Like so many other things in 2018, the music scene is loud, unsettled and afflicated with an ever-shortening attention span. In just the past few months we’ve seen Cardi B and Camila Cabello become fully-fledged superstars; we’ve seen Kendrick Lamar win a Pulitzer Prize for last year’s album “Damn.” (and seen him continue his reign with the “Black Panther” soundtrack); we’re seeing the release of five Kanye West-helmed albums in as many weeks (ironically, the weakest of which so far is his own). And at the year’s mid-way point last weekend, we saw Beyonce and Jay-Z — masquerading as “The Carters” — drop a tag-team album that, while below their usual dramatically high standards, is still one of the most significant releases of the year.
Yet there’s an outlier: In a sign of the times, the fastest-rising musical genre — SoundCloud rap, the “emo”-inflected hip-hop of Lil Pump, Lil Uzi Vert, Trippie Redd, Smokepurpp and the late rappers XXXTentacion and Lil Peep — operates largely outside the traditional system, even though many of those artists now have major-label deals. Like the streaming platform that spawned it, the genre is primarily song-based, and often seems to regard albums as almost an afterthought, despite the chart success of XXX’s “17” and “?,”which peaked at No. 2 and No. 1 on the Billboard 200, respectively. Still, if any current style of music is the new punk rock, it’s SoundCloud rap: It’s raw, real, obnoxious, of-the-moment, often offensive and even shocking — and its off-tone singing and distorted production lead many over-30s to say it’s “not music.” Sound familiar? As former Beastie Boy Mike D told Vulture about his teenage children earlier this year, “It was weird to me that I wasn’t hearing things that my kids related to that I couldn’t embrace. [But] when they started listening to [New Orleans emo duo] $uicideboy$, I was like, ‘That’s it. That checks the boxes.’ It’s really loud, I can’t really relate, I don’t really want to listen to it.” While Variety‘s music-critic brain trust did not come to a consensus on an album from the genre for this list, there’s no denying it’s one of the dominant sounds of the day.
And what’s in store for the rest of this challenging year? New albums from Drake, Paul McCartney, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, Kenny Chesney, Alessia Cara, Vampire Weekend, Deafheaven, Mitski and maybe, just maybe, that Bruce Springsteen solo album that’s apparently been sitting on a shelf for at least three years. But even though recent history has made most sensible people wary of surprises, what would be most exciting is a new album or song or star — or lots of them — that we haven’t heard of yet, and don’t see coming.
Beyonce & Jay-Z — (Roc Nation/Parkwood/Columbia)
(Read Variety‘s full review here.) At this early stage, just days after America’s first couple surprise-dropped their long-rumored tag-team album into the middle of a Saturday afternoon, it feels safe to say that “Everything Is Love” is a half-step forward in the careers of each artist — more of a completion of the audio autobiography of their marriage begun with Beyonce’s “Lemonade” and continued with Jay’s “4:44.” That noted, it’s one of the most significant releases of the year thus far and its musical standard is, of course, high: The songs are musically and melodically on point, with a top-shelf team of collaborators that includes Pharrell, Cool & Dre, Boi-1da and TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek. Jay’s flow and lyrics are smooth as ever, and Beyonce — who never releases an album without giving herself new challenges — is rapping far more often than before, trying on a couple of new voices and even, on “Friends,” using autotune to twist her vocal into new shapes. And while the album sees the couple spending far too much time boasting about how wealthy they are, it features two killer tracks with “Apesh—“ and the closing “LoveHappy” — and offers some tantalizing hints about where they each might go next. — Jem Aswad
Soundtrack — “Black Panther: The Album” (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
Few phrases in film music possess the power to draw groans and rolled eyes quite like “music from and inspired by the motion picture” – which almost always indicates a distinctly uninspired collection of various artists’ castoffs and album leftovers. But in the unusual case of Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment’s “Black Panther” companion album, that “inspired by” tag deserves to be taken seriously. Cohesive, coherent, and consistently surprising, Lamar and Co. draw on all their collective powers to imagine what a pop radio broadcast beamed in from Wakanda might sound like, marrying pan-African-inspired rhythms with muscular futurism and ceaselessly imaginative lyrics. While Lamar and his TDE comrades (SZA, Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q) feature on a majority of the album’s tracks, it’s the lesser-known contributors who threaten to steal the show. South African rapper Yugen Blakrok generates palpable chemistry with Long Beach’s own Vince Staples on “Opps”; Jorja Smith makes the most of her solo spotlight, “I Am”; and singer Sjava provides an album highlight on “Seasons.” — Andrew Barker
Camila Cabello — “Camila” (Syco/Epic)
(Read Variety‘s full review here.) To the victor go the spoils, and the first half of 2018 saw Fifth Harmony releasing an unremarkable farewell-for-now video while the gal who beat the rest of them into the first escape pod, Cabello, was the hottest thing in pop. (So hot that when she opened the year’s biggest stadium tour in the spring, we heard one radio station advertising a ticket giveaway for “Camila Cabello in concert!… plus Taylor Swift.”) The narrative of her exit set us up for a steely careerist uber-diva, but what we got instead on “Camila” was a surprisingly relatable sweetheart. In conjunction with producer Frank Dukes, she’s also a singles-generating machine: “Havana” might have been the Cuban missile that blew up the pop world, but her a cappella falsetto in “Never Be the Same” was an even more formidable secret weapon — and there are a half-dozen more great would-be radio hits they won’t have time to get to where those came from. Heart, hooks and tropical heat… this is the way we make a pop record. —Chris Willman
Cardi B — “Invasion of Privacy” (Atlantic)
(Read Variety‘s full review here.) Cardi B’s blather and bluster and social-media savvy wouldn’t amount to much if she didn’t have the musical skills to back it all up: She’s a powerful rapper with a forceful and distinctive flow and clever, piercingly funny lyrics (“Went from making tuna sandwiches to making the news/ I started speaking my mind and tripled my views/ Real bitch, only thing fake is the boobs,” from “Get Up 10”), and this smartly produced album manages to highlight her strengths without wearing out her welcome. They accomplish this with razor-sharp songwriting and some key features: There are plenty of bangers — “Bodak Yellow” and the follow-up single “Bartier Cardi” — but elsewhere Chance the Rapper gives a long guest verse on “Best Life,” Migos (featuring Cardi’s fiancé Offset) dominate “Drip,” J Balvin and Bad Bunny star on the Latin-flavored “I Like It,” Kehlani lights up the ballad “Ring,” and SZA brings a typically indelible hook to the closing track, “I Do.” Funny, fierce, foul-mouthed and in-your-face, “Invasion of Privacy” is one of the most powerful debuts in recent memory. — JA
Father John Misty — “God’s Favorite Customer” (Sub Pop)
(Read Variety‘s full review here.) It didn’t seem likely or even possible that Father John Misty would make a short, economical, bare-bones album of personal and romantic rue just one quick year after putting out “Pure Comedy,” a record that was its opposite in most regards. The 2017 epic had God and man’s favorite crank reminding us all at great and entertaining length how the world was going to hell (figuratively, since he is a post-evangelical agnostic). More than one album of that stuff would have been exhausting, and maybe he recognized that, or maybe Misty really did just live through the lost weekend that is recounted in “Customer” and had no choice but to quickly write and record an intimate recap. He’s at his most Elton-esque in these piano-based ballads, but he doesn’t take any “don’t go breaking my heart” advice to heart: There’s some real angina in these accounts of breaking up and breaking bad, along with just enough trademark wit to get us to the gallows. — CW
Ashley McBryde — “Girl Going Nowhere” (Warner Bros. Nashville)
(Read Variety‘s full review here.) In recent years, female artists have provided a disproportionate share of country’s greatest modern records — think Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, Brandy Clark — even if the disproportionate-ness goes the other way at radio. But amid that great mix, we hardly even realized we were still missing a certain kind of woman: one with the tattooed skin of a biker chick, the soul of a barroom John Prine and the voice of a belter with some life experience under her belt buckle. McBryde is not somebody who really needs critics as apologists; pretty much any mainstream audience that sees her as an opening act knows within 10 minutes that they’re seeing a star, even if she never officially graduates to that level. But critics have to chime in anyway when the songs are as triumphant as the survived-another-day anthem “Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” or hilariously honest as “Tired of Being Happy.” — CW
Janelle Monae — “Dirty Computer” (Wondaland/Bad Boy/Atlantic)
(Read Variety‘s full review here.) Over the past decade, Janelle Monae established herself as an artist, producer, label boss and actress, yet she never quite made the album that lived up to her enormous potential and abilities — until “Dirty Computer.” With a 45-minute companion “emotion picture” video, it’s her most ambitious and high-concept outing to date — and for a perfectionist like her, that’s saying something — but ironically it’s also the one where she seemed to relax a bit, loosen up the grooves and not take everything quite so seriously. The percussion for the first minute of the Prince homage “Make Me Feel,” her funkiest song to date, is nothing but tongues clucking, and the sexual jokes in the eye-popping videos from the album show a sense of humor that her previous work sometimes lacked. But most of all, “Dirty Computer” is a fully realized and wildly diverse album — she shows off her rapping skills on “Django Jane,” delivers sumptuous pop hooks on the innuendo-laden “Pink,” and gets anthemic on the closing “Americans” — that proves she’s one of the most versatile and talented musical artists working today. — AB
Kacey Musgraves — “Golden Hour” (MCA Nashville)
(Read Variety‘s full review here.) “Golden Hour” is, hands-down, the greatest stoner-pop-country-folk-disco album ever recorded. And the fact that it’s the only album that matches that description shouldn’t diminish the accomplishment – it simply shows that, three albums into her career, Musgraves is following her arrow further away from Nashville’s comfort zone than anyone would have reasonably expected. We all knew Musgraves was capable of turning a choice phrase and unwinding a plush melody, but what’s remarkable here is her ability to push against the strictures of country radio without ever showing the least bit of strain. Single “High Horse” is the Gloria Gaynor/Dolly Parton mashup that we never knew we needed, and the one-two punch of robo-hippie anthem “Oh What a World” and acid-trip ballad “Mother” may represent her boldest experiments. But even the more formula-bound tracks (“Space Cowboy,” “Velvet Elvis”) manage to smirkingly subvert convention while still delivering arena-sized hooks with ruthless precision. In a fairer world, she’d be notching Shania Twain numbers. — AB
Pusha-T — “Daytona” (G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam)
April of 2018 was a more innocent time. The Toronto Raptors were favorites to make an NBA Finals run; “Solo: A Star Wars Story” was set to be the box office hit of the summer; and Kanye West, having seemingly atoned for his endorsement of Donald Trump with a year in the wilderness, was readying his return with a “surgical summer” — a series of five albums produced by the man himself. What a difference a few months make. Of the four albums released thus far, both Kanye’s solo effort and his collaboration with Kid Cudi were formless notebook dumps, and his much vaunted teaming with Nas, “Nasir,” turned out to be the great rapper’s dullest studio set since the late ‘90s. An album from Teyana Taylor is still on deck, but it’s looking likely that West threw all his haymakers into the first one out of the gate, Pusha-T’s “Daytona.” West’s grimy, no-frills beats here are among the strongest production work he’s done in years, but the album’s real appeal is the man at the center. From his time as half of Clipse through his often-excellent solo work, Pusha has long been one of hip-hop’s sharpest lyrical technicians, a writer with a single subject who manages to find countless new ways to tackle it every time out. For newcomers, “Daytona” offers an ideal entry point into the Virginia veteran’s inimitable cold-blooded wit — and the vicious Drake feud that followed in this album’s wake demonstrated just how cold-blooded that wit could get. — AB
Jorja Smith — “Lost & Found” (FAMM United/The Orchard)
(Read Variety‘s full review here.) Jorja Smith is a precociously and prodigiously talented young Brit whose voice shows a nuance and maturity beyond that of most singers, let alone ones who just turned 21. She’s duetted with both Drake and Kendrick Lamar and opened for Bruno Mars on a five-week arena tour last year, yet she just released her debut album earlier this month. It was worth the wait: “Lost & Found” is a combination of classic and contemporary sounds, mixing Amy Winehouse, Sade and a little bit of “Baduizm” in a way that also fits alongside the hip-hop-informed R&B songstresses of the few years, but Smith’s distinctive voice and the album’s mid-tempo beats and spare, simple hooks set it apart. “Lost & Found” could make her the breakout star of the year. — JA