Classics in the Right Way: 25 favorite albums from 2018


A few things you’ll see on my list of 25 favorite records from 2018: Roughly 16 selections by women, depending on how you want to classify husband-wife duos. Four official debuts, but also a number of accomplished works by seasoned pros. Numerous albums that carve out a space between tradition and progression, upholding lineage while pointing to the future. And, in these fractious times, several albums that embrace joy as a matter of intention—choosing a hopeful countenance even when circumstances point in the opposite direction.

Some critics have posited that the album format is in its dying days, to be replaced by playlists and data dumps. Maybe so, but all 25 albums on this list exist as cohesive, self-contained bodies of work, their songs in dialogue with each other, their sequencing precise and important.

I could have listed as few as 10 or as many as 100—and next week, I’ll augment this core 25 with some honorable mentions, some favorite re-issues and archival music, and more. For now, these are all albums that I’ve enjoyed enormously and recommend whole-heartedly.

25. Beyondless | Iceage
Majestic and menacing, Beyondless reckons with the legacy of rock and roll’s golden era without anything resembling slavish devotion. Packed to the gills with riffs, rhythms, sound effects, and gallows humor, it’s the year’s most unpredictable rock album. The songs chronicle depravity, but from the abattoir of Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s imagination there springs florid storytelling and impressionistic poetry.

24. Between Two Shores | Glen Hansard
For his strongest solo collection yet, the erstwhile Frames/Swell Season frontman casually intermingles autumnal folk, heartland rock, and luminous jazz for an album as familiar and comforting as a favorite afghan—or perhaps a favorite Nick Drake record. It takes the tone of a consoling friend, promising us that time will sort out all our grief eventually—and until then, there’s nothing wrong with having a good, long cry.

23. Ventriloquism | Meshell Ndegeocello
On Ventriloquism, a jukebox record of 80s and 90s R&B hits, Meshell Ndegeocello offers a multi-layered treatise on personal canon. Playing songs largely penned by women and/or people of color, Ndegeocello swaps featherweight synths for rustic folk flourishes and live-band funk—signifiers of respectability for songs that warranted our respect all along. They refract deeper issues of genre, gender, and identity—a covers record as aesthetic argument and stylistic manifesto.

 22. Invasion of Privacy | Cardi B
“Is she a stripper, a rapper, or singer?” asks Cardi B on a debut album that suggests she’s all these things and more, an envelope-pusher and category-killer whose identity can only ever be all of the above. The big surprises here are how rooted she is in hip-hop orthodoxy, but also how much room to roam she finds within traditional frameworks: Invasion of Privacy bursts at the seams with flows, beats, jokes, vulgarity, empowerment, and defiant autobiography. A rags-to-riches blockbuster for the ages.

21. Room 25 | Noname
room 25
Poet-turned-rapper Fatimah Warner—aka Noname—pours forth speech, joking and tongue-twisting and free-associating a dense web of language where everything, including her black life, matters. Her proper debut, following the radiant Telefone mixtape, is sleek and assured, an album that’s at once precise and all-encompassing.

20. Cusp | Alela Diane
You wouldn’t even need the fingers on two hands to count the great albums about motherhood, a list to which Cusp immediately belongs. But that’s not the only thing singer/songwriter Alela Diane has on her mind: She uses the particulars of being a mom to wrestle with the broader topic of becoming, how a day or a season in our life can be a threshold for personal change, a catalyst for transformation. Her songs are presented in warm, clean arrangements, their straight lines contrasting with the deep mysteries contained within.

19. See You Around | I’m With Her
see you around
A trio comprised of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, I’m With Her is about the super-est group imaginable in today’s acoustic scene, and they betray subtle virtuosity throughout their debut album. See You Around reflects a worldview that’s respectful of folk and bluegrass traditions without ever being beholden to them, and the songs are similarly restless, full of characters seeking solid ground through seasons of tumult and transition.

18. Be the Cowboy | Mitski
be the cowboy
Mitski’s songs sparkle with clean pop perfection; her easeful way with melody may remind you of Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, or even Paul McCartney. She spikes those buoyant tunes with lyrics of quiet desperation. Each song on Be the Cowboy glimpses either an unattainable future or an irretrievable past—alternate realities where, for all these characters know, everything worked out just fine.

17. 13 Rivers | Richard Thompson
13 Rivers
One of our top-tier shredders makes a blessed return to electric mayhem on an album that’s as muscular and direct as any in his corpus. Thompson’s songs don’t so much rage at the dying light as they wrestle with the darkness in his own soul—“the rattle within,” as one song memorably phrases it. The result is a prickly masterwork, a discontented opus from a guru working at his peak.

16. Isolation | Kali Uchis
On her luminous debut, the Brazilian singer flits from steely hip-hop to dingy New Wave to coy bossa nova; a couple of retro R&B numbers show how easy it would have been for her to fashion this album as a diva’s showcase and a soul revue, but Uchis is far too restless to live in the past. So she’s given us a pancultural pop showstopper that functions as a declaration of independence; her lyrics, about the cost of freedom, remind us that independence and isolation can be two sides of the same coin.

15. Dirty Pictures, Pt. 2 | Low Cut Connie
dirty pictures part 2
Listen beyond the buzz saw guitars, the pounding pianos, and the relentless kick drums and you’ll hear a bar band of startling sophistication, their brashness and bravado belying depth and sturdy craftsmanship. Or, just pump your fist in the air and get swept along in their crackling, unostentatious energy. A near-perfect jolt of pure rock and roll, Dirty Pictures, Pt. 2 is by turns wounded, vulgar, earnest, and hysterical.

14. SASSAFRASS! | Tami Neilson
One of the year’s most classicist country albums also happens to be one of its most colorful—at times bordering on being outright bonkers. Neilson tucks into haunted Appalachian ballads, brassy R&B, swaying nightclub reveries, even Vegas-style showstoppers; sometimes she plays it straight, sometimes she revels in double entendres and caustic humor. Throughout, she proves herself a singer of redoubtable power and control, and a writer whose wit is eclipsed only by her compassion.

13. World on Sticks | Sam Phillips
Sam Phillips is one of pop’s most daring and resilient excavators; she’s made a career off of digging deep for truth and beauty, and on World on Sticks she rummages through the trash and ephemera of a culture given over to hollow materialism. Fortunately, she is also one of our most gifted melodists, and here powers her elastic tunes with thunderous drums, luxuriant string arrangements, and thrumming electric guitars.

12. Time & Space | Turnstile
time and space
A document of bruising physicality but also big ideas, Time & Space is a galvanizing punk album that jostles with riffs, banshee wails, and headbanging fury. It also nods at Chess Records, branches into pure pop, and augments its hardcore wails with sophisticated harmonies. Diplo shows up to add weird keyboard effects, and it’s not even one of the top 10 most surprising moments on the album. Which is, incidentally, just 23 minutes long, every second packed with white-knuckled exhilaration.

11. Sparrow | Ashley Monroe
Monroe, a country singer from Knoxville, Tennessee, has a legitimate claim to 2018’s MVP title; look for her name to show up again on an even higher entry. For Sparrow, Monroe proves once again that she’s unequaled at reimagining country roots and traditions for the present day. Awash with strings, it’s a colorful update on the classic “countrypolitan” sound, its lush orchestrations illuminating the contours of her internal monologues and emotional remembrances.

10. Love in Wartime | Birds of Chicago
love in wartime
The warmest, most humanistic of bands cranks up the electricity for this rangy and roaming opus, jolting their gospel harmonies and brambly folk with punchy rock and roll vigor. While their previous album presaged “real midnight,” this one supposes that it’s already come and gone, and beckons us to pick up the pieces. The whole record plays out like a swift kick in the ass for anyone who thinks they have the luxury of complacency; in a dispiriting year, it was a lighthouse, an oasis, and a life preserver.

09. Thelonious Sphere Monk | MAST
The worst possible way to celebrate the skewed genius of Thelonious Monk would be with an overly reverent tribute album—and this songbook record by Tim Conley, aka MAST, never even comes close. Instead, he chops, screws, and bedazzles beloved Monk classics, dressing them up with bells and whistles, augmenting them with lurching hip-hop beats, kicking them down a flight of stairs and then ultimately setting fire to them via a crackling live band. The result qualifies as the year’s most bewitching jazz and its most immersive electronica—an album that uses the past as a jumping off point for boundless imagination.

08. This Too Shall Light | Amy Helm
An exercise in community and a testament to the redemptive act of singing, This Too Shall Light features songs of joy and sorrow, lifted up in smudged harmony by Helm and her troupe of harmony singers, Birds of Chicago among them. The songs come from disparate sources—Allen Toussaint, T-Bone Burnett, The Milk Carton Kids, even Rod Stewart’s immortal “Mandolin Wind” is here—and Helm brings confidence and grace to each one. She is one of our great soul singers, and here she proves herself to be both a keeper of the flame for her father’s legacy and an able blazer of her own new trails.

07. Streams of Thought Vol. 2 | Black Thought & Salaam Remi
In 2018, no rapper had harder bars than Black Thought, an all-timer who’s just beginning to get his due. For his second solo joint of the year, he offers a head-spinning and endlessly quotable feast of language, nimbly pivoting from self-aggrandizement to sociopolitical arguments to stirring endorsements of the steel-driving work ethic he embodies. Producer Salaam Remi creates warm, funky environments, drawn largely form blaxploitation tropes, giving this GOAT candidate the regal adornment he’s always deserved. Old-head rap executed with such flair, it sounds less like the past than a whole new wave.

06. Historian | Lucy Dacus
For her second solo album, singer/songwriter/shredder/boygenius member Lucy Dacus writes about romantic dissolution and human frailty—but always from a therapeutic remove: It’s not a break-up album or a death album so much as an album about the stories we tell, the way we make sense of tragedies, the role we play in curating one another’s history. These masterful songs—pitched between emotional acuity and writerly sophistication—are paired to sleek rock arrangements that soar, grind, and erupt as needed.

05. All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do | The Milk Carton Kids
On their first album to feature outside musicians, the folksy duo conjures a loose, borderless Americana that recalls such inclusionary classics as The Basement Tapes and Willie Nelson’s Stardust—all the while retaining the whimsy, melancholy, and close harmonies that make them The Milk Carton Kids. The songs reflect dissolution: Sometimes they’re about wayward nations, sometimes they’re about faithless lovers, and sometimes it seems like it might be a little of both. Like Amy Helm’s record, it was produced by Joe Henry, enjoying a banner year.

04. Honey | Robyn
In her alluring new suite of songs, recalcitrant Swedish pop star Robyn journeys through heartache, memory, self-inventory, and in the end, defiant hope. She’s always walked a fine line between steeliness and vulnerability, but none of her albums tremble quite like Honey, which features some of her most cracked vocals, her most porous song structures, and her most lovelorn lyrics. It adds up to an immersive song cycle that washes over you, waves of sorrow followed by waves of cathartic joy.

03. Look Now | Elvis Costello & The Imposters
look now
Has everything you might want in an Elvis Costello album—unless all you want is loud guitars and paranoid songs about girls, in which case there’s just no helping you. Intricate and tuneful, ornate and direct, Look Now consolidates decades of tutelage in pop songcraft; it has the confidence of a master but the exuberance of a young buck. Its songs—all richly empathetic, most about or from the perspective of women—make it the year’s most rewarding album by a dude.

02. Interstate Gospel | Pistol Annies

Pistol Annies cover art
Finding solidarity in songs of divorce, depression, and quiet desperation, the Pistol Annies emerge with their wisest and funniest album yet. The one thing Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley don’t know how to do is sugarcoat, and Interstate Gospel is bracing for its candor—yet its emotional directness is channeled through childhood remembrances, archetypes, saloon soliloquies, and randy rock and roll; meanwhile, the outlaw dreams of their first couple of albums have blossomed into a more sophisticated American roots milieu, one that’s grounded in tradition but refracted through modernity. In the middle of the worst of it, they’ve made an album that reflects the best in each of them.

01. Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves
Festooned though it may be with disco balls and kaleidoscopic sound effects, Golden Hour is a country album through and through. You can hear it in the air, the empty space between Musgraves’ words; and you can hear it in the words themselves, plainspoken even when they’re clever. They’re not clever quite as often as they were on Musgraves’ fine earlier albums—which, it turns out, is perfectly fine. She’s toned down her impish wit for songs of disarming sincerity, perfectly wed to a colorful production palette so visceral, you can almost feel this music on your skin. Musgraves is still enough of a cynic to question her own right to be happy and to wonder when the other shoe’s gonna drop, yet what dazzles the most about Golden Hour is its sense of awe: Inspired by her new marriage, Musgraves is seduced by hope, surprised by joy, and bowled over by a world of marvels beyond anything she could have imagined. It’s an album about grown-up love and childlike wonder, and a vision of country music as something timeless, borderless, consoling, and fun.

Stories We Tell: Myths and memories from Lucy Dacus, Neko Case


On “Nonbeliever,” one of the 10 generously detailed and finely chiseled songs on her second album Historian, Lucy Dacus renounces the faith of her parents: “You threw your books into the river/ Told your mom that you’re a non-believer.” On a later song, “Pillar of Truth,” she sings from the perspective of her ailing grandmother, offering a deathbed prayer: “Lord, have mercy/ On my descendants/ For they know not/ What they do.” It’s a trick of time and a gift of perspective that allows Dacus to connect the dots between these two stray lines of dialogue, turning a set of personal reflections into a more complicated story that spans generations, allowing small reckonings with faith and doubt to suggest a more expansive interrogation of loss, inheritance, and belonging.

It’s that sort of narrative sculpting that Historian is concerned with; this is an album about how we are all our own chroniclers and biographers, seeking resonance in the stories we tell, the organization we impose on our lives and our crossed paths. The songs are all about the benefit of hindsight; opener “Night Shift,” majestic and confessional, uses romantic dissolution as its premise, but Dacus is almost more concerned with how she’ll deal with the love songs she wrote, how the meaning of these relics will change with time and experience. (“In five years I hope the songs feel like covers/ Dedicated to new lovers.”) The almost-title track “Historians,” performed as a string-swept denouement, goes beyond self-mythologizing, wondering about the role we can play in telling one another’s stories: “I’ll be your historian/ And you’ll be mine/ And I’ll fill pages of scribbled ink/ Hoping the words carry meaning.” It’s storytelling as collaboration, and intimacy as a creative act.

Dacus is a miniaturist who gets the details right, something that yields her some pantheon-level opening lines (“The first time I tasted someone else’s spit/ I had a coughing fit”) and evocative snatches of conversation (“You talk like you don’t know/ the walls are thin”).  Over the course of Historian, those details form a patchwork mosaic—a portrait of the artist seeking meaning in disruptive loss, forging an identity that’s equally informed by genealogy and her own agency. She’s paired her pliable melodies to muscular rock arrangements that similarly balance little details with grand flourishes. Save for the final benediction, the entire album is played with the hum of electricity—as if to simulate the brain’s after-hours buzz, flitting between ideas when it ought to be getting some rest—and Dacus confidently leads her band through plenty of stomp and fuzz, minor-key strumming exploding into winding, cacophonous solos. Even in the din, these songs all sound immaculately formed, and Dacus tucks plenty of texture inside—peppy horns in “Addictions,” a lazy country ramble in “Yours & Mine,” both crawling blues and industrial grind in “Timefighter.”

The latter song also reveals Dacus’ gift for deadpan, her pithy summation of human mortality suggesting little point in trying to overcome it: “I fought time/ It won in a landslide.” Death comes up more than once on Historian, and on “Pillar of Truth” it’s the loss of her grandmother that makes the singer question all the things she thought were unshakable: “I’m looking at you/ a pillar of truth/ turning to dust.” Amidst crumbling certainties, Dacus seeks refuge in inherited memory: “Raised in the age of the milkman/ I can’t claim to understand.” She’s telling her grandmother’s story—and in a season of doubt, it aligns her to something transcendent and true.

She’s not the only songwriter who’s thinking about the stories we tell about ourselves and about each other. Hell-On is the first Neko Case album in five years, and the best yet at marrying her tall tales and florid prose to suitably wrinkled, knotty musical backing. She favors impressionistic metaphor and dense imagery to Dacus’ stark confessions, but much of her album is similarly concerned with human agency as exerted through storytelling. “Halls of Sarah” interrogates the blurry line between inspiration and exploitation, remembering all the women who’ve served as muses, only to have their lives cannibalized for art: “You see our poets do an odious business/ Loving womankind as lions love Christians.” Meanwhile, “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” is a hazy and slanted autobiography that winds through memory and regret—diary entries and shaky reminiscences turned into personal legends.

Case made Hell-On with producer Björn Yttling of Peter, Björn, and John fame—an expert in literal bells and whistles who gives Case the most exquisitely detailed and lived-in production of her career, sounding at once dingy and ornate. She’s never sounded further from alt-country orthodoxy than she does on “Hell-On,” which opens with dancing marimba and clattering percussion that sound stolen from Tom Waits’ junkyard. Faded synths fray the edges of “Last Lion of Albion,” fueling the song’s sense of corrosion and decline. Even the liveliest moments feel well-worn: The sighing guitars on “Gumball Blue” make its power pop feel rust-covered, while handclap rhythms and girl group harmonies shake dust off of “Bad Luck.” But the record’s most leathery effect is the voice of Mark Lanegan, who brings a drifter’s uneasy gravitas to “Curse of the I-5 Corridor.”

Finally, we have a Neko Case album that sounds as gnarled and immersive as her songwriting. And she rises to the occasion with some of the most supple, allusive writing of her career. Hell-On certainly packs some winningly skewed Neko-isms, from winking self-deprecation in “Bad Luck” (“trying to pass riddles as poetry”) to a succinct gesture at oppressive masculinity in “My Uncle’s Navy” (“bullies are not born, they’re pressed into a form”), but its biggest narrative coup is how it both broadens and deepens the vernacular Case has been building her entire career. Case opened her last album with a song about “fighting to be wild,” and the one before that with a comparison of desire to a runaway tornado; she’s drawn to the natural world in its savage beauty and alluring danger, and Hell-On is full of references to rivers and shorelines, wildlife and unfurled stars. In Case’s songs, nature is dangerous yet vulnerable, something to be feared and nurtured all at once. When Case tells us to “be careful of the natural world,” it’s both a request for tenderness but also a word of warning. “Halls of Sarah” paints a picture of appropriation and abuse: “Men build their industries around you/ Diverting rivers in your hair/ They’re looking for their own reflection/ You’re left to die of exposure, Sarah.” There is an ominous undercurrent throughout the record, a feeling that the delicate things will only endure our mistreatment of them for so long.

But is Case singing about nature as nature—or nature as femininity? There’s no reason it can’t be both, though recent profiles, documenting how Case’s own story has been hijacked by powerful men, suggest that there’s autobiography lurking not too far inside these dense images. In other words, she’s doing the same thing as Lucy Dacus—crafting a personal mythology as a way to cope with uncertainty and doubt. In the last song, “Pitch or Honey,” she sings: “I love you better when you’re wild/ Suits you better if I say so.” It’s a line that echoes back through her entire body of song—a reminder that she’s still following her narrative thread, still engaging us in the story of her life.