The Best Albums of 2018

We Count Down The 40 Best Albums Of The Year

On December 19th 2018 » By Vinyl Me, Please Staff

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The essay I opened this post with last year was about how streaming services make it feel like you’re never going to keep up with the endless stream of new music, that because we’re aware of every new album drop — thanks to the “What’s New” tab on our streaming service of choice — it feels like there’s always something you’re missing out on, and that it feels hard to know exactly what is the best or what you might have missed. I didn’t realize how much I would feel that until this year, when I felt guilty for spending time with things like Speak No Evil or my 40th spin of singles off the A Star Is Born soundtrack instead of whatever the hot new album was that week. Keeping up with new music was always a chore-by-choice, and always felt insurmountable; the end point of all music of all time being on a computer in your pocket is that you feel an obligation to get to all of it. It’s enough to make you lose your mind.

But the main thing it makes you is ruthless. There’s not enough time to listen to stuff you don’t like, and you’re less likely to take a risk on stuff outside of things you already know. That feels like it stands counter to what we’re trying to do with this website and this company; we’re asking you to spend a whole month with a single album, and attempt to appreciate it as much as the people who chose it do. It’s a tall order, and it’s amazing that so many people take this ride with us.

That said, there’s still the endless stream of good music, and trying to navigate to the good is tough. Streaming services try to program you by using their algorithm to steer you toward music a series of 0s and 1s thinks you’ll enjoy based on the time you played Post Malone’s “White Iverson” when you were drunk. We don’t do that here: We’re just a staff and a roll of contributors trying to tell you about music we like. We try to make some sense of the stream. There is no algorithm.

With that in mind, here is the final piece of our year-end coverage. We’ve already covered the most overlooked albums, the best music books, and the best albums in the genres of rap, country, metal, jazz, electronic and shared what our staff liked about this 365 day period colloquially known as 2018. Here are the top 40 albums of 2018, as voted on by a cabal of our regular contributors — music lovers, one and all — and our staff. Before you tweet at us, it’s a different voting bloc than those that make the individual lists. This is why the best country album of 2018 is lower than the No. 2 album from that list here. Because we believe in these albums, we’re carrying as many of them as we could in our store, under the tag of Best of 2018. We believe all of them are worth being in any record collection.

This isn’t everything we loved in 2018, or everything you should pay attention to. But we hope it’s close. —Andrew Winistorfer

Shop The Best Of 2018

40. Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper

A Star Is Born Soundtrack

Yeah, the last third is manipulative and meant to tug on heartstrings, and yeah, Bradley Cooper’s speaking voice is hilarious during most of this, but there wasn’t a more powerful “THIS IS IMPORTANT MUSIC” album this year. The ways that this could have gone sideways are too numerous to consider, but the fact that this boasted three genuinely amazing pop songs (“Shallow,” “I’ll Always Remember Us This Way” and “I’ll Never Love Again”) and then threw on Jason Isbell B-sides for the culture? I probably spent more time listening to this than anything this year, which counts for something. —AW

39. Travis Scott

Astroworld

I’m not disillusioned by how big and nonsensical Travis Scott is, yet I stan him anyway. He’s the summer blockbuster film we’ll go see for the effects and the #dialogue around it, but the performances might surprise you. ASTROWORLD is that blockbuster, with a twist: It’s the most cohesive, consistent album of his career so far. It doesn’t say much of anything, but that’s not why we came… no, we came for the hits. We came for “Sicko Mode” as a slap far Too Big to Fail, and the pettiness just beneath the surface. We came for Travis finally becoming a singular artist rather than an overblown edit with his influences hanging out. Is he an outlaw or a rockstar or a cowboy or an astronaut or the leader of the youth? There’s no answer, and the whole shit’s fun as fuck. —Michael Penn II

38. Ambrose Akinmusire

Origami Harvest

Spurred on by a grant to make the wildest, weirdest music he could conceptualize, Ambrose Akinmusire made Origami Harvest, an album that blends free improvisational jazz with a string quartet, and free-verse rapping. It all adds up to the most adventurous, boundary obliterating jazz album of 2018. —AW

37. Charlie Puth

Voicenotes

Charlie Puth made one of the worst songs of this century when he soundtracked Paul Walker’s last scene in one of the Fast and the Furious movies; he also happened to, this year, make an airtight pop album that sounds like if Steely Dan decided to make Hall and Oates R&B. In a year when The 1975 were heralded as some boundary-pushing pop artistes, I felt more embraced by Puth’s Boyz II Men features, and basslines that sound like Nile Rodgers went to Berklee. —AW

36. Pusha T

DAYTONA

I think most discerning voters knew going into the seven-song album every Friday G.O.O.D. Music release month that there were very good odds that Pusha T would swing through with his album — the first released from Kanye’s National Lampoon’s Wyoming Vacation — and have the best of the bunch. But did anyone really know it would be this much better than the rest of the bunch? If you know, you know, I guess. Kanye might be lost to the sauce of Twitter troll-ism, but I’d proudly sign an Indiegogo to have him spend a year chopping up Numero comps to make enough beats for Pusha to rap over forever. —AW

This was on our best rap albums of 2018 list. Read the full list here.

35. Boygenius

Boygenius EP

Because, like, didn’t we all need a good ol’ goddamn sob this year? Amitirite, ladies? —Amileah Sutliff

34. Kamasi Washington

Heaven and Earth

There is not an artist on this list that makes albums that have to be reckoned with more than Kamasi Washington, who made a double album — with a hidden EP, tucked in the gatefold — hot on the heels of his last full-length, a triple LP. He makes mammoth, bold statements, the main lesson he took from the jazz greats he worships. Heaven and Earth is both for the body and the soul, a salve, and for those of us who stayed in it the whole run time, the year’s most massive achievement in jazz. —AW

This was on our list of the best jazz albums of 2018. You can read that list here.

You can buy this album on vinyl right here.

33. Mount Eerie

Now Only

Continuing his reign as one of the world’s most arresting songwriters, Phil Elverum’s Now Only expands the tragic worldview found on A Crow Looked at Me, a cathartic attempt at processing the death of his late wife Geneviève Castrée. But this time, the Mount Eerie project finds the brightness in Elverum’s memories, laughing at the very precipice of forging his living by performing songs about his dead wife at a festival in the middle of nowhere. The self-awareness remains on 10, the reflections are poignant, and the six songs sprawl out over 43 minutes without the slightest trace of overindulgence. I never found a right time to slap this album’s predecessor given the dark depth of the subject matter; this one sports a far leaner emotional barrier to entry. Both are indispensable works of bravery. —MPII

32. Father John Misty

God’s Favorite Customer

Josh Tillman — the Oz behind the curtain of Father John Misty — spent a lot of the cycle around Pure Comedy doing the absolute most. He took acid in front of reporters, he fought people with memes, he said dumb stuff about pop singers; if you’re reading this, you know the background. But it was easy to lose him in all (waves hand) that, when a single listen to Pure Comedy revealed a man grappling with virtually everything. God’s Favorite Customer is by necessity smaller; it focuses its gaze on a couple-week period when Tillman nearly blew up his marriage and seemingly came unglued. He hits a career peak with “The Songwriter,” a song about how as a creative and the public face of a couple, his wife gets her feelings and thoughts and struggles pushed to the margins of their life together. —AW

You can buy this album on vinyl right here.

31. Denzel Curry

TA13OO

TA13OO, the third LP from Miami’s Denzel Curry, felt like a coming out party, the moment when Curry went from underground SoundCloud hypebeast fave to a capital-R Rapper, who could do multiple styles and ascend to a higher artistic plane. Coupled with amazing features from the likes of JPEGMAFIA, TA1300 was one of this year’s best left-field rap albums. —AW

This album was our Rap & Hip Hop pick this September. Read our interview with Denzel Curry here.

You can buy this album on vinyl right here.

30. Amen Dunes

Freedom

Tastes are subjective, admittedly, but one attribute both critics and fans tend to agree on when judging “good music” is the feeling of timelessness. It’s an easy adjective to apply, but an incredibly difficult thing to create. Making art that can serve as a backdrop to whatever time and place it finds itself, allowing listeners to extract their own meaning, is something jazz and other instrumental music does to the nines, but is rare and therefore worthy of celebration when created via lyric-based music. And so it is with Amen Dunes’ Freedom, the fifth album from New York-based psych-folk artist Damon McMahon, whose voice punches through its traditional haze to deliver a powerful, emotional performance. —Cameron Schaefer

29. Ariana Grande

Sweetener

There weren’t a lot of albums to drop this year that had as many collective eyes on them as Sweetener had. After the success of her admittedly sound last couple albums, a notoriously undeniable range, and a recent high-profile media presence, Sweetener had a certain degree of make-or-break. Working with Pharrell, Grande came through to solidify her place as 2018’s elegant, and eloquent, pop darling, with a rare album that’s as textured, nuanced and emotionally mature as it is fit for radio. 2018 was a shit show, and Grande has publicly and painfully taken multiple blows of unthinkable scale — everything from the overdose of her ex to a bombing at her concert — but Sweetener teaches us how to move forward with grace: “When life deals us cards / Make everything taste like it is salt / Then you come through like the sweetener you are / To bring the bitter taste to a halt.” —AS

28. Adrianne Lenker

abysskiss

If there’s one thing I was constantly reminded of in 2018 it is that comfort and warmth can’t exist in an unchanging vacuum the way we all desperately want it to. For all the probable garbage Freud had cooking up, he was right when he said, “We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love.” As Adrianne Lenker explores so intimately, so arrestingly, love and security (kiss) exist inextricably fused with loss and death (abyss), exacerbating one another. Following her debut solo album and success fronting Big Thief, Lenker’s tender folk reflections on abysskiss prove embracing the abyss is the only way to cope, the only way to grow: “See my death become a trail / And he trail leads to a flower / I will blossom in your sail.” —AS

27. Rosalía

El Mal Querer

2018 was the year of many things: all-caps album tracks, a barrage of new ‘lil’s, and some serious dark horses. No one deserves the latter title more than Rosalía for her triumphant second release, El Mal Querer. A record that seemed to catch fire through Instagram stories was, incidentally, one of the albums I saw shared the most this year. El Mal Querer quietly gained popularity like a secret handshake: if you knew, you knew. The album seamlessly translates traditional flamenco music through the lense of modern latinx pop/R&B. Ebbing and flowing between crisp hand claps and syncopated reggaeton beats, El Mal Querer is a tapestry of new and old that serves as a perfect response to the internet’s globalization of modern music. —Alex Berenson

26. Snail Mail

Lush

I’ve contended for a while now that there generally aren’t a lot of people who feel as hard — more honestly, openly, and with more intensity — as teenage girls feel. And while teen girls have long been pelted with dismissive cries of melodrama and maudlinness, a bit of time with Lush is all the evidence you need to recognize the capacity of teen girls for raw, powerful, vivid emotional wisdom. Dropped when Lindsey Jordan was 18 years old, she made a record that leaned away from the current indie rock obsession with all things lofi. Every little sonic slice of Lush, is crystal clear, pristine and as acute and unhiding as the naked emotional experience she readily conveys. —AS

You can buy this album on vinyl right here.

25. Playboi Carti

Die Lit

This shit shoulda died in the summertime, but somehow, Carti and Pi’Erre not only surpassed their original effort, they made so many versatile efforts in one statement of reckless cohesion. There’s a Carti song for damn near every mood on the ring, and I adore the bulk of this excessiveness like a capsule of what the hell this year felt like. —MPII

This was on our best rap albums of 2018 list. Read the full list here.

24. Ness Nite

Dream Girl

Jeff Weiss said it best when he wrote, “This is what I thought music would sound like 10 years from now” about Dream Girl. Ness Nite is an embodiment of all the good that can come out of what typically defines our rising generations’ production and consumption of music: sites like SoundCloud, increased creative accessibility, internet rap, influencers, socials, grassroots beginnings, the increasingly blurred lines between music and the rest of culture. On one hand, these factors breed a flood of music, a lot of which goes unnoticed, and a lot of which, simply put, sucks. But Ness’ first full-length album is an example of what happens when an artist plays those cards right: boundary-pushing, fresh sounds, trailblazing, a new brand of authenticity. —AS

23. Yves Tumor

Safe In The Hands Of Love

I’ve sat here for 20 minutes trying to figure out the words to encapsulate what I’ve heard here. I cannot. I approached Safe in the Hands of Love with no prior knowledge of Yves’ music and I can only attest to how these 42 minutes petrified me. I’m unsure if I can say that in a positive manner, but I mean it. If I’m sure of anything, Yves Tumor’s new work is certainly concerned with liberation, fluidity and questions of being. This album’s truly anything it wants to be. I never know whether to rage or cry or praise dance. Grant it your time and you’ll understand the intensity. —MPII

You can buy this album on vinyl right here.

22. Arctic Monkeys

Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino

Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine you are able to go back to September 10, 2013, the day after Arctic Monkeys released their biggest album yet, AM. For reasons you will never understand, you have to tell the past version of yourself what the new Arctic Monkeys album in 2018 sounds like. What part do you think will be the hardest to believe for the 2013 version of yourself?

A) That the new Arctic Monkeys album has just a faint suggestion of guitar riffs

B) That Alex Turner wears Dale Gribble glasses now

C) That the album is a concept album about a lounge band on the moon

D) That that is maybe a complex metaphor for what it’s like to find yourself suddenly super famous

E) That the album’s best song is about a taco restaurant on the moon.

F) That the album containing all these truths is superlatively awesome —AW

You can buy this album on vinyl right here.

21. Yob

Our Raw Heart

I see the world, old. I see the world, dead.

I also want to see the people I care about live for a long time. What a contradiction, huh?

I still wanna live, and maybe that’s foolish. That’s also why Yob’s Our Raw Heart resonated more than any other record this year, metal or not.

Heart isn’t disconnect. It is the connect, where its overwhelming nature is not to desensitize you, but to make you feel alive, beyond survival. That’s why it’s called Our Raw Heart — it’s experiencing everything while never alone. Heart the electricity in every time Mike Scheidt hammers down a riff, it’s the community that helped him get through his illness, it is saying “Only death is real, maybe. But life is pretty good too.” —Andy O’Connor

This was our best metal album of 2018. Check it the rest of the list here.

20. Rico Nasty

Nasty

In terms a sheer, glittery, unadulterated force, Nasty is the most powerful album to drop this year. Picture this (based on a true story): after a three-day depression nap, you’ve pulled yourself together enough to go to the gym, reluctantly. Why are you even here, honestly? You’re a failure and a human noodle and should probably just go back to bed. But you’re here, so you flip on a treadmill and Rico Nasty’s sugar trap perfection Nasty. Suddenly, the world’s yours and you take it. You could lift a car, if you had to. And Rico Nasty did that. —AS

You can buy this album on vinyl right here.

19. Orquesta Akokan

Orquesta Akokan

In which a murderer’s row of Latin jazz aces join forces with singer Pepito Gomez, and come out with one of 2018’s most fun albums, an album suited for a quiet night in, and for hot days when the pavement is going all Alex Mack. Recorded in Cuba at a state-run studio, Orquesta Akokan’s debut is referential to history in the best ways, an album that replicates the feelings of classic Latin jazz recordings, but which expands on the genre while reminding you that this music exists and is worth devotion. —AW

18. Deafheaven

Ordinary Corrupt Human Love

Getting drunk gets… kinda old in your 30s. That’s not mind-blowing wisdom, but it’s true. Some members of Deafheaven had already hit 30 when making Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, and the band’s core, vocalist George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy, were creeping up on it. Hell, McCoy has his own Instagram dedicated to sparkling water now, that’s how committed they are to this. By sobering up, they made their best record yet.

Deafheaven have resisted being boxed in as saviors and heretics (often both, often by people who like them!), they realize life is too complex — and wonderful — for that. (Read my feature on them from when Ordinary came out here.) —AO

This was on our list of best metal albums of 2018. Check it the rest of the list here.

You can buy this album on vinyl right here.

17. Blood Orange

Negro Swan

Dev Hynes said “the first kiss was the floor” and I was already hooked into this joint. Negro Swan is the kinda record that’ll nestle you in the autumn and worship your skin in the summer sun. It’s also wild painful, like Dev buried horcruxes of himself under the shimmering glow he’s conjured up from pop and soul. This is a Blood Orange record gone amorphous, and the chameleon tendencies only work in favor of the Blackness explored within. There’s beauty and sorrow and resilience through and through. There’s even some chopped-up Project Pat and an interlude as a subtle moment of shade against the culture vultures of our time. Blessed be the Negro Swan. —MPII

You can buy this album on vinyl right here.

16. Cardi B

Invasion Of Privacy

There’s a universe where Cardi B’s debut LP is A&R’d to death, where a well-meaning label man took the success of “Bodak Yellow” and tried to turn her into Alessia Cara or something. Instead, we got Invasion of Privacy, which from front to back is Cardi B, in all her glory, dripping in expensive clothes and spitting harder bars than insert your favorite tough guy this month. “I Like It” was the song of the summer, a song built for days when the sun is making the outskirts of your vision hazy, but “I Do” with SZA should soundtrack your winter foolishness. Cardi has hits for all seasons. —AW

You can buy this album on vinyl right here.

15. Christine And The Queens

Chris

“I think it’s a shame most people don’t believe in pop music being political — I’m talking about the audience and the artists altogether. My conviction is that everything is political; you cannot shy away from it, ’cause, well, you were born in politics,” Chris, of Christine and the Queens, wrote to us earlier this year, when I inquired about the historically apolitical framing of pop music as a genre. Chris is a catalogue of thunderous, jaw-dropping pop tracks, an assertion of self, a complex artistic exploration of gender that could give entire doctoral theses a run for their money and a political statement that supersedes the idea of “self” altogether into something much, much larger. And just as importantly? Sincerely impossible not to dance to. —AS

You can buy this album on vinyl right here.

14. Colter Wall

Songs Of The Plains

Colter Wall took the top spot in our country list last year with his debut self-titled, and this album feels like a massive step forward, somehow. Where his last album was a stripped-down, man-and-his-guitar affair, this album fills out his palette, delivering a modern rendering of the western albums of Marty Robbins and Tex Ritter. Wall’s songwriting has always been his secret weapon, but the way he turns his voice into a more varied instrument is the highlight here, as he goes from yodeling cowboy to growling roadsman and back again. An ode to the ways we’re shaped by, and how we shape, where we’re from, Songs of the Plains is the arrival of a new force in country music. The most unbelievable part is that Wall’s masterpiece is probably years and albums away. —AW

This was our best country album of 2018. Check it the rest of the list here.

13. JPEGMAFIA

Veteran

I can’t recall the last rap record that arrested me like this one. I also can’t recall having more fun aux-corded up with any other album on unsuspecting normies and the homies that trust my weirdo reformed-backpacker sensibilities. Imagine a RapCaviar kid hearing “Thug Tears” on the above-average sub in their whip, and realizing what the hell’s possible outside the Billboard. Peggy made a record like that: painfully now, intentionally edgy and fucking fun. —MPII

This was on our best rap albums of 2018 list. Read the full list here.

12. Khruangbin

Con Todo El Mundo

Khruangbin make audible acid trips, the sonic equivalent of macrodosing and blacking out and finding yourself contemplating the vastness of human existence while trying to break into the rhino enclosure at Cincinnati Zoo. Which is to say Con Todo El Mundo is a vibey, chill, sonically expansive thrill ride, the best soundtrack to a Western film you’ve never seen. It was the ultimate in turn on and zone out music, in a year when music felt like one of the only salves for points to all this. —AW

11. Beach House

7

I could write a blurb about the success of 7’s experimental blend of modern shoegaze and Beach House’s signature dream pop, or why taking risks paid off here, or the way Victoria Legrand’s eerie vocals hit hard at the base of the neck, or any number of little technical things that made this a perfect album for me, but I’m not sure any of it would capture the magic of this record. In a year that kept throwing us reasons to shut off and check out en masse, 7 offered a rare sense of wonderment. This summer, after a long day of walking for miles and seeing pieces of the world I didn’t even know existed, I found myself without a seat, standing on a bus that was choppily chugging down a cliffside of a Greek island as the sun set and the organ-like synths and spirit-like vocals of “L’Inconnue” washed over my ears. I’ve kissed and danced and cuddled and fucked and cried to this album, and to each it was a nearly spiritual soundtrack, begging me to be present. Beach House challenged and refined the sound they’ve been making impeccable variations of for 12 years. They gave us something devastating and romantic and impossibly expansive, just like the world we get to wake up and live in every day. —AS

You can buy this album on vinyl right here.

10. Armand Hammer

Paraffin

If your rap year-end list doesn’t have this album on it… there’s a multitude of probabilities as to why. billy woods and Elucid fly below the radar as radical Black Art practitioners, observers of life and stylists of truth. They’re not in the algorithm, they’re not on your curator’s playlist and there aren’t hundreds of thousands of dollars being pumped into the soul of what they’ve accomplished. Paraffin is a Great American Rap Album that pulls not a single blow and leaves nothing unturned. I despise using “challenging” to describe rap, but this record’s not a simple engagement: should you offer your attention, it can offer you the weight of the world. It’s a breathtaking listen, decodable only with braced repetition for whatever you may find. woods and Elucid echo off each other like two prophets shouting from a street corner into the sky, blunt lit. If you’re unacquainted with their individual works, give yourself the opportunity to be amazed by the kind of rap so many folks told you doesn’t exist anymore. —MPII

This was our best rap album of 2018. Read the full list here.

9. Caroline Rose

Loner

Caroline Rose’s Loner is something of a reboot; instead of alt-country, here she goes post-Cars, turning in the best ’80s album of 2018. Which is not to say this is some ’80s worship trip; she uses the organs and nerve of early ’80s new wave to make a modern album about being nervous at parties, feeling like your friends back home are passing you by in the landmarks of life, trying to deal with disappointment in your late-20s and the spiritual cleansing of having a good cry. This album felt like a talisman this year, a guidebook on how to process the never-ending, warp-speed thrust of existence. —AW

8. Tierra Whack

Whack World

Because streaming services reward vastness — the more #content on an album the better — 2018 saw albums like Migos’ Culture II, Drake’s Scorpion bloat to two albums in length for no discernible reason. This bloat made no logical sense; we have shorter attention spans now. The feed is not made for 30 songs in three hours. We were due a course correction and no one made an album more actually suited for existence this year than Tierra Whack, whose Whack World packed 15 songs into 15 tidy minutes, where hooks are not given reprises and songs were not given four extra spots for guest verses. Every song was the perfect length, and every song was perfect. On top of it, each song came with a multi-colored video. It was a multimedia masterpiece that took less time than rewatching an episode of The Office. Who knows what Tierra Whack will do next, but she basically invented a whole new way to be a musician on this one. —AW

7. SABA

CARE FOR ME

Sometimes, the only thing you can do with grief is turn it into heart-wrenching, career-defining rap records. Saba’s superlative CARE FOR ME is a lighthouse for when you’re in the dark, and album born out of the rapper’s personal tragedy. It’s the rap album I returned to most this year, particularly at the moments when all seemed lost. Saba saw his way through losing his best friend in a random act of violence and made CARE FOR ME, I could stomach anything that got thrown at me. —AW

6. Janelle Monáe

Dirty Computer

For a woman with an expansive background in worldbuilding, Dirty Computer forecasts a future of arresting freedom in the most deeply personal manner Janelle Monáe’s granted herself thus far. The androids remain, but Janelle arises from behind the circuitry, wielding her truth like a handgun. It’s a full pop lean with bite, unafraid of the grand political theatre. In many ways, it’s an attempt at the new Great American Pop Album, one that’ll steer the course to rightfully lift Janelle into the pantheon of her idols in time. It’s sexy, daring and raw; in other ways, it’s somewhat incomplete, like the rest of the story’s ready to be built once Janelle learns what else she can do with her tools. For now, though, we revel in this bold new world. —MPII

You can buy this album on vinyl right here.

5. Earl Sweatshirt

Some Rap Songs

In which Earl Sweatshirt turns his back on making Doris 2 or whatever his Internet Fans hoped this would be, and made his own update of Madvillainy, a short, knotty album built on decadent loops and filled with some of the most concise, powder-packed, transcendent writing on any album this year. Recorded as an audio document for Earl to hand to his father to try to bridge the distance between them, his dad died before the album was done, which gives the songs here — largely about trying to climb out of grief, and letting things go, and forgiving your parents their faults — a tragic, depressed added context. Earl is never going to go back to making albums about chopping people up; instead, he’s gonna have minor existential crises in the soul chops. —AW

4. Noname

Room 25

Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh? —AS

3. Kacey Musgraves

Golden Hour

“Golden hour,” the hour after sunrise and before sunset, has long been lauded by photographers and romantics alike for the sun’s ability to make everything unquestionably magical. Even the ugliest corners of the universe come alive under the right glow. In 2018, I, like most do at some point in life, had to ask myself a question: how do you define love? For the unfathomably infinite — likely more than any other topic — amount of output humans have generated through the course of time trying to answer this question, it’s not an easy question to answer. For me, and apparently for the newly married Kacey Musgraves, you can rationalize and philosophize it all you want, but it boils down to an unexplainable basic sensory experience. Just like the world during golden hour, in the all-encompassing glow of love, life looks different, feels different, is different. It’s almost impossible to nail down but, as evidenced by the kind of unbelievable commercial and critical success Golden Hour gained Kacey Musgraves as a country artist, this album unfolded these elusive truths without masking the anxiety and fear that often accompanies them, more resonantly than any album in recent memory. It’s an honest champagne-colored, uninhibited country masterpiece — infused with nods to pop, funk and disco — that outwardly rejects the toxic pretension (“High Horse”) and cynicism that 2018 culture bathes in daily. Instead, Golden Hour favors celebration of love (in many forms) through gentle guitars, robust strings, brilliant sing-along melodies, an occasional vocoder and all-around warmth from start to finish. —AS

2. serpentwithfeet

soil

Perhaps every artist’s searching for the most inventive ways to speak of the same old clichés. Love remains a pinnacle of such a quest: the romantic, the platonic, the otherworldly. A good love song will always be enough for most people. serpentwithfeet isn’t intrigued by a good love song: He preoccupies himself with every facet of loving someone, as dramatic as he deserves to be. Listening to soil means becoming familiar with the stench and the stigma, the sensation of this messiness. It’s an album that dares you to chase your own euphoria no matter how forbidden or illegal; even the pain feels so sweet. Josiah Wise sings with God in the room, breathing in the essence of lovers come and gone. And the harmonies? The vocals? Chile, please. —MPII

You can buy this album on vinyl right here.

1. Mitski

Be The Cowboy

“I should just be the swaggering white guy onstage… Like, well, if that’s what I want then I should just do it. It’s what I want to see, I should just do it. Or in a situation, I should just forget that I’m an Asian woman, and just be like, ‘What would a cowboy do in this situation?’ And he’d be like, ‘I ain’t gon’ take that shit!’” Mitski told us earlier this year, slipping into a smile and a fake cowboy accent.

There’s been somewhat of a pop cultural obsession with all things cowboy and cowboy adjacent lately; think Westworld, A Star is Born, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Be the Cowboy, Golden Hour, etc. Given traditional rugged American masculinity’s reign over power — and our subsequent constant challenging and resistance of it — it makes sense we’ve been fascinated with its archetypal epitome. If life were an old Western film, when the modern day embodiment of give-no-fucks American masculinity moseyed on into the lives of anyone they please and took what they think is theirs (as they have since the beginning of American civilization), shiny-star-badge-sporting Mitski Miyawaki would save the day. But it’s 2018 and (as anyone who isn’t conditioned with the confidence of a “cowboy” from birth knows) just being the cowboy is fucking hard.

That’s why the careful, succinct narratives that constitute Be The Cowboy make it the best album to come out this year. In a moment of musical risk in contrast to her extolled past work, Mitski swapped her distorted guitars for massive pop choruses and her more abstract lyricism for the most outwardly developed characters we’ve seen from her so far. Then, she took her penchant for writing melodies that hit the brain like an expensive, rare drug, fused them with Hitchcock blonde aesthetics and unalloyed loneliness, flipped it all on its head, and made a 32-minute masterpiece in every possible way. —AS

You can buy this album on vinyl right here.

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