This year felt like the rulebook was being rewritten – here are the records that took music into bold new directions
2018 felt like a year of recalibration.
In previous years, when an A-list name like Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, or Drake put out an album, it’d be all anyone talked about for months – yet for all the streaming numbers these artists racked up, this year, they left surprisingly little of a cultural impact.
Instead, 2018 saw the icons of tomorrow begin to put their stamp on music, while veteran acts found new ways to approach their art. Underground musicians like Yves Tumor were putting out some of their most wildly adventurous releases, cult icons like Robyn were bringing new ideas to familiar sounds, and pop stars like Ariana Grande were taking ambitious left turns with their latest projects. It felt like the rulebook was being torn up, and everything was to play for.
Dazed’s staff and contributors spent weeks voting, debating, and arguing the case for our favourite albums of 2018. Here’s what we came back with.
20. THE 1975, A BRIEF INQUIRY INTO ONLINE RELATIONSHIPS
Matty Healy’s third album with pop group The 1975 is ambitiously excessive. Like the frontman himself, it’s always addressing myriad topics at once: there’s heroin addiction, systemic racism, Colin Kaepernick’s protest, Kanye’s support of Trump, stan culture, the refugee crisis, sexual harassment – and that’s all just in one song. Restlessly imaginative and undeniably hook-filled, this is truly current pop, pulling from genres as disparate as lounge jazz (“Sincerity is Scary”) and UK garage (“Petrichor”), and created in the style of your endlessly scrolling newsfeed, where love and politics and comedy and culture all fight for attention. Rather than offer any answers, Healy simply cuts his way through the noise with a question that would sound trite if it weren’t so true: isn’t life a bit more fun when we stop worrying so much about being right or cool on the internet, and just find sincere moments of love and connection instead? (Aimee Cliff)
19. SERPENTWITHFEET, SOIL
It’s almost impossible to define serpentwithfeet, and that’s kind of the point. His soundscapes are deliciously versatile, veering between sparse electronica and grandiose choral chants; this experimental approach even led Björk to seek him out for a new, reworked version of her own tender love song, “Blissing Me”. Love is stamped all over his full-length debut soil, but never in an obvious way: on “fragrant”, he sings about the scent of an ex-lover, “cherubim” is an ode to unwavering romantic devotion, while “messy” is about embracing someone despite their flaws and sweeping them into your arms anyway. To describe this album as ‘romantic’ would be an understatement – it’s the musical equivalent of an ex banging your door down with tear-stained eyes and a dozen hand-picked roses.
But above all it’s the humanity of soil that sets it apart, to the extent that instrumentation blends with low grunts and short, guttural gasps to remind listeners of the people behind the process. soil’s nuanced, sometimes extreme depiction of queer love feels vital – LGBTQ+ people are so often reduced to our sex lives, and the overblown romance of soil feels like a reclamation, a statement that queer artistry and self-expression will never be silenced. (Jake Hall)
18. TROYE SIVAN, BLOOM
Troye Sivan has been a low-key gay icon since his YouTube ‘coming out’ back in 2013, but this year he stepped up his advocacy by releasing a poetic ode to bottoming, “Bloom”. “Take a second baby, slow it down,” he coos (honestly, we’ve all been there) before breaking into one of the year’s catchiest choruses. Other album highlights include sultry Ariana collab “Dance To This”, and the glitchy, electronic “Plum”, which continues a recent, unlikely trend of fruit-related LGBTQ+ moments. (Yes, Call Me By Your Name, I’m looking at you.)
But Bloom isn’t just beautiful. Metaphors aside, this really is the work of an artist fully realising their creative potential and channeling it into an album that’s slick, concise, and cohesive, flowing as naturally as any truly great album should. It’s also political. Queer pop stars have made huge strides over the last few decades, but Sivan singing about bottoming is still depressingly radical when you consider, say, England’s ongoing refusal to bring LGBTQ-inclusive sex ed to schools, despite Scotland setting the precedent. Sivan isn’t the first queer pop star and he won’t be the last, but his artistic glow-up from angelic YouTuber to cheeky, sex-positive superstar will show LGBTQ+ people worldwide that their existence is valid. (Jake Hall)
17. AMNESIA SCANNER, ANOTHER LIFE
It’s become almost cliché to bemoan the effect of technology on our lives, but Amnesia Scanner’s interest in techno-anxiety is far from the superficial. The experimental electronic duo’s preoccupation with our silicone-subservient, always-online existences is baked into every facet of their sonic and visual output, and debut album Another Life captures a synaesthetic dimension of the internet, rendering it in a harsh, data-driven monotone. The corruption of information is omnipresent as synths distort, decay, and bleed painfully into the record's sparse but explosive beats.
In contrast to their previous releases, Another Life highlights the Berlin-based duo’s keen pop chops, with vocal contributions from Pan Daijing and their own software stack, Oracle. Such hooks lend their bleak, cartoonish soundworld a newfound universalism. By the album’s conclusion, “AS Rewild”, Amnesia Scanner offer listeners a moment of blissful respite, some calm amid the chaos, a gift of sorts. (Lewis Gordon)
16. BROCKHAMPTON, IRIDESCENCE
The beauty of Brockhampton’s music is that it can make you feel infinite and invincible. Credited, along with BTS, for making boybands cool again, the Texas-origin rap group’s fourth album and major label debut iridescence captures that freeing sense of letting go and embracing breathless, youthful abandon. Kevin Abstract and co interrogate their insecurities, regrets, and nostalgia with remarkable deftness following the departure of Ameer Vann from the group amidst sexual assault allegations. Atop of adventurous beats, the sonics go between languid, soft, dangerously squelchy, brash, and euphoric.
While mainstream hip hop has become a bit more open emotionally in recent years, the rap playing field remains one that’s largely hypermasculine – and, as Eminem’s unwelcome reemergence this year proved, one that’s often still homophobic. So for a group of rappers proudly calling themselves a boyband, with an openly-gay member in Kevin Abstract, to get to the top of the Billboard charts, is telling of a new generation of rap fans. Brockhampton’s rise is emblematic of this moment of change, and iridescence is fittingly freeing and refreshing and, well, infinite. (Tara Joshi)
15. BLOOD ORANGE, NEGRO SWAN
On his fourth Blood Orange album, Negro Swan, Dev Hynes brought in an arsenal of top-tier, diverse voices (from trans activist Janet Mock, whose empowering interludes are woven throughout the record, to artists like R&B singer Ian Isiah and songwriter/producer Steve Lacy) to craft one of the most tender, collective, and unapologetically black projects released this year. On Negro Swan, Hynes sees the ever-conflicting beauty and pain of black communities in real-life black swans – a bird that became a symbol of the ‘highly improbable’ and hard-to-predict when discovered by European colonisers in Australia, but revered for their beauty by indigenous communities. The album explores everything from black masculinity, to police brutality, to being extra AF, unpacking what it is to be both desired and detested, imitated and silenced, embraced and rejected, at a time where black culture is as readily accessed and adopted as it’s ever been. (Natty Kasambala)
14. NAO, SATURN
“How the hell am I supposed to feel?” The opening line to NAO’s powerful ballad “Make It Out Alive” is a sentiment familiar to a generation with insecure futures and dwindling mental health, and one that’s particularly poignant in a year of political uncertainty. The theme of change is central to NAO’s transformative second album Saturn, which draws on the astrological phenomenon of the ‘Saturn Return’ – a period of change, and transition into adulthood.
The popularity of astrology has flourished among young people over the past few years, as we increasingly look to the zodiac for comfort in unsettled times. NAO’s album is no exception – the singer weaves the crises and conversions of the Saturn Return elegantly across its 13 tracks, tackling adjustment through love, loss, and the restlessness that comes with a life in flux. Oscillating between upbeat summer bangers like “If You Ever” and “Yellow Of The Sun”, and emotionally charged melancholy in “Another Lifetime”, NAO’s made a layered album that captures life’s highs and lows, and is full of pertinent bangers that embody an unpredictable 2018. (Brit Dawson)
13. CARDI B, INVASION OF PRIVACY
“They said by now that I’ll be finished, hard to tell / My little 15 minutes lasted long as hell, huh?” It’s funny to think just how many people believed that 2017’s gargantuan “Bodak Yellow” would be Cardi B’s peak – instead, the Bronx rapper put out one of the best major label pop-rap albums of the year. Invasion of Privacy was wry and in-your-face, with Cardi’s tongue-twisting bars calling on women to luxuriate in sex and money – but it was also insightful in its consideration of social media, heart-on-sleeve candid when it came to discussing unfaithful partners, and striking in its fury and devastation.
2018 saw Cardi’s star soar with the birth of her and husband Offset’s child, Kulture (the most on-brand name possible), fashion week appearances, a stunning beef with Nicki Minaj, and hit song after hit song. And outside of the cult of Cardi, that’s probably the best thing about Invasion of Privacy – it just bangs. From “Bickenhead”, to “Money Bag”, to the Latin-trap euphoria of “I Like It”, it’s an album that remains deliciously fun with each revisit. (Tara Joshi)
12. THE INTERNET, HIVE MIND
The summer of 2018 brought with it a wild heatwave, giving us a reason (at least until climate change leaves us looking like shrivelled leather) to luxuriate in parks with bags of cans and pretend we were Californian. The Internet’s fourth album, Hive Mind, felt like the perfect release for that time, with swoony licks of guitar, intricate basslines, and those smooth-as-honey, softly sultry vocals from both Syd and Steve Lacy invoking balmy nights and breezy days. Assured in its soulfulness, it dips with fluidity into the stuff of dusky dancefloors with its sugary funk bops, before heading back to shadowy bedrooms, telling the stories of late-night queer romances.
Following up 2015’s excellent, Grammy-nominated Ego Death felt a tricky task – it had birthed their biggest song to date in the positively dreamy “Girl” – but, perhaps a result of each of the band’s five members having returned galvanised from wonderful solo projects, Hive Mind met and exceeded its predecessor, sounding fuller, more confident, and more daring. (Tara Joshi)
11. KALI UCHIS, ISOLATION
It’s been four years since Kali Uchis released her debut mixtape, Drunken Babble – an age in today’s accelerated world, but enough time to invest into building an audiovisual universe and a dedicated fanbase in the process. Isolation brilliantly packages Uchis’ appeal: the production is ethereal and wide-ranging, drawing on everything from funk and soul to reggaeton and bossa nova; the vocals are dreamy, almost saccharine; the lyrics, in stark contrast, send a clear message: don’t fuck with me.
In many ways, Uchis is the perfect pop star for 2018. She’s fiercely curatorial, enlisting the likes of Bootsy Collins, Jorja Smith, and Tyler, the Creator to bring her vision to life, but she’s also self-made (she created her early, career-defining videos alone, and writes her own lyrics) and unspeakably charismatic. By blending genres, languages, and soundscapes, Uchis has stitched together a world rooted in beauty, resilience, and innovation. She’s a cultural magpie, and it’s this ability to draw the best from her collaborators that makes Isolation one of the year’s strongest, most versatile debuts. (Jake Hall)
10. TIRZAH, DEVOTION
Tirzah Mastin’s fans must feel like the makers of Springwatch, spending long hours hiding out in the bushes in hopes of seeing some shy nocturnal creature shuffle into view. Five years and a few EPs on from the release of “I’m Not Dancing”, the wonky two-step banger that announced her talent, she finally emerged this year with Devotion, an album whose initially insular, slow-as-molasses R&B opened up to reveal soulful riches within.
Longtime collaborator Mica Levi again produces, but while her fingerprints are all over the record’s woozy, abstracted beats, it’s Mastin’s ability to stamp the material with quiet authority that sticks. “Gladly” was as perfect a soundtrack to this summer’s endless, drowsy heat as you could have wished for, while tracks like “Go Now” and “Holding On” reached deeper into her dreamy south London gospel than ever before. (Alex Denney)
09. YVES TUMOR, SAFE IN THE HANDS OF LOVE
Yves Tumor turned themselves inside out on Safe in the Hands of Love, a work of vaulting pop ambition that put them on the same rarefied plane as darlings of the avant-garde like SOPHIE and Oneohtrix Point Never. Turning to make-up artist Isamaya Ffrench for a grand-guignol makeover on the sleeve, Tumor swapped the witchy abstractions of 2016’s Serpent Music for a more direct, distressingly hi-fi vision, holding a funhouse mirror to the all-pervasive anxieties of the age. Tracks like “Recognizing the Enemy” and “Noid” – with its insistent refrain of “911! Can’t trust ’em!” – throb with a rising sense of panic, but it’s tribute to Tumor’s strange gifts of alchemy that they make it all sound so beautiful. (Alex Denney)
08. CHRISTINE & THE QUEENS, CHRIS
“I am done with belonging,” sang Héloïse Letissier on the opening track to Chris, the French pop prodigy staking her claim as a sex symbol for gender-agnostic times. Surfing this year’s wave of sex-positive queer pop (see also: Janelle Monáe, Anna Calvi) with aplomb, the record saw Letissier embrace a new alter-ego, Chris, whose cropped ’do and billowing open shirts drew on Leo DiCaprio’s pretty-boy swagger in Romeo + Juliet. Adding shades of Minneapolis funk (“Damn (What Must a Woman Do)”) and 80s electro (the fabulous Dam-Funk collab “Girlfriend”) to her sound, Chris was leaner, punchier, altogether more ripped than its predecessor – like Letissier’s abs in the stellar run of music videos used to trail it – and the songwriting shone with the confidence of an artist nearing the peak of her game. (Alex Denney)
07. ROSALÍA, EL MAL QUERER
Rosalía’s second album, El mal querer, is delightfully tactile on a purely sonic level. Her rich voice cascades through notes at a sometimes searing pace. Its production, cooked up in collaboration with El Guincho, is full of warm synths, woodblock percussion, and skipping handclaps, resplendent with the glow and thud of the Iberian sun and earth the artist calls home. Rosalía remains committed to reimagining flamenco, but swaps the traditional guitar thrashings of 2017’s Los Ángeles for immaculately constructed R&B, retaining the deep rhythmic swing of the genre she fell in love with aged 13. Even listening to the album as a non-Spanish speaker, the ambition of its narrative is clear: revving motorbikes theatrically punctuate “Disputa”, while the melodrama of “Lamento” details a tragic outcome.
El mal querer ends on “Poder”, which Rosalía told Beats 1 is “about the power of a woman”. It’s a defiant conclusion, albeit tempered with opaque allusions to suffering at the hands of a man and his subsequent jail time. Despite Rosalía’s depiction as a renaissance-esque angel on the album cover, El mal querer remains grounded in stark, kitchen-sink realism. (Lewis Gordon)
06. ARIANA GRANDE, SWEETENER
Following the devastating terrorist attack that took place outside her concert in Manchester in 2017, Ariana Grande returned in a way that no one expected this year: with the resolute anthem “no tears left to cry”. It really stirred me: here was a woman dragged into one of the most horrifying terror attacks in recent British history, showing her fans she was was ready to uplift once again, and that she wanted them to join her in choosing happiness over misery by “lovin’”, “livin’” and “picking it up”. As she sings: “We’re on another mentality.”
sweetener is as addictive as refined sugar, not least for Grande’s goosebump-inducing range, angelic vocal fry, and little ‘yuh’s. Beside the extraordinary circumstances that led up to its release, it’s a typical 20-something’s journal, portraying that unique cocktail of fear that you’re doing it all wrong mixed with youthful arrogance. In one album, she provides you with break-up tracks, make-up anthems, songs to soothe, and bops to dance to. Grande maintains a powerful intimacy with her fans, while letting them know that it’s okay to struggle, and that happiness is a complicated journey. And for that, I stan. (Kemi Alemoru)
05. LET’S EAT GRANDMA, I’M ALL EARS
If one thing united 2018’s most exciting artists, it was the sound of slight confusion. Like our collective mental states, everything was a bit skittery: bold Auto-Tune melodies pooling around clattering pots and pans, a sense of searching for something new, something different. Some succeeded, most didn’t – but two teenagers from Norwich came out with something so unlike the rest of the pop multiverse that you feel you might not fully appreciate it until five years down the line. Even on their first album, the woozily psychedelic I, Gemini, you could never accuse the kazoo-toting Let’s Eat Grandma of sticking to the path well trodden, but I’m All Ears is a cacophonous blast of chin-jutting pop. From reclaiming pink as a symbol of powerful femininity and uncompromising youth on the defiant “Hot Pink”, to the awkward encounters and spiralling self-doubt dissected on “Cool & Collected”, they created a record full of unexpected sounds (the studio cat gets a whole track) and killer pop hooks that essentially serves as a ‘fuck you’ to anyone who ever told them they couldn’t. A standard to bear in a year when youth repeatedly trumped age. (Kate Solomon)
04. MITSKI, BE THE COWBOY
How long do you have to be the cowboy until you actually are the cowboy? For Mitski’s fifth studio album, she became someone else. Channelling her frustrations with relationships, touring, too much loneliness, too much togetherness, and herself into 14 songs, the Japanese-American singer creates an alternate protagonist who is both her and not her, and who traverses every track: a protagonist who, in her words, is “a little off”.
For so many young women moving through the world in 2018, this protagonist was instantly relatable: a woman wondering around her flat with the manic thrill of loneliness (on the deceptively upbeat “Nobody”); a woman who breaks up with someone but expects to chased after (the shy but danceable “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?”); a woman who rejects someone who’s good for them due to an inner dependence on toxic relationships (the wrenching, aching “A Pearl”, my personal standout). We’ve all been there, right? There are plenty of female musicians that project personas as a tool of performance, but what’s so genius about Mitski is she knows the mask is not enough. Even while she’s upped the theatrics, she is exposed and raw: her beautiful voice has never been clearer or more confident, and her ability to distill complex human relations into pop has never been sharper. Perhaps Mitski will win an Oscar, not a Grammy, for this undeniably cinematic album – and the perfectly cracked mirror it offers to modern relationships. After all, her music always suggested a dramatic life within, but with Be the Cowboy, she really took the stage. (Claire Marie Healy)
03. SOPHIE, OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES
When SOPHIE broke out with “BIPP” in 2013, her kinetic, helium-powered bops were frequently (and unfairly) disregarded as impassive, detached from any deeper emotionality. But despite the hard plastic sheen of her debut album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, there’s not a single moment of indifference or emotionless cool to be found across its sprawling synths and glossy electronics. It’s a rubbery nine-track odyssey that twists and bends mainstream pop in ways that should reasonably snap the entire project clean in half. Instead, the UK innovator shapes an aggressive, hyper-emotional experience, one that stretches and bounces giddily across the pop spectrum. From the unbearable pangs of longing of “Is It Cold in the Water?”, to the unbridled sexual euphoria of “Ponyboy”, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides plays in existential extremes, cracking wide open the raw feelings, desires, tensions, and impulses we humans tend to bury deep within. (Erica Russell)
02. ROBYN, HONEY
The pressure on Robyn while making this record must have been immense. Not just because fans have been haranguing her to #releasehoney since a snippet of the song appeared in the final season of Girls in 2017, but also because her last full-length album, 2010’s Body Talk, has taken on a near-mythic status as pop blueprint, the album from which so many modern pop acts crib. Instead of trying to top Body Talk – or worse, recreate it – Robyn has shed that record’s melodrama, with Honey rolling through emotions like a wave. Gut-wrenching grief, loneliness, love, friendship, numbness, the wild optimism of someone who claims they will never again have their heart broken – this absurd mix of feelings swirl through its disco and house tracks, a mobius strip of beats that never quite resolve. Having found personal salvation on the dancefloor, Robyn has made an album about having really lived and learned to know yourself. It’s the sound of an artist acknowledging her past but refusing to be led, giving us what we didn’t even know we wanted. (Kate Solomon)
01. TIERRA WHACK, WHACK WORLD
People often say that our attention spans are shrinking, though there’s no real evidence to suggest that that’s the case. What we can say for sure is that the internet has opened up a more experimental playing field: the music industry used to have strict rules, but today, songs and albums don’t need to be a certain length because of the restrictions of radio, CDs, or vinyl. In recent years, the album form that we’re so used to has been in flux – this year alone, artists fluctuated between short bursts (Kanye’s seven-track ye) and sprawling epics (Drake’s 25-track Scorpion). But Tierra Whack, a visionary young rapper from Philadelphia, has made the most important and exciting statement yet on how to make an album that pierces through the digital age.
At 15 tracks of exactly one minute each, Whack World is the briefest album on this list. Initially, the way its songs’ sugary elements are waved under your nose and then promptly snatched away can feel alienating. And then, with repeat listens, the dense intricacy of these miniature hits begins to sink in. Complex themes of spirituality, family, and identity weave themselves through songs that alternate between puff-chested bravado and faltering vulnerability. A deadbeat dad gets the address he deserves on the cheerful “Fuck Off”; Tierra’s suicidal thoughts unravel in a pitch-shifted monologue that would rival Dr. Seuss himself on a song of the same name. Blink and you’ll miss her ad-libbing “BET (bitches eat tacos)” on “Cable Guy”, or the slurred, mumbled aside that opens the downbeat “Bugs Life”: “Probably would’ve blew up overnight if I was white”.
It’d be easy to be cynical about the way Tierra’s songs fit so snugly on your Instagram feed, if it weren’t for the fact that they’re so astoundingly good. The nursery rhyme riff and gnarly bassline of “Hungry Hippo” underpin one of the year’s most alluring rap songs. The video for “Bugs Life”, in which Tierra’s face is disfigured by prosthetics, or for “Whack World”, in which she wears a doll house like a dress, provide its most arresting visuals.
In a way, Tierra Whack could be said to have achieved something similar to what Vine did for comedy, or what Twitter did for blogging: her songcraft sharpens an intricate world of emotion down to a single, lethal point. There’s clear signs that other artists are already beginning to mimic her brevity – but by the time they do, the restlessly innovative artist will undoubtedly be on to the next thing. Everybody else is in 2018, but Tierra Whack is in 2020; we’re all just eating her dust. (Aimee Cliff)