Ranking the year’s best albums always feels vaguely fraught, not least because there’s so much music in any given year that I — and everyone else who makes a list like this — only managed to listen to a small fraction of it. That said, here is the small fraction of music that I listened to most, and (or) was most taken by in 2018:
1. Lucy Dacus, “Historian” — A career album from a singer still at the start of her career, Dacus’s second full-length is a stunner. As I wrote in my review for Paste, it’s “at once tightly focused and musically expansive,” full of songs that are catchy, emotional and compelling.
2. Neko Case, “Hell On” — The more I listen to Case, the more I think “Middle Cyclone” is her best album. But “Hell-On” ranks right up there, too. It’s a showcase for all the things she does well: she writes from an appealingly off-kilter worldview, she’s one of the best singers of her (or maybe any) generation, and she has a way with duets, harmony and collaborations that is better on “Hell-On” than it’s ever been before. Witness her take on Crooked Fingers’ “Sleep All Summer” (which I wrote about here), and her duet with Mark Lanegan on “Curse of the I-5 Corridor.”
3. Mitski, “Be the Cowboy” — Comprising tightly written, often oblique character studies, Mitski’s latest is at once “brutally subtle and surgically precise,” as I wrote in a review for Paste. “Be the Cowboy” requires more effort from listeners than 2016’s “Puberty 2,” but the songs here are the work of a masterful writer, and excellent singer, who is hitting her stride.
4. Father John Misty, “God’s Favorite Customer” — Misty’s 2017 brilliant album “Pure Comedy” is still in steady rotation for me, but “God’s Favorite Customer” shows the other (or another, maybe) side of Josh Tillman. Less a scathing social critique than an inventory of his own shortcomings, “God’s Favorite Customer” retains a sense of humor, and such gorgeous musical hooks. As I wrote in a review for Paste, “if his confessional streak doesn’t quite mark Tillman as an old softy, it’s a sign that a heart still beats somewhere under his caustic exterior.”
5. Lori McKenna, “The Tree” — McKenna’s latest is a deeply moving collection of folksy songs that will probably make you cry. She has the rare ability to find deep meaning in the matter-of-factness of everyday life, and she has a poet’s heart as she explores “growing up and growing older and watching the world change around you,” as I wrote in (you guessed it) a review for Paste.
6. Richard Swift, “The Hex” — Swift’s death over the summer came as an unexpected shock (to me, at any rate), though he had been wrestling with substance abuse issues for some time. His posthumous album “The Hex” is arguably his best work since his EPs “The Novelist and “Walking Without Effort.” The songs are bright and loud, pushed to the point of crackly overdrive, and his skill as a pop craftsman shines through in the melodies and arrangements with a contemporary-as-classic feel.
7. Julia Holter, “Aviary” — Not necessarily an easy listen, but Holter’s latest is fascinating nonetheless. The album is an “immersive explorations of sound and texture, built around layers of synthesizers, strings, trumpet, and percussion,” as I wrote in a story for Bandcamp, and the cacophony of the album — inspired by the score for “BladeRunner” and the 2016 presidential election — feels like a real-time musical metaphor.
8. Courtney Marie Andrews, “May Your Kindness Remain” — Andrews has a voice that is capable of massive power and a thrilling, reined-in restraint. She’s also a talented songwriter. The combination makes for an inspired collection of songs that range from the country-soul of the title track to rootsy rock and hushed folk. “May Your Kindness Remain” is a little bigger and bolder than her previous album, 2017’s “Honest Life,” with songs that showcase “a rare blend of power and feeling that can bring you to your knees,” as I wrote in a review for Paste.
9. Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, “Sparkle Hard” — Malmus’s latest is also one of his catchiest, with songs that have a seat-of-his-pants feel that disguises how intensely focused they are. There’s also a undercurrent of social consciousness that belies his musical reputation as the easygoing epitome of slacker rock. “From the art side of it, it’s abstracting it, like taking it two or three steps from ‘I’m mad,’ or ‘I don’t know if I’m happy,’” Malkmus told me for this story in Paste. “It’s like taking those thoughts and doing it in a way that you want to listen to it 10 times instead of once.”
10. Robyn, “Honey” — The queen of sad dance music, Robyn returned after far too long with nine catchy new club anthems for the nights when movement equals catharsis.
Honorable mentions, or, albums that are clearly great that I haven’t spent as much time with as I’d like: “Double Negative” by Low, “Zion” by Wilder Maker, “Dirty Computer” by Janelle Monae, “Tree of Forgiveness” by John Prine.