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50 Best Albums of 2018 So Far

Including Janelle Monáe, Cardi B, Kacey Musgraves, the ‘Black Panther’ soundtrack and more

50 Best Albums of 2018 So Far

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.

Neko Case, Hell-On

Neko Case, Hell-On

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.

Lucy Dacus, 'Historian'

Lucy Dacus, ‘Historian’

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

Steven Malkmus and the Jicks, 'Sparkle Hard'

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, ‘Sparkle Hard’

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.

Brett Cobb, 'Providence'

Brent Cobb, ‘Providence Canyon’

We Say: Cobb’s as much a throwback Southern rocker as a modern country singer, and his sound is a perfect match for cousin Dave Cobb, whose production work with Chris Stapleton – Brent’s tourmate of late – and others continues re-shaping the Nashville Sound into an earthier, more idiosyncratic thing. Where Cobb’s fine 2016 breakout Shine On Rainy Day cast him as singer-songwriting tale-teller, these songs are more from the gut. The soulful “King of Alabama” is a funky tribute to a fallen friend and fellow traveller that rides a deep-southern strut: “If you thought he looked country/y’oughta heard him sing,” Cobb observes, drawl so thick he might as well be talking about himself. “Sucker for a Good Time” is spiked with screaming doubled-guitar lines that echo the Allmans’ Eat a Peach, while “.30-06” makes its jealous threat with a particular old-school hunting rifle, another example of his eye for telling detail. Throughout, you get the sense of a dude trying to hold on to his roots while riding the present hard. W.H.

Brandi Carlile, 'By the Way, I Forgive You'

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

We Say: On her sixth LP, veteran songwriter Brandi Carlile teams up with co-producers Shooter Jennings and Dave Cobb for a moving and righteous piece of Americana-infused pop. Across the 10-track LP, the folk-tinged singer belts with gusto, whether offering nostalgic, harmonized forgiveness on album opener “Everytime I Hear That Song” or a shoulder to cry on with anthemic ballad “The Joke.” B.S.

Autechre, 'NTS Sessions 1-4'

Autechre, ‘NTS Sessions 1-4’

These forward-thinking veterans of electronic music are starting to feel like the world’s most cerebral jam band. Their NTS Radio series – compiling nearly 8 hours(!) of music on a 8-CD or 12-LP set – showcase their recent move towards longform pieces that still contain their trademark brain-boggle: seemingly inhuman sounds, melodies and rhythms built through programming code. It’s up for debate exactly what is live, composed, improvised or artificial intelligence run amok, but it’s a diverse set that covers a lot of ground: heavy squelches, electro with the lurching gait of a twisted ankle, tippy-tappy excursions into vintage IDM drum skitter and “All End,” a 58-minute spaceship glint-scape like a stretched and throbbing update of the Solaris soundtrack. C.W.

Sleep, 'The Sciences'

Sleep, ‘The Sciences’

The trio still has the same spark (har, har) they did in the Nineties, aping every riff Tony Iommi didn’t write for Master of Reality, then stretching them out and bellowing lyrics about weed. Highlights (inhale) include the bong flutter that introduces “Marijuanaut’s Theme,” the entire 10-minute song “Giza Butler” (“Marijuana is his might and his salvation”) and, naturally, Matt Pike’s devastating guitar tone throughout, from the all-noise intro “The Sciences” to his acid-blues soloing on final track “The Botanist.” K.G.

Shawn Mendes, 'Shawn Mendes'

Shawn Mendes, ‘Shawn Mendes’

We Say: Over his past two albums, the Toronto native proved himself an affably charming, guitar-slinging foil to the deluge of often-forgettable, pop’n’B-leaning white male stars. He was a family-friendly one-man boy band, churning out hits about love, heartbreak and savior complexes in a post-One Direction world. On his latest, Mendes crosses a bridge to the other side; it’s groovy R&B funk that doesn’t lose the charm of the way his warm vocals sound over the scratchy strum of his guitar. … Mendes’ strength is in romance, and more than ever before, this teenager seems like he not only believes the words he is singing, but he’s actually lived through the emotions behind them. B.S.

Kali Uchis, 'Isolation'

Kali Uchis, ‘Isolation’

We Say: The music Kali Uchis summons on this fascinating debut album doesn’t refer to a particular place or time. Like Beck or Outkast, she’s a pop weirdo who works grooves that seem vintage and futuristic at the same moment. She grabs splashes of funk, bossa, reggaeton and soul and blankets them with a sunbaked, psychedelic wooziness. Her specialty is flashbacks, not throwbacks. Blink and the picture changes again. J.L.

Tracey Thorn, 'Record'

Tracey Thorn, ‘Record’

We Say: In her excellent new solo album, with the droll title Record, the Everything But the Girl chanteuse tells tales of mid-life angst with the same wry wit she’s had in her voice since she was a sullen Brit-punk kid. The fantastic “Sister” sets the tone – over eight pulsing minutes of feminist rage, explicitly inspired by the women’s march, with Corinne Bailey Rae and Warpaint’s rhythm section joining in as she chants, “I think like a girl/I fight like a girl.” She sounds like a woman who woke up one morning to realize she forgot how to give a fuck anymore. R.S.

U.S. Girls, 'In a Poem Unlimited'

U.S. Girls, ‘In a Poem Unlimited’

Canadian recording artist Meghan Remy dishes up art-pop delights on her second LP as U.S. Girls. Songs are elegant yet forceful, full of shape-shifts but smooth, tuneful and fun. “Velvet 4 Sale” sets billowing synth noise over a moodily predatory groove as Remy makes the line “It’s all just friction/but don’t forget the revenge” sound like a viable pop hook. Scary Monsters-era Bowie, Madonna, Kate Bush and early-Eighties downtown NYC punk-funk pop up among the glistening touchstones. But Poem isn’t just solid retro. Remy bounces between genres effortlessly, from the P.M. Dawn dreaminess of “Rosebud” to the rich, inviting synth-pop of “Poem” to the “La Isla Bonita”-tinged bounce of “Pearly Gates,” holding it all together with songwriting chops, searching, self-possessed lyrics and a sense of old-school record-making craft. The result: Rewarding repeated listens. J.D.

Sir, 'November'

Sir, ‘November’

Sir’s R&B credentials are impeccable: He’s written for Anita Baker, Jill Scott, Tyrese and Letoya Luckett, among others. So it’s no surprise that November, his debut album for the lauded Top Dawg Entertainment, comes filled with accomplished, serene funk. Sir is at his best when his songs stay quiet, unhurried and almost sleepy, allowing pleasing details to come into focus: his lackadaisical vocal delivery in “Never Home,” the pretty pleading on “I Need Your Love” or the gauzy sample of Soul Mann & the Brothers’ “Bumpy’s Lament” (best known for its use in Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive”) on “Dreaming of Me.” E.L.

Cupcakke, 'Ephorize'

Cupcakke, ‘Ephorize’

“Coochie guaranteed to put you to sleep so damn soon/Riding on that dick, I’m reading Goodnight Moon,” Chicago rapper Cupcakke promises on her outrageously great third LP. Elizabeth Harris is a Lil’ Kim for our times, spooling out raunchy rhymes with a personal and political edge over eclectic beats. The reggaeton-tinged “Crayons” celebrates gay sex and takes on homophobia, and Cupcakke gets introspective on “Self Interview,” admitting, “Most of the people already skipped this song because it ain’t about sex and killing.” It’s their loss. J.D.

Ashley McBryde, 'Girl Goin' Nowhere'

Ashley McBryde, ‘Girl Going Nowhere’

We Say: The title track of McBryde’s Girl Going Nowhere is a whispered anthem about crushing it in the face of doubters. Most triumphant artists would holler, gloat, swagger, flip the bird, but in this opener, McBryde barely raises her voice, which quivers potently over a muted snare, guitar notes flashing like phone screens in a dark arena. Then “Radioland” crashes in, a country rocker about old-time broadcast bliss, invoking John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane” and McBryde’s daddy, “a rock star riding on a tractor listening to Townes Van Zandt.” … McBryde’s got a big, vibrato-tinged alto, biker-chick style, and she wrote or co-wrote everything here, including “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” with a sharp eye for piercing detail. She has a serious gift. W.H.

Tune-Yards, 'I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life'

Tune-Yards, ‘I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life’

We Say: [A]n LP determined to conjure kinetic joy while staring down our present cultural fright show – and which is more potent for it. … Per usual, the core remains Garbus’ beat science, hypnotically looped and stuttered, driven by handclaps, drumstick clatter and her increasingly varied vocal displays, which are more processed than usual here – fitting for an age where “truth” itself comes digitally warped. “I don’t know the language,” she declares in a rare, barely altered purr on “Coast to Coast,” a resistance anthem for a divided country where, it seems, “all the words mean fear.” W.H.

Bad Plus, 'Never Stop II'

The Bad Plus, ‘Never Stop II’

We Say: Since forming in 2000, the Bad Plus have grown from upstart into institution, one of the few contemporary jazz acts to show up on the mainstream radar in the years before the To Pimp a Butterfly watershed. … As on past efforts, it’s bassist Reid Anderson who takes the lead here, contributing half of the album’s eight pieces. His latest creations – especially opener “Hurricane Birds,” driven by a drum ‘n’ bass–esque groove from drummer Dave King, and soulful, backbeat-powered second track “Trace” – epitomize the band’s signature blend of poppy melodicism and proggy intricacy. On each, you can hear [pianist Orrin] Evans having a ball with the bassist’s themes, savoring their tight contours while adding his own bluesy flourishes. H.S.

Superorganism, 'Superorganism'

Superorganism, ‘Superorganism’

Conjuring the golden era of sample-pop –- think Deee-Lite, De La Soul, Beck, Beats International, Avalanches, Coldcut’s “Seven Minutes of Madness” remix of Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid In Full” – but escalating the data overload for modern microprocessor speeds, vocalist Orono and her international collective uncork a firehose flow of found-sound flotsam and sound-effect punchlines over exceptionally well-tooled popcraft. W.H.

Brothers Osborne, 'Port Saint Joe'

Brothers Osborne, ‘Port Saint Joe’

The country duo covers an incredible amount of territory on their second album, named for the Florida Gulf Coast town where they recorded it with producer Jay Joyce. Lead single “Shoot Me Straight” is a six-minute rock epic about breaking things off, with singer TJ Osborne demanding “lay my six-foot-four-inch-ass out on the ground” in his chest-deep baritone, and guitarist John Osborne serving up a dazzling fireworks display for the song’s back half. They also tackle Jerry Reed-style country funk on “A Couple Wrongs Makin’ It Alright,” hard-driving rock on “Drank Like Hank” and glistening country soul on “Pushin’ Up Daisies (Love Alive).” In “Weed, Whiskey and Willie,” the Brothers make a turn back into boozy country, proving they’re just as adept at the fundamentals as they are at playing with the formula. J.F.

Soccer Mommy, 'Clean'

Soccer Mommy, ‘Clean’

A star of indie rock’s poetically plainspoken new wave (see Lucy Dacus, Jay Som, Mitski, Big Thief, etc.), Sophie Allison weaves images of bedsheets, flora, fauna and lip-locks through 10 songs, sparkling guitar melodies carrying rubbed raw emotions. “Skin” conjures Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville in the best possible way; “Your Dog” flips Iggy Pop’s proto-punk cornerstone canine fantasy (“I don’t wanna be your fucking dog”); and if there’s a more unnervingly sexy moment in 2018 rock than Allison instructing someone to “rip my flowers out” in “Flaw,” we haven’t heard it yet. W.H.

Gas, 'Rausch'

Gas, ‘Rausch’

After five critically acclaimed albums that mysteriously and melancholically blurred the boundaries of techno, ambient, psychedelia, shoegaze and nostalgia, Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas project has returned for his grandest, most ambitious statement yet. Rausch – available as a download as a 60-minute “Continuous Mix” – is a long journey through hissing fog, dark ambient clouds, crying strings and ping-ponging cymbals. From moody banks of lush drone, sounds emerge like creatures from behind the jungle brush and notes appear like car radios rushing by in the night. A house beat throbs in the distance, possibly a memory of dancefloors past, possibly a lighthouse to help guide you through this impressionist symphony of colors. C.W.

Snail Mail, 'Lush'

Snail Mail, ‘Lush’

We Say: With Snail Mail’s Lush, indie rock has officially entered its “Black Crowes era,” where young artists refigure music from the decade they were born. But that’s not a bad thing here. As the brainchild of 18-year-old Lindsey Jordan, who counts Helium’s Mary Timony and Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield as mentors, Snail Mail worship at the altars of Pavement, Liz Phair and Dinosaur Jr. She’s packed Lush, her debut full-length, with the same sort of smart lyrics about unrequited love (“Heat Wave”), personal dissatisfaction (“Pristine”) and the places where those feelings coalesce (“Golden Dream”) as her forebears and set them to a soundtrack of chugging, glassy-toned guitar. K.G.

DJ Koze, 'Knock Knock'

DJ Koze, ‘Knock Knock’

We Say: Stefan Kozalla is the rare DJ who doesn’t usually dial back his presence when producing vocal tracks, nor does he overwhelm the singer; instead, he insists that everyone shine simultaneously – a nice metaphor for the dance floor’s egalitarian, communal spirit. … “Bonfire” cut ‘n’ pastes vocal samples from Bon Iver’s “Calgary,” making new meanings with Justin Vernon’s warmly cryptic words in a massage-chair techno groove. … His best slight of hand is “Pick Up,” which isolates bits of Gladys Knight’s vocals from her exquisitely lugubrious 1972 ballad signature “Neither One of Us (Want to Be The First to Say Goodbye)” and releases them incrementally, like so many luftballoons, over a dizzying disco-house groove. W.H.

Tal National, 'Tantabara'

Tal National, ‘Tantabara’

We Say: Tal National are the math-rock mavens of West Africa. Nigerian singer-rapper Zara Moussa delivers the opening couplet on the title-track opener of Tantabara, their fourth album since 2009, before the entire band jumps in jubilantly and takes off at an unrelenting gallop through a complex 12/8 Hausa groove. Recorded in a makeshift Niamey studio by Jamie Carter, a Chicago producer who was more professionally familiar with Joan of Arc and Chance the Rapper when he produced their 2009 debut, Tantabara has a scruffy, econo, indie-rock vibe reminiscent of beautiful Brooklyn afrojazz punks Sunwatchers or Tel Aviv-born Brooklyn guitarist Yonatan Gat, who shreds aggressively on Tal’s “Entente.” R.G.

Natalie Prass, 'The Future and the Past’

Natalie Prass, ‘The Future and the Past’

We Say: Natalie Prass’ second album pairs the sharp and the smooth, its keenly observed lyrics about love and politics grounded in arrangements that recall soft-pop highlights from the past four decades. The Future and the Past is a modern echo of that moment when soft rock and Quiet Storm fed off each other – the plush yet firm yacht-y early-Eighties keyboards on the wide-eyed “The Fire,” simmering counterpoint bass on “Never Too Late,” and the tinkling pianos and swooping strings of the weightless-sounding yet troubled “Far From You.” M.J.

Hinds, 'I Don't Run'

Hinds, ‘I Don’t Run’

We Say: Who knows how much Hinds’ off-handed magnificence has to do with their roots as Madrileños, and how much is merely the mystic universal science of group chemistry and spirit? Whatever the proportions, their second LP is a gem of indie-rock-revivalism, making faux-naif surf licks and Mo Tucker drum beats seem new all over again. W.H.

Low Cut Connie, 'Dirty Pictures (Part 2)'

Low Cut Connie, ‘Dirty Pictures (Part 2)’

We Say: Low Cut Connie’s fifth album draws on the same sessions – at Ardent Studios in Memphis – that propelled this Philadelphia band’s 2017 blast of Fifties-infused glam-punk hallelujah, Dirty Pictures (Part 1). But these ten tracks, mostly written by singer-pianist Adam Weiner, are hardly leftovers. … “All These Kids Are Way Too High” is explosive, hilarious censure, a song about every bar band’s worst nightmare – an audience that just stands and stares – detonated like the New York Dolls produced by Sam Phillips. “Beverly,” in turn, is steeped in Philly soul – a mid-tempo charge of desperate need that Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff could have written for Teddy Pendergrass – then seared with slide guitar and dotted with Weiner’s chiming piano, as if Elton John had joined the Replacements in time for Pleased to Meet Me. D.F.

Turnstile, 'Time & Space'

Turnstile, ‘Time & Space’

Renowned for their anarchic live shows, Baltimore hardcore punks Turnstile open the pit to a broader range of sounds and collaborators on their refreshingly free-form major-label debut. The band borrows from the Nirvana playbook on garage-rock shredder “Moon” and shyly flashes a freak flag on slinky jazz interludes “Bomb” and “Disco.” Longtime fan Diplo makes an understated cameo on “Right to Be,” his synths splashing neon onto Turnstile’s concrete political protest. Hardcore purists may bristle, but Time & Space offers fans new and old some room to breathe. S.E.

A.A.L. (Against All Logic), '2012-2017'

A.A.L. (Against All Logic), ‘2012-2017’

In February, experimental electronic artist Nicolas Jaar casually released a dance album under his A.A.L. moniker without any sort of promotion: The LP just appeared on his label’s website, and the media didn’t figure out that the project was linked to Jaar until six days later. 2012-2017 is dense, with alluring samples cherrypicked from shimmering Seventies soul and full-throated gospel. Jaar cuts and pastes this source material into loose, walloping, jubilant tracks. “Cityfade” has the club-igniting potential of classic Moby, “Now U Got Me Hooked” relies on a striking snippet of the Dramatics to create strutting, triumphant disco, and even the most steadfast wallflowers will be unable to resist the nearly 10-minute-long closing track, “Rave on U.” E.L.

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