager to be just like them.
CLOSED CASKET ACTIVITIES
Vein got the memo about going big or going home. Though it opens with a seemingly random flash of late ’90s touchstones—a burst of DnB drum samples, mega-produced bass drops, overlapping distortion pedals—on “virus://vibrance,” the hardcore band’s debut album, errorzone, is stuffed to the brim. Vein’s brand of hardcore is an erratic fury of rage that gets by on being perfectly synchronized. It’s a lot to take in, for sure, but the band’s blend of math, metalcore, and screamo leaves a strong impression, ultimately leaving you with no choice but to play the mosh pit-primed onslaught again.
Speedy Ortiz does more in a year than most bands do in five. So when the band found that its initial demos of Twerp Verse material sounded better than expected, it came as a surprise (to them and to listeners) that they would decide to run with those instead of rerecording their parts in a studio. That decision explains the off-kilter sound of Twerp Verse. Though it’s filled with frontwoman Sadie Dupuis’ usual bizarre chord progressions and unexpected midsong pivots, the real hook of Twerp Verse is its ability to sound both rough—as if performed live right in front of you—and polished, the trickery of grade-A studio work. Lean in when she suffers, yes, but lean in everywhere else too, because hearing the way the music comes together highlights how Speedy Ortiz continue to push themselves creatively the way no other band does.
DIGBOSTON’S “BEST LOCAL ALBUMS OF 2018 (SO FAR)” SHOW: KAL MARKS, BAERD, EDGE PETAL BURN, PINK NAVEL, PRIOR PANIC. SAT 6.30. THE SINCLAIR, 52 CHURCH ST., CAMBRIDGE. 6PM/ALL AGES/$12. SINCLAIRCAMBRIDGE.COM