As we ease into the halfway point of 2018, it’s time to pause, light up the grill and enjoy the summer, bathing ourselves in the glorious new music that this year has yielded. We are pleased to present a list of albums that we feel have bubbled to the top of the heap. And while there are some significant absences (The Carters, Cardi B), we hope this feature will inspire you to seek out some of the smaller names here.

DJ Koze – Knock Knock (Pampa)

2018 has had its fair share of stoney, poe-faced music. Serious art for serious times after all. But where do we recharge? Who can provide a wellspring of optimism, joy and whoopie cushions? Step forward, DJ Koze. Knock Knock is the German producer’s finest full length yet, brimming with euphoria and giddy excess. He prances from sunny boom-bap beats, smiley club bangers and straight up musical ecstasy throughout. There are subtle hints of mellow melancholy, but pulse stopping groover “Illumination” and the disco depression of “Pick Up” are only meant to make the surrounding sunlight shimmer all the greater. With Knock Knock he’s made a true toast to the weirdos, the rosey-eyed or those just looking for a little light. – Nathan Stevens

Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino (Domino)

Dystopian narratives feel especially timely in 2018, and Arctic Monkeys’ frontman and lyricist Alex Turner jumps onboard that trend for the Sheffield band’s sixth album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. Turner strays from the accessible, groove-heavy guitar rock on Arctic Monkeys’ acclaimed 2013 album, AM, writing an album’s worth of songs on piano for the first time. Gone too are the debauched desperation and feverish ecstasy of boozy nightlife, as Turner shelves his bawdy hooligan shtick and adopts the persona of a hammy lounge singer at a swanky resort on a post-exodus lunar colony. He eschews conventional verse-chorus-verse song structure in favor of wandering storytelling in largely chorus-less songs, and he even engages in some outright marketing for the increasingly gentrifying society on the moon. In doing so, he comments on how humanity’s tendency toward self-destructive consumer culture, both through corporate greed and a weakness for overindulgence in creature comforts, is unlikely to change even after we suck the Earth dry. – Josh Goller

Ski Mask the Slump God – Beware the Book of Eli (Republic)

This is one of the great psychedelic rap albums, as much part of the lineage of concise, ultraviolent “SoundCloud rap” as rap’s deepest descents into Stygian horror (Three Six’s Mystic Stylez, Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagonecologyst). Ski Mask the Slump God opens the tape by threatening to drown a rival in the “river of lost souls” and ends with him shouting out his “mucus.” In between is 21 fearsome minutes of physics-defying rap architecture, the MC’s elastic flow slingshotting him through dense primordial soup.

The Florida rapper is 22, and as in so much modern rap, he works in plenty of millennial touchstones to trigger a brief flash of nostalgia—Little Golden Books! Danimals! But mostly he seems like an entity that’s been wreaking havoc for eternity—Peeves, or Puck, or Loki, or Bugs Bunny. He presents himself as a grinning cartoon antihero, bedazzled in Viking regalia and wielding a keyblade, ready to wage war on Nazis and rival rappers alike. He’s easy to root for—even after he turns you into a toad. – Daniel Bromfield

H.C. McEntire – Lionheart (Merge)

H.C. McEntire’s country-leaning solo debut creates a perpetual state of peace. To be clear, that feeling is one of peace, and not comfort or calm. McEntire tackles a panoply of issues: religion, home, sexuality, history, identity. She never approaches these loaded topics with any sort of flippancy, and her peace doesn’t come easily. At times more or less explicitly, the struggle behind the rewards comes through McEntire’s lyrics; her life (so far as we can conflate her and her speakers) hasn’t yielded cheap rest. When McEntire’s found love, it’s been fought for. When she’s found home, it’s been fought against. When both fights lead to embraces of their own, it feels healing.

“A Lamb, A Dove” sets the context and the boundaries of the album. Whatever transpires over the rest of the disc, it does so within the limits of love and grace. Lionheart closes with the candlelight of “Dress in the Dark,” a reminder that peace doesn’t need to be calm. In between, McEntire traces an imaginative countryside, making sure there’s a place for her, a process that in “When You Come for Me” reveals a process of alienation and return that could be sociological or psychological. McEntire’s sounds offer hope for a peace more profound than ease. – Justin Cober-Lake

Air Waves – Warrior (Western Vinyl)

Truly apolitical art is nowhere near as common as one might think, but it also seems like a ridiculous thing to aspire to make in an age where hatred of people who don’t fit the cis straight white male default is alarmingly on the rise. Nicole Schneidt knew this, which is why her latest album as Air Waves takes a markedly different turn. While the album keeps somewhat true to her lo-fi roots, her stories have morphed from mini-fantasies to something more personal about existing as a gay woman in a world where people loathe you for being both gay and a woman. Her message, though, isn’t about anger or violence, but about perseverance. There are calls to action on Warrior, for sure, but the overarching message is to keep going, to keep existing and living as your truest self, which is in its own way a form of rebellion. – Kevin Korber

Pusha T – Daytona (G.O.O.D. Music)

I don’t want Pusha T’s Daytona to be my favorite album of 2018. I don’t want to support producer Kanye West, who presided over its release along with four other, similarly bite-sized albums in the full flush of a MAGA-hatted manic episode. I don’t want to encourage the two grown men who made the colossally tasteless decision to license a tabloid photo of Whitney Houston’s crack-infested bathroom for cover art. I don’t want to endorse any record with lyrics as tone-deaf as “Hard Piano”’s “I won’t let you ruin my dreams or Harvey Weinstein the kid/Good morning, Matt Lauer, can I live?

Luckily, Daytona (probably) won’t end up being my album of the year. But here at the halfway mark, it remains the album I’ve listened to most—the one I reach for, almost compulsively, over and over again. The short runtime helps: amidst rap’s current landscape of monster playlist-albums, its seven songs and 21 minutes are easy on the ears. But it’s the music itself that makes Daytona a masterpiece of economy and precision: the barrage of near-a capella wordplay that opens “If You Know You Know”; the collage-like Mighty Hannibal and George Jackson samples on “Come Back Baby”; the stuttering drum machine that drops in for the last devastating minute of “Infrared.” Easily Pusha’s best-produced work since Clipse, Daytona doesn’t absolve Kanye of his transgressions against good taste and good sense; but it does at least offer some hope that there’s still a beatmaking genius in there somewhere. – Zachary Hoskins

Wulfband – Revolter (Progress Productions)

Revolter is the second studio album by Wulfband, and much like their first it went regrettably unnoticed despite being deserving of some serious attention. It’s one of the freshest takes on an otherwise tired genre since the 80s. While the first album was a sort of experimental cross between the aggro-dance antics of Nitzer Ebb combined with an almost glam-rock vocal style, the second album doubles-down on both the anger, punk energy and dramatic vocal delivery. German might not be your first language, but it makes no difference: it’s also not the band’s first language. We know little about the masked duo other than the fact that they are probably not Daft Punk; they come from Sweden and they sing in German because, as they pointed out in a rare print interview, when you yell at someone in German, they tend to listen. The production value on Revolter is nothing short of exquisite and deserves to be played very, very loud. Even if you’re not still wallowing in your own teen angst you can appreciate the genuine fun and humour in screaming at the top of your lungs “Das Ist Musik!” (THAT is music!) — especially when it’s followed by the conspicuously familiar descriptor “mutter ficken”. This track will have you bouncing furiously around your room dancing while “Liebe Offensive” boasts an incredibly addictive refrain. For the more traditional Electronic Body Music fan, “Kpt. Kaboom” couples a blazing fast electro-punk riff with the requisite robot vocoder vocals. This album attempts to give angry industrial music back some of the dignity it lost in recent years and succeeds. – Darryl G. Wright

Brothers Osborne – Port Saint Joe (EMI Records Nashville)

It’s easy to adopt an outlaw country persona; there are a number of contemporary country artists who simply by the way they look or act manage to channel their inner Waylon/Willie/et. al. The trouble with this superficial approach is that it lacks what made these so-called outlaws so revered to begin with: their ability to write great songs. Brothers Osborne manage, with their sophomore release, to raise the bar for modern outlaws in terms of song craft, musicianship and overall level of quality. Port Saint Joe is an album in the traditional sense that it is not only chock-full of great songs, but they all manage to feel stylistically, thematically and, most crucially, musically of a piece.

And while they still go for the country staples of alcohol (“Shoot Me Straight,” “Weed, Whiskey, and Willie,” “Tequila Again”), women (“I Don’t Remember Me (Before You),” “A Couple Wrongs Makin’ It Alright,” “Pushing Up Daisies (Love Alive)”) and a reverence for the music’s history “Drank Like Hank”), they manage to do so in a manner that feels fresh and new. With hooks galore, the powerfully authoritative lead vocals of TJ and the serpentine guitar work of John, Brothers Osborne have managed to craft one of the best country albums of this – or any – year. – John Paul

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