Ariana Grande, Sweetener

Ariana Grande has had a rough couple of years. First there was the 2017 bombing at her Manchester concert that left 22 dead, followed by her very public split from rapper Mac Miller and his death several months later (which some of his fans callously blamed on Grande and their breakup). All of this could understandably be enough to level someone, but listening to Sweetener—the ponytailed pop-star's fourth and most outstanding LP, released in August—it becomes clear that she possesses Hulk-like emotional strength to go along with those pipes (which have earned her comparisons to Mariah Carey). Across 15 tracks, Grande works through PTSD and anxiety ("Breathin," "Get Well Soon"), finds power in her own resilience ("No Tears Left to Cry," the anthem of summer 2018 and also my heart), and welcomes new love into her life ("R.E.M.," "Pete Davidson"). She also sings openly about two things women often get flak for: her "Successful" career and her sexuality (the Madonna-inspired "God Is a Woman"). Sweetener sounds alternately dreamy and frenzied, like Grande's emerging from her gossamer grief cocoon to see the blinding-white light of day. These songs—which are further enhanced by strings, funk-infected beats, and the outstanding work of producers like Pharrell Williams—feel validating, empowering, and also kind of revolutionary. A famous pop star made a record about the process of healing herself from massive trauma; that's pretty cool. CIARA DOLAN

Connan Mockasin, Jassbusters

What I wanted most from music in 2018 was for it to be chill and to help me keep going. New Zealander and psychedelic soft jazz genius Connan Mockasin's Jassbusters wormed its way into my regular rotation with its eccentric optimism, catchy but original harmonies, and playful, nonsensical lyrics that almost sound like they're in Hopelandic (the made-up language of Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi). It's perfect puttering-around music that you can actually work to, and includes an unexplained audio skit (on "B'nD," which is short for "Bostyn 'n Dobsyn") that I inexplicably love. Unlike 2014's Forever Dolphin Love, Jassbusters doesn't have standouts—in that respect it has more in common with 2013's Caramel—but every song still feels intentional. It's whatever you want it to be—a little daydream to boost your mood on a long, gray day. SUZETTE SMITH

Ghost Cop, One Weird Trick

Are there nightclubs in the Blade Runner universe? Probably not; replicants don't seem cheery enough to even listen to anything with a beat, let alone go out dancing. But if there are clubs—behind unmarked doors hidden deep in the rain-slicked, trash-strewn alleys beneath skyscraper canyons—Ghost Cop's One Weird Trick is pulsing inside, combining mopey dystopia with paranoid cold wave and vibrant '80s pop. At first listen, One Weird Trick sounds upbeat, even fun, but on its best tracks—the methodical "Leaving the Plaza at Dawn (Part 1)," the lush "Enhance," the ominous "Approaching the City Limits (Part 2)"—an ambient menace thrums beneath the bright synths, a shadow on the flickering horizon. As Ghost Cop's beats pile up, and as the disconcerting lyrics bleed into each other, the chilly, addictive One Weird Trick somehow sounds both gleaming and new and like a data-rotted relic from a cyberpunk future. A future in which maybe nobody needs dance clubs, because all of us—post-humans and skin-jobs and holo-companions and Johnny Mnemonics alike—can just lower our VR shades and jack into the sonic-web via our wet-wired audio ports. Together we'll hack the mega-corps and sabotage the robocops, and with One Weird Trick as our soundtrack, maybe we'll end up dancing, too. ERIK HENRIKSEN

Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer

Choosing Janelle Monáe's Dirty Computer as my favorite album of the year was a no-brainer. With the help of her mentor—the late Prince Rogers Nelson—in crafting tracks like the sex-positive lead single "Make Me Feel" (in which she comes out as pansexual), Monáe has created one of the most powerful political pop albums ever. It's pro-Black, pro-sex, pro-love, and pro-freedom. It's also her first project without the Cindi Mayweather Metropolis narrative. Instead, the story behind Dirty Computer—and its accompanying 45-minute film of the same name—sees Monáe present her full and most authentic self as she goes through phases of reckoning, celebration, and reclamation while being forced to comply with the homophobic laws of a totalitarian society (sound familiar?). With catchy, fleshed-out, and relatable bops like "Take a Byte," "Let's Get Screwed," "I Got the Juice," and all four exceptionally badass singles, each track is perfectly placed and flows right into the next. Dirty Computer succeeds in creating a masterful and multifaceted love letter to all the marginalized individuals and free-ass mutherfuckers out there redefining what it means to be American. JENNI MOORE

Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour

Kacey Musgraves' Golden Hour is named for that time just after sunrise and before sunset when everything looks like it's been dipped in honey and people glow without the help of Instagram filters. It's a time of day meant for aimless walks and shared joints, and it's only enhanced by this album of wistful, expertly crafted country that dips in and out of pop hooks. Musgraves has matured from the tongue-in-cheek, sly stoner persona she presented on her first two albums, 2013's Same Trailer Different Park and 2015's Pageant Material. This time around, she pairs her charming wordplay with new emotional depth, like on standout track "Space Cowboy" ("You can have your space, cowboy/I ain't gonna fence you in"). Other favorites include the sassy "High Horse," the dreamy slacker ditty "Slow Burn," and the deceptively simple "Happy & Sad," where she wonders, "Is there a word for the way that I'm feeling tonight?/Happy and sad at the same time." Actually, there are two words for that feeling: Golden Hour. BLAIR STENVICK

Masego, Lady Lady

Self-described "TrapHouseJazz" artist Masego is more famous than you think he is, but nowhere near famous enough for how amazingly well he does his (very) unique thing. He's like a Jeopardy! answer to questions that could only occur after hearing his debut LP, Lady Lady: What if Future grew up on a steady diet of Charles Mingus? What if DJ Jazzy Jeff's musical sidekick wasn't the Fresh Prince, but actual Prince? What if Outkast was a single person, and that person loved to play the saxophone? That last one isn't even really a "what if"—on Lady Lady, Masego covers a skit from The Love Below (did "cover skit" even exist as a concept before this?) and transforms it into a contemplative-yet-hilarious soundscape where desire smoothly tells regret to go fuck itself with its pinkies up. But Lady Lady's most consistent trick is how even the most laidback tracks contain sparks of infectious excitement. You get the sense that Masego's making this all up on the spot and having the time of his fucking life doing it—that he knows none of this should be working, but of course it's working, because he's Masego and he can do everything. BOBBY ROBERTS

The Beths, Future Me Hates Me

It’s rare to come across a debut album as welcoming and self-assured as the Beths’ Future Me Hates Me, but Elizabeth Stokes and her crackerjack band’s ability to combine joyful, heartfelt power-pop with the jangly Dunedin sound of their homeland caught my attention like no other release this year. The four-piece met while studying jazz at the University of Auckland, and the record finds them channeling these powers for good from start to finish. Multi-part vocal harmonies effortlessly ebb and flow alongside massive guitar riffs, never overshadowing the sly and self-deprecating humor packed into Stokes’ sharp, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. It’s hard to pick a standout here—the whole album plays like a collection of singles with no filler whatsoever. CHIPP TERWILLIGER

Oh Sees, Smote Reverser

Oh Sees might have dropped the "Thee" from their name a couple of albums back, but they're still releasing psychedelic gems every year or so, proving that the group—led by John Dwyer, and featuring the twin drumming talents of Dan Rincon and Paul Quattrone—is capable of finding untamed wilds of rock that have yet to be charted on any map. Smote Reverser is probably their thrashiest and most propulsive record yet, and its psychotically churning grooves evince an omnivorous musical appetite that includes the weightlessness of free jazz, the thorny complexity of prog, the heavy-lidded haze of beach psych, and the dorky exuberance of D&D metal. As mainstream music continues to trend toward sounds that don't exist outside of hard drives, Oh Sees are very much into making air physically move through a room—tempos are elastic, timbres are disheveled, and structures are open-ended. In the playlist era, I find myself listening to fewer and fewer new releases all the way through. Smote Reverser was the happy exception; once the first note kicks through the speakers, it won't let you go 'til the very end. NED LANNAMANN