The music industry has suffered from the splintering of the monoculture for years, but 2018 was especially slow in terms of hits from world-conquering pop stars. Nicki Minaj, Drake, and Cardi B all released albums, sure, but they served more as vessels for personality than artistry, and only Cardi was capable of releasing even one buzzy single. Even Kanye, previously undefeatable, was undone by his ignorant public persona, producing four albums in as many weeks and generating zero hits.
Sales might have been down without smashes from Beyoncé (The Carters, her project with Jay Z, had little impact), Taylor Swift, or Ed Sheeran, but their absence allowed younger, more diverse artists to catch our attention; many of the best albums of the year were made by twentysomething women, an interesting parallel to our culture’s blessed shift toward honoring the feminine, both in art and politics.
So, here’s our list of our favorite albums from 2018. The albums here defy genre and expectations, and few, if any of them, are concerned with traditional matters of love or money-making. These albums reject the status quo, find triumph in heartbreak, and speak from perspectives that are woefully underrepresented in the mainstream. And, most impressively, they do it while marrying musical styles once perceived as worlds apart. 2018 was a weird year for music. Let’s hope 2019 is, too.
Sophie Allison is barely old enough to drink, but she released one of the best indie rock albums of 2018. Her age is likely an advantage, though, giving her writing a mix of world-weary cynicism while still fresh-eyed about love. “Your Dog” finds her taking a stand against a domineering partner, sneering from the start, “I don’t wanna be your f*cking dog.” And while her anger there is palpable and impactful, the one-two concluding punch of “Scorpio Rising” and “Wildflowers” finds her ruminating about lost love and the loneliness of the aftermath with such tenderness and vivid imagery (“A vine stretched down Fifth Avenue/ It came in through my window/ Carry me home like you used to”) that you’d be forgiven for not caring at all about how old she is.
Lorely Rodriguez’s voice is one pop needs today. Not just for its agility and strength, reaching for scorn on one note and longing the next, but because Rodriguez uses it, as on standout “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed,” to communicate base vulnerability as few pop stars can. Us is not as anachronistic as its 2015 predecessor — the menace of a song like “Water” would be out of place among these 10 tracks — but it still bangs.
La Luz have been the standard-bearers for LSD-laced surf rock for the better part of the decade, and Floating Features is the L.A. band’s best album yet. Shana Cleveland’s detached delivery of songs like “The Creature” and “Don’t Leave Me on the Earth” conjures a foreboding, free-floating feel for all of us who’d love to do anything but stay on this burning planet we call home.
Josh Tillman’s runaway-train of a project seemed to have gone completely off the rails with Pure Comedy, but, against all odds, he reined in the self-indulgent indignation and created something great with God’s Favorite Customer. Standout “Please Don’t Die” is a nice ditty about trying to protect the one you love while managing to insult them further, a paradox only Misty could pull off. Tillman is at his best when his concern with the fate of humankind is conflated with his concern for himself and, well, here’s an entire album of toe-tappers devoted to just that.
It’s a good time to find motivation for anxious punk, and D.C.’s Flasher did it better than anyone else this year. Constant Image is a fully-formed statement on the hopes and fears of the young and queer in America, and the band grounds those abstractions in the everyday, whether it’s the thin taste of skim milk (“Skim Milk”) or the bite of a cigarette drag (“Sun Come and Golden”). It helps, too, that the lyrical melodies are head-spinning tongue twisters. If the world were just, Flasher would be stars.
Alexis Georgopoulos has been releasing records of ethereal, electronic textures for more than a decade, but with ZEBRA he’s found something new. He manages to pile together a difficult mix of dance and jazz and Afrobeat into the perfect soundtrack for a daydream — or an acid trip. These tracks, with their far-flung percussion and layered production, conjure landscapes that morph and fade; “Reading a Wave” is a standout, its eight minutes of piano, distortion, and overblown sax gently building, then crumbling, like the surf of a low tide.
Prior to Hive Mind, the Internet had been mistakenly pegged as little other than a vehicle for the über-talented Syd. With this one, though, all of the members — including indie wonder boy Steve Lacey — are given a chance to shine, and the cumulative product is just the smoothest marmalade, all of the best of R&B and funk and rap jammed together and spread thick over its hour-long runtime. There’s a reason these folks were the first from the Odd Future pack to snag a Grammy. The album doesn’t top “Girl,” the group’s best, but lead single “Come Over” sure comes close.
El Mal Querer is jam-packed with earworms, like the surprising hit single “MALAMENTE (Cap.1: Augurio),” but Rosalía Vila Tobella does us one better, filling out the album with flamenco handclap abstractions and Justin Timberlake samples (“BAGDAD – CAP.7: Liturgia”). Each track is wholly new, yet the album — which lists its tracks as chapters — flows seamlessly. This is the rare Spanish-language album that’s managed to hit in the States, and thank goodness it did.
The guys formerly known as Viet Cong are still awful at naming anything, but they’re great at crafting brooding post-punk. On their third proper album, some kind of light has managed to pierce the bleakness, resulting in songs like “Compliance” and “Disarray,” which conjure, somehow, images of rippling heat waves on midsummer sidewalks. “Antidote,” on the other hand, with its industrial drumbeat and talk of overdose, conjures the type of trance-like menace that made the group stand out in the first place.
Kanye is cancelled, but credit to the man for shining a light on Teyana Taylor. With K.T.S.E., Taylor reveals not only her formidable voice, but also her impeccable taste. (“Rose In Harlem” is one of the year’s best songs, and features maybe the greatest sample of the year.) As an album, it’s all too brief, but the whole thing shines bright. If there’s justice in this world, “WTP” will be played in clubs around the world for years to come, everyone dancing up a sweat like Taylor famously did in the video for Kanye’s “Fade.”
SOPHIE is the pop star of the apocalypse. With the artist’s first proper full-length, the world fell to its knees: Surprisingly, these abrasive, powerful tracks found fans that span the demographic spectrum. OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES serves up some of the year’s best chopped-up pop songs, like “Faceshopping” and the Madonna-baiting “Immaterial.” But what’s more, the album works as an exploration of identity, its beautiful bits of metallic noise reflecting the interior lives of trans people, or any people who must come to terms with being of a kind drawn outside of traditionally accepted lines.
It’s tempting to claim that Whack World is only worth listening to when viewing its visual counterpart (see above). While it’s true that the 15-minute video is a stellar accomplishment by Whack, it’s almost more amazing that an album of 15 one-minute songs manages to be so cohesive, and it’s all thanks to her singular vision. There are biting tracks here (opener “Black Nails”) but, lord, it just doesn’t get better than the bittersweet “Pet Cemetery,” in which Whack sings about missing, and kissing, her dead dog.
Nobody can accuse Janelle Monae of not giving it her all; her need to try, and the winning way she does it, is what makes Dirty Computer work so well. It’s a mixed bag, for sure, but nobody does Prince as well as Monae on “Make Me Feel,” and the glorious gayness of “Pynk” catalyzed a much-needed shift toward queerness in the landscape of pop music. It’s a shame that Dirty Computer didn’t help Monae cross the threshold into being a household name, but it sure as hell got her one step closer.
Mitski Miyawaki followed up the breakthrough success of Puberty 2 with something of a typical indie move, which is to throw some programmed drums and vintage synths into the mix. It works. The newly danceable instrumentals on Be the Cowboy only serve to sharpen the bite of the lyrics. “Old Friend,” a song longing for reconnection over a cup of coffee at an everyday diner, is one of the singer’s best, but this couplet on “Lonesome Love” is Mitski at her finest: “nobody butters me up like you/nobody f*cks me like me.”
The relatively short life of Damon McMahon’s Amen Dunes project has been built on vibes, and with previous records the croak-throated singer managed that with oodles of reverb and songs that spared no spite in their self-reflection. Freedom expands on those themes and finds a groove in something more akin to good ol’ ‘70s rock. The song structures are still strange, but the storytelling in songs like “Miki Dora,” about an aging surf legend, and “Skipping School,” an indictment of both the cool kids and the hypocritical critics of said cool kids, is enchanting in a way none of McMahon’s other work is. Oh, and “Believe” is one of the best rock songs of this decade.
Héloïse Letissier has always celebrated queerness with her work as Christine and the Queens, but with Chris, it’s amped up to a new, gender-bending level. “Girlfriend,” the album’s lead single and standout track, finds her, in her gloriously thick accent, appropriating masculinity and weaponizing it against men. “5 Dollars,” another single, puts us in the mind of a strong-willed prostitute, and “Damn (What Must a Woman Do)” is an angry, slinky track about erotic equality. This is all to say that Chris is highly sexualized, beautifully queer, and undeniably danceable. Which is what all pop albums should aspire to be.
The Baltimore duo of Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand has proven, time and time again, that they can do no wrong. With 7 — their seventh proper album, duh — they’ve finally proven that they can do something new. The most obvious outlier is the pulsating “Lemon Glow,” but “Lose Your Smile” works in the rare acoustic guitar to outstanding effect, too. “Drunk In LA,” while not an atypical Beach House song, still manages to steal the show. And how could it not, with the year’s most evocative lyrics: “Memory’s a sacred meat/it’s drying all the time/on a hillside I remember/ I am loving losing life.” It’s the band’s best song on perhaps its best album, and after more than a decade in the game, that’s quite an accomplishment.
To love Iceage is to love sleaze, and the Danish quartet provides sacks of it on their fourth album. Ringleader Elias Bender Rønnenfelt is at his debauched best, his accent-laden drunken drawl spinning tales of rowdy kids with STDs on their tongues (“Plead the Fifth”) and ill-advised codependence (the excellent “Pain Killer,” which features Sky Ferreira). The band, and Rønnenfelt, are not so much unhinged as they are unbridled, and their willingness to say and play whatever they want pays off in spades on “Showtime,” a booze-drenched story about the lead of a play who blows his brains out, and the ungrateful, uncaring patrons who care only for their loss of the cost of the ticket.
All hail Robyn. The Swedish pop royalty returns after too many years away, and it’s with a bite-size album of the year’s most tasteful pop. The inclusion of “Honey” is satiating for all the fans who first heard a small snippet of it years ago on an episode of Girls, but it’s lead single “Missing U” that plays to all of Robyn’s strengths. It’s a song general enough for fans to believe Robyn’s whiled away the years while missing them, but specific enough to possibly be about the passing of Robyn’s longtime collaborator, Christian Falk. That play between the specific and the universal has always been Robyn’s strength, especially when paired with a track made for melting on the dance floor.
This year saw Julian Casablancas give some very embarrassing interviews, but it also saw him release one of the best albums of his career. The second Voidz album utilizes spazzy guitar solos (“Leave It In My Dreams”), canned synth beats (“All Wordz Are Made Up”) and honkytonk-meets-soldier boy drums (“Lazy Boy”) to create a breezy pirate radio vibe that proves that, in rock’n’ roll, sometimes more is more. Also, Virtue contains what is perhaps the best all-time Julian lyric: “Jackets are the eyes to the soul.” And he would know.
If there were any doubt that Parquet Courts would maintain an edge even when produced by Danger Mouse, it’s squelched at the tail-end of Wide Awake!’s opening track, “Total Football,” when A. Savage screams, “And f*ck Tom Brady!” In America, no risk is greater. Recorded in New Orleans, the politics of the album are clear and present, anti-Trump, yeah, but mostly anti-capitalist (“Violence”: “Why are there no folk songs/about ATM machines”; the entirety of “Before the Water Gets Too High”). But Wide Awake!’s greatest successes and most welcome surprises come in moments of poignancy, mostly on “Tenderness” and “Freebird II,” an ode to a drug-addicted mother. “When I think about you I see a person who/Hasn’t existed for a long time,” Savage sings, coming to terms with his mother’s fate.
An album from a former Nickelodeon star has no right to be this good. Sweetener is the weird, beautiful result of a lot of hard work, yes, but it also draws from the trauma of the Manchester Arena attack and the dissolution of her troubled relationship with Mac Miller. “No Tears Left to Cry” and “Breathin” are the most obvious paeans to the singer’s will to trudge on, post-tragedy. But the album is more than that: “Successful” is one of the best flexes in modern pop, and “R.E.M.” is maybe one of the weirdest dream-boy love songs of all-time. Many of the album’s high points come via Pharrell Williams’s production, characteristically bouncy, futuristic bops with human touches (breaths, snaps). But it’d be nothing without Ariana’s point of view, which has grown more eccentric than one could’ve ever hoped. And, well, there’s that voice. Listen to brief album opener “Raindrops (An Angel Cried)” and try to deny the power of the thing.
After more than a decade of recording, Meghan Remy’s U.S. Girls finally hit with In a Poem Unlimited, a pitch-perfect pop-minded art rock album. It opens with “Velvet 4 Sale,” a hypnotic song about a woman taking revenge on a man by putting a “bullet behind the eyes.” Every track that follows takes on a part of the modern world that’s ripe for destruction: industrial pollution (“Rage of Plastics”); the Obama years (“M.A.H.”); the inescapable cycle of abusive relationships (“Incidental Boogie”); and consumption culture (“Poem”).These targets are heady and worthy, but not necessarily unique. The songs are made singular by the combination of Remy’s haunting writing (“Pearly Gates” tells of a woman who must have sex with St. Peter to enter heaven), her beautiful voice, and the top-shelf production. It all comes together to make In a Poem Unlimited one of the most important political albums of the Trump era.
The anticipation for Golden Hour was at a fever pitch the moment the disco-tinged “High Horse” hit the airwaves, but to tie Kacey Musgraves to that one danceable track would be a travesty. Her sophomore album is filled with modern country classics, not the least of which is “Space Cowboy,” with its obvious, iconic chorus. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the album is that it embraces kitsch (“Velvet Elvis”) while elevating it beyond the pop culture gutter in which it’s been forced to reside for so long. Pick any of the 13 tracks here and you’ll find yourself in a world of country music turned on its head. That’s the magic of Musgraves: her ability to mine the tropes of country music tradition while not simply tweaking them, but dragging them kicking and screaming into modernity.
Kali Uchis, born Karly-Marina Loaiza, is only 24, but Isolation contains the sounds of decades of music. The first proper full-length from the prolific artist has rightly been coined, endlessly, as genre-defying. And while that’s fun as a gimmick, it’s also untrue: Uchis does not defy genre so much as redefine it, cramming the sounds of salsa, ‘60s girl groups, twee indie rock, and ‘90s R&B into one perfectly executed piece of work. (It’s even got Damon Albarn!) That her pop music veers into the political (“Your Teeth In My Neck,” about greedy label execs) as deftly as the personal (“Dead to Me,” about someone — an ex? — who is obsessed) further proves that she’s the pop star we need in 2018. Our idols can no longer afford to be just one thing or the other; luckily, with Isolation, Kali Uchis proves that she’s everything.