I’m excited for this one. There were so many good releases this year that I needed to do two parts because I couldn’t not include the albums I featured last week. That said, there was no edging out these 10 from the top positions. So here are the albums that caught and held my attention the most this year.
10. Busdriver – electricity is on our side
This is easily one of the most challenging and, in some ways, difficult albums I’ve featured this year, and that shouldn’t really come as too much of a surprise when one considers Busdriver’s career and catalog. Regan Farquhar started rapping very young, but he developed a very eclectic style from a wide array of inluences. Electricity is on our side sees him at times in full improvisational-jazz mode, scatting while the music careens through complex time signatures. At times you might think of this a jazz album with the way his sung lines run neck and neck with trumpet at times slightly ahead and at times slightly behind, but he can snap into a more straight-forward hip-hop groove unexpectedly and suddenly, and seems to take pleasure in delivering particularly difficult lines with stunning clarity. It’s not an easy album to listen to at times, but it is so worth it.
9. Balún – Prisma Tropical
This was considered one of the most anticipated Hispano-American albums of the year by many music media outlets, and the initial single, La Nueva Ciudad, hit charts in 8 countries. The Puerto Rican quartet is now based in Brooklyn, NY, and the change in locale has brought a lot of changes for the group as they now take on themes of the stateside Puerto Rican experience. Their electro-indie sound has continued to develop beautifully over the past 12 yrs, and they’ve mastered their blending of electronic beats and acoustic percussion. Angelica Negron’s voice floats overtop of everything beautifully, and the overall sound weaves between complex and simple, layered and sparse, modern and traditional. They execute this cleverly and seemlessly, and it’s a truly fantastic album.
8. Big Red Machine – Big Red Machine
This new collaboration between Justin Vernon (Bon Iver, Volcano Choir) and Aaron Dessner (The National) has been played a ton in our house. Engaging at every turn, but also a laid back, relaxing and just dowright beautiful album. My favorite track serves as a great cross-section of the whole album. Forest Green has a mix of acoustic drums and electronic beats, a slow and simple bass riff that stays constant through the whole song, light guitar riffs that float in and out, and effects-laden vocals floating over the top. It’s a record that sinks into you, and you feel it.
7. Eliza Shaddad – Future
Eliza Shaddad’s voice caught me this year, and her debut solo full-length album had an immediate pull for me. The first couple tracks on Future gave the record a moody beginning, but it develops to more positive themes as well. Shaddad brings a well-rounded approach to her songwriting having worked with and written for a wide variety of artists and poets. She brings all this experience to the table in this record, and the result is a debut that sounds like a seasoned artist with a large back-catalog to delve into.
6. Angelique Kidjo – Remain In Light
Taking on a classic cover has a particular challenge for an artist, and taking on the task of re-imagining an entire classic album and putting it through the lens of your own artistry is a true feat that many artists may not be up for. Angelique Kidjo is more than up to the task. She took the Talking Heads’ acclaimed 1980 album Remain in Light and made something her own. While the songs stay true to the original material in many ways, I don’t listen to this as if Kidjo is covering another artist’s material. Kidjo herself said that from the time she first heard Remain In Light she knew it was “an African album”. She’s certainly not wrong. The Talking Heads and producer, Brian Eno, drew inspiration and influence from Fela Kuti’s 1973 album Afrodisiac. Maybe what Angelique Kidjo did was simply bring things full circle for a record that always had a heart in West Africa, or maybe it is more of a ping-pong effect bouncing from Fela Kuti in Nigeria to The Talking Heads in New York to Angelique Kidjo in Benin.
5. Dessa – Chime
Dessa called dibs on 2018 pretty early on. Good Grief had been released in the fall of 2017, and it was at first unclear if that was a stand alone single. It was clear, though, that Fire Drills was leading her to a big year. Dessa is part of the staunchly independent hip-hop collective, Doomtree, and it can be a long road for independent artists to have the reception that Dessa had with Chime. I got to see her at the largest venue of the first leg of her tour, and she thanked fans for the support by noting how unusual it was to see a Doomtree artist in a large theater rather than a small bar. Dessa is the only one on this list to also be among my favorite authors of the year. Her memoir-in-essays, My Own Devices, is listed among NPR’s top books for the year, and gave insight into her entire catalog of music. She’s always been excellent as a lyricist, and her writing in essays is insight how deep that talent runs.
4. Middle Kids – Lost Friends
Sing-alongable. Now, I’m not sure how legit that is as a term, but it gets the point across. Middle Kids have a strong talent for writing songs that you immediately want to sing along with. Mistake is the prime example. The first time I heard the song, I was already singing along to it by the second chorus… singing along to a song that I’d never heard before. This runs through the whole of the album. Please, Never Start, On My Knees, Bought It, and Edge of Town all feature this infectious and anthemic quality. They do this without sacrificing any of the depth of their songs. They are relatable, hopeful, desperate, heartfelt, honest and genuine.
3. Marlowe – Marlowe
“We got the 17th wonder of the world right here… We got the 19th wonder too.” This collaboration between Seattle producer, L’Orange, and North Carolina rapper, Solemn Brigham, was a revalation for me. It has a classic hip-hop sound featuring classic looping methods and rooted in soul. I’m not alone in finding this to have a vintage sound. I felt justified in the assessment when I shared it with a friend, and he said it reminded him of Paul’s Boutique. Then later I read Pitchfork’s review declaring it “spirited, old-school rap.” L’Orange’s production builds a perfect structure designed for any rapper to succeed with, but I also frind Solemn Brigham to have such a solid charisma and enthusiasm that it’s hard to find much criticism here. It’s such a great listen.
2. Ry Cooder – The Prodigal Son
Music archivist, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and slide-guitar genius, Ry Cooder, has always held a special place for me. I’ve been a guitarist for over 18 yrs now, and he’s my all-time favorite guitar player. But there’s more to this record than that. This is an artist with a career over 50 yrs long releasing his most complete and excellent record of his career. Ry is an artist that has never turned down a challenging project. He’s worked with Captain Beefheart, The Rolling Stones, John Lee Hooker, Ali Farka Toure, Manuel Galban, VM Bhatt, Taj Mahal, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Mavis Staples, Buena Vista Social Club, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Bill Frisell, and he takes all of this experience to this record. A hallmark of Cooder’s music is his talent for weaving original songs in with both classic and obscure American folk songs. This has never been so seemless as it is on this record. Straight Street, You Must Unload, and Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right could not be more timely, and his version of I’ll Be Rested When The Roll Is Called (a song he co-wrote with Mavis Staples for her 2007 record) fits nicely as well. Among my favorites on this record are Jesus and Woody and the title track.
1. Brandi Carlile – By The Way, I Forgive You
“I think that what makes [the songs] appear so focused is that sort of for the first time we carved the pieces of the stone away from the sculpture that didn’t fit. We usually have a little bit of a collection of these kind of straight-to-the-heart-of-the-matter kinds of songs, but then we put other songs around them that are easier to sing and easier for us to cope with. […] This time we just really pointedly let those songs fall away, and the ones that were left were the ones that were most difficult to sing. We knew that that was the record.” -Brandi Carlile Live on KEXP on March 27th, 2018.
There’s hardly anything that I can say of this record that says more clearly than that why I loved it so much. By The Way, I Forgive You addresses issues of family dynamics, politics, addiction and forgiveness; things that seem to haunt our culture presently. Forgiveness, in particular, is a strong theme running through this record, and Brandi had a lot to say on this as well. Later in the same interview I quoted above she said, “I just noticed that the word has gotten diluted. It’s gotten a little bit diluted by a perfectionist society. It’s become kind of an evangelical buzzword, hashtag blessed, kind of word when it’s really a filthy-radical, difficult, impossible thing to do that it might be the very reason why we’re even here on earth; just to learn how to do it.” This comes through fully on the album. It is thoughtful and full of passion. No voice could make you feel it more than hers. It’s a record that has the ability to change a person.
Brandi is finally seeing more recognition for her work with this album, and has 6 Grammy nominations. Now, I often don’t have much faith in the Grammys in terms of getting things right, but this is encouraging. Here’s a little more about the nominations.