There are dozens more albums that I bought, lived with, and thoroughly enjoyed this year than the precious few that follow. Some of them may live on to become even more essential favorites than the ones I am sharing. Only time will tell if that will be true. And obviously, there are tons of records that I didn't get around to hearing, didn't have the necessary time to commit to, or was just plain oblivious to. I have no doubt there are hundreds of albums that meant the world to others that didn't connect with me quite as much or I just didn't hear in 2018. None of that changes the fact that these 25 records were the lifeblood that brought me joy, catharsis, sadness, truth, and growth throughout the past year.
Courtney Barnett - Tell Me How You Really Feel
Sarah Shook and the Disarmers - YearsListening to and loving Sarah Shook & the Disarmers’ songs, it strikes me that their most compelling attribute is Shook’s indomitable spirit. It is tattooed into every lyric and each vocal tic, vaulting the choruses and emboldening the musicianship. It’s the sort of spirit necessary to survive in 2018, and it is unapologetically alive and thirsty and picking up steam this very minute. And Sarah Shook is not feigning one ounce of it. Already fully established on the band’s full-length debut, 2017’s Sidelong (one of my favorite albums from last year), that spirit is harnessed into even tighter songwriting throughout Years, an impressive feat that’s all the more uncanny in seeing its release less than twelve months after putting out such a strong first record.
Surrounding the thematic core of troubled times, drinking tunes, perseverance and kiss-off attitude, the playing on Years is rousing and more refined (best not to be confused with too polished or overproduced). This is a streamlined set of songs dealing with fairly traditional country and rock tropes, but Shook’s singular vocals and fortitude provide them a distinct power and urgency that allows them to feel both lived-in like a rugged, beloved flannel and uniquely refreshing like a first pint of a great new brew.
American Aquarium - Things ChangeBJ Barnham married impending fatherhood with disgust and heartache with the nation around him to delve deep and write some of the best songs of his already stellar career with Things Change. His masterpiece here is opener "The World Is on Fire," where he cites watching election results with his wife with oppressive unease and ruminating upon the upcoming birth of his daughter, only to cheer her on should somebody "build a wall in her journey" and reminding her "to bust right through." Barnham and bandmates not only made one hell of a rock record or country record (depending whom you ask - not that it matters) with Things Change, but he once again bolstered the hooks with a wealth of hard-luck wisdom and a keen eye for the subtle glimpses of brilliant, human truths in the gray areas between red state and blue state anxieties.
Camp Cope - How to Socialise and Make Friends
Blasting right out of the gates with the "The Opener," a fiery feminist anthem and one of the essential rock songs of the year, Aussie rockers Camp Cope waged war on the patriarchy and status quo with a muscular dose of 90s-indebted guitar rock that felt wholly vital and intoxicating. That each successive song capitalized on the trio's iridescent spirit and palpable humanity made How to Socialise and Make Friends an irresistible companion throughout the year that seemed like it would never end.
Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers - Bought to RotThe Against Me! frontwoman relocated to Chicago and signed to Bloodshot Records to release a solo debut fronting the trio Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers. What results is an album removed from the Against Me! shadow and informed by her prized possession of Tom Petty's guitar in the year after his death. Across fourteen songs Grace and the Mothers rip and thrash the holy hell into nuggets of power-pop glory, dynamic quiet/loud psych freakouts a la In Utero, and skewer fascist politics and social disgraces with acerbic wit, genuine vulnerability, and fuck-you ire. Bought to Rot is a killer punk album in the wake of 2018 that brandishes many more weapons than a mere three chords.
Jeff Tweedy - WARM
Perhaps there is a bias in how highly I regard almost anything Jeff Tweedy touches considering he has been one of my heroes my entire adult life. That's likely true, but it doesn't discount the ruminative potency of his work on his first true solo album removed from the collaborative atmosphere of his Wilco bandmates. There's not a ton on the surface that distances the songs of WARM from his history of Wilco and Uncle Tupelo tunes, and that indistinguishable core of Tweedy's lyricism and veteran voice is a key reason these songs hold up so well as they are. Most have harped on the stripped down nature of these recordings, but even minus the bells and whistles and alarm clock rings and Nels Cline solos here, Tweedy's passionate, introspective nature translates to tunefulness and musings that ring clear like a welcome wire from a pen pal.
Wild Pink - Yolk in the FurOn their second full-length record, Yolk in the Fur, Wild Pink slightly reinvented themselves and quietly made one of the most breathtaking albums of the year. Going into it I hadn't the faintest idea this band could make a song as exquisite as opener "Burger Hill," and then very soon (before the album was finished my first time through) it felt like I'd been living with these songs for years. There are a lot of angles and detours in these songs where other bands would've taken shortcuts, but the payoffs are indelible and carry some strange beauty throughout, partially thanks to the excellent production of Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie). Perhaps, that explains why this record feels like a blood relative to Transatlanticism.
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever - Hope DownsAussie rockers Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever took everything excellent about their breakthrough The French Press EP and somehow made it even sweeter with their awesome brand of sun-kissed, guitar-rock jangle on Hope Downs. It's the kind of record that sports a kinship with everything from Big Star to paisley underground to R.E.M.'s I.R.S. years and Is This It Strokes, all of which goes to say it's a tremendous record that should have long legs as time goes on.
S. M. Wolf - Bad Ocean
I don't just think S.M. Wolf are the best local act around my hometown of Indianapolis, but I also believe they are one of the most worthy young rock and roll bands in America in recent years. Over the past half decade, frontman Adam Gross and co. have released a staggeringly good debut EP and two full-length records that have capitalized on the band's initial promise and have reached greater heights with each new release. The new record, Bad Ocean, is an infectious blitz of soaring, psych-infused power-pop with surf-rock flourishes and lots of soul. S.M. Wolf are the kind of band you root for with all your might if you're lucky enough to discover them, and very few people are making rock records this damn good, under the radar or otherwise, these days.
Hop Along - Bark Your Head Off DogFrances Quinlan is wholly unique in her songwriting structure and wields arguably the most versatile and acrobatic vocal delivery in rock today. Having either strength at her disposal would already put Hop Along in a class of their own, but weaponizing both of those and having a band this tight to boot yields commanding results. Nobody else is writing songs like Hop Along's, and they are mysterious delicacies to keep digging into scavenging for enigmatic truths, or you can crank it loud and rock along to the Philly outfit's incredible squall.
Brian Fallon - SleepwalkersOn his second solo album Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon continued excelling at what he has done so well since at least The '59 Sound, if not longer: write fantastic rock and roll songs with unassailable hooks. On the surface, some may say Fallon isn't doing anything new on Sleepwalkers or with his solo career (and maybe he isn't), but when your songs are this good without fail, why reinvent the wheel? He does work in pretty flourishes of soul on knockouts like "Watson," "Etta James," and the sublime "See You on the Other Side" to challenge criticisms of one trick ponying, but what if your one trick is top shelf anyways? All this goes to reinforce my claim belief that Fallon is the closest thing we have to the Tom Petty of his generation: a bleeding heart rock songwriter who writes a near embarrassment of riches of good tunes that are removed from trends and won't go out of fashion.
Idles - Joy As an Act of ResistanceBristol, UK-based rockers Idles were a righteously angry gift from the punk heavens in 2018. The band's sophomore album, Joy as an Act of Resistance, fully delivered on that manifesto of a title and its raging, red-blooded heart burst through the speakers with more urgency than almost everything else. Intelligent, fierce, hilarious, and deeply idealistic, Idles' songs are propulsive in tempo and unwavering in their mission. They are a voice of hostility towards the ignorant and intolerant, and their resistance brought even more joy than I wouldn't thought possible before checking them out.
Jeff Rosenstock - POST-Released on New Year's Day with zero prior hype or fanfare, Jeff Rosenstock's POST- was intended as a gift of punk catharsis and ebullient life in the wake of a year of unthinkable political disgust. That Rosenstock not only made good on his hopes of a surprise reprieve from the muck for fans but also made one of 2018's most outstanding rock albums made POST- a gift that kept on giving. Rollicking, angry, resiliently optimistic, and incessantly melodic, these tunes amounted to a necessary shield against the suffocating black cloud with each visit.
Phosphorescent - C'est La VieFive years removed from the outstanding Muchacho, Matthew Houck and co. stitched together yet another winsome Phosphorescent offering with C'est La Vie. The record is the first since Houck became a father, decamped to Nashville with his family, and built his own studio. All of those threads coalesce throughout each song of C'est La Vie and deliver a warm, enriching snapshot of a continuously evolving artist, new father, and soul-searcher. Houck's lovely ruminations and adventurous, homespun production touches allow for the record to thrive as a stamp of genuine intimacy and somber beauty.
Murder By Death - The Other ShoreThe Other Shore, the eighth full-length LP from Louisville, KY-based quintet Murder By Death, is a self-described space-western centering around two lovers, one departing Earth and one who stays behind.
The result finds the band delving into a diverse palette of elements that have formed its adventurous brand of brooding and beautiful rock over the past fifteen years.
From the opening moments of "Alas," the record is an enrapturing statement with the power to pull the listener out of both the chaos and monotony of everyday existence in 2018 America and transport her into a fluid musical narrative with its sights set on both profound soul-searching and otherworldly uncertainty. The quintet's playing and production flesh out vocalist-guitarist Adam Turla's storytelling and deep, rugged register while discovering plenty of ways to twist, fracture and restitch songs throughout the journey. The result is a work of mysterious awe and sprawling vision.
Superchunk - What a Time to Be Alive
The Beths - Future Me Hates Me
Cat Power - Wanderer
Lucy Dacus - Historian
Janelle Monae - Dirty Computer
Mitski - Be the Cowboy
Damien Jurado - The Horizon Just Laughed
Foxing - Nearer My God
Shame - Songs of Praise
On their Dead Oceans debut, young London-based rockers Shame rip off a commanding and confident string of tracks that are silver-tongued, hooky, pissed, and ferocious. Songs of Praise is a molotov cocktail of punchy songwriting and swagger that makes a big Buzzcocks-indebted splash.
Boygenius - Boygenius EP
*Favorite Live Album:
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Live from the Ryman
*Favorite Reconstructed Take on a Favorite Album of 2017
St. Vincent - MassEducation