Ten years ago this December, Consequence of Sound assembled our first-ever Annual Report and year-end lists. Some wisdom comes with a decade’s worth of doing anything. You see a lot of hype come and go, and a lot of talent emerge and put down roots. You learn to separate the passing fads from the actual next big things — that is, the ebbs from the evolution. You also learn — though you might never admit it in, say, the intro to a year-end list — that some years just produce far more exciting records than others.
Luckily, 2018 had no problem holding our interest. Most would agree we’ve seen a bit of everything, some of which we could never have predicted: dazzling debuts, raucous returns, experimental episodes, political pushbacks, veterans avoiding the well, the proper hip-hop album bloat and shrink, several thrones ascended to, and, most importantly, substance and style largely seizing the day over spectacle and stupid, red hats. While it’s never easy closing the book on such a fascinating and unpredictable year, a part of us already anticipates what 2019 might have in store.
But before any of that happens, here are our top 50 albums from 2018.
50. Cat Power – Wanderer
Origin: Atlanta, Georgia
The Gist: The long-awaited follow-up to 2012’s Sun chronicles Chan Marshall’s so-called “journey so far” — the failings and accomplishments, exits and new chapters, and various locales that have informed her storied, prolific career. Wanderer also marks her first full-length since becoming a mother and her first since 1996 not released through longtime label Matador, who outright rejected an initial draft of the album because of its supposed lack of commercial hits. All 11 tracks were produced by Marshall, including her collaboration with past tour mate Lana Del Rey (“Woman”) and her gorgeous reimagining of Rihanna smash “Stay”.
Why It Rules: Although she’s 10 albums and more than two decades into her career, Marshall continues to prove why she’s still one of music’s most vital and insightful voices. She’s a wanderer by nature, but she’s offering us so much more than just Instagram wanderlust or restlessness when it comes to planting roots. While Marshall travels and pushes on in love, her work, and the in-between, she is constantly reflecting on and engaging with what she’s learning — no matter how ugly or painful — and translating it into lifeblood both for herself and us. The very existence of Wanderer — an album turned down by a once-supportive label — is a testament to the persistence of her “journey” and is perhaps best embodied by a line from “Woman”: “I’m a woman of my word, now you have heard/ My word’s the only thing I truly need.” –Lake Schatz
Essential Tracks: “Woman”, “Stay”, and “You Get”
49. Superorganism – Superorganism
Origin: London, England
The Gist: This eight-member collective of Very Online musicians bring a fresh sense of lighthearted fun to their self-titled debut, entwining sound effects and audio clips with danceable melodies and razor-sharp attention to detail. Lead vocalist Orono Noguchi cites Stephen Malkmus and Pavement as influences on her songwriting and delivery, and it’s not difficult to hear the distant strains of the ’90s running through this otherwise thoroughly modern-sounding record.
Why It Rules: Superorganism is as perfect a distillation of disparate influences into effortless indie pop as you’re bound to find in 2018. Equally perfect for a dance party with friends or one by yourself, songs like “Nobody Cares” — which manages to be both grunge-influenced and bouncing — and the meticulously crafted “Something for Your M.I.N.D.” envelop the listener in a sunny sonic world where all the choruses are singable, and nothing seems that bad. It’s all wrapped up in a bow of meticulous production and playful experimentation, charting a bold, new course for where indie pop may be headed in the next few years and beyond. –Katherine Flynn
Essential Tracks: “Nobody Cares”, “Something for Your M.I.N.D.”, and “Everybody Wants to Be Famous”
48. Lykke Li – So Sad So Sexy
Origin: Ystad, Skåne, Sweden
The Gist: For her fourth studio effort, Lykke Li reinvents herself by putting a trap twist on her brand of Scandic sad pop. The follow-up to 2014’s dreamier and delicate I Never Learn brims with heavy doses of hip-hop heat and a brooding slinkiness. The reshaping of Li’s sound can partially be attributed to the album’s impressive list of veteran producers, which includes partner Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West), ex-Vampire Weekender Rostam, Malay (Frank Ocean), Emile Haynie (Bruno Mars), and DJ Dahi (Kendrick Lamar).
Why It Rules: Rarely does a record deliver on its title, but here the Swedish singer offers up snapshots of collapsed, caved-in romances and gnarled, negative love that somehow still sound hot as fuck. Think of it like that last bedroom tryst before parting ways (‘cause you know you’re both so toxic for one another). It’s not all sweaty bodies and friction, though — there’s a good bit of time spent thinking about the space once inhabited by a person, literally and figuratively, and the empty void that will soon replace it. “Better alone than lonely here with you,” Li admits on standout track “better alone”, a realization that seems simple in theory but is actually deep enough that it eludes most of the dating population. –Lake Schatz
Essential Tracks: “deep end”, “hard rain”, and “better alone”
47. U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited
Origin: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
The Gist: Over a decade into her career, Meghan Remy has never appeared more firmly established in her broad pop soundscape. Perhaps there’s an irony in the fact that it comes on an album featuring more collaborators than ever before (avant-jazz group The Cosmic Range, Michael Rault, producer Onakabazien, Remy’s husband Max Turnbull), but don’t let the credits detract from the most powerful U.S. Girls effort to date. All those new voices serve to elevate Remy’s innate experimentalism, leading to an album serving clear, unapologetic messages through a prismatic array of disco, glam, industrial, and jazzy sounds.
Why It Rules: Leaving the bedroom has allowed the inherent pop potential of U.S. Girls to finally reach a peak and not a moment too soon. The cultural milieu has belatedly opened itself up to the sort of feminist themes Remy has long sung about, and presenting them in such defiantly sticky aural packages has made them ineluctable. Opening with righteous rage and finding a way towards musing hope, Poem is a thick narrative of intense intellectual value from both literary and gender perspectives. That makes it fiercely timely — and it’s fun as hell to boot. –Ben Kaye
Essential Tracks: “Velvet 4 Sale”, “Rage of Plastics”, and “Pearly Gates”
46. Ty Segall – Freedom’s Goblin
Origin: Laguna Beach, California
The Gist: Another brilliant addition to the sprawling discography by this unusually talented rock artist. Freedom’s Goblin feels like listening to Ty Segall’s mp3 library on shuffle, as we hit on florid psychedelia, steaming garage rock, proto-metal, weepy folk, and R&B grooves. Is that the iTunes visualizer we see, or did he slip something into our drink?
Why It Rules: Never underestimate the power of having a great band at your disposal. With The Freedom Band in his corner — an all-star ensemble that includes bassist Mikal Cronin and Cairo Gang leader Emmett Kelly — Segall can truly go for broke in his songwriting and playing. And what comes from that power and flexibility is a downright indulgent collection of songs, like going for the popcorn upgrade at the snack counter because it’s only 50 cents more for a jumbo. This album is equally luxuriant and filling, with one of Segall’s most heartfelt ballads and his nastiest riffs nestled cozily together. –Robert Ham
Essential Tracks: “Fanny Dog”, “When Mommy Kills You”, and “My Lady’s on Fire”
45. Denzel Curry – TA13OO
Origin: Carol City, Florida
The Gist: Denzel Curry is only 23, but he’s evolved more significantly than many rappers do in a whole lifetime. His third album to date, TA1300’s story unfolds through three separate acts — “Light”, “Gray”, and “Dark” — each its own mood piece and persuasive evidence of the Florida MC’s transformation into a more well-rounded artist. Assisting him throughout are special guests in Goldlink, J. Cole protege J.I.D., JPEGMAFIA, and rising pop star Billie Eilish.
Why It Rules: Curry nearly mastered the art of the brusque, rapid-fire flow on past releases, such as the 2016 full-length, Imperial. While there’s certainly still plenty of heat on TA1300, the young rapper has wisely taken a step back to examine not just his approach to songwriting, but also his approach to simply being a human who deals with a lot of heaviness (i.e. topics like molestation, the presidential election, paranoia, revenge).
“With that I learned how to become who I am because back then… I was so abrasive, so aggressive, so mean, so cold…,” he told Rolling Stone earlier this year. The result is an album that slaps in every sense of the word — we get Curry barking over shaking bass and crooning over soulful, synth-y production — and further sets him apart from his SoundCloud rap cohorts. –Lake Schatz
Essential Tracks: “PERCS | PERCZ”, “BLACK BALLOONS | 13LACK 13ALLOONS”, and “SUMO | ZUMO”
44. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Sparkle Hard
Origin: Stockton, California
The Gist: Four long years after their last release, the deliciously titled Wig Out at Jagbags, Stephen Malkmus and his balmy Jicks return with an equally delicious follow-up. Spread across 11 tracks, the former Pavement frontman meditates on a changing world by changing with it, leaning on newer toys like an Auto-Tune and Mellotron. He even gets political without all the gimmicky trappings that traditionally come with being an aging white rocker trying to stand on a soapbox.
Why It Rules: For all those reasons and more, Malkmus arrives in top form on Sparkle Hard, sounding like a bona fide bard of his generation. Make no mistake, he still knows how to get silly, but it’s the type of silly one might attribute to whimsically clever authors like Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss. Songs like “Bike Lane”, “Kite”, and especially “Shiggy” prove he still has his eye on the stage while deeper cuts like “Solid Silk” and “Middle America” hint that he’d just as happily stroll around the neighborhood. –Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “Shiggy”, “Bike Lane”, and “Kite”
43. Elvis Costello & The Imposters – Look Now
Origin: London, England
The Gist: Elvis Costello might be one of the most dexterous and accomplished pop songwriters of the rock era, but he’s not above dipping back into his own well on occasion. The singer has spent a lot of time in recent years touring and performing 1982’s Imperial Bedroom, so it makes sense that his latest outing, Look Now, smacks of that record’s baroque pop flair. With The Imposters back in tow, Costello’s first record of new music in five years is an intricately detailed and meticulously crafted affair, one longer on arrangements and musicianship than rock and roll spit and vinegar.
Why It Rules: A veritable jack of all musical trades, Costello has canvassed just about every genre imaginable over the course of his 40-year career. He can play the part of the crooning balladeer (“Look Now”, “Stripping Paper”, “Photographs Can Lie” ) just as easily as he can the fiery bandleader (“Mr. and Mrs. Hush”, “Unwanted Number”). Look Now boasts a little of both, but, generally speaking, the record is a relaxed hang defined much more by piano, strings, and winds than Costello’s rock and roll pedigree. But it’s hardly a snoozer, either. Subtlety might reign, but there’s a swanky, sophisticated cool coursing through Look Now that punches it up in even its hushest moments. –Ryan Bray
Essential Tracks: “Under Lime”, “Mr. and Mrs. Hush”, and “Stripping Paper”
42. Beach House – 7
Origin: Baltimore, Maryland
The Gist: Seven albums in, Baltimore-based Beach House have proven that they’re incredibly good at being themselves. Victoria Legrand’s smoky vocals and Alex Scally’s immersive instrumentals once again create an experience that is disorienting in the best way, documenting impressions and moments in a way that is both mysteriously obfuscated and immediately visceral. 7 finds the duo teaming up with producer Sonic Boom to create a heavier sound than the tinkling, dreamy melodies that made their name on early albums like Devotion.
Why It Rules: Beach House are an endlessly creative, well-oiled machine, and 7 is the perfect exemplification of Legrand and Scally’s partnership. Songs like “Dive” begin slow and gradually introduce new elements like driving drumbeats, delivering listeners to a very different place than when the song began. Through a bevy of production tricks like shimmering fades and dissolves and the rich, booming quality of Legrand’s voice, it’s not hard for a listener to imagine themselves experiencing the music on some kind of timeless astral plane — the transformative journey that people have come to expect, and even depend on, when playing a new Beach House record for the first time. In this way, and many more, 7 delivers the goods. –Katherine Flynn
Essential Tracks: “Lemon Glow”, “Drunk in LA”, and “Pay No Mind”
41. Joey Purp – Quarterthing
Origin: Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: In 2016, the Chicago rapper gave us iiidrops, a masterful mixtape featuring collaborations with SABA and Mick Jenkins and fellow Savemoney crew members Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa. It would be easy to be at least a tad skeptical that Joey Purp could roll out a release on par with that ‘tape, especially so soon, but here we are with Quarterthing. Joey’s proper debut album, it finds him accompanied in the studio by RZA, Ravyn Lenae, and GZA and production masterminds such as Smoko Ono, Coloring Book’s Knox Fortune, DJ Khalil (Eminem), Thelonius Martin (Mac Miller), and Nate Fox of The Social Experiment.
Why It Rules: Quarterthing extends the vision of iiidrops, as well as builds on it with exceptional execution. From start to finish, Joey not only speaks his conscience, reflecting on hardship, crime, and newfound fame with crisp precision and lyrical dexterity. He’s also able to thread together a thrilling tapestry of sounds whose textures bounce between percolating Chicago house and footwork, thunderous trap, and warm soul.
Perhaps the best quality of the album is an intangible X factor, one that happens to also make him a dynamic force onstage: A glowing magnetism that, no matter the bullshit of today, makes you still believe in tomorrow. “I’m still alive, yeah!” he sings on “24K Gold/Sanctified”, something of a counterpart to Chance’s “Blessings”, joy nearly bursting from his chest. –Lake Schatz
Essential Tracks: “24K Gold/Sanctified”, “Elastic”, and “Bag Talk”
40. Jeff Tweedy – WARM
Origin: Belleville, Illinois
The Gist: Where does Wilco end and Jeff Tweedy begin? Tough to decipher. Together at Last, released in 2017, was a solo record insofar as it was Tweedy performing Wilco songs all by his lonesome. And while the singer broke off to record Sukierae with his namesake group in 2014, the end result was still as close as one could get to a Wilco record without it actually being one. Although WARM is technically Tweedy’s second solo record, it’s, in fact, his first comprised completely of original music. Similar to its non-Wilco predecessors, the 11-track affair doesn’t do much to create dividers between the man and his long-running band, though it does tie in closer with some chapters of the band’s history than others.
Why It Rules: Tweedy has long grown into his standing as one of rock music’s most innovative songwriters, which might make WARM’s more stripped-down and folksier approach somewhat surprising. But this isn’t the sound of regression. Instead, it’s the work of a seasoned songwriter proving that he’s as good at penning powerful, personal songs in a traditional vein as he is layering records with bells and whistles. WARM skews heavily toward the former, but fortunately Tweedy is a maverick as capable of breaking your heart with an acoustic guitar as he is bending musical styles to his own. –Ryan Bray
Essential Tracks: “Bombs Above”, “Don’t Forget”, and “I Know What It’s Like”
39. Oneohtrix Point Never – Age Of
Origin: Wayland, Massachusetts
The Gist: Like a guided tour through a Graceland-like mansion where every room has been designed and decorated using a computer-randomizing program, Daniel Lopatin invites you to explore the glittering weirdness and small pockets of absolute beauty contained within the walls of his latest record, Age Of.
Why It Rules: Everything you need to know about how Lopatin has found the threads connecting high art and pop culture is captured on this album as he samples both a modern classical piece by Jocelyn Pook and a MAD TV skit. Apparently, nothing escapes his gaze, and his music is all the richer for it. Age Of was built by trial and error between Lopatin’s ceaseless production and soundtrack work. The album’s scattershot feel is, in that way, a feature, not a bug, keeping your attention centered as he goes from noisy fireworks to beautiful, Asian-inspired post-trap to futuristic R&B. –Robert Ham
Essential Tracks: “The Station”, “We’ll Take It”, and “Same”
38. Lily Allen – No Shame
Origin: Hammersmith, London, England
The Gist: With No Shame, Lily Allen probes the highs and devastating lows in the wake of her divorce from husband Sam Cooper. Despite the album being her most polished effort to date, it’s an incredible exercise in vulnerability as she reflects on the pain of separation and the challenges of being a mother and a musician. In the past, her willingness to be blunt has led to divisive reactions – take, for instance, the backlash to her clapback on toxic hip-hop masculinity, “Hard Out Here” – but with No Shame, Allen finds a topic most benefiting of her forthright and frank modus operandi.
Why It Rules: Rather than worrying about radio play, Allen returned with an album that captures the mindset of an artist and a mother approaching a pivotal crossroads. There are hits on this thing – look no further than lead single “Trigger Bang”, featuring English rapper Giggs – but there’s also a more endearing purpose. With No Shame, Allen has eschewed the Irish goodbye from her days as a party girl and instead delivered a eulogy that gracefully buries the past while continuing to seek the sunshine of the future. –Zack Ruskin
Essential Tracks: “Come On Then”, “Three”, and “Family Man”
37. Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar
Origin: Edinburgh, Scotland
The Gist: Four years and two albums removed from winning the Mercury Prize, the Edinburgh trio continued to experiment with genre and expand their songwriting on the deeply entrancing Cocoa Sugar. Swirling together soul, rap, and gospel, Young Fathers further developed a signature sound both radical and inviting.
Why It Rules: Combining disparate elements like the hyper-kinetic groove of “Toy”, the swooning cacophony of “Turn”, and the wobbly bravado of “Border Girl” is impressive enough but doing so as part of a cohesive work that flows so well catapults the group to another level. Cocoa Sugar is the sound of an already promising band blossoming into their own. –David Sackllah
Essential Tracks: “In My View”, “Toy”, and “Border Girl”
36. Daughters – You Won’t Get What You Want
Origin: Providence, Rhode Island
The Gist: Eight years after their last release, post-hardcore experimentalists Daughters return with an LP that deconstructs their sound and reanimates it into a whole new sonic monster. Building off the groove and melody that informed their self-titled 2010 album, the four-piece expand and darken the tonality, utilizing guitar effects and keyboards that sound even more alien than before. Groove remains a common element, but many tracks eclipse five minutes with moderate tempos, minimalist industrial instrumentation, and punishing drum work. Vocalist Alexis SF Marshall adds an element of Nick Cave to a delivery that already echoes Jesus Lizard’s David Yow.
Why It Rules: “City Song” immediately announces You Won’t Get What You Want as unafraid to tread new ground. It’s slow, cold, and noisy, and it effectively sets up the clangorous, mid-tempo “Long Road, No Turns”. “Satan in the Wait” follows with more dissonance, a sludgy bass line, and a twist: a melodic passage that sounds like bells run through effects pedals. The band’s brand of whirring guitars and breakneck speed doesn’t make an appearance until the fourth track, “The Flammable Man”, but it hasn’t lost a step.
“The Reason They Hate Me” is the most straight-ahead banger of the 10 songs, and “Daughter” delivers off-kilter, warbling, reverberating effects whose range is emblematic of the entire album. Fans hoping for a repeat of the accessibility and groove of the self-titled album or the spasticity and rawness of earlier albums might be disappointed, but You Won’t Get What You Want is a brave and excellent addition to Daughters’ discography. –Scott Morrow
Essential Tracks: “Long Road, No Turns”, “Satan in the Wait”, and “The Reason They Hate Me”
35. Colin Stetson – Hereditary (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Origin: Ann Arbor, Michigan
The Gist: Name a musician and odds are you can tie them back to Colin Stetson. From Bon Iver to Arcade Fire, Tom Waits to Lou Reed, the Midwestern multi-instrumentalist has a CV that’s rare even in today’s era of constant collaborations. For the past decade, those talents have extended to film, where his lush soundscapes have appeared in a number of critical smashes, from Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave to Andreas Dalsgaard and Obaidah Zytoon’s The War Show. With Hereditary, Stetson was given carte blanche to flex his muscles, and needless to say, he rose to the challenge, delivering some of his most accomplished works as both a musician and a film composer.
Why It Rules: It’s not hyperbole to say that every facet of Hereditary is downright chilling. Ari Aster’s psychological thriller is a 127-minute anxiety attack with Toni Collette leading the chaos. Of course, chaos works in pieces, and Stetson’s hellish amalgamation of jazz, electronica, and drone is a major section of the unnerving puzzle. He’s as unpredictable as ever, building upon the ensuing darkness with a kind of dread that’s absolutely damning. Shadows chase each and every note, carrying with them a mystical terror that suggests this is music coming from a place that’s eternally miserable, that no matter how many times you turn it off, or stow it away, it’ll be right there … with you. –Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “Aftermath”, “Leigh’s Things”, and “Party, Crash”
34. Jeff Rosenstock – POST-
Origin: Long Island, New York
The Gist: Traveled punk rocker Jeff Rosenstock released his third solo outing, POST-, on the very first day of 2018, a decision (intentional or not) that imbues the sprawling protest to follow with a couldn’t-wait-another-day sense of urgency. And given that most songs were written in response to the 2016 Presidential Election, we might wonder how Rosenstock sat on them for an entire year.
Why It Rules: Hip-hop might be considered the genre where politics and injustice get addressed, but Rosenstock reminds us that few things sound more rebellious and feel more cathartic than a rock band blowing the windows out of a garage. But POST- runs so much deeper than just feeling pissed off over election results. “These songs are about losing hope in your country, yourself, and those around you,” explains Rosenstock.
Songs like “USA”, “Yr Throat”, and “All This Useless Energy” perfectly capture the overwhelming feelings of trying to find balance among people we thought we knew in a country we no longer recognize. Rosenstock is one of the few songwriters to truly tap into the wide range of complex emotions that Americans have been wrestling with during this administration. Hearing your mind and heart shout-sung back at you makes it all the more clear that this cannot become our new normal. –Matt Melis
Essential Tracks: “USA”, “Yr Throat”, and “Let Them Win”
33. Tash Sultana – Flow State
Origin: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
The Gist: “D.I.Y.” is a term that a lot of artists pay lip service to, but few live out the philosophy quite like Tash Sultana. Flow State, the Aussie-born singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist’s hotly anticipated debut, is so completely self-made that calling it D.I.Y. somehow feels like an understatement. Every sound, be it skittering guitars, languid flutes, saxophones, strings, loops, or vocals, has the 23-year-old Sultana’s soulful fingerprints on it.
Why It Rules: Sultana’s prodigious work ethic warrants praise by itself, but it wouldn’t mean much if Flow State’s end results didn’t deliver. No worries there. Having steadily built up a grassroots fan base, we finally have a record that lives up to all the promise and hype. Sultana has crafted a soulful, eclectic, and moodily evocative debut effort that cross-pollinates styles as varied as reggae, R&B, calypso, and Joe Satriani-esque guitar heroism, making for something that’s both accessible and truly their own.
Lyrically, the record also carries the weight of a scorned heart. “I don’t need your loving for my salvation”, they sing over the seductive pop of “Salvation”. It’s the kind of lyric that only further cements Sultana’s bone-bred independence. This is great pop music with an edge, a record full of good vibes and bad attitude that somehow manages to work everything out splendidly. –Ryan Bray
Essential Tracks: “Big Smoke”, Murder to the Mind”, and “Salvation”
32. Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy (Face to Face)
Origin: Leesburg, Virginia
The Gist: “Hi, my name is Will Toledo. I’m that kid you hated in grade school who could just fly by the seat of his pants and get those gold stars you spent mornings and nights pining over. Want proof? I just took an old album of mine and managed to deliver one of this year’s better rock albums. It’s okay if you hate my guts for being naturally prolific because you’ll absolutely love my music. See you around, folks.” Yeah, that pretty much sums up Twin Fantasy (Face to Face).
Why It Rules: All joking aside, Toledo is the type of singer-songwriter that critics used to champion on the regular during the glory days of ’80s college rock. He’s like a young Gordon Gano, kicking out sprawling songs like the nearly 14-minute epic “Beach Life-in-Death” or the 16-minute saga of “Famous Prophets (Stars)” that reach for the stars without having to stand up and strain. Again, that may irritate you, but those hooks demand nothing but love. Hey, at the end of the day, we’re all just nervous young humans. –Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “Beach Life-in-Death”, “Cute Thing”, and “Nervous Young Inhumans”
31. Aphex Twin – Collapse
Origin: Lanner, Cornwall, England
The Gist: The latest release from the reclusive and prolific Aphex Twin finds the producer moving away from the more straightforward approach he had been dabbling in on recent work, turning up the heat on his slippery, electronic anthems, bringing them from a simmer to a rolling boil.
Why It Rules: The music on Collapse takes hard turns and shape-shifts with the frequency we’ve come to expect from Richard David James. But his firm hand at the controls can be felt just as acutely. Much like the EP’s artwork, there are recognizable signatures at the center of the entropic sound that seem to be coming apart in real time. Often those bits of purchase he allows us are his own, like the lullaby melodies of “MT1 t29r2” or the video game soundtrack squiggle that dominates that same song’s first half.
Elsewhere, he peels back the curtain even further to reveal samples that will surely be catnip to the many crate diggers in his fan base, like the bit of turntablism and the snippet of The Specials’ live version of “Guns of Navarone” that pop up on “1st 44”. Collapse is another entry in a remarkable run of work that Aphex Twin has been releasing since his return from a long and clearly necessary hiatus. It may feel like he is on cruise control a bit, but even James coasting is absolutely something to behold. –Robert Ham
Essential Tracks: “1st 44”, “MT1 t29r2”, and “abundance10edit [2 R8’s, Fz20m & a 909]”
30. Deafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
Origin: San Francisco, California
The Gist: This modern metal act has likely netted one of the largest crossover audiences of the 2010s thanks to 2013’s shoegaze/black metal hit Sunbather. After a drastically darker and thrash metal-influenced disc, New Bermuda, Deafheaven used sobriety and maturity as the conduit for their fourth album. The two lead singles, “Honeycomb” and “Canary Yellow”, came with a surprisingly sunny, almost saccharine tint that seemed to indicate the band was pushing their sound in a new direction.
Why It Rules: Ordinary Corrupt Human Love has a gentle quality about it that few metal acts would even risk, much less actually pull off. The album has a pleasant lushness that even Sunbather lacked, and it’s paced in a way that actually allows you to enjoy its soothing ambient moments before it frantically pushes the pace again. Deafheaven are chameleons of sound — continually challenging what a metal band can sound like and questioning what metal at its very core needs to be and what it needs to reject. –TJ Kliebhan
Essential Tracks: “Honeycomb”, “Canary Yellow”, and “Night People”
29. Dave East – Paranoia 2
Origin: New York City, New York
The Gist: A sequel at least in name to last year’s Paranoia: A True Story, the latest from this Harlem rapper with the Nas co-sign carries on the New York rap tradition. Decidedly less commercial than its immediate predecessor, Paranoia 2 returns to the Kairi Chanel mixtape vibe that initially endeared him to lyrically minded hip-hop heads.
Why It Rules: Right out of the gate, P2 demonstrates its mettle with the kaleidoscopic “Talk to Big”, a veritable state-of-the-state moment for Dave East that covers more ground in four and a half minutes than most rappers’ entire mixtapes. From there, he bolsters his street bona fides on cuts like “Powder” and “I Can Not”. The beats exude soul, namely the ruggedly real style one might’ve caught across 110th or 125th Streets back in the day.
Fittingly, he name-drops David Ruffin while spilling personal details on the moving “Corey”, and the graphic storytelling of “I Found Keisha” offers depth you can feel in your chest. Whether Def Jam will allow Dave East to be Dave East remains to be seen, but in the overcrowded hip-hop marketplace, his unflinching artistry deserves an audience. –Gary Suarez
Essential Tracks: “Talk to Big”, “Powder”, and “I Found Keisha”
28. Behemoth – I Loved You at Your Darkest
Origin: Gdańsk, Poland
The Gist: According to frontman Nergal, the title of the new album from Polish extreme metal lifers Behemoth is a Bible quote attributed to none other than Jesus Christ. “For [us] to use it as the basis of our record,” explained Nergal, “it’s sacrilege to the extreme.” If that seems like begging the point a little bit, you clearly have never listened to this band before. And on their 11th studio album, the trio goes perfectly over the top, bringing in a children’s choir and a 17-piece orchestra to drive their blasphemous point home.
Why It Rules: Amid all the grandeur and the sheer force of the band’s collective incursion throughout, a remarkable tone of restraint has crept into Behemoth’s work. It was present on the band’s highly acclaimed 2014 album, The Satanist, but it has taken root on I Loved You at Your Darkest with music that feels more direct and all the more powerful as a result. The demon invocation “Bartzabel”, for example, plays out like a particularly vicious power ballad, with its mid-tempo groove and Nergal’s arms akimbo pleas (“Come unto me, Bartzabel/ By the moon and stars, I swear!”).
Elsewhere, tracks like “Rom 5:8” and “Coagvia” pitch and yaw between a blastbeat-heavy overload and more measured passages that feel positively spacious by comparison. I Loved You at Your Darkest is another strong addition to Behemoth’s remarkable run, which has now lasted more than a quarter century. –Robert Ham
Essential Tracks: “Bartzabel”, “Coagvia”, and “Ecclesia Diabolica Catholica”
27. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel
Origin: Sydney, Australia
The Gist: Unassuming Aussie rock star Courtney Barnett returned with her second full-length record as insightful, off-kilter, and melodic as ever. Barnett has always been a beautifully idiosyncratic wordsmith. Her lyrics are wry, personal, and sometimes painfully sincere. With Tell Me How You Really Feel, she pushes her sound forward while still retaining her identity, establishing that she’s an artist with enough talent and nuance to have a long and impactful career.
Why It Rules: On Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett is fed the fuck up. Tracks like “Hopefulessness” and “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence” are a beautiful expansion of her trademark insight into being an anxious wreck, but single “Nameless, Faceless” and the scorching “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” are the fulcrum of the record, which dives into the psychological consequences of existing as a woman in the world while finding a way to end on a gentle and deeply human note, rather than a bitter one. –Kayleigh Hughes
Essential Tracks: “Nameless, Faceless”, “Need a Little Time”, and “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”
26. The Internet – Hive Mind
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: On their first full-length to come without the Odd Future label behind them, The Internet are more themselves than ever before. After two of the band’s leaders — Sydney “Syd” Bennett and guitarist Steve Lacy — embarked on solo projects, they came back with intensified, confident focus. The result is an album unlike any other in the modern alternative R&B/funk pantheon, distinctly soulful and sexy all at once.
Why It Rules: Too often bands settle into a resurging genre with a sort of cynical output, excusing uninspired songwriting with chart positions and stacks. The Internet, conversely, approach R&B, funk, and lo-fi with a certainty that they are here to create something distinct, and a single spin of Hive Mind bears witness to the validity of that assertion. Sultry club numbers (“La Di Da”) burn into bedroom jams (“Stay the Night”) so smoothly you’re never sure if you’re making love or getting down on a dance floor — or both. Swaddled tightly in clean, vampy production, the collective’s Ego Death follow-up makes for an assured statement that The Internet are not going to fall victim to the unpalatable modishness of their namesake. –Ben Kaye
Essential Tracks: “Come Together”, “Beat Goes On”, and “Come Over”
25. Julia Holter – Aviary
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: After the relatively straightforward pop sounds of 2015’s Have You in My Wilderness, Julia Holter returned with a dense 90-minute behemoth of a record that pulled from modern poetry, medieval Occitan folk songs, and science fiction to craft an immersive experience. Sprawling and uncompromising, Holter burst the doors wide open and invited listeners to fall into her world of beautiful, experimental discord.
Why It Rules: Whether it’s the blaring horns of “Every Day Is an Emergency”, the swirling ecstasy of “Turn the Lights On”, or the grooving head-rush of “I Shall Love 2”, Holter’s psychedelic wonderment is overwhelming in all the right ways. Aviary is the chance to spend an hour and a half deep inside the mind of one of the most adventurous and talented avant-pop composers of a generation and the perfect kind of record to get lost in. –David Sackllah
Essential Tracks: “Turn the Lights On”, “I Shall Love 2”, and “Every Day Is an Emergency”
24. A$AP Rocky – Testing
Origin: New York City, New York
The Gist: On this sprawling, ambitious effort, A$AP Rocky stays true to the album’s name, dipping his toes and tongue into sounds and musical ideas that are filled with color, movement, and a few Herculean doses of psychotropics. To paraphrase Bill Hicks, his third eye has been squeegeed to a blinding gleam.
Why It Rules: The long-delayed and much ballyhooed Testing was released at both exactly the wrong time and at the perfect moment. Rocky had to compete with the tidal wave of hype that accompanied Ye but managed to survive it and come out victorious. This album will be the one to usher in a new era of experimentation in the studios and minds of the next generation of rappers. Thanks to the genre-blurring productions that Rocky and his many collaborators dreamed up and his rhymes that dig deep into his psyche while keeping a clear, steady gaze on the often desperate state of American life. –Robert Ham
Essential Tracks: “Fukk Sleep” (ft. FKA twigs), “Praise the Lord (Da Shine)” (ft. Skepta), and “Purity” (ft. Frank Ocean)
23. Troye Sivan – Bloom
Origin: Perth, Australia
The Gist: Like many young stars today, Troye Sivan got his big start on YouTube, where his videos have drawn more than four million loyal subscribers and once earned him a spot on TIME’s 25 Most Influential Teens list. He’s since used that following to cross over into the pop world, first with his quiet but mostly underrated debut, 2015’s Blue Neighbourhood, and now its much tighter follow-up. With its Ariana Grande guest collaboration and intimate musings on youth and queer love, Bloom makes a more than convincing case that music was always destined to be Sivan’s calling.
Why It Rules: On a personal level, Sivan is an active member of the LGBTQ+ community; he’s paid homage to queer pioneers before him, repeatedly spoken up about the importance of being true to yourself, and even stars in Boy Erased, a new film about conversion therapy. He approaches his music the same way — Sivan both understands pop’s history and context and his specific place within it.
He cites High School Musical and Grease as influences, but also engages with Carly Rae Jepsen producers and The Knife’s experimental catalog to marry old and new and bend boundaries. He sings about the timeless topics of love, sex, and relationships, but through his own lens (heck, opening track “Seventeen” is all about hooking up with older men on Grindr).
Bloom isn’t a flawless record, but it’s Sivan’s big personality personified and certainly the album to justify calling the 23-year-old artist a queer pop icon. –Lake Schatz
Essential Tracks: “Dance to This” (ft. Ariana Grande), “Bloom”, and “Animal”
22. Snail Mail – Lush
Origin: Ellicott City, Maryland
The Gist: Right before the summer of 2018 formally kicked in, but long after its spirit arrived in the form of rivers of sweat down our backs, 19-year-old Lindsey Jordan released her knockout full-length debut under the name Snail Mail, expressing vulnerability and confidence in equal measure.
Why It Rules: Lush sounds like summer break, like having so much time to think and feel, and only just beginning to realize that it might not be that way forever. Throughout Lush, Jordan’s voice is round, full, and unabashed. Her guitar is just as brazenly honest, the instrument working almost like a supporting vocalist or lyrical companion. The album is not without its moments of youthful myopia, but rather than sparking bitterness or jadedness, Jordan simply brings out a deep and aching empathy in the listener. –Kayleigh Hughes
Essential Tracks: “Pristine”, “Heat Wave”, and “Anytime”
21. Vince Staples – FM!
Origin: North Long Beach, California
The Gist: Vince Staples is a hip-hop sweetheart. With the success he’s gained simply by being himself, Staples seems to realize he doesn’t need to refine his raw sound to release radio-friendly songs. FM! is an extremely crude, albeit beautiful, album that features the West Coast rapper taking over the city’s airwaves with his music. In a little over 22 minutes, he curates his own version of “Big Boy’s Neighborhood” by threading his songs together with listener call-ins, adding interludes from Earl Sweatshirt and Tyga, and even inserting a giveaway segment. These elements offer a real listening experience and act as the glue that cements the creative themes of the album.
Why It Rules: It’s summer year-round in Vince Staples’ California-centered world, whose love for his hometown materializes into a neighborhood block party. From the lyrics to the album cover to the contributing voices, FM! has “California” scribbled all over it, working off a vibe that’s fresh, engaging, and a pleasure. Despite these good vibes, Staples remains in raw form, bursting with the same gangsta energy that results in hot one-liners like “My black is beautiful, but I’ll still shoot at you.” Even so, whether you decide to hit play in chronological order or skip around, FM! will have you bobbing your head at any point, offering up a sunny day that not even being stuck in LA traffic can ruin. –Tommy Monroe
Essential Tracks: “FUN!”, “Outside!”, and “Run the Bands”
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”
10. Spiritualized – And Nothing Hurt
Origin: Rugby, England
The Gist: Outsized ambition has strained and broken other songwriting visionaries. Just look at Syd Barrett or Brian Wilson post-Pet Sounds. Jason Pierce has similarly strained under the weight of his own songwriting largesse in the past, and yet Spiritualized’s music has always had a certain levity to it, even when working through personal melodrama as it did on yesteryear classics like Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space. Spiritualized’s latest, And Nothing Hurt, speaks to that ends-justify-the-means approach. If the work put into the band’s records is often meticulous and cumbersome, at least the final product is something beautiful.
Why It Rules: The cleverest trick in the Spiritualized repertoire is the band’s ability to make big operatic rock music sound small and inviting. And Nothing Hurt is loaded with artistic flourishes, with bells, chimes, strings, and horns augmenting the band’s guitar/bass/drum core. But Pierce once again carefully manages to avoid losing the listener. There’s a measured grace to the record’s nine tracks. They take many shapes, from soul (“I’m Your Man”) to sleepy boy-girl dream pop (“Let’s Dance”), druggy psychedelia (“On the Sunshine”), and space rock (“The Prize”). But the fun comes in watching the songs slowly unfurl from their simple origins into something fuller. With this record, Spiritualized has added yet another chapter to its wild, dreamlike musical legacy, proving that rock isn’t dead and that maybe everyone else just isn’t trying enough. –Ryan Bray
Essential Tracks: “Perfect Miracle”, “Let’s Dance”, and “On the Sunshine”
09. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
Origin: Golden, Texas
The Gist: Country singer-songwriter sensation Kacey Musgraves pivots gently into pop music mode on her third studio album, incorporating elements of disco, R&B, psychedelia, and the friendly pulse of a drum machine into her earthy odes to loves gained and lost.
Why It Rules: True to her outlaw country roots, Musgraves’ decision to make music with an even wider reach still came from her self-crafted playbook. Her aim has never seemed to be for world-dominating success, but instead the kind of crossover delights that her forebears, like Dolly Parton and Crystal Gayle, found during their heydays. Songs like “Lonely Weekend”, “High Horse”, and the torch ballad “Rainbow” aren’t written to tap into the sound of today; they’re built for longevity. Golden Hour is an album not just for 2018, but for the ages. –Robert Ham
Essential Tracks: “High Horse”, “Lonely Weekend”, and “Rainbow”
08. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
Origin: New York City, New York
The Gist: After topping the charts with breakthrough single “Bodak Yellow” in 2017, stripper-turned-social-media-star-turned-rapper Belcalis Almanzar, aka Cardi B, cemented her status as a dominating force in pop and hip-hop with the release of Invasion of Privacy. Anyone expecting a slipshod mishmash of singles was quickly proven wrong; as we’re learning, underestimating Almanzar never pays off. Expect to hear cuts from this brilliantly brash and clever album still blasting from car windows next summer.
Why It Rules: It becomes evident upon even the first listen to Invasion of Privacy that there’s something truly substantial behind Almanzar’s rags-to-riches story: a tireless work ethic and raw talent in spades. With lyrics like “This that collard greens, cornbread, neckbone, back fat/ Get it from my mama and you don’t know where your daddy at” on the Project Pat-sampling “Bickenhead”, Cardi asserts her own identity while putting haters in their place. Her flow is acrobatic and nimble, and her wordplay is frequently hilarious. She’s also unafraid to showcase a more vulnerable side on tracks like “Be Careful”, warning a cheating boyfriend of the damage he’s capable of doing. With the bar set this high, we can only imagine where Almanzar will take us next. And we like it like that. –Katherine Flynn
Essential Tracks: “I Like It”, “Bickenhead”, and “Drip”
07. boygenius – boygenius
Origin: Memphis, Tennessee (Julien Baker); Pasadena, California (Phoebe Bridgers); and Norfolk, Virginia (Lucy Dacus)
The Gist: After being approached by the same labels, releasing acclaimed albums in similar genres, participating in the same tours and festivals, and steadily rising to fame in similar circles over the past couple of years, indie singer-songwriters Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus were not only destined to befriend one another but to create together. Earlier this year, the trio formed under the cheeky name “boygenius” in Los Angeles to write and record a six-track EP in just four days. Every musician leads the vocals of one track while the remaining three sound entirely collaborative.
Why It Rules: Each member of boygenius pushes her particular musical strengths without dampening another’s spotlight. Baker’s emo-tinged vocal rawness breaks us down and builds us up, only to break us down again on “Stay Down”. On the Bridgers-led “Me & My Dog”, the folk-inspired songwriter’s simple lyricism speaks a thousand words and experiences within brief lines like “I’m fine now, it doesn’t matter/ I didn’t wanna be this guy/ I cried at your show with the teenagers.”
Dacus’ delivery seamlessly blends the hard and the soft, especially on opening track “Bite the Hand”. At the same time, the three perform together in perfect harmony, resembling a chorus of scorned angels who somehow maintain their poise amid squealing distortion and unequal romantic relationships on the EP’s powerhouse track, “Salt in the Wound”. Rarely does a supergroup live up to the hype of that moniker like boygenius does. –Natalia Barr
Essential Tracks: “Me & My Dog”, “Salt in the Wound”, and “Bite the Hand”
06. Christine and the Queens – Chris
Origin: Nantes, France
The Gist: Sex sells in all genres, but it’s made it rain most fervently in the bright notes of pop music. Christine and the Queens’ version of this, however, reaches such levels of romantic singularity that it sets itself in an entirely separate sonic sphere, one fashioned for love making and not just grinding it out in the club. Recorded in both English and French versions, Chris is a self-affirming statement of queerness that is equally seductive in its lust as it is in pure bingability.
Why It Rules: With countless artists over the past decade reaching back to ’80s standards for a sense of timelessness, few have demonstrated the idiosyncratic mastery of Héloïse Letissier. She exudes a confident freedom that can only come by taking ownership of your vulnerability, something that’s key to being sultry without being flagrant, reverential without being nostalgic. Self-assuredness sweats out of every muscular, funky pore of Chris, whether it’s on slow jams like “Make some sense” or intense slappers like “Damn (what must a woman do)”. It’s an album that feels familiar, radiates originality, and is damn near perfection — and she simultaneously did it twice. –Ben Kaye
Essential Tracks: “Doesn’t matter”, “The walker”, and “Five Dollars”
05. Pusha-T – Daytona
Origin: Virginia Beach, Virginia
The Gist: It’s been three years since Pusha-T’s last album, and Terrence Thornton made it well worth the wait with the ferocious and near-flawless DAYTONA. I always thought nine songs was the perfect amount for an album, but DAYTONA made me believe in seven.
Why It Rules: In a lean, unblinking 21 minutes, Pusha-T delivers a sharp and hypnotic rhapsody, wasting nary a second with bloat or dallying. The wordsmith drips swagger and effortlessness, even as it’s clear he’s been unyieldingly precise and demanding of every note and syllable. Kanye West has spent most of 2018 digging (or filling in) a deep and heavily marked grave in which to toss his legacy, but he still lends his singular brilliance as a producer to every track on DAYTONA, making us all wish he’d shut up, step into the background, and just become a supporting player for more genuinely exciting and vibrant artists like Thornton. –Kayleigh Hughes
Essential Tracks: “If You Know You Know”, “The Games We Play”, and “Santeria”
04. Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: In the midst of a rapidly ascending career that was leading to high-profile collaborations with pop stars, Kamasi Washington shot for the stars on Heaven and Earth, a double album of two distinct sides meant to evoke the duality and tension of our reality with that of another plane. Backed by a supremely talented cast of musicians, Washington composed his most intricately detailed and awe-inspiring compositions yet, a two-and-a-half-hour journey of otherworldly proportions.
Why It Rules: Containing multitudes, Heaven and Earth strikes a delicate balance between what is and what could be, from the urgent, righteous indignation of “Fists of Fury” that opens the Earth side to the sublime exaltation of “Will You Sing” that closes the Heaven side. Bigger than a crossover moment, Heaven and Earth is the work of a composer realizing his potential and defying already lofty expectations. Throughout his swirling odyssey, Washington captures the sound of one world and imagines that of another always out of reach. A masterpiece that transcends genre, Heaven and Earth comes a step closer to grasping it. –David Sackllah
Essential Tracks: “Fists of Fury”, “Street Fighter Mas”, and “Will You Sing”
03. SABA – Care for Me
Origin: Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: SABA has been poking his head out of the Chicago hip-hop scene since 2012, usually as part of one collaboration or another with Chance the Rapper or other scene members. But it’s his sophomore album, Care for Me, largely inspired by the tragic death of his cousin, Walter, that truly marks the rising rapper coming into his own, mixing his versatile poetic flow and unique musical textures with a deep delve into processing such life-altering pain.
Why It Rules: From its inception, hip-hop has boasted (and demonstrated) the ability to depict the world in the highest definition. Much of the reason Care for Me resonates is because that while most of the songs are inspired by the recent violent loss of a man we’ve never met, tracks like “PROM / KING” celebrate and mourn loss in a way we can all identify with. The jazzy track, all piano and percussion, finds SABA looking back in pinpoint detail to his time with Walt leading up to prom and later to the day he learned his cousin was missing. It’s a window into the rapper’s memories sure, but more so it’s a look at how the grieving mind works, and one can’t help but listen and begin to think about his or her own Walter. Each track offers that type of powerful glimpse, and SABA makes it nearly impossible to turn away. –Matt Melis
Essential Tracks: “LIFE”, “PROM / KING”, and “BUSY / SIRENS”
02. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer
Origin: Atlanta, Georgia
The Gist: Appearing in Oscar darlings Moonlight and Hidden Figures hardly stopped Janelle Monáe from her first calling; it only gave her more time. And so, nearly half a decade after she burned dance floors with 2013’s The Electric Lady, Monáe returned to reboot our shoes with the funky, late-night charms of Dirty Computer. Though, “charms” hardly does the album justice; no, this is a big, ol’ Halloween fuck fest at Paisley Park, where Brian Wilson’s sunbathing under a black light, Grimes is texting Elon Musk from a flamingo raft, and Pharrell’s making drinks for our ArchAndroid. Listen hard enough and you might hear Zoë Kravitz ordering Domino’s from a ’50s rotary phone.
Why It Rules: Dirty Computer is the most enjoyable album of 2018. That’s pretty paramount at a time that’s essentially been one hard slug to the gut after another, and Monáe knows this. While she’s game on hosting the Thursday night rager until the break of dawn on Monday, she’s also insistent on “keeping things real,” which is why every song comes with a lesson. Now, in lesser hands, this could have quickly devolved into some queasy timeshare pitch on politics, but instead, the whole thing comes off like a celebration. Of what? Change, and lots of it. With Dirty Computer, the future isn’t unwritten or worth fighting for; the future has already begun, and it hardly feels like science fiction. –Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “Make Me Feel”, “I Like That”, and “Crazy, Classic, Life”
01. Mitski – Be the Cowboy
Origin: New York City, New York
The Gist: With all the mishegas defining 2018, it’s somewhat telling that an album of intimate connections broke through to the top. Even when the world is helplessly burning, we still have to face ourselves and our relationships. Though the songs don’t exactly delve into gooey optimism as they explore these intense inter- and intra-personal sentiments, the characters in Mitski’s Be the Cowboy do so with an acute self-awareness that reminds us it’s okay to be a little broken. Such heartrending catharsis presented with peerlessly compelling compositions and keen lyricism sublimates the album beyond “indie” and into fine art.
Why It Rules: We already knew Mitski was a master songwriter, but the synchronous displays of restraint and lushness on Be the Cowboy are doubly extraordinary. Only two songs hit the three-minute mark, yet these concise scenes are so elegantly penned that they accommodate a boundless depth. Stunning orchestrations on “Geyser” and “Pink in the Night” are as visceral as lines like “Give me one good movie kiss/ And I’ll be alright” (“Nobody”) or “You say hello, and I lose” (“Lonesome Love”). There’s gut-punching, honest beauty anywhere you look. Mitski may be writing about the “self-abasement of desire,” as she says in the liner notes, but her wit and rich arrangements allow us to still find grace in the gloom. –Ben Kaye
Essential Tracks: “Geyser”, “Nobody”, and “A Pearl”