Below are the 100 best albums of 2018 as chosen by the Noisey staff.
K-pop is not a passing phenomenon. The genre’s current mainstream success has been a long, steady build, and now, thanks to a generation of listeners who grew up on the internet no longer biased toward the sounds of their home regions, it’s fully entered public consciousness in North America. BTS, South Korea’s most successful boy band in a pure numbers sense, capitalized on these overarching narratives this year with the release of their crowning achievement, Love Yourself: Tear.
While “Fake Love” has garnered the most success, songs like the jazz-inflected ode to Pluto “134340” and the 90s hip-hop-cribbing anthem “Anpanman” make the album feel full and diverse in a way that few pop albums do. The plush “Paradise” is the record’s standout—showing most readily the ease with which each member can bounce from lithe singing to rapping. On the whole, the record is a prime example of clean and simple pop writing, but the group’s collective quirks make it stand above everyone else, regardless of language. —Jabbari Weekes
“Miserable” is an apt moniker for this dark pop project from King Woman vocalist Kristina Esfandiari. While the thunderous doom of King Woman is on par with Esfandiari’s voice—a tempest in itself—Miserable renegotiates the balance so the vocals are driving the music, rather than the other way around.
Loverboy/Dog Days combines new songs with the re-release of an EP from 2015, offering a perspective on a band from two different points in time. Loverboy’s approach to the lush melancholia is much darker. Snarling, wounded, and reminiscent of Dirty-era Sonic Youth, Loverboy has a base-level fury that asserts itself across all four songs. The earlier Dog Days, by contrast, is upbeat, starry-eyed, and bursting with desire. Although they deal with traumas that stem from a similar place, Dog Days allows respite through daydreams and escapism, while Loverboy grabs things by the collar and sizes them up. —Emma Garland
Grapetooth has a song called “Red Wine,” and the video for it opens with a shot of an interior illuminated by a red light bulb. It’s the sort of lighting choice you might use when you’re hosting a party at your post-collegiate apartment and trying to obscure the smudges on the walls. The “red” theme extends to the Chicago synths-and-vox duo’s name, which refers to what happens to your teeth when you imbibe fermented grape juice, and should give you some idea of what you’re in for with their self-titled debut.
Grapetooth is light on fuss and big on easy thrills. Chris Bailoni and Clay Frankel take the most heart-skipping synth melodies from Low Life-era New Order, the most charmingly lazy guitar chords that The Band ever strummed, and the crack in your voice that happens when you’ve been talking too long at a crowded bar, and distill them into an actual sound—one that seems to be perpetually on the verge of keeling over, even on the level of each individual synth note. There are comedown ballads aplenty (such as the album’s ramshackle sailor-song of a closer, where they boys sing the words “Together’s the best place to be” in hoarse unison), but you’re probably going to want to put this one on when you’re getting ready to go out. Who knows: You might end up shouting along to “Trouble” onstage. —Emilie Friedlander
Since his days as a teenaged sideman to earnest superstars like Pharrell and Raphael Saadiq, Daniel Aged has most often been lumped into the world of R&B. It’s true that inc., his band with his brother Andrew, often adopted many of the genre’s signifiers. They built tracks around whispered vocals and downy guitars, and once enshrined Luther Vandross and D’Angelo as “saints” in an interview. But their music was always slower, more amorphous. They seemed less intent on making R&B than capturing the hard-to-express emotions the genre often explored: vulnerable longing, ambient desire, and complicated lust. Aged’s first solo record—a self-titled, self-released collection of eight instrumentals—continues that project of soundtracking with an even higher degree of difficulty.
Without words, Aged has to lean solely on his melodies, the emotional effect of which is diffuse and complicated. His lead lines—often expressed with swooning synthesizers, the lilt of a slide guitar—are direct, but smudgy, as if scrawled onto the back of a postcard with a fountain pen. It’s still in the same world as his work with inc., but more misty and obscure, as if he’s trying to put voice to feelings only previously captured by old German words. —Colin Joyce
It is unexpected for an indie pop record to sound as violent as The Goon Sax’s We’re Not Talking. On the prodigal Brisbane trio’s second record, tempos race and bass lines pound; violins screech with the coarseness of car alarms. Brief moments of peace can be found amongst the din on the record’s slower tracks like “Losing Myself” and “Somewhere in Between,” but for the most part, We’re Not Talking’s stories of heartbreak and self-loathing clatter and sprint. Throughout, guitarist Louis Forster sings as if through a grimace, and bassist James Harrison and drummer Riley Jones utter their lines with a quieter, but no less downcast, tone.
We’re Not Talking is a masterpiece of adrenal, emotional carnage; the trio display a keen sense of how to write about heartbreak and hardship in a way that’s neither whiny nor trite. And while it may seem to gesture toward tweeness on paper, the record synthesizes a host of influences that are refreshingly unexpected. You can hear snatches of The Raincoats’ frenetic outsider punk, Pere Ubu’s angular grooves, and Jens Lekman’s acerbic lyrical sensibilities in the mix. Strong melodies are present throughout—all three Goon Sax members are able pop writers—but this is an indie rock record where bass and drums convey the strongest melodies, and the guitar chords don’t matter as long as they are strummed with power and feeling. Despondency never sounded this thrilling. —Shaad D’Souza
For a few years there, the death metal underground felt absolutely saturated with occult metal of death. Stylized goats’ heads, cobwebby production, and meandering semi-acoustic interludes were de rigueur, and it seemed like no one knew how to write a fucking song anymore. Berlin’s Necros Christos—while obvious poster children for the concept of “occult death metal” as a whole—always stood a head and shoulders above the chattering hordes of pretenders to the throne of skulls. On this, their final album, their unimpeachably heavy, moribund riffs are garnished by an earnest knowledge of Eastern scales, appreciation for the art of the rumbling groove, and a bizarre god complex (that pops up in fine form on album standout “I Am Christ”). As Noisey noted previously, Domedon Doxomedon is “a powerful document of occult death, and a fitting epitaph for one of the genre’s mightiest titans”—a meditation on the death of Christ, rendered in the most sumptuous shades of decay. Rest in peace. —Kim Kelly
Though the duo behind O FUCC IM ON THE WRONG PLANET is ostensibly from Richmond, Virginia, the six pieces compiled here sound more like intercepted alien transmissions than anything we might traditionally recognize as “songs” here on earth. As bleak and weightless as deep space, these tracks are driven by scabrous beats and the xenomorphic screeches of two entities who call themselves Poozy and False Prpht. The lyrical content is seldom decipherable, though they named one particularly grating track “NIBIRU” after a conspiracy theory about a secret planet hiding behind the sun that’s on a collision course with our planet, which feels telling. This is music meant to soundtrack the end of days. It’s an extraterrestrial horror story and an interplanetary cry for help, proof that somewhere in the distance there are beings who feel as scared and fucked up as we do. —Colin Joyce
For Thin Lips frontwoman Chrissy Tashjian, riffing isn’t a hobby, it’s a calling. She immortalized her devotion to the power of riffs with the band’s 2016 album, the cover of which featured a close-up shot of her knuckle tattoos. They read: RIFF HARD. She’s really learned to hone this passion on the Philly band’s follow-up, Chosen Family, which sees her riffing not just harder, but smarter and weirder. With a studio assist from Hop Along’s Joe Reinhart and Frances Quinlan, Chosen Family is packed with small, distinct moments that demand replays. It’s in the way Tashjian’s voice shoots up so high that it almost disappears on “Saying Yes” as she sings “It’s all part of growing up, to say enough’s enough.” It’s how the song “What If I Saw You on the Street” abruptly takes off running at an unexpected speed 12 seconds in. It’s in the Built To Spill-eque noodles and bends in “A Song for Those Who Miss You All the Time.” These tiny quirks are tucked into every crack and seam of Chosen Family, giving it the most personality of any rock record released this year. —Dan Ozzi
Corinthiax may not be the most beloved or the most noteworthy release from Wicca Phase Springs Eternal in a year that has seen the reach of Pennsylvania producer/songwriter Adam McIlwee’s collective, GothBoiClique, grow exponentially through collaborations with Clams Casino, Alice Glass, and Lil B. It is, however, the best distillation of the ambitions for a project that is constantly shapeshifting.
Corinthiax—the title of which is a reference to a being McIlwee has described as “an evil, romantic entity that tortures me and makes me emotionally restless”—unpacks love and fear, forces that are typically considered to be opposing, but are often two sides of the same coin. From the apologetic tenderness of “High Strangeness” to the destructive anxiety of “What’s the Point of Anything,” Corinthiax places McIlwee at the centre of a Venn diagram where romance and spirituality overlap. As a result, he is constantly coming up against the concrete parameters of reality while grasping for something more otherworldly. —Emma Garland
Following his brief retirement from rap earlier this year, Metro Boomin jumped back into the world with the surprise release of NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES, his debut album featuring pretty much every single rapper you care about. Unlike your typical producer projects, which often don’t feel very coherent, this album is one of focus and poise. That’s especially impressive considering the wide-ranging roster of artists it employs. It carries the feeling of mid-10s Atlanta trap, dosed with the punk energy of the Soundcloud era. The best part, though, might be 21 Savage’s other moment on the tape, using “Don’t Come Out the House” to bring the whisper flow back to the mainstream for the first time since the Ying Yang Twins had the early 2000s feeling extremely uncomfortable. —Eric Sundermann
Nagoya, Japan’s Foodman first came to international renown earlier this decade at the forefront of his country’s nascent footwork scene, which was made up of a crew of experimenters obsessed with the hopscotching dance style and the unpredictable music that accompanied it. But pretty much from the start, the man born Takahide Higuchi has always had something stranger in mind. Since then, he’s basically thrown the style he started with into a centrifuge separating out the component parts that made the genre feel so unique to begin with: playful synth programming, breakneck beats, and sounds that put a smile on your face.
Foodman’s music has turned into something goofy, strange, and uniquely his. He released three records in 2018—which is a pretty standard pace for the prolific producer—but Aru Otoko No Densetsu feels special. Listening to “337”—which kind of sounds like DEVO throwing old Casio keyboards around a nightclub—it’s hard to hear any traces of the sound Foodman started out aping. And that’s true over the course of the whole record, as he gleefully jumps between jittery ambient music (“Mizu Youkan”), slo-mo trip-hop (“Clock”), and off-kilter house music (“Akarui”), using a little bit of everything to sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before. It’s joyful, as new discoveries tend to be—the sonic equivalent of summiting a previously untouched mountain, realizing you’re all alone, and starting to blow raspberries at God. —Colin Joyce
BASIC VOLUME’s explosive 15 tracks are confusing and abrasive, but in a way that shakes you to your bones, helping you remember what it feels like to be human. The South London electronic artist delivers a powerful punch of a sound—capturing the kinetic energy of Yeezus-era Kanye West but strangely and smartly matched with the beautiful melodic force of early TV on the Radio. Songs like “Hackers & Jackers” and “Grip” showcase a dark, gothic approach to the legacies of dancehall, trap, and more borderless music, swirling them all together in a way that’s heavy and mystifying. It’s a fucked up album for a fucked up world. —Eric Sundermann
If you’d like to annoy Young Fathers, describe them as “rappers.” Although complaining about genre labels might be the single most eye-rolly thing an artist can do, this Scottish trio has a bit of a point. Cocoa Sugar, the group’s third record, is a hodgepodge of sounds stitched together with tape—pulling together an array of music that includes rap, but also R&B, dub, dancehall, house, and industrial. This collision of sound isn’t new for Young Fathers, but Cocoa Sugar is the best effort they’ve presented yet. They put a bit more of an emphasis on melody, but they still make it clear that it’s lightning that they’ve bottled. —Eric Sundermann
In a scene as fraught as hardcore (and heavy rock music in general), the need for a band like Racetraitor—and its uniquely confrontational, politically militant hardcore—has never truly gone away. Now the Chicago-based legends have returned, citing the need to address current societal evils. The fruit of their reignited labors, 2042, is a brooding, difficult listen, one that relies less on brute force and more on prolonged spurts of aggression; Noisey described its as “a barn-burning blast of metallic hardcore fury that screams by with guns blazing and fists held high.” As vocalist Mani Mostofi explains, the title itself is a provocation—the year 2042 is when the census predicts that white Americans will fall below 51 percent and no longer make up a majority of the country’s population, an intriguing prospect for a band whose hitherto best-known album was called Burn the Idol of the White Messiah. —Kim Kelly
Machine Girl sometimes feels like an engineering experiment of sorts, splicing and recombining the code of distinct strains of hardcore (both punk and techno) into these ungodly human-tech hybrids. The Ugly Art offers a further corrosion of that sound with the addition of Sean Kelly, a speed-demon drummer who gives these pieces a maniacal, death-defying energy.
Like before, there are passages on the record that sound like 90s UK rave music, but now there are also bits that sway with the wrecking ball energy of Rage Against the Machine (“Psycho Signal Jammer”) or sear with Lightning Bolt’s noise-punk ecstasy (“Necro Culture Vulture”). The best songs revolve around this uniquely depressive digitalist chaos, kind of like the sounds might result from playing every song on the Hackers soundtrack at the same time. And if that sounds overwhelming, well, maybe it should be. Being alive—and especially being online—in 2018 is an unsettling, cacophonous experience. Few records reflect that reality better than this one. —Colin Joyce
Maxo Kream’s Punken is his debut album, but the Houston rapper moves like a veteran. Technically, he is. He burst onto the scene back in 2016 with The Persona Tape—the mixtape on which he found his pounding voice—so he isn’t a new rapper. But Punken shows the ways he’s continued to develop since, demonstrating a fierce flow that would make any “real hip-hop” fan turn their head. This ain’t for old heads, though. The 14-track project is one of the most energetic releases of the year, fueled by the chaotic wonder of the new generation. The most moving moment of the record comes on “Atw,” on which 03 Greedo offers some of the most beautifully tormented crooning he’s ever put to tape. —Eric Sundermann
Since the demise of BiS, the oddball idol-pop band she was once a member of, the Hokkaido-born musician Tentenko has been experimenting. She’s made harsh noise, lo-fi house, and ambient spasms, but none of that makes it onto Tentenko, her first release outside of Japan. Instead, it’s an introductory best-of record that brings together her pop mutations, some of which gained traction in her home country but never spread abroad. “Good Bye, Good Girl” is an irrepressible, neon-lit electro-pop song about a brutal, unsolved murder; “Hokago Sympathy” plays with the muffled roboticism of New York post-punk but still hurries into a glitchy, grinning chorus; and “ROBOT” turns Ikue Sakakibara’s tinny 80s J-pop hit into a drop-heavy and dissociative anthem. It’s melody-first pop music packed with bright invention, seemingly devoid of focus-grouped compromise. Hopefully, it’s just the start. —Alex Robert Ross
Before the English-speaking world learned the name J Balvin by way of Beyoncé and Cardi B, the Colombian singer had already endeared himself to Latinx audiences with earlier hits like “Ay Vamos” and “Ginza,” the latter of which cracked the Billboard Hot 100 in 2015. This year, coming off back-to-back the mainstream successes of his summer smash “Mi Gente” and a guest appearance on Cardi B’s “I Like It,” he unleashed Vibras, showcasing a fully formed artist who was both representative of urbano, and bigger than the boundaries of any genre category. Those who’d come to love Balvin as a reggaetonero got what they needed via feature-heavy, dembow-driven highlights “No Es Justo” and “Peligrosa.” Yet the album’s broad remit demonstrates his superstar power and the flexibility inherent within that. He smashes dancefloors and arenas alike with Anitta on the outsized banger “Machika” and glides into contemporary flamenco with Catalan sensation Rosalía on “Brillo.” With its corresponding tour selling out massive venues on both sides of the equator, Vibras doesn’t so much move the proverbial goalposts for crossover success as it sabotages them, hopefully irreparably. —Gary Suarez
There’s an interstellar atmosphere to Sanguine Bond, New York-based producer Beta Librae’s first proper LP. Her moniker comes from a star that’s around 185 light-years from the sun, and on the record she calls tracks things like “Cosmic Machines” and “Canis Major” (another set of celestial bodies)—clearly, she has her eyes set on the sky. But despite that fact, the record is strikingly intimate. She draws on the grammars of house and techno, but she does so in a way that feels more internal than the dance music’s stereotypical extroversion.
“Just Drift” is the closest thing Sanguine Bond has to a hands-in-the-air anthem, that’s still downcast and repetitious, seemingly designed, as its title suggests, for zoning rather than dancefloor abandon. Elsewhere, synth lines coil around one another in soothing and seductive ways, acidic elements and pummeling percussion have the edges rounded off. The melodies are colorful and emotive, but they also seem designed to leave you space to think—to get lost in the tessellating, geometric sequences and tune in and tune out as you will. It’s not music that’ll send you to the stratosphere, it’s stuff that’ll allow you to focus on yourself amidst the swaying bodies around you, and allow you access the many universes that live inside you already. —Colin Joyce
The opening skit on Smino’s NOIR is potent, brimming with strength and sensuality. “Noir… what a beautiful name. Black, statuesque… you know. Strong, sweet, that’s what I think when I think of noir. That’s what I think when I think about you,” a woman says in a breathy whisper.
On the record, the St. Louis rapper embodies each of those traits. He’s strong on “HOOPTI” when he admits he’s not always OK. “Sometimes I break down, break down, break down, old hoopti,” he raps, likening himself to an old car. Other times he’s sweet, like when he’s resisting temptation in his relationship on “KOVERT.” NOIR taps into every facet of Smino’s history, channeling diasporic genres like reggae on “TEQUILA MOCKINGBIRD” in addition to the more standard rap tracks. It’s a glimpse of his growing abilities as a cinematic storyteller—no wonder he made all those movie posters for it. —Kristin Corry
After 16 years, how was the biggest rock band in the world supposed to surprise anyone? Short of burning the whole thing down, there was little that Arctic Monkeys could attempt with LP6 that wouldn’t be branded predictable—so they just said “fuck it,” leaned into the eccentricity which always bumped them ahead of their indie peers, and made a concept record about a hotel in space.
Alex Turner’s voice has never been more agile—for evidence, consult his falsetto on “Star Treatment”—and the band’s lounge-jazz adjacent musicianship throughout proves their versatility outside burly stadium rock. Unsurprisingly, however, this is also Arctic Monkeys’ most divisive album. For the uninvested, Turner’s, uh, intergalactic lounge singer persona (“Take it easy for a little while / Come and stay with us / It’s such an easy flight,” he croons on single “Four Out of Five”) probably invites a raised eyebrow, though for the millions who’ve stuck by him and his band over the years, it makes stupid, marvelous sense. This is, after all, a group of four lads who made their name with a song about being rendered desperately horny by someone “dancing to electro-pop like a robot from 1984.” What else did you expect? —Lauren O’Neill
The Atlanta rapper Trouble will be the first to admit he’s not a technician. He explicitly told The Fader earlier this year that he “ain’t trying to be the best lyricist in the game type shit.” He sees himself more as a storyteller, and Edgewood—his long-awaited debut album on Mike WiLL Made-It’s Eardrummers label—reflects that. The yarns he spins on the record are verité documents of the life in the quickly gentrifying Atlanta neighborhood that gives the record its name.
Trouble sighs when describing the mundane details of a life under the thumb of the criminal justice system, but he relates more colorful details related with a smirk (a highlight comes on “Come Thru” when he boasts of raining bullets upon a foe’s house as a way of “[redesigning] your porch”). It’s vivid, evocative stuff made all the more affecting by Mike Will’s production. As ever, he favors glistening electronics and smeared samples—which makes tracks like “Bring It Back” feel both grungy and colorful, like an oil slick in a roadside puddle. That’s sort of how the duo approach Edgewood as a whole: embrace the beauty and the grime that life offers. It’s realer that way. —Colin Joyce
We Already Lost the World doesn’t feel like an album that should exist in 2018. While an increasingly hostile world has driven most people towards catharsis and blind rage, France’s Birds In Row take the opposite approach here by embracing love and kindness as radical acts of rebellion. On “Love Is Political,” for example, they sing: “Love is defiance, defiance is necessary.” Lofty and naive? Maybe, but in the darkest of times, it’s sort of heartening to see a band at least trying to cling to some shred of earnest optimism. Of course, sonically, We Already Lost the World sounds more like a balled fist than an extended handshake. Screaming in English while occasional hints of their French accents bleed through, the three-piece speeds through their style of emotional hardcore at such a fast pace that it often feels like their engine is going to blow. At their most frenzied points, they’ll take a breather with a song like “15-38,” where they allow themselves a moment of reflection. It’s an exhausting listen, but then again, it’s an exhausting world. —Dan Ozzi
You should be partially convinced that Liz Harris is the reincarnation of a mystical healing figure. Her voice is so peaceful it’s exactly how an immortal being from the great beyond would sing if they were reaching across into our dimension, dispensing with songs to help send people to sleep or deal with depression. Harris is indeed connected to the spirit world in one way or another; she has said herself that she sees songs as entities.
Grid of Points slots comfortably into the pantheon of great Grouper records, aching and slow and sad and serene. Fans of Ruins will likely be a fan of this one too, since it has more in common with that record—piano, distance—than it does Harris’ earlier work, like the soft ambiance of, say, “Alien Observer.” The penultimate track “Blouse” is up there with Harris’ most vital, heartbreaking work. You’ll have to look to the lyrics to know the story, but the excruciating feeling is palpable in the delicate sound alone. —Ryan Bassil
Few songwriters have weaved together wry comedy and sharp misery as well as the late Scott Hutchison. Fewer still have had voices as warm, open, and honest. His Lowlands drawl stretched across Frightened Rabbit’s bittersweet high points, a troubled friend turning up out of the blue in a foreign city, cracking a joke before saying hello. Dance Music, the debut from an indie supergroup made up of Hutchison, his brother Grant, and members of Editors and Minor Victories, is loud, emotive, and free. The outlook is pitch-black in places, and tragedy is ever-present. It will always be especially difficult to make it all the way through the closer, “Bird Is Bored of Flying,” where he sings that “It’s seen the earth / For what it is, the big ball of inconsequence / Still, it sings.” It’s so cruel that a musician and man so generous as Hutchison isn’t with us anymore. We’re so lucky that, still, he sang. —Alex Robert Ross
Oneohtrix Point Never’s music has been mired in its own bizarre, impenetrable mythology for so long that the concept for Age Of, the tenth record under Daniel Lopatin’s 0PN moniker, sounds a little basic on paper: AI watches the world after the apocalypse and tries to figure out what humanity did wrong. Of course, nothing’s ever that simple with Lopatin, and as it turned out, Age Of’s end-of-days narrative is less a swan song for humanity than it is an album-length chronicle of rebirth.
It is telling that the most truly chilling songs on Age Of are not eardrum-splitting bangers like Garden of Delete’s “Sticky Drama,” but quiet, desolate moments like the record’s title track or garbled elegy “The Station.” In Lopatin’s eyes, destruction is silent and beautiful; birth is terrifying, violent, and skull-crushingly loud. Among the many explorations of catastrophe presented in 2018, it was Lopatin’s vision that stood out the most—not because it was the most violent or cataclysmic, but because in a year that felt like the literal end of the world, it was kind of nice to see a version of apocalypse that ended in hope. —Shaad D’Souza
Totem Skin’s Christoffer Öster is now two-for-two with Dödsrit, the atmospheric blackened crust solo project that seemingly crept up out of nowhere in 2017. Spirit Crusher marks the project’s second outing (and first for Prosthetic, who scooped them up off the Alerta Antifascista roster). As one might expect from the pedigree, it’s a masterful entry into the greater “atmospheric crust” milieu, one that’s uniquely appealing in its prodigious grasp of melody, which manifests both beneath the aggressive riffage and in more insidious ways—as on “Ändlösa ådror,” a graceful elegy that wouldn’t feel out of place on an Agalloch LP.
As Noisey wrote earlier this year, Dödsrit “whips together a delicious Oathbreaker-esque blend of d-beat, crust, screamo, sludge, and atmospheric black metal that ticks all the boxes if you’re looking for something that’s aggressive as hell but is also unapologetically pretty when the mood strikes.” — Kim Kelly
Marie Davidson’s thrillingly dystopian fourth record, Working Class Woman, interrogates the aftermath of giving yourself up to the workplace hustle in the name of liberation, exposing and satirizing the ridiculousness of a culture that willingly gives itself up to modern capitalist serfdom.
Sometimes, this manifests in pure nightmare fuel. Album centerpiece “The Tunnel” finds Davidson trapped in a tunnel filled with broken glass, unable to get out; the song’s dense, discordant synths evoke sheer terror like few artists are able to. The frenetic “Workaholic Paranoid Bitch” fires out drum hits with the speed and devastation of a gatling gun. But for the most part, Davidson navigates what could be supremely depressing or terrifying territory with a dark sense of humor and a knack for songcraft; songs like the tongue-in-cheek party track “So Right” and the corpo-brainwash chant “Work It” expose the horrors of This Capitalist Hell without sacrificing any listenability. That’s the beauty of Working Class Woman: Davidson sees no need to separate her discursive tendencies from her abilities to make a cathartic dancefloor churner. Working Class Woman offers no easy ways out of our shackles, but that’s fine. For now, you can just dance the terror away. —Shaad D’Souza
If you’d heard that one of this year’s best albums featured a Rihanna cover and warbling Auto-Tune, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was made by a 20-year-old “discovered” on Instagram. Well, forget that. Cat Power’s Chan Marshall somehow managed to do what she’s so good at—heartbreaking piano lines, smoky vocals, lyrics that make you overthink every relationship you’ve ever had—in newly clever ways. Matador, her former label, allegedly wanted the follow up to her 2012 album Sun to be such a hit that they basically rejected it—the pressure propelled Marshall towards signing with Domino for this album instead.
As a new mother too, the 46-year-old juggles concepts of rebirth and renewal throughout. Yes, Lana Del Rey appears on duet “Woman.” Yes, Chan covers Sia-written “Stay.” But the beauty of Wanderer lies in its multi-tracked vocals, which feel like about seven Chans are sitting in your speakers or headphones at once, whispering at you about the “dead man” who “Threw me in the bag with ice and a slab / Can of coke down my throat, almost his whole hand fittin’ in.” These are not the chart-topping electropop bangers Matador may have wanted, but they are piercing, often brutal, cuts. Especially with the Auto-Tune. —Tshepo Mokoena
Who knew that Beach House was actually a shoegaze band? It’s albums like 7 that separate retrogazing mid-00s indie rock from the artists who happened to be born from that era. Part of the shift can be credited to producer and ex-Spacemen 3 member Sonic Boom, who guided the Baltimore duo away from the polish and winsome of much of its past work and into the eye of recklessness and fragility.
“Pay No Mind,” with its lilting guitar line and spare drums, could be a lost Jesus & Mary Chain cut, shuffling and sighing at the pace of its central waning relationship. “Dark Spring” and “Dive,” meanwhile, are Loveless-esque, matching the band’s signature wall of synths with droning rhythms and dissonant key shifts that land in the common ground between anxiety and hopefulness. 7 feels less careful in its construction (drum programming is replaced with rumbling crashes, for example), and less precious about the space it explores. It’s a heavier record, a darker one—abandoning nostalgia for the unknown in favor of giving yourself over to an uncertain reality. —Andrea Domanick
D.C. outfit Ilsa has released five full-lengths over the course of their decade-long career, and each entry into their fetid canon seems to ooze blacker, uglier, and more rotten. Death/doom as a genre isn’t exactly known for its refinement, and Ilsa ramp up the filth and fury by embracing a crusty, punk-bred sensibility and horror-born creepiness. Corpse Fortress is a wonderfully joyless slog through zombie hell; its 11 depraved tracks crawl on bloody stumps, and lurch along with claws outstretched. The album “rides hard along the crumbling path trodden by down-tuned degenerates like Autopsy, Bolt Thrower, Asphyx, and crust punk heavyweights Antisect and Anti Cimex, and is crowned with a warm, wooly guitar tone that’s pure rotten filth, a subterranean low end, and strained, shredded vocals,” as Noisey noted previously. It is unquestionably one of the nastiest recordings of 2018. —Kim Kelly
Deafheaven chose to introduce this album—their first since 2015’s New Bermuda—with an absolute unit of a song called “Honeycomb” that begins in black metal and ends up in post-rock by way of proggy noodling and power-pop. All things considered, it should come off as showy—stupid, even. But Deafheaven’s theatrics have never been without self-awareness. We’re talking about a black metal band (nominally, at least) whose merchandise for their 2013 debut Sunbather included a run of beach towels.
Each movement in “Honeycomb” is nothing short of sublime. It’s a frankly devastating run across the spectrum of human emotion, providing a handy simulation for anyone who has had the good fortune of never experiencing intense mood swings. The rest of the album follows in equally crushing suit, although the other tracks are more meditative, tending to settle on one mood and take time unpacking it. Overall, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love doesn’t lack unification but it certainly doesn’t linger in one place for too long. Deafheaven has always been a band of extremes. Placing everything from bliss to destruction under a magnifying glass, the record mines the depths of human experience only to highlight how fragile it is. —Emma Garland
BROCKHAMPTON’s sound has always been abrasive. That said, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that has come out this year that sounds more beautiful than “HONEY.” The crew grapples with the taxing pitfalls of trauma, bipartisanship, and financial ambition over a droning instrumental, and then boom! A sample of Beyonce’s “Dance For You“ comes in, and the drums land so hard that sirens start blaring and the song morphs into some angelic sonic implosion filled with flexes about chrysanthemums.
That’s not to say the rest of the album wants for highs. “J’OUVERT” juxtaposes heavy basslines against soca rhythms of “Doh Blame Meh.” Meanwhile, “SAN MARCOS” marries the band’s waxing about their humble origins with a choir singing about wanting more in life. More than anything, the album showcases Brockhampton as accomplished conductors of sound, refining chaos into higher-order music. Jesus Christ, though—“HONEY” is incredible. —Jabbari Weekes
A.A.L.—short for Against All Logic—has always been the sort of spiritual flipside to producer Nicolas Jaar’s solo work, a DJ pseudonym for both skirting radius clauses and serving dance floors something a bit more freewheeling than his cerebral originals. 2012-2017 follows suit, playing like the loose, ecstatic response to the call of last year’s dark, politically outre Sirens. The album—a seamless mix as much as a collection of songs—doubles as a reminder that Chilean-born artist owes as much to the kinetic tradition of the warehouse as he does to leftfield experimentation.
Sirens relied on rhythm and silence to explore themes of history, memory, and oppression; 2012-2017 instead leans on samples and melody, spotlighting the dialog and freedom preserved in the exchange and evolution of sounds. Jaar adds his two cents in the process, inserting a Yeezus sample-of-a-sample into the mirrorball haze of “Such a Bad Way,” or digitally refrying the guts of “Rave on U” and “You Are Going to Love Me and Scream.” “This Old House Is All I Have” and “Know You,” meanwhile, play with genre legacy nods to make the new feel lovingly familiar—or is it the other way around? For Jaar, it’s all a cycle, and the answer is less important than keeping us guessing along with him. —Andrea Domanick
Montreal producer and songwriter Genevieve Ryan Martel, a.k.a. RYAN Playground, wears her influences on her sleeve. Teenage sentiments and Blink-182 melodies abound in the follow-up to her 2016 debut, elle. But where previous releases have seen Ryan leaning into the off-kilter, emotive electronic sounds synonymous with artists Ryan Hemsworth and Nancy Leticia, on 16/17, she forges her own path. Following a more linear song structure, with vocals playing a more significant role this time around, much of 16/17 hangs off lyrical hooks charged with youthful optimism and anxiety.
Speaking to Cult MTL earlier this year, Ryan said the album “was a way to exteriorize what I was most influenced by when I was younger.” This certainly rings true. In the same way your shared folder on Limewire tells a story about you at a certain point in your life, 16/17’s mix of 00s pop-punk sensibilities, minimal electro-pop landscapes, and indie-rock songwriting captures something personal about RYAN Playground. —Emma Garland
There’s a moment on Forever where Popcaan says, “Man a star from day one,” and he’s absolutely correct. “Clarks,” his 2010 breakthrough collaboration with Vybz Kartel, put him on the path to be the dancehall icon’s successor. His rise coincided with mainstream music’s infatuation with an “island sound,” landing him features with Drake, Gorillaz, and Jamie xx. Forever, however, is proof that we’ll still be listening to him long after pop is done emulating Caribbean culture.
The album is steeped in positivity (“Deserve It All”), even amid the paranoia that accompanies fame (“Silence”). Popcaan doesn’t rely on features, except when he enlists Davido for “Dun Rich,” which blends the subgenres of Afrobeats and dancehall in one riddim. Across the album’s 17 tracks, Popcaan doesn’t shy away from exploring his ideas of romance. On Forever, there are a range of devotions to women. “Wine for Me” captures the essence of being enchanted by a swirling waistline, while “Strong Woman” celebrates the dominance Jamaican culture instills in their matriarchs. Popcaan slows it down on “Through the Storm,” a sweeping love song where he sings about seeking redemption for his mistakes. Popcaan is settling into what he wants his legacy to be: love, life, and dancehall. —Kristin Corry
NTS Sessions 1-4 is eight hours long, which means it fills eight CDs or 12 LPs. It’s heavy stuff, literally, but that’s fitting, because the music contained on that pile of discs is too. Autechre’s music has often been dense and mechanical—especially in the years since their workflow has evolved from more traditional composition to trading bits of computer code across the internet. But NTS Sessions is strikingly cold and foreboding even in that context. There are scattered melodies and rhythms, but largely, it’s music without repetition or easily recognizable patterns, reference points by which to orient yourself. If you leave it playing in an empty room, it’s easy to lose track of time, place, sense of self. You could turn it off when you start to feel that way, but the sounds on NTS Sessions are strangely intoxicating, a compelling case for giving yourself over to the machines. —Colin Joyce
Amen Dunes feels like something of an anomaly, as though the music he makes—slightly stoned, not-quite-tripping classic rock—shouldn’t exist in 2018. Cosmic, euphoric, and cocky, Freedom will stir up feelings in anyone who ground their teeth watching Oasis at Knebworth in 1996, or has smoked a joint while listening to Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, or has taken mushrooms at least once in their life. Which isn’t to say that it’s a druggy record, per se—more that Freedom is a modern psychedelic album that involves guitars, isn’t Tame Impala, and has a bunch of hooks. Whether you’re listening to the tense groove on “Miki Dora,” or huge, kaleidoscopic opener “Blue Rose,” it’s music for all ages and all the family, the perfect soundtrack for looking at the clouds and thinking about death (which is actually what this album is about). —Ryan Bassil
There’s something utopian about Makaya McCraven’s third album, Universal Beings. It’s baked into the circumstances that birthed the record, which was recorded in improvised sessions with four different bands in four different cities around the world, then edited into cross-cultural unity by McCraven, who has a knack for finding and preserving the gems in each jam.
But that spirit extends to the music itself. You can hear it in hopeful bent of Shabaka Hutchings’ saxophone melodies on “Inner Flight,” or the celestial harp runs from Brandee Younger on “Holy Lands.” Those two parts were improvised by musicians playing nearly 800 miles apart, without the benefit of hearing what the other had made up—but they’re linked by a feeling of cosmic striving, one that runs through all of the music McCraven compiles here. Maybe that’s the point of the title: These players are all part of something bigger, tied together by bonds we cannot see. —Colin Joyce
Bottle It In, the seventh solo full-length from indie stalwart Kurt Vile, is the songwriter’s most layered yet. That’s a big claim, too, considering the Philadelphian’s onion-like discography—one you can peel back slowly but surely, discovering more and more innovative sounds with each listen. Written and recorded over two years, the album is testament to obsessive craftsmanship, and how minutely tweaking and shaping a sound can give it its own life.
Nowhere is that logic more apparent than on “Bassackwards” and “Bottle It In”—two songs that get lost within themselves, hanging around ten minutes in length—but the entire record isn’t just one long vibe. “Come Again,” which arrives near the end, is a lowkey banjo earworm that recalls Vile’s “Pretty Pimpin’” pop sensibilities. This is a very cool record for music dorks. —Eric Sundermann
There are plenty of things that make Lucy Dacus’ Historian a standout. There’s the guitar: warm, restrained in parts, then suddenly rich and churning, like fresh swirls of butter. There’s her voice: odd, otherworldly and full-bodied, like slowly pouring warm syrup into a cold jug. But it’s her lyrics that really elevate the whole thing. “I used to be too deep inside my head / Now I’m too far out of my skin,” she sings on “Next of Kin,” a line that sounds simple and instinctive, but makes you sit up with surprise when it hits you. Later, she repeats it again, drawing it out slowly over thick, distorted riffs. Moments like these feel so striking and delicious, you want to bite down on them. —Daisy Jones
I’m All Ears, the second record by Norwich, England’s Let’s Eat Grandma, has a visual quality. The duo’s self-described “experimental sludge pop” glistens purple and green like an oil spill, the colors so vivid you can almost see them. Every song on the album leaves a type of phosphorescent snail trail, with Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth’s joint vocals skating on top of creaky, metallic synths. “Hot Pink” and “It’s Not Just Me,” co-written with SOPHIE, interpolate the producer’s disruptive sensibilities into the group’s neon world.
While speeding through this glittery slime terrain, you realize how adept Walton and Hollingworth are at translating emotions into sounds. “Falling Into Me,” in particular, uses unexpected details to communicate the closeness and immediacy of a relationship: “You left a dent in my home screen.” This is music that glows like stars stuck on a childhood bedroom ceiling, music seems as though it has felt everything. —Lauren O’Neill
On “Nowhere2go,” the first single from Earl Sweatshirt’s third studio record, there’s this incredible moment of clarity. It’s about halfway through the track, shortly after the 24-year-old raps, “You went and gave me a cape / but that never gave me no hope,” a line that can be read as crippling self doubt in spite of success. The production swells, and a note sails over the track—a burst of sunlight through the stormy clouds.
Earl’s searching for his cloudburst. This album captures that process, and especially what it feels like to go through it in 2018—assaulted by the computers, the phones, the electricity in the air. Really, life’s made in those moments—the frustration of everything piling up so much that you’re not even sure where the pressure begins. This is a record made by someone who is trying. They don’t like shit, don’t want to talk to you, don’t want to talk to anyone. But they try.
Keep trying. Look to the sky. Be optimistic. Hope for the future. If you hang on, you’ll find those elegant moments in the chaos, and they’ll be more beautiful than you could ever imagine. —Eric Sundermann
At Moogfest earlier this year, Yves Tumor—real name unclear, current location unknown—took the stage in a cowboy hat, a white face mask, and black jacket with a Japanese character on the back. His set’s metallic clangs, guttural yelps, and deafening static were enough to scare at least one person out of of the room—but just when it seemed like his audience couldn’t take it any longer, he suddenly and decisively reeled everyone back in, closing out his set with the most exquisitely beautiful archival soul song.
Tumor is a master at that sort of push and pull, and Safe in the Hands of Love, his Warp debut, sees him prodding our emotions with the specificity of a chef working with tweezers. Listen closely to the swell of film-noir jazz trumpet on album opener “Faith in Nothing Except Salvation,” and you’ll notice that he’s marking the polyrhythmic offbeats with what sounds like the scratch of sandpaper; try to figure out why the staccato hits on “Hope in Suffering (Escaping Oblivion & Overcoming Powerless)” conjure images of trench warfare, and you’ll probably flash back to the carrion fly-like buzzing seeded earlier in the track. Flitting between hyper-elastic synth work, cozy classical flourishes, and vocal cuts that sound strangely reminiscent of 90s alt rock, it couldn’t be more tonally incoherent. But in its cataloguing of the many emotions that can live inside a single human being, it somehow feels more complete than most. —Emilie Friedlander
Frances Quinlan, the heart of Philadelphia’s Hop Along, is one of the most interesting vocalists in rock music. On Bark Your Head Off, Dog, her scratchy vibrato is at turns fragile and boisterous, often on the same song—and as the album unfolds, she leads her band through the many fascinating corridors of their own making.
Hop Along’s compositions are a little uncontained, as though they could veer anywhere at any moment. The result is music that feels like it was made to be sunk into, pored over—almost ingested. Quinlan’s lyrics range from the personal to the Biblical (as on the fantastically original “Not Abel”), and they’re complemented by guitar lines that mold delicately to her delivery, lending the record a level of momentum that might initially seem at odds with its complexity. But Hop Along strike that balance effortlessly, with a deft combination of precision, lightness, and intensity. —Lauren O’Neill
Yovel is an enigma—even within the confines of a genre like black metal, which prides itself on occupying shadows. The Athens collective spares little information about its makeup or mission outside of its political character—about which it’s abundantly clear. Anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, and wholly uncompromising, the band crafts what they call “black metal for the oppressed,” railing against Nazis and capitalist leeches in the name of resistance, blasting out riff after riff of Hellenic fury, and relying on an elegantly sense of melody to tie it all together. Hɪðəˈtu is their first album, and it spread through DIY channels like wildfire. It’s as much a manifesto as it is a debut, calling for “a much needed revοlt that must turn this world upside-down” atop a frosty backdrop of tense, articulate black metal, demonic roars, and pointed audio samples. —Kim Kelly
There are at least 21 vocalists across Negro Swan’s 16 tracks, not even counting Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes. Granted, some of those are vignettes, or spoken interludes delivered by writer and trans rights activist Janet Mock. But even taking all that into account, Negro Swan is only 49 minutes long, because come on, this is Hynes: He’s always done things in a singular way, whether as part of Test Icicles, as Lightspeed Champion, or duetting with Skepta under his given name.
Sure, this album is a celebration of blackness (see: single “Charcoal Baby”) and of being an outsider (“Orlando”). But in case you couldn’t tell from all the features, Hynes also treasures the energy of collaboration, steering people like Diddy, Tei Shi and A$AP Rocky into contexts that welcome their voices without drowning out his own. And so Negro Swan manages to be his most autobiographical and intimate Blood Orange album yet, while also adhering to a porous structure. It’s richly produced, layering guitars, synths, and heartbreaking lyrics. And it’s the new rebuttal you can use with anyone who thinks that “too many cooks spoil the broth” in modern music. —Tshepo Mokoena
A few tracks into Gangland Landlord, Mozzy unspools a grand tragicomedy. A man locked up for a crime he didn’t commit on the basis of circumstantial evidence suffers more when a partner leaves him for a friend who—in the eyes of his kids—swiftly evolves “from uncle to step-daddy.” It’s cold shit, related with a heavy-lidded flow and comic indifference by the Sacramento rapper, as though to suggest that this is just the way things go when you and your friends are targets of the carceral state.
As detail-packed as this little anecdote is, Mozzy condenses it all into just four lines. That’s his greatest talent on this record—compressing complex stories about life and loss into economical, whip-smart packages. It’s no wonder the man who shouted him out on the Grammys stage would go on to win a Pulitzer—Mozzy is a writer’s writer. —Colin Joyce
One of the strangest aspects of the human experience is how feeling awful can suddenly and violently shift into feeling absolutely ecstatic. Mourning can lead to laughter, and tears can beget grins. As much as we’d like to think that emotions can be compartmentalized, most of the time, everything’s just a bit messy.
Car Seat Headrest’s 11th record feeds off the mess. A re-recording of an album written and recorded by frontman Will Toledo when he was 19, Twin Fantasy is a long, dense, emotionally rich song cycle about a broken relationship. Toledo deals in big philosophical abstractions and self-referential musings while occasionally cutting to jarringly specific scenes; a passage about old Car Seat Headrest songs on “Beach Life-in-Death,” for example, gives way to an anecdote about Toledo pretending he was drunk when he came out to his friends. But this tendency towards verbosity never obscures the group’s ability to craft an honest-to-god ripper of an indie rock song.
Twin Fantasy’s sound references The Killers and The Strokes and other great 2000s bands, and its lyrics reference Frank Ocean and David Lynch. Most of its songs sit somewhere between six and 16 minutes long, but none of them would sound particularly out of place on the radio or in an arena. And if the idea of a 16-minute pop song sounds like too much to you, feel safe in knowing that too much is entirely the point— Twin Fantasy thrives on the chaos, and, by record’s end, makes a pretty good case for giving in to it. —Shaad D’Souza
Until only recently, Kanye West had taken it upon himself to be the savior of “free speech.” In reality, he was just saying a lot about nothing. Which makes it especially fitting that the first time we hear West on “Feel The Love”—the first track on KIDS SEE GHOSTS, his collaborative project with Cudi—he’s speaking actual nonsense: “Grrrat-gat Gat-gat, gat, ga-ga-ga-ga-gat…Brrr-ah-rrr-ah, brrr-ah-gat-gat-ga/ Rude-rude-rude-rude-woo!” But unlike the mediocre chaos of his current solo output, the “Grrr-gat”s enliven the song.
“Cudi Montage,” which utilizes a riff from Kurt Cobain’s “Burn The Rain,” sounds like the final form of all the whiffed ideas on Cudi’s grunge paean Speeding Bullet 2 Heaven. The track is a concise three minutes, and though it could, should, veer off, it maintains a degree of focus, with Ye lamenting the cycle of gang violence and Cudi asking the Lord to help him through his trials. But the true moment of catharsis happens on “Freeee (Ghost Town, Pt. 2),” where the duo dip into a trippy lower register and yell about feeling “FREEEEEE-EEEUHH over some Canaan-esque psych-rock. West has always made feeling paramount to clarity, and so has Cudi, but together they temper each other’s superfluous instincts. Teaming up enabled both of them to step outside themselves for a moment and create something beautiful. —Jabbari Weekes
When the echoes of grief slow from pained screeches to a dull foreboding hum, what fills the vacated frequencies? This is one of the many unanswerable questions that drive Now Only, the songwriter Phil Elverum’s second album about the death of his wife Genevieve, and what comes after. He asks it more or less directly on the record’s second track: “Is it my job now to hold whatever’s left of you for all time?” On that song—a discursive, meandering 11-minute monologue detailing his life-long relationship with mortality—he doesn’t come close to any answers, nor does he anywhere else across the record’s six tracks.
Elverum can now tell you what death looks like, but he isn’t any closer to knowing what it means. In response, he’s gone and made a record that’s weirdly funny at points. The title track features a jaunty chorus that goes, “People get cancer and die / People get hit by trucks and die”—but also a memory about leaning on Skrillex’s tour bus at a festival in Arizona, thinking about his place in the universe. Part of the genius of Now Only is in moments like that one—where he is able to find the humor in the absurdity of being alive. There is no right way forward, he seems to say, so you can laugh or cry—just do what feels right. —Colin Joyce
Pacific Northwest doom metal icons YOB truly brought the thunder on their eighth album, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that it might have never been made. Our Raw Heart is the band’s first recorded outing following its beloved, shamanistic frontman Mike Scheidt’s 2016 diagnosis and ensuing battle with acute diverticulitis. He survived, and channeled the flood of emotions borne of that ordeal into his creative endeavors; accordingly, Our Raw Heart has a darker feel than the rest of the band’s mighty catalogue. Gentler moments succumb to the overall volume, and Scheidt’s voice—at times a rumble, at others, a reedy cry—retains its elemental power. Even amidst the crashing waves, crumbling riffs, and quantum visions on songs like “The Screen,” Scheidt still entreats the listener to rise, rise, rise. Now, as always, YOB is love. —Kim Kelly
Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, so when Freddie Gibbs recreated the cover of Teddy Pendergrass’s third album for Freddie, it felt like an affectionate practical joke. The Midwest MC’s 25-minute album isn’t exactly a departure from his usual gritty raps, but the image—like the 80s-style infomercial he released to accompany the album—suggest that Gibbs isn’t taking himself too seriously. The production on “Triple Threat” and “2Legit” feels consistent with his persona as “Freddie,” the R&B/soul singer on the cover; the latter samples Mary J. Blige’s “My Life,” which borrows from Roy Ayers’s 1976 “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” But Gibbs isn’t trying to adjust his style to these beat selections. His vocals are as grimey as ever—and that’s the best part.
“Death Row,” a standout on the 10-track album, features Los Angeles rapper 03 Greedo. The two pay homage to Eazy E’s “Boyz-N-Tha-Hood,” taking turns rapping over the twinkling production. Released months after Greedo was sentenced to a 20-year jail sentence, “Death Row” captures the pain of losing the rapper at his peak to the criminal justice system in just a little over two minutes. The only song longer than three is haunting closer “Diamonds 2,” where he confronts his feelings surrounding the mother of his child and his use prescription pills. At 25 minutes, Freddie does what longer albums often fail to do: It gets to the point. —Kristin Corry
South London’s Shame have charisma in spades, reminding us that rock music can still be a place for combustion and thrill. Like a Violent Femmes for the post-Brexit era, they’ve got the mischief and fury of those too smart and bored for their own good (think: a kid standing in the middle of the suburbs with a gas canister in hand and a smirk on his face). Their music isn’t dangerous in the physical sense—they’ve even been known to stop shows when the crowd gets too wild, which is often—but it stuns you with its its self-awareness and conviction, the band’s ability to read and play with the paradoxes of the world around them.
“Tasteless” offers a loud-quiet-loud diatribe on social indifference, capped with the line “I like you better when you’re not around” repeated a mantra-like 16 times. “Gold Hole,” meanwhile, tells the story of a lecherous sugar daddy, one made all the more uncomfortably vivid by frontman Charlie Steen’s lusty growls and choked desperation. It’s one of many tracks you where can almost feel hot spit landing in your ear. Its residue—impassioned, articulate, pissed off—lingers long after the song ends. —Andrea Domanick
The central thesis of Uchis’ languorous, lushly produced debut full-length is that nobody understands the real Kali Uchis: not the boys she grifts, not the industry vultures she meets around town, not her father, who kicked her out at 17. She’s all alone in a Los Angeles that’s dreamlike for the rich and famous and rotten to the core if you’re anything less, where nobody has the time to give a chance to a young Colombian woman with no connections. So, across Isolation’s narcotized 46 minutes, Uchis forges her own path, realizing that she can’t trust deadbeat men to give her the future she wants. Or, as she puts it on the venomous “Miami”: “Why would I be Kim? I could be Kanye.”
Like Kanye, Uchis proves herself to be an artist with a shrewd understanding of her own sound. Isolation features work from a lot of bullishly singular musicians, including Damon Albarn, BadBadNotGood, Kevin Parker, Steve Lacy, and Thundercat, but it rarely strays far enough from Uchis’ vision for them to overpower things. Isolation is characterized by a distinctive, noxious humidity, creating feeling that you might just collapse if you spend too much time in its atmosphere. There are moments of respite—among them, the chiptune-ish “In My Dreams” and Bootsy Collins and Tyler, the Creator-aided “After the Storm”—but for the most part, Uchis traps you in her silk-and-satin spiderweb. Now that Isolation is out in the world, she faces a dilemma of a different kind: When you’ve perfected your sound on your first record, where do you go next? —Shaad D’Souza
In the streaming era, albums made to be swallowed whole can feel like a dying breed. Back in March, however, Sophie Allison’s Soccer Mommy released Clean, 34 minutes of indie rock that was, above all, refreshingly cohesive. Though many of its laid-back, poppy tunes could confidently stand alone—“Your Dog,” “Cool,” and “Last Girl” all rage about as hard as slacker rock like this gets—the record’s most affecting moments arise with its unfolding story of love, infatuation, heartbreak, and self-actualization. After singing the resigned refrain, “Only what you wanted for a little while,” on early track “Still Clean,” she processes her emotions and comes full circle, giving way to a repeat of the “Still Clean” riff on the closing song. It’s a flourish that—in its poignancy and nod of reverence toward the album form—remains one of the year’s most memorable musical moments. —Lauren O’Neill
There might never be another run like Future’s hall-of-fame stretch from 2014 to 2015—the beautiful ten-month period that gave birth to Monster, Beast Mode, 56 Nights, and DS2 (and maybe soundtracked a generation of rap fans doing way too many drugs). But with the release of BEASTMODE 2 back in July, we saw Nayvadius Wilburn return—albeit briefly—to this familiar zone, rescuing rap fans from a summer jam-packed with mediocre albums from legacy artists. On BM2, we’re reintroduced to the superhero duo that is Future and Zaytoven, the latter of whom knows exactly how to pull the most poignant, painful elegance out of the rapper. Tracks like “31 Days” and “When I Think About It” strike classic Future chords, full of despair, self-loathing, and a twisted nihilism. And “Hate the Real Me” might just be the best song the 35-year-old MC ever recorded. Pushing forward while falling back, hating yourself while despising your selfishness—this hero is beyond tormented, and BEASTMODE 2 wouldn’t succeed any other way. —Eric Sundermann
It’s easy to make a good nighttime album. It’s a lot trickier to make an album for the clarity of the morning after. And Nothing Hurt is one of those albums, a departure from the anxiety that has defined much of Spiritualized’s work. It’s arguably the most beautiful music of Jason Pierce’s career.
Pierce has always dealt in feeling, rather than genre. He finds common ground in disparate sounds and uses them to explore what it means to be human. Now in his 50s, Pierce eschews the usual themes of sex, death, and oblivion in favor of the relatively quotidien—falling in love, falling out of love, getting older, contemplating life’s regrets through the rearview mirror. On “I’m Your Man,” he tackles a flawed relationship with country sorrow and big-band zeal; on “On the Sunshine,” he struggles to make sense of time’s fragility over feedback and screeching horns. “The Prize” sees him pondering life’s meaning over a lo-fi blues waltz.
Pierce embraces it all with new lucidity and tenderness. There’s no conclusion or epiphany, just the imperfect wisdom of someone contemplating whether he’s got anything worthwhile left to say. His guess is as good as anyone’s. “Gonna burn brightly for a while,” he sings on “The Prize.” “Then you’re gone.” —Andrea Domanick
Halfway through Vessel, Frankie Cosmos’ Sub Pop debut, frontperson Greta Kline dreams of a monster. “I created a scorpion / And then had to kill it,” she sings on “Jesse.” “Just like I loved you / And I had to will it to end.”
Sometimes, a scorpion represents Lucifer. Mostly, though, it’s simpler than that: Scorpions are venomous. Vessel finds Kline battling with all the ways life tries to slowly poison us, both through personal tragedies like break-ups and day-to-day occurrences like working or taking the train. As with earlier records Zentropy and Next Thing, it encompasses millions of finely wrought worlds, but she doesn’t rove them with the same wonder that she once did. In the face of heartbreak and constant touring, the world’s a bitch, and the magical realism that defined her early work can’t mitigate that.
Vessel is a more difficult listen than Kline’s earlier records; there is a darkness to the arrangements—more guitar, less synth—and in Kline’s lyrics, which can feel despondent, desperate, or both. Highlight “Accommodate” feels like a scream that never really comes to fruition; on the track’s explosive chorus, she lets out her most nakedly emotional lyrics to date. “My body is a burden / I’m always yearning / To be less accommodating / To say aloud how I’m feeling,” she sings in a tightly wound falsetto. Kline’s ability to trawl through such harsh territory in search of meaning pushes Vessel ahead of the many other indie rock records preoccupied with horrific sadness. Anyone can kill a scorpion; only Kline is willing to sift through all the guts to find beauty. —Shaad D’Souza
Incisive, contradictory, sometimes sarcastic, and mostly delivered with the sharp brutality of an elbow to the face in the middle of a street scrap, Veteran captures the monstrous, Twitter-shit spirit of 2018 better than any other record. Alabama-born rapper, military veteran, and jaded journalism graduate Barrington Hendricks has spent so much time online that he has a song about the demise of a video game forum called “My Thoughts on NeoGAF Dying,” mostly comprised of him saying “I don’t care” over and over again. He screams that he’ll “Put hands on a blogger / Make ’em beg for his life.” On the worryingly downcast “Panic Emoji” he groans, “I keep smoking weed / And I masturbate constantly.”
He does this all over his own mottled, malfunctioning beats, snapping into furious flows, falling into depressive interludes, then breaking things up with biting one-liners. It’s gripping and disturbing and filled with righteous indignation—a witty, viral manifesto written through a character on the brink. If the earth hasn’t burned to a cinder in half a century, history teachers should use Veteran as a primary text. —Alex Robert Ross
UK feminist hardcore outfit Svalbard want to watch the old world burn, and they’ll be there to build something better once the smoke clears. The band’s take on hardcore veers towards stadium crust—Fall of Efrafa and latter-day Tragedy come to mind—but avoids sacrificing an ounce of necessary rage. All that—coupled with an uncompromising, outspoken political stance that sees It’s Hard To Have Hope tackle weighty issues of class privilege, wage theft, misogyny, and sexual harassment—makes for a vital, impressive album, one with its fingers curled tight around the pulse of 2018. —Kim Kelly
While his public persona goes viral seemingly every other day of the week, Vince Staples has been quietly continuing to prove that he’s one of the best rappers around. And with his third full-length, FM!, he’s found the best version of himself. After the beefy Summertime ’06 and the dance-friendly Big Fish Theory, FM! feels like an exercise in self-editing. Its 11 tracks clock in at a brisk 22-minutes, with the 25-year-old focusing on what he does best: short bursts of rapping extremely well. His sharp lyricism flies over beats that drip with a regional West Coast vibe, curated primarily by producer of the year, Kenny Beats. Songs like “Feels Like Summer,” “No Bleedin,” and “Run the Bands” showcase Staples’ ability to float, channeling the G-Funk-inspired, bouncy Long Beach energy that’s come to define his sound—one we only hope will dominate for years to come. —Eric Sundermann
A group of rave mystics from the Midwest has spent the last few years evangelizing about a force called “the Motherbeat.” Eris Drew, the DJ from Chicago who popularized the term, says it was coined in the early 90s by a friend in the throes of a psychedelic experience who understood the “ambient sound” surrounding a party to be in tune with the sounds of the party itself. Everything was one. Playing dance music, for Drew and other adherents of the Motherbeat, is a means of communing with that spiritual force, of finding wholeness in a broken world.
DJ Healer is not explicitly a part of that scene, but Nothing 2 Loose clearly worships at a similar altar. On the record, there’s serpentine breaks (“Planet Lonely”), chattery deep house (“We Are Going Nowhere”), slo-mo techno, and a number of other major moments in rave history—but it’s all linked by a distinctively airy, magic-hour ambiance. Crackly synths and washed-out found sounds bridge gaps between the disparate sounds and styles, at turns evoking church organs and murmured prayers. There are few legible vocals, but the ones that do appear gesture toward transcendence. “That’s God’s creation,” intones one disembodied voice. “It’s absolutely amazing to look at it.” It’s music uplifting enough to make you consider the existence of a higher power—the Motherbeat, perhaps. —Colin Joyce
In the months leading up to her debut LP, Rico Nasty took to calling herself Trap Lavigne, which turned out to be pretty indicative of the new direction of her music. Like Avril, Rico’s got a flair for anthemics, this charismatic way of tweaking little phrases so that they turn from casual boasts to fists-in-the-air epics. The chorus of “In the Air,” a single featuring Blocboy JB, could have easily been a straightforward ode to making it rain, but the sing-songy repetition of “So much money in the air / In the air-air” makes it fit for angsty teens to scream at crowded shows. She repeats that skill throughout, coupling shout-along choruses with pummeling production from people like Kenny Beats and Tay Keith, who know how to make 808s feel like blast-beats. In the past, Rico called her music “sugar trap,” but that doesn’t really feel like it describes her tracks anymore. Nasty isn’t saccharine at all; it’s music for mosh pits. —Colin Joyce
Other bands may have had a good year, but Culture Abuse had the best one. They signed to Epitaph Records, released the album they envisioned without compromising, and are touring the world faster than their van’s tires can keep up.
Their sophomore album, Bay Dream, is the sound of a band that’s riding a wave. The record sees the West Coast punks ditching much of the cathartic ground-and-pound crunch featured on their 2016 debut, Peach, and replacing it with a fuck-ton of reverb and poppy riffs that sound like they’ve been soaking in the California sun. It’s a dramatic shift, and a risky one for a band that was just starting to find its audience. But not only have their newfound fans been down for the change-up, they seem down for anything Culture Abuse puts their name on. In fact, if there’s one thing Bay Dream has proven about Culture Abuse, it’s that it’s not a fanbase they’re building—it’s a cult. —Dan Ozzi
The self-described “angry queer gloom cult” behind one of 2018’s most affecting doom metal releases hails from placid Hamilton, Ontario, where they run a vegan restaurant when they’re not obliterating eardrums and gleefully shutting down Nazi trolls on Twitter. Distortion acts as the band’s third member (joining drummer/guitarist Vic and guitarist/vocalist KW), propelling the long, serpentine compositions on Cast of Static and Smoke to new depths. The album itself is a dystopian sci-fi tale set after the fall of civilization, and Vile Creature forages fragile shards of beauty from the rubble. “Vile Creature’s interpretation of doom is red in tooth and claw, lighting candles and casting shadows,” as Noisey noted previously. “They’re here, they’re queer, and they’re going to pummel the shit out of your eardrums.” —Kim Kelly
Mitski announced her fifth album, Be the Cowboy, with a lurching swell she called “Geyser.” The track—powered by a driving sense of desperation—was accompanied by a visual which saw the artist digging frantically on a beach. It promised fans the same Mitski, but with the doors flung open (more breadth; more breath), and Be the Cowboy delivers on those early indicators.
The lyrical candor remains, this time stretched into new musical dimensions, as disco synths soundtrack dreadful loneliness (“Nobody”) and robust rockstar riffs curl around a never-satisfied need to be acknowledged (“Remember My Name”). Be the Cowboy is an accessible meditation on selfhood, and just as a self is often multiplicitous, so is Mitski’s masterful use of various genres—ducking and diving, though always brought together by the devastating deftness of her lyrical hand. —Lauren O’Neill
Details about Friends. Lovers. Favorites., the debut LP from The HIRS Collective, had been trickling into punk circles for months before its release. Its rumored guest appearances seemed so numerous and implausible that they almost grew into lore. And yet, amazingly, Friends. Lovers. Favorites. somehow over-delivered on its promises.
The record is an audacious project that wrangles contributions from nearly a dozen musicians. On “Invisible,” Garbage’s Shirley Manson delivers a stone-cold monologue that flips the idea of trans visibility on its head and renders those in power as the ones unrecognized by society. A few seconds later, Laura Jane Grace burns through a 30-second blast of level-puncturing hardcore about an estrogen-addled limp dick that is sonically and lyrically more cutthroat than most Against Me! fans are probably used to. Martin Sorrondeguy of Los Crudos/Limp Wrist, Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females, Erica Freas of RVIVR, Alice Bag, and more all kick in their own parts as the album winds through a well-orchestrated jumble of various hardcore identities.
There are so many ways this record could have crashed and burned under the weight of its own ambition, but it’s held together by the glue of catharsis. More than a call for visibility, Friends. Lovers. Favorites. is a warning of trans vengeance, screamed by a small army of heavy hitters. —Dan Ozzi
“Everything starts the same” is the first line from Nothing’s Dance on the Blacktop, and it’s one that foreshadows the entire album. All nine tracks (and three bonus ones) explore the melancholy nature of existence. Full of dizzy distortion and heavy instruments, it feels like you’re being let in on a secret that we all know to be true: Nothing lasts forever in this fucked up, dirty world.
The album is at once fuzzy, dreamy, and, somehow, perfectly clear. Vocalist and guitarist Domenic (Nicky) Palermo sings of self-destruction with the kind of specificity that makes even the most personal and intimate confessions feel readily accessible. It’s a record that lives in the hour past last call, with its droning guitars ringing around your head like one too many city-wide specials. It’s the dull push of a hangover that will drag into the morning, and it hits you where it hurts. Indeed, everything does start—and end—the same. —Dessie Jackson
As a pop futurist, SOPHIE always held outdated forms like “albums” in a bit of contempt. She started working on the tracks that make up Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides as a bit of an industry gambit. “You can’t be on the front of a magazine if you haven’t got an album out,” she bluntly told Jezebel earlier this year. It turns out that despite her disdain for the format, she’s really good at making records.
Like her past work, the instrumentals are built around idiosyncratic and absurdist sound design—drum hits can evoke spiked cans of Orange Crush, strummed Slinkys, or stretching Neoprene. At their best, the sounds fall somewhere in between, shrieking and squeaking like consumer-grade synthetics that don’t yet have focus-grouped names. But that inventiveness is a given. On Oil, she proves herself an empathic pop songwriter as well—crafting deliriously catchy songs about the commodification of the human form (“Faceshopping”), unanswered desire (“Infatuation”), and radical forgiveness (“It’s Okay to Cry”). Her past hits played like commercial interstitials on interstellar radio stations, but the songs on Oil are the real deal. In another galaxy, she’s a superstar. In this one, she’ll just have to settle for being pop’s best mad scientist. —Colin Joyce
A few years ago, U.S. Girls’ Meg Remy was watching the first Republican presidential debate in a hotel room, screaming at the TV, when she realized she was losing her voice. On an a cappella interlude on her seventh album, In a Poem Unlimited, you can hear the cold she was fighting off—or some approximation of it—in her vocal chords. “Why do I lose my voice when I have something to say?” she croons, straining.
It’s a question that you could read as a metaphor for one woman’s struggle to assert herself, or as a commentary on being deprived of a voice in the broader, political sense. And it’s one that the album’s ten songs all seem to flirt with in some way, even as Remy cloaks her ruminations on power and gender in T-Rex-worthy guitar solos and swelling disco strings—the irresistible hallmarks of musical languages forged in large part by men. With its crystalline production and roster of 20 collaborators, the record marks a clear departure from Remy’s years of playing noise shows in smelly basements. But whether she’s singing from the perspective of a woman whose job at an oil refinery has rendered her unable to bear children, or another who sleeps with one eye open for fear that an old lover over might return, it feels more like the unfurling of an idea that was there all along. Like Cindy Sherman, Remy contains multitudes; they’ve simply never sounded this operatic before. —Emilie Friedlander
Before he released breakout single “Party Here”—a colorful club track beloved by Drake, a fact the British rapper seems more or less indifferent to—Octavian was by his own estimation desperately poor and more or less homeless, unable to access England’s welfare programs by virtue of the fact that he was born in France. Many millions of streams later, he’s tasted success, but the British rapper has something else on his mind. He told Red Bull earlier this year that he’s motivated entirely by revenge on those who have doubted him. In fact, that was supposed to be the title of his first post-breakout tape, before it was called Spaceman: Revenge.
It might’ve been more fitting in a way—the record’s 14 tracks are built on a language of kiss-offs and fuck-yous, each more deserved than the last. What’s most interesting is the way Octavian shifts through sounds and styles; he has a whole arsenal of ways to tell you to go fuck yourself. He can do it in a zero-g R&B song (like the one straight-up called “Revenge”), or a delirious lullaby (“Here Is Not Safe”), or a luminous house track (“Lightning”). Everyone knows revenge is meant to be served cold, but it’s shocking that the same dish can come in so many flavors. —Colin Joyce
There are a million choices new artists can make when setting the tone for their first project. Yung Miami, half of the City Girls, chooses to come out swinging. “Bitch don’t make me put my wig in a rubber band,” she raps on the first few seconds of “Tighten Up.” Lines like these provide only a glimpse of the tenacity that rips through PERIOD’s 43-minute runtime.
JT and Yung Miami are absolutely audacious on their debut. Their motto is simple—Save your money and spend his—and it’s a philosophy they detail on songs like “How to Pimp a Nigga” and “Millionaire Dick.” Channeling the aura of Miami predecessor Trina, the duo douses their tracklist with the spirit of South Florida marching bands on songs like “Period (We Live),” recalling Slip-N-Slide’s reign in the early aughts. There are other moments on PERIOD that borrow from rap’s lineage of bold women, like their rendition of Salt-N-Pepa’s “I’ll Take Your Man,” and “Fuck on You,” which samples Lil Kim’s “Crush on You.” With only a year under their belt, City Girls are still students of the game; they’re just having fun and clearing out bank accounts along the way. —Kristin Corry
With Cosmic Crypt, their first for indie giants Relapse, the battle-tested, hard-charging Texans behind crusty death squad Mammoth Grinder drew a line in the sand—then promptly stage-dived right the fuck over it. As Noisey noted earlier this year, “The record kick-flips off the once-bulletproof line between death metal and hardcore… conjuring a messy, infinitely headbangable mashup of Bolt Thrower and Entombed with grotty crust, jumpy d-beat, and trace amounts of Ulsh’s equally riff-obsessed other band, Power Trip.” Mammoth Grinder is far greater than the sum of its parts, but the underground heroes behind it—which include members of Impalers and Iron Reagan alongside Ulsh, himself a veteran of Hatred Surge, Iron Age, Innumerable Forms, and others—have carved out an impressive outpouring of deathly aggression, smothered in HM-2 and smeared with grime. —Kim Kelly
When The Internet took a hiatus after 2015’s Ego Death so its members could focus on their respective solo projects, another album from the R&B collective seemed unlikely. By all appearances, though, that death of ego is what granted us the harmonious collaboration we hear on Hive Mind. “Stay the Night” feels nocturnal, with sleepy guitar chords playing beneath Syd’s pleas. “But maybe we should stay cooped up / Like we don’t know what moonlight is,” she sings in a near whisper. “Look What U Started” alternates between scorn and infatuation. “Wasn’t easy but I finally gotten over you / More power to the one that gets a hold of you,” Syd sings, over the funk inflections of Steve Lacy’s guitar. Together, they close out the album with “Hold On,” a song almost too good to be an ending. “You got me on a cloud nine, baby / Feels almost like a dream,” Syd sings, in a tone reminiscent of Aaliyah in the 90s. The song does feel like a dream, with pillowy production and lofty vocals. If Hive Mind is grounded in a spirit of collaboration, that meeting-of-the-minds was clearly only strengthened by Matt Martin’s Drum Chord Theory, Steve Lacys’ Demo EP, and Syd’s Fin. — Kristin Corry
Portrayal of Guilt’s debut album, Let Pain Be Your Guide, kicks off with an ominous clanging, like bells forewarning of impending doom. Clang, clang, clang, clang. The unsettling jangles grow closer, intensifying the panic. Clang, clang, clang, clang. It brings to mind the movie Inglourious Basterds, and the bone-chilling sound The Bear Jew’s baseball bat made as he pounded it against a concrete wall to ready it for Nazi skull-bashing.
The result is the same, really. As soon as the Texas screamo wunderkinds punch the gas, there’s a swift bash to the cranium with an earth-rattling bass, a fiery drum assault, and a deep growl that bellows from hell. From there, the band is off and running, drifting in and out of a vast array of hardcore styles across ten tracks. Clearly devotees of the pg.99/Majority Rule style of grimey punk production (the record was recorded by the latter band’s Matt Michel), Portrayal of Guilt have created something that sounds like it’s been dragged across a bed of nails. Armed with abrasive shrieks and some of the most impressive heavy drumming ever committed to tape, Let Pain Be Your Guide is perhaps the most devastating hardcore release in years. Don’t say the band didn’t warn you up front. —Dan Ozzi
The thing about love is that every time someone slips and falls into its goo, they hilariously think they’re the first person to ever do so. All modern music, with its countless melodies revolving around wanting to make out, suggests otherwise. But south London’s Tirzah manages to pull new, delicate strands out of love’s well-worn fabric, on this long-awaited, warm-to-the-touch album of off-kilter pop. She and the album’s producer, childhood friend Mica Levi (of the Jackie soundtrack and more), have been working on these tracks from teendom (see “Go Now”) to the present day. Her collection of songs is far from one-note, though.
As the title suggests, Devotion is dedicated to the gut punch, headfuck, and shimmering euphoria of being stupidly, completely into someone. In that way, it chronicles love from every angle. There’s the Auto-Tuned, scuzzy guitar hurt of “Guilty,” which Tirzah first shared as a Soundcloud loosie last year. Single “Devotion”—featuring producer Kwes’ brother, Coby Sey, on vocals—features the painfully open-hearted lines: “I just want you to be true to me / I need all your attention / Sometimes I think that’s all I need / But most of all I want your comfort for me.” Love can be all of those things, laid out like a shopping list. It can feel horrible, suffocating, almost blinding. Tirzah has written an album to accompany you as you navigate that all—whether or not you’re, right this moment, in love. —Tshepo Mokoena
Playboi Carti has chosen one of rap’s least complicated molds. He delivers simple bangers as a sentient “What, whut,” “Yuhh, yuhhhh” adlib machine with some gun onomatopoeias thrown in there for the culture. On his debut album Die Lit, Carti’s core remains the same, but sonically he blasts into an entirely different dimension. Here, the instrumentals aren’t wispy and flashy 808 cast-offs thanks to Pi’erre Bourne, who shepherds much of the record—they’re soiled and destructive-sounding affairs. What is happening on “Love Hurts”? Carti doesn’t seem to know, nor does he care, but he and Travis Scott drone about being rock stars over the lo-fi track with a seemingly endless bassline and violent synths. On “Shoota,” the production (courtesy of Maaly Raw) teases a drop for literally half the song before it breaks into mischievous keys while he recalls… something about his “Toolie.” It’s all instinct. —Jabbari Weekes
Brandi Carlile has always had a gift for making songs that just twist your gut. It’s what first brought her to America’s attention when “The Story” was featured on Grey’s Anatomy back in 2007, and what has earned her acclaim well beyond the folk and Americana crowds since. But where her previous five albums nestled these kinds of tracks among more jaunty and pastoral tunes, By the Way, I Forgive You is a ten-song reckoning. Carlile and longtime collaborators, the Twins, offer complex looks at the kind of daily trials that go unspoken at the dinner table—parenthood (“The Mother”), addiction (“Sugartooth”), and politics (“The Joke”) among them.
With more a polished pop sound, thanks in part to producers Shooter Jennings and Dave Cobb, her voice shines with new confidence here. So you can’t help but face what she has to say. Over the course of the record, she meditates on the meaning of forgiveness, and comes to the conclusion that it’s not a polite gesture, but a radical act. —Andrea Domanick
Iceage isn’t exactly good morning music. If you happen to hear their fourth album playing in a coffee shop on your way to work, it’ll derail your commute for at least as long it takes to pull up the lyrics to “Catch It” on your phone and scour them for the sort of wine-soaked, romantic one-liners that got you hooked on Baudelaire in college. But their lyrics never scan as meaningfully on the page as they do when Elias Bender Ronnenfelt snarls or screams them. And yet Iceage is the kind of band that ends up on coffee shop playlists now, and everyone is getting older—which in the Danish rock-group’s case means that even in the throws of theatrical despair, they still sound a little more chilled out.
Beyondless excels at setting a mood, one that will evoke the swollen-eyed dirges and cracking whips of Exploding Plastic Inevitable-era Velvet Underground about as often as it does open-road rock ‘n’ roll, of both the German motorik and British Invasion variety. Touches of violin, trumpet, and sax ratchet up the cinema potential, and when Ronnenfelt sings ballads like “Plead the Fifth,” it’s as though he’s discovering the softer registers of his voice for the first time. For all that newfound patience and delicateness, though, they’re still able to be make even Jim Morrison-level bluster feel charming. —Emilie Friedlander
Lil Baby hadn’t thought about rapping before last year, but he figured it out quickly. After releasing a handful of mixtapes, he stepped into his sound on Harder Than Ever. The newcomer might have scored big with features from Drake (“Yes Indeed”) and Young Thug (“Right Now”), but those collaborations don’t diminish his abilities. On songs like “Southside,” he raps as fast as his Southern drawl will allow, reminiscing on the days in Atlanta’s Zone 4 neighborhood. Unlike a few of his peers who have stayed laser-focused on the swagger Atlanta rap has set a precedent for, Lil Baby has moments of both introspection and drip. The rapper’s style merges the best of melody-driven rap with the street for a recipe that’s both sweet and sour. He signed to Quality Control after spending two years in prison and he’s brought some of those stories with him. “I’ve been having nightmares about jail, so I wake up / Drinkin’ all this lean, popping Adderall so I can stay up,” he raps on “Right Now.” He’s also mastered the “money ain’t a thing” mindset drip requires. “Fifty-five hunnid for a new pair of titties, I buy ‘em like Jordans,” he raps on “First Class.” The level of craft on display here is proof that his sudden rise isn’t an accident, capping seven mixtapes in two years, he’s working harder than ever. —Kristin Corry
Rock ‘n’ roll detractors have long accused the genre of having run its course, and maybe they’re right. Maybe there are no new tricks left in guitar music at this point. The Dirty Nil recognize this problem, but they offer a suggestion on how to fix it: What if—and hear them out—we tried turning the volume knobs all the way the fuck up?
That’s the approach the Canadian three-piece takes on their appropriately titled sophomore record, Master Volume, an homage to rock’s most basic building blocks. It’s a record built for unapologetic power stances, windmill strumming, and drumstick twirling. Frontman Luke Bentham delivers a pitch-perfect vocal performance, from the choir-boy-gone-bad crooning on middle-finger power ballad “Auf Wiedersehen,” to the down-and-dirty screams of “Gimme some more!” on “Please Please.” All in all, it’s the album rock ‘n’ roll needed to set the bar, if not higher, then certainly louder. And if those detractors still have something to say, good luck shouting it over the feedback. —Dan Ozzi
Swimming, the album that Mac Miller left the world before his untimely passing, is his prettiest album. It’s lucid and lush, brushed with rich sounds assembled using the help of Jon Brion, the composer of Eternal Sunshine and The Spotless Mind, one of Miller’s favorite films. There are plenty more collabs hidden in its credits too—Steve Lacy, Snoop Dogg, Dev Hynes, et al—and yet Swimming is a hugely personal record. Strip away the sumptuous production of opening track “Come Back To Earth” and you’re left with Miller strumming his guitar alone, singing about needing a way out of his head. Really, it’s a dark record wrapped in light and airy packaging, where its contents are someone looking for freedom in becoming resigned to their sadness, hoping they will soon overcome it—to be better. This duality provides a more rounded view than the hedonistic lows of Faces and the ambitious, love-themed release The Divine Feminine. It is his best work: peaceful, fluid, heartfelt and touching. —Ryan Bassil
Noname’s raps are poetry. Her time in Chicago’s spoken-word circles granted her the seamless flows and inflections she used to fill her 2016 debut, Telefone. For her follow-up, instead of analyzing the world around her, she voyages inward, exploring love and sexuality in a way we’d never seen her do before.
She is bold on opener “Self,” mentioning the power of her vagina (“My pussy teaching ninth grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism”) and laughing at people who doubted her skill. She is sultry on “Montego Bae,” reminiscing on love found abroad. She is political on “Blaxploitation,” which she uses to criticize racial relations in the modern era. Room 25 is where Noname can be whoever she wants to be. The taboo of being an intelligent rapper or a woman who enjoys sex doesn’t exist. Room 25 demonstrates Noname’s freedom. —Kristin Corry
Black Dresses write with urgency. That’s true in a literal sense—their debut album Wasteisolation is only one small piece of the terrifying universe they’ve crafted over the past couple of years. It’s hard to confidently measure their output, since it’s spread across a number of monikers and Bandcamp pages, but over the last 18 months, the duo’s two members—Rook and Dizzy—have both released a handful of full-length records away from the band, each as fully realized as the next. The point is, they seem have a lot to say, and they’re intent on saying it as soon as they possibly can.
At its best, that songwriting philosophy results in records like Wasteisolation, a verbose collection of static-scoured songs that tick with that desperate desire to get everything off your chest before you run out of time. Rook hints at this crunch explicitly on a verse on “Eternal Nausea”: “Try to see the future, but I’m not sure if it applies.”
And what do you say when a future is not assured to you? Well, everything. Rook and Dizzy unearth old trauma; they sing and chant and squeal about the worst shit that’s ever happened to them, making clear at every juncture how close they feel to annihilation, obliteration, and the afterlife. And yet, the very existence of the record is kind of hopeful—somehow, in spite of all of the bad stuff they’re screaming about, they’re still here. —Colin Joyce
03 Greedo’s journey in 2018 has been more or less messianic. He started the year anointed as the coming king by all the relevant tastemakers. He turned a cult following into an international multitude when he released March’s The Wolf of Grape Street, a record that cemented him as one of Los Angeles’—and the world’s—greatest street-level sermonizers. But then he faced down the brutal arm of the law, pleading guilty to drug and gun charges that whisked him away from the world right when everyone started paying attention. In an interview with Billboard, he summed up his reputation: “It’s like I’m Jesus Christ of the projects.”
God Level, then, is Greedo’s anxious murmurings in the garden of Gethsemane. Released the day before his 20-year prison sentence started—and recorded as part of a burst of productivity that also reportedly resulted in over a dozen other full-length records—its 98 minutes are largely concerned with the heavy matters at hand. There’s a heartbroken ballad called “Bacc 2 Jail,” and a few different sober meditations about the circumstances that put him into this position. Still, he seems at peace somehow—as if he knows that his impending sentence, unjust as it may seem, isn’t the end. He captures that sentiment beautifully on “Floating”: “I leave you walkin’ on air, like I’m walkin’ on water.” —Colin Joyce
Julia Holter’s fifth album, Aviary, sounds like a hundred million thoughts, memories, and ideas rushing forward at once, a gleeful cacophony, a search for meaning inside self-made chaos. It was, according to Holter herself, inspired Mary Carruthers’s The Book of Memory and Etel Adnan’s Master of the Eclipse—books that, in very different ways, dig into the circular, contradictory nature of remembering. Lyrically, the result is often closer to a Gertrude Stein poem, thick with allusions and illusions and inversions that don’t make a shred of sense until you’ve been through them a dozen times. “Wretched in the Moving in the Sleeping in the Swooning in the Bodies in the Morning in the Terror in the Lizard in the Faces in the Chaitius in the Excess in the Casting,” she whispers over a spare piano after the shrieking bagpipes have subsided on “Everyday Is an Emergency.” With a full orchestra at her disposal and a full command over her craft, Holter created a whole new world on Aviary—one that’s every bit as difficult to grasp as our own, but one that always seems rich, filled in with colors and tones that most artists would never dare touch. —Alex Robert Ross
Even before Cardi B’s debut album, Invasion of Privacy, dropped, she made history as the first female rapper with five songs simultaneously on Billboard’s Hip-hop/R&B top 10, and prior to that, her single “Bodak Yellow” was pretty much everywhere. It would have been easy to think that it was all just hype. But with Invasion of Privacy, the Instagram celeb-turned-hip-hop star delivered an album full of bangers that begged the question: Why make one song of the summer when you can serve up a whole album of them?
On “Be Careful,” she warns a lover not to play with her heart over a masterful sample of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex Factor.” With the braggadocious “Bickenhead,” she flips the script on a Three 6 Mafia classic for all her nasty hoes. She reps her city hard on “I Like It,” a song that sounds so much like New York City with its “flexin’ on bitches as hard as I can, eating halal, driving the Lam,” the only thing missing is Cardi yelling out “eyyy I’m walkin’ here!” There has never been anyone like Cardi B, and, for anyone still skeptical of her talent and dedication, it should be mentioned that she recorded most of this album, its videos, and did promo while extremely pregnant. —Leslie Horn
It takes a near-Herculean effort for a band as vital and willfully ambitious as Thou to outdo itself, and yet, that is exactly what the Baton Rouge-born, currently-scattered collective has done on its fifth full-length, Magus. Now joined by new members, Thou spent most of 2018 reinventing itself with a trio of acoustic and grunge-inspired EPs, but on the album, reverts back to a more familiar pattern. Despite the band’s often telegraphed and (mostly) tongue-in-cheek disdain for heavy metal as a concept, doom metal has always lain at the heart of Thou’s sound, and Magus is no aberration. Thou’s power lies in its simplicity, and in its architects’ ability to craft something truly special out of basic elements. This latest entry in their sprawling discography is anchored by the band’s customary slabs of slow-moving, magisterial doom, tempered with Bryan Funck’s eternally rabid snarls, poetically nihilistic lyrics, and overarching, ego-killing melancholia. —Kim Kelly
There’s something incredibly sinister about “If You Know You Know,” the opening track on DAYTONA. Of course, that can be said of any Pusha T song, album, or his time in The Clipse. Over strained guitar licks, the song is serious about the coded language it uses for illicit affairs and activities. But still, there’s a feeling of an extra wink—a hint-hint of something truly heinous to come, with no way to guess the surprise.
What evokes this feeling more than his previous efforts is that there are no stop-gaps for anything but the subject of coke. There are no features from Kelly Rowland, The Dream, or Kehlani to give this levity. Through and through, it’s just Pusha T discussing the dealing, service, and consequences of cocaine—and it’s incredible.
DAYTONA is an open-and-shut case. Everything that needs to be said is stated with weight and permanence, while the production moves in hard step to dial it up even further. It’s all forward momentum—and an undisputed classic in Pusha’s discography. —Jabbari Weekes
Baltimore-based indie-cult hero Sam Ray released an unfathomable amount of good music in 2018, hopping from ambient excursions as Ricky Eat Acid to EDM-adjacent “cheerleader music” as one half of The Pom-Poms alongside his wife, Kitty. There are gems all over the place, but A Whole Fucking Lifetime of This, the first album under a new name from the project formerly known as Teen Suicide, is the most whole and most remarkable of the lot. It wanders through raw acoustics, aching samples, panicky post-hardcore, and jittery house beats, held together by lyrics that read like an impressionistic short story collection.
Echoes of the past are still present. The luxurious “This Is Heaven and I’d Die For It” is so caught up in reverie that it’s practically slurred, and “New Year’s Eve” is joyful and solo-strewn. Those two are rock songs—verse-chorus-verse, “I get weak when you call me / Don’t wanna go to the party”—but that’s the exception rather than the rule. The keys that unlock the record are less familiar. On “Let’s Move to the Desert,” a placid and beautifully dissociative song built around a mutated sample of Frank Ocean’s “At Your Best You Are Love” cover, Ray daydreams aloud, croaking: “Every day / Falling in love / It’s not so easy / To be so sad / When you can always touch the sun.”
That’s followed by “There Was a Time When I Needed It,” an exhausted song about the specter of addiction: “I know it’s gonna hurt / I’m sweating through my sheets / I haven’t slept in weeks / My head is pounding / There’s vomit on my shirt.” Small moments turn into points of intense focus for Ray. In his hands, a fantasy about fleeing to the middle of nowhere and a momentary flashback to a harrowing recovery both convey the same things: totality, desire, fear, crushing empathy.
With the record jumping from sound to sound with almost no notice, those lyrical threads come together to unify Fucking Lifetime. Ray cited Raymond Carver and Will Oldham, two writers who never lost sight of the domestic, as inspirations this time around. But the lines are blurrier for Ray—where does addiction end and all-consuming love for someone begin? How can you separate them, when you’ve been through both so completely? “When I first tried it / It changed me,” he sings at the top of “Eating Cherries.” “Baby, you changed me / I’m not over it,” he sings moments later.
Ray has built more aural diversions into his past records than most bands can muster in a whole career, but that was easier before. The last few Teen Suicide records were vast enough to comfortably contain all those multitudes; their 2016 swan song, It’s the Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot, was a 26-song, 70-minute-long opus. Fucking Lifetime clocks in at just 35 minutes. And because it’s written so carefully, arranged so deftly, and bound up so completely in fully realized emotion, it seems limitless. —Alex Robert Ross
“Music on My Teeth,” a song from DJ Koze’s first album in five years, opens with a quote by the late British philosopher Alan Watts. “Time is a social institution and not a physical reality,” we hear him intoning over some gentle guitar strums, his voice pitched down to a slow drawl. Were the German producer Stefan Kozalla to extend the sample further, we’d hear The Way of Zen author explain that while time doesn’t really exist in the world of squirrels and lizards and oceans and mountains, “There is such a thing as rhythm—rhythm of tides, rhythm of biological processes. There is rhythm and there is motion.”
In a way, the quote reads like a metaphor for the very visceral thing that happens when you enter a club at peak-time and feel a four-on-the-floor beat vibrating up from your feet and into your core: techno and house may be machine-made musics, sounds that emerged in dialogue with the mechanized thrum of heavy industry in cities like Detroit and Chicago, but it’s their rhythmic approximation of the human heartbeat that makes them so deeply moving.
Across the decade’s worth of albums, mixes, and remixes he’s released under the Koze moniker, the Pampa Records founder has revealed himself to be more keenly attentive than most to the parallels between electronic music and the rhythms of the human body and mind, to the point that it’s probably short-sighted to think of him as a “club music” producer in the conventional sense. Most of the tracks on Knock Knock are better suited to the moment when you crawl into bed after a long night of partying, anyway, and “Music on My Teeth” basically plays like one long guitar solo, with sleepy-sounding vocals from Argentine-Swedish vocalist José González.
Whether he’s sampling Gladys Knight, a melismatic sounding flute melody, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, or a mother singing “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” to a child, Kozalla manages to make every building block of every song feel warm. This is, in many ways, his trademark, but on Knock Knock it feels like an organizing principle, one where the seamless juxtaposition of different genres and time periods (70s soul, Laurel Canyon rock ‘n’ roll, Dilla-esque sample work, old timey TV jingles) feels secondary to the overall mood. It’s the feeling you get when a bite of somebody’s home cooking makes you flash back to simpler, cozier time in your life, and you’re reminded of the powerful connection between memory and sensory experience. And it’s an experience that’s mixed with sadness—you’re never going to be get those moments back—but you don’t need to a time machine to relive them; that’s what music, Knock Knock reminds us, is for. —Emilie Friedlander
Only Love’s big secret is that it’s a pop record masquerading as a hardcore album. The first thing that hits you upon pressing play is The Armed’s immediately disorienting chaos, but there’s a funhouse mirror quality to it, as if a mischievous scientist dropped a bit of the Dillinger Escape Plan’s DNA into a beaker full of Top 40 hits. Packed with an onslaught of tweaking synths and textured anarchy, it’s a difficult sound to describe, but then again, The Armed is a difficult band to explain. The Detroit collective has been deliberately enigmatic and at times downright deceitful about its identity, lineup, and backstory. Some fans have even theorized that the entire thing was secretly orchestrated by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou.
In a live setting, The Armed has been known to pack the stage with a small army of guitarists while a man in a ghillie suit and a selfie-obsessed woman calmly drink wine and eat mussels off a picnic table in the middle of the pit as madness ensues around them. The Armed’s music videos have been no less perplexing—short films about one-man karaoke bands, an elegant dance routine that devolves into anarchic violence, and Tommy Wiseau of The Room listening to Only Love while wearing the aforementioned ghillie suit.
When all these parts are considered, it becomes clear that Only Love is less a singular album and more an expansive, conceptual art piece. About what? Who knows. Perhaps not even The Armed know—whoever they are. Regardless, Only Love does something truly remarkable by taking hardcore, a genre that’s been hitting its head against the ceiling for years, and turning it completely upside down, proving that there’s still some room left for growth in the growls. —Dan Ozzi
ASTROWORLD is the sound of today. Travis Scott’s three-years-in-the-making opus doesn’t have much to say across its 17 tracks but it’s 2018, but only losers and old people use that as a pejorative. Nearly every song, beginning right with the opener “STARGAZING,” has a beat switch, if not several. Thematically, this makes sense; this is Scott’s audio travelogue where each instrumental change is a new bump, swerve, and loop in a grand amusement park. But also “the kids” don’t have the kind of patience to just sit with one beat for more than two minutes.
“STOP TRYING TO BE GOD” is a smorgasbord of sonic ideas. At one end, there’s the glimmer and shine of synths and trap snares while at the other is Kid Cudi, Phillip Bailey, James Blake, and Stevie Wonder together and it somehow doesn’t fall apart at the seams. “NO BYSTANDERS” which features JUICE WRLD and Sheck Wes’ “BITCH!” adlibs is also built from the ground up for moshing and collateral destruction. Again, the song supports its weight without losing steam. Somewhere in there also lies Kevin Parker of Tame Impala’s production and of course the titanic Drake-featuring “SICKO MODE.” ASTROWORLD’s only real concern is sounding cool and using cool people. And it succeeds on all fronts. This one is truly for the youth. —Jabbari Weekes
By some measures, eight years is a long time. You can have a baby and watch it grow in that time. You can change jobs, houses, and lovers multiple times! You can become a completely different version of yourself. But it’s also not much time at all. Eight years flies by. You can close your eyes, and you can taste the food you were eating, see the outfits you were wearing, feel the people you were kissing—as if it were only this morning. Robyn’s eighth album, Honey, arrived eight years after her last, and all the aforementioned feelings ring true when it comes to her art. The album sounds like eight years of life: romance, heartbreak, and deep cuts of grief, refracted through a bittersweet club lens.
Robyn has changed, too. Honey is sweet and glowing, a syrupy softness permeating the whole thing, as if she now inhabits a different, much easier energy. “I just want you to be able to be yourself,” she sighs on closing track “Ever Again,” her words tinged with warmth and empathy. “There’s nothing to worry about / How ’bout we stop arguing and do something else?”
It is hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Honey so exceptional. But it’s probably what makes all of her records exceptional, which is that her songwriting can do two things at once: it can make you acutely aware of your own great blue sadness, almost overwhelmed by it, and it can make you feel grateful—ecstatic, in fact—to be alive in order to feel it. —Daisy Jones
Janelle Monáe opens the Dirty Computer standout “Crazy, Classic, Life” by declaring herself “young, black, wild, and free.” The combination of identifiers haven’t always been afforded to black people in America—let alone to Monáe, who, up until Dirty Computer, hid behind the robotic chill of her android alter ego. When she sings, “I am not America’s nightmare / I am the American Dream,” it’s an indication she’s has spent time thinking about her otherness as a black queer woman in America.
Dirty Computer is a pop paradise that grapples with the intersection of her politics, blackness, and sexuality. She sprinkles raps throughout the album, using that form to highlight her most salient points, like when was told she was “too black” (“Crazy, Classic, Life”) and “too mannish” (“Django Jane”). Her stance on the autonomy of women’s bodies is blatant when she says “If you try to grab my pussy / This pussy grab you back,” and is overtly sexual on “Screwed,” where she equates sex to power. Monáe has never been this direct or this free, partly due to her character-based approach to songwriting. Where previous albums kept us at arms’ lengths, Dirty Computer welcomes us in.
For the first time, Monáe loves fearlessly. A decade ago, the singer likened herself to an outlaw for falling in love with a human—a violation for an android. Now, her love knows no hesitation. “If I’m gon’ sin it’s with you,” she sings on “Don’t Judge Me.” The walls she spent years building are slowly crumbling. With its moments of soulful R&B, bubblegum pop, and perfectly executed bars, Dirty Computer is an album that shows the best parts of Monáe’s talents. She asks herself on “Django Jane,” the only song rapped in full, “If she the GOAT now would anybody doubt it?” Janelle Monáe has fully arrived and there’s no denying that. —Kristin Corry
In 2014, a clip of St. Vincent performing “Cheerleader” at Pitchfork Music Festival went semi-viral—not because of the featured performance, but because of an audience member. For a few seconds in the clip, the crowd camera focuses on a girl pressed against the barrier, screaming her lungs out to the song’s chorus of “I, I, I, I, I don’t wanna be your cheerleader no more.” She looks stoked, feeling that way you can only feel when you’re front row and seeing one of your favorite musicians perform your favorite song. The clip got shared around for a reason: watching her for those few seconds, you feel, deeply, her catharsis and all the ecstasy of the moment. Watching that clip now is surreal, not because it’s any less fun or beautiful, but because that girl turned out to be a 15-year-old Lindsey Jordan: the shredding prodigy who this year, at the age of 19, has released her debut record, Lush, an album that displays all the same ecstasy and power of our first introduction to her.
Lush is anchored by “Pristine,” “Heat Wave,” and “Full Control,” gravitational points that the rest of the album orbits. All three are, ostensibly, love songs. But beyond that, the record’s focal points speak to Jordan’s unique and dogged self-possession. These are songs about knowing yourself deeply in the face of fickle lovers or naysayers; the screams of “I know myself and I’ll never love anyone else” on “Pristine” or “I’m in full control / I’m not lost / Even when it’s love / Even when it’s not” on “Full Control” are lucid and deeply galvanizing. Lush evokes the clarity and heat of youth on a deep, elemental level; it is music to scream along to when you’re the only one right amongst a whole lot of wrong. You get the sense that Jordan would make a killing from releasing a karaoke version of Lush; the album shares DNA with yell-your-guts-out emo like Paramore and Jimmy Eat World on a spiritual level, if not entirely on an aesthetic one.
There’s no mistaking Lush as a DIY or lo-fi record—Jordan has been trained in guitar since she was five, and you can hear it in the way she places angular, unexpected chords next to each other. The record is produced with warmth and clarity but rarely plays it safe; organs provide shuddering unease on “Speaking Terms” and a slow, mournful guitar solo on “Deep Sea” is wrenching. Jordan is as familiar with sound as she is with language; even without vocals, Lush would be a compelling and emotionally resonant listen.
Listening to Lush, you can’t help but see that indelible image of 15-year-old Jordan rocking out to her idol. This is an album that inspires that kind of “Cheerleader” freak-out devotion: you play Lush and know, deeply, that it’s the kind of album that will inspire a 15-year-old to pick up a guitar and write her masterpiece. —Shaad D’Souza
In the past few weeks alone, Ariana Grande has: scored the number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time, argued online with Piers Morgan (and, obviously, won), had her music covered by the UK’s current biggest rock band, and caused a major meme. Nobody holds the zeitgeist in their hands like Ariana, because nobody in contemporary popular culture is quite as beloved.
It’s for good reason that the world cherishes Grande. As well as being one of the most genuinely talented figures that the pop industry machine has had to offer in recent memory, she’s experienced major personal tragedy again and again over the last few years, but continues to release and make music with wide, enduring appeal. Back in August, she continued her streak with Sweetener, her first release since her Manchester, UK, concert was bombed in May of 2017, killing 23 of her fans. The record opens with “raindrops (an angel cried),” a Four Seasons cover which sees Grande placing remembrance at the very heart of Sweetener, as she mournfully pays her respects to those lost in the atrocity. From there, however, the album has a celebratory quality, very much in the spirit of lead single, “no tears left to cry,” on which she sings: “I’m loving, I’m living, I’m picking it up.”
And between the radio hits—how many times have you heard “god is a woman” this year?—and the weirder moments, like the title track on which the floor sounds like it’s moving, there’s a huge amount to celebrate here. Grande, who performs all her own backing vocals and harmonies, still has the sort of voice you’d like to move into, and also shows herself across the record to be a meticulous and discerning listener, which is true of too few popstars. Sweetener’s two cover versions, “raindrops (an angel cried)” and particularly the Imogen Heap re-do “goodnight n go,” are both beautifully pitched in Grande’s wheelhouse, and she transforms the latter (itself an already-iconic track for the thousands of millennials still indebted to The OC for their personalities) into a warm trap-pop song which feels as though it was written especially for her.
It’s Grande’s distinct style—slinky and sweet, but always direct, much like Grande herself—that makes Sweetener such an enjoyable listen. So much of her personality is threaded through the album, and as one of popular culture’s most fondly looked upon players, she was always going to make a year-defining record. It didn’t actually have to be this good, but with a voice that spirals and purrs interchangeably, features like Missy Elliott, and pop songs as solid as “breathin’” and “everytime,” Ariana Grande and Sweetener have all the credentials necessary. —Lauren O’Neill
This is the sound of Kacey Musgraves mastering her art. Golden Hour is warm, rich, and psychedelic—the inspired leap to the left of country conventions that she’s always threatened to make. It’s an album about love in all its forms—romantic, platonic, sympathetic, drug-induced, sometimes painful—but almost every song is shot through with wide-eyed wonder. “Bursting with empathy / I’m feeling everything,” she sings on “Mother,” though the line could appear as a footnote to more than half of these songs. Musgraves, awe-struck, created a rare thing here—an album that makes the familiar seem fresh.
Nobody ever doubted her songwriting chops, but until Golden Hour, there had been the suspicion that Musgraves was being constrained either by herself or by the country music machine, which demands dull uniformity from women in particular. Her 2013 debut, Same Trailer, Different Park, showcased a promising and charming singer with a knack for one-liners, an affinity for joints, and a do-what-the-hell-you-want-because-I-sure-will ethos. But on Pageant Material, the 2015 follow-up, she spent too much time insisting that she was still the same no-bullshit girl from Golden, Texas.
That seems like a distant memory now. Golden Hour opens with an ode to calming the pace of everything (“Slow Burn”), laments solitude (“Lonely Weekend”), and gently rises to one of the sweetest country-pop love songs of the last half-decade (“Butterflies”). The shades of Neil Young there are just enough to distract the listener from the fact that none of these songs really fit in the country canon as it is, whichever era. They’re tinged with cosmic melancholy rather than battered, rust-colored allusions; their melodies are designed to be translucent, light enough to float away like little hallucinations.
There’s one song that more obviously defies convention. “High Horse,” a glitzy, Stetson-topped disco song, is as fun as it is forthright (“Darlin’, you take the high horse and I’ll take the high road / If you’re too good for us, you’ll be good riding solo”). It deserves all the acclaim it received as a standalone, but the remarkable thing is that it sounds at home here, between the spacious but conflicted “Wonder Woman” and the utterly-in-love title track. Lyrically, these are all parts of a whole—a very real and complex identity that Musgraves can now convey without having to point to.
Some of that’s also down to the meticulous production across Golden Hour. Musgraves recently said that she’s known as “the axeman” in the studio, a reference to her ruthlessness when it comes to cutting extraneous sounds. It’s now one of her great strengths. It would have been so easy to clutter this record up, to manufacture a thick cloud of lysergic fog for Musgraves to fight through. Instead, Golden Hour stands out precisely because of what’s not there. It is starkly and beautifully simple—a love letter to her husband and her family and flowers and the universe and weed and everything in between. —Alex Robert Ross
Tierra Whack thinks a lot about digestion. She has a whole song about the importance of drinking water and eating a fiber-rich diet, and another about chicken wings. The goings-on of her guts have also been a recurring theme in some of the mystified press around her bubbling, chromatic debut, Whack World. One interview—a cover story in The FADER, an institution treated with po-face seriousness by more careerist artists—opens with her screaming her praise for the smell of the inside of a Port-a-Potty. In another, for this website, she described a nervous pre-show ritual of totally emptying her bowels backstage.
This strange fascination could explain, in part, why her debut album is composed of 15 one-minute songs—she seems to have wanted it to be easily digestible. We live in an era where streaming algorithms have pushed most industry-backed rap albums toward art-house-film lengths. But no one has the time to stomach epics anymore. The world is punishing us humans for being bad stewards of its resources. Everyone’s constantly distracted and worried, and the only relief most people get is the few minutes they spend every day clearing out all their friends’ Instagram stories. Whack World is uniquely positioned to reflect that context; at the very least, it seems expressly designed so that every song fits neatly in the IG grid.
Tierra’s writing tends to be imagistic, giving importance to seemingly insignificant details, like the acidic content of certain bourgeois bottled water brands, the specific way carbs and greens overlap on her dinner plate, or the efficacy of specific brands of bug spray. The lyric sheet is occasionally nonsensical, but in pointillistic fashion the vignettes add up to striking moods. She’s heartbroken, confused, overwhelmed, and ecstatic—often all at once. That she structures this work as a potpourri of colorful snippets has a contradictory effect. It evokes the chaos of being alive in 2018—the age of the infinite scroll—and yet it’s colorful and attention-grabbing enough stand out in the midst of it.
Whack World is rich, but bite-sized, surreal yet approachable. And the more time you spend with it, the more you notice the complex broth of seemingly conflicting flavors she’s dreamed up. “Fruit Salad” is a rap track that’s actually about eating your vegetables, delivered in tones as saccharine and elastic as Laffy Taffy. On “4 Wings,” Whack’s standard chicken order (fried hard, with salt, pepper, ketchup, and hot sauce) becomes a stand-in for her disposition (hard-boiled, but open to variety). There’s a bitter, Auto-Tuned, pseudo-country song that feels like taking a huge chomp out of a lemon peel. Somehow it all works together, yet another reminder of the power of the Whack’s gut. She can ingest whatever disparate ingredients and influences she wants. After she stews on it for a while, it all comes out—pungent, colorful, and teeming with life. —Colin Joyce