Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photo: Mitski (Bao Ngo), Amen Dunes (Michael Schmelling), Anna Calvi (Maisie Cousins), Graphic: Libby McGuire

Like pop and R&B, indie and rock are huge, diverse fields overlapping and extending outward to countless iterations, a reality reflected in our picks for the best albums of the year below. You might’ve been looking for Jeff Rosenstock on our punk and hardcore list, or Neko Case among our top 10 country albums, but they, like several other artists listed, have evolved into a grayer space and thus feel more at home here. If there’s a unifying theme among these records, it’s that they are exemplary, sometimes career-best, realizations of their creators’ distinct perspectives, be they veterans like Low or newcomers like Snail Mail. Here are the best indie/rock albums of 2018.


Amen Dunes, Freedom

On his fifth album, the warbling, sparrow-voiced troubadour Amen Dunes turns all the acoustic drones and quivering catharses of earlier albums into a searing classic-rock odyssey, with canyon-sized choruses and pulsing, electronic rhythms. You could file a lot of these tracks, like the jaunty “Calling Paul The Suffering” or effervescent “Blue Rose,” under “dad rock,” were it not, again, for that voice, breaking with earthy passion and kinetic, spontaneous release. [Clayton Purdom]


Beach House, 7

Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have spent more than a decade mining the depths of their sound as Beach House, a narcotic keyboard-guitar blend so visceral and transportive it can feel perverse to try to put it to words. 7 finds that sound at its darkest and most unpredictable yet, translating the intangible emotion and fragmented beauty in Legrand’s lyrics into some of the duo’s most immersive, experimental arrangements to date. [Kelsey J. Waite]


Anna Calvi, Hunter

For two albums now, Anna Calvi has written rock songs brimming with filmic drama and timeless human emotion, but third LP Hunter finds new relevance by anchoring itself in Calvi’s modern perspective as a queer woman. Hunter righteously subverts gender and sexual norms with vivid scenes of sweltering desire (“Swimming Pool”) and erotic backseat encounters (“Chain”), and some of the most exciting guitar playing you’ll hear anywhere all year—part Hubert Sumlin, part Robert Smith, and yet all Anna Calvi. [Kelsey J. Waite]


Neko Case, Hell-On

Twenty years after her solo debut as The Virginian, Neko Case’s alt-country roots have almost become a footnote to the expansive, unclassifiable sound of Hell-On. Even while weaving complex lyrical poetry, Case is at her most restless and economical as a songwriter here, hanging around a melody or arrangement only as long as it suits her before masterfully making a left turn into a part of the song only she could see coming. It’s an album as untamable and nourishing as the natural world it worships. [Kelsey J. Waite]


Listen to selections from these albums, plus our picks from best country, metal, electronic, and more, on our Spotify playlist.


Julia Holter, Aviary

Where was there for Julia Holter to go after the majestically intimate Cali songcraft of 2015’s Have You In My Wilderness? Well, everywhere. Aviary is a 90-minute high-fantasy epic, each song functioning as a self-contained cosmos of twittering woodwinds, dog-eared books of unknown provenance, ambient bagpipes, celestial sighs. Start at the beginning and it’ll pry open your third eye by the halfway mark, or just drop in midstream and observe; there’s little else like it. [Clayton Purdom]


Low, Double Negative

Twelve albums and 25 years into their career together, Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk cracked Low open, letting molten drones and screaming dissonance burble like lava through their finely honed slowcore. On “Tempest,” their famously transcendent melodies are barely discernible, processed into a digital scream. The band’s famous sense of quiet always conveyed urgency; on Double Negative, it sounds furious. [Clayton Purdom]


Mitski, Be The Cowboy

Madonna. Prince. Mitski? That may sound outrageous, but if Mitski Miyawaki’s star continues to rise as dramatically as it has over the past couple of years, her place in the canon of mononymous musical icons seems all but assured. It helps, of course, that she’s released two absolute knockout albums, 2016’s Puberty 2 and 2018’s Be The Cowboy, back-to-back. And Be The Cowboy points toward exciting developments to come: Mitski challenges herself both musically and lyrically on the record, exploring her novelistic side through satirical dispatches from a character she describes as “a very controlled, icy, repressed woman who is starting to unravel.” [Katie Rife]


Jeff Rosenstock, Post-

If there were any concerns that Jeff Rosenstock would lighten up after the outsize success of 2016’s Worry, Post-’s opening track, “USA”—with its endless, ragged, fuck-it-all coda of “We’re tired! We’re bored!”—put them to rest. Worry’s fears and anxieties have metastasized, giving birth to an angrier, more frustrated, but also more ambitious collection of songs, teeming with boundary-testing moments for the band, but always ready with a complicated, cathartic sing-along to provide some hope in dark times. [Alex McLevy]


Snail Mail, Lush

The dream of the ’90s is alive on Lush, the debut album from Lindsey Jordan, a.k.a. Snail Mail, who turned 19 eight days after her first full-length was released on Matador Records. With a generation of women singer-songwriters at her back, Jordan’s guitar-driven indie anthems are uncommonly confident and preternaturally polished. Take “Pristine,” a flawlessly written ode to unrequited love anchored by the achingly vulnerable chorus, “And I know myself / And I’ll never love anyone else.” [Katie Rife]


Spiritualized, And Nothing Hurt

Jason Pierce has spent a career burnishing his swooning, orchestral pop to a perfect, heartbreaking sheen, and his latest wrings it into arguably the truest form yet, all ethereal beauty and pure sentiment. And Nothing Hurt feels like a thesis summary of Spiritualized’s fusion of bombast and simplicity, keeping the focus on the primal emotions and statements of emotional purpose, while still allowing room for hard-charging fuzzed-out rockers like “On The Sunshine.” By the time all the swirling instrumentation and spare lyrical evocations of love, loss, and beauty have come to a close, the record has attained something great. [Alex McLevy]


Honorable mentions

Ezra Furman, Transangelic Exodus
As if queering the all-American rock ’n’ roll masculinity of Meat Loaf and Bruce Springsteen weren’t brilliant enough, Ezra Furman takes things even further on Transangelic Exodus, a concept album about lovers on the run from the law—one of whom is a literal angel. [Katie Rife]

No Thank You, All It Takes To Ruin It All
And all it takes to make one of the most affecting lo-fi indie-rock albums of the year is guitar, bass, drums—and a searingly powerful collection of songs about loss and life. [Alex McLevy]

Screaming Females, All At Once
Marissa Paternoster and her Screaming Females bandmates continue to expand their sonic palette on All At Once, adding surf-rock and space-wizard prog to their muscular guitar sound while staying true to their punk roots. [Katie Rife]

Soccer Mommy, Clean
It’s not all quiet, restrained beauty on Soccer Mommy’s debut—there’s the odd uptempo number (“Last Girl) or cathartic release (“Scorpio Rising”)—but it’s mostly a series of subtly fierce songs, the understated melodicism of Sophie Allison’s guitar and voice belying the bite of her lyrics. [Alex McLevy]

Slow Mass, On Watch
Slow Mass is a band that consistently punches above its weight class: On Watch is the successor to records like Unwound’s Leaves Turn Inside You and Fugazi’s The Argument, suggesting a future for indie that’s heavy, heady, and without boundaries. [David Anthony]


Listen to selections from all our best album picks on our Spotify playlist.

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