Editor’s Note: Find all of The Atlantic’s “Best of 2018” coverage here.
Though Drake kept watch over the Hot 100 from the No. 1 spot for much of 2018, this year in music was not one of consensus. Rather, it saw squabbles and insurgencies, with the streaming-driven atomization of tastes—and the deepening of the overall sea of songs—reaching a crescendo. Accordingly, our best-albums list is a thing of chaos, with the personal picks of our three music writers all swirled together. Even so, some trends emerge. As Cardi B and Nicki Minaj warred, a breathtaking range of up-and-coming women kept widening the sound of America’s favorite genre. While A Star Is Born preached old ideas of authenticity, innovators wrung great truth from their computers. Amid ever-worsening political ruckus, rockers went noisier and brasher in their commentary. The list below isn’t definitive or all-encompassing, but rather a sampler that’s ruled by individual passions—just as the best music continues to be.
Nasty, Rico Nasty
Rico Nasty’s voice thrashes in fits of rage. On Nasty, the 21-year-old Maryland rapper’s sixth mixtape and her first since signing with Atlantic Records, Rico comes in swinging. “Bitch I’m Nasty,” the record’s first track, is a gloriously ferocious missive. “And I’m screaming, ‘Fuck Trump! Black girls, stand up!’” she raps, managing to avoid the corny pitfalls of so-called political music by remaining true to the same demographic she’s always repped hardest. Nasty is alternately brash, vengeful, and sweetly homegrown. Even as Rico addresses decidedly mature frustrations—money, men, industry drama, politics—the production from her longtime collaborator Kenny Beats lends the record a childlike feel. “Ice Cream” takes its cues from the telltale siren of neighborhood trucks, and Rico raps a nearly Kelis-esque chorus about her own appeal. Still, it’s “Rage”—a deliciously angry, punk-inspired anthem—that’s most alluring. It might be the closest thing I’ve got to a 2018 anthem. — Hannah Giorgis
Room 25, Noname
The spoken-word savant Noname is always ahead of her listener. “Maybe this the album you listen to in your car / When you driving home late at night / Really questioning every god, religion, Kanye, bitches,” she raps at the start of Room 25, and as advertised, her second full-length serves as a meditative tool, a plug-and-play prompt for free thought. Complemented by nimble jazz, the smoothness of her delivery is as viscerally satisfying as skimming one’s hand through a bag of rice. But her peppery takes on politics, spirituality, and the personal keep the brain from blissing out into inattention. A favorite maneuver is to feint with the big issues and then jab with the little ones: “Globalization scary,” she says, “and fuckin’ is fantastic.” — Spencer Kornhaber
… And Justice for All (Remastered), Metallica
As the traumatized, daring, flawed, and prodigious follow-up to the globally massive Master of Puppets, 1988’s … And Justice for All sits in prickling darkness at the heart of the Metallica catalog. The riffs and song grids are more complex, the lyrics more cerebral/political, the production has an arty dryness or minimalism to it. And in the middle of it all is a huge, heavy metal pain-void: the taking of the bassist and band guru Cliff Burton, killed in a bus crash in 1986. (Burton loved Bach and the Misfits, and you can hear the last spirituous twists of his musical influence on Metallica in the swirling, almost choral intro to “Blackened.”) This 30th-anniversary set is packed with goodies: a remastering of the album, demos, live stuff (including a show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1988, at which your correspondent was tremblingly present). The jewels, though, are the tracks from the trove known as “James’s Riff Tapes”: the vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield working out the frantic and oppressive patterns of the songs-to-be, and humming along with an intensity so solitary and hushed and peculiar that it reminds me—most unexpectedly, but then again, perhaps not—of Nick Drake. Extraordinary. — James Parker
Fully Loaded, Shy Glizzy
Shy Glizzy may very well have the most versatile voice in hip-hop. The Southeast D.C.–bred rapper, with his affinity for nasally inflections and stretched out vowels, is a juggernaut. Fully Loaded, his first full-length project since December 2017’s critically acclaimed Quiet Storm, finds Shy Glizzy confident and committed to his work. It’s a bold, eminently enjoyable record. Fully Loaded traces many of the same themes as the rapper’s prior records—poverty, violence, his history of dealing drugs—without sacrificing the kind of bounce that lends itself to a mirror-facing twerk session. The record is smart without being overly heady, earnest without pleading. Songs such as “Where We Come From,” which features the Louisiana rapper YoungBoy Never Broke Again, and “Trap Baby,” which features the artists 3 Glizzy and Pressa, playfully pay homage to Shy Glizzy’s humble upbringing. His urgency is palpable, the cracks in his voice at once endearing and disarming. Of the 18 tracks, the Tory Lanez– and Gunna–assisted “Do You Understand?” is impossible to ignore. It’s a #BlackLove bop for the ages, a glorious indulgence from Chocolate City’s finest. — H.G.
Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-insides, Sophie
If gender, sexuality, and the very concept of identity are to disintegrate with online anonymity and real-life fluidity, then let’s have pop music that revels in the terrifying freedom of what might come next. The U.K. producer Sophie makes fabulously inorganic sound sculptures and neural-network-y send-ups of sing-alongs, and once you’re on her frequency, it’s hard to snap back into the real world. Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-insides offends and seduces from multiple angles: dominatrix digi-metal on the brilliant “Ponyboy,” ambient works evoking unnamable emotions in the album’s middle, Alexa bots shimmying into cognition with “Immaterial.” But the most challenging track is the most traditional one: the karaoke-maudlin opener, “It’s Okay to Cry.” In its video, Sophie’s face somehow hybridizes a smirk with an earnest grin as the artist stands bare-chested in front of a cloudscape. If authenticity means anything anymore, it’s this. — S.K.
Gangland Landlord, Mozzy
It’s been a big year for Mozzy. “Seasons,” his feature on the Black Panther soundtrack back in February (remember that?), catapulted the Sacramento rapper onto the radar of listeners well beyond the West Coast. His October release, Gangland Landlord, positioned him as a formidable peer of artists such as Kendrick Lamar (who shouted Mozzy out at the Grammys). Like Mozzy’s prior records, Gangland Landlord is a cohesive, lyrically impressive work fueled by the artist’s indelible pain. Even so, it manages to revel in moments of joy and triumph. It’s weighty, but never bogged down. Over production that samples ’90s hits like Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It” and Tupac’s “Thugz Mansion,” the rapper floats. The album’s pleasantly nostalgic without feeling gimmicky. Features from artists such as Ty Dolla $ign, YG, Blac Youngsta, and Schoolboy Q round out Mozzy’s musical world. If Gangland Landlord is any indication, the rapper’s not slowing down any time soon. — H.G.
Dose Your Dreams, Fucked Up
Concept albums, rock operas—they don’t make much sense, in general. Ever turned your analytical mind upon Tommy? Or tried to extrapolate a story line from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars? Rock musicians are not into narrative, or the careful working out of an idea; they like moods, tones, apprehensions, zigzags of electricity. Dose Your Dreams, from the Toronto prog-punkers Fucked Up, tells the story—so I gather—of a disaffected young man and a magical time-traveling homeless woman. But the story is not the thing. Or rather, it is the thing insofar as it functions as a kind of visionary matrix through which beautiful music, in many forms—blistering punk rock, stadium alienation, twinkling club-thump, ecstatic pop shiver—comes swimming into our world. “The One I Want Will Come for Me” filters Bob Mould–style melody through a smog of My Bloody Valentine: “Can you hear me when I dream? / You are much further than it seems / Love is an island on the sea / The one I want will come for me.” And then there are those songs, those mad and soaring anthems, that only this band can do. The Pitchfork writer Ian Cohen has called them “jet-roar symphonies”—which captures exactly the experience of seeing Fucked Up live. Hats off to you, Ian Cohen. — J.P.
Hive Mind, The Internet
The first track on Hive Mind, The Internet’s first album since 2015’s Ego Death, is titled “Come Together.” In the time since Ego Death, the Los Angeles–based R&B group’s five members have all released solo projects. Hive Mind finds Syd, Christopher Smith, Steve Lacy, Patrick Paige II, and Matt Martians reinvigorated; they’re newly synced. The tightly constructed record offers 13 funky tracks as a cohesive unit. Standouts such as the groovy singles “Come Over” and “Mood” channel the group’s signature sultriness with playful production. “Roll (Burbank Funk)” begs to be spun at a skating rink. “Beat Goes On” is a jazzy, hopeful number. Expansive and exciting, Hive Mind sounds like the kind of fun that artists have when they’re at their most open. It sounds like friends coming together. — H.G.
Only Love, The Armed
My feel-good album of the year is all person-on-fire screams, gravel-pulverizer drums, and refrains such as “Everything, everything, everything’s horrible!” When extreme punk music works, who can explain it? There’s some sort of much-debated, enigmatic backstory to the hyperactive hardcore band The Armed, but it wouldn’t matter to know who’s making this music any more than it would to know the precise words being expelled from their mouth. Once the dizzying/dazzling effect of the first listen wears off, the genre-spanning adventuresomeness of the music—is that a saxophone or what?—comes to the fore. So does the way that baffling complexity has been garnished with chipper, carnivalesque melodies. It’s not the cuddliest album, but when listening is this thrilling, you know it’s a product of only love. — S.K.
Whack World, Tierra Whack
Tierra Whack’s debut album, a surreal audiovisual offering, is only 15 minutes long. The Philadelphia rapper glides on the record, ushering listeners across the strange galaxies of her own brain. It’s the kind of music that implants itself in you on first listen, vibrating under your skin until it’s overtaken you. That each track is only a minute long feels like a tragedy on some listens; on others, it’s the album’s greatest asset. Whack leaves you wanting more. Her songs are endlessly creative, their accompanying videos engrossing and sometimes disturbing. On “Fuck Off,” she issues threats over cartoonish electronic production. “I wrote this ’cause I feel 10 feet tall,” she boasts on the track’s verse. Listening to Whack World, it’s hard not to feel the same. — H.G.
Elephants on Acid, Cypress Hill
The title alone catapults this album onto the best-of-the-year list. It’s the perfect animal/drugs composite. Dogs on Speed? Too frantic and bristling, too punky. Snakes on Xanax? Too free jazz. But Elephants on Acid? Now you’ve conjured psychedelic tonnage; now you’ve summoned a massive, immemorial presence with a blinking third eye. Now you’ve said something that sounds like Cypress Hill. A legacy act from the first wave of West Coast rap, B-Real, Sen Dog, Bobo, Mix Master Mike, and DJ Muggs have been with us—with some interruptions—since 1988. Elephants on Acid is their ninth album, and perhaps their summit: the closest they have come to a hip-hop version of Sleep’s bong-metal masterpiece Jerusalem. B-Real is still skulking around his own sinuses, cutting through the weed-murk with his sneery-whiney voice. “Every morning I wake up in a bad mood / Attitude fucked up, he’s a bad dude.” (Love that shift into the third person, into self-as-object—a bathroom-mirror moment?) And clouds of resinous smoke still hang over the whole enterprise. But this is an intensification of the formula: fresh smears and wisps of esoterica (sitars, Egyptian guest rappers), raw twists of imagination, renewed lumbering, underbrush-crushing bass. The elephants are coming. — J.P.
Post-, Jeff Rosenstock
Maybe it fits too easily with the caricature one would draw of a Brooklyn (via Long Island) punk responding to the Donald Trump era that Jeff Rosenstock shouts “Et tu, U.S.A.!” on his third solo album. But that airing of omnidirectional anger comes amid a more complex kind: He’s mad at himself and his comrades who’ve thus far failed to stem the poison tide that’s overtaken the country. Using pop-punk accessibility but at prog-rock scale, with his voice all shredded and twitchy, Rosenstock rages at rage, mourns mourning, and frets that all the street protests of late might just be a fad. “What’s the point of having a voice when it gets stuck inside your throat?” he yelps, referring to a common sense of impotence that he, with this jolt of an album, might just help dispel. — S.K.
Smino, the St. Louis–bred rapper, sounds like kin. His sophomore album, NØIR, was released just this November, but it already feels timeless. It’s the kind of record that demands constant replays, a swirl of irrefutable earworms. The album melds romantic sensibilities with soulful melodies and rare vocal dexterity. It sounds like balmy summer nights spent talking and smoking on porches, like trying to stay warm under covers during autumn evenings. Smino’s always been lyrically competent, but NØIR feels like a victory lap. On the standout “Z4L,” he turns a description of a sexual encounter into a sweet folktale with poetic details; on “Low Down Derrty Blues,” he woos listeners with similarly clever wordplay. “Krushed Ice” and “Pizano” sound like ascension; Smino’s way up. — H.G.
2012–2017, A.A.L. (Against All Logic)
“The foundations of the world are being broken,” goes the choir sampled in the opening moments of the Chilean American DJ Nicolas Jaar’s astonishing tour through dance-music history. And though the words come from a 1970 David Axelrod track, the way Jaar manipulates them makes them feel like incursions from another dimension, hammering at the walls of our own. Blessedly addictive helpings of funk, house, and techno then unfurl with crackling static, disembodied natters, and vintage-equipment warbles. It’s trippy that such a monument to decay feels as hot and alive as 2012–2017 does, but perhaps Jaar’s tone of urgency comes from understanding that this music, too, may one day be forgotten, then unearthed to haunt again. — S.K.
It’s hard to describe serpentwithfeet’s music without veering into clichés. How hollow it is to call Josiah Wise’s singing “holy.” How incomplete it is to say the artist’s lyrics explore the profane. The Baltimore-born singer’s debut album, Soil, seems as though it’s been in some sort of celestial transit for years. The album blends the musician’s churchy upbringing with secular concerns; between the two, he offers listeners a sacrament. On “Fragrant,” he ponders the ephemeral keepsakes of love: “I called all your ex-boyfriends / And asked them for a kiss / I needed to know / If they still carried your fragrance.” Soil is never saccharine as it traces matters of the heart; even in his searches for meaning, Wise sings with a sagacious sort of clarity. The album pays delicate attention to the kinds of contradictions that define the human condition; that serpentwithfeet interpolates them with so tender a voice is nothing short of a blessing. — H.G.
Negative Capability, Marianne Faithfull
At 71, Marianne Faithfull, the former teen singer once ogled by the Rolling Stones’ manager as “an angel with big tits”—a body, an image, to be exploited by the Boomer rock cartel—delivers payback in the form of gravitas. Negative Capability is beautifully heavy not simply because Faithfull’s voice has become as scratched as an heirloom armoire, nor only because of the lovely sad folk arrangements of the artist’s collaborators. What’s really awe-making is that she has the courage to sing exactly what she feels. One song pleads with a dying friend to stay on life support for just a few more moments. Another lances Faithfull’s festering horror at the 2015 terrorist massacre in Paris, where she lives. Many make simple, artery-seizing statements of loneliness. She’s merciful, too, in that she opens the album with a clear warning that she’ll not be vague: “Misunderstanding … Stay far away from me / And from those I love / You only want to fuck me up.” — S.K.
As far as party destinations for the rich and famous go, the Spanish island of Ibiza has been out of vogue for quite some time. Enter Ozuna, a 26-year-old singer from San Juan, Puerto Rico. The reggaeton musician’s second studio album, Aura, granted the European city a massive sensuality boost with a Romeo Santos–assisted single, “Ibiza.” But despite Santos’s stature (the mega-popular bachata singer has previously overtaken the YouTube stats of American stars such as Taylor Swift), it’s Ozuna who holds court on the track. His voice is steady, resonant. Ozuna is 11 years Santos’s junior, but he makes Santos sound like the rowdy teenager who first sang in ragtag groups in the Bronx. It’s not a simple feat, yet Aura repeatedly showcases Ozuna’s vocal range alongside industry veterans. The singer holds his own with Manuel Turizo on “Vaina Loca,” with Wisin y Yandel on “Quiero Más,” and with Nicky Jam on “Haciéndolo.” Features from Cardi B, J Balvin, and Akon lend Aura a communal feel, as though it’s the soundtrack to an uptown house party. The record is also unsurprisingly sensual, a continuation of the mood Ozuna established with his 2017 debut, Odisea. Here, though, there’s some more grown to match the sexy. — H.G.
All Melody, Nils Frahm
The German classical experimenter Nils Frahm knows which notes and textures to select so as to immediately summon a lump in the throat, as evidenced by the luminous choral arrangement that opens his ninth studio album. But he uses that power sparingly, arranging swells of human voice and then letting them unspool into languid, contemplative beatscapes. Similarly, though the bones of electronic dance underlie much of All Melody, that genre’s drive toward ever greater ecstasy has been supplanted by an interest in horizontal development: The songs sprawl outward with lattices of flutelike sounds and carefully played piano. The results make for a lovely soundtrack to working or cooking, and an even better one when you’re in need of an expansion of your inner vantage, or of a reminder of the beauty that comes with patience. — S.K.
Mudboy, Sheck Wes
Sheck Wes’s breakout single, “Mo Bamba,” is a work of awesomeness in ugliness, with a moan of a chorus you might imagine emitted from a yak. If the rest of the 20-year-old Senegalese American’s debut album isn’t always so celebratory, it does nail a similar blend of infectious charm and queasy atmospherics. Sheck’s blunt but sneakily thoughtful approach—how many other rappers might pause a song to unpack their use of bitch?—gets applied to describe his survival struggles in the projects, his mother-mandated sabbatical in Senegal, and the dilemma he faced in deciding whether to pursue basketball, modeling, or crime. The drama is enhanced mightily by Sheck’s production team, whose creaking keyboards, brutal bass lines, and predator’s sense of patience immerse the listener thoroughly in one artist’s experience of grime and glory. — S.K.
Tina Snow, Megan Thee Stallion
The first line on “Freak Nasty,” one of the singles from the Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s mixtape Tina Snow, is still one of the best things I’ve heard all year. “I’m runnin’ through yo nigga house like a tomb raider,” Megan raps nonchalantly, establishing the kind of clever bravado that characterizes the whole record. It’s nearly impossible to overstate the satisfaction that her cocky raps grant her female listeners. Tina Snow is a record full of boasts rooted in the perverse pleasure of weaponized femininity. The 23-year-old, who counts Pimp C and Biggie among her inspirations, calls her fans her “hotties.” Her Instagram is part selfie repository, part ho-but-make-it-Iyanla. Tina Snow, which she recorded after her 2017 “Stalli Freestyle” went viral, is a potent cocktail of self-esteem-boosting lyrics and undeniable rap prowess. Even when she slows things down, as on the lusty “Cognac Queen,” it’s hard to keep up with Thee Stallion’s star power. — H.G.
Historian, Lucy Dacus
The rising Virginia rock star Lucy Dacus is such a wonderful lyricist that it can be easy to downplay her other virtues: the way her singing presses against the ear like a finely knit blanket, the grand sense of space and time in her song structures, the generous climaxes of guitar frazzle and heroic horns. But her greatest gift is for contextualizing present struggles—with love, creativity, and the body—in the eye of eternity. “In five years, I hope the songs feel like covers, dedicated to new lovers,” she sings on the opener, mind-bendingly anticipating not only her own healing process in the future, but also the way that her listeners happily appropriate her stories in the now. Then there’s this wise couplet to stitch on a pillow: “I am at peace with my death / I can go back to bed.” — S.K.
High as Hope, Florence + the Machine
Florence Welch and her machine have done it again. High as Hope, the English indie-rock band’s fourth studio album, is their first since 2015’s massively successful How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. High as Hope pairs Welch’s powerful voice with far more stripped-down production. It’s an intensely emotional record, a visceral current. “South London Forever” manages to wed nostalgia for teenage memories with a sense of melancholy about impending climate catastrophes. “Sky Full of Song” balances regret and affection; “Big God” serves as both a callout and an admission of guilt. Welch sings with candid vulnerability about what fame has cost her. The result is intoxicating, its own paradoxical success. — H.G.
To the Sunset, Amanda Shires
Sorry to Ally, Jackson, and their frozen peas—A Star Is Born has only the second-best parking-lot love scene in Americana music this year. The Texan singer Amanda Shires opens her seventh album with a romance set on a blacktop and under a starry sky, and it proceeds from there with more psychedelically pretty vignettes about small-town life and big-time existentialism. Her voice might be fated to be described as sweet and inviting, but that just makes Shires’s suspenseful tales of gruesome tragedy (“Wasn’t I Paying Attention?”), women taking risks (“Eve’s Daughter”), and the apocalypse (“Break Out the Champagne”) all the more bracing. Playful but tough-minded, sonically expansive but emotionally specific, To the Sunset argues that one sure way to keep roots music vibrant is to instill it with a sense of wonder. — S.K.