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.
Language can be so extraordinary, yet insufficient, a flaming arrow shot into a rainstorm. Likewise, art has become unpredictable, blitzed and rewarding in bursts of noise and color as we hurtle toward information saturation. Unable to keep speed with the change both language and music spew, artists are just trying to stay a step ahead. Sure, Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe have dropped sweeping audiovisual albums that reconfigure narratives about themselves and how music is presented, but nothing quite infiltrated the people's swipe-happy medium like Whack World. Released as 15 one-minute videos straight to Instagram, Philly rapper and singer Tierra Whack gives instant gratification its playfully surreal platform. In one minimalist dirge set at a Chinese take-out, she compares her swagger to hot wings ("Salt, pepper, ketchup and hot sauce / Fry hard cause I do not like soft") and mourns the death of a friend, her hardness hindered by a broken wing. In an over-the-top synth-pop kiss-off, she cuts the ribbons keeping red balloons tethered to the floor, delivering darkness with twangy glee: "I wrote this 'cause I feel ten feet tall / I know you don't ever wanna see me ball." Tierra Whack wraps searing critiques of the industry and doubts about herself and her direction in a remarkable economy of words and music and visuals that recognize her own short-attention span, but also reflect our own. —Lars Gotrich
♫ WATCH: Tierra Whack, Whack World
Rinse / Virgin / Universal Music Group
Since releasing her Drunken Babble mixtape as a high-schooler in 2012, Kali Uchis has built her career with the exacting eye of a creative director. She helmed direction of her videos, cultivated working relationships with collaborators such as Juanes and Kaytranada and refined her ear for the complexities that popular music can encompass. Isolation, the Colombian-American songwriter's first full-length album, is one of the most commanding — and endlessly-listenable — pop statements to emerge this year. Through an amalgam of bossa nova, reggaeton, doo-wop and R&B rhythms, Uchis, whose smoky timbre has drawn comparisons to jazz vocalists such as Billie Holiday, deftly lays down the foundation for what it means to ground oneself in the age of overstimulation. That means coming closer and being vulnerable, as she poses on the languid, Thundercat-produced opener "Body Language - Intro," and recognizing that while it's beautiful to idolize someone in dreams, escapism isn't the way forward: "I've gotta get up / And get me something real," she sighs on the woozy "Gotta Get Up (Interlude)." For people who feel daunted by the movements of our increasingly-terrifying world, Uchis's ideas and words are a balm, particularly on "After the Storm," her collaboration with Bootsy Collins, Tyler, the Creator and BADBADNOTGOOD: "If you need a hero," she sings, "Just look in the mirror." —Paula Mejia
♫ LISTEN: Kali Uchis, Isolation
■ MORE: Kali Uchis On Alt.Latino
El Mal Querer
The 13th century Occitan manuscript, The Romance of Flamenca, is, like many foundational texts, a story about a woman told by a man. The narrative, upon which the classically trained 25-year-old flamenco singer Rosalía builds her second album, concerns Flamenca, a young woman accused of infidelity by her husband, who then locks her in a tower before she can escape with the help of another man.
In just the year-and-a-half since her official debut, Rosalía has captured the attention of pop- and R&B-loving denizens of the Internet and flamenco aficionados alike, becoming the second most-nominated artist at this year's Latin Grammys behind J Balvin. El Mal Querer remakes the New World blueprints she laid in 2017's Los Angeles in her own image, sourcing samples as diverse as Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me A River" on "Bagdad" and Arthur Russell's "Answers Me" on "Maldicion" amid her melismatic cante flamenco singing, razor-edged bulerías and trap-tinged palmas.
Each song is its own chapter that chronicles the entrapment and escape of the titular Flamenca — or someone like her — from a bacchant wedding ("Que No Salga La Luna") to her lamentations ("Reniego") to her liturgical prayers for freedom ("Bagdad") after she flees, alone. They are vague, tragic bits of phrases that float from behind the kind of thickly latticed celosia window of medieval Iberia that Flamenca might have found herself looking out from. For troubles that are inexorably earthly, this mad, secular drama is molded into the neat history of a Catholic mass.
In the final act of this passion play, the woman vindicates herself of her jailers: "Sólo Dios puede juzgarme / Sólo a él debo obediencia," she invokes, half-believing. The omnipotence of even God falls away before her own carnal justice: "Voy a tatuarme en la piel / Tu inicial / porque es la mía," she sings, "Pa' acordarme para siempre / De lo que me hiciste un día." To remember, forever, what you did to me one day. —Stefanie Fernandez
♫ LISTEN: Rosalía, El Mal Querer
■ MORE: Rosalía On All Things Considered
If you take a Westbound flight just before dusk, there's a moment in the air when things get weird. You're hurtling forward at 500 miles an hour, but also traveling backwards through time and you're surrounded by a pink glow that appears to go on forever. Robyn's Honey exists in that blissful state of suspended sunset, that sees "heavenly bodies moving" through the past and the future all at once. Look out the window: "I've turned all my sorrow into glass. It don't leave no shadow." Honey is Robyn's first full-length solo album in eight years, made after the end of a long-term relationship and the death of a friend and long-time collaborator. Robyn's musical antidote to grief involves avoiding clutter or drama and instead dipping into appealing sounds of gentle beauty that encourage movement without forcing it. Bass lines walk to meet starburst synthesizers, melodies unfold without fuss. There is tremendous warmth and no sharp edges. It's energized but never overwhelming. Robyn's voice is sincere and emotional, but never affected. In this way, Honey is not an instruction manual for recovery, but rather 2018's most enticing invitation. It's Robyn handing you a plane ticket and saying, as she does on the mesmerizing, minimalist love letter to "this cute place" on "Beach2k20": "Come through, it'll be cool." —Talia Schlanger (WXPN's World Cafe)
♫ LISTEN: Robyn, Honey
■ MORE: Robyn On All Things Considered
Invasion of Privacy
Cardi B is a breath of fresh air full of car horns blasting as they crawl up Jerome Avenue. She's every sense at once: the visual shock of white lace and red velvet Jordans on a dancer's body; the lip-smacking lure of plantains and pastelitos from a truck; the fragrance of White Diamonds, like your grandma use to wear. Cardi B somehow incorporates this multi-sensory experience into every one of her raps, and that's what makes her debut album so much more than the year's most impressive commercial breakthrough. Whether spitting street style in her debut album opener "Get Up 10" or trash talking with the stars (propositioning Rihanna and Chrissy Teigen for a threesome, NP) on "She Bad," the rapper always seems to go beyond mere words to attain a tangible presence in the room, or head, of any listener. Her words (sometimes co-written, which she freely admits) would be enough; as Invasion of Privacy proves on every track, Cardi can be as funny as Eminem, minus the hate and self-seriousness; as sensual as Drake and as casually musical as the guys in her rap family, Migos.
Cardi demanded to play on whatever field she wanted from the beginning. From social media to reality television to the recording studio, she learned something crucial at each step – the flash of memes, the improvisational skill of comedy, the impeccable memory rap requires. What impresses on the surface is her versatility as Cardi travels from trap to R&B to salsa on one of the biggest Latin crossover songs of the year, "I Like It." Cardi's bilingual, multivalent way of being is more than just adaptable: She walks into a song and it changes. —Ann Powers
♫ LISTEN: Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy
■ MORE: The Business Of Being Cardi B
Chantal Anderson/Courtesy of the artist
A week after releasing one of the best albums of the year, Noname tweeted out a missive that perfectly encapsulated the frustration of being a wildly creative, independent artist without major-label backing in 2018. "This f*** around and be my last tape," she wrote in a since-deleted tweet. "The way n***** consume music is so weird. I hope Room 25 means something to someone. If not, I tried." Her timing coincided with the weekly release of the Billboard 200, where Room 25 failed to debut among the week's 200 best-selling and -streaming albums. It's a vivid reminder that, despite rap being the most-consumed genre, the industry has yet to devise a metric capable of accurately measuring the value of black genius.
Raised in the same Bronzeville neighborhood that birthed Gwendolyn Brooks' Pulitzer-winning work, Noname is hip-hop's unabashed poet laureate. On Room 25, she continues the coming of age narrative she began with her 2016 Telefone debut by letting us ride shotgun as she journeys and journals from the South Side of Chicago to uncharted territory. But it's really a trip to her soul, as she counts the wages of American national sin, bartered success, oppressive politics, unrequited love and sexual liberation. "The secret is I'm actually broken / I tried to raise a healing, kneeling at the edge of the ocean," she raps on "Don't Forget About Me." These are redemption songs, forged by Noname's attempt to reconcile newfound independence with the knowledge that her people will never truly be free.
Her voice is intimate, revealing, satirical, cerebral, always clever and forever questing. All this bone-deep work she's doing out in public to construct a world out of equal parts diligence and sacred indulgence isn't really for us: "Nah, actually this is for me," she raps on "Self." We're just fortunate enough to reap the benefit. Meanwhile, the algorithm to chart her soul's progression has yet to be created. —Rodney Carmichael
♫ LISTEN: Noname, Room 25
■ MORE: Noname's Tiny Desk Concert
A handful of days before 2017 ended, I heard what I knew would be my favorite song of 2018. I'd never been so sure. "Night Shift" is a six-and-a-half minute post-breakup song that extends a hand of hope after a virtual scream into a pillow. And it's this range of emotions that makes Historian my album of the year. The 23-year-old singer has a well-worn huskiness in her voice that adds heft to her stories of loss and death. But it's a record anchored in aspiration, and there's a great deal of faith in that hope. On "Pillar of Truth," Lucy Dacus sings of being with her family at the bedside of her dying grandmother, with lyrics are steeped in her Christian upbringing: "Lord, prepare me / for the shadows / for the sparrows / at my window. / Lord, have mercy / on my descendants / for they know not / what they do."
And then there's this unexpected moment when the impending loss sheds light on the love that surrounds her grandmother in the form of their presence. "I'm slowly sinking / into darkness / yet unknown," she sings, in what I take to be the voice of her grandmother. "But the fading / light around me / is full of faces / who carry my name." Historian's songs are filled with pain, but the pain often passes and we're left with an album of thoughtful songs performed and produced with a timeless feel. It is the one record in 2018 I'm certain I'll always return to. —Bob Boilen
♫ LISTEN: Lucy Dacus, Historian
■ MORE: Lucy Dacus' Tiny Desk Concert
Golden Hour was made for two people, mostly by three people, expressing the viewpoint of one person who insistently speaks for herself. Why, then, has it struck so many listeners as so expansive and bold? It's an album that feels like a moon landing – one small step for an artist who's been traveling beyond her home genre from the minute she arrived in it, one giant leap within a pop scene that's supposedly defeated genre limitations but which really offers mostly timid stabs at eclecticism or music that's just messy and ill-defined. Kacey Musgraves is exacting, even imperious, enough preserve the best from her home base of country music – musically, she keeps rhythmic swing and air in the mix; lyrically, ingenious wordplay and emotional insight grounded small observations – while dispensing with its hit-seeking hyperbole and desperate-feeling "fun."
Instead, working with the jazz- and Americana-grounded producers and main co-writers Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, Musgraves slowed her already patient roll and made a concept album about shedding preconceptions. "I know a few things, but I still got a lot to learn," she sings in opening track "Slow Burn" as a little banjo mingles with the kiss of a synthesizer and a brushed drum. Her synapses fired by a new love who treats her like a peer and a complicated person, Musgraves spends the rest of the album confronting herself with curiosity and compassion. She's always been known as "Spacey Kacey," and Tashian and Fitchuk help her deploy that spaciness, which turns out to be spaciousness, an entryway to introspection. There's a threshold feeling to the sound of this album, and to Musgraves' musings about her mixed-up emotions, her imperfections, her fears. Even the love songs (like most great love songs, really) are inquiries into her own soul. Throughout Golden Hour, new ideas emerge without fanfare, just feeling right and natural. That feeling of discovery in quiet recalls the work of other women who carried country over certain thresholds in its development, from Patsy Cline to Bobbie Gentry to Emmylou Harris. And maybe that's why Golden Hour feels so powerful, like something more than its modesty suggests. It's an argument for evolution and against the rhetoric of disruption. That feels like a good path to follow to the moon. —Ann Powers
♫ LISTEN: Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
■ MORE: Kacey Musgraves' Tiny Desk Concert
Be the Cowboy
What if a stranger comes to town and her deepest estrangement lies within? Be the Cowboy, Mitski's sleek study in disconsolate cool and romantic impairment, offers a few intriguing responses to that question. The narrators in these songs — not to be confused with the artist, who makes a point of calling out her own artifice — find their voices in uneasy solitude. They pine for impossible suitors, make ill-advised entreaties, cheerfully admit that no hero is rushing to save the day. Mitski sings with a haunting conviction, making their plight feel personal even as she holds herself at arm's length, seeming to acknowledge that self-possession can be an armor. In other words, she's fully embracing the terms of pop music.
Not to imply that Mitski has made concessions on Be the Cowboy, or surrendered an ounce of control. (Along with her producer, Patrick Hyland, she played almost all the instrumental parts. She alone wrote all of the songs.) But especially in contrast to her previous masterstroke, the distortion-laced 2016 release Puberty 2, this is an album defined by impeccable construction and open defiance of the confessional mode. There's nary a false move in the songs — from the deft use of metaphor to the wry emotional shorthand to the way certain passing chords take a side door toward resolution. "I will be the one you need," Mitski sings on "Geyser," the album's overture, which moves from a hymnal calm to a punklike clamor. Just listen to her deliver that line, and try to figure whether it's a promise or a threat. —Nate Chinen (WBGO)
♫ LISTEN: Mitski, Be the Cowboy
■ MORE: Mitski's Tiny Desk Concert
Toni Morrison said in 1994 that within the debate over political correctness lies a power struggle: "The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them." Janelle Monáe has made her name by adopting alter egos in her music. But in 2018, a year when political correctness has been reduced to nothing more than a laughable placebo, Monae — releasing her third album more than a decade into her career — introduced herself to us for the first time and proved her artistic genius defies any single definition.
Pulling inspiration from radical predecessors — Josephine Baker, Stevie Wonder, James Baldwin, Grace Jones, David Bowie and most prevalently her late mentor, Prince — Monáe speaks her truth to power across a funk pop soundscape. The album feels like a rose opening to meet the sun, each petal containing a different message. Monáe captures the bliss of sexual fluidity, the eloquent anger and spirituality of black feminism, the temporary high of nihilism, the sandbagged weight of self-doubt and finally the euphoric reckoning of learning who you are. She switches from hummingbird harmonies and sugary pop hooks to fire 16s to denounce haters from every facet of her life; high school bullies, President Trump and "hoteps trying to tell me how to feel" all get the smoke. She celebrates herself as an other and shines for those on society's fringes.
To visually convey the layers of this music, Monáe commissioned nothing less than an iridescent sci-fi joyride, equal parts love story and heroic odyssey. At 48 minutes, Monáe's Dirty Computer 'emotion picture' marries the nuance of her lyrics with a vivid dystopian world where anyone deemed "dirty" is hunted and chemically lobotomized, or "cleaned." In this totalitarian world of Dirty Computers, not unlike the divisive reality of 2018, non-conformity can spell extinction if you don't fight back. With every guitar riff, every interlude, every moment of loving, queer affection with her co-star, Tessa Thompson, Monae fights.
"I consider myself a free-ass motherf*****," Monáe told Rolling Stone just as Dirty Computer was released. Knowing and showing your true self to the world is a nirvana so sweet it seems impossible to achieve. But Monáe's rebellious album basks in the undefinable dichotomy of herself — "the venom and the antidote" — a nirvana not achieved, but grown from within. —Sidney Madden
♫ LISTEN: Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer
■ MORE: Janelle Monáe, 21st Century Time Traveler