Friday, January 11, 2019

25 Favorite Albums of 2018

There are dozens more albums that I bought, lived with, and thoroughly enjoyed this year than the precious few that follow. Some of them may live on to become even more essential favorites than the ones I am sharing. Only time will tell if that will be true. And obviously, there are tons of records that I didn't get around to hearing, didn't have the necessary time to commit to, or was just plain oblivious to. I have no doubt there are hundreds of albums that meant the world to others that didn't connect with me quite as much or I just didn't hear in 2018. None of that changes the fact that these 25 records were the lifeblood that brought me joy, catharsis, sadness, truth, and growth throughout the past year. 

Courtney Barnett - Tell Me How You Really Feel
In 2015, Courtney Barnett busted out and made one of my favorite albums of the year and one of the best albums of the decade with Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. It was a shot across the bow from an impossibly gifted songwriter with an idiosyncratic knack for marrying wisecracking wordplay with gutting emotional truths and some otherworldly melancholy bliss. On Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett takes something of a left turn by getting crunchier, brasher and even more righteously indignant, but she sacrifices absolutely none of her mischievous wit or unwavering empathy. She is empowered and unimpeachable from start to finish on Tell Me How You Really Feel, and it truly feels like an exquisite summation of Courtney Barnett's unique virtuosity and the ideal time capsule record for the past year.

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers - Years
Listening to and loving Sarah Shook & the Disarmers’ songs, it strikes me that their most compelling attribute is Shook’s indomitable spirit. It is tattooed into every lyric and each vocal tic, vaulting the choruses and emboldening the musicianship. It’s the sort of spirit necessary to survive in 2018, and it is unapologetically alive and thirsty and picking up steam this very minute. And Sarah Shook is not feigning one ounce of it. Already fully established on the band’s full-length debut, 2017’s Sidelong (one of my favorite albums from last year), that spirit is harnessed into even tighter songwriting throughout Years, an impressive feat that’s all the more uncanny in seeing its release less than twelve months after putting out such a strong first record.

Surrounding the thematic core of troubled times, drinking tunes, perseverance and kiss-off attitude, the playing on Years is rousing and more refined (best not to be confused with too polished or overproduced). This is a streamlined set of songs dealing with fairly traditional country and rock tropes, but Shook’s singular vocals and fortitude provide them a distinct power and urgency that allows them to feel both lived-in like a rugged, beloved flannel and uniquely refreshing like a first pint of a great new brew.

American Aquarium - Things Change
BJ Barnham married impending fatherhood with disgust and heartache with the nation around him to delve deep and write some of the best songs of his already stellar career with Things Change. His masterpiece here is opener "The World Is on Fire," where he cites watching election results with his wife with oppressive unease and ruminating upon the upcoming birth of his daughter, only to cheer her on should somebody "build a wall in her journey" and reminding her "to bust right through." Barnham and bandmates not only made one hell of a rock record or country record (depending whom you ask - not that it matters) with Things Change, but he once again bolstered the hooks with a wealth of hard-luck wisdom and a keen eye for the subtle glimpses of brilliant, human truths in the gray areas between red state and blue state anxieties. 

Camp Cope - How to Socialise and Make Friends

Blasting right out of the gates with the "The Opener," a fiery feminist anthem and one of the essential rock songs of the year, Aussie rockers Camp Cope waged war on the patriarchy and status quo with a muscular dose of 90s-indebted guitar rock that felt wholly vital and intoxicating. That each successive song capitalized on the trio's iridescent spirit and palpable humanity made How to Socialise and Make Friends an irresistible companion throughout the year that seemed like it would never end. 

Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers - Bought to Rot
The Against Me! frontwoman relocated to Chicago and signed to Bloodshot Records to release a solo debut fronting the trio Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers. What results is an album removed from the Against Me! shadow and informed by her prized possession of Tom Petty's guitar in the year after his death. Across fourteen songs Grace and the Mothers rip and thrash the holy hell into nuggets of power-pop glory, dynamic quiet/loud psych freakouts a la In Utero, and skewer fascist politics and social disgraces with acerbic wit, genuine vulnerability, and fuck-you ire. Bought to Rot is a killer punk album in the wake of 2018 that brandishes many more weapons than a mere three chords.   

Jeff Tweedy - WARM

Perhaps there is a bias in how highly I regard almost anything Jeff Tweedy touches considering he has been one of my heroes my entire adult life. That's likely true, but it doesn't discount the ruminative potency of his work on his first true solo album removed from the collaborative atmosphere of his Wilco bandmates. There's not a ton on the surface that distances the songs of WARM from his history of Wilco and Uncle Tupelo tunes, and that indistinguishable core of Tweedy's lyricism and veteran voice is a key reason these songs hold up so well as they are. Most have harped on the stripped down nature of these recordings, but even minus the bells and whistles and alarm clock rings and Nels Cline solos here, Tweedy's passionate, introspective nature translates to tunefulness and musings that ring clear like a welcome wire from a pen pal.

Wild Pink - Yolk in the Fur
On their second full-length record, Yolk in the Fur, Wild Pink slightly reinvented themselves and quietly made one of the most breathtaking albums of the year. Going into it I hadn't the faintest idea this band could make a song as exquisite as opener "Burger Hill," and then very soon (before the album was finished my first time through) it felt like I'd been living with these songs for years. There are a lot of angles and detours in these songs where other bands would've taken shortcuts, but the payoffs are indelible and carry some strange beauty throughout, partially thanks to the excellent production of Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie). Perhaps, that explains why this record feels like a blood relative to Transatlanticism

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever - Hope Downs
Aussie rockers Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever took everything excellent about their breakthrough The French Press EP and somehow made it even sweeter with their awesome brand of sun-kissed, guitar-rock jangle on Hope Downs. It's the kind of record that sports a kinship with everything from Big Star to paisley underground to R.E.M.'s I.R.S. years and Is This It Strokes, all of which goes to say it's a tremendous record that should have long legs as time goes on.


S. M. Wolf - Bad Ocean

I don't just think S.M. Wolf are the best local act around my hometown of Indianapolis, but I also believe they are one of the most worthy young rock and roll bands in America in recent years. Over the past half decade, frontman Adam Gross and co. have released a staggeringly good debut EP and two full-length records that have capitalized on the band's initial promise and have reached greater heights with each new release. The new record, Bad Ocean, is an infectious blitz of soaring, psych-infused power-pop with surf-rock flourishes and lots of soul. S.M. Wolf are the kind of band you root for with all your might if you're lucky enough to discover them, and very few people are making rock records this damn good, under the radar or otherwise, these days.  

Hop Along - Bark Your Head Off Dog
Frances Quinlan is wholly unique in her songwriting structure and wields arguably the most versatile and acrobatic vocal delivery in rock today. Having either strength at her disposal would already put Hop Along in a class of their own, but weaponizing both of those and having a band this tight to boot yields commanding results. Nobody else is writing songs like Hop Along's, and they are mysterious delicacies to keep digging into scavenging for enigmatic truths, or you can crank it loud and rock along to the Philly outfit's incredible squall. 

Brian Fallon - Sleepwalkers
On his second solo album Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon continued excelling at what he has done so well since at least The '59 Sound, if not longer: write fantastic rock and roll songs with unassailable hooks. On the surface, some may say Fallon isn't doing anything new on Sleepwalkers or with his solo career (and maybe he isn't), but when your songs are this good without fail, why reinvent the wheel? He does work in pretty flourishes of soul on knockouts like "Watson," "Etta James," and the sublime "See You on the Other Side" to challenge criticisms of one trick ponying, but what if your one trick is top shelf anyways? All this goes to reinforce my claim belief that Fallon is the closest thing we have to the Tom Petty of his generation: a bleeding heart rock songwriter who writes a near embarrassment of riches of good tunes that are removed from trends and won't go out of fashion.

Idles - Joy As an Act of Resistance
Bristol, UK-based rockers Idles were a righteously angry gift from the punk heavens in 2018. The band's sophomore album, Joy as an Act of Resistance, fully delivered on that manifesto of a title and its raging, red-blooded heart burst through the speakers with more urgency than almost everything else. Intelligent, fierce, hilarious, and deeply idealistic, Idles' songs are propulsive in tempo and unwavering in their mission. They are a voice of hostility towards the ignorant and intolerant, and their resistance brought even more joy than I wouldn't thought possible before checking them out.

Jeff Rosenstock - POST-
Released on New Year's Day with zero prior hype or fanfare, Jeff Rosenstock's POST- was intended as a gift of punk catharsis and ebullient life in the wake of a year of unthinkable political disgust. That Rosenstock not only made good on his hopes of a surprise reprieve from the muck for fans but also made one of 2018's most outstanding rock albums made POST- a gift that kept on giving. Rollicking, angry, resiliently optimistic, and incessantly melodic, these tunes amounted to a necessary shield against the suffocating black cloud with each visit.

Phosphorescent - C'est La Vie
Five years removed from the outstanding Muchacho, Matthew Houck and co. stitched together yet another winsome Phosphorescent offering with C'est La Vie. The record is the first since Houck became a father, decamped to Nashville with his family, and built his own studio. All of those threads coalesce throughout each song of C'est La Vie and deliver a warm, enriching snapshot of a continuously evolving artist, new father, and soul-searcher. Houck's lovely ruminations and adventurous, homespun production touches allow for the record to thrive as a stamp of genuine intimacy and somber beauty.

Murder By Death - The Other Shore
The Other Shore, the eighth full-length LP from Louisville, KY-based quintet Murder By Death, is a self-described space-western centering around two lovers, one departing Earth and one who stays behind. 
The result finds the band delving into a diverse palette of elements that have formed its adventurous brand of brooding and beautiful rock over the past fifteen years. 
From the opening moments of "Alas," the record is an enrapturing statement with the power to pull the listener out of both the chaos and monotony of everyday existence in 2018 America and transport her into a fluid musical narrative with its sights set on both profound soul-searching and otherworldly uncertainty. The quintet's playing and production flesh out vocalist-guitarist Adam Turla's storytelling and deep, rugged register while discovering plenty of ways to twist, fracture and restitch songs throughout the journey. The result is a work of mysterious awe and sprawling vision.

Superchunk - What a Time to Be Alive
Power-pop titans and indie heroes Superchunk took the unfathomably ugly state of America to task with What a Time to Be Alive, a breathless, irate slew of pogo-ready rock-and-roll catharsis that would be the unassailable highlight of nearly any other band's catalog but here feels like a beguiling notch in a decades-old belt full of comfortable notches and is a merciful achievement for veterans nearly thirty years into their career.

Amanda Shires - To the Sunset
With To the Sunset, Amanda Shires puts her trusted fiddle aside for the time and takes aim at pop-rock songwriting that could lay waste to any radio hit from nearly any genre, which is a damn shame because her To the Sunset gems were far too intricate and potent to be found on any of the damningly male-centric stations of country-leaning programming. Screw 'em. Shires' work here is so infectious and keenly observed that she reinvents any preconceptions of her limits and soars to horizons of her own making.

The Beths - Future Me Hates Me
New Zealand rock trio The Beths unleashed a debut of such joyous fervor across ten tracks that it became both one of the 2018's best debuts and also one of the most addictive doses of power-pop in years. It feels like a hidden gem and an instant classic for rock lovers, a record so buoyant and winning that you're amazed you went so long without it.

Cat Power - Wanderer
As one of my all-time favorite singers and songwriters, Cat Power has reliably amazed yet again with Wanderer, a record that feels deceptively stripped down and comfortable on early listens and then bares its riches and feels wholly worn-in soon after. Her first non-Matador release in decades doesn't reinvent Marshall's sound but instead adds even more gravity to her irreplaceable voice and hums with maturity.

Lucy Dacus - Historian
With her second album, Historian, Lucy Dacus proves she is one of the finest young songwriters in music today and has created an album that is both devastating and towering. Starting with one of the best songs of the year, "Night Shift," and never letting up on her supremely confident lyricism and knockout voice, Dacus has made a record that both surpasses the very high hopes of her potential and feels like an impossibly complete statement from a 23-year-old songwriter on just her sophomore outing.

Janelle Monae - Dirty Computer
Janelle Monae made a pop masterwork with Dirty Computer, a wildly unapologetic cocktail of proud feminism, sexy funk, pop sheen, and American ideals. It's a sprawling magnum opus with something for everybody while also serving as kiss off to the old guard, the establishment, the close-minded, and those resistant to change.

Mitski - Be the Cowboy
Be the Cowboy is a dazzling, refreshingly concise missile of pretty anguish, glitz, and melody that feels like some minor miracle from one track to the next. Here Mitski comes across as 2018's finest editor, killing her darlings down to two- or three-minute morsels of bleak perfection and has sacrificed none of the grandeur in stripping the songs down to their barest bones.

Damien Jurado - The Horizon Just Laughed
Veteran songwriter Damien Jurado has been crafting an astute, heartbreaking discography for more than twenty years, and The Horizon Just Laughed taps into new wells of inspiration and creates pensive vignettes of storytelling that delve into the heart of the 21st Century condition with lasting conviction. He'll pull your heartstrings in the most previously unfathomable turns of phrase.

Foxing - Nearer My God
Nearer My God is a bravura offering from Foxing: a wildly eclectic, consistently bedeviling set of a dozen songs that transcend expectations and take roads less traveled. Every time you think you have a bearing on what riches Foxing have up their sleeve, they'll leave you in awe with a new taste of splendor.

Shame - Songs of Praise
On their Dead Oceans debut, young London-based rockers Shame rip off a commanding and confident string of tracks that are silver-tongued, hooky, pissed, and ferocious. Songs of Praise is a molotov cocktail of punchy songwriting and swagger that makes a big Buzzcocks-indebted splash.


*Favorite EP:
 Boygenius - Boygenius EP

*Favorite Live Album:
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Live from the Ryman

*Favorite Reconstructed Take on a Favorite Album of 2017
St. Vincent - MassEducation

Friday, June 1, 2018

Ruby Boots - Don't Talk About It

Perth, West Australia-bred and Nashville-based Ruby Boots mounts a commanding impression on her new album Don't Talk About It, her likely introduction to most American listeners and debut for Bloodshot Records. 

From the first time I fired up the album back in early January, Ruby's (born Bex Chilcott) record has been a mainstay in my regular rotation and has cemented itself as one of my favorite releases of the year. The album gripped me right out of the gate with one of the mosgalvanizing opening three-song stretches I've encountered in years from an artist previously foreign to me. There's nary a slouch in the bunch throughout the whole of Don't Talk About It's runtime either, but it's tough to oversell just how arresting the sequence of "It's So Cruel," "Believe in Heaven," and the title track are when you don't know what's coming or once you've lived with the album for twenty full spins. 

Ruby Boots photo credit: Cal Quinn

Kudos to Chilcott's songwriting prowess and vocal marksmanship, as well as to her superb backing band The Texas Gentlemen, the collective of studio session wonders who put out their own rousing The Band-indebted brand of crackling, dusted-up, offbeat and southern-fried boogie on last year's winning TX Jelly. The partnership plays like gangbusters across the board, ranging from power-pop-leaning rockers with electric swagger and indelible hooks to soulful ballads primed for heartstring tugs courtesy of Ruby's plentiful reserves of both outsider attitude and sincere vulnerability. Both genuine facets interweave in spades on the likes of "Break My Heart Twice" and the show-stopping, gorgeously sparse "I Am a Woman," a soul-baring portrait of femininity for this very moment centered around little more than faint organ accompaniment and a bravado vocal duet befitting of the plea.  

The production, overseen by Beau Bedford (Paul Cauthen) and Ruby and the Texas Gentlemen, is rather astonishing and somehow organic throughout, weaving fabrics of vintage girl group wall of sound, jagged solos and refined pedal steel swoon into a vibrant melting pot of genres that never feels forced. It washes over the slower tempos and bolsters the rockers ("Believe in Heaven," "Infatuation," "It's So Cruel") panache while Ruby soars with fresh-blooded yet old-school charisma and hooky chops of, say, Chrissie Hynde or her longtime hero, Tom Petty.  

It all amounts to a damn fine introduction to an artist ready to win over fans of rock and roll that never ages out of style and the more country-minded fans willing to forge their own paths removed from the vanilla, party-country schlock of the day.  

Ruby Boots' Don't Talk About It is out now courtesy of Bloodshot Records.  

* For readers and fans in the Indianapolis market, Ruby Boots will play The Hi-Fi on two separate occasions in the near future, opening for Nicole Atkins on Thursday, August 9 and, more immediately, in accompaniment to Nikki Lane next week on Thursday, June 7. This pairing is especially fitting given Lane both co-wrote "I'll Make It Through" on Don't Talk About It and lent her vocals to backing the title track. Keep both of these dates on your radar if you're in the 317 vicinity and watch for upcoming local dates nearby if you are reading from elsewhere.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Heavy Rotation: Sarah Shook & the Disarmers - Years

Sarah Shook  photo credit: Jillian Clarke

Listening to and loving Sarah Shook & the Disarmers’ songs, it strikes me that their most compelling attribute is Shook’s indomitable spirit. It is tattooed into every lyric and each vocal tic, vaulting the choruses and emboldening the musicianship. It’s the sort of spirit necessary to survive in 2018, and it is unapologetically alive and thirsty and picking up steam this very minute. And Sarah Shook is not feigning one ounce of it. Already fully established on the band’s full-length debut, 2017’s Sidelong (one of my favorite albums from last year), that spirit is harnessed into even tighter songwriting throughout Years, an impressive feat that’s all the more uncanny in seeing its release less than twelve months after putting out such a strong first record.

The tunes this time around are very much cut from the same cloth as Sidelong, so any fans Shook & the Disarmers minted on the road in the past year will likely become even more vocal acolytes this time around. Surrounding the thematic core of troubled times, drinking tunes, perseverance and kiss-off attitude, the playing on Years is rousing and more refined (best not to be confused with too polished or overproduced). This is a streamlined set of songs dealing with fairly traditional country and rock tropes, but Shook’s singular vocals and fortitude provide them a distinct power and urgency that allows them to feel both lived-in like a rugged, beloved flannel and uniquely refreshing like a first pint of a great new brew. Perhaps the finest example of this is the outstanding lead single “Good as Gold,” a three-minute nugget of Sun Records-rooted chugging rhythm, pedal steel swoon and lyrics about pining for a flame while an old jukebox queues up the wrong song at the right time and frees the protagonist to hit the road for good. It’s the sort of song that’s perfectly attuned to genuine emotion and relatable circumstance, and, like pretty much everything on the album (See: the fed up and poison-tongued “New Ways to Fail” and “Damned if I Do, Damned if I Don’t,” the crackling, singalong melancholy of “Parting Words” and “Over You,” and the blissful, jangling harmonies and staggeringly well-executed tempo change into a heart-swelling coda and album-closing moment of classicist pop perfection on the title track), it just might hit the sweet spot for almost anybody with a predilection for a certain wayward disposition and a fondness for country songs with rock grit that all but guarantee a hangover in the morning.

Years is out now via Bloodshot Records.
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers - "Good as Gold"

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Favorite Albums of 2017

Gang of Youths - Go Farther in Lightness

This is one of the only records in recent years that I've gone into blindly that abruptly, unfailingly arrested me from minute one and track one until the triumphant, final onslaught of horns that close out "Say Yes to Life" fifteen songs later. It's not that there aren't tons of records I've adored this year (there are dozens); it's that it is not often that I find an album from an artist I know next to nothing about - no bio knowledge, no preconceived idea of sound and influences - that hits me so deep to my core that I become almost obsessed with the record. The past few months have been that way for me with Go Farther in Lightness, and I'm all the better for it and didn't even see it coming. That's the kind of feeling that makes you fall in love with music in the first place, and I've realized that sort of surprise is maybe even more special once you've been jaded or cynical at some point. Gang of Youths are here to grab us by the heartstrings, help us get back on our feet and shout along to the heavens and replenish us with something like hope, which admittedly is pretty hard to come by these days.

*Read my full review.

The National - Sleep Well Beast


On Sleep Well Beast, my favorite band incorporate many new flourishes into a palette that has been top shelf ever since Alligator. Atmospheric synth, guitar solo, ghoulish Karl Rove monologue and the breakneck ballast of “Turtleneck” all add new colors to the band’s catalog. The songs are brooding, eloquent and sublime while Matt Berninger’s lyrics keep getting stronger and exquisitely dance between bittersweet emotion and cutting discernment with splices of obtuse imagery.

The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding


Adam Granduciel and company have pulled off another recorded grand slam with A Deeper Understanding. This feels like nothing short of a perfect album. It’s extremely difficult to do justice to what makes the songs of The War on Drugs so consistently special, even more so when they pull it off song after song after song across a full album (not to mention one album after another). There an immensely human touch to every fiber of this record. The songs wash over you with six, seven, even eleven-minute run times, and they free you to be rapt with consciousness or rollicking comfortably with the arrangements. I get happily lost in time and feel life deeply any time I play these songs, and that will be the case for years to come. What more can I ask for from rock and roll?

Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life


I’ve been more than a little astounded with how forgotten this Japandroids record seems to have become once year-end lists started popping up, especially considering how universally acclaimed Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock were on these very lists a few short years ago. Not much has changed other than Japandroids now sound even more ready to destroy stadium amps, have fleshed out more gargantuan choruses and have added both a dazzlingly moody seven-minute-plus rocker and a magnificent Westerberg-via-Springsteen album-closing life affirmer into their repertoire. These songs got me as close to being Near to the Wild Heart of Life more than just about anything whenever I needed them most throughout 2017.

St. Vincent – Masseduction

Annie Clark can do no wrong in my eyes. She takes bold risks, pushes boundaries, is an extraordinary guitarist, a cunning satirist, a dazzling visual artist and a powerhouse when it comes to melody and lyrics. Even after several near great albums out of the gate and a career-besting self-titled record a couple years ago, St. Vincent somehow may have one-upped that output with her most personal and irresistible album yet with Masseduction. These are the best Songs with a capital S of Clark’s career, and it may be no coincidence that they came from her digging more inward than ever before and also unleashing herself to embrace more radio-ready sensibilities than ever before. Doing all of that allowed her to craft the sardonic and honest “Los Ageless” while also writing a truly great love song in “New York,” even if her perfect usage of “motherfuckers” guaranteed her that her crushingly gorgeous tune wouldn’t be played unedited anywhere near Top 40 anytime soon.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound





Jason Isbell is enjoying the fruits of decades of labor in recent years, and it’s a thing of beauty to behold. Longtime fans love it because it’s the very sort of karmic justice that seems to be absent in pretty much every other aspect of life everywhere you look these days. The acclaim and the love couldn’t be happening to a more genuine man or a more deserving songwriter than Isbell, and he’s been at it and more than deserving ever since the early years of Drive-By Truckers. He and the 400 Unit aren’t just riding on those laurels, though; they are pushing themselves to write and record great songs, and that’s exactly what comprises one hundred percent of The Nashville Sound. It’s the very sort of record where it’s impossible to play favorites. Obviously, the unanimous frontrunner is the breathtaking “If We Were Vampires” and rightfully so, but I’d put “Molotov,” “White Man’s World,” “Cumberland Gap” and any other damn song you choose from this album right up there with it.
Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Navigator


The Navigator, the sixth album from Alynda Segarra under her moniker Hurray for the Riff Raff, is a rapturous statement of the personal and political at an exact moment when such considerations almost seem like the only things that really matter. It’s a rich, versatile and vital album brimming with a borderless sense of empathy and rhythm.

Segarra has created a work of art to be celebrated: a personal triumph that is deeply relatable, a purely musical gem, and an impeccably performed, expertly arranged and sequenced song cycle that is unquestionably of the moment, is aware of what all that came before, and is still defiantly optimistic for what is ahead.

*Read my full review.

LCD Soundsystem – American Dream  


After retirement and the farewell shows and seven years since the last album, James Murphy and company dug in and delivered a bit of a miracle with American Dream. Brilliantly produced and as sounding fresh as every other LCD classic, American Dream is way more than a solid comeback or reunion album; it’s a flat-out great record. There’s a lot to unpack in these songs, and it only grows more joyous and complex and impossibly catchy with each new listen.  
Spoon – Hot Thoughts







I can argue the case that ever since Girls Can Tell, Spoon has been a Top Five – if not most – consistently great American band. On record and in a live setting. Hot Thoughts is yet another highlight in a career almost wholly consisting of highlights, and Britt Daniel and co. infuse their distinct formula with a bunch of fresh ideas and genre-pushing textures to stir the pot. As with pretty much every other Spoon album, I’m willing to bet a week’s pay that this record will sound as excellent in 2022 as it did in 2017.

Hiss Golden Messenger – Hallelujah Anyhow






MC Taylor has quite quietly put out a string of several of the finest albums in the last six or seven years. Hiss Golden Messenger’s music is guitar-based folk and rock songwriting with pastoral air, real emotion and southern charm, and it often feels like it fits equally alongside a great short story collection or a journal of spiritual essays as much as cozying up next to anything played on whatever rock radio is playing these days. On the magnificently named Hallelujah Anyhow, Taylor takes all of those strengths and goes to battle against the anger and inequality alive in 2017 America and turns them into songs of uncommon grace and hope. Hiss also came ready to rock and roll aplenty which translates to tunes that blaze along like Them’s “Gloria” while also penning a remarkable protest song about knocking down walls that even Dylan would be proud to have written.

Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps




On her breathtakingly excellent Stranger in the Alps, Phoebe Bridgers put out hands down the finest debut collection of songs I heard all year. Within three minutes of my first listen to opening track “Smoke Signals,” I was stunned and knew I stumbled upon something special. It only got more devastating and beautiful from there. “Motion Sickness,” “Funeral,” you name it. Her songwriting is achingly sublime and the lush production balances the starker material with such fine touches that you’d never guess this was a first record if you didn’t know beforehand. I can’t wait to fall in love with all the amazing songs she has in store in the years ahead. 
The Menzingers – After the Party

What are we gonna do now that the 20s are over? What are we gonna do now that the 20s are over? Everyone’s asking me over and over! That’s a hell of a chorus to kick off an album, especially when it’s from the now thirtysomething, somewhat elder statesmen of a youth-oriented scene, and – much like almost everything The Menzingers write and sing about – it’s tremendously honest and affecting to someone of a certain age and certain disposition, and I am of both those certainties. Thematically, After the Party is The Menzingers’ aging and taking stock album after any wide-eyed, romanticized youth, but the songwriting and hooks sound as fresh as many of their best offerings. This is a blast of finely detailed, heartfelt rock and roll with plenty of regrets and nostalgia, and it has been one of my most addictively rewarding listening experiences all year long.
White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band
What stones it takes to name your guitar rock record The World’s Best American Band these days. Even as a joke or as a stab at catching novelty attention, it’s a bold move for a young band from Louisville. What’s perfect though is the punchline is that White Reaper just about proved it true* with these roaring, road-ready tunes. It’s the kind of record that can be a new favorite album even if it you can try and pick all the influences and have heard songs sort of like these before by a bunch of other bands. That’s not the point. The point is that it’s the sort of record that can remind you exactly why you fell in love with rock and roll in the first place. It can feel loud and dangerous and goofy and wild, and I’ll be damned if you don’t want to crank it up a notch louder with each new listen until you blow out a speaker and then another speaker and then one day the car just explodes as a whole from the contact awesomeness.

(*I can attest that White Reaper only “just about proved it true” because they recently opened for Spoon, a legitimately great and possibly best American band, in Indianapolis, and while White Reaper was very good and dazzled some new fans, Spoon was a whole other level of twenty-years-of-tightness-and-professional amazing.)
Valerie June – The Order of Time

I don’t know what the exact figure could be, but Valerie June has something even more incredible than a one in a million voice. Do a hundred people in America have a voice this original and evocative? Fifty? We’ll say she has a one in a ten million voice for the sake of brevity. I’m sure her vocals aren’t for everybody, but nothing that hard to come by ever is. Ever since the first time I heard her years ago opening for Neko Case, I was in absolute awe of her singing and her presence. June is a damn fine songwriter as well, and she has only made bold leaps in that department coming into her new album, The Order of Time. This is a dazzling collection of songs and a seriously impressive artistic statement. Every song on this album holds its own, but nothing captures the curious, otherworldly majesty of Valerie June’s powers realizing their full potential quite like the spectral perfection that is “Astral Plane.”
Big Thief – Capacity

Big Thief’s Masterpiece was one of my favorite albums two years ago, and my fervor for it kept growing in the time since. I was pretty certain whatever they created for a next album would be special, but I didn’t anticipate a record quite like Capacity. Toning down much of the guitar squall and pure ecstatic releases that dominated many choruses on Masterpiece, here the focus is on storytelling and songwriting with a deeply penetrating emotional core and poignancy. Adrienne Lenker’s lyrics are on another level of greatness throughout Capacity, and these songs will both tear your heart out while also restoring some faith that may have been lacking.

Sarah Shook & the Disarmers - Sidelong

Sidelong is an outstanding, filler-free country debut that runs hot-blooded and unapologetically punk at heart, just as kindred to the Replacements and the Buzzcocks as it is to Waylon and Loretta. It’s the very sort of record you may have known next to nothing about going in, but you just might find yourself returning to for weeks on end and trying to convert most of your friends.

Read my full review.
J.D. McPherson – Undivided Heart & Soul

The genre of music J.D. McPherson plays has been around since at least Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, let alone pre-Rubber Soul Beatles. The Oklahoma native is reinventing the wheel, but he’s making that wheel sound way cooler and way more pristine and deliciously alive than it has in a long time. This time around, he’s added in some Black Keys meets Josh Homme crunch and production swagger to lead single “Lucky Penny” and other rockers, while also slipping in guitar licks that could’ve snuck onto Is This It or Room on Fire. Throughout all of Undivided Heart & Soul there is a pure, expertly arranged tunefulness and joy that could sound the greaser spots, the juke joints and the sockhops alike in whatever 2017’s version of those are. 

Cory Branan – Adios


On his fifth full-length album, Adios, Cory Branan executes a dazzling collection of genre-crossing, silver-tongued songs with hearts of gold, whiskey breath, doses of regret and fury. Yet another wildly impressive entry into Branan’s already esteemed catalog, Adios is an addictive, sprawling 14-song output that whirls the listener into a musical gale of top-shelf songwriting, each tune as beguiling as the next for varying highs, that chugs along at expert paces and results in his finest record yet.

*Read my full review.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - Soul of a Woman

Released posthumously after her death soon after the election night results of 2016, Sharon Jones gave fans a triumphant farewell gift with this flawless collection of soul and vitality. Like everything else Jones and the Dap-Kings recorded this century, Soul of a Woman is an album packed with earnest conviction and a timeless craftsmanship that sails on the extraordinary talents of Ms. Jones. It’s a breezy, joyous blast of unwavering humanity right when we need it most.

Ryan Adams – Prisoner

I’ve been an unwavering Ryan Adams die hard since falling in love with Heartbreaker and Whiskeytown when I was 18 years old. I’m a bit biased to pretty much every new release (and there have been tons), and I tend to kick back when people go to the criticism that he could’ve used an editor through all those years. With that said, most of them and I seem to agree that Prisoner is a high water mark in Adams’ prolific songwriting career. It’s definitely one of the most seamlessly flawless albums in his catalog, and the heartache always suits his strengths. Now channeling an adoration for the production and sounds of Tunnel of Love and Born in the U.S.A. Springsteen and more than a minor homage to the guitar tones of Johnny Marr, Adams has polished his sound with just the right mix of textures for the moment. Plus, the songs are reliably excellent.

Broken Social Scene - Hug of Thunder



Any new music from Broken Social Scene is cause for me to rejoice. Being their first full album in seven years made the excitement that much stronger. I think maybe Broken Social Scene’s greatest achievement is the uncanny way their music – its wildly versatile, almost orchestral cocktail of blasting instruments, soaring harmonies and propulsive rhythm – make you feel like a part of their community. Perhaps it’s because their rotation of friends and contributors is a community in itself and that is transferrable to the fans, but it’s true and palpable in any case. And seven years of their absence made Hug of Thunder something of a homecoming, and the results are a warm and welcoming as anything I could have asked for. It’s an album of triumph and optimism against very real odds, and it has the power to make you remember that those feelings are still possible and at arm’s length.

Strand of Oaks - Hard Love

I’ve been rooting hard for Tim Showalter ever since the first time I listened to Heal and felt a kindred spirit singing back to me. That album went on to be my favorite of 2014. That record meant the world to me that whole year, and I’d been very excited to see wherever he would go next. Hard Love is a quite excellent rock album that feels like it got a little lost in the shuffle in 2017, which is a shame. It wasn’t lost on me though, and seeing Strand of Oaks rip through these songs live during the fall only magnified how rich this more modest collection truly is. I’m naturally inclined to fall in love with art and music that feels deeply human, possibly tragic, striving for redemption and made of blood and passion and fear and doubt. All of these qualities are right there in Showalter’s songs these days, and I could not appreciate him more for channeling them.

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice

The partnership of Courtney and Kurt is every bit as great as fans of either would have hoped coming into Lotta Sea Lice. Marked by their evocative individual spirits and writing styles, they are a match that made perfect sense on paper. Then, you listen to them tradeoff and harmonize on songs like “Untogether” and “Over Everything” (which also happens to be the most brilliant music video I saw all year long) and you understand exactly what kindred spirits sound like as a team.
Margo Price – All American Made

Margo Price’s All American Made takes a hard look at life in 2017 America and reminds us of what ails us and how we got here. Very much a writer willing to get personal and spit fire and truth, Price is a little less autobiographical here than on her brilliant and brilliantly devastating debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, and instead tackles many of the political and cultural realities that hit home for her as a woman, an American and a singer and songwriter of country music. It’s both one of the finest country and folk-minded records this year.
Julien Baker - Turn Out the Lights

Julien Baker’s Turn out the Lights is a soul-stirring, elegiac powerhouse of a record. These songs are painfully excellent. Baker writes lyrics full of love and wisdom and balance beyond most people twice her age, and you believe every ounce of what she sings. It’s a something of a spiritual awakening and a poignant refuge when you get lost inside yourself with this album. Her presence and talent is that commanding.
Richard Edwards – Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset

The Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s frontman’s first solo album was a document of a tumultuous, frustrating and uncertain era in Edwards’ life, which makes it all the more impressive that he was able to craft it all into such a sublime album of low-key gems. Edwards has always been a gifted singer-songwriter and a hometown hero around this town, so it should come as no surprise that a collection of songs under his own name would hold their own. Aching and restrained, these tunes sneak up on you after multiple listens. It’s a patient album with a lot of life and redemption at its core, and it’ll give you plenty to love once you give yourself over to it and live in its glow.

The Yawpers - Boy in a Well

Boy in a Well is a rollicking, bluesy, boogieing affair with corkscrew tempo changes, some soulful ballads, Cramps-y punk snarl, Zeppelin-conjuring stomp and swell and a blistering hotbed of rhythm. It’s a narrative-based blast of a record for bookish punks and 12-bar boozehounds who don’t usually dig concept albums.

*Read my full review.

The Districts - Popular Manipulations

Even in a year with a long-awaited, quite strong release from the always formidable Wolf Parade, I found myself surprisingly more drawn to the similarly-minded quirks of The Districts on the excellent release, Popular Manipulations. Offbeat, endlessly catchy while taking plenty of angular dynamic turns, this is a rock record that embraces whims, shoots for the stars and hits a sort of sweet spot that’s under the radar and beyond its years.

Honorable Mentions
Alvvays - Antisocialites
Father John Misty - Pure Comedy
Kendrick Lamar - DAMN.
Moses Sumney - Aromanticism
Feist - Pleasure
Slowdive - Slowdive
The Kickback - Weddings & Funerals