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Top 20 Albums of 2018

These are the 20 best albums of the year.

10. Mitski
Be the Cowboy
[Dead Oceans]

There’s not much guitar on Be the Cowboy, a somewhat shocking departure from Mitski’s previous albums. Instead, the album opens with a wash of synth and Mitski Miyawaki’s unfiltered voice commanding one’s attention before the rest of the band comes in. That, in essence, is the story of Be the Cowboy: this is the album where Mitski asserts herself as a songwriter rather than someone partaking in an aesthetic choice. Much of Be the Cowboy splits its time between moody synth-pop and pure dance music (“Nobody” is the closest to radio pop that she’s ever gotten, and that’s just one example). This sort of radical reinvention is risky, especially in an indie rock scene that seems to err closer and closer to sonic conservatism in recent years.

Make no mistake, though: Be the Cowboy is a great album first and foremost because of its songs rather than its aesthetic boldness. Miyawaki’s songs have always explored her doubts and insecurities, but she paradoxically has never sounded as self-assured as she does now, choosing to face her fears head on rather than bury them in noise. She sings of her romantic loss, of the crushing expectations placed on her by virtue of being a woman (“Lonesome Love”), and of a desire to prove herself through her music (“Geyser”). On the latter point, she absolutely has nothing to worry about: in a discography full of quiet triumphs, Be the Cowboy is easily Mitski’s most arresting and compulsively listenable record to date. – Kevin Korber

9. Kacey Musgraves
Golden Hour
[Mercury]

Expanding her sonic repertoire with such anti-Nashvillian devices as a vocoder and disco beats, Kacey Musgraves may well be accused of reaching for a wider pop audience with Golden Hour. Yet with this ambitious album Musgraves has also delivered her most personal and heartfelt work. This isn’t a Taylor Swift-level reach for pop superstardom; this is the work of a maturing artist who, at all of 30 years old, has expanded her millennial world view. It all starts with one of the year’s best singles, “Slow Burn,” a subtle progression from her youthful rebellious tone, and while its begins with pure acoustic country instrumentation, atmospheric keyboards and strings lead you into a broader American landscape that encompasses “Space Cowboy,” “Wonder Woman” and the pop beats of “Velvet Elvis,” a catchy sonic metaphor that tweaks the Memphis sound in much the way that a velvet Elvis kitsches up the King. Its very artificial, gaudy ornamentation uncovers a profound observation that Sam Phillips would have never dreamed of. Which makes “High Horse,” her discofied namecheck to John Wayne, a logical development, slickly chiding stale machismo and genre purism in one line: “You’re classic in the wrong way.” Musgraves hasn’t yet earned that classification, but she seems headed in that direction, and in the right way. – Pat Padua

8. Cardi B
Invasion of Privacy
[Atlantic]

Before the release of her breakthrough single “Bodak Yellow” last year, few would have guessed that stripper-turned-social-media-celebrity-turned-reality-TV-star Cardi B could pivot to a credible rap career. Even after “Bodak Yellow” – and, more to the point, the comparably underwhelming followup singles “Bartier Cardi” and “Be Careful” – a smaller set of naysayers remained skeptical that she could recapture that song’s lightning in a bottle. They (okay, I’ll admit, we) needn’t have worried: with her debut studio album, Cardi has continued to upset expectations while firmly establishing herself as one of contemporary pop music’s most radiant personalities.

From beginning to end, Invasion of Privacy crackles with the effortless charm that has become Cardi’s stock in trade: “Real bitch, only thing fake is the boobs,” she raps on opener “Get Up 10.” Whether she writes her own lyrics – a point of contention in her ongoing beef with Nicki Minaj – is ultimately irrelevant; like previous beneficiaries of ghostwriting, from Eazy-E to Kanye West, she has the charisma and verve to make every rhyme her own. Cardi’s performance on the Pete Rodriguez-sampling “I Like It” was the summer’s most concentrated dose of joy; and it’s nigh impossible to listen to her outrageously lewd instructions on “Bickenhead” (“Spread them asscheeks open/ Make that pussy crack a smile”) without laughing, if only at the surreal fact that this constitutes mainstream culture in 2018.

Invasion of Privacy isn’t a perfect album: while “Be Careful” sounds better in context on the album than it did as the single, it still feels like a cynical ploy for Top 40 airplay – a page ironically torn straight out of the Minaj playbook. And “Bodak Yellow” remains far and away Cardi’s best song in that style, despite multiple attempts to recreate it: lesser imitations, like “Money Bag” and the Migos feature “Drip,” sound good enough when they’re on but lack the same staying power. Cardi may have officially evaded one-hit-wonder status, but it remains to be seen whether she can keep her momentum. If Invasion of Privacy has taught us anything, though, it’s that it isn’t wise to bet against her. – Zachary Hoskins

7. Ezra Furman
Transangelic Exodus
[Bella Union]

2018 needed somebody to be a beacon of furious, queer energy, and Ezra Furman was always meant to play that part. Transangelic Exodus, his rapturous fourth album, is a beautiful, cosmic blend of deeply personal lyrics and what feels to be every single creative impulse Furman hadn’t yet exorcised – which is fitting for an album that’s ultimately about how the ugliness of change is totally worth it.

Transangelic Exodus finds triumph in Furman’s ability to sing about his own internal struggles with conviction. With his snarling tenor covering everything from Winstons and Thin Mints, theft of Goodwill dresses, the crossroad between cars and the freedom they provide and even his conflicted relationship with god, he throws himself headlong into a kaleidoscope of noise and color that only Furman can deliver. From massive, pulsing towers of noise (“No Place”) to infectious pop anthems about time’s effect on love (“Love You So Bad”), or even Elton John-style piano-lead numbers (“I Lost My Innocence”), Transangelic Exodus manages to throw all of these together in a way where even radical shifts in energy (see: the careening gear-shifts in the album’s first four tracks) feel entirely natural. He even manages to make his conflicted relationship with god sound like an actual conflict: “Sometimes you go through hell, and you never get to heaven/ I thank god for giving strength to the weary,” he sings on “Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill,” and while you can hear the pain in his voice, you can also hear his acceptance of it.

Towards the end of “Peel My Orange Every Morning,” Furman, buried in the mix, states, “I am shattered, I am bleeding, but God damn it I’m alive.” In a song that is only on the surface about eating fruit in a hotel room, he manages to capture the spirit of metamorphosis – and the ugliness that you may feel while experiencing it – that makes Transangelic Exodus feel so triumphant, and one of the year’s most compelling albums. It’s hard to hear it and not be excited by what Furman is going to become next. – Holly Dixon

6. Blood Orange
Negro Swan
[Domino]

Dev Hynes, the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist behind the moniker Blood Orange, makes music that is at once instantly familiar and resistant to immediate interpretation. His knack for a retro-flavored hook has made him an in-demand collaborator for the likes of Solange, Carly Rae Jepsen and most recently Mariah Carey, for whose new album Caution he co-wrote, co-produced and guested on the Slick Rick feature “Giving Me Life.” But his own albums, particularly 2016’s Freetown Sound and this year’s followup Negro Swan, are dense and sprawling affairs that can take multiple listens to fully unravel.

If Negro Swan isn’t necessarily stacked with wall-to-wall bangers, however, its intricacies are well worth teasing out. A tangled knot of diaristic memories, emotions and first- and second-person affirmations, it unfolds as a loose concept album about, per Hynes, “my own and many types of black depression, an honest look at the corners of black existence, and the ongoing anxieties of queer/people of color”: moving from the unvarnished melancholy of “Take Your Time” to the transcendent hopefulness of “Smoke,” with inspirational monologues along the way from guests including Janet Mock and Puff Daddy. Each song is a complex prism of feelings and perspectives; opening track “Orlando,” for example, resonates at once with Hynes’ own memories of being queer-bashed as a teenager growing up in Dagenham, Essex and with the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, a much more recent act of homophobic violence.

Just as prismatic are the album’s arrangements, which constitute Hynes’ richest and most eclectic mining of black diasporic music to date. The core of the Blood Orange sound remains the same as it’s been since 2011’s Coastal Grooves: a lo-fi take on early ‘80s pop and R&B, with Hynes’ own slightly weedy voice recalling era-appropriate singers like El DeBarge and Jermaine Stewart. Layered on top, however, are touches of everything from house beats and jazz saxophone to gospel harmonies and psychedelic guitar solos. In his bold effort to capture the complexities and contradictions of the queer black experience, Hynes has succeeded in making his most musically rewarding work yet. – Zachary Hoskins

5. Robyn
Honey
[Konichiwa/Interscope]

Though Robyn’s first solo album in eight years, Honey arrives after many other projects she released since her last record. In that time, she toured, created three separate EPs with other Swedish savants and fell out of and back into love. Much of this explains the emotional whimsy of Honey, which runs through a gamut of feelings anyone can identify with in 2018. “Dying race[s]” and “heavenly bodies” coalesce in a pulsing, nine-song catharsis of love, loss and hope without much of a set answer or conclusion. It opens with the closest it ever gets to Body Talk, “Missing U”, where Robyn gives the past a proper send-off before moving onward. “Take all these memories/ we know how to use them,” she croons, using nostalgia as a source of comfort, mourning and inspiration. Honey sounds little like anything Robyn’s done before, perhaps its closest comparison being tracks such as “Should Have Known” or “Crash and Burn Girl” from her self-titled powerhouse.

Minimalist and bizarre, Honey imbues touches of disco and house music to Robyn’s signature swagger. “Because It’s in the Music” sings of the joys of song and companionship, a clever Stardust nod delivered right at the beginning to boot. Her playful and left-of-center personality comes forth in “Beach 2k20” and “Send to Robyn Immediately”, the latter named after the subject line of an email. This plucky spirit gives Robyn an accessibility that lets a listener be carried away by her music, fully trusting she’ll steer your right to the very end. “Ever Again,” as perfect an outro as there ever was, sails out on a groovy, warm guitar and synthesizer towards the future and all its surprises and disappointments. The destination remains uncertain, but you know with Robyn at the helm, you’re in experienced hands. – Mick Jacobs

4. Pusha T
Daytona
[GOOD/Def Jam]

Pusha’s previous full-lengths felt overstuffed. He was at his best over lean, weird beats that seem stripped down to the tendons. All this pop excess? It just got in the way of Pusha’s stark flow. And, finally, he grinded out the bullshitless album he always needed. Clocking in at just 21 minutes, Pusha dominated Drake, rocked the best Kanye beats in recent memory and unequivocally proved himself the dopest man in the room on Daytona.

A rapper turned trapper can’t morph into us/ But a trapper turned rapper can morph into Puff,” he yowls, neatly packaging his own mythology. The street dealer now rap kingmaker/slayer ain’t interested in you Twitter followers or jewels. He’s a brutal pragmatist. “I am not sheep/ I am just a short stone’s throw from the streets,” he notes without emotion.

If you tack on the 2010s’ “Ether,” “Story of Adidon,” and you’ve got the grittiest, nastiest rap album made this decade. Throwing parties that rattle entire city blocks one second, pulling some John Wick shit on his enemies the next, Daytona was delivered with the undeniable confidence that didn’t need any flash or gloss. It was self-evident. “How can you relate when you’ve never been great?” Pusha once growled, and Daytona wasn’t so much a burst of distance between him and the competition but lapping every rapper around him. – Nathan Stevens

3. Low
Double Negative
[Sub Pop]

Earlier this year, Low frontperson Alan Sparhawk took the occasion in an interview to offer his honest thoughts on and feelings about each of his group’s releases over the years, which have now reached an impressive twelve in total. What emerged from the interview is something that has been clear to Low fans for nigh on 25 years at this point – the Minnesota-based band is simply one of the most impressive groups of the past several decades, maintaining an enviably high degree of excellence on album after album, all the while constantly evolving its sound. And not only has the group’s sound evolved, but it has done so without any gimmicks and without hewing to any particular sonic “trend.”

In this regard, Double Negative is in some ways the band’s defining statement; it’s the kind of album that makes you think the group could record a new soundtrack to Kubrick’s 2001, especially the so-called “Star Gate” sequence. To begin with, Double Negative is full of distortion, though not exactly distortion with which most listeners will be familiar. There is something haunting and primordial in it, almost the sound of a group wrestling against itself, against its own hesitations, fears, tensions and conflicts both spoken and unspoken. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it could be said that Low’s oeuvre has grappled centrally with the ache of just being, and nowhere is this ache as painfully – and beautifully – realized as it is on Double Negative.

Though it bears the hallmarks of any Low album – Sparhawk’s open-tuned guitar voicings, his mournful harmonies with drummer and co-lead singer Mimi Parker – Double Negative nonetheless inaugurates something new in Low’s discography, a record of simmering, quivering, at times earthshaking sounds that expresses both the deep anger and fear this era has come to mean for many of us, as well as (another hallmark) hope and compassion, tools for overcoming that fear and anger.

Few bands would be capable of doing one of those things; it takes a band like Low to do both. – Dylan Montanari

2. DJ Koze
Knock Knock
[Pampa]

Every DJ Koze release is notable for its strange aesthetics, but Knock Knock is arguably the first release from the German producer whose weirdness is equal parts captivating and majestic. After years of collaborations that showcased an offbeat sense of humor and a delightfully warped way of looking at the world, Stefan Kozalla has crafted something with a beating heart at the center of it with Knock Knock. The album may use a smattering of different samples that don’t seem to work with each other on the surface, but there’s a sense of real longing and nostalgia that runs throughout the album. Each track has an enveloping warmness to it, like a great embrace as one reminisces about times gone by. This sense of nostalgia, among other things, sets Koze apart from his peers in electronic music, many of whom often seem intent on accelerating to the future as quickly as possible. But Koze never moves quicker than an easy, strolling pace; he wants us to stop, think and ruminate. “Colors of Autumn” rides its guitar groove and smooth vocals from Arrested Development’s Speech to emulate the wistful sensations of a late-summer block party, while the irresistible “Pick Up” loops its disco sample until we’re forced to reckon with hearing “It’s sad to think” over a killer party track. The longing on Knock Knock isn’t for a specific time or place in Koze’s life or in history; it’s for a way of interacting with music, a feeling of purity that seems harder and harder to find even as more music is available to us than ever before. How do we connect with a song, Koze seems to be asking here, when we’re overrun with a glut of choices? With Knock Knock, he may have found the answer. – Kevin Korber

1. Janelle Monáe
Dirty Computer
[Atlantic]

From the first song on her debut EP, Janelle Monáe has been using alter egos and sci-fi robot existentialism to displace questions of identity and sexuality, complicating the raw sexual energy of R&B and funk with abstract, David Bowie-esque personas. When Dirty Computer followed news of the artist’s admission of her pansexuality, Monáe dropped the flimsy façades of third-party expression and instead owned herself. Lest one think this might signal a simplification of her work, rest assured that Monáe delivers her most ambitious, fully realized work yet.

Few artists have ever warranted serious comparison to Prince, and effectively no one has stood up to that artist’s singular quality. Yet on her first album without Prince’s mentoring, Monáe truly arrives as his heir apparent, not only in her similar melding of cold electronics with human groove but, more importantly, her bold expansion of Prince’s sonic and thematic parameters. Genuinely embodying the fluid identity dynamics that Prince employed for effect, Monáe perfects the blend of unspecified sociopolitical anxiety, unbridled lust and defiant dance that was his trademark. From the orchestral pop intro of the title track to the gurgling funk of “Make Me Feel” to the rave-up secular gospel of “Americans,” the album dances across genres with abandon, fusing styles with ease. It all comes together on centerpiece track “Pynk,” one of the great crossover tracks of the 21st century, a song that blends so many genres that it can slot into a dozen different themed playlists. Monáe has been among the brightest artpop stars of her generation, but with Dirty Computer she truly enters the pantheon. – Jake Cole

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