It’s never easy to summarize an entire year of music in a few paragraphs. Or pages. Or hundreds of pages. This grows truer as more and more artists emerge on the internet, putting their own stamp on the art, whether they rise to stardom or fade into obscurity.
However, as society grows more divided and fearful by the day, and as great movements rise to resist long-standing cultures of abuse and mistreatment, there is a trend in music to make bolder and bolder statements.
More than ever, celebrities in the industry have worked toward more pointed political statements or bolder messages of empowerment. Some efforts fell into cringeworthy, half-hearted attempts at being “woke” (sorry, Justin Timberlake). Others advocated for misinformed concepts and regressed in the public eye (not sorry, Kanye). Even more troubling, stars with violent and disgusting pasts garnered pity from their fans, achieving popularity (6ix9ine) and even a twisted sort of martyrdom (XXXTentacion).
For all these problems, 2018 was also a year in which Ariana Grande became a symbol for emotional solidarity, Mitski mined complex emotions to become an indie darling and Janelle Monae turned her unapologetic identity into an Album of the Year nomination. In an ever-escalating cultural conflict, everyone is choosing a side. The highs and lows of this fight are on display in society’s greatest mirror: Music.
Putting context aside, there was also a lot of excellent music that hinted at the future while also digging into the annals of pop history. The spirit of rebellion revitalized the punk scene, and the increasingly saturated field of trap revealed a few gems in a sea of mediocrity. Soul music is alive and well, and 80s synth-pop became cool again.
Choosing 20 albums is almost as hard as writing a short summary. I cannot ignore the fact that this was created by nobody but me: There is no holistic staff pick or public consideration. Still, I find these 20 records to embody the spirit of the year as well as its highest musical moments.
Click on the images below to read a short descriptor and explanation. Sound off on what I missed in the comments or on my Twitter. And check out my playlist of my 50 favorite tracks of the year, on which each album here is represented.
20. Cardi B, “Invasion of Privacy”
Though she was a veritable superstar before releasing “Invasion of Privacy,” Cardi B still had a lot to prove on her major-label debut. Like many artists striving to be taken seriously, Cardi’s efforts paid off, and “Invasion of Privacy” is filled with instantly catchy hooks and approachable melodies. Many of Cardi’s pop-rap contemporaries tend to focus on quantity over quality, which makes the polish of “Invasion of Privacy” even more appealing.
Key Tracks: “Best Life,” “I Do”
19. Mitski, “Be the Cowboy”
What “Be the Cowboy” offers is a smorgasbord of musical treats on a silver platter. Sticky, immediate and brief at 32 minutes, this dynamic collection has a ton to offer and unpack. Even if every venture or short track isn’t for you, there’s no shortage of interesting ideas from an artist who uses a surface of acerbic wit and punchy lyricism to convey a much more complex amalgamation of emotions.
Key Tracks: “Geyser,” “Two Slow Dancers”
18. Adrianne Lenker, “abysskiss”
Lenker’s main band Big Thief released one of last year’s best records, and the frontwoman has carried over her excellent songwriting to a solo effort. “abysskiss” is often stripped down to little more than vocals and guitar, accentuating its intimacy. Lenker’s mesmerizing voice and melancholy melodies make this the perfect record for a rainy day.
Key Tracks: “terminal paradise,” “symbol”
17. MGMT, “Little Dark Age”
They once crafted mid-aughts indie pop anthems. Then they did an about-face and embarked on difficult, psychedelic odysseys. “Little Dark Age” finds MGMT returning to pop songwriting with a focus on New Wave synths and touches of the strange. The title track and singles “When You Die” and “Me and Michael” form what might be the most delectable three-song streak of the year.
Key Tracks: “Little Dark Age,” “When You Die,” “Me and Michael”
16. Iceage, “Beyondless”
Few bands are capable of truly evolving their sound while keeping a distinct style. Iceage is one of them. “Beyondless,” their fourth LP, finds the post-punk group expanding their musical vocabulary, adapting multiple facets of rock (and more surprising departures) and reworking them with their signature snarl and viscerality. The Danish group’s combination of loose-limbed chaos and great songcraft makes “Beyondless” a killer rock record.
Key Tracks: “Pain Killer,” “Catch It”
15. Kacey Musgraves, “Golden Hour”
The beauty of this album is not just that Musgraves has seamlessly blended pop and country, or that the lyrics mine romance and emotion with such grace. It’s the warmth of the production and the gentle songwriting, even in somber moments, that makes “Golden Hour” a blissful, inviting, disarming experience.
Key Tracks: “Slow Burn,” “Mother,” “Rainbow”
14. Blood Orange, “Negro Swan”
Temperate and meditative, “Negro Swan” finds singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Dev Hynes less infatuated with the R&B sounds and styles of yore, instead toying with contemporary sounds and creating an interesting blend of alternative, soul, hip-hop, and pop. “Negro Swan” is a somber and gentle record, yet it also does more work to define the Blood Orange aesthetic than any prior album has. This is what it sounds like when an already stellar artist matures to something even more intriguing and singular.
Key Tracks: “Saint,” “Charcoal Baby”
13. Denzel Curry, “TA13OO”
There has emerged a new wave of rappers who use aggression as a way to heighten the energy of their music. Many of Denzel Curry’s songs — including the viral “Ultimate” and this year’s “SUMO” — make great use of this hyper-aggressive streak. But “TA13OO” proves that Curry’s appeal goes far beyond a single gimmick. The beats are dynamic and consistent, Curry displays considerable technical prowess and the subject matter ranges from darkly humorous brag-raps to raw explorations of inner and outer turmoil.
Key Tracks: “SUMO,” “CLOUT COBAIN,” “SIRENS”
12. Saba, “CARE FOR ME”
It’s painful how deep inside his soul Saba reaches, diving headfirst into his grief and displaying it for the world to see. Written after the death of his cousin, “CARE FOR ME” explores his anger at the frailty of life, then expands to include Saba’s relationships, struggles with depression and life in a world that often seems unfair.
Key Tracks: “LIFE,” “CALLIGRAPHY”
11. The Internet, “Hive Mind”
If you needed to define what makes an R&B group great, you would probably describe The Internet. Sublime production, inescapable grooves, laid-back atmosphere and the breezy seductiveness of lead singer Syd are front and center across every minute of their latest effort.
Key Tracks: “Comer Over,” “Next Time/Humble Pie,” “It Gets Better (With Time)”
10. Noname, “Room 25”
Noname is one of the most provocative and exhilarating rappers working today. She has an otherworldly grasp of the phonetic connections between words and is unafraid to mess with them. Her playfulness gives her rapping a technical edge, the content itself gives her a lyrical edge; and the indelibly soulful and funky production gives her a musical edge. This is the best rap album of the year.
Key Tracks: “Prayer Song,” “Ace”
9. Beach House, “7”
The modern masters of dream pop return with a collection of tracks that never strays too far from their tried-and-true formula, but also isn’t afraid to add some interesting wrinkles. With the introduction of organic drumming, the music here is given new muscle, anchoring spacey and blissful indie pop to solid ground. And the duo lets their dreams get a little weirder, like the awe-inducing vocal layering in “L’Inconnue” or the dark synth arpeggios of “Black Car.” Beach House is one of the most consistent and reliable bands in recent history. They aren’t about to change everything, but they do adapt just enough to keep things fresh.
Key Tracks: “L’Inconnue,” “Drunk in LA,” “Black Car”
8. Christine and the Queens, “Chris”
A warbling synth note crescendos into a massive chord and is cut off, suddenly, by a delightful pop-funk beat. “Chris” opens on a high note and never goes down. But what’s to be expected from one of pop’s unsung champions? Hailing from France, Héloïse Letissier makes some of the finest tunes around earnest and rhythmic and endlessly danceable. While each track is lovely in Christine and the Queens’ native tongue, the English versions supply fantastic lyrics that reward an attentive listener. Bristling with confidence and charisma, “Chris” supplies anthems for anyone lucky enough to hear them.
Key Tracks: “Comme si,” “5 dollars,” “The walker”
7. Parquet Courts, “Wide Awake!”
Take note, Greta Van Fleet. There’s a way to use the sounds of classic rock without sounding like a tribute band who tours bars. Case in point: The new Parquet Courts record oozes post-punk nostalgia but could only have been released in 2018. The rebellious, finger-to-the-man spirit that embodied so many 70s and 80s groups lives on in the quick-witted, topical lyrics on “Wide Awake!” Production by Danger Mouse adds a level of polish that the group has never achieved before. This album doesn’t stand on the shoulders of giants — it holds its own.
Key Tracks: “Almost Had to Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience,” “Wide Awake!”
6. boygenius, “boygenius EP”
Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers are talented singer-songwriters in their own right. But their supergroup boygenius proves the validity of the phrase “greater than the sum of its parts.” Each member’s unique take on indie rock blends into a fresh sound that is sentimental, turbulent and folksy all at once. Across its six tracks, “boygenius” offers a more fulfilling experience than most albums this year.
Key Tracks: “Me & My Dog,” “Souvenir,” “Ketchum, ID”
5. SOPHIE, “OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES”
This electronic producer and frequent Charli XCX collaborator has the air of someone who knows exactly how to make a great pop tune or dance track and wants absolutely nothing to do with it. Her mind-bending debut is a nonstop rollercoaster between abrasive bangers, beautiful ambient tracks and songs just a bit too left-field to be called “pop,” though the description doesn’t float far out of reach. You haven’t heard anything like this before, and that makes SOPHIE one of the few truly unique, trailblazing producers making waves in today’s scene.
Key Tracks: “It’s Okay to Cry,” “Ponyboy,” “Immaterial”
4. Let’s Eat Grandma, “I’m All Ears”
Pop has rarely sounded this exciting. From the strange, epic electro opener “Whitewater” to the glistening synth-pop single “It’s Not Just Me” to the ten-minute-plus closer “Donnie Darko,” this young duo seem keen on expanding their sound into every possible corner, all with a hint of the psychedelic. This bold breakthrough feels like a grand entrance of a major new voice in music. What does the future of Let’s Eat Grandma sound like? It’s hard to even say what they are now. Whatever it is, the world needs more.
Key Tracks: “It’s Not Just Me,” “Falling Into Me,” “Ava”
3. Kali Uchis, “Isolation”
Sometimes the beauty of an album is how it tackles a serious topic, or strikes a personal chord. But it can also be, quite simply, excellent music. For all its emotional depths, “Isolation” falls in the latter category. Blissful funk, retro soul, Latin pop, contemporary R&B, bubbly dream pop — Kali Uchis takes all of these, masters them and puts her own stamp on it. Rarely is a record as thoroughly listenable from start to finish as “Isolation.” The list of features and producers is impressive, but make no mistake: Kali Uchis is the real star of the show, and she’ll keep you captivated until the last note.
Key Tracks: “Tyrant,” “In My Dreams,” “After the Storm”
2. Janelle Monae, “Dirty Computer”
Yes, “Make Me Feel” and several other tracks on “Dirty Computer” sound like Prince. Yes, it is sometimes clear who Janelle Monae is borrowing from. So what? What’s been accomplished here is far from a rehash of the old. Instead, Monae has taken the works of the trailblazers and combined them with modern society’s most urgent problems to create a confection of musical mastery and stunning vision. Monae truly is a star for a generation. Her confidence as a black, queer woman bleeds through every rap verse and soaring vocal note. Her desire to transform her life to obtain maximum joy is infectious. Add this lyrical mission to a package of pop perfection, and you have an rare album indeed, one that is both timely and timeless.
Key Tracks: “Crazy, Classic, Life,” “Make Me Feel,” “PYNK,” “Americans”
1. IDLES, “Joy as an Act of Resistance”
This is much more than a great punk-rock album. In fact, it takes the stereotype of angry British guys playing loud music, turns it on its head, and channels it in an immensely positive direction. Frontman Joe Talbot has a menacing voice and a heart of gold. In interviews and in song, he lays bare his anger issues, his mother’s paralysis and death, his past struggles with alcoholism and the stillborn birth of his daughter. He is open about how these things tormented him and how they made him want to be a better man. The results? “Joy as an Act of Resistance,” a series of thundering post-punk anthems with lyrics that deride toxic masculinity and encourage honesty and vulnerability with yourself, and compassion for everyone else. “If someone talked to you the way you do to you, I’d put their teeth through,” Talbot snarls with his husky British accent. “Love yourself!” This threatening message of self-empowerment is just one of the charming moments on a very fun album that deserves to be taken very, very seriously.
Key Tracks: “Colossus,” “Never Fight a Man with a Perm,” “June,” “Television”