Ranking albums is an inherently subjective task. When trying to evaluate the Top 25 Albums for 2018 I did my best to meet each album on its own terms, judging it by what it was trying to do more rather than an arbitrary quality such as authenticity. For each release on this list I tried to take into consideration the artist’s intent, my own emotional response, and the actual content of the piece, comprised of the writing, instrumentals, and cultural context. This is by no means an infallible list, for I am not an infallible man, but these are the 25 releases that stood out most to me this year.
Bought to Rot – Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers (Punk/Alternative)
The solo debut from Laura Jane Grace, best known as the frontwoman of Against Me!, is a great singer/songwriter album dressed up as a punk album. Here her usual cynical witticisms become the focal point, which when combined with crunchy distortion and a natural knack for writing immediately memorable choruses, make Bought to Rot everything you could want out of a first foray into solo music. It is gritty, honest, and as always, utterly unapologetic, another exciting joy ride from the mind of Laura Jane Grace.
WARM – Jeff Tweedy (Singer/Songwriter)
Over the last few Wilco albums Jeff Tweedy and his unique brand of obtuse lyricism has largely been contained and overshadowed by experimental sounds, courtesy of Nels Cline, and a-typical song structures. On WARM Tweedy forsakes those tendencies for more straight-forward folk-rock songs led by his trusty acoustic guitar and some of the most direct lines he’s written since his days in Uncle Tupelo. The result is something entirely different from Wilco, but still undeniably Tweedy; a vulnerable, introspective album that is sonically peaceful and musically intricate even in its sparse arrangement.
It’s Hard to Have Hope – Svalbard (Metal, Post-Hardcore)
It’s Hard to Have Hope combines the driving power of post-hardcore with elements of cinematic post-rock and melodic metal tendencies, creating an album that feels earnest, emotional, and convincingly important. Where the standard formula in much of the post-hardcore world is to swing for the chorus and then descend into fight riffs, Svalbard’s songs seem to be continually ascending, more concerned with creating gargantuan crescendos with layer after layer of guitar than creating bone-crushing riffs. This strategy pays off, making It’s Hard to Have Hope one of the most interesting albums to come out of its genre in a while.
God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty (Indie-Folk, Folk-Rock)
Four albums deep under the stage name Father John Misty, Josh Tillman has permanently carved his name into the upper echelon of this decade’s songwriters. God’s Favorite Customer is yet another spectacular release from the prolific writer, complete with his signature lush soundscape and immediately recognizable writing voice, beginning on the very first track, revolving around a classic Tillman line: “What’s your politics / what’s your religion / what’s your intake / your reason for living.”Comparative to his prior releases, God’s Favorite Customer finds Tillman at his catchiest and arguably most accessible, though he doesn’t shy away from any of the snide, nihilistic tendencies that made him famous in order to get there.
Joy as an Act of Resistance – IDLES (Punk, Post-Punk)
With possibly the best album name of 2018, the sophomore LP from English band IDLES is a diverse, exciting listen start to finish. After the opening track Colossus one might think the album would be an ominous, quasi-industrial onslaught, but what follows is instead largely a fun, irreverent, energetic punk album about self-love and communal unity. Joy as an Act of Resistance is perhaps the most aggressively wholesome album ever recorded, filled with lines like, “If someone talked to you like you do to you, I’d put their teeth through”, “I’m a real boy, boy and I cry”, and “Islam didn’t eat your hamster / Change isn’t a crime.”As such the seemingly paradoxical title is actual the most apt description of this album: it’s the most badass album about joy you’ll ever hear.
Bark Your Head Off, Dog – Hop Along (Indie Rock, Alternative)
Hop Along have been a staple indie-rock critical darling for the better part of the decade for good reason. Along with one of the most unique voices in indie, Frances Quinlan is one of the best lyrical storytellers of her generation, and if this was ever in doubt, Bark Your Head Off, Dog should seal the deal. Here Hop Along are on top of their game, pulling stories from as disparate sources as World War I, Cain and Abel, and a drunk man yelling at the bar, all written in that trademark conversational style that makes you feel like you’re hearing them in the living room of a distant relative. Bark Your Head Off, Dog also finds Hop Along at their most easily accessible, an area they have not always excelled in, with more refrains and repeating melodies that act as touchstones allowing the listener to track with the song narratives more easily.
POST- – Jeff Rosenstock (Punk)
POST- is the closest thing to the political album that most punks were looking for in the wake of the 2016 American elections, Brexit, and the growing unrest across Western culture as a whole. Jeff Rosenstock is clear, poignant, and angsty as always on his newest release, bookending it with two monolithic tracks USA and Let Them Win that respectively delve into cultural decay and offer a triumphal resistance cry. Though not quite as experimental as his previous release Worry, Post-still has everything we’ve come to expect from Rosenstock over his illustrious career across several bands: energy, angst, cathartic shout-along choruses, and sharp social commentary.
Heaven and Earth – Kamasi Washington (Jazz)
On his latest odyssey, the double album Heaven and Earth (which is actually shorter than his last release, believe it or not), Kamasi Washington explores the dynamic between the terrestrial and the celestial. Heaven and Earth is a 2.5 hour epic split into two eight song halves, the first of which is about the world around Washington and features darker tones, African and Latin rhythms, and a re-imagining of the Bruce Lee theme Fists of Fury; and the second of which is about the more esoteric and spiritual world Washington sees inside himself. On this half Washington changes gears on a dime to transcendent sounding brighter tones, building movements, and at times borderline classical arrangements.
Kiss Ur Frenemies – Illuminati Hotties (Indie Rock, Alternative)
The “quirky indie sound” has been done a lot of times in the past ten years, so often that it has almost become a cliché, but Illuminati Hotties manage to breathe life into the genre with their dynamic new album Kiss Ur Frenemies. Where similar bands are content to ride the tropes, bubbly melodies, fuzzed out beach guitar, and simple up-beat drumming with charmingly dorky lyrics that more or less fetishize Portlandia culture, Illuminati Hotties instead utilize the same sonic palette to create an album that feels real and grounded. There is a lot of very poignant vulnerability in Kiss Ur Frenemies and a lot of musical diversity for a sound that is often very one-dimensional. It is an album that swings between melancholy and bubbly without feeling manic, encapsulating a wide range of emotions that all land effectively.
Historian – Lucy Dacus (Singer/Songwriter, Alternative)
Fresh off her first release and first critical success only two years ago, Richmond, Virginia singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus returns with a vengeance with another fantastic album, Historian. Her newest release covers a lot of emotional ground in only ten songs, chronicling failed relationships, her participation in the Baltimore protests, the life and death of her grandmother, and the unstoppable march of time. On every song Dacus is an open book, spilling her feelings and telling personal stories artfully and relatably. On top of her impressive lyricism, Historian is also an impressive instrumental album, trading in the simple acoustic chords common for singer/songwriter-types for distorted riffs and shredding guitar solos, swelling in and out between sparse arrangements and all out rock songs that keep the listener always on his/her toes.
Shrine – The Republic of Wolves (Emo, Post-Hardcore)
On their second proper LP, The Republic of Wolves find themselves filling the shoes of the recently departed Brand New. Shrine is an existential concept album based loosely on Japanese folklore, telling the story of a man who loses his soul to a mountain deity. This narrative, though perceptible across the album, is largely a conduit to explore questions about what it means to have or not have a soul, to slip in and out of a supernatural view of man and self, and the loss and re-framing of purpose as faith collapses. The struggle with these themes across the album is visceral and at times frantic, making Shrine the rare album to make themes this heady feel direct and personal.
All At Once – Screaming Females (Rock, Alternative)
In age where rock revival is led largely by bands that are more top 40 pop than rock or bands directly derivative of the era they’re evoking (I’m looking at you Greta Van Fleet), Screaming Females stand apart by just being a damn good rock band without pandering to trends or worshipping at the altar of their forefathers. All At Onceis loaded with driving beats, sludge-punk guitar tones, and high-flying solos the likes of which we haven’t heard since The Sword and Wolfmother, but in a package that finally avoids feeling rehashed like most attempts since the year 2000 to do exactly this. If you’re looking for nearly an hour of pure, unadulterated guitar music that will make you throw up your devil horns in salute, then look no further, because in 2018 Screaming Females have finally done it.
Late Stage Capitalism – Jeremy Messersmith (Pop-Folk, Singer-Songwriter)
Jeremy Messersmith’s new album Late Stage Capitalism was almost one of my picks for most underrated album this year and it is filled with snarky, cynical sing-alongs reminiscent of Father John Misty, but a little hookier and dare I say a little less pretentious. Overall it is a joyfully sarcastic album dissecting the current American cultural moment, presenting a scathing indictment of capitalism, the large-scale rape of the planet for profit, and the rampant fear of commitment in one the most connected societies of all time. All of this is done with a snide smile rather than an angry yell, flipping the bird to first world problems with songs you can’t help but bob your head to.
Lush – Snail Mail (Singer/Songwriter, Indie-Rock)
The debut LP from Snail Mail lives up to its name, immersing the listener in a lush soundscape of reverb-heavy guitars and synth-pads while singer Lindsey Jordan laments breakups with dreamy hook after dreamy hook. Lush is easily one of the catchiest albums released in 2018. It is also one of the most immediate and relatable, one that most anyone could enjoy on the very first listen regardless of their listening habits.
TA1300 – Denzel Curry (Hip-Hop, Soundcloud Rap)
Though he’s sometimes credited as the original progenitor of Soundcloud Rap, it’s hard to capture Denzel Curry’s creativity with any one label. You could call his ambitious new album TA1300 “Soundcloud Rap”, but it would hardly do justice to what is a diverse three-part odyssey with sounds all over the spectrum. Each section of the album grows progressively darker both lyrically and sonically as it goes on, making it feel like a descent into madness, a descent that is heightened by Curry’s incredibly dynamic voice that ranges from the sort of sing-song trap style that his genre is known for to a harsh, emphatic bark reminiscent of DMX. Likewise his lyricism ranges from simple and repetitive to long-form, complex bars, showcasing one of his greatest strengths: knowing when a few words will do the trick and knowing when to spell it out for you.
Negro Swan – Blood Orange (RnB, Funk)
Negro Swan is easily one of the most ambitious albums of 2018. Devonte Hynes’s newest release under his pseudonym Blood Orange is 16 tracks of conceptual RnB complete with spoken interludes dissecting themes such as self-worth and family. The songs cover a wide spectrum, utilizing various keys and synths, woodwinds, horns, and the occasional detuned guitar. Tying all of these together is Hynes’ smooth, expressive voice and expansive layers of harmonies, sometimes vibrant, sometimes haunting. The result is a probingly reflective album about finding yourself, contextualized with arrangements suited for long drives through empty cities at night.
Ordinary, Corrupt Human Love – Deafheaven (Black Metal, Blackgaze)
Black metal isn’t usually known for being emotionally malleable, usually limited to harsh, cold tones, but Deafheaven’s epic Ordinary, Corrupt Human Love is packed with so many different emotions over the course of its hour long run time that it feels like you’ve lived an entire life by the time you’ve finished it. Their brand of black metal meets shoegaze, dubbed by some “blackgaze”, first thrust them into the critical limelight in 2013 with Sunbather, and Ordinary, Corrupt Human Love is a beautiful expansion on the sounds and themes they began exploring back then. On this album Deafheaven is at their most cinematic, incorporating jazz piano, clean vocals, and various other styles into their signature huge sound.
Soil – serpentwithfeet (RnB, Soul)
The term “rock opera” was used in the 60s and 70s to describe narrative driven rock albums with a flair for bombastic or theatrical choices. Soil is to RnB what a rock opera would be to rock n’ roll, a narrative driven album with theatrical undertones, including an ensemble of vocal harmonies that provide the majority of the dynamic momentum on the album, much like the ensemble in a classic, Greek play. It’s unlike anything that I have ever heard before, mysterious and vaguely mythical despite it’s very modern and far from supernatural context. Listening to it is almost more like watching a movie than it is listening to an album.
You Won’t Get What You Want – Daughters (Metal, Noise)
You Won’t Get What You Want is one the most impressive and also one of the most unlistenable pieces of art that I have ever heard. It’s blend of heavy dissonant, distorted guitars and industrial sounds is so harsh and aggressive that it almost engages a fight or flight response when I hear it. This oppressive palette is juxtaposed with lyrics that read like 60s beat poems, incredibly articulate pointed pieces that make American, suburban life seem like a grotesque horror-scape. It is one of those rare pieces that I can’t exactly say I enjoyed, but I was so fascinated by it that I continually kept coming back to it nonetheless. Often times music this harsh is ill-thought out and played more for shock than anything, but You Won’t Get What You Want is brilliant in its intentionality, and as a result the most haunting piece of music of the decade so far.
Extralife – Darlingside (Folk)
On Extralife, a cryptic concept album about a post-apocalyptic future, Darlingside create a soundscape that is lush and vibrant, thanks in part to the beautiful melding of acoustic guitar, strings, woodwinds, and subtle electronic drones. However, while the arrangements are stunning, what really seals the deal are the near constant four part vocal harmonies that could make even Simon and Garfunkel jealous. When combined, these two elements create a feel that is much more Narnia than Mad Max. It is at once filled with immediate beauty and distant longing, the kind of album that one can appreciate equally when feeling sad or feeling happy. Armageddon never sounded so beautiful.
On Watch – Slow Mass (Indie-Punk, Post-Hardcore)
Slow Mass’s debut LP is a clinic on album composition, swinging between frenetic hardcore punk and beautifully sparse art-punk while touching on every sound in between. Alongside the ever-changing, constantly metamorphosizing music, the lyrics help create an album that seems to have it’s finger on something real, but intangible; everyday, but mysterious; pretty out there, but still grounded somewhere. It is the kind of album that is both mechanically innovative, but also emotive and thoughtful; an album that is unapologetically artsy without feeling overly self-indulgent.
Lavender – Half Waif (Synth Pop, Alternative)
In an age where female songwriters are finally starting to get the credit they deserve alongside their male counterparts, Nandi Rose Plunkett is still one of the most underrated songwriters of the 2010s. Filled with images inspired by her grandmother, Plunkett’s (Half Waif’s) latest offering, Lavender, is an elegy to time and mortality dealing with growth and collapse, self and place, and isolation and community. After several promising releases it seems that Half Waif has finally hit her/their stride. Her lyrics have never been more powerful, her arrangements never more tasteful, and her song composition has never been so on point. With this release Plunkett has absolutely made her case to be considered in the upper echelon of alternative singer/songwriters, right up with the Boygenius trio of Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, and Phoebe Bridgers as true master songwriters.
A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships – The 1975 (Pop Rock, Art Pop)
A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships was the most surprising release of 2018 for me by a large margin. I have never been a huge fan of The 1975’s blend of pop rock and 80s nostalgia, and despite rave reviews from my friends who were fans I didn’t go into this album expecting anything more than a solid pop rock record. I couldn’t have been more far off. Instead ABIIOR toys with Justin Vernon-style freak folk, jazz reminiscent of John Coltrane, 90s RnB, Oasis-inspired stadium rock, and various kinds of art pop. I expected another album about casual relationships and depression. Instead ABIIOR is the 2018 equivalent to Radiohead’s OK Computer, even directly referencing the classic robot monologue Fitter Happier off that album. It is perhaps the album most in touch with the Western macro-culture this year, relatable, relevant, and even a little frightening.
Room 25 – Noname (Hip-Hop)
For all intents and purposes Room 25 is statistically tied for the best album of 2018 for me. Chicago’s Noname is one of the most unique and refreshing voices in Hip-Hop, hyper-literate and incredibly self-aware, her lyrics are easily the most impressive of the year and cover everything from dealing with her growing influence, to the exploitation of black Americans, to her position as a woman in hip-hop. Her voice and flow are both immediately recognizable. Where most rappers either aim for relaxed or intense, Noname manages to keep her flow almost conversational, bordering on spoken word, but fitting her incredibly verbose lines tightly over the beat. Most of the backing music is also done with a full live band with dreamy string arrangements, horns, keys, pads, and jazz-influenced drumming reminiscent of Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiments, which she was famously involved in. Room 25 is an absolute must-hear album regardless of your listening habits.
1. Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It – Rolo Tomassi (Metal, Blackened-Hardcore)
I gave Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It the edge over Room 25 because while I think Room 25 is for sure a top five hip-hop album of the decade, Rolo Tomassi’s critical breakthrough is easily the best metal album since Mastodon’s 2009 prog-metal epic Crack the Skye. Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It is an album of gargantuan scope, dealing with the imminence of death and growth through love in the present. Musically it is immediately impressive and impossible to categorize, so rather than pointlessly try to fit it into genre boxes I’ll try to meet it on its own terms. Every song carries itself with the weight (and often the length) of an album closer, each grandiose in its own way and leading effortlessly into the next. Some, like A Flood of Light or Contretemps are cinematic to the point of rivaling cinematic-metal kings Deafheaven, others like Aftermath and Risen hardly seem to be metal songs at all, with the former more akin to shoegaze and the latter more akin to Julien Baker. But unlike most metal albums that dip this far into cinematic and experimental territories, TWDALWBI is also unashamedly heavy when it needs to be, like on Alma Mater, Whispers Among Us, and Rituals. Here Rolo Tomassi show that they are not only talented experimentalists, but also masters of their native genre, nailing the perfect sweet spot of being unfathomably heavy without ever overdoing it and becoming comical. The result is a somewhat esoteric album with the rare instrumentals that can actually carry and contain such heady themes and make them feel every bit as real and important as they are. It truly is a masterful album and one that never gets old. Each consecutive listen reveals new discoveries and rewards the listener in new ways. This is why it is the number one album of 2018.
Notes and Special Mentions
I chose not to include Boygenius on this list since it was an EP and not an LP, but it was one of my favorite releases of the year. I also chose to leave out Pinegrove due to the controversy and complicated circumstances surrounding the album. I’d like to give a special nod to Care For Me by Saba which would have made this list if I had heard it before I started writing, and also to Errorzone by Vein which just missed the cut but is a great record nonetheless.