As 2018 comes to a close, so does our Best Of The Decades series for the ’8s (here’s ’08, ’98, ’88, ’78, ’68 just in case you missed them). We have a particularly long list this time around, with label folks, journalists, and musicians chiming in on their favorite records of 2018. You’re probably used to seeing other best of 2018 lists by now, with all the same records at the top. Our collection provides some welcome respite for you! You might even find your new favorite album of 2018 here.
On their second album as Drinks, the duo of Cate Le Bon and Tim Presley (White Fence, Darker My Love, The Fall) create a unique and enchanting musical world that at times recalls Red Krayola’s albums with The Art and Language or the guitar licks from Deerhoof’s Apple O. Le Bon has always had a way of turning the oddest sounds into ear worms and Hippo Lite may be her most interesting album yet.
— Benjamin Parrish, Kill Rock Stars
Bruce Springsteen was already a star by any measure when Darkness On The Edge of Town was released in 1978. But the subsequent tour forged his legend. A friend gave me a bootlegged cassette of this Darkness show 35 years ago, and it shattered me. A piss-poor recording bounced down a dozen times to cheap tape and yet it was all I cared about. It was utter rock and roll madness, delirious and life-changing.
A hi-res version was finally released this year as part of Springsteen’s live archive series at BruceSpringsteen.net, and the cassette has been retired well past its prime. The setlist contains most of Springsteen’s early triumphs, and these versions remain definitive — as if Springsteen and the band had something to prove that night.
Backstreets has a devastating extra section, using lyrics that later became Drive All Night, and it is perhaps the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. Conversely, Spirit In The Night is the most joyous. All of it is pure Springsteen, pure magic.
— Jeffrey Lee Puckett, Courier Journal
Damon McMahon’s fifth album proved to me, a longtime fan, that he was capable of the transcendent, timeliness music I always knew he was. Previous albums like Love felt like hidden psych-folk gems shared and cherished by a select group of fellow artists, collectors, and heads, but not the full audience it deserved. With Freedom, there’s finally a sense that Amen Dunes is getting the attention he has so long deserved. In making one of the year’s best albums, McMahon has me excited that he may just be hitting his full stride.
— Cameron Schaefer, Vinyl Me, Please
Imagine listening to 16 tracks of vaguely ambient, electronic funk and somehow never losing interest. Imagine The Avalanches iconic 2000 album Since I Left You spawned a hip-hop-loving child that grew into a dreamy house addict. Imagine a space where milky melodies flow through head-boppin’ rhythms toward some delightfully-experimental and spiritual center, and you’re beginning to get a sense of DJ Koze’s ambitious third LP.
Knock Knock is some kind of magic. It brings together such diverse vocal features as Arrested Development rapper Speech, folk favorite José González and country’s Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner. Koze’s roots as a hip-hop DJ certainly shine through on this sample-heavy offering. It’s easy going enough for the background, but bumpin’ enough to get you on the dance floor. Single Pick Up became an instant club hit with nearly nine million streams on Spotify, but I’m also a big fan of tracks Muddy Funster and Jesus.
— Kat Bein, Discogs Contributor
One measure of the impact of an album is whether you would buy it for friends and family. I have gifted many copies of Fatoumata Diawara’s stunning Fenfo since its release in May. Malian singer, songwriter, guitarist, activist and acclaimed actress, Diawara is rightly hailed as one of the most vital standard-bearers of modern African music. On Fenfo, which translates as “something to say,” her artistry is sublime.
The collection of original new compositions is exquisitely recorded and mixed, with space given to each musician in the deft arrangements, providing the perfect sonic environment for Diawara’s depth and versatility as a composer, vocalist, and musician. Even though the album is sung mostly in Bambara, the timeless themes of respect, humility, love, migration, family, and how to build a better world for our children resonate beyond any need for translation. Diawara truly speaks the universal language.
— Oisin Lunny, Phoenix Magazine and Forbes
This came out in the first few weeks of 2018, and that’s a bonus (for me), because I tend to be more open to new bands when I’m not surrounded by all the others I’m being “encouraged strongly” to listen to. In some ways, this is my album of 2018 because I kept bumping back into it — and remembering how much i liked it — every few months.
Hypnotic, calming, interesting, exciting, familiar, confrontational, this Texas trio’s second album can be all of it, at different times. And I’m closing 2018 by seeing them live in the last few weeks of the year. Full circle 2018 with Khrangbuin. (And they’ve got a seven-inch of Christmas Time Is Here in record stores now. Happiness and cheer!)
— Carrie Colliton, Record Store Day
I wake up and put on this record. I have friends over to cook and put on this record. I fall asleep and dream to this record. Sam Wilkes has created a warm layered sound that provides such comfort that it takes multiple listens to realize his sound is completely new. Sam has directed the “actors” of the album — saxophonist Sam Gendel, guitarist Brian Green, and drummers Louis Cole and Christian Euman — to give performances of such depth and nuance that you can feel the genre of jazz adapting and making room for this new addition.
— Angela Lin, Stones Throw
The single running theme in 2018 seems to be general dismay. One can no longer read the news, listen to our leaders, or even post something on social media without being loudly greeted by negativity. In these times, many artists attempt to be even louder, but alt-country favorite Kacey Musgraves went another route.
To get people to listen, she strummed her guitar lightly and sang quietly…and in doing so, created the best album of these troubled times. Already a Grammy-winning, chart-topping star, Musgraves has nothing left to prove, and that’s why Golden Hour is so laid back. She has been enjoying living her life, and that’s clear in every facet of the record.
Musgraves comes off as immediately approachable, while somehow aspirational as well. If she’s able to light one up, sit back, and spend a lonely weekend relaxing with butterflies while the sun sets, why can’t the rest of us?
— Hugh McIntyre, Forbes
King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard could occupy a few spots on this list. They practically broke the Australian vinyl market this year after announcing reissues of their first five albums, at 5,000 copies each for 25,000 units total. Suddenly five records from 2012-2014 were sitting in Australia’s Top 20 Albums chart.
Eyes Like The Sky was their second LP, originally released in 2013. It’s not available on Spotify, and seeing a song from the record live is like winning the lottery, making it a trophy piece for any rarities obsessive. Musically too, it’s the black sheep of their discography; a misfit masterpiece.
Featuring the grizzly narration of Australian actor Broderick Smith (father of band member Ambrose Kenny-Smith), Eyes Like The Sky is a twisted take on a Sergio Leone film in part-album, part-audiobook format. King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard’s sophomore effort was ambitious and deftly off-centre, a reference point for the wild creativity which would come to define them.
— Tom Cameron, Happy Mag
This album is heartache music. It’s beautiful and simple and deep. Chan Marshall’s voice always leads me someplace special. Some records exude a clear purpose, that doesn’t really need to be pulled apart and put back together again to know how it makes you feel, to know how much it moves you. Chan’s records hold a certain mystery that captivates us, providing an emotional mood that can’t always be put easily into words. But you know it when you hear it. This is one of those albums. I will be listening to it for a long time.
— Lee Ranaldo, Sonic Youth
My pick, hands down, is the UK band This Is The Kit. Their most recent release is Moonshine Freeze. Under the radar and out of the box never felt so welcoming. Beautiful songcraft, warm uplifting melodies and arrangements, and above all a unique voice in this age of endless derivatives.
— Jim White (Waffles, Triangles & Jesus)
Not only a great tribute to a one-of-a-kind artist but a right-on-time, up-to-date collection of hip songs, beautiful grooves and quirky comments on life. In a world where melody and harmony are increasingly rare, here’s an artist who isn’t afraid to reach into the bag of aesthetics that made American pop music so important and bring them into these troubled times. Cool School is as much an attitude as a collection of compositions.
— Ben Sidran (Ben There Done That)
Their single Deep Burn Blue has been on repeat ever since I first discovered it. The album lives in a melancholic state that you just want to dive into and swim around in for hours. The album’s blend of organic indie elements, warm ’80s synth pads and gorgeous vocals makes it the perfect Sunday morning album.
There’s a wistfulness that reminds us that each moment is here and gone forever. This album is drenched in feelings of solitude and loneliness; a quietness that’s almost meditative. The album isn’t concerned with impressing you with flashiness. It’s mature, confident songwriting and production at its very best.
— The Midnight (Kids)
Jerry Garcia is one of my favorite singers, and I found it truly fascinating to hear his compelling voice woven into so many simple and earnest melodies and words. His unique connection and approach to each song is so clearly revealed when you hear his voice in this collection.
I love hearing the origins of a voice, the hymns and traditionals that shaped the elements of the singer: storytelling, intention, tone, and phrasing. I fell in love with Jerry’s vocals all over again in this excellent deep dive into his singing.
— Amy Helm (This Too Shall Light)
The premise being that music serves three purposes — to dance to, to fuck to, or to fall gently asleep to — the U.S. Girls record fulfills this criteria on all levels. The premise being that you can deliver your message, no matter how piercing or immediate or serious, so much more effectively on the dance floor. Unexpected chord choices meld seamlessly with grace and fluidity, surfing on top of propulsive poly-rhythmic bed tracks.
Vocals with immaculate phrasing, sometimes glacial and sometimes urgent, tie melody and harmony and beat together with precision. I learn something new every time I listen, and as a listener that is the most you can hope from music. With In A Poem Unlimited, we have the gift that keeps on giving. And any record that can quote the Spinners (and so many more awesome things) so effectively is cool with me.
— Ensign Broderick (BloodCrush)
My favorite record of the year award would have to go to Shannon Shaw for Shannon in Nashville. I’ve liked Shannon & The Clams for awhile, and I feel like this record took her to a new level. It’s a little less quirky than The Clams and little more honest.
She’s managed to wrap everything I like about ’50s and ’60s music into one record, borrowing from Phil Spector production, early rock and roll, classic country, and a tinge of rockabilly. As usual, Dan Auerbach nailed the tones and mixes. On top of all of this, I really love the album cover, which is a fun, artistic throwback. I’m excited to see where Shaw goes from here.
— Jeremy Fury of Jeremy & The Harlequins (Remember This)
John Prine’s album Tree of Forgiveness has been in constant rotation in my home and my head since it came out earlier this year. Like so many of his songs before, lines from this record appear to me at random times throughout the day. “I live down deep inside my head, where long ago I made my bed… uh huh” is a welcome ear worm. His song When I Get To Heaven” in its entirety gets stuck on mental loop some days. This record is good company early in the morning or late at night — and that’s hard to say about anything or anyone, really.
— Dawn Landes (Meet Me at the River)
This record has it all. The songwriting is aces, the musicianship is class A, the live energy is incredible. Gumbo brings something that has been missing for R&B/soul fans perhaps since the early ’90s golden era. The live show from this tour was unbelievable.
One of the highlights of this record is The Bee Gees How Deep Is Your Love, with a knockout feature from Yeeba (goosebumps listening just now on vinyl). It’s nearly impossible to pick favorites as there is not a weak song on the record. Some of the other standouts for me are Religion, First Began (Grammy nominated), and Go Thru Your Phone.
PJ Morton has definitely put himself on the map in a very big way with this album as a solo artist internationally. Very excited to witness how his career unfolds. Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, and now PJ Morton.
— Jonah Tolchin (Thousand Mile Night)
This album has made me begrudgingly appreciate the more rocking manifestations of power pop, and even finally admit I never liked Cheap Trick. And that means these guys are pretty good. Despite the title of one of the album’s songs, Death By Unga Bunga are not all that ‘cynical’ — perhaps just a little. For 10 years they’ve embraced the garage rock ethos without the dogmas — no ‘Pebblelization’ to be heard, or dry archivalism of some past golden age that probably never existed.
Still I would like to see them decked out in full 1966 regalia just once, playing up the Viking angle, because they are Norwegians. What’s more important is they live rock and roll now, which is actually a big deal these days. Even their home, Moss, Norway isn’t what it used to be as far as ‘Garage Rock Capitals of The World’ go. You can hardly find a drink on a Sunday evening after the convenience mart closes, unless you run into Morton Hendrikson — godfather of the Moss garage/power pop scene — and even he might be hard pressed to help you out.
Okay, they make music fun, which is important, and smart even though ‘smart’ is a very ‘optional’ option in rock and roll. Listen to So Far So Good So Cool, but go see them live because Death By Unga Bunga ‘live’ is a real experience. These guys are all the positive things I mentioned above and more. And what still amazes me is that these Scandinavian bands, especially Death By Unga Bunga, speak English much better than I do.
— “Count” Peter Zaremba, The Fleshtones (Budget Buster )
The self-titled debut full length of Red Brut slipped in quietly through the back door this past May, an intriguing puzzle of an album I found myself returning to again and again. Red Brut (a.k.a. Rotterdam’s Marijn Verbiesen) creates cassette tape-based sonic collage, weaving together snippets of found sound, field recordings, voice and synthesizer. Not noise but noisy, not music but musical.
Bypassing many of the tired tropes of the genre, there are no crude, jarring edits or sounds manipulated beyond recognition. Instead, Verbiesen provides a diaphanous, dreamlike atmosphere for individual elements to appear and interact with one another to engrossing effect.
It is a masterful re-contextualization of the otherwise mundane, akin to the cellophane dioramas of New York artist Yuji Agematsu or the Fluxus tape experiments of Henning Christiansen. Like most great art, the album manages to transcend its niche while also suggesting new spaces to explore within it.
— Bob Desaulniers, Lithics (Mating Surfaces)
I haven’t felt this way about a band since I was 16 years old. So much so that, this year, I wrote my first piece of fan mail. Addressed to Andrew Savage, one of the main songwriters of Parquet Courts, it said, and I’m paraphrasing here: “you make me want to be a better man.”
As I find myself writing another piece of fan mail, there’s a lot I could say. For everyone’s sake, I’ll limit myself to one thing: Lyrics. I’m not a “lyric guy.” I mean, I dislike poor lyricists, but profound words are not a prerequisite for me enjoying a song. Still, the release of Wide Awake has got me fixated on writing as creative and political practice.
Violence catapulted me into what would become a very deep dive into this band’s ability to merge catchy songs with poignant messages. It is one of the finest pieces written in the rock cannon, ever. The record as a whole is striking for its ability to shift from topics like love or self-doubt to urgent social and political messages with an unmatched adroitness. Maybe I’m still not one for words, so I’ll leave it at this: Listen to this band! Get Wide Awake!
— Luke Lalonde, Born Ruffians (Uncle, Duke & The Chief)
What an impossible task — “choose your favorite record of 2018.” But, here goes. I am going to pick Carla J. Easton’s Impossible Stuff. I love this record. Genre? It’s been called “dream pop,” bu it sounds to me like Carla gathered a bunch of her talented muso friends, and along with producer Howard Billerman, threw a big party in the studio. Carla’s vocals and songs are free spirited and openhearted. Howard’s production is inspired and cinematic (indie style). This record makes me happy. Get happy!
— Kim Richey (Edgeland)
I was such a novice at songwriting when I was 18 or 19 years old that it kinda blows my mind when I hear the top drawer melodies and lyrics that The Lemon Twigs (Long Island brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario) are already writing at this stage of their career (one pair of feet in their teens and one pair out). They’ve molded them all into an inspiring 15 song double-LP musical called Go To School about a chimpanzee who’s raised by a family as a human boy and the obstacles he faces in school, life and love.
One might detect throughout the story arc a variety of instrumental and melodic touches that recall ABBA, Chilton, Sondheim, and Lou Reed — but these two are clearly charting their own rocking course. Did I mention that the brothers played nearly all the instruments, engineered and mixed the album themselves in their parents basement? Yeah, I was not in this league. Truly advanced hot shots. The real deal. Album of 2018.
— Jay Ferguson, Sloan (12)
How does one top a perfect first album? Is it even possible? Two years ago, Pittsburgh’s punk rock powerhouse Blood Pressure dropped Need To Control on the world’s thick skull like an engine block thrown over a junkyard fence. Two years later, they’ve somehow managed to not only match the capricious frenzy of the first 12″, but they’ve reined in a lot of the coarser, noisier sonic elements for a more focused assault, paired with a fresher and truly clever approach to song construction.
The buzzsaw guitars lock in perfectly with the crumbling-concrete bass and the air tight drum mania. The lyrics and vocals are as surly and callous as before, but each song has a familiar sensibility that immediately takes the listener’s mind to the top of an onstage dog pile, screaming along with every word. Improved perfection. Blood Pressure put all other hardcore punks to shame, both in style and practice.
— Night Birds (Roll Credits)
I’ve lived in East Nashville for the last 16 years and never cease to be inspired and challenged artistically by Gordon. Tilt and Shine merges old school pop rock with blues, as a vessel to carry nine evocative stories. Every song is a dream in startling sepia-toned detail, cliche free, full of dirt, fire, and water.
Gordon loves flawed characters that wrangle with addiction (Saint On A Chain), youth and temptation (Fire At The End Of The World and Get It Together), and the pain of making a living (Rest Your Head). Gatling Gun builds to an explosive crescendo as it mines an obsession with a vivid erotic memory.
The band also avoids musical cliche and rises and falls like a swollen, raging river. Producer Joe McMahan’s guitar dances sharply through the album like a spirited skeleton. Sublime music that rewards with repeated listens.
— Amelia White (Rhythm Of The Rain)
We love the latest Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks record, Sparkle Hard. It feels a little retro and but also pretty cutting edge at the same time. Adam Miller, who engineered and mixed the record, does a great job getting lush, fine sounds while keeping the raw band vibe.
The song forms are interesting, a little weird and winding in a good way. Every time we listen to the album we find something cool that we hadn’t noticed before. Guitar interplay is kind of the focus — lots of intricate jams and ’70s sounds — but the whole band sounds great.
We’re already big fans of frontman Stephen Malkmus’ previous band Pavement and also bassist Joanna Bolme, who co-produced one of our favorite records from the band Quasi. It’s not just the music, either; Malkmus’ lyrics are clever as always. I love this line in Difficulties / Let Them Eat Vowels: “I’ll be there for the lowest lows. And most of the highs.”
— Wooing (The Clouds)
Live albums aren’t usually my thing, but this isn’t just any live album. Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum is one of my — his records changed how I make music — and last year was the first time I saw him live. He was alone, playing songs about the death of his wife, Geneviève Castrée. The crowd was silent from beginning to end — but for the sounds of most, if not all, of us crying.
Eventually, Phil played his last song, thanked us warmly, and bent down to return his guitar into its case. The house lights came on, loud bar music started blaring, and all of us stood silently, awkwardly in place, not really knowing how to transition back into the world after what we had just experienced. The live album from this tour is truly incredible. I’m not sure there are any words that would do it justice.
— Jonathan Franco (Swimming Alone Around The Room)
For someone whose smirking deconstruction of modern society is so often seen as his main strength, Josh Tillman is arguably more suited by the darkness and introspection found on his latest LP. It’s less sprawling and, some might say, ambitious than some of his previous work, but by allowing Tillman — the songwriter — to get out of the shadow of the Misty character, he’s crafted an album of indelibly melodic and frequently moving ’70s-style pop that stands up to repeated listens.
— Bird Streets (Bird Streets)
We’d like to nominate Leon Bridges’ Good Thing. We toured with Leon for about a month, heard these songs every night, and fell in love with them every night. Leon is one of our generation’s special talents. He makes us proud to be from Texas. It’s great to see a fellow Texan doing so well and putting out great music.
— Khruangbin (Con Todo EL Mundo)