2018 was an incredible year in music. With my ongoing project of listening to at least one new album a day, I encountered good and bad music alike, but the amount of talent this year was higher than most others. This year was particularly great for digging up new artists – you’ll see many first major releases and new faces in this list. They’re reminders that big names aren’t always the ones producing the best work (cough… Drake… cough) and that genres need artists to constantly push the boundaries of existing conventions in order to stay relevant.
Even though I’m a rap and R&B enthusiast, I aimed for a range of different subgenres and types within rap and R&B as well as a few outside those realms in my top 25 albums of 2018. I also wanted to create a list only I could come up with, so I avoided copying major magazines’ year-end lists. Ranging from indie rock to hardcore/experimental rap, here are my top 25 albums of this year.
25. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel (Indie Rock)
24. Ariana Grande – Sweetener (Pop)
23. SiR – November (R&B)
22. A$AP Rocky – Testing (Hip hop)
21. Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts (Hip hop)
20. J.I.D – DiCaprio 2 (Hip hop)
19. Charlie Puth – Voicenotes (Pop)
18. Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD (Hip hop)
17. Jorja Smith – Lost & Found (R&B)
16. Freddie Gibbs, Curren$y, The Alchemist – Fetti (Hip hop)
15. Death Grips – Year of the Snitch (Experimental Hip Hop)
14. Joji – Ballads 1 (R&B)
13. Swizz Beatz – Poison (Hip hop)
12. Pusha T – Daytona (Hip hop)
11. Jay Rock – Redemption (Hip hop)
10. Mac Miller – Swimming (Hip hop)
The final project from one of the most daring rappers of the decade is full of gorgeous production and riveting, introspective lyrics.
9. Joey Purp – Quarterthing (Hip hop)
Joey Purp’s lyrics are razor-sharp, and the production is full of pleasant surprises at every turn.
8. Blood Orange – Negro Swan (R&B)
Blood Orange’s endlessly expressive and moving R&B tracks and his catapult into the spotlight was one of the best discoveries of 2018.
7. Mitski – Be the Cowboy (Indie rock)
Mitski’s self-effacing lyrics stir gently above surreal and ethereal layers of music.
5. (TIE) Brockhampton – iridescence (Hip hop)
2018 proved a landmark year for Brockhampton: a #1 album on Billboard 200 (only one year after they entered the mainstream music scene), a performance on Jimmy Fallon, and a coveted spot on the Camp Flog Gnaw. The first project from the self-proclaimed “boy band” since the stunning Saturation trilogy, iridescence expands the sonic and emotional palette of the band members to astonishing new extremes.
Brockhampton’s fourth album is more experimental than ever before, opting for unstable and schizophrenic beats, distorted vocals beyond identification, and lush classical music in the background. The sheer range of sound from a choir to disintegrating, minimalistic, and abrasive synths is simply extraordinary.
In the lyrics, members are more personal than ever before. The rappers/vocalists bare their anxiety about newfound fame (“I really miss the old days before the cosigns / I really miss them cold days before the road signs“), highs and lows of friendship and brotherhood, mental health, and the importance of originality.
Earlier this year, the group kicked out Ameer Vann for allegations of sexual assault, but his absence is nowhere to be felt on iridescence. Band members Joba and Bearface step into bigger roles, and they also deliver some of the most heartfelt and shocking moments in the album. Joba’s maniacal verse on “J’OUVERT” is as intense as heavy metal; listen to Bearface’s vocals on “TONYA” and try saying you aren’t moved.
iridescence cements Brockhampton’s place in the current music industry as a force of nature to be reckoned with.
5. (TIE) Denzel Curry – TA13OO (Hip hop)
Though Denzel Curry released several albums before this year, TA13OO serves as his breakthrough into a new realm in rap as more than a simple “SoundCloud Rapper.” Divided into three parts – “light,” “gray,” and “dark,” TA13OO wonderfully showcases Curry’s expressive singing, vulnerable lyrics, and keen ear for genre-bending beats.
Throughout the album, Denzel Curry juxtaposes superficial confidence with crippling self-doubt. Suicidal thoughts as well as boasts about his wealth and rapping skills pervade the project, yet one thing is for sure: he means every word he says. Though his vocals range from aggressive, near-screaming rap to smooth, groovy singing, the album manages to sound like one cohesive idea.
TA13OO is an ambitious and deeply personal album that demonstrates Denzel Curry’s ability to make moving, exhilarating music.
- BLACK BALLOONS
- CLOUT COBAIN
4. Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs (Hip hop)
The world desperately wanted him back after a three-year hiatus, but no one could have prepared for what he handed us next. The first single, “Nowhere2go,” was a whirlwind of broken bits of bars, industrial sounds, and melodic riffs. Already it was clear Earl wanted to head in a different direction than ever before.
Some Rap Songs can be a polarizing album, to say the least. It takes many listens to wrap your head around the fragmented nature of the tracks and reconcile with Earl’s irreverent attitude. Just look at the album cover and title. Yet Earl speaks in a language like no other, pushing rap to new boundaries with an ultra-lean 25-minute album of potent rhymes, self-destruction, and kaleidoscopic sound.
Earl takes a Picasso-like or Cubist approach to this album, thrusting the listeners into a room of mirrors where nearly indecipherable rhythms, harmonies, and mumbles engulf them. As always, Earl dives into dark and painful layers of his relationships, past, and thoughts. But listeners should note how his rapping is divorced from most of the beats, like reluctantly trudging along a path during a storm. It’s bewildering and intriguing.
Some Rap Songs is a prime example of an effortless genre-bending album from an absolutely unapologetic artist with an extraordinary vision.
- Red Water
- Cold Summers
- The Mint
3. Kali Uchis – Isolation (R&B)
She used to be just a frequent Tyler, the Creator collaborator. But when Kali Uchis released “After the Storm” with Tyler and Bootsy Collins, I knew she was about to blow up. Isolation confirmed she is a more-than-welcome addition to R&B with her wonderfully varied sonic palette, silky voice, and sharp songwriting skills.
One word that can sum up this album would be freedom. Kali Uchis is constantly on the search for freedom, whether it be fully realizing her American Dream as an immigrant, finding love that preserves her independence, or rising on the top of the music industry. It’s refreshing to see such a wide range of themes in the R&B genre.
Sonically, Isolation is daring yet pleasant at all times. She’s not afraid to feature Gorillaz’-produced “In my dreams” to the unconventional and refreshing harmonies on “After the Storm” to the reggaeton track “Nuestro Planeta.” Then, tracks like “Miami” wrap up Uchis’s famed retro style, making for a truly enjoyable listen.
Isolation is a great debut album from a new shining R&B star, and I can’t wait for what else Kali Uchis brings to the scene.
- Just a Stranger
- Your Teeth in my Neck
- Feel like a Fool
2. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer (R&B)
The voice that beckoned the Grammys to action at the 2018 Grammys celebration, Janelle Monae has been one of the most powerful voices of the #MeToo Movement for her spotlight in both the movie and music industries. Dirty Computer continues, heightens, and wonderfully showcases different threads of that feminist narrative over smooth, elegant instrumentals.
The album features some of the most gorgeous and feel-good production of the year so far, ranging from the ethereal to futuristic to retro funk. Monae’s glossy voice blends into the instrumentals effortlessly at the same time she claims the spotlight in the listeners’ ears. Highlights include “I Got the Juice” with Pharrell Williams and the Prince tribute “Make Me Feel,” which has been dubbed a “bisexual anthem.” And you can’t miss the vulnerable and tender romance of “Don’t Judge Me” over lush strings and vocals.
On the lyrics, she holds nothing back in spelling out her vision for America. Several jabs at Donald Trump are entertaining, like when she sings, “If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back.” Monae is a fearless critic of social injustices, saying, “Until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head / This is not my America / Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful / This is not my America.”
As a prominent black LGBTQ woman in America, Janelle Monae pushes many boundaries with her artistry. Ultimately, her accomplishment with Dirty Computer can be summarized with her bold declaration, “I’m the American Dream.” The phrase “Dirty Computer” provokes listeners to consider how the human race– with all its advancements and quirks– will grapple with the future.
- Django Jane
- Make Me Feel
- Don’t Judge me
1. Saba – CARE FOR ME (Hip hop)
The first time I heard Saba was on Chance the Rapper’s feel-good track from Coloring Book (2016), “Angels.” Now, Care for Me was quite stunning, and I now know to look out for any new projects coming from him. This 10-track project makes the best use of its lean space. On this album, Saba criticizes himself, bares his deepest flaws and insecurities, and details his most painful history.
Care for Me is ultimately about failed communication, both with others and with Saba himself. Saba understands that despite being imperfect– or because we are imperfect– we desire. This album weaves together various accounts of desires and insights on daily life, especially the challenges of being young in this time and age. Tales of family, racial profiling, confusing romantic relationships, and depression are gorgeously told.
The instrumentals are always modest, intimate. Whether it is the soft piano of “calligraphy,” the gently undulating instrumentals of “FIGHTER,” the production complements Saba’s rapping and singing well. Saba’s voice is versatile, sometime sounding fragile, ready to crack any second yet hanging on by a thread. Other times, he is riveting.
I am so excited to see what Saba does in the future. Care for Me is a sensitive, smooth, yet thought-provoking listen.
- BUSY / SIRENS
- PROM / KING