Ask a crowd of 500 people what their favourite album of 2018 was and you’ll get 500 different answers, because there was just that much good music which came out this year. From the return of pop-favourite Robyn, to the introspective rap of Noname, to the idiosyncratic beats from SOPHIE, we take a look at the top 10 albums of the year according to our writers, and a few more we just couldn’t leave out.
The Top 10
#10: Be The Cowboy – Mitski
Japanese-American indie star Mitski’s new album sees her switching from the fuzzy, distorted vibe and heavy guitars she used to great effect on Puberty 2, to a more tightly wound and restlessly theatrical style. Be The Cowboy is an album of anxious and introspective off-kilter pop songs buzzing with a nervy energy, in which Mitski is at her most performative while simultaneously shining a spotlight on all her all vulnerability. Her melodies are complexly constructed, complementing the psychoanalytical approach she takes to her song writing, all the while still being relentlessly catchy. Be The Cowboy perfectly encapsulates the paradox of trying to uphold the façade of having everything together while feeling the constant compulsion to pull yourself apart.
#9: Songs of Praise – Shame
Praise the Gods above for Shame. Just when alternative rock became an infinite reincarnation of the discography of Artic Monkeys past and present, these five unsuspecting boys from London come up shouting through the ashes.
The opener ‘Dust on the Trail’ borrows from Muse but then mixes it with dark shaggy vocals of a life-long chain smoker, moves on an indie laced sound before returning to the bands solace- a pit of crafted noise. Walking the lyrical line of self-deprecation and admiration for another, Songs of Praise is far from another alt-rock record aiming to get women into their bed. There’s a fragile-ness that is rarely seen. A heart hidden beneath the shouts.
#8: OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES – SOPHIE
SOPHIE’s first LP opens with ‘It’s Okay To Cry’, which at first seems like the song least representative of the album to follow. It’s a pop song in both structure and production, with glimmering keys underlying her vulnerable, near-whispered vocals as she sings surprisingly heartfelt lyrics. Yet, the more I listen to OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, the more I realise the song acts as an introduction to the album, a preface to what follows. Throughout the LP, SOPHIE takes the most obnoxious and abrasive parts of pop and electronic music and repurposes them into something new that’s deeply, shockingly honest. This is, at its core, what OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES does best. The compressed drums and melodramatic strings in ‘It’s Okay To Cry’ pull from the cliches of pop, like ‘Ponyboy’ and ‘Immaterial’ do with the industrial percussion and crunchy bass you’d find in some electronic cuts, to unearth the deeply-embedded but genuine emotion normally written off as cliche.
#7: iridescence – BROCKHAMPTON
A reflection upon the past year for the “best boyband since One Direction”, iridescence could easily be regarded as the revival of BROCKHAMPTON as they move past the controversy which haunted them earlier in the year regarding previous member of the band, Ameer Vann. It is strikingly obvious, however, that the exuberant band have used this to fuel their own growth – iridescence is an innovative, vivacious album, flitting from the laid-back, wistful ‘SOMETHING ABOUT HIM’ to the more scintillating and dynamic moments on the album, such as ‘BERLIN’ and ‘VIVID’. Diving significantly deeper into confronting the issues the band and society had faced, iridescence is unguarded and raw, which most notably manifests in ‘WEIGHT’, arguably the most heart-rending song on the album. Ultimately, iridescence is perhaps the most important album BROCKHAMPTON have released thus far in their career – ambitious and representative of their strength, it illustrates how utterly brimming with potential the band are even through adversity.
#6: Lost & Found – Jorja Smith
Jorja Smith’s debut album has been one of 2018’s resounding points of agreement for music fans worldwide. Unifying in more than its stunning brilliance, skill and soulfulness, Smith manages to bring together a sound for everyone. Weaving jazz, blues and R&B within what could be ignorantly dismissed as chart-friendly pop, Smith’s artistry offers an intelligently stylised emotional outpouring within just eleven tracks. Shrewdly-written lyrics, aligning themselves to neither the political or the petty, performed by a vocalist who casually demonstrates both a soft easiness and intense power are what make this album deservedly a crowd and critic favourite.
#5: Joy as an Act of Resistance – IDLES
Joy as an Act of Resistance (JAR) is, without a doubt, one of the best albums of the year. This would continue to be true if better sounding albums had been released, because it’s a function of its power and impact as much as anything else. That’s not to say it isn’t great music, it undeniably is. But it’s instrumental power and wickedly intelligent lyricism have been superseded by how it has influenced its listeners.
JAR facilitated a series of pub conversations in Britain, many of which broached topics that hadn’t previously seen the light of day. By analysing grief and masculinity alongside raising class consciousness (‘I’m council housed and violent / I’m laughing at the tyrants’) and penning a bold, unflinching defence of immigration, IDLES have done that which most bands can only dream of. They’ve seismically shifted the entirety of British culture. We can’t wait to see what comes next.
#4: A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships – The 1975
If you hate Matty Healy, then you hate The 1975. His worldview and general life philosophy seeps into every corner of his band’s music, with tracks like ‘Give Yourself A Try’ and ‘Love It If We Made It’ dripping in his particular brand of millennial world-weariness. If you love it, though, (or if you can tolerate it, even) then you’d be treated to some of the best pop-rock music we’ve heard in a while.
Really, it’s difficult to even properly classify the album as ‘pop-rock’ given the band have pulled from so many different sources of inspiration; the opening track ‘The 1975’ wears its Bon Iver and Kanye West influences on its sleeves, while ‘TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME’ sounds like a straight Drake Cut a-la ‘Hotline Bling’. None of it comes off as insincere, though. If anything, it adds to the cohesion of this beautifully messy album. The band reach for an album which embodies the late-2010s zeitgeist, and though they sometimes overstep, ABIIOR is overall a brilliant, sometimes overly-ambitious success.
#3: Geography – Tom Misch
If gaining international renown with a truly unique sound from a debut album, recorded in his bedroom, and doing so on his own record label doesn’t make Tom Misch’s Geography deserving of being one of this year’s best albums, then I don’t know what does. As a truly outward- and forward-looking musician, Tom Misch’s distinct and matchless sound is a complex network of jazzy, synthy, funky, dancy borrowing from an earlier time, all underlined by strong beats. Geography is a scrapbook of soundbites, boldly led by Misch’s wizard-like guitar skills and facilitated by new voices. From the clever pastiche of ‘Movie’ and its opening, reworded and reworked by his sister, Polly, to mimic mid-century film tropes like Brief Encounter, to his endless collaborations with wide-ranging artists like De La Soul, Carmody, Poppy Ajudha and Loyle Carner, it’s clear that Geography is part of something bigger than just Misch.
#2: Chris – Christine and the Queens
It is amazing what a haircut can do – a simple act that enables so much empowerment. In Christine’s case, it has taken her highly-acclaimed art pop to the extreme, as with a new persona comes a new sound. Chris has a wild flare and erupting sense of masculine power, all tinged with the force of a feminine voice.
As an erotic scream ripples into the opening tracks ‘Comme Si’ and ‘Girlfriend’, Chris is introduced with euphoric grooves, announcing himself with devilish delight. This is taken much further on ‘Damn (what must a woman do)’, which throbs emphatically with gorgeous sex appeal. Yet the album also contains a considerable amount of sadness, evident on ‘Doesn’t Matter’ and ‘5 Dollars’, even though these tracks crescendo into the most uplifting and beautiful catharsis. Filtering through ‘What’s-her-face’ and ‘Feel so good’, it becomes apparent that this is not simply Christine’s sexiest, yet also saddest, work, it is surely her best to date.
#1: Dirty Computer – Janelle Monae
In a year defined by its politics and the rise of alt-right in countries around the world, Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer stands out as a beacon of positive politics in a sea of toxic sludge. Accompanied by a 48-minute sci-fi “emotion picture” starring the musician herself and actress Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok, Westworld), Dirty Computer is cinematic in every way, managing to feel massive in scope without losing its sense of fun.
Part of that is due to Monae’s ability to fully embody her politics. Even though each song is planted firmly in political roots, be it the queer femininity of ‘PYNK (feat. Grimes)’ or the radical hedonism of ‘Screwed (feat. Zoe Kravitz), it never feels like Monae is preaching at you from a soapbox. Dirty Computer’s political moments are deeply personal, and its most personal moments are deeply political. Much like our lives today, it’s hard to disentangle one from another.
The Best of The Rest
While the top 10 are undeniably amazing, there were a few albums we couldn’t leave out of this year’s list. Below are some of the releases which made our year just that much better.
Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino – Arctic Monkeys
Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino is Alex Turner’s most fully-realised vision to date and is the latest installment in Arctic Monkeys’ trademark streak of reinvention. Released without the support of promotional singles, the album stands as a delightful rebuttal of the stadium rock-sized expectations established by 2013’s AM that only offers more with each listen. Never before have the band sounded both so comfortably loose and technically dexterous in their playing, resulting in some of their finest and most accomplished work to date on opening track ‘Star Treatment’. Where creative stagnation has caused many of the noughties indie titans to fall by the wayside, Arctic Monkeys prove on this latest release that they are as relevant and influential as ever.
Silver Dollar Moment – The Orielles
Somewhere hidden in the depths of the mountain of music which has been released into the muso-sphere this year has been a retro revival of sorts. Whilst Trudy and the Romance brought 1950s finger-bleeding guitar bops, The Orielles have crossed decade boundaries with the cleanest swish of bright shoegaze.
Formed just down the road in Halifax from two sisters and their friend they met at the house party, and produced by the melancholic indie sweetheart Bill Ryder Jones, The Orielles have created the priceless album of Silver Dollar Moment. Unlike anything in the charts today, the mundane becomes a defining cultural act.
There’s something timeless about this album; both in the sound sweeter than any ‘Mango’, and in the earworms which will bury deep within your soul. I challenge you to listen through once. I guarantee you’ll be hooked.
El Mal Querer – Rosalía
25 year-old singer Rosalía has been making waves for a while with her dynamic approach to reinventing Spanish folk music and flamenco; seamlessly combining slick modern production with traditional instrumentation. El Mal Querer (translated to English as “Bad Loving”) tells the story of a deteriorating relationship, taking inspiration from the anonymous 13th-century Occitan novel Flamenca. Her songs are wrought with sensuality and melodrama, alchemically combining traditional flamenco with glossy alternative RnB aesthetics, even managing to masterfully incorporate a sample of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me a River’, utterly transforming it on ‘Bagdad’. Rosalía’s expert control over her boundless voice allows her to gracefully glide through melismas, skilfully dipping into resonant vibrato; channelling such potent emotion into her delivery that even non-Spanish speakers are sure to be swept away by her vocals. El Mal Querer is an astounding achievement that showcases Rosalía as one of music’s most refreshing and exciting artists.
Room 25 – Noname
Chicago native Fatimah Nyeemah Warner’s second long-player is one of the best releases of any year. Whereas 2016’s Telephone paired Noname’s rhymes with ‘Baby Elephant Walk’ organ stabs and what felt like loops culled from kids cartoon Rugrats, Room 25 is more elegantly decorated. The Lush string sections and marimba samples swirling around tracks such as ‘Window’ and ‘Don’t Forget About Me’ recall the transcendental jazz spirituals of Alice Coltrane. Warner’s hushed eloquent delivery owes a lot to her spoken word and poetry roots and is shot through with Baduisms.
Like her unintrusive nom de plume, Noname’s sound is one of understatement. Yet within her poetry confrontations of societal and personal bugbears are rife. The Blaxploitation movie-sampling ‘Blaxploitation’ takes in racial stereotyping and Hillary Clinton’s cynical attempts to appeal to African- American voters during the last election campaign. ‘Regal’ considers the sensationalism of twitter outrages and the hypocrisy it displays and ‘Self’ addresses sexism in hip hop. A quiet revolution.
Honey – Robyn
After a long 8 year wait Robyn finally presented us with Honey, a polished 9-track album that features some of her most emotionally engaging and musically exciting work so far. While Honey sees Robyn collaborating with Joseph Mount of Metronomy, Klas Åhlund, Adam Bainbridge – among others – it also features a significant amount of her own production, and while departing from the style of work she created on Body Talk at no point on the album does Robyn’s sense of totally self-defined identity ever become obscured. Track after track builds on creating a state of pure ecstasy, never feeling shallow or inauthentic, but rather established on conviction and earned emotional resolution. Honey demonstrates that when done right, electro-pop and dance music can be as compelling as any other genre when it comes to capturing the essence of emotions’ depths and heights.
Us – Empress Of
Under the persona of Empress Of, Latin-American singer, Lorely Rodriguez, dazzled 2018 with her sophomore album, Us. Her delicate mix of dreampop and R&B brings both a sense of comfort in the warm tones of her synthesized textures and an irresistible urge to jive into a moment of transcendence. All of this is set alongside her exposed bilingual voice, which sings unapologetically of love and hardship.
Opening the album with ‘Everything To Me’ instantly places the listener in the headspace of a late-night drive along the brightly lit streets of Los Angeles, a mood which is carried over onto ‘Trust Me Baby’. But this melancholic ambience soon makes way for the enticing beats and prodding chords of ‘Love For Me’ and ‘I Don’t Even Smoke Weed’, opening up to the pure expression of fully-embodied gesticulation. The final two tracks of the album, however, possess some of the most beautiful and emotive instances within current pop music; the flawless falsettos of ‘When I’m With Him’ revealing Rodriguez’s most honest confessions of detachment, whilst the graceful vocals which lull on ‘Again’, floating above the most heavenly textures, contain some of the most poetic expressions of infatuation to grace us.
Rare Americans – Rare Americans
With their self-titled debut album, Rare Americans stand out as one of the most promising acts in alternative rock. The Canadian band, with the help of White Stripes producer Joe Chiccarelli, bring to the table a fresh mix of sounds: punk, indie, folk and rock come together to serve a fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable album that leaves you craving more while playing it on repeat.
‘Cats, Dogs & Rats’, the album’s first single, set very high standards, which are maintained throughout the record. Rare Americans not only comes across as a powerful real indie album in a world of millionaire labels, but is also a reflection of the band’s thoughts of the post-modern world and lifestyle. Their music videos are also worth mentioning, as they follow the same non-conformist trend as the songs. Definitely a highlight of the year.
No Shame – Lily Allen
Despite being an icon between 2006 and 2009, I must admit Lily Allen fell off my radar. However, in her newest release, Allen is as sassy as ever. The album is reminiscent of her earlier electropop vibe, with reggae and dancehall influences, but disguised in the upbeat bass lines and catchy melodies, her new sound has a distinctively darker tone. No Shame is brutally honest, focusing mainly on the break-down of her marriage, maternal guilt, toxic friendships and substance abuse. In typical Lily Allen style, she throws plenty of shade, but interestingly she also candidly challenges her own weaknesses.
An underrated album, I’ve been advertising this new album to all my friends. It’s fresh, but without straying too far from the Lily Allen we know and love. With enough blunt one-liners and animated beats, No Shame offers the exact amount of sass and boldness needed in 2018.
All Melody – Nils Frahm
Ever more into the digital age we go, the more our attention is pulled back and forth by short bouts of sound. But not with Nils Frahm. His latest album, All Melody, is a true testament in letting sounds evolve gradually, giving them the space they so deserve. The welcoming tones of Shards voices softly blend into the album’ second track, ‘Sunson’, on which Frahm treats the electronics and organ pipes with incredible craft, allowing the immersive soundscape to paint itself.
Progressing through the fragile creaks of the piano on ‘My Friend the Forest’, as well as the gripping trumpet howls and rising voices of ‘Human Range’, the music finds particularly special points on which to linger for precisely the right amount of time. The album’s title track, however, is clearly the highpoint of the record, as the arpeggiated synthesizers carry enormous weight that can only be propelled further by Frahm’s driving keyboard melodies which fiddle above. The result of such careful consideration throughout the entire work is an all-encompassing absorption that grips the listener for all of its 74 minutes.
The Mire – Conjurer
Conjurer is an exciting new Rugby-based extreme metal act who seem to take influence from every sub-genre under the sun, with their most obvious point of reference being Dragged into Sunlight’s magnum opus, Hatred For Mankind (2009). But Conjurer take their foundations and grow forests on top of them.
It’s hard to comprehend that this is a debut album, even taking into account their earlier EP. The melodies are complex, and there are literally dozens of them per track. Indeed, the ideas never stop flowing, and while not every idea is particularly fresh or innovative, all of them are winners.
The sheer emotional gamut of this record is an astounding anomaly in modern extreme metal. When one pays close attention to what’s really being played, moment to moment, you won’t find a single record like this one in existence.
This album is recommended for everyone, of course, but it may hold special importance to fans of non-metal, who are still unaware of the musical clichés which Conjurer plays around with, and may therefore have their entire palette altered on even the first listen of this masterpiece.
A true five-star album, a score which I have never given before.