Top 20 Albums of 2018
Many of the big pop and hip-hop artists stayed relatively quiet in 2018 (except Kanye). This led to a vacuum of power that caused pop stars like Ariana Grande to reach critical mass and trap stars like Migos and Travis Scott to dominate the hip-hop sphere. Debut albums from Snail Mail, boygenius, and Soccer Mommy caused a small renaissance of female driven indie rock. Kanye was at his most obnoxious but also most prolific producing five albums in five weeks over the summer that were overall pretty good. 2018 was also groundbreaking for artists like Noname and Kali Uchis who made big artistic statements after seemingly being stuck in feature purgatory. Great albums in 2018 were made with unfiltered self-confidence, a pinch of sociopolitical commentary, and a bit of yeehaw magic.
20. Ariana Grande, Sweetener
Ariana Grande’s tumultuous 2018 led to her owning the millennial pop landscape. From her roller coaster of a relationship with Pete Davidson and death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller led to Grande becoming a mainstream in the public’s eye. Sweetener catches Grande in the middle of this whirlwind of a year and ultimately is a statement about getting through turmoil with confidence. The first single to come out, “no tears left to cry,” was a response to the Manchester bombing that occurred at her concert and the strength to persevere. On the second single from the album, “God is a woman,” Grande showcases her confidence at being a woman and led to one of the most iconic music videos in 2018. Sweetener is the best template for what a significant pop album looks like in 2018 and elevated Ariana Grande into immortal pop stardom.
Standouts: no tears left to cry, God is a woman, breathin
19. Jeff Tweedy, WARM
The first true solo album from Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, WARM sees the perennial dad rocker at his best. The album follows closely to the feelings expressed in his recently released memoir Lets Go (So We Can Get Back) he comes off as a somber man with a sense of humor. Focusing on some heavy topics like his drug use and how heavily that affected his life, WARM is straight up in its instrumentation and Americana influence. Despite this focus on the lyrics, some songs appear sparse as the instrumentation carries you off as you contemplate what Tweedy just said. Many of the tracks hit hard because of Tweedy’s reflections but none harder than “Don’t Forget,” a song where he has excepted that he will die from a drug overdose and is telling his son to not forget that he loves him. In his memoir Tweedy says that “artist create in spite of suffering, not because of suffering” and these sentiments carry throughout the album. Tweedy never states “woe is me” but rather says “I Know What It’s Like” and provides us with powerful music in the process.
Standouts: Don’t Forget, Let’s Go Rain, I Know What It’s Like
18. Soccer Mommy, Clean
The title for the best female indie record was hotly contested this year as albums from Snail Mail, Hop Along, and new supergroup boygenius. While all these albums were great Soccer Mommy’s (Sophie Allison) debut, Clean, takes the elusive prize. One thing that many of these albums had in common were very subdued sounding vocals. This initially turned me away (from particularly Snail Mail) but in time I ended up loving the sound and found that this flatline sound gave way to greater peaks in performance. Soccer Mommy explores the dichotomy of being fiercely independent (ie. “Your Dog”) but also longing for some idealized relationship (ie. “Cool” and “Last Girl”). The album ends with the beautiful song “Wildflowers” which sees Allison accepting that trying to change for a relationship is misguided as she sings “I want to be who I wasn’t.” Although the lyrics are somewhat cheesy the sentiment shows the journey Soccer Mommy goes through on the album.
Standouts: Your Dog, Last Girl, Wildflowers
17. Brockhampton, iridescence
It seemed like nothing could stop Brockhampton as they released three critically acclaimed albums in 2017 and signed with RCA early in 2018. This momentum was dampened as they announced that founding member Amer Vaan would no longer be part of the group following allegations of sexual misconduct. iridescence feels like a response to the turmoil-filled year and the ailments that fame brought. The epicenter of this is “Weight,” a song where each member talks about their largest weight since becoming famous. From pressure to self-harm and struggling with sexuality, “Weight” seems like more of a therapy session than a song. These musing about fame seem long winded at first but it provides a healthy release to an aspect of music that has doomed many bands before.
Standouts: Weight, J’Ouvert, San Marcos
16. Kanye West, ye
Kanye’s intense love for the spotlight reached its apex this year as his outrages on twitter led him to estrange fans. This same manic energy led him to produce five albums throughout the year in a reduced, seven-song, format. The second of these albums, ye, is gruelingly personal. Kanye addresses everything surrounding his outbursts with a no holds almost improvisational approach. The opener, “I Thought About Killing You,” is a prime example of this as Kanye’s spoken word brings us up close and personal with his mental illness. While the album seems rushed lyrically and not as polished production wise as we have come to expect, the window into the mind of such a monumental artists makes it exceptional.
Standouts: I Thought About Killing You, Ghost Town, Violent Crimes
15. U.S. Girls, In a Poem Unlimited
U.S. Girls (musician Meghan Remy) creates an album with a wide range of influences and sounds that makes one loose track of the sharp commentary that is being placed before us. In a Poem Unlimited lends quite the variety with songs like the blondie inspired synth-pop on “M.A.H” or the hip-hop beats on “Pearly Gates.” After the glitz and glam these songs provide, the lyrics show a side of Remy filled with great frustration with men. “M.A.H” (or Mad as Hell) is a piece criticizing Obama in particular for his hand in the popularization of drone warfare. “Pearly Gates” become a searing parable of the Me Too movement as upon arrival to heaven the narrator says that she “opened my gates wide” for St. Peter. The entire album is filled with stories such as this and it speaks volume to Remy’s ability to make great music with bold statements.
Standouts: M.A.H, Incidental Boogie, Pearly Gates
14. Noname, Room 25
Room 25 sees Chicagoan rapper, Fatimah Warner, grow into her own as a full-fledged artistic force. Coming up with the likes of Chance the Rapper, Noname’s unique spoken word form of rapping has an interesting jazz-like quality. The instrumentation feels sparse throughout the album because of the focus on Noname’s soothing voice. Despite this, there is a lavish accompaniment to every song that takes you away between spouts of Noname’s voice. A story of confidence is what Noname goes through on Room 25. This confidence allows for her unequivocal sponsorship of herself on the album opener, “Self.” Along with self confidence, Noname seems to have the confidence to talk about big issues that plague herself and many other black people on songs like “Blaxploitation.” The instrumentation and vocals shine as Noname asserts herself as one of the best up and coming rappers.
Standouts: Self, Prayer Song, Don’t Forgert About Me
13. Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer
“If you look closer you’ll recognize / I’m not that special, I’m broke inside” Janelle Monáe sings on the opener to her album, “Dirty Computer.” Monáe uses computers as a lens to look at societies (America’s) faults. This can be heavy-handed at moments but the instrumentation and star-studded cast that Monáe assembles leads to an overall hard-hitting album. From Grimes to Brian Wilson, Monáe produces a very 80’s inspired sound. Particularly on the first single, “Make Me Feel,” Monáe channels her inner Prince with a “Kiss” inspired baseline that is electric. While this sound dominates much of the album there are little pockets of other styles and genres of music. The slam poetry sounding “Django Jane,” which like Django Unchained, takes no prisoners in her attempt to take down the patriarchy. The Grimes influence takes a huge effect on “Pynk” with the high pitched vocals and pulsating synth beats dominate the track. Janelle Monáe’s quest for ultimate stardom continues with her fantastic, multi-faceted concept album, Dirty Computer.
Standouts: Screwed, Pynk, Make Me Feel
12. Arctic Monkeys, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
“What do you mean you’ve never seen Blade Runner” Alex Turner shouts in the album-opening song, “Star Treatment.” Much of Arctic Monkey’s new album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, contains many odd comments like this that seemingly come out of left field. The band has slowly shifted away from their garage rock roots that brought them fame and have now settled on a weird version of lounge pop? Whatever it is the sound is enthralling as the piano dominates almost every corner of this album giving imagery of a grizzled old man spewing nonsense in a smoke-filled room. Much of the album analyzes issues with the modern world like the surveillance state (hearkening back to the Blade Runner reference), music reviews (“Four out of Five”), and online dating (“She Looks Like Fun”). The ultimate message in many of these songs is often muddled and messy but it matches the aesthetic that the band is trying to create with the sound landscape so it ends up being an enjoyable retreat.
Standouts: Star Treatment, American Sports, The Ultracheese
11. Death Grips, Year of the Snitch
The internet’s favorite band to fight over released even more argument fodder this year with their new album, Year of the Snitch. The experimental rap band took a left turn and their new album has just as many aspects of arena rock as experimental hip-hop. Nowhere is this seen clearer than the explosive “Black Paint,” which sees the band emulating the Rolling Stone’s famous “Paint It Black.” The album sound is deeply unsettling for some reason and the lyrics are hard to make out at best but there is something to the overall aesthetic and sound that becomes ever intoxicating after every listen. The hard rock influences are there but there are some moments that the grooves and chords seem almost poppy. On “hahaha” there is a moment like this but it leaves an instant later drowned by the industrial hip-hop. Year by year Death Grips proves that they are one of the most innovative bands in their genre.
Standouts: Death Grips Is Online, Shitshow, Streaky
10. Pusha T, Daytona
The first stop on Kanye’s producing rampage, Pusha T’s Daytona, introduced the world to the sleek, seven-song, style that dominated the summer. Maybe the tightest of all of Kanye’s productions, Daytona, is a to the point statement about drug dealing, relationships, and confidence. The album’s closer, “Infrared,” was a scathing takedown of Drake and allegations of ghostwriting. This would explode on the same day as Drake would respond with the track “Duppy Freestyle.” Four days later Pusha released the final word, “The Story of Adidon.” A diss track that contained cover art of Drake in blackface from 2007 and alleged he was hiding a child from the public. With that Pusha T won the beef and with Daytona getting a Grammy nomination instead of Drake’s Scorpion, it seemed like the two were just cut from different cloth.
Standouts: If You Know You Know, Come Back Baby, Infrared
9. Beach House, 7
There seemed little for Beach House to prove going on their latest album, 7. Already creating multiple dream pop masterpieces in the late 2000s, Beach House continues to be the face of the genre. 7 creates such an airy atmosphere that is at times unsettling but creates magnificent soundscapes for the listener. The droning synthesizers provide a constant wall of sound, a kind of sense of reassurance, that is broken down by changing chord progressions or beats. Nowhere can this be heard more than on the second single to be released, “Dive,” where the wall of sound built up throughout the first half of the song is desecrated by droning drums. Beach House consistently are on the forefront of sound and atmosphere that pushes them above the rest.
Standouts: Dark Spring, Drunk In LA, Dive
8. Father John Misty, Gods Favorite Customer
Far from the post-apocalyptic epic that was 2017’s Pure Comedy, Josh Tillman’s latest record sees him turn his wit and songwriting towards the topic of love. Not a new topic for Tillman as he tackled this on 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear with a very different perspective. On 2018’s God’s Favorite Customer, Tillman chronicles his struggles with love in the context of a couple too many stays at hotels. While this is obviously a dark time to Tillman (see “Please Don’t Die” or “The Palace”), he is at his best with his intense injections of wit and story. On “Mr. Tillman,” Tillman plays a hotel receptionist talking to Tillman about the various consequences of his debauchery the night before.
Thematically God’s Favorite Customer could be about him returning to religion after many years of dismissal or it could be about him worshiping his wife who he has obviously disappointed to some extent. The later seems valid as some imagery from “Please Don’t Die” and “God’s Favorite Customer” point to his estranged wife as being the cause for his holiness. The raw emotion is what completes these tracks to most. The pain when Tillman sings “Please Don’t Die” or the confidence buster in “Disappointing Diamonds…” where he says “Does everybody have to be the greatest story ever told.” Father John Misty may have scaled back his efforts with God’s Favorite Customer but the emotion and passion are inescapable.
Standouts: Mr. Tillman, Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All, God’s Favorite Customer
7. KIDS SEE GHOST, KIDS SEE GHOST
The deepest and most realized album of the Kanye West’s quintology, KIDS SEE GHOST, is the artistic apex for Kanye and Kid Cudi. The colorful cover really illustrates the sound that Kanye conjures up. Each song contains innovative sounds and uses of samples that range from deranged laughter in “4th Dimension” to the Kurt Cobain sample in “Cudi Montage.” Compared to Pusha T’s Daytona which has a more straightforward production style (still fire), KIDS SEE GHOST is filled with production that is more experimental. Somehow Kanye is able to reconcile a 1930’s Christmas song and make it fit into the booming “4th Dimension.” The collaboration is apparent in this record as Pusha appears on “Feel The Love” and the track “Freeee” references the outro to “Ghost Towns” on ye. Kanye and Kid Cudi reconcile there apparent and make a great album in the process.
Standouts: Feel the Love, 4th Dimension, Cudi Montage
6. Kali Uchis, Isolation
Rising to prominence off of various Tyler, The Creator tracks (most notably “See You Again”), the demand for Kali Uchis to release fully realized material was high. Isolation, her debut album, can be summed up in one line: “But why would I be Kim? I could be Kanye.” The line from “Miami” reveals Uchis’s views on fame as she would rather be respected for her contributions to music than her body. This shows as the production throughout the album is meticulous. On “Flight 22” Uchis uses various strings and high hats to create the atmosphere of a plane taking off and landing further entrancing the listener into her world. Another aspect of this Kanye-chasing is the wide variety of genres that she tackles. There are straightforward R&B/hip-hop tracks like “Tyrant” and “After the Storm,” Latin influence like “Miami” and “Nuestra Planeta,” and some lounge pop like “Killer” and “Feel Like a Fool.” The latter track, “Feel Like a Fool,” Uchis channels her inner Amy Winehouse as she sings “It’s not fun to feel like a fool.” Kali Uchis’s exceptionally chilling vocals and knack for genre/production catapulted her from recording out of her car to mainstream stardom.
Standouts: In My Dreams, After the Storm, Feel Like a Fool
5. Car Seat Headrest, Twin Fantasy
One of the large success stories to come out of Bandcamp, Car Seat Headrest, revisits their early work with a complete re-recording of the 2011 cult classic, Twin Fantasy. There is something to say about the authenticity and roughness of the original recording but the new recording sounds like an atom bomb. At the centerpiece is “Beach Life-In-Death,” an odyssey about who knows what. The song can be summed up with the line “And it was my favorite scene / I couldn’t tell you what it means / But it meant something to me.” Songs that are very long winded like this (ie. Paranoid Android by Radiohead) can have meaning extracted but sometimes it’s just better to listen and appreciate.
Frontman Will Toledo took liberty when re-writing lyrics and the Frank Ocean influence becomes palpable. On “Beach Life-In-Death,” Will sings “It was the start of nothing,” a line from Frank Ocean’s “Ivy,” backward. Similarly on “Cute Thing” Will sings “Give me Frank Ocean’s voice / And James Brown’s stage presence” more closely reflecting his musical influences in 2018. Ever since signing with Matador, Car Seat Headrest have not lost sight of their Bandcamp early days (their first label record was a compilation of older works) and it shows a love and appreciation for their intense cult following.
Standouts: Beach-Life-In-Death, Bodys, Cute Thing
4. MGMT, Little Dark Age
Almost 10 years removed from making psychedelic college dorm bangers that made them famous, MGMT takes a stylistic shift to fit the America they find themselves in. The production value and psychedelic vocals are still part of the equation, but the overall aesthetic has shifted and become a little more unsettling. Like many works birthed from the 2016 election, Little Dark Age is a critique or explanation of the times we live in. It centers on the microcosm of a song that is “Little Dark Age.” The song sounds almost off-putting but is somehow insanely groovy at the same time while the lyrics paint the picture of a troubled world. The chorus, “Burn the page / My little dark age,” implying the narrators wants an end to the madness (although he knows it is inescapable).
While much of the songs consist of some sort of sociopolitical commentary, a seldom talked about aspect of this album is its incredible production. Little glittery sounds pop in and out and it is very MGMT. Despite this, the atmospheres of the songs as a whole are just odd. “She Works Out Too Much” is the best example as it mimics the home-video workout sound of the early 2000s but sounds just a little off. Like the person working out is about to be brutally murdered or something. In an interview with France 24, Ben Goldwasser said that for Little Dark Age he wanted to “make music that people could dance to.” MGMT somehow finds the sweet spot between a call to arms and a dance party.
Standouts: She Works Out Too Much, Little Dark Age, Me and Michael
3. Mitski, Be the Cowboy
What does a 28-year-old Japanese-American female and a cowboy have in common? Seemingly nothing and everything at the same time as Mitski’s latest album, Be the Cowboy, uses the symbol of a cowboy to fuel her confidence and embrace her struggles. Does the cowboy have to do with the image of an American or does it more have to do with the romanticized image of the patriarchy? At the core of Be the Cowboy is Mitski’s troubled relationships. Maybe it’s a boy or maybe its something more abstract like music itself but whatever it may be the emotion that Mitski approaches these topics with is unavoidable. On the opening track, “Geyser,” a loud droning sound fills the air initially and gives way to a soft piano and Mistki nearly whispering “You’re my number one.” Talking to NPR, Mitski says that she “wrote it about music or maybe a music career or an ability to make music.” Knowing this demystifies the song to some degree as it comes as a pick-me-up to hear someone spill their guts in an ever-increasing glory for you. Regardless, the sound structure of a soft beginning building to a grand overall sound carries throughout the album.
The confidence fueling the cowboy brings Mitski is ever prevalent on the lead single, “Nobody” as it takes some confidence to sing about loneliness like this. The lavish instrumentation and catchy tune may distract, but some of the lyrics like “I’ve been big and small… and big and small again / And still nobody wants me,” really hit hard. Another grueling example of this confidence is the combative “Remember My Name” in which Mitski seemingly has the realization that being immortalized is probably impossible. Unlike the cowboy, Mitski is able to subdue brash confidence. The ending track, “Two Slow Dancers,” is a depressing tale of two high school lovers who, despite trying to recreate their feelings by dancing at their school, are not able to rekindle their spark. Mistki matches the rough and tough attitude that cowboys exude in confidence and in her instrumentation but is able to channel a more tempered side when crafting her lyrics.
Standouts: Geyser, Nobody, Washing Machine Heart
2. Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
Everyone hates country music until Kacey Musgraves comes on. To understand how she achieved something so monumental we must understand the country-rock fusion. Many modern country artists are bogged down in the pop music spectrum and lose almost all “country” aspects except big green tractors and such. On Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves takes country into the rock scene with more than just a Texas twang. The imagery and themes that surround make their way onto Golden Hour in new and interesting ways. “Butterflies” is a great example of this as the instrumentation is part country but the wall of sound created is something more traditionally pink floydesque psychedelic rock. Sometimes this production goes into overdrive like on the psychedelic, cosmic “Oh, What a World.” Musing on this song that seems to tend towards Buddhist reincarnation with the line “Did I know you once in another life? / Are we here just once or a billion times?”
Some of the most relaxing tracks like “Slow Burn” and “Golden Hour” are ripe with similarly spaced out feelings. In particular “Slow Burn” tackles some somber topics (such as her being born prematurely) but Kacey is alright at taking her time and letting “the world turn.” Themes of loneliness get a millennial sized refresh on “Lonely Weekend” as Kacey talks about “having a million things to do, but haven’t done a single one.” She often mutates country tropes like on the angry “Space Cowboy” and “High Horse.” The latter gives us one of the grooviest tracks of the year filled with lavish country imagery and even lavisher, building instrumentation. So Kacey Musgrave makes us all yeehaw by appealing to the masses thematically and by also creating an interesting direction for country music to go in the future.
Standouts: Slow Burn, High Horse, Golden Hour
Parquet Courts, Wide Awake!
“Violence is daily life” Parquet Courts frontman Andrew Savage shouts in the chorus for the song “Violence.” Immediately he lets the audience know what this album is about. In the same vein as MGMT’s Little Dark Age but turned up to eleven, Wide Awake! is a piece of searing political commentary facilitated by the Trump era. “Violence” may be the most obvious form of criticism (while it is still filled with somewhat cryptic lyrics) as most of the songs off of Wide Awake! are more subtext than battle cry. The best example of this is the opening track, “Total Football.” While on the surface this seems like an innocent punk rock jam, but the concept of “Total Football” refers to the thought that anyone on the football (soccer) field can play any position necessary. The band takes it from there singing “Workers, authors / Poets, stoppers / Power resembled / If we are assembled.” A little more light-hearted and cheeky, “Wide Awake” makes fun of the “woke” mentality that many millennials use as social clout. Savage sings “I’m wide awake / Mind so woke ‘cause my brain never pushed the brakes” while at the same time being similarly woke with the rest of the album. It brings some form of self-awareness to the band.
Apart from the layered stories and political commentary Wide Awake is top to bottom a fantastic punk-rock record. Though they are not always confined strictly to these genres, like the groove in “Wide Awake” gives a more mardi gras vibe and the ambiance of “Back to Earth” gives more space opera than revolution. There are some more classic rock elements like the choral chanting on “Death Will Bring Change” or the guitar riff/piano on “Tenderness.” Instrumentally when the band leans heavy on their punk roots they tend to excel. The abrasiveness of “Violence” and “Normalization” caused by Savage’s vocals and hard-hitting guitars creates such an enveloping sound. The lyrics are also smart and cheeky throughout the entire album. At points, they can make you laugh (“Why are there no folk songs about ATM machines”) or wonder what in God’s name they are saying (“Do I pass the Turing test? Do I think?”). Wide Awake! is smart, hard-hitting, and is an incredibly musically diverse album that can only be described as a black mirror dressed up as a vanity mirror.
Standouts: Total Football, Wide Awake, Tenderness
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