50 Best Albums of 2018 - Rolling Stone
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50 Best Albums of 2018

2018 was all about bold new voices breaking out of the margins and being heard — from Latin-pop party-starters to feminist guitar heroes to a new school of hip-hop revolutionaries.

best albums

This year felt more like a changing of the guard than any year in recent memory. There weren’t as many superstar blockbusters to suck up all the oxygen so younger innovators got the attention they deserved. It was a fantastic year for ambitious Latin-pop, psychedelic Southern rap, Gen Z indie rock and boundary-defying country. Janelle Monáe paid respect to Prince by updating his joyfully fluid legacy; singers like Ariana Grande and Camila Cabello brought new emotional depth to the top of the charts; beloved veterans like Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, David Byrne and John Prine made inventive, richly insightful albums; and Drake somehow found a way to elevate his Drake-ness to even more exaltant new heights — proof that in the music world of 2018 anything was possible.

The Beths Future Me Hates Me

The Beths, ‘Future Me Hates Me’

These ambitious Kiwis built their fantastic debut out of sunshine-y Sixties melodies and buzzy Nineties guitars, creating a indie-power-pop monument to rival classics of the genre like the New Pornographers’ Mass Romantic and That Dog’s Retreat From the Sun. It was the perfect backdrop for main songwriter Elizabeth Stokes’ missives on love, insecurity and self-discovery, which can turn a line like “you wouldn’t like me if you knew what was inside me” into something you hum in the bookstore checkout line. It’s the hallmark of an alt-rock hero who’s just getting started.

Hop Along Bark Your Head Off, Dog

Hop Along, ‘Bark Your Head Off Dog’

For their follow-up to 2015’s excellent Painted Shut, the Philly band stepped up their ambitions in a major way, rearranging their minds and pushing past the horizon. Bark Your Head Off, Dog is full of weird, vivid scenes: The drunk professor in “How You Got Your Limp,” the mad general in “One That Suits Me” and the careless justice in “Somewhere a Judge” all swing in and out of the frame too quickly to clock. “Strange to be shaped by such strange men,” Frances Quinlan sings more than once, offering an apt epitaph for the album and the year. She and her bandmates’ virtuosic performances are the key to the puzzle, ranging through kaleidoscopic pop, stormy folk and much more. It adds up a rich album that reveals new nuances with each listen.

Vince Staples, FM album cover

Vince Staples, ‘FM!’

At just 22 minutes, FM! is Staples’ slightest album — less tossed off than instinctual — and a sharp departure from Big Fish Theory, his ambitious, experimental previous full-length. Where Big Fish explored how dexterous Staples’ rapping could actually get by picking the most inhospitable beats he could get his hands on, FM!’s primary focus is a pummeling dedication to making your head nod. It’s a less heady goal, but just as noble, and when you have someone as sharp as Staples rapping over beats as densely satisfying as these, it’s something special. He’s telling the same stories, detailing the tragic mundanity of gang life, with the same melancholic, whip-smart humor as always, but he’s letting people in on the joke just a little more.

Lucy Dacus Historian

Lucy Dacus, ‘Historian’

The Richmond singer-songwriter made two of 2018’s best sets: the EP debut of boygenius (a supergroup with Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers) and this, Dacus’ own second LP. Her verses are raw as ever, pivoting with sleight-of-hand subtlety from gentleness to ferocity. And the arrangements have blossomed, with strings and brass broadening the emotional spectrum while vocals follow suit. She can slay without raising her voice. But when she does — say, demonstrating how her “soul screams out” on the seven-plus minute “Pillar of Truth” — she’ll knock you off your chair.

Soccer Mommy Clean

Soccer Mommy, ‘Clean’

The moods are big and the tunes are bigger on Nashville indie queen Sophie Allison’s debut LP, the year’s most satisfying level-up. The bedroom recordings that won her an audience on Bandcamp showed Allison’s command of the core values of glower and shine; for Clean, she went further, staking her claim as an unforgettable songwriter. The fast songs (“Your Dog,” “Cool,” “Last Girl”) reel you in with their salty realness, but it’s the sharp ache of the ballads (“Still Clean,” “Flaw,” “Blossom (Wasting All My Time)”) that’ll really get you.


J Balvin Vibras

J Balvin, ‘Vibras’

If 2015’s Energía helped shifted the course of reggaeton, J Balvin’s globetrotting opus, Vibras, paved the road to mainstream acclaim with sunshine. Part science experiment, part internationalist platform, the Colombian singer’s breakthrough embodies the post-“Despacito” urban zeitgeist taking Latin pop by storm. Blessed with a chameleonic chill, Balvin hardly paints himself into a corner: His flirtations with dancehall, Afrobeat and electro-pop are blended seamlessly in the hands of young producer Sky Rompiendo and reggaeton stalwart Marco “Tainy” Masís. No matter the genre, nor how high he ascends, Balvin’s mission statement remains the same: As he noted on his first Top Ten single, “Mi Gente,” “My music doesn’t discriminate against anyone.”

Mitski Be The Cowboy

Mitski, ‘Be the Cowboy’

Mitski earned her place as an indie icon with 2014’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek and 2016’s Puberty 2, two albums that felt so real they hurt. This year, though, she held back on alt-rock catharsis and swerved instead toward disco, glam, country and showtunes. It’s a big gamble that paid off brilliantly. There are entire imaginary lives sewn into the seams of two-minute stunners like “Washing Machine Heart,” “Lonesome Love” and “Me and My Husband.” The chorus of “Nobody” is just that one word, repeated over and over. Like the rest of the sleek hooks on Be the Cowboy, it hints at infinite depths.


Janelle Monae Dirty Computer

Janelle Monae, ‘Dirty Computer’

Weaponizing Prince’s radically fluid funk-pop spirit for a new generation, Monae made a masterpiece that engaged politics without undermining the party. She invited seasoned masters to lend a hand, some old (Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder), some new (Pharrell, Grimes). But this is her show: angry, joyous and sexy, preaching queer, black and feminist empowerment, from the mic-dropping rap of “Django Jane” to the finale of “Americans,” an anthem of inclusivity that resonated hard in the run to election day, and seems only to grow in potency with each passing day. In an especially rough year, it was as inspiring as pop got.

Brandi Carlile By the Way I Forgive You

Brandi Carlile, ‘By The Way, I Forgive You’

This full-on breakthrough by a self-described “small-town lesbian folk singer,” By the Way, I Forgive You validated a mighty talent on plain display since her 2005 debut. But Carlile’s inspirational songs also nailed a dark-days cultural hunger, thanks partly to her magnificent voice, and partly to understated-yet-huge production by Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings. “The Joke” is a pep talk to outsiders to live their truth, haters be damned. And when she sings “you’ve had about as goddamned much as you can take!” on “Hold Out Your Hand,” it felt like the voice of every progressive fighter in a world suddenly gone mad.

Paul McCartney Egypt Station

Paul McCartney, ‘Egypt Station’

Macca debuted at Number One with Egypt Station — his first chart-topping album since the one that had “Ebony and Ivory” on it (36 years ago, if you’re keeping score). It’s a Ram-style suite packed with eccentric pop jewels, all touched with McCartney’s unmistakable spark. Frisky singles like “Fuh You” are out of place here, because the album’s highlights are spacier — the acoustic lament “Confidante,” the bossa nova plaint “Back In Brazil,” the postpunk guitar drone “Dominoes.” Egypt Station proves McCartney isn’t content to rest on his legend — at 76, he’s still hungry to keep building it.

Drake Scorpion

Drake, ‘Scorpion’

This was the year Drake finally shed his role as hip-hop’s petulant crown prince. He became the biggest name in pop thanks to the best singles of his career in “Nice For What,” “In My Feelings” and “God’s Plan.” They’re the high points of Scorpion, a sort of magnum opus for the rich and disaffected, the most lengthy and polished entry in Drake’s ever-expanding canon of detailing how being Drake doesn’t make you happy, in the end. It’s a double album with no low points, and if you do find it beginning to drag a little, simply turn it into a playlist of your favorite tracks; Drake’s savvy enough to know that’s how you’d end up listening to it, and he pockets the streams either way.

Kurt Vile Bottle It In

Kurt Vile, ‘Bottle It In’

The long-haired poet-king of Philadelphia surveys his realm in high style on this 78-minute whopper, a double serving of bad dreams and spectacular guitar tones. The shaggy-dog stories are shaggier (“Loading Zones”); the trippy parts are trippier (“Bassackwards”); the inside jokes are weird as hell (“Skinny Mini”). Bottle It In is the loosey-goosiest record Vile has ever made, and at times it’s an outright hoot — see the smoked Nashville ham of “Rollin’ With the Flow.” But there’s real warmth and tangled-up soul in songs like “One Trick Ponies” and the title track. Virtually no one else was making rock records like this in 2018, unless you count those used Neil Young CDs you copped on Discogs.


Bradley Cooper & Lady Gaga A Star Is Born

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, ‘A Star Is Born Soundtrack’

The insane pop world of 2018: Always remember it this way. Lady Gaga goes back to her Seventies soft-rock fantasy and rediscovers her voice as an artist — like she sings, it’s “buried in my soul like California gold.” Bradley Cooper directs his rock-star trip and proves he’s got the Eddie Vedder growl to go with his Eddie Vedder jackets, especially in the Jason Isbell ballad “Maybe It’s Time.” And when Stefani Germanotta belts those Deep Estefan piano ballads, she proves that for all her lofty art concepts, what’s always made her a legend is that mother monster of a voice.

Pusha T Daytona

Pusha T, ‘Daytona’

Pusha T is rap’s most justifiably arrogant master craftsman, like an Italian cobbler who spends years crafting one perfect espadrille. “They tweet about the length I made ’em wait/What the fuck you expect when a nigga got a cape and he’s great?” he raps on this seven-song, 21-minute triumph. He’s got a point: Nine years after he and his brother No Malice released their last album as Clipse, ending their fantastic run, there’s still no one better at toasting their own successes and talking extravagant shit about their enemies (see his shots at longtime rival Drake on “Infrared”). Daytona is Pusha’s finest moment as a solo act, a wise, funny, ruthless performance. With its audaciously chopped soul, rock and prog samples, it’s also the only truly great record Kanye worked on this year.

Travis Scott, Astroworld

Travis Scott, ‘Astroworld’

Astroworld is a monument to excess in a year overcome with bloat. What it took Kanye West five albums to do, his protege accomplished in 17 songs. Grandiose, intricate, and ferocious, Travis Scott’s quixotic epic honors the past and present of his hometown Houston with the biggest beats, smartest transitions and best guest list he’s ever come up with. “Who put this shit together, I’m the glue,” Scott defiantly proclaimed on “Sicko Mode.” The Glue has built the best rap album of the year.

Ariana Grande Sweetener

Ariana Grande, ‘Sweetener’

Ariana Grande has had an extremely less-than-enviable couple years: tragedy, heartbreak and loss have all coincided during the process of not only writing and recording her incredible album Sweetener but also while promoting it. Her 2018 LP turns the tartest of lemons into the tastiest lemonade with its Pharrell and Max Martin-assisted, left-field R&B-pop. Tracks like the clubby “No Tears Left to Cry” and Imogen Heap-interpolating “Goodnight n Go” are some of her most experimental and personality-capturing songs yet. Thank u, more please.

Pistol Annies Interstate Gospel

Pistol Annies, ‘Interstate Gospel’

With Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angeleena Presley – three of country’s greatest talents — singing and writing together, this supergroup is a true group, part of why the songs on their third set cut so deep. The dark sides of love and marriage get met with sass (“Got My Name Changed Back”) or, more often, rue (“Best Years of My Life,” “When I Was His Wife”), and the songs stand with each woman’s best. And the band – including vets Chuck Leavell (Allman Brothers) and Dan Dugmore (Seventies Linda Ronstadt) — roots them in rock and country equally.

Camila Cabello Camila

Camila Cabello, ‘Camila’ 

The year’s most exciting debut album lays incredible groundwork for what will ultimately be a long career. Camila is a brilliant statement of intent: mature without theatrics, grounded in her history and, of course, deliciously catchy. Runaway hit “Havana” set the tone, with Cabello reminding us that she wasn’t going to just hit the trends when it came to securing her pop voice. Instead, Camila melds together touches of rock, old school latin pop and traditional singer-songwriter cues for an indelibly honest portrait of the artist as a young woman.

Kacey Musgraves Golden Hour

Kacey Musgraves, ‘Golden Hour’

Her pop breakthrough was more than just Musgraves’ transformation from Loretta Lynn-styled country music subversive into a cosmic soft-rock cowgirl (with disco leanings). It was a sly exploding of all rules dictating what constituted “country” in 2018. It went top five pop and hit #1 on the country charts, all with — predictably — scant support from mainstream country radio. The LP is expansive yet down-home, chill despite its grand ambitions delivering gracious wonder (“Slow Burn”), trademark sass (“High Horse”), Daft Punky vocoder (“Oh, What A World”), and an LSD-inspired song about her mom (“Mother”).

Cardi B Invasion Of Privacy

Cardi B, ‘Invasion of Privacy’

“I’m a rich bitch and I smell like it,” Cardi B announces on her instant-classic debut. Cardi could’ve followed up the bloody-shoed success of “Bodak Yellow” with an LP of funny Twitter snaps. Instead, Invasion of Privacy established her as an innovator with her own instantly influential voice — whether she’s claiming the Dirty South in “Bickenhead” or celebrating her Dominican flash in “I Like It,” with Bad Bunny and J Balvin. In a year when hip-hop seemed mopey and insular, her neon-bomb charisma and willingness to stomp on our pop pleasure buttons was incredibly refreshing. She starts out in the strip clubs, wears off-white to church (“make the preacher sweat” rhymes with “Jesus wept”), makes her man stutter in “Be Careful” and teams up with SZA for the climactic “I Do,” proclaiming, “I think us bad bitches is a gift from God.” Amen, Cardi.

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