The best albums of 2024 so far: AP's picks include Beyoncé, Chief Keef, Kali Uchis, Waxahatchee

The sun is hot, but the tunes are hotter. We’re only halfway through 2024, and some of the biggest names in music have already released albums.

That’s as good a reason as any to take stock of this year’s releases. Here are The Associated Press’ picks for the year’s best…so far.

It is rare for a pop album to function as a catchy body of work and an accessible masterclass on an underserved and undercelebrated history. But on “Act II: Cowboy Carter,” Beyoncé’s epic 78-minute, 27-track release, she accomplishes just that. Across the release, B positions herself in opposition to country music’s rigid power structures and educates listeners on its origins in Black music.

Swift’s 11th album is an amalgamation of her moody synth-pop (as heard on 2022’s “Midnights” ) and literary folk compositions ( “evermore” and “folklore”) — the direct result of an artist who has spent the last few years re-recording her life’s work and touring its material. Storytelling is at the fore, delivered through an ascendant vocal run or an elegiac verse that highlight her narrative powers.

Eilish’s 10-track album is stacked with rewarding fake outs. Like in the opener “Skinny,” which launches into the saccharine falsetto of her award-winning “Barbie” ballad “What Was I Made For?” only to abandon the format for the pulsating pop and sapphic yearning of “Lunch.” There is techno and hyperpop, acoustic ballads and a return to her gothic vaudeville.

For Grande’s first album in four years, the pop singer teamed up with the mysterious Swedish hitmaker Max Martin for a collection of songs that range from earworm hooks filtered ’90s house music (“yes, and?”), wobbly ’00s R&B pop (“True Story”), Y2K revivalism (“The Boy Is Mine,” inspired by the Brandy and Monica classic) and Robyn-esque euro-pop (“we can’t be friends (wait for your love).”)

In the seven years since Shakira’s last album, she separated from soccer player Gerard Piqué, leading to what she’s called the “dissolution of my family,” and she faced charges of tax evasion in Spain. But she transformed that pain into art on “Las Mujeres Ya No Lloran,” from the bachata “Monotonía” to the electro-pop “Te Felicito” to the mega viral “Shakira: Bzrp Music Sessions, Vol. 53” and beyond.

HONORABLE MENTION: Dua Lipa’s “Radical Optimism,” Tyla, “Tyla,” Kacey Musgraves, “Deeper Well,” Usher’s “Coming Home”

Something shifted when Chief Keef released his “Almighty So” mixtape in 2013. The exemplar of Chicago drill, the rap subgenre that would define its moment, Chief Keef was a viral teenager whose sound would be heard round the world. Eleven years later, his long-teased sequel, “Almighty So 2” delivers with the immediacy of the first — but it is markedly different. Keef has never sounded more polished, more professional — but he stays true to himself.

On his sixth album, the LA rapper Schoolboy Q pushes himself to traverse new, unexpected territory — five years since 2019’s “Crash Talk,” and undeniably worth the wait. There are good time tracks (“THank god 4 me”) and songs of disruption (“Germany ’86”). It makes for an interesting tension – and room for discovery with each listen.

Last year’s “Hood Hottest Princess” introduced listeners everywhere to a young, hot new Midwest MC — a fearless, funny rapper by the name Sexyy Red. This year, she’s followed it up with a mixtape, “In Sexyy We Trust,” a not-safe-for-work collection of bright, horny rap records. If you thought she was going to settle for just one viral moment, guess again.

HONORABLE MENTION: Future and Metro Boomin, “We Don’t Trust You,” Young Miko, “Att.,” Flo Milli, “Fine Ho, Stay,” Vince Staples, “Dark Times”

English pop singer-songwriter Charli XCX’s sixth album oscillates between hedonism and anxiety — the euphoria of a late night on the dancefloor and the creeping disquietude of the morning after — as much as it does her in-between status as pop queen of the underground and sometimes mainstream success story. As “Brat” summer swings in full force, it seems like she’s leaning more and more to the latter.

On her fourth studio album, the largely Spanish-language “Orquídeas” (“Orchids” in English), Colombian American singer Kali Uchis’ ability to create lush, fluid sonic worlds reaches new heights. On “Orquídeas,” it is all sultry songs about love, loss and divination. These are self-possessed songs across a spectrum of heritages, made cohesive through her unique filter.

The thoughtful leader of BTS, RM is usually philosophical in his solo work, unafraid to take big sonic risks, sometimes with big rewards. On “Right Place, Wrong Person,” his second solo album, RM continues to ask the big questions atop elastic, genre-averse production, from the wet, funky bass of “Nuts,” the avant-garde “Around the world in a day” to the surprising shoegaze of “Heaven.”

HONORABLE MENTION: Carin León, “Boca Chueca, Vol. 1,” Brittney Spencer, “My Stupid Life,” Álvaro Díaz, “Sayonara,” Ayra Starr, “The Year I Turned 21,” Shaboozey, “Where I’ve Been, Isn’t Where I’m Going”

Where did “Diamond Jubilee” come from? Cindy Lee — the drag alter-ego of Women’s Patrick Flegel, a fixture of Canadian indie rock since the early 2010s — released this lo-fi gem as an unmarked YouTube link. It meant listeners had to sink into its psych and garage rock in full – all two hours and 32-minutes. It’s unusual that an album this surprising, expansive and beneath the mainstream manages to break out onto best of lists.

The indie artist Waxahatchee, known for her gut-wrenching alt-country, demonstrates mastery of her craft on her sixth studio album, “Tigers Blood.” Waxahatchee, the musical moniker of Katie Crutchfield, is at her most evocative when documenting everyday realities. “Tigers Blood” finds simple joys; gone are tortured emotions and self-doubt communicated through distorted riffs of her previous work. Start with “Right Back to It,” featuring guitarist MJ Lenderman, which moves from country to indie rock seamlessly. It’s about easing into the later years of a steady and reliable relationship – and it sounds exciting.

Philadelphia punk band Mannequin P—- have never been accused of being restrained. On their latest album, “I Got Heaven,” ferociousness, self-assurance and desire are one in the same. The band moves from lust and fear (“I Got Heaven”) to dominance (“Loud Bark”) and freedom (“Aching”), playing with Christian lyricism and sexuality in the same breath. It makes for a high-octane listen — not for the faint of heart, but certainly for anyone looking for an energizing record that moves from dreamy pop to abrasive hardcore with ease.

It may be the summer, but this sounds like spring. Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker’s fifth solo album is simple, sparse, and singular. Her folk-y vocal tone, immediately recognizable to her most devoted listeners, is time-honored – with little more than an acoustic guitar and a harmony, she composes elegant songs with a classic sensibility. Sometimes, the most thoughtful creations utilize the fewest tools.

HONORABLE MENTION: Kim Gordon, “The Collective,” Helado Negro, “Phasor,” Hurray for the Riff Raff, “The Past Is Still Alive,” Modu Moctar, “Funeral for Justice”

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