20 Albums of 2018

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It is truly the most wonderful time of the year, as I have the self-appointed task and excuse to dive deeply into the music that has most shaped my own 2018! There is no other way I’d prefer to reflect on the coming new year, then to count down the 20 albums that I have loved the most as they have attached themselves to the memories of moments and seasons of this past year. Regardless of how I agonized about what would go where, I know that I have inevitably missed something - maybe even your fave. Please accept my apology in advance, and join in me our collective amazement at the sheer amount of great music out there. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for something to revisit or discover, without further ado, here are my 20 albums of the 2018.

*Note: Album covers will link to the Spotify album. This is not an endorsement, but a recognition that it’s freely available to all of you. Enjoy!

20. Good Thing - Leon Bridges

It was a tight race for this spot. Although I stand by this pick mainly because of how much I played this record - particularly on my road trip across Newfoundland in June - I considered several other records for the 20th spot on this list. I am also very aware that my opinions of this record differ from many of my friends. While many in my circles would have preferred if Leon stayed in his 60s-inspired, Sam-Cooke-reminiscent R&B, I feel this album shows off the fact that he is indeed a product of his time, having mastered every era of his genre since that (first) golden era of soul. Also, these are just great songs, whether it’s a banger like “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be),” or a romantic ballad like “Beyond.” Like most of my favourite records, Good Thing finishes way too soon and leaves me wanting more. I guess I’m ready for another Leon album. My highlights include: “Bad, Bad News”(which has a music video that I highly recommend you watch below), “Beyond,” and “Mrs.”

19. The Golden Hour - Kacey Musgraves

This is a pretty big surprise to me. I am no longer the kind of person who would dismiss an entire genre of music, but when I was, I successfully avoided anything potentially described as “country.” My Grammy-watching buddy, Chia, is not only the biggest Mariah fan I know (or could imagine) but is also someone that continually reminds me to give the twangier artists a fair shot. If it weren’t for him, I’m not sure I would have even recognized Kacey Musgraves’ name. He was so excited for this young artist who clearly stood up for LGBTQ+ rights with her first album, Follow Your Arrow. At that point, I wasn’t sold. I could appreciate that she was deviating from the norms of her genre’s culture in some important ways, but spending time with her music was another thing entirely. However, The Golden Hour is also something else entirely. Yes, this album is clearly country, but it is also a pop record that’s catchy and fresh, and most of all, honest. This sounds like a singer/songwriter who is being true to herself and her Nashville roots without paying any mind to the external expectations put on a “country star”. This album is really easy to listen to, and if you’re not opposed to some “Space Cowboys” and a few lasso references, it might surprise you too. My highlights include: “Slow Burn,” “Oh, What a World,” and “Rainbow”.

18. I Used to Know Her: Part 2 - H.E.R.

By itself, this is technically an EP, but what does that really even mean? Especially when H.E.R. puts out two shorter halves of a whole, first with Part 1 which she calls The Prelude, and then in November with Part II of I Used to Know Her. Although I love the fact that raps more on The Prelude, I specifically chose the more R&B-influenced Part 2 for this spot on my list because it was released separately, and it is incredibly solid as an album. In just 7 songs and an interlude, we are given a taste of her many talents as a guitarist, a songwriter, a vocalist and a poet. On this collection especially, Gabi Wilson (aka H.E.R.) shows a soft vulnerability in both her lyrics and her more stripped down, acoustic sound. Most of the record is personal as she reflects on love and loneliness, but then ends the album in a large-scale spiritual march of hope for the whole world’s redemption. I read this as a recognition that ultimately our individual struggles for rightness in the world are tied up in each other’s existences. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but either way, every song here is a contender. My highlights include:: “I’m Not Okay,” “Hard Place,” and “The Lord is Coming”.

17. Orquesta Akokán

This group caught me off guard this year. I didn’t know I had been craving a new classic and timeless Cuban record, reminiscent of the immaculate and nostalgic 90s gem from Buena Vista Social Club, but from the first moment I heard Orquesta Akokán’s self-titled album, I consumed it as if I had been waiting my whole life. This record has more than a few things in common with BVSC: it was actually recorded at the same legendary studio (Areito Estudio 101) and along with a focus on a similar, pre-revolutionary Cuban style, shares a sonic quality even deeper than the genre. I feel so bold to say that regardless of your musical taste, this record is packed with such joy and technical musicianship, that I can’t imagine anyone disliking it. Especially with a glass of rum in hand. My highlights include: “Mambo Rapidito,” “La Cosa,” and “Yo Soy para Ti”.

16. Palo Santo - Years & Years

Maybe you were expecting Troye Sivan to show up at this point, but if I had to choose one emotional white gay boy, it would be Olly Alexander from Years and Years. (I obviously did not have to choose one. These are my rules, after all). It is so easy to draw comparisons with Troye because of the sheer catchy poppy-ness of both men’s music. Palo Santo is stacked with full-on dance anthems that will make you at least smile, if not move. Taken as a whole, these songs also weave together an imagined universe where gender has far fewer associated rules and roles, which may help explain Alexander’s quick access to joy. Palo Santo directly translates to Holy Wood, describing a plant burned ceremonially in South America to fend off evil spirits (and well, you can probably guess what else), and religious imagery runs throughout the album. I generally love this pairing of sexuality and spirituality, and read it as a reclaiming of the sacredness of queer love and celebration. This is a common thread that I’ve found running through a lot of my favourite music of the year. They don’t call it #20gayteen for nothing! My highlights include: “All For You,” “If You’re Over Me,” and “Karma”.

15. Lost & Found - Jorja Smith

I listen to this when I miss Amy Winehouse and just want to nostalgically reflect on where my life has taken me since the days of teenage fantasies. In fact, I think Teenage Fantasy could have been a really appropriate alternative title to this record, but instead, Lost & Found focuses on not just the fantasies themselves, but outcomes of growing and maturing through experience. Which is an impressive thing for an artist who had barely turned 21 at the release of the album. However, it’s not really the concept that puts this album on my list. I love Jorja for her relationship to her music and the way she lets her personality show through. The opening titular track begins with a long intro - we can hear her speaking a little bit, agreeing that the groove sounds great before lightly riffing in the background - but instead of jumping in and letting everyone know just what kind of vocalist she is, Jorja lets the intro stretch out and get comfortable. She seems to approach this music not like the star, but like any other instrumentalist. I found myself thinking this when I got to see her perform live as well; she almost seems uncomfortable being in the spotlight among her other brilliant musicians. On one hand, I think this shows her age and just how much potential she has to grow in to her own talent, and on the other it reminds me of her humanity and draws me more directly to the music instead of getting caught up in Smith’s performance. My highlights include: “Lost & Found,” “Blue Lights,” and Don’t Watch Me Cry”.

14. Us - Empress Of

I had never heard of Empress Of before this year, when TIDAL decided to regularly recommend her to me out of the blue. When the album, Us, showed up on a Friday in October, I was ready to give it a listen and add my favourite song or two to my playlists. Instead, from the first listen, I knew it would be an album contender. Empress Of (aka Lorely Rodriguez) is first and foremost a thoughtful songwriter, boiling complex emotions or situations into simple verses and Latinx-inspired pop choruses. On Us in particular, she opens herself up creatively by working with other songwriters, stretching her music to places she may not have gone on her own. Her verses flow seamlessly between Spanish and English to the extent that I forget she’s speaking two languages. I’ll admit that when I first heard the track, “When I’m With Him,” I was convinced she was singing about realizing she’s gay while dating a man. Alas, from hearing her interview on my favourite podcast Song Exploder, she was simply writing about being in a relationship with a man you no longer love or connect with. I guess they can’t all be queer. My highlights include: “When I’m With Him,” “Love For Me,” and “Trust Me Baby”

13. Hive Mind - The Internet

I mean yeah, I’m just thankful that this project was not left behind in the wake of several solo projects from the band members. Instead it seems like all of The Internet members honed what they were good at individually, and brought back skills and experiences to take this project to the next level. Following up Ego Death (their 2014 album), Hive Mind is another step towards solidifying and affirming the commitment to being a collective, not only resistant to the individuality of ego, but working to create something using the intelligence of a community. This album is entirely grounded in chill grooves, allowing Syd’s vocals to float lightly above the tightly woven instrumentation. I find it’s an easy listen for a rainy weekend morning or a dark night drive. My highlights include: “Come Together,” “Come Over,” and “It Gets Better (With Time)”.

12. KOD - J. Cole

Some will say this record is self-righteous, but I disagree. KOD is a meditation on the many forms addiction can take, and although it can come across as judgemental at times, none of these songs sound disingenuous. Nothing is too sacred to touch, as Jermaine addresses not only predictable abuse of alcohol and drugs (suggested in the titular acronym, which simultaneously stands for Kids on Drugs, King Overdose, or Kill Our Demons), but also money, sex, and social media. Make no mistake - this is not a feel-good record. If you don’t mind a bit of preaching on the virtues and vices present in the wider rap community, this album is for you. At the very least, the final song, “1985,” is worth a listen for his clear flow while he lovingly dishes out wisdom to young peers and future rappers. My highlights include: “KOD,” “Photograph,” and “1985”.

11. Whack World - Tierra Whack

For being only (and precisely) 15 minutes long, Tierra Whack’s Whack World manages to be so much more than just an album. The experimental “visual album” has become more popular, but is still most associated with top-tier, established artists (Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, The Beatles). This makes Whack World all the more bold and appealing, as Tierra’s record debut. With fifteen1-minute songs, each featuring a distinct persona of Tierra, Whack World introduces us to a fresh new artist who’s willing to take chances, most clearly illustrated in the track “Dr. Seuss,” when she is shown to be literally too big for the box-house she finds herself in. This also illustrates what Whack does best, as she strikes a balance between approaching serious conversations without ever taking herself too seriously. My only complaint is that these tracks aren’t longer - sometimes they feel cut off like a demo track on a streaming site you don’t pay for. But in the context of the video, it works, and ultimately this project is just so fresh, I needed to let you know about it. Watch the whole thing below. My highlights include: “Hungry Hippo,” “Pretty Ugly,” and “Dr. Seuss”.

10. Expectations - Hayley Kiyoko

It turns out that Hayley Kiyoko is not just the creator of some clever, banging music videos - she can also pull off a brilliant cohesive album. I unsurprisingly love how unapologetically lesbian Hayley is, and appreciate how she brings so many of the common queer-lady tropes to the mainstream (e.g. falling in love with a straight best friend; having a girl wanna be with you but only on the DL; being ditched and replaced with a guy). There is no filler on this album; every song intentionally transitions to the next, and even though she’s packed all the big singles on to the front half of the record, the second half only surprised and never tires. It helps me imagine a full narrative, beginning with Hayley expressing her “Feelings,” all the way to ultimately letting each other go in “Let It Be”. I don’t think this album has been given enough credit as the pop record it is, never mind how it has brought a queer female voice to mainstream music like never before. Hallelujah. My highlights include: “What I Need,” “Feelings,” and “Let It Be”.

9. boygenius - Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers & Lucy Dacus

This is such a cool and naturally formed record, from three of the brightest artists whom Matador Records has the privilege of working with. Basically these three folk-rock influenced singer-songwriters went on tour together and found they had a whole lot of creative chemistry. What began as a one-song collaboration led to an entire album of songs showcasing each of these three women’s strengths. Most of the songs feel more like one of the artists’ work that happens to feature some beautiful harmonies from the other two, (not that this is a bad thing). Perhaps the greatest synergy happens on my favourite track, “Ketchum, ID,” which finds Phoebe, Julien and Lucy trading verses about being on tour, perfectly illustrating what this record is really all about. Their three sounds and styles complement each other so well that my only complaint is that this album could be twice as long. My highlights include: “Ketchum, ID,” “Me and My Dog,” and “Stay Down”.

8. Negro Swan - Blood Orange

Even if you are not familiar with Blood Orange, you likely know some of the music Dev Hynes is responsible for. Whether he is writing with Solange, producing for Carly Rae Jepsen or singing on his own projects (like Blood Orange), he creates a distinct sound and atmosphere that mixes 80s nostalgia with something futuristic. Negro Swan is my favourite album he’s put out yet because of the way he brilliantly highlights the tension of being a queer black man in a colonized white world. The black swan is a creature understood by some cultures to be particularly beautiful and magical, while feared by others as a symbol of evil. Dev deeply relates to this dichotomy and uses the intersecting lenses of his identity to reflect on his anxieties, depression, childhood and future hopes. It is not as playful or joyful as some of his earlier music - in fact my wife has trouble listening to Negro Swan for all it's dissonance - but there are few, important moments of celebration and hope - particularly in Janet Mock’s monologue on chosen family, and the album closer, “Smoke”. My highlights include: “Orlando,” “Hope,” Charcoal Baby”.

7. I’m A Dream - Seinabo Sey

How is it possible that I am still regularly introducing folks to this beautiful and inspiring songwriter? It baffles me that Seinabo Sey isn’t one of the biggest household names in pop/R&B right now. She is fresh, relatable, and her songs are catchy as hell. I’m A Dream has a song for every moment of self-doubt, obsession, exhaustion, or feeling yourself. She is strong and tough and vulnerable and wise, the kind of songwriter that speaks directly to my core being. Her songs carry a dangerous optimism that is so necessary in the face of a seemingly crumbling world. Stylistically, Seinabo can move between stripped down acoustic production, sweeping orchestral strings, and a beat built for a dance floor, making herself at home in every sound. My highlights include: “I Owe You Nothing,” “Breathe,” “Remember,” and “Good In You”.

6. Honey - Robyn

This album is crazy good, and not just because we’ve been waiting 8 years for our Swedish pop goddess to grace us with fresh chunes. Every time I’ve listened to Honey since its release in late October, it’s climbed a little higher on this list. Robyn has always been great at reminding us that one of the best ways to grow from our pain and heartbreak is to dance through it. And though so much time has passed since Body Talk, with Honey, she picks up right where she left off, pushing her emotional dance music to new extremes and funkier bass lines, never feeling stale or tired. You may have heard my theory of how we might be distantly related because we’re both Swedish and share the same last name (I know, it’s a stretch)… Honey makes me hope that this is true more than ever before. My highlights include: “Because It’s In the Music,” “Honey,” and “Ever Again”.

5. Room 25 - Noname

Fatimah Nyeema Warner could easily be the best rapper alive. With only one album and a handful of feature verses, she made it all the way to the final against Lauryn Hill on the March Madness Femcee brackets hosted on this website earlier this year. Now that she has followed up her 2016 debut Telefone with another brilliant collections of tracks on Room 25, it feels like she is collecting evidence to prove my voters right. She breaks the third wall right away (is that a thing with music?), recognizing that a whole lot of people have been waiting for this thing to drop, but that Room 25 is an album made for herself above anyone else. It’s so deeply intimate, the way she lets us in to her process of growing up, losing her virginity, moving from Chicago to L.A., and experiencing some celebrity since her debut. Even her actual sound, aided by the production from her longtime collaborator, Phoelix, has this quality that easily conjures a small space where the music is being made, bringing us listeners in to what could be Fatimah’s own living room. But like, a living room with musicians providing a groove for possibly the best rapper alive to spit over with pure poetic fire. My highlights include: “Self,” “Prayer Song,” and “Ace”.

4. Everything is Love - The Carters

I can admit to the fact that I gave this album no opportunity to disappoint: from the first faint rumours of a Jay-Z/Beyoncé album, I’d been staying ready. The surprise here is that The Carters’ collaboration album is way down at the #4 spot, because although it is good and satisfying, I don’t feel that it’s actually a sum of its parts. Most of the time, it feels like we’re listening to a Jay song with a Beyoncé feature. (If it were the other way around, it might be a contender for #1, or at least #2.) Nevertheless, this record is the appropriate closing to the album trilogy of their marriage these past years (capping off Lemonade and 4:44), and worked to promote their On the Run II Tour by reiterating that love is work, but it is worthwhile. More than that, Everything is Love celebrates black love beautifully, as illustrated by the cover art of a woman doing her partner’s braids in front of the Mona Lisa - a nod to the brilliant art references and recreations in the Carters’ video for “APESHIT”. My highlights include: “APESHIT,” “NICE,” and “LOVEHAPPY”.

3. Invasion of Privacy - Cardi B

It’s actually a bit of a shock to me that this made my #3 slot. When Invasion of Privacy was released early this year, I was excited to give it a listen, but was expecting to come away with one or maybe two bumping singles to play at dance parties. My expectations were definitely met in “I Like It,” and “Best Life,” but I found that this album was stacked from start to finish. There are plenty of reasons why Cardi has been breaking all kinds of records as a female rapper on mainstream radio: She has a contagious sense of humour that she manages to weave into a clear, catchy flow. Even outside of her music, 38 million instagram followers will agree she is hilarious. But this album both proves that “Bodak Yellow” was decidedly not a one-off fluke, and that Cardi B has depth of attitude and expression that will never again be underestimated. My highlights include: “Get Up 10, “I Like It,” “Be Careful”.

2. By the Way I Forgive You - Brandi Carlile

If you’ve been reading since the Kacey Musgraves entry, you’ll know that country is generally not my thing. However, Brandi Carlile completely demolishes this rule. It could have something to do with the fact that we have a few things in common. We are both queer women who are married to women, and because of this, we both have a bit of baggage with the churches we grew up in. As you may have guessed by reading the title, this album spends some time exploring forgiveness and reconciliation, inspired by her own experience with lovers, family members, and even an old youth pastor who refused to baptize Brandi in her teens because of her sexuality. This album is about humility, compassion, and moving on in strength, and manages to give me expression for things I feel, as well as some basic hope for my own growth and maturity. Maybe it’s predictable that I would relate so fundamentally to Carlile’s songwriting, but I am certain that her reflections, set to emotionally charged melodies, are truly timeless and universal, on par for me with Joni Mitchell’s Blue (and that is never a comparison I will make lightly). My highlights include “The Joke,” “The Mother,” and “Party of One”.

1. Dirty Computer - Janelle Monáe

Whenever I’ve been asked for my album of the year, I’ve hesitated for exactly zero seconds before naming this album/emotion picture. Not only is it a perfect collection of well written and produced songs, like her earlier albums it is shaped by a highly-creative concept and narrative. What makes Dirty Computer stand out from her pre-2018 catalogue however, is that this story is far more personal. Instead of hiding within the fictionalized of Cindi Mayweather, she allows herself to be seen more clearly and vulnerably in Jane, claiming a “dirty computer” status alongside her oppressed but badass characters.

There is something deeply special about this album, and although there’s a plethora of great 2018 music, nothing touches this rally cry of the queer black and brown bodies. Not to mention that the album’s release was timed with an interview in Rolling Stones in which Monáe confirmed all of our suspicious hopes that she is part of the queer team, describing herself as queer and “a free-ass motherfucker.” Hallelujah and praise #20gayteen! There are too many videos to choose from, so do yourself a favour and spend your next 50 minutes watching the full emotion picture below. My highlights include: “I Like That,” “PYNK,” “Django Jane,” and “Make Me Feel”.

There you have it - my top 20 albums of 2018! A few special mentions should go to the many albums I continually considered: Kali Uchis’ Isolation and Shad’s A Short Story About War were both in the running up until the last couple of days before publishing. If you want some other hip hop recommendations, may I suggest Saba’s Care For Me, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, and Anderson Paak’s Oxnard. For pop/rock, Florence’s High as Hope grew on me, while Christine and the Queen’s Chris, Mitski’s Be the Cowboy, and Lucy Dacus’ solo project Historian stood out this year. Anyway, that’s all I want to say about albums right now, but I’ll be back soon to highlight some individual songs!

Thanks for stopping by - let me know if you found something you liked here!

Danice Carlson