The 50 Best Albums Of 2018

The legends, for the most part, stayed quiet in 2018. Your Radioheads, your Beyoncés, and your Kendrick Lamars were not entirely silent; Thom Yorke, Johnny Greenwood, and Kendrick Lamar all had movie-music things going, while Beyoncé and JAY-Z wrapped up their internal-affairs trilogy with a shrug of an LP that felt more like an excuse for a tour than anything. Kanye West released an album and a half, but who in the hell even knows what was happening there. None of them were trying to make the best albums of 2018. (Except Kanye? Maybe?) And this opened up a lot of intriguing room.

Most of our favorite music this year came from longtime underdogs, or from artists whose names weren’t even on our collective radar a couple of years ago. Teenagers made great albums in 2018. So did long-tenured veterans who found new ways to say what they wanted to say. Globally dominant pop stars made great records, and so did bands who would be lucky to play third on a five-band bill at your local warehouse art-space. Some of the year’s best music snuck up on us so gradually that we didn’t even realize for a while how much we’d come to love these records. Some of it walloped our souls the first time we heard the opening seconds. Last December, we never could’ve predicted a year-end list that would’ve looked anything like this one. And we have no idea how next year’s might look right now, either.

This is what we can tell you for sure: We, your Stereogum staff, have all gotten together to vote and argue and pontificate over our favorite full-length albums from the past 11+ months. (As always, we’ll have a separate EPs list later this week, though it was harder than usual to determine the difference between an album and an EP this year.) The result of all that debate is the list you see below. —Tom Breihan

50 Rico Nasty – Nasty (Atlantic)

Rico Nasty’s sixth mixtape and major label debut, Nasty, is the logical endpoint to a self-mythologizing that started four years ago, when the Maryland artist born Maria-Cecilia Simone Kelly decided to start rapping in high school. Nasty cuts to the point with a sharp knife — it’s cocky and aggressive and, spitting in the face of a lot of modern bloated rap albums, blissfully brief. The incisiveness that Rico Nasty yields on Nasty manifests itself in many forms, but the most fun is when she’s flexing and in-the-red, like on “Rage” or “Bitch I’m Nasty,” which sound pretty much exactly like their evocative titles would suggest. —James Rettig

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49 SOPHIE – OIL OF EVERY PEARL’s UN-INSIDES (Transgressive/Future Classic)

SOPHIE made her name releasing squelching, titanic club songs that were both experimental and almost cartoonishly digestible, overloaded with sticky catchphrases. OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES has those moments — there’s the certified banger “Immaterial,” the thunderous “Whole New World,” the cheeky “Ponyboy” — but the album also finds SOPHIE trying on new sounds. The spectral “Is It Cold In The Water?” and the cavernous “Pretending” slow down the album’s frenzy, and the fantastic opener “It’s Okay To Cry” stands apart from the same old aesthetics we’ve grown familiar with, proving that SOPHIE contains multitudes. —Gabriela Tully Claymore

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48 Drug Church – Cheer (Pure Noise)

“Something often lost: Life is process, not product,” sings Patrick Kindlon on “Unlicensed Guidance Counselor,” perhaps the most poignant track on Cheer. Drug Church’s third album is a tribute to that “process.” Kindlon’s protagonists are studies in humanity, captured with a photographer’s eye, a poet’s ear, and a comic’s timing. The titular “Unlicensed” advisor offers “guidance” via hilarious/horrifying anecdotes as good as anything in Confederacy Of Dunces … mashed up with platitudes lifted from Dark Knight dialogue. It’s perfection: Kindlon is on some zen-master shit and his lessons are delivered over bangers indebted to Pixies, Fugazi, and countless other erstwhile bash-and-poppers largely lost to time. Such is life. Cherish the moments. Trust the process. Buy this product. —Michael Nelson

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47 Lil Baby & Gunna – Drip Harder (Quality Control)

Lil Baby and Gunna are two young supernovas within the Atlanta-trap universe, and they’re stronger together than they are apart. On this, their first full-length collaboration, they spin a web of flickering melodies and high-grade money-talk over moody, meditative beats. Of the two, Gunna is the technical craftsman, unfurling breathless tongue-twist verses, but he’s also the flashier boaster. Lil Baby, meanwhile, emanates hooks, but he does it with a real-talk soulfulness that adds depth to everything. And superstar guests like Drake and Young Thug sound like they were happy to be invited. —Tom

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46 Jon Hopkins – Singularity (Domino)

Inspired by meditation and trance states, Jon Hopkins described Singularity as taking place between dystopian cityscapes and nature. It’s a fitting polarity for an album that uses the inherent futurism of electronic music to depict otherworldly, mystic visions. The long five-year wait since Immunity turned out to be worth it. The world-opening title track, the way “Emerald Rush” shimmers and ignites, the celestial textures of “C O S M” — these are instant reminders of Hopkins’ unique talent. On Singularity, he offers music that feels deeply emotive and personal at the same time as it plays like premonitions from a faraway place. —Ryan Leas

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45 The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships (Polydor)

These fucking guys. Just when you thought they couldn’t get any more ambitious, audacious, pretentious, or ridiculous, they deliver 15 scattershot meditations on modern life’s trifles filtered through that unique Matty Healy disposition wherein even he can’t tell if the provocation is intentional. Yes, this is their Big Statement Album, and the statement is “You will definitely lose your staring contest with the 1975.” Beyond “Love It If We Made It,” the rare attempt at a moment-defining anthem that successfully tingles the spine, much of A Brief Inquiry feels chintzy at first. But this disparate mess is magnetic. Sooner or later, it coheres into another stunning portrait of a band that dares to be hated. —Chris DeVille

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44 Denzel Curry – TA1300 (Loma Vista)

In which one of the godfathers of SoundCloud rap returns to show these tattoo-faced kids how it’s done. Although he’s only 23, Denzel Curry has already influenced an entire generation of young rappers as part of SpaceGhostPurrp’s murky South Florida Raider Klan collective. But he’s always had more on his mind than your average SoundCloud rapper, and on TA13OO, he shows the full breadth of his considerable talent and ambition. Separated into three acts — light, gray, and dark — the album moves from OutKast-inspired squelch-funk to trap bangers as Curry descends into the void, his versatile voice equally at home singing soulful hooks and growling frenzied bars. —Peter Helman

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43 Oneohtrix Point Never – Age Of (Warp)

The music Daniel Lopatin makes as Oneohtrix Point Never feels limitless. It’s refreshing to listen to each new album and feel like Lopatin is making a clear departure from the last, that he’s working with new themes this time around. Lopatin is philosophic without being pedantic, and Age Of is the kind of future-thinking music that relies heavily on genres of the past. Some of the album is proggy, some of it is balladic and new age-y, and on a couple of songs Lopatin sings in a queasy Auto-Tune that sounds like a much scarier Bon Iver. As a complete work, Age Of is intricate and thematically complex, but it is also one of 0PN’s most accessible collections to date. —Gabriela

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42 Holy Fawn – Death Spells (Whelmed)

If Denmark’s Møl are The State Of Blackgaze Today, then Arizona’s Holy Fawn are The Ghost Of Blackgaze Future. And yes, that should sound scary, because holy fuck, Holy Fawn do too. Listening to Death Spells is like wading into a secluded lake, midnight, mid-winter. The body is overcome by an indescribable chill. Neither pain nor numbness but pure sensation. The mind spins, separates, sees from impossible vantages. It witnesses water, air, breath … even darkness itself. It is all so beautiful. And these sounds? As familiar as the letters in one’s own name, but nobody ever arranged them this way. Is this how ghosts hear music? If so: Why are you hearing it this way, too? —Michael

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41 Camp Cope – How To Socialise & Make Friends (Run For Cover)

You can hear it in Georgia Maq’s voice. And when I say it, I mean every single emotion that any human has ever experienced since the beginning of time immemorial. Maq just has one of those voices, and on Camp Cope’s sophomore album, the Australian trio utilizes it to take on everything from institutionalized music industry sexism to the inevitability of death. The band’s shaggy rock songs click into place behind Maq’s magnetic center, and How To Socialise & Make Friends confronts life with an animalistic urgency that refuses to back down. —James

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40 Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar (Ninja Tune)

On their third studio album, Young Fathers craft the feverish art-rap gospel for 2018. Ego is crucial to the church of Cocoa Sugar. They deconstruct and revel in it. The word is shouted over and over during the seventh track, “Wow”: “Ego / Giving me what I need.” Bass and organ buzz rumble like sentient spirits, animating meditations on death, god, and the primal politics of being. The Scottish trio has been building and polishing its rallying cry since a Mercury-prize winning debut in 2014, before Trump compelled every artist to take a public stance or make some misguided statement. Cocoa Sugar comes at exactly the right time. Every song rings like a revelation. —Julia Gray

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39 MGMT – Little Dark Age (Columbia)

MGMT can write hooks. We’ve always known this. But ever since they first blew up thanks to big, bright, immediate singles like “Kids” and “Time To Pretend,” Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser have been trying their damndest to hide those hooks, burying them under shaggy psychedelic noodling and freewheeling space-rock experiments. On Little Dark Age, though, the hooks are back, baby, and they’re in service of some excellently ’80s synthpop songs with just enough weirdness. It’s not so much a return to their roots as another left turn from a band who never cared about anyone else’s expectations. Turns out MGMT can do a lot of things. —Peter

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38 Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer (Wondaland/Bad Boy/Atlantic)

Around the same time she released Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe claimed that Prince, before he died, had helped her “come up with some sounds.” Think about Prince in an elder-statesman advisor role. Did Prince tell Monáe to put guest appearances from Brian Wilson and Pharrell and Grimes on the same album? Did he advise her to rhyme “Pussy Riot” with “put ’em on a pussy diet?” Or did he just help create an environment where a fearlessly, explosively creative artist like Monáe could do all those things? Maybe Prince was just lucky to hang out with Monáe. She did all those things, and Dirty Computer is the utopian sex-pop explosion that we need, if not the one we deserve. —Tom

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37 Birds In Row – We Already Lost The World (Deathwish, Inc.)

On We Already Lost The World, the anthems sound like tantrums. Birds In Row, the shadowy French post-hardcore trio, are feeling as distraught about the state of our species as anyone. We all have our ways of dealing with the anger, stress, and frustrating sense of powerlessness that comes with being an informed global citizen in 2018; this band translates those sentiments into jagged bursts of noise and batters the eardrums of anyone within earshot. Occasionally, all that frantic ugliness gives way to something like conventional rock music. Birds In Row are great at that too. When they work themselves into a frenzy, though, it’s exhilarating. —Chris

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36 Ryley Walker – Deafman Glance (Dead Oceans)

Ryley Walker says Deafman Glance sounds like Chicago, by which he means he traded pastoral psychedelic folk jams for jazzy post-rock at many speeds. Sometimes, as on “In Castle Dome,” his weathered baritone eases over organic beauty like gentle wind over Lake Michigan. Other times, as on “Opposite Middle,” his electric guitar races alongside brisk drumming and playful brass like CTA trains clattering above the cityscape. Walker has practically breathed creativity this year, from a surprisingly great Dave Matthews covers album to the genius quips that comprise his Twitter feed, but you can tell he really labored over this album. It paid off. —Chris

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35 Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs (Tan Cressida/Columbia)

“I think I spent most of my life depressed/ Only thing on my mind was death/ Didn’t know if my time was next,” Earl Sweatshirt raps on Some Rap Songs, which he unceremoniously released after a three year wait. During that time, the music industry has reckoned with a lot of young death. We have lost so many crazy talented people to overdose and suicide that it seems only natural that songs discussing mental health in an honest, bracing way have penetrated the Top 40. But Earl has been writing eviscerating, stream-of-consciousness lyrics about alienating depression since his come-up, and Some Rap Songs deals in familiar themes (family, identity, friendship, fame) while the abstract, cut-and-paste production shifts the balance, careening in and out of control like a mood swing. It has the effect of fully immersing yourself in another person’s thoughts, and Earl’s unyielding introspection evokes empathy and self-reflection. —Gabriela

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34 Kamasi Washington – Heaven And Earth (Young Turks)

Clocking in at two hours and 24 minutes, Kamasi Washington’s Heaven And Earth is an ambitious book to open. It isn’t meant to be read in one sitting. Washington’s second full-length album is broken into two halves: Heaven and Earth. Earth lies within the first eight tracks, painting the world as Washington sees it: often chaotic, but always adhering to an underlying rhythm. Earth is bookended by the skyward song of an ethereal chorus. The album then makes a triumphant ascent to Heaven, which Washington has described as the world that lives inside of him. An approachable work, Heaven And Earth is complex without being too challenging. It’s jazz in layman’s terms, embracing the genre’s history and its revival. The saxophonist and composer allows us to drift in and out of his internal and external psyches. But if you do decide to ingest it all at once, expect to be rewarded and a little disoriented. —Julia

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33 Dear Nora – Skulls Example (Orindal)

In the twelve years that Dear Nora’s been away, Katy Davidson spent a lot of time observing. Skulls Example reflects the ways in which our world has devolved into zaniness over the last decade but also retained its aching humanity and wonder. The album is built around striking vignettes that place the modern before the primordial, from taking photos of art in a museum to trying to chat up the staff at a strip-mall Starbucks to watching a thunderstorm roll across an ancient plain. Davidson does this through dusty and weary folk songs that pinch and pop and crunch, all with the assured hand of someone that’s been biding their time for the right moment to re-emerge. —James

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32 Tirzah – Devotion (Domino)

Tirzah might get sole billing for Devotion, but really it’s a collaboration with composer and producer Mica Levi. Tirzah and Levi are childhood friends who have a naturalistic workflow that gives these songs an effortless ease. Devotion is richly textured with stuttering rhythms and watery beats and doubled-back vocals. Tirzah’s singing about love with a certain defensiveness that belies its underlying vulnerability. In much the same fashion, Devotion feels like a diamond in the rough, a minimalist exterior giving way to hidden depths. —James

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31 The Armed – Only Love (No Rest Until Ruin/Throatruiner)

As soon as you press play on Only Love, the Armed drop you straight into hell. “Witness” is mercilessly intense, and the chaos only lets up occasionally from there, usually because the Detroit hardcore experimentalists are positioning themselves at new angles from which to bombard you. The psychedelic noodling at the center of “Nowhere To Be Found” quickly collapses into more sonic violence. “Fortune’s Daughter” finds its way to melody in the verse before breaking back into screaming, discordant electro-punk. On this album, as in life, the respite is always temporary. Here, though, the blitzkrieg — not the peace — is what brings sweet release. —Chris

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30 Iceage – Beyondless (Matador)

Iceage have been a beloved and hyped-up act since they first arrived, but Beyondless marks a new chapter. Here, the band achieves a strung-out charisma and arid grandeur, crafting an intense and blackened rock album that sounds perfect for our times while existing on a completely different wavelength than their peers. Much of that is due to the impeccable quality of its songs, toeing the line between sneering infectiousness (“Hurrah,” “Pain Killer”) and haunting enigmas (“Take It All,” “Beyondless”). Beyondless is a cipher of a name, suggesting that whatever lies over the horizon remains shrouded in mystery. But one thing is certain: With this album, Iceage have solidified their standing as one of the great young rock bands today. —Ryan

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29 Teyana Taylor – K.T.S.E. (G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam)

The five Wyoming albums unleashed this summer were uneven and marred by the baffling antics of their leader, Kanye West. It was tempting to imagine an alternate history in which the peaks were compiled as Cruel Summer 2, but that would’ve robbed us of Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E.. A warm and lived-in album, it played like a salve after the tumultuous Wyoming rollout. But it doesn’t deserve to simply be consigned to that era — long after the dust settles on Kanye’s bizarre 2018, the vibrant K.T.S.E. will remain. Whether singing smokily alongside vintage samples on “Rose In Harlem” or writhing above “WTP,” Taylor’s own star power always cuts through her surroundings. —Ryan

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28 Kali Uchis – Isolation (Virgin EMI)

Despite the title of her debut album, Kali Uchis is hardly alone. Isolation features the talents of a whole crew of musicians including Thundercat, Damon Albarn, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, the Internet’s Steve Lacy, Tyler, The Creator, Bootsy Collins, Jorja Smith, BADBADNOTGOOD, TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek, Brockhampton’s Romil Hemnani, Sounwave, and DJ Dahi. Somehow, it never sounds like anyone but Kali Uchis. She blends R&B, neo-soul, pop, funk, bossa nova, and reggaeton into an intoxicating cocktail all her own, inviting you into a woozily psychedelic world of seductive escapism where the breeze is warm and humid and the drinks are always cold. —Peter

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27 Adrianne Lenker – abysskiss (Saddle Creek)

Over the past couple of years, Adrianne Lenker’s reputation has ballooned into the stuff of legend. With her band Big Thief, Lenker crafts big songs that tell small stories; the stories on Lenker’s new solo album, abysskiss, are smaller still. These songs are spindly and insular, chronicling thought patterns that spiral out but never result in total crisis. Composed entirely on guitar, Lenker sings about love, loss, fear, birth, death and everything in between. No subject is off-limits, and the resulting collection of songs serves as a balm, an antidote to the worst day ever. —Gabriela

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26 U.S. Girls – In A Poem Unlimited (4AD)

In the decade she’s been making music as U.S. Girls, Meg Remy became an underground iconoclast, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that all of that promise was fully realized. The Canadian musician’s sixth album, In A Poem Unlimited, is ambitious and confident in a way that only an artist who’s been gestating for a long time can pull off. Remy recruited a group of collaborators who finally made her fractured pop songs take off, and here she takes inspiration from disco and jazz and slinking lounge music to craft an album that sounds like an inviting post-apocalyptic party. —James

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25 Fucked Up – Dose Your Dreams (Merge)

After so many more malignant threats, the moment 2018 finally broke my brain was a positive one, three minutes into the title track of Fucked Up’s Dose Your Dreams. That’s when I heard Damian Abraham’s guttural howl over an acid-trip disco beat. On paper, so much of what Fucked Up has done shouldn’t work, and this is doubly true for Dose Your Dreams. A (nominally) hardcore band offering a titanic 18-track psychedelic rock opera flinging itself between roared exorcisms and Beach Boys interludes and funky-rather-than-aggressive breakdowns — even given their past, this is implausible and ambitious. But emerging from the often-codified realms of hardcore, Fucked Up have proven themselves to be one of the most malleable and unusual bands working today. Dose Your Dreams is just the latest transcendent example of their strange genius. —Ryan

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24 Wild Pink – Yolk In The Fur (Tiny Engines)

Yolk In The Fur rides on a mood that is largely absent from the contemporary discourse: optimism. Wild Pink cite Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty as influences when they talk about this album, two artists who deal in hardship and the dreamworld and the fine line that separates the two. Yolk In The Fur treads familiar ground. John Ross sings of escaping circumstance and chasing down an idealized version of the future that isn’t at all guaranteed. There’s defiance in his disappointment, though, and the lush, practically baroque instrumentation on this album is so earnest and straight-up pretty that it could melt the strongest armor. —Gabriela

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23 Noname – Room 25 (Self-released)

“Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?” Noname asks on the opening track of Room 25. Let her disabuse you of that notion. Noname came up in the Chicago slam poetry scene, and she raps likes it, weaving a dense web of free associative wordplay with each carefully enunciated syllable that tumbles from her mouth. Together with her longtime collaborator Phoelix, she’s crafted a patient, honest, and intimate record, rapping frankly about race and sex over warm, organic jazz and neo-soul that glows with the radiant light of a distant star. And y’all still thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh? —Peter

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22 Rolo Tomassi – Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It (Holy Roar)

Rolo Tomassi’s core members were making music together for almost 13 years before they made Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It. A similar span: Kevin Shields and Colm Ó Cíosóig formed their first band in 1978 … and in 1991, My Bloody Valentine released Loveless. Those long years are the fires in which great artists are forged. And then — and only then — from the crystal-blue halos of the white-hottest flames emerges great art. And even then: It is so rare. It requires time. Give it time. Time will die. Monuments survive. Timeless. Ageless. Again, like Loveless, Love Will Bury It is bone-crushingly heavy, heart-achingly beautiful, mind-fuckingly vast, and life-affirmingly full. It sounds like … nothing? Not yet, anyway. Not really. Rolo Tomassi reflect micro angles of myriad influences, but nothing else in the universe sounds even a little bit like this big bang. Like Loveless, Love Will Bury It is a prime mover, a true new thing. It will need a generation to catch on, if not catch up. It deserves a generation. It’s so great. It’s so worth it, but it takes some time even to get it. Give it time. Time will die. Love Will Bury It will grow. It will live. It will last. —Michael

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21 Rosalía – El Mal Querer (Sony)

Rosalía Vila Tobella is a lifelong student of flamenco, but she’s no traditionalist. On El Mal Querer — which translates to The Bad Desire — she and co-producer El Guincho invert Spanish history until it sounds like the future. Founded in the country’s folk music traditions and based on a 13th century ironic romance about a woman locked in a tower, the album’s 11 chapters unfold as some of the most exciting R&B and electronic pop in recent memory. Every weapon is deployed masterfully, from Rosalía’s fluid powerhouse soprano to clever interpolations of Arthur Russell and Justin Timberlake. From start to finish, it’s awe-inspiring. —Chris

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20 Tomberlin – At Weddings (Saddle Creek)

Sarah Beth Tomberlin was raised in a devoutly religious household, the type in which you aren’t allowed to listen to secular music. Many of the songs on her stunning debut At Weddings date back to her late teens, when she started to pull away from her upbringing, and as a result they sound equally like an awakening and a funeral. Much of the album plays like broken-down hymns, with highlights like “Self-Help” and “Any Other Way” the sort of hazy flickers that simultaneously parse the past and locate resolve, that depict a new version of a person coming into being. Strikingly beautiful throughout, At Weddings is the kind of debut that immediately announces an evocative new voice, fully-realized yet still transforming before us. —Ryan

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19 Illuminati Hotties – Kiss Yr Frenemies (Tiny Engines)

As its title suggests, Kiss Yr Frenemies is an album about forgiveness. Sarah Tudzin’s debut full-length as Illuminati Hotties sees each stage of the grieving and coping that leads to radical acceptance — digging into the grey areas of flings and relationships, growing up and feeling the same. Her disposition shifts from lighthearted smirking to choking on her words. Mood swings are well-met with Tudzin’s diverse palette of influences and genres. She grits her teeth to synth and static booms, bobs her head to jangly guitars, whispers to echoey acoustics, and makes fart noises to a relentless riff. Moving forward is rarely a straight shot. It’s messy. There are distractions, setbacks, and diversions. Tudzin takes the winding road and brings us along for the ride. —Julia

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18 Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog (Saddle Creek)

Bark Your Head Off, Dog comes alive like a pop-up storybook, one not intended for children, rich with vivid sunsets and references to Jane Austen and Karl Ove Knausgaard. It’s an abstract collection of vignettes without a linear narrative — just Frances Quinlan’s memories, tinted by the wisdom and intensity of hindsight, and the death of a dog. Observations take on an analytical sense of wonder, the “strange men” and “a death so small and sentimental” that led to this moment. Her heart is laid bare and aging in her childhood bed. Harps, guitars, violins, and Quinlan’s grainy croon transform domestic spaces into cinematic scenes. “Bark your head off, dog,” she challenges her neighbor’s noisy Labrador on the penultimate track. When the dog dies, she’s overcome with the relief and guilt she carries around today, an eternal attachment to the past: “The present, I have no place in it.” —Julia

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17 Half Waif – Lavender (Cascine)

Absence sounds like cacophony on Lavender. Nandi Rose Plunkett wrote her third album in the wake of her grandmother’s death. That loss, compacted with a rigorous touring schedule which made it feel like there was no real place she could call home, influences the wandering and foreboding atmosphere that inhabits Lavender. Plunkett utilizes snapping beats and dramatic piano flourishes to ground her celestial pop songs. All of the anger and frustration that simmers beneath the surface makes these songs sound claustrophobic, but also endlessly beautiful and cathartic. —James

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16 Brockhampton – Iridescence (RCA)

Spice Girls, *NSYNC, A$AP Mob, Brockhampton: all bands whose wholes equate to the sum of their parts, each member possessing a unique force, together forming a platter of personas. Brockhampton ringleader Kevin Abstract is the visionary. Matt Champion is the fast-talking pretty boy. Joba is the strung-out one with an Eminem-esque flow. Their self-proclaimed “boy band” status evokes Odd Future meets Backstreet Boys. Brockhampton’s star-making Saturation trilogy sampled these influences — a collage of Auto-Tuned pop songs, hard rap, and groovy ensemble hip-hop. Iridescence streamlines their inspiration and creates something new. It’s an album that feels entirely fit for 2018: vulnerable but tough, nostalgic but forward-thinking. —Julia

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15 Spiritualized – And Nothing Hurt (Fat Possum/Bella Union)

Once upon a time, Spiritualized mastermind Jason Pierce could command the budget to throw orchestras and choirs and bigtime session musicians all over his records. Those days are over. Records just aren’t selling like that anymore, and cultish British space-rock gospel-blues records especially aren’t. So instead, Pierce spent years teaching himself ProTools. Mostly working from home, he made an album of towering and majestic hangover hymns that simply sound like he recorded them with choirs and orchestras and bigtime session musicians. That kind of grandeur, it turns out, is still possible; you just have to put in the work. —Tom

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14 Vince Staples – FM (Def Jam)

“Summertime in the LB wild/ We gon’ party ’til the sun or the guns come out.” That’s how Vince Staples welcomes you into his world on FM, and that duality — partying and violence — neatly encapsulates the project as a whole. Staples Trojan-horses a cold, unflinching depiction of life in North Long Beach gang country, where just wearing the wrong colors can get you shot, into 23 minutes of catchy party-rap bangers. It works as party music, like the sunny LA rap radio show it pretends to be. But if you’re really listening, it never lets you forget the darkness underneath. —Peter

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13 Lucy Dacus – Historian (Matador)

There’s a moment on “Pillar Of Truth,” the seven-minute centerpiece from Lucy Dacus’ triumphant sophomore album, when Dacus’ warm and empathetic voice wells up into something majestic, and the music swells along with her: “I am weak, looking at you/ A pillar of truth/ Turned into dust.” It’s one of those moments when you can get goosebumps just thinking about it. That’s how Dacus works. On “Pillar Of Truth,” she’s singing about watching her grandmother die and thinking about the vast expanses of a life fully lived. She puts her everything into singing about someone else. Dacus calls herself a historian — someone who chronicles the small truths of other people’s lives. And yet she puts such force and eloquence into these songs that she might as well be singing about herself. She might as well be singing about all of us. —Tom

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12 Robyn – Honey (Konichiwa/Interscope)

For the extent of her very long career, Robyn has been a survivor. Her most famous singles are all about finding solace in the self and losing yourself to sensation on the dancefloor. But Honey finds Robyn stepping out of her plasticky fembot casing. On this album, she is a “Human Being” just like the rest of us, susceptible to heartbreak and the pain that comes with losing a loved one to the unknown way too soon. Instead of a collection of go-to karaoke jams, the bulk of Honey is warm and moody, drawing inspiration from ’90s house music. The songs on this album glow, leaving light to bask in long after the first listen. —Gabriela

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11 Pusha T – Daytona (G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam)

Kanye West may have gone off the deep end, but if you want proof that the man is still capable of creating transcendent art, look no further than Daytona. The album belongs to his longtime friend and collaborator Pusha-T, of course, but the old Kanye’s chop-up-the-soul beats give Pusha an ample playground to dance around in, spitting twisty rhymes about his usual pet subjects, dealing drugs and making money dealing drugs. And in a world of messily sprawling double albums and streaming bloat, seven tracks and 21 minutes of lean, mean, take-no-prisoners lifestyle rap with an old head’s specificity and attention to detail is more than enough. Long live King Push. —Peter

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10 Mitski – Be The Cowboy (Dead Oceans)

She didn’t have to go this hard. Really, Mitski Miyawaki could’ve followed up Puberty 2 and Bury Me At Makeout Creek with pretty much anything and would have guaranteed herself a certain level of cultural omnipotence. But Be The Cowboy is an astounding gift that keeps on giving. What seems to be the album’s initial weakness, that all the songs are on the shorter side, eventually morphs into its greatest strength: The more one listens, the more impressive the ambition and the precision of it all becomes. Be The Cowboy plays like a jukebox rotation of heavy-hitters, from ’60s pop to theatrical pomp to emotionally gut-ripping resonance. It’s a calling card for Miyawaki that demonstrates she can indeed do pretty much anything and knock it right out of the park. —James

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9 Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer (Sub Pop/Bella Union)

We’ve seen Josh Tillman take many forms. There was the hedonistic psychedelic madman on Fear Fun, the performative cynic grappling with real romance on I Love You, Honeybear, the doomsday prophet cataloguing humanity’s cyclical sins on Pure Comedy. Throughout, people often struggled to locate the real Tillman within Father John Misty, to divine what his real opinions or emotions or experiences were amidst the sardonic asides and headline-baiting antics. The thing is, the real Josh Tillman was always present, but it wasn’t until God’s Favorite Customer that we heard him this clearly.

Inspired by a phase in which Tillman’s life temporarily imploded, God’s Favorite Customer is his most beleaguered and honest work yet. It’s also often his most moving. Since rechristening himself Father John Misty in 2012, Tillman has built up one of the decade’s more enviable bodies of work. And he’s still on a roll, with tracks like “Mr. Tillman” and “God’s Favorite Customer” and “Just Dumb Enough To Try” amongst his best. These songs depict spirals and wreckages, but you can’t argue that Tillman is reveling in the destruction anymore. Instead, God’s Favorite Customer acts as a conclusion to a four album arc, a reckoning seeking potential redemption, a turning point that might just open the door for yet another version of Josh Tillman. —Ryan

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8 Low – Double Negative (Sub Pop)

Double Negative isn’t a political album, exactly. Its politics are its aesthetics, a fractured, expressionist rendering of the psychic trauma of living in today’s world. The band collaborated extensively with Bon Iver producer B.J. Burton, who smears their patient slowcore melodies with warped electronic textures and harsh digital noise. But there’s light in there, too, whether it’s the thrumming ambient loveliness of “Fly,” the hymn-like “Always Up,” or even the unrecognizable distortion of “Tempest.” When Alan Sparhawk sings, “It’s not the end/ It’s just the end of hope,” he’s not telling the full story. Because along with the terror, Low find beauty in the apocalypse. —Peter

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7 Soccer Mommy – Clean (Fat Possum)

Sophie Allison’s writing is characterized by a lack of concrete answers, and her debut full-length as Soccer Mommy serves as a showcase for songs in search of definition. Clean explores what it means to be pure, whether through someone else’s eyes or your own, scoping out ways in which you can become more or less. Allison herself feels like she’s in a constant state of becoming, changing into someone more desirable or turning into something that, all of a sudden, is unsatisfactory to someone else. On “Your Dog,” she stamps her foot down against this act of being a prop for someone else to project their feelings onto, but elsewhere she’s less sure of her agency in love’s constant guessing game of whether you’re measuring up. —James

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6 Flasher – Constant Image (Domino)

Almost half of our Top 10 albums of 2018 are debuts. This year often felt particularly good for that, with space for young artists to arrive and stake their territory with introductory collections that often felt like instant classics. Flasher’s Constant Image was one of those albums. Constant Image burst forward like few of us could’ve expected: an album that might theoretically fall under “post-punk” but collides Britpop and ’90s indie and ’80s college rock into a mixture that, while recalling past aesthetics, sounds original. Armed with a kaleidoscopic array of dizzyingly catchy hooks, the entire thing is overflowing with color and energy.

Constant Image is so well-sculpted that you might mistake it for the kind of debut that had a long, several year stretch in which to incubate, one built from songs that got tested live over and over before a band secured a record deal. In reality, it was the opposite — the album came into existence rapidly. You can hear that in its electricity and efficiency, but the short gestation makes the songwriting here that much more impressive. Whether in “Material” or “Who’s Got Time?” or “Skim Milk,” the melodies are bulletproof and there are constant, gratifying surprises in texture and structure. In the end, this is the kind of debut you want: one that rushes out into the world, vivid and demanding to be heard. —Ryan

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5 Beach House – 7 (Sub Pop/Bella Union)

On 7, Beach House found themselves a new producer: Sonic Boom, formerly of fellow dream travelers Spacemen 3. And they also found new dimensions and directions for the music they’ve made. The dreampop of 7 is of a piece of the past 12 years of Beach House dreampop, but it’s also bigger and weirder and more versatile. They’ve found space to rock harder than ever, to groove on way-out electro textures, and to drift further into the ether than they’ve ever allowed themselves to do. And the result is so overwhelmingly gorgeous that it might give you a whole new appreciation for what Beach House have been doing this whole time. Just ask the Chainsmokers. —Tom

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4 Cardi B – Invasion Of Privacy (Atlantic)

In October, Cardi B elevated the practice of the rap-beef Instagram rant into high art. In a nine-minute broadside against shit-talking rival Nicki Minaj, Cardi unleashed an onslaught of pettiness. The climax came when Cardi mentioned “No Limit,” a mostly-negligible G-Eazy hit that she rapped on last year: “You barked at your management cuz they gave me the record, and that’s! Fucking! Faaaaaaaacts!” She stretches out that last word like she’s Hendrix playing with feedback. She turns it into a symphony.

Cardi has license to talk this level of shit. A few months earlier, she released the most fiery, driven, purposeful pop-rap debut album that anyone has heard in years. Invasion Of Privacy is a commercial enterprise, and it features Cardi attempting virtually every currently-viable rap substyle: Atlanta drug-rap, emotionally vulnerable relationship-heavy R&B, party-ready Latin trap, West Coast club-rap, timeless fuck-you-up New York headslap anthems. And she did all of this while radiating charisma and personality and boundless self-assurance. In one 48-minute volley, she seized superstardom and justified it. Her little 15 minutes lasting long as hell, hanh? —Tom

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3 Ariana Grande – Sweetener (Republic)

2018 was a big year for Ariana Grande, to put it lightly. She became the biggest pop star in the world — a household name, queen of headlines, respected artist, role model, subject of controversy, and victim of tragedy. This was a tumultuous year for America, too. (Again, putting it lightly.) We watched everything unfold in real time through tweets and CNN updates. In 2018, a catastrophic climate change report trended alongside news about Grande and Pete Davidson’s engagement. Grande gossip was a welcome distraction from our deteriorating social fabric, a means to live vicariously through someone rising above strife. She shared intimate snapshots of her life on social media throughout the year. Whatever the circumstance — a breakup, the death of an ex, the aftermath of a bombing — Grande processed and prospered before our eyes.

Sweetener is the product of her reckoning. The album boasts the topicality, immediacy, and open vulnerability of Grande’s Twitter feed. Song titles are written in all lowercase letters like spur-of-the-moment posts, but they read more like diary entries, dealing with the troubles and triumphs that 2018 had in store for the pop star. Grande marvels as sparks fly with a new love interest on the Pharrell-produced “Blazed,” a playful, almost Disney-like track. She doodles his name on the twinkly love song, “Pete Davidson.” She labors through post-Manchester panic attacks on “Breathin” and lives to tell the tale on “Get Well Soon.” These are raw reflections, unedited (albeit slickly produced) clips of her inner monologue. For every rough patch, there’s a pep talk. A sweetener, if you will.

Perhaps the sweetest moment strikes with the one-two punch of the deliriously cheery title track leading into the shameless flex “Successful.” Even when she’s stunting, Grande wants us to sing along: “I’m so successful/ And girl, you too, you are so young/ And beautiful and so successful.” The following song, “Everytime,” is the first sign of weakness. It’s about being addicted to a toxic boyfriend, but there’s no bitter aftertaste. Resolve comes a few songs later with “Better Off,” where she finds herself “better off without him.” On Sweetener, Grande pushes herself, emotionally and sonically. The album leans on trap influence and pop R&B instead of her usual grand balladry. She effortlessly conquers foreign ground, sing-rapping over video game blips on “The Light Is Coming” and embracing a cappella on “Raindrops.”

Sweetener feels like a career-defining moment, released when Grande was a magnet for controversy, when everyone was listening. Now that we’ve all had a taste, there’s no turning back. —Julia

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2 Snail Mail – Lush (Matador)

All it takes is one song. In the case of Snail Mail, that song was called “Thinning,” and it was released on the band’s debut EP Habit, which Lindsey Jordan wrote when she was still in high school. “Thinning” had a riff that sounded like it was underwater, and Jordan’s muscly rasp cut through the surface as she sang about isolation and loneliness in a way that felt distinctly teenaged and still somehow universal. The song gave you That Feeling, the kind that is hard to describe but you’ll know it when you hear it. Simple and anthemic, it’s the type of song that makes you think, “Man, I wish I wrote that.”

It must have been scary for Jordan to write the follow-up to Habit after a dizzying rise that landed her on Matador Records in her senior year. Replicating That Feeling is near-impossible, but Jordan is more than capable of doing it. Snail Mail’s debut full-length, Lush, has songs that are as massive and crowd-pleasing as “Thinning” (“Full Control,” “Pristine,” “Heat Wave”) but there are moments of repose on this album, too, that are just as lovely (“Let’s Find An Out,” “Deep Sea”). It would have been easy for Jordan to tunnel into self-doubt, to question every decision and churn out a work that felt muddled or rushed. Instead, she made a supremely confident, maddeningly catchy guitar rock album equipped to compete with the classics. —Gabriela

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1 Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour (MCA Nashville)

When Kacey Musgraves says “Love Is A Wild Thing,” she isn’t talking about the feral passion that animates so many rock songs. Animal lust on the order of the Troggs is left to the imagination on Golden Hour. Rather, Musgraves is comparing love to an unstoppable force of nature: a river dead-set on finding the ocean, a flower blooming through cracks in the concrete. It won’t be denied. “If you try to hide it, it’s gonna shine even more.”

She speaks from experience. Musgraves wrote and recorded Golden Hour while basking in the glow of her young marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly. Apparently, theirs is a casual but all-consuming affection, one that turns an evening at home into an easygoing swoon and makes a weekend apart feel like an endless toil. It’s a comfortable, lived-in kind of love, realistic about fears and flaws even as it sends her heart aflutter and sets her world on fire. Musgraves translated those sensations into the year’s most spectacular album, a collection of songs as irresistible as the romance that inspired it.

Viewed more broadly, Golden Hour is an album about family. It’s centered on her new life with Kelly, but those portraits of intimacy are accented by glimpses of Musgraves longing to reconnect with her relatives, as if moved by this fresh domestic bliss to reestablish bonds that have deteriorated over time. On “Mother,” she calls her mom during an acid trip and admits, “I wish we didn’t live so far from each other,” expressing a similar sentiment elsewhere about her sister. On the spellbinding “Slow Burn,” in the most quoted lyric on the album, she flashes back to a moment she wishes she’d handled better: “Texas is hot, I can be cold/ Grandma cried when I pierced my nose.”

These reflections are couched in gently sighing country songs that glimmer like a waking dream. From a string section that evokes Beck’s Sea Change to a vocoder chorus seemingly borrowed from Daft Punk, Musgraves distills a wide-open sky full of influences into a welcoming signature sound. This is music you can luxuriate in, charmingly simple on the surface even as it brims with gorgeous detail, lightly psychedelic but always tethered to real life. Musgraves’ lyrics are disarming in the same way, a series of plainspoken vignettes so matter-of-fact that all the clever turns of phrase take months to reveal themselves. There is no wink and no strain. Again and again, the album makes the incredible feel as natural as breathing.

Golden Hour occasionally deviates from its main themes, resulting in some of its brightest highlights: the spectral breakup ballad “Space Cowboy,” the country-disco kiss-off “High Horse,” the tender piano parable “Rainbow.” The album makes room for a complicated view of the human experience, not just lovestruck reverie. But its throughline, and the source of its enduring magnetism, is an optimism that transcends even its central love story. “Oh, what a world/ I don’t wanna leave,” Musgraves marvels. “There’s all kinds of magic/ It’s hard to believe.” In an increasingly dark and cynical society that makes living with a sense of wonder seem impossible, there was Golden Hour all year offering an alternate perspective — a respite, a salve, maybe even a compass. For 46 minutes at a time, it’s not too good to be true. —Chris

HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music

Listen to selections from the top 50 albums in this Spotify playlist.

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