This article was published 19/12/2018 (759 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Somehow, we are approaching the end of the year already, which means it is time for our annual collection of best-of-2018 lists, and today, we are kicking things off with my picks for top albums.
In my ongoing attempt to continue to present this list in a new way each year, I’ve decided to forego the usual hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth that usually accompanies the narrowing-down process and just tell you what I’ve been listening to all year.
Literally hundreds of new records float into my inbox each year; between my work as the main music reporter at the Free Press and the overwhelming amount of album suggestions that get hurled my way from fellow Polaris Music Prize jurors from across the country, my listening schedule is slammed.
But, there are a few albums that stood out from the pack, albums that became a comfort and a palate cleanser when the inundation of new tunes became too much to handle.
Here’s a few albums, in no particular order, that have been on heavy rotation for me this year; I don’t know if they are "the best," or if Pitchfork or Rolling Stone thinks they’re cool, but I love them, and hopefully you can find a few new gems to add to your own playlists.
Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, Jeremy Dutcher
There is something undeniably special about the debut effort from New Brunswick-born, Toronto-based singer-songwriter Jeremy Dutcher.
Not only is Dutcher a stunning, classically-trained vocalist and skilled composer, his work is emotional and engaging. To create Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, Dutcher — who is of Wolastoq descent — journeyed to archives at the Canadian Museum of History and unearthed recordings of songs that had been lost to his people for more than a century.
He then took the words and melodies and added contemporary instrumentation, modernizing the works but not losing their historic essence. Dutcher won the prestigious Polaris Music Prize for this album, and it is well deserved.
Top tracks: Mehcinut, Ultestakon
Dans ma main, Jean-Michel Blais
On his sophomore full-length, Dans ma main, Montreal-based pianist Jean-Michel Blais melds the worlds of classical and electronic music, and the result is truly beautiful.
Blais has always been known as an emotional composer, and the addition of synths and other digital elements has, counterintuitively, brought that to a new level. It’s moody, romantic, intense and creative and, though it has no words, demands thought and attention from it’s listener.
Blais released another equally-beautiful record in 2018, the Eviction Sessions EP, which he recorded live in his beloved Montreal apartment before he was forced to move out, and it contains several tracks from Dans ma main.
Top tracks: Roses, Blind
Both Ways, Donovan Woods
Donovan Woods records tend to be the musical equivalent to a bag of Chicago mix; they’re a bit sweet, a bit salty, and man, they are delicious.
Both Ways, the Canadian singer-songwriter’s fifth release, is no different. Woods crafts relatable and emotional narratives better than most in the songwriting game (which is probably why he’s had tracks recorded by some huge names, including Tim McGraw and Charles Kelly).
Though he tends to root himself in a folky/rootsy/acoustic sound, the increased production on a few tracks on this record doesn’t feel out of place or disingenuous.
Top tracks: I Ain’t Ever Loved No One, Next Year
Tell Me How You Really Feel, Courtney Barnett
Australian rocker Courtney Barnett’s sophomore solo release is a more intimate, introverted offering than much of her past work, but loses none of its punch along the way.
Still driven by laid-back guitar and Barnett’s specific sing-speak style of performance, Tell Me How You Really Feel tells us how Barnett really feels about self-doubt, being a woman in 2018 and dealing with the endless stream of online trolls.
It’s a catchy rock record with a strong lyrical foundation that was even more impactful when Barnett tore it up on the mainstage at this year’s Winnipeg Folk Festival.
Top tracks: City Looks Pretty, Nameless, Faceless
Historian, Lucy Dacus
There is a warmth and classic quality to Lucy Dacus’s voice that just soothes the soul.
The American indie-rocker released her sophomore full-length, Historian, this year, and, like her debut, it received wide-spread acclaim, this time for its layered, thoughtful content and rich sonic landscape. Dacus has called Historian her "definitive statement" as a songwriter, tackling ideas of optimism in the face of adversity and the darkness one must go through in order to reach a point of peace, and while it seems unlikely this album will be the peak of her career, it is certainly a fabulous example of what she is capable of.
In addition to Historian, Dacus and musician-friends Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers released an EP under the name boygenius this year that is also well worth a listen.
Top tracks: Night Shift,Pillar of Truth
On the Train Ride Home/On the Corner Where You Live, The Paper Kites
The Paper Kites released two albums in 2018, On the Train Ride Home and On the Corner Where You Live.
While they are two distinct releases, they both work off of similar themes of late-night people-watching and both carry an alluring sense of romance tinged with a hazy sadness.
Frontman of the Australian indie-folk five-piece, Sam Bentley, is a beautiful storyteller and their part-folk, part-’80s-pop esthetic is a sweet as it is striking.
Top tracks: Give Me Your Fire, Give Me Your Rain, Does It Ever Cross Your Mind, Nothing More Than That
Bloom, Troye Sivan
South African-born Troye Sivan is having a moment right now; this year alone, he has knocked out collaborations with pop stars Ariana Grande and Charli XCX (he also counts Taylor Swift among his friends, even making a cameo during her Reputation world tour in May), snagged a supporting role in Boy Erased, which also stars Nicole Kidman, and recently was nominated for Golden Globe for Best Original Song for Revelation, which he co-wrote for the film.
Oh yeah, and he dropped his wonderful sophomore release, Bloom.
It’s one of the best pop albums of the year, packed with thumping beats, glittering choruses and an inherent sexiness, which is an essential part of the androgynous 23-year-old’s vibe and appeal.
Top tracks: My My My!, Bloom, Postcard
Uncle, Duke & the Chief, Born Ruffians
On their fifth studio album, Ontario’s Born Ruffians — original lineup in tow — take a sonic turn back to where they started from; youthful, fun, bright, energetic indie-rock.
That isn’t to say Uncle, Duke & the Chief is a regression; the songwriting is deliberate and mature in the way it discusses the ups and downs of life, including the eventual end of it, and the concise nature of the record in length (it tops out at just 30 minutes), lyrics and composition shows a true understanding that sometimes less really is more.
As far as indie-rock records go, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better one this year than Uncle, Duke & the Chief.
Top tracks: Forget Me, Spread So Thin, Tricky
It has been eight years since the world has heard new music from Swedish dance-pop star Robyn, and it was worth the wait.
Honey is a candid portrait of personal evolution rooted in grief, but ultimately headed toward something brighter. Robyn is the queen of crafting club bangers with feeling, and on Honey, there are definitely a few of those (especially album opener Missing U), but there is also a softness and sensuality to many of the tracks that adds extra dimension and warmth.
Top tracks: Honey, Missing U
Ventriloquism, Meshell Ndegeocello
Typically a cover album wouldn’t make my year-end list, however American singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello’s Ventriloquism is so exceptional in its approach and its artistry it had to be included.
Ndegeocello, 50 (whose given name is Michelle Lynn Johnson), tackles tracks by Prince, Tina Turner, TLC, Sade and the System, among others, and executes each with obvious thoughtfulness, care and creativity, stamping them with her signature smoky vocals and arrangements that pull from her many musical influences including jazz, roots, R&B, soul, funk and rock.
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Top tracks: Sometimes It Snows in April,Private Dancer
What were some of your favourite albums or singles released this year? Post in the comments below and we will make an additional playlist of reader recommendations!
Erin Lebar Multimedia producer
Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
Some of the Free Press arts department staff weigh in with their favourite tracks of the year:
I'm going to go ahead and call it: Lizzo's lusty ode to boys is the best song of 2018. One of two bangers the Minneapolis-based rapper dropped this year, Boys pairs bottom-heavy bass with Prince-inspired guitars in a fun and funky romp that celebrates both sexuality and body positivity. (The guitars aren't the only tribute to the Purple One, who Lizzo has worked with by the way; in the Boys music video, she references his 1977 photo shoot in front of the Schmitt Music Building's iconic music note mural in downtown Minneapolis.)
– Jen Zoratti
Knockin' on Your Screen Door, John Prine
John Prine has made a long and storied career writing and singing songs of either poignant moments that can put a difficult issue into perspective (Sam Stone) or amusing esoteric instances, which is where Knockin' on Your Screen Door fits. It's a song about an old and lonely man who has next to nothing looking back on when he was in "high cotton." It's classic country, but these days, music like Prine's has been hived off into the Americana section, which can often be pigeon-holed as music for old folks. This bouncy number is good enough for everyone.
— Alan Small
This Is America, Childish Gambino
This incendiary single from American rapper Childish Gambino (a.k.a. actor/writer Donald Glover) — which spawned a thousand hot takes and almost as many eggheaded analyses — is almost impossible to separate from its shocking gut-punch of a video. The way the song seesaws between elated Afro-pop and gospel and ominous trap beats, punctuated by gunshots, is a blend of politics and entertainment that seems to sum up 2018.
— Jill Wilson
Breathin, Ariana Grande
Sweetener, Ariana Grande’s fourth studio record, is riddled with catchy commercial pop/R&B jams (see hits God is a Woman, No Tears Left to Cry, etc.), but none bring the slick synthpop quite like Breathin. Despite the lyrics essentially being about anxiety, there’s an underlying confidence and swagger to Grande’s ultra-catchy chorus and her strong vocal delivery throughout.