10 best Albums of 2018: The full list



Art is identity, scream these best albums of 2018. Even when it's pure invention. The most striking things we heard this year mined personal experiences that could feel intimate as whispers or bold and overstuffed as superhero science fiction. Even in an era where listeners have been primed for the unexpected, genuine surprises arrived steadily across the last 12 months – a cascade of introductions, breakthroughs, revelations and rebirths to reward whatever precious attention you could give. (Not a huge surprise: Most of them, after the votes from our staff and member station partners were tallied, turned out to have been made by women.) We're happy to share NPR Music's list of the 50 best albums of 2018. You can listen to them here and hear a discussion on the year in music on All Songs Considered. We'll have lots more before the year ends.

1.

Janelle Monáe

Dirty Computer

Toni Morrison said in 1994 that within the debate over political correctness lies a power struggle: "The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them." Janelle Monáe has made her name by adopting alter egos in her music. But in 2018, a year when political correctness has been reduced to nothing more than a laughable placebo, Monae — releasing her third album more than a decade into her career — introduced herself to us for the first time and proved her artistic genius defies any single definition.

2.

Mitski

Be the Cowboy


What if a stranger comes to town and her deepest estrangement lies within? Be the Cowboy, Mitski's sleek study in disconsolate cool and romantic impairment, offers a few intriguing responses to that question. The narrators in these songs — not to be confused with the artist, who makes a point of calling out her own artifice — find their voices in uneasy solitude. They pine for impossible suitors, make ill-advised entreaties, cheerfully admit that no hero is rushing to save the day. Mitski sings with a haunting conviction, making their plight feel personal even as she holds herself at arm's length, seeming to acknowledge that self-possession can be an armor. In other words, she's fully embracing the terms of pop music.

3.

Kacey Musgraves

Golden Hour

Golden Hour was made for two people, mostly by three people, expressing the viewpoint of one person who insistently speaks for herself. Why, then, has it struck so many listeners as so expansive and bold? It's an album that feels like a moon landing – one small step for an artist who's been traveling beyond her home genre from the minute she arrived in it, one giant leap within a pop scene that's supposedly defeated genre limitations but which really offers mostly timid stabs at eclecticism or music that's just messy and ill-defined. Kacey Musgraves is exacting, even imperious, enough preserve the best from her home base of country music – musically, she keeps rhythmic swing and air in the mix; lyrically, ingenious wordplay and emotional insight grounded small observations – while dispensing with its hit-seeking hyperbole and desperate-feeling "fun."

4.

Lucy Dacus

Historian

A handful of days before 2017 ended, I heard what I knew would be my favorite song of 2018. I'd never been so sure. "Night Shift" is a six-and-a-half minute post-breakup song that extends a hand of hope after a virtual scream into a pillow. And it's this range of emotions that makes Historian my album of the year. The 23-year-old singer has a well-worn huskiness in her voice that adds heft to her stories of loss and death. But it's a record anchored in aspiration, and there's a great deal of faith in that hope. On "Pillar of Truth," Lucy Dacus sings of being with her family at the bedside of her dying grandmother, with lyrics are steeped in her Christian upbringing: "Lord, prepare me / for the shadows / for the sparrows / at my window. / Lord, have mercy / on my descendants / for they know not / what they do."

5.

Noname

Room 25

A week after releasing one of the best albums of the year, Noname tweeted out a missive that perfectly encapsulated the frustration of being a wildly creative, independent artist without major-label backing in 2018. "This f*** around and be my last tape," she wrote in a since-deleted tweet. "The way n***** consume music is so weird. I hope Room 25 means something to someone. If not, I tried." Her timing coincided with the weekly release of the Billboard 200, where Room 25 failed to debut among the week's 200 best-selling and -streaming albums. It's a vivid reminder that, despite rap being the most-consumed genre, the industry has yet to devise a metric capable of accurately measuring the value of black genius.

6.

Cardi B

Invasion of Privacy

Cardi B is a breath of fresh air full of car horns blasting as they crawl up Jerome Avenue. She's every sense at once: the visual shock of white lace and red velvet Jordans on a dancer's body; the lip-smacking lure of plantains and pastelitos from a truck; the fragrance of White Diamonds, like your grandma use to wear. Cardi B somehow incorporates this multi-sensory experience into every one of her raps, and that's what makes her debut album so much more than the year's most impressive commercial breakthrough. Whether spitting street style in her debut album opener "Get Up 10" or trash talking with the stars (propositioning Rihanna and Chrissy Teigen for a threesome, NP) on "She Bad," the rapper always seems to go beyond mere words to attain a tangible presence in the room, or head, of any listener. Her words (sometimes co-written, which she freely admits) would be enough; as Invasion of Privacy proves on every track, Cardi can be as funny as Eminem, minus the hate and self-seriousness; as sensual as Drake and as casually musical as the guys in her rap family, Migos.



7.

Robyn

Honey

If you take a Westbound flight just before dusk, there's a moment in the air when things get weird. You're hurtling forward at 500 miles an hour, but also traveling backwards through time and you're surrounded by a pink glow that appears to go on forever. Robyn's Honey exists in that blissful state of suspended sunset, that sees "heavenly bodies moving" through the past and the future all at once. Look out the window: "I've turned all my sorrow into glass. It don't leave no shadow." Honey is Robyn's first full-length solo album in eight years, made after the end of a long-term relationship and the death of a friend and long-time collaborator.

8.

Rosalía

El Mal Querer

The 13th century Occitan manuscript, The Romance of Flamenca, is, like many foundational texts, a story about a woman told by a man. The narrative, upon which the classically trained 25-year-old flamenco singer Rosalía builds her second album, concerns Flamenca, a young woman accused of infidelity by her husband, who then locks her in a tower before she can escape with the help of another man.
In just the year-and-a-half since her official debut, Rosalía has captured the attention of pop- and R&B-loving denizens of the Internet and flamenco aficionados alike, becoming the second most-nominated artist at this year's Latin Grammys behind J Balvin. El Mal Querer remakes the New World blueprints she laid in 2017's Los Angeles in her own image, sourcing samples as diverse as Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me A River" on "Bagdad" and Arthur Russell's "Answers Me" on "Maldicion" amid her melismatic cante flamenco singing, razor-edged bulerías and trap-tinged palmas.

9.

Kali Uchis

Isolation

Since releasing her Drunken Babble mixtape as a high-schooler in 2012, Kali Uchis has built her career with the exacting eye of a creative director. She helmed direction of her videos, cultivated working relationships with collaborators such as Juanes and Kaytranada and refined her ear for the complexities that popular music can encompass. Isolation, the Colombian-American songwriter's first full-length album, is one of the most commanding — and endlessly-listenable — pop statements to emerge this year. Through an amalgam of bossa nova, reggaeton, doo-wop and R&B rhythms, Uchis, whose smoky timbre has drawn comparisons to jazz vocalists such as Billie Holiday, deftly lays down the foundation for what it means to ground oneself in the age of overstimulation. That means coming closer and being vulnerable, as she poses on the languid, Thundercat-produced opener "Body Language - Intro," and recognizing that while it's beautiful to idolize someone in dreams, escapism isn't the way forward: "I've gotta get up / And get me something real," she sighs on the woozy "Gotta Get Up (Interlude)."


10.

Tierra Whack

Whack World

Language can be so extraordinary, yet insufficient, a flaming arrow shot into a rainstorm. Likewise, art has become unpredictable, blitzed and rewarding in bursts of noise and color as we hurtle toward information saturation. Unable to keep speed with the change both language and music spew, artists are just trying to stay a step ahead. Sure, Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe have dropped sweeping audiovisual albums that reconfigure narratives about themselves and how music is presented, but nothing quite infiltrated the people's swipe-happy medium like Whack World. Released as 15 one-minute videos straight to Instagram, Philly rapper and singer Tierra Whack gives instant gratification its playfully surreal platform. In one minimalist dirge set at a Chinese take-out, she compares her swagger to hot wings ("Salt, pepper, ketchup and hot sauce / Fry hard cause I do not like soft") and mourns the death of a friend, her hardness hindered by a broken wing. In an over-the-top synth-pop kiss-off, she cuts the ribbons keeping red balloons tethered to the floor, delivering darkness with twangy glee: "I wrote this 'cause I feel ten feet tall / I know you don't ever wanna see me ball." Tierra Whack wraps searing critiques of the industry and doubts about herself and her direction in a remarkable economy of words and music and visuals that recognize her own short-attention span, but also reflect our own.

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