If you’ve been following our site for the past year, and have perused through one of our monthly Barn Playlists, you’d know we like to start things off with a breathless, weatherman-like rundown of all the new sounds we’ve gravitated towards. If it feels like a slightly cheesy tradition, it’s because it is – we’re really just a proud, motley crew of music-lovers with dad-like levels of humor. But above all, we wear our musical tastes and criticisms like a badge of honor, and are happy to spread our weird gospel for anyone who will listen. And for that, we are eternally grateful. In our first year as a music and culture website, we were treated to a wide spectrum of sounds, scenes, and musical movements that will either linger for years to come, serve as a smaller footnote on a larger canvas, or unfortunately, burn out entirely. With the power of hindsight, we can try to put these artistic trends under a microscope and analyze what makes them essential fabrics of the current music scene. 2018 was a year of combustible moods and fraught anxiety, and some of the year’s best music either tried to lean into those dark, nervy impulses, or serve up a healthy antidote to all the tension. In the end, all of our album picks had something to say about our current divisive times.
With that in mind, welcome all you Barn Burners to our 50 Best Albums of 2018! And of course, here’s that weatherman-like rundown you’ve all been itching for: out in London, we’ve got for you another all-encompassing, shimmering pop collage from verbose moppets The 1975. Then we bring you back home to sunny San Diego with the beachy, smoke-filled vibes of Beach Goons, and a shit-kicking barrage of noisy hardcore from local legends Hot Snakes. There’s also the stormy, post-punk-y shoegaze from brash upstarts Shame and Terra Pines, as well as the throbbing house and techno layers of veterans Jon Hopkins and Against All Logic. We’ve also got Dilly Dally’s sobering grunge anthems, Beach House’s captivating dream-pop magic, and Oneohtrix Point Never’s cold and numbing ambient electronica. And finally, we wrap things up with Yves Tumor’s searing, genre-smashing brand of experimentalism. Hopefully, we’ve highlighted a little something for everyone here. Thank you, we love you all, and we hope you continue to join us on our strange musical journey in 2019 and beyond. Cheers!
03 Greedo: God Level
03 Greedo’s rise to stardom in the face of a looming 20-year prison stint was one of the most compelling storylines in music this year. We may never see him reach his full potential. But what we do know is that in 2018, he released two amazing LPs: The Wolf of Grape Street and God Level. Of those two, God Level ranks among the very best in hip-hop this year. Whereas Wolf is an hour-long blast of up-tempo party jams and gritty street anthems, God Level is his melodic, emotional send-off. Greedo’s most unique quality is definitely his voice – a syrupy croon that falls somewhere between Yung Thug and T-Pain. On an album peppered with bittersweet moments, he has the chance to flex that vocal muscle without any restraints. Over intricate piano melodies and stuttery hi-hats on “Prayer for My Lost,” he raps about the people he’ll miss when he gets sent away, and hopes they’ll ride for him when he’s gone. On “In My Feelings,” his auto-tuned vocals slide over seductive, lounge-y beats with a sense of chill and ease. One of the most intensely personal musical moments of the year occurs on “Bacc to Jail,” in which he confronts his very real fate with melancholic acceptance: “If I go back to jail, tell me would you stay by my side?” he wonders, full of heartbreak and longing. It’s a real tearjerker, especially as echoey, fluttery beats swirl around him. But it’s not all sadness. On the pumped-up, psychedelic “Floating,” Greedo actually comes off as victorious, or free: “I can touch the sky I’m high enough,” he sings, striking a liberating tone even as he faces his fate head-on. God Level stretches a sprawling 1-hour 48-minutes, and not a single second feels wasted – a mind-boggling achievement. It’s an album where 03 Greedo says goodbye in the most impactful way possible, and it’s something to treasure, as we might not get another like it again. But who knows? It’s rumored that before he went away, he recorded a whopping 500 songs! So cross your fingers; there may be a vault of material waiting to see the light of day. -Jeff Cubbison
The 1975: A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
For whatever reason, The 1975 rub some people the wrong way. It’s probably because Matt Healey is very cloying, pretentious, and pretty. But that’s one of the reasons why I love The 1975. Healey’s whole schtick – cheesy though it may be – is the earnest heart and soul of the band’s existence. If you can’t get on-board with him, then there’s no helping you. Because to most ears, The 1975 are making some of the most dynamic pop music of our generation. Following their wistful 2016 tapestry I like it when you sleep…their new album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is the sort of expansive, ambitious masterwork that should be applauded just for the effort alone. Sparkling art-pop, sweeping new wave, lo-fi electronica, folksy Brit-pop, neo-soul, and even jazzy R&B weave in and out of A Brief Inquiry, an album who’s playlist-like sensibility attempts to be everything all at once and sticks almost every landing. From the ’80s synth-laden new age sing-along “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” to riffy pop-rock single “Give Yourself a Try” to the glitchy, Jon Hopkins-aping IDM instrumental track “How to Draw/Petrichor,” this is an album about change, and the instability that arises from entering a new phase of life. It touches on Healey kicking his drug habit, lampoons the nature of celebrity, and waxes on the volatility of codependent relationships – all symptoms of an uncertain post-millennial angst. Highlight “Love It If We Made It” is the ultimate new wave stomper – an insightful youth anthem in which Healey stares down the dark and toxic forces of modern culture with unbridled optimism. As streaking saxophone solos adorn Healey’s pleas for a happy ending, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships functions as the thesis statement of our scatterbrained times. -JC
Against All Logic: 2012-2017
The shapeshifting, workhorse-like approach of Nicolas Jaar has yielded some of the most interesting electronic music of the last decade. Earlier this year, the versatile musician dropped 2012-2017, a collage-like set of infectious, sample-heavy club bangers under the moniker Against All Logic. Armed with funk, soul, and disco grooves and an arsenal of propulsive house beats, he’s reminded us once again that he’s one of the best producers in the game. And on “Some Kind of Game,” frenetic piano rhythms bounce along at rapid-fire pace, matching a walloping bevy of hi-hats and snares. From there he morphs to the strobe-y and dramatic “Hopeless,” which will make you dance with the lights out, and the disco-rich “Know You,” with a vocal sample hook that’s both catchy and brazenly corny. And then there’s “Rave on U,” the spacey and synth-y epic closing track that’s ten minutes of euphoria-inducing deep house melodies and clanging cowbells. It’s one of the best songs of the year. The most impressive aspect of this album is how it feels like a tasteful, chopped up playlist in which each track is distinct from one another and explores different sonic terrains while still flowing cohesively from one to the next. Jaar continues to be a masterful curator of his own sounds – weaving together a grab-bag of dance styles – and 2012-2017 is a perfectly-stitched quilt. -JC
Beach Goons: hoodratscumbags
San Diego’s musical identity largely derives from its proximity to the ocean. The ocean breeds surfing, which then breeds surf rock. At the same time, another important factor is San Diego’s proximity to Mexico. This year, we witnessed the emergence of young Logan Heights band Beach Goons – another act indebted to San Diego’s famed tradition of beachy garage-punk. Having cut their teeth in the potent local house show scene, the band’s debut album hoodratscumbags delivers 26 minutes of insanely catchy, shreddy California pop-punk while also embracing the band members’ Mexican roots with its incorporation of Latin pop and cumbia styles. On one hand, hard-charging punk tracks like “Hrsb” and “The End” feel right at home alongside local legends like Wavves and The Frights. And then there are cuts like “A.M.” and “Chunti,” which feature Spanish-sung parts and mix honest lyricism, coming-of-age themes and relatable slacker vibes. Thus, hoodratscumbags is an album that fully wears its heart on its sleeve. On “Hunny Bunnies” – which tackles relationship drama – singer Pablo Cervantes’ desperate, pleading vocal croon is absolutely bursting with emotion. Fuzzy, thrashy guitars and walloping percussion round out this wonderful debut LP, while slower, nuanced moments are also peppered throughout, including on the atmospheric instrumental track “Artificial Flowers.” With hoodratscumbags, Beach Goons have put their own honest stamp on the surf-punk genre while also proudly repping the local Hispanic community. It’s the best “San Diego” album of 2018. -JC
Beach House: 7
When an already terrific band releases its seventh album and it turns out to be a career-best, you know they’re something special. When that band is Beach House, it makes you one of the most important musical acts of this generation. This year’s 7 is Beach House’s most definitive album to date. It more strongly embraces their signature sonic impulses than any album they’ve ever released – dreamier melodies, heavier songwriting, and darker, more absorbing production courtesy of Sonic Boom. Whereas subtle sonic quirks peppered and grazed their previous records, here all the sounds come crashing and throttling in. Vibrating bass, stabby acoustics, rich lo-fi reverb, and pounding percussion now raise the stakes, making everything sound so grand and full. On “Lemon Glow,” singer Victoria Legrand’s voice is brought front-and-center, dripping over intoxicating, bouncy synth melodies, resulting in an awe-inspiring slice of dream-pop magic. As always, the beauty of Beach House is in the subtle details. The delicate opening riffs on haunting ballad “Dive” usher in a wave of translucent, reverberating rhythms and dancey drum machines, conveying a sense of life’s fluidity through a communication breakdown in a relationship. Then there’s “Lose Your Smile,” with flowing guitars, swelling synths, syrupy trip-hop atmospherics, and a climax topped with pings of winding, pained slide guitar. On album closer “Last Ride,” noodling background guitar noise and uplifting tambourine slaps follow Legrand as she paints an allegory of singer Nico’s death in a biking accident: “There she goes/ The sun went bad/ The cycle ends…” Here, Legrand stares head on into the abyss, nailing the bittersweet realization of the inevitability of life. It’s the conclusive punctuation mark to Beach House’s most encapsulating and inspiring album yet. -JC
The Beths: Future Me Hates Me
Sometimes self-deprecation is the best medicine. Of course, we’re all self-conscious beings, but not all of us will admit it. Enter The Beths, New Zealand’s best musical import since Lorde. On Future Me Hates Me, the Auckland band’s reflective spin on garage-y pop punk made them one of the year’s great indie breakthroughs. Their debut album features irresistible hooks, wonderful indie garage rock melodies, and some of the most impactful songwriting of the year. For example, the title track is rich with soul-bearing lyrics, raw energy, tight melodies, and a relatable message about hating your flaws while still begrudgingly embracing them. Frontwoman Elizabeth Stokes effortlessly draws listeners in with her unabashed confidence, coupled with her brutally honest songwriting . The whole album is rich with a playful attitude akin to artists like Charly Bliss and Alex Lahey, while its janglier elements are reminiscent of Cloud Nothings. There’s the faster pop-flavor of “Uptown Girl,” the harmonic and riffy single “Happy Unhappy,” and the album’s best track, the epic, anthemic, singalong-inducing “River Run: Lvl 1.” It’s a non-stop barrage of melodic garage-pop jams and catchy choruses with these guys. Future Me Hates Me sets The Beths up for potential superstardom, and for what it’s worth, it’s my mom’s #1 favorite album of the year. -JC
Birds In Row: We Already Lost the World
Brutal yet melodic, piercingly chaotic yet incredibly soulful, Birds In Row’s sophomore album We Already Lost The World skyrocketed the band to a whole new level. Six years on from their bracing debut, the French post-hardcore trio have taken their sound to expansive new places, impressively tiptoeing the fine line between dissonant and beautiful. The songs here are slower and more contemplative, the riffs are angrier and more nuanced, the production is crisper, and the emotions are more extreme. On opening track “We Count so We Don’t Have to Listen,” singer Bart Balboa’s shrieking, guttural vocals collide with atmospheric guitar riffs in a cathartic aural assault that’s equal parts abrasive and melodic. The rest of the album follows suit, blending elements of melodic hardcore, alternative rock, post-rock, and math rock. And of course there’s the album’s midpoint climax – the emotional one-two punch of “I Don’t Dance” and “15-38” – a combo that lifts you to stratospheric heights before dragging you down to pummeling, soul-crushing lows. The vaguely enigmatic image that the band has spent years cultivating is completely stripped away here, as emotions are laid totally bare. We Already Lost The World is not only the apex of Birds In Row’s career, but the absolute pinnacle of heavy music in 2018. -JC
Blood Orange: Negro Swan
“You asked me what family is/ And I think of family as community/ I think of the spaces where you don’t have to shrink yourself/ Where you don’t have to pretend or to perform/ You can fully show up and be vulnerable/And in silence, completely empty and/ That’s completely enough/ You show up, as you are, without judgment, without ridicule/ Without fear or violence, or policing, or containment/ And you can be there and you’re filled all the way up/ So we get to choose our families/ We are not limited by biology/ We get to make ourselves/ And we get to make our families” – “Family” featuring Janet Mock
This monologue by TV personality, writer and transgender activist Janet Mock on Negro Swan’s sixth track “Family” is worth quoting in full because it succinctly captures the vulnerability and power of Blood Orange’s fourth full-length album. It also shows how well Dev Hynes excels at speaking his message through the collaborators he chooses to work with. Mock joins an impressive list of guests who appear on the album: Diddy, Tei Shi, A$AP Rocky, Project Pat, Ian Isiah, Georgia Anne Muldrow and Steve Lacey. The result is as stunningly poignant at certain moments as it is restrained and celebratory in its own victories. Hynes sings with the benefit of hindsight, pulling from past friendships, relationships, and feelings of dejection to underscore a subtle unraveling of anxieties that propel a rebuilding of the self. “No one wants to be the odd one out at times/ No one wants to be the negro swan /Can you break sometimes?” he sings on highlight “Charcoal Baby. The result is Rumi-esque in its triumphs; recognizing and identifying great sorrow or anxiety can lead to growth in bloom. Hynes’ understated virtuosity as a producer and songwriter makes Negro Swan an enjoyable and re-listenable record. The main difference between this album and previous Blood Orange releases is his patience in performance. Give it the time it deserves, and its nuances will fly to you in full color. -Chris Cubbison
Car Seat Headrest: Twin Fantasy
It’s easy to imagine fans of 26-year-old Will Toledo’s Car Seat Headrest project being dismayed to learn that for his 11th album, he would re-record his 6th album, 2011’s Twin Fantasy. Already the stuff of music forum legend, Twin Fantasy was a searingly personal indie rock record about doomed relationships and having to live through an awkward adolescence on the internet. More specifically, it was an album chronicling the dissolution of a dangerously co-dependent online relationship with a furry artist, filled with soaring guitars, internet-age observations and 10-minute suites that didn’t wear out their welcome. How can you re-make an album so personal that it plays like a diary? In any case, Twin Fantasy (Face to Face) is not quite the same album as Twin Fantasy. Lyrics and song structures have been refined in key places, and while it retains some of the original’s lo-fi production choices, its expanded fidelity and Toledo’s improved performances truly make the original feel like a demo. Which is to say that Face to Face is a remarkably strong indie rock record. Toledo’s lyrical considerations on modern alienation, anxiety and disillusionment within a close relationship are more vital than ever in 2018, and his songwriting’s reverence of classic rock, ’90s indie and alt-rock place the album’s aesthetic pleasingly out of time.
But it is Twin Fantasy’s structural and thematic ambition that make it a transcendent entry in Car Seat Headrest’s now extensive catalog. Epics “Beach Life-In-Death” and “Famous Prophets (Stars)” are roller coasters of non-repeating movements that closely mirror the mental disarray of reeling from a tough personal experience than they do any of Car Seat Headrest’s influences. While they can’t contain the same long-form majesty, singles “Nervous Young Inhumans” and “Cute Thing” similarly render the confusion and infatuation of young love into anthemic, whip-smart garage rock. Cut out the specifics and Twin Fantasy (Face to Face) is an album about innocence, obsession, alienation, and rejection. But it’s the specifics that make it such an empathic experience; Toledo’s painstaking document of finding and losing a rare connection could ring true to any kind of listener. -John Warlick
Death Grips: Year of the Snitch
If you can’t handle that album cover, then you probably can’t handle Death Grips. One of the most vicious bands in music returned this year to release Year of the Snitch, a weird album (even by their standards) that mixes prog, krautrock and industrial house elements with their noisy brand of experimental hip-hop. Opening track “Death Grips Is Online” is a shockingly sleek stunner with sweeping techno soundscapes sliced in with Death Grips’ uniquely abrasive and glitchy inclinations. MC Ride’s usual screaming outbursts are as off-putting as ever, especially on the thundering, droney hard-rock track “Black Paint.” Zach Hill continues to bring his skittering octopus drums further to the forefront, which makes the songs drip with an uncaged prog-rock sensibility. The wailing electronic beats on “Streaky” puncture like a jackhammer, while the clashing of MC Ride’s guttural shouts and Hill’s thrashy, blown-out percussion on “Shitshow” reverberates like a blender full of screws and nails. Engineer Andy Morin also needs to be commended for his role in corralling and parsing through the most experimental pallet of Death Grips noises ever assembled. On Year Of The Snitch, Death Grips elaborate on their already whiplash-inducing sound by adopting heady, avant Captain Beefheart/Magic Band vibes, resulting in their most adventurous album to date. -JC