20. John Carpenter – Halloween Original Soundtrack
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: It had been a long time since John Carpenter scored a movie. It had been an even longer time since he scored a Halloween movie. Exactly 40 years after the 1978 original, and 36 years since he last sat behind the keys for the franchise with 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, the Master of Horror returned to Haddonfield, Illinois. Similar to the Michael Myers we reunited with in David Gordon Green’s blockbuster reboot, Carpenter sounds angry and brutal, as if he’s been sitting in a room, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall, looking at this film, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him. Death came to everyone’s little ears this past October — and that’s hardly fancy talk.
Why It Rules: There was zero doubt that Carpenter would deliver something exceptional. After all, his recent work with both Lost Themes volumes proved that he clearly hadn’t lost his touch when it comes to making music. The problem with those two works, however, is that they often sound as if he’s still stuck in the past, waltzing around motifs that wouldn’t make it past 1988. But Halloween is assuredly modern. In fact, it’s arguably the most modern score he’s ever composed, stabbing with a minimalistic edge that would make Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross sweat. Even so, the score never loses that Carpenter charm, keeping a tight grip on its origins without sneezing from all the dust. He came home, alright. –Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “The Shape Returns”, “Prison Montage”, “Say Something”, and “The Shape Is Monumental”
19. The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships
Origin: Manchester, England
The Gist: Of course The 1975 would make the album most representative of 2018, an album filled with contradiction, excess, overwhelming sincerity, intense vulnerability, and a willingness to make mistakes. An ambitious exercise that sidestepped easy formulas to pop success to instead delve into ‘80s power ballads, stadium rock, subdued lounge, and glitchy trap, Matty Healy aimed for superstardom fully on his own terms.
Why It Rules: Through extreme empathy, cunning wit, and a hyper sense of self-awareness, Healy and the band created rock anthems that spoke to a generation without generalization or patronizing. As they mastered a plethora of styles and wrote their punchiest hooks yet, The 1975 managed to find something incisive and profound to say about the way we live — it’s pretentious and self-deprecating, shockingly unguarded. and utterly enthralling. An album completely of the moment, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships raised the stakes for rock albums in 2018. –David Sackllah
Essential Tracks: “Love It if We Made It”, “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)”, and “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not with You)”
18. Noname – Room 25
Origin: Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: Why choose a name like Noname? The woman born Fatimah Warner wanted to avoid labeling herself and creating boundaries, starting with names. The 26-year-old Chicago native grew up on slam poetry, collaborating with SABA and Chance the Rapper. Her music contains many of the traditional hallmarks of Chicago rap: social consciousness, storytelling, brightness, and humor. Her 2016 effort, Telefone, drew rave reviews from critics, and Room 25 is even better. Part of the difference is sex: Telefone’s content was fit for a PG movie, but her new perspective on coitus is funny and raw. But the bigger difference between the two albums is probably that 2018 is just a different world than 2016, and Noname is two years older. Her outlook has shifted. The voice remains conversational, but the words have more of an edge.
Why It Rules: Noname’s lyrics sound almost like free association, but line by line, word by word, Room 25 is one of the tightest hip-hop albums of the year. Lots of emcees take a philosophical turn, but Noname’s musings are more interesting than most. Her portrayal of a corrupt cop on “Prayer Song” is chilling; on “Ace”, she listens skeptically to LA vegans; on “Montego Bae”, she rides a bouncing bass line for some funky beach sex; and her performance on “Don’t Forget About Me” is haunting and sweet. The lovely jazz beats keep the album feeling buoyant, even when Noname’s darker thoughts threaten to drag her down. But the real pleasure of Room 25 is in hearing a master wordsmith turn words into feelings so that the feelings linger long after the words have stopped. –Wren Graves
Essential Tracks: “Prayer Song”, “Don’t Forget About Me”, and “Montego Bae”
17. Lucy Dacus – Historian
Origin: Norfolk, Virginia
The Gist: Historian is a massive achievement, a devastating but gorgeous musical examination of memory, loss, and identity. Lucy Dacus has always been a clever and reliable singer-songwriter, and Historian displays how she has absolutely blossomed as a musician and storyteller.
Why It Rules: Dacus’ voice is pure even as it trembles and betrays longing and heartbreak. Throughout Historian, the super-smart singer is able to deeply intellectualize her experiences while still loading them with raw emotional immediacy. She’s thoughtful, committed to telling this story and interrogating these painful truths, hopefully turning them into songs more beautiful and clear than the difficult experiences that she’s working from. As a musician, Dacus keeps herself brilliantly reserved until just the right moments, skillfully employing absences of sound so as to make the surging fuzz of a guitar or the swell of her voice hit the listener like a landslide. –Kayleigh Hughes
Essential Tracks: “Night Shift”, “Pillar of Truth”, and “Yours & Mine”
16. Kendrick Lamar – Black Panther the Album: Music From and Inspired By
Origin: Compton, California
The Gist: For easily the most anticipated inclusion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, director Ryan Coogler tapped Kendrick Lamar and his pals at Top Dawg Entertainment to soundtrack the vivid world of Wakanda. What came to fruition is a muscular 50 minutes of A-list hip-hop and R&B from superstars like The Weeknd, SZA, Vince Staples, Future, Schoolboy Q, 2 Chainz, BadBadNotGood, Anderson. Paak, and, oh yeah, James Blake. In other words, it’s basically Coachella: The Album.
Why It Rules: Look, these kinds of star-studded projects are traditionally dead on arrival — most of the time, everyone trips over each other or wedges in lame-ass lines tied to the movie — but there’s so much creative life in Black Panther: The Album. Everyone tries to write The Big Single, and when you have K. Dot for the assist (at least most of the time), it’s hard to fuck that up. Vince Staples sounds like he’s spitting verses from a hover board on “Oops”, The Weeknd puts another club anthem on demand with “Pray for Me”, and both Kendrick and SZA weave some of their 2017 magic into the all-too-addicting ballad “All the Stars”. It’s a soundtrack that leaves everyone looking like an antelope in headlights. –Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “All the Stars”, “Pray for Me”, and “Oops”
15. Brockhampton – Iridescence
Origin: San Marcos, Texas
The Gist: BROCKHAMPTON had a dichotomous 2018. In the middle of what should have been a glorious consummation of the hip-hop collective’s meteoric Internet-assisted rise, they were forced to recalibrate their entire career in the wake of allegations against (now former) member Ameer Van. A fired bandmate, a canceled tour, and an axed album could have derailed any other promising career, but the Texas boy band came out on the other side with a major label debut that solidified them as an unstoppable force bigger than the sums of their parts.
Why It Rules: Iridescence is like a rap playlist, leaping styles with the energetic grace of a pack of stampeding danseurs. Though even as they continue their exuberant embrace of “more is more” mentality, BROCKHAMPTON demonstrate pure mastery of the necessary characteristic range that marks great artistry: vulnerability, confidence, audacity, growth, and fun. Each vocalist is so definitive — Dom McLennon’s heavy flow, Merly Wood’s freneticism, Kevin Abstract’s shrewdness, bearface’s songwriter sensibilities, Joba’s surprising range — yet none are afraid of testing their own boundaries, contrasting personalities made stronger because of the variation, not despite it. In an era where divisive voices — even in hip-hop — sunder, that’s not only refreshing; it’s vital. –Ben Kaye
Essential Tracks: “NEW ORLEANS”, “DISTRICT”, and “SAN MARCOS”
14. Blood Orange – Negro Swan
Origin: London, England
The Gist: For his fourth album as Blood Orange, Dev Hynes enlisted a myriad of talented collaborators like Puff Daddy, A$AP Rocky, Georgia Anne Muldrow, and Project Pat to help realize his grandest vision yet. With narration from writer/activist Janet Mock fleshing out the structure of the album, Hynes weaves tender moments of sorrow and joy alongside masterful production.
Why It Rules: By playing with form and treating structure as a suggestion, Hynes builds entire worlds in his fluid, introspective songs. As he blurs together genre lines, Hynes synthesizes his influences into a sound wholly unique, transcending nostalgia and leaving his mark on the modern landscape. Centered on finding hope in the darkness and building your own family, Negro Swan is both inspiring and welcoming. –David Sackllah
Essential Tracks: “Charcoal Baby”, “Saint”, and “Hope”
13. YOB – Our Raw Heart
Origin: Eugene, Oregon
The Gist: YOB is mostly the creative work of vocalist-guitarist Mike Scheidt, who had a frightening 2017 where he battled diverticulitis and nearly lost his life. Our Raw Heart is an exploration and reflection of that period of Scheidt’s life with most of this album being written from his hospital bed that year. YOB’s brand of psychedelic doom metal reached its highest critical praise with their last disc, Clearing the Path to Ascend, and it was unclear what direction the band would turn to next.
Why It Rules: Our Raw Heart is seeping with emotional weight, but YOB don’t need wild performances or intense vocal strain to tug at your heart strings. This album is as calculated and plodding as the band always have been, but possesses a serene, almost uplifting quality that has never been present before. “Beauty in Falling Leaves” is one of the most moving tracks this year, regardless of genre — the intense ode to perseverance is perhaps YOB’s most stirring song. —TJ Kliebhan
Essential Tracks: “Beauty in Falling Leaves”, “The Screen”, and “Ablaze”
12. Robyn – Honey
Origin: Stockholm, Sweden
The Gist: After eight years of collaborations and constant touring, Robyn returned with Honey. The follow-up to 2010’s barn-burning, life-altering, career-defining Body Talk, which yielded cultural touchstones “Dancing on My Own” and “Call Your Girlfriend”, finds the queen mother of electro-dance-pop a little softer and a litter sadder. Informed by her own personal struggles, Robyn drenches herself in beautiful melodies and irresistible beats over nine tracks that explore both the dark and sweet sides of melancholic pleasure.
Why It Rules: Sometimes you need to linger with an album, trying it out in different spaces, times of day, and emotional states. Honey is such an album, dripping with masochism and pulsating with moods that are colored by shades of desperation and wry, clear-eyed resignation. Songs like the titular track are somehow muted and explosive at the same time, conveying an emotional ambivalence that reflects the time and effort spent trying to figure out how exactly to say something. “Missing U” is one of the ultimate dance singles of 2018, yearning and agony conveyed in blissful, sparkling perfection. Altogether, Honey is an experience that’s sad and sweet, lovely and brutal. –Kayleigh Hughes
Essential Tracks: “Missing U”, “Baby Forgive Me”, and “Send to Robyn Immediately”
11. Kali Uchis – Isolation
Origin: Alexandria, Virginia
The Gist: We are blessed this year, for powerhouse vocalist and all-around delight Kali Uchis has delivered unto us a gift we do not deserve: an ultra fresh, deeply cool, super futuristic soul record the likes of which we can not hope to receive ever again — until Uchis’ next record.
Why It Rules: Every song on this album is a banger, and there are 15 songs on the record. Aptly titled, Isolation makes for one hell of a solo dance party. Uchis’ voice is gold, her attitude is fierce, her writing and perspective and lyricism are one of a kind. The artist makes use of brilliant production, savvy sampling, and a kick-ass roster of guest vocalists to lend endless textures and vibrancy to her wildly creative sound. And she maintains cohesive emotional themes about being alone (even around other people) that land with elegant authenticity. –Kayleigh Hughes
Essential Tracks: “After the Storm” (ft. Tyler, The Creator and Bootsy Collins), “Miami” (ft. BIA), and “Your Teeth in My Neck”