Let me be clear. This was not a good year for music. In fact, this was a bad year for music. And I don’t mean deaths of musicians, tragedies, or other random sad or unfortunate events. Artistic level of albums released in 2018 was not satisfying to say at least. After a magnificent 2015 and epic 2016, I’m still waiting for a year to shock me as groundbreaking or just really gratifying. Yes, 2017 was ok, but something was missing, inclusing the feeling of having witnessed something truly grand. So, I had enormous trouble choosing 2018’s best LPs, because, besides some really great albums, there was a series of mediocre or forgettable ones, which I had to write down right after listening to them because in another way they would have escaped my mind never to return. This is not how it should work. Still, 2018 was not bad altogether. As I mentioned, there were some gems worth remembering, even if not in their entireties, maybe just some parts or the atmosphere they have created.
One might say my taste grows weirder year after year, and I’m not talking about my love for experimental music. I try to find beauty in songs that many listeners would find too shallow, too commercial, too simplistic, or not even worth a try. But as I keep listening to dozens (or even close to hundreds) albums each year, both classic and modern one, I often find satisfaction in the most straightforward or bizarre experiences, which have a lot more to offer than one might have suspected. The key to this kind of understanding is to forget everything you know about your own taste and to get out of your own prejudices. Just listen and enjoy, because sounds – all kinds of sounds – can lead you to the most unexpected places and experiences.
As always, the list I present consists of the albums I find interesting and recommend listening to. Since it’s simply impossible (if not pointless) to judge if one record is better than another, I want to share those, which spoke to me loudest. What’s important, there are no soundtracks, which explains the lack of Black Panther Soundtrack. No unreleased LPs, which explains the lack of Red Dead Redemption 2 Soundtrack. No EPs, which explains the lack of Sufjan Steven’s Mystery of Love. No compilations, which explains the lack of Bohemian Rhapsody. No archival or posthumous releases, which explains the lack of Prince’s Piano & A Microphone 1983. No live albums, which explains the lack of magnificent Frank Zappa’s The Roxy Performances. Records listed include only released original studio albums.
There was no doubt when it comes to the best albums among music critics – Janelle Monae and Mitski were crowned the queens of 2018. But it’s not about who’s done it better. Most importantly, just like I wrote last year, the list I present is not a critic’s choice, but a soundtrack to my own 2018. The albums, which brought me the most. Having said that, I hope you will find something that fits your own liking as well.
20. Pusha T – DAYTONA
I have no idea what this hype is all about. The album is good, maybe even great, but it’s definitely not a groundbreaking masterpiece. Still, it has a number of world-class tracks, and the short-distance form makes it a delightful and power-packed run by one of the best players in the game. King Push may not be reclaiming or confirming his rightful place on the throne, but Daytona is a really good attempt at doing so.
19. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – KIDS SEE GHOSTS
Kanye West’s Wyoming Sessions were probably one of the most important music events in 2018. He produced some great LPs, some let-downs, and even though I probably enjoyed Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E. the most, and DAYTONA was the best received, KIDS SEE GHOSTS feel as if it’s a project the most effort was put into without turning it into an overblown and shallow record. I absolutely adore that this album is so short and welcoming for listeners. It’s like this short glimpse of Kanye becoming 2007 or 2010 again, which most of us want so much.
18. Ashley Monroe – Sparrow
This is one of the albums that I was waiting for the most in 2018. I absolutely adored 2013’s Like a Rose and 2015’s The Blade, so I was thinking this will be a glorious third one in a row. And, to be frank, I wasn’t surprised to find out I was quite right. Maybe it is not as catchy, packed with hits, nor satisfying as previous two, but Sparrow is a well thought-through, coherent, sublimely produced record worthy of a country superstar. What’s more, it’s a natural evolution for Monroe into complex string arrangements, multi-track vocals reminding of the heyday of Nashville Sound. In fact, you can hear the soul of the capital of country music in here. Great country record by a great country artist. Probably not her best, but who cares if it brings such an extraordinary experience when you just let it do its work.
17. Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
This short selection of songs that at first seems to be just a scattered compilation of random thoughts is actually one of the best rap albums of the year, if not the best. But, most importantly, it’s the one to remember. Sweatshirt has recorded an album, which is an impressive illustration of experimental production, great musical ideas, and emotional rollercoaster. These 15 songs will take you on a weird ride taking a little over 24 minutes. And oh my, it’s worth it. But please, take a moment to let it sink in, especially when you read lyrics. He’s extremely talented, which is perfectly illustrated on his best LP yet. Earl Sweatshirt is not a rap superstar, and I pray he will never become one. I just hope he’ll keep evolving the way he’s doing right now because the path Earl’s on right now is not the one leading to stardom, but to a lasting legacy, thank God.
16. Julia Holter – Aviary
This is a long, unearthly journey, which brings listeners to an unreal experimental realm. It’s a loose form of high artistry presented by a mixture of folk, ethereal sonic flight reminds something of an ambient experience. It’s not an easy listen, and, despite its character, not a relaxing one. But it represents a project where music, conversely, is not the most important aspect, but rather its atmosphere and general meaning. A contemplative dimension of Aviary is exactly what its title suggests – we are put in a cage with transitory, fleeting blisses of a musical experiment where sounds are not the most important, but the way they make us feel seems the key to enjoyable listen. In a way, it can remind its listeners of Kate Bush’s Aerial or Bjork’s Biophilia. I Shall Love 2 is a perfect illustration, making it one of the best songs of the year.
15. Gorillaz – The Now Now
A new Gorillaz’ album is always a great event, but also a frightening one. You can never expect what you’ll be getting. And I was never disappointed. Even if I wasn’t thrilled at first, each album kept growing on me. There is no doubt that The Now Now is Gorillaz’ weakest one to date (not counting The Fall, which, in my opinion, is not even a real LP), but still has a lot to offer. Its clever commentary on contemporary society is continued from very vocal Humanz, and do not disappoint when it comes to classic Gorillaz plastic bangers. Give this album a chance, and, if necessary, a second, third, and fourth one. Its beauty lays in the fact that it is not what it seems at first, the songs are sophisticated, and its coherency is a thing of beauty, not mentioning this specific, one-of-a-kind Gorillaz’ characteristic sounding, somewhere between dehumanized plastic, political manifesto, and fragile subtlety.
14. Nine Inch Nails – Bad Witch
To be frank, I don’t know what to do with this LP. Theoretically, it is an album. Practically, it should be treated as the third and final act of NIN’s serie of EPs. Anyway, it’s a great, crazy record, which in 30 minutes shows off the quality of Reznor’s talent and vision. One may say Bad Witch is chaotic, or lacks the grandoise Hesitation Marks brought us in 2013, but its force can be found in the missing parts and the chaos itself. Add Violence remains my favorite of the trilogy, but then, each one offers something different. Bad Witch brings listeners another rendition of Reznor’s experiments, which on one hand feels like an homage to late-era David Bowie, on the other hand represents the same furious energy and cohesive reflection Nine Inch Nails represents in the past years.
13. Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth
Quoting wise words of Han Solo from The Force Awakens: “So, it’s big.” I could never really comprehend the enormous and universal critical acclaim of Kamasi Washington, who bases his music mainly on its huge scale and simple emotional contemporary jazz with a huge dose of neo-soul and R&B. But it’s a concept that’s the most interesting – an album, submerged in Afrofuturism, which goal is to reach some kind of spiritual redemption. And sure, if you just let the music flow, take you entirely and bring you to this different dimension, it’s great. However, when you think about the music itself, it’s not that special. You just have to not think about it. Just let it do its work. Again, just let the music take you, and you’ll see the titular heaven and earth. And the scale? It definitely helps in meditating the music as an experience. When you add that this LP is much more coherent and polished than The Epic, it makes Heaven and Earth a truly unique journey.
12. U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlilmited
Remy’s latest LP is a very interesting and exceptional record. In combines an artistic form, with lightness, great ideas, and avant-garde approach. Still, everything is served in electro-pop form, making it curious yet accessible album. There are numerous catchy tunes, as well as some fillers, but the general impression after every listen is that it is a consistent, engaging, and fascinating album. Definitely not my favorite LP of the year, but the one I kept coming back to since its premiere.
11. Anderson .Paak – Oxnard
Oxnard is an album made by a confident and relaxed person, who could’ve made a masterpiece, but instead created just a great record. It’s not a breakthrough like Malibu was, but rather a west-coast rap wannabe, who continues to reach heights when emphasizing blues, soul, and R&B rather than hip-hop. What’s more, it’s like listening to To Pimp A Butterfly‘s collection of B-sides, but without political overtones. It’s still enjoyable, but the warmth of .Paak’s comfort zone can be felt throughout. Still, his latest album is something to be enjoyed. Just a great, sometimes a magnificent record with various interesting ideas. Just.
10. Ariana Grande – Sweetener
Grande is going through such an evolution as an artist, which I was expecting from all other young mega-mainstream artists like Bieber, Gomez, Zayn, or Styles. This is not the same singer as five, three, or even a year ago. And Sweetener is a perfect example of this enormous growth. While her latest is definitely not better than glorious Dangerous Woman, it proves how great of a potential she has. Not only vocally, but artistically and emotionally. While her previous LP was a wonderful collection of hits, this is more of an artistic project. Led by Pharell Williams, who, at times, is too omniresent, an album is a great statement by a young musician, who should not be treated as a young musician no more. Numbers don’t lie, she is the biggest pop star in the world. But that doesn’t really matter. She is an act to follow, because of her talents. And Sweetener‘s follow-up is already in the works.
9. Mariah Carey – Caution
This is the biggest surprise of 2018. I had no expectations whatsoever for Carey’s LP. But then, encouraged by some great reviews, I decided to do so, and I was stunned. This is a beautiful piece by an artist who doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. She is an embodiment of a modern diva, there is no doubt. And she proves that in this great, brave, firm statement of remarkable artistry. It’s short, it’s coherent, it represents an interesting concept, but, most importantly, it’s not forced. You just listen and enjoy great songs, which bring an impressive range of emotional experience, sophisticated arrangements, and musical advancements. This album is subtle and fragile, but fierce at the same time. A magnificent statement by a true legend. Yes, really.
8. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
Kacey’s new album is a proof that she is shining brightly on a contemporary American country music scene. Her charm, marvelous songwriting, and witty lyrics is a perfect recipe for an enjoyable record, which continues her mission to take Nashville by the storm to become the queen of modern country. Golden Hour is a great next chapter in her career, yet sometimes it feels a little bit mellow in comparison to her previous LPs. Still, even if you don’t like this kind of music, Musgraves’ albums is a must-listen and must-read. When it comes to artistic level, there is no doubt that she, along with Monroe, is the top class. Golden Hour is a solid, not perfect, illustration for such, paving the way (and expectations) for subsequent, hopefully just as great, records.
7. Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy (Face to Face)
Ok, yes, so I bent the rules a little. This is not an original studio album, but a reworked version of the one released in 2011. But you have to keep in mind that the original one sounds completely different. Then, recorded on a lo-fi home equipment, now, re-recorded on a label-funded high-end gear, Twin Fantasy is a completely different LP. Yes, the songs are the same, but the quality and execution are something completely different. What was once a garage band’s sophisticated release, now became a magnificent indie achievement for the books. Everything you can hear here has already been done. There’s nothing much innovative. But the artistry and the class of the album is just striking, hearbreaking, thrilling, emotionally moving, and jaw-dropping. In some ways is as good as Teenage Denial, sometimes it’s even better, sometimes ideas as less amusing. But still, this is an indie masterpiece. I said that before, and I’ll say it again, Will Toledo is probably the most talented songwriter of the young generation of indie musicians. I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do next. Hopefully, he won’t stop at re-recording his old tunes, even if they’re a thing of beauty.
6. Low – Double Negative
Low recorded the best experimental album of the year, wonderfully capturing the anxieties, uncertainties, and fragilities of the contemporary world. While uneasiness looms over the whole LP, one can find the most satisfying moments in the cracks through which the light gets in. Having that in mind, the album can be treated as two separate entities – restlessness of experimental and frightening atmosphere, and tranquility of beautiful melodies and delicate undertones, but working together to create a supreme record, which leaves a listener stunned, crashed, and uplifted. This is not an easy listen, but as in every experimental album of such quality, it moves beyond simple pleasures.
5. The Good, the Bad and the Queen – Merrie Land
It’s been eleven years since Albarn project’s previous album. And even if it’s not as good, it was worth the wait. Merrie Land continues the theme of place-specific music present on TGTBATQ’s debut, but this time discussing the nostalgic and idealized vision of England in the context of upcoming Brexit. An atmosphere of sentimentality, anxiety, and unknown is omnipresent, heart-wrenching, and powerful. All of that is presented with characteristic Tony Allen drumming and bass-heavy sounding provided by a legendary line-up lead by the one and only Tony Visconti as its producer. But, most importantly, this coherent concept-album is much more than its authors. Of course, it sounds magnificent, but the songs here are true stars, which will haunt you, break your heart, make you angry, and ever-longing for the place, which probably never was there in the first place. Being probably the most overseen and underrated LP of the year, Merrie Land is a clever play on the theme of nostalgia and imagination, while we’re waiting for an inevitable. And that leaves a mark after numerous listens.
4. Rolo Tomassi – Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It
This masterpiece is captivating from the first ambient sounds of Towards Dawn until the last notes of Risen. There is no doubt that Rolo Tomassi recorded an album that, without any doubt, can be instantly inducted to mathcore’s pantheon of its best LPs. Fragility mixes with pure fire and power, without losing any of its great melodic ideas. Of course, such a genre is not for everybody and it takes a lot of bravery to take a leap of faith and try to enjoy this. But when one does that, it pays off. Quality of emotional impact Time Will Die… has is not overshadowed by the number of mathematical measurements involved in this type of music. Its mastery relies on the combination of both, which is done magnificently with great artistry, sophistication, and conviction. Truly an amazing experience, which stayed with me for the whole year. One of the albums I listened to most frequently in 2018, and probably one of the few I’ll keep going back to moving forward.
3. Mitski – Be the Cowboy
This is not only another example of artistic evolution done right, but also with momentum and vigor. For better or worse, Mitski is no longer sticking to lo-fi but decided to use talent to build something bigger. Therefore, in little over half an hour, she presents what she is capable of. And oh my, while Puberty 2 was already a great record, it was just a beginning. This time she created her best work to date. There is doubt, Mitski is the future of American singer-songwriter indie scene. Let’s just hope she didn’t peak with Puberty 2 and Be the Cowboy. But even if she did, she presented two magnificent albums. I sincerely believe there will be a third one, and another, and another, because, given the number of great ideas on both LPs, she is definitely not done yet.
2. Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
This radical transformation of Arctic Monkeys quite possibly came as a surprise to most of their fans and common listeners, especially since their previous records lead toward monstrous riffs rather than such a journey. But then again, why didn’t we see it coming? Artists change, search for something new, try new paths. And this was indisputably a right one to take. TBH+C was a bold move, there’s no doubt, and it quickly became a victim of its own hype. Nobody knew what to do with it. Fans were divided, critics were confused. It seemed like everybody wanted a hit, something to bang your head to, but instead, they were given Star Treatment. This resulted in a mixed reception, which, to me, is a sign of today’s music industry and popular culture in general. People want instant gratification, yet AM released an album, which forces listeners to listen to it for a few times without any promise of certain satisfaction. But then, after dozens of spins, dissecting both sounding and fantastic lyrics, I am confident that this is a masterpiece, a second-best AM’s release along with their debut. I know, the whole retro science fiction straight from the early 1970s concept, post-postmodern approach to art, specific production, or the lack of typical AM’s stuff may be off-putting, but after giving it some time, and making some time for it to settle down, it is extremely rewarding. Listen to it, take a break, come back to it after a while, listen to it again. Then, it’ll be something to remember. And I’m sure this LP will be remembered for a long time, even if it’s not remembered now.
1. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
I can’t remember the last time my expectations for an album have been satisfied to such an extent. Monae’s third record was one of the most anticipated LPs, so the stakes were high, especially after magnificent singles. And then, after premiere, an universal acclaim followed. There’s no surprise given the fact Dirty Computer is close to being a contemporary pop masterpiece with a strong political side. It’s a manifestsation of blackness and confident sexuality, loving oneself, while staying powerful, hyper-positive, and extremely entertaining. It’s an album that 2018 so much, and which 2017 did not provide. Musically excellent, aesthetically tasty, marvelously fun. There’s no doubt it’s her best work to date. Even though sometimes it may feel too straightforward, too direct, or too explicit, these are also the reasons why it’s so good. Monae proves that she’s a great artist capable of doing great things. I was hoping it will bring a sumilar cultural revelance like To Pimp a Butterfly or Lemonade, but let’s be real, it’s not as grand and universally relatable. Because it speaks about difficult topics, or rather a topics that are difficult to so many. That’s why it’s so important. And when you add the fact that it’s so increadibly fun, you have the best album of the year.
- Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
- Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
- Mitski – Be the Cowboy
- Rolo Tomassi – Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It
- The Good, the Bad and the Queen – Merrie Land
- Low – Double Negative
- Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy (Face to Face)
- Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
- Mariah Carey – Caution
- Ariana Grande – Sweetener
- Anderson .Paak – Oxnard
- U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlilmited
- Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth
- Nine Inch Nails – Bad Witch
- Gorillaz – The Now Now
- Julia Holter – Aviary
- Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
- Ashley Monroe – Sparrow
- Kids See Ghosts – KIDS SEE GHOSTS
- Pusha T – Daytona
Albums: Honorable Mentions
- Kali Uchis – Isolation
- Kendrick Lamar – Black Panther Soundtrack
- Robyn – Honey
- Teyana Taylor – K.T.S.E.
- The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationship
The Best of 2018: Songs
- Arctic Monkeys – Four Out of Five
- Ariana Grande – God is a Woman
- Janelle Monae – Don’t Judge Me
- Julia Holter – I Shall Love 2
- Mariah Carrey – Giving My Life
- The Good, the Bad and the Queen – Merrie Land
The Most Anticipated Albums of 2019
- Ariana Grande – thank u, next
- Bon Iver
- Bruce Springsteen
- Carly Rae Jepsen
- Hot Chip
- Red Dead Redemption 2 Soundtrack
- Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
- Tame Impala
- The Hold Steady
- The Raconteurs
- Vampire Weekend