In music, the theme of the year is clear: establishing one’s identity. It defines Camila Cabello’s breakout solo album, Shawn Mendes’s self-titled turning point into adult musicianship and Cardi B’s debut, a declaration of success — and skill. And those are just a few of the many breakouts released during the first half of this year. Here are our picks for the best new albums that kept us intrigued from start to finish so far in 2018.
Camila Cabello, Camila
After parting ways with girl group Fifth Harmony in 2016, Cabello tested out a few different one-off singles — some clubby, some rap-heavy — before landing on the more straightforward pop sound of her debut solo album. While her Latin-forward breakout hit “Havana” may have the streaming numbers, it’s the slow-burning range of emotion that she displays over the course of Camila that gives this album its consistency. From the breathy, percussive drive of “Never Be the Same” to the low-key balladry of the acoustic “Real Friends,” Cabello’s groove is in infectiously simple songwriting and melodies that play well with her flexible voice.
Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
Country’s latest crossover sweetheart is Kacey Musgraves, who followed up her 2013 Grammy-winning album Same Trailer Different Park and 2015’s Pageant Material with this year’s Golden Hour. From bittersweet farewell romps like “Space Cowboy” to bubbly, layered love songs like “Butterflies,” Musgraves has an easy way of drawing listeners in and making them a part of her bright world of warm chords and relatable storytelling.
The Weeknd, My Dear Melancholy,
Fresh off of two breakups, The Weeknd has already made his mark on 2018 with My Dear Melancholy, a six-track EP that is as moody and raw a sound as the Canadian singer has ever produced. Abel Tesfaye’s strength has often been in his echoing falsettos, which he stretches here over inventive beats to mimic the pain and delusion of failed romance. Standouts “Call Out My Name” and “Hurt You” feel deeply personal and specific in their lyrics, too — making his work resonate on deeper levels than ever before.
Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy
From “I Like It” to “Be Careful” and beyond, Cardi B made sure that her debut album lived up to the hype of 2017 releases like “Bodak Yellow.” Assists from artists like SZA, J Balvin and Chance the Rapper make her release a veritable party of hip-hop’s finest voices, while the beats — often dark and heavy — provide an eerily effective baseline over which Cardi delivers her propulsive, confident raps. With Invasion of Privacy, she proves that her early success was no fluke.
Chloe x Halle, The Kids Are Alright
Beyoncé protegés Chloe and Halle Bailey have the Queen’s stamp of approval for a reason. On their debut album The Kids Are Alright, the sisters prove that they’ve earned their place among the top songwriters and producers of their generation, thanks to the deeply infectious melodies of songs like “Grown” (the soundtrack to TV show Grown-ish) and the moody hip-hop of “Hi Lo” featuring rapper GoldLink. Over lyrics that probe the uncertainties of youth and pressures of adolescence, their angelic voices lift and intertwine. They write all their own music, which might be why their sound, which is all their own, stands out.
Shawn Mendes, Shawn Mendes
Mendes, soon to be 20, is making 2018 his year. The spring release of his self-titled album kicked off with a double whammy of singles: “In My Blood,” a rollicking, emotionally resonant pop-rock track that trades in the power (and pain) of anxiety, and “Lost In Japan,” an R&B slow jam that shows off his sweet tenor. Mendes’ greatest strength is in his ability to mine sensitivity for maximum pop traction — and thanks to savvy collaborations with of-the-moment artists like Julia Michaels and Khalid, plus his idol John Mayer, this album does just that, balancing aching acoustic moments and stadium-ready guitar.
Sofi Tukker, Treehouse
Electronic duo Sofi Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern may have an Ivy League background, but on their debut album Treehouse, the energetic pair lets loose with the soundtrack to a high-energy party. Highlights include “Best Friend” (which Apple tapped for an ad campaign), the irresistibly bright Portuguese-sung “Energia” and the confident anthem “Baby I’m A Queen.” Working in unusual instruments (like the Bolivian charango), sonic notes (snippets of birdsong) and cultural references (like Brazilian poet Paulo Leminski), it’s a promising debut that refuses to play within the lines of standard EDM. They’re way more fun than that.
Ssion, real name Cody Critcheloe, is a New York City-based artist who’s been an underground punk-pop favorite for years. On O, Ssion mixes glittering production with a grunge sensibility and tongue-in-cheek lyrics, producing a body of work that’s unwilling to bend to any mainstream norms. It’s a vibrant, expansive collection that refuses to be categorized: the sweet refrain of “Let Me Down Like U” is bubblegum pop with quirky undertones, while “1980-99” with Sky Ferreira and Hole’s Patty Schemel finds a retro rock ‘n’ roll groove with attitude. Guests like Róisín Murphy and Devendra Banhart further help Ssion explore his singular vision, turning O into a winding journey into the mind of an alt-pop master.
J Balvin, Vibras
J Balvin is not Colombia’s first superstar musical export; that honor might go to Shakira or Juanes. But unlike his earlier, pop-adjacent predecessors, J Balvin has been crossing over into the global mainstream on his own terms. Vibras is first of all a reggaeton album, seeing J Balvin riff on Puerto Rico’s answer to hip-hop. It’s recorded entirely in Spanish. And it’s a smart and undeniable package of danceable beats from across the spectrum of Latin genres, like on the sultry, chime-filled “Cuando Tú Quieras” or the spare, melodic “Noches Pasadas.” His biggest hit, “Mi Gente” with Willy William, received the blessing of a Beyoncé remix last year, helping establish him even further in pop consciousness. But it’s the early version that appears on the album — and it already has all the star power it needs.
Soccer Mommy, Clean
Soccer Mommy is not actually a soccer mom. In fact, the singer-songwriter Sophie Allison is only 20. But on her precocious indie rock debut Clean, Allison proves mature beyond her years, finding raw poetry in youthful heartbreak and frustration — sometimes with others, sometimes with herself. Her guitar is precise and effective, swinging from tender to strident as the album progresses. Standout “Last Girl” is classic indie rock ear candy, while the ballad “Blossom (Wasting All My Time)” is lush with acoustic strums and her intimate vocals, her voice close to breaking at the edges. That’s her appeal: a certain unpolished candor that, packaged into an album with a strong sense of melody, becomes intensely relatable.