BrooklynVegan’s Top 50 Albums of 2018
No matter what Bob Boilen says (love you Bob!), 2018 was an amazing year for music, and we had a lot of trouble narrowing it down to just 50 albums across multiple genres (and that's not even taking into account how overall different Bill's personal list is. Stay tuned for that in an upcoming edition of Bill's Indie Basement, as well as a few genre-specific lists we have ready to go too). We already spent a lot of time writing words to go along with our 50 choices below, so without further ado...
In-demand producer/mixer David Wrench, who’s worked with everyone from Frank Ocean and FKA twigs to Let’s Eat Grandma and Julian Cope, met art student Evangeline Ling at a mutual friend’s party. She showed him some of her short stories, invited herself to his studio and audiobooks were born. Embodied by Wrench’s ethos that the first take is the best take, Now! (in a minute) feels gloriously alive, with Ling’s gonzo vocal performance driving everything from Human League-style synthpop jams to ethereal, emotional workouts to character-driven vignettes. As great as the production is, this is Ling’s show through and through. (For Ling and audiobooks at their most appealingly mental, head straight to the unhinged “Dance Yourself Away.”) Brilliantly bonkers, you’re not going to hear another record like this this year, or maybe ever... at least till they make a second. [Bill Pearis]
Where do you begin with The 1975? People love to hate them and others hate to love them. They're one of the most popular new rock bands and one of the most ambitious ones, and that combination has been rare lately. They won't satisfy rockist types (they use auto-tune and openly embrace bubblegum pop) and they're also too creative to be grouped with true mainstream pop (they incorporate ambient music, jazz, and a lyrical depth you rarely hear on pop radio). They seem to pack as many subgenres and heavy topics into their songs as possible, and they do it in a way that's sometimes cheesy, sometimes annoying, and always exciting. When it comes to The 1975, there is always way too much happening at once, and if you're listening, you're probably feeling something. That all said, the reason A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships makes this list is that it's simply a great record. More so than their generic debut and their overstuffed sophomore album, it's very easy to listen to. Even the cheesy moments (like the dentist waiting room lite FM ballad "I Couldn't Be More In Love") somehow become as listenable and as memorable as the non-guilty-pleasure ones. It's truly impressive how many different types of sounds they work into this one album without ever stumbling, and they've become masters of deceit. It sounds like such a fun, catchy record, yet it's lyrically among the darkest records released this year, tackling suicide, depression, addiction, and the mania of the online world with the witty yet conversational approach of a Twitter feed. A lot of musicians have written albums that criticize the smartphone and social media era, but The 1975 have written one that merely suggests "this is the world I live in and it's the only one I know." The 1975 aren't immune to modern rock's tendency to look backwards, though they do it less than ever on this album. They're interacting with the music and the ideas and the lifestyles that they're surrounded by in 2018, not trying to look and sound like a band from 1971. They wanted to give the millennial generation a rock album to call their own. Only time will tell, but they just might have done it. [Andrew Sacher]
After two albums of Mumfords-y folk rock, Lord Huron scored an unexpected hit with "The Night We Met" after it was used in Netflix's 13 Reasons Why, and it landed the band their first major label deal. And instead of capitalizing on the sound that made them famous, Lord Huron took a daring left turn and made their most creative album yet. (They also did a superior re-recording of "The Night We Met" featuring Phoebe Bridgers.) Maybe the major label budget helped them achieve their most ambitious musical dreams, but luckily it didn't affect their process. Main member Ben Schneider produced the album himself, and he brought in Flaming Lips collaborator Dave Fridmann to mix it. The result is their most psychedelic and their most rockin' album, and Schneider still came armed with an arsenal of sticky hooks. The album still has a couple folky ballads that recall their earlier work ("Wait by the River," "Back from the Edge"), but for the most part this is an entirely new and improved Lord Huron. "Never Ever," "Ancient Names (Part II)," "Secret of Life," and the title track were some of the year's best driving rock songs, while the droning, krautrock-ish "Ancient Names (Part I)" and the sleepy "When The Night Is Over" were some of the year's best psychedelia. And even as the album genre hops, the artistically slick production keeps it sounding cohesive. Schneider's recognizable voice of course ties everything together too, but there weren't many indie rock albums this year where the production style and the rhythm section were just as distinct as the singer. Vide Noir didn't score Lord Huron another Hot 100 charting song like "The Night We Met," but it's packed to the gills with could-be hits. It's one of those albums where, once you're into it, your favorite song will probably change over and over again. "Ancient Names" and "Never Ever" are the early standouts, but once you outplay them, that nice little nugget of a closer ("Emerald Star") starts getting really addictive. [A.S.]
With Australian garage-psych group The Drones on hiatus, Gareth Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin joined forces with drummer Lauren Hammel (High Tension) and guitarist/keyboardist Erica Dunn (Mod Con, Harmony) to form Tropical Fuck Storm, who had only started to write/practice when invited to tour North America with King Gizzard and Band of Horses. A record born on the road, A Laughing Death in Meatspace picks up where The Drones left off and instantly goes in a dozen new directions. “It sounds like it looks,” Gareth wrote on Facebook when TFS revealed the LP’s vivid, psychedelic cover art. Everyone sings in the band, which gives them a unique energy and, sometimes, a poppier side than The Drones. It’s a big, bold and brash LP, putting a post-apocalyptic spin on politics, our screen obsession, or recounting chessmaster Garry Kasparov’s 1996 match against a computer. Not subtle, but neither are these times. [B.P.]
Dark times call for dark magic or in the case of Sweden’s Anna Von Hausswolff, Dead Magic, a haunting, atmospheric but beautiful journey of an album. Like the sometimes similar sounding Dead Can Dance (who also put out a worthy album this year), Anna has the power to transport you to other worlds with the help of a master band (and some special guests including prolific musician Shahzad Ismaily on percussion, Mum's Gyda Valtysdottir, and Jonsi bandmate Úlfur Hansson), an organ & mellotron, and a voice that feels comparable in sound and power to the 4AD band's Lisa Gerrard. The album was produced by Randall Dunn (who Anna previously collaborated with on Wolves in the Throne Room’s 2017 atmospheric black metal album Thrice Woven). Randall is also known for work with Sunn O))) and Marissa Nadler, and Anna’s music sort of falls right in the middle of those two artists. It shares a haunting, folky quality with Marissa Nadler and a droney, doomy quality with Sunn O))) though it’s neither folk nor doom. At times droney and ambient, and often classified as "neoclassical darkwave" (of which Dead Can Dance are the originators), the only thing that is for sure, is that it's remarkable. Close your eyes and hit play. [BV Staff]
Once a promising voice in the SaveMoney collective (alongside famous friends like Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa), Joey Purp has carved out a lane of his own on QUARTERTHING, which follows and blows away his 2016 breakout iiiDrops. It's an album that defies trends without ignoring them completely, offering up soulful throwbacks ("24k Gold/Sanctified," "Hallelujah"), radio trap ("Karl Malone," "Paint Thinner"), and some out-there experimental dance-rap shit ("Elastic," "Aw Sh*t!") in equal measure. Purp offers everything in moderation, and strikes a balance between frequently changing it up but keeping the whole album cohesive. On top of that, he's got hooks for days. The more club- and radio-ready songs got stuck in my head this year as often as the weirder ones did. "Elastic" is the clear single, but as evidenced when I caught Purp in NYC just a month after QUARTERTHING came out, it didn't take his fans long to learn every word to every song. And in those words, Purp packs a lyrical depth as wide ranging as his choice of beats. He's somehow just as convincing on the few songs where he brags about money, cars, and women as he is on "Look At My Wrist" when he pokes fun at people who brag about money, cars, and women. He offers up a contrast between the flat-out fun songs and the more serious ones where he raps about witnessing violence on the streets of Chicago, or praying for a good future for his son. Purp's a stronger rapper and lyricist and ever, but even more importantly, he crafted a stronger album than ever. QUARTERTHING ebbs and flows and never overstays its welcome or stays in the same place for too long. It's structured like a classic, but not like any particular one. QUARTERTHING succeeds most of all because it really doesn't sound like anything else. [A.S.]
It's always exciting to watch a veteran band take an unexpected leap forward late in their career, and that's exactly what genre-defying underground rock band mewithoutYou did on their seventh album, [Untitled]. Their 2015 album Pale Horses was sort of a new breakthrough for mewithoutYou and helped introduce them to a lot of new fans, but as excellent as it was, it was mostly a culmination of everything they had done up until that point -- a return to form to the classic Catch for Us the Foxes/Brother, Sister era while incorporating some of the folky sounds they further explored on 2009's It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright and 2012's Ten Stories. But [Untitled] wiped the slate clean and started fresh, looking nowhere but forward. It's their best album since Brother, Sister, and the jump they made from Pale Horses is the most drastic jump mewithoutYou have made as a band since the one from their 2002 debut [A→B] Life to Catch for Us the Foxes. mewithoutYou's best albums have always been carefully constructed from the start, but the process for [Untitled] was more to throw shit at the wall and see what sticks, and when you listen to the album, it sounds like the process was very freeing for mewithoutYou. They've written heavy songs before, but never in the way they did on this album. They've got blasts of dissonant post-hardcore/noise rock, they've got the wall-of-sound sludgegaze of the album's best song, "Julia (or, 'Holy to the LORD' on the Bells of Horses)," and Aaron Weiss' screams have never been more piercing. At the same time, they've got ambient post-rock stuff worked in, and "Winter Solstice" is one of the strongest folky songs of their career. There's no easy way to pigeonhole this album, no easy way to sum it all up. And on top of all the clashing musical directions are lyrics with literary, religious, and historical references that could take you years to unpack. By the time you've cracked every lyrical code and wrapped your head around every inventive guitar riff, mewithoutYou will probably have already written another classic to consume you with. [A.S.]
From the first notes of Wanderer’s opening pastoral hymn, it’s clear that the first Cat Power album in six years is very different than 2012’s slightly divisive, synth-leaning Sun. Jettisoning excess instrumentation and effects aside from subtle harmonies (and some vocoder on “Horizon”), Chan Marshall’s achingly melancholic voice is on full display on these songs. It shines alongside a guest spot from Lana Del Rey on “Woman,” and it’s more haunting than ever transforming Rihanna’s “Stay” in that unique way Chan has of making covers her own. In some ways, it’s a return to Cat Power’s most classic and most somber work, but it’s also an album that isn’t like anything she’s ever done. The “pop” side with the Lana feature, Rihanna cover, and vocoder is great, but simple bare-bones songs like “Black” might even be better. There’s so much to love about Wanderer -- it’s Cat Power’s most elemental and essential album since The Greatest. [Amanda Hatfield]
Every once in a while a country-leaning album comes along that grabs me and won't let go. Amanda Shires' 6th solo album (and 7th if you count her 2008 collaboration with Rod Picott) -- though I haven’t heard them all yet -- is admittedly her first to grab my attention in this way. It also may be her first that so resembles indie rock. It's experimental and sometimes psychedelic, and strong from start to finish. It's dark at times but still makes me want to get up and dance, and is endlessly replayable. It also still has just enough twang to satisfy that alt-country itch; comparisons to Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris are still warranted, Gillian Welch makes an appearance on this album and To The Sunset currently feels like it's filling the gap left after I played my Margo Price and Jason Isbell records to death. Speaking of her husband Jason, whose band Amanda also plays in, he handles guitar duty here along with producer Dave Cobb, who is the man behind the board on many of the best country albums in recent years: Isbell, Sturgill, Stapleton, and this year's John Prine (an album that Amanda and Jason also appear on) included. The production gives it a big sound and cheese-free shine that will fill a room (even if that room happens to be Nashville's legendary Ryman), but Amanda's signature folk ballads are still here too. Listen closely and you'll realize that, along with Amanda's expert (and on this album, effect-laden and unconventional) violin playing and soothing voice, comes no shortage of her moving and sometimes dark lyrics, about being a mother, the state of the world, a suicide and more. It won't stop you from singing along. [Dave]
Following a series of ambitious concept albums where she held herself at a distance, cloaked as an android, Janelle Monae got real and went all in on Dirty Computer, making for her most enjoyable release yet. "I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker," she memorably told Rolling Stone, officially coming out as pansexual in an interview ahead of the album's release. A few months earlier, the video for "Make Me Feel," (part of the longer "emotion picture" narrative accompanying the whole album) replete with bisexual lighting, had already all but finalized her ascendence to the throne of full-fledged queer icon. Dirty Computer is bursting at the seams with self-love and sex, from the vagina-celebrating "PYNK" to the breathlessly sexy "I Got the Juice." Elsewhere, it's unafraid to be boldly political about the experience of being a black woman in America. Throughout it all it just bangs, with songs rocketing from buoyant funk to sultry soul to fierce rap passages, and featuring an all star cast of guests, including Grimes, Zoe Kravitz, Pharrell Williams, Stevie Wonder, and Brian Wilson. Janelle Monae's vision of America with equality of races, genders, and sexual orientations is one worth striving for, and as long as we're stuck in our present dystopia, we're lucky to have her music to lead us through it. [A.H.]
Led by singer and primary songwriter Elizabeth Stokes, New Zealand’s The Beths have crafted one of 2018’s most instantly enjoyable debuts. Stokes has a real way with the three-minute pop song, full of earworm melodies, “bah bah” backing vocals, and instantly memorable choruses. Cracking the sugar-coated shell on these gems, however, reveals Stokes’ very relatable self-deprecating lyrical style that finds her constantly doubting her decisions. (“Happy Unhappy,” one of the best songs on Future Me Hates Me, would’ve made an equally good album title.) Confidence is not a problem when it comes to her band, who bring a breathless rush and crunchy power-pop style to this very assured indie rock album. [B.P.]
serpentwithfeet's debut full length album, soil, is a multi-sensory affair; after your ears, it appeals to your sense of smell. "I called all your ex-boyfriends and asked them for a kiss," Josiah Wise sings on "fragrant." "I needed to know if they still carried your fragrance." Later, on "waft," "I followed his scent all the way here… he knows love can't exist where there is cologne." More than any other sense, smell is linked to memory and emotions. The songs on soil are statues erected to pay tribute to past lovers, where the bloom of old flowers still lingers. Crafted from the disparate parts of his multifaceted background (including singing in a church choir growing up, studying classical music in college, and working with Bjork in 2017), their structure is reminiscent of gospel hymns, but with an injection of experimentation and just a sliver of pop sensibility. Then there's Josiah's voice: alternately intoning verses of poetry that leap out of their stanzas with the quality of spoken-word, or strident and ornamented with distortion (like on "cherubim," the album's centerpiece), or stripped and trembling. The compelling listen the combination makes for explains why serpentwithfeet has been so busy over past couple of years, touring with acts like Perfume Genius, Grizzly Bear, and Florence + The Machine. Tender and aching, 'soil' plumbs the depths of devotion and comes out the other side, sounding like nothing else I heard this year in the process. [A.H.]
Even though there's some debate about it within the music critic/thinkpiece world, there is obviously still a thirst for hard-edged rock music. Bands like Foo Fighters and System Of A Down still draw gigantic crowds, Greta Van Fleet is getting weirdly famous -- the interest is there, but most of rock radio sounds like Maroon 5 and indie rock tends to either go in a lighter slacker rock direction or an electronic/R&B direction. That latter two styles have produced plenty of great music, but if you're feeling like you're missing tasteful rock bands who rock out, rip guitar solos, and write super catchy songs, you may have just not heard Windhand's Eternal Return. They throw Black Sabbath riffs, Seattle grunge, trippy psychedelia, and folk songs in a blender and they're experts at all of it. Dorthia Cottrell is an increasingly killer singer, and her voice is more in the forefront on this album than ever before. She used to bury hints of Layne Staley and Chris Cornell beneath all the noise; now she writes choruses that rival their classic work. Still, Windhand's music is a bit more challenging than the radio-friendly grunge era. Eternal Return has a few concise standouts ("Diablerie," "Red Cloud," and the folky "Pilgrim's Rest"), but it mostly favors long songs that lock into heavy, hypnotic grooves. The long songs never drag though; stuff like the eight-minute "Halcyon" and the seven-minute "First To Die" can suck you in so deeply that you lose all sense of real time and just let them take you over. [A.S.]
"Most people already skipped this song 'cause it ain't about sex and killin'," CupcakKe raps on "Self Interview" off Ephorize, her first of two albums released in 2018. And in her case, that's sadly even truer than it would be if another rapper said it. CupcakKe built a reputation off of raunchy, sex-fueled rap songs, and those songs still tend to overshadow the rest of her work. But as a song like "Self Interview" makes very clear, CupcakKe is too multi-faceted and too talented to be pigeonholed. If you didn't skip that song, you'd hear that CupcakKe goes on to take a very serious tone and battle sexist double standards. And that's the kind of thing that happens all over Ephorize and Eden. For all the fun and liberating raunchy songs, there are songs that fight for gay rights, for feminism, for respect for children with autism. It's really deep stuff. And while CupcakKe's lyrical topics tend to be the most talked-about aspect of her work, it shouldn't go overlooked that she's a great rapper. On a song like the aggressive, shit-talking "PetSmart," she shows off a quick, biting delivery that could leave your average '90s battle-rapper with their jaw dropped. There's not much she can't do, and at the fast rate that she's releasing music, it doesn't seem like we'll have to wait long for even bigger and better things to come. [A.S.]
Yves Tumor makes paranoia sound so pretty. On Safe in the Hands of Love, the Tennessee-born musician, nee Sean Bowie, refractors his fears, from loneliness to police brutality, through a patchwork of cross-genre inspirations. Each song could exist in its own world, from the jazz instrumental opener that lends a sense of foreboding to the record, to the thin acoustic guitar loops of “Recognizing the Enemy,” reminiscent of a haunting Alex G outtake. But they are united by Tumor's vocals, raw, full, and loose, which are miles more present here than in his previous releases. And they transform his arrangements into something more impactful: on “Noid,” which features lush strings redolent of '90s Brit-pop, is a canvas for Tumor's fears borne from growing up in a racist society: “Sister, mother, brother, father / Have you looked outside / I’m scared for my life,” he sings. As so many of his songs do, “Noid” firmly plants itself in one genre before careening out of control. It’s a record that never gets too comfortable in its own skin, and for Yves Tumor, that feels strangely perfect. [Arielle Gordon]
Marissa Nadler is a lifer who's been making dark, dreamlike folk music for nearly 15 years, and just about any of her albums are a good entry point. She's now got eight proper albums and many other releases, and somehow, each new thing she does makes her feel freshly relevant again. It's common that artists plateau or fade away or get less prolific over time, but none of those things have happened for Marissa Nadler. With as much music as she has, it's hard to say which is the best, but For My Crimes is definitely up there. Maybe it's the stunning guest verses from Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen, and Kristin Kontrol, maybe things just really clicked a little more than usual during Marissa's songwriting process this time around, maybe it's all or none of the above. Whatever the case, For My Crimes stands out as a clear high point in Marissa's rich discography and one of the most special albums of the year. In the internet era we live, we're overloaded with information (and music) on a daily basis, and everything feels so fast-paced. But every time I put on For My Crimes, it's as if life slows down for 34 minutes and all that matters are these 11 songs. It really takes you out of the modern world, and not just because the songs sound like they could be decades old (they'd fit alongside early '70s Vashti Bunyan or early '90s Mazzy Star, and they sound fresh today too). It's a very quiet album, but it never fades into the background; it stops me in my tracks more than a lot of 2018's louder albums do. There's been no lack of this type of music in recent years -- including from Marissa Nadler herself -- but every now and then an album comes along that just injects the long-lasting world of somber folk music with something that makes it feel new again, and For My Crimes is one of those albums. [A.S.]
The Arctic Monkeys are a unicorn. A modern rock band that’s popular enough to sell out huge venues and actually sell a significant amount of records, they’ve been cranking out good-to-excellent music every handful of years since they blew up seemingly overnight in the mid-aughts. Alex Turner could be forgiven for phoning it in, having reached a point in the industry that basically seems impossible in this day and age, but he’s never content to sit still, always pushing the band’s sound in interesting directions and developing incrementally as a songwriter. Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino is perhaps Arctic Monkeys' most refined and cohesive record yet, a concept album that’s as confident as it is slow-moving and weird. Turner has always been at his best as a balladeer, and he’s in full-on crooner mode here, but there’s a jittery, seething discomfort, alienation and paranoia right up against the smooth surface. The result is an album of space-age lounge R&B, overtly preoccupied with “the digital age” in a way that’s consistently funny even as it finds plenty to fear and not much to enjoy about where we’re at. Turner’s lyrics are just as cheeky and baroquely mundane as ever--who else would let “Mark speaking, please tell me how may I direct your call” pass for a chorus? That’s from the title track, which is one of the best songs in their catalogue, and “One Point Perspective,” “Four Out of Five,” and “The Ultracheese” aren’t far off. This record could not have come from any other band, and not just because no one else has the budget. [Rob Sperry-Fromm]
The best band in grind are back, with a bassist to boot. After adding Misery Index drummer Adam Jarvis for their last record (the pure grind of Book Burner) they added his brother to beef things up for this latest outing. This isn’t a superficial move; their sound has changed pretty significantly on this album, and it makes for perhaps their most accessible song cycle to date. Older PD albums made an art of bludgeoning you with pure aggression for just long enough that, when they pivoted on a dime to a carefully placed Slayer groove, it would hit you right in the pleasure centers. The brevity lent itself to a certain format: setup, punchline, on to the next. This time around the songs are longer and more elaborate, the grooves more lumbering, and there’s less emphasis on fast-paced, neck-snapping elasticity. They sound more like a groove-oriented metalcore band or a thrashy death metal band than ever before, and it sets them up to deliver some absolute bangers. “Army of Cops” is just a glorious ripper--when J.R. Hayes goes all “Why would god create...something so WEAK” I literally can’t keep my arms at my sides. “Mt. Skull” has a glorious, slow-moshing chug outro that recalls Blood Mountain-era Mastodon. “Circle River” is a soulless groove-generator. And closer “House of Snakes” qualifies as an epic, a towering doom metal song that gives us hardcore breakdowns, Carcass-y lead guitars and Neurosis-style chug, all filtered through the band’s diamond-sharp precisionist approach. [R.S.F.]
Lately it feels like there's a hot new rapper worth paying attention to every week, but few of 2018's breakout artists were as distinct as DC-area rapper Rico Nasty. After shaping her sound over the course of a few mixtapes and singles, everything came together for Rico on this year's Nasty, her best project yet and currently the finest introduction to her work. She splits her time between two alter-egos, the emotional sing-rapper Tacobella and the raging, punk-inspired Trap Lavigne. The latter is her most instantly satisfying, and she's in Trap Lavigne mode for the bulk of Nasty, but the Tacobella side is necessary and adds a depth and a diversity to her sound. On Nasty, she's often out for blood, offering up muscular raps that destroy half the people on the radio. But she's an expert at hooks too. Sometimes you're getting knocked off your feet by her blitzkrieg of bars, other times it's impossible not to hum along. And no matter which alter-ego she's using at any given moment, nobody sounds like her. The tone of her voice alone sets her apart from the pack, and she's figured out so many ways to toy around with it, rarely going a verse without changing up her mood or personality at least once. [A.S.]
Amen Dunes' great (and often underrated) 2014 album Love saw main member Damon McMahon branching out from the psychedelia and experimentation of Amen Dunes' earlier work, bringing his voice to the forefront, and putting more of an emphasis than ever on traditional songcraft. With its followup Freedom, McMahon dove even further into the realm of time-honored rock songwriting, and it finally earned him the widespread recognition he deserves. It's easy to see why; Freedom has some of his punchiest, most instantly likable songs yet. Gone are the comparisons to Syd Barrett and The Velvet Underground that Amen Dunes used to get, and in their place are comparisons to songwriting legends like Tom Petty and Paul Simon or newer acts like The War On Drugs. McMahon hasn't lost his edge though. He's still got a voice like no other, and he works in background synths and an eccentric production style (aided by Beach House/TV on the Radio producer Chris Coady) that keep the album in weird, arty indie rock territory. It's still Amen Dunes, just casting a much wider net. [A.S.]
Everything Is Love seemed so engineered for success, that it was really tempting for even the most casually cynical person to roll their eyes at it. Music's most powerful power couple teaming up for a collaborative album which doubled as the happy ending to the "trouble in paradise" saga of Lemonade and 4:44? It all looked way too much like a publicity stunt, reality TV as an album, the unnecessary third sequel to a Hollywood blockbuster, or a combination of all three at once. But no level of cynicism could compete with how much fun this album is to listen to. On one hand, nobody needs to hear bragging from a billion-dollar couple, but on another, "APESHIT" was the best braggadocio rap banger released this year. Jay Z saying "fuck you" to the Grammys, making the NFL look powerless, and Beyonce beating Migos at their own game? It doesn't get much better than this. And Everything Is Love didn't stop there; it followed "APESHIT" with three more consecutive braggadocio bangers that are nearly as good. The way Beyonce spits "I'm better than the hype!" on "NICE," as if anyone doesn't agree with her, is pure ear candy. It's the best rapping Jay-Z's done on an album in years (sorry, 4:44), and Beyonce's got bars on this thing too. For those who missed the Beyonce The Rapper of "***Flawless" and "7/11" on Lemonade, Everything Is Love has got you covered. And it's also more than just boastful raps and crowd-pleasing bangers. The lush instrumentation of Lemonade shows up on "SUMMER," some of the year's finest political music shows up on "BLACK EFFECT," and Bey and Jay put the nail in the coffin on this whole publicized couple's therapy session on the gripping album closer "LOVEHAPPY." Everything Is Love is overflowing with great ideas, and you're hit with those ideas in quick succession given the album's brevity, which really works to its advantage. The only downside of its brevity is it may have presented The Carters from achieving Drake's streaming numbers, but hey, if Beyonce gave two fucks about streaming numbers, she would've put Lemonade up on Spotify. [A.S.]
Brockhampton were one of the biggest hip hop breakouts of 2017, with not one but three albums that introduced the self-proclaimed boy band's boldly unique, self-made sounds and fearless lyricism. They hit some roadblocks (including the removal of a member who was accused of sexual misconduct), but ultimately they overcame all obstacles and came out with a major label debut that was even better and more cohesive than anything they'd done before. The "three albums in one year" model resulted in some filler, but Iridiscence is fat free. It's also their most fleshed-out and successfully ambitious project yet. The production is still in house, and Brockhampton continue to ignore mainstream hip hop trends in favor of a variety of unexpected sounds like breakbeat, trip hop, glitch, IDM, and more. They've got string sections and choirs (they recorded this at Abbey Road Studios, after all), and the whole thing is a wonderfully weird, larger than life, art-rap opus that stuns from start to finish. On top of all the dizzying instrumentals, the group's raps look even further inward than they did on the Saturation albums. It's a truly powerful album that looks at mental health, growing up gay in a society that judges you for it, and other anxieties that plague the nation. It's a true coming of age masterpiece, with lyrics that speak to impressionable kids everywhere and a sense of musicality that should guarantee that it sticks around. [A.S.]
After Canada Songs and Hell Songs, two interesting but questionably good albums, it became important to ask whether Daughters popularity stemmed from talent or provocation. They greatly improved their songwriting on their 2010 self-titled release, leaping confidently from the genre tags that shackled them, and promptly broke-up from the strain of creating something more palatable (being broke played an issue as well).
Eight-years later, we have You Won’t Get What You Want, the portrait of a once imploded group now having grown out of their egos to produce a menacing dose of avant-garde noise rock. It seems fitting that a band once notorious for stuffing riffs into short durations now plays to their greatest strength: repetition. Claustrophobic, brooding, and thoughtful repetition performed to its maximum intensity at all times. Alexis Marshall barks poetry from the barstool above this litany, while Nicholas Sadler punches like Andy Gill with more cinematic tendencies. A Gang of Four reference fits as the repeated rhythms and pervasive dissonance brainwash you into moving your limbs.
The saying, “Art for art’s sake,” has taken on negative connotation in modern times but Daughters, whether conscious or not, embody the phrase; they create art for their own meaning. All four members have developed an individual voice incongruent from one-another and the sounds they collectively create, thankfully, cannot be replicated as the world couldn’t handle another. [Aaron Maltz]
Historian’s opening track “Night Shift” is a gauntlet thrown, and for fans of her 2016 debut No Burden, it might have come as something of a shock. Across 7 minutes, Lucy announces herself as a vividly emotional storyteller with the ability to pull multiple rugs out from under the listener over the course of one track. It starts out soft and gets heavy. With brilliant turns of phrase, both verbal and musical, she paints a vivid, wrenching picture of the isolation we can feel in relationships, all without resorting to melodrama. It’s a dynamic, long-winded, riveting composition, and it sets the tone for an album that’s a massive step up in ambition from her last. Throughout the record she incorporates hefty arrangements and song lengths with zero bloat. “Addictions” is jaunty, hook-filled, and horn-blasted. “Next of Kin” has Fleetwood Mac breeziness and darkness to match as she sings “I’m at peace with my death, I can go back to bed.” “Pillar of Truth” builds slowly to a primal scream that feels immensely cathartic. And the centerpiece here is “Yours and Mine,” an overwhelmingly lovely slice of harmony-drenched americana. It’s a standout, one of the very best songs of the year on a record full of great ones.
Meanwhile, this album came out all the way back in January, and nobody could have predicted that not only would be still talking about this record twelve months later, but that Lucy’s story would grow to include her membership in a supergroup now known to the world as boygenius, whose debut EP you may have noticed also appears our list of favorite albums this year. [R.S.F.]
Vince Staples is far from the only major rapper reinventing himself with each release, but I don't know if I can think of anyone else doing it this frequently and making it look this effortless. From his rock-solid, comparatively traditional, 2014 breakthrough EP Hell Can Wait, to his cold, hard, storytelling 2015 debut/double album Summertime '06, to his explorative 2016 EP Prima Donna, to his experimental dance-rap 2017 sophomore album Big Fish Theory, and now his brief, claustrophobic concept album FM!, Vince has been all over the place and he's a natural at all of it. Vince insists that FM! isn't a proper full-length album, but it's certainly complete and cohesive enough to count as one. As the title implies, it mimics listening to FM radio -- complete with songs getting cut short and interrupted by LA radio personality Big Boy -- and it functions as commentary on how we listen to rap music, as well as commentary on the violence Vince grew up surrounded by in Long Beach. Don't let song titles like "FUN!" and "Feels Like Summer" fool you; Vince Staples' summer is one filled with shootings and untimely deaths. He offers keen, incisive lines about losing friends and witnessing murder on nearly every song, and he does so with forceful, intricately structured verses that never sound like anyone else. But as with actually listening to the radio, FM! is designed in such a way where the songs can fade into the background and turn to white noise if you're not really paying attention. Where the politicism on Big Fish Theory seemed intended to grab your attention (see: Vince yelling "tell the president to suck a dick!" on the album's lead single), FM! holds back and obscures its dark themes with a deceptively relaxed exterior. It's an unusual approach to making music, less immediately jarring than Big Fish Theory but just as experimental in its own way. And yet, it's one of Vince's most accessible projects too. [A.S.]
It's been a long time coming for Denzel Curry. Having started out at the beginning of this decade as a member of Raider Klan with SpaceGhostPurrp (remember SpaceGhostPurrp, the cloud rap era A$AP Rocky affiliate who signed to 4AD and then kinda fell off the face of the earth?), Denzel is now credited for pioneering SoundCloud rap, both in the way he helped establish it as a viable platform for young DIY rappers and the way he helped shape its mosh-rap sound. SoundCloud rap is still mostly a singles game, but TA13OO may be its first classic album. It's not entirely accurate to group TA13OO in with what we now think of as SoundCloud rap, though. On it, Denzel sort of straddles the line between godfather and participant. He still champions young SoundCloud rappers (like TA13OO guest ZillaKami), but he also deservingly asserts that he's better than all of them ("Don't need a tattoo on my face, 'cause Denzel is a different race"). TA13OO's got easily-digestible thrills like "Clout Cobain" where Denzel beats emo-rap at its own game, but it's also got complex, masterful stuff like "Black Balloons" that only a classically skilled rapper could pull off. With 13 unskippable tracks broken down into three "acts," it's clear that Denzel intended this to be a grand, defining statement of an album -- not a mixtape or a playlist or anything else -- and he succeeded. Denzel's been building towards this for his entire career; it's like his eighth or ninth project, but it feels like it's only the beginning. [A.S.]
Going to a Jeff Rosenstock show is a bit like attending the afterparty of a DSA meeting. At his Pitchfork Festival performance in 2017, Rosenstock, the punk lifer who founded his own pay-what-you-want imprint, Quote Unquote Records, way back in 2006, shared exactly how much the corporation-laden festival had paid to get him on the stage ($7,500). His music has always been drenched in the precarity and economic uncertainties of being a touring musician -- his old band Bomb The Music Industry!, blatantly listed their day jobs as one reason for their dissolving. On POST-, Rosenstock takes those latent late capitalist anxieties and makes them explicit: “Dumbfounded, downtrodden, and dejected,” he shouts on album opener “USA.” In a year like 2018, it’s comforting to scream “F U USA,” even if the intended lyric was a winking reference to Julius Caesar. POST- finds Rosenstock growing up sonically as well. Sure, there are super fun shout-along refrains and Jeff’s usual high-energy punk. But there are also experiments with Motion City Soundtrack-esque synths, so much so that the last song on the record, “Let Them Win,” ends with a five minute ambient fade out. It’s a sign, perhaps, that Rosenstock, like the rest of us, is learning to balance rage with relief. [A.G.]
It was never really enough of a silver lining to say that the Trump era would be "good for punk." Punk alone isn't nearly enough to combat the unrest and injustice caused by the Trump administration, and bands like War On Women were writing powerful, passionate protest songs before Trump was elected and they'll surely continue to do so when his term finally ends. Still, very few things in the Trump era have felt better than hearing Shawna Potter yell "I don't care who's in office / There's more of us so you already lost, so fuck this fucking rapist, this flag does not make a patriot!" right before a fiery guitar solo takes it away. Capture The Flag, War On Women's second album and first since Trump's election, is full of moments like those, where pure punk aggression meets stunning melodicism and a powerful message. As on their debut, band's self-described "Bikini Kill meets early Metallica" sound is in fine form (and this time they got actual Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna to contribute guest vocals), and Shawna's delivery is as fired-up as can be, but everything is better this time around. The riffage is sharper, the lyrics are even more potent, and the songs are catchier -- way catchier (back when rock radio played punkish music, this album might've produced a few hits). Aside from addressing Trump himself, Capture The Flag also offers up incisive criticism of gun control, reproductive rights, and other unfortunately relevant topics, but it's not all current events. One of its best songs, "Anarcha," is about the enslaved women who were experimented on by the controversial and now-oft-protested "father of modern gynecology" J. Marion Sims in the 19th century. Having this sense of history is just one reason why Capture The Flag won't merely remain a document of its era. As long as there's activist work to be done, and as long as there's an interest in explosive punk rock, Capture The Flag will feel timeless. [A.S.]
Courtney Barnett has no need for histrionics. Tell Me How You Really Feel is an album drenched in anxiety, anger, and fear, but it’s a breezy listen. Courtney typically communicates in a laconic, conversational style that can obscure the oceans of feeling underpinning her lyrics. There’s a bit of Neil Young in her ability to make songs sound so effortless yet so precise, and in her ability to make depression and alienation feel folksy and quotidian. It’s an album full of sticky melodies that you feel like you’ve heard somewhere before but can’t quite pinpoint. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve put this album on, realized it was over before I knew it, and played it again. It’s an album that you live with, and that begins to feel like hanging out with a friend. It’s already timeless; it's an album that feels like it could have come out at pretty much any time in the last 45 years, and songs from it already feel like staples in her blistering live set. I suspect that, when all is said and done, Courtney is going to have some serious staying power as a songwriter, and this record is a great argument for why that is. It just doesn’t get old. [R.S.F.]
Sophie Allison made a huge leap forward from her previous home-recorded work on her studio (and Fat Possum) debut as Soccer Mommy, and released her most listenable, addictive music yet. The songs on Clean are familiar without being boring. They’re connected by a thread of melancholy, and perfectly paced, with ballads flowing easily into more upbeat tracks. "Your Dog" contains some of the year's most devastating lyrics -- "forehead kisses break my knees and leave me crawling back to you" -- while retaining almost preternatural power as an earworm. It's not the only song on Clean that feels like it's been stuck in my head for most of the year, but it's perhaps the one that's lingered there the longest. It’s a sign of Soccer Mommy’s enormous appeal that she made fans out of giants like Paramore and Kacey Musgraves, both of whom she toured with since releasing Clean. Soccer Mommy's music may be more DIY-minded and indie rock-oriented, but she shares traits with both of those artists and it won't be surprising if major cosigns like those continue to gain her more and more fans. Her rise has already been monumental, but it's clear that this is just the beginning. [A.H.]
Three of our favorite young, up-and-coming songwriters (whose own newest albums also all appear on our Best of 2017 and Best of 2018 album lists), Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, captured lightning in a bottle when they came together to record a joint record. Originally intended as a 7" to be sold on their tour together, the collaboration proved more fruitful than anyone expected, as each woman brought the best parts of her own work to the new, shared material. Phoebe's aching melancholy, Julien's emotional fervor, and Lucy's sophisticated lyricism intertwine in these six resonant songs. They're full of lush, gorgeous harmonies, lingering imagery, and genuinely affecting lyrics. "Me and My Dog," one of the year's very best songs, is the clear highlight, with its breathtaking harmonies spiraling heavenwards, while "Ketchum, ID" is heartbreaking in its implications - the rigors of touring life, how difficult it makes maintaining relationships. It's a struggle unique to touring musicians, but one Julien, Phoebe, and Lucy all share, and it's with deep feeling that they sing the song (and album)'s final lines, "when I'm home I'm never there long enough," cutting off the last two words of the chorus. Where this all goes from here, it's hard to say - the tour is over, and we aren't sure if the three have any immediate plans to work together again, but we (and the many, many new fans this EP landed them) certainly hope so. [A.H.]
I don't listen to enough flamenco and other Spanish language music to know where Rosalia's second album fits in to the larger picture (though they say she is huge in her country and the Latin Grammys very much approve), but I do know that putting this record on instantly brought me to a happy place, an otherworldly experience helped along by Rosalia's powerful voice. Over the course of 11 songs in 30 minutes, I heard a blend of traditional music, modern R&B, and experimental pop (not unlike Bjork who Rosalia recently thanked along with Kate Bush in a Latin Grammy acceptance speech) that made me -- like the many others who are raving about this album right now - an instant fan. I don't know what Rosalia is saying, but the album -- co-produced by ex-hipster darling and Bjork collaborator El Guincho (another rare Spanish speaking artist who regularly graced the pages of Pitchfork and BrooklynVegan) -- is based on a 13th-century Occitan novel called Flamenca, and tells the story of a toxic relationship. The record samples both Justin Timberlake and Arthur Russell and should speak to fans of both. Standout tracks that showcase the experimental side (which surely contribute to why James Blake is a fan), include "De Aquí No Sales" and "Bagdad" (the one with JT). Things slow down in “Cordura,” a religious experience in under three minutes. Meanwhile, Rosalía's pop side comes through on the hand-clap-backed opening track/lead single (and first real hit) "Malamente" and even more so on the R&B-leaning "Pienso En Tu Mirá," one of the most cathartic pop songs released this year in any language. Forward-thinking experimental producer Arca (another Bjork collaborator) didn't work on this album, but they do have something in the works. Add Holly Herndon (whose bandmate Colin Self also put out an amazing experimental pop album in 2018) to the list of highly respected electronic producers singing Rosalia's praises. Get aboard and prepare to be transported. [Dave]
After a relatively quiet three-year absence since dropping his great, nocturnal sophomore LP I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside, Earl Sweatshirt made an unexpected, bold return with Some Rap Songs, an album that’s even more impenetrable and scatterbrained than anything he's done before. Like on Earl's past studio albums, the mood on this record is dark and foreboding, and explores the inner workings of his psyche; this time around, however, the instrumentals are far more dense and cerebral, as Earl delves into issues he experienced since the release of his last album, and on several occasions mentions his relationship with his parents who both appear on the track "Playing Possum" (the album was mostly written before Earl's father's death earlier this year). The record requires a few listens to fully digest, but once it finally clicks, the payoff is extraordinary. Once again, Earl manages to mirror his disjointed, slanted flows and at times surreal lyricism with properly off-kilter, paranoia-inducing instrumentals, and even though the record only clocks under half an hour, the auditory path Earl leads listeners on throughout the record makes it feel much, much longer, and in turn, even more rewarding. [Jeremy Nifras]
While he’s remained a huge draw as a DJ, it’s been five years since we’ve gotten a record from Germany’s DJ Koze, but Knock Knock was worth the wait -- another killer mix of downtempo grooves, chilled-out house and a few knockout bangers. (“Pick-Up” might be the best Daft Punk song not written by the robotic French duo.) Roisin Murphy, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner, Jose Gonzalez, Sophia Kennedy, and Arrested Development’s Speech all stop by, with Koze meeting them with tracks that compliment their strengths. (Murphy and Gonzalez’s contributions are particularly strong standouts.) Despite the marquee talent all over this album, the real star is Koze himself, whose deep-dive, crate-digging style finds endless inspiration in a wide variety of samples -- from Gladys Knight to Bon Iver and beyond -- that he weaves together into this magical tapestry of an album. [B.P.]
Golden Hour is, if Kacey Musgraves is to be believed, the child of an acid trip. But while there are overt nods to psychedelia here -- most prominently right off the bat with the "Strawberry Fields" reverse delay on the opening honey “Slow Burn” -- the album is surprisingly lucid. This record is enveloping, a clear-eyed, full-hearted beauty from start to finish, filled with songs that felt classic the moment I heard them. Kacey addresses universal feelings through simple observations -- oh what a world, indeed -- that might might feel like the work of a high-school pop philosopher in lesser hands. But her observations, age-old as they might be, never feel hackneyed because, at the risk of being overly blunt, these are just really fucking incredible songs. There are melodies here that have been in my head all year. It sort of sounds like if Taylor Swift’s goal was to get a BNM from Pitchfork rather than dominate the pop music universe, and if that sounds reductive or like an insult, good lord it isn’t. “Butterflies” makes you feel like no one should ever write another love song. “Happy and Sad” makes you feel, well, happy and sad at the same time. In a just world, the disco kiss-off “High Horse” and power ballad “Space Cowboy” would be massive hits. But this album exists, so actually maybe it is a just world after all. [R.S.F.]
A “magus” may refer to an ancient sorcerer or priest, and on Thou’s latest album by the same name, one could certainly argue that they play both roles. Slowly guiding you down the path of darkness with their chugging riffs, the sludge metal behemoths sound fiery as ever on their fifth full-length LP, which followed the release of three 2018 EPs in different genres -- the noisy The House Primordial, the slowcore-ish Inconsolable, and the grungy Rhea Sylvia -- and has already been followed by a split with Ragana. Thou’s records are fundamentally all about overcoming an essential humanness – in their world, desire is deadly and worldly pleasures are simply bread and circuses. But these themes are more boldly expressed here, as frontman Bryan Funck screams in his shredded howl about “the spiraling hole of self deification.” And though the band is known for their massive, larger-than-life guitar compositions, the record is not without post-rock and shoegaze touches, such as the dark and beautiful “In The Kingdom of Meaning.” But by the end of the album, Thou has built a towering, frightening soundscape, one that can lend weight to Funck’s commands to “assume the God form.” Perhaps it would sound a bit dramatic, if Funck’s own standards weren’t so exacting. [A.G.]
Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan has always stood out as a raconteur in the Philly DIY scene, unafraid to ambitiously raise indie rock to the lyrical level of Greek tragedies. On Bark Your Head Off, Dog, she finally has the instrumentals to elevate her words. “Not Abel,” a biblical commentary that juxtaposes Cain and Abel’s brotherhood with her own familial mishaps, is accented with pizzicato strings, while violins and pianos accompany her repeated refrain “How strange to be shaped by such strange men” on “What the Writer Meant.” Men, and their undue influence over public life, is a theme throughout Bark Your Head Off, Dog. But for Quinlan, whose inner world blends personal relationships with musings on capital punishment, the story is never so black-and-white. On their latest record, Hop Along delight in exploring the gray area. [A.G.]
Let's Eat Grandma came to our attention when they released their quirky, whimsical, and occasionally creepy debut album, I, Gemini, in 2016. This year, the duo returned with an album that's a huge step forward in every way. I'm All Ears is a weirdo pop masterwork, a sharply honed, glittering gem that balances tight hooks with unique touches, proving they haven't entirely abandoned the offbeat outlook of their debut. Whether riding a pony in the sky -- gender role stereotypes abandoned -- to the soundtrack of breaking glass and sparkling synths on "Hot Pink," (which, along with "It's Not Just Me," was co-produced by SOPHIE and The Horrors' Faris Badwan), or reveling in the shimmering, surrealistic jam of album closer "Donnie Darko," with imagery of buzzing flies and skin peeling like clementines over music that swells to reach cinematic heights, Let's Eat Grandma inject fierce inventiveness into their idealistic pop vision. [A.H.]
This was mandatory in my eyes. The Children of the Night, Tribulation’s previous record, is one of the best metal albums of the decade, a literal perfect record that I cannot say enough about. All they had to do for me was to continue mining that space, which felt like it had more room, and this they did. All the elements remain: a thick gothic atmosphere, but one that is ripe in euphoric Satanism and vampiric splendor. Describing this album in terms of black metal or glam or heavy metal or death metal misses the point; they are the heavy counter to a group like Ghost, both exploring the same emotional and aesthetic terrain of the euphoria of Satanism as opposed to its dourness, delighting in graveyards and death worship and the agony of the spirit in the jaws of life. This, to me, is worship music. Anything that can bring a person this much spiritual ecstasy, as in true ekstasis, has to be ranked among the best. [Langdon Hickman]
With Room 25, Noname has achieved the rare feat of writing one of the year's best rap albums, best jazz albums, and best spoken word albums. Her 2016 debut Telefone was promising, but on Room 25 she sounds ready to take over the world. It's music that sounds like it'd be destined to remain underground (one of the most direct comparisons is Digable Planets), but Noname continues to blow up and she just might end up infiltrating the mainstream with her heady, complex music. She doesn't have some grand scheme like that though; she's just being herself. "A lot of my fans... I think they like me because they think I’m the anti-Cardi B. I’m not. I’m just Fatimah," she told The FADER earlier this year. And she rejects coming off as some kind of corrective to mainstream hip hop stereotypes on the album itself ("I'm problematic too"). She fills the album with songs that look inwards and songs that look outwards. Sometimes she tackles race and gender issues, other times she raps about how good she is at rapping, or about how her pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism. Her mild-tempered delivery and the album's intricate jazz instrumentals can make it seem intimidating, but one of the best things about Room 25 is how incredibly listenable it is. Her style may be informed by poetry and spoken word, but she really does rap and she does it better than a lot of her peers. She doesn't write bangers, but her lines drill their way into your brain and stay there longer than a lot of bangers do. The same is true of her instrumentals. Just as memorable as a line like "He gon' fuck me like I'm Oprah" on "Montego Bae" is a bassline like the one on "Blaxploitation." She writes songs with layers upon layers to unpack and she finds strange and exciting ways to make them accessible. She's a true original. [A.S.]
Powered by three very talented singer-guitarists (Tom Russo, Fran Keaney, and Joe White), Melbourne’s Rolling Blackouts made good on their two EPs with Hope Downs, their excellent debut album. With near-relentless manic energy, the album bursts out of the gate with the blazingly strummed guitars of “An Air Conditioned Man” and rarely slows down across its 10 great tracks. Russo, Keaney and White trading vocal lines and guitar licks within songs that keeps things engaging even though tempos don’t vary greatly. That restless spirit extends to the lyrics which look at a variety of subjects -- some more serious than others -- through a lens of late-20’s drift. Nearly every song on Hope Downs is single-worthy, with “Bellarine,” “Talking Straight,” “Mainland” and “Exclusive Grave” among the catchiest. While the kind of melodic indie rock they make -- influenced by groups like R.E.M., The Strokes and Aussie forefathers Paul Kelly and The Go-Betweens -- isn’t exactly in fashion these days, Hope Downs proves that all it takes is one great record to remind you how thrilling it can still be. [B.P.]
It feels like Robyn's shadow has loomed large over this past decade of pop music, even though she hadn't actually released an album since 2010. Pop has gotten weirder and more auteur-driven since Body Talk, back when Robyn felt like an outlier for insisting that dance-floor jams were a legitimate realm for Serious Art. Now artists like Beyonce, Lorde, and Rihanna make that idea seem quaint, and fringier pop acts like SOPHIE and Charli XCX push against the genre's limits like true warriors of the avant-garde. And into this landscape, for which she bears at least partial responsibility, slips Robyn with Honey, as compelling a piece of seasoned songcraft as you're likely to find. Honey is, among other things, a triumph of mood; beautifully mellow, operating within a language of subtle shifts of color and tone, and able to conjure powerful emotions with striking gestural economy. It's the work of a supremely confident hand who doesn't mind taking her time, an album that flows perfectly to its own logic. After opening with the most Body Talk-sounding track here ("Missing U"), she brings the volume way down. "Baby Forgive Me" is so hushed in its remorse that it feels like a whisper. "Send to Robin Immediately" is a pulsing, muffled plea for information. "Honey" is an absolute stunner, built around one of the strongest melodies she's ever produced, the type of song that makes you stop whatever you're doing whenever it comes on. And closer "Ever Again" is the perfect end-point, built on a breezier groove than anything that precedes it, a '70s soul bassline, and another one of those achingly lovely minor-key melodies that feel like a calling card. Now that she's actually back, it feels like she's been here all along. [R.S.F.]
2018 was a great year for heavy music, but almost no heavy album made me wanna bash my head through a wall every time I heard it like TIME & SPACE. And even less were this simultaneously catchy and psychedelic in the process. As one of the biggest bands in modern hardcore for a while, Turnstile were already an accessible band, but there was a time when they were still a relatively straightforward one, one you could easily boil down to its influences. TIME & SPACE put a firm end to that time and also took a gigantic leap forward. You can still hear hints of other music (from floor-punching NYHC to melodic alt-metal to the hammering piano of Stooges-y garage punk to the rhythmic post-hardcore of Fugazi to Slayer's punked up thrash to Bad Brains' hardcore frenzy and beyond), but TIME & SPACE puts all of those sounds in a melting pot and comes out with something that never sounds like one particular band besides Turnstile. They've stepped up their singing about nine notches since their last record, and now they've got big choruses, airtight harmonies, and the fully clean-sung "Moon" that would've dominated rock radio in 1996. They've also really figured out how to be an experimental band without losing the short, fast, and loud thrill of hardcore. The album's got R&B interludes, psychedelic sound effects, and polyrhythmic auxiliary percussion for days. It makes for music that isn't just an adrenaline rush, but genuinely weird too. It's exciting to hear a hardcore band this modern and innovative, but who can also whip out the Headbanger's Ball riff of "Real Thing" or the circle pit screamalong of "Big Smile" and bring you right back to the reason you got into punk in the first place. [A.S.]
Ever since the label's inception, Pusha T has remained G.O.O.D. Music's most consistently engaging artist, ranging from his underrated solo debut My Name Is My Name, to basically any feature he's done within the last few years (and that's not even counting his work with Clipse). As good as his past work has been, it seems Pusha's solo career has finally reached its creative peak with DAYTONA. On the album, which features production from Kanye West on every track, Pusha rides grimy, hard-knocking beats that flawlessly complement his nasty, signature flow, and everything about DAYTONA manages to perfectly fall into place. Aside from featuring the strongest production of any Pusha solo album to date, DAYTONA also has Pusha delivering some of the most vindictive bars of his career, especially in the last lines of the Drake-dissing "Infrared," where Pusha calls him out for his association with alleged ghostwriter Quentin Miller: "How could you ever right these wrongs/When you don't even write your songs?/But let us all play along/We all know what n***** for real been waitin' on/Push." (And even that's nothing compared to Pusha's standalone Drake diss track "The Story of Adidon.") All over this endlessly listenable and seemingly universally loved album, Pusha tells the world he's someone not to be messed with, and down to the final bars, it's a fact that's indisputable. [J.N.]
Invasion of Privacy was the year's biggest breakout debut album, on both a critical and a commercial level, and whoever would land at #2 isn't even close. She broke a few records with it, scored two No. 1 singles with it, and at one point she had all 13 of its songs in Billboard's Hot 100. At the end of 2017, there was still some fear that "Bodak Yellow" was destined to be a one hit wonder that Cardi would never top. Now, it's almost hard to remember a time when that was the case. "Bodak Yellow" was once the biggest and best rap song in the world; now it isn't even the biggest or best rap song on Invasion of Privacy. Cardi made the kind of debut that's built to satisfy nearly every type of rap song, but it comes off like it was made out of a love of hip hop and not by business-savvy Suits trying to check off boxes. It's got the epic, tell-all autobiography intro track ("Get Up 10"), the trap song ("Drip" ft. Migos), the sentimental ballad ("Be Careful"), the R&B songs ("Ring" ft. Kehlani and "I Do" ft. SZA), the buzz-creating hit ("Bodak Yellow"), the song that kinda sounds like the buzz-creating hit ("Money Bag"), the Latin hip hop song ("I Like It" ft. J Balvin & Bad Bunny), and others peppered in that rival almost all of the aforementioned songs. There's really no song you could accurately call filler, and almost no song that you didn't hear all year just by walking out your front door or turning on the TV or the radio. And it already feels dated to call "Bodak Yellow" the "hit," as the "hit" for the majority of 2018 has been "I Like It." The Latin trap/reggaeton movement was already gigantic before Cardi B (and Beyonce) got involved, but there's no question that Cardi helped introduce it to English-speaking audiences, and that she helped Bad Bunny and J Balvin (and Ozuna and Anuel AA, etc) gain more English-speaking fans. And "I Like It" isn't just a gateway song, even it has been met with some cynicism. It was one of the biggest songs in America this year because it really was good enough to be. That's true of Invasion of Privacy in general. It's been a long time since there's been a rapper this omnipresent with lyricism this gripping, a personality this massive and irresistible, and a delivery this classically skilled yet entirely modern. The first time you heard Cardi rap "ain't no bitches spittin' like this since '08" it might have seemed like a big claim. Now it seems unnecessarily modest. [A.S.]
For the first minute and a half, Nearer My God sounds like a lot of indie music that comes out nowadays. There's a pulsing synth, electronic handclaps, an R&B-inspired falsetto -- you know, the kind of thing you're basically guaranteed to hear if you turn on Alt Nation or show up to some band's set at Lollapalooza. And then Conor Murphy screams "I'M SHOCK COLLARED AT THE GATES OF HEAVEN," live drums come in, and all of a sudden you're listening to some of the most crushing post-hardcore to be released this year. It's a sudden 180, but it's also the same kind of post-genre experience that many internet-era listeners arrange for themselves anyway. Do you like The Blood Brothers, but also TV on the Radio, but also Radiohead, but also M83, but also Frank Ocean? It's not that weird to answer yes, and if you did, then Nearer My God is for you. The level of ambition it takes to pull something like this off, and getting it right nearly destroyed Foxing. But, with help from producer and former Death Cab For Cutie member Chris Walla (who called Nearer My God "one of the bravest and best records I've ever been a part of"), they pulled it off like experts. It's an innovative, risk-taking album that cares about accessible pop appeal as much as it cares about schizophrenic prog-punk fury ("Gameshark") and long stretches of meditative ambience ("Five Cups"). It's an album you can rock out to and scream your lungs out to as much as it's an album you can spend alone time with and really pay attention to the many intricate details. It's less common than it used to be to get indie rock albums with this level of masterful ambition, but it doesn't feel right to tie this album in with a past era. Nearer My God is looking nowhere but forward, and there's hardly anything else like it. [A.S.]
Mitski's fifth album starts with an abrupt, ringing chime, the kind that will blast your speakers or headphones if you have them turned up too high. It's an alert to sit up and pay attention; Mitski eschews belaboring arrangements and themes and instead moves through these songs at a steady clip. She has the confidence of a self-assured strut in a cowboy hat and boots, and it's the furthest thing from false bravado. Rather, it's the culmination of a years-long rise that began in earnest with the release of her third album, 2014's Bury Me at Makeout Creek, and hastened exponentially with her true breakthrough, 2016's Puberty 2. Now she regularly sells out tours well in advance, playing to packed rooms of devoted fans who sing her lyrics of loneliness and toxic behavioral patterns back to her with adoring fervor.
A pervasive loneliness inhabits the characters who populate Be The Cowboy, and it's expressed in a whole spectrum of colors and textures, each striking a deep nerve. There's the willful isolation in "A Pearl," of someone unable and unwilling to loosen her grip on self-destructive behavior. There’s the desperately alienated narrator of "Nobody," parading her longing for human connection under upbeat, tropical synths, stretching out the word "nobody" in repetitions and key changes until it morphs and devolves into two words, "no body," losing its meaning. "Lonesome Love" presents the album's most vivid and thematic image, of a woman applying makeup and stepping into high heels to remake herself into someone confident and self-reliant - being the cowboy - only to crumble in front of the person she was trying to get over in the first place. These expert depictions, done in deceptively simple, economical language, are soundtracked by Mitski's most ambitious music yet, with distorted guitars sharing space with horns and disco beats. Iggy Pop was right on when he said Mitski was "probably the most advanced American songwriter that I know;" as exciting as her continued rise has been to watch, it's even more amazing to note that she's still ascending. [A.H.]
“If you couldn’t tell, I’m mad as hell,” Meg Remy sings on “M.A.H.” Even if you didn’t understand a word she sings on In a Poem Unlimited, you could tell that. Not that it’s a new thing for Remy, whose music has dealt in feminist themes since she started making music as U.S. Girls back in 2007. But where previous records had her singing over tape loops and samples, she made this album with a full band -- Toronto collective Cosmic Range that includes her husband, Slim Twig -- who helped her realize a sound that incorporates jazz, funk, soul, vintage Motown, and disco. (Basically, instead of sampling, she created the sound from the ground up.) With this comes some of Remy’s sharpest, most direct and affecting songs to date, including the simmering revenge fantasy “Velvet for Sale,” the Blondie-esque “M.A.H.,” the sultry “Rosebud” and, best of all, the funky and scathingly satirical “Pearly Gates.” While it works as a soundtrack to these times -- from Trump to #MeToo -- there is a strong theme of personal accountability running through In a Poem Unlimited, railing against apathy as much as anything else. Remy demands action, even if just starts with dancing. [B.P.]
Most groups who have been together for 25 years enter a familiar pattern, settling into a sound and groove. No so with Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, who have been radically reimagining Low’s sound in the third decade of their musical partnership. 2015’s Ones and Sixes asked what a band known for being quiet would sound like being loud, and for Double Negative they just decided to blow up the rule book entirely. The results are unforgettable. B.J. Burton, who recorded Ones and Sixes and has worked with Bon Iver, Sylvan Esso and others, became a full-on collaborator on Double Negative, pulling apart elements of their songs, reworking them through production that was ambient and abrasive, often within the same song. Tracks flow into one another, with recurring elements throughout the album. (“I never thought that Low would be responsible for the most damaged electronics I’ve heard all year,” Uniform’s Michael Berdan told us, and he knows damaged electronics.) Yet Double Negative is unmistakably a Low album, too, with Sparhawk and Parker’s distinctive voices and harmonies at the center. Lyrics are minimal but powerful, and like the rest of the record, themes recur -- the fight to keep going, to keep hope alive -- even as their voices become lost in distortion and noise. [B.P.]
Australia’s Camp Cope solidified their position as one of our favorite new bands with the release of their self-titled debut in 2016. Those first eight songs introduced us to Georgia "Maq" McDonald’s world, her catchy pop punk songwriting, and chills-inducing voice. The power of that album caused the trio -- rounded out by like-minded ladies Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich (on bass) and Sarah Thompson (on drums) -- to very quickly become known around the world, as did their forward-thinking and no-nonsense activism. This year’s debut full length was undoubtedly one of our most anticipated releases of this year, but if upon its release it wasn’t clear that it would also be one of 2018’s most important releases, it became clearer and clearer with countless repeated listens, which not only brought musical joy and sometimes tears to more than one BV staff member, but provided the most fitting soundtrack for what was a very turbulent year.
#MeToo was accused of going too far or running its course, festival and package tour lineups continued to be overwhelmingly, exclusively male, and Camp Cope's vital sophomore album How to Socialise & Make Friends arrived not a moment too soon. Fearlessly tackling music industry sexism and gender disparity on opening track and call to arms "The Opener," Camp Cope are a force of nature from the first bassline, pushing back against inequality with strength and rage. Georgia's voice comes in a raw blast, cutting off hypocrisy and gaslighting at their source. Two songs later, "The Face of God," a haunting recollection of sexual assault and its aftermath, has the intensity of a punch in the gut. Its most wrenching lines are a stark reminder of the toxicity of victim-blaming: "I saw it, the face of god, and he turned himself away from me and said I did something wrong." This plain-spoken acknowledgement of an almost unspeakable shame far too many people feel after surviving rape chilled me to my core. "The Face of God" presents a situation that will ring all too familiar to many, not only because of the epidemic of sexual assault, but because the perpetrator is a musician. "Could it be true?" Georgia sings, "you couldn't do that to someone. Not you, nah your music is too good." The continued success of alleged abusers like R. Kelly proves the music industry has a long way to go towards not just looking the other way.
Life goes on in spite of everything; there is hope and healing, or attempts at both. There is also further grief: the loss of Georgia's father, folk musician Hugh McDonald, to cancer, is touchingly portrayed in album closer "I've Got You," a genuine tear-jerker and loving tribute that sticks with you long after the album is over. As does Georgia's voice, ringing more cathartically than ever on "Anna," singing, "just get it all out, put it in a song." It's a battle cry towards moving forward, surrounded by various light-hearted slice-of-life sketches throughout the album that shine with genuine feeling: the "rescue dogs in a house by the sea" in "The Omen," and "riding my bike with no handlebars through empty streets in the dark" on the its title track. These slightly messy but honest songs may not have made for the most ambitious or experimental music this year, but they were among the most powerful and heartfelt. This is the kind of music worth returning to long after trends fade and move on, the kind of music where new details pop out at you on each listen and will continue to do so for years to come. How to Socialise & Make Friends still feels as fresh and relevant as we hoped it would the day "The Opener" dropped over a year ago, and we're already full of anticipation for whatever Camp Cope do next. [A.H.]