I’m going to keep this brief because I’ve written reams and reams of text below – sorry! I think 2018 was a strong year for albums on the whole, there are still so many I didn’t manage to listen to before the end of the year – Robyn, Zayn Malik, Rita Ora, The 1975, BROCKHAMPTON, Christine and The Queens and Kali Uchis – I will get round to pressing play on your albums eventually.
Anyways, here’s a selection of the 20 best albums of 2018, according to me.
20. Shawn Mendes – Shawn Mendes
Can we just take a moment to appreciate how Shawn Mendes has managed to successfully detach himself from his former Vine and Magcon fuckboy past to rebrand himself as a fairly successful and likeable popstar? A GLO-UP! Having built his career on essentially what I call “ white man guitar music”, he manages to update his sound with the help of Julia Michaels and Ryan Tedder, on this his third album. Laying his voice against smooth R&B-ish tracks ‘Lost In Japan’, ‘Where Were You In The Morning’ and the ‘Blurred Lines’-pandering ‘Nervous’ is where he sounds the most interesting. But just as things start to get good, he back-pedals into his comfort zone and reverts back to strumming that damn guitar. When artists self-title their albums it’s normally a sign that they believe it’s their best body of work, the one that defines them as an artist. In Shawn’s case I feel this decision might have been a bit premature because this album is definitely a sign there’s a damn good popstar within him, but he’s just not there…yet.
19. Lily Allen – No Shame
Lily Allen has always been an artist I’ve appreciated from afar. I’ve got friends who like her music a lot more than I do, but I’m cool with her. No Shame isn’t an easy listen, but I don’t think she intended it to be anyway. And at times it had me #InMyFeelings a bit too much – ‘Everything to Feel Something’ I am looking in your direction. For me however, this album only really came to life after I read her very good memoir ‘My Thoughts Exactly’, which helped put the songs into context and made them sound just that bit more sobering.
18. Little Mix – LM5
Between cutting ties with Syco and getting that thin-lipped skidmark who co-hosts that breakfast morning TV show hardly anyone watches perpetually bothered, the world’s biggest and hardest working girl group, Little Mix, finally feel like they’re maturing on their fifth album LM5. Standout tracks include ‘Motivate’ and ‘Wasabi’, the latter of which is practically begging to be a single with a PCD style dance-heavy music video. They could have definitely trimmed the album down by five tracks (make albums 11 tracks or less in 2019 PLEASE!), but the ladies of Little Mix are in an exciting position right now and almost seven years into their career, it seems like they’re only just getting started.
17. Charlie Puth – Voicenotes
I feel very conflicted having this album on my list because – objectively speaking – I can’t stand Charlie Puth. There’s just something so unsettling about him. Like, he makes R&B music for white boys who live in rural America and still wear beige chinos and going round crying on Twitter because people aren’t standing for the National Anthem. But I’ve found it extremely hard to ignore the abundance of bops he’s managed to deliver in 2018. It’s like that time in 2016 when alleged popstar Meghan Trainor released ‘NO’ and everyone reluctantly agreed she snapped and did what the other girls shoulda did, but on a much larger scale. In Charlie’s case, Voicenotes benefits from airtight production, (‘BOY’, ‘LA Girls’, ‘Attention’) and also from some brilliant features from Boyz II Men and Kehlani, both of whom do the heavy lifting in their respective songs. These two elements help make Voicenotes a slick and accomplished album. But honestly, I would’ve 100% enjoyed this album a whole lot more if it was recorded and released by literally anyone else.
16. 5SOS – Youngblood
I know nothing about 5SOS as a group and I’m not familiar with any of their earlier music. But maybe that’s a good thing in this case because I was pleasantly surprised when I first heard this album. You’d be lying if you said you hadn’t heard the song ‘Youngblood’ at some point this past summer as it was plastered across radio, TV, commercials and sat on top of countless Spotify curated playlists. But beyond that one song, the album is a great selection of pop songs that lean heavily on 80s pop influences that aren’t far removed from Carly Rae Jepsen’s wheelhouse. I can’t really pick a standout song as the whole album was such a revelation, but let’s say ‘Talk Fast’ is my absolute go-to. Consider me a new fan!
15. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
I really can’t think of a better album Cardi B could’ve released for her debut offering. Sure, she’s had mixtapes already that have allowed her to deviate from the rulebook to find her sound and style. But with a proper album, her debut no less, there’s always that added layer of pressure. And if Cardi felt any of that pressure there’d be no way of knowing because Invasion of Privacy is a confident first impression packed with a rich collection of songs that celebrate all that makes Cardi so fucking great. She’s vulnerable on ‘Be Careful’, celebrates her Latin heritage on ‘I Like It’ and is both braggadocious and comical on ‘Money Bag’, which features the best lyric of the year: “I don’t understand what this hate is about / how you gon’ suck yo man dick with my name in your mouth?” Any reservations about her being a one-hit wonder off the back of ‘Bodak Yellow’ are swifty quashed and all that’s left to do is accept that Cardi B has officially arrived, and she’s not going anywhere.
14. Hayley Kiyoko – Expectations
There are some definite highlights on here, namely the Kehlani assisted ‘What You Need’, ‘Curious’ (obvs) and the dreamy ‘Sleepover’, but I found myself cherry picking songs to listen to every time I revisited the album as it didn’t quite hold my attention the entire way through. Another album was released the same weekend which took away all my attention and I think that it’s tarnished my enjoyment of this album for me. But even so, Expectations is still a good album and an exciting debut.
13. Tinashe – Joyride
The thing with an album like Joyride is that because of it’s gestated journey to being released, it feels like a body of work that has elements of Tinashe’s original vision still lurking in there – ‘Stuck With Me’ and ‘No Contest’ – but they’re buried underneath a great deal of tracks that feel rushed and exist purely to appease the record label. This leaves Joyride feeling disjointed and half-baked. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere during the process Tinashe lost interest in the project and getting it released became a means to an end instead of the beginning of a new era set to catapult her to superstardom. But that said, Tinashe’s absolute base level decent is still every other new pop girl’s top-tier best and Joyride is still an enjoyable album to listen to, but one I’m almost certain she’s better than. If the rumours about her being dropped by RCA back in November are to be believed, then it might just be the best thing for her because an artist of her calibre should absolutely be dominating the game right now.
12. Years & Years – Palo Santo
I think now is a good time as any to admit that I didn’t quite love Years & Years’ debut Communion as much as you lot did. It was good, but I rarely revisited it outside of the singles. But I feel like I’ve come full circle now because I can say with the utmost confidence that Palo Santo is fucking good pop album. Early releases ‘Sanctify’ and ‘If You’re Over Me’ may have thrown listeners off, but once you sink your teeth into album and hear tracks ‘All For You’, ‘Hallelujah’ and deluxe edition offering ‘Up In Flames’ you realise Palo Santo is a filthy, sex-positive album that’s drenched in lead singer Olly Alexander’s unapologetic queerness. It teters that line of being sexy and sad at the same time with great precision, and even throws in a healthy dose of petty on ‘Lucky Escape’.
11. Various Artists – Black Panther The Album Music From And Inspired By
Soundtracks to films can always be a bit hit and miss, especially when certain songs seem to only make sense within the context of the film and outside of that they fall flat like a lead balloon. Fortunately, that’s not the case on the soundtrack to Black Panther – largely curated by Kendrick Lamar, with everyone from SZA, Khalid, The Weeknd, Travis Scott and Jorja Smith makes an appearance. While the spirit of the fictional world of Wakanda runs throughout (this is a film soundtrack after all) the album plays out like a who’s who of Black Excellence and I found myself revisiting countless songs, including ‘The Ways’ and ‘All The Stars’, long after the initial sheen of the film wore off.
10. The Carters – Everything Is Love
The final instalment in the chronicles of Jay Z and Beyonce’s marriage was complete with the release of Everything Is Love. Though a cynic might think this all comes off as a calculated and forced attempt to show the world that music’s most powerful couple is still intact, the album on the whole is a damn good listen from start to finish. It doesn’t pack the emotional punch Lemonade did, or benefit from the raw honesty of 4:44. Instead, Everything Is Love is largely a celebration of black love and black extravagance. And why not? After they both laid their personal lives on the table for the world to see, it’s only fair they now get to sit back, relax and relish in the fruits of their labour.
09. Ariana Grande – Sweetener
Ariana’s fourth album Sweetener was not the emotional and introspective record everyone expected her to release in the wake of the Manchester bombings. Instead it was a fairly light and frothy pop/R&B album where Ariana chose to focus on the good instead of dwelling on the bad. Admittedly, there are some questionable choices on the album, ‘the light is coming’ is jarring with Nicki Minaj’s verse feeling out of place and ‘borderline’, which features Missy Elliot, screams filler. But those missteps hardly seem important when brilliant songs like ‘everytime’, ‘breathin’ and of course ‘no tears left to cry’ – which captures the album’s entire message of experiencing intense trauma and coming out the other side stronger because of it – make the second half of the album a solid listen. Also, shoutout to title track ‘sweetener’, which I know a lot of you still hate, but it’s a weird jam that I adore! Ariana’s still got plenty of time to open up her pandora’s box of emotions and let it pour into her music, but for right now I can’t really blame her for just wanting to have a bit of fun.
08. Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper – A Star Is Born (OST)
Truth be told, I’m still on such a high from this film hence why it’s placed so high on my list. But that’s not to downplay the actual brilliance of this soundtrack. Between the Whitney-pandering ‘I Will Never Love Again’ to the camp ridiculousness of ‘Why Did You Do That’, Lady Gaga more than proves she’s not down for the count. WE LOVE A COMEBACK! Also, can we talk about Bradley Cooper? Who knew he could sing? Like properly sing! Of course both the album and the film have done wonders for reigniting the public’s interest in Lady Gaga, but that shouldn’t really come as a surprise because no matter what, talent always finds a way of winning eventually.
07. The Aces – When My Heart Felt Volcanic
The Aces continued to do no wrong in my eyes with the release of their debut album, which takes the crown for having the best title of any album this year. Doing HAIM better than HAIM do themselves, this album is jam-packed with breezy earworms like ‘Fake Nice’, ‘Last One’ ‘Volcanic Love’ and the overwhelmingly brilliant ‘Lovin’ Is Bible’. I would have loved to have seen song-of-the-century ‘Baby Who’ given a proper home on this album, but that’s really just me being pedantic. Impressively, at no point does When My Heart Felt Volcanic drift into beige filler territory, it’s a self-assured and fun debut that only serves to prove my (extremely laboured) point that The Aces are fucking great and you all need to stop sleeping on them. PERIOD.
06. NAO – Saturn
Saturn feels like the inner workings of NAO’s mind, a stream of consciousness built around the astrological phenomenon of Saturn return – a time when Saturn returns to the same place it was when you were born signalling a time of great transformation and a shedding of one’s old self. Far less expansive than her debut album For All We Know, which zig-zagged between genres, dabbling in Prince style funk, house and R&B, Saturn is streamlined with a clear focus that sticks between parameters of R&B and Soul. The album’s subject matter is equally airtight. NAO sings of passion and instant attraction on ‘Gabriel’ but then thwarts any lasting feeling of infatuation on the hauntinly great ‘Orbit’. But no matter how bleak things get, NAO’s honey-glazed vocals have a way of embracing tragedy, holding it close to her but ultimately refusing to wallow in it. Instead, she chooses to be happy on ‘Yellow of the Sun’ and ‘If You Ever’ and even a bit sexy on ‘Curiosity’. It might not have sold massively and NAO isn’t necessarily recognised for her chart dominance, but Saturn is an incredible accomplishment for someone only two albums deep into their career.
05. Janelle Monàe – Dirty Computer
Janelle Monàe has always been an artist that’s been celebrated by high-brow critics, but that praise never quite translated into full mainstream adoration…until now. Dirty Computer, perhaps her most commercially friendly album to date, feels like a combination of perfect timing and the clear sign of an artist who is comfortable enough to now embrace all facets of herself. Alternative universes are not anything new for her when it comes to albums, but this time round you feel as if she’s putting herself centre stage instead of hiding behind the theatrics and melodrama. She sings of irrational lust on the brilliant ‘Make Me Feel’, addresses the current state of the world on ‘Screwed’ and celebrates both her blackness and her queerness on ‘Django Jane’ and ‘PYNK’. It’s an album that’s finally seen her commercial appeal catch up to her critical acclaim, positioning herself very much at the top of her own game.
04. Mariah Carey – Caution
I’ll tell you what’s so good about this album; it’s all killer, no filler (people will say ‘With You’ is the obvious filler track, but they’re wrong), Mariah sounds re-energised and focused for the first time in ages and you can tell by her hilarious social media output and stage performances that she’s just in an all-round better place than she was years ago. Mariah has always been notoriously cliquey when it comes to who she works with, which is why having Skrillex and Poo Bear (‘The Distance’) DJ Mustard (‘With You’) and Dev Hynes (‘Giving Me Life’) all involved on this project helps give it slick and polished sound that makes the album feel contemporary without coming off as trend-chasing.
What’s more is that the promotional campaign smartly avoided deeming this yet another ‘comeback’. Instead it focused on her talent as a songwriter and it seems as if only now people are realising that her phenomenal talent is unmatched. Sure, there’s always talk about where Mariah Carey sits among the current crop of pop girls – most of whom credit her as a direct inspiration – but really what is there left for Mariah to prove? She’s sold her millions, bagged her #1’s, built an untouchable legacy and almost 30 years into her career still manages to release an album as strong as Caution? Mariah BEEN Carey.
03. MNEK – Language
I could quite easily write a giant wall of text explaining how the initial idea of ‘20GAYTEEN’ was well intentioned. But by the time the media latched onto the concept, they’d already decided what type of queer pop star they were going to champion and anything outside of the neatly confined box of requirements they created was, for them, a bit too gay for the wider public to get on board with. Ultimately meaning more deserving queer popstars, who pushed the needle of pop to exciting new spaces and gave both a voice and platform to a grossly underrepresented subset of the LGBTQ+ community were cast aside and incorrectly criticised for “not having hooks” in their songs in favour of beige, middle of the road, acts who were hailed as queer heros for simply existing. But instead let me explain why MNEK’s debut album Language makes it to #3 on my list.
Stuffed with cleverly placed interludes (‘Colour’ going into ‘Body’!!!!), ironclad production (‘Correct’, ‘Tongue’ ‘Honeymoon Phaze’) and honest songwriting (‘Paradise’,’Crazy World’), Language is an album that is wrapped up in the London producer’s personality and musical influences. From start to finish you can hear just how much attention went into every aspect of this album. I mean, did you lot notice how the first word on this album is ‘Understand’ and the final word is ‘Understood’? – WHO RIGHT NOW IS CARING THIS MUCH ABOUT THE MINUTIAE OF THEIR ART?! A sleek, sexy and both unapologetically black and queer debut from one of the UK’s finest talents.
02. Christina Aguilera – Liberation
I really didn’t know what to expect from a Christina Aguilera album in 2018. Admittedly, her star has dimmed a fair bit in the last decade and subsequently she’s became somewhat of a running joke among pop music fans. That said, Liberation is an interesting album. It doesn’t come armed with radio friendly bops (as sad as it is, do you really think radio stations are going to play a female popstar who’s almost 40 years old?) and aside from the Demi Lovato duet ‘Fall In Line’ there aren’t any clear choices for singles. Instead, Liberation sounds like an artist who has found herself again and is now doing things on her own terms. I get the impression Christina quietly accepted she may never dominate music like she once did, but that didn’t deter her from releasing what is arguably her best, most consistent album since Stripped.
Christina indulges in her sexual desires on the reggae-tinged ‘Right Moves’, delivers one of the year’s most stylish R&B cuts with ‘Like I Do’ and flexes her almighty vocals on ‘Twice’. While she does playful and sexy almost like a pro, she’s not afraid to bare her soul and put her feelings out there on the divine ‘Masochist’ and emotionally-charged ‘Unless It’s With You’. It’s a full house of songs that feel like Christina is shedding the skin of her former self, poised and ready for her second act.
01. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
Having spent the last nine months gushing over this album on Twitter, this really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Kacey Musgraves’s fourth album Golden Hour is truly something so special. Through simple, yet poignant songwriting Kacey manages to take the everyday experiences of love, heartbreak, anxiety and even FOMO and subtly bring out the untouched beauty of all of it. She’s giddy with delight on ‘Butterflies’, devote and almost obsessive on ‘Velvet Elvis’ and somehow can’t quite believe her luck on ‘Oh, What A World’. But once these feelings begin to dim on ‘Space Cowboy’ she chooses to see the hopefulness in a love that’s come to its natural end.
Kacey is still a country artist, but Golden Hour feels so much bigger than the genre she belongs to. She blurs the lines between country, pop and disco so seamlessly on ‘High Horse’ that it makes attempts from Lady Gaga, Kylie Minogue and Justin Timberlake, who’ve all tried to do the opposite and inject tinges of country into their traditionally pop palettes, look ridiculous in comparison. More than that though, Kacey herself feels like the future. She’s a loud advocate for gun reform and speaks routinely for LGBTQ+ rights. Kacey may not be the first singer of her genre to ruffle a few feathers and offend the most traditional of country music fans (lest we forget what happened to Dixie Chicks in 2003), but she’s hardly bothered by any of it.
Ultimately, what Golden Hour does so brilliantly is it proudly takes the scenic route to reach its message of unwavering reassurance. It’s not interested in shortcuts or quick fixes to any of life’s questions and nor at any point does Kacey suggest she has all the answers. She’s fine with a slow burn, and you know what? So am I.