Everyone in America is exhausted, except for those making the best music. This year, rappers vocalized their introspection in colorful shouts, country singers plumbed the depths of normalcy for cosmic truths and one particularly incensed hardcore punk band seemed to be having more fun than anyone else. Here’s what it sounded like.
1. Serpentwithfeet, “Soil.” Scores of vocalists have tried reshaping the contours of R&B in recent years, but few of them sound like they’ve studied the human voice with the intensity of Josiah Wise, a self-described “post-church boy” from Baltimore who performs as Serpentwithfeet. Sung in shimmering vibrato, his songs do new kinds of emotional work, finding serenity in volatility, locating pleasure in grief — a sort of sonic proof that acceptance is the easiest way to feel something entirely new.
2. Drakeo the Ruler, “Cold Devil.” Technically, this great Los Angeles slang-whisperer dropped his masterpiece in December 2017 — but in the 11 months that followed, no rapper came close to touching it. Drakeo calls this stuff “nervous music,” but he ultimately sounds cool and conspiratorial, overloading his rhymes with insults so effortless and inventive that each song deserves its own glossary.
3. Kacey Musgraves, “Golden Hour.” Remember the motto at the heart of this Texas country singer’s stunning debut album? “Follow your arrow wherever it points.” Now, five years and a few recording sessions later, Musgraves is still walking the walk. On “Golden Hour,” she exposes her brain to the wonders of LSD, the inertia of FOMO and the sparkling utopian mirage of a honky-tonk discothèque. And she sings about all of it in a sweetened deadpan that softly underscores her message: Quiet your mind and you’ll see mystery all around.
4. BlocBoy JB, “Simi.” This Memphis rapper has so many ways of messing with your head. For one, he knows how to raise his voice over the length of a single breath just so, the way a bully might as you try your best to walk on by. And then there are those rhymes — blissfully asymmetrical and big, big fun. Happy memories erase the bad ones and vice versa.
5. Lori McKenna, “The Tree.” The persistently resourceful Massachusetts songwriter returns with 10 uncomplicated country songs about the knotty complications of family — and yeah, some of these lyrics could have been crocheted into a throw pillow if the crochet needle wasn’t being pressed against your jugular. More than any other songwriter in Nashville, McKenna knows that the truth hurts. If you’re not a sniveling mess by the time you get through the bridge of “A Mother Never Rests,” don’t tell mom.
6. Ashley Monroe, “Sparrow.” Any time Monroe steps out with her supergroup, Pistol Annies, she and her Nashville comrades make a big bang. The vocal trio — Monroe, Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley — generated plenty of rah-rah for its recent “Interstate Gospel,” but Monroe’s fourth solo effort, “Sparrow,” is the smarter, sharper, sadder, sexier, more substantial album. On the curtain-raising track, “Orphan,” she pleads, “How do I make it alone?” Then, for the next 30-odd minutes, she shows us exactly how.
7. Turnstile, “Time and Space.” This ferocious Maryland five-piece understands that hardcore punk should be speedy, loud and sincere. But what if, instead of being harsh, matte and brittle, the music felt curvy, colorful and bouncy, as if the songs themselves were made out of Nerf? Boing-boing-boing-boing-boing.
8. Eli Keszler, “Stadium.” Here’s a composer-slash-percussionist who plays his drums the way you might rummage for the car keys in the bottom of your purse — a familiar, strange, profoundly intimate, mildly anxious searching that produces enigmatic rustles and clinks.
9. Steve Tibbetts, “Life Of.” On his most sublime and sedate album, this underrated Minneapolis truth-seeker manipulates the strings of his guitar in gorgeous drips and drizzles. Does the music sound like rain? Or is Tibbetts simply doing what rain does? If there’s a difference, it’s in here.
10. Rico Nasty, “Nasty.” In this year’s rapscape, petulance went from a mood to a mode. So who had the best worst attitude of 2018? That would be Rico Nasty, a 21-year-old Maryland native whose hairstyles were almost as motley as her rhymes. Stick around until the very end of her latest album for “Lala,” a psychedelic slog where Rico sounds like a lyricist suddenly plunged into a state of existential nanny-nanny-boo-boo: “What’s the point? La-la-la-la-la . . . All those words. La-la-la-la-la . . .”