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The best pop and R&B albums of 2018

The best pop and R&B albums of 2018
Photo: Meg Remy, a.k.a. U.S. Girls (4AD), Janelle Monáe (JUCO), SOPHIE (Charlotte Wales), Graphic: Libby McGuire
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Pop music is relentlessly omnivorous. In 2018, some of its biggest hits drew from trap, bounce, Reggaeton, African folk, and EDM, to name a few, while also advancing the genre’s overall fusion with R&B—which is why we’ve decided to group the two genres together here in their own top 10. On the charts, the conversation was driven by stars like Drake, Janelle Monáe, and Ariana Grande, while newer voices like Kali Uchis and Troye Sivan issued immaculate graduations of their sounds. Elsewhere, indie and alt-pop influencers like U.S. Girls, Blood Orange, SOPHIE, and Robyn released bold, vital evolutions of their own. By and large, our favorite albums were lush, transportive productions, many of them pushing the limits of their creators, and thus, ours as listeners. The fields of pop and R&B are as expansive and creatively rich as they’ve ever been, and these albums represent the year’s best.

Blood Orange, Negro Swan

The theme of hope runs throughout Negro Swan, British singer-songwriter Devonté Hynes’ fourth album under the name Blood Orange. It’s a message made even more potent by the album’s affirmation of the black queer experience, creating an immersive aural refuge for the most vulnerable among us. Actress and activist Janet Mock narrates the album, whose sharp beats hint at psychic and physical injuries soothed by smooth-jazz saxophone, dreamy guitar and piano, and Hynes’ vocals, welcoming listeners home with empathetic lyrics reminding them that they, too, are beautiful and worthy. [Katie Rife]

Empress Of, Us

We typically think of bedroom pop as lo-fi, quiet, insular, but on her second, remarkably focused album, Empress Of writes deeply individualistic, diaristic songs that function just as cleanly as laser-lit sing-alongs. To wit, one of its catchiest songs is called “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed,” and it is about exactly what it says. The lush productions, full of warm, ’80s synthesizer washes, impressionistic drums, and syncopated climaxes, recall early Jessie Ware and True-era Solange—fine company for an artist who’s only getting better. [Clayton Purdom]

Ariana Grande, Sweetener

Strip away all the tabloid nonsense of her tumultuous relationship, and what’s left from Ariana Grande in 2018? Only one of the most slickly produced pop albums of the year, full of icy grooves, fierce bangers, and track after track of head-nodding beats and hummable hooks. The call-and-response bounce of the title track may as well be a call to embrace Grande’s addictive style of R&B electro. Even after sitting through “Pete Davidson,” you’re not ready for the ’90s throwbacks to end. [Alex McLevy]

Let’s Eat Grandma, I’m All Ears

On which a pair of childhood friends kick past the gothy, freak-folk fairy tales of their promising but slight debut and create instead a full-blown pop-music fantasia. Was there an album this year as continuously surprising, even on your 30th listen, as I’m All Ears? These are uncommonly full songs, stretching on with increasingly seismic choruses and unexpected prog-pop mutations. Rather than drown in digital-age despair, as so many 2018 albums did, Let’s Eat Grandma surfs atop it, tapping into a sense of endless possibility. The kids, as they say, are all right. [Clayton Purdom]

Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer

The best word to describe Janelle Monáe is “beyond.” Beyond time (she’s been futuristic for more than a decade now), beyond gender (this year she came out as a self-proclaimed “free-ass motherfucker”), and beyond genre. So it’s no surprise that Dirty Computer, the sexually liberated, righteously eclectic ode to Black Girl Magic she released back in April, goes beyond anything Monáe’s done before. The influence of Monáe’s mentor Prince is still evident in the album’s ’80s synths and coquettish guitars, sounds that get blended with electro-pop (“Take A Byte”), trap-influenced R&B (“I Like That”), and confessional ballads (“So Afraid”). [Katie Rife]

Robyn, Honey

In the eight years since she released her career-defining Body Talk series, Robyn underwent intensive therapy, working through a breakup, a close friend’s death, and an ensuing depression. Honey comes out on the other side, still picking up the pieces, but clear-eyed and grateful to be alive. Its songs are vast and sensual, luxuriating in deep disco rhythms and some of the most delicious R&B melodies of Robyn’s long career—the start of a sweet, hard-fought next chapter for one of pop’s most distinct voices. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Listen to songs from The A.V. Club’s best albums of 2018—from punk, country, metal, electronic, and more—on our Spotify playlist.

Sir, November

There’s a lot of nice, tasteful R&B out there—listen to Sir’s first album or pair of 2017 EPs for great examples. So what elevates November from the morass? A lot, really: It’s weirder, earthier, with sharper hooks, the sort of album that casts Schoolboy Q as a bluesy barroom confidante and turns Auto-Tune into an agent of leering, catcalling menace. Also, it’s a concept album about a sentient spaceship. November never stops surprising or delighting, at once focused and freaky. [Clayton Purdom]

SOPHIE, Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides

Sophie’s earliest singles, from 2013, were little pop blasts from a shattered mirror dimension, everything hyper-real and polished to eerie, spotless perfection, with Sophie’s voice just one more material to stretch and tweak and pluck. But she begins her long-awaited debut LP with “It’s Okay To Cry,” her voice center stage, unmodified and unvarnished. Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides places the artist’s most clattering, dissonant impulses on a spectrum with more kaleidoscopic, gut-punch balladry, creating a series of “products” that are as concerned with our insides as they are our, well, un-insides. [Clayton Purdom]

Kali Uchis, Isolation

After several increasingly refined short releases and growing support from high-profile collaborators, Kali Uchis’ full-length debut was sure to be good, but Isolation surpassed even its own high expectations by seamlessly fusing Uchis’ retro influences (the smoke-ring bossa nova of “Body Language,” the ’90s hip-hop rhythms throughout) to progressive R&B and Latin pop (“Miami,” “Nuestro Planeta”). True to its title, Isolation sets Kali Uchis in a class of her own. [Kelsey J. Waite]

U.S. Girls, In A Poem Unlimited

The latest studio album from musician Meghan Remy under her U.S. Girls moniker is a bold and engaging pairing of provocative politics with catchy dance-pop grooves, beginning in ’70s soul-funk and ending in a Talking Heads-esque jam, with an assemblage of art-pop way stations in between. Horns, synths, guitars, and presumably a kitchen sink are employed to craft this smart and nearly flawless collection, which may not be a concept album proper but often feels like one in its fierce intelligence and thematic resonance. [Alex McLevy]

Honorable mentions

The 1975, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
No one tries harder than The 1975, here wedging together (deep breath) anthemic arena rock, Auto-Tuned synth-pop, woozy live-band R&B, police brutality, gospel outros, information overload, streaming pornography, a Siri cameo, and a whole lot more. Just go along for the ride. [Clayton Purdom]

Christine And The Queens, Chris
On second LP Chris, Héloïse Letissier introduces a more fluid expression of her studied, funk-driven synth-pop, out-hustling (and especially out-dancing) most of the competition—and doing so in two languages. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Georgia Anne Muldrow, Overload
Overload celebrates a bold and all-encompassing love with a masterful blend of deep funk, jazz, soul, and hip-hop only Georgia Anne Muldrow could conjure. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Rhye, Blood
Five years after the immaculate Woman, Rhye’s Blood sounds like patience, smelting Sade and quiet-storm jazz into a handful of pristine art-object slow-burners. [Clayton Purdom]

Troye Sivan, Bloom
Hot, dark, and compulsively tuneful, Bloom’s the sort of all-killer-no-filler audiophile pop you used to have to be named Jackson to make. [Clayton Purdom]

Listen to selections from these albums and more picks from 2018 on our Spotify playlist.