I don’t think 2018 produced nearly as many great albums as the previous 3 years had, making it an average or somewhat below average year. It felt like there was an endless supply of albums that I felt were fine but didn’t fully capture my attention. That said, there were 11 that stood out to me over the crowd. For a Spotify playlist of highlights from each album, scroll to the end of the article.
Double Negative, Low
It’s rare, but ever once in a while you find an album that for whatever reason hits on everything you’re looking for in music, even if you can’t explain why. Double Negative did that for me, and reminded me a lot of how I felt the first time I listened to Radiohead’s Kid A in high school. The sparse and vast soundscapes Low is able to create are powerful and awe-inspiring. I don’t think any of the individual songs are classics on their own, but as a collection the record really works on a level that’s different than any album in a long time. Double Negative is not an album I would ever call fun or uplifting, but its one I’ve loved listening to and appreciating, and are a cut above the rest of the 2018 pack in my book.
Cocoa Sugar, Young Fathers
Young Fathers is a group that really can’t be defined by a standard genre—they loosely make songs that mix hip-hop and R&B over alternative and electronic beats—so it’s hard to describe their appeal to someone who’s never listened to them. I hate using the words “unique” or “experimental” when talking about music, but there really isn’t much out there like them. On Cocoa Sugar pianos, organs, MIDI horns, and vocal harmonies and rounds create the melodies, while drum machines and samples drive the music. Frantic songs like “Wow,” “Wire,” and “Toy” are panicked-sounding dance tracks with fantastic beats and telling lyrics. “In My View” and “Lord” are tortured-sounding gospel songs, with grand instrumentals and subdued, reflective vocals. Cocoa Sugar also made me appreciate how creative the trio has been since day one. I love when an album forces me to go back and listen to an artist’s older works I hadn’t really given much of a chance. Ever since hearing “LOW” on Minnesota Public Radio back in 2014 I’ve liked most of the Young Fathers songs I had heard but never bothered with their albums. That was a mistake I rectified in 2018.
7, Beach House
Beach House has been one of the most consistent acts of the past 10 years, and if you’re a fan of their music you’ll really like 7 (the duo’s seventh studio album), which I put right up there with Teen Dream as the group’s best work. Their iconic dream pop sound is here in full force, but there are a few more rock elements and upbeat tracks here than usual here. The change adds a welcome dimension to their music, and creates a more complete package that’s digestible and almost perfectly balances moments of high and low energy.
Singularity, Jon Hopkins
I seldom put electronic or instrumental albums on my end-of-year lists because, frankly, I find ambient albums hard to get through start to finish and even harder to evaluate on a song-to-song level. Singularity works so well as an album that once I gave it a try I knew there was something special about it. Whether I decide to just listen to a song, or the whole album, there is so much that builds it is easy to get engrossed into the music. The music is peaceful, beautiful, intricate and never gets too loud or frantic. It’s a great album to drive to, write to or just relax with at night.
DiCaprio 2, J.I.D.
J.I.D.’s mainstream debut—2017’s The Never Story—showed that he had the potential to become one of the game’s best rappers, and one-year later he proved that he already is. On DiCaprio 2, J.I.D. mixes Kendrick Lamar’s spitfire flow with a Lil Wayne-esque swagger and a storytelling ability ah-la J. Cole. Layer that on top of pretty immaculate production—“Skawberries,” “Workin Out” and “Just Another Day” are among my favorite beats of the year—and you get an album that’s easy to listen to, easy to appreciate and both serious and fun. If J.I.D. continues to put out music like this, it shouldn’t be long before his popularity catches up to his acclaim.
Drogas Wave, Lupe Fiasco
In a year defined by long-anticipated but short in length hip-hop albums (See Kanye West, Pusha T, Vince Staples, Earl Sweatshirt, Nas, and Kid Cudi to name a few), Lupe Fiasco decided to release a behemoth with little to no fanfare. At 24 tracks and an hour and 38 minutes in length, it’s easy to be overwhelmed and intimidated at the commitment needed to unpack Drogas Wave, but the content is spectacular. I can’t think of another album that is so long and so consistently good moment to moment. Of the 20 true songs (4 of the tracks are interludes under a minute), 18 of them are great and the other two are just click under that. Lupe crafts his narratives and rhymes as well as he ever has, and the musical production is spot on from start to finish, carrying the weight of his subjects. The creativity, attention to detail, the depth, and sheer amount of content here—especially coming off a dud of an album like 2017’s Drogas Light—makes Drogas Wave a legendary hip-hop record. However, the lack of accessibility that comes with an album this long and this smart actually makes the album hard to listen to, and that will ultimately prevent it from being seen as a classic in the future. In other words, I think Drogas Wave might actually be the best album of the year in a technical sense, but it definitely isn’t my favorite.
Twin Fantasy (Face to Face), Car Seat Headrest
You’d be hard-pressed to find a four-track stretch on any other album this year more exhilarating and well executed than the “Sober to Death” to “Cute Thing” run on Twin Fantasy, a high-quality and refined re-release of front man Will Toledo’s self-recorded 2011 album of the same name. And as far as indie rock goes, there isn’t another band out there right now that knows how to put together long, layered rock songs with nothing but guitar, drums and vocal harmonies as well as Car Seat Headrest. The last three tracks on Twin Fantasy are a little too long and dense in succession for my liking and hold the album back, but they’re still good songs. I also love “Beach Life-In-Death,” not only because it’s hard to find a building, 13-minute rock songs with guitar solos and tempo changes in today-s music that’s actually good, but because the emotion in the lyrics, like many lyrics throughout the album, are pure and relatable. If you’re looking for a solid, straightforward indie rock album to listen to, Twin Fantasy is a great choice.
Joy As an Act of Resistance., IDLES
Joy As an Act of Resistance. is an acquired taste, but an album I think will get people to listen to IDLES past works. At its most basic level, the album is 12 songs of shouting vocals with lyrics about the negativity of societal expectations and politics with random pop-culture references spoken over up-tempo punk riffs. However, the lyrics are really good and the music is fun and ruckus. My end-of-year playlist has three IDLES songs on it, but honestly any of the 12 tracks could have made the list. They’re pretty interchangeable, in a good way.
Daytona, Pusha T
This is almost as straightforward as one of my reviews can get. The lyrics are great. The production and features are great. Pusha T goes hard and takes his shots for 21 focused minutes. Daytona is classic hip-hop at the highest level.
Art of Doubt, Metric
Metric is your standard, cool alternative band, and after a brief (and disappointing) detour into a pop realm in 2015, they returned to their rock roots on Art of Doubt. This is the type of album where there are so many strong songs—“Art of Doubt,” Now or Never,” “Risk,” and “Dark Saturday” to name a handful— that its able to make up for the few misses. There’s fun guitar work here with Metric’s signature space-sounding synths. You can’t really ask for much more.
Be The Cowboy, Mitski
Be The Cowboy is a concise collection of sometimes self-deprecation love songs, that are musically grandiose at times and simplistically charming at others. I feel kind of bad because I don’t have much to say about it, other than it’s good, very pleasant to listen to and I like it. I think you will too!
FM!, Vince Staples
Vince Staples tends to change the style of his songs on every record, and with a 22 minute collection of short, easily digestible radio formatted tracks, he’s done it again on FM!. Despite the more universally-accessible sound, Staples lyricism and flow do not suffer. The longest song tops-out at 3:08, and eight of the 11 tracks are under 2:30, but each stands on its own as a complete, stand-alone song. Even the skits—including snippets of “new” Earl Sweatshirt and Tyga songs—hold up, making FM! one of the top hip-hop albums of the year.
Wide Awake!, Parquet Courts
Wide Awake!, the fun and upbeat sixth album by New York indie band Parquet Courts, includes both the angry rants and calm (maybe drug-induced) musings of people learning to cope with the current state of the world. Tonally, it’s a similar but more subdued version of IDLES’ Joy As an Act of Resistance. but with more divers musical elements, drawing from modern day indie rock, and retro funk and punk music like The Clash.
I was a little worried about what BROCKHAMPTON would do without Ameer Vann, one of their main vocalist, but iridescence quickly removed any doubts I had. Although the record’s best tracks aren’t as good as BROCKHAMPTON’s breakout songs from 2017 (“Gold,” “Gummy” and “Boogie” to name a few), I think iridescence is better tonally, cohesively and a lot more mature than any of the three Saturation albums, which had high points but were disjointed with a lot of filler. “J’overt” is the highlight of the album for me, but there are stunning moments throughout, like the guitar and siren-laden bridge on “Honey.”
As I mentioned in my introduction, this year had a lot of albums that solid, but that didn’t really move me as much as I had hoped they would. I had a really had time figuring out which ones I liked more than others. Still, they each had good songs I appreciated and brought something I enjoyed to the table, making them deserve mentioning somewhere on my list. Here are some of he other albums I enjoyed or thought were pretty cool in 2018 (in no particular order):
- Tell Me How You Really Feel, Courtney Barnett
- Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, Deafheaven
- Post-, Jeff Rosenstock
- Redemption, Jay Rock
- TA13BOO, Denzel Curry
- Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, Sophie
- Kids See Ghosts, Kids See Ghosts
- Black Panther Soundtrack, Kendrick Lamar, various artists
- Jericho Sirens, Hot Snakes
- New Material, Preoccupations
- Phantom Thread Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Johnny Greenwood
- Hope Downs, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
- Ye, Kanye West
- Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, Arctic Monkeys
- KOD, J. Cole