15 Best albums of 2018

Reader's Digest Editors

Riveting guitar anthems, comforting folky numbers and jazz gems from the past—it's been a thrilling year for music. Make sure you haven't missed any big releases by sifting through this list of our favourite albums of 2018

15. The Horizon Just Laughed by Damien Jurado 

If you’re the kind of person who seeks relief for existential unrest in the intimate, world-weary vocals of Leonard Cohen or John Martyn, Damien Jurado might just become your new best friend. A selection of self-contained little lullabies for adults, this is his first self-produced album in a 20+ year career. While his tenderly raspy voice and stripped-back melodies are a true ointment for the soul, the laconic, meditative lyrics (“My girl Lucy waits for me to bend my knee / But the diamond doesn’t shine /And I can barely make the payments on our telephone ring”) channel the uncertainties of the human condition that every one of us faces at some point in life.

But the true treasures on this album always lie in the small moments: the quiet hum of electric organs in the background, seamlessly elegant hooks and the subtle sways of Jurado’s whisper-like vocals—comfort music doesn’t get any better than this.

 

14. Negro Swan by Blood Orange 

If you’ve come across Blood Orange, aka Dev Hynes before, you’ll know exactly what to expect from the silky-voiced, ultra-cool British electronic R&B crooner. And he brings it all to us in his signature smooth fashion on his latest album. Entitled Negro Swan, it's his fourth solo record and “a reach back into childhood and modern traumas,” dealing with various issues and anxieties of queer/black people and what it takes to get through them.

Ultimately though, every track is underpinned by the notion of hope, culminating with the charmingly understated “Smoke”, made up of an irresistible mesh of Hynes’ melting vocals ("The sun comes in / My heart fulfils within") and simple guitar laid on top of a lush, mesmerising bed of backing vocals. 

Other highlights include “Hope” with its lithe and sparkling farrago of sound pouring out of the standard song structure, or the red-blooded “Holy Will” featuring a stunning intro from Ian Isiah.

 

13. Lost and Found by Jorja Smith 

This young artist has really burst onto the scene and claimed 2018 as her own with her calming, relatable lyrics and pure voice that’s reminiscent of Corinne Bailey Rae with a sprinkle of Lilly Allen. Lost and Found shows off her unique style which is refreshing in a world full of same-y pop songs. No matter what age you are, you’ll feel young and full of possibility when you listen to this album, as her youthful spirit shines through.

“Blue Lights” is a stand-out tune in this list which features a little appearance from fellow artist, Stormzy. We also recommend “On Your Own” and “Lifeboats” for some chilled, ethereal listens. We can’t wait to see what the future holds for Jorja Smith as she continues to discover her place in the music industry.

 

12. God's Favourite Customer by Father John Misty 

Josh Tillman aka Father John Misty, might be one of the hippest artists around to have on your Spotify right now, but don’t let that put you off giving his latest album a spin. Written in a hotel over a six-week period, God’s Favourite Customer is a melancholic kinship with heartbreak, desperation and the many different faces of love.

First, the record will strike you with FJM’s signature quirky song titles and the cleverly biting lyrics. Then, it’ll seduce you with painstakingly beautiful orchestration, led by splashes of capricious piano chords and effortlessly sumptuous vocal flairs. And finally, it’ll tear your heart right open with unexpected outbursts of gloomy candour, like the gorgeous “Please Don’t Die” in which he sheds his ironic wise man exterior and reveals his aching innards in all their glorious vulnerability.

There’s not a single thing on this album that feels lazy or uncared for. From the quietest tambourine jingle to the most complex melody arrangement, there’s a jaw-dropping amount of care and deliberation that makes God’s Favourite Customer such a triumph. Trust us, you’ll keep coming back for more.

 

11. No Trail and Other Unholy Paths by Jaye Jayle 

In the mood for something dark and heavy but your Nick Cave records are so worn they’re falling apart? Well, you’re in for a treat with this one. Evan Paterson, the “Americana-noir” singer/guitarist working under the pithy moniker “Jaye Jayle” is a worthy connoisseur of glum, dejected sound with beats so heavy they pound down your skull like an army boot.  

A sparse, minimal affair, the record doesn’t concern itself with frills and grace notes, instead relying on using just a few key elements, and using them right. Among these are Paterson’s rugged, hushed vocals, reverberant bass and the occasional deranged sax that appears out of thin air, as it does on the ridiculously cool “Low Again Street.” 

It’s Mark Lanegan, Trent Reznor and Josh Homme all amalgamated into one ultra-masculine, nihilistic and meaty music stew that’ll grab you and won’t let go. 

 

10. ye by Kanye West 

A new Kanye album is always an over-the-top affair that shakes the music world but his latest work, ye, proves to be the superstar rapper’s most low-key and understated record yet. The seven tracks amount to a taut 23 minutes in a to-the-point, no-frills release—whether it's the album cover that’s allegedly a photo Kanye took on his way to the album launch, or the rough, unpolished feel that unites all the songs. 

However, ye elegantly (most of the time, anyway) proves how less is more in capable hands. The album is shocking, heartening, funny, self-deprecating, self-aggrandising, intimate, exploitative—all at the same time, as we witness Kanye taking on the issues of his mental health, Trump, addiction, women, his daughter North West and everything in between. Every moment here is precious and Yeezy wants you to know it. 

A true standout is the opening track of the album,“ I Thought About Killing You” which is a haunting, obsessive musical malady. It begins with Kanye’s fevered monologue describing how “the most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest” referring to his fantasies about killing a loved one. It’s simple, painfully honest and manages to pull the rug from under you as it suddenly turns into a completely different, pumping beat-driven track three quarters in. 

Read more: 10 Things you might not know about Kanye West 

 

9. Themes for Television by Johnny Jewel 

Imagine a danger-induced thrill of late-night dive bars, set to the sound of eerie cries of a lonesome saxophone, flavoured with some grimy Eighties synths—if this kind of scenario sounds up your alley, you should drop everything you’re doing and get hold of Johnny Jewel’s latest spooky little treat.

Jewel is an American record producer and a member of several bands such as Chromatics and Glass Candy, but he’s also been garnering accolades for his film collaborations with the likes of Ryan Gosling, Nicolas Winding Refn and, most importantly, David Lynch, whose recent revival of the cult show Twin Peaks features Jewel’s music.

Themes for Television is a great foray into his work and does exactly what it says on the tin: entrenches you in rich, highly-stylised soundscapes that transport you into a mysterious, Taxi Driver-like state of mind. An intriguing, downtempo compilation, it’s bound to expand your sonic frontiers.

 

8. Hunchin' All Night by Hunee 

For those not acquainted with Hunee, welcome to the genre-bending funky DJ who will have you bobbing to old-school disco and Eighties-inspired tunes one minute, and then jamming to classic techno the next. Hunee, real name Han Choi, is known for his fluidity with dance music and refusal to be predictable from one song to the next—and this album certainly showcases that attribute.

We recommend starting with “Komya Hondo”, Boncana Maiga’s flute-heavy rhythmic tune and also giving “Burning 4 you” a listen, to be transported to the beach—sunnies on, and piña colada in hand.

 

7. Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album by John Coltrane 

Grab your whiskey, dim your lights and get ready for a late-night jazz session like no other because you’re in for a real special treat. Recorded in 1963, Both Directions at Once is a delicious 90 minutes of previously unheard tracks found in the possession of jazz titan John Coltrane’s first wife’s Naima Coltrane’s family.  The original tracks were cut in a single day by what became known as Coltrane’s “classic quartet” at the height of their musical output. 

The album is everything we love about Trane: long, improv-heavy sax solos, convulsive bass lines, sizzling drums and manic unbridled energy that takes various shapes throughout the record; from the breezy, up-tempo “Impressions” to the nomadic but smoky “Nature Boy” via sunshiny vibes of “Vilia.” We’re also treated to alternate takes of some of the tracks that display the quartet’s light-footed virtuosity and ease of experimentation. However crazy the melodies get, every beat here is laid down with perfection and fluid smoothness.    

Read more: How did John Coltrane's Lost Album get lost? 

 

6. Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe

Two years on from the death of Prince, it’s hard to imagine any artist stepping into his platformed shoes with more finesse than his mentee, Janelle Monáe.

Dirty Computer is an audio and visual journey through the wonderland—and discontent—of Monáe’s psyche, pouring over subjects as wide-ranging as love, prejudice and the corruption of the American Dream along the way.

The influences from which Monáe draws are broad—of course there’s the unmissable thumbprint of Prince on the beat of “Make Me Feel” and the twisted guitar of “Screwed”, but there’s also the lushly symphonic voice of Brian Wilson in the title track, spoken word from Stevie Wonder in “Stevie’s Dream” and pop-perfect features from Pharrell in “I Got the Juice” and Grimes in “Pynk”.

Make no mistake, this is a political album, but it’s also sonically stunning, at once flirty and furious, afraid and assured, it snakes effortlessly from taut funk to soft soul ballads and air-punching pop.

 

5. The Gershwin Moment by Kirill Gerstein 

Few classical works boast an opening as memorable as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. A duo of a mischievous clarinet followed closely by a pacy piano, it’s an impish and animated interplay reminiscent of a Laurel and Hardy skit. The essentially jazzy, haphazard patterns intersect here with Straussian waltzes by way of freewheeling harmonies and tempos—a glorious farrago on par with the internal soundtrack of a madman. The fusion of jazz and classical music was Gershwin’s calling card and both the Rhapsody and the Concerto included on this album are a great reminder of how innovative, electrifying but also divisive this combination was at the time.

The superb pianist Kirill Gerstein performs these works with joie de vivre and discerning intelligence. In a loosely structured context, where so much is left to interpretation, his pianism is as comfortable and assured taking the spotlight as it is moving aside and letting the orchestra shine when it’s needed.

Read more: Kirill Gerstein on the music of Gershwin 

 

4. Chris Cornell: An Artist's Legacy 

The world was devastated when Chris Cornell committed suicide in May 2017. At only 52, the musician left behind a vast output spanning a caboodle of genres and styles, which inspired fans and musicians worldwide. His wife Vicky decided to celebrate this legacy by releasing an extensive compilation of songs by the three bands Cornell was a part of—Audioslave, Soundgarden and Temple of Dog—as well as numerous solo recordings and collaborations with the likes of Santana, Slash or Cat Stevens.

The result is a gratifyingly thorough, diverse collection featuring rare, previously unreleased gems such as the show-stopping cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” transformed by Cornell’s soul-stirring baritone; the dark, moody version of “Billie Jean,” shrouding the Michael Jackson classic in dismal minor chords and dramatic pace changes, or the surprising, gloriously uplifting rendition of “Ave Maria”. It’s an unmissable collection for any fan of the great grunge legend.

 

3. Invasion of Privacy by Cardi B 

Cardi B’s evolution from stripper, to reality star to internationally acclaimed rapper is a fairy tale for the Instagram age. But despite the artifice traditionally associated with all three of her professions-of-choice (and indeed her much-flaunted physique), Cardi B might just be one of the most authentic artists of 2018.

From the killer crassness of "Bodak Yellow", to the husky vulnerability of "Be Careful" to blazing brag beat "Money Bag", Invasion of Privacy is an album of many shades, revealing a far more complex woman at its heart than the much-overplayed clips from Love and Hip Hop would have you believe.

She may have made her name with killer features (particularly the spring smash "Finesse" with Bruno Mars), but it’s a testament to her standalone talent that while impressive in their roster—big names include Chance the Rapper, Migos and Kehlani—the features on Invasion of Privacy actually leave us craving more concentrated Cardi.

 

2. Cocoa Sugar by Young Fathers 

The Mercury Prize-winning Scottish trio Young Fathers return with a fresh, new, in-your-face album rallying against the establishment and powers that be. Mirroring its bizarre, nightmarish album cover, the music on Cocoa Sugar is strangely disturbing, dark but irresistibly seductive, starting with the peculiar, squeaky sounds of “See How,” moving on to the cinematic, beat-driven dissonance of “Fee Fi” and then morphing into the more conventional, pop-infused “In My View.” And that’s just the beginning.

You’ll find everything from wobbly synths to African beats to quiet piano notes, which all blend into an unsettling but addictively catchy, doomy beat-driven mass that is Cocoa Sugar. It’s a unique, irreverent album that’s perfect for 2018, reflecting the politically turbulent times and navigating uncharted waters of a society that changes by the day.

 

1. Hunter by Anna Calvi 

Oh, Anna Calvi. The voice of an angel, the inner fire of a demon, the guitar skills of Jimi Hendrix. What’s not to love? The British musician is back with her third, long-anticipated album produced by none other than Nick Launay (whose previous credits include Nick Cave, Lou Reed and Talking Heads—no biggie), and it’s obscenely good.

As a general rule, most albums will feature a handful of solid bangers; three or five strong tracks followed by a number of mediocre, unmemorable ones. But not this one. Hunter is consistently excellent, each song a standalone work of art. “Don’t Beat the Girl out of My Boy,” for example, is a plucky, riveting take on gender conformity; “Alpha” shamelessly allures you with a sexy beat and heated sighs, while “Swimming Pool” shifts gears with its operatic, psalm-like magnitude, offering a respite from aggressive rock riffs. Calvi’s formidable vocal acrobatics keep taking unexpected turns, channelling everyone from David Byrne to This Mortal Coil and never failing to keep you on your toes. They’re accompanied by toothsome guitars, feral drums and angelic synths, arranged with dazzling sophistication. Hunter is inspired, feisty and fresh, and it’s hands down one of the best albums of the year.

Read more: Anna Calvi—Records that changed my life