From a Chicago rapper confronting death to a gender-fluid rocker discovering a deeper inner-power

Narrowing down a year-end list is always a challenge, but here are the albums I found myself returning to repeatedly over the course of 2018.

1. Saba, CARE FOR ME (Saba Pivot)
Shattering yet completely life-affirming, the latest from Chicago's Saba is rooted in the untimely death of the rapper's cousin, born Walter Long, Jr., who was killed last year. The album opens amid solitude — “I'm so alone,” Saba repeats — and closes with a benediction. In between, the rapper wrestles with his grief, his love/hate relationship with his city and an environment in which black life is consistently devalued. “They want a barcode on my wrist/To auction off the kids that don't fit their description of a utopia (black),” he raps on “Life.” In exploring the temporary nature of existence, however, the rapper has emerged with a work that will undoubtedly endure.

2. Lucy Dacus, Historian (Matador)
Dacus, who also found success this year alongside Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker in the great boygenius, embraces the slow burn on her stately sophomore album, which finds the musician confronting issues of mortality on songs like the seven-minute epic “Pillar of Truth.” “I am weak looking at you,” Dacus sings upon viewing her grandmother on her deathbed. Even so, the music never buckles.

3. Noname, Room 25 (self-released)
The Chicago-raised, Los Angeles-based singer and rapper is aces whether she's documenting American tragedies (“Prayer Song” addresses, among other things, the lingering effects of slavery) or unraveling her own (“Don't Forget About Me” delves into everything from past substance abuse to Noname's guilt over leaving her hometown behind for sunny California).

4. Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour (MCA Nashville)
While news headlines paint an increasingly dark picture of both our country and planet, Musgraves fills her radically optimistic new album with songs that detail the singer and songwriter's wide-eyed wonder at her outside surroundings (the weightless “Oh, What a World”) and the inner palpitations brought on by new love (“Butterflies”).

5. Wild Pink, Yolk in the Fur (Tiny Engines)
“I think there's definitely some cathartic value to [the music] … but I don't like to get too…” Wild Pink singer John Ross told Alive in 2016, momentarily trailing off. “Well, I was going to say I don't want to get too precious about it, but I guess I do.” The band's dreamy sophomore album reflects this urge, building rich sonic worlds that emit the soft, starlit glow of late-summer fireflies.

6. Amanda Shires, To the Sunset (Silver Knife/Thirty Tigers)
Shires' seventh album is a career-best, filled with richly detailed character sketches that trace the daily routines of working-class survivors, or, in the case of the chilling “Wasn't I Paying Attention,” a life on the fringes who couldn't be saved.

7. Spiritualized, And Nothing Hurt (Fat Possum)
With Spiritualized, Jason Pierce has long recorded albums that swing from cacophonous outbursts of noise to moments of space-still beauty—often within the same song. And Nothing Hurt continues this trend, its widescreen, space-rock tracks suggesting lives equally capable of destruction and divinity.

8. Mitski, Be the Cowboy (Dead Oceans)
On her fifth album, the NYC-based indie rocker moved farther from her lo-fi roots, even as her tangled love songs continue to tread messy, emotionally conflicted terrain. “I gave too much of my heart tonight,” she offers on a serrated “Remember My Name,” though she offers little consideration to reining in that urge.

9. Ashley McBryde, Girl Going Nowhere (Warner Bros. Nashville)
Though often musically outsized, the record is largely shaped by its detail work. Throughout, McBryde paints a moving portrait of the people populating small-town America, from those seeking escape in off-radar watering holes (“A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega”) to an addict struggling to maintain a semblance of humanity amid a clutter of stolen spoons and residue-laden tinfoil (“Livin' Next to Leroy”).

10. Ezra Furman, Transangelic Exodus (Bella Union)
Furman's latest rock opus doubles as a call for the outcast, the overlooked and the relentlessly “othered” to realize they're neither defenseless nor alone. “I've looked deep inside this frail human body and I know that I carry a power,” Furman sings on the hymn-like “God Lifts Up the Lowly,” sounding as though he hopes to awaken similar feelings within his listeners.