Published Jun 18, 2018In 2018, the monoculture has all but vanished. With the sheer volume of entertainment at our fingertips — music, movies, TV, videogames, comedy — there's less agreement than ever on what we should all be devouring in our free time. The result has been a rise in more niche arts and culture, a smorgasbord of under-the-radar artists and works that might not be household names, but are passionately supported by audiences who feel an intense connection to them.
Enter Exclaim!'s list of the year's best albums so far. Voted on by an array of contributors, it's a broad, varied list of albums from a mix of musicians that includes underground rap veterans, DIY pop artists and Top 40 country singers alike. Below, find Exclaim!'s Top 31 Albums of 2018 So Far.
Time & Space
The '90s referencing of Nonstop Feeling suggested tongue-in-cheek irony to those that didn't get it, but Turnstile have managed to make heads of all of us with their latest LP. In fact, the Baltimore 'coremen continued to prove that they're capable of the impossible by making a definitive hardcore full-length this year that reignited the spirit of the genre, while also marking a major label debut.
With Time & Space, they've managed to ramp up their reach without sacrificing any of their spirit; the result is a record that lives up to its ambitious title while remaining as down-to-Earth as a humble trip to the merch table.
In Celebration of Us
(First Generation Rich / Empire)
In an era of necessary political and social movements, Skyzoo, who has actively used his music to convey the tales of a black man's experience since his first release, has taken a moment to celebrate his existence — and that of his community — with the release of In Celebration of Us, a gritty soundscape narrated by longtime collaborators like !llmind and Apollo Brown.
In Skyzoo's own words, In Celebration of Us is "Ta-Nehisi Coates meets Chappelle's Show, The Autobiography of Malcolm X meets Black-ish, the case of Sandra Bland meets the birth of Air Jordans" — which really just amounts to being a necessary 15-track listen worthy of your full attention.
29. Illuminati Hotties
Kiss Yr Frenemies
Sarah Tudzin's divisively named Illuminati Hotties project started as a resumé of sorts. The music producer and Berklee College of Music graduate wanted a way to showcase her production skills, but soon found herself in the midst of an inspiration outburst. Soon, she'd collected enough material for a full-length album.
Kiss Yr Frenemies, according to Tudzin, crams "everything that's happy and sad and confusing about being in your early 20s" into 35 minutes that traverse the sonic spectrum, from sunny power pop on "(You're Better) Than Ever" to strings-infused balladry on "The Rules" to lo-fi, ramshackle bedroom pop on "boi." In the first 30 seconds alone of highlight "Pressed 2 Death," Tudzin crams in an irreverent "one, two, *fart noise*" count-in, huge cosmic guitar effects and girl group backup vocals; it's just one example of the plethora of ideas here that make Kiss Yr Frenemies one of 2018's best yet.
28. Cancer Bats
The Spark That Moves
(Bat Skull/New Damage)
Cancer Bats dropped The Spark That Moves without warning, and it was a welcome surprise. The record pulls from multiple moments throughout the band's discography, touching on their last 13 years of music, but interweaving them into one album and executed with grace and sophistication.
The Spark That Moves maintains the band's signature blend of punk and metal the group have trademarked over the years, kicking into first gear on album opener "Gatekeeper" and keeping it there until the last sounds of "Winterpeg." Guitarist Scott Middleton plays a huge role on the album, using heavy riffs and a killer guitar tone to complement and provide flair to his writing. Intense and a ton of fun, The Spark That Moves showcases the individual talents of each member of Cancer Bats.
27. Mount Eerie
(PW Elverum & Sun)
During the final days of March, while Toronto trudged through the remnants of a brutally infinite winter, Mount Eerie's Now Only became the soundtrack for a handful of my sombre, early morning commutes. My headphones created a tiny, soundproof bubble in which Washington State-based Phil Elverum and I, crammed amongst the strangers on the bus, would share a private, existential exchange.
Packaged as an experimental work of melodic spoken word embedded in unconventional songwriting, Elverum offers his audience a painfully intimate memoir outlining his relationship with life and death in the wake of his wife's passing. This may not be an album to have on repeat — it's not exactly easy listening — but whenever you require a sobering reminder of the fragile, fleeting nature of human existence, Now Only warrants another spin.
26. DJ Koze
As the world descends into a pit of despair, you'd be forgiven for wanting to retreat into comfortable melancholy with an appropriately morose soundtrack. But Stefan Kozalla, aka DJ Koze, will have none of it.
His latest, Knock Knock, lets plenty of sunshine in across its sprawling, 80-minute runtime, but it's not so easily pinned down — his compositions sometimes alienate the listener with strident synth sequences that push the boundaries of congeniality, then pull it all back in a well-timed wobble or a stunning guest feature from a myriad of eclectic collaborators, including Roisin Murphy, Mano le Tough and Lambchop's Kurt Wagner.
That being said, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable and instantly replayable album released this year. Whether sitting alone contemplating the fate of humanity, or losing yourself on the dance floor under the stars, you'll find a perfect companion in the complex Knock Knock.
25. Frankie Cosmos
Though Frankie Cosmos's third full-length, Vessel, marks the project's Sub Pop debut, the record retains the genuine warmth of their Bandcamp days. The 18-track opus finds Greta Kline taking a look within herself — analyzing emotions, relationships and her place in the world with razor-sharp wit and tenderness.
Opener "Caramelize" examines how someone who is painfully shy approaches human connection, as Kline softly croons "I want in on the other side / Of your eyelids where you hide." At 23, she exudes wisdom beyond her years, and turns her words into blunt-yet-poignant introspections. Kline's serene vocals are the focal point of each song, and the skilled band behind her push Frankie Cosmos's sound to new heights. When each member takes a turn singing the chorus on "Being Alive," their unity feels powerful.
With Veteran, JPEGMAFIA (born Barrington Hendricks) doesn't take a side in current virtual culture warring so much as musically manifest what it feels like to be online in 2018. Akin to browsing a social media feed, the album is fragmented and frantic, full of moments alternately rewarding and repugnant. He firmly denounces the alt-right multiple times, while chiding bloggers, liberal arts majors and "you yuppies" of gentrified Brooklyn elsewhere. These bars, not unlike the internet, spare no one.
Veteran's ties to the web also show themselves in Hendricks' sardonic wit and lyrical skewers. "AR built like Lena Dunham / When I shoot I don't miss," he threatens on "Real Nega." There are songs titled "Libtard Anthem" and "I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies." "Fuck a Johnny Rotten, I want Lil B," Hendricks states in a singsong delivery on the latter, a nod to a precursor of his own internet-informed musical rebellion.
Little Dark Age
I thought I was just about finished with concept albums warning of the impending social media dystopia after last year's dangerously-close-to-preachy Everything Now and Pure Comedy. Yet somehow Little Dark Age manages to resemble those records without patronizing, by focusing just as much on the folly of the digital age as it does on seemingly trivial themes like platonic friendships and not wanting to exercise.
The record is hardly a call to action, and that's what makes it so compelling. Instead, it comes off as more like the nervous ramblings of two '80s art-pop and Gothic-obsessed men trying to find hope in today's darkness. Little Dark Age is a container for some of the weirdest pop songs of the year so far, and I wouldn't want anything else from MGMT.
Corey van den Hoogenband
22. Amen Dunes
For nearly a decade, Damon McMahon has been crafting deeply introspective songs with his project Amen Dunes. Shrouded in a haze of lo-fi production and stubbornly simple songwriting, they never found much of an audience.
But with Freedom, the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter pulls back the curtain, offering his most personal, sparse and universally appealing album to date, thanks to a cast of characters that feel foreign yet familiar and production from Chris Coady (Beach House, Slowdive) that allows his arrangements to soar to new heights.
A fan of electronic acts like Massive Attack, as well as classic wordsmiths like Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, McMahon channels the cinematic grandeur of the former with the meaningful sentiments of the latter to create a future classic that tackles generational addiction ("Skipping School"), bigoted conmen ("Mika Dora") and death ("Believe").
Few records sound as sombre, yet reservedly hopeful, in 2018 as Freedom — it's a modern American masterpiece.