PAPER's Top 20 Albums of 2018

PAPER's Top 20 Albums of 2018

Most of the heavy-hitters rested, either entirely or on their laurels, in 2018. A few legends returned with their strongest statements ever (Ariana Grande, Robyn, Janelle Monáe) or in years (Mariah Carey), and you know here at PAPER, we pay respect to icons when it's due. But when collectively reflecting on the music we fell in love with this year, we realized it was largely nobodies and newcomers who stepped up to do the work of political provocation and musical rule-breaking.

SOPHIE and Rosalía pointed us towards the future of pop. Cardi B, Leikeli47 and Tierra Whack upended tired trends in rap and demanded Black women's perspectives be paid mind. Young queer artists like MNEK, Troye Sivan, Kelela and Ian Isaiah wrote stories that reached listeners long neglected by music. For others, like Mitski and Lykke Li, it was their capacity for self-transformation that left us breathless. You can say a lot about 2018, but you can't say nobody in music showed up to do the work.

We had to kill so many of our darlings to do it, but below, in case you were curious, we've assembled PAPER's top 20 albums of 2018, as well as a few honorable mentions.

20. "so sad, so sexy" by Lykke Li

If you cling to the twee folk or thunderous epic ballads of Lykke Li's past, you'll miss out on the triumphs of her transformation on so sad, so sexy. On her first album in her 30's, Lykke Li conjures a lightly sterile, metallic but hypnotic and sensual new world to house her heartbreak, where she dances alone at the club under a slow strobe. Forgoing both the whispers-in-your-ear intimacy and the stormy, meteoric agony of her come-up, Li writes about unraveling love, grief, pain, and the role sex plays in it all from a new icy remove that allowed her to craft a transfixing collection of sensual, escapist dance criers. Her iconically raw, longing vocals gorgeously absorb the 808's, chrome production, autotune-flourishes and trappy beats that she trades in her guitars and synths for. But despite drawing on many of the most now queues in pop, so sad, so sexy still sounds irrefutably, dramatically like her in its sorrowful catharsis and gorgeous bummer poetry. — Jael Goldfine

Must Listen: "utopia"

19. "Acrylic" by Leikeli47

Leikeli47, the mysterious New York rapper who once made a song all about her "Attitude," dropped her latest album Acrylic only a few weeks ago. But from its richly layered concept to its speaker-rattling production, Acrylic has already made an impact on us. Earlier this summer, there was a horrifying incident in a Flatbush nail salon, that involved the Asian owners physically assaulting Black customers after accusing them of theft. This situation was one inspiration for Leikeli47, who parsed out the racially charged nuance of it throughout the album, while paying homage to the beauty ritual of Black women, specifically, finding solidarity in a place where the smell of acrylic nail polish can establish a sense of home (see: "Walk-Ins Welcome" and the album's title track). "Droppin" and "Roll Call" intricately chronicle Leikeli47's family life and the legacy of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The album is also plenty of fun. "Girl Blunt" is a trap anthem for stoner chicks "on the honor roll;" "Post That" takes selfie culture to the ballroom floor; "Full Set (A New Style)" is also fiercely vogue-friendly. Though those songs reflect spiritual inclusivity, Acrylic's matriarchal heart and soul is dedicated to Black women — those who maintain personal glory amid systemic setbacks, and who save America from itself when it doesn't deserve saving. — Michael Love Michael

Must Listen: "Post That"

18. "Super Sunset" by Allie X

For two full-length album cycles now, independent pop auteur Allie X has demonstrated a refreshing breadth of sonic ingenuity and visual aestheticism. For her latest album, the concept-driven Super Sunset, she reflects on the sprawling grandness of the place where dreams live and die: Los Angeles. Having moved there five years ago from her native Toronto, Allie X learned what it meant to champion her dreams, continuing to write with artists ranging from Troye Sivan to pop upstarts like Jaira Burns to pay the bills, and independently funding and producing her own music, videos, and live shows. After going on tour with Hayley Kiyoko earlier this year, she put the finishing touches on Super Sunset, and the result, from lyrics to production, is a sterling product of Allie's extensive industry training, and classically trained pop ear. Boasting vaporwave influences and no shortage of hooks upon hooks, tracks like "Science," "Not So Bad In LA," and "Girl of the Year" positively sparkle with autobiographical context and apt commentary on the fleeting nature of fame. With Super Sunset, Allie X is undoubtedly pop's most brilliant ghost whisperer, but make it fashion and make it larger than life. It's what Hollywood promises to be. — Michael Love Michael

Must Listen: "Girl of the Year"

17. "Shugga Sextape (Vol. 1) by Ian Isiah

Queer Brooklyn singer Ian Isiah literally gave us the gift of life with this year'sShugga Sextape (Vol. 1), a mixtape album that has widely, rightly been cited as a collection of songs designed for conceiving babies. Set to wistful, intergalactic beats that feel beamed down from Venus, Isiah sings about the most natural acts in the world — sex and all manner of human contact— in a purposely altered croon that is nothing short of magical. The twinkling, spacey "Bedroom" sets the mood with lyrics such as: "I gotcha best friend riding from the front/ Turned your head so you could watch me beat it up," and that's hardly the most outrageous thing you'll hear on this sexed-up collection. Elsewhere, Isiah demands "baby work me out like it's magic," on "Bleach Report," as ominous bass drones drop around him. "Killup" cops the energy of Caribbean dancehall and brings it to a basement party near you. But embedded in the steamy sex-positive ethos of Shugga Sextape is a fair amount of existentialism, seen most notably in "God," and "Why," where Isiah struggles to find needed reciprocity in a relationship. "I tried 1,000 ways to prove myself to you," he sings. It only took us one try to be totally immersed in Isiah's world. Now: find your nearest cuddle buddy and give them some Shugga. — Michael Love Michael

Must Listen: "Persistent"

16. "Honey" by Robyn

Robyn gave us everything we asked for and more on Honey, her dizzying, gentle and tenacious return after a hiatus of eight years. On singles "Missing U" and "Honey," she offered the shimmering arpeggios, synthy fireworks and thumping club bass we demanded: her past signature formula of warm dance grooves and pristine, cyborg-femme radio pop. But as a whole, gone is the indestructible femmebot and instant dancefloor stickiness of Body Talk. Instead, after eight years of grappling with heartbreak, the death of a close collaborator, and her own relationship with fame and music, Robyn created the most vulnerable, inventive, and sonically luxurious work we've ever heard from her, and one of the most addictive records of the year. — Jael Goldfine

Must Listen: "Ever Again"

15. "Language" by MNEK

Among every crop of new musicians is a svengali (doesn't matter the gender) who plays an important role in their success. MNEK — the London-based songwriter and producer born Uzoechi Emenike — is one such example, having written songs for literally everyone: Beyoncé, Madonna, Dua Lipa, Julia Michaels, MØ, Zara Larsson, the list is endless. With songwriting chops that vast, it's no wonder then that MNEK's own music glimmers with boundless range and creativity. Language, his debut studio album makes a strong case for why you should never sleep on the guy behind the boards. As an emerging queer voice, he sings freely over self-produced fizzy dance-pop and R&B beats about romance, desire, self-respect, and freedom. That same versatility applies to MNEK's elastic vocal technique, which zooms effortlessly between playful hip-hop flows on respect-me bangers like "Correct" and "Girlfriend," radio-ready pop tunes like "Phone," and torch balladry (album closer Touched By You"). He is also the chief architect of one of 2018's best songs, the sensual "Tongue." I think we love you, MNEK; we're sure you're the one. — Michael Love Michael

Must Listen: "Phone"

14. "Bloom" by Troye Sivan

If you don't listen carefully, Troye Sivan'sBloom might sound like any other glittery, pulsing collection of 2018 dance-pop love songs — albeit the best the form has to offer — all sparking sexual nerve endings and butterflies in your stomach. If you look a little closer, in between the tight hooks and singable choruses, you'll find a full and fleshy queer coming-of-age epic (not quite Moonlight, but far more eloquent than say, Love, Simon) that takes the 23-year-old through every flavor of adolescent euphoria and terror: the atomic blast of a crush, falling blissfully in love, discovering desire, and the devastation of unraveling love. Compared to his male pop peers, Sivan has a remarkable poetic eye for love ("There's a chill in the air and a sinking feeling/ Coming over me/ Like bitter tangerine/ Like sirens in the streets") and a sensitivity to its idiosyncrasies. His songs, which hit every bucket of modern pop, from tropical house beats, to Charli XCX sugary boom-claps to acoustic guitar pop, are both universal and unapologetically particular: from the pronouns that remind the straights that Sivan is singing about another boy ("Boy, I'll meet you right there/ We'll ride the roller coaster"), to the way he ricochets between sultry confidence and nerves on "Bloom," which has become a bottoming anthem. It's a happily pedestrian visage of queer youth, a demographic typically portrayed as in crisis. While we should be wary of how gratuitously celebrating "everyday" queer stories, can subtly position "normalcy" or assimilation as the goal, Sivan's domestic love stories are undeniably making millions feel seen. — Jael Goldfine

Must Listen: "Plum"

13. "Whack World" by Tierra Whack

Pioneering rap miniaturist Tierra Whack broke out of Philadelphia and obscurity this year with 15 vibrant one-minute vignettes called Whack World and a matching out-of-this-universe visual, which have already earned her a Missy Elliott comparison and a Grammy nomination. Whack World is a concept project, but each song stands alone: woozy R&B-instrumentals stand behind a quick, nimble mumbly flow as Whack hurtles through chapters on death, sex, self-care, love, the internet and discrimination: typically, simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. Listen, and you'll understand the Missy comparison, which has little to do with her sound, and everything to do with how she writes and raps like no one who's come before her. — Jael Goldfine

Must Listen: "Flea Market"

13. "Whack World" by Tierra Whack

12. "FM!" by Vince Staples

Vince Staples' great muse is his home city of North Long Beach, California. It was at the core of his breakout projects Summertime '06 and Hell Can Wait, and returned, painted in bright, garish color, on his mixtape-album FM!: named and vaguely themed after the LA radio stations that would blare out of cars and fill up sticky summer streets. Like he is on FM! Staples is at the absolute peak of his game when, in his signature ethos of dark humor and hedonistic, partying escapism, he observes violent contradictions: particularly those made obvious to him with his ascendence ("Tryna get rich, get everybody fed/ But everybody dead"). On album stand-out "FUN!," he offers the most memorable line of the album, but classic of his eye for ugly truths: "Don't be looking funny when we come up in the store/ My black is beautiful but I'll still shoot at you, dog." He might not get the cred of someone like Kendrick Lamar, but Staples's provocations are some of the keenest in rap, always slyly prodding at the audience who gave him his platform. — Jael Goldfine

Must Listen: "FUN!"

12. "FM!" by Vince Staples

11. "Take Me A_Part, the Remixes" by Kelela

In her PAPER cover story, Kelela mused on the importance of community in reference to the new remix album for Take Me Apart. "Part of the project is to canonize ourselves [Black and POC people], because those people normally don't get honored or valued in an overt way," she said. "For me, it's really important that I pay homage to that." With that in mind, Kelela opened the floor more fully than ever before to a broad range of collaborators for the reinterpretations that would ultimately form Take Me A_Part. Alongside DJ and co-executive producer Asma Maroof, who performs as Asmara, Kelela invited electronic music's (mostly) queer, and often unsung heroes of color to do justice to an album already rife with emotion. Serpentwithfeet added a silken vocal to deep cut "Altadena"; Joey LaBeija transformed classy break-up anthem "Better" into a club-ready bop, while Badsista's version went even brighter, with a sensual Portuguese feature from Linn Da Quebrada; Kaytrananda added a sense of urgency to the feel-good nostalgia of "Waitin;" and LSDXOXO revamped a "Truth or Dare" version into something even more sexified. But one of the album's centerpieces is certainly "LMK (What's Really Good)," in which Princess Nokia, CupcakKe, Junglepussy, and Ms. Boogie created an all-femme, hard-hitting underground club twirl centering the personal politic of assertive femme desire. Take Me A_Part worked in large part to canonize these voices, as Kelela said, while also serving as her most culturally influential project to-date. — Michael Love Michael

Must Listen: "Badista_feat Linn Da Quebrada_Better_125 Bpm"

10. "Chris" by Christine and the Queens

Christine and the Queens is the performance moniker of French-pop singer, songwriter, and producer, Heloise Letissier. Her 2014 self-titled debut, originally recorded in French under the name Chaleur humaine, then later, in English, established the musician as a viable pop songwriting force within the electronic music landscape. But it's Chris, a collection of tracks sung in English and French versions, released this year, that pushes Letissier's music into new, critically acclaimed dimensions with crossover appeal. For this album, Letissier cut her hair shorter, tried on men's suiting and showed off her athletic physique as both a form of gender-fluid self-expression, and a commentary on toxic masculinity. That physical presence made its way inevitably into the music, where funk, disco, and pop collide seamlessly into songs about pansexual desire ("Girlfriend" and "Comme si"); existential crisis ("Doesn't matter" and "The stranger"), feminism ("Damn (What Must a Woman Do)"), and becoming one's own champion ("5 dollars"). Letissier ups the ante on the songs' inherent sense of drama and urgency with buoyant, mostly self-produced arrangements and impassioned singing — that "run if you stole a shard of sunlight" bridge in "Doesn't matter"? Full tears. Through Letissier's own personal struggle and triumph, which she lays bare on Chris, she solidifies her status as an eminent voice for queer artists, and people, everywhere. — Michael Love Michael

Must Listen: "Comme Si"

9. "Saturn" by NAO

R&B futurist NAO employs both the poetics of astrology and a wild west road epic as the glue for the gorgeous autobiography of late 20's turmoil that is her sophomore album Saturn. It's a feat of storytelling, that starts out with her terrified of never finding her way ("Make It Out Alive," "Another Lifetime"), sees her grapple with self-destruction ("Curiosity," "Drive and Disconnect") and lets us witness her triumphant arrival on the other side ("Yellow of the Sun," "A Life Like This"). Her sound is bigger and richer than on 2016's For All We Know, earning the term "futurist" with her combination of blunt-force Aretha soul (sub in her helium falsetto), bouncy mod pop hooks, atmospheric electronics (Mura Masa, LOXE and GRADES all produce) and hip-hop accents (courtesy of collaborators like SiR). Unlike others who receive the label, NAO's futurism isn't about new uses of technology, but rather her ability to electrify vintage sounds. — Jael Goldfine

Must Listen: "Love Supreme"

8. "K.T.S.E." by Teyana Taylor

Teyana Taylor kissed our bruises and blew smoke into our faces on K.T.S.E., the warm and sweet R&B crown jewel of the Kanye/Wyoming summer. The album's minimalist, pretty instrumentals, which admittedly allow Kanye's beats to shine and its old-timey bluesy sound combine to create an absolutely singular in the (magnificent but) overflowing landscape of modernist R&B. It was the perfect canvas for Taylor's nimble, whiskey-rough voice, which across eight impeccable songs, expressed throbbing hurt and regret, fierce ire, delirious infatuation, euphoric self-possession and occasionally, helped gas us the hell up. — Jael Goldfine

Must Listen: "Hurry"

7. "Be the Cowboy" by Mitski

A bit like the archetypal egoic cowboy she authored, Mitski fucked everything up with Be The Cowboy. While she had tolerated the role of sadgirl superhero on Bury Me On Make Out Creek and Puberty 2 — which tapped her to save the day and rescue us from the oppressive white indie boys who ruled our lives (IRL and in music) and the fake, corporate smile of girl power, empowering us into a militia of sadgirls armed with our newfound ownership over our ugly feelings — on Be The Cowboy, she declared explicitly and in her musical choices, that she was done being the object of our fantasies. The strange, often-nostalgic pop and rock buffet that she brilliantly sampled from to fashion Be The Cowboy, denotes her, as Jia Tolentino and others have pointed out, as a successor to St. Vincent's legacy of theatrical iconoclasm, far more than a peer to her old companions on lists denoting the women taking over indie: Angel Olsen, Girlpool, Waxahatchee, Big Thief, Julien Baker, Frankie Cosmos, etcetera.

Quite a lot has been written about the music itself, so I'll just say that Be The Cowboy broke my heart a little, but letting go of Mitski was worth it. — Jael Goldfine

Must Listen: "Washing Machine Heart"

6. "El Mal Querer" by Rosalía

Rosalía is a name that was on many mouths in the world over this year, and for inspiring reasons. The Spanish singer, songwriter, and producer has been committed to bringing a more worldly understanding of flamenco culture and music to the mainstream since her debut, last year's Los Angeles album. But she broke new ground with El Mal Querer this year, in a transcendent way that caught many by surprise. Rosalía has proven, through the mechanics of pop music, that the ancient traditions of Spanish flamenco singing, dark (and occasionally gory) folklore, and religious iconography all work seamlessly in tandem. The 25-year-old artist, who originates her eye-popping visual concepts and lyrics, drew inspiration from the high-stakes future-pop drama of the Destiny's Childs, Timbalands, and Justin Timberlakes of the world for many melodies heard on the fascinating El Mal Querer. (She impressively got JT's approval to interpolate his "Cry Me A River" harmony into her verses for "BAGDAD (Cap.7: Liturgia).") The results of doing so are thrilling: from the gangster pop queen posturing of crossover hit "MALAMENTE (Cap.1: Augurio)" to the looped handclap-backed beats of "Pienso En Tu Mira (Cap.3: Celos)." Rosalía split the album into chapters telling different parts of a similarly tragic arc, and, furthering a journey that already refuses the game of artistic compromise, she sings entirely in Spanish. El Mal Querer is the kind of concept-driven crossover that forces us to learn who Rosalía is, and not the other way around. But because her singular sound is so compelling, conforming just isn't an option. The success that will follow her will certainly happen on her own terms. — Michael Love Michael

Must Listen: Pienso En Tu Mira (Cap.3: Celos)

5. "Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides" by SOPHIE

SOPHIE's world is a robotic and icy one: even when she's ostensibly sad ("It's Okay To Cry"); when she's euphoric ("Immaterial," "Infatuation"); and when she's scathing ("Faceshopping," "Ponyboy," "Not Okay"). These fleshy emotions might sounds strange to describe her razor-sharp music with, which is really not about emotions, but ideas. However, some of the most stunning things about SOPHIE are the potent, immersive emotions her music can neatly drop us into, despite its abstraction. SOPHIE is desperately reaching for a world beyond this ugly, dull, straight one on Oil of Every Pearl, but we on the human plane, get to peek into her mad scientist's lab or reclusive cave, and dance to her supernatural hybrid of industrial club music and high-femme pop, which, inarguably, points towards the future. — Jael Goldfine

Must Listen: "Immaterial"

4. "Dirty Computer" by Janelle Monáe

It's best to think of Janelle Monáe's Dirty Computer as a musical artifact capturing the cultural zeitgeist of 2018. Always a socially minded artist with multiple dimensions — consider her visual depictions of dystopia, utopia, and euphoria; her expressiveness as a dancer; her soul-indebted vocal performance; her poetic lyrics; her gender-fluid fashion tastes — it is easy to understand that her albums are more immersive reflections of worldly affairs than mere sonic collections.

What was on her mind between 2012's Electric Lady to now? So much, obviously. Visions of a femme-led future ("PYNK" with Grimes); pansexual fluidity (the Prince-approved "Make Me Feel"); Black girl magic and Black Lives Matter ("Django Jane"); escape from modern technology and how it confines us toward simpler pleasures ("Crazy, Classic, Life") and much-needed, sympathetic political revolution ("Americans"). Monáe reminds us how needed her perspective is, through an album of certifiable bangers with culture reverence. On Dirty Computer, she dares us to reconnect with each other as human beings. This, from a mighty, pint-sized dynamo who once envisioned a world where we were cyborgs in captivity. Turns out, she's still not wrong about that. — Michael Love Michael

Must Listen: "Django Jane"

3. "Invasion of Privacy" by Cardi B

Every generation has their own America's Sweetheart, and Cardi B is this one's. But really, the Bronx legend-in-the-making, who blends comedic timing, New York rawness, unpolished realness, and a well-honed ear for what's hot in her music and on the 'gram, captured our hearts evermore fully with the long-anticipated Invasion of Privacy. In cities across the nation, you could see how the unflappable charisma of "Bodak Yellow" brought people of all walks of life together; how "I Like It" with Bad Bunny and J Balvin lit up street corners and clubs; how "Be Careful" made fans of Lauryn Hill loyalists and cynics alike. Say what you want about Cardi, but what we love most about Invasion of Privacy, in addition to establishing her as an important emerging voice in hip-hop and culture, it made her our country's much-needed patron saint of unabashed joy. — Michael Love Michael

Must Listen: "Bickenhead"

2. "Sweetener" by Ariana Grande

The glowing, swishing, soft sounds of Sweetener — and the many mantras and moments of warmth and lightness it offered — were a salve on a raw, bruised, aching year. They might not have been if Ariana Grande hadn't so decisively declined to participate in pop's cottage industry of Empowerment Bangers or to cough up the laborious heartbreak ballads we might have expected from her in the wake of this year: the cumbersome songs that stars use to spoon-feed us their press-release ready stories of triumph. This is naive of her highly willing coercion with the pop machine, but I swear on Sweetener, though it is triumphant, Grande didn't set out to tell us a story of how she suffered and triumphed: she just made the songs it felt good to make.

And in turn, they made us feel so, so good. Grande burrowed into joy big and small: moving beyond grief ("No Tears Left To Cry"), declaring to the world that, despite all its efforts to the contrary, she was "gonna be happy, happy" ("Pete Davidson"), and deeming the simple sight of a loved one licking the bowl a form of holy salvation ("Sweetener"). She does so with the radical gratitude of someone newly aware of how devastatingly fragile joy and happiness are — and her rejection of our society's proclivity to masturbatory solipsism feels defiant and forward-looking: an urgent warning to do the same in our own lives. When she promises with the authority of someone who's gone nearly over the edge and made it back, that "the light is coming to take back everything the darkness stole," it's naive and gorgeous and we want to believe her so desperately that we might just work a little bit harder to manifest her words.

She, of course, nods to Manchester and the PTSD it left her with on "Breathin" and loopy self-help ode "Get Well Soon," on which she sings "girl what's wrong witchu, come back down" over and over again, coaching herself as despair or anxiety or compulsion floods in. On the blissed-out, flirty love songs "R.E.M." and "Blazed," and unabashed flex "Successful," there's a glint in her eye, and her euphoria is untouchable.

Grande's music had never been distinguished by its honesty (or really that much else) before. While there are a few throwbacks to the old Ari formula ("God Is A Woman," "Better Off," "Everytime"), on Sweetener, she broke through a wall: contributing more of her magnetic personality than ever (she co-wrote 10 of the 15 songs), experimenting with idiosyncratic vocal styles and, with the help of Pharrell, forging a new musical cocktails of funk, R&B, gospel, trap and pure-pop that sounds like no one else in music and like it was a fucking party to create.

The truly incredible thing about this whole Ariana Grande moment though, is how the IRL story of Ariana Grande (her loss of Mac Miller, the inevitable crumbling of her engagement) doesn't contradict Sweetener or render it ironic at all. Rather — and the follow-up of "thank u, next" was the perfect proof — her compassionate responses to these new crises make it feel even more poignant. For if Sweetener has a thesis, it's an argument for reckless, generous, naive love and hope as a form of self-fortification and resistance to a life that will crush you if you let it. — Jael Goldfine

Must Listen: "Get Well Soon"

1. "Caution" by Mariah Carey

Did you know that Mariah Carey has written and co-produced arguably the greatest Christmas song of all time? The ubiquitous "All I Want For Christmas Is You" was indeed architected by the legendary diva, but that's easy to overlook, if all you focus on is headlines about this on-stage mishap or that controversy. We've gotta give glory to Carey where it's certainly due, because she's been the author of her own story for her entire career, encompassing 20 #1 hits, thank you very much. Caution is her 14th studio release in an impressive career spanning nearly three decades of self-penned, co-produced hits, and it is an effortless blend of modern pop flair with the soulful R&B of Carey's roots, bolstered by collaborations with legends and contemporary mainstays alike, including Slick Rick, Ty Dolla $ign, Skrillex, and Blood Orange. In many ways, Caution sounds like Carey blowing the dust off her favorite classic records for a new generation, with the kind of easygoing panache she's known for when she's at her best.

The thing is, though, Caution is the smoothest musical effort from Carey in quite some time, after weathering intense scrutiny following her last albums (see: Me...I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse) and personal foibles (that New Year's Eve performance) that, for a little bit longer than we'd like to admit, distracted admirers from her peerless, world-class talent as a vocalist, a producer, and songwriter — an architect fully in control who's masterfully dominating an industry that continues to be male-dominated. Recent music industry statistics cite a 70/30 gender representation gap across songwriters, performers, producers, and executives: 70% male, 30% female.

Which is why it's more important than ever to note that on Caution in politically fraught 2018, Carey is listed as primary songwriter and producer for each track, followed by the men she collaborates with. (Consider how paradigm-shifting it is to see a song written and produced by Mariah Carey, first, then Skrillex). And it probably has much to do with Caution's overall sound: unhurried, unfussy, and lean — 10 songs, zero filler. In this context, tracks like "The Distance" become an epic testament to Carey's longevity despite all odds; "Giving Me Life" is like Carey reaching into her pot of prog-soul melodic gold and sharing her wealth with male peers like Slick Rick, while Dev Hynes (of Blood Orange) gets a dream-come-true production credit; "GTFO," as the album's breezy kiss-off opener, shreds any remaining suspicion that Carey has ever needed to rely on men to hold her place on top: "Who's the knight in shining armor/ I ain't the type to play the martyr/ How 'bout you get the fuck out?" Then "Caution," packed with taut beats and a delicious snake-charmer melody, warns a lover to watch his step before telling a lie, laying her needs and desires bare for all the world to witness.

There is a quiet, but nonetheless radical beauty in this act: Carey implicitly trusts, through the graceful pain of lived experience, that her truth is powerful enough to resonate with women everywhere. May women feel reassured by Caution's tales of passion and peace, and for goddess to help the man who disturbs that truth. For them, Caution is a neon warning sign. Whether Carey is vulnerable or critical in her music, make no mistake: she is the only person who can, and should, write these stories. — Michael Love Michael

Must Listen: "Caution"


Honorable Mentions

"O" by SSION

Must Listen: "1980-99"

"Room 25" by Noname

Must Listen: "Regal"

"Turn Off the Light, Vol. 1" by Kim Petras

Must Listen: "In The Next Life"

"Astroworld" by Travis Scott

Must Listen: "Sicko Mode"

"Nasty" by Rico Nasty

Must Listen: "Trust Issues"

As chosen by Michael Love Michael, Jael Goldfine, and Justin Moran
Featured photos courtesy of Getty Images (Graphic by Saul Areizaga)

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