Colorado's musicians have been dropping barn-burner albums all year long. A few of these projects have been covered by major media outlets and supported by massive headlining tours (yes, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, we're talking about you); others came out so quietly that nobody other than the musicians' friends and biggest fans heard they were dropping (hello, Trev Rich).
Putting together this list of our ten favorite albums of 2018 required killing some darlings. Recordings from The Corner Girls, Bud Bronson & the Good Timers, Kid Astronaut, DeVotchKa, Brent Cowles, Green Druid, Machu Linea, Oxeye Daisy, Fed Rez, Joshua Trinidad, Anthony Ruptak and others could easily take the place of some of our picks. But we had to make tough choices, and so we did. Here are our ten favorite albums by Denver-area artists in 2018, listed in alphabetical order.
Looking for a soundtrack for your rage? Listen to Denver’s militantly anti-fascist DIY hardcore band Faim's November release, 7 Inch. It's an eardrum-pummeling grenade-launcher of explosive anthems — some about midlife depression, others about abusers in the punk scene hopping from one city to another to keep from being punished, and another about old-fashioned class strife. This music decries the rise of the right as fervently as it slices into the various warts of the left and fearlessly rejects the center. But 7 Inch is not an exercise in political catharsis. Rather, it's a cry to wage war against the self-righteous, the destructive, the creepy, the violent and the rich.
The Astronaut’s Wife
Singer-songwriter and bassist Julie Davis has been undergirding Denver's music scene for years. Her most recent album as Bluebook, created with singer-songwriter and keyboardist Jess Parsons, loops rhythmic and melodic bass lines with synth noise to create folk music rooted in blues, gospel and even darkwave. Parsons and Davis offer up aching harmonies, using bare-bones instrumentation to support their songs. Astonishingly, The Astronaut's Wife dropped with little fanfare. But it's a jewel.
While other Denver acts have soared and sunk, Porlolo has been simmering since singer-songwriter Erin Roberts formed it in 2002. Her latest effort, Awards, opens with the bar-room twanger “I Don’t Want to Lose," which is all about struggling to keep a relationship intact. That’s followed by “Wasting Time (I Was a Fool),” a stirring song about romantic regrets. The final number, the album's namesake, is homesick indie rock with warm harmonies that are both poetic and down to earth. For more than fifteen years, Roberts has dished her guts out to Denver, and from the looks of it, that’s not stopping.
Trev Rich, who earned headlines in 2016 when he signed to Cash Money Records, had a quiet 2018 as far as live performances go. He announced a much-anticipated Ogden Theatre show earlier this year, but it never happened. The rapper was busier off stage, putting out the excellent Clarity, which is filled with radio-friendly hip-hop songs yet to gain traction. Back to being an independent, Rich uses the album to fret over his professional gains and setbacks, tensions with fellow rappers, relationships gone sour and the challenges that come with fame. He's also featured on DJ Khalil's song “Elevate,” on the Spiderman: Into the Spider Verse soundtrack. As nice as it is to hear him in the movie theater, let's hope he's back on stage in 2019, giving Clarity a proper christening.
Khemmis’s Desolation, a six-song collection of power-metal anthems, can best be described as epic. Songs like “Bloodletting," "Isolation" and “The Seer” marry the oversized drama of opera with the brooding introspection of metal. The music conjures up J.R.R. Tolkien and middle-school angst, gussied up with imagery of graves and burning skies, snakes and gods. Sure, these songs are on the nose. But there’s a reason Khemmis wears the crown in Denver’s metal scene: The winding melodic guitar passages, the force of the drums, and the broad mythical lyrics are as sweeping as the view from the top of a fourteener, where grandeur and doom collide.
Dry Heave the Heavenly
The Milk Blossoms
From their beginning, the Milk Blossoms have striven for sonic perfection using sparse tools: beatboxing, singing, ukulele strumming and, more recently, keyboard playing. On Dry Heave the Heavenly, the band mixes goth-inspired folk, R&B and soul bolstered with mouth-made hip-hop beats and mournful vocals. The unsettling lyrics dive into desire, loss and confusion and summon demons and ghosts. Dry Heave the Heavenly is experimental and home-crafted, yet no sound — from clicks and pops to the soprano strum on the uke — appears accidental.
Gregory Alan Isakov
On a farm outside Boulder, Gregory Alan Isakov has set up a songwriting shop in a barn, where he labors over lyrics and melodies whenever he's not out working the land. While he's hardly a prolific songwriter — or if he is, we'd never know with his recorded output, as infrequent as it is — he's a meticulous craftsman. Evening Machines, his first album of originals since 2013's The Weatherman, isn't much of a deviation for the artist, and in his case, that's a good thing. The personal songs on the album are filled with lyrical complexity that's easy to ignore because of the simplicity of their construction. Nostalgia shapes Isakov's music, even though it's a sentiment he shuns in the hook of the opening track, "Berth": "Quit all that, quit all that, quit all that looking back." He sings it over and over and over again, like a finger-wagging grandma admonishing him for doing what he does best. Lucky for fans, he hasn't followed his own advice.
Under Midwife, Madeline Johnston of Sister Grotto released the EP Prayer Hands, a collection of four ethereal, melancholy songs. The July album opens with droning passages that are good for wandering the city. They're followed by the heartrending songs “Forever” and “Angel,” in which Johnston offers fuzzy, phantasmagoric vocals and a melodic whisper that is one part comforting, another part sorrowful. The first few minutes of the final track, “Demon,” are haunting, interrupted by a guitar and drums. Then Johnston's voice rises less like a human trying to convey a message through words and more like an instrument.
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summer camp doom diary
Two years have passed since the screaming electronic outfit Church Fire made the glorious and grotesquely titled Pussy Blood. After countless performances, the frenzied duo comprising Shannon Webber and David Samuelson is releasing yet another furious act of diabolical dance music, this one titled summer camp doom diary and set for release on December 29. The title evokes a horror-movie sensibility, and the songs deliver. At Church Fire's best live shows, Webber transforms into a frothing prophet of annihilation leading a bacchanalia — and this album re-creates that experience. Summer camp doom diary is defiantly ugly, but it’s also fun.
Tearing at the Seams
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
Nathaniel Rateliff has long toiled away on his career in Denver. Over his past few years with the Night Sweats, all that work has been justly celebrated on international stages. But when he and the band broke out in 2015 with hit “S.O.B.,” many assumed it would be a one-hit wonder and that Rateliff would soon be whittling in obscurity again. But with the new Tearing at the Seams, the band has made clear that "S.O.B." was just a warmup. While the foot stomping, horn-blaring soulful elements the Night Sweats turned heads with are still present, they've created something more their own. “A Little Honey,” “Babe I Know” and “Shoe Boot" are three standout tracks on a record with no duds. But “Hey Mama” shines as one of the artist’s greatest songs yet. It's about moms delivering a message to kids on the brink of giving up — advice any up-and-coming artist should heed.