20. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer
Toni Cade Bambara once said, “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” On her third studio album, Janelle Monáe becomes fully comfortable in that role. Breaking away from the sci-fi trappings of Monáe’s earlier albums, and veering straight into the political themes she’s always flirted with, Dirty Computer manages the seemingly impossible task of being as sexy as it is militant, with Monáe preaching black power, queer liberation, and women’s rights with a Prince-like confidence and charisma. This is an artist in full possession of her identity, with no intentions of backing down, and while not every track on the album sustains its musical highs, the revolution it puts forth is indeed irresistible.
Standout track: “Screwed”
19. Bali Baby – Baylor Swift
Atlanta rapper/singer Bali Baby achieves a thrilling fusion of rap, bubblegum-pop, and punk rock on her all-too-short third release. Like Avril Lavigne with more menace, or Nicki Minaj with more sick riffs, this album pumps pure energy straight into the listener’s veins, making it almost exhausting to listen to. But it’s exhausting in the way a great roller coaster is exhausting—you leave the album a bit dazed, maybe with a headache, but wearing a big smile.
Standout track: “Electrical”
18. SOPHIE – OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES
The fact that this album got as much attention as it did is a miracle—it’s perhaps the most anti-mainstream album to get a Grammy nomination in quite some time. SOPHIE isn’t exactly making pop here, but she’s not exactly not making pop, either. OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES envisions an alternate universe’s charting pop songs, one where the interplay of textures and clashing melodies take precedence over hooks and hummability. It’s music to charm and inspire like the best pop songs are, but it’s otherwise so bizarre that it turns the listener’s preconceptions of how to interpret music on their head. As SOPHIE proclaims on the album’s triumphant closer, it’s a whole new world.
Standout track: “Immaterial”
17. BROCKHAMPTON – IRIDESCENCE
The rising stars in this Texas-to-L.A. self-described boyband are really not concerned with how cool you think they are, or at least they don’t let it show. Following up their star-making SATURATION trilogy, BROCKHAMPTON gets a lot weirder on the production here. With much less emphasis on pop hooks and danceable grooves, the focus is shifted to the personalities and MC skills of the group’s performing members (they count anyone involved in their enterprise as a member of the group, but only six appear as vocalists). Luckily, Kevin Abstract, Dom McLennon, Matt Champion, Merlyn Wood, Joba, and Bearface all remain magnetic performers. The core of Iridescence’s appeal lies there, in the interplay between these six extremely distinct rappers/singers, each with their own unique lyrical topics and style of delivery. This is an album that, more than anything, invites you to hang out with the members of BROCKHAMPTON, and it’s an incredibly fun time for that.
Standout track: “HONEY”
16. Ariana Grande – Sweetener
Since her breakout, Ariana Grande has clearly been one of mainstream pop’s most capable vocalists. However, up until now she’s struggled to find a distinctive artistic voice. That’s ended now, as Sweetener establishes Grande as an unqualified star. Calm yet confident, emotional without ever seeming weak, Grande delivers track by track with effortless grace, showing a knack for determining when to hold back and when to go all in.
Standout track: “no tears left to cry”
15. The Carters – EVERYTHING IS LOVE
One of the great beauties of collaboration albums is the way they can emphasize distinct artistic voices by contrast. On their first album together as husband and wife, one of the all-time masters of rap and the 21st century’s most untouchable pop star speak both wholly as themselves and wholly in unison. This is perhaps more a Beyoncé album than a Jay-Z album, as its central messages of unquestionable love and glorious triumph resemble her solo work more than his, but Jay is still in top form here. Music’s biggest power couple, in a balance rarely struck by pop or hip-hop, here makes monogamy sound both menacing and magnificent. Jay and Bey put forth the idea that their commitment to each other is their greatest strength, and after listening to EVERYTHING IS LOVE all the way through, that’s hard to dispute.
Standout track: “HEARD ABOUT US”
14. George Clanton – Slide
Hypnagogic pop producer George Clanton, also known as ESPRIT 空想, has just as much technical mastery as he does vision. Slide is a misleading title, because the beauty of this album has nothing to do with movement, but rather with glorious stillness. Drawing from chillwave and vaporwave, with perhaps a good bit of solo Panda Bear, Clanton makes pop songs that sound frozen in time, like every second of the song isn’t a moment following from the next, but an angle, a different direction to look around in one glorious eternal instant.
Standout track: “Monster”
13. Czarface and MF DOOM – Czarface Meets Metal Face
Czarface, the group consisting of rappers Inspectah Deck and Esoteric and producer 7L, has found its perfect match in underground titan MF DOOM. Three absolutely titanic MCs come together on this album, with no mission or agenda beyond just delivering verse after brilliant verse. DOOM’s signature complex rhymes are a perfect complement for Esoteric’s off-the-wall sense of humor and Inspectah Deck’s vicious delivery, and the resulting combination is a rap album that dominates without even trying—these MCs are so talented that they can’t help but land at the top of the heap.
Standout track: “Captain Crunch”
12. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
The key factor that makes a great MC isn’t complex rhymes or emotional stories or a killer flow. All those things help, but they help because they add to the one quality every master of rap possesses—magnetism. A great rapper is a rapper who takes you into their world, who makes you see things in precisely the way they want, who replaces your preconceptions with their own. On her debut album, overnight star Cardi B proves she has magnetism in spades. She sells the hell out of lyrics both upbeat and downbeat, trashing the competition and calling out her exes while keeping the overall mood fit for a party. Nothing about it is particularly new or revolutionary, but Cardi is just competent in a way so many rappers aren’t. She’s fully in control of herself and of the song on each and every verse here, and if talent counts for anything in the music industry, then she’s here to stay for a good while. (Note: this album, in particular the track “Thru Your Phone,” does have Cardi glorifying some not-okay relationship behaviors, invasions of privacy as it were. If that will upset you to hear about, that’s understandable.)
Standout track: “Best Life”
11. Shy Layers – Midnight Marker
Shy Layers makes electronic music that expands the textural and melodic possibilities of pop, while still fulfilling its core mission—Midnight Marker is music to make you feel good. It’s pleasant and breezy and never abrasive, but it’s also exciting and constantly keeps you guessing. Like a gas expands to fill whatever space it occupies, Midnight Marker is music that is exactly as ambient as you let it be. It fades easily into the background without a complaint if that’s the role you choose to put it in, but listening closely is massively rewarding, as every detail of these songs is full of energy and life.
Standout track: “Lover’s Code”
10. DJ Koze – Knock Knock
Electronic dance music has perhaps not had an album this outsized or ambitious since Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories in 2013. However, where Daft Punk turned to nostalgia and chart appeal in their magnum opus, here German producer DJ Koze turns his gaze squarely towards the future. Inviting the most eclectic guests (including Speech of Arrested Development and Kurt Wagner of Lambchop), Koze makes music that throws any ideas of genre or structure to the wind. His larger-than-life approach often approaches the religious, but never with solemnity—this is music about the joy of being alive, about the visceral thrill of existing in the world.
Standout track: “Illumination”
9. SOB X RBE – Gangin
Bay Area rap group SOB X RBE is out to rule the world. They’re rappers who wear their effort on their sleeves—where others might attempt to sound like they don’t care, these four young men infuse every line with fury and passion. Gangin doesn’t fit the typical definition of “emotional” music, though—it’s extremely catchy hip-hop, taking just as much musically from boybands as from any more traditional hip-hop acts. This is aggression for the dance floor, menace made into movement, and it’s guaranteed to start a fire wherever it’s played.
Standout track: “Anti Social”
8. The Beths – Future Me Hates Me
Power-pop’s secret revival continues with a fantastic debut from this New Zealand outfit. It turns out melodic, riffing guitars over energetic beats is the perfect way is still a perfect language to express heartbreak and insecurity and the ways we try to deflect them. 2018 has no shortage of sad rock, nor of rock to dance to, but sad rock to dance to is a pleasing rarity, and the Beths are excellent purveyors of it.
Standout track: “You Wouldn’t Like Me”
7. Poppy – Am I a Girl?
This album is a masterclass in how to create genuinely subversive music. Surrealist pop-star/performance artist Poppy, who amassed a significant YouTube fandom even before releasing her debut album last year, juggles upbeat synthpop with abrasive textures and jarring jumpcuts, as she approaches both traditional and bizarre lyrical topics in her unique manner. Poppy has a knack for keeping the listener off guard, like how she becomes far more aggressive and vulgar than one would expect with the line “If you don’t like it, suck my dick” in the otherwise chart-friendly “Chic Chick.” Poppy also gets rather political here, even posing as a robot avenger punishing humanity for their sins on the fantastic cut “Time Is Up.” No one can predict where Poppy will go next, and that’s what makes observing her journey so much fun.
Standout track: “Chic Chick”
6. Snail Mail – Lush
Rock is in a tough place right now. Faced with a world that’s largely abandoned the genre, rock has been forced to find a role for itself outside of larger cultural relevance. What is rock without the rock star, without a movement to champion? Lindsey Jordan, a.k.a. Snail Mail, has settled on the same answer as a lot of today’s indie rockers, turning inward and baring her soul on her tracks, with no eye towards any subject besides the subjective. What sets Snail Mail’s debut full-length Lush above most of this brand of confessional-rock is that, beyond its honesty and emotional weight, it’s musically infectious. Jordan emphasizes larger-than-life hooks and soaring riffs in a way that makes you pump your fist as you tear up. “Don’t you like me for me?” Jordan sings with all her heart on album highlight “Pristine.” “Is there any better feeling than coming clean?” This catchiness never cheapens or clashes with the album’s earnestness, though—instead, it strengthens it, with the strength of Jordan’s melodies helping sell the real feeling behind them.
Standout track: “Pristine”
5. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
An oft-celebrated quality in music is “making small emotions big,” turning passing moments of introspection or doubt into the subject of anthems or ballads. What Kacey Musgraves does so well on her latest album is the opposite—she makes big emotions small. This is an album about profound heartbreak and isolation, and yet Musgraves delivers it all so casually, with an easy intimacy that seems to invite the listener to sit down right next to her. Musgraves also shows off a phenomenal gift for melody, making songs that might otherwise come off as overproduced or unnecessarily polished into pure infectious joy.
Standout track: “Oh What a World”
4. Yves Tumor – Safe in the Hands of Love
A common dismissal of experimental music is that it’s bloodless, that it’s experienced intellectually rather than viscerally. Indeed, when we think about visceral, body-moving music, we generally turn to more mainstream genres, such as soul, house, or the faster forms of metal. But on his third album, Yves Tumor lays such dichotomies to rest. This is experimental music full of blood, experimental music that shakes listeners to the core even on a casual listen. Using melody and rhythm as two tools in a larger toolbox rather than the be-all-end-all of his music, Yves Tumor unearths deep, wordless emotion through his textures and the shocking directions of his songs.
Standout track: “Noid”
3. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – KIDS SEE GHOSTS
Kanye West, for better or for worse, has always had his personality and the narrative of his life woven inextricably into his music. And yet, just as Kanye the personality loses perhaps his last scraps of goodwill among the populace, his collaboration album with longtime affiliate Kid Cudi is remarkably egoless. This is Kanye and Cudi rapping about everything other than Kanye and Cudi, becoming observers of the world rather than making the world observe them. If there is a star here, it’s the consistently phenomenal production, but that was such a large team effort (Andre 3000 and Justin Vernon, among many others, join Ye and Cudi on the boards here) that the instrumentals are egoless as well. It’s so rare in today’s rap scene for an album to just be music, not a massive statement or a chapter in an ongoing career saga, and that’s what Kanye West and Kid Cudi have given us. KIDS SEE GHOSTS is, above all else, just a wonderful listening experience.
Standout track: “Cudi Montage”
2. Kero Kero Bonito – Time ’n’ Place
In these politically trying times, escape is something on a lot of people’s minds. British pop outfit Kero Kero Bonito, now including guitar, bass, and drums on top of their bouncy synths, is deeply in tune with that desire. Their sophomore full-length is full of songs about escape, about wanting a different time and place, whether reached through pretending (“Only Acting,” “Make Believe”), time travel (“Dear Future Self”), the hypothetical (“If I’d Known”), or plain old physical movement (“Flyway”). The arrangements here contrast that escapism by being somewhat claustrophobic, however, as if KKB is reminding us that we are where we are and we can’t really get away. After their initial mixtape Intro Bonito and their debut studio album Bonito Generation, this might have been an easy band to pigeonhole as a bubblegum novelty act, but Time ’n’ Place proves that they have a lot more in them.
Standout track: “Only Acting”
- Let’s Eat Grandma – I’m All Ears
Let’s Eat Grandma is something really remarkable in today’s music landscape—it’s a duo of teenage girls who sing about their feelings, without a trace of irony or self-importance. The 80s hang heavy over this album, as the emotional tenors Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth put forth are more akin to Cyndi Lauper and Bonnie Tyler than to anything in the contemporary mainstream. What makes I’m All Ears special is its ability (helped by producer David Wrench, along with SOPHIE on two tracks) to translate that deep, almost painful sincerity into a language that makes sense to the irony-infested landscape of 2010s indie pop. In a culture that shames the display of emotions, we need music that reminds us how to feel unreservedly, and Let’s Eat Grandma is happy to provide.
Standout track: “It’s Not Just Me”
So that’s it! Comment about what you think of these albums, or of my ranking, or of my writeups, or of me as a person, just fucking lay into me. Hope you enjoyed reading!