It’s that time of year again. The time where I look at the piles and piles of CDs and records around me and think “HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?” then organize them into my favorites of the year and post about it to justify the expense. So with no further ado…here’s the list of my top ten (and then some!) albums of 2018! I’ll write more after the list (including runners up and other stuff I feel like I should mention), but for those who want the TL:DR version, here it is:
- Sloan – “12”
- J Mascis – “Elastic Days”
- The Decemberists – “I’ll Be Your Girl”
- Coheed & Cambria – “The Unheavenly Creatures”
- Amanda Shires – “To the Sunset”
- Frank Turner – “Be More Kind”
- Guided By Voices – “Space Gun”
- John Prine – “The Tree of Forgiveness”
- Father John Misty – “God’s Favorite Customer”
- The Jayhawks – “Back Roads and Abandoned Motels”
Live Album of the Year: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – “Live at the Ryman”
Single of the Year: Rufus Wainwright – “Sword of Damocles”
Favorite Concert of the Year: Jason Isbell in St. Louis, September 10, 2018.
Okay. So I think that’s a decent list. It was difficult to put this year’s list together, especially when 2017 had an embarrassment of riches to choose from while 2018 was frankly a little underwhelming. It seemed like this year took FOREVER to even get started musically, despite some promising early-year releases from the likes of David Byrne and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (neither of whom made it into my top 10). It just didn’t seem like there was much to pick from that was stellar. Which, in fairness, did make narrowing it down a lot easier. And did make the handful of stellar releases mean a lot more.
I arrived at Sloan‘s “12” as my number 1 pick because it’s the album I’ve returned to the most from this year’s new releases. It’s a fun pop-rock album from one of Canada’s longest standing rock bands. They’re great in concert and great in the studio and are nice guys, to boot. “12” really should’ve been everybody’s go-to Springtime listen this year, and if you missed it you need to be sure to add it to next year’s list.
In at #2, J Mascis‘ “Elastic Days” came out fairly recently and I picked it up the day it hit the shelves. There’s not a bad song on it and it keeps the listener engaged throughout. If you’re expecting to get a bunch of Dinosaur Jr leftovers on a Mascis solo albums you’ll either be disappointed or relieved to know that’s never the case. When he goes solo and signs his own name to it, you get a much more relaxed, lush listen and it’s a joy to hear it.
The Decemberists‘ “I’ll Be Your Girl” was one of the earlier releases that I picked up this year, having recently become a fan of the band, and I’m glad to see it show up on the Top Ten list, much more so to see it crack not only the top 5 but the top THREE. Immediately catchy, upbeat, earthy, and fun, it deserves to be on everyone’s list. “Everything is Awful” is one of the best songs of the year.
I got into Coheed & Cambria a few years ago and am blown away by the musicianship and storytelling they employ on each album. “The Unheavenly Creatures” is no exception and may even be the album that’s blown me away the most right out of the wrapper, which is what landed it on this list at #4. I picked it up on vinyl and it’s 3 LPs, so you’ve got to turn the album over several times to make it through to the end. The first time I listened to it, I don’t think I sat down at ALL between flips of the platters. Heavy and melodic but with a pop sensibility just beneath the surface, this one’s a BIG winner. They brought their A-game from moment one.
Amanda Shires doesn’t seem to love getting stuck with the “Americana” label and seems to have made a serious effort to be thought of as a “Rock” writer on “To the Sunset.” And she did a damn fine job of it. But at the same time, an album that features the violin/fiddle as a main instrument will always fall into the “Americana” world, no matter what you do. And there’s no shame to it. It’s a great Americana record. It’s a great Rock record. It’s a great record. And it’s in at #5.
I’ve been a Frank Turner fan since the first time I heard him. Acoustic English Folk Punk would be a fair way to describe him…but in recent years, he’s taken a far more electric edge that he does just as well, and that’s where we find him on “Be More Kind,” my choice for #6. Energetic and angry, but with a deep yearning for peace, “Be More Kind” is not only a great listen, it’s great advice. As is my favorite lyric on the album: “Let’s make America great again by making racists ashamed again.”
Moving on, we find the mighty Guided By Voices in at #7 with their surprisingly ONLY release in 2018, “Space Gun.” GBV/Robert Pollard is know for putting out so many albums you could be forgiven for missing a few (dozen) in your collection…but you’re not going to want to miss this one. It sounds exactly like Guided By Voices. But it sounds like them when they’re FOCUSED. And that’s a good thing. I feel like getting Bobby Bare Jr in the band was one of the best choices Uncle Bob could’ve made–I can really hear the benefit of that on the recent releases.
Country/Folk/Whatever legend John Prine put out an overwhelmingly good album in this year’s “The Tree of Forgiveness.” It’s one of those albums that as soon as I finished listening to it, I rushed to Facebook to tell everyone I know to do likewise. I hope people did. It’s the work of a man at the tail-end of his career, giving us lessons that should last us a while. It probably deserves to be higher on the list than #8 and if I were doing genre-specific lists, believe me it WOULD be. If you don’t pick up “The Tree of Forgiveness” you’ll be missing out on one of this year’s most lush and warming listens.
I was highly critical of Father John Misty‘s 2017 release “Pure Comedy” for being what I believe I referred to as “too one-note,” especially lyrically. In 2018, “God’s Favorite Customer” corrected that on all points. It’s very hard to describe Misty’s vibe (also known as J Tillman). Sometimes there are trumpets. That…doesn’t help does it? It’s like he took Lawrence Welk or one of the old-school bandleaders and shoved a rock band up his ass then told everybody to pay more attention to the lyrics than they normally would and then started dancing funny as a distraction. That’s it. And he did it to perfection this time, placing him at #9 on my list.
I’ve been up and down on the Jayhawks for a long time, which makes me glad to have found them cracking into the top 10 this year with “Back Roads and Abandoned Motels.” I almost didn’t put it on the list because I had reservations about the eligibility of the record. It’s mostly made up of material that band-leader Gary Louris initially wrote/released for other projects and/or wrote for other artists. But since it’s the original songwriter offering original recordings with his band, I think it works. And the songs are really great. So it made the list. Yay!
I also listed my favorite live album, concert, and single of the year above. Jason Isbell is represented there twice. I’ve raved about the concert he did in St. Louis this year in multiple places (most gushingly on my podcast in the week that followed it). I’ve raved about pretty much all of his music over the past years in pretty much every possible venue. I’ve been evangelical about Jason’s work in recent years. And he deserves every mention and every rave review. Pick up the “Ryman” release and play it loud.
Rufus Wainwright‘s “Sword of Damocles” single came out of NOWHERE a few months back after he performed it on the James Corden show. It’s a politically charged ballad that fits this time in history to perfection. And Rufus, of course, sings it so, so beautifully. I also saw Rufus in concert (for the first time) this year with the St. Louis Symphony backing him and if any show could’ve toppled the Isbell show this year, it would have been that one. Rufus is a gift God has given us. You need to accept that gift. (There’s that evangelism again…)
(I promise this will be brief.)
- Elvis Costello – “Look Now” – I was sad not to put this in the top 10 because it’s exactly what I want from Elvis Costello at this point in his career and it’s like listening to a fine wine. Beautiful record.
- Kurt Vile – “Bottle It In” – Dreamy, guitar driven music that you can get lost in. What’s not to love?
- Metric – “Art of Doubt” – I only picked this up recently and I feel like if I had another few weeks with it, it might be up in the top 10. Great listen.
- David Byrne – “American Utopia” – Byrne has always been weird. This is no exception. I like it a lot and it turns on a DIME. The first time I listened to it, I didn’t realize I had my player on shuffle and I heard it out of order. Then later I heard it in the right order. It didn’t change a thing.
- Laura Jane Grace – “Bought to Rot” – I like this album a lot more than I liked LJG’s main band’s last project (Against Me’s “Shape Shift With Me”). It feels focused and like she worked hard on getting what she wanted out of the songs. My greatest criticism is my greatest praise and that is that the lyrics are incredibly contradictory and in places flat-out incorrect. Her song about hating Chicago and apparently all of Missouri is so geographically wrong that I wonder if she’s ever actually been to either one. And what could be more punk than being so arrogantly fucking wrong?
OTHER STUFF I LIKED:
(This will be even shorter.)
- Bottle Rockets – “Bit Logic”
- Mumford & Sons – “Delta”
- Trampled By Turtles – “Life is Good on the Open Road”
- High on Fire – “Electric Messiah”
- Roger Daltrey – “As Long As I Have You” (Ineligible due to most songs being covers
- Greta Van Fleet – “Anthem of the Peaceful Army”
- Ray Davies – “Our Country: Americana Act II”
- Ghost – “Prequelle”
- Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – “Wrong Creatures”
- The Get Up Kids – “Kicker” (Ineligible because it’s an EP)
- The Hold Steady released a series of two song download-only EPs all of which were great, but none of which were eligible due to the nature of the releases.
- Louden Wainwright III – “Surviving Twin” Ineligible because it’s got a lot of old material.
- David Bowie – “Glastonbury 2000” – Ineligible because it’s a live album and also an 18 year old performance.
And that was my favorite stuff of 2018! I hope you enjoyed reading it and maybe will pick up a couple of things you’d overlooked before.