John Meagher’s 50 best albums of the year – and top 10 Irish
Our critic picks the 50 records that stood out from the crowd in the last 12 months
Be the Cowboy
Japanese-American Mitski Miyawaki may not have made ripples with her first three albums, but this magnificent fourth caused a huge splash. And there’s a good reason for that: every song packs a punch and, as a whole, the album defies categorisation. She sings about subjects sometimes ignored in rock, like what it’s like to feel loneliness, or why it’s worth sticking in a marriage that mightn’t be perfect. And it’s a grower, too. Start with the St Vincent-like ‘Nobody’ and work your way in.
Eight years since her last album — an eternity in pop — but the Swede picks up where she left off with a collection of tunes that tug hard on the heartstrings. The inspiration is both a disintegrating relationship and the death of a friend. Her songs are grown-up but never at the detriment of great pop smarts. In a year of great pop albums, it stands tall.
The Minnesota trio have been prolific and it’s remarkable that this 16th album should have been so daring. It’s an avant garde release that flies in the face of the sort of Spotify-ready, instantly accessible fare so many bands proffer. It’s hard work at first, but perseverance pays off, especially when Mimi Parker’s vocals are as captivating as they are here.
4 Parquet Courts
A thrilling alternative rock album from a band whose songs fixate on everything from gentrification to homelessness, but never feel laboured. There’s a joyous energy here — one that makes the band so irresistible live — and big-name producer Brian ‘Danger Mouse’ Burton has managed to make the songs that bit more immediate while not eschewing their oddness.
5 Christine and the Queens
After delivering one of the great debut albums of the decade, Héloïse Letissier had her work cut out for her to repeat the trick. This second album is a magnificent pop beast that explores gender, queer identity and relationships. The French native has a lot to say and her songs — many of them 1980s-inflected — leave a lasting impression.
6 The 1975
A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships
An oft-quoted critic’s line about this third album from the Manchester band being this generation’s OK Computer will have many groaning. But Matt Healy and friends have made an album that captures the pleasures and pains of this internet age. are crackers too - they’re made for arenas, but they’re smart and enduring too.
7 Kacey Musgraves
The country-pop star may have been painted into a corner by many — but album number four is the real deal: a suite of gorgeously realised songs that explore the ups and downs of love. Much of it is drawn from her own life. Some of the tracks were apparently written when the Nashville singer was tripping on LSD. If it was good enough for the Beatles…
The Australian, barely into his 20s, has fashioned an out-and-out pop album that’s been machine-tooled for mainstream success. But despite the presence of some of the writer-producers who help deliver homogenised chart music elsewhere, there’s nothing tired or lazy here. Sivan’s songs celebrate being young and gay and carnally minded.
9 Cat Power
Chan Marshall’s 10th album is gorgeously stripped back. Steeped in Americana, her lyrics are both keenly observed and artfully chosen. There’s a searing honesty to many of the songs, especially those like ‘Horizon’ in which she speaks uncomfortable truths about family life. There’s a superlative cover of Rihanna’s ‘Stay’ and a delightful, radio-friendly duet with Lana Del Rey.
10 Janelle Monae
The most ‘woke’ album of 2018, this gripping record tackles the oppression of women by predatory men and the challenges of being born black and poor in America. Some might baulk at the idea of another album going in heavy on such topics, but Monae manages to fashion some bewitchingly skewed pop songs.
Joy as an Act of Resistance
Wild, rambunctious, unpredictable — the English band capture their wild prowess in the studio, too.
12 Death Cab for Cutie
Thank You for Today
They’ve been round the block, but there’s nothing stale about these super alt-rock tunes.
13 Arctic Monkeys
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
Alex Turner et al completely reinvent themselves — and the results continue to grow.
14 The Good, the Bad and the Queen
Another superb Damon Albarn album, this one’s an unflinching look at post-Brexit Blighty.
15 Elvis Costello
The old dog’s got new tricks: new Costello music hasn’t felt this vital in years.
16 Nils Frahm
The German composer fuses classical and electronic music in quietly sublime style
on this album.
And Nothing Hurt
Jason Pierce always wears his heart on his sleeve and his latest album is an emotional tour de force.
18 Jeff Tweedy
The Wilco frontman’s solo offering lives up to its name: these are gently life-affirming songs.
19 Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
The Aussie indie outfit demonstrate that guitar-oriented rock is still in a ruddy good state.
Little Dark Age
A superb return from a band that had lost their way — quirky pop-rock a go-go.
21 Kurt Vile
Bottle it In
The former War on Drugs man is bruised but never defeated on a strikingly honest album.
A more muscular version of the Paul Banks-led New Yorkers, and they’re all the better for it.
23 Julia Holter
Sophisticated songcraft and an esoteric world view make the Californian’s latest memorable.
24 Neneh Cherry
The Swede’s renaissance continues on an album that captures the emotional fallout of these fractured times.
25 Courtney Barnett
Tell Me How You Really Feel
The Melbourne singer mines hummable, lo-fi tunes and keenly observed truths.
26 Earl Sweatshirt
Some Rap Songs
A blunt name for one of the most compelling hip-hop albums of the year.
27 David Byrne
The live tour was adored and the wonderfully inventive album reminds us of Byrne’s Talking Heads days.
28 Jon Hopkins
The new king of ambient music delivers an evocative album that rewards repeat listening.
29 Father John Misty
God’s Favorite Customer
Witty, sardonic, satirical, Josh Tillman’s latest is a comedown record that looks deep into the heart.
30 The Internet
There’s an awful lot happening here but the veritable supergroup retain focus beautifully.
The Blue Hour
Twenty five years on from an arresting debut and Brett Anderson et al continue to remain relevant.
32 Florence + the Machine
High as Hope
Rousing, life-affirming songs from Florence Welch — doing what she does best.
33 Soccer Mommy
A debut with a difference from the young American, it boasts some of the most striking lyrics of the year.
34 Tracey Thorn
The ex-Everything But the Girl singer takes a disco turn for the better.
35 Snail Mail
A clever, funny and wise indie debut from American teenager Lindsey Jordan.
36 Paul McCartney
A late career highlight from the Beatle, it’s got some of his best songs in years.
37 Cardi B
Invasion of Privacy
One of 2018’s best-selling albums, it’s rap with a difference from a lady who speaks her mind.
38 Mac Miller
Songs of heartbreak made all the more poignant by Miller’s death just weeks after release.
39 Blood Orange
Hip-hop, R&B, indie, rock — it’s all here on a raw, honest album from Englishman Dev Hynes.
40. Beach House
One of the most distinct indie outfits today with one of the growers of the year.
41. Ariana Grande
After the horrors of the Manchester terror attack, this is pop with a heart.
42 Camila Cabello
Machine-tooled to appeal to the masses it may be, but the R&B-inflected pop presses the right buttons.
43 Marianne Faithfull
An unexpected gem, the 1960s siren looks back on a life less ordinary.
44 Kamasi Washington
Heaven and Earth
The crossover jazz superstar of the past few years is on wonderfully virtuosic form here.
45 Eleanor Friedberger
The former Fiery Furnace returns with a playful, electronica-inflected fourth album.
46 Oh Pep!
I Wasn't Only Thinking About You
Another excellent pure pop album in what was a great year for Aussie music.
47 The Carters
Everything is Love
The Beyoncé-Jay-Z soap opera continues on a self-centred, yet absorbing album.
One of the year's defining albums sales-wise finds the Canadian at the peak of his powers.
49 Jack White
Boarding House Reach
The White Stripes man challenges with an album that flits from greatness to self-indulgence.
50 Natalie Prass
The Future and the Past
A release for this #MeToo age, at its best it's very special indeed.
Top 10 Irish albums of the year
1 O Emperor
With members based in various parts of the country, it wasn’t a surprise when the Waterford band announced they were splitting up. But what a gift to leave us with. This third album, Jason, is the work of a quintet who make compelling, sophisticated music that doesn’t lend itself to easy categorisation. There are nods to that most maligned of genres, prog rock, and there are several whip-smart tunes, too, including ‘Japan’, which does its business in well under three minutes. This rewards like few other albums in 2018.
The Art of Pretending to Swim
Conor O’Brien is one of our great songwriters and his fourth album consolidates that status. This is mature songcraft that manages to be both accessible to the masses and hugely engaging for those willing to dig deep. Honesty and vulnerability characterise his lyrical approach, but don’t think everything is autobiographical. ‘Ada’ is inspired by the 19th-century feminist and mathematician Ada Lovelace.
3 Brigid Mae Power
The Two Worlds
A stunning second album from a Galway-based singer who’s driven by making music that ruminates on uncomfortable subjects. Its centrepiece is ‘Don’t Shut Me Up (Politely)’, a powerful rebuttal to the chauvinistic men who have crossed her path. The songs come straight from the heart and many are stripped of artifice — this is as real as music gets from a defiant and authentic voice.
4 David Kitt
The Dubliner’s first album in nine years bears several of the hallmarks of his stunning debut: much of it was recorded at home and there’s a winningly lo-fi feel. In places, Kitt’s vocals are hushed and you feel as though he’s conveying his inner-most thoughts. The lovely ‘Made it Mine’ explores a sense of identity while ‘The Taste of Without’ deals with the fallout from recession.
5 Rejjie Snow
These are heady times for Irish hip-hop and Dubliner Alex Anyaegbunam’s long-awaited debut, produced by the in-demand Rahki, delivers on the promise of his superb early EPs. The tracks that hit home most ruminate on his childhood and life in his adopted city of LA — and several have global hit written all over them.
The Dublin quartet have long shown an unerring ability to fashion hook-laden, radio-friendly songs, but with an emotional heart and with much to say. This is the sound of a group of men who have left the carefree years behind and are trying to make sense of a challenging world, whether that’s in personal relationships or the responsibility that comes with being parents.
7 Lisa O’Neill
Heard a Long Gone Song
The Cavan singer-songwriter’s has one of the most distinct voices in Irish music and her delivery has the power to transfix. This fourth album is packed with songs that hark back to the trad styles of our past while being rooted in our present. In a world of homogenous soundalikes, it’s refreshing to hear a singer refusing to conform.
8 The Redneck Manifesto
If the Dublin instrumentalists were the best post-rock Irish group of their generation, they’ve lost little of their magic here eight years on from the last album. It takes real skill to sustain attention over 45 vocal-free moments, but they do so with élan.
9 Glen Hansard
Between Two Shores
The ex-Frames frontman knows a thing or two about writing songs that pick over the carcass of a broken relationship and he’s on fine form. There’s a questioning - of himself and others - that resonates powerfully and, at all times, one senses that the singer is keen to deliver songs with staying power. There are several enduring delights here.
10 Saint Sister
Shape of Silence
Northern Irish duo Morgan MacIntyre and Gemma Doherty have been ones to watch for several years and this debut doesn’t disappoint. It’s an album quite unlike any other released this year and while not being overtly political, it offers a snapshot of what it’s like to be young in today’s Ireland.