1. Kacey Musgraves, “Golden Hour”
“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 how, 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 most 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. 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.
2. Kamasi Washington, “Heaven and Earth”
It’s one thing to record a maximalist, mind-expanding masterpiece of cosmic jazz that stretches to well over two hours without a single wasted moment. It’s quite another to entice a crossover audience to actually listen to it in the digital age. And it’s almost unfathomable to imagine doing it twice. Yet that’s exactly what Washington accomplished with “Heaven and Earth,” his full-length follow-up to 2015’s “The Epic.” From its majestic orchestral flourishes to its more earthbound choral arrangements, sweaty instrumental duels to extraterrestrial soundscapes and hip-hop-informed deep funk, “Heaven and Earth” is yet another boundary-crossing opus from one of the most fearless and imaginative musical innovators working today, in jazz or elsewhere.
3. Pusha T, “Daytona”
The only true keeper from Kanye West’s misbegotten album-release binge last spring (which saw five West-helmed full-lengths dropping in five weeks), “Daytona” is a lean, mean showcase for one of hip-hop’s preeminent lyrical stylists, whose cold-blooded cleverness hasn’t been this sharp since his glory days as one half of Clipse. The album initially made headlines for its final track, “Infrared,” which sparked Pusha’s increasingly nasty, months-long feud with Drake. But once the tabloid dust settles (any…day…now…), the real legacy of “Daytona” will be its expert level of craft – be it West’s grimy, no-frills beats, or the double- and triple-meanings that the Virginia veteran manages to pack into almost every line. If you know, you know.
4. Eric Church, “Desperate Man”
Though unique in his discography, Church’s “Desperate Man” isn’t a reinvention so much as it is a reduction, boiling away some of the bombast of his earlier career and highlighting the bass notes of blues and gospel – not to mention the deep wells of sensitivity – that have always helped Church stand apart from his more blustery, bro-ish brethren. Most impressively, Church continues to find ways to remain in Nashville’s good graces while chalking off his own personal space out in the margins. Take “Hippie Radio,” for example: It’s hard to think of anyone this side of James Murphy who’s made more hay out of cataloging his record collection in song, but here all the classic rock callbacks are in service of a genuinely tender domestic story-song – the type of tearjerker that plenty of country singers attempt, but only those with Church’s wit and maturity are able to land.
5. John Coltrane, “Both Directions at Once”
Look. Assuming that civilization survives long enough for a definitive account of this era to be written, it’s unlikely that historians will regard 2018 as a particularly admirable period for the human race. But any year that saw a new film release from Orson Welles and a new album release from John Coltrane – the former a fascinating curio, the latter a full-fledged lost masterwork – can’t be written off so easily. Sure, the sessions that birthed this gem from Coltrane’s greatest group took place back in 1963, but let’s not split hairs here. 2018 needed this.
6. Pistol Annies, “Interstate Gospel”
Did any song from the past 12 months give us a better opening line than, “I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet”? Maybe you prefer: “It takes a judge to get married, takes a judge to get divorced/Well the last couple years I spent a lotta time in courts.” Or the hilariously hedged, “We’re on fire, I think.” Whatever your poison, there’s no question this country supergroup (consisting of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley) are masters of memorable entrances, and their third album is the one where they start to show real staying power as a unit. The rave-ups here lack none of the venom and vigor of debut “Hell on Heels,” and the record also allows more room for vulnerability, from the self-reflection and generational angst of “Milkman” to the diffuse longing of character sketch “Cheyenne.”
7. Vince Staples, “FM!”
Vince Staples’ debut, “Summertime ‘06,” was perhaps the greatest L.A. hip-hop album since Kendrick Lamar first borrowed his mother’s van to see about a girl, and like that epic trip through the m.a.a.d. city, it seemed to promise even more daring, expansive tours de force to come. Unlike Lamar, however, the slier, more mischievous Staples has yet to chase that double-album with a follow-up of greater or equal scope, and that may be one of his smartest decisions. After the divisive (albeit often brilliant) electronic experiments of last year’s “Big Fish Theory,” he seemed set to make a return to form with “FM!”: A summer-themed, g-funk-drenched 22-minute journey through Long Beach, narrated by Southland rap radio royalty Big Boy. But Staples, who enjoys a side-career as one of Twitter’s most talented trolls, is always laying in wait to pull the rug out from under you, whether it’s the April Fool’s fake-outs he stages on the Earl Sweatshirt and Tyga features, or the more subtle ways he makes sure that every bit of hedonistic fun is interrupted by sudden, bracing darkness, and every laugh dies a little bit on the way out of your throat.
8. Sleep, “The Sciences”
In theory, the idea of a legendary, long-gone stoner metal band reuniting well into their forties and releasing an album with bong-rip sound effects and song titles like “Marijuanaut’s Theme” on April 20th should be a little embarrassing. In practice, however, the San Jose trio’s first new record in nearly two decades was one of the year’s most irresistible throwbacks, with the roiling, hypnotic, uranium-heavy grooves that the band patented back in the Clinton era still hitting all of the same buzzy pleasure centers, and few new ones besides. Hell, with cannabis rapidly cementing a place next to chardonnay on the list of socially acceptable intoxicants, songs like “The Sciences’” lovely album closer “The Botanist” may now qualify as dinner party music.
9. 03 Greedo, “The Wolf of Grape Street”
The past year was a bitterly ironic one for 03 Greedo. After attracting a rabid local following with a flurry of mixtapes, the Watts MC finally began to accrue national notice on the strength of this release and follow-up “God Level.” Sadly, 2018 was also the year he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for non-violent drug charges, reportedly eligible for parole after five. (“I never thought I’d have to retire the year I blew up,” he tweeted after the verdict.) One can only hope this isn’t the end of his recording career, as “The Wolf of Grape Street” documented a truly original talent beginning to find his voice: A voice that evoked unblinking menace and bottomless tragedy, undercut with wild humor and an innate sense of melody that sounded like nothing else in hip-hop.
10. No Age, “Snares Like a Haircut”
The widespread media attention that once enveloped L.A.’s storied all-ages club the Smell may have moved on, but the noise-punk duo that once served as its flagship group and guiding light remains, making some of the most melodic and delicately-textured music of their careers.
Bonus: Top 10 Songs
Kacey Musgraves, “Slow Burn”
Lana Del Rey, “Mariners Apartment Complex”
Ella Mai, “Boo’d Up”
Carly Rae Jepsen, “Party for One”
Lil Wayne, “Dedicate”
David Byrne, “Everybody’s Coming to My House”
Future, “WiFi Lit”
Meek Mill, “Trauma”
Travis Scott, “Stop Trying to Be God”
Thundercat (feat. Flying Lotus and BadBadNotGood), “King of the Hill”