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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.

Parquet Courts, 'Wide Awake!'

Parquet Courts, ‘Wide Awake!’

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.

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.