American Songwriter’s Top 25 Albums Of 2018: Presented by D’Addario

It was the year of the underdog.

 

 

 

 

American Songwriter’s Top 25 Albums of 2018 is sponsored by D’Addario.

25. Mac Miller, Swimming

When Mac Miller released his fifth full-length studio album Swimming in August, it was quickly apparent the 26-year-old songwriter and musician had released the best work of his decade-long career. A month later, he died of an accidental overdose in his Studio City home. Fans, friends and collaborators mourned a kind and creative spirit, one who was clearly at the top of his game and rising still. Swimming showcases Miller’s evolution as a clever lyricist, his virtuosity as a multi-instrumentalist and his prodigious knack for blending hip-hop, jazz, pop and funk. Collaborators like Jon Brion, Thundercat, Dev Hynes and Syd help Miller achieve Swimming‘s kaleidoscopic, endlessly listenable vision. BRITTNEY MCKENNA

24. Natalie Prass, The Future and The Past

Natalie Prass chucked her early attempts at her sophomore album when the tumult of 2016 hit. The resulting effort, The Future And The Past, subtly nods at current events, from the empowerment anthem “Sisters” to the dire warnings of “Ship Go Down.” She also hews to modern R&B here after nailing the old-school soul on her acclaimed debut. The versatility is what you’ll notice. “Oh My” is deadpan funk, “Ain’t Nobody” thumps along with abandon, and “Lost” is all heartsick emoting. Prass handles it all with ease, embodying a hyphenate rarely heard these days: heartfelt singer-songwriter and fearless record-maker. — JIM BEVIGLIA

23. Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite, No Mercy In This Land

If this pairing of indie roots rocker Harper and Chicago harp-playing blues legend Musselwhite seemed like an inspired one-off after their successful 2013 release, 2018’s follow-up proved it was no fluke. The groove runs deep, dark and swampy as Musselwhite’s occasional vocals and ever-present harmonica drag Harper back to the ominous, haunting blues that has always been at the heart of his music. It’s a tough, almost unworldly sound that finds the middle ground between spiritual and devilish, bringing out the best in both musicians while bridging the gap between Harper’s younger listeners and Musselwhite’s older audience. — HAL HOROWITZ

22. John Hiatt, The Eclipse Sessions

John Hiatt is better than ever at baring his soul (not that it’s been hard for him) on The Eclipse Sessions. The soul and honesty in his vocal on songs like “Cry To Me” and “Over The Hill,” combined with singular lyrics and melodies that come together like soulmates celebrating each other’s arrival, meld into something bigger than any of the individual parts. Hiatt has lost none of the quirkiness or character in his instantly-recognizable voice and writing style, which can be compared to Dylan or Prine, on this, his 23rdstudio record, as he maintains his place in the pantheon of great American writer-artists. – RICK MOORE

21. Colter Wall, Songs Of The Plains

It’ll only take seconds into hearing Canadian Colter Wall’s deep, dusky baritone and roots heavy country to realize how influenced by past legends like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings he is. His dark voice is a textbook vehicle for songs about hard living in the Canadian wilderness, something he comes by naturally due to his connection with that area and a troubadour’s sense of storytelling. The tough, stripped-down approach of strummed acoustic guitar accompaniment creates a perfect backdrop for gritty fare about “Wild Bill Hickok,” “Saskatchewan In 1881” and one tune sung from the vantage point of a wild dog. — HAL HOROWITZ

20. Mary Gauthier, Rifles & Rosary Beads

It would have been easy for Gauthier’s latest album to glide by on the power and profundity of its premise alone: a collection of songs about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars co-written entirely with amateur veteran songwriters. But because she chose to center veteran voices so prominently, Gauthier’s album functions as a stark, crucial de-romanticization of warfare told through the eyes of storytellers whose voices are so seldom given a platform: the female army mechanic more frightened by her male comrades than her supposed enemies in “Iraq;” the Marine wives who subsist on their own camaraderie in “Stronger Together;” the veteran distrustful of the shallow rituals of supporting the troops on “Bullet Holes In The Sky.” Rifles is not only one of the most vividly rendered singer-songwriter albums in recent years, it’s also one of the most vital pieces of art to arise from the never-ending, ongoing American military involvement in the Middle East. It’s also a reminder of the endlessly radical humanist potential that folk music can still hold. JONATHAN BERNSTEIN

19. Brandi Carlile, By the Way, I Forgive You

From the ode to immigrants and other downtrodden (“The Joke”), to the nod to motherhood and her young daughter (“The Mother”), to the tribute to her own parents (“Most Of All”), Brandi Carlile lets loose and reaches for the sky under the direction of the perhaps somewhat unlikely, but totally effective, Nashville production team of Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings. Carlile sings with passion and a sense of direction that she hasn’t exhibited in a decade on these 10 tracks co-written with longtime compatriots the Hanseroth brothers. And the gorgeous and powerful string arrangements by the late Paul Buckmaster channel early Elton John, a favorite of Carlile’s. – RICK MOORE

18. Caroline Rose, Loner

“Everything is just more of the same thing,” Caroline Rose sings in a mix of bored disaffection and amused curiosity in the opening lines of her latest album. But with Loner, Rose set out to provide the exact opposite: the type of record with a perspective so singular that no one had ever heard anything quite like it before. The premise was simple enough: Rose, formerly an aspiring alt-country troubadour, switched her sonic palette to swirling synth-pop and applied her traditional “three chords and a truth”-inspired songwriting to themes and subjects (mid-late 20’s malaise, fraught sex in the age of dating apps, the endless list of pressures and expectations of millennial women) that she could speak to personally rather than romanticize. Packed with songs like “Getting To Me” and “Jeannie Becomes A Mom” that sound like cult hits the moment she sings them, Loner not only reinvented Rose but established her as a critical voice we’ll be hearing from for years to come. JONATHAN BERNSTEIN

17. Aaron Lee Tasjan, Karma For Cheap

In addition to being one of the year’s more enjoyable rock offerings, Aaron Lee Tasjan’s latest album Karma For Cheap is a feat of radical compassion. The Nashville-based artist and former glam-rocker built off the shimmering Americana rock of his previous offering Silver Tears for an album of psychedelic heartland rock inspired by both the Beatles and the myriad social ills plaguing our current moment in equal measure. There are healthy dashes of Tom Petty throughout Karma For Cheap, too, as on standout track “Heart Slows Down,” which finds Tasjan at his best both as a subtly swaggering vocalist and as a loved one offering unconditional support in a time of dire need. — BRITTNEY MCKENNA

16. Lucero, Among The Ghosts

At Ground Zero of America’s musical melting pot, Lucero’s been busy kneading Memphis-meets-Philly rock ‘n’ soul with bits of western twang and plenty of Jersey muscle till it forms a Drive-By-style, Southern gothic Civil War opera — complete with ghosts, devils, and lines like, “In my hand I hold a pistol/ In my heart I hold the weight.” When closer inspection reveals lead singer-songwriter Ben Nichols’ rough-hewn voice could be describing events from 150-some years ago, or yesterday, you contemplate the skill such timeless songcraft requires and your mind frays a little. For that alone, Among The Ghosts is quite an extraordinary achievement. – LYNNE MARGOLIS

15. Brothers Osborne, Port Saint Joe

For the follow-up to the surprise mainstream success of Pawn Shop, TJ and John Osborne doubled down on the type of unadorned country-rock barnburners and crooning roots ballads they do best for Port Saint Joe. The album is a loose, free-flowing collection of fragile waltzes, sultry country-funk hipshakers, and tender devotionals. The Osbornes’ songwriting craft is sharper than ever on deceptively clever songs like “Tequila Again” and shockingly moving album cuts like “Pushing Up Daisies.” Of all the roots-rock-inspired acts to arise in prominence in the wake of Chris Stapleton, Port Saint Joe proved that Brothers Osborne is not only the most talented, but will likely be the most enduring. JONATHAN BERNSTEIN

14. Patrick Sweany, Ancient Noise

Singer-songwriter Patrick Sweany has been building towards this year’s rugged, bluesy, indie rock since his acoustic based 1999 debut. Nearly a decade and five albums later, he’s nailed a powerful sound that’s not quite rock or blues but a cool, vibrant merging of the two. Whether singing sweet and soulful like Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield or digging into funky waters of the John Fogerty-styled Delta mud, Sweany delivers with the gutsy enthusiasm and lowdown integrity of a veteran who has finally found his musical sweet spot. Funneling the blues through his own influences creates a seamless synthesis that feels fresh and inspired. — HAL HOROWITZ

13. Ruston Kelly, Dying Star

The narrative of the tortured artist and their de rigueur romance with drugs and alcohol is a tired one. But newcomer Ruston Kelly, whose debut traffics in such subject matter (“I took too many pills again/ Blacked out for a week didn’t eat, didn’t sleep,” he sings on “Faceplant”), combats the usual clichés of addiction memoir with stellar songwriting and melodies that recall the Jayhawks at the height of their musical powers. At 53 minutes, Dying Star is ambitious in scope and length, proving that Kelly isn’t afraid to let it all hang out. — CAINE O’REAR

12. The War and Treaty, Healing Tide

The combination of married couple Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Trotter along with Buddy Miller’s guidance, production and band created the perfect storm for the twosome’s inspiring gospel-rocking 2018 release. Whether singing bluegrass with guest Emmylou Harris, country, ballads or their dynamic roof raising mix of rock and R&B, the duo brings tough, vibrant, soul searching goodness to everything they touch. When their vocals lock into a call and response tug-of-war, the results soar with an ease and intensity reminiscent of the finest acts with church roots like Delaney & Bonnie, Leon & Mary Russell and even Sly & the Family Stone. — HAL HOROWITZ

11. Erin Rae, Putting on Airs

Three years after releasing her promising folksy debut, Erin Rae returned with Putting on Airs, a stark, steadfast statement that plunged deeper into Rae’s personal backstory while casting a sharper eye outward towards the Southern societal constrictions (see the title track) that shaped her upbringing. Adding subtle electronic and rock textures to her fundamental country-roots arrangements, Rae didn’t expand her sound so much as finely-tune it. The result, full of foolproof melodies, is a vivid, unforgettable collection brimming with songs–like “Can’t Cut Loose,” “Love Like Before,” and “Wild Blue Wind,” that are moving, profound, and best of all, relentlessly catchy. — JONATHAN BERNSTEIN

10. Joshua Hedley, Mr. Jukebox

Country throwback acts are a dime a dozen these days, but artists with the talent and vision of Joshua Hedley are rare indeed. Case in point: Hedley’s debut album Mr. Jukebox, which refracts the lush countrypolitan of Eddy Arnold and Ernest Tubb through the studied, modern ear of one of Nashville’s best-loved live musicians. Hedley’s pristine singing voice is truly a marvel, and the songs on Mr. Jukebox show “the Mayor of Lower Broadway” to be a fine craftsman, too. — BRITTNEY MCKENNA

9. American Aquarium, Things Change

Things Change might be the most accurate title of the year: American Aquarium, with the exception of frontman BJ Barham, completely transformed since their last release. Yet it’s Barham’s clear-eyed narratives that ultimately define this collective. “We must go boldly into the darkness and be the light,” he sings on “The World Is On Fire,” and that kind of resilience is evident throughout. Alternately barreling ahead with in-your-face rock or musing amidst the sighing pedal steel of Adam Kurtz, Barham’s point of view is potent, whether he’s peering at the big picture or depicting personal sorrow on “Shadows Of You.” — JIM BEVIGLIA

8. Charles Bradley, Black Velvet

This posthumous collection is the final word on the superb soul singer who passed in 2017. What could have been a shoddy attempt to cash in one last time on his fiery vocals and earthy songwriting is instead an emotionally moving, poignant and potent illustration of just how deep Bradley’s talent ran. The songs are leftovers from his three albums yet are fully realized performances. Bradley’s voice was a searing combination of James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding and like those icons, his gospel background helped deliver the R&B goods with spine tingling power and passion. — HAL HOROWITZ

7. Eric Church, Desperate Man

Like the Jersey hero who inspired his first No. 1 tune, Eric Church wears the mantles of earnest singer-songwriter and stadium superstar with equal ease — and refuses to be constrained by either. On Desperate Man, he deftly spins life’s smallest details into relatable, sometimes heart-tugging lyrics expressing the commonality of our dreams and fears; some just happen to become songs ready for chart-busting. Going heavy on Muscle Shoals gospel and groove — and on the title track, written with Ray Wylie Hubbard, dripping “Sympathy for the Devil” — Church blows out notions of vocal and stylistic boundaries (check “Hangin’ Around” and “Higher Wire”) without abandoning good ol’ whiskey-soaked country. Or hits. – LYNNE MARGOLIS

 

6. Jeff Tweedy, Warm

Jeff Tweedy takes a break from Wilco for Warm, which possesses more far punch and quirk than typical singer-songwriter offerings. Revolver-like electric guitar adorns uptempo tracks like “I Know What It’s Like” and “Some Birds.” And Tweedy isn’t content to let songs go without some sort of distinguishing touch like stirring orchestrations (“Having Been Is No Way To Be”) or psychedelic freakouts (“The Red Brick.”) Wry melancholy is the overriding emotion, although the playfully apocalyptic “Let’s Go Rain” imagines an ark sailing on an “ocean of guitars.” As long as Tweedy’s in charge of the guitars’ usage, we’re in. — JIM BEVIGLIA

5. John Prine, The Tree Of Forgiveness

Stunningly, The Tree Of Forgiveness can nearly go toe-to-toe with John Prine’s towering debut 37 years ago. Prine’s way with a phrase that makes you chuckle and yanks a tear all at once is undiminished. Eight of the ten songs are co-writes, and producer Dave Cobb’s Midas touch continues, but the Singing Mailman steals the show. He aw-shucks his way through heartbreak on “Summer’s End” and “No Ordinary Blue,” then coaxes belly laughs on “The Lonesome Friends Of Science” and “When I Get To Heaven.” Please, John, don’t make us wait so long next time for more wit and wisdom. — JIM BEVIGLIA

4. Amanda Shires, To The Sunset

Anyone unfamiliar with Amanda Shires’ swing-fiddlin’ origins would never think of calling this album country, or even Americana. Hell, there’s not really even fiddle; its four not-so-prominent, pedal-filtered appearances are labeled “violin.” With Dave Cobb producing, Shires boldly hopscotches across fuzzy grunge, R&B keyboard tickles and synth burbles, shifting her quirky voice to fit around each.  On “Eve’s Daughter,” an actual rocker, Cobb plays super-heavy bass; on the cynic’s party “Break Out the Champagne,” Jason Isbell’s tremoloed guitars come as close as we get to twang. And that’s fine, because ultimately, it’s her lyrical prowess that, to borrow a song title, “Charms.” – LYNNE MARGOLIS

3. Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer

Janelle Monáe’s influence on popular culture can’t be understated. And while she’s grown to be a major figure in film and art in recent years, it’s her impact on music that remains her strongest. Her third studio album Dirty Computer is the best kind of concept album in that it doesn’t sacrifice song craft or ease of listening in service of its narrative, instead using Monelle’s singular artistic vision as an elastic, electric thread to connect her dystopian visions of pop, funk, R&B and soul. Assists from Brian Wilson, Pharrell Williams, Grimes and Zoe Kravitz round out this ambitious, gloriously realized project. — BRITTNEY MCKENNA

2. Pistol Annies, Interstate Gospel

If the Pistol Annies’ Interstate Gospel had a tagline, it might be “humor ‘n’ heartbreak — in harmony.” Sweet, sister-like harmony, from badass galpals Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angeleena Presley, who share the Dixie Chicks’ lyrical honesty and playfulness. The latter two are married/remarried, but residual divorce pain inhabits the beautifully bittersweet “Best Years Of My Life,” “When I Was His Wife” and “Masterpiece,” and the defiant “Got My Name Changed Back.” The album’s full of damned-near-perfect lines, but “Stop, Drop And Roll One” earns a “hell, yeah!” for these: “I don’t really care how this phony-ass fairy tale ends/ I just hope that we’re leaving this honky-tonk covered in men.” – LYNNE MARGOLIS

1. Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour

Kacey Musgraves’ Album of the Year win for Golden Hour at this year’s CMA Awards was remarkable in a number of ways, not least of which was the collective sigh of happy relief heard across Nashville as Musgraves’ name was read. Perhaps the most confounding aspect of Musgraves’ win, though, is the disparity between her massive acclaim — from both fans and critics — and country radio’s silent refusal to play her songs, like the glistening first offering “Space Cowboy” or the hugely popular dude ranch-disco “High Horse.” No matter, though, as Golden Hour is the kind of album that transcends radio play or even a la carte streaming. It’s also Musgraves’ best work. From the ethereal first notes of the stunning opener “Slow Burn” to the last piano chords of the hopeful anthem “Rainbow,” Golden Hour is the kind of album you listen to start to finish, ready to hit “repeat” once the final notes sound. — BRITTNEY MCKENNA