Music

The 70 Best Albums of 2018

From forward-looking electronic and experimental to new approaches in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and punk to rock and pop, 2018 bestowed an embarrassment of musical riches upon us.

60. David Byrne - American Utopia (Todo Mundo/Nonesuch)

The utopia David Byrne envisions on his first solo outing since 2004's Grown Backwards isn't "an imaginary or possibly impossible place", as he writes in the album notes. Instead, it's his depiction of "the world we live in now". If so, "American Dystopia" might've been more apt, given most of the lyrics. But although the verses express familiar Byrne themes —anxiety and unease, a feeling of dislocation, and this time an alienation that isn't only individual but socioeconomic ("And the truth don't mean nothing / If you ain't got the cash"), the choruses often are upbeat ("Everyday Is a Miracle", "Everybody's Coming to My House").

American Utopia is, like the albums Byrne made with Fatboy Slim, St. Vincent, and Brian Eno, a collaborative work. Byrne co-wrote most of the songs with Eno, who created the original tracks; he enlisted Rodaidh McDonald and Patrick Dillett as co-producers, with several other-of-the-moment contributors like Jam City, Doveman, and Sampha. The concise album—10 songs totaling 37 minutes — sounds assembled, rather than performed. Guitars, piano, bass, and percussion are in the mix, but they're mostly textures in electronica collages. That's not a knock; the arrangements are ingenious, the sonics rich, and Byrne's vocals are some of his best in years. And when Byrne and his band perform the songs in concert, they rock. - George De Stefano

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: "Everybody's Coming to My House"

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59. Natalie Prass - The Future and the Past (ATO)

Natalie Prass' self-titled 2015 debut contained more promise than most artists' first records. On tracks like "Bird of Prey" Prass convincingly occupied a double personality, one an old soul and the other a savvy contemporary songwriter. How fitting, then, that Prass' outstanding sophomore LP sports the title The Future and the Past, as she once again expertly weaves together retro stylings with a modern and even future-looking sensibility. Hearing tunes like "Never Too Late" and the irrepressibly catchy feminist jam "Sisters", one can't help but wonder how these songs haven't existed as classics for decades, yet at the same time they sound very much of their present day. A jubilant and colorful amalgam of R&B, soul, pop, and even classic rock, The Future and the Past captures an intelligent and charming songwriter coming fully to her own. - Brice Ezell

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: "The Fire" / "Short Court Style"

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58. Old Crow Medicine Show - Volunteer (Columbia Nashville)

Old Crow Medicine Show have been delivering quality early 20th century-style string band music for years now, and Volunteer is yet another high water mark for the group. The 11 tracks here rollick, swing, and sigh, but each one, regardless of mood, is a strong song. "Flicker and Shine" is a blistering country rave-up about life on the road and being a united band. It's joined on this album by the similarly high energy "Shout Mountain Music", "The Good Stuff", a honky-tonk ode to alcohol, and the fiddle-heavy instrumental "Elzick's Farewell". The band's storytelling chops shine through on the bluesy "Child of the Mississippi", the danceable, sing-along love song "Dixie Avenue", and the plaintive "this is our life" sweetness of "Whirlwind". Frontman Ketch Secor even writes a beautiful, sad ode to a return from touring to unsatisfying home life in "Homecoming Party". Volunteer illustrates the extremely effective combination of songwriting and musicianship that's allowed Old Crow Medicine Show to carve out a niche for themselves and keep it going for so long. - Chris Conaton

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube

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57. Parquet Courts - Wide Awake! (Rough Trade)

Six albums into their career, the Brooklyn-based, Texas-bred post-punk revivalists Parquet Courts continue to create amazing work. In an attempt to lift the band out of its' comfort zone, the quartet, this time around, enlisted producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse to man the control panels. Any initial skepticism this collaboration may have raised is immediately put to rest upon an initial listen. The cacophonous swirl of "Total Football", the frenetic duality of "Almost Had to Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience", and the subtle darkness reflected in "NYC Observation" are all glorious trademarks of the band's unique sound. What's new is the funk. It's music that you can tap your foot and bob your head, too, actions that normally aren't associated with the previously recorded output. For eminent proof, visit the title track. It's a knockout dance tune that proved infectious enough to land them a performing spot on Ellen, where the show's host gleefully grooved along to the performance with a smile affixed to her face for the duration. - Jeff Strowe

LISTEN: Spotify | WATCH: "Freebird II" / "Wide Awake"

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56. Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet - Landfall (Nonesuch)

Landfall is an album as much as it is a documentation of devastation and loss. Inspired by Laurie Anderson's experience with Hurricane Sandy, it develops its narrative through haunting acoustic music, ethereal electronics, and the gravity of Anderson's unmistakable voice. The record evokes a beautiful sense of unease and confusion that retains a modern nuance and complexity over its episodic 30 tracks. For their first official collaboration, Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet produced a haunting project that takes a stark examination of loss and devastation. For all it's pathos there's still a sense of detachment to the album, one that allows the listener to appreciate its beauty instead of continuously wallowing in misery. Landfall is a complex record that trades in gloom, comfort, and grace. - Andy Jurik

LISTEN: Spotify | WATCH: "CNN Predicts a Monster Storm" / "We Learn to Speak Yet Another Language"

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55. Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 - Black Times (Strut)

Is there anyone better suited to bring a little protest into our lives than Fela Kuti's youngest son? On Black Times, Seun Kuti declares himself the "Last Revolutionary" and, with Egypt 80 marching behind him, continues his father's musical and political legacy. A brilliant selection of socially relevant Afrobeat, Black Times sees Kuti deliver scathing critiques of injustice and corruption on tracks like "Corporate Public Control Department" ("You promise to give me peace / And you give me war / You promise me justice / And then they jail the poor") and "Struggle Sounds" ("Struggle music / Struggle sounds / Struggle people / Struggle now").

Though his music is very much in the same vein as that of his late father, Seun Kuti rides no one's coattails. He proves himself time and time again to be a capable bandleader for Fela-founded Egypt 80, and his voice and fire is all his own. Afrobeat may have come into being to fight a specific military junta, but Black Times proves that it serves as an equally effective soundtrack for today's struggles. - Adriane Pontecorvo

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify | WATCH: "Black Times"

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54. Lucy Dacus - Historian (Matador)

Historian is an apt title for Lucy Dacus. Her 2018 offering is full of vivid storytelling and honest emotion, taking memories and turning them into dynamic rockers and tender ballads. The very first line of the album is one of the year's most compelling, as Dacus struggles to move on from her past: "The first time I tasted somebody else's spit / I had a coughing fit / I mistakenly called them by your name." The gritty guitars which burst into the back half of songs like "Night Shift" and "Timefighter" are glorious moments. It all adds up to one of the strongest indie rock records of the year and a breakout moment for the young Virginia native. - Chris Thiessen

LISTEN: Spotify | WATCH: "Addictions"

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53. Father John Misty - God's Favorite Customer (Sub Pop/Bella Union)

This time, it's personal. On Father John Misty's last album, the Grammy-winning Pure Comedy, the singer songwriter took the whole world as his subject. On God's Favorite Customer he indulges in a thorough self-examination. The album is less than 40 minutes long, and the musical arrangements are much sparser than his previous recordings. The results are introspective, painful, and funny as he sees himself and others in all our grotesque glory. As the closing track puts it, "We're Only People (And There's Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)". Misty's tails are often bitingly funny at his own expense. He uses his overindulgent experiences as portals into the unconscious mind. On the glorious "Mr. Tillman" (which is his real name), Misty sees himself through the eyes of a hotel clerk who pleasantly catalogs past problems (sleeping on the balcony and getting the mattress rain-soaked) and points out Misty's hallucinations (the people downstairs aren't actors in a movie set, but real clients). As Misty acknowledges on the title track, we might all be in trouble or the source of other people's problems, but a new day is always dawning. There is a reason to hope. - Steve Horowitz

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: "Date Night" / "God's Favorite Customer" / "Mr. Tillman" / "Please Don't Die"

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52. Field Music - Open Here (Memphis Industries)

Peter and David Brewis have been loosening up their neat and tidy compositions at such a gradual pace that their previous album Commontime's foray into funky rhythms came across as a natural next step for Field Music. The album was wiry but not wired, showing the brothers from Sunderland, England to be as smart and agile as ever, all the while making it sound easy. For their next feat, Open Here, the musically dynamic duo drag art rock instrumentation – strings, brass, flutes and more -- out onto the dance floor with them. The results are just as lithe and purely enjoyable as Commontime, and that much more impressive for making room for every detail without coming across as overcrowded. Songs like "Count It Up" and "No King No Princess" bring social consciousness and empathy to the fore lyrically as the rug gets cut, while elsewhere songs like the title track and the finale "Find a Way To" confirm that Field Music haven't lost their ornate, orchestral side. - Ian King

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: "Count It Up"

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51. DJ Koze – Knock Knock (Pampa)

Thanks to the critical success of 2013's Amygdala, one of the decade's best electronic albums, DJ Koze is now able to revel in his clout and call up whatever weirdos best suit his vision. Knock Knock is his most guest-heavy album, featuring everyone from Pampa Records weed-carriers to forgotten 1990s MCs to indie rock neurotics, but the star power isn't nearly as impressive as the massive, skyscraping platforms Koze builds for them. Koze knows big, and the sweeping strings and absolutely wounding vocal samples (no producer in house can milk so much emotion out of a snatch of chopped-up diva) means Knock Knock is as much a house "artist album" as a Sgt. Pepper/Pet Sounds-style pining-for-transcendence odyssey. Compared to Amygdala, Knock Knock is a little more professional, a little more "fuck you, I'm DJ Koze", more about his ability to make this music than about anything he really has to say. It's a community structured around an architect's vision, and few producers impose as fearsome a vision on their music as Kosi Kos. - Daniel Bromfield

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: "Pick Up"

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