by Gabriel Valdez
A friend recently asked me if I could only listen to a specific decade’s worth of music for the rest of my life, which 10 years would I choose?
Folks idolize other eras – perhaps it’s the pop of the 60s or the radical shift the 80s represented. Maybe it’s the grunge and alternative movements of the 90s. For me, the answer was simple. I said the last 10 years, and if you ask me next year you can just shift it up a year.
There are a lot of things technology has endangered lately, but art is both stubborn and flexible. It’s easier to make music than it ever has been. More people have access to releasing music, more subjects are acceptable to talk about in music, and we have instantaneous access to a wider variety of artists and cultures than ever before.
2018 was a long, tough year, unbearable for many people in many ways. It demanded a lot, so I tried a few ridiculous things putting this together. Eventually, I decided to share my top 100, but only allow myself a sentence for most. The idea is to give a brief impression of what each album is so that you can find something new that appeals to you.
If you’ve got Spotify, I’ve made a 1,000 song playlist of the best songs of 2018. It contains these and other artists. It allows you to find the artists and albums listed below easily:
These are my top 100 albums of 2018. Prepare to hear me use the word “range” way too often.
100. Extralife – Darlingside
Ultra-precious, quiet indie pop that alternates between navel-gazing as an art form and harmonizing about optimism in darkness.
99. Bad Witch – Nine Inch Nails
Trent Reznor discovers saxophones and tortures them until they give up their secrets, much like David Bowie once did on Outside.
98. Aviary – Julia Holter
Experimental orchestro-electro-jazz-pop that sounds like the music they put in sci-fi films to symbolize what people from the future who dress like they’re from the 1930s will listen to.
97. Depth of Field – Sarah Blasko
Ridiculously catchy yet intensely moody synth pop that (mostly) dumps the synths for strings.
96. You Never Were Much of a Dancer – Gwenifer Raymond
Welsh guitar music in the style of Appalachian folk, aggressively realized in its ambition, speed, and atmosphere.
95. Port Saint Joe – Brothers Osborne
The funniest country band out there flexes its muscles across a broad range of country and rock genres.
94. Birthplace – Novo Amor
Gentle indie folk that feels like getting tucked in for the night.
93. Oxnard – Anderson .Paak
A self-aware rap critique of the dangerous risk Black men are expected to face in today’s America that unfortunately descends into a creepy and misogynist reinforcement of the dangerous role women are expected to fill in today’s America. The lighter sexual fantasies are fine-ish, but it veers too close to hatred later. Half is in the top 50, and half has no place on this list, so consider this an average with an asterisk.
92. Premonitions – Miya Folick
Inventive indie rock that tests a wide range, often echoing Florence + The Machine in versatility, but much more bluntly pop-oriented.
91. Open Here – Field Music
Art rock that evokes Talking Heads, playgrounds falling apart, flutes conspiring against you, and lost Beatles songs each in turn.
90. The Midnight Hour – The Midnight Hour
Tight jazz songs soaked in atmosphere with a range of guest performers; just beware an ill-advised CeeLo Green appearance for one song.
89. Mother of My Children – Black Belt Eagle Scout
Folk-grunge that builds strength out of vulnerable introspection, contemplating singer Katherine Paul’s indigenous and queer experiences in a world that’s often hostile to both.
88. A Laughing Death in Meatspace – Tropical Fuck Storm
Australians get mad about the state of the world and shout about it over powerful, deliberate art-punk, burrowing into hopelessness and frothing anger.
87. All at Once – Screaming Females
2018 was the year for this album, which pretty much gives you exactly what you want out of a punk alternative band named Screaming Females.
86. On Dark Horses – Emma Ruth Rundle
Fast-paced slowcore post-punk (yeah, I know) for those who miss early Esben and the Witch or Mazzy Star, even though Mazzy Star came back this year, too.
85. Double Negative – Low
Slowcore champions of the world shove what sounds like a brilliant album through a shredder and let you try to reassemble it.
84. Nearer My God – Foxing
Emo band gets artsy, borrows pieces of industrial, pop, and folk from various decades, actually succeeds, news at 11.
83. Tell Me How You Really Feel – Courtney Barnett
Australian gets mad about the state of the world and tells men off in music that leans into a lo-fi punk aesthetic. It highlights the album’s extremely clever and very legitimate bite (often referred to in Australia as “dolewave” – yes, really).
82. The Horizon Just Laughed – Damien Jurado
Indie rock meets lounge music, and I mean that in a good way, like in a really cool lounge that plays indie rock with heart-achingly beautiful lyrics.
81. abysskiss – Adrianne Lenker
Soft, floating, often yearning folk delivered in a simple style that alternates between calm groundedness and eerie dissociation.
80. Let Night Come On Bells End the Day – Sarah Davachi
Drone music is composed of tone clusters elongated into slow, hypnotic rhythms, a kind of ambient sound art that evokes prog rock and Gregorian chants all at once – Davachi realizes a clear and surprisingly organic interpretation here.
79. The Other – King Tuff
Psychedelic power pop that expertly recalls classic rock in sound, storytelling, and – for better or worse – ego.
78. I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Sessions – Santigold
Santigold loosens her laser-precise approach into a more free-flowing album focused on Afro-Caribbean influences.
77. Lush – Snail Mail
Patient indie rock storytelling in perfect song structures, though its focus on restraint may make the difference between a good and a great album for some.
76. Recovery Mission – MIDI Myers
Disclosure: I’m acquainted with the musician.
A very meticulous consideration of trauma and many of the pitfalls and setbacks that can undermine a process of recovery that never fully ends, housed in an album that at times evokes late 90s Aimee Mann levels of lyrical storytelling.
75. Twerp Verse – Speedy Ortiz
The forefront of grunge’s still-thriving evolution starts in the work of Sadie DuPuis and her band.
74. Dans da main – Jean-Michel Blais
Beautiful, haunting piano solos accompanied only by spare electronic touches, played by a performer who ditches technical perfection for emotional whirlwinds guarded with a sense of world-weary hesitation.
73. Radyo siwel – Melissa Laveaux
Dance, folk, and French pop fused together by Afro-Caribbean rhythms and vocals that often slyly take lead on percussion.
72. Orquesta Akokan – Orquesta Akokan
Superb, original, big band mambo music performed by an all-star band of Cuban players, with buttery horns, brilliant rises and falls, and soulful singing by Jose Gomez.
71. El Mal Querer – ROSALIA
Emotionally compelling flamenco music by way of Spanish pop and R&B, captured in a concept album about a 13th century toxic relationship.
70. Analogue – ODIE
Stripped down rap that essentially presents a character in honest detail and focuses on everyday fears and inspirations.
69. All Melody – Nils Frahm
A mix of live instrument work and electronica that sparks an emotion not always focused on in music: curiosity.
68. Chris – Christine and the Queens
Synth-pop that could have come straight out of the 80s, and that delves into questions about gender roles and presentation. There are both English and French versions included, so listen to the one that helps you understand the lyrics first, but the French one feels more seamless.
67. Cloud Corner – Marisa Anderson
Thick, weighty guitars that paint sonic landscapes from folk and blues – with no lyrics, just your imagination.
66. For Ever – Jungle
British electro-soul driven by layered hooks, funk loops, and joyful singing about disillusion.
65. Safe in the Hands of Love – Yves Tumor
Remarkably produced hip-hop built around sound collage and a poignant, unrelenting confrontation of culture-wide racism.
64. Room 25 – Noname
Noname’s rap conveys a simultaneously laid back and documentarian presentation of her internal monologue (even when racing along at impressive speed).
63. Dead Magic – Anna von Hausswolff
One of the world’s greatest experimental rock artists makes a variety of instruments feel like they’re eyeing you up suspiciously and just waiting till the pipe organ gets there to start something you don’t want to be around for.
62. Beyondless – Iceage
Punk from a band that’s flexible enough to stretch into either commanding grunge or rollicking pop hooks depending on what each song needs.
61. Cocoa Sugar – Young Fathers
A band that very consciously tries to elude genre might best be described as experimental rap that’s able to veer from Radiohead-like art rock to Massive Attack’s strangest moments of trip-hop.
60. Icon of Ego – Arc Iris
Arc Iris is a little-known art pop group that fuses just about every genre you can think of smoothly into immensely listenable and consistently unpredictable pop songs.
59. Childqueen – Kadhja Bonet
Soul music with complex orchestral backing that feels directly lifted from an alternate history where the music is cooler.
58. 7 – Beach House
Dream pop that occasionally threatens to become Phantogram but realizes it wants to lurk in the shadows for a while longer, you just keep on what you’re doing.
57. Temet – Imarhan
Algerian rock that draws from blues, yet is upbeat and centers its hooks around a distinctive Tuareg vocal style.
56. Love is Dead – CHVRCHES
Powerful Scottish synth-pop that’s reminiscent of Paramore and is very easy to re-listen to over and over again.
55. Loma – Loma
Dream pop that marries Americana and hauntology elements, with a focus on slow burn song evolution and clearly demarcated layers of sound.
54. Time ‘n’ Place – Kero Kero Bonito
As much art installation as album, full of overly comforting pop music undercut at regular intervals by uncomfortable sound collages, as if you woke up in the 90s and a new episode of Friends was suddenly interrupted by static garbles of an unnerving public access program showing photos from your childhood.
53. Bark Your Head Off, Dog – Hop Along
Mostly acoustic indie rock that paints short stories and their characters in moments of both struggle and beauty with incredible depth.
52. Yesterday Was Forever – Kate Nash
Some will furrow their brows, but if you want airy Britpop fused to punk, grunge, speak-singing, and diary entries that can veer from George Michael 80s pop to Machines of Loving Grace-style industrial at the drop of a hat, all inside an honest connectional about mental health, there is nothing else I know that’s even brave enough to try.
51. The Drought – Puce Mary
Cold and unrelenting feedback and noise tracks built into haunting sound environments by a Danish woman who makes Future Sound of London look tame and passe by comparison.
50. Hunter – Anna Calvi
Aggressive art rock where the instruments themselves can’t help being in awe of Calvi’s operatic delivery, where nearly every song sounds like a James Bond theme if Bond were a woman bent on challenging gender concepts and toppling the patriarchy.
49. Bon Voyage – Melody’s Echo Chamber
French baroque pop that suddenly breaks out R&B backing, drumline solos, jazz flutes, electric guitars, and noise electronica in ways that all feel like they genuinely build each song into an expansive yet cogent whole.
48. Exit Future Heart – Dustin Wong, Takako Minekawa, Good Willsmith
Wong’s surreal habits, Minekawa’s experimental Japanese pop, and Good Willsmith’s pattern-heavy electronica all accentuate each others’ strengths, resulting in a focused experimental electronica album.
47. Wide Awake! – Parquet Courts
Extremely political punk with forefronted vocals that extends into pop accessibility with natural ease.
46. The Lookout – Laura Veirs
Chamber pop-influenced folk where each sound feels either very close or very distant, creating a space where every note is resonant, occasionally invoking the work of Sufjan Stevens or Listing Ship.
45. Can’t Wake Up – Shakey Graves
Alejandro Rose-Garcia makes the shift from folk to alternative so that he can concoct dreamy mixes of detail and abstraction. Sometimes it sounds like antique cartoon music and other times like someone dug up old Portugal. The Man demos.
44. Heaven and Earth – Kamasi Washington
Exquisite jazz that’s cinematic in scope, incorporating everything from Ennio Morricone-style, Spaghetti western choirs to Busby Berkeley dance numbers and Santana-like guitars, though it can all feel a bit bloated and lacking enough attention to the listener at points.
43. Future Me Hates Me – The Beths
New Zealander gets mad at the state of the world and politely takes it out on herself near to the point of breaking so that she doesn’t bother anyone else, via energetic and deceptively well-studied indie pop.
42. Your Queen is a Reptile – Sons of Kemet
Surging, emotional jazz that calls out Britain’s history of colonialism and declares a list of Black women as queen instead, searing in its delivery and constantly advancing in pace.
41. Criminal – The Soft Moon
Traditional industrial music on the near-pop side, like the better moments of Gravity Kills or Stabbing Westward, yet that explores territory of an abusive childhood through concepts that come around to self-analysis and self-care – itself an emotional evolution in industrial that’s badly overdue.
40. Sweetener – Ariana Grande
Grande’s extensive control over the various elements of her brand is rare for women in pop, and allows her to take bigger risks and more aggressive evolutions, creating a broader style of pop that can stretch further than an older Millennial pop front that’s quickly stagnating.
39. Music for the Long Emergency – Polica, s t a r g a z e
Polica’s indietronica is melded to Berlin-based orchestra s t a r g a z e, resulting in seamless shifts between electropop and orchestral composition in an album of expertly crafted unease.
38. Only Love – The Armed
Hardcore that does a superb job of creating breathing space for each melody and theme to surface, allowing you to understand and identify each even as the noise builds into chaos again – like playing different At the Drive-In songs into each ear.
37. Isolation – Kali Uchis
Pop built off Latin roots and an incredibly strong foundation in soul music, dreamlike and hopeful while still socially conscious, aware, and communicating a great deal about having multiple cultural identities.
36. High as Hope – Florence + The Machine
What might be the worst Florence + The Machine album is still easily in the top 50 of the year and introduces more than a few masterpiece songs, a testament to just how good Florence Welch, Isabella Summers, and their crew are.
35. The Dream My Bones Dream – Eiko Ishibashi
An experimental jazz album with elements of Japanese pop, accompanied at times by drone music, haunting choruses, eerie strings, and a range of found noises.
34. This One’s for the Dancer & This One’s for the Dancer’s Bouquet – Moonface
The best marimba rock album about the Greek Minotaur forgiving his captors as a metaphor for our daily technological exposure to toxic abuse you’ll find, complete with surprisingly good use of auto-tune, and a natural voice that stakes out David Bowie-esque territory while still feeling very original.
33. Fever – Black Milk
Rap with a basis in funk and soul, with enjoyably loose production and relaxed delivery, even when calling out systemic racism and police violence.
32. Cannonball! – Sen Morimoto
Experimental rap framed by jazz hooks, with genuinely funny wit, honest internal monologues, and great mood work. It works as both an easy background listen and a rewarding focused listen.
31. At Weddings – Tomberlin
Soft indie pop that perches on the balance between acceptance and denial. At Weddings deals with a Tomberlin growing up and rejecting the role her family’s Baptist faith expects her to play as a woman. The songs hover in those moments where you do everything you can just to take another step. “I’m Not Scared” is the best song of the year.
30. Knowing What You Know Now – Marmozets
Relentless mathcore with an incredible range across rock and punk, powered by Becca MacIntyre’s vocals that metamorphose at will.
29. Honeybloom – Choker
Mood-heavy rap that leaps from indie pop to math rock influences and varies quickly from minimalism to ultra-modern production.
28. soil – serpentwithfeet
Avant-garde, R&B, and electronica all join together in contribution to an album that feels like a deeply personal and progressive gospel.
27. Broken Politics – Neneh Cherry
A profound album that starts with a trip hop foundation and extends into a terrific scope of rap, jazz, pop, and indietronica that all center on, well, our broken politics.
26. How Many Times Have You Driven By – Hana Vu
Straight up dream pop built off catchy hooks and production that deliberately layers Hana Vu’s unique voice just a little off-center.
25. Remain in Light – Angelique Kidjo
A complete cover album of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, redone with Afropop, Caribbean, jazz, and a variety of other influences.
24. Negro Swan – Blood Orange
A superb funk and R&B album with a throughline of hope that addresses the common traumas people of color suffer, and the anxieties that grow because of it.
23. In a Poem Unlimited – U.S. Girls
Experimental pop doesn’t quite cover it. Each song sounds like it could have been the standout single for completely different bands, yet a variety of echoed themes and sounds tie it all together in a way that feels incredibly consistent.
22. Follow Them True – Stick in the Wheel
A re-imagining of British folk that hauntingly connects modern political and cultural battles to those of other eras.
21. Black Times – Seun Kuti & Egypt 80
Seun carries the tradition of his father (Fela Kuti) in intensely political music geared toward protesting foreign imperialism by highlighting the futures and possibilities it continues to cost Africa.
20. How to Socialise & Make Friends – Camp Cope
Australian gets mad about the state of the world and tears into the old boys’ clubs, toxic masculinity, and gaslighting she and her band’s encountered in lo-fi, somewhat minimalist punk.
19. Old Rockhounds Never Die – Odetta Hartman
Bluegrass and rockabilly encounter a woman who slices them open, adds in electronic and experimental elements, and replaces all the broken patriarchal parts piece by piece with feminist concepts while she smiles and nods at them with just enough reassurance. This might be the most excitingly meta album of the year, and as the title song states in an observation/mission statement, “Old Rockhounds never die, they just slowly petrify.”
18. Stranger Fruit – Zeal & Ardor
Scandinavian black metal in part grew as a rejection of Christianity, so what would have happened if American slave spirituals had followed a similar path? Black spirituals have a long history of hidden meaning, but Manuel Gagneux imagines a blunter alternate reality as a modern take on resistance, fusing black metal to delta blues in what he calls Satanic spirituals.
17. From When I Wake the Want Is – Kathryn Joseph
The bones and sinew of Scottish folk resurrected into a stalking indie horror of loss and survivor’s guilt that rivets you to the spot.
16. I Need to Start a Garden – Haley Heynderickx
One of the purest folk singers I’ve heard, with a talent for taking very laid back and detailed songs into crescendos that realize their point with a stunning catharsis.
15. DROGAS WAVE – Lupe Fiasco
An expansive hip hop album that takes real tragedies and paints heartbreaking alternate realities, from rebel slaves who live underwater and sink slave ships, to a drowned refugee boy who instead grows up to become an Olympic swimmer, and a little girl who dies in a shooting instead becoming a doctor and saving another little girl from yet one more shooting.
14. I’m All Ears – Let’s Eat Grandma
Art pop blended with a punk mentality and very plainly delivered psychology, that finally inhabits life underneath that meta, we-live-in-a-cyberpunk-reality barrier that’s been scratched and cracked over the years by Sneaker Pimps, Porcupine Tree, and 18+.
13. Dirty Computer – Janelle Monae
Funk expertly revolutionized through pop, R&B, and electronica elements in an album about empowering women, people of color, and celebrating the array of sexual identities.
12. Primal Heart – Kimbra
Pop that calls on a range of other genres to tackle various doubles that we wrestle with: those that result as a defense from abuse, those that copy what we see in media, those we invent to perform a more idealized version of ourselves online, those we attempt to inhabit to make relationships work, the list goes on.
11. Hell On – Neko Case
If screwed-over, out-of-work Millennials who had the rug pulled out from under them are this era’s screwed-over, out-of-work manufacturers who had the rug pulled out from under them, then Neko Case is this era’s Bruce Springsteen, on a determinedly feminist album that at times out-Fleetwood Macs Fleetwood Mac, and echoes in the shape of its narratives a similar masterpiece like Tori Amos’ From the Choirgirl Hotel.
10. Pasar de las Luces – Mint Field
Mexican shoegaze that evokes ethereal moods of quiet lulls in cities at night watching bleary-eyed as if taking a shortcut to dreaming without going to sleep, like an aural cradle for the ghost of a moment warmly held.
9. Lavender – Half Waif
A tour through missing senses, places, people, and normalcy, in songs that may evoke Bat for Lashes but are more insistent and alarmed about our dreamy dissociation from gently delivered nightmares.
8. KOD – J. Cole
Incisive rap with an expectation of the listener, that runs through experiential victimizations and hypocrisies to build connection with our own yearning to make change.
7. Shades – Vera Sola
Needle-precise Americana bent on eviscerating the very idea of Americana, centered on haunting emotional scars left from colonialism and misogyny, and hell-bent on reclaiming Americana, country, and folk for the people it’s erased. (Makes a great companion piece to Odetta Hartman’s Old Rockhounds Never Die at #19 above.)
6. LONER – Caroline Rose
Piercing wit delivered by a hugely judgmental narrator on an album that re-purposes a rockabilly skeleton into snarky, poignant, catchy songs, which remain unpredictable even after many re-listens.
5. Be the Cowboy – Mitski
There is no singer who so deftly and honestly dissects the experience of coming from a mixed identity. Mitski creates musical monuments out of both emotionally living inside a trauma and dispassionately analyzing it in the recovery – examined through indie rock heavily influenced by grunge.
4. Both – Okay Kaya
Patient, stripped down, experimental indie pop that deals with the idea of performing a self that’s more polished than what feels natural. Unexpectedly, it thinks often about how these two aspects might begin to agree.
3. Now Only – Mount Eerie
The most honest album about coping with the death of a loved one I’ve heard, inhabiting wrecked places and the unhealthy temptation of staying in those places as a way to not give up on the pieces of that loved one you keep alive.
2. Djarimirri – Gurrumul
An indigenous Australian album that was the last Gurrumul worked on before his passing, filled with soaring tracks that evoke senses of discovery, warning, yearning, tension, and awe.
1. EXORCISM – Jenny Wilson
There’s no exact way to start talking about Jenny Wilson’s EXORCISM. It’s a painful maelstrom dealing with the after-effects of sexual assault. Please be aware the rest of this entry will talk about that topic before continuing.
The opening song of EXORCISM outlines an act of rape. Everything else unravels from there. This doesn’t make this a go-to album for listening, but it’s absolutely the artistic achievement of the year.
We often seek music for comfort, and EXORCISM has none whatsoever to offer, at least initially. The first half is about suffering and attempting to cope with a rape. The second half deals a variety of aftereffects, even lasting years into the future. One of the first steps taken here is a common one: staying in emotionally abusive relationships as an attempt to make sense of what happened. This is a dangerous draw if you’ve suffered trauma. If it becomes normal for other people to treat you with varying forms of abuse, then you can begin to justify the act of abuse you suffered as normal.
The music itself is interruptive and uncomfortable. It reminds me of The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual, but its order doesn’t feel as if it comes from structure the way that does. It feels instead as if it comes from the chaos itself, applied in a panicked kind of way. Many of the songs themselves are relentlessly anxious and alerted.
This feels far from Wilson’s more traditionally orchestrated – if still experimental – work. Yet it feels more grounded, which in itself is tragic. It’s confrontational in its bluntness, and always driving. Yet sometimes it drives forward, and sometimes it drives straight back into you. Recovering from trauma is an act of taking a step forward and sometimes taking a step back. There are whirlpools in the music that drag you in and reflect a sense of uncomfortable inescapability. Sharp synth choruses build over insistent refrains, as if Wilson desperately urging herself to stay in the healthy mindset that leads to recovery.
This is ultimately an album about that recovery, but not as an achievement or a goal. Too often, albums and songs like that are a before-and-after picture. That misrepresents the recovery itself as a snapshot, something easy to do. When you’re wading through its difficulty, you can look at those snapshots and wonder why it can take you years to recover when a song can do it in four minutes. EXORCISM is an album about recovery as a difficult, often painful process, full of pitfalls and mistakes. It’s an honest representation of something rarely honestly discussed.
Where did we get our images? The image of…Gurrumul is from Music Feeds. Miya Folick is from Blurred Culture. Screaming Females is from Beat Route. Melissa Laveaux is from Montreux Jazz. Noname is from Twin Cities Media. Loma is from Chunky Glasses. Sons of Kemet is from YouTube. Florence + The Machine is from NME. serpentwithfeet is from Wikipedia. Janelle Monae is from Fox4KC. Mint Field is from KEXP. Jenny Wilson is from Metro Sweden.