The world probably always has produced way too much music each year for any one person to process. But that’s never been more overwhelmingly clear than now, when we’re fully immersed in the age of streaming. I used to be able to survey the piles of CDs around my desk and have a rough idea what I was neglecting. Now, while keeping multiple ongoing lists, I know that stunning sounds would slip by me even if I spent all day diligently checking all possible platforms.
That means my tally of significant albums here is more baldly subjective and loaded with blank spots than ever. But that seems suited to the kaleidoscope of contradictory realities, divided timelines, and fearful erosion that was being alive in 2018. Along with each of my choices, I’ve included a roster of other records that offer comparable rewards, in or out of the same genre. And I’ll return soon to discuss them and many more 2018 releases, trends, and ideas with some of the country’s best critics in the annual year-end Slate Music Club.
My 15-Plus Favorite Albums of 2018
In alphabetical order by artist.
Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy
With every move, from her sly pregnancy reveal on Saturday Night Live to her recent arrest for a fight at a strip club, Cardi B proved to be one of the most magnetic pop-culture personalities of 2018. But Invasion of Privacy is much richer and more finely crafted than it had any real need to be. Just repeating the profanely comic shtick of her breakout single “Bodak Yellow” would have delighted many, but instead it covers a range of moods, styles, and callbacks to rap and pop-music history—not to mention my song of the summer and one of the singles of the year, “I Like It.”
Neko Case, Hell-On
If pressed for a strict ranking, I would call this my personal No. 1 album of 2018. Neko Case albums come along too seldom and must be treasured. Less burdened by the melancholy that marked her previous solo full-length in 2013, Case is at her willful, complicated, lateral-thinking best here, collaging personal and natural history and teasing and scowling at the folly of humanity in general and mankind in particular. Especially on the seven-minute, emotionally all-encompassing “Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” she is writing, singing, and producing at the height of her abilities, which is to say of anybody’s.
Hear also: The nearly as singular nature-noir sensibility of Jennifer Castle on Angels of Death.
Lucy Dacus, Historian
Boygenius, Boygenius EP
When the 23-year-old Virginia-based songwriter Lucy Dacus and her two artistic and generational peers, Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers, formed the almost accidental supergroup Boygenius this year, it immediately seemed like a historic event. That they imitated an album-photo pose of Crosby, Stills, & Nash on their EP’s own cover suggested that they knew it too, announcing “everybody look what’s goin’ down.” Their own albums already proved that individually their gifts are prodigious. Together—though the Boygenius record was made quickly, and track by track isn’t as robust as Dacus’ utterly absorbing Historian, for instance—they represent a new generational wave that’s going to be setting standards, and writing them, for a very long time.
Hear also: Among the many other young women making eye-widening folk-rock-punk-ish songs, Hop Along’s Bark Your Head Off, Dog, Abysskiss by Adrianne Lenker (of Big Thief), Soccer Mommy’s Clean, U.S. Girls’ In a Poem Unlimited, and Swearin’s Fall Into the Sun, plus the pioneering early “girly-sound” tapes of Liz Phair, at last compiled officially with this year’s 25th-anniversary, box-set reissue of Exile in Guyville.
Jeremy Dutcher, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa
The cover of this year’s winner of the Polaris Music Prize for best album in Canada depicts Jeremy Dutcher sitting in front of a gramophone, wax cylinders scattered around him, wearing a traditional indigenous robe. It symbolizes the origins of this project, for which Dutcher painstakingly transcribed wax recordings more than a century old of songs in his community’s (endangered) Wolastoq language, then reset them for piano and his own operatically trained vocals. It’s an act of cultural reclamation and renewal, but it’s far from merely academic. The past is alive in these songs, but so is a future in which classical music is decolonized, no longer an exclusionary weapon but a resource for all to claim and repurpose. It’s simply and not-so-simply beautiful, and we settlers should just be quiet and listen.
Kendrick Lamar and various artists, Black Panther: The Album
It seems like a long while back when Black Panther was all anybody wanted to talk about, but it’s one of the cultural touchstones of the year. Fittingly it came with a companion album that also sounds as much like 2018 musically as any record could. Kendrick Lamar and producer Sounwave designed it to follow roughly the arc of the movie’s plot, but only in emotional dynamic and theme rather than literally, and they recruited the likes of SZA, Vince Staples, Khalid, Jorja Smith, Anderson Paak, Future, Travis Scott, and the Weeknd to assist, along with musicians and rappers from South Africa. Yet rather than an uneven tribute album, it flows and flies from minute to minute, proving Lamar is not only the greatest rapper of the day but potentially the most talented music supervisor, too.
Ashley McBryde, Girl Going Nowhere
After a decade of paying dues in roadhouses and writers’ rooms, McBryde grabbed attention in 2017 with the single “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” an ideal example of rootsy Nashville craft, a three-minute musical movie. Girl Going Nowhere shows it was no fluke, with song after song that’s grounded and smart and moving, whether about the opioid crisis (in the tongue-in-cheek but subtly dire “Livin’ Next to Leroy”), relationships, friendships, the love of music (“Radioland”), and McBryde’s own long struggle for recognition (in the title track). It’s snagged a Grammy nom for Best Country Album, but it should really replace Brandi Carlile in the Album of the Year slate.
Hear also: Other Nashville country standouts include Kane Brown’s Experiment, Eric Church’s Desperate Man, Lori McKenna’s The Tree, Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, and the Pistol Annies’ Interstate Gospel.
Mount Eerie, Now Only
Phil Elverum resumes his sparse cinéma vérité meditation on the death of his wife and the mother of his young child, the artist Geneviève Castrée, from where it left off on 2017’s The Crow Looked at Me. But because mourning and time are so intertwined, more of the same in this case is not the same at all. While this record is still smarting with loss, it is also about the world opening up anew in the slow process of recovery, as well as the strangeness of having sung his story in public. (It concludes, however, before Elverum’s surprising, hopefully much happier, latest chapter: his remarriage this summer to the actress Michelle Williams.)
Hear also: For another extended personal-history narrative, Alejandro Escovedo’s The Crossing; for exquisite acoustic textures, Gwenifer Raymond’s You Were Never Much of a Dancer; for far less harrowing perspectives on mortality, John Prine’s The Tree of Forgiveness and Willie Nelson’s Last Man Standing; and for a voice from beyond the grave itself, Lil Peep’s posthumous Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2.
Meshell Ndegeocello, Ventriloquism
I spent a great deal of time this fall thinking about cover songs, as part of Slate’s “New American Songbook” project. I was grateful to have the company in that effort of Ventriloquism, a collection of covers of 1980s and 1990s R&B. Ndegeocello, a restless creative force since that era herself, here assumes the mantle of a guardian of a still-underconsidered legacy. Her selections range from Sade and Tina Turner (singing either takes tremendous nerve) to Janet Jackson, George Clinton, and the collected works of Jam and Lewis. Ruminative takes on Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows in April” and TLC’s “Waterfalls” are the first to leap out, but the whole is greater than the parts.
Hear also: The jazz singer of the decade, Cécile McLorin Salvant, beams her light into the corners of the trad Great American Songbook (and also on Stevie Wonder) on The Window, and Angélique Kidjo reclaims the Africanness of the Talking Heads’ 1980 classic with her full-album cover, Remain in Light.
Sandro Perri, In Another Life
Perri is a soft-spoken composer-performer from Toronto who has made electronic music as Polmo Polpo and Off World. His previous two song-oriented albums under his own name offered psych-folk-pop tesseracts about mirrors, and wolfmen, and suicides. With his first record in that mode in seven years, Perri presents just two songs, both very pretty, both very long. The 24-minute title track is made up of endless variations on a four-line verse pattern. The other, “Everybody’s Paris,” is divided into three approximately six-minute circular discourses on what “everybody’s” doing or having, with lyrics respectively by Perri and guest singers André Ethier (once of the Deadly Snakes—not the baseball player) and Dan Bejar (of Destroyer and once of the New Pornographers). The repetition is at first hypnotic, then wearing, then hilarious, and then hypnotic again, almost like the cycles of a spiritual discipline—and an oblique experience of what a “song” can be.
Hear also: Perri’s similarly gentle-but-perverse Toronto peer, Eric Chenaux (now transplanted to France), on Slowly Paradise, and another great Canadian eccentric (and Bejar associate), British Columbia’s Carey Mercer, along with his band Frog Eyes, on their exuberant but sadly final album, Violet Psalms.
The century’s divine Swedish keeper of the electronic pop flame returned from her long hiatus with tunes, feelings, independence, humor, and superhumanity intact, but with a lusher philosophical sensuousness that at times recollects Kate Bush. Like everyone else, I’m simply grateful.
Sons of Kemet, Your Queen Is a Reptile
The rude health of jazz in Britain is nowhere more evident than on this third album by horns-and-drums ensemble Sons of Kemet, whose sound recalls Sun Ra’s Arkestra as well as Phil Cohran’s Artistic Heritage Ensemble, but with a more diasporic Caribbean rhythmic bent and structures electronic club-music devotees would grasp. Here they flip the bird to racist Buckingham Palace and assemble an Afrocentric royal family of their own, the titles anointing “queens” such as Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis, and Albertina Sisulu, among others, with the music embodying those heroes’ self-determining power.
Hear also: U.S. group Harriet Tubman, which shares the name of one of Kemet’s queens, is led by bassist Melvin Gibbs and joined by trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith to summon the spirits of the ’80s–’90s New York downtown scene, the Black Rock Coalition, and Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians on The Terror End of Beauty and Thelonious Sphere Monk, by Mast, on which multi-instrumentalist Tim Conley helms a hardy cast of guests dismantling and reassembling Monk tunes, after too many reverent tributes during last year’s centenary.
Superchunk, What a Time to Be Alive
The nearly 30-year-running flagship band of North Carolina indie label Merge has never been a font of topical commentary. They’re where you go for puckish wit and piquant observations about everyday emotions that you can jump up and down to. But in these days of emergency, even Superchunk is ready to “Break the Glass.” Channeling some old hardcore-era orneriness on songs like “Reagan Youth,” this album mirrors back what so many are feeling, with wit and piquancy, and urges you to jump up and down, partly for catharsis, but also with a placard in your fist.
Hear also: Longtime improv guitarist and activist Marc Ribot gathers guests like Tom Waits, Steve Earle, and Meshell Ndegeocello to play Songs of Resistance 1942–2018, and for comparably careening energy, Parquet Courts’ Wide Awake!
Tracey Thorn, Record
The fifth solo album by Thorn—the onetime lead singer of Everything but the Girl, collaborator with Massive Attack, and post-punk teen of the Marine Girls—is kind of a musical companion to her wonderful 2013 memoir Bedsit Disco Queen. It looks back at her phases from middle-age through a feminist lens—“I think like a girl, and I fight like a girl,” she sings on “Sister,” while exclaiming, “What year is it? The same old shit?” But as always with Thorn, both her words and her unmistakable voice convey a wry knowingness about it all, over synths at once new-wave-y and contemporary. And when she concludes in the final track, “Oh but where I like to be/ Is on a dance floor with my friends all beside me/ Someone’s singing and I realize it’s me, I realize it’s me,” my heart bursts.
Tropical Fuck Storm, A Laughing Death in Meatspace
While most rock bands currently worth a damn in North America have a woman up front and men backing her up if there are any men at all, Melbourne, Australia’s Tropical Fuck Storm—besides having the band name of the century—reverses that dynamic. Singer-guitarist Gareth Liddiard perches on the lip of the storm, declaiming like a pirate while the voices and instruments of three women cyclone around him. I’m never quite clear on what songs like “Antimatter Animals” and “The Future of History” are about, except that the center cannot hold, etc. Still, sounding rather like the Mekons under assault by both Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band and a sentient PlayStation, Tropical Fuck Storm radiates a vitality I would follow anywhere, very much at my own risk.
Hear also: Elsewhere in rock from abroad, Netherlands anarcho-punk-jazz-improv-ethnomusicologists the Ex, one of the greatest bands in the world at pretty much any given point in the past three decades (for a decade before that they were just OK), on one of their better recent albums, 27 Passports.
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