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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.

Superchunk, 'What a Time to Be Alive'

Superchunk, ‘What a Time to Be Alive’

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.

Father John Misty, 'God's Favorite Customer'

Father John Misty, ‘God’s Favorite Customer’

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.

Joan Baez, 'Whistle Down the Wind'

Joan Baez, ‘Whistle Down the Wind’

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.

Judas Priest, 'Firepower'

Judas Priest, ‘Firepower’

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.

Courtney Barnett, 'Tell Me How You Really Feel'

Courtney Barnett, ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’

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.

Bettye Lavette, 'Things Have Changed'

Bettye Lavette, ‘Things Have Changed’

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.