The year’s halfway point follows a strange month for music: Nas album done, and is boring, unfortunately; Kanye West produced five albums in the span of five weeks, including his eighth solo effort, which was disastrous; a Jay-Z and Beyoncé joint release was gazumped by 5 Seconds of Summer. Oh! And there’s a Drake album arriving at the end of June that no one seems all that excited about.
It’s been quite a lot; enough to obfuscate the fact there was actually good and non-marginal music released this year that you’ve likely forgotten about. In fact, there has been so much good music that highlighting just 10 releases led to some omissions we feel truly terrible about—Tierra Whack is still amazing—but you’re still getting 10, so stop complaining.—Micah Peters
Kendrick Lamar, Black Panther: The Album
The thing about Black Panther—as Jamie Foxx inviting Michael B. Jordan onstage at the BET Awards to awkwardly recite Killmonger’s dying words should tell you—is that it will never be over. The Catskill foothills will become beachfront property and the global elite will relocate to Earth-Two, and a dead-eyed Chadwick Boseman will still be doing the “Wakanda forever” salute. But you know all of this already. You also know that Kendrick Lamar managed to executive-produce a soundtrack for the movie that may survive into that future, that takes a central premise from the film—other black cultures exist—and does something truly memorable and interesting with it. For the record, Lamar had little to do with the best song on it. I’m talking about “Paramedic!” by Bay Area newcomers SOB X RBE which, four months later, I still can’t believe didn’t score a high-speed chase scene, or a training montage, or something. (Bonus: You should hurry up and enjoy SOB X RBE’s debut album, Gangin, since the members of the group are already recording solo records.) —Peters
Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
Not since Willie Nelson has there been a country star I’d like to get high with as much as Kacey Musgraves. The magnificent Golden Hour is her psychedelic album (she told Billboard earlier this year that she thinks her experiences with mushrooms “made [her] music better”), not for the way it sounds so much as its warm, smiley vibe: It has the blissed-out perspective of someone who’s freshly awestruck at the ordinary glories of being alive. And in love: “Oh, what a world, and then there is you,” she croons on the kaleidoscopically sweet (and vocoder-assisted!) “Oh, What a World,” while the bouncy “Velvet Elvis” beams with gratitude for the kitsch of one’s own life. The true stunners, though, are the magnificent ballad “Space Cowboy” and the disco-lite “High Horse”—two double-entendres that wink at Musgraves’s reputation for being the weirdest girl in Nashville that turn out to be masterfully crafted crowd-pleasers. Mature, expertly confident songwriting: It’s a hell of a drug! —Lindsay Zoladz
Hell hath no fury like a Pusha diss. “Waving at rude boy—I’m waving at you, boy!” he sneers in the sputtering intro to “If You Know You Know,” the song that joyously announces his return. Throughout Daytona, there’s an elegance to his evisceration: Not only is he making fun of you, he’s also making fun of you for how long it takes for you to decode his knotty poetry and thus realize he was making fun of you in the first place. It’s simple: If you know, you know!
The highlight of GOOD Music’s busy and otherwise MEH Summer, Daytona does so much more with less. Pusha manages to say more in 21 minutes than most other rappers would on double albums, and Kanye West’s sample-haunted minimalist production lets Pusha’s signature off-kilter cadences shine. Of course, there’s nothing on Daytona as world-stoppingly direct as “The Story of Adidon”—which somehow makes “Adidon” doubly insulting. You really couldn’t tell what “Infrared” was about? Don’t make the man spell it out for you, boy. —Zoladz
Snail Mail, Lush
Lindsey Jordan is 19 years old, but youth—and all of its confusing, mortifying muchness— isn’t necessarily what’s happening here. She doesn’t write about heartbreak as if it’s some grand, cinematic thing that happens in slow motion in front of a rapt audience, but rather as a lonely, ordinary hardship—something that can just, you know, happen. Even in the summertime, when there’s nothing to take your mind off of it: “Heatwave, nothing to do,” goes the languid opening to “Heat Wave.” “Woke up in my clothes having dreamt of you.” On Lush, Jordan is boldly personal and quietly distressing, sure—“I know myself and I know I’ll never love anyone else”—but above all, she’s sincere and occasionally funny, in that way people who don’t seem to be capable of telling a lie can be. “It just feels like the same party every weekend, doesn’t it?” —Peters
U.S. Girls, In a Poem Unlimited
Meg Remy’s songs are cake, but the kind delivered to a prison in an old movie, with lock-picking supplies hidden in the batter—a sweetness with sharp, baked-in secrets that can set you free. “I’m embedded fully in the avant-garde and the difficult and the complex,” she told me in an interview earlier this year. “[But] I wanted to work with the pop form sonically so that I could hide the weird shit and the dark messages within it.” And so her sumptuous record In a Poem Unlimited gives us tunes like the dark, groovy biblical parable “Pearly Gates,” the anthemic “M.A.H.” (as in, “mad as hell”) and “Rage of Plastics,” the slinkiest, most danceable song ever written about poisonous factory emissions. Remy has been plumbing these depths for more than a decade on her great lo-fi records as U.S. Girls, but In a Poem Unlimited is elevated by a perfect union with her backing band, the Toronto experimental-jazz collective the Cosmic Range. Catch them in concert if you can: Not only is this record great, but their kinetically sweaty live show is also one of the best things you’ll see all year. —Zoladz
There is always a tweet, though it’s not always one you can find. Some luminary once said that Atlanta was “basically a show about a nigga managing Key!” and it fits, thank you. The self-professed “old ass” Atlanta rapper, formerly of Two-9, has been around for the better part of a decade. He’s occasionally simmered—with standout verses on Father and Makonnen’s off-kilter “Wrist” and OG Maco’s deliriously fun “U Guessed It”—but he’s never quite reached a roiling boil until now, with the Kenny Beats–produced 777, which has hardly any weak spots. In that framework, it feels like what could happen in Season 3.
The song is probably “Love On Ice,” which is a departure from what I heard when I first came across Key!. “Guess Who,” which happened six years ago, was brash, repetitive, hoardt, and honestly? Impossible to play anywhere. Here, Key! is gooey on the inside, and hopeless, but pining away nonetheless, with oddball references: “Kristi Yamaguchi, your love got me goofy / Got me acting stupid, my heart Johnny Dang.” There are still plenty of face-melting slappers, of course, like “Hater” or “Dig It” (“OPEN UP THAT MOSH PIT”), but as ever, Key! is at his best when he’s self-deprecating. I’m partial to the album’s grand entrance “Demolition 1+2,” where he shouts—whines almost—“Back when Kim had broke my heart, and she knew it / I got way too high and almost blewwwww it.” —Peters
Soccer Mommy, Clean
“I guess I’m only what you wanted for a little while,” Sophie Allison sings at the end of the opening song on Soccer Mommy’s extraordinary record Clean. At first, she sounds confessionally broken, but as she repeats it in a kind of trance, the line sharpens into an insult, a barbed accusation toward someone who’s too afraid to feel as deeply as she does. Clean is a hypnotically catchy record of love and loss, indebted to ’90s forebears like Liz Phair and Lisa Germano, but spun through with Allison’s distinctly idiosyncratic point of view as a lyricist. She’s strikingly versatile: “Your Dog” is a shit-kicking feminist-punk anthem, “Last Girl” is a sweetly hummable ditty about jealousy, and lovestruck acoustic ballads like “Flaw” and “Scorpio Rising” are gripping enough to slow your heartbeat to a standstill. But maybe the most deeply felt love song here is “Cool,” an ode to a free-spirited girl who lives by her own rules and doesn’t give half a damn of what the boys think. “I wanna know her, like you,” Allison croons, “I wanna be that cool.” Plenty of her listeners will know the feeling. —Zoladz
Young Fathers, Cocoa Sugar
The drums on Cocoa Sugar’s closer, “Picking You,” sound formal, like a procession at a funeral for notions you’ve recently been disabused of. It’s the bridge I haven’t stopped thinking about since March, though—“Good men are strange, bad men are obvious.” It feels like a simple truth Young Fathers have spent a lot of time and effort searching for.
Backing up a little, the Scottish experimental rap trio was obviously trying to say something with their 2015 album. The title itself, White Men Are Black Men Too, was begging for commentary. But the album, meant to be confusing and discomfiting, was, well, a little too much of both those things to transcend regionality and build on the promise of their 2014 Mercury Prize–winning LP, Dead. Don’t misunderstand—Cocoa Sugar is prone to some truly strange moments, but this 2018 vintage of their homemade pop is much more accessible than past iterations. In fewer words, it’s the perfect time to buy in. —Peters
After studying classical music in college, Baltimore-raised ex-church-choir-boy Josiah Wise applied to several music conservatories. He was rejected by all of them—which he now acknowledges was a pivotal moment in the development of his idiosyncratic alter ego Serpentwithfeet, and the strange, enchanting music he makes under that name. “I think ‘no’ is really important,” he told NPR recently, of that formative rejection. “I think ‘no’ is where the nutrients are. I love ‘yes,’ but I think no encourages us to find new resources. And most of the time we have to go internally for those resources.”
Soil, the result of his digging, is a radically intimate record helmed by the tremulous power of his voice. It can be soft and tender in one moment (as on the sparse opening track “Whisper”) and, in the next, an instrument of bracing force: “I get to devote my life to him,” he intones on “Cherubim,” which has the elated feel of a self-penned hymn. Soil is a breathtaking ode to queer love, a warm, subterranean enclave from which to escape the pressures (and the emotional detachment) of the world above. —Zoladz
Maxo Kream, Punken
“Roaches” details the helplessness of being across state lines and watching your family’s lives upended on the news—“I was up in Vegas at the Mayweather party / Then my momma called me ’bout Hurricane Harvey”—and is probably Punken’s largest selling point. It also cements Maxo Kream’s status as one of rap’s best storytellers. But what you should do is play “Astrodome, Pt. 2,” and notice how Maxo playfully leans into the expletives: “I’ma slut, I’ma thot, I got hoes, I got bops.” Then put your car stereo at max volume, roll your windows down, and loop it for a while. There! Your life is now perfect. —Peters