The Top 20 Albums of 2018

The term “escapist” is usually applied to story-based art forms – like a 1,000-page high-fantasy novel or a blockbuster IMAX adventure. But in 2018, music was my escape hatch. The one thing every album on this list had in common was that it drew me into its unique sonic universe. Whether it was satirical hip-hop, sci-fi death metal, or romantic pop-country, I floated through it, gobsmacked by melody, moved by poetry. It was indescribably comforting to know that, no matter what atrocity was leading the news that day, the play button was an arm’s reach away.

https_images.genius.com469bb24dc0e092bff3f3003c8229ecf3.1000x1000x120. Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar

This Scottish-by-way-of-Africa trio was one of 2018’s most successful genre omnivores, fusing lush, electronic R&B with bursts of twitchy grime and the occasional harmony-drenched sunshower. The third Fathers record, Cocoa Sugar, finds the group filtering its legion of influences through the framework of slow-build dance music, layering one subtle element on top of another in a determined attempt to reach that jumping-up-and-down moment of transcendence. “Border Girl” begins with three squelching bass notes and ends up with what might as well be 1,000 voices, beckoning for miracles. On “Lord,” the pristine first single, a falsetto gospel chorus greets us, only to drop out, leaving behind a unstable atmosphere of wispy piano, heavy bass drops, and chilly sentiments like “If wishes were horses / Then beggars would ride.” When the chorus makes its glorious return, we can almost feel the mane in our hands, and the wild breeze in our faces.

a3297919058_1019. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel

After the runaway success of her 2015 debut, Courtney Barnett went through an extended bout of writer’s block. She tried writing only on a typewriter. She took a break to make a fun, freewheeling album with Kurt Vile. It was all worth it. Tell Me How You Really Feel is a darker, more conflicted work, a floodlight shining on a noisy world, overflowing with fake friends and sexist trolls. Everything you need to know about the album’s emotional grey areas is built into the first song title, “Hopefulessness.” Featuring a string tuning down, a tea kettle screeching, and lines like “It’s okay to have a bad day,” it’s not forthcoming with easy answers. The rest of the album is equally honest, but also sneakily catchy. Especially “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence,” which boasts a delightful power-pop crunch that belies its title. When Barnett and her band launch into the chorus, it’s like they’re simultaneously having one of the most depressing and freeing adult realizations – everybody is making it up as they go along. “I don’t know anything!” they harmonize. If certain powerful men were strong enough to admit this, the world would be an unrecognizably better place.

220px-Teyana_Taylor_KTSE_Cover_Art18. Teyana Taylor – KTSE

Teyana Taylor knows a thing or two about staying positive. Even though she signed to Pharrell’s label way back in 2007, her debut album didn’t drop until 2014. And by the time LP2 finally arrived this summer, it had zero chance of untainted publicity, thanks to the public self-immolation of its executive producer, Kanye West. Which is a goddamn shame, because KTSE packs enough joy into its 23 minutes to counteract even the heaviest dose of dragon energy. The title stands for “Keep That Same Energy,” and Taylor’s commitment to the mantra is something to behold. Her voice is tinged with reflective wisdom. It’s a confluence of talent and life experience, a direct ancestor of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. West provides little more than spartan soul samples on most of these tracks, and it’s all Taylor needs. Until “WTP,” that is. A ballroom-inspired ’90s dance tour de force, complete with clips from Paris Is Burning, “WTP” closes this record with a deliriously satisfying blast of self-confidence. “Save your tears honey,” advises guest emcee Mykki Blanco. “You’re a motherfucking diva!”

https_images.genius.comd556b68ca7ed856d1efd2badd494260a.1000x1000x117. Jean Grae & Quelle Chris – Everything’s Fine

Study after study has shown that life in America is stressful AF. And the imaginative indie rappers Jean Grae and Quelle Chris have taken a deep dive into the causes of this collective anxiety, and our continuing addiction to baseless claims that it’s all gonna be okay. They bring in authoritative-sounding comedians like Nick Offerman and John Hodgman to repeat the album title over soothing elevator music, giving the record its own brand of insidious, hilarious propaganda. As a result, Everything’s Fine is that rare rap album where the skits are essential, because they put these formidable emcees on the offensive. Grae & Chris rap with fire and irony about police violence and lost childhoods, exposing the lie of the album title over hazy, atmospheric production. Grae is especially dynamic, her verses an encyclopedic whirlwind, her shit-talk positively elegant: “Fire, brimstone, magma, lava, Dylan, molten granite, dollars, kimchee / Longer it sits, stronger the MC.” On the next track, Offerman tries to make us forget. “Why would you have to do anything about issues that don’t directly affect you?” he purrs. This record is a herculean battle between truth and comfort; nutrition and junk. It’s like watching the news, if pundits were poets.

https_images.genius.com408f28c254a33a5d96647336a9e972cd.622x622x116. Tierra Whack – Whack World

Sometimes, limitations are an artist’s best friend. Like John Lennon having to belt out “Twist and Shout” with a hell of a cold, and only 15 minutes of studio time left to do it. 15 minutes also happens to be the running time of Philadelphia rapper Tierra Whack’s debut album – that’s 15 tracks, at precisely one minute a piece. I call Whack a rapper, but Whack World is so much more than a rap album. Within these cozy confines, she bounces from moody trap to sunshine pop, introspective R&B balladry and a full-on country twang. She sings about board games and dead pets, and raps with feeling about how she loves to see her mother laugh. Every transition feels effortless. And the same can be said about Whack World’s accompanying video, which depicts the artist’s ideas with the technicolor verve they deserve – imagine if Lemonade was shot in Pee Wee’s Playhouse. This album is a complete artistic statement; a celebration of an independent spirit, alive with humor and humanity. And it’s over in the time it takes to boil an egg. “Music is in my Billie genes,” she boasts. It’s the only explanation for how she could have pulled this off.

https_images.genius.comaee8d20d98f75c9f52ae97a5ebd8637c.1000x1000x115. Vince Staples – FM!

Exposing the illusion of California as a sun-dappled promised land has been a go-to writerly pursuit since Steinbeck was in his prime. But it’s hard to think of any artist who has broken this spell with the muscular precision of Long Beach rapper Vince Staples. On his perpetual motion machine of a third record, Staples plays with our expectations like an especially sly feline. Track one is called “Feels Like Summer,” and it outlines a different kind of heat wave, an ever-present danger that makes the artist sweat all year round. “Cold weather won’t stop no gunner / Wrong hat, wrong day, I’ll kill my brother,” Staples raps. (His everyday challenges would make the Beach Boys shit their shorts.) The genius of FM! is how Staples balances these grim street narratives with infectious energy. Whether he’s rapping about the sun coming out or the guns coming out, his flow is the great equalizer, delivering this stark street poetry with exhilarating percussive force, the perfect foil for the gritty minimalism of producer Kenny Beats. It’s the 2018 equivalent of Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day,” except the good times rarely last for a whole couplet, let alone 24 hours. When Staples raps, “Broad day, I’m ’round your way / SK, come out, let’s play,” it almost feels like kid on summer break, until we learn that an SK is a Soviet semiautomatic weapon. It’d be enough to make your head shake, if it wasn’t already bobbing like crazy.

https_images.genius.com24c0326732e628586966e81c5ca9ea27.700x700x114. Slugdge – Esoteric Malacology

It all started with a pun. UK metalheads Matt Moss and Kev Pearson couldn’t believe that out of all the sludge metal bands with animal obsessions, none had connected “sludge” with “slug.” So in 2012, Slugdge was born, complete with its own crackpot theological backstory, centered on a vengeful, slimeridden, interdimensional god named Mollusca. After years of wriggling its way through the metal underground, Moss and Pearson’s band truly burst from the soil in 2018, with the release of its fourth LP, Esoteric Malacology. The Lovecraftian mythology and Pythonian absurdity have reached delirious new heights – “The walls shall liquify beneath / The force of Rhaexorog’s harrowing screams.” And the duo has developed its own particular brand of pummeling prog-metal, proving that very heavy music can also be clear and accessible, without upsetting too many die-hards. The riffs writhe like tentacles, undulating to their own arcane rhythms as they rise to blot out the sun. Clean, worshipful harmonies sit shoulder to shoulder with low demonic growls. When it all comes together, like on the relentless track “Crop Killer,” Slugdge is metal at its most ridiculously fun – painstakingly crafted compositions played with whizbang ability, and delivered with utter dedication to a bonkers sci-fi narrative based on a tortured pun. All. Hail. Mollusca.

https_images.genius.com2a57c6ea1f460c4a71f44de202ea1330.620x620x113. Neko Case – Hell-On

“I’m an agent of the natural world,” proclaims Neko Case on her self-produced sixth LP. The singer/songwriter has long favored themes of mother earth as a sleeping giant; her discography is full of tornadoes and floods, pent-up cyclones and hovering bees. But Case has never written as caustically about our impending doom as she does here. “Don’t you tell me I didn’t warn you,” she sings omnisciently over the gloomy waltz of the title track. In fact, Hell-On finds the artist so appalled by our collective eco-ignorance that she goes full Howard Zinn, telling stories about groups that tend to be ignored by the conquering generals who write our history books – extinct lions, female sailors, traumatized children. If Case wasn’t such a skilled producer, all of this foreboding might make for a tough sit. But this is her lushest album yet, with each track possessing some kind of fulfilling sonic surprise. Like the ’60s pop bounce of “Bad Luck.” Or the swelling wave of a chorus that crashes over “Winnie”: “We were warriors!” The seven-minute “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” is a stone-cold spine-tingler, pairing the artist’s touching remembrances of her first days on the road with duet partner Mark Lanegan’s reassuringly scratchy basso. If we’re all going down with the ship, then what better time to sing?

Lucy Dacus_ Historian12. Lucy Dacus – Historian

Lucy Dacus songs unfold like realizations. Where pop artists tend to prefer briskly discovered a-ha moments, this Virginia singer/songwriter explores the periphery and then works her way in. So by the time we realize that addictions can be interpersonal, or that our homeland isn’t as homey as we hoped, or that death is coldly, poignantly final, the whole experience has been enriched by context, the volume rising steadily like the tide. Historian is Dacus’s first LP with Matador Records, who won a very public label war for her services. All signs point to the execs staying out of her way. Otherwise, the fantastic chorus from the opening track “Night Shift” would’ve been burned off within 30 seconds. Instead, Dacus spends more than three minutes painting a picture of a relationship in ruins, including an image of a man staring at his feet, waiting for his guilt to be lifted, that works pretty well as a metaphor for what’s wrong with the world. Then, only when we understand, does it happen. The chord progression changes; the band drops out; and Dacus sings, “You’ve got a nine to five / So I’ll take the night shift.” It’s more than a cool breakup line. It’s a rejection of everyday drudgery, and Dacus sings it more confidently each time, as if she’s realizing in the moment that she deserves better. Historian is full of songs like these. Ideas that develop in steady crescendo, until they blossom as breakthroughs – bright, and loud, and true.

Love-loss--and-autotune-by-Swamp-Dogg11. Swamp Dogg – Love, Loss and Auto-Tune

By the time an artist gets around to releasing their 22nd album, the best we can usually expect is a respectable return to form under the guidance of a savvy producer – a Time Out of Mind or American Recordings. But since he began dropping eccentric cult R&B records under the name Swamp Dogg in 1970, Jerry Williams Jr. has done anything but what we’d expect. His 22nd album is absolutely influenced by his producers, but its similarities to other late-career triumphs ends there. True to its title, Love, Loss and Auto-Tune layers Williams’s beautifully weathered tenor in pitch-correcting robotics. But it’s not like his voice needs help, or that the material requires some kind of chilly remove. Like Eno with a synthesizer, this is just a boundary-pusher exploring new frontiers. Whether he’s crooning a Nat King Cole standard, begging his love to wait up for him so they can sip “Dom Perignon ’69,” or busting out a spoken word screed about our fucked-up economy, the effect is absolutely unique – and stop-you-in-your-tracks emotional. This isn’t some novelty record. The love swells. The loss hurts. And the Auto-Tune elevates it all, more then any dumb guitar solo could.

https_images.genius.comf9fec989d8a03a8204fd4ff1189d2dd5.1000x1000x110. Sophie – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides

When the Scottish dance-pop enigma Sophie released a collection of singles in 2015, she gave it the perfect title – PRODUCT. Because this DJ and producer has made her mark by turning lifeless hitmaking technology against itself, resulting in shamelessly mechanical, outrageously plastic earworms. This astounding trademark sound is still evident on her proper studio debut, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, but this time, her mission is a therapeutic one. It might be twisted and distorted beyond recognition, but Sophie begins this album by featuring her own singing voice for the first time, on a gentle, spectral ballad called “It’s Okay To Cry.” “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way,” she shares. “But I think your inside is your best side.” Then there’s “Immaterial,” a hand-clap-driven pop reverie that presents our metaphysical selves as our true selves, resulting in a pure expression of freedom. “Without my legs or my hair / Without my genes or my blood / With no name and with no type of story / Where do I live?” Throw in some classic Sophie anti-pop – “Faceshopping” sounds like a Casio being shoved down a garbage disposal, stray pieces skittering across the linoleum – and you’ve got an album unlike any other, that celebrates how each of us is unlike any other.

https_images.genius.comce9271c9c0f795669e05dfd21bf39cdd.1000x1000x19. Caroline Rose – Loner

Is it possible for an artist to be low-key ambitious? To explore all kinds of fertile new ground without being all in-your-face about it? Caroline Rose’s second album leads me to believe so. Loner finds the former Americana singer/songwriter leaving that down-home strumminess in the dust, using a phalanx of synth patches and a chameleonic singing voice to hearken back to ’60s garage rock, ’70s punk and ’90s trip hop. Along with co-producer Paul Butler, Rose manages to corral all of this mood- and genre-hopping into a small-group setting. Other than the keyboards, the instrumentation pretty much doesn’t change. All the hard work is left to the songs and players. And rightfully so. Loner should be, on paper, a fairly depressing record. Narrators sit alone at diner counters, and lose their sense of wonder in a homogenized world. But Rose approaches every song with a sardonic grin. She’s not hopeless; she’s bemused. And she’s at her absolute best when taking on the satirical role of a crass, Randy Newman-style huckster: “We’re gonna put you in the movies and on TV / All you’ve gotta do is put on this little bikini!” As the guitars churn and the synths rain down, the last thing we’re thinking about is the genre. We’re too busy being electrified.

https_images.genius.com8b54877e9543c6577be5d6e963e02452.750x750x18. Denzel Curry – Ta13oo

There’s a throughline connecting the rise of grunge in the ’90s, nü metal in the ’00s and Soundcloud rap in the ’10s – new generations flocking to the sound of young men venting. In all three cases, this has resulted in a lot of entitled, peacocking garbage. But with the release of Florida rapper Denzel Curry’s second LP, Soundcloud rap may have found its ideal torchbearer. Ta13oo features many of the building blocks of this much-derided/beloved genre. Confessional lyrics flow like open veins. Dark, electronic beats swoosh past like rusted throwing stars. A working knowledge of Nirvana, Korn and Stephen King is made clear. But Curry elevates the formula beyond your typical teen angst, by just writing and rapping his ass off. “Sky is the limit / I could die any minute / Got my mind in a skillet / Suicide not the mission,” he spits over the light, strolling synths of “Black Balloons,” beautifully encapsulating the painful uncertainties and careening energies of youth. He begins the record by pledging to always be there for a partner who suffered childhood abuse. He uses Kurt Cobain’s suicide as a cipher for materialism. He references Chowder and Jimmy Neutron and South Park and Black Sabbath. He reaches rap nirvana, over and over again.

https_images.genius.com22ebcc3f86cf57b0438e81d03b492955.1000x1000x17. CupcakKe – Ephorize

When a brilliant, charismatic rapper is just starting to blow up, there are few things more exciting for a listener – being there for that moment, pressing play on the album that could put them on the short list for Best Rapper Alive. Which is just what Ephorize has done for CupcakKe. The third LP from this prolific, seemingly unstoppable Chicago rapper was a significant leap forward from 2017’s excellent Queen Elizabitch – pairing her sharply honed lyricism and whitewater-rapids flow with club-ready production that sends all the positive vibes into the stratosphere. The artist is most famous for explicit, sex-positive bops, and she delivers one of her greatest here with the Statue of Liberty-referencing “Duck Duck Goose.” But Ephorize is equally defined by themes of personal growth and celebratory wokeness. “Most people already skipped this song cause it ain’t about sex and killin’,” she raps on “Self Interview,” a fearless recitation of her anxieties that ends with a vow to be true to herself. When this inward empathy explodes outward, CupcakKe is in rarefied air. “Boy on boy / girl on girl / Like who the fuck you like / Fuck the world!” she proclaims over the sax-laden dancehall groove of “Crayons.” It’s like we’re riding a rainbow rollercoaster, double guns drawn, the Best Rapper Alive at the controls.

DirtyComputer6. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer

Janelle Monáe’s talent has always been enough. Her ear for indelible hooks, adventurous arrangements and effective collaborators has made her records feel like signposts for the future of R&B – despite the fact that all of them were weighed down by an utterly confusing dystopian sci-fi premise. Until Dirty Computer, that is. Monáe’s third LP is technically a concept album. But for the first time in her discography, it doesn’t really matter. The songwriting reckons with real life. In this world. In 2018. “I’m not America’s nightmare / I’m the American dream,” Monáe declares over the confident ’80s pop synths of “Crazy, Classic, Life.” This is the album in microcosm – a stark acknowledgement of the challenges facing the black and LGBTQ+ communities in Donald Trump’s America, and a simultaneous declaration of exuberant badassery. It’s the most politically present, and openly romantic, she’s ever been – and the melodies bubble up and embrace us like they always have. “Pynk” turns an Aerosmith sample into a test tube of life-sustaining sunshine. “Screwed” boasts one of the snappiest guitar riffs of the year. And “Make Me Feel” finds Monáe doing justice to Prince’s memory by fusing funk and pop and lust and love into an interplanetary cocktail of truth. What a perfect time for her to shake things up, and give us all the feels.

https_images.genius.com639af7c3779547263444a0acdd2ffcde.1000x1000x15. Noname – Room 25

As we’ve learned the hard way in this country, the people who loudly brag about how strong and smart they are tend to be the weakest and stupidest of the bunch. On her patient, radiant second album, the Chicago rapper Noname calmly delivers verses about struggling to find yourself, the frustrating Venn diagram of sex and love, and the frightening impermanence of existence. It’s powerful because it’s not trying to sound powerful. Featuring live musicians playing low-lit, after-hours R&B vamps, Room 25 has a restorative quality. It’s hot soup on a cold day. When Noname admits “Everybody think they know me / Don’t nobody really know me,” producer Phoelix supports her with a synth patch that sounds like a music box – the sound of the adolescence she’s leaving behind. As she ponders the human condition on “Don’t Forget About Me,” the gentle snare hits and burbling organ are a balm. And on the opening “Self,” where she proves that quiet confidence can shatter foundations, we get an absolute motherfucker of a Fender Rhodes soul groove. It sounds like good news, like a long kiss, like maple syrup on your oatmeal. And Noname drops the verse of the year over it, hurling a pie in the face of rap’s patriarchal gatekeepers: “My pussy teaching ninth-grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism / In conversation with a marginal system in love with Jesus / And y’all still thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?”

a3868691890_164. Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo

Khruangbin makes dreamy, contemplative funk instrumentals. But that description doesn’t do them justice. I’m not nearly cultured enough to properly convey what this Houston trio’s second album sounds like. It bears more passport stamps then every record on this list combined, incorporating Thai, Spanish and Middle Eastern influences into the kind of grooves that will turn any walk into a strut. Mark Speer’s acrobatic guitar playing is center stage, slithering its way through “Maria También” with venomous grace. But that song would be mere noodling without Laura Lee’s searching bass and DJ Johnson’s breezy drums. The end result sounds like Ennio Morricone recording for Stax. I could listen to it on repeat. This cosmic chemistry is all over Con Todo El Mundo, which showcases the most beautiful thing a band can be – an interconnected support system of otherwise-impossible sounds. When they dip their toes into jazz balladry on “Hymn,” Johnson’s congas and sleigh bells are the perfect top notes to the reverb-drenched guitar and beseeching bass. And when they do decide to add vocals to a track, it’s profoundly minimal. After the sand-dune-smooth riff that opens “Evan Finds the Third Room,” Lee voices what we’re all thinking: “Yes!”

b266198ecaf03cafb955bee91d331fa75e2398ad3. Esperanza Spalding – 12 Little Spells

“There’s a vibrational current between every fingertip and the unseen,” declares Esperanza Spalding on 12 Little Spells. In the context of the soundscapes she builds around it, this line feels like incontrovertible truth. Because the artist we could once describe as a “Grammy-winning jazz composer, singer and bassist” has reached heights of sonic expression that transcend genre. Or song structure. Or the physical plane. Only in this rarefied air could she take on this album’s lofty and amorphous challenge – sing a dozen songs about physical reactions to art, and transfer her own feelings to listeners. Spalding’s arrangements are largely percussionless, freeing up her bass lines to bob and weave around our expectations – even the low end is rising skyward. Resulting in music that makes us feel like that batty old man in Mary Poppins, floating to the ceiling in his pajamas, laughing at the wonder of it all. What’s even more amazing is that, at its heart, this is a pop album, meant to connect with as many of us as possible. Few things stuck in my brain in 2018 like the gentle, swaying funk of “Thang.” “‘Till the Next Full” evokes Hejira-era Joni Mitchell with its swirling, nocturnal acoustics. The title track swells like a old movie score, toeing the edge of dissonance but always choosing beauty. Making us feel the way the artist must have felt – entranced and inspired, our goosebumps rising like voices.

RobynHoney2. Robyn – Honey

Nobody used dance music as a weapon of resilience like Robyn did in the first decade of a scary new millennium. The Swedish singer, songwriter and producer wielded bass drum eighth notes like emotional armor, resisting despair’s powerful undertow, bravely choosing to dance on her own. But in the eight years since her absolutely essential Body Talk albums turned our insecurities into ecstasies, a lot happened in this artist’s life. Relationships ended. A close friend and collaborator passed away. And the world kept spinning ever more out of control. So it shouldn’t be a total shock that Robyn has left her suit of armor hanging on the castle walls. On Honey, the pain of the past comes flooding in, exposing universal human weak spots – nostalgia, grief, love. Instead of being repelled by otherworldly pop hooks, their power is captured, and harnessed for good. “Because it’s in the music / Yeah, we’re dancing to it / I’m right back in that moment / And it makes me want to cry,” she sings, in perhaps the clearest example of how her perspective has evolved since 2010. But the track’s rolling, playful bass line and frolicking synth strings communicate the therapeutic nature of her words. Robyn pulls off this trick all over Honey, processing these emotions through the language of adventurous dance-pop, without blunting their impact. It’s a genius songwriter at work. And when she takes a break from soul-searching, we get the avant-garde banger “Beach2k20,” an entrancing ’90s dance concoction during which Robyn has a muffled conversation with herself arranging a beach trip. The only words that bubble completely up to the surface are “Let’s go party!” You’d think nine tracks wouldn’t feel like enough after an eight-year absence. It’s as generous as music gets.

Golden-hour-Kacey-Musgraves1. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

“Oh what a world / Don’t wanna leave / There’s all kinds of magic / It’s hard to believe,” sings Kacey Musgraves, on one of the many standout love songs that form the spine of her flawless third album, Golden Hour. For all its grandiosity, it never feels the least bit trite. Because this songwriter has no time for sunsets. The “magic” she feels is like seeing the Aurora Borealis. “These are real things,” she marvels. Golden Hour is largely about these “real things.” In fact, its songwriting is so focused, it makes me realize how so many of our idioms for romance have to do with not seeing straight. Clichéd love makes us “starry-eyed.” It “knocks us off our feet.” It makes us “crazy about” someone. Musgraves approaches the subject from a variety of angles, from the lovely ache of missing someone to the frightening joy of trusting them. And her vision never blurs. “I used to be scared of the wilderness, of the dark,” she sings. “But not anymore.” This clarity is also evident in Golden Hour’s production. It’s based in the honeyed pop-country gloss that defined her first two records, but takes some exhilarating liberties. “High Horse” is a swirling disco anthem. “Oh What a World” features a chorus of robotic voices. “Slow Burn” introduces a string motif that waxes and wanes like something off of Beck’s Sea Change album. But for all these feats of songcraft, the moment that moved me the most was as simple as can be. The band drops away, and it’s just Musgraves, at her piano, telling her love the one thing we all want to hear: “It’ll all be alright.”

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Against All Logic – 2012-2017; At the Gates – To Drink from the Night Itself; Behemoth – I Loved You at Your Darkest; Brockhampton – IridescenceCardi B – Invasion of Privacy; Mariah Carey – Caution; City Girls – Period; Cupcakke – Eden; Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs; Flatbush Zombies – Vacation In Hell; Future – Beast Mode 2; JPEGMAFIA – Veteran; Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread; Hermit and the Recluse – Orpheus vs. The Sirens; Horrendous – Idol; Jeremih & Ty Dolla $ign – Mih-Ty; Kero Kero Bonito – Time ‘n’ Place; Lil Wayne – Tha Carter V; Mammoth Grinder – Cosmic Crypt; Parquet Courts – Wide Awake!; Pistol Annies – Interstate Gospel; Natalie Prass – The Future and the Past; Pusha-T – Daytona; Rhye – Blood; Rico Nasty – Nasty; Saba – Care for Me; Screaming Females – All At Once; Sofi Tukker – Treehouse; Anna St. Louis – If Only There Was a River; Tenacious D – Post-Apocalypto; Kurt Vile – Bottle It In

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (25-21)

Being There

25. Wilco – Being There (1996)

In 1996, things weren’t exactly going Jeff Tweedy’s way. It’d been a few years since the nasty breakup of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, and Tweedy’s new band wasn’t doing as well as his old partner Jay Farrar’s. So he literally doubled down, recording a double album and refusing to budge when his label balked. He called it Being There, after the 1979 Peter Sellers movie about a clueless man named Chance who floats to the top of society. “Misunderstood,” the album’s first song, starts as a ballad about not belonging, and ends with a thunderous punk catharsis: “I wanna thank you all for nothing!” It’s Tweedy trying the Chance method of getting famous, sharing what’s on his mind and letting the chips fall where they may. It’s selfish, and dynamic. But thankfully, Being There isn’t all vitriol. The brilliant multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett joined Wilco for these sessions, burnishing every track in some way, be it a ringing pedal steel note or a heartfelt backing vocal. And Tweedy full-on embraces his love of classic rock, from the shameless Stones rip-off “Monday” to the T. Rex boogie of “I Got You.” He may have missed the point of that movie – Chance is a stand-in for every idiot who’s coasted to the White House on white male privilege – but he made himself a masterpiece all the same.

BizarreRideIIthePharcyde

24. The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (1992)

There’s something inherently rewarding about talented people not taking themselves seriously. Like Meryl Streep playing an ego-drunk Danielle Steele villain in She-Devil. Or Werner Herzog narrating an episode of Parks & Recreation. Or a quartet of accomplished dancers forming a goofy rap group called The Pharcyde. After landing a record deal on the strength of a song full of mom jokes (e.g. “Your mama’s got a peg leg with a kickstand”), Fatlip, Slimkid3, Imani and Bootie Brown poured all their youthful energy and comedic chops into Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde. Whether they’re rapping about getting high, or arrested, or ignored by a woman, their rapid flows, class-clown antics, and legitimate moments of clarity formed the backbone of a record that was so much more than funny. These guys were smart enough to avoid the kind of wooden sketch comedy that marred many a ’90s rap album – instead, they freestyled about hypothetical presidential power over a vamping live band. Oh, and did I mention Bizarre Ride is a clinic in sample-based beatmaking? J-Swift’s celebratory, jazz-inflected production has aged wonderfully – it’s entirely possible the inventor of the confetti gun was listening to it when inspiration struck.

Introducing_happiness_album_cover23. Rheostatics – Introducing Happiness (1994)

Sire Records had no idea what to do with Rheostatics’ fourth albumEven though it featured “Claire,” by far the biggest hit of this Ontario cult quartet’s career, Introducing Happiness was a carnival of clashing ideas – the deep cerulean of a sci-fi ballad, next to a lime green fever dream of a giant hummingbird, blurring into the mercury-silver glow of a jazz ode to the Russian lunar cycle. Factor in singer Martin Tielli’s anti-Vedder quaver and guitarist Dave Bidini’s explosive, angular noodling, and the Buzz Bin probably felt out of reach (although the Flaming Lips, this band’s closest American counterpart, managed to pull it off). Who cares about this 24-year-old industry context, you say? Well, you may have forgotten just how deeply odd, and disarmingly pretty, this album is. You may have forgotten about “Cephallus Worm/Uncle Henry,” which sounds like a room of amateur impressionists covering “Purple Haze” through a fog of nitrous oxide. You may have forgotten about lines like “I’m dripping water on your gills / You’re such a beautiful thing.” These guys had been given a second chance to prove themselves as a commercial force, and this is what they made. God bless them.

https---images.genius.com-8d8af1e45dbeada213405d9aa7a539d6.1000x1000x122. Björk – Debut (1993)

There’s a moment on Björk’s solo debut where we get a chance to step back and truly take stock of what we’re hearing. In the middle of the deliriously catchy raver “There’s More to Life Than This,” the singer pulls us out of the club – a door slams, muffling the music behind it. It’s a disorienting experience; I thought my speakers had shorted out the first time I heard it. But before I could start messing with the wires, Björk was singing again, in full-throated a cappella – “We could nick a boat / And sneak off to this island!” When the beat comes back, it’s a whole new kind of high. This, right here, is what it was like to listen to Björk in the ’90s. Anytime we thought “perfectly enjoyable” was good enough, we felt a pull at our sleeves, away from complacency and toward a previously unimaginable Icelandic adventure. Debut isn’t quite as richly layered as her future triumphs, but the building blocks alone make it a classic – the insanely creative techno production, the vintage movie musical balladry, a voice with a majestic ornithology all its own. There’s more to life than this, but only because Björk’s next album was even better.

https---images.genius.com-cd0a26733cc459710d0986b7b64de8f0.1000x1000x121. Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind (1997)

In the summer of 1997, Bob Dylan was hospitalized with a fungal infection that was attacking his heart. He’d already had his 30th album, Time Out of Mind, in the can by then. Its songs weren’t inspired by this particular crisis. But it’s a haunting, melancholy struggle just the same – a man on the verge of becoming a boomer relic, coming to terms with the mortality of his mind and body. Here was rock’s most renowned lyrical obfuscator, writing with eerie clarity about failed marriages, stale hopes, and looming shadows. “I got no place left to turn / I got nothin’ left to burn,” he sings on “Standing in the Doorway.” He’s spent. But ironically, Time Out of Mind was Dylan’s most fulfilling work in decades. With producer Daniel Lanois back in the fold – he produced Dylan’s underrated 1989 album Oh Mercy – these songs of woe get the sonic TLC they deserve. From the ominous, echoing organ of “Love Sick” to the sauntering blues vamp that makes the 16-minute “Highlands” feel like a reasonable length, Lanois’s warmly evocative touches remind us that while the narrators are alone, the musicians are anything but. “It’s not dark yet / but it’s getting there,” Dylan confesses. His talent has rarely shone brighter.

The Top 10 Bands of the 1970s

It’s been a while since I randomly ranked something. So why not list my ten favorite bands of the decade when the rock group was supposedly king? In eighth grade I would’ve told you that the ’70s was the only decade a music fan needed. Zeppelin and Floyd were my world. I’ve gotten less stupid since then, but as you can see here, 13-year-old me is still in there somewhere.

To be clear: solo artists are not eligible. But bands that were crucial to a solo artist’s body of work – e.g. The Heartbreakers, Crazy Horse – are in the running. Why? Because this is the only sliver of the universe that I can control. My cyber-roof, my rules. To the list machine!

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10. Television

The sound of a single bird chirping can be pleasant. But combine it with other feathered friends, and it’s an entirely different experience – a psychologically restorative level of ambient noise. Such is the guitar interplay of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. On the two albums that Television released before breaking up in 1978 – the jaw-dropping, all-time-great debut Marquee Moon and its merely fantastic follow-up Adventure – the duo plays like a pair of skylarks, instinctually aware of one another as their riffage soars heavenward. These CBGB regulars did more for punk artists drawn to artful forms of rebellion than any other ’70s band. Two albums were all they needed.

 

Sly and the Family Stone

9. Sly and the Family Stone

If Sylvester Stewart could’ve somehow just retired in 1970, he could’ve spent the rest of his life teaching seminars on how to use effusive, unbridled positivity as a weapon. Instead, he spent the decade dimming the lights, retreating to his home studio/heroin den, refusing to sing a simple song. But before fading into obscurity, he gave us the two finest Sly and the Family Stone albums. The murky, conflicted There’s a Riot Goin On walked through the valley of personal and political corruption. And Fresh came out the other side, doing justice to its title with pristinely funky treatises on thankfulness and peace of mind. In the ’60s, Sly and the Family Stone took us higher. In the ’70s, they helped us cope.

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8. Black Sabbath

“What is this that stands before me?” sings Ozzy Osbourne on “Black Sabbath,” the opening song on his band’s 1970 debut. I’d imagine a lot of listeners felt the same way. Because Black Sabbath was a true original, frighteningly ahead of its time. Like many English bands of this era, the Birmingham quartet was drawn to the intoxicating pentatonics of American blues music. But they were never content to just rip it off. Black Sabbath, and the three equally masterful albums that followed it, favored slower tempos and lower registers, letting each minor chord marinate in its own midnight. In the process, they invented heavy music as we know it. Tony Iommi made it okay for guitarists to value atmosphere more than muscle. And Osbourne showed how the right vocal inflection could make even the hokiest weed pun sound utterly, believably haunting. What stood before us was a revolution.

 

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7. Fleetwood Mac

When I was a young man, the soft, multi-platinum sheen of peak Fleetwood Mac did nothing for me. It just felt harmless and inconsequential to someone who’d never had real adult feelings. But in my thirties, I heard “Over My Head,” seemingly for the first time. That song was the key to a treasure chest of unparalleled grown-person songwriting, made even more profound by the hard-won wisdom in Stevie Nicks’s voice. The band’s trio of ’70s classics – Fleetwood Mac, Rumours and Tusk – are full of nuanced, conflicted, reassuringly human observations about love and aging. Qualities that don’t really come into focus until you reach a certain age, and start needing that reminder to keep thinking about tomorrow.

 

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6. Led Zeppelin

Critics were famously dismissive of Led Zeppelin in its heyday. To an extent, the band deserved it, having gotten famous by passing off American blues songs as their own, while not exactly caring about lyrics. But starting in 1970, Zeppelin stopped coasting on these hyper-masculine thrust-fests. The traditional folk and country of Led Zeppelin III, Tolkien-inspired proto-metal of Led Zeppelin and kaleidoscopic cloudburst of Houses of the Holy make for one of the most stunning growth spurts in rock history. The swagger of the world’s biggest rock band is still there, but it has evolved from male confidence to artistic confidence. Instead of giving us every inch of their love, these guys were exploring every corner of their imaginations.

 

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5. Parliament/Funkadelic

Like a Kleenex is a tissue, like a Xerox is a photocopy, Parliament is funk. The music George Clinton’s group released in the 1970s could be experienced on a variety of levels, each of them incredibly rewarding. 1) As the greatest bass-driven, shout-along party music ever recorded, 2) As compositional big band achievements that deserve professorial study alongside Duke Ellington, 3) As an audacious social statement that upended the perception of black culture as an alien presence in America. When Parliament/Funkadelic emerged from its mothership, it was The Day the Earth Got Down. They expanded the possibilities of funk music, inventing new ways to utilize synthesizers and guitar solos, giving a whole new attitude to the art of spoken word.  “Most of all you need funk,” they advised, with a sense of joy and purpose that’s healthier than the air we breathe.

 

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4. Steely Dan

In the beginning, Steely Dan flirted with the idea of sounding pretty. Its 1972 debut had two lead singers – the honey-throated David Palmer and the feistily froggy Donald Fagen. The songs were good enough to work with Palmer’s lite-FM falsetto croon, but luckily, Fagen and his guitarist/songwriting partner Walter Becker had left him in the dust by ’73. Because then they proceeded to geek the fuck out on one fantastic, ridiculously polished record after another. The more money that rolled in, the more Steely Dan became a studio creation, with Fagen and Becker directing top session players to satisfy their every obsession. Their style was always leaping around, from jazz and blues to bossa nova and country, but it always carried that same expensive sheen, and that same knack for insidiously catchy chord progressions. When paired with Fagen’s biting, imperfect voice, singing about cast-offs and criminals and pathetic old men, every fussed-over note gains something that no other classic rock band ever gave us – a sense of humor that’s dry as Ritz.

 

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3. Queen

Lots of bands made rock operas in the 1970s. Only Queen did operatic rock. Because only they had a frontman who could pull it off. Freddie Mercury had the god-given stuff – golden pipes, compositional brilliance, preternatural charm. But he also had that opera singer quality, a technically perfect vocalist that is able to convey how heartbreakingly imperfect life can be, through intonation alone. Like most folks my age, I first heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the Wayne’s World soundtrack, alongside the likes of Cinderella and the BulletBoys. It was like seeing a unicorn at the zoo. I had no idea what the song was about, but at the end, when Mercury sang “Nothing really matters,” I got a lump in my throat. I’d never heard such a fatalistic phrase delivered with such warmth. Queen could deliver scorching proto-metal songs about ogres and toweringly theatrical pop epochs, with equally hair-raising results. Because Freddie Mercury somehow made it all magical, and real.

 

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2. Pink Floyd

When bands become huge, that success tends to dictate what happens next. Radiohead hid behind electronics; Pearl Jam stopped making videos; U2 explored the depths of its own butt, etc. Pink Floyd was immune to such childishness. Its colossal 1973 album, The Dark Side of the Moon, was already the band’s eighth LP. Its very public fallout with founding visionary Syd Barrett was five years in the rearview. Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Richard Wright and Nick Mason had already seen it all. So they had no problem taking years between each ensuing masterpiece, making sure that every synth exuded that specific ethereal warmth; that every guitar solo swayed just enough to hypnotize us; that every bitter observation on war, the record industry, lost friendships and absent fathers was balanced out by just the right amount of British wit. As a result, even 40-plus years of zombified classic rock radio programmers have not been able to kill them. To this day, moments like Wright’s opening synth suite on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” Gilmour’s solo on “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II),” and Waters’ vocal work on “The Trial” make me drop everything and pay attention. Because even with millions in the bank and the world at their fingertips, Pink Floyd didn’t have their pudding until they ate their meat.

 

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1. The JB’s

The year just happened to be 1970 when James Brown introduced his brand new band, after the previous one had left him high and dry over a pay dispute. “The JB’s” included original Famous Flames member Bobby Byrd and a bunch of unknowns, including a young bass player named William “Bootsy” Collins. With stunning immediacy, they introduced a whole new style to the mainstream – a gritty, spacious, heavily syncopated sound retroactively known as “deep funk.” On songs like “Super Bad,” “Soul Power” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” there were no need for catchy choruses. The groove was the hook. For the first time, Brown was playing with musicians that were as raw and fiery as he was. As the decade wore on, and Bootsy left to join Parliament/Funkadelic, ringers like trombonist Fred Wesley and saxophonist Maceo Parker returned to the fold. And the JB’s continued to churn out the world’s nastiest rhythms and riffs, in the process building the foundation of the yet-to-be-invented genre destined to replace rock and roll in the hearts of young America. Rap would not exist  without the 1970 single “Funky Drummer,” where Clyde Stubblefield played the kind of groove that samples were made for – simple, insinuating, poetic. Like the entirety of The JB’s catalog, it’s not impressive in a technical, look-what-I-can-do kind of way. These guys were some of the best players around, but they valued the feel of the music more than the intricacy of their solos. By ceding the spotlight to James, they shone brightest of all.

Kanye West – Ye

“Everything I did or thought was aimed at creating music that would make people happy and also keep them away from me, and because I was successful, my weirdness was accepted.” That’s a quote from Brian Wilson, the infamously troubled leader of the Beach Boys. For the handful of years that his band was on top, Wilson faced immense pressure from his label to keep cranking out hits. And from his bandmate Mike Love, who just wanted to keep making “Surfin’ U.S.A.” over and over again. And from his own desire to be revered, to be spoken of in the same breath as Gershwin, Spector, McCartney. This pressure, coupled with unresolved childhood trauma and drugs, triggered Wilson’s mental illness. He finally broke down in 1967, in the middle of the sessions for his greatest workHe never reached those artistic heights again.

I’m guessing Kanye West can relate. Ever since that night in 2009 when he crashed Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech, the artist has had to compensate for his “weirdness.” Every uncomfortable interview and narcissistic tweetstorm would be chum for an American public with a voracious appetite for celebrity failures. But then he’d drop another masterpiece, and we’d lose the scent. We’d focus on his production choices instead of his personal ones. He could be spinning out of control, yet still control the narrative.

It’s amazing that it lasted this long. It would have made sense if West bottomed out after 2010’s astounding, leave-it-all-out-on-the-field My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But three years later came the stripped-down primal scream of Yeezus. And in 2016, the sprawling sinner’s gospel of The Life of Pablo. Which brings us to Ye, the artist’s eighth solo LP. And his first attempt at breaking the cycle.

Like all five of the albums West is releasing this summer, Ye is seven songs long, recorded in a remote studio in Wyoming. A loose, murky affair, it’s a clear aesthetic shift for the producer, a notorious perfectionist. (Merely weeks earlier, West was flexing his still-peerless ability to turn old soul tunes into luxurious summer hip-hop on Pusha-T’s Daytona.) For the first time, it feels like he walked into the studio and just shared what was on his mind, off the cuff, awkward vibes be damned. It’s as much of a performance as it is a purge.

“The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest,” muses the artist during the extended spoken-word opening of “I Thought About Killing You.” It’s a mission statement on a record that explores what it’s like to be a bi-polar celebrity, the highs and lows, the likes and blocks, the emotional cycles and media cycles. That song title is more than just a provocation, with West sharing that because he’s thought about killing himself, it only stands to reason that he’s thought about killing you too. As he admits, “Sometimes I think really bad things,” he pitch bends his voice downward, a chilling moment of truth.

“Yikes” contains Ye’s most traditionally catchy hook, as he does some of the most convincing singing of his career over a chopped-up vocal sample from the underground ’70s psychedelic funk group Black Savage. But it’s a song about opioid addiction, and it’s appropriately haunting. “Sometimes I scare myself,” West croons on the chorus, which I absolutely can’t get out of my head.

The other major highlight is “Ghost Town,” a soaring, guest-heavy melodic sunburst reminiscent of The Life of Pablo’s gospel opener “Ultralight Beam.” Kid Cudi sings about unrequited love; Kanye sings about “taking all the shine,” and newcomer 070 Shake brings down the house with her extended outro, sung with pure, deliberate joy – “I feel kinda free / We’re still the kids we used to be.”

Notice I’m not talking much about rapping here. West has always been unafraid to bust out a cheesy play on words, but on Ye, he’s lost a lot of the conviction that could make those moments charming. “If I pull up with a Kerry Washington / That’s gonna be an enormous scandal,” is typical of this newfound laziness. Then there’s “Don’t get your tooth chipped like Frito-Lay.” On the closing “Violent Crimes,” West finds his fervor for bars again – but its queasy father-daughter narrative does him no favors. “Curves under your dress / I know it’s pervs all on the net / All in the comments, you wanna vomit,” he raps. He may be opening his eyes to our culture of toxic masculinity. But he’s a long way from woke.

Hey, maybe he’s just more comfortable singing these days. Because that, along with his sparse, rain-spattered production choices, make Ye a rewarding listen. It’s a small album, not just in length, but in the space it inhabits – the internal world of one very famous and conflicted man. It is the absolute definition of what a self-titled album should be.

What it’s not is an event. In the headwinds of West’s latest stint in the news – the Trump support, the “dragon energy,” the victim blaming of slavesthat song where he raps “Poopy-di scoop / Scoop-diddy-whoop” – it folds like a tent.

Perhaps he wants it that way. Perhaps he made a quiet album about mental illness and addiction because he’s tired of summoning the flood every few years. Perhaps he’s done making music to keep people happy, and away from him. Kanye West has made his Pet Sounds, and his Smile, several times over. He’s earned the right to just surf.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (30-26)

And we’ve entered the top 30 of our Albums of the ’90s list. Spoiler alert: All of them are better than Better Than Ezra.

30. Radiohead – The Bends (1995)

In 1993, at the height of grunge’s marketability, Radiohead released “Creep,” a single that nailed the genre’s central oxymoron – self-loathing art that draws a crowd. Suddenly, these guys were getting what seemed like their 15 seconds. Except they didn’t relish their dalliance with stardom. It made them feel alienated and exhausted, to the point where they started to seriously ponder the fleeting nature of life itself. And then they made an album about that. “You can crush it, but it’s always here,” warns Thom Yorke on the opening track of The Bends, as if the reassuring swirl of Wurlitzer and guitar was the only thing keeping the reaper off his back. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood utilizes way more than his volume knob this time around, creating atmospheres of aching wonder and wanton destruction. From the consumer culture nightmares of “Fake Plastic Trees” to the raw existentialist dread of “Street Spirit,” Radiohead confront one unfixable, harrowing reality after another, while writing choruses that blot out the world. Instead of eating hot dogs like most of us do when we feel like nothing matters, they made an attempt at shared catharsis. Self-loathing had made way for selflessness.

29. Portishead – Dummy (1994)

Seattle wasn’t the only rain-spattered town to become famous for its gloomy music scene in the ’90s. Bristol, UK, was ground zero for “trip hop” – a fusion of rap, electronica and post-punk that played like the soundtrack to a Bond movie where his greatest nemesis is loneliness. In 1994, the genre landed its own Nevermind, in the form of Portishead’s bewitching debut. Dummy was a trip-hop blueprint, with an emphasis on the blue – singer Beth Gibbons confronts the day-to-day realities of depression in an absolutely haunting voice. The music fits her like a shroud. Theremins cry over echoing minor chords. Single words become garbled and transformed by bandleader Geoff Barrow’s emotive scratching. “In this moment/How can it feel this wrong?” Gibbons asks, like a forgotten spirit trying make herself heard. In that moment, you know why people decide to investigate that mysterious sound in the attic. Some part of us wants to be haunted.

28. The Beta Band – The Three E.P’s (1998)

In 1994, an album called Chant hit #3 on the Billboard charts. It featured old recordings of Spanish monks doing what the title promised, and was marketed as a surefire stress reliever. It sold two million copies. My dad had one of them. I have no idea if the Scottish “folktronica” outfit The Beta Band were Chant fans, but their music strives for a similar kind of transcendency – not exactly the status quo in indie rock back then. Over the course of three EPs, the band explored the limits of patient, circular songwriting, finding a throughline from “Alice’s Restaurant” to ambient techno – a mix of acoustic guitar strumming and entrancing electronic noise that feels like it could go on forever without losing steam. (The only artists less concerned with radio play? Those monks.) All three of these extended players were collected on this single disc, and while it did land them a minor hit with the slow-build stoner ballad “Dry the Rain,” these guys were after something deeper than mere hooks. The Beta Band didn’t just catch your ear. It absorbed you, tip to tail.

27. Mos Def – Black On Both Sides (1999)

I’m a sucker for artist autobiographies. There’s always the chance those pages contain a deeper understanding of a performer’s state of mind during the creative process – ideally resulting in an even closer relationship with their art. Rap is the only genre that regularly weaves these meta commentaries within the music itself; emcees often explain what drives them to write rhymes, how the process makes them feel, and why they’re so much better at it than you. And I can’t think of any rapper who has written about writing better than Mos Def on his solo debut. “My restlessness is my nemesis / It’s hard to really chill and sit still, committed to page / I write a rhyme, sometimes won’t finish for days / Scrutinize my literature from the large to the miniature,” he raps. He devotes a whole chorus to Rakim’s classic bars about being trapped between the lines. He wrestles with his responsibilities as an artist but decides to soldier on and follow his Umi’s advice: “Shine a light on the world.” Black On Both Sides does just that, with golden-hour production that makes samples sound like backing bands, leaping from R&B to jazz to hardcore without ever losing that comforting sheen. Fluid, openhearted, and buried deep in the pocket, it’s got all I ever need to know.

26. Mariah Carey – Mariah Carey (1990)

It started with one note. A strange, reverberating synthesizer, drawing us in like a UFO tractor beam. Then the chimes tinkle, the vocals do a melismatic dance, and we’re there, swaying to the timeless doo-wop melody of Mariah Carey’s first single, “Vision of Love.” To an aspiring R&B singer at the time, that note must have felt like the X marking the spot of their way forward, their opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night.” The song, and the self-titled album it anchored, introduced Carey as a writer and singer with an innate ability to craft worldbeating hits from R&B and gospel ingredients. Her fingerprints have been all over pop music ever since – Beyoncé has credited “Vision of Love” with inspiring her to do vocal runs. That powerhouse of a voice naturally gets all the attention, elevating this record’s twinkling Whitney arrangements into something more profoundly human. But Mariah Carey remains a spine-tingling listen because of the crispness and unexpectedness of the writing – like “Someday,” with its finger-wagging prognostications of regret. Or “It’s All In Your Mind,” which rubs Tiger Balm onto a partner’s trust issues. Or the closer, “Love Takes Time,” which features a narrator that didn’t follow the lesson of the song title, staring in the mirror, trying to forgive themselves. Three of the four songs I’ve mentioned here were #1 hits. This was pop music that gave you so much more, right from note one.

Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy

Has any pop star generated an instant wave of baseless skepticism like Cardi B has? Such was the power of “Bodak Yellow,” her spell-casting swagger bomb of a debut single. The Bronx rapper made all kinds of self-fulfilling prophecies about how much richer and smarter and stronger she was than you. You know, like every rapper does. But there was something about Cardi, rapping lines like “I’m a boss / You a worker bitch,” that made Twitter and message board trolls crank up the old “new popular artist is a fraud” machine.

Why couldn’t everyone just enjoy this dominating new talent that came out of nowhere? Well, kinda because she came out of nowhere. Cardi B’s rise has broken all kinds of unwritten rules about how rap stars are made. She didn’t build a grassroots following by selling mixtapes out of her trunk – she got Internet famous from her real-talk Instagram posts about life as a stripper. She didn’t break into TV with an iconic rap video – she got cast in the sixth season of the rap industry-adjacent reality show Love and Hip Hop. Oh, and did I mention she’s a woman? The rules for female rappers are written to ensure either total failure or the loss of street cred. You can either try to be a “real rapper” and go hard 24/7, which keeps you off the pop charts. Or you can try for pop hits and get labeled a fake. Cardi had the biggest hit of the year by any metric – she’s only the second solo female rapper ever to hit #1 – with a track that starts with the line “You can’t fuck with me.” What’s gonna rile up sexists more than an ex-stripper kicking their rigged system in the dick?

So by the time Cardi finally released her debut album, it needed to check off an absurd amount of boxes. Invasion of Privacy had to prove that “Bodak” was no fluke. It had to go hard to satisfy the heads, yet also give glimpses of vulnerability that male rappers don’t have to worry about. It had to give the artist’s perspective on any number of highly publicized stories – her unorthodox rise to stardom; her marriage to the rapper Offset; that roiling sea of haters. And it also had to be a traditional major label smash, full of guest artists that complement but never outshine, on one potential hit after another. It had to prove that Cardi B is one of the best emcees and one of the most magnetizing pop stars.

It’s incredibly satisfying to hear her pull it off.

Track one, “Get Up 10,” is that fiery, look-at-me-I-can-rap, middle-finger-to-the-haters song she shouldn’t have to make. But it’s more than that too. It’s her goddamn superhero origin story.

Look, they gave a bitch two options: strippin’ or lose
Used to dance in a club right across from my school
I said “dance” not “fuck,” don’t get it confused
Had to set the record straight ’cause bitches love to assume

Right there, in her first stanza, is a crystal clear look at the choices this artist had to make, and the adversity she’s had to endure because of them. It’s hip hop storytelling at its best. And when delivered in Cardi’s live-wire Bronx sneer, it lands with authority.

By establishing her rap bona fides on the opener, Cardi is able to focus her efforts on making her album a hit. Instead of staying in her comfort zone of bass-throbbing, cracked-cement NYC hip hop, she dips her toes in all the styles of the moment, her lyrical flow and storytelling ability entertaining enough to be the lone connective tissue through it all. She drops jewel-encrusted knowledge on Atlanta trap earworms alongside Migos and 21 Savage; takes Chance the Rapper along on a sunny-day-in-Chicago reverie, and slays a DJ Mustard beat like a smoked-out Angeleno. It’s an absolute gauntlet, and she makes it sound like a party.

Those unfair expectations of vulnerability are met, and then some, by the single “Be Careful,” where the rapper unloads on a cheating boyfriend over light, dancing organ chords: “She don’t even know your middle name / Watch her ’cause she might steal your chain.” “Thru Your Phone” reveals the flipped-script origin of the album title, as Cardi invades her man’s privacy by going through his phone and realizes she was right to be suspicious.

Then there’s “I Like It.” This is precisely the kind of track that naysayers would point to as a shameless chart grab, like they did when Nicki Minaj put out her underrated Sir Mix-a-Lot reboot, “Anaconda.” A direct lift of the Pete Rodriguez hit “I Like It Like That,” the track has a naturally invigorating Latin groove. Cardi builds on that feeling by bringing in Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and Colombian reggaeton singer J Balvin. And like she does all over Invasion of Privacy, she outperforms her talented guests, going reverse Chief Keef and listing things she likes: “I like texts from my exes when they want a second chance / I like proving n****s wrong, I do what they say I can’t,” she raps triumphantly. As the expensive sample plays underneath, on an album that methodically disproves every unfounded criticism of her abilities and positions her as the ideal crossover rapper of 2018, you’d have to be willfully ignorant to disagree.

Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

Much has been written about the influence of drugs on popular music, from the effects of LSD on The Beatles to the role lean may have played in Future’s transformation into a glassy-eyed hedonist. But no substance has ever affected a musician the way falling in love does. Like ecstasy, it filters out cynicism. Like weed, it slows everything down. Like heroin, it makes you sick when it’s gone. Love is artistic steroids. And ladies and gentlemen, Kacey Musgraves is juicing.

“Oh what a world / Don’t wanna leave / There’s all kinds of magic / It’s hard to believe,” sings the Texas singer/songwriter on one of the many standout love songs that form the spine of her nearly flawless third album, Golden Hour. For all its grandiosity, the song – “Oh What a World” – never feels the least bit trite. Because Musgraves has no time for sunsets. The “magic” she feels is like seeing the Aurora Borealis, or a sea creature that emits an otherworldly neon glow. “These are real things,” she marvels.

Golden Hour is largely about these “real things.” In fact, its songwriting is so focused, it makes me realize how so many of our idioms for romance have to do with not seeing straight, or losing our balance. Clichéd love makes us “starry-eyed.” It “knocks us off our feet.” It makes us “crazy about” someone. Musgraves approaches the subject from a variety of angles, from the lovely ache of missing someone to the frightening joy of trusting them. And her vision never blurs. “I used to be scared of the wilderness, of the dark,” she sings. “But not anymore.”

This clarity is also evident in the production choices made by Musgraves and collaborators Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian. It’s based in the honeyed pop-country gloss that defined her first two records – banjos are little more than signifiers, fiddles play second fiddle – but takes some exhilarating liberties. “High Horse” is a swirling disco anthem that feels like a friendly gauntlet thrown to Kylie Minogue, whose new Nashville-produced album also just came out (in a further bit of kismet, it’s called Golden). “Oh What a World” weaves a chorus of robotic voices into its National Geographic expedition. “Slow Burn” introduces a string motif that waxes and wanes like something off of Beck’s Sea Change album.

Yet for all its immaculate sonic details and instant-classic turns of phrase – e.g. “You can have your space, cowboy” – Golden Hour is great because it has good timing on its side. Kacey Musgraves is at her peak as an artist, and also happens to be going through a kaleidoscopically life-changing experience. The moment that moves me the most might be the simplest and most straightforward of them all. It’s the very last line of the album, on the piano ballad “Rainbow.” The band drops away, and it’s just Musgraves, at her piano, telling her love the one thing we all want to hear: “It’ll all be alright.”