Editor’s note: The point of more extensive genre lists is to help give shine to albums that wouldn’t make it into the overall best albums list. After all, the point of these lists is to examine the way music has changed or moved throughout the year, and our year-end framework will continue to reflect that impetus. Though it’s meant to highlight the best work in the genre, hopefully, you can also make some discoveries through this list.
Traditionally, indie music has earned itself a reputation of being something that’s outside of or an alternative to the mainstream. However, as streaming music and the internet continue to give fans uninterrupted access to whatever they want to listen to and the ability to discover something new without expending a ton of effort, that’s becoming less and less true. Indie is mainstream now.
Really, what music fan hasn’t heard of groups like Death Cab For Cutie or MGMT, two of the most storied groups on this list of 2018’s best indie albums? Followers of the hit Netflix show 13 Reasons Why are familiar with Lord Huron, whose music soundtracked a key moment on the program. Pop and hip-hop stans know Blood Orange and Justin Vernon (who appears on this list as part of Big Red Machine) well thanks to their collaborations in those genres.
Indie music has a big role in the music world, and in pop culture as a whole, and the quality and diversity of the genre are worth celebrating. This list features everything from psychedelic indie pop to emotional rock ballads to gentle folk to quirky punk-leaning music. All those vibes and everything in between truly do offer something for all listeners, not just skinny jean-wearing, Tumblr blog-having baristas.
20. Lord Huron, Vide Noir
Los Angeles psych-folkies Lord Huron may namecheck Michigan with their name (an allusion to Lake Huron, one of the five great lakes) but on their third full-length, founder Ben Schneider and his band are more California than ever before. Vide Noir is a freewheeling, cosmic reflection on our place, not just in the universe, but in the wide, sweeping expanses of time. “Ancient Names (Part 1)” uses spindly, nostalgia-laced synths to lead into a heavier, riffing narrative that spills into its counterpart “Ancient Names (Part 2),” both comparing the current environment to how things were in the past, looking for a way out that isn’t tied to the linear. The band takes on even bigger themes on tracks like “Secret To Life” and “Lost In Time And Space,” but then get small and intimate on “Moonbeam” or album closer “Emerald Star.” With this album, Lord Huron proved they can tackle the biggest concepts in the universe, and bring them down to earth, landing it all back in Los Angeles, California, one of the brightest microcosms of the whole cosmos itself.–C.W.
19. MGMT, Little Dark Age
It’s easy to forget that MGMT once were one of the biggest indie acts in the world, in part because MGMT has worked for years to make everyone forget it. In the wake of the world-conquering of 2008’s Oracular Spectacular, MGMT went on wild and fascinating tangents with 2010’s Congratulations and 2013’s MGMT, shedding most of its fanbase along the way. With Little Dark Age, they were finally able to find a happy medium between approachable pop and freaky psychedelia — the effervescent “Me and Michael” is MGMT’s best pop song since “Kids,” and the Ariel Pink collaboration “When You Die” is as dark and twisted as the wiggiest sections of Congratulations.—Steven Hyden
18. The Beths, Future Me Hates Me
What happens when a trumpet teacher from New Zealand gets a band together with three of her former classmates from studying jazz in college? Well, you get the debut album from The Beths, a record that sounds like the absolute opposite of what you’d expect given that backstory. Instead of horns and complex time signatures, The Beths make warm, exuberant guitar-based indie pop filled with blasts of distortion and infectious melodies. Bandleader Elizabeth Stokes’s singing balances fragility and toughness with a voice that is imbued with her personality and wit, the kind of pop-punk that belongs less on a skateboard and more in a Philadelphia basement show. And while the darkness in the lyrics can sometimes feel like a foil for the upbeat arrangements, it results in a nuanced record of indie bliss.–Philip Cosores
17. The Love-Birds, In The Lover’s Corner
Because of widely reported changes to the city, one of the most exciting music towns in the US, San Francisco, feels like it is less and less in the national conversation. But then a band like The Love-Birds rises above that city’s endless cloud cover to remind of the resilience of art scenes and how the Bay will not be crushed by the ballooning cost of living and the invasion of tech bros. In fact, maybe The Love-Birds couldn’t have existed in another place or another time, taking their love at one-time indie cornerstones like Big Star and R.E.M. and Pavement and proving that jangle-pop can still have a home in an indie world that’s become more disparate in its influences. As I wrote in my review, “It all adds up to the best kind of tribute, one that takes the foundations of greats and builds something entirely new.”–P.C.
16. Typhoon, Offerings
Earlier this year when the massive Portland outfit Typhoon released their fourth album, Offerings, our own Steven Hyden called it “the most absurdly ambitious indie rock album of 2018.” Now that we find ourselves at the end of a year full of excellent indie and rock albums, that summary still stands. Divided into four separate movements, the 70-minute concept album covers “Floodplains,” “Flood,” “Reckoning,” and “Afterparty,” or the metaphorical four stages of a dying man. It’s an enormous undertaking for sure, but one that Kyle Morton and his 12-piece crew manage to pull off with pomp, circumstance, and grace. As a result of its framing, and the scope of the project, Offerings ends up feeling more like a film than an album, but either way, the audience experience is one that inspires awe. Absurd ambition is usually a blessing, not a curse, and Typhoon make their storm of experience into something well worth sitting and drinking in.–C.W.
15. Rhye, Blood
Rhye wowed the indie world with his 2013 debut album Woman, which heralded Mike Milosh as a truly unique singer. He and his singular high-pitched voice are back for a sophomore record after a five-year wait, and the results indicate this wasn’t time wasted. Milosh’s mastery over minimal and soulful R&B has only grown stronger with time, and it’s applicable in a variety of scenarios. He can bust out a tender ballad like “Please” at one moment, and then transition into some low-key funk on the very next track, “Count To Five.” Nobody really does it like Rhye, because his act is one that’s tough to imitate well.–Derrick Rossignol
14. Ian Sweet, Crush Crusher
Though Ian Sweet was at one point a collective, it’s always been the primary vision of songwriter Jilian Medford, who has ditched the dudes she rode in with after revealing the misogynistic way she was treated by them. But Medford has been a solo act before and nothing is lost as she returns to her roots, as the record is still filled with dramatic indie rock blasts over her lilting vocals and tender melodies. The push and pull between gentleness and aggression gives her music its ballast, but what’s most exciting is when Medford breaks from the script, be it the dirty percussion of the title track or her sudden yell at the center of “Falling Fruit.” Crush Crusher is an album that finds inspiration in returning to its roots, and feels like it could be the launchpad for Medford to continue expanding her capabilities as her career progresses.–P.C.
13. Ryley Walker, Deafman Glance
Back in the mid-2010s, Ryley Walker sounded like a folk-rock throwback, a guitar master who emulated romantic cult heroes like Tim Buckley and John Fahey on his 2015 album Primrose Green. He made often gorgeous music, but it was also unquestionably derivative. But around the time of 2016’s Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, Walker discovered his own wry voice, sticking to his lower register and leaning into the sleepy, somewhat sluggish parts of his personality. With this year’s Deafman Glance, Walker completes this transition to his own style of barstool-friendly, folk-accented prog rock, winding dreamy guitar arpeggios around heartfelt confessionals about the personal struggle to transcend slackerdom.–S.H.
12. Half Waif, Lavender
Half Waif’s Lavender is a field day for my occasional synesthesia. It’s a twinkling triumph of synth-pop perfection, bursting with unexpected pops of color. “Lavender Burning” is a twilight navy blue, exploding into a pink-tinted white when the beat drops. “Torches” is fiery purple-red, and the title of “Lilac House” nails the color perfectly.