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.
A mix of 2 Live Crew’s sex talk, Lil Wayne’s sideways metaphors, Cardi B’s boss boasts and pure, unadulterated rap skills, Cupcakke’s music has made her the bawdy bard of modern hip-hop — a skill on display in songs like “Duck, Duck Goose” (“Turn double-dutch with yo’ balls while I’m jumpin’ on your dick”) and “Spoiled Milk” (“I love midgets but the dick need some inches”). But Ephorize is much more, as the rapper explores her poor upbringing (“Wisdom Teeth”), chews out a cheating beau (“Exit”) and shouts out giddy pro-LGBT lines (“Fuck a tuxedo/Tuck your dick, mijo”) over some pixelly dancehall (“Crayons”).
Over the course of three stellar albums in the past three years, Esperanza Spalding has essentially invented her own genre: a new incarnation of prog that’s as playful as it is virtuosic. This latest set, a suite of songs dedicated to different body parts, contained some of her most sheerly gorgeous music yet — see the orchestral chamber-funk-pop title track, or organ-tinged R&B chant “Thing” — and also her most head-spinningly strange. Tracks like “The Longing Deep Down,” with their acrobatic vocal melodies and spiky rhythms, suggested a Venn diagram of Joni Mitchell, King Crimson and Spalding’s friend, fan and collaborator, Prince.
After three albums, 34 songs and 129.85 minutes, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s marital woes trilogy concludes with an exhale. Triumphant, warm, but often muted Everything Is Love is a reset and reconciliation. Bey and Jay make love on the beach and reminisce on better days that weren’t gripped by emotional scars. Although, it’s telling that the album’s best moments — “Boss,” “Ape Shit” and “Friends” — diverge from the repaired marriage narrative. After spending so much time in the sonic equivalent of marriage counseling, it’s nice to see the Carters punch back into their day jobs as two of the world’s greatest hitmakers.
Josh Tillman’s fourth album is stuffed with plush, heartbroken gems that pair the knowing-troubadour ways of Elton John and Harry Nilsson with hyperrealistic, wordplay-happy lyrics (the chiming “Mr. Tillman” hinges on a conversation between the Father and a worried hotel employee; the hermitude-seeking “The Palace” revels in the similar vowel sounds of “poem” and “zone”). It’s a ride into his soul’s depths that’s greased by catchy melodies and Tillman’s resonant voice, with the closer “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)” having its pop-epic status cemented by the Father’s final, surprisingly hopeful call for change — inside both the audience and himself.
In the nearly two decades since the release of Sleep’s last album — the monolithic, single-track odyssey Dopesmoker — they’ve gone from underground heroes to stoner-metal legends. So when they surprise-released The Sciences on 4/20 (of course), the happy shock was just how great it sounded. Each of the album’s tracks is a deep dive into a hesher shadow realm where Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi is God (he’s namechecked on the Sabbath-punning “Giza Butler”) and time itself is only a straight-world construct. Guitarist Matt Pike, who also put out an excellent High on Fire album this year, plays measured, wah-wah–inflected solos, drummer Jason Roeder keeps everything on track and Cisneros spaces out, singing his fantasies in a gloriously stoned monotone. It’s a mood, man. Don’t question it.
The Swedish electropop hero’s first album in eight years is a love letter to the redemption offered by the club. Opening with the bereft “Missing U,” Honey follows Robyn as she shimmies out of the abyss and onto the dance floor; she gets existential on the pulsing “I’m a Human Being” and the sad-robot duet “Baby Forgive Me,” then gets her groove back (with an assist from Chicago house legend Lil Louis’ undulating “French Kiss”) on the beautifully blooming “Send to Robin Immediately.” The rejuvenation of Honey‘s last third, sparked by the glimmering title track and punctuated by the knowing “Ever Again,” presents a stronger, wiser Robyn, one whose time in the abyss made her self-resolve more solid and rejuvenated her curiosity about music’s otherworldly powers.
The Wilco leader’s latest side-project could have easily served its role as pleasing stop-gap in between Wilco albums. Instead, Tweedy used the scaled-down setting–smaller sounds and a slighter audience–to reveal more of himself than ever. The songwriter’s fiercely intimate collection offers almost uncomfortably unfiltered windows into his mind, with ruminations on mortality and interpersonal strife on crushing folk-dramas like “Having Been Is No Way to Be,” “How Hard Is It for a Desert to Die” and “From Far Away.” “What I’ve been through,” he sings, “Should matter to you.” And it does, again and again.
Lil Wayne needed a win almost as much as the world needed Lil Wayne. After nearly a half a decade in legal limbo, he came back with Tha Carter V, a feat of rusty rejuvenation. Tha Carter’sfifth installment features every type of experiment: pandering to the SoundCloud set on the XXXTentacion featuring “Don’t Cry,” the viral dance-inducing “Uproar” and the lyrical miracle sparring match that is “Mona Lisa,” featuring Kendrick Lamar. When it works, it’s transcendent. When it doesn’t, it’s still entertaining. The former Best Rapper Alive’s sheer talent and charisma managed to end one era and hint at the start of another.
This year’s most exciting country debut came from Ashley McBryde, the 35-year-old whisky-swilling, deep-voiced Arkansas native whose Girl Going Nowhere toes the line between Seventies singer-songwriter folksiness and streamlined radio-rocking trad country. After opening with her unlikely rags-to-riches narrative on the chilling title track, McBryde spends the next 10 tunes spinning vital stories about the holy sanctity of FM radio, dirty jean jackets and small-town dive bars, channeling Mellencamp by-way-of Patty Griffin along the way.
Lubbock, Texas singer-songwriter-fiddle player Amanda Shires broadened her sound and flirted with electro-rock experimentation for To the Sunset, her third album in five years. The result is this year’s most adventurous, thrilling Americana release, full of immaculately-crafted pop should-be hits (“Leave It Alone”), haunting heartland folk-noir (“White Feather”), and revelatory reimaginations of older mainstays (“Swimmer”). Shires’ latest, her most accomplished effort to date, was also one of 2018’s most succinct examples of an artist discarding all conventions and expectations in service of the song.
OK, check out this next one: It’s the sarcastic punks who made “Stoned and Starving,” but they’re woke now. Wait, come back! Wide Awake turns that improbable premise into a winning bet, as the Parquet boys rail in delightfully intemperate terms against structural racism, gun violence, climate change deniers and Tom Brady, among other demonic presences. Producer Danger Mouse makes sure that all that soapbox shouting fits into the band’s catchiest album to date. Who woulda thought?
The final installment in Nine Inch Nails’ trilogy of EPs about the Trump era’s decline of western civilization and civility is the most cutting: Trent Reznor digs deep into his guitar strings on opener “Shit Mirror” (a song for which he and Atticus Ross recorded themselves literally pounding dirt for the beat at the end); he decries a “celebration of ignorance” through gritted teeth on the clubby “Ahead of Ourselves”; and he laments that “time is running out” amid synth swirls on “Over and Out.” Best yet, it’s a musical sampling of the best of Nine Inch Nails. In just 30 minutes, Reznor and partner Atticus Ross present heavy-metal guitar, softer Bowie-esque saxophone textures and heaps of electronica that harken back to acid house and the group’s industrial Nineties experiments. It’s Nine Inch Nails at their most threatening and insidious.
Doubling down on Church’s bonafides as a rock singer rooted in country music, this set delivers Stonesy swagger, honky-tonk sagacity, rip-roaring guitar, and an impatience for bullshit, cultural or political. On “Hippie Radio” he shouts out classics by Cat Stevens, the Jackson 5, Billy Idol, Kansas, Warren Zevon. But the political songs eschew specifics, beyond his working-person’s solidarity and the healing properties of whiskey. Another strong argument that American rock & roll’s nexus is Nashville.
In anyone else’s hands, the idea behind Whack World would feel like a gimmick: 15 songs in 15 minutes, the first album optimized for Instagram. That it feels instead like a wholly original piece of art is a triumph for Tierra Whack, the young Philadelphia rapper who made it. That it’s an album you can listen to like an album — over and over and over again — is an even bigger achievement. It’s a darting, versatile piece of work, with Whack at the center as a reckless, joyous conductor of her own creative impulses. Listening to her bend genres and tackle deceptively complex themes is a delight, and her short, captivating albums is one of the most arresting debut projects of recent memory.
The most reliable name in indie-rock since 1989, Malkmus turned in another installment of offhanded guitar beauty, silvery melodies, smart lyrics and warmly poker-faced vocals, with reliable backing from the Jicks. Songs like “Future Suite” and “Cast Off” were the kind of down-to-earth prog pastorals we’ve come to expect from Malkmus, and “Shiggy” was a freeblowing guitar banger that reminded us the former Pavement leader can still rock out when he feels like it. Sparkle Hard also saw Malkmus poke through his let his signature lyrical opacity to let his guard more than ever, from the folk-rock advice song “Middle America” to the modern-life anxiousness of “Solid Silk” to the political anthem “Bike Lane,” which honored the life of Baltimore police violence victim Freddie Gray. It was Malkmus way of saying, his Middle America too.
Elvis Costello billed Look Now as a cross between his 1982 masterstroke, Imperial Bedroom, and his collaborations with songwriting impresario Burt Bacharach, but he undersold it. That’s because he’s grown into his music. So where Imperial Bedroom was the work of a precocious 20-something, Look Now — with its jazzy orchestrations and intellectual turns of phrase — reflects Costello’s true, earned world-weariness. He narrates the story of a letchy singer on the Beatlesesque “Under Lime,” he’s a scorned woman in love on the soulful “Unwanted Number” and he keeps a stiff upper lip in the face of sadness on the Motown-influenced “Suspect My Tears.” Bacharach and Carole King co-wrote a couple of tunes with him, and the production is tight and nuanced, making it the sort of record he always aspired to.
Barnett’s 2015 full-length debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit introduced the Australian singer-songwriter Barnett as a uniquely perceptive, dynamically tuneful chronicler of everyday life, able to turn mundanity and malaise into spellbinding drama. On the fellowship she offered a bracingly introspective set of songs that felt decidedly more confrontational, even as they often mapped out internal dialogues — from “Charity,” a taut shot at a self-indulgent friend over roiling guitars, to “Need a Little More Time,” an apologetic demand for personal space, to “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” her feminist bowshot at a pushy fan. With noisier, pushier guitars and a sense of raw-nerved tension that often recalled Kurt Cobain at his most tightly wound, the result was Barnett’s most urgent set of songs to date.
Neko Case recorded Hell-On as her house literally burned down, and there’s an alternating sense of tension and acceptance throughout it. She sings about God (whom she describes as a “lusty tire fire” on the brooding title cut), comical misfortune (on the straight-ahead rocker “Bad Luck” the punch line to all her tough breaks is “I died and went to work”) and fierce femininity (“Winnie,” a Sapphic ode to an Amazon with a stunning assist from the Gossip’s Beth Ditto). Depending on the song, she bridges country and rock and even includes a few electronic flourishes, all while spilling out her heart, making for her sharpest and most well-rounded album to date.
David Byrne is as dejected as everybody else about the state of the world right now, so he and his old partner-in-crime, Brian Eno, attempted to create something optimistic with American Utopia; the record is an extension of his Reasons to Be Cheerful multimedia art project. “I dance like this because it feels so damn good,” he sings on the album’s undulating opening track (“I Dance Like This”), and on the Latin-tinged “Every Day Is a Miracle,” he uses chickens, roosters and cockroaches as metaphors for unconditional love — and he sings it in a way that you buy into it. There’s a certain sadness in the chords to “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” but it’s the hope in his voice (even if it’s a little delusional) that makes it uplifting. It’s a blissful break from the real world.
On her sophomore album, the Spanish singer Rosalía dares to use the ancient form of flamenco as a springboard for hyper-modern experimentation. As she sings staunch, trembling lines about jealousy, rapture and romantic torment, there are riptides of festival-ready electronic bass in “Pienso En Tu Mira” and decaying lines of pitch-shifted vocals in “De Aqui No Sales” — along with a vrooming motor, screeching car-brakes and shrieking sirens. A few songs later, on “Di Mi Nombre,” a beat of claps and kicks evokes Lumidee’s hit “Never Leave You (Uh Oh),” while “Bagdad” riffs beautifully on Justin Timberlake’s classic “Cry Me a River.” The premise is bold — maybe flamenco wasn’t as far from contemporary radio R&B as we thought — and the fusion is flawless.
These are cacophonous times, which makes it all the more satisfying to hear a young songwriter do so much, so softly. Katie Bennett’s gently chiming earworms seem almost impossibly low-key but are shot full of little joys — whispered hooks, painterly details, funny lines like “our bodies were like spaghetti, tangled and sauce-less.” “In Your Car” turns on a Pavement reference and ends up full of off-hand romance; the bouncier “Hometown Hero” does something similar with the Cure; “Be Home Soon” zooms in on a subway ride and finds pleasure in peanut chews, clementine oranges and the right song in your headphones. Just because Bennett’s songs are whispery doesn’t mean they lack heart or urgency; it’s more like they show what can happen when you approach the world with an open heart and allow yourself the time and space to think and explore.
Over 25 years after they crystalized indie-rock’s unique claim on rock & roll class politics with “Slack Motherfucker,” the beloved North Carolina band summed up post-Trump rage and malaise as well as pundit ever could on the best LP of their career. Singer-guitarist Mac Mac McCaughan located his angst in the restorative thrash of “Lost My Brain” and “Cloud of Hate,” turned the critical lens on the scene that made him who he is on “Reagan Youth” and weaponized his empathy on “Erasure” and “Break the Glass.” Without a doubt, it ended up playing its own role in firing up a key part of the base for 11/6/18, and pointed the way to battles yet to be raged.
On High as Hope’s final track, “No Choir,” Florence Welch lets us in on a secret: “It’s hard to write about being happy … happiness is an extremely uneventful subject.” It’s delivered a cappella — just her naked voice — but it’s the apotheosis of High as Hope, a beguiling record on which she sings about coping with an eating disorder and craving love (“Hunger”), feeling like a screw-up (“Grace”) and finding hope in Patti Smith (“Patricia”). She may feel down in the mouth, but the music never drags, thanks to her sublimely elegant arrangements, which she’s stacked with ear candy and sharp melodies.