by Ryan Hilligoss, January 30, 2019
2018 was a great year in music for fans of all kinds of music. Every year is a great year for music fans if you just know where to look and where to listen whether it be on Sirius/XM, YouTube, terrestrial radio, or, oh my, walking through an actual record store where they still exist and browsing. I’ve heard that music and radio are dead but that couldn’t be more false. Radio stations as many of us knew them growing up are over, being run and programmed by corporate masters far away. No more disc jockeys helping break a new artist they like the sound of by playing their records often in the rotation. Now it’s artists having their own YouTube pages, fans listening on snapchat and Instagram or downloading through their favorite sources. But the music is still there. Musicians are still there making the music they love and wanting to share it with other like minded souls, only if the fans have the ears to listen.
I know it’s the end of January and these top 10 type lists are usually written by mid December, but the holidays and other personal issues have kept me from the keyboard, so for anyone interested, here are my favorite albums of 2018. This is not a ‘best of’ list that implies the writer somehow has a lock on quality or more discerning ears than others, this is my humble list of the albums that spoke to me the most as a listener.
Will Hoge- My American Dream
My friend Jeff Calaway turned me onto Will Hoge a few years ago by suggesting I listen to Hoge’s latest album at the time Never Give In. I loved his style, song writing, lyrics, melodies and his voice which spoke to my Midwestern roots but with universal themes. I’ve since followed him through Small Town Dreams and his excellent 2017 release Anchors which seemed to cover a lot of the same ground I was living in my own life at the time with themes of loss, regret, divorce and it’s results. 2018 saw the release of Hoge’s My American Dream, an angry, violent, loud indictment of the current administration and the current state of our lives, hard working people on both sides of the border doing their best to make a living but barely living and making ends meet. His prior albums have been mostly acoustic guitar, softer sound but this one jumps off the needle from the first to the last track with hard charging guitars and drums, pounding out a warning call on the corruption, meanness and stupidity now sweeping across the nation like an ill wind. From Gilded Walls, Oh Mr.Barnum, Thoughts and Prayers and through the title track, Hoge displays some of his finest song writing of his career and sending a wake up call for his listeners.
Kacey Musgraves- Golden Hour
I’ve had very few celebrity crushes in my life, but Kacey is at the top of my list. her physical beauty is outshine by the beauty of her voice and strength of her song writing, her voice is one of the finest and purest in modern music, on parallel with Roy Orbison and Jackie Wilson in tone, range and smoothness. She followed up her hit Pageant Material with Golden Hour which shines all the way through and includes Wonder Woman, Space Cowboy and High Horse. Deservedly, she’s been nominated for several awards this year including artist of the year, album and song of the year. I’m glad she’s part of emerging female voices in country/pop along with Margo Price and Marren Morris to counter the long held male territory.
Leon Bridges- Good Thing- The Texas raised artist follows up his 2015 smash Smooth Sailing with Good Thing. His initial release was a modern nod to the smooth soul and R&B of Sam and Dave, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles with a retro sound. Based on the popularity and success of his first album, it would have been easy for him to stick with that sound but on Good Thing, he takes a 180 turn into fully modern sounds of R&B, jazz and pop and uses his smooth voice to bring it all to the front. I was able to see him perform in Chicago as part of his tour and it was one of the best and most powerful shows I attended this year. I look forward to him having a long career and hearing where he goes with each new release.
Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats- Tearing At The Seams- This Stax Records group returns with their second album of original material after their initial breakout 2015 self entitled album with Tearing At The Seams. The classic Stax sound with nods to the great Stax musicians of Booker T and the MGs is apparent from the first track, Shoe Boot, an extension in title and sound to the MGs Boot Leg. The front man’s voice is classic soul and R&B with his own touch and the album is strong from start to finish which ends with the album title track, a passionate, painful expression of the process and after effects of divorce. They’re all great but highlights for me are A Little Bit Of Honey, Hey Mama and Still Out There Running.
John Prine- Tree of Forgiveness- Prine returns in his best form with his first album of original material in 10 years. In an interview, Prine said his wife, family and friends staged an intervention and sent him to a hotel to stay and focus on writing new material. Prine is one of the finest song writers of the last 50 years, giving writers such as Townes Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Goodman a run for their money. As can be seen in the album cover photo, Prine acknowledges and embraces his age on the album songs which touch on life, aging, the human heart’s mysteries and in a classic move, a kiss off to his few critics on the albums final track, When I Get To Heaven. The track Boundless Love contains my favorite lyrics of the whole album and represent the classic Prine touch of common day things, the daily lives of his listeners and turning them on their heads.
“Sometimes my ol’ heart is like a washing machine
It bounces around till my soul comes clean
And when I’m clean, when hung out to dry
I’m gonna make you laugh until you cry
Surround me with your boundless love
Confound me with your boundless love
I was drowning in the sea, lost as I could be
When you found me with your boundless love”
Paul McCartney- Egypt Station– As he has always done and will continue to do as time allows, McCartney finds a brilliant way to capture modern sounds and styles with fresh material while always maintaining the level of quality and songwriting that is his standard. From straight up rock and pop to dance and EDM and ballads, he makes it interesting from start to finish. At this point in his carer, he could easily become a parody of himself or just cash it in, but the artistic drive still propels him to search for answers in the same 12 notes and octave.
Janelle Monae- Dirty Computer- This beautiful, vivacious, multi talented artist continues her mastery with Dirty Computer. Blending funk, soul, R&B and rock, she takes influences as wide as Jackie Wilson, James Brown, George Clinton and Prince and makes her own way through the musical landscape. Her shows and videos are visually stunning and she continues to press the boundary of current art with an eye on tomorrow.
Nalani and Sarina- The Circle- These two sisters from New Jersey released their best album of material so far in their short career. The production is cleaner and smoother and mixed to maximize their beautiful harmonies and power of their lyrics. From the first track until the end, the album is full of high quality lyrics, themes and melodies. Their voices are so natural and blend so well together, they remind me of other sibling artists like The Everly Brothers and Ann and Nancy Wilson. Blending rock, pop, R&B and funk to make their own sound. Highlights include Welcome To The Rest Of Your Life, Never Let Go Of Your Hand and Tomorrow and Yesterday. I’ve been able to see them perform live twice and they put on a tremendous live performance full of energy and attitude and musical versatility powered by their 5 piece band.
First Aid Kit- Ruins
First Aid Kit is a Swedish folk duo that consists of the sisters Klara (vocals/guitar) and Johanna Söderberg (vocals/keyboards/Autoharp/bass guitar). They are folk based but blend in country and rock when they are joined by their band. Their voices are immaculate and stunning and join for harmonies out of this world. Rebel Heart, Fireworks and Postcard are highlights for me. It’s amazing to me that they know the American song book so well with obvious influences of Emmy Lou Harris, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and others. Below is my favorite song by them as they pay tribute to Emmy Lou and Graham Parsons with Emmy Lou in attendance.