2018 was a hell of a year for most of us. No matter what was going on in our personal lives, most of us suffered through the constant streams of hatred, violence, misogyny and racist and anti-immigrant vitriol that we were bombarded with on a daily ( and sometimes hourly) basis. It was a very dark year for humanity and this country. Many of us watched helplessly, many of us tried to resist, but for the large majority of us, hopelessness and disbelief were the two most prevalent emotions.
Sometimes, immersed deep in the bowels of the ugliness that presides over our society currently, music was my only salvation. This years list was often political and always beautiful. Potent salves to soothe the soul.
8. Erika Wennerstrom: Sweet Unkown
When Erika , who is best known as the voice behind Heartless Bastards, released this solo album, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Her soulful and melodious voice has always been able to stand alone, but I wasn’t expecting the beauty I found on this record. Ethereal and indescribably lovely , Erika has proven she is a force to be reckoned with. Standouts on this album include “Extraordinary Love” and “Be Good To Yourself”. Erika and her band, featuring the spectacularly talented Lauren Gurgolio on guitar , were also one of the best live bands I saw this year.
7. Willie Nile : Children of Paradise
Willie has been one of my favorite artists for over 30 years. A prolific and vastly underrated songwriter, Willie has earned the respect and admiration of the best musicians in the industry. This latest album, his most political to date, includes protest songs like “ Gettin’ Ugly Out There” , “Earth Blues” and the infectious “Seeds of A Revolution”. But Willie doesn’t do darkness. In every song he sings he lifts you up and makes you believe that even through the darkest of times, love and beauty are out there. You can’t listen to this album without absorbing Willie’s belief in humanity and his hopeful, incessant and unwavering conviction that hope and love are all we’ve got.
If you’re ever down, listen to this album. Better yet, go see Willie and his amazing band live. You can’t leave a Willie Nile show without a smile on your face. If you haven’t seen him live, you’re missing one of the greatest shows of your life. Just go.
6. Brandi Carlisle : By The Way, I Forgive You
This album is astonishing in its beauty and understanding of humanity. Carlisle digs deep into her most heartfelt emotions and comes up with an album that makes the listener feel absolutely everything. Carlisle is a songwriter who excels at telling the stories of the lonely, the misunderstood and the forgotten. This album touches on subjects such as gender rolls, suicide, drug addiction and the pain of loneliness. It’s most beautiful song is “The Mother” which addresses the realities of Motherhood and all of its highs, lows and sacrifices and most especially the extraordinary love you can’t quite ever understand until you are a parent yourself.
It’s a rare human being that can succeed at making you feel exactly what she intends for you to feel with her music. Carlisle is one of them.
5. Courtney Barnett: Tell Me How You Really Feel.
On this album, Courtney remains just as witty and self deprecating as ever, but with more maturity and preciseness. There are no signs that her moderate stardom has effected her outlook on life and her focus is on the minutiae of everyday life and the ridiculousness of The expectations of others . Like most great songwriters, Barnett seems to possess the qualities of an empath. An ability to see and feel the tiniest nuances and verbalize the things most people miss. On the song “Nameless, Faceless” Barnett addresses everything from pent up hatred, misdirected anger, misogyny and the reality of the dangers of being a woman in the age of the “Me Too” movement all while still maintaining the capacity to feel sorry for those spewing the most hate.
On the song “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence” Courtney is joined by Breeders Kim and Kelly Deal.
“Your opinion means a lot
Well, tell me what’s the use
I never feel as stupid as when I’m around you
And indecision rots
Like a bag of last week’s meat
And I guess it’s hard to keep everybody happy”
To me, the most critical components of being a true songwriter are possessing extraordinary skills of observation as well as empathy. The best of the best are often the ones with the most self doubt. Courtney Barnett is a star, whether she believes it or not. And her incredible body of works continues to get stronger right along with the artist.
4. Kurt Vile: Bottle It In
I’m not normally a fan of long and meandering songs. I often find them self indulgent and more often than not, I lose interest before the song ever comes to an end. This album contains a lot of songs that ramble. But Kurt understands something about melody more than the average mere mortal. And each song on this album, no matter how long, feels more like a journey where one savors every step instead of impatiently rushing to get to the destination. He is the master of taking us on journey’s where beautiful surprises lurk around every corner and where you just can’t wait to see what’s coming next.
If you have patience, it soon becomes apparent that if you allow the melodious and mellow music to wash over you, Kurt sees exactly where he wants to take you. And it’s a beautiful place indeed.
The 10 minute long “Bassackwards” is a folky psychedelic and meandering trek into a comfortable nothingness. A place where you feel right at home. Vile proves the point that a song doesn’t necessarily have to take you anywhere specific to get the job done. And don’t we all just need to wallow in comfort and melody for a little while?
Whether you listen to Vile to immerse yourself in his hazy guitar riffs or enjoy his quirky and witty lyrics, this album is an excellent representation of the way Vile sees the world. And it’s definitely a trip worth taking.
3. J Mascis : Elastic Days
Mascis has always been a master of the great guitar hook. The albums first track to be released was the incredibly upbeat and catchy See You At The Movies, with a hook as intriguing as any Dino Jr. have ever produced. The song immediately drew me to the album, and one of the aspects I enjoyed most was hearing the moody drone of J.’s vocals paired with the lovely harmonies of backing vocalist Pall Jenkins of Black Heart Procession. While songs like See You at The Movies are evocative of Freak Scene, the classic Dino Jr, song, the album is much more heavily peppered with a mellow and folky beauty, poignant lyrics and other intriguing collaborations with Zoe Randall of Luluc and Mark Mulcahy of Miracle Legion fame.
As always, J.’s lyrics are haunted by the beauty of the ever elusive “someone” he has been singing to for over thirty years. The sort of soul mate you know you will always love and never quite have. An ever evolving circle of melancholy, emotional uncertainty and self-doubt that every single one of us has felt, is feeling or will feel. On this album, Mascis delivers some of his most emotive vocals to date. His guitar solos are often how he most clearly expresses his deepest feelings, a non-vocal cry of pain or frustration, or despair. For the first time, we are hearing his vocals come close to matching his guitar as a way to express himself. And it is beautiful. From the astonishingly pretty I Went To Dust to the gorgeous Web So Dense, which includes the albums most fabulous guitar solo, this album reaches a level of maturity of sound that is genuinely incredible. It is truly Mascis at his finest.
2. Alejandro Escovedo: The Crossing
A career musician and master songwriter, Escovedo has crafted a concept album featuring the narrative of two young immigrants—Diego from Mexico and Salvo from Italy—who meet in Texas , bond over music and go searching for their own personal versions of the American Dream.
For Escovedo, himself the son of Mexican immigrants, this album isn’t just political in nature, but personal. And it may just be his best album to date.
“Sonica USA” is the first single off the album , featuring Wayne Kramer of The MC5 on guitar. In it Escovedo returns to his punk roots, even referencing his time growing up in Austin and playing in a very early punk band called The Zeros. “ I saw the Zero’s and they looked like me This is the America I want to be ” . A nod to the fact that immigrant kids played a seminal role in punk.
Sometimes in your face and sometimes thoughtful and reflective, this album tells the American immigrant story in a way that can be told only from the perspective of a man or woman that has lived it.
Escovedo is backed on the album by Italian instrumental group, Don Antonio and together, they have created Escovedos most adventurous and genre-bending album to date. Through punk-inspired guitar, to lazy jazz riffs, to soulful ballads, and even spoken word, this album tells the timeless tale of racism, repression, resistance and kick-ass spirit that are the driving forces behind the real American Dream , one that is so threatened by the current administration.
The album encompasses not just a story, but immerses us in the entire experience of the American immigrant. From the innocent belief that anyone can accomplish the American Dream, to the reality that in doing so one must often give up their culture, their way of life and their own identity.
Escovedo has crafted more than a record, this is a true work of art. Take some time and let him tell you his story.
1. John Prine : The Tree Of Forgiveness
This album, Prine’s first of originals in over a decade, re-establishes his place among America’s greatest songwriters. Prine , a member of America’s most elite and revered lyricists, has written some of the most beautiful and heartbreaking lyrics to have ever been written. Some of his older work, including “ Sam Stone”and “Hello In There” are songs that stay with you for the rest of your life and characters that haunt you. Prine, who’s battled cancer twice in the last twenty years and seems to be facing his own mortality, wrote this album that, at first, may not seem as deep, but then you begin to realize the simplicity of the life of which he speaks, the sheer beauty of what life has to offer, even in its most mundane moments, is what gives this album its depth of beauty. That simplicity, in its purest form, can be breathtakingly lovely.
From the foot-stomping and joy inducing “When I get to Heaven” on which everyone’s favorite line seems to be the hilarious “Buddy, when you’re dead, you’re a dead peckerhead”, to the lovely “Boundless Love” a song that speaks to what love really turns out to be, not all roses and champagne and kisses in the rain, but forgiveness and understanding and compassion. A steadfast belief in one another. (And isn’t that the most beautiful kind of love? ) This album is about the things that truly matter, performed in a way that only Prine can. It’s a beautiful example of what life truly is. And for that, I’m very thankful.