Editor’s note: The end of the year tends to bring with it reminiscence in the form of lists — the year’s best films, most watched TV series, memorable pop culture moments and, in this case, the year’s best albums. But while there will be no shortage of deep dives into the best music of 2018, we’re taking a more nuanced approach. In a world where queer artists can sometimes be overlooked, downplayed or overtly shunned, let’s celebrate the best albums by LGBTQ artists to see release in 2018.
In a music landscape that has seen hip-hop and pop make up the most-listened-to tracks of 2018, the year’s best albums by LGBTQ artists are a decidedly mixed bag. Queer artists have long made it a point to both subvert and define genre, and the list below evidences that. From SOPHIE’s reinvention of EDM to the funk-infused beats of Janelle Monáe and the finely tuned pop of Troye Sivan, no pair of these artists is creating indistinguishable art. Instead their albums sell the beauty of diversity and thereby the crux of the LGBTQ experience.
Here are the 21 best albums by LGBTQ artists that were released in 2018:
1. Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides by SOPHIE
It’s no surprise that the elasticity of electronic music has been taken up with such ferocity from the trans community. The LGBTQ acronym has long flocked to dance and EDM and trance, since the beat was invented. Yet what this Scotland-born producer, singer, songwriter and DJ has done with it on her official debut (a compilation called Product was released in 2015) is stunning, to say the least.
She’s as drawn to industrial dissonance as she is to melody, and even in her commercial productions — most notably with Charli XCX — you can tell it’s a SOPHIE production the minute you hear metallic rhythms that sound like swords slashing against each other. At times her music will begin straightforwardly. The ebullient “Immaterial” is a synthetic jaunt not far removed from Baths’ jumpiest joints (“Adam Copies,” for instance) until she evaporates the melody halfway through for a series of high-pitched treated vocal melismas that dovetail back into the beat. “Ponyboy” slams along on a martialed beat that doesn’t find relief until a mid-section drops an incongruous Prince-like synth-line that renders the herky-jerk of the tune nearly funky.
And so it goes, even on the vaguely ambient tracks that layer sound over sound until the weight becomes unbearable. If there’s a clue among these nine tracks, it’s on “Faceshopping,” about malleability as a spiritual guiding force, wherein it becomes clear the disintegration and reappropriation of sound is metaphorical. She’s not just reinventing the electronic landscape, no. She’s also — in a way you can actually hear — reformulating her very human, and very elastic, body.
2. A TIE: Iridescent by Brockhampton and Tommy Genesis by Tommy Genesis
A hip-hop boy band (that includes out artist Kevin Abstract) and a bisexual fetish rapper/singer from Canada keep pushing against the homophobic boundaries of an institutional genre that’s been around long enough to know better. With nothing but thanks to Le1f and Mykki Blanco, Brockhampton and Tommy Genesis may have enough of the ears of the younger subset to take gay- and bi-themed hip-hop out of the underground and into the mainstream. Brockhampton has a leg up, as the 13-member-and-growing “boy band” is a rainbow coalition of voices and perspectives, as evidenced on tracks like “J’Ouvert” and “Thug Life.”
Tommy Genesis, born Genesis Yasmine Mohanraj, offers a more streamlined and pop-centric take on the genre — she’s said she’s more interested in singing than rapping these days — but her slinky beats and singsong vocals are so playful you practically don’t realize at first if she’s talking about her pink parts (“Play With It”) or essaying her bio while writhing around in a bathtub (“Tommy”).
3. Chris by Christine & the Queens
Pansexual for sure, and boy does Héloïse Letissier make something of it on her sophomore record. And where Janelle Monáe digests her Prince influences and spits them out in thrilling new configurations, Christine & the Queens do the same for Michael Jackson. Her funk is more European in nature — as befits a simple human being from Nantes, France — but the buoyant grooves of The Gloved One live again in these 11 nuggets. (“Girlfriend feat. Dâm-Funk,” “Damn (What Must a Woman Do),” “Feel So Good”)
4. Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe
Pansexual. Bisexual. Gay. Who cares when the funk is this deep and this purple? Monáe channels her inner Prince across 14 tracks more diverse and humanistic (despite the robot concept) than His Royal Purpleness after becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. (“Make Me Feel,” “I Like That,” “Pynk”)
5. Transangelic Exodus by Ezra Furman
He may not be the first androgynous, bisexual, Jewish indie rocker, but a decade-plus and nine albums into his career, Ezra Furman continues to surprise. Yes, his adenoidal vocal style grates on sensitive ears (though that didn’t stop fans from flocking to Violent Femmes), and his brand of underground music may not be world-changing. Yet his pseudo-concept record about queer lovers on the lam is still bracing enough to warrant discovery by young folks who could use some schooling in outlaw artists from Jean Genet to John Rechy to Gregg Araki. (“Suck the Blood from My Wound,” “Driving Down to L.A.”)
6. Tell Me How You Really Feel by Courtney Barnett
While acknowledging that her second release didn’t pack the punch of discovery of her outstanding debut (it’s hard to hear someone again for the first time, you know), Barnett did something harder for an artist who’s playing the long game: she overcame the dreaded “sophomore slump” by streamlining her songwriting into more palatable rock-ist structures and retaining her idiosyncratic touches (the conversational cadence of her lyrics, the pristine guitar playing). There isn’t a song here as eye-opening (or funny) as “Avant Gardener” from her debut, but from the chunky skiffle of “Nameless, Faceless” to the relationship woes of “Need a Little Time,” there’s not a bad track in the bunch.
7. Bloom by Troye Sivan
The sophomore release from this YouTube sensation-turned-pop star is pure of-the-moment Top 40 sweetness, from his duet with Ariana Grande on “Dance to This” to the title track’s submissive delight that’s the best song about anal sex since Frankie Goes to Hollywood cajoled the world to “Relax.” There’s no reason to think he won’t continue to grow as a songwriter, actor (his turn in Boy Erased was solid), and general celebrity personality. He’s still very young, and at 23 he’s done it all by remaining true to himself as if the closet is only a place to hang your clothes.
8. Sir by Fischerspooner
This electroclash duo (remember that?) has gone from joke to institution merely by sticking with it long past the point where others would have given up. This fourth release, Sir, is their best by far, and also their most erotically frank (“Top Brazil”) and just plain pleasurable (“Have Fun Tonight”). It could be that the sound they were part of defining in 2001 is now the standard for indie pop, but most likely it’s the stronger songwriting and Casey Spooner’s transformation into the middle-aged leather daddy of his — and our — dreams.
9. Hive Mind by The Internet
Four albums in and this Los Angeles soul band, featuring out vocalist Syd, is just starting to hit its stride. Syd’s graceful, streamlined vocal style might scan as boring to some, but to us it’s just her natural normalcy giving voice to her experience as a proud lesbian (“Come Over”). And she’s matched step for step by the rest of the band, including writer-producer-vocalist Steve Lacy, who gifts us with the undeniable “Roll (Burbank Funk).”
10. You Will Not Die by Nakhane Touré
This out South African musician and writer, born Nakhane Mahlakahlaka, follows up his impressive 2013 debut Brave Confusion with You Will Not Die. His influences are wide-ranging (Fela Kuti, Joni Mitchell, Radiohead, etc.) and include many authors (James Baldwin, Henry Miller). “I remember being a young queer boy,” he has said, “coming to terms with the fact that I felt like an outsider all my life and picking out James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head. That book saved my life because here was someone who felt like me. It made me accept that my feelings were not crazy.”
Thanks to Mr. Baldwin, we have Touré’s light in the confusing darkness for young queer kids — in Africa and elsewhere — to guide them to safety. And that voice! Powerful doesn’t even begin to describe it (“Interloper,” “Clairvoyant”).
11. soil by serpentwithfeet
What’s most fascinating about our list this year is how much of this music, and how many of these artists, are truly groundbreaking. Josiah Wise (dba serpentwithfeet) is a case in point. Trained in classical music and gospel, he brings his love of melody (and the melodies he loved in church) to bear in songs that are structurally experimental and yet anchored in soul. “cherubim,” “bless ur heart,” “messy” — each of them sounds strange at first, foreign to the ear, though after a few spins it just resonates like music of the future.
12. O by SSION
After nearly 20 years in the business, Cody Critcheloe, better known as SSION, may finally be ready for his turn in the spotlight. He’s a multi-faceted artist — responsible for the artwork for Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Fever To Tell record, and tons of well-known music videos (including Perfume Genius’s “Queen”) — and if that gives you a sense of the breadth of his interests, then his latest won’t be nearly as vexing as it seemed upon release. Because SSION is great at danceable pop, like O’s “Big As I Can Dream / Comeback” and “Inherit,” the expectation is that he feed the commercial flames with similar soundscapes. But he follows his own muse, inviting a cross-dressing Ariel Pink to guest on the mid-tempo “At Least the Sky Is Blue,” the spoken word “The Cruel Twirl” featuring Róisín Murphy or the punky Yeah Yeah Yeah’s piss-take of “Forming.”
13. Power by Lotic
J’Kerian Morgan, Lotic, settled in Berlin from Texas in 2012 because, he has said, “I realized that I hated Austin, and also that I didn’t want to come of age in the United States.” So he left with his then-boyfriend and found his way among the electronic music scene. Power, his debut, is a thrilling, exasperating, sometimes difficult listen, the sound of an emotional outsider looking for succor in the cold, cruel world. The music throughout — on “Hunted” and “Distribution of Care,” for example — is both masculine and feminine, much like the artist, and as envelope-pushing as SOPHIE (another trailblazing producer).
14. boygenius by boygenius
Much as I admire the solo work of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, not one of their most recent releases has the power of this indie supergroup’s EP. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all good and worth hearing (especially Dacus’ Historian), but the brevity and passion of this six-song introduction doesn’t let up. From the slow burn opener “Bite the Hand” (here in a live version) to the harmonizing closer “Ketchum, ID” (again, in a live version), they play to each other’s strengths with an intense camaraderie that can only be called sisterhood. And they leave us — unlike so many other artists these days — wanting more.
15. Love Is Magic by John Grant
Grant, one of our brightest lights, stumbles a bit on his fourth release, though his failed experiments are often better than most performers’ best work. I’m not sure what, exactly, isn’t working for me here, because this is sonically of a piece with his last two releases. So it must come down to lyrics, which, while often funny as fuck, feel strained. (He seems to be trying too hard to be witty.) That said, the title track is ’80s heaven, “He’s Got His Mother’s Hips” like gay Devo and “Preppy Boy” an ode to all those clean-cut A&F models sporting faces you just want to do things to.
16. Data by Strange Names
From Brooklyn by way of Minneapolis, this kicky trio has been compared to no less than Talking Heads and The B-52’s, and while they’re not quite in that class yet, you can hear what sparks the comparison on their bouncy sophomore release. Out vocalist Liam Benzvi sounds less like David Byrne or Fred Schneider than he does Olly Alexander, but the band, which includes Francis Ximénex and Fletcher Aleckson, doesn’t skimp on the fun in their tunes about aliens (“UFO”) and being the third wheel (“Into Me”). And somebody knows their gay history — or at least the history of porn: Jorge Socarras, who worked with porn soundtrack and electro pioneer Patrick Cowley, guests on “People to Go.”
17. Love & Affliction by Kwaye
Kwayedza Kureya dba Kwaye has a whopper of a discovery story — an Uber driver heard his demo while taxiing the Zimbabwean transplant around Los Angeles and, it being L.A., the driver was a former music executive who passed the demo along to an industry friend. His sophomore EP is sleek, lush, modern R&B, and though we can’t confirm his sexuality, the video for “Paralyzed” is a sensuous, beachside same-sex pas de deux.
18. A Star Is Born Soundtrack by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga
You know a tune has hit critical mass when you hear it and flinch because, god damn it, you just can’t bear to listen to that song one more time! So, yeah, just give “Shallow” the Academy Award and get it over with. Because, right, even though I don’t personally need to ever hear it again, the song is perfect and does exactly what it intends in its scene. In fact, nearly all the Cooper/Gaga cuts are worth attention away from its parent film, and many of the Cooper-only tunes as well.
Gaga’s pop songs, in context, are an embarrassment (intentionally, perhaps), but her last act showstopper is for the ages (“I’ll Never Love Again”), up there with Streisand’s greatest film ballads (to choose a seriously not-random example). Oh, and whatever one thinks of the movie (I think it’s the best iteration so far, and I still can’t stand the last hour), our Lady Gaga is one hell of an actress.
19. Palo Santo by Years & Years
Olly Alexander’s world-conquering electropop band stumbled — commercially, at least — with its sophomore record. For many fans it traversed the same ground as the debut, Communion, but was burdened by the law of diminishing returns. And, yes, “Sanctify” and “If You’re Over Me” paled in comparison to “King” or “Shine” from a few years ago — on the surface at least, because lyrically he delved deeper into his liberating concepts of pop and spirituality, gender fluidity and sexuality. They stretched a bit sonically as well, on the millennial balladry of the title track, say, or closer “Up in Flames” where the band — which includes Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen — almost rocks.
20. Only Human by Calum Scott
Having survived a season on Britain’s Got Talent, this 30-year-old songwriter released his sensitive debut earlier this year, a hybrid of Will Young and Hozier, and its gently electronic folksiness had to work overtime to impress me (not my cup of tea, as they say). But with his cover of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” a Trojan horse, I soon found much to admire in Calum Scott’s heart-on-sleeve sincerity. Like Adele and Sam Smith before him, he’s overly enamored of a sad sack ballad, so let’s be grateful that he’s good with them. “You Are the Reason” should have been a stateside hit, and his latest track, “No Matter What” (included on the Special Edition of Only Human), is a heartbreaking coming-out song, which Scott has said is — and rightly so — “the one I am most proud of.”