2018 was a year full of albums that sparked debate. Being divisive within your own fanbase seemed to be the trend for many of the albums that either made my Top 25 of the year or were left out. What’s left though are a selection of albums that not only defined my year, but created some of the best memories I’ll take with me well into 2019.
Sweetener really didn’t gel with me at first. After 2 knockout stellar singles, no tears left to cry and the choral anthem god is a woman, my expectations were massive for the full album. Sweetener does contain some more brilliant pop songs, the heartfelt breathin‘ sits perfectly alongside everytime and goodbye n go, in the much stronger second half of the record, but there’s just a few too many sludgy Pharrell Williams produced songs that seem to do everything but showcase Ariana’s talent. The dirge of the light is coming is nearly saved by one of Nicki Minaj’s best verses of the year, but the boring blazed and successful end up feeling lifeless next to the huge pop hits. There’s enough brilliant music here to appease a fan like me, but not enough to be a classic.
There were a number of bands who rode through 2018 with a signature sound, albeit one that merged every song they released into one homogeneous never ending song. This is why the likes of Pale Waves miss out on inclusion here. In so many ways Fickle Friends should fall into this camp, but You Are Someone Else fills me so much joy whenever I listen to it I just can’t deny it works. Songs like Glue and Lovesick sound like what I imagine most pop fans think Haim are supposed to sound like, twinkly synthy indie pop with catchy guitar riffs and equally catchy lyrics. As an album it eventually manages to defy your early expectations enough to showcase a slightly different side to the band, but at its best You Are Someone Else is glittering indie pop at its best.
Yet again The 1975 know how to completely spilt my opinion on an album. I was one of the few people who thought that previous album I Like It When You Sleep… was worse than the sum of its parts and n some ways A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships falls apart for similar reasons. The album doesn’t feel bloated anymore, it’s just the band’s least focused effort musically. Vocoder dance songs like TooTimeTooTimeTooTime sit next to a ballad like Be My Mistake, while the jazz of Mine ends just minutes before the brilliant closing track I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes) manages to sound like a Busted song from 2003. Yet again there’s terrific music here and there’s so much creativity on display in every moment. A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships just didn’t connect with me as effortlessly as their previous two albums did, perhaps sullied by the number of incredible songs we’d already heard before the album was finally released. (Of course its place in this top 25 proves that I do quite enjoy the album after all)
If there’s one thing that I love about First Aid Kit’s fourth studio album it’s the duo’s voices. There’s something so honest about the rough edges to their tone we hear on opener Rebel Heart that make the closing 2 minutes of glorious rolling guitar riffs even more wonderful to experience. Songs like this feel alive as more musicians weave themselves in and out. The stomping It’s A Shame is the most arena ready they’ve ever been, while soaring Distant Star feel like you are listening to the sisters singing in deep forest or a vast landscape. Ruins is one of the most straightforward albums I’ve included on this list and while it doesn’t push First Aid Kit’s sound very far from where they’ve been for the best part of a decade with voices like this you can see why they don’t need to.
LP’s previous album, the fantastic Lost On You missed out on inclusion in my list after it had a very late release the year before. Knowing that Heart to Mouth was receiving the same December release I made sure to give the album enough time to settle in with me before constructing my list. I’m so glad that I did as it’s yet another collection of diverse genre hopping pop songs sung with the voice of a Bob Dylan era veteran. LP’s voice is undeniably the glue that holds the album together, she’s one of the most unique and interesting performers currently recording and on standouts like the danceable Shaken and the outstanding closer Special she captures the listener’s imagination effortlessly. Where Lost on You was still heavily rooted in bluesy rock, Heart To Mouth is out and out pop and is all the better for it.
Possibly the most intriguing album on this list, Everything Is Recorded by Richard Russell is a collaboration between so many musicians that the Vinyl release includes a spreadsheet listing which songs every person performed on. It’s intriguing not just because of the history of its creation by the head of the UK’s most influential indie label, the home of Adele XL Recordings, but because of how so many people could come together to create such a complete album. The equally distinctive Sampha and Infinite share vocal responsibilities, the former delivering the opening single Close But Not Quite, while the latter delivers the album’s standout centerpiece the beautiful Bloodshot Red Eyes. Songs melt into each other a stellar appearance from Giggs starting with him telling them to switch off the click track in the studio. The fact that a collaborative album can sound so personal and an electronic sounding alum can sound so human is brilliant.
MNEK has been so intrinsic to the current state of pop music in Britain over the last few years that it’s surprising that Language is the first full album he has been able to release thus far. Co-writer of the likes of You Don’t Know Me by Jax Jones and Hold Up by Beyonce, he could quite easily have knocked out 12 more ‘could be’ hits and called it quits. Instead every second of Language sounds like MNEK the artist and not the ‘man behind the hits’. A song like Girlfriend with it’s killer ‘Neither you or you’re story’s straight’ hook is straight out of the early 2000s, you can hear MNEK singing along to Eve and Ashanti in his room as a kid and being so desperate to release an album exactly like Language. The vocals on the likes of Touched By You and Paradise soar like we’ve come to expect, but every word is real and honest. There’s not a single moment where you wonder who MNEK is, Language is exactly what a debut album should be.
Saturn is not the album I expected from Nao. Her thrilling funk soaked debut For All We Know was a nice alternative to mainstream RnB. Saturn takes things to the stars and back across its 47 minute runtime. Opener Another Lifetime is vocal heaven as Nao’s distinctive voice soars. The squelchy bass of standout Curiosity sits next to the dance-hall of Drive and Disconnect. You get a lot more emotion and openness from Nao on this second album, the likes of Orbit strip things back before Nao delivers her own 16 bar rap verse. Each song stands alone brilliantly, but together it feels like a true journey of self discovery through music and lyrics. Nao’s deep understanding of her own sound and voice continues to amaze me.
The album I have wanted for so many years couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. How do you follow up a deeply personal and starkly honest album that itself was a follow up to a deeply personal and starkly honest album that your wife has just released? Lemonade and 4:44 may have just been the best albums that Beyoncé and Jay-Z have ever released and while EVERYTHING IS LOVE never manages to reach the heights of either album, it gives an insight into the biggest couple in music like never before. ‘To get her back, I had to sweat her/Y’all could make up with a bag, I had to change the weather/Move the whole family West, but it’s whatever’ on closer LOVEHAPPY is just one example of where Jay and Bey exchange verses like it’s nothing. For fans of RapYoncé EVERYTHING IS LOVE delivers in every way. On HEARD ABOUT US she out-raps Jay at times, while on APESHIT the pair managed to get nominated for a Grammy by calling out the Grammys for snubbing them. The highs weren’t as high as some might have expected, but The Carters crafted yet another example of why they own the music industry.
Delicate, subtle and effortless are not words people use to describe Florence + The Machine, but on High As Hope there’s glimpses of exactly this. Album standout and genuine career highlight The End of Love is a beautifully simple song, but still one that can contain a line like ‘And in a moment of joy and fury I threw myself from the balcony like my grandmother so many years before me’. It’s emotional in the way Florence captures the listener’s ear so perfectly, like she’s chosen notes that hit as hard as the lyrics themselves. Of course the rest of High As Hope falls much closer to what we’ve come to expect from Flo. Grace and Patrica might feel like lesser versions of songs from previous albums, but Hunger and South London Forever feel more personal than ever. The final half of 100 Years is delightfully dramatic, while the groans Florence makes on Big God are oddly terrifying to hear. There’s something to admire about someone who can make a song about not getting a text back sound like a scene from Macbeth.
It took approximately 5 seconds into opening song Stop Drop and Roll One to understand why Angaleena Presley, Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert decided to work together as Pistol Annies again. Interstate Gospel manages to incorporate the best things from the latter two artists last album releases, Monroe’s Sparrow which narrowly missed out on my Top 25 and Lambert’s outstanding The Weight of These Wings. There’s nods to classic country on Best Years of My Life, but constant reminders that these are modern women writing about modern life. Sugar Daddy and Got My Name Changed Back are kick down the door stomping country anthems and work perfectly next to harmony led ballads like Masterpiece and the brilliant title track. All three women are so distinctive vocally, but together they manage to create something truly special. A modern day Dolly/Emmylou/Linda might sound like a strange thing to crave again, but in a genre where women’s voices are being removed from radio left right and centre it’s exactly what we need.
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner from The National creating an album through an online portal they created to allow musicians to collaborate on musical projects? That sounds perfectly plausible I guess. Big Red Machine is such an intriguing album and given the time when it was created manages to sound similar to both Bon Iver’s 22, A Million and The National’s Sleep Well Beast. The former of these was my favourite album of 2016, so this is only going to be a good thing. Much like Everything is Recorded, Big Red Machine features so many collaborates across its 10 tracks that it could end feeling more like a weirdly paced playlist than an album. Thankfully it doesn’t and the strangeness of Vernon’s vocoder on OMDB blends seamlessly with guitars that sweep in and out, with sampled vocals piercing through. This kicks off a trio of songs that kept me coming back to the album over and over again this year. There’s something beautiful about People’s Lullaby, while I Won’t Run From It manages to be the most straightforward singalong song Vernon has performed since Skinny Love. Big Red Machine is a tricky record to navigate at times, but it’s so worth the time it takes to uncover its secrets.
Eric Church is somehow still an outsider in Country. The stadium filling, #1 radio hitting artist sounds like anything but on his sixth album. Probably his most delicate and smallest album yet, Desperate Man manages to be even more restrained than the surprise release Mr Misunderstood a few years ago. Opener The Snake is thrilling but just teases you with blasts of noise before retreating into a rolling guitar riff. As an album Desperate Man gives you more the more you give to it. The journey through to closer Drowning Man takes in honky tonk, classic rock and plenty of delicate vocal moments, but it’s one that showcases an artist who is no longer ‘finding themselves’. In an era where the distance between commercial country and ‘critical’ country is wider than ever, Eric Church is on his own path miles away just making music that sounds like Eric Church. On Desperate Man this confidence is infectious and ends up as one of the year’s best Country albums.
I think the moment I realised that George Ezra was about to have the best year of his career was watching him stage diving next to Ant and Dec on Saturday Night Takeaway during a performance of album standout Paradise. He was soon surpassing the success of that song with the inescapable Shotgun, but Staying at Tamara’s is so consistently brilliant that it could have 5 or 6 more massive hits to come. Hold My Girl is just the right side of sickly sweet, Don’t Matter Now and Pretty Shining People are begging for a sun hat and a long summer’s drive, while The Beautiful Dream is an unexpectedly atmospheric closer. So much is said of Ezra’s wonderfully deep voice, but the real star on Staying At Tamara’s is his songwriting. Get Away and Sugarcoat are genius pop songs, both instantly catchy and memorable, while First Aid Kit collaboration Savior makes a nice contract with its dark and brooding sound. Staying At Tamara’s is so ‘commercial’, it would be the biggest selling album of 2018 if the country weren’t addicted to The Greatest Showman, but as an album I think it’s massively underrated.
Is LUMP an album? Are LUMP a group? Is LUMP that massive gorilla thing? Why does Laura Marling read out the names of everyone who worked on the album for 2 whole minutes? Why does the entire thing include one long droning noise? LUMP is baffling, unique and caught me completely off guard this year. 6 albums into a career of increasingly more daring folk music Laura Marling takes the plunge to collaborate with the lead musician of a band known for blending electronica with Folk music. The results are spectacular on May I Be The Light, Marling’s vocals seeming to soar more than ever against the thudding bassline, while Hand Hold Hero‘s crisp guitars offset the never ending drone. Single Curse of the Contemporary is by far the most straightforward song here, but even this is brilliantly weird. The drone I’ve mentioned is as much of the star here as Laura Marling’s voice, where it weaves in and out of each song to bring it all together as one. LUMP is barely an album, more like a suite of songs on a theme, but in 2018 it was one of the most intriguing releases of the year.