Illustration: Angela Hsieh/NPR
Illustration: Angela Hsieh/NPR
Art is identity, scream these best albums of 2018. Even when it's pure invention. The most striking things we heard this year mined personal experiences that could feel intimate as whispers or bold and overstuffed as superhero science fiction. Even in an era where listeners have been primed for the unexpected, genuine surprises arrived steadily across the last 12 months – a cascade of introductions, breakthroughs, revelations and rebirths to reward whatever precious attention you could give. (Not a huge surprise: Most of them, after the votes from our staff and member station partners were tallied, turned out to have been made by women.) We're happy to share NPR Music's list of the 50 best albums of 2018. You can listen to them here and hear a discussion on the year in music on All Songs Considered. We'll have lots more before the year ends.
The HIRS Collective
Friends. Lovers. Favorites.
There were times this year when reckoning with the continual violence against and erasure of queer and trans people felt like drowning — like even opening your mouth to speak was inviting water into your lungs. That's when I was the most grateful for the ruthless screams of The HIRS Collective. You can take the title of its latest album, Friends. Lovers. Favorites., as plainly descriptive: Punk legends like Laura Jane Grace, Shirley Manson, Martin Crudo and Alice Bag all lend their voices. But it's also a mission statement, or maybe a dedication. Embedded in each of its 20 tracks of blistering, boundary-pushing grindcore — which explore themes like gratefulness ("Wake Up Tomorrow," "Friends. Lovers. Favorites."), community ("It's Ok to Be Sad," "Women in Hordes"), anti-racist rage ("I'm Tired") and queer supremacy ("Hard to Get," "Outnumbered") — is a testament to the power of communal anger, and a reminder that there is no survival without solidarity. —Marissa Lorusso
♫ LISTEN: The HIRS Collective, Friends. Lovers. Favorites.
■ MORE: The HIRS Collective's Ruthless Mixture
This euphoric, adrenalized album matches traditional sounds and rhythms of the Maghreb — the northwestern African countries of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco — with electronic distortions and bass and drum-heavy additions that make for one rumbling, rolling, and very intense thrill ride; this is music that swallows you up whole. The fresh, exciting creation is the brainchild of a Tunisian artist, Sofyann Ben Youssef, whose stage name nods to one of his great loves: the Roland TR-808 drum machine. The effects he adds only underscore the emotional punches proffered by his collaborators, three terrific male Maghrebi vocalists — Cheb Hassen Tej from Tunisia, Algerian Sofiane Saidi and Morocco's Mehdi Nassouli — who are performing mostly traditional songs accompanied by three instruments that sound otherworldly to neophytes: the guimbri lute, gasba flute and zukra bagpipes. It's a master class in how to make ancient sensibilities sound brand-new. —Anastasia Tsioulcas
♫ LISTEN: Ammar 808, Maghreb United
Akinmusire, the incorrigibly inventive jazz trumpeter and composer, made this album a deep meld of experimental hip-hop, electronic texture and contemporary chamber music, in a way that feels not just seamless but fully metabolized. The spoken-word element, courtesy of Kool A.D., is slippery and intoxicating; Akinmusire's string arrangements, for Mivos Quartet, are stirring and sophisticated. And Marcus Gilmore's beats strike a balance of slash and shudder, groove and dislocation. Suffusing the whole affair is a mournful reflection on the perils of black masculinity in the American system, as well as the larger culture that enables such injustice: "The savage histories / Brutal legacies / Illusory democracies / Feudal tendencies." But by and large, this isn't a heavy-hearted album; it rings with horizonless creative possibility, and with a sort of slanted grace. As Kool A.D. offhandedly asserts at one point, against a post-minimalist piano repetition: "Love is the main thing." —Nate Chinen (WBGO)
♫ LISTEN: Ambrose Akinmusire, Origami Harvest
Boston Symphony Orchestra & Andris Nelsons
Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 11
Conductor Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra play as if their lives depended on it in their ongoing cycle of Shostakovich symphonies. It's fitting for music composed by a man who, throughout the grim years of Stalin's purges, feared for his own life. The Fourth Symphony, written in the heady months before Shostakovich's first fall from Soviet grace in 1936 and shelved for 25 years, charges out of the gate with rare intensity in this live recording. I doubt you'll hear another string section play with such blistering speed and precision in the Presto section, which is here rendered nothing short of a symphonic panic attack. For all its angst and bluster, the Fourth ends mysteriously, with a celeste evaporating into a gray sky of low strings. The 11th Symphony, composed 20 years later, picks up that ethereal mood, unfolding into a series of tableaux depicting events and emotions surrounding "Bloody Sunday," when Tsarist guards opened fire on the public outside the Winter Palace in 1905. The work has never sounded as atmospheric, as vital and as conflicted as it does here. These are performances of shattering virtuosity in luxuriously recorded sound. —Tom Huizenga
♫ LISTEN: Boston Symphony Orchestra, Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 11
When Du Bois wrote about double consciousness — "this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others" — he said it was "dogged strength" alone that kept African-Americans from being "torn asunder" by it. FM! is in part about the effort to keep oneself together. The album is formatted like a commercial radio show, and it's full of bangers. But as in so much of Staples' work, the meta-commentary is about what happens when trauma is up for mass consumption. There are few artists better at speaking to a mixed audience: Staples shows love for his people by documenting, but not glorifying, the violence they deal with. He deals with the outsiders who throng to his music by putting a mirror to them and forcing the question: Why are you bopping your head to this? He references OutKast on "Relay," asking "Do you really wanna know about some gangsta s***?" like it's a dare. But the last song, "Tweakin'," is the falling apart. It's slower, and it lays the sadness out there with no cushion. Kehlani sings the hook: "I'm tweakin', I'm tweakin', I'm tweakin'." It sounds like the moment when you can't muster any more irony — or when you acknowledge snark has its limits. —Jenny Gathright
♫ LISTEN: Vince Staples, FM!
■ MORE: Vince Staples, Live At SXSW
You cannot watch Travis Scott perform live and be indifferent. He draws you in instantly: His presence demanding attention, his gaze often a stare-down, his verses melodic, telling stories. He never screams his words — he raps methodically, painstakingly. Astroworld, his third album, is named for a Six Flags park in his hometown of Houston that shut down over a decade ago; Travis Scott said the closure took joy away from the kids, so he wanted to bring it back, at least metaphorically. The album is a highly produced experience: The beats surprise, phase in and out, abruptly stop. But Travis Scott's words are simple and honest, tackling parenthood, relationships, his success, the competition, daily life. Astroworld is 58 minutes that won't disappoint, from an artist who may well be the most most exciting hip-hop act working today. —Monika Evstatieva
♫ LISTEN: Travis Scott, Astroworld
■ MORE: Watch Travis Scott's "SICKO MODE"
With "Mi Gente" as its lead single, Vibras evolves the raucous energy of reggaetonero predecessors like Wisin y Yandel (who are featured on the sexy, uptempo dance floor jam "Peligrosa") into sleek, minimalist party music that pulses to a hip-undulating, Afro-Caribbean backbeat. "No Es Justo," featuring Zion & Lennox, conjures a salty breeze with its acoustic guitar and dancehall drums; "Cuando Tú Quieras," with its mischievous-sounding chimes, makes a seductive bid for a one-night stand. As American pop and rap continue to flirt with reggaeton, Vibras is an uncomplicated expression of joy that rightfully claims Balvin's place as one of the genre's most promising crossover artists. —Nastia Voynovskaya (KQED)
♫ LISTEN: J Balvin, Vibras
■ MORE: J Balvin On Alt.Latino
Research is "the binding agent of a family," Colin Self proposed in a 2017 interview, explaining that his personal and professional relationships are nurtured through the sharing of art and ideas. "Look at this! Listen to that!" The exuberance that comes with putting a loved one on to something that matters to you is what's pumping through the veins of Self's debut album. Made with a host of multidisciplinary collaborators, it takes just as enthusiastic an approach to the exploration of form. One minute, Broadway-ready melodies emphasize the lifesaving potential of chosen family. The next, a techno freakout resounds with feminist scholar Donna Haraway's ideas about kin. There's also chamber pop and sonic collage, all strung together by Self's exquisite falsetto. In concept and in practice, Siblings celebrates the care that creates queer nonbiological families, and invites the listener to share in both the loving and the learning. —Ruth Saxelby
♫ LISTEN: Colin Self, Siblings
Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds is one of the central artists in what's sometimes called neoclassical music, a nebulous genre that seems to be defined as "classical" because those working within it often use pianos, and as "neo" because they tend to use those pianos minimally and incorporate some of electronic music's contours. Like Nils Frahm, his German counterpart in this genre-or-movement-or-whatever, Arnalds has no sense of duty to classical forms or aversion to minimal-maximalism; his soaring work in the duo Kiasmos is all the evidence required to that end. So, too, his work on re:member, on which he further evolves his considerable melodic talents (see "saman") and also gets comfortable with drastic compositional restraint (see "momentary"). In "undir," the thing easiest to hear within a busy middle section is a purposefully rote dance rhythm on a plinky drum machine — a vibe that wouldn't have been out of place in the warm-up of a U.K. rave in the '90s — before the piece fogs into calmly lumbering cello. All of which is to say, Arnalds has created the best album of his career. Call it whatever you like. —Andrew Flangan
♫ LISTEN: Ólafur Arnalds, re:member
■ MORE: Ólafur Arnalds' Tiny Desk Concert
This group's devotion to big-band mambo goes deep: Its self-titled debut was tracked in the legendary EGREM recording facility in Old Havana, where just about every major Cuban artist since the 1940s has worked. The history and musical mojo seems to have rubbed off on Orquesta Akokán, a New York ensemble augmented with Cuban musicians. The deep grooves could make a dead man tap his toes, and the brass-driven arrangements echo the old school so perfectly, you can almost see the ruffled sleeves of the orchestra in that fabled wood-paneled studio. Orquesta Akokán is a joy to listen to, and even more fun to dance to. —Felix Contreras
♫ LISTEN: Orquesta Akokán, Orquesta Akokán
■ MORE: Orquesta Akokán Revives The Golden Age Of Mambo