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.
You have never heard anything like Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. In fact, there are many people who tried to make sure you never would. Jeremy Dutcher is a member of the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, and one of about 100 people who can still fluently speak the traditional language of Wolastoq. Its severe endangerment can be traced back to the attempted erasure of indigenous identity that darkens Canada's cultural history. Many children, including Dutcher's own mother, used to face physical punishment if they spoke indigenous languages in church-run schools. Dutcher's album serves as an intervention in the ripples of shame and fear that have, over time, buried tradition. Under the guidance of Maggie Paul, one of his Nation's song-carriers, Dutcher took century-old wax cylinder recordings in Wolastoq from the archives at the Canadian Museum of History, and transformed them into a masterpiece of musical imagination, blending his own voice with the voices of his ancestors.
Of course, we do not first fall in love with albums because they unearth history. We fall in love with albums because they unearth something in us. Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa stirs something in the listener that cannot be ignored. It's the sheer beauty of the sound of the Wolastoq language, whose vowels Dutcher stretches across continents with his soaring voice and whose words you do not have to understand to feel their depth. And it's the knowledge that true reconciliation is about more than land and money, it is about identity and therefore about art. It is about raising the voices of those who have been silenced through history and opening our ears to listen. —Talia Schlanger (WXPN's World Cafe)
♫ LISTEN: Jeremy Dutcher, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa
■ MORE: The Newest Light In Canada's Indigenous Renaissance
Low Country Sound / Elektra
By The Way, I Forgive You
Forgiveness can feel like a foreign concept within this year's endless unspoolings of shock, rage and cynicism. And yet, there was Brandi Carlile — the era's most powerful purveyor of that much-abused gift to hungry audiences, the rock anthem — making a whole album about what it means to practice it. By The Way, I Forgive You begins with a gentle ballad grounded in Carlile's close harmonies with her main collaborators, Tim and Phil Hanseroth; it contains the album's title phrase. It's a story of rejection (for Carlile, by a minister who refused to baptize her when she came out as a teen) with the moral that moving on only works when you declare the weight of the damage done. The album ends with a Joni Mitchell-inspired piano ballad about a near-disastrous fight Carlile had with her wife, the song itself the peace offering Carlile offers, in the lyrics: "Girl, you can slam the door behind you, it ain't ever gonna close." Between these bookmarks Carlile shares stories of the wrongs people do each other and what it really takes to enact forgiveness: resilience and recognition of wrongdoing, tempered by the determination to live fully, even with the wounds.
Carlile's huge, warm voice, with its vibrato ending each phrase as if turning into a memory, works perfectly within the album's grand, expressive settings, untethered to genre, massive but intimate. Whether sharing the story of "Sugartooth," an addict and the people who love him even as he slips out of their safe hold, or assuring the bullied children of "The Joke" that they will walk in the sunlight of their own truth soon, or realizing that her father's advice to bear no malice doesn't contradict her mother's about knowing when to fight, Carlile rises to meet its imperatives. Each song asks how she, how any of us, can face the ugliness life creates and still hold out a hand — toward the dark, so that it might possibly transform; toward those we love and those we fear, so that, as one prayer of forgiveness once said, we all may be delivered. —Ann Powers
♫ LISTEN: Brandi Carlile, By The Way, I Forgive You
■ MORE: Brandi Carlile's Tiny Desk Concert
Heaven And Earth
If anyone was not clear about the tenor saxophonist, composer and bandleader's mission after the phenomenon that was 2015's The Epic, here is another lengthy chapter in his 21st-century gospel: a similarly sprawling, massively scaled, monumentally ambitious and metaphysically minded double album that lasts nearly two and a half hours. (That's not all: for those who encounter this album in its CD release and who groove to Washington's sense of the symbolic, there is a "hidden" EP, The Choice, waiting to be liberated from the package by means of a sharp knife — though, bending to the world of 2018, the EP was released digitally a week after the rest of Heaven and Earth.)
Here again, Washington wields giant brushes on the enormous canvases that he prefers — suffused with lush orchestra, celestial choir and currents of sound that envelop the listener — and he's clearly far more interested in those big gestures than in the fine-detail work of small-group and solo improvisation. Everything is writ on, well, an epic scale, starting from a version of the Bruce Lee film theme "Fists of Fury" transformed into an exhortation to social action, to the church cadences of the closing "Will You Sing." —Anastasia Tsioulcas
♫ LISTEN: Kamasi Washington, Heaven And Earth
■ MORE: Kamasi Washington, Live In Concert
In a year when the very concept of shared reality seemed to be decaying all around us, Low turned in an album for the ages: a collection of crackling transmissions sent across the din, hopeful voices rising out of the craggy darkness. The first time I heard it, I thought the files were corrupted. Rhythmic pulses from the digital underworld threaten to rise up and swallow the album whole, not unlike the persistent white noise of social chaos that seems to confront us on the daily. But still — in both the world and on this album — beauty persists. Some of Alan Sparkhawk's most hopeless lyrics ("I'm tired of seeing things," he sighs brokenly on the opening track) are answered by some of Mimi Parker's most angelic vocals in her 20-plus years of providing the band's silver lining. "You'll have to learn to live a different way," she sings alongside Sparhawk, her distorted soprano extending like an outreached hand from the jutted caverns on "Disarray," "to be something beyond kinder than words." —Andrea Swensson (The Current)
♫ LISTEN: Low, Double Negative
■ MORE: The Current Presents Low, Live In Concert
Tell Me How You Really Feel
The Australian singer planted a flag on the mountain of noisy guitar rock with 2015's wry and ragged Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, a chattering treatise on awkward social encounters, boredom and anxiety delivered in breathless deadpan. It was often comical, sometimes thrilling and invariably affable.
On her follow-up, Courtney Barnett finds herself in a changed world, one upended by political and cultural unrest and marred, in particular, by rampant revelations of sexual assault and harassment. Three years ago, she was content to lie awake at night and stare at the ceiling while her mind rambled on about nothing in particular – "An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY)" – but the stakes are higher now. Tell Me How You Really Feel is no less contemplative, but Barnett's ruminations are more focused and, at turns, more biting and exhausted. She rages on "I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch," dissects the roots of misogyny and violence on the oddly buoyant "Nameless, Faceless" and searches for some kind of solace and redemption in "Hopefulessness." This isn't an album of answers or even a rallying cry. It's Barnett at her most vulnerable as she draws shaky boundaries and attempts to make sense of the senseless, which is about the best anyone can do. —Robin Hilton
♫ LISTEN: Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel
■ MORE: Courtney Barnett's Tiny Desk Concert
Magos Herrera & Brooklyn Rider
True artists take risks. While it may sound incongruous to pair a Mexican jazz singer with a classical string quartet, the gamble paid off spectacularly in Dreamers, featuring Magos Herrera and Brooklyn Rider. One is tempted to think of Herrera as the star of the album, but that wouldn't tell the whole story. While her smoky, beguiling voice has never sounded more expressive and grand, Herrera's fellow musicians are no mere "backup band." Brooklyn Rider, along with percussionists Mathias Kunzli and Gonzalo Grau, are as much in dialogue with the singer as they are offering evocative moods and textures in an album steeped in Latin American culture.
The album's title alone connotes its socially conscious threads. "Niña," with a text by Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz, captures the unexpected power of children, while the fevered love song "Tu y Yo," is set to words by the pioneering Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. Other songs flash back to the nueva cancíon movement in Latin America in the 1960s when songwriters paired socially poignant lyrics with folk-infused melodies. The best of these is the haunting "Volver a Los 17," which argues for feelings over reason, and weaves the Chilean cueca dance into its lilting refrain. Herrera, who is a spokesperson for the United Nations campaign Unite to End Violence Against Women, has given us a vocally resplendent album, one for the head and the heart. —Tom Huizenga
♫ LISTEN: Magos Herrera & Brooklyn Rider, Dreamers
■ MORE: Magos Herrera On Alt.Latino
Superorganism's self-titled debut album is the music that I reach for when I need a reminder not to take life too seriously. Let other artists provide the heartbreak, the catharsis, the id. This is music to bounce around to without fear of judgment. Songs that are silly without being hokey, like a soundtrack to a cartoon that's savvy enough for prestige TV. Fitting, since the group's origin story has echoes of the Power Rangers or the X-Men: eight young people who've lived all over the world (New Zealand, South Korea, Australia, Japan, etc.) converge on a group house in London, where they combine forces to create a...Superorganism. The cartoon metaphor is not to say that the album is simple. Every time I listen to it, I hear something new in the collage of sounds: Is that a croaking frog? A straw slurping? An alarm clock? Yes, yes, and yes. —Ari Shapiro, host of All Things Considered
♫ LISTEN: Superorganism, Superorganism
■ MORE: Superorganism's Tiny Desk Concert
The Pistol Annies, contemporary country's most beloved underdog supergroup, are in the habit of selecting singles that show us how much fun they have making music together. For the trio's third album, Interstate Gospel, the choice was a down-home, post-divorce romp called "Got My Name Changed Back," and the tune amounted to more than an amusing trifle. In a wry, salty snarl, Miranda Lambert crowed about the mundane pleasures of legal liberation that await a happily disentangled ex-wife, while her fellow Annies Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley backed her up with girl group harmonies. During a jazzy vamp, all three switched to chirpy, effervescent, Andrews Sisters-style scatting. They took great glee in playing at comely femininity while they ruined the image of a longsuffering woman's idyllic home life. The album is full of knowing challenges to domestic fantasies like that, all penned by Presley, Monroe and Lambert, who often choose postures of theatrically earthy, emphatically experienced, womanly commiseration. Even when they're bearing more melancholy testimony to how crushing disappointment can be and how early contentment can come to seem naïve in lovely, lilting numbers like "Milkman," "Best Years of My Life," "When I Was His Wife" and "Masterpiece," they have a way of illuminating bleakness and absurdity with subtly penetrating wit. After their long hiatus, they deserved to be received like a trio of heroines this year. —Jewly Hight
♫ LISTEN: Pistol Annies, Interstate Gospel
■ MORE: Miranda Lambert Is The 21st Century's Advocate Of Imperfection
Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus have all released great solo records in the past 15 months — you only have to head back to March 2018 to find Dacus' career-making Historian -- so none of them needed a fresh introduction. Still, the self-titled debut of their supergroup boygenius accomplishes an incredible range of feats in just six songs. For one, it showcases three distinct, rapidly rising singers: Baker, Bridgers and Dacus split and blend their vocal contributions almost exactly equally, while allowing each to exhibit something only they could bring.
It's impressive how well each writer's specific obsessions — Bridgers' fascination with hospitals and cemeteries, for example, or Baker's gift for religious imagery — find ways to combine and collide without ever tilting all the way into one singer's wheelhouse at the expense of the others. (For the most moving example, swim around in the spare set-closer "Ketchum, ID," in which the three take turns painting a brief but vivid portrait of alienation.) But the truest triumph of boygenius lies in its consistency and economy. These three could have so easily tacked on a few lesser songs to make a full-length album, and the hit rate would still feel remarkable. After all, in an age when singles reign, how often do you stumble across an album with six great songs? —Stephen Thompson
♫ LISTEN: boygenius, boygenius
■ MORE: boygenius's Tiny Desk Concert
Bark Your Head Off, Dog
Bark Your Head Off, Dog is an album that envelops you. Hop Along's third release cements the Philly-based band's reputation as purveyors of solid, thoughtful indie-rock driven by Frances Quinlan's peerless voice. But Hop Along isn't exactly a band that plays by a formula — Quinlan's vocal melodies are too unexpected; her bandmates, Tyler Long (bass), Joe Reinhart (guitar) and Mark Quinlan (drums) too innovative. Yet this album still pushes at the boundaries of any template the band might have set for itself, with impressionistic lyrics that disrupt narrative structures and instrumentation and harmonies that create density in every corner of every song.
What brought me back to this album so many times this year was the complexity of these arrangements: always a snuck-in drum fill, a momentary keyboard riff, an expanse of glittering guitar to re-discover. Or maybe it was the wisdom of Quinlan's poetry, rooted in her gift for storytelling and yet powerfully resonant as isolated koans. "Strange to be shaped by such strange men" she sings on several songs, a murmured reflection on the year in patriarchal baggage. "God is the one who changed," follows that lyric on "What The Writer Meant," lending the observation a distinct heaviness. "Don't worry — we'll both find out, just not together," she promises on the album's first single, "How Simple." Quinlan doesn't have to spell out exactly what that means to keep you coming back, longing to find out for yourself. —Marissa Lorusso
♫ LISTEN: Hop Along, Bark Your Head Off, Dog
■ MORE: Hop Along's Tiny Desk Concert