2018 was a jittery seismograph of a year, charting the tremors and aftershocks punctuating too-infrequent periods of eerie calm. But through it all, music was, as it is every year, fireworks to celebrate the good times, solace for the dark times, and the glue that holds it all together.
My annual reminder: these were my favorite, most listened to albums of the year. You can’t objectively quantify the “best” of anything when it comes to art. But these albums were my constant companions throughout 2018.
The Top 10
Neko Case | Hell-On (Anti-)
Hell-On gives no fucks and pulls no punches; it is an album as engrossing, fascinating, and occasionally mysterious as Case herself. It is not reckless but it is not beholden to anyone or any construct. Hell-On explores many of her perennial subjects, including gender, women’s strength, animals and nature as metaphor for human beauty and destruction—not to mention the flat-out beautiful mystery of love and the human heart. In the five years since her last proper LP, it feels like Neko has refined her craft and her focus. “Last Lion of Albion” and “Bad Luck” chime and rollick. “Halls of Sarah” and “Oracle of the Maritimes” encompass both hushed focus and surprising bursts of elemental power. And the epic “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” might be her best song to date—duetting with Mark Lanegan on a emotionally devastating exploration of the past in retrospect and relationships as orbits that can’t help but circle each other. And of course the whole album is full of astonishingly poetic turns of phrase and tons of Neko’s inimitable, move-you-to-tears voice. Hell-On is the work of an artist strong enough to be who she is, strong enough to admit to moments of weakness, and who is never complacent or content to stop exploring. It is alternately an embrace that pulls you tight and a knife to your gut, and quite possibly her best work to date.
Snail Mail | Lush (Matador)
Lush is the debut album by Snail Mail, aka Lindsey Jordan. Sincerity is her superpower, and this album is full of reminders that it’s one we should all try to wield as often as possible. It’s an extraordinary statement by a 19 year old. Lush is wrapped in wiry, jangly, scuffed early 1990s alt-rock, sometimes recalling a less jagged and more melancholy Liz Phair. Jordan’s guitar playing is noteworthy, equally informed by Wilco and Television. Her songs are remarkably self-aware and bursting with outsized emotions, not to mention the perspective we don’t always have in our teens and early 20s to realize this isn’t the way things will always be. Here, Jordan asks listeners to remember how the person you were creates the person you are and will continue to become. It’s easy to dismiss the feelings of youth as in thrall to extremes or informed by inexperience; on Lush, she makes compelling case for taking them seriously.
The Beths | Future Me Hates Me (Carpark)
Some albums take a while to get their hooks in you; some grab you by the lapels from first listen. Future Me Hates Me, the debut LP from New Zealand’s finest The Beths is one of the latter. Elizabeth Stokes writes songs packed with hooky, jangly, fuzzy goodness, that conceal lyrics wrestling with anxiety, self-doubt, and other less than effervescent subject matters. The Beths feature a super tight rhythm section and dextrous, and even meaty, guitars. There may not have been a more perfect pop song this year than the album’s title track, a minor masterpiece of melody, nimble guitar lines and vocal interplay.
Manic Street Preachers | Resistance Is Futile (Columbia)
Resitance Is Futile, the 13th album from Welsh rockers Manic Street Preachers, grapples with uncertainty and the erosion of belief in institutions and in yourself. This sense of isolation is reflected in the cover art, Franz von Stillfried-Ratenicz’s 1881 photograph of one of Japan’s last samurai. It’s a striking, iconoclastic image that suits this iconoclastic, doggedly determined band. Resistance is joyful but shot through with sober realism. It attempts to stave off the creeping weight of personal loss, demoralization, and doubt by taking comfort in passions, and the way they can replenish and energize. It does this with an effervescent mix of extroverted guitars, James Dean Bradfield’s passionate vocals, electronic flourishes, and an honest attitude that bleeds what the band have referred to as “widescreen melancholy.”
Many of the album’s songs focus on an artist, place, or idea that has inspired the band. “International Blue” celebrates the Nouveau réalisme art of Yves Klein with soaring, stirring strings and guitar heroics. The punchy “Liverpool Revisited” derives strength from the tenacious grassroots response to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. On “Vivian,” the band uses thoughtful pianos, guitars reminiscent of Queen, and the clicking of camera shutters to marvel at the photography and secret life of Vivian Maier. “Dylan & Caitlin” explores the fiery and tempestuous relationship between Dylan Thomas and Caitlin Macnamara via a superb, Motown backbeat-infused duet with fellow Welshperson and like-minded soul Catherine AD (aka The Anchoress). The glam metal stomp of “In Eternity” is a highly fitting way to eulogize and celebrate the art, style, and unique legacy of David Bowie.
Elsewhere, bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire sighs and scrutinizes what isn’t working. The storming “Broken Algorithms” bristles at the perceived polarization and damage to discourse brought on by social media. It conjures the spirit of the band’s earliest albums with its wiry, ferocious guitars. Album closer “The Left Behind“ laments a sense of personal brokenness, and hangs sharp and heavy, sounding like listening to Joy Division on an old Walkman while shuffling down the darkened corridor of a school at night.
One of the album’s best songs, the anthemic “Hold Me Like a Heaven,” fuses the two perspectives. With glistening keyboards, resounding “whoa oh oh ohs,” and an indelible chorus, it’s heavy with disillusionment but tempered with the lightness of searching for meaning, of the hope that there’s still something to place lost faith in. It’s reassuring and affecting in an immediate way, like someone putting their arm around you and saying “I understand. It’ll be OK.”
In a present where the notion of privacy sometimes feels like a relic, Resistance Is Futile is a reminder of the value of the quiet, richly spacious worlds we build inside ourselves from the things that matter to us. This is a record that simultaneously looks forward and backward—no mean feat in a time when it often seems difficult enough to honestly examine your present. After nearly 30 years as a band, the Manics continue to find new ways to search, to question, to do whatever they can to keep their fires burning and to tell us their truth. It’s a comfort and inspiration of the type they sing of for those of us who listen.
Soccer Mommy | Clean (Fat Possum)
On Clean, the debut album from Soccer Mommy, Sophie Allison is plainspoken and affecting – charting love, lust, and infatuation with fuzzy guitars and dreamy interludes influenced by Elliot Smith, Liz Phair, Courtney Barnett, and more. She has a songwriting voice that’s simultaneously in thrall to her emotions but continuously and objectively assessing them.
Courtney Barnett | Tell Me How You Really Feel (Mom+Pop)
Woe unto anyone who dares paint Courtney Barnett as a slacker. Her quiet, reserved persona informs but doesn’t dominate her songs, which are thoughtful, expertly constructed micro-ruminations on introversion, loss, faulty mental wiring, and the day to day experiences that too many people write off as mundane. Barnett understands that the little moments add up to a life, and she explores them with grace, a razor wit, and characterization that breathes life into her short stories of songs. “Charity” and “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence” are tightly wound indie-rock / power pop earworms featuring loads of Barnett’s incredible guitar playing. What makes Tell Me How You Really Feel truly remarkable is the way Barnett retains her usual sympathetic, understanding point of view but augments it with explorations of women’s pent-up rage and fear. Songs like “Nameless, Faceless” and “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” are both pressure valve and nuanced study. Tell Me How You Really Feel bristles with frustration and anger, but also asks the listener to step into someone else’s shoes, drawing them to understanding via vivid, subtle showing, not telling.
illuminati hotties | Kiss Yr Frenemies (Tiny Engines)
illuminati hotties boast the best so-bad-it’s-great band name of the year. Kiss Yr Frenemies is the work of veteran studio engineer, session maven, and self-professed “tenderpunk pioneer” Sarah Tudzin. Here she steps out from behind the boards with an all-inclusive indie pop buffet. Kiss Yr Frenemies is kind of all over the map, in the best way possible. “(You’re Better) Than Ever” is an immediately melodic nugget that obsesses over perceived failure and casts a sardonic side-eye at the success of someone you wish was as miserable as you currently are. “Shape of My Hands” is affectingly unguarded, full of the the hopeful yet uncertain “*gulp*…well here we go? Here we go!” vibes of a new relationship. “Paying Off the Happiness” bounces off the walls, contemplating fourth jobs and emotional debt. There’s a dreamy, sincere sweetness to “For Cheez (My Friend, Not the Food)” that builds to a noisy, cathartic crescendo; spacious, piano-led album closer “Declutter” bleeds a contemplative, resigned sense of finality and charts the heavy, crawling seconds that feel like days of a shattered heart; “Pressed 2 Death” crams fart noises, electronic bleeps, surf rock ooh-oohs, girl group sway and effortless power pop into two frenetic, memorable minutes. Tudzin binds her disparate ideas together with a wonderful goo of sincerity, humor, sweetness, doubt and brash attitude, which makes Kiss Yr Frenemies an affecting mix of sadness and confidence.
Jeff Tweedy | WARM (dBpm)
In Wilco, Jeff Tweedy has increasingly been speaking in code. His insight has arrived wrapped in a koan. WARM, his first proper solo album, is a marked departure. The record is a companion piece to Tweedy’s engrossing autobiography Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back). There are overlapping themes of grappling with addiction and loss, of fatherhood, of understanding and trying to be understood. That everyone suffers the same. He tackles these big, heartfelt ideas with straightforward but engaging musical arrangements (including some intriguing bits of acoustic psychedelia), a candid lyrical voice, and the occasional thought experiment. See the jaunty, singalong ready “Let’s Go Rain,” where he uses Noah’s Ark as a framework to contemplate wholesale destruction as a wipe-the-slate-clean act of love. Throughout WARM, Tweedy examines shortcomings not as dead ends, but as springboards to forgiveness and growth. Tweedy has always ruminated about death, but instead of waiting for the sky to fall in on him, here he sees it as an opportunity for rebirth. His work has always looked forward, but for the first time, he sounds fully able to articulate the idea running through his music that “Having Been Is No Way to Be”.
Middle Class Fashion | Ego (self-released)
Middle Class Fashion have long poised themselves to become St. Louis’ preeminent pop band. On Ego, they grab that mantle and don’t loosen their grip. The album continues the group’s musical evolution—from piano driven indie rock to power pop to synthwave saturated predawn electronica. Ego features elements of all of that, and weaves into it sultry midnight rhythm and super tight synth pop. “Bad Dream” is wonderfully woozy and overflowing with confusion and late night longing. The rolling, breathy “Hot” is neon-streaked electric sex for the overthinking brain. “Turquoise Heart” shimmers with reverb and sounds like the stock taking of a head-in-hand morning after. Ego is Middle Class Fashion’s best work yet, ready for a national stage, and ably showcases Jenn Malzone’s excellent, detailed songwriting and not so secret dark side. This is a band that despite its many significant accomplishments, is still only getting started.
Lucy Dacus | Historian (Matador)
Lucy Dacus’ debut album Historian is packed with soaring gothic grandeur. Dacus’ songs are earthy and unapologetically edgy, slow burning and dripping with description. Her voice is a precision instrument, alternately lilting and overdriven. She has a talent for dynamics—songs like “Night Shift” and “Pillar of Truth” slide from quiet confession to roaring declaration with the effortless motion of a seal underwater. Dacus isn’t afraid to open up the drawers where we keep our darkness. Her songs are laced with fear and psychic discomfort. But her unflinching honesty lends contrast to the omnipresent shadows. Historian is baroque emo of the highest caliber. Nothing here is easy, but it’s overstuffed with layers to explore and richly rewarding payoffs. It’s a record as beautifully complicated as human life.
The Best of the Rest
Nine Inch Nails | Bad Witch (Null/Capitol)
Bad Witch, the final installment of Nine Inch Nails’ EP trilogy, continues the band’s renaissance and is the best of the three. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross lend the sense of drama, atmosphere, and foreboding from their soundtrack work, making this the ideal soundtrack for the apocalypse. “Shit Mirror” is a steamroller of distortion, while “I’m Not of This World” is like dry ice in a shadowy room, quietly exuding menacing vapors. “God Break Down the Door” skitters on frenetic beats and anxious saxophones—it’s a spiritual descendent of David Bowie’s swan song Blackstar, and a fitting tribute to Reznor’s departed hero and friend. Bad Witch is Nine Inch Nails sounding more vital than they have in ages—possibly ever.
Arthur Buck | s/t (New West)
Arthur Buck is a new project from Joseph Arthur and Peter Buck—two masterful songwriters joining forces to write some excellent songs. And as with his work with Filthy Friends, it’s simply a treat to listen to Buck play guitar. He dusts off almost all of his myriad styles, and comes up with a few new ones to boot.
Johnny Marr | Call the Comet (New Voodoo)
There’s a sci-fi concept that I can’t quite crack, but mostly Call the Comet continues Marr’s strong 2010s run of solo albums, where he demonstrates that he’s still writing music as good as anything he’s ever done. As always, he’s constantly searching for the next great guitar tone, and there are plenty here, along with well-utilized synthesizers. And there’s plenty of his trademark jangle, expertly lighting up those receptors in your brain.
Darlingside | Extralife (More Doug)
Gossamer Canadian indie-folk that shimmers with the slowly unfurling colors of an autumn dawn.
Grace Basement I Mississippi Nights (self-released)
The latest from St. Louis mainstay Kevin Buckley is an inviting, irresistible mix of sharp pop, wistful country and swooning R&B. These songs share Buckley’s humility, and quietly burst with melody and emotion.
First Aid Kit | Ruins (Columbia)
The Söderberg sisters’ harmonies are as impeccable as ever and their songwriting remains strong, sweeping, heartbreaking, and stirring. And this time their Americana and brass-tinged folk is augmented by a killer backing band comprised of Peter Buck, Glen Kotche, and McKenzie Smith. This is a beautiful record from a group that has a way of plugging in to some sort of inherent human sadness without hardening their hearts. Ruins feels like the sun in total eclipse—a large disk of shuffling sorrow with a golden chromosphere of resilience.
Anna Burch | Quit the Curse (Polyvinyl)
Quit the Curse exudes 1960s pop and 1990s alt rock vibes in tandem. Burch cloaks these songs of insecurity and smirking angst in immediate melodies and buoyant arrangements. Black coffee with a little teaspoon of sugar. The contrast is beguiling.
The Spook School | Could It Be Different? (Slumberland)
On Could It Be Different?, the third album from Glaswegian four-piece The Spook School, the group explores (trans)gender, sexuality, mental illness, and queer issues via jangly, C86-inspired indie pop songs. Make that ultra-catchy indie pop songs. There are themes of survival on “Still Alive” (“fuck you, I’m still alive!”), a song that illustrates how the band manages to stay on the right side of twee by injecting their songs with a crunchy, punky edge. Other songs, like “Alright (Sometimes)” feel like less ramshackle spiritual successors to the barely remembered late 1990s “urban folksters” Hefner.
The group’s male + female vocal interplay (a dynamic that is on full display in the infectious “I Only Dance When I Want To”) is reminiscent of Belle & Sebastian, even while the band’s music often sounds like an alluring amalgam of early Arctic Monkeys and the Wombats before they got all glossed up.
Penultimate song “Body” is musically frenetic and lyrically laced with hesitance and self-doubt, but pushes past dysphoria and gives way to a trans-positive message. When Nye Todd sings “Do you like the way you look naked?/I don’t know if any of us do/And I still hate my body/But I’m learning to love what it can do,” he does it with vulnerability and bravery.
The album’s quiet interludes are some of its most striking. The squealing feedback in the intro to “Bad Year” gives way to a beautiful, almost doo-wop-influenced ballad about not letting exhaustion and defeat calcify into anger, and instead reinvesting in optimism and working towards change. It’s also a song about how sometimes even the supporters need support. On “High School,” Todd ponders how choices we make shape the people we are, and how experiences, even difficult ones, can lead us to people and places that we can’t imagine our lives without. The way the song’s marching jangle slowly fades into hazy synthesizers is a well-executed musical approximation of getting lost in thought. It’s not regretful; it’s thoughtful.
The Spook School are a proud heir to a long tradition of Scottish indie excellence. Anglophiles take note! And take these tunes to your local indie disco. Soaring backing vocals, guitars that twinkle and slash, and introspective lyrics make “Best of Intentions” and “Keep in Touch” bristle with an unbeatable mix of excitement and ennui and feel both plugged in to a rich past and vanguards of the future. What makes the band so remarkable is its empathy, honesty, and optimism. On Could It Be Different?, the band looks the world in the eye and says “nobody but me can decide who I am—you too have that right.” This music is defiant, not in anger, but in its refusal to be defined by anything besides itself. Theirs is a sincere belief in everyone’s right to exist as their true selves, and that even in the face of society’s fear and misunderstanding, things can get better. And, that you can always dance, but that in true introvert fashion, “I Only Dance When I Want To.”
Lauren Lakis | Ferocious (Cavity Search)
Excellent shoegazey rock from “romantic beach goth” Lauren Lakis that’s as compellingly dark and complex as a good stout.
boygenius | s/t (Matador)
Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers have all released excellent albums of their own in the past 18 months, and this team effort is a striking combination of their talents. You hear their distinct voices as well as the strong, supportive new collective voice they’ve forged together.
Beach House | 7 (Sub Pop)
A mysterious melange of dream pop and alluring shadows, 7 is Beach House’s heaviest album yet and adeptly illustrates how you can stick to your strengths but also find room for something new.
Kacey Musgraves | Golden Hour (MCA Nashville)
Subtly subversive psychedelic country par excellence. Musgraves makes music that sits squarely within the realm of mainstream country but pokes holes in it from within.
James | Living in Extraordinary Times (BMG)
James is a band. They are one of those veteran acts that fly under the radar but are still out there quietly making some of the best music of their career. Living in Extraordinary Times doesn’t mask its fear of the precarious state of the world, but also revels in the things that make life worth living. This is an album full of heart and humor; it is earthy and smart. And Tim Booth spreads his incredible, soul fortifying voice over all of it. James are a treasure.
Amen Dunes | Freedom (Sacred Bones)
Ethereal, shimmering and expansive. Damon McMahon’s voice is a silver ghost, vibrating over these slowly building synth-folk songs of loss and revisiting long forgotten memories.
Let’s Eat Grandma | I’m All Ears (Transgressive)
Proggy, avant-garde synthpop, equal parts Human League and Devo.
Iron & Wine | Weed Garden EP (Sub Pop)
Sam Beam continues to be some of the best music you can listen to when you’re feeling fragile, tender and tired. His hushed folk commiserates, consoles and also challenges you to think outside yourself.
Wye Oak | The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs (Merge)
An elegant, flowing fusion of circuitry and sinew.
Brian Fallon | Sleepwalkers (Island)
Put on your denim shirt and let’s go hang out by the ferris wheel. Sleepwalkers is full of Fallon’s traditional fixations—classic cars, film noir, heartbreak—and diversifies his straightforward punk-Springsteen sound with folk and dixieland. Fallon’s music remains one of the best things you can listen to when there are too many things on your mind and your heart’s fuller than you can stand it.
Neil & Liam Finn | Lightsleeper (Lester/Inertia)
Neil Finn and his son Liam have played music together most of their lives. Lightsleeper is a long overdue concerted collaboration; it’s a great mix of Neil’s perfect melodies and Liam’s more experimental stuff. Excellent harmonies, too. This family just has songs running through its veins.
Cat Power | Wanderer (Domino)
The first Cat Power album in six years is a reassuring reminder that Chan Marshall is still with us. Wanderer is low-key but complex, uncompromising but not off-putting. It’s the record she made rather than cave in to Matador’s demand for “hits.” (The irony is that while Wanderer isn’t car commercial bright or brash, this is not uncommercial music.) This is the work of a resilient woman who has seen some things and has managed to step back from oblivion’s edge on multiple occasions.
Idles | Joy as an Act of Resistance. (Partisan)
What 2018 needed was a bunch of loud, highly articulate dudes from Bristol yelling about the blight of toxic masculinity, xenophobic Little Englanders, and Brexit self-sabotage. Joy is full of pummeling, tuneful art punk and hard rock. It’s an intelligent, self aware ball of very necessary catharsis and confrontation.
Wild Pink | Yolk in the Fur (Tiny Engines)
Ethereal, psychedelic indie folk that both draws you close and sends your imagination on flights of fancy. Yolk in the Fur is wistful and wonderous; it sounds like a walk in the park on a frigid, milky-skied late December afternoon. It offers well known paths to follow and enchanting new ones to blaze.
Night Flowers | Wild Notion (Dirty Bingo)
Night Flowers’ long awaited (at least by me) debut LP hits a perfect jangle/dream pop/shoegaze sweet spot. Songs like the epic “Cruel Wind” sound like the Jesus and Mary Chain, All About Eve and a C86 compliation cozied up in a pub booth trading secrets. To listen to Wild Notion is to discover a well-kept secret garden of sound. Night Flowers put wings on your heart and provide a psychic lift.
The Get Up Kids | Kicker EP (Polyvinyl)
The Get Up Kids “comeback” EP is full of heartfelt energy. Hearkening back to the Red Letter Day and Something to Write Home About era, this is their most vital music since 2002’s vastly underrated, Scott Litt-produced On a Wire. They always had a knack for crafting well-written, affecting, and observant songs about love, longing, distance, and the pressures of life…and it’s nice to see that almost 20 years later (!), they’re doing it in a way that retains the affable passion of their youthful emo days, but that’s also grown with their audience. | Mike Rengel