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
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Raucous and groundbreaking, Young Fathers’ 2014 debut album Dead and sophomore follow-up White Men Are Black Too charged confidently into new sonic territories, the band challenging and provoking listeners with their experiences in our chaotic modern world. On Cocoa Sugar, Young Fathers slow down, letting the droning bass lines and lyrics about duality and contrast burn slowly instead of fully explode. But the cleaner production doesn’t hamper the group’s experimental dissonance; instead, it creates a sense of balance, for an experience that’s more immediately digestible, but is by no means easy listening.
Read our interview with Young Fathers.
Compact Disc (CD), 2 x Vinyl LP
Thou have always been overachievers. In just over a decade, the Louisiana sludge-metal quintet have amassed a bottomless cache of albums, EPs, splits, and one-off tracks across a variety of esteemed labels, each release more deathly beautiful than the last. Whereas past releases saw the outfit evoking surrealistic, Southern Gothic soundscapes, Magus is rooted in present dread. It’s basically a murky, mashable American Horror Story: driven by huge-ass riffs, illuminated by eloquent lyrics, and smeared with the freshly-spilled blood of modern tyrants. And so, Thou’s winning streak rolls on. Get behind ’em—or else get the fuck out of the way.
Read our Album of the Day on Magus.
Vinyl LP, Cassette, Other Vinyl, Compact Disc (CD)
DJ and electronic producer Helena Hauff’s second LP, begins in a way that’s almost deceptively simple, with a fuzzed-out drum machine that clatters against empty air on “Barrow Boot Boys.” Soon, though, the song descends into breakneck acid house, lit up by strobing synthesizers and jackhammered by relentless percussion. And though portions of Qualm could easily fit under the “lo-fi house” tag, that shorthand does a disservice to the sophistication of Hauff’s sequences and melodies. Album centerpiece “The Smell of Suds and Steel” is an eight-minute bulldozer of a song, oscillating between meticulously arranged synth blips and woozy, drawn-out ribbons of sound. Few club songs are so energetic, or so cinematic.
Read our Artist of the Week feature on Helena Hauff.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
On Lorely Rodriguez’s 2015 debut as Empress Of, Me, the young electro-pop singer, songwriter, and producer explored incredibly intimate territory, chronicling her anxieties, insecurities, and desires. On Us, she grows her world outward, covering romantic relationships both at their tender beginnings (“I Don’t Even Smoke Weed”) and in moments of conflict (“Trust Me Baby,” “Love for Me”), as well as the comfortable companionship of a good friendship (“Everything to Me,” featuring Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes). Rodriguez’s production skills and careful songwriting, more than evident on Me, have grown as well; every synth burble, every ticking beat, every delicate vocal melody seems impeccable in its placement. Us thrums with warmth, and loses none of Rodriguez’s singular style.
Read our Album of the Day on Us.
African Scream Contest Vol. 2
2 x Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
It’s been a decade since this series’ thrilling first release, but African Scream Contest Vol. 2: Benin 1963-1980 finally offers another stacked slice of Benin’s hugely underrated Afro-rock history. Similar to the scorching music being made in neighboring Nigeria at the time, the arrangements on Vol. 2 are full of blood-raw guitar lines, scintillating brass sections, danceable grooves, and soulful vocals. Hardly monotone, a song like Stanislas Tohon’s “Dja Dja Dja” reinvents the cha-cha in a Benin accent, while “Asaw Fofor,” by Ignace de Souza & The Melody Aces, is a slinking, jazz-influenced number that feels part French pop, part kitsch.
-Dean Van Nguyen
Read our feature on the making of African Scream Contest Vol. 2.
Con Todo El Mundo
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP, Cassette
Khruangbin’s music seems to exist in liminal space—you can try to pinpoint exactly what era a particular guitar picking technique might be from, what part of the world the percussion reminds you of, or what the lilting, muted gospel choruses are trying to evoke, but there will always be multiple answers to every question. Which is just one reason why their sophomore album, Con Todo El Mundo, demands repeated listens. It’s music that seems to transcend both geography and time. On Con Todo El Mundo, Khruangbin creates a world where the music of Afghanistan, Thailand, and India converge with Western genres like R&B, soul, and funk to create songs that are sultry, sublime, and therapeutic in equal measure. With their impeccable instrumentation and a heavy sense of atmosphere, Khruangbin create a window to a world that’s all their own, one that’s filled with wonder, magic, and love.
Read our interview with Khruangbin.
Habibi Funk 008: Muslims and Christians
Compact Disc (CD), 2 x Vinyl LP
Documenting the fruits of the flourishing Sudanese musical scene in the ’60s and ’70s—nearly lost to the anti-Afrocentric and pro-Arab aftereffects of the 1989 Islamic coup—Muslims and Christians is a showcase for Sudanese jazz and funk master Kamal Keila, who populates each song with blistering, bluesy guitar riffs and Arabic vocal melismas, surrounded by lilting Ethiopian horns, resulting in fierce grooves that channel both James Brown and Fela Kuti. The album’s 10 songs are split cleanly in two—five are performed in Arabic and five in English—but all of them veer markedly political, expressing a poignant—and timeless—plea for unity between people divided by political and religious beliefs.
-Catalina Maria Johnson
Read our feature on the making of Muslims & Christians.
Vinyl LP, Other, Poster/Print
Ghanaian group Basa Basa got off to an auspicious start: their debut album was produced by Fela Kuti himself. But it was the group’s third album—an adventurous collaboration with producer Themba “T-fire” Matebese—that propelled them to cult status. 1979’s Homowo, reissued this year by the Vintage Voudou label, builds on Basa Basa’s rhythm-heavy sound with layers of ultra-modern keys and futuristic synths. The album’s eight tracks fuse traditional Ghanaian sounds and Afrobeat percussion with elements of disco and psychedelia, resulting in a heady, experimental, and incredibly forward-thinking record.
-Megan Iacobini de Fazio
The Midnight Hour
The Midnight Hour
2 x Vinyl LP
The opening track to The Midnight Hour—an album-length collaboration between Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge—hews close to the duo’s work on the score for the Netflix show Luke Cage. Over the course of the song’s four minutes, Muhammad and Younge capably build a noir-y mood of drama and suspense. But as the album progresses, it becomes clear that their skills as composers goes beyond summoning any one specific era or mood. They encourage guest vocalists like Luther Vandross, Laetitia Sadier, and CeeLo Green to step well out of their comfort zone, tackling orchestral soul and post-bop jazz in revelatory ways. Arriving nearly 30 years after Ron Carter’s now-classic appearance on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Verses From the Abstract,” The Midnight Hour provides an example of how the crate-digging sensibilities of early hip-hop can still take on exciting new forms.
Read our interview with The Midnight Hour.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Cassette
Guitarist Shelby Lermo made two very different albums this year. On Extremity’s Coffin Birth, he explored primitive Swedish death metal, his guitar downtuned and muffled by “underground” production. Ulthar’s Cosmovore, on the other hand, was a shotgun blast of black metal crossed with grimy death and crust. Backed by an avalanche of drums from Justin Ennis (ex-Tombs, ex-Mutilation Rites), Lermo and bassist Steve Peacock unleashed an absolute firestorm of riffs, never granting the listener a moment’s relief. Strap in.
At first, the August release of Jeremiah Jae’s DAFFI seemed ill-timed. Jae’s bleak rhymes about blunt-addled insomnia, the paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle of indie rap, and the potentially fatal ends of felonious activities are better suited to frigid grey winters than the end of the fourth hottest summer on record. Delivered in his slow-yet-slick flow, Jae’s rhymes perfectly complement the album’s lugubrious production. But despite its grim subject matter, Jae ends the album with songs of hope, like the breezy, determined “Rise.” In that light, the album’s timing was perfect: Jae was preparing us for the harsh winter to come, and also reminding us that, like the struggles he raps about, it too will end.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Upon its release, Kamaal Williams cautioned against considering The Return to be an extension of jazz-fusion he’d built as half of Yussef Kamaal (or even as jazz, or as anything other than “the London underground”). And while the music here, like most jazz, is fully improvised, Williams was right: The Return is better taken on its own terms, isolated from stylistic restrictions. The album is full of percolating dance grooves that bob and weave like a boxer, placed in conflict with gauzy, mesmerizing soundscapes that have a momentum of their own. It’s an album that demands you shelve your expectations, and simply dream along.
Read our interview with Kamaal Williams.
Pieces of a Man
“With the logic of a Spock, if I retreat, I’m simply trying to prosper,” Mick Jenkins raps on “Ghost”; Pieces of a Man makes a good case for a bit of solitude for the sake of creativity. Against liquid, jazz-informed production by Black Milk, Kaytranada, and Badbadnotgood, Jenkins summons the spirit of Gil Scott-Heron, the lyrical rhythm of Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” and the prosperity gospel of Cardi B. In a musical landscape where hip-hop is a familiar sound, Jenkins has managed to build a world that’s all his own.
Zeal & Ardor
Swiss-African-American frontman Manuel Gagneux created Zeal & Ardor in 2013, after asking strangers online to suggest genres for him to combine. The two he chose were black music and black metal. Two albums later, Gagneux remains fascinating not just for his unlikely juxtaposition of influences (Alan Lomax field recordings, Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday, Darkthrone, Satyricon, Erik Satie), but for the themes of racism, murder, oppression, and extremism he weaves throughout his songs. In an era of mistrust, lies, and hate, Stranger Fruit presents a grim but inspiring scenario in which the underclass turn to Satan for salvation.
Read our interview with Zeal & Ardor.
I Need to Start a Garden
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
It took Portland, Oregon’s Haley Heynderickx three tries to make the debut album she wanted, but her hard work paid off a thousand times over. I Need to Start a Garden is a light and graceful folk-rock record that celebrates finding beauty in the small, organic details of the world. Heynderickx’s gentle insistence on examining these tiny elements up close is a reminder of the joy that can be found in taking life slow, and in honoring your connections with the earth and with fellow humans.
Read our interview with Haley Heynderickx.
When we spoke with Swarvy’s collaborators for our Artist of the Week feature, each MC used the same word to describe him: “genius.” On Anti-Anxiety, Swarvy spends 18 tracks living up to that praise. And while the drums bounce from beat-scene skirmishes to jazz-inflected boom-bap, Swarvy’s most impressive skill is his ear for melody, vaulting the album’s songs from exciting exercises to infectious earworms. It’s a rare feat—something some might even call a work of genius.
Read our Artist of the Week feature on Swarvy.
2 x Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Poster/Print
One of the most remarkable things about Dhorimviskha is that it almost wasn’t released. The fruits of a crowdfunding campaign, Koenji Hyakkei’s fifth album finds the avant-prog/zeuhl band in imperious form, as repaying their donors with a bizarre alien opera full of instrumental pyrotechnics and spiraling jazz. Yet as dizzyingly incomprehensible as raves like “VREZTEMTRAIV” seemed when the record was released in July, repeated listens revealed a calculatingly precise logic behind each and every mad progression, giving the band’s colorful music a sense of arresting inevitability.
Woolen Men’s latest album, Post, is a work of post-punk precision; take the tense rhythmic spine of “Brick Horizon,” for example, or the crisp-pleated guitar riffs that drive “Twin Flames.” But while those snapped-to-grid songs give the album structure, it’s the scattered moments of looseness that give it spirit: the sea-shanty strum of “The Movie Goer,” for example, or the way on “Hollow World,” singer/drummer Rafael Spielman’s pronunciation of “hollow” can also be heard as “hello.” Those tiny tricks of the ear give the album thematic and emotional ambiguity, a bit of soft focus on an album that’s sharp and airtight.
Read our Artist of the Week feature on Woolen Men.
No News is Good News
2 x Vinyl LP
We let rock stars cook well into their 60s and 70s, but the moment your favorite MC sprouts a gray hair or two, the public throws dirt on their career. On No News Is Good News, Phonte bucked the notion that rappers can’t age gracefully. He talked about growing older and the importance of mental and physical health. On the battle-ready “So Help Me God,” Phonte spit bars for the rap heads. Then on “Expensive Genes,” he talks about the challenges of aging as a black man. Phonte gives us all the game we need, and some we didn’t even realize was necessary. His messages resonate, no matter how old you are.
-Marcus J. Moore
Read our guide to the music of The Foreign Exchange.
Let’s Eat Grandma
I’m All Ears
For the teenaged sludge-pop duo Let’s Eat Grandma, the world is a flawed but hopeful place. On I’m All Ears, Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth eschew the irony poisoning of the previous generation, opting instead for either sincerity or snarling disdain. When Walton and Hollingworth tackle outdated gender norms on the churning “Hot Pink,” it’s a battle cry for a better future. When they coo the words “you got this,” on “It’s Not Just Me,” it’s a tender reminder that building the future will be a collaborative effort.
Read our interview with Let’s Eat Grandma.