The Best of 2018

The Chorus.fm Staff’s Top Albums of 2018

I don’t know how to sum up 2018. At the end of most years, it’s possible to look back and see certain themes or narratives or big ideas coming through in the music from the past 12 months. 2018 was not one of those years. Most of the industry’s biggest stars sat the year out, and music critics couldn’t agree on a consensus album of the year pick. Instead, 2018 as a music year was chaotic. It was a dozen jukeboxes playing in the same bar at the same time, one blasting a starry-eyed country album about love, the next broadcasting a rock ‘n’ roll anthem about how it would be great if the human race didn’t fuck up the chance we’ve been given to, you know, exist.

But music years like this are thrilling for their seeming lack of structure or narrative. They are chances for underdogs to fight their way to the top, or for new superstars to be born in place of the old ones. 2018 was that kind of year for music, and it was dazzling to behold. The only option was to dive headfirst into the chaos and embrace the many disparate triumphs that came along the way. This list, of our 30 favorite albums of the year, is symbolic of that leap of faith, a wildly dynamic set of records that includes callbacks to this community’s roots, monuments to how we have grown over the years, and signposts to where we are going. It’s been a pleasure to be a part of this site for another year, and to see the way we all share the music we love with one another. This list was made in that spirit, of discovery and shared passion, and I can’t think of a better way to sum up such a chaotic year.

Note: Check the bottom of this post for links to individual contributor lists. Also, a playlist of all the “key tracks” can be found on Spotify and Apple Music.

1. Kacey MusgravesGolden Hour

Album Cover How do you make a “falling in love” album sound fresh, poignant, and emotionally satisfying in 2018? How do you do that, when everyone is cynical, when the 24-hour news cycle is a constant shitshow, and when virtually every songwriter in history has attempted to capture the humbling miracle of falling in love, to wildly varying degrees of success? I’ve listened to Golden Hour probably 100 times this year and I’m still not sure how Kacey Musgraves managed it. She used to be cynical, too: the snarkiest, wittiest singer in country music. Her songs made it clear that she wasn’t afraid to tell someone to fuck off, but that she might be a little afraid of letting her guard down. That was then, though, and this is now. Golden Hour may start with a song called “Slow Burn,” but there’s nothing slow about the feeling it chronicles. This album captures the dizzying, alarming, whirlwind sensation of falling for another person with quick and reckless abandon. Wrought with aching melodies and shimmering production, the songs here call to mind the way you feel at the beginning of a relationship, when the colors seem brighter and the sunsets seem prettier and the entire world looks just a little bit different. They contain traces of past hurt and heartache, the acknowledgment of what happens when you put all your chips on the table and lose. But they also crescendo with foresight and steadfastness as the album moves forward, just like real relationships evolve from shy crushes to first kisses to honeymoon stage infatuation and beyond, all the way to something strong enough to stand the test of time. The album will stand the test of time, too. It’s the surest classic from 2018, an album that won over fans across the musical spectrum and put a country artist at the top of trendy year-end lists for maybe the first time in the history of modern music criticism. It turns out that, in this age of cynicism and endless bad news, there’s still nothing more universal than love songs done right. [CM]

Key Track: “Love Is a Wild Thing”

2. The 1975A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships

Album Cover Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky enough to watch the rise of quite a few bands as they move from “talked about on a message board” into the mainstream and public consciousness. It’s a treat every time it happens and watching The 1975 become the next in a line of those bands has reinvigorated a feeling I was uncertain I’d see again. There have been piles of ink spilled on this album across the internet, but what I keep coming back to is that it feels like a band that saw the occasion in front of them and didn’t shy away from it. And in the process, they created a collection that could very well define this entire year. It’s bold, brash, and unrelenting in its statement, but it does this while musically shapeshifting across a variety of genres. The 1975 are the band of this moment, and they embrace the mantle, the pressure, and the expectations with almost singular confidence.

On its face, an album like this shouldn’t work. But the genius of the band is how they can turn qualities that often ruin albums—too lengthy, too sprawling, too ambitious, too cheeky—into a cohesive whole. But what impresses me most is how The 1975 always seem willing to try and push the boundaries of what came before. While other bands have sprouted up and copied what The 1975 were doing on their previous two albums, to varying degrees of success, they have pushed forward and continued to evolve their sound. And while I’m sure that at some point this ambition mixed with the band’s brazenness will result in something that doesn’t quite work, this is not that time.

I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of the “three-album run” and the bands that are capable of maintaining a high-level through it. Building in popularity and avoiding a creative rut while pumping out a large amount of music is extremely hard. Right now, I’d hold this three album stretch up against just about any in recent memory. The 1975 have just been that good. [JT]

Key Track: “Love It If We Made It”

3. Foxing - Nearer My God

Album CoverFoxing’s mindset going into recording Nearer My God was “make a classic record or die.” Nearer My God completely eschews the played-out blueprint for “Indie Band LP3.” Instead, it blends all the band’s favorite genres and influences into a single spacious canvas to create one of 2018’s most daring records. A whirlwind of soundscapes throughout, Nearer My God is immaculately produced by Chris Walla and guitarist Eric Hudson. The album’s twelve tracks rarely stay the same for long, effortlessly flowing from one sensory experience to next and showing a fearlessness toward taking risks of any sorts. One of Nearer My God’s biggest influences is Frank Ocean’s Blonde, even if very little of the record sounds like it. Because it’s bigger than music, it’s a mindset: the way Ocean weaves stories while effortlessly switching vocal gears, creating transparent, vibrant emotional music all within a highly meditative space. That same mindset is what fuels Nearer My God.

And my god, the unforgettable moments on this album are endless. There’s the first time Conor Murphy shrieks “I’m shock-collared at the gates of heaven” during opener “Grand Paradise.” Or how about the bagpipe-paced power anthem “Bastardizer,” which unleashes some of Murphy’s brashest vocals? Or how the M83-tinged title track blossoms into a booming, soaring crescendo? Don’t blink or you’ll miss miss the brilliance of “Lich Prince” transitioning from oft-kilter indie-rock sprawl into one of the most killer guitar riffs recorded this year. And finally, there’s the thrilling way closing track “Lambert” paces itself before swelling up into sprawling riffs that conjure up Mr. November spending a weekend in the city. With Nearer My God, Foxing’s ambition became limitless, and it was thrilling to hear. [DB]

Key Track: “Lich Prince”

4. The Wonder Years - Sister Cities

Album CoverSince the release of The Upsides in 2010, The Wonder Years have found success in making the universal out of the personal. Dan Campbell emerged as the de facto leader of the new-school pop-punk wave by writing about South Philly basements and the local landscape of churches and parks that line the band’s hometown suburb of Lansdale, Pennsylvania. In the process, he wrote songs that resonated with an international audience of people who knew how it felt to grow up listless and anxious in small towns. With Sister Cities, Campbell has written his most personal record yet, which naturally makes it the band’s most resonant. Written while the band toured the world on the back of 2015’s No Closer To Heaven, Sister Cities is an examination of borders and boundaries, empathy, and the ways that humans interact with each other in an era of cultural divide. To a greater extent, though, it is also an album about the many forms grief takes, the stresses of distance, the loss of loved ones, and the complexity of feeling everywhere and nowhere at once. These lyrical themes are accompanied by the darkest, loudest, and most delicate moments of the band’s decade-long career. It all culminates in their greatest closer to date, “The Ocean Grew Hands To Hold Me,” a massive and overwhelming rock song about a quiet, mournful moment spent watching waves crash on the beach. The song is wonderful because it proves how gigantic resonance comes from the smallest instances. [JB]

Key Track: “The Ocean Grew Hands To Hold Me”

5. Now, NowSaved

Album Cover Minnesota indie rockers Now, Now made a stunning return in 2018 with their first album in six years. Most impressively, the duo managed to create an album that bears many striking resemblances to 2012’s Threads, while still presenting itself as a fresh take on the band’s sound. We get a modernized version of Now, Now’s signature moodiness with tracks like “Can’t Help Myself” and “SGL”, while cuts like “Drive” and “Yours” take on poppier elements and showcase the impeccable production skills drummer Brad Hale has been sharpening in the band’s absence. These songs are visions of modern pop done right, ditching the excessive use of compression in favor of a more spacious sound that creates room for each instrument to breathe, putting you at the center of a kaleidoscopic embrace. This type of environment also proves to be ripe for a great hook, which KC Dalager absolutely did not shy away from here. Her hushed vocal performance across the board can conceal how strong these melodies are on the first pass, but when the album is long over and you catch yourself still humming the infectious chorus found in “MJ”, I’m sorry pal, but its over for you. You’re in this now. And just like a good record should, this one keeps on giving with repeat listens, as the lyrical themes and melodies from song to song begin to intertwine and reveal Dalager’s masterful craftsmanship — an album about the struggles of being queer and in love, and how the love from another person helped her to find herself when she needed it most. If you’re still sleeping on Now, Now, do yourself a favor and go for a night drive with this. You’ll thank yourself later. [TG]

Key Track: “SGL”

6. mewithoutYou[Untitled]

Album CoverSeasoned veterans mewithoutYou have never been an easy band to pin down. Even from their 2004 sophomore album, Catch For Us The Foxes, which veered from the band’s post-hardcore roots, it was clear that mewithoutYou would never stagnate. [Untitled], their seventh album, is everything that makes mewithoutYou great. Aaron Weiss’ vocals have found an old rawness, the kind we haven’t heard since 2002. The invigorating folk-rock of past releases is somehow stronger, while the band also introduces grunge influences on “Julia” and toys around with ambience on “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” and“Break on Through (to the Other Side).” If there’s one thing that mewithoutYou have wholeheartedly embraced on [Untitled], it’s a focus on creation through disarray. There is pain and beauty in chaos. If 2015’s Pale Horses was the calm before the storm, [Untitled] is the eye of the storm. It’s not all rage and fear. It’s also the solemn, reflective moments. “Someday, I’ll find me” are Aaron Weiss’ final words on [Untitled], and that sentiment has consistently brought me back to this album. I’m on my way to finding me. Here’s hoping mewithoutYou get there, too. [MV]

Key Track: “Julia (or, Holy to the LORD on the Bells of Horses)”

7. Andrew McMahon in the WildernessUpside Down Flowers

Album Cover Andrew McMahon is no stranger to the spotlight, or to the music industry—a fact he embraces immediately on his nostalgic new album, Upside Down Flowers. Most listeners remember McMahon from his first two major projects, Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin. Opener “Teenage Rockstars” is a tip of the cap to those fans, and the perfect starting point for an album that feels like growing up, like entering (and exiting) your twenties, and like coming to terms with real adulthood. There’s a palpable journey to be found on this record: in the nostalgia of “Teenage Rockstars”; in “Ohio,” a tribute to McMahon’s midwestern roots; in “Blue Vacation”, “Monday Flowers,” and “Paper Rain,” songs that feel like pages out of a storybook you read once; in “Goodnight Rock and Roll,” an ode to lost heroes; in “Careless,” a hard look at how we sometimes lose people simply because we can’t see past ourselves; and in “House in the Trees,” a reflection on lost friendships and the bonds that always seem to stay in place—even when you’ve said goodbye. Upside Down Flowers is a love song to growing up, a dissection of one’s own humanity (and flaws), and an exploration of why it’s important to let go of the versions of people and things we’re all still holding onto. It’s one last look back, before you shut the door. Boiled down, the album feels like a toast to having the strength to look forward and not back. After all, that’s the only way any of us can go. [AA]

Key Track: House in the Trees

8. Spanish Love SongsSchmaltz

Album Cover Earnest, to-the-point songs are the bread and butter of the punk and pop-punk scene. It’s what sets the genres apart and ropes listeners in, and the fact that it’s so commonplace is what makes it so remarkable when a band comes along with an album that seems to speak directly to you. In a field where every song seems to be engineered to be relatable, designed to evoke emotion and be sing-alongable, Spanish Love Songs managed to craft a set of songs that speaks directly to the angst and anxiety-ridden nature of the millennial population. It’s an album about this generation’s constant search to figure out an answer to the all-consuming question of “why?” Schmaltz manages to touch on things that are small and insignificant, but seemingly so important, like haircuts and self image. In the same breath, the album speaks to the very real and almost unconquerable issues of gentrification and gun control. The band’s insistence on asking these questions in spite of the lack of answers, coupled with their energetic and unrelenting instrumental energy, results in a landmark album that feels achingly relevant and new while still maintaining the tried-and-true formula of unruly distorted guitar tones chugging underneath sing along choruses. Schmaltz is not a place to look for answers, nor does it have any particular moments of positivity or hope. But damn if it doesn’t feel good to have a collection of songs that makes you feel a bit less alone in the constant contemplation of the world you live in. [AJ]

Key Track: “Beer and Nyquil (Keep it Together)”

9. Brian FallonSleepwalkers

Album Cover Over the past ten years, I’m trying to think of an artist that’s been featured on our end of the year lists more than Brian Fallon. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any. From his work in The Gaslight Anthem, to The Horrible Crowes, to now his solo career, Brian Fallon has been a staple of our lives for most of the past decade. And even more telling? His output has been consistently excellent. Brian’s latest album, Sleepwalkers, finds us visiting many of the common themes found in Brian Fallon songs, but there is an undeniable new energy to the music. It’s this refreshing quality that shines through and elevates these songs amongst the best of the man’s already impressive career. Between Fallon’s instantly recognizable voice and his instantly relatable lyrics, it’s been an absolute pleasure to spend this phase of my life being serenaded by his music. At this point, I’m confident that no matter what name Brian Fallon’s music is released under, my ears are just thankful it’s here for me to get lost in. [JT]

Key Track: “Forget Me Not”

10. Ruston KellyDying Star

Album CoverDying Star is the sound of a man at the end of his rope. Desperate, desolate, and achingly sad, this record chronicles singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly’s battle to beat addiction and put his life back together after an overdose and a series of messy mistakes. It’s the year’s most heartbreaking album, weighed down by drugs and alcohol and the ghosts of former lovers who Kelly himself can see left him behind for good reasons. But there’s silver lining around the edges, both in the actual text of the record (songs like “Dying Star” and “Brightly Burst into the Air,” which end the album with a reach for redemption) and in the subtext (Kelly’s own life story, which took a happy turn recently with his sobriety and his marriage to Kacey Musgraves). But Dying Star is powerful because of how unflinching it is in depicting the darker moments. Kelly doesn’t shy away from talking about the loneliness that his past life bred: the empty shame of morning hangovers after spending nights keeled over puking outside of barroom doors, or the soulless expanse of deserted highways as seen from a tour bus window after leaving the people you care about for the umpteenth time. Kelly said that he wanted this record to be “a raw transcription of a particular time in [his] life,” and he was so successful in that mission that he made what is arguably the most honest and human record of 2018. [CM]

Key Track: “Anchors”

11. Hop AlongBark Your Head Off, Dog

There is no voice in modern rock and roll as unique or indescribable as Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan. Quinlan undertakes a variety of different approaches on Hop Along’s incredible third album Bark Your Head Off, Dog, creating a constant and fascinating see-saw between something beautiful and something ugly. The result is that every song on the album feels like an unique sketch, each one threading together to encapsulate a catharsis in the most imperfect yet perfect ways. Tracks like “How You Got Your Limp” and “Not Abel” prove that you don’t need to be abrasive to be impactful, channeling the tender yet spastic density of the band’s music. Bark Your Head Off, Dog may be the most visceral record of 2018, innately sticking with you long after the final track has finished playing. [DB]

Key Track: “Not Abel”

12. **Pianos Become the Teeth** – Wait for Love

Wait For Love isn’t as abrasive as Pianos Become The Teeth’s earlier material, but don’t mistake that as a lack of intensity within the band’s fourth LP. Love picks up where 2014’s Keep You left off, closing one chapter and starting another. The focus is on Kyle Durfey’s experiences of being a husband and becoming a new father, including all the exhilarating highs and devastating lows of trying to balance the two. The record is as emotionally complex as you’d expect from a Pianos Become The Teeth LP, but Durfey’s melodies have never been more powerful. They are surrounded here by the band’s increased gracefulness in their musicianship, and enhanced by David Haik’s pulsating and brilliant drumming. From the initial euphoric wave of “Fake Lighting” to the gorgeously intense closer “Blue,” Wait For Love is bursting with some of 2018’s most heartfelt, vulnerable tracks. It’s the sound of Pianos Become The Teeth fearlessly marching into the next thrilling phase of their career. [DB]

Key Track: “Charisma”

13. **Mitski** – _Be the Cowboy_

When I first heard “Geyser”, the lead single and album opener to Mitski’s fifth album, Be The Cowboy, it felt to me like the culmination of all her previous efforts. The song contains the abrasive distortion that defined breakout hits like “Townie” and “Your Best American Girl,” but also reintroduces keys, last seen on Mitski’s adored sophomore album, Retired From Sad, New Career In Business. Familiarity is seeped through Be The Cowboy, despite the fact that the album sees Mitski taking a step back from the raw recollections on mental health and spiritual identity that outline much of her past work. Here, she embodies the fictional character of a swaggering cowboy, in order to capture the essence of bombastic confidence and epic romance. Mitski is deceptively calm and collected in the lively “Me And My Husband”, while “Two Slow Dancers ”sees her bask in youthful nostalgia. And then there’s “Nobody,” a song that features not just one, but multiple, glorious key changes. “I’ve been big and small, and big and small, and big and small again, and still nobody wants me,” Mitski despondently croons, against a cheery clap and bouncy disco beats. Be The Cowboy sees Mitski embarking on sonic departures from her last album, Puberty 2, but her stirring voice and dark humor remain intact, as distinguishable as ever. [MV]

Key Track: “Nobody”

14. ThricePalms

Thrice came out swinging from a five-year hiatus with 2016’s To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere, an easy win for fans that had feared they may never hear from the band again. Settling back into the normal record cycle routine, they’ve returned two years later with an album that not only treads the ground paved by its predecessor, but uses the tools found along the way to explore even further. This growth is evident the moment Palms kicks off, as the arpeggiated synth notes of “Only Us” show up like fervent knocks on a door, insisting to be let in. Dustin Kensrue wastes no time getting into the meat of the album’s theme, bellowing in the song’s chorus: “Finally when will it be enough/to find there is no them/There is only us”. A revered singer in the alternative music scene for nearing two decades now, Kensrue has never been known to tackle songwriting without a passionate motive and something to say. With Palms, though, we hear him finding his place within the polarizing nature of world issues, opening his mind, and reexamining a restrained ideology. And while the past few years have made it especially nice to hear a straight-up call-to-arms type of song like “The Dark”, or its more aggressive sister song “Hold Up A Light”, it’s refreshing to hear Kensrue assess the way he attempts to mold his understanding of the world around him, rather than just digging his heels in. Meanwhile, Teppei Teranishi continues to impress by laying out riff after hypnotic riff, as the brothers Breckenridge unleash perhaps their most consistently stellar rhythm section performance to date. “Just Breathe” offers a vantage point of these qualities, as a blistering bass riff and tricky pull-off guitar lead pull the listener through verses that explode into dissonant choruses with a completely different time signature. It’s hard to make songs with this dynamic groove in such a satisfying way, but Palms has no issue demonstrating for us time and time again that Thrice is absolutely still capable of firing on all cylinders. [TG]

Key Track: “Just Breathe”

15. Janelle MonáeDirty Computer

Since her first full-length studio album, The ArchAndroid, arrived in 2010, Janelle Monáe has been shattering barriers and defying conventions. She’s earned accolades for her work both as an actor and musician, and even decided to delay the release of Dirty Computer to focus on acting in 2016 and 2017. It was well worth the wait. The album continues Monáe’s habit for weaving futuristic themes and metaphoric devices into her work. On the opening track, she declares herself a buggy, broken computer in search of a hard drive fix. For any millennial, it should be easy to relate to this metaphor. On “Take a Byte”, Monáe sings about falling in and out of toxic relationships, and the way we use each other despite knowing we are bad together. She does so by drawing on terms like “byte”, “RAM” and “code,” using them as stand-ins for human processes in a way that will feel uncomfortably familiar to the first generation that grew up plugged in.

Ultimately, Dirty Computer uses its metaphorical subtext to walk a delicate line: between pure, unabashed joy and the stark reality of Monáe’s experience as a queer black woman in America. The album is a love letter to the American promise, while also lambasting the hypocrisy and brutality that exists in the American reality. As Monáe reminds us: “I am not America’s nightmare/I am the American dream.” She isn’t here to be polite. She isn’t here to be a representative of any one of her identities, though it is inevitable that she will serve as an inspiration for those who come after her within those identities. Instead, she simply is. If Dirty Computer is any evidence, that’s a pretty spectacular thing to be. [AA]

Key Track: “Screwed” (ft. Zoë Kravitz)

16. Death Cab for CutieThank You for Today

My first listens to Thank You for Today felt underwhelming. It had been hyped as a return to form for Death Cab for Cutie; as the best thing Ben Gibbard had done in 10 years; as an album that captured the spirit of the band’s mid-2000s run. As someone who adored 2015’s pristine Kintsugi, though, Thank You for Today felt like a step backwards. But somehow, as the fall wore on, this album proved to have a mysterious gravity for me, drawing me back in time and time again. The reason, I determined, was nostalgia. The word “today” might be in the album title, but this record is occupied thoroughly with yesterday. “You can’t double back to your summer years”; “It didn’t used to be this way”; “When you’re looking in the mirror do you see/That kid that you used to be?” These songs delicately peel away the coats of fresh paint and varnish that have been layered over our past selves, finding their way back to the kid that we all were when we heard The Photo Album or Transatlanticism or Plans for the first time. Many of these songs actually sound like those records, with the gorgeous “Your Hurricane” most accurately mimicking the weightless beauty of songs like “Passenger Seat” and “Brothers on a Hotel Bed.” But Thank You for Today isn’t an album about trying to recapture old glories. Instead, it’s an album about looking back in time and recognizing the beauty of the things you took for granted when you were young. The result is the band’s most fully formed album of the decade, a record that grapples with what the years can do, both to a once-trendy rockstar and to the fans who used to seek refuge in his music. [CM]

Key Track: “Your Hurricane”

17. Pusha TDAYTONA

2018 was a difficult year to navigate—socially, politically, and otherwise—and perhaps no other album is more emblematic of that than Pusha T’s third LP. There is a darkness that hangs over DAYTONA, and a large portion of that can be attributed to the presence of Kanye West. The once-inspired producer and artist fell out of public favor this year by supporting a number of alt-right pundits and abusers (alongside Donald Trump himself). As the first release in West’s quintet of 2018 albums, DAYTONA arrived shrouded in controversy and seemingly inseparable from its producer. But where West’s new LP failed to offer much explanation for his controversies, Push uses DAYTONA as an opportunity to transport listeners into the middle of his own world. There’s a fair amount of commentary on Push’s background and current viewpoints on hip-hop (including his unforgettable beef with Drake) on highlights like “The Games We Play” and “Infrared,” but the MC often sounds best here at his most confident and comfortable. “A rapper-turned-trapper can’t morph into us, but a trapper-turned-rapper can morph into Puff,” he declares on melodic lead single “If You Know You Know,” before later proclaiming, “I’m too rare amongst all of this pink hair, ooh!” on “Hard Piano.” Push’s greatest asset is his ability to shapeshift from beat to beat, delivering extraordinary bars against a collection of synthesizers, guitars, and soul samples. Some will say he’s a villain, and others a realist, but somewhere in between lies the truth, preached so successfully on Push’s best project to date. [AM]

Key Track: “The Games We Play”

18. Father John MistyGod’s Favorite Customer

Somewhere along the way, Josh Tillman lost some folks. Some would say it had something to do with the rewarding yet trying runtime of 2017’s Pure Comedy. I would venture to say it was between his polarizing political meltdown at WXPN Fest and that eyebrow-raising interview with Pitchfork where he referred to pop starlets as “prisoners.” Regardless of where he lost you, there were many listeners that were simply not ready for another year of irony-fueled debates over whether or not Father John Misty was a “character.” Fortunately, that’s what he gave us. In 2018, Tillman politely turned down press and interview requests, claiming he wanted the music to do the talking. God’s Favorite Customer is the result of an artist reacting to their previous work without losing any of the initial spark that made it theirs. It’s a short collection, running at 10 songs and just under 40 minutes, but it’s also a largely forward one, at least in comparison to the rest of his work under the Father John Misty moniker. While I continue to contend that those first few records are as genuine as they come, even skeptics are likely to come around to the dazzling, George Harrison-esque “Just Dumb Enough to Try,” or emotionally devastating and dynamic ballads like “Please Don’t Die” and “The Palace.” They say the songs you grow to like never stick at first, but as a thorough meditation on heartbreak, alienation, self-improvement, and acceptance, there’s more than enough substance beneath the surface of God’s Favorite Customer to impress fans and naysayers alike. [AM]

Key Track: “Just Dumb Enough To Try”

19. Wild Pink – Yolk in the Fur

Wild Pink conjure up the ghost of Tom Petty and invoke the spirit of Springstreen on their expansive second LP, Yolk In The Fur. The New York trio follow up their 2017 self-titled debut by expanding on those influences while also creating intoxicating soundscapes that will engulf listeners during late night highway drives. There are no gimmicks in Wild Pink’s earnest rock and roll. Frontman John Ross is unashamed of sharing his dreams and failures over the album’s luscious, swelling instrumentation. What separates Yolk In The Fur and Wild Pink from their peers, though, is how seamless this record flows through various moods, making it the perfect listen no matter the surroundings. [DB]

Key Track: “There Is a Ledger”

20. Arctic MonkeysTranquility Base Hotel & Casino

I need to confess something: I never really paid much attention to Arctic Monkeys before this past year. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the ever-popular singles from 2013’s AM; it’s more that I seemingly incorrectly lumped them in with The Black Keys and other garage-rock acts that were never really on my radar. The album that changed my mind is this one, the positively unique and (inter)stellar Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. For all intents and purposes, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a visual album, a collection of cinematic stanzas that transport you to a time and place (specifically, a hotel and casino on the moon). The kitschy, retro-fitted opener “Star Treatment” treats you to diatribes about monogrammed suitcases, rocket ship grease, and karate bandannas. It’s the introductory monologue to a dense, 40-minute rabbit hole of sex (the title track), drugs (“Four Out of Five”), and “warp-speed chic” on the lunar surface. The record is seemingly out of left-field for the band, but it’s the kind of art that draws from recognizable pop culture just enough to make it timeless, from the cheeky musings of Leonard Cohen to the current king of irony, Father John Misty. At this rate, the only thing that could improve this album cycle would be a Coen Brothers film adaptation. [AM]

Key Track: “Star Treatment”

21. Caitlyn SmithStarfire

Starfire is only the debut album from Caitlyn Smith, but it’s a mighty impressive one. This Nashville singer/songwriter released an EP by the same name back in 2016, but this record feels more fully formed in every way. Smith shows off her (considerable) vocal chops while showing us all that she’s a hell of a songwriter to top it off. Similar to artists like Chris Stapleton and Lori McKenna, Caitlyn Smith is an artist who started out by writing songs for some of the biggest names in country music before making a big debut of her own. Not too many of the albums on my mid-year list stuck with me, but this one did. From the start, I was hooked, and that feeling stayed with me through the entire year. By mixing upbeat songs with ballads and shifting through a variety of moods, Starfire provides a good taste of what all Smith is capable of with her vocal range and her skills as a songwriter. It’s not all hits all the time, and it doesn’t have to be either. [DC]

Key Track: “Don’t Give up on My Love”

22. Lord HuronVide Noir

Vide Noir—French for “black hole”—is an apt album title for Lord Huron’s third LP. The lyrics are pessimistic, the band’s lush soundscapes have taken a turn for eerie, and just about every track references the stars, the moon, or some other aspect of the twirling cosmos. In the opener, “Lost in Time and Space,” we’re introduced to a woman who “went west to chase her dreams,” leaving the narrator to work his way through the depression and heartbreak that inevitably follows. Spoiler alert: Things get dark real fast. It’s not long before lead singer Ben Schneider declares, “If I don’t find her, gonna tie that noose.” It sounds bleak, but the indie rock group’s cinematic sound—complemented by a healthy helping of reverb and echo—draws you in to Schneider’s starry-eyed world. The waltzy “Wait by the River” (recently namechecked by Barack Obama as one of his favorite songs of 2018) makes way for atmospheric doo wop, while “When the Night is Over” is the perfect soundtrack to a late-night drive. After two hymnal, acoustic-heavy albums, Vide Noir is by far Lord Huron’s most ambitious work to date. Perhaps the band wanted to change course for their first release on a major label, or maybe it’s a result of working with some big names, such as Dave Fridmann (Tame Impala, The Flaming Lips) and Sonny DiPerri (Portual. The Man, Animal Collective). Either way, it’s nice to hear the band evolving as they incorporate more electric elements and explore new musical styles without losing their integrity. It’ll be exciting to see what they experiment with next—but in the meantime, turn up Vide Noir, look up to the stars, and ponder the universe that’s all around. [CG]

Key Track: “When the Night is Over”

23. Deafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love

Deafheaven has never adhered to the “rules” of black metal. 2013’s Sunbather should be enough evidence of that fact. Still, it’s striking that the band’s fourth LP, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, acts almost in pure defiance of expectations. Not only is it the band’s prettiest, most lush record to date, channeling the aura of 90s favorites like The Smashing Pumpkins and Oasis, it’s also their most aggressive…just not always in the way one would expect. Opener “You Without End” is Queen disguised as black metal, while “Near” shows off a shimmering Slowdive-like intellect. But tracks like the fiery “Glint” and the colossal closer “Worthless Animal” remind listeners that Deafheaven still can flex that muscle when necessary. Ordinary Corrupt Human Love serves almost like a reintroduction to Deafheaven in 2018, a band that’s kinder and wiser but also at its creative and transcendent pinnacle. [DB]

Key Track: “Glint”

24. The Sidekicks – Happiness Hours

It’s been a cliche for a while to say that the best songs are always depressing. Hell, there’s even a shirt for it! Happy songs just can’t give you that same feeling. But, while The Sidekicks themselves indulge that trope, with frontman Steve Ciolek telling listeners, “Summer sang a sad [song] and it felt good to sing along,” they also seem determined to disprove it with their fifth full-length. It’s called Happiness Hours, and it is an unabashedly sunny pop-rock album. The cover depicts a bright field of yellow and and pink flowers, and the songs themselves are filled with tales of drinking lemonade, going dancing, and summertime drives (accompanied, of course, by your favorite mixed CDs). All the happiness is almost saccharine, but The Sidekicks sell it. The result is perhaps the band’s finest hour, a bright light in a garbage year, and a testament to the solace one can find in music, be it sad or happy. Happiness might not come in hours, but it definitely comes in forty-minute, twelve-track records. [ZD]

Key Track: “Don’t Feel Like Dancing”

25. Underoath – Erase Me

Underoath returned to the rock scene in a big way in 2018, coming back from a lengthy eight-year hiatus to deliver a stellar album. From the thrilling opening notes of “It Has to Start Somewhere” to the closing breaths of the tender ballad “I Gave Up,” Underoath uses Erase Me to take full advantage of the renewed interest surrounding their band. This is an accessible yet dynamic collection of songs, and it sounds poised to ring in the next few chapters of the band’s already storied career. They earned their first Grammy nomination for the hard-hitting first single “On My Teeth,” and other accolades and critical acclaim made the comeback that much worthwhile for this Florida unit. Underoath had teased a new direction pre-hiatus with Disambiguation, an album that introduced a clean vocal approach from frontman Spencer Chamberlain. The band has only evolved further on Erase Me, which boasts more shared vocals between Chamberlain and Gillespie, not to mention terrific harmonized vocals in songs like “Wake Me.” Simply put, this is a record that should not be written off or taken lightly as a minor blip on the radar. Instead, mark 2018 as the moment that Underoath regained their composure and brought a new sense of direction in their already brilliant sound. [AG]

Key Track: “On My Teeth”

26. Lucy DacusHistorian

Lucy Dacus has a bolstering voice that feels like her music has been in your life for years. It’s that warm quality that transforms the already-great songs on Historian into songs you want to revisit, over and over again. “Night Shift”, the album’s opener, sees the 23-year-old Dacus mend the pieces of a broken heart. The song is in turns biting (“you don’t deserve what you don’t respect”) and empowering (“in five years I hope the songs feel like covers/dedicated to new lovers”), and it’s just part of what makes Historian special. This is a dynamic album by a spirited young artist. It begins with a breakup, and ends with the death of a loved one. Somehow, Lucy Dacus ties these two entirely different themes together into the same story. She thrillingly embraces dry humor and vibrant guitar licks; she consistently gives her songs time and space to breathe; and she outdoes herself every single time she opts for unreserved, jaw-dropping honesty. Both on Historian and as part of the supergroup boygenius (which also features Phoebe Bridgers and Julian Baker), Lucy Dacus has proven that she’s a masterful storyteller and a songwriter to watch. And I’m all in, ready to follow every step of her journey. [MV]

Key Track: “Night Shift”

27. Matt NathansonSings His Sad Heart

Matt Nathanson has written what is ostensibly a break-up album. It touches on themes of lost love, longing, regret, and moving on. But mixed within this common musical ground, we find a songwriter at the top of his game. These songs are impeccably crafted and together create a collection of “sad” songs that feel built to be played loudly on a long drive on a sunny day. That’s not a combination that always works, but this album is proof positive of the magic that happens when it does. I’ve liked a lot of Matt’s previous albums, and a few have even grown to be regulars in my listening rotation, but this is the first album of his that grabbed me immediately. Subsequent listens only confirmed that Nathanson had captured something special here. This specific style, right between pop and a little alt-country, seems so ideally suited for his talents and voice. [JT]

Key Track: “Mine”

28. Twenty One PilotsTrench

It’s been quite a year for Twenty One Pilots. After a summer of cryptic teasing and numerous fan theories, the duo released their biggest and arguably best album to date in Trench. The album spans fourteen tracks that blend multiple genres, taking the signature sound this band does so well and elevating it to new heights. The now-Grammy-nominated single “Jumpsuit” is the perfect opener, setting the tone for the rest of the album. The lyrics of the song reflect the new levels of stardom and success that the band has experienced since being catapulted into the spotlight with their previous effort, Blurryface. “I can’t believe how much I hate, pressures of a new place thrown my way, Jumpsuit, Jumpsuit cover me,” Tyler Joseph sings. Tracks like “Levitate,” “Morph,” and “Pet Cheetah” showcase the duo’s rap/hip-hop side, while “Bandito” and the album closer “Leave the City” represent the slower piano tracks on the album, the latter leaving things up in the air on what’s next for the band. “Smithereens” is a fun song with tongue-in-cheek lyrics, reminiscent of “Tear In my Heart” from their previous album, and dedicated to Joseph’s wife. “Neon Gravestones” is a somber track that tackles serious issues about mental health and suicide, all while looking for hope in the celebration of life. And “Chlorine” may be the catchiest song the band has put out to date. [EW]

Key Track: “Chlorine”

29. Lori McKennaThe Tree

Lori McKenna is one of those artists who has spent a lot of time throughout her career writing hits for other artist. Her latest smash is “Cry Pretty,” the lead single and title track from Carrie Underwood’s latest record that she wrote with Underwood, Hillary Lindsey, and Liz Rose. However, it’s McKenna’s own music that stood out most to me in 2018. I have to credit Craig Manning for pointing out her solo work to me. Admittedly, I didn’t listen to McKenna until her previous album, 2016’s The Bird and the Rifle. Her style is markedly more subtle than the hits she writes for some of country’s biggest stars. The Tree exudes emotions of all kinds from the acceptance of people getting older to the pain that comes with being angry, all the way to poignant nostalgia for home. It’s a solid record and if you’re looking for some good country music that doesn’t feel mainstream, this album is a must listen. [DC]

Key Track: “People Get Old”

30. Fall Out BoyMania

“We were never supposed to make it this far,” sings Fall Out Boy frontman Patrick Stump in the first verse of “Young and Menace.” In a lot of ways, it is pretty astonishing that this mid-2000s pop-punk band has survived this long, or that they’ve continued to reinvent themselves. However, since their hiatus, Fall Out Boy have kept on cranking out quality hits and memorable albums that keep their fans coming back for more. Their latest album Mania continues this pattern of reinvention by keeping the trademark elements of their sound that made the band famous in the first place. Fall Out Boy experiment with R & B elements on the crooning track “Heaven’s Gate” and crank up the guitars on songs like “Last of the Real Ones.” From stadium-ready anthems such as “Champion” to the synth-laden beats found in “Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea,” there really is something for everyone to enjoy on this album. As shown on their stop-gap of an EP in Lake Effect Kid, Fall Out Boy are never short on great ideas, and I look forward to seeing what the next chapter holds in store for the Chicago foursome. [AG]

Key Track: “Last of the Real Ones”


Note: A playlist of all the “key tracks” can be found on Spotify and Apple Music. And a full podcast episode of Encore dives into the staff list.


Contributor Key

  • [CM]: Craig Manning
  • [JT]: Jason Tate
  • [DB]: Drew Beringer
  • [JB]: John Bazley
  • [TG]: Trevor Graham
  • [MV]: Mary Varvaris
  • [AA]: Anna Acosta
  • [AJ]: Aj LaGambina
  • [AM]: Aaron Mook
  • [DC]: Deanna Chapman
  • [CG]: Chrisanne Grise
  • [ZD]: Zac Djamoos
  • [AG]: Adam Grundy
  • [EW]: Eric Wilson

Individual Contributor Lists

Craig Manning
Craig Manning Craig Manning is a contributor at chorus.fm. He can also be found at @FurtherFromSky on Twitter and on Facebook.