What’s it even mean to have a #1 album in 2018?
All in all, 39 albums reached the top of the Billboard 200 for the first time last year, and rest assured I will rank them all, worst to best, in the space below. (A 40th #1, Taylor Swift’s Reputation, had already hit the top slot in 2017, and I wrote about it in last year’s roundup.)
But gauging the actual popularity of recorded music has never been trickier. Billboard integrates streaming numbers along with sales. Artists bundle their albums with concert ticket sales to juke their stats. All of it feels a little like cheating. (Hell, I even cheated a bit myself here—a few of these blurbs are adapted from previously published reviews.)
And yet, clumped together like this, these albums do give an incomplete yet accurate sense of the popular sound of 2018. Sometimes you have to cheat a little, I guess.
39. XXXTentacion – Skins
Even with 3:18 of Kanye and Travis Barker clobbering out sub-Weezy rap-rock tacked on, this post-mortem collection of fragments doesn’t break the 20-minute mark. In other words, it’s what we used to call a cash-in—you know, back when people still paid for music.
38. The Greatest Showman Soundtrack
There’s a Pasek and Paul fan born every minute.
37. Mumford & Sons – Delta
This is all U2’s fault somehow.
36. Andrea Bocelli – Sì
Now’s your chance to hear Ed Sheeran sing in Italian.
35. XXXTentacion – ?
This brutal sadsack’s woozy art-trap did have its inspired moments. May his untimely death allow producer John Cunningham to find a more worthwhile collaborator.
34. Fall Out Boy – Mania
Even if you can tune out lines like “I’m about to go Tonya Harding on the whole world’s knee” and “Are you smelling that shit? Eau de résistance,” these rock survivors have assimilated all the ugly bludgeon of mallrat dubstep with none of its klutzy propulsion, as though to say: What else are we supposed to do? And really, what else are they supposed to do? Go country? Play oldies at state fairs? Get day jobs?
33. Jason Aldean – Rearview Town
Another turgid round of smolder ‘n’ chug from a once mildly innovative lifer whose possession of a less telegenic ass than Luke Bryan must endear him to insecure boyfriends.
32. Dave Matthews Band – Come Tomorrow
Those who remember the ’90s are doomed to repeat them.
31. Bon Jovi – This House Is Not for Sale
Even back when his hairdo and stage duds got him slotted as metal, Jersey Jon’s aerodynamic striving served up Springsteen-without-consequences. Now secure in his role as roots-rock’s suburban cousin, so committed vocally to peddling rock lyric as inspirational refrigerator magnet he makes Sting sound like Bryan Adams (or vice versa?), he repackaged this 2016 album as part of a concert ticket deal to goose its sales. Call it a scam or a compromise if you like, but it’s true to the arena-rock ethos that “winning is the only thing” is a perfectly acceptable credo for underdogs and nice guys.
30. The Weeknd – My Dear Melancholy,
We get it already—you’re sad and you like drugs.
29. 5 Seconds of Summer – Youngblood
More like Maroon 5 Seconds of Summer now, amirite?
28. Post Malone – Beerbongs & Bentleys
“Better Now” was the least reprehensible why-won’t-you-still-fuck-me? groan-rap hit I heard on the radio all year. See? I can too say something nice about him.
27. Eminem – Kamikaze
If you’re a middle-aged man (as I am) who’s occasionally tempted to rip into some young idiot on social media (as I am), this master class in how not to pick your battles might be just what it takes for you to delete that draft.
26. Panic! at the Disco – Pray for the Wicked
Brendon Urie has streamlined his arena theatrics so expertly you can hear exactly when the flames are supposed to shoot out of the stage, if that’s your idea of fun. “High Hopes” is such a spectacularly sleek modern-rock hit it’s almost my idea of fun. Boom!
25. Paul McCartney – Egypt Station
His longtime detractors have been unduly dickish but not always wrong—whenever McCartney wasn’t using a marketable pop trend as a guard rail (and sounding more glib the more he succeeded), he was so incapable of finding a context to focus his gifts it’s safe to say to he was unwilling, which often made his melodic generosity feel like a cheat or an evasion. But this grab bag of crafty little knickknacks does proves that puttering into his dotage becomes him as much as he always suspected it would —even if I bet he chose Greg Kurstin to produce because he knew Max Martin wouldn’t let him get away with this nonsense.
24. Logic – Bobby Tarantino II
His good deeds done, the world’s hippest guidance counselor wants you to know he’s also a legitimate rapper. There are already a lot of those.
23. Shawn Mendes – Shawn Mendes
The John Mayer you can take home to mom or just the Ed Sheeran who washes his sheets? Either way, a little clingy.
22. Drake – Scorpion
From most pop stars, an effortless pivot from you-go-girl to feelin’-kinda-wistful to don’t-fuck-with-me to message-to-my-son would be a masterful display of range. But because there’s no depth to Drake’s emotional simulacra, no core to his persona, his mutability just feels manipulative. To trigger the desired response, there’s nothing he wouldn’t say, no feeling he wouldn’t cop to. Which makes him either an uncannily well-designed bot or a sociopath.
21. BTS – Love Yourself: Tear
I am most certainly the wrong non-obsessive to ask how the first K-pop group to top the U.S. charts stacks up against its rivals back home. As boy bands go, though, BTS is pretty traditional if not formulaic: a little PG bump ‘n’ grind, some rap styles outmoded and energetic, maybe fewer ballads than the norm. I’ll admit, the news that I was listening to some sort of concept album about a breakup flooded me with unexpected gratitude that I don’t understand Korean. But the distraught midtempo “Fake Love” speaks my language.
20. Kodak Black – Dying to Live
Kodak rhymes with the thick-tongued diction of a guy who rushed to the studio from the dentist’s before the novocaine wore off, which lends a louche edge to his flow that’s perfect for a track about straddling the street life and the straight life like “Zeze.” A little less apropos for musing on Malcolm, though, or when he tries to sweet talk his girl by promising “I'm gon' put a lil' seed right in your stomach.”
19. Justin Timberlake – Man of the Woods
I totally get the urge to scratch his Teflon-sheathed privilege, really. His idea of naughty (poking at her “pink” with his “purple”) still feels geared toward a very young, very sheltered, very drunk bachelorette party; his personality remains a unique mix of fratty-smug and puppyish-needy. And now that music is a distraction from his day job as multimedia celebrity, his ability to somehow try both too hard and not hard enough has never been more jarring. But until an earnest yawn of a home stretch that climaxes with Justin somehow botching the song to his son—the lowest hanging fruit in the grove of pop authenticity—he half-asses his hick-hop concept to coax a weird incoherence from esteemed over-the-hill collaborators Pharrell and Timbaland that I’ll take over the sleek retro synthesis of Grammy-sponge Bruno Mars.
18. J. Cole – KOD
Rap album as post-prom lock-in, from a skilled scold so empathy-deficient he makes Chuck D sound like Stevie Wonder. Hip-hop’s conscience? Nah—its concern troll.
17. Kane Brown – Experiment
A mixed-race country star is notable, a mixed-race country star who doesn’t play it safe is admirable, and “American Bad Dream,” which calls out bad cops and laments school shootings, is… well, admirable and notable, and sadly not too much more. To be honest, Brown sounds most at home ogling the honeys on “Short Skirt Weather” and staking his claim to small-town southern manhood on “My Where I Come From.” And that, yes, is admirable and notable in its own way.
16. BTS – Love Yourself: Answer
I’d hoped this compilation—their third U.S. full-length of the year—would rub my ignorant face in what I’d been missing out on, but aside from my familiar Tear faves, what’s most rewarding is how newbie add-ons like “Icon” point to the future. Makes sense—pop thrives when it reaches out to listeners beyond its core fanbase. Nah, Nicki Minaj doesn’t really add much to “Idol,” but that’s not the point; what matters is that “Idol” bangs because it was constructed as the sort of track that could accommodate a Nicki feature.
15. Eminem – Revival
The 40s are a dangerous decade for a pop anti-hero: When he was roughly Marshall Mathers’ age, Dylan released Down in the Groove, e.g. Still, Bob regained his footing once he traded in fantasies of commercial relevance for a mature sound. Which, sorry to say, ain’t gonna happen as long as Eminem continues to sell and stream to masses of kids younger than Hailie.
14. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper – A Star Is Born
I slightly prefer Jason Isbell’s lovely “Old Things” to Gaga Inc.’s show-stopping “Shallow,” but elsewhere her crowdsourced pop (#TeamAssLikeThat) trounces the adequate Americana that the movie tries to pass off as a rock star’s greatest hits.
13. Brockhampton – Iridescence
I suppose this sprawling postmodern rap crew calls itself a “boy band” because you can only really tell the members apart if you’ve got a crush on one of ’em. The production team works up a hooky, varied sound from a broad and busy EDM base, but only Kevin Abstract consistently stands out on the mic.
12. Jack White – Boarding House Reach
As aging white cranks with guitars go, prickly’s better than boring, though I suspect many aging white fans of guitars disagree. Whether railing against dog ownership or jively rapping about divine wellsprings of creativity, White’s grotesque characters seem demonically possessed by their elaborately curdled rhetoric, and similarly his idiosyncratically rococo guitarchitecture feels compulsive rather than virtuosic. Maybe someday we’ll look back on this as a curio from a wise veteran’s ornery middle-period. But if the joke here is that you can’t tell if White’s joking, even when he clearly is, the bad news is that I’m not laughing, even when I think he’s funny.
11. Kanye West – Ye
An EP should’ve been the ideal way for Ye to decompress, a chance to doodle and dawdle instead of trying to masterpiece us all upside the head. Instead he dares you to listen past an obnoxious murder-suicide threat from the get-go. Call his bluff and the subsequent tracks aren’t without merit, but they hardly insinuate as colorfully as on the Cudi collab Kids See Ghosts or hit as hard as on Pusha T’s Daytona. So maybe this troubled and toxic talent-not-genius should stick to producing other artists’ albums till he wraps his dark twisted fantastic brain around the diff between candor and exhibitionism. Not Nas albums though.
10. Metro Boomin – Not All Heroes Wear Capes
About as taut and purposeful a hot-shit-producer-calls-in-his-favors collection as you could ask for; credit the auteur’s slight feint toward a more soulful future direction, or the fact that each indebted MC who appears is relieved of the duty of carrying a full album with his own voice.
9. Carrie Underwood – Cry Pretty
Country fans are so loyal they let established stars get lazy at the age they should be gaining wisdom, but Underwood’s maturing nicely into her undiminished fame. She chancily voices the somehow controversial opinion that gunfire is bad for children, and vocally you can hear her think before she roars—sometimes all you can ask of arena belters is pre-meditated bombast. Most importantly, she’s picking better songs than when she was on her come-up. Would I rather hear “Cry Pretty” if Lori McKenna sang it? Sure. Would you have ever heard “Cry Pretty” if Lori McKenna sang it? Doubtful.
8. Lil Wayne – Tha Carter V
Act like you’ve got nothing to prove long enough and you might just accidentally convince yourself. At his creative peak, part of Wayne’s genius was to blur the line between effortlessness and a lack of effort; nowadays that sometimes must feel like too much work to him. This non-classic nonetheless has plenty of classic moments, including a slew of all-time one-liners (“You can't spell fame without me”) and the gonzo set piece “Mona Lisa,” which ends with Kendrick cast as a cuck. The rest of the time Wayne just rhymes like he’s got nothing to prove. He’s not always wrong.
7. Migos – Culture II
Not every track announces itself like “Walk It Like I Talk It” or the St. Lunatics’ tribute “Stir Fry,” but even during the stretches of trap muzak where 808s skitter and tick with mesmerizing regularity, the trio’s effortless melodic elasticity stretches and snaps back into memorably unexpected shapes, slight rhythmic fillips summon new subtleties of cadence from each MC’s recognizable mic style, and their camaraderie and vocal interplay is unmatched in modern rap, with 105 minutes allowing Takeoff and Offset more time to shine.
6. Meek Mill – Championships
The Eagles won the Super Bowl, the Flyers uncaged a monstrously heroic orange ally in the war against fascism, and yet #FreeMeekMill was still Philly’s greatest victory in 2018. Full-throated and -throttle as ever, the unincarcerated MC sounds liberated in more ways than one, like he’d been rhyming to keep in shape the way other inmates lift. Friends and professional acquaintances drop by to pay their respects: Drake makes nice, Jay brilliantly shoulders his race-man responsibility, Rick Ross poops the party even more than usual. And the guest of honor rhymes vividly about some shit he’d rather not endure any more, thanks.
5. Ariana Grande – Sweetener
With horrific circumstances thrusting greatness upon her, everycrit’s new favorite diva rises to the occasion by keeping her feet on the ground, tempering her potential for hurricane-force gales in favor of a subtler meteorological arsenal of wafts and gusts and crosscurrent breezes—this is a woman who knows the difference between breathin’ and breathin’ and breathin’ and breathin’, and she’s more attuned to pleasure than victory even when she’s claims to fuck divinely. Sweetener’s got just about everything you could ask for from a pop album: Missy, Nicki, Pharrell, rooftop sex, a Four Seasons tribute, some guy yelling at Arlen Specter. But not “Thank U, Next.” That was still to come.
4. Travis Scott – Astroworld
ADD, an identity crisis, a neurotic fear that some sliver of his fan base might feel momentarily unacknowledged—whatever fuels Scott’s inability to focus for more than eight bars at a time, the artfully incongruous hasn’t felt so avant-garde since the golden age of mashups. Maybe this is what Mike Dean secretly wishes Kanye albums could sound like.
3. Camila Cabello – Camila
Having already strutted successfully away from her girl-group past to the nostalgic pop-salsa clave rhythm of “Havana,” Cabello either wins or loses you completely on the pre-chorus to her follow-up hit, “Never Be the Same.” When her voice first liquifies then all but evaporates into girlish ecstasy and she spindles “heroin” to make it rhyme with “nicotine,” you’ll either scoff or swoon. Me, I’m smitten. Whether she’s bobbing along to muted guitar strums or shimmying amid steel drums, spelunking into the title of “Consequences” in search of hidden consonants or throwing herself into the flirty “Into It,” her confidence, presence, and arsenal of charming vocal tics add up to something more human than mere star quality.
2. Black Panther: The Album
Kendrick Lamar is so invested in his status as rap royalty royalty royalty he’d’ve tossed Ryan Coogler off a waterfall to reign over this soundtrack. But rather than an opportunity to meditate on the themes of power and vengeance Coogler’s blockbuster introduces, this project is a new prism through which Kendrick can refract the internal conflict he’s placed at the center of his art, which blurs the line between a celebrity’s gripes and an artist’s responsibilities to his culture. And while his muscular virtuosity is as impressive and charismatic as ever, the thrilling jostle of competing voices and beats here almost upstages him. Rather than straining impossibly to stitch a seamless groove from the two dozen producers at work on these 14 tracks, Kendrick and Sounwave accentuate the discord, so beats shift jarringly mid-track, with nods to an imagined motherland all but subliminal: an Afrobeat bump, an electro-mbira, a stray hand-drum from Ludwig Göransson’s score. In this context, the decent soundtracky stuff—Khalid sweetly patronizing his “power girl,” the Weeknd radiating cinematic anomie, even Kendrick and SZA’s “All the Stars”—comes off as baldly slick and functional background music, while weird asides like Future’s croak of “slob on me knob” somehow leap to the fore. And a star turn from spacey South African MC Yugen Blakrok makes me wish Compton’s king paid as much heed to strong female voices as Wakanda’s.
1. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
“Imma sound like all your favorite rappers, Imma take all they flows, and Imma body it, bitch,” Cardi boasted before the release of her full-length debut. “One day Imma sound like Kodak, the next day Imma sound like Meek Mill, the next day Imma sound like Migos. I don’t give a fuck." And if she doesn’t necessarily improve on the flows she burrows into, she sure AF makes them, well, Cardier. The ultimate rap fan turned star, Cardi’s like a prisoner who wakes up one day and realizes her cell door has never been locked: Every rap style is just sitting out there, waiting for you to take it, to flood with your personality and make it yours. After Cardi, everything is permitted.