The Top 40 Albums of 2018

40. Sex & Cigarettes, Toni Braxton

The R&B veteran delivered a strong and succinct album in a year full of bloated, overdrawn releases. Her contralto voice and slinky timbre anchor the most explicit and honest soundscape of her career. From the cathartic climax of the title track to the spunky “Foh” and “Deadwood,” Toni maneuvers through themes of independence, lust, and growth with astonishing ease. Sex & Cigarettes garnered Toni 3 Grammy nominations, one of the few things the Academy got right this time around. The music industry, and R&B specifically, is not very kind to fifty-year-old black women. Nevertheless, Toni Braxton rises above the obstacles and ageism to deliver one of her personal best records and one of the strongest records of 2018. Must Listen: “Long As I Live”; “Foh”

39. Pray for the Wicked, Panic! At the Disco

Pray for the Wicked is a pop album. Let’s get that out of the way. Despite being their most mainstream effort yet, Brendon Urie’s endlessly malleable vocals lift cliche metaphors to astounding heights. Their use of brass of “High Hopes” and tribute to the ’20s with “Roaring 20s” and “King of the Clouds” are absolutely brilliant. Furthermore, somehow Urie is able to convey R&B-influenced vocal inflections and the emo punk-pop of his roots at the same time. Must Listen: “King of the Clouds”; “Dying in LA”

38. Vibras, J Balvin

How can an album that has “No Es Justo,” “Mi Gente,” “Ambiente,” and “Machika” not be one of the best albums of the year? J Balvin’s bouncy reggaeton sound was a beacon of light in a year that desperately needed one. J Balvin’s raps are sleek and laidback, but he still delivers a specific energy that forces you to dance. Must Listen: “No Es Justo”; “Machika”

37. Selfless, Kiana Ledé

2018 has been a revival of sorts for female R&B artists. Ella Mai, SZA, Summer Walker, Jorja Smith, H.E.R., and Kali Uchis all released albums and singles that garnered impressive mainstream success in a new rap-dominated landscape. Kiana Ledé, however, has not experienced the sort of career-solidifying success that these other ladies have. Nevertheless, her earnest vocal performance and organic and stripped-back production carve out a unique spot for her. At a short seven tracks, one of them a remix, Selfless is a snapshot of an artist in the midst of her revelation, and it sounds incredible. Must Listen: “Take It All”; “Wicked Games”

36. Shawn Mendes, Shawn Mendes

This year, Shawn Mendes officially became a Grammy nominee (Song of the Year for “In My Blood” and Best Pop Vocal Album), and for good reason. With his self-titled album, Shawn switched up his sound and dabbled in arena rock (“In My Blood”), R&B-influenced pop (“Why”), and straightforward pure pop (“Lost In Japan”). His sultry falsetto flutters across the album and he sounds more confident and self-assured than ever before. Must Listen: “In My Blood”; “Where Were You in the Morning?”

35. Forever, Popcaan

The dancehall icon returned with a disgustingly underrated album earlier this year. From the sultry, slow-burning “Wine for Me” to the more Western-pop driven “Body So Good,” Popcaan weaves through a slinky combination of electronica, reggae, and dancehall. This is the ultimate party album; a sizeable chunk of escapism and lust. Must Listen: “Wine for Me”; “Firm and Strong”

34. Queen, Nicki Minaj

Back in August, I gave Nicki Minaj’s long-awaited fourth a positively glowing review (read here). Looking back, I may have been more enamored with finally having the album than the album itself. Queen is filled with witty metaphors and jaw-droppingly intricate flows. Nicki covers themes of sexual empowerment, vulnerability, and self-reflection on this record. The real star of Queen is not Nicki herself, it is the production. The immaculate bass on “Chun Swae” and the murky, introspective sound of “Run & Hide” are top-notch. This may not be Nicki’s best album, that would be The Pinkprint, but it is definitely another strong addition to her discography. I wish her antics, Queen Radio, and an on-and-off beef with Cardi B did not overshadow this record as much as they did. Must Listen: “LLC”; “Nip Tuck”

33. Last Day of Summer, Summer Walker

Like Kiana Ledé, Summer Walker is another new R&B female artist that broke through this year. Her inescapable “Girls Need Love” perfectly sets the tone for her introspective, woman-first sound. Summer Walker demands to be heard and to be satisfied by her partner in every way. At just 12 songs and 29 minutes, Last Day of Summer is a collection of micro-tunes that create the ultimate late summer hazy vibe. Must Listen: “Smartwater”; “Prayed Up”

32. Nina Cried Power – EP, Hozier

It’s been a long four years since Hozier’s blockbuster eponymous debut. Since then, it’s been quiet for him until he released this gorgeous teaser for his sophomore record. The title track is a boisterous ode to protest in collaboration with the legendary Mavis Staples. Hozier moves through the four-song EP like an eagle, sharp and serious. This project is a perfect blend of rock, folk, and pop and reminds us why Hozier is such a gift. Read my full review of the EP hereMust Listen: “NFWMB”; “Shrike”

31. Ella Mai, Ella Mai

Ella Mai owned 2018 with her smash hit, “Boo’d Up,” but her debut album proves she is more than just that song. While her title as the “New Face of R&B” has been hotly debated on social media, she certainly makes a strong case for the title. Combining slinky DJ Mustard-produced bangers with ballads and duets, Ella makes sure that she is the emotional center of the record. It’s a formidable and enjoyable debut that introduces us to Ella Mai— the artist. Must Listen: “Everything (feat. John Legend)”; “Good Bad”

30. My Dear Melancholy, The Weeknd

To bridge Starboy and his upcoming album, The Weeknd released this EP earlier this year. A return to the darker and grittier sounds of his mixtape eras, Melancholy is an expert breakup album. There is a certain bleakness and yearning that only The Weeknd can bring to the table; his collaborations with Gesafflestein are also impeccable. Read my full review of the album hereMust Listen: “Wasted Times”; “Try Me”

29. Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, Arctic Monkeys

To put it lightly, this album was not particularly well-received by many fans and critics. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed this record. Though not as immediate as AM, the science fiction-inspired Tranquility pulls directly from the lexicon of David Bowie. Alex Turner’s voice warbles through distorted piano and gothic drums as he sings about mental and physical captivity. Must Listen: “Four Out of Five”; “One Point Perspective”

28. Language, MNEK

Pop music was engulfed by rap and hip-hop this year, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some excellent mainstream pop records. One of the year’s best was MNEK’s debut record. A bold and unapologetic album, Language blends the intricate harmonies of ’90s R&B and the sharp beats of ’10s electronica to create a record that stands proudly in its black queerness. MNEK has written for everyone from Beyoncé to Little Mix, but he clearly saved some of the best songs for himself. Read my full review hereMust Listen: “Girlfriend”; “Correct”

27. Championships, Meek Mill

Meek Mill’s triumphant and awe-inspiring return has been one for the books. Yes, the story behind the album does boost its likeability factor, but his rapturous flow, perfectly-curated collaborations, and tight production truly elevate this album. Everyone from Jay-Z to Anuel AA guests on this album, but Meek is still the star of the show. The most underrated part of Championships is Meek’s ability to choose the best possible samples. Whether he’s sampling Phil Collins or Beyoncé, Meek is able to flow over any beat and make his childhood, come-up, and present-day stories unbelievably universal. Must Listen: “Intro”; “24/7”

26. Cry Pretty, Carrie Underwood

This is Carrie Underwood’s strongest album yet. The title track alone is a tour de force in vocal performance, and “Spinning Bottles” and “The Bullet” feature some of the best lyricism of her career. Interestingly, Cry Pretty is the album on which Carrie has contributed the most to the writing process. Through this new freedom, she dabbled in blues, R&B, and Pop in ways that she has never dared to before. It is a very enjoyable record that captures the complexities of human emotion without taking itself too seriously. Read my full review hereMust Listen: “Low”; “Backsliding”

25. Hive Mind, The Internet

The Internet’s muted take on alternative-R&B made them superstars in indie circles. On Hive Mind, they double down on the traditional soul roots of R&B to craft a record that pays as much attention to instrumentation as it does to vocal performance. Syd’s voice flutters with a sensitive seduction over a sultry bass and delicate guitar. The Internet absolutely perfected their sound on this album and they were shamefully robbed of a Grammy nomination or two. Must Listen: “Next Time / Humble Pie”; “It Gets Better (With Time)”

24. A Star is Born Soundtrack, Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper

Aside from the annoying bits of dialogue scattered throughout, these two potential 2019 Oscar winners absolutely nailed on this album. The soundtrack is the perfect audio evolution of Ally’s career. From so-bad-it’s-good pop (“Why Did You Do That?”) to country and western inflected blues (“Diggin’ My Grave”) and grandiose ballads (“I’ll Never Love Again”), every song is perfectly executed. It’s no surprise why the lead single, “Shallow,” garnered a whopping four Grammy nominations and is a contender for the Oscar for Best Original Song. Gaga’s songwriting has never been stronger, and she, and Bradley, rip through these songs like well-seasoned rockstars. Read my full review hereMust Listen: “Always Remember Us This Way”; “Music to My Eyes”

23. Tha Carter V, Lil Wayne

Eminem wasn’t the only veteran rap star to make a successful comeback this year! After years of hopelessness and turmoil, Tha Carter V finally materialized in 2018. The lengthy record featured collaborations with old school and the new school, but Wayne is still the center of gravity. He shifts through trap, ’00s hip-hop, and R&B and pop with a frightening fluidity. It’s a statement of freedom and a reminder of why Wayne is one of the most gifted emcees of our time. Read my full review hereMust Listen: “Let It All Work Out”; “Dedicate” 

22. High as Hope, Florence + the Machine

Florence Welch’s ethereal voice is quite literally a force of nature. Whether she’s warbling her way through rapturous anthems or merely whispering through haunting hymnals, Florence excels. Her backing band perfects the art of soft production in an era of hard beats and sharp production. Must Listen: “Patricia”; “Big God”

21. Invasion of Privacy, Cardi B

If 2018 was any artist’s year, it was Cardi B’s. She shined on features (“Taki Taki”; “Girls Like You”) and dominated with her own hits (“Be Careful”; “I Like It”). There has been much debate over whether or not Cardi should be praised given the debate over how much she is involved in the songwriting and production process. Even if Cardi did not write a single word, the songs are still really great. Invasion of Privacy showcased Cardi’s fearlessness in terms of mixing genres and her attention to the diversity of subject matter. This record was released in April and it holds up better than some albums released months later. Most importantly, Cardi solidified herself as a viable artist: the album is interesting, bombastic, and fun. She did that. Read my full review of the album hereMust Listen: “Get Up 10”; “I Do (feat. SZA)”

20. Bloom, Troye Sivan

There was a lot of talk about bloated albums in 2018, but there were quite a few records that were short, sweet, and all the more successful for it. A prime example of this is Troye Sivan’s sophomore album, Bloom. The celebration of young gay love and dark synths and ’80s and ’90s inspired production resulted in a phenomenal record. Bloom makes a Troye a strong candidate for the Prince of Pop title. What he lacks in vocal ability he makes up in his emotion, songwriting, and excellent choice in producers. Read my full review hereMust Listen: “Seventeen”; “What a Heavenly Way to Die”

19. Honey, Robyn

I like to think of this album a blueprint to a proper dance album. Robyn knows how to craft a perfect pop song and she does it nine times. Her sense of exuberance and ease shine through every chord. She’s nostalgic and introspective, and her darker lyrics sound even sharper in juxtaposition to the house-influenced beats that pepper the album. Must Listen: “Missing U”; “Ever Again”

18. KIDS SEE GHOSTS, KIDS SEE GHOSTS

If ever there was an album that could properly tackle catharsis and mania it would be this one. Only Kanye and Kid Cudi could make a combination of scatting, trap, and balladry sound so incredibly good. As the duo shift through rock and rap, we get a peek inside the troubled mental health of two famed black men. For that alone, this album was one of the best of the year. And that’s to say nothing of its impeccable production. Read my full review hereMust Listen: “Reborn”; “Feel the Love”

17. K.T.S.E., Teyana Taylor

My one wish for 2019 is that Teyana finally leaves G.O.O.D. Music. The mishandling of this phenomenal project was an absolute travesty. Teyana perfected her husky brand of sensual R&B and sprinkled in rap and vogue elements, as well. At just seven tracks, K.T.S.E. leaves you wanting more, but Teyana crafted an exquisite project that is endlessly replayable. Must Listen: “Gonna Love Me”; “Rose In Harlem”

16. Good Thing, Leon Bridges

2018 was truly an outstanding year for R&B. On the traditional side, Leon Bridge’s soulful sophomore album was a triumph in every sense of the word. Bridge’s rich voice anchors an album of love songs and ballads. Staunchly indebted to the retro-sound that made Bruno Mars 24K Magic such a success, Bridges crafted a throwback record so authentic that he sounds straight out of the golden era of soul and R&B. Must Listen: “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand”; “Bad Bad News”

15. Caution, Mariah Carey

Let’s get one thing clear: Mariah Carey did not need to make Caution. The legendary singer-songwriter makes more than $60 million a year off of “All I Want From Christmas Is You….” and that’s not even one of her EIGHTEEN #1 singles. Nevertheless, Carey dug deep and released her best album in a decade and one of the best records of the year. From sublime collaborations with Ty Dolla $ign and Blood Orange to sassy kiss-off anthems like “GTFO,” Caution is classic Mariah Carey updated for 2018. Mariah doesn’t chase trends on Caution, she bends them to fit into the lexicon of her own artistry like a true artist should. Read my full review hereMust Listen: “Giving Me Life”; “The Distance”

14. Redemption, Jay Rock

Jay Rock has consistently proven to be one of the most underrated rappers of our time. He kicked off this year with a memorable verse on the Black Panther cut, “King’s Dead,” but his own solo album is endlessly magnificent. He packs in club bangers, motivational cuts, and introspective tracks to create an album that stacks up with the best that hip-hop’s heavyweights had to offer this year. Redemption could very well function as a manifesto for “hood religion”; it expertly showcases the complexities of urban Southern California Must Listen: “Tap Out”; “WIN”

13. KOD, J. Cole

J. Cole had a lot to prove with KOD. To put it nicely, his last album, 4 Your Eyez Only, not good. On KOD, Cole tackles the glorification of drug abuse, social media, setting an example for the youth, and effects of addiction. Whether he’s cranking out bangers (“KOD”; “ATM”) or being more reserved and introspective (“Once an Addict”; “FRIENDS”), Cole is on his A-game throughout the entire record. His energy ever wavers and this is probably the most focused, thematically-speaking, he’s been on an album since 2014 Forest Hills DrivesMust Listen: “Kevin’s Heart”; “The Cut Off”

12. The Kids Are Alright, Chloe x Halle

Chloe x Halle are simply a revelation. The sister duo, managed by Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment, put out a record that was a masterclass in vocal arrangement and production… and there are nowhere near their peak. Although their subject matter is decidedly geared to a younger demographic than most of today’s R&B, their soulful timbres pull from opera, jazz, alternative, and rock to create the perfect record for Gen Z. Read my full review hereMust Listen: “Cool People”; “Down”

11. Black Panther Original Soundtrack, Kendrick Lamar & Various Artists

Earlier this month, this album became the just the second original soundtrack to be nominated for Album of the Year this century. With a whopping seven Grammy nominations, Black Panther‘s soundtrack captivated the hearts and souls of fans and critics alike. A statement of the far-reaching influence of the African diaspora, the soundtrack combines elements of rap, soul, R&B, rock, trap, afrobeats, and more. From Compton to Nigeria, the various sounds of blackness are celebrated throughout the album. Read my full review hereMust Listen: “Paramedic!”; “Seasons”

10. A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, The 1975

What is there to say? With every album, Matt Healy and Co. continue to perfect their craft and top their last efforts. With chunky guitar riffs straight out of the ’80s juxtaposed against squarely ’10s subject matter, Relationships is nothing short of genius. Healy’s vocals ring with conviction and every second of every song is arranged with incredible precision. Just listen to this records, it does not even allow itself the space to disappoint. Must Listen: “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)”; “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)”

9. DAYTONA, Pusha T

Pusha T is a RAPPER. I had to put it in all-caps because there are too many “rappers” getting by with weak flows and weaker bars because they choose hot beats. DAYTONA is an album that fans of traditional rap music will adore. Pusha relives and reflects on his past as a drug dealer and revels in his present as one of the biggest figures in rap. Much of the album got overshadowed by the Drake-diss, “Infrared,” but the rest of the album is even stronger. Must Listen: “If You Know You Know”; “The Games We Play”

8. Saturn, Nao

Nao deserves more love and attention. Her unique blend of electronica and R&B is absolutely sublime. Furthermore, her vocal control and the breadth of her range are absolutely mind-boggling. A concept album about love and relationships by way of the space, Saturn expertly captures the universality of the distance that love can create between two people. There really isn’t one bad thing about this record. Must Listen: “Orbit”; “Drive and Disconnect”

7. Swimming, Mac Miller

The late Mac Miller gifted us his strongest work just months before his passing. Swimming is a beautiful collection of jazz and soul-inflected hip-hop. Themes of depression, self-care, and mental health anchor the album and Miller’s hazy delivery drives the album. Mac has a muted intensity to his flow that truly elevates this record, his fifth, above the droves of rap records released this year. Words cannot describe how beautiful this work is, just listen. Must Listen: “Ladders”; “2009”

6. EVERYTHING IS LOVE, The Carters

Was there a blacker or more jubilant album released this year? The Carters, comprised of Beyoncé and Jay Z, delivered a short, but sweet, album that celebrated their reconciliation, the strength of their marriage, and their love of their blackness. From orchestral outros to muddy trap odes to friendships, this record was endlessly enjoyable and incredibly well produced. Also, anything that has Beyoncé rapping is automatically perfect. Read my full review hereMust Listen: “BLACK EFFECT”; “SUMMER”

5. ASTROWORLD, Travis Scott

We’ve all heard “SICKO MODE” at least a billion times, but somehow when it’s played in the context of the album it does not sound old. Only Travis Scott could deliver a concept trap album about the gentrification and destruction of Houston culture and landmarks. Even slower tracks like the sublime “COFFEE BEAN” and “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD,” are just as compelling as the bangers that populate this album. The production quality of ASTROWORLD is unbelievably great, every beat is mastered perfectly and the different songs were together in harmony. This was robbed of an Album of the Year nomination at the Grammys. Read my full review hereMust Listen: “YOSEMITE”; “CAROUSEL”

4. Sweetener, Ariana Grande

In a year of disappointments and unrest, for forty-seven minutes and twenty-five seconds, Ariana makes us believe that better days have already arrived. If albums are to be taken as chapters in an artist’s life, Sweetener is the chapter where Ariana finally reveals her true self: a pop artist with something to say. There are the sexual empowerment tracks (“God is a woman”) and the feel-good anthems (“no tears left to cry”), but Ariana shines brightest on the tracks that tackle mental health. Whethere it’s the climactic “breathin,” or the perennial tear-jerker, “get well soon,” Ariana vocalizes her battles with anxiety in the most beautiful way possible. That’s to say nothing of the softer vocal stylings on Sweetener, and the incredible results of her collaborations with Pharrell Williams (“successful”; “sweetener”). It’s been a while since we had a perfect pop album, and Sweetener is it. Read my full review hereMust Listen: “get well soon”; “blazed”

3. Be the Cowboy, Mitski

If ever there was a year where the concept of the American Dream should be seriously dismantled, it would be this year. Mitski subliminally does this through her brand of lyric-driven rock music on this exquisite record. The crowning achievement of Be the Cowboy is the mixing; everything is so well-balanced that listening becomes a fully immersive experience like no other. Must Listen: “Geyser”; “Two Slow Dancers” 

2. Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves

Kacey Musgraves only knows how to make good records. For the third time in a row, she has delivered a gorgeous record that says something. From the subliminally, and delightfully, feminist “Wonder Woman” to the disco-rocker, “High Horse,” Kacey is pushing country music to new limits and lifting it to even greater heights. Her delicate timbre perfectly complements the soft acoustic guitar and drum that covers most of the record’s soundscape. Every track serves a purpose and fits, and it’s not often that this occurs on albums nowadays. Must Listen: “Space Cowboy”; “Happy & Sad”

1. Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe

Simply perfection. Dirty Computer, a rumination on black queer womanhood in America, is at once personal and universal. Janelle perfects the combination of politics and music without sounding holier-than-thou or preachy. In addition, the record also functions as a survey of the evolution of R&B. With elements of trap, funk, soul, rock, hip-hop, pop, and rap, Dirty Computer is quintessentially American. The album rings with freedom and pride so strong that you can’t help but to feel her conviction yourself. Beautiful is an understatement, this album is one of the most important of our time. Dirty Computer is undoubtedly the greatest album of 2018. Must Listen: “Django Jane”; “Americans”; “Don’t Judge Me”

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