I still resist signing up for a streaming service and buy all of my music, even though that’s basically become stupid in 2018, but I want to get the musicians paid and streaming just isn’t doing that. As a result, I still care about albums, and I still don’t listen to just anything that comes along. That’s the experience I want from my music. Here are eight of my favorites from last year, in no particular order except for my favorite at the bottom:
Soundtrack: ‘A Star is Born’: In the film, Bradley Cooper’s character is a composite of many of my favorite musicians, and Lady Gaga proved she is a fine actress (the music part already wasn’t in doubt). Cooper’s singing is a revelation, but he also gets to work with material from some of the best writers in the folkie/Americana/alt-whatever world, and that couldn’t have hurt. You know that heartbreaking “Maybe It’s Time” song in the movie? Jason Isbell’s work. I could have done without the dialogue excerpts in the soundtrack, but that’s probably just me.
Kacey Musgraves: Golden Hour: I have all of her albums, but this one pushed her from Americana star to a broader audience. NPR has tied the “Roséwave” tag to her, which seems a little unfair, but it is true that she writes songs that can seem more clever than emotionally deep. But this album has a few darker turns and seems less interested in impressing you with wordplay; it’s definitely deeper and at times a little bleaker than much of her past work. Still, it also has the fun and super-poppy “High Horse,” which is perfectly at home with a really wide variety of playlists. This is her best overall effort.
Parker Millsap: Other Arrangements: Here’s yet another terrific album from this very talented, very young Oklahoman. Like Musgrave’s work, this Millsap effort pushes him out of the Americana box and into a broader audience — but he does by rocking it up harder. He’s also a very good live performer (although I missed his DC show this year because of a gig of my own). Still only 25 as of this writing, Millsap has already released a career’s worth of excellent music.
John Prine: The Tree of Forgiveness: Now we head to the other end of the age spectrum: At 72, Prine put out his finest album in decades. Throat cancer has changed his voice, but his lyrics are still as powerful as the legendary stuff he put out in the 1970s. Just listen to “Summer’s End” or “Egg and Daughter Nite” for evidence. This album made it to No. 5 on the Billboard chart — his highest album showing ever.
The Lone Bellow: Walk Into a Storm: The band continues its consistently strong album string with this most recent effort. You really need to see them live, where they can be an absolute force, but songs like “Feather” and “Deeper in the Water” are filled with power and emotion.
Anderson East: Encore: I first heard some of his music last year, then watched him play a horribly-mixed-by-the-sound-guy set opening for Chris Stapleton in the summer of 2017. It made me wonder what all the hype was about — and then I heard this album, which came out right after the new year. The lyrics can be a little odd at times, such as when he tells a sick woman he’ll go to the liquor store for her, but there’s a method and meaning to that oddness. All of this is set to a horn-laden band that channels a really strong Stax groove. I want to see him again in a place with a working sound setup.
John Oates: Arkansas: Easily the most surprising album of the year for me; I gave this a preview when it came across my Amazon “You Might Like” suggestions and liked it immediately. Oates channels a bunch of rootsy influences in this album, from the title song to covers of Mississippi John Hurt blues chestnuts. If you just think of him as the lesser-known half of Hall & Oates, this will change your mind.
And finally, here’s my favorite album of the year:
Sister Sparrow: Gold: She drops the moniker of her band, the Dirty Birds, from this effort — although it’s obvious a lot of them play on the album. It’s more modern and less blues-influenced than her Dirty Birds efforts, but it still features Arleigh Kincheloe’s powerhouse voice that can stop you in your tracks (even more so if you see the band live; it’s hard to reconcile those belting monster vocals with the very small human from which they originate). It’s good to hear this updated sound that still is very much attached to its roots. Of all of these acts, I’d definitely go see Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds live first. Given some of the company here, that’s no small compliment.
(I put together similar lists in 2017 and 2015. Check them out.)