Year-end music lists can age a man. As in: the year will eventually come when you read the names and think to yourself, “I don’t recognize any of this sh*t.”
But we like to think of that as an opportunity — not only to introduce yourself to new sounds, but also to reminisce on familiar ones.
And among the 80 tracks that were on heaviest rotation at InsideHook HQ this year, you’ll find a little bit of both. We buttoned them all up into a playlist for you, and then asked our editors to share the 18 albums they deem worthy of a listen from start finish.
Our only rule? No mumble rap. Some sounds should stay off your damn lawn for good.
Live From the Ryman
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Now years removed from his breakout and eventual ousting as a member of alt-country mainstays Drive By Truckers, a sober and focused Jason Isbell has managed to put together a solo career that’s taken him to heights few would have predicted. Across three solo albums, he’s proven himself one of the best lyricists we’ve got, working in the realm of country music but always thoughtfully questioning what that’s supposed to mean. This live album, recorded during a weeklong run at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, serves as a celebration of all that he’s achieved.
Standout track: “Elephant”
Why you should care: It’s all in the details — sneaky little turns of phrase that’ll stick with you long after you’ve lifted the needle. Plus, this is one of the best rock bands working, combining traditional guitar heroics with a tasteful, modern sensibility.
–Mike Conklin, Executive Editor
Lost & Found
The only thing more astounding than the vocal range and thoughtful emotionality of Jorja Smith’s debut studio album, Lost & Found, are the accolades she’s racked up in her 21 years on earth. The British R&B singer-songwriter, whose voice has been likened to Lauryn Hill and Adele, has secured a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, snagged a Brit Critics’ Choice Award, and collaborated with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Drake. The subject matter of this album ranges from the turbulent nature of teenage love to social issues to the ravages of fame, all with a maturity, grace and power that belies her age.
Standout track: “Blue Lights”
Why you should care: It is a haunting but accessible plea for a better state of police relations in the U.S. and abroad, written for a young audience in need of reassurance that being a minority is not a criminal act.
–Megan Duffey, Director of Branded Content
Con Todo El Mundo
If years were defined by the single most memorable musical artist I discovered, 2018 would surely be the year of Khruangbin, a Houston-based funk trio that seem to be from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Their largely instrumental music draws on influences from all over the world (their name is Thai; many of their songs are titled in Spanish) but casts a very consistent vibe: one of supreme, head-bob and foot-tap-inducing chill. The bass lines are fat, the drumming metronomic, and the guitar stylings of axe-man Mark Speer absolutely luscious. This band can do no wrong.
Standout track: “Maria También”
Why you should care: Is “it’s the sonic equivalent of smoking weed for the first time” too hyperbolic of a sentiment? Because that’s what I’m going with.
–Walker Loetscher, Editor in Chief
Nearer My God
What is punk rock at this point? For the St. Louis band Foxing, it means sounding less discordant while coating your anger with high-pitched harmonies, some surprisingly beautiful synths and some real lyrical complexity (“with the dizygotic twin of God in the cockpit”). Nearer My God works in its own category (indie emo art rock?) and could be mistaken for the creative, tail end of Brand New, but minus that horrific frontman. Bonus points for crafting a single with the lines “So you mock up an ad, gag a press pit / The weather’s the same if you’re born in ’46.”
Standout track: “Nearer My God”
Why you should care: Punk rock often feels stuck in the past. Foxing show a roadmap to the future.
–Kirk Miller, Managing Editor
Songs of the Plains
There are two types of people in this world: those who listen to country music and those who don’t, “Except for Johnny Cash, does he count?” The time has finally come for all you in the second category to add one more artist to your caveat, because Colter Wall is the man in black reincarnate. My guess is he’s already sick of the comparison, but drive down a dusty road and hit play on “Plain to See Plainsman” and tell me what you hear — a warm bass-baritone that sounds so authentically American West it’s not until much later you realize he’s singing about Canada.
Standout track: “Thinkin’ on a Woman”
Why you should care: Are you one of the millions of people decrying the “pop country” that’s taken over the airwaves, festivals and CMAs? Colter’s your man.
–Alex Lauer, Senior Editor
In 2017, Phil Elverum received something like his first taste of mainstream success when he released A Crow Looked at Me, an unflinchingly honest album that eulogized the mother of his child and his wife of 22 years, Geneviève Castrée. Upon first listening to it, I wondered what it must be like for Elverum to tour behind that album, digging up her ghost every night as a crowd of rapt strangers openly wept and snapped photos of him with their smartphones. On Now Only, Elverum continues his conversation with his dead wife (“I sing to you,” he repeats throughout), but also confronts the meaninglessness and irony wrapped up in the moments that her passing has borne: “And the next thing I knew I was standing … at a music festival that had paid to fly me in to play these death songs to a bunch of young people on drugs.”
Standout track: “Tintin in Tibet”
Why you should care: If you like songwriting as catharsis — intimate, driven by imagery and bleakly autobiographical — you’ll find no more kindred spirit than Mount Eerie.
A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
A Brief Inquiry dropped recently, on the last Friday of November, but I feel like I’ve been listening to it for much of the year. Probably because The 1975 released five singles over five months, and I played each nonstop. On the train, in the shower, winding down at the gym. This album cares more about sound than genre. Bandleader Matt Healy had a great Rolling Stone interview in which he explains their recent history: “We’d been the best emo band out of Manchester in 2009, and then the worst pop band of 2015.” A Brief Inquiry stops that futile search for identity right in its tracks. This is a sometimes gospel, oftimes dance-y, loose, baggy, hopeful mess of an album that makes tortured riffs on Trump, mental illness and the end of days sound like a day at the park. I don’t know how they do it, so I’m just going to keep listening.
Standout track: “Love It If We Made It”
Why you should care: Just watch this.
–Tanner Garrity, Associate Editor
If you’re unfamiliar, The Internet was formed by Syd and Matt Martians of Odd Future, who if you’re also unfamiliar are a genre-bending collective that were a driving force in steering mainstream hip-hop away from brooding, hyper-masculine personas and making it OK to be different/weird. The Internet still embraces that ethos, but dials it in through understated beats, jazzlike bass and rhythms, and soft, ‘90s style R&B vocals from frontwoman Syd. It’s equally appropriate for listening to as you lie in bed smoking a joint or as background noise at a dinner party.
Standout track: “It Gets Better (With Time)”
Why you should care: The lead singer, Syd, is a gay woman cooing her mellifluous love ballads to other women. Mainstream music doesn’t have to be hetero anymore.
–Eli London, Director of Partnerships
Tree of Forgiveness
Tree of Forgiveness is John Prine’s first collection of new songs since 2005’s somewhat uneven Fair & Square, which found the songwriter seeming unsure of his place in the larger narrative of the music world he’d been firmly on the fringes of for nearly 40 years. Thankfully, he’s hit his stride once again, singing songs so intimate and honest you feel like he’s a lifelong friend. It’s the sound of a man who’s been doing this long enough that, thanks in part to a critical resurgence over the past few years and friendships with younger artists he’s no doubt influenced, he can’t be bothered to be anything but the most authentic version of himself. And the result is an album that’s simultaneously funny and poignant.
Standout track: “Summer’s End”
Why you should care: It’s not often you can say an artist releases an indisputable career highlight 50 years after getting started, but such is the case here.
Against All Logic
Chilean producer Nicolas Jaar rose to prominence in the late aughts playing a style of music I like to think of as disco on Quaaludes: the instrumentation and vocal samples are familiar, but the edges are softened, the bass warbled, the mood distinctly darker. In recent years, he’s taken a more ambient turn, creating music better set for art-gallery openings than nightclubs. But this release, which dropped sans promotion or explanation under the moniker “Against All Logic” in mid-May and presumably comprises tracks he’s been secreting away in some clandestine lab for half a decade, proves he can still get up to his old tricks. Recommended listening conditions: lights out, bass up, every neighbor on the block ideally away on vacation.
Standout track: “Now U Got Me Hooked”
Why you should care: It’s the closest thing to an old-school house album you’re likely to hear this year, and that Jaar is likely to create.
Bought to Rot
Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers
After you’ve discussed, dissected and defended your identity for a few angry records, what’s left to do? For Laura Jane Grace, you do whatever the hell you want — but now, happily. Sonically, Bought to Rot is not that far removed from Grace’s dayjob as the frontwoman for breakneck punk rockers Against Me!. “Reality Bites” is a circle pit singalong and “China Beach” somehow finds a sweet spot between The Clash and Nirvana. But throughout the rest of the album’s lo-fi experiments in country, psych rock and indie pop, there’s a looseness and a renewed spirit at work. And, like most of Grace’s best work, the album contains one amazing f*ck you — “I Hate Chicago,” somehow a joyous middle finger to both the Windy City and Grace’s divorce.
Standout track: “China Beach”
Why you should care: Forget activism, forget symbolism, forget identity — a great, catchy, fun and thoughtful record propelled by loud guitars was such a beautiful rarity in 2018.
Christine and the Queens
I don’t seek out pop music. In fact, I tend to actively avoid it. But each year, at least one pop album captivates me by dint of sheer force, earworming its way into my brain with glittering synths and bombastic hooks that’ll make a man go full Risky Business all over his apartment. This year, that album was Chris, from Nantes-born Héloïse Letissier. She recorded the album twice (once in French, once in English), and in aggregate, its 11 songs comprise a tightly-woven discourse on contemporary femininity and sexual politics.
Standout track: “5 dollars”
Why you should care: Because pop music too often fails to challenge its audience with big ideas. On Chris, dance-ability and thoughtful lyrics live comfortably side by side.
Goodbye & Good Riddance
Listening to Beats 1 earlier this year, I heard a track that sounded like someone rapping Taking Back Sunday lyrics over an old Sting track. A bit emo, damn earnest and really, really catchy. Cut to now, and emo rap is a thing, but don’t associate Juice WRLD with tragedies like Lil Peep or, worse, the late XXXTentacion. This 20-year old from Chicago apparently freestyles everything and is just as comfortable collaborating with Panic at the Disco as he is Future. He also expertly veers from defiant to contemplative to, well, “Give BM dick like Moby/gun make him flash, Adobe”), which is dark, sort of funny and kinda dorky. Like most cool kids.
Standout track: “Armed and Dangerous”
Why you should care: We haven’t had a really raw breakup record in a while. Nor a hip-hop artist that could define an entire movement. This is both.
Music for the Long Emergency
Poliça and Stargaze
I first saw Poliça perform in a record store in Minneapolis on Valentine’s Day 2012, because I was too late to get into their multiple record release shows at First Avenue. They were a citywide phenomenon. No one had heard anything like them before, a kind of siren song (lead singer Channy Leaneagh’s hypnotic blend of vocal distortion) backed by a thunderstorm (bass and two full drum kits). We were all sure they’d be the next big American indie hit, so why have you (probably) not heard of them? They’re too radical. Too political. That is, for Bon Iver-level success (although Justin Vernon called them “the best band I’ve ever heard.”) Case in point: this superlative protest album made in conjunction with Berlin-based orchestral collective Stargaze.
Standout track: “Speaking of Ghost”
Why you should care: “What happened to the great protest music resurgence that was prophesied?” you ask. It’s in here, just don’t wait for the ghost of Woody Guthrie.
Mac Miller was always so much more than the campy college bro he was often — especially early in his career — typecast as. His investment in music always aspired for more than the cheap hits of many of his contemporaries and sought depth and complexity where others did not. Swimming channels Miller’s inner creativity with his embrace of singing and voice modulation along with much more poignant topics such nostalgia, doubt and depression.
Standout track: “2009”
Why you should care: Aside from the fact that this was his best and most complete album, Miller passed away shortly after the release, leaving behind a legacy of what-ifs.
I fell in love with Sophie Allison’s music before I even heard it, because I am a person who loves good names. And Soccer Mommy, Allison’s on-stage alias, is indubitably a great name. Fortunately, the music lives up to it: Clean, the 20-year-old’s studio debut, is a series of tight, jangly guitar tunes that combine the distortion of the mid-’90s with blunt, fearless songwriting that recalls Liz Phair or — less often but more decidedly — Joni Mitchell.
Standout track: “Your Dog”
Why you should care: Between Allison, Mitski, Snail Mail, Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and boygenius (an indie supergroup comprising the latter three), 2018 was the year twentysomething women took over the indie-music industry. If you aren’t properly acquainted, this album is a great jumping-off point.
I was working from home the day this album came out. I remember playing two songs on my computer before literally saying out loud, “Wait.” I hooked it up to SONOS and turned it up to 11, then grinned and bopped my head like an absolute clown for the next 50 minutes. Misch’s jazz guitar is nothing short of intoxicating. A few months later I caught his concert in New York, and felt vindicated to see that same sloppy smile on everyone else’s faces. His stage presence, by the by, can be described as the anti-John Mayer. He might’ve said 15 words outside the lyrics in his songs. Guy just wants to play the guitar. And I am certainly not complaining.
Standout track: “Disco Yes”
Why you should care: Misch covers Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” with a 1:25 guitar riff that has been known to cure migraines.
If Pusha-T is remembered for one thing in 2018, it will no doubt be “The Story of Adidon,” the diss track that spilled the tea on Drake’s secret son and kicked a long simmering beef with the Canadian rapper into a gear so high people have died as a result. A bit of a shame, really, because during that maelstrom of drama, King Push put out what might be his best solo effort yet. At just seven tracks and a hair over 21 minutes, Daytona is a tight edit of the Clipse veteran doing what he does best: settling into gritty, sample-heavy beats (all produced by Kanye West) to release a midtempo fusillade of drug-dealing references and grievances against everyone from Lil Wayne to Donald Trump to, of course, Drake. Cool, confident and better than just about any rapper has been this far into their career.
Standout track: “If You Know You Know”
Why you should care: There’s a very real chance that this album will be remembered as the best thing to come out of Kanye’s “crazy period.”
–Danny Agnew, Creative Director
Main image via Jim Bennett / Getty Images
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