2018 has been a year of true queer artistry. Starting back in January and up until today, LGBTQ artists not only produced and released some of their best music to date, but they were heard by massive audiences from all different genres that were craving their unique perspective. If LGBTQ artists made a splash in 2017, then 2018 was a tidal wave.
With hit pop albums, introspective indie projects, explosive rock records and just about everything else in between, queer artists ran the gamut of pop culture and won big in critical success -- and for some, commercial success as well.
In a year jam-packed with good music coming from queer artists, here are Billboard Pride’s picks for the 20 best albums by LGBTQ artists released in 2018:
20. Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers, Bought to Rot
When not performing with Against Me!, Laura Jane Grace has been busy as a leading activist for transgender rights across the world. But in 2018, Grace and her side band, The Devouring Mothers, set out to blow the doors off their audience with Bought to Rot, their boisterous new album filled with plenty of head-banging, thought-provoking material. Inspired by the works of rock greats like Tom Petty and Rowland S. Howard, Bought to Rot serves as a mashup of various different rock sounds, showing that even as a side project, Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers are a band that’s unafraid to take their music in whatever direction they see fit.
19. Ah-Mer-Ah-Su, Star
It’s refreshing that even in a society that devalues the lives of trans men and women everywhere, a young star like Ah-Mer-Ah-Su can still craft an incredible work of art. Star Amerasu, the artist behind the moniker, released her debut album Star earlier this year, an entrancing album about love, loss and what it means to grow up as a transgender youth in America. Ah-Mer-Ah-Su blends together her message of activism and self-love with some of the most catchy-yet-hypnotic pop sounds of the year, making Star one of the most uniquely queer albums of 2018.
18. Kodie Shane,Young HeartThrob
Even in a genre that has a historically rough track record when it comes to LGBTQ issues, 2018 showed that queer art can come from anywhere. Kodie Shane truly proved as much with the release of her debut LP Young HeartThrob. The former Sailing Team member spat hip hop fire on her debut EP, mixing her brand of pop-infused rap with more traditional trap and hip hop. Often entrancing and beautiful, Young HeartThrob serves as the perfect starting point for Shane to inevitably skyrocket to the top of the rap game.
17. Jake Shears, Jake Shears
Six years after Scissor Sisters announced their indefinite hiatus to the world, former frontman Jake Shears stepped out on his own to show the world that he’s still got it. The singer’s self-titled album brought a combination of everything that fans loved about the music of Scissor Sisters and his own brand of pop-rock glamour. From incredibly campy, high-energy numbers like “Big Bushy Mustache” and “S.O.B.,” to more straightforward '80s rock like “Everything I’ll Ever Need” and “Mississippi Delta (I’m Your Man),” Shears flaunted his endlessly entertaining talent -- with a healthy dose of classic charisma -- to make one hell of a fun album.
16. King Princess, Make My Bed (EP)
It’s almost hard to think that Mikaela Straus, better known by her stage name King Princess, made her official debut in 2018. The 19-year-old singer’s debut EP Make My Bed sounds like a series of songs from an artist who has been performing and releasing music from within the industry for years. Make My Bed excels at creating beautiful alt-pop harmonies, while also affirming Straus’ position as an artistic juggernaut in the music world. It’s also refreshing to see such a young artist present her queerness so plainly from the jump: Straus’ first song off the album, “1950,” portrays her and her female lover as a couple wanting to openly express their love in a society that forbids it. If these are King Princess’ thoughts at age 19, then we can’t wait to see what she comes up with in her 20s.
15. Lucy Dacus, Historian
Despite only being 24 years old, singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus is wise beyond her years. Her second album, Historian, is proof of that fact, as Dacus navigates love, loss and the need for activism in a haunting-yet-rollicking album, infused with a modern indie sensibility. Even when the guitars and drums around her are blaring with an apparent rage on tracks like “Addictions” and “Body to Flame,” Dacus’ voice remains entrancing and beautifully composed, making the juxtaposition that much more intriguing.
14. Big Freedia, 3rd Ward Bounce (EP)
Listening to the bounce queen Big Freedia work her way through a verse is simply one of the most joyful things a person can do. Fans of the New Orleans legend got to see a lot of that this year, thanks not only to Freedia’s prominent feature on Drake’s Hot 100-topping “Nice for What,” but also to the Queen Diva’s newest EP 3rd Ward Bounce. While not much about Freedia’s sound has changed, Bounce is a testament to Freedia’s ability to highlight the roots of hip-hop in her hometown. Freedia goes bigger and bolder, with a track like “Rent” showing off a more savage, visceral side of the bounce queen’s personality, as she spits, “We could have had a good run/ But you done fucked up son.” And if you haven’t listened to 3rd Ward Bounce, then you ought to listen those words more carefully.
13. Trixie Mattel, One Stone
Among the many untrue stereotypes surrounding modern drag queens, one of the worst is that they only make dance-ready club music. Enter Trixie Mattel: While the RuPaul’s Drag Race winner is certainly not the first queen to walk away from “conventional” drag music, her sophomore album One Stone is a testament to her skill as a singer-songwriter and a performer. The album is more melodically fine-tuned than her debut Two Birds, transporting listeners back to the late-'70s country-folk scene with just a few chords. Some songs feel like they could be modern pop-rock jams (“Break Your Heart”), while others feel stuck out of that era of bluesy country anthems (“Wind Up Man”). But through it all, Mattel’s expertly crafted lyrics, like “Loving’s just a name for saving face/ And running’s just the way I won the race” from her heartbreaking ballad “The Well,” show that she is a musical force to be reckoned with, one not going away any time soon.
12. teddy<3, LillyAnna
After helping produce and co-write Shawn Mendes’ stunning self-titled studio album, Teddy Geiger -- now going under her new stage name of teddy<3 -- showed the world who she was with LillyAnna. A serious departure from her pop-infused work with Mendes and the likes of Christina Aguilera, 5 Seconds of Summer and others, Geiger’s debut is an at-times angsty, rock-filled album that brings audiences face-to-face with the reality of coming to terms with your own gender identity. From start to finish, LillyAnna paints a raw, unflinching portrait of Geiger’s interior life, making it one of the most personal albums to come out of 2018.
11. Years & Years, Palo Santo
When done poorly, a concept album can feel unnecessarily plot-heavy, making pointless stops to establish a story that does little to further the meaning of the music you’re listening to. That was not the case when it came to Years & Years’ sophomore effort, Palo Santo. Based in the loose idea of a futuristic society where humans have become slaves to androids, the album doesn’t waste time explaining its story to the listener, instead launching into a series of pop jams like “Hallelujah,” “If You’re Over Me” and “Preacher” that infect your very soul and make you want to launch out of your seat and dance. With stunning production and excellent performances, Years & Years’ Palo Santo feels like one of the most necessary injections of joyful pop from 2018.
10. Sophie, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides
Before 2018, very few people knew what the influential DJ and producer Sophie looked like. When the star producer finally revealed her face to the world, she also released her debut solo album, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, a trippy and emotional rollercoaster. The album features Sophie’s signature experimental music, with songs like “Faceshopping” and “Ponyboy” providing day-one fanatics what they crave from the producer. But with a track like “It’s Okay To Cry,” Sophie used her own voice with her softest backing melody to date, making the most unpredictable song on the album also her most conventional, a welcome change to the oft-monotonous pop landscape we live in.
9. Shea Diamond, Seen It All (EP)
Soul singer Shea Diamond has arrived, and she deserves everyone’s undivided attention. If the rising star’s debut EP Seen It All tells us anything, it is that true sheer talent can come from anywhere. Delivering expert shade on tracks like “Keisha Complexion” along with introspective contemplation on songs like “American Pie,” Diamond established herself as a prominent trans voice who will not be silenced. Plus, with all-star songwriter Justin Tranter offering his talents as an executive producer on the album, Seen It All is a guaranteed win for all those who hear it.
8. Brockhampton, Iridescence
While LGBTQ artists managed to become a significant part of the mainstream conversation in 2018, they still didn’t manage to find major success on the charts. That is, until you look at Brockhampton’s No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200 albums chart with their Iridescence set. It’s understandable why this record saw so much commercial and critical success -- the hip hop collective/boy band made an album that subverted rap conventions, was extremely well-crafted in its flow and lyricism (“Weight” and “Something About Him” being particularly stunning in their sharpness), and also managed to produce the big-hitting bangers fans had come to know and love. At the end of an up-and-down 2018 for the group, the boys of Brockhampton have plenty to celebrate going into the new year.
7. Christine and the Queens, Chris
Following up her self-titled debut album from 2014 was going to be a difficult task for Héloïse Letissier, better known by her stage name Christine and the Queens. But Chris, the singer’s sophomore effort, is a funk-filled, pop-perfect masterpiece that explores the rigid gender binary through Letissier’s persona of “Chris,” a more masculine, butch version of herself. The entire album shines bright, with songs like “Damn” and “The Stranger” worming their way into your mind. It’s the album’s lead single “Girlfriend” that sums up the entire project, sending the star’s electro-pop sensibilities into a collision with a new funk-inspired sound, creating one of the coolest-sounding songs (and albums) of 2018.
6. Hayley Kiyoko, Expectations
While #20GayTeen may refer to all of the amazing queer art that we have received this year, there is a reason it was originated by Hayley Kiyoko’s fan base. The star kicked the year off with her single “Curious,” followed by her highly anticipated debut album Expectations, a pop tour de force that highlighted the young star’s unique vocal ability. Kiyoko is in full creative control on this album, expressing her queer love and desire openly and beautifully on tracks like “What I Need,” “xx” and “He’ll Never Love You.” After such a hot debut, expectations will be high for the singer’s next big project.
5. Kim Petras, Turn Off the Light, Vol. 1 (EP)
While many pop artists will release their own albums of Christmas music in October, breakout pop performer Kim Petras decided to break the mold yet again by getting a bit spookier. But Turn Off the Light, Vol. 1 is mostly a Halloween album by default -- Petras simply creates more of the same sublime pop that she has become synonymous with while imbuing them with a spooky spirit. While the eight-track EP only consists of four full-length songs (the other four are extremely catchy musical interludes), each song perfectly fits Petras’ pop narrative she’s created for herself, playing the villain who will seduce you with her beautiful voice, and then “eat your heart.”
4. MNEK, Language
Throughout his career, Uzo Emenike -- known primarily by his stage name MNEK -- has proven that he knows how to properly craft a pop song, helping to shape hits like Beyoncé’s “Hold Up,” Dua Lipa’s “IDGAF” and more. But with his debut album Language, MNEK proved that he is one of the most talented pop alchemists currently working. He shows off his massive range, from full-blown bangers like the corporeally titled “Tongue” and “Body,” to more subtle and sensual tracks like “Honeymoon Phaze” and “Paradise.” Even as one of the most slept-on albums of the year, MNEK's Language should still be heralded as a modern-day guide on how to make excellent pop music.
3. Brandi Carlile, By the Way, I Forgive You
Throughout her nearly 15-year career, folk-pop singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile has made a name for herself as a singer of anthems. While By the Way, I Forgive You, the singer’s sixth studio album, certainly has its fair share of crowd-uniting singalongs (“Hold Out Your Hand” in particular), it also shows the 37-year-old in a more vulnerable space, examining the decisions she’s made to get to this point in her career. Lyrically touching and musically gorgeous, Carlile’s latest record was a triumph, heralding yet another example of excellent queer musicianship outside of the pop genre -- and scoring her six nominations at the 2019 Grammys, including one for album of the year.
2. Troye Sivan, Bloom
Over the course of one year, Troye Sivan seemingly managed to get the entire pop music industry focused on him. With an early string of singles, a few well-timed late night appearances and the promise of a new album, the Australia-born singer became the biggest “up-and-coming” name in pop music. When he finally did release his album Bloom in late August, it felt like it had the hype of an entire industry behind it.
Luckily, the record did not disappoint. Bloom was the moody, atmospheric, in some ways nearly anti-pop album that audiences needed in 2018. While managing to give long-time Troye fans what they wanted with crowd-pleasing jams like “Seventeen” and “Bloom,” Sivan also managed to tread some new artistic ground for himself on stripped-down tracks like “The Good Side” and “What a Heavenly Way to Die.” The 23-year-old star had promised that his next album would blow fans and critics away, and Bloom indeed delivered.
1. Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer
There is nothing sweeter than seeing an underappreciated talent receive the praise and recognition that has long been due to them. Janelle Monáe is one of those artists. For years, Monáe has been making excellent music, resulting in the well-received albums The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, but never seemed to achieve the heights of popularity that her music deserved. Something was holding her back.
In 2018, two things changed. First, Monáe revealed to the world that she was queer, telling Rolling Stone in a cover story she saw herself as a “free-ass motherfucker,” and causing a massive spike in internet searches for the word “pansexual.” Second, she released Dirty Computer, her most personal and idiosyncratic album thus far, which earned the best first-week numbers of her career and was eventually nominated for album of the year at the 2019 Grammys. Monáe fully embraced her roots of funk, soul and pop and delivered one of the most original sounding albums in years. Gone was the persona of Cindi Mayweather, the Christ-like robot alter ego she had been showing audiences for years. In her place was Janelle.
Those two facts about Monáe’s year are not only important, but seem almost inexorable from one another. Dirty Computer might not exist as a piece of art had Monáe decided to remain in the closet. But her queerness can be felt in every lyric and every note of the album, from the bisexual-affirming “Make Me Feel,” to the deeply empowering “Americans.” From the album’s themes of examining your own “bugs” and “coding,” to its entrancingly queer visuals, Monáe created not only the best LGBTQ album of the year, but one of the greatest albums from 2018 as a whole.