The 50 Best Albums of 2018

Music Lists Best Albums
The 50 Best Albums of 2018

Yes, the album is still relevant in 2018. Even as we become more likely to stream playlists or shuffle the works of an artist on Spotify, it’s worth taking a look at music as an artist intended, a package of tracks, sequenced with care, offering a snapshot view into a singular creative endeavor with a long history—the LP. This year’s list of best albums was voted on by Paste’s staff, music writers and tireless interns. As always, Paste’s Best Albums of 2018 reflects the specific and varying tastes of its voters—lots of indie rock and singer/songwriters with a smattering of country, hip-hop, soul and whatever genre you want to call Lonnie Holley. We’ll release an updated list with our reader’s favorites, so send us your top 10 albums to [email protected] by Dec. 1.

Here are the 50 Best Albums of 2018:

yo-la-riot.jpg50. Yo La Tengo: There’s A Riot Going On
New Jersey’s foremost indie auteurs have always managed to find that fine line between obtuse experimentation and pastoral pop, one that sometimes makes Yo La Tengo’s intentions difficult to unpack but enticing enough for added interest. For some, There’s a Riot Going On will likely further blur the lines between dreaminess and delirium, but given its low-lit haze, the atmospheric climate and the throbbing percussion that churns and gurgles throughout, that affable approach never wavers. Longtime stalwarts Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan and James McNew supposedly recorded it all spontaneously and without premeditation, suggesting they were in a decidedly reflective mood throughout the process. Likewise, there seems to have been a concerted effort to impart a comforting tone and compelling message, however opaque it occasionally appears. It’s best to take There’s a Riot Going On as a distinct whole, rather than simply a series of subdued tunes. The undulating tones anchor it all, giving it a unified purpose even though few of the melodies are of the hummable variety. A riot? Hardly. But by combining these trance-like textures in such an incessant way, they’ve created music of a mostly memorable variety regardless. —Lee Zimmerman

blood-orange-negro-swan.jpg49. Blood Orange: Negro Swan
“You’re doing the most.” If you’re a queer person of color, you’ve probably heard the phrase thrown at you like a muzzle. It asks you to shrink, to silence the very traits you’ve built to survive in a world that doesn’t always love you. But “doing the most,” being “extra,” or acting “too much,” shouldn’t have to be a fault. There can be strength in that excess. Devonté “Dev” Hynes of Blood Orange knows that well. An auteur who stretches across genres and projects, Hynes is the kind of artist whose reach might seem extreme. From songwriting and producing for Solange and Carly Rae Jepsen, to scoring films such as Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto and performing with classical composer Philip Glass, Hynes is doing the most. His latest album, Negro Swan, asks: why would you ever want to do the least? It’s a question posed by transgender activist Janet Mock, who narrates the album. Ecstasy grows on melodic R&B tracks like “Take Your Time,” where hazy flutes spill into Hynes’ airy vocal runs, or single “Jewelry,” where his layered harmonies halt to a declaration of self-love. James Baldwin once noted that sensuality existed at the root of Black America’s “ironic tenacity”—that tendency to endlessly weave suffering into something luscious. To be sensual, Baldwin suggests, is not some promiscuous thing. Rather, it is to “respect and rejoice in the force of life.” Hynes has crafted a work that does exactly this. With myriad collaborators from A$AP Rocky and Puff Daddy, to rising talents TeiShi and Ian Isiah, Negro Swan looks unflinchingly at black and queer life—its traumas, its tensions, its passions. And tucked somewhere within it all, is hope: “The sun comes in,” Hynes reminds us at last. —Jenzia Burgos

ashley-mcbryde-girl.jpg48. Ashley McBryde: Girl Going Nowhere
The deck feels perpetually stacked against women in the modern country marketplace. To make any kind of commercial inroads, the constantly moving pathways currently require these ladies to either hide their twang behind a wall of pop production (RaeLynn, Maren Morris), ape the blustery sound that the boys are making (Carly Pearce) or shoot for something far outside the norm and pray for crossover success (Kacey Musgraves). Where does that leave a country traditionalist like Ashley McBryde? Surprisingly, it finds her on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart with “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega,” a single from her debut album Girl Going Nowhere and opening up for platinum-selling artist Luke Combs on his headlining tour. Both are sensible places to be. That song, with its lyrical laundry list of working class signifiers, is catnip to country fans. And traversing the U.S. with Combs as he plays mid-size venues on his ascent up the ladder is the best way to get her songs heard en masse without having to fight for attention at sheds and arenas. She made her name in biker bars and honky tonks before getting snapped up by a major label. And no other song on Nowhere fits as neatly into the eye of the needle that every artist in Nashville is trying to thread as “Dahlonega” does. It’s a no bullshit record free of frills and fat; 11 songs that make their points powerfully and memorably. These songs don’t need to be messed with or tarted up or given a 21st-century shine. They work perfectly in their current roughshod, if gently polished, form. The needle may keep moving for female country artists, but that’s of little concern to McBryde. She’s on a journey toward career longevity and Nowhere is her confident and solid first step. —Robert Ham

flasher-constant.jpg47. Flasher: Constant Image
Flasher are a trio who play an amalgamation of joyful, frenetic pop, punk, post-punk and shoegaze. The band released their debut album, Constant Image, this year via Domino Records, and it’s unequivocally one of the best albums of the year. What sets them apart from many of their peers is their knack for writing such immediate pop melodies and their slick production value, which maintains their chugging rock energy and allows their impressively consistent tracklist to shine. Each member contributes vocals—guitarist Taylor Mulitz (formerly of Priests) is playful and self-assured, bassist Danny Saperstein’s vocals are snotty and eccentric and drummer Emma Baker lends gorgeous vocal harmonies. —Lizzie Manno

phosphorescent-cest.jpg46. Phosphorescent: C’est La Vie
Since Muchacho, Matthew Houck fell in love, got married, moved from New York City to Nashville, became a father, nearly died in a bout with meningitis and built his own studio, by hand, from the ground up. That’s a lot of major life events to pack into a half-decade, so it’s no surprise that he sounds like a different man on his new album C’est La Vie. His fine-grit tenor is still perfectly raspy, and his songs still hang effortlessly near the border between barstool country and warm-glow pop, with Houck’s experimental streak interloping into both territories. This is still Phosphorescent. It’s just that the man behind the wheel is older and a little bit wiser these days. “There From Here” wraps the revelation of clarity in a gentle sway of burbling organs. “Around the Horn” is hazy and hopeful, and it stands out thanks to its fuzzy motorik groove and sumptuous coda. “My Beautiful Boy” is a sweet love song for Houck’s son, streaked with pedal steel guitar and textured with hand percussion. And on “New Birth in New England,” Houck’s band, which includes wife Jo Schornikow, showcases its gospel-pop-rock chops as its leader takes a few minutes to unwind with some lines about the miracles of beer and childbirth. Houck sounds bemused but happy, like a man still learning to navigate and appreciate a whole new existence. No doubt, his beautiful and affecting music will grow with him—and help guide him. —Ben Salmon

paul-kelly-nature.jpg45. Paul Kelly: Nature
A brilliant though decidedly underrated songwriter and storyteller, Paul Kelly’s positioned himself as an adroit Everyman for most of his more-than-four-decade career. Averaging nearly an album a year, this Aussie native still manages to create beautifully memorable melodies that ring with universal truths. Nature is no exception—a rapid follow up to 2017’s aptly titled Life Is Fine, it finds him offering up simple, shared sentiments, typified by titles like “The Trees,” “With Animals” and “God’s Grandeur,” without posture or pretense. Ironically, even when he veers from his amiable persona on “A Bastard Like Me,” the otherwise harsh refrain is underscored by the singular strum of acoustic guitar. More to the point, the soothing “Seagulls of Seattle,” “Morning Storm,” Mushrooms,” and “The River Song” find him maintaining that easy allure through meandering melodies and nuanced narratives. Effortlessly affecting, Nature offers further examples of Kelly’s conviction, credence and compassion. —Lee Zimmerman

kacey-golden.jpg44. Kacey Musgraves: Golden Hour
Kacey Musgraves’s album Pageant Material was one of Paste’s favorite releases of 2015, so when the country crooner announced her return earlier this year, we had a feeling it’d be another winner. Little did we know that Golden Hour, with its breezy love songs that practically glisten with soft, luxurious sheen, wouldn’t just be Musgraves’s best release yet, but one of the best records of the year. A massive crossover hit, Golden Hour showcases Musgraves’s silky vocals and penchant for bright, vulnerable country-pop hits, transcending the limits of genre. —Loren DiBlasi

caroline-rose-loner.jpg43. Caroline Rose: LONER
Caroline Rose’s 2014 album I Will Not Be Afraid was an eclectic roots-rock album, with rockabilly hiccups and real-deal twang sitting alongside vintage keyboard tones and lyrics about white privilege and Pagan lust. Rose’s fine new album LONER finds the New York-based singer-songwriter exploring an entirely new musical aesthetic without sacrificing any of the mischievous spark that coursed through her earlier work. She has ditched roots-rock in favor of a punchier, studio-powered pop sound, packed with danceable beats, prominent synths, big choruses and plenty of swagger. She remains unafraid of singing about serious subjects (capitalism, sexism, death, etc.) but on LONER, she delivers it through a bold, candy-colored filter that’s always intriguing and often irresistible. Throughout LONER, she uses sarcasm and humor when dealing with dark subjects, including, seemingly, her own ambition. “Where are you climbing to, girl? There’s nothing for you up there,” she sings in the second verse of “Cry,” probably the album’s best song. “Better come on back down to Earth, you silly thing. You’ll learn your place yet.” LONER is a big step up Caroline Rose’s artistic ladder, and evidence she hasn’t “learned her place” and never will. —Ben Salmon

bettye-things.jpg42. Bettye LaVette: Things Have Changed
Dylan drew from many wells for his songs, but one of the primary sources was the blues, as his nods to Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell and Blind Lemon Jefferson attest. And it’s through the blues that legendary rhythm & blues singer LaVette connected to a dozen Dylan compositions—most of them deep album cuts—for this disc. LaVette comes out of Detroit’s northern soul scene, and she approaches Dylan as if he were just another songwriter on Berry Gordy’s payroll at Motown. These songs pull LaVette back to the Mississippi Delta, however, back where John Lee Hooker and so many Detroiters came from, and she pulls them up north to a streetwise perspective. In the process, she roughs up the songs, funks them up, until they take on whole new personalities. —Geoffrey Himes

lenker-abysskiss.jpg41. Adrianne Lenker: abysskiss
Big Thief singer Adrianne Lenker excels by tapping into the core of the human soul in the most tender, gentle and vivid way possible and her new solo LP, absysskiss, is no exception. Through just vocals, acoustic guitar and intermittent keyboards, Lenker conjures up something magical and weighty with so few elements. The 10 songs that make up abysskiss toggle from intoxicating love to somber grief and it spans many feelings in between. Lenker uses nature metaphors to tackle heavy subject matters like mortality, love, birth, friendship and youth, but she doesn’t hide behind these metaphors. She uses them to boil down complex topics into something familiar, immediate and sentimental. The album’s two singles, “Cradle” and “Symbol,” are highlights with the candid, understated beauty of the former and the haunting, hypnotic mysticism of the latter. Fans of Big Thief should latch on to this record as Lenker’s evocative storytelling, oneness with nature, unique vocal tones and her ability to arouse grandeur from the mundane are all apparent on this record. Lenker has proved herself to be one of the most captivating songwriters, not just in indie-folk, but of the present day. Providing newfound comfort and warm familiarity, abysskiss is a record that will quickly find its way into your heart and slowly caress your soul. —Lizzie Manno

kelly-moran-ultraviolet.jpg40. Kelly Moran: Ultraviolet
Composer and performer Kelly Moran has made music before with prepared piano, the practice of stick objects between and atop the strings of a piano to alter its sound. But that work was more fully thought out and worried over. For her latest album Ultraviolet, Moran improvised a series of pieces over the course of a day, then adapted and edited the work into songs, filling them out with swirls of electronic color provided by herself and, on three songs, Oneohtrix Point Never mastermind Daniel Lopatin. The results are startlingly beautiful, with her chosen instrument taking on the exotic tinge of a gamelan or a hammered dulcimer. Combined with the sound treatments burbling below it and little touches that bolster bass notes in certain tracks, the music becomes rootless and free of genre. It is its own sun with the rest of us orbiting around it and basking in its brightness and warmth. —Robert Ham

alejandro-crossing.jpg39. Alejandro Escovedo: The Crossing
Alejandro Escovedo has always embraced his immigrant roots, a stand that’s all the more courageous in today’s increasingly hostile environment. Yet, he’s never been oblivious to punk, pop and the fuller possibilities of Americana music, which, of course, includes those sounds originating from south of the border. It’s little surprise that Escovedo was able to neatly combine all these elements for The Crossing without diminishing the sheer scope of the sounds and story. A concept piece about two young Mexicans attempting to deal with the stark realities of a new life in a small Texas town, it demonstrates how politics and polemics often yield harsh results. Punk pundits Wayne Kramer and James Williamson provide cameos, but it’s the resilient refrains of “Fury and Fire,” “Outlaw for You” and “Footsteps in the Shadows,” along with the reflective tones of “The Crossing,” “Texas Is My Mother” and “Silver City,” that leave the most emphatic impression. —Lee Zimmerman

richard-swift-hex.jpg38. Richard Swift: The Hex
After singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and indie-rock uber-producer Richard Swift died in July, his family announced, among other things, that he had been working on new music, that said new music had been planned for release in November—Swift’s final artistic statement. What a final statement it is. The Hex is tuneful and confident, immaculately arranged and distinctively produced, and reflective of the man’s longstanding interests in old soul music, vintage pop, fuzzy rock ’n’ roll and beautiful walls of sound. It’s also strikingly honest, which is perhaps no surprise, since it comes from an artist who had, according to that same family statement, been battling the effects of alcohol addiction over the past couple of years. He makes no bones about his situation in “Broken Finger Blues,” which sounds like a classic Motown track charmingly recorded at the bottom of a well: “My body’s broken / My body is bruised / Try to remember what it’s like not to lose / I won’t go under / I won’t give in / Try to remember what it’s like to win.” The sonic details that surround those lines—the snappy bass line, the commanding piano chords, the lush backing vocals—belie their harrowing essence. The Hex ends modestly with “Sept20,” which finds Swift at the piano, sounding Elliott Smith-ish and singing of health and poison wells and sickness and death. The song ends somewhat abruptly, without some grand final statement or crescendo to tie everything up neatly. In a way, though, that’s exactly the right ending for Richard Swift, a quintessential musician’s musician, and a top-shelf man behind the curtain. He was better known for his studio acumen and production work than his own songs, yes, but his solo albums are revered among those lucky enough to have heard them. The Hex will only bolster his legacy. —Ben Salmon

preoccupations-new-mat.jpg37. Preoccupations: New Material
The members of Preoccupations have always confidently followed their own rules as they straddle the line between humanity and the brutish force of their music. Examinations of creation, destruction and the ways that we often practice the two in vain have regularly been tethered to the Canadian post-punk band’s work—even going back to their days as Viet Cong. And while that’s quite a downcast undertaking, it’s one that goes hand-in-hand with Preoccupations’ dystopian-future-sounding music. With their third LP, New Material, they dive into it headlong, kicking things off on a decidedly ’80s note with “Espionage,” the synths, skeletal beat, and Flegel’s dramatic vocals sounding like a twisted, bleaker version of Depeche Mode. It’s dark and grinding, but still so danceable it could be an alternate soundtrack the scene in The Breakfast Club where they’re all gettin’ down—cue Judd Nelson hanging off of that weird hand-statue thing. —Madison Desler

lonnie-holley-mith.jpg36. Lonnie Holley: MITH
Alabama native Lonnie Holley was making folk art, from found-object sculptures to imaginative, vibrant paintings to photography and drawing, decades before releasing his debut album in 2012 on Lance Ledbetter’s Dust to Digital label. But the 68-year-old, who’s cultivated a life of “improvisational creativity,” touring the world with his art, may need to carve some more space for music after this year’s gorgeous avant-jazz album MITH. Equal parts Sun Ra and Tom Waits, he growls freestyle lyrics over improvised piano, making each performance unique. With titles like “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship,” “I Woke Up in a Fucked Up America” and “Down in the Ghostness of Darkness,” his songs on MITH are like snippets of prophesy from a fever-dream nation. The late Richard Swift produced the track, “Copying the Rock,” one of his final musical gifts to us before his way-too-young death in July. The small-hours-of-the-morning atmospherics throughout the album lend themselves perfectly to Holley’s art. MITH is a strange and wonderful treasure, unlike anything else you’ll hear this year. —Josh Jackson

see-you-around.jpg35. I’m With Her: See You Around
Their band name may remind you of a particularly turbulent election season, but their music, which is punctuated with warm harmonies and bare-bones acoustics, recalls a relaxed hootenanny rather than a televised debate. Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins, Crooked Still’s Aoife O’Donovan and folk songstress Sarah Jarosz began collaborating as I’m With Her back in 2015—prior to the launch of Hillary Clinton’s identically named presidential campaign slogan—but See You Around is the bluegrass supertrio’s full-length debut. Their fortified voices, plus Watkins’ fiddle, O’Donovan’s guitar, and Jarosz’s mandolin, mesh in a familial way—it’s a wonder they aren’t sisters. Plucky and purposeful, See You Around is at once soothing and sweeping, a testament to practiced musicianship and the power of collaboration, a chief value in bluegrass/acoustic scenes. During performances, the three women gather around a single microphone, like a family sitting down for supper. On the record, similes and other clever lyrical nuggets are woven into a hearty 40 minutes. See You Around creeps to start with a gentle crescendo and resounds to a close with the hymn-like “Hundred Miles.” Though still in their infancy, I’m With Her are pros, and their ability to effortlessly freshen bluegrass sounds while maintaining musical mastery marks them as one of the best working supergroups, in Americana and beyond. —Ellen Johnson

dj-koze-knock.jpg34. DJ Koze: Knock Knock
DJ Koze has the rare ability to make his rhythmic electronic canvases feel timeless the moment you hear them. The German producer’s eighth LP, Knock Knock, was released on his own Pampa Records label and features vocalists like Róisín Murphy, Speech from Arrested Development (the band, not the show), Jose Gonzalez, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner and more. Turn on the Murphy-featured groove “Illumination” on a Friday afternoon and you’ll ride into the weekend on cloud nine. —Adrian Spinelli

rosanne-cash-she-remembers.jpg33. Rosanne Cash: She Remembers Everything
Rosanne Cash is a powerful and outspoken voice in country music. But on her new album She Remembers Everything, the follow-up to 2013’s acclaimed The River & The Thread, Cash is more concerned with the personal than the political. More than anything, she seems to wish comfort upon her listener; the songs envelop you in simple chords and caring words. On She Remembers Everything, Cash seeks to understand—not only herself, but those around her—and how best to usher in peace despite prevailing tumult. Like her father Johnny before her, she’s a razorsharp lyricist. Often using Biblical imagery and lyrical metaphors, Cash creates in this album something of an oasis. She speaks on “Crossing To Jerusalem” of the day when “We’ll be crossing to Jerusalem / with nothing but our love,” a sentiment that’s sure to fit in snugly alongside the warm, hopeful sentiments soon emerging with the holiday season. Though Cash refrains from direct political speech on this record, she offers solace amid the political unrest, choosing to focus on personal connection rather than polarization as we near the end of a chaotic, divisive year. —Ellen Johnson

noname-room-25.jpg32. Noname: Room 25
In 2016, Chicago rapper Noname, née Fatimah Nyeema Warner, made a brief but unforgettable appearance on the penultimate track on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, the unapologetically joyful collaboration “Finish Line / Drown.” That song also featured T-Pain and Kirk Franklin and others, but Noname, relatively unknown at the time, administered one of its best lines: “The water may be deeper than it’s ever been / Never drown.” On Room 25, the follow-up to her 2016 debut album/mixtape Telefone that she surprise-released in September, Noname helms a collaborative jingle of her own, the empowered “Ace,” which features fellow Midwestern rappers Smino and Saba. They waste no breath in declaring their summary of hip hop in 2018: “Smino Grigio, Noname, and Saba the best rappers / And radio n****s sound like they wearing adult diapers.” It’s on the album’s first two tracks (“Self,” followed by the observatory “Blaxpoitation”), however, where Noname forges more political waters, delivering deeply important lines of poetry about racism and sexism. “Self” is her documented questioning of everything that’s absurd in 2018 and a breakdown of what it’s like to wade through the music industry as a woman rapper. “My pussy teaches ninth-grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism,” she raps, before later asking, “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap huh?” Through Room 25’s calculated wisps of groove rap and studied waves of neo-soul, Noname proves she’s wise and fortified, and not to be questioned. —Ellen Johnson

neko-case-hell-on.jpg31. Neko Case: Hell-On
Neko Case writes as if she beams songs in from another dimension, one not bound by our conventions of songcraft. A place where tempos fluctuate, melodies shapeshift, verses can unfold forever and choruses are elusive, and sometimes expendable. Case’s seventh full-length solo album Hell-On finds the veteran singer/songwriter pushing and pulling on her own established form, with the help of a whole bunch of talented friends. Among its 11 tracks are some of the poppiest arrangements of Case’s career, a few labyrinthine slow-burners and a couple of songs that serve as reminders of her distinctive style. Hell-On is well-stocked with catchy tunes and simmering rage. On the title track, Case spends three sparse verses comparing God to a “lusty tire fire” and her own voice to a garotting wire before the song suddenly blossoms into a sprightly interlude. The album was all but finished by the time a fire destroyed Case’s Vermont home last year. Still, she sounds like a fist looking for a fight throughout much of Hell-On. Case is like no one else, with an artistic vision that’s deeply rooted and clearly focused, and an adventurous compositional spirit that runs laps around most of her contemporaries. As a result, her catalog overflows with interesting and unconventional songs that nonetheless feel comforting and familiar. That’s a catalog worth celebrating, and Hell-On is a wonderful new chapter of Case’s career. —Ben Salmon

haley-h-garden.jpg30. Haley Heynderickx: I Need to Start a Garden
We’re not hurting for great singer/songwriters here in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. For years now, it’s been one of our greatest exports alongside bacon maple bars and pizza named after metal albums. But if we were to get into the game of ranking these musical talents, I daresay that Haley Heynderickx would surely take the top spot. There’s just something about the understated grace and humor mixed with an abundance of spirit that serves as a vital corrective to the sometimes self-important airs that her peers sometimes put on. This comes through quite beautifully on her debut album, I Need To Start A Garden. As lush and scenic as its title suggests, the album is a thoughtful collection, painting vivid, personal portraits of quirky characters, as well as intimate self-reflection. Album opener “No Face,” inspired by a bar fight Heynderickx witnessed, stars a mysterious figure plucked from a Hayao Miyazaki film; on the ecstatic “Worth It,” Heynedrickx turns inward, repeating: “Maybe I’ve been worthless/ Maybe I’ve been worth it.” —Robert Ham and Loren DiBlasi

beths-future.jpg29. The Beths: Future Me Hates Me
Elizabeth Stokes named her band after herself, or, rather, her nickname. So it should come as no surprise, then, that the debut album from New Zealand-based rockers The Beths, Future Me Hates Me, is sharply self-aware. Stokes, a music teacher who quit her day job to tour the world with The Beths, pairs clever, refreshingly straightforward lyrics with uber-catchy guitar pop, and she never stutters in delivering even the most blunt assessments of her doubts, fears and anxieties. “Sometimes I think I’m doing fine / I think I’m pretty smart,” she sings on the album’s title track before, later, completing the thought: “Oh then the walls become thin / And somebody gets in / I’m defenseless.” On dizzying love song “Little Death,” she captures and tames all the butterflies swarming around in her stomach: “And the red spreads to my cheeks / You make me feel three glasses in.” The Beths sound as if they’re already three albums in, playing with the musical and lyrical finesse of a much older and more experienced band. Every single song on this record arrives with as many contagious hooks and honest confessions as on the sparkly, frank “Little Death” and the toe-tap-inducing examination of overthinking “Future Me Hates Me.” Indie rock is alive and well in Oceania—The Beths, like their Australian neighbors Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, hit it out of the park in crafting one of the sturdiest rock debuts of the year. —Ellen Johnson

camp-cope-socialise.jpg28. Camp Cope: How to Socialise & Make Friends
The second album from Melbourne trio Camp Cope isn’t particularly interested in social niceties, despite its title: From the LP’s peppy opening bass notes, vocalist/guitarist Georgia “Maq” McDonald, bassist Kelly-Dawn “Kelso” Hellmrich and drummer Sarah “Thomo” Thompson use their shaggy, accessible indie-rock to address everything from music-industry sexism (“The Opener”) and sexual assault (“The Face of God”) to relationships of all stripes (“UFO Lighter”). Georgia Maq’s voice is at the center of it all, the album’s single most powerful instrument: She’s unfailing in her raw honesty, whether thumbing her nose at mansplainers or remembering her beloved late father, spinning vital and emotionally charged art out of whatever life throws at her. — Scott Russell

ought-room-inside.jpg27. Ought: Room Inside the World
Clocking in at a mere 40 minutes, Ought’s third studio album Room Inside the World earnestly delivers with strategic, unexpected song development and passionate, yearning lyrics. This is not a one-note album.This record champions the Canadian outfit’s ability to embrace a multitude of sounds, bridging the gaps between several similar, yet very different genres. While some songs are naturally rock ’n’ roll, others are pure post-punk, digging into Joy Division-like vocals and progressive bass-driven blocks. Room Inside the World takes you for a winding, unpredictable ride, one that ends much earlier than you’d like, leaving you wanting more. —Annie Black

superchunk-time.jpg26. Superchunk: What a Time to Be Alive
Indie-rock legends Superchunk, who formed in 1989 and helped define ’90s independent culture, returned in 2010 after a mostly idle decade, and have gone on to put out three of their very best albums in their third decade of existence. In February they released What a Time to Be Alive, their 11th official album, and a furious but clear-eyed slab of anti-Trump, anti-GOP, anti-bullshit truth-telling. The name of the new album came from the post-apocalyptic embers of 2016’s election cycle, spurring band members Mac McCaughan, Laura Ballance, Jim Wilbur and Jon Wurster to close the gaps between albums. Recorded and mixed by Beau Sorenson, What a Time to Be Alive features guest backing vocalists way more than the Superchunk of the past: Sabrina Ellis (A Giant Dog, Sweet Spirit), Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee), Stephin Merritt (The Magnetic Fields), Skylar Gudasz and David Bazan (Pedro the Lion) all make appearances on the title track. Blaring guitar solos and shout-along choruses abound, and it’s quintessential Superchunk.—Garrett Martin and Hannah Fleming

idles-joy.jpg25. IDLES: Joy As An Act Of Resistance
While discussing even the most harrowing themes, IDLES’ Joy as an Act of Resistance forces you to find hope in any circumstance. The Bristol-based punk outfit’s second album is loud and raucous while still embracing melody and sing-along (well, yell-along) choruses. From the utterly addictive single “Danny Nedelko” (a pro-immigration, in-your-face track about the band’s personal friend) to the haunting, grieving “June” (about the still-born death of singer Joe Talbot’s daughter), Joy as an Act of Resistance encapsulates the title of the album, standing up against personal, social and political strife with abundant confidence. —Annie Black

iceage-beyondless.jpg24. Iceage: Beyondless
Iceage are getting crotchety in their old-ish age. Now in their late twenties, the one-time punk-rock prodigies move beyond the churn and clang of their first three albums to push themselves in new directions on Beyondless, their fourth LP. It’s just such a dour listen. Not all of it. The Danish band hasn’t lost the knack for shockwave riffs, as demonstrated by the thunderous blast of horns, guitars and percussion that surges through the start of “Pain Killer” (featuring vocals from Sky Ferreira). And Iceage still have a taste for ruthless social commentary of the sort that singer and guitarist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt delivers on opener “Hurrah.” Over a speedy, almost triumphal blend of guitars and bass, he offers a derisive take on the mindset behind military interventionism: “Because we can’t stop killing/ And we’ll never stop killing/ And we shouldn’t stop killing/ Hurrah.” Chew on that, John Bolton. —Eric R. Danton

elvis-look-now.jpg23. Elvis Costello: Look Now
The last time Elvis Costello put out an album, he was backed by The Roots on 2013’s largely underrated and flat-out spectacular Wise Up Ghost! It saw the London New Wave songwriter opening up his repertoire to a collaboration with hip hop’s most famous live band. Now five years later, Costello returns to the form that made him one of the most well-respected names in music. In tow, are The Imposters, a band whom he most recently recorded 2008’s Momofuku with, as well as legendary songwriter/pianist Burt Bacharach, a longtime collaborator of Costello’s who helped thread multiple tracks on the album. “I had all of the orchestrations and vocal parts in my head or on the page before we played a note,” the ever-methodical Costello said in a press release. Songs like “Suspect My Tears,” deliver Costello’s timeless lyricism through and through. —Adrian Spinelli

big-red.jpg22. Big Red Machine: Big Red Machine
Big Red Machine was a decade in the making, starting with the sketch of a song The National’s Aaron Dessner sent Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon for the Dark Was the Night charity compilation and culminating with recording sessions with a host of friends. Anchored by Dessner and Vernon, their guests include vocalists like Lisa Hannigan, Phoebe Bridgers, This Is the Kit’s Kate Stables and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, and string arrangements from Rob Moose and Dessner’s twin brother Bryce. In all, it includes more than two dozen contributors from the minimalistic PEOPLE music platform created by Vernon and the Dessners to encourage collaboration and sharing. Side projects like this often seem tossed off, but Big Red Machine feels like the opposite—something remarkably ambitious, a labor of love that sees two of indie rock’s most talented and creative minds pursuing a passion without pressure, or limits. The resulting music can sound at times like a National album with Vernon’s echoing, manipulated falsetto serving as a stark contrast to the warm, intimate baritone of Matt Berninger, and at other times like a Bon Iver album with more complex and inventive chordal patterns and rhythmic structures. It’s experimental but affecting with Vernon’s snippets of heart-on-sleeve vulnerability popping up screaming from a cloud of otherwise opaque lyrics. You can hear the influence of Vernon’s work in the hip-hop world in both the underlying beats and his vocals on tracks like “Gratitude” and “Lyla.” Polyrhythms and the odd time signatures Dessner loves to employ with The National abound, and combined with Vernon’s recent sonic exploration on 22 a Million and sometimes incomprehensible word salads, immediate accessibility isn’t really the goal here. But those complexities and sonic risks are also where the music is most rewarding. Neither The National nor Bon Iver does “happy music,” and the themes running through Big Red Machine are rarely uplifting, but there’s unmistakable joy in the music here, a deep care and love for what they were creating and how they got to create it—among friends who also happen to be overflowing with talent. Fans of either band are likely to share in that joy. —Josh Jackson

cma-kindness.jpg21. Courtney Marie Andrews: May Your Kindness Remain
After breaking through with a batch of restless, itinerant songs on Honest Life in 2016, Courtney Marie Andrews longs for something more permanent on the follow-up. The Seattle singer spends much of May Your Kindness Remain exploring ideas of home and what it means to have roots on 10 new tunes that are lusher and more expansive while leaving plenty of room to showcase her astonishing voice. Andrews and her band recorded May Your Kindness Remain with producer Mark Howard, whose voluminous credits include albums by Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris. Howard’s understated aesthetic suits Andrews, who pushes herself toward bolder musical arrangements and a fuller, more soulful sound than the traveling-woman-with-guitar feel of Honest Life. On the folky waltz “I’ve Hurt Worse,” she displays a lacerating sarcastic streak on lyrics mock-praising the loutish behavior of a suitor (or lover). Still, as the album title suggests, kindness reigns here. Sometimes Andrews is singing about it explicitly, as on the title track or the upsurging “Kindness of Strangers.” Sometimes the people in her songs are simply doing their best to embody the idea that kindness matters. After all, it takes more than an empty house to feel like home. —Eric R. Danton

arctic-monkeys-tbhc.jpg20. Arctic Monkeys: Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
On Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, Alex Turner, still an incredibly spry lyricist, employs what at first listen appears as stream-of-consciousness manifesto, but is actually a delightful, albeit at times confusing, summary of absurdities. The LP departs from the band’s signature bedraggled guitar and leans on a more suave family of instruments including synths and lots of keys, but the music itself is no less clever than anything else in the Arctic Monkeys’ hazy catalogue. After all, a rock album whose first line is “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes” is not to be quickly shelved. —Ellen Johnson

robyn-honey.jpg19. Robyn: Honey
No one serves up catharsis quite like Robyn. Whether you need to hysterically sob or gleefully and blissfully “move your body” across a dance floor, the Swedish pop diva’s Honey is there to satisfy. Remarkably accessible, Robyn’s long-awaited follow-up to her Body Talk trio is the purest purge. It baptizes you with tears or sweat or both, bidding the promise of a deep cleanse. The only faucet necessary is a pair of headphones, or— better yet—a team of pulsing, surround-sound speakers. Honey is a near-flawless dance pop album. It doesn’t need political or cultural commentary to assert relevancy; in Robyn’s deep understanding of human emotion and what moves us, Honey feels dire all the same. Release through dance has long been a tactic wielded by humankind, but rarely has it felt this inclusive, kind and positively radiant. —Ellen Johnson

fjm-gods.jpg18. Father John Misty: God’s Favorite Customer
After converting sharply honed cynicism and rampant misanthropy into a collection of witty, often scabrous and somehow deeply soulful songs on Father John Misty’s 2017 release Pure Comedy, Josh Tillman more fully targets himself on the follow-up. God’s Favorite Customer is a self-lacerating piece of work, mostly written during a six-week stretch in 2016 when he was living alone in a hotel room in the midst of an existential crisis. He’s opaque about the cause, but not the effects: The album plays like Tillman is watching himself have an out-of-body experience as he, or his Misty persona, behaves erratically in public, sends alarming texts to his wife in the middle of the night and repeatedly questions whether love is redemptive enough to save him. As bleak as that sounds, Tillman’s gift for melody and his penchant for droll, evocative lyrics pull these 10 songs back from the brink of morbidity. There’s less of the Elton-meets-Nilsson ’70s pop vibe here, but the music here sticks thanks to smart arrangements that mix piano and guitar with occasional string parts. At times, Tillman sounds almost as if he’s scoffing at himself for falling apart. The sentiment is a searing self-indictment, but it’s not self-pitying—that’s not Tillman’s style. In fact, even on an album as discomfiting as God’s Favorite Customer can be, he still manages to undercut sincerity with his taste for the absurd. Yet even Misty isn’t fully immune to heartfelt moments, and he sounds genuine when he offers best wishes on “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That).” The song is a reassuring way to close the album after such a fraught inventory of his various frailties, and if his confessional streak doesn’t quite mark Tillman as an old softy, it’s a sign that a heart still beats somewhere under his caustic exterior. —Eric R. Danton

mgmt-lda.jpg17. MGMT: Little Dark Age
MGMT are a little young to be turning into tired old men. Yet, on the duo’s fourth studio album Little Dark Age, co-band leaders Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser sound as if a lot is weighing them down: the current political climate (according to them, the title is meant to be reassuring that this bleak period will only be a tiny one), our tech addictions, regretting one’s wasted time and modern dating. That’s a lot of bitter pills to swallow in one go. But stroking our necks to make the medicine go down is some of the band’s most dreamy and druggy music to date. Working again with Dave Fridmann and with some key assists from likeminded popster Ariel Pink and MGMT touring member James Richardson, the album feels like it’s alternately melting and lifting, warming and woozy. Little Dark Age is sequenced perfectly, slowly and steadily coming into focus over the course of its running time. That may feel a little sneaky, letting listeners finally get their sea legs before fading to black. But isn’t that spirit we’ve come to anticipate with MGMT? —Robert Ham

sunflower-bean-twentytwo.jpg16. Sunflower Bean: Twentytwo in Blue
Sunflower Bean’s second album Twentytwo in Blue was released this year when all three of its members—bassist/vocalist Julia Cumming, guitarist/vocalist Nick Kivlen and drummer Jacob Faber—were 22 years old. Two years removed from their promising debut album Human Ceremony, the New York trio has grown up significantly on their sophomore effort. Toned down are a few elements that made Human Ceremony interesting: the dreamy guitar tones, the fuzzed-out riffs, the occasionally ragged arrangement. In their place is a band that sounds more comfortable in its own skin, but also completely locked in, no doubt the result of two years of maturity and hundreds of live shows (including pressurized opening slots for bands like the Pixies and Best Coast). You can hear the confidence radiating from opening track “Burn It,” which swaggers in a classic-rock style as Cumming sings about the constant of change, as well as the title track, with its overcast vibe and gently gorgeous melody. All in all, Twentytwo in Blue spills over with well-crafted songs and sumptuous performances. —Ben Salmon

decemberists-girl.jpg15. The Decemberists: I’ll Be Your Girl
I’ll Be Your Girl seems simultaneously more and less committed to breaking new ground for The Decemberists— more, when exploring its synthy, ‘80s poppy diversions on singles “Once in My Life” and “Severed,” and less on more classic tunes such as the brooding, epic “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes,” which would have fit in naturally on an album like The Crane Wife. Still, there are moments when the two coalesce into something greater than the sum of their parts, as on the macabre-sounding “Cutting Stone,” a prototypical-sounding Decemberists murder ballad that is carried off on synth waves into the land of Nicolas Winding Refn soundtracks. In these moments, I’ll Be Your Girl sounds less like casual experimentation and more, perhaps, like the start of something greater. It’s evidence that Meloy and his mates are willing and able explorers who fear stagnation more than risk-taking. Those are great qualities for a band to have. The hyper-literate historical epics will be there when the pendulum swings back that way. —Jim Vorel

janelle-monae-dirty.jpg14. Janelle Monae: Dirty Computer
After years spent building a successful acting career, Janelle Monae released her third studio album, Dirty Computer, in April via Atlantic Records. The first single, “Make Me Feel,”showcases Monae’s greatest strengths: It’s a funky, soulful, slightly left-field pop song that would fit right in on the INXS back catalogue. Led by Monae’s luscious, strong lead vocals, the song is sprinkled with glittery synth riffs and a wide range of sound effects like finger snaps and tongue clucks. “Django Jane” is a sex-fueled empowerment anthem. “And we gon’ start a motherfuckin’ pussy riot / or we gon’ have to put ’em on a pussy diet,” she spits. Monae refers to her new album as an “emotion picture” releasing it along with a 48-minute, futuristic narrative film. —Lizzie Manno and Loren DiBlasi

us-grils-poem.jpg13. U.S. Girls: In a Poem Unlimited
With titles like “Rage Of Plastics,” “Mad As Hell,” it quickly becomes apparent that on her sixth album, art-pop chanteuse Meg Remy, aka U.S. Girls, is feeling a little perturbed. Maybe it’s Trump, maybe it’s Weinstein, maybe it’s the whole #metoo shebang, but she’s even more fed-up than she was on 2015’s Half Free. This time around, she’s traded in the samples for a live band (collaborating with instrumental collective the Cosmic Range) and left behind the Ronettes for the hedonistic sounds of disco and the ’70s club scene. Throughout, there’s a dynamic contrast of ultra-femininity with talk of violence, power, and crouching wrath. Remy is as mercurial as ever, shapeshifting her voice and the music surrounding it as easily as she switches characters. When she steps out of the ’70s and into another club decade with the chill-house beat of “Rosebud,” she sounds a bit like Madonna as she coos zingers like “It’ll hurt/I promise” as if they’re sweet nothings. She looks for a resolution on “Poem,” electronic gurgles and glitches swirling around her most pointed question, “So what are we gonna do to change?”—Madison Desler

shame-songs.jpg12. Shame: Songs of Praise
Citing influences like The Fall and Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Shame make familiar but not unawesome post-punk. Think tightly-wound, jittery guitars, mile-a-minute hi-hat and an exquisite bleakness that stems from their municipal origin (Gang Of Four-flavored “Concrete,” a song about an unhappy relationship that will have you beating on your steering wheel, embodies this sound perfectly and already gives me hope for a better 2018). What sets these lads apart is their beyond-their-years songwriting, riotous live shows (they were once fined for ripping a chandelier from the ceiling) and frontman Charlie Steen’s arresting vocals. There’s something hardscrabble about them, something working-class, in the proud, rosy-cheeked English sense. And while they do carry on the political edge of their forebears, it’s not inherently so, but present in the rapid-fire fury of “Lampoon,” with Sheen shouting “my tongue will never get tired,” the giant middle finger to insecurity of “One Rizla” and the whip-smart examination of the fine line between sexual exploitation vs. empowerment on the filthy “Gold Hole.” Delivered with a heavy dose of grit and honesty, there’s some teeth marks there, but not the whole bite. It makes for their own, unique brand of sociopolitics-lite, done with a nudge, a wink, and just enough of the unexpected. All the way down to the cheeky image of the band wholesomely posing with baby pigs that graces the album’s cover. The seven-minute closer, the doomed-love dazzler “Angie,” features Steen’s first attempt at real singing, and shows that these guys are definitely playing with a full deck, delivering a more-than-solid first effort with plenty of anticipation for whatever they choose to do next. —Madison Desler

amen-dunes-freedom.jpg11. Amen Dunes: Freedom
Throughout his career as Amen Dunes, Damon McMahon has existed just on the other side of clarity. He was, for years, the rising underground artist who sounds like he’s singing from around a corner, and who ducks into the shadows to avoid the light. Musically, McMahon shrouded himself in noise and effects on his debut, 2009’s DIA, then gradually peeled back that shroud on 2011’s Through Donkey Jaw and 2014’s Love. That process brought Amen Dunes’ music forward into the light, but not necessarily McMahon: Even as Love’s songs shimmered, their creator stayed just below the surface, an indistinct form behind this promising work. On Amen Dunes’ new album Freedom, McMahon finally shows himself fully, and the results are both charmingly raw and uncommonly lovely. His songs are captured cleanly and intimately, a credit to producer Chris Coady, known for his work with Beach House and Grizzly Bear, among others. His lyrics are more personal than ever before. He even put his own face on the cover for the first time—eyes averted, of course. Across its 11 tracks, McMahon reflects on his own life like a seething poet, often spitting out lyrics as if they’re forcing themselves from his body. Recurring topics include his hard-knock childhood, masculinity, spirituality, his mother’s battle with cancer and his difficult relationship with his father. Freedom’s peak is a five-minute-long song called “Miki Dora,” built on another solid foundation of motorik beat and burbling bassline. As the groove slowly unfolds, McMahon ascends into a sort of self-reflective strut: “Pride destroyed me, man / Till it took ahold of me / I feel it when cry / I can feel it in my dreams.” Even when he was obscured by the hiss and echo of his lo-fi beginnings, McMahon had the look of a fascinating songwriter. Freedom bears that out. As long as he keeps making music, it’ll be fun digging in. It already is. —Ben Salmon

hop-along-bark.jpg10. Hop Along: Bark Your Head Off, Dog
Three years after their seminal Painted Shut, Philadelphia’s Hop Along returned with their third Saddle Creek-released LP, Bark Your Head Off, Dog, their most cohesive release to date. Few vocalists evoke the emotion packed into Frances Quinlan’s delivery, and it’s on full display on early singles like the epic “Not Abel.” Quinlan’s songwriting has become more self-aware and outwardly present to the mechanisms of the world around her, and Hop Along is as tight a unit as you’ll hear on record. —Adrian Spinelli

low-double-neg.jpg9. Low: Double Negative
Sometimes the only way for a band to move forward is for them to upend everything about their creative process. That was how the members of Low felt when setting out to record their 12th studio album Double Negative. They went to Eau Claire, Wisconsin with only a bag full of rough song ideas and, with the help of producer B.J. Burton, turned even those snippets inside out. Layers of sonic mud and electronics were applied liberally, hiding even the best harmonies from Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk. What they came away with was an ugly beautiful record, overdriven to the point of discomfort yet soft enough to feel strangely inviting and soothing. Yet another peak for a band that hasn’t yet released a bad album, and the perfect soundtrack for a terrifying time in history. —Robert Ham

rbcf-hope.jpg8. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: Hope Downs
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever wastes no time in getting to their strength—jangling, propulsive pop-rock—on their debut full-length Hope Downs. There is no table-setting track here. No slow fade in or superfluous into. In fact, opener “An Air Conditioned Man” almost seems to pick up in medias res when you press play. This seems appropriate for R.B.C.F., an Australian quintet that hit the ground running a few years ago. They released their excellent first EP Talk Tight on the Sydney-based record label Ivy League, then moved to Sub Pop for 2017’s The French Press EP. The former is a bit more relaxed and acoustic, while the latter cranks up the volume and pace. Together, they’re a thrilling introduction to a promising young band. Hope Downs fulfills that promise, first by tumbling out of the chute on “An Air Conditioned Man” and then by barrelling through nine more taut pop-rock gems in just over half an hour. The basic components here are pretty simple: driving (often motorik) rhythms courtesy of drummer Marcel Tussie, indispensable bouncy-ball bass lines by Joe Russo and a dense tangle of guitars—strummed acoustics and spiky electrics—constructed by Joe’s brother Tom Russo, Joe White and Fran Keaney. The three guitarists also trade off lead vocals from song to song. The band even sneaks in some twang, landing somewhere near country-post-punk. Meanwhile, “Sister’s Jeans” and “How Long?” prove R.B.C.F. have it in them to slow down a bit, open things up and soar. That bodes well for the future: Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever have more tricks up their sleeves, it seems. For a debut, though, a couple tricks are enough, especially when you’ve already mastered them. —Ben Salmon

pusha-t-daytona.jpg7. Pusha T: DAYTONA
The first album to come out of Kanye West’s Wyoming sessions was also the best: Pusha T’s third solo studio album Daytona, originally known as King Push. The lean and mean seven-track LP was the first of five West-produced albums released this summer, but it’s an unquestionable career highlight for the former Clipse rapper. A laser-focused Pusha makes every lyric count, deftly depicting the luxurious life of a drug kingpin-turned-rapper who hardly recognizes the genre he’s spent two decades in (“I’m too rare amongst all of this pink hair, ooh / Still do the Fred Astaire on a brick”). Meanwhile, West’s sample-heavy beats provide Pusha the ideal soundscape—sometimes opulent, others menacing—to swagger over. If you know, you know. — Scott Russell

mitski-cowboy.jpg6. Mitski: Be the Cowboy
There are a lot of unhappy people in the songs on Mitski’s new album. Some of them are Mitski herself, but not all. Belying the usual assumption that any woman who writes first-person lyrics is singing about herself, the 27-year-old singer/songwriter has said that many of the songs on Be the Cowboy are experiments in writing fiction. Let’s call it a successful experiment. She imagined her fictional character as “a very controlled, icy, repressed woman who is starting to unravel.” The songs here aren’t as straightforward as that, however: Mitski is a master of insinuation and inference. So when she sighs heavily at the start of “Me and My Husband,” and then sings on the chorus, “We are doing better / It’s always been just him and me / Together,” you can practically see the narrator’s tight, forced smile as she clings to a self-identity that is fully invested in a mate who has lost interest. Sometimes the unhappy people on Be the Cowboy seem to revel in their own discomfort. Really, though, reveling in discomfort is something Mitski has always done well: She examines and parses it with a rigor that is somehow clinical and poetic. Whether she’s singing about herself or creating stand-ins that feel just like real people, Be the Cowboy shows why she is fast making herself into one of the most interesting songwriters of her generation. —Eric R. Danton

snail-mail-lush.jpg5. Snail Mail: Lush
Lindsey Jordan’s first EP as Snail Mail in 2016 won over critics and fans with its subdued power and studied melancholy, revealing a songwriter well beyond her 16 years. Since then, she’s graduated high school, toured with the likes of Waxahatchee and Girlpool, and was featured in a roundtable of female rock musicians for the New York Times. Her debut LP, Lush, is a collection of 10 lucid guitar-pop songs that show off her her classically trained guitar skills, structural know-how and an ability to express the inquisitiveness and confident insecurity of youth with a surprising sophistication. “They don’t love you, do they?” she asks during the magic-hour-esque “Intro,” her clear and comfortingly relatable voice singing the first of many questions she poses throughout the album. Her music is laid-back, gently hooky, and complements the poetic vagueness of her lyrics. There isn’t enough detail for you to know exactly what she’s talking about, but you understand the mood. Though the highs and lows of the album are subtle, Lush confirms what the Habit EP first introduced. Jordan is a definite talent. The songs illustrate a wise-beyond-years songwriting style, with none of the self-importance and indulgence that can come with more experience. Nothing feels trite or contrived. She’s a natural, with an impressive sense of restraint, placing points of tension and release right where they need to be. —Madison Desler

soccer-mommy-clean.jpg4. Soccer Mommy: Clean
Amidst the verses of “Still Clean,” the opening track off of Clean, the latest album from Sophie Allison (aka Soccer Mommy), she’s grappling with a temporary tryst, a seasonal fling—the kind we often pretend to have gotten over, while we replay the minutiae of the affair over and over again in the privacy of our own heads. “I guess I’m only what you wanted for a little while,” she sings—still dazed months later from the abrupt departure of her summer love’s affections. Those are the first lyrics that jumped out at me, instantly conjuring up a face, and a name and my own replayed reel of amatory memories and now-hollow words. This speaks to Allison’s songwriting, a craft she honed for years in her Tennessee bedroom before releasing last year’s acclaimed Collection. With Clean, she may have again left her bedroom for the studio, but her introspective and comfortably confessional lyrics maintain their intimacy and diary-scrawl relatability. Only this time, Allison is zeroing in on the freeing, but often painful realizations that we all experience at one time or another—the kind that usually only come with the ending of something. Allison is young, her slight 20 years evident not only in her youthful voice, but her talk of missed calls from mom, parked cars, and hanging around after school. But she does it all in an honest, uncomplicated, and well-crafted way that Clean is anything but juvenile. You might just forget how old you are for a second, as her bedroom melodies carry you back to when feelings were freely given and many lessons still had to be learned. —Madison Desler

cb-tell.jpg3. Courtney Barnett: Tell Me How You Really Feel
Courtney Barnett is officially prolific and this pleases us greatly. Following 2017’s Lotta Sea Lice, her collaboration album with Kurt Vile, Tell Me How You Really Feel is the proper follow-up to debut Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, and some of Barnett’s best work to date. On the stellar “Need a Little Time,” Barnett’s always clever lyrics pair with a riffy, melodious hook and the song comes with a mundane-meets-supernatural video from the Aussie star. Few songwriters have established themselves to be as consistent this quickly.—Adrian Spinelli

pc-wide.jpg2. Parquet Courts: Wide Awake
Brooklyn’s Parquet Courts are the rock ‘n’ roll band we deserve in 2018, and Wide Awake is a major stylistic stride in the band’s growing discography. On the album’s title track, singer Andrew Savage’s decisive vocals guide a danceable beat in the spirit of David Byrne, with globally minded percussion and bells and whistles galore. Gritty bass lines from Sean Yeaton are crisp and prominent, alongside everything from Afro-beat rhythms to stoner-punk anthems. With production by Danger Mouse, this is some of the most intriguing rock we’ve heard thus far this year. —Adrian Spinelli

lucy-dacus-historian.jpg1. Lucy Dacus: Historian
Historian is at once tightly focused and musically expansive, 10 new songs that sidestep any notion of a sophomore slump. While her 2016 debut, No Burden, had its tentative moments, Dacus displays remarkable poise here. She never sounds less than supremely confident on lyrics that make the personal political, and vice versa, accompanied by musical arrangements that are sometimes downright majestic. It wasn’t a secret that Dacus is a strong lyricist, but she’s become subtler, too, with turns of phrase that gleam, and sometimes devastate: “I’m just calling ’cause I’m used to it / And you’ll pick up ’cause you’re not a quitter,” she sings on “Addictions.” She’s just as skilled at describing a scene as delivering one-liners: Dacus wrote “Yours and Mine” after participating in the 2017 Women’s March, and she evokes the feeling of camaraderie and, simultaneously, the excitement and trepidation of standing on a precipice: “For those of you who told me I should stay indoors / Take care of you and yours,” she warns over a big, thumping beat and jangling guitar. “But me and mine…we’ve got a long way to go until we get home.” It’s a rare artist who has a voice so compelling, and rarer still are the ones who learn so early on how to use it. At 23, Dacus has already made a career album with Historian, and she’s really only just getting started. —Eric R. Danton

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