Some of 2018's zeitgeist-grabbing, conversation-driving pop music moments occurred completely outside the boundaries of the conventional album -- or even the song. How do you classify a collective experience like the stream of Beyoncé's performance at Coachella in April? Or the incurable excitement for snippets of Lady Gaga's (now Grammy-winning) "Shallow" first heard in the highly meme-able trailer for A Star is Born? Or the joy and terror of watching a guy on Instagram dance to Drake's "In My Feelings" in oncoming traffic? These ephemeral trends, digital events that linger in the mind, don't end up on lists like this.
Still, the album is resilient. For musicians across genres, the format remains an effective, flexible, and absorbing way to capture a mood, a feeling, or an idea. Even in a year when many of music's biggest acts didn't release new collections -- or alienated fans by releasing weak projects -- there were still more good records than we knew what to do with. Here are the best of the bunch.
These 3 Gadgets Are Your Summertime Essentials
Note: You can listen to a Spotify playlist of songs from these albums below. It features a song from every record.
Release date: June 1 Record label: Warp Why it's great: It's a struggle to untangle the idiosyncratic backstories and production histories that accompany a given album from the electronic musician Daniel Lopatin, who creates mind-bending compositions under the name Oneohtrix Point Never. Even a seemingly straightforward collection of songs like his tenth record Age Of, which follows his bracing and terrifying score for the Safdie Brothers' crime caper Good Time, arrives cocooned in satiric allusions to political theory and loopy narratives involving artificial intelligence. All that material can be fun and enlightening to engage with, but the music can also be experienced independent of the mythology. (Maybe keep a few tabs open while listening for the first time.) The beautiful harpsichords, the folk touches, and the disquieting vocals, which include contributions from recent Lopatin collaborator Anohni, are welcome additions to the alien synth drones that typically define his work. Rarely can you hear an artist testing their limits and expanding their scope with such nervy, unencumbered tenacity.
39. Teyana Taylor, KTSE
Release date: June 22 Record label:GOOD Music Why it's great: Teyana Taylor has a lower profile than the more established veterans who released albums as part of Kanye West's GOOD Music Wyoming project, but KTSE, her second full-length, is the work of a confident artist with a keen grasp on her own strengths. If you only know Taylor from her VH1 reality series with her husband, Sacramento Kings player Iman Shumpert, or her starring role in the video for West's "Fade," this is a rewarding introduction to her propulsive take on R&B. Despite arriving later than expected and apparently missing some parts, the record doesn't feel rushed. It lets you breathe. Songs like "Rose in Harlem" and "WTP" are meticulously built around classic soul and dance music samples, which provide plenty of room for Taylor to show off her range as a vocalist and lyricist. One hopes she can keep the same energy going for her next record, which likely won't arrive under such bizarre circumstances.
38. No Age, Snares Like a Haircut
Release date: January 26 Record label: Drag City Why it's great: The best No Age songs rumble with purpose. With their early compilation record Weirdo Rippers, their proper debut Nouns, and the genuinely exhilarating sophomore LP Everything in Between, Randy Randall and Dean Spunt combined ambient noise-rock tendencies with the occasional fist-pumping punk hook. The duo's last record, the more conceptual and impenetrable An Object, didn't vibrate at the same frequency and left a muddled impression. Over five years later, Snares Like a Haircut arrives at a moment when the DIY scene the pair emerged from faces existential challenges and the larger "indie rock" ecosystem often feels fractured. Fittingly, the album is tinged with regret -- on "Send Me" Spunt pines for "another roof perhaps" -- but, at the same time, it's a work of resilience. Endurance is a good look on a band that's always wrote songs that were built to last.
37. Vince Staples, FM!
Release date: November 2 Record label:Def Jam Why it's great: The central conceit of FM! is that the listener has stumbled onto a radio broadcast beamed in directly from what feels like the subconscious of hip-hop bomb-thrower Vince Staples. Besides a handful of winking interludes featuring L.A. radio personality Big Boy and some commercial snippets, he doesn't lean on the concept too hard or get hung up on the details. Instead, the format allows him to chase rugged, chest-thumping hooks on tracks like "Outside!" and "Run the Bands" while still delivering the stark lyrics that made his debut full-length Summertime '06 such revelatory, essential listening. ("My black is beautiful but I'll still shoot at you," he raps on the single "FUN!") The brooding club atmospherics and booming electronic experiments of last year's Big Fish Theory are mostly absent here, replaced with rugged, bass-heavy beats from producers Kenny Beats and Hagler. It's an album of brutal contrasts, delivering harsh truths while still keeping the party going.
Release date: February 16 Record label: Elektra Why it's great: Even the ballads on Brandi Carlile's sixth record feel like they're aiming for the rafters. That type of emotional directness can be exhausting -- there's a real danger of a full-throated, string-drenched track like "The Joke" landing with a thud -- but Carlile, a longtime favorite of folk and Americana listeners, keeps tight control on her ambitious theatrical swings. A rallying cry like "Hold Out Your Hand" even withstands some shout-along backing vocals that sound straight out of a car commercial. Working with producers Shooter Jennings and Dave Cobb, who lend these genre-hopping tracks a classic studio sheen, Carlile writes songs that inspire without shying away from the darkness. By the Way I Forgive You is filled with hardships and sorrow, but the cumulative effect is one of elation. Even when she sings of loneliness on the piano-driven closer "Party of One," she makes you feel less alone.
35. Jeff Rosenstock, POST-
Release date: January 1 Record label: Quote Unquote/Polyvinyl Why it's great: DIY success stories don't get much more inspiring than Jeff Rosenstock, the former Bomb the Music Industry! ringleader who has gone onto have an increasingly popular solo career. Rosenstock's 2016 record Worry caught on with festival crowds, punk die-hards, and casual indie rock fans, and now he's back with another collection of neurosis-addled anthems and persnickety barn-burners. The ferocious opener "U.S.A.," with its demand of "please be honest," feels as politically urgent as any post-Trump protest music, but tracks like "Powerlessness" and "9/10" give the album a startling sense of power-pop intimacy. Devotees of acts like Japandroids, Titus Andronicus, The Hold Steady, and Ted Leo should find Rosenstock to be a familiar fellow-traveler: Weary and crestfallen, but in it for the long haul.
34. Mary Lattimore, Hundreds of Days
Release date: May 18 Record label: Ghostly International Why it's great: Mary Lattimore's adventurous harp compositions can transform even the most mundane situations: A stroll in the park at dusk can take on a magical quality, or an early morning breakfast with a jackhammer roaring outside your window can become a calming retreat from the world. Hundreds of Days, the Los Angeles-based artist's third solo record, builds on her serene approach to ambient music, introducing electric guitars, synthesizers, and her own looping vocals to the mix, with quietly stunning results. The lengthy opener "It Feels Like Floating" might send you careening into the stars, but Lattimore continues to create music that causes the listener to both gaze inward and notice the small, buzzing details of everyday life. Her songs center you even as the world attempts to knock you off balance.
33. Mariah Carey, Caution
Release date: November 16 Record label: Epic Why it's great: Caution is not trying to be the greatest, flashiest, or biggest Mariah Carey album of all time. The relatively short tracklist, lack of explosive ballads, and tight roster of guests suggests that the creative ambitions of this record were focused from the start. For a pop diva like Carey, who has recently struggled to replicate the massive chart success of the past, that's a canny approach and it pays off. As a singer, she sounds locked in throughout, whether she's telling an ex to take a hike on the insatiable "GTFO" or celebrating the success of a long-term relationship on "The Distance." Her precise phrasing, layered harmonies, and sly lyrics add weight to the icy, robo-bouncing R&B production that envelops her like a plush fur coat. She'll always be elusive, but it's fun to hear her be consistent and playful too.
Release date: November 30 Record label:dBpm Records Why it's great: As the driving creative force behind the long-running Chicago band Wilco, Jeff Tweedy has earned a reputation as one of rock's great cryptic mopes. On the surface, this solo album, which was released within weeks of his new memoir, appears to refute his claims of being an "American aquarium drinker" and a "cherry ghost." It turns out he's just a man, one capable of singing in stripped-down, unfussy language about his flaws, his demons, and his dreams. In songs that occasionally recall Wilco's pair of Mermaid Avenue albums, which found the group creating original compositions from newly unearthed Woody Guthrie lyrics with English folk singer Billy Bragg, Tweedy tussles with the past ("Bombs Away") and with perceptions of his own legacy ("Having Been is No Way to Be"). But he's not settling old scores: this is a tender, luminescent country reckoning filled with wry fatherly humor and useful mentor-ey advice. (He tells you to brush your teeth at one point.) Tweedy's not your guru or your pal, but he's more than willing to lend a helping hand.
31. Skee Mask, Compro
Release date: May 15 Record label:Ilian Tape Why it's great: Listening to Compro, the transfixing new record from Munich producer Bryan Müller, is like walking alone through the woods late at night. The pitter-patter of breakbeats, always accompanied by little blips and electronic bumps, can be calming or nerve-wracking depending on your state of mind; your enjoyment of the record in a given situation, like on a crowded train or in an empty library, is a question of personal temperament and situational awareness. A producer who first came to music as a drummer, Müller keeps rhythm at the center of his compositions, smearing them with house, techno, and ambient textures. If you can fall under the hypnotic patterns of tracks like the skittering "Rev8617" or the pulsating "Muk FM," then you'll be rewarded with some of the most daring dance music of recent years.
30. Yo La Tengo, There's a Riot Going On
Release date: March 16 Record label:Matador Why it's great: Despite having a reputation as the rowdy sound of youthful rebellion, it's hard to argue that rock music isn't interested in longevity. The challenge of the career artist, whether its an arena favorite like U2 or a long-running indie institution like Yo La Tengo, is to find new ways to capture the imagination of loyalists, rope in the occasional late-comer, and entertain yourself. Compared to many of their peers, the New Jersey trio of guitarist Ira Kaplan, bassist James McNew, and percussionist Georgia Hubley is relatively unburdened by these pressures. Besides swiping a title from Sly and the Family Stone, there's very little that's provocative or defiant about There's A Riot Going On. If there's a riot here, it's a quiet one: drones, murmurs, and whispers dominate this album to a degree that they haven't in the band's lengthy catalog. It makes for some of the group's most achingly pretty music.
29. Robyn, Honey
Release date: October 26 Record label:Konichiwa/Interscope Why it's great: The nearly eight-year wait for a new full-length from Swedish electro-pop master Robyn perhaps put an unfair degree of pressure on the album that eventually became Honey. Was any record going to live up to the scrutiny, anticipation, and speculation that surrounded this one? Like any great artist, Robyn creates on her own terms and at her own pace. Compared to the more tonally expansive and musically varied Body Talk from 2008, Honey is a contained work of resilience and reflection that explores a more subdued emotional register. Songs like the slinky "Because It's in the Music" and the house-indebted "Between the Lines" don't explode like glitter bombs; they rise slowly like elegant plumes from a fog machine. What it lacks in gut-punch immediacy and hand-waving catharsis it more than makes up for with a total control of mood and tone.
Release date: May 18 Record label: Matador Why it's great: Indie rock guitarist and fantasy sports enthusiast Stephen Malkmus excels at a type of wry, bemused nonchalance that can scan as detached -- and even uncaring -- to the uninitiated. But Sparkle Hard, the seventh record since his band Pavement ended its run in 1999, is hardly the work of an idly shredding dilettante or a self-satisfied legacy artist peddling nostalgia to beer-drinking festival crowds. You feel like he's fully invested in songs like the string-soaked "Solid Silk," which scans as a more polished cousin of Wowee Zowee's gnarly genre experiments, or "Middle America," which finds him penning some of his most openhearted, but still elliptical, lyrics. He cares, but more importantly, he's still finding ways to amuse and surprise himself. That's what's made his solo career so rewarding, especially when compared to some of his alt-rock contemporaries. Like he sings at one point on the record, time gets to him. But it hasn't gotten the best of him.
27. SOB X RBE, Gangin
Release date: February 23 Record label: SOB X RBE Ent./Empire Why it's great: The Kendrick Lamar-produced Black Panther: The Album debuted at the top of the Billboard album chart this year, likely unseating The Greatest Showman as the biggest live-action movie soundtrack of the last couple years. Here's one thing the Hugh Jackman circus album doesn't have: a track half as exhilarating as "Paramedic!," a posse cut from Vallejo rap group SOB X RBE that more than earns its exclamation point. Capitalizing on the Marvel co-sign, the Bay Area collective dropped Gangin, a mixtape that captures the same blitzkrieg energy while making room for moments of self-reflection and righteous anger. Individual members get moments in the spotlight -- Yhung T.O. sells the smooth opulence of "Anti Social" and Slimmy B digs deep on the wounded, memoir-like "God" -- but the joy is in hearing the different parts click together. That type of stylistic coherence might be the group's greatest superpower.
26. Snail Mail, Lush
Release date: June 8 Record label:Matador Why it's great: "If you do find someone better I'll still see you in everything," promises Lindsey Jordan on "Pristine," a track off her band Snail Mail's debut record. "Tomorrow and all the time." In a similar way, prolonged exposure to Lush can make it hard to not hear Snail Mail in other indie rock bands -- so much so that you find yourself returning to this album instead. It hooks you and leaves an impression that's impossible to shake. The unfussy immediacy and clipped poetry of the lyrics, combined with a gift for bubble-gum melodies, makes for a potent combination. Tracks like "Heat Wave" and "Let's Find an Out," the latter a delicate fingerpicked ballad, capture a melancholy yearning that should feel familiar to anyone who's ever gazed out the window of a car in a Wendy's parking lot or a gas station, and wondered what else life has to offer.
25. Screaming Females, All at Once
Release date: February 23 Record label: Don Giovanni Why it's great: Marissa Paternoster has a voice that commands attention. Whether she's warning about the horrors of social media on the howling "Glass House" or tossing off not-so-thinly-veiled threats on the peppy "I'll Make You Sorry," the Screaming Females singer and guitarist continues to find new ways to upend expectations. Tweaking the sludge-y punk of their beginnings and the shredding garage rock of their most recent records, All at Once find the New Jersey trio zeroing in on a tighter, more adroit songwriting approach. Songs like "Soft Domination," "Birds in Space," and "Fantasy Lens" bob and weave where an earlier iteration of Screaming Females might have dropped the hammer. Paternoster's restraint turns out to be just as compelling as her moments of excess.
Release date: June 16 Record label:S.C. Enterprises/Parkwood/Roc Nation Why it's great: After the triumphant artistic run of 2013's self-titled record, 2016's Lemonade, and 2018's Coachella performance, Beyoncé was due for a victory lap album like Everything is Love, the team-up record she surprise-released earlier this summer with her husband and frequent collaborator Jay-Z. A companion piece to both last year's personal 4:44 and 2011's opulent Watch the Throne, it often finds the 48-year-old rapper taking a supporting role to his more pop-culturally dominant musical partner. On the Pharrell-produced stadium flex "Apeshit," Beyoncé outraps Jay-Z amidst a web of Migos ad libs, sounding invigorated as she demands "pay me in equity" and brags about her "expensive fabrics." The lavish lifestyle porn is carefully, archly contrasted with reflections on companionship ("Nice"), meditations on loyalty ("Friends"), and pointed observations on recent history ("Black Effect"). Even as a raucous celebration, it invites readings from a variety of angles.
23. Pistol Annies, Interstate Gospel
Release date: November 2 Record label: RCA Nashville Why it's great: Never underestimate the ability of country music to locate pleasure, joy, and even fits of laughter in deep emotional pain. A song like "Got My Name Changed Back," the shitkicking single off the third full-length from this Nashville super-group, takes divorce and heartbreak on as a subject but approaches it with the sharp instincts of a self-confessional stand-up comedian. "I done let a man get the best of me/Spent an afternoon at the DMV," quips Miranda Lambert at one point. The rest of the album doesn't quite match that track's gleeful, almost Kill Bill-like velocity -- a whole record of buckshot and rimshots might get tiresome -- but the ballads like "Masterpiece," "Leavers Lullaby," and "This Too Shall Pass" provide a wistful, soulful range to the proceedings, and the trio of women, which includes Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, find resilience in each other's voices throughout. It turns out vulnerability can be the best revenge.
22. Ariana Grande, Sweetener
Release date: August 17 Record label: Republic Why it's great: Ariana Grande sounds unburdened on Sweetener, an album that dances gracefully in the light while still acknowledging the darkness in the background. The sonic palette of the record is an occasionally awkward mix of Pharrell-produced R&B (the hazy "Blazed" and "R.E.M.") and sleeker pop overseen by Swedish super-producers Ilya and Max Martin (the transcendent "No Tears Left to Cry"). The two styles don't always cohere, and the album itself is almost split down the middle. But Grande's vision and personality bridge the divide, providing a sense of continuity to a series of songs that playfully skitter between big statements and smaller confessions. Similarly, her powerhouse voice delivers when pyrotechnics are called for and when a softer touch will do. At either end of the spectrum, Grande delivers the cotton candy her fans clearly crave.
21. Low, Double Negative
Release date: September 14 Record label: Sub Pop Why it's great: There are bands that discover a sound and settle. Over a 12-album discography that stretches across nearly 25 years, the Minnesota slowcore band Low has certainly remained in a sonic zone defined by certain key elements -- ghostly vocals and creeping tempos are a constant -- but they've discovered inventive ways to scribble and color within the creative limits they've established for themselves. The almost power-pop grandeur of 2005's The Great Destroyer could not be more different than the tremulous, hollowed-out electronic experimentation of Double Negative, a record that courts despair like the grim reaper knocking on the door. The harsh robotic vocals of a song like "Tempest," one of the record's most breathtaking compositions, play like a cyberpunk epic in miniature. The glimmering guitar and plain spoken lyrics of "Dancing and Fire" pierce through the glitching shudders found on the rest of the album. Even in a chaotic, post-apocalyptic landscape, everything is in its right place.
20. The 1975, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
Release date: November 30 Record label: Dirty Hit/Polydor Why it's great: The obnoxious, troll-like qualities that turn some listeners away from British pop-rock engineers The 1975 are hard to casually dismiss or argue forcefully against. Many of the group's adamant defenders will admit when pressed that part of the pleasure of lines like the opening salvo of the zeitgeist-throttling single "Love It If We Made It" -- "We're fucking in a car, shooting heroin/Saying controversial things just for the hell of it," croons frontman Matty Healy -- is that it's so clearly ridiculous and juvenile. And yet: the music that surrounds those attention-seeking lyrics can summon teenage emotions with startling immediacy and charming specificity. Is it embarrassing to be consumed with admiration for a song with an ultra-earnest title like "Sincerity is Scary" that "bravely" speaks out against the very irony the band traffics in? Probably! But the year is almost over, Healy is still singing in my earbuds, and I'm still trying to sort out the tensions and absurdities of this record. In a controversy economy, that's more than half the battle.
19. Nipsey Hussle, Victory Lap
Release date: February 16 Record label:Atlantic Why it's great: It might feel odd to name your debut record "Victory Lap," but in the case of Los Angeles rapper Nipsey Hussle, the celebratory note is well deserved. The 32-year-old MC should be a familiar face to anyone who keeps up with West Coast hip-hop: He carved out his own lane of gruff, detail-filled, rhythmically nimble street-rap with a run of mixtapes including 2013's Crenshaw, which was famously sold to passionate fans with a $100 price tag at a pop-up shop. (Jay Z picked up a few copies.) His business may not be as hyper-local anymore -- Victory Lap is his long-awaited major label debut -- but he's still a civic-minded, self-made hustler at heart. He cuts the motivational speaker lyrics on tracks like "Hustle & Motivate" and "Grinding All My Life" with vivid, blood-stained memories on "Blue Laces 2," a sequel to one of his best mixtape tracks. This is very much a major label rap debut, so there are probably too many guests on the tracklist -- do we need a song with The-Dream followed immediately by one with Cee-Lo Green? -- but Hussle's low-key craftsmanship keeps the record from getting bogged down. Like a smart businessman, he keeps his eye on the bottom line.
18. H.C. McEntire, Lionheart
Release date: January 26 Record label: Merge Why it's great: As the lead singer of North Carolina country band Mount Moriah, H.C. McEntire would often conjure a raging emotional fire with only a whisper. The flames that engulfed a home on the striking cover of the group's excellent second LP, Miracle Temple, served as a useful warning: things will get heated. For her solo debut Lionheart, which was produced with "special guidance" from Bikini Kill innovator Kathleen Hanna, McEntire uses her soulful voice to draw you into yearning ballads like "Wild Dogs" and twanging yarns like "Red Silo." She call to mind a familiar world where the "whole town smelled like tobacco," but she fills these nostalgia-tinged memories with the lived experience of a woman existing outside traditional country narratives. It makes for a tender record you want to gather around like a campfire. Lean in close to feel the warmth.
17. Earl Sweatshirt, Some Rap Songs
Release date: November 30 Record label: Columbia Why it's great: That unassuming, tossed-off title is a helpful onramp for this chaotic traffic jam of an album. When Earl Sweatshirt first emerged as the foul-mouthed teenage internet folk hero of Odd Future, obfuscation was a part of his identity for personal reasons: He was sent to live in the Coral Reef Academy in Soma while fans clamored for new music. As he's gotten older, growing more confident as a producer and opening up in interviews, obfuscation has become more of an aesthetic choice, a way to map personal feelings of isolation, depression, and grief onto beats packed with soul loops and jazz samples. "Kept the truth in my palm and my chest," he raps on "Cold Summers," but it also feels buried in these tangled verses. Though the tracks are brief, often bleeding into one another and cutting off with no warning, they are thankfully still rap songs, as the title promises.
16. Lucy Dacus, Historian
Release date: March 2 Record label:Matador Why it's great: The tracklist of Historian, the second full-length from 22-year-old songwriter Lucy Dacus, has a thematic breadth to it that can be intimidating at first. Even the title of the record, which she told New York is about how her "creative efforts are efforts to capture something, or to document it," brings to mind images of archives, libraries, and microfiche. But the songs themselves, like the slow-build opener "Night Shift" or the gospel-indebted stunner "Pillar of Truth," don't feel like they've been dusted off or pulled from a shelf. This isn't twee, academic rock filled with arcane references and wonky in-jokes. Instead, the work is informed by the past in both a personal and musical sense, with each track excavating memories of troubled relationships and afternoons spent listening to the radio. She makes the history come alive.
15. CupcakKe, Ephorize
Release date: January 5 Record label:Self-released Why it's great: By now, you might have heard one of CupcakKe's X-rated rap songs like "Deepthroat," "Best Dick Sucker," "Doggy Style," or "Spider-Man Dick," which helped establish her as a boundary-pushing provocateur in the tradition of 2 Live Crew or Lil' Kim. Ephorize, the follow-up album to 2017's Queen Elizabitch, contains the single "Duck Duck Goose," a gleefully filthy track filled with punchlines like "Turn double-dutch with yo' balls while I'm jumpin' on your dick," and "Tell your grandma sew my pussy, since you split open my clit." If you're not prepared, it can feel like a lot. (There's a line about Smurf dick.) At the same time, the clever gross-out material is paired with off-the-cuff confessions on tracks like opener "2 Minutes," where the 20-year-old Chicago lyricist raps "I'm dealing with real shit/My stretch marks really itch." The combination of the absurd and mundane, the riotously funny and the deadly serious, makes listening to Ephorize a rich experience. You come away feeling like CupcakKe isn't just playing games.
14. Pusha-T, Daytona
Release date: May 25 Record label: GOOD Music/Def Jam Why it's great: When producer Kanye West first suggested that Pusha-T scrap the more expansive record he was working on and instead create a slimmer seven-song project, the former Clipse member was against it. "No, man, I got a whole full album right here," Pusha told him, according to a recent interview with Vulture. While it's impossible to compare Daytona, the smaller album that resulted from those Wyoming recording sessions, to the hypothetical collection Pusha was already working on, it's hard to deny its concision makes it stand out in Pusha's hardly robust solo discography. (Despite its lengthy title, 2015's King Push -- Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude, only had 10 songs.) Brevity works to his strengths as an artist: his stark, cleverly composed drug talk carries more weight over minimal, sample-based production. Whether he's throwing shots at Drake on "Infrared" or rhyming about "caviar facials" on "The Games We Play," the 41-year-old rapper sounds in control on every track. You've entered his realm -- don't get comfortable. You won't be there for long.
13. Superchunk, What a Time to Be Alive
Release date: February 16 Record label:Merge Why it's great: Superchunk's chipper pop-punk is a surprisingly potent vessel for political anger. The North Carolina indie-rock lifers have been sharpening their songwriting tools for over 30 years -- first in an impressive run of punchy, spry '90s records and then in a pair of cunning, wise come-back albums in the '10s -- but this the first time they've gone for the jugular. Their target is President Donald Trump and the larger cultural movement he both inspires and embodies. On songs like "Break the Glass," "Erasure," and the stand-out "Regan Youth," frontman Mac McCaughan vividly sketches a mental map of the anxieties of the Trump era, leaning on descriptive language and historical insights instead of straight-up sloganeering. The hooks enliven the commentary: Singing along helps you feel less hopeless.
12. Noname, Room 25
Release date: September 14 Record label: Self-released Why it's great: Chicago rapper Noname rarely raises her voice in her sneakily melodic, densely packed verses. That doesn't mean there's a lack of emotional intensity or passion in Room 25, her free-wheeling and free-associative follow-up to 2016's imaginative Telefone mixtape. The power of a track like "Prayer Song" lies in her ability to toggle between modes of thinking, feeling, and speaking, even playing a corrupt cop turned on by violence in the second verse. She inhabits the minds of different characters like a gifted novelist, teasing out psychological details through carefully chosen words. (Her style bears similarities to her occasional collaborator Chance the Rapper, who also performed in the city's spoken-word scene.) Her introspective lyrics will be the main attraction for many, but don't sleep on the instrumentation and production, which swirls with jazzy touches on tracks like the sexy "Montego Bae" and the melancholy confessional "Don't Forget About Me." There's not a wasted moment here.
11. Future, BEASTMODE 2
Release date: July 6 Record label:Freebandz/Epic Why it's great: The first BEASTMODE mixtape was released in January 2015 when Future was in the midst of a period of artistic growth and personal crisis following the release of his divisive sophomore record Honest and his split with singer Ciara. The sequel BEASTMODE 2, which, like the original, was entirely produced by beat-maker Zaytoven, arrives at a moment when the Atlanta rapper appears more secure and confident in the larger hip-hop landscape, but it's still marked by psychological turmoil, emotional insecurity, and chemical dependency. Lines like "I'm tryna get high as I can" on the bruising closer "Hate the Real Me" cut deep, and even the melodically playful standouts like "31 Days" and "Doh Doh" have a touch of regret to them. It's the rare sequel that doesn't simply attempt to reengineer past glories. Instead, Future remains committed to plumbing new creative depths.
10. Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth
Release date: June 22 Record label: Young Turks Why it's great: It's challenging to talk about the work of Kamasi Washington without talking about scale. His debut record from 2015 was a gargantuan, totemic triple-album called The Epic that almost required three hours if you wanted to experience it in one sitting, and his full length follow-up, Heaven and Earth, is a double-record that stops just shy of 150 minutes. (He's also released an additional companion EP called The Choice this year, which adds another 38 minutes of music.) You could spend the rest of your year living in the dense, blustery jazz compositions of the 37-year-old saxophonist. Whole afternoons disappear under the celestial sway of his playing, which grows even more enchanting on the "Heaven" half of this record. While it's tough to zero in on specific, galvanizing moments on such a massive work, the simple joy of a track like "Journey" or "Show Us the Way" should provide an entryway to new converts. Like Noah himself, Washington is building a musical arc here -- all you need to do is climb inside.
9. Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer
Release date: April 27 Record label: Wondaland/Atlantic Why it's great: The words "dirty" and "computer" might make you think of a busted-up MacBook that needs an update or a decrepit PC with a hard drive corrupted by years of questionably obtained pornography. Thankfully, Janelle Monáe's Dirty Computer, the follow-up to 2013's The Electric Lady, is more pleasing, less virus-prone, and more thought-provoking than a device that demands a trip to the Genius Bar. Her sci-fi utopian vision, which permanently alters the code of her former android persona, is equal parts about lying "naked in a limousine" and "living life on a TV screen," toggling between moments of physical intimacy and digital enmity. Memories get erased and software gets rebooted as she recruits figures like Brian Wilson, Zoë Kravitz, Grimes, Pharrell Williams, and, most essentially on "Make Me Feel," the late Prince for mini-tuneup sessions. It's a listening experience that doesn't require an upgrade.
8. Eric Church, Desperate Man
Release date: October 5 Record label:EMI Nashville Why it's great: Eric Church's whole persona is wrapped up in the tricky idea of relatability. Where a mainstream country star like Garth Brooks is larger than life and a figure like Sturgill Simpson is content with stirring the pot, Church offers up regular guy charisma with a dollop of mystery. On 2014's The Outsiders he channelled that energy into a collection of arena-rock-ready barnburners; the next year he followed it up with Mister Misunderstood, a morose and less raucous work of self-reflection. With its finely observed story songs ("Hippie Radio") and artfully rendered parables ("The Snake"), Desperate Man is a brilliant synthesis of his previous two records, combining the craftsmanship of The Outsiders with the sensitivity of Mister Misunderstood. Through it all, Church remains a figure you root for in the face of hardships and monsters. Desperation looks good on him.
7. Burna Boy, Outside
Release date: January 26 Record label:Atlantic Why it's great: On Drake's globetrotting "playlist" More Life, Nigerian reggae-dancehall innovator Burna Boy didn't exactly get a moment in the spotlight after collaborating with the Toronto rapper. Instead of having his own "Buried Alive Interlude" showcase, the 26-year-old singer ended up flying under the radar on a project piled with high-profile guests, co-writers, and collaborators. (He later called the controversy about his lack of a credit on the record "not that deep.") Burna Boy sounds invigorated on Outside, his latest collection of daring and graceful Afropop. It's easy to see what drove artists like Drake and Fall Out Boy to collaborate with him: He traffics in both big-screen pop pleasures and granular rhythmic detours that reward close-listening. A song like "Streets of Africa," with its boast of "I'm Fela Kuti with the hoes" and its chorus of "How can I not be happy all day?" is as infectious as music gets.
6. Mitski, Be the Cowboy
Release date: August 17 Record label: Dead Oceans Why it's great: "Toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart," sings Mitski on "Washing Machine Heart" off her latest album Be The Cowboy. "Baby, bang it up inside." That's just what she did: Since its release over the summer, this bruising collection of songs, the follow-up to her breakthrough, Puberty 2, has not stopped its vicious spin cycle in my brain. Specific lines, melodies, and even images from music videos take on lives of their own, growing in resonance over time and taking on new meanings. The characters here, mostly metaphoric gunslingers and practical romantics dueling with their own worst instincts, are familiar yet distinct. In an era of technology-aided alienation and headline-driven hysteria, Mitski's exploration of desire and longing cuts through the clutter. Like those dirty shoes in her washing machine heart, the record just keeps banging away.
5. The Internet, Hive Mind
Release date: July 20 Record label:Columbia Why it's great: The flexible electro-funk of The Internet works best as a soundtrack to a life lived in jittery, constant motion. That can sound like a backhanded compliment, like the group isn't making music that deserves close reading, but there's a profound satisfaction in an album like Hive Mind that you can play in almost any scenario: running errands in the middle of the day, cooking dinner after work, or having a meandering conversation late at night. That sense of practicality is reflected in the recording, which emphasizes the visceral thumps of the drums and the pleasurable vibrations of the bass.The tight-knit, collaborative crew wants to put you in the room with them. At the same time, lead singer Syd, fresh off her beguiling solo record from last year, isn't afraid to dig deep in her lyrics and her vocals, allowing this collection to feel more personal than a friendly jam session.
4. U.S. Girls, In a Poem Unlimited
Release date: February 16 Record label:4AD Why it's great: Half Free, the last album from songwriter Meghan Remy's Toronto-based U.S. Girls, featured a song called "New Age Thriller" that turned a shuffling beat and spooky guitar riff into a black-and-white noir film. It was barren, chilly, and terrifying. The second song off Reamy's new album, In a Poem Unlimited, is a cover of Canadian singer Simone Schmidt "Rage of Plastics," and it's a similar act of cinematic alchemy, but it seeks to put you in a sunnier location: The loutish saxophone, the slinky guitar, and the playful keyboards are straight out of a sweltering Miami mystery. "It was the rage of plastics," sings Remy. "I was 24/I was doing my time on the dance floor." Sweat drips throughout. The tales of desperation and revenge on this record call to mind modern crime writers like Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, or Gillian Flynn, but the music is artful, Bowie-tinged disco. It's the perfect zone for an artist as curious and cutting as Remy to experiment in. When the reels change, it's impossible to know what's coming next.
3. Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy
Release date: April 5 Record label:Atlantic Why it's great: The eagerly awaited full-length debut from Cardi B, the "Bodak Yellow" rapper and former reality TV star, could have been completely underwhelming. It's challenging to navigate the perilous space between being a rookie with a hot song and being a multifaceted artist capable of carrying a whole record of 13 tracks. You're playing a game of chicken with audience expectations and industry demands, asking both to imagine you in different songwriting modes and emotional tones. And yet: Little of that fussed-over, A&R-ed-to-death anxiety hangs over Invasion of Privacy, a work of startling depth, winking humor, and unceasing bravado. A song like "I Like It," which turns a sample of Pete Rodriguez's "I Like It Like That" into a raucous party, segues right into Kehlani-assisted relationship confessions of "Ring," a companion piece to the record's melancholy high point, "Thru Your Phone." Cardi B emerges as as the victor through it all, asserting her dominance through each carefully worded punchline and tactful disclosure.
2. Parquet Courts, Wide Awake!
Release date: May 18 Record label:Rough Trade Why it's great: As rock music becomes a less dominant force in pop culture, it's rare for bands to attain the financial and creative freedom that encourages reinvention. The wild stylistic shifts made by the art-rock groups of the '70s, '80s, and '90s were perhaps the product of an era that's long gone, but somehow Parquet Courts, the droll New York indie rock foursome, have made a risk-taking record that stays true to their values and their worldview. The band teamed up with a high profile producer -- in this case, frequent Black Keys collaborator Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse -- and recorded an eclectic, nervy collection of songs that open up the possibility of what the group can be. Tracks like "Before the Water Gets Too High" and "Extinction" bristle with danceable post-punk energy, but it's the hilariously named "Freebird II," with its final sing-along rallying cry of "I feel free like you promised I’d be," that most eloquently speaks to anxieties of the moment. Rattled by history and consumed with trepidation, hyper-verbal frontman Andrew Savage gestures toward a path forward out of the unease of the present.
1. Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
Release date: March 30 Record label: Mercury Records Why it's great: Earlier this year, Kacey Musgraves tweeted back at a fan who told her, "I’m sorry for saying your music sounds like something Woody from Toy Story would have on his sex playlist." Instead of feigning shock or instigating a flame war, the Very Online country star responded with "It’s fine hun that’s a compliment." Besides being very funny, the exchange gets at part of what makes Musgraves such an appealing artist and what makes her latest -- and Grammy-winning -- album, Golden Hour, so essential: Her command of form and gift for wordplay are always working in tandem. The follow-up to 2015's stellar Pageant Material and 2016's delightful A Very Kacey Christmas is packed with more perfectly-deployed lyrical zingers than a Netflix stand-up special, but the cleverness never overwhelms the songwriting. Tracks like the LSD-inspired "Mother," the elegantly constructed "Space Cowboy," and the disco sheened "High Horse" bounce between styles, moods, and emotions. A showcase for her versatility, Golden Hour finds Musgraves doing down-home country kitsch and spaced-out Zen pop. There's a song for Woody and for Buzz. If that's not range, what is?
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