The 20 Best Albums of 2018

By Tim LaVoie

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A confusing year if there ever was one, 2018 seemed to vacillate between the highs and lows of the human experience with no warning or break between the two. Just when you’ve been convinced things will be alright, Anthony Bourdain and Scott Hutchison commit suicide. Then just when it seems the world’s gone black, all those kids got pulled out of that damn cave. I think these 20 records, culled from about 350, as a group encapsulate that range of feeling and the extremes that displayed themselves on weekly basis this year. The hope, as always, is that everyone can find something new to enjoy, or at least argue about, below. Happy listening.

20. Cloud Nothings - Last Building Burning: Cleveland’s best band returns with a frantic, ferocious record following last year’s sedated Life Without Sound. This jittery album is a loud reminder of how good Cloud Nothings have been over the last decade. Best tracks: “Leave Him Now”, “In Shame”

19. Earl Sweatshirt - Some Rap Songs: These are some excellent rap songs. Best tracks: “December 24”, “The Mint”

18. Lucy Dacus - Historian: Historian reiterates the emotional power and appeal of a strong woman with a guitar. These songs shift from crunchy to folky and back - all telling compelling stories anchored by Dacus’ syrupy croon. Best tracks: “Nonbeliever”, “Pillar of Truth”

17. Christine and the Queens  - Chris: As Christine and the Queens, French gender-bender Héloïse Letissier released the year’s most fully-realized pop record - though Charli XCX’s Pop 2 came close. Channeling equal amounts of 80’s Bowie and 90’s Robyn, Letissier cracked the code to smart electro-pop bliss. Best tracks: “5 dollars”, “Doesn’t matter”

16. Soccer Mommy - Clean: Singer-songwriter Sophie Allison’s somber debut full-length is polished and graceful. Clean hangs on to just enough jangly indie-rock to not collapse under its own weight. Best tracks: “Your Dog”, “Scorpio Rising”

15. Flasher - Constant Image: This herky-jerky debut from the DC post-punks grabs your attention immediately with Television-inspired riffs and looping New Wave melodies. This tight, vibrant collection could have been released as is in 1982. That’s a compliment. Best tracks: “Material”, “XYZ”

14. Joey Purp - QUARTERTHING: Joey continues Chicago’s hot streak, as his debut meshes soul samples with the Wu-Tang influenced beats he grew up on. Scoring guest verses from the likes of RZA and GZA helps too. QUARTERTHING may not have a consistent feel one track to the next, but it is the rare hip-hop album where each track tips its hat to the past, while the whole still feels like a bold jump into the future. Best tracks: “Hallelujah”, “LeBron James”

13. boygenius - boygenius: It’s one of the oldest, most reliable cliches in music - supergroups are usually far from being super. Something about music made by people introduced to each other by their publicists guarantees it will lack soul. The debut boygenius EP throws this theory on its head, as 2017 top ten placers Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers join the above mentioned Lucy Dacus on six gorgeous tracks. Rather than competing for space, each song puts one of the singer-songwriters up front, while the other two play a complementary role. Unsurprisingly, the Julien Baker-fronted “Stay Down” is the stand-out, as she’s the Dylan of these Wilburys. Best tracks: “Stay Down”, “Me & My Dog”

12. Blood Orange - Negro Swan: Indie R&B superhero Dev Hynes has the unenviable task of sharing a sonic realm with, but not being, Frank Ocean. His fourth and strongest Blood Orange record solidifies him as the next best thing. Minimalist production and instrumentation doesn’t keep Negro Swan from displaying a cinematic scope, as Hayes deals with serious issues without bloating the record. Best tracks: “Chewing Gum”, “Saint”

11. Wild Pink - Yolk in the Fur: Wild Pink catch heat for sounding too much like the War on Drugs; who in turn catch heat for sounding too much like a bunch of other great bands. At a certain point, we should accept that great rock music will always contain shared elements, and celebrate when they’re executed flawlessly. Wild Pink’s brand of rock is sensitive without being weak. It’s simple, but unafraid to throw in a pedal steel or other flourishes when needed. It’s smart but not heady, as Yolk sounds designed to throw on at any time, in any situation, and just enjoy. Best tracks: “Love Is Better”, “Jewels Drossed in the Runoff”

10. Beach House - 7: It’s possible there’s never been a better, non-Ramones, band that stayed so strictly within their lane for so long. Across six records, Beach House changed their immediately recognizable brand of mid-tempo, woozy dream pop so little, that despite being incredible, they toyed with self-parody. While by no means a radical departure, 7 is the band’s boldest shift to date, with denser textures, slower burns, and looser production. On “Pay No Mind” they trade their trademark twinkling for actual crunchy electric guitar. “L’Innconue” pairs a near-Gregorian chant with a legitimate lead guitar riff. Though Beach House will never fundamentally change, these little tweaks and additions resulted in their best record since 2010. Best tracks: “Pay No Mind”, “Last Ride”

9. Snail Mail - Lush: Sometimes the answer is comfortable, sub-genre-less, high quality indie rock. Packed full of tight, jangly tunes, the debut from 19 year-old Lindsey Jordan is an endearing set of disarming, beautifully crafted melodies. Teenage loves lost and never-had have long been mined for inspiration, but there’s something special about the tales being delivered by an actual teenager. Best tracks: “Pristine”,  “Stick”

8. Saba - CARE FOR ME: Ho-hum. Another young Chicago rapper, another outstanding record. Saba’s second LP matches fantastic instrumentation with intimate lyrics touching on senseless violence in his hometown. Saba is a more natural storyteller than associates Joey Purp or Chance the Rapper, making CARE FOR ME engaging from end to end. Best tracks: “BUSY/SIRENS”, “PROM/KING”

7. YOB - Our Raw Heart: These gloom and doom metal legends’ fantastic back catalogue turned out to just be a lead-up to their unbridled masterpiece. Singer/guitarist Mike Scheidt spent most of 2017 in the hospital nearly dying from diverticulitis. In a very metal response, Scheidt wrote Our Raw Heart from his hospital bed. Though relentlessly heavy, these songs feel hopeful, and almost soft in a bizarre way - the melodies uplifting and clean, rather than just mindless pounding. The monstrous 16-minute “Beauty in Falling Leaves”, is not just YOB, but the entire genre, at its best. Best tracks: “Beauty in Falling Leaves”, “Our Raw Heart”

6. Robyn - Honey: On one hand, Honey is the glorious return of a dearly missed icon. Robyn balances the death of her songwriting partner and the end of her engagement with the need to let go and dance. The shimmering lead track “Missing U” is the song of the year. It’s a hands-in-the air anthem, and a somber rumination on deep loss, with the lyricism to match any Ryan Adams tear-jerker. The immaculate “Honey” and self-affirming “Ever Again” are nearly as good. The slow synth build-up in “Send To Robin Immediately” is pure gold. On the other hand, skip-over track “Between the Lines” feels dated, and “Beach2k20” is a disaster. In many ways, Honey is the album of the year. It was the year’s most buzzed-about album six months before it even had a release date. The title track had a strong social media campaign encouraging its rumored release years ago. That twinkling that sets off “Missing U” will always bring us right back to 2018. But, if you have a 9-track album, and two are duds, the package will always feel a bit thin, and the top 5 will be just out of reach. Still, those highs are almost impossibly high. Best tracks: “Missing U”, “Honey”, “Ever Again”

5. Deafheaven - Ordinary Corrupt Human Love: It seems like the “Is Deafheaven a real metal band or not?” controversy has finally been settled with the correct answer of a resounding, “Who cares?” Their evolving sound that jumps from screeching buzzsaw metal to clean guitar picked over layers of swirling atmosphere, now has piano intros, acoustic touches, and prime-Smashing Pumpkins guitar solos. Haters gonna hate as Deafheaven’s sound continues to twist and turn and explore new boundaries. Purists take comfort though, as all roads still lead back to George Clarke’s blood-curdling growl and Kerry McCoy’s expressive, fiery guitar work. Both vicious and beautiful, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love showcases a band so good at so many things at the height of their power. Best tracks: “Canary Yellow”, “Worthless Animal”

4. Camp Cope - How to Socialise & Make Friends: The second record from  the all-female Australian trio is an absolute thrill. They dive into consequential topics from the onset and never let up. Patriarchy-slaying “The Opener” exposes gender discrimination within the music scene - “Yeah, just get a female opener/that’ll fill the quota.” The mid-tempo gem “The Face of God”, details an unwanted sexual advance by a fellow musician - “Not you, you’ve got that one song that I like.” Though serious, the joy felt in the release these songs deliver shines through. Singer/guitarist Maq’s punchy, perfectly unpolished vocals jump from the speakers with purpose. Camp Cope aren’t just a band that fits into the #metoo moment, they helped create it. Almost as a bonus, closing track “I’ve Got You” - Maq’s tribute to her recently deceased father - could be the best acoustic album-closer from a punk(ish) band since the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular.” Best tracks: “The Face of God”, “The Opener”, “I’ve Got You”

3. Pusha T - Daytona: This 7-track, 21-minute lighting bolt of a record will be remembered for two reasons. First, for marking the moment Pusha ascended from “the guy from Clipse” to a solo star in his own right. With his impeccable flow, unchallengeable street cred, and savage takedowns - sorry Drake - Push has very few competitors when it comes to pure chops. Second, Daytona is likely the world’s last evidence of “good Kanye.” West started the year a mercurial, but undisputed genius. He ended the year just some idiot in a red hat. Amidst this mutation, he managed to pump out his best production work since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The beats crack, his sample selection is perfect, and he creates a sonic world no one else could. He also said slavery was a choice and his cell phone password is “000000.” The Kanye aspect of this story may be the most interesting, but let’s enjoy Pusha finally claiming the throne on which he was so long destined to sit. Best tracks: “If You Know You Know”, “Infrared”, “Hard Piano”

2. IDLES - Joy as an Act of Resistance: The hyper-political second album from the Bristol, England, punks is a frantic, 40-minute seething rebuke of the far right. Joy feels like it somehow was 2018. It’s crystallization of the terminology and politics of the moment impart on it a time capsule quality that no other record this year matched. Joe Talbot screaming “This snowflake’s an avalanche!” on “I’m Scum”; bating fearmongers by teasing “Islam didn’t eat your hamster” on “Great”; and proclaiming “I put homophobes in coffins!” on “Colossus”, encapsulates both the rage and stinging wit of the anti-nationalist/anti-Brexit forces. On “Danny Nedelko”, Talbot gives a stronger defense of immigration than most well-meaning, but disconnected politicos on the left ever could. The brilliant music video features Nedelko himself jumping around Bristol with fellow immigrants and minorities reclaiming the “a-okay” sign from white nationalists. It was about time the good guys had a soundtrack, and Joy as an Act of Resistance is a better one than the most ardent Remainer could have dreamt up. Best tracks: “Danny Nedelko”, “Great”, “Colossus”

1. Low - Double Negative - Not many bands wait until their 25th year and 12th record to completely change their sound and end up with their best album. Double Negative is a confounding, fascinating descent into a minimalist industrial world built in the outer universe of Low’s creativity. After  decades’ worth of excellent, slowly strummed guitar and husband/wife harmony-based songs, Low reacted to this political and environmental moment with a post-apocalyptic set of harrowing electronic, atmospheric pieces. With heavily modulated vocals and crackling static dissonance, this extraordinary Low record is more comparable to Fever Ray or Laurie Anderson than Red House Painters - which is an absolutely wild statement.

Double Negative begs to be listened to as a whole, as each song melts or thumps seamlessly into the next. The underlying theme of “this world won’t always be here” is pervasive. The record would be the perfect score to any number of recent amazing post-America novels. This is the musical match for American War, Station Eleven, and Future Home of the Living God. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s harmonies always stunned, but here they are truly haunting. The listener is left to wonder what hell Mimi is prepping for  on “Fly” when over a slow rolling groove she softly coos “Keep my body like a soldier/You gotta tell me when it’s over.” The harrowing, encroaching stomp on “Rome (Always In the Dark)” brings to mind Nine Inch Nails’ “Reptile.”  “Tempest” is all robot voices and distortion before collapsing painlessly into the record’s most beautiful vocal moment at the beginning of “Always Up.” 

Double Negative is record so confident and true in purpose that, in the most genius use of negative space since Talk Talk’s final two records, rarely is there more than one sound happening at a time. How Low got here isn’t a total surprise, as they toyed with slight industrial nuances on 2015’s Ones and Sixes, and always had a penchant for minimalism. It’s that they went from toying with, to being overtaken by and completely mastering new sounds that boggles the mind. That a veteran band was able to pull of a change in sound isn’t what’s so impressive either. What’s stunning is that a veteran band could completely change their sound, and not only manage to maintain the band’s soul, but somehow elevate and isolate what’s always made them so special. Admittedly, any record with the main descriptor of “terrifying” is a tough sell as Album of the Year. That the same album contains the band’s most touching and beautiful moments - after making 25 years’ worth of them - seems an almost unfair display of dexterity. Double Negative is by leaps and bounds 2018’s boldest, most daring artist jump into the unknown, which is sort of the point of art at its most basic level. Best tracks: “Always Up”, “Fly”, “Always Trying to Work It Out”

Follow Tim LaVoie on Twitter at @LaVoiePGH and on Instagram at @tglavoie

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