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Highsnobiety / Isabel Janssen

As this year winds down we’ve recapped its highlights to bring you the best of 2018 in fashion, sneakers, music, movies and more.

As we discussed the huge swath of albums that spoke to us this year, a common thread emerged in each of our favorites being not only escapist, but expansive. We pored over the records that created not only a sonic world, but a sonic world richly populated with the influence of numerous genres – the cacophonous carnival of Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD, the hermetically-sealed head trip of Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs, or the kaleidoscopic kitsch of Kali Uchis’ Isolation.

With the glut of exceptional music that came out this year, there were of course some tough choices made in whittling this list down to just 25. Nevertheless, we feel confident the following records are the best reflection of what 2018 had to offer: carefully-crafted works of art that, failing all else, reliably produced a sense of wonder.

These are the 25 Best Albums of 2018:

25. Joji – ‘BALLADS 1’

88rising Records

It isn’t often an irritating YouTube star makes the leap to compelling singer, but Joji has somehow achieved just that. He makes soothing music for the heartbroken millennial having an existential crisis in their bedroom, with sad boy anthems such as “Test Drive” and “Come Thru” pushing the same DIY R&B buttons The Weeknd did on 2011’s House of Balloons. Thankfully, the dance-worthy, Clams Casino-produced “Can’t Get Over You” lifts the mood a little. Sure, BALLADS 1 isn’t perfect, but it feels like the start of a special career; its creator capable of crafting atmospheric songs that stay with you long after listening. – Thomas Hobbs

Listen here.

24. Mac Miller – ‘Swimming’

Warner Bros. Records

With Swimming, Mac Miller synthesized the existential probing of GO:OD AM and the lush, ornate instrumentation of The Divine Feminine into an opus about addiction, depression, and acceptance that only he could have created. His tragic passing puts songs like “Self Care” and “2009” in especially stark relief, but Swimming is packed with lessons, subtle moments of joy and growth, and an earned comfort and self-awareness that makes it feel like the culmination of Mac’s singular career. It also highlights his maturation into a full-fledged songwriter, capable of writing meditative and melodic tracks like “Dunno” and “Come Back to Earth.” With Swimming, Mac Miller showcased his growth from an artist to an auteur, putting his stamp on every second of his fifth and final album. – Grant Rindner

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23. Rico Nasty – ‘Nasty’

Sugar Trap

“Bitch talkin’ shit but she living in a kid room,” Rico Nasty snarls on the first verse of “Bitch I’m Nasty,” the tone-setting opener of Nasty. She never looks back from there, delivering one of the year’s most boisterous and animated albums, one that hinges on her ability to find new ways to talk shit the way Pusha-T always finds something new to say about selling cocaine. One minute, she’s holding court in a Memphis strip club with BlocBoy JB and Tay Keith on “In the Air,” and the next she and Kenny Beats are making sure you never hear the ice cream truck jingle the same way again on the appropriately-titled “Ice Cream.” And though the scenery changes, Rico never takes her foot off the gas for all 14 tracks. – Grant Rindner

Listen here.

22. Tierra Whack – ‘Whack World’

Tierra Whack

The mark of a captivating album is its ability to make you want more. Tierra Whack’s Whack World is an album of minute-long snippets that is effectively a pool of fresh water in the desert; the fact that it sounds as if it continues, when there’s really nothing there, stings. But what’s there is a captivating range of sounds that showcases her ability to rap (“Bugs Life”), sing (“Black Nails”), and entertain (“Hookers”). Whack World transformed her career overnight, making her world one to revisit until the full planet is revealed. – Trey Alston

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21. Oneohtrix Point Never – ‘Age Of’

Warp Records

Few moments of settling into the beginning of an album hit me as forcefully as the chopped-and-screwed harpsichord freakout that opens Age Of, Oneohtrix Point Never‘s masterful eighth full-length. Daniel Lopatin’s ear for production is truly next level, and this record finds him matching the cinematic immersion garnered in scoring last year’s white-knuckle crime thriller Good Time with a deep dive into the terrain of R&B (album highlight “The Station” was initially composed as a demo for Usher, while the tremulous “Black Snow” makes a case for redefining the notion of futurist R&B entirely). The end result is his most cohesive record since his landmark 2011 project Andro and a suite of music that belongs to a space entirely outside the normal continuum of time; a sonic tapestry that exists on multiple planes at once. – Jake Boyer

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20. Ariana Grande – ‘Sweetener’

Republic Records

I’m still shocked that this album wasn’t nominated for a Grammy, but there’s no denying that it’s one of Ariana Grande‘s best pieces of her discography to date. She poured so much of herself into this beautiful body of work and truly elevated herself to the status of an untouchable and unbreakable icon. The biggest takeaway from this project was realizing that the pop star’s greatest strength is her ability to be her most authentic self. All things considered, Grande found a way to take this tumultuous year and make it one of the best in her career. – Sydney Gore

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19. Blood Orange – ‘Negro Swan’

Domino Recording Co Ltd

As previously mentioned, Blood Orange has this knack for making art that accurately depicts the current socio-political climate that they were birthed out of. During the promo cycle, Dev Hynes noted that the theme of Negro Swan ties into the “many types of black depression, an honest look at the corners of black existence, and the ongoing anxieties of queer/people of color.” What he has given us, as a community, is a powerful collection of hymns, anthems, and gospels to soundtrack our woes and uplift us during these emotional episodes. May we all find the strength to engage in our own processes of healing. – Sydney Gore

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18. Lykke Li – ‘so sad so sexy’

LL Recordings

From the outside looking in, it might seem like Lykke Li has the kind of lifestyle that many of us dream about, so what could she possibly sing about that could make the rest of us mortals relate? Turns out that she had some serious inner turmoil that she needed to get off of her chest, so she opened the floodgates and unleashed all of her feelings into this record. Love can be complicated, confusing, and chaotic – it’ll make your heart race, swell, and burst. But there’s beauty to be found in the pain when you make art out of it. The result was 10 tracks that take the listener on an a sonic exploration with Lykke Li leading every step of the way between the electro-R&B bops and lusty trap bangers that delve deep into intimacy. Permission to cry in the club granted. – Sydney Gore

Listen here.

17. Playboi Carti – ‘Die Lit’

AWGE / Interscope Records

Die Lit begins with what sounds like a sonic grin – “Long Time” is full on the preparation for a night of debauchery. Throughout Playboi Carti’s long-awaited studio debut, his unique rap style serves up some of the most memorable moments of the year: from the immensely goofy “Poke It Out” to the nonsensical refrain of “Lean 4 Real.” On these songs, Carti’s voice is but another supporting instrument, and his breathless chants are the main attraction. – Trey Alston

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16. Ssion – ‘O’

SSION

Unquestionably the most underrated album of the year, underground art hero Cody Critcheloe’s sophomore outing as Ssion is subversive art pop at its most imaginative. Even without amusing high concepts like ‘what would it be like dating Marc Jacobs?’, it’s clear that his songcraft has never been sharper, evidenced best on cuts like the swoon worthy “Inherit” and the sprawling epic “Comeback.” Combined with each of the accompanying detail-rich music videos (which, given the streetwear meets drag show meets ketamine head trip of “At Least the Sky Is Blue,” is vital), O, more than any other record this year, was alive with the sense of being crafted by a true auteur. – Jake Boyer

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15. Vince Staples – ‘FM!’

Def Jam Recordings

Vince Staples made one of rap’s leanest, most efficient double albums with Summertime ‘06, so it’s not a shock he can condense a feature-length concept into FM!’s jam-packed 22 minutes. The project is framed as an episode of West Coast rap radio, hosted by Big Boy, and it’s yet another shrewd way for Vince to show us Long Beach life with all of its gore and glory. He serves up stand-out verses on “Relay” and “Don’t Get Chipped,” but FM! also features some of the catchiest, most infectious hooks he’s ever crafted. – Grant Rindner

Listen here.

14. Noname – ‘Room 25’

Noname

With everything that is currently going on in the world, it’s hard to imagine that someone could have time to experience a sexual awakening, but I honestly understand exactly what Noname has been going through lately. Amidst all the destruction around you, there’s a moment when you’re also forced to do some internal digging and rebuild the foundation of who you are, what you stand for, and what you want out of life. Room 25 is a safe space where Noname shares her unfiltered thoughts on love, loss, and acceptance based on the narrative of her black womanhood. Pleasure and pain never sounded so good. – Sydney Gore

Listen here.

13. Kali Uchis – ‘Isolation’

Universal Music Operations Limited

The dazzling visual for standout track “After the Storm” neatly summarizes what the world of Kali Uchis‘ debut album Isolation is all about; a heavily funky world that balances childlike wonder with the poignancy of wisdom well beyond her years. It’s exemplified in the yearning beauty of “In My Dreams,” an old school bop featuring Damon Albarn that celebrates the freedom of dreaming as an escape from such worldly woes as a mother dealing with substance abuse. The record is a tightrope act of emotions, offering us the full spectrum of an artist whose pain is transmuted into gloriously warm and inviting sonic pleasures. – Jake Boyer

Listen here.

12. Beach House – ‘7’

Sub Pop Records

This year’s most pleasantly immersive experience comes in the form of the seventh release from Baltimore dream-pop duo Beach House. With 7, they have, yet again, defied expectation by playing to expectation: their twinkling brand of pop music, which sounds submerged under a gently lapping sun-lit river, has become even more grand and evocative. 7’s centerpiece, “Drunk in LA,” captures the group at their mesmeric best – church organs, grinding guitars and cinematic synths combining to create an impossibly oneiric palette for vocalist Victoria Legrand to ruminate about fading memory. “On a hillside, I remember I am loving losing life,” she sings, her voice doleful and magnetic. – Colin Gannon

Listen here.

11. Robyn – ‘Honey’

Konichiwa Records

Much has happened in the eight years since Robyn last released an album. While such an absence might spell doom for a lesser artist, the Swedish fembot’s stature only grew further, creating unprecedented levels of hype. Naturally, Robyn decided to do the complete opposite of what fans might have expected and turned inward, creating a quieter body of work that retains the heartfelt vocals of yesteryear but wraps them up in production warmer than any of her previous work. By drawing on the pain she’s felt over the years, Robyn has created her most cohesive record yet. – David Opie

Listen here.

10. The Internet – ‘Hive Mind’

Columbia Records

When I sat down with Steve Lacy, Patrick Paige III, Syd, Matt Martian, and Christopher Smith back in July, they all made it very clear that they operate in a creative zone that involves little to no pressure – internal or otherwise. “We just stop. We don’t really force the music-making,” Syd said, matter-of-factly. Stopping is a vibe more people should probably incorporate into their lives. It worked for The Internet in wonderful ways, which is easily picked up upon listening to opening track “Come Together.” Though it was likely pieced together with multiple takes of different instrumental and vocal tracks, the energy of a relaxed jam session wafts through it, and the entirety of the album that follows. The five friends have found their schtick – an amoeba that floats somewhere above the earth; tinges of old-school soul and funk, above-the-stratosphere sonics courtesy of synths like Martians’ beloved Mellotron, and their insistence on living in the moment. – Bianca Giulione

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9. Janelle Monáe – ‘Dirty Computer’

Bad Boy Records LLC

Janelle Monáe has always made us dance apocalyptic with her smart android anthems, but this year, the Electric Lady revealed that there’s a beating heart lying under all that circuitry too. From righteous fury and social commentary to sexual bliss with a healthy dose of black girl magic, Dirty Computer represents Monáe at her most human. By filtering funk, pop, rock, and soul through her own personal experiences, she’s now joined the ranks of other emotional, sexual gender benders like Bowie and Prince, all while fighting for a better America in one of the very best albums released this year. – David Opie

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8. Tommy Genesis – ‘Tommy Genesis’

Downtown Records

To be honest, I was taken aback by Tommy Genesis. The artist of the same name has never failed to intrigue, but whether the subtlety of her elusive charm would translate in the context of an album was up for debate. I was proven wrong before my first play through had ended; her debut is a tightly-packed shot of dopamine to the ear holes that presents her as a stone-faced paragon of being a bad bitch – the platonic ideal of a rap record, really. From the Timbaland-esque strut of “Bad Boy” to the barn burning “100 Bad” to the utterly merciless subwoofing smackdown of “Tommy,” she proves herself to be a true force to be reckoned with. – Jake Boyer

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7. Earl Sweatshirt – ‘Some Rap Songs’

Tan Cressida

Earl Sweatshirt’s 2018 album wasn’t “MF Doom Karaoke” as a viral tweet suggests, but instead a haunting, lo-fi opus obsessed with loss and gritty nostalgia. Earl meshed his rap side with his human one, and in the process, fully shed the elaborate, tongue-shredding intricacy of his early Odd Future days. Songs like “The Bends” and “The Mint” are delivered slowly and deliberately while rough hashes of song samples and instruments roar in the background. From front to back, Earl’s immensely personal work has transformed him from prodigy to legend. – Trey Alston

Listen here.

6. Travis Scott – ‘ASTROWORLD’

Epic Records

With ASTROWORLD, Travis Scott dialed back on some of his rager tendencies to deliver his most ambitious album to date – part psychedelic odyssey, part love letter to his hometown of Houston, and part never-ending first class flight. As always, Scott is joined by A-listers on vocals (Drake, Frank Ocean, James Blake) and on the boards (Kevin Parker, Mike Dean, Frank Dukes), but more than any of his previous LPs, ASTROWORLD never stops feeling like a carnival where Scott is the ringmaster. He’s unexpectedly candid on “COFFEE BEAN” and “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD,” but also offers trademark thrills in the form of “SICKO MODE” and “NO BYSTANDERS.” – Grant Rindner

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5. cupcakKe – ‘Ephorize’ / ‘Eden’

CupcakKe

 

CupcakKe

21-year-old Chicago rapper cupcakke has amassed a horde of fans (known as “Slurpers”) with a thunderous delivery and lascivious lyrics that make Obie Trice’s verse on “Drips” look like Mary Poppins. She bookended 2018 with a pair of albums, Ephorize and Eden, that artfully balance smutty, on-the-nose punchlines with heartfelt anthems that tackle sexuality, mental disabilities, mental health, colorism, and domestic abuse. Each album is, by itself, a tour de force – a seminar in radical self-love wrapped into the soundtrack to your next party. In a banner year for women in rap, she proved herself to be peerless. – Danny Schwartz

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4. A$AP Rocky – ‘TESTING’

RCA Records

In a year that cast the divide between svelte, seven-track suites and mammoth-sized streaming grabs in sharp relief, A$AP Rocky‘s third studio effort was one of the few projects that justified the wide scope of the latter format. This was a polarizing decision, leading many to cast it aside when it first arrived on an overcrowded release day. But I have little sympathy for anyone who would describe this record as dull – what other album this year had Kid Cudi soaring over classic Moby (“A$AP Forever”), the best FKA twigs song in years (“Fukk Sleep”), Juicy J dropping a guest verse on a beat built from his own voice (“Gunz N Butter”), and ends on a damn Frank Ocean guitar ballad (“Purity”), to boot? Some argue this clouds the influence of Rocky himself, but I’m not sure they’re listening closely enough – Pretty Boy Flacko’s carousel of inspirations all serve to reflect him at his best; a natural blossoming of the ideas and sonic touch points first seeded when that legendary first mixtape set the rap game on fire a decade ago. – Jake Boyer

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3. Cardi B – ‘Invasion of Privacy’

Atlantic Recording Company

Some doubted whether Cardi B could follow monstrous hit “Bodak Yellow” with a compelling enough album, but the Bronx MC exceeded expectations, and then some. Every song on Invasion of Privacy sounds like a hit single, as Cardi, straight out the gate, shows more range than any of her peers. On the SZA-assisted banger “I Do,” Cardi hilariously raps: “My pussy so good I say my own name during sex,” with this record at its best when it subverts the male gaze, flipping hip-hop’s institutionalized sexism right on its head. Lil’ Kim – finally – has a worthy heiress. – Thomas Hobbs

Listen here.

2. SOPHIE – ‘OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES’

MSMSMSM / Future Classic

Opening an album with a song called “It’s Okay to Cry” is a flex in and of itself. In case anyone had any doubts – she has the range. Once again, SOPHIE is creating sounds we’ve never heard before, and making us feel emotions buried deep inside us. Just one of those feats is enough for a collection of songs to be held close to my heart, but homegirl has accomplished two, gleefully scrambling our brains in the process. Even its shortest song, “Not Okay,” has enough insane, distorted bass explosions and plinkering synths to reprogram the most close-minded brain that ever existed. It’s hard to write about SOPHIE without using hyperbole, apologies. Taking things back to earth and all the accolades that we’ve deemed important, this album’s been Grammy-nominated, so there’s at least one stuffy institution that’s made a good decision in 2018. – Bianca Giulione

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1. Pusha-T – ‘DAYTONA’

Getting Out Our Dreams, Inc. / Def Jam Recordings

DAYTONA is an emphatic response to anyone who thought a rapper couldn’t make their best album in their forties. Pusha-T, who sounds like he’s been possessed by the ghost of Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, takes coke rap to new heights, with each of these seven tracks sounding like a career-defining anthem. On the brilliant “Santeria,” Pusha smartly compares drug dealing to boardroom politics, while the stinging subliminal disses of “Infrared” toy with Drake’s soul. Long may this continue, with Kanye and Pusha-T a rapper-producer team every bit as potent as Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg in the 1990s. – Thomas Hobbs

Listen here.

Now, take a look at our ranking of the 50 Best Songs of 2018.

  • Words: Trey Alston, Jake Boyer, Colin Gannon, Bianca Giulione, Sydney Gore, Thomas Hobbs, David Opie, Grant Rindner, Danny Schwartz
Music Editor
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