This year was long. And we mean LONG. The one positive from this behemoth of a year was the ridiculous amount of music that we received throughout 2018. Noah Johnson, Alex Borovoy, Nate Martinez, and Matthew Ritchie have joined together to count down their lists for best albums of the year. From trap anthems, alternative masterpieces, and everything in between, we’ve got them all.
Ritchie’s Top 5
*If you want to toss 21 Savage’s latest album i am > i was into the number 5 spot, that is perfectly fine. I totally get it. It was 21’s best work and is perfect.
5. Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy
Who doesn’t love Cardi? If you do not adore her, I want you to name 2 reasons right now. That’s right, you can’t. She might be one of the most likable people on the face of the planet right now. Whether it be on radio interviews, on IG telling of Nicki Minaj off, or on camera on late night shows, she has proved to be better at this person thing than anyone else.
Her debut studio showcased everything that should celebrated about her: her unbridled confidence, the ability to weave in and out of different flows, her Bronx-ness (BX all day!), and her ability to create hits. Invasion of Privacy acts an honest victory lap: a fitting culmination of her growth from a famous stripper on social media, to viral star, to Love & Hip Hop: New York icon, to this. She’s a certified hitmaker, from a glorious intro (“Get Up 10”), to the Project Pat flip turned ass-shaking anthem (“Bickenhead”). She perfectly wriggled her way into your head with jams like “I Do,” “I Like It,” “Ring,” and of course, “Bodak Yellow.” Cardi took her shot and did not miss, doing it in the most Cardi way possible.
4. Travis Scott, Astroworld
I’ll be quite honest: I didn’t think this album was ever going to show up. The delays, the fake release dates, the 30 second snippets, it all seemed to add up to a load of nothing.
But what we got was one of the most electric albums of the year. However long Travis was working on this, it was completely worth it. He fully captured the riotous energy that he has been known for since his debut mixtape, Owl Pharaoh, back in 2013. Using the now defunct Houston theme park as his inspiration, he locks the listener into their seat with “STARGAZING,” which appropriately sets the tone for the rest of the album. Never letting up, Scott delivers a sprawling piece of work that is high in energy, high in autotune, and high in emotion. Travis did a fantastic job of avoiding monotony, utilizing a number of different producers and features to build a swirling, twisting rollercoaster of an album. There are banging club hits (“SICKO MODE,” “NO BYSTANDERS”), tributes and homages (“R.I.P. SCREW,” “5% TINT”), and psychedelic under-the-radar jams (“ASTROTHUNDER,” “YOSEMITE”). A truly fitting product for over 3 years of work.
3. Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer
It’s safe to say that Ms. Monáe is a master of the creative arts, and not like that weird kid in high school that sung all the time in class. She is one of the best actresses of our generation, providing fantastic performances in Moonlight and Hidden Figures.
Her third studio album, displays her creative production at its most ambitious. She somehow found a way to combine her distinct sounds to create an funkdafied, futuristic R&B album, that also acts as a breezy and beautiful pop album. The album is strife with advocacy for women in empowerment and power dynamics, while never coming across as preachy or inauthentic. She delivered catchy pop hits that fail to become annoying (“Pynk,” “I Like That,”), a daunting 3 minutes of bars (“Django Jane,”), and even found a way to fit in a Stevie Wonder monologue. Each song hit with a supreme confidence that also allowed her vulnerability seep through in an endearing way.
2. Vince Staples, FM!
Vince Staples has never been an artist that cares about what the rest of the industry is doing. His main prerogative is creating music that is done right and done the way that he want wants it to be.
With the arrival of FM!, Vince delivered quick jam after jam, like Oscar de la Hoya jabs to the grill. The longest song comes in at a swift 3 minutes and 8 seconds, but this by no means that insinuates that there was anything missing or left to be desired from the album. In a total of 22 minutes, we are transported to the LBC in the summer, with the help of Big Boy’s Neighborhood radio show. What follows is a seamlessly produced journey through the overlooked violence of his hometown, while never becoming too serious or heavy. His bars were hilarious and biting: it was quite honestly his best rapping performance of his career. My personal favorites were “Don’t Get Chipped,” “Run the Bands,” and “Relay.” This album is unequivocally a must listen.
1. Tierra Whack, Whack World
If you haven’t listened to this album, stop what you’re doing right now and go listen to it. I’m not kidding. It is only 15 minutes long, but those 15 minutes will change your life. There’s so much that goes into this album: I wrote a full review a little after it came out so we don’t have to get into everything here.
Here is a list of reasons why this album was the best album of the year: (1) each song is only a minute long, but never feels rushed or like it’s missing anything, (2) no one song is the same, as Tierra’s full artistic creativity is on full display, (3) NO FEATURES, (4) she delivers the best display of rapping of the year, unmatched by any other, full of wit, flow, and a sonically pleasing cadence, (5) the production is perfect, (6) she is perfect. That’s all you need to know. No other album was as ambitious or as perfectly executed. It’s often rare that a debut album blows every other album out of the water, but that’s exactly what Tierra Whack did. If there is one album that you have to listen to this year, it is Whack World.
Noah’s Top 5
5. Kanye West, ye
A lot of the reason this album made my top five was because of the time in my life at which I first heard it. I had just finished my freshman year of college, was still in Baltimore over the summer, and was living with some of my now closest friends. I first listened to this album to stay socially relevant, but I gave up on being relevant–or social–later in the summer. However, this album stayed with me. It reminds me a lot of Kanye’s MBDTF days, back when he was doing okay. Get well soon, man. Anyway, I loved the throwback to Kanye’s old style since that was a lot of what I’d grown up listening to with my dad. “Ghost Town” in particular really has me going through it every time I listen. Through what, I’m not sure, since the first time I heard this song was one of the best times of my life. I won’t lie, I mostly like this album because of the memories I associate with it, but the album is good in its own right. It was the perfect length, clocking in at seven songs, and each song had a different meaning and message, keeping me interested.
4. Kali Uchis, Isolation
Much like Matt does, I like to pretend I’m Latinx, but that’s not why I chose this album for fourth place. Over the summer, Kali Uchis came to Baltimore, and someone offered me a ticket the day before the concert, so I had one day to catch myself up on her music. I liked this album well enough already when I was listening to it on Spotify, but what really convinced me was hearing it live. There’s no denying that Kali Uchis is an incredibly talented young woman, but this didn’t really hit me until I heard her singing “After the Storm” live. If I could sing like her, I’d literally never shut up, sorry. Much like a few of my other picks for this list, this album has an old-school feel. It has a definite vibe, but that doesn’t make it unsuited for listening to it at all hours. Uchis’ debut album was impressive enough to instantly put her on the map for a lot of people, and I look forward to what she’s going to do with her career in the future.
3. The Carters, EVERYTHING IS LOVE
I feel like people had been calling for a Beyonce/Jay-Z collab for a while before this album dropped. We kind of got this with the On The Run tour and a few other songs, but nothing like this album. Beyonce had already taken steps towards a slower, more groovier feel with her music on Lemonade, and EVERYTHING IS LOVE continued this trend. This album had so much power behind it. I felt Beyonce’s power level increasing on this album. I felt my own power level increasing in turn. Most of the songs slapped without relinquishing any of their groove, and I felt like Beyonce had finally come back to the black community. This album was the perfect amount of upbeat, without being too poppy. I love Beyonce’s other music as much as literally everyone on the entire planet, and I like “99 Problems” as much as the next guy, but EVERYTHING IS LOVE was a nice change of pace from what we’re used to from the two of them.
1a. Joji – BALLADS 1
Matt called me a Joji stan, and he’s right. I am. If you’re interested in finding out why I loved this album so much, check out the article I wrote about it.
1b. Anderson .Paak – Oxnard
I only hopped on the Anderson .Paak train in April of this year. I had heard his NPR Tiny Desk concert in January, but I’d only heard of him once before from one of my (much) older coworkers, so I dismissed him as an older artist (???). It took me a few months to realize that he was not, in fact, a drummer from the 70s–he wasn’t even alive in the 70s. Anyway, once I came around and realized who he was, and how talented he is, I got very into his music. My mom was actually the one to text me about “Tints,” and soon after, I heard he was releasing a new album. This album was all I could have wanted and more. I felt it still fit into .Paak’s style that I already knew and loved, but different enough to keep me listening all the way through….not that I wouldn’t have done that anyway…Oxnard is fun and upbeat, and was a great listen for my plane ride home over Thanksgiving break–or anytime. Obviously, I love every album on this list, but I chose Oxnard as first (kinda) because it’s fun without being too poppy, and is a good listen at any time of the day.
Nate’s Top 5
5. J.I.D, DiCaprio 2
This is the go-to album and artist for anybody who complains about today’s rap. J.I.D has a way with words that even make Kodak jealous. If you like tongue twisters and rhymes that you can’t even comprehend, then you’ll love DiCaprio 2. The beats are pretty straight-forward, but they complement the focus on the lyrics, or rather their delivery. It was clear that J.I.D was the best up-and-coming lyricist when he blew away the rest of XXL’s 2018 Freshman Class. DiCaprio 2 simply confirmed he was here to stay. There are few as talented as him when it comes to linguistics, and there’s definitely nobody at his level of rapping that can also make a complete and diverse project that sounds good. He could have easily just spit line after line at a word count that a court scribe would be jealous of, but instead he utilized different styles to produce a strong work. He’s at his best with the quick verses, but the slow stuff’s not half-bad either. I’ll be keeping my eye on this guy’s work in 2019.
4. Pusha T, Daytona
The first of five Kanye-produced summer albums, Daytona set the bar high. Remember when this thing came out and you saw there were only seven songs? How can you even call that an album? Pusha put every question to bed immediately with some of the best rap songs of the year. They may not be as flashy as “Sicko Mode” or “Praise da Lord,” but these tracks hit hard and I’m not even a big Pusha fan. I think he went too far with the Drake beef, but that’s just me. Either way, I love these songs. He’s got a certain way with words that few possess in the scene today. Just like he didn’t hold back when he dug in on 40 and the fact that Drake has a kid, Pusha T did not hold back in any verse. The beats are clean, and the lyrics are profound. Turn off Astroworld and give this another listen (I also like Astroworld a lot, please don’t hurt me).
3. Noname, Room 25
Noname is kind of like Isaiah Rashad or maybe Anderson .Paak, but tuned down. She contains more energy than Isaiah, but also also jazzier. Hmm, I guess Noname isn’t really like Isaiah Rashad. After a lot of thinking, he was sort of the closest comparison, but still is really nothing like her.
She’s got such a unique vibe that’s almost more like Jacob Collier or Snarky Puppy than any other R&B/rap artist, but at the end of the day, she is very much in control of her own sound. That’s what makes this project to special. It’s got some recognizable sounds, but Noname puts her own twist on it all, laying down some sharp verses and beautiful vocals. She’s a complete artist and Room 25 is an awesome reflection of her. Detailed beats and super smooth keys lay down the backbone to every track, but it’s far from monotonous with strings and various bits of percussion joining the party occasionally. Every aspiring and even successful artist could take a couple notes from this to apply in their own work. It’s so smooth and relaxed, but it’s got such bright energy at the same time. Take a load off and pop this on.
2. Lord Huron, Vide Noir
The best part about Vide Noir is its ability to connect with both new and old fans of the group. For old fans, those familiar vocals and cranked-up reverb strike a chord on the first track, “Lost in Time and Space,” but newer, grungier guitar riffs in some songs provide a novel sound for a band that’s essentially produced variations of the same song with their older works (barring a few standouts, obviously). Being a long-time fan myself, I loved the blend between what I have always loved about the band and what I loved about the band after listening to Vide Noir. Lord Huron was not afraid to change up the script a little bit on this and it paid off. For me, they continued to define the ever-changing indie scene. I would urge anybody to listen through Vide Noir and tell me it doesn’t make them want to get out there and explore.
1. Kids See Ghosts, Kids See Ghosts
Kids See Ghosts has so much creative energy it was hard for me to take it all in on the first listen. Just like with every other Kanye project, it gets better each time you listen. Ye and Cudi made seven distinct tracks that somehow flow together seamlessly. It’s clear how calculated and precise each sample, beat, and verse is, but at the same time it’s all a very free-flowing jam. They’re not afraid to get a little weird with it and I love it. The chemistry between the two is so strong that it can sometimes be hard to tell who’s even rapping/singing, though if they’re hitting notes it’s likely not Kanye. Over all the masterful production are some resonant messages about fame and mental health, something that really took the limelight recently. If Kanye deleted his twitter and just put out something like this to spread whatever message he wanted to share, I think he’d be a lot better off. My only gripe is that the album was over before I even finished writing this little blurb.
Borovoy’s Top 5
5. Blood Orange, Negro Swan
Dev Hynes, known by his stage name Blood Orange, delivered a masterful performance on his sophomore album Negro Swan. Hynes paints a vivid picture of his life as a person of color and all the trauma that comes along with it. Working with artists such as A$AP Rocky & Steve Lacy, as well as transgender writer and activist Janet Mock, Negro Swan is soulful, jazzy, and deeply personal. It is without a doubt Hynes’ best work to date and one of the best albums of the year.
4. Earl Sweatshirt, Some Rap Songs
After a three year hiatus, Earl Sweatshirt came back swinging with Some Rap Songs. Earl has clearly grown in his time off, opening up to listeners about his battles with depression, drug abuse, and the heavy expectations of the world around him. While his last two albums, Doris and I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside, were dark and gritty, Some Rap Songs is a breath of fresh air. It is a raw, no bullshit peek into Earl’s mind. Only 24 minutes long, Some Rap Songs is incredibly addictive and will be in my rotation for a long, long time.
3. Mac Miller, Swimming
Swimming is bittersweet. After listening to it, we thought Mac Miller was getting better, when in reality it was a cry for help. Mac left this world too early, leaving behind Swimming as his last album in an extensive discography.
Mac was always concerned with his legacy and for that reason his sound constantly evolved. From Blue Slide Park, to Faces, to GO:OD AM, and finally with Swimming, Mac always looked for ways to reinvent himself and his music. While Mac Miller is no longer with us, Swimming is a reminder of his greatness and a testament to his creativity.
2. JPEGMAFIA, Veteran
Baltimore-based artist JPEGMAFIA blew up this year in spectacular fashion. His album Veteran takes everything we know and love about rap and flips it on its head. The whole album is unorthodox. From the song names to the production, JPEGMAFIA could care less about what’s trendy. Known by diehard fans as Peggy, JPEGMAFIA has crafted a unique listening experience with Veteran. With it, Peggy stands out in a rap market oversaturated with clout chasing mumble rappers.
1. Playboi Carti, Die Lit
Die Lit is the album of the year.
It is a trap masterpiece, joining the ranks of Future’s DS2 and Lil Uzi Vert’s Luv is Rage. From Pi’erre Bourne’s crisp production to Carti’s repetitive, hypnotic lyrics, Die Lit is incredible from start to finish. Infusing elements of punk and scat into the trap subgenre, Playboi Carti brings his A game on his debut album. Die Lit features a variety of star rappers ranging from Skepta to Nicki Minaj. Yet, Carti is always the star of the show. With his lack of lyrical prowess, he makes up for it with his unique flows and ad-libs, effortlessly moving from one track to the next.
Despite all the great music released this year, I keep finding myself coming back to Die Lit. Playboi Carti continues to surprise me in his ability to grow as an artist. Although I’m excited for what is next, I’m more than content with listening to Die Lit on repeat for years to come.