Are you okay? Did you make it out of 2018 intact? Here we are, at the end of a year, that feels not that different from last year (sorry folks, facts are facts). But if we had to distill what made this year in music worth following, perhaps it’s the fact that every month not only felt like we had peaked, but also that the definition of how we characterize music’s highest order was constantly shifting.
2018 saw artists from every imaginable corner and scale exploring broad artistic ambitions: artsy heros opting for splashy, accessible hits; instructors of their respective genre’s masterclass proving why they’ve cradled their position in the hierarchy; fresh meat out for blood; and more than a few supremely ambitious micro-operas that we’re already hoping receive a theatrical release they deserve. Since you’ve read everyone else’s, here’s ours —better late than never.
25. Kali Uchis — Isolation
In a year stuffed with pop brilliance, Isolation emerged as a tantalizing jewel harvested from the bedrock of classic soul and polished by the sheen of contemporary radio. This lavish debut signals the arrival of Kali Uchis fully formed talent. Despite the album’s title, Kali Uchis sounds connected: connected to empowering feminist beliefs; connected to the cultural and aesthetic heritage of her Latin roots; connected to the genre-hopping averseness of her collaborators—a formidably diverse roster mixing everyone from Colombian reggaetón heavyweight Reykon to Tame Impala’s cosmic mastermind Kevin Parker, among others. Most of all, Kali Uchis sounds connected to the individualistic streak that every true maverick embodies: that this playful 23-year-old duchess of songcraft and style is unafraid to march to the beat of her own drum. And that rhythm is only just getting started.
24. Fucked Up — Dose Your Dreams
Fucked Up have never been known for subtlety—musically, lyrically, or in terms of inter-band dynamics. All three of those factors contributed to how Dose Your Dreams was created: the record was conceived and written entirely by guitarist Mike Haliechuk and drummer Jonah Falco, with the other four members coming in to record separately. Like other Fucked Up records, Dose is preoccupied with capitalism, control, and resistance, but this time, those scripts are set to sounds more varied than before. It’s like a punkish middle finger to genre purists: crossed wires of punk, hardcore, industrial, funk, and shoegaze keep the record engaging and challenging. A less experienced crew couldn’t pull it off, but this feels like a culmination—and perhaps swan song—of a band that had no business getting as big as it did. Dose Your Dreams is a tender, idiosyncratic love letter to their successors.
23. Teyana Taylor — K.T.S.E.
The last release in G.O.O.D. Music’s five-album Wyoming series was also the long-awaited manifestation of Teyana Taylor and Kanye West’s artistic partnership. For all the legendary work he’s done as a hip-hop producer and rapper, Kanye’s R&B catalogue is a low-key marvel in its own right, so, him finally prioritizing Taylor might have been the smartest thing he could have done in a year that saw him make numerous baffling decisions. But ‘Ye doesn’t overdo it, his minimal soul-tinged backdrops are the perfect pairing for Taylor’s distinctly rich voice. From foreplay to climax with a few adventures along the way, Teyana’s personal stories of love and passion make Keep That Same Energy a complete sultry vibe.
22. boygenius — boygenius
Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus were already songwriting juggernauts when they joined forces to create boygenius. But the three together—Baker’s plaintive, emo-indebted wails, Bridgers’ crushing intimacies, and Dacus’ insightful, often booming rock ’n’ roll—build an emotional wallop impossible to walk away from unbruised. Many ‘supergroups’ never ascend to creative heights that prove the experiment to be more than the sum of its parts, but opener “Bite The Hand” melds the band’s three distinct voices seamlessly, singing in harmony—“I can’t love you how you want me to”—setting the tone for the album. “Me & My Dog” builds and builds, detailing the way a broken heart can give you the urge to leave this planet, and the chorus of “Ketchum, ID” rings with a dusty, familiar melody that shapes it effortlessly into a modern traditional.
21. The 1975 — A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
Connecting the intersections between politics, music, and the internet is The 1975’s third studio album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. After releasing the first single “Give Yourself a Try” at the end of May, fans and critics alike were worried that the auto-tuned vocals were setting the tone for an album that would mimic the overplayed pop audio we were privy to in the 2010s. Instead, The 1975 put together a 15-track record that covers hard-hitting themes like today’s problematic societal views on race, religion, the government and more. The band plans to chase their success in late 2019 with a follow-up album Notes on a Conditional Form, and if the former is any indication, we’re about to get another earful of intelligent hits that are worth the hype they’re known for.
— Shorey Andrews
20. Saba — Care for Me
Poignant and clear-headed, Saba’s Care for Me is one of the most emotionally stirring works of the year. Inspired in part by the death of his cousin, fellow Pivot Gang member John Walt, Saba provides a well-rounded exploration of loss and the grief it spawns. Many artists pour their heartache into their art in times of sadness, so Care for Me isn’t novel in this way. But what makes the album shine is the honest and vulnerable way Saba reaches beyond the obvious sorrow and gives voice to the anger and anxiety; the lifeless moments of dejection and the quiet moments of wistfulness that also follow a loss. Set to a lush soundscape and peppered with Saba’s clever and poetic phrasing, Care for Me is a quiet but mighty standout in 2018.
19. Iceage — Beyondless
The Danish post-punk outfit Iceage’s fourth album sees a further maturation of the raw volatility of their early records into a much more spacious and deliberate sound. Now, more than ever, it feels like the band is responding to, and even embodying, the disparate barrooms and battlefields that act as backdrop for the many blackhearted characters vocalist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt conjures in his lyrics. His words hone in on detailed portraits of those living life to its extreme, driven solely by their desires. These tensions are rendered beautifully in the push and pull of order and chaos between the band and vocalist, often teetering on the edge of their own limits with exceptional results.
18. Mariah Carey — Caution
It’s tough to really pinpoint what’s different about Mariah these days but it sort of seems like she’s back. Not that she wasn’t delivering high quality work after the Glitter fiasco, she just didn’t seem as self-aware as she is on Caution and its related press cycle. With her reputation as one of the shadiest divas of all time, she plays up the persona here to great effect, referencing her own catalogue (singing “ever since that Bone Thugs song” on “With You”) and effortlessly cussing whenever she feels like. It all comes off like a re-entrance to reality which has brought along a refreshing contemporary relevance to a legendary figure.
17. Jon Hopkins — Singularity
If a psilocybin mushroom trip was synthesized into sound, Jon Hopkin’s mesmerizing Singularity would be it. Five years on from his entry into the mainstream through his sublime fourth album Immunity, Hopkins returns to guide you on a hypnotic journey punctuated by euphoria and disorientation, at once blissful yet intense, and of creation and entropy. Throughout the album, the punch of synths unifies into an ecstatic swell of sound, only to splinter and fade into a new direction as the soft keys of a piano trickle into view, or of a thumping bass launches skyward with the force of a shooting star. Hopkins excels at gently manipulating the levers of sonic transformation, so softly that you barely notice the switch. Until, of course, you are enveloped by his mastery. But by then it is too late. The curtain of reality has parted, and you are along for the ride. Make no mistake: this is an odyssey that demands proper headphones.
16. Nao — Saturn
Nao’s sophomore album is such an otherworldly brand of funky electronic R&B that Saturn seems only too fitting a title. There’s something abnormally spellbinding about her rich vocal timbre that hooks listeners right from the smouldering opening track “Another Lifetime.” She captivates with her tangible vulnerability, which peaks on the standout songs “Orbit” and “Curiosity.” Themes of love and self-discovery permeate Saturn without feeling overly saccharine as a result of her clever lyricism. Nao pulls sounds from all realms, swaying between 90s flavoured R&B melodies and woozy ultramodern beats. Saturn is an eclectic mix of ballads and dancefloor ready hits that showcase Nao’s remarkable growth. It’s an album dripping in experimentation that feels ambitious enough to transcend time—and space.
15. Sleep — The Sciences
Let’s get the obvious out of the way—The Sciences is a measured sonic assault, executed with a precision capable by only one of the genre’s most obvious forefathers. But as the legendary doom metal trio’s feverishly-anticipated fourth album, it’s also proof that few bands in their orbit have the dexterity to produce an album that felt like both a deliberate departure and a celebratory homecoming. The Sciences is built in the spirit of trying to achieve multiple ends: finding that ideal pinnacle between calculated chaos and overblown bombast, locating ground zero of weirdness and restraint, and producing the catharsis associated with strung-out psychedelia, while ensuring that it’s delivered via devastating riffs. At points when they enter the belly-baring grandeur of classic rock, it’s to remind us of how gloriously it complements a directional change into a single, relentless droning sequence, and because few bands are as apt at recognizing the power of pleasing a crowd, Sleep have double downed on a methodology that structures their erratic beast into a meticulous, bullet-proof formula.
— Melissa Vincent
14. Tierra Whack — Whack World
Newcomer Tierra Whack befuddled and delighted critics with her brief and eccentric debut, Whack World. On this quirky quickie composed of 15 single-minute clips, Whack asserts herself as both a gifted storyteller and an ingenious tease. With each bite-sized track, Whack reels her listener in, gets them hooked and quickly ushers them off to another zany corner of her world before they’ve had a chance to process what just occurred. Gone are the gruff, gritty freestyles that served as a catalyst for her rise to prominence back in Philadelphia. Instead, Whack weaves in and out of different genres, showcasing her knack for melody and metaphors, and injects each track with another colourful facet of her personality. It’s a smart, innovative debut that’s head of its class.
13. Jeremy Dutcher — Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa
Jeremy Dutcher’s modern classical record, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwanonawa, is a marvel. It is sung entirely in Wolastoqey, making it not exclusive to English speaking listeners. Dutcher’s vocals are elongated and heart-wrenching on the album, almost yelling over a dramatic flurry of keys thundering under his fingertips. On Wolastoqiyik Lintuwanonawa Dutcher effortlessly blends the past, present and future by using his voice—and that his ancestors (the songs are both inspired by and include century old wax recordings)—to blend dubstep-sounding chamber pop with Dutchers own history. The songs use century old wax recordings of the voices of his ancestors, like on “Mehcinut,” and leveraged again on the brief “‘kotuwossomikhal.” Due to this, it is necessarily complicated to praise Dutcher’s glorious debut—to listen to and praise such a deserving record means the listener needs to reconcile Canada’s genocide of Indigenous languages and peoples, and the fact that despite the fact that the language Dutcher sings in on the album was near extinction, he has altered its course.
12. 6LACK – East Atlanta Love Letter
The cover of 6LACK’s East Atlanta Love Letter tells you everything you need to know about the crooner’s progression from Free 6LACK to now. Locs freshly shorn and face wearing the signature exhausted bewilderment of a new parent, the singer finds himself in the middle of apparent chaos. Standing in a mess of a kitchen, infant daughter strapped to his body, makeshift studio set up on one side and a stove on the other, 6LACK is literally caught between his two loves: his family and his music. In contrast to its name, East Atlanta Love Letter, isn’t a love letter at all, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, the singer laments on his newfound fame and his difficulties navigating the temptations that come with it. Dark, moody and minimalist, Love Letter recalls the brooding soundscape of The Weeknd’s earlier work and is a bittersweet ode to young love’s inevitable end.
11. Mitski — Be The Cowboy
Some records arrive precisely at the moment you need them. This thought may have first occurred with Mitski’s Puberty 2, listening to “Your Best American Girl” on repeat until the end of time. A true revelation! But then she made Be The Cowboy, a narrative driven masterpiece that courses through music’s greatest sonic moments: rock, disco, country, and pop. Mitski is the sort of rock musician future generations of would-be rock band members will base both their sound and lyrical content on. Mitski is sincerely influential. Be The Cowboy is far less autobiographical than we’d first envision it to be, Mitski’s not the first artist subject to the expectation that the work of all female singer-songwriters is sprung from their personal well. Each track on the album is relatable and timeless: “Nobody,” a disco-rock hit, traverses the path of loneliness and feeling small; “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” is a pop-y infused drum machine track of temptation; and “Two Slow Dancers,” sheds a devastating truth about nostalgia. Be The Cowboy is wholly perfect in its complicated visions of imperfection.
10. Noname — Room 25
For a debut, Room 25, is intentionally unordered. Landing at a lean 34 minutes, Noname glides between the melodic drawl of bluegrass strings (“noname”), or opts for the theatrical whimsy of Fantasia-inspired flutes (”Regal”) as a method to reinforce her stylistic preference for the dazzling potential of being casual. Supersaturated with precise, referential touch points—she ricochets between excavating her own neurosis (“My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism), and figuring out how, or if, she should hold the world accountable for its multiple shortcomings (“Africa’s always dead/ Africa is always dying”)— Noname’s priorities are flexible. She refuses to pull back on the dark sense of humour she utilizes to soften the blow of the things she’s eager to get off her chest.
This is all under the umbrella of an album that invokes characteristics of tangible healing, that never concedes into the territory of a lullaby. Instead, she operates on a more cerebral level, one where she’s definitely hesitant to land on a definitive answer. In the the process she transgresses the expectation that artists in her territory (read: black and female) should perpetually champion empowerment. In Noname’s universe, there’s power in cozying up to your flaws, affirming their existence, and realizing that there’s power in admitting that you’re still processing.
9. Calvin Johnson — A Wonderful Beast
A Wonderful Beast is a relatively easy sell: if you love Beat Happening, Johnson’s offbeat pop sensibility is on display in excruciatingly catchy form, and the album’s overstuffed, golden-toned jangle makes sense when you discover that Michelle Branch provides back-up vocals, and her new husband brings the flavour of his formerly astronomically-successful, stadium rock band.
But for its subtle sonic grandness (and brazen thematic ambitions), Johnson invokes the candor of both a master puppeteer and a public library storyteller—he’s silly, but with a firm grasp on potential of humour to both thrill and fold necessary truths into goofy wordplay (“Everybody on your feet/ Alt-Right-Click-Delete/Now our rainbow world’s complete” might be one of the best lyrics of the year). By a longshot, A Wonderful Beast was the record I had the most fun listening to this year. There’s something to be said about an album that gives you permission to feel deliriously entertained, without the responsibility of needing to match it with positivity. And in a year that doled out few things to celebrate, an opportunity to dip into Johnson’s strung-out fantasy felt like booking an overdue vacation.
— Melissa Vincent
8. Travis Scott — Astroworld
Travis Scott is one of the most original rap artists to emerge this decade. The thing is, as sounds (and culture) gravitate towards him, he finds himself at the centre of hip-hop in 2018. Copious beat switches of intricately-produced, thunderous tracks see Travis weaving smoothly in and out of varying levels of auto-tune, singing while rapping and rapping while singing alongside a gang of co-producers and guest performers. Astroworld is an excellent culmination of the work the Houston weirdo has done thus far.
7. Kacey Musgraves — Golden Hour
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no fervent disciple of traditional country music. Which is exactly the reason why the third album from Kacey Musgraves, the aptly titled Golden Hour, probably resonated so deeply with me. It takes all the tropes of songwriting that Musgraves has explored on previous albums—small town romance, love and happiness, family and friendship, drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes, a yearning for adventure—and peels them into an existential blender, as Kacey steps off her lamplit front porch and ventures out into the wilderness of the wider world.
Each song swoons with the warm sepia glow of subtle surprise, articulating her more nuanced maturity as a songwriter, capable of subverting the typical sounds of a country record. The album’s affecting opener, “Slow Burn” gently savours the pace of passing time, “In Tennessee, the sun’s goin’ down /But in Beijing, they’re heading out to work.” On “Oh, What A World” touches of disco and soft rock fuse with pedal steel and banjo as Kacey’s drawling voice, filtered through a vocoder, marvels at the lushness of nature’s vibrant works. On the quietly devastating “Mother”, a phone call from her mother—while she’s tripping on acid—inspires an emotional breakdown: ““I’m just sitting here thinking ’bout the time that’s slipping /And missing my mother, mother /And she’s probably sitting there /Thinking ’bout the time that’s slipping /And missing her mother, mother.” This is the sound of an artist becoming enlightened by the present moment, enraptured by her own lovely world, but also open to the possibility that it might end one day. Not everything lasts, and that might just be okay.
6. U.S. Girls — In A Poem Unlimited
The brilliance of Meg Remy’s work has always been in its intertextuality—how she covers, samples, interpolates, and loops ideas in ways that shore up her own. In the past, the cuts and seams of that approach have always been visible, emphasized even, but In A Poem Unlimited it is markedly different: she tasked a live band with interpreting her songs in the style of early R&B and disco, music known for its seamlessness, to draw attention to the way each song contributes to a greater whole.
It’s no surprise then that the songs themselves expertly explore cyclical ideas like gendered violence, promising politicians who end up like all of the rest, or the expansiveness of time itself. In A Poem Unlimited finds Remy once again using everything available to her, along with some new tricks up her sleeve, to prove exactly why she’s one of Canada’s most vital songwriters.
5. Robyn — Honey
It’s been just over a year since Robyn first teased us with a version of “Honey” that she completed for the final season of HBO’s Girls—but it’s felt like a lifetime. Having not heard a peep from our favourite Swedish pop star since she ended her short-lived tour with Röyksopp we were starving for new music—but there was a reason we were left feeling hungry. In 2014, Robyn lost her dear friend and collaborator, Christian Falk to pancreatic cancer and would require all the time it would take to heal from the heartache.
By 2017 we could feel her resurgence but it wasn’t until the near end of summer that she would release “Missing U” and instantly turn the fandom upside down. In short, it’s near-perfect, balancing the pristine pop she’s set the standard for, with a wizened approach adding new things to the genre. Now that her eighth studio album has been unleashed on the world we can breathe again knowing that Robyn is back and more fierce than ever. Thank goodness.
4. Pusha T — Daytona
Both within and without context, Daytona feels like masterwork. It’s a near-flawless affair precisely because of its unpolished confidence: Push’s delivery is patient and relaxed but commanding; samples are jagged but artfully meshed; and loose, laid-back production lets the confidence of the former two elements strut across a compact, succinct seven tracks.
Daytona runs just over 20 minutes, and is all the better for it. It’s taut and swaggering, opting for hard impact over the congealed, stats-gaming monotony of double-albums like Drake’s bloated Scorpion. With just two features (and vocal contributions from Tony Williams), Daytona is focused on Pusha T, his hustle, and the resultant hard-earned decadence. From the first cool refrain of “If You Know, You Know,” it is a revelrous, confident affair. It sounds like the making of a new benchmark because it is.
3. Cardi B — Invasion of Privacy
Cardi B has had a year. She gave birth to her first child and aptly named her Kulture, disclosed her secret marriage to Migos’ Offset (whom she’s now filing for divorce from), and her debut album sat comfortably at number one. Other things occurred, like her feud with Nicki Minaj, but Cardi would, as I agree, argues for the positives to outshine the negatives. Invasion of Privacy is the 13-song result of a woman who has not, and will not, stop working for her acclaim: it is a tribute to a woman tirelessly working, whatever the cost.
The record’s title is a defiant proclamation of what comes with her success. On Invasion of Privacy while we’re given more of Cardi’s signature, “Bodak Yellow” inspired bluster like “Drip,” “Get Up 10,” “Bickenhead.” But she’s also self-aware and vulnerable, too, like on “Be Careful,” and “I Do” featuring SZA. An album full of legitimate and culture-moving hits on her first time out? Cardi wouldn’t have it any other way.
2. Ariana Grande — Sweetener
It’s been a year of incredible highs and some very tragic lows for Ariana Grande, but this year, nothing came between her and the massive success of Sweetener. With a fanbase of some of the most loyal followers the internet has ever seen, it’s no surprise that Grande’s fourth studio album shot right to the top of the Billboard 200 in the U.S.
Sweetener features a more mature sound; showing steady growth as she continues to impress us with her unforgettable range and bold attitude towards today’s most pressing social issues. If God is a woman, than Ariana Grande is the saint that has taught us how to feel liberated in her presence.
— Shorey Andrews
1. Janelle Monae — Dirty Computer
Janelle Monae has been building up to an album as big, beautiful and bold as Dirty Computer since she first danced her way onto the music scene with her Grammy-nominated song “Many Moons” over 11 years ago. Monae spent her last two records drawing from the greats, with splashes of Prince, David Bowie, and Stevie Wonder all boogieing their way through her art. Their influences still radiate throughout Dirty Computer, but as always, Monae injects her own flavour into each song.
With the anthemic “Make Me Feel,” Monae pays homage to her mentor Prince’s iconic “Kiss” with its funky synth lines. Yet her own voice shines, mightily expressing ownership of her sexuality: “I’m powerful with a little bit of tender, an emotional sexual bender.” Monae fiercely circumvents gender norms and expertly employs her sci-fi storytelling skills to craft a soulful masterpiece that critiques and celebrates queerness, blackness and self-acceptance. The political becomes deeply personal, as Monae articulates the importance of honouring individuality in all shapes, sizes and colours. “I’m not America’s nightmare, I’m the American dream” she surmises.
It’s upbeat, euphoric, witty and analytical simultaneously, like a party you can’t escape—and wouldn’t want to if you could. Monae ponders what it means to be herself in a country steeped in issues of homophobia, unequal pay, immigration reform and racism. She illuminates these subjects from a place of endearment, asking listeners to not only survive but thrive. In Monae’s world there is rebellion in uplifting each other, and in choosing to love instead of hate.
Dirty Computer is everything all at once; it weaves together the past and present in a futuristically packaged love letter to anyone has ever felt they didn’t belong. In Dirty Computer’s accompanying emotion picture—a narrative film and musical album—Monae explains Dirty Computers are anyone who looks different and doesn’t live by society’s rules. Monae finds glory in otherness and hope in darkness. Even though we may be “Screwed” we are liberated. She reminds us we are all Dirty Computers. It’s the album the world needed in 2018.