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Our official year end Top 50 is coming soon but clearly everyone has different tastes and ideas when naming the best album released in 2018. Thanks again to all our contributors!
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Starting at the bottom of my list, at 25 (tie). Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, “Hope Downs,” Sub Pop, and Kurt Vile, “Bottle It In,” Matador.
In these days when pop and hip hop are relying more and more on keyboard loops, and less and less on real bands, playing real instruments I tend to lean most of the time toward artists with guitars. And these two have been favorites since I first heard them. RBCF, besides having an unnecessarily long name, are a Australian quintet, that features three singer/guitarists, and a sound that mixes straight up harder rock like the openers “An Air Conditioned Man” and “Talking Straight,” and more jangly tunes that lean toward a Dire Straits or Church feel on songs like “Cappuccino City” and “The Hammer.” It’s an impressive debut full-length from a band I expect more from. Kurt Vile blew me away with his collaboration with Courtney Barnett (see below) last year, and while the former War On Drugs guitarist tends to let his compositions wander, there’s plenty of great guitar playing here, and quite of the few songs stick to your head when you’re done listening. These two kept inviting me back.
24. Jim James, “Uniform Distortion,” ATO.
While My Morning Jacket tends to create lush, heavily arranged works, singer and guitarist Jim James decided to keep things simple while placating his nostalgia for simple, fun, guitar rock songs in the mode of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, or Matthew Sweet’s great “Girlfriend” album. These are fun riff focused rockers that give James a chance to solo, in “You Get to Rome,” he even says, “Let’s rock.” Yes, let’s.
23. Gaz Coombes, “World’s Strongest Man,” Hot Fruit / Caroline Int’l.
Former Supergrass singer/guitarist, Gaz Coombes’ third solo album finds the British artist exploring the studio, and seeking to stretch out and explore a wide musical palette that allows him to mature as an artist. This year’s albums by Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand felt like they were moving in this direction, but Coombes just seemed to do it better. Building his songs on an instrumental hook, either a keyboard or guitar riff, but then he’s singing more in a falsetto, while exploring the challenges of living with one’s mistakes on “Shit (I’ve Done It Again,” and the realization that you can’t get by pretending to be the “World’s Strongest Man,” without walking around with “Wounded Egos.” These songs reflect some depth and a reflective approach to modern life.
22. Rainbow Kitten Surprise, “How To: Friend, Love, Freefall,” Elektra.
With a name like Rainbow Kitten Surprise, you kind of know you’re in for something a bit different, and the quintet from Boone, North Carolina lives up to expectations. With songs that center on the poetic inclinations of lead vocalist Samuel Melo, but sing a lot of his run-on melodies in crisp harmonies, mixing a loose jam band feel with a wild, fun hip hop vocal sensibility. The first single, “Fever Pitch” finds Melo in a fun groove that recalls early Dave Matthews Band but then opens up to a Beck like rap verse, and the background vocals doing their imitation of an old school 50’s soul group. So there’s some mix and match genre shifts, but it all feels strangely organic, and works in a fun, engaging way. There’s an R&B shuffle feel to “Hide,” which was filmed along with a video that works as a documentary where three guys who live as drag queens go home to come out to their families. The song matches the vulnerability and struggle to win acceptance for who you really are. There are serious tracks like “Holy War,” which is self explanatory, and “Painkillers,” addressing the opioid crisis, and pleading, “don’t kill yourself today,” but the disc’s has a very fun, up-tempo vibe.
21. The Breeders, “All Nerve,” 4AD.
Before I lived in Dayton, before I know this was the Breeders home town, I was a fan of the band led by Kim Deal, former bass player with The Pixies. “Good morning,” begins “Wait in the Car,” a song that features a cat “meowing” and a great “oh, oh, oh, oh” chorus while dealing with a “mother wants to hold me down.” All of which more or less eludes me, but it certainly works when her sister Kelly joins her on guitar, Josepine Wiggs on bass, and Jim MacPherson on drums. Courtney Barnett (see below) and her band show up singing background vocals on “Howl at the Summit,” but mostly this is same Breeders’ line-up that created “Last Splash,” with the hit “Cannonball.” I caught the band play a quick set at The National’s Fest in Cincinnati, and I have to say it’s great having them back. “All Nerve” ten new songs from Kim Deal & Co., and a fun cover of “Archangel’s Thunderbird” by the band Amon Duul II. You can’t think of any other bands playing that can you?
20. Phil Madeira, “Providence,” Mercyland.
This singer/songwriter narrative cycle played almost exclusively on piano is a real change of pace, for me as a listener, but also for the artist, Phil Madeira. In his day job, he plays with Emmylou Harris’ back up band, Red Dirt Boys, often playing Hammond B3, accordion, and acoustic and electric guitars. But here, he limits himself to piano, while his friends in the RDB rhythm section back him up, Chris Donohue on bass and Bryan Owings on drums. The songs filled often with funny observations and insight, describe Madeira’s upbringing in Providence, RI, and his eventual move to Nashville to write and play music, describing jobs he had on the way, from working in the appliance dept. in a store (“Wicked Job”), and as a carny at an amusement park, as well as growing up and dating a woman from a “Rich Man’s Town.” Other songs celebrate the natural world and beauty when you are “Back in the Ocean State.” There are a few jazzy guitar solos from guests like John Scofield, James Hollihan, Jr., and his fellow RDB Will Kimbrough, but the rest of the record finds Madeira working his piano, playing old school rock & roll, jazz, and everything in between, with some smart horn arrangements thrown in for good measure. They don’t make albums like this anymore, I might be tempted to say, but Phil Madeira did.
19. Moby, “Everything Was Beautiful, And Nothing Hurt,” Little Idiot/Mute.
My early favorites by Moby were “Play” and “18,” when his live shows were a cross between his punk band inclinations and his dj techno successes. In the intervening years, I’ve enjoyed his more ambient albums, like “Hotel,” they were great background music in the office when you needed to read or write and just wanted something in the background, but 2016’s “These Systems Are Failing” got me interested in his songs and high energy punkier things, even when working with the Void Pacific Choir, but here on the album which takes its title from a line in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Moby is creating songs again as soundscapes, but that deal with the human struggle for community, peace and understanding on songs like “The Tired and the Hurt,” “The Hard Times,” “The Sorrow Tree” and “The Wild Darkness.” There’s a gentle reflective spirit here, even as the world’s pain and sadness is laid bare.
18. Laura Jane Grace & The Devouring Mothers, “Bought To Rot,” Bloodshot.
As a long time fan of Against Me! who’s loved the band’s aggressive punk influenced alt/rock, and watched Laura Jane Grace on her transformational journey to who she is now, this record is probably a no-brainer. Some days you just need to put on a record full of fast punchy punk songs and clear your head, and this serves that purpose perfectly. Stripped back to a trio, with Grace handling all the guitar duties, and her AM! Drummer Atom Willard and long-time AM! associate Marc Hudson on bass, these songs feel like Grace stepping away from the big issues she has addressed through Against Me! to just write some simple rock songs about her life on the road, hotels and airplaines, a few break up songs, including the hilarious “I Hate Chicago” and make a big, fast noise while doing what comes naturally. And it works.
17. Johnny Marr, “Call The Comet,” New Voodoo.
I know I represent the minority opinion that the most interesting part of 80’s alternative superstar band, The Smiths, was guitarist Johnny Marr, not Morrissey. Of course, The Smiths made four great albums and dissolved, influencing many of the best British alternative rockers that followed them. In the intervening years, Marr has put his monster guitar skills to work in the service of bands like The The, Electronic, and Modest Mouse, even briefly joining The Pretenders, and working as a session player with the likes of Beck, Talking Heads, Bryan Ferry, and Pet Shop Boys, and eventually recording some solo albums earlier this decade. Finally, though, on “Call The Comet,” Marr is ready to stand on his own two feet, write an album’s worth of great songs and deliver them with confidence, and most noteworthy play the guitar with unabashed skill and power. This is edgy, hard rocking, alternative in great tracks like “Hey Angel” and “Bug,” where Marr’s guitars ring out like a clarion. But he explores other textures, tones and sonic atmospheres, as well, the album is primer of what’s possible when an able guitarist puts his mind to it.
16. Twenty One Pilots, “Trench,” Fueled By Ramen.
Okay, I’ll be honest. I bought Twenty One Pilots 2015 commercial breakout album, “Blurryface,” on the recommendation of my grandson, who was 8 when it came out. This band was his first rock concert, and I wanted to know what he was into… and I liked it. I heard a lot of techno and electronica, the hip hop verse, the alt/rock production values, on singles like “Stressed Out,” “Fairly Local” and “Tear In My Heart.” To be honest it reminded me of some Beck, and Blink 182, and other influences that made it appealing, and I liked the way the duo were so instrumentally versatile, and the way they welded disparate styles together in lots of their songs, and created a fun sonic landscapes, and often leaned toward high-energy. Then I learned they came from Columbus, just down the road, and on that tour brought in MuteMath, one of my favorites, to open.
Here on their fifth album, things are a bit grittier and edgier than last time, plus multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Tyler Joseph was co-writing a lot of the songs here, and co-producing with MuteMath’s Paul Meany, which may explain some of the musical growth I’m hearing in tracks like “Levitate,” “Smithereens,” and “Cut My Lip.” “Trench,” as a conceptual album feels a little heavy handed, so I haven’t given a lot of thought to the who “Jumpsuit” mystery, and the heavy symbolism suggested here and there. What works here is the songs, the versatility and musical dexterity, and creativity that they bring to this monumental studio accomplishment. I have no idea how two people pull this off live, but right now I’ve just been enjoying the heady grooves and looking forward to discussing it with my grandson.
15. St. Paul & The Broken Bones, “Young Sick Comellia,” RECORDS/Sony.
This Alabama soul band, rich with brass, are part Muscle Shoals R&B/funk review, and part gospel revival. Singer Paul Janeway’s vocals echo soul greats like Al Green, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, while performing with mad intensity of James Brown. The band backs him up with solid playing, spirited horns, Hammond organ swells, bright rhythm guitar and an authentic soulfulness that you’d expect only from a much older, more mature players. On this third album they avoid getting stuck with the retro tag by bringing in producer Jack Splash who sprinkles their reliable R&B charts with a bit of what he learned working with Kendrick Lamar and John Legend. The result is a big sound, that’s willing to stretch out on tracks like “Apollo,” “LivWithOutU,” and “Got It Bad.” This set is smoking.
14. John Prine, “The Tree of Forgiveness,” Oh Boy.
After waiting many years, I finally got a chance to see John Prine in concert this year. There’s been no excuse, I just never got around to it, and I suspect its because he was largely considered a country artist when he was releasing smart, sad songs like “Sam Stone” and funny songs like “Illegal Smile” and “Dear Abby,” as well as songs like “Hello In There” that became a hit for Bette Midler, and “Angel From Montgomery,” most commonly sung by Bonnie Raitt, but covered by many including Susan Tedeschi when I saw her and her husband Derek Truck’s Band, also this year. But it turns out seeing John Prine the same year he released his first album of new original songs in 13 years worked out perfectly. Of course, Prine is a songwriter who has been praised and covered by folk like Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson, both of whom have written some pretty amazing songs themselves. At 72, Prine has been treated twice for cancer, which has made his voice a bit gravelly, and his neck tends to hang forward while he plays guitar and sings, but he’s not lost any of his witty sense of humor, musical talent and amazing spirit, all of which is in evident and then some on the songs of “The Tree of Forgiveness.” He’s joined on the record by Jason Isbell on guitar, Amanda Shires on violin, and they sing background vocals along with Brandi Carlile, and co-writes a bunch of songs with Pat McLaughlin, a couple with Dan Auerbach of Black Keys, and one with Phil Spector. The album’s full of great tunes from the hilarious opener “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door,” to “Summer’s End,” which has been made into a moving video that addresses the losses of the opioid crisis, and great song where he comes to the planet Pluto’s defense, “The Lonesome Friends of Science.” There’s one that remembers the lusty plans of young men, “Egg & Daughter Night, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone), a couple great love songs, “I Have Met My Love Today” and “Boundless Love,” and the song that provides the albums title, “When I Get to Heaven.” He imagines opening a night club called to Tree of Forgiveness, where he’ll smother his critics with his charm, and “I’m gonna get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale, smoke a cigarette that’s 9 miles long, I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl, on the tilt a’whirl, yeah, this ol’ man is going to town.” Frankly, this album is irresistible.
13. Alejandro Escovedo, “The Crossing,” Yep Roc.
I’ve enjoyed Alejandro Escovedo’s career dating all the way back to his cow-punk, alt-country days in Rank and File and The True Believers, and of course he comes from music royalty with brothers who played percussion in Santana, and his niece is Sheila E. His early solo albums, like “Gravity” and “Thirteen Years,” were plenty good, but I really tuned into his songwriting after his near-death experience in 2003, chronicled in one of his best songs, “Arizona,” off the 2006’s “The Boxing Mirror.” He tipped his hat to the late Lou Reed on his ’08 album, “Real Animal,” and joined up with Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey of R.E.M. fame on 2016’s “Burn Something Beautiful” (before they hooked up with Filthy Friends, and then Buck hooked up with Joseph Arthur—see below). For this album, a collection of songs that tell the story of two immigrants making their way in Texas, embracing the American Dream and paying a price, he traveled to Italy and recorded with the band Don Antonio, and the narrative construct gives him a chance to explore his diverse musical influences in song, from roots rock Americana on “Outlaw For You,” 60’s mod guitar instrumentals in “Amor Puro,” blazing pop/punk on “Sonica USA,” but as always, the songwriting, the playing, the performances connect at a deep level.
12. Mitski, “Be The Cowboy,” Dead Oceans.
Mitski’s fifth album, finds her returning to her original instrument, the piano, stepping back from the aggressive guitar attack and punk energy on her acclaimed last one, “Puberty 2.” She leans more toward the pop tones, but not the airy superfluous confections of teen magazine fantasies. Mitski’s melodies and backing tracks are as muscular and assertive enough to support her honest reflections on the complexities and contradictions of being a vibrant, sexually alive, purposeful artist and performer. She may be a “Geyser” of desire, or she may find her desires something beyond her capacity to control her world, there’s plenty of tension in her struggle to bring the disparate aspects of her being into something resembling a whole person. She expresses strength, independence and high expectations one moment, and yet can acknowledges hurt and failed connections and frustrated loneliness the next, which means when she speaks of her “heart breaking,” or says “I love you,” (both in “Pink in the Night”) it’s not to be taken lightly. When she says can love her as well as she loves herself, there’s a yearning expressed, and the music matches her poetic boldness with depth and maturity to match her expressiveness. “Nobody” may love her as much as she loves her art, but also, nobody can take away the fun, smart music she’s created for herself and shared with the world.
11. “Arthur Buck,” New West.
I had high hopes for this one, having been a long time fan of both the under appreciated Joseph Arthur and, like most alternative fans, Peter Buck of super-group R.E.M. Buck, who had a good album last year as well with the band Filthy Friends, plays all the guitars, often soloing with a clarity that was seldom on display in R.E.M., leaving Arthur to construct the songs with studio wizardry aided by loops, drum machines and the like. The result are pop/rock anthems for the resistance, with catchy sing-along melodies. In the time when we were asking “Where’s the Revolution?” (from the song “American Century”) and “Are You Electrified?”, Arthur & Buck were inviting us to stay “Wide Awake In November.” And we did. It’s not too late for folk to dial this band up and give them the attention this album deserves; here’s hoping there’s more to come from this duo on the horizon.
10. (tie) Courtney Barnett, “Tell Me How You Really Feel,” Milk!; The Beths, “Future Me Hates Me,” Carpark & Amy Rigby, “The Old Guys,” Southern Domestic.
Every year for as long as I can remember, I bemoan the absence of women’s voices in rock, and the House and the Senate for that matter. Well, thanks to the election of 2018, we saw a record number of women win access to the seats of power in Washington, and these two records along with the return of The Breeders have restored our hope, after all Lucinda Williams and Chrissie Hynde can’t make a new album every year. The big surprise this year, for me at least, was The Beths coming out of New Zealand, and their rocking fun second album “Future Me Hates Me.” A solid rock trio playing smart guitar pop with lovely vocal harmonies, they nail it on all ten tracks; a complete unexpected treat that has me hearing echoes of albums by Juliana Hatfield, Throwing Muses and Belly. I was aware of the buzz Australian Courtney Barnett generated with her first album, 2015’s “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit,” but was late to the party, but loved her collaboration last year with Kurt Vile last year, “Lotta Sea Lice.” “Tell Me How You Really Feel” has an loose organic feel, kind of like Liz Phair playing the guitar like Kurt Cobain, and Kim & Kelly Deal show up to sing along on “Crippling Self-Doubt And A General Lack of Confidence.” So two fine albums from women with guitars from down under, things are looking up. Unlike The Beths and Courtney Barnett, Amy Rigby has been at this for 30 years, and on “The Old Boys” her first solo album since ’05, she crafts smart, funny, insightful songs about making art, being human, and making serious rock music that remains purposeful and impassioned.
9. (tie) The Choir, “Bloodshot,” Galaxy 21, and Derri Daugherty, “The Color of Dreams,” Lo-Fidelity.
These two are connected both organically, in that Derri Daugherty is the lead singer and guitarist in The Choir, but add to that that they came out just a few weeks apart, and that Choir drummer/lyricist acted as producer and co-wrote many of the songs on Daugherty’s solo album. Add to that the unexpected death of Choir bassist Tim Chandler this Fall, and a long friendship with the principals here, I have to admit a strong sentimental tie to these guys and their music. I was unsure what to expect from Daugherty’s “The Color of Dreams,” given his 35 years playing alternative rock with The Choir over the course of 15 albums, and his side gigs playing old-school country with The Lost Dogs, and folk rock in Kerosene Halo. Turns out he found a happy medium and leaned some Nashville music friends (from Jars of Clay, and Sixpence NTR) for some fresh textures, and ended up delivering some of his best songs ever: “Unhypnotized” and “Your Chair.” Then after 10 songs in the singer/songwriter vein, he added six ambient instrumentals, something that has always been a part of his solo works. The Choir’s album’s songs center around the undoing of a marriage with kindness and sad commitment to move on, and again it contains some of their strongest songs, “Birds Bewildered,” “Magic,” and “The Way You Always Are.” Fare thee well, Mr. Chandler, rest in peace.
8. Leon Bridges, “Good Thing,” Columbia.
As often as I listen to loud music, often with lots of commotion, movement and even noise (because I have a fairly high appreciation of noise, I have to admit), these last couple years I’ve found the quieter, almost meditative soul of Leon Bridges. I think the first time I heard his great song “River” was on the HBO serial drama (soap opera) “Big Little Lies,” but then it showed up often on several satellite radio stations I frequent, that I broke down and purchased his 2015 debut album “Coming Home,” which became a favorite on long drives, and at the end of busy days, it was clarifying. I wasted little time seeking out “Good Thing,” released back in May, and “Bad Bad News,” which gives the album it’s title, has quickly become one of my go-to songs when I flip of the new in disgust. If I was creating a singles list, it’s a contender for the top spot. I’m pretty sure my appreciation of “Beyond” has a lot to do with the fact that I hear Prince in the melody. But finally, it’s Bridge’s natural soul instincts, and that he and his producers have kept the songs sparse, tight and dry. He echoes the great soul singers like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and Otis Redding, and he easily slides into pleasing retro 60’s soul grooves, but never loses track that we’re nearly two decades into the 21st Century. “Good Thing” feels like the real deal to me, and like 29 year old Leon Bridges is just getting started.
7. David Byrne, “American Utopia,” Nonesuch.
It’s going to be nearly impossible to discuss former Talking Heads’ David Byrne’s latest album, “American Utopia,” with out referencing his summer tour which was one of the most exciting, technically compelling, entertaining and inspirational rock show in years (here’s my concert review.) And a free CD came with every concert ticket purchased. I truly enjoyed the album prior to the show, but Byrne and his dancers and mobile band (12 in all on stage) performing “I Dance Like This,” and “Everybody Is Coming to My House” alongside Talking Heads hits, added to my appreciation.
6. Neko Case, “Hell-On,” Anti-.
In a perfect world, we’d turn on our local pop radio station and hear the likes Neko Case’s “Bad Luck,” or maybe “Last Lion of Albion.” Case continues to create very unique and appealing indie rock, that manages to mark out her own artistic space, yet remains accessible and appealing no doubt because of her great voice, strong melodies and evocative images. In the five years since her last great solo album, “The Worse Things Get…,” she has continued to record and tour with The New Pornographers, and two years back made a great trio album with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs, and those women make supporting vocal performances, she duets with Eric Bachmann on his song, “Sleep All Summer,” and gets more help from Kelly Hogan and Beth Ditto. Writing with her long-time collaborator, Paul Rigby, and recording with Bjorn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John in Stockholm, Sweden, Neko Case has produced another great album, but then, that’s kind of what she does.
5. Paul McCartney, “Egypt Station,” Capitol.
In the same year that we get the massive 6-disc exploration of “The Beatles (White Album),” with all its excesses, divisions and finally musical brilliance and creativity unchained, we also get an album from Paul McCartney that recalls his talent as a songwriter and singer. “Egypt Station,” is McCartney’s first album in five years, but in spirit it feels like the first album in, well, decades, that seems to flow naturally from that same creative well that drove the 76-year-old’s best work with The Beatles, and on early solo albums, like “Ram,” on of the first full-length albums I ever bought. Don’t get distracted by the singles, “Come On To Me” and “Fuh You,” where he seems to be aping the kids’ music even though they are actually pretty good pop songs once you get over somebody old enough to be your grandfather trying convince a girl to get it on. More compelling are the songs that feel like they pour out of McCartney naturally, almost like water rolling down the side of a mountain: “Happy With You,” where he acknowledges that he used to get high, but doesn’t need it any more, and simple acoustic guitar melody of “Confidante,” which may be an explication of his complicated relationship with his old friend and band-mate John Lennon, and “Dominoes,” where his voice sounds so young it’s almost a bit spooky. Often in the past, McCartney has felt like he was trying to hard to not sound like The Beatles, clearly some of the best and most defining work of his life, so he bought into gimmicks, tracked trends, and often got lost in a stew of his own design. But here he has made an album where he feels at peace in his own skin, and in my humble opinion, it’s one of the best albums of the year.
4. The Bottle Rockets, “Bit Logic,” Bloodshot.
St. Louis’ Bottle Rockets have been another personal favorite ever since Brian Henneman climbed out of the shadow of Uncle Tupelo to bring his friends up from Festus, MO to make their own brand of Americana, with tips of the hat to Neil Young, Skynyrd, and outlaw country. Early albums like “The Brooklyn Side” and “24 Hours A Day” had great songs and yet never quite broke through commercially as well as expected, but here, 20 years later they seem to figured out once again how to capture lightning in a bottle, with plenty of heart and soul, and just the right amount of wit. Henneman and original drummer Mark Ortman have been playing with second guitarist John Horton and bassist Keith Voegele for well over a decade now, so the lock comfortably into some very appealing grooves, and Horton and Henneman deliver some great guitar sounds, finding that perfect balance between country twang, and rock & roll grit and gristle. And Henneman’s songs capture this time, the avalanche of technological advances and the struggle to hold on to one’s humanity and the important things that sustain a person. The title track and “Lo-Fi” play out that tension, while “Highway 70 Blues” and “Way Down South” capture a touring musician’s love/hate relationship with the road, and “Bad Time To Be An Outlaw” defines the struggle to play outlaw country in a rock band and make a living, while “Human Perfection,” “Knotty Pine” and “Silver Ring” celebrates the things that sustain a person, when the rest of the world has gone crazy. These songs connect, and add significantly to this band’s catalog of great songs that work great live. “Welfare Music,” anyone?
3. Elvis Costello & The Imposters, “Look Now,” Concord.
Elvis had me with “Miracle Man,” back in ’79 before I even got to the hits on “My Aim Is True,” and 30 albums later, I’m still down for the count. “Look Now” owes a lot more to Costello’s 1998 collaboration with pop superstar composer Burt Bacharach, “Painted From Memory,” than his two previous country leaning albums recorded with producer T Bone Burnett, and ‘08’s “Momofuko,” the last album he recorded with his live band, The Imposters. Bacharach co-writes a couple here too, and plays piano on a couple, but one of the best pop singles, “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter,” was a Carole King co-write. But Costello even on his own is writing sophisticated pop with strong story lines and killer melodies, accented by his right hand keyboard man Steve Nieve, and the kicking rhythm section that is Pete Thomas on drums and Davey Faragher on bass, complimented by Costello’s fine orchestrated horn and string parts. Some of the most moving tracks are ballads like “Don’t Look Now” and “Stripping Paper,” many written for a women’s point of view. But a sure sign that there’s still some piss & vinegar punk rocker in there, “Under Lime,” “Unwanted Number,” and “Mr. & Mrs. Hush.” I want another album or two where the guitar is back near the top of the mix, but after a long wait, “Look Now” is a strong collection.
2. The Decemberists, “I’ll Be Your Girl,” Capitol.
While the number one position in my list goes to an artist closely identified with the early combination of traditional English folk music and pop & rock music, Colin Meloy, leader of Portland, Oregon’s The Decemberists, has acknowledged being influenced by the 60’s British folk revival, as witnessed on breakout albums like “The Crane Wife” (2005) and “The Hazards of Love” (2009). On 2015’s “What a Terrible/Beautiful World,” we heard more of The Decemberists pop/rock sensibilities, reflective of Meloy’s confessed “slavish love” for Morrisey and The Smiths. In 2017, the band collaborated with UK folk artist Olivia Chaney on a project that celebrated their own love for British folk, and drifted ever so perilously close to prog-rock as Offa Rex, but here in 2018, Meloy’s pop instincts rule the day on “I’ll Be Your Girl.” Oh there’s plenty there for old-school folk rock lovers (“Cutting Stone,” “Starwatcher, and “Rusalka, Rusalka – Wild Rushes”), but the stand-out pop rock cuts like “Once In My Life,” with it’s plea “couldn’t something go right, I’ve been waiting all my life,” and the glorious title track, and two with great sing-along audience participation choruses: “Sucker’s Prayer,” with the great hook in the line “I wanna love somebody but I don’t know how,” and “We All Die Young.” These songs are a lot of fun musically, Meloy gets extra points for all the wit and humor in his lyrics, and as expected these songs all worked on the live concert stage when I caught their show in Cincinnati as expected. “I’ll Be Your Girl” is great, fun album; the only thing that would make it better is if they’d included the “Ben Franklin Song,” a song written with lyrics written by Lin-Manuel Miranda when he decided to leave the discoverer of how to harness electricity out of “Hamilton.”
And, finally my #1 pick and Album of the Year: Richard Thompson, “13 Rivers,” New West.
If there was a better record made this year, with better songwriting, more intense and purposeful guitar playing, and more lively and spirited performances than Richard Thompson’s “13 Rivers,” then I sure never heard it. I first came aware of Thompson’s impressive song-craft when Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris did covers of his song, “Dimming of the Day,” a song he first recorded with his ex-wife Linda back in 1975. His 1991 album, “Rumor and Sigh,” sealed the deal with all his gifts on full display, and a fun pop single in “Read About Love.” 2015’s Jeff Tweedy-produced release, “Still,” proved he still had the chops in his mid-60’s, but here left to his own devices, Thompson backed with the players from his live trio, Taras Prodaniuk on bass, and Michael Jerome on drums, and an additional support guitarist, Bobby Eichorn, and a couple female background singers seems primed to swing for the fences. A collection of 13 finely crafted songs, Thompson captures the feel and sound of his live shows, by unleashing his always-impressive guitar playing skills in a way that hasn’t been captured on a studio album previously. For an artist who’s been recording for 50 years, after practically inventing the English traditional folk/rock style, this may be the singular best album of a long and heralded career, and in my humble estimation it was the best thing going in 2018.
1. IDLES: Joy as an Act of Resistance: Brilliant sophomore album from UK joy punks. Catchy, angry and joyful all in the same breath.
2. Rick Rude: Verb for Dreaming: A diverse and immensely satisfying follow up to Make Mine Tuesday. Rick Rude are one of the best bands out there now.
3. Big Bite: Big Bite: Stunning debut. Immense sound. Fans of Wipers, Baked and Pardoner need this in their lives.
4. Parquet Courts: Wide Awake!: Parquet Courts delivered a unique LP that boasts some of their strongest tracks ever recorded.
5. Greed Island: Nest Egg: Lots to love on this album. Hints of Interpol, Swirlies, Pavement, Archers of Loaf and Dinosaur Jr.
6. Doffing: Tower of Ten Thousand Miles: A loopy, off-kilter album that reminds you that slacker rock is still alive and necessary.
7. Astral Swans: Strange Prison: A thoughtful and honest slice of indie rock. Matthew Swann is like a blend of Nick Drake and Chad VanGaalen.
8. Magic Potion: Endless Graffiti: A last minute addition to my EOY list. Wonderfully weird stoner rock.
9. Acid Dad: Acid Dad: Psychedelic power pop debut that burrows its way into your mind.
10. GØGGS: Pre Strike Sweep: Ty Segall meets Ex-Cult. Ripping fuzz punk.
11. The Breeders: All Nerve: Fantastic album that runs you through a gamut of emotions. It didn’t hurt that the version I was listening to has the Jolene and Gates of Steel covers.
12. Goat Girl: Goat Girl: Another late addition to my EOY list. A quirky and addictive album. This album shows endless potential for this band. Wow.
13. Ty Segall: Freedom’s Goblin: One of Segall’s best albums. So much to hear and enjoy on this sprawling masterpiece.
14. Jon Spencer: Spencer Sings the Hits!: Jon Spencer has never sounded so good (at least since Orange). Gritty and heavy.
15. Pile: Odds and Ends: A compilation of essential EPs that have long been out of print. The previously unreleased tracks (Cup and Pigeon Song) are the real gems.
16. Kal Marks: Universal Care: Harsh, yet strangely beautiful noise rock.
17. Exit Group: Adverse Habitat: Sketchy and spastic no wave punk.
18. Bummer: Holy Terror: Favorite heavy noise rock album for 2018.
19. Kiss Concert: Look Bad/Feel Bad: Surprising indie rock album from a talented trio. Hits all the right spots for this avid listener of 90’s indie rock.
20. The Royal They: Foreign Being: Ripping and crunchy guitars propel this album above the new Swearin’ LP.
21. Guided By Voices: Space Gun: Blink Blank. Is Bob ever going to run out of hits? I don’t think so. Space Gun is a real charmer.
22. The Astounds: Get Alright With: Catchy and gritty power pop from the master, Dean Wells.
23. Beak>: >>> : I don’t what it is about this album, but I am drawn to it. Hypnotic and mellow.
24. Spirit of the Beehive: Hypnic Jerks: Requires some patience, but rewards with some fine twisted psychedelic-tinged rock.
25. Cash Rivers and the Sinners: Do Not Try To Adjust Your Set I Am the Horizontal and the Vertical: Quite possibly Robert Pollard’s weirdest album. It is a sprawling mess that can drive you up the wall, but it also contains some of his finest moments of 2018. Children of the Popcorn!
Best of the Rest: The Coke Dares: Fake Lake, Naked Giants: Sluff, Ty Segall and White Fence: Joy, Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks: Sparkle Hard, Rectangle Creep: Animals, Marriage + Cancer: Marriage + Cancer, Tongue Party: Looking for a Painful Death, Marbled Eye: Leisure, Christian Fitness: Nuance – The Musical, Swearin’: Fall into the Sun, Ovlov: TRU, Power Trip: Opening Fire: 2008-2014, Car Seat Headrest: Twin Fantasy, Media Jeweler: 1-800-SUCCEED, Spare Snare: Sounds, Superchunk: What a Time to Be Alive
1) Guided By Voices: Wine Cork Stonehenge: Best Pollard release of 2018. I love the rough sound of this EP.
2) Baked: II: “Thus Far Been” is only the best song of 2018. Can’t wait for another LP from this band.
3) Ex-Gold: E-X-E-P-1-4: Catchy pop/punk that will remind you of Superchunk at times.
4) Honey Radar: Psychic Cruise: Lo-fi bliss.
5) Be You Me: Advance to Boardwalk: Pitch perfect indie power pop.
6) Guided By Voices: 100 Dougs: Cohesive Scoops is pure Bobby Pollard power pop bliss.
7) Shell of a Shell: Already There: Interesting blend of Pile-like edginess and slacker rock ethos.
8) Girls in Synthesis: We Might Not Make Tomorrow: Heavy UK noise rock.
9) Sat. Nite Duets: Smoke Local Twine: Always a pleasure to hear these guys. Listen if you like bands like Pavement.
10) Doffing: Memory Vault: Their LP is reminiscent of bands like Pavement and Polvo, but Doffing go for a bit of heavier noise rock on this EP.
1. Parquet Courts – Wide Awake!
2. Shame – Songs Of Praise
3. Sloucher – Be True
4. Wild Pink – Yolk In The Fur
5. Ty Segall – Freedom’s Goblin
6. Guided By Voices – Space Gun
7. Lucy Dacus – Historian
8. Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog
9. Failure – In the Future Your Body Will Be the Furthest Thing from Your Mind
10. Doe – Grow Into It
11. The Breeders – All Nerve
12. Oh Sees – Smote Reverser
13. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Hope Downs
14. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel
15. Chiller – Chiller
1. Sleep-The Sciences
Let’s be honest here, Sleep’s
2. Tropical Fuck Storm- A Laughing Death In Meatspace
In my interview-coming soon-with Tropical Fuck Storm’s Gareth Liddiard, I began by saying, “You guys have one of the best records of the year and I don’t think a lot of people know that.” This statement couldn’t be closer to the truth. A Laughing Death In Meatspace is a deconstructed rock album that bucks the topes, psychological operations in music form. If it wasn’t for my friends Nick, Chris, and Village Green Records I would never have known about TFS and would be enjoying my record from Joyful Noise as much as I have been. As I said, TFS is all about bucking tropes. They want their music to forage ahead as no one has done before. Their album A Laughing Death In Meatspace is a surreal, symbolic, emotional trip in effortless fashion. A weird and wild trip that parades hardships, politics, and philosophies in a bizarre light. Not one record-in my opinion-has succeeded in this so much as TFS’ A Laughing Death In Meatspace.
3. The Breeders-All Nerve
Kim Deal has always been one to make waves, it might be unintentional but, waves none the less. First, came the Pixies, then The Breeders became a thing. The Amps make their appearance the Kim put out her solo material. The Breeders have always been greatness but their latest album All Nerve reminded us why we love them some much. In an interview with FLOOD Magazine, Kim says, “I go in and just try to not make it suck,” That couldn’t be closer to the truth. The rivalries are over and with drugs out of the picture the group has never felt better. Song like the title track, “All Nerve,” “Howl at the Summit,” and “Blues at the Acropolis” are not only some of the best The Breeders have written but, have a place as some of the years best tracks. The album is pure 90’s joy and I really hope Kim and Co. have no intent on slowing down.
4. Oh Sees-Smote Reverser
Orc was an album that really didn’t do it for me. So, what was to come really had me worried. Being as prolific as Oh Sees are quality in albums can waver but, Smote Reverser shows no decline in quality. What seems to be Oh Sees take on blues and prog, the album burns like demonic Deep Purple from the black lagoon. Housing one of the years strongest tracks, “C,” is everything there is to love about Oh Sees. To reference my review, the album flirts with a Can-like jazz that the Sees have only hinted at. It’s really freaky deaky like the Sees know how making it one of the finest examples of garage psych metal put out this year.
5. Ryley Walker-Deafman Glance
Walker has always had fans here at The Fire Note. Golden Sings That Have Been Sung earned 4 headphones and for very good reasons. Deafman Glance picks up right where the last album left off. The album finds Walker implementing more mood and texture. The album goes from the sodden lullaby and grandiose hanging chords of “In Castle Dome” to the exhilarating, mathy speed of “Opposite Middle.” Album stand out and contender for years best song, “Telluride Speed,” is everything that make Walker so great. I weaves together intricate strings with floaty flute, take a rocking jazz break, and finally slows down to the most satisfying of conclusions. Deafman Glance is an album that I kept coming back to again and again for it’s beauty, urgency, musicianship, and mood. A true standout for the year.
6. JEFF The Brotherhood-Magick Songs
7. ORB-The Space Between
9. Parquet Courts-Wide Awake
10. Ty Segall & White Fence-Joy
11. Charles Bradley-Black Velvet
12. Baked Beans-Babble
13. Ty Segall-Freedom’s Goblin
14. The Babe Rainbow-Double Rainbow
15. Swamp Dogg-Love, Loss, and Auto Tune
16. Unknown Mortal Orchestra-Sex & Food
17. King Buffalo-Longing To Be The Mountain
18. Father John Misty-God’s Favorite Customer
19. Jeff Rosenstock-POST
20. Danial Koesner-Doughnut County Soundtrack
1) Hippo Campus – Bambi
2) Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer
3) Beach House – 7
4) Jeff Rosenstock – POST
5) No Age – Snares Like A Haircut
6) Mitski – Be The Cowboy
7) Parquet Courts – Wide Awake!
8) Iceage – Beyondless
9) The Knocks – New York Narcotic
10) Snail Mail – Lush
11) Wye Oak – The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs
12) Soccer Mommy – Clean
13) Big Red Machine – Big Red Machine
14) Jeff Tweedy – WARM
15) Ovlov – Tru
16) Charles Bradley – Black Velvet
17) Arthur Buck – Arthur Buck
18) Robyn – Honey
19) RFA – RFA
20) Rainbow Kitten Surprise – How To: Friend, Love, Freefall
21) Ryley Walker – Deafman Glance
22) Matt and Kim – Almost Everyday
Favorite Jazz and Jazz-Related Music of 2018
1. Henry Threadgill 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg – Dirt . . .and More Dirt (Pi Recordings). A masterpiece from the 74-year old composer, bandleader and multi-instrumentalist (alto saxophone, flute). For this record, Mr. Threadgill created a chamber orchestra by aggregating two of his other groups (Zooid and Ensemble Double Up) and inviting some new collaborators. The results are exhilarating. For listeners who are not familiar with Mr. Threadgill’s work, I can’t think of a better place to start.
2. John Coltrane Quartet – Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (Impulse Records). The appearance of an album’s worth of previously unreleased studio recordings by the John Coltrane Quartet is a big deal. Obviously.
3. Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret – The Other Side of Air (Firehouse 12 Records). Ms. Melford is a terrific pianist and composer with an extensive discography, but her Snowy Egret band is something else entirely. Ron Miles (cornet), Liberty Ellman (guitar), Stomu Takeishi (bass) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums). Wow.
4. Andrew Cyrille, Wadada Leo Smith and Bill Frisell – Lebroba (ECM Records). As good as one would expect it to be. Legendary free jazz drummer Andrew Cyrille leads an outstanding and highly sympathetic trio with Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet) and Bill Frisell (guitar). Another strong release for Mr. Cyrille on ECM Records, following 2016’s The Declaration of Musical Independence (with Mr. Frisell, synthesizer pioneer Richard Teitelbaum and bassist Ben Street).
5. Thumbscrew – Theirs (Cuneiform Records). Thumbscrew—the trio of Mary Halvorson (guitar), Michael Formanek (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums) released two albums on June 8, 2018: a collection of original compositions entitled Ours, and the covers album Theirs. You really can’t go wrong with either one, but I prefer the covers record. It’s a blast to hear this forward-thinking trio put their own stamp on great tunes like Herbie Nichols’ House Party Starting, Jacob do Bandolim’s Benzinho and Wayne Shorter’s Dance Cadaverous.
6. Daniel Carter, William Parker and Matthew Shipp – Seraphic Light (AUM Fidelity). A nice illustration of what free improvisation is for: To make magic happen! Recorded live at Tufts University in an incredible-sounding room.
7. Ben LaMar Gay – Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun (International Anthem Recording Co). Unlike anything else you will hear this year, and made even more unusual by the fact that the record is actually a compilation of material from seven different self-recorded albums. More “jazz-related” than jazz. Think Don Cherry, Caetano Veloso, Arto Lindsay, Shabazz Palaces. Scratch your head in some confusion. Then listen. . . .
8. Mary Halvorson and Bill Frisell – The Maid with the Flaxen Hair – A Tribute to Johnny Smith (Tzadik Records). This album from two of the most distinctive, original and important guitarists around is a tribute to 50s and 60s cool jazz guitarist Johnny Smith. Smith is perhaps best known for his tune Walk Don’t Run, which the Ventures turned into a surf-rock classic. Halvorson and Frisell are a great combination—here’s hoping they will record together again.
9. Sylvie Courvoisier Trio – D’Agala (Intakt Records). A listener with a punk/indie rock background might be a bit skeptical of jazz, and may even wonder, What’s the point of musical technique? The work of Swiss-born, classically-trained pianist Sylvie Courvoisier suggests one answer: Certainly not to “show off,” but instead to be able to follow the music, wherever it needs to go. Even if it takes you to some pretty strange places. On D’Agala, Ms. Courvoisier leads her trio (with Drew Gress on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums) through nine of her original compositions. No one gets lost.
10. Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings (International Anthem Recording Co). Drummer and self-described “beat scientist” Makaya McCraven has developed a unique working method that involves recording live improvisations, and then taking them into the recording studio for editing/remixing, which, in a kind of feedback loop, can inform future live performances. It’s a combination of jazz and hip-hop sensibilities that produces what Mr. McCraven has called “organic beat music.” It’s not jazz per se, but I don’t think Mr. McCraven is at all concerned about that. You shouldn’t be either. McCraven released two strong records on International Anthem in 2018, Where We Come From and Universal Beings. The latter makes my list for sheer ambition: a double album, with the live source material for each of the four sides recorded in a different city (New York, Chicago, London and Los Angeles) and with a different group of musicians.
11. Miles Okazaki – Work: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Monk
12. Binker & Moses – Alive in the East? (Gearbox Records)
13. Jonathan Finlayson – 3 Times Round (Pi Recordings)
14. Steve Coleman and Five Elements – Live at the Village Vanguard Vol. I (The Embedded Sets) (Pi Recordings)
15. Mary Halvorson – Code Girl (Firehouse 12 Records)
16. Jakob Bro – Bay of Rainbows (ECM Records)
17. Tim Berne and Matt Mitchell – Angel Dusk (Screwgun Records)
18. Ambrose Akinmusire – Origami Harvest (Blue Note Records)
19. Julian Lage – Modern Lore (Mack Avenue Records)
20. The Bad Plus – Never Stop II (Legbreaker Records)
Favorite “Other” Music of 2018
1. Ty Segall – Freedom’s Goblin (Drag City Records). This record covers a lot of ground (in “scorched earth” fashion, no less). It could be Mr. Segall’s Sandinista!, but for the fact that all of the songs on Freedom’s Goblin actually work.
2. Will Oldham – Songs of Love and Horror. A companion to the book of Mr. Oldham’s collected lyrics, published under the same title by W.W. Norton. The record and the book both are “must-haves” for dedicated fans of the artist sometimes known as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, but the performances on this record should delight even the uninitiated.
3. Haley Heynderickx – I Need to Start a Garden (Mama Bird Recording Co). An artist to watch.
4. Daniel Bachman – The Morning Star (Three Lobed Recordings). Mr. Bachman’s most experimental record. Drones have long been a building block of American Primitive music, but I’m not sure they have ever been as critical to the proceedings as they are here.
5. Oh Sees – Smote Reverser (Castle Face Records). Arguably Mr. Dwyer’s best record since moving to a two-drummer line-up. The band is still locked in, but the beats are a little wider, the time more elastic. . . .
6. Anteloper – Kudu (International Anthem Recording Co). This duo recording from Jaimie Branch (trumpet, electronics) and Jason Nazary (drums, electronics) just as easily could have been included in your correspondent’s list of jazz and jazz-related favorites from 2018. At the end of the day (and the end of the year), it just seemed to fit better in the “other” list.
7. Marisa Anderson – Cloud Corner (Thrill Jockey Records). Another artist stretching the boundaries of American Primitive music, and another fine album from Ms. Anderson.
8. Durand Jones & the Indications – Durand Jones & the Indications (Colemine Records). Recent years have brought some heavy losses to the world of “retro” soul (RIP, Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley), so it is particularly heartening to hear such a strong debut from this Indianapolis-based group.
9. Nick Millevoi’s Desertion Trio with Jamie Saft – Midtown Tilt (Shhpuma/Clean Feed Records). A collection of instrumentals that suggest an obsession with the American West, film noir and Crazy Horse-era Neil Young. Guitarist Nick Millevoi leads a band of improvisers, including organist Jamie Saft, on a road trip to God knows where. Sure to be appreciated by fans of Dirty Three, Timber Timbre, etc.
10. Rattle – Sequence (Upset the Rhythm). What does it take to make a band? Katharine Eira Brown and Theresa Wrigley of Nottingham, England’s Rattle propose an intriguing answer: two drummers; one of them sings. Shades of the Raincoats and Suicide.
1. Guided By Voices – Space Gun
2. Foxing – Nearer My God
3. Muse – The Simulation Theory
4. Parquet Courts – Wide Awake!
5. Cursive – Vitriola
6. Low – Double Negative
7. Daphne & Celeste – Save The World
8. Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog
9. Fucked Up – Dose Your Dreams
10. Beach House – 7
11. The Joy Formidable – Aaarth
12. Coheed & Cambria – The Unheavenly Creatures
13. Cash Rivers – Do Not Try To Adjust Your Set
14. Yo La Tengo – There’s A Riot Going On
15. Superchunk – What A Time To Be Alive
16. Metric – Art Of Doubt
17. Church Of The Cosmic Skull – Science Fiction
18. Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
19. Mitski – Be The Cowboy
20. Death Cab For Cutie – Thank You For Today
Top 15 New Music
1. Guided by Voices – Space Gun
2. Strawberry Tapes – Vol. 1
3. Orgone – Undercover Mixtape
4. Subways On The Sun – Capsize
5. Laura Veirs – The Lookout
6. Eyelids – Maybe More
7. Durand Jones & The Indications – Live Vol. 1
8. Snail Mail – Lush
9. Jeff Tweedy – WARM
10. The New Old Fashioned – Smalltown, Midwest, USA
11. Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer
12. Delvon Lamar Organ Trio – Close But No Cigar
13. Cash Rivers – Do Not Try To Adjust Your Set I Am The Horizontal And The Vertical
14. The Breeders – All Nerve
15. Jr. Thomas & The Volcanos – Rockstone
Top 10 Archival Releases
1. Bob Dylan – More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14 (6xCD box)
2. Tom Petty – An American Treasure (4xCD box)
3. Grateful Dead – Pacific Northwest 1973-1974: The Complete Recordings (19xCD box)
4. Yes – The Steven Wilson Remixes (5xLP box)
5. Gene Clark – Gene Clark Sings For You
6. John Coltrane – Both Directions At Once
7. Prince – Piano and a Microphone
8. Wire – Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, 154 deluxe reissues
9. Neil Young – Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live
10. Various Artists – Brown Acid Volumes 6 & 7
1. Guided By Voices-Space Gun
2. Ty Segall-Freedom’s Goblin
3. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks-Sparkle Hard
5. Dumb-Seeing Green
6. T Hardy Morris-Dude, The Obscure
7. The Nude Party-The Nude Party
8. No Age-Snares Like a Haircut
9. Spider Bags-Someday Everything Will Be Fine
10. Amanda Shires-To The Sunset
11. The Lavender Flu-Mow The Glass
12. Constant Mongrel-Living In Excellence
13. Kyle Craft-Full Circle Nightmare
14. Superchunk-What a Time To Be Alive
15. Nap Eyes-I’m Bad Now
16. Ty Segall and White Fence-Joy
18. Kikagaku Moyo-Masana Temples
19. Sundays & Cybele-On the Grass
20. Salad Boys-This is Glue
23. Snail Mail-Lush
24. Sleep-The Sciences
25. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever-Hope Downs