Best Albums of 2018 (Staff Picks)

Travis Scott's 'ASTROWORLD,' Pusha-T's 'DAYTONA,' Mac Miller's 'SWIMMING'—the DJBooth staff picks our favorite albums of the year.
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Best Albums of 2018 (Staff Picks)

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 entire month of December, 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 albums of 2018.

ASTROWORLD — Travis Scott

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Before ASTROWORLD dropped, I was a fairly stringent Travis Scott critic. I just didn’t see it. Yet, ASTROWORLD is my album of the year, not solely because it blew away my expectations, but because it also checks every single box necessary for a truly memorable album. It has special moments like “SICKO MODE” and “YOSEMITE,” and larger-than-life features that never overshadow Travis or undermine his own vocal offering. It has the proper sequencing and the deep cuts to hold your attention from beginning to end. ASTROWORLD was the best album this year at simultaneously launching its creator into superstardom while also feeling completely exciting from beginning to end. What else could be better than that? —Matt Wilhite

CARE FOR ME — Saba

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I had the opportunity to meet Saba before his concert in Washington, DC in April, and on the border of the Polaroid we took together, he scrawled in Sharpie: “SABA CARES FOR YOU.” This sentiment is abundantly clear to anyone who took the time to listen to his most recent project, CARE FOR ME. The concise, 10-track LP is rife with admirable introspection, with the Chicago MC reflecting on the depression and grief he experienced in the wake of his cousin’s death. The project is technically sound, with Saba adeptly switching flows and dancing over soulful production. Yet what makes CARE FOR ME my Album of the Year is its inherent ability to give hope to those in despondency. On “CALLIGRAPHY,” Saba sings, “I just got tired of runnin’ away,” and for anyone experiencing anguish, CARE FOR ME serves as the inspiration to confront it, the impetus to mature in its midst. —Stephen Barston

Saba’s CARE FOR ME has caused chills to run marathons down my spine. It’s not an album heard without physically feeling the music’s gravity. There’s a weight to every song, an emotional reaction triggered by the unrestrained candor and achromatic production palette. CARE FOR ME is far from the year’s biggest release, but no rapper wore their heart, soul, and passion on every song the way Saba does. No song in 2018 has caused the rush of emotions that are present when playing “PROM / KING,” a seven-minute storytelling opus on par with “A Life in the Day of Benjamin André.” Masterful from start to finish. —Yoh

2016’s Bucket List Project was a promising debut from the Chicago rapper, but on CARE FOR ME, Saba grows in leaps and bounds when tragedy could’ve rooted him in place. The tragedy I’m referring to is, of course, the death of his cousin and collaborator John Walt, who “got killed for a coat” in a fatal stabbing in early 2017. His senseless murder not only culminates in the eight-minute trip down memory lane “PROM / KING”—one of the best storytelling songs in recent memory—but bleeds over into the rest of the album as Saba wrestles with depression, loneliness, anger, and survivor’s guilt in his absence. Even if you’re lucky enough to have not lost a close friend, Saba’s impassioned performances, beautiful production (co-produced by Daoud and daedaePIVOT), and heartbreaking reflections (“My best friend obituary really hang on my wall by the dresser / I’m tryna see it a life lesson”) amount to a gut punch to your soul equal to the size of the gaping hole in his. CARE FOR ME is ultimately a tale of tragedy turned triumph, though—both in the way Saba finds peace in the face of pain (“SMILE,” “HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME”) and makes artistic strides that would make Walt proud. As incredible as Pusha T’s DAYTONA, Mac Miller’s Swimming, and Ka’s Orpheus vs. The Sirens are in their own right, CARE FOR ME is the album that broke—and then stole—my heart in 2018. —Andy James

DAYTONA — Pusha T

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Although there were certainly dozens of albums released this year that tackled more important issues, and there were undoubtedly dozens more that were confessional, relatable, or grounded in a way DAYTONA simply wasn’t, Pusha T claims this distinction because I can’t think of any other album released this year that was nearly as effective at painting an unambiguous picture of the artist who released it and the goals they were trying to accomplish. Much of this can be attributed to the album’s brevity. As a lyricist, Pusha has an uncanny knack for conveying a lot of meaning in a few words, and the seven-track format fundamental to Kanye’s Wyoming experiment was the perfect way to distill this impressive skill into an entire body of work. To Kanye’s credit, the production on this album is astonishingly perfect for Pusha’s disposition—sparse, menacing, and elegant—creating the ideal soundbed to house Pusha’s dopeboy tales and intricate imagery. Sadly, Kanye is also responsible for the album’s most glaring flaw, as his verse referencing MAGA hats is extremely difficult to listen to without cringing. —Hershal Pandya

No News Is Good News — Phonte

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Phonte is wise enough to know when to shut himself off from the world. Luckily for us, he also knows exactly when it’s time for him to come back. No News Is Good News is a status report from a man coming out on the other side of personal and professional loss better for the wear and with bars packed to the brim with gems for every elder statesman-in-training. It isn’t just Phonte flowing over phenomenally crafted beats or working Supreme Clientele references into a song about burying his father. It’s the most airtight and perfectly constructed version of exactly what it wants to be: a 10-track, 33-minute trip through the mind of a man who came out of grueling experiences a better person on the other side. New Tigallo is a terrible thing to waste. —Dylan "CineMasai" Green

Time and place are the two biggest factors in music consumption. When and where are you listening? At 34 years of age, with a wife and child, a monthly mortgage payment, a mother fighting multiple sclerosis and a father battling a debilitating lower back condition, I appreciated and connected with Phonte's stellar 2018 offering No News Is Good News—an album about real life by an artist who took time off from music to deal with real life—on a truly special level. Would I have enjoyed the album several years ago, before I bought a house or met my wife or created a life? Absolutely. Would I have enjoyed the album over a decade ago, before my mother was bound to a wheelchair and my father could take care of her pain-free? You bet. But this year, under these circumstances, with this level of upset and stress, his words comforted me. "My job is to make you feel less alone in the world," Phonte told Ebro this past March. Mission accomplished, sir.  —Z

Swimming — Mac Miller

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Yeah, duh. At first, I took Swimming to be an even battle between the attraction to death and Mac's undeniable penchant for life. Now, I know for certain that Swimming was about wanting to live more than anything. The fight wasn't even close. Mac Miller was so close to life. He wanted to live, and now we're all going to do the living for him, type beat. —Donna-Claire Chesman

On Swimming, Mac Miller evolved his artistry for the umpteenth time. It’s as cohesive as ever, pulling back the curtain on his quest for peace and inviting us all to embark on the journey with him. Give Swimming all of the accolades; it’s the magnum opus of a legendary musician, and it’s unquestionably the Album of the Year. —Kenan Draughorne

Every once in a while an album will explain my own brain to me. This year I was gifted with two: Saba’s CARE FOR ME and Mac Miller’s Swimming. As each artist shared vulnerable records of loss, depression, and the struggle to find oneself on the other side of pain (or at least in the midst of it), I found myself inside of their records, understanding myself a little more with each subsequent listen. In the case of Swimming, it is now impossible to hear outside of the context of Mac’s death, hoping against hope that the struggle to swim and not drown is still possible for us if not him. For me, Swimming will forever be my buoy, keeping me afloat and navigating the way. —Ben Taylor

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