What a year for music — 2018 was full of ups and downs, but music was where most of the ups were. These were the albums that offered a reason to celebrate this year — my 20 favorites, because there are too many great ones for a mere top 10. The artists are all over the musical map: guitar heroes, rap gurus, pop bangers, country cowgirls, disco saviors. Some are old faves; some are new voices; one was a Beatle. But they all made music full of inspiration and innovation this year.
More blood, more shoes. Cardi B spent the year flexing like a one-woman explosion of neon pop flash, stomping on everything tame or dull in hip-hop, making Invasion of Privacy a greatest-hits album in one shot. Like she says, “I’m a rich bitch and I smell like it!” She’s a true pop visionary in the great tradition of Dolly Parton, Grace Jones, David Bowie or Adam Ant — she knows ridicule is nothing to be scared of. The Bronx queen makes no time for dicking around or dues-paying — she just steals any style of music that catches her ear and wears it home. Her Dirty South strip-club bounce in “Bickenhead.” Her NYC salsa in “I Like It.” Her SZA hymn “I Do.” The way she sings a snippet of Lauryn Hill R&B in “Be Careful” to soothe her nerves through a long night of heartbreak. I love her jokes, especially the terrible ones. (“Only time I’m a lady’s when I lay-deez hoes to rest!”) I love her when she’s winning, I feel her when she’s losing, I get scared when she goes down nine times, I cheer when she gets up 10.
This missed me at first — I loved Lucy Dacus’ debut a couple years ago, but her voice changed so much on Historian, I figured she’d gone in a folksier direction that wasn’t my cup of tea, then forgot about it. Until late this summer, when “Night Shift” jumped me in the supermarket on my headphones and knocked me into the frozen-foods aisle. Dacus dropped another ace album this year with Boygenius, the debut EP from her super-duper shrunkgroup with Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker. (“Stay Down,” damn.) Historian feels calm yet chilling, the way graveyard shifts often do.
Calling it now: “In Your Car” is the best song anyone will ever write about listening to Pavement in a parked car and singing along with “Summer Babe” with a friend while you’re waiting for your lives to begin, until you notice this is it. (This song does for “Summer Babe” what “Summer Babe” did for “Just Like Heaven.”) Free Cake’s Katie Bennett is so sly at sad songs it’s easy to overlook how daringly un-sad she is most of the time, whispering hooks like “Our bodies were wet spaghetti, tangled and sauceless.” I loved her 2016 Talking Quietly of Anything With You, but The Bluest Star kills me softly, with her casually emotional tunes about books and bikes and eating clementines on the subway. True romance: “Two smudges on the breeze/Sick with our untold stories.”
Chicago rap poet Fatimah Warner takes off with her second album Room 25, a song cycle with jazzy echoes of the Native Tongues and D’Angelo, but a rude-girl wit that’s all her own. “My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism” is a boast to believe in.
“What doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder,” as Miranda Lambert once sang, and the third Pistol Annies showdown is their nastiest, funniest, meanest, rudest, rockingest, most cathartic. Lambert, Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe join forces for the kind of classic country album where the divorce songs get twice as rowdy as the partying songs. Make no mistake, these cowgirls are here for the smoke. (“I had me an ex that I adored, but he got along good with a couple road whores” — yowza.) When I find a karaoke place that has “Got My Name Changed Back,” I’m moving in.
“What’s that on your mouth? Is it something good that you just spit back out? Did you just forget about all those feelings we’re not feeling now?” Now that’s how you write a head-spinning farewell, and it’s not even one of this Philly pop-punk crew’s five most feelings-intensive songs. Carmen Perry is so fiercely funny about the useless crush objects who bumble across her path, even when she already knows she’ll forget them as soon as she’s written a song about them, in sardonic gems like “Dripping” or “Pull Through.” Or the one that goes “I never meant to be the hole in the crotch of your jeans.”
The Houston MC launches the space shot of the year, a hip-hop prog opus zooming from one musical galaxy to another, with guests from Drake to Sheck Wes sounding right at home. “Sicko Mode” is so ornate it’s practically a rap answer to Rush’s “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres,” yet it also flew to Number One. Travis: bringer of balance.
One of my fave live moments of 2018: Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan begins the show with the new break-up song “How Simple,” utterly confident the crowd will echo the chorus back to her, even if they didn’t know it when they walked in the door. (“Don’t worry, we will both find out/Just not together” is a hook that sounds really different after you yell it in a room full of strangers.) I love how brazen this record is — Hop Along aim for big guitar moves, without losing any of the songs’ twisted intimacy.
Hayley turned this year into 20GayTeen, starring herself as the “Lesbian Jesus,” as her fans call her. Back in her Disney Channel days, Hayley was the high-school rock star of Lemonade Mouth, starting a garage band with the kids she met in detention. But look at her now: She’s so gone. Hayley rips it up and starts again with her fantastic full-fledged pop debut Expectations, from the hit “Curious” to her Kehlani duet “What I Need.” Remember when, not so long ago, there were no out queer female pop stars? Dusty Springfield and Lesley Gore didn’t live long enough to hear Hayley, but for damn sure they knew she was coming. Lesbian Jesus, take the wheel.
When Lady Gaga decides it’s time for a Seventies rock-star makeover, she doesn’t dip her toe in the shallow. (Does she ever?) So she dives right into the Carole King album cover she keeps on her bedroom wall in the movie, with a top-notch soundtrack of mellow California-gold tearjerkers. Every song is designed to sound like it was written in a supermarket parking lot while the limo driver munches his cheese puffs. Result: a fantasy set in a parallel universe where nothing’s happened since the first Lilith Fair tour, yet it fits right into 2018. A Star Is Born feels like the true Gaga, even down to the subtlest inflections of shade. (“La Vie En Rose” is the Edith Piaf song Madonna played on acoustic guitar on her last tour, and don’t think for a second Stefani Germanotta doesn’t obsess over details like that.) She earns the Yes t-shirt she flaunts onscreen: Gaga, yours is no disgrace.
Richard Pryor had a great line about Muhammad Ali’s championship fight crushing Leon Spinks: “Ali didn’t really beat him up, he just beat him often.” That’s what the ladies of the world do to Drake. All over Scorpion, Aubrey Graham takes punch after punch, suffering defeat after defeat, and it’s beside the point to complain it’s way too much, since way too much is the essence of Drake-dom. “Nice for What,” “God’s Plan” and “In My Feelings” were three of the year’s best and biggest hits, topping the charts for a mind-boggling 28 weeks, even if the New Wave synth-glaze of “Summer Games” tops them all.
These Danish punk wolfboys were a blast when they were totally incompetent — oh, the days when they were the kind of hardcore band that sells knives at the merch table, with a “No Stabbing” sign. But somewhere along the line, they figured out how to build a groove. Who knew? Their fourth album Beyondless has a mutant blues lurch under all the goth melodrama. Elias Bender Rønnenfelt has always had a Mick Jagger twitch in his hips and lips, but he earns his own “Midnight Rambler” in “Thieves Like Us,” a boozily poetic crime caper worthy of its Robert Altman title. (When he claims he’s got “the brains of a blow-up doll,” he’s probably exaggerating, though it’s unclear which way.) He also sings “The Day the Music Dies” — he’s looking forward to it.
Introspective, as the Pet Shop Boys would put it. Robyn returns after eight years with an album of late-night synth-pop brooding over love pains. Even her disco bangers are bereaved, though “Ever Again” ends on a hopeful note. If you love Honey, treat yourself to Billie Ray Martin’s lost 1995 Euro-disco masterpiece Deadline for My Memories, a bizarrely obscure yet equally poignant electro elegy, with similar healing powers.
The most emotionally uncomplicated guitar record of the year, just three D.C. postpunk brainiacs revving up sci-fi surf grooves in the spirit of the B-52s’ Ricky Wilson, though they also evoke legends like Mission of Burma or Native Tongue. Flasher’s debut is one you can spin all day, a kick at whatever level of attention you spare, peaking in the dizzy “XYZ” and “Skim Milk.”
God is a woman, and (surprise) she’s pissed. Sweetener is a pop manifesto that could only come from a profoundly weird creature like Ariana, for whom we should all be grateful. She relishes the role of a deity who’s into fingering the earth and promises, “The light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole.” Most awesomely deranged moment: “Pete Davidson,” where she retools Björk’s Vespertine into her own personal erotic space-capsule cocoon.
With the White Album reissue on deck, Macca picked the right moment to drop his first Number One album since the Eighties — ever the stunt queen, still showing off, because he has nobody to compete with except himself. He’s been on a roll the past 15 years, ever since Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. Every Paul shows up here: shaggy acoustic hippie Paul (“Dominoes”), flirty romantic Paul (“Back to Brazil”), mulleted Wings Paul (“Confidante”), so inspired by the Taylor Swift fandom Paul (“Who Cares”), pissed about climate change Paul (“Despite Repeated Warnings”), politely offering to fuh you Paul (“Fuh You”). Long live every one of them.
Nashville upstart Sophie Allison walks away with this year’s “you think it’s easy, but you’re wrong” crown, cruising through her Lollapalooza ’95 guitar-hero hooks in a summer babe of a song called “Cool.” Thirty years ago, when Joan Jett did her feminist-punk takeover of Iggy’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” she was just planting seeds for Soccer Mommy’s sequel “Your Dog.”
Even at 22 minutes, FM! feels complex — Vince Staples packs in enough twists to populate anyone else’s album. It’s a long muggy night in Long Beach, with bloodshed never far away and that faux–Green Day album cover as a sign he’s both a thug and a basket case.
When Parquet Courts showed up, these Texas-via-Brooklyn punks seemed like a great groove band with lots of ideas; it turns out they’re an idea band with lots of grooves. Their Danger Mouse collabo Wide Awake tries out a few art-funk concepts, yet the hyperactive rhythm-guitar choogle makes it their wildest and funniest since Content Nausea. I love how, years after they stopped sounding anything like Pavement, they go back to sounding ex-freaking-zactly like Pavement for one song — “Mardi Gras Beads,” which takes “Range Life” to New Orleans. Then it’s on to the next idea. I loved this album for months before I even noticed the wise words hidden in “Tenderness”: “You become what you chew/If it decays, spit it out.”
The only thing Camila left out of her solo debut was the original title she warned us about: The Healing. The Hurting. The Loving. But that’s how it felt anyway, a self-proclaimed emo kid singing about her chemical romances, in that “half of my heart is in Hot Topic” kind of way. “Havana” still hits hard, tapping deep into diasporic melancholy that’s both cultural and personal. (My mom loves “Havana” because it reminds her of the sad Irish folk songs her immigrant parents raised her on. Bono would surely agree.) She never met a mood she didn’t swing, which is why she held her own with Taylor Swift on this summer’s mega-ultra-stadium Reputation tour. In other words, Camila’s a rock star, two words, in a year that needed them — when she spoke her mind at the Grammys about dreamers, then made the scene with Bono and the Edge, it felt like a passing of the torch. Wide awake, in America.