2018 was a banner year for big-name artists dropping big-name releases. It’d be faster to run through the A-listers who didn’t release an album last year than the ones who did. Does that mean that they’re tapped out and the same thing won’t happen this year? Of course not! We’re just a couple months in and we’ve already seen highlights from Future and Ariana Grande and many others. It’s a bit early yet to identify any kind of big themes for the year, but we can say with certainty that the albums below confront complicated emotions in complicated times. It might not be a new concept, but it’s a welcome one.
Ariana Grande, Thank U, Next
Ariana Grande’s second album in just six months is somehow sharper, sadder, and more personal than the last. Recorded in a two-week stretch a few months after the release of last summer’s dewy, happy Sweetener, this year’s Thank U, Next is an end cap to the last album’s romanticism and a rejoinder to the idea that happiness is the game of sharing life with a lover. Thank U sees Grande and A-list pop producers Max Martin, Pop Wansel, and Ilya Salmanzadeh process the year of stress and pain the singer endured after the Manchester Arena bombing, the loss of her ex-boyfriend, the rapper Mac Miller, and her breakup with the actor Pete Davidson. The beats are a mix of spacious R&B/trap hybrids, airy ballads, and careful excursions into rock and reggae. Burned out but far from broken, a new pop supreme emerges.
Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
We talk a lot about genres crashing into each other and creating new forms over the last decade of tastes expanding online, but When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, the debut album by 17-year-old singer, songwriter, and producer Billie Eilish, is the idea in action. The music, written and produced by Eilish and her brother Finneas, stacks and rearranges aspects of rap, dance music, folk, rock, pop, and show tunes into hybridized, colorful forms, like Legos. Zipping through the album’s baker’s dozen of two- and three-minute wonders, you come away with an appreciation of Eilish’s formidable chops as a writer and performer and an excitement for where she’ll take them next.
Future, The Wizrd
Future’s career is a stark study of contrasts; he’s a rapper and a singer, a trap star and a balladeer, a writer of infectious love songs and scathing breakup records. 2017’s Future and Hndrxx split the Atlanta performer’s creative instincts down the middle, the one album playing out like an action movie while the second cheesed about the finer points of companionship and cohabitation. January’s The Wizrd restores the balance. Wizrd’s 20 tracks ping-pong between gruff street talk and vulnerable discussions of matters of the heart. The result is a picture of a complicated man, a balance between toughness and tenderness. It’s versatile in subject matter but also in form. The new songs contain a few of the artist’s best raps and tightest melodies. Fifteen years into his rap career, Future’s still finding ways to grow.
Girlpool, What Chaos Is Imaginary
On album No. 3, this winter’s What Chaos Is Imaginary, Los Angeles indie singer-songwriter duo Girlpool sharpens its nostalgic alt-rock to a fine point. The twee folk style that informed the outfit’s first two full lengths, 2015’s Before the World Was Big and 2017’s Powerplant, has been reined in significantly; in its place, there are big guitars, unforgettable hooks, and plaintive, honest vocals from singer and guitarist Cleo Tucker alongside singer and bassist Harmony Tividad. Squint and you’ll feel like you tripped and fell into the Matador vaults. What Chaos Is Imaginary makes the familiar sound sublime and rejuvenating.
Jenny Lewis, On the Line
Former Rilo Kiley lead singer Jenny Lewis’s fourth album under her own name, On the Line is a milestone in a career that’s been building since her days starring in ’80s sitcoms and kids’ movies. The new songs brim with the wisdom of a performer who, at just 43, has accumulated over 30 years of Hollywood and music industry experience. Lewis sings of crumbling lives and coming doom in a hearty, moving voice, while her backing band — which at different points in the album includes Beck, Ryan Adams, and members of the Beatles, Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, and John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band — provides foundational roots, rock grit, and performances that beam with as much heart as their singer does.