I know I’m a little late to the game with my album picks this year, but 2018 was just so rich with amazing new music that I couldn’t just poop this out all willy nilly. Unlike other folks with their best album lists, I believe in waiting a few weeks after the new year to let all the late releases settle in with me. And it’s a good thing I did, as a few late December releases made my list!
Colter Wall — Songs of the Plains
This album was actually the subject of an unpublished New Music Tuesday post I never finished—probably my biggest regret of 2018. Rural Saskatchewan has a deep history of incredible country, gospel, and folk music. I would argue at least as rich as the southern United States. This collection of cowboy songs is a legendary example. Wall’s deep bass voice is striking, his songwriting timeless, and his guitar playing the perfect accompaniment to his voice. At 23, he is making the music of someone three-times his age. This record is going into my favorite albums of all time list.
John Prine — The Tree of Forgiveness
Pretty much every songwriter I know (and I know quite a few) looses their shit for John Prine. When he released his album of duets a few years back after recovering from throat surgery, I was a little skeptical about this one. I found the performances on the duets record difficult to listen to, due to his inability to sing in tune (recovering from surgery and all). Thankfully, The Tree of Forgiveness is delightful—an instant classic with intriguingly specific and clever songs. Prine’s delivery is spot on this time. His voice is endearing, and perfect for these 10 new songs. The entire record is well written, recorded and balanced. This is one I have trouble not listening to in its entirety, which is the mark of a genius songwriter.
The Louvin Brothers — Love and Wealth: The Lost Recordings
Could there be any better name to pair with the phrase, “The Lost Recordings” than The Louvin Brothers‽ Nope. This is a dream come true for every Louvin Brothers fan. This is a deep catalog of the Louvin’s early radio show days. Close harmony, mandolin, and guitar; nothing more. You will be delighted with the obscure collection of gospel recordings and floored by the dirty joke Ira kicks the recording off with. No shit!
High Fidelity — Hills and Home
I can say this because I am in a traditional bluegrass band, run by traditional bluegrass extremists: Traditional bluegrass is dead. Well, mostly dead. It’s getting better! This one came completely out of left field. This album of deep catalog and original bluegrass music, I believe, is the first by this Nashville band. As a gospel music junky, this is the only band I am aware of who is currently writing respectable stuff. Come for the no minor keys, stay for the no dobro. This is refreshingly legit!
Kacy & Clayton – Aquarium Drunkard’s Lagniappe Session
A delightful new single from the Saskatchewan cousins (seriously, pay attention to Saskatchewan, folks!). This follows their psychedelic New West debut produced by Jeff Tweedy. Bend in the Water is a fresh take on a Waylon Jennings-style tune. Kacy’s slacker-style vocals keep it modern, and Clayton’s electric guitar chops are as tasty as his acoustic chops. Side B is more of the psychedelic folk we all love from The Siren’s Song.
Joshua Hedley — Mr. Jukebox
The year wouldn’t be complete without a country crooner. Joshua Hedley is it this year. Hedley’s voice is crisp, clear, and up front as any proper 60s country singer should be. The production is clean, but classic, and the instrumentation from strings to pedal steel to piano fill out a perfectly well-rounded country record. Shuffles, two-step, and classic honky tonk are tied together with a mid-century feel. If you thirst for classic country, Mr. Jukebox has what you crave.
Charley Crockett — Lil G.L.’s Blue Bonanza
If I could choose any band on the earth to be the bass player for… well, I would have a really hard time choosing between Charly Crockett and Dale Watson. Lil G.L.’s Blues Bonanza is Mr. Crockett’s second release for the year, and also his second release under the Lil G.L. moniker. As the name suggests, this one is more blues focused than 2017’s honky tonk record, but equally as classic. I’m a huge sucker for double bass in the blues, but when the tasty grooves of “Travelin’ Blues” comes on, I’m just so conflicted!
Pharis & Jason Romero — Sweet Old Religion
Legendary banjo luthier, Jason Romero is also an incredible guitarist—similar in style to Dave Rawlings. In fact, if like me, you find the release schedule of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings to be a little sparse, the Romeros will tide you over. Sweet Old Religion is packed with great harmonies, intelligent songwriting, and lots of fancy banjo.
Daniel Romano — Finally Free
The master of mosey returns this year with three releases—more if you count Ancient Shapes and other side projects. He is often criticized by his country-only fans for abandoning them for 60s-inspired psychedelia. If you are one of these fans, you aren’t going to like Finally Free. You should also broaden your horizons, because there are an infinite few that have as masterful control of lyrics, arrangement, instrumentation, melody, and production as Daniel Romano (a couple of the Beatles guys did that for a while, I suppose). With that said, fans of yore will appreciate the track “All the Reaching Trims,” which harkens back to his tragically underrated folk trio, Daniel, Fred, and Julie. Alas, if it wasn’t tragically underrated, could it even be Daniel Romano?
Aaron Lee Tasjan — Karma for Cheap
My buddy Max got me into Aaron Lee Tasjen a few years back with his album, Silver Tears (Max plays keys on that record). It instantly became a hit in our house, and we still spin it pretty regularly. Karma for Cheap was highly anticipated for us, and doesn’t disappoint. Mr. Tasjen is known for his guitar chops in the industry circles in which he runs. His solo records don’t necessarily elude to that fact, but if his guitar prowess is half as good as his ability to throw together a dozen or so pop songs, one can see why he is so respected. His distinct voice punctuates timeless melodies in a way that is reminiscent of Tom Petty.
The Dean Ween Group — Rock2
“Don’t Let the Moon Catch You Crying” popped up on some random recommended new releases playlist I was barely paying attention too, and it immediately jerked me back to reality. After a few double takes, I looked it up and was surprised to see the Dean Ween Group’s second record. No wonder I was smitten! As a hopeless Ween fan, it’s awesome to stumble onto such a surprise. Dean Ween tends to be the more crass of the duo (who is thankfully touring again!). If you are sensitive to such things, I would still urge you to dive in for the incredible guitar work. I’m somewhat of a tone junky. If you find his lyrics tasteless, his guitar work is anything but! It rocks, it slow-burns, it’s funky, and it’s touching in a “whiskey tango” sort of way. A must for any Ween aficionado.
Rhett Miller — The Messenger
The Messenger is a great collection catchy indie rock jams by the Old 97’s front man. The songwriting is sweet and smart, and is punctuated nicely by his laid-back phrasing and bending of vocal melodies. The production has a great retro vibe, especially with the bass and drums. This is a great collection of songs, buttoned up with some excellent guitar tone. Rhett Miller has impeccable taste, and it really shows in this latest record.
The Milk Carton Kids — All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do
Another great modern folk record with hints of R&B, jazz and country. The tight harmonies of Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale are perfectly matched, and the soft production and instrumentation makes for a relaxing, yet emotional collection of songs. This record is extremely pleasant in a nice set of headphones. The textures, timbres and dynamics are flawless, and they still find time to work in some great guitar shredding. It is very appropriately done, though. Trust me.
Loretta Lynn — Wouldn’t It Be Great
Loretta still has it? Yep. Half of this record are new recordings of some of her classics, which rubbed me the wrong way at first. At first. Some of them are actually better than the originals. Seriously. Dare I say the ground-breaking feminist country hit, “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’” is somehow more classic without its thick 60s clop and echoing background vocals? And the new stuff is just moving. The tragic fiddle tune, “Ain’t No Time To Go” is made more so by a woman of her experience. Even taking away the revisited hits, this might be the best country record this year.
Paul Cauthen — Have Mercy
Paul Cauthen is finally back after his legendary debut record two years ago. Have Mercy gets way more out there, though. Cauthen is a rare case of a jack of all music trades and a master of all of them. He’s often pegged as an outlaw country artist—his voice is certainly reminiscent of Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings, but he pushes way beyond anything any of the Highwaymen were willing to try (or were even capable of). He’s not afraid to throw a full gospel chorus on a classic Waylon phaser-style slow jam, or even get a little disco at times. This tragically short EP really pushes some musical boundaries, but as with his last record, you’d still swear you’d heard some of these songs before.
The Watson Twins — Duo
I first caught wind of The Watson Twins on their collaboration with Jenny Lewis a number of years back. While I do find I want more precision out of the performances on some of these songs, they are great songs. There is more unison than you might expect with a sister duo, but I think it actually does more justice to the haunting feel of the record than close harmonies would. So many of these songs have worked their way into my psyche over the past few months. I think some of that magic would have been with more traditional harmonies.
Robbie Fulks & Linda Gail Lewis — Wild! Wild! Wild!
I wrote pretty much everything I had to say about this record back in August. To summarize, Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis have put together one of the most classic honky tonk records of the year.
Doc Watson — Live at Club 47
More long, lost recordings surface! This recording is from 1963, just before Doc Watson broke out as the legend we know today. As with the afore mentioned Louvin Brothers recording, this is also an incredible gem. Doc Watson is best heard live, and this is him at his best. It’s full of endearing commentary, early renditions of some of his best-loved tunes, and a few that were never recorded elsewhere. The picking is phenomenal, and the recording is incredibly high quality.
Daniel Romano — Nerveless
This is my favorite of the two albums Daniel Romano released last January. Both are no longer available, so you’ll have to take my word for how good they are. Nerveless stands out for me since it is a full band performance released so soon after Modern Pressure (my favorite Romano album). As I said last year, Daniel Romano continues his exploration into 60s-inspired modern psychedelia. This is another fine example of what an incredible composer, songwriter and musician he is.
Bottom Dwellers — The Bottom Dwellers
Full disclosure: this is my band. Is it tacky to include your own band in your top albums list? Yeah, it totally is, but when you have two of the best and most underrated songwriters in California in your band, you make exceptions. Produced by Max Hart (The War On Drugs, Aaron Lee Tasjan, We Are Scientists), this self-titled record goes deeper into Americana territory with a patchwork of brooding war ballads, ecological disaster waltzes, and 60s-inspired country rock. It’s one of two albums in my discography that I listen to regularly. I love the crap out of these songs, but Max Hart and Andy Lentz make them pretty special.
Editor’s note: I put the metal at the end as to not wreck the flow of the playlists too badly.
Voivod — The Wake
More Canada in my list this year. This time Quebec! To be honest, I didn’t realize Voivod was still together. I remember getting into them in the 80s with their hardcore album Rrröööaaarrr, but that quickly faded as they went more thrash (purists didn’t crossover back then). Apparently Voivod has been regularly reinventing themselves ever since. The Wake is an incredible progressive sci-fi post-hardcore/post-metal record. One simply does not think of putting together music like this without four decades of experience in the metal scene. It’s refreshing, yet retro. It’s progressive, yet classic. As a bonus, the second “disc” includes a bunch of live versions of older songs recorded last year.
High On Fire — Electric Messiah
The first thing to catch my attention about this record was the album cover. It lives up to the title. The second thing to catch my attention was, “Oh shit, High On Fire!” Because I love them. Electric Messiah is energetic stoner rock from Oakland with elements of he-metal, and sludge. High On Fire has been churning out these records for almost two decades now. This album is made more impressive as front man, Matt Pike, also put out a Sleep album this year which has been receiving some well-deserved critical acclaim. In my opinion, both bands are on top of their game right now.
Rivers of Nihil — Where Owls Know My Name
I initially missed this when it first came out, but stumbled onto it sometime around the holidays. Sort of progressive technical death metal, Where Owls Know My Name is more melodic than what I’m typically drawn to, but there are so many jarring things going on here: saxophone for one. Songs shift from TV drama scores, to John Zorn, to brutal blast beats. Admittedly, not all of it is up my alley, but it’s so damn interesting that I have no choice but to include it on the list.
Anaal Nathrakh — A New Kind of Horror
Anaal Nathrakh is a staple for me at work. The extreme metal duo’s 10th album goes to 11. Maybe 13. If you haven’t heard them before, your first reaction might be to wince. It’s seriously dense techno death core. Is it campy? Is it terrifying? Is it really this angry? The answer is yes. This band leaves no stone unturned. Classic metal wailing á la Iron Maiden, pitch-shifted vocals (chipmunk and cookie monster), machine gun (literally at times) blast beats, and a brutal, chaotic soundscape unrivaled in all of metaldom. I know this pitch comes off as a little silly, but I simply would not be able to function at work without Anaal Nathrakh.
And there you have it, folks. Just under the wire for your New Music Tuesday!