The A.V. Club’s 20 best albums of 2018

Photo: The Beths (Maison Fairey), Beach House (Shawn Brackbill), Georgia Anne Muldrow ( Rob Seher), Saba (Courtesy of the artist), Neko Case (Courtesy of Anti- Records), Graphic: Libby McGuire

Each new “best albums” list published seems to confirm: We couldn’t agree on much this year. And it’s extremely exciting. The music industry at large continued to decentralize, with our biggest stars and returning veterans sharing airtime with newcomers and indie upstarts. Really the only constant seemed to be in hip-hop—its domination of the charts, its relentless pace of releases, its public beefs. To that end, if you want to explore a wider scope of the year’s music by genre, we recommend checking out our top 10s in metal, punk/hardcore, film soundtracks, country, electronic, hip-hop, pop/R&B, and indie/rock.

As for the top 20 overall below, even if our music critics’ ballots reflect very different means of getting there, our final list shows we were all looking for a similar experience. Overwhelmingly, we turned to artists seeking new horizons, deconstructed or genreless landscapes where we might find more honest connections and creative visions of the future. Here are the best albums of 2018.

20. Let’s Eat Grandma, I’m All Ears

What’s in a name? Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth, the teenage pop alchemists of Let’s Eat Grandma, picked a pretty silly one—it’s a reference to a punctuation gag, which admittedly makes some sense for a duo that may have written some of its first songs together in a classroom. But whatever expectations that jokey moniker creates can’t encompass the breadth of sounds contained on I’m All Ears, the Norwich pair’s rapturous and eclectic sophomore album. “Hot Pink” is the attention-grabbing standout, a brash banger with an infectiously obnoxious chorus, belted over a chunky, belching electronic beat. Elsewhere, though, Walton and Hollingworth stretch their legs and inch out of whatever passes for their comfort zone, trying out a little piano balladry (“Ava”) and sprawling indie rock (“Cool & Collected”). And speaking of stellar but questionably titled synth-pop: Could anything on this year’s Chvrches record compete with the radiant glow of “I Will Be Waiting” and “It’s Not Just Me”? A rose by any other name, etc. [A.A. Dowd]

19. Pusha T, Daytona

Depraved? Sure. But in a year in which everything Kanye touched turned to shit, only your neighborhood Push knew what to do, summoning all his charisma and eloquence for a series of sneering, cackling, preening bad-guy bars. “Infrared” melted Drake without mentioning him. “If You Know You Know” is Pusha’s C-suite anthem, morphing into a Puff-style unit-pusher after a lifetime of hawking lesser wares. Hell, even Ye sounds locked in on “What Would Meek Do?,” that queasy beat goading all involved to summon their inner Makaveli. But the album’s most iconic image may be on “Come Back Baby,” when that sweat-soaked Mighty Hannibal sample drops away and Push stands ready as ever atop a minimalist beat, diving back into each verse with malevolent relish—a rapper’s rapper permanently ready to snatch the crown from your favorite. It may’ve taken him a decade, but Daytona’s the moment Pusha finally made a solo LP that stands alongside his genre-defining work with The Clipse. Now can someone get Malice on the phone? [Clayton Purdom]

18. Daughters, You Won’t Get What You Want

No one expected Daughters to become a critical darling, but You Won’t Get What You Want has somehow made that a reality. The Rhode Island band spent most of its initial run being despised, both by the hardcore scene and the larger music press. Daughters’ music was innately challenging, as they choked out open space and made grindcore refracted through the Amphetamine Reptile catalog. But after a lengthy break, Daughters returned with a new outlook, one that allowed them to place their original ethos in a new context. Daughters still make harsh, snarling music, but rather than packing it all into an 11-minute album, they see what happens when that unease never stops building. You Won’t Get What You Want plays like the best kind of slasher flick, as the listener sees nothing but places to run, but still feels trapped. There’s no escape, no open roads, and nothing but pure, unflinching anger. It’s the complete opposite of what Daughters used to be, and it’s all the better for it. [David Anthony]

17. Daniel Avery, Song For Alpha

When did Daniel Avery find time to sleep in 2018? On top of a grueling tour schedule (including runs with friends and influences Nine Inch Nails and Jon Hopkins), the British DJ and producer unveiled a new EP, collaboration, or track nearly every month this year in addition to releasing the sprawling ambient/house meditation Song For Alpha, his second full-length, in April. Like Hopkins’ Singularity, which features a little further down this list, Alpha exploits the space between headphone and club music, but it has a much darker, underground edge, tethering its Basinski-like synth washes to gut-wrecking 808 rhythms. Avery is a meticulous craftsman, moving through the album’s negative space as thoughtfully and unexpectedly as he does when building and taking apart its rabbit-hole melodies. Especially with offshoot EPs Slow Fade, Projector, and Diminuendo, Song For Alpha feels like a small expanding universe unto itself, ready to go deeper whenever you are. [Kelsey J. Waite]

16. Georgia Anne Muldrow, Overload

It’s tempting to see Overload as Georgia Anne Muldrow chasing her twin flame, the rapper and producer Dudley Perkins, through generations of sound. On her 17th album, there’s nowhere she won’t go in pursuit of love: Dixieland wobble, crate-digger soul, woozy R&B, down-and-dirty funk. She even crosses the border to cheer up the OVO sound on the aptly named “Canadian Hillbilly.” But the overwhelming, excited feeling she declaims in the title track and explores throughout the album isn’t really about her man so much as it is about her. Simply put, this is the sound of a woman who loves herself, who is amazed at her own ability to transform and change and adapt as she pushes into her mid-30s, all without losing her sober view of the world at large. In a phase of life—and history—when most people find themselves destabilized, Muldrow is energized, and it’s thrilling to behold. [Marty Sartini Garner]

15. Sam Wilkes, Wilkes

In one of this year’s most incisive bits of music criticism, Ben Ratliff referred to Ornette Coleman’s notoriously knotty 1961 album Free Jazz as “booty music.” Assuming you’ve never twerked to “Lonely Woman,” the implication is that the avant garde isn’t beyond making you move, sweat, cry, shout, or otherwise feel the same things pop music is so good at making you feel. It’s a lesson bassist Sam Wilkes had already taken to heart. Wilkes—which he assembled with saxophonist Sam Gendel, drummer Louis Cole, and other stalwarts of the L.A. ambient and experimental jazz scene—is a big, warm hug of an album that never shies away from its feelings, even when it’s questing at the highest cosmic levels. Wilkes sets the stage for his collaborators the way the proprietor of a B&B makes a bed; there’s an abundance of soft, pillowy tones here, and Gendel in particular delights in throwing them around the room, cranking out exploratory solos that recall Coleman (naturally) in their sheer exuberance. But this is communal music at its core, and Wilkes’ ensemble generates considerable heat in their holy huddle, sounding something like Pharoah Sanders’ early groups covering You Forgot It In People in the process. [Marty Sartini Garner]

14. The Beths, Future Me Hates Me

On first listen, there’s not exactly a standout track or noteworthy element to distinguish The Beths’ Future Me Hates Me from the countless other acts trying to capture the ineffable magic of fuzzed-out indie guitar rock. But a funny thing happens after hearing the album a second time—and then a third, and a fourth—and the true brilliance of the sharp-edged songwriting and perfectly crafted refrains, codas, and even fills becomes clear. The New Zealand band’s infectiously catchy debut is sing-along indie pop-rock at its finest, with singer Elizabeth Stokes delivering lyrics about everything from heartache to hope with wry understatement, underlaid by Superchunk-style riffing, ’60s garage-pop bounce, and even stately sweetness. The album’s addictive power only gets stronger with age, as what seemed like just another good first album is rapidly looking to have the staying power of a classic. [Alex McLevy]

13. Spiritualized, And Nothing Hurt

It feels like a statement of purpose, but then again, so do almost all of Jason Pierce’s transcendent musical compositions that employ overpowering bombast in service of the purest emotions—love, hope, sadness, and, um, drugs. But what sets And Nothing Hurt apart is how it distills his previous stylings down to their essence, a polished diamond of the musician’s sometimes excessive past reaching. There are no hundred-person choirs or symphony orchestras accompanying him; it’s just Pierce and his muse—which isn’t to say these songs are any less packed with booming layers of synth swells and soaring vocals. It’s merely that he’s harnessed his ambition in service of tightly structured beauty, from the sweetly plucked ukulele start of “A Perfect Miracle” to the organ-laced and Pink Floyd-ified anthem “Sail On Through.” These are songs of love and devotion, yes, but they’re also elegant expressions of an artist who knows exactly what he wants to say, and has mastered the art of saying it in the grandest way possible. [Alex McLevy]

12. Jon Hopkins, Singularity

Rarely has the sound of our inner lives felt so outwardly cathartic. A record meant to engage the core of its listeners’ spiritual side—while still pushing the body to move—Singularity pulses with life, Hopkins’ skittering electronic rhythms imbued with a gravity that lends weight to even the airiest moments of ambient minimalism. But overall it’s an album of lush experimentation, richly textured with layers of instrumentation both organic and synthetic, as quick with a spare and drumless choral harmony (the absorbing “Feel First Life”) or piano interlude (“Echo Dissolve”) as it is to unleash a throbbing dance-floor beat (ethereal epic “Luminous Beings”). At his best, Hopkins combines all of his disparate styles into gorgeous, cohesive wholes; and as befitting its title, that’s what Singularity is, a sprawling musical meditation that takes its techno trappings into evocative new directions. [Alex McLevy]

11. Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer

Much has been made about how Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer finds her eschewing a robotic façade and digging deep into personal introspection. That’s certainly true; in fact, the album offers nuanced commentary on sexuality, power, race, and gender—and, in the process, represents her most confident (and important) work to date. However, Dirty Computer also ends up her most realized musical vision yet, between its mélanges of cosmic funk and hip-hop, kaleidoscopic pop and soul, distorted rock, and breezy reggae. Of course, it helps that Monáe orchestrated this music in conjunction with a cadre of fellow iconoclasts. Pharrell Williams appears on the empowering “I Got The Juice”; the Yaz-esque synth-pop burble “Pynk” is a collaboration with Grimes; and Stevie Wonder contributes a wise spoken-word interlude. Even Prince’s spirit hovers over Dirty Computer—and so do the musical contributions he made to the album before his death, in particular the very Purple One-esque “Make Me Feel.” [Annie Zaleski]

Listen to songs from The A.V. Club’s best albums of 2018—from punk, country, metal, electronic, and more—on our Spotify playlist.

10. Mitski, Be The Cowboy

Mitski has always excelled at zeroing in on the essential, emotionally lacerating parts of her songwriting narratives. But on her fifth album, Be The Cowboy, her perspective is even sharper, as she explores the ways isolation and companionship intersect and diverge. The brassy indie-pop pirouette “Me And My Husband” muses about the changing contours of marriage over time. Elsewhere, on “Lonesome Love,” a song about the power certain people have over us, Mitski has a melancholy ache in her voice as she wonders, “Why am I lonely for lonesome love?” In contrast, the ways insecurity and external validation influence our motivations creeps into “Nobody,” on which she admits, “And I know no one will save me / I just need someone to kiss.” In accordance with these insights, Be The Cowboy’s music is also crisper and more realized. Perforated rhythms and ghostly synths tangle with marching horns on “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” while scorching guitars brand “Remember My Name,” and “Come Into The Water” hews toward quieter, Beach House-caliber dream-pop. [Annie Zaleski]

9. DJ Koze, Knock Knock

Like Willy Wonka in a straw hat, DJ Koze guides you through this technicolor playhouse of a record on a fixed track, moving from street-level grime into clouds of chirpy, cherubic harps and flutes within the album’s first few seconds. And while there is darkness lurking here and there throughout Knock Knock, there never seems to be any real danger. Instead, we’re invited to join the German producer in his carnival of delights, feasting on R&B and house, and nodding along to sunny hip-hop that sounds as much like Atlanta in the early ’90s as it does the Hollywood Hills in 2018. Koze will fill the space with a familiar scent—the rubberiness of Merriweather Post Pavilion, the flowering birdsong of El Guincho—then move quickly along to the next room, allowing just a hint of the ambience to linger in the air while he works on the next attraction. This is dance music in the broadest possible sense, a postmodern assemblage of sounds that on the surface don’t have much in common but together suggest a hundred different ways to move your body. [Marty Sartini Garner]

8. Earl Sweatshirt, Some Rap Songs

Earl Sweatshirt used to talk the best shit, but it’s scarce on Some Rap Songs. The one-time Odd Future avatar’s not concerned with some nebulous antagonist but rather fading friends, an absent father casting a long shadow, and his own restless, multiplying inner demons. This is hip-hop at its most hermetic, the drawn blinds and days-long benders of his last LP now constituting an entire internal universe, a cosmos of refracted samples and serpentine, beneath-the-beat bars. And yet Earl explores his own depression and grief with such searing clarity and sonic invention that it transforms the journey into the broadest, most human record of his career. It’s a cathartic listen that begs repeat plays, a cycle composed of smaller loops, each coming unglued like a bunch of Alchemist beats disintegrating Basinski-style. On “Azucar,” from deep within his fortress, he raps, “Shook tradition, did it my way / No sense in looking at the sky.” Sometimes it’s better inside. [Clayton Purdom]

7. Ezra Furman, Transangelic Exodus

The cover of Ezra Furman’s Transangelic Exodus features the singer-songwriter’s eyes reflected in the rearview mirror of what one can only assume is a vintage muscle car, his expectant gaze fixed on a faraway point on the horizon. It’s an apt image for the romantic restlessness that drives this inspired concept album, charting the emotional journey of angelic queer lovers on the run from the law. Transangelic Exodus is very much in the “anywhere but here” spirit of Bruce Springsteen, but is less beholden to the classic-rock sound; the album’s metallic percussion in particular adds an industrial flavor, and Furman is just as likely to burst out into frenzied spoken word (“No Place”) as belt out an anthemic chorus (“Suck The Blood From My Wound”). It’s a vital, passionate, theatrical record that reinvents the all-American archetype of the brooding rock ’n’ roll rebel in its own leather-and-lipstick-clad image, leaving the homophobes and the pigs choking on its dust as it speeds off along a lonely desert freeway. [Katie Rife]

6. Yves Tumor, Safe In The Hands Of Love

A lot of our best artists seek to blow up notions of genre, but few do so with the vocabulary-flouting agnosticism of Yves Tumor, who evokes comparisons to everything from chillwave and Oneohtrix Point Never to Stones Throw and Björk. It doesn’t help that he shuns interviews, specific biographic details, and description in general. But look—or, rather, listen: If the artist possibly born as Sean Bowie whispered of a far-off place on his first record and described it more clearly on his second, he transports us there on Safe In The Hands Of Love, creating a series of blown-out, gravity-defying loops capable of expressing anxious warmth (“Economy Of Freedom”) and keening sensuality (“Honesty”)—and those are just the first two tracks with words. Indeed, the further addition of vocals clarifies the pop ambition and thematic concerns underlying all of Yves Tumor’s work, evoking a fried-circuit dystopia in which human connection and intimacy is still possible, and still worth it, no matter how painful. How else are we supposed to know we’re still alive? [Clayton Purdom]

5. The Armed, Only Love

Describing the music of Only Love is a fool’s errand. The Armed keeps its motivations hidden, as well as its membership, but there’s a beauty in all that ambiguity. Though the Detroit band enjoys taking the piss out of music press, those actions serve a larger point, which is that its music must be met on its own terms. The result of this disinformation campaign is Only Love, a record that joyfully explores the sonic space between Converge’s Jane Doe and the disorienting electro-pop of Fever Ray. That Converge members have played a part in The Armed, with drummer Ben Koller featuring on Only Love and guitarist Kurt Ballou producing, has only fueled speculation that this is actually a Converge side project, but none of that is important. What matters is that Only Love sounds unlike anything else happening in aggressive music. The Armed deploys a full-court press in terms of its music, pushing everything to 11 and letting its underlying, pop-indebted soul bleed through all the noise. Pair that all with its intense music videos and an unparalleled live show, and the result is a band, and an album, that is impossible to understand but remains endlessly intriguing. [David Anthony]

4. Anna Calvi, Hunter

Like PJ Harvey at her ’90s best, Anna Calvi’s Hunter is dark and mysterious, wild and free, the sound of feral feminine energy powerful enough to crush repressive power structures into dust. Her ferocious, operatic, erotically charged vocals and gender-fluid lyrics—“I’ll be the boy, you be the girl / I’ll be the girl, you be the boy / I’ll be the girl,” she repeats like a mantra on the seductive “Chain”—conjure the secret depths and endless horizons of queer desire, backed by thunderous bass, romantic strings, skeletal percussion, and bright blasts of electric guitar. It’s a primal feminist manifesto in song that, appropriately enough, came with a written manifesto as well, expressing Calvi’s intent to “explore a more subversive sexuality, which goes further than what is expected of a woman in our patriarchal heteronormative society.” Further, yes, but also deeper, higher, and through, to a blindingly bright new world. [Katie Rife]

3. Saba, Care For Me

The title reads like a cry for help, and maybe that’s what it is. Saba wrote Care For Me in the wake of a personal tragedy: the murder of his cousin and mentor, Walter Long Jr., who was stabbed to death by a stranger last year. That loss is all over the record (“Jesus got killed for our sins, Walter got killed for a coat” he breathlessly declares on the opening track), but it’s by no means the only topic of conversation. As if left exposed by his grief, the Chicago rapper opens up about everything, from destructive relationships to feeling isolated and insecure in his celebrity to a roiling rage toward an America that abandons and demonizes black youth. “We cannot bury all the fucked-up shit we been through,” he raps on “Calligraphy,” a kind of mission statement for this whole confessional album, and the diaristic, therapeutic logic of its storytelling. Meanwhile, the production is mellow and melancholy and shimmering, the piano and lonely saxophone answering every nakedly revelatory verse. Vulnerability can be a four-letter word in hip-hop, but it’s earned prominent placement in Saba’s rich emotional vocabulary. [A.A. Dowd]

2. Neko Case, Hell-On

In the delightfully startling artwork for her seventh album, Neko Case is wearing a crown of lit cigarettes, pulling her hair back from her shoulder to reveal a small fire raging there above the album’s title: Hell-On. The words could mean a number of things, but they feel, above all else, like a verb: like what you do when you lose your house to a fire, as Case did while recording the album, like life in 2018 generally. It’s certainly what these songs are doing as they fight to find beauty and feminine strength in a world working hard to obscure them. Like Björk, Case draws both most powerfully from the natural world: “When I am dark and I am down, as dark and down as I am now / The only thing that makes me smile is to remember / That I’m beloved of the wild,” she sings on closer “Pitch Or Honey.” A lifetime of influences, experiences, and collaborators pour into Hell-On, making Case’s songs grow ever wilder and unclassifiable. It suits her better, if we say so. [Kelsey J. Waite]

1. Beach House, 7

You can either fear the unknown, or you can embrace it. Beach House has spent the last 13 years worshipping it, each new song and album a dance of devotion to an unnamable, immutable creative force. After following it down to its most elliptical and interior on 2015’s Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars, where else was there for Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally to go but outward? 7, the dream-pop duo’s most collaborative and extroverted album yet, springs forth with an urgent and unpredictable energy. It plunges you into dense, interstellar shoegaze (“Dark Spring”), then grounds you in stargazing grunge balladry (“Pay No Mind”), before sending you on a mechanical 808 track through the woozy “candy-colored misery” of “Lemon Glow.” And those are just the first three songs. Breaking from a long partnership with producer Chris Coady, Legrand and Scally began assembling 7’s immersive arrangements in a new home studio before finishing them off with space-rock experimentalist Sonic Boom, a.k.a. Peter Kember of Spacemen 3. The shake-up paid off spectacularly. Together they’ve crafted a towering psych record that plays like a radio response to otherworld transmissions like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless or This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End In Tears. You can try to drift off in its dark, dreamlike textures, but like those seminal albums, 7 will keep prodding you to witness its mysteries up close. It will keep asking you to search its layers, to savor each image flying by—to give yourself over to the moment. And by now Beach House has well-proven that, whatever the next moment holds, they’ll see you through it. This is a band you can trust with your life. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Listen to selections from our favorite music of 2018 on our Spotify playlist.