The Best of 2018 Albums
By Lucas Gelfond
I don’t profess to be an expert on music or to have listened to everything released this year (and have only heard some of the albums below a few times through). That said, any claim that “no good music is being released today,” at least in this writer’s opinion, is patently false. Numerous 2018 releases were compelling, innovative, original and fun. I’ve ranked the albums below roughly, and as time goes on, I wouldn’t be shocked if some were to dramatically rise or fall, in particular those I don’t feel I’ve spent enough time with. This said, here are some of my favorite albums of the year.
1. “Some Rap Songs” by Earl Sweatshirt
“Them expectations raising because daddy was a poet, right?” Sweatshirt asks in “Burgundy” off of his debut album “Doris” (2012). Sweatshirt is the son of Keorapetse Kgositsile, who was South Africa’s National Poet Laureate, and Cheryl Harris, a civics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Expectations are certainly high.
In many ways, it seems that Sweatshirt hopes to shed these expectations on “Some Rap Songs.” Sweatshirt’s face on the cover is blurry, seemingly taken haphazardly on a mobile phone. Promotion consisted mostly of releasing two (of, initially, my least favorite) tracks before the album’s release and posting a few oddly titled YouTube snippets. A title like “Some Rap Songs” forces the listener to expect something thrown together, disconnected and lazy.
In freeing himself from expectations, Sweatshirt triumphs. In his 24 minutes, Sweatshirt immerses the listener in his world, one of depression, troublesome relationships with his parents, loneliness, Trump and substance abuse, utilizing loops and choppy tracks that flow into one another. In turn, “Some Rap Songs” feels endless and like a world of its own. Sweatshirt is engaging, and each track feels deliberately and correctly placed; “Some Rap Songs” is not merely a compilation of a few hip hop tracks as its title suggests. Rather, Sweatshirt has managed to create a charming, sticky and replayable album with the same unique production (see: “Solace”) and technical skill that brought listeners to him in the first place; by shedding expectations, Sweatshirt manages to exceed them.
FAVORITE TRACKS: “Shattered Dreams,” “Cold Summers,” “The Bends,” “Azucar,” “Riot!”
2. “Die Lit” by Playboi Carti
In an article titled “Playboi Carti’s ‘Die Lit’ Is Great, You’re Just Old,” Vice writer Alphonse Pierre noted HipHopDX’s infamous headline which called Carti’s debut a “glorified beat tape with ad-libs.” This is to say, if you hate Playboi Carti, you’re in great company.
Many bemoan the emergence of “mumble rap,” a shift away from the lyricism of old school, conscious hip hop and toward using the voice as an instrument, embracing repetition and simplicity. Playboi Carti *is* mumble rap, and he couldn’t care less whether you like it or not.
In eschewing typical song structure or complexity, Carti manages to put together the most fun 57 minutes of the year. Carti embraces humor, repetition and nonsense, as long as it doesn’t interfere with his ability to go insane over production, mostly from Pi’erre Bourne. “P*ssy man I smoke that organic / Fendi down I’m smoking organic” Carti raps on “FlatBed Freestyle.” Who needs sophistication when you can have fun?
FAVORITE TRACKS: “Long Time - Intro,” “R.I.P,” “Fell in Luv,” “FlatBed Freestyle,” “R.I.P Fredo”
3. “Now Only” by Mount Eerie
A year ago, I didn’t know who Phil Elverum was and certainly didn’t know his wife, Genvieve Castree. Yet hers was one of 2017’s most powerful losses for me and one chronicled by Elverum’s “A Crow Looked At Me” (2017) as “Mount Eerie.”
Where “A Crow Looked At Me” was nearly musicless, “Now Only” gains instrumentation but loses little of Elverum’s painful and minimal storytelling. “I sing to you / I sing to you, Genvieve / I sing to you/ You don’t exist / I sing to you though,” Elverum sings at the opening of the album. While Elverum has traded his shock for a dull grief, the personal impact and pain of Castree’s death is as heartbreaking as ever.
“Now Only” is ostensibly about the daily challenges of grief for Elverum. “And is it / my job now to hold whatever’s left of you for all time? / And to reenact you for our daughters life?” Elverum asks. In addition to loss, “Now Only” centers on fatherhood, love, childhood, hopelessness, loss of control, memory and art.
Elverum is in deep pain, but he’s made it into remarkably compelling art. There’s something beautiful about that.
FAVORITE TRACKS: “Tintin in Tibet,” “Distortion”
4. “Veteran” by Jpegmafia
Jpegmafia doesn’t care what you think. Take 2015’s “Communist Slow Jams:” Jpegmafia raps about white hipsters, gentrification and takes shots at several celebrities who will never hear his voice. Jpegmafia is energetic, young, angry, political and unafraid to offend.
“Veteran” presents us with the same Jpegmafia (born Barrington Hendricks); this time, tightened, catchier and poppier; “Veteran” is perhaps his strongest work to date.
Jpegmafia’s production breaks barriers, sampling anything from Ol Dirty Bastard (of Wu-Tang Clan fame)’s throat noises to the sound of paper clips on his desk.
Jpegmafia is perhaps the fastest growing artist in hip-hop right now, now co-signed by heavyweights like Wilco, Denzel Curry and the Avalanches. His music is fresh, lively and unapologetic, and “Veteran” certainly has some of the year’s most fiery and catchy tracks.
FAVORITE TRACKS: “1539 Calvert St,” “Real N***,” “Thug Tears,” “Baby I’m Bleeding,” I Cannot F**king Wait Until Morrissey Dies,” “Whole Foods”
5. “Safe in the Hands of Love” by Yves Tumor
“Safe in the Hands of Love” is dark, menacing, cavernous and scary. This album is experimental in every meaning of the word; sounds jump out at you and most tracks have a 3D quality, a sonic depth, to them. Songs like “Hope in Suffering” are deliberately terrifying, adding a large, monster-like presence to the album.
This album is unique, and that is perhaps its best quality. “Safe in the Hands of Love” offers an array of sounds that will put you off balance, scare you and immerse you; it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Yet, this otherworldly quality is balanced by songs like “Noid,” with a path outside of this dark world. “They call it a sickness / PTSD, depression / Safe in the hands of love / that’s where I feel the pressure from,” Tumor sings on “Noid.” Perhaps we are safe in the hands of love.
FAVORITE TRACKS: “Faith in Nothing Except in Salvation,” “Economy of Freedom,” “Noid,” “Licking an Orchid”
6. “Swimming” by Mac Miller
Many publications and online users had the similar words in the wake of Mac Miller’s death; it hurt so much, because we all grew up with him. I’ve been listening to Mac Miller since I found “Best Day Ever” (2011) in sixth grade, and while I haven’t been following him obsessively, I’ve loved the music of his I have heard.
That said, I was unusually excited for “Swimming.” The singles from the project were some of the jazziest I’d heard from Miller, something I’ve always thought he excelled at. It’s release was unsurprising: the project is, in fact, catchily and compellingly written, uniquely produced and pleasing to the ear.
“Swimming” should be an album of triumph: “I was drowning, but now I’m swimming,”
Miller sings on the first track. After breaking up with longtime girlfriend Ariana Grande, Miller was convicted of a DUI and fans across the internet worried about his safety and well-being. Authorities pronounced Miller dead of a drug overdose on Sept. 7, 2018. Perhaps the water got too deep.
“Swimming” sheds light on substance abuse, breakups and addiction. “I’ll do anything to get out of my head,” Miller gloomily sings. Hopefully, we can all stay afloat in Miller’s absence.
FAVORITE TRACKS: “Come Back to Earth,” “Hurt Feelings,” “Ladders,” “Small Worlds,” “So It Goes”
7. “KIDS SEE GHOSTS” by Kids See Ghosts
“KIDS SEE GHOSTS” was the third of Kanye West’s “Wyoming Session” albums, a five album run of back-to-back West-produced releases. “KIDS SEE GHOSTS” is a collaboration between himself and longtime collaborator Kid Cudi. Ye (the second album of the sessions, and only West solo album) initially left me disappointed—its minimal production was a retort to the elaborate and lush sounds I’d come to love West for. “KIDS SEE GHOSTS” was an affirmation that West still has it.
The album is elaborate, layered and varied. The biggest takeaway from “KIDS SEE GHOSTS” is the precision of this album; each drum hit, synth lead or vocal note feels perfectly placed. Whenever my ear wants to hear something next, it is there; this album is deeply satisfying. West and Cudi have unbeatable chemistry and continue it with some of the most memorable and well-placed guest features of the year; Pusha T’s sharp opening verse, Louis Prima’s catchy hook on “4th Dimension,” Ty Dolla $ign’s euphoric harmonization on “Ghost Town Pt. 2” and Yasiin Bey’s chorus on “KIDS SEE GHOSTS” all are some of the album’s highlights.
This album’s unique and fresh production, combining psychedelic and rock elements with West’s traditional hip-hop make it a stand out for the year.
FAVORITE TRACKS: “Feel the Love,” “4th Dimension,” “Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2),” “Reborn,” “Cudi Montage”
8. “Ye” by Kanye West
Ye was the second album born from West’s five weeks producing five albums in Wyoming. Ye was released in a night emceed by Chris Rock (the night before my Precalculus final, unfortunately), with West’s friends, family and closest associates gathered around a massive bonfire. Even from a livestream, it’s impossible to ignore the youthful happiness, triumphant spirit and camaraderie in the air. How could the atmosphere not be electric?
Ye is almost inarguably focused on mental health, but it’s spin is positive. “I hate being bipolar, it’s awesome” the front reads. West is a champion--ebullient and giddy--on Ye.
West doesn’t seem to feel like he needs to impress anyone, or break any boundaries. Instead, he is comfortable being himself and finding his passion and mojo in his music again. Ye gives us West in full-form, swaggered out and controversial as ever, the most “Kanye” he’s ever been; West and Ye are inextricable. West seems ecstatic to get the chance to do so.
Even as a simple album, Ye is inseparable from its Wyoming video stream. Ye shows us a happy, raw, simple West. It’s a tale of triumph and happiness. This may not be his magnum opus, but it’s damn enjoyable nonetheless.
FAVORITE TRACKS: “No Mistakes,” “Ghost Town,” “Violent Crimes”
9. “CARE FOR ME” by Saba
“CARE FOR ME” is a much more focused project than Saba’s 2016 “Bucket List Project.” Saba’s cousin Walter passed away after being stabbed to death in Chicago. “Care for Me” is a plea, a command: “help me through this loss.”
“Everything is grey,” Saba gloomily raps on “GREY.” Saba combines skillful lyricism, strong and cohesive production and great features on “CARE FOR ME.” Perhaps most compelling however is his vivid descriptions of his relationship with his cousin, profiled extensively on “PROM/KING,” including a haunting description of discovering Walter’s death. “PROM/KING” is perhaps the most gripping track of the year.
“CARE FOR ME” is a heartbreaking tale of grief. I love it.
FAVORITE TRACKS: “BUSY/SIRENS,” “GREY,” “PROM/KING,” “HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME”
10. “Oxnard” by Anderson .Paak
After being noticed by Dr. Dre, Paak has enjoyed a rapid ascent. Paak is from southern California and had released two albums beforehand celebrating it: “Malibu” (2016) and “Venice” (2014). On his third studio album as Anderson .Paak, he chose Oxnard, his hometown. This feels fitting.
Paak has earned reputation for consistent output of fun, beachy, upbeat tracks and does not disappoint on “Oxnard;” Paak’s signature swagger, playfulness and energy are all on full display. Like his previous efforts, “Oxnard” combines unique grooves and blends elements of R&B and rap, both of which Paak seems quite comfortable with.
“Oxnard” seems like Paak’s shot at the mainstream. The album is propelled by features from heavyweights like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Q. Tip. Paak absolutely deserves the popularity, and while “Oxnard” doesn’t have the x-factor that “Malibu” did for me, it’s a blast of an album that serves to further his sound and make a shot at the mainstream. What southern California city is next?
FAVORITE TRACKS: “Headlow,” “Tints,” “6 Summers,” “Cheers”
I liked all of these enough that I felt I needed to include them, but not enough to surpass records above, or I didn’t listen to them enough to feel I could write substantively about them.
“Lush” by Snail Mail
“Lush” finds Snail Mail perfectly capturing teenage angst, against gloomy but incredibly catchy songs. While this album certainly falls off on the back side, it also contains some of my favorite tracks this year.
FAVORITE TRACKS: “Pristine,” “Speaking Terms,” “Heat Wave,” “Full Control”
“2012-2017” by Against All Logic
Loops, loops and more loops. Here’s a fun, smooth, groovy and unique album that is a blast to listen to. Definitely worth checking out.
FAVORITE TRACKS: “I Never Dream,” “Some Kind of Game,” “Cityfade,” “Now U Got Me Hooked”
“TA13OO” by Denzel Curry
Who thought the dude who made the song from the water bottle flip videos (“Ultimate,” for reference) could make something as artful as this? TA13OO is cohesive, energetic, fun, varied, lyrically sophisticated and the most mature I’ve heard from Denzel Curry.
FAVORITE TRACKS: “TABOO,” “BLACK BALLOONS,” “CASH MANIAC,” “SUMO,” “SWITCH IT UP,” “PERCS”
“FM!” by Vince Staples
“FM” is Vince Staples signature, banger-based sound in the form of a simulated radio show. Vince brings the same charisma, humor, bass-heavy production and catchy rhymes to a really fun project.
FAVORITE TRACKS: “Feels Like Summer,” “Don’t Get Chipped,” “Run the Bands,” “FUN!,” “No Bleedin”
“QUARTERTHING” by Joey Purp
“QUARTERTHING” is characteristically Joey Purp: energetic, treble-heavy and exceedingly danceable. Purp can rap, and along with some great guest features (including two Wu-Tang Clan member verses), puts together an energetic project that’s an absolute blast.
FAVORITE TRACKS: “24K Gold/Sanctified,” “Godbody - Pt. 2,” “Hallelujah,” “Elastic, Aw Sh*t”
“Be the Cowboy” by Mitski
“Be The Cowboy” is compelling; Mitski is a brilliant storyteller and has a gorgeous voice. The album is both poppy and tender, losing none of Mitski’s signature sound.
FAVORITE TRACKS: “Why Didn’t You Stop Me,” “Nobody,” “Washing Machine Heart”
“Collapse” by Aphex Twin
Twin is king of the bleeps. The “Collapse” EP is reminiscent of his other works, equally as interesting and engaging. The EP feels like a world of its own, just as claustrophobic as we’re used to from Twin.
FAVORITE TRACKS: “T69 collapse”
“Endless” by Frank Ocean
“Endless” was released at the same time as Ocean’s opus “Blonde” in 2016 but was only released track by track this year. Endless is captivating like all of Ocean’s work, but its production is more drum-centric and is sonically distinct from his other albums “Channel ORANGE” and “Blonde.”
FAVORITE TRACKS: “At Your Best (You Are Love),” “U-N-I-T-Y,” “A Certain Way,” “Wither,” “Sideways,” “Mitsubishi Sony”
“Astroworld” by Travis Scott
Scott, once a prodigy of West, has taken on his own West-like role. “Who put this sh*t together I’m the glue,” Travis asks on “SICKO MODE.” “Astroworld” is an ode to the defunct Houston theme park, and in saluting his city, he’s finally come into his own. “Astroworld” is a spectacle, combining the biggest names for guest features and production from the biggest names in hip-hop.
FAVORITE TRACKS: “STARGAZING,” “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD”