And so we have reached the end of this long, crazy year. While there continues to be talk of how the traditional album is dying, we here at The Indy Review continued to find great examples to the contrary.
What makes a great album? I would say it’s the cohesiveness of the vision, the strength of the individual songs, the originality of the sound, and the message the artist gets across through their storytelling. Each person has their reasons for loving an album, and below, we give our picks and reasons for what we considered this year’s best full-length albums. (A Note: we track the year starting with December of the previous year, so releases from Dec 2017 – Nov 2018).
TOP ALBUMS OF 2018:
Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer (Bo)
In a world without Prince, we can all be thankful we have Janelle Monáe. Like the Purple One, Monáe seamlessly melds rap, R&B, pop, and rock with a masterfulness that is unseen in the current music industry, and her skills shine through on Dirty Computer. From the opening track, backed with Beach Boys-styled harmonies (courtesy of Brian Wilson himself), it’s clear that the album is going to be something fresh. Wilson’s group famously wrote about songs about pure teen Americana, girls, cars, and parties, and on “Crazy, Classic Life”, Monáe revitalizes this formula with a perfectly modern sheen that reflects on our current times. Monae tackles being a black, pansexual woman in America throughout this opus, but always keeps the lyrics and musical totally accessible. Whether it’s the lascivious bubblegum of “Screwed” or the sharp topical rap on “Django Jane”, every song has character, a message, and stands on its own merits while never feeling out of place on the album. It’s monument to modern music, and is one that will hold up for generations to come.
The Vernes – Maybe I’ll Feel Better When I’m Dead (Jerrod)
These guys are early in their careers. But their sophomore album is dialed in- tight in its production, headstrong in its intent, and confident in its message. It won’t blow your socks off with its musicianship or leave you in awe at the creativity of it lyrics. Instead, it is just so consistent, so solid from end to end. Moving between loud and quiet or whispered and shouted, it adds enough variety but doesn’t deviate from its themes. I can sit and listen end to end and when it’s done I wish there were a couple more tracks. They are a small indie outfit from Philadelphia who haven’t quite finished the jump into the mainstream but I wait to see what happens. I think Matthew Graggs’s voice has a haunting element to it that sticks with you and the band’s instrumentation compliments his singing perfectly leaving empty space or filling the air with reverb as needed. So many bands have had as much talent or more and failed so ultimately I think it will come down to luck if they make it big. But if/when that happens this album will be cited as the catalyst that started the reaction.
XYZ – Artificial Flavoring (Cesar)
First off, do not confuse this “XYZ” with the ‘80s hair-metal “XYZ”. The two cannot be more different from each other.
This 2-person outfit is made up of American, Ian Svenonius (from the short-lived but amazing punk band, Nation of Ulysses, the great garage band, The Make-Up, and many more) and Frenchman, Memphis Electronic (from NON!, Dum Dum Boys, and Die Idiots). Together they make barebones music that immediately conjures up images of tiny, sweaty underground dance clubs. With simple but hard driving drum machines propelling each song along with the fuzzy electric guitars and the synth providing the perfect base for Ian’s impossibly cool vocals. This might be a one-off side project, but it’s immediacy and fun makes this the best new record 2018 in this reviewer’s opinion.
REMAINING TOP 10 (Bo):
2. U2 – Songs of Experience
U2 have not had the best last decade. Bono suffered a serious run-in with death, receive less radio play, and their albums have met with disregard (No Line on the Horizon) or outright scorn (Songs of Innocence) – though the latter was more due to the method of distribution more than the actual music. And that may be at the heart of the issue – people have spent more time paying attention to the band as a brand or a representation of Bono’s oversized personality than actually listening to their music. With Songs of Experience, the Irish rockers flip the script and have returned the focus to what they are – amazing musicians and songwriters. Throughout this collection, it feels like U2 have got their groove back, whether it be hard rockers (“American Soul”, “The Blackout”), danceable new wave (“Red Flag Day”, “The Showman”) or the big anthemic ballads they do better than anyone else (“You’re the Best Thing About Me”, “Landlady”). The songs both hearken to the band’s classic songs while sound completely part of 2018. The lyrics at times touch on the political climate, but with the right amount of attitude to wash over any preachiness. It’s simply the best U2 album since All That You Can’t Leave Behind. If you’re one of the people who wrote off U2 after that album, now is the time to revisit them.
3. Ben Howard – Noonday Dream
With his third full length album, Ben Howard has continued his evolution from an adept pop rock songwriter to a composer of complex, moody and atmospheric musical tapestries that flow and breathe. While this all sounds very elitist and artsy, it needs be said that Howard does all of this without abandoning gorgeous melodies that ruminate in your head for weeks to follow. The melancholy highlight “Nica Libres at Dusk” emotes longing through a dreamy haze, “Towing the Line” drifts elegiacally like an indie folk sea ballad…I could go on touting the majesty of each track. This album is truly mean to be a headphone journey, to be listened to closely in a quiet room while you lay back and let each song breach your defenses and take you away into Howard’s world.
4. Dessa – Chime
Dessa is a true multi hyphenate – a rapper, singer, composer…the list goes on. On Chime, she has all of these talents on display, and creates an album that leaves you wanting more. Chime is possibly her most diverse album to date as well, with laments on loss ( the moving “Good Grief”), bangers (“Fire Drills”, “5 Out of 6”), and even a straight-up pop (“Half of You”) – and it’s excellent throughout. While she’s yet to reach the full mainstream, the mainstream knows she’s where it’s at – Lin Manuel Miranda chose her for the Hamilton Mixtape and also included her on his Puerto Rico benefit song, and you certainly can’t argue with that man’s taste!
5. Darlingside – Extralife
One of the best discoveries of this year, Darlingside craft songs enriched by perfect folk harmonies that imbue everything they touch with an extra warmth and depth. Drawing influences from The Byrds to the Beach Boys, the group boast pitch-perfect harmonies that shine even on the simplest tracks. Unlike similar groups, the songs on Extralife won’t put you to sleep. The soul and advanced musicianship on tracks like “Singularity” feel like the soundtrack to a hero’s journey, while “Indian Orchard Road” invokes the nostalgia and warmth of an east coast autumn day. “Futures” vibes like Simon & Garfunkel, while “Eschaton” mixes electronic touches in with the folk for a sound that is entirely Darlingside‘s. This is a group to watch.
6. Brian Fallon – Sleepwalkers
Brian Fallon has spent most of his music career escaping comparisons to his influences, and on his second solo album, he successfully comes into his own, making music that sounds wholly his own. Fallon’s songwriting remains ever strong, writing upbeat rockers about death (“Forget Me Not”) and mournful love songs (“Watson”) that grow stronger on repeated listens. He also branches out musically, incorporating 80’s influences and ska riffs (“Come Wander With Me”), all the while continuing to elevate his storytelling lyricism (“Yes, and you always believed there was some kind of diamond in me/Oh but if you still burn every night in the hurt/I know a place where the pain doesn’t reach”). Fallon isn’t quite at the level of his musical heroes like Springsteen, Knopfler or Strummer yet, but with albums like Sleepwalkers, he’s certainly on his way.
7. The Coup – Sorry to Bother You
An incredibly original and provocative movie like Sorry to Bother You deserves an equally incredible soundtrack, and the director Boots Riley’s rap group The Coup delivered, with a little help from Tune-Yards, Janelle Monáe, Killer Mike and others. Riley’s lyrics are sharp, smart and clever throughout, rewarding multiple listens, and like the film, the album’s tone runs the gamut without feeling like a mixtape. Whether it’s hard riff-rap on opener “OYAHYTT”, the addictive party anthem “Hey Saturday Night”, or the unsettling trance rap of “Monsoon”, each track feels like it naturally fits onto the album as well as it fits into the wildly unique film.
8. Dirty Projectors – Lamp Lit Prose
I never responded to strongly to the Dirty Projectors until listening to 2018’s Lamp Lit Prose. Finding a balance between their quirkier indie tendencies and sticky, afropop melodies and pop hooks, the album twists and bends in crafty ways that keep it fascinating throughout. The warbling electronic noises on “Break-Thru” create an almost-danceable groove, while lead single “It’s a Lifestyle” embraces a wistfulness that you will feel though may not understand. The group’s lyrics are certainly still esoteric, but like a masterful art film, the meaning and emotion imbued within it still connect
9. Tony Molina – Kill the Lights
Tony Molina began his career in the hardcore scene, where he showed an incredible knack for writing 2 minute punk ragers that never overstayed their welcome. While the length of Molina’s songs hasn’t changed, Kill the Lights show an incredible growth and evolution as a songwriter. Molina has traded in his Black Flag influence for The Byrds, The Beatles and The Beach Boys. The songs here shimmer with jangling guitars and lilting indie rock vocals, weaving melancholy and hopefulness through every lovely song. Each track leaves you wanting more, making repeat listens a must as you try to absorb the nuanced musical touches and thoughtful lyrical prose.
10. The English Beat – Here We Go Love
No one gets to say ska is dead as long as albums like Here We Go Love keep getting made. The English Beat, featuring Dave Wakeling, sail through the songs on their latest album like Elvis Costello on a sugar buzz. The music pops, the vocals are silky smooth, and through all of the fun, skank-ready rhythms, the lyrics aren’t afraid to touch upon weightier topics (see the excellent “If Killing Worked”). That’s not to say some of the songs on here aren’t meant for pure fun; the title track is all about the party, and with the rest of the album, is one you’ll want to throw on when you need a glorious pick-me-up from our rough world.
Albert Hammond Jr. – Francis Trouble
American Aquarium – Things Change
Family of the Year – Goodbye Sunshine, Hello Nighttime
Fat Tony – 10,000 Hours
Femi Kuti – One People One World
George Ezra – Staying at Tamara’s
Imarhan – Temet
Miguel – War & Leisure
Nathan Gray – Feral Hymns
Peter Bjorn & John – Darker Days
Shannon and The Clams – Onion
The Struts – Young&Dangerous
Looking to listen to these albums? Find a playlist here or below containing the first ten (in order), plus all the honorable mentions, for your listening pleasure:
REMAINING TOP ALBUMS (Jerrod):
Jeff Rosentstock – Post-
A lyrical powerhouse and a rock music opus on it’s first song “USA” to its last, the 11-minute “Let them Win”, Jeff Rosenstock’s 3rd full length Post- was my first exposure to Rostenstock and I am sad at all that I missed before. I can go back and listen, but this album seems to catch the angst and anxiety of the moment so it would have been great to hear his earlier stuff in the rhetorical context of its release. What might sound like a carefree party record at times is so much more with a free will to critique society. It is a challenging record in the sense that with a careful listen it can force you to examine your current contentment and perhaps the impact your apathy has on others. It seems to have an underlying call to action asking its listeners to do a little more in their immediate surroundings as well as for society as a whole. It’s 9 songs of rollicking guitar driven rock. It’s fun. It’s a great album. It’s my runner-up.
Alkaline Trio – Is This Thing Cursed?
I had long ago given them up for dead. They’d gone too far into the plastic, pre-packaged angst or big record label sales number concerns. But this album awakened within me the romance we had had early on with Goddammit and Maybe I’ll Catch Fire. I think with a couple years between this and their last record, they took a step back and took stock. They got their shit together, pared things down a bit, put away some of the production shit to take away their tinny clean sound, and put out their best record in over a decade. This album got me to get off my butt and go see them. Their live performance seemed as inspired as this record. I’m happy to see them get back to being good.
REMAINING TOP ALBUMS (Cesar):
First Runner Up: Starcrawler – Starcrawler
Every once in a while a band appears that gives faith to the world that the “youth” of our age will keep making badass music for years to come. Putting all of their ‘70s influences in a blender and throwing up a beautiful mess of rock. Frontwoman, Arrow de Wilde rocks and glides and postures with the best of them putting her own scary-femininity stamp on her soaring vocals and lyrics. Along with her we have friend Austin Smith and schoolmates Henri Cash and Tim Franco. If this is the kind of music they are making on their debut, I can’t wait to hear what else they will release in coming years.
Second Runner Up: Skating Polly – The Make It All Show
If their video for “Camelot” is any indication, Skating Polly and Starcrawler are running in the same circles and the world is better for it. Unlike Starcrawler, Skating Polly are looking a more recently with an eye to the ‘90s “alternative” scene. They have been around for a while, 2011, and made up of step-siblings Kelli Mayo, Peyton Bighorse, and Kurtis Mayo, this band has been garnering more and more well-deserved attention over the course of their 5 records. All three members shift around playing instruments and both sisters take on lead vocals. It’s great. It’s just freaking great.
Honorable Mention: The Beatles – The Beatles (2018 6-disc Remix)
Okay, okay. This is cheating, but if I totaled the track plays for this release and any other record released this year, even though this was released in November, this 107-track release has been played the most. By that alone I must mention it. And it’s the freaking BEATLES!!! I’m not going to try write anything new about how amazing this record is that hasn’t been written in the last 50 years so I’ll just say as a huge Beatles fan, and “The White Album” being my hands down All-Time Favorite Record of Forever™ and even though I have heard many bootlegs from this “era”, it still brings an immense joy hearing yet another version of all of the songs that helped shape by erratic and wide-ranging musical tastes as a child.