The 50 Best Albums of 2018 (So Far): Critics' Picks

The 50 Best Albums of 2018 (So Far): Critics' Picks

by Billboard Staff
June 05, 2018, 11:48am EDT

Usually, a year in music gives you at least a month to kinda settle in before the heavy hitters start swinging. But in 2018, we got one of the year's most anticipated debut LPs (Camila Cabello's Camila), a blockbuster sequel to one of the previous year's biggest albums (Migos' Culture II) and the first album in five years from one of the century's biggest stars (Justin Timberlake's Man of the Woods) -- all before we even got to the Super Bowl. 

It's been that kind of year so far: Exciting newcomers and welcome returning favorites, with plenty of unexpected joys to be found in between. We're only six months into the year, but already it's hard to choose just 50 albums to represent our favorites to this point. But we've made the necessary tough calls, and here they are: Our 50 favorite albums from 2018 so far, listed alphabetically. We can only hope the back half of the year is similarly stressful. 

03 Greedo, The Wolf of Grape Street

There’s no justice. In the same year that we’re celebrating 03 Greedo’s major-label debut, we’re also steeling ourselves for his next prison stint, one that could sit him down for as many as 20 years. The 30-year old Watts, Calif., MC rose to prominence this year on the strength of prolific, stylistically myriad mixtape work (and, sure, some controversial interviews), culminating in The Wolf of Grape Street, a project of mostly new tracks and some unimpeachable greats from his previous tapes. Drug laws in this country are designed to be traps for young black and brown men, to take away their citizenship and keep them either in prison or hooked to the leash of the state in the form of parole. Greedo’s music has never shied away from this, or from his previous time spent incarcerated. That he might have to go away again is a recurring theme in his lyrics, because he knows the system is working effectively. Play “Never Bend” as loud as you can and don’t stop yelling “Free Greedo.” -- ROSS SCARANO

Amber Mark, Conexao EP

On last year’s 3:33 A.M., New York City-based singer-songwriter Amber Mark established herself as a next-generation answer to Sade, with her husky and buttery vocals delivering missives about romance in a style tangential to R&B. It’s with the four-track Conexão EP that her vision becomes more tightly wound. There’s a loose, jazzy feel to the set, which lends itself to casual listening, yet there’s something more at play, from the sudden tonal shift in the back-half of lead single “Love Me Right” to the silky harmonies that ease in her fitting cover of Ms. Adu's own "Love Is Stronger Than Pride.” It’s a brief project that gives just a glimpse of the greatness Mark has to offer.—STEVEN J. HOROWITZ

Arctic Monkeys, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

After releasing their most internationally successful album to date, 2013’s AM, Arctic Monkeys surprisingly went on a four-year-long hiatus. Even more surprising is the album they returned with. Tranquility takes some adjusting to; the album sees frontman Alex Turner croon over lounging instrumentals more reliant on dramatic piano than stabbing guitars. But after a couple (or three, or four) listens, the lyrical genius of the album begins to resonate: Less concerned with mainstream acceptance and more rooted in obscure references and social commentary (on everything from gentrification and overpriced tacos to American politics), Arctic Monkeys’ latest serves as a direct line into Turner's innermost thoughts. And while some listeners still hope that Turner will snap out of itTranquility is a testament to the band’s ever-evolving nature, proving that reinvention might be the key to longevity. -- LYNDSEY HAVENS

Ashley McBryde, Girl Going Nowhere

Despite the title, this girl is definitely going somewhere. McBryde turns more than a decade of unglamorous gigging and rejection from teachers and record labels into a triumphant album -- one that resonates with confidence, vulnerability and, most of all, truth. With her sturdy yet pliant vocals, McBryde never lets her clever phrase-turning distract from the heart of the matter: that life is often best at the margins and in the shadows, whether it’s seeking the passion of a clandestine affair in “American Scandal” or celebrating the mere act of surviving another day in lead single “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega.” While rooted firmly in country traditionalism, McBryde isn’t afraid to throw in some bluesy licks on tracks like “Home Sweet Highway” -- but above all, it’s her knack for specificity in her lyrics that elevates McBryde’s breakout debut above most of what's coming out of Nashville in 2018. -- MELINDA NEWMAN

Beach House, 7

Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have been putting out albums that are equal parts dreary and dreamy for 12 years. 7 marks, yes, their seventh album together, and though it is still a shimmering, melancholy voyage, with synthesizers and guitars the primary tools, there were some changes: The band parted ways with four-time producer Chris Coady, stretched the recording process over 11 months, and gave itself room to experiment. The drums charge through opener “Dark Spring” and disappear on “L’Inconnue.” “Drunk in L.A.” dials up the synthesizers, while standout “Dive” throws a low and dirty guitar into the spotlight. Legrand says the songs were inspired by the “societal insanity” of 2016-'17, and this could account for the LP's heft and occasional chaos. But because it’s a Beach House record, any weight is tempered by the melodic effervescence listeners have come to expect from a band that always shines a light into the darkness. -- CHRISTINE WERTHMAN

Brandi Carlile, By the Way I Forgive You

Shocker: pairing Brandi Carlile with folk/country super-producer Dave Cobb is an extremely good idea, as is tossing Shooter Jennings into the mix as well. By the Way, I Forgive You is the surest showcase yet of Carlile’s Americana sensibilities, starting right off the bat with stunning, harmony-rich album opener “Every Time I Hear That Song” and immediately following with lead single “The Joke,” the closest she’s come to replicating signature song “The Story” since its 2007 release. It’s a staggering one-two punch, and you’re not even one-fifth of the way through the album. -- KEVIN RUTHERFORD

BTS, Love Yourself: Tear

Leave it to BTS to break record after record in their ascent up the charts. The K-pop titans dropped a concept album about the loss of love, but there’s no love lost for Love Yourself: Tear: it clinched BTS’s first No. 1 on the Billboard 200. It's one of their most thematically cohesive yet sonically varied albums, with maximalist production erupting against lyrics about emptiness. The album’s kaleidoscopic genre-hopping is exemplified by the emo-inflected lead single, “Fake Love” -- which is not so much a departure as an addendum to the septet’s sound. -- CAITLIN KELLEY

Camila Cabello, Camila

"She Loves Control" is both the name of one of the highlights on Camila Cabello's half-self-titled solo debut and an accurate description of her artistic strategy on the set: Camila runs a short 11 tracks, with Cabello a credited scribe on all 11 and no featured guests aside from Young Thug's turn on the Hot 100-topping "Havana." More importantly, Cabello is in complete command as a writer and performer throughout, with the set's blockbuster lead smash almost a red herring for the combination of intimate bangers and restrained confessionals that reveal Cabello as one of the most compelling pop stars of the moment. And "Never Be the Same," the set's second single and a halfway point between its two primary modes, proves how receptive fans are to Camila in Charge, following "Havana" to the top 10 earlier this year. -- ANDREW UNTERBERGER

Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy

Even with "Bodak Yellow" and that bangin' feature on Bruno Mars' "Finesse," plenty of naysayers doubted Cardi B had a long career ahead of her – at least, until Invasion of Privacy dropped. Not unlike take-it-to-11 rappers Eminem and Nicki Minaj, Cardi's debut album reminded listeners that you can cultivate a cartoonishly oversized persona and still contain multitudes. "Be Careful" demonstrates vulnerability and confidence aren't mutually exclusive, the Bad Bunny/J Balvin collab "I Like It" makes it clear she's comfortable on the mic no matter the genre, and album closer "I Do" is a well-deserved gloat: "My little 15 minutes lasting long as hell, huh?" -- JOE LYNCH

Charlie Puth, Voicenotes

If you didn't have particularly high expectations for Charlie Puth's sophomore set after hearing his 2016 debut effort, Nine Track Mind, you're not alone: Puth himself couldn't stand his first album, claiming it didn't truly represent him. Thank God he found himself on record in time for Voicenotes, an LP that reveals Puth as a disciple of the L.A. soft-rock and East Coast blue-eyed soul greats, even bringing James Taylor and Hall & Oates by for cameos to drive the point home. He doesn't really need their help, though: Advance Top 40 conqueror "Attention" proved Puth was already a master of irresistible self-involved pop music, and similarly neon-hued highs from Voicenotes like "Boy" and "Done for Me" complete his senior thesis. By the time he has an a capella showdown with Boyz II Men on a song named after a '70s Chicago chart-topper, he's basically just showing off his Billboard bona fides. -- A.U.

Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel

If you've seen her in concert, then you know that, in addition to being one of the driest, wryest, most emotionally nuanced and acutely observant lyricists to come along this century, Courtney Barnett and her band also rock (and even duck walk) like musical descendants of AC/DC. Her second solo album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, sees Barnett relying more heavily on the cathartic properties of her six-string, crafting escapist vintage Pink Floyd, John Frusciante, and ‘80s power-pop soundscapes while grappling with “Crippling Self Doubt and A General Lack of Self Confidence.” Barnett sounds world-weary on this album, and her lyrics are more straightforward than clever, often landing like punches instead of punchlines, as on “Nameless, Faceless,” one of a number of tracks that channel the #MeToo rage that Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby have unbottled in women. “Take your broken heart / Turn it into art,” Barnett sings on the album’s opening track, “Hopefulessness.” And that’s exactly what she’s done. -- FRANK DIGIACOMO

CupcakKe, Ephorize

Chicago-based rapper CupcakKe came into the spotlight in 2016 when two songs off her debut mixtape, “Vagina” and “Deepthroat,” went viral for their absurdly vulgar lyrics. Her third studio album, Ephorize, offers up that same brand of raunchy, sex-positive lyrics, but now packaged in one of the slickest and boldest rap albums of the year. CupcakKe ranges from showing her love for the LGBTQ community on songs like “Crayons,” to letting her detractors know who is the boss on tracks like “Cartoons,” all while spitting some of her most expertly-crafted bars to date. -- STEPHEN DAW

DJ Koze, Knock Knock

You’d be hard pressed to find a more emotionally and musically rich experience in electronic music this year than DJ Koze’s Knock Knock, the first new LP release from the German producer in five years. Working with an array of vocalists -- some as unexpected as Speech from '90s rap outfit Arrested Development -- and beats that run the gamut from dancefloor-ready French house to epic string-driven pieces for movies that have yet to be made, Knock Knock is as accessible as it is voracious. You’re never far from Koze’s personality and taste, and it’s a welcome place to stay for an hour or so. -- R.S.

Ezra Furman, Transangelic Exodus

On paper, Ezra Furman's LP about an angel and its lover on the run from the government might sound like an almost-too-subtle send-up of '70s concept albums. But in reality, Transangelic Exodus is an exhilarating, deeply touching "queer outlaw saga" about love and sexuality in a hostile world. Musically, Furman's palette has never been wider: He touches on everything from the baroque pop desperation of Lou Reed's "Street Legal" to the pounding pub rock of Springsteen and the rockabilly-inflected new wave of the Cars' debut. -- J. Lynch

Hayley Kiyoko, Expectations

Hayley Kiyoko’s fans refer to her as Lesbian Jesus for a reason — on her debut album Expectations, the pop star on the rise showed the world that she can make some of the catchiest, most uplifting pop anthems of the year while still maintaining her identity as a queer woman. With unshakeable jams like “What I Need” (featuring fellow queer pop star Kehlani), “Sleepover” and “Curious,” Kiyoko proves with just one LP (and a couple clever, eye-catching music videos) that she is the next big thing in pop music. -- S.D.

Hop Along, Bark Your Head Off, Dog

“Trust the Process” is such a popular phrase in Philadelphia that it's extending to the city’s impressive indie-rock scene: Over the course of recording Hop Along’s excellent third album, Frances Quinlan clearly put in the time to sharpen her storytelling and own the idiosyncrasies of her voice. Bark Your Head Off, Dog sounds effortless upon first blush, but repeat listens reveal the careful guitar work, subtle string arrangements and purposeful cracks in Quinlan’s imagery. It’s easy to get lost in the album's world of frayed morality and small gestures of empathy, and it’s even easier to root for Hop Along, a band that gets better by leaps and bounds with each new release. -- JASON LIPSHUTZ

J Balvin, Vibras

Do not call J Balvin a reggaeton artist. While homage is paid to the genre on his new album, Vibras is truly about vibes -- a journey of global beats that defies description beyond “cool.” Balvin pushes the boundaries here, performing mostly solo, and when he does collaborate, he does it mostly with unexpected players. The tone is set with the opening intro, courtesy of Mexican alt chanteuse Carla Morrison, whose distinctive voice segues into Balvin’s global anthem “Mi Gente.” The end result manages to be Latin, universal, and completely different all at once. -- LEILA COBO

J. Cole, KOD

J. Cole continues to raise the bar with KOD, the rapper’s fifth No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart. Taking cues from its multiple-meaning title (Kids on Drugs, King Overdose, and Kill Our Demons), the RIAA Gold-certified set finds Cole segueing from the socially conscious ruminations of 2016’s 4 Your Eyez Only to confronting life’s joys and challenges head-on instead of escaping through drugs, alcohol or other addictions. Taking himself to task just as much as others, Cole skillfully strikes the right balance between preachy vs. concerned and melodic vs. rhythmic on additional standouts such as “ATM,” “Kevin’s Heart” and “Photograph.” -- GAIL MITCHELL

James Bay, Electric Light

After establishing himself as a fedora-sporting, long-haired singer-songwriter with his 2015 debut Chaos and the Calm, James Bay followed up his first album in a bold way -- by ditching the hat and chopping the locks. His new album parallels the dramatic change of appearance, incorporating distorted guitars on tracks like “Wasted on Each Other” and trying imaginative production across the entire LP, proving that Bay is just as much of a rock star as he is a poignant songwriter. The evolution on his sophomore effort is what Bay needed to establish staying power, but his fearlessness also serves as terrific inspiration for other artists to do some musical exploring of their own. -- TAYLOR WEATHERBY

Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer

Janelle Monae hits her stride with Dirty Computer, which came roaring in at No. 1 on Billboard's Top R&B Albums chart (her first No. 1 on that list). Monae shimmies and shines on sex-positive tracks like "Make Me Feel" and "I Like That," weaving clever lyrics and beats baring her late mentor Prince's legendary fingerprints throughout. Monae also samples Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the soulful “Crazy, Classic, Life,” fueling a conversation about freedom. And of course, we’ll never forget those instantly-iconic pairs of vagina pants she wore in the video for the empowering Grimes-assisted track "Pynk." Monae is ten steps ahead of all of us. -- GAB GINSBERG

Justin Timberlake, Man of the Woods

Bad marketing? Bad timing? Bad album? Much more the first two than the last for Justin Timberlake's fifth, and to date, least-successful full length: Man of the Woods suffered from a misguided rollout, with strange single and video choices leading up to a Super Bowl halftime gig fraught with controversy before it even began, and it was met with underwhelming-for-JT sales, reviews and radio play. But hey, don't forget about the actual songs: "Midnight Summer Jam" is a hootenanny and a half, "Montana" is the sexiest track about domesticity ever to be inspired by the Mountain Time Zone, and the Chris Stapleton-featuring "Say Something" is the rare pop-country collab that doesn't feel uncomfortably yanked in either direction. Destined for better-than-you-remember status, which every truly great pop star needs at least one LP of on their resume. -- A.U.

Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour

Musgraves may throw around country buzzwords aplenty on Golden Hour -- cowboys, horses, fences and even Western hero John Wayne -- but that’s where any semblance to traditional country ends. Musgraves has invested in busting through country’s status quo since her major label debut, 2013’s Same Trailer Different Park, but her two previous sets were just working up to the ambition of Golden Hour. Here, Musgraves has created her own musical world where twangy guitars, banjos, violins, and disco beats not only co-exist, they thrive. Spanning a story arc that begins with exiting a bad romantic relationship ("Space Cowboy" and "High Horse”) and moves to the bliss of entering a new one (“Butterflies”), Musgraves crafts an immersive world filled with delicate private details (“Grandma cried when I pierced my nose”) that somehow still touch on the universal. -- M.N.

Kali Uchis, Isolation

Alt-R&B’s burgeoning renaissance is due in part to this soulful-voiced Colombian-American newcomer. Kali Uchis' debut album, Isolation, has rightfully garnered major critical acclaim as it spotlights the genre-defying talent that netted the singer-songwriter two Grammy nominations in 2017: one for best R&B performance (on the Daniel Caesar team-up "Get You), the other for the Latin Grammys' record of the year (on the Juanes collab “El Ratico”). Guided by intuitive producers such as Thundercat, Gorillaz, Sounwave, and BadBadNotGood, Uchis’ luscious vocals and insightful lyrics come to colorful life on key tracks like “After the Storm” and “Tyrant,” the latter of which features fellow R&B game-changer Jorja Smith. -- G.M.

Kany Garcia, Soy Yo

The place of the Latin singer-songwriter, or cantautor, in contemporary Latin music has become somewhat diminished since reggaeton and urban music took over. Enter García, whose new album makes zero concessions to anything that’s not her own brand of music (Residente collab “Banana-Papaya” notwithstanding). With the front-and-center vocals, lush acoustic arrangements, and intimate lyrics, Soy Yo reminds us of the depth to be found in the well of Latin music. -- L.C.

Lake Street Dive, Free Yourself Up

Only two years have passed since Lake Street Dive's previous album, Side Pony, but the quintet's latest LP, Free Yourself Up, feels like a rebirth. The rock-pop-soul group added a fifth member to its ranks and, after five full-length LPs, self-produced their new album for the first time. The changes worked in a big way, as the set became their most acclaimed and highest-charting album of the band's 14-year career (reaching the top 10 of the Billboard 200), while the lead single "Good Kisser" became their highest-charting song, hitting No. 12 on the Triple-A chart. -- XANDER ZELLNER

Leon Bridges, Good Thing

When he emerged in 2015 with his debut set Coming Home, critics raved that Leon Bridges was Sam Cooke reincarnated, thanks to his soulful, 60's-inspired LP. On his sophomore effort, Good Thing, Bridges assembled an all-star lineup of songwriters (including Justin Tranter, Ricky Reed and Teddy Geiger, among others) to help realize Bridges' pop-crossover potential with honest, neo-soul tracks better suited for 2018. The notion is no more evident than on the track's jazzy, horn-driven single "Bad Bad News," which hit No. 1 on the Adult Alternative Songs chart. -- X.Z.

Lil Skies, Life of a Dark Rose

Skies has admitted both in interviews and on Life of a Dark Rose opener "Welcome to the Rodeo" that he covered his face and body in tattoos to prevent him from ever having the option of giving up rap for a life in the straight world, but listening to the 19-year-old's debut LP, the insurance policy seems unnecessary. Dark Rose is filled with the tightest songs and thickest choruses found in the alt-leaning side of the genre since a different PA wunderkind named Lil's official debut LP dropped last year, with Skies quoting 2Pacsampling Silversun Pickups, declaring himself "too cool for a girlfriend" and sounding similarly self-assured throughout. Generations and the gaps between them come and go in hip-hop, but teenagers are teenagers forever. -- A.U.

Lil Yachty, Lil Boat 2

After too much hype and not enough sales for 2017 set Teenage Emotions, Lil Yachty was at risk of getting left behind in the hip-hop moment he helped create, a relic in his own time. But Yachty ain't Jibbs, and he wasn't about to be forgotten that easily, roaring back this year with the explosive (and No. 2-chartingLil Boat 2, an album whose 17 tracks (in 45 minutes) are bursting with hooks and jokes and vitality. Listening to the two rappers swap bars almost interchangeably on "OOPS," it seems obvious now that Yachty is his era's 2 Chainz: only briefly at the genre's center, but never too distant in orbit, and too smart, well-connected, and goddamn likeable to ever be ignored for long. -- A.U.

Lucy Dacus, Historian

Lucy Dacus' sophomore effort Historian begins with a breakup, but don’t call it a breakup album. Taking on the role of the album’s title, the Virginia indie singer-songwriter documents all kinds of loss, from forgetting one’s sense of self in a relationship (the wistful, spiraling “Addictions”) to losing touch with religion (the prodding, string-driven “Nonbeliever”) and in the penultimate track about burying her grandmother (the stark, tragically lovely “Pillar of Truth”). The result is a rich, devastating, and, at times, peculiarly funny study in how we carry the pieces of the ones we love -- from beloved family members to unworthy ex-boyfriends -- long after they're gone. -- TATIANA CIRSANO

Maluma, F.A.M.E.

Maluma recently said his genre of music is “Maluma.” He has a point: Third album F.A.M.E. is a non-stop parade of hits with excellent, often bilingual lyrics that speak directly to a new audience of fans and make the set impossible to place squarely in either a reggaeton or a pop box. Instead, Maluma moves fluidly between both, marrying genres and beats with vocals that have dramatically improved and can go from eloquent and melodic singing to edgy rap. Produced mostly by Maluma’s Medellin camp of Édgar "Edge" Barrera  and “Rude Boyz” Kevin ADG & Chan El Genio, and with additional contributions by Timbaland and Scott Storch, F.A.M.E. is a major step forward both for Maluma and for the standards of pop/urban music. -- L.C.

Meshell Ndegeocello, Ventriloquism

Cover albums tend to fall in one of two categories: Faithful renditions that merely interpret the originals through the artist's own sound, or subversive attempts to recontextualize the original texts through dramatic reinterpretations. Meshell Ndegeocello's Ventriloquism seems to find a third lane, with the iconic soul singer-songwriter bracing a set of classic '80s and '90s R&B jams and asking: How might I have done it? Her covers are neither reverential nor irreverent, but simply internalized: Ndegeocello crawls into the songs' DNA and spits the source code back out with spellbinding, deeply felt new spins that feel nothing like the famous versions but still draw from and expand upon your love for them in ways you didn't think still possible. Chances are you've never imagined what George Clinton's "Atomic Dog" would sound like as a grungy freak-folk jam, or Prince's "Sometimes It Snows in April" as a dreamy slowcore ballad, but chances are equally good you'll never hear either quite the same way again. -- A.U.

MGMT, Little Dark Age

Former indie darlings MGMT have officially aged out of the growing pains attached to their instant success nearly a decade ago. On their fourth album, Little Dark Age, the duo are less concerned with working outside the box they’ve been put in and instead dedicate themselves to changing everything from the inside. The hooks have returned, the proggy diversions are condensed and refined into highlights like the excellent introspective “Days That Got Away,” and their psychedelic weirdness has been distilled into fun pop tunes. Though it’s taken some time for reinvention to find themselves again, MGMT’s Dark Age might just be their brightest moment. -- BRYAN KRESS

Migos, Culture II

Bloated though it unquestionably is, with 24 tracks clocking in at more than 100 minutes, Culture II still sparkles at its best moments, with ATL's trio of top trappers bobbing and weaving around each other and landing blow after blow. There may not be a meme-busting "Bad & Boujee" or a visual event like the "T-Shirt" video here, but "Stir Fry" is a strong addition to the canon, "Motorsport," with Nicki Minaj and Cardi B still feels like an event record half a year later, and less-hyped cuts like "Narcos" and "Made Men" make it worth diving into the album's deep end. -- DAN RYS

Nipsey Hussle, Victory Lap

In 2008, the West Coast penciled in Nipsey Hussle as the next artist to take over the rap game after Snoop Dogg. With a menacing flow and steely bars at his disposal, Crenshaw's biggest street disciple was ready for the throne. Unfortunately, several roadblocks, including a falling out with Epic Records in 2010, deterred him from snatching the elusive throne. Fast -forward to 2018: Nipsey has silenced his detractors with his long-awaited debut album, Victory Lap. Hussle's shrewd business tactics and expansive street knowledge makes Victory Lap a necessary listen for young creatives. Besides dropping gems, Nip thrashes his naysayers with his bravado: First, he callously mocks his haters on "Rap N----s," then declares himself this generation's Tupac Shakur on "Dedication." Though Nipsey was a couple years late to the party with his delayed debut album, Victory Lap ensures his overdue status as hip-hop royalty. -- CARL LAMARRE

Post Malone, beerbongs and bentleys

When rap everyman Post Malone dropped the album's first single, “rockstar,” the title seemed a bit premature from someone most recently trading lines with Justin Bieber and wailing over a Metro Boomin beat. However, the single proved prescient as it rose to the top of the Hot 100 for eight weeks and ultimately set the tone for b&b’s raw edginess. Combining Post’s soulful vocal arsenal with the brazenness of a larger-than-life rock god, the young Texan has never sounded more assured, whether he’s sharing tracks with fellow rapper-singers Swae Lee and Ty Dolla $ign or exploring new directions like the acoustic ballad “Stay” or the rock-tinged “Over Now.” -- B.K.

Pusha T, Daytona

After playing the corporate role for the last three years as the president of G.O.O.D. Music, many wondered if Pusha T's love for hip-hop had dwindled. Late last month, he savagely quashed those claims with the seven-track album, DAYTONA. Executive-produced by Kanye West, Push stymies his foes with razor-sharp lyricism and drug-dealing tales that would make Frank Lucas blush. On "Hard Piano," he tap dances his way through the blistering instrumental before dropping jewels about dating Instagram models. His dark lyrics intensify when he takes aim at Drake on the album's now-infamous outro, "Infared" -- where in his attempt to dethrone the 6 God from his coveted seat at the top, Push fires staggering blows in regards to Drake's ghostwriting allegations, rapping: "How could you ever right these wrongs/ When you don't even write your songs?" Don't ever sleep on President Push, because he'll find a way to send shots over without a SWAT team. -- C.L.

Rae Sremmurd, SR3MM

A musical duo undergoing a messy split so that each member can kick off a solo career? That’s a compelling entertainment story. A duo amiably figuring out a way to construct separate platforms that let their individual talents shine without disrupting the group… that’s less juicy, frankly. While Rae Sremmurd’s third album -- a triple LP that combines projects from Swae Lee, Slxm Jxmmy and Sremmurd Proper -- contains a comparatively humdrum backstory, the fireworks are reserved for the music itself, with Swae’s airy hooks and Jxmmi’s mean-mug bars getting ample room to breathe on songs like “Guatemala,” “Changed Up,” and the riotous single “Powerglide." -- J. Lipshutz

Royce da 5'9", Book of Ryan

Even during his latter-career return to form over the past several years, it's always seemed that Royce da 5'9 seemed more comfortable riding shotgun; Book of Ryan is just his second studio album since 2011, with collaborative projects alongside Eminem (as Bad Meets Evil), DJ Premier (as PRhyme), and his old Shady Records group Slaughterhouse sprinkled in between. Maybe that's because, when fully unleashed, he's such a deadly accurate shooter: On this album, Royce unleashes bar after bar with a focused energy that powers through a stop-start tracklist broken up by a shade too many skits, going toe to toe with the likes of Em, J. Cole, Pusha T and Jadakiss every step of the way, and never side-stepping a challenge. -- D.R.

Saba, Care for Me

“I’m so alone.” These are the first words Saba says on his second album, Care for Me, a sobering 10-track look at loss and its aftermath. Largely inspired by the murder of the 23-year-old Chicago rapper’s cousin in 2017, the jazz- and soul-backed release, co-produced by Saba, DaeDaePivot, and Daoud, is a collection of scenes, from a prom night, to a street scrap, to a phone call. But Saba also chronicles his life behind closed doors: “I’m not mad at God, I just can’t get out of bed,” he says on the piano-led “CALLIGRAPHY,” running through the line so fast you almost miss it. He dots his stories with moments of honesty, and through leaving himself vulnerable, he has made one of the bravest, boldest releases of the year, one that fluctuates between a plea and a demand: CARE FOR ME. -- C.W.

Shawn Mendes, Shawn Mendes

Shawn Mendes set a high bar for himself for his third LP, as both of his previous albums debuted atop the Billboard 200. But instead of playing it safe and delivering another album full of crowd-pleasing tunes that’ll launch him to No. 1 by making tween hearts melt, Mendes pushed himself to be more daring on his self-titled effort. The album introduces more grown-up topics -- including a one-night stand (“Where Were You in the Morning?”), a battle with anxiety (“In My Blood”), and the emotional toll of tragedy (“Youth”) -- as well as a bolder, funkier sound that makes all 14 tracks compelling and catchy. Above all, Shawn Mendes shows maturity that serves as proof that the success he’s had prior to 2018 was no fluke, cementing his place as a pop superstar before he even enters his 20s. -- T.W.

SOB X RBE, Gangin

SOB X RBE -- a fiery rap foursome from Vallejo, Calif. -- exploded into the mainstream thanks to a Kendrick Lamar-approved appearance with “Paramedic!” on this year’s Black Panther soundtrack. The excitement carried through to the release of the group’s debut album, Gangin, which brings a youthful appeal to the distinct Bay Area sound made popular by the great Mac Dre. Having four voices on one song can usually cause its band members to blur together, but Slimmy B, DaBoii, Yhung T.O, and Lul G still carve out their unique identities among hyphy-style drums and vibrant synths. Their clipped, staccato flows whiz through tracks like “Carpoolin’,” while deep cuts like “Always” display a more somber mentality. -- BIANCA GRACIE

Soccer Mommy, Clean

Soccer Mommy’s debut LP established the 20-year-old born Sophie Allison as a low-key guitar-rocker with bite. On “Your Dog,” she assuredly declares: “I don't wanna be your fucking dog/ That you drag around.” But elsewhere, her lyrics often skew towards self-doubt: “Why would you still want to be with me?/ She's got everything you'll ever need,” she sings on “Last Girl.” The way in which Allison walks the line between the two contrasting feelings (two of many that any 20-something is simultaneously sorting) is what makes Clean so accessible and earnest. -- L.H.

Superorganism, Superorganism

Our meme-loving, gif-sending Instagram culture has finally gotten the band it deserves: the vintage (yes, vintage) Internet-loving Superorganism. The octet reportedly creates music via email, and, well, it sounds like it. A sonic descendant of The Beatles (post-LSD) and Australia’s Avalanches, with a dash of Eminem’s early playfulness, Superorganism’s songs are irresistible confections spun from samples and loops. (Among them: motivational speaker Tony Robbins' distorted voice, someone snoring, a cash register, the sound of a carbonated beverage being poured, dreamy guitar riffs, a vibrating cellphone ringtone, synthesizer peals and what sounds like the drums from Peter Bjorn & John’s “Young Folks.”) Listen to the killer “Something For Your M.I.N.D.” or “It’s All Good,” and it’s as if the intersection outside Tokyo’s Shibuya Station or the entire Adult Swim programming schedule were turned into music. To frontwoman Orono Noguchi: Please stay away from the Red Bull and don’t ever grow up. -- F.D.

The Glitch Mob, See Without Eyes

L.A.-based trio The Glitch Mob are no strangers to Billboard's Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart. In fact, they've landed on the chart five times, most recently with their album See Without Eyes, which clinched the No. 1 spot. this May. The LP beautifully encapsulates the group's live electronic melodies and tasteful infusion of gritty, raw bass. -- DAVID RISHTY

The Weeknd, My Dear Melancholy EP

As his pop-star status soared higher, The Weeknd fumbled a bit with retaining the grim sound that made fans fall to their knees in the first place. But with My Dear Melancholy, the Toronto singer finally returned to the raw emotion found on his beloved mixtapes, just with a little more finesse. With the help of producers like Skrillex, Mike Will Made-It, and Gesaffelstein, The Weeknd sinks deep into a substance-laced haze fueled by heartbreak (thanks to ex-flames Bella Hadid and Selena Gomez). His emotional wails are sharper, the woozy synths rattle inside your brain even harder, and the lyrics are unabashedly horny. You’re left hungry for more addictive despondency after just six tracks. -- B.G.

Tove Styrke, Sway

Pop music can sometimes feel like an arms race, with various stars competing for attention through the biggest hooks, the gnarliest bass drops, the flashiest stunts. But Swedish singer Styrke, who's touring with Katy Perry and recently hit the road with Lorde, has learned that, sometimes, the best way to stand out is by being quiet. Her delectable snack of an album, Sway, is 27 swoon-worthy minutes of crush songs and infatuation anthems set to minimal bleep-bloop instrumentals that don't so much shake the club as soundtrack the delicate moments that happen around it: Check the buzzing-phone sound effects on the are-we-just-hooking-up ode “Mistakes,” or the morning-after birds chirping on the definitely-not-just-hooking-up stunner “On the Low.” When Styrke's voice drops to a near whisper on tracks like the latter, it feels more intimate then FaceTime. -- NOLAN FEENEY

Trixie Mattel, One Stone

It's practically a rite of passage for drag queens to release music after appearing on RuPaul's Drag Race, but no matter how many catchphrases, memes, and death drops their club-ready beats inspire, it's hard to imagine a queen becoming a genuine musical phenomenon the way RuPaul did 25 years ago with “Supermodel (You Betta Work),” which landed in the upper half of the Hot 100. Until now, at least — All Stars 3 winner Trixie Mattel's folksy country-pop won't get you sashaying down the runway, but her clever wordplay and knack for melody on songs like “Break Your Heart” (which has flashes of Old Taylor Swift) and “The Well” (as good a “Landslide” imitation as any) have already found a fan in Kacey Musgraves, making the idea of Nashville success feel like a real possibility. Get off your high horse and embrace it, too. -- N.F.

Turnstile, Time and Space

Turnstile’s major-label debut was one of the most-hyped hardcore records in recent memory, and for good reason: Time and Space is a rock record to two-step to, a psych record to mosh to. Stargazey interludes set the tone, then bassist Franz Lyons’ surprise lead vocal turn on the croon-punker “Moon” three quarters through fully realizes Turnstile’s dizzying potential. For those who just want to throw down, the hardcore chug-a-chug and Black Album riffing of “Generator” and the Diplo-assisted “Right to Be” also suffice. -- CHRIS PAYNE

Underoath, Erase Me

On their first album in eight years (and first since ditching their longheld “Christian band” label), an unrepentant Underoath reclaims its post-hardcore crown. But these aren’t some old scenesters ramping up the ’04 Warped Tour nostalgia; keyboardist Chris Dudley’s warzone soundscapes provide a jarring backdrop for Spencer Chamberlain’s scorched-earth screaming and Aaron Gillespie’s deceptive combo of clean vocals and pummeling drums. RIYL: bands saying the word “fuck” for the first time in 20 years. -- C.P.

Various Artists, Black Panther OST

Why can't all soundtracks be like this? Well, because most soundtracks don't have the luxury of association with a film franchise so clearly bound for glory that it can not only land the era's most acclaimed rapper to curate the OST, it can also get him to appear on every track himself while his biggest and/or hippest friends hitch along for the ride. Black Panther is an embarrassment of riches, throwing out dream-teamups between current chart heavies (Kendrick x SZA! Swae Lee x Khalid!) while also making breakout stars out of SOB X RBE and Mozzy, all with songs that eclipse the usual soundtrack cash-ins and instead feel like the year's most vital pop music. Best of all: Kendrick's interstitial presence ties the whole thing together, making it a more cohesive listening experience than most single artists' so-called personal statements. -- A.U.