NPR Music's 40 Favorite Albums Of 2018 (So Far) We asked writers from across public radio to share the one album that's stood out during the first six months of the year.
NPR logo NPR Music's 40 Favorite Albums Of 2018 (So Far)

NPR Music's 40 Favorite Albums Of 2018 (So Far)

Favorite Albums So Far Angela Hsieh/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Angela Hsieh/NPR

Favorite Albums So Far

Angela Hsieh/NPR

Let's face it: We live in an era dominated by playlists. Whether you listen to one of the chart-defining destinations on Spotify, let YouTube's algorithm be your guide, follow a friend's listening habits or create your own mixtapes, the idea of listening to an entire album in one sitting becomes increasingly quaint by the day. With thousands of great songs available at the tips of our fingers (not to mention that skip button), sitting through anything but an irresistible chorus can feel like a bridge too far. It's almost as if spending 30 minutes with a record requires an irrational attachment bordering on obsession.

So, for the moment, we're leaning into obsession. When we surveyed our panel of public radio writers about the best albums of the past six months, we asked them a single question: What is your one favorite album of 2018 so far? We weren't interested in the consensus constructed by second- and third-place votes; there will be plenty of pixels for that in December. Without further ado, let's talk about the passions.

Table Of Contents


Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy

Cardi B

Invasion Of Privacy

(Atlantic Records)

There really is an art to being an underdog. And as far as rap goes, Bronx-raised rapper Cardi B has played the role better than anyone in recent history.

After the explosion of Cardi's No. 1 single "Bodak Yellow" last summer, there were questions over whether or not the Instagram celebrity-turned-reality TV star-turned-rapper would fall into the category of a one-hit wonder. But the woman everyone claimed was having a hip-hop fairytale didn't allow herself to be a damsel to public pressure. Her debut album, Invasion of Privacy, positioned Cardi as the homegirl and hero of a story relatable to anyone who's been betrayed, beat down or underestimated.

Beyond the lyrical content, much of the strength of this album lies in Cardi's signature delivery, derived from years of slick talk and unapologetic authenticity. Not only do the tracks bang, they allow her to play with every card of the hand she was dealt: tapping into her Dominican heritage and enlisting Spanish language stars J Balvin and Bad Bunny for "I Like It," using her past experiences with infidelity to twist the knife into "Careful," "Ring" and "Thru Your Phone," and catering to the twerk teams she used to proudly frequent as an exotic dancer for "Bickenhead" and "She Bad." This depth makes the fact that the LP landed atop the Billboard Hot 100 upon release entirely unsurprising. -- Sidney Madden

Stream: Apple / Spotify


Brandi Carlile, By The Way, I Forgive You

Brandi Carlile

By The Way, I Forgive You

(Elektra Records)

The songs on Brandi Carlile's By The Way, I Forgive You have a lot of love in them. Carlile isn't writing silly little love songs, though; these are songs with depth and empathy that unpack weighty topics like the current political climate, immigrant and refugee rights, the opioid epidemic, family dynamics and the idea that forgiveness is inherently radical. What is also radical is the singing, harmonies and emotional depth Carlile — and her longtime bandmates, Phil and Tim Hanseroth — achieve on these songs.

A tireless activist, Carlile cares deeply about addressing social injustices and the role art and music play in effecting change. But she's never overbearing; instead, her songwriting allows you to enjoy the complexities of her narratives. It's music with a message, and during messed-up, troubled times like these, music with meaning — music that has something to say, that inspires, motivates, comforts and provides hope — resonates so much more for me. That's something we could all use more of — along with, by the way, forgiveness. -- Kevin Cole, KEXP

Stream: Apple / Spotify


Neko Case, Hell-On

Neko Case

Hell-On

(ANTI-)

She's come to us before as a man and as a man-eater, inhabiting bold and fearsome avatars to teach us mortals how we misunderstand power, sometimes to disastrous ends. To christen Hell-On, Neko Case extends that lesson to our relationship with the eternal: "God is not a contract or a guy." It's a head-turning first line in a career full of them, and its power grows with the knowledge that a house-leveling fire and a stalking episode upended Case's life during the album's production, events that could persuade anyone to look skyward for an explanation. And yet, the control she exudes here is palpable as ever: There are more collaborators on Hell-On, with larger roles, than fans will be used to, but the band's maximalist instincts always bend to the arranging hand and singular singing voice of the woman at the mic. Even when facing down acts of God and the ills of men, the Neko Case we get on record remains master of her fate. -- Daoud Tyler-Ameen

Stream: Apple / Bandcamp / Spotify


J. Cole, KOD

J. Cole

KOD

(Roc Nation Records)

J. Cole wants you to look in the mirror and deal. KOD is an introspective look into self-medicating of all kinds (prescription, recreational, social media, cheating), and his storytelling makes it easy to visualize a child dealing with the pain of his mother's addiction and to feel the angst of watching those around him succumb to their demons. Heavy is his crown — J. Cole muses over how much more he could do for himself and others. Even when it feels like he may be talking down to a younger generation of rappers, he is really grappling with his own recklessness as a younger man. The themes may seem heavy, but this isn't therapy — this is life. -- Silvia Rivera, Vocalo

Stream: Apple / Spotify


Lucy Dacus, Historian

Lucy Dacus

Historian

(Matador Records)

If you've ever picked a scab and felt pacified watching the slow bleeding, you'll know the strange satisfaction of revisiting wounds that won't heal. I began listening to Lucy Dacus' Historian while mourning a relationship that was long dead. Its painful dissolution symbolized something more difficult: a loss of youthful idealism, a growing weariness with the world around me. The 22-year-old Dacus has a knack for distilling feelings that, while universal, feel denser at this age. Her evocative, tightly-wound lines unravel the messiness of human emotion: "I feel no need to forgive, but I might as well / Let me kiss your lips, so I know how it felt," she sings on "Night Shift," her sweet voice cleaving cleanly through the complexities she's laid bare. It's an album that allows you to surrender to your most vulnerable self, sober and unguarded. -- Catherine Zhang

Stream: Apple / Spotify


Dessa, Chime

Dessa

Chime

(Doomtree Records)

Chime is an album about struggling to gain agency over a heart that keeps racing at the sight of an unattainable person, and Dessa has rarely sounded so headstrong or so dedicated to doing whatever it takes to erase the ache. At first listen, the album seems to bend in incongruous directions: a feminist rap banger here ("Fire Drills"), a can't-break-the-cycle pop ditty there ("Half of You"), with an orchestral deep-dive into the benefits of pain at its center ("Good Grief"). But ultimately, Chime hangs together as a complex and boldly stated declaration: These are the last songs I'm going to write about you before burning it all to the ground to start anew. I hope, I hope, I hope. -- Andrea Swensson, The Current

Stream: Apple / Bandcamp / Spotify


Alela Diane, Cusp

Alela Diane

Cusp

(AllPoints)

Back when albums defined a certain kind of concentrated listening, people often approached them as if entering a circle: Start at one point, listen all the way around until you're back at the beginning, start again. So much of motherhood — the subject of West Coast singer-songwriter Alela Diane's gently profound sixth album — feels the same. With two daughters still young enough to be learning all their words, Diane sings from a place of intense immediacy about finding and losing herself in the depths of these new connections. But what makes Cusp great is her commitment to going beyond her own story, casting lines of imagination whose undercurrent is carefully examined empathy. In "Never Easy," she turns toward her own mother, a difficult ally whom she now better understands. "Song For Sandy" tells of the child the legendary folk artist Sandy Denny left behind after dying young. "Émigré" — a now powerfully relevant protest — cries for the mothers whose children are ripped from them by political currents. Diane composed these steady, subtly embroidered songs on the piano, which she turned to after a broken thumb forced her to put down her primary instrument, the guitar, and the instrument is her mothering force here: a guide, a ghost and an anchor. Deliberately contained musically, but expansive in its perspective, Cusp is a true album experience: 40 minutes of life that feels whole, from beginning to end to beginning again. -- Ann Powers

Stream: Apple / Spotify


Doja Cat, Amala

Doja Cat

Amala

(RCA Records)

Doja Cat's downtempo smoking anthem "So High" went viral in 2014, a year when SoundCloud upstarts like ABRA and Shlohmo shifted R&B in a trippier, more zoned-out direction. Although Rihanna's Anti brought the lo-fi aesthetic to its mainstream peak in 2016, Doja Cat receded from the spotlight and the trend she helped create soon faded away. This year, Doja Cat made a triumphant return with Amala, her much spunkier, polished debut album on RCA. The 13-track collection of bubbly, hip-hop-influenced indie pop didn't get much attention from critics at the time of its March release — likely because it came out when all eyes were on Cardi B's Invasion of Privacy and Kali Uchis' Isolation. But Amala is a natural complement to those two albums. It's a manifesto of a young woman striving to take ownership of her craft, her image and her sexuality, mixing genres like dancehall, trap, house and R&B with a healthy dose of sass and humor. Throughout Amala, Doja Cat is sharp-witted, poking fun at the petty woes of millennial hetero dating: the voracious "Go to Town" contains a record-setting number of oral sex punchlines, as well as this gem about the sort of drama that unfolds via emoji: "He text me an eggplant / I text him a peanut." Amala shows Doja Cat's aesthetics have evolved considerably since her SoundCloud debut: "Game" is a sprightly yet soulful club track, while "Fancy" unexpectedly samples classical music — Pachelbel's Canon in D Major — to underscore Doja Cat's lyrics about being too good for a guy who wants her. It's twists like these, in the lyrics and production, that make Amala an unexpected pop gem that merits a longer shelf life. -- Nastia Voynovskaya, KQED

Stream: Apple / Spotify


Father John Misty, God's Favorite Customer

Father John Misty

God's Favorite Customer

(Sub Pop)

Father John Misty is a contentious character. His last album, Pure Comedy, ruthlessly bashed most aspects of human nature for over an hour, upping the ante of cynicism found on his two previous albums. But on June's God's Favorite Customer, Joshua Tillman turns his ever-critical gaze inward to write an album full of both touching self-reflective ballads and ironic psychedelic pop singles. These songs return to themes Tillman has previously tackled: battling alcoholism, his dedication to his wife and general critiques of humanity, but in a way that seems more hopeful — or, perhaps, more trivialized. This slight positivity is amplified in a sonic change: He turns from the safe, Randy Newman-style of piano-lead singer-songwriter tunes to embody elements of vintage psychedelic pop and flex his vocal range. "Date Night" and "Mr. Tillman" are both short, funny songs perfectly poised to become radio hits. Ballads "The Songwriter" and "The Palace" sound more like traditional Misty, but are more sad than purely cynical. It seems Tillman has gotten over his hatred of everyone and everything, and given us an album with songs that both put us in our feels and deserve to be belted out in angst. -- Emily Abshire

Stream: Apple / Spotify