The 20 Best Debut Albums of 2018

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The 20 Best Debut Albums of 2018

You know that saying—”you only get one chance at a first impression”—well, the same goes for debut albums. An act’s first album is the artistic foundation for which they build on. First albums capture lightning in a bottle by showcasing a pivotal moment in a budding artist’s career and that can lead to a level of rambunctiousness or invincibility that’s so enjoyable for fans to listen to. Debut records give a sonic indication of where an artist is headed next and they help to cultivate a fan base, however small or large. They’re frequently made by those who are still young, naive and fresh-faced—often resulting in uncharacteristically starry-eyed records made by musicians who haven’t yet become fully jaded about the music industry or exhausted by years of touring. When a musician creates such a stellar first body of work, it immediately opens up questions about that so-called “difficult second album,” but we believe these artists listed below have all the tools necessary to slay that “sophomore effort” dragon. The Paste music staff ranked 20 of our favorite debut records from the past year and we’re excited to hear what these musicians churn out next.

Here are the 20 best debut albums of 2018:

20. Parcels: Parcels

Yet another Australian band made one of the year’s finest records. Though Parcels have since relocated to Germany, they got their start in the same continent that’s supplied us with some of 2018’s best music. But while fellow Aussies like Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever and Hatchie lean more indie rock, Parcels are an entirely different animal: Parcels is the long-awaited dance party from the funk-friendly quintet of Daft Punk protégés, proof that disco isn’t dead and never was. Their debut is tremendous fun, and it truly doesn’t sound like anything else happening in music today. That’s a huge accomplishment in itself, considering the broken dam of music constantly rushing our way through channels both digital and natural. Parcels feels miraculously out-of-place, conjuring ghosts of music movements past. But, with its perpetuation of millennial angst and ability to offer release through dance, it does so in a way that feels both necessary and relevant to our present day. Parcels aren’t the only Aussies making musical waves right now, but who else is bringing this much funk to the table? No one. “And that brings to the end of what we hope has been a beautiful trip for you and yours,” Dean Dawson sings in the album’s flight-inspired credits. Indeed, it has. —Ellen Johnson

19. Illuminati Hotties: Kiss Yr Frenemies

Veteran producer and engineer Sarah Tudzin has worked on albums for major players like Slowdive, Amen Dunes and Macklemore (oh, and the Hamilton soundtrack, nbd). This year, however, she made an excellent album of her own, with some help from “a rotating selection of her bffs,” per the Illuminati Hotties Facebook page. The band’s debut, Kiss Yr Frenemies, is a really fun and smart indie-rock album—one of the year’s best, for that matter. Tudzin is bone dry in delivering her lyrics, which pair the everyday with the profound in a startling, hilarious fashion. On “(You’re Better) Than Ever,” something as mundane as a pair of socks triggers a nugget of wisdom: “All my favorite socks are getting holes in them / All my favorite people got a load on them.” In other words, handle the things (and people) you love with care. The world is rough on them. —Ellen Johnson

18. Matt Maltese: Bad Contestant

Matt Maltese wrote some of the funniest and most clever lyrics of 2018. Here are the best from his debut record, Bad Contestant: “I wish that I could fill his shoes / But I’m only a 7,” “Who said the Internet was good for getting on with your life?,” “I pass you a drink while the creeps circle around you / Tryin’ to figure out if I’m just one of them too,” “I tried horse tranquilizer just to impress her” and “You said you use chocolate when you and him take off all your clothes / Why the fuck you tell me that? Can’t drink that image out of my head.” Maltese, forever the horny smartass, more than delivered on the hype from all of those British publications saying he’s “The UK’s answer to Father John Misty,” one schmaltzy lounge-rock Morrissey-influenced song at a time. Simultaneously self-deprecating and profound, Maltese wrote a record detailing life as a 21-year-old girl-obsessed Brit attempting to find love as the world collapses via Trump and Brexit—and it’s one of the most enjoyable debut releases of the year. —Steven Edelstone

17. Bodega: Endless Scroll

Brooklyn art-rock five-piece Bodega are well aware of their city’s storied underground rock traditions, but rather than pilfering that sound, they decided to add something fresh to the city’s lineage. Their debut album Endless Scroll was produced by Parquet Courts’ Austin Brown, and it features an experimental, fluid sound that decries technology addiction, gentrification and the mind-boggling “pizzacore” scene while mythologizing Titanic’s Jack Dawson and celebrating female masturbation. Taking cues from Gang of Four and the B-52’s, co-lead vocalists Ben Hozie and Nikki Belfiglio possess an infectious art-punk spirit and spit out droll lines left and right while guitarist Madison Velding-VanDam plays like a chugging, post-punk version of Wilko Johnson. Throughout the album’s 14 tracks, you’re met with blaring and sharp instrumentals paired with laugh-out-loud observational quips (“Your playlist knows you better than a closest lover”) that fit the common gripes of 2018 like a glove. —Lizzie Manno

16. Superorganism: Superorganism

Nothing about Superorganism makes sense. When their first single, “Something For Your M.I.N.D.” hit Soundcloud last year, Japanese-born lead singer Orono was a senior at a boarding school in Maine, while her bandmates—who had never all been in the same room before—were scattered between London and Australia. After more than a year of musical experimentation via Skype, they signed with Domino last September, eventually resulting in one of 2018’s most bizarre and fun records. From the random video game sounds on the bridge of “Nai’s March” to the apple bite on “Something For Your M.I.N.D.,” the eight-piece group provided some of the most memorable and out-there moments in music this year, using their eccentricities to forever keep fans on the edge of their seat. The group combined esoteric sound design, peculiar lyrics, and incredibly catchy melodies to create 2018’s most unique release, one that will fascinate producers for years to come. —Steven Edelstone

15. Phantastic Ferniture: Phantastic Ferniture

Everything about Phantastic Ferniture sounds like it’s meant to be temporary, and it’s hard not to find that concerning. Australian singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin is in the midst of releasing new songs and prepping for the release of her second full-length album Crushing, out in February 2019, and the words “Phantastic Ferniture” appear only once on her Wikipedia entry as an “associated act.” The band’s official description, meanwhile, pegs it as a side project for all three people involved: “Phantastic Ferniture is the project of old friends Julia Jacklin, Elizabeth Hughes, and Ryan K. Brennan, who wanted to shake the shackles of their meticulously crafted solo work to experience a second, giddy adolescence.” That rather makes the band sound like a calculated escape from the individual careers they’ve been pouring their hearts and souls into for years, but not one with a lot of stakes or future—if their solo work is meant to be taken as “meticulously crafted,” Phantastic Ferniture’s songs are implied to be raw or spontaneous by comparison. But might we suggest that’s a good thing? The self-titled debut from the group is chock full of compelling songs, from the rhythmically intoxicating “Uncomfortable Teenager” to the soaring “Fuckin ‘n’ Rollin,” to the simplistic but devastatingly catchy “Dark Corner Dance Floor.” Jacklin’s silky voice is wonderfully applied to this particular brand of propulsive indie rock, while Hughes is the perfect complement in small flourishes that take each song to the next level. This may be a band that was assembled without concrete plans for the future, but we’re hoping the reaction Phantastic Ferniture has received thus far convinces them to re-invest in what could become rock’s next great three-piece. —Jim Vorel

14. Tierra Whack: Whack World

If you haven’t seen it yet, Tierra Whack’s Whack World video/album will instantly blow you away. The Wonka-esque visual release from the Philadelphia rapper sees 15 tracks spread across 15 minutes, each with a unique theme, and there’s a distinct sense of evolving maturity from Whack as the tracks unfold. The beats are off-kilter, and her vocals are both delicately and aggressively manipulated in a range of ways to fit the scene. But it’s the confidence with which the 22-year-old delivers an unprecedented creative leap across these songs that shows what a rare breed she is. Whack World is a shapeshifter. It’s clever. It’s zany. It’s mundane. It’s surreal. It’s grotesque. It’s rugged. It’s escapist. It’s introspective. It’s lavish. It’s trendy. It’s worldly. It’s millennial. It’s playful. It’s vibrant. It’s radiant. It’s stunning. It takes art to another level, and in a lot of ways, it was the most unpredictable and incredible 15 minutes of the year. More please. —Adrian Spinelli

13. Tomberlin: At Weddings

Sara Beth Tomberlin’s debut album, At Weddings, is an ode to the uncertainty and overall dishevelment of your late teens and early twenties: bogged down by self-doubt, seeking validation from others, rebelling against unsolicited religious beliefs that were pressed upon you as a child (the 23-year-old singer/songwriter was born to strict Baptist parents) and longing for someone even though you know they’re a bad influence. Featuring only an acoustic guitar and various keyboards and effects, the record centers on Tomberlin’s Joni Mitchell-esque pipes, loud in their softness and tenderness and unsuspectedly moving you to your absolute core. The naked instrumentation mirrors the transparency of her lyrics and while the songs consist of just a few elements, her overflowing emotions make the tracks feel full and warm. At Weddings is filled with such a powerful, saintly aura that even the most ugly subject matters can spur flawless, beautiful results. —Lizzie Manno

12. Miya Folick: Premonitions

After releasing two EP’s—2015’s Strange Darling and 2017’s Give It To Me—Los Angeles singer-songwriter Miya Folick has shared her debut album in the form of the starkly titled Premonitions, which is characterized by her jaw-dropping vocal range. Her larger than life vocals derive, in part, from her classical training, but she also has the kind of pipes that just don’t seem teachable. On songs like “Stock Image” and “Thingamajig,” she exhibits an otherworldly, operatic beauty, while on “Freak Out” and “Cost Your Love,” there’s a bouncy, sugary and simple joy marked by frenetic synths, grounding guitars and spry percussion. Even the largest songs have a clear sense of intimacy while introspective tracks like “Baby Girl” and “What We’ve Made” are distinctly grand. A lyric from “What We’ve Made” is a perfect metaphor for the album. She sings, “We make tiny happinesses in each moment,” which is exactly what this record feels like. She handcrafts everyday situations into something angelic yet relatable and celebratory yet poignant. Her appeal extends well beyond the realms of pop as there’s a distinct, developed lyrical voice and a dynamic, extraordinary literal voice that makes 2018 feel much less scary and isolating and much more pure and magical. —Lizzie Manno

11. Ashley McBryde: Girl Going Nowhere

The deck feels perpetually stacked against women in the modern country marketplace. To make any kind of commercial inroads, the constantly moving pathways currently require these ladies to either hide their twang behind a wall of pop production (RaeLynn, Maren Morris), ape the blustery sound that the boys are making (Carly Pearce) or shoot for something far outside the norm and pray for crossover success (Kacey Musgraves). Where does that leave a country traditionalist like Ashley McBryde? Surprisingly, it finds her on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart with “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega,” a single from her debut album Girl Going Nowhere and opening up for platinum-selling artist Luke Combs on his headlining tour. Both are sensible places to be. That song, with its lyrical laundry list of working class signifiers, is catnip to country fans. And traversing the U.S. with Combs as he plays mid-size venues on his ascent up the ladder is the best way to get her songs heard en masse without having to fight for attention at sheds and arenas. She made her name in biker bars and honky tonks before getting snapped up by a major label. And no other song on Nowhere fits as neatly into the eye of the needle that every artist in Nashville is trying to thread as “Dahlonega” does. It’s a no bullshit record free of frills and fat; 11 songs that make their points powerfully and memorably. These songs don’t need to be messed with or tarted up or given a 21st-century shine. They work perfectly in their current roughshod, if gently polished, form. The needle may keep moving for female country artists, but that’s of little concern to McBryde. She’s on a journey toward career longevity and Nowhere is her confident and solid first step. —Robert Ham

10. Flasher: Constant Image

Flasher are a trio who play an amalgamation of joyful, frenetic pop, punk, post-punk and shoegaze. The band released their debut album, Constant Image, this year via Domino Records, and it’s unequivocally one of the best albums of the year. What sets them apart from many of their peers is their knack for writing such immediate pop melodies and their slick production value, which maintains their chugging rock energy and allows their impressively consistent tracklist to shine. Each member contributes vocals—guitarist Taylor Mulitz (formerly of Priests) is playful and self-assured, bassist Danny Saperstein’s vocals are snotty and eccentric and drummer Emma Baker lends gorgeous vocal harmonies. —Lizzie Manno

9. I’m With Her: See You Around

Their band name may remind you of a particularly turbulent election season, but their music, which is punctuated with warm harmonies and bare-bones acoustics, recalls a relaxed hootenanny rather than a televised debate. Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins, Crooked Still’s Aoife O’Donovan and folk songstress Sarah Jarosz began collaborating as I’m With Her back in 2015—prior to the launch of Hillary Clinton’s identically named presidential campaign slogan—but See You Around is the bluegrass supertrio’s full-length debut. Their fortified voices, plus Watkins’ fiddle, O’Donovan’s guitar, and Jarosz’s mandolin, mesh in a familial way—it’s a wonder they aren’t sisters. Plucky and purposeful, See You Around is at once soothing and sweeping, a testament to practiced musicianship and the power of collaboration, a chief value in bluegrass/acoustic scenes. During performances, the three women gather around a single microphone, like a family sitting down for supper. On the record, similes and other clever lyrical nuggets are woven into a hearty 40 minutes. See You Around creeps to start with a gentle crescendo and resounds to a close with the hymn-like “Hundred Miles.” Though still in their infancy, I’m With Her are pros, and their ability to effortlessly freshen bluegrass sounds while maintaining musical mastery marks them as one of the best working supergroups, in Americana and beyond. —Ellen Johnson

8. Noname: Room 25

In 2016, Chicago rapper Noname, née Fatimah Nyeema Warner, made a brief but unforgettable appearance on the penultimate track on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, the unapologetically joyful collaboration “Finish Line / Drown.” That song also featured T-Pain and Kirk Franklin and others, but Noname, relatively unknown at the time, administered one of its best lines: “The water may be deeper than it’s ever been / Never drown.” On Room 25, the follow-up to her 2016 debut album/mixtape Telefone that she surprise-released in September, Noname helms a collaborative jingle of her own, the empowered “Ace,” which features fellow Midwestern rappers Smino and Saba. They waste no breath in declaring their summary of hip hop in 2018: “Smino Grigio, Noname, and Saba the best rappers / And radio n****s sound like they wearing adult diapers.” It’s on the album’s first two tracks (“Self,” followed by the observatory “Blaxpoitation”), however, where Noname forges more political waters, delivering deeply important lines of poetry about racism and sexism. “Self” is her documented questioning of everything that’s absurd in 2018 and a breakdown of what it’s like to wade through the music industry as a woman rapper. “My pussy teaches ninth-grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism,” she raps, before later asking, “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap huh?” Through Room 25’s calculated wisps of groove rap and studied waves of neo-soul, Noname proves she’s wise and fortified, and not to be questioned. —Ellen Johnson

7. Haley Heynderickx: I Need to Start a Garden

We’re not hurting for great singer/songwriters here in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. For years now, it’s been one of our greatest exports alongside bacon maple bars and pizza named after metal albums. But if we were to get into the game of ranking these musical talents, I daresay that Haley Heynderickx would surely take the top spot. There’s just something about the understated grace and humor mixed with an abundance of spirit that serves as a vital corrective to the sometimes self-important airs that her peers sometimes put on. This comes through quite beautifully on her debut album, I Need To Start A Garden. As lush and scenic as its title suggests, the album is a thoughtful collection, painting vivid, personal portraits of quirky characters, as well as intimate self-reflection. Album opener “No Face,” inspired by a bar fight Heynderickx witnessed, stars a mysterious figure plucked from a Hayao Miyazaki film; on the ecstatic “Worth It,” Heynedrickx turns inward, repeating: “Maybe I’ve been worthless/ Maybe I’ve been worth it.” —Robert Ham and Loren DiBlasi

6. The Beths: Future Me Hates Me

Elizabeth Stokes named her band after herself, or, rather, her nickname. So it should come as no surprise, then, that the debut album from New Zealand-based rockers The Beths, Future Me Hates Me, is sharply self-aware. Stokes, a music teacher who quit her day job to tour the world with The Beths, pairs clever, refreshingly straightforward lyrics with uber-catchy guitar pop, and she never stutters in delivering even the most blunt assessments of her doubts, fears and anxieties. “Sometimes I think I’m doing fine / I think I’m pretty smart,” she sings on the album’s title track before, later, completing the thought: “Oh then the walls become thin / And somebody gets in / I’m defenseless.” On dizzying love song “Little Death,” she captures and tames all the butterflies swarming around in her stomach: “And the red spreads to my cheeks / You make me feel three glasses in.” The Beths sound as if they’re already three albums in, playing with the musical and lyrical finesse of a much older and more experienced band. Every single song on this record arrives with as many contagious hooks and honest confessions as on the sparkly, frank “Little Death” and the toe-tap-inducing examination of overthinking “Future Me Hates Me.” Indie rock is alive and well in Oceania—The Beths, like their Australian neighbors Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, hit it out of the park in crafting one of the sturdiest rock debuts of the year. —Ellen Johnson

5. Big Red Machine: Big Red Machine

Big Red Machine was a decade in the making, starting with the sketch of a song The National’s Aaron Dessner sent Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon for the Dark Was the Night charity compilation and culminating with recording sessions with a host of friends. Anchored by Dessner and Vernon, their guests include vocalists like Lisa Hannigan, Phoebe Bridgers, This Is the Kit’s Kate Stables and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, and string arrangements from Rob Moose and Dessner’s twin brother Bryce. In all, it includes more than two dozen contributors from the minimalistic PEOPLE music platform created by Vernon and the Dessners to encourage collaboration and sharing. Side projects like this often seem tossed off, but Big Red Machine feels like the opposite—something remarkably ambitious, a labor of love that sees two of indie rock’s most talented and creative minds pursuing a passion without pressure, or limits. The resulting music can sound at times like a National album with Vernon’s echoing, manipulated falsetto serving as a stark contrast to the warm, intimate baritone of Matt Berninger, and at other times like a Bon Iver album with more complex and inventive chordal patterns and rhythmic structures. It’s experimental but affecting with Vernon’s snippets of heart-on-sleeve vulnerability popping up screaming from a cloud of otherwise opaque lyrics. You can hear the influence of Vernon’s work in the hip-hop world in both the underlying beats and his vocals on tracks like “Gratitude” and “Lyla.” Polyrhythms and the odd time signatures Dessner loves to employ with The National abound, and combined with Vernon’s recent sonic exploration on 22 a Million and sometimes incomprehensible word salads, immediate accessibility isn’t really the goal here. But those complexities and sonic risks are also where the music is most rewarding. Neither The National nor Bon Iver does “happy music,” and the themes running through Big Red Machine are rarely uplifting, but there’s unmistakable joy in the music here, a deep care and love for what they were creating and how they got to create it—among friends who also happen to be overflowing with talent. Fans of either band are likely to share in that joy. —Josh Jackson

4. Shame: Songs of Praise

Citing influences like The Fall and Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Shame make familiar but not unawesome post-punk. Think tightly-wound, jittery guitars, mile-a-minute hi-hat and an exquisite bleakness that stems from their municipal origin (Gang Of Four-flavored “Concrete,” a song about an unhappy relationship that will have you beating on your steering wheel, embodies this sound perfectly and already gives me hope for a better 2018). What sets these lads apart is their beyond-their-years songwriting, riotous live shows (they were once fined for ripping a chandelier from the ceiling) and frontman Charlie Steen’s arresting vocals. There’s something hardscrabble about them, something working-class, in the proud, rosy-cheeked English sense. And while they do carry on the political edge of their forebears, it’s not inherently so, but present in the rapid-fire fury of “Lampoon,” with Sheen shouting “my tongue will never get tired,” the giant middle finger to insecurity of “One Rizla” and the whip-smart examination of the fine line between sexual exploitation vs. empowerment on the filthy “Gold Hole.” Delivered with a heavy dose of grit and honesty, there’s some teeth marks there, but not the whole bite. It makes for their own, unique brand of sociopolitics-lite, done with a nudge, a wink, and just enough of the unexpected. All the way down to the cheeky image of the band wholesomely posing with baby pigs that graces the album’s cover. The seven-minute closer, the doomed-love dazzler “Angie,” features Steen’s first attempt at real singing, and shows that these guys are definitely playing with a full deck, delivering a more-than-solid first effort with plenty of anticipation for whatever they choose to do next. —Madison Desler

3. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: Hope Downs

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever wastes no time in getting to their strength—jangling, propulsive pop-rock—on their debut full-length Hope Downs. There is no table-setting track here. No slow fade in or superfluous into. In fact, opener “An Air Conditioned Man” almost seems to pick up in medias res when you press play. This seems appropriate for R.B.C.F., an Australian quintet that hit the ground running a few years ago. They released their excellent first EP Talk Tight on the Sydney-based record label Ivy League, then moved to Sub Pop for 2017’s The French Press EP. The former is a bit more relaxed and acoustic, while the latter cranks up the volume and pace. Together, they’re a thrilling introduction to a promising young band. Hope Downs fulfills that promise, first by tumbling out of the chute on “An Air Conditioned Man” and then by barrelling through nine more taut pop-rock gems in just over half an hour. The basic components here are pretty simple: driving (often motorik) rhythms courtesy of drummer Marcel Tussie, indispensable bouncy-ball bass lines by Joe Russo and a dense tangle of guitars—strummed acoustics and spiky electrics—constructed by Joe’s brother Tom Russo, Joe White and Fran Keaney. The three guitarists also trade off lead vocals from song to song. The band even sneaks in some twang, landing somewhere near country-post-punk. Meanwhile, “Sister’s Jeans” and “How Long?” prove R.B.C.F. have it in them to slow down a bit, open things up and soar. That bodes well for the future: Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever have more tricks up their sleeves, it seems. For a debut, though, a couple tricks are enough, especially when you’ve already mastered them. —Ben Salmon

2. Snail Mail: Lush

Lindsey Jordan’s first EP as Snail Mail in 2016 won over critics and fans with its subdued power and studied melancholy, revealing a songwriter well beyond her 16 years. Since then, she’s graduated high school, toured with the likes of Waxahatchee and Girlpool, and was featured in a roundtable of female rock musicians for the New York Times. Her debut LP, Lush, is a collection of 10 lucid guitar-pop songs that show off her her classically trained guitar skills, structural know-how and an ability to express the inquisitiveness and confident insecurity of youth with a surprising sophistication. “They don’t love you, do they?” she asks during the magic-hour-esque “Intro,” her clear and comfortingly relatable voice singing the first of many questions she poses throughout the album. Her music is laid-back, gently hooky, and complements the poetic vagueness of her lyrics. There isn’t enough detail for you to know exactly what she’s talking about, but you understand the mood. Though the highs and lows of the album are subtle, Lush confirms what the Habit EP first introduced. Jordan is a definite talent. The songs illustrate a wise-beyond-years songwriting style, with none of the self-importance and indulgence that can come with more experience. Nothing feels trite or contrived. She’s a natural, with an impressive sense of restraint, placing points of tension and release right where they need to be. —Madison Desler

1. Soccer Mommy: Clean

Amidst the verses of “Still Clean,” the opening track off of Clean, the latest album from Sophie Allison (aka Soccer Mommy), she’s grappling with a temporary tryst, a seasonal fling—the kind we often pretend to have gotten over, while we replay the minutiae of the affair over and over again in the privacy of our own heads. “I guess I’m only what you wanted for a little while,” she sings—still dazed months later from the abrupt departure of her summer love’s affections. Those are the first lyrics that jumped out at me, instantly conjuring up a face, and a name and my own replayed reel of amatory memories and now-hollow words. This speaks to Allison’s songwriting, a craft she honed for years in her Tennessee bedroom before releasing last year’s acclaimed Collection. With Clean, she may have again left her bedroom for the studio, but her introspective and comfortably confessional lyrics maintain their intimacy and diary-scrawl relatability. Only this time, Allison is zeroing in on the freeing, but often painful realizations that we all experience at one time or another—the kind that usually only come with the ending of something. Allison is young, her slight 20 years evident not only in her youthful voice, but her talk of missed calls from mom, parked cars, and hanging around after school. But she does it all in an honest, uncomplicated, and well-crafted way that Clean is anything but juvenile. You might just forget how old you are for a second, as her bedroom melodies carry you back to when feelings were freely given and many lessons still had to be learned. —Madison Desler