10. Clean – Soccer Mommy
It’s easy when entrapped in bummer relationships to retreat into a self-pitying state, especially as a songwriter. But while Sophie Allison (aka Soccer Mommy) excels at those wistful moments during portions of Clean (see: “Last Girl”), she’s at her best when staring down neglect with a steely glare that is quite frankly through with all the crap. Amid a light Southern-tinged indie-rock backdrop, tracks like “Your Dog” and “Still Clean” ace that feeling of being done taking any guff, while the soaring “Scorpio Rising” dares to hope the better-loving days might stay.
9. I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life – Tune-Yards
It’s not often that a band’s most accessible album to date doubles as a self-callout. But on I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, Merrill Garbus confronts ideas of exceptionalism and being a white musician whose music is rooted in the world-beat ideas from other cultures without ever feeling overly sanctimonious. The increased infusion of electronic sounds on this record proves to be the perfect musical partner for Tune-Yards’ rhythm pop. The mere fact that a song with a chorus of “ABC 123 LMNO” (“ABC 123”) can be a banger—as opposed to seeming absurd and childish—is alone proof of the power of Tune-Yards.
8. FM! – Vince Staples
Under the almost-always-effective loose radio-show concept, Vince Staples delivers his catchiest track-to-track release yet in the form of FM!. At a sleek 22 minutes, the album crams in beats that bounce (notice how many distinct hooks are crammed into “Run the Bands” alone), and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Lyrically, the songs deal with the blurred margins between summer fun and gang violence in Long Beach, raising questions on how society commodifies black lives as entertainment.
7. Gentle Leader – Peach Kelli Pop
Gentle Leader is the Fizzies of albums. Much like the old candy soda tablets when they hit the water, dropping the needle on this record results in an instantly fizzy, bubbly, sugary blast. The frenetic punk instrumentals provide the base over which Allie Hanion’s spazzy vocals cast everything in a sunny beach-pop haze. Things can get effectively soft on tracks like “Parasomnia,” but things are at their most fun when musing about black cats and other eccentricities at a million miles per hour.
6. Saved – Now, Now
After years away toiling in an attempt to follow up the exquisite Threads, Now, Now returned with a new sound on Saved, but the excellent songcraft remained. While the guitars have mostly been replaced for a large electronic pop-rock sound, these tracks don’t radiate a cold digital distance. Instead there’s a comforting nostalgic glow to tunes that’s heightened by the desperation for love that drips off KC Dalager’s vocals. The album’s high points are formidable peaks: Good luck finding a better collection of 2018 singles than Saved’s murderers’ row of “SGL,” “AZ,” “Yours,” and “MJ.”
5. Vessel – Frankie Cosmos
In an age when musicians often need to worry about branding, the unbridled sincerity of Frankie Cosmos holds onto a sense of romanticism that’s not merely a coldly produced product to be consumed by demographics. Greta Kline’s polished, poetic, twee songwriting captures unassuming emotionality and non-melodramatic insecurities whether expressed through bare-bones accompaniment (“The End” and “Ur Up”) or driving pop-rock backing that can complexly pivot between parts on a dime (“Caramelize”). And “My Phone” might just be the tenderest love song ever written for the generation that grew up with omnipresent smartphones.
4. Boygenius – Boygenius
The chance of singer/songwriters Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus teaming up and making mediocre music was always slim-to-none. But hardly anyone could’ve guessed that the debut EP by the trio’s supergroup, Boygenius, would be this good. Over the course of six gorgeous, detail-rich, melancholy love songs, the trio effortlessly taps into a timeless sound. Their voices blend together flawlessly whether providing background harmonies (“Bit the Hand”) or taking turns on stunner verses (“Ketchum, ID”). Hopefully this is just the first chapter of Boygenius’ story.
3. POST- – Jeff Rosenstock
POST- is an album of exasperation. If you feel tired, bored, voiceless, and hopelessly hapless in America, Jeff Rosenstock has some catchy pop-punk tunes for you. By the second listen, these odes to frustration and less-than-ideal nights feel like old pals you’d run into at a local (Polish) dive bar. Besides, nothing in music this year better captured the spirit of 2018 than the opening salvo of the opening of the 7-minute epic “USA”: “Dumbfounded, downtrodden, and dejected/Crestfallen, grief-stricken, and exhausted…”
2. Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves
After years of being the country gem du jour for music lovers who aren’t super-into country, Kacey Musgraves finally achieved much-deserved full crossover success with the brilliant Golden Hour. The album uses country more as the undertone flavor rather than as a blueprint, instead building a dazzling adult pop album that floats gracefully among styles on the strength of Musgraves’ heart-melting coos. “Slow Burn” and “Rainbow” serve as the album’s undeniably gorgeous bookends. “Butterflies” radiates with the glee of a head-over-heels crush. “Velvet Elvis” and “Wonder Woman” bring mirth into the fold without losing sincerity. “High Horse” even lets things get more than a little funky. Musgraves nails every note of Golden Hour, which means that—unlike its namesake—it won’t be fading anytime soon.
1. Be the Cowboy – Mitski
Staggering is the only word that comes to mind when attempting to describe the multifaceted sophistication of Be the Cowboy. It’d be enough to marvel at the immersive indie rock instrumental soundscape Mitski crafted. Using keys and tempos as its playthings along the way, Mitski hits on on each big swing for a grandiose tonal shift: from the wailing synths that rise, twitch, and ultimately explode into throbbing rock on the opening “Geyser” to the contemplative serenity “Old Friend” to the heavy rock riffing of “Remember My Name” to the dancey clap grooves of “Washing Machine Heart” to the dreamy keys that close things out on “Two Slow Dancers.” But the performative aspect of Mitski’s vocals and lyrics take everything to a whole nother level. There’s a simultaneous pull between extremes that somehow never manages to be contradictory. On one hand, there’s an overarching longing for companionship (see: “Nobody”), to the point where it manifests in warbling fits where every crack in her armor is visable and vulnerable. But that’s countered by a cold, firm strength; a crushing and alluring grab-you-by-the-throat unflinching confidence (“Why Didn’t You Stop Me” has it in spades). Be the Cowboy is a commanding performance that keeps listeners hanging on the inflection of every syllable as Mitski raps us further and further around her finger.