After posting my favorite songs of 2018, I’m now ready to unveil my 10 favorite albums from another outstanding year of new music. For your reference, here are my favorite albums lists from 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Before I get to my long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from each.
20. Blood Orange – Negro Swan (“Saint”)
19. Robyn – Honey (“Honey”)
18. Kurt Vile – Bottle It In (“Loading Zones”)
17. Big Red Machine – Big Red Machine (“Gratitude”)
16. Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog (“How Simple”)
15. Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino (“Star Treatment”)
14. Wild Nothing – Indigo (“Partners In Motion”)
13. Flasher – Constant Image (“Pressure”)
12. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel (“Nameless, Faceless”)
11. Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy (“Nervous Young Inhumans”)
Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2018:
10. Mitski – Be the Cowboy
People loved Mitski’s last record, Puberty 2, but for some reason I couldn’t get into it. That was not this case with this year’s Be the Cowboy, a stunning treatise that flips gender-based tropes on its ear and puts toxic masculinity in its rightful place. These songs are statements from the ever-talented Mitski Miyawaki, spanning all kinds of genres and never losing its pace across a record that just explodes over 32 minutes. My favorite track here is the disco-flavored jaunt “Nobody,” where Mitski’s isolation sounds downright danceable. Be the Cowboy puts Mitski in league with fellow indie iconoclasts like St. Vincent in overall inventiveness and amazingness.
9. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Hope Downs
The five Aussie dudes who make up Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever play with an unbelievable amount of energy at their live shows. It’s an energy that served them well on their full-length debut this year, Hope Downs. These songs are overflowing with hooks, riffs and licks from their three-guitar attack, with none better than the uber-prescient “Mainland,” a song that doubles as an endorphin-rush rocker that also deals with immigrant hardships. They’re a fun band who made an endlessly fun record. Also, if you feel as icky as I have about continuing to listen to Real Estate, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever is a more than adequate substitute.
8. Kississippi – Sunset Blush
Philadelphia has become something of an indie rock Mecca these last few years; it probably has something to do with the cost of rents in Brooklyn. What started with the War on Drugs and Kurt Vile developed into blossomings for Waxahatchee and Sheer Mag and now Kississippi, a tremendously promising rock band led by Zoe Allaire Reynolds. On her full-length debut, Sunset Blush, Reynolds chronicles the journey of self-discovery across 10 standout tracks with none better than the cutting “Cut Yr Teeth,” a jam Reynolds says is her fighting back against the people who held her back for years. Now that Kississippi is out there, nothing should ever hold Reynolds back again.
7. Hatchie – Sugar & Spice EP
I typically haven’t considered EPs for this list in the past, but two were so good in 2018 I couldn’t deny them spots. The first you’ll read about comes from Australian newcomer Harriette Pilbeam and her indie pop outfit Hatchie. Across five songs in a brisk 19 minutes, Pilbeam and her crew weave tales of love on Sugar & Spice against sugary sweet guitars and synths and Pilbeam’s multi-layered vocal stylings. It doesn’t get any more melodic and blissful than what she does on “Sure,” “Sleep” and “Sugar & Spice” and more longing and beautiful than her efforts on “Try” and “Bad Guy.” I can’t to hear what Pilbeam can do across a whole album.
6. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
I love music. However, for most of my life, I’ve consistently held scorn for just one kind of music: the formulaic and brainless country drivel that’s been churned out of Nashville for decades now. I like a lot of stuff you’d call country, but just don’t play me anything you’d hear on a modern country radio station. So, I was thrilled this year when what was ostensibly a country record scored massive crossover appeal AND turned out to be awesome. Kacey Musgraves flipped those decades of formula on its head with Golden Hour, a daring and richly successful venture. “Lonely Weekend,” “Butterflies” and “Love is a Wild Thing” take new spins on old ideas. “Space Cowboy” is one of the most cleverly-written breakup songs I’ve ever heard. “High Horse” is a genius dance track that doesn’t lose its country roots. Musgraves opened a new world with Golden Hour, one I’m so glad exists.
5. Soccer Mommy – Clean
I do wonder if someday, perhaps very soon, 20-year-old Sophie Allison will regret naming her band Soccer Mommy. The quality of the name of the band thankfully has nothing to do with the quality of the band itself. On her studio debut, Clean, Allison displays outstanding songwriting chops across a varied and diverse collection of melodic guitar rock tunes. There’s the breezy and fun “Last Girl,” the contemplative ballad “Blossom (Wasting All My Time),” the vitriolic fervor of the Local Natives-tinged “Your Dog” and the Liz Phair-inspired fare of “Skin” among the highlights. On standout “Cool,” she imagines herself as a high school badass (“I want to be that cool”) amidst rollicking guitar on a song that crackles before whomping to a downbeat finish. If you can get beyond the name, there’s so much to like when it comes to Soccer Mommy. Allison is just finding her stride with Clean.
4. Boygenius – Boygenius EP
For a certain segment of the music-loving population, the emergence of Boygenius this year more than qualifies as a supergroup in today’s landscape. Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus are three insanely-talented singer/songwriter/guitarists, all under 25 with disparate but connecting styles. They recorded their self-titled EP in four days in LA earlier this year and toured this fall, closing each show with their songs blending Dacus’ unforgiving guitar rock, Baker’s contemplative and emotive renderings and Bridgers’ folksy, humorous sensibilities. The result is a reckoning of immense power, leaving a trail of unworthy subjects in its wake. “Me & My Dog,” a Bridgers-led tour de force, examines a failed relationship from start to finish; the Dacus-helmed “Bite the Hand” pulls no punches with a former lover while Baker and Bridgers harmonize; Baker’s “Stay Down” brings her signature emotionality to a song where she observes “I look at you / And you look at a screen.” The biggest collaboration here is the searing, visceral “Salt in the Wound,” a true put-down of the music industry (“Trick after trick / I make the magic / And you unrelentingly ask for the secret”) where all three take the lead and amidst a maelstrom of sounds there’s a ripping solo from Baker. There’s still room for softness, with the three idyllically wishing for an escape to “Ketchum, ID” on the acoustic final track. I hope beyond all hopes these three artists find time to continue making music together. But if not, this EP is a gift certain to age well.
3. Lucy Dacus – Historian
Lucy Dacus returned to the indie consciousness late last year when “Night Shift,” the first single from her second full-length album Historian, popped up online. Her debut, 2016’s No Burden, was a solid effort pointing towards something more for her as a guitarist, songwriter and singer. With “Night Shift,” it was immediately obvious she’d arrived at “something more.” The track builds behind Dacus’ matter-of-fact lyrics about a former companion. But, midway through, things shift: guitars and cymbals crash while her warm voice maintains composure. In the last chorus, she unleashes a chill-inducing wail, eviscerating her ex in memorable terms. “Night Shift” wound up being the first song on Historian and sets the scene for this incredible effort by Dacus, a record dealing at different turns with loss, heartache, alienation, how relationships evolve and how people change. On “Nonbeliever,” Dacus recounts a friend who left her hometown in search of something more. “If you find what you’ve been looking for / Write us a letter and tell us what it is / Everybody else looks like they figured it out.” On the expertly-crafted penultimate track “Pillar of Truth,” Dacus sets the death of her grandmother against an incredible rock song. “I’m weak looking at you / A pillar of truth / Turning to dust.” Later on her voice breaks again, bringing her grief and pain fully to bear. This is heady stuff for Dacus, and the stuff that makes Historian such a great album. I’m so excited to see her once again go for “something more” next time.
2. Beach House – 7
I first became aware of Beach House around the release of Teen Dream in 2010. I was drawn immediately to Victoria Legrand’s room-filling voice and evocative synthesizers and Alex Scally’s spellbinding guitar work. You feel their best songs right in your chest. For the last 10 years or so, the term “dream pop” has been bandied about so much it’s lost any semblance of meaning. Basically, any band that sounds like My Bloody Valentine with synthesizers gets labeled as dream pop. But to me, any dream pop act gets stacked up to the best work of Beach House and ultimately has paled to what they’ve done. Despite this, the two albums they released in 2015, Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars, represented a slight creative lull for Legrand and Scally. It sounded like they were getting bored with their formula. So, for their seventh album, appropriately titled 7, Beach House razed their house to the studs and started over. They took nearly a full year to perfect 7 and throwing out old recording rules allowed them to expand their sound in creative, unexpected and fully rewarding ways from start to finish. There’s the winding snyth romp of “Dive,” the dramatic and charging “Dark Spring,” the creeping dread of “Lemon Glow,” the dreamy bliss of “Woo” and the unforgettable twists and turns of “Drunk in LA.” It’s as successful a reinvention of any band in recent times. Amazingly, a beloved, established indie rock band stripped down their sound to almost nothing, built something completely new that only they could have done and released probably the best album of their career. Guys, this kind of thing just doesn’t happen anymore. Bands don’t, or in most instances can’t, operate this way, not in 2018. We’re so much better for bands like Beach House, willing to take bold chances.
1. Snail Mail – Lush
Lindsey Jordan, the lead singer, guitarist and creative force behind Baltimore-based Snail Mail, was born 10 months before the Patriots drafted Tom Brady. Whenever you’re done feeling old, I want to tell you about Jordan’s superlative debut album, Lush. Buzz started to build around Jordan and her guitar pop cohorts this spring with the release of a couple advance singles and that buzz still hasn’t subsided. Her skills on guitar are extremely advanced and her gnarly voice emits both a youthful innocence and a wiseness beyond her years. There’s no telling what she’ll accomplish. But for now, we’re just seeing the beginning with Lush. There’s a power here that you can feel on the finger-picked wonder of “Let’s Find An Out,” the longing aching of “Stick” and “Anytime,” the tear-inducing emotions of “Deep Sea” and the indie guitar brilliance of “Heat Wave.” These are songs with something to say beyond teenage angst and heartache. It’s art, on a deep level. As successful as this album is as a whole, it’s the second track that stands out most. “Pristine” comes across with its rolling opening guitar line, crashing chorus cymbals, Jordan’s devastating lyrics about a love never maintained and an outro with blissful, powerful guitar stylings. She’s dealing with perhaps her first taste of heartbreak, and truly understanding her feelings for the first time in her life. It’s breathtaking to witness. “Don’t you like me for me? / Is there any feeling better than coming clean?” She’s finding her way, in her own way, and she found the right way with “Pristine.” After so many listens to Lush, I still can’t believe someone so young could do something so complete, so emotionally-cutting, so perfectly-crafted. It’s the type of record that makes you get down on your knees and thank your higher power of choice that there are still kids who want to make great rock records, who have ambition to be something great and aren’t afraid to show it, and who despite only knowing all the bullshit awful things that have happened in the world this century aren’t so jaded and downtrodden that they can still make art like Lush.