We were out in the wilderness for much of 2018 (sorry about that), but our ears, as ever, perked up when we heard it. What comes next are the new releases that dazzled and shattered, that demanded and kept our attention over the last 12 months. —LT
Bonus: A massive 18.5 hour long playlist featuring our favorite albums of the year.
25. Angèle Brol | Belgian-born Angèle quietly skates into the year-end rankings with Brol, a delicate and catchy collection of electropop songs. Though the term ‘brol’ means something between ‘messy’ or ‘in shambles,’ Angèle handles herself with a sleek sophistication, her French pop sensibilities tinged with bits dancehall and hip-hop. Instruments land as lightly as Angèle’s satin-soft voice, together creating a whimsical if slightly ominous tone. For all its sweetness, Brol maintains a slightly edge as if not to remind listeners not to mistake tenderness for weakness. —MJ
24. Bob Dylan More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14 | Giving an entry like this to Bob Dylan can be painfully Rolling Stone esque or overly nostalgic, except when he absolutely deserves it. Blood On The Tracks is universally regarded as both one of his best and his best comeback record. If no one else will, I will be the one to say it - this cut is even better. Before you say I am a complete and utter idiot, please listen to the record. Preferably on your porch, or if its too cold, near a fire; lyric sheet in hand. —LM
23. Mitski Be The Cowboy | Mitski Miyawaki’s characteristically minimalist and direct songwriting became sharper in the two years since Puberty 2. These 14 songs, stretched over a thrilling 32 minutes, resemble sharp projectiles more than pop songs. And they devastate upon impact. —LT
22. Mid Air Thief Crumbling | True confessions : I have been an active member of the nerdiest and greatest web space for music geeks for 10 years. Its called Rate Your Music. Once in a while, a gem gets passed around there and captivates the site. At first listen, Mid-Air Thief sounds like a Grizzly Bear clone, but upon further listening, this is pacific island pop you didn't know you wanted. Tip: Listen in the dark. —LM
21. Cardi B Invasion of Privacy | Forget the personal drama—who had a better year than Cardi B? Her unlikely meteoric rise in 2017 led to Invasion of Privacy, an early highlight this year and the most fully formed rap debut since Kendrick Lamar’s. These 13 bangers are dripping with charisma and a canny understanding of current rap idioms but what makes them so exciting is that they are fundamentally and unapologetically Cardi. —LT
20. Young Fathers Cocoa Sugar | The Clash, Janet Jackson, and MIA all expertly crafted political songs with catchy sensibilities - “London Calling”, “Rhythm Nation”, and “Sunshowers” are as equally poignant as they are groovy. Young Fathers, with their distinct vocal timbre and high-energy productions, achieve the same with Cocoa Sugar. Whether singing or rapping, the trio simmers with purpose as much as they do pomp. They combine musical and political movement into a propulsive method, one that drives songs such as “Toy”, “Holy Ghost”, and “In My View” to feels as much progressive sonically as they are thematically. Looking back on the record only reveals more quirks and melodies you missed during your previous listen, so expect to have your mind blown more than once. —MJ
19. The Voidz Virtue | I saw Voidz at the Empty Bottle (a garbage venue in Chicago) on their Virtue tour and it was awful. They played 8 or 9 songs. The PA sounds like a GameBoy speaker. Everything is distorted and cranked. I can't stress enough that it was one of the worst shows I have ever seen. This stands to the testament then of the power of this record that it is still in my personal top 5 for the year — live, abysmal / on record — utter, utter brilliant. Julian's best since Room on Fire. —LM
18. Kacey Musgraves Golden Hour | This marvelous record is of a rare stratum in popular music. Each song feels intrinsically connected to its author, but these melodies, so lovely and so full, beg for an arena-sized audience. For whatever reason, Kacey Musgraves is not yet playing arenas and maybe she never will, but Golden Hour, her third major-label album, is further proof that she is a song maker of the highest order. Her trajectory, it seems, is skyward and boundless. —LT
17. Earl Sweatshirt Some Rap Songs | Because the cadence and prodigious talent recall MF DOOM and because the song lengths are all short, people can't help but compare this to Madvillainy when in truth it strikes a territory on its own. Like that album, traditional hooks are sonics that you'll doubtlessly recall fondly: the MF DOOM-esque underwater psychedelia of "Cold Summers," the Havoc/Mobb Deep-like wintry piano line of "December 24," Earl Sweatshirt’s respect for the electric guitar on both “Ontheway!” and “Riot!” But overall, the depressed bedroom vibes is what Earl Sweatshirt has slowly been perfecting since his debut album, but fully realized in anti-pop form. —MG
16. The Aces When My Heart Felt Volcanic | Brimming with the dramatic allowances of youth, When My Heart Felt Volcanic uses grand theatrics to leave a lasting impact. Clear-as-bell vocals from ride along pop-rock confections that draw from the ‘80s and Paramore in the very best ways. Not much for wallowing, the Aces prefer to resist against obstacles—both “Stuck” and “Holiday” demand answers from partners rather than waiting, whereas “Strong Enough” challenges said partners’ ability to keep their attention. And few things felt more enjoyable cathartic in 2018 than “Lovin’ Is Bible”, a blast of pop rock that demands to be listened to on the PCH with the windows down. Praise be to positive music, and praise be to the Aces. —MJ
15. Jon Hopkins Singularity | First arriving on the scene with a co-producing credit on Brian Eno's wildly underrated "Small Craft On A Milk Sea," Hopkins has since taken a role as one of the most respected indie electronica producers. And for good reason. It's been a minute since the miniature masterpiece of his last record and if you listen to Singularity enough you will see that its just as top tier. —LM
14. Kids See Ghosts Kids See Ghosts | Kanye West had a shaky-ass year on Twitter, but he killed it in the studio. His bewildering, often outraging, public statements overshadowed, if not out-right colored, the reception of his numerous projects this year—but make no mistake, 2018 was an annus mirabilis for Mr. West, the irrepressible auteur. He released five albums in five weeks, his Wyoming LPs—all ranging from good to gobsmacking, and each with a distinctive atmosphere and texture. In 40 or so days he offered sculptural, brutalist perfection (Daytona), sparse, ugly honesty (Ye), and Kids See Ghosts, the most natural collaboration in his discography. In just over 20 minutes, Kanye West rediscovers a muse, a kindred spirit, and one of his most affecting instruments in Kid Cudi. And Cudi, who struggles every time he helms his own project, has never sounded so vibrant and warm. Ultimately, this works because it is a true creative exchange: Kanye gave Cudi the album he’s always wanted to make, and Cudi pushed and inspired Kanye to exercise his demons without letting his ego get in the way. —LT
13. Willie Nelson Last Man Standing | Despite having already secured his place in Valhalla, Nelson's remained hard-working all these years, but with Last Man Standing, he releases his first set of 11 originals in some time (and then follows it up immediately with a tribute album to Frank Sinatra). Buddy Cannon's production alternates between larger than life and intimate, which provides the perfect backdrop for gorgeous pedal steel guitar and a seemingly endless well of quotables: "Heaven is closed and hell's overcrowded, so I think I'll just stay where I am"; "Don't tell me that I've lost my mind / Cause I've been crazy all the time." And my personal favorite, which opens the album: "I don't want to be the last man standing / But wait a minute, maybe I do." Wherein a veteran celebrating his 85th birthday releases a better country album than most this year. —MG
12. Snail Mail Lush | "Tomorrow I'll feel differently/But my mind will be made up" lands like a contradiction but settles like an epiphany. Lush comes littered with such acute remarks and melodies, delivered with a forthrightness you might mistake for plainness. Though they draw upon lo-fi and indie sounds reminiscent of the past, Snail Mail channel these influences into something that feels new in 2018. Lindsey Jordan sings in her own variation of the indie-rock drone, a slightly dissonant but remarkably determined in its observations. What 19-year-old says something as jaded as "I'm so tired of moving on"? One living in the modern age, where limitless access to information both good and bad lies at everyone's fingertips. Rather than be overwhelmed by the overload, Lush succeeds at condensing love, loss, and existential angst into songs that young and old souls might identify with. —MJ
11. Janelle Monàe Dirty Computer | “Take Back Our Country.” “Make America Great Again.” False patriotism is the uniform of marginalization and bigotry, and no voice in America has been as throttled as the voice of the queer woman of color. Dirty Computer is a document of this long-silenced point of view—and it is remarkable. As an album, it thrills with a casual, sexy pop brilliance. As a piece of protest art, it inspires with its reminder that for some, the mere act of carving out a place in society is protest. In a beguiling triplet at the heart of Dirty Computer’s rapturous closing track, “Americans,” Janelle Monáe adopts the language of her oppressors and reveals the Old Empire has no clothes. “Don’t try to take my country, I will defend my land / I’m not crazy, baby, naw, I’m American / I’m American, I’m American, I’m American.” With urgency, warmth, and optimism, she offers one vital fashion tip throughout these 12 fabulous songs: try on her threads. —LT
10. Hop Along Bark Your Head Off, Dog | Painted Shut was a personal exorcism through genuine, earnest rock music. (A novel concept these days.) Follow-up Bark Your Head Off, Dog is where the band grows up, a record so thoughtfully textured that I would've thought it was by a different band if it weren't for the unique vocalist Francine Quinlan in the center. "How You Got Your Limp" is pure chamber pop, replete with a whistled bridge while "Not Abel"'s melody sounds like it came from an Irish folk song. There are electronic drums ("The Fox in Motion") and lo-fi feints ("Look of Love"), and of course, there's hooks, arguably the best of the year: "Don't worry, we will both find out but not together"; "I'll resume my little lower road." The most mature record of the year by an indie group. —MG
9. Car Seat Headrest Twin Fantasy | A redo of Car Seat Headrest's pre-Matador's most well-regarded album. Seven years removed from the narrator that Will Toledo was back then, he touches up some lyrics and the label lets him clean up the sonics too: a psychedelic detail is added to "High to Death"; "Bodys" is given more impact from what sounds like drum programming; "Stop Smoking" is changed from a Guided by Voices acoustic track into a campfire singalong. Despite the natural bickering of what changes worked and which ones didn't, an important point seems to be lost: that this was and remains a great album. —MG
8. Christine and the Queens Chris | A good friend of mine, a nurse, recently expressed their sadness at the way people often fail to recognize survival as something celebratory. Life deals its cards at random and without mercy, and withstanding such obstacles requires a patient resilience that comes not without difficulty. Chris, with titles like “5 dollars” and “doesn’t matter”, channels existentialism into energy, morphing the minutiae of life into epic and intimate accounts on the human condition. Rather than mourn the world’s chaotic nature, Héloïse Letissier prefers to take the world up on its challenge with a dance battle. —MJ
7. DJ Koze Knock Knock | Much has been made about Amygdala as the deep house version the kaleidoscopic Sgt. Pepper's. So what how can we possibly frame Knock Knock, DJ Koze's long-awaited follow-up, which is the same, but tenfold? Wherein the playful deep house producer gives us another summer of high-profile features, sleeper melodies and drum programming that's by turns nostalgic ("Club Der Ewigkeiten") and other-worldly ("Jesus"). He rejigs a Bon Iver song to get the introverts moving and by the time centerpiece "Pick Up" hits, you're no longer sure where you fit on the spectrum. —MG
6. Rosalía El Mal Querer | Originality as a concept exists in a different form in the 21st century, and vocalist Rosalía Vila Tobella gets it. Taking references ranging from from classic flamenco tradition to living legends such as Destiny’s Child, El Mal Querer reveals all the exciting new ways to harness the old into new. Rosalía’s voice captivates any listener with its effortless soprano and her novel takes on old styles provides the perfect backdrop for an emerging chanteuse. The most ambitious song, “De aquí no sales”, exposes entirely new ways music can go as the 2010s fade into the 2020s, on the backs of chopped vocals, handclaps, and revving motorcycles. Though built upon traditional music styles and everyday noise, El Mal Querer sounds like nothing else. —MJ
5. Beach House 7 | Many, many artists try and fail to achieve what Beach House managed to achieve over the course of their career. Seven critically well-received albums, a fantastic public record, and the ability to keep consistently surprise and please their fanbase. 2018 marked the first time lead singer Victoria Legrand showcase her French-speaking skills on "L'Inconnue", a track whose tempo changes and descending riffs are enough to make you forget the francophone moments. 7 introduces a plethora of noises and instruments to Beach House's repertoire to expand their hazy gaze outwards. In doing so, they also feel a bit more grounded, with percussive elements and distorted guitars keeping their dreamscapes from floating away.
That's not to say the songs lose their expected wispy and nebulous atmospheres, it's more so that Legrand and Alex Scally better understand how to navigate them. "It's what you do/It pulls me through" Legrand murmurs on "Lemon Glow", a sentence that accurately captures her band's own appeal. What they do works, and they do daydreams, a simultaneously pleasant and discontented state of mind that feels very much like 7. —MJ
4. Kali Uchis Isolation | With a clear aesthetic, sensual melodies, and a slightly dissonant timbre, Kali Uchis lulled listeners into her joyously jaded world. Isolation indulges in danger and daydreams told through Uchis’ relaxed yet committed artistic vision. She shares this vision with a massive and diverse set of collaborators, from members of Brockhampton to Thundercat to Greg Kurstin. Such a range of influences means Isolation too struggles to be categorized. To complement her voice, Uchis sticks to genres such as bossa nova and funk, both of which enhance but never overpower her. She further imbues those genres with elements of soul, motown, and other instrumental quirks on par with someone like Beck.
True to its name, Isolation maintains a healthy distance, something Uchis says she learned from being in the music industry: “Not to trust anybody.” Those she does get close to on “Tyrant” or “Nuestro Planeta” only make her feel agitated and a bit delirious. Otherwise, she’s singing at your funeral (“Dead to Me”) or putting off her problems for later (“Tomorrow”). As album highlight “Your Teeth In My Neck” puts it, enjoyment leads to complacency and, as a result, stagnation. Trust no one, especially the things that make you happy. They also have the potential to hurt you the most. –MJ
3. Against All Logic 2012 – 2017 | Bob Dylan is a notoriously bad judge of the excellence of his work. He put one of his best songs of all time on a soundtrack to a movie no one wanted to see. Maybe Nicolas Jaar has a similar difficulty. I have thoroughly enjoyed all of his work under his different monikers but this AAL album is easily his best work to date. Released so quietly on the small Other People label, I didn't even know it existed for months after release — 2012-2017 is an other world version of the new school Daft Punk sound. Effortlessly retro and impossibly futuristic. It sounds like a band from the future made it in the past. It sounds both made by a group and an individual. Don't let this one slip past you - give it a few listens. It somehow sounds like both a demo compilation and a meticulously produced one. I am doing a terrible job of describing it and that's my only job — my apologies, but I will say this: it's one of the strongest electronic records of the decade. —LM
2. Robyn Honey | Harvesting honey requires trial-and-error coupled with a bit of risk, but the payoff outsells, where a job well done coincides with a delicious reward for oneself. After years of heartbreaks, loss, and high expectations, Robyn’s Honey arrived feeling as much a reward for the singer herself as it was for listeners. Far removed from the robotic polish of her earlier efforts, the only holdover being the nostalgic “Missing U”, Honey takes an understated approach to relay emotion. Tints of disco and house line the edges of the songs, which lyrically remain mature but are far less combative than something like “Konichiwa Bitches”.
Narrating listeners through Robyn’s peaks and valleys, Honey is a true dancefloor confessional. It lays bare its flaws (“Human Being”) and cherishes its sensuality (“Send to Robyn Immediately”, “Honey”) absolutely free of self-consciousness. Most importantly, Robyn retains the idiosyncrasies that, like her sharp, platinum blonde hair, distinguished her from others. “Beach 2k20” consists largely of interspersed vocals and spoken-word semi-rhymes yet it feels perfectly at ease in a club setting. Littered with the “Ah’s” and “Woo’s” typical of a Robyn track, a song like “Beach 2k20” inexplicably works. It, like Honey, is another milestone from an artist who has influenced music for two decades simply by following her gut. —MJ
1. Pusha T Daytona | A lot of the best hip hop records are a bit too long. Can we agree with that? It’s the same in rock music. Physical Graffiti is too long, Late Registration is too long, etc, etc, etc. This tendency made the immediacy of Kanye's five projects much more pleasing. This, the first and easily the best of the five (sorry, KSG apologists and The Needle Drop) plays a game of propinquity and execution. No fat, no filler, no space. It will likely be remembered more as a launching point for the best beef of the year, but maybe we should choose to remember it for what it is, a boom bap and southern hip hop masterpiece. 2018 lacked a To Pimp A Butterfly or Blonde, but Daytona was a clear choice for us as AOTY. —LM