By C.B. Radio
As art always mirrors life, 2018 has been a harrowing year for popular music. From the overt political leftism of The 1975’s “A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships” to the personal tranquility contained in Amen Dunes’ masterful “Freedom,” it’s been a year full of public protest and private reinvention, along with everything in between. Here are 2018’s best albums.
Countdown of the Top Ten:
10. Hookworms – Microshift
The most surprising about-face of 2018 belongs to the Hookworms, whose latest album Microshift is the culmination of years of heartbreak and despair. Relationships shattered; their studio destroyed by a flood midway through recording their next record. Instead of giving up, the band started from scratch, and their relentlessness resulted in an album that, instead of reveling in despair, is positively joyful. Album opener “Negative Space” is a masterful introduction to this new sound. It’s a slow-build – by the end of the track, this song about love and loss finally gives way to euphoria. “I still see you every time I’m down” could be a ghostly, sad lyric. Here, it’s the opposite: a departed friend summons smiles instead of tears. The band has since broken up – so Microshift could very well be their swan song, and what a swan song it is.
9. Beach House – 7
Beach House has steadily been one of indie rock’s most consistent bands, and 2018’s “7” somehow continues that streak while completely retooling the band’s formula. “Lemon Glow” sounds like a synthed-out fever dream. “Drunk In L.A.” sounds just like the title suggests. Singer Victoria Legrand gives us her best vocal performance, too – her haunting voice elevates these tracks into dreamlike euphoria. If Beach House continues to grow like this after seven records, there’s no reason to expect a downfall anytime soon.
8. The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
The 1975 have always been a divisive band. Are they some sort of genius Justin Timberlake – Radiohead hybrid, or merely the latest flavor of the week? Their new record shows the ambition that could catapult the band to legendary status. “A Brief Inquiry” is by far their best album, anchored by “Love It If We Made It,” which isn’t about a crumbling relationship, but a crumbling society. It’s the best track of the year, a song unafraid of calling out Trump. “I moved on her like a bitch!” screams singer Matty Healy, daring us to chastise him for quoting the leader of the free world. This decade’s OK Computer? Probably not. But if The 1975 continue their growth, a limitless future is ahead.
7. Jeff Rosenstock – POST
On New Year’s Day 2018, punk auteur Jeff Rosenstock surprise-released his newest rollicking record, and he is PISSED OFF. In opener “USA,” he wonders aloud who’s responsible for our country’s current state off affairs. (“Man in a Crossover with his family: is it you?”)
Rosenstock is kind of an indie-punk legend at this point, with years of touring under his belt with his old band Bomb The Music Industry. But his new solo effort is more fierce than his previous output. Instead of drinking away his sorrows, he’s now screaming at the corrupt, but he sometimes still wonders if it’s worth it. “What’s the point of having a voice when it gets stuck inside your throat?” he sing-screams in “Yr Throat.” POST seems to suggest that screaming your head off is the way to go.
6. Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer
Maybe we should be a bit worried about Josh Tillman. The songwriter has remained coy about his fourth record under the “Father John Misty” moniker, but it seems to revolve around an extended hotel stay away from his estranged wife, who he so lovingly embraced in 2015’s “I Love You Honeybear.”
Tillman’s new album features him drunkenly stumbling through the streets of New York and arguing with Bowery Hotel staff about guest rules. (“Don’t leave the mattress in the rain if you sleep on the balcony.”) The songs are among the most personal he’s ever written; the title track is a heartbreaker, as Tillman prays to a God he probably doesn’t believe in to save him from his misery. Here’s to Misty’s fifth record finding him in a better place – and the music being just as good.
5. Amen Dunes – Freedom
I have no idea what the fuck the indecipherable Damon McMahon is mumbling about during most of “Freedom,” the new stoned-out LP from Amen Dunes. Thankfully, the music says all it needs to say, its propelling drums, watery guitars, and rumbling bass rhythmically churning to what amounts to McMahon’s best album by far.
Its songs range from the personal to the biographical: Miki Dora eulogizes the real-life, promiscuous surfer, while album standout “Believe” alludes to the pain-ridden final year of McMahon’s own mother’s life, although the singer prefers to dwell on halcyon days rather than ones full of torment.
In some of the only understandable lyrics on the album, he mines the aforementioned song for nostalgia, looking back to car rides with his mom growing up. “Radio’s on, and they’re playing my song back in 1992. Things were simpler baby, you hear everyone say, but that don’t make it true.” A strong insight from the normally coy singer. McMahon has finally found his voice.
4. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
The year’s best pop songwriting came not from Taylor Swift, but from the now-legendary Kacey Musgraves, who can pluck a hook from midair and make even the most hardened cynics tap their feet along.
Take “Happy and Sad,” a song describing the singer’s wedding day. “Is there a word for the way I’m feeling tonight?” She croons. “Happy and sad at the same time – You got me smiling with tears in my eyes.” I don’t care if you think you hate country music. Musgraves’ ear for melody will open your mind.
3. Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
After the slog of Earl’s sophomore output “I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside,” rapper Earl Sweatshirt was due for a reinvention. The sophomore slump failed to build on the promise of his masterful debut, “Doris,” an ode to his family life and struggle with depression.
Thankfully, “Some Rap Songs” is like a breath of fresh air; its 15 songs barely lapse 25 minutes. Every track seamlessly transitions into Earl’s next meditation on depression, women, and friendship. Fitting its nondescript title and blurry cover art, “Some Rap Songs” is a more casual affair, but Earl’s pummeling beats and pristine flow amount to the best record Earl’s ever produced.
2. Iceage – Beyondless
From the opening dissonance of jazz horns and guitar feedback that thunders through the speakers on album opener “Hurrah,” it’s clear the young punks that make up Iceage are reaching for a fuller sound. The first few seconds of the album sound like an orchestra preparing for battle, and the searing “Beyondless” builds on that early promise.
It’s a dark record, bookended by Lynchian squall of “Hurrah” and the dreamy title track, where singer Elias Roenfeld pleads to a lover who he cannot save from the depths of despair. It’s a serious record from a serious young band whose future is as bright as ever.
1. U.S. Girls – In A Poem Unlimited
Meg Remy of U.S. Girls is mad as hell, and she’s not going to take it anymore. She almost literally says so during the chorus of “M.A.H.” – the symbolic centerpiece of the band’s newest and best album “In A Poem Unlimited.” It’s a sprawling record, full of hip-hop drum fills in “Rosebud” and disco synths in the shimmering highlight “Poem.”
But Remy never strays from her topical message that lambasts the patriarchy one rollicking song at a time. 2018’s best album plays like a storybook of misogyny; “Rage of Plastics” describes a world where industry and commerce literally make a town’s women barren and unable to birth children. It’s a bleak future, but one Remy is warning us might be a realistic one if we don’t make changes soon.
You can read more about this album in this June 2018 Julie article.
The best of the rest!
11. Parquet Courts – Wide Awake
The New York punk band’s sixth studio album is their most danceable, upbeat record yet – thanks to inspired production from none other than Danger Mouse. From the funky title track to the sweetly nostalgic “Freebird II,” A. Savage and the gang are at the top of their game.
12. Noname- Room 25
Fatimah Warner, who now goes by the clever pseudonym “Noname,” began her career as a slam-poet in Chicago, slowly making her name as the premier wordsmith in southside Chicago. Room 25, her auspicious debut, delivers on her early promise: part lounge jazz and part soulful rap, Warner’s star is shining brighter than ever.
13. Christine and the Queens – Chris
Christine and the Queens club-ready debut album is one of the better debuts of the past few years, and her follow-up “Chris” is no less appealing: this time, her androgynous alter-ego takes over. “5 Dollars,” the album’s best track, is a solid representation of the record as a whole, tackling gender issues and embracing prostitution, which serves as a tangible form of consent in Christine’s eyes. She’s no stranger to controversy, and “Chris” is all the better for it.
14. Yves Tumor – Safe in the Hands of Love
The most striking aspect of Yves Timor’s third record is the emphatic emotion present in nearly every track. It’s a largely instrumental affair, but in Yves Tumor’s hands, one buzzing synth or reverberated guitar can bring about a well of tears.
15. Robyn – Honey
Robyn’s long-awaited “Honey” is arguably her best album yet. The Swedish singer embraces her tuneful side during the title track and hit single “Missing You,” but it’s her newfound subtlety that brings everything together, with a perfectly-sequenced track list culminating with the vibrant “Ever Again.”
16. Rosalia – El mal querer
Perhaps the most critically acclaimed release of 2018, Spanish singer Rosalia’s experimental pop flourishes elevate her second studio album above the standard pop tropes that sometimes bogged down her debut. It’s a great leap forward from one of our most promising international pop stars.
17. Idles – Joy As An Act of Resistance
Perhaps the most brutal post-punk album of the year, Idles’ new LP is 30 minutes of rollicking guitars, incessant drums, and pounding bass. Once it’s over, you’ll want to get back on for another ride. It’s a scorcher, to be sure, but also just plain FUN.
18. Daughters – You Won’t Get What You Want
In contrast to the Idles record, Daughters’ new release is a sludge-fest, showcasing a band unafraid of slowing things down to make a point. They don’t sacrifice a bit of anger at the current state of world affairs, however: the band is just as pissed off as ever, and would you really want a Daughters album to stray from that formula?
19. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
Monae’s stardom has begun to outclass her music career. “Dirty Computer” is a mess of an album, which lacks the consistency of 2013’s “Electric Lady,” still her best release. A few duds can’t bring down the album, though, with thumping tracks like “Make Me Feel” still elevating the record above most of her contemporaries.
20. Low – Double Negative
If there’s one album over the past five years that’s influenced the most musicians, it might have to be Bon Iver’s masterful “22, A Million,” released in 2016 but sounding out-of-time altogether. Low aimed to blow up their formula by turning their soft-rock inward and hiring the Bon Iver producer, who turned “Double Negative” into his latest opus. It’s Low’s best album in more than a decade.
21. Mount Eerie – Now Only
Phil Elverum, who now famously lost his wife two years ago to cancer, exorcized more of his demons with “Now Only,” an album almost as unbearably sad as its predecessor “A Crow Looked At Me.” A happy ending awaits for Phil, though: he’s newly married to actress Michelle Williams, who lost a partner of her own when Heath Ledger died ten years ago.
23. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Sparkle Hard
The former Pavement singer will never live down his old band’s legacy, but “Sparkle Hard,” his latest album with the Jicks, does its best to table those comparisons. Songs like “Middle America” could even be an outtake from “Crooked Rain” – but Malkmus would probably chastise that notion, preferring to boost his current group’s popularity. With their newest record, it seems like he’s succeeding.
24. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
Cardi B’s ascension was quick but premeditated: “Bodak Yellow” was no fluke, and you’re not likely to find a more fun record than “Invasion of Privacy” all year.
25. Pusha T – Daytona
Okay, not EVERYTHING Kanye touched this year turned to shit. West produced the entirety of Pusha T’s “Daytona,” easily the rapper’s best release yet. Maybe we should take away Kanye’s microphone for his own good.
26. Julia Holter – Aviary
Julia Holter’s ambitions were sky-high for her newest album “Aviary,” and its groovy tunes will sneak up on you with their subtle power. It often sounds like 2018’s answer to Astral Weeks, with Holter’s ghostly vocals giving even Van Morrison a run for his money.
27. Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy
A completely revamped version of the band’s 2011 album, the new version of “Twin Fantasy” improves on the formula they nearly perfected earlier this decade. Take the epic “Beach-Life-In-Death,” which portrays a tragic same-sex romance torn apart by time and distance. The new recording only enhances the song’s emotional power.
28. Wye Oak – The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs
After the group’s tuneful “Tween,” Wye Oak traded their guitars for synths and embraced a new, avant-garde style of songwriting, as evidenced by the ear-worm of a title track that dispels any notion of the band getting rusty.
29. Soccer Mommy – Clean
You’re hard-pressed to find any pop songs better than “Cool” or “Last Girl” off of “Clean,” singer-songwriter Sophie Allison’s major-label debut as Soccer Mommy. Some of the year’s best hooks can be found in the crevices of “Clean,” the Nashville artist’s best work yet.
30. Snail Mail – Lush
Lindsey Jordan was 17 when she wrote most of the songs on “Lush,” an astonishing achievement when you consider the quality of the aptly-named single “Pristine,” along with the record’s nine other breezy tracks. So far, Jordan hasn’t given us any reason to believe her band will decline with age.