Best prog rock of 2018

7. Gazpacho, Soyuz. The second Norwegian group to make it to the list this year, Gazpacho have yet failed to disappoint me over the last decade or so. From their original poppy albums to the current crop of concept albums, Gazpacho is one of the world’s finest art-rock outfits.  This album deals with a small but critical slice of Soviet history, all of it—the story as well as Gazpacho’s music—wrapped beautifully in mystery. Another album for the headphones. Put them on, hit play, and take a wild ride around the earth and back.

6. Sanguine Hum, Now We Have Power. Had this album come out earlier in the year, I’m pretty sure it would be in the top five, not just in the top ten.  I’ve been following this strange but enticing rock outfit since 2010’s outrageously good Diving Bell. Lyrically and thematically, Now We Have Power comes immediately after the band’s previous album (not on Bad Elephant Music), Now We Have Light. Unfortunately, as much as I love the band, I have no clue with this rather complex and trippy story is about. Reading through it, it reminds me of the stuff I used to write in high school when I was being bizarre just for the sake of being bizarre. I’m guessing there’s much more going on in the story than I’ve understood. Well, more puzzles to solve. As always with Sanguine Hum’s music, this album is extraordinary.

5. Labelmates on Sanguine Hum’s Bad Elephant Music, The Fierce and The Dead make the top five of the year for me. Led by one of our greatest living guitarists, Matt Stevens, TFATD seems rather unstoppable. The guitar, the bass, the other guitar, and the drums just boggle the mind. Imagine surf music but for folks who live nowhere near water.  That’s the best way to describe the glory that is TFATD. This album, much like previous offerings, possesses sharp progressions, detours, sidetrips, and quite a bit of offroading. More so than any of the previous albums, The Euophoric feels like it could be the soundtrack of a really great and punchy Netflix series. The music evokes non-stop images, all of them in furious motion.  I’ve described the band before as a cross between The Smiths and King Crimson.  All true, except that as TFATD grows, they grow well past their influences, in musicianship and composition.

4. Riverside, Wasteland. I first came to this Polish band over a decade ago. Their passion never ends. My album rankings 5-2 are pretty interchangeable for me, and, were this tomorrow, the ranking might be slightly different. According to my counter, I have listened to these top five albums more than any others this year, by far. Not even close. Duda, the lead of Riverside, brings a cohesive story to the album, one ostensibly based on the dystopian post-apocalyptic chiller, The Road. Yet, this album strikes me as far more than a re-write of The Road. Indeed, Duda’s story and the art is much higher, and these Polish rockers seem to be telling the story of not just his passion, but of The Passion. There’s no greater Christian work of art (yes art, not propaganda) in music this year than Riverside’s Wasteland. Its Passion makes the story of Christ freshly riveting, even (or especially) in a time of extreme suffering and corruption in the Church. This album gives me hope as it reminds me of all the best in this world and the next.

3. How I had missed OAK’s first album, Lighthouse, two years ago is a surprise to me. That I “found” this one, False Memory Archives, this year has been one of 2018’s greatest gifts. My third and final Norwegian band in the list, the men of OAK are nothing if not Nordically expansionistic. Unlike their medieval ancestors, though, these men are context to explore the edges of art, rather than the edges of the world. And, yet, the exploration ever continues. OAK is, by far, the single best new band I’ve encountered in years. The album is an album of progressive pop perfection, akin to the best work of XTC, Tears for Fears, and Kate Bush. The opening minute is a bit annoying and grating, but after that opening minute, the album never falters. It is, for all intents and purposes, a perfect album. Lyrically, the band shines as well.

2. NAO, Grindshow. Much like OAK, NAO is progressive pop perfection. Their fourth album, Grindshow, displays all of the prowess the band had brought to its previous three albums. Never a flaw nor a misstep, but the band refuses to remain in place. Though I’m sure they prefer the label art rock over progressive rock, NAO never fails to progress, building upon what they’ve done before, but taking that progress into surprisingly delightful ways. Admittedly, though, as such as I love the music, it’s Sam Healy’s vocals that distinguish NAO from all of its competitors. The man simply knows how to make a lyric work—with sincerity, inflection, tone, and, once again, sincerity. I could listen to him sing about the workings of the internal combustion engine, and I’d be a happy man.

1. Glass Hammer, Chronomonaut. The top album of the year, by far, is Glass Hammer’s Chronomonaut. Never content with standing in place—even when at the top of a 14-teener—this band is relentless in its pursuit of excellence.  Every new album brings to me the fear of having to write, “well, this is a great album, but their earlier album, XXXXXX, is still the standard by which we measure Glass Hammer.”  Definitely not the case here.  As with their previous five releases, Glass Hammer has once again produced its best album. Babb, Schendel, Bogdanowicz, and Raulston form the perfect core, allowing a number of guest musicians to add their equally stunning gifts to the album. Babb’s story—the story of the Elf King—is not just the best story told in rock in 2018, it’s one of the best stories in 2018, period. It can compete with anything on Netflix or in the world of fiction. Tom Timely is back, a stranger thing, trying to move through time in the way one can move in space. The movement, though, comes at a surprising cost. Ave, Glass Hammer!  Yes, I have heard about the Elf King, and proudly so.

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