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”