The Best Albums of 2018

It’s the most wonderful time… of the year. Time for the annual tradition of sharing my favorite albums of the year, just in time for your last-minute holiday shopping or possible targets for all the gift cards you might receive.

Ventriloquism

Meshell Ndegeocello – Ventriloquism
Beautiful collection of covers, re-imagined to perfection. The song selection is almost as masterful as the execution. Every song flipped on its head, and yet somehow more revealing than the originals. Deep grooves here, highly recommended.

Queen Reptile


Sons of Kemet – Your Queen is a Reptile

Crazy rhythms and hypnotic jams.

 

 

BEP
Black Eyed Peas – Masters of the Sun

Yes, this is a real banger. I’ve disliked and dismissed the Black Eyed Peas for several years and albums, but gotta admit, this is a great album. Harkens back to 90s peak boom-bap hip-hop classics. Pleasant surprise.

courtney

Courtney BarnettTell Me How You Really Feel
The best Nirvana album in years.

 

 

elephants


Cypress Hill – Elephants on Acid

Classic hip-hop outfit delivers a superb master stroke, all killer no filler.

 

rare birds
Jonathan Wilson – Rare Birds

There’s a reason this guy Jonathan Wilson makes by Best Albums of the Year list every single year he puts out an album. It’s because he makes great albums.

 

pusha


Pusha T – Daytona

Short and sweet. Seven tracks, 21 minutes. Less is more.

 

 

 

foxking

Foxing – Nearer My God
Can’t really describe this one. I guess at times it sounds like a cross between Dawes and Radiohead. It’s a grower.

 

 

jeff
Jeff The Brotherhood – Magick Songs

Floating between Floyd and Sabbath is a truly magical feat. One of those cool albums you get lost in and forget what you’re listening to.

 

clutch
Clutch – Book of Bad Decisions

These guys never make bad albums, and this one stands out with some funky punches and even a horn section in a few spots. Another monster of an album from the masters of crunchy riffs and big beats.

Black Thought – Streams of Thought Vol. 1
Black Thought – Streams of Thought Vol. 2
Easily a Top 5 MC, one of the greatest rappers ever; an astounding lyricist on the mic. The Roots front man finally making some solo joints as further proof.

Amanda ShiresAmanda Shires – To The Sunset
If you built a bridge between 80s alt rock and the best of Nashville’s modern Americana, it would probably be one of those really, really long bridges that stretch for miles over a huge body of water and it ends up being strangely more fun to drive across than a regular bridge.

JackieandtheTreehornsJcoverbyMIA2018


Jackie and the Treehorns – The J Album

Unknown/indie selection of the year. Rock is not dead. Google this or dial it up on your favorite streamer, you won’t be disappointed (and Jackie will make a 40th of a cent in streaming royalties!).

 

carters


The Carters –
Everything is Love
I don’t really care about their marriage or their unique and immense celebrity… but Beyonce and Jay-Z are still famous for making great jams, and this collaboration album is full of ‘em.

 

black panther

Black Panther Soundtrack Album – Kendrick Lamar and Various Artists
Kendrick even kills it as curator and co-host.

 

 

mccartney


Paul McCartney – Egypt Station

Almost left this off the list. It’s not GREAT great, but it’s still pretty good and way better than expected. Just a couple of clunkers but most of it is really solid. And it’s great that Paul is still putting out new music, good stuff at that. The man is in his 70s.

jackwhiteJack White – Boarding House Reach
Funny thing about this album. No, it’s certainly not his best, but I found the reaction to it fascinating. Since this album is a bit of a hodge-podge of more experimental tracks, the fawning fanbase of critics who’d spent the entirety of this century elevating Jack White to untouchable godlike status immediately reveled in “the new Jack White album sucks!” madness. Classic example of building someone up just so they can tear him down at the first sign of a misstep. I think the album is interesting and full of weirdness in a good way. A mixtape for rockers. While “I’d almost forgotten this album came out in 2018” isn’t a ringing endorsement, thought I’d include it here since approximately zero of the year-end albums lists included our boy Jack, the former critic’s darling who has finally pushed himself beyond their predictable reach.

Live Albums/Archival
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Live from the Ryman
John Coltrane – Both Directions at Once
Tom Petty – An American Treasure
The Beatles – White Album Super Deluxe 50th Anniversary Edition

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The 17 Best Albums of 2017

It was not a great year for music in 2017, in that we suddenly lost Tom Petty, as well as my earliest musical hero and influence: my Dad. On a lighter note, great music is still being made every day and every year. And whether this is read by 1 or 100 or 1000 people, I still feel compelled to spread the good word of great music for all to hear.

Let’s start with a quick nod for Special Musical Achievement in Film. The recent John Coltrane documentary Chasing Trane is a must watch. Just a beautiful tribute to an incredible musician and man who, as chronicled in the film, felt it was his higher calling to bring people joy and happiness through music. “Overall I think the main thing a musician would like to do is give to the listener the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe… That’s what I would like to do. I think that’s one of the greatest things you can do in life and we all try to do it in some way. The musicians way is through his music.”

With that in mind, here are my Top 17 Albums of 2017:

Jason Isbell – The Nashville Sound
Easily one of the best singer/songwriters of this century/generation. However you measure time, fill it with this guy’s songs. If you’ve never heard of him, please just go listen to all his albums starting with this one (after you finish reading this).

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Three straight-up classics in a row for Kendrick now, each with their own sound and identity. For his latest trick, Lamar conjured up a “choose your adventure” loose-concept album made to also work when played in reverse order. There’s little question that Kendrick Lamar is the hottest and deepest talent in hip-hop right now. Period. (Maybe that’s why K-dot put a period in the title? Either way, DAMN.)

The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
If you’re wondering why you keep seeing this album at or near the top of all the year-end best-album lists, just tune in, turn on, and get deep. You won’t drown, I promise you’ll float.

Queens of the Stone Age – Villains
Alt-rock isn’t dead. Art rock isn’t dead. Hard rock isn’t dead. Rock isn’t dead.

Tyler the Creator – Flower Boy
I was never a fan and just didn’t “get” anything about Odd Future, the hip-hop collective led by Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt. Figured I was just too old, or they were just too weird for weirdness sake and I gave up. Then I tried this new Tyler the Creator album. Wow. With a very unique and interesting sound, musically all over the place, Flower Boy is mildly addictive but won’t cause drowsiness.

Chronixx – Chronology
Next-gen dancehall reggae with enough roots to keep the grooves grounded. My 5-year-old son’s review: “This sounds like the beach.” Standout track: “Big Bad Sound.” This is a talented young cat to keep our ear on in the future.

Leif Vollebekk – Twin Solitude
Quiet, haunting, and masterful.

Run the Jewels – RTJ 3
Perhaps the most dynamic duo in rap, and most consistent. Seems the combo of dual-threat producer/MC EL-P and costar Killer Mike just never miss. All three of their albums are among the best hip-hop of this century and installment #3 doesn’t disappoint.

Spoon – Hot Thoughts
Masterful blend of basic guitar rock with all the sonic trappings of modern technology. Like most Spoon albums, Hot Thoughts is instantly catchy and enough of a grower to keep satisfying after multiple listens. This one is also a sneaky-great “headphones” album.

Tony Allen – The Source
Former Fela Kuti drummer brings the funk on this set of jazz grooves. Also check out his other 2017 release, A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

Jay-Z – 4:44
I was skeptical, and only half-interested. But damn if old Shawn Carter didn’t go and make another great album. Personal, yes, but still with trademark chops on the mic. Very much helped by the consistency of having one producer throughout: No I.D. is the unsung MVP of this one for bringing the beats.

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
The fact that most people seem to find Josh Tillman (“Father John Misty”) to be some pretentious douche who takes himself too seriously just proves that they in fact don’t even realize that they are the butt of his whole joke. And he’s never been funnier than on Pure Comedy, his third LP as FJM, and third masterpiece recorded with producer and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Wilson at the helm. Can’t wait to hear what these two cook up for Father John Misty’s next routine.

Margo Price – All American Made
There’s real country music like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, and then there’s that fake-ass bullshit in a cowboy hat that they use to sell cola and prime-time football games. This is real country music, of course, but it’s also progressive and refreshingly feministic without distracting from this tremendously talented singer and songwriter who just made her second straight damn-good album.

Damian Marley – Stony Hill
Almost a decade in the making, Jr. Gong’s long-awaited follow up to Welcome to Jamrock finds him atop Stony Hill, a masterclass in reggae styles and vocal dexterity. Another set of crucial tracks to add to his already impressive cannon.

Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference
Young saxophonist’s first album was a critically acclaimed TRIPLE album, about 3 hours of music aptly titled Epic. Impressive feat, especially for a debut. How to follow that up in 2017? With a 6-song EP of course. Still clocks in at 32 minutes, not far off what a full-length album was back in the day. Smoother and more palatable than Epic, this concise effort is still somehow as effective.

Portugal The Man – Woodstock
Last time these guys put out an album it topped my list (Evil Friends in 2013). This one is almost as good. Unique and groovy from beginning to end, highlighted in the middle by the feel-good finger-snapping hit of the year “Feel It Still.”

Ryan Adams – Prisoner
Yes, I have to put Ryan Adams on my list every year he does an album.

BONO IS IN YOUR YARD HOLDING A BOOMBOX OVER HIS HEAD

St. Bono and the boys were so busy rushing this off to Apple Corp to push to you that they didn't even have to make a cover!

St. Bono and the boys were so busy rushing this off to Apple Corp to push to you that they didn’t even have time to make a cover!

First, this isn’t really a first. Thousands of bands release free digital albums all the time. Even in the realm of major commercial artists obviously we had Radiohead “giving away” In Rainbows almost 7 years ago as part of a “pay what you want” thing… and as for selling it to a corporate sponsor for them to give away, Prince had his Twenty Ten CD given away with a newspaper in the U.K. a few years ago. AC/DC, the Eagles, Justin Timberlake, Prince and several others have cut exclusive deals with the likes of Target and WalMart. Jay-Z had an (intrusive) app to deliver his free album (sponsored by Samsung). And Beyonce and others have done the suddenly announced/released “IT’S HERE NOW” album drop.

U2 selling this to Apple for them to then “give” to us is a bit of a hybrid of those previous releases. I guess the main difference is that they actually PUT IT ON YOUR COMPUTER. Lots of major artists give away tracks for free, or offer streaming previews etc… plenty of free tracks that most people can’t be bothered to “go get” (by clicking a mouse several times).

This is Bono coming to your house and standing in your yard holding a boombox over his head.

Hold me close like I’m someone that you might know” he sings as he crawls into your inbox.

The cynical among us will say we’ve already talked about U2 enough, or entirely too much, over the last 25 years or so… and “who cares,” and that any critical discussion about That New Free U2 Album is just falling for Bono’s trick and giving them the publicity they want. OK. Rock bands might not be the most important subject in the world (to you guys) but within the realm of “The Arts” and “Pop Culture,” if we’re going to chronicle every time Justin Beiber pisses in a bucket, then perhaps it’s okay to give 15 minutes of fame to discussing the new U2 album and its method of delivery.

I mean, leave it to U2 to somehow pull off a “surprise album” that’s been years in the hyping.

Doing it this way saves them from any potential embarrassment of it “flopping” and/or the reality that even U2 isn’t gonna sell millions of copies like the old days. By any measure, conventional sales figures of this album would have looked bad by U2 standards even if still in line with rock-bottom expectations of music sales in 2014. So this gets them publicity and they get to look like they gave it away for free…

This is how U2-level artists deal with the new Music (Lack-of) Business, and of course we shed few tears cuz they’re already rich…. and obviously there’s a few levels of artists trying to get their music heard (from the novice garage bands, to the mid-level professional but still anonymous artists on up to the superstar stratosphere). So now even the U2s of the world have to pull stunts just to get heard and “play for free” (even if their new album giveaway was actually subsidized by a large corporation). It’s just funny that even they have to do this shit.

After the first several listens, I’d say there’s some interesting tracks and some more late-career filler with a few pretty good kinda “raw” moments as well… and a few more examples of Bono going for the Big Huge Sweeping Sentiment lyrics… but it’s still too soon to have a strong opinion. (Ultimately it sounds destined for “not-horrific, better than their last one, but still just OK” status.) Continue reading →

What Are You Listening To?

Mixtape

A Random Mixtape

Human curiosity is…curious. I, for one, find myself becoming more and more interested in the methods by which people engage with their music. In the past, purchasing music was somewhat of a ritual: You heard about your favorite artists upcoming album, you saved your money for it, waited for it’s release date, went to your local record store, and bought a physical package that contained the music. Now, one can download and be listening to Michael Jackson’s entire discography within a matter of minutes and share it between multiple devices in an instant. As Det. Thomas ‘Herc’ Hauk once said, “Isn’t technology the bomb?”

Recently, while I was riding the metro into work, I looked around at the various co-zombies on my train. Most everyone was connected to some sort of mobile device and most everyone had headphones on. I wondered: what are all these people listening to? I suppose as a musician myself I am curious about people’s listening habits. That same morning I came into the office and randomly asked some co-workers what song they just finished listening to.
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The Throne We Should Be Watching

When did KRS-One join the witness protection program?

Have you seen this man? KRS-One is still on point.

He didn’t. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: he’s actually put out seven really good albums over the last five years alone. And yet it feels like he’s disappeared right out there in the open. You would think with so many people lamenting the alleged Death of Hip-Hop that a legend like KRS-One would get recognized for dropping a few instant classics over the last several years.

Music bloggers and casual rap fans wait with bated breath any time Kanye West puts out an album and declare the last and next Roots album a classic and wish to the heavens that OutKast will some day make another album. People are losing their minds waiting for Dr. Dre to finish Detox, the album he’s supposedly been working on for almost 10 years. And yet there’s KRS the Teacha, a unanimous “Greatest of All Time” on everyone’s shortlist no matter the criteria, and he’s not just still alive, or still recording… he’s making some of his strongest albums ever.

Don’t believe me? Go listen to Survival Skills, the 2009 album he made with Buckshot. This is easily my favorite hip-hop record of the last five years. If you click away from this article considering buying one album, it should be this one. It’s just a perfect storm of quality beats/production with the solid 1-2 punch of Kris and Buckshot on the mic.

Still not convinced? Did you know he made an album with Wu-Tang production disciple True Master in 2010? Picture KRS-One doing his metaphysical lyrical lectures over that grimy sound you’d expect from a producer off the RZA tree.

And that’s not all.

Let’s actually rewind and take it back to 2008, when Maximum Strength sounded like KRS-One was still capable of making the classic banger he hadn’t made in over a decade. Following his 90’s peak (his self-titled 1995 album), I Got Next (1997) was a hit but also signaled the beginning of the end. He’d go four years before releasing his next album, the decent but uneven Sneak Attack. The rest of the 2000’s saw a string of 10 lackluster albums that only hinted at his true genius (it’s hard to even fact check; his official discography differs from site to site, adding to this whole witness protection mystery). That’s right, approximately 10 albums from 2001 to 2007 (and those are the ones I’m discarding as mediocre).

So 2008’s Maximum Strength comes out and it’s pretty slammin. Kris sounds sharp, he’s chosen some decent beats. OK, cool. This is probably the weakest of this recent run, but it seemed to signal a shift in the right direction.

KRS-One: Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone.

The following year is when the aforementioned Survival Skills dropped, kicking off a run of collaboration albums that have all been straight fire. It’s one thing for Jay-Z and Kanye to pair up and make one great album (Watch the Throne), or for a legend like Eminem to team up with a lesser-known but respected MC like Royce da 5’9” (Bad Meets Evil: Hell the Sequel ). But KRS-One has now made FOUR such albums over the last four years:  Survival Skills with Buckshot (2009), Meta-Historical with True Master (2010), Godsville with Showbiz (2011), and the absolute ass-kicking Royalty Check with Bumpy Knuckles (2011). [That doesn’t even count the 2007 album he made with Marly Marl, Hip-Hop Lives, cuz I haven’t heard it.]

On top of all that, he also managed to release a solo EP, Back to the L.A.B. in 2010, six hard classic-sounding tracks from the Blastmaster. Fittingly, “L.A.B.” stands for Lyrical Ass Beating, and Kris delivers yet again. This one is definitely a standout among this recent run.

And oh by the way, in January of 2012 he put out The BDP Album with his brother Kenny Parker handling the production. Spoiler alert: this one is really good too. Score it as a solo record, a collaboration, or the first new “BDP” album in a generation, I don’t know. At this point I’m as confused by the details of what’s come out as I am baffled by the fact that all these amazing albums have been largely ignored by the mainstream.

He comes off as confident as ever, and yet he still sounds hungry. The verbal gymnastics are one thing, of course KRS can bring the delivery and work the wordplay on the mic, but the depth and longevity of this man is nothing short of incredible. At the risk of overstating it, it’s an embarrassment of riches. If he was quietly dropping duds and had lost his skills, turned into Jordan-on-the-Wizards without the fanfare, it might make sense. But this is a legendary pioneer, one of the best ever to rock a mic, seemingly at the peak of his powers, and no one’s noticing.

I realize that young guns and one-hit wonders will always be at the forefront of popular culture, especially in hip-hop, and maybe all the awards shows, all-star games, and late-night TV shows have all begged KRS-One to come on and he’s said no. I don’t know. He’s never really played ball with the big record labels, but “going indie” doesn’t (and shouldn’t) disappear an artist the way it may have back in the day.

So why is he practically invisible despite being an undisputed legend doing some of his best work? Don’t we usually celebrate the Jay-Zs and Eminems of the world when they drop a great album? Isn’t that part of why we mark every anniversary of the tragic murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls? Cuz we wonder what might have been, shaking our heads in the silence of their never-recorded classics.

Does KRS-One just choose to operate in the shadows, as he probably did all those years ago as a teenage graffiti artist in the Bronx? Is it simply a matter of the cliché about people not wanting to hear The Hard Truth? Is he too anti-establishment, too spiritual? Maybe. But, just as happened with his Stop The Violence Movement in 1989, once again a positive message in hip-hop is ignored (squashed?) while bling, beef, and bullet holes make the headlines.

Seems unfair; a cultural injustice. If only there were more witnesses.

Top 10 Albums of 2001

Lost among the 20th anniversary hype around Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten, and U2’s Achtung Baby, and all the 10th anniversary energy only focusing on 9/11, let’s pause to look at the Top 10 Albums from 2001.

Earlier this year, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, and elsewhere there was some brief hoopla about The Strokes Is This It album turning 10 years old. I loved it at the time and while I don’t think it holds up quite as well as the other albums on this list, it was certainly a touchstone release worthy of the mentions.

Interestingly enough, two albums I most associate with 9/11 for some reason (Radiohead’s Kid A and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the titles I originally thought would anchor this list), were actually misremembered. They were from 2000 and 2002, respectively. Also, this list is short on hip-hop, but if you check the record books, there were several classics dropped by Outkast, The Roots, Talib Kweli, Eminem, Mos Def, and Common in either 2000 or 2002 (or in some cases both).

On to the list of the Top 10 Albums of 2001:

10. The Strokes – Is This It
Let’s go ahead and include this aforementioned Strokes debut. Mostly since this original banned-in-the-US album cover would look nice here on our website.

9. Explosions in the Sky – Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever
I admit I only recently discovered this band and their fine brand of instrumental rock goodness, and after investigating their back catalog, this is one gem I certainly missed back in 2001.

8. Drive-By Truckers – Southern Rock Opera
One of their most famous and celebrated albums, the DBT’s “concept album” surrounding the legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the deep south is no longer their best. It’s long since been surpassed by their continuing output, but this one put them on the map.

7. Radiohead – Amnesiac
Sometimes overlooked and underrated, this follow-up to 2000’s Kid A album is usually dismissed as simply the second album of Radiohead’s Bleeps’n’Blips Era. Kid B, if you will. But Amnesiac stands on its own as yet another solid entry in the band’s great catalog.

6. Whiskeytown – Pneumonia
Actually recorded in 1999 as a follow-up to Strangers Almanac, this one didn’t see the light of day until 2001 after the band broke up and Ryan Adams released his first solo album. Finished up with producer Ethan Johns, Pneumonia was called “easily Whiskeytown’s most ambitious and eclectic work” by AllMusic.com. A really catchy record that some people might not have caught when it was released.

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If the Cover Fits: Great Art to Match Some of the Best Albums of 2011

You can’t judge an album by its cover, but there’s something about when certain albums seem to match their covers, often in some odd unexplained way. For me, it’s not something obvious like “yea, it’s a picture of the band playing the music,” but something much subtler. So this isn’t necessarily my 10 Most Favorite Albums of 2011 so far (though many of them might make that list if it existed), these are just 10 Favorite Covers That Happen To Match Their Music Well. Or something like that.


The War on Drugs
Slave Ambient
The kind of album that’s hard to describe: it’s lush and dreamy but it still has an organic sound and chugging pace that seems in conflict with itself. Same for how many tracks sorta hum along on what seems like just one chord and yet you don’t feel bored. It’s an interesting drone, if that’s even possible. Like Bob Dylan meets Velvet Underground. Slave Ambient sounds how that cover looks. It’s this very strange intersection of electronica and Americana, though it doesn’t overtly sound like either.

PJ HarveyLet England Shake
Stark and fluttering, subtly explosive, beautiful yet blunt. PJ Harvey delivered one of the finest albums of the year so far and this black and white cover is just sharp enough for the occasion.

Jay-Z and Kanye WestWatch the Throne
Is that not the perfect cover for Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne? Just pure gold. Delicate wrapping, and you could say at times some paper-thin rapping as well. The cover doesn’t tell you the title or the artist (of course, you already know that you are in the presence of royalty), it simply conveys luxury. Insisting that it is the best of the best because, well, it’s the most expensive. But what’s inside? Like the cover, the album is more flash than substance. The only promise that’s really delivered here is that of more luxury. Expensive samples, top notch production, and signature styles (for better and worse) of the two co-star’s verses about, well, luxury. More gold rapping. The only album cover that might have been more appropriate would be a scanned image of their bank statements and tax returns.

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