It’s been a pretty great year for music. So good in fact that a top 10, top 50, top whatever, wouldn’t have captured the magic of the year. It felt too typical to rank this year’s albums against each other when so many of them offered something incredibly unique that spoke to each of the writers in the music section differently.
We’ve opted to have the music reviewers pick their personal favorite albums, albums they think deserve to be listened to again and again, eschewing what tops what for something more casual and in alphabetical order. Enjoy and hopefully you discover something new to listen to from this past year.
Brandi Carlile – By the Way, I Forgive You
By the Way, I Forgive You picks back up where 2015’s The Firewatcher’s Daughter left off – with a brilliant fusion of classic country, rock n’ roll energy, and folk storytelling. “Hold Out Your Hand” shows off Carlile’s versatility by integrating quick, bluegrass-style verses with an arena rock chorus. While that’s the most fun track on the album, southern-rock songs “Fulton County Jane” and “Sugartooth” aren’t far behind. The album has its fair share of slower, piano-driven ballads as well. While “The Joke” has received the most attention, don’t sleep on “Party of One” – the album-closing tearjerker details a fight between Carlile and her wife in simultaneously impressive and heartbreaking detail.
– Nicholas Blashill
Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer
Father John Misty is a very divisive character. The singer-songwriter born as Josh Tillman is known for social media wars, egotistical festival rants and having a twitter beef with Ryan Adams sometimes seemingly more than he is known for his actual songwriting. Critics complain about his narcissism and inflated ego, fans love his wit, sarcasm and sexy dance moves, as well as his beautiful songwriting. With the release of his 4th album, God’s Favorite Customer, he finally lets Josh Tillman shine through the Misty moniker. 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear began the era of Tillman using his wife Emma as his muse, and Customer is no exception, albeit a bit different. Written over a period of six weeks while living in a hotel, Customer gives the listener insight into the other side of love, the part that happens after all the fanfare, flowers and hearts. Songs such as “The Songwriter” and “Disappointing Diamonds are the Rarest of Them All” delve deep into the psyches of our protagonist. “The Songwriter” speaks directly to Emma, reversing their roles as muse and songwriter. Lines like “How could you do this to me?” and “Goodbye, little songbird now you’re free” cut like a knife, giving the listener yet another perspective on his tumultuous relationship with his wife. “Diamonds” gives the listener a more realistic, cynical version of their relationship—the one without all the flourishes and ostentatiousness. With twisted love metaphors, cinematic instrumentation and a satisfying falsetto, Tillman delivers a Beatles-esque epilogue for Honeybear through “Diamonds,” in which there is not necessarily a happy ever after, but simply an “ever after”—one where he feels trapped, isolated and bored, but also unable to leave. Fans of the classic Misty wit needn’t mourn, however—this album is full of humorous one-liners, self deprecating lyrics and even a couple bops. Songs such as “Mr. Tillman” and “Date Night” in particular are welcome jams, but are still self-denigrating enough to fit into the Misty universe. God’s Favorite Customer shows a transition for Tillman, who is slowly revealing more and more of himself through the character of Father John Misty. Though still sardonic and vain, Tillman is slowly stripping away the ego that repels people from his music. With Customer, Tillman finally created a record that is not only beautiful, but also accessible for the casual listener.
– Carissa Coughlin
Field Report – Summertime Songs
Field Report is songwriter Chris Porterfield’s Milwaukee-based folk-rock outfit; read the liner notes from the autumn-tinged self titled debut, or the wintry follow-up Marigolden, and you’ll notice a rotating roster of bandmates, with Porterfield as the lead-singing/songwriting mainstay. On Summertime Songs (guess which season this one evokes) he’s joined by Devin Drobka, Thomas Wincek, and Barry Clark–the line-up is 3/4 fresh, but Porterfield and company deliver the same ambient immersion we’ve come to expect. Field Report’s eclectic studio compositions have always boasted a grab-bag quality, seeming to pull inspiration from folk, prog-rock, electronica and elsewhere–here we have flavors of heartland rockers like Petty and Springsteen, self-described LCD Soundsystem flourishes, and enough quotable phrasings to rival any recent musician-poet. The disc has some excellent sonic-surprises and melodic twists; album opener ‘Blind Spot” balances Porterfield’s passionate howl with crashing guitars and strings, and the title track (though satisfyingly dark) emerges as the band’s most danceable tune.
– Matthew Nerber
Ariana Grande – Sweetener
From the first line of Sweetener‘s first single “No Tears Left To Cry,” I knew we were in for a pop masterpiece. Ariana Grande has blessed us with hit after hit since 2013’s “The Way,” and her sound has only developed into layers of complexities. Sweetener is that fully realized effort, finding Grande at her very best. Stunning interludes? Check: “raindrops (an angel cried).” Infinitely catchy bops that double as songs for your haters? Check: “successful.” The power ballad we’ll never forget with a music video as epic to match? Check: “god is a woman.” And my personal favorite? The song reportedly about Ari’s ex Pete Davidson that states “When life deals us cards / Make everything taste like it is salt / Then you come through like the sweetener you are / To bring the bitter taste to the salt,” “sweetener.” Jump around the album, and you’ll find hip-hop, R&B, dance hall, pure pop, and so much more. Ari, thank u, and when is the next album coming out?
– Sarah Brooks
I’m With Her – See You Around
I had no idea who I’m With Her, or its members, were before reading Third Coast Review’s review of last winter’s performance at Thalia Hall. That review got me interested, and one listen to the album got me hooked. See You Around mixes traditional folk tropes like stringed instrumentation and three-part harmonies with indie rock arrangements, resulting in a wonderfully unpredictable mix of songs. While “Ain’t That Fine” is a cheery, conventional folk song, “I-89” feels eerie with its electric guitar riff and unpredictable use of harmonies. The album’s breadth showcases the collective talent of members Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan in a work of art that’s somehow greater than the sum of its parts.
– Nicholas Blashill
Gregory Alan Isakov – Evening Machines
His first proper album in five years, Gregory Alan Isakov’s Evening Machines is a welcome return to form for the Colorado-based singer-songwriter; lush instrumentation, poetic musings, and Isakov’s signature smoky smooth vocals once again prove alchemical–but there are some impressive modulations. Previously it seemed the records were produced with a stress on the antique; here Isakov has his sights set on the timeless and the ethereal. Evening Machines is as melancholic and arresting as Isakov’s earlier work, but there’s a uniquely expansive texture folded into his signature sound; full-bodied harmonies and ghostly echoes on album opener “Berth” and the rousing “Caves” charts exciting new territory for the workmanlike songwriter. Recorded in Isakov’s own barn-turned-studio, Evening Machines could be the perfect gateway drug for listeners unfamiliar with this excellent discography.
– Matthew Nerber
Gabriel Kahane – Book of Travelers
In August, composer, musician, and singer Gabriel Kahane released his fourth (or fifth, if you include Craigslistlieder) full-length solo album, Book of Travelers. It’s a quiet album, but in no way does this diminish its power. In November 2016, the day after Election Day, Kahane embarked on a solo, cross-country Amtrak trip. The result is the sort of stunning, truly lived in concept album that only Kahane could produce. Throughout his trip, he engaged with other passengers to learn their stories, the whats and whys of their lives, who they are. The album is both an examination of and a tribute to these stories, and of the people who make up a country in a politically precarious time. It is Kahane in his most stripped down form—the entire album uses only a muted piano and voice, with none of the orchestration or even background vocals of his prior work. If anything, though, this choice only amplifies his skill as a writer and storyteller. WIth many musicians and artists making grand, sweeping statements about politics and the state of our nation, it’s startling to hear a political album with such subtlety. It’s handled with such deft poignancy that it at once feels very and not at all political. Outside of its commentary, it’s also musically brilliant – but this is to be expected from Kahane. In a year of noise and anger, it’s a beautiful and thoughtful reprieve. It deserves so much attention.
Kimbra – Primal Heart
Kimbra’s Primal Heart is a construction on yearning to feel close with other hearts. She presents this idea not only through the proper album alone, but she does so fluidly in Songs From Primal Heart: Reimagined. It’s a stripped back version of four of the album’s songs, composing a new EP in the same year. I prefer the original Primal Heart thanks to Kimbra’s expertise in recording and production, which are sharp in songs like “Human,” the bonus track, “Hi Def Distance Romance” and “Top of the World.” What gives each of those sounds their substance is Kimbra’s poetry in describing exactly where she is when recording the album. She sings that she thinks she’s winning, just after lamenting of hardships in protest in “The Good War,” then moves on to divulge that she survived through someone’s unfortunate truth. Kimbra is a master of words and continues to evolve her production skills from her romantic beginnings on the guitar.
– Elif Geris
Mitski – Be the Cowboy
There are very few albums that have left a lasting impact on me the way that Mitski’s Be the Cowboy has this year. Whether it be the relatable themes, like the feelings of emptiness and isolation that she expresses in her lyrics, or the colorful melodies that make the album so addictive, I was able to tirelessly listen to the album on repeat for months. The album has been praised by various outlets with honors such as “Best Album of the Year,” and I can assure you that each compliment is more than deserving.
Album musts: Two Slow Dancers, Washing Machine Heart
– Pearl Tiffany Shin
Muse – Simulation Theory
Muse appears to be making an effort at reverting to about 10 years prior to its beginnings as a band. The Simulation Theory album cover is an image that looks like the “Stranger Things” promotional cover, and some of the themes of this album resemble that of the popular Netflix series. Matt Bellamy cries for freedom in “The Dark Side” with words I could imagine Eleven saying. Then, introducing a beautiful Hawaiian guitar riff, the band soothes with “Something Human,” during which Bellamy simply states that he needs “something human,” from the perspective of what is likely a robot. The development of robots and conspiracy theories are themes Bellamy often likes to unpack in the band’s discography. Muse switches gears in “Dig Down,” a motivational speech for LGBTQ communities just now finding a sense of purpose, and people whose entire mental framework has been crushed by abuse. The guitar riff that opens that song even forms a rhythmic section that resembles the sound of fast digging. Humanness is an acceptable theme for 2018 – the lack of feeling and the perseverance to break through our external shells – our emotional distance – while maintaining inner strength.
– Elif Geris
Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
If you would have told me Kacey Musgraves’ third album would be my favorite of 2018, I wouldn’t have believed it. But here we are, and the album, as you so aptly predicted, is a masterpiece. Golden Hour is a 45-minute ode to love, longing, and loss, and recalls old-school country greats like Patsy and Dolly. Here, Musgraves eschews her witty songs and glammed-up album covers for something that feels entirely pure, entirely her. The lyrics are raw, and the tempo has slowed. (She notoriously butted heads with producers when they said the songs were too slow; she wouldn’t budge.) Wondering where to start with this vulnerable pop-country masterpiece, sure to bring tears to your eyes and sparkle to your heart? “Slow Burn” couples Musgraves’ tidbits from her upbringing in Texas with that spark of a new love. “Space Cowboy” is the modern breakup ballad we never knew we needed. And “Golden Hour” is a stunning love letter. Perfection doesn’t come easily, but this album does it well and makes it look effortless.
– Sarah Brooks
RM – Mono.
RM took the world by storm when he released his second solo mixtape back in October. His project, titled Mono., is an intimate, seven-track piece and a departure from his BTS-style work. Mono. delves in the inner depths of RM’s psyche, manifesting his thoughts and emotions into poignant prose. The songs, which feature RM’s soothing vocals and introspective lyrics, encourages self-reflection and overcoming pain and sorrow for the betterment of one’s self, a perfect album for welcoming in a new year.
Album musts: Tokyo, Forever Rain, Seoul
– Pearl Tiffany Shin
Mourn – Sorpresa Familia
Lyrically, Sorpresa Familia is smart and witty – momentarily scathing, spewing honest truths about the pitfalls of the music industry. It was a massive release of all of the frustration that the group experienced during a legal battle with their former label in 2016. As cathartic as it was, Mourn didn’t check fun at the door. Musically, it’s an album that’s still danceable and full of life with the infectiously catchy “Strange Ones” and “Doing It Right” with vocalist Jazz Rodríguez Bueno showing up with some of her most passionate vocals to date. Although an immensely frustrating experience at the time, those trials and tribulations helped spawn Sorpresa Familia and a wiser and stronger version of Mourn.
– Jennifer Roger
Ohmme – Parts
When you’ve been following a band’s progress from the start, it’s always exciting when their full length debut not only meets your expectations, but offers you a view into their further potential. Such is the case with Parts, Ohmme’s glorious album of vicious noise and ethereal serenity. Whether it’s with the devilish quality of “Left Handed” or the powerful exploration of the female body on “Parts,” Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart (along with their drummer Matt Carroll and the likes of Doug McCombs, Ken Vandermark and cellist Tomeka Reid) have created one of the more alluring and deeply affecting albums of the year with songs. Experimental, fearless, and fiercely catchy, Parts has remained on my turntable for days at a time, demanding listen after listen.
– Julian Ramirez
Palm – Rock Island
Math rock, noise rock, art rock, and post-punk are a few of the genres that music journalists have tried to give to Palm, but there’s no right or wrong way to categorize the quartet from Philadelphia. Palm’s Rock Island has you nodding your head in a sense that you may or may not be enjoying the music properly, but in this case that’s a great thing. There’s an array of time signatures entangled throughout the album with whispers and echos of soft words from guitarists/vocalists Eve Alpert and Kasra Kurt. The culmination of the band’s math rock structure takes a more poppy tone with songs like “Composite,” “Dog Milk,” and my personal favorite “Heavy Lifting,” a track that starts off as an early Phoenix b-side and eventually shifts into the band’s more abrasive and complex sounds heard on their first album, 2015’s Trading Basics. Rock Island stands in a class of its own this year, teetering the line of indie rock success from another great Philly band.
– Brandon Smith
Saba – Care for Me
Some of my favorite rappers are from Chicago. Vic Mensa, Chance the Rapper, the list goes on. This year, however, one hip-hop artist stood above them all, even his more well-known collaborators. Saba is from Chicago’s west side (as he puts it “I’m from the part of the city that they don’t be talkin’ about”) and has put out a few albums and EPs, but this year, he released Care for Me, his most thoughtful and focused work to date. Saba, aka Tajh Malik Chandler, covers topics like love, sex, and growing up in Chicago, but the big focus is the loss of his cousin and friend, John Walt.
Walt was murdered in February 2017, and Saba has since created John Walt Day, a musical celebration to his cousin featuring some of Chicago’s best artists, including his brother, Joseph Chilliams. Walt’s presence on Care for Me is palpable, especially in the penultimate track “Prom/King.” Saba emotionally recalls his prom night with Walt and what happened on the day Walt was murdered. This album isn’t just a collection of songs; it’s a lyrical confession into Saba’s well-being since losing one of his best friends. I can’t wait to see what Saba creates in 2019.
– Kate Scott
Saint Sister – Shape of Silence
Saint Sister is a band of two who visited Chicago in September and serenaded a lucky [smart] group of people at Schubas Tavern. With a limited number of instruments whose protagonist is the harp, Morgan MacIntyre and Gemma Doherty harmonize with sporadic chimes, drum beats and vocal loops programmed into a production box in “Twin Peaks.” Songs like that one just sweep their listener away, happily in the cold wind. “You Never Call” surprises with a chilling, lamenting strum of the harp that develops into a low piano progression and soon picks up into the song’s chorus. It’s the right representation of how our feelings progress from sadness to confused fury in love. The band even manages to input its Irish roots in its instrumental motifs. You can almost hear the cool water and the calls of wind at the Cliffs in some songs. It’s new music like this that really gives me new hope in this lost era so taken by bad politics.
– Elif Geris
The Sea and Cake – Any Day
The Sea and Cake’s 11th full length album is a cozy, intimate record that’s full of confidence and unafraid to take their sound to a new level. Any Day is quite aptly named – a premeditated step in a new direction from the Chicago quartet that dares to keep innovating. In case there’s any doubt, this is made abundantly clear from the very beginning with “Cover the Mountain” setting the tone with a pleasantly surprising energetic and optimistic vibe.
Although the band embarks on a journey towards a more polished, pop-oriented sound, long time fans can still find comfort in their trademark sound of breathy vocals and heavy jazz influences. “Starling” is a track that perfectly encompasses all of the best elements of old and new, while “Any Day” and “These Falling Arms” stir up warm fuzzies from the similarly bittersweet Nassau era. Either way, The Sea and Cake delivered another gem for old and new fans alike.
– Jennifer Roger
Vince Staples – FM!
Vince Staples has had success with every album since his 2015 debut studio album, Summertime ’06. This year’s album FM! is nothing short of brilliant. Staples delivers his third studio album with more features than usual in half the time. Just past 22 minutes in, it’s filled with radio tidbits from Los Angeles radio station Power 106 and snippets of “new” Tyga and Earl Sweatshirt songs. It’s a goofy but refreshing rap album that doesn’t take itself too seriously while Vince still delivers some of the most assertive and remarkable lyrics of his career: “Everybody know me who’s somebody to know, watch me mind my business while I’m counting my dough.” The standout lines from “Don’t Get Chipped” has Vince reassuring his own fame, wealth, and nonchalant attitude. He’s given us a flawless album that covers just about any Chicago morning commute.
– Brandon Smith
Swamp Dogg – Love, Loss, and Auto Tune
When the first auto-tuned soaked lines of “I’ll Pretend” washed over me, I was left shaken. It was a completely different look at Swamp Dogg’s voice. The music bleeds in and out of auto tune, embracing silence at moments to emphasize the pain and suffering inherent in the loss of a lover. Swamp Dogg is a legend of the R&B and soul community, with decades worth of off kilter albums, but none of them reach the experimental highs of Love, Loss, and Auto Tune. With the help of Ryan Olson and Justin Vernon, Swamp Dogg’s voice transformed into this ever-changing electronic creation, evoking an apocalyptic and futuristic edge to his sullen lyrics of loss and love. Not every song is as bleak as “I’ll Pretend,” “Lonely,” or “Answer Me My Love.” “Stardust” in particular evokes impossibly beautiful imagery and sentiments of emotional eternity while “I’m Coming With Lovin’ On My Mind” lends itself to Swamp Dogg’s raunchier side. Love, Loss, and Auto Tune is an endlessly entertaining album that reveals emotions after every listen.
– Julian Ramirez
Ian Sweet – Crush Crusher
Jilian Medford – aka Ian Sweet – traded in her lo-fi tone for a more refined studio sound that’s less memorable but more progressive than either of the two previous works. Crush Crusher is led by two back-to-back excellent songs, “Hiding” and “Spit,” that fully support how great an artist Medford has shown the potential to be with a phenomenal voice and a refined take on bedroom pop. There are still those magical vocal melodies that remind me of older Ian Sweet sounds but not as raspy, melodies that perfectly complement every song on the album, particularly the rework of last year’s single “Bug Museum.” A lot of progress has been made for a band that heavily incorporated the brash and unpredictable tones of bedroom recordings. I would highly recommend this during the brutal Chicago winter.
– Brandon Smith
Tasha – Alone at Last
Chicago poet, activist and singer/songwriter Tasha released her debut album Alone at Last back in October. It was an ode to what she calls “radical softness.” The gentle, melodic beats and subtle tones that Tasha delivers over the course of the seven-track album are designed to calm minds, even tempers, and make smiles bloom in the darkest of rooms. Alone at Last is, undeniably, about love. Love of others, yes, but also love of the self. She reminds us – subtly and, at times, not so subtly – that, even in the midst of trying to save a burning world, we can’t forget to take time to save ourselves. The struggle – both the struggle for equality and the struggle for equilibrium – depends on it. “So take care of your little body.”
– Arthur Haynes
Tomberlin – At Weddings
I’ve been listening to a version of Tomberlin’s At Weddings since 2017, thanks to Mirah having chosen it as part of Joyful Noise Recording’s White Label series. The official release of her debut came out on Saddle Creek earlier this year, with a trio of new songs to fill out the already fantastic track-list. It’s an album so good I’ve purchased it on every format (mp3, CD, vinyl, cassette, you name it). It’s an affecting album of small but important moments in a life, presented in the most lovely and haunting way possible. From the moment I heard Sarah Beth Tomberlin’s beautiful voice and gentle strumming on “Any Other Way,” the opening track of the album, I was hooked. When I saw her perform the song live a couple of months ago, I cried, unabashedly and deeply. Tomberlin pulls those sorts of emotions out of her listeners with ease and the poise of a veteran songwriter.
Andrew W.K. – You’re Not Alone
Andrew W.K. is one of my favorite people on the planet, but it’s not just because of his music. The delightful party rocker has always been frank about his mental health and has been speaking about anxiety and depression for years. His Twitter feed is filled with “Party Tips” that range from his thoughts on pizza (he’s for it) to tips and resources for self-care. I’ve met and spoken with Andrew several times, and his concern for his fans isn’t a gimmick. He wants nothing more than to be an open book, to let people know that he’s there for them.
It’s no surprise that his new album, aptly titled You’re Not Alone, is an uplifting, fun, and sometimes serious reminder that, well, you’re not alone. The album is Andrew’s first full-length album in nine years, and it’s clear that a lot of love went into its creation. “Music is Worth Living For” is a celebratory track that goes hard and makes you want to start headbanging immediately. You’re Not Alone also features some spoken word tracks that, while brief, highlight Andrew’s immense passion and intelligence for making his fans feel loved. It’s a rock opera that will make you laugh and dance while reminding you that sadness is temporary, and there are always people who want to help you.
– Kate Scott