40. Jeff Tweedy – WARM
Origin: Belleville, Illinois
The Gist: Where does Wilco end and Jeff Tweedy begin? Tough to decipher. Together at Last, released in 2017, was a solo record insofar as it was Tweedy performing Wilco songs all by his lonesome. And while the singer broke off to record Sukierae with his namesake group in 2014, the end result was still as close as one could get to a Wilco record without it actually being one. Although WARM is technically Tweedy’s second solo record, it’s, in fact, his first comprised completely of original music. Similar to its non-Wilco predecessors, the 11-track affair doesn’t do much to create dividers between the man and his long-running band, though it does tie in closer with some chapters of the band’s history than others.
Why It Rules: Tweedy has long grown into his standing as one of rock music’s most innovative songwriters, which might make WARM’s more stripped-down and folksier approach somewhat surprising. But this isn’t the sound of regression. Instead, it’s the work of a seasoned songwriter proving that he’s as good at penning powerful, personal songs in a traditional vein as he is layering records with bells and whistles. WARM skews heavily toward the former, but fortunately Tweedy is a maverick as capable of breaking your heart with an acoustic guitar as he is bending musical styles to his own. –Ryan Bray
Essential Tracks: “Bombs Above”, “Don’t Forget”, and “I Know What It’s Like”
39. Oneohtrix Point Never – Age Of
Origin: Wayland, Massachusetts
The Gist: Like a guided tour through a Graceland-like mansion where every room has been designed and decorated using a computer-randomizing program, Daniel Lopatin invites you to explore the glittering weirdness and small pockets of absolute beauty contained within the walls of his latest record, Age Of.
Why It Rules: Everything you need to know about how Lopatin has found the threads connecting high art and pop culture is captured on this album as he samples both a modern classical piece by Jocelyn Pook and a MAD TV skit. Apparently, nothing escapes his gaze, and his music is all the richer for it. Age Of was built by trial and error between Lopatin’s ceaseless production and soundtrack work. The album’s scattershot feel is, in that way, a feature, not a bug, keeping your attention centered as he goes from noisy fireworks to beautiful, Asian-inspired post-trap to futuristic R&B. –Robert Ham
Essential Tracks: “The Station”, “We’ll Take It”, and “Same”
38. Lily Allen – No Shame
Origin: Hammersmith, London, England
The Gist: With No Shame, Lily Allen probes the highs and devastating lows in the wake of her divorce from husband Sam Cooper. Despite the album being her most polished effort to date, it’s an incredible exercise in vulnerability as she reflects on the pain of separation and the challenges of being a mother and a musician. In the past, her willingness to be blunt has led to divisive reactions – take, for instance, the backlash to her clapback on toxic hip-hop masculinity, “Hard Out Here” – but with No Shame, Allen finds a topic most benefiting of her forthright and frank modus operandi.
Why It Rules: Rather than worrying about radio play, Allen returned with an album that captures the mindset of an artist and a mother approaching a pivotal crossroads. There are hits on this thing – look no further than lead single “Trigger Bang”, featuring English rapper Giggs – but there’s also a more endearing purpose. With No Shame, Allen has eschewed the Irish goodbye from her days as a party girl and instead delivered a eulogy that gracefully buries the past while continuing to seek the sunshine of the future. –Zack Ruskin
Essential Tracks: “Come On Then”, “Three”, and “Family Man”
37. Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar
Origin: Edinburgh, Scotland
The Gist: Four years and two albums removed from winning the Mercury Prize, the Edinburgh trio continued to experiment with genre and expand their songwriting on the deeply entrancing Cocoa Sugar. Swirling together soul, rap, and gospel, Young Fathers further developed a signature sound both radical and inviting.
Why It Rules: Combining disparate elements like the hyper-kinetic groove of “Toy”, the swooning cacophony of “Turn”, and the wobbly bravado of “Border Girl” is impressive enough but doing so as part of a cohesive work that flows so well catapults the group to another level. Cocoa Sugar is the sound of an already promising band blossoming into their own. –David Sackllah
Essential Tracks: “In My View”, “Toy”, and “Border Girl”
36. Daughters – You Won’t Get What You Want
Origin: Providence, Rhode Island
The Gist: Eight years after their last release, post-hardcore experimentalists Daughters return with an LP that deconstructs their sound and reanimates it into a whole new sonic monster. Building off the groove and melody that informed their self-titled 2010 album, the four-piece expand and darken the tonality, utilizing guitar effects and keyboards that sound even more alien than before. Groove remains a common element, but many tracks eclipse five minutes with moderate tempos, minimalist industrial instrumentation, and punishing drum work. Vocalist Alexis SF Marshall adds an element of Nick Cave to a delivery that already echoes Jesus Lizard’s David Yow.
Why It Rules: “City Song” immediately announces You Won’t Get What You Want as unafraid to tread new ground. It’s slow, cold, and noisy, and it effectively sets up the clangorous, mid-tempo “Long Road, No Turns”. “Satan in the Wait” follows with more dissonance, a sludgy bass line, and a twist: a melodic passage that sounds like bells run through effects pedals. The band’s brand of whirring guitars and breakneck speed doesn’t make an appearance until the fourth track, “The Flammable Man”, but it hasn’t lost a step.
“The Reason They Hate Me” is the most straight-ahead banger of the 10 songs, and “Daughter” delivers off-kilter, warbling, reverberating effects whose range is emblematic of the entire album. Fans hoping for a repeat of the accessibility and groove of the self-titled album or the spasticity and rawness of earlier albums might be disappointed, but You Won’t Get What You Want is a brave and excellent addition to Daughters’ discography. –Scott Morrow
Essential Tracks: “Long Road, No Turns”, “Satan in the Wait”, and “The Reason They Hate Me”
35. Colin Stetson – Hereditary (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Origin: Ann Arbor, Michigan
The Gist: Name a musician and odds are you can tie them back to Colin Stetson. From Bon Iver to Arcade Fire, Tom Waits to Lou Reed, the Midwestern multi-instrumentalist has a CV that’s rare even in today’s era of constant collaborations. For the past decade, those talents have extended to film, where his lush soundscapes have appeared in a number of critical smashes, from Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave to Andreas Dalsgaard and Obaidah Zytoon’s The War Show. With Hereditary, Stetson was given carte blanche to flex his muscles, and needless to say, he rose to the challenge, delivering some of his most accomplished works as both a musician and a film composer.
Why It Rules: It’s not hyperbole to say that every facet of Hereditary is downright chilling. Ari Aster’s psychological thriller is a 127-minute anxiety attack with Toni Collette leading the chaos. Of course, chaos works in pieces, and Stetson’s hellish amalgamation of jazz, electronica, and drone is a major section of the unnerving puzzle. He’s as unpredictable as ever, building upon the ensuing darkness with a kind of dread that’s absolutely damning. Shadows chase each and every note, carrying with them a mystical terror that suggests this is music coming from a place that’s eternally miserable, that no matter how many times you turn it off, or stow it away, it’ll be right there … with you. –Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “Aftermath”, “Leigh’s Things”, and “Party, Crash”
34. Jeff Rosenstock – POST-
Origin: Long Island, New York
The Gist: Traveled punk rocker Jeff Rosenstock released his third solo outing, POST-, on the very first day of 2018, a decision (intentional or not) that imbues the sprawling protest to follow with a couldn’t-wait-another-day sense of urgency. And given that most songs were written in response to the 2016 Presidential Election, we might wonder how Rosenstock sat on them for an entire year.
Why It Rules: Hip-hop might be considered the genre where politics and injustice get addressed, but Rosenstock reminds us that few things sound more rebellious and feel more cathartic than a rock band blowing the windows out of a garage. But POST- runs so much deeper than just feeling pissed off over election results. “These songs are about losing hope in your country, yourself, and those around you,” explains Rosenstock.
Songs like “USA”, “Yr Throat”, and “All This Useless Energy” perfectly capture the overwhelming feelings of trying to find balance among people we thought we knew in a country we no longer recognize. Rosenstock is one of the few songwriters to truly tap into the wide range of complex emotions that Americans have been wrestling with during this administration. Hearing your mind and heart shout-sung back at you makes it all the more clear that this cannot become our new normal. –Matt Melis
Essential Tracks: “USA”, “Yr Throat”, and “Let Them Win”
33. Tash Sultana – Flow State
Origin: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
The Gist: “D.I.Y.” is a term that a lot of artists pay lip service to, but few live out the philosophy quite like Tash Sultana. Flow State, the Aussie-born singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist’s hotly anticipated debut, is so completely self-made that calling it D.I.Y. somehow feels like an understatement. Every sound, be it skittering guitars, languid flutes, saxophones, strings, loops, or vocals, has the 23-year-old Sultana’s soulful fingerprints on it.
Why It Rules: Sultana’s prodigious work ethic warrants praise by itself, but it wouldn’t mean much if Flow State’s end results didn’t deliver. No worries there. Having steadily built up a grassroots fan base, we finally have a record that lives up to all the promise and hype. Sultana has crafted a soulful, eclectic, and moodily evocative debut effort that cross-pollinates styles as varied as reggae, R&B, calypso, and Joe Satriani-esque guitar heroism, making for something that’s both accessible and truly their own.
Lyrically, the record also carries the weight of a scorned heart. “I don’t need your loving for my salvation”, they sing over the seductive pop of “Salvation”. It’s the kind of lyric that only further cements Sultana’s bone-bred independence. This is great pop music with an edge, a record full of good vibes and bad attitude that somehow manages to work everything out splendidly. –Ryan Bray
Essential Tracks: “Big Smoke”, Murder to the Mind”, and “Salvation”
32. Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy (Face to Face)
Origin: Leesburg, Virginia
The Gist: “Hi, my name is Will Toledo. I’m that kid you hated in grade school who could just fly by the seat of his pants and get those gold stars you spent mornings and nights pining over. Want proof? I just took an old album of mine and managed to deliver one of this year’s better rock albums. It’s okay if you hate my guts for being naturally prolific because you’ll absolutely love my music. See you around, folks.” Yeah, that pretty much sums up Twin Fantasy (Face to Face).
Why It Rules: All joking aside, Toledo is the type of singer-songwriter that critics used to champion on the regular during the glory days of ’80s college rock. He’s like a young Gordon Gano, kicking out sprawling songs like the nearly 14-minute epic “Beach Life-in-Death” or the 16-minute saga of “Famous Prophets (Stars)” that reach for the stars without having to stand up and strain. Again, that may irritate you, but those hooks demand nothing but love. Hey, at the end of the day, we’re all just nervous young humans. –Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “Beach Life-in-Death”, “Cute Thing”, and “Nervous Young Inhumans”
31. Aphex Twin – Collapse
Origin: Lanner, Cornwall, England
The Gist: The latest release from the reclusive and prolific Aphex Twin finds the producer moving away from the more straightforward approach he had been dabbling in on recent work, turning up the heat on his slippery, electronic anthems, bringing them from a simmer to a rolling boil.
Why It Rules: The music on Collapse takes hard turns and shape-shifts with the frequency we’ve come to expect from Richard David James. But his firm hand at the controls can be felt just as acutely. Much like the EP’s artwork, there are recognizable signatures at the center of the entropic sound that seem to be coming apart in real time. Often those bits of purchase he allows us are his own, like the lullaby melodies of “MT1 t29r2” or the video game soundtrack squiggle that dominates that same song’s first half.
Elsewhere, he peels back the curtain even further to reveal samples that will surely be catnip to the many crate diggers in his fan base, like the bit of turntablism and the snippet of The Specials’ live version of “Guns of Navarone” that pop up on “1st 44”. Collapse is another entry in a remarkable run of work that Aphex Twin has been releasing since his return from a long and clearly necessary hiatus. It may feel like he is on cruise control a bit, but even James coasting is absolutely something to behold. –Robert Ham
Essential Tracks: “1st 44”, “MT1 t29r2”, and “abundance10edit [2 R8’s, Fz20m & a 909]”