Top 20 EPs of 2018: 10-1 (Jarvix’s Big 50)

For info on the Big 50, head over here.

10. Living Rooms by Jason Scott

Jason Scott’s Living Rooms, which had a private, limited release in 2017 but did not properly reach the public until January of 2018, is a five-track showcase of mostly light styles in the Americana and country music camp. Thoughtfully made and flawlessly executed, it contains some of the warmest and most memorable tunes of the year.

Depending on the digital version of Living Rooms with which one engages, there is at least more than one tracklisting sequence that exists. This review looks at the one that starts with “When I’m Good and Ready”, which eases the listener in nicely with a light, bluesy feel. Electric slide guitar reflects the song’s southern music city adventures as organ, brushed snare, and occasional hand claps fill out the relaxed and dusty vibe of the track.

“She Good to Me” brings in some banjo, mandolin, and a more present steel pedal for a humble love song. The title track then gets a little quieter with a rumination of time’s impermanence, working in an almost upbeat melody that sounds familiar but not quite, kind of like nostalgia itself. “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” is a darker 6/8 number that uses the low end of a cello to nice effect. “Fly Away” is a buoyant closer with soft vocal melodies and more of the upbeat instrumentation from the beginning of the album. There’s an extra glow here, though, that ends the record on an airborne high.

There are some nice lyrical moments, too. The opening track’s quippy “I’ll be good when I’m good and ready” is fun, and the central chorus of “She Good to Me”, even with its dubious use of broken English, hits an endearing note. That song has a stripped bridge, too, which says, “The only thing I know is / Where my heart lives / Where my demons don’t go.” It’s one of multiple moments where Living Rooms briefly acknowledges the serious things but doesn’t get dragged down by them.

Likewise, the EP is not trying anything new or challenging, and that’s the aim. Most Americana artists save that stuff for full-length albums, if ever. Jason Scott seems perfectly content with his simple man character and lightweight jams, and that contentedness comes through with each spin of his record. Breezy melodies and organic performances are captured brilliantly in these recordings, and the songs are some of the liveliest folk tunes to come out of the OKC scene all year. Living Rooms is an A+ crowdpleaser, and it bodes well for the budding career of Jason Scott.

Recommended track: “Living Rooms

9. At a Steady Pace by Cheap Kites

The emo revivalist scene is alive and well in Oklahoma, as close followers of The Vanguard (Tulsa venue) and 89th Street (OKC venue) can attest. In addition to the constant rotation of touring acts coming through the state, a number of new bands have sprung up locally in recent years to be a part of the movement.

A few of these bands put out projects in 2018, but none struck emo gold quite as well as OKC band Cheap Kites did early in the year. On its debut EP, At a Steady Pace, the group captures the pressures of life’s instability while finding both pain and beauty in the broken things. Whether through personal trials or relationship dramas, the songs look at hard situations through a first-person lens that expresses the feeling of the moment while reflecting on its greater meaning.

Musically, this is mirrored by the way the electric guitars meld fuzzed out chords with more soberly picked and bended notes. They sound great in this style of recording, which is coherent yet decidedly unpolished and therefore not washed out. The lead vocals are where all attention is pulled, however, with a gorgeously tense male lead that wrings out every ounce of emotion into every dynamic performance. There are frequent vocal harmonies, too, that lend a sense of existential urgency to the lyrics.

Even at just four tracks, Cheap Kites leaves room for the occasional stylistic change. “Beta Waves” has a brief bout of unbridled shouting, and “Like Breathing” ends in a rhythmic shift, bringing in a low-key swing beat and trumpet that tapers off as if to say everything will be alright in the end after all.

At a Steady Pace is an emotionally vivid EP with plenty of replay value, where great performances convey songs that are written as much from the head as from the gut. The album’s intensity breaks through layers of fear and mire to extend a hand of catharsis to those that need it, and that’s a tremendous thing.

Recommended track: “Beta Waves”

8. Now Showing by Chris the God MC Cain

Hip-hop is a heavily self-referential music genre, both explicitly through lyricism and more implicitly through sampling, and Now Showing is no exception to this. However, Chris McCain’s latest takes this to the next level by employing an unconventional album structure and cinema samples to create a metacontextual collage. There are no singles to be taken from Now Showing. It has to be experienced as a whole.

The album chops up clips from the film Menace II Society and remolds them to fit a different narrative, a technique not unlike the foundational music sampling of hip-hop itself. The central character of the movie is named Caine, so of course Chris McCain and producer Igloo Panda take a lot of liberties in taking sound bites out of context to reapply them within the framework of The God MC’s life.

McCain’s verses are technically superb, as usual, with a hard-hitting flow and tight rhymes taking the spotlight. His topics have a stream-of-conscious way about them, too, which isn’t out of the ordinary in hip-hop, but works well here to emphasize the album’s collage feel.

The unsubtly titled “Hip Hop Genre Vs. Hip Hop Culture” is one example, which tackles gun control, the media, the police, civil rights, and hip-hop in Oklahoma with little in the way of a connecting narrative thread beyond the album’s overall context of hip-hop culture. These verses are presented over a soulful easy listening instrumental that barely meets the minimum to qualify as a beat, which further plays into the EP’s self-aware nature by challenging the conventions of the genre within the genre.

Most of the album’s experiments pay off, with only the occasional exception, like the fairly grating sample on closer “Don’t Matter”. It must also be noted that the jump cut approach to albummaking is not 100% new, nor is it claiming to be. There’s something special here, though, because hip-hop–as genre or culture–has never sounded quite like this.

By the same token, Chris McCain hasn’t sounded quite like this before, either. Since he’s an artist that wears his classic influences on his sleeve, it’s impressive to see him think outside the box alongside a new blood producer. Now Playing is a whole different way of challenging the listener, something that has been McCain’s lyrical modus operandi for years, and while it might not be for everyone, that’s kind of the point. This is an album for the culture, first and foremost, and Now Playing is so bathed in it that it feels like something of a baptism.

Recommended track: “Alpha and Omega”

7. Earth to Self EP by Zunis

Zunis has crafted an outsounding indie rock sound for being one of thousands doing the washed out alternative thing, and it seems to boil down to the small but important musical mannerisms that the Tulsa band uses to amazing effect on its latest, Earth to Self EP. Groovy bass lines, hyperkinetic yet lowkey drum work, and dense, atmospheric vocal layering go a long way to creating an exciting aesthetic that has both a swift rock energy and a starry-eyed pop psychedelia.

The quick-tempoed EP starts calmly enough, with a soft field recording that sounds like a train station or something similar. A distorted voice says something about dreams and reality colliding. Then, on cue, Zunis comes in with an extended intro that builds from a loose guitar line to a full groove that slyly flips the downbeat of the aforementioned guitar line, which essentially doubles the energy in itself. Lyrics don’t appear until minute three in a track that’s shorter than five, and it feels oddly appropriate. It gives the album something to build to early on and adds to its flair for the cinematic.

Subsequent tracks are less dramatic, but they are as thoughtfully arranged. Samples and effects return throughout, and additional embellishments like vibraphone keys and sparkly guitar effects serve to enlarge the EP’s atmospheric space. Reverb is also used pretty heavily across the album, too, and while it blurs the vocals quite a bit, the rhythm section never lets it drown everything out.

The tracklist smartly harbors a few changes in its second half to keep the record from sounding too similar from track to track. “Headspace” dials back the tempo a bit for a more driftworthy experience, “Tides” brings in some especially spacey sounds, and “Leaven” works with a 7/4 time signature that keeps the music on its toes. The band’s sound never feels out of place even with these changes. The EP is remarkably tight.

Earth to Self EP is an excellent example of how to broaden the scope of a three-piece band in the studio. The music sounds large and full while never treading on what makes the core of Zunis work so well. Captivating grooves and kinetic rhythms are not often this beautifully arranged, either, so it really is a case of every component bringing out the best in one another to create something familiar yet delightfully original.

Recommended track: “Semblance”

6. Dragonfly EP by Frij

Vibrant synths, lush production, robust beatwork, and bright melodies all come together to form some of the year’s most addictive music on the radiant Dragonfly EP, a five-track online release from Tulsa-based electronic artist Frij.

Blending a wide range of influences from EDM, jazz, chiptune, hip-hop, and more, the tightly composed album keeps plenty of surprises up its sleeve, gradually dealing them out over the course of the runtime to ensure the music never grows stale in the slightest. The opposite of stale, of course, is fresh, and that’s maybe the best word to use when describing Dragonfly EP.

Intuition and innovation come together on tracks like, for example, the title track, which pairs a slightly drunk drum machine with a flamboyant keyboard synth that is as loud stylistically as it is audibly. The result is an otherworldly lounge funk feel that grooves incessantly with chromatic flair. Before it runs the risk of overstaying its welcome, it drops into a sober mood shift of light hi-hats, jazz piano chords, and a softer reincarnation of the last section’s keyboard synth. Soon, broad and stuttery synth rhythms take charge to bring the arrangement into double time for the track’s outro.

Each track has its own unique split-personality, but through similarities in tonality, timing, and editing, it all feels cut from the same cloth. In a different set of hands, such artistic choices might result in a schizophrenic mess, but Frij keeps it all under control while letting the music breathe, almost like an organism unto itself.

Dragonfly EP contains some of the most forward-thinking and outright best electronic music to come out of Oklahoma this year and possibly even this decade. As the 2010’s wave of DJ and EDM culture continues to settle, music like this isn’t just refreshing. It’s desperately needed.

Recommended track: “Dragonfly”

5. Jungle Juice by Miillie Mesh

Last year’s Big 50 list featured the Bleverly Hills tune “Thangs” as the #3 single of the year. That review said, “Bleverly Hills and exceptional feature Miillie Mesh each take a verse and deliver with a stylish, nimble flow that begs for a reunion in the future.” Thankfully, it didn’t take long for this reunion to come to fruition, though Blev stays strictly behind the boards on this latest meeting of the minds.

Miillie Mesh’s debut record, Jungle Juice, is all about Miillie, who takes to the spotlight like fish to water. Having made a name for herself on a continuous string of well-received singles over the past few years, her chops have had plenty of time to settle in, allowing her to graduate from solid technique to signature style. Jungle Juice is nothing if not brimming with personality.

The Jungle Juice sound is quite literal, with Blev’s production incorporating an assortment of rainforest flavors. These range from actual wildlife sound effects to tribal instrumentation in the way of flutes, marimbas, and drums. Of course, his top-notch beats and showy production are still a big part of the formula, but the album concept and collaborative talent seem to push Blev to a creative high. His work here is inspired.

Miillie Mesh also seems to be in a rich creative zone, flexing not just as a rapper, but as lead and supporting vocalist as well. There’s no need for features when one can do it all, and Mesh hits all the right notes on her own. Whether she’s on some trash-talk bars (“Formula”), dropping feel-good melodic hooks (“Monsoon”), or being sampled for background texture (“Lingo”), her vocals are on point and sound luxurious against the EP’s production. Additionally, by having all of this come from the same source, there’s an added level of cohesion that further contributes to a signature sound in Jungle Juice. It’s early moves like this that help make icons out of artists.

With catchy hooks, undeniable grooves, and fun, confident attitude for days, Jungle Juice has crossover appeal written all over it. At the same time, it showcases artistic ambition that ensures this is just the beginning for Miillie Mesh, so get a sip of this quality juice now because it may well be a limited edition.

Recommended track: “Monsoon”

4. The Appearances by Ester Drang

Ester Drang’s latest album, its first in over a decade, is a beautiful, spacious return to the lush, open waters of post-rock bliss that it tended to so endearingly in the 2000s.

With coats of reverb softening every instrument and adding an effervescent glow to every touch of piano, guitar, violin, and bass. Flawlessly woven into the traditional rock parts are understated, overdubbed vocals that exist more for a melodic center than to be a primary songwriting focal point.

Most of The Appearances features thick texturing that is accomplished as much by Inception-level, dream-within-a-dream mixing as by the written arrangements themselves. To be sure, there is a great deal at work in the undercurrents of Ester Drang’s music. This isn’t of the cheap reputation some critics lay on post-rock, where anyone can take three chords and a handful of effects pedals to make something atmospheric. It’s just that the compositional elements are blended and blurred to the point that it’s no longer heard as such, but its presence is felt.

Sonically, there are only a few key moments that don’t leave the listener floating untethered in a sea of sound, moments where melodic lines are more pronounced. The strings often get the best of these. In particular, cuts “From the Ruins” and “Young and Reckless” provide some semblance of pool-side railing before swimming off to the deep end.

After all these years, Ester Drang still has it. The band conjures gorgeous oceans of sound for listeners to get lost in on The Appearances, and the familiarization of repeat listens is basically the audio version of memory foam. Hopefully it won’t be as long until the next record, but whatever the timeframe, this EP goes a long way to filling the void.

Recommended track: “Young and Reckless”

3. Silience by Aberrant Construct

One would think that the overbearing extremities of subgenre metal would have run out of ways to paint its absolutist cynical worldview by now, but here in 2018, the dark crusade continues (and how!). Slam metal upstart Aberrant Construct is probably the hardest band in the state right now, and nobody touches that crown without at least a couple of fresh ideas.

The OKC-based band purged two hellacious EPs into existence this year, and either could have climbed this list. Scaphism seems to be the attention-getter, but Silience is just as beastly even without the NSFW album art. Furthermore, Silience is even tighter and more focused in both composition and audio mixing so that the strikes of firepower hit more intensely than on the other EP.

Naturally, Aberrant Construct brings a lot of what genre fans clamor for. Hyperspeed kick drums, scorching, gutteral vocals, and doom-heavy guitars are all here. Those drums, though, are so fast and precise that they alone could carry the album. They’re a wonder to take in when they differentiate between different blindingly high speeds, proving that, yes, they’re keeping time all the while.

The vocals, too, are nothing short of incredible. It isn’t just in the tonality, which is actually less varied than in Scaphism by adhering mostly to a low, gates-of-hell maw. It’s also in the lyrical delivery, which jumps poetically between extended scowls and tight, articulate flows.

It may seem odd to describe a slam project with words such as “poetic” and “flow”, but it’s all there. Many hard rock projects chase intensity without any real sense of structure, and that can leave music muddled and buried within itself. That Silience opens with a spoken word passage is telling. The coming 20 minute onslaught won’t be the sort of poetic experience that rhymes words or even says anything with much literary poignance, but it does offer in its music the intrinsic pacing and rhythm one finds in good poetry. As for “flow”, Abberant Construct’s vocalist is probably better at the mic than half of OKC’s rap scene when it comes to verbal dexterity. Just listen to him go at it in cuts like “Darkness Within” and “Evolving Mindset”.

Silience is an album about pitch blackness, but the experience of listening to it is anything other. It’s dark, of course, but with such richness, intensity, and masterfully engineered clarity, it also lights the way into its murky underworld. That’s what makes the album work so well, and that’s what makes Aberrant Construct one to keep eyes on going into 2019, where they are said to continue doling out brutal works such as this.

Recommended track: “Darkness Within”

2. 539 / 918 by Medisin

On his 2017 EP, Sea-sides, Medisin established a sound that called into question the roles of dreampop and alternative R&B. The album was presented in a framework of skits where he plays his music for friends who criticize his slower numbers and encourage his more upbeat, pop-worthy work because his sad songs are “just not dancey.”

It’s pretty ironic, then, that mainstream pop radio in 2018 opened the floodgates to some of the moodiest chart hits in recent memory, with the likes of Post Malone, XXXTentacion, and Juice Wrld climbing the charts. Even so, Medisin’s work plays as much outside of this trend as it does within it.

Where Sea-sides was a debate of style, 2018’s 539 / 918 is a pursuit of the muse. With an assortment of musical skills in his backpack, Medisin ventures on a journey of the heart that takes the listener through an eclectic assortment of sounds and feelings in just over 20 minutes.

“Broke 33” kicks off with autotuned falsetto, shrouded guitar, and a spacious undercurrent of drums that eventually rise into a brief splash of trap production. “Exhaust” then plays up the falsetto with overdubs, not unlike the signature folktronica leanings of Justin Vernon, but just long enough to let the listener settle in with the aesthetic. In the second half of the track, acclaimed guest rapper St. Domonick comes through, delivering a verse that fits in Medisin’s sonic wheelhouse but nonetheless comes as a surprise. From here out, whether it’s the spacey soul of “Breathe” or the acoustic campfire vibe of “Cigarettes92”, the album forges forward with a continued refusal to adhere to a formula.

Somehow, though, despite its smorgasbord of influences, 539 / 918 never sounds like it’s trying to be anything but true to itself. That must be the magic behind the album, because on paper, a short tracklist that pits acoustic folk guitars and autotuned trap together shouldn’t work, but here, it flourishes. Medisin has a staggering artistic voice that comes through in everything he touches on this EP, and it’s one that hopefully will continue to grow and make the rounds on projects to come because he is on to something, and it’s big.

Recommended track: “Breathe”

1. Loud World by Hypervigilance

With Loud World, solo electronic producer Hypervigilance documents personal transcendence through a track-by-track musical evolution that’s as universal as it is intimate. Incorporating elements of ambience, techno, and minimalism, the five-track EP wanders through layers of intricately tuned spaces of consciousness. As it climbs through each bristling tone poem, it grows and, eventually, finds light in the profound dissonance, but only when the EP is taken as a whole.

Opener “You” is an ambient primordial piece that sets the tone with slow swells of surreal, muted synth chords. It’s the point 0 of the album, a place of suspended thought. It steps back from the loud world after which the EP is titled and retreats into meditation. It’s not one of peace, though, soothing as it may be. The chords used have a subtle dissonance written into them, as if to convey the fear of the unknown, and the soft ringing that weaves in and out causes further unrest.

The next two tracks explore more territory, adding on the blood-pumping of drums and the steady foundation of synth bass. Hypnotic arpeggios repeat over and over, stirring a sense of searching or curiosity in the EP’s abstract narrative.

The climax of this tonal arc is “In Bardo”, an indulgent 7-minute section that is the album’s most dystopian. With rhythm and color taken away, it stands in a haunting limbo, where cold textures are given more focus than tonal qualities. At length, it conjures one of the most distraught feelings one can have with music–palpable emptiness.

The endurance of “In Bardo” pays off with the album’s safehaven closer, which is a lyrical song called “Push”. Featuring the softly captivating vocals of fellow OKC artist Maddie Razook, it continues in the dark atmospheric tonality of the album while letting some light in. The light doesn’t chase away the darkness, though, and when paired with the uncertainty of the lyrics, it seems as though there is much more soul-searching to be done. Still, for this singular moment, there is at last a sense of understanding and direction, something that every living being needs to find purpose in, as the album notes say, “the absurd fragility of life.”

Loud World takes electronic music into the near avant-garde, and with just five tracks, it offers a thoughtfully crafted tonal arc that gradually opens up in unexpected ways. Its universality leaves it open to interpretation, and it will surely play differently to different personalities. No matter the individual takeaway, Hypervigilance’s cerebral work in five movements is a stark, intense, and brave confrontation with unforgiving ideas, knowing that it might be a losing battle. Fortunately, this one’s a win. Loud World is not just the best experimental album of 2018, but it’s also the year’s best short-form album of any genre.

Recommended track: “Compassion”

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