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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 Carters Everything is Love
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The Carters, ‘Everything Is Love’

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.

Father John Misty God's Favorite Customer
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Father John Misty, ‘God’s Favorite Customer’

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.

The Sciences Sleep
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Sleep, ‘The Sciences’

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.

Robyn, "Honey"
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Robyn, ‘Honey’

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.

44

Jeff Tweedy, ‘Warm’

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, 'Tha Carter V'
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Lil Wayne, ‘Tha Carter V’

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.

Ashley McBryde Girl Going Nowhere
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Ashley McBryde, ‘Girl Going Nowhere’

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.

Amanda Shires To The Sunset
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Amanda Shires, ‘To the Sunset’

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.

Parquet Courts Wide Awake
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Parquet Courts, ‘Wide Awake’

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?

 

Nine Inch Nails Bad Witch
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Nine Inch Nails, ‘Bad Witch’

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.

Eric Church Desperate Man
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Eric Church, ‘Desperate Man’

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.

whack world, tierra whack
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Tierra Whack, ‘Whack World’

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.

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.

Beach House 7
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Beach House, ‘7’

Warm, fuzzy dream pop, with a fresh twist: On their seventh LP, the Baltimore duo turn up the drums and the synths, yielding an exciting career-topping triumph that makes many of their older albums feel like practice runs. The psychedelic rush of lead single “Lemon Glow” is the most immediate charmer, but there’s even more to love in zero-G infinity pools like “Lose Your Smile” and “Pay No Mind.” It’s rare to find a band willing to reinvent itself this fully at this stage of a career, much less one that can pull it off.

The Beths Future Me Hates Me
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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.