STAFF LIST: Henderson’s Top Releases of 2018
Posted: by Henderson
When I started having AOTY lists on The Alternative in 2013, it was because I thought the big sites were missing 90% of the great records coming out from indie artists every year. It was just me listening to hundreds of albums and ranking them because I thought the music was awesome, and I wanted the artists to grow. To be honest, that part hasn’t changed at all, except now the site has 30+ contributors and we all work together on the AOTY list and awards. I’m so proud of how our full list is coming out. It’ll be out next week! Best thing we’ve ever done. In the immortal words of Bart Scott, ‘Can’t wait.’ But even with with site list, its still fun to hit you with my favorites, because my opinion on my music taste hasn’t changed, and I still want these artists to grow.
2018 produced a beautiful crop of music, an especially good year, and god knows we all needed it. Take a listen to my favorites below and catch up on any you might’ve missed. Album names link to the music for easy access.
Also different since the beginning of The Alternative, is that I’m a music lawyer now, and I get to work with awesome artists all day every day. I also get to worry about conflicts of interest! So just wanted to say that somehow not 1 of these bands has ever paid me for legal services (although if any of them are reading this and need a lawyer hit me up). I have worked with Counter Intuitive Records who released 2 of these, but I don’t get a cut of sales or anything, I just genuinely think the albums are great.
Anyway, here are my top 20 (shhh actually 50), releases of 2018. In my humble opinion, this is the best music of 2018.
From the first minute of Sleeping Lessons you know what you’re in for: guitar melodies and sick bass lines building over a steady rock drumbeat until a beautiful hook emerges. “We talk in our sleep all the time. Do you remember what you said to me last night.” The rest of the album is just that over and over and over. When a guitar solo peaks through it nails it effortlessly. Just a pure and beautiful record.
New Zealand indie band The Beths shocked the world with their debut album Future Me Hates Me this year. Vocalist Elizabeth Stokes drops emotional lines over building crescendos and driving drums, creating screamalong gems. “River Will Run: Lvl 1” is the sort of emo anthem that belongs in the end credits of your favorite teen drama. The vocal harmonies, songwriting, and instrumental polish on this record are all nearly perfect. New Zealand punches above their weight when it comes to producing great songwriters, and the whole world is realizing it. The Beths are more evidence of that, with one of the most exciting debut records I’ve heard in years.
FM! is a concept album, and the concept is rap radio. Across the 7 tracks and multiple skits, Vince perfectly creates the feeling of your local rap station on a hot summer day, and then delivers the tracks to make the listening experience perfection. He pulled back from his more experimental structures, and went for straight up bars. Like they say on British Bake Off, “if you are going to go with the classics, they’ve got to be executed perfectly”. This is executed perfectly. “It feels like summer man, let go outside.“
On Watch is a truly exciting rock record, it balances shredding guitars with beautiful melodic vocals and swelling harmonies. The songs are constantly in motion. The drums frequently change in tempo and ferocity on a dime, and the guitars intersperse quiet with raucous noise. Mercedes Webb’s vocals in particular shine through the rock, but the dual vocalists make for cool harmonies and solid call and response verses. Some tracks are more post rock than anything, while others have almost a Metric-esque indie vibe, and a few are straight up hardcore. The variety and variation within On Watch has kept me coming back for more, and the dense sounds reveal new facets with each listen
There were a ton of great rap records in 2018, and plenty of those were pure trap records. In my opinion PUNKEN was the best one. Maxo Kream sprays lyrical tales of poverty and drug dealing over smoldering beats. “Roaches in my ashtray and roaches in my cereal.” There’s even a touching track about the flooding in Houston. The lyrics are there, the storytelling is engrossing, the flows deliver, and the hooks get me hyped. Nothing more I could ask for.
There were a few records that took listeners on a psychedelic journey this year, but Hypnic Jerks was the one I enjoyed most. The samples are effective and intriguing and the song themselves are catchy without straying too far from their folk rock core. The album is an entrancing listen, and when you escape the labyrinth you’re excited to re-enter and work your way back through.
14) Now Now – Saved
It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Now, Now, but in the years since Threads they’re been crafting their indie-pop talent into pure pop bangers. This is a record that easily included 3 of my favorite pop songs of the year: “SGL”, “Yours”, and “AZ”. Their pure pop change will undoubtedly lose them some old fans, but it will also gain them many more new ones. This is a band striving to do something different and succeeding.
Soccer Mommy’s For The Hearts EP from 2016 is one of my favorite releases of the decade: lofi excellence with cutting lyrics. Soccer Mommy have moved up in the world since then, and on Clean, songwriter Sophie Allison has returned with a more polished indie rock sound. Fortunately the strength of the songs has held up amidst the evolution, and on this record she unleashes some of her best lines to date over shimmering guitars. Some of the most addicting guitar parts (and bass lines!) of the year are on this record. Even in the label big leagues, Soccer Mommy has established itself as a band to reckon with. The future is bright.
Donovan Wolfington combined punk, indie rock, and metal across their releases in a way not really seen since Sum 41, and I say that in the best way possible. Sadly this mixture proved to be unstable, and the band shattered into 3 great bands: PHONY, New Holland, and Pope (that’s how much talent we’re talking here). On their final album, D Wolf kept up their end of the bargain, again displaying their versatility and creativity. Some of the lyrics have hung with me all year. I have a good feeling we’ll be hearing more from these dudes, and in the future people will look back on Donovan Wolfington asking why they weren’t playing stadiums.
I came into Astroworld with almost zero faith in Travis Scott. I know he’s been writing hits behind the scenes for a bit, but the Kardashian/Kanye connection had soured me on his prospects as a legit artist. He converted me with this record. This was a clear gem from the first listen. The booming beats are pure brain candy. The autotuned verses become a meditative trance. There isn’t much substance to Travis’s verses, but that doesn’t take away from the songs as pop hits. Honestly, I’ve never heard vocal warping used to such good effect. IT’S LIT.
I really struggled with where to place Rico Nasty’s exceptional record Nasty on my list. The Maryland “bubblegum trap” artist is lowkey one of the most intuitive genre blenders in all of music. Sure the trap influence is there, along with some poppier beats, but Rico has also incorporated screamo and metal sounds and vocals. There are a ton of rappers trying to mix their punk influences into their bars, Wicca Phase, XXX, Tekashi, Princess Nokia, Playboi Carti, but in my opinion Rico Nasty has found the most successful path. Sometimes it misses a bit, but when Rico goes for it on tracks like “Rage” she invents something new, and to me that’s more valuable than pure hits (although she has those too).
Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus should all make any list of the best songwriters in indie rock. Each one has a blossoming solo career, and anything they put out is a must listen. Imagine my surprise when I heard they were combining to form true supergroup. When they imitate Crosby Still and Nash on the album cover, it’s barely a joke and more of a indication of their goals. Across the 6 songs of Boygenius’s self titled EP, the trio show immediate chemistry, taking turns leading and supporting each other and rocking out with more reckless abandon than on their solo work. If they want to keep this going, they will be a contender for AOTY with every release.
Stove’s Steve Hartlett is your favorite guitarist’s favorite guitarist, but he’s also one of my favorite songwriters. This made 2018 a blessing if you’re me. He released a record with his most well known band Ovlov that was a pure rock gem, and then he dropped a record for his other project Stove, which I think is even better. Stove has more of an indie bent sound, but it’s the guitars and warm vocals that make this album stand out. This isn’t a record that will grab you and shake you and tell you it’s awesome, but you’ll slowly realize that you’ve listened to it a few hundred times and you know every word and guitar tone. It’s worth the investment, there’s gold in these hills.
It’s hard to describe the music of Sidney Gish. Sample heavy millennial indie pop? It’s got warm guitars, poppy vocals, lyrics about trolling the internet, and a sneaky hiphop influence. Sidney is creating her own thing. Her musical journal entries float up into the atmosphere growing upon every listen. This album dropped on New Year’s Eve 2017, and immediately established itself as an album of the year contender. Just an independent artist creating their head off. Feels like a breath of fresh air.
While the majority of hiphop has headed in a single friendly direction, Earl has chosen to embark on the poet’s path. On Some Rap Songs he challenges his listeners by pushing himself to create more than a simple rap record. He instead incorporates both jazz and spoken word elements into an experimental performance. His lyrical ruminations on death, mental health, and addiction, shift through the cloudy beats. On my first listen I didn’t quite get it, by my 5th, I didn’t want to listen to anything else ever again, by now I have every line memorized. “Please nobody pinch me out this dream“
A bunch of artists pushed their music in a poppier and more accessible direction this year, and the results were mixed. The ones that were able to succeed were the artists that were able to hold onto the originality and purity of their genre roots. Foxing is maybe the best example of this. Nearer My God is somehow the record you never expected from Foxing, and also a record that could only be from them. An album that can somehow satisfy the disheartened Brand New fanboy and the radio rock normie. I feel like this is the record The Killers secretly wish they still had in them. Lyrically the LP deals with the desperate desire to succeed, an autobiographical tale of hope. On Nearer My God, Foxing closed their eyes and swung for the fences, the result was a homerun that still hasn’t touched the ground.
Just Friends are pure fun. This is an album that features a wedding song ballad, multiple fake radio call in segments (beat Vince Staples to it), and nonstop BANGERS. What Just Friends are doing is special, both because they are combining brass, punk, and hiphop, in a way we’ve never really seen before, and because they are bringing stage performance back to rock music. I already foresee a wave of bands influenced by their sound and style. Just Friends are the opener you can’t follow up. They’re the next big thing.
Mitski is a multi Grammy Award winning artist at this point in a universe with justice. On her now 5th LP, Mitski moved a bit back toward her pop roots, while still incorporating the rock elements and wit, she has become known for over the last 2 records. The result is a fresh dancey sound that pulls on disco as much as indie rock. The most important part: the songs are good. “Nobody” might be the track of the year. It’s stunning. “Me and my Husband” begins with a audibly deep sigh, and then bops into a Regina Spektor esque ballad with interjecting organs. It’s that kind of record. Everyone has their own personal favorite Mitski album, but Be The Cowboy made a strong argument to replace your previous fav.
At first it was hard for me to tell if I really liked Swimming or I just really missed Mac Miller. I’ve come to the realization that it’s a lot of both. Mac unfortunately passed away from a drug overdose earlier this year, and his final LP is a journal entry from a man fighting with addiction, mental health, and fame. The beats are exceptional, the lyrics are heartbreakingly poetic, and the funk influence is strong and beautiful. I’m incredibly sad we won’t get to hear more. The final thing someone says to you is always going to gain extra importance. I’m glad Mac left us with Swimming, because it’s as pure a representation of his songwriting and soul as exists. In a year that’s left me frequently feeling low, I’m thankful I had this album to keep me company.
Drug Church vocalist and songwriter, Patrick Kindlon, is constantly doing some deep thinking, and he lets his bleak results simmer in his lyrics. This has always been the case, but 2018 is just the time for such a punk philosopher. In the past, the heavier hardcore and experimental aspects of Drug Church’s work had me shying away after a few listens, but on Cheer the band toned it down just enough for some indie guitars to sneak through. It made for a perfect combination of heaviness, lyrical depth, and rock songwriting. This hooky blend allows Kindlon’s meditations to marinate deeply, creating an emotional and intriguing potion of a punk record in a time that sorely needed one.
20 albums isn’t enough. Here’s the rest of my Top 50 unranked:
Henderson Cole // @HendoSlice
The Alternative is ad-free and 100% supported by our readers. If you’d like to help us produce more content and promote more great new music, please consider donating to our Patreon page, which also allows you to receive sweet perks like free albums and The Alternative merch.