The 1975, Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco & Mitski
The 1975, Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco & Mitski
Getty, Courtesy Photos; Design by Jessica Xie

The 25 Best Rock Albums of 2018: Critics' Picks

Eight different rock albums topped the Billboard 200 albums chart in 2018. You'll find a couple of those on this list, along with some excellent, lesser known stuff that also helped define the year. Specifically, 2018 was a standout year for EPs from indie pop and rock artists, so much that we couldn't find room to fit in a number of them, much as we wanted to. In between, you'll find great albums from classic rock icons, innovative punks, and a couple Internet icons who appear to be on the brink of superstardom. 

Here are Billboard's picks for the top 25 rock albums of 2018. 

25. Maddie Ross, Touch Hands, Touch Bodies

Ross' five-song, self-released EP of DIY bubblegum rocks like it was assembled, bit-by-bit, in a writing room of all your alt-pop faves. The verses jib and jab just so, the choruses soar and sizzle; it's all hooks, really, but the L.A. 20-something's lyricism is equally infectious. Strikingly immune to cliché and construct, Ross narrates a largely autobiographical queer girl love story that re-imagines a generation of high school flicks and coming-of-age comedy tales in her own power-pop universe. -- CHRIS PAYNE

24. Parkway Drive, Reverence

In 2018, Parkway Drive laid down a blueprint for how modern metalcore bands could evolve without fully shedding the values that put them at the genre’s forefront to begin with. After teasing a new direction with 2016’s Ire deluxe edition track “Devil’s Calling,” the Australian quintet’s Reverence ups its use of melody -- and with hooks like these, you’d think they were veterans of the trade. “Prey” and “The Void” are the centerpieces here, mixing guitarists Jeff Ling and Luke Kilpatrick’s soaring, arena-ready licks with Winston McCall’s brutally heady vocals, while McCall shines on the pulverizing album opener “Wishing Wells.” -- KEVIN RUTHERFORD

23. Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Look Now

With three co-writes from GOAT pop craftsman Burt Bacharach (not to mention one from equally legendary scribe Carole King) on Look Now, Elvis Costello’s latest naturally feels like a return to his 1998 collaborative masterpiece with Bacharach, Painted From Memory. Here, however, the Imposters add an assured rock punch to these lush, sophisticated character studies that empathetically detail everyday tragedies, such as a daughter learning about her philandering father or a divorcee pondering the unraveling of her marriage. -- JOE LYNCH

22. Dominic Fike, Don't Forget About Me, Demos

Picture John Mayer or Lenny Kravitz born in the SoundCloud generation, with a face tattoo of the Apple logo, making the most tasteful, tuneful rap-rock you'll ever hear. This most accurately describes the amalgam of Dominic Fike, and -- promise -- we mean it all in the best way. On his debut EP, 22-year old Dominic Fike traverses L.A. art kid communes and lonely, moonlit Miami nights, crooning and sing-rapping over blues rock riffs and doo-wop grooves. He doesn't linger on one idea for long; the Florida native breezes through six songs in less than fifteen minutes, making an opening statement that's heavy in both replay value and hype for a presumably longer, soon-to-come project (he allegedly signed a quite-lucrative deal with Columbia over the summer). -- C.P.

21. 5 Seconds of Summer, Youngblood  

Rebirths like this don't happen often. Once a pop-punk-loving boy band cast in One Direction's shadow, the Aussie quartet's first LP in three years is a graduate level course in jaunty new wave ("Talk Fast"), call-and-response arena rock ("Youngblood"), and rock guitar & B ("Valentine"). Beating out Beyoncé and JAY-Z for No. 1 album? That caught people by surprise, too. -- C.P.

20. Joyce Manor, Million Dollars to Kill Me

They don't really do super-short songs anymore, they've already crossed over to just about everyone they're going to cross over to, and they've matured about as much as any group of friends in a touring band are likely to ever mature. Five albums into Torrance, CA underground heroes Joyce Manor's career, and there's nothing really left to talk about with them except how goddamn great their songs are, trying out new sounds (the '60s R&B sighs of "Silly Games" and gauzy 4AD guitars of "Gone Tomorrow") and subjects (romance-for-romance's sake on "Think I'm Still in Live With You" and webboard kinship on "Friends We Met Online") with a level of skill and sympathy far beyond anyone once considered their pop-punk or emo peers. They're not this generation's Blink-182, they're its Guided By Voices, and lucky for all of us that's a whole lot more sustainable.  -- ANDREW UNTERBERGER

19. The Wonder Years, Sister Cities

After nearly a decade of carrying the torch for pop-punk (years after its last commercial peak, no less) one of the genre's most respected bands completed its metamorphosis into, simply put, a damn good rock band. You know that familiar press release line about wanting to make a record that captures your live show? Sister Cities is that record -- but (as far as we know) the Wonder Years never even uttered that dreaded cliché. The title track is about being stranded (and still playing a show) in Santiago, Chile while "Raining in Kyoto" sees frontman Dan Campbell mourning his just-deceased grandfather with strangers who didn't speak any English in a Shinto shrine in Japan. For the seasoned sextet, an album so connected to life on the road was bound to hit with natural urgency. -- C.P.

18. Arctic Monkeys, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

"Doesn't time fly?" asks Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner. Emphatically no: It felt every bit the five years in between AM, the nocturnal future-classic that finally brought the rest of the world to their home country's level of Monkeys Mania, and Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, their tipsy comeback effort that unceremoniously yanked the plug on the idea of them as international superstars. But that's sort of the appeal of visiting the Monkeys' near-literally transportive sixth LP, an entrancing album from an out-of-time universe where Death of a Ladies Man was Leonard Cohen's most popular album and Blade Runner remains a classic date movie, and the stakes are so low the only real danger is running afoul of the Martini Police. "I'll be by the Batphone if you need to get a hold," Turner promises -- but you get the feeling no one's calling anytime soon, and that's cool. -- A.U.

17. Paul McCartney, Egypt Station

After several years of frequent touring, playing set lists largely built on the standards, the living legend delivered his best album of new material in over a decade. Each of Egypt Station's 16 tracks represent a different stop along McCartney's conceptual journey; that concept brings about a scatterbrained charm that finds Sir Paul hopping on sonic sunbeams ("Happy With You"), crafting delightfully randy piano rock gems ("Fuh You," "Come On To Me"), and kidnapping the listener for eclectic excursions that sound like their own mini-albums within the whole trip ("Despite Repeated Warnings," "Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link"). -- C.P.

16. Camp Cope, How to Socialise & Make Friends

The title isn't so much ironic as it is spiteful: Australian trio Camp Cope don't have a great deal of fondness for the societally enforced norms that have shaped idealized behavior -- particularly for women -- for even longer than they've been collected in best-selling advice books. That distaste can be heard on the band's sophomore album from the furious "The Opener," which calls out scene and industry dudes who see all-female bands as little more than a tally mark, all the way to heartbreaking closer "I've Got You," in which singer Georgia McDonald tells her dying father (and hero), "I will never meet a man/ That can make me question life the way you can." Don't let the considered pacing and sporadically dreamy guitars fool you: This is punk rock in 2018.  -- A.U.

15. Vein, Errorzone

Listening to Vein's debut feels like being attacked by various pets and household appliances all at once, or more peacefully, listening to the best snippets of a larger Vein album compressed into a 27-minute megamix. There are tinges of metalcore, nu-metal, and hardcore; there are air raid sirens, drum and bass samples (!), and lots and lots of screaming. All this thrown into the fray feels ripped and re-purposed into a daunting cyborg of an album -- and it leaves you wanting more. The Boston quintet opened for both Code Orange and Deftones over the course of 2018, and Errorzone is good enough to suggest Vein could produce a sophomore album as accomplished as the former's, and one to turn packed theaters of young fans on to the latter.  -- C.P.

14. Parquet Courts, Wide Awake! 

Wide Awake!, the sixth album by Brooklyn-by-Texas alt-rock band Parquet Courts, is bursting with energy befitting the title’s requisite exclamation mark, but it’s also the band’s most controlled record yet. The compelling loops helmed by producer Danger Mouse offer a sonic soapbox for frontman Andrew Savage to espouse his sardonic observations and off-the-cuff witticisms. Though their punk edge has been largely buffed out with a metropolitan sheen, the angst continues to exist in the band's prevailing scrappiness. -- BRYAN KRESS

13. boygenius, boygenius

While the name boygenius takes aim at how the word “genius” is often associated with the male gender, this all-female supergroup (consisting of Lucy Dacus, 23; Phoebe Bridgers, 24; and Julien Baker, 23) shook up industry conventions this year by teaming up for one of the most tender and dynamic releases of the year. As individual artists, all three stand strong within and outside of boygenius (each emerges as the lead on at least one of the six tracks). But even though the lyrics hit home for so many, when the trio harmonizes -- especially on standouts “Souvenir”, a stripped-back acoustic track, or the fiercely roaring “Salt In the Wound” --  the sound and space they create in doing so is entirely impenetrable. -- LYNDSEY HAVENS

12. Panic! at the Disco, Pray For the Wicked

After a turn in Broadway's Kinky Boots, Brendon Urie unveiled his most theatrical effort yet in the form of Panic!’s massive sixth album. Pray cements Urie’s place as not just a talented vocalist and musician, but an all-around spectacular entertainer, as anyone who’s seen the band’s recent arena show would agree with. The album tackles the innate need to excel ("[Fuck A] Silver Living"), the dangers of partying ("One of the Drunks"), fulfilling your dreams ("High Hopes"), and, er, inter-dimensional travel and multiverses (“King of the Clouds"). Sonically, Pray is arguably Panic’s most cohesive album, with each delightful track flowing as smoothly as Urie’s pitch-perfect voice. The result? Pray debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and standout single “High Hopes” climbed to the fifth spot on the Hot 100 -- the highest peak for any Panic! song to date. While the record apparently “surprised the hell” out of Urie, we knew he had it in him all along. -- GAB GINSBERG

11. The Dirty Nil, Master Volume 

Like their countrymen in Japandroids before them, The Dirty Nil is here for the cheap beer-soaked, turn-it-up-to-11 rock ‘n’ roll records with quick-and-dirty, basement-ready anthems -- few songs on Master Volume exceed three minutes. Sounds fun enough, but singer/guitarist Luke Bentham should convince stragglers with a voice that screams pop-punk more so than straight punk rock, his throaty yell a welcome sound on rock radio both then and now. And just when you think they’re done, a faithful rendition of Metallica’s “Hit the Lights" tosses you into the fray yet again. -- K.R.

10. Florence + the Machine, High As Hope

Florence Welch is sorry she ruined your birthday, still fears the dark, and once tried to starve herself at age 17. The vocal powerhouse and rock goddess’ bracingly honest fourth album and first since going sober is full of secrets like these, showcasing Welch’s time-proven talent for cathartic anthems. But this time, Flo is sparing with the garnishes, resting her lilting vocals against sedated piano melodies and lush strings -- there’s even a track called “No Choir.” Elsewhere: a soul-cleansing mea culpa to her sister (“Grace”), a bellowed reckoning with an eating disorder (“Hunger”), and lines that peel back the curtain on her life as a performer (“the show was ending, and I had started to crack” she admits on opener “June”). The result is a hopeful, gutsy journey to self-acceptance where each confession sounds like a revelation. -- TATIANA CIRISANO

9. Soccer Mommy, Clean 

Sophie Allison, the 21-year old singer-songwriter behind the Soccer Mommy moniker, has found the power in her voice and won’t be silenced again so soon. On her debut album Clean, Allison breaks out of the bedroom-rock mold and turns her introspection outwards to confront the shortcomings of idealized relationships with an unflinching confidence. Accompanied by a full band and a welcome dose of distortion, Allison fights to maintain her new sense of agency in a constant push-pull situation that makes Clean such a captivating listen. -- B.K.

8. Underoath, Erase Me 

Here's to getting the band back together. The Florida post-hardcore titans' first album in eight years was also its first in 10 with founding drummer-vocalist Aaron Gillespie, marking a full decade since they'd operated at full strength. But a moment of existential clarity was what really made it all possible: in the interim, Underoath shed its long-held "Christian band" ethos, its members citing a swath of personal crises destroying their lives. The ensuing album sounds pummeling and unrestrained, slabs of heavy modern rock driven by Gillespie and frontman Spencer Chamberlain's dual-vocal attack, accentuated by synth player Chris Dudley's dramatic programming and studio veteran Matt Squire's polished production touches. "It Has to Start Somewhere" and "On My Teeth" rage alongside Underoath's best and "Rapture" and "ihateit" became their first two top-20 hits on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Songs chart.  -- C.P.

7. Lucy Dacus, Historian

With Historian, the 23-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist showed immense growth from her already strong starting point. Following her 2016 debut, her songwriting became even more poetically pensive while her instrumentation grew fuller, resulting in a whole-hearted album that, as Dacus noted herself, chronicles the progression of loss. On roaring opener “Night Shift,” Dacus sings of strategically avoiding a fresh ex, and also birthed the bold line, “In five years I hope the songs feel like covers/ Dedicated to new lovers.” And with the album’s tender, bare-bones closing ballad “Historians,” she defines what it means to be a songwriter when she says: “And I'll be your historian... I'll fill pages of scribbled ink/Hoping the words carry meaning.” -- L.H.

6. Turnstile, Time & Space

A gateway drug to hardcore. Or a hardcore record, on drugs. Turnstile's second album blasts off to unexplored planets, where two-minute, terrestrial, floor-punch ragers get injected with psychedelic interludes and spaced out singalongs, then blessed by the spirit of Sun Ra. Time & Space captivated an awful lot of people who don't normally listen to hardcore, alongside quite a few who do. The Baltimore band spent half a decade earning its underground stripes before jumping to a major label (Roadrunner Records); that's often a risky proposition, but like just about everything else with Time & Space, Turnstile pulled it off in otherworldly style. -- C.P.

5. Snail Mail, Lush

“And I know myself and I’ll never love anyone else,” declares Lindsey Jordan, the leader, founder, writer and guitar wailer behind rock outfit Snail Mail. That line from the surprisingly buoyant-sounding “Pristine,” the first single from the 19-year-old's debut emotional stomper, Lush, might read as melodramatic. But Jordan delivers the words with such forceful, raspy frankness that they sound more like reality than hyperbole: Oh damn, you think. Maybe she won’t. Jordan’s bluntness pairs well with her slowly smashing (“Stick”) or delicately strummed (“Anytime”) guitar work, a combo that’s earned her comparisons to Liz Phair. Much like Phair, Jordan knows how to channel her angst into her instrument while thoughtfully putting complex feelings into words. “And I hope whoever it is/ Holds their breath around you / ’Cause I know I did,” she sings on “Heat Wave,” framing another of her devastating emotional snapshots that make Lush such a heartbreaker. -- CHRISTINE WERTHMAN

4. Twenty One Pilots, Trench

Twenty One Pilots faced a tough task following its last album, 2015’s best-selling Blurryface, which earned the genre-fluid duo a No. 1 album, a pair of Hot 100 top 5 hits, and a graduation to arena status as a live act. And though Trench didn’t have quite the crossover success as its predecessor, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun hit new artistic peaks. The well-rounded album offers everything the pair always has -- dense production, intricate drumming, a ukulele here or there -- but it’s more cohesive. Every track calls back to the concept of being down in the trenches, from the desperation of “Jumpsuit” to the unifying “My Blood." More often than not, the ditch Joseph most often finds himself in is the construct of his own mind. But when he sings “But this year/ though I’m far from home / n trench I’m not alone,” on closer “Leave the City,” he finds the solace he -- and so many others -- need. -- L.H. 

3. Foxing, Nearer My God

Nearer My God, the third studio album by St. Louis rock band Foxing, is a massive artistic statement that doubles as a moving elegy for those that the band have lost. The quartet pushes themselves into new territory throughout, from singer Conor Murphy’s 0-100 falsetto-to-wail on opening track “Grand Paradise” to the entrancing eight-minute centerpiece “Five Cups.” Producer Chris Walla, who regularly manned the boards as a member of Death Cab For Cutie, complements the band’s meticulous song construction with a variety electronic elements while crafting their most grounded collection yet. -- B.K.

2. Mitski, Be the Cowboy

Whether mining the moody melodrama of-late ‘90s hard rock on album opener “Geyser,” mixing Fiona Apple with Squeeze on “Me and My Husband” or giving us straight-up disco pop on “Nobody,” Mitski’s latest proves she’s an assured enough talent to keep an irrevocably distinct vision even as she ventures further from Lo-Fi Land on Be the Cowboy. Her winding, circuitous vocal melodies remain captivating, and the shotgun marriage of Duane Eddy and synths on “Washing Machine Heart” seems targeted straight for an opening slot at the Bang Bang Bar from Twin Peaks. -- J.L.

1. The 1975, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships

The 1975 doesn't exist to revive glories of rock 'n' roll's past or to do an aw shucks, low-risk play at indie rock's present. On its magnificent third album, the Manchester quartet just plain goes there, crafting an opus that's brash and beautiful, innovative and nostalgic, and most of all, willing and able to hang in the circus of 2018 popular music. How many contemporary rock bands could pull off the half-serious, ripped-from the headlines Blue Nile-cribbing mosaic "Love It If We Made It" or even attempt "The Man Who Married A Robot/Love Theme," a spoken word musing on Very Online paranoia that sounds like a Janelle Monáe skit geeked out on OK Computer. Then there are "Give Yourself a Try," "TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME," and "It's Not Living (If It's Not With You)," trend-transcendent new wave masterstrokes that could thrive in any corner of the past 40 years. 

After kicking a heroin addiction that threatened to derail the band (and his life), frontman Matty Healy spends A Brief Inquiry yearning for something real, especially real human warmth. It at times sounds like Duran Duran and Peter Gabriel, others, Sade and Bon Iver. There are quiet storms and and brassy, jazzy suites. Crescendos of choral euphoria and lulls of ambient bliss. It all goes beyond rejecting rock, bowing down to poptimism, or anything thirsty and obvious like that. The 1975 are unafraid to be modern, risky, or most of all, great. That itself makes them a rare band indeed, and A Brief Inquiry the year's defining rock album. -- C.P.

Billboard Year in Music 2018