Best Non-Rap Albums of 2018 (Staff Picks)

The DJBooth staff lists their favorite non-rap albums of the year, from Mitski to The 1975 to Mariah Carey and more.
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Best of 2018: Best Non-Rap Album

Say what you like, 2018 has been a marked year for music. While critique is very serious business, we are also human and what we like is all the more special than the critical appraisal of an album. For the next month, every day, you will find our staff picks for our favorite facets of music from best features to worst songs and everything in-between, based solely on what strikes us as diehard music fans first, and critics second. It's been an incredible year for hip-hop.

These are our favorite non-rap albums of 2018.

Be the Cowboy — Mitski

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Although I’m slightly wary of being the nine millionth writer to rave about Mitski like her music is the solution to climate change, it would be disingenuous of me to claim that any other album this year impressed me as much as Be the Cowboy. While the approach on her previous albums was to juxtapose her gorgeous yet haunting singing voice against intentionally gritty instrumentation, Be the Cowboy expanded on her guitar-centric sound, creating lusher soundbeds upon which she could display her immense talents as a songwriter. Although she’s far from a rapper, her lyrics—thematically ambitious, yet never heavy-handed—recall the work of Earl Sweatshirt, in that both artists have an astonishing knack for fleshing out a fully formed worldview while prioritizing economy of language. —Hershal Pandya

Blood Type — Cautious Clay

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Cautious Clay describes his sound as a combination of Cody ChestnuTT's "Boylife in America" and André 3000's The Love Below. If you ask me, there's a little Bon Iver in there, too. On his knockout of a debut, Blood Type, the 25-year-old Cleveland-raised, Brooklyn-based singer/producer fuses organic instruments with synthetic textures, creating soul-stirring, folk-tinged soundscapes not too unlike some of those on Bon Iver’s 22, A Million. And then there's his vulnerable songwriting and soothing voice, which echoes Justin Vernon's heavenly falsetto when it swells, soars, and softly dissipates over gorgeous sax riffs. (Speaking of saxophones, you really need to watch his Tiny Desk Concert.) Blood Type is very much a statement of Cautious Clay's own identity, though, as he juggles relationships, career goals, student debt, and emotional insecurities (“I'm so afraid of intimacy”) on his stunning first outing. —Andy James

A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships — The 1975

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There's nothing quite like becoming completely absorbed into a record from a group to whom you've only had only peripheral exposure, realizing that you agree with the hyperbolic praise it's generated across music media, and wanting to recommend it to the world, only to have the group's lead singer put his ignorance on full display unprompted and become soundly ridiculed across social media. Yet, that's what happened to me over the last week with the third album from English rock-but-not-rock band The 1975, a sprawling, impossibly addictive dispatch from the absurd online landscape of this precise moment in time. The singles are fantastic as they are varied, "Love It If We Made It" is one of the year's best songs, and "I Couldn't Be More in Love" somehow turns a chintzy '80s power ballad into something divine and piercingly emotive. In a year of non-rap albums I loved from Amen Dunes, Allan Rayman, Nicholas Jaar, Leon Bridges, and more, not even Matt Healy's asinine comments could shake my favorite. —Brendan Varan

Caution — Mariah Carey

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I need to tell you how much The Emancipation of Mimi means to me and my family. My 73-year-old father came to me and my sister singing Snoop Dogg and Pharrell lyrics when that album dropped in 2005. Thirteen years later, I was singing Ty Dolla $ign and Mariah Carey kiss-off lyrics from her new album Caution to my father on the drive to Thanksgiving dinner. Life, much like love, rap, and fashion, works in cycles. Caution saw the creative wheel come back around for Mariah, whose ear for modern production and breathy falsetto carry her through 10 new tracks of love and loss. This one is going the distance, trust. —Dylan "CineMasai" Green

Dirty Computer — Janelle Monáe

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Janelle Monáe left behind her alter egos this year to create one of the most uplifting, personal records of self-love with Dirty Computer. Exploring love and sexuality in the twilight of a nation bent away from its supposed progressive ideals, Monáe proudly declared that although racism, sexism, and homophobia are as American as apple pie, she—“young, Black, wild, and free”—is the true “American Dream.” Dirty Computer is at once bright-eyed and realistic, hopeful and critical. She is a study in contrasts, and a Wondaland to behold. What the world needs now is more Monáe. —Ben Taylor

Good Thing — Leon Bridges

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Running a music website requires me to listen to just about every new album release. Needless to say, I'm forever drowning in music. I'm not complaining, I realize I am a blessed soul who is able to listen to and write about music for a living, but as a result of this neverending stream of tunes, I rarely have the chance to return to an album—even if it's a project I love. In 2018, I made an exception for Leon Bridges' Good Thing, an album I have probably listened to more times than my wife asked me to update our life insurance. And in case you were wondering, that's a lot of times and yes, I finally updated it. In her review of the album, Donna-Claire Chesman wrote, "In 2015, Leon Bridges innovated upon soul in a giddy whisper, but on Good Thing, he’s moving the genre forward with a bellied shout," and it's that bellied shout that has me shouting myself, "Listen to this album!" —Z

Honeybloom — Choker

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Frank Ocean was the first name who came to mind when I pressed play on Choker’s 2017 debut project, Peak. Similarities to Frank are still apparent on Honeybloom, Choker’s sophomore release, but there are far more signs of a unique voice forming underneath the influence. Choker, especially on Honeybloom, reminds me of watching Odd Future slowly grow into their final forms. He’s not perfect, but each song further solidifies the kid is a holographic, limited-edition Charmeleon a few levels shy of a Charizard. —Yoh

On his debut project, Peak, Choker drew comparisons to Frank Ocean, for his similar voice and a shared penchant for a more experimental sound. On his follow-up album Honeybloom, he shed those comparisons and created his own individual aesthetic. Mixing spoken-word on “Arboretum,” somber crooning on “Daisy,” and energetic pop on “Suzuki Peaches,” Choker reveals his genre-bending talents throughout the project. Songs are loosely structured, but Choker more than holds his own on the many beat switches. Overall, Honeybloom is an inherently enigmatic but thoroughly compelling dream-pop and R&B journey. —Stephen Barston

Lady Lady — Masego

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Every note on Masego’s brilliant Lady Lady feels a little lusher than the last, a twinkling jewel among the treasure trove of releases in 2018. There’s hardly a skippable moment throughout the album, as the multi-talented artist travels through sounds and moods with ease. On songs like “Shawty Fishin’ (Blame the Net),” it’s upbeat and energizing; elsewhere, on slower cuts like “I Had a Vision,” he keeps the moment engaging with lofty vocal riffs and passionate singing. It feels much more mature than anything Masego has released in the past, but there’s still a carefree, playful essence lodged in his vocals and many of the arrangements, creating a complete project that will be just as refreshing for years to come. —Kenan Draughorne

A Star Is Born Soundtrack — Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper

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Laugh all you want, but sometimes the best music is the kind that wants you to know it’s manipulating your emotions at every turn. A Star is Born was an incredible movie despite the fact that it should have been a trainwreck, and its soundtrack is just as incredible despite the fact that under the helm of anyone else, besides Lady Gaga, it would be so full of ham you could serve it at Christmas. Yet, it works at every turn, due not only to Lady Gaga being a supreme vocalist but also because it creates the same wondrous atmosphere that the movie that bore it does as well. —Matt Wilhite

Une Vie Cent Détours — Cosmic Analog Ensemble

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Donna, what the fuck are you talking about? I'm glad you asked, insecure voice in my head! I'm talking about my favorite jazz album of the year. Une Vie is preoccupied with hazard sonics and European aesthetics in the same turn. The sound of heals on jagged sidewalks strikes a chord in my soul, and Cosmic Analog Ensemble takes that sound and digitizes it, gives it instrumental and funky body, and makes each pretentious sip of espresso all the more satisfying. I implore you to open your ears and listen to this record; let it take you somewhere new. —Donna-Claire Chesman

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