Top Ten Albums of 2018
By Ray Chelstowski
2018 was the year that seasoned music vets defined the best of the best. Refusing to settle and simply phone in new offerings they tapped into what inherently defined their infamous sound and expanded it in ways that were meaningful and often new. Many of these releases were largely overlooked but we found a moment to provide many of them the spotlight that they rightly deserve. In fact, it’s safe to say that you won’t find many of them on other “best of” lists. That’s a shame because what all of these records share in common is a celebration of the historic foundation of rock 'n' roll. They also share the promise of a genre that has always embraced sounds that are groundbreaking and new. These are works of innovation, imagination and a sheer lunchpail-like work ethic.
We even have an artist who can be considered a “newcomer” and whose new record seems to be an expression of each of the albums that follow it on the list. For that James Bay’s ElectricLight is my “Album of the Year.” There one can find rock's past, present and future all brilliantly woven together in a record of thematic cohesiveness. So here we go…
If you wondered how James Bay could move in 2018 from being seen as only a teen pin-up sensation to an artist with vast dimension and expansive talent — thank producer Paul Epworth. Last year, one of the A&R guys at Bay’s label secretly slipped early recordings of his next record to British producer Epworth. He was most known for his work with Florence & The Machine and, of course, Adele. But he had done projects recently with Paul McCartney and U2 as well. Epworth brought his signature style to the music and the result is a record with far more drama and overall bounce. With Epworth, Bay created a record with real cinematic values that moves from tight intimate moments to true anthemic emotional heights.
While detractors scorned Bay for creating a disjointed uneven record, what he instead did was create a singular expression that traces the rise and fall of a romance. Throughout the influences he mined through focused listening sessions can be quickly sourced. There are hints of Frank Ocean, splashes of Blondie’s Parallel Lines, the punk pop punch of The Strokes’ This Is It, and bits of Bowie everywhere. Even the single “Pink Lemonade” could have found its way into the Robert Palmer catalog.
In the end, the record is full of surprises. There are spoken word moments, en-masse choir parts, and rthymically built songs that provide as much “get up and move” motivation as did “Hold Back The River.” But this time the use of professional songwriters is at a minimum. This is Bay’s creative vision made more romantic through his partnership with Epworth. Gone is the goofy hat and the school boy fumbles. Like the album’s cover photo, Bay presents himself with more focus and an adult orientation to his craft. This record is only the beginning of what promises to be a prolific and art-centric career. Well done!
The Jayhawks are the consummate American rock band. Their music is inherently Midwestern, providing honesty, appeal and modest sense of wonder that has made them a critic’s darling since their debut almost 30 years ago. Lately they have been quite busy operating as the backing band for Ray Davies’ two critically acclaimed Americana releases. They also have begun a new label relationship with Legacy Recordings, a division of Sony Music Entertainment. With Legacy in July they released a new studio album, Back Roads and Abandoned Motels.
Back Roads and Abandoned Motels is The Jayhawks’ 10th studio album and a stunning example of an approach to music that has found them often compared to bands like The Byrds and The Beatles. The record was produced by band leader Gary Louris, John Jackson and Ed Ackerson at Flowers Studio, Minneapolis, and delivers The Jayhawk’s take on seven songs co-written by Louris with artists like the Dixie Chicks, Jakob Dylan and Ari Hest. In addition to these tracks, the record also includes two of Gary’s latest compositions. The result is a collective, cohesive expression and a complete representation of the rock, folk, country and harmony-rich sound they have trademarked. From a sonic perspective it delivers largely in the spirit of the 2003 classic Rainy Day Music, and promises to be as important an entry to their catalog.
This year DB2 released the extraordinary new album Shades. Here he establishes what can only be described as a neo-soul, '70s urban R&B-inspired expression of what the blues can be if properly reimagined. The songs employ the use of melodies that are equipped with wide welcome funnels. These are surrounded by arrangements that showcase the musicianship of one of the best backing bands around. Here he is joined by Chris Bruce, Adam Minkoff, and drummers Carla Azar and Abe Rounds. With them DB2 moves through music that in one moment ladders to Lenny Kravitz (“Love and Pain”), and in the next ties loosely back to Curtis Mayfield and “Across 110th Street.” The cadence isn’t choppy, awkward or forced. Everything flows forward effortlessly. He even finds room for some Cream-inspired psychedelia (“Live Forever”). It all works.
The show-stopper though is the album closer, “Going Going Gone.” This Bob Dylan cover from his 1974 Planet Wavesrecord is almost DB2’s “Purple Rain” moment. The original enjoyed a firm footing with The Band there to back Dylan. Here, Tedeschi Trucks does the honors and each element of that great band has something to contribute. Whether it’s the distant wails of Susan Tedeschi, the slide work of Derek Trucks, the horns or the back-up singing, TTB (like The Band) brings an atmosphere to the song that wraps everything together tight but also allows the song to remain firmly in DB2’s hands. It just soars.
This New Orleans outfit may be the most exciting new band to emerge in a few years. Their music has terrific energy and authenticity. In 2018 they released their fourth album, Take Good Care, an upbeat and bright rocker. It was recorded in New Orleans AND Nashville with almost a half dozen different producers and yet… the whole thing works. Kind of “Bruno Mars meets the Black Crowes,” The Revivalists deliver soul-infused rock that is full-bodied, spilling just a bit over the brim. Songs like “Got Love” move from a simmer to a boil quickly reminding at least this listener of the Exile on Main St. sessions/material.
While every member of the band shines, delivering to a powerful collective, its vocalist David Shaw who really stands out. His growl is matched with equal amounts of honey giving the band’s front-and-center sound, character, drama and bona fide soul.
Credit the Stone Temple Pilots for never throwing in the towel. Few bands have endured more drama than STP when it comes to frontmen. After the departures and subsequent passing of both Scott Weiland and Chester Bennington, they decided to pursue a different path. In recruiting former X Factor contestant Jeff Gutt, they have secured a safer future and a vocalist as dynamic as either guy he replaced. In fact, you might argue that his range and phrasing is more sophisticated. This is very evident on the band’s recent self-titled release; in particular with the slinky fourth track “Just A Little Lie.” Here fans are first introduced to his vocals, less the driving drums of Erick Kretz and the glistening guitars of Dan DeLeo that fully occupy the first three tracks. On “Lie,” Gunt demonstrates the kind of charisma that made Weiland so appealing. His wiry delivery swirls around the music in a game of cat and mouse that is extremely compelling and cool.
Joe Grushecky has been making great rock 'n' roll for a long time. I got into his music with 1992’s End Of The Century. With that record, Grushecky shared a blueprint for the kind of music that would come to define his entire career. It’s one part Rolling Stones, one part mid-American roots rocker and the balance — a whole lot of soul that spans the gap between the Brill Building on Broadway and the Stax studios in Memphis. Along the way he fostered a creative partnership with Bruce Springsteen that helped raise his profile, but it didn’t cause him lose his center or his Pittsburgh roots. That and his blue collar upbringing are evident throughout his musical cannon.
This year, Joe Grushecky released a record that will be considered among his best. More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows is a “Steinbeckian” portrait of modern, working class America. The characters found within these songs are fraught with anger and letdown, occasionally relieved of their pain through the simple pleasures of boardwalk life, the intimacy of family and friends and their unwavering commitment to hope. There’s a heartbreaking openness found on songs like the title track that recognize the limitations presented by time on a life’s gathering of dreams. The songs are told in first person, but cast well beyond that to the broader American community. In total, it’s a complete expression of almost everything Grushecky has ever created.
As the New Year arrives, so will a new record by Jackson – maybe his best since 1982’s Night and Day. Fool is a quintessential Joe Jackson record. Almost all of the genres he has dabbled in can be found here. Punching in with only eight tracks and just over 40 minutes of running time the record is a very tight presentation, one of his most concise offerings. It has a very determined and thought through approach in both the topics it tackles and through the sound boundaries it sets.
The first single, “Fabulously Absolute,” is a guitar-driven rocker that is fresh, full of drive and a kind of energy that’s found more in the work of frustrated teens than aging boomers. It’s very authentic and fun. That said, it was an odd choice for a single as it stands alone on the record and doesn’t properly represent what else is to be found here. Instead songs like “Dave” and “Friend Better” deliver that kind of bright upbeat crisp sound that his best known songs embody. They have a soul influence that in the case of “Friend Better” becomes even more hypnotic through the heavy slaps of a very prominent tambourine. Simply put: nothing is wasted on this record or appears by accident.
Snow Patrol is one of those bands that was never expected to do much beyond their 2006 hit "Chasing Cars." It’s not that Snow Patrol weren’t a talented outfit. It’s that rock bands were on their way out back then. Somehow this hit snuck through. Urban legend suggests that Tommy Lee had something to do with it. Regardless, the song was impossible to escape which only further suggested that the band would flame out. Twelve years later they have released a record called Wildness that is an amazing evolution of the sound that they introduced all of those years ago. Unfortunately, today there’s no outlet for most people to hear any of it. Those that are available would likely pass given the explicit nature of some of the lyrics. That’s a shame. This stuff is good.
The Crossing is a big broad undertaking with 17 tracks. The story: a telling of two men, one from Mexico, one from Italy, and their trials and tribulations entering the U.S. is told through a variety of musical expressions from the late night eeriness and tart guitars of “Footsteps In The Shadows”, to the punk-driven raucousness of “Outlaw For You” and “Sonica USA.” They are knitted together by Mexican instrumentals like “Amor Puro” and Tom Waits meets Los Lobos spoken word tracks like “Rio Navidad.” The entire record unfolds more like a movie than a rock 'n' roll offering with cinematic earmarks and imagery. It closes with the title track, a song that Escovedo sings with an exasperation and exhaustion, that reflects the personal burden that this immigration experience carries. It will leave you at times wondering if the record is about that, the path of his career, or both.
Just as Willie Nelson was about to celebrate his 85th birthday came a new album called Last ManStanding. What’s clear is that the years have only made this American music master better. And in this case, better comes in the form of a laid back, easy rider version of ole “Shotgun Willie.”
The album, his eleventh with Legacy Recordings, is a real tasty treat that is reminiscent of the Fort Worth sounds of Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark. The music has soul, unfolds with ease, and Willie casually rides along pulling back on his vocals and putting the whole thing into cruise. In fact, the song that embodies this best is the title track that opens the record. It’s a funky slow ride that Nelson steers forward like a late night trucker behind the wheel. It’s hands down fun from start to finish.