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The 20 best albums of 2018

December 06, 2018 at 08:45 AM EST

Another year, another countdown. Music in 2018 saw a (relative) newcomer cement her superstar bonafides, a fiercely formidable country trio give a toast to divorces, the world’s best rapper restore our faith in “songs inspired by the movie” albums, and a British rock group blast into space. Coming through like sweetener, these were the 20 albums that we’re still playing as the year closes out. (Compiled by EW staffers Leah Greenblatt, Sarah Rodman, and Alex Suskind).


20. Astroworld – Travis Scott

19. Look Now – Elvis Costello & the Imposters

18. Negro Swan – Blood Orange

17. Isolation – Kali Uchis

16. A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships – The 1975

15. The Tree – Lori McKenna

14. Daytona – Pusha-T

13. Lush – Snail Mail

12. Hell-On – Neko Case

11. By the Way, I Forgive You – Brandi Carlile


10. Camila Cabello – Camila

Syco Music/Epic

It wasn’t exactly hard to miss the Hot 100’s message this year, when so much of it came through a megaphone. Not Cabello’s Camila, a pop album that actually asked you to lean in so she could sing just a little closer to your ear. And how sweet those secrets were: an intimate, almost criminally pretty collection of delicate midtempo ballads and confessionals anchored by the sunny Malecón swagger of international smash “Havana.” At 21, the singer hardly has life and love figured out, but she sounds like an artist already completely at home in her own skin. —Leah Greenblatt

9. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer

Atlantic Records

Stepping out of the Metropolis-inspired wonderland of Cindi Mayweather—the alter ego of her first three LPs—Monáe aims for a more personal spin here, analyzing the patriarchal, sexual, and racial oppression experienced by those who are different (a.k.a. the “dirty computers”). “You f— the world up now, we’ll f— it all back down,” she sings on “Screwed.” With assists from Zoë Kravitz and Grimes, Monáe’s Dirty Computer transforms “The Future Is Female” from a marketable slogan into a foregone conclusion. —Alex Suskind

8. Eric Church – Desperate Man

EMI Nashville

Over the course of six albums, Church has frequently mused about the transformative power of music. He believes in its ability to heal, to transport you to the past, to make sense of the present and hold out hope for the future. Desperate Man might make you a believer, too, with its Stonesy, loose-limbed jams, pastoral balladry, and blues-inflected tunes contending with demons, real and imagined (“Monsters”), imparting hard-won wisdom (“Some of It”), and self-medicating away the anxieties of modern life (“Drowning Man”). —Sarah Rodman

7. Black Panther: The Album

Top Dawg Ent./Aftermath/Interscope Records

Soundtracks should always feel like the best kind of house party; this one just happens to be hosted by your favorite Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper. Putting Kendrick Lamar on Panther duty felt both inspired and obvious; who better to find the backbeat in Ryan Coogler’s Technicolor ode to progressive superherodom and black excellence—and to bring along his coolest friends (SZA, Schoolboy Q, Jorja Smith, the Weeknd)? The result is a kind of effortless aural mosaic: rich, layered,
and radically listenable. —LG

6. Pistol Annies – Interstate Gospel

Miller Mobley

On their splendid third album, this tight-knit trio of country spitfires will be there for pregaming your night out (“Stop Drop and Roll One”), telling you the hard truths (“When I Was His Wife”), and heading to the courthouse to help throw your divorce party (“Got My Name Changed Back”). In short, Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley— singular talents alone, fiercely formidable together—are the girlfriends we all need right now.  Brimming with rich harmonies, sass, and sorrow, this album feels like the Gospel truth. —SR

5. Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

Domino Recording Co.

After a five-album evolution that swerved from the spiky early-aughts Britpop of their breakout 2007 debut to the dense desert-rock stomp of 2013’s AM, Monkeys frontman Alex Turner decided to shoot, literally, for the moon. A heady concept album set smack in the lunar midst of First Man territory, Tranquility Base trades in glittery Bowie-esque glam, Serge Gainsbourg swing, and baroque space-jam psychedelia. It’s all excellently woozy and moody and strange; the next best thing to clocking real NASA air miles.  —LG

4. Mitski – Be the Cowboy

Dead Oceans

It’s become something of a sport among Mitski fanatics to brag about how many tears one can shed while listening to her music. But Be the Cowboy is too defiant for a simple weep session. On her bold and cacophonous fifth album, the Japanese-American singer-songwriter aims for something different: sadness, yes, but also the growth that one experiences in its aftermath—the comfortable shared silence of a former couple on “Old Friend,” toxic masculinity (and how to briefly overcome it) on “Lonesome Love,” aiming straight for the stars on “Remember My Name.” No matter the obstacle, Mitski is here to lead us through any mess that happens to come our way; crying is strictly optional. —AS

3. Ariana Grande – Sweetener

Republic Records

Ariana Grande was looking for a new challenge. She found it in Sweetener, her most complex project to date. Sidestepping the straight-ahead popscape of previous efforts, the LP combines Grande’s inimitable voice with the hiccupy drums and cross-genre beats of Pharrell Williams (he’s credited on almost half the songs here) and the clean riffs of Max Martin (he handled production on the operatic “God Is a Woman,” among others). The result: a beautiful and minimalistic world that would bring any bitter taste to a halt. —AS

2. Cardi B — Invasion of Privacy

Atlantic Records

Sky-high expectations can crush new artists. Good thing Cardi B’s Louboutins are made of steel. The Bronx-bred rapper ended 2017 with a No. 1 hit (“Bodak Yellow”) and menacing follow-up single (“Bartier Cardi”), both of which kept the “she’s just a one-hit wonder” crowd at bay. This year, Cardi snuffed them out for good, dropping an instant classic in Privacy. From the boogaloo bop of “I Like It” to the warning-shot groove of “Be Careful,” the album proved that Belcalis Almánzar really was worth the superstar hype, haters be damned. —AS

1. Kacey Musgraves — Golden Hour

Kacey Musgraves Twitter

There are some albums that speak to the moment. Others speak to the heart. Some set their sights on getting that booty up off the couch and shaking. A few precious records do all of that and more. In less than the advertised hour—right around 45 minutes—the Golden, Tex., native encapsulates the bittersweet intersection of melancholy and euphoria and the ways in which people connect and disconnect in a challenging world.  Whether it’s the shimmer of “Slow Burn,” the emphatic kiss-off of “Space Cowboy,” the disco delirium of “High Horse,” or the gauzy, romantic wonderment of “Butterflies” and “Oh, What a World,” Musgraves remains tethered to her country roots while roping in a world of new sounds for one of 2018’s most eminently repeatable releases—because this is an Hour you don’t want to end. —SR


 

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