Now that we’ve reached the end of December, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite albums from this year. I’m particularly proud of the emphasis that I placed on listening to new music by women, which will be obvious as you make your way through the post. As I hope is the case every time I make these annual rankings, my goal is not so much that anyone should be awed by my short paragraphs of explanation (doubtful since my schedule didn’t allow me enough time to edit my writing too closely – let me know if there are any weird errors!), but rather that my mentions of these artists will spread positive awareness of them. If I can share my appreciation for a singer or band and subsequently inspire someone to become a fan, the work will have been worth it. Have a good time with this, everybody!
15. Seinabo Sey, I’m a Dream
I might never have heard of Gambian-Swedish singer-songwriter Seinabo Sey if I didn’t regularly check out Pitchfork reviews, although luckily I started listening to I’m a Dream before reading Katherine St. Asaph‘s piece, which unfairly marks Sey’s album with a 6.0 grade. Sey’s second album, following Pretend (2015), continues her interest in marrying soul/R&B with pop, moving through different tempi to exhibit her perspectives on romantic and familial relationships. Most inspirational among the songs is “Breathe,” an empowering reminder from Sey to herself that no matter what hardships she endures, she is valuable and magical.
14. Black Belt Eagle Scout, Mother of My Children
There may not have been a more impressive debut single in 2018 than “Soft Stud,” a searing ode to unrequited lust. The rest of Katherine Paul’s album is fairly quiet by comparison, but her first full-length project as Black Belt Eagle Scout burns with longing. A self-described “radical indigenous queer feminist,” Paul draws from her experiences growing up in the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Washington to tell stories both deeply personal to her and universal in the desires they communicate. Album closer “Sam, A Dream” is the best example of how Paul blends those two concepts, taking a minimalist lyrical approach to expressing her love for the song’s subject before spending a solid two and a half minutes on a guitar solo to finish the record, a sound so beautiful that you feel like you’re floating when you hear it.
13. Blossoms, Cool Like You
For those of us who love a good tune that pays homage to 80s New Wave and synthpop, Blossoms are your band. They don’t seem to have made anywhere near as much of an impact in the US as they have in their native UK, and British critics weren’t exactly bowled over by this sophomore album (despite it hitting #4 on the charts), but I’ll bet that most of today’s young American bands would kill to put out a single half as catchy as “Cool Like You,” or anything close to the upbeat yet still sort of bittersweet perfection of “Love Talk.”
12. Shannon Shaw, Shannon in Nashville
Stepping away from her role as frontwoman of Oakland, California’s surf-punk outfit Shannon and the Clams, Shannon Shaw’s debut solo album Shannon in Nashville is an entrancing collection of songs deeply inspired by 60s girl groups, Roy Orbison and, of course, Dusty “Dusty in Memphis” Springfield. Even if you’d never heard Shaw’s voice before now, it would instantly become iconic to your ears thanks to melodies that sound just as timeless as their predecessors from half a century ago.
11. Say Sue Me, Where We Were Together
Korean-American indie rock band Say Sue Me have a sweet, light touch that makes both their snappy power-pop efforts like “But I Like You” and “Old Town” and also somewhat more serious-minded guitar showcases like “Let It Begin,” “About the Courage to Become Somebody’s Past” (an instrumental that gives me real “This Magic Moment” vibes) and “Coming to the End” equally appealing. I don’t speak or understand Korean, so I don’t know how lead singer Sumi Choi’s lyrics for “After Falling Asleep” translate, but the fact that I love it anyway is a testament to the fact that fantastic music always transcends barriers of language.
10. Robyn, Honey
I didn’t expect to love Robyn’s newest album upon first listen back in October, but now I do, so here we are. A couple of months spent absorbing her woozy beats has made me appreciate Robyn’s ability to evoke moods that feel specific to her particular talent as an artist. The loss that inspired the album – the death of one of her closest friends, Christian Falk, in 2014 – pervades nearly all of the tracks, but they are relatable and will still make you want to dance, closer to light than to darkness. Even in songs like “Human Being” and “Baby Forgive Me,” where the rhythms and (to cite the latter’s credits in the album liner notes) “sad robot voice” play with notions of human artistic creation juxtaposed with machine-manufactured products, Robyn herself is always in front and center, and in the album’s crown jewel, the title track “Honey,” her maturity as a storyteller is evident.
9. cupcakKe, Eden
All Hail Queen cupcakKe. On her second album of the year, following January’s Ephorize, the Chicago rapper continues to show why she’s one of the best women in the game. “PetSmart” starts things off incredibly, exhibiting one entertaining brag after another, then the rest of the album displays more of her often laugh-out-loud humor, endless pop culture references, a bunch of her quintessential sex-centric jams (”Garfield,” “Typo,” “Blackjack”) and a song dedicated to people on the autism spectrum (”A.U.T.I.S.M.”). Every now and then there are moments that indicate that cupcakKe still has room to grow, like when she uses the R slur on “Garfield,” but ultimately her heart is in the right place; besides the aforementioned “A.U.T.I.S.M.,” she has also recorded songs in support of the LGBTQ+ community (”LGBT,” “Crayons”), so I am certain that she’ll eventually learn from her mistakes. As one YouTube commenter wrote on one of her videos: “She should be where Cardi B is.” Indeed.
8. Chelsea Jade, Personal Best
New Zealand-based singer-songwriter Chelsea Jade has not yet hit it big in America like her younger compatriot, Lorde, but there is an ample proof on Personal Best that Jade can craft earworms with memorable hooks and intelligent lyrics. (Seriously, when was the last time you heard the word liminal used in a pop song, as Jade does on “Laugh It Off”?) She has her foot in the door in America as a lyricist, credited as one of the writers of this year’s Chainsmokers single “You Owe Me,” but one hopes that the “Accidental Dream Pop Hero” of Auckland, NZ will claim her own chart-topping stardom one day.
7. Beach House, 7
I thought I knew what to expect from a Beach House album after following their career for the past few years, but “Lemon Glow” and “Black Car” hit me like gorgeous sledgehammers anyway when they were released earlier this year, still taking my breath away every time I hear them. I don’t know how Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally manage it, but they keep finding sophisticated ways to update their mining of the same musical territory in a tried-and-true comfort zone. Beach House’s secret seems to be that they have deduced all the algorithms necessary to hypnotize listeners. 7 is perhaps less exciting to me than the duo’s last album, Thank Your Lucky Stars, since the freshness of first being introduced to their music in 2015 has faded, but I’m glad to report that their new songs are absolutely worthy of praise.
6. Soccer Mommy, Clean
Nashville, Tennessee’s Sophie Allison, who performs under the moniker Soccer Mommy, wowed me with this ten-track album full of indie rock gems. At age 20, she is ready to take the music industry by storm, evoking her heroes Liz Phair and Mitski while always maintaining a recognizable individual style. This is most apparent on the more upbeat tracks – “Skin,” for example, is a brutally honest articulation of yearning, and if ever there was a year that needed a blistering takedown of abusive relationships like “Your Dog” as its rallying cry, it’s 2018.
5. Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel
It took a while for Courtney Barnett’s latest album to sink in with me. Tell Me How You Really Feel is the definition of a slow burn; it has just as much of Barnett’s trademark dry humor, but it also brings to the surface a sensitivity beyond what she revealed on her breakthrough album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015). Most of all, I think she’s enjoying exploring what she can do with her melodies, like the guitar solo on “Help Your Self,” her incorporation of Margaret Atwood’s famous “men are afraid, women are afraid” quote in the chorus of the #MeToo/#TimesUp anthem “Nameless, Faceless” or the amount of time it takes her to reach the “Keep on keeping on/You know you’re not alone” part of “Sunday Roast.” Listening to new music by Courtney Barnett is as rewarding an experience as any modern-day alternative rock fan could want.
4. Caroline Rose, LONER
I was magnetized to Caroline Rose’s music from the intriguing opening notes of “More of the Same,” the first of many riffs that LONER gifts to us. My favorite track is “Jeannie Becomes a Mom,” which continues a classic singer-songwriter tradition of relating the ups and downs of another woman’s life, especially her dreams for a brighter future. She also moves through a few genres besides indie rock with skill, employing elements of trip-hop on “To Die Today” and R&B on “Talk” and “Animal” in engaging ways. (According to Rose in a press release, LONER is “as much inspired by Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears as it was late-’70s punk,“ which I can believe.) Rose’s sense of humor might be the best part of the album, though, as seen in her sharp wit and sarcasm on “Money,” “Soul No. 5” and “Bikini,” the last of which is a bouncy number mocking the industries that compel women to become sexualized puppets tailor-made for public consumption.
I also find this Out Magazine quote from Caroline Rose about how she incorporates her own sexuality enlightening: “When I was first starting, I was kind of afraid to make being queer a part of my identity for fear that it would consume it, because that happens to a lot of artists, unfortunately. When you’re first starting, that is the way people identify you cause that’s all you get. You get one elevator pitch and if you’re lucky, a 30 second clip of what your music sounds like—and that’s the pitch. But I hit a point where I was like, ‘That’s dumb.’ People should be as much of themselves as possible, ‘cause then everyone would be super unique. No one else is you. You are independent of other people and you can do whatever you want with your identity and your body and the way you dress and the way you act. I realized I should just be myself—middle fingers up and no fucks given, ‘cause life is really short. My life is zipping by and I’m okay with that, but I want to make sure I do it right.”
3. Wild Moccasins, Look Together
Few bands that I discovered in 2018 have dazzled me quite like Houston, Texas’s Wild Moccasins. When the pair at the heart of the group, vocalist/keyboardist Zahira Gutierrez and guitarist Cody Swann, ended their romantic relationship a few years ago, they turned their complex jumble of reasons and reactions into art. But Look Together isn’t a mopey breakup record; “Longtime Listener,” the song that immediately turned me into a fan, is a slice of New Wave heaven, while “Missing You (the Most)” and “No Muse” are just as jaunty but dig into the more personal side of the duo’s songwriting. “Missing” ends with a repetition of the lines “You only want me if you get the chance to change me/You only want me if you get the chance to save me,” while “No Muse,“ a pointed examination of how men (especially artists) undermine and belittle the women in their relationships, features this cogent chorus: “I’m no use to you unless I’m undressed/I’m no muse to you/You cut me in two unless I say yes/I’m no muse to you/And you can sing about it all you want/I must not want it bad enough, bad enough.”
2. Miya Folick, Premonitions
Thanks to Pitchfork, I first heard of Miya Folick when her single “Deadbody” came out this past March. It immediately struck me as a manifesto for our new age, where women can move forward with confidence thanks to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. That song alternately demonstrates subdued menace and loud, unapologetic anger, but “Stock Image” and “Premonitions” show that Folick has a strong leaning towards modern pop music; “Stop Talking” is so commercially accessible that it’s as much of a bop as any sugary confection by Carly Rae Jepsen. Folick’s debut album – after having released a number of EPs and standalone tracks over the past few years – showcases a woman whose voice and songwriting abilities have limitless potential, and she’s only just getting started. To quote some of Folick’s lyrics from “Stop Talking,” seemingly a summary of her artist’s statement: “You have to make a choice/Don’t be an accidental voice/We have to speak with grace/We will become the words we say.“
1. Mitski, Be the Cowboy
It’s no mistake that so many end-of-year best-of lists have placed Be the Cowboy at the top of their rankings. Mitski’s fifth album finds her wading through deep pools of emotion in brief, lovely bursts of song, with twelve out of the fourteen tracks running two and a half minutes or shorter. It was pretty difficult for me to pick only a handful of highlights from an album that is so impressive in every conceivable way, so just know that every cut is a masterpiece. She puts words to the feelings we all carry inside, diamonds that glisten for fleeting moments but linger in the memory for a long time afterward.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (alphabetical)
Marie Davidson, Working Class Woman (”Your Biggest Fan,” ”Work It,” ”The Psychologist,” “Day Dreaming,” “So Right” [although the extended version is even better since the opening lines are brought back in the last thirty seconds, making the song’s ending even more effective], “Burn Me”)
HONORABLE MENTIONS #2: EPs (alphabetical)