Welcome to the Four Weeks of Listmas, a holiday-themed breakdown of the year’s most important music. In the series’ final post, we’re counting down the most important albums of 2018.
Exactly one year ago, I launched this blog by ranking my top 10 albums of 2017, and a lot’s happened since then that would’ve seemed nearly impossible a year ago.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z shot a video in the Louvre, Kendrick won a Pulitzer, Will Smith jumped on a Reggaeton track, Lil Wayne finally released Tha Carter V, Robyn finally released “Honey,” Drake actually picked a fight he could lose and Taylor Swift literally altered America’s political landscape.
The big takeaway? There are no takeaways. There are seemingly no rules either—or, at the very least, the rules that used to define musical relevance are rapidly changing.
Now, Post Malone can soundtrack a superhero movie, Bradley Cooper can make folk songs and Cardi B can be a Latin pop star. As Kevin Garnett—and, to be fair, a probably fair number of other people—once said:
And really, that’s the idea that defined the year’s best albums. Whether it was a teenager taking over indie rock, a second-tier pop star releasing her masterpiece or the world’s greatest rapper curating his own movie score, every great record of 2018 came out of completely shattered and wonderfully reconceived norms.
I wrote in the intro of my best songs list about how singular tracks, not albums, largely shaped the cultural conversation around music in 2018. But that doesn’t mean albums have lost their place—it’s just changing; evolving; metamorphosizing.
It’s hard to know how streaming revenue, experimental formats and blurring genre lines will ultimately affect albums going forward, but in the meantime why not just enjoy the ride? Wrapping up a year this amorphous and eclectic requires a lot more than just 10 entries, so we’re expanding the list to 25 this year.
Final note: This is the last post in the 4 Weeks of Listmas 2018 wrap-up. You can check out the rest of the series—including my best song, best music video and best new artist lists—here. With that out of the way mind, here are the most important albums of 2018.
25. Mac Miller – Swimming
24. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
23. Mitski – Be The Cowboy
22. Noname – Room 25
21. Ariana Grande – Sweetener
20. Robyn – Honey
19. Smino – Noir
18. boygenius – boygenius
17. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – KIDS SEE GHOSTS
16. The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
15. Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD
Travis finally has dropped his masterpiece, or whatever his version of a masterpiece is. A sprawling journey through every producer, rapper and style relevant in hip-hop today, ASTROWORLD proves Scott isn’t just rap’s greatest curator—he’s also capable of driving the genre toward his own vision.
14. Various Artists – Black Panther (soundtrack)
Kendrick’s exhilarating, feature-heavy soundtrack is kind of the Black Panther of movie albums. Just like Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster superhero film, Lamar took an old, largely standardized format and turned it into something stylish, culturally challenging and commercially successful on a level no one could’ve imagined.
13. Tierra Whack – Whack World
You don’t get bonus points for difficulty, but Tierra Whack definitively deserves some. It’s impressive enough to even try making a 15-track, one-minute-per-song record, but the craziest part is just how easily Whack pulls it off. The North Philly rapper flips seamlessly from genre to genre; persona to persona; taking a stab at generic hip-hop tropes all while asserting herself into the genre she’s toying with.
12. Saba – Care for Me
Saba’s may have published the year’s best autobiography. Care for Me is a musically advanced record—full of somber beats, hairpin-tight flows and soulful, longing choruses—but it’s the album’s storytelling that makes it feel like a truly special project.
It’s a painful record about growing up, but it’s also one of the most emotionally mature releases of 2018, with Saba pulling painful, character-defining insight from every memory he explores.
11. BROCKHAMPTON – Iridescence
I’ve written before about how the diversity of BROCKHAMPTON’s members allows them to experiment with any style they want, and that idea was never more obvious than on the group’s fourth album. With Iridescence, the world’s best boy band stretched their style to the farthest corners of the rap universe, getting sappier, sillier and more refined than ever.
10. Iceage – Beyondless
Iceage has spent years as underground punk darlings, but with Beyondless it seems like the group is finally bubbling to the surface. And to be fair, the album is impossible to ignore: it’s a nonstop, face-slapping amphetamine of an album, full of wall-of-guitar riffs and recklessly fast cymbal splashes.
From the opening seconds of “Pain Killer,” the record’s second track, marching band horns and shredding leads make it immediately clear what kind of rare experience listeners have signed up for. The record is pure, unadulterated punk, and in 2018 that feels as refreshing as anything.
Must-hear tracks: “Pain Killer (feat. Sky Ferreira)” & “Hurrah”
9. Soccer Mommy – Clean
Clean might be Allison’s debut record, but that freshness doesn’t show. The songwriter’s brand of passionate, guitar-driven indie is already completely dialed in, and that expertise resulted in one of the year’s most confident rock records.
Must-hear tracks: “Cool” & “Scorpio Rising”
8. Jorja Smith – Lost & Found
Have yourself a year, Jorja Smith. The English singer opened 2018 with an excellent guest appearance on the Black Panther soundtrack, and only built on her momentum from there. In June, Smith released her debut album to tremendous acclaim, and it’s easy to see why: full of jazzed-up R&B beats, and soaring, pitch-perfect lyrics, Lost & Found is a flawless career opener.
Essential extra: Smith’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert
7. Pusha T – DAYTONA
The GOOD Music president’s been calling himself King Push for years, but that claim was never truer than in 2018. DAYTONA isn’t just Pusha’s best album to date, it’s also one of the best rap releases of the past few years.
In a year where most rap stars exhausted their fans with massive tracklists, Pusha-T went micro. The album is seven songs, all of which are filled with flawless execution and booming, authoritative production. DAYTONA deserves a 4,000-word review, but Pusha would never want it that way.
Further reading: The Ringer’s check-in on where Pusha stands after his landmark year
6. Empress Of – Us
Lorely Rodriguez might not be a pop genius yet, but she’s well on her way. The Latin American singer, who records as Empress Of, used her second album to explore every single sector of the R&B galaxy.
And the crazy part? Every experiment worked. Us is pure pop excellence, transferring effortlessly between different styles, lyrical contents and even languages. No two songs on this record sound the same, but every one of them is exciting and fresh in its own way.
Must-hear tracks: “Timberlands” & “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed”
5. Vince Staples – FM!
Don’t blink: you might miss Vince Staples’ FM!, which slides in at a mind-blowingly quick 22-minutes. The Los Angeles-based rapper trimmed all the fat for his third record, and in doing so he made something so stylistically cohesive and lyrically airtight that there’s no debating its status as the year’s best hip-hop album.
Essential extra: Staples’ post-Coachella interview, where he discusses the motivational power of intentionally forgetting his asthma inhaler
4. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
Country singers don’t write songs about acid trips, but Kacey Musgraves does. Using one of America’s most rigidly defined genres as her canvas, the 30-year-old singer used her fourth studio album to write her own description of country music.
Golden Hour is a decidedly country record, but it’s the way Musgraves chose to interact with established tropes and song structures that makes it so special. There might be a disco song on this album, but it’s still got plenty of guitar twang and lyrics about cowboys.
And that’s how Musgraves makes her mark: with songs like “Velvet Elvis,” “Space Cowboy,” and “Wonder Woman,” the Texas-born singer twists generic country imagery into something completely new and original, creating one of the year’s best pop records in the process.
Must-hear tracks: “Slow Burn,” “Wonder Woman” & “Golden Hour”
3. The Internet – Hive Mind
It’s weird to think of The Internet as veterans, but after three EPs and four albums, the Los Angeles-based group has quietly racked up a ton of experience over the past seven years. On Hive Mind, that experience comes across as pure expertise: the band’s unmatched synthesis of funk, R&B and alt-rock reached its peak in 2018, with Syd’s confident, romantic lyrics following suit.
Further reading: Syd’s excellent interview in VOGUE
2. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer
It’s always a cautious game to consider calling an album a masterpiece, but Janelle Monáe made that decision easy this year.
There’s really no other way to describe the Atlanta-based singer’s third album, which, in addition to being her most musically exciting and explorative project to date, is also easily the year’s most conceptually advanced album.
Dirty Computer isn’t just an album about sexual expression or sexual freedom, it’s about sexual celebration: Monáe’s Prince-inspired epic praises every quirk, kink and fantasy, proudly painting her sexuality as something that’s strengthened and empowered by its fluidity.
Essential extra: Monáe’s 2018 BET Awards 2018 performance
1. Snail Mail – Lush
Jordan, who’s been performing as Snail Mail since 2015, plays her instrument better than most guitarists twice her age. But she still writes like a teenager, and that’s where Lush, finds its emotional core.
The record is full of teenage anxiety—the kind that might feel unimportant if it wasn’t delivered with such a powerful, committed sense of longing. It might not be true when Jordan sings “I’ll never love anyone else,” but in the moment nothing could sound more believable.
And in a year with 700,000 reasons to have an existential freakout, there’s something intensely cathartic about that kind of simple, relatable tragedy: everyone gets broken up with; everyone gets jealous; everyone feels unwanted.
Must-hear songs: “Pristine,” “Heat Wave” & “Full Control”