Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour — Brimming with pop hooks and keen observations, the country artist’s luminous “Golden Hour” was hard to beat for sheer melodic buoyancy and lyrical uplift, with reverb-polished gems like “Slow Burn,” “Butterflies” and “Oh, What a World” exerting a magnetic pull. The last of our freedoms is to choose our response to circumstances, as Viktor Frankl once wrote; “Golden Hour” beautifully reminded us to choose to respond to chaos with love and hope.
Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer — Kicking off with the Brian Wilson-boosted title track, the pop chameleon delivered a thoughtfully arranged bouquet of hooks, melodies, and lyrical zingers. Even fun moments like the femme-affirming “Screwed” (with Zoë Kravitz) packed a thematically relevant punch: “You know power is just sex/ Now ask yourself who’s screwing you.”
Courtney Marie Andrews, May Your Kindness Remain — Six albums into a respected career, the peripatetic singer-songwriter hit with a soulful, balm-like collection that spoke of and for its needy cultural moment. From the gospel-ish organ strains that open the title track, it swells with resilient heart and honesty.
Rosalía, El Mal Querer — The Catalan dynamo cleverly bent flamenco’s florid romanticism to her own original purposes, using it to intensify the dramatic tale she spun across 11 passionate tracks whose traditional handclapping was electrified by bass, synths and street energy. History, as always, informs the present.
Dead Can Dance, Dionysus — Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry conjured their own language for this venture connecting wildly varied rhythms and tongues. Tracks suggested diverse global traditions, from communal desert rituals to Celtic paganism, and upheld music as a spiritual and natural force.
Kevin Gordon, Tilt and Shine — A songwriting master, the Louisiana native is criminally undersung outside Americana circles. His swampy rock ‘n’ roll pulsed with wisdom and soul, and “Saint on a Chain” haunted with a novel’s worth of insightfully honed narrative.
Pistol Annies, Interstate Gospel — Sassy single “Got My Name Changed Back” grabbed headlines, but Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley — all in peak songwriting and vocal form — also tapped mainstream veins with story songs (“Masterpiece,” “Best Years of My Life”) as emotionally rich as they were relatable. Sisterhood is real.
Mary Gauthier, Rifles & Rosary Beads — The acclaimed singer-songwriter delivered one of the most potent albums of her career, co-writing with combat veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. In placing her bracing honesty and literate songcraft at their service, Gauthier simultaneously honored them and gave voice to stories of sacrifice and trauma that need to be heard.
Fantastic Negrito, Please Don’t Be Dead — Nodding to revered elders — Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Plant, Prince — the streetwise Oakland artist championed humanity in all its flaws and forms throughout this searing, blues-rooted indictment of bigotry, environmental pillage, and hypocrisy.
Anderson East, Encore — A muscular fusion of Southern soul and gospel that showcased East’s tough-and-tender rasp and, more essentially, his search for what endures with show-stopping songs like “This Too Shall Last,” the Chris Stapleton co-write “If You Keep Leaving Me,” and the confessional “Cabinet Door.”
Fatoumata Diawara, Fenjo — The soulful Malian vocalist/songwriter nimbly wove Wassoulou folk traditions, Afropop, rock and R&B together with socially conscious themes. If there was any doubt Diawara was world-class after her 2015 “At Home” collaboration with Roberto Fonseca, “Fenjo” decisively settled the matter.
Tracy Thorn, Record — A welcome return from the witty Everything But the Girl frontwoman and author/columnist. Gleaming with ’80s-evoking synths, Thorn’s feminist dance-pop anthems were grounded by her innate warmth and matter-of-fact attitude — most notably grooving setpiece “Sister,” with Corinne Bailey Rae and Warpaint.
boygenius, boygenius — One of the year’s most heralded debuts was dropped by the supertrio of acclaimed singer-songwriters Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacas. Their achingly beautiful harmonies implicitly made an empowering statement, and occasionally approached transcendence.
Cecile McLorin Salvant, The Window — The disarmingly incisive jazz chanteuse and tasteful pianist Sullivan Fortner elegantly demonstrated the power of simplicity. Their melodic music connected on an immediate, human level in a way that more grandly orchestrated jazz outings did not.
Blood Orange, Negro Swan — Dev Hynes artfully layered R&B beats, pop melodies, spoken word, guests and street sounds into one moodily compelling presentation. Yearning single “Charcoal Baby” made a strong statement, and depression, identity, family, and the search for meaningful connection proved resonant themes.
Lee Ann Womack, The Lonesome, the Lonely & the Gone — The Nashville veteran’s stock-taking read of “Shine on Rainy Day” by funky country songwriter Brent Cobb (whose “Providence Canyon” was another noteworthy 2018 release) exemplified this classy, outstanding record’s mix of emotional honesty and rhythmic grit.
Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth — Continuing the cosmic journey enshrined on 2015’s visionary “The Epic,” this ambitious two-disc set likewise dipped into hip-hop, funk and gospel, and further established the Inglewood-raised saxophonist as a deep-thinking, leading voice in jazz.
Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Downey to Lubbock — Downey son Alvin’s bluesy growl and Lubbock native Gilmore’s high-plains twang proved surprisingly complementary as they dug into blues, folk and R&B with earthy joy. In a politically tumultuous year, their resurrection of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” and the Youngbloods’ 1969 anthem “Get Together” offered pointed commentary
Dhafer Youssef, Sounds of Mirrors — A stellar collboration between Tunisian oudist Youssef, Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain, Turkish clarinetist Hüsnü Senlendirici and Norwegian jazz guitarist Eivind Aarset, as musically beautiful as it was hopeful.
Mourning [A] BLKstar, The Garner Poems — The self-described “DIY Afrofuturist soul” collective from Cleveland honored the memories of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and the Harlem Renaissance with a thoughtful meld of funk, gospel, jazz, hip-hop and soul that was musically and physically stirring, and timely.