Including the top 10 albums of the year, best music video, biggest pleasant surprise, best pop album, best EP, most disappointing albums, and more.
The last time I doled out awards in lieu of a strict “best albums” list was 2014. 2018 reminded me of 2014 in a way — both years didn’t have a clear hierarchy of albums. I feel strongly about my top 10, which we’ll get to first, but I couldn’t have extended the list beyond that with any conclusivity. So instead, we’ll flesh this out with some superlatives — most overrated, most underrated, biggest surprise, biggest disappointments, best music video, and more.
The 10 Best Albums of 2018
Freedom is an ideal companion for your next dewy morning. It’s tranquil, yet propulsive — indebted to the mellower, dreamy side of classic rock, but with ebbs and flows that keep you interested.
9. Iceage: Beyondless
Award: Hardest Rocking / Best Post-Punk Reading of the Rolling Stones and the Stooges
This Danish punk quartet, led by frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, excel in hard-charging rock (with the occasional brass or string instrument to add some seasoning). But it’s actually the slower songs that are most impressive, like “Under the sun” and “Catch it,” where Rønnenfelt’s unrivaled charisma really seeps through every crevice.
Kendrick Lamar is a genius. After making three classic albums, he tried his hand at curating and executive producing the soundtrack to the year’s biggest hit movie, and hit it out of the park. Kendrick pulled in artists like The Weeknd, SZA, Schoolboy Q, Vince Staples, Travis Scott, and Khalid to contribute, and somehow with so many disparate artists, the whole album sounds cohesive and consistent in quality. It’s the best of what hip-hop has to offer, with the world’s greatest current rapper at its helm.
I am not a country fan by any stretch, but the intricate textures and pop sensibility of Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour really reached me. Oh yeah, and the year’s best song was on this album. It’s called “Slow Burn” and you need to hear it.
Parquet Courts have mostly been a fairly esoteric art-punk band. Not high-minded or pretentious at all, I don’t mean that — but certainly idiosyncratic. On Wide Awake! though, they tapped Danger Mouse for production duties and made the most accessible, danceable, funky, straight-up fun album in their catalog.
5. Pusha T: DAYTONA
Awards: Best Rap Album and Most Coldly Efficient
Kanye West had a rocky year, but his best contribution was the production work on Pusha T’s 21-minute, get-in-and-get-out DAYTONA. The beats are hard, cold, calculated, perfect for Pusha T’s blunt style. Pusha luxuriates in his comfort zone, spitting street wisdom with supreme confidence.
Kali Uchis injected a breath of fresh air into the pop world this year. She packs Isolation with multiple different genres: R&B, funk, Latin, old-school pop, new-school pop, indie. It feels like a sticky summer night in southern California or Florida, steeped in history, and yet fully modern in its amalgamation of styles.
Low, the slowcore veterans from Minnesota, are making the best music of their career after 25 years, which is no small feat. Double Negative is a trippy, disjointed, thicket of sound, with waves of paranoia interspliced with moments of pure, austere beauty.
Sophie Allison of Soccer Mommy channels the best of ’90s grunge/pop/rock to generate an album with a perfect blend of intimacy and edge. It goes hard (“Cool,” “Your Dog”), soft (“Still Clean,” “Flaw”), and sometimes both (the slow-building treasure, “Scorpio Rising”), all with clear melodies and straightforward lyrics of longing.
1. Lucy Dacus: Historian
Award: Most Poignant Album
Lucy Dacus created a masterpiece, a touching album with breathtaking depth and craft. It’s full of warmly satisfying, lyrically adept, intelligently crafted rock. Almost all of its songs moved me at one point or another, especially “Pillar of Truth,” Dacus’s ode to her aging grandmother and the legacy she’ll leave behind. But another song that affected me deeply was “Yours & Mine.” There was a period of time this year when it was a little difficult to listen to it. My wife and I moved to a great new place, not too far away, but thereby left behind our old home base, not only full of memories, but also a stone’s throw from friends we like very much. On “Yours & Mine,” when Dacus sings “We’ve got a long way to go before we get home, ’cause this ain’t my home anymore,” I felt that. But outside of my personal identification, the track is meant to be one of proud defiance in the face of racism and police brutality. Dacus finds the strength to push onward, even if it may be painful, accepting that the status quo is no longer acceptable. It simmers with self-assurance. Lucy Dacus has a way of boiling down common feelings into relatable, straightforward, and yet still poetic lyrics. Her talent is uncontainable.
Best Music Video
Childish Gambino: “This is America”
Most Heartwarming Musical Moment
Paul McCartney’s appearance on Carpool Karaoke
Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, & Lucy Dacus: boygenius
Three of indie rock’s greatest young talents combined their powers to create this strikingly beautiful six-song EP. Every single songxf is a well-written, harmony-infused gem.
Best Album that Just Barely Missed the Top 10
Snail Mail: Lush
I’ve said this a million times by now, but Lindsey Jordan, the brains behind Snail Mail, is only 19! It’s absolutely insane that she can make rock this mature and nuanced already. There will be a lot more to come from her.
Legend We Lost
Best Pop Album
Ariana Grande: Sweetener
Ariana Grande has elevated herself to the top of the pop mountain. Sweetener boasted some huge hits, including “no tears left to cry,” “breathin,” and “God is a woman,” but one of my underrated favorites is the Pharrell-featuring “blazed.”
Biggest Pleasant Surprise
Travis Scott: Astroworld
As I said when I put “Sicko Mode” in my top 20 songs of the year, the jury was out on Travis Scott for a while, but I’ve officially declared him “good.” Astroworld is a psychedelic hip-hop dreamland, where thrilling sonics enter and exit quickly, and friends like Frank Ocean, Drake, Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, The Weeknd, John Mayer, Thundercat, and Quavo hang out and trip together.
Most Fun Music Video
A$AP Rocky & Tyler, the Creator: “Potato Salad”
Top 4 Most Disappointing Albums
1. Kanye West: ye
What else is there to say about Kanye? Dude went absolutely off the rails in 2018. His MAGA-inspired mania and his inability to listen to his friends’ wisdom (thanks for trying, T.I. and John Legend) led to what I thought was unthinkable: causing a sizable chunk of his fanbase to lose interest. Everything Kanye did used to excite me, because he was an exciting artist, brimming with ideas, pushing rap forward into uncharted territory, making bangers that I never stopped wanting to hear. Now, every Trump-supporting nonsense tweet, and every ridiculous proclamation (like how slavery was a choice) makes listening to his once-unassailable classics feel less and less satisfying. He’s always been outlandish, but now he’s reached a new level. It’s gross, and it makes me sad.
He still has talent. His production on Pusha T’s DAYTONA is evidence of that, as well as his Kids See Ghosts collaboration with Kid Cudi. But his solo album, ye, left a lot to be desired. “Ghost Town” is great, with an instantly catchy refrain, but Kanye’s not really a huge presence on that song, largely ceding the floor to PartyNextDoor, Cudi, and newcomer 070 Shake. “Yikes” almost reaches banger territory, but it would only be like the 10th best song on The Life of Pablo, which was uneven but still boasted some truly transcendent songs. This album doesn’t ever achieve the transcendence to which we’ve become accustomed. I miss the old Kanye.
2. Jack White: Boarding House Reach
Does Jack White actually think this is good? It’s a shame, because from 1998 to 2012, you could trust that whatever White had up his sleeve would have some sort of quality control. This is just over-produced drivel. This is especially shocking, considering the best thing about Jack White Stripes output was the his commitment to rawness, which led to glorious results. I like that he can still shred, as evidenced by “Respect Commander,” but Boarding House Reach is not only smoothed-out, gussied-up studio nonsense, but it has virtually no hooks and no form.
3. Justin Timberlake: Man of the Woods
Come on, JT. I don’t know how you thought this album was a good idea. And over an hour long? Let me go no further before saying that I am a certified Timberlake fan. Future Sex / Love Sounds is groundbreaking, and The 20/20 Experience, Part 1 was actually my favorite album of all of 2013, barely beating out the likes of Vampire Weekend, Daft Punk, and Disclosure. But his attempt at some kind of earthy “roots pop” on Man of the Woods rings hollow. There’s literally a song called “Flannel.” Like, what? It’s not all bad, though. “Filthy” is objectively mediocre, but its jittery weirdness did grow on me. “Higher Higher” has a nice groove, “Breeze Off the Pond” has a good Pharrell-produced beat, and “Say Something,” his duet with country star Chris Stapleton, is okay in a cheesy way. But on the whole, this album is a big “no” from me.
4. Death Cab for Cutie: Thank You For Today
Death Cab has been on a steady decline since their heyday in the previous decade. I’m actually one of the few who still really liked Kintsugi, Death Cab’s last album in 2015, even though I didn’t think it reached the heights of their work from 10-15 years ago. However, I was not a fan of Thank You For Today. Exhibit A is “Gold Rush”, which somehow got a fair amount of alternative radio play, even though it’s bland and uninspiring as can be. I will never understand why “I Dreamt We Spoke Again” wasn’t the song they really pushed, because that’s the only song with any sort of spark on the whole album.
Best Underground Rap Album
Noname: Room 25
Noname is one of rap’s premier lyricists now, never lacking in wit. The most hilarious moment on Room 25 is probably in “Self” when she says a particular body part of hers that both teaches ninth-grade English and has written a thesis on colonialism.
Most Underrated Rap Album
Saba: CARE FOR ME
Saba is part of the same Chicago scene that’s given us Chance the Rapper, Noname, Joey Purp, etc. On CARE FOR ME, the beats are warm and the lyrics are thoughtful. There are big things happening in Chi-Town, so we better pay attention.
Most Underrated Rock Album
Flasher: Constant Image
This DC trio reminds me so much of the alternative pop-punk I loved hearing on the radio growing up.
Most Overrated Album
Mitski: Be the Cowboy
I respect the hell out of Mitski, and I did thoroughly enjoy her single “Nobody” (with a great video). But the album as a whole felt flat to me — I couldn’t quite grab onto the melodies, which I thought were monotonous. I like her very much though, and look forward to what she does next.
Best Experimental Album
Against All Logic: 2012 – 2017
Nicolas Jaar has made weird, heady, largely instrumental music for about a decade, most of which has gone over my head. But under the moniker Against All Logic, he’s created an album full of catchy hooks and fun moments. It’s still pretty weird, but just accessible enough to throw on at a party and have it fit in nicely.
Music Video with the Best Culture-Critiquing Twist-Ending
Vince Staples: “FUN!”
Lifetime Achievement Award in Constantly Cranking Out Solid Albums
Garage-rocker Ty Segall does not stop. He released three albums this year, the best of which was the sprawling Freedom’s Goblin, featuring the rip-roaring Hot Chocolate cover “Every 1’s a Winner,” Jethro Tull-esque rock ballad “My Lady’s On Fire,” and the 12-minute Crazy Horse-style droning rocker of a closer “And, Goodnight.”
Best Comeback Album
MGMT: Little Dark Age
MGMT decided to make fun, catchy music again. After two albums of dense psychedelia meant to elude the partying masses that adored their unexpected hit singles from 2008, they’ve returned to more approachable pastures.
Best Discovery of Non-2018 Music in 2018
The Buzzcocks: “Why Can’t I Touch It?”
Song I Listened to Most in 2018
Soccer Mommy: “Your Dog”
Album I Listened to Most in 2018 (Based on No. of Song Plays)
This is kind of bogus, to be honest. This is not an award for “album I listened to most all the way through,” since I don’t really have an accurate way to track that. So in this case, “Nice for What” and “In My Feelings” account for almost 50% of all my Scorpion song plays. I loved a few songs on this album (“Nonstop” and the Michael Jackson-featuring “Don’t Matter to Me,” in addition to the two I already mentioned), but overall it was pretty bloated, with tons of filler and not enough consistency.
Artist I Listened to Most in 2018
What did you expect? Sometimes I’m predictable (okay, most of the time). The biggest contributing factor to the Beatles taking the top spot was the release of a remixed, deluxe version of the White Album, complete with a much-improved remastered sound, the first official release of the “Esher Demos” (nascent, acoustic versions of the album’s songs recorded at George Harrison’s house), as well as a plethora of other studio takes. It’s awesome.
Best Live Show I Saw
LCD Soundsystem | April 27, 2018 | Greek Theatre, Berkeley, CA
Other 2018 Albums I Really Dug (in Alphabetical Order)
A$AP Rocky: TESTING
Beach House: 7
Courtney Barnett: Tell Me How You Really Feel
Dirty Projectors: Lamp Lit Prose
Father John Misty: God’s Favorite Customer
Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer
Kids See Ghosts: Kids See Ghosts
Laura Veirs: The Lookout
Mick Jenkins: Pieces of a Man
No Age: Snares Like a Haircut
Preoccupations: New Material
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: Hope Downs
Tomberlin: At Weddings
U.S. Girls: In a Poem Unlimited
Vince Staples: FM!
The Voidz: Virtue
Albums I Enjoyed But Didn’t Listen To As Much As I Should Have
Kamasi Washington: Heaven and Earth
Jim James: Uniform Distortion
Blood Orange: Negro Swan
Most Anticipated 2019 Albums
1. Vampire Weekend
2. Tame Impala
5. The Raconteurs