Welcome to the Four Weeks of Listmas, a holiday-themed breakdown of the year’s most important music. Today’s list: the best new artists of 2018.
Calling your shot is one thing, but making it is a whole other animal. Unless you’re Steph Curry, Will Smith’s character from Hitch or one of the other 0.001 percent of people capable of predicting the future with complete certainty, nothing is ever for sure.
And when you’re dealing with something as subjective as entertainment, things get even dicier. It’s the same reason people scour Yelp before they go out to eat: nobody wants to waste their time on “just OK” tacos.
Every artist on this list started their career with a bang, but as Robert Griffin III will tell you, just because you win offensive rookie of the year doesn’t mean you’re making the Hall of Fame. Again, nothing is certain. So if some of these artists end up as the musical equivalent of “just OK” tacos, that’s 2019’s problem. These are the best new artists of 2018, and right now, that’s all that matters.
Quick note: The word “new” is an incredibly loose term, so, as a rule, this list excludes any artist who gained a significant amount of buzz with a project that dropped before 2018—regardless of whether said project was an album, EP or mixtape. As a result, some notable artists that might qualify as “newcomers” on other lists (like Snail Mail and Noname) don’t show up here.
Final, shameless plug: This is the part two of the “4 Weeks of Listmas” series, and you can find the rest of the end-of-year content here. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into it.
10. Big Red Machine
Justin Vernon just keeps being Justin Vernon. It’s been more than a decade since Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago album shook sensitive indie kids to their core, and the Wisconsin crooner is still doing his thing. Thanks to an assist from The National’s Aaron Dessner, Vernon’s distinct brand of falsetto, auto-tuned genius got an exciting new twist this year.
From Vince Staples to YG to Jay Rock, 2018 had no shortage of rappers giving their own definition of West Coast hip-hop. Buddy, a 24-year-old from Compton, used his debut record to put his spin on SoCal rap, and the result is one a wide-ranging album that’s jam-packed with soul singing, trap music and arguably the best Snoop Dogg cameo since Pitch Perfect 2.
8. Sudan Archives
Like the R&B version of Steve Nash, Sudan Archives is a true do-it-all kind of performer. The Los Angeles-based singer makes complex, draw-dropping beats that somehow seamlessly mix East African folk with electronic dance music, and her 2018 mixtape, Sink, is a coming out party for one of the genre’s most captivating new artists.
7. Ella Mai
Talk about a first impression. Hardly anyone outside of London knew Ella Mai’s name before 2018, and then “Boo’d Up” happened. The song is a breakout hit in every sense of the word: it’s nabbed more than 130 million Spotify streams, earned two Grammy nominations and served as a launching pad for the release of Mai’s (also very good) self-titled debut.
6. Kali Uchis
Uchis was already making a name for herself in 2017 thanks to her addictive duet with Tyler, The Creator’s on his Flower Boy hit “See You Again,” but this year she turned things up a notch—or 20. Uchis’ 2018 album, Isolation, is one of the year’s best R&B records, full of grade-A features and confident declarations on modern love.
5. Tierra Whack
Tierra Whack can do it all. That’s essentially the thesis statement of her 2018 Whack World project, in which the Philedelphia-born rapper adopts 15 different personas over the course of 15 separate, one-minute tracks. It’s easily the year’s most fascinating experiment, and a gigantic accomplishment for an artist who seems legitimately capable making any kind of music she sets her mind to.
4. Rich Brian
Brian Imanuel started 2018 by throwing away the Rich Chigga persona that launched his career. It was a clear indication that the YouTube sensation behind “Dat $tick” was gone, and that Imanuel was asking, politely, to be taken seriously. And he immediately gave us reason to: as Rich Brian, the Indonesian rapper not only became one of the the genre’s most enthralling voices, but also an ambassador for Asian hip-hop as it continues to its emergence as a mainstream Western genre.
Everything about Boygenius is exciting. The supergroup, composed of Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers, finds three of indie rock’s highest achievers working under one shared headspace. All three women seemed to find a cathartic comfort in working together, and the their teamwork is endlessly present through every second of their mind-blowingly great six-song debut.
2. Cardi B
In terms of raw performance, Cardi B is easily the artist of 2018. Cardi was just a B-level reality star before last year, and then “Bodak Yellow” changed everything. Now the New York rapper is a sales record setting, multiple Grammy nomination-earning Nikki Minaj-fighting superhero. A lot can happen in a year.
1. Jorja Smith
Jorja Smith did it all this year. The South London singer opened the year with an appearance on one of the most successful movie soundtracks in recent history, then went on to drop her first record in June. Her album, Lost & Found, is everything a debut should be, and so much more: it’s easily one of the best projects, and it immediately transformed Smith into a bonafide, critically acclaimed superstar.