- Jussie Smollett, Sum of My Music
No way Empire star Jussie Smollett was about to let a label – in his case, not just any label but Sony – stifle his musical ambitions. So he walked. Then he independently produced a stunning soul album called Sum of My Music. Smollett’s buttery croon and barefaced vulnerability are served on a smoldering bed of R&B grooves that bend contemporary urban trends in exciting and sincere ways. Same-sex love is a liberating act of defiance on the intimate organ-droned “Freedom,” the precursor to “I Know My Name,” a spirited self-determination chant and proof that going his own way was, clearly, the way to go.
- Santigold, I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Sessions
Pure, unencumbered joy on a Santigold album? Yes, she was looking out for your darkened post-Obama spirit, recording a much-needed but little-heard antidote for 2018. For it, the dancehall queen opened the blinds and let the light in on I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Sessions. Deploying an intoxicating rush of reggae-tinged bliss on playful escapade “Crashing Your Party” and cosmic bop “Valley of the Dolls,” Santigold’s hallucinogen medicine goes down so easy you just might forget the sting of this last year.
- Christine and the Queens, Chris
Gender constructs bend and break in the glistening queer-pop heaven of French artist Hélöise Letissier’s Chris. Rich in the singer-songwriter’s sense of self, the result of her own exploration of gender and its place in society, the subversive and complex Chris flexes a fully formed and thriving persona, where ambition, sexuality and electric pop-funk sizzlers are well within her spectacular reach.
- Sugarland, Bigger
“So cut the cake, and let us eat,” country artist and queer ally Jennifer Nettles sasses on Sugarland’s first album in eight years. Given the surprising sociopolitical weight of the rest of her reunion with Sugarland bandmate Kristian Bush, it makes perfect sense that the duo’s call-for-cake is a call-for-equality: “Mother” conveys the pro-LGBTQ stance of its, yes, country music creators, while the wrenchingly too-real “Tuesday’s Broken” makes a case for stronger gun laws. It ends on “Not the Only,” leading us into a new year with a needed dose of unity and light.
- Robyn, Honey
This isn’t the Robyn album we asked for. You wanted to dance more, and for that, dear queers, you have a trilogy of Body Talk bangers. Though lead single “Missing You” is the kind of Robyn song you’ll be happy to know will leave you feeling sad on the dancefloor, generally, Honey doesn’t bang; the Swedish pop star’s art changed because her life changed – a breakup, a death. Thusly, Robyn let Body Talk be Body Talk, and because she’s an artist she sculpted a new sound for a new era that forgoes the immediacy and lingering pop thunder of “Dancing on My Own.” Honey, then, with its 90s-era R&B vibe and low-key house throwbacks and wonky detours (“Beach2k20” anyone?), is its own sweet, weird and wonderful thing.
- Pistol Annies, Interstate Gospel
Country artists Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley have been here before, narrating cheeky and earnest parables of love, life and other woes set to the Americana backdrop they’ve all independently pursued. But with Interstate Gospel, their collective supergroup is fine-tuned as they breathe new life into the road-less-traveled aphorism on “Milkman” and uncover the grimiest of family traditions in “5 Acres of Turnips,” as Lambert’s lament teems with aching regret: “generations of shame, in my granddaddy’s name.” Beauty ultimately triumphs, as does Pistol Annies on this, their most moving album.
- Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer
In 2018, Janelle Monae came out and declared herself human. Her other reveal – that she is pansexual – is no footnote on a year that needed all the queer visibility it could get, but her latest finds Monae shedding the metal components of her android alter ego. For Dirty Computer, she came down to earth with bold, timely and lyrically charged assertions of being black, female and queer in an America where all the above is shunned. Her remedy for Trump’s America: a vagina monologue (“Pynk”) and a restorative message for the disenfranchised (“Americans”). Dirty Computer is an artist taking full advantage of her role as an activist.
- Mariah Carey, Caution
Living tea-drinking legend Mariah Carey came to Caution without the world’s expectations on her shoulders, resulting in her most cohesive and self-assured set since 1997’s Butterfly. On “GTFO,” she kisses off the hims and hers she does not know in a composed and blasé purr, the whole low-key affair setting the stage for the diva’s chill defiance. This is Mariah emancipated from caring. This is Mariah in a negligee on a chaise lounge sipping her hot tea (and on “A No No,” spilling some too). This is Carey turning in one of the most experimental tracks of her enduring career, “Giving Me Life,” as elusive as ever during the song’s hypnotically eerie final stretch. This is what happens when you’re Mariah Carey on your own terms. To that I say, resoundingly: a YES YES.
- Brandi Carlile, By the Way, I Forgive You
Veteran singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile came at us hard with the pen on By the Way, I Forgive You. Not a word was wasted, and the Grammys took notice, nominating Carlile – the most nominated female artist this year – for six awards, including Album of the Year, as well as Record of the Year and Song of the Year for her soul-reviving queer anthem, “The Joke.” Notably, the set lives in the space Carlile is most comfortable: the intimacy of a theater, where her towering rough-hewn howl has room to embellish and warm instrumentation emanates like a front-row seat at a Carlile concert. Lyrically, world injustices are brought to the fore with personal urgency and dramatic flare; the album is sad and dark and heavy. But it will heal you too.
- Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
On Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves follows her own arrow again, thank you very much, as she evokes a world so serene it’s hard to believe we’re living in it. Flowers grow and so does love. Rainbows break through the sky and so does hope. Musgraves’ Golden Hour reminds you of the here-and-now, her voice as sweet as the pretty things – and the pretty hard things (letting someone go on “Space Cowboy,” the year’s best breakup song) – she brings to life simply by reminding you they exist. That’s the point, of course: to turn an eye to the unseen, clouded by a volatile political and social state. But Musgraves’ majestic spin on simple pleasures is like returning to a place you love, where just the thought is comforting – a balm, a breather. The sound of a new day.