Drumroll Please... Our 25 Favorite Albums of 2018
With just a few days left until we finally break through the sludge and grip of 2018’s clutches, we’re ready to reveal our favorite albums of the year. From chart-toppers like Nicki Minaj to submissions received in our very own inbox, our top picks are the records we’ve revisited over and over again this past year — the ones that were there for us when we needed them, the ones that often seemed to be more like stories than songs, and the ones that made our hearts grow three sizes.
Psst. Before you read on, we want to be clear about something: this isn’t a “best of” list. Those are silly — who’s got the authority to claim what’s the best and what’s not, anyway? We just want to give a special shout-out to our most beloved albums of the year. End-of-the-year lists can be a bittersweet component for a lot of musicians, so it’s important to us to remind you that loving music is based on heart, not on any big claims. We just love music and we want to talk about it. We hope you’ll join us.
Okay, did you do the drumroll yet?
Here we go.
SUSTO Stories by SUSTO
Early in 2018, Charleston-based indie-rock band SUSTO released the aptly named SUSTO Stories, an album featuring nine of their previously released songs from last year’s full-length & I’m Fine Today — stripped-down and live recordings this time around — each preceded by quick intros in which the band offer brief explanations about the song’s origins. Hearing these intimate revelations from the masterminds behind SUSTO is a really special experience, not to mention that the tracks featured are some of the band’s most remarkable feats of songwriting. Though cut by fleeting moments of reflection, the album still rolls seamlessly in and out of raw, echoing performances of magic built by a band so wholly in tune with their work but also, simultaneously somehow, unraveling beautifully.
Pretend Like by Michael Flynn
Another big name on the Charleston scene, Michael Flynn’s first offer of musical genius was his work in alt-pop group Slow Runner, but he’s since gone on to shine as a solo artist. On his second full-length solo record, Pretend Like, he dazzles. The album is a stunning array of strings and synth sharing a space that welcomes it all. Nobody writes love like Flynn (“hold me til the paint flakes off / til our punch-drunk hearts go soft”), these gorgeously abstract sentiments strung together with words you’d never consider pairing, but Flynn is a wordsmith, so he gracefully spins his lyrics with careful attention. His songwriting is a dream, but to match it with his sparkling soundscapes is almost cruel — like how sometimes things that are so beautiful start to scare us. Like it’s not right. Like it shouldn’t be real because it marks an extreme that is unlikely to be surpassed. (Btw, we can talk about this album forever. We even got to defend it on Indientry’s Battle Of The Bloggers feature as our top 2018 record!)
Mission Bell by William Fitzsimmons
Folk singer-songwriter William Fitzsimmons’ latest album, Mission Bell, is not for the faint of heart. Diving deep into the dark corners of marriage, the record tenderly examines a slew of heart-heavy subject matter from dizzying love to its even more disorienting counterpart, loss. When we spoke with William a few months ago, he told us that “we are all able to speak the universal language of music” — a sentiment confirmed and clarified throughout his whole discography. On this album, he confesses that though the language itself (a love language, really) is beautiful, it’s spoken on bittersweet, broken tongues. The album is a heartbreaker through-and-through, but it’s a dreamy, gentle gut-punch we’re grateful for.
Understanding by Mirah
Prolific musician Mirah has been experimenting with her DIY brand of indie production for two decades now. On Understanding, she dips into her treasure trove of social contemplation and self-reflection for a haunting record chockful of here-and-now commentary mixed with earnest little love letters. Some tracks are quiet, slinking ballads, while others burst with unbridled energy — it’s a duality that Mirah tames thoughtfully, pairing warring tones of heavy percussion with soft strings at times, then leaving them to blossom on their own at others. Mirah is not done putting music to her soul. Thank god. We need her words — and her empathy.
Good Thing by Leon Bridges
On his sophomore album, Good Thing, soul singer Leon Bridges continues to prove that his versatile vocals (smooth croons, sultry falsetto, and everything in-between) are a gift to this world. The new record explores a wider range of rhythms than his debut — here we get the slap of drum beats to dance to, intimate love songs, sexy R&B slow-burns, retro funk, and a whole lot more — but we’re not necessarily missing the humble newness of Coming Home. Leon has grown into himself and his sound, offering a gamut of ear-catching elements we can assume he’ll be continuing to experiment with in the future. Whatever he puts out is bound to be remarkable, but it’s pretty damn exciting to watch Leon foster his own style right in front of us.
The Tree of Forgiveness by John Prine
John Prine is a legend. For over four decades, he’s been a beloved (if not gruff and slightly mysterious) voice in country folk music. Earlier this year, he released The Tree of Forgiveness, his first solo album in over ten years. The Americana record garnered well-deserved top spots on the Billboard charts, riding high on the unwavering genius that is John Prine — 40 years ago and today. The album features ten thumping folk songs ranging from quirky countrified singalongs to ballads minimalist in arrangement but brimming with sentiment (“Summer’s End” is the ultimate tear-jerker). Prine is entirely his own being, quick to be vocal with social commentary and tongue-in-cheek wordplay; he’ll still have his wits about him as he gets older and we know he’ll keep his heart in tact too.
Being Empty : Being Filled by Listener
Back in February, Arkansas-based talk-music project Listener dropped their latest record, Being Empty : Being Filled. Going full throttle this time around with hard-hitting rock, the band maintain their poetry, but couple it with the fuzz of distortion and frenzied multi-instrumental breakdowns. The profundity we know so well and love so much from Listener is still present, shaped into searing rock ragers clouded with thrashing post-rock elements as vocalist Dan Smith spits rapid-fire wisdom line by line among the madness. The album is rich with complex rhythm lines leading endlessly poignant reflection — there’s a lot of life here, but you have to look for it in the shadows. Frankly, we don’t mind the hunt.
Makes Good Choices by The 1984 Draft
Ohio band The 1984 Draft released their latest album, Makes Good Choices, over the summer, a collection of high-powered rock ‘n roll anthems evoking major similarities to Craig Finn’s distinct vocals and Old 97s’ rollicking alt-country arrangements. Rest assured, though, that The 1984 Draft are entirely their own — together, the members have crafted an addictive blend of energetic, in-your-face alt-rock bangers to sing along to, move your head to, slap your thighs to, and, most importantly, reflect upon. Concealed behind the good times of these robust rhythms is a whole lot of clever contemplation about easy love, and, less often, love that runs and hides. There’s a lot to think about on this album if you have time to stop in between the high-energy rock compositions.
Thank You For Today by Death Cab For Cutie
Indie rock outfit Death Cab For Cutie’s ninth album, Thank You For Today, met favorable reviews for its sense of steady calm and coolness. There aren’t any major a-ha! moments here, but plenty of fresh alt-rock takes with the dreamy musings and sparkling indie arrangements we love from Death Cab. The record is cloaked in melancholy as consistent percussion slaps, synths swell in the distance, and frontman Benjamin Gibbard’s drowsy vocals sing. There’s very little light on this record, save for fleeting moments of jangly pop-rock, but we’ve never looked to Death Cab for sunshine, so the edge is expected and nearly 40 minutes of quiet reflection with this collection is much needed for us all.
The Messenger by Rhett Miller
Frontman of alt-country group Old 97s, Rhett Miller is a force to be reckoned with. He’s been vocal for a while now about his mental health struggles — the subject often cropping up in his songwriting — but he’s not held back by them. In fact, the very real, very raw, very relatable experiences Rhett’s been through allow for us to confront our own alongside him. Presented as palatable, swirling alt-country tunes, Rhett’s soul is extracted on The Messenger. In twelve songs, he does what he’s always done best: tells sad stories and makes them sound damn good. This isn’t a pity party, though. Rhett’s lyrical prowess abounds across the record despite its (frequently bittersweet, emphasis on bitter) subject matter, and paired with his arrangements of percussive throbs and twangy guitar, continues to prove that his songwriting goes unrivaled.
Leave and Never Come Back by Trying
Led by Cameron Carr, Columbus-based indie outfit Trying released their debut album, Leave and Never Come Back, over the summer. Despite being newcomers to the scene and battling a frequently rotating line-up long distance, Trying put out a record steeped in sincerity. The release was without bells and whistles — the band itself is merely a group of good friends putting their feelings to music. It’s a beautiful thing for them to share with us, especially when those feelings (of insecurity and heartbreak and resignation) are packaged as a mixture of jangly indie gems and emotional declarations spinning among melancholy rhythms.
Queen by Nicki Minaj
Nicki’s been dropping bangers left and right for years now, so Queen is no different. Stacked with collab talent (Lil Wayne, Eminem, Ariana, and Future all get features), the album is pretty obviously Nicki — her signature schizophrenic roleplay, relaxed rap delivery, deep electro bases, and more fight for attention song by song. There’s a darker energy to Queen that most of Nicki’s discography hasn’t exactly carried; things are more intense and looming and brooding here, but the record still pulses with her unending skills as a hip-hop personality.
Coast & Refuge by Kris Gruen
On his latest album, Coast & Refuge, singer-songwriter Kris Gruen offers up 13 easy gems each destined for cinematic glory. Whether it’s rapid-fire dancealongs like “Body In Motion” or soft, sad comedowns like “Giving It All Away,” Gruen expertly crafts sweet soundscapes that make great use of subtle indie-rock arrangements. Not only has he created tons of little modest moments of genius, but he’s also curated the album in a way that allows it to run the gamut of sugary joy all the way to heart-heavy resignation. It’s a moving feat he’s accomplished here, made only more impressive by the fact that every single song seems to come with its own tiny movie sent reeling in your head once you hear it, fully fleshed-out scenes of films that don’t even exist yet but should just for Gruen’s discography to be a part of it.
Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves
Country cutie Kacey Musgraves already has a couple of full-lengths under her belt, but Golden Hour has really been her shining moment. Every song on this record is a dreamy, swirling treasure flavored by Kacey’s vocal twang. The drum pad is subtle, offering quick slaps of percussion as a solid base for the rest of the arrangements to twirl on — tender piano, moments of searing strings, and swollen synth all contribute divinity to an album beautifully and thoughtfully crafted by Kacey’s candor on the wild range of love — from brand new butterflies to inevitable breakups and everything in between.
Other Arrangements by Parker Millsap
Oklahoma born and bred Parker Millsap has been hailed “a star in the making” by NPR’s Ann Powers and she’s damn right about it. The sheer amount of things Parker can do as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist is baffling, to say the least, and completely mesmeric. On Other Arrangements, he demonstrates every skill he has (and he has too many to count) including his signature gritty croon that devolves into a near howl, buzzy harmonica, searing electric guitar solos, and clever songwriting. The album is outstanding from start to finish, laden with Parker’s top-level talent as an Americana artist spicing up his work with blues-rock elements.
High As Hope by Florence + The Machine
Led by the glorious Florence Welch, English indie rock band Florence + The Machine are no strangers to releasing a good record, but something about High As Hope is different. Though critics claim it’s not necessarily as earth-shattering as her previous work, the sincerity and relatability of High As Hope are exactly what make it so compelling. Here, Florence tackles things we all have: things like crippling insecurity and love loss and even, in a total power move on “Big God” that dropped our jaws, ghosting. Beyond the words, though, is the music — robust soundscapes of grandiose strings, thick percussion, and twinkling rhythms all coming together to form an emotional base for Florence’s heart-spillage.
Two-Headed Monster by Blueprint
Blueprint got his start in the underground hip-hop scene of Columbus, Ohio and has since become one of the most impressive wordsmiths of rap. With Two-Headed Monster, he reminds us that he’s still crafting verses thick with social commentary, modern references, and profound insights. Joined by several major collaborators (Slug gets a feature on “Night Writers”), Blueprint still holds his own among fellow rap titans. Though this is his latest release, it borrows elements of classic 90s hip-hop then blends them with more current strategies of the genre. The result is a collection of slick rap anthems built on quick beats and Print’s witty lyricism.
Sweetener by Ariana Grande
Over the summer, pop princess Ariana Grande released her fourth album, Sweetener, dripping with sugar and spice. Enlisting just a couple of big-name legends, the record is led by Ariana’s powerhouse pipes — that breathy, soulful voice with a range we can only dream of. There’s not a whole lot of cohesion here but we’re not missing it. Ariana touches on super quick little dance romps, disorienting trap-like spirals, sweet R&B ballads, and tons more, each track seeming to stand on its own as yet another example of Ari’s vocal and instrumental versatility.
Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe
Jack-of-all-trades Janelle Monáe does it all and she does it all perfectly. Not only is she a talented vocalist and rapper but she’s also an accomplished actress (she crushed it in Hidden Figures as aerospace engineer Mary Jackson) and a style icon. When Dirty Computer dropped earlier this year, it reached critical acclaim due to its fresh take on the successful merging of pop and R&B. There’s no trajectory here — it’s all go, go, go through 14 total bangers, each of which seem to display a certain part of Monáe’s endless pool of talent. With all-star collaborators, groovy dance anthems, quirky rap verses, and addictive pop hooks, the album is a near-perfect representation of Monáe’s whole being: classy cool on the outside but bursting with color on the inside.
Convertible Life by MARLBORO
Comprised of a couple of good friends from New York, anti-folk group MARLBORO released their debut album, Convertible Life, just a few months ago — a passion project lovingly pushed out into the world with hopes of sprouting wings. All of MARLBORO’s members are seasoned musicians, so the album was always destined to fly whether they knew it or not. Led by frontman Dante DeFelice’s quivering, versatile vocals and aided by unrelenting percussion, the record moves frantically through fuzzy garage-rock and psych-folk efforts. No song is even close to the same. Every composition is so wholly original, rich with new elements you hadn’t heard in the preceding tracks, creating soaring, thrashing arrangements sweetened by lyrical sincerity. It’s a beautiful release from people who care, wholeheartedly, about their music, which makes it even easier for us to care too.
Hearts Beat Loud (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Keegan DeWitt
Over the summer, director Brett Haley released Hearts Beat Loud, an indie film about the ways in which music brings us closer and, sometimes, further apart; in the midst of closing his record store and seeing his daughter off to college, Frank connects with Sam through the power of music. We thought the movie was so beautiful and so important that we marched right home from the theatre and wrote up a movie review right here on our music review site. We didn’t know what we were saying, but we did know that we needed to say it. Beyond the film’s thoughtful subject matter and acting, though, is its soundtrack by composer Keegan DeWitt who curated a moving selection of originals sung by actors Kiersey Clemons and Nick Offerman along with fleeting instrumentals and even Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl.” The soundtrack tells the entire Hearts Beat Loud story on its own, dipping into what sweet goodbyes, celebrations, and personal growth sound like.
Expectations by Wild Child
On their fourth full-length record, Expectations, Texan indie-pop band Wild Child offer a beautifully genre-bending collection in which we’re treated to just how many directions the band can not only follow but succeed in. The opener, “Alex,” is a rollicking, upbeat jam only to be followed by the tender soul of “Eggshells.” And so on does this album move — in and out of warring emotions and warring genres, though every choice is given careful thought and composed in stunning arrangements that don’t fight but, rather, co-exist peacefully. Wild Child’s own band name splices their sonic style — at times they are frenzied with life of the wild and at others they’re drowsy with the warmth of childhood. Each version is equally as lovely.
Since I Saw You by Alfred Hall
We’re suckers for dream-pop but nobody does it quite like Alfred Hall. The Norwegian duo seem to float — there’s never any urgency or worry, not even in their quick-paced percussion lines. Nowhere is this made clearer than on their album, Since I Saw You, boasting just nine tracks of smooth indie tunes. Here, Alfred Hall nix the delirium in favor of languishing soundscapes built on sunny psychedelia and soft bursts of pulsing pop. The album acts almost like a salve, sweet relief bubbling up out of hazy arrangements and breathy vocals riding the waves of its own cool nature.
Welcome Back by Handsome Ghost
Comprised of singer-songwriter Tim Noyes and multi-instrumentalist / producer Eddie Byun, indie duo Handsome Ghost released their debut album, Welcome Back, in January. The record is a concept album of sorts, the songs inspired by an old, long-gone relationship. Soaked in sparkles and the searing buzz of synth, Welcome Back presents song after song of bittersweet ballads made palatable by the group’s camaraderie. Noyes’ soft, aching vocals and gut-punch lyrics pair perfectly with Byun’s seemingly unending multi-instrumental talent. Every composition echos with sorrow, writhes with complexity, and glows with the raw, soul-stripped emotion of nostalgia.
Love, Nostalgia by Dreamer Boy
There’s not a whole lot known about Dreamer Boy. The catchy moniker of Nashville artist Zach Taylor and his producer Bobby Knepper, Dreamer Boy remains relatively quiet on the public front, so all we know about the project is that it’s smooth as butter. A few months ago, Zach released Love, Nostalgia, Dreamer Boy’s debut album. Slick with sultry, slow-burn R&B beats and sexy vocal delivery (so quick and confident like Zach’s been doing this for years, and on vast stages with bright lights, too!), the album throbs with a heartbeat. Rivaling the R&B influence are brief moments of neon synths blooming in the background and surf-pop elements — sunny components you’re more likely to find tenfold in Cali than Nashville. That’s exactly what makes the record so dynamic, though. It dazzles with fresh experimentation, one-of-a-kind in its lackadaisical whimsy coming out of the over-saturated folk hub of Music City.