Best albums of 2018: Kacey Musgraves, Ariana Grande, Cardi B and Arctic Monkeys

By Mark Savage
BBC Music reporter

  • Published
Kacey MusgravesImage source, Mercury Records
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Kacey Musgraves won album of the year at this year's Country Music Association Awards

Kacey Musgraves' unabashedly romantic Golden Hour was the music critics' favourite album of 2018.

The "space country" record, which was written as the star fell in love with her husband, has topped a "poll of polls" compiled by BBC News.

Janelle Monae's radical, inclusive Dirty Computer came second, while indie star Mitski's Be The Cowboy was third.

The top seven were all by female artists, with Cardi B and Ariana Grande rounding out the top five.

The full top 20 looked like this:

The results were compiled using 35 "album of the year" lists published by the most influential magazines, newspapers and blogs in music - including the NME, Rolling Stone, Popsugar and The Times.

Records were assigned points based on their position in each list - with the number one album getting 20 points, the number two album receiving 19 points, and so on.

Altogether, critics raved about 194 albums, from Kendrick Lamar's blockbuster Black Panther soundtrack to Kamasi Washington's colourful and daring jazz album Heaven & Earth.

Variety magazine even picked an unreleased album for its list. Up, by the British alt-rock band Ultimate Painting, was pulled from release in February when the band split up "due to an irreconcilable breakdown".

But Texan singer Musgraves emerged as the clear winner with her third album, Golden Hour.

A swoonsome collection of low-key love songs, it expands the 30-year-old's country sound with dreamy synth textures and unexpected flashes of disco.

It was inspired, she said, by artists ranging from Dolly Parton to Daft Punk via Sade and the Bee Gees.

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"I thought there's got to be a world where all these things can live together harmoniously - a place where futurism meets traditionalism," Musgraves told Rolling Stone.

"I still love steel guitar and banjo, but I thought it would be dope if we put that with a vocoder and explored that world.

"The goal for this record was to sound great when you're sitting there at 2AM, thinking about everything."

Entertainment Weekly called it "her most accomplished and least traditional body of work to date", while The Guardian's Alexis Petridis said: "You'll be hard pushed to find a better collection of pop songs this year."

The album, which is up for four awards at next year's Grammys, fared particularly well with US critics, topping "best of 2018" lists on Entertainment Weekly, People Magazine and US Weekly, among others.

Amongst UK critics, the politicised pop of Christine and the Queens' Chris was the year's most popular album, with punk band Idles taking second place.

But reviewers largely ignored 2018's biggest-selling albums, with only a handful of nominations for Drake's Scorpion, George Ezra's Staying At Tamara's and Post Malone's Beerbongs & Bentleys.

Read more about the albums that made the top 10 below:

10) Low - Double Negative

Image source, Sub Pop

"We want to punch new holes in the possibilities of music," Minnesota band Low told The Guardian earlier this year.

And that's exactly what they do on their 12th album, Double Negative, a glacial, hypnotic record that frequently threatens to disintegrate and collapse on itself.

Melodies appear out of static; instruments are stretched and mutilated; distortion threatens to consume entire songs. But then there'll be a sudden moment of quiet clarity, as husband-and-wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker's delicate harmonies take centre stage.

For a band who were associated with minimalist "slowcore" music, it's as dramatic a reinvention as the one Radiohead took on Kid A; with all of that record's oppressive menace.

Sparhawk said the music was a visceral, physical response to the first year of Donald Trump's presidency.

"The songs are more desperate, more kind of reaching," he said in that same Guardian interview. "My reaction to a more chaotic world is to fight back with something more chaotic."

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9) Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

Image source, Domino Records

Five years after the thrilling, radio-friendly riffs of AM, Arctic Monkeys take a detour into eerie, weightless space rock.

It began when Alex Turner grew tired of his guitar ("as a writing tool I knew where I was going to go with it when I picked it up and that was holding me back", he told BBC 6 Music's Steve Lamacq) and started picking out tunes on an upright piano in his spare room.

Drawing on film noir soundtracks and the tacky glamour of 70s lounge music, the album is alienating at first - but, over time, Turner's meandering stream-of-consciousness gains a peculiar, zonked-out charm.

It split opinion amongst fans but, in the long run, it guaranteed the band's continued existence.

"At the risk of tripping myself up and plunging into pretentiousness, I don't know how I could've done anything that would've been more... 'instantly gratifying' than this," Turner told Q Magazine.

"I really can't imagine what else I could have done."

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8) Pusha T - Daytona

Image source, Def Jam

Kanye West produced five albums in the space of five weeks this summer, but his collaboration with Pusha T was by far the best.

Over seven tight, filler-free songs, he barely pauses for breath, whether he's recapping his credentials (If You Know You Know) or staging a vicious takedown of Drake (Infrared).

Kanye peppers the album with old blues riffs and soul samples but, under that veneer, the record can be unrelentingly bleak. The cover - a photo of Whitney Houston's drug-filled bathroom - is as tasteless as Pusha's repeated attempts to glorify his former career as a cocaine dealer.

But his command of the mic is compelling, even when the subject matter is knotty.

"Listening to Pusha T rap is like watching a skyscraper get built one steel girder at a time," said New York Times critic Jon Caramanica.

"Every step is carefully programmed, every angle is crisp, and the sum total effect is overpowering."

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7) Christine and the Queens - Chris

Image source, Because

"There's a pride in my singing / The thickness of a new skin / I am done with belonging," sings Heloise Letissier on Comme Si, the opening track of her second album.

It's an outsider's reaction to success - in this case, the worldwide embrace of Letissier's debut. Chaleur Humaine, and its themes of gender and queer identity.

She doubles down on that message here, subverting female stereotypes, accentuating her masculinity and arguing for women's sexual agency.

"The second album is made with a bit more defiance, because I wanted to be sure people really knew who they met the first time," she told The Independent.

But she never lets the message get in the way of a killer hook, and fills her (self-produced) album with supple, danceable grooves worthy of Michael Jackson himself.

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6) Ariana Grande - Sweetener

Image source, Republic Records

Ariana Grande's world turned upside down on 22 May 2017, when a bomber killed 22 of her fans outside a concert in Manchester.

Her fourth album candidly describes the fallout - from Breathin's vivid depiction of a panic attack, to the steely resolve she displays on No Tears Left To Cry and The Light Is Coming ("to give back everything the darkness stole").

Pushing against pop convention, half of the tracks are produced by Pharrell Williams, whose skeletal, off-kilter productions that create a wide open space for Grande's soaring vocals.

The rest of the album, overseen by Swedish pop maestro Max Martin, is more formulaic; revelling in Grande's romance with comedian Pete Davidson.

Then, three months after Sweetener was released, she issued the post-script, Thank U, Next, which detailed their break-up.

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5) Robyn - Honey

Image source, Konichiwa Records

Robyn emerged from her eight-year hibernation the same, but different.

The Swedish star is still making music you can dance and cry to at the same time - but she's traded the armour-plated pop bangers of her previous albums for a series of slow-burning, deconstructed club jams.

The tracks are ordered chronologically; tracing the ebb and flow of Robyn's emotions as she dealt with the death of her friend and mentor Christian Falk, and a turbulent period in her relationship with director Max Vitali.

Songs are filled with white noise and disorienting rhythms as she reaches out in the dark, trying to reconnect with the world.

That she gets there via the dancefloor is no surprise, and she distils those experiences into a luminous record that's as sticky as the title suggests.

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4) Cardi B - Invasion of Privacy

Image source, Atlantic / KSR

A former dancer and social media personality, Cardi B arrived at rapping relatively late in the day - but she grasped the opportunity with both hands.

"I used to be a stripper," she told James Corden on her recent episode of Carpool Karaoke, "so when I got really popular on Instagram and I was stripping throughout the United States, I was going around listening to what people were listening to.

"A lot of people have different styles, so I was like, 'What would be something that people from every coast would love and enjoy?' and it's like 'Boom!'"

But her debut album does more than cherry-pick current rap trends, it's laden with pop hooks (I Like It) and piercingly funny lyrics (Get Up 10), allowing the Bronx-born star to overtake all of her contemporaries.

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3) Mitski - Be The Cowboy

Image source, Dead Oceans

Mitski Miyawaki's fifth album is a collection of strange and beguiling vignettes about loneliness and love on the wane.

"I know no-one will save me, I just need someone to kiss," she sings on the deceptively upbeat single Nobody. "Give me one good honest kiss / And I'll be alright."

The songs are written from the point of view of a "woman who feels powerless and overcompensates by exercising extreme control on herself and on her environment," Mitski told The Outline. "But [she's] unravelling a little bit because the amount of control she's exercising on to herself maybe isn't healthy or isn't natural."

Reflecting the protagonist's fracturing psyche, the album crams 14 tracks into just 33 minutes, with Mitski's serrated guitar riffs and mordant lyrics the sole connective tissue.

"Be the Cowboy shows that love and loss can be grand and small at the same time," said Sputnik Music. "That two minutes is more than enough time to melt down emotion into a pure concentrate and nearly drown yourself in it."

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2) Janelle Monae - Dirty Computer

Image source, Atlantic

"I am not America's nightmare, I am the American dream," sings Janelle Monae on Dirty Computer, an album that is proudly female, black and queer.

She sings about sexual bliss on Make Me Feel and Pynk; rages against male oppression on Django Jane; and prays for her country's soul on Americans.

"I wanted to be as bold as possible in making statements around agency, around women's bodies and rights," she said. "[It's about] us taking back the mic and letting you know that you don't own us and we won't be controlled."

Dirty Computer's euphoric mix of sex and politics feels like a fresh introduction to the star, who'd previously hidden behind the persona of an R&B cyborg - but one thing hasn't changed: Her ability to make you dance.

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1) Kacey Musgraves - Golden Hour

Image source, Mercury Records

On her fourth album, Musgraves escapes the orbit of country music, yet stays true to its roots, with a collection of blissed-up, spaced-out pop songs.

The record was written as she fell for her now-husband, Ruston Kelly, who she says opened her mind "to a kind of love I never really envisioned for myself".

"I was like, 'Man, I wonder if I'm gonna be able to write. I've never felt like this before,'" she told The Independent.

"And it actually ended up being kind of the opposite for me. It changed my world, it made me see the world in a more beautiful way."

"That kind of inspiration can't be faked," said the Boston Globe in its review. "And Golden Hour has so many similarly enchanting moments it practically glows."

In lesser hands, Golden Hour's contentedness could be suffocating, but Musgraves has enough lyrical bite to keep things fresh, as well as a pleasingly carefree approach to genre - not least on the disco-country crossover High Horse.

"I was on a giant Bee Gees kick going into this record, I could not quit," she told Stereogum. "And also I love Sade. I was kinda thinking, 'Man, what would it sound like if Sade made a country album?'"

Well, now we know.

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The 35 "best of" lists appeared in: Associated Press, Billboard magazine, Clash, Complex, Consequence of Sound, Cosmopolitan, Dazed, Drowned In Sound, Esquire, Entertainment Weekly, Flavorwire, Fopp, The Guardian, The Independent, Line of Best Fit, Mojo, The New York Times, NME, NPR, Paste, People magazine, Pitchfork, Popsugar, Q Magazine, Refinery 29, Rolling Stone, Spin, Stereogum, The Times, Time Magazine, Uncut, Uproxx, Variety Magazine, Vice and Vulture..

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