It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, not Christmas. I’m talking end–of–the–year list season. While I enjoyed RIFF editor Max Heilman’s list, it left a strong metallic taste in my mouth. So now it’s my turn to give it go.
If you were with RIFF around this time last year, you would know that Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. grabbed the top spot as my favorite. While there was a definitive number one, 2017 was an incredibly top-heavy and not very deep year in music. This year was a different story Featuring great quality from all genres, 2018 overflowed to the brim compared to last year. I had a much more difficult narrowing my list favorite records to just 50.
Let’s cut to the chase, with the first installment. You will notice a running theme of powerful lyricists, ranging from meandering, guitar-wielding singer-songwriters, witty spoken-word rappers, a legendary Swedish pop icon, a French synth-pop star on the rise and a young talent gone far too soon.
50. Lucy Dacus – Historian
It can be argued that no musician had a bigger year than Lucy Dacus. Aside from releasing a killer EP after forming a supergroup with fellow indie rock phenoms Phoebe Bridgers and Julian Baker, the 23-year-old also released one of the best pure rock albums of the year—Historian. With her sophomore LP, Dacus once again delves into themes of love and heartbreak, but on a more nuanced scale.
Combining down-to-earth words of pain with those of elation, she maintains the earnest core her first album while enhancing her folky sound at the same time. Musically, the talented singer moves on from her minimalist approach and embellishes Historian with a slight post-rock demeanor—it’s everything with which everyone fell in love on Dacus’ debut, No Burden, but taken to an intensely new level.
49. ROBYN – Honey
It may have taken nearly a decade for Swedish pop star Robyn to release a new record, but sometimes time breeds the best results. Honey, Robyn’s first album since 2010, is a career-defining piece of pop perfection. Sleek and shimmering on the surface, Honey is stirringly sad deep down.
Written when she was going through a breakup and coping with the death of a close friend, the record explores emptiness, sorrow—but a sense of hope. Robyn’s latest offering is affectingly deceptive—its mechanical, disco experimentalism makes listeners want to dance even though a sense of guilty arises for doing so. Maybe Robyn intended for people to dance through their tears and sadness.
48. The Body – I Have Fought Against It, But I Can’t Any Longer.
There aren’t enough darkly contorted words in the English dictionary to underscore the unnerving nature of The Body’s I Have Fought Against It, But I Can’t Any Longer. “Unnerving” is certainly one of the most accurate. The prolific sludge metal collective offers its “least” metal album yet by opting for a heavier dosage of death industrial sensibilities and power electronics—a decision that culminates into its most dismally expressed display of obscurity and insanity. Pulling the vocal of Kristin Hayter (LINGUA IGNOSTA) into the mix for a haunting touch, The Body delivers is a disquietingly volatile experience that may bring listeners to the brink of unwanted desires and emotions.
47. Okay Kaya – Both
Actress, model and singer-songwriter Okay Kaya released one of the most under-appreciated albums of 2018 and it is a shame Both has yet to appear on any end of the year list. Allow me to change that. A soulful commentary on identity and sexuality, Both is an explorative piece that feels a lot bigger than its sensual bedroom pop exterior suggests.
Somber and sparse, the instrumentation of this record is not going to blow listeners out of the water. Nevertheless, with Aaron Maine of Porches producing a good majority of this delightfully minimalistic album, he allows enough room for Kaya’s voice to roam freely—and what a voice it is. Deeply romantic, melancholic and colored with an ASMR quality, Kaya’s debut washes over listeners like a warm breeze. It hints at an artist who will ascend to the top with her next record.
46. Iceage – Beyondless
Though it does not live up to 2014’s critically adored Plowing Into the Field of Love, Beyondless sees Iceage expand its mucky art-pop sound with more ferocity and a bluesy sadness. Beyondless is the Danish band most instrumentally confident and mature album. While Iceage has always dabbled with horns and meandering string sections, Beyondless executes this combination with a ravishing orchestral flair. Lyrically, Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s slurred and poetic dreariness remain the heart of the band. Though his words are less pointed and more abstract this time around, he renders themes of self-destruction, primal instincts and desolation just as confident and effective.
45. Christine and the Queens – Chris
Christine and the Queens’ Chaleur Humaine proved to be one of the very best albums of 2014. It was dynamic and packed to the brim with sentimentality. Faced with the pressures of topping a universally revered debut, Héloïse Letissier takes her beloved French-flavored blueprint and injects it with zeal, humor and unbridled confidence. A surrealist commentary on gender dynamics and subversion of stereotypes, Chris is a confrontationally sincere journey through identity. Infectious, playful but emotionally complex synth pop, the French phenom’s latest skyrockets her up the lists as one of the most promising pop artists today.
44. Noname – Room 25
Exploding on to the rap scene with 2016 mixtape Telefone, a gorgeous collage of rhythmic spoken-word musings, Noname cemented herself as a soulful hip-hop force. With the release of her debut album, Room 25, this year, the Chicago MC backs up her premature but totally justifiable anointing with an emotive intersectional journey through familiar topics like racism and sexism. An identifiably soft but quick wordsmith, Noname writes lyrics that are brilliant, charming, acerbic and delivered with a charming bite. If Telefone did not convince you of Noname’s place as one of the best rappers today, Room 25 should leave no space for debate.
43. DJ Koze – Knock Knock
DJ Koze is simply one of the best electronic musicians of the 21st century. It should be a surprise to no one that his latest album, Knock Knock, has earned a spot on this list. Even though Knock Knock doesn’t come across as Koze’s most experimental effort and lacks the zaniness of his prior endeavors, the German producer still renders deep house abstract and hypnotic better than almost anyone within the genre.
Koze’s latest is more refined, palatable and his most immersive performance. With a painter’s approach inside the studio, Knock Knock is an awe-inspiring example of world-building. Throughout 78 minutes, disembodied synths and danceable drum and bass coalesce to echo the visual progression from day to night, set in the grandeur of desert canyons and breathtakingly empty skies.
42. Mac Miller – Swimming
Swimming does tend to meander at times. But it’s suggestive of an artist wandering within himself. Miller presents listeners with ephemeral moments of hope and sobriety, but it’s clear that his struggle was ongoing. The album feels as emotionally tumultuous as the rapper’s current mindset.
41. Mark Kozelek – Mark Kozelek
Like most of his projects in recent years, Mark Kozalek’s self-titled album reads like an autobiographical, post-modern memoir. Since 2014’s intimate Benji (as Sun Kil Moon), this blueprint has not always been kind to the enigmatic artist. In fact, with the numerous forgettable records since his emotional masterpiece, Kozelek has been wandering.
The contemporary folk and slow-core legend once again dumps out his personal diary for all. There are more moments than not where the singer-songwriter is painfully self-critical and comical, but there’s more weight to his humor than before. Whether he’s out eating dim sum, listening to Cardi B, spending time at Panera or even whacking weeds, Kozelek feels an urgency to relive every moment. On the verge of 52, the polarizing voice is battling father time, and this album best captures the images and fears of aging and losing relevance. Though he has never really cared about being liked, age tends to make people worry about things they’ve never feared. Kozelek is no exception to this reality.