Have you ever talked to your parents about what it was like to live through the late ’60s? National leaders were gunned down right and left. Entire generations were asserting themselves loudly. War was erupting, and nobody seemed quite certain why. People were walking on the moon. Hippie cults were chopping people up. A few years later, those same parents witnessed the swift dissolution of a corrupt presidential regime, learning the names of aides and functionaries and reporters while watching the entire thing swirl the drain. It must’ve been disorienting — a whole world coming unmoored, offering no sense of what might come next.
We don’t have to ask our parents about that era anymore, since we’re living through one of our own right now. The news has turned hallucinatory, phantasmagorical. We’re constantly confronted by roiling blasts of global insanity, incoherent culture-war battles, petty grievances aired out on the biggest stages. One moment, Roseanne Barr emerges from the wilderness and suddenly has one of the most successful shows on TV. The next moment, she’s throwing around racist epithets on Twitter, and she’s banished back to the wilderness, leaving even more fighting in her wake. It’s fucking nuts. And we don’t just see this when we glance at morning newspapers, the way our parents might’ve done. All this shit is constantly erupting on our phones, every day. We can’t hide.
2018 isn’t halfway over yet. We know that. We’re barely five months in, even if it’s already felt like an eon or two. But we’re still taking a moment to recognize the music, maybe the only thing that’s been dependably great this year. Some of the year’s best albums have been the ones that work as soothing balms: The pop-drone blissouts, the space-country wanderings, the fuzzy DIY meditations. Some have been cathartic exorcisms: The brash-elder rap throwdowns, the grimy postpunk wallows, the center-of-the-mind metal odysseys. Some of them have been engines of pure delight: The Cardi B album. A few have been all of those things at once.
All the albums on this list were picked by the votes of the people on your Stereogum staff. Any LP released between the beginning of January and the end of June was eligible, excluding the ones that we haven’t heard yet. It’s unlikely you’ve heard every album we picked, and there is every chance that you will find something on this list that you needed to hear, something that will make the rest of this godforsaken year a little more bearable. —Tom Breihan
50 Jeff Rosenstock – POST- (Quote Unquote / Polyvinyl)
The DIY pop-punk baron and former Bomb The Music Industry! frontman Jeff Rosenstock surprise-released his third album on New Year’s Day. It’s a document of the fucked-up year that had just happened, and it might serve as a warning of the possibly-even-more-fucked-up year that would follow. In his furious nasal bleat, Rosenstock sings about being young and broken and numb and terrified and distracted in a newly fascist America, fretting about families at rest stops and TV stars who don’t care about who you are. And he somehow translates all these anthems into fiery, bouncy punk anthems that, in their spirited catchiness, begin to reveal the possibility of hope, or at least catharsis. —Tom
49 Playboi Carti – Die Lit (AWGE / Interscope)
Have y’all heard the probably apocryphal rumor about Playboi Carti and the soup? As the story goes, on a first date, “Carti ordered two different bowls of soup and mixed them together one spoonful at a time before eating both bowls mixed together as one soup.” Maybe this is why when I listen to Die Lit I hear soup — multiple flavors of computerized bisque and stew dutifully spooned together by producer Pi’erre Bourne for Carti to swim in. As is his custom, Carti mostly luxuriates, lazy river style, never seemingly trying very hard but apparently enjoying himself quite a bit. Take a dip with no expectations and maybe you will too. —Chris DeVille
48 Screaming Females – All At Once (Don Giovanni)
Marissa Paternoster’s voice is the relentless force and central instrument that drives Screaming Females’ All At Once. Her howling vibrato doesn’t necessarily outshine the fired-up shredding or evocative lyricism. Rather, it makes those elements feel that much grander. The expression “I’ll make you sorry” never sounded as sly and, frankly, believable as it does coming out of Paternoster’s mouth. A sense of restless intensity translates stylistically, too. All At Once is a feverish rock n’ roll album, pieced together with power-pop grooves, punk progressions, indie-rock melodies, and even a hint of ska. But as ever, Paternoster is the star. When she sings, “The sun destroys me,” on “Agnes Martin,” it doesn’t sound hyperbolic; it sounds as if she’s on the verge of melting. —Julia Gray
47 Jean Grae & Quelle Chris – Everything’s Fine (Mello Music Group)
“Everything’s fine” can mean an infinite number of things and mask any emotion we feel as humans. Artful veterans Jean Grae and Quelle Chris have managed to capture the enormity of that deceptively standard response on this tag-team offering. They pulled off such a feat with a deft mixture of dark comedy, astute satire, playfulness, and rare but biting seriousness. If they had done it any other way, it could easily have been written off as another trite response to 45’s first year. But the adroitness in their approach in combination with their dynamic as a duo — Grae’s tongue-twisting density offset by Chris’ smooth simplicity — make this a canny study of what it means to be well right now. —Collin Robinson
46 Hot Snakes – Jericho Sirens (Sub Pop)
It’s not quite a comeback of A Tribe Call Quest proportions, but like LeBron James, the Hot Snakes are at the top of their game 14 years later. Some people are quick to say amp music is long dead and gone, but never has the slithering ones’ ominous imagery, layers of guitar, and seemingly bottomless low-end felt more fit for the times. The controlled, rhythmic chaos of Jericho Sirens is a great soundtrack for a moment when things feel downright apocalyptic for damn near everyone for the first time in a long while. Maybe punk has just gone so aloof that it has come full circle. Who knew? —Collin
45 Frankie Cosmos – Vessel (Sub Pop)
“Can you tell anyone this stuff?” Greta Kline sings at one point on Vessel. For years now, she’s been telling us this stuff, gifting us her innermost thoughts and feelings packaged into bite-sized indie-pop gems. Vessel might only be Frankie Cosmos’ third full-band studio album and first for Sub Pop, but counting the project’s DIY Bandcamp roots, it’s the 52nd release overall. In that time, Kline’s built up a musical language all her own, the wry, disarmingly honest observations spilling from her mouth surrounded by charming, melodically direct indie rock. And even as she sings about the messy, unpredictable realities of life, the band behind her sounds tighter and cleaner than ever. —Peter Helman
44 Now, Now – Saved (Trans-)
Six years is a long time in between albums, but KC Dalager and Brad Hale were putting in the work. It’s clear from the abundance of razor-sharp hooks on Saved — Now, Now’s first album since 2012 — that their revamped sound and attitude was both deliberate and hard-earned. Gone is the insular handwringing of their early work, much of it recorded in their teens and early 20s, replaced with spirited songs about unrequited loves and the loss of faith in others and yourself. It’s an album about being an adult that feels youthful and fresh, rejuvenated by the freedom of creative expression. —James Rettig
43 MGMT – Little Dark Age (Columbia)
In which MGMT return from the brink of coherence to deliver the weirdo synth-pop album some of their fans have been waiting a decade for. The first words you hear on Little Dark Age are “Get ready to have some fun. Alright, here we go!” The band may have sampled those words in jest — they’re from a workout video, on a song called “She Works Out Too Much” — but the album lives up to the promise anyway. The festival-rocking grandeur of Oracular Spectacular is never coming back, but the playful, melodious new wave we get instead here is one of 2018 music’s most pleasant surprises. —Chris
42 Caroline Says – No Fool Like An Old Fool (Western Vinyl)
No Fool Like An Old Fool is Caroline Sallee’s second LP under the moniker Caroline Says. The Austin-via-Alabama singer-songwriter’s debut 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong reflected on loneliness, love, and home after embarking on a West Coast road trip and returning her to her hometown. She recorded it in her parents’ basement. With her new album, Sallee is in a similar state of mind, again after having visited her hometown. She recorded this one in her apartment, careful not to disturb her landlord who lives upstairs. A quiet sensitivity persists, owed in part to those circumstances. Her old-soul perspective is felt in retrospective meditations on small-town life. The sonic atmosphere is thick and gentle like fog. Textured melodies swirl into hypnosis, looping in psychedelic folk and melancholic bossa nova. Sallee might be stuck recording on the bottom floor, but she sounds anything but restrained. —Julia
41 Tiny Moving Parts – Swell (Triple Crown)
“Twinkle” is a pretty uncool name for an indie-rock subgenre, even if it has a certain onomatopoeic honesty: There is perhaps no better word to describe the sound of such guitars. Tiny Moving Parts do this stuff better than anybody else right now, and when they’re tapping the fretboards and jumping between time signatures, these songs are absolutely sparkling. Of course, like fellow Minnesotans the Replacements, Tiny Moving Parts are way above the scene to which they’ve been tied, and also like the ‘Mats, they could just as easily be described as “punk” or “alternative” or just motherfucking “rock” and the songs would kick ass just as hard. Tiny Moving Parts use their tools in the service of huge-chorus, heart-on-sleeve anthems that would shine in any era. Swell doesn’t just twinkle; this thing is made of stars. —Michael
40 American Pleasure Club – A Whole Fucking Lifetime Of This (Run For Cover)
Sam Ray’s agony is near blissful on A Whole Fucking Lifetime Of This, his band’s first album under their new name American Pleasure Club. (Their last LP as Teen Suicide came out in 2016.) You can hear it in his voice, the kind of depression you almost enjoy — there’s a murky pleasure in such heavy emotion, especially when the alternative is numbness. The album establishes mood over genre, spanning choked-up Bright Eyes-like vocals and dusty acoustics, hip-hop basslines and a Frank Ocean sample, and spattering electronics and Auto-Tune. Its chronology is similarly unpredictable: Lovesick obsession is interspersed with heartbreak and regret, moments of awe transition into periods of despair. Instead, the album is organized by images, memories, and fantasies. Ray retreats into snapshots of suburban adolescence — “drunk kids fucking in the backseats of cars,” dreaming of moving to Florida, “eating cherries beneath a sycamore tree,” crying in the grocery store — and uncovers their timeless relevance. —Julia
39 The Armed – Only Love (Throat Ruiner)
Only Love is a raw, riotous album; the type of thing that sounds like it leapt directly from the guts of its authors, like the xenomorph violently bursting from John Hurt’s chest in Alien. But the analogy doesn’t end there: Only Love belongs to a species of music never before encountered by humans. It is highly intelligent, advanced, and evolved. It is unimaginably fast, violent, and powerful. It is unbound by any known parameters or laws. It is a magnificent beast to behold, even as it annihilates you. You admire it. What the fuck is this thing? As the android Ash said to his shipmates: “You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” That’s exactly it. It’s exactly that. —Michael Nelson
38 Jon Hopkins – Singularity (Domino)
An electronic album inspired by a mushroom trip in Joshua Tree sounds like a bad cliché. But English producer Jon Hopkins’ Singularity reaches beyond psychedelic EDM towards something glorious and transcendent. That striving sensibility keeps you on your toes throughout the hour-long album. Simple melodies fracture and layer into a complex soundscape; lush sounds and textures are constantly developing and regenerating. They break and rebuild, conjuring a tale of evolution and destruction. Brian Eno previously worked with the two-time Mercury Prize nominee, an influence that weaves through the album’s rich ambience. Following Hopkins’ 2013 breakthrough Immunity — plus a few unrecognized releases and a movie score collaboration before that — Singularity is an epic re-introduction to his expanding sonic galaxy. —Julia
37 Turnstile – Time & Space (Roadrunner)
A Turnstile show is a wild spectacle — bodies churning, bodies flying, bodies launching themselves toward singer Brendan Yates so that they can sing a couple of words into his mic. Get too close to the stage and someone will come soaring off of it and land on your head. And what makes Time & Space, the Baltimore hardcore stars’ major-label debut, is that it’s a strange new experiment in bringing this sweaty, erratic basement-show vibe to the largest possible audience. The production is fat and clean, the hooks surge up out of nowhere, and at least a few songs sound like they could’ve found heavy rotation on alt-rock radio in the ’90s. And yet the band still plays with such a fast, feverish intensity that listening to it almost demands a physical response. It’s the year’s best album for solo desk-moshing. —Tom
36 SOB X RBE – Gangin (SOB X RBE / Empire)
Rap groups can’t wait to break up. Even when we’re dealing with groups whose members have familial relationships — Rae Sremmurd, Migos — those members are always eager to venture off on their own and find their own sounds. So the early years of a rap group — the ungainly one-for-all energy, the sense that these kids are all pushing each other and trying to impress each other — are always over too soon. The members of the rangy, chaotic young Bay Area group SOB x RBE are already releasing solo tracks, so their sophomore album Gangin might be the last chance to hear the explosive, dizzy post-hyphy chemistry that they share. We should savor it. —Tom
35 Parquet Courts – Wide Awake! (Rough Trade)
If you’re amenable to the particular charms of Parquet Courts’ brainy and angular indie, they’re one of the most consistent rock bands going right now. But they are also restless, and Wide Awake! came with the promise of some change-ups: Incensed by the social climate in America, they teamed with Danger Mouse to craft an album of sweaty funk and aggressive punk. While their choice of producer might’ve seemed cause for concern, he helps them in the right ways, like locating their newfound syncopation in Wide Awake!‘s title track or letting genuinely pretty songs like “Freebird II” breathe. Elsewhere, like on “Almost Had To Start A Fight/In And Out Of Patience” or opener “Total Football,” they offer direct hits that rank with their best, most furious compositions. When Andrew Savage ends the latter with, “And fuck Tom Brady!” it’s not only an instant-classic quotable in a career littered with them, but also a gratifying welcome back to a Parquet Courts as fired-up as ever. —Ryan Leas
34 Sleep – The Sciences (Third Man)
Sleep, the legendary San Jose doom metal power trio, haven’t been heard from since Dopesmoker, the hour-long single-track stoner opus that they recorded way back in 1996. The album got them dropped from their label, and it didn’t come out for years, until after the band had already broken up, its members splitting off to form High On Fire and Om. Sleep reunited a few years ago, but the very idea of a Dopesmoker follow-up seemed inconceivable. And yet here we are: A massive slab of thundersludge dropped, without warning, upon an unsuspecting world. Sleep’s wooly, fuzzed-out grooves and staring-into-infinity sweep have returned at full strength. It’s been too long since you’ve zoned out this hard to a bass solo. —Tom
33 JPEGMAFIA – Veteran (Deathbomb Arc)
Daaaaamn, Peggy! For those of us just getting acquainted with Barrington Hendricks’ gleefully chaotic noise-rap provocations, Veteran served as quite the introduction. Entirely self-produced, the album is jarring in sound and substance but not without moments of beauty and grace. That’s grace as in fluid physical movement, by the way; JPEGMAFIA is nothing if not a weapon of judgment, be you a fraudulent hardass, a disgraceful president, or (eep!) a blogger who presumes to know anything about JPEGMAFIA. How you feel about the lyric “AR built like Lena Dunham” will go a long way toward determining how Hendricks’ gleeful grenade launching sits with you. —Chris
32 The Voidz – Virtue (RCA)
The Voidz aren’t the Strokes, and they’re not interested in being the Strokes. If you’re willing to get over that hurdle and dive right in, you’ll find a lot to love in Julian Casablancas’ weird world of batshit bizarro-rock. Virtue, Casablancas’ second album with the Voidz and his first since dropping his own name from the band’s moniker, is messy, unfocused, self-indulgent, frequently ridiculous, and almost certainly too long. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun. Auto-Tuned melodies rub up against death metal growls and prog synths, genres and sounds and musical ideas whizzing past each other and colliding at warp speed. All you can do is hold on for dear life and enjoy the ride. —Peter
31 Wye Oak – The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs (Merge)
Once upon a time, the key word for Wye Oak’s music was “catharsis,” mostly thanks to Jenn Wasner’s volcanic guitar breaks. But on 2014’s Shriek, they dismantled the formula they’d recently perfected in favor of a restart, a redefinition. And The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs is the culmination of that, an album that defies easy comparison as Wasner and Andy Stack meld stratospheric synths, wiry rhythms, and melted guitar lines. The catharses are often subtler now, but there’s a whole different kind of release in hearing a band sound like this — like freedom. There’s still an inherent melancholy to their music, but Wye Oak are now processing that differently. Rather than stare into the depths of human experience, they’re reaching for the horizon and turning their searching eyes skyward. —Ryan
30 Dear Nora – Skulls Example (Orindal)
Skulls Example — Dear Nora’s first new album in 12 years — is about the big and the little things, the small choices you make that have ramifications for the entire world. Like being nice to people, or being inquisitive about what’s around you, making a more hospitable environment for everyone. It’s about the persistence of human connection, wrapped in wiry and warm songs that Katy Davidson commands with a gentle and deft hand. In their long absence, Davidson has learned a lot about adaptation, and Skulls Example serves as a guidebook to how you might undergo personal transformation too, in the face of all this. —James
29 The Republic Of Wolves – Shrine (Self-released)
There’s an alternate universe, a brighter timeline, where so-called “fans” of so-called “rock” don’t dominate the conversation with complaints about the music’s so-called “demise.” Instead, those people just seek out, listen to, and love the abundant riches available to them right now. And in that reality, the Republic Of Wolves just released their Dark Side Of The Moon. (Or at least their The Bends.) This band came up on Long Island, and while they’re not a part of LI’s vibrant post-hardcore scene, they’re clearly an outgrowth, or a refinement, or even an apotheosis. Shrine is a cauldron of slow-building tension and explosive release, of open nerves and untethered emotion. Most importantly, it’s a perfectly executed masterwork of melodic songcraft: verse-chorus-verse; quiet-loud-quiet; guitars-drums-bass; whisper-scream-sing. You don’t have to live in that universe to hear this; you just have to tune out the noise and listen. —Michael
28 Møl – Jord (Holy Roar)
On their debut LP, Denmark’s Møl aren’t reinventing the wheel — this is blackgaze in the style of the subgenre’s vanguard acts, namely Alcest and Deafheaven — but the ride they’ve built is as sleek and powerful as a Porsche 911. Unlike virtually all their contemporaries, Møl don’t conflate excess with accomplishment, and as a result, Jord is absent the melodramatic bloat that weighs down other purveyors of “atmospheric” metal. Instead, these songs are gems of rare craftsmanship and raw force. They’re not afraid to be delicate — and when they do so, it’s absolutely delightful — but when they shift into fifth gear, they’re just about flying, and everybody else in this lane is eating their goddamn dust. —Michael
27 Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Nonesuch)
It’s rare that a score elevates itself so readily from the movie it was composed for, but Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack for Phantom Thread takes on a life of its own. At first, it’ll remind you of the fucked-up relationship dynamics of the Paul Thomas Anderson film it accompanies, but soon it renders a world of its own that plays out as a funhouse mirror of your very own. It casts a gloomy pallor over pretty much any experience. It makes you feel like you’re walking on glass, a twinge of ugliness and beauty in every harsh step. —James
26 At The Gates – To Drink From The Night Itself (Century Media)
In 1995, when it seemed all death metal’s possibilities had been explored and extinguished, At The Gates dropped Slaughter Of The Soul: a stone classic that didn’t just reinvigorate the genre but invented an entire palette of new possibilities for heavy music. After that, At The Gates broke up — and stayed broken up for nearly two decades — and music moved on. To Drink From The Night Itself is the band’s second post-reunion release, and it seems to accomplish the impossible: It improves and expands upon the band’s past work, but it also bathes in the blood of the ancients. This is the heaviest, hardest, richest, and darkest album in At The Gates’ catalog. It’s also, by plenty of qualitative metrics, the single best thing they’ve ever done. How do you grade on that curve? How do you assess such a work? Slaughter Of The Soul influenced countless bands over the past quarter-century, but none of them made a better album. And here, this year, At The Gates did it, and they made it look easy. —Michael
25 Black Dresses – WASTEISOLATION (Self-released)
Pop music has always shined brightest at the margins, where the sheen and gloss gives way to the messiness of individual experience. WASTEISOLATION — the debut album from Canadian experimental artists Girls Rituals and Rook’s collaboration Black Dresses — thrives in that outsider lens, bold and brash and entirely too catchy. Their stumbling delivery sounds like those times when you’re both feeling yourself and feeling entirely out of control. It’s an album that recalls the intersection of noise and pop circa 2010 (think Sleigh Bells) but also feels distinctly of this era, when our eternal nausea is threatening to overspill into every facet of life. —James
24 Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog (Saddle Creek)
“So strange to be shaped by such strange men,” goes the lyrical refrain that runs through Bark Your Head Off, Dog. Although it reads as a timely indictment of gender and power dynamics, there’s no anger detectable in Frances Quinlan’s voice. As one of indie rock’s great storytellers, she practices a radical omnidirectional empathy, an ability to paint evocative, economical portraits of humanity in all its transcendence and its ugliness. Meanwhile, her band’s music has never sounded prettier, trading some of Painted Shut‘s ragged guitar-rock immediacy for lush, polished arrangements full of strings and mandolin and piano. It’s Hop Along at their poppiest, and it’s Hop Along at their best. —Peter
23 DJ Koze – Knock Knock (Pampa)
Sprawling out over an hour and 20 minutes, Knock Knock is an immersive listen, defined by DJ Koze’s customarily pristine and enveloping production. It can work as background zone-out music, but once you truly dive into the album, its currents pull you along on a specific journey. There’s a general, brisk funkiness to Knock Knock, punctuated by moments like the José González-featuring “Music On My Teeth,” which evokes yearning by sounding like a lost ’70s singer-songwriter cut warped by decades spent frying in the sun. But the insular turns are answered by straight-up endorphin rushes, like the constantly building centerpiece “Pick Up,” tracks that ride on incessant beats that lift you up and up. After all, there’s a reason Knock Knock‘s penultimate track is named “Seeing Aliens.” Follow DJ Koze on this ride, and by the end he’s taken you to outer space. —Ryan
22 Kamasi Washington – Heaven And Earth (Young Turks)
Kamasi Washington expounds more on wax solely through instrumentation than many artists can do with an entire discography of lyrics. Some have had the privilege of knowing this since his early days in the Shack with the West Coast Get Down crew in Inglewood and at The World Stage in Leimert Park, Los Angeles. Since then he’s continually reinvented himself and the jazz landscape, improving on previous versions but not completely leaving them behind. That is exactly what Heaven And Earth is — a fusion of the long, sprawling, big-band suites of 2015’s The Epic and the exquisite counterpoint clinic that is 2017’s Harmony Of Difference that makes something altogether different and extraordinary. Washington has been considered a leader of the West Coast jazz revival for a few years now, but this album should rightfully put him on god status. It’s very fitting that it’s called Heaven And Earth. —Collin
21 Saba – Care For Me (Saba Pivot)
Saba is at his rawest on Care For Me. He trades the clever metaphor, simile, and wordplay he employs so well for gripping, harrowing, straightforward accounts of his adolescence in Chicago. Using the same cadences that dominate the trap-sphere, and many more from a seemingly unending arsenal of flows, he captivates with elegantly told truths. Most of his peers at the very least embellish, and at worst flat out lie, but Saba doesn’t have to engage in any deception. He bares the complete person he wants you to care for, and it makes his plea that much more warm, disarming, and penetrating. In a time when the black man’s dimension is flattened enough to have his life continually, legally snatched from him, portraits like Care For Me are imperative. —Collin
20 Forth Wanderers – Forth Wanderers (Sub Pop)
When you’ve got riffs like these and a voice like hers, you’re pretty much golden. The riffs in question are the spindly, expansive, geometrically unusual building blocks of Forth Wanderers’ sound, arching guitar architecture that turns the band’s big Sub Pop spotlight moment into a monument. The voice belongs to Ava Trilling, who applies her deadpan soprano to lyrics like, “He says he likes my taste/ But I bite his tongue, you know, just in case.” Consider them Built To Spill built for 2018 indie rock, trading awestruck twee visions for frank ruminations on the politics of collegiate social life. —Chris
19 Illuminati Hotties – Kiss Yr Frenemies (Tiny Engines)
You might expect something akin to goofy surf rock from an LA-based project called Illuminati Hotties. And while Sarah Tudzin can certainly play to that note, it’s far from the only one she’s well-versed in. On her debut LP Kiss Yr Frenemies, Tudzin draws from a wide ranging palette — encompassing acoustic balladry, bouncy surf rock, and simmering noise pop — from which she doodles detailed scenes and stories of young adulthood. Also in her toolbox: keen self-awareness, vulnerability, poignant wit, nuanced social observations, and a sense of optimism that recognizes the beauty that can grow out of growing pains. Tudzin is both personal and personable; her anecdotes are relatable without sufficing the intimate specificity of her experience. Lighthearted odes to past flings with lame dudes carry the same weight as heart-wrenching letters that begin with sleeping in her car on her 24th birthday. Kiss Yr Frenemies is the fruitful aftermath of emotional labor and hindsight. —Julia
18 Lucy Dacus – Historian (Matador)
Lucy Dacus doesn’t sound the way ascendant indie rock stars in their early 20s are supposed to sound. Her voice is a smooth, in-control alto — an old voice, a voice of wisdom and reason and consideration, one better suited to conveying well-worn regret than immediate pain. Her band plays warm, layered, instinctive rock music, a full-bodied and immaculately produced sound that has more to do with ‘70s classic rock than ‘80s post-punk. Dacus sings about relationships sometimes, but they’re not her only focus. She’s as interested in the rest of the world as she is in herself. And in her sophomore album Historian, she’s made a towering achievement of a record, one that kicks us right in the soul. —Tom
17 Ryley Walker – Deafman Glance (Dead Oceans)
If you’ve listened to Ryley Walker before, you might already have an idea of what Deafman Glance sounds like. Forget that idea. Tired of being slapped with the “jammy acoustic guitar guy” label, Walker’s ditched the lushly pastoral psych-folk revivalism for something jazzier, proggier, and weirder, adopting a weathered, conversational sing-speak and embracing the complex experimental song structures of Chicago’s storied post-rock tradition. Deafman’s Glance is less a sudden departure or a reinvention than a clarification, a subtle shift that reveals who Ryley Walker really was all along. And the real Ryley Walker? He’s a guy you should meet. —Peter
16 Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar (Ninja Tune)
Cocoa Sugar is a great entry point into Young Fathers’ discography. Its songs are the most approachable in their catalogue, trimming the wandering sonic experimentation of past efforts while retaining enough urgency for their political proclamations to come off without beating anyone over the head. Unorthodox rhythms and instrumentation that are still digestible and lyrics that bite without leaving marks coalesce to become something as unique as it is timely. —Collin
15 Rolo Tomassi – Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It (Holy Roar)
There are no words. Literally: There is no category expansive enough to claim Rolo Tomassi, and no album comparable to Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It. It’s punishingly heavy, but sweet as nectar. It’s claustrophobically dense, but wide open as the sky itself. Love Will Bury It would seem to embarrass its peers, but beyond superficial similarities, nobody else is in this league — not now, not ever. Love Will Bury It almost reinvents the very concept of “the album” and reduces to ash entire genres of music. It’s an extraordinary work of art, not just a highlight of this year, but a thing for the ages: maybe a seminal statement in a genre that does not yet exist, maybe a collection that will forever stand apart from such classification. Irrespective of exactly how it is remembered, it should serve as an inspiration for upcoming generations of “heavy” musicians, but it obviously can’t be equalled. It can barely be imitated. Calling it a “future classic” seems like a half-measure. It will seem no less extraordinary in “the future” but that’s beside the point: It’s clearly a classic on arrival. —Michael
14 Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer (Sub Pop / Bella Union)
Josh Tillman has built a career out of his biting, deconstructionist wit, setting his sights on subjects as lofty and universal as romantic love, the American dream, even the human condition. But left unchecked, that wit can curdle into exhausting self-importance and cynicism. He’s at his best when he turns it inwards — as he does on God’s Favorite Customer, a lean, focused collection of lush and intimate heartbreak songs that further blurs the distinction between Father John Misty the persona and Josh Tillman the man. Maybe not everybody has to be the greatest story ever told, but this is one tale that’s well worth hearing. —Peter
13 U.S. Girls – In A Poem Unlimited (4AD)
When we profiled Meg Remy and asked her to explain the genre lineage that made her U.S. Girls album In A Poem Unlimited possible, she gave an incisive and yet still confounding answer. “It’s earth music. It’s very present. It’s our bodies,” she said. “Indie is not earth.” Remy was talking about how hard it is to categorize music that is trying to be uncategorizable, the type that pulls from different parts of the canon in order to create something new. In A Poem Unlimited obliterates binaries in order to exist in the in-between; it takes aim at capitalism and misogyny, pointing out how deeply intertwined the two are. Album opener “Velvet 4 Sale” is a witty rape-revenge tale, but it’s also an extremely catchy song, an earworm designed to twist your consciousness in subtle ways. Nothing Remy does is obvious — it should take more than a listen to figure this one out. —Gabriela Tully Claymore
12 Kali Uchis – Isolation (Virgin EMI)
The sonic palette of Kali Uchis’ debut album Isolation is so humid and lush that you’ll wish you could live inside of it. She pulls from R&B, reggaetón, funk, and contemporary pop, electing to bring on producers like Damon Albarn, Kevin Parker, Dave Sitek, and DJ Dahi to make a genre-spanning vision that evolves from track to track. While the songs on this album have an old soul, Uchis injects them with a youthful spirit. You can hear it in the way she rounds her o’s when she sings “I don’t wanna come down” on “Tyrant,” or how she repeats the word “Miami” over and over again in a hazy, sing-songy lilt. Uchis has a singer’s intuition, and she uses it to create stand-out moments on Isolation, minuscule bits of pop perfection designed to draw you in. —Gabriela
11 Oneohtrix Point Never – Age Of (Warp)
Daniel Lopatin is a world-builder, and each landscape he’s constructed as Oneohtrix Point Never has been as vast and varied as the last. As with most of his albums, Age Of is accompanied by a complicated mythology that you can leave at the door as you wish, but that backstory helps inform the music even if you don’t overtly engage with it. Age Of is a fractured fever dream, alternating between power-drill intensity and hauntingly beautiful bliss. Lopatin has always straddled this line in his music, and his latest is perhaps the clearest realization of his goals. The assuredness that Lopatin has typically had as a producer is in full effect here: you can follow him into whatever hellhole he’s conjured up and come out the other side changed, with the world looking just a little more scraped clean. —James
10 Iceage – Beyondless (Matador)
Iceage broke through as a hardcore punk band and they built themselves up on a youthful fury that was at once refreshing and terrifying. The Danish band has molded its sound over the years, adopting a more sophisticated musicality along the way. Beyondless is Iceage fully-actualized. It finds them trying on new sonic ideas without abandoning any of the fiery attitude that made their debut so arresting. Elias Bender Rønnenfelt is this album’s slurring narrator, boasting the kind of swagger people would pay to possess. He sings dirges and anthems, working himself up to a point of catharsis on every single track. It’s the kind listeners can relate to and revel in. —Gabriela
9 Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer (Atlantic)
Kansas City’s finest has never quite been herself on a record. She tried to remove sexuality completely from her previous offerings by taking on the persona of a supremely talented android. She evaded questions about her sexual orientation more skillfully than Neo dodging bullets bent backwards at the knees. Though the sci-fi motif is still strong on Dirty Computer and its tandem film, Janelle Monáe isn’t hiding behind it. She is truly uninhibited for the first time, and this joint is full of undeniable jams that only Monáe, herself, could make. —Collin
8 Cardi B – Invasion Of Privacy (Atlantic)
The implausibility of Cardi B’s arc is well-established at this point, but that doesn’t make Invasion Of Privacy any less inspiring. There are so many other ways this could’ve gone after her breakthrough with the ubiquitous “Bodak Yellow,” lackluster follow-ups or an eventual album falling short of her infectious official debut single. But Invasion Of Privacy delivered, often in ways that it shouldn’t have been able to; over the course of its 13 tracks, Cardi effortlessly flits between different corners of the rap world, uniting them with her instantly convincing presence and control. Some of those underline the album’s crowd-pleasing quality — “I Like It” sounds like walking down a New York street on a sweltering summer afternoon, and it deserves to be blared just as prominently as “Bodak Yellow” in the coming months.
Yet while Invasion Of Privacy has the sound of a blockbuster, it also has a lot of gravity to it. On its stunning opener “Get Up 10,” Cardi B offers an origin story loaded with memorable and evocative lines while eviscerating doubts of her actual rapping capabilities. As far as introductions go, you could ask for little better than “Get Up 10” or Invasion Of Privacy as a whole: It’s the sound of myth-making, in real time, happening right in front of us. —Ryan
7 Half Waif – Lavender (Cascine)
There’s a devastating romance about Lavender, Nandi Rose Plunkett’s third album as Half Waif. Plunkett’s narrative is rooted in reality — making sense of love and loss, attempting to build a home within herself — but stunning electronic arrangements and towering vocals unearth a fantastical air. As you might guess from the album title, color is a binding theme. A walk through her late grandmother’s garden evokes a dusty lavender, a trip to Brooklyn sounds dark blue. Elsewhere she dreams of “a lilac house under stacks of pink cloud.” Throughout Lavender, memories and emotions are best explained in shades and hues. —Julia
6 Pusha-T – Daytona (G.O.O.D. Music / Def Jam)
Daytona comes with some baggage. After being promised a new album from Pusha-T for a while now, we get a very lean seven tracks running just over 20 minutes. And, of course, it’s the first salvo in an ambitious run of Kanye-related or -helmed projects set to roll out in the coming weeks, a prospect now blemished by his dispiriting antics and political missteps as of late, to say nothing of the underwhelming ye. West produced Daytona in full and also insisted that its cover be a photo of Whitney Houston’s bathroom. This could’ve all backfired, but both ‘Ye and his G.O.O.D. Music president are in prime form here.
With production that balances no-nonsense hardness with cloud-parting samples, Daytona assuages fears that Ye had lost himself entirely to poopy-di scoop troll moves and non-starter “dialogues” with T.I. (even despite a MAGA hat line on “What Would Meek Do?”). For Daytona, he came armed with beats far stronger than those he put on his own new album, and King Push presides above it with all his trademark swagger. Thematically, he’s still sticking to his luxury drug raps lane, but why mess with something that’s always worked so well? Named for Pusha’s favorite Rolex, Daytona references the indulgences in life, but ones of refinement — and that’s what the album is, a work that came out exactly when its creators felt like it but is streamlined until it approaches perfection. —Ryan
5 Soccer Mommy – Clean (Fat Possum)
“did u hear about women in indie rock,” Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison tweeted a few weeks ago, cheekily referencing the exhaustive number of “Women In Indie Rock” thinkpieces that have gone up over the past year. Allison is usually posed at the center as a beacon of indie rock’s future: She’s a young woman with a head for catchy guitar riffs and a heart full of poignant lyrics. Her debut full-length, Clean, impresses because it is so earnest and smart at the same time.
On this album, Allison sings about being desperately in love with someone who doesn’t give her the time of day (“Your Dog”), she openly admits to feeling inferior to every other girl in the room (“Cool,” “Last Girl”), and she owns insecurity in a way that doesn’t feel put-on or spiteful. As I previously noted in a piece about Clean’s stand-out “Scorpio Rising,” Allison’s songs have the power to return you to youth. They remind you of that fleeting moment in time when watching the sunrise from the backseat of a crush’s car was proof enough that magic is real. —Gabriela
4 Flasher – Constant Image (Domino)
If you’re a young band making music in Washington, DC, you’re going to have to deal with some baggage. DC is maybe the most important city in the history of American punk rock — a place of constant reexamination and reinvention, where DIY pioneers have spent decades disassembling and rebuilding the very idea of what kind of music they could make. On their debut album, Flasher, the young band featuring former Priests bassist Taylor Mulitz, honor that legacy by working completely outside of it. They’re not playing punk rock at all. Rather than the city’s many waves of hardcore, they draw from synthpop and Britpop and ‘80s jangle-rock and ‘90s bedroom pop. But they play all of it with a sense of urgency and rigor that Fugazi fans might recognize — bashing out these tense and layered and titanic hooks as if their lives depended on it. —Tom
3 Snail Mail – Lush (Matador)
When it comes down to it, music is a medium traditionally built around moments. It’s that chorus you just can’t get out of your head, a riff that makes your jaw hit the floor, that couple of seconds you fast-forward to when you want that quick hit. If a songwriter manages to get one or two of those moments in a song, they’re pretty damn good. With Lindsey Jordan, you’re basically getting songs filled wall-to-wall with those kinds of moments. The sprawling, epically intimate songs she makes as Snail Mail never stay static too long; they’re constantly shifting and evolving, both with Jordan’s moods, wry and sincere, and in the layered guitar work she makes seem effortless but is the product of a restlessly creative mind.
As is typical with an artist her age, much has been made of the fact that she recorded these songs when she was 18. And these songs are certainly impressive for an 18-year-old, but they’d be impressive for anyone, regardless of how old they happened to be when writing them. Musicians spend entire lives chasing the sort of clarity of intention that Jordan exhibits here, and Lush is a sparkling showcase to love and lost youth, a testament that even the freshest among us gets weary sometimes. —James
2 Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour (MCA Nashville)
My not-quite-three-year-old daughter has been known to wander the house tunelessly singing the phrase, “Oh what a world!” ad infinitum. On car trips with my wife she has requested “Slow Burn” on repeat. When “Space Cowboy” comes on, she exclaims, “Daddy, it’s your favorite song!” When “Rainbow” rolls around: “Mommy, it’s your favorite song!” She’s not wrong, exactly, but on an album that approaches perfection, our favorite tends to be whichever song is playing.
Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour has taken over my household in recent months because it’s one of the few albums dad, mom, and toddler can agree on. Familial consensus was limited even before kids were in the picture, so the albums that inspire it have always become personal favorites; this album, with its tone of sighing lovestruck reverie, lends itself to such sentimentality in particular. But I’m fairly certain I’d love Golden Hour deeply even if my life circumstances were different because all my co-workers seem just as enthralled, as do most fans and critics who’ve cared to weigh in.
The themes Musgraves addresses throughout the album — romantic bliss, mostly, with detours into heartbreak and friendship and family and indignant rebuke — are simple enough for a child to understand yet charged with new depth every passing year. She gives them a worthy treatment: heartfelt and plainspoken, artful and concise, never letting cleverness get in the way of feeling. On “Love Is A Wild Thing,” that means turning Jeff Goldblum’s “life finds a way” speech from Jurassic Park into a starry-eyed treatise on fate. On “Happy & Sad,” she makes a simple “what goes up must come down” metaphor feel profound. Again and again, she finds fresh ways to convey feeling breathlessly in love, even spinning the bored contentment of waiting for a lover to get back in town into pop-country gold.
Speaking of which, sonically the album is just as remarkable, expertly conjuring the sensations described therein. Musgraves and a pair of her Nashville-pro band members co-produced Golden Hour, but it doesn’t sound like your average 2018 pop-country LP. Rather, encasing bright melodies and arrangements under a glossy surface, it steps you into her too-good-to-be-true daydream come to life, blue skies and all.
Even when she turns away from her beloved for a moment, as when dressing down a pompous ass on twangy disco banger “High Horse,” it’s of a piece with the rest. It suggests this songwriting sweet spot she’s stumbled upon might endure even if this tingly satisfaction dissipates or, God forbid, this new family she’s founded falls apart entirely. Mine will surely be all ears. —Chris
1 Beach House – 7 (Sub Pop / Bella Union)
Sometimes when albums arrive they feel woven from the same cloth as the surrounding year. They are works that do appear timeless and potentially classic, but also vital for their moment, capturing a cultural flashpoint or pushing important concepts to the forefront of contemporary discourse. Other times, there are albums that don’t necessarily define their era, but are just so good that they immediately register as landmarks, a piece of music we’ll be living with well beyond the initial context in which we encountered it.
Neither is better than the other, exactly; they mean different things. Beach House’s latest, 7, falls into the latter category. Though Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally acknowledge that the anxious and precipitous atmosphere of 2016 and 2017 inevitably informed their newest songs, they’ve also stressed that 7 is not a political album, noting that such parameters are often reductive anyway. What 7 is, rather, is an album that might replicate the static head fog that can result from recent times, but is just as likely to offer a vibrant escape, bursts of healing color.
“Dreampop” — it’s a strange and imprecise label, an amorphous genre concept best defined by artists who use amorphous sounds. Beach House have often been considered the most accomplished recent addition to that lineage, but even on their past classics they could fall into the traps of the idiom, the dangers of becoming too diffuse. From the sudden crash and rush of opener “Dark Spring,” however, 7 introduces itself as the most dynamic Beach House album yet, and perhaps their best, full of dreamscapes with impact and weight.
In our recent interview with the duo, they described a period of runaway inspiration — one of those moments when an artist just has to make an album, whether they’d been planning to or not. You can hear that energy coursing through 7, in all its divergent tones and textures. There’s the lovesick neon Drive balladry of “Pay No Mind,” a similarly-minded sigh in “Woo,” the unnerving enchantment of “Black Car,” the new stratospheres Beach House soar to in the cresting “Dive.” One of the titles that stood out immediately was “Drunk In LA,” the album’s centerpiece. And maybe that Drive vibe is a good way of summing up the entirety of 7: It’s an album that sounds born from meditative late-night cruises through cityscapes, taking in the lights from a fictionalized distance yet peering into the real darkness hiding behind them.
The idea of atmosphere influencing Beach House over literal events is, well, obviously fitting. But it’s maybe never been more effective than on 7. Beach House’s interpretation of dreampop has always, appropriately, followed the genre’s tradition of tracing ineffable and unpredictable pathways of interior lives — sleep, yes, but also lust and obscured emotions a person can’t quite divine. On 7, they’re wrangling those abstractions, both external and internal, and coaxing them into their most vivid music yet. It’s the sound of beauty that lingers deep in the recesses of your mind, waiting to overflow, waiting to escape, waiting to be discovered.
At the year’s midway point, we’ve heard a lot of great music. Surely there will be more to come. Is there some way in which 7 will feel native to 2018 in particular? Perhaps not. But halfway through 2018, it is clear that Beach House have given us an album that rivals the peaks of their already storied career. It’s clear that they’ve given us an album for the ages. —Ryan
Listen to selections from the top 50 albums in this Spotify playlist.