Let’s be honest for a second: No one clicks on these lists for the introduction. I don’t blame them! This is usually just the place where some routine throat-clearing goes, before we get to the main event. It’s also the place where I confess to the amount of anxiety involved with putting together a list like this—last year, I said, “Right now, there’s probably someone in their bedroom in Buenos Aires, making a record on their computer that is going to end up on next year’s list. So as comprehensive as we’ve tried to make this list, we realize that, even at 100 albums, we’re only scratching the surface of what’s available.” Guess what? That’s still true in 2018. That said, the albums that made the cut, to us, represent the breadth and scope of the many worlds available to discover on Bandcamp, and feel like the best musical summation of the last 12 months. When we make this list, we’re not only trying to assess the year’s best music, we’re also trying to tell the story of 2018, album by album, song by song. As always, being a part of Bandcamp Daily in 2018 was a true joy; we took a look at Extratone, the world’s fastest musical genre, got familiar with the New Face of Death Metal, and spent time with artists like Yugen Blakrok, Suzanne Ciani, and Kamaal Williams. Once again, the world of music is bigger than any one list can possibly contain, so consider this a starting point on the neverending journey to discovering new sounds, new scenes, and new voices. Alright, that’s enough throat-clearing. Let’s get to the list.
—J. Edward Keyes, Editorial Director
The former youth of the modern jazz scene are becoming its vanguards, and in that same way their sound has evolved over time, so, too, will the shape of their stories. Not unlike the way jazz fans idolize the New York loft scene of the ’70s, so, too, will the new century locales be celebrated, places where modern giants first stretched out. The Shack was more than a tiny basement room in Kamasi Washington’s parents’ house; it was where West Coast Get Down alumni like trombonist Ryan Porter, bassist Miles Mosley, and keyboardists Brandon Coleman and Cameron Graves began a journey that would lead to new solo projects and collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, Nick Cave, and Netflix original soundtracks. Some hard bop, some post-bop, some hip-hop beats, and some R&B grooves are the signs of the boundless roaming between genres in 2008 that have come to exemplify these musicians’ reps in 2018.
Read our Album of the Day on The Optimist.
Working Class Woman
Montreal producer Marie Davidson makes taut minimal electro that can twist elegantly toward the dancefloor, of course (“Work It”), but she’s also an expert in creating horrifying, evocative soundscapes (“The Tunnel”). She’s archly funny, skewering scene sycophants (“Your Biggest Fan”) and the pressures of the music industry and capitalism more broadly (“Workaholic Paranoid Bitch”). She flips dance tropes about love and lust and the pleasures of the club into something urgent and desperate (“So Right”). This is one of the year’s sharpest and most adventurous electronic releases, a diamond not just in terms of quality, but also in terms of hardness and cutting ability.
Read our interview with Marie Davidson.
To simply call the Washington, DC trio Flasher a punk band discounts both their versatility and the sonic warmth that’s threaded through the 10 songs on their debut LP, Constant Image. Incorporating intermittent bursts of peppy new wave grooves (“Pressure”), vivid vocal melodies (“Material”), and gusts of crunching guitar (“Go”), Constant Image demonstrates that Flasher have figured out—remarkably quickly—how to twist the angst and nihilism that comes from being young and broke in 2018 into a framework that is as expansive as it is unexpectedly inviting.
-Max Savage Levenson
Read our interview with Flasher.
Sugar & Spice
On her debut EP Sugar & Spice, the young Australian songwriter Hatchie has established herself as one of the smartest and most eloquent voices in indiepop. Written in the glow of her first romantic relationship, these five songs deliver grandiose melodies in the vein of Carly Rae Jepsen (“Sleep,” “Try,” “Sugar & Spice”) and glimmering arrangements that recall the sparkly jangle of Real Estate. By exploring the space, implicit in the project’s title, where the saccharine euphoria of budding romance ends and its grittier complexities begin, Hatchie has found a recipe for success.
-Max Savage Levenson
An underreported part of the rapid gender shift in dance music’s upper echelons—with The Black Madonna, Helena Hauff, Honey Dijon, and co. now global headliners and magazine cover stars—is that the house/techno bro monopoly is being broken sonically, too. Thus, these three tracks from rising star Peggy Gou. She is now playing huge shows, but without compromising on subtlety or musical scholarship. Elegantly woven into her bubbling acid and disco are Arthur Russell, Tom Tom Club, airborne Detroit techno, and body-rocking electro, with Gou nonchalantly singing and rapping in Korean. Truly, it’s a breath of fresh air.
Read our interview with Peggy Gou.
The thing about patriarchy and white supremacy is that they demand repression, self-hatred, and an unchallenged conformity in order to thrive, while those suffocating under it cannot. Blood Orange’s Black Swan was its mirror and antithesis. Its avant-garde R&B spoke to the ways oppression lays waste to black lives and identities. But its declaration that it’s OK to be audacious, be “extra,” and imperfect, and to love yourself and your community unabashedly, transformed it from album to manifesto. In these trying times, it’s a message that feels just as powerful and revolutionary on the 100th listen as it does on the first.
-Chaka V. Grier
Read our interview with Blood Orange.
Valley of Search
For jazz fans, reissues of music from the vaults is often doing nothing more than feeding an unhealthy addiction. But sometimes, the barrel-scraping required to come up with just a little bit more from jazz legends results in the letdown you’d expect from a rejected studio session or lo-fi live performance recording. But the sum of those letdowns is far outweighed by the pure joy from albums like Valley Of Search. Alan Braufman’s 1975 session captures two periods of jazz’s past: the SoHo New York loft scene, and a jazz era when spiritual music and free improv were waves in the same body of water. And that glorious sense of being transported back to that time is why jazz fans will always hunger for the next archival release. May they always be this good.
Read our feature on the making of Valley of Search.
Future Me Hates Me
The bulk of the action on Future Me Hates Me, the brilliant debut album from New Zealand group The Beths, takes place in frontwoman Elizabeth Stokes’s head. “If there is a record / …For least-worthy reason / To cry on a Thursday evening / I’m in the lead,” she confesses on the rip-roaring opening track “Great No One.” The album’s remaining songs sketch out what some of those “least-worthy reasons” might be. On the title track, Stokes imagines her future self hating the romance that present-day Stokes is about to undertake; on “Uptown Girl,” she has an imaginary conversation with an ex-lover in the confines of her own brain. What makes it all work is both Stokes’s cutting sense of humor and the band’s airtight musicianship. All of the members of The Beths are trained musicians, and Future Me Hates Me is a prime example of what rock ‘n’ roll can do when its participants actually know what they’re doing. Every song is fleshed out with warm, four-part vocal harmonies, tied up in tricky guitar work, and contains enough structural sleights-of-hand to quiet anyone predicting the genre’s demise. Future Me Hates Me may be set mostly in the mind, but its songs are designed to move the body.
-J. Edward Keyes
Read our Album of the Day on Future Me Hates Me.
Makaya McCraven’s 2018 release serves as a testament to the state of jazz today. Four different ensembles in four different cities reflect four different perspectives on how the modern sound can be expressed. That the drummer is able to weave it all together into a cohesive vision is that much more remarkable. Universal Beings reveals the wealth of riches right there in front of us. You don’t need to hold onto 1959; Makaya McCraven can give you today.
Read our Artist of the Week feature on Makaya McCraven.
La Contra Ola
This compilation of post-punk and synthwave presented another side of early-1980s Spain, which at the time was dominated by the sound of punk rock. La Contra Ola showcases the unsung pioneers of the country’s electronic music, many of whom never achieved success beyond their native land. These songs feel communal, as if the musicians were simply throwing sounds against the wall to see what stuck. As a result, the comp feels free, exploratory, and uncompromised by industry rules. For a moment in time, this was the real sound of Spain, and we’re all the better for it.
-Marcus J. Moore
Read our Album of the Day on La Contra Ola.
Say Sue Me
Where We Were Together
South Korean indie rock band Say Sue Me are full of big ideas on second full-length Where We Were Together, a record that synthesizes all the best parts from all the best guitar rock records of the past few decades into a kaleidoscopic whole. But they have the chops to realize them all, having spent their discography dabbling in everything from bright surf pop to bummed-out shoegaze to noisy ’90s indie. Say Sue Me bravely put all their cards on the table here for a stylistically diverse set of songs, front-loading Where We Were Together with sparkling indie pop while slipping in a noisy seven-minute guitar effect spazz-out at the end. But this is a record about loss and absence. The band’s winsome charm is always tempered by wistfulness, a persistent sense of melancholy burbling beneath their radiant pop hooks thanks to Sumi Choi’s intimate lyrics and expressive delivery.
Read our interview with Say Sue Me.
JPEGMAFIA’s fifth album, Veteran, spares no one: not the coffee-guzzling, Whole Foods-addicted yuppies gentrifying his native Brooklyn, not the crooked cops parading around his adopted city of Baltimore, not the puff-chested music critics spewing bad takes in worse faith, and certainly not the likes of Morrissey, Lena Dunham, Tomi Lahren, and their ilk; for that matter, you and I are probably on the chopping block, too. Mind you, those are just a handful of those treated to sardonic, razor-sharp takedowns throughout this industrial-flavored, insidiously-accessible spectacle, which lends a whole new meaning to the phrase “punching up.” What some call millennial schadenfreude, Peggy simply calls justice—and ever since it dropped in January, Veteran’s verdict hasn’t stopped ringing in our ears.
Read our interview with JPEGMAFIA.
Slowcore pioneers Low first introduced electronics to their moody, minimal instrumental palette cautiously, on 2015’s Ones and Sixes; the change, partially brought about by working with producer BJ Burton, helped revitalize both their sound and creativity. On Double Negative (also recorded with Burton), those electronics become a key component, truly directing the album—warping vocals (opener “Quorum” feels like a constantly-interrupted transmission), incorporating rhythmic noise (“Dancing and Blood”), adding a glacial effect to guitars (“Poor Sucker”). It took the group nearly two years of trial and error to craft. This is all true, but it doesn’t capture what a terrifying, majestic, heavy gut-punch of an album Double Negative is, how emotionally affecting it is, how it feels like an ice cave one crawls into to find solace from worse weather and to escape potential predators. A stunning album, one that reveals new depths with every play.
When critics can’t describe an album like Childqueen, they say it defies genre or categorization (I’m not even sure what that means). Perhaps Kadhja Bonet welcomes such thought; she pulls from various styles of music—jazz, ambient, soul, and Tropicália—without landing on one in particular. Childqueen found the musician in search of a simpler time away from societal angst, years ago when she was her truest self. Songs like “Delphine” and “Nostalgia” evoke the yesterday she longs for, and “Mother Maybe” speaks to the strength of feminine power. Childqueen is a grand masterpiece; that’s all the description it needs.
-Marcus J. Moore
Read our Album of the Day on Childqueen.
This wonderful compilation chronicles a particular strain of South African ‘80s township pop, which used a canvas of bouncy drum pads and funky, bright synths to communicate to and for black South Africans living under apartheid. This is effervescent music, fairly bursting at the seams with vibrant, uncompromising joy—they cannot take our light and love away from us. Every track’s got its own delightful details, from the moody (and catchy) synth melody on The Survivals’ “My Brother” to the power vocals on the freestyle-esque “Do You Trust Amajita?” by Ntombi Ndaba, to the whistle percussion on Condry Ziqubu’s “She’s Impossible.” That music meant for such a specific context can communicate across time and space is testament to its quality; while detractors called it “bubblegum,” meant to disintegrate, this is a sugar rush with staying power.
Read our feature on the making of Gumba Fire.
Rarely has an album so poignantly translated the complexities of queer romance than on soil, the debut effort from Brooklyn-based experimentalist Josiah “serpentwithfeet” Wise; so strong is its spirit, to refer to his performances on devotionally-inspired standouts like “fragrant” and “wrong tree” as “engaging” would be like calling one’s first heartbreak “sad.” Wise’s operatic range, breath control, and velvety-rich tone enable him to paint each intimate set piece with the amorous spectrum in its entirety, from puppy-eyed joy and insatiable lust to soul-rending despair and somber reflection, and of course, love: devil-may-care, heart-on-sleeve, big, gay love.
Read our Artist of the Week feature on serpentwithfeet.
La Luz just might be the greatest rock band in the world. It’s OK if you didn’t know. Since achieving instant hype on the strength of their pretty garage pop songs and haunted girl group vocals floating around guitarist Shana Cleveland’s glow-in-the-dark surf guitar lines, La Luz’s music has possessed an effortless ear candy quality that makes it easy to overlook—if not outright dismiss. But La Luz have always been stealth rock-‘n’-rollers with a taste for the raw; their discography reveals a band gradually ramping up the intensity of their sound while cloaking its creeping menace in soft clouds of four-part harmonies that soothe. With the epic Floating Features, La Luz’s slow burn reaches a boiling point, leaving no doubt that the quartet—Cleveland, bassist Lena Simon, organist Alice Sandahl, and drummer Marian Li-Pino—are among the most imaginative, dynamic rock bands currently active. Always technically impeccable, Floating Features is a showcase for the band’s deeply empathetic musical chemistry, embodied in moments of impassioned musicianship delivered with all of the confidence and none of the cockiness commonly associated with rock star moments. And there are a few of them here. Floating Features is a record rife with moments that thrill, from Cleveland’s fearless, heartbreaking guitar solos, her most powerful passages often preceded by howls emanating from somewhere just deep within the sound, to the angelic, enveloping atmospherics of “Mean Dream,” to stunning centerpiece “California Finally,” a song so rhythmically complex it seems to follow its own dream logic; the chorus of “I do what I want” tumbles into echolalia as Cleveland plays catch-up with Li-Pino’s off-kilter beats. A record of luminous beauty and subtle majesty, Floating Features is a portrait of a rock band playing at the peak of their powers, La Luz’s very own Houses of the Holy remade in their own heavenly image.
Read our interview with La Luz.
Noname is in purgatory, wrestling with self-doubt and burgeoning fame. At least, that was the theme of Room 25, the rapper’s latest album. Across 11 tracks, Noname winked at her naysayers, eschewing the notion that “a bitch couldn’t rap” while running through the nuances of life as a 26-year-old black woman. On “Don’t Forget About Me,” she wrestles with a dark reality: One day she’ll pass on and she’s not sure what her legacy will be. Much like Telefone, Noname’s breakout 2016 debut, she assesses these things with a meditative flow that can easily float by if you aren’t paying attention. We caught her in the midst of deep thought; give her a second to figure it out.
-Marcus J. Moore
Read our Album of the Day on Room 25.
What does a body sound like? That’s the question raised by Aisha Devi on her stunning second record, DNA Feelings. Or, at least, that seems to be the question. It’s hard to decisively pin down anything concrete about the album; in the run-up to its release, Devi released an artist’s statement refuting the idea that it was a concept album, and then surrounded that statement with a series of tantalizingly oblique koans—“We live in a paraexistence spleen”; “Junk DNA (the alterdimensional golden data, codex of the non-physical)”; “Dogs smell DNA?”—that seemed to point the way to a narrative throughline, but fell just short of explicitly connecting the dots. So we’re left with the music—and the music here is truly mind-melting; synths pool out like plasma, rhythms thud and stutter like a heart arrhythmia, Devi’s voice is mercilessly pitch-bent, distorted, layered, and often reduced to pinprick flickers amidst the queasy bands of sound. What Devi has done with DNA Feelings is create a whole new language for electronic music, suggesting new ways it can sound and new forms it can take. What if synths rippled like broken glass, as they do on “Intentional Dreams,” or rhythms stammered, refusing a foothold, as they do on “Inner State of Alchemy”? DNA Feelings consistently beckons you in, but denies full entrance—every time you think you’ve got your hands around it, it changes shape: a new beat appears for a split second than vanishes, or the wraithlike shriek of Devi’s manipulated voice streaks through the middle of the song, but is never heard from again. Despite the fact that most of the sound on DNA Feelings is made with electronics, there’s something organic about it—something that feels fleshy and oozing. Perhaps the only clue to unlocking DNA Feelings comes near its end, when a robotic voice warns: “If you name me, you negate me.” With DNA Feelings, Devi has made a record that defies any temptation to reduce it to any one thing. The only option left is the obvious one: Don’t try to parse it; just disappear inside of it completely.
-J. Edward Keyes
Read our Album of the Day on DNA Feelings.
Jean Grae & Quelle Chris
At the end of Everything’s Fine, the exceptional collaborative album from rappers Jean Grae and Quelle Chris, there’s finally a sense that everything will be fine, that the absurd political climate can’t match the power of community. “We been through thangs, you been through thangs,” Chris declares on “River,” the LP’s concluding track. Throughout Everything’s Fine, it’s like Grae and Chris are right there with you, mourning the loss of yet another unarmed person of color, or rolling their eyes at the hypebeasts on Twitter. Musically, Grae and Chris kept the beats loose and open-ended, delving into cosmic funk (“My Contribution To This Scam”), L.A.-centric gangsta rap (“House Call”), and acoustic jazz (“Gold Purple Orange”). No other record captured 2018 like Everything’s Fine and its equally comedic, pensive, acerbic, and sardonic slant. Sure, it made fun of Instagram models and stuck-in-the-’90s MCs, but it also renounced the notion of otherness, that anything beyond the margin is “quirky” or “weird.” Grae and Chris didn’t just point the finger at the White House or social media, they held up a mirror to society at large, questioning our collective apathy and how we let it descend to this. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed these days, yet Everything’s Fine offered hope, nudging us to the light in the most honest way possible. They’ve been through things. So have you. Be yourself and keep pushing.
-Marcus J. Moore
Read our Album of the Day on Everything’s Fine.