Richmond’s always been a great city for music, and that didn’t change one iota in 2018. If anything, it became a bit overwhelming — indeed, even the most comprehensively-minded local music nerd was likely to overlook a few things. While putting this list together, I found a few that I overlooked myself — and I’m sure you will as well.
This list features our best shot at the most essential and noteworthy albums that our city birthed this year, from any and all genres. Since so many different genres and scenes are thriving in this town, we had to include 40 just to feel like we weren’t leaving anything crucial out. And let’s be real — we probably still didn’t catch everything. The best advice we could possibly give you about following this town’s vibrant musical community is this: always dig deeper. Your new favorite record might be right around the corner.
These 40 albums are a good place to start. Today, we’re presenting the first 20 — in alphabetical order by artist name, so it doesn’t seem like we’re playing favorites. We’ll have the other 20 for you tomorrow. Happy listening!
Ant The Symbol – The Motions (Gritty City)
Over the past decade or so, Ant The Symbol has consistently remained one of the most talented producers in Richmond hip hop. His layered beats are jazzy, funky, and have a lot of emotion built into them, and it’s always interesting to see what rappers do with them. The Motions is full of classic grooves that both present a smorgasbord of Richmond MCs in the best possible light and make clear that, as always, Ant’s beats are the star of the show.
The Ar-Kaics – In This Time (Daptone)
This retro-garage heads return to the spotlight after a year or two of woodshedding with a new LP that is a must for the Nehru-jacketed 60s nerds who sleep with the Nuggets box sets under their pillow. That can’t be comfortable, so maybe this 21st century slab of meat-and-potatoes rock n’ roll can help y’all sleep better. Then again, these songs are so full of fun, snotty energy, there’s no way you’re gonna sleep at all with this record on the turntable. Just get up and dance.
Bad Magic – What’s Wrong With My Eyes (badmagic.bandcamp.com)
This union of three talented RVA music veterans (Julie Karr, Tim Falen, Jimmy Held) produces music that seems to split the difference between their various musical backgrounds (in everything from folk to grunge to post-hardcore) and bring us the best possible distillation of heartfelt, driving, melodic rock music. Vaguely psychedelic and obviously descended from punk rock in at least a spiritual fashion, this album gives us a glimpse at what ruled the university-station airwaves before Nirvana came along.
Saw Black – Water Tower (Crystal Pistol)
This supremely laid-back album comes to us from one of RVA’s foremost purveyors of country-Americana slackness, and has some downright beautiful moments that’ll shine bright for fans of artists like Sturgill Simpson or the Drive-By Truckers. You could probably also play it for your uncle who thinks music has sucked since Garth Brooks, or to expand the horizons of your little cousin who only knows about bro-country. But really, you should probably play it while you’re relaxing on the front porch on a Saturday afternoon with a cold beverage in your hand. That’s when it sounds best.
Scott Clark – ToNow (Clean Feed)
Drummer Scott Clark is a leader in the mostly-overlooked world of RVA jazz, and with his recent work, he’s made quite an impression beyond our city’s borders as well. Clark’s been tapping into his Native American heritage for his recent full-length works, and that continues with ToNow. This album is a contribution to the ongoing protest movement in Standing Rock, in the form of a musical clarion call, an ambient yet intense musical exploration featuring some of the leading lights in Richmond’s jazz scene. Immerse yourself.
Kenneka Cook – Moonchild (American Paradox)
2018 was Kenneka Cook’s year. This singer with the powerful, hypnotic voice put the entirety of Richmond under her spell, and Moonchild was the way she did it. The songs on this album move back and forth between soulful, jazzy R&B ensemble pieces featuring a bevy of talented local backing musicians and intriguing solo pieces constructed from electronic beats, synth hums, and massive stacks of multi-layered vocal loops, all constructed by Cook herself with electronic sequencing tools. It’s hard to say which of these two aspects of her music are more pleasing — in the end, it’s probably the combination of the two that gets best results.
Cruelsifix – Dark Snake (cruelsifix.bandcamp.com)
RVA metal is alive, well, and raging as ever. Cruelsifix finds some leading lights from the local scene coming together to fill their downtime with yet another rip-roaring contribution to the local metal landscape. They made their mark this year with a six-song debut EP that shows off their thrashing blackened death metal sound, and, with song titles like “Rabid Christ” and “Satan Earth Fuck,” makes clear that they aren’t just kidding around with the whole evil-as-hell-name move. Bang your head.
Lucy Dacus – Historian (Matador)
Certainly the RVA album of 2018 that got the most attention outside RVA, singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus has gone from house show sensation to international bright young thing in the space of two years, and has given us all yet another reason to be proud of our hometown. Dacus’s gorgeous, heartfelt tunes — which pair her smooth, beautiful voice with powerful melodies driven by a surprisingly tough rhythm section — took a leap beyond her already-assured debut album on Historian. Kudos to her.
McKinley Dixon – The Importance Of Self Belief (Citrus City)
In a city with a variety of different hip hop movements taking place, McKinley Dixon exists in a class by himself. He simultaneously brings a multitude of talented friends of various musical backgrounds together to take his music to a higher plane, and remains committed to first principles: those being strong rhymes, powerful beats, and most importantly something real to say. Even as he’s telling hard truths about oppression and struggles, he’s also uplifting your spirit with positive messages — look no further than the title track.
Fly Anakin & Ohbliv – Backyard Boogie (Mutant Academy)
Fly Anakin has been on fire lately, working hard to get himself and his crew, Mutant Academy, established in RVA and beyond. You can hear how much energy he’s bringing to the struggle in the hyperkinetic rhymes he spits on this album, which zap your ears with their sharpness even as they leave Anakin himself gasping for breath. Celebrated production legend Ohbliv contributes all of the production here, bringing a unified feel and a deep mood to Backyard Boogie, and providing a much-needed contrast with Fly Anakin’s manic intensity.
Gumming – Human Values (gumming.bandcamp.com)
The name of this group always makes me think of nursing home residents mashing down soft foods without benefit of dentures, but if you turn your back, rest assured, Gumming will show you just how much bite they’ve got. Human Values is a wall of angry noise that splits the difference between experimental psychedelic weirdness and pure punk rage, like the Butthole Surfers if they were fronted by X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene. Oh values, up yours.
Cole Hicks – May Day (colehicksva.bandcamp.com)
No one really wants to talk about this, but the fact is that hip hop tends to be a very masculine genre. It’s rare to hear a female MC spitting rhymes at all, let alone one that can stand toe-to-toe with the best in the game. On May Day, Richmond’s Cole Hicks adds her name to that list, contributing one of the best albums to come out of the genre in RVA this year and landing a top spot in what was already a banner year for Richmond hip hop albums. The beats hit hard, her rhymes hit harder, and her lyrical flow is unmatched, so quit tripping and start bumping May Day now.
Andy Jenkins – Sweet Bunch (Spacebomb)
Kinda country, kinda indie, and very Southern — that’s local singer-songwriter Andy Jenkins in a nutshell. The latest overnight sensation from the world of Spacebomb Records, Jenkins’s debut full-length, Sweet Bunch, has a laid-back, smoothly rolling feel that’ll put you in the frame of mind to rock contentedly in a porch swing as the lazy river rolls by. Some moments hit upon a sort of pastoral Van Morrison-ish feel, while others bust out the sunbaked twang of the Bakersfield sound. All of it is easy to enjoy.
Large Margin – Large Margin (largemargin.bandcamp.com)
Anyone who caught Brief Lives when they were around is bound to have thought the same thing I did — “that guitarist really goes off!” Brief Lives is gone, but the guitarist in question, Chris Compton, has moved on to becoming the frontman for Large Margin, joining up with a variety of local post-hardcore luminaries to exhume the spirit of Fugazi’s classic early 90s work and infuse it with a massive amount of frantic energy and 21st century political fury. One listen to this LP and you’ll want to rock out as hard as Compton does onstage.
Lipid – Freak Beat (Vinyl Conflict)
The growth of out-and-proud LGBTQ hardcore punk in this town has been one of the best things about 2018, not just for “representation” but also because it’s brought us a lot of great music from voices we weren’t necessarily hearing before. Lipid is probably the closest to old-school punk of this new crop of RVA queer-power bands, with a sound that mixes the sarcastic punk snarls of the Dead Kennedys with the sort of burly stuff that was coming out of NYC a while back — think Crazy Spirit, or The Men before they became a dad-rock bar band.
Love Roses/The Donalds – split (Tired & Pissed)
These two local punk bands are mainstays of the Shockoe Bottom punk scene that orbits around Wonderland, McCormack’s, and other venues the downtown hipsters aren’t necessarily clued into. They’ve both got a ton of anger to work through, mostly at the pathetic state of the USA today, and they do so with rage, melody, and humor. The Donalds are more midtempo, Love Roses more melodic, but both bands are a ton of fun.
Manatree – Engines (manatree.bandcamp.com)
This band of teenagers has really matured on their latest album, which reflects the stripped-down sound Manatree’s increasingly taken on as the lineup shrinks. Frontman Jack Mayock’s considerable talent on guitar and keyboards gets a lot of room to show itself on Engines, as does the sort of growth he’s done as a vocalist since his high school days. Manatree’s math-rock roots are still clear on this album, but as a band, they’re getting weirder, more cerebral, and more fascinating. I guess this is growing up.
Michael Millions – Hard To Be King (Purple Republic)
Dropping back on January 2, this LP acted as the starting gunshot for an amazing year of RVA music. Michael Millions brought the realness from the opening moments of this one, working with some of the most talented hip hop producers in town to create the perfect instrumental tracks for his powerful lyrics and rock-solid flow. And Millions clearly had a lot to say, filling all of these tracks with powerful declarations of what it’s like to be a working class African-American man in the neighborhoods of Richmond that the Scott’s Addition hipsters don’t even know exist. You can’t afford not to listen to this one.
Nickelus F – Stuck (AGM)
From one AGM heavyweight to another. This year saw incredible statements of purpose and power from all of that formidable crew’s leading lights, and Nickelus F’s Stuck was the hardest-hitting of them all. It’s only fair, considering how long he’s been working to advance his sound; that said, we’re all reaping the benefits, because Stuck proves that after a decade and a half of steady grinding, Sweet Petey is better than ever. If you didn’t catch him on tour with Lil Ugly Mane, you need to at least grab this. It’ll twist your head around.
Ostraca – Enemy (Skeletal Lightning)
People are starting to notice Richmond’s thriving screamo scene; Noisey even wrote about it this summer. If you’re not hip, Ostraca is the first name you need to get familiar with. This scorching trio has been honing their sound for over a decade, arriving on their third album at the strongest and most assured collection of material they’ve brought into the world yet. From harsh screams over furious lightning-speed metallic rage to long, slowly-building post-rock epics, Enemy displays the full range of Ostraca’s considerable talents. Dig in, and remember — there’s plenty more where that came from.
That’s the first half of the list — tune in tomorrow for the rest!
Music Sponsored By Graduate Richmond