This year’s list is 10 artists that spent more time perfecting their craft than pushing it.
I appreciate deviation and exploration as much as anyone, but to hear someone truly attempting to push what they specifically can do that no one else can is a treat that deserves just as much admiration and attention.

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10. Blowout – No Beer, No Dad  (Lauren Records)

As I heard said of Blowout from a band that had to follow them, “Damn, they know a lot of chords”. Following up 2015’s almost-too-perfect We All Float Down Here EP with a looser-yet-strangely-enough-tighter full-length, their first, Blowout grew into themselves very quickly. If you thought WAFDH was “too” perfect, boy are you in for a goddamn treat – Blowout placed full priority on not giving a fuck and it’s audibly tangible. You need listen only to the intro to get a real strong sense of what’s coming, which is 3 dudes and a lady who are way more talented than they let on and don’t care what you think.

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9. Ike Fonseca & Alex Kirk Amen – Beyond The Picket Fence split  (No Pants Records)

Two Portland albums in a row? That’s correct.

Aside from the final cover track, the 4 originals found on this killer split are so goddamn good that they more than make up for the despondent feeling of “it’s over already?” by being instantly replay-able and just as good the next time. AKA’s finest work to date and probably the best recent country track this side of William Elliott Whitmore via Ike made for a ton of repeat listens. This is easily a full length album’s worth of bangers packaged in under 20 minutes of a couple of dudes playing guitars.
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8. Sammy Warm Hands & Ogar Burl – Rare Form  (Crushkill Recordings/Take 92)

Read this if you want the long version. The short version is the charm to be found here isn’t necessarily in how “good” Rare Form is as much as how perfectly it culminates the journey to arrive there. Sammy Warm Hands’ timeline is one you should be following, and it’s been a hectic one. Best of all is being treated to a better-rounded Ogar Burl who took full advantage of every opportunity this album provided, but really Rare Form‘s overall listen is perhaps more satisfying than any other on this list.

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7. Arrows In Her – It Tired Me All The Same (Broken World)

These New Jerseyans have this strange quality about them, like the emo revival never happened and they’re just 4 dudes who listen to the Crank! catalog a lot and jam in a basement somewhere. There’s no pretense, no scene-centric aesthetic driving the abundant hard-hitting melodies and desired imperfections found throughout, but more a near-perfect love letter to a time passed but fondly remembered. This follow-up to the criminally underrated leaving. could teach a lot of bands a thing or two.
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6. Holy Grove – S/T  (Heavy Psych Sounds)

There isn’t a word in my vocabulary to accurately describe how big Holy Grove’s sound is. Stoner jams that will knock the fillings out of your teeth and the wax in your ears loose are what you’ll find here, with Andrea Vidal absolutely nailing it on vocals. Sometimes an album is so on point and needed that it can’t be denied; if there’s any part of you that appreciates anything loud, this album is for you. Holy fuck.
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5. Conor Oberst – Ruminations (Nonesuch Records)

Hey, someone you’ve probably heard of is on here! I wanted to hate this album so much. You have no idea how much. His work of late has been fairly boring and I was more than ready to cross another person off the way-too-long list of those I keep up with. Of course, Ruminations had to go and be fucking perfect.
If it was ever Conor’s goal to be this generation’s Dylan, he finally started doing it. Everything on this album is devastatingly organic, from the sparse instrumentation to the minimalist lyrics. It took him a lot of albums, but he finally found the goldmine in utterly stripped down simplicity. Ruminations sounds like b-sides from I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, with Conor just fiddling around on a piano and acoustic guitar, maybe fucking with a harmonica here and there, musing about random things… and it ends up far better than the “good” stuff.
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4. Carnage The Executioner – The MN Mean Movement  (Crushkill Recordings)

Ooh, second Crushkill album on here.
A master of both the figurative and literal, Carnage is an unparalleled beast in all respects concerning writing and performing. An unapologetic realist with the experience and skills of a true living legend, there’s nothing in his work to find fault in or argue with, and MN Mean serves as judge and jury for anyone who may feel otherwise.
I’m consistently amazed with just how much song Carnage can fit into a single track, but more so with how much album he can put into each song.
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3. Forfeit – Numb (Still Chill)

Some songs just beg to be heard. They’re so sincere and urgent that hearing any given 10 seconds demands a full listen. There’s something so potent in the genuine feelings emitting from perhaps Chicago’s least-appreciated emo assets that it’s difficult to imagine casually tossing around terms like “throwback”, “homage” or “revival”. There’s authenticity that reminds of Diary as much as The Second Stage Turbine Blade, with the wonder of Can’t Slow Down and the pure youthful abandon of Yaphet Kotto or Asteria. It’s not surprising they caught the ear of John Rejba.
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2. Blueprint & Aesop Rock – Vigilante Genesis  (Weightless Recordings)

The concept album has seen a lot of different approaches from a lot of different genres. The concept itself usually takes a backseat to trying to figure out what the fuck it is and how it applies, creating something of a wariness around the idea.
Blueprint, on the other hand, tells a very literal story. Backed up by some Aes beats, nothing is left to the imagination as Printmatic digs into a tale everyone who’s heard wishes they were a part of. The title of the album is very on-the-nose, demanding repeat listens and continued gratitude for not only an actual cohesive concept album, but magnificent and stellar writing.
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1. The Interrupters – Say It Out Loud (Hellcat Records)

Every so often, an album just has to happen.
Energy had to happen. Through Being Cool had to happen. It Takes A Nation Of Millions… had to happen. Out Of Step had to happen.
Say It Out Loud had to happen. I know this because it fully exemplifies every quality I look for, and it’s a straight up 3rd wave ska album that doesn’t deviate even a little. It’s formulaic and is still better than anything I’ve heard since maybe Converge’s All We Love We Leave Behind. You don’t need to try and reinvent the wheel – you just need to make the best wheel possible, and it’ll be a long time before there’s an album this good that isn’t trying to be anything it’s not.