By Glenn Gamboa
Popular culture doesn’t have use for hedged bets or measured responses these days. And so far, 2018 is filled with bold, well-executed visions from veterans and stunning, fully formed debuts:
1. David Byrne, “American Utopia” (Todomundo/Nonesuch): David Byrne sings about life in America today from the points of view of a chicken, a dog and a bullet. But it’s the inclusive Afrobeat anthem “Everybody’s Coming to My House” that conjures up both thoughts of Talking Heads and the return of the American dream.
2. The Carters, “Everything Is Love” (Parkwood/Roc Nation): “Everything Is Love’s ” arrival seems to confirm that when Beyonce and Jay-Z decided to work out their marital issues, they also crafted a strategy as secretive as the Robert Mueller probe. Beyonce’s “Lemonade” album first revealed the problems. Jay-Z followed with his apology album “4:44.” And now, we have The Carters as a happy couple once again, with warm Daptone soul as a backdrop and hip-hop so well-crafted it shines as brightly as it cuts.
3. Tracey Thorn, “Record” (Merge): Thorn has never sounded timelier. “Sister” is a rallying cry for the #MeToo movement that works well with the sinuous groove from Warpaint and vocal support from the great Corinne Bailey Rae. And, like the rest of “Record,” “Sister” makes a strident point without getting preachy.
4. Courtney Barnett, “Tell Me How You Really Feel” (Milk!/Marathon/Mom + Pop): Throughout “Tell Me How You Really Feel,” Barnett points out the difficulties of really expressing yourself and she seemingly revels in the complexities. She mints new words to convey her emotions, like the opener “Hopefulessness,” with its Nirvana-like riffs that both offer inspiration and channel sadness.
5. Arctic Monkeys, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” (Domino): The songs on “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” may take place on the moon — or maybe a simulation of the moon — but their focus is most definitely life on earth, rolling the story out like a science fiction novel from the near future.
6. Kali Uchis, “Isolation” (Virgin/EMI): Part Amy Winehouse vulnerability, part Billie Holiday jazzy cool, the Colombian-American singer creates gorgeous, timeless music all her own.
7. Jack White, “Boarding House Reach” (Third Man/Columbia): His third solo album assembles bits of rock, blues, jazz, funk, synth pop, prog rock, country and spoken word into fascinating experiments that sound like Kanye West crossed with Radiohead or Merle Haggard joining Depeche Mode or, you know, ludicrous. However, White makes nearly all of it work. He’s created ambition you can dance to, spoken-word poetry that rocks.
8. Dream Wife, “Dream Wife” (Lucky Number): “Dream Wife” is a career-making triumph, as bold as Rakel Mjoll’s exertion of unflinching control throughout her lyrics, and the first undeniable breakout performance of 2018.
9. Cardi B, “Invasion of Privacy” (Atlantic): Her hip-hop origin story is as hard-hitting as her rhymes, though she uses her humor and charm as effective weapons, too. Okkrrrrrt? She can make up words and smile along with Bruno Mars or Maroon 5, and hold her own with Chance the Rapper.
10. Sunflower Bean, “Twentytwo in Blue” (Mom + Pop): Long Island 20-somethings Nick Kivlen and Jacob Faber, along with pal Julia Cumming, built their hopeful vision of navigating these turbulent times out of equal parts idealism, defiance and dreamy indie rock.
11. Superorganism, “Superorganism” (Domino): The multicultural musical collective from London churns out endearingly upbeat, yet knowing dance music like “Everybody Wants to Be Famous.”
12. James Bay, “Electric Light” (Republic): For his sophomore album, Bay combined bits of rock, R&B and EDM to create something new and compelling, as he writes about navigating relationships in the modern world.
13. Camila Cabello, “Camila” (Epic): On her solo debut, the former Fifth Harmony member delivers musical answers with the confidence and power of an artist with far more than Cabello’s 20 years under her belt.
14. Shopping, “The Official Body” (Fatcat): The crafty post-punk trio from London has always combined idealistic lyrics with irresistible bass grooves and spiky guitar work. On “The Official Body,” though, the group significantly raises its game on both ends.
15. Neko Case, “Hell-On” (Anti-): Neko Case’s voice is so hauntingly beautiful that it is often difficult to focus on what she is saying. But on her sixth solo album, her lyrics are so well-crafted and sharp that they cannot be ignored.
16. George Ezra, “Staying at Tamara’s” (Columbia): Ezra’s experiments in Paul Simon-like world beat in the upbeat, South African sweetness of “Shotgun,” which sounds like a potential summer anthem, and the lilting beauty of “Sugarcoat” show the 24-year-old’s ongoing growth as a songwriter and storyteller, as he describes a dreamy trip to Johannesburg.
17. Panic! At the Disco, “Pray for the Wicked” (Fueled by Ramen/DCD2): It’s not just Brendon Urie’s singing — which often climbs to new, more theatrical heights across the album’s 12 tracks, including one stellar note in the first single “Say Amen (Saturday Night)” — that has developed. It’s his whole approach to how much he can pack into a song.
18. Hayley Kiyoko, “Expectations” (Atlantic): “Expectations” doesn’t feel like a debut as much as it feels like the start of something big, comparable to Lady Gaga’s debut “The Fame,” in the more carefree days before she became Mother Monster.
19. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, “Tearing at the Seams” (Stax/Concord): The Night Sweats’ combination of soul and Americana is addictive in pretty much all its permutations, but especially on the gorgeous “Still Out There Running,” which ropes some poetic Paul Simon phrasing into it.
20. Fischerspooner, “Sir” (Ultra): With “Sir,” pair their usual synth-driven shock and awe with a new emotional depth, aided by producer Michael Stipe and Boots and Stuart White from Beyonce’s “Lemonade” team, whose influence is felt most in “I Need Love.”