In a streaming world progressively ruled by algorithmic sovereignty, the success of any given record is more scientific than ever. Albums aren’t just independently constructed as 8-track stories, they’re strategically designed to exploit the sites and programs where we consume them. Record labels no longer need to present a cohesive album to sell to an audience. Why would they? With physical copies being a thing of the past, the full story a record tells is less important to the single-loving populous. All these labels need to do is throw as much spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Once they figure out what singles are popular, they can promote the hell out of those few tracks to drive album equivalent sales through the roof. Whether or not you’ve taken notice, you’ve probably fallen victim to this crafty new-age streaming discipline. It’s unavoidable.
Fortunately for us, calculated record design doesn’t equate to music getting worse. It just means we have to pay closer attention to the business reasons driving specific album sales. With merchandising tactics in mind, the trained eye would have recognized a number of promising signs coming from this year’s album allotment. In 2018, women dominated the most impressive albums across almost every major category. Great albums didn’t just come from major domestic markets, they came from worldwide hotbeds cashing in on streaming services’ ability to make anyone’s music heard. Best of all, despite the aforementioned business influences, albums still mean something. The best albums of the year told wonderful stories, set emotions aflame, and won the hearts of fans worldwide.
These are my favorite albums of the year based on enjoyment and importance to the listening world.
1. Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a country music fan – Golden Hour is exceptionally important to the music industry as a whole. After a decade battling within a country music community failing to confront its striking gender imbalance, Kacey Musgraves’ daring 2018 album Golden Hour represents her righteous clash against the conspicuous biases that continue to hold her down. On Golden Hour, Musgraves’ rustic yet celestial voice pairs with an exploratory innocence to take the listener on a journey of true genre-crossing curiosity. This album employs an army of eclectic sounds, yet remains accessible enough to transcend age, gender, and genre-based musical preferences that have traditionally isolated disparate listeners. Simply put, Golden Hour is borderline irresistible. But even with Musgraves’ affectionately catholic approach to songwriting, she still struggled to receive public airplay, thus amassing underwhelming streaming numbers. Most skeptics blamed Musgraves’ anomaly of underappreciated prowess on Nashville’s inability to accept/play newer female artists – a claim for which most stations didn’t have a solid rebuttal. In the wake of extensive public adversity, the industry’s sudden reactive attention on Golden Hour earned the album a host of impressive hardware considerations. Golden Hour is nominated for a Grammy in the esteemed categories of Album of the Year, Country Album of the Year, Country Song of the Year (for “Space Cowboy”), and Country Solo Performance of the Year (for “Butterflies”). It was also named Album of the Year at the CMAs, a significant feat considering it was the only female victory in the show’s gender-neural categories. In a year where females undoubtedly ruled the music world, Golden Hour represents that a battle still needs to be fought to remove bias from taste-makers influential hands.
Favorite Tracks: Golden Hour, Slow Burn, High Horse, Oh What A World, Butterflies
2. Historian by Lucy Dacus
Lucy Dacus is a gift of self-reliant dynamism. Her 2018 album Historian utilizes a pattern of slow, story-setting beginnings; persuasive rising actions; and irresistibly energetic climaxes for songs that sound like full-fledged movies. Dacus has always radiated the heartbreaking bitterness of an emotionally forsaken protagonist, but Historian represents the first time that she also possesses the rebellious confidence to say something about it. The album’s progressively cathartic grit will catch your soft-spoken insecurities at their most defenseless, then transform those weaknesses into weapons of emotional mutiny. Even with each bellow from Dacus’s insurgent lungs, she does not seem superficially angry. Rather, Dacus appears increasingly comfortable in her own skin to the point that she’ll laugh at Hell’s immorality to its face.
Favorite Tracks: Night Shift, Yours & Mine, Timefighter, Addictions, Nonbeliever
3. Lush by Snail Mail
Out of any debut album premiering in 2018, Snail Mail’s Lush is undoubtedly the greatest tour de force. Lush neatly cuts into dispiriting societal conflicts with the unfeigned wit of a seasoned musical warhorse, offering great music for humanity’s most cheerless moments. If you expected that level of astute discernment from an accomplished virtuoso however, you’d be dead wrong. Lindsey Jordan, the girl behind the Snail Mail moniker, just graduated high school only a few short months ago. Her remarkably refined sound and conceptual wisdom is deceptive, giving off the impression that she’s been purifying her brand for a lifetime. Lush is an incredibly promising oddity that suggests Snail Mail and indie-rock as a whole are headed in towards a period of considerable prosperity.
Favorite Tracks: Let’s Find An Out, Golden Dream, Heat Wave, Pristine, Full Control
4. Clean by Soccer Mommy
Everyone deals with social anxiety in some form or another. Outwardly discussing that anxiety can be exhausting, but lucky for us, Soccer Mommy’s 2018 album Clean has the fearlessness to express what everyone was thinking. Ironically enough, Soccer Mommy’s courage doesn’t sound like it’s intended for the world to hear. Clean reads like a diary and sounds like it’s being sung while laying in bed with the door closed. It begs the world for a source of moral guidance, questions the ethics of popularity, aggressively berates thoughtless and manipulative men, and powerlessly solicits a solution for her relationship woes. Soccer Mommy’s realistic balance between defensive charm and offensive disquietude offers listeners a sense of relief that uncertainty and growing pains are a natural part of life.
Favorite Tracks: Your Dog, Scorpio Rising, Blossom (Wasting All My Time), Still Clean, Last Girl
5. What Comes Next by Cosmo’s Midnight
True to its name, there is never a dull moment on Cosmo’s Midnight’s debut album What Comes Next. Each individual track catered by Australian twins Cosmo and Patrick Liney is vastly different, serving as a heterogeneous piece to a colorful, unabridged puzzle. The album’s mixed bag of pop, electronic, hip hop, and revivalist genres exhibits two era-agnostic themes: every song is designed to be extraneously entertaining, and every song is meant to inspire dance (or some sort of provocative physical reaction) from the majority of mainstream listeners. Although the songs are more impudent and sassy lyrically, the production styles on What Comes Next reflect shades of production used 30+ years ago. In that same spirit of timelessness, this album is fun, fascinating, intoxicating, and occasionally outrageous – a curious formula that’s perfect for avoiding boredom.
Favorite Tracks: Where U Been, Talk To Me, Polarized, Get To Know, Dreamer
6. boygenius by boygenius
Indie-rock fans, boy down: your queens have arrived. Boygenius, the all-female “supergroup” consisting of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, has the indie community foaming at the mouth with zealous adoration. The three individually successful soloists were fiercely collaborative in their self-titled supergroup debut, exercising a collective melody that’s pristine, whole, and best of all, nontraditional. While they individually represent emotional transparency, they collectively represent a triumphant strength unlike anything the indie world has ever heard before. The EP lasts a measly 22 minutes, but each passing second sees the listener’s acute inhibitions methodically undone in an intensely affecting and enlightening series of sentimental jabs.
Favorite Tracks: Me & My Dog, Bite The Hand, Souvenir, Salt In The Wound
7. ye by Kanye West
2018 was a very weird year for Kanye West. His anticipated and frankly bizarre return to the studio as part of the fabled “Project Wyoming” brought with it its fair share of divisive reactions, and for good reason. Some people ate up his outlandish attempt to host a publicly promoted, privately attended, 5-album release party in the middle of an estranged Wyoming cowboy ranch. Other Kanye purists starkly rejected his confounding gear change, arguing that he’s drifting away from his core competencies and towards the life of a self-indulgent PR stuntman. In reality however, the same adjectives used to describe Project Wyoming could be applied to Kanye West fans in 2018: dedicated, apprehensive, exploratory, and occasionally head-scratching. His polarizing 7-track album ye was the highlight of the project, putting his intense battle with bipolar disorder on full display. The album didn’t question whether “old Kanye” can coexist with “new Kanye”, but rather whether Kanye can coexist with his own emotions. No matter if you liked the album or not, ye harps on an unfortunate mental conflict that innumerable others silently struggle with on a daily basis. It’s representative of an important ideological shift in hip hip, spotlighting previously unspoken vulnerabilities as the highlight of a rap icon’s storied life.
Favorite Tracks: Wouldn’t Leave, All Mine, No Mistakes, Ghost Town
8. Bottle It In by Kurt Vile
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I cannot believe that Kurt Vile continues to stay relevant and compelling. No offense to Vile, but the sheer volume of content he’s produced over the past decade combined with his inelegant “slacker rock” brand doesn’t make a great conceptual case for inventiveness and longevity. Nevertheless, Vile’s 10th studio album in 10 years marked his most entertaining album to date. Bottle It In retains Vile’s trademark mental volatility and allows his ethos to take on the model of a whimsical vagabond rather than a haphazard vagrant. Vile still utilizes his familiarly lazy talk-singing approach, but his absurdly complex guitar riffs combined with his unmatched storytelling abilities emulate a level of maturity paramount to his value as an artist. This lifelong tumbleweed is ironically snowballing into a more consistently effective songwriter, and it’s exciting to see him hitting such a constructive stride this far into his career.
Favorite Tracks: Rollin’ With The Flow, Bassackwards, Loading Zones, Come Again, Check Baby
9. K.T.S.E. by Teyana Taylor
Teyana Taylor does not deserve to be forgotten in the shadows of Project Wyoming. Other Project Wyoming albums from Kanye West, Pusha T, Nas, and Kid Cudi may have eclipsed Teyana Taylor’s sophomore album in fated preeminence, but when push comes to shove, Taylor’s K.T.S.E. was a major standout. Her soulful, wide-ranging vocals, jazzy R&B backing, and seductive, immodest lyrics paint a graphically erotic picture virtually dripping with swagger. She isn’t flirting, she’s shamelessly gloating, and it’s as effective as it is intentionally savage. Most importantly, K.T.S.E.‘s unraveled acronym “Keep That Same Energy” exemplifies the overarching theme of Taylor’s lifelong struggle to stay hungry despite failure. She subtly propagates an unending appetite for improvement, something that allows her to stand barefaced and proud atop her pedestal of newfound commendation.
Favorite Tracks: Gonna Love Me, Issues/Hold On, 3Way, Rose In Harlem, Hurry
10. EVERYTHING IS LOVE by The Carters
From the dawn of their decade-old marriage, a full-scale collaboration between Jay Z and Beyoncé was only a matter of time. As arguably the most influential power couple in the history of hip hop, Shawn Carter & Beyoncé Knowles-Carter are beacons of categorical supremacy. Their debut under their family name “The Carters” is a testament to their household dynasty, gratifying the eternal content-lust from their distinctly cultist and synergistic fan bases. While their respective solo albums typically preach authoritative and therapeutic individuality, EVERYTHING IS LOVE shrouds itself in formidable togetherness. The album celebrates The Carters’ enviable love, their proud black culture/heritage, and the daunting duality of their deserved fame. As if we didn’t already know it, EVERYTHING IS LOVE solidifies Jay Z and Beyoncé as maestros of unmatched social influence who can simultaneously alter the state of public interest with the point of their banded fingers.
Favorite Tracks: SUMMER, BLACK EFFECT, HEARD ABOUT US, LOVEHAPPY, BOSS