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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.

Stephen Malkmus Sparkle Hard
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Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, ‘Sparkle Hard’

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 The Imposters Look Now
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Elvis Costello, ‘Look Now’

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.

Courtney Barnett Tell Me How You Really Fel
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Courtney Barnett, ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’

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 Hell On
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Neko Case, ‘Hell-On’

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 American Utopia
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David Byrne, ‘American Utopia’

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.

Rosalia El Mal Querer
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Rosalía, ‘El Mal Querer’

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.

The Bluest Star Free Cake For Every Creature
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Free Cake for Every Creature, ‘The Bluest Star’

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.

Superchunk What a Time To Be Alive
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Superchunk, ‘What a Time to Be Alive’

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.

Florence and the Machine High as Hope
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Florence and the Machine, ‘High as Hope’

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.

Noname Room 25
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Noname, ‘Room 25’

What does one do with a cult classic? That’s the situation Chicago rapper-poet Noname found herself in after the success of Telefone, her independently released 2015 album. Her response was to double down and make a project that’s denser, darker and more personal — and an undeniable artistic step forward. Her penchant for live instrumentation is still there — the album is tight but retains an air of improvisation — and her knack for storytelling, has evolved. On Room 25, she turns her eye to more autobiographical verses, detailing the specificities of her own life while slipping between everyday observations and universal truths: “I know everyone goes someday / I know my body’s fragile, know it’s made from clay,” she sings on the string-bathed “Don’t Forget About Me.” It’s the sound of an artist discovering new heights for her music.

Snail Mail Lush
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Snail Mail, ‘Lush’

At 18 years old, Lindsay Jordan is already a nuanced guitar player with a unique command of her clear-cutting voice, and the mastery of Nineties-style indie-rock she shows on Lush is striking at every turn. Songs like “Pristine,” “Heat Wave” and “Golden Dream” recall classic Liz Phair with their jagged, dreamy guitars and pinpoint interiority, each building from a murmur to a holler as if we’re watching grow into a new epiphany every time she picks up a guitar. What she’ll end up be doing at 28 may turn out to be one of the next decades’s most exciting rock & roll dramas.

RaeSremmurd SR3MM
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Rae Sremmurd, ‘SR3MM’

2018 did not want for very long albums but few used their wide-open spaces as wondrously as Mississippi twin brother duo Rae Sremmurd. The last time a Southern hip-hop duo released an album as ambitious as this 101-minute psychedelic trap-music exploration, they were called Outkast. Whether Lamborghini-slick (“Powerglide”) or sky-high and sad (“Hurt to Look”), brothers Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi give every song a unique mix of openhearted ness and indulgence without losing the youthful energy that made their first pop-rap hits so addictive.

Kali Uchis Isolation
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Kali Uchis, ‘Isolation’

An American pop upstart with Colombian roots, Uchis recalls vintage Beck in the grab-bag brio of her debut: Her hip-hop soul grooves roller-skate on the astral plane as she fires off tasty shots like “Your Teeth in My Neck,” and mixes Brazilian music, reggaeton, funk and doo-wop, holding it all together by force of a casual charisma she sums up herself in the radiant “Miami”: “Why would I be Kim, I could be Kanye/In the land of opportunity and palm trees.” Hard to argue with that.

US Girls In A Poem Unlimited
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U.S. Girls, ‘In a Poem Unlimited’

Meg Remy’s sixth studio LP was one of the most potent political records of 2018 – and also one of the slyest, smartest, and most chilling, a mix of acid funk and throwback disco with squalling saxophones and warped guitar riffs. “Rage of Plastics” sounds like a Screaming Jay Hawkins declaration reimagined by Karen Silkwood. “M.A.H.” surveys a horrifically bleak marriage (and Obama-era disillusionment) amidst ‘70s dancefloor reverie. “Rosebud” is a trip-hop anthem of self-discovery invoking Citizen Kane, while “Incidental Boogie” turns the psychology of an abused spouse into a mutant club jam. These are feminist party jams that, to their credit, don’t see escapism as an option.

 

John Prine The Tree of Forgiveness
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John Prine, ‘The Tree of Forgiveness’

No American singer/songwriter besides Dylan — a confirmed fan — has a longer run of greatness than Prine. His first set of originals in a decade, produced by country-Americana guru Dave Cobb, reaffirms that. His plainspoken tenor creaks hard, amplifying the come-on-home poignancy of “Summer’s End” and the gravitas of “Caravan of Fools” (a spot-on indictment of our current administration); “When I Get to Heaven” ponders the hereafter with punchlines, earned sentimentality and looming void. Here’s hoping he doesn’t get there for a long while yet.