If you love music, you know there are a few distinct categories. Some albums from 2018 set the bar higher in terms of lyrics, a few know how to mix and match guitar parts, and others produce sounds you may have never heard from any artist before. These are my top picks of the year for people who prefer expert musicianship and unusual songwriting.

Ex:Re (Self-Titled)

My top pick of the year, this understated fissure of synth rock grows on you with each listen. Note: Listen on high-end reference speakers if at all possible.

Phosphorescent (C'est La Vie)

The title track on this brilliant album is one of the best songs of the year, a facetious ode about love and fame--the entire album has an underlying point about making the most of every situation.

Charles Bradley (Black Velvet)

A posthumous release from one of my favorite artists of all time, Black Velvet is a throwback album and the soul singer's best in his short career.

The Paper Kites (On the Corner Where You Live)

With the alt-rock band The Paper Kites, it's all about the vibe. Songs on this amazing album engulf you, filling in at the edges, then building slowly.

The Decemberists (I'll Be Your Girl)

The big surprise on this latest release from folk troubadours The Decemberists is that they added a warm, room-filling synth on just about every song.

Ben Howard (Noonday Dream)

The guitars alone on this rock album tell a story, but Ben Howard upped his game even more with eclectic arrangements and lyrics about broken memories.

Wye Oak (The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs)

See this band live if you can, especially to see how the percussion accents every bass note and every vocal arrangement. It's a stunningly good album from the indie icons.

Jeff Tweedy (Warm)

A solo effort by the Wilco frontman, this rollicking and highly analog album has bits and pieces of every musical segue the songwriter has ever taken, dating back to his Uncle Tupelo days.

Young Fathers (Cocoa Sugar)

Once you get past the weird album cover, get ready for even weirder music--Young Fathers have a hint of Alt-J in them (see the song In My View) and maybe a dash of TV on the Radio. 

Dawes (Passwords)

Easily one of the best live bands, Dawes never shy away from a freewheeling guitar solo. Passwords has some of their best songwriting--and their best jams (e.g., Feed the Fire).