So far, 2018 has given us Janelle Monáe’s android funk, Cardi B’s bloody-shoed boasts, J Balvin’s internationalist reggaeton and an all-star dispatch from Wakanda. Here’s the best of the year’s first five months and change.
We Say: Released in tandem with a film of the same name (like Purple Rain) and with music that engages with apocalyptic politics without undermining the party (like 1999), it’s a pop-culture salvo that’s rooted in the present while recognizing and building on the past. In its own way, its as artful, ambitious, determined, joyous and inspiring, as Lemonade or To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s a sexy MF-ing masterpiece. W.H.
We Say: The Black Panther soundtrack album has been nearly as feverishly anticipated as the film, and no wonder: It is helmed by another improbable straddler of cultural categories, Kendrick Lamar, A-list pop star and Black Lives Matter-era protest poet nonpareil. … It is tempting to compare Black Panther to Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man, classic blaxploitation soundtracks that channeled the social consciousness and sonic adventurism of early Seventies soul. But the analogy is imprecise. Lamar co-executive produced the album, has writing credits on all 14 tracks, and appears throughout, in starring roles and cameos. His main job, though, is a definitively 21st Century one: musical curator. Lamar corrals old friends from L.A. (Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul), southern rap hitmakers (Future, Travis Scott), nu-soul leading lights (the Weeknd, Anderson.Paak), and a host of lesser-knowns, including a handful of South African musicians with no little commercial presence in America. J.R.
We Say: The Bronx queen’s long-awaited debut Invasion of Privacy is even better than everybody was hoping it would be, a whirwind tour of Planet Cardi, a place where female warriors reign supreme, taking occasional breaks to plant a Louboutin heel on a rival’s throat. Cardi expands on the flash of “Bodak Yellow,” one of the most glorious pop hits of this century – all over Invasion of Privacy, she puts on her bloody shoes and dances the blues. As Cardi declares in the fantastic opener “Get Up 10,” “I started speaking my mind and tripled my views/Real bitch, only thing fake is the boobs.” R.S.
We Say: Although Cabello was the most high-profile member of Fifth Harmony, this group wasn’t built to last, and Cabello broke away in one of the messiest, most shade-intensive pop splits of recent years. … Cabello’s long-awaited solo debut is a personal statement, low-key and mellow even when it’s infused with the rhythms of her Cuban-Mexican heritage. Her massive 2017 radio smash “Havana” is the centerpiece, as she rides a steamy piano groove with Young Thug. Camila is sleek pop that gets straight to the point, just 10 songs around the three-minute mark, eschewing celebrity guests or big-name producers. R.S.
We Say: A 27-song record of all new material is not the kind of thing you’d associate with a pop-friendly hip-hop duo that had its first hits just four years ago. … Where recent marathons like Migos’ gratuitous Culture II felt more about streaming algorithms than art, Sr3mm rarely wears out its welcome. The project’s spiritual predecessor, Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, marked the beginning of the end for André 3000 and Big Boi’s creative partnership; but Swae and Jxmmi’s solo turns crackle with promise — and there’s nothing matching their electricity when they’re in the zone together. M.G.
We Say: [Y]ou might not recognize the weed-loving cowgirl troublemaker of “Follow Your Arrow” on this moony set, a throwback to easy-listening pop that’s only “country” by the loosest definition. Joined by a familiar dream team of Music City co-writers – Natalie Hemby, Hillary Lindsey, Luke Laird and Shane McAnally – plus new partners Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, the newlywed Musgraves is uncharacteristically cooing love songs; see the swooning title track and “Butterflies.” But she hasn’t lost her wit: “Northern lights in our skies/Plants that grow and open your mind,” she muses on “Oh, What a World,” a vocoder intro shimmering in the distance amid plinking banjo. Who knew Americana and robot rock were a thing? W.H.
We Say: Balvin is leading a new breed of Latin stars who can cross over without watering down their roots – an interesting development in this ostensibly wall-building era. The video for last year’s “Mi Gente” – a mighty club jam that shares its title (meaning “My People”) with the signature song of salsa legend/Balvin hero Hector Lavoe – has racked up 1.8 billion YouTube views at last count, and even scored a remix cameo from Beyoncé, who invited Balvin up for her epic Coachella set last month. Produced by Parisian producer/featured co-singer Willy Williams with co-writes by French radio VIP DJ Assad and Swedish-Congolese pop journeyman Mohombi, “Mi Gente” kicks off Vibras, and its dubby, chilled-out, internationalist take on reggaetón is a template for the entire set. W.H.
We Say: Prine’s kept at it steadily, despite a muse evidently grown less insistent, for nearly 50 years, and The Tree of Forgiveness is his first set of originals in over a decade. … After neck surgery in 1998 to remove a squamous cell carcinoma, and more surgery to treat lung cancer in 2013, Prine’s plainspoken tenor creaks like an wide-plank old floor in winter. … And of course, it nails the death meditation “When I Get to Heaven,” a mix of punchlines, sweet sentimentality and looming void. It’s precisely what Dylan – a major fan who offered to sit in on harmonica at Prine’s first New York gig – was referring to when he famously described Prine’s writing as “pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree.” W.H.
We Say: American Utopia – abetted by an old comrade (Brian Eno, contributing beats) and new ones (Daniel “Oneohtrix Point Never” Lopatin, Sampha/XX producer Rodaidh McDonald) – boasts some of the most exciting music Byrne has made in years. The balance of light and dark is especially compelling on “Bullet,” a travelogue of just that (“His skin did part in two/Skin that women had touched”) and “Everybody’s Comin’ to My House,” a sort of agoraphobic’s kidnapping fantasy. W.H.
We Say: Just one year after his unsuspecting opus God’s Problem Child, Nelson, 84, is back with Last Man Standing, the latest in his series of late-career ruminations helmed by producer Buddy Cannon. Whereas last year’s God’s Problem Child found Nelson staring down death in the mirror on meditations like “Old Timer” and “True Love,” this record finds the honky-tonk prophet satirizing the slow march of time with humorous musings set to a comfortable blend of Western swing and roadhouse blues. … On Last Man Standing, Willie Nelson continues to turn his ninth decade into a classic country song full of remembrance, regret and resilience. J.B.
We Say: 2015’s Depression Cherry was Beach House’s lushest album to date, raising the question of how they could possibly top it, short of tapping a team of quantum scientists to develop even headier reverb pedals. 7 … is the duo’s first attempt since then to push their sound forward. … This is the least introverted record Beach House have ever made; it’ll still blow your mind with candles lit and headphones on, but it’s the first time they’ve sounded like a band you might want to hear at a party with more than one guest. S.V.L.
Playboi Carti repeats phrases with an incantatory command over beats that mimic Japanese video game composers, resulting in songs that feel oddly yet infectiously rhythmic. It’s a style template that blossomed on last year’s self-titled album. Die Lit is more of the same as the Atlanta rapper strikes the repetitive chords with audible glee. He’s not in danger of wearing us out yet, although at 19 tracks Die Lit is better at establishing a dopamine-pumping red-eyed gamer vibe than coalescing into a concise body of work. “Long Time (Intro)” sounds like an 8-bit melody emanating from a broken cartridge as Carti chants, “I ain’t felt like this in a long time.” Skepta’s hard spitting nearly overwhelms “Lean 4 Real,” while Young Thug’s atonal crooning adds visceral intensity to the hallucinatory keyboard stabs of “Choppa Don’t Miss.” Despite a plethora of cameos including Nicki Minaj and Lil Uzi Vert, no one upstages Carti, who looms above it all, pleasantly lost in his own Mushroom Kingdom. M.R.
We Say: Pusha-T’s third – and best – solo album is a marvel of musical precision. On this 21-minute, EP-length collaboration with producer Kanye West no moment is wasted. … As usual, Pusha presents himself as the all-knowing veteran dope dealer who pushes product to his consumers. “I predict snow/Al Roker,” he promises on “If You Know You Know,” an opening track buttressed by snippets of ragga chants and a digital dancehall rhythm constructed from Ypsilanti, Michigan’s Seventies hard rock also-rans Air. It’s a conceit he has maintained throughout a career that dates back to the late Nineties as one-half of Clipse, the ferociously talented duo he formed with his brother Malice (now a born-again Christian rapper performing as No Malice). … But here, it feels less an end to itself than metaphor for Pusha-T’s ethos as a pure MC. In other words, he doesn’t cut his lyrical cocaine with pop fillers. M.R.
We Say: [T]he country-themed Restoration [is] a revelation. Tyros (Maren Morris) and legends (Dolly Parton) mine deep cuts to reveal in John’s songs a very country strain of stoic melancholy. Miranda Lambert delivers a stormy “My Father’s Gun”; Don Henley and Vince Gill wring pathos from the divorce lament “Sacrifice,” one of John’s loveliest tunes. The album concludes with Willie Nelson’s quietly epic ramble through “Border Song” – one 20th century legend welcoming another to music’s Mt. Olympus. J.R.
We Say: On the fifth Breeders album, the songs are all cinematic movement – hiding, escaping, screaming in the meadow, running for the exit. Such is life as the Breeders’ Kim Deal, a rock genius with a powderkeg of bittersweet melodies and fearless emotions forever ready to blow, but often without a band to light the fuse. … The boost in dynamic drama is due to the return of the lineup that recorded 1993’s alt-rock gem Last Splash – twin sister-guitarist Kelley Deal, bassist Josephine Wiggs, and drummer Jim MacPherson. Openers “Nervous Mary” and “Wait in the Car” prowl and dash, as the twins’ vocals, Kim’s guitar, and the coiled-tight rhythm section create an almost film-noir atmosphere of fraught anticipation and shifty post-punk shadows (“I got business,” spits Kim). C.A.
We Say: The band members, four liberal-minded musicians who have called purple-state North Carolina their home since they formed in 1989, wrote all of the record’s songs in a frenzied rush between the election and February 2017 and they ultimately struck on a perfect half-hour of punky, poppy vitriol. … They continue the through line of singing about maturity and responsibility that they started on 2010’s Majesty Shredding here – like on “Break the Glass,” one of the group’s strongest singles in ages, when McCaughan sings, “Everyone is acting normal, but no one’s sleeping through the night.” K.G.
We Say: In its piano-ballad gait, baroque-pop raptures and confessional sting, Josh Tillman’s fourth album as the darkly antic Father John Misty often sounds like it was made more than 40 years earlier under yet another name: John Lennon. … What lifts God’s Favorite Customer beyond homage is Tillman’s slicing, free-associative candor as he examines the cost in sanity and constancy of his craft and touring life. D.F.
We Say: The incandescently vibrating soprano is worn down nearer a burnished alto after a half century of committed music-making and activism. Yet the takeaway from Joan Baez’s latest – following her well-earned 2017 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – is how essential her work remains. … Baez, 77, didn’t write songs for this set, instead curating ones that spoke to her – here, by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, Josh Ritter and others. The mood’s reflective and autumnal. Ritter’s “Silver Blade,” a fable for the #MeToo era, nods to Baez’s early signature “Silver Dagger.” And on “Last Leaf” (see Waits’ 2011 LP Bad as Me), the singer accurately notes she’s “been here since Eisenhower/And I’ve outlived even he,” affirming that she will be around “through eternity … I’ll show up in a song.” W.H.
Now that Black Sabbath have completed their final tour, Judas Priest are the longest-running band from heavy metal’s first wave. And from the sound of their 18th LP, Firepower, they take that seriously. The group sounds refreshed throughout the album, whipping through 14 mostly uptempo ragers that sound bloodthirsty while echoing classic Judas Priest. Standouts “Flame Thrower” and “Evil Never Dies” pulse with skull-rattling rhythms, dueling-guitar leads and vocalist Rob Halford’s still-stunning piercing shrieks and guttural yowls. The band will turn 50 next year, but somehow they never sound tired here. K.G.
We Say: Tell Me How You Really Feel is noisy and way more pissed off than her 2015 debut … unsheathing sharp new earnestness alongside her trademark sabers of sarcasm and penetrating observation. She opens by paraphrasing Nelson Mandela. “Y’know what they say/No one’s born to hate/We learn it somewhere along the way,” she whispers at the outset of “Hopefulessness,” a slithering post-punk inspirational that builds from ambivalent incantation to near-snarl, twin guitars cresting into a glorious noise burst before receding comically behind the earthbound wail of a teakettle – a perfectly Barnett-ish touch. W.H.
We Say: The tricks and miracles of Things Have Changed are manifold. Half of its 12 tracks restore life to songs that were dead-on-arrival on Dylan albums from 1979 to 1989; the rest reshapes more essential parts of the legend. The grooves constructed by drummer and producer Steve Jordan have both the booming precision of hip-hop loops and the flexible responsiveness of classic R&B. This is tradition-based music that extends the heritage it draws from. J.L.
We Say: In place of the usual Parquet Courts concerns – oblique self-analysis, post-graduate existential ennui, meta-rock references, girl problems – are big-picture anxieties and flabbergasted outrage. … With light-touch production by Danger Mouse, this is also the funkiest and sweetest Parquet Courts set yet, trading off some of their trademark guitar fireworks for danceable jams. W.H.
Case’s clarion pipes remain the calling card, but on her eighth studio LP, between lyrics and vocal arrangements, they’ve never channeled more imagination or sense of purpose. A set of rangy folk-rock, Hell-On opens pondering the nature of God (“an unspecified tide … a lusty tire fire”) and hits its stride dissecting love, most dazzlingly on “Winnie” (“Joy ran through us like welders flux/We just wanted to be music!”). Beth Ditto, k.d. lang, Eric Bachmann, Laura Veirs and others reinforce the key point: No instrument has more power than the unadorned human voice. W.H.
We Say: These songs are confessional but not diaristic, her lyrics sound like half of a conversation in which Dacus lets fly with discursive bon mots about the more terrifying prospects of companionship and community, anxiously poking around in the lingering wounds of bonds both romantic and familial. “Who knew one day it would be so hard to have you by my side?” Dacus sings on “Addictions.” These are glorious little ghost stories wrapped up in love songs, where the 23-year-old artist seems to be weighing who she’s becoming versus what she’s inherited. J. Hopper
We Say: The greatest story in Nineties indie-rock was watching Pavement grow from boutique noise aesthetes into one of America’s truly fine bands. In the 19 years since they closed up shop, it’s been equally fun seeing frontman Stephen Malkmus relax into an excellent solo career marked by a warmth, humor and generosity, growing past his early days as the “ironic” “Prince of Slack.” … His latest with his post-Pavement crew the Jicks has everything we’ve come to expect from him: effortless Cali-kissed tunefulness and grand guitar jabber steeped in prog, folk and soft rock, perfect for a mellowing, kids-having fanbase who’d rather listen to Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees these days than their old Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 albums. J.D.