A year in music is always wild and varied, and picking our favourite albums of 2018 is no small feat. This year, we decided to do something different: no "best" list, but instead, a favourites list. No fights over ranking — just love.
From Drake's mega album Scorpion to debut albums from R&B artist Odie and feminist hip-hop group the Sorority, we had a lot to choose from, whether we needed strength in the form of an uprising or salve for a broken heart. You might notice a few glaring omissions: Jeremy Dutcher's stunning debut, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, is not here, but that's because it's on our list of 10 favourite classical recordings of 2018; and Hubert Lenoir's groundbreaking Darlene is also missing, but you'll find it on our list of 10 best francophone albums of the year.
So sit back, put your headphones on and have a look at our favourite albums of the year. What have we missed? Let us know via Twitter @CBCMusic.
Self-titled, Cadence Weapon
Rollie Pemberton, a.k.a. Cadence Weapon, put out my favourite Canadian rap album of the year. (Sorry, Drake.) On his first album in five years, Pemberton breaks out of his self-imposed bubble and elicits outside beatmakers to help widen his palette. With assists from some of the country’s best producers, including Kaytranada, FrancisGotHeat, Harrison and Jacques Greene, the result is some of Pemberton’s best work yet. His lyrical flow navigates each track with a fluidity that's always been his talent, but to see him sprint through “My Crew (Woooo)” with the utmost precision, or effortlessly wade through the rippled layers of “Infinity Pool,” is exhilarating — and more importantly, straight-up fun. A pretty ideal “dinner party” soundtrack, in my opinion.
— Melody Lau
In many ways, 2018 was just a continuation of the dumpster fire that was 2017 — and, really, 2016, too. In times like this, the music of an artist like Bahamas is the smoothest swig of whisky one can take. His latest release, Earthtones, can tackle some dark topics like depression or the pressures of fatherhood, but Afie Jurvanen infuses every track with palpable positivity and empathy that subliminally whispers, “Everything’s going to be OK.” Tracks also dig deeper into a funk and R&B groove thanks to the contributions of James Gadson and Pino Palladino, two musicians who made up D’Angelo’s backing band on the artist's 2014 album, Black Messiah. Earthtones is a satisfying balm to keep us sane as we face the upcoming new year. — ML
Deception Bay, Milk & Bone
Deception Bay is a literal place in Quebec, but it's also the place in the back of your mind where doomed relationships settle in to haunt you. It's the perfect name for Camille Poliquin and Laurence Lafond-Beaulne's sophomore album, as the title track culminates in a textured banger of a song that balances the fragility of a broken heart with the bombast of a comeback. The tenuous line between those two states of feeling is where Milk & Bone truly shines.
Montreal's Poliquin and Lafond-Beaulne are best friends and close creators, building songs with electronic textures, hooks and harmonies that only get stronger as their duo evolves. While the gauzy track "Daydream" and playful "Kids" make for catchy ear candy, it's a song like "BBBLUE" — the penultimate on the album — that reverberates long after it's over. "I'm baby blue/ I wish I was your baby, too," Poliquin sings mournfully before the synths drop in, ripping your heart out while simultaneously keeping it beating. When you're finished with "BBBLUE," you have to go back and hit play on "Nevermore," where you're no longer begging for someone to stay; instead, you're steeling yourself to get back up. Deception Bay is the heartbreak album of the year — but it’s also the one that will mend you.
— Holly Gordon
In a Poem Unlimited, U.S. Girls
Rage is timeless but it has also been an incredibly timely sentiment in 2018. That’s what makes U.S. Girls’ In a Poem Unlimited such a perfect record for this moment in time. Even though frontwoman Meg Remy’s razor-sharp reflections on women’s anger feels tailored to the era of #MeToo, it’s a theme that Remy has spent years honing in on. The precision and detail with which she executes a revenge narrative, a tale of abuse or even a critical takedown of Obama’s administration for its use of drone strikes and continuing wars — all brilliantly embedded into big, glossy disco melodies on this record — is a masterful feat. To exorcise pain through a funk-pop jam is something that should be encouraged more, and you should start by hitting play on this album. — ML
Stone Woman, Charlotte Day Wilson
In recent years, Canadians have watched homegrown R&B talent like Daniel Caesar, the Weeknd and Majid Jordan step onto the international stage and subsequently skyrocket to widespread acclaim. In 2018, budding Toronto artist Charlotte Day Wilson seemed to find herself in the similar early throes of critical admiration, thanks to the release of her soulful second EP, a sample on John Mayer’s hit “New Light,” and a performance at Virgil Abloh’s hyped Louis Vuitton debut at Paris Fashion Week. A stunning vocalist and multi-instrumentalist whose live set includes her skilled saxophone solos, Wilson’s sophomore effort is a lush collection of jazz-infused ballads that chug through your veins at the pace of her downtempo beats. Ranging from the mesmerizing title track to the city-lit, Esthero-esque “Let You Down,” Wilson stays in a neo-soul lane on Stone Woman, which leaves us even more eager to hear what beautiful experiments she has in store for 2019.
— Jess Huddleston
In a State, shy kids
This is the sleeper album of sleeper albums in 2018. Shy kids are as much an art collective as they are a rock band, who gained notoriety for their breathtaking video work. They took that success and did what many Canadian artists do: moved to Los Angeles. But the Hollywood dream quickly became a nightmare and In a State is the musical chronicling of that misadventure. Aside from being a good story, it’s a dazzling album that demands a good set of headphones as shy kids insert a tickle-trunk’s worth of sounds and instruments into every song. Plus, as they are video savants, they made a music video for each track — and the result multiplies the music’s emotional impact.
— Mitch Pollock
The album that has racked up the most listens from me in 2018 is Analogue, the debut full-length from Montreal-born, Toronto-raised Odie (real name Oduanyo Ekunboyejo), who’s now building a big reputation on the Bay Area’s music scene. Rarely does one album deliver so many first-rate singles in such diverse styles. “Bliss City” is quite chill (and got picked up for the soundtrack of the Netflix film The After Party). There are echoes of Coldplay (an influence, he says) in “Little Lies,” the album’s most-streamed track. “Midnight” unfolds over a new wave-inspired ostinato, while Odie’s Nigerian heritage comes to the surface in the electro-Afrobeat of “Faith.” My favourite track is “North Face,” whose urban R&B vibe is a perfect vehicle for his gossamer falsetto.
— Robert Rowat
Pledge, the Sorority
Pledge is a vibrant and compelling collaboration, and one of the most exciting debuts in 2018. The record boasts brilliant rhymes, lines and beats, and there are plenty of callbacks to the founding queens of rap, hip-hop, and R&B. But this tribute to, and celebration of, the women who helped pave the way avoids the trappings of pure nostalgia. The Sorority is a thoroughly contemporary foursome with a passion for justice, equality and keeping their lovers on point. The way they share songs, trade verses, and hype each other up is a powerful illustration of the radical beauty, possibility and joy of sisterhood, feminist friendship and activism.
— Andrea Warner
Self-titled, Shawn Mendes
Vine star-turned-pop heartthrob Shawn Mendes is three albums into his career now, but in some ways his self-titled effort this year feels like a proper introduction to the 20-year-old star. With his first two records, Mendes established his ability to co-pen and deliver some of the catchiest pop hits of the past few years — “Stitches,” “Mercy” and “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back,” for example — but there was always a bit of an impersonal romantic theme that felt like he was trapped in songwriting 101. On his third record, Mendes opens up about details of his life that touch on anxiety, violence and more nuanced experiences of love — like one-night stands and fantasies of jet-setting across the globe to spend time with a crush — that help give Mendes’ still-adept earworm-crafting skills an intimacy that signals true growth. “In my Blood” is an anthem built for stadiums, “Lost in Japan” brings Justin Timberlake’s sexy falsetto back and “Where Were You in the Morning” shows that John Mayer’s mentorship has really paid off. Now that we’re really getting a sense of who Mendes is, we want more. — ML
Lush Life, Bonjay
Bonjay's long-awaited debut Lush Life is a fitting description of the sonic landscape that Alanna Stuart and Ian "Pho" Swain have crafted over the album’s nine tracks. Every song is vibrant and evocative, high concept without sacrificing any emotional weight. It’s so cohesive that Lush Life itself feels like a place, a city or space of its own making. This begins to take shape with the first track, “Ingenue,” a wild reinvention of the classic torch song, and doesn’t stop building, experimenting and surprising until “Night Bus Blue,” the final track, fades out in all its hypnotic, holy glory. — AW
Related: First Play Live: Bonjay, Lush Life
Scorpion was one of the biggest and best albums of 2018, but it faced its fair share of criticism. Namely, that there was simply too much of it. At 25 songs, that’s true, but only if you’re following the traditional rules of an album — which Drake isn’t. Drake knows more than anyone that people generally don’t start an album at song one and play through to the end. Not unlike the Beatles' White Album (which included 30 songs), you curate the album you want, depending on your mood. If anything, the sheer number of songs and the breadth of styles work in favour of Scorpion, which includes everything from Drake rapping over hard beats ("Nonstop," "Talk Up," "8 Out of 10") to souled-out sample flips ("Emotionless," "Sandra’s Rose") to New Orleans bounce ("Nice for What," "In My Feelings") to R&B slow jams ("After Dark") and, well, a posthumous vocal from Michael Jackson ("Don’t Matter to Me"). It may have been Drake’s most divisive album when it came out, but Scorpion only gets better with age.
— Jesse Kinos-Goodin
Baby Teeth, Dizzy
Oshawa band Dizzy released its debut album in August, which was a perfect time for the layered dream pop from suburbia to settle into your sweaty summer nights and soundtrack late-night walks home. Baby Teeth balances being both moody and breezy at once, with a hypnotic combination of richly visual lyrics (on "Swim": "Goodbye to my mother whose body I lived in/ turned blood into water and taught me to swim") and personal, observational writing (on "Joshua": "Joshua's a Gemini ... certain he was God sent"). Lead vocalist and songwriter Katie Munshaw formed the band with brothers Charlie, Alex and Mackenzie Spencer, and we really hope that debut name is prophetic — that the momentum from this quietly addictive album will result in adult teeth being cut soon. — HG
Solo Piano III, Chilly Gonzales
Canada’s favourite musical genius Chilly Gonzales promises that Solo Piano III is “not an antidote for our times, it is a reflection of all the beauty and ugliness around us.” Indeed this recording contains a little bit of both sides, from pleasing Bach-like arpeggiating chords to an agitated and dissonant “Blizzard in B Minor.” Chilly Gonzales’ compositions feel like the music of another era. His unique musical personality shines through with clever titles (“Be Natural,” “Lost Ostinato”) and his piano playing ranges from reflective to virtuosic. Want to feel like a musical genius yourself? The album is also available as sheet music.
— Michael Morreale
Self-titled, La Force
If you're a fan of Feist or Broken Social Scene, you need to add this album to your record collection before the end of the year. Ariel Engle has, in fact, worked with both bands — you'll hear her front and centre on the last BSS record — but there's something about this self-titled solo debut of hers, under the name La Force, that struck me with a greater force than even that last BSS album did. Maybe it's the spectrum of energy you feel tapped into, when you give it a spin; a song like "TBT" will run on incredible urgency, while "Lucky One" will stop you in your tracks with its hushed yet honest output. The latter actually feels like a balm at the end of a long year, even though Engle herself has admitted the song is about "the illusion of having control of your life." Then again, maybe there is some comfort in knowing none of us can have it all figured out — even someone who's released one of the most beautiful records of 2018.
— Emma Godmere
Master Volume, the Dirty Nil
Dundas, Ontario’s the Dirty Nil took a defibrillator to Canadian rock music this year with their stunning sophomore LP, Master Volume. With a punk-rock attitude that slams together with stadium-filling ambition, lead singer/guitarist Luke Bentham makes his case on the record that no frontman in the game can bring it like he can. There's not a rotten apple in this basket of songs. The entire album stomps on the death of rock ’n’ roll, and along with bands like Toronto's Pup, the Nil is shining a welcome light for the future of the genre in Canada. — MP
002/Love Me, Lou Phelps
At first listen, you might think from the upbeat instrumentals and confidence in Lou Phelp's delivery that 002/Love Me is just a danceable album. But beneath the bouncy beats lies Phelps' sharp storytelling, with all the classic R&B flair of artists like Craig David, Usher and Alicia Keys. Phelps explores the intricacies and messiness of relationships throughout the project. Where songs like “Squeeze” coax the listener into playful, flirtatious scenarios, others like “2 Seater” show a different side of courtship: isolation, loneliness and the inability to connect. Expertly produced by brother Kaytranada, Phelp's sophomore project mixes quintessential R&B lyricism with modern instrumentals. 002/Love Me is an album with which to soundtrack your life. Bump it in the club, in the car and at home.
— Natasha Ramoutar
Shad, A Short Story About a War
Shad is a natural storyteller. Just take a look at any of his previous Polaris Music Prize-nominated albums for a taste of his compelling and thoughtful lyrical prowess. On A Short Story About a War, his first album in five years, the rapper spins an ambitious tale of how humanity has torn itself apart through war, violence and environmental damage, all over the course of 40 minutes. (The length itself is a feat given rappers’ penchant for long, bloated albums nowadays.)
Shad’s albums can be dense, but it’s a rewarding experience to dive deeper and deeper with each listen. The production on A Short Story About a War is just as appealing as Shad hops on an array of beats from light, breezy tracks laced with pianos and strings to Yeezus-inspired bass thumpers. But ultimately, its Shad’s optimism, despite all of the world’s faults he points out, that makes this album an absolute joy to listen to — and sometimes a necessity. — ML
Grenades, Kaia Kater
As a first-generation Canadian with roots in the Caribbean myself, I found Kaia Kater's album Grenades to be a familiar journey. It's easy to feel like your family's tale is a footnote in history, but Kater slowly and carefully unpacks her family’s legacy over the 14 tracks, giving the tale the attention it deserves. Underscoring the songs are candid recordings of her father, in which he recounts how he was forced to flee Grenada shortly after the U.S. invasion. Grenades is ambitious as both a musical composition and ethnography. From her poetic lyricism to her pensive themes on memory and identity, Kater enchants. Her narrative reminds us to be optimistic about the future, but never shy away from the violence of the past. — NR
More or Less, Dan Mangan
It happens more rarely than you think: when you suddenly realize the lyrics pumping out of your speakers are narrating the kind of thoughts you've been long reluctant to put into words. People talk about relating to songs all the time, but it takes a skilled and empathetic songwriter — one who's willing to cross that barrier of reluctance himself — to write the kind of music that can make you feel like someone's listening to you. Dan Mangan has been skillfully writing songs for years, but on his fifth record, More or Less, he's opened himself up more courageously than ever. He's even recorded his first honest-to-goodness love song, "Fool For Waiting," which remains one of the best first-dance contenders of the year. But back to that empathy, for a second: if the word "overwhelmed" sounds familiar to you — whether you've ever felt it briefly, or it has the tendency to swallow your Saturday whole — give "Lay Low" a listen, and know that Mangan has been right there with you, too. — EG