Rob Harvilla and Shea Serrano have combined forces to count down the year’s best albums, including a few top-of-the-chart smashes and a few unexpected curveballs that are all worthy of revisiting. For more on the no. 1 album and the state of music in 2018, read Rob’s companion essay.
10. Action Bronson, White Bronco
First, let me say: If you want to slide Travis Scott’s beautiful Astroworld album into this spot, then you absolutely can. That’s fair. That’s very fair.
Second, let me say: I laughed when Action Bronson said that his haircut was Dominican folk art. I laughed when Action Bronson said that women keep calling him Taye Diggs. I laughed when Action Bronson said you could find him at the bottom of Lake Titicaca watching Euro Cup. Action Bronson makes me laugh. And feel good, both about the world in general and about myself specifically. Sometimes that’s all I really want from music. Bronson has obviously been good before, and charming before, and clever before (you can watch the “Baby Blue” video for a glimpse of him being all three of those things at the same time). But he’s never been all three of those things for as long as he was on White Bronco, which includes not only a darling hat tip to gangster movies, but also a part of a song where all he does is yell as loud as he can. —Shea Serrano
9. Pistol Annies, Interstate Gospel
“Jesus is the bread of life / Without him, you’re toast,” begins the very funny and quite alarming third record from the country-royalty trio of Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley, and Ashley Monroe, three of the best singers and songwriters in Nashville, and for the terrible and obvious reason three of the most disrespected. Interstate Gospel is raucous and joyful even at its most scathing, with triumphant anthems about divorce (“Got My Name Changed Back”) and crushing ballads about the wonders of parenting. (“I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet,” begins an exhausted, unfathomably raw ode to motherhood called “Best Years of My Life.”) The most romantic, and most devastating, song is called “Masterpiece”: “Baby we were just a country song / I’m still doin’ time, the King is gone / I tried to stand by my man / We were making plans, we were making plans.” And God laughs, but even through tears so do they, and so will you. —Rob Harvilla
8. Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, Sparkle Hard
Guitars! Distortion! Mumbled profundities! Arduously casual beauty! Pavement’s reign as the smirking philosopher jesters of ’90s indie rock lasted just five albums, with a feeble late decline, but the solo-ish crew led by once-extra-smirky frontman Stephen Malkmus is now seven records deep and only getting better, and warmer, and jammier. The Krautrock bubble baths and noodly swordplay of Sparkle Hard are comfort food with an expert crunch, with big thematic swings (“Bike Lane” is a winsomely awkward tribute to Freddie Gray) and winking in-jokes aplenty (Kim Gordon drops by for “Refute,” a scruffy country ballad about triumphant infidelity). But “Kite” is the jam to end all jams, a sun-kissed and majestically aimless soundtrack to learning to love the Grateful Dead, or learning to finally admit that you always did. —RH
7. Smino, Noir
You know the thing where you’re listening to an album for the first time and you’re not really expecting anything from it other than for it to be polite background music and then all of a sudden you’re like, “Wait. Hold on. This is fucking good”? And then you restart it, except now you’re paying close attention to it to see if it’s actually as good as you maybe thought it was, and you’re like, “Holy fucking shit. It is. It is this good”? And then you go on the internet and search for reviews of it and you read everything you can about it, like when Hannah Giorgis wrote at The Atlantic that it’s “soothing, inventive and fun,” or like when Tommy Monroe wrote at Consequence of Sound that “few other artists take such a creative approach in blending genres and crafting lyrics.” And then you just sort of sit there, happy to know that it exists, and happy to know that it’s so good, and happy to know that you’ll have access to it whenever you want, which will be a lot? That’s what Noir is. —SS
6. Nils Frahm, All Melody
I want you to trust me. Nils Frahm is a German pianist and composer who understands that neoclassical is a dirty word, who can layer mesmerizing synthesizers but can also conduct a mean choir, who conjures up cerebral, chillout-tent-friendly beats à la Jon Hopkins but also toured the United States this year with a pipe organ. All Melody is the prettiest, deepest, stormiest, and most invigorating sonic experience I had this year, with a concert-hall stateliness but a Martian-landscape sense of wonder. The gentle piano riff of “My Friend the Forest”—so soft you can hear the keys clack, the dust rising—is a transcendent head trip all on its own, even if it only helps you transcend your own late-capitalism anxieties, even if only for a second. I implore you to put this record on with good headphones and do literally anything—read a book, take a walk, stare at the stars or even the ceiling—other than scroll through Twitter. —RH
5. Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer
Janelle Monáe productions are wondrous but very complicated things, visionary feasts of retro-futuristic R&B creaking ever so slightly under the weight of all those overtures, interludes, aliases, convoluted plots, and theater-kid flourishes. Her third full-length is plenty ambitious, from the spoken-word Stevie Wonder benediction to the accompanying 48-minute “emotion picture.” But it’s also a fantastic, streamlined pop album, full of loopy eroticism (two of the catchiest songs are named “Screwed” and “Pynk”), torch-passing anthemia (“Make Me Feel” is the best Janet Jackson song in years), and ballads about anxiety delivered with enough pure confidence to make her sound invincible. (See “So Afraid,” which is very much not.) Put it this way: I’m very glad Issa finally quit her dead-end job on Insecure, and I’m convinced Monaé’s breezy and infectious “I Like That” was the only song good enough to inspire her to do it. —RH
4. Vince Staples, FM!
Last month, I wrote about Vince Staples’s FM!. The whole review was a little more than 1,800 words, but here’s the main and most encompassing sentence from it: “It’s smart, and biting, and funny, and challenging, and a top-level examination of the caustic (and casual) existence of violence and death in an overlooked corner of America.” A month later, after the arrival of a handful of new albums—most notably from Earl Sweatshirt (very good) and Meek Mill (probably good), and 6ix9ine (awful)—Vince is still there, standing near the top, sparring with Cardi B and Pusha-T for the best rap album of the year. And Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy finishing above it is fine, because Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy was as enjoyable a victory lap as we’ve gotten in at least five years. And Pusha-T’s Daytona finishing above it is fine, because Pusha-T’s Daytona vibrated out into the universe in a way that no other album did this year. But it’s those three. It has to be those three, and only those three. Cardi and Pusha and Vince. —SS
3. Soccer Mommy, Clean
“The ruled-by-men genres are lame as fuck,” Nashville singer-songwriter Sophie Allison told Billboard in March, describing Avril Lavigne, one of her biggest influences, as “a perfect blend of Elliott Smith meets Evanescence.” This sort of sonic court vision helps explain why intimate, lacerating, bittersweet indie pop is no longer a lame-as-fuck genre ruled by men. As Soccer Mommy, Allison spent her late-teenage years building a devoted Bandcamp following with EPs with titles like Songs for the Recently Sad. Her proper full-length debut is likewise ferocious in its gentleness, whether her tone is deceptively sunny (the final seconds of “Cool” decay like a despised ex-lover’s mixtape melting in the sun) or flatly seething (“I don’t want to be your fucking dog” is the opening line of the year). But the ecstatic, full-power second chorus of “Skin” is where Allison breaks free of both the rich bummer-laureate lineage that precedes her, and all the monster young songwriters now rising alongside her. Avril oughta be proud. —RH
2. Pusha T, Daytona
Daytona pulled off the impressive trick of being not only the best solo album that Pusha T has ever made (it’s a tightly coiled, uncompromising, jarring-but-still-smooth collection of sounds, and words, and whips, and stabs), but also relevant outside of itself, which is obviously extremely difficult, and of course I’m talking about the way that it goaded Drake into stepping on a bear trap that he still hasn’t fully escaped from. I think about that a lot, actually: Did Pusha lay that bait for Drake on album closer “Infrared” because he knew that Drake would respond, and doing so would allow Pusha to lob the “You are hiding a child” grenade at him? If so, that’s incredible. If not, it’s still incredible, but for a different reason. Either way, Daytona, barely 21 minutes long, has endured, and will endure, in as loudly and triumphantly a way that an understated thing can be loud. Which is perfect, given that Pusha’s career can be described that same way. —SS
1. Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy
An obvious thing is: Few people on the planet are as likable as Cardi B has, time after time after time, proved herself to be. She is brilliant in radio interviews, and on talk shows, and while holding her phone and saying curse words into it. She is a master of all of those things, and was somehow so good at them that it was unclear whether she had room to be good at anything else—specifically, in this case anyway, making a proper full-length studio album. And then she put out Invasion of Privacy. And it was like, “OH MY GOD, SHE CAN DO EVERYTHING BETTER THAN EVERYONE.”
It starts immediately, with “Get Up 10,” where she strips away every safety net someone else might’ve used, and just stacks truth on top of truth on top of truth, nearly four straight minutes of menace and fury, and then just goes forward from there. She bends a fun sample and rolls around in the mud (“Bickenhead”). And she holds hands with Chance the Rapper and celebrates her fortunes (“Best Life”). And she lobs two earworms into the cosmos in case anyone wanted to try to argue she couldn’t catch fire again like she’d done on “Bodak Yellow” (“Money Bag” and “I Like It”). More, and more, and more. She did it all, in the most Cardi way possible, and it was all so, so, so good. —SS