My life went through some pretty significant changes in 2018. I changed jobs twice and finally got a place of my own. And while everything has largely been an improvement, many of my new responsibilities (and my lack of a regular commute) significantly cut into my music listening time this year. Yet even though I heard fewer albums than I did in 2017, I found that I found even more great music this year, particularly toward the year’s end when many heavy hitters like Thom Yorke, Bruce Springsteen and J Mascis got into the action. And even as I played catch-up in the early days of 2019 (resulting in the belatedness of this list), I was consistently impressed with the great music that pumped through my aging Bose headphones. Read on to get my impressions of the 20 best albums I heard all year.
20. Warm – Jeff Tweedy
There are moments on Jeff Tweedy’s Warm where it feels like the mastermind behind Wilco is phoning it in. The thing is, even Tweedy’s throwaway material makes for some of the best music of the year. Ending the album with the overlong, dull “How Will I Find You?” was a misstep, but if you don’t instantly love “Don’t Forget,” you may not be a fan.
19. Isolation – Kali Uchis
Isolation is never going to be accused of being the most memorable LP of 2018; I almost forgot about it myself as it was one of the first albums I heard last year. And while it really lacks any particularly standout track, it is a rock solid R&B album that was a soulful addition to an underrepresented genre.
18. I Don’t Run – Hinds
In any other year, the unhinged brilliance of Hinds’ I Don’t Run might have appeared in the top 10 of the year, and at the very least would have been a certain destination for Indie Rock. But with as much great stuff as there was that came out after it, it became another album that was easy to slip through the cracks. Don’t make that mistake.
17. All Nerve – The Breeders
The Breeders are a vintage Punk band from the ’90s and they were a welcome voice in the landscape of 2018. Their fans probably thought they were at their best in straight-ahead Rockers like “Wait in the Car,” but the shockingly gorgeous “Dawn: Making an Effort,” which felt like a big time left field and should’ve closed the album, is the standout for me.
16. What a Time to Be Alive – Superchunk
The Breeders weren’t the only old-school act to get in the game in 2018. Superchunk were formed way back in 1989, but it took until What a Time to Be Alive for them to make it onto my radar. And after listening to “Dead Photographers” all year like I have, I’m still exceedingly happy that they did.
15. Suspiria (Music for the Luca Guadagnino Film) – Thom Yorke
If Suspiria the film is even a fraction as haunting as Thom Yorke’s score is (and, from what I’ve read, it is), then it must make for a frightening viewing indeed. Yorke has always been a master of taking abstract, often disturbing ideas and making them musical masterpieces and there are no shortage of them on Suspiria. Though the plethora of lengthy instrumentals on disc 2 start to drag, masterpieces like “Suspirium,” “Has Ended,” and “Unmade,” make this an album you can’t afford to miss.
14. Love is Dead – CHVRCHES
CHVRCHES are the AC/DC of the 2010s; they essentially wrote one song and have since been masters of iteration. Within the three-and-a-half minute electro pop heartbreak anthem that is Graffiti, Lauren Mayberry and CHVRCHES say pretty much sum everything there is to take away from the remaining 45 minutes of Love is Dead. And while the other 11 songs may not be as novel, there really isn’t a bit of fat that they could’ve trimmed off to make the album stronger. I wish they’d stray more away from the verse/pre-chorus/chorus structure that they cling so tightly to, but even within that structure Love is Dead contains some of the most sonically invigorating music of the year.
13. God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty
Father John Misty has consistently blended the greatest parts of The Beatles and The Band with his own dystopian songwriting to create some of the most gripping music of this decade, and God’s Favorite Customer may be his greatest triumph yet. Rather than turn his spotlight onto humanity as he did in the great (but overlong) Pure Comedy last year, Father John looks inward to create the most brutally introspective music of the year.
12. Fall into the Sun – Swearin
While Fall into the Sun has more sleepers than it should (almost always when Kyle Gilbride takes the mic), Allison Crutchfield’s contributions as singer/guitarist/songwriter make this one a standout. If “Grow Into a Ghost” isn’t the best song of the year, I haven’t heard one that’s better.
11. A Star is Born Soundtrack – Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper
During the summer, I was regularly hitting up the movie theater much more than I regularly do. And every time I did, I was greeted by the absolute showstopper that is “Shallow” during the previews and got chills each time. By the time I got to the theater for A Star is Born, that song was already a made classic. But what’s remarkable about A Star is Born’s soundtrack is that it isn’t a one-trick pony. While perhaps nothing reaches the peak of “Shallow,” “Is That Alright,” “I Don’t Know What Love Is,” and “I’ll Never Love Again,” are all worthy companion pieces and other than a couple of Pop songs that were supposed to be ridiculous, the album doesn’t have an inch of fat. Best of all, it’s a return to form from Lady Gaga, who has struggled ever since her excellent Born This Way way back in 2011. Welcome back, Mama.
10. Black Panther The Album Music From and Inspired By – Kendrick Lamar and friends
Believe it or not, I still haven’t seen Black Panther. But I never watched Superfly either and that didn’t stop me from loving Curtis Mayfield’s epic score. Kendrick Lamar curated a hell of a guest list for the biggest movie of the year’s soundtrack and it didn’t disappoint.
9. Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves
Kacey Musgraves has been on my radar ever since her trailer park banger “Blowin Smoke,” at the beginning of the decade. But this was the first time I sat down and listened to one of her LPs from start to finish and I’m glad I did. Golden Hour is the most rock solid Pop album of the year with its best moments like “Butterflies” and “Happy and Sad” sticking with me long after the first listen.
8. Sparkle Hard – Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks
I remember loving The Jicks’ Wig Out at Jagbags back in 2013, but this follow-up may just outdo it. Malkmus’ patented weirdo strumming and subtle musicianship juxtaposed against striking songwriting is here in full force making for another unmissable LP for mellow music lovers.
7. Springsteen on Broadway – Bruce Springsteen
Though Springsteen on Broadway really only has 16 acoustic versions of some of Springsteen’s greatest work (along with some surprisingly deep cut inclusions), this massive double-LP is filled with some fascinatingly personal storytelling from Springsteen himself, making for an intimate, moving experience that all Springsteen fans should hear at least once. But even though many of the arrangements lack the power of their studio versions with the E-Street Band, some of the more understated inclusions like “My Hometown,” and “Tougher Than the Rest” (sang in a duet with Springsteen’s longtime lover and E-Street Band member Patti Scialfa) are arguably definitive versions of those songs.
6. By the Way, I Forgive You – Brandi Carlile
As great as the Star is Born soundtrack is, Brandi Carlile defined gripping piano-led balladry in 2018. As one of the most gifted vocalists of our age, she didn’t need much more to create some of the most poignant, beautiful, and haunting music of the year.
5. The Last American – Ryan Culwell
As great as Springsteen on Broadway was, Ryan Culwell’s incredible LP plays like the album Springsteen would’ve made if he was just coming of age in the age of Trump. Without a doubt the most diverse 10-song album I heard all year, Culwell commanded a pension for storytelling like nobody else this year. And with some of the best music in the year to back him up, The Last American was an unforgettable triumph.
4. The Bluest Star – Free Cake for Every Creature
With 14 songs of whispery vocals, depressingly beautiful melodies, and understated lyricism, Katie Bennett’s passion project Free Cake for Every Creature had its biggest release ever with The Bluest Star. Though the songs rarely reach the three minute mark, each one feels deceptively anthemic. And when Bennett starts to groove like on “Around You,” she’s damn near untouchable.
3. Tell No One – Bad Moves
I almost missed out on this Indie Rock classic, and if I had that would’ve been a travesty. Not only is Bad Moves’ debut Tell No One one of the greatest albums of the year, it’s the purest expression of straight up Rock n’ Roll I’ve heard in well over a decade. “Spirit FM” is a showstopper in a league of its own, but what makes this album one of the greats is that no song is skippable.
2. Elastic Days – J Mascis
Over the better part of the last decade, J Mascis has quietly become one of my favorite artists ever. The way he mixes his down-on-his-luck vocal delivery with some of the greatest slow hand guitar work ever gobsmacks me every time. I gave him top honors for both 2011’s Several Shades of Why and 2014’s Tied to a Star, and he damn near got the nod again this year. But even though there was one other killer LP in 2018 that just edged him out for me, Elastic Days is the peak of his work so far with almost every song doubling as one of the greatest pieces of music of the year.
1. Historian – Lucy Dacus
As great as the rest of the albums on this list are, the top spot was clinched firmly in Lucy Dacus capable hands from the minute I heard the forlorn opening strumming of “Night Shift” at the beginning of the year. From that moment on, nobody could catch her. Dacus has the same incredible penchant for drawing out what should be three minute songs into lengthy epics that Guns N’ Roses and Bruce Springsteen have, and almost every song here gets that treatment. And as great as J Mascis is with the guitar, Historian has some of the greatest guitar work of the decade living within its 10 tracks. Songs like “Pillar of Truth,” “Night Shift,” “Nonbeliever,” and “Timefighter” aren’t just among the best musical destinations of the year, they stand comfortably alongside the best music I’ve ever heard. Amazingly, Dacus didn’t stop here. She and released an EP alongside Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers under the alias boygenius later on this year and if I counted EPs, it would take the number two spot. From knowing nothing about Lucy Dacus at the start of the year to being one of her biggest fans by the end, I couldn’t be happier to give her top honors in 2018.