Genre lines continued to blur and the definition of album shifted further in another year of upheaval in pop music.
Jon Pareles’s List | Jon Caramanica’s List
Reaching the Next Level
1. Janelle Monáe, ‘Dirty Computer’
The interaction of human and machine has been a major theme of Janelle Monáe’s entire recording career. Her latest concept album, “Dirty Computer,” deploys funky riffs (often with Prince echoes), snappy beats and crisp pop-song forms to promise that love, polymorphous sensuality and an inclusive American spirit can conquer all, even an impending apocalypse. Meanwhile, Monáe’s full-length accompanying video — billed as an “emotion picture” — is far more dystopian.
2. Mitski, ‘Be the Cowboy’
On her fifth album, Mitski hasn’t figured everything out. Her asymmetrical songs are still trying to make sense of lust, love, life as a performer and countless contradictory impulses. But she has grown ever bolder musically, moving well beyond the confines of indie rock and chamber pop to try synthesizers, disco beats, country and more, while savoring the sweep of her voice. On her larger canvas, her dilemmas just sound more immediate.
3. serpentwithfeet, ‘Soil’
Intimate confidences grow dizzying and titanic in the songs of Josiah Wise, who records as serpentwithfeet. As he sings about love at its most devotional and all-consuming, his androgynous voice arrives as a multitude — tenor and falsetto, whisper and proclamation, moan and chant — and it appears from all directions. His vocals become dialogues, colloquies, choirs, armies and ghostly wisps, all part of an endless search for connection.
4. Esperanza Spalding, ‘12 Little Spells’
The songs on “12 Little Spells” have extensive intellectual superstructures. The lyrics are tied to particular body parts, while the music flaunts its jazzy chord progressions, devious melodies, odd meters and cleverly interlocking patterns. No matter; Spalding sings her complex insights with such breezy charm that the songs come across as lighthearted, even lightheaded.
5. Neneh Cherry, ‘Broken Politics’
Contemplating the current state of the world led Neneh Cherry and her husband, Cameron McVey, to write songs that mix meditation and puckishness, global concerns and personal reflections: “It’s my politics living in a slow jam,” she sings. Four Tet’s production sets her voice amid plinking, pinging loops and subtle beats, a surreally synthetic backdrop that somehow feels homey and organic.
6. Rosalía, ‘El Mal Querer’
The Spanish singer and songwriter Rosalía Vila Tobella, now 25, immersed herself in the deepest traditions of flamenco before infusing them into thoroughly contemporary pop. With her songs on “El Mal Querer” (which could translate as “Bad Desire” or “Bad Love”), produced by the electronic musician El Guincho and others, she explores passion, jealousy and betrayal while handclaps interweave with minimal trap beats and the arabesques of flamenco singing segue into Auto-Tuned quavers: age-old sentiments expressed in the present tense.
7. Ariana Grande, ‘Sweetener’
To celebrate romantic and carnal bliss along with career success while trying not to sound too smug, Ariana Grande enlisted pop-factory experts — Pharrell Williams, Max Martin — to clear ample space around her voice. Elaborate yet insistently skeletal tracks let her vocals tease, swoop, push back against pressure, blossom into harmonies and bask in satisfaction. And then, less than three months after the album’s release came a postscript, a single announcing that the romance was over: “Thank U, Next.”
8. Soccer Mommy, ‘Clean’
Sophie Allison, the 21-year-old songwriter who records as Soccer Mommy, got her start with home-recorded songs, and her official debut album, “Clean,” still relies on low-fi fundamentals: spindly but sinewy guitar parts and a voice that doesn’t hide its imperfections. Her songs grapple with desire, insecurity, betrayal and self-assertion, learning from every bruised emotion.
9. Jupiter & Okwess, ‘Kin Sonic’
Jupiter Bokondji Ilola, the son of a Congolese diplomat who grew up in Tanzania and East Germany but returned to the strife-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, leads a band, Okwess (“food” in the Kibunda language), that draws on rhythms and languages from all around Congo. It’s a statement of unity; it’s also a trove of ideas that happens to be magnificently funky, with a different groove in every song.
10. Autechre, ‘NTS Sessions 1-4’
The electronic duo Autechre delivered a magnum opus — eight hours of music — commissioned by the online London station NTS. It’s a fully imagined artificial universe of improbable timbres and rhythms, of repetitions cracked and warped, of long waits and sudden tangents, of propulsion and suspension, of expectations set up and undermined, of menacing implications and funny noises. Brittle, fractured, pointillistic patterns lead, eventually, to weightless, sustained rapture. The final track is nearly an hour long: a reverential, euphoric haze.
Tweaking Traditions and Mixing Moods
1. Soccer Mommy, ‘Clean’
From the indie-rock singer-songwriter Sophie Allison, who records as Soccer Mommy, comes a ferocious howl of an album that captures the tension just as the fear of internal collapse gives way to newfound strength. These songs are damp with derision, regret and desire, but never uncertainty.
2. Charlie Puth, ‘Voicenotes’
The year’s most promising pure pop album is from a painstakingly detail-oriented, emotionally wrenched, melodically ambitious soul and funk savant who’s just now, a couple of years into his run in the limelight, learning how to squeeze the most arresting of sentiments from the rawest of arrangements.
3. Juice WRLD, ‘Goodbye & Good Riddance’
The pop-punk of 2018 is hip-hop, and Juice WRLD is its best brat. On this album, he’s a lost soul — a victim of others and also himself — who’s never at a loss for melody.
4. Drake, ‘Scorpion’
A double album that captures all the essential Drake modes: indignation, flirtation, celebration and more indignation. No one is better at internal narrative continuity than Drake, which is why he has the ability to make an album that’s utterly current while effortlessly blending with the Drake of yesterday.
5. Gunna, ‘Drip Season 3’; Lil Baby, ‘Harder Than Ever’; Lil Baby and Gunna, ‘Drip Harder’
The children of Young Thug are alive and thriving — beautiful, abstract singer-rappers peddling street-corner psychedelia. Lil Baby is wiry and rough-edged, while the elegant Gunna verges on new age.
6. Ashley McBryde, ‘Girl Going Nowhere’
Lean, sinewy, blues-inflected country music from a singer with a voice that’s thick but nimble. The still beauty in her singing is impressive, but her easeful storytelling feels practically radical.
7. Kanye West, ‘Ye’ and Kids See Ghosts, ‘Kids See Ghosts’
Broken records for a broken year. For more than a decade, Kanye West has released albums that shifted and reframed pop culture, making bold propositions about hip-hop’s dissolving boundaries. These albums are smaller than that — plangent ruminations that demonstrated that even amid all the tumult, not all of his instincts abandoned him.
8. Cardi B, ‘Invasion of Privacy’
Cardi B, who arrived at rapping after stints of Instagram and reality-TV fame, isn’t much beholden to tradition, or to one particular version of herself. So what’s thrilling about this album is its variety — you hear her working through who she might become in real time, a quick study already leapfrogging to the front of the class.
9. The Weeknd, ‘My Dear Melancholy,’
As the Weeknd has reached for the pop stratosphere in recent years, he’s shed some of the scar tissue that made his earliest music so transfixingly unsettling. This between-albums EP demonstrates that he hasn’t lost those abrasions.
10. Kane Brown, ‘Experiment’
Sturdy songs about love. Sturdy songs about lust. Sturdy songs about faithfulness. Sturdy songs about growing up country. And one sturdy song about how political hypocrisy and its repercussions can drown out all of those things.
11. Pusha T, ‘Daytona’
Listening to Pusha T rap is like watching a skyscraper get built one steel girder at a time: Every step is carefully programmed, every angle is crisp, and the sum total effect is overpowering.
12. The Blaze, ‘Dancehall’
13. Turnstile, ‘Time & Space’
Hardcore that pummels locally and also reaches across the aisle.
14. Yves Tumor, ‘Safe in the Hands of Love’
Shards of glimmering industrial anarcho-soul.
15. Lil Peep, ‘Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2’
The ghost of the 2018 year in pop that never was.