What is the sound of eking out an existence? Of stitching a life back together again? Of questioning if the old one was even worth saving? If the music of 2017 was about defying the world’s disintegration, 2018 ended with a resolution: Circumstances be damned, we will make the best of what we have.
It should be no surprise that, once again, the majority of my favorite albums and songs come from women-identifying artists. For artists on the margins, survival is a language frequently spoken; defiance is a look well-worn. “I fight time / It won in a landslide,” Lucy Dacus sings on her album Historian, my pick for the year’s best. “I’m just as good as anybody / I’m just as bad as anybody.”
The musicians on these records are wry, vexed, pensive, despondent, euphoric, stubborn, lustful and boastful in turn— hell, Tierra Whack just needed 15 minutes to hit them all. As in Whack World or Mitski’s Be The Cowboy, artists gave themselves opportunities to try on different costumes, or in the case of Janelle Monáe, a chance to take them off.
Women of color truly got their dues this year, especially in hip-hop, where male artists seemed dull in comparison. Kanye West sure tried his hardest to shake the industry, but ended up merely a punchline in a 1975 song. Even “Nice For What,” Drake’s standout single from his over-bloated Scorpion, wouldn’t have been possible without Lauryn Hill’s 20-year-old “Ex-Factor.” Who could tell a better personal story than Janelle Monáe or Noname, stand up to the swagger of Cardi B, rival the inventiveness of Tierra Whack?
The bar was just higher for men this year — though a few really met it. The 1975 turned inward with a razor-sharp honesty; Olafur Arnalds handed songwriting over to the machines; Leon Bridges took a running leap into the musical present; Car Seat Headrest painstakingly revamped a work from its past.
Taken together, 2018 didn’t just sound like getting by. This is the music of thriving under pressure.
You can stream a collection of my favorite music of 2018 below or on Spotify.
1. Lucy Dacus — Historian
Lucy Dacus had one hell of a year. In March, she released a sophomore album that defied all expectations for grandeur. And if that weren’t enough, the Virginia singer-songwriter went into the studio with two brilliant women who happen to be her close friends — Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker — and in October released an EP that lives up to the label of “supergroup.”
How did this happen? Dacus’ debut, 2016’s solid No Burden, was completed when she was just 20 years old, originally as part of her friend’s recording project. “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” her first ever single, heralded a clever and considerate new talent. But nothing could predict the emotional heft of Historian, an album about loss in its many forms.
Dacus says “Night Shift,” which opens the album, is the first breakup song she’s ever written. It’s also the last breakup song anyone will ever need. Over 6.5 minutes, her seething disappointment dissolves into full-throated pain: ”You got a 9-to-5, so I’ll take the night shift / And I’ll never see you again, if I can help it.” Dacus shrieks, then descends. The grinding guitars are the loudest things she’s recorded to this point, but they’ll soon be matched.
Don’t be fooled by her solo name on the cover: This is a rock record. When Dacus contends with her own death on “Timefighter,” it’s hard to tell what evokes the darkness more: the blistering melody or Dacus’ own voice, earthy and deep. For the last full minute, the band winds into a squall of distortion, then, like life itself, cuts out with no notice. Almost as operatic is “The Shell,” a meditation on artistic failure, as much an assurance to herself as to others.
Like a true historian, Dacus excavates more than just her story. “Pillar Of Truth,” the emotional heart of Historian, revisits Dacus’ final interactions with her grandmother. Approaching her deathbed, Dacus prays, “Lord, prepare me for the shadows.” These are our contradictions: We spend our lives thinking about the ends of things, but are so rarely ready when they arrive.
Must Hear: “Night Shift,” “Timefighter,” “Pillar Of Truth,” “The Shell,” “Nonbeliever”
2. Mitski — Be The Cowboy
If I’m being honest, Be The Cowboy could just as easily share the top album slot with Lucy Dacus. Though completely different beasts, they’re both examples of an artist with a musical mission, clearly executed. But unlike Historian, there’s no single theme of Be The Cowboy: It’s a document of loneliness, of love and sex, of fame, and the struggle to maintain oneself.
Unlike Mitski’s phenomenal 2016 record Puberty 2, Be The Cowboy drifts more into the pop atmosphere, although more in sound than structure. This collection unfolds like 14 vignettes, most around 2 minutes in length. Her brutal guitar, which twisted around Puberty 2 keystone “Your Best American Girl,” is slightly less dominant this time around, favoring piano instead. When it does appear, the guitar shape-shifts with her, whether it’s strewing the road to “Geyser” with gravel and grime or propelling “Nobody” with a disco flair.
The latter might be the perfect banner for Mitski’s avant-pop renaissance. In the brightly-colored music video, she lazes around her home, haunted by faceless paintings and arms without bodies, an active imagination drawing out her insecurities. At one point, she unearths a diary hidden within a diary inside another diary — Russian nesting dolls of introspection. It gives Mitski too little credit to search for autobiography. Her lyrics are both personal and fictional. On Be The Cowboy, she morphs and forms mirages of herself, then knocks them down. “Nobody butters me up like you / and nobody fucks me like me,” Mitski sings on “Lonesome Love,” a shockingly devastating line on the otherwise subdued, jangling number.
Elsewhere, she revels in melodrama, declaring on “A Pearl” that “I fell in love with a war / Nobody told me it ended.” That Mitski is an avowed fan of Melodrama by Lorde, itself a twisted and unconventional pop album, couldn’t be more apt. Witness her pained irony on “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?”, an ode to self-sabotage. Mitski songs may be downbeat, but there’s more here than sadness. As Mitski said in an interview with The Fader, the album reveals an internal battle, pitting her “controlled, severe, and austere” persona against her emotional side pushing to get out. Often those emotions win.
Must Hear: “Nobody,” “A Pearl,” “Me & My Husband,” “Two Slow Dancers,” “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?”
3. Leon Bridges — Good Thing
Though he feigned ignorance, Leon Bridges performed a damn fine Sam Cooke impression on his 2016 debut. It was an easy, but fleeting, pleasure. With his follow-up LP, Good Thing, Bridges has done something far more impressive: transcended the “throwback” label while still evoking the best of R&B traditions.
From the very top, this album refines Bridges’ image by dirtying it up. He dives into a deep funk groove on lead single “Bad Bad News,” horns paving the way as he slinks down the street. Call-and-response is the oldest tool in the blues playbook, but it came back in a big way thanks to the funk revival of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. It’s no less thrilling here as Bridges loosens up his usual crooning delivery. Likewise, “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)” would not feel out of place at a nightclub, with a four-on-the-floor beat, an urgent guitar riff, and possibly the best use of triangle in decades.
Not that Bridges abandons his golden voice, of course. Songs like “Beyond” and “Forgive You” could be new standards, yearning ballads that already feel tinged with nostalgia. “I forgive you, though my friends tell me not to,” is a line I can’t believe hasn’t been written before, so succinct in its pain. By not being so enamored with the past, Bridges created music that will live on far into the future.
Must Hear: “Bad Bad News,” “Forgive You,” “Beyond,” “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)”
4. Olafur Arnalds — re:member
With re:member, Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds strayed less toward classical music than he did experimental art: For this album, Arnalds composed by playing chords on a keyboard, which a custom-built algorithm translated into random notes played remotely on a piano. The resulting pieces, though, are far from arbitrary.
This is the first time an instrumental album has made my top 10, and it’s because re:member offers a mental refuge. Often, Arnalds takes the piano and adorns it with strings, woodwinds and drum machines, like the sweeping title track “re:member,” a Philip Glass-like composition evoking a glacial plain. The melody unfolds, moving briskly — I envision the train scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, just after the storm. It isn’t the only time a movie score comes to mind, but Arnalds needs no images to achieve the cinematic. The spritely “ekki hugsa” draws its melody from the cello — a delightfully earthen tone —textured by piano splattering like raindrops on a windowsill.
Elsewhere, such as in the sparse “saman,” there’s intimacy in the space between notes, the keys clattering under some mechanical hand. Arnalds isn’t pushing us to question the difference between the robotic and human — rather, he’s inviting us to embrace how the two are already intertwined.
Must Hear: “re:member,” “ekki hugsa,” “saman”
5. The 1975 — A Brief History Of Online Relationships
The 1975 are big on big statements. They’re into long titles, mood-setting instrumentals, and pretty much every genre released from the ’60s until now. With most other bands, that’s a recipe for pretentiousness, but it’s hard to resist The 1975. They just love loving things.
A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, their third record, is not as much a concept album as its name would indicate, but it does represent a shift in earnestness. Mostly gone is the overwhelming self-deprecation of their previous blockbuster (deep breath here), I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it. On A Brief History, which clocks in at a breezy 58 minutes, frontman Matt Healy reckons with the drugs-and-rock image he cultivated, intentionally or not. Healy knows he’s flawed, and he’s working on it: “Instead of calling me out, you should be pulling me in,” he sings on “Sincerity Is Scary.”
The band’s palette remains much the same: 1980s synths, pop-punk guitars, vocoder, and early 2000s electronica, just now with a touch of house music. That last element energizes “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME,” which rips its tropical dancehall straight from the Top 40. “Give Yourself A Try,” the album’s first of five singles, wraps around one live wire of a guitar riff. It’s a touching affirmation, and bookends the record with the anti-suicide anthem “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes).”
Not to say The 1975 lose their playful edge: Only a band with an exceptional sense of humor could have made “Love It If We Made It,” a topical heir apparent to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” except thrilling rather than tedious. On A Brief History, The 1975 make their most honest declaration: This is our world, and it sort of sucks, and we’re getting through it together.
Must Hear: “Give Yourself A Try,” “Love It If We Made It,” “Sincerity Is Scary,” “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)”
6. The Beths — Future Me Hates Me
So yeah, I’ve got a sweet tooth for power-pop, and sure, The Beths are the rare band that understand the best accompaniment for self-deprecating lyrics are a sharp guitar solo. That doesn’t necessarily mean this album was destined to be my most-played-on-repeat.
But who am I kidding? This New Zealand four-piece had my heart from the minute the full rhythm section dropped in “Great No One,” their lead single and album opener. And they claimed it fully when Liz Stokes whipped out this addictive tongue-twister on the title track: “Future heartbreak, future headaches / wide-eyed nights late-lying awake / with future cold shakes from stupid mistakes / future me hates me for.”
The Beths are impeccably tight musicians, and they flaunt it just the right amount, from the drum fills and distorted surf-rock-guitar of “Uptown Girl” to the doo-wop chorus on “You Wouldn’t Like Me.” Seeing this band live, it’s obvious they’re working with a wider technical breadth than most. Nowhere is that more apparent than on album highlight “Little Death,” a song about intense attraction that collapses from its own anticipation. This is what release feels like.
Must Hear: “Little Death,” “You Wouldn’t Like Me,” “Future Me Hates Me”
7. Janelle Monáe — Dirty Computer
What other artists might consider “experimental,” that’s Janelle Monáe’s comfort zone. Over her last two full-length albums and debut EP, Monáe unfolded her ambitious Metropolis series: the tale of Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling android who falls in love with a human, and who promises to deliver society from oppression. It’s an opus of sexual, gender and racial liberation, merging Monáe’s AfroFuturist influences: Philip K. Dick and Fritz Lang, Sun Ra and George Clinton, Prince and James Brown, and of course Nina Simone.
On Dirty Computer, Monáe takes her first step outside the Metropolis narrative and confronts something more daunting: Her own identity. Fans and critics eagerly pegged Dirty Computer as “the album where Janelle Monáe officially came out as queer,” but this album is not really about embracing a definition — it’s about burning down definitions altogether.
The strongest run comes in the middle, starting with the self-mythologizing “Django Jane.” These are the barriers I’ve overcome as a queer black woman, Monáe seems to declare, so now you don’t have to: “Box office numbers, and they doin’ outstandin’ / Runnin’ outta space in my damn bandwagon / Remember when they used to say I look too mannish?” This dirty computer lets loose both her tenderness and tenacity. The sensual “Pynk” is a four-minute-long blush, followed by the lip-smacking funk of “Make Me Feel,” directly descended from Prince’s “Kiss.”
Without the trappings of her usual “suites,” Monáe ends up with less filler, more killer. But there’s nothing here to indicate Monáe is done with costumes. She’s not abandoning her android alter-ego, just bringing it closer to home. After all, we still need sexual and racial liberation here on Earth.
Must Hear: “Make Me Feel,” “Pynk,” “Don’t Judge Me”
8. Kacey Musgraves — Golden Hour
Just because Kacey Musgraves discovered disco and psychedelia doesn’t mean she’s not still a country girl. In fact, you have to get a few songs into Golden Hour, her third album, to find where she starts to diverge wildly from her first two outings.
The pedal steel guitar, banjo and other Nashville indicators are still aplenty, and thankfully so. Album opener “Slow Burn” is Musgraves at her weed-smoking, easy-going best — a spiritual successor to “High Time” on 2015’s excellent Pageant Material. “Lonely Weekend” is a classic Musgraves story-song, self-deprecating but determined. Everything moves at its own pace.
And then there’s a song like “Butterflies,” all plinky piano and fluttering hearts, and — wait, is that vocoder? A few times, actually! These are the sounds of Musgraves stretching out her feet, the way “Oh, What A World” rushes into the chorus like a deep breath of cold air.
She can be sentimental, but for every spoonful of sugar, there’s a few dashes of salt. On “Space Cowboy,” she rewrites the title into a perfect turn-of-phrase: “You can have your space, cowboy.” If there’s any space-country on this album, though, it’s “High Horse,” a string-laden disco kiss-off. Golden Hour is Musgraves’ most genre-bending effort, and her best.
Must Hear: “High Horse,” “Space Cowboy,” “Butterflies”
9. Tierra Whack — Whack World
2018 was the year of short hip-hop releases, whether it was one of Kanye West’s many seven-song-long projects or Vince Staples 22-minute FM! Tierra Whack outdid them all, releasing 15 tracks just 1 minute long. And every single one is essential listening.
The surrealist Whack World, accompanied by a corresponding 15-minute-long music video, may be the most successful concept album of the year. This Philadelphia artist raps, sings and mumbles her way across psychedelic soundscapes, peppy piano pop and trap beats, cataloging the humdrum and profane alike. More than the production, even, Tierra Whack’s expressive and malleable voice proves her greatest weapon.
She also has the best sense of humor of any artist this year. On “Pet Cemetery,” she sings an addictive ditty about her dog dying, while “Fuck Off” is, well, one very concise diss track. “Fruit Salad” is an affirmation of self love with the magnificent couplet: “I eat all my vegetables / lower my cholesterol.” With no exceptions, Whack World leaves you wanting more.
Must Hear: “Pet Cemetery,” “Fuck Off,” “Fruit Salad,” “4 Wings”
10. Sidney Gish — No Dogs Allowed
Sidney Gish, a Boston college student, released her second collection of quirky pop on New Year’s Eve of 2017. For all intents and purposes, though, this was a 2018 album — especially considering 2018 was the year Gish’s star finally rose. No Dogs Allowed, constructed from her dorm room, benefits from the sparse (but not low-quality) production. Emphasized instead are her diaristic detailings of modern life. “Every other day I’m wondering / What’s a human being gotta be like / What’s a way to just be competent,” Gish sings on “Imposter Syndrome.” It’s hard not to relate.
Gish rarely raises her voice beyond the matter-of-fact, hardly pushes beyond the mid-tempo. And yet, with a toybox of muted guitars, handclaps, a keyboard and a small drum kit, she makes marvels out of the mundane and morose. “Two faced bitches never lie, and therefore I never lie,” Gish cracks on “Sin Triangle.” If this is just a character she’s playing, it’s convincing. Even the backup vocals sound disaffected.
Act or not, No Dogs Allowed is an album for those of us more comfortable observing than participating. Who urge for connection but don’t know how to step through the door. Who are resolved to, if not pleased with, our fate. On “Mouth Log,” Gish remarks, “I’m kinda pissed if this is the real me.” To speak in the modern parlance: Same tho.
Must Hear: “Imposter Syndrome,” “Sin Triangle,” “Persephone”
Cardi B — Invasion Of Privacy
Cardi B showed the world she made money moves on last year’s smash “Bodak Yellow.” On her debut studio album Invasion Of Privacy, Cardi proves that wasn’t a fluke, dominating the summer with the bilingual bop “I Like It.” She’s equal parts assertive and vulnerable on “Be Careful,” but flexes her humor as often as her rap prowess. Just don’t try to box her in: “I’m my only competition, I’m competing with myself,” she states on “Best Life.” Words to live by.
Boygenius — boygenius EP
Individually, Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus are responsible for five of the best albums in the last three years. Together, they cannot be contended with. On their debut EP as Boygenius, they trade verses with ease on “Salt In The Wound,” meld voices on “Bite The Dog” and expertly blend folk-rock styles on “Me & My Dog.” Even when one artist takes the lead, there’s no confusing these songs with their solo output. Listening to this All Songs Considered episode with the three women, it’s obvious how: They created a space that brought out the best artists, and people, in each other.
Tomberlin — At Weddings
I think faith is an overrated virtue. There’s no weakness in wanting assurance, in desiring evidence, in needing trust. Sarah Beth Tomberlin has lost her faith, and At Weddings is her confessional. She fills the void with an aching voice and sparse arrangements — mostly piano or guitar and a room of echoes. There’s many varieties of loneliness on this album, from the religious isolation of “Any Other Way” to the powerlessness of “I’m Not Scared”: “To be a woman is to be in pain.” As the guitar ebbs and flows on “Seventeen,” Tomberlin remarks about feeling transported back to adolescence. It’s funny how when we fall in love, we feel like teens again; when we feel alone, we feel like children.
Superorganism — Superorganism
I was wrong in thinking our culture left “weird, art-pop collectives” back in the mid-2000s. Leading this London-Japanese-Australian-American octet is vocalist Orono Noguchi, whose vocal style can only be described as “lackadaisical.” It plays to their advantage. “Everybody Wants To Be Famous” is a Where’s Waldo of strange samples and effects, with a singalong chorus that’s like if Edward Sharpe suddenly became very chill. Mostly the lyrics are happy nonsense: “Something For Your M.I.N.D.” is a psychedelic march into absurdity, while “The Prawn Song” is about shrimp, I guess? Don’t think about it too much.
Noname — Room 25
If Noname’s debut mixtape, 2016’s Telefone, captured the nostalgia of childhood in Chicago, Room 25 shows her contending with what comes next. Gone are the breezy james like “Diddy Bop,” replaced by feats of lyrical acrobatics. “Blaxploitation” puts America on blast, an anxious, jittering affair: “I’m struggling to simmer down, maybe I’m an insomni-black.” Noname’s footholds in jazz and spoken word still sound radical; she’s making her own space, drawing her own genre lines. “And y’all still thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?” she laughs on “Self.” It’s their loss.
Car Seat Headrest — Twin Fantasy
Twin Fantasy isn’t actually a new Car Seat Headrest album, but it is an upgraded one: The record originally dropped in 2011, back in Will Toledo’s lo-fi Bandcamp days. Revisiting it does wonders for the ambitious project, tracing the arc of a dysfunctional relationship, which is anchored by the exhilarating, 13-minute-long “Beach Life-in-Death.” Sonically, Twin Fantasy’s re-record mostly cleans up the guitars and clears the way for Toledo’s honest musings on depression and anxiety, his most startling contribution to contemporary rock. The main difference between the two albums is seven years of life and experience — no small thing.
Other favorites, in no particular order:
Hop Along, Haley Heynderickx, Saintseneca, Ariana Grande, Soccer Mommy, Parquet Courts, Natalie Prass, Snail Mail, Angelique Kidjo, Pale Waves, The Internet, Neko Case, Petal, Courtney Marie Andrews, Frankie Cosmos, Hippo Campus, Art Brut, Ashley Campbell, and Oh Pep!
Just for the sake of spreading the love around, none of these singles could appear on an album in my Top 10. They also had to be released as a single, instead of simply a song on a larger album.
1. Lizzo, “Boys”
2. Ariana Grande, “thank u, next”
3. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”
4. The Internet, “Come Over”
5. Robyn, “Missing U”
6. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Party For One”
7. Natalie Prass, “Sisters”
8. Snail Mail, “Pristine”
9. Pronoun, “wrong”
10. Your Smith, “Bad Habit”
Stream songs from my favorite albums of 2018: