Earlier this week, Music Junkee’s resident nerds cracked their heads together to select the best songs of the year.
The final selections veered wildly across the musical spectrum — from dance crushers to country lullabies — but all of them represented the very best offerings of 2018.
It’s now time to turn our attention to albums. From the agenda setting to the internet breaking, 2018 delivered us a plethora of excellent records to dive into. Some of them came from old friends, some of them came from new ones, and some came from artists we probably didn’t expect them from.
Wherever they came from, they were bloody good. Dive in.
Jack River — Sugar Mountain
Jack River’s debut album isn’t what it seems. At first listen, Holly Rankin’s swelling, psychedelic pop songs sound larger than life, the sort of tunes you could imagine soundtracking a particularly dramatic scene in Gossip Girl.
But Rankin didn’t sail through her early life attending fabulous ballroom parties, and her subject matter isn’t as glittering as it appears. The truth is the singer-songwriter spent her teenage years in a self-described state of “limbo” after the death of her younger sister; writing music was a way of processing her grief and imagining a youth that felt out of reach.
Listen closely and you’ll hear the little moments of honesty between the catchy choruses: “I never wanted to say goodbye/ You were crying in the mirror/ I saw your reflection like it was mine”, she sings on ‘Limo Song’.
Making Sugar Mountain must have taken incredible bravery. We’re so lucky Rankin trusted us to hear these songs, because they’re truly some of the year’s best.
RÜFÜS DU SOL – Solace
To get a read on RÜFÜS DU SOL’s outsized popularity, look no further than their 2019 tour dates. Flume aside, no other Australian electronic act would expect to sell out two shows at both Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl and the Riverstage in Brisbane. For this unassuming Sydney trio, big-ticket venues are the new normal.
That scaling up is reflected in Solace, which comes two years after RÜFÜS DU SOL’s blockbuster album Bloom (they were just RÜFÜS to us back then.) Lead single ‘No Place’ — accurately described by the band as a “powerhouse song” — set the album’s swelling, widescreen tone, with Tyrone Lindqvist’s aching vocals front and centre throughout.
At just nine tracks, the album feels focused and propulsive, while still reaching for big emotional payoffs. Solace was clearly made with the peaks and ebbs of a live show in mind, and that’s a savvy move if you’re RÜFÜS DU SOL.
Pusha T — Daytona
You can’t talk about Pusha T’s 2018 album, Daytona without acknowledging the aftermath. It was the record that exposed Drake’s secret child, caused a beef that led to rumours of Kim Kardashian cheating on Kanye West, and ended with LeBron James broadcasting a candid talk about it all on HBO.
In spite of the chaos, it remains to be one of the most innovative hip-hop albums of the year. Pusha left no room for error, melding crisp, indignant bars that bounced off the production of Kanye West. Part of the G.O.O.D. Music Surgical Summer rollout, it was first off the ranks and blew hip-hop fans away.
Few rappers remain relevant over two decades while rapping about the same thing — slinging cocaine — yet Pusha manages to finesse his war stories into an art: “A fraternity of drug dealers ringing off, I just happen to be alumni.” Pusha’s voice and signature ab-lib “Yeuugchh” dance on West’s soul-heavy College Dropout reminiscent beats which fans have begged years for.
He’s everything you want from a rapper; petty on ‘Infrared’, hypnotising on ‘Hard Piano’, and braggadocious on ‘If You Know You Know’. And it goes without saying, thank you sincerely for the entertainment this year, Pusha.
— Kish Lal
Oscar Key Sung — No Disguise EP
In the past two years, Melbourne’s Oscar Key Sung has released a steady stream of stunning yet understated singles; each leaves its mark in tone, rather than a hook. Key Sung’s obsessed with mood, first-most — as he told Forbes earlier this year, “What I try to do more than anything is to articulate an atmosphere and a kind of emotional environment.”
No Disguise, his first EP in three years, is a tight collection of six songs that capture both Key Sung and the club — where most songs are set — at their best: wistful, tender, and optimistic.
Unlike most songs about clubbing, No Disguise doesn’t deal in hype — as its name implies, it trades in intimacy, or, at least, strives for it. Lead singles ‘Simple Luv’ and ‘Club Mate’ are the best examples: both are about yearning, but side-step late-night sleaze in large part to Key Sung’s centred vocals. While previous production tended to treat his voice as just another instrument in the mix, his fragile voice drives the EP. As he imagines a perfect ‘simple’ love or momentarily pins all hopes on someone based purely off their dance moves, you can’t help but pine too.
Still, there are moments where Key Sung knows a beat says it better: on ‘Cobras & Roses’, he mumbles ‘you and me… together’ underneath an increasingly loud pulse, his voice subsiding to everything still to come (or not at all). Nor does No Disguise merely imagine dance floor as a place for romantic connection, capturing the warmth and sense of community it can offer, and dialogue peppers throughout (‘We thought we lost you!’) capture the mini-rollercoaster of a night out.
Janelle Monáe — Dirty Computer
For the decade or so that Janelle Monáe has been releasing music, she has always stood proudly alongside those who have been discriminated against. Whether that be people of colour, the LGBTIQ community, women, the working class and more, Monáe makes it her business to represent the unrepresented.
And, with a huge two years dabbling in other forms of art — her first two acting gigs were for films both nominated for Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars — she’s come back to music with a newfound cinematic approach, but hasn’t forgotten her roots.
Dirty Computer feels like Monáe’s first foray into a widespread public appreciation of her greatness, and why shouldn’t it be? As America’s political turmoil grows ever darker, Monáe stands with those the government would try and bring down in complete solidarity, with middle fingers raised high.
It’s a stunning, sci-fi-infused R&B journey into the innate resilience that comes with being a black, LGBTIQ woman in America right now, and it proves that Monáe simply can’t help but raise the bar for not only herself, but for everyone making music around her.
The Ocean Party — The Oddfellows’ Hall
Less than two weeks before releasing their eighth album, The Ocean Party suffered the tragic loss of 24-year-old member Zac Denton, who died suddenly from a cyst in his brain.
The Melbourne ensemble decided to share the record early as a name-your-price download, which is all too fitting since it opens with one of Denton’s most affecting songs, the quietly thoughtful ‘Rain on Tin’.
As with all the band’s contributing writer/singers, Denton played in many other projects, including Ciggie Witch, Pregnancy, No Local and Hobby Farm. While the Australian music scene has understandably been in mourning, there’s also been a beautiful outpouring of appreciation for Denton’s deeply felt songbook (case in point: the early Ocean Party single ‘Split’), with his friends and loved ones stepping up to sing his songs on the band’s album release tour.
And there’s still much more of his work yet to surface, so he’s by no means done inspiring us.
SOPHIE — Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides
For half a decade now, SOPHIE and the rest of her PC Music cohort have made their name through hyperactive bubblegum-bass productions that were oft-interpreted as ironic riffs on modern pop. But with 2017’s sentimental ballad ‘It’s Okay to Cry‘, SOPHIE unveiled her “true” — or at least unobscured — self for the first time.
In the video, she dances unselfconsciously in front of synthetic skies, climaxing in a thunderstorm of drums. And that’s by far the most conventional song on Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides. SOPHIE’s sound design assembles metallic, plastic-y synths and percussion into industrial symphonies. Whether it’s bassy (‘Ponyboy’, ‘Faceshopping’) or ambient (‘Pretending’) every song feels like an out-of-body experience.
And yet, this is still identifiably pop music. ‘Immaterial’ riffs on Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’; dance-pop for our digital avatars. ‘Whole New World / Pretend World’ ends the album with nine minutes of beautiful tension; like Aphex Twin via Yeezus, it’s equally spiritual and terrifying.
In a world where so much is uncertain, SOPHIE’s music is so twisted that it’s the only thing that makes sense. The future is already here — and it’s unreal.
Kota Banks — Prize
Australia has a really weird problem with homegrown pop music. Historically, it has to find the strange, elusive balance between commercial and alternative — lest it remains ignored. In walks Sydney’s Kota Banks, with her tongue in her cheek and a sparkle in her eye, not paying attention to that pre-conceived bullshit.
Signed to the endlessly prolific and forward thinking NLV Records, Kota Banks truly plays by her own rules. Giving Australia its own iteration of post-PC Music pop with unshakable attitude, Banks’ debut mixtape Prize shows that she won’t settle for anything besides the top. The production — by Banks’ NLV labelmate Swick — is some of the crispest you’ll find.
From the anthemic self-loving ‘I’m It’ to the fuckboi-checking ‘Child’ to the melting pot of past and present that is ‘Fiorentina’, Prize introduces Kota Banks in the way she deserves — unfiltered, unashamed and unapologetic.
The Goon Sax — We’re Not Talking
When The Goon Sax debuted with 2016’s Up to Anything, keen-eyed indie pop fans recognised Louis Forster as the teenaged son of Go-Betweens legend Robert Forster.
On their second album, the Brisbane trio don’t just come into their own musically — they grow up a hell of a lot, and it’s all right there on the page. Drummer Riley Jones now joins guitarists Forster and James Harrison as a contributing songwriter and vocalist, adding another welcome dimension to their bittersweet bubblegum laments.
At once vulnerable and celebratory, tunes like ‘Make Time 4 Love’ and ‘Love Lost’ unpack the well-trodden titular emotion with disarming freshness — plus healthy doses of castanets and cowbell.
Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel
Look at the shift in perspective in album titles alone — in the three years since her massive debut LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think…, Courtney Barnett has gone from the first-person to the second. On several songs, she’s writing directly in reference to an unnamed “you”: “I don’t know a lot about you, but/You seem to know a lot about me,” she says at one point: “You must be having so much fun,” she offers at another.
Really Feel… is an album about perspective — it’s a portrait of the artist as entirely self-aware and not entirely comfortable with that fact. She tackles mounting pressure, societal expectations, online trolls and her immediate interpersonal relationships — and, with a little help from her friends, she makes a bit of progress.
It’s an album about striking honesty, whether that’s through bright major chords on her Telecaster or through seething distorted dissonance on her Jaguar. It asserts her position as a mainstay — and she’s not planning on budging anytime soon.
Christine and the Queens — Chris
On her first album, 2014’s Chaleur humaine, the French pop star Héloïse Letissier was known as Christine and the Queens. In 2018, she is simply Chris. With her newly cropped hair and sinewy makeover, her masculine elements only deepen her femininity.
This time around, her lush, self-produced synthpop tracks have a sharper backbone: stiff, funky drums and basslines. The first single ‘Girlfriend’, featuring Dâm-Funk, is as catchy and gender-subversive as vintage Prince. ‘Doesn’t matter’ is built around a mesmerising drum loop, and a chorus of unanswerable questions: “It doesn’t matter, does it? / If I know any exit / If I believe in God, and if God does exist?”
Chris is full of dualities: defiant and tender, lustful and sensual, physical and philosophical — with Chris herself standing firm at the centre, uniting it all. Rockstardom isn’t about guitars or machismo; it’s about channelling your ego in order to break down taboos, to challenge preconceptions about how we should live or love.
Whether she’s singing in English or French, Chris’s message is crystal clear. “Damn, what must a woman do?”, she asks — liberating herself.
Cardi B — Invasion of Privacy
This year Cardi B did the one thing we all think she couldn’t: reclaim her privacy. The Bronx native and former Love & Hip Hop star spent the year struggling with rumours, beef and a virtual invasion into the most private moments of her life. Invasion of Privacy is her case in point.
Featuring ‘Bodak Yellow’, the boisterous track that started it all, Cardi narrates her rise from a stripper to one of the most recognisable women in the world. She bellows each line with her chest, every rhyme harder than the last. There is never a dull moment on the album, my personal favourite being her brio on ‘Money Bag’ where she adlibs and flaunts her riches like a fourth member of Migos. ‘Bickenhead’, ‘She Bad’ and ‘Get Up 10’ are unforgettable songs that will follow us into the future.
The only songs that are unlistenable are her most vulnerable — not because they’re bad, but because Cardi’s pain is all too real. Her accounts of Offset’s infidelity on ‘Be Careful’ and ‘Thru Your Phone’ sees her brazenly expose herself, knowing that life as she knows it has changed forever. Invasion of Privacy isn’t about privacy at all, it’s here “to set the record straight cause bitches love to assume.”
— Kish Lal
Body Type — Body Type EP
You know what the coolest fucking thing ever is? Deciding to start a band with your friends when none of you have been in one before then releasing a perfect song on your first go. That’s what Body Type did with ‘Ludlow’ two years ago, and I am still seething with jealousy.
So when it came time for the Sydney quartet to release their debut EP this year, of course, the song that started it all had to be on it. But Body Type didn’t just use the existing version of ‘Ludlow’, they fiddled with some knobs, polished a few things up and somehow made a perfect song… perfecter?
Then they packaged it up with four other excellent garage rock songs that are all reverb and shit-hot drums and guitars and FEELINGS. It is all just so good.
Also: best band name ever.
Ariana Grande — Sweetener
Despite its name, Sweetener was forged in fire. Ariana Grande has had a hell of an 18 months, but rather than follow up Dangerous Woman with a ‘serious’ work, Grande instead dropped one of the most inspired, weird R&B alt-pop albums of recent history that proves depth doesn’t require darkness.
It’s cliché to call an album a musician’s “most personal yet”, but here, it’s true as Grande forgoes the Zedd-produced bangers of the past in favour of intimacy. Grande never directly references the Manchester attacks (save for 22 seconds of silence at the album’s end), but there’s a buoyant optimism and sense of healing throughout. Even Sweetener’s biggest songs — ‘breathin”, ‘no tears left to cry’, ‘God is a woman’ — dive deep into anxiety, trauma, and Pete Davidson, respectively.
Take the ‘the light is coming’, Grande’s fifth song with Nicki Minaj. Rather than a one-two punch of Grande’s vocal stair-casing and Minaj’s take-no-prisoners features, it’s set to a skittish, incomplete-sounding beat, complete with a bizarre repeated sample from a 2006 Senate speech by a US Democrat. To take Sweetener’s album art’s cue, the whole thing is upside-down — there’s a constant descending synth line that sounds like a video game powering down, plus Minaj opens the track, rather than providing relief from fatigue. Despite the song — and, by extension, Grande’s world — seemingly working against her, she persists: the light is coming.
It’s silly (and objectively wrong) to suggest Grande wasn’t confident or herself before Sweetener, but it is accurate to say she’s now harnessing vulnerability with clear, pristine intention. And the mash success of ‘thank u, next’ suggests Grande’s just starting.
Jon Hopkins – Singularity
After releasing his acclaimed fourth album Immunity in 2013, Jon Hopkins made the move from London to Los Angeles. In his new surrounds, as he told the New Yorker, the producer developed a routine of meditation, freezing baths and spiritual treks into the California desert. (Also present: magic mushrooms.)
All that questing led to this year’s Singularity, an album that refuses to settle into chill playlist purgatory.
As much as Hopkins is drawn to mind-expanding encounters with nature, he also loves the mechanics of house and techno. Those twin impulses keep Singularity from fading into background music, with an insistent pulse that cleaves through early highlights ‘Emerald Rush’ and ‘Everything Connected’. When the album reaches its meditative, piano-led stretch, the comedown feels earned.
Singularity does a rare thing, evoking both strobe-lit clubs and wide open vistas, often in the space of one track. There’s gold in those desert skies.
Teyana Taylor — K.T.S.E.
There was always more to Teyana Taylor than being “that girl from the ‘Fade’ video” and K.T.S.E. exalted her to G.O.O.D. Music’s upper echelon. Featuring some of Kanye West’s most restrained and artful production, this album is decadent with soul.
Taylor’s husky voice luxuriates within the walls West built, savouring each croon and note longingly. This was a project that was a long time coming, and Taylor’s sheer joy and relief are painted across each song.
Unlike the rest of the Surgical Summer rollout which was brandished with controversies, K.T.S.E. goes against the grain and is music for music’s sake. Unless you count ‘3Way’, featuring the velvety vocals of Ty Dolla $ign, which caused gasps across the internet when Taylor confirmed that it was based on truth.
Besides riling up prudes on Twitter, Taylor doesn’t miss a beat. She thrives on her sexuality with a brand of sass and joy that’s intoxicating. “I got a man, but ain’t got no manners,” she quips on opener ‘No Manners’. There is a song for every mood: Taylor shares her triumph (‘Rose In Harlem’), maternal joy (‘Never Would Have Made It’), and takes a nostalgic turn with Boom Boom’s ‘Work This Pussy’ (‘WTP’).
— Kish Lal
Kacey Musgraves — Golden Hour
2018 will go down as the year a lot of people who never thought they liked country music realised that they like country music and for that, we have Kacey Musgraves to thank. (No disrespect to the small yodelling boy, who also had a big twelve months.)
Musgraves brought a new audience to an old genre with Golden Hour, a country album that enjoyed crossover appeal not seen since the likes of Taylor Swift. But Musgraves’ third LP isn’t full of heartbreak confessionals, à la early Swift — instead, she makes poetry out of the minutiae of life.
She dedicates songs to wishing her Mum didn’t live so far away, to smoking weed, being amazed by nature, going for walks with her husband or feeling lonely on the weekend. She has the sort of simple wisdom that comes from the end of an acid trip, which isn’t a coincidence.
Golden Hour is so charming because when Musgraves looks at the world with wide-eyed wonderment, you just can’t help but be awestruck with her. Because really, who else could sing “Sunsets fade/And love does too”, and not make you cringe?
Idles – Joy As An Act of Resistance
Almost 40 years on from Gang of Four’s biting Entertainment! LP, another British band under the post-punk banner have made an album that’s simultaneously a damning indictment of England at large and a rallying cry to the disadvantaged, dispossessed, downtrodden and oppressed.
It’s an album that makes no bones about its stance, its heels dug firmly into the sand. Bristol five-piece Idles stand in firm opposition of Brexit, bigotry, the alt-right, fascists and neo-Nazis – and they’re not compromising that for anyone or anything.
These screeds bounce off scattered, radiating guitars and stick-breaking drum flurries — all in celebration of people power and in solidarity with those who’ve come across the seas. It feels like we could all learn something from an album like Joy… — and probably should, too.
Mitski — Be The Cowboy
Since her self-released debut, Lush, in 2012, Mitski has gifted us a new album every two or so years. Her latest offering, Be The Cowboy, could be the best yet. Right from the haunting, fractured organ intro of ‘Geyser’, we’re unmistakably back in Mitski country, but Be The Cowboy also departs from its predecessor, Puberty 2.
Mitski’s lyrics and voice remain potent and unsparing, even as the sonics around her have shifted. With the help of longtime producer Patrick Hyland, these songs strip back the distorted guitar for a more open, airy palette.
But the disco flourishes of ‘Nobody’ or sweet pop chords of ‘Me and My Husband’ still come with a sting in the tail. Mitski has always had a bruising and darkly funny way with words, and she‘s called Be The Cowboy her “saddest album”. That’s probably true, but it’s also the most fun sad album of 2018.
Robyn — Honey
When ‘Missing U‘ was released this August — Robyn’s first solo song in eight years — it immediately established itself as a quintessentially Robyn song, capturing what Pitchfork calls her distinct knack for “glittering melancholy“. If we must distinguish pop stars by one quirk, Robyn is The Queen Of Heartbreak: like ‘Dancing On My Own’ and ‘With Every Heartbeat’ before it, ‘Missing U’ is a dancing through pain, of turning the darkest, loneliest moments into an awful joy.
But Honey quickly moves beyond heartbreak, though it was shaped by it. We’ve since learnt of the reason for Robyn’s absence the past eight years: she was depressed, partially due to the death of her long-time collaborator Christian Falk in 2014. Talking to the New York Times, she explained that it was nights dancing that brought her back, slowly, losing herself to the freeing monotony of club music. You can hear its pulse throughout Honey.
On the album, songs appear in the order they were written, beginning with the desolate ‘Missing U’. Toggling between tropical funk, ’90s house and robotic pop, Honey is a movement through pain towards absolution.
It’s also flirtatious, though not within pop mould we expect. Songs like the looping ‘Beach2k20’, a song where Robyn endlessly asks someone to the beach, are sensual without an entry point for any piercing or predatory gaze: it’s always for herself. But, there’s room next to her on the dance floor, if you need it. Honey’s a reminder that pain never fades completely, but it can be soothed and sweated out, momentarily — yes, on your own, but also, together.