Here are albums and great songs we shared during the year....in no particular order.
Rayland Baxter “Wide Awake”
Without doubt, the record on repeat for the longest stretch for me, Baxter has expanded his country-Americana palette on this top-drawer power pop collection. Lead single “Casanova” entertains with a bold Kinksian crunch, twisted Ray Davies lyrical style and a brain searing chorus (‘back to the hole that I came from’…..). His anti-gun paean “79 Shiny Revolvers” is infectious and Beatlesque. “Without Me” is a textbook soft rock singer-songwriter ballad – affecting and beautifully simple in structure, and open in interpretation as to who is precisely doing better without him. Opener “Strange American Dream” is robust, swelling songcraft –chiming guitars and rafter rattling in power.
The whole thing has a lovely 70’s feel without slavishly aping the past or becoming a pastiche of grand scale romanticism. The song-cycle is populated with odd characters (”Hey Laracco”) and unease in where our polarized and coarse society are headed. Baxter, formerly a Nashville-only recognized roots-rocker proves himself an accomplished tunesmith, melodic to a fault and evolves into a hook-making pop maven on this breakout album.
Kacey Musgraves “Golden Hour”
The artist most likely to continue to elude stardom, yet create the most accomplished, potent and tuneful ‘new’ country music – defying the current tastes of ‘bro country’ and over-produced and faux-anthemic modern country music.
Her songs are emotionally direct; her writing confident, lyrical and catchy as hell. “Golden Hour” is the simply strummed title track- more soft rock than country with chiming twelve string guitar flourishes. Title track is a slice of summery retro-pop; smooth and languid in delivery.
This collection is lyrically uplifting and transparently emotional. “Lonely Weekend” clicks off with a lockstep clockwork foundation and finger-picked acoustic, and embroidered with light keyboards and relishes the satisfaction of being alone. “Space Cowboy” lyrically inserts an unseen comma between space and cowboy signaling a melancholic resignation of needing room to contemplate the future. And the tickling banjo and relaxed “Slow Burn” is the poster child tune for this album of pop-tinged, seductive and accessible songs. “Oh, What a World” stakes out contemporary currency with processed vocals and that glistening pop production
I have seen the album labelled ‘cosmic country’, but I believe that betrays the uncomplicated sophistication of loving and harmonically clean arrangements. This is crisp and subtly detailed song craft with straight ahead yet fresh lyrics and an unhurried, dare I say it easy-listening vibe. Critics; just because its popular and rapturous, doesn’t mean it isn’t good.
Anyone listening to Nightsounds recalls how much I like Andy Shauf; and his 2016 album of mournful oddball, semi-hallucinatory pop. Herein is a full band, Foxwarren, led by Shauf with mostly the same results. Slow tempos, lightly brooding compositions about loneliness and dislocation.
The music maintains Shauf’s squirrelly nourish bent, mysterious calm with a corrosive undercarriage. “Everything Apart’ is the exception, actually rocking in a modest sort of way; anchored with close cropped, liquid harmonies and spooky organ and occasional dyspeptic guitar shards. “To Be” is a masterwork in mood and tension and the falling-apartness of loneliness. He has abandoned the clarinets at least for this release.
Shauf has his experimental Beatles era fetish, as on the mournful, drugged out piano dirge of “Lost in a Dream” as it skreels in and out of tune slightly. And “Sunset Canyon” drifts along on acoustic strumming and all but non-existent drumming; moving by weightless entropy as much as backbeat.
Not a pick-me-up, but despite Shauf and bands propensity for introspection and reflective moaning, it creates a mood and sucks you in.
The Fernweh “The Fernweh”
Seems each year I have to select a recording of retro-pastoral folk, and The Fernweh fills the bill. Though a debut, the band members have travailed in a number of other groups and this song cycle washes over you with understated, autumnal sturdy folk-rock. Combining west coast psyche and folk-rock pantheons, the Fernweh color the edges with filigreed six-string and then jagged, caustic electric guitars.
The album is firmly rooted in the past with 2018 bite. “Brightening in the West” is a splashy rocker with jangling six string and minor/major key flip-flops and a psyche guitar lead. “The Liar” has chimey-cheesy keyboards and an insistent folk-rock lilt.
“Next Time Around” harkens back to British folk rock of Fairport Convention with it’s dosey-do loping rhythm and old school harmonies. Liking this album is a bit revealing my age, but the mash up of modern garage psyche and folk anthems is unique to say the least. Spooky, pastoral and spiky.
Glen Hansard “Between Two Shores”
Hansard, formerly half of the Swell Season with Marketa Irglova (remember the movie “Once”) has a muted joy and slow burning heartache. Simple, professional and familiar song artistry and sturdy, understated back -up band.
Slow unraveling and subtle agony of “One of Us Must Lose” is a mid-tempo textbook ballad. The break up mantra “Movin’ On’ commences with a hushed acoustic guitar, chopped lightly and then boils over with roiling Hammond organ as the emotions erupt at the chorus- and then the song dissolves into peace. The cushion of pillowy horns on “Lucky Man”; the sturdy piano of “Setting Forth” – all components are tasteful and perfectly supportive of each bluesy lament.
Add in the chirpy Farfisa organ bed of “Wheels on Fire” and the recipe is campy yet perfectly placed in this mild rocker where the horns mimic his hoarse vocal shouts.
Relatable and emotionally relevant in our times and comforting.
Amanda Shires “Into the Sunset”
Breakout release and maybe an attempt at broader pop appeal, Shires (Mrs. Jason Isbell) expands her sonic palette with crunching rock guitars, upfront Fender Rhodes and electric piano splashes and pop-rock production.
“Take on the Dark” has that ominous drive with fuzzy bass and distorted guitars
Shire’s voice is in my opinion is what most critics point to as her shortcoming. It is country to a fault; a bit thin and shrill, and sometimes buried by the clustered instrumentation. Her writing is steeped in southern roots-rock and Americana, but “White Feather” has a curly-cue organ, then drenched with strained, scratchy lead guitars, and “Wasn’t Paying Attention” is straight-ahead rock with echoplexed vocals and sizzling guitar.
Most songs are built on bashing drums, a splattering of electronic beats – layered with electric piano and abrasive chorded guitars – and yet with her voice the music is genetically linked to American and the soulful side of Nashville.
Bill Anschell “Shifting Standards”
The perfect title for an album in these tormented times of ‘fake ‘news’ and absent decency. Anschell and his long-standing trio is a most sublime and assured jazz release as I’ve heard in forever. These are uncluttered yet slightly original arrangements; sedated and serene.
The standout track, “Some Other Time”, is the lesser known Bernstein composition from the stage play “On the Town”. As noted in the liner notes, Anschell lightly re-harmonizes this ballad, and it flows as lithely as a slow river over shallow falls.
I think this is as close as you can get to the real intimacy of a piano trio in a small jazz club – warm, lyrical and accomplished. And I cannot stress enough that each players artistry and melodicism is ample and self-evident, yet the sum is so much more sublime than the parts. Bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer D’Vonne Lewis have played with Anschell for over ten years, and though each has superb chops, it is their sympathetic interplay and uncanny anticipation shows.
Not a clinker in the bunch.
Tord Gustavsen Trio “The Others”
Not to get in a piano jazz rut, but, Gustavsen and his trio work their airy and mysterious magic on a ‘prototypical’ Gustavsenian ECM collection; ambience, telepathic interplay and deafening silence between orbiting notes. The Norwegian pianist fingers out clusters of melody and slow build, not quite defined melodies.
Gustavsen and this trio is so enmeshed and linked emotionally. Veteran partner drummer Jarle Vespestad returns and new bassist Sigurd Hole is warm and lush; all three steeped in Scandanavian folk music as well as the classical canon. The group tackles Bach, with a vapor-like arrangement of “Jesu, Meine Fruede”; all atmosphere; skittering sketches of snare and spare, punctuating double bass.
The opener “The Tunnel is textbook Gustavsen – a molten pace, with the melody inclining oh so slightly, before descending to melancholy; a spacious and gradual unfolding. “Re-Melt” again capitalizes on the formula, though might almost be considered forceful, even adventurous in tempo for this trio. Closer “Curves” is so rapturous and lyrical and glacially moves on the suggestion of tempo- not with an identifiable beat
Haunting, erotic and challenging
Bobby Broom “Soul Fingers”
This is the type of record I love and what I have advocated for jazz players forever. A well-chosen playlist of classic rock, soul and pop music; rendered in a breezy and confident style. Broom is the tastiest of the tasteful soul-jazz six stringers, and herein with his “Organi-sation” an organ-based trio, he chooses familiar tunes, tweaks time signatures, slows down and gives ample room for his fretwork and Ben Paterson on Hammond B-3 to scoot and show-off without the pyrotechnic indulgence.
“Ode to Billie Joe” is a soul-jazz strut, instantly hummable and splashed with brass flourishes and enhanced with a sterling vibes solo by Justin Thomas. Steely Dan’s radio Staple “Do It Again” receives a loping swing, with Broom picking the melody and solos with restraint but precision.
The highlight is the odd choice of Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” – sublime in Paterson’s crawling organ underpinning and then Broom plucking out half-woozy staggering notes to mimic the original song’s vocals – euphonic and splendid – a twilight harkening favorite at our house all of 2018….and today.
Wonderfully straight-ahead jazz, covering songs that are refreshed by the breezy tempos and savvy approachable arrangements.
Also Noted: Individual Songs or Albums of 2018 that need some love.........
Villagers- “The Art of Pretending to Swim” Worth it for the song “Trick of the Light”.
Cat Power - “Wanderer” – Return to form for Ms. Marshall – raw and a bit downtrodden – spare piano and plangent vocals.
Gabriel Kahane- “Book of Travelers” - Vignettes of lives strange and unexplored. An odd haunting to songs like “Model Trains”- somber and disorienting.
The Boxer Rebellion - “Love Yourself” – A deeply personal song for Rebellions leader Nathan Nicholson about loss – propulsive and hard hitting and hummable.
Joan Armatrading - “This is Not That” – Happiest and most uplifting song of 2018 – Catchy as hell from the veteran who started way back in 1976.
Ray LaMontagne- “Such a Simple Thing - Terrific return to form for one of the most distinctive voices in modern folk rock/American
Kat Edmonson - “A Voice” – Outstanding and dark ballad from pixiesque Texan with the jazz squeak and rapturous voice.
The Flat Five – “This is Your Night” _ Chicago’s retro-popsters with a groovy Sergio Mendes meets Age of Aquarius goofiness. Underrated multi-instrumentalist Scott Ligon with Nora O’Connor and Kelly Hogan sweetly harmonizing
Jennifer Castle - “Texas” – Girl-group backgrounds and pure pop confection from the darkly (not so) titled album “Angels of Death”
Rex Orange County – “Loving is Easy” – Again – pop perfection; lightweight piano driven loveliness – save for the dropping of the F-bomb in the chorus. Find the Clean edit.
Elvis Costello- “Unwanted Number” – Driving rock and return to form for masterful Mr. Costello.
- Dave Leonatti