Listen: KQED Arts' Top 20 Albums of 2018

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With year-end list season in full swing at media outlets across the country, KQED Arts is dedicating our top 20 national and international albums list to projects that didn't reign over the Billboard charts or mainstream publications. Some of our picks celebrate works that made widespread impact, but most of them highlight lesser-known yet worthy releases. Of course, many of our favorite albums were local. For our favorite Bay Area releases of 2018, click here.

Best Album to Feed the Spirit of Global Resistance

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, Black Times (Strut)

When Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti passed away in 1997, his son Seun Kuti inherited his virtuosic ensemble Egypt 80 at 14 years old. No pressure, right? With his latest release, Black Times, Fela's youngest son reminds us that the revolutionary spirit of the Kuti family is still necessary for 2018's political battles, and that what they do remarkably well is communicate political messages through jubilant, danceable music without dumbing them down or coming across as preachy. With florid explosions of horns and hip-shaking congas, Seun Kuti rails against environment-destroying corporations and champions the 99 percent. His dad spoke out against human rights abuses in Nigeria, but Seun Kuti has a far-reaching message for a globalized world.—Nastia Voynovskaya

Best Album to Preserve an Endangered Language

Jeremy Dutcher, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (Fontana North)


Though we love to make jokes about Canada's politeness and handsome prime minister, Americans often forget that our northern neighbor's colonial history parallels our own. In the past few years, more and more indigenous artists have been claiming a seat at the table, including pianist and singer Jeremy Dutcher. The recipient of 2018's Polaris Prize, Dutcher spent five years writing Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (Our Maliseet Songs) in Wolastoq, his people's language that only has around 100 speakers. Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa is a swooning work of operatic grace, a delicate historical document and a massive middle finger to those that would tell him to "get over it."—Jody Amable

Best Reminder that Multi-Instrumentalists are Super Heroes

Kadhja Bonet, Childqueen (Fat Possum Records)

The fiercely intelligent Kadhja Bonet wrote, produced, mixed and performed almost every aspect of Childqueen's ten tracks (plus cover art) with a painstaking attention to detail. The resulting work—drawing on soul, R&B and disco with choral and symphonic influences—is threaded with Bonet’s delicate vocals and swollen with a restrained power. Childqueen masters that thin line between mainstream accessibility and a music geek's delight, creating a work so fresh it defies all categorization. Bonus: if the album leaves you craving more, she also released a short EP of its outtakes.—Annie Bacon

Best Album to Channel Your Rage

Rico Nasty, Nasty (Sugar Trap)

With family separations at the border, a major housing crisis and a patriarchal display at the Supreme Court confirmation hearing, there was plenty to be angry about in 2018. For this rage, Rico Nasty’s firecracker of an album, Nasty, offers a balm. With the delivery of a drill sergeant, Nasty funnels her anger and insecurities through the growls of nu-metal stalwarts like Korn and Slipknot ("Rage," "Trust Issues"), and empowered braggadocio of female rappers past ("Countin' Up," "Bitch I’m Nasty"). "Nasty" reveals the healing power of fury, and it feels so good.—Montse Reyes

Best Album for Cruising in a Vintage Cadillac

Kali Uchis, Isolation (Universal)

Isolation is Kali Uchis' strongest project since the self-released mixtape that launched her into indie stardom, Drunken Babble. Rather than sticking to the lo-fi R&B style that first caught listeners' attention (which, let's face it, would be so 2012), Uchis' major-label debut hones in on the vintage, low-rider oldies-inspired sound the Colombian-American singer has been grasping at for years. With assists from Bootsy Collins and The Internet's Steve Lacy, Uchis infuses her songwriting with a funky, danceable backbeat that harks back to 1970s Chicano soul, with lyrics that speak to young women striving to get out from under toxic relationships and other forms of patriachy.—Nastia Voynovskaya

Best Album for People Who Live on the Internet

Sophie, Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides (MSMSMSM/Future Classic)

This year—OK, let’s be real, the last few millennia—men have been acting a damn fool, to put it kindly. Blasting SOPHIE’s spectacularly queer album is the perfect way to drown out the sound of all that entitled macho rage. So much of popular music these days is paint-by-numbers and risk-averse, but SOPHIE takes the traditional form of a pop song and gives it a makeover with a chainsaw. Ever wonder what an elephant exorcism taking place in a nightclub 100 years from now might sound like? Listen to "Ponyboy." What about the experience of gobbling up a pack of sour straws laced with acid? Get hyper with "Immaterial." A helium balloon on fire? Enjoy the squeaky destruction of "Faceshopping," about social media and plastic surgery. The album is manic, surreal, challenging and kind of scary, but that's because it’s doing something new, and that’s what keeps me going back for another hit.—Emmanuel Hapsis

Best Album to Fuel a Creative Spree

Tierra Whack, Whack World (Self-Released)

My only complaint about Tierra Whack's debut is that I want more! Comprised of 15 one-minute tracks, Whack World is a feat of imagination and brevity during a year when rap's most-streamed albums (looking at you, Migos, Drake and Rae Sremmurd) were stuffed with throw-away songs that dimmed their brightest moments. In her bite-sized format, Whack shows off her penchant for writing in a variety of genres. On the sexy, R&B track "Bite It," she makes a statement on how female artists are more often appreciated for their aesthetics than their ingenuity; with "Pet Cemetery," she eulogizes a dead friend with a silly yet heart-rending play on the cliche "all dogs go to heaven." The only problem is, each song ends just as you get ready to sing along.—Nastia Voynovskaya

Best Album To Remind Us That Good People Still Exist

Courtney Marie Andrews, May Your Kindness Remain (Fat Possum Records)

Once a backup singer for Jimmy Eat World, country-leaning folk singer/songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews wouldn't have found her way on a winding career path were it not for the altruism of the people she’s met along the way. With the country charm of "Kindness of Strangers," the blues keys of "Border" and the gospel soul of the album’s title track, Andrews' May Your Kindness Remain tells her story brilliantly at every turn. Here’s to hoping we can all move through life as tenderly as this singer with a heart-melting voice.—Adrian Spinelli

Best Album to Turn Arcade Games into Revelations

Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth (Young Turks)

Kamasi Washington’s Heaven and Earth is boundless. The virtuosic jazz saxophonist and his band, the West Coast Get Down, maneuver listeners through space, time and place seamlessly on the 144-minute double album. Washington takes us to Los Angeles for some G-funk on "Street Fighter Mas," reinterprets a classic Bruce Lee theme on "Fists of Fury," beckons us to church on "Will You Sing?" and ventures south with the bossa nova-tinged "Vi Lua Vi Sol." The result is a transcendent album that finds its home in the space between the terrestrial and divine.—Montse Reyes

Most Likely to Start a Mosh Pit

Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel (Marathon Artists/Mom+Pop)

If Barnett’s 2015 debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, was a house party specifically designed to make sparks fly between unsuspecting guests, Tell Me How You Really Feel is the hangover and awkward social consequences that unfold the next day. It’s the heartrending sound of an ex-fly on the wall, grappling with the discomfort and paranoia of suddenly being the center of attention. Barnett’s smart inner monologue was the thing that launched her to fame in the first place. Here, she turns the wry observations on herself to remind listeners to be careful what they wish for. The final result is surprising and moving.—Rae Alexandra

Best Reminder That Everyone Needs an Editor

Vince Staples, FM! (Def Jam)

As rap albums grow increasingly bloated, Vince Staples’ FM! makes a case for concision. Framed as a mock broadcast of the nationally-syndicated radio show Big Boy’s Neighborhood and produced by Kenny Beats and Hagler, FM! captures the buoyancy of summertime alongside the casual and stark ubiquity of death in Staples’ Long Beach. "Summertime in the LB wild / We gon’ party till the sun or the guns come out," he raps on "Feels like Summer," setting the tone for the 22-minute record. The album is brief but mighty, a feat only accomplished by a wordsmith as economic and skilled as Staples.—Montse Reyes

Best Album for Flossing Out Your Poor Oversaturated Brain

Autechre, NTS Sessions (Warp Records)

It almost shouldn't have been an album. NTS Sessions, the hefty 8-hour release from UK electronic duo Autechre, debuted as an online radio premiere in April. However, this isn't a box set collection of throwaways or B-sides, but rather an invigorating, rich marathon of sound designed as a linear narrative, with its own set of climaxes and comedowns. This is all the more impressive having been generated in the algorithmic software Max/MSP; I'm normally a naysayer of AI compositon and its ability to convey emotion, but Autechre have trained their software closer to a human than anything else I've heard. Above all, NTS Sessions is an 8-hour cleanse for the ears and brain—a useful thing amid the information static of 2018. —Gabe Meline

Best Album to Accompany a Psychedelic Trip

Kikagaku Moyo, Masana Temples (Guruguru Brain)

Flipping on Masana Temples, the fourth LP from Japanese psych-rock band Kikagaku Moyo, I’m transported back to a bean bag chair in a college dorm room, my mind in euphoric bliss. "Dripping Sun" feels like felt-coated black light posters are swirling in a hallucination alongside cowbells, wah pedals and Go Kurosawa’s soft vocals. "Majupose" sounds like Stereolab re-incarnated in Japanese. Released on Amsterdam’s Guruguru Brain label, the kaleidoscopic explorations of Masana Temples are nothing short of high-grade stuff.—Adrian Spinelli

Best Album For Throwing a Middle Finger Up to the Patriarchy

Alice Bag, Blueprint (Don Giovanni Records)

Outspoken Chicana activist and feminist punk icon Alice Bag digs into her roots and serves up a potent antidote for apathy with Blueprint. "77" rallies for women everywhere to mobilize towards fair wages (white women make 77 cents to the white man's dollar while Latinas earn closer to 53). On "Se Cree Joven," Bag casts off all expectations about how she should look, talk and act at her age with a bouncy, buzzing mantra proclaiming self-love: "Whether I’m 15 or 100 / I’m going to be myself / Because this is how I feel good." With balladic undertones, Blueprint's final track lyrically illustrates the Chicano Moratorium protest and ultimate clash with the police on Aug. 29, 1970: "You say justice is color blind / I know you’re lying" and "White justice doesn’t work for me / White justice is a travesty / White justice just isn’t, just isn’t just." If there’s anything you take away from this album, one message is crystal clear: "It’s time for change."—Lina Blanco

Best Album to Demonstrate Reggaeton's Staying Power in Pop

J Balvin, Vibras (Universal Music Latino)

The international success of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's "Despacito" gave rise to the wave of Latinx artists taking over into the Anglo market. Such is the case with Colombian reggaeton singer J Balvin, whose Vibras album proved that Latinx artists can vie for American pop stardom without releasing an album in English. Even Beyoncé wanted in on this Colombian reggaeton-pop fusion, joining J Balvin on the remix of lead single "Mi Gente." Vibras recently won the Latin Grammy for best urban music album, and J Balvin is repaving the glory days of this Afro-Caribbean sound.—Azucena Rasilla

Best Album to Help Overcome Heartbreak

Mitski, Be the Cowboy (Dead Oceans)

Have you ever been completely leveled by love? Mitski has too. On Be The Cowboy, Mitski ditches romantic banalities and sends her fuzzy guitars to the back in favor of exploring a broader pop landscape and the devastation wrought by handing over your heart to someone. Here, Mitski is insatiable, diving head first into the wreckage of her feelings and relationships. Playing it cool isn’t an option. Rather, she’s gutted as pleads for her lover’s presence ("Geyser," "Come into the Water"), resigns to her loneliness ("Nobody," "Lonesome Love") and falls apart ("Pink in the Night"). Her love is as ardent and abjectly desirous as it is isolating.—Montse Reyes

Best Album to Remind Us of History's Lessons

Tiffany Austin, Unbroken (Con Alma Music)

No single album can encompass the breadth and depth of the African-American experience, but jazz vocalist Tiffany Austin’s Unbroken offers a kaleidoscopic soul-steeped sojourn into the sounds that have long nourished and sustained black communities. Redolent of church pews and juke joints, protests, late-night slow dances and jam sessions, Austin’s warm and welcoming voice infuses every song with wisdom and grace. With original pieces that stand up effectively next to the standards, she’s well-served by a superlative cast, including an insuperable New York rhythm section featuring pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Carl Allen.—Andrew Gilbert

Best Pissed-off-at-the-Presidency Album

Ministry, AmeriKKKant (Nuclear Blast)

Sometimes you want music to match an angry mood, and for days when your dark cloud is specifically political in nature, Ministry’s 14th studio album, AmeriKKKant, provides the perfect soundtrack. Tightly-wound, appropriately aggressive and full of musical surprises—such as the opening track’s quivering, nervy strings building to the throb-and-squeal of "The Twilight Zone"—AmeriKKKant lays to rest that old canard about people naturally growing more conservative as they grow older. Ministry frontman Al Jourgenson has definitely not mellowed in his elder years, and his outrage is true to form.—Nicole Gluckstern

Best Album for Dancing the Pain Away

Robyn, Honey (Embassy One)

Forget Carmen San Diego—the pressing question of the past eight years has been, where in the world is Robyn?! Now we have our answer: she was in a lab cooking up slow-burn bops to put us in our feelings ("Baby Forgive Me," "Send to Robyn Immediately"). Since her last solo release, Body Talk, Robyn has been through a lot of heartbreak, including a romantic breakup and the death of a close collaborator. Much of her new work feels battle-tested, like a scab falling off. Honey isn’t the sweaty spin around the dance floor we expected, but it’s the deep groove we needed.—Emmanuel Hapsis

Best Album for Jamming Out at Home in Your Socks

Francis and the Lights, Just for Us (KTTF)


True, Francis and the Lights’ third full-length album came out in 2017. But if an album’s released on Dec. 29, does it really belong to that year? Just For Us was the soundtrack of my 2018—a mostly contemplative synth-pop soundtrack punctuated by light, dancey numbers worthy of home-alone-in-your-socks moves. Clear communication got harder ("Breaking Up"); nostalgia was ruled out on "Back in Time" (in which Francis states, "That’s not the way time goes"); and I reconsidered self-driving cars ("Cruise"). Just For Us kept me looking forward in a year I couldn’t be happier to leave behind.—Sarah Hotchkiss