Each week of 2018, we’ve listened to as much new music as possible — not just because we love new music, but also to help our readers separate the best and brightest from the so-so. Each week, our post of the best songs to stream serves up the most enticing new music we’ve come across from a seemingly infinite number of choices. In the process, we’ve slowly assembled a master playlist of our favorite albums of the year so far.
With the help of our editorial staff, who love all kinds of music, we’ve dialed up a living, breathing portrait of some of themost exciting sounds currently being made by both newcomers and long-established artists. Below are the best albums of 2018 so far.
San Francisco surf band Sandy’sChime is a hidden gem of an album that we’ve found ourselves turning to when we need a change of musical scenery. Soaring vocals and shimmering guitars transport you to the Northern California shore, where the band holed up in lead singer Alexi Glickman’s beachside cabin to live, eat, and make this spectacularly vibey album together.
This Danger Mouse-produced rock record offers a rollicking listening experience that recalls the classic, no-holds-barred releases of the 1970s and ’80s. With apathetic speech-song vocals and punchy beats, the production is clean but not shiny, with the legendary producer bringing his gritty experience working with bands like the Black Keys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the forefront.
Singer/songwriter Natalie Prass goes full pop on this 12-track opus, combining fat drumbeats with syncopated bass and keyboard lines to form a truly radio-ready album. But just below the surface of her ’80s-influenced sounds, you’ll find a collection of protest songs from a powerful musical voice. Tastefully layered female backing vocals help Prass reclaim the phrase “Nasty women” on her songSisters, while her lyricsonAin’t Nobodyfirmly support female reproductive rights. This is a poignant and powerful album with clean lines and crisp production, and one we’ve been turning to for solidarity during 2018’s darkest hours.
Minutes into her second full-length album, Courtney Barnett puts the mere notion of the “sophomore slump” to rest. Like her previous work, Tell Me How You Really Feelis riddled with deep-seated anxieties and the kind of self-deprecating malaise that keeps you up at night. At the same time, however, it’s more barbarous and direct than what came before. A raucous blend of post-punk and ‘90s-inspired garage rock lays the foundation for it all, but it’s Barnett’s deadpan lines about anonymous hecklers and her caustic admissions regarding everything she doesn’t know that really give the album its teeth. A scathing Margaret Atwood quote midway through is just the kicker and an apt one at that.
Greta Kline (aka Frankie Cosmos) is a minimalist indie rock poet who speaks candidly with herself onVessel.“I am not the only one/living in delusion/I go to the Cafeteria,” the New York-based songwriter declares, offering the kind of casual but elegantly juxtaposed wordplay you’d expect to read in a hardback novel. We’re not sure if it’s her youthful voice, the simple arrangments, or the time-shifting drumbeats, but we found ourselves digging ever-deeper into each track on this Sub Pop release, consistently enthralled by Kline’s ability to place her deepest, darkest thoughts inside of otherwise mundane scenes.
Like Angel Olsen and Lucy Dacus, Haley Heynderickx ought to be a household name (maybe it’s the spelling). On her debut album, the Portland singer-songwriter harvests beauty from relative simplicity, creating a web of sinewy guitar and delicate orchestration that rests on little more than a few harmonies and her sublime, rhythmic fingerpicking. At times, her band fleshes out the details with percussion and brass see the doo-wop-tinged Ooom Sha La La, as an example. But it’s really the intimacy of I Need to Start a Garden that makes Heynderickx’s candid talk of uncertainty, self-empowerment, and centipedes so damn transfixing. Non-sequiturs have never sounded so lovely.
The raw, live energy exuded by guitarist Julian Lage and his trio (Kenny Wolleson on drums and Scott Colley on bass) on this outstanding jazz record is enough to make even the most die-hard haters of the genre sit back and bob their heads in bemusement. Lage’s jangly telecaster sings better than the finest lyricists, sharing tearful melodies and occasionally escalating to hype-inducing screams — it’s the work of a master with a virtuosic command of his sonic mouthpiece. Best of all, Lage doesn’t seem to feel the need to prove his ability;Modern Lore isn’t the kind of overwhelming and noodling contemporary jazz that requires a vast history listening to the genre to truly appreciate it. The album is full of palatable, hyper-melodic improvisational music that anyone can get down to.
The singing of 21-year-old British songstress Jorja Smith on her debut album is both earthy and heavenly, like an angel rooted in reality. Her velvety vocals glide over somber sound beds as she croons about the ephemerality of love (Teenage Fantasy), police interactions (Blue Lights), and awareness of self (Tomorrow) with a level of profundity well beyond her years. Lost & Found is one of those rare debut albums that sounds timeless just as the artist’s time is beginning, one that we expect to come back to frequently throughout the rest of this year and beyond.
Father John Misty is self-absorbed, cynical, and one hell of a songwriter. With God’s Favorite Customer, however, Josh Tillman (Misty’s given name) has added something unexpected to his repertoire: Empathy. His fourth LP as Father John is as heartbreaking as it is honed, rooted in naked vulnerability and folkier, Harry Nilsson-esque arrangements built on a bed of acoustic guitar, shattered piano, and wry lyricism. Whether it’s a blacked-out exchange with the hotel concierge or an episode in which he examines his wife’s renewed longing for normalcy, the album’s many narratives present Father John at his most exposed.
The notion that bands must evolve in order to survive isn’t always true, but there are instances when a sonic change can make a world of difference. Wye Oak’s most recent work is a fine example. Five albums in, long-distance bandmates Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner have swapped guitar-driven indie rock for synthesized loops and giddy percussion, using the six-string as an accent point instead of a centerpiece. The result? An expansive pop record brimming with otherworldly textures and beautiful melodies, the kind that add urgency and intrigue to Wasner’s conflictions about growing older.
Following up a band as iconic and influential in the slacker-rock scene as Pavement isn’t easy. With Sparkle Hard, however, Stephen Malkmus once again proves that side projects can be just as endearing as legacy acts. His seventh album with the Jicks is arguably his best, whether you prefer fuzz-drenched rockers (Shiggy), warm guitar noodling (Middle America), or countrified romps seeped in fiddle and romantic intrigue (Refute). The subtle genre-hopping works and Malkmus’ pointed remarks regarding the current state of the union render the album one of the most impactful of his entire career. Sparkle hard, indeed.
Over the course of a decade making music together, Beach House has been evolving from the eerie, claustrophobic sound of their early albums to the lush anthems of their recent works. If7 is any indication, the group won’t be running out of ideas anytime soon. Beach House’s latest is the most diverse collection of songs they’ve put out; the choppy synths of Lemon Glow dance between the woozy ballad Pay No Mind and the ominous of L’Inconnue. Despite the dynamism of 7, the familiar elements of Beach House are still there, including Victoria Legrand’s rich voice, Alex Scally’s elegant guitar, and plenty of beautiful melodies.
When Black Thought linked with 9th Wonder for the 2016 single Making a Murderer, hip-hop fans salivated at the idea of a full-length album from the industry vets. Fast-forward two years and the music world got what it wanted in Streams of Thought Vol. 1,a five-track collaborative album that showcases the duo’s strengths: Lyricism and production. A concise 17 minutes in length, Black Thought wastes no time putting storytelling on full display, infusing vivid anecdotes and analogies into each bar. Though Rapsody, Kirby, and Styles P make appearances, songs like 9th vs. Thought and Twofifteenshowcase the album at its best. Streams of Thought Vol. 1 shines brightest when it’s just Black Thought and a beat, something fans of The Roots have already known for decades.
It’s been nearly two decades since stoner metal legends Sleep released the genre-defining work Dopesmoker and disbanded shortly thereafter, but the riff master trio surprised us all on 4/20 with a sudden and unexpected release this year. While The Sciences has subtle tinges of the projects Matt Pike, Al Cisneros, and Jason Roeder have been involved in post-Sleep, any concerns that they would struggle to recapture the magic manifested into the world 20 years ago are immediately extinguished by the album’s opening riffs. Sleep is at once a mature progression and worthy successor to the band’s now-mythicallegacy and easily ranks as one of the most exciting releases of the year.
Detroit’s experimental hardcore outfit The Armed have always been an enigma, known for playing unannounced and covert shows and rarely featuring actual band members in press photos. But their music has always been upfront and honest about what it is: Youthful, chaotic hardcore — until they wrote and released Only Love, that is, which somehow successfully marries pop synth and noise influences to their metallic, hardcore sound. The result is one of the most challenging and unique heavy-music efforts of the year.
This year has given listeners a veritable pile of outstanding releases from female-fronted bands, but none of those voices reaches out to grab you with the same immediacy as Forth Wanderers’ Ava Trilling. Trilling’s casual, gravelly timbre drives this self-titled album to superb heights. Elegant guitar arrangments and hyper-tight drumming keep the pace throughout the 10 tracks, in a release that (we hope) marks the first of many terrific alt-indie albums to come.
The disarming guitar melodies and washy vocals in Austin-based indie duo Hovvdy’sCranberry greet you like an old friend giving you a big, heartfelt hug, and inviting you to share even your darkest and most honest self. At times fuzzy and surreal, this is a warm blanket of a record that you’ll put on at your most raw and emotional.Cranberry is thekind of album that you might pass over during your most hectic moments, but that will live forever in your ears.
Amen Dunes’ energetic new albumconjures up the ghosts of grand rock songs past and gives them new life. Tracks like Time and Dracula run with the kind of relentless intensity that recalls a wolf chasing its prey, with the songs often build to thrilling climaxes, but the album also exhibits a surprising (and admirable) amount of restraint. Riffs are catchy but focused, with guitars never straying into flamboyant noodling, and every instrument serving the greater whole of the song. Overall,Freedom is an album of triumphant peaks and somber valleys that’s perfectly exemplified by singer-songwriter Damon McMahon’s voice, which wavers or soars depending on the mood.
Ty Segall is Jack White for those younger than 30 — a less-famous but equally prolific composer of rollicking rock masterpieces that showcase both low-fidelity grime and high-brow arrangement. And unlike White’s 2018 albumBoarding House Reach,Freedom’s Goblinproves thatSegall’s still at the top of his game. On the 19-track double-album, the songwriter offers everything from heavy hype-rock to passionate Bowie-esque ballads, showcasing every bit of the talent that brought him to prominence in the first place. Party on, Ty.
Kail Uchis’ masterful debut proves the Columbian-American singer is no Amy Winehouse and that’s no slight. Isolationis an album six years in the making, one crafted by a 24-year-old artist who’s privy to just how difficult, delectable, and downright unpredictable this world can be. She struts from genre to genre throughout the album, her lush, dreamy alto pirouetting atop dollops of reggaetn, bossa nova, and art-pop, before settling somewhere in the realm of neo-soul. with everyone from Jorja Smith to Damon Albarn in tow. Thankfully, the guest spots buoy, rather than detract from an artist with an undeniable presence and penchant for groove.
Very few artists capture the raw sparkle of the 1970s as well as Michael Rault does onIt’s A New Day Tonight. Within moments of pressing the play button or dropping the needle, the record offers fuzzed-out guitar lines, melodic interludes, and timeless vocal melodies, instantly transporting you to a land of cheap beer, gas-guzzling engines, and shag carpets. It’s a fantastic time capsule that isn’t too glossy or self-important, the perfect record to show your dad when he tells you they don’t make ’em like they used to.
This follow-up toA Crow Looked At Me —the widely lauded and deeply intimate 2017 release from songwriter Phil Elverum written immediately following the death of his wife — is both more thoughtful and less agonizing than its predecessor. It is dominated by the same sparse, nylon-stringed guitar and poetic vocals, but both the musical elements and Elverum himself sound as though they have now had time to breathe, reflect, and cry out in even more poetic form. That makesNow Only a less shocking release thanA Crow Looked At Me, but a more beautiful one in both form and structure; these are stories of rotting, rather than sudden, earth-shattering shock.
From the first strummed guitar note to the last, there is probably no recent album as simultaneously casual and catchy as Soccer Mommy’sClean. The first studio-shiny release from 20-year-old Sophie Allison, who cut her teeth releasing music from a four-track Tascam cassette deck on Bandcamp shortly after high school,Clean offers higher fidelity but the same angst and hook-laden songwriting fans have been latching onto for years. This is pop from the grainy, hyper-personal universe of Elliott Smith, and it retains its honest reality even when given fully fleshed arrangements.
“The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit/I had a coughing fit/I mistakenly called them by your name/I was let down/it wasn’t the same,” sings Lucy Dacus to open up Historian, grabbing your mind with an intimate lyrical image that develops into a dense portrait of heartbreak and youth. The music beneath the lyrical surfaceis equally enthralling, with everything from warm strings to hefty distorted guitars lifting the weight of varied storylines, and offering more than enough depth to warrant numerous repeat plays.
Teenage angst is well-trodden (often boring) territory when it comes to songwriting. But while Lush a collection of songs by 18-year-old songwriter Lindsey Jordan walks you through familiar woods, Jordan’s intimate lyricism anda highly personal approach jolts you back to your first tough break-up, drug-fueled weekends spent testing the limits of reality, and well-hidden terror at the long road ahead. Where others use distortion, heavy-handed wordplay, and various other tropes to share similar musical thoughts, Jordan writes honest songs with real stories behind them, illuminated by simple arrangements and a fearless — and compellingly self-conscious — inner voice.
When Janelle Monae crash-landed as an android named Cindi Mayweather with her ambitious concept albumThe ArchAndroidin 2010, her mind was transformed into a theater for listeners to enjoy in silent rapture. On Dirty Computer, that theater has become a dance hall. The album invites everyone to get on stage, offering a party set to a groovy feminist manifesto that implores the world to “let the vagina have a monologue,” as Monae sings on Django Jane. There’s no way to stay still while listening to the rapturous joy of the Pharrell Williams-assisted I Got The Juice, the infectious bounce of Screwed, or the palpable sexiness of the Prince-inspired Make Me Feel.On Dirty Computer,Monae is able to teach lessons on sexual freedom and women’s plight that are more empowering and communal in such sugarcoated form — and we’re all better for them.
The first of five Kanye West-produced projects to drop this year, Pusha T’s Daytona is superbly minimalistic, with staccato beats that perfectly complement the rapper’s venomous flow. From the moment the horns come in on If You Know, You Know, the Clipse alumnus show’s he’s more focused than ever, offering tighter rhyme schemes and coke-fueled observations that vault Daytona to the very top of his oeuvre by nearly any estimation. West’s last-minute decision to use a photo of Whitney Houston’s drug-laden bathroom for the album cover remains questionable. The music does not.
From a brief, acid-fueled ballad about her mother (Mother) to various heartfelt singles about the harsh realities of love, country songwriter Kacey Musgraves operates from a pasture far beyond the four-on-the-floor dancehalls of her vapid Nashville contemporaries. Delicate wordplay is joined by sparkling production onGolden Hour, an album that both dominates and defines pop-country songwriting in the same way that Taylor Swift did in the late-aughts. While the album offers the same amount of glitter in the foreground as Musgraves’ contemporaries, it offers areal-world backdrop instead of a plastic set.
Ticking clocks, chirping birds, zooming cars, and effervescent soda pop offer a never-ending onslaught of endearing soundscapes on the debut album from Superorganism, an international amalgamation of young musicians from the United States (by way of Japan), New Zealand, and South Korea. The vast array of notes and influences that form this giant amoeba of sound can seem overwhelming at times, but they have been thoughtfully curated on the self-titled release. They are complemented by groovy synth bass and clean drumbeats, all glued together by the apathetic speech-song vocals of frontwoman Orono Noguci. It’s rare to hear such a vast musical collage that is also so cohesive, and we can’t help but compare this young outfit to the earth-shattering early days of Damon Albarn’sGorillaz project.
Saba’s rap/R&B masterworkCare for Meoffers listeners a lush and intimate portrait of grief, musical struggle, and the distorted ways in which we often think about those who have been touched by the limelight. Created following the stabbing of his close friend and cousin Walter Long, Jr. and in the wake of high-profile collaborations with fellow Chicago native Chance The Rapper (who also appears on the album),Care for Medemonstrates that the most moving art is always the most personal, and that our most poignant thoughts often come in the face of the harshest realities.