As part of Amplify’s year-end coverage, staff writer Taylor Mims, who writes about touring for Amplify + Billboard, shares her picks for the ten best albums of the year.
In 2017, the music industry was flooded with protest songs filled with righteous indignation and a lot of political opinions. That music was deeply needed as an outlet for both artist and listener, but fatigue eventually set in and music in 2018 shifted its message.
The best albums in 2018 didn’t necessarily ignore the incessant traumatizing headlines, but it also didn’t play into them. A lot of artists turned inward for music in 2018 and detailed personal, emotional, off the wall and truly individual pieces of art. Artists defied boundaries and brought together sounds from varying regions to create genre-less, label-defying albums. For myself, the best albums of the year featured talented artists who developed entirely new and elaborate alternate universes to give their work another layer of escapism for anywhere from 20-40 minute reprieves from real life.
The last time I saw St. Paul & The Broken Bones on stage, lead singer Paul Janeway’s electric performance culminating with him rolling himself up in an ornate rug like a taquito. That was following the eight-piece band’s second album which is tame in comparison to 2018’s Young, Sick Camellia. The Atlanta-bred band brings back that danceable soul first seen on their debut Half The City that was produced by Alabama Shakes’ Ben Tanner. “Apollo,” the first single off the album felt like an instant hit and four months after its release I still can’t get the song out of my head. It is a relatively short album after you subtract the interludes that feature Janeway’s grandfather chatting between songs. The album explores ideas around masculinity, politics, religion and more but the whole thing feels fun and transcends the vintage soul of the band’s early days for a touch of funk and a bit of disco.
It feels pretty futile to categorize Tash Sultana and her debut album Flow State by genre. Every time the listener thinks they’ve got a feel for categorizing the Australian artist she throws in some Spanish guitar or flute or something else to shake things up. Flow State is powered greatly by the artist’s musicianship, showcasing her prowess for the twenty instruments she’s learned to play — including the guitar, which she picked up at the age of three. From brass to bass, every note on the album was created solely by Sultana to create an expansive and entirely individual collection of tracks. Watching the young 23-year old recreate the songs live is even more of a feat as she surrounds herself with a wealth of instruments and leaps around barefoot to the delight of fans at her frequently sold-out shows. Sultana has said she will work solo in the studio and on stage for as long as she can and as far as she can push it. I honestly can’t even imagine what they will look like and I can’t wait to see.
Camp Cope has had enough of sexism in the Australian music industry. The three piece rock band from Melbourne, Australia makes that very clear from the very first song on How to Socialize & Make Friends, aptly titled “The Opener.” The songs details the numerous times they, an all-female trio, were slated as openers or told to book a smaller venue because no one was going to see a bunch of ladies play indie music. This seems absurd when you think about the wealth of great music from females coming out of Australia (there are three on this list alone). Lead singer Georgia Maq’s voice is one of the best that I have some across this year, both in terms of singing and what she chooses to sing about. The songs are melodic and tight with a heavy emphasis on bass and the intimate details Maq reveals make you feel like you’re sat in a room at 3am listening to a close friend talk about her struggles.
I don’t speak Spanish, but I looked up what Rosalia’s sophomore album translated to online. El Mal Querer or The Bad Loving is unfamiliar territory for me, but the album’s opener “Malamente” just pulls me in. As Rosalía’s manager once said in an interview, English speakers don’t know what she is saying, “but they know what she is saying. Her attitude tells you everything.” The 25-year old Catalonian artist has combined her extensive study in flamenco with pop and R&B for an entirely new sound which has caught the ear of collaborators J Balvin and Pharrell Williams. Her second album is a big departure from her more traditional debut and even features a sample of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” on track “Bagdad” which sounds odd, but like everything else she’s done it works.
The first time I heard about Bodega I was running out the streets of Brighton, England watching a flurry of bands play throughout the night at Great Escape music festival. By the time I got the venue, it was crammed with people who had come to see this Brooklyn-based art-punk band. The quintet garnered a lot of attention for their likeness to bands like Talking Heads and The Strokes, but their debut is 14 full tracks of stylish commentary on an internet generation, losing a close friend, heartbreak and, most important, Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Jack in Titanic.” (Well no one is as salty as the seven seas/Except me and Jack in Titanic) Endless Scroll is fun, interesting, dense and silly all rolled into one. It deserves multiple listens.
Despite being on my best albums of 2018, I do have one major gripe with Vince Staples’ FM!: it is too short. Just as you are getting into the rhythm and excitement of the surprise release, it cuts off at barely over 20 minutes. Regardless, the winter release does, as it opening track suggests, “Feel Like Summer.” Staples features snippets of Southern California radio DJs in between eight succinct tracks that bring to life his hometown of Long Beach, Calif. I could be a bit bias since I am a resident of Long Beach and have lived in LA County my entire life, growing up listening to Big Boy’s Neighborhood on the radio, but I believe FM! is a solid snapshot of a complex city. Long Beach is one of the most diverse cities in the country and the diversity of its denizen’s experiences are just as abundant. FM! captures that Staples’s trajectory from the streets of Long Beach to his recent set at Coachella with both seriousness and playfulness. It is worth the 22-minute listen.
In a year that has looked particularly grim for women in country music, Kacey Musgraves pushed through all the chatter and put out some of her best work. Whether country radio stations want to play her or any other female artist on the air, people were listening to, becoming aware of, and falling in love with Musgraves’ fourth and phenomenal album. Country disco single “High Horse” serves as a good romp along with catchy tracks like “Velvet Elvis” and “Wonder Woman,” but it is the quieter moments on Golden Hour that really stand out. “Space Cowboy” is one of my favorite singles of the year and Musgraves gets extremely personal throughout, singing about loneliness, heartbreak and most importantly hope.
Courtney Barnett had her whole life up until that point to write her 2015 debut album Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit and it was filled with clever observations and brushes with anxiety. She was heralded as one of the best lyricists for that debut, which seems like it might amplify that anxiety when trying to follow it up in just a few short years. But after a brief stint recording and touring with Kurt Vile, Barnett returned with Tell Me How You Really Feel which continues to showcase her signature wit, left-handed guitar playing skills and solidifies her standing as one of the best indie rockers out there. Barnett drew from her childhood growing up in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia for tracks like “City Looks Pretty” and grabbed inspiration from current events such as the #MeToo movement for “Nameless, Faceless.” The album feels like Barnett ignored the hype around her first album, put her head down and created a follow up that was still brimful of her humbleness, yet entirely sure of her abilities.
I assumed the world would be getting an AM Part II from Sheffield’s favorite lads whenever the Arctic Monkeys returned with their sixth studio album, but then they announced they would not be previewing any new music before the release date and I knew Alex Turner and company had something up their sleeves. Perhaps one of the most entertaining features of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino was reading all the flummoxed album reviewers trying to make sense of this seemingly left-turn of an album. It wasn’t so much a turn, but Turner’s continued ascent as one of the best lyricists of a generation. Following a producer credit from Alexandria Savior’s debut album and a second turn as the Last Shadow Puppets with Miles Kane, Turner has been headed towards this verbose, fantastical and rich sound for years. And in a time when a lot of people are stressed, divided and anxious, one of the world’s biggest rock bands decided to take us to a remote vacation resort on the moon for a beautifully non-sensical reprieve.
1. Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer
I am not sure I could trust a top albums of 2018 list that doesn’t include Janelle Monáe’s stunning return to the studio after her successful turn at acting. I honestly thought we may have seen the last of the Electric Lady when her acting career took off in films like Academy Award winner Moonlight or Hidden Figures, but then she came roaring back with two mega singles, dropping “Django Jane” and “Make Me Feel” simultaneously to great acclaim. Monáe served as a breath of fresh feminist air in the era of #MeToo, giving women, women of color, and queer women a fierce ballast for a more inclusive and harmonious way forward. Dirty Computer is about giving a voice to the voiceless, celebrating the things that make us unique and dancing to some brilliant beats that Monáe’s mentor, Prince, would have undoubtedly approved of.