Popular culture doesn’t have use for hedged bets or measured responses these days. And 2018 was filled with bold, well-executed visions from veterans and stunning, fully formed debuts.
Here's a countdown of the 30 best albums that came out this year.
30. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, 'Tearing at the Seams' (Stax/Concord)
The Night Sweats’ combination of soul and Americana is addictive in pretty much all its permutations, but especially on the gorgeous “Still Out There Running,” which ropes some poetic Paul Simon phrasing into the mix.
29. Hayley Kiyoko, 'Expectations' (Atlantic)
“Expectations” doesn’t feel like a debut as much as it feels like the start of something big, comparable to Lady Gaga’s debut “The Fame,” in the more carefree days before she became Mother Monster.
28. Panic! At the Disco, 'Pray for the Wicked' (Fueled by Ramen/DCD2)
It’s not just Brendon Urie’s singing — which often climbs to new, more theatrical heights across the album’s 12 tracks, including one stellar note in the first single “Say Amen (Saturday Night)” — that has developed. It’s his whole approach to how much he can pack into a song.
27. George Ezra, 'Staying at Tamara’s' (Columbia)
Ezra’s experiments in Paul Simon-like world beat in the upbeat, South African sweetness of “Shotgun,” which sounds like a potential summer anthem, and the lilting beauty of “Sugarcoat” show the 24-year-old’s ongoing growth as a songwriter and storyteller, as he describes a dreamy trip to Johannesburg.
26. Neko Case, 'Hell-On' (Anti-)
Neko Case’s voice is so hauntingly beautiful that it is often difficult to focus on what she is saying. But on her sixth solo album, her lyrics are so well-crafted and sharp that they cannot be ignored.
25. Shopping, 'The Official Body' (Fatcat)
The crafty post-punk trio from London has always combined idealistic lyrics with irresistible bass grooves and spiky guitar work. On “The Official Body,” though, the group significantly raises its game on both ends.
24. Brandi Carlile, 'By the Way, I Forgive You' (Brandi Carlile/Elektra)
Her stunning underdog anthem “The Joke” deserves all the Grammy nominations it landed and the rest of the album is no letdown.
23. Camila Cabello, 'Camila' (Epic)
On her solo debut, the former Fifth Harmony member delivers musical answers with the confidence and power of an artist with far more than Cabello’s 20 years under her belt.
22. James Bay, 'Electric Light' (Republic)
For his sophomore album, Bay combined bits of rock, R&B and EDM to create something new and compelling, as he writes about navigating relationships in the modern world.
21. Superorganism, 'Superorganism' (Domino)
The multicultural musical collective from London churns out endearingly upbeat, yet knowing dance music like “Everybody Wants to Be Famous.”
20. Sunflower Bean, 'Twentytwo in Blue' (Mom + Pop)
Long Island 20-somethings Nick Kivlen and Jacob Faber, along with pal Julia Cumming, built their hopeful vision of navigating through these turbulent times out of equal parts idealism, defiance and dreamy indie rock.
19. Cardi B, 'Invasion of Privacy' (Atlantic)
Her hip-hop origin story is as hard-hitting as her rhymes, though she uses her humor and charm as effective weapons, too. Okkrrrrrt? She can make up words and smile along with Bruno Mars or Maroon 5, while still holding her own with Chance the Rapper.
18. Paul Simon, 'In the Blue Light' (Legacy)
His new versions of songs are simpler and more elegant than the originals, whittled down to their essential beauty with help from jazz greats like Wynton Marsalis and Bill Frisell.
17. Carrie Underwood, 'Cry Pretty' (Capitol Nashville)
Underwood’s sixth album is easily her best, filled with songs that make the most of her voice, both physical and lyrical.
16. Dream Wife, 'Dream Wife' (Lucky Number)
“Dream Wife” is a career-making triumph, as bold as Rakel Mjöll’s exertion of unflinching control throughout her lyrics, and the first undeniable breakout performance of 2018.
15. Jack White, 'Boarding House Reach' (Third Man/Columbia)
His third solo album assembles bits of rock, blues, jazz, funk, synth pop, prog rock, country and spoken word into fascinating experiments that sound like Kanye West crossed with Radiohead or Merle Haggard joining Depeche Mode or, you know, ludicrous. However, White makes nearly all of it work. He’s created ambition you can dance to, spoken-word poetry that rocks.
14. Eric Church, 'Desperate Man' (EMI Nashville)
The album doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but still maintains a positive outlook, even if, as he does in “Drowning Man,” all he can do is offer an escape.
13. Florence + The Machine, 'High as Hope' (Republic)
They strip away extraneous flourishes and simply focus on delivering honest messages and musical beauty, reaching a stunning summit with the final three songs.
12. Dirty Projectors, 'Lamp Lit Prose' (Domino):
It’s a multilayered, fascinating alternate universe to today’s pop world, with great cameos from Haim and Rostam.
11. Lori McKenna, 'The Tree' (CN/Thirty Tigers)
As usual, the singer-songwriter’s lyrics are detailed and poignant, but it’s her phrasing and delivery that makes them truly come to life.
10. Ella Mai, 'Ella Mai' (10 Summers/Interscope)
“Boo’d Up” is a career-maker, but the British singer-songwriter gives us so much more soul than that.
9. Elvis Costello & The Imposters, 'Look Now' (Concord)
Costello teams with Burt Bacharach and Carole King, but the biggest winners here are all his, like the soulful “Unwanted Number.”
8. Kali Uchis, 'Isolation' (Virgin/EMI)
Part Amy Winehouse vulnerability, part Billie Holiday jazzy cool, the Colombian-American singer creates gorgeous, timeless music all her own.
7. Arctic Monkeys, 'Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino' (Domino)
The songs on “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” may take place on the moon — or maybe a simulation of the moon — but their focus is most definitely life on earth, rolling the story out like a science fiction novel from the near future.
6. Courtney Barnett, 'Tell Me How You Really Feel' (Milk!/Marathon/Mom + Pop)
Throughout “Tell Me How You Really Feel,” Barnett points out the difficulties of really expressing yourself and she seemingly revels in the complexities. She mints new words to convey her emotions, like the opener “Hopefulessness,” with its Nirvana-like riffs that both offer inspiration and channel sadness.
5. Tracey Thorn, 'Record' (Merge)
Thorn has never sounded timelier. “Sister” is a rallying cry for the #MeToo movement that works well with the sinuous groove from Warpaint and vocal support from the great Corinne Bailey Rae. And, like the rest of “Record,” “Sister” makes a strident point without getting preachy.
4. The Carters, 'Everything Is Love' (Parkwood/Roc Nation)
The arrival of “Everything Is Love” seems to confirm that when Beyoncé and Jay-Z decided to work out their marital issues they also crafted a strategy as secretive as the Robert Mueller probe. Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” album arrived first to reveal the problems. Jay-Z followed with his apology album “4:44.” And now, we have The Carters as a happy couple once again, with warm Daptone soul as a backdrop and hip-hop so well-crafted it shines as brightly as it cuts.
3. Lucie Silvas, 'E.G.O.' (Furthest Point/Thirty Tigers)
The British singer-songwriter conjures up Dusty Springfield in the lovely lament “Girls from California” and Fleetwood Mac in “Black Jeans.” But she reveals her own unique point of view in the playful advice of “Smoking Your Weed” and all its marijuana-related puns.
2. David Byrne, 'American Utopia' (Todomundo/Nonesuch)
David Byrne sings about life in America today from the points of view of a chicken, a dog and a bullet. But it’s the inclusive Afrobeat anthem “Everybody’s Coming to My House” that conjures up both thoughts of Talking Heads and the return of the American dream.
1. Robyn, 'Honey' (Konichiwa/Interscope)
In these tumultuous times, Robyn’s first album in eight years, written following a break-up and the death of a close friend, offers hope. There’s a sense of melancholy, but also the determination to move ahead in the sweet Janet Jackson-ish pop of “Because It’s in the Music” and the Prince-ish slinky funk of “Ever Again.” Come get your honey.