When we sat to go over all of the year's releases (so far), a few things became obvious. First, that this year has brought both genre rebirth (think: the sad punk of Snail Mail and garage punk of Shame) and unexpected favorites (think: Kacey Musgraves). Second, that many of the artists we name on this list are young. Third, that an overwhelming majority of those artists are women.
Most notably, we chose these albums because of musicality, innovation and importance – not gender. But even still, women rose to the top with 15 of our 20 albums coming from female artists or female-fronted groups. A few of those women are under 21, or newly 21. What we're seeing here is the result of profound and important change – it's not that these young, female/female-identifying artists only now exist, but in our current climate many of them finally have a platform on which distribute their message and their art. They weren't given that platform – they had to make it themselves. Female artists before them who refused to back down despite being nearly swallowed by cis-male rock, all-male festival lineups, or the backhanded "girl band" designation are to thank for laying the foundation that has made it possible for us to hear things like Soccer Mommy's Clean, that might have otherwise been stuck between the walls of Sophie Allison's bedroom.
While it's undeniable that women in music and women generally have a long way to go in our fight for respect and an equal playing field, this list shows progress.
As Natalie Prass sings on The Future and The Past: keep your sisters close. – Erin Patrick
*NOTE: These albums are listed by release date.
Shame / Songs of Praise (Jan. 12)
Songs of Praise, the debut album from UK punk rockers Shame, is a raucous ride packed with anger, darkness, desperation and wit. From the opening track, lead singer Charlie Steen’s desire to be heard is obvious, although he has notably rejected the idea of great fame. Throughout the album, the listener hears him go from a monotonous drone to a throaty squall that is undeniably bursting with anger, pain or both.
On “One Rizla,” Steen addresses his own gruffness and self-declared mediocrity, and lets us know exactly where he stands on his music and his life: “My nails ain't manicured / My voice ain't the best you've heard / And you can choose to hate my words / But do I give a fuck?” The group seems painfully self-aware of their place in the saturated UK rock scene and wants to level with us. What makes Shame and Songs of Praise stand out isn’t the type of music they’re making, but the attitude they put into it. Although strident and punky, every sound is intentional and demonstrative of the artfulness and talent of the group and the fame that may follow, against their will. – EP
Tune-Yards – I can feel you creep into my private life (Jan. 19)
Merrill Garbus is not one to shy away from the complexity of socially conscious confrontation through her ambitious musicality. On her fourth album as Tune-Yards, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, Garbus takes a deeper look into the crippling political landscape of America with complex lyricism. Since 2011’s w h o k i l l ‘s, the follow up to her 2008 debut release BiRd-BrAiNs, Tune-Yards has continued to give that true sense of value through her music for listeners to explore present day issues of social disparity in the indie-rock backdrop. “I turn on my white woman's voice to contextualize acts of my white women friends/ I cry my white woman tears carving grooves in my cheeks to display what I meant,” Garbus sings on “Colonizer,” leaving questions on how we perceive the way we discuss social inequality and topics of race in present day society. – Katie Lipsiner
Porches – The House (Jan. 19)
New York-based songwriter Aaron Maine released his third studio LP as Porches this year. The House follows 2016’s Pool, which marked Porches transition from a unique brand of semi-soft rock to glitzy dance tracks, a transformation catalyzed by Maine’s exploration of homemade beats.
The House is a magnified portrayal of some of Porches’ most heart-wrenching tracks ever released -- tracks that dive into the thoughts of anxiousness that consume most humans trying to figure out their lives. “I think that I’ll stay inside/If you don’t think that they’d mind/I can’t let it find me,” Maine serenades, the disillusioned confession of overbearing anxiety that keeps your body from moving, that entrances you deep in your own thoughts, all through techno beats and a catchy chorus. – KL
Caroline Rose – LONER (Feb. 23)
With a career long rooted in folk, Caroline Rose has a history with creative isolation. So, true to her satirical form, Rose’s latest and most extroverted release is entitled LONER. Rose’s sophomore release is a far cry from the rockabilly blues of 2014’s I Will Not Be Afraid, which was her objective when creating her latest project. The Nashville musician felt as though her music didn’t properly convey her vibrant personality, and set out to record and produce a LP packed with energy and dark humor.
LONER light-heartedly touches on everything from isolation and death, to misogyny and capitalism, with catchy hooks and surf guitar softening the blows. Lead single, “Money,” set the tone for the album with a raucous critique of selling out in the music industry. But LONER’s saitrical crown jewel is “Bikini,” which exposes the rampant misogyny that female artists constantly battle: “We’re gonna give you everything you’ve ever wanted / Hang a banner with your name upon it / Pour three shots in a glass, call it a martini / All you’ve got to do is put on this little bikini / And dance.” – KG
Lucy Dacus – Historian (March 2)
In early 2016, Lucy Dacus quietly rolled onto the neo-folk scene with her debut album, No Burden. The green-eyed, red-faced singer-songwriter quickly garnered the attention of the music community with her guitar prowess and witty lyricism. Dacus’ 2018 release builds on the cut-and-dry storytelling of No Burden, adding layers of strings and horns to the songwriter’s palette. Historian enters as a sucker-punch, with emotional slow-burn “Night Shift,” and exits as a tender forehead kiss, with the exceptionally intimate track “Historian.”
Dacus touches on universal themes of religion, heartbreak and healing, but also takes time to look inward. Such is the case on “The Shell,” as Dacus introspectively sings, “You don't wanna be a creator / Doesn't mean you've got nothing to say / Put down the pen, don't let it force your hand.” The LP’s 10 tracks dissect the various ways people support and neglect each other, reminding listeners that the Richmond, Virginia musician is a master narrator. – KG
Soccer Mommy / Clean (March 2)
Sophie Allison is 21 years of pure, unapologetic emotion. Under the moniker Soccer Mommy, Allison has quickly become a staple of the indie and punk scenes. Clean, Soccer Mommy’s sophomore studio release, starts slowly but nonetheless forcefully with "Still Clean.” In the first verse, Allison powerfully grabs the listener’s attention with morbid imagery: “Then you took me down to the water got your mouth all clean / Left me drowning once you picked me out your bloody teeth.” From here, the album meanders into its earworm track, “Cool,” the story of the girl that all the boys are in love with – or the idea of her, at least.
The album’s peak arrives with the tension-heavy track “Your Dog,” drawing a frighteningly accurate metaphor between a dog and her owner, and a girl and her partner in a suffocating relationship. Allison has a knack for balancing adolescent laments with deep-seated malaise, as demonstrated by the way Clean bounces from the playful “Cool” and angsty “Last Girl,” to “Flaw” – a slow-burning track about intoxication, mistakes and regret. Throughout the course of the record, you’ll find yourself receding into your rawest emotional landscape for, and scream-singing through a necessary catharsis the next. – EP
Haley Heynderickx / I Need to Start a Garden (March 9)
Haley Heynderickx is a rising name in the singer-songwriter scene, one which often implies simplicity or perhaps a mundane sound, but Heynderickx provides us with compelling compositions and sounds that are concurrently forceful and delicate. I Need to Start a Garden provides glimpses into Heynderickx’s search for her place in the world, while navigating multiple cultural identities. Although the album is short and sweet, clocking in around 30 minutes, it’s packed with powerful moments.
The opening track, “No Face,” feels fragile, as if it’s being sung by someone battling profound pain. Singing “Face me / Face me entirely,” Heynderickx demonstrates her need for honesty and shows her resilience in a time of hurt. Sonically, the album consists of guitar so intimate that you can at times hear her fingers sliding on the strings. Heynderickx’s voice, too, is intimate and yearning – she soars to high notes with ease, and handles “oohs” and “aahs” without losing timbre or tonality. This is an album that can be listened to on a loop – it’s digestible and speaks to the most human parts of each of us. – EP
Frankie Cosmos / Vessel (March 30)
Greta Kline – known on the indie scene as Frankie Cosmos – released her third studio album, Vessel, this spring. Kline shares important two-minute musings on relationships and the human condition via this collection of a whopping 18 tracks, although Vessel only spans 33 minutes. On “This Stuff” she ruminates on the predisposition to keep important thoughts and feelings to oneself when they matter most – just one of the album’s mentions of mental health. The most overt reference is on “Being Alive,” an anthemic track that frequently repeats the phrase: “Being alive / Matters quite a bit / Even when you / Feel like shit,”, in Kline’s voice and her bandmates’.
Frankie Cosmos is known for their minimalism, both musically and lyrically. Often minimalism can devolve into something unchallenging or prosaic, but Vessel’s quick transitions and simple but thoughtful statements regarding everything from taxidermied dogs, to crashing phones, to death after sex, keep Kline’s brand of simplistic indie rock fresh and innovative. – EP
Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour (March 30)
In the interest of full transparency, country and pure, unadulterated pop aren’t typically genres that we find ourselves venturing into. However, Kacey Musgraves has achieved a crossover album that isn’t simply tolerable, but damn addictive.
Golden Hour is Musgraves’ most accessible project to date, running the gamut of pop, country and most notably disco, on standout track “High Horse.” Album opener “Slow Burn” makes an amiable introduction to Musgraves’ new sound, one that starkly differs from her previously cynical tone, by taking the scenic route: “You know the bar down the street don’t close for an hour / We should take a walk and look at all the flowers / ‘Cause I’m alright with a slow burn / Taking my time, let the world turn.” Golden Hour might be the most aptly named album of the year, bathing listeners in a warm wash of lush instrumentation and Musgraves’ glowing vocals. It’s the perfect soundtrack for sitting on the porch with a beer and watching the world go by. – KG
Hop Along / Bark Your Head Off, Dog (April 6)
Led by Frances Quinlan, Hop Along released their third, and arguably most dynamic, studio album this year. Throughout Bark Your Head Off, Dog, Quinlan ruminates on the power dynamic between men and women, and between those in power and those who go unacknowledged. These are topics she approaches with strength and grace, sandwiching poignant observations between masterful uses of imagery and metaphor.
The album’s opening track, “How Simple,” demonstrates Quinlan’s seemingly innate ability to create, and then adeptly navigate, a warm and addictive melody. That warmth echoes throughout the course of the LP, as do themes of patriarchy and the subsequent strength needed to overcome it. This motif is most overtly exhibited on “Somewhere a Judge” as Quinlan sings, “Somewhere a judge stretches himself out on fine tropical sand,” once again calling out the men who make the decisions without consequence. Bark Your Head Off, Dog is perhaps so successful because each track tells a story. The stories are not the same, but the morals follow the same plot line, and thus an album of distinctive and contrasting tracks becomes undeniably cohesive. – EP
Half Waif / Lavender (April 27)
Nandi Rose Plunkett released her third album as Half Waif this March, showing us the astounding progressions she’s made both musically and personally. Throughout the course of Lavender, the listener experiences simultaneously shows of loneliness and desire. Plunkett displays the emotional intelligence of a true empath who has experienced the gamut of both love and loss. Half Waif is still Half Waif on this record, but the synth breakdowns and glitchiness are more present and pronounced than anything on Kotekan or Probable Depths.
Plunkett’s voice, too, seems stronger than ever. She sings to us not only in the softer coo that we’re used to, but also begs and pleads in a timbre more intense than before. On “Torches,” the vocals start soft and muffled atop clear oscillating beeps, and then come through clear with the confrontational phrase, “I do what I want / And you won’t see me anymore…Don’t make yourself comfortable, love.” All of the feelings expressed thus far in the record seem to come to a head as she sings, “Listen for me now / You’ve got to listen for me now,” on stand-out track “Back in Brooklyn.” What follows is a soul-crushing denouement about abandonment and finding home. – EP
Dr. Dog - Critical Equation (April 27th)
Dr. Dog have been sonically derailing parts of listeners minds for more than a decade, but every great rock n’ roll band needs revitalization in their sound along the way. Dr. Dog’s 2018 release, Critical Equation, does just that, bringing the psych-rockers out of their skin with tight hooks and fuzzy guitar riffs.
Singles like “Listening In” and “Buzzing in the Light” gave listeners a tease of Dr. Dog’s long-awaited evolution. Sincere lyricism, alongside those signature oddball melodies, shows that there are some doors worth opening. “Seems to me I'm watching someone else's dream / Only in the light, buzzing in the light, of this world,” singer and bass guitarist Toby Leaman cooes, invoking the reality of something new to grow into, and then maybe even destroy again. – KL
Beach House / 7 (May 11)
If you’d never listened to Beach House and read through the track listing of their seventh studio album, 7, you’d think you were about to hear something that could be the soundtrack to your next party, or maybe something like French house music. “Drunk in LA”, “Woo” and “Girl Of The Year” are track names in keeping with duo’s band name, which, without musical context, also sounds playful. What you do hear on 7, though, is not party music, but sounds that are somehow both dark and warm.
The duo, comprised of Victoria LeGrand and Alex Scally, always produces music that is haunting and easy to get tangled up in, and while 7 is no exception, there’s something undeniably distinctive about it. There’s a heaviness that permeates from the first track to the last, with brief interludes of something a little lighter, like in the breakdown midway through “Dive.” LeGrand and Scally are masters of creating music that mimics everyday sensations; they then put those sensations on a sonic loop, at first bringing the listener face to face with an emotion, and then freeing them of it. 7 does this in a more dynamic and successful way than ever before. It’s 47 minutes of sound that glitters and then dulls, like a dimly lit, oscillating disco ball. – EP
Neighbor Lady / Maybe Later (May 11)
Over the past year, Neighbor Lady has dominated the Atlanta DIY scene with with an arresting blend of indie-rock and country western, all the while lacking a substantial online presence or any recorded music. In May, the eclectic quartet dropped their debut LP, Maybe Later, a spellbinding, studio embodiment of Neighbor Lady’s live performances.
Fronted by Emily Braden’s warbling vocals, the albums’ seven tracks discuss heartbreak, desperation and loneliness. Maybe Later isn’t all fire and brimstone, though, Southern pleasantries sweeten the LP, such as on “Oh Honey,” when Braden sings with a seeming smirk: “Oh honey, what’s all the fuss about?” The album is brought to a volatile end with “Wring Me Out,” as Braden nearly yells over apprehensive instrumentation, before resolving into a minute of ambient synth. Maybe Later finally brings Neighbor Lady’s twang-tinged vigor from the stage to the studio, and oh honey, it’s certainly something to fuss about. – KG
Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel (May 18)
On Courtney Barnett’s 2015 LP, she belts, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you.” With the release of this year’s Tell Me How You Really Feel, Aussie-born songwriter Courtney Barnett liberates herself of that reality ever ringing true. Barnett makes it clear that she has no time for toxicity, calling out both her professional and personal critics throughout the album’s assortment of brilliantly written melodies.
While we do get a glimpse into her private life, the most powerful aspect of this album is the introspection it provides the listener. Tell Me How You Really Feel is daring and unprecedented, offering more volume and content than its antecedent, and demonstrating Barnett’s impressive musicianship and status as a forerunner of indie-rock. – KL
Parquet Courts / Wide Awake! (May 18)
The most recent album from New York’s post-punk four-piece, Parquet Courts, is packed with social and political commentary that at times listens like a manifesto. Frontman Andrew Savage referred to Wide Awake! as the group’s attempt at making a “punk record you could put on at parties.” Part of achieving that was working with producer Danger Mouse (A$AP Rocky, The Red Hot Chili Peppers), resulting in an album that simultaneously makes the listener want to jump up and down, and then cry or prosthelytize a little bit about where humankind is headed.
“Normalization,” features in-your-face vocals and a clear finger point to human indecency: “Normalization, collective witnessing / Immunization of human sympathy.” As they did on their 2016 release, Human Performance, Parquet Courts’ sound seems to be informed by everything from Velvet Underground-age art rock to disco and 80’s dance on tracks like “Wide Awake” and “Tenderness.” Overall, the group’s sixth studio album is a rambunctious ode to the human condition, maintaining their place as a leader in their genre. – EP
Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer (June 1)
When Josh Tillman announced that he had another album on the way, shortly after the release of 2017’s Pure Comedy, it was hard to decipher if he was joking (thankfully, he was serious). Tillman has certainly kept himself busy over the past few years, by crafting multiple critically and commercially acclaimed albums, and, in turn, creating a complicated empire for Father John Misty – a name which seems to constantly oscillate between a moniker and Tillman’s alter ego.
Written during a six-week period of living in a hotel, God’s Favorite Customer somehow manages to take an even darker turn than the sprawling socio-political commentary of Pure Comedy. Father John Misty’s fourth LP opens with “Hangout at the Gallows,” a (literal) stab at Tillman’s suicidal tendencies, punctuated by chilling falsetto and lyrics littered with religious allegories: “Trouble sleeping / My alarm goes off / So you wanna hang out at the gallows? / Those guys get an early start / Whose bright idea was it to sharpen the knives? / Just twenty minutes ‘fore the boat capsize.”
God’s Favorite Customer is Tillman’s most personal and disturbing release to date. Death, addiction and desperation hide around every corner, while lacking Father John Misty’s typical satirical wink – which makes the listener frequently question Tillman’s sanity. And while that musing goes largely unanswered, he at least leaves the album on a relatively optimistic note with the introspective track “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That).” – KG
Natalie Prass – The Future and The Past (June 1)
From Mitski to Kacey Musgraves, 2018 has proved fruitful for the revival of disco, and at its epicenter lays Natalie Prass. The Richmond, Virginia singer-songwriter’s sophomore album is a mix of all things weird and wonderful, tossing a danceable sheen over the emotionally charged Trump era.
Prass was prepared to release the highly anticipated follow-up to 2015’s acclaimed Natalie Prass, but then the presidential election struck and the record felt wrong. From its ashes rose The Future and the Past, a critical conversation about our current socio-political climate that won’t leave you with a headache. Opener “Oh My” takes a hard look at climate change, fake news and the overarching question of, “What is freedom for the free?” The Future and the Past is a cathartic soapbox for political discussion, allowing listeners to simultaneously boogie and evaluate the state of our nation. – KG
Snail Mail – Lush (June 8)
It would be easy to write off Lindsay Jordan as just another angsty 19-year-old, but Snail Mail’s remarkable debut album, Lush, addresses the overpowering consciousness of teenage shame, by alleviating that pain completely.
Jordan is the poster child for the new wave of female-dominated indie rock, allowing sorrowful feelings to be transformed for a new generation of hard-hitting rockers to be inspired. Through exposed vocals and sage guitar mastery, Lush is the follow up the genre has been waiting for since 2016’s Habit EP. Lush just goes to show that indie rock is not dead: it’s transcending its reality and becoming something refreshingly new. – KL
Lunar Vacation / Artificial Flavors (July 6)
It’s usually best to avoid directly comparing bands, but seeing that Molly Rankin is frontwoman Grace Repasky’s most prominent inspiration, it feels disrespectful to neglect to note the sonic similarities between Alvvays and Lunar Vacation. Dreamy synth and invigorating percussion abound on Artificial Flavors, the band’s sophomore release.
Last year, the Atlanta “pool rock” five-piece self-released Swell, a psych-rock EP wise beyond their years, but it’s clear that Lunar Vacation has been hard at work ever since. Opener “Daytime” takes a groovy look at unrequited affection, while “The Basement” laments the all too familiar feeling of just wanting to go home early from a party. Artificial Flavors is a sharp follow-up that showcases Repasky’s ever maturing songwriting prowess, leaving listeners parched for more tunes. – KG