20. Exchange & Rockwood by Buddy South
Feel-good strains of alternative country and Americana come together on Exchange & Rockwood, the laudable debut LP from OKC “cowtown rock” band Buddy South. With melodic lead electric guitar, syrupy pedal steel, and a sturdy rhythm section, the album’s sound leans more to the electric side of country than the acoustic. Rounding out the band is a friendly lead vocal that’s high on drawl and low on rasp. He sounds more like an Oklahoma neighbor than a super star, and that helps set the standard for Buddy South. Though the band is full of talented performers, they seem less interested in impressing the socks off of the listener than in simply providing a good time.
One’s inclination to jump aboard this good time will depend largely on one’s music taste and propensity for “the good ol’ days”, but for the right crowd, Exchange & Rockwood is just the ticket. It touches on familiar topics and imagery without ever feeling like the manufactured pandering of what modern country radio provides these days, and that’s because these songs are rooted in real memories, recounted with real feelings.
Dirt road nostalgia colors much of Exchange & Rockwood, but those colors aren’t strictly of an aged sepia tone. While there is certainly some wistfulness to be found in songs like “Blood & Dust” and “Better Days”, what Buddy South does so well is bring memories back into full color through its music. The band is also sure to mix up the formula, too, with other songs more rooted in the present. Highlights include a couple of numbers that find a heap of humor in both love (“Hard Time”) and divorce (“In the Presence of Royalty”).
Buddy South’s songwriting tends to hit a lot of notes that can also be found in a number of Oklahoma projects, particularly the many folk music ones, but few match the energy of Exchange & Rockwood. It’s not just that the band brings a rock ‘n roll edge to its songs. It’s also in the performances. There’s so much personality here that the unique sides of the group’s material show through, and the utter enthusiasm with which they’re delivered breathes a special life into the whole record that’s hard to shake long after it ends.
Exchange & Rockwood is a solid collection of easy-going songs that sometimes dip into serious moods but never long enough to spoil the fun. If anything, such moments just make the band more relatable and, by consequence, make the music more enjoyable. From its warm musicianship to its catchy tunes to its genre crossbreeding, Buddy South boasts an extremely accessible package while retaining a strong identity and an endearing sincerity that makes its 2018 album one of the best and most well-rounded listens of the year.
Recommended tracks: “Hard Time” / “Old Flame”
19. Dope Makaveli by Chris Savage
The latest album in Chris Savage’s Dope series features cover art that depicts the OKC rap artist adorned in jewelry, official sportswear, and a strap. In the foreground, though, are bars, and that’s what Dope Makaveli is really about.
While, yes, there are numerous mentions of prison, it’s lyrical bars that are the focal point here. Savage drops some of the year’s toughest rhymes, detailing life in the streets with zero punches pulled. Whether he’s wearing the role of gritty storyteller, competition snuffer, or cautionary father, he maintains an edge and a gravitas from start to finish that ensures he’s taken seriously.
The music on the 17-track album is largely of the trap subgenre. A few exceptions are the reggae-tinted “Murder”, the off-kilter rhythms of feel-good joint “The Cookout (feat. OG Toni D & Launey P)”, and the heartfelt “Letter to My Son”, which only keeps time with finger snaps and rolled cymbals. There is also some welcome variety from a number of quality features, which mixes things up from Savage’s typically cold flow.
At one hour in length, the LP does run a bit long, perhaps because Savage seemingly beefs it up with a few cuts meant to appeal to a broader populace. Most of the tracks, though, stick with his usual muses, such as proving he’s the real deal in a sea of fakes. More than ever, he backs up his claims on Dope Makaveli with imagery and detail that is cut from the same dirty cloth.
Another recurring theme is crime, usually in the way of drugs and gun violence. Savage regards them as a fact of life and spits about them almost in an understated way so that the words speak loudly for themselves (save for the riled up namecalling in “Ditch Diggers”). The degree of their impact will most likely depend on the listener’s exposure to such a lifestyle. To outsiders, it may seem sensational, but to those that live it, it’s just the status quo.
Chris Savage is an impressive lyricist with a heap of rhymes and punchlines at his disposal. Many of his verbal punctuations are more than enough to turn heads. Behind the fireworks of his bars, though, is the portrait of a man trying to make it, and it’s the unique details in this portrait that sets it apart from the rest. There were plenty of rap albums this year that aimed to do something similar, and there were even some that did something completely different. This one, though, is one of the few that sticks after the music has faded.
Recommended tracks: “Hustle & Flow” / “Letter to My Son”
18. Melter by Helen Kelter Skelter
Helen Kelter Skelter is an experience. On stage, the band rides a high, infectious psych rock energy that locks into a groove and blasts audiences with sonic transcendence. Though a recording can’t possibly replicate such a phenomenon, Melter comes awfully close by providing a worthy experience of its own.
Fans of fuzzy guitar riffs, retro rock organ, brawny rhythms, and experimental pedal effects will find plenty to soak in with the polychromatic musical seafoam that Melter conjures. This stuff was made for cranked volume dials and robust sound systems. A little magic dust might not hurt, either.
It’s been three years since Helen Kelter Skelter (sometimes stylized as H//K//S) dropped its self-titled LP, one that only occasionally tapped into the rich, fuzzed out sound that is now synonymous with the group. Where that release was more of a genre hodge-podge that let songs lead the way to sound, Melter is quite the opposite. Here, sound comes first, and though it’s more than familiar, the result is a leap in focus and cohesion.
The vocals on Melter are usually placed distantly in the mix rather than up front, presumably to maximize the impact of the guitars and drums. Sometimes this causes the music to not have a lot of empty space, but the album never feels suffocated because of it, just heightened.
The prevalence of music over lyrics also causes the vocals to frequently take a back seat. When combined with the vocal effects that already coat the album, this can prove frustrating for some lyrical listeners. It’s a complaint that also plagued Colourmusic in its similarly minded pink phase, but then, just as now, the justification is that all of these decisions serve the experience first.
Make no mistake. Melter is a hulk of an experience, especially when one simply allows the music to carry one off into its stream of psychedelia, so don’t be shy about hitting that play button. An electric wonderland awaits.
Recommended tracks: “Guud” / “Wunschkonzert”
17. The Lamps by The Lamps
From the DIY underside of the OKC music scene comes The Lamps, a twee pop act popular among such circles but an obscure name to most. Even with fans in high places, the band seems most content to play house shows and small DIY venues. After playing a huge slot at this year’s Norman Music Festival opening for Japanese Breakfast, the band muttered something about not belonging before trudging offstage a few minutes early of its set time finish.
In other words, The Lamps aren’t here to impress or be recognized by a press corps. It’s a project of the scene, by the scene, and for the scene. Nonetheless, the band’s music is so good that it can’t help but occasionally spill over to the normie crowd. The trio was featured in The Oklahoman last year and has been played on public radio on multiple occasions.
The self-titled full-length 2018 debut from the group barely clocks over 20 minutes at 10 tracks in length, a trait one typically expects from a punk-leaning project. From a philosophical stance, The Lamps are pretty punk, as is some of its song structuring. Ultimately, though, this is a pop band with a lofi garage veneer. It’s a strictly guitar, bass, and drums affair, with only the rare vocal overdub or peripheral instrument.
The aesthetic works wonderfully. The Lamps is a warm spread of muted tones, tangible and cozy as a crocheted sofa throw yet hazy as a sunbeam catching dust particles from a west window. The fairly lackadaisical vocals understate the lyrics, which tend to be quite lovestruck and wrapped in the moment. The songs are probably the best aspect of the album, boasting catchy, sunny melodies and a charming spirit, especially when the vocals are traded off in echoes or call/response lines.
For music fans that find joy in the DIY spirit or comfort in the offbeat, The Lamps is an easy recommendation. For others, the songs are an ever interesting look at universally relatable social and romantic situations told from a selectively antisocial perspective. Above all, what makes The Lamps so appealing is the vibe itself, which is at once cool, catchy, shy, and lovely. Few projects hit this balance so well, and by extension, few albums sound this good.
Recommended tracks: “Woke Up” / “Pop Songs”
16. When the Water Hits the Moon by Gum
OKC indie rock quintet Gum is back with a catchy sophomore LP that sounds like it’s spent the past couple of years marinating in stardust and brine. Atmospheric and introspective, its songs come from a dreamy headspace that is more cerebral than psychedelic.
When the Water Hits the Moon expresses its existential quandaries with an instrumental spread of lower-range piano, grounded drums, fuzzy vocals, thoughtfully distorted lead guitar, and shiny, detuned synth sparkles. Despite the thick layers of sound, the mixing helps the record feel spacious and open, not unlike the way the album is bogged down in moods and questions but leaves room for enlightenment.
The LP’s title comes from its closing track and doubles both as a fitting description of the album’s curated sound palette and as an abstract metaphor for the future. It doesn’t come with a concrete meaning, though, unless the band is somehow referring to the lunar surface’s scientific inability to retain liquid water.
Since Gum seems on board with listener interpretation, here’s a thought. Remember that old Talking Heads tune, “Once in a Lifetime”? What if it’s the same water? In that song, water is presented as an abstract representation of time, flowing subconsciously underground in the midst of 1980s lifestyle pursuits. The stinger is that time can get so far away from people that they end up in a mid-life crisis because of it.
In 2018, it’s quite the opposite. Younger people are so intensely aware of time as it passes that many of them are stuck in crisis mode before middle age even arrives. Here, the water is not hidden under rocks and stones. It’s well above ground, constantly splashing consciousness in the face, and when that water runs its course and drifts beyond the atmosphere, one can’t help but wonder whether or not they’ll look back and see a life lived to its fullest.
There’s a lot of pressure in that sentiment, and it even pervades the most angelic moments of When the Water Hits the Moon. The lyrics are frequently so ill at ease about not having a clear sense of personal direction. Even if clarity were found, though, there is the matter that after a certain point in life, one’s prior decisions can permanently alter the trajectory of what can be.
Gum’s latest is a decidedly mixed experience. It’s hopeful and gloomy and lively and lush. It applies music composition and engineering in such a specific, fine-tuned way as to give the songs groove-worthy life while allowing them the room to ponder. The band expresses complicated feelings through music on a level that is not easy to achieve.
In the record’s last seconds, the band chooses to hold on to a premature, unresolved chord, leaving the album’s whole conversation suspended in the balance. It does so with the grandeur of a resolution, however, as if to say any close answer will have to do in the interim. It’s enough to wonder if that’s how the band feels about the album itself.
If it is, it shouldn’t be. When the Water Hits the Moon is anything but something to bridge the gap. In an industry chained to relevancy and saturation, it’s refreshing to see a band step back and sit with a record, whittling it down over literal years to define a unique sound with a purpose greater than serving a broad audience. Gum seems more content putting its sweat into something more profound, something that doesn’t simply entertain, but something that helps to better understand the world itself.
Recommended Tracks: “Tired Eyes” / “I Can Do What You Want Me To”
15. Words We Mean by Annie Oakley
Annie Oakley has been an Oklahoma sensation for some time now. For years, the gifted young folk band has hewn and finessed its art while putting out short releases and performing to captive audiences in every corner of the state. All of it has been building toward something special, and with the band’s debut LP, Okies and non-Okies alike are finally getting more than a mere glimpse of it.
Words We Mean is Annie Oakley’s most thoughtfully constructed, maturely written, and true to form album to date. Where previous releases tried on studio tricks of the trade like atmospheric mixing and the “full band” treatment, this release keeps all bells and whistles to a minimum. Instead, the album brings a clear focus of what makes Annie Oakley, well, Annie Oakley.
The trio’s signature approach to music making is mostly unchanged. Soft, guitar-led arrangements meet impeccable folk harmonies to present introspective songs that gracefully bridge the old-fashioned and the forward-thinking. Not every track is essential, but some of the group’s best tunes are here.
Where there aren’t any buggy earworms or gimmicky metaphors, Annie Oakley comes through with harder-earned songwriting on numbers like the unconventional “Into the Light”. That track uses a dark, often dreamlike waltz to convey a revered sense of compassionate love as felt in the shadows. It’s a thoughtful piece presenting a down-to-earth relational dynamic the likes of which most songs rarely bother to notice, much less capture.
The instrumental accents throughout the album cross a wide palette, including everything from banjo to piano to even spaced-out electric guitar, but it all stays peripheral to the core of Annie Oakley. These touches are so sparse at times that one can catch subtle swells of reverb that would otherwise get covered up by a busy arrangement. On a relatively simple song like “The Curse”, little moments like its brief guitar bridge and unresolved final chord are able to take on greater significance.
First timers can sometimes string songs along a debut LP with little attention to the bigger picture, but Annie Oakley has created more than a portfolio here. Words We Mean is a huge step forward for the trio, and that’s not just because it’s on the Horton Records label, which naturally entails international distribution. It lovingly conjures a hushed haven for its listeners, one that relishes as much in its handmade colors as in its heartfelt silences.
Recommended tracks: “Brother” / “Into the Light”
14. Step Outside by The New Tribe
Taken without context, Step Outside sounds like a lost or obscure album from decades past. It draws influences from such a vast array of now classic sources that maybe it was left behind in music history because it was too hard to market, too outside the box for listeners, but not experimental enough to join the boundary-burning troublemakers of the past.
A lot of its styles seem rooted in the 1960s and ’70s, though every person who listens to the music of The New Tribe pulls something different out of its highly eclectic blend with which to identify. Over the course of Step Outside, one is presented with reggae grooves, pop vocal harmonies, progressive rock guitar noodling, and harmonica-fueled country, to name just a few key styles. They don’t homogenize, though. They fraternize.
This causes the songs to sound familiar and nostalgic without ever quite pinning anything down to one place and time. There are fingerprints of the past, sure, but they cover each other up over and over until they are harder to collect. This isn’t a concern, though. Everything fits together unusually, organically well, thanks to some solid arrangements and appealing tunes.
So what is the context of Step Outside? For those unacquainted with the band’s story, The New Tribe started up in the 1990s in Norman, enjoying the underbelly of the college town music scene. The band soon broke up, leaving its songs unrecorded, and its members went on about life with many moving to Texas.
Skip forward about 20 years, and the group throws a reunion show, except it turns into more than a one-off performance. Deciding to indulge fans and themselves, The New Tribe picks up these old songs and works them into a new album over an extended recording stay inside OKC’s The Blue Door. The result is Step Outside, which prominently features the legendary listening room on its cut-and-paste cover art.
A number of these details play into how the album sounds the way it does. The recording space, the rehearsal process, and the age of the songs all lend themselves to a sort of mythic aura that the LP possesses, but a lot of it also just comes from the band itself. The New Tribe doesn’t sound like a band from the 90’s, nor does it quite sound like a remnant from decades further in the past. It sure doesn’t sound like a modern-day project. Like its cover art suggests, it seems to drift in its own space and time, something almost of fantasy, or maybe something cobbled together like all of those fake Beatles lost tapes that are just patchwork of the members’ solo material.
Try this. Set aside all that talk of Norman and The Blue Door. Picture the early 1970s, and picture David Bowie, Elton John, Bob Marley, and Mungo Jerry, all riding big records at the time. Now picture that they each had a protege that soaked in everything from their respective mentor, learning techniques and taking advice while still developing a voice of their own. What if each of these theoretical proteges got together, started a band, and jived really well together?
It takes an indulgence like that to come close to pinning Step Outside into its own weird, psychedelic nutshell. The album is a one-of-a-kind project that The New Tribe probably couldn’t replicate if it wanted because of how unique the circumstances were in its creation. After the LP release, the band kept the creative juices flowing and released a pretty great 7″ in the fall, and while it bears the same influences, it sounds more in the here and now. Step Outside sounds like a missing link outside of its own timeline that, by great fortune, has fallen into this one.
Recommended tracks: “Alien Taxi Cab Driver” / “Free Clinic”
13. I'm All I'ves by Rachel Bachman
With endless charm and quirk, Rachel Bachman is one of the most theatrical yet grounded singer-songwriters in the state, and while that is admittedly a small pool, it speaks well of the music she creates. Her songs possess a strong sense of narrative and plot, down to the mid-song interjections one might expect from a Broadway musical moreso than an indie folk album. However, she doesn’t reach for elaborate arrangements or grandiose presentation. Her most recent album features imperfect recording takes and thinly layered arrangements, and CD copies of her most recent album were literally assembled by hand.
That album is I’m All I’ves, a spectacular collection of some of the year’s best and most interesting songs of any genre. For all of its DIY flair, its performances and subjects play like something out of a nationally broadcast NPR live music programme, especially the leisurely ones that air over the weekend when the upper class is surely off of work. Bachman would absolutely kill on a show like that, in no small part because her singing voice is articulate, refined, powerful, and bursting with personality.
The aforementioned subjects of I’m All I’ves range from landfills to serial killers to the sensation of waking up in a bar bathroom after closing time. Some of these various subjects are played straight, while others are mined for deeper meaning. The album tends to find humor in the absurd and absurdity in the mundane.
By the way, if it hasn’t been made clear yet, Bachman is hilarious. There are countless examples of this across the new LP. It’s in the comic timing of “Ukulele Song”, in the mansplaining lyrics of “A Word of Encouragement”, and in the prim and proper chorus of “Belle Gunness”. It’s in the Greek fish of “Blue Blue Blue”, a mostly unassuming song about the vast monotony of the ocean that is entirely worth checking the Google translation.
Rachel Bachman switches between ukulele and guitar throughout I’m All I’ves, and the arrangements vary from small DIY acoustic ensembles to strictly solo affairs. It might be easy to picture how this plays out on the quirkier numbers, but there are also some surprisingly solemn pieces here, too. “Josephine” hits in the emotional gut with poetically tragic lyricism and an emotive central performance, while “Vourvoulos Veranda” is more ponderous and abstract with only bare ukulele finger picks and voice.
I’m All I’ves is an impressive album, and not just because of what it manages to do with its creative limitations. If anything, it’s quite the opposite. The creative limitations force creative thinking, and the results are often outside of the box, as they are here. In addition to the more technical elements–and it can’t be stressed just how great of a performer Bachman is–the album is also just a complete joy, indulging in its silly moments while being far more than novelty. Bachman is a singer-songwriter the likes of which there isn’t nearly enough, and her unique artistry comes through beautifully on I’m All I’ves.
Recommended tracks: “Belle Gunness” / “A Word of Encouragement”
12. One Day We'll Be Rich & We'll Never Be Broke by Le'Troy Mack
On the mic or on wax, all emcees proclaim their greatness in one way or another. It takes a special kind of artist, though, to travel into the future and predict the communal impact of such greatness. That’s the narrative that Le’Troy Mack brings to One Day We’ll Be Rich & We’ll Never Be Broke, and it’s more than the ego trip one might expect.
The album jumps into the year 2027 to bring back conversational sound bites that inform the songs in an inventive way. It’s one thing to deal with a former lover through song, but it’s quite another to preface it by contemplating the thoughts of her son 9 years in the future. That’s creative thinking, and it comes up again and again on One Day We’ll Be Rich.
Part of the narrative from the album’s very outset is that Mack will use his future success to help his city come up with him. After all, the album title says “we’ll”, not “I’ll.” Given how he reps his hometown, it’s not hard to buy into his vision. He’s already using his platform to spotlight his neighborhood, making many references to the streets of Midwest City. Newcomers will be googling Tez Wingz based on the track “Waddup” alone.
There’s a clear identity to Le’Troy Mack’s music, too. Though obviously a hip-hop album, many of the tracks could pass as R&B as the lines between the two continue to blur in 2018. In its cohesion, though, there is a necessary amount of variety. From the smooth, bassy ride of “Save My Soul” to the grit of “King, Pt. 2” to the bounce of “Waddup”, there is something to suit most moods without any hint of artistic compromise. He also keeps things fresh with a stellar cast of female vocalists, curating features for the gifted Coriano Gipson, Ellesse, Sara Byrd, and Ryne Barber.
None of this would work without lyrical proficiency, though, so it’s important that there isn’t a weak moment to be found in Mack’s verses or delivery. There isn’t.
From “Intro”, which is one of the best intro tracks of any genre this year, to “Selfish + One Day”, which reveals an added angle to the album concept in its closing minutes, One Day We’ll Be Rich & We’ll Never Be Broke is one of the biggest and best surprises of the year.
Recommended tracks: “Intro” / “Waddup”
11. The Ghost Inside by Nuns
The Ghost Inside is the long-awaited sophomore album from Tulsa music project Nuns, and it may even be better than 2014’s buzz-making acclaimed debut, Opportunities. Originally slated for a 2016 release date, The Ghost Inside was postponed for an unforeseen two years to ensure it met the indie/alternative rock band’s high quality standards. While such a move can be a gamble with fan expectations, fortunately, the extra time and care pays off in one of 2018’s most thoughtfully crafted and expertly executed LP releases.
Nuns has a flair for the atmospheric, but The Ghost Inside takes it to a new level with an abundance of shimmering guitars, soft-edged synths, and lush mixing. Light but steady vocals sail through lakes of reverb without sinking or running aground, though the lyrical articulation does sometimes blur out of view. Meanwhile, the rhythm section keeps everything shipshape with crisp drum work and some particularly nice bass lines, the latter of which provides a colorful, buoyant undercurrent of momentum.
Compared to Opportunities, this album is loftier in many ways, but fans of the band’s earlier, less frilly rock numbers will still find much to love in cuts like “Acquiesce”. This song launches after the album’s midpoint instrumental segue into strutting guitar and bass, a minor key, and a catchy verse/chorus structure complete with a bridge and the occasional guitar solo.
It’s telling, though, that this is immediately followed by “Buried Alive”, the track on the album that most heavily dips into the world of dreampop. With a slow tempo, swirls of guitar, and drifting, disembodied vocals, it floats into an inner space of which the album spends its entirety drifting in and out.
It’s not too difficult to surmise, especially given the LP’s title, that this is a heavily introspective work. It seems to be one that deals in the paradoxes of existence and the insecurities they instill. Battles of the psyche are embedded in the album’s subject matter, and it manifests in a sort of cognitive dissonance that can only be handled through some degree of detachment. This is perhaps why The Ghost Inside doesn’t come out as fraught with angst as track titles like “What Am I Doing?” and “This Mistake” might indicate. Conversely, this record often falls on the side of breathtaking.
The Ghost Inside is bursting with compositional prowess, and that means it’s as thoughtful in its big picture as it is in the small details within. The masterful opening track alone is a prime example of this, working multiple broad tonal shifts into a towering 8-minute runtime while remembering to do something as small as putting a reverse echo on the vocals to further invoke the album’s ghostly concept. None of that even captures just how great that track rocks, either, and to be sure, that also goes for much of the rest of the album.
It’s a pretty bold move in today’s popular music landscape to take off a couple of years to finesse a record, but in this case, it was the right move. The Ghost Inside was worth the wait.
Recommended tracks: “The Ghost Inside” / “Buried Alive”