Women ruled the charts—and the art form—in music through 2018, from stylistic independence to #MeToo empowerment. And so many impressive artists across an even broader spectrum were young, spelling promise for the years ahead.

Albums of the Year

Kacey Musgraves Golden Hour (MCA Nashville) On this luminous break from country’s mainstream, Musgraves celebrates the glow of her marriage, the magic of nature and general joys of life without getting on a high horse. It’s a chill ride. She gets a new perspective on her mother (with help from LSD). She mixes vocoder a la Daft Punk with banjo. And her precious voice and clean melodies lend pop-like purity.

Janelle Monáe Dirty Computer (Bad Boy) With a beating heart beyond her once-android alter-ego, the singer/rapper refines her Afro-futuristic eclecticism as a galvanizing figure in the call for a wide-open world for gender, race and sexual orientation. Then, like greats Michael and Janet Jackson, James Brown and Prince before her, Monáe transcended her studio glossiness with a dynamite live show.

Kurt Vile Bottle It In (Matador) “I’ve always had a soft spot for repetition,” Vile sings, and the easygoing Philly rock tunesmith hypnotizes with his musing drawl and cyclical guitar lines. Even when high points like “Bassackwards” subtly unspool for several minutes, his wry humor and muted layers keep it rolling with the flow.

Ariana Grande Sweetener (Republic) She’s always had a soaring voice, but pop’s crown princess finds her sweet spot in clear, cushiony settings. From lush ballads to lightly pumping beats at the hands of producers Pharrell Williams and Max Martin, Grande adapts and commands, infusing each vocal with experience wrought from tragedy and romance to deliver the cream of this year’s Top 40.

Noname Room 25 (self-released) “I’m just writing my darkest secrets,” intones the Chicago rapper born Fatimah Warner, but her thoughts are an open book. At turns playful, profane and powerful, she seamlessly weaves brisk, intricate poetry about sex and social injustice across jazz and neo-soul rhythms and strings.

The Marcus King Band Carolina Confessions (Fantasy) This Southern guitar prodigy cracks his 20s and hits a new level under country-rock producer Dave Cobb. King impresses as much with his soulful, gravelly vocals and topical songwriting as with his six-string runs, while his fine R&B-shaded band lends further balance with keyboards and horns.

U.S. Girls In a Poem Unlimited (4AD) Singer Meg Remy fuels swirling disco-pop grooves with Toronto jazz-funk group the Cosmic Range that belie songs decrying domestic violence, government lies and a woman’s infertility because of a refinery job. Music and message merge in furious closer “Time,” where she sings, “When there is nowhere, there is still time,” before gnarly guitar and squawking sax wail it out.

The 1975 A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships (Polydor) This mashup befitting our internet age also serves as a reset for frontman Matty Healy after rehab for opiates. England’s pop-rock swaggerers expand their ambitions and skills with sweeping results that tap into hip-hop, R&B and balladry; blend Auto-Tune, choirs, winds and spoken word; and drop quotations of President Trump and ruminations on loneliness.

Brandi Carlile By the Way, I Forgive You (Elektra) The Northwestern folk-rocker sets her clarion voice and writing chops free in tales of empathy and forgiveness that extend to self, family and outsiders, choosing an optimistic road less traveled.

Sunflower Bean Twentytwo in Blue (Mom + Pop) With nods to Fleetwood Mac and T. Rex, these New York indie-rockers reflect on their own age with glammy exuberance and plucky confidence, getting both dreamy and political—to some degree. Most everyone today would agree that “Reality’s one big sick show.”

Songs of the Year

“This Is America,” Childish Gambino (RCA) An ominous juxtaposition of sound and culture, even without its stunning and graphic video.

“Bite the Hand,” Boygenius (Matador) “I can’t love you like you want me to,” Lucy Dacus sings on this EP as part of an indie supertrio with Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker.

“Sicko Mode,” Travis Scott (Epic) A moody, bouncy ride on rapper’s roller coaster with Drake riding shotgun.

“Everybody’s Coming to My House,” David Byrne (Nonesuch) Communal invocation that led to an intriguing tour with mobile musicians.

“It’s Not Just Me,” Let’s Eat Grandma (Transgressive) Two schoolgirl friends from England hit their late teens with proggy ambitions—and this synth-pop earworm. ◆

For more music coverage, check out Paul’s Weekend Music Ideas.

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