Classics in the Right Way: 25 favorite albums from 2018

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A few things you’ll see on my list of 25 favorite records from 2018: Roughly 16 selections by women, depending on how you want to classify husband-wife duos. Four official debuts, but also a number of accomplished works by seasoned pros. Numerous albums that carve out a space between tradition and progression, upholding lineage while pointing to the future. And, in these fractious times, several albums that embrace joy as a matter of intention—choosing a hopeful countenance even when circumstances point in the opposite direction.

Some critics have posited that the album format is in its dying days, to be replaced by playlists and data dumps. Maybe so, but all 25 albums on this list exist as cohesive, self-contained bodies of work, their songs in dialogue with each other, their sequencing precise and important.

I could have listed as few as 10 or as many as 100—and next week, I’ll augment this core 25 with some honorable mentions, some favorite re-issues and archival music, and more. For now, these are all albums that I’ve enjoyed enormously and recommend whole-heartedly.

25. Beyondless | Iceage
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Majestic and menacing, Beyondless reckons with the legacy of rock and roll’s golden era without anything resembling slavish devotion. Packed to the gills with riffs, rhythms, sound effects, and gallows humor, it’s the year’s most unpredictable rock album. The songs chronicle depravity, but from the abattoir of Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s imagination there springs florid storytelling and impressionistic poetry.

24. Between Two Shores | Glen Hansard
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For his strongest solo collection yet, the erstwhile Frames/Swell Season frontman casually intermingles autumnal folk, heartland rock, and luminous jazz for an album as familiar and comforting as a favorite afghan—or perhaps a favorite Nick Drake record. It takes the tone of a consoling friend, promising us that time will sort out all our grief eventually—and until then, there’s nothing wrong with having a good, long cry.

23. Ventriloquism | Meshell Ndegeocello
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On Ventriloquism, a jukebox record of 80s and 90s R&B hits, Meshell Ndegeocello offers a multi-layered treatise on personal canon. Playing songs largely penned by women and/or people of color, Ndegeocello swaps featherweight synths for rustic folk flourishes and live-band funk—signifiers of respectability for songs that warranted our respect all along. They refract deeper issues of genre, gender, and identity—a covers record as aesthetic argument and stylistic manifesto.

 22. Invasion of Privacy | Cardi B
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“Is she a stripper, a rapper, or singer?” asks Cardi B on a debut album that suggests she’s all these things and more, an envelope-pusher and category-killer whose identity can only ever be all of the above. The big surprises here are how rooted she is in hip-hop orthodoxy, but also how much room to roam she finds within traditional frameworks: Invasion of Privacy bursts at the seams with flows, beats, jokes, vulgarity, empowerment, and defiant autobiography. A rags-to-riches blockbuster for the ages.

21. Room 25 | Noname
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Poet-turned-rapper Fatimah Warner—aka Noname—pours forth speech, joking and tongue-twisting and free-associating a dense web of language where everything, including her black life, matters. Her proper debut, following the radiant Telefone mixtape, is sleek and assured, an album that’s at once precise and all-encompassing.

20. Cusp | Alela Diane
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You wouldn’t even need the fingers on two hands to count the great albums about motherhood, a list to which Cusp immediately belongs. But that’s not the only thing singer/songwriter Alela Diane has on her mind: She uses the particulars of being a mom to wrestle with the broader topic of becoming, how a day or a season in our life can be a threshold for personal change, a catalyst for transformation. Her songs are presented in warm, clean arrangements, their straight lines contrasting with the deep mysteries contained within.

19. See You Around | I’m With Her
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A trio comprised of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, I’m With Her is about the super-est group imaginable in today’s acoustic scene, and they betray subtle virtuosity throughout their debut album. See You Around reflects a worldview that’s respectful of folk and bluegrass traditions without ever being beholden to them, and the songs are similarly restless, full of characters seeking solid ground through seasons of tumult and transition.

18. Be the Cowboy | Mitski
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Mitski’s songs sparkle with clean pop perfection; her easeful way with melody may remind you of Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, or even Paul McCartney. She spikes those buoyant tunes with lyrics of quiet desperation. Each song on Be the Cowboy glimpses either an unattainable future or an irretrievable past—alternate realities where, for all these characters know, everything worked out just fine.

17. 13 Rivers | Richard Thompson
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One of our top-tier shredders makes a blessed return to electric mayhem on an album that’s as muscular and direct as any in his corpus. Thompson’s songs don’t so much rage at the dying light as they wrestle with the darkness in his own soul—“the rattle within,” as one song memorably phrases it. The result is a prickly masterwork, a discontented opus from a guru working at his peak.

16. Isolation | Kali Uchis
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On her luminous debut, the Brazilian singer flits from steely hip-hop to dingy New Wave to coy bossa nova; a couple of retro R&B numbers show how easy it would have been for her to fashion this album as a diva’s showcase and a soul revue, but Uchis is far too restless to live in the past. So she’s given us a pancultural pop showstopper that functions as a declaration of independence; her lyrics, about the cost of freedom, remind us that independence and isolation can be two sides of the same coin.

15. Dirty Pictures, Pt. 2 | Low Cut Connie
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Listen beyond the buzz saw guitars, the pounding pianos, and the relentless kick drums and you’ll hear a bar band of startling sophistication, their brashness and bravado belying depth and sturdy craftsmanship. Or, just pump your fist in the air and get swept along in their crackling, unostentatious energy. A near-perfect jolt of pure rock and roll, Dirty Pictures, Pt. 2 is by turns wounded, vulgar, earnest, and hysterical.

14. SASSAFRASS! | Tami Nielson
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One of the year’s most classicist country albums also happens to be one of its most colorful—at times bordering on being outright bonkers. Nielson tucks into haunted Appalachian ballads, brassy R&B, swaying nightclub reveries, even Vegas-style showstoppers; sometimes she plays it straight, sometimes she revels in double entendres and caustic humor. Throughout, she proves herself a singer of redoubtable power and control, and a writer whose wit is eclipsed only by her compassion.

13. World on Sticks | Sam Phillips
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Sam Phillips is one of pop’s most daring and resilient excavators; she’s made a career off of digging deep for truth and beauty, and on World on Sticks she rummages through the trash and ephemera of a culture given over to hollow materialism. Fortunately, she is also one of our most gifted melodists, and here powers her elastic tunes with thunderous drums, luxuriant string arrangements, and thrumming electric guitars.

12. Time & Space | Turnstile
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A document of bruising physicality but also big ideas, Time & Space is a galvanizing punk album that jostles with riffs, banshee wails, and headbanging fury. It also nods at Chess Records, branches into pure pop, and augments its hardcore wails with sophisticated harmonies. Diplo shows up to add weird keyboard effects, and it’s not even one of the top 10 most surprising moments on the album. Which is, incidentally, just 23 minutes long, every second packed with white-knuckled exhilaration.

11. Sparrow | Ashley Monroe
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Monroe, a country singer from Knoxville, Tennessee, has a legitimate claim to 2018’s MVP title; look for her name to show up again on an even higher entry. For Sparrow, Monroe proves once again that she’s unequaled at reimagining country roots and traditions for the present day. Awash with strings, it’s a colorful update on the classic “countrypolitan” sound, its lush orchestrations illuminating the contours of her internal monologues and emotional remembrances.

10. Love in Wartime | Birds of Chicago
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The warmest, most humanistic of bands cranks up the electricity for this rangy and roaming opus, jolting their gospel harmonies and brambly folk with punchy rock and roll vigor. While their previous album presaged “real midnight,” this one supposes that it’s already come and gone, and beckons us to pick up the pieces. The whole record plays out like a swift kick in the ass for anyone who thinks they have the luxury of complacency; in a dispiriting year, it was a lighthouse, an oasis, and a life preserver.

09. Thelonious Sphere Monk | MAST
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The worst possible way to celebrate the skewed genius of Thelonious Monk would be with an overly reverent tribute album—and this songbook record by Tim Conley, aka MAST, never even comes close. Instead, he chops, screws, and bedazzles beloved Monk classics, dressing them up with bells and whistles, augmenting them with lurching hip-hop beats, kicking them down a flight of stairs and then ultimately setting fire to them via a crackling live band. The result qualifies as the year’s most bewitching jazz and its most immersive electronica—an album that uses the past as a jumping off point for boundless imagination.

08. This Too Shall Light | Amy Helm
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An exercise in community and a testament to the redemptive act of singing, This Too Shall Light features songs of joy and sorrow, lifted up in smudged harmony by Helm and her troupe of harmony singers, Birds of Chicago among them. The songs come from disparate sources—Allen Toussaint, T-Bone Burnett, The Milk Carton Kids, even Rod Stewart’s immortal “Mandolin Wind” is here—and Helm brings confidence and grace to each one. She is one of our great soul singers, and here she proves herself to be both a keeper of the flame for her father’s legacy and an able blazer of her own new trails.

07. Streams of Thought Vol. 2 | Black Thought & Salaam Remi
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In 2018, no rapper had better bars than Black Thought, an all-timer who’s just beginning to get his due. For his second solo joint of the year, he offers a head-spinning and endlessly quotable feast of language, nimbly pivoting from self-aggrandizement to sociopolitical arguments to stirring endorsements of the steel-driving work ethic he embodies. Producer Salaam Remi creates warm, funky environments, drawn largely form blaxploitation tropes, giving this GOAT candidate the regal adornment he’s always deserved. Old-head rap executed with such flair, it sounds less like the past than a whole new wave.

06. Historian | Lucy Dacus
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For her second solo album, singer/songwriter/shredder/boygenius member Lucy Dacus writes about romantic dissolution and human frailty—but always from a therapeutic remove: It’s not a break-up album or a death album so much as an album about the stories we tell, the way we make sense of tragedies, the role we play in curating one another’s history. These masterful songs—pitched between emotional acuity and writerly sophistication—are paired to sleek rock arrangements that soar, grind, and erupt as needed.

05. All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do | The Milk Carton Kids
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On their first album to feature outside musicians, the folksy duo conjures a loose, borderless Americana that recalls such inclusionary classics as The Basement Tapes and Willie Nelson’s Stardust—all the while retaining the whimsy, melancholy, and close harmonies that make them The Milk Carton Kids. The songs reflect dissolution: Sometimes they’re about wayward nations, sometimes they’re about faithless lovers, and sometimes it seems like it might be a little of both. Like Amy Helm’s record, it was produced by Joe Henry, enjoying a banner year.

04. Honey | Robyn
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In her alluring new suite of songs, recalcitrant Swedish pop star Robyn journeys through heartache, memory, self-inventory, and in the end, defiant hope. She’s always walked a fine line between steeliness and vulnerability, but none of her albums tremble quite like Honey, which features some of her most cracked vocals, her most porous song structures, and her most lovelorn lyrics. It adds up to an immersive song cycle that washes over you, waves of sorrow followed by waves of cathartic joy.

03. Look Now | Elvis Costello & The Imposters
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Has everything you might want in an Elvis Costello album—unless all you want is loud guitars and paranoid songs about girls, in which case there’s just no helping you. Intricate and tuneful, ornate and direct, Look Now consolidates decades of tutelage in pop songcraft; it has the confidence of a master but the exuberance of a young buck. Its songs—all richly empathetic, most about or from the perspective of women—make it the year’s most rewarding album by a dude.

02. Interstate Gospel | Pistol Annies

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Finding solidarity in songs of divorce, depression, and quiet desperation, the Pistol Annies emerge with their wisest and funniest album yet. The one thing Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley don’t know how to do is sugarcoat, and Interstate Gospel is bracing for its candor—yet its emotional directness is channeled through childhood remembrances, archetypes, saloon soliloquies, and randy rock and roll; meanwhile, the outlaw dreams of their first couple of albums have blossomed into a more sophisticated American roots milieu, one that’s grounded in tradition but refracted through modernity. In the middle of the worst of it, they’ve made an album that reflects the best in each of them.

01. Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves
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Festooned though it may be with disco balls and kaleidoscopic sound effects, Golden Hour is a country album through and through. You can hear it in the air, the empty space between Musgraves’ words; and you can hear it in the words themselves, plainspoken even when they’re clever. They’re not clever quite as often as they were on Musgraves’ fine earlier albums—which, it turns out, is perfectly fine. She’s toned down her impish wit for songs of disarming sincerity, perfectly wed to a colorful production palette so visceral, you can almost feel this music on your skin. Musgraves is still enough of a cynic to question her own right to be happy and to wonder when the other shoe’s gonna drop, yet what dazzles the most about Golden Hour is its sense of awe: Inspired by her new marriage, Musgraves is seduced by hope, surprised by joy, and bowled over by a world of marvels beyond anything she could have imagined. It’s an album about grown-up love and childlike wonder, and a vision of country music as something timeless, borderless, consoling, and fun.

Surprised by Joy: Kacey Musgraves’ indescribable wow

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There aren’t words enough for the rich, specific emotions Kacey Musgraves chronicles on Golden Hour, a record every bit as joyful as its reputation suggests but by no means simple or one-note. Musgraves is a songwriter who values precision enough to work the word “chrysalis” into her song about butterflies and to execute tight U-turns within the span of a single Sly Stone pun (“you can have your space, cowboy”), yet there are multiple times on the record where she opts for multiple words when it seems like one might have sufficed. “Is there a word for the way that I’m feeling tonight?” she asks in one of the album’s many guileless, artifice-free moments, as if she’s narrating her own writing process, stitching her thoughts together in real time. “Happy and sad at the same time” is what she comes up with, and it’s as good a descriptor as any. Elsewhere on the album, she imbues the most general of observations with the full weight of holy wonder: “These are real things,” she marvels, as if suddenly gobsmacked by the very fact of existence. There may be a more flowery version of the same idea, but probably not a better one: Generally avoiding abstraction and metaphor in favor of emotional directness, Golden Hour is a masterpiece of plainspeak, cherishing mystery without harboring ambiguity. It’s an album about being awake and alert enough to practice active, in-the-moment gratitude, and letting your guard down enough to be seduced by love, surprised by joy. “Oh what a world,” Musgraves enthuses on one song. “And then there’s you.”  Maybe this is what Sam Phillips was talking about when she named an album The Indescribable Wow.

Her sense of wonder is channeled into a remarkable suite of songs that maintains perfect shape, tone, and momentum; co-produced by Musgraves and Daniel Tashian, Golden Hour just glows. Sumptuous and sparkling, album opener “Slow Burn” unfolds delicately, twinkling banjo notes surrounding the singer’s dawning sense of possibility; words pieced together in leisurely stream-of-consciousness, Musgraves dashes off some autobiography before her attention shifts to the world outside her (“In Tennessee, the sun’s goin’ down/ But in Beijing, they’re heading out to work”). And in just that moment, the track’s gossamer simplicity is awash with the brilliant Technicolor effects of pedal steel and keyboard, as if conveying a broader mindfulness being born inside her. Dazzling color adorns the album, allowing its generally amiable mood to feel nuanced and textured: Vocoder effects in “Oh What a World” add sublime voicing to Musgraves’ earthly awe; “Space Cowboy” has cavernous beats that set it in a place of welcoming solitude; and on “Butterflies,” psychedelic flourishes create the cloud her head’s stuck in. It’s impossible to imagine these songs being any more vulnerable or affecting with a traditionalist’s Spartan arrangement, so closely are the color schemes matched to the singer’s interior monologues. The voice-and-piano sketch “Mother” feels like both a sonic and thematic outlier, yet even in its wistfulness it embodies Musgraves’ unfiltered emotional acuity as well as her musical precision. The lyrics express age-old human feelings—distance, separation, longing—as though they’re fresh revelations, and the song cuts out just at the point where it would turn into a boring area-filling ballad on anyone else’s album, leaving us with something fleeting and haunted. Its austerity throws the rest of the album’s vivid hues into context. In a time when country music “authenticity” is closely tied to analog simplicity—think of the fine, meat-and-potatoes records by the likes of Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, both of whom work largely in sepia shades— Musgraves makes a case for country as omnivorous and all-encompassing, ornate and fun; she’s spoken of her allegiance to the outlaw sound but also her fondness for Tame Impala, and on Golden Hour she wears country music’s ongoing dalliance with pop as a badge of honor, even as she upholds the genre’s reputation for emotional candor. The hard stuff, the fluffy stuff, yesterday’s C&W and today’s crossovers—all of it can coexist as “real” country.

In fact, Golden Hour goes down easy at least partly because of how it synthesizes many recent ideas about what country music ought to be, particularly in relation to pop. “Slow Burn” is pitched somewhere between a campfire song and Seven Swans-era Sufjan Stevens, while another banjo-led track—the sleek, propulsive “Love is a Wild Thing”—is the kind of rootsy pop that might have populated an early Taylor Swift record. The island vibe on “Lonely Weekend” cannily captures some of the beach-ready tropicalia of Kenny Chesney, but turns it on its head: Here country’s good-times Jimmy Buffet fixation is used to champion solitude, the bright production given weight and grit by the lyrics’ melancholy undercurrents. The disco thumper “High Horse” could be another throwback to the soft rock era, but only if you want to leap frog over Shania Twain to get there. Here, the album’s glossiest song features some of its most rustic imagery, all cowboys and their noble steeds. It’s country’s earthiness wrapped up in country’s glam.

As a songwriter, Musgraves has always had a penchant for smirk and irony, but Golden Hour marks the point where her sharp writing settles into something unguarded, the winks giving way to songs of ravishing affection. She comes by her joy honestly—these songs were inspired by her new marriage to country singer/songwriter Ruston Kelly—but it’s more a matter of intention than of disposition: “I’m the kind of person who starts getting nervous/ When I’m having the time of my life,” she admits on “Happy & Sad.” Her cynicism runs deep enough that she occasionally finds contentment to be ill-fitting, but those fleeting worries go a long way toward selling her earnestness elsewhere. It also helps that Golden Hour feels like a record about real, grown-up relationships—infatuation that deepens into commitment. “Wonder Woman” sets boundaries and manages expectations; there’s a lot of things she can do for her man, but saving him ain’t one of them. “Lonely Weekend” upholds the value of solitude within a relationship, and even the songs that cast their eye outside the marriage (“Mother,” “High Horse”) make the love songs feel more authentic and complete: These are real people with identities and relationships beyond each other. There’s a grounding realism to these fluttering heart songs, and that’s what makes Golden Hour‘s intentional joy so affecting. “I used to be scared of the wilderness, of the dark,” she sings. “But not anymore, no.” Of course, the world hasn’t changed—there’s still plenty to be scared of. What Musgraves offers here is a credible counterargument– that there are also marvels beyond words, and plausible reason to choose open-heartedness over bitterness and fear.