2019 Music Issue: 50 important local albums 
from the decade

When I moved to Louisville about half a decade ago, I didn’t realize how much depth, diversity and output existed in the local music scene. I knew your standard, out-of-towner stuff. That My Morning Jacket was from here. And Bonnie “Prince” Billy. I vaguely knew of the legendary status of Slint and the bands that were in their orbit. I saw a few new releases floating around from local under-the-radar indie acts that got write-ups in national publications. But I didn’t know there were hundreds of bands and solo musicians here working, in so many genres, on so many interesting projects, constantly releasing albums.

In my time as the music editor of LEO, the staff and I have created several collections of songs and/or albums — sometimes monthly, sometimes yearly, sometimes sporadically — in which our writers round up and review some of their favorites. We don’t do it to declare these albums “the best” in some sort of countdown listicle.

Or to start arguments.

Or to chase clicks.

We do it to try to document some of the music that moved us in each respective time period. To help people remember and encourage them to revisit these albums. To introduce others to things they may have missed. And to make ourselves remember, for that matter, since the internet has a way of making us forget everything so quickly.

For this year’s Music Issue, more than 20 people — our staff, as well as other local writers and musicians who we asked to contribute — chose 50 albums from 2010 to present, since this year closes off the decade.

You’ll also find trend and enterprise stories about subjects that reflect evolution during the decade, or lack thereof. They include pieces on the vinyl boom (page 9) and album art (page 6), and critical stories about what we didn’t do so well this decade and can fix going forward, such as boosting inclusivity and combating sexual harassment at venues.

This issue is a primer. A tip of the iceberg.

Use this as a launching point, or for nostalgia. Then, go spend some money in the local music scene. 

Make it a better place. 

A city this size usually doesn’t have a music scene this good. 

Protect it. —Scott Recker 



2010
Shipping News
One Less Heartless to Fear

In the summer of 2009, Shipping News took the stage at the now defunct Skull Alley for what would unknowingly become their last show. Just a few months afterward, guitarist/vocalist Jason Noble was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, and he died in August 2012. But, that set was captured and released as One Less Heartless to Fear in the fall of 2010, which became Shipping News’ final album. 

“I think we tried to make the best out of the recording that we had, which was priority No. 1,” said guitarist/vocalist Jeff Mueller. “But not distant behind it was having there be something for Jason to sort of focus on and to be productive with, that didn’t require him to mobile or active. He could basically just be sitting at his couch on his laptop or on his phone. That was part of him trying to heal. It’s always been part of him trying to keep his head screwed on straight, staying busy and productive.”

The set was recorded by Brian Lueken on a whim. The band hadn’t intended to record the set, but once it was offered, they took it as an opportunity to archive their set. A longtime fan, Lueken was surprised when, after a few months, the band asked if they could use these recordings as part of a live release.

“I thought I was just going to have the coolest live set I’d recorded and from one of my favorite bands,” Lueken said. “I’d share it with the band and nothing would happen with it. There were no plans. It was just documentation for the band and fanboy souvenir for me.”

Taken as a whole, Shipping News were seldom known for their overall aggression, skewing toward the type of tightly-coiled restraint that put bands such as Rodan — Mueller and Noble’s former project — and Slint on the international radar. But with One Less Heartless to Fear, there is an urgency, if not outright anger. The opener “Antebellum” is a vicious satire of the Bush administration and its legacy, while tracks “The Delicate” or “Do You Remember the Avenues?” turn that same tension inward. The quiet seething found in their previous material is present on tracks such as “Half A House” or “7s,” a slowly-building sense of unease that never quite touches down fully. For the entirety of the band’s run, Mueller lived outside of Louisville, returning regularly to collaborate. Despite that, the band became progressively more assured in their performances. You can hear that in One Less Heartless to Fear.

“When I would come to Louisville, there was an expectation and a little urgency to not just brush up on old material, but to put a little emphasis on at least trying to work on some new things,” said Mueller. “I think later, sort of the more that Todd, Jason and I, Kyle, the more the four of us played together, the more confidence that we had in just kind of winging it with a couple of things.”

One Less Heartless to Fear served as a final goodbye for a band that helped define post-rock. The energy and verve of the album emphasized a band driven by the fire to create. That fire was used as comfort by Noble in his twilight as a sign of hope. For Shipping News, art was life, and this is the purest realization of that sentiment. —Syd Bishop


2011
My Morning Jacket
Circuital

Recorded in a local church gymnasium, Circuital burns with eerie lows and soars with grandiose highs. From the sweeping, dramatic, echoing sounds that make up the more mellow moments to the swirling, explosive, booming songs, there’s a well-done push and pull between those two ends of the spectrum. “Holdin On To Black Metal” mimics the ambition and power of the band’s live performances, while the solemn folk on “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” shows their range. During the 7:20-minute runtime of the title track, they explore both the aforementioned peaks and the valleys. When My Morning Jacket is at their best, they capitalize on the experimentation of indie, the melody of pop and the psychedelic charm of a jam band, without falling into each of those genre’s respective traps of pretension, vapidness and a mind-numbing lack of brevity. They squeeze the best elements from the respective styles they melt together, finding the balance between versatility and consistency, which is what shines on Circuital. —Scott Recker


2011
Trophy Wives
Old Scratch

Although Trophy Wives is no longer together, Old Scratch stands the test of time. The production is perfect, a prime example of both polish and rawness that somehow manages to make every song sound astoundingly huge. Packed with a roundhouse kick to the face of punk, grunge, hair and stoner metal, the album simmers with the sounds of Motörhead, Thin Lizzy, Monster Magnet, Foo Fighters and Soundgarden. Yet, what emerged was distinctly Trophy Wives. And then there’s the air guitar worthy “(You’re Like A) Bad Song,” which chugs and bounces and culminates in one of the catchiest sing-along choruses out there. Who can say what would have become of Trophy Wives had they stayed afloat, but we should all be grateful they, at least, left this gem in their too-brief wake. —Tyrel Kessinger


2011
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy
Wolfroy Goes to Town

I heard many of the songs from this record for the first time when Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) performed at the Clifton Center in 2011. I was immediately entranced by the interplay between Oldham and the band, particularly back-up vocalist Angel Olsen. Fortunately, Oldham took some members of his touring band into the studio with him for Wolfroy Goes to Town. The musicians pare Oldham’s compositions down to their essential elements. The result is sparse and intimate, filled with characters grappling with issues of faith, self-delusion and outright despair. On “Quail and Dumplings,” a standout duet with Olsen, the aspirational chorus of “One day it’s gonna be quail and dumplings for we” is undermined by verses like “Holes in our ceiling, holes in our roof / Hope that we’ve got it made, have gone in a poof.” The simple beauty of Wolfroy Goes to Town makes it one of the most appealing entries in Oldham’s long catalog. This record has gravity and staying power. —Michael L. Jones


2011
The Fervor
Arise, Great Warrior

Lead by the husband-and-wife team Ben and Natalie Felker, The Fervor has been releasing solid work for 15 years about heartbreak and sheer panic in a stoic, brave manner that makes the subject matter hit harder. Painful, but in a way to be proud of. The title track, “Arise, Great Warrior,” opens the album and begins with a calm melding of Natalie’s electric piano and Ben’s guitar. Natalie’s strong, but deadpan vocal delivery sets the stage for the album, declaring “Arise, great warrior / Inside, you’re a destroyer” — a promise of pain to come and triumph over it (as well as a nod to the Bhagavad Gita) in a mixture of mental anguish and metaphysical battles. It’s no doubt influenced by Ben’s degree in religious studies and Natalie’s usage of playing music to cope with anxiety and, as she has described it, “the intense and often overwhelming feelings it causes.” Songs such as  “Bent Around A Dying Dream” and “Let’s Get Loaded” could have been smash hits, and Arise, Great Warrior would be regarded by a wider audience as the brilliant, post-indie gem that it is. —John King


2011
The Deloreans
American Craze 

I’m still searching for that perfect word or sentence to summarize the oddity that is Louisville, Kentucky. Our erratic weather, shifting styles of architecture from neighborhood to neighborhood and a unique music scene that covers all genres are a few clues to a simple thought: Maybe Louisville is special because it can’t be easily defined. The same can be said about American Craze by The Deloreans. The album effortlessly jumps from Bobby Vinton-era crooning to “Flight of The Bumblebee” punk to arrangements reminiscent of 1940s Hollywood film scores. The power of this album is that by constantly jumping around, the entire history of music is explored in less than an hour. For me, excitement in art comes from the unknown. “American Craze” is defined by sonic shifts that act like a roller coaster, while, at the same time, employing the expectation of change as a glue that holds each of these tracks together. American Craze, along with hundreds of other local releases this decade, did not create a new standard for the Louisville music scene. Rather, this decade continued a proud streak of artistic integrity when it comes to Louisville musicians. To the Louisville bands of the next decade: trust yourself as an artist and continue the streak. —Zach Hart


2012
Whistle Peak
Half Asleep Upon Echo Falls

Half Asleep Upon Echo Falls flows and breathes with a romantic mystery that too many bands try to capture, yet few ever achieve. From beginning to end, every song is worth your attention — every one a piece of unorthodox, gorgeously-crafted pop. The album twists ghostly melodies off the beaten path and over wistful arrangements that deftly skirt the heavy-handedness or saccharine overtones that so often emerge from this breed of music. Billy Petot’s vocals are stylistically brilliant. Can you hear some identifiable influences? Of course. But you can hear those everywhere. What’s important is that Half Asleep Upon Echo Falls sounds like an album that only this band could have done at this time. —Tyrel Kessinger


2012
Panopticon
Kentucky 

On the fifth album from Austin Lunn’s solo black metal project Panopticon, the cover art contrasts a lush landscape with two seemingly mournful coal miners, setting the stage for an honest examination of both our area’s natural beauty and the ugliness of its ecological destruction caused by mountaintop removal while mining for coal. The album’s unique mixture of folk and bluegrass with cold, atmospheric black metal wound up capitulating Panopticon onto the world’s stage, cementing an ongoing revered status. The incongruous, yet captivating duality of Kentucky’s stylistic approach serves as an apt metaphor for the city that produced the release. The album is a clear byproduct of what surrounds us: tying simpler sounds of old with a foundation of modern, stark metal more commonly created in non-rural cities. The album is rightfully praised for its authenticity, culled from our state’s past and present, sonically and thematically combined into a powerful work of art that could have only come from here. —Austin Weber


2012
The Phantom Family Halo
Francis Jewel Don’t Be Afraid of the Jungle

The Phantom Family Halo is considered one of Louisville’s most treasured and important bands, though they did relocate to Brooklyn, New York. Francis Jewel Don’t Be Afraid of the Jungle is perfect for a chill day of hanging out around the house with incense burning. The album opens with creepy, layered vocals and the sounds of birds chirping, setting the tone of the album — natural, raw sound. I really like how the bass and drums are the center of a lot of the album. “Walk Don’t Run” along with “Strawberry Blues” were instantly two of my favorite songs on the album. The haunting organs on the last track, “Young Lovers and Good People Who Die,” lingered in my ears for a bit after the music ended. Much like the entire album lingered in my thoughts. Every Louisville music fan and musician should own this album. —Cassie Green 


2013
Ultra Pulverize
Toxic Vacation 

Track one’s title, “Two Hugs,” might have you believing you’re about to experience something warm and breezy, but the distorted kick of Tony Robot’s electronic drums warns otherwise. When Korgenbutz’s synth arrives seconds later, low and dark like the parts we’re all trying to keep hidden, any misperceptions are dispelled. And singer Ultra issues lyrics like a challenge.  Delivering what they described as “electronic synth punk rap from the near future,” Louisville trio Ultra Pulverize released their six-song EP, Toxic Vacation, in 2013. It’s unapologetic in its sonic intensity and gleeful lyrical indignation. They hold up our deepest insecurities and make us laugh at them, like with the chorus in “Two Hugs” — “Two hugs, one hug, too much.” Or they call bullshit, like in “Strict Greenscreen Schedule” — “No time to eat / Y’all go ahead and sleep / I’ll stay awake / Busy waiting for that render bar to creep.” Tragically, we lost Ultra in 2015, making this their final album. Viewing the lyrics and album art through this lens can be eerie, if not disconcerting at times. But given his wit and aesthetic, something tells me he’d get a kick out of that. —Natalie Felker 


2013
Old Baby
Love Hangover

There’s a timeless quality to Love Hangover — the middle child of Old Baby’s three-album discography — that makes me think that it could be enjoyed while drinking a bitter whiskey in the Old West, being lost in a sprawling desert or while flying around in outer space with HAL on Spacecraft Discovery One. These guys were really onto something here, bending and borrowing from genres to create a universe all their own. “Into The Earth” gets underway with a toe-tapping tom-tom/snare beat that gets perfectly joined with an anthemic, galloping guitar riff and Hank Williams-esque vocals that’ll have you imagining yourself riding a unicorn as you trot through a mountain pass somewhere on Mars. I also really like “Love Hungry,” a creepy, menacing track that would easily motivate a plot for sweet revenge against someone that has done you wrong. In case you weren’t aware, Old Baby is a Louisville supergroup featuring Jonathan Glen Wood, Evan Patterson, Todd Cook, Neal Argabright and Drew Osborn — each of these guys stands alone as brilliant artists, but together they were one of my favorite bands to ever come out of this city. —Phillip Olympia


2013
Cheyenne Marie Mize
Among the Grey

Over the past decade, one of the more ever-present, consistent and first-rate artists around the city is the singer and multi-instrumentalist Cheyenne Marie Mize. She’s released three records with Joan Shelley and Julia Purcell under the moniker Maiden Radio and a handful of her own solo records. Her first — a worthy one — was Before Lately in 2010. But her 2013 LP, Among the Grey, is front-to-back praiseworthy, swinging and mixing hints of the confident, raw moodiness of early PJ Harvey with the better bits of the layered compositions of chamber pop. And, yet, throughout, she retains her own voice — nothing feels like sticky pastiche. Co-produced by Mize with La La Land’s Kevin Ratterman, the album is alive with emotions — anger, regret, longing and tenderness. In other words, all the sentiments that comprise so many moving albums. And this is one of them. —Eric Allen Been


2013
Liberation Prophecy
Invisible House

Liberation Prophecy was an adventurous ensemble led by saxophonist and composer Jacob Duncan that left a heavy impression on Louisville music. In addition to their two albums, Last Exit Angel (2006) and Invisible House (2013), Duncan organized Liberation Living Room, a live performance series for children that was filmed and released as a web show, drawing guests such as Norah Jones, Rachel Grimes and Will Oldham to perform. Both albums contained much different personnel with the exception of guitarist Craig Wagner and trombonist Chris Fortner, but with changes also comes liberation from previous notions. Last Exit Angel was Liberation as a nine-piece group, yielding a sound that developed into the fullness of Invisible House after slimming down to eight: bold and cascading brass melodies, dreamy vocals and incantations ascending toward the epics of Kamasi Washington or the spaciousness of Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way. Vocalist Carly Johnson beautifully navigates these turns on tracks “You” and “Death From Above.” Liberation Prophecy is no longer active, but its members are still going strong in various local groups. Could a possible reunion someday occur? We really hope so.— Lara Kinne


2014
Young Widows
Easy Pain

Formed from the ashes of Breather Resist, Young Widows has maintained a trajectory that continues to progressively grow leaner and meaner. Early on, Young Widows featured songs and imagery that recalled The Jesus Lizard, certainly an aspirational project and one that the band paid direct homage to. With each record though, that comparison and those like it have fallen away, as singer/guitarist Evan Patterson and company have embraced more atmospheric elements and a Nick Cave-like swagger to vocal delivery. Easy Pain represents the pinnacle of that development, a collection that is cinematic and monolithic. This is an album that could easily serve as a companion to a Cormac McCarthy Western, a dusty and dry affair that transports you to a place that feels desperate and apocalyptic. This is intense music that pulls no punches, raw and unnerving at times and always direct. Tracks such as “King Sol” or the opener “Godman” are epic and brutal in nature, transcending their influences in a breathtaking way. —Syd Bishop


2014
Howell Dawdy
The Howell Dawdy Mixtape
 

More often than not, weaving comedy into music quickly turns into a dumpster fire, but when it works, it works really well, which is the case with Howell Dawdy, whose brand of sharp satire is brilliant and astute — an absurd, yet strikingly accurate take on the idiosyncrasies of American society, sort of like an early Stephen Colbert version of hip-hop. Dawdy is funny without trying overly hard to be funny, with a style that’s almost like a character actor who is embracing composites of the most galaxy-brained moments of everyone he’s ever met. “Fire Extinguisher” is a stinging, tongue-in-cheek goof on oneupmanship and “#Value” attacks consumerism, while “Simple” is a light-hearted exploration of the needless complications of relationships. It’s weird and loaded with takes that exist deep in left field. It’s like Twitter became sentient and decided to cut a rap album. —Scott Recker


2014
Cher Von
Kuhh Duuh

Cher Von’s fifth recording Kuhh Duuh is somewhere between a meditative and imaginative exploration. It causes you to home in on active listening to experience the infinite possibilities of sound and expression. Most of what you hear are her primal sounds and chants, making her music a compositional experiment in manipulations of the human voice. Her placement of mouth clicks with stick taps and ghostly chattering is a thing of beauty and aural gratification. Using minimal notes and simple instruments adds to her music purification. The only hi-tech gear used is a microphone for amplification and a loop pedal to combine all the diverse sounds into one composition. Her main instrument is herself. How she controls her airflow — short bursts or long breaths — combined with her treatments of tongue, cheek, lips and palate create an awareness that music lies within all of us. The song “Kuhh Duuh 2” is a grand feat in how minimalism can be explosive. The sounds she makes are like those found in a natural environment. A bubbling brook, exotic bird calls, a slow breeze through palm leaves, all set to the background of an unwavering, monk-like chant overlapped by a feminine timbre thus creating a fully-realized harmonious garden. —Julie Gross


2014
Wax Fang
The Astronaut

There’s a reason the setting of outer space is used in so many stories. Despite the scientific understandings we have of the final frontier, the rules of being way out there are under the creative jurisdiction of the author, making the plausibility of ideas limitless. The art-rock band Wax Fang embraced this for their third album, The Astronaut. It has five tracks but runs 40 minutes long with the A-side featuring only one song, “The Astronaut Part 1,” which has a runtime of more than 16 minutes. We caught up with Wax Fang leader Scott Carney, who walked us through the experience of recording this epic 2014 concept album in a track-by-track breakdown.

‘The Astronaut Part 1’
Scott Carney: I forget exactly how ‘The Astronaut Part 1’ came to be. I feel like I had come up with the main riff and brought it to the band — or maybe I made it up on the spot, who knows? — and over the course of a few rehearsals we had outlined this monstrosity of a song. It wasn’t 17 minutes long per se; however, we knew it had the potential to be something special. The idea for the title and lyrics came from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and was very simple: An astronaut becomes separated from his vessel and gravitates towards a black hole, never to be seen again. I remember tracking the basics of it at the gymnasium that is the current headquarters of the one and only Squallis Puppeteers. My Morning Jacket had just recorded ‘Circuital’ in that space and, lovely chaps that they are, were kind enough to let us use all the gear they had set up for a few weeks. It was one of the hottest Augusts on record, before records were broken every year, and there was no air conditioning. The expression ‘hotter than a two-peckered puppy’ comes to mind. I heard an old timer say that once. Not exactly sure what it means, but let’s just roll with it. We had to take turns sleeping in there to guard the gear. It was miserable. I remember Kevin Ratterman played that song on drums for two solid days straight to get the take he wanted. I remember taking it back to Kevin’s studio, The Fun(eral) Home, to finish it and track that guitar solo. I had just started using 12-gauge strings on my new Fender Telecaster and damn near ripped the tips of my fingers off bending them, with Kevin and [former bassist] Jacob Heustis in the control room cheering me on. I set up the sequence of effects pedals and crafted the theremin solo with Kevin. The beautiful moment of it all was when Brian Schreck laid down the saxophone solo. It was and still is the most magical and mysterious thing I’ve ever heard come out of a man in my entire life. I get chills just thinking about it. I remember listening to the mix for the first time and thinking to myself ‘Holy. Fucking. Shit.’

‘The Event Horizon’
This was something that Kevin, Jake and I had created. We wanted to make something calm and relaxing to break up the doom and gloom of ‘A1’ and ‘A2.’ The version that appears on the album is nearly identical to the one we had demoed, with a few minor tweaks.

‘The Astronaut Part 2’
‘The Astronaut Part 2’ was something that Jacob, Kevin and I had created a skeleton of sometime after the release of ‘A1.’ Originally, our hero was supposed to exit the black hole and find himself in hostile alien territory. We had fleshed out some pieces here and there, but then Kevin decided to leave the band before we could finish it. Jake and I took the skeleton we had made, rearranged it, added some parts and subtracted others. We also scrapped the alien storyline in favor of something more metaphysical. Our hero would now be reduced to atoms by the forces of gravity and would be reconstructed with stardust to become a celestial super being. I remember writing and rehearsing the drums on an electronic kit after a work injury where I nearly broke a few ribs. It was painful but is such an exhilarating song to play on the kit that it didn’t matter. Other than the drums and vocals, most of this was tracked in my living room with minimal equipment. Scott Moore transcribed my notes for the string sections and performed them with alarming accuracy. The coda is one of my favorite things we’ve ever done.

‘The Singularity’
This was an experiment in creating a soundscape with synthesizers. We needed a piece that set the tone for Side B and that would serve as a long crescendo, culminating in a crash that coincided with the start of the ‘Astronaut Part 3.’ I did this in my living room with a Juno-60, a microKORG and some Moog apps I had on my iPad. 

‘The Astronaut Part 3’
All stories must come to an end and so ‘The Astronaut Part 3’ became the vehicle to conclude our saga. Anchored by the motorik drumbeat popularized by Krautrock, we wanted something that essentially drove the album straight into a brick wall and left the audience with a cliffhanger, in case we ever decided to continue the story. I remember tracking the drums after about a dozen or so takes of ‘A2’ in its entirety, back to back. After the first take of ‘A3,’ my right leg turned to jelly and would no longer cooperate. Therefore, we settled on the idea of using a drum machine, which I think worked out for the best. Jacob and our then manager/current bassist Corey McAfee had a lot of production input on this track. Lyrically, I wanted to describe the rebirth of our hero and give him a motive — to be reunited with his wife and children. The last eight measures are the cliffhanger. Our hero returns to a future Earth, which is smoldering in ruin. His wife and children are long gone. So much for a happy ending? Is the tale of the Astronaut truly finished? Maybe. Or maybe not. —Julie Gross


2015
Dick Titty Blood Punch
Hot Dogs! America! 

Easily one of the most fun albums to come out of this city in a long time, Hot Dogs! America! is a master stroke of punk rock genius. These songs aren’t overly complicated or fancy, but if you squint hard enough, it’s easy to acknowledge the craftsmanship of each. Everything is incredibly catchy and upbeat, and while the production on the album is a bit raw, it’s more than adequate, adding a bit of character to their gritty, yet lovable charm. The band’s name is silly, and the album’s subject matter may seem trivial, but these songs are pretty damn smart. “Sports” cleverly lampoons American sports culture, while specifically referencing a few famous athletes from over the years who have been in hot water. My favorite song on Hot Dogs! America! is “Fired for Satan,” an extremely catchy narrative rocker centered around someone in the band who was fired from their pizza restaurant job. Why were they let go? For writing “666” on a pizza with barbecue sauce, then serving it to a customer. Hell yeah. —Phillip Olympia


2015
Coliseum
Anxiety’s Kiss

Coliseum’s swan song, Anxiety’s Kiss is the summation of a 12-year career, revealing the final step in the evolution of the band. They made small changes for every previous album, while still holding onto a core sound. They started incorporating ‘80s-esque delays and synth arrangements. This fails very glaringly for some bands, but Coliseum moves the sound modulations in and out of their base sound so effortlessly. Sometimes those sounds stay mixed in the background. Sometimes they are shown prominently, such as the last half of “Dark Light of Seduction,” in which the synths replace the guitar by morphing and echoing continuously until the guitar returns and the two sounds mix together. This can spark a fear that they have lost their aggression, which is very much not the case. “Comedown” uses the synths as a second “guitar” line where it is as subtle as a wrecking ball knocking your house down. They ended a wild career on a riff heavy note — a more evolved sound that retained every bit of “fuck you” that they started with. —Nik Vechery


2015
Quiet Hollers
self-titled 

In 2015, Quiet Hollers released its self-titled sophomore album at a crowded masquerade show, re-introducing the band with a new sound that had progressed from alt-country to indie rock, under contemplative, lamenting lyrics. The first single on the record, “Mont Blanc,” imagined a post-apocalyptic look at singer-songwriter Shadwick Wilde’s own family homestead — a story of survival after a bomb dropped. Following that, the album explored a mix of dark themes, including a hit man who abducts a man and drives him along the French seaside. There are also self-loathing and prosaic scenes: being fucked up, wandering the grocery store; navigating how much you resent your father; falling in love with a girl at a gas station; and the continuous flooding of the city of Louisville, all written in mournful reflection and energetic narration. —Michelle Eigenheer


2015
Tropical Trash
UFO Rot

This album doesn’t care about you. It’s not concerned with your problems. It’s not a cure. It’s not here to help. UFO Rot is an album that was made to push a finger in your face until there is a reaction. The reaction itself is not important, but the constant slamming of snare drums and unrelenting guitar distortion is. This is supposed to hurt. The title track states, “It is my intention to refuse you / In my own lack of style.” That is as good of a mission statement as any. This lyric is true in the fact that Tropical Trash isn’t an accessible band by any stretch of the imagination, nor does it seem like they want to be, but UFO Rot has a magnetism that is hard to ignore. Every time you spin this record, the less it sounds like three dudes trying to smash and smother you with chaotic noise, and the more it sounds like Jim Marlowe’s guitar freak-outs and Ryan Davis’ beat-your-head-against-the-wall bass are actually composed over Jeff Komara’s torrential drumming, and then it falls into a primal improvisation on purpose, because remember: This album doesn’t care about you. —Nik Vechery


2015
Joan Shelley
Over And Even 

Joan Shelley’s piercing, evocative folk reached another level on her third album Over And Even, where the poignant vocal melodies blended perfectly with the stark, crisp instrumentation, while the stories formed deep, meditative journeys. A lean and incredibly consistent album, Over And Even features a loosely-connected, yet meticulous-constructed constellation of storylines that explore the vulnerability of being lost deep in your own thoughts, revisiting the highlights of relationships, of scenes, of scenarios — wondering, in poetic, clever ways, if things went the way they were supposed to and figuring out what the way forward is. Shelley creates a powerful juxtaposition with her lyrics, balancing imagery that’s vivid enough for listeners to start sketching out these people and places, but the lyrics are also abstract enough to create sly, ambiguous puzzles. She slowly opens the door to her world, but when you step inside, it’s a house of mirrors. —Scott Recker 


2016
killii killii
I Believe in Rollerblading

In so many ways the title I Believe in Rollerblading tells you what to expect from killii killii. This is a band committed to having fun — to making joyful, hook-heavy noise. That’s not to say that the album lacks serious moments, which is far from the truth, but even those elements are more often than not tempered by whimsy. The musical ideas are smart and experimental, with an array of synth sounds and heavy arrangements for the bass and drums. As such, there is a vibe that would fit on a label like Skin Graft — eccentric but rooted with pop sensibilities. Tracks such as “Bamboo” represent this direction, plucky and intense with more than a little prog leanings. What makes I Believe in Rollerblading so fascinating is the journey — it’s nearly impossible to tell what may come next, but it’s always interesting. The groove on “Dicky D” is ominous, made more so by the piercing synths and a twangy, Morricone-esque surf rock swing. Bassist Salena Filichia provides the vocal melody, a guttural cry that is visceral and powerful. This is an adventurous album that is clever and compelling. —Syd Bishop

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2016
Khüdosóul
To The Heir 

How can I describe To the Heir? Let’s put it this way. If it were released in 2004 with a Def Jam label on the disc, Pitchfork would have coined it “The Black Kid A.” The songs are more or less musical vignettes — short tapestries that glide into one another almost seamlessly, but never repeat an idea. Never content with the simple 4/4 boom pap that most hip-hop influenced producers rely on, Khüdosóul’s drum patterns are miraculously inventive, yet, at the same time, do not distract from the gorgeously distorted electric pianos, angled basslines and rhythmic chants that they punctuate. Vocals more or less provide thematic accents, suggestions of the mood being conveyed. It’s as if Kendrick Lamar’s producers decided to compile a record consisting of all those moody segments that introduce and exit his songs, but left the rapper in the car while they worked. Thom Yorke wishes he had this kid’s sense of groove. Kudos Khüdosóul. —JaWon Dunn


2016
Twin Limb
Haplo

In late 2016, the release of the long-awaited Twin Limb full-length Haplo saw the full embodiment of a metamorphosis that was years in the making. What began in 2014, when the folk-rock duo of Lacey Guthrie and Maryliz Bender entered music engineer Kevin Ratterman’s La La Land Studio to record the album, turned into a complete restructuring of the songs and the inclusion of Ratterman as a full member. When the trio emerged from the chrysalis in 2015, it wasn’t Haplo that was revealed, but a six-song EP, the acclaimed Anything Is Possible And Nothing Makes Sense. The result was a noticeable difference from their previous sound, much like when the 1950s folk singer Judy Henske paired up with Jerry Yester in 1969 for the synthesizer-laden album Farewell Aldebaran. When Haplo was released a year later, it dove further into the multilayered soundscape that is now associated with Twin Limb — a totally new sonic bomb for the genre, as if it was Lee Hazlewood who Brian Eno ran off with to Germany to create the Berlin Trilogy. Bender and Guthrie’s soft touch cradled by Ratterman’s sci-fi production style made for an experimental folk-rock album that breaks your heart while simultaneously mending it. —John King


2016
Dr. Dundiff & Friends
self-titled

For Louisville hip-hop, there is no better primer to the scene than the 2016 self-titled release from Dr. Dundiff & Friends. Dundiff has had his hands in a lot of musical projects in town, developing a relationship with a number of critical figures in the rap community. In 2015, Dundiff petitioned Forecastle to get on the music festival’s bill, which resulted in a performance that featured an 11-piece band and 14 local rappers. It confirmed what many of us knew: Louisville hip-hop shouldn’t be ignored. Shorty after Forecastle, they went into the studio to recreate the set and released this record exactly one year later. The Smoke Shop Kids, who are the backing band, offer a fresh and jazzy take on each track. Highlights are “Hoodrat Things” by Skyscraper Stereo and “State of the Art Remix (feat. Jim James).” Jalin Roze, 1200, Rmllw2llz, Kogan Dumb and Jack Harlow appear on the album, capturing a special moment in time, the crest of a wave that continues. —Syd Bishop


2016
Brenda
Nightschool 

Brenda’s fuzzed-out, hook-heavy garage pop has magnetic energy, reflecting the long and wild nights that the band sings about. When Nightschool came out, Brenda was a four-piece with two drummers, a guitar and a bass. But, a little more than a year ago, the project’s two singer-songwriters, Brenda Mahler and Matt Horne, moved away from Louisville. The EP’s six songs offer an incredible formula of melody and innovation, with the ability to simultaneously sound careful and reckless, hitting a perfect balance of catchy and innovative. Nightschool combines the lovable messiness of grunge, the smoothness of The Shangri-Las-style pop and a small dose of early The Velvet Underground monolithic drumming and obscure guitar work. Nightschool burns as quickly and brightly as a night bar-hopping with friends, always on the edge of going off the rails, but working to find ways to embrace and control the chaos. And I think that’s the point. —Scott Recker  


2016
Jaye Jayle
House Cricks and Other Excuses to Get Out 

Watching Jaye Jayle start as a partially improvised side-project with a constantly revolving cast and slowly turn into Evan Patterson’s primary creative outlet was inspiring. This record, mostly made up of a series of singles released over several years, is probably my favorite music he’s made. It’s as intense as any of his other work, without being loud and in-your-face. It reaches the same level of emotional resonance with a completely different set of tools. My favorite track on the record is the closer, “Pull Me Back to Hell.” It is repetitive and droning and still manages to have a groove. That’s my shit. I like this song so much that my band has covered it live and we’ve only covered three songs ever. And there’s a video of Jaye Jayle’s original version on YouTube set to footage from Jodorowsky’s “El Topo.” Do yourself a favor and check it out. —McKinley Moore


2016
Anagnorisis
Peripeteia

In metal, a genre obsessed with categorization and strict definitions, it can be extremely difficult for category-defying bands to get noticed in the broader music world. This was not the case in 2013 when the band Anagnorisis released their second full length, Beyond All Light, garnering attention from national media outlets such as Pitchfork and Stereogum. Three years later, the follow-up, Peripeteia, was released to even wider acclaim. Vice’s Noisey called the album “fantastic” and exclaimed Anagnorisis the “best black metal band” in the state of Kentucky. While not delivering strictly black, atmospheric or depressive metal, Peripeteia masters all three while redefining the idea of metal as a whole, opening the genre to a wider audience. They maintain the traditional elements of these sub-genres, while including synthesizers, organ, saxophone and audio recordings from vocalist Zachary Kerr’s childhood. The album is an autobiographical vivisection of Kerr’s mental state. Peripeteia examines the effects of parental psychological abuse in a depth not usually seen in music, with an intimacy not generally experienced outside of one’s own thoughts. —John King


2016
Freakwater
Scheherazade
 

If a genre name is modified with “alt,” it often means it’s actually more rooted in that style of music’s beginnings than the current, general perception of that genre. Take alt-country, for example. I get that it has absorbed elements of punk and rock, but, down deep, the subject matter has much more in common with the country blues, Lead Belly, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Townes Van Zandt and Merle Haggard than the “country” you hear on the radio. The Auto-Tune, Solo cup nonsense on the FM dial is widely accepted as country, but it is actually just pop. Freakwater, who get labeled as alt-country, are really the continuation of country’s greatest writers — the people who embrace the dark, desperate, unforgiving elements of life. Scheherazade — Freakwater’s only album this decade — tells brutal, violent stories. Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin, with their sparse, stark instrumentation and piercing harmonies, pinch the nerve of human darkness. Nothing’s sugar coated. It’s unfiltered and upfront. It’s just great country music. —Scott Recker


2016
Boner City
Kentucky 

Kentucky is an album that seemingly has nothing to do with Kentucky. And, yet, “Boner City’s Kentucky” could very well work as an alternative title for Louisville, if it’s seen to represent a buoy of eccentricity amidst a sea of normalcy. Riding those waves to the rhythm of their own surf-rock/pop-punk hybrid are Booger Boner, Sally Boner and Handy Andy. The songs are infuriatingly catchy, and while absurdly benign on the surface, they tell a series of stories that represent the trio’s brief, meteoric experience in our town before all members scattered to lands far away. Tales of wild brawls at house shows or friends lost to addiction are innately woven within tunes that feel explosively wholesome. If the kids who sat alone in the cafeteria ever had a soundtrack, this is it. The band’s only album perfectly captures the essence of the Louisville music scene that existed during Boner City’s short-lived existence — one burgeoning with a veritable renaissance of weirdos who all had yet to get their foot in the door. Boner City’s carefree music and unyielding attitude threw that door wide open, setting the stage for a new generation of musical freaks and outcasts. —Beau Kaelin


2016
Vandaveer
The Wild Mercury

The band’s fifth studio album in nine years, 2016’s The Wild Mercury, is Vandaveer’s last full-length release before they announced an indefinite hiatus in April 2019. Vandaveer formed in Washington, D.C., in 2007 and became part of the Louisville scene when principal singer-songwriter Mark Charles Heidinger relocated here in 2015. The album begins as a father’s work, sharing the woes and wonders of life with his son, before spreading out into the abstract explorations of youth. Through fantastical imagery, clever lyricism and their signature harmonies, Heidinger and fellow singer Rose Guerin track a man’s life from days playing “Asteroids” in the arcade, through lows, life on the road, Josephine, Caroline, Annabelle and finally his last, unnamed love, before swinging back to listlessness in the final song, “A Pretty Thin Line.” The Wild Mercury is a wholly unique work that expertly showcases the band’s musical skill, and its ability to navigate genres. The album explores indie, folk, psychedelic and rock — and Heidinger’s distinct songwriting style. Following the release of The Wild Mercury, Vandaveer was invited to perform at Ringo Starr’s 76th birthday on the steps of Capital Records. They were later invited to record on two tracks for Ringo’s 2017 release, Give More Love. —Michelle Eigenheer


2017
Kaleidico
Afro•Brain

There are few bands here or anywhere like Kaleidico, and they are never more haunting than on Afro•Brain. Trying to describe the album feels almost futile. There are traditional musical elements to be found, or at least the idea of acoustic instrumentation, but each constituent piece of the composition from the music to the vocals is heavily filtered and manipulated for a cyborg whole. Afro•Brain is premised on the neurologically atypical, specifically on the cognitive dissonance of serial killers. As such, this is an often disturbing album that uses pitch manipulation to symbolize different mental characterizations to chilling effect. What’s surprising is that, in spite of the darkness of the subject matter, these songs are often incredibly catchy and compelling. The track “If Mo•jo Come” is one of the most memorable, if utterly depraved tracks, to come out of this or any city. Afro•brain is an entirely original work of art that commands your attention. —Syd Bishop


2017
James Lindsey
Same Sky

“Might not all pray to the same God / Have the same taste / But we all got the same sky.” That lyric, from the song “Rainbows,” is a powerful moment on James Lindsey’s Same Sky. As humans, we have a lot of tribalistic tendencies and idealogical differences, but, when you break it all down, we all mostly have the same needs and desires, carrying more similarities than we sometimes think. James Lindsey, on his first album under his birth name and not the Jalin Roze moniker, is calling for unity and understanding — thinking beyond your little bubble and helping to squash systemic hate. The album features a wide range of topics and perspectives, but that aforementioned lyric shows how quickly and deeply Lindsey can get to a point. And throughout Same Sky, his powerful flow weaves through top-notch production. It’s compelling on the surface, but, if you’re paying attention, there’re profound messages to be found.—Scott Recker  


2017
Sasha Renee
I am Sasha Renee

In a hip-hop community packed with a host of talented emcees, Sasha Renee stands out. And her debut album I Am Sasha Renee proves it. The music and lyrical motifs in the opener “Fire” serve as a direct reference to golden age rappers Digable Planets — impactful, socially-conscious rap. Throughout, the songs on I Am Sasha Renee struggle with issues including loneliness and racial turmoil. Songs such as “Infatuated” or “Only Friends” are melancholic, a familiar malaise for anyone who has endured unrequited love. Outside of the title track, the raucous “I Am Sasha Renee,” the standout is the sublime “Get Off Of Me.” Here, Renee waxes philosophically about disparities in treatment by authority, in the injustices faced by the African American community. Renee reminds her audience to stay steadfast in the face of violence and to not perpetuate or ignore it, but to forge a better path. Following that up with the breezy “The Freedom,” Renee turns her attention to economic structures, and how we’re all subjugated by consumerism and capitalism, toiling our best years away, instead of enjoying what the world has to offer. —Syd Bishop


2017
Wombo
Staring at Trees

Songs with fast tempos have been scientifically proven to produce positive emotions. Wombo’s album, Staring at Trees, features five of seven songs with over 100 beats per minute, categorizing them as fast, but they all make you feel really good. They’ve created a sound that is complex, pleasurable and genre-bending, delivering an intriguing record. It’s jazz and rock while wearing heavy-healed punk Doc Martins. Sydney Chadwick’s bass playing lays out the breadcrumbs as Cameron Lowe’s bold guitar follows the trail. And Joel Taylor’s drumming is the compass in the back pocket. Sydney’s soprano voice has an air of opera, and combined with their fearless use of hard stops and mid-song tempo changes, Wombo is hard to define. The song “About Money” is a perfect example with serious bass slaps, a vigorous guitar and, when Sydney sings, “I’m having a hard time keeping money in my pocket” with a lulling tone, it’s like a deleted scene from a progressive version of “The Sound of Music.” This album isn’t about the meaning behind the lyrics or a rock-out crowd pleaser, but instead, it’s an example of how well you can compose a sound with four instruments — vocals being one — to create music that makes you move, feel alive and, yes, happy. —Julie Gross


2017
Rmllw2llz
Concerto No. 9 Movement II

With Concerto No. 9 Movement II, emcee Rmllw2llz and producer Yons have created a multilayered and thoughtful album. Rmllw2llz seems to be inspired with a vibrancy rarely captured. You can not only hear that energy, but it makes for a transcendent hip-hop album that surpasses the confines and clichés of the genre. There are elements of jazz, hip-hop, the blues and R&B, a pastiche of sounds and grooves that make a versatile and sharp album. That spark of life lit the fire that served as the starting point for his record label, Kr8vn8vs Records. Although the creation of the label and the album are separate entities, it’s hard to not listen to Concerto No. 9 and not take away from the lyrics and vibe that Rmllw2llz is ready to make his mark on local hip-hop. When he rhymes “I’m just doing my thang in my lane,” from the track “Different Grain,” he is laying out the manifesto for the scene he wants to foster, an alliance of philosophically-minded lyricists. That’s a theme repeated throughout the album, that Romell will follow his muse, wherever that may take him. —Syd Bishop


2017
Anwar Sadat
Ersatz Living

Recorded at La La Land and mixed by Kevin Ratterman, this album is a lesson in tension building and a tribute to mental health. It’s like your anxiety disorder wrote an album. Of course, plenty of albums are written about anxiety, but not many sound like the nightmare inside your brain. Chaos, insanity and brutal honesty highlight this release that surfaced at a time when Louisville was dominated by positive vibes only, peace and love artists. Somehow, within all this madness, Ersatz Living still has dance-worthy tracks. “Quantum Fighter” is an example of the most unlikely synth-heavy, distorted, drum and bass dance track. Then, there are songs that are just emotionally heavy such as “No Exit.” Lead singer/bass player Shane Wesley’s bold and aggressive attitude, whether he’s singing, screaming or laying down a ferocious bass groove, are unparalleled in Louisville. With the recent uprising of post-goth acts such as Billie Eilish, one has to wonder how this album would be received just two years later. —Jake Hellman


2017
Cereal Glyphs
The Second Hand

The garage rockers Cereal Glyphs slam down heavy beats and screeching guitars. Their sophomore album, The Second Hand, proves grungy guitars at deliberate lo-fidelity still sound interesting. Various songs feature guitar work that intermittently breaks away from the congruent crash for a psychedelic solo, providing a brief melodic reprieve before the hard beat resumes. Their sound is reminiscent of underground ‘90s bands, which is evident in the song “So Ordinary” with gratuitous audio feedback and an apathetic tone to the lyrics. Andy Myers’ voice is clear and can have a sway or bite, depending on the energy of the song. The keys sometimes drown amid the guitar thrashing, but resurface just in time to reign the song in for a tight-sounding ending. Remarkably, even though this may be considered garage rock, there is enough bounce, repeated choruses and hooks to make them daring pop songs. —Julie Gross


2017
1200
Séance/Spirit 

With a mind for music theory and a heart for activism, Jecorey “1200” Arthur has always used his ambition to fuel his evolution, and Séance/Spirit — a heavy, intricate concept record — completely captures that. A double album, Séance/Spirit reflects the duality of darkness and light — anger, resentment, love, hope and the will to build a better, more just world. Part orchestra, part golden age hip-hop, part keys-heavy soul, the soundscape is as wide-ranging and urgent as the lyrics, blending together for an atmospheric, experimental, nuanced result. He mined and arranged all of the complex, intersecting elements of himself — his story, his skills, his ideas — for something that’s intensely honest and layered with meaning. Some of it translates the injustices that he’s seen, some of it chronicles his triumphs, some of it is about letting go of the things that can’t be controlled, and some of it is about controlling the things that you have power over. But, it’s all placed together in a clear, masterful way. —Scott Recker


2017
White Reaper
The World’s Best American Band 

White Reaper hit the ground running in 2014 with their pop-infused punk, releasing a six-track, self-titled EP. Then they grabbed national attention with their first full-length, 2015’s White Reaper Does It Again. The buzz around White Reaper at the time was much like with The White Stripes in the late 1990s, with their back-to-basics, two-minute, fuzz-drenched garage rockers that people seemed to ubiquitously adore. With all that weight on their shoulders for the perfect follow up, the punk world began to stammer in 2017 with rumors that the band had abandoned its core sound for a more conventional power-pop structure. Wearing that weight with crass defiance, White Reaper named their follow-up The World’s Best American Band. A bold statement for a band rumored to change up their sound for the always-overanalyzed sophomore album. In the end, the difference between Does It Again and World’s Best American Band would be the difference between Ric Ocasek and Tom Petty, which is to say maybe an extra 30 seconds per track for slightly longer solos, but still ultra catchy pop songs, with leader Tony Esposito’s playful take on love and youth on the track “Judy French” and the party anthem “Eagle Beach.” —John King 


2017
Jordan Jetson
Critical Mass

The confident highs and emotional lows of Jordan Jetson’s Critical Mass mirror the roller coaster ride of life. From the quick-moving, fire-breathing swagger on some songs to the 808s & Heartbreak-like sadder moments, Jetson builds a direct and compelling storyline behind dense and unpredictable production. It’s a lean album, wasting no time in its 21-minute runtime, cutting right to the ideas and points. Jetson’s clever, versatile delivery and unique cadence deliver striking, fluid performances. And while Critical Mass is short enough to listen to on your commute, it feels vast and complete because it’s so well thought out and meticulous. We asked Jetson three questions about three songs on the album. 

LEO: ‘Sudden Death’ has a lot of big production ideas: a great beat, ‘Mortal Kombat’ samples and a bamboo flute. How did that take shape?

Jetson: I got a beat from Dylan McCluskey. I wrote a song to it. I took it to Nick B, and he liked it, and it was one of those things where Nik B, Yons and I took the ideas and totally remixed it. It was one of those songs that I had Nik B pretty much remake from the ground up. Things like the ‘Mortal Kombat,’ the flutes — they came after the main production was done.

‘Sudden Death’ displays confidence and self-assuredness, but ‘The Lows’ is about dealing with sadness in tough times. Was that part of the idea for the album, to show the peaks and the valleys of being human? 

Yeah, for sure. I was in a really weird place when I wrote that. I was in like a manic state. It’s pretty much two different albums. I thought that the duality was interesting. 

‘Fly Away’ seems to end the album with the perspective of letting go of what you can’t control.

I actually planned on ending the album with something sadder, but Yons told me I should end on a more inspirational note. So, we reworked the playlist. It was about letting go. There was a lot that I felt I wasn’t living up to. And to ignore all of that, and just be the best I could be at the time. —Scott Recker 


2018
Yons
The Goddess Equation

This one is really personal for me. I met Yons a few years back and fell in love with his sound immediately. We soon collaborated on my most celebrated project, Concerto No. 9 Movement II, and it was then that I got a chance to really witness his true genius. During studio sessions we would talk, and he would play tracks and tell me his ideas. To hear a lot of these ideas come to fruition is really special. This EP sounds like the product of a healthy conversation with yourself. The confidence, the insecurities, the whole idea of it is well thought out and it translates well to everyone. I told him before this that he was an amazing artist, and this project proves it. This is one of the most complete albums I’ve heard in quite some time. I’m proud to call him my friend. —Romell Weaver 


2018
Jack Harlow
Loose 

The Kentucky Kid, Jack Harlow, released his fourth studio album and first major record release Loose, last August. The album provided a mellow soundtrack for late summer/early fall. This album is by far Harlow’s most polished and mature work to date. It opens with the track “Sundown,” which immediately sent me back to the days of cruising around town with my friends, with not a damn thing to do. The entire album provides a steady nostalgic feel for my youth. The two tracks, “Knack For It” and “Too Much” gave me a ‘90s hip-hop vibe. He even has couple slow jams on this album. This is Harlow’s first release with the major record label, Atlantic. Loose in its entirety provides the proof that he has the writing chops and production ability to be a signed artist with Atlantic. Though most of the topics of his album are more relatable for a single, young man in his early 20s, as opposed to a married, mommy rocker in her mid 30s, the beats are infectious, and almost every track is solid. His flows are smooth and sometimes he’s even funny, without being cheesy. The “Handsome Harlow” certainly makes this Kentucky girl proud. —Cassie Green


2018
Tomberlin
At Weddings

Sarah Beth Tomberlin has had a self-reckoning along the lines of what is normally associated with a mid-life crisis. The catch is that she’s nowhere near that point in age or maturity, but this record says she’s ready to deal with issues of doubt, self-realization and, more importantly, moving on. Her innocent apprehension of coming into her own is an encouragement to anyone. The lyrics convey a longing that we’re all looking for something, and that we hope to discover it. Her debut album At Weddings captures a pivotal life event of leaving the family home and striking out as an independent young adult. She writes songs about the closing chapter of adolescence and about how she truly feels about her upbringing and leaving a traditional conservative life for something else, proving that songs with tough issues resonate no matter where you are in life’s timeline. Her voice is soft but strong, reinforcing a bold message of claiming one’s identity. —Julie Gross


2018
Zerg Rush
Mothership Transmissions 

Zerg Rush’s visceral, charismatic punk soars, mixing straight-forward gusts of raw power with slices of ideas from surf, proto and new wave. It can be smart without taking itself too seriously. It can be weird and experimental without trying too hard. Some of it’s sardonic and tongue-in-cheek — they told us last year they were trying to make something “campy and fun.” And some of it’s more nuanced and serious. Singer Zonny Mondo’s versatility shines, breaking vocals from captivating melodies to primal screams quickly and effectively. But the most likable aspect of Zerg Rush is their perpetual intensity — whether it’s the giant, winding guitar riffs, or the vocal work that’s infused with personality and wit, not to mention the wild rhythm section that glues everything together, the band’s energy is like a shot of adrenaline.
—Scott Recker 


2018
Curio Key Club
Zen America 

Consistent development is the Curio Key Club way, and at the helm is alto saxophonist Drew Miller, steering the direction of this septet toward new, explorative crests through his songcraft. Zen America, Curio’s second release since their self-titled debut album in 2016, finds them honing in their brass-driven, genre-fusing rock with more accessible grooves pulled from their vast musical interests and the madness in the world that surrounds them. “A lot of these songs deal with issues of navigating this chaos of things just coming at you in all these different directions,” Miller told LEO in 2018. “‘Zen America,’ [the title track] is about trying to find that zen for you, and find your own way.” Most of these songs are staples in their live shows — the singles “Satellite,” “Beat Goes On” and “Walls” are especially danceable hits, but it’s the title track that resonates the takeaway mantra of this record: “Be your own Zen American” and Curio Key Club are the demonstrators. — Lara Kinne


2018
Saturday School
Sophomore Album 

After the disbanding of Boner City, Nick Spalding and Andy Fellows set out to create a new project. The initial intention was to have that same snot-nosed, teenage angst that would be expected from these two. And Saturday School was born, providing music that forces the listener to see the world through the eyes of a high schooler. Sophomore Album is Saturday School’s first and only release, and boy, was it not what anyone was expecting. It takes about a minute for the first track to blast the eardrums with a tempo change that almost doubles the intro. Serotonin is immediately released upon listening to that trademark upbeat, happy-go-lucky punk that Nick and Andy are known for writing. Then it hits, this isn’t Boner City. Every song intentionally blends into the next. Saturday School presents an album that is meant to be listened to in a single sitting. Not because every song is catchy (which they are), but because listening to every song is mandatory in understanding the story that is being told. Sophomore Album is a full-blown rock opera — a rare punk concept album, which contains emotions that few artists can capture. —Vinny Castellano


2018
Vyva Melinkolya
self-titled 

Vyva Melinkolya’s self-titled album is dense and multi-layered, falling somewhere in-between dream pop and shoegaze.  While heartbreak is a constant theme for Vyva Melinkolya — which is the solo project for singer-guitarist Alyc Diaz — there are themes of navigating gender identity, loneliness and trying to remember the good times when they happen.“Yeah, I guess I’m kind of like Taylor Swift,” Diaz told LEO. “Most of my songs are about boys. I try to use smoke and mirrors to defy that, but most of my songs are about men. Not all of them though.” We asked Diaz to break down three songs from the album. 

‘Love’s Easy Years (Nonbinary Heartbreak)’
Alyc Diaz: ‘Love’s Easy Years’ was written at a time where I felt a lot of disillusionment and trouble with being in relationships or the concepts of being in relationships. It’s a song about longing and, I dunno, maybe one day it’ll work out? Some of the lyrics allude to transgender identity like ‘Been counting the days since I last shaved my legs,’ where it’s navigating both female beauty standards and also identifying as my own gender identity on my terms which refers to the ‘(Nonbinary Heartbreak)’ part in the title…[Some lyrics like] ‘Kissing me in the street / and everyday is Halloween’ refer to a Halloween party where there was this dude that I really, really liked, and we ended up making out and never seeing each other ever again, but things were fun and exciting. It feels like every day is Halloween.”

‘Soft Red Lights’
“In terms of how subtly gorgeous it is: It’s my favorite song on the record. Around that time, and I don’t think it sounds a lot like it, but I was listening to a lot of The Cure’s Disintegration, and I think some of that got in there with the tom-tom drum rolls. The song is about my 19th birthday party, which was one of the best birthday parties of my life. I remember my friend had colored lights up. The party wasn’t high energy or exciting. It was literally my time to play my favorite music, and everyone was sitting on the floor. We had a fog machine — it was beautiful. Then, this dude who I was frankly in love with tells me, ‘Hey. By the way, I’m bringing my friend, and he’s really cute.’ That’s where the lyrics ‘You brought your friend, to my birthday party / And he was cute, but I want you’ [came from]. It was very much that I like both of you, but I especially like you.”

‘Identity’
“I think ‘Identity’ is one of the more intelligent songs I’ve put out. The lyrics for that song came from probably a year and a half of writing down little things like ‘Eyes twitching like florescent lights.’ That came from a period of time in my first year of college where I wasn’t sleeping a lot. I was always miserable in class, and I would have a constant eye twitch under these florescent lights, so we were both blinking in some sick sense of irony. The bulk of the song deals with ‘I don’t know what I want. Somebody show me.’ It can be a lot easier letting somebody else decide for you or have somebody else show you who you are rather than discover it for yourself. To describe one’s identity, whether its gender or sexuality or religion or all these other things, seems like such a loaded question to me. You can feel so different about literally anything any given day.” —Nik Vechery 


2018
GRLwood
Daddy

After three consecutive nights playing in Chicago as part of a five-week tour, Karen Ledford and Raj (it’s pronounced Rae) Forester of GRLwood spoke with LEO about the inspiration for Daddy, the 11-track album that launched them as a young, queer scream-pop duo to follow. The album has drawn attention and controversy with satirical lyrics that explore gender dynamics and sexuality from harsh angles. 

LEO: So, let’s talk about themes and inspirations for Daddy as a whole. You’ve gotten extensive media coverage, and it talks a lot about how the band came together, but not a lot of it talks actually about the album.
Raj Forester: Well, I think the album… there was no intention of what this album was going to mean as a whole. But as everything was made, after all the pieces fit together, then we could be like, ‘Oh, hey, this is a cohesive thing.’ It’s not really an intention for what it was about before we made it. But after we made it, it’s really easy to like look at it and be like, ‘Oh, this means this,’ you know?

Looking back on what it is now, like you said: What do you feel like are the main things you were exploring?
Forester: The experience of being not-a-man, probably. And queer. And being a kid — just growing up.

Why do you choose the phrasing, ‘not-a-man?’
RF: There are a lot of gender identities, and my gender is fluid, and it has been since I was a kid. So, I have had a lot of experiences that people that are typically perceived as male don’t experience.

What are some of those? Are you talking about any of those experiences in particular on the album?
RF: Catcalling is a really prevalent thing. That’s not that it doesn’t ever happen to people that are men. But it’s much more of a systematic issue for people that aren’t men. ‘So Cute’ is about catcalling. And I guess there’s a couple references: ‘But you are so young. You’re goddamn. I wonder if you have a boyfriend.’ And those lyrics are kind of like, once you hit puberty, even if you are still a child, it’s like gender ambiguity, and it doesn’t matter. Because there’s a point in which, if you’re not male, you are then seen as a sexual object in public. And being in public becomes almost feeling dangerous, because your presence is noted in that people want to fuck you, and it’s responded to in catcalling. Even if you’re a child, you have that experience. I think a lot of people that grow up male-presenting or overall male — it’s not an issue of the same league.

For sure.
RF: And, I guess ‘Nice Guy’ is kind of also similarly placed in the same vein as that, which is essentially the sexual predatoriness guys disguise as like, casual normal things. You know, ‘It’s not that bad, because I’m just a nice guy.’ And then “I’m Yer Dad” is about, for me, growing up with some of the male figures in my life demanding respect based on irresponsible ejaculation. ‘I’m the man of the house. You’re going to give me what I deserve.’ And really, all they do is like, sit in the basement and pop pills.

The album is a lot of binaries and satire. Why did you choose that way to talk about sexuality and gender roles?
RF: Everything is really radical right now. And I feel like when there’s a lot of really important things to talk about in a supercharged socio-political time, we are always bombarded with extreme, radical information, to a point where nothing’s really shocking anymore. Through satire, you can really show how exaggerated and how extreme these things can be, without scaring people away with these large technical terms like ‘nonbinary,’ or ‘the social constructs and the controlling patterns in our patriarchal society.’ All these large terms are known to a lot of people —  they’re like, ‘Oh, that means crazy, Democratic feminist, doesn’t it?’ Whereas, when you take it back to the personal experience, speak about it from the opposite side of view and be satirical, then people who don’t agree with our points of views usually, would then begin to relate to the music a whole different way. Because it’s not saying like, ‘You’re fucked up ‘cause you’re not agreeing with me.’ It’s more like, ‘I’m going to wear this absurd motherfucking character, and you’re either going to love it or hate it.’And I feel like it’s both sides. All sides. We’ve definitely had big write-ups telling us that we’re canceled, as a band. That we’re like a hate band — queer, femme people — and we’ve also had, like, fucking big old white dad Richards, who are probably not the most considerate people in the world, say this fucking rocks. So, within the satire, we are magically catering to all extremities of people, because people are able to relate to it in their own way, which is still something I’m trying to manage. Because then if you see — physically, see us — and you think about it, you’re like, ‘Oh, shit. I get it now.’ But if you can’t see us, and you maybe only ever hear one song by us, I’m sure it’s very easy to be like, ‘What the fuck is this shit?’

Karen Ledford: The new album really goes into finer detail of queer issues. Like Raj said, with Daddy there’s really no intention to make this super gay album — that’s just kind of what happened. The new album will be coming out soon and I think there are a lot more intimate, first-person accounts of being queer. There’s definitely still a lot of satire, but I would say Daddy is — given even the name Daddy, that just tells you, ‘Oh man, what am I about to fucking listen to?’ 

The guy on the cover of Daddy: Do you guys have a story about this dude?
KL: I think we just told Jordan: Draw the grimiest, slimiest greaseball you can think of. I think they nailed it.

GRLwood’s next album, I Sold My Soul To The Devil When I Was 12, is expected to release in late summer/early fall. —Michelle Eigenheer

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